Saturday, August 15, 2015

Fitbit to Be Tied

Yesterday I walked more than 12,500 steps. How do I know this? My smartphone told me so. That phone knows a lot about me, maybe even more than I want it to know. But I’m not upset that it knows how many steps I took yesterday, and I even graciously accepted the “virtual” medal that was posted in an email to my phone, congratulating me on having more than met my steps goal for the day.

No, I didn’t actually establish that goal. A small computer snapped into a band on my wrist set the goal, which was 10,000 steps. If I meet the goal, the computer gives me a tingle on my wrist that is both a little shocking and a little satisfying. I’m happy to know that at least something on my body is tingling these days.

On many days, however, the wrist computer is more ambitious than I am. Many days, I come up short of my goal. In that case, I don’t receive a virtual medal or a tingle, but luckily I don’t receive a shocking rebuke either. At midnight, the computer just begins counting all over again. If I happen to walk in my sleep (perhaps making a small jaunt to the bathroom, for instance), I might find that I have taken 50 or more steps even before I consciously begin a new day. The step total that appears on an app on my smartphone is a sign that I am being tracked by an outside force occupying my wrist. That idea doesn’t always make me tingle.  

There is no great mystery here. The small computer is part of the present I received from my children for Father’s Day. It’s called a Fitbit. It’s an exercise monitor that fits into a band on your wrist. My Fitbit looks sort of like that Lance Armstrong Livestrong band that is now out of favor. But mine is black instead of yellow. Other people wear colored wrist bands that have other meanings and signify other causes. Mine is just there to keep track of my efforts to be more fit, which is a pretty noble cause in itself.

More than a quarter of the way toward today's goal. Am I going to tingle?
Now, things were going fine between my Fitbit and me for several days. It encouraged me to walk more and sit a little less. And I was pretty happy to see that walking on the treadmill, even at a moderate pace, caused my step total to go up quickly, as long as my wrist stayed in motion. So I walked just a little longer. (Then I noted that by just swinging my wrist, even without taking an actual step, the numbers would go up. I logged that information into my memory bank for future reference.)

Then, something strange happened.

On my fifth day of wearing the Fitbit, I received a very disturbing email. The email read:

“Hi Michael G.,

Your Flex battery level is low. Charge your battery as soon as possible.”

The message went on to describe how I could charge my battery, and ended with the cheerful closing: “Happy Stepping!”

The message was friendly enough, but I didn’t feel really happy. It dawned on me that I had truly and voluntarily stepped into the world of “Big Brother” 10,000 steps at a time. I was being tracked by a machine that could not only give me tingles and virtual medals but also make me feel bad about not treating it properly. I had let down my Fitbit. That thought caused me more anguish than it should have. Suddenly, I began to worry that my Fitbit might start communicating with other machines in my life, sharing possible shortcomings or even (shudder!) secrets. What if, for example, my Fitbit and the bathroom scale began conversing with each other. What if both of them told my “Weight Watchers” app that I had understated my actual poundage on weigh-in day this week,  just so I could get an encouraging message urging me to “keep up the good work.”

An old poem many of us memorized in high school goes,

“I am the master of my fate,

      I am the captain of my soul.”

Sadly that message doesn’t really ring true for those of us living in the age when our tools and toys can talk to each other about us.

Friday, May 15, 2015

All Good Men

Near the edge of the porch a ragged man stood.  He swung his head toward Pa.  "You folks must have a nice little pot a money."
"No, we ain't got no money," Pa said.  "But they's plenty of us to work, an' we're all good men.”

--John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath

On Saturday night, ten of us gathered around a table in Emeril’s restaurant in New Orleans. The reservation was made under the name “Goodman.” Trying to determine our group leader, the waitress asked which one of us was “Mr. Goodman.” Five hands went up. She could have asked, “Which one is Ms. Goodman?” and every female’s hand at the table would have been raised. There were plenty of us there, and we were all Goodmans.
There is no hiding the fact that
these Goodman men are all related.
Nearly 80 years ago, my father left his home in a small town in Arkansas to move in with his older brother David in a town only slightly larger in Louisiana. The two brothers were far apart in years but close in other ways. And they stayed close in spirit over the years, even when my father left Louisiana and settled in Georgia way back in 1940.

Seventy-five years later—last weekend—my brother and I, our wives, and my children decided to return to Louisiana with two purposes in mind: to reconnect two branches of our family tree, and to sample every way that oysters can be served in New Orleans. I am here to report that we carried out both missions successfully.

The Louisiana/Texas Goodmans and the Georgia/New Jersey Goodmans have gotten together a few times in the past, but this trip was special. This wasn’t a big reunion or a family event attended by lots of outside friends and family members. It was just two nuclear families—all adults ranging from early 30s to early 70s. We laughed; shared some old photos; laughed; filled in gaps in our lives; told stories about the past, present, and future; took a side trip to a gallery displaying my cousin Jonathan’s prints and paintings;


handed out Mother’s Day presents; and ate. Then we ate some more. Raw oysters, roasted oysters, fried oysters, barbecued shrimp (New Orleans style), and some strange concoction that was supposed to be oven-roasted seafood but seemed more like just the breading. (The last item was the only low point in our culinary marathon.) We also did some serious drinking. And we topped things off late Saturday night listening to a remarkable jazz group performing at a fairly empty New Orleans jazz club tucked away on a busy street. (Not to be outdone, we topped off Sunday night with coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde.)
The next generation-- cousins getting closer and eating together.

We spent two-and-a-half days in New Orleans filling in years and building bonds. We plan to do it again soon, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” as my father would say in his Arkansas folksy accent. Our two fathers came from a family of 12 children whose descendants have spread far and wide. It was great fun for a group of us to be back together.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dylan New and Old

The other day, I borrowed a Bob Dylan “Basement Tapes” CD from the local library. Bootleg Series Vol. 8, issued in 2006, contained “rare and unreleased” Dylan songs from the 1980s and 1990s. I was a little amazed to discover a song I had never heard before entitled “Red River Shore.” The song was such a perfect Dylan love song. It was moody and hypnotic, quickly pulling me into its web of reminiscence of past joy and lost love for more than seven minutes. I played it over and over, and then found a You Tube video to listen to it some more:

There is no video of Dylan singing the song on You Tube, just a photo of the CD cover with an audio track.
A scowling Bob Dylan in the 1980s, looking so different
from the 1960s protester  I "met" in 1965.
Without video, the words sink in deeper; the song takes hold stronger. Here is my favorite verse. It’s a little nostalgic and a little self-deprecating—just how I would write a love song if I could. This is a love more of the mind than of the body:
Well, I been to the east and I been to the west
And I been out where the black winds roar
Somehow though I never did get that far
With the girl from the Red River shore.

Finding a new Dylan song made me think of when I had first “discovered” Dylan. It happened (shudder) almost 50 years ago. I was part of an accelerated academic summer program for high school students in Georgia, known as the Governor’s Honors Program. I spent six weeks with about 150 really smart kids. There were scholars and musicians and artists and free thinkers. I felt like both a participant and an observer at the same time. I was meeting new people and thinking new thoughts. Which is where Dylan comes in.

Bill Martin, one of the kids from another high school in Savannah attending GHP, had brought along some Dylan albums. We gathered in his room, behind a closed door, to do some illicit listening. I heard “The Times They Are a-Changin’” for the first time. I heard “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The voice was so raw. Who would hire a guy with that voice to make records, we wondered at first. Then we listened more, and the rawness took hold. I had been brought up with liberal values, but listening to Dylan singing Dylan (rather than Peter, Paul, and Mary), made me feel more radical than I had ever felt before.

Eight clean-cut kids from Savannah High School who attended
the Governor's Honors program in 1965. We were proud nerds.
American involvement in the Vietnam War was a-buildin’ during the summer of 1965. I was just entering my junior year in high school, so the idea of being drafted or fighting in a war on the other side of the world was not yet in my mind. But here was Bob Dylan talking about war, any war, maybe that war. It was exhilarating but also a little overwhelming. I went home from the GHP feeling a little worldlier. But that was pretty much an illusion. After all, I was still a sheltered kid from Savannah, Georgia, no matter whose music I was listening to. But Bob Dylan had opened up my mind a little. I’m grateful for that.

And I’m thrilled that Dylan and record producers and other performers are turning back time to let us hear some of Dylan’s songs that have been long hidden. Every new Dylan song, even old ones never heard before, has the ability to grab my psyche and my soul.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Saying Goodbyes

This week’s New Yorker features an article entitled “Moving to Mars.” In focusing on the much-anticipated future one-way journey of a group of astronauts to the unknown on Mars, the writer opens with a story of the explorers who first traveled to Antarctica in 1898.  It was a harrowing and mostly tragic venture. The writer seems to be speculating on whether the trip to a distant planet will be more or less worrisome than the adventure to the bottom of our own planet.  
The story made me think about loneliness as well. And about goodbyes. Last week, Audrey and I went to see the movie Woman in Gold. The movie focuses on the Nazi occupation of Vienna in 1938 and its impact on members of a wealthy Viennese Jewish family. While it’s mostly about evil and art theft, it’s also about fear, sadness, and injustice. Spoiler alert: There will be justice served by the movie’s end, which we will cheer. But our cheering is tempered by what is known but not shown in the film about this period in history.
In one emotional scene shown in flashback near the middle of the film, the young Maria Altmann (who will be played as an older adult by Helen Mirren) tearfully tells her parents goodbye before she makes a daring escape from Vienna with her new husband. It is clear that she will never see her parents again, and they all realize this. She plans to go to America, but she might as well be going to Antarctica or Mars, for that matter. She is leaving everything and almost everyone she has known. She is sailing without an anchor into uncharted waters, at least for her.

Maria Altmann and her husband make their escape
from Nazi-occupied Vienna.
 And knowing the way my mind likes to wander, Maria Altmann’s tearful farewell to family in Woman in Gold came to mind again yesterday when I lit a memorial candle for Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

Lighting a Yom Ha-Shoah candle helps us remember.
The Holocaust is mostly an abstract concept for many of us, especially American Jews born after World War II whose relatives came to the U.S. long before the rise of Nazi Germany. [Not so for Audrey’s family. Her father and grandfather spent some time in a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s, and her father’s parents died in the Theresienstadt camp near Prague in the early 1940s.] But lonely farewells and journeys into the unknown are something all of our Jewish ancestors understood very well. They were always ready to pack and be on the move. For example, my mother’s mother, a tiny but determined woman, came to America from Poland all by herself at the age of 18. And when the relatives she expected to shelter her in Brooklyn stifled her freedom, she simply left their home and found an apartment and job in a notorious sweatshop in Manhattan.
It’s a long trip in time and space from Poland in 1908 to Vienna in 1938 to Mars in 2018, but that’s how my mind works. And now I’m wondering just how the space travelers to Mars will say goodbye when they are ready to leave. Will they and their relatives here on Earth be filled more with sadness or pride?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Straight and Narrow

My first day ever as a teacher in September 1972, I encountered s student named Larry Davis. Larry arrived to my class at Central High School in Providence a little late. Then he noted my name where I had written it on the blackboard.

“Mr. Good Guy, eh?” he said. “Do you take drugs?” (I said no.) “Smoke a little weed?” (Again, no.) “Drink booze?” (I admitted to a little.) “Fool around with the girls?” (Not really.) Then he gave me a slight shove and said, “What kind of good guy are you? You don’t do nothing!

"Mr. Good Guy"

I was reminded of this exchange last night while Audrey and I attended a workshop at the Manhattan Theater Club, where we have been subscribers for many years. The workshop was designed to help us understand beforehand some of the themes and drama techniques that would be evident in a new play called Airline Highway, which opens in a few weeks at MTC.

In a brief introduction, the workshop leader told us that many of the characters in the play are unconventional; they live “on the edge.” To help us better understand the emotions of the play’s characters, the leader had those of us attending the session split up from the partner we came with and work with someone we did not already know. The assignment: Discuss with your partner a time in your life when you pushed the envelope or did something risky or unexpected.

A time when I pushed the envelope and was unconventional? Larry Davis could tell you how easy that assignment would be for me. I’m “Mr. Good Guy,” remember (or not that good a guy).

My partner in the activity, a woman approximately my age, had no problem coming up with a tale. She immediately confided that she had been “a child of the sixties.” “I tried some drugs, took a trip or two, and lived in a group house, which my mother thought was a commune. I didn’t exactly practice free love, but I did make love in some unusual places, including a snowbank.”

A snowbank? Did I just shiver?

I replied that I, too, was a child of the sixties, but my experiences were pretty much drug- and free love-free. I was so un-sixties-like that one of my college classmates once dubbed me “Straight Louie.” I just didn’t break the rules. Yes, I smoked at dorm parties, but what I smoked was a pipe filled with Cherry Blend tobacco, or the like. Now I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. And now I was being asked to remember a time that I acted outside the lines, and, dammit, I couldn’t come up with anything that would even mildly shock my partner.
A Goodman family pot party?

I thought about the time in high school that I had taken a date out riding after a dance or movie. We drove out Abercorn Street in Savannah when that thoroughfare was just being opened up. We turned onto Tibet Road, which was pretty dark and empty. We stopped. Yes, we were parking, but we were talking and not kissing. I promise. Nevertheless, a police car pulled up alongside, and the officer got out and shined his flashlight in the window. He told us to move along. The girl and I told friends about the incident, and somehow they began spreading a rumor that we had been busted by cops while making out. To my shame, I did not really try to squelch this rumor, nor did my date. And when high school classmates gave me a small standing ovation in the halls on the following Monday morning, I just smiled.

Somehow, I could not share this story with my workshop partner, who had just described braving frostbite to make love out of doors. Instead, I described the time that I almost became part of the radical SDS on my college campus. The operative word here is almost. Of course, I didn’t join the SDS, but I did have to answer questions posed by an FBI agent once and I did get tear-gassed twice one evening during a major protest on campus—but that’s another story.
I wasn't a yippie, but I did get tear-gassed at a yippie rally.
So how did Audrey do with this activity? She also had to admit her conventionality, even to a stranger who could not have contradicted even the wildest story.

“I told her that the biggest risk I ever took was taking my first modern dance class at age 39,” Audrey recalled with a bemused smile.

Maybe we should be known forevermore as “Straight Louie and Straight Lucille.”


Thursday, March 26, 2015


If it is true that most of us use only 10% of our brain power, then I have a special handicap. About 50% of my 10% is occupied with song melodies and lyrics. I take pride in my wide-ranging song knowledge, but I realize that remembering songs is keeping my brain from focusing on other information that might be even more valuable.

Nothing is more fun than listening to the Sirius/XM station “Sixties on 6.” I grew up on those songs. I can’t claim to have “made out” to most of those songs (my making out skills were sadly lacking in the sixties), but I did dance to them and sang along while I danced. And I can still sing along today. Which is pretty amazing since I often can’t remember details about what happened in my life yesterday – or the reason I have just entered a room with great determination, only to stop dead in my tracks.

Over the past few weeks, Audrey and I have been driving to Vermont on Saturday afternoons when Lou Simon has been hosting his weekly “Sirius Sixties Survey” show. He does more than “spin the records” of that calendar week during one of the years during the sixties; he also tells great stories behind the songs. For example, just this week I learned that the real names of the singers performing “Hey, Paula” were not Paul or Paula. Their real names were Ray and Jill. But the record producer decided it made little sense to use their real names on the label. The record sold more than 2 million copies, and I’ll bet that most of us believed that it was really Paul and Paula who wanted to marry each other. (By the way, the duo had a second hit on the charts in March 1963, “Young Lovers,” but I didn’t remember that one.)
Ray and Jill pledge their love
Simon also revealed that the bass voice on “Mr. Bass Man" (song #28 last week) was also the deep voice on “Who Put the Bomp” a few years before. No, none of us need to know this stuff, but our lives are fuller with the knowledge. At least, mine is. And I’m storing the information in my 10%.

And there were more surprises. For example, the #16 song that week was “All I Have to Do Is Dream” sung by (are you ready for this?) Richard Chamberlain. He did more than break hearts and cure disease as Dr. Kildare. He also had three hits on the charts in 1963. Can anyone name the other two? Lou Simon, of course.

As Simon counted down to number one for the week of March 21, 1963, Audrey and I sang along and I reminisced. That’s what I do a lot when I listen to 60s music. And what was number one? “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. It was written by a man named Ronnie Mack, whose name impressed Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier enough to write a song called “Jimmy Mack” a little later on.
doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang
And "He's So Fine" was a key part in a plagiarism suit against George Harrison, who was part of another rock group that achieved its own fame in the sixties.
More than religion may have inspired George Harrison

Lou Simon is providing me with so much great stuff. But I wonder what my brain is giving up to make room for it all.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Back to the Future

During my academic career, my dorm rooms were burglarized twice—once during my senior year in college and once during the first three weeks of graduate school. Luckily, these were not grand larcenies because I didn’t own very much in those days. The thieves got away with a nice overcoat, a small stereo system, a clarinet that was of much better quality than the person playing it, a book of prepaid tickets for athletic events, and some assorted other items. In both cases, one thing was conspicuously left behind—my collection of opera records. Frankly, I was a little hurt. I decided that the thieves lacked class.

I have carried those opera albums with me for more than 40 years over a number of moves. They have gone from prominent places on bookshelves to storage boxes in the attic of our current home. They have been neglected but not forgotten as I moved on to cassette and then CD players.

Then, for my Hanukkah present this year, my kids gave me a new toy, a USB turntable. It’s a gizmo that looks a lot like an old-style turntable for playing LPs but includes a cable that can plug right into your computer. With that cable, it is possible to take music locked in the grooves of an old, dusty, neglected record album and turn it into digital files that can be stored on a computer and then transferred to a modern digital device such as my iPod. (Or so I read online. Frankly, it all sounds like magic to me, but I’m still amazed by modern miracles from telephones to fax machines. And don’t get me started on scanners!

 I decided I wanted the toy after reading reviews on the Amazon website. These reviews extolled the simplicity of digitizing favorite records, though they all hinted at some “minor complications.” Now, I worry about minor complications ever since the time Audrey bought some furniture items from Crate and Barrel that required “some minor assembly.” The assembly instructions were written by a Vietnamese furniture maker intent on getting back at Americans who fought a war in his homeland a few years back. I, luckily, avoided fighting in that war, but I did suffer through assembling the furniture.

I finally opened my gift this week and picked out an old favorite of arias from Madama Butterfly to serve as my guinea pig. Or was I the guinea pig? 
Butterfly finds new life in my computer
I discovered that this miraculous turntable functions in large part because of the presence of a small rubber band that fits over a spindle. I was warned to make sure that the rubber band was intact. If not, I should contact the manufacturer. It took me a while to figure out just where the band was, but luckily it was there. So much for minor assembly this time. Then I was instructed to input a software program in my computer to oversee the digitizing. I read the instructions once, twice, three times. I looked at the sample screens which didn’t quite match mine. That was because the instructions were older than my new computer. I had to go online to find newer instructions.

I won’t go into all of the boring details of my first digital transfer, but after only about 4 hours, I had brought new life to my old Madama Butterfly recording. Take that, you old thieves! But I wasn’t through. I still had to find a way to convert these files into a newer format to play on my iPod. That meant going online again, downloading a program, watching a You Tube video to make sure I was doing things right, asking my anti-virus protective software to stop flashing red warnings at me and let me download s potential virus source this one time. Of course this took more time, but what is a little time when you’re recapturing a piece of your history!
What digital music looks like on my computer screen.
Where is the magic?
In the end, I had a new recording of an old recording. And I can listen to it now as I type this overlong diatribe.

The good news is that it took only about an hour to make the next opera album transfer, though I still don’t know how to label and store individual tracks. That comes in Volume 2 of the instructions and is explained further in another You Tube video. But when I learn all of this, my family says I can play my old opera records whenever I want to—as long as I keep my headphones plugged in.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Are Boomers Bust?

At the end of The Heidi Chronicles, Scoop Rosenbaum, Heidi’s main love interest (who is, ironically, married to someone else), tells her that he has sold his influential magazine Boomer and is planning a run for Congress. The scene takes place in the late 1980s. Scoop seems poised to play a new and even more vital role in American society.

When Audrey and I first saw the play in the early ’90s, the sale of the magazine didn’t have any sinister meaning to us. It seemed like a natural progression and fit with playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s cynical view of Scoop and of American society coming out of the Reagan years.  Last night, we saw the play in its revival on Broadway, and Scoop’s decision to get rid of Boomer took on a whole new meaning. Maybe Boomers (yes, people like Audrey and me) are on our way out. Shudder!

Now I don’t think the playwright Wendy Wasserstein or even the director necessarily had this dire connotation in mind. But as an audience member in 2015, I felt it. I’d love to poll the audience that watched the play with us last night to get their opinion. They would have been a good sampling, since at least 75% of them were aging boomers like us. Most applauded loudly at play’s end, and many gave the actors a standing ovation. So maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe I’m too sensitive.

Elizabeth Moss as Heidi and women friends in the late '70s
When we first saw the play more than 20 years ago, Audrey was entranced, and I was happy to come along. Here was a play about well-educated professional women coming of age in American society, looking for their place, refusing to apologize for making that search, and establishing a strong voice. It was a fun ride from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, complete with music of each period and lots of humor and cynicism. How could it not speak to upwardly mobile Boomer women in the 1990s or even today? Not all goes well for Heidi, as she achieves professional success but laments her difficulty in finding happiness. How many Boomers does that describe! She looks for happiness in many different ways, as do the other characters. For several who do seem happy, the playwright adopts a mocking tone, showing their shallowness and implying that they don’t see the sand on which they are building foundations.

The play’s time span ended in 1989 because that is when it made its first appearance on stage. A lot has happened in America since then, and many changes have occurred in the lives of American women and gay men, the groups chiefly under focus in the play. One of the saddest changes during that time was Wasserstein’s untimely death in 2006 at age 55, leaving behind a young daughter and lots of unwritten plays. If Wasserstein were still alive, maybe she would have brought Heidi further up-to-date. Maybe she would have helped it speak to today’s Boomers more directly. Or maybe she would have written a new play about Boomers’ hopes and adventures in a new century. But the play we saw last night, while entertaining and well performed, was stuck in time, like something unearthed from a time capsule.

Several years ago, I managed to find a copy of the movie version of The Heidi Chronicles with Jamie Leigh Curtis that I gave Audrey for a Hanukkah present. We watched it and had a great time reliving our first Broadway experience. We didn’t feel any emptiness at the end. After all, you expect a movie or even a Shakespeare play to be of its time and can accept that idea. But a play about boomers who stop growing older and wiser before their time? Whose magazine is sold when then their “best years” are still to come? That can feel a little painful.
Heidi in movie form
In the final scene, Heidi and Scoop discuss their hopes that the world will be a more enlightened place for their children. They are passing the torch to a new generation (as a famous Boomer once said). But I still want to be part of the generation with a past, present, AND future. I am happy to be living in an age when being 65 is just another step toward a future. Especially when that step includes Medicare and senior discounts.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Aging Skier

I have admiration for “plug-and-play” skiers. The kind who can get out of bed, throw on their winter clothes, grab their skis and boots, head onto the slopes, take run after run with speed and grace, leave the slopes, and then move on to après ski fun.

That is not my process. As an “aging” skier, I have a few extra steps to undertake before I even get to the slopes. Here is how I prepared for a day of skiing when we were in Vermont recently.
Audrey heads down a trail at Mount Snow, Vermont

I got up and began an inventory of muscle and ligament pains. This can be a lengthy inventory some mornings. Then I began a stretching regimen—lift and pump the knees, do some squats, work on the lower back from both standing and lying positions, move to the knees and quads. . . well, you get the point.

Then it was time to begin putting on layers to help deal with temperatures in the single digits and winds in the double digits. Oh my! Base underwear, long wool socks, long underwear, then a turtleneck, ski pants, and a top sweater. Of course, it was at this time that I realized I had forgotten something—a new item often needed by the aging skier, a knee brace. I had added the brace after I began feeling a slight twinge on the outside of my left knee while making right turns on the mountain. Luckily, my brace is a pretty simple one, bought at the local CVS. Audrey, who strained a knee ligament two years ago, wears a much more intricate one that combines fabric, elastic, metal, and Velcro. As you can see, we are the aging ski couple.

So, I began stripping down to my base layer, pulled on the knee brace, and strapped myself in. Then I re-donned the rest of my clothes. Of course, that’s not all us skiers wear. We have boots, different types of warmers for our heads and necks, mittens, a helmet, and some goggles. Wow, no wonder I’m feeling exhausted even before I reach the mountain.

I just laughed as I reread the previous paragraph in which I referred to “us skiers.” Growing up, I never envisioned referring to myself as a skier. I can remember watching Buddy Hackett being interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show when I was a kid. Hackett was describing skiing in Colorado, and I remember thinking “he’s old and overweight, can he really ski?” And now, sadly, c’est moi.

It is not surprising that I came to skiing late in life. After all, I had never even experienced snow until I went to college in Connecticut at age 18. And I had never even contemplated skiing before Audrey and I spent a weekend at Kutsher’s in the “Borscht Belt” at the ripe old age of 24. Kutsher’s is much better known for its overabundance of food and aging Jewish comedians than for skiing, but that’s where I began.  I tried to make my way down this tiny, snow-covered hill and fell time after time. A young boy, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, followed behind me and kept saying, “Mister, do you need some help.” I growled and tried to trip him with one of my poles, but he easily dodged around me and kicked snow in my face. I guess I deserved that.

Luckily, my skiing has improved over the years. I now consider myself an advanced beginner or a not-so-advanced intermediate skier. I try to stay away from any trail that is labeled with a black diamond or carries a name that includes any of the words death, plummet, daredevil, ripcord, holy shit, or uh-oh. As a result, I am still alive and relatively stable, though I do have this twinge on the outside of my left knee.

It is much easier to be a young skier than an aging one, but I don’t have a choice anymore. And I should be okay for many more years, as long as I remember to stretch and to put on my knee brace, and to watch out for 8-year-olds intent on kicking snow in my face.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Taking a Risk

I realize that I am taking a risk in writing this blogpost. The risk is that I may come across as hopelessly out of touch. This is not as great a risk as it seems. More and more, I realize that I am barely clawing my way into the 21st century. For example, when I recently read in my college alumni magazine that a member of the class of ’13 was added to a new committee, my first thought was “That’s a really old person.” Then I realized it was the class of 2013 not 1913. Oh. . . .
I was reminded of my age and my era of comfort again this week when I read that Leslie Gore had died. Lesley Gore of “It’s My Party,” “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” and “You Don’t Own Me.” That Lesley Gore. I even watched a You Tube video of her singing one of those songs on “Hullabaloo" in 1965, and, sadly, I think I remember seeing that show when it aired originally. Which only goes to show that if you know what “Hullabaloo” is, you’re probably on your way to being out of touch.
But I still haven’t gotten to my point—another symptom of my advancing years. Here it is: I do not understand why people choose to have tattoos etched into or drawn onto their bodies.
I realize that tattoos have been around for quite a while, but they seem to be the rage these days. When I was growing up, Jewish parents made a big deal about our not getting our bodies tattooed. It goes back to a line in the book of Leviticus, I believe. And I’m sure that the Nazis marked Jews they placed into concentration camps with tattooed numbers in part to desecrate their bodies. But that is way off the point.
Why am I thinking about tattoos and questioning them today? Two recent incidents. On Saturday afternoon, Audrey and I went to see a Metropolitan Opera performance beamed into a local movie theater. Imagine, opera and popcorn together—not much can top that. So we’re watching a pretty avant-garde Bartok opera called Bluebeard’s Castle, in which the soprano—a tall, thin blonde woman playing Judith—is opening doors into the home and mind of her new husband Bluebeard, who is notorious for knocking off new wives who enter his castle but never leave. In one scene, she is sitting inside a bathtub and appears to be wearing what most of us where when we’re bathing—nothing. Which seems somewhat shocking during an opera, that most high-brow of entertainments. While singing a pretty serious aria in pretty lugubrious tones, she turns her back to the audience, and there it is—a colorful and not-so-small tattoo. I’m a little shocked—not by the nudity (which I would applaud) but by the tattoo. Am I out of touch? You betcha.

Then, today I went to my gym to work out. Standing near me was a young man pumping an amount of weight I cannot even imagine lifting in my dreams. Down his muscular left arm, in large old-English font, the following letters are tattooed: G-O-D-S.  I have a little trepidation checking out his right arm for another set of letters, but there they are: G-I-F-T. And I’m thinking, here is a man with a great deal of ego but not the best knowledge of grammar. After all, he left out the apostrophe in God’s. And I understand something he may not realize—that that spelling error and egotistical message are going to be on his arms for a long, long time. Someday, he may need to buy a lot of long-sleeved shirts to cover them up.
So, there you have it. Today, I am railing against tattoos, especially those that are grammatically incorrect. Tomorrow, who knows? Hey, modern world, bring it on!

Sunday, February 15, 2015


The older we get, the more we are able to understand and appreciate irony. Here is an example. Last night, Audrey and I went to see the movie “Still Alice,” about a woman who is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The main character was losing her memory, and my mind was flooded with memories. Which seems pretty ironic to me.

Here is just one example. In the middle of the film, actress Julianne Moore opens a speech she is delivering on her personal struggles with her disease with a quote from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop. The poem, entitled “One Art,” begins:

            The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
            so many things seem filled with the intent
            to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

And I left the movie for a few seconds and was drawn back to my memories of Elizabeth Bishop, perhaps my favorite American poet, not so much because of her writing, which is wondrous, but because of my memories of her.

When I was in high school, I used to take out from the public library Caedmon Records on which poets read from their work. Now, I know that sounds pretty pedantic, and it is. But that’s how I was (and still am, according to Audrey). My favorite of those albums featured Bishop reading from her works.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are filled with strong images. I might even call them “manly” if I was stereotyping. And her voice on the Caedmon recording was powerful. I imagined her as being tall and strong. (During my freshman year in college, my first English professor, Alice Miskimin, had that type of stature. She was a good teacher and was known for her toughness, as a grader and hockey player. In fact, I once heard that she was not allowed to play in the intramural hockey league with other students and professors because her body checks during games were sometimes too violent. But I digress.)

So you get an image in your head, and it sticks. During my junior year in college, I was taking a poetry writing seminar with Mark Strand, who would later be named American poet laureate.
Mark Strand gives a reading of his poems.
One day, Strand announced that one of his mentors, Elizabeth Bishop, was coming to campus. The two poets seemed well matched to me. After all, Strand was well over six feet tall with a huge head filled with words and images. I figured they would make an impressive pair, physically-speaking. Excited, I arrived at the reading early, got a good seat, and readied to watch “my” Elizabeth Bishop stride to the podium in all her height and strength. And out walked a “garden club lady,” hair recently colored and curled in a beauty parlor, glasses dangling from her neck on what seemed to be a string of pearls. I’m sure my mouth fell open with surprise.
The "real" Elizabeth Bishop-- small of stature
but powerful of voice and image
Then she began to read, and it was the same voice with the same mesmerizing power. I don’t remember what she read that day. I just remember being both surprised and impressed by the “real” Elizabeth Bishop, who was so different from my mind’s eye and so much the same.

And almost as quickly, my mind returned to Julianne Moore and her character’s fading memory. “Still Alice” is not an easy movie for people my age to watch. Almost all of us battle with losing words and names and focus for brief spans of time. And we fear more permanent losses. We begin making lists for everything, and we post a file on our computer with all of the passwords we need to open up electronic doorways to our information. My file used to be named “Passwords” until a Geek Squad member helping me clean out a computer virus suggested I use a different name, in case someone broke into my computer and began looking around. And what about those passwords? If we make them complex enough to deter hackers, we may never find our stuff again. Ironies that build on ironies.

Speaking of memories—Audrey and I are planning to watch SNL’s 40th anniversary retrospective tonight. And we’ll remember the bits from the earliest shows much better than those from contemporary shows. Not so much because our short-term memory is failing, but because we can seldom stay awake long enough these days to get much past the opening half-hour of the show.