Saturday, October 31, 2009

Love in the Time of Swine Flu

There once was a time when I looked forward to the sign of peace.

That’s the part of the mass where you shake hands with everybody around you. It's kind of like a spiritual version of the seventh inning stretch.

We started doing the sign of peace in the Catholic Church when I was in grammar school and I remember how one of my classmates once grabbed another kid’s hand during mass and said “hey, how’s the wife and kids?”

Fortunately for him, none of the brothers caught him in the act for they would have no doubt sent him to meet his maker right there in church. It’s a much shorter trip.

I’ve been attending services at Trinity Church for a few years now and I’ve gotten to enjoy this little hand-to-hand routine. I greet my regular buddies and new arrivals and next to the sermon, it is—or was—my favorite part of the mass.

But that was before the H1N1 virus and all its attendant hysteria came to town. Now my church has a hand-sanitizing android stationed in the vestibule ready to spew its gooey contents into any outstretched palm.

It looks so out of place, a penny arcade reject, standing in this venerable place where Alexander Hamilton once worshiped. But as much as I hate the damn thing, I’m glad it's there.

Unfortunately when the priest says “let us exchange the sign of peace” I often hear “let us exchange our various germs.” And I remind myself to keep my hand away from my face and make sure to get a spritz of hand sanitizer on the way out the door.

But it doesn’t end with the sign of peace. After that comes communion, where the priest puts the host in your hand and then you take a sip of wine from the chalice.

Now I do not drink from other people’s cups, I don’t care where I am. Nothing personal, no offense, but it's not going to happen.

I did, however, con myself into believing that if I just gave the host a quick dip into the chalice, I could get a taste of the sacramental wine without risking infection.

That, of course, is delusional thinking, and it took the swine flu outbreak and my recent heavy cold to shake me out of this fantasy.

I thought about skipping the wine entirely, but that’s not easy to do when everybody else around you is either sipping or dunking.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but a couple of times I’ve actually fake-dipped my host into the chalice, stopping just short of the wine--which is incredibly lame given that I’m trying to save my immortal soul here.

I always slink away, half-expecting a voice that sounds a lot like Charleston Heston to thunder from the rafters “I SAW THAT, NUMB NUTS. WHAT PART OF ‘ALL KNOWING’ DON’T YOU GET!?”

Your Host Today

A few weeks ago I was all set to fake-dip when an older priest whom I didn’t recognize actually yanked the host from fingers, sank it into the chalice, and rammed it right into my kisser.

I felt like I was back in Catholic school where you’d turn to a pillar of salt if you even thought about touching the host.

I went to church this week, wincing every time someone coughed. It reminded me of my morning subway ride, where I play a little game I call “Find the Cougher.” I take a seat, open my book or newspaper, and within a few minutes, it’s guaranteed somebody sitting right near me will start hacking and choking like a career coal miner.

One morning the my train was so full of coughing people I wanted to jump up, wave a baton like Arthur Fiedler and lead them in an all-hacking version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” I wonder what non-hypochondriacs do during their morning commute.

So now I’m standing in church and I realize that a heavy duty cougher is in the pew right behind me. The guy’s got a cold, virus, swine flu, the heebie jeebies, who the hell knows? All I know is that he’s sitting near me and that means I’ll have to shake hands with him.

Yes, I am brother’s keeper, but if my brother’s sick I really want him to keep him the hell away from me.

During his sermon, Rev. Mark encouraged us to look for God in everyone we meet. And if can’t see Him in someone we don’t care for, he said, then we should look harder. Does that include the guy spewing his germs all over me?

All right. I shook hands with the guy during the sign of peace, but I didn't have much choice. He was right behind me. I made a mental note to keep my right hand away from the rest of me until I could sterilize it.

The cougher dashed up the aisle ahead of me at communion, which meant no sipping, dipping or even looking at the chalice for yours truly. I took my host straight up and then headed back to my pew ahead of everyone else, which felt a little like the walk of shame after a lousy date.

I shook hands with Rev. Mark on the way out, as I always do—he wasn’t coughing--and then I slipped around the tourists, pushed the door open with my shoulder, and put my hand beneath the hand sterilizer’s nozzle. The thing hummed and squeezed some glop onto my fingers.

It wasn’t the sign of peace, but it did give me some peace of mind.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Peace Now

I finally found peace this week.

No, not serenity, calm, stillness or tranquility—don’t be ridiculous. I’m still as neurotic as ever.

I’m talking about a novel called Peace by Richard Bausch, a gift from my brother which I thought I had lost somewhere between my house and the New York City subway system.

I had just made up my mind to read that particular book after looking through the stacks of paperbacks around here. I brought it to work, kept it in a brown plastic bag to protect the cover, but when I got home that night and looked in my bag, I found that I had been seperated from Peace.

I looked all over my house, peeked into the garbage can, I even checked out the re-freaking-frigerator--nothing. I tried the Zen thing of letting go and the book apparently returned the favor because I couldn't find it anywhere.

At breakfast the next morning I because convinced—convinced—that I had tossed the book in the trash can. Seconds later I heard the garbage truck pulling up in front of my house and I seriously thought about running out in my pajamas and yanking the can away from the sanitation man.

But I got to the front window just as the guy was dumping the contents of my garbage can into the truck's churning innards, so if the book was in there, Peace would soon be in pieces.

The Peace attack came just a few days after another brain bust when I forgot my cell phone number. This wasn’t a momentary lapse of memory where I paused for a few brief moments. No, I completely forgot the damn number.

I was making an appointment to have my chimney inspected when the woman at the other end of the line asked me for my contact information.

“It’s probably best to call me on my cell phone,” I said.


And my mind went completely blank.

Zip, gone, erased from my memory, like Ben Affleck in that crappy movie Paycheck, on which I wasted a small piece of my own paycheck renting and a large chunk of my time watching.

And even though the movie sucked from pillar to post and from hell to breakfast, I still felt compelled to watch the damn “Making of…” features on the DVD.

Why, why do I torture myself like this? It’s like eating a hideous meal and asking for the recipe. Maybe that’s why I’m forgetting things: I’ve got too much junk in my head that the important stuff is being pushed out.

I struggled to recall the number, which only helped to freeze up the locks on my memory bank. I kept coming up with bits and pieces of other people’s numbers, but I couldn’t find the right combination of digits.

Forget Me Not

“I’m sorry,” I finally I told the chimney lady. “I can’t remember my own number.”

“That’s okay,” the woman at the other end of the line said. “You never call your own number.”

Yes, but I never send myself Christmas cards and I still know my address. While we went over some details I dug out my wallet, fished out my ragged mini-phone book and looked for my number.

“I found my cell phone,” I blurted out like a losing game show contestant.


A few days later I was trying to recall the name of a popular British actor. The guy’s a huge star; he played Batman in The Dark Knight.

He got a lot of bad press when a tape of him screaming and cursing at a cameraman while filming the last Terminator movie was leaked to the news media.

There’s a point in the tape where this actor sarcastically sneers “Oh, good for youuuuuu!” at the hapless cameraman. I tease my sister with that line, dropping it unexpectedly when she tells me what she’s been up to. And now I couldn’t remember his name.

I could see his face, I could hear his voice. But nothing else would come. And I didn’t have his name in my little phone book.

C’mon, he’s Batman for Christ’s sake. Heath Ledger was the Joker and that other guy was Gordon…another British actor—yeah, Gary Oldman. But the Dark Knight had me dazed.

I’ve written before about memory lapses—haven’t I?—but this one really got to me. I was set to throw in the towel and look it up on, when it came to me--yes, Christian Bale. Oh, good for meeeeeee!

I’ve been joking about senior moments for a long time, but now I’m starting to wonder. It’s been happening more often lately, but I can’t recall any specific cases, which makes me even more upset.

The annoying thing is that there are so many people, places and things I would love to forget, but they’re still hanging around my hippocampus, which is odd since I didn’t know hippos went to college.

But there's some good news. The other day I was ordering something over the phone and the operator asked for my contact information. I hesitated just a second before reciting my cell phone number flawlessly.

And when I got to my office I saw a small brown plastic bag on my desk. I looked inside and there was Peace, safe and unread.

I had started reading another book, but that’s all right. I put Peace in a safe place. Now if only I knew where that was…

Friday, October 02, 2009

Sound Tracks

I was doing my evening shopping the other night when I heard a familiar song on the radio.

I had trouble making out the tune because of the noise around me, but I knew I’d heard this song before.

As I put my groceries down in front of the cashier, I listened carefully and tried to figure out the words.

It was from the eighties, one of my favorite decades for music. And I could tell it was a woman singing. Then there was a sudden gust of silence around me and I was able to name that tune.

It was “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna.

Okay, well, if you just ring me up, I'll be on my way. Please, for the love of God, ring me up.

As soon I got my change, I bid farewell to the Material Girl and bounced down to the corner drug store for some additional shopping.

At first I wasn’t paying too much attention to the piped-in music, but as I roamed the aisles in a futile search for whatever the hell it was that I wanted, I started to listen to the song pouring out of the sound system—and wished I hadn’t.

This was a song from the seventies, one of my least favorite decades for music, clothes or just about anything else.

It was a man singing this time…wait, don’t tell me…oh, crap, please don’t tell me it's “Everything is Beautiful”— Jesus, Mary, and Ralph, don’t I have enough problems?

Come back, Madonna, all is forgiven.

If you haven’t picked it up from the title, “Everything is Beautiful” is a mawkish streak of audio bilge that it so cloying and creepy it can make the skin crawl clean off your bones.

Ray Stevens, the towering talent who gave us “Ahab the Arab (pronounced “A-rab”, by the way), “Guitarzan,” and “The Streak,” is also responsible for this atrocity and it’s rather hard to believe that one man could do all this damage and still avoid incarceration.

“Everything is Beautiful” was Stevens’ attempt at a serious work, I suppose, and it certainly is a seriously bad piece of work.

The thing actually won a Grammy—another reason to hate the seventies--and I remember my father singing it incessantly, which, of course, made me loathe the disgusting little ditty all the more.

Obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but some things in this world really aren’t beautiful in their own way or any other goddamn way. Face it, some things just suck--like this song.

I guess I was fortunate to be in a drug store, so if I felt the urge to lose my lunch, I’d be close to plenty of medicine. Maybe I could get some earplugs, too.

I got to the cashier just as this nightmare was ending and another seventies song came on. I recognized this one, too. Funky opening…strings coming in…another “poppa” tune...this was-oh, yes--the Temptations’ classic “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone.”

Finally, they’re playing a song I liked.

Hymn and Me

This was a big hit when I was a sophomore in high school. One kid would start singing it in mechanical drawing class, half-a-dozen more would join in and pretty soon the teacher would be bouncing off the four walls.

I really wanted to hear this song again, but it has a rather long instrumental opening and, since I had just gotten my change, I really had no business being in the store.

I decided to do some bogus browsing until I heard the first verse. The place was crowded, though, and I kept having near misses with legitimate shoppers.

When I found myself walking through the cosmetics section looking at the make-up, I decided to throw in the towel and get the hell out. And then I heard those opening lines…

“It was the third of September,
a day I’ll always remember, yes I will.
‘Cause that was the day my daddy died…”

I rolled out of the store, a satisfied customer.

The soundtrack of my life continued while I was attending mass at Trinity Church. (No wisecracks, please.)

A recent service began with a beautiful hymn called “Be Thou My Vision.” The lyrics go back a little further than the eighties or the seventies to more like the Sixth Century.

I can’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow and I never sing in church. I lip-synched my way through eight years of Catholic school and I’m proud to say I never got caught.

But I was so moved by this song that I actually picked up the hymnal and joined in. That has never happened before. Next I’ll start speaking in tongues--which might be improvement.

Naturally, I sounded godawful, but this was church, by God, not American Idolatry. And it still sounded better than Ray Stevens.

Even the priest was in a singing mood. Rev. Mark was giving us a sermon about being at our best and he mentioned an old Sammy Davis Jr. song called “I Gotta Be Me” to prove his point.

How well I know that song—also from the seventies and another one of my father’s favorites. He liked it so much he bought the single and played it seemingly non-stop on this crummy old phonograph we had in the living room.

The record used to skip at the end, so that when Sammy was supposed to say “Daring to try, to do it or die,” the needle got stuck on “do it or die” and that’s all you heard until my father tapped the needle. After a while I wanted to die before hearing that song again.

“Forgive me,” Rev. Mark told us, “I’m not that good a singer….”

Oh, no you’re not, I thought. You’re not going to stand there before God and everybody else and sing that old clunker, are you? Well, as matter of fact...

“Whether I’m right,” Rev. Mark sang, “or whether I’m wrong…”

You know he was actually pretty good. Maybe he could do “Poppa Was a Rolling Stone” for an encore.

After his number, Rev. Mark told us that there was someone attending the service whose father was in a coma and he began to speak to this person directly.

“I’ve gone with you to the hospital,” he said. “I’ve seen talk to him, tell him that you love him even though he can’t hear you. That’s what I’m talking about.”

He said this with such tenderness, such emotion that I started to think that maybe everything really was beautiful in its own way.

“When we’re at our best,” Rev. Mark said, “we are at our most-loving, our most-grateful, and our most-forgiving.”

Sammy Davis Jr. couldn’t have said it any better than that.