Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Tao of Ow

It’s officially autumn in this part of the world and while I loathe the coming cold weather, I’m not sorry to close the door on the Summer of ‘11.

My life took a bad hop back in July, when I had to drop out of my beloved boxing class due to extenuating—and excruciating—circumstances in the form of a bulging disc.

An MRI revealed that I have a mild case of arthritis in my back.

It was a bit of a shock. I mean, arthritis…me? C’mon, old people have arthritis; I’m strong, fit, in the prime of life…sort of…I can’t get arthritis.

Except that I can. My doctor said this is a degenerative condition, that he can treat the symptoms, but not the disease, and promptly packed me off to a sports medicine facility for physical therapy. The head trainer seems positive about my recovery.

I’ve gone to two sessions so far and I’m following the home exercise program the trainers have given me. At least it’s some kind of workout, even if it’s mostly stretching.

I also get to see people who are in much worse shape than I am trying to get their bodies—and their lives—back together.

The rehab’s radio dial has apparently been Krazy Glued to a classic rock station and I’ve been hearing songs by Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, and other Jurassic rock stars.

The other night I was trying to extend my shockingly tight calves to the tune of “Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks, a band whose name seems rather appropriate given my current situation.

Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star, and everybody’s in the movies, it doesn’t matter who they are…

But being unable to work out like a lunatic the way I used to is driving me batty. Doctors recommend regular exercise as a treatment for everything from diabetes to depression and what’s the one thing I can’t do? Yep…

I always knew I wouldn’t be able to do the boxing class forever, that some day I’d be so goddamn old I wouldn’t be able to put the gloves on let alone do the workout.

Time For You To Leave

When that time came, I had planned to shift over to my Tai Chi phase and replace the beastliness of boxing with the gentle movements of the ancient Chinese martial art. I just hadn’t planned on doing it so soon.

But since boxing’s off the menu for the foreseeable future, I decided to take a free beginner’s Tai Chi class last week at a place on Dean Street.

I had a good time. We did five moves of this lengthy form and it felt strange, but I was getting into it.

The people were nice—there were no Karate Kid loons running around smashing cinder blocks and screaming that their hands were deadly weapons. The instructors here try to help you.

Tai Chi has been described as moving meditation and I can see why. You have to be in the present moment if you want to do the forms correctly.

I’m always worried about the future or stewing over the past, so I found I really had to change my way of thinking to keep up with the class.

At the end of the night I felt a nice pull in my lower back as if things were loosening up down there. Great, I thought, I sign up for a month’s classes and see what happens.

I was thinking that this could be the start of a whole new life for me. Instead of a wheezing Rocky Balboa wannabe, I would become Shaolin Rob, speaking softly, living on rice and vegetables, riding the subways in a lotus position and levitating up to my office instead of taking the elevator.

Hell, I already have the shaved head. It’s time to get in touch with my inner Kwai Chang.

First I thought I should run it by my trainer. I was sure he’d have no problem with me doing these simple routines. And I was wrong.

“Not yet,” he said. “You have to wait a little longer.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I’m too fragile for Tai Chi? I see 80-year-old Chinese ladies doing these routines in every park in town, but I can’t join them? If not Tai Chi, what the hell can I do—basket weaving?

I was tempted to ignore my trainer and take the class anyway, but I don’t want to do myself any more damage. He’s also twice my size and it wouldn't be smart to piss him off. A guy who specializes in pain management could probably manage to inflict a lot of pain if you rubbed him the wrong way.

Yes, I wish my life were a non-stop Hollywood movie show because celluloid heroes never feel any pain—but I sure as hell do.

I’ll do what my trainer tells me to do and stay away from boxing and Tai Chi until he gives me the thumbs up.

In the meantime, does anyone need a basket?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let There Be Drums

I complain about the subways a lot, but some nights you can feel like you're inside a rolling concert hall.

There are mariachi bands, rappers, gospel singers, and nostalgia acts and many of these people are quite talented. And all it costs is the subway fare and whatever you feel like giving a particular performer.

You get the occasional clunker, like the guy I saw at the W.72nd Street C station one night who did such a horrific job with “Unchained Melody” that he should have been hauled off in irons.

A tourist actually took this loser’s picture, though there’s no way you could capture that hideous noise in a photo. And if you could, you’d be clawing your eyes out as soon as you saw it.

One night I heard the sound of no less than five different drummers as I rode uptown and then home to Brooklyn.

First a couple of guys got on board the northbound No. 2 train with large African drums and proceeded to rock the house. I was annoyed at first, since I was tired after a long day at work and I wanted some (relative) quite. But these guys were good.

Outside I crossed paths with a deranged man who was screaming “Never Can Say Goodbye” at that top of his lungs as he fished for change out of parking meters. He wasn’t on the subway, so technically he doesn’t count, but I just felt like sharing this little acoustic nightmare.

He took a break from his change diving to yell out a string of obscenities at persons real or imagined before pouncing back on that poor song that has been done so well by Michael Jackson, Gloria Gaynor and Isaac Hayes.

You can say goodbye, I thought. You can say goodbye right now and no one would ever miss you.

I did my usual the-nuts-always-find-me lament, but then I decided to get off that schtick. Obviously the guy was not right in the head and if this is what he has to do to get attention then you should probably feel sorry for him.

On the way home, I was waiting at Columbus Circle for the D train when two guys on the uptown platform wailed away on some overturned plastic buckets. They were good, too, but I was hungry and a little grumpy (shocking, no?) so I was glad when that train pulled into the station.

Watch the Closing Doors

At 34th Street the doors opened and there was guy sitting on the platform with a full drum set playing to beat the band--if there had been a band to beat. And, once again, he was very talented.

It was strange-- I felt that instead of moving, the train was sitting still and the world was turning for us, displaying different musicians. Of course I hadn’t eaten in a while.

At 36th Street in Brooklyn, I was overjoyed to see the R train sitting across the platform just waiting for me to jump on board. But then the train pulled out of the station and I started cursing like the “Never Can Say Goodbye” guy, only without the singing.

While I waited for another local I caught sight of sign taped just over the third rail. It said “Test Site. Nano Insulators.”

I have no idea what that means, but I suspect it has something to do with large and lethal amounts of electricity. I hear a lot about the third rail of politics, but nothing beats the real thing when it comes to delivering the fatal goods.

And I do like that sign. It sounds like a band: Test Site and the Nano Insulators. They’ve got a wicked drummer.

I caught the N train and crossed my fingers that we’d overtake that loco local and found I was sharing the car with a man who was afflicted with a seriously bad cough.

Now I am fairly kind person. Not a candidate for a sainthood, perhaps, but I do have compassion for my fellow human beings.

However, I am also a Metrocard-carrying hypochondriac so when I’m trapped inside a moving metal box with an ill person I shift from “We’re all God’s Children” to “Every man for himself!” faster than a speeding contagion.

I was ready to pound on the door like a berserk bongo drummer, but fortunately the train pulled into 59th Street and I blasted out onto the platform. Naturally I missed the local and it was only then did I think about that man on the N train.

Perhaps he couldn’t stay home because he feared being fired. Maybe he couldn’t afford to go a doctor; maybe he didn’t have health coverage. I felt pretty ashamed of myself. But shame isn’t productive so I just sent good wishes his way and waited for the local.

There were no musicians on this train—nobody was even humming along with their Ipods. But I felt okay. I had the music in me.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

You Will Know That I Am Gone

In the weeks before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, WNYC and WQXR, the local public radio stations, asked listeners what they wanted to hear as they thought about the attacks and the events that followed.

I meant to contact them and make my own suggestion. I kept telling myself to do it, seriously, dude, don’t forget to do this or you’ll be very sorry.

However, like a lot of others things in my life, I never got around to doing it.

I find this especially irritating given that one of the many important lessons that came out of 9/11 was that we should do things now and not put them off until later—because there may not be a later.

But I ignored that lesson and so on Sunday I listened to other people’s musical choices, while my own played only in my mind.

For the record, the song I wanted to hear was the old folk tune “500 Miles.” Credited to Hedy West and copyrighted in 1961, the song is a mournful ballad about a traveler who is broke, far from home, and ashamed to go back.

I always associate this song with Peter, Paul and Mary, since I grew up listening to their version of it. There’s something so haunting about Mary Travers’s voice that goes right through my heart every time I hear it.

The song has been recorded by scores of performers over the years, including Sonny & Cher, Jackie DeShannon, Bobby Bare, Elvis Presley, and, yes, even Jim Nabors, who sang it during an episode of Gomer Pyle that I somehow managed to miss.

The song is about loss and missed opportunities and the opening is deceptively powerful.

If you miss the train I'm on, you will know that I am gone, you can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles…”

“500 Miles” has taken on a special meaning for me since 9/11. Shortly after the attacks, Goldman Sachs, my then-employer, relocated me and all of the other staffers who had been working at Liberty Plaza, which was across the street from the Trade Center, to its property on Water Street.

The change put a little distance between the ruins and me and got me one R train stop closer to home. I was also near Battery Park and I often went there during my lunch break.

A Walk in the Park

One day as I walked through the park I was shocked to see that The Sphere, the metallic sculpture that had once stood in the Trade Center’s plaza, had somehow survived the attacks and had been relocated to the park.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t think anything could have escaped the collapse of the towers, particularly a piece of artwork.

Created by German sculptor Fritz Koenig, The Sphere is 25 feet high and cast in 52 bronze segments.

It had been placed at the center of a ring of fountains designed by trade center architect Minoru Yamasaki to mimic the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

The Sphere stood at the place of the Kaaba, described as the most sacred site in Islam. And to think that it was all destroyed by Islamic extremists...

Six months after the attacks, the sculpture had been relocated to Battery Park and rededicated with an eternal flame.

As I stared at The Sphere, I could hear someone somewhere in the park playing “500 Miles” on the guitar. I didn’t look to see who it was; I don’t think I wanted to know. I just wanted this slow, somber tune to be the soundtrack for my discovery.

Of course the song was written decades before 9/11 and has absolutely nothing to do with the attacks, but the idea of losing someone, of knowing that they’re getting farther and farther away from you, seemed painfully appropriate in a city that had lost so many thousands of its people.

Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four, Lord I'm 500 miles from my home.”

When I hear this song now I think about the victims’ friends and families who never got the chance to see their loved ones again.

“The artwork was meant to symbolize world peace through world trade,” according to Wikipedia.

We all know how well that worked out. But The Sphere still managed to survive that horrific day and, as the plaque near the sculpture says, it “endures as an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.”

The Sphere should serve as a reminder for us to keep striving for peace and to never let it slip away like a train leaving the station.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fall and Rise

I walked out of my building at lunchtime one day last week and saw two Buddhist monks crawling on the ground.

They were robed and barefoot, right there on Broadway, and I watched them stand up, raise their hands to the sky in prayer, and then get back down on the pavement to start all over again. A woman I assumed was a nun followed closely behind them.

They didn’t make a sound, didn’t look left or right, they just kept on going, very slowly and steadily.

It was a strange sight, even for New York and people walking down the street stopped to look and take pictures. This ceremony clearly had something to do with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, but I'm not sure what.

Ground Zero is right around the corner, so they must have been honoring the thousands of people who were lost on that day.

This may sound strange, but I actually felt a bit of hostility toward these people as I watched them scuttle along the cement.

Seriously, what was the point of this abuse? How are these monks any different from the other religious nutbags I mock and condemn on a daily basis? Let's not forget that the slaughter on 9/11 was perpetrated by psychopaths who thought they were doing God’s work.

“They’re full of shit, too,” I muttered toward the crawling contingent.

I know, I know--shame on me.

It’s so hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since I stood across the street from the World Trade Center watching the North Tower burn. Ten years since a second plane struck the South Tower and sent a sheet of orange flame rolling across Church Street. Ten years since we all ran up Liberty Street on a sidewalk that suddenly felt like a hellish treadmill as we desperately tried to get away.

It's been ten whole years since I sought refuge in a seniors home on Water Street while the earth was covered in the toxic cloud created by the towers’ collapse and ten years since I joined the crowd of survivors hiking over the Manhattan Bridge while fighter jets streaked over our heads.

My father turned 80 on that day; my mother was in the hospital fighting a losing battle against lung disease and she was moved out of the ICU in Lutheran Medical Center to make room for the expected wave of victims that never came.

On 9/11, either you got out or you didn’t.

Where Does the Time Go?

My mother died in July of 2002 and my father left this world in January of 2007. We’re about to sell our parents’ house and we’re busy cleaning out every trace of our family’s history from the property.

I thought about going to the ceremony at Ground Zero today, but I was just too tired and I wound up watching it on television. I sent my yearly email to a woman I met in that seniors residence and whom I escorted to the Atlantic Avenue LIRR station after the dust finally settled.

On Friday I went to an exhibition of 9/11 photographs called “Here is New York” that had been set up in the lobby of my building.

The images of the smoldering rubble, horrified spectators, and courageous rescue crews brought back everything from that day except the godawful smell, which hung in the air for weeks after the attacks.

I think of how Americans all came together back then, supported each other, wept and prayed, and it makes me heartsick to see how, in such a relatively short time, the country has degenerated into a nearly ungovernable free-fire zone, its people more divided than at any other period in my lifetime.

September 11 has been used as an excuse to start a disastrous war, create a string of bogus charities, and drum up business for an online gold peddling company.

It’s difficult not to believe that we’ve learned absolutely nothing from the events of 10 years ago. We live in a country where a major political party’s presidential candidates say—with straight faces, mind you—that God told them to run for the nation’s highest office.

They’re not interested in the power or the money; no, they’re just obeying the will of the Almighty. Think about that the next time you feel like mocking the crazy Muslims.

On Friday night I walked over to the Brook Brothers store on Church Street where I was standing when the second plane hit the South Tower. I moved around a little bit until I was convinced that I had found it, the exact place where I watched history unfold.

I wanted to grab somebody, anybody, a guy heading home, a family of tourists, and say, here, look, I stood on this very spot on September 11, 2001. Aren't you impressed?

I managed to calm down and enjoy the moment privately. And as I looked at the new towers reaching up toward the clouds, I suddenly felt that the Buddhists had the right idea. They weren’t performing some bizarre ritual on Broadway; they were doing the most intelligent thing imaginable when faced with the nightmare of 9/11.

And I thought they shouldn’t be doing it alone. We should all join them; every one of us should get down on our bellies, crawl on the ground like animals, and then stand and pray up toward the sky.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Green-Eyed Driver

“Envy's a coal comes hissing hot from Hell.” -- Philip James Bailey

I caught sight of the helicopter flying a few blocks ahead of me and I floored the pedal. I was going to catch this bastard no matter what.

It was late and I was blindly driving into some roughneck part of town filled with crumbling warehouses, burnt-out factories, and pitch black alleyways.

As I pulled up to a red light, a freight train came rumbling out of the darkness just a few feet from the roadway. I had no idea what I was going to do when and if I caught up with that helicopter, but then it wasn't really a night for ideas--or rational thought.

But, wait, there’s something wrong here.

I don’t own a car. This neighbor is a little too weird-—it kind of looks like the old Industrial City down by the waterfront, but it kind of doesn’t. It's familiar territory, but it has a Blade Runner twist. And I don't chase helicopters for any reason whatsoever.

Okay, now I get it. None of this is real. It’s actually yet another of my loopy nightmare-dream-delusions that strike me without warning or anything resembling logic.

In this latest hallucination, I had seen this massive helicopter rumbling overhead and I noticed it was dangling a large poster announcing the debut of a new anchor for a network news program.

The anchorman was a former colleague of mine whom I had worked with at a newspaper many years ago. I hadn’t seen him in years, but I always thought he was a decent guy.

But in this dream he had committed the one, hideous unpardonable sin for which there can no atonement whatsoever.

He was more successful than I was.

Down These Mean Streets

Now a normal person might feel happy when a former coworker makes good. He would congratulate his old buddy, maybe drop him a line and wish him all the best on his new gig.

Yes, that’s what a normal person would do. But we’re talking about me, remember?

I started to get all sorts of mad dog angry. How could that stiff possibly get such a big time network job? I whined as I roared through the streets of Freak Town determined to catch that chopper. I’d smarter, better-looking, more talented than that loser will ever be. I should have the goddamn anchorman job, not him.

I lost sight of the helicopter—and my mind--just as I reached the traffic light. I was trying to decide my next move when this huge car came driving from the opposite direction, crossed over the dividing line, and came much too close to my ride.

“Join us,” this gang-banger in shades said from behind the wheel of the invading auto. “Join us or we’ll cut you.”

Join you? Cut me? What was this lunatic talking about? And how can he drive at night with sunglasses on?

I had about two seconds to ponder these scintillating questions when a guy with a tire iron leaned out of the rear window and began pounding the living beejeezus out of my car.

I don’t recall much after that and I’m not complaining. If the rest of the dream was anything like the stuff I can remember, I’d much rather forget it.

And now the moral of our story. This dream clearly was a warning about the dangers of envy. My obsession with somebody else’s success had caused me to abandon all sense of caution, drove me into some extremely dangerous territory, and brought me on a collision course with the Psycho Twins.

Envy really is the green-eyed monster, taking a wicked toll on your time, energy, and brain cells. It can cost you a good night’s sleep.

And it’s pretty tough on your car, too.