Sunday, June 17, 2018

Crossed Wires

Like all kids, I hated going to the doctor.

I feared being poked with needles, dreaded having that tongue depressor thing jammed down my throat, and absolutely hated wasting all that time in the waiting room when I could be outside raising all kinds of hell.

There was one day fine spring day when I had to go the doctor to get a booster shot.

Today of course I know full well the importance of checkups, but back then I felt like I was walking the last mile.

My dad had been doing some home repairs that morning and he sent me around the corner to Windsor Lock, the neighborhood hardware store—back when we had neighborhood hardware stores—to get several items including lightbulbs and two short pieces of wire.

Off I went, relying on nothing but my memory of what my father had told me to complete the order. When I returned a short time later, I handed the bag over to my father—and he promptly went nuts.

He was so happy and so proud of me for getting every single thing he wanted without the benefit of a shopping list.

“You even got the two pieces of wire!” he said in cheerful disbelief.

Well, that’s it, I reasoned, they can’t possibly take me to the doctor now. I’ve done such a good job, made my father so happy. It’s time to go out and play.

But a short time later my dad was getting out the car keys and telling me it was time to go see Dr. Abrahamson.

What the hell? I just pulled off the retail miracle of the century, you can’t possibly drag me to that needle-wielding psychopath now. I earned a pass on pain.

In my childish mind I had decided that the doctor’s visit was punishment, so by doing a good job for my dad, I was automatically off the hook—quid pro no doctor. Clearly, however, I had a lot to learn about logic and how a job well done does not excuse you from taking care of your health.

I used to tell that story a lot and I’d always end up by describing how disappointed and betrayed I felt when parents hauled me off to the doctor.

Roll Up Your Sleeve

But now on Father’s Day I want to change the focus a little on this tale and concentrate on how happy I had made my dad that morning.

This didn’t happen too often, to be honest, or at least not as much as I would’ve liked. We butted heads a lot during his lifetime and I keep thinking I could’ve done more to make things better between us.

My father fought in World War II and I am only now appreciating how much that terrible experience must have affected him.

He was once trapped in a foxhole for days during an artillery attack and wound getting frostbite in both feet so badly that when help finally did arrive, he had to be carried away by a stretcher.

One of his buddies was a guide in Montana, and he, my dad, and two other soldiers had planned to go on a hunting trip together when they got back to the States—only the other guys were all killed in action and my father was the only one who came home.


How can anyone possibly walk away unscathed from something like that?

I get angry when people talk so casually about going to war, the ones who say “we” when they obviously mean somebody else has to do the fighting.

My father didn’t have any bone spurs, he didn’t have any “other priorities” and he sure as fuck didn’t prance around on an aircraft carrier crowing “mission accomplished.” No, he just fought for his country.

It’s a waste of time and energy, but I wonder sometimes what kind of man my father would’ve been if he hadn’t gone to war, if he hadn’t witnessed all the brutality.

He’s been gone with 11 years now, so we’ll never know. I guess the best I can do is recall the happy times.

The pain from the booster shot has long since faded, but I’ll never forget that smile I put on my father’s face when I brought home those two pieces of wire.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Though Your Heart is Aching

When it’s someone close to you, it’s always too soon.

I was in grammar school when I had my first dental appointment with Dr. Ronald Cohen.

I was terrified, convinced that I was going to suffer unspeakable torment as this stranger sadistically yanked all of the teeth out of my head.

When I completed all the various forms, I nervously handed them over to Mabel, Dr. Cohen’s nurse, and briefly thought about running out the door.

This was in early May and when Mable checked my birth date, she gave me a lovely smile.

“You’ve got a birthday coming up,” she said.

I was confused. The torturer’s assistant was being nice to me? Isn’t she supposed to laugh like a lunatic and shove me into the arms of the drill-wielding psycho?

It turns out that I may have overreacted a little bit. Mabel was a wonderful woman and when Dr. Cohen came out to greet me, I found him to be a kind, gentle man who only wanted to keep me healthy.

And he would be my family’s dentist for nearly 50 years.

Mabel died several years ago and then last week my sister told me that we lost Dr. Cohen, too. I turned 61 last month so obviously Dr. Cohen was not a young man, but he always seemed fit and healthy and he certainly wore his age well.

His widow told my sister that Dr. Cohen, who suffered from diabetes, was working up until the day before he died.

I was close to tears when I heard the news and I still can’t believe he’s gone. This is the end of an era as yet another person leaves our lives. I know that I’m at the stage of life where I’m constantly saying goodbye to family and friends, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

You Must Keep on Trying

I went through high school, college, and adulthood and for nearly every one of those years I made my annual visit to Dr. Cohen.

He was more than just a rinse-and-spit guy. He was committed to educating his patients about the importance of oral hygiene. Often during examinations, he would hand me a mirror and take me on a guided tour of my own chompers.

“He acts like they’re his teeth,” I once jokingly complained, “and you’re just borrowing them.”

He was constantly looking to improve himself, staying up to date on the latest developments and doing research in his spare time.

As I moved into adulthood, Dr. Cohen and I would talk about things beyond brushing after every meal. He once told me about how his grandfather back in Russia had been forced to join the army.

“They just grabbed him off the street and threw him into a car,” Dr. Cohen said. “His family had no idea what happened to him for six months.”

And yet despite that abrupt introduction to army life, the elder Cohen went on to be an exemplary soldier and actually considered making the military his career, but since he was Jewish he knew he would never become an officer, so he mustered out.

After I graduated from college, I considered going to Japan to teach English. When I mentioned this to Dr. Cohen about this, he told me about how he had climbed Mt. Fuji during a leave from his military service in Korea.

I didn’t get the job, but Dr. Cohen had seen to it that all my dental work had been taken care of just in case I had to leave the country.

I know we all have to leave this life eventually, but I guess I thought that Dr. Cohen would always be there for us. And while I’ll have to find a new dentist now, I can’t imagine anybody else putting me at my ease the way Dr. Cohen did.

I’m looking back at that terrified grade schooler I once was, and I have to say that in all those years Dr. Cohen never caused me any pain.

Until now.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Shore Leave

I’ve always believed that the Seventies was a bad time for music, but a great period for movies.

Now, to be honest, I do enjoy a handful of disco era hits, but I think even the most stalwart Studio 54 devotee would have to look back at that decade’s soundtrack and ask, “wow, what the hell were we thinking?”

And don’t even get me started on the clothes.

However, it’s important to note that while the clubs were busy thumping humanity into a stupor, Hollywood was igniting movie screens with such classics as Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chinatown, and Serpico, to name a few.

I recently caught up with Cinderella Liberty, another film from that era, and while I wouldn’t necessarily call it great, it’s certainly damn good.

I saw this film with my parents in the old Fortway theater when I was a sophomore in high school. I hadn’t seen it or even thought about it since, but then Turner Classic Movies ran it a few months ago and it was sitting patiently in my DVR until I finally decided to give it a look last week. And I’m so glad I did.

Released in 1973 and starring James Caan and Marsha Mason, Cinderella Liberty tells the story of John Baggs, a lonely sailor, who falls for Maggie, a prostitute he meets in a bar, and becomes a father figure to Doug, Maggie’s mixed-race son.

Baggs is bureaucratically marooned in Seattle after the navy loses his records. Bear in mind, this was over 40 years ago, before computer files, so when I say “records” I mean real world paperwork stuffed into a manila folder.

Today it’s hard to believe now that we once functioned without computers, but, somehow, we did. Back then we thought we were living in the most modern of modern times, but looking back at that period now, it looks like we hammering our information on to stone tablets.

Anyway, without the records, Baggs is virtually nonexistent in the navy’s eyes, and he spends more time with Maggie and Doug. The supporting cast includes Eli Wallach, Dabney Coleman, Bruno Kirby, Allan Arbus, and Sally Kirland.

Hey, Sailor

The movie was directed by Mark Rydell and based on a novel by Darryl Poniscan, the author of, among other things, The Last Detail, which was another fine Seventies film about sailors that starred Jack Nicholson.

I liked this film because it took its time to tell a story about believable characters. There are no monsters, wookies, or superheroes and there are no explosions, slow motion machine gun battles, or ridiculous fight scenes.

It’s just the story of some very ordinary people who are down on their luck and trying to make a life for themselves. I seriously doubt that anyone would make this film today as it lacks all of the aforementioned blockbuster ingredients and offers no possibility of a movie franchise.

Now there are few lines of dialog I could’ve done without. Statements like “Why is it everybody else gets chicken and I always get the feathers?” and “Love is shit with sugar on it” could have been easily deleted from the script without any fear of being missed.

And the theme song is hands down horrible, a faux bluesy jingle called "You're So Nice to Be Around" that was sung by that musical oddity Paul Williams.


No offense to Mr. Williams or his fans, but the guy never did anything for me, and while this tune somehow earned an Oscar nomination—it must’ve been a lean year for music—the song is really nice to get away from.

The tune might have been bearable if it had been performed by an actual African-America blues singer instead of a painfully Caucasian counterfeit trying to sound black.

But the song and the subpar dialog pass quickly and you’re left with one fine film.

On May 25, 1977—the day after my birthday— Star Wars was released to theaters and arguably kicked off the whole science-fiction blockbuster chain reaction that we’re still living with (suffering through?) today.

Like disco hits, I enjoy the occasional fantasy film, but a steady diet of these things is kind of like listening to nothing by dance music. There's not enough sugar in the world to make the shit tasty.

When it comes to feeding my brain, I’d much rather feast on chicken than scarf down a plateful of feathers.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Dog Run

“So,” my niece, Victoria asked me Friday night, “how does it feel to hit the Big Seven-O?”

The question nailed me right between the eyes—just like everything else Victoria says it to me.

She was calling from Colorado to wish me a happy birthday, but being Victoria, of course, she had to wrap it around a brick and hurl it straight at my fragile ego.

“No,” I shouted into the phone. “I’m 61—I’ve got a few years to go!”

Victoria has this gift for getting on my nerves. She’s been doing it for years and I sometimes wonder if she was genetically hot-wired in some secret government laboratory just to bust my prunes.

Even she noted that our relationship has always had this backhanded quality to it.

“It’s the same way with torturers and their victims,” I replied.

But seriously, people, no birthday would be complete without a harassing phone call from Victoria.

In addition to this familial abuse, my most wonderful sister took me to dinner and then to a production of Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night in downtown Brooklyn.

And on Memorial Day I’ll be having dinner with my sister and auntie, so except for the shockingly high age number, this year’s birthday is shaping up very nicely.

I put an extra effort into keeping out the negativity out of my head for 24 hours, a tough, but worthy goal. I even refrained from posting hostile political messages on Facebook, which is nearly impossible for me.

My Ears Hear a Symphony

As part of my recovery from my nasty fall in December, I take a 40-block walk around the neighborhood most mornings to build up my battered knees.

I always see dog owners letting their pets roam around a field in Shore Road Park, but on Thursday I spotted this one four-legged fellow that I can’t get out my mind.

He was a black and white mutt and as he charged by me I saw he had a chew toy in his mouth. Periodically he would drop it, run away, and then turn to get down low and stalk the thing as if it were his prey—which it kind of was.

I got a kick out of watching this guy making things happen. He wasn’t waiting for his owner to throw the toy for him. He was taking care of everything himself. I think there’s a lesson in there for me.

As I watched this happy fellow bouncing around, I thought of a song by Bob Dylan—with whom I share a birthday—called “If Dogs Run Free.”

Up until last week it was my least favorite track from the 1970 New Morning album, an LP I loved so much when I was a teenager that I played it every single day for months.

I always skipped over that particular tune, though, because I didn’t enjoy the scat, jazzy beat poetry thing that Dylan was going for in this song.

It actually made Rolling Stone’s top ten worst Bob Dylan songs list, but that pooch in the park last week brought it all together for me.

"If dogs run free," the song asks, "then why not we, across the swooping plain?"

Dylan goes on to tell us to “just do your thing, you'll be king” and that true love “can cure the soul, it can make it whole.”

Words to ponder as I march toward the Big Seven-O.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Laurel and Yanny Go to Texas

There’s a scene in the 1919 French film J’accuse! where soldiers who have been killed in battle rise from the dead and begin marching on the living.

I’m not sure why I’m thinking about that film now.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we had yet another school shooting in America, this time in Texas, with the tragically familiar TV footage of parents, teachers, and children sobbing and hugging each other while SWAT teams storm the building.

Maybe it was something to do with a sobering Washington Post story that said more people have been killed in schools this year than have died serving in the military. Or at least it should be sobering to anyone who isn’t dry-humping a firearm.

Or maybe it has something to do with an interview of one of these weeping children in Texas, who when asked the idiotic question “was there a part of you that was like ‘this isn’t real, this would not happen in my school?’” bluntly replied, “No, there wasn’t.”

“It’s been happening everywhere,” she said. “I always kind of felt like it would happen here eventually, too.”

Naturally she and fellow students were promptly accused of being “crisis actors” by the Trump loving media because, hey, that’s what real patriots do, right?

This time the victims included a Pakistani exchange student who was scheduled to go home next month. Her heartbroken father told the Associated Press that he thought she would be safe in America, though God knows why anyone would think that after all these massacres.

Fire Fight

I think it was Tuesday morning when I was out for my morning walk and I thought, honest to God, “we haven’t had a mass-shooting in a while, have we?” And, lo and behold…

I feel like we’ve crossed a line with this latest shooting, that we’ve come to accept these man-made nightmares the way we tolerate heat waves, air quality alerts, and snowstorms.

It’s just something that happens.

I’m feeling a kind of battle fatigue as I see the latest photos of the smiling victims, listen to their grieving loved ones, and hear about the dreams that will never come true.

But then why worry about mass shootings when we have much more important matters to deal with like the great Yanny vs Laurel debate?


And there was the royal wedding, which is being billed as a fairy tale romance, though the real fairy tale is this pathetic belief that politicians actually give shit about our children, or that they’ll do anything to change the gun laws.

I’ve taken some hope from the students from Parkland, Florida, who rallied after their classmates were senselessly slaughter to challenge gutless politicians and gun-loving lunatics.

And a number of companies have severed ties with the NRA and investors are dumping gun manufacturer stocks. But I still feel the gun crowd is winning.

So, by all means, watch the royal wedding, argue over the dress, and debate if the cat is walking up or walking down the stairs. Maybe the only way things will change is if the shooting victims rise from their graves and march on Washington.

And here’s a newsflash for you: the voice isn’t saying Yanny or Laurel.

It’s saying “you’re fucked.”


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Please Be Seated

I came flying through the doors of P.S. 170 at the end of the day and ran straight toward my mother.

I had just created an incredible rendering of an apple tree in my kindergarten class and I couldn’t wait to show it to her.

I had drawn plenty of pictures, of course, but this time I had really outdone myself.

However, things didn’t go according to plan. As I was handing my work of art to my mother, an evil gust of wind blew the drawing out of my hands and right under a parked car.

Naturally I started crying and I’ll never forget how my mother bent down and tried to retrieve my drawing from underneath that damn car

We never did get that drawing back, but my mother was grateful beyond measure notwithstanding and did everything she could to console me.

I thought about that incident this morning, on Mother’s Day, and naturally I started crying all over again. She’s been gone nearly 16 years now, but that image of her desperately trying to find my drawing cut right through me.

I’ve been going some tough times recently, many of which are self-inflicted, and with them has come this crippling guilt as I tell myself what a lousy son I was.

Fred the Shrink has been advising me to talk to my mother—really talk to her as if she is actually here. I’ve been promising to do this for quite a while and I thought this would a good day to give it a try.

So, I sat at my kitchen table, looked at the empty chair across from me, and started talking. I told my mother how much I missed her, I told her how sorry I was for all the times I let her down, lost my temper, or broke her heart.

I mouthed off to her in ways I wouldn’t dare do with my father because I knew he’d put me through the nearest wall. And I apologized for my cowardice.

Give 'Em the Chair

Then I really started crying. My shoulders were heaving as I wailed and tore through a mound of tissues. I started thinking I had made a terrible mistake, that conjuring up my mother wasn’t allaying my pain; it was exacerbating it.

This is therapy? I thought. The next time I see Fred the Shrink I’m going to sock him so hard he won’t know Sigmund Freud from Ziggy Stardust.

Eventually I calmed down and I felt physically lighter from all that crying. There’s no such thing as a miracle cure, but, as painful as it was, I do feel I got something positive from this experience.


I often call up memories of my mother just to make myself sad.

There’s this dark side of my mind that feeds off negative emotions—anger, worry, resentment, fear, and grief.

Normally I hate it when people presume to speak on behalf of the dead, but I know my mother really wouldn’t want me spending my days feeling guilty and ashamed.

This evening I was washing the dishes, stealth-dreading the start of a new work week, and I started on the downward spiral about how I had made so many bad decisions, how I should’ve taken more risks, and somehow reached the demented conclusion that I was a terrible son.

This time, though, I refused to accept that hateful thought. It wasn’t even remotely true, and its only purpose was to pull me down even deeper. Not this time, buddy.

I’m not sure if I’ll do this chair experiment again, especially seeing as how it hurt so damn much. But I’m glad I tried it because reaching out to my mother helped look inside myself.

I may have lost that apple tree drawing, but I feel like I’m painting my masterpiece.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Lockdown

Okay, so I’ve got the keys, I just have to figure out how to use them.

Last week I described a dream I had where I was trapped in a runaway car with my late parents that ended with me pulling the key out of the ignition and avoiding disaster.

I interpreted this dream as a message from my subconscious mind that I can take control of my life.

Well, apparently, I didn’t get my own message because while keys figured prominently in my life this week as well, it was no dream and I was definitely not in control.

It had been a rather stressful few days, and when I say “stressful” I mean I completely overreacted to any problem that cropped up and made them much worse than they really were.

Things got so bad that one night I came home from the store and found I had locked myself out of my apartment.

Please note that I didn’t forget my keys. I had them right in my hand and I went through every single key on the ring. But none of them worked.

This was impossible, unless, of course, malevolent elves had snuck into my apartment during the night and swapped my regular keys for an ersatz set. This seemed highly unlikely as I don’t tend to interact with elves, malevolent or otherwise, during my normal course of business.

I’ve lived in this apartment for five years now and if I had a dollar for every time I’ve locked and unlocked this door I could use the Hearst Mansion for a toolshed.

And yet I couldn’t get in. I tried each key again, slower this time, while my breath grew short and my head started to expand. Still nothing.

I could feel the panic rising up through me. I had to get in there. I had work to do, I had to catch up my DVR recordings, do some reading, and, oh, yeah, have my dinner and go to bed.

Key Lame

I had Chinese food the other night and one of my fortunes read “constant grinding can turn a steel bar into a needle.” At the rate I was going I could’ve turned the Golden Gate Bridge into a toothpick.

Still, I had enough sanity left to know that I couldn’t force the key to work. Years ago, I was having trouble getting into the garage at my family’s house.

I had to get my car, I was running late for work and I got so angry and impatient that I twisted the key as hard as I could—and promptly snapped the key in the lock.

I eventually had to call a locksmith who charged me almost 90 bucks for a five-minute job. And I was really late for work.

Standing on the landing of my apartment, I was determined not to repeat that fiasco.


I finally walked down one flight to my landlady’s apartment and asked to borrow her spare key.

Naturally it worked on the first try and now, with the pressure off, I found the right key on my ring and it worked perfectly.

So, what happened here? I flipped out so seriously that I rendered myself incapable of performing a routine action.

It’s particularly disheartening since I really believe I’ve been making some progress in managing stress.

My darker nature also worries that this could a warning sign of more serious problems as I feel like I’ve been more forgetful lately. A talk with a specialist wouldn’t hurt.

In analyzing this fiasco, I can see how I often conflate all of my problems into one hideous monster.

I had a number of setbacks during the day, but instead of reacting to them individually I created my own private Godzilla.

So, I’ll be more attentive to the warning signs. I’ll apply the various stress-relief techniques that I keep in my emotional toolbox. And I’ll label my goddam keys so I don’t have to run through each one of them until I find the winner.

Okay, we’ve got that settled. Now give me another cookie.