Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wild Horses

I had a dream about wild horses one night, but it wasn't a nightmare.

It started with me opening a door in a dark room and being amazed to find that I was at my aunt’s farmhouse in the Berkshires. Apparently I thought I was still in New York.

The sky was shockingly blue and the grass was so incredibly green, as if the colors had been computer-enhanced. Any tension I may have been feeling immediately began to fade.

I looked to my left and I saw several wild horses sliding down a hill on their backs. At first I thought they were in some kind of trouble, but then I realized they were playing, sledding down the grass and running back up the hill to do it again.

I don’t think real horses can do this, but I’m from Brooklyn so what I know?

In the dream I kept thinking I had to get in touch with my father, who died four years ago, but he was apparently alive and living in our home in the city.

Then an old man, who worked on my aunt’s farm--there is no such person in real life--came into the house, sat down across from me, and started talking.

Or at least he tried to, but a heavy cold had reduced his voice to a barely audible rasp.

“Dude,” I shouted, “I’m going on vacation soon. I don’t want to get sick. Stay away from me!”

Even in my dreams I’m a hypochondriac.

I leaned back in my chair to get away from this guy, who kept on talking despite his failing voice, and I started to nod off.

The next thing I remember I was riding on a bus through Pittsfield or Springfield, MA. As the bus rode by a group of teenagers playing basketball in a park, they stopped their game to jeer and give the finger.

The streets were crowded and I saw a young man running out into traffic, forcing cars to slow down, and then running back to the corner while his girlfriend cheered him on.

All right, so what does all this mean? Psychologists believe that you are everybody--and everything--in a dream.

I believe the horses represented my playful side, the part of me that isn't saddled by worry or reined in by fear. I think the sick old man was a stand-in for my father in his final years as well as a manifestation of my fears of aging and illness.

Now I had watched “The Fighter,” which takes place in Lowell, MA, just before going to bed on this particular night and I think that planted Massachusetts in my mind.

Lowell reminded me of Pittsfield or Springfield, which are near my aunt’s place, and the film is populated with blue collar types, so that explains the roughnecks who were throwing me the bone. And maybe part of me wants to be one of those louts, giving the finger to the world.

I notice how this dream gets progressively more unpleasant, as I leave the playful horses, face age and illness, and return to the urban world and all its hostility. It's almost like life as we age from innocent children to wary adults.

The wild horses were telling me to enjoy life and not worry so much. I think they had the right idea and I'll ride them some day.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Trigger of Life

I had a “wish I’d said that” moment at work this week.

I was speaking with a co-worker around quitting time. He told me that he while he didn’t mind staying late at the office during the winter months, things changed now that the weather is getting warmer.

“Yes,” I said, “once you see the sun is still shining at 5 pm, you want to get outside.”

“It’s the trigger of life,” my co-worker replied.

The trigger of life—I thought that was such a great expression. It’s so fitting, given this grisly death march of a winter we just went through and it’s the perfect theme for Easter.

We got a good look at the trigger of life today when my sister came up with the brilliant idea of visiting the Brooklyn Botanic Garden prior to our Easter dinner.

She also recommended going early, so we could beat the crowds and enjoy the sunshine while it lasted. The gardens were beautiful and the weather was so nice I couldn’t believe it.

The holiday weekend had gotten off to a rough with a Good Friday that was anything but. My office was opened even though Wall Street was closed and the streets were clogged with tourists.

I didn’t get to church, which really bothered me. It was Good Friday, after all. I did make sure to skip eating meat for the day, but I would've felt better if I had attended services at Trinity.

Then as I was racing to catch the train home, I got annoyed at this elderly man with a cane who started to move in front of me.

Please understand—I didn’t say anything rude or offensive, it was just my thinking that was all wrong. I wasn’t trying to help him in any way, I was obsessed with making the train, which had just pulled into the station and opened its doors.

I made the damn train, all right, but I turned around and saw the elderly man struggling to get his Metrocard through the turnstile. I tried holding the doors for him, but the conductor would have none of that, so I let go of the doors and the train pulled out of the station.

I felt so ashamed of myself. I tried blaming my thoughtless actions on big city life and the fact that I was racing to a gym class in Brooklyn Heights, but those are just excuses.

It seems that I’m always in a hurry. I always have to be someplace else—I’m never happy where I am--and now I was blasting by old people on this of all days.

I’ll be 54 years old next month, so I’m probably not all that far behind the old man in age. Some day that could be me struggling with the cane and the Metrocard while younger people race by me in a huff

Okay, so I guess this rates as a teaching moment. It’s time for a change and that walk through the garden was a good start. It helped clear my head and reminded me of the beauty that exists all around us.

I’ll make a point of being more aware of my fellow humans when I go out in the world. I’ll be kind and considerate and instead of racing by in a huff, I’ll slow down and pull that trigger of life.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tiger, Tiger

The e-mail to my sister went something like this: Arrrgh!!

Maybe I was overreacting a little bit, but I was upset. I had just received a discount offer to see the play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” with Robin Williams for $47.

It sounded like a good deal. Big name star, decent price--for Broadway, at least. The only trouble was we had already seen “Bengal Tiger,” we weren’t terribly impressed, and we had paid 87 bucks for the privilege.

Like I said… Arrrgh!!

This is the risk you take when you want to be ahead of the curve. When we heard Robin Williams was coming to Broadway, we pounced on a chance to get tickets. We didn’t know anything about the show, but the problem with Broadway is that you’re either first or you're toast.

My father used to tell us about a time many years ago when he thinking of buying tickets to a new musical that was going to open on Broadway. However, he decided to hold off until he read the reviews.

The musical turned out to be a little show called “South Pacific,” and it’s safe to say that it got some pretty good reviews. In fact, the reviews were so good that tickets sold out instantly and you couldn’t get near the theater for the next three years.

We didn’t want to repeat that mistake so I went to the Richard Rogers Theater box office one night after work and picked up some preview tickets. (Richard Rogers wrote the music for "South Pacific," by the way.)

Williams plays the eponymous—don’t you just love that word?--tiger in the equally eponymous Baghdad zoo who is caught up in the American invasion.

He appears to the audience as a man and speaks to us directly, giving a tiger’s eye view of the madness that follows the invasion. And he becomes a victim of that insanity minutes into the show when he is gunned down while gnawing off an American soldier’s hand.

“I get so stupid when I get hungry!” his ghost declares as he looks over his own corpse. It's something you could say about humans, too.

He spends the rest of the play as a ghost prowling around a crumbling topiary garden, commenting on life, death, and war. Robin Williams is very good in the role and he has some great lines as he ponders the existence of God.

“It’s alarming, this life after death,” he says at one point. “The fact is, tigers are atheists. All of us. Unabashed. Heaven and hell? Those are just metaphorical constructs that represent ‘hungry’ and ‘not hungry.’ Which is to say, why am I still kicking around?”

Unfortunately, the tiger is also the most interesting character in the play. The story also features two American soldiers, an Iraqi translator who once tended the topiary garden, and the ghost of Uday Hussein, who walks around the stage carrying his brother’s severed head in a plastic bag.

I didn’t find any of this to be terribly moving or convincing. By the time the play is over the theater is crawling with ghosts—they outnumber the living—and I really think the playwright should have limited his story to just the title character’s wandering spirit.

I feel duty-bound to mention that both the New York Times and L.A. Times raved about the show. I’m assuming they saw the same one I did.

I also have to say that while I wasn’t thrilled with the play, there’s nothing like the experience of live theater. I’m a movie freak through and through, but I still love seeing real people performing before my eyes.

I haven't reached that point where I am so jaded that seeing a play is a routine activity--and I hope I never do. When you go to the theater it’s always an enchanted evening.

So we didn’t luck out this time. These things have a tendency to even out and I know that if we hadn’t gone to this show, we’d be kicking ourselves for missing it—just like my father did with "South Pacific".

Sunday, April 10, 2011

An Unseen Style

Thirty years ago I was walking through the park near the Verrazano Narrows Bridge when I saw a film crew shooting a scene for a movie.

The film was Prince of the City, a story about police corruption in the NYPD starring Treat Williams, and the director was Sidney Lumet.

I was just out college, a budding film genius, and I was dying to get a look at the man who had given us Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, The Pawnbroker and so many other great films.

They were shooting right under the bridge—the scene is only a few minutes long in the movie—and I couldn’t see very much.

There was this rather obnoxious English production assistant stalking around the barrier—what the hell was she doing in Brooklyn?--and I asked her if Lumet was there.

“Yes,” she said with mild exasperation, “he’s here directing.”

Well, screw you very much, sweetheart. Maybe he hadn’t gotten there yet, okay?

I hung around a little while longer, hoping I would see Lumet, bowl him over him with my awesome talent, prompting him to take me on as his assistant, which would kick off my fabulous career on the other side of the barrier and soon people would be craning their necks in hopes of getting a view of me.

That didn’t exactly happen. I hung around for a little while before leaving and I never got the chance to meet Sidney Lumet, who died on Saturday at the age of 86.

Glad as Hell

As I read his obituary, I couldn’t get over how many great movies this man had made. In addition to the ones I already mentioned, there was Network, The Verdict, The Hill, 12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express, The Anderson Tapes, just to name a few more.

And he was working almost up to the end, having made Before the Devil Knows Your Dead in 2007. If you want to see my head explode, just ask me to name my favorite Lumet film. I don’t think I could do it.

Lumet’s films were always so powerful, mercifully lacking in all the film school trickery that may look good on the screen but doesn’t advance the story or expand the characters one inch.

“Good style, to me, is unseen style,” he once said. “It is style that is felt.”

Oh, how right he was. Who could forget Al Pacino chanting “Att-it-ca! Att-it-ca!” in Dog Day Afternoon? Or those gripping scenes in Fail-Safe where Henry Fonda, as the president, tries to avert Armageddon as he speaks through an interpreter—a young Larry Hagman--to the Soviet premier. The scenes feature just two fine actors, a telephone and some incredible filmmaking.

I recall reading that Lumet never allowed the credit “A film by Sidney Lumet” to appear in any of his movies. This is shocking when you think of all the no-talent losers out there who have the gall to use the “A film by…” line on the some of crappiest movies imaginable.

And interestingly, Lumet said that he didn’t think art changes anything.

“I do it because I like it,” he said when asked why he made movies, “and it’s a wonderful way to spend your life.”

Watching his movies is a wonderful to spend your time.

I try to imagine what I would have said if I had actually gotten the chance to meet Sidney Lumet by the bridge that day.

Knowing my younger self all to well, I probably would’ve gotten all tongue-tied and wound up making a fool out of myself.

But I know what would I like to say to him now and it’s summed up in just two words:

Thank you.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

A Little Tin Box

In the movies, pirates always lock their treasure up in a massive chest, but in real life you can find the most valuable things right inside a little tin box.

My sister and I are cleaning up our parents’ house in preparation for sale, so we’ve been busy going through 60 years’ worth of clothing, furniture, books, and little knickknacks—like faux vintage tin boxes.

My mother liked to collect these boxes and put all sorts of stuff inside them—buttons, paper clips, coins, whatever would fit.

We have a tobacco can sitting in the front porch dubbed the “Roly Poly Businessman” because it’s painted to resemble a fat robber baron type puffing away on a pipe.

Some time in the mid-80s the Roly Poly Businessman served as a family bank, where we all put in a certain amount of money every week.

When we had enough cash, we went out for a night on the town: dinner at Gargiulo’s in Coney Island and then on to the theater in Manhattan. I believe the show was Little Shop of Horrors in the Village, but my memory is a little fuzzy.

It was a good idea and we had a lot of fun going out together as a family. But we didn’t stick with the plan for very long.

The Roly Poly Businessman was eventually relegated to the porch and his bright colors have since faded from all those years of sitting in the sunlight.

There’s another tin box that’s been up on a shelf in the dining room for years. Made by Bristol Ware in 1988, the can has two handles and is decorated with images of a woman from the early 20th Century holding a bottle of Coca-Cola.

The thing has been there for so long I don’t really see it anymore. I always assumed it was empty, but when I opened it last week I found out that I had been wrong.

There was no cash, no jewels, no gold doubloons, or documents proving that we’re all related to the Queen of England.

No, it was just a small stack of recipes that my mother had cut out of newspapers many years ago. The moment I saw them she came right back to me-it was almost like finding a letter from her—and I started crying.

They’re all crinkled and brown with age now. One of the few that has a visible date goes back to January 27, 1988. It’s a recipe for pot-roasted chicken with garlic, carrots, onions and potatoes there that serves three or four.

Dinner is Served

On the back of another—“Georgia’s Finest Peace and Peanut Cake” are coupons from the A&P advertising a two-liter bottle of Pepsi for 79 cents and box of Oreos for $1.69. I can only imagine how old those are.

They’re only bits of paper, but they remind me so much of my mother—I can see her sitting in the living room with her glasses on carefully cutting out the recipes and putting them aside for use at some future date.

I don’t think she ever made any of these dishes. So I guess one lesson here is that you should do things as soon as you can before you run out of time.

But the real takeaway is that even though she didn’t make those meals, at least my mother was trying to do something different, trying to break out of a routine and learn new things.

I have this fantasy where I make a deal with God to bring my mother back to us just long enough for her to finally make all these dishes.

Let her return to the kitchen that I barely use now, pick up the pots and pans that haven’t been touched in years. Give her the chance to make cod fillet in lime salsa, oven-fried chicken, baked French toast with orange syrup, and Italian-style stuffed artichoke.

Let us hear her sing all the old songs she loved so much while she chopped up the vegetables and prepared the meat. Let her call us to the table again and again—“Jim! Joan! Peter! Robert!”—and let’s all sit down for dinner night after night.

I’m not the finicky eater I was as a child, so I’ll gladly clean my plate and ask for seconds. Hell, I’ll even eat asparagus for her. And then we can have desert, like Roman holiday cookies, blueberry Italian cheesecake, and plum torte.

But I’m greedy and I know if we ever had the chance to get my mother back we’d never let her go. I’d just go on cutting recipes out of the newspaper so she could stay with us forever.

As we continue to clean up the house there will no doubt more discoveries like this, more opportunities to cry and remember the good times and the ones we love so much. There will be more treasures to find.