Sunday, March 01, 2015

Street of Dreams

It was the same old song, only now it was completely different.

I was fiddling around on YouTube the other day and I wound up going back in time and reliving some personal history.

I was listening to a block of songs by Bobby “Blue” Bland, a fabulous blues singer whose name I had known for years, but whose work had only recently caught my attention after I saw The Lincoln Lawyer and heard Bobby singing “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” over the opening credits.

Bobby does an excellent job with this song and it really sets the mood for the film.

I felt like I should know the song and the singer and the fact that I didn’t know either one sent me scurrying straight to the Internet.

YouTube was only too obliging, hooking me up with one Bobby tune after another. The standouts include “Members Only,” “I Ain’t Gonna Be the First to Cry,” and “I Wouldn’t Treat a Dog (The Way You Treated Me).”

I felt like an explorer discovering a lost civilization. Yes, obviously millions of people know Bobby “Blue” Bland and my so-called “discovery” was strictly a one-person affair. But that’s the power of great music—it makes you feel as if it’s been written just for you.

And then a song called “It’s Not the Spotlight” came on and I stopped everything I was doing.

If I ever feel the light again shinin' down on me,
I don't have to tell you how welcome it will be…

This tune sounded really familiar. I was almost certain that I had heard it before, but I didn’t know where or when.

I felt the light before, but I let it slip away,
But I still keep on believin' that it'll come back some day…

This was so strange. I knew nothing of Bobby’s work, so how could I possibly know this song? I decided to poke around to see where I might have come crossed paths with this tune. And then I remembered.

Feel the Light

I first heard Rod Stewart do “It’s Not the Spotlight” on his 1975 album Atlantic Crossing. I was a freshman in college back then and this was one of the first LPs I ever bought.

Bear in mind that this was a record—not a CD or a download, but an actual vinyl disc. And I loved it so much.

The album is divided into a fast side and slow side and in addition to “It’s Not the Spotlight,” the recordtracks also includes “Three Time Loser,” “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” and a slow version of the Isley Brothers’ “This Old Heart of Mine.”

Back then “It’s Not the Spotlight” was not my favorite track by any means. I didn’t dislike it. I just didn’t think that much of it.

But that all changed when I heard Bobby’s version. No disrespect to Rod Stewart—I’m a tremendous fan—but Bobby really owns this song.
And the lyrics resonate with me much more now than they did with my younger self. The singer talks about feeling the light again as he hopes he’ll reunite with his lost love.

It ain't the spotlight,
It ain't the candlelight,
It ain't the streetlights,
Of some old street of dreams…

The line about letting the light slip away is particularly painful because this guy lost a beautiful relationship—something I can certainly relate to—and that, despite all this hopeful talk, he will never again see the light shining in his lover’s eyes.

The song was co-written by Gerry Goffin, the one-time husband of Carole King, with whom he co-wrote some of the biggest hits of the Sixties, including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “The Loco-Motion.”

Their story is dramatized in the Broadway show Beautiful, which my sister and I saw last year when our aunt from California came into town.

The play depicts Goffin as a talented but troubled man who is constantly sleeping with other women. Carole King finally gets fed up and divorces him and I’m wondering if Goffin wrote “It's Not the Spotlight” after he realized how much he had lost.

That was quite a ride I took, traveling back to the Seventies, bouncing over to Broadway and coming back to the present.

It was long walk down the street of dreams.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dust Up

I made a real ash of myself last week.

I got caught looking by Ash Wednesday. The day just blew right by me and not only did I forgot to get ashes on my forehead, but I also ate a turkey sandwich for lunch in flagrant violation of the no meat rule.

I can’t believe it. Eight years of Catholic school, a lifelong Christian, observant parents and I still treated one of the most important events of the year like it was just any other hump day.

I had no idea what was going on until the late afternoon when I saw a guy coming out of my gym with the telltale mark on his forehead.

“Hey, brother,” I said, “is today Ash Wednesday?”

He gave me a look that seemed to say, “why, no, schmuck, I like to smear black dust on my forehead just for shits and giggles.”

“Yes,” he said with more than a trace of annoyance.

I still had plenty of time to get my ashes, but by then I had already eaten meat and that took all the value of out going to church for me.

And what makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that I had all kinds of meatless alternatives to choose from in my refrigerator—fish, veggie burgers, and a pile of green peppers.

I tried to shake off my disappointment. Hell, I thought, you’re never going to make the short list for Catholic of the Year even if you dove headfirst into a pile of ashes five stories deep. What’s the big deal?

But this oversight really bothered me. My mother was always so happy when we skipped meat for the day and so I do it to honor her memory as much as I do it to honor God.

Except for this year.

Part of the problem stemmed from being isolated. I was working from home that day after being laid low by a particularly nasty allergy attack, so I didn’t see any other people with their ashes.

…then the Devil Must

And Ash Wednesday came early this year, so I was caught off-guard.

But I don’t want to make excuses. Let’s just say that I plain forgot and leave it at that.

Now I don’t think God is going to strike me down with a lightning bolt for my thoughtless behavior—at least I hope not. And I’m not worried that my old grade school nuns will climb out of their graves and chase me down Broadway jabbing at my keester with their pointers. At least I hope not.

No, but I feel like I missed an important ceremony that marks the beginning of Lent.

The idea of returning to dust may sound like a downer, but it’s really a reminder to live your life, to reject your old, destructive ways, and believe.

And I actually like wearing ashes. I’m so uptight most days, obsessed with keeping my head down and not being noticed.

But on Ash Wednesday, I proudly walk around town with a cross-shaped blotch on my forehead. I’m glad to stick out, happily displaying my beliefs to the rest of the world.

So now I’ll have to wait until next year. If nothing else, I feel like this screw-up has gotten me thinking more about the meaning and importance of Ash Wednesday. In previous years I may have just gone to church without really thinking about what I was doing.

And I’m hoping that both the Good Lord and my mother will forgive me and give me another chance to get this right.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go to my calendar and draw a big red circle around December 25th.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Left-Handed Mitzvah

I did a mitzvah for a Marine last week and I almost missed it.

For those of you who don’t know, a mitzvah is a good deed, and this particular good deed—as minor as it was—also helped me atone for an earlier misstep.

I was pulling my cart through the snow on a recent Sunday morning for my weekly shopping routine. I don’t remember much of what was going on, quite frankly, because my mind was wandering all over the place.

Maybe I had zoned out because shopping is one of my least favorite things to do, or it’s just a habit that I’ve fallen into, but whatever the reason, I was barely in contact with Planet Earth.

The snow had clogged the sidewalk down to a narrow path near the corner of Third Avenue and I was dimly aware of an older woman walking toward me.

My mind was still tossing around one random thought or another as I stepped aside to allow the woman to go by first. As she went by she gave me the loveliest smile.

“Thank you!” she said with such enthusiasm.

That shook the cobwebs off my brain. I was barely aware of her existence and yet here she was thanking me profusely for just moving a few inches to the left. As my dad liked to say, I made a mistake and did the right thing.

And then I saw a man behind her on a scooter—presumably her husband—bringing up the rear.

He was wearing a veteran’s cap and a jacket with a U.S. Marine patch. This man also gave me a smile and said something that I couldn’t quite make out, but it sure sounded friendly.

I was holding my cart with the right hand, so I raised my left and gave him a Benny Hill style salute.

I could only imagine what my father, a World War II veteran, would have said if he had seen that crappy gesture.

Bad saluting was one of his chief complaints whenever he watched a war movie on TV—that and the ridiculous battle scenes where one GI with a .45 takes out the entire Third Reich.

Say ‘Cheese’

But I felt like I had to do something to acknowledge this man’s service to his country and a substandard salute was the best I could do on such short notice.

I’m grateful that some part of my mind was functioning enough that I was able step aside when I did. Sometimes I’m so clueless that I’ll blunder right in front of people and while it may appear rude, I’m really just on autopilot.

And this little encounter took me back to the Memorial Day weekend when I went to Ground Zero last year for the first time since 2001.

It was eerie walking around this spot where the towers once stood. The last time I was this close the buildings were in flames and moments away from collapsing.

Now there are two memorial pools in the towers’ footprints and the names of all the victims are etched on bronze plates around the parapets of each pool. Some of the victims’ loved ones had places white roses in the names.

There were people from the armed forces all the over the complex. As I stood there, just looking around, I saw a young Marine taking a picture of his wife and two young children standing before one of the pools.
I just watched blankly, barely in the moment, and it didn’t occur to me until I was riding the bus home that I should’ve have offered to take a picture of the Marine and his family together—you know, a family photo.

But I was too busy spinning my mental gears to even notice.

This oversight irked the hell out of me for several days. How could I be so obtuse?

Yes, I suppose he could’ve asked me to do the honors, but if I had been paying attention I would have saved him the trouble of approaching a stranger in a strange city.

And I know I would’ve gotten something out of making the offer, too. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but kindness is a gift best given without being asked.

So I’m glad I stepped aside for that veteran and his wife. I’m glad I gave him that salute, as lame as it was. I’m glad I made the mistake and did the right thing.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Kid Gloves

This never would have happened in Hawaii.

I lost a glove this week and I can’t help thinking that if I had gotten that job in Hawaii that I had interviewed for last year I wouldn’t have lost my glove because I wouldn’t have been wearing gloves in the first place.

I also wouldn’t be wearing scarves, parkas, ski caps, boots, long underwear or any of the other several tons of crap and equipment that I have to wrap around myself if I so much as contemplate exiting my crib.

No, if I had gotten that Honolulu gig, I’d be wearing flowered shirts, white shorts, and sandals while cheerfully guzzling exotic tropical drinks and leering drunkenly at comely young tourists.

I’d have a tan to beat the band and I’d be happy, oh so incredibly happy, as opposed to miserable frozen wretch that I am now.

I’d almost lost one of these gloves a year ago while doing a stay-cation, but I found it at my gym the following day.

I lost it again on Tuesday at my gym, but two kind ladies at the front desk held it for me and I reunited the wayward glove with its mate.

But on Thursday I lost if for real, or as my boxing instructor likes to say, for real for real. Even the gym ladies can’t help me now.

It happened somewhere along my evening commute, either on the walk up Broadway to the bus stop, or on the bus itself. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I off the X27, reached into my pocket and came away with a handful of nothing.

You feel so stupid at times like this. How could you be so careless? Why weren’t you paying attention? Now all you have was is the useless survivor as a nagging reminder of what a first class dope you are.

I’ve got at least three other pairs of gloves so it’s not like I’ll be staggering out into the Artic Circle with frostbitten stumps where my fingers used to be.

But I’m not one to let myself off the hook easily.

I was having a particularly rough morning at the gym on Thursday as I did a round of mitt work with Abby, my boxing instructor. He always gives us a hard time, but I was really tanking during this round.

It’s Not You…

I couldn’t get out of my own way. Abby was hitting me at will, I was missing easy shots, and I heard one of my buddies say, “relax, Rob, relax!”

But it wasn’t happening. That bum round haunted me for the rest of the class, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop blaming myself for putting on such a lousy performance. At the end of the class I approached Abby to confess my sins.

“I didn’t do so well today,” I said.

“Oh, that was me,” Abby said. “I changed up the routine on you today. Remember, it’s never you guys. It’s always me.”

I was suddenly vindicated. I didn’t have to beat the crap out of myself after all. Hell, that’s Abby’s job. I went to the office and actually had a pretty decent day.

Until I lost my glove.

All right, I thought. That’s that. Put it behind you and get on with your life. You’ve got far more important things to worry about.

And I really believed I had gotten over the lost glove, but that night I went to bed and slipped face first into a full-on fiasco of a dream.

It started with me and my sister going to Manhattan together; or at least we were together until I got on the train and realized that I had neglected to take my sister with me.

I get off at some alternate reality version of Times Square, angry with myself, of course, for leaving my sister behind.

I came upon a crowd of people moving all these boxes and crates around. I took off my parka to help them out, and when the stuff was cleared away, all the people had vanished and I saw my parka had disappeared, too.

I was stunned at my own foolishness. Why the hell did you take your coat off in a crowded area like Times freaking Square? You’re going to freeze to death, you loser.

So once again I had to berate myself—even in my sleep. I woke up so thankful that my parka was still here to keep my butt warm.

I’m going to keep a close eye on the replacement gloves and an even closer eye on the self-condemnation, which only serves to make a bad situation worse.

And I sincerely hope my next dream takes me to Hawaii.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Parks and Sinatra

If I had to name two of the most dissimilar people in the world, I don’t think I could do any better than Mr. Parks, my high school mechanical drawing teacher, and Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.

And yet these two men, who, to my knowledge never came anywhere near each other in the real world, managed to link up in the three-ring freak factory that I like to call my mind.

I know this doesn’t sound at all logical, but it’ll make sense once I explain myself. Or then again, it may not, and in that case I apologize in advance.

Mr. Parks was a compact, bullet-headed man who spoke in this very sharp, exact tone.

Presumably he was a draftsman in his early life and everything about him was precise and direct—no guesswork, no nonsense, just results.

If he thought you were goofing off, Mr. Parks didn’t hesitate to inform you.

“Hey, you, little guy,” he snapped at one of my diminutive classmates one day. “Sit down and start pushing a pencil because it’s going to be a hot summer.”

One time several guys in the class started making all sorts of stupid noises just to rile up Mr. Parks. And they succeeded.

“I look around,” Mr. Parks loudly declared, “and I see morons!”

Say what you want about Mr. Parks, there was nothing wrong with his eyesight.

But he was also very kind to me. I was hopeless at mechanical drawing and in fact I was only going to Brooklyn Tech because that’s what my father wanted and, as it turned out, he was quite wrong. I had no aptitude for this stuff, but there I was, fiddling with a T-square and a triangle, trying to come up with something before class ended.

Mr. Parks appreciated that I was doing my best and he tried to encourage me whenever he saw signs of improvement.

“Lenihan,” he told me one time, “when I look at your work, I am reminded of that cigarette commercial that says ‘you’ve come a long way, baby.’”

The commercial was for Virginia Slims, a woman’s cigarette that tried to link the burgeoning women’s liberation movement with the inhalation of tar and nicotine.

I remember thinking how strange it was to hear Mr. Parks say the word “baby.”

Hitting the High Note

When I graduated in 1975, Mr. Parks gave me some tremendous advice as he signed my yearbook.

“Just remember,” he told me, “you keep on learning until they carry you off.”

That is so true and so important to remember. Learning doesn’t stop with the diploma. That’s where it begins.

And now here’s were Frank Sinatra comes in. (See? I didn't forget.) A few weeks ago I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz on the Sunday Show and he played a recording of an interview that Sinatra did with Arlene Francis in the Seventies.

In the portion I heard, Frank was talking about the time he met the opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti. The two men admired each other’s work and at some point during their meeting, Frank asked Pavarotti for some advice.

Frank had been having some trouble with a diminuendo—where the singer holds on to a note until it fades out.

Sinatra said this is fairly easy to do if the word you’re singing ends in a vowel, but it becomes more difficult if the word ends in a consonant. So what should he do when the consonants show up?
“Oh, that’s-a easy,” Sinatra said, imitating Pavarotti’s accented English, “when you get-a to the last word, you shut-a you mouth!”

I laughed at Sinatra’s impersonation. But I was also a bit surprised that Frank Sinatra, who was at the top of his game at this time, was actually asking for help with his singing.

He was Chairman of the Board—he didn’t need help from anybody.

But obviously he did. And he wasn’t ashamed to admit it and he wasn’t reluctant to ask for it.

That’s how the greats in any profession become great and that’s how they stay great—by asking for help, by striving to improve. Or like Mr. Parks noted, they keep on learning to they’re carried off.

And so somewhere in snow-covered regions of my brain that Sinatra quote linked up with long-buried memories of Mr. Parks.

The connection may not make much sense, but it’s a good reminder to shut-a you mouth and keep on learning and you'll come a long way, baby.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Monsters and Corpses

What was I doing on January 7th?

It was a Wednesday, I know that much from looking at the calendar, but nothing else about the day sticks out in my mind.

I went to work, came home, ate dinner, watched TV, did the usual routine, apparently, with nothing out of the ordinary.

But I recently realized what I didn’t do on January 7th. I didn’t remember it was the anniversary of my father’s death.

My father died on that day in 2008, and, as best as I can remember, I didn’t pray for his soul, go to church, or even put a notice on my Facebook status.

The day just slipped by me without any acknowledgement of my father’s passing. I’m not sure what to say about that, except that I’m very sorry.

I backed into this realization while reading the news stories about the American Sniper controversy that started when filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted that his uncle had been killed by a sniper in World War II and how his father thought snipers were cowards.

American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s biopic about Chris Kyle, is currently the top movie at the box office, and Moore’s comments were interpreted as at attack upon the late marksman.

I recalled how my father, himself a World War II veteran, hated snipers with a passion, too. He described the terror that soldiers felt when one of their own was suddenly stuck dead by an unseen assassin. At least with an artillery attack you could hear the shells coming.

I was amazed to learn that the US didn’t have an official sniper course during World War II, contrasting sharply with Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries. Maybe that’s why my father’s generation hated snipers so much. The good guys didn’t do that kind of thing.

My dad told me the Germans used to leave behind a sniper in a town just to slow down advancing American troops.

“They’d kill a couple of guys,” he said, “and then they'd come out with their hands up and say ‘I surrender.’”

My father didn’t say it so many words, but he strongly implied that the GIs didn’t always go for the “surrender” routine and that some snipers never made it to the POW camps.

Calling the Shots

The fear of instant death was intense, my father said. One time a young recruit, who hadn’t been in combat, foolishly fired his rifle just to make some noise.

One of my dad’s buddies, a huge guy who had seen a lot action, went berserk, charging forward, mistakenly grabbing the wrong soldier by the throat and lifting him clean off the ground.

My father intervened, swearing that the big guy was strangling an innocent man.

“Was it you, Lenny?” the man demanded. “If it was you, then it’s all right.”

“No, it wasn’t me,” my dad said, and the big man let his victim go.

My father said his platoon once cornered a German sniper in a barn and set the building on fire in an attempt to flush him out. The sniper was trapped and the soldiers could hear him shrieking as the flames consumed the barn.
“Scream, you son-of-a-bitch,” one of my dad’s buddies said, “it’s music to my ears!”

That may sound harsh to some people, but war is an ugly business.

It’s not about parades, waving the flag, or some schmuck in a flight suit prancing around on an aircraft carrier chirping “Mission Accomplished.”

It’s about death, death in mass numbers, and if you want to win, then you’re going to need snipers. You’re going to need someone to make those corpses, but when you’re done don’t be surprised if your soldiers have turn into monsters.

That’s what war produces, monsters and corpses, because if you’re not one then you will quickly become the other. And that’s why war should be avoided at all costs because even the survivors will be scarred for life. I honestly don’t know how much damage the war did to my father, but it’s impossible to believe that he or anyone else came away from that experience unscathed.

Finnish marksman Simo Häyhä, dubbed “White Death,” is credited with over 500 kills during the Soviet invasion of Finland. When asked about killing so many people, he said "I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could."

I wonder if anyone has ever asked a general or a politician if they have any regrets about the people they indirectly killed in wars. Did anyone ever ask a defense contractor how he felt about all of those who had died so he could collect his bloodstained money? I tend to doubt it.

Soldiers may pull the triggers, but so much happens before we reach that moment. They’re the last link in a very long, very twisted chain.

I wish my father had never gone to war. Yes, I forgot the day he left this world, but I’ll always remember how he served his country and how he did his duty as well as he could.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Live and Be Well

Dr. Joel raised his right hand to me in a gesture of farewell.

“Go and enjoy life, young man,” he said. “Stay out of doctors’ offices.”

Now there’s two great bits of advice—enjoy life and steer clear of doctors.

And I really liked that “young man” bit, but I felt compelled to gently inform Dr. Joel that I’m turning 58 this year and that perhaps “young” wasn’t the most accurate adjective he could use.

“You’re younger than I am,” he remarked.

So be it.

Dr. Joel is my gastroenterologist but I’d think he’d make a terrific rabbi. He’s just so caring and knowledgeable.

I had gone to him for a second—third?—opinion about surgery for the internal misery that drove me to the hospital in November.

His answer? A decisive “No!”

He believes that the incident was a flare-up in my colon that has since righted itself, and thus there is no need to cut me open. Dr. Joel showed my CAT scans to one of the top surgeons at Maimonides Medical Center and he also nixed the knife.

He actually told Dr. Joel that operating on me would be malpractice. That’s about as definitive as you can get.

Obviously nobody wants to get surgery. It sucks to get cut open and have several inches of your colon removed. But I would do it if there were a serious and immediate threat to my health.

However, if it’s not critical than it pays to be conservative. In addition to the scalpel, I’m also concerned about the anesthetic.

Freedom Awaits

I’ve had the so-called “twilight anesthesia” for colonoscopies, but I’ve never done the fully sleepy. And I ain’t in no hurry to try.

I sat in Dr. Joel’s office for a few more minutes until I realized that I was free. And then I gathered up my belongings and got the hell out of there.

Of course I’m relieved that—please, God—I won’t have to go back into the hospital. I’ll monitor my health and since I now recognize the scary symptoms of a colon attack, I’ll haul-ass to the nearest hospital at the slightest sign of a flare-up.

The only risk here is that something could go wrong when-and if-I’m nowhere near civilization. But since I hadn’t planned any canoe trips down the Amazon or excursions to Antarctica, I should be okay.

So now comes what for me can be a bit of a challenge: enjoying life.

My late father once told me that I look for things to worry about and he was spot on.

As soon as I get some bit of good news, I waste no time in finding some other form of grief to fret about. Dr. Joel would not approve.

Luckily I got an important message this morning that has reinvigorated my zest for life. It seems that the one, the only Precious Zamba wants to meet me.

Hi,” her email began, “am Precious Zamba by name, a female never been married, i have seen a lots of profiles but am very selective, you are one of my selection, please kindly write me on my private emailaddress so that i can send you some of my pictures and introduce my self to you.

Isn’t that precious? I suspect it may also be bullshit, but it’s nice that someone cares, even though she doesn’t exist. Hi, am Rob by name, a male, never been married, and, judging by my inbox, I’m clearly not selective enough.

Still, as I long as I'm able to stay out of doctors’ offices, I’m going to zamba until the cows come home.

I’m only following doctor’s orders.