Thursday, December 22, 2011

Star of Wonder, Star of Night

I switched the TV on to the Christmas carol channel to get the holiday spirit going last night and came away with some valuable information.

The cable people like to run little Yuletide factoids along the bottom of the screen while the music plays. So I learned that in Hungary, food cannot be eaten on Christmas Eve until a twinkling star is seen in the sky.

No food, I thought, that’s ridiculous. What happens if it’s overcast and you don’t see any stars?

You go Hungary! (Ouch! I'll be getting a lump of coal for that one...)

But as I thought about it, I started to like this tradition. A star is a sign of hope and given the current state of the world we could all use a little hope right this very minute. It seemed like a good idea to hold up the party until you get that sign from above.

I just got done watching “Scrooge,” the best film version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and it got pretty emotional.

I grew up watching this movie with my family and now here I was sitting by myself, remembering all those great holidays. I went through a lot of tissues as I recalled Christmas past, but it’s still a great movie.

I was planning to Scrooge my way through Christmas this year. I was sickened by news of Black Friday shoppers pepper-spraying each other or trampling over their fellow human beings to snatch up two-dollar waffle irons.

Keep Watching the Skies

And then there’s the commercials that Santa Claus peddling everything from electronics to candy. St. Nick is even walking the floor of a car dealership for God’s sake. This is how we celebrate the birth of Jesus? No, thank you.

But you can rise above all that misery and still enjoy Christmas. There is a festive mood in the air, there are so many beautiful songs, and then, of course, there are all the lights.

The Salvation Army set up a kettle on Church Street near my office and I saw one man holding up a sign that said “It’s our last week—can you at least give us a smile?

And instead of Christmas carols the boom box was playing the Beatles “All You Need is Love.” That got me smiling all right.

I joined my sister and some friends for a trip through Dyker Heights to look at the Christmas decoration extravaganza. For those of you who haven’t been there, the homeowners go insane with lights, music, animatronic figures, and people in costume.

So many cars drive up one particular street during the holidays that the police have to direct traffic. There’s even a tour bus that brings people over from Manhattan to look at the Brooklynites in their native habitat.

My sister suggested parking the car a few blocks away from Christmas Central and walking around the various streets. That turned out to be a great idea.

We avoided the traffic jam, but more importantly, we got to walk around with other people. I honestly don’t know how these homeowners can afford to pay their electric bills—they must have separate generators.

I kept thinking this is crazy, this is over the top, but then I’d see how much fun the kids were having and it all seemed worthwhile. I didn’t have to look into the sky to see any twinkling stars—they were all around me.

I’m going to take some time off for the holidays, so I want to wish everyone a merry and a happy whatever-it-is-you-celebrate. Enjoy yourself, keep searching for your twinkling star, and don’t ever go Hungary.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

'A Disturbing Image and A Crude Gesture'

In the movie “The Next Voice You Hear,” God skips the burning bush and uses the radio to speak to humanity.

I recently saw this 1950 film, starring James Whitmore and future First Lady Nancy Davis, and found it to be a bit clunky and contrived.

But it made an impression on me because it showed how good, decent people can forget that they’re good and decent as they rush around trying to find a place in the world.

Upon hearing the voice of the Almighty, everyone starts taking life slower and being more respectful to one another.

I thought that was important and it seemed to tie in so nicely with my Day One project, where I vowed I would improve my outlook on life.

And then I decided to go the movies on Friday night and everything went to hell.

I rarely go to the movies, preferring to watch films at home. Most movies are overrated and overpriced and most theater audiences are comprised of inconsiderate morons who talk, act stupid with their smart phones, and do just about anything else they feel like doing except to clam up and watch the goddamn movie. (Not too hostile now, am I?)

But I had heard great things about “The Artist” and I didn’t feel like waiting on Netflix. So I went online to buy a ticket. And that’s where it all went wrong.

My credit card information at the ticket website was outdated and every time I tried to correct things, the website crashed. I was going nuts. Day One turned into Day None as I fumed and swore at the Internet as if it had passed me a bad check.

I finally ordered the damn ticket—or so I thought—and staggered out of the office. I was running late and since I was in a hurry that meant everyone else in New York was operating at super slow motion.

The woman at the restaurant where I went for dinner screwed up my order. When I finally got my chicken chili on rice—not the beef chili!—I had to wolf it down while listening to crappy Christmas music or risk being late for the movie.

There were two or three other people sitting alone at their tables and later I thought we looked like a modern version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Outside, people seemed to be a daze. Total strangers approached me, got in my way.

“Papi, you got a cigarette?” one woman asked me as I walked down Broadway.

“I don’t smoke.”

Another woman stopped me in the stairwell of the R station.

“Excuse me….”

“I can’t talk to you now!” I snapped and kept going.

Coming Through

The train took forever to show up and when it did it crawled into Brooklyn like it was going under a barbed wire fence. Some loser at DeKalb Avenue shoved his hand in the door at the last second, holding up the train even more.

When I finally got off at Atlantic Avenue, another idiot clogged up the stairs as he walked and fumbled with his Blackberry at the same time.

And when I got to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the ticket machine wouldn’t print out my ticket. I was borderline psychotic by this time, but I got a ticket at the box office and took a seat.

“The Artist” was excellent and everyone in the audience managed to behave. But I was in such a foul mood that I decided to go straight home after the movie ended.

Today I looked over the ticket receipt to figure out why I had gotten shafted. It was only then that I saw the words “Almost there. Review your order and then click PURCHASE TICKETS.”

Oh…that’s why I didn’t get a ticket the other night. I didn’t actually buy one.

The receipt lists the movie’s rating—PG-13 “for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.” It seemed like a perfect way to describe my evening.

I was feeling pretty miserable for most of Saturday. Once again I had promised to change my evil ways and once again I had bitten the dust.

But luckily, I happened to be walking down 86th Street when I came across an old soldier who was sitting outside a bank and collecting money for veterans.

I love talking to these old timers—they’re like living history books. And since my father was a veteran, I can never get enough WW II stories.

This man—I’m so sorry I didn’t get his name—told me he was in the Navy—“and nowhere else but the Navy!”—and had fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

“Those are some of the toughest battles of the war,” I said.

The old veteran smiled.

“We had fun,” he said.

I wished him a Merry Christmas and headed for home. This man had seen things I could never begin to imagine and gone to places where getting a movie ticket was the last thing on anybody's mind.

He had lived in a time when there was no Internet, or I-pads, or any of this other crap that weighs us done and obliterates our attention span. And he’s still with us.

Day One is not going to be an overnight sensation. It’s going to be a slow, painful process as I eliminate disturbing images and refrain from crude gestures.

The next voice I hear will be my own, telling me to get back to work.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Beautiful Boy

Every night when I come home the first thing I see is Ben’s heart.

It’s just a heart-shaped piece of green glittery paper that I have taped to my front door, but it means so much to me.

Up until recently, Ben was my four-year-old next-door neighbor. I knew I’d miss him after I moved, but I didn’t realize how much.

He gave me that green heart back in the summer as my sister and I were cleaning out our family’s house. Every weekend we’d look forward to seeing Ben poke his head in from outside and shout “Wob-ert!”

He would talk with us, look around the empty house, and then suddenly say, “I have to go now.” And off he’d go.

Ben is such a sweet kid, always willing to share things, which I find amazing for a child that age. I don’t think I was anywhere as near as generous when I was four years old, so Ben has taught me an important lesson.

We told him not to give us anything, but nevertheless Ben stopped by the house one time and gave my sister and me some balloons he had. Then he promptly ran for the door.

“You keep! You keep!” he said over his shoulder.

It was great having such a devoted fan. I offered to blow up a beach ball for him one afternoon and while I huffed and puffed, Ben cheered me on.

“Awesome! Awesome!” he yelled. “C’mon, Robert, you can do it!”

A Friend Indeed

I could do it, but it took a little more lungpower than I had expected. I finally got the thing inflated and handed it over to Ben. He stopped playing with it long enough to ask me a question.

“Do you have kids?” he asked.

No, I don’t, but if I did I’d want them to be just like Ben.

During this summer’s Senator Street block party, I got into a wild basketball game with a bunch of little girls who were visiting one of my neighbors.

They surrounded me, grabbed me from behind, tried to kick the ball away from me—it was more like the WWF than the NBA. But Ben jumped in between me and my tormenters and put his arms out, determined to be my bodyguard.

“Those girls are cuckoo,” I said when the game family ended.

“Those girls are tutu,” Ben added. Oh, well, close enough…

One day I watched Ben crossing the street with his grandmother and her homecare aid. The grandmother was on a walker, the aid was busy helping the old lady, and Ben was standing next to them. They looked so vulnerable as they stepped off the sidewalk.

“I’m going to the park!” Billy told me, all excited.

I winced imagining these three being exposed to the cuckcoos that drive around here. I told them to wait until there were absolutely no cars coming down the block.

When the street was finally clear, the three of them started across with Ben putting his hand out in the traffic cop position. Atta boy, Ben.

After we closed on the house my sister and I stopped by Ben’s house to say goodbye. We had to go now.

“You give me your phone number,” he said.

I gave Ben my card, though I don’t expect him to call. He’s a kid and I’m a grown man-more or less-but I do get tempted sometimes to knock on his door and ask if Ben can come out and play.

I’m glad for the time I had with Ben. He has a special place in my heart and he’s welcome to it.

You keep, Ben. You keep.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Day One

Over the summer, DC Comics took the incredible step of resetting all 52 of its continuing series and starting them all over again with issue No. 1.

Superman and Batman may have been around since the 1930s, but DC is scrubbing everything that’s happened in their comic universe over the decades and beginning anew.

I don’t know how comic book fans are reacting to this plan, but it sounds like a great idea to me.

I have gone through so much upheaval over the last few months that I’ve decided it’s time for me to start my life all over again at Day One.

And I’m doing this right now. I can’t afford to wait until New Year’s Day to make any resolutions—my life needs a radical reboot ASA-freaking-P.

I’m in a new place, we finally sold the family home, and I’m back at the gym five torturous months after my back went out and took my right leg with it.

There was a time when I thought I would never heal, that the incredible pain in my shin would be with me forever. The agony started one Friday night in July--just as we started clearing out the house and I was searching for a new apartment. The timing was perfectly hideous.

I also thought we’d never finish the clean-up. Every weekend I’d look at all that…stuff and wonder if we’d ever get down.

But the mission’s been accomplished and I’m feeling better. I’m not a hundred percent—still getting a tingling in my foot--and I have to do a daily series of core exercise for the rest of my natural life, but I’ve made a lot of progress and I’m very thankful.

I’m sure all of things coming together is just a coincidence, but I’m going to treat these events like a screaming, 20-megaton message from the Universe that says “start over from Day One!

Look! Up in the Sky!

I have to change the way I think, shake off this negativity that’s been part of my make-up for far too long. I have to bury the past like it’s nuclear waste. It’s time to replace agonizing with action and worry with work.

I have to do things I’ve never done before, see new places and new faces. I’ve got to stop playing it so safe all the time.

Of course, I’ve made scores of these vows, promises, declarations, proclamations, and resolutions to change, only to see them go south as I returned to my old ways.

To be honest, I’m not sure how my Day One plan is any different from the other times, except that it’s a month ahead of the traditional date.

If I were still in my old frame of mind I’d say that I started early so I could quit early, but it’s Day One, so I ain't thinking that way no more.

I put a “Day One” sign on my bathroom mirror and on the wall of my cubicle at work so I can remind myself that every day is a chance to make things better.

I wheezed through my first boxing class in months on Thursday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to get down over this. It’s Day One, I told myself. Pretend this is the first time you ever walked into the gym.

On Saturday I took a boot camp class, where you work with weights and a stepper until you’re ready to die—at least I was. I’d never taken the class before, so I was glad I had done it, but I’m sore from working dormant muscles. I’ll bet Superman never had this problem.

This Day One project is going to be tough. I see that I really have to monitor my mind, lest I slip back into a pile of ugly thoughts or rotten memories. There’s more to change than just vowing you’re going to do it. I have to totally rewire my noodle.

It's a long shot, but if it pays off, I know that I'll be a lot happier. And I won’t even need a cape.