Sunday, May 29, 2016

War of Words

The greatest writers, philosophers, and statesmen of all time have made brilliant comments about the futility of war, but my late father had them all beat.

Many years ago he and I were watching a Memorial Day ceremony on TV when my dad, a World War II veteran, slowly shook his head.

“You know,” he said, “war is such bullshit.”

I think that’s sums it up perfectly.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day when we honor the soldiers who died defending this nation. All around the country people will lay wreaths, blow taps, and wave the flag.

There will be talk of never forgetting those who made the ultimate sacrifice, politicians will crank out the sound bites, and everyone will go to barbecues.

But you just know that sooner or later the chicken hawks, the war profiteers, and their idiotic followers will start screeching about invading some global hell zone, taking us down the road to yet another unwinnable war, and the body bags will start filling up all over again.

Some people will say now isn’t the time to talk about this kind of thing, that Memorial Day is a time to salute fallen soldiers.

Screw those people.

Memorial Day is the perfect time to discus this never-ending lie that we keep telling ourselves. War is about money, period. If you want war to stop, start drafting rich people and you’ll see peace break out with lightning speed.

When I was a kid my mother took my brother and me to Radio City Music Hall to see Gone With the Wind on the big screen.

Swords into Plowshares

My mother was this movie’s biggest fan bar none. She actually started the audience applauding when Clark Gable made his first appearance standing at the bottom of a flight of stairs.

At the time I was quite embarrassed, of course, but now it is one of my dearest memories of my mom.

I haven’t seen the picture in its entirety since then, but a few years back I watched a couple of minutes of a TV broadcast of the movie.
It was the scene following the Battle of Gettysburg where soldiers’ relatives in Atlanta are anxiously waiting for the casualty lists to see if their loved ones are still alive.

As copies of the list are distributed to the crowd, the air starts to fill with the cries and wailing of family members who have lost a son, brother, or husband.

The leader of a military band has apparently lost his own child and though this man is rocked to his core, he turns and orders the musicians to start playing “Dixie.”

Young people are being killed and maimed by the thousands, cities are destroyed, and entire generations are scarred beyond repair.

And how do we respond? We strike up the band. We cover pain with pageantry and nothing ever changes.

As the band plays on the camera tracks in on a young boy who is crying as he plays the flute. It’s a moving, powerful scene that made my mother burst into tears at the very mention of it and it perfectly illustrates my father’s point.

War is such bullshit.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Mission Impossible

Whatever you're meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible."--Doris Lessing.

Wow, does this guy know me or what?

I just read my horoscope as interpreted by Rob Brezsny on this, my 59th birthday, and his words went right to my soul.

He starts off with the above Doris Lessing quote and then tells me to take her advice to heart.

“It's senseless to tell yourself that you will finally get serious as soon as all the circumstances are perfect,” Mr. Brezny writes. “Perfection does not and will never exist. The future is now. You're as ready as you will ever be.”

Do it now? But I’m The Procrastinater, who puts everything off to some distant future time that will never get here. And now I can use my age as yet another excuse not to do anything about…anything.

Or perhaps not. Maybe I can take this celestial suggestion and make some changes. Why the hell not?

My company is very kindly giving employees their birthdays off in honor of the firm’s 100th anniversary so I treated myself to a long overdue doctor’s visit—where I learned I have to lose weight—and then a fabulous massage.

After that I went to the old Lincoln Savings Bank on Fifth Avenue where my mother used to sell life insurance and stood in the spot where my mother’s desk used to be.

I usually walk by this location quickly and surreptitiously bless myself as if I’m committing a crime.

But today I took my time. I stood on this holy patch of ground for several minutes and I thought about the woman who gave birth to me nearly 60 years ago this very day.

I got a few odd looks from the customers, but I didn’t care. I had every right to be here.

It’s been almost 14 years since my mother died and I still miss her so very much. I can’t have her back, but I can honor her memory by being happy and giving The Procrastinater the heave-ho.

The future is now.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Heavy Traffic

The young mother held her baby to the window of their Madison Avenue apartment one recent morning and pointed down at the hopelessly snarled traffic.

It was late by commuter standards, almost 9:30AM, and it seemed like everybody and his brother had decided to cram into this particular thoroughfare.

I was riding—or crawling—through that very same traffic and that mother and child were about the only pleasant sight during a particularly rotten morning ride.

It was such an odd contrast, seeing this tender scene in the midst of all this traffic and commerce.

I didn’t know there were apartments in the building, but then the realtors in this city would stick condos in the clouds if they could pay gravity to look the other way.

I was going into a work a little later than usual and I was paying the price. I knew the traffic would be bad, but I had no idea it would suck this much.

We had just crept by the Syndicate Trading Company building on 37th Street, which has become something of a low level fascination for me.

The company is no longer around, but like a lot buildings in New York, the present shares space with the past.

The only reference I could find to the place was in Nancy Lemann’s novel Malaise, which said the Syndicate Trading Company “traded commodities, then insurance companies, Caribbean utilities, newspapers, venture capital investments, and eventually natural resources.”

The company later moved to Midtown, according to the book, but the building and its distinctive sign is still with us.

Riding on Fumes

It’s a remnant of another era that conjures up images of old time stock tickers and men in top hats who smoke cigars in exclusive clubs.
The city is changing every day, or so it seems, but there are still plenty of old buildings to remind us of New York’s incredible history.

I wonder what the city will look like when the baby in the window grows up.

Will the building that he or she lives in now still be there? Will someone finally pull down the Syndicate Trading Company building and put up some modern atrocity and charge obscene amounts of money for people to live there?

I eventually got to the office, but it was a struggle.

And less than 24 hours I was flying up Madison Avenue in an express bus that was really living up to its name. I had gotten up much earlier this time to take a 7 AM boxing class at one of my gym’s facilities on 49th and Broadway and it was shockingly unlike the previous day’s slog.

The traffic was so light at this early hour and I couldn’t have been traveling through the streets of Manhattan any faster if I had been riding in a fire engine.

This wasn’t my normal gym day and I was tempted to blow it off, but ultimately I decided to rise and shine for my morning abuse.

That turned out to be a great move. The class was great and I ran into not one, but two, really great guys that I knew from other boxing classes and had not seen in ages.

“It’s like old home week,” I declared, just before the torture began.

I’m going to stay in touch with these guys because unlike Manhattan traffic time never slows down.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Christmas in May

She was born on Christmas Day and she believes miracles happen every day of the week.

I met an elderly woman on Saturday morning standing on line at a local supermarket.

She was behind me and I heard her speaking—apparently to herself—as the cashier rang up her order.

“I don’t know how I’m going to get all this home,” she was saying. “I didn’t bring my cart.”

The woman was walking with a cane and clearly needed a hand. I was tired and in a hurry, as I was going to the theater with my sister and auntie that afternoon, but I didn’t want to leave this lady on her own.

I still have fresh memories of a very kind man who helped me during a recent airplane freak-out and my auntie has trouble walking, so the least I could do was help this lady with her bags.

As we walked the half-block down 75th Street to her apartment, she told me that she had moved to the neighborhood five years ago from Eighth Avenue.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people on this block,” she said.

She recently had a hip replacement and told me how happy she was now that her life was relatively pain-free. My aunt is concerned about needing a hip placement so that caught my interest.

“My doctor said, ‘Gloria, you’re doing great,’” she told me.

“Oh, my goodness,” I said, “my mother’s name was Gloria!”

“Tell your mother that I believe in miracles every day,” she said.

My mother has been gone for many years now, but I didn’t want to mention that. Meeting this woman was like a late Mother’s Day gift—to myself.

Eight Million Stories

Gloria told me was born on Christmas Day and later on that day I recalled an episode of the old crime show Naked City entitled “Hold for Gloria Christmas.”

I’m sorry, but that’s just the way my brain works.

The story concerns a drunken poet, portrayed by Burgess Meredith, who is murdered while trying to retrieve a collection of poems that he wants to send to the eponymous Gloria.

The episode aired in 1962 when Gloria and I were both much younger and New York was a much different place.
In addition to Meredith, the show includes appearances by Alan Alda, Herschel Bernardi, Jessica Walter, Richard Castellano, the acting teacher Sanford Meisner, Candace Hilligoss, star of the horror classic Carnival of Souls, and, hanging up in a newsstand, a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, which featured the debut of the Amazing Spiderman.

The comic sold for 12 cents back then, but a near-mint issue recently sold for over a million bucks. Amazing indeed.

The show is a bit dated, I suppose, but that’s such a minor issue considering the great cast and the fabulous location shots of old New York.

At the end of the episode—spoiler alert--we learn that Gloria Christmas doesn’t exist, that she’s a figment of the poet’s imagination.

My Gloria Christmas, on the other hand, is quite real and I’m very glad I met her.

“I call you my guardian angel,” she said, as we reached her door.

“Somebody recently helped me,” I said, “so I’m just passing it along.”

I walked home feeling quite good. I’m no angel but I’ll gladly help out if Spiderman is busy.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Out of the Park

Years ago, whenever one of the New York Mets hit a home run, Ralph Kiner, an announcer on Channel 9, had a little catchphrase he’d like to say.

As the ball sailed over the fence and the ballplayer rounded the bases, Ralph would loudly declare, “it’s gone, forget it, goodbye!”

That line came back to me this week, but it had nothing to do with the national pastime. Except perhaps for the fact that I wanted to hit myself over the head with a baseball bat.

Here’s the play-by-play: I came out of my gym on Saturday morning, bounced down 86th Street to a local card store and stocked up on about 14 bucks worth of cards.

This was the first of several stops I made that morning in my shopping odyssey back to my crib. After the card store I hit the vegetable store, deli and ended up at the dry cleaners just a few blocks from home.

And it all went fine. I dumped my various bundles in the kitchen, had some lunch and went for my post gym nap. It wasn’t until 3 hours later that it occurred to me something was wrong.

I couldn’t remember what I had done with the greeting cards.

Fighting a growing sense of panic, I looked through all the plastic bags I had brought home, checked my gym bag, and a shoulder bag I use to carry my shirts. And I struck out with all three. The cards were not around.

I kept replaying this memory I had of putting the cards in the shoulder bag when I picked up my shirts at the dry cleaners. So where the hell were they?

Double Play

I raged, I wailed, and cursed the fates and myself for being so goddamn careless and inattentive, and for some odd reason that didn’t help any. The cards were still missing.

I was tired and I had absolutely no desire to leave my house. But finally I gave in and started retracing my steps, starting at the dry cleaners and working my way back to the deli and vegetable store. Nobody had seen my cards.
I even called the card store—too far to walk—and they hadn’t seen them.

I had nothing to show for all this effort and time and I felt like I had just taken 14 bucks out of my wallet and thrown it down a sewer.

It’s unnerving because my father was plagued with memory problems toward the end of his life and I’m fearful the same thing could be happening to me. But I also overreacted—big time.

I didn’t bother going out on Saturday night since I was in such a foul mood.

I woke up the next morning exhausted and washed out, but logic slowly started creeping into the equation. It finally occurred to me that there are a lot more serious things going on in the world than a handful of missing cards.

Part of me is convinced those cards are around my apartment someplace, and if they are, that’s just fine. I’ll always be able to use them.

Until that time I’ll just tell myself that they’re gone, forget ‘em, goodbye.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Rocky Road

One night in 1976 I saw a sneak preview of Rocky at a theater on the Upper East Side.

I was a sophomore at Hunter College, which was 10 blocks away, and I’ll never forget how the crowd went berserk when Rocky Balboa knocked down Apollo Creed after being smacked around the ring for most of the first round.

It was one of my favorite movie moments of all time.

Yes, Rocky was a simple underdog story, but it was so well done and the characters were so memorable that the familiar plot didn’t bother me at all.

Forty freaking years later—I keep doing the math hoping I’m wrong--I sat down to watch Creed, which tells the story of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, Adonis Jackson, who gets Rocky, now long retired, to train him.

I was so psyched to see this movie I couldn’t wait to order it from Netflix. It had gotten excellent reviews and there’s nothing I enjoy more than a good boxing movie. Or at least that’s how I used to feel.

But a lot has changed in the last four decades. As I watched this intelligent, likeable young man climb into the ring, all I could think about was the brain damage he was receiving every time he took a punch.

What the hell is wrong with you, I thought, sounding a lot like my mother, you’re going to get killed!

From what I could tell, Adonis is hardly living in poverty, and the idea of following in his father’s footsteps is disturbing given how his father ended up in Rocky IV.

His mother warns him against a career in boxing, telling him that she had to help Adonis’ father up the stairs in his home when he was too battered to do it on his own. But the kid still wants to be a fighter.

Let me just say right here that I think boxers are fantastic athletes and I have tremendous respect for what they do. It takes an incredible amount of courage, dedication and skill to climb into the ring.

The Long Count

However, I can no longer see boxers as heroes; I see them as victims, men and woman who suffer irreparable damage to please a bunch of tough guy wannabes who live vicariously through the athletes' real pain.

I’m older now and I know how fragile the human body really is. Despite how strong or tough you think you are, your brain can’t take constant battering. Look at the growing number of retired football players who have been diagnosed with dementia.

When the fight is over, the crowd will leave the arena, the folks at home will pick up the remote, and the fighter will be left to suffer alone.
I remember watching fights with my dad on TV and invariably one of the commentators would gush on about how tough one of the combatants was for taking so many blows to the head.

“Bullshit!” my father would snap. “Ten years from now he’ll be cutting out paper dolls!”

And yet we continued to watch and I still watch boxing, kick-boxing, and mixed martial arts bouts to this day, even though I know these people are destroying themselves.

Like everyone else watching these bouts, I conveniently ignore that ugly little fact.

On Tuesday I switched on one of the sport channels and started watching a repeat of a fight between John Duddy and Luis Ramon Campas, which took place on September 28, 2008.

The fight was a classic and I hate to say this, but it was like something out of movie. Duddy was the hot young prospect, Campas was the relentless veteran and these two went at it for 12 serious rounds of amazing action.

But, of course, it wasn’t a movie with actors throwing fake punches at each other. These were real people and they are likely to pay a terrible price for their career choice.

At the end of Creed, Adonis Jackson is told that he has a future in the light-heavyweight division.

It’s supposed to be a compliment, but all I could think about were all the other fighters who had received similar praise during their careers who ended up cutting out paper dolls.