Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hail and Farewell

It’s the last edition of CBS Sunday Morning of the year, and I am waiting eagerly (is that the right word?) for the “Hail and Farewell” segment. That’s when the host recalls and we react to many of the notables who died during the past year.

This year’s segment opens with a brief montage of Mary Tyler Moore before and during her spunky Minneapolis career woman days, then gives brief mention to other recently deceased actors, comedians, artists, and musicians, and even to some persons far outside of the pop realm (such as Medal of Honor winner Thomas Hudner, who crashed his own plane during the Korean War in an unsuccessful effort to rescue one of America’s first African American pilots. I didn’t remember him at all.)

MTM and the hat toss
I am not sure that I am a typical viewer, but I always find myself missing many of the persons noted, even though I have not thought of them for many years. Rose Marie from the Dick Van Dyke Show, for example, or Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It’s hard to believe, but both of them matter to me as Jane Pauley leads me to think of them again.

And this TV viewing comes just a few days after I spent part of a morning on a brief year-end visit to my hometown of Savannah, Georgia, placing stones upon the grave markers of my parents, grandparents, an aunt and uncle, a recently-deceased young cousin, the parents of childhood friends, and one special, much-missed childhood friend of my own. My most surprising find that day was the gravesite of a dentist who treated both of my parents long ago. His stone proudly includes his D.D.S. title after his name and notes that he was a “devoted husband, father, grandfather, and dentist” — a man who treasured both family and profession.

I don’t think I’m at all obsessed with death, but I am fascinated by cemeteries, particularly those that are homes to the graves of famous people. A few years ago, I dragged my wife and daughter through a persistent drizzle to Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris to view the “final resting places” of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, and 12th century lovers Heloise and Abelard. 

One unusual memory of that visit involved our being approached at the cemetery by a young woman speaking very rapid French. She wanted directions to a particular grave. (Since I was a poor student of French, at best, I didn’t really understand her request at the time, but I did some research after the fact.) It turns out that many young French women seek out the grave site of a noted 19th century journalist and lover killed in a duel as the result of an affair. The women rub themselves against one part of the statue’s anatomy in hopes of increasing their fertility. Could this happen anywhere besides Paris?

Note the location of a suspicious bright spot on the statue.
A few years before that, Audrey and I walked gingerly through the chaotic Jewish cemetery in Prague, where graves have been stacked atop each other for centuries and gravestones placed there many years apart lean heavily upon each other. We never found the grave of famed Czech Rabbi Judah Loew, who is reputed to have formed a Golem to protect Czech Jews from a series of pogroms in the 16th century. Rabbi Loew’s Golem has an important place in Jewish literature; it could have been useful in our later history, too.  

My photo of centuries of graves in the Prague Jewish Cemetery
So this is what I am thinking about on the last day of 2017. I am reacting to Hail and Farewell for a year many of us would like to ignore or forget. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Tastes of “Home”

In one of his books, Kurt Vonnegut describes heading back to his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, for his sister’s funeral. He reminisces and notes that you can live many places in your life, but your original hometown is always your real “home.”

I am reminded of this idea because, in a few weeks, the four New Jersey Goodmans (both adults and children) will be heading to Savannah (my “home”) for a few days to join in the annual Cousins’ Party at my cousins Debbie and Joel Rotkow’s house. I am in training for the event.

Some people train by working out and dieting. Sure, I am doing a little of each of those. But I am also working out my taste buds to get them ready to take in some special Savannah delicacies.

There have been many yearly cousins’ gathering in Savannah. Debbie and Joel weren’t the first to host the cousins’ party. That honor belongs to Aunt Sara Heyman, who was really my cousin and not my aunt (but we follow Savannah custom in which older cousins and even older friends of our parents are automatically called Aunt and Uncle).

The Cousins’ Party guest list expands from year to year as cousins marry and have babies, and spouses and kids get added to the list. Sadly, it also contracts. We have lost some family members both older and younger in recent years.  So we spend part of each party welcoming and part remembering. We tell new stories and rehash old ones. And we eat—a lot.

This year, I am getting a culinary head start as I prepare for my return to Savannah. I am indulging in three essential Savannah foods to get myself in the mood.

First, Brett put in an order for me through Amazon for a “boiled peanut kit.” A box arrived with 2 pounds of raw peanuts, a large packet of sea salt and a smaller packet of Cajun seasoning. I followed the directions and combined them in a big pot filled with enough water to lift the peanuts 2 inches above the bottom of the pot. Then I boiled them and boiled them and boiled them. The package directions suggested 4-6 hours. I kept them going for more than 7. And they still weren’t as soft as I remember or really like. But they are salty and watery and taste like a mixture of garbanzo beans and heaven. In my distant memory, there was a store called the Chatham Peanut Company on Jefferson and State Streets. halfway between my mother’s workplace at Heyman & Son Clothing on Broughton and my father’s radio and TV repair shop on Jefferson. The peanut store had great parched and boiled peanuts and an owner who knew both of my parents and made me feel very welcome when I came in to make small purchases.

My boiled peanuts on the way to perfection
(If you want some history and trivia about boiled peanuts, go here: https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/BoiledPeanutsHistory.htm. One caveat: General Sherman sees closely connected to the history. Oh well.)

So there are now boiled peanuts in my home. And they are homemade! Which means my New Jersey home could masquerade as a Savannah home, sort of. The Savannah aspect is even more apparent if you check out my pantry which contains two bottles of Johnny Harris Barbecue Sauce.  They are the last two bottles from two cases I ordered last year. (And I just put in a new order to replenish my supply.) 

Sadly, Johnny Harris Restaurant on Victory Drive is gone, but the spirit (and the sauce) go on. Johnny Harris was where you went after a dance if you had money and a special date. It was a clear step up in cost and class from Shoney’s next door. Those were my two main alternatives during my high school years.

Johnny's as it must have looked when my parents first went there.
The third Savannah must in my training regimen is a little more controversial than the other two. It requires a little back story. 

Each year, I succumb to a “sales pitch” around Christmas time from an organization in Alabama that prides itself on employing numerous handicapped people on its staff, including the person who is calling me. According to his persuasive phone spiel, the cleaning supplies, garbage and storage bags, and other products I buy help to keep handicapped people like him at work. I am trusting and hopeful that the company is on the up and up. (It did pass the Google test.) 
Will these two fruitcakes last until our trip?
This year, the company offered a new item I couldn’t pass up—Claxton Fruit Cake. For me, historically, Claxton Fruit Cake is an essential part of Christmas time in Savannah. It’s heavy and sweet and may rot my teeth and expand my girth. I don’t care. My entire family makes fun of me when I buy one of more pound-size cakes to slip into my suitcase for the trip back to New Jersey each year. I don’t mind. And their making fun means that I have little competition when it comes to eating the goodies.

So there it is—my special Savannah first aid kit—boiled peanuts, barbecue sauce, and fruit cake. They are more than foods; they are memories and history. They are “home.”

Monday, December 4, 2017

Snow Blower Sagas

Friday morning, I picked up my snow blower from the repair shop. This is not a sentence that a boy from Savannah, Georgia, ever expects to write—or even think.

The repair shop had cleaned the carburetor, replaced a spark plug, tuned the engine, checked the blades, replaced the oil, and refilled the fuel tank. If writing that list implies that I understand very much about motors or their maintenance, I can assure you that I am out of my element there too. Presumably, if I knew how to handle the necessary maintenance, I could have done the jobs myself and saved $78.65. I’m not that crazy! I may need the snow blower this winter, and I want to know it will work if called upon. Fixing things mechanical is not in my DNA.  

According to the repair shop owner, I’m now all set to deal with a winter of snow that I hope will never come in New Jersey but would welcome farther north where we hope to ski this winter.

There I go again, talking about skiing. Something else a Savannah boy seldom expects to discuss—or even think about.

The snow blower is not a recent purchase, but it was made only about 10 years ago after a lot of soul searching. For many years living in my transplanted northern home, I figured that snow shoveling was good exercise. For several of those years, I was also under the delusion that my then teenaged children would take up the shovels and spare me the task (right!). Finally, I came to the conclusion that neither of my reasons for avoiding buying a snow blower was based on fact. Besides, the children were no longer teens and no longer living at the family manse.

So the snow blower and I became winter partners about a decade ago. We are not close partners, however. I still have to reread the manual every winter to make sure which switch to move where to get the machine started. And it often coughs at me if I don’t do the settings right—or is it sneering?

So many parts to manipulate in the right order!
I am not alone in my snow blower maintenance mysteries or miseries. Last year, my friend Gary decided that he needed a new snow blower. Combining that need with his basic cheapness, he ordered the machine from an online source. He knew it came with “some assembly required,” but he decided to ignore that fact, as well as his basic incompetence when it came to assembling machines. “I saved over $300,” he proudly announced.

The snow blower arrived in a large box and in many pieces. It also came with diagrams and detailed assembly instructions written in that special language that instruction manual writers use. Gary was perplexed. 

A big box, many parts, unfathomable instructions!

He brought the problem up at the next gathering of our Tuesday morning breakfast club. The club consists of several aging Jewish men. Amazingly, at least two of our group are not incompetent when it comes to tools or to reading assembly instructions. (I am not one of those, obviously, nor is Gary.)

So Mark decided to take on the task of assembling Gary’s snow blower with Gary serving as kibitzer and helper. It took a number of hours, but the job appeared to be done. Then Mark noted that one piece seemed to be attached in the wrong direction and another was just left over on the ground. Gary’s wife Adrienne watched the proceedings with a look of amusement, though (good for her) she didn’t offer any criticism. Just that smile.

The next Tuesday morning, Mark and Gary described the problem at our breakfast gathering, and Bruce, our other mechanically-minded member, offered to help. A convoy left the diner for Gary’s house. Mark and Bruce took on needed disassembly and reassembly with Gary looking on. During the process, Adrienne arrived home and noted the array of cars in her driveway. She walked over and took in the messy scene.

“The saga continues,” she announced with a laugh. Wives can be so cruel!

Amazingly, the crew did get the machine into working shape in a relatively short time. Though I never learned how well it ran last winter when the snows finally arrived.

As for my own snow blower saga, things went pretty well last winter, start-up-wise. After one snowfall, I even tried to persuade Audrey to join in on the fun of pushing the snow blower through 10 inches of the white stuff on our driveway. Within five minutes, she deserted me and went back inside. Snow removal is man’s work, it seems.

And so is snow blower maintenance, though it’s lucky for me and my snow blower that I am able to farm out the maintenance task to another far more competent man. One who is not handicapped by my mixture of Southern (non-snow) heritage and serious lack of mechanical instinct.   

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Curses, Foiled Again!

I like to think that I curse far less than many other people I know or hear. There is the occasional “damn” and some other curse words muttered under my breath. But, for the most part, I avoid the really bad words. You know the ones I mean. . . . I grumble a lot, and I have been accused by my daughter of having “a tone” sometimes when I speak. But not of cursing too much.

I think my reluctance to curse was implanted in me by my parents, who were pretty puritanical when it came to bad words. I can remember a time when I came home from a hard day of first grade with a tough vocabulary question for my parents to answer. That day in the boys’ room, I had spied a four-letter word that began with “F” written in magic marker above a urinal. I said the four letters over and over in my mind to make sure I remembered them. Then I came home hoping to get help in solving the mystery.

At the dinner table, I spelled out the new word, and my parents, almost in unison, said, “Never use that word!” I received a similar response on another occasion when I asked my grandmother for the meaning of a curse word in Yiddish that I had heard. What I got, in both cases, was admonition instead of definition. Luckily, I was able to learn the meaning of both words, and many more, “on the street.”

One way to clean up the dirty words

Still, over the years, I have stayed a little squeamish about using the really bad words. You know the ones I mean. . . . For example, many people have told me that the show Veep on HBO (is it still playing?) was really good. I watched one episode and was so disturbed by watching a female Vice President and later President using “the F word” over and over, that I never tuned in again. (Lest you think that I am alone in being prudish, I can remember the time when my parents visited many years ago, and we thought we would entertain them by watching an episode of The Sopranos. They both shut down completely after the first “F word” barrage. Oh well.) Let me note that I am not proud to make these revelations.

I’ve had two funny recent experiences that involved curse words. A few weeks ago, Audrey and I went with friends to see a powerful off-Broadway show called Jesus Hopped the A Train about two prisoners who converse with each other at Riker’s Island as they await a trial or a sentencing for murders they committed. The play opens with one of the prisoners on his knees trying to say the Lord’s Prayer. He begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be they name.” He knows that there shouldn’t be any mention of someone named Harold, but can’t remember just what word to use instead. As he curses at himself out loud, we hear voices off stage, yelling “Shut the F--- up!” The curse exchange goes on for at least a minute. The audience reaction is a mixture of surprise and laughter and maybe a little discomfort. And I’m just imaging what my parents would be thinking if we had brought them to the play.

"Harold be thy name"
I am also thinking about how that play would go over if we took it on in the play reading class that I attend every Wednesday. We non-actor actors sight read plays aloud, taking parts assigned to us by the teacher. If we’re reading contemporary plays, the “F word” has a way of slipping in occasionally. We actors brave our way through the language, and, secretly, I think we enjoy being free to let out a curse. However, one class member dropped out a few years ago when she couldn’t take it anymore.

Then, last Monday night, Brett, Amanda, and I attended a game between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Clippers. Going to the game was part of my birthday present from my kids. It was a fun night. I paid only for my transportation. I didn’t even have to leave my seat once I settled into it; Brett made a trip to the concession stand and delivered a bucket of popcorn and a Diet Coke right to me.

Behind us was a particularly vocal Knicks fan, who was Israeli. Not that unusual in Manhattan. Both her cheers and negative comments were filled with a mixture of English and Hebrew. However, when her Knicks favorite Kristaps Porzingis missed a shot or got called for a foul, she had only one thing to say —“Shit!”

I guess some words work in any language. And I guess there are right times to curse, no matter what my parents and grandmother taught me. Like when you just can’t remember what name fits in the Lord’s Prayer or when Kristaps Porzingis misses an easy shot.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Getting Younger

A few years ago, Audrey insisted that I read the book Younger Next Year. It’s a popular self-help book written by a cardiologist and one of his patients, both of whom are up in years, as we who are aging like to say euphemistically. The major thesis of the book is that you can ward off the evil effects of aging if you start a regimen of daily exercise, as well as a sensible eating plan.

It all makes a lot of sense, and I have taken two key steps toward meeting the book halfway: (1) I read a copy of the book that I checked out of the library, though I admit that I returned the book to the library as soon as it was due and didn’t even entertain the thought of purchasing my own copy for continuing reinforcement; and (2) I joined a gym and signed up for regular sessions with a personal trainer named William. 

I have written about William before. He is what I like to call a “gentle sadist.” He has a vision of me as someone lighter, stronger, and, yes, even younger than I really am. I am trying not to depress him too much by continuing to demonstrate the “real” me at our sessions.

I try to exercise pretty regularly, but often take a day or two off. A person has to have time to rest and add calories, after all. Which might tell you how well I’m doing on the sensible eating part of the plan.

For example, today I’m taking a rest day because my calves ache. The pain is the result of a strange machine at the gym that William imposed on me yesterday during our “work on your legs” day. Here is what it looks like.
(Needless to say, this is not a picture of me on the machine.)

William’s idea is to set the machine for a weight a bit higher than what I consider comfortable. Then I am to place my shoulders under the two horizontal pads, stand with my toes on the bar at the bottom, raise up on my toes, and lift the pads with the “power” of my calves. Normally, I do three sets of 15 lifts. Though some days, like yesterday, William pushes me to 4 or 5 sets.  You would think I would emerge from the machine with a sense of greater strength. Not so. I emerged with wobbly legs and moved “drunkenly” toward the next exercise.  And today, I’m having a little trouble climbing stairs gracefully. Not to worry. This exercise stuff is not a sprint, as they say, but a marathon. Sure. . .

During my “day off,” I’ve been reading an amusing memoir by an Israeli writer named Etgar Keret. I recommend it highly. Here is his take on taking up yoga to get in shape.

I did try yoga a few years ago, At the end of my first beginners’ class, the pale, skinny teacher came over to me and in a soft but firm voice explained that I wasn’t ready yet to work with the beginners and should first join a “special” group—a bunch of women in advanced stages of pregnancy. It was actually quite nice—the first time in a long while that I was the one with the smallest belly in the room. The women working out were very slow, and they would pant and sweat even when they were asked to perform simple, basis actions, just like me. I was sure that I had finally found my place in the cruel world of physical activity. But the group steadily grew smaller: as on a reality show, each week another woman was eliminated.  About three months after I joined the class, all of the members had given birth except me, and the teacher with the same soft but firm voice told me before turning out the lights on the studio for the last time that she’d bought a one-way ticket to India and didn’t know whether she would be back.
                        --Etgar Keret, The Seven Good Years

I figure soon, once I can walk into the gym without listing right or left, I’ll get back to the machines and to William’s pushing. Is this going to work the way the doctor suggested in his book? Sadly, I think it is more likely that I will succumb to a comment my mother might have made. “Get cracking. You know you’re not getting any younger.” 

Friday, November 3, 2017

A for Activism

A few weeks ago, Audrey and I went to see Michael Moore’s show on Broadway, The Terms of My Surrender. The tone was set in the opening moment, when Moore—dressed as frumpily as usual—walked onto a stage with an American flag motif as a backdrop and shouted, “How the fuck could this happen?”

Who is that man hiding behind Michael Moore's playbill?

The question seemed to glow in the air. It made us laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time. We wondered if Moore was planning to tell us something during the show or was going to blame us for doing or for not doing something. The answer turned out to be both.

What followed was a 90-minute extended monologue (with a few entertaining detours) that focused not so much on the fame or infamy that Moore’s words and films have generated for him over the years but on the ways he has gone about earning that fame or infamy. Starting from his childhood days in Flint, Michigan (an archetypical blue collar city), Moore has done much more than shout or make documentary films to demonstrate his activism. He has—well—acted! And he was making a plea or a demand for us audience members to get our act together and begin acting ourselves.

One of his stories hit close to home for me. Moore told about his adventures while attending Boys’ State in Michigan the summer before his senior year in high school. Guess what? I did the same thing in Georgia about five years earlier than Moore had. 

Moore felt uncomfortable during the week he spent with hundreds of overachievers or would-be politicos. So he used his time writing a speech for a Boys’ State contest sponsored by the Elks Club on the life and impact of Abraham Lincoln. As it turned out, Moore had a grievance against the Elks. His father had decided not to join the organization when he learned that being white was a key requirement for membership at that time. That was soon to change, and Moore was a key reason for the change. Amazingly, his speech attacking the Elks in Lincoln’s name won the contest, and he delivered it in front of several Elks leaders who were I’m sure both angry and embarrassed. The story made the national news, and within a year, the Elks and other fraternal organizations were shamed into opening their membership to all races.

My Boys’ State experience was different from Moore’s, though it did have a couple of activist moments. For the most part. I enjoyed the politicizing that went on during the week and even got caught up in the races for Boys’ State governor and legislature that were held there. I didn’t run for office, but served as one of the party whips, which meant that I was expected to whip up support for my party’s candidates. I became deeply involved in backroom intrigue, making promises and counting votes. If smoking had been allowed, we whips would have worked long into the night in smoke-filled caucus rooms. This was 1966, after all, the days of old-fashioned politicos such as Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen and Sam Rayburn. Of course, it was also the time of Georgia’s notorious racist governor Lester Maddox. My memory is that I was never required to shake his hand when he visited the program that summer. I’d like to think that I would have refused to do so if asked. (In my mind, I was much more of a badass than in real life.)

The week was about more than playing at politics; it also was filled with the undercurrent of the Vietnam War. June of 1966 was a high point of the war, and we males approaching high school graduation were getting worried. Feelings ran high in Georgia on both sides of the Vietnam debate. Like most young “activists,” I opposed the war, which was easier in that I didn’t yet have a draft card to worry about heeding or burning. (“Hell no, I won’t go!” I shouted, and then mumbled in an undertone, “. . . unless somebody makes me.”) We could talk tough because we were all certain that we were going to get college deferments, or so we hoped.

One of the loudest of us objectors was a student from Moultrie, Georgia, named John F. (I’m protecting his identity here because I still don’t trust that J. Edgar Hoover isn’t coming back from his place in Hell to get us.) Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge was coming to speak to us one afternoon. (Talmadge was a strong war supporter at the time; amazingly, he would change his stance a few years later). John told us that he was going to grill the senator over the coals, just wait and see! Talmadge spoke for 30 minutes or so, driveling on about why the fight in Vietnam was so important for U. S. interests. Then he agreed to take questions from us guys. John’s hand immediately went up, and there was smoke coming out of his nostrils. “Senator Talmadge,” he shouted. “I’m John F. from Moultrie.”

Senator Herman Talmadge could bring forth fire and brimstone,
or he could sweet talk to get his way.
That was all he could get out before Talmadge gave him a smile and turned on the charm. “John F. from Moultrie. Do you have a brother named Paul?”


“Didn’t he work in my office last summer as a college intern?”


“Great guy. How’s he doing? Please give him my best. Tell him I remember him well.”

John started to gulp.

“Now, what was your question?”

“A-hum-a- nuh, a-hum-a-nuh,” John seemed to deflate as he sank back into his chair.

It was a perfect lesson on how politicians are able to grab and hold control over an audience.

If only John had had a few lessons from Michael Moore before trying to take on the senator that day.

Up until a few weeks ago, that’s where my Boys’ State memory of John F. ended. But after our evening with Michael Moore, I decided to find out whatever happened to John. Through the magic of Google, I was able to learn a new chapter. It seems that John rebounded from his Boys’ State deflation to head to college and even to Harvard Law School. He practiced law for many years and then found a new outlet for his energies. He became a psychic and teacher of meditation and psychic development. An article I read online refers to John as “one of the nation’s better known serious psychics.”

I am not sure what qualifies one as a serious psychic, but I’m sure it requires a special type of activism. And I’m sure I would have as much to learn from John as from Michael Moore about how to give voice to my thoughts and hopes.    

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Not-so-Gracious Hello

Those of us old enough to remember “Laugh In” fondly remember Lily Tomlin’s insufferable telephone operator Ernestine, who would hound customers with a greeting that began, “A gracious hello. . .,” followed by a harangue that let the customers know that in a battle between themselves and the phone company, there could be only one winner.

"one-ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy"
I have been in a similar battle lately and losing it.  Over the past month, I have received more than 20 calls that began, “This is Verizon with an urgent message. This is not a marketing or service call. We are trying to get in touch with Kerri I. If this is Kerri I, please press 1. If this is not Kerri I, please press 2.”

Because I am a sap (Audrey uses a stronger word), and because the calls insidiously come from an exchange and a town in my calling area, I have often answered them, mistakenly believing they are actually for me. Disappointed but determined, I dutifully press 2 to let the caller know that No, I am not Kerri I. The call does not end there, however. I get a series of recorded questions, such as “Is Kerri I available? If Kerri I is not available, please pass along a message to Kerri I.”

Now, here comes some strange shit. I am asked to pass along a specific number to Kerri I and to let her (him) know that she/he should call the number and then enter a special 10-digit code number (555-555-5555). Yep, ten 5’s. Now that is an easy-to-remember but not too secret code. Who thinks this stuff up?

Twice in the last two weeks, I have gone further. After following another instruction and pressing the number 3 to get myself removed from the call list, an operator has come on the line. When I explained that I am not Kerri I, I was asked to tell the operator my phone number. For some strange reason, this request made me nervous. I said, “You called me, so you must know the number.” The response came: “Sir, if you don’t tell me the number, I cannot take your number off our list.” “Well, I am not stating my number aloud,” I replied. (I made this decision because somewhere I heard that you are not supposed to use the word “yes” with a crank caller or to give out information that could be used to identify you in some way. A little late for caution, you might say, but that’s where I drew my line in the sand. We had reached a standoff. The operator hung up, and I felt a little satisfaction. Of course, I received the same call at least three more times later that same day. I hung up each time even without pressing 2. So there!

I decided to do some detective work. I looked up Kerri I in whitepages.com and discovered such a person existed in a town nearby with a number that was just like mine with one digit changed. Now, I would be ready for Verizon should there be a next time with a surefire way to get them off my back (or out of my ear).  

Predictably, the call came a day later. Then time, I pressed 1. The operator was thrilled to be speaking to Kerri I, then perhaps disappointed when I said I was not Kerri, but knew how they could contact her. “Do you know Kerri I?” the operator asked. “No, but I looked her number up. You could have done that, too,” I added with a little snip in my voice.  I got this reply, “Sir, we are Verizon, we don’t look up phone numbers.” Of course not. I tried to give her the correct number for her records, but she wasn’t budging and refused to listen. She did give me a little satisfaction (or agita) when she read out my own telephone number for confirmation so she could make a notation to get me off the call list. So Verizon really could look up numbers if they were pressed to do so, I thought.

I placed the phone back on its base with a little smile of victory, thinking that I had taken on Verizon and won. Sure. Now, I am just waiting until the calls start for someone other than Kerri I.

I have since found a You Tube video of Ernestine taking on a caller on “Laugh In.” “Please be aware, sir,” she noted, “that we at the phone company are not subject to local, state, or federal rules. We are omnipotent. That’s potent with an omni- tacked on.” Kerri I, I am sorry if I gave away any of your secrets to Verizon. I simply succumbed to a greater power than either of us.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Running Out of Stories?

During the winter, our friends Phyllis and Harvey came to visit us in the Berkshires for a skiing weekend. As Harvey and I were riding up on the chairlift together, I characteristically began telling a story that connected that moment in time to some event in my past. This is what I do; I tell stories or relate memoir monologues, if you will.
I completed my story, and Harvey said, “Wow! I think that’s one I never heard before.” The comment brought me up short. What was he implying about my storytelling?

I like to think my stories are all interesting both to me and to my listener. Not always the case. I also like to think the stories are in their first telling to my audience and are not recycled. Also not always the case, as Harvey’s comment seemed to show. Sadly, these days the recycling seems to be overtaking the new telling. Which has sparked a great fear in me. Could I be running out of stories!

This could be a serious problem for me. I’m reminded of an old joke. (Don’t stop me, if you have heard it before.) “What do you call a fly when its wings are removed? A walk (rim shot).”  So, what do you call a storyteller whose well of stories is drying up? The answer depends on how determined and insistent the storyteller is. I like to think I am both.

I have taken a few months off to deal with more pressing matters, but I am determined to get my mojo back and to get back into the storytelling racket! It’s a matter of finding some new stories to tell or some new audiences to tell the old ones to. Either would work as far as I am concerned. So I am not really concerned about running out of stories. What worries me is whether I can find an audience for my new or old stories and whether I can convince the audience I find to listen—at least as long as it takes to reach the top of a ski mountain or to get to the end of a blogpost.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Going Up!!!

We’ve been spending a lot of time in hospitals lately. My son Brett has had four operations in and around his brain in the past six weeks. The surgeries were followed by stays in the ICU (intensive care unit) and a few weeks in a rehabilitation facility. All of which allows me to generalize a little—hospitals are scary places. They have a look, a smell, and, most of all, a sound all their own.

I thought I had experienced most of the hospital sounds over the past few weeks. Bells, alarms, beeping monitors, loud hacking coughs, cheery nurses, and more. Then I heard something different and a little exciting during Brett’s most recent stay. When we entered the elevator on the ground floor at NYU Hospital, a recorded voice said, “Going up.” Nothing surprising there. But I could swear the words were spoken with an upward lilt. It sounded something like this, “Goooooing uP!”  Not to be outdone, when we entered the elevator on a high floor to start a downward journey, the voice said “Going down” with a little bit of a descending tone, like this: “GOOOing DOWnnnn.”
Movin' on up...
Now this may have been my imagination, but I know what I heard. I also see a metaphor here. There is a happiness when you are going up, even if it’s to a hospital room. And if you’re a visitor coming to see a friend or family member, even better. You’re on a mission of hope and joy. When you leave, you might be a little down. After all, you have just experienced being in a hospital!

We are all happy to be hospital free for the near future. There will be some scans to accompany Brett to on a regular basis and perhaps some other potential procedures down the line. Who knows? A lot is unknown when you are dealing with hospitals, no matter how many monitors, and dials, and tubes, and X-ray or CT or MRI machines are there to demystify the unknown. Good health is a precarious thing, as my mother-in-law often wisely noted. She put it this way: “As long as you have your health. . .” She often left the rest of the sentence blank, but we knew just what she meant.

I am happy to report that, for now, Brett has his health. And that sounds pretty uplifting to us.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Too Many Changes 

(Turn and face the strange)
Just gonna have to be a different man
                        -- David Bowie

My life had been getting into a pattern lately. Days took on a sameness with slight variations. Work on a few different writing projects. Go to the gym or go downstairs to our exercise equipment. Read from books or on the computer. Watch MSNBC for hours on end and curse the darkness taking over the White House. Think about and do some research for that long-anticipated book (short story, essay, paragraph, sentence, whatever) about my father’s family’s migration from Eastern Europe to the Deep South—which I still haven’t begun writing in earnest, etc.

Some people hate sameness and look forward to change. Me, not so much.

But change seems to keep coming in waves into my life lately.

Last Friday, for instance, I had to work with a new trainer at the gym. New for me at least. I have gotten accustomed to Marlon, my exercise mentor from Peru. He pushes me, but not too hard. I sweat, but not in buckets. But Marlon was going to be away from the gym for several weeks with a mysterious illness. So, I agreed to work with Will, who, as it turns out, seemed to have no respect for my advancing age. Here is an example. He put me on a new machine and showed me how to push and pull properly. He figured I knew what to do after I pulled or pushed five times. Then he said, “Good, do 20 of those.”  Then we began our count. I figured we were starting at 6 since I had already done 1 through 5 getting into the pattern. He began counting at 1! So, we were doing 25 and not 20, it seemed. Outrageous!

Then, he kept increasing the weight on each machine with each rep. Soon, I was sweating buckets. Amazingly, I agreed to work with him two times next week.

(Turn and face the strange)
Small changes at the gym, big changes elsewhere.
The patterns of our lives have been undergoing major changes at home.  Our son Brett initiated those when he collapsed on a New York street a month ago and was rushed to NYU Hospital. Three life-saving brain surgeries later to deal with a long-festering brain tumor, and all of our lives have been turned upside-down and inside-out. For the next several months, he will be living back in our house in New Jersey, building up his strength and stamina and getting his overall health in order. His doctors are optimistic. He and we are learning to be optimistic. We’re looking to get our patterns back. It’s not quite as simple, or as satisfyingly boring as it was before, but we plan on getting back there again soon.

Brett has a happy reunion with our dog Tess.
He'll need the helmet for a few more weeks
to protect his fragile skull.

Brett posing with two fellow baldies.
His recuperation has been going remarkably well.

(Turn and face the strange) 

Audrey turned to me the other night in bed and said, “I really don’t like change that much.” I have to agree. After all, I remember those days, just last week, when 20 was 20 and not 25.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Seems Like Old Times . . .

I am thinking a lot about aging lately and about one of Audrey’s grandmother’s most famous sayings, “It’s no fun to get old.” The expression is more fatalistic than Oomi was herself. She was a remarkable woman, who was commuting downtown to a job as an inspector in the garment district into her 80s. But she did have a tendency to make sighing and burping sounds in her later years. I have been making some of those same sounds lately . . . and more. Is that creaking that I hear coming from my bones?
Audrey and Oomi, a long time ago
To add to my sense of foreboding is the recent diagnosis by my ophthalmologist that I need cataract surgery. (Isn’t that something for only old people?) So, next week, I will be going under the knife, or whatever they use for removing and replacing my original, now defective natural lens with a better artificial one. My doctor is very optimistic. He assures me that the surgery will help me feel more comfortable dealing with glaring headlights at night, a problem that until recently I thought plagued only old people. (Uh-oh, there goes that refrain again.) He also claims that 98% of people who undergo the procedure come through with positive results. I am not fully reassured. His comment makes me think of those times as a school kid when I would come home with a 98 on a test, and my father would ask, “What happened to the other two points.” It also doesn’t help that the staff at the facility where the procedure takes place asked me during a preclearance interview if I have an advance directive on file—just in case. Oh my!

As Petula Clark sang, "The lights are much brighter there. . ."
I am not alone in this feeling of declining, it seems. When I told a cousin about the upcoming surgery, he noted that he had a similar procedure a few years ago. He assures me that his condition was probably worse than mine. Of course, when I complained previously about another health issue to the same cousin, he quickly topped it with one of his own.

Then last week when I was in Savannah, I mentioned another potential health concern to my brother, the doctor. It has the word “hernia” connected to it. “That’s nothing,” he said, “I have a …”

My brother and cousin are both in their 70s, and they are teaching me an important lesson about getting older. Whenever someone mentions a health issue (and that is quite often the topic when us aging people get together), be prepared to describe your own issue in detail and to explain why yours is more worrisome. Maybe Oomi was wrong. There is fun to be had in growing old. It’s just a perverse sort of fun in which you out-complain everybody else.