Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Empty Seat

Movie audiences tend to get on my nerves, but I have a special fondness for people who go to the theater.

Perhaps there’s something about seeing a live performance, but I find I’m able—and quite willing—to start conversations with my fellow theatergoers.

It’s nothing for me to turn to the person next to me and start talking to them—something I very rarely do with a movie crowd.

People at the movies don’t seem open to chatting, except with each other and usually right in the middle of the goddamn movie I’m trying to watch. This probably explains my fondness for Netflix.

Now you get your clunkers amongst the theater patrons, too—schmucks who unwrap their candy at exactly the wrong time so it sounds like a forest fire or asshats who run their mouths nonstop as if they’re in their living rooms—or at the movies.

But overall I’ve found theater audiences to be talkative at the proper times and usually they have something intelligent to say.

I get a special charge when I sit down next to a single empty chair. I always find myself wondering who will be sitting beside me for the next few hours.

Perhaps a lovely, age-appropriate woman will show up clutching her Playbill and apologizing to the other people in the row as she makes her way to her seat.

We’ll exchange nice words before the lights go out. During intermission we’d talk about the show and other plays we’ve seen, and what do you think of the leading man?

Maybe we’ll go for drinks after the show or agree to meet up at a later date. The curtain could be going up on a beautiful affair…

This only happened once in my life and the relationship—if you want to call it that—only lasted two dates. But that hasn’t dampened my spirits any.

Right This Way...

I sat next to a single empty seat a few weeks back when we went to see “Death of A Salesman.”

As I sat there looking at that unoccupied chair, the fantasy factory in my head started conjuring up images of the ticket holder. Attractive, intelligent, unattached…it was my own version of "Waiting for Godot."

And then this guy who bore a strong resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock waddled up the steps and plopped himself in the empty chair. The fantasy factory quickly shut down.

This guy wasn’t at all talkative before the show started and he promptly fell sound asleep moments after the lights went out.

He essentially paid 80 bucks to take a nap, but it’s his money. It’s not like we’re friends or anything.

We went to the theater on Saturday to see Charles Busch’s “Judith of Bethulia” at the Theater for the New City on First Avenue. It was first, first-served, and we were lucky to find three decent seats in a row. I sat down in my chair, looked to my left, and saw…an empty seat.

There was a bag on top of it, indicating the occupant would be back soon. Maybe a lovely female occupant…we could talk about how much we loved Charles Busch’s work…I could get her phone number…

The lights went out and my dream date still hadn’t shown up. It took me about an hour, but I finally realized no one was coming for this chair. The woman two seats away--who was with a group--had parked her bag there.

Okay, so that little drama wasn’t happening. But I enjoyed the show and had a nice time with my family. I’ll keep going to the theater and I’ll keep chatting up the people around me.

And I’ll always keep an eye on that empty seat.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Licensed for Nil

You know you’re having a rough week when the only good news you get is coming from the IRS and the DMV.

Normally I hate, fear, and despise these two agencies—even though, as I think of it, neither one has ever done any harm to me personally.

Still, I’m terrified of bureaucracies because they wield so much power and speak in so much gibberish.

I worry that I’ll hand in my tax return or my driver’s license renewal and some mid-level paper pusher in the bowels of a massive gray building will find some minor glitch, some little thing that I forgot to do and I’ll be sent off to a FEMA slave labor camp in the Catskills.

Well, it turns out I worried for nothing. Both of these agencies did the right thing--I got my tax refund and my new driver’s license in the space of two days. Did I say “mid-level paper pushers?” Sorry, I meant “dedicated public servants.”

Unfortunately, these events collided head-on with some intense disappointments.

I’ve recently completed a novel and I’m trying to find an agent to represent me. I’ve heard all the stories about how people were rejected 12,000 times before one agent recognized their talent and I thought I could handle the long list of “thanks, but no thanks” responses. Every "no" means you're one step closer to "yes," or so I've been told.

However, nothing prepared me for being rejected by three different agents--on the very same day. It seems that every "no" brought me one step closer to the next goddamn "no."

This was a disaster, a clown-car pile-up, a never-ending nightmare that got worse every time I checked my email.

"Stop the Fight!"

It started in the morning when an agent I really thought would like my work—he had a nice face—gave me the brush 10 hours after I made my submission.

A short time later I got another rejection and then, early in the afternoon, it happened one more time. As my father used to say in his best bogus brogue, "take me coach out, I've had enough!"

I couldn’t believe it. I was actually feeling nostalgic for the Post Office—another agency I don’t like.

E-mail has made the process of submitting material much easier. Just a few clicks and your work is on its way, an incalculable improvement over the old self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) days when you had to trundle down to the post office and explain to the genius behind the counter that you need twice the postage so you could get the damn thing back.

But now that making submissions is easier, so is rejection and multiple submissions can quickly turn into multiple invitations to take a flying leap.

So I’m looking at my new driver’s license now and I’m thinking the photo actually goes back to the days before I even had a computer.

I still have that ring of fuzz around my skull and since I started shaving my head sometime around 1999 or 2000 then…wow, that’s a really old picture.

I remember when I got my license renewed eight years ago and thought that 2012 seemed so far away. Surely I’d be published by then, I thought. Now the license has been extended to 2020 and I still haven't been published.

Unlike that photo, I’m the one getting older—kind of like a reverse Dorian Gray.

I’m not going to look to 2020—my eyes are getting older, too. I’m just going to concentrate on sending out that next submission.

I won’t give up and I won’t get discouraged—even if they do send me to the Catskills.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Where or When

I learned a new name for an old affliction last night. Now let’s hope I don’t forget it.

I had been attending a party when a new arrival showed up. He was an older gentleman and after we made our introductions he warned us that he might have trouble keeping our names straight because he suffered from CRS, better known as “Can’t Remember Shit.”

We all laughed at that line and I suspect just about everybody in the room suffered from this ailment, myself included.

There’s a lot of that going around.

Memory slips can be scary, but I guess humor is a good way of dealing with that dark breeze that passes through your heart whenever you forget where you put your house keys or the name of your favorite actor.

My father suffered from dementia and it was upsetting to watch him struggle to remember names and events or hear him casually ask for my mother, even though she had died several years earlier.

I got a kick out of that CRS line, but I had more sobering experience with this issue earlier this week.

I’m working on a story about changes in the auditing profession and my plan is to speak with the authors of a 1997 study on the future of auditing and ask them how things have changed over the last 15 years.

I called one of them--a professor at a southern university--and asked him for an interview. He said he’d like to, but there was just one problem.

“I don’t remember that study,” he told me.

I thought he was kidding or that his memory was a little bit hazy after all this time. But then he said he was going to a neurologist and that his brother had died from Alzheimer’s disease.

Fade Out...

This was no joke. He really didn’t remember the study.

The professor, who sounded like a fine old southern gentleman, said he would be stepping down from his position at the university soon.

“It’s been a good career,” he added.

I wished him well and told him to take care.

“Thanks for calling,” he said in a frail but sincere voice.

The words had a painful finality to them, like he was saying goodbye to more than just a career. It sounded like he was bidding farewell to life--or at least the life that he once knew.

I found myself wishing that I had known this man better, that I had interviewed him more frequently, had his name on my list of contacts so I could call him to comment on various stories. I feel like I’m missing so much.

It’s awful think that this talented, intelligent man could soon be straining to remember the names of his loved ones. His fabulous mind may soon start unraveling, with all its knowledge, experience and ideas fading away. I feel like we're losing more than a person; it's like a whole way of life is disappearing.

Of course I have to be honest and say that while I’m definitely concerned about a fellow human being, I’m also worried about my own brain cells.

I try to do the right thing for my mind, taking my vitamins, eating the right foods and staying active both physically and mentally. I hope that all this effort will pay off, but I really don’t think we have much of a say in what happens to our minds. There seems to be a lot of luck involved in this game.

If that’s the case we might as well have a laugh about it. Stay healthy and enjoy your life for as long as you can.

There's nothing complicated here. It’s as simple as CRS.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Easter People

"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song." -- Pope John Paul II

It's been a tough couple of days, but I think I'm finally feeling better. And just in time for Monday morning.

This is Easter Sunday, a time when we celebrate rebirth and renewal, but I confess I've been in something of a funk.

I think things went off the rails--quite literally--on Saturday night when I allowed an abysmal experience on the New York City subway system to whip me into a 20-megaton conniption fit.

The MTA got us coming and going with tortuously slow rides in and out of Manhattan. When we reached 59th Street in Brooklyn, we ditched the subway entirely and took car service the rest of the way home.

It was horrible, but I made it much, much worse by raging and fuming over things far beyond my control. It infuriates me that I have to actually pay for this abuse when I know that if this were any other service I would demand my money back and take my business elsewhere.

That's a little tough to do with the subway system since we only have one in New York. But freaking out is not going to make things any better--and being angry at myself for freaking out is even worse.

What’s really frustrating is that earlier this week I felt I was really getting a handle on my emotions. I’ve been trying to be more present, focusing on now rather than the past or the future.

This has been particularly helpful in the gym, where I take this really demanding boxing class. The toughest part of the hour-long session comes when you square off against the teacher for a round with the focus mitts.

"You're gonna eat lightnin' and you're gonna crap thunder!"

It's the craziest two minutes of your life as the teacher yells at you to hit hard and smacks you upside the head whenever you drop your guard. It’s also exhilarating as hell.

I caught myself thinking some pretty negative thoughts during the last few rounds with my teacher-—I can’t do this, I’m too tired, I’m too old, and other such destructive crap.

I tried psyching myself up with a macho man pep talk, but on Thursday I decided to do something a little different.

Instead of all the badass lingo, I just allowed myself to be in the present moment.

I didn’t think positive thoughts. I didn’t think violent thoughts. I didn’t think at all. And I think it paid off.

I felt like I did a really good job of blocking the instructor’s shots and throwing punches.

This has nothing to do with being a tough guy or a killer boxer because I am neither. It’s more like stepping aside and letting your true self come out.

The allegedly positive stuff I tell myself isn’t particularly helpful and I suspect it’s sapping my strength. It takes a lot of energy to fight with toxic thoughts instead of letting them just roll off you.

I wanted to take this mindset out of the gym and apply it to other aspects of my life. And it was working for a while. I was patient, effective, and reasonably happy.

Then I got on the N train and mentally smacked myself silly.

All right, so I slipped on the path to enlightenment. It happens. The important thing is to get back up and continue the journey.

It's Easter, a time for joy. Like the man said, Hallelujah!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A Blossom Fell

Somewhere in Brooklyn there’s an alley cat that I would like to thank.

He—or she—provided the inspiration I needed for a haiku workshop I attended on Saturday—and all I had to do was look up.

 I had registered for the Japan Society’s program a few weeks ago in an attempt to shake my life up a little bit.

I’ve been spending too much time in front of the TV and not doing any of the funky things that are happening in New York every day of the week.

 When I lived in small towns, I complained that there was nothing to do, yet now that I’m back in New York it seems that I spend more time with my DVR than I do with human beings.

 I thought a class in Japanese poetry might be a good way to break out of my rut. It meant getting up early on my day off and clanging over to Manhattan on the subway to toil away at an art form that I knew virtually nothing about, but I'm glad I did.

I haven’t tried to write poetry since high school, largely because the stuff I wrote was hideous. Haiku had even less appeal to me since the work is so incredibly brief--it's just a flash of words--and you’re required to say your piece in 17 syllables.

How can I possibly communicate anything under such tight constraints? I barely use my Twitter account because of the 140-character rule. I'm like a pelican; I need a long runway before I take off  

But I wanted to do something different and I thought the class would make me a better writer.

However, I didn’t give much thought to what I would write about until early last week when I went to my doctor’s office for a checkup.

As I waited for him to finish with another patient, I happened to lean back on the examination table and look up through the skylight.

And just at that moment, this alley cat came strutting across the roof and right over the glass. For a brief moment he seemed to be floating over my head—and then he was gone.

I started playing with that image for the next few days and I had it in my mind when I walked into the class.

Our instructors were Japanese haiku poet Sho Otaka and American haiku poet John Stevenson. Another gentleman acted as Ms. Otaka’s translator.

Cat's Up

Cherry blossoms are an important part of haiku as they symbolize the fleeting nature of life. At first I wasn’t sure if I could work that image into my cat theme and I went through several variations before I was satisfied.

It’s amazing how much work goes into a few lines to make it sound just right. This is how it came out:

A cat walks through the clouds
Blossoms fall beneath him.

I also wrote a haiku inspired by the Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

I was trying to contrast the noise and the bustle of New York with the natural experience of the falling cherry blossoms. So this is what I came up with:

Cherry blossoms fall to earth
The city starts to breath

Now came the hard part. Each of us had to walk up to the front of the class, write our work on a large board, and then read it aloud.

I was having a Catholic school flashback, but thank God the instructor was a lovely young Japanese woman in a kimono and not a monstrous old nun in a habit.

My classmates produced some very nice work, which prompted some intense conversation, but I was worried that people might not get the flying feline image without hearing the backstory.

As I walked up to the board, I thought I would use the cherry blossom festival haiku because it seemed a little easier to understand.

But then I figured this was no time to play it safe. I wanted to hear what people thought of my work, so I decided to let the cat out of the bag.

I think the instructor got a kick out of my verse. She spoke about it at length in Japanese and the translator told me that she thought it had a fantasy quality to it.

Then she wrote up my haiku in Japanese characters and gave it to me. It was strange seeing my words converted into symbols.

So it turned out to be a good day. I met some great people, got a new appreciation for an important art form, and broke up the routine a little bit.

I said my goodbyes and left to go visit with my aunt, who lives nearby. The weather was terrible, all rainy and damp, but it didn’t me at all. I was higher than a cat.