Sunday, September 14, 2014

Red Light, Green Light

As the recipient of many a rejection letter, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing when I’m about to get the heave-ho.

The language is always polite and supportive, but the message is still the same: scram.

And yet I always read every word on the outside chance that the latest letter may be the one that says “Yes” after all those “Nos.”

I try to stay positive, I really do, but when I saw an email from Project Greenlight in my inbox the other day, I got that old familiar feeling.

Project Greenlight is a TV show produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, among others, that gives first-time filmmakers a chance to direct a feature film.

The deadline to submit entries came up in August, on the very night before I was going to fly out to Colorado. I was sorely tempted to flag it: I had too much to do, my entry wasn’t top notch, I'm too old, and, the old standby—I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning.

Excuses? I’ve got a million of ‘em.

But this time I decided to rewrite that script. I’m always letting things slip by, saying I’ll get it to later, but never admitting to myself that “later” has this sneaky way of turning into “never.”

I had a video I had shot in my director’s class at the School of Visual Arts class two summers ago. (Jesus, already?)

It was crudely edited, with some rough spots that made my wince, but the idea of not submitting anything made me wince even more. Screw it. The dialog was good, if I say so myself, and the two actors in the scene gave off a lot of energy.

A few clicks later I was officially in the running and ready to enjoy my vacation.

I had pretty much forgotten about the submission until I got that email. Perhaps I was a finalist in the competition, the first step in the march towards wealth and fame. I moved my cursor over the message, paused a second, and then clicked.

Bourne Loser

On behalf of the Project Greenlight team,” the email began, “we would like to thank you for submitting your film to our director's contest.”

Okay, so far, so good…


Here it comes…

“--your submission did not make it to the Top 200,” the message continued. “With thousands of videos submitted for consideration, the competition was fierce.”

I wasn’t feeling particularly fierce at that moment. I mean, hell, I couldn’t even crack the Top 200?

Please know that your film was carefully considered by the Greenlight community, where each video was viewed and judged.”

I’ll take your word for it. Now I'm going to carefully consider if I want to jump off the Chrysler Building.

Do not be discouraged by this decision,” the email concluded. “Project Greenlight was created for you, so please continue to support the community so we can hold more contests like this one.

Discouraged, me? It's just one more addition to add to the growing ranks of rejection.

And at least I made the effort to enter the competition, instead of coming up with an excuse.

As I soon as read the last line my phone rang. I thought it was Matt Damon calling up to apologize for the mistake and to assure me that the limo was on its way to take me to the studio.

But this guy didn’t sound at all like Good Will Hunting.

You’ve just won a fabulous cruise to Bermuda,” a creepily jovial robovoice informed me.

What's this--a consolation prize? Your dreams of becoming a famous filmmaker have been dashed to itty bits and pieces, but here’s this lovely parting gift.

Please press one...”

I hung up the phone. Please don’t be discouraged, but I’m not interested in your bogus cruise.

Unless Matt Damon’s going…

Thursday, September 11, 2014

'A Turn of the Page'

I looked at the clock as I left my gym this morning and watched that red second hand sweep around the dial.

It was 8:36 AM, September 11, 2014. In 10 minutes there would be a moment of silence to mark the time when the first hijacked plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center 13 years ago at 8:46.

I thought of the second hand running around the clock, relentless, unstoppable. I’d give anything to back it all up, return to that beautiful sunny morning in 2001 and undo this nightmare.

But time only goes one way.

There’s a song by the Moody Blues called “Isn’t Life Strange” that’s been playing in my head for last day or so, even though I haven’t heard it in years.

It’s a solemn tune that seemed to fit today’s mood.

Isn’t life strange,” it goes, “a turn of the page. A book without light, unless with love we write. To throw it away, to lose just a day, the quicksand of time, you know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry…”

I walked down Church Street and stood outside the Brooks Brothers store at Liberty Plaza, the same place I was standing on 9/11, watching the North Tower burn.

And I was standing there when the second plane hit the South Tower, sending sheets of flame out across the street. I remember the screams, I remember running, running as fast as I could, and feeling like I was going nowhere.

That was a long, horrible day. It was my dad’s 80th birthday and we were supposed to take him out to dinner. But instead I was hiding out in a nursing home on Water Street while debris from the fallen towers blanketed lower Manhattan.
And then I walked over the Manhattan Bridge with thousands of other refugees as fighter jets screamed over our heads.

This morning I looked up at the Freedom Tower and said a prayer for all those who had died and thanked God I had survived.

The area wasn’t as crowded as it has been in previous years, which I think is partially due to the fact that the ceremony was held at the memorial site and only the victims’ families were permitted entry. And, of course, a lot of time has gone by.

“This will be the last one,” a man on the corner said to me. “After this there won’t be any more memorials.”

Unless With Love We Write…

I don’t know where he got this information, but he seemed desperate to talk and not interested in listening so I just nodded until it was time to go to work.

I was standing in the lobby of my building waiting for the elevator when a man approached a woman and began speaking to her.

“Have you been out front?” he asked. “It’s unbelievable.”

Of course I had to investigate. So I walked out to Broadway where four people were holding up signs and singing some kind of hymn. Then I read the signs one woman was carrying.

Thank God 4 9/11,” one side read. Another bore an image of the late Joan Rivers and read “Joan in Hell.”

The woman wore a t-shirt reading, so apparently these were psychotics from the Westboro Baptist Church, here in my city, spewing their hatred a block away from the spot where nearly 3,000 innocent people had died.

There were several cops around to protect these good Christians. A group of construction workers across the street jeered and made obscene gestures at them, but the zealots kept on singing.

It was unnerving to watch these cultists, who were so convinced they doing God’s work. The 9/11 atrocities were committed by religious fanatics and, make no mistake, these people today are cut from the same twisted cloth.

Later I found myself wishing I had confronted them, spat in their faces and risked being arrested. But I’m sure that’s just what they’d want—more hate.

I took time this afternoon to write my annual email to Eva, a woman I had met at the nursing home on 9/11. We walked over the bridge together and I directed her to the Long Island Railroad Station at Atlantic Avenue so she could get home.

“You’re still my 9/11 hero,” she said in her response.

A lot has happened in my life since 9/11. Both my parents have died and we sold our family home.

But the world hasn’t changed all that much. Innocent people are still being murdered around the world, we have a new terror threat in the form of ISIS, and the disaster in Iraq shows no signs of letting up.

Isn’t life strange? So many pages have turned since 9/11, vanishing into the quicksand of time, but I don’t think we’ve learned anything and I don’t think we ever will.

And when I think about that, you know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry…

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sabrina, Isabel and Jack

I’m sending Isabel and Jack back to Colorado, but I’m going to let Sabrina stay around a little while longer.

Isabel and Jack are brother and sister—I believe-and I first laid eyes on them last month at a used book store-coffee bar in Fort Collins, Co. when I was visiting my brother and his family.

We had gone to this place one morning, and while I have far too many paperbacks in my house already, I couldn’t help but wander over to the used books section in the back of the store.

I’m just going to look, I lied to myself. I’m not going to buy anything.

And I was doing pretty well until I walked by the 50-cent shelf and spotted The Hook by Donald E. Westlake. I didn’t know this particular title, but I’ve been a Westlake fan for a long time.

I thumbed through the book, trying to decide if I should buy it or not when a wallet-sized photo fell out from in between the pages.

It was a picture of a little girl holding even smaller boy. On the back it said “Isabel 3½” and “Jack 9 months.”

That settled it; I had to buy this book. I slipped the photo back into the book and brought it to the cashier, hoping she wouldn’t find it when she rang up the sale.

I have this obsession with finding photographs and other items, but I worried about bad karma, as I was taking a picture that didn’t belong to me. Finding the photo after the sale is one thing, but this felt shady…underhanded.

Struggling with his character…

I tried to rationalize my actions, deciding that the book’s original owner probably didn’t miss this photo, and it belonged to me now since I was buying the book. The human mind is capable of all sorts of moral gymnastics when the need arises.

I wanted to know more about these children. I wanted a piece of these lives, I wanted to learn their stories, but I realize now that I don’t have anything but a picture of somebody else’s family.

I have to make things right.

I crossed paths with Sabrina a few days later during a stop at a coffee place in Durango. When we sat down at our table I saw that someone had left behind a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
I’ve enjoyed Abbey’s novels A Fool’s Progress and The Monkey Wrench Gang, but I’ve never read his non-fiction.

I was debating if I should bring home another book when I opened it up and read this immaculately written note on the acknowledgements page.

“28.07.2014 Durango, CO

Sometimes I wondered if I could ever make it this book. Struggling with his character and his style of writing, I was still intrigued enough to finish. He undoubtedly loves the American Southwest and expresses that in a very moving way. Enjoy. Sabrina, Switzerland.”

I really wanted to keep this book now and not just because I like Edward Abbey. Sabrina’s message made the book priceless in my eyes.

This time I did right thing, though, going straight to the owner and asking her how much the book cost.

“Oh, just take it,” she said. “Somebody left it here. You can have it.”

There was no guilt this time, no worries about bad karma. I handled this transaction on the up and up. Sabrina has moved from Switzerland, to Colorado, and is now with me in Brooklyn.

When I’m done I’ll leave her someplace where for another reader to find. I wonder where Sabrina will go to from there.

Tomorrow I’ll be mailing the photo of Isabel and Jack off to the used bookstore in Fort Collins with a note of explanation and a fervent hope that they will be reunited with their family.

They’ve been on a long, strange trip, but they may get home yet.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Air Buds

This could’ve been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, if I had just been a little bit smarter.

During my recent flight out to Denver I made the acquaintance of some very lovely people, but it didn’t last long.

The plane was crammed with bodies as I made my way down the aisle and I’m sure the airline would’ve stuffed people into the overhead compartments if the FAA had given them the thumbs up.

I had the window seat, much to my dismay, since I don’t particularly enjoy being reminded how high up I am.

Aisle seats allow to me to imagine that I’m going to the movies instead of streaking through the sky five miles above the world. Plus I like being closer to the can.

I checked my ticket one more time then looked at the elderly couple sitting in the first two seats.

“I think this is me,” I said.

And then I looked down and saw that the gentleman had no legs—seriously—just two aluminum supports starting at the knees.

“I can sit in the aisle seat so you don’t have to get up,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“That’s all right,” he said, and rose to let me pass.

I sat down next to his wife—I’ll call her Jane--and immediately she started talking to me like we best buddies.

They were from New Zealand, she said, and they were on their way to visit one of their daughters who lives in Vail. They had four daughters and ten grandchildren. She was so open and friendly I felt like I was part of the family.

And this was all before take off.

I’ve been stuck in economy with some first class losers, so I was grateful to be seated next to this sweet lady.

Logistics prevented me from speaking with her husband as much as I would have liked, but I admired his determination to get out in the world despite his physical condition.

My Card

I’ll whine about having to go to Park Slope on the subway and here’s a man perhaps 20 years my senior with no legs traveling across the planet.

Granted, they were visiting their own daughter, but I was still impressed.

Jane and I chatted for a while before the Xanax kicked in and I lapsed into unconsciousness for God only knows how long.

I woke up as we were approaching Denver and found that my little happy pill had worn off, leaving me to face some nasty pockets of turbulence all by myself.

Jane saw me flinching at every single bump and gave me a warm smile.

“You don’t do landings well, do you, Rob?” she said.

No, I don’t. And I don't do takeoffs or any of the crap that goes on in the middle well, either. The only thing I do well on an airplane is get the hell off.

When we landed I told Jane that it was a pleasure meeting her and husband and wished them the best.

But I really didn’t want it to end there. I wanted to know more about these people, what their children and grandchildren were like, and how life was in New Zealand.

However, as has happened too many times in the past, I couldn’t express these feelings.

“If you ever in Brooklyn, look me up,” I said lamely.

What the hell does that mean? How can they possibly look me up if they don’t have my contact information?

All I had to do was hand Jane one of my business cards. That’s why I had the damn things made in the first place—so people could contact me.

But, no, I didn’t do that. I just picked up my bag and walked out of their lives. Maybe I felt that I would like desperate if I asked to stay in touch. People do have their own lives.

Of course New Zealand is a long ride from Brooklyn. And who knows if they would have ever reached out to me even if they did have my email mail address?

But the fact that I didn’t even try eats at me. You can’t leave things up to fate, luck, karma, or coincidence, not in the real world, anyway. Like anything else in this life, if you want something you have to go out and get it.

Years ago my father told me about the importance of holding on to good friends. He said that he had regretted losing track of some really great people, but his words are only coming back to me now.

I’m going to an effort to making—and keeping—new friends. And if I ever pull another bonehead stunt like this again, I’m going to stuff myself in the overhead compartment.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Oh, Dear Me...

The handwriting on the envelope looked awfully familiar—and just plain awful as well.

I came across this mysterious letter while going through my mail on Thursday afternoon.

There was no return address, but I immediately recognized the pathetic penmanship.

Hideously hacked scribble that could drive a boatload of nuns to drink, distraction, and dementia, there’s only one person on God’s green earth who has handwriting this bad.

And that person is…me.

But why the hell would I write a letter to myself? I know my memory is slipping but I didn’t think I had resorted to churning out midnight missives in my sleep. Or had I?

I held the letter in my hand for several seconds trying to figure out what it was all about, studiously ignoring the obvious solution—like opening the goddamn thing.

I thought of my father, who used to pull the same exact stunt. He’d actually hold his own letters up to the light to try and read their contents, even though the envelope was addressed to him.

Hey, if you’re looking for logic here, you’ve opened the wrong sack of mail.

Finally I ripped the envelope apart and started reading a letter I had written to myself on May 18.

And then I it all came back to me like a note tied to a five-pound brick. Emily, the teacher of the mindfulness-based stress reduction class that I had taken at the Interdependence Project earlier this year, had us all write these notes to ourselves during the last session.

One side of the letter discussed what I wanted to remember from the class.

I would like to remember that I have a choice when it comes to dealing with stress and all the pressures that life has to offer,” I wrote three months ago. “I would like to remember that I can stay mindful, be in the present moment, instead of getting lost in anger, sorrow, or frustration. I would like to remember to love myself every single day.

Alpha Mail

The other side of the letter was a direct message to myself.

Dear Me,” it began. “I hope this letter finds you well—very well indeed—weller than you’ve ever been.

Forgive the grievous grammar but I was trying to make a point.

It’s August and the summer is almost over,” I continued. “Are you being kind to yourself? Are you loving yourself? Are you working—really working toward your goals? I hope so. I hope you are happy and present and mindful. I hope you are writing your heart out and moving beyond your pain. I hope you are happy.”



The timing of this letter was incredible. I was feeling especially crabby on this day, yes, even more so than usual.

Perhaps I was going through post-vacation psychosis, but I couldn’t rein in my temper and my thoughts were bouncing all around my skull. I wasn't moving beyond my pain; I was moving in with it.

I haven’t been writing my heart out at all, I haven’t been doing enough to reach my goals, and now this letter shows up on my doorstep to remind me of how far I had fallen short in my efforts to become more mindful and productive.

But then I gave it some time. I decided to do some constructive thinking--rather than getting lost in anger, sorrow, or frustration.

The point of writing this letter was not to mock my future self. The Me back in May was only trying to help, to point the current version of yours truly toward the light and away from the darker regions of my mind.

I was reminding myself that I have a choice.

Instead of feeling depressed about hitting the deck, I used this letter to get me back up on my feet.

So, in answer my own question, I am indeed well. And I intend to get weller than ever.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mountain Man

It took three tries but I finally made it to Colorado.

I’m back in Brooklyn after a two-week visit with my oldest brother’s family in Fort Collins, CO.

I’m jetlagged, stuffed with all sorts of evil foods, surrounded by several tons of dirty laundry, piles of junk mail and a bloated DVR and I don’t a howling rat’s ass about any of it.

I’m happy, goddamnit!

This time neither snow nor illness blocked my way west, allowing me to spend time with my family’s western contingent.

I saw spectacular scenery, crossed paths with bizarre individuals, treated myself to a mineral bath, frolicked in a hot tub under the stars, and, on the very day that Robin Williams died, I looked upon the most incredibly beautiful rainbow this side of The Wizard of Oz. It was a hell of a trip.

Yet, of all the fabulous sights and experiences, I have to say without a doubt that the highlight of my vacation was my beautiful, crazy, nutzoid niece Victoria.

This 19-year-old whirlwind had me laughing so loud, so long, and so often my ribs are still aching from the exertion. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy.

Victoria has this gift for taking the most ordinary situation and turning it into pure hysteria.

Is There a Doctor in the House?

While I was out there, Victoria took and passed her EMT course, making me the proudest uncle on either side of the Rockies. She goes out on ambulance runs and is eager to display her medical knowledge.

“Do you have diabetes?” she asked me apropos of nothing.

“No!” I declared. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Shucks,” she said. “I wanted to show you this technique for diabetics.”

Instead of forcing candy down a diabetic’s mouth to save them from insulin shock, Victoria tells me you can take one of those plastic honey-filled bears and inject the much-needed sugar up their…well, I think you know where this is going.

I suspect Victoria is just dying to try this out on me, which is why I always keep my back to the wall whenever she’s around.

Always concerned for her patients, Victoria says that she and her friend like to sing the Seventies classic “Kung Fu Fighting” to patients in the ER. She claims they like it, but I reminded her that these people are sick or injured and most likely unable to walk out on her performance.

Good to the Last Drop…

While walking through the woods surrounding a Buddhist temple, Victoria felt compelled to tell me about an exotic type of coffee made from beans that have passed through a monkey’s digestive system.

“We could give some to Auntie Joan and not tell her until later,” she said.

“Do you have any idea what your aunt—my sister—would do to me if I knowingly let her drink coffee that’s been crapped out by a monkey?” I shouted.

That didn’t faze Victoria, who seemed genuinely disappointed that my sister’s birthday had already passed.

“There’s always Christmas,” I offered, which will probably be my last Christmas if my sister has anything to say about it.

Road Trip

We hit the road for several days, driving down to Taos, NM, and meeting all sorts of odd people.

Take the couple in the town square, for example, who were speaking at the top of their lungs until my brother, Victoria, and I walked by, whereupon they fell silent as if they had been plotting a mass murder…and who’s to say they weren’t?

I could feel them eyeballing us with extreme prejudice as we walked down the block and Victoria turned around to confirm that eerie fact.

“The lady was staring at me,” my niece declared, “and she wouldn’t break the stare!”

Our hotel in Taos had it’s own cast of characters, including a strange child in tight braids who silently glared at us one morning as we walked over to the dining area for breakfast. I later dubbed her Hessian Heidi and she was one seriously weird kid.

“She looks like an Oompa Loompa!” Victoria observed.

The waitress at the hotel’s dining room didn’t speak a word of English and the cook skipped any of the traditional chef’s attire in favor of a baseball cap and a t-shirt.

During breakfast, one lady got up from her table, walked across the length of the room and turned to shout at her husband.

Watch my purse!

Watch your purse? It was sitting right there in front of the guy. How could he miss it? And the only other people in the room were Victoria and myself at one table and a young Hispanic coupled with a baby at another.

Perhaps the baby was really a midget who getting ready to swoop in and swipe the old bat’s handbag. I was kind of glad when we left Taos and headed back to Colorado…

Odds and Ends

During this trip that my sister-in-law thinks I resemble one of the Teletubbies—but not Laa-Laa, which I suppose is some good news.

“I can see that,” she said, swirling a circle around my face with her index finger.

Seriously? You think I look like one of those freaks?

“I didn’t say you looked like one,” she said, “I said you have the essence of one.”

“That’s even worse!” Victoria declared.

Now I have to tell you that Victoria and I did not get a chance to do have our planned dance-off, as we just plain ran out of time. And I was all ready to pose for a photo with a gnome hat as my niece wanted, but it turned out that Victoria didn’t have one for me to wear.

However, Victoria found a new way to torture me. This young woman has taken an unusual interest in my love life—or lack of one. While in Telluride, we went off on a tangent where she had me hitting on elderly women in my golden years.

“You can both drink prune juice,” she chirped. “And you can ask her ‘do you knit or crochet?’”

Upon seeing an old time riding a bicycle down the main drag, Victoria declared “that’ll be you when you’re 80!”

“With prune juice,” she added.

And when I made the mistake of expressing interest in rather young waitress at a local restaurant, I compounded the error by joking that I could dress like a diaper and have the young lady feed me.

And that’s all Victoria had to hear.

“Oh, that it is totally happening for Halloween!” she shouted. “We’ll get you a giant rattle and a bib!”

She even got on the phone to tell my sister about it, neglecting to mention the monkey crap coffee.

“Uncle Robert is going to dress up like a baby this year!”

Jesus, where’s that gnome hat when you need it?

Friday, August 01, 2014


Of course it’s going to rain tomorrow.

Naturally the weatherman says there will be downpours all morning, the very same morning that I’m scheduled to fly out to Colorado.

The idea of flying isn’t terrifying enough for me; oh, no, I had to have a monsoon rolling into town when I take off into the sky.

“Saturday will be a good day to stay in bed,” the meteorologist on NY1 said yesterday.

If only, pal, if only.

I’m taking a third run at visiting my brother and his family in Colorado, the last two attempts having been scrubbed due to illness and hideous weather.

I’m hoping the third time will really be a charm, but the pre-travel agita is gnawing at me something fierce.

I’m worried about the flight, about the drive to the airport. I’m worried I’ll forget something or that there’ll be something wrong with my plane ticket.

I’m worried about things that I can’t even name.

My mind is on total recall, dredging up all the mistakes and missteps I made in the last 20 years.

Now Boarding...

It’s amazing to see how this twisted mechanism automatically springs into action whenever I’m stressed out.

The trick is recognizing this destructive behavior and redirecting the energy for good instead of insanity.

I don’t like change; it’s really that simple. I’m uncomfortable with changing my routine even it’s for something good, even if the routine is driving me to distraction.

I know I should be excited about the trip and at some point I know I will be, but right now there’s a lot of static in my brain.

I saw a young woman emerging from the subway the other day with a t-shirt reading “Disrupt All Things.” It sounds like one of those sayings that’s easier to recite than it is to actually put into motion.

I went to mass at Trinity Church today and after the service I asked Rev. Mark to give me a blessing for my travels.

God love him, he actually put his hand on my beautiful bald head and made the sign of the Cross over me.

It was so comforting I was able to relax for a little while.

I have be to up early tomorrow so I’ll be going to bed soon and I’ll try to get some sleep.

In the morning, I’ll get up, take my bags and Rev. Mark’s blessing, and head off into the clouds.

My blog posting and blog reading will be spotty over the next few weeks. Take care, blog on, and I’ll catch up with you all very soon.

Disrupt all things…