Sunday, December 28, 2014

In Between

I was walking home on Christmas night when I saw a young woman carrying her little daughter into a house near 71st Street.

I’d never seen her before in my life, but as soon as the mother and I made eye contact, I smiled and wished her a merry Christmas.

“Merry Christmas,” she replied.

And, as I was walking by them, this adorable little girl called out after me.

“Merry Christmas!”

It was a perfect ending to a fabulous day. A little snow and we would have had a Hallmark movie moment.

And then the sun came up.

I was one of the few people in New York apparently who had to work on Friday and I managed to have a spectacularly awful day at the office.

Every single thing I put my hand on went straight to hell, I made all sorts of bonehead mistakes, and after a while I was afraid to come out of my cubicle. It was a miracle the soda machine didn’t blow up when I dropped in my change.

What’s really frustrating is that I hadn’t planned on being in the office on Friday.

I was going to take the day off, but I used up my remaining time off for last month’s hospital stay so I had no choice.

I have to make some massive changes in my life very soon. I feel like I’m in a ditch, physically, emotionally, and professionally. I just don’t know what the hell to do next.

Would anyone mind if I just ran off to the South Seas?

Disc Jockey

Perhaps that’s not realistic. Only a children and immature adults think that good times should go on forever.

Every moment is new and no one knows what’s coming next.

Things got a little better on the weekend. My sister and I made our annual pilgrimage to Dyker Heights on Saturday night to see the incredible Christmas decorations. For those of you who have never experience this annual orgy of blinking lights, it's quite a trip.

People blanket their homes in all kinds of holiday-themed paraphernalia. Traffic is backed up for blocks as cars and crowds crawl around the streets and I'll bet the neighborhood is visible from outer space. I wonder what the aliens think of all this.

It was such a nice night that my sister parked her car a few blocks away and we walked around the neighborhood—along with hundreds of other people.

I hadn’t planned on going to the display this year—especially after the Friday fiasco--but I’m glad I did. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without the Lights of Dyker Heights.

Today I got one brutally intense massage at Heavenly Body Works as a young lady literally walked up and down my back like I was a human surfboard.

Apparently I had requested this abuse, but I suspect this was actually a result of a language gap.

“Strong?” the masseuse asked just before she started.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, not knowing what she meant. I quickly found out as her feet dug into my back. Now I know what those two metal pipes positioned over the massage table are for.

But the payoff for the torture was that I feel better now. So there might be a message in the massage. Change can be painful, but when it’s over you’re likely to be a better person.

I look back on my life and see large stretches of time when I chose comfort over change, even when the “comfort” was making me miserable.

That attitude has to go out with the old year. I need to clean up my messes, sharpen my vision, and face my fears.

And if that doesn’t work, I’ll send you a post card from Fiji.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Look Down from the Sky

This was no way to spend Christmas Eve.

Usually on the night before Christmas I like to go out on the town. Check out the holiday displays in Manhattan, take in the crowds of tourist that flood the city, and then hit a few bars to spread the good cheer…better known as getting plastered.

This year, however, I sat in a crowed waiting room at Lutheran Medical Center hoping to get an audience with the surgeon who has been monitoring my condition since my trip to the hospital last month.

I hated hanging around here on the day before the big holiday, but it was such a struggle to get this appointment that I couldn’t give it up.

So I grabbed an empty chair and hoped someone would call my name sometime before midnight. The place was cramped and stuffy, and since this was a hospital, I fretted about all the horrible germs that were just itching to pounce on me.

There were a number of people with kids and one couple wheeled around a frail elderly woman in a wheelchair who just had a few wisps of hair on her head.

One man, who was clearly emotionally disturbed, suddenly slammed his puzzle book to the floor and shouted “tu madre!” at a woman sitting across from him. She had been swinging her legs back and forth for several minutes, which had apparently infuriated this guy.

His companion quickly rose from his chair, spoke soothingly in Spanish to the angry fellow and encouraged him to change his seat.

Oh, God, I didn’t want to be here with…these people. Yes, I’m ashamed to say that I actually used that phrase…these people. I thought I was a better person than that, but clearly I have a long way to go.

All Ye Faithful

And who were they exactly, these people? They were the poor, non-white, non-English speakers who had no place else to go for healthcare. The kind of people whom Jesus—the birthday boy--loves so dearly.

After all, Christmas tells the story of a poor, homeless family of non-English speakers who are forced to spend a freezing night with animals in a manger. All of a sudden that hospital waiting room didn’t look so bad.

Yeah, I didn’t want to be here, but then none of the people around me wanted to be here either. In many ways, this place was as holy and blessed as any church. Maybe even more so.

I keep saying that I’m not feeling the Christmas spirit this year due to my medical worries, but this is where you’ll find the real meaning of the holiday.

Not in a mall or some rowdy saloon filled with drunken twits wearing Santa hats—but here, among people who are broke, ailing, and frightened.

It turned out my surgeon had worked an emergency shift the night before and wasn’t around.

I spoke briefly with his replacement, who, being the second stringer, didn’t know much about my case. I went home, feeling somewhat annoyed that I had waited for a guy who wasn’t even in the building.

I didn’t realize until much later that I had received a fabulous gift by spending time in that waiting room.

The city is still reeling from the senseless murder of two police officers. A tornado ripped through Mississippi on Tuesday killing four people.

Tragedy doesn’t look at the calendar before it strikes and it never takes a day off, so I feel truly blessed to have spent the day with my dear auntie and sister.

The real magic of Christmas is being grateful no matter how bad things are, being able to open your heart to others, and always remembering that those people are really our people.

And to all a good night…

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nurse Jennifer

The Lord, before whom I have walked faithfully, will send his angel with you and make your journey a success.”-- Genesis 24:40

What is it about this woman that makes me cry every time every time I speak with her?

Nurse Jennifer called me again this week. She’s the nurse from my insurance company who has been checking up on me ever since I got out of the hospital last month.

She made the first call the day after I had been discharged from Lutheran Medical Center.

I was in such a fragile emotional state at the time that I started blubbering uncontrollably as she gave me all this great advice about making my apartment safe should I decide to have surgery.

Later I thought Jennifer was calling solely as a company employee, making sure that I wasn’t needlessly racking up medical bills.

However, I have since come to believe that this lovely woman has genuine goodness in her heart that has nothing to do with profit or loss.

Each of our chats starts off the same way. Jennifer recites some legal boilerplate spiel about the call possibly being recorded for instructional purposes and how the company values my privacy.

But then the tone of Jennifer’s voice immediately shifts from robotic to empathetic and she’s ready to hear my story and offer me advice and comfort.

I decided to call her the other week when I returned to work after getting a colonoscopy. It seemed that nothing whatsoever was working for me. I felt trapped, angry, and isolated, and I needed to talk to someone immediately—or sooner.

I could’ve reached out to a number of people but something made me call this total stranger who is just a voice on the telephone. But it’s a very special voice to me. So I dialed her number and promptly freaked out all over the phone.

Voice of Reason

“I want to quit my job!” I wailed. “I can’t take it anymore!”

Jennifer listened to me while I ranted and whined and then gently advised that this was probably not a good time to make such weighty decisions since I was so agitated and confused.

“I’ve been there,” she said with incredible sincerity. “I know what it’s like.”

Hearing her talk so gently and so sensibly helped calm me down. We agreed that if things really got so bad at work that if I couldn’t take it, then, yes, I should probably think about bailing.

I voice my concerns about losing health benefits and she reminded me that I could always sign up for COBRA if I had to. That’s not an attractive choice, by any means, but it is an option, and one that I had been unable to see thanks to my nutzy view of the world.

She promised to call me in a week and, yes, I got all teary-eyed. Lord, I’m such a mutant…

Jennifer was as good as her word and she called me a few days ago. I was feeling much better by then, both emotionally and physically, and I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do.

I told her I was getting second and third opinions on my condition and she said that was a good idea. And then we agreed that it was time to close the file on my case.

My company is switching to a new insurance carrier on the first of the year, much to my regret, so it is unlikely that Jennifer and I will speak again. I thanked her profusely for all her help and wished her and her family the best for the holidays.

“If you need to call me,” she said before she rang off, “please feel free.”

“I will,” I said, my voice cracking, “take care.”

And once again I started to cry.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Right this Very Minute

I may not be feeling the holiday spirit at the moment, but I still managed to see my two favorite Christmas trees in the last two days.

The trees at Rockefeller Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are the two big ones for me and I thought I wouldn’t see either one this year due to my ongoing medical misery.

My viewing of the Rockefeller Center tree was a fluke, as I just happened to be riding the express bus down Fifth Avenue on Friday night when I looked to the right and there it was, climbing straight up into the sky.

Traffic was moving so slowly that I got a pretty decent view of the tree and of Fifth Avenue, which was ablaze with lights and decorations.

The air was so cold and the sidewalks were so clogged with humanity, that I was very glad to be sitting inside a warm bus.

The only reason I was this far uptown on Friday was because I was seeing a specialist for a second opinion about my internal plumbing problems, which have cracked my personal Kris Kringle into a million pieces.

The surgeon and I discussed my options, which come down to either going in for an operation or doing nothing at all and hoping I don’t have another colon flip like the one that sent me to the hospital last month.

Obviously the thought of skipping surgery entirely appeals to me no end, as I would very much like to keep my innards inside where they belong. But there’s the risk that my colon could misbehave again at some inopportune time—like in the middle of vacation, for example.

The doctor asked to see the CDs of my latest CAT scans, which means I have to go back to the hospital and buy a set—the perfect Christmas gift!

On Saturday my sister, auntie, and I went to see the Met’s beautiful Christmas tree, which is not only lovely, but also located indoors, so we were spared the discomfort of freezing our tails off.

This is my favorite Christmas tree in town. It is decorated with the fabulous angels and surrounded by a beautiful an 18th Century Neapolitan Nativity scene, and, since the tree is located in a controlled environment, the Met conducts a number of tree lightings throughout the holiday season.

Oh, Christmas Tree...

I’ve seen this little ceremony more times that I could possibly count, but I still love it. Everyone crowds around the try while the lights dim and the room falls silent, or at least we hope it does.

Then a small beam appears of the manager, while “Silent Night” begins to play. The tree gradually becomes brighter until it is fully lit. It doesn’t last more than five minutes, but the experience stays with you for a long time.

After that it was dinner at a Belgian restaurant and a crawling cab ride down Third Avenue to my aunt’s apartment in Murray Hill. I found that I was getting crabbier with each passing moment.

I was tired and feeling sharp pains in my hip, which could mean that back trouble is cranking up again.

I try to remind myself that now, when I’m feeling so low, is the perfect time to rein in the anger and be grateful.

It's easy to be serene when everything is going your way, but the real test comes when you can shine even though you're neck deep in all manner of grief.

I'm sorry to say that I haven't been shining much lately.

I had hoped to get the surgery done before Christmas and start the New Year off with a clean slate, but that’s not going to happen. I won’t rush into an operation and it’ll be better to have the holiday madness behind us before submitting to the scalpel.

It’s so strange, but the season is rolling right off me. I’m not doing any “bah, humbugs” or screaming at orphans. I just don’t feel like I’m a part of the holidays this year. It’s like I’m still enclosed in that bus, looking out the window while everybody else is making merry.

I haven’t sent out one Christmas card, even at this late date, and the only “shopping” I did consisted of pressing a few buttons this afternoon and shipping a gift out west.

We could all use a little Christmas right this very minute, but you have to make that happen on your own.

The real miracle is overcoming our doubts and fears and living as happily as possible. That kind of awareness doesn’t come down the chimney; it comes out of your heart.

Now all I have to do is believe.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Big Breath In

I heard a voice coming from somewhere behind me as the fog around my brain started to fade.

“This guy’s got a long colon.”

I suppose I should’ve thanked him, whoever he was, but I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming or not.

I could feel all sorts of weird activity in and around my caboose, so I was either being probed by aliens or getting a colonoscopy.

As things become clearer, I realized I was in Lutheran Medical Center and not having a much-too-close encounter. And the speaker over my shoulder was my gastroenterologist.

This has been a week for doctors. In addition to seeing my internal medicine man, I also had to go to a pulmonologist for a breathing test to make sure I could handle being sedated for the colonoscopy.

For the breathing test I had to wrap my mouth around a large tube—wow, this story is getting pretty twisted, ain’t it?—while a very nice young woman gave me commands like “big breath in!” and “breathe out quickly!”

Once I passed that little ordeal I began the prep for the colonoscopy. People say that this is the worst part of the whole (hole?) experience and gosh, they are so flipping right.

You have to consume gallons of a vile liquid that is essentially Montezuma’s Revenge in a bottle and your diet for an entire day is restricted to water, chicken broth, Gatorade, and, oh, God help me, gelatin.

Say Cheese

It amazes me that I've eaten more of this crap in the last three weeks than I have in the last 40 years.

As awful as a colonoscopy is, my biggest fear is being sedated. I’m terrified that I will close my eyes and just not wake up. I know I hit the Xanax pretty hard when I fly, but at least I’m in control of that situation. In the hospital I feel like an aging schnauzer being put down.

Luckily I survived and I was soon in the recovery room sipping apple juice. My doctor told me that my colon is somewhat tangled, which probably explains the ongoing agony in my southern hemisphere.

The hospital gave me a full write-up of the test and, bizarrely, actual photographs of the doctor’s keester parade. Gee, thanks, folk, I can’t wait to post these babies on Facebook. Can I get an 8 x 10 and a wallet-sized photo of my alimentary adventure?

My sister, God love her, picked me up after the procedure and we went to lunch, where I ate real food for the first time in 24 hours.

When I got home, I flushed the leftover gelatin down the toilet and said a prayer for any fish that might ingest that jiggling atrocity.

From here I have to consult with the surgeon and set a date for my operation. I have officially run out of sick days so any time off will cost me money.

I guess I should have saved some of my vacation days, but I took two great trips this year and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

I must say all this medical activity is wearing me down. I’m getting work-up over the slightest things and my aunt encouraged me to be open about my feelings.

“You’re tired, upset, and nervous,” she told me. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that.”

No, there isn’t. And doing so might make life just a little bit easier. I’m trying to learn from this experience and to be my best when I’m at my worst. It’s been a real challenge, which means it’s worth pursuing.

So I declare from the bottom of my twisted colon that I’m scared, angry, and confused. But I’m also grateful and determined to find something good out of this situation. I'll do it, or, so help me, I’ll eat my weight in gelatin.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sky of Blue

The two fighters squared off in the cage as one of them unloaded a huge right hand toward his opponent’s chin.

I tensed up, anticipating a brutal knockout. This was going to be a haymaker and—shame on me--I was actually looking forward to it.

And then suddenly I was watching CNN.

What the hell--?

I was flying back from L.A. on JetBlue, where I was shoehorned into a window seat at the southernmost section of the plane, and the guy next to me had inadvertently changed the channel on my TV—and ruined the fight clip--when he moved his elbow.

“Uh, sorry,” he mumbled.

Yeah, pal, me, too. I was tempted to throw a flying armbar on this stiff, but it really wasn’t his fault. We were stuck in a flying sardine can where you couldn’t help but invade someone’s space.

The flight out from New York was no bargain either. Once again I was crammed into the window seat--fear of heights, people, hello?--where a young woman sitting next to me had put her head on the food tray upon takeoff and promptly slipped into a coma.

I’m hardly one to complain about airborne stupors, given my blatant Xanax binges, but I was tempted to check this lady for a pulse. A short time later, when I was realized I was trapped in my seat, I was tempted to poke her with a cattle prod.

I’m willing to overlook the cramped seats and two-mile hikes down the length of the airplane because I like JetBlue and enjoyed the fact that they didn’t hit me with a bogus 20-buck baggage fee.

But that’s all changing. JetBlue recently announced that it’s introducing a three-tier pricing system, sticking the third class passengers with that baggage fee, cramming more seats into their planes, and, unbelievably, reducing leg space. I hope they don’t try to reduce my legs.

You’re Cleared for Rip-Off

Supposedly the new seats will be lighter and thinner than the current model, but I don’t care. It still means more bodies in the air and I’m wondering if they’ll be nailing seats to the ceiling next.

JetBlue’s president said the plan "delivers improved, sustainable profitability for our investors, the best travel experience for our customers and ensures a strong, healthy company for our crew members."

Just focus on the first few words here, that bit about “sustainable profitability for our investors.” That’s all you need to know.

Now Southwest Airlines is the only major U.S. carrier still offering two free checked bags on domestic routes.

I remember when none of the airlines charged for baggage. They also served full free meals—not the cheese and crackers routine—and gave away the earplugs instead of charging for them.

The flights I took already had the class system set-up, starting with Mint, followed by Even More, and then my section, which I like to call Even Less.

I know money talks, but it seems now like it’s stopped talking and started shouting—“hooray for me and screw you!” The one percent rules and if you don’t have the money keep walking until you reach the end of the plane.

God knows I’d go straight for Mint if I had a mint. But I wonder if our increasingly divided society will drive some people to cut corners, take chances, or flat out steal to get ahead.

As a reporter, I get regular press releases from the FBI’s New York office and hardly a week goes by that the feds don’t announce they’ve nailed some loser for embezzlement, stock fraud or some other flimflam involving tons of money.

It’s turning into an ugly world and it’s important to keep that harsh attitude from infecting your spirit. Remember to be compassionate, loving, and kind.

And watch where you put your goddamn elbows.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Between Rounds

“How are you?” the young woman at the supermarket asked me this afternoon.

I’ve heard that line several times this week—I’ve said it myself--but it sounds a little strange in light of my recent trip to the ER.

I was tempted to say, “well, I just got out of the hospital and I’ll probably be going back, and I’m dreading it. My left arm still hurts from having an IV needle stuck in it for three days and I feel tired, old, and cranky. How’s by you?”

But the cashier isn’t getting paid nearly enough to listen to my grief, so I just smiled and said, “I’m fine.”

I feel like I’ve been away for a long time. But unlike vacation, I don’t feel refreshed or relaxed; I feel drained.

I looked at the pictures I posted on Facebook of my L.A. trip and I can't help but think that it wasn’t so long ago that I was happy and healthy, no idea that one of my organs was about to go haywire on me.

I'm so emotionally fragile that I actually got teary-eyed when a nurse from my insurance company called this week to see how I was doing.

"The insurance company doesn't care about you," my auntie rightly pointed out. "They just want to make sure you don't cost them any more money."

I hate missing my gym workouts, even though I know that I obsess over the gym too much and that there are more important things to life than working up a sweat and lifting weights. But I like the routine.

Food is a big topic now that the holidays are upon us, but I’ve lost interest in eating much else beyond soup, yogurt, and bread.

When I got out of the hospital I swore I’d stuff myself like Henry the Eighth, but now my appetite seems to be hibernating--along with my social life.

"In the criminal justice system..."

I’m scheduled to see my surgeon tomorrow where we’re going to talk about the next steps. I was supposed to get a colonoscopy, but the gastro-internist wanted to wait until my guts settled down before going to work. My oxygen numbers were also a little too low for his liking, so he wants a pulmonary specialist to determine if my lungs can handle the anesthetic.

I know there are people out there who have it much worse. Richard, my former roommate at Lutheran Medical Center, is a prime example. Richard, a large West Indian man, was being treated for diabetes, which had resulted in massive swelling in his right arm.

No one came to visit Richard during my entire stay at the hospital, even though he mentioned that he had both siblings and children. I don't want to imagine what that's like, given the way my family, particularly my sister, was there for me. And the friends and family who couldn't make it were wishing me well on the phone and online.

Richard had a pronounced accent and several missing teeth so we didn’t communicate particularly well, but that was partially my fault because I was so upset at my own situation that I didn’t feel like talking.

I had elected instead to feel sorry for myself and binge watch “Law & Order” episodes to a point now that I feel like donning an overcoat and grilling murder suspects with Jerry Orbach.

However, even though I felt rotten, I could sense Richard was enjoying the program too. He wasn’t fortunate enough to have someone like my sister to pay for his TV service, so I cranked my set around so he could watch along with me. Perhaps there’s hope for me yet.

When I was discharged from the hospital, my sister came to pick me up and noticed that Richard had no telephone service. She gave him cash and even left a message for Richard’s sister in New Jersey. I was more concerned about getting the hell out of there, but the discharge process takes forever.

As we left the hospital, Richard was being loaded onto a gurney for some kind of procedure. We wished him well and Richard raised his bloated arm.

“I love you,” he said.

I thought I was hearing things, but my sister confirmed it for me. This stranger, with all his problems, said he loved us.

Thank you, Richard. I hope someone is taking care of you now so you'll be able to say "I'm fine" and mean it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Nothing by Mouth

I forgot how much I hate Jell-O.

I’m back home now after a three-day stint at the hospital, where gelatin was the one of the few things I could eat—when I could eat at all.

This particular hell ride began on Thursday morning when I started feeling stomach pains. I assumed I had eaten something that disagreed with me and that whatever it was would soon pass.

I was incredibly wrong. The pain worsened over the course of the day, even though I was wolfing down Pepto-Bismol tablets by the handful.

I kept telling myself that I was okay, but my doubts grew as the agony increased. I got into bed at 11pm, but the pain was so terrible that I knew I had to do something.

Finally, I got up, dressed, and called for a car to take me down to the ER at Lutheran Medical Center.

But I was still telling myself that the doctors would give me something for my guts and send me home in a few hours. I had even planned on going to work the next day.

Clearly fortune-telling is not my strong suit.

I entered the surreal netherworld of the ER, where time has no meaning, and ushered into a small room where the doctors began performing tests.

“Is your belly always distended like this?” one physician asked when she rolled up my shirt.

“No,” I said, noting that I could barely button my pants.

As I lay there waiting for tests results, I could see a cop bringing in a handcuffed young man who looked physically fine and mentally twisted. He was taken to a booth in a distant corner where he soon began screaming “Nurse!” repeatedly at the top of his lungs.

Your Room is Ready

“Will somebody please tase this fuck?” I groaned.

No such luck. The loser, apparently angered by the number of immigrant ER staffers, began insulting them.

“You’re not American!” he roared. “You’re not American! I’m an American!”

And I’m thinking of leaving the country, thanks to you, you worthless freak.

Two young doctors came into my room and told me that, according to a CAT scan, a portion of my colon had come lose and was now blocking up my innards.

“It’s pretty serious,” one of them said.

Serious, yes; pretty? No way in hell.

The nurse set about finding me a room and, at about 6 AM on Friday morning, I finally decided to contact my aunt and sister and tell them what the hell was going on.

And I here I have to say that my two favorite ladies were absolute angels during this trying time. My sister was at the hospital every day for hours at a time, visiting with me and conferring with various hospital officials. I am such a lucky little bastard to have her in my life.

I thought about the times I had come to Lutheran Medical as a visitor during my mother’s many illnesses. And I believe the last time I was here was in 2007, when my father died.

Now I was the patient. I was the one in pajamas walking the hallways and tugging the IV stand around like a silent dance partner.

The doctors didn’t want me to eat or drink anything, so I sat in my bed with a tube down my throat sucking the gunk out of my stomach. The sign over my head—“Nothing By Mouth”—made it clear that I should not be fed.

The tube was removed on Sunday and I was allowed to finally start consuming broth, fruit juice, and yes, gelatin. I didn’t like this stuff when I was a kid, but it was a regular feast after days of starvation.

The food started making things happen in my lower regions, if you know what I mean, and I dutifully reported this activity to the nurses.

“I have all these dreams of being a famous writer,” I told my sister during one of our hallway hikes, “and now my biggest accomplishment is taking a poop.”

The head surgeon initially thought that I could go home without surgery, something that brought boundless joy to the hearts of my family and myself.

However, he later conferred with other doctors at the hospital and decided that I will have to submit to a less invasive form of surgery within the next three weeks.

I’m not happy about this, but I can’t risk suffering another attack. If this condition had flared up just a few days earlier, my fabulous California vacation would have been a disaster. For that I am very thankful.

So soon I’ll be back at the hospital, back to no food, and, ultimately, back to Jell-O. But if I can put an end to this suffering, I’ll gladly walk those halls one more time.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Worthy Endeavor

The little girl sitting behind me on the plane Tuesday night said it best as we landed at JFK.

“I want to go back to California right now!” she declared.

“Me, too,” I muttered.

Not that I’m complaining. Well, yes, of course, I am. I had no desire whatsoever to see my vacation end since I had an absolutely fabulous time visiting my Uncle Joe and his wife, Sara.

I soared to new heights on this trip, as I tracked the migration of monarch butterflies in and around Monterey, hiked around the space shuttle Endeavor, met up with some of my West Coast cousins, and, craziest of all, took part in a “Pitch Slam,” where aspiring screenwriters like yours truly sit down with producers for a five-minute rundown on what they have to offer.

I was only in LA for one night before we hit the road and headed north in search of the migrating monarchs. These amazing creatures cover thousands of miles as they make their way to their winter home.

It’s just about impossible to photograph the monarchs without special equipment and the sharpest image I got was of an injured butterfly, which is kind of a cheat I suppose, but it’s still a nice shot.

Getting a decent shot of the Endeavor proved to be difficult as well. I took some photos at the shuttle’s location in the California Science Center, but you really need to see it for yourself.

It was amazing to look up at this spacecraft and think of what it’s been through, how many miles it’s traveled. You just can’t capture that with an I-phone.

In the Slammer

And then it was time to put pleasure on hold and take care of business at the Pitch Slam. I often go through guilt trips when I go on vacation, scolding myself to stay at home and write or make a short film like I’ve been threatening to do for too many goddamn years. So I felt good taking out the time to do something for my career.

As one of the hosts explained, the slam is like speed dating for writers. I have never done anything like this before in my life and for that alone I consider the event to be a first class success.

I was very nervous at the outset of this thing—like I am at speed dating nights. And just like speed dating and other singles affairs, I was tempted to run out the door before the show even got started.

But I held firm, going from one studio rep to another. I was very nervous at first, speaking too quickly and stumbling over my words. There were close to 30 reps in the room and I wanted to bail after talking with the first three.

However, as my confidence grew, so did my desire to speak with more people, so by the end of the day, I had run through all the tables like Minnesota Fats on a billiards blast.

I was initially wary of the other writers in the room, but then I realized that we were really allies, not adversaries. Everybody in that room wanted to see their dreams come true. I met some really nice people, including an 85-year-old man on a walker. It was a real slamming day.

I saw this little ditty about advice from a butterfly. Among other things, it suggests that you let your true colors show, take yourself lightly, take time to smell the flowers, and look for the sweetness of life.

I think I accomplished those goals.

When I went to get my luggage at JFK, some guy actually hit me up for change, proving beyond a doubt that I was back in New York. I was going to tell him to get lost, but I decided to slip him a buck. Even though vacation was over, life still tasted pretty sweet to me.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Your Own Adventures

“Hey!” my neighbor’s young son shouted as I raced by his house this morning.

I turned and saw that he was pointing at his chest, proudly displaying his Spiderman costume, which came complete with rippling muscles.

“Spiderman!” he declared, making sure I had gotten the point.

“You look great!” I shouted. “Happy Halloween!”

I ran down to the corner just in time to see the back end of the 8:20 bus to Manhattan driving down Shore Road.

This was actually the second bus I missed this morning, as I had raced down to the same corner a few minutes earlier in a losing effort to catch the 8:15 bus.

I had thought catching the 8:20 would be a breeze, but then I realized I had left my lunch back on the kitchen table and I scurried back to my apartment to get it.

Missing two buses in one morning is some kind of an achievement, I supposed, but if I had gotten the earlier one, I would’ve gone to work without my lunch—turkey sausages, green peppers and kasha—and more importantly, I wouldn't have had that delightful encounter with the miniature superhero.

I did manage to finally catch the 8:25 bus and get to work on time.

I hope I make better connections tomorrow, when I am scheduled to take off for Los Angeles for a 10-day visit with my aunt and uncle. The fact that I’m flying on All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation, makes me a little queasier than usual.

This is something of an impromptu trip, as I had some leftover vacation days. I toyed with the idea of doing a “stay-cation” so I could take care of several long overdue chores around the house and with my career.

But then I recalled that I’ve done stay-cations before, starting off with all these tremendous plans only to see my to-do list turn into a to-didn’t list in record time.

In addition, I had Chinese food for dinner tonight and one of my fortunes said “it’s up to you to create your own adventures today!”

You can’t argue with that.

I’m just about all packed; I’ve got the car service coming to pick me up tomorrow morning. I stopped by Trinity Church on Wednesday to attend mass, receive Communion, and get another one of Father Mark’s fabulous pre-trip blessings.

This wonderful man put his hand on my hairless head and asked God to protect me and to bring me back to Trinity safely. I walked out of that church with tears in my eyes.

Right now I can hear the older kids on the block raising all kinds of merry hell. I don’t like to dress up, but I do enjoy Halloween as a spectator. People can be so incredibly creative and the kids—like my buddy this morning—look adorable.

As usual, I’ll have limited computer access for a while, but I will do my best to check out everybody’s blogs.

Now get out there and create your own adventures.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Uninstall

I got up early Saturday morning to do something for my health, but I wound up getting all kinds of mental.

I clicked onto YouTube to watch a video on qigong, an ancient Chinese practice that aligns the body, breath, and mind through a series of simple, relaxing exercises. I find these routines to be a nice compliment to my lunatic gym workouts.

I was on tight schedule because I had to get to the gym for a cardio kickboxing class, get cleaned up, and meet with my sister for one of our theater outings with our auntie.

So I switched onto one of my favorite qigong videos and…nothing. There was a message about updating something, but I, in my diehard digital ignorance, couldn’t make any sense out of it.

Inching ever closer to the panic button, I Googled what I thought was Adobe’s home page and downloaded a ton of misery. My homepage was promptly hijacked by some outfit that offered to clean the living crap out of my computer—for a price, of course.

I freaked, forgetting all about balance, inner harmony, mindfulness, or anything else that could’ve helped me. When it comes to any computer-related issue my mind has a tendency to roll into a fetal position and shriek, “I don’t know nothin’ about fixing no computers!

I did a qigong routine, but I was distracted and things got worse as I made my breakfast. I was angry about being unable to remove this unwanted program from my computer, annoyed that I had caused problem in the first place, and exceeding pissed that I didn’t have the time to fix it.

Thought, Word, And Deed

What if this thing is some kind of bug that’s going to get all my passwords and go hog wild with my bank account?

What’s worse is that I allowed my mind to go on yet another time travel rampage, dredging up unpleasant incidents from the past so I actually got even angrier than I already was.

I’ve said before that I’m an anger junkie and this latest incident is sad proof of that. Once again I was feeding the dark wolf.

I raced up to the gym, made my class in plenty of time, and zipped back to my house.

I had about 20 minutes before my sister came by so I calmly sat down in front of my computer, Googled up a link on how to uninstall a program, and dispatched the malicious malware in less than a minute. A third-grader could’ve done this.

If I judge myself by Western standards then I’ve failed in my attempt to remain calm under pressure—failed miserably, in fact.

But if I go a little deeper, recalling my mindfulness meditation class, then I accept the fact that there is no failure in this situation, no punishment, no shame. I just get back on my bicycle and continue down the road.

I’ve got nearly 60 years worth of malware in my brain that sorely needs to be uninstalled, but it won’t be anywhere near as easy as cleaning out the computer. It takes a conscious effort to reject old thought patterns and look at problem-solving in a new way.

I find I’m more successful when I take a more casual approach to my troubles. This happened recently in my boxing class, when I allowed stray thoughts to distract me when I should’ve been pounding on the heavy bag.

Instead of getting angry, I just gently asked myself, “what if all you had to do this world right now was hit this bag?”

And it worked. I cleared my mind, took a deep breath, whaled on that heavy bag like it owed me money.

It’s a strange little trick, but it’s beats getting all kinds of mental.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Godzilla vs. Wak Wak

Godzilla may be able to flattened Tokyo with a swish of his tail, but he proved to be no match for a pack of paper dolls.

I came to this conclusion during a recent weekend of excessive TV viewing. I had started my Saturday off by watching The Adventures of Prince Achmed that I had recorded off of Turner Classic Movies.

I knew virtually nothing about Lotte Reiniger’s 1923 silent classic except that it is one of the first full-length animated films.

I had anticipated something as visually stunning as Max Fleischer’s fabulous work, but my hopes were quickly cut to ribbons when I learned that this film “starred” a collection of black cardboard figures, which Reiniger had created with a pair of scissors and brought to life with stop motion photography.

Did I seriously really want to spend my morning watching a 91-year-old feature length shadow play? How could I possibly stay interested in such a crudely made cartoon?

How did I stay interested? Very easily, that’s how. Once Prince Achmed started I was completely caught up in the story.

Reiniger had an incredible eye for detail, so the cardboard figures become real characters. Shadow puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling and this film continues that venerable tradition.

There’s an early scene where Prince Achmed clings desperately to the back of a runaway flying horse that has been presented to him by a malevolent magician.

The horse goes higher and higher as lightning cracks through the sky and snow blows all directions. Perhaps my fear of flying was acting up, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

The story contains elements of One Thousand and One Nights and is packed with witches, wizards, demons, a beautiful princess and a climactic battle between good and evil in the enchanted land of Wak Wak.

From the technology side, the film is incredibly dated and simplistic. But it has a sense of magic and wonder that is sadly lacking in most modern movies.

The Shadow Knows

This point was heavily underscored later that evening, when I returned home after dinner with some friends and decided to use a freebie coupon that Time Warner had sent to me for being such a good customer and upstanding human being.

I was entitled to watch any pay-for-view movie, so I chose with the latest version of Godzilla, which stars Bryan Cranston, one of my favorite actors.

Yeah, I know, but it was Saturday night, I was tired, stuffed, and looking for some enjoyable junk cinema. I’m a huge fan of the original film, 1954’s Gojira and I thought I’d get a kick out of the remake.

I was wrong.

The film starts off well enough, with some suspenseful scenes, but it quickly runs out of the little energy it has. Despite all the special effects and explosions, I could barely watch the thing and I finally fell asleep during the climactic monster mash. And it didn’t bother me in the least.

Perhaps I would’ve been a little more forgiving if I hadn’t seen Prince Achmed that morning, but I couldn’t help marveling at how this $160 million aspiring epic had so thoroughly failed to move me.

Those of you who haven’t seen Godzilla yet should know that neither Cranston nor the King of All Monsters have much screen time.

Instead we watch whole cities being destroyed as two drab-looking Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) prepare to get jiggy and cover the earth with scores of mean little mini-MUTO mothers.

I truly believe that director Gareth Edwards is a skilled filmmaker, and I’ve heard great things about his low-budget 2010 feature, Monsters, but I would like to see him work on something more substantial.

While Prince Achmed is literally a handmade work of art, Godzilla is an act on commerce, a prefab blockbuster designed to hit all the right notes and pulled in monstrous mounds of money.

I see that there are plans for Godzilla 2, which is hardly a surprise as studios search for the next big franchise.

Good luck with that, but I would much rather take another wild flight to the land of Wak Wak.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Busman’s Holiday

When I was a Cub Scout so many years ago, we used to sing this little ditty as we returned home from our daytrips in honor of the bus driver who had made the outing possible.

Three cheers for the bus driver,” we'd all sing, “he’s fat and he’s jolly and built like a trolley…

I supposed that bit about being fat would be considered offensive today, but we said it with love and I don’t think “morbidly obese and jolly” makes for a particularly nice song.

This tune came climbing out of a dark corner of my memory recently when I thought about this fabulous driver who used to work on the X27 line that I take to and from work.

Ride the Express Bus long enough and you start recognizing the various drivers. This particular fellow stands out because he is just so damn nice.

I believe his name is Mike, and if isn’t, well, Mike will just have to do, won’t it? The great thing about Mike is that he makes you feel like you’re entering his home rather than climbing aboard a bus.

“Hello, my friend,” he said to me one night. “Good to see you!”

Can you believe that--a New York City bus driver giving someone that kind of greeting? I was tempted to look out the window to make sure I hadn’t been transported from the concrete canyons of New York to Main Street in Mayberry.

“Thank you,” he said, as I dunked my Metrocard into the slot, like I was doing him a favor by paying my fare.

One of Mike’s regular passengers got on behind me and greeted him with a wisecrack.

“Ugh!” my fellow rider said. “If I knew it was you I would’ve taken another bus!”

Mike just laughed and headed down Broadway. And he was able to maintain this incredibly cheerful attitude as he drove through the manic streets of Manhattan. He rarely uses the horn, I’ve never heard him yell, and he keeps his cool in the middle of rush hour traffic.

God, if only someone could bottle this man’s patience and cheerful disposition. I’d buy a busload of the stuff.

I think of how I lose my temper so quickly at work. My job may not be easy, but it doesn’t begin to compare with what Mike must deal with on a daily basis.

All’s Fare

The way the freaks in this town drive it’s a wonder he doesn’t go from Mike to Mad Max and run people off the road.

A few weeks have gone by and I haven’t seen Mike. I figured he was working a different shift and that I’d run into him sooner or later.

And then one night last week I was talking to a man who rides the X28, which goes out to Bensonhurst. This gentleman told me had gotten on an earlier bus, paid his fare, but then got off when he saw a woman sitting outside a building on Broadway with a baby in her arms.

“I told the driver to wait,” he said. “I was going to give that woman some money. I went over to her and when I turned around the bus was gone.”

“He drove off after you paid your fare?” I asked.

“Yes!”
Okay, now that just plain sucks. This man’s reward for an act of extreme kindness was to get chiseled out of six bucks and a ride home.

He said he'd get on the next X28, tell the driver his story, and ask to ride without paying an additional fare.

I didn’t say anything, but I wasn’t hopeful. You meet some great drivers on these buses, of course, but there are the occasional asshats who switch off their brains and refuse to give you an ounce of help.

And usually you meet these slugs at the worst possible moment--like now.

A few minutes later an X28 pulls in, the kind man gets on board and who do I see behind the wheel but marvelous Mike himself.

I saw the gentleman explaining himself to Mike and, without hesitating in the slightest, Mike waved him to a seat.

Aunt Bee, is dinner ready?

I signaled to Mike and pointed to his new route, demanding in pantomime to know why he had deserted his X27 fans. Mike smiled and shrugged, gave us all a wave and drove off. And my day suddenly got much better.

Role models can come at you at any moment and from any walk of life and Mike has some incredible qualities that I want to emulate. He proves that you can have a heart and still survive in the big city.

So three cheers for the bus driver and thanks for the great ride.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Swiss Cheese Incident

I walked out of my grocery story the other night convinced I was going to make it last all week.

I had just picked up a package of Swiss cheese to satisfy some midnight munchies that had come barging into my appetite a few hours ahead of schedule.

I knew I wanted something to eat as I entered the story and while I couldn’t—or wouldn’t--name it, my subconscious mind steadily steered me through the aisles until I was standing in front of the dairy case.

And then I wanted cheese and nothing else. Seriously, chronically, and borderline homicidally—I wanted freaking cheese.

I told myself a 20-ton whopper of a lie that I would get the Swiss, have a slice or two tonight, and save the rest for my lunch over the next five days.

Oh, bitch, please. The last time I gave into my cheese cravings I tore through a pack of Polly-O mozzarella in under two hours.

Towards the end of that barbaric binge I was asking myself why I even bothered slicing the stuff. I should've just lugged the whole goddamn block over to the idiot box and woofed it down like I intended to do all along.

When was I done, and the mozzarella was finito, I looked at the empty wrapper in amazement, half-convinced that some giant invisible rodent had slipped into my crib and cleaned out my stash. But the only rat I could smell was yours truly.

Polly wanna a cracker? Oh, hell, no! Polly wants more cheese.

Yes, my friends, I’m a cheese-aholic. I always look forward to regular dinners with my aunt and sister because in addition to the lovely company, I know there will be plenty of wine and, oh, yes, cheese.

Swiss Miss

Although I pride myself on my portion control and the absence of sweets in my diet, I am completely helpless when it comes to cheese.

I used to say that I could eat cheese until I exploded, but I suspect even being blown to bits from the inside out wouldn’t slow me down if there was a way I could still eat more cheese.

But why cheese? Why does this one food torture me so? I guess we all have our weaknesses and cheese it mine.
This last time I had convinced myself that I had the problem under control. I could count off the individual slices and thus be aware when I was entering the danger zone.

I sat down in front of the tube and ate a few slices of Swiss. Then I went into the kitchen to get something to drink and figured, oh, what the hell? I’ll have a few more slices.

Things get a little fuzzy after this. All I remember is that at some point I was holding the empty package in my hand and wondering what the hell I had just done to myself.

This was supposed to last all week, remember?

God, with all that Swiss cheese inside me, it’s a wonder I didn’t climb the Brooklyn Bridge in lederhosen and yodel across the East River.

Okay, the time has come to admit that I have a problem and I have to take the appropriate steps. Clearly I can’t have this stuff in the house. I’ll just have cheese at parties and dinners and leave it at that.

That’s the only way to handle this addiction. The cheese may stand alone, but as long as I’m around, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Guarding the House

Whenever we went on vacation, we always took our dogs with us.

Kennels were absolutely out of the question as we considered our pets to be members of the family.

You don't put your loved ones in a cage just because you feel like getting out of town for a few weeks.

There were a few occasions, though, when we were staying at my aunt’s farmhouse in the Berkshires when we had to leave our dog, Casey, at the house.

Usually we’d be going to the movies or dinner and it wouldn’t be right make him sit in the car for two or more hours. And just before we left my father would explain the situation to Casey.

“Casey,” he’d say, “you have to stay home and guard the house. Guard the house.”

My dad usually said it twice to drive the point home, but honestly he didn’t have to tell Casey even once. Dogs are natural born guardians, ready to lay down their lives for their loved ones without a moment’s hesitation.

I thought about the dogs in our family recently when my sister and I made one of our nighttime rides by our childhood home on Senator Street.

We sold the house three years ago, but we still like to drive by every so often to see what’s become of the place where our parents raised us.

Dog Days

The new owners have made some modest changes to the exterior, but the house always seemed eerily uninhabited whenever we go by, dark and lifeless, and sharply contrasting with the other homes on the block.

There were times when we wondered if the owners were going to try and flip the place just to make some fast cash—which, of course, they have every right to do. They own the property and they can do just about anything they want with the place. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

However, things were different on this last ride. As my sister slowed down, we could see a car in the driveway and there were lights in the upstairs apartment.

But, most importantly, we saw the silhouette of a dog’s head in one of the second floor windows. He—or she—sat motionless, looking out on the street below.

It probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it meant a lot to us. I felt like the house was finally becoming a home.

A dog is a sign that there’s a family living there, that there’s stability. The new residents are putting down roots.

I thought about our parents and all our old neighbors who used to live on that block, almost all of whom are gone now, and the new families moving in to what used to be our space.

It’s a bittersweet feeling, but I’m glad there are people living there.

We had a number of dogs in our family: Casey, Schnapps, and before my time-Kerry and Daphne—all loyal and loving, all devoted guardians.

I don’t know anything about the new people and I’m in no hurry to find out, just as long as they’re happy and they put the house to good use.

And to that dog we saw in the window, I want to say keep up the good work. Keep guarding the house.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Big Upset


On March 31, 1980, WBA Heavyweight Champion John Tate was on his way to winning his first title defense when his opponent, Mike “Hercules” Weaver, landed a massive left hook to Tate’s head and sent the young fighter crashing face forward to the canvas.

It was a stunning upset, something that just wasn’t supposed to happen. Weaver was considered a journeyman, even though he had given Larry Holmes a rough time in a losing bid to win the WBC belt.
(Illustration by Brolga)

I was watching the fight at home with my father on that March night and my dad let out this roar when Tate tumbled limply to the mat.

Whoa!” my dad shouted.

We watched as Tate’s handlers rushed into the ring, turned the fallen fighter over and tried to revive him. He looked like a corpse. They gave him oxygen and when Tate finally did stand up, the sportscaster said four men were needed to help him out of the ring.

“Shocking…” my father said.

But things were about to get a lot more shocking in our house.

My mother, Gloria, who had been sick all that week, walked out of the bathroom, weakly called out to my father, “Jim,” and then fainted.

I must’ve been close to her because I remember grabbing her to keep her from falling to the floor. Her eyes were closed, she wasn’t moving, and in that moment I thought my mother had actually died.

“Come back!” I shouted at her. “Come back!”

My father came alongside of me, grabbed my mom and gently eased her to the floor.

“Shut that off!” he yelled, nodding to the TV.

I ran over to the TV, where Tate was still stretched out on the mat, and clicked it off. My dad was talking to my mother, gently shaking her, and trying to get her to speak.

And then there was a terrible moment, when she wasn’t responding, and my father pleaded with her to stay with us.

Glo!” he said desperately.

It was just one syllable, but I’ll never forget the terror in my father’s voice as he held my mother in his arms.

Say A Prayer

I’d never seen my father like this before. He had fought in World War II; he had seen men killed on the battlefield. He wasn’t afraid of anything.

But I saw that he was a husband, terrified that he was about to lose his wife of 30 years. We have a tendency to think that our parents’ lives began when we were born, but, of course, they’ve got a whole history together that we know nothing about.

My father's plea seemed to work because my mother opened her eyes then and he leaned over and kissed her.

I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and started screaming at the operator as she kept asking all these goddamn questions.

Will you just send the ambulance?”

“Calm down!”

Yes, that’s just what I needed to hear with my mother on the kitchen floor softly saying “God help me,” the same words my grandmother had said years before on the night she died.

The ambulance showed up and I rode down to Lutheran Medical Center with my mother, while my dad followed us in his car. I talked to my mother on the way the hospital.

“Pray to St. Martin,” I said, invoking my grandmother’s favorite saint.

And then I leaned on her and sobbed uncontrollably. I heard the ambulance attendant sigh as I wept. This was the first time in my life that I had ever realized my parents could die.

I sat in the waiting room while the attendants took my mother into the ER. The fights were showing on the hospital’s TV and I saw that Sugar Ray Leonard had knocked out Dave “Boy” Green with a devastating left hook of his own.

Leonard later called it "the hardest single punch I ever threw.”

There was a replay of Green hitting the deck and I suddenly wasn’t a boxing fan anymore. Now I was sickened by the thought of people bashing each other in the head while a crowd roared its approval.

Even Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, took his lumps that night. While he was walking to the post-fight press conference, someone punched him in the face and knocked him down.

Meanwhile I was begging God to spare my mother’s life. My hair had just started thinning back then and while I had been very upset about it, I told God to take every single hair on my head if it meant keeping my mother alive.

I had done a lot of talking about moving to California and escaping Brooklyn, which wasn’t the cool place to be in those days, and I told the Almighty that I’d stay right here for the rest of my life if that’s what He wanted. Just please help my mother.

I’d cry, recover slightly, and then start crying all over again. My sister came down to the hospital with her boyfriend and gasped “oh, no!” when she saw the look on my face, convinced my mother had died.

We waited and waited until one of the doctors said my mother was out of danger and we could go home. She stayed in the hospital for about week before she was able to come home.

It turned out that my father had a religious experience as well on that night, as he started going to mass after my mother’s recovery.

John Tate was never the same after the Weaver fight. He became a cocaine addict, served time in prison, and was seen panhandling on the streets of Knoxville, TN.

On April 9, 1998, Tate suffered a stroke while driving his pick-up truck, crashed into a utility pole, and died from his injuries.

Years later we’d have a lot of close calls with my mother, racing to one hospital or another as her health deteriorated, and she finally left this world on July 16, 2002.

But at least on that night our prayers were answered.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Red Light, Green Light

As the recipient of many a rejection letter, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing when I’m about to get the heave-ho.

The language is always polite and supportive, but the message is still the same: scram.

And yet I always read every word on the outside chance that the latest letter may be the one that says “Yes” after all those “Nos.”

I try to stay positive, I really do, but when I saw an email from Project Greenlight in my inbox the other day, I got that old familiar feeling.

Project Greenlight is a TV show produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, among others, that gives first-time filmmakers a chance to direct a feature film.

The deadline to submit entries came up in August, on the very night before I was going to fly out to Colorado. I was sorely tempted to flag it: I had too much to do, my entry wasn’t top notch, I'm too old, and, the old standby—I didn’t have a chance in hell of winning.

Excuses? I’ve got a million of ‘em.

But this time I decided to rewrite that script. I’m always letting things slip by, saying I’ll get it to later, but never admitting to myself that “later” has this sneaky way of turning into “never.”

I had a video I had shot in my director’s class at the School of Visual Arts class two summers ago. (Jesus, already?)

It was crudely edited, with some rough spots that made my wince, but the idea of not submitting anything made me wince even more. Screw it. The dialog was good, if I say so myself, and the two actors in the scene gave off a lot of energy.

A few clicks later I was officially in the running and ready to enjoy my vacation.

I had pretty much forgotten about the submission until I got that email. Perhaps I was a finalist in the competition, the first step in the march towards wealth and fame. I moved my cursor over the message, paused a second, and then clicked.

Bourne Loser

On behalf of the Project Greenlight team,” the email began, “we would like to thank you for submitting your film to our director's contest.”

Okay, so far, so good…

Unfortunately…

Here it comes…

“--your submission did not make it to the Top 200,” the message continued. “With thousands of videos submitted for consideration, the competition was fierce.”

I wasn’t feeling particularly fierce at that moment. I mean, hell, I couldn’t even crack the Top 200?

Please know that your film was carefully considered by the Greenlight community, where each video was viewed and judged.”

I’ll take your word for it. Now I'm going to carefully consider if I want to jump off the Chrysler Building.

Do not be discouraged by this decision,” the email concluded. “Project Greenlight was created for you, so please continue to support the community so we can hold more contests like this one.

Discouraged, me? It's just one more addition to add to the growing ranks of rejection.

And at least I made the effort to enter the competition, instead of coming up with an excuse.

As I soon as read the last line my phone rang. I thought it was Matt Damon calling up to apologize for the mistake and to assure me that the limo was on its way to take me to the studio.

But this guy didn’t sound at all like Good Will Hunting.

You’ve just won a fabulous cruise to Bermuda,” a creepily jovial robovoice informed me.

What's this--a consolation prize? Your dreams of becoming a famous filmmaker have been dashed to itty bits and pieces, but here’s this lovely parting gift.

Please press one...”

I hung up the phone. Please don’t be discouraged, but I’m not interested in your bogus cruise.

Unless Matt Damon’s going…

Thursday, September 11, 2014

'A Turn of the Page'

I looked at the clock as I left my gym this morning and watched that red second hand sweep around the dial.

It was 8:36 AM, September 11, 2014. In 10 minutes there would be a moment of silence to mark the time when the first hijacked plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center 13 years ago at 8:46.

I thought of the second hand running around the clock, relentless, unstoppable. I’d give anything to back it all up, return to that beautiful sunny morning in 2001 and undo this nightmare.

But time only goes one way.

There’s a song by the Moody Blues called “Isn’t Life Strange” that’s been playing in my head for last day or so, even though I haven’t heard it in years.

It’s a solemn tune that seemed to fit today’s mood.

Isn’t life strange,” it goes, “a turn of the page. A book without light, unless with love we write. To throw it away, to lose just a day, the quicksand of time, you know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry…”

I walked down Church Street and stood outside the Brooks Brothers store at Liberty Plaza, the same place I was standing on 9/11, watching the North Tower burn.

And I was standing there when the second plane hit the South Tower, sending sheets of flame out across the street. I remember the screams, I remember running, running as fast as I could, and feeling like I was going nowhere.

That was a long, horrible day. It was my dad’s 80th birthday and we were supposed to take him out to dinner. But instead I was hiding out in a nursing home on Water Street while debris from the fallen towers blanketed lower Manhattan.
And then I walked over the Manhattan Bridge with thousands of other refugees as fighter jets screamed over our heads.

This morning I looked up at the Freedom Tower and said a prayer for all those who had died and thanked God I had survived.

The area wasn’t as crowded as it has been in previous years, which I think is partially due to the fact that the ceremony was held at the memorial site and only the victims’ families were permitted entry. And, of course, a lot of time has gone by.

“This will be the last one,” a man on the corner said to me. “After this there won’t be any more memorials.”

Unless With Love We Write…

I don’t know where he got this information, but he seemed desperate to talk and not interested in listening so I just nodded until it was time to go to work.

I was standing in the lobby of my building waiting for the elevator when a man approached a woman and began speaking to her.

“Have you been out front?” he asked. “It’s unbelievable.”

Of course I had to investigate. So I walked out to Broadway where four people were holding up signs and singing some kind of hymn. Then I read the signs one woman was carrying.

Thank God 4 9/11,” one side read. Another bore an image of the late Joan Rivers and read “Joan in Hell.”

The woman wore a t-shirt reading Godhatesfags.com, so apparently these were psychotics from the Westboro Baptist Church, here in my city, spewing their hatred a block away from the spot where nearly 3,000 innocent people had died.

There were several cops around to protect these good Christians. A group of construction workers across the street jeered and made obscene gestures at them, but the zealots kept on singing.

It was unnerving to watch these cultists, who were so convinced they doing God’s work. The 9/11 atrocities were committed by religious fanatics and, make no mistake, these people today are cut from the same twisted cloth.

Later I found myself wishing I had confronted them, spat in their faces and risked being arrested. But I’m sure that’s just what they’d want—more hate.

I took time this afternoon to write my annual email to Eva, a woman I had met at the nursing home on 9/11. We walked over the bridge together and I directed her to the Long Island Railroad Station at Atlantic Avenue so she could get home.

“You’re still my 9/11 hero,” she said in her response.

A lot has happened in my life since 9/11. Both my parents have died and we sold our family home.

But the world hasn’t changed all that much. Innocent people are still being murdered around the world, we have a new terror threat in the form of ISIS, and the disaster in Iraq shows no signs of letting up.

Isn’t life strange? So many pages have turned since 9/11, vanishing into the quicksand of time, but I don’t think we’ve learned anything and I don’t think we ever will.

And when I think about that, you know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry…

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sabrina, Isabel and Jack

I’m sending Isabel and Jack back to Colorado, but I’m going to let Sabrina stay around a little while longer.

Isabel and Jack are brother and sister—I believe-and I first laid eyes on them last month at a used book store-coffee bar in Fort Collins, Co. when I was visiting my brother and his family.

We had gone to this place one morning, and while I have far too many paperbacks in my house already, I couldn’t help but wander over to the used books section in the back of the store.

I’m just going to look, I lied to myself. I’m not going to buy anything.

And I was doing pretty well until I walked by the 50-cent shelf and spotted The Hook by Donald E. Westlake. I didn’t know this particular title, but I’ve been a Westlake fan for a long time.

I thumbed through the book, trying to decide if I should buy it or not when a wallet-sized photo fell out from in between the pages.

It was a picture of a little girl holding even smaller boy. On the back it said “Isabel 3½” and “Jack 9 months.”

That settled it; I had to buy this book. I slipped the photo back into the book and brought it to the cashier, hoping she wouldn’t find it when she rang up the sale.

I have this obsession with finding photographs and other items, but I worried about bad karma, as I was taking a picture that didn’t belong to me. Finding the photo after the sale is one thing, but this felt shady…underhanded.

Struggling with his character…

I tried to rationalize my actions, deciding that the book’s original owner probably didn’t miss this photo, and it belonged to me now since I was buying the book. The human mind is capable of all sorts of moral gymnastics when the need arises.

I wanted to know more about these children. I wanted a piece of these lives, I wanted to learn their stories, but I realize now that I don’t have anything but a picture of somebody else’s family.

I have to make things right.

I crossed paths with Sabrina a few days later during a stop at a coffee place in Durango. When we sat down at our table I saw that someone had left behind a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
I’ve enjoyed Abbey’s novels A Fool’s Progress and The Monkey Wrench Gang, but I’ve never read his non-fiction.

I was debating if I should bring home another book when I opened it up and read this immaculately written note on the acknowledgements page.

“28.07.2014 Durango, CO

Sometimes I wondered if I could ever make it through this book. Struggling with his character and his style of writing, I was still intrigued enough to finish. He undoubtedly loves the American Southwest and expresses that in a very moving way. Enjoy. Sabrina, Switzerland.”


I really wanted to keep this book now and not just because I like Edward Abbey. Sabrina’s message made the book priceless in my eyes.

This time I did right thing, though, going straight to the owner and asking her how much the book cost.

“Oh, just take it,” she said. “Somebody left it here. You can have it.”

There was no guilt this time, no worries about bad karma. I handled this transaction on the up and up. Sabrina has moved from Switzerland, to Colorado, and is now with me in Brooklyn.

When I’m done I’ll leave her someplace where for another reader to find. I wonder where Sabrina will go to from there.

Tomorrow I’ll be mailing the photo of Isabel and Jack off to the used bookstore in Fort Collins with a note of explanation and a fervent hope that they will be reunited with their family.

They’ve been on a long, strange trip, but they may get home yet.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Air Buds

This could’ve been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, if I had just been a little bit smarter.

During my recent flight out to Denver I made the acquaintance of some very lovely people, but it didn’t last long.

The plane was crammed with bodies as I made my way down the aisle and I’m sure the airline would’ve stuffed people into the overhead compartments if the FAA had given them the thumbs up.

I had the window seat, much to my dismay, since I don’t particularly enjoy being reminded how high up I am.

Aisle seats allow to me to imagine that I’m going to the movies instead of streaking through the sky five miles above the world. Plus I like being closer to the can.

I checked my ticket one more time then looked at the elderly couple sitting in the first two seats.

“I think this is me,” I said.

And then I looked down and saw that the gentleman had no legs—seriously—just two aluminum supports starting at the knees.

“I can sit in the aisle seat so you don’t have to get up,” I said, trying to be helpful.

“That’s all right,” he said, and rose to let me pass.

I sat down next to his wife—I’ll call her Jane--and immediately she started talking to me like we best buddies.

They were from New Zealand, she said, and they were on their way to visit one of their daughters who lives in Vail. They had four daughters and ten grandchildren. She was so open and friendly I felt like I was part of the family.

And this was all before take off.

I’ve been stuck in economy with some first class losers, so I was grateful to be seated next to this sweet lady.

Logistics prevented me from speaking with her husband as much as I would have liked, but I admired his determination to get out in the world despite his physical condition.

My Card

I’ll whine about having to go to Park Slope on the subway and here’s a man perhaps 20 years my senior with no legs traveling across the planet.

Granted, they were visiting their own daughter, but I was still impressed.

Jane and I chatted for a while before the Xanax kicked in and I lapsed into unconsciousness for God only knows how long.

I woke up as we were approaching Denver and found that my little happy pill had worn off, leaving me to face some nasty pockets of turbulence all by myself.

Jane saw me flinching at every single bump and gave me a warm smile.

“You don’t do landings well, do you, Rob?” she said.

No, I don’t. And I don't do takeoffs or any of the crap that goes on in the middle well, either. The only thing I do well on an airplane is get the hell off.

When we landed I told Jane that it was a pleasure meeting her and husband and wished them the best.

But I really didn’t want it to end there. I wanted to know more about these people, what their children and grandchildren were like, and how life was in New Zealand.

However, as has happened too many times in the past, I couldn’t express these feelings.

“If you ever in Brooklyn, look me up,” I said lamely.

What the hell does that mean? How can they possibly look me up if they don’t have my contact information?

All I had to do was hand Jane one of my business cards. That’s why I had the damn things made in the first place—so people could contact me.

But, no, I didn’t do that. I just picked up my bag and walked out of their lives. Maybe I felt that I would like desperate if I asked to stay in touch. People do have their own lives.

Of course New Zealand is a long ride from Brooklyn. And who knows if they would have ever reached out to me even if they did have my email mail address?

But the fact that I didn’t even try eats at me. You can’t leave things up to fate, luck, karma, or coincidence, not in the real world, anyway. Like anything else in this life, if you want something you have to go out and get it.

Years ago my father told me about the importance of holding on to good friends. He said that he had regretted losing track of some really great people, but his words are only coming back to me now.

I’m going to an effort to making—and keeping—new friends. And if I ever pull another bonehead stunt like this again, I’m going to stuff myself in the overhead compartment.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Oh, Dear Me...

The handwriting on the envelope looked awfully familiar—and just plain awful as well.

I came across this mysterious letter while going through my mail on Thursday afternoon.

There was no return address, but I immediately recognized the pathetic penmanship.

Hideously hacked scribble that could drive a boatload of nuns to drink, distraction, and dementia, there’s only one person on God’s green earth who has handwriting this bad.

And that person is…me.

But why the hell would I write a letter to myself? I know my memory is slipping but I didn’t think I had resorted to churning out midnight missives in my sleep. Or had I?

I held the letter in my hand for several seconds trying to figure out what it was all about, studiously ignoring the obvious solution—like opening the goddamn thing.

I thought of my father, who used to pull the same exact stunt. He’d actually hold his own letters up to the light to try and read their contents, even though the envelope was addressed to him.

Hey, if you’re looking for logic here, you’ve opened the wrong sack of mail.

Finally I ripped the envelope apart and started reading a letter I had written to myself on May 18.

And then I it all came back to me like a note tied to a five-pound brick. Emily, the teacher of the mindfulness-based stress reduction class that I had taken at the Interdependence Project earlier this year, had us all write these notes to ourselves during the last session.

One side of the letter discussed what I wanted to remember from the class.

I would like to remember that I have a choice when it comes to dealing with stress and all the pressures that life has to offer,” I wrote three months ago. “I would like to remember that I can stay mindful, be in the present moment, instead of getting lost in anger, sorrow, or frustration. I would like to remember to love myself every single day.

Alpha Mail

The other side of the letter was a direct message to myself.

Dear Me,” it began. “I hope this letter finds you well—very well indeed—weller than you’ve ever been.

Forgive the grievous grammar but I was trying to make a point.

It’s August and the summer is almost over,” I continued. “Are you being kind to yourself? Are you loving yourself? Are you working—really working toward your goals? I hope so. I hope you are happy and present and mindful. I hope you are writing your heart out and moving beyond your pain. I hope you are happy.”

Love,

Rob


The timing of this letter was incredible. I was feeling especially crabby on this day, yes, even more so than usual.

Perhaps I was going through post-vacation psychosis, but I couldn’t rein in my temper and my thoughts were bouncing all around my skull. I wasn't moving beyond my pain; I was moving in with it.

I haven’t been writing my heart out at all, I haven’t been doing enough to reach my goals, and now this letter shows up on my doorstep to remind me of how far I had fallen short in my efforts to become more mindful and productive.

But then I gave it some time. I decided to do some constructive thinking--rather than getting lost in anger, sorrow, or frustration.

The point of writing this letter was not to mock my future self. The Me back in May was only trying to help, to point the current version of yours truly toward the light and away from the darker regions of my mind.

I was reminding myself that I have a choice.

Instead of feeling depressed about hitting the deck, I used this letter to get me back up on my feet.

So, in answer my own question, I am indeed well. And I intend to get weller than ever.