Saturday, April 22, 2017

Germs of Fear

I like to do this visualization exercise where I imagine a beam of pure light coming down straight from Heaven and going right into the top of my head.

The beautiful light clears away all the negative thoughts and emotions in my head, breaks the mental chains that are holding me back and allows me to look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.

The light moves down to my nose, mouth and throat, where it sweeps away all the germs that may be lurking there, a perfect image for a hypochondriac like yours truly.

From there the light surges through my entire body, clearing away and fixing up all my various ailments both real and imagined. This routine may sound corny to some people, but I love it.

However, the other day I got silently tongue-tied when I thought to myself “the light clears away the fear germs.”

Fear germs? There’s no such thing, I told myself.

But now I’m starting to wonder about that. Fear can grip us like a terrible disease if we let it take over our minds. Pretty soon we’re talking ourselves out of all sorts of new possibilities, while talking ourselves into a lifetime of regret and busted dreams.

I’ve got a serious case of the heebie-jeebies right now as I prepare to take a business trip to Philadelphia in the morning.

Bulb in The Woods

I’m posting tonight because I’ve got to catch a train early tomorrow and I’m writing this on my company laptop because my Apple desktop croaked on me two days ago.

Can it really be seven years to since we went down to Prince Street on a snowy afternoon to pick up a shiny new computer and bring it home?

“Your computer is what we would call ‘vintage’,” the young woman from Apple told me Wednesday night. “There’s not much what we can do.”

Of course the timing sucked beyond belief, but then when is there a good time for your computer to kick the bucket?

I don’t have time to run down to the Apple store before I leave and I had to ask my saint of a sister to print out my train ticket so I get my keester down to the City of Brotherly Love. And I’m not anxious to shell out thousands of dollars for a new machine.


On top of that I fouled up the hotel reservation and had to scramble to get a place that’s more expensive and further away from the conference.

That is what I would call “bullshit.”

I’ve got the fear germs crawling all over me, digging into my soul and clinging to my mind--even though I’ve been to these conferences many times before.

A little bit of nerves is one thing, but I’m feeling so antsy right now I could ruin a dozen picnics.

All right, I think we need to throw a little light on the situation. And by a little light, I mean a lot, a gleaming, glorious shaft of sacred light that streaks down from Paradise and penetrates this thick skull of mine.

This spectacular beam is going to burn up those little fear germs like the hideous vermin they are. No moping about the past, no trembling at the future. I’m going to do my job.

All right, then. Let’s light it up.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Listening to God Smile

Every morning when I meditate I start off with a little message to myself.

Open all the pores of your skin, I say, borrowing a line from a qigong DVD I bought years ago, and listen to God smile.

That last bit is my own creation—the DVD says “Listen to a sound from far away”—and while I’m not sure what it means, I do like the sound of it.

Meditation involves listening to silence so you can quiet your mind, step outside of your problems and worries, and, ideally, become a better person.

It’s Easter Sunday and I made sure to meditate on this most blessed morning.

This is a time of rebirth and renewal, where we look forward with hope and let go of the grief behind us. I know these are big words and I say them every year, but I’m just a sucker for a happy message.

I must confess that I didn’t make the most of Lent this year. I didn’t get my ashes on Ash Wednesday; I ate meat on nearly every Friday of the season, and let Palm Sunday blow by like it was somebody else’s religion.

I felt particularly disappointed last week when I saw an elderly woman walking slowly down Bay Ridge Avenue, a cane in one hand and a palm in the other. If she could make it to church why couldn't I?

I don’t feel guilty, as this is a most useless and destructive emotion. I just feel like I’ve missed out on something special.

I did avoid meat on Good Friday and after work I did some shopping, making sure to stop at the old Lincoln Savings Bank (now a Chase branch) to pause at the place where my mother’s desk once stood and wish her a Happy Easter.

The Resurrection, and The Life

Then it was on to Our Lady of Angels Church, where I sat in the pew for a while, reciting the Rosary and giving thanks for all the good things in my life.

I thought of my parents walking up the aisle of this church back in 1950 on the day they were married.

I recalled my Catholic education at the adjoining grammar school and felt the old anger and resentment stirring up before I politely asked them to depart.


A small group of people was gathering behind me and, checking the bulletin, I saw that it was almost time the ProcesiĆ³n del Via Crucis—the Stations of the Cross.

It’s hard to believe my church is now having Spanish language services.

We never thought that would’ve been possible back in the Sixties when I grew up, when Bay Ridge was almost completely Christian and caucasion.

Spanish mass? That’s for Our Lady of Perpetual Help down in Sunset Park. It's English only here.

I regret now that I left before the service started. I haven’t been to mass or confession for a few weeks (months?) and I haven’t sat in for the Stations of the Cross in years.

The language difference is immaterial and I think perhaps I would’ve gotten something out of the Spanish service.

Today I had dinner with my family, where there was much love and plenty of opportunities to hear God smile.


Sunday, April 09, 2017

Death of Smile

Several years ago one of my coworkers was showing me some headshots he had taken for the company ID card.

He was smiling broadly in the first shot, but the grin slowly slipped from his face over the course of the next three pictures.

“Death of a smile,” I said, looking over the images.

That phrase came back to me this week when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing back-to-back Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Woody Allen’s Sleeper, two of my all-time favorite comedies.

Or at least they used to be.

I’ve seen both these films again in the last year for the first time in decades and I had the same surprising, and rather sobering reaction to both of them.

While I had laughed uproariously at these two movies the first time I saw, I could barely crack a smile during the most recent viewings.

The scenes that I had found hilarious back in the Seventies now seemed hackneyed and stale.

Young Frankenstein mercilessly mocked the old Universal horror movies, right down a dart game that Frankenstein plays with a one-armed police chief.

When I saw the movie in the theater—was that the Quad Cinema?—I couldn’t stop laughing at that particular scene.

I loved Sleeper, too, a science fiction parody that is listed on "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die."

I argued with my parents who had also seen the movie and weren’t in the least bit impressed.

At the time I thought it was some kind of generational divide where my poor Mom and Dad just didn’t get Woody’s unique brand of comedy.

Now I feel exactly the same way they did. So I really am turning into my parents?

Hail, Hail, Freedonia...

I first noticed this phenomenon during the holidays a few years back when I watched the Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup.

Now that’s a hysterically funny movie and I sat down in front of TV looking forward to enjoying the screwball comedy I had loved since I was a kid.

And…nothing. I don’t think I so much as grinned for the entire film. Even the famous mirror scene with Grouch and Harpo left me cold.

“I didn’t think it was at all funny,” I told my auntie the next day.

“That’s what usually happens, dear,” she said.

What the hell going on here? I always thought I had a good sense of humor. So why was I looking blankly at my widescreen like it was a tombstone?

Part of the problem is that, yes, I am older, and my tastes have changed.

Also, I’m watching these films at home and not in a theater full of people, so maybe the human factor is at play here. Maybe, but it’s not the deciding factor.

I tuned into TCM a few weeks back to watch The Ruling Class, a bizarre comedy featuring Peter O’Toole as a member of the House of Lords who thinks he’s Jesus Christ.

When I saw it in the old Elgin Cinema in 1973, I thought it was brilliant. Please, I silently begged my TV, stay that way for me. Be the same outrageous, shocking satire that I so fondly recall from my high school years.

But, once again, I watched this film as silently as a Trappist monk at Sunday dinner.

The movie was terribly dated and the few points it had to make—like the rich get away with everything, including murder—were delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow right between the eyes.

To borrow a phrase from my auntie, “it was like hanging by the thumbs.”

Maybe I’ll take a break from comedies for a while and focus on heavy dramas. There’s nothing like somebody else’s misery to bring my smile back to life.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Walk Through the Storm

It was a dark and stormy night—seriously.

A rabid storm system barged its way into Brooklyn on Friday and the rain was so nasty I started humming that godawful song from Titanic.

I was in the middle of my Friday ritual, where I order up a vat of wonton soup and a small mountain of fortune cookies from the Hot Wok, my local Chinese place, and park my rear end in front of the TV for a night of Netflix and "Law & Order" reruns.

Exciting, no?

Well, actually it did get a little suspenseful as the wind roared so loudly that at one point that I hit the mute button just to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. It was only the wind, all right, but that was enough.

This was one of those nights where you thank God you’ve got a roof over your head.

The rain kept on going and my mind floated back to another brutal storm and even though this one happened in the middle of the day it was one of the blackest times of my life.

It was a cold day in November and my father was starting to show the first signs of dementia.

I was living in the house with him at the time and, to be honest, I was in denial about his condition. I couldn’t allow myself to believe that my dad, who was always the leader of our family, was losing control of his faculties.

He had been a salesman for a wholesale meat company for most of his working life and he used to drive all over Brooklyn to take orders from his customers.

But he had retired years earlier so I was a little surprised when I saw him putting his coat on and preparing to head out into the middle of the pounding rain.

Hold Your Head Up High

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I have to see some customers.”

Customers? It didn’t make any sense. His customers were either dead or retired by then.

I didn’t know what he was talking about—or, more accurately, I didn’t want to admit what was happening-so I just stood there and watched my dad walk out the door.

I couldn’t physically restrain my own father, but I feel so stupid now looking back on that day and my staunch refusal to see the terrible truth.

Maybe it was too hard for me to accept that my father’s mind was slipping away.

He came back a short time later, battered by the wind and rain. I pointed to a small plastic bag he was clutching.

“What’s in there?”

“Order forms,” he said.

I looked in the bag and saw nothing but blank sheets of paper. He apparently thought he was carrying the order forms he used to fill out when he was still working.

It was frightening and quite upsetting to see him like this.

I helped him dry off and put the sheets of paper away. A short time later my sister said we would need to hire someone to stay with him at all times and even then I had my doubts.

The storms got worse around our house as time went by and our father drifted farther and farther away from us, until he couldn’t recall my name and would casually ask for my mother even though she had died years earlier.

It was a dark memory suitable for a dark and stormy night. I try to think about the good times we had with our father before dementia took him from us. And my heart breaks for other families who suffer through this nightmare.

It was bitterly cold and cloudy on Saturday, and I had to wrap myself up in that damn parka of mine, but today the temperature climbed, the sun was shining brilliantly, and ugly memories were retreating back to the gloom where they belonged.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Amazing Ava

A generation ago, The Lovin’ Spoonful asked the musical question “Do you believe in magic?” and as of Saturday my answer is a resounding “yes!”

The cause of the conversion was a pair of lovely run-ins I had with two adorable children as I walked home from the gym.

The first meeting occurred on Fifth Avenue as I approached a local nail salon. A woman, presumably the owner or an employee, was standing outside with this beautiful little boy.

As I got closer to the store the little guy broke away from his mother and came charging up to me with a flyer in his hand.

“Is that for me, buddy?” I asked as took the sheet of paper from his hand. “Why, thank you so much!”

I don’t think I’ll be frequenting the place, but I just loved how determined that boy was to help his mom. But it turned out that this young fellow was just the opening act of my exciting morning.

I was just a half block from my home when I passed a house on 72nd Street where a young couple and their little girl were outside enjoying Saturday’s warm weather. I nodded, smiled, and kept going--but not for long.

“Sir?”

The father was calling me and I turned around.

“Yes?”

“Would you like to see some magic tricks?”

I can never get enough magic in my life, so I readily agreed. It seems their daughter, who was about 7 years old, had a little table set up with a child’s magic kit.

She was a little shy but I gently encouraged her to do her routine, and pretty soon she was waving her magic wand, intoning “abracadabra”, and making coins, cards, and other objects disappear and reappear.

It'll Free Your Soul

I made sure to be properly astounded, applauding loudly with each trick and even helped out when her wand slipped to the ground.

“Be careful or you’ll get in trouble with Harry Potter,” I said.

The budding Kreskin quickly retrieved her baton and brought the show to a rousing finale.

“What’s your name, dear?” I asked, as I handed her a couple of bucks.

“Ava,” she said.

“Well, now you’re the Amazing Ava,” I told her. “You need a cape and some more magic words and you’ll be a star.”

I thanked Ava’s parents and wished them all a great day.

As I walked the last half-block to my house I noticed my mind was quickly returning to its regularly scheduled bullshit—worry, regrets, daydreams, and other assorted mental flotsam—and I hit the brakes.

Wait a damn minute, I thought. You just had a lovely experience a few minutes ago. Why don’t you savor that nice time for a little longer before jumping overboard?

So I abracadabraed myself right back to that sweet encounter. Yeah, I thought, that was a good thing.

I’ve been retraining my brain to find the good things in life instead of choosing to roil in grief. I was lucky to have been passing that house at that particular time and I am very grateful for that.

I regret now that I had taken her picture, but too often we’re so busy photographing an event that we remove ourselves from the actual proceedings.

I was having too much fun to go fiddling with the my phone and her dad was taking plenty of photos anyway. Believe me, I’m not about to forget the Amazing Ava and her bag of tricks anytime soon.

My sister pointed out that it was good that Ava was outside meeting people and doing something creative—as opposed to burying her nose in a smartphone.

And that’s the best kind of magic there is.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Pushing Deadline

When I first got started in newspapers my mother did everything she could to support me.

There was this one time early in my journalism career when my mother was trying to boost my confidence while she ironing some shirts.

She was a multitasker long before the term was invented.

Now I’m a half-breed, a child of an Irish father and an Italian mother, and that combination was often an issue in our house.

“You could be the next Jimmy Breslin,” my mother said, God bless her. “Only you’re not obnoxious. And the reason you’re not obnoxious is because you’re not 100% Irish. Because when it comes to being obnoxious, the Irish, I’m sorry to say, corner the market.”

She said this without venom or rage, but in a normal tone of voice as if she were discussing the weather. It was just a fact as far as she was concerned.

My mother was the kindest, most loving person I’m ever known in my life and she did not have a bigoted bone in her body.

But she was also human and she did harbor this rather strong dislike for the Irish and being married to my old man probably didn’t help matters any.

I think of this story now because newspaper legend Jimmy Breslin died today.

I wasn’t the biggest Breslin fan, but there is no disputing that he did tremendous work and reading his obituary reminded me why he was a living legend.

The Gravedigger's Report

One of his earliest and most notable successes was an interview with the man who dug the grave for John F. Kennedy, which is nothing short of brilliant.

While other reporters were looking in all the high places for their JFK stories, Breslin tracked down the man who was arguably the least important player in the entire assassination saga and got a great story out of it.

The column, according to the New York Times, “sent legions of journalists to find their ‘gravedigger.’”

In 1977 he received a letter from the Son of Sam and Breslin published the letter and an appeal for the gunman to surrender. But the Son of Sam would strike twice more before he was arrested.

I remember seeing Breslin on one of the TV talks shows after John Lennon was murdered, decrying the wave of gun violence in this country, and he wrote a fabulous column about the two cops who responded to the shooting at the Dakota.

I eventually got fed up with his ego after one his columns described a meeting at the White House of all the great reporters in the country.

He felt compelled to add the line “of course, I was there," whereupon I felt compelled to throw the newspaper across the room.

Looking back I wish I had continued reading his work. And I wish he were still around to write about the current occupant of the White House.

In this diseased era of fake news and shameless pandering, his brutal honesty would be most welcome.

I didn’t become the next Jimmy Breslin and this blog is probably the closest thing I’ll ever have to a regular column, but I’m okay with that.

And I bring my shirts to the dry cleaner for ironing now, since I have neither the skill nor the patience my mother had.

We lost Jimmy Breslin today and my mother nearly 15 years ago. If the world had more people like them it would be a much better place.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Darts and Minds

In my own defense, I was drinking a lot that night.

While trawling through the cavernous storage locker that is my memory, I stumbled upon a rather odd recollection of one night in Stroudsburg, PA, back in the early Nineties while I was working at the Pocono Record.

I worked a 2pm-10pm shift, which was out of synch with most other people, but it did allow me to hit the mall and other locations when they were practically empty.

It also meant I stayed up later than most other people and I got into the habit of stopping at the bar near the paper most nights of the week and downing far too many beers before heading to my apartment on Scott Street.

I confess that for a while there, I has getting plastered most nights of the week and I just figured I’d be fine the next morning because I could sleep in late.

Technically this was correct, but I was also putting on weight, and more seriously, I was looking forward to getting wasted rather dealing with my various problems.

Looking back, I’m just so relieved I never got pulled over by a cop. Stroudsburg was a small town and I was just minutes from home, but I’m sure that on many nights I would’ve been royally screwed if I had been forced to honk into a breathalyzer.

There was this one Saturday night where I met up with some coworkers for a good time. I was on a Sunday-Thursday shift, but with my late starting time I had no concerns about having a few beers…and then a few more…and then a few more after that.

And somewhere in that haze of alcohol and foolishness, one of my buddies and I got into a twisted game of darts with a total stranger who looked like a walking cartoon character.

Mugs Away

He had an honest-to-God mullet, a long, dark trench coat and these atrocious white shoes.

I don’t know who he was or why the hell we got into this game but in no time at all we were tossing darts and talking trash like the building was on fire.

Every time Mullet Man’s turn came up, I’d give him the horns—two middle fingers pulled in, index finger and pinky extended--to send all sorts of ancient Italian bad wishes in his direction and hopefully making him miss the dartboard.

He’d do it back to me and we’d all laugh like idiots.

Don’t ask me who won that game. I’m just glad we didn’t harpoon somebody’s privates with all the beers we were putting away.

The evening wore on, Mullet Man faded away, and at some very unhealthy part of the evening I vaguely recall getting just a little too friendly with some dude’s wife.

Luckily that didn’t go anywhere and I’m alive to tell the tale.

I never found out Mullet Man’s name, where he was from, or what he did for a living, and there are some days I’m half-convinced he was actually a hallucination sent down by the Good Lord to scare me off the demon rum.

Now the moral story is…who the Hell knows?

Mullets and darts don’t mix? Stay away from married women? Or maybe just something more direct, like lay off the booze.

All I know is that I’m glad I lost my taste for beer. I stick to wine now, keep better hours, and I reserve my drinking for weekends.

And if I ever run into a guy with a mullet and atrocious white shoes, I’ll steer clear of the dartboard.