Sunday, June 29, 2014

All Booked Up

I thought everything was fine until I threw my book into the freezer and discovered that I had stepped into a steaming pile of tsundoku.

Perhaps I should explain.

On the way home from the gym yesterday, I passed a table covered with used books that had been set up outside a local secondhand store.

Keep walking, I told myself, you’ve got books at home that you’ll never read.

This is painfully true. There are stacks of used books all over my computer room and boxes of them in my closets.

Hell will freeze over and Satan himself will be handing out ice cream sodas before I ever get to them all, but I can’t seem to part with any of them.

Knowing this, you’d think I would’ve kept going yesterday, but I couldn’t resist. I’m always amazed at the excellent books I find for a fraction of their original price.

I came across my all time favorite novel, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion, at a secondhand store more than 25 years ago, and that book has stayed with me ever since.

Kesey's writing is so powerful it’s like a creative writing course you can hold in your hands—and it only cost me 50 cents. So ever since then I’m constantly on the lookout for another great literary find.

I did a quick review of the books on the table, decided there was nothing there for me, and turned to leave.

And that’s when I saw Strivers Row.

This is the third in a series of connected books by Kevin Baker, the author two fantastic historical novels, Dreamland and Paradise Alley.

Published in 2007, Strivers Row reimagines the early days of Malcolm Little, who would later become Malcolm X. I had heard that this novel did not stack up to the two earlier works, but I wanted to complete the series.

When are you going to read this? My cranky old conscience demanded. You’ve got tons of novels and God only knows how many freaking self-help books to plough through. You can barely get through the Times every day.

Still, I didn’t want to leave the trilogy hanging. The book was only a buck and I promised myself I would leave it in the cafeteria at work for my coworkers to read the second I finished it.

My Back Pages

Now the only problem with second hand items, books included, is that you can have unwanted guests coming home with you in the form of horrible little insects.

I’ve heard that putting a book in the freezer overnight is the best way to exterminate these little bastards, so Strivers Row got the Big Chill treatment the minute I got home.

With that out of the way, I decided to check my emails and saw that I had not yet read Rob Brezny’s Astrology Newsletter, which had come in day three days earlier.

This was unusual, as I always read Brezny’s weekly horoscopes the minute they come over my digital transom.

I won’t and say I believe the stars are controlling my life; I just like to cover all possibilities. And I enjoy Brezny’s positive attitude and fine writing style.

Then I started reading.

The Japanese word ‘tsundoku” describes what happens if you buy a lot of books but never read them, leaving them piled up in a neglected heap,” my horoscope read. “I recommend that you avoid indulging in ‘tsundoku’ any time soon, Gemini.

In fact, my horoscope urged me not to indulge in any kind of tsundoku for the immediate future.

You are in a phase of your cycle when it's crucial to make conscientious use of your tools and riches. To let them go to waste would be to dishonor them, and make it less likely that you will continue to receive their blessings in the future.

Oh, great. I had just unwittingly given the Zodiac the finger.

I’ve got clothes I haven’t looked at in years, a DVR about to bust like a piƱata with unwatched movies, and a Netflix list that has reached critical mass.

I’m tsundoku-ed up to my eyeballs.

But I didn’t intentionally ignore my horoscope. I just kind of neglected it. Is astrological ignorance a legitimate defense?

The issue got even more star-crossed today when my sister stopped by to drop off some birthday gifts from my niece, Victoria, and my sister-in-law, Amy.

Opening up the package I found a little gnome statue, which means my niece has not forgotten her vow to make me pose for a photo in a gnome hat when I visit her in Colorado.

One of the gnome’s legs was broken—thank you, Post Office—but I glued it back into place and now the gnome is as good as gnew.

There was also a felt pen with the head of a lion—hand woven in Nepal, according to the label.
And-Holy Tsundoku--another book!

But this wasn’t just any book. This was a little item called How to be Happy, Dammit! A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness.

Now the crazy thing is that I once owned this very book—for about two hours.

I had won it at a friend’s holiday party about five years ago. But I left it at the friend’s apartment and then we lost contact, so I never got my book, dammit!

So now it’s back in my life. Surely this kind of crazy karma packs enough goodwill to overrule any brand of tsundoku.

Let us hope so. I’m going to move How to Be Happy, Dammit! to the top of my reading list with Strivers Row in the number two slot.

I’m also going to work on giving away my old clothes, slow down my DVR-ing and strive to keep the Netflix list in check.

And when my horoscope comes in, I’ll make sure it’s the first thing I read.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Driver’s Seat

I climbed into the back seat of my ride and got comfortable.

I just had come from an appointment with my nutritionist and I decided to reward myself
by taking car service home instead of waiting for the bus.

It’s more money, sure, but the driver takes you right to your front door and you don’t have to worry about some mutant coughing all over you, hitting you up for change, or trying to save your soul.

Yeah, I thought as snapped on my seat belt, this was a good idea.

And then the music started.

Oh, cut me a break, buddy, will you? The driver was playing some kind of Middle Eastern music that was slicing right through me.

Bay Ridge has seen a large growth in its Arabic population over the years, with some wags sarcastically calling it “Beirut.”

There are mosques in the neighborhood now, women in hijabs are a common sight and it seems like every other store on Fifth Avenue is either a hookah joint or a Middle Eastern coffee shop.

It’s certainly much different from the place where I grew up, but neighborhoods have always changed and they always will.

Still, I was tired and I resented this invasion of my moving personal space.

This is bullshit, I harumphed. I’m paying for this ride, damn it. I shouldn’t have to listen to anything I don’t want to hear.

I thought of the very few times in my life when I had ridden in a limousine. The drivers always asked me what I wanted to hear, not what they felt like playing.

The last time something like this happened was several years ago when my sister and I took our father to see Riverdance at Radio City Music Hall.

All's Fare

On that night the same car service driver took us into Manhattan and back to Brooklyn and during both rides we had to suffer through the ravings of right wing radio psycho Michael Savage.

I’m still regret not telling that schmuck of a driver to turn off the goddamn radio and get back on his meds.

And now I was in the same situation all over again. I wasn’t just annoyed at the driver, I was also angry with myself for not setting this guy straight.

Then I took a deep breath. I recently completely an 8-week mindfulness meditation course at the Interdependence Project in an effort to go through life just a tad less insane.

One of the concepts we discussed in the idea of loving kindness, where you develop compassion for all people and not just the people who look and think like you.

I could feel my shoulders coming down as I took another deep breath. Instead of stewing about this strange music or giving the driver a hard time, I decided to try another approach.

I was going to talk to him.

“What is this music?” I asked.

“It’s the Call to Prayer,” my driver said. “You know, like when the church rings the bells? This is same thing.”

Okay, so we found some common ground here. We talked a little bit more before the driver pulled up in front of my place. I wished him a good night, gave him a couple of bucks for a tip and went up to my apartment feeling pretty good.

I hadn’t backed down, given in or surrendered. I tried to open up a line of communication and in the process I learned a little bit about another culture and a lot more about myself.

I still don’t think drivers should play anything in the car when they’ve got passengers, but I’ll gladly take the Islamic call to pray over Michael Savage any day of the week.

I always talk about how I want to improve my health. Well, I think controlling my temper and trying to find the best in people is an important step.

It takes a lot of energy to keep that chip on my shoulder and I’d much rather put it down.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ask Dad

On the last day of the third grade, my teacher, Sister Joan Bernadette, thought so much of me that she gave me a huge stack of baseball cards.

She had confiscated them from one of my classmates during the
school year and apparently thought I was so well behaved that I deserved a reward.

I really wasn’t well behaved so much as terrified to step out of line.

And I didn’t even like baseball cards, but I enjoyed getting free stuff and I was pleased that my gutlessness had paid off in some small way.

I raced home to show the bounty to my father and somewhere in the conversation I let it slip that the cards had originally belonged to a classmate named Sal who just happened to live down the block from us.

“They’re Sal’s cards?” he asked. “Well, then you have to give them back.”

I was floored. What was my father talking about? Give them back? Oh, hell no. These were my cards now. A nun, one of God’s emissaries on earth, had given me this prize, which was the next best thing to having the clouds open up and getting the cards handed to me straight from the Big Guy Himself.

I wasn’t about to give them up.

But my father insisted and so, on that beautiful June day, we walked down Senator Street to Sal’s house and rang the doorbell.

I vaguely remember holding out the stack of cards and offering them to Sal, a feat of acting that should have gotten me a special Academy Award.

But Sal wouldn’t take the cards; he said they were mine to keep. And I felt good walking back to our house, knowing the baseball cards were now officially mine.

I was grateful to Sal for his noble gesture, but on this Father’s Day, as I look back on that incident, I’m even more grateful to my dad for showing me the importance of doing the right thing.

It's All in the Cards

That probably sounds a bit trite, especially is this vile era, where all manner of scheming scum are elevated to heroic status. However, I’m glad my father showed me the importance of caring about others and earning rewards honestly.

Recalling the good times I had with my dad is no easy task. We butted heads a lot and toward the end of his life we have some very rough exchanges indeed.

My selective memory is ruthlessly efficient in conjuring up the misery, but those same churning brain cells suddenly go on the fritz when I try to recall the golden moments like that day in the third grade. I’m beginning to think that this says a lot more about me than it does about my dad.

Once when I was a just little kid my father returned to the house to get something he had forgotten. On his way back to his car, he stopped to lean down and give me a kiss.

“You see?” he said. “I had to come back because I forgot to kiss you.”

Now my dad was an Irishman and a salesman, so he could toss the malarkey around in his sleep. But that little fib made me like I was the most important person in the world.

And there was the time when I was sitting on my father’s lap as he called his customers on the phone. While he was on hold, he gently rocked me back and forth and sang this old song “Who's your little who-zis?”

“Who’s your little who-zis?” he sang. “Who’s your turtle dove?”

“Me!” I interjected.

And that’s how we did the whole song. For every question, the answer was always “me!”

Those old baseball cards are long gone now and I supposed that if I had held on to them they would be worth a fortune today.

But their value pales when compared with that priceless lesson my father taught me on that beautiful day in June.

Happy Father’s Day.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Feel the Power

The message was right there in front of me, floating above the stream of hot air that blew through my fingers.

Feel the power…

I was walking up 69th Street last week when a total stranger suddenly crowded into my space.

“Hey, how you doin’?” he said.

I was momentarily surprised, but then I looked closer and saw that this guy wasn’t a stranger at all.

He was one of my buddies from the gym. I see him every flipping week.

He’s a big, beefy fellow with a crew cut and thick glasses, someone who most definitely sticks out in a crowd. Yet I had no idea who he was until he was right on top of me.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I said a bit embarrassed. “Sorry I didn’t recognize you.”

“You were lost in thought,” he said, gently dismissing my concern.

We chatted for a few minutes and then I told him to have a nice day.

“You made it better,” he said, and went on his way.

That was a very nice thing to say and I made a note to pass his kindness along.

But I was still upset at being so out touch that I hadn’t recognized this man as he walked down the block in broad daylight.

I was lost, all right, but it wasn’t anything like thought. I was wallowing in a fog of daydreams, confabulation, and just plain fantasy that had taken me far, far away from the real world.

And it’s happened two more times since then, with both encounters occurring at my local supermarket.

The first time I was walking through the dairy section when a guy stepped up to me.

“Hello, sir,” he said.

This man turned out to be a friend of mine whom I haven’t seen in a while, as he had gotten married and recently became a father.

Once again, I had completely blitzed out from the known universe.

Friend or Foe?

The last—and most embarrassing—incident happened a short time later in the same store—what the hell is it about Key Food anyway?—only this time I was in the fruit and vegetables section.

I was making my way toward a pile of apples when a woman inadvertently stepped in from of me. But I felt like playing the victim.

Oh, great, I internally harrumphed, she’s gotta come over here at the same exact time I do.

I did a little two-step around her and began helping myself to the apples.

And that’s when this lady looked right at me.

“Oh, hi!” she said. “We were in the meditation class together.”

I stopped and looked—really looked this time and saw that, yes, we had indeed been in the meditation class together.

That was the eight-week class at the Interdependence Project that was designed to make us more mindful, more present. And I had somehow managed to walk right by this woman without seeing her.

I could make the excuse that I didn’t recognize these people because they were in a different place than I’m normally accustomed to seeing them.

But that’s all it is—an excuse. They had all somehow managed to see me in these unusual surroundings.
Obviously I can’t expect the class to totally rearrange my brain. It was a great experience, I learned a lot about myself, and I met some wonderful people—even though I have trouble recognizing them.

But mindfulness is a lifelong practice.

The author Peter Matthiessen, who died in April, was a Zen priest, and he once said that “if you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well.”

I haven’t reached the five-minute mark yet. I’m not even close, to be honest.

But I’ve had these little breakthrough moments when I can see the Promised Land, when I am standing squarely in the present moment, not wallowing in the past or worrying about the future.

The most dramatic moment occurred in my gym a few weeks back. I was washing my hands while my mind pinballed all around my head, getting angry over one thing and fretting over another. It was complete chaos up there in my skull.

As I felt the blast of hot air hit my hands, I told myself to get mindful on the double. And when I looked down I saw three words written across the drier that summed up the whole mindful experience for me.

Feel the power.

Yes, exactly. Feel the power of being in the moment, of breaking free of all the junk that clogs your mind.

Feel the power of finding yourself after being lost in thought.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Whiz Kid

In the early 1700s, Paulus Vander Ende, a Dutch farmer, built a house in what is now Ridgewood, Queens.

Two centuries later, the Onderdonks, another family of Dutch farmers, bought that house and their descendants lived there for nearly 100 years.

The house on Flushing Avenue then went through several owners, who turned the place into a scrap glass business, a stable, a speakeasy, an office for a greenhouse company and a spare parts factory for the Apollo space program.

The place was later abandoned and nearly destroyed by fire before being restored and opened to the public in 1982.

And, luckily for me, the restoration included a bathroom.

I discovered the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House entirely by accident—or near accident—during a walking tour of Bushwick with my Brooklyn Meet-Up group.

We had gone to see the Bushwick Collective, a fabulous outdoor art show of murals painted on many of the neighborhood’s factory buildings.

Now when I was growing up, Bushwick was a crime-ridden nightmare that was so dangerous it would’ve scared those early Dutch settlers clean out of their wooden shoes. Back then when we used the expression “don’t go there” that’s exactly what we meant: Don’t go there!

Bushwick has since morphed into yet another one of Brooklyn’s turnaround neighborhoods. I was still a little nervous about going, but I wanted to see how things had changed.

It turned out that I had nothing to fear. The trouble came from within, though, when I had to respond to an urgent call of nature.

I never found bathroom humor in the least bit funny and I hate it when people share their personal plumbing issues with me. When it comes to private business, your mouth, like the bathroom door, should be kept shut.

Looking back I think my discomfort with this issue may have been the cause of a rather severe problem that started when I got off the L train to meet my friends and felt an unmistakable tingling below the belt that told me to find a Gents ASAP.

The trouble was Bushwick didn’t seem to have a Barnes & Noble, Starbucks, or New York Sports Club outlet where I could take care of things.

I tried buying an orange juice at a local coffee shop—yeah, more liquids, that’s just what I needed!—as an excuse to hit the head but the management had wisely locked the bathroom door.

And this is where my brain shut down. Instead of asking for the key like a normal human being, I just slinked out the place clutching my bottle of orange juice, which I promptly emptied once outside, thus exacerbating my misery.

Comfort Station

I guess I was uptight about admitting to the need to perform this most basic human function. And now that I had finished the orange juice, I was officially an ex-customer unworthy of bathroom privileges.

So the tour began. And since it was all outdoors I had to enjoy this fantastic artwork while desperately trying to ignore the mounting pressure in my kidneys.

The murals are incredible. I couldn’t believe how drab factory buildings were turned into massive canvases for some extremely talented artists. Some of these images seemed ready to climb right off the buildings and come to life.

And yet as we walked, I had one eye on the artwork and one eye fruitlessly scouting for il bango.

I got so desperate I even thought about finding an alley someplace to do the deed—something I absolutely hate as it takes me back to New York’s ugliest days, when graffiti competed with urine stains for space on public property.

Plus this was a bright, sunny day and I was in a rebounding neighborhood. Dark, abandoned alleys weren’t readily available and I shuddered at the thought of being caught in this most vile act.

Our tour was scheduled to end at a local saloon, but we had a way to go before then and I knew I couldn’t last.

Finally we walked down a street and I spotted a patch of green. Ah—it must be a public park. And where there’s a public park there’s bound to be—oh, Lordy, please—a public bathroom.

Only it wasn’t a park. It was some old house. I was crushed, knowing that I was reaching critical mass.

We realized that we had inadvertently crossed the border over into Queens and while the group headed back to the Brooklyn side, I lagged behind and approached the door of what turned out to be the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House.

I was greeted at the door by a very kind gentleman, who handed me a brochure and started telling me the history of the place.

“I’m sorry,” I gently interrupted. “I don’t want to waste your time. you have a bathroom?”

“Oh, sure,” he said, and opened the door.

I just about ran to the little lavatory where I proceeded to pass enough water to put out the Chicago Fire.

Anyone standing near the door would’ve thought that a water main had broken—or the building had hit an iceberg.
I thanked the man—curator?—profusely when I finally emerged from the bathroom and then ran—literally ran-to catch up with my group. Now that I was 10 gallons lighter I was able to run like a gazelle.

I had been doing the deed for so long I actually lost site of the group, and God knows they had enough time to sail to Paraguay. I had to call our leader on my phone to find out where the hell they had gone.

“There, that’s better,” I said as I rejoined my party.

I think everybody knew what was going on, but no one made an issue out of it. And I was able to fully enjoy myself.

Someday I will return to Ridgewood and I will take a nice, leisurely stroll in and around the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House as a tribute to those intrepid Dutch settlers who paved the way for me and so many others.

And if I have to use the bathroom, well, I know exactly where to go, won’t I?