Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dust Up

I made a real ash of myself last week.

I got caught looking by Ash Wednesday. The day just blew right by me and not only did I forgot to get ashes on my forehead, but I also ate a turkey sandwich for lunch in flagrant violation of the no meat rule.

I can’t believe it. Eight years of Catholic school, a lifelong Christian, observant parents and I still treated one of the most important events of the year like it was just any other hump day.

I had no idea what was going on until the late afternoon when I saw a guy coming out of my gym with the telltale mark on his forehead.

“Hey, brother,” I said, “is today Ash Wednesday?”

He gave me a look that seemed to say, “why, no, schmuck, I like to smear black dust on my forehead just for shits and giggles.”

“Yes,” he said with more than a trace of annoyance.

I still had plenty of time to get my ashes, but by then I had already eaten meat and that took all the value of out going to church for me.

And what makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that I had all kinds of meatless alternatives to choose from in my refrigerator—fish, veggie burgers, and a pile of green peppers.

I tried to shake off my disappointment. Hell, I thought, you’re never going to make the short list for Catholic of the Year even if you dove headfirst into a pile of ashes five stories deep. What’s the big deal?

But this oversight really bothered me. My mother was always so happy when we skipped meat for the day and so I do it to honor her memory as much as I do it to honor God.

Except for this year.

Part of the problem stemmed from being isolated. I was working from home that day after being laid low by a particularly nasty allergy attack, so I didn’t see any other people with their ashes.

…then the Devil Must

And Ash Wednesday came early this year, so I was caught off-guard.

But I don’t want to make excuses. Let’s just say that I plain forgot and leave it at that.

Now I don’t think God is going to strike me down with a lightning bolt for my thoughtless behavior—at least I hope not. And I’m not worried that my old grade school nuns will climb out of their graves and chase me down Broadway jabbing at my keester with their pointers. At least I hope not.

No, but I feel like I missed an important ceremony that marks the beginning of Lent.

The idea of returning to dust may sound like a downer, but it’s really a reminder to live your life, to reject your old, destructive ways, and believe.

And I actually like wearing ashes. I’m so uptight most days, obsessed with keeping my head down and not being noticed.

But on Ash Wednesday, I proudly walk around town with a cross-shaped blotch on my forehead. I’m glad to stick out, happily displaying my beliefs to the rest of the world.

So now I’ll have to wait until next year. If nothing else, I feel like this screw-up has gotten me thinking more about the meaning and importance of Ash Wednesday. In previous years I may have just gone to church without really thinking about what I was doing.

And I’m hoping that both the Good Lord and my mother will forgive me and give me another chance to get this right.

Meanwhile, I’m going to go to my calendar and draw a big red circle around December 25th.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Left-Handed Mitzvah

I did a mitzvah for a Marine last week and I almost missed it.

For those of you who don’t know, a mitzvah is a good deed, and this particular good deed—as minor as it was—also helped me atone for an earlier misstep.

I was pulling my cart through the snow on a recent Sunday morning for my weekly shopping routine. I don’t remember much of what was going on, quite frankly, because my mind was wandering all over the place.

Maybe I had zoned out because shopping is one of my least favorite things to do, or it’s just a habit that I’ve fallen into, but whatever the reason, I was barely in contact with Planet Earth.

The snow had clogged the sidewalk down to a narrow path near the corner of Third Avenue and I was dimly aware of an older woman walking toward me.

My mind was still tossing around one random thought or another as I stepped aside to allow the woman to go by first. As she went by she gave me the loveliest smile.

“Thank you!” she said with such enthusiasm.

That shook the cobwebs off my brain. I was barely aware of her existence and yet here she was thanking me profusely for just moving a few inches to the left. As my dad liked to say, I made a mistake and did the right thing.

And then I saw a man behind her on a scooter—presumably her husband—bringing up the rear.

He was wearing a veteran’s cap and a jacket with a U.S. Marine patch. This man also gave me a smile and said something that I couldn’t quite make out, but it sure sounded friendly.

I was holding my cart with the right hand, so I raised my left and gave him a Benny Hill style salute.

I could only imagine what my father, a World War II veteran, would have said if he had seen that crappy gesture.

Bad saluting was one of his chief complaints whenever he watched a war movie on TV—that and the ridiculous battle scenes where one GI with a .45 takes out the entire Third Reich.

Say ‘Cheese’

But I felt like I had to do something to acknowledge this man’s service to his country and a substandard salute was the best I could do on such short notice.

I’m grateful that some part of my mind was functioning enough that I was able step aside when I did. Sometimes I’m so clueless that I’ll blunder right in front of people and while it may appear rude, I’m really just on autopilot.

And this little encounter took me back to the Memorial Day weekend when I went to Ground Zero last year for the first time since 2001.

It was eerie walking around this spot where the towers once stood. The last time I was this close the buildings were in flames and moments away from collapsing.

Now there are two memorial pools in the towers’ footprints and the names of all the victims are etched on bronze plates around the parapets of each pool. Some of the victims’ loved ones had places white roses in the names.

There were people from the armed forces all the over the complex. As I stood there, just looking around, I saw a young Marine taking a picture of his wife and two young children standing before one of the pools.
I just watched blankly, barely in the moment, and it didn’t occur to me until I was riding the bus home that I should’ve have offered to take a picture of the Marine and his family together—you know, a family photo.

But I was too busy spinning my mental gears to even notice.

This oversight irked the hell out of me for several days. How could I be so obtuse?

Yes, I suppose he could’ve asked me to do the honors, but if I had been paying attention I would have saved him the trouble of approaching a stranger in a strange city.

And I know I would’ve gotten something out of making the offer, too. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but kindness is a gift best given without being asked.

So I’m glad I stepped aside for that veteran and his wife. I’m glad I gave him that salute, as lame as it was. I’m glad I made the mistake and did the right thing.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Kid Gloves

This never would have happened in Hawaii.

I lost a glove this week and I can’t help thinking that if I had gotten that job in Hawaii that I had interviewed for last year I wouldn’t have lost my glove because I wouldn’t have been wearing gloves in the first place.

I also wouldn’t be wearing scarves, parkas, ski caps, boots, long underwear or any of the other several tons of crap and equipment that I have to wrap around myself if I so much as contemplate exiting my crib.

No, if I had gotten that Honolulu gig, I’d be wearing flowered shirts, white shorts, and sandals while cheerfully guzzling exotic tropical drinks and leering drunkenly at comely young tourists.

I’d have a tan to beat the band and I’d be happy, oh so incredibly happy, as opposed to the miserable frozen wretch that I am now.

I’d almost lost one of these gloves a year ago while doing a stay-cation, but I found it at my gym the following day.

I lost it again on Tuesday at my gym, but two kind ladies at the front desk held it for me and I reunited the wayward glove with its mate.

But on Thursday I lost if for real, or as my boxing instructor likes to say, for real for real. Even the gym ladies can’t help me now.

It happened somewhere along my evening commute, either on the walk up Broadway to the bus stop, or on the bus itself. I didn’t realize anything was wrong until I off the X27, reached into my pocket and came away with a handful of nothing.

You feel so stupid at times like this. How could you be so careless? Why weren’t you paying attention? Now all you have was is the useless survivor as a nagging reminder of what a first class dope you are.

I’ve got at least three other pairs of gloves so it’s not like I’ll be staggering out into the Artic Circle with frostbitten stumps where my fingers used to be.

But I’m not one to let myself off the hook easily.

I was having a particularly rough morning at the gym on Thursday as I did a round of mitt work with Abby, my boxing instructor. He always gives us a hard time, but I was really tanking during this round.

It’s Not You…

I couldn’t get out of my own way. Abby was hitting me at will, I was missing easy shots, and I heard one of my buddies say, “relax, Rob, relax!”

But it wasn’t happening. That bum round haunted me for the rest of the class, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop blaming myself for putting on such a lousy performance. At the end of the class I approached Abby to confess my sins.

“I didn’t do so well today,” I said.

“Oh, that was me,” Abby said. “I changed up the routine on you today. Remember, it’s never you guys. It’s always me.”

I was suddenly vindicated. I didn’t have to beat the crap out of myself after all. Hell, that’s Abby’s job. I went to the office and actually had a pretty decent day.

Until I lost my glove.

All right, I thought. That’s that. Put it behind you and get on with your life. You’ve got far more important things to worry about.

And I really believed I had gotten over the lost glove, but that night I went to bed and slipped face first into a full-on fiasco of a dream.

It started with me and my sister going to Manhattan together; or at least we were together until I got on the train and realized that I had neglected to take my sister with me.

I get off at some alternate reality version of Times Square, angry with myself, of course, for leaving my sister behind.

I came upon a crowd of people moving all these boxes and crates around. I took off my parka to help them out, and when the stuff was cleared away, all the people had vanished and I saw my parka had disappeared, too.

I was stunned at my own foolishness. Why the hell did you take your coat off in a crowded area like Times freaking Square? You’re going to freeze to death, you loser.

So once again I had to berate myself—even in my sleep. I woke up so thankful that my parka was still here to keep my butt warm.

I’m going to keep a close eye on the replacement gloves and an even closer eye on the self-condemnation, which only serves to make a bad situation worse.

And I sincerely hope my next dream takes me to Hawaii.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Parks and Sinatra

If I had to name two of the most dissimilar people in the world, I don’t think I could do any better than Mr. Parks, my high school mechanical drawing teacher, and Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.

And yet these two men, who, to my knowledge never came anywhere near each other in the real world, managed to link up in the three-ring freak factory that I like to call my mind.

I know this doesn’t sound at all logical, but it’ll make sense once I explain myself. Or then again, it may not, and in that case I apologize in advance.

Mr. Parks was a compact, bullet-headed man who spoke in this very sharp, exact tone.

Presumably he was a draftsman in his early life and everything about him was precise and direct—no guesswork, no nonsense, just results.

If he thought you were goofing off, Mr. Parks didn’t hesitate to inform you.

“Hey, you, little guy,” he snapped at one of my diminutive classmates one day. “Sit down and start pushing a pencil because it’s going to be a hot summer.”

One time several guys in the class started making all sorts of stupid noises just to rile up Mr. Parks. And they succeeded.

“I look around,” Mr. Parks loudly declared, “and I see morons!”

Say what you want about Mr. Parks, there was nothing wrong with his eyesight.

But he was also very kind to me. I was hopeless at mechanical drawing and in fact I was only going to Brooklyn Tech because that’s what my father wanted and, as it turned out, he was quite wrong. I had no aptitude for this stuff, but there I was, fiddling with a T-square and a triangle, trying to come up with something before class ended.

Mr. Parks appreciated that I was doing my best and he tried to encourage me whenever he saw signs of improvement.

“Lenihan,” he told me one time, “when I look at your work, I am reminded of that cigarette commercial that says ‘you’ve come a long way, baby.’”

The commercial was for Virginia Slims, a woman’s cigarette that tried to link the burgeoning women’s liberation movement with the inhalation of tar and nicotine.

I remember thinking how strange it was to hear Mr. Parks say the word “baby.”

Hitting the High Note

When I graduated in 1975, Mr. Parks gave me some tremendous advice as he signed my yearbook.

“Just remember,” he told me, “you keep on learning until they carry you off.”

That is so true and so important to remember. Learning doesn’t stop with the diploma. That’s where it begins.

And now here’s were Frank Sinatra comes in. (See? I didn't forget.) A few weeks ago I was listening to Jonathan Schwartz on the Sunday Show and he played a recording of an interview that Sinatra did with Arlene Francis in the Seventies.

In the portion I heard, Frank was talking about the time he met the opera superstar Luciano Pavarotti. The two men admired each other’s work and at some point during their meeting, Frank asked Pavarotti for some advice.

Frank had been having some trouble with a diminuendo—where the singer holds on to a note until it fades out.

Sinatra said this is fairly easy to do if the word you’re singing ends in a vowel, but it becomes more difficult if the word ends in a consonant. So what should he do when the consonants show up?
“Oh, that’s-a easy,” Sinatra said, imitating Pavarotti’s accented English, “when you get-a to the last word, you shut-a you mouth!”

I laughed at Sinatra’s impersonation. But I was also a bit surprised that Frank Sinatra, who was at the top of his game at this time, was actually asking for help with his singing.

He was Chairman of the Board—he didn’t need help from anybody.

But obviously he did. And he wasn’t ashamed to admit it and he wasn’t reluctant to ask for it.

That’s how the greats in any profession become great and that’s how they stay great—by asking for help, by striving to improve. Or like Mr. Parks noted, they keep on learning to they’re carried off.

And so somewhere in snow-covered regions of my brain that Sinatra quote linked up with long-buried memories of Mr. Parks.

The connection may not make much sense, but it’s a good reminder to shut-a you mouth and keep on learning and you'll come a long way, baby.