Sunday, June 13, 2021

Oy, Robot

“Magic's just science that we don't understand yet.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

I had a senior moment at the gym the other day.

Of course, every moment at the gym could be considered a senior one for me, given all the wheezing, whining and swearing I do as I try to keep in some kind of shape.

But I’m trying to be more positive, so let’s skip over that particular misery for a moment and focus on an incident that occurred while I was in the locker room.

There were a couple of students from a local high school standing behind me. I wasn’t paying any attention to them until one guy mentioned a certain faculty member.

“Oh, yeah,” his friend replied. “He’s my robotics teacher.”

I froze. Wait a minute. Robotics…as in robots? That’s an actual course of study in high school? That’s impossible.

Robotics is something from Star Trek, or The Terminator, or Flash Gordon or a million other science fiction stories. And if it’s real, then it can only be happening in a super-secret government laboratory eight stories underground.

If it’s being taught at a high school two blocks from my house that would mean…I’m pretty goddamn old.

There was a best-selling book called Future Shock, which was published in 1970 before these kids’ parents were even born.

The author, Alvin Toffler described the sensation as “too much change in a short period of time.” It didn’t make any sense to me back then, but now I think I got it.

Look, I know that I’m a technophobe. I’ve never done a TikTok video, I don’t understand most of the functions of my I-phone and I’m still half-convinced that Google Maps is some low-level form of witchcraft.

I mean, you just type in an address and the computer just cooks up a map? What’s up with that?

My future shock later morphed into a blast from the past during a conversation with my brother.

He reminded me of science fiction movie we had watched when we were kids called Creation of the Humanoids, a 1962 film about a post-nuclear society where humans make up robots to held a dwindling population.

That’s more like it. Movie robots. Not real ones.

Exit, Humanity

I hadn’t thought about this film in decades--geezer alert!--but as soon as my brother mentioned the title a certain phrase jumped into my mind.

“Is that the one with the Order of the Flesh and Blood?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “How did you remember that?”

It seems I have a talent for remembering useless crap. The Order of Flesh and Blood in this movie is a group of angry humans who think robots are getting too big for their switches and refer to them as “clickers.”

The movie has been dubbed a classic by some and was supposedly Andy Warhol’s favorite film.

I don’t see a classic here, but the film does address issues such as rampant technology, prejudice and the definition of humanity.

“Mankind is a state of mind,” one character declares. “Man is no more or less than he thinks himself them to be.”

An observer on YouTube noted that the film was made six years before Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" was published.

That novel provided the source material for the legitimate classic Blade Runner, which addressed some of the same issues as this film.

I watched Creation of the Humanoids this morning on YouTube and I found it to be talky as hell.

I understand the constraints of low budget filmmaking, but when a ranking member of the Order tells a robot “why do you put your gears in reverse and get out of here?” I wanted to go into high gear myself.

And when someone speaks out of turn to a robot, the humanoid responds by saying “my circuits are unoffended.”

I don’t know about your circuits, pal, but mine switched to overload when I heard that clicker’s clunker.

But I think my favorite line occurs when two goons from the Order tell a nosey police officer to hit the bricks.

“Why don’t you beat it while you still have a beat to beat?” one of them says.

I can’t beat a line a like that, but I’d sure as hell like to. Preferrably with a sledge hammer.

Okay, there are lessons to be learned from this experience—beyond the fact that Andy Warhol apparently had questionable taste in movies.

Technology is always changing, which will invariably change the way we live. It started with the invention of the wheel and it shows no signs of letting up.

Advances in technolofy will always come with a price, but giving up and saying “I don’t understand this stuff” is the surest way to get left behind.

And if a group of young guys are talking in the locker room, put your gears in reverse and get the hell out of there.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Rocket Boy

At one point in Raideers of the Lost Ark, the villain, Belloq, holds up his watch to our hero, Indiana Jones.

“Look at this,” he says. “It’s worthless…but I take it and bury it in the sand for a thousand years,it becomes priceless.”

I’ve always thought that was a great line and it came bouncing back to me last week during my most wonderful writing class.

Our fabulous teacher Rosemary always starts things off with a writing prompt to get things flowing.

On this evening she asked us to list articles of clothing we owned before we turned 20 years old.

As usual I stared at the screen and thought, “what the hell is this woman talking about?”

And then, as usual, I started writing and soon came up with a list of items, including an atrocious short-sleeve paisley dress shirt that I owned when I was a teenager.

At the time I actually thought that thing looked cool, but now the very thought of it makes me shudder. Wherever you are, paisley shirt…stay there.

After making our respective lists, we broke off to write for about 45 minutes and I got some great ideas from the prompt, which I'm going to include in my next book.

I also got plenty of encouragement and insightful analysis from Rosemary and my classmates. I love these people!

One of the items on my list was my old Keds sneakers, which was required footwear when I was going up.

And from there I recalled a plastic whistle that had come free when my parents bought me a new pair of sneakers.

‘It's Not the Years, Honey, it's the Mileage!’

The thing was shaped like the Gemini capsule and, at the time, I thought it was the coolest thing in creation.

Bear in mind this was the Sixties, back when the space program dominated the news and Americans idolized astronauts.

Children didn’t go around with computers in their back pockets when I was growing up, so a whistle shaped like a spaceship was a pretty big deal.

The memory of that whistle was so vague, but so real. After class I jumped onto Google to see if I could track the thing down.

I typed in “whistle shaped like Gemini capsule + Keds,” convinced I’d never find any trace of the thing.

I was wrong.

I actually got several hits and when I clicked on the image tab, there it was: the Supersonic Space Whistle.

The whistle blue and white with a K in the middle and what looks like a portion of the lunar service as a background—just as I remembered.

Keds apparently went full blast on the space program back then as I came across a Kolonel Keds Space Club membership card, which featured an image of jetpack-packing astronaut type wearing, of course, a pair of Keds.

I have no memory of the Kolonel or his klub but it looks pretty kool, which was also a cigarette, but let’s not go krazy here.

So, a writing assignment triggered a recollection of a cheap giveaway whistle from the LBJ Administration.

It just amazes me how the mind works; what we recall, and why these things stay in our memory.

I had a nice little voyage through time, but I won’t be bringing back the Supersonic Space Whistle as a souvenir.

But I am starting to think about a short-sleeved paisley shirt…

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Wayne's World

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

That saying dates back to the philosopher Sun-Tzu, who wrote The Art of War, and is probably most closely associated with The Godfather.

It’s undoubtedly a good approach for generals and mafia dons, but I prefer the advice that my my father gave me many years ago.

“Stay in touch with the good people in your life,” he said. “There are so many people I lost contact with and now I regret it.”

It sounds simple enough, but like a lot of things my father told me, it took me a long time to appreciate what he was saying.

My father’s words came back to me recently when I recalled a kid I knew in high school named Wayne.

We were in the same freshman class together and we hung out a few times after school.

He was quiet and a bit shy, and he wanted to be my friend. But the friendship never really went anywhere. And it was my fault.

I didn’t make a serious effort to keep things going. I’m not sure why I was so lax in my attitude.

I guess back then I really didn’t appreciate the value of having good friend.

Making mistakes is part of being young, but now that I’m older with a very short list of close friends, I understand why my father stressed the importance of holding onto the good people.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Wayne so I started searching for him on Google.

Yes, I know I promised I’d stop doing this, but, honestly, it was different from my usual search and self-destroy mission, where I sink into a bog of envy, regret and self-pity.

This time I was looking to reconnect with a good friend whom I allowed to slip away from me.

The Friend Zone

I found a man on Facebook with a similar name who lives in New Jersey.

I looked at his photo but I couldn’t be sure if he was my old classmate or not.

It has been more than 40 years since I last saw him, but he did resemble my friend…a little bit…I think.

There was only way to settle this, of course: contact this man. And for the longest time I promised myself that I’d do exactly that.

And for the longest time I kept putting if off.

What if this was the wrong Wayne? I’d look foolish reaching out to a total stranger.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. If it turned out to be the wrong man, I’d look stupid to a total stranger that I would never speak with again.

But if I was right, I could conceivably rekindle an old friendship.

So, I banged out a message, apologizing for the intrusion into his life and asked him if he was indeed the guy in question.

It took a lot for me to press the send button, but it felt so good once I did. If nothing else I was keeping a promise to myself.

It’s been four weeks since I wrote to Wayne of New Jersey and I have yet to receive a response.

I took another look at his Facebook and I saw that his last entry was in August 2019 when he updated his photo. I guess he’s not much for social media.

There are few other guys with the same name and I’m going to write to them as well. I might even contact my high school alumni association to see if they can help me out.

Of course, even if I do find Wayne, there’s a good chance he won’t remember me; or we’ll have absolutely nothing to say to each other. But I really want a second chance at being his friend.

And I’m going to take my father’s advice and stay in touch with the good people.

I’m going to keep my friends close and my enemies far away.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Another Day of Living

The notice on my phone’s calendar this morning was short and to the point.

Rob Lenihan is 64 years old today.”

I was all set to say “dang, that guy is old,” until I realized that it was me.

Yes, today I officially entered into Beatles territory by turning 64.

It’s a bit hard to believe, but then I’ve been saying that since I turned 20.

My most wonderful sister got things rolling on Saturday by taking me to the Industry City complex in Sunset Park.

This incredible facility dates back to the 1890s, hit the skids in the 1960s, and is now experiencing a revival as a home to all kinds of funky businesses.

My sister treated me to both lunch and dinner and then we headed back to her place for a little TV.

On Sunday, I participated in a Zoom reading with other members of my fabulous writing class. I had rehearsed all week and made sure to read slowly and clearly.

It was a great night.

Today I have decided that the best way to celebrate my birthday is to shut down the Three R’s of Misery: Regret, Resentment, and Revenge.

I spend far too much of my time grieving over what I should have done, or feeling short-changed in some way; or fantasizing about hammering the crap out of people who have done me wrong.

These three unhealthy attitudes have been holding me back for longer than I would like to admit, so I’m trying to be more aware when one of them creeps into my brain.

Since I call them the Three R’s my alarm internal system includes a B-movie pirate impersonation, as in “Arrr, Jim boy, shiver me timbers!”

Three R’s—get it? Yes, it’s ridiculous, but that's the point. That foolish voice helps me abandon a sinking emotional ship.

And, as much as I love the Beatles, I don’t think I’m going to use “When I’m 64” as today’s theme. Instead I’m going for Earth, Wind and Fire’s 1971 classic “I Just Want to Celebrate.”

I was a freshman in high school when this song came out and, to be honest, I didn't think much of it at the time.

I appreciate it a lot more today because I can't be bothered with sorrow and I can't be bothered with hate.

“I just want to celebrate another day of livin’,” the lyrics say, “I just want to celebrate another day of life.”

That works for me, matey.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Final Round

Damn it, I should’ve recorded that voice when I had the chance.

For nearly 20 years, I’ve been taking a boxing class at the New York Sports Club with an incredibly gifted instructor named Abby Saez.

Abby taught a brutal but thoroughly enjoyable session, mixing vast boxing knowledge with punishing drills and withering sarcasm.

The class was tough, but the toughest—and, oddly most enjoyable--part by far was the one-on-one mitt round where you faced off against Abby and tried to survive his non-stop attacks, both physical and verbal.

Whenever he wasn’t pleased—which was pretty much always—Abby would yodel the Spanish version of my name at the top of his voice.

“Roberrrrrto!”

The sound echoed throughout the room and more often than not, some wiseass would pick up the call and piss me off even more.

I always felt like a kid being called home by his mother in front of all his friends. Only this was more painful.

But I always came back for more.

Well, that’s all come to an end now. I learned from one of my buddies in the class that Abby has started his own boxing club in the New Jersey town where he lives.

The NYSC, which, like all gyms had been shutdown for a year due to Covid-19, has yet to resume the boxing classes, so Abby had to move on.

I understand the logic perfectly, but it still sucks. This may sound crazy, but Abby’s class was a major part of my life.

I started with Abby sometime in 2002 at the noon class at the NYSC’s Wall Street facility.

I was working at Goldman Sachs at the time and the financial district—along with the rest of the country—was still reeling from 9/11 attacks.

Standing Eight Count

The class were so popular you have to call the gym two days in advance to reserve a spot, but it was worth it.

When the noontime class interfered with work, I switched—insanely—to the 7AM slot, where I got up before dawn and rode to Manhattan so I could be abused by Abby before going to the office.

I just have so many great memories of that class.

Abby took to calling me “Roberto” early on and then “Robert Venezuala,” which I assumed was the name of some prizefighter.

A quick internet search turned up a fighter with a similar name, but this dude had such an abysmal professional record I was appalled.

“You named me after that tomato can?” I asked him at the next class.

“I didn’t know that was a real guy,” Abby said. “I just made that name up.”

I got to meet some terrific people and we’d occasionally get together outside of the gym for one of Abby’s birthday or holiday bashes.

This was a lot more than just a gym class and it says a lot about Abby’s ability to inspire and teach people.

I hit a major roadblock a few years ago when I fell in the snow and had to get knee surgery. But I got right back to class as soon as my doctor gave me the thumbs up.

Obviously, nothing lasts forever, but the Covid-19 shutdown happened so suddenly, we were all scattered to the four winds without a chance to say a proper farewell.

I sent Abby an email wishing him well and thanking him for all the great times and excellent instruction.

I’m not sure what I’ll do next. I’ve been working out on my own for the last year, but eventually I’d like to back to a class.

My local club finally reopened and they recently hung up a heavy bag, which I brutalize every chance I get.

And when I start to get tired I just think of Abby’s voice calling out to me.

Roberrrrrto!

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Rifleman’s Son

And now they’re all gone.

Johnny Crawford, who played Mark McCain on the classic Western TV show The Rifleman, died a few weeks ago at a personal care home.

He was the program’s last surviving cast member.

Crawdfor, who was 75 years old, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2019.

He later contracted COVID-19 and pneumonia, but recovered, according to his wife, before succumbing to the Alzheimer’s.

Running from 1958-1963, The Rifleman starred Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, a rancher and widower raising his son in the fictitious town of North Folk, in the New Mexico Territory.

This was the first network television series to portray a single parent raising a child.

The program was created by Arnold Laven and developed by Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to direct such films as Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs.

I vaguely remember the show during the end of its original run and in reruns later on when I was in grammar school, but, outside of Chuck Connors’ rapid-fire rifle opening, the program didn’t make much of an impression.

The Rifleman came back into my life last year when I stared watching the reruns on the Me TV cable channel, which has resurrected a slew of old time TV shows.

This time around I was impressed.

First of all, the show featured an incredible list of guest stars including Sammy Davis Jr., Lee Van Cleef, Adam West, Lon Chaney Jr., Warren Oats, James Coburn, Martin Landau and Robert Culp.

John Anderson, a brilliant character, holds the record for the most appearances, turning up in 11 episodes, including a show where he played Lucas McCain's father-in-law.

Mark of McCain

Joseph H. Lewis, who made the film noir classic Gun Crazy, directed 51 episodes of the series.

Lewis had a fabulous visual style that featured powerful closeups and expressive lighting that helped to lift the material he was directing.

His work didn’t overpower the stories; it helped tell the stories.

This was long before film schools, back when you learned filmmaking by making films.

And this style doesn’t require huge budgets or computerized special effects. Just talent.

The heart of the show, of course, was the relationship between Lucas and Mark. Most episodes ended with a lesson about important issues like racism, honesty and fairness.

I am a shameless weeper and I must confess that there are a number of episodes that had me sobbing.

“The Vision”, where a critically ill Mark has a surreal encounter with his late mother’s spirit was a real killer. I also used up a lot of tissues on “The Wyoming Story,” where Lucas has to leave the ranch for a while to do undercover work for the government. The reunion of father and son at the end of the two-part story was beautiful.

The chemistry between the two actors was fabulous.

“I remember the first time I saw him,” Chuck Connors said in an interview. “I was sitting there with the producer and we were interviewing kids to play Mark. We must have interviewed 20 or 30, then Johnny came in and before we even talked to him I said, ‘That's him, that's The Rifleman's son.’"

The actors remained friend after the show ended its run and Crawford gave a eulogy at Connors’ memorial.

After the show ended its run, Johnny Crawford continued acting in TV and movies and in 1992 he led the JCO (Johnny Crawford Orchestra), a vintage dance band.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Johnny Crawford, but after seeing him on TV for so long, I feel like I lost a friend.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Goodnight, Smokey

Every Saturday, as I was leaving my sister’s home after our weekly pandemic sanity session, she would always remind me to say goodnight to Smokey.

Smokey was my sister’s cat and it is with the heaviest of hearts that I report this wonderful soul crossed the Rainbow Bridge last week.

He was 18 years old and he'd been having health issues for a while. It finally got to the point where my sister had to make that decision that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

A handsome fellow, Smokey was a regular fixture at our family’s various get-togethers over the years and I can honestly say that I liked him more than a lot of people in this world.

I got to see a lot more of Smokey after Covid-19 crashed into our lives.

The world was cut down to our immediate neighborhood back in those early days, so my sister and I got into a routine of an outing of some kind each week-preferably outdoors--followed by dinner and a movie.

Smokey was a vital part of those evenings. He would often sit on the couch with us and think nothing of walking over my lap to get where he wanted to go.

During this period, I became Smokey’s official photographer as I took tons of photos and put them up on Facebook and Instagram.

He developed quite a following and I was touched by all the kind comments people posted after he died.

Hold That Posee

Smokey needed to be hydrated and on occasion, I held the IV stand while my sister and her neighbor inserted the needle and held him steady.

As soon as that needle came out, Smokey would take off.

One of my favorite photos is Smokey sitting on the couch in my sister’s living room and giving me the stink eye.

I don’t what I did to rub him the wrong way--—maybe he associated me with those IV treatments—but he looked royally pissed.

Fortunately, he got over whatever was bugging him and we became friends again.

This has been a tough time for pet owners. I resumed my wonderful writing class on Thursday and one of our classmates told us that she had to put her cat down.

We’ve been holding the class on Zoom since the pandemic began and my friend’s cat would invariably jump onto her lap whenever she started to read her work.

And then former President Barack Obama announced that his dog, Bo, had died. He was 12 years old and was suffering from cancer.

President Obama said the family had lost “a true friend and loyal companion.”

The same could be said about Smokey and all the other cats, dogs, and various animals who give us so much love and ask for so little in return. And it seems so cruel that we only have them for such a painfully short time.

My sister and I will continue our Saturday get-togethers, but it's going to be different without our four-legged brother.

Goodnight, Smokey, and thanks for all the good times.