Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Day I Was Born

Tomorrow ... I've been a bit worried lately. Worried about my birthday, which, incredibly, seems to fall on the same day every year. Amazing. Seriously, I've been concerned because the way I've planned things this year, the way things are unfolding I'm going to be in Kansas City on that day, which is December 28, by the way. And, usually, this less than ideal calendar positioning makes for some less than interesting birthday celebrations. I mean, 12/28 is right smack in the valley between Christmas day and New Years, so you can imagine just how eager folks are to go out and party yet another time. Sure, when I was a kid, it was actually pretty cool to have a birthday during that week. My friends were always around and, as a bonus, we were always off from school. What could be better? Add to that, if the Jewish lunar calendar was cooperative in a given year, it was also Hanukkah at the same time. Talk about a windfall.

But once I went off to school, the realities of a 12/28 birthday started to take hold. The hard truth is that folks just aren't around when it's time to cut the cake and blow out the candles. Actually, (now this is not a pity statement here, I'm just stating the facts, Mam. Just the facts) - I can't remember the last time I even had a birthday cake with candles placed in front of my face. Come to think of it, I was just at a friend's birthday party a few weeks ago and I was sitting next to him when the cake was presented, so ... the cake and candles were, technically, in front of my face. It was thrilling for me. (Note: I've decided this year's going to be different and decided to make a list of folks I've met here in KC and plan a fun night out. Perhaps Spanish food, lots of sangria, and then ... yes ... karaoke. Why the hell not? My "month after my birthday" celebration. It's time.)

A Return To Blogdom - I haven't written on the blog in a long time but figured this would be a good time to dive back in. The book is almost completed and my attention has been focused solely on that over the past few months. As most of you are aware, the ones who really know me, Eldercation is my labor of love - it means a lot to me. And the past few weeks have been especially challenging as I do my best to put into words just what this project means, not just to me, but what is can mean to a lot of folks out there.

But, for now, I'm blogging away, reflecting on what tomorrow's going to bring. My 2008 birthday - that's 51 years from 1957. (I'm shaking my head right now). It really is speeding up, I swear it.

Well ... I'm happy to say, I've plotted out my day tomorrow, and it's looking pretty good. Of course, with 51 years of living comes a bit of wisdom, and I know that the very best things in life usually present themselves when they're least expected, so ... I look forward to the unplanned part of tomorrow. What I have planned however, is the following:

Hopefully, I'll wake up. That would be a productive thing to do on my birthday. That would be a productive thing to do on most days, come to think of it.

Next - off to yoga. I've been practicing a lot lately and the past few weeks have been especially fulfilling. You see, my gift to myself in 2008 has been one of the best gifts I've received in many years. This year I gave myself a new body. Now, I'm not trying to be funny there - I really mean what I just said. About four months ago, knowing my birthday was coming up as it does at the tail-end of the year, I decided to create two deadlines for myself. One was to finish the book. And I've pretty much done that - I'd say I'm about 99% there. The second commitment I made to myself was I decided that, after years of reading about the body-mass index ("BMI") and flirting with reaching that number a few times - this was going to be the year where I reached my goal weight. The actual number always seemed kind of ridiculous to me; a man my height is supposed to weigh 165 pounds!?! For years, I've laughed at that figure. But to get to a BMI of less than 25, which is what they call "normal" weight - that is, indeed, the number. There' s nothing I can do about it.

It's funny, pretty much since I was around 20-25, I've always hovered around the 185-188 area, only once flirting with 190 when I lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Of course, that's when I had Nino's 50 feet from my Henry Street front door, with it's silver tins filled with seemingly unlimited portions of eggplant rolatini and ziti parmesan (and the best Italian bread I've ever tasted. And the best cannolis I've ever tasted ... I could keep listing things here, by the way). The more I think about it, it's incredible I didn't weigh 300 pounds back then. Thank God I have at least a little vanity in my makeup and that I do, in fact, care about the way I look. More importantly, as I've lived through my 40's and now starting my 50's, I've become much more aware of my health and nutrition. Hence, the Bikram yoga and the occasional dates with Stanley Burroughs.

So, did I reach my goal? Keep my commitment to myself? Well, I already gave away the answer to those questions when I talked about my gift to myself. As of a few days ago, I finally broke through the 170 barrier - I'm now in the high 160's. A big moment for me. That means a loss of about 20+ pounds, with a bit more to go. And I'm doing it the best way, I think. I'm still eating. Trust me, I'm still eating. But - and here's the secret - are you ready? It's so simple - I eat less food. Who knew? If you want to lose weight, folks, you can try all the diets, pills, shakes and tricks in the world. But believe me, the only real way to lose weight effectively is to simply eat less food. It works.

But, back to tomorrow. It'll be yoga, followed my a 1 1/2 hour massage, following by a movie. I love history and have heard great things about the new Tom Cruise movie, "Valkyrie". I'm a fan of World War II history and have always been intrigued with the whole plot to kill Hitler thing, so ... I'm there. (btw - It was a tossup between that and the Benjamin Button movie, which I'll see next week). So, I made my trip to Whole Foods earlier and compiled a nice, spelt sticks, sesame sticks, cashews and wasabi pea mixture, which provides me with a healthy snack tomorrow while watching the attempt on the Fuhrer's life.

Now, what to eat? Yes, I'll have a healthy alternative to 4,000 mg. of sodium popcorn while I'm at the movies. But, when it comes to my birthday meal?? I'm not going to be a moron about it - it'll be more than carrots and celery sticks for me. I've thought about going the red meat route. After all, I'm in Kansas City - home of the Kansas City Strip. And I've grown fond of a place across the street - the M&S Grille. Great bar, by the way; always a nice group of people there. And ... because I've been TV-less now for almost three years, that's where I watch my sporting events. (I feel the Jets/Dolphins game a callin'). M&S is known to have one of the best steaks in the city, so ... we'll see. I've been veggie now for about five weeks which, I know isn't a very long time span. (Stu - the last meat I had was that Portillo's Italian beef. I think that alone will keep me from becoming a vegetarian). But, all jokes aside, I feel friggin' great and have to believe the new diet choices have at least something to do with that good feeling. I'll see what happens tomorrow and won't hold back if the spirit moves me.

For dessert? I'm a huge fan of the apple crisp dessert at the Cheesecake Factory. I've mentioned to a few people lately that my dessert instincts have shifted over the past decade or so. I used to make a beeline for anything chocolate. As a kid, my favorite dessert was a hot fudge sundae at Friendly's with chocolate marshmallow ice cream and chocolate sprinkles. Chocolate, chocolate and then more chocolate. But, I've noticed that kind of thing doesn't get my juices flowing any more. It's the fruit desserts - especially the apple cobbler/crisp kinds of things. And, yes, they have to have good ice cream on them. I'm thinking that will be tomorrow's dessert. I'll stuff a candle in my pocket.

So, that's that. A self indulgent blog entry, to be sure. But, what the hell? It's my birthday tomorrow.

And, yes, one more thing. An important thought. I forgot to mention that throughout the day, certainly while sweating my ass off in class, my mind will wander around to the notion that, yes, Harry Jacob Getzov was born on December 28, 1957. That's the day I started my life on this Earth and I won't allow that concept to escape me. And I'm just trucking along. Not exactly the way I thought I'd be trucking but ... isn't that a silly statement, now that I think of it? How was I supposed to truck, anyway? Everything appears to be working out just fine. After all, I have an improved body, a super-duper movie snack ready to go tomorrow, I'm going to watch Tom Cruise try to kill Hitler, and ... the Mets have a closer. Actually, I've been corrected on that one. They have TWO closers!! What could be better?

Happy Birthday To Me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Never Thought ...

Some of you will remember a blog post for a few months back - if you didn't see it, I'll paste link here: "Those Were The Days." When I wrote and posted that piece, I never thought ...

... Well, this morning on the way to work, I passed a Quik-Trip and immediately noticed today's unleaded regular gas price - $1.59!! (Update: Now $1.49) Okay, so the election is now over and the conspiracy theories don't seem to be taking hold any longer. The price is dropping faster than I've ever seen prices drop ... for anything. Honestly, I can't believe what I'm seeing these days. And it's changing by the day. It seems like just yesterday the prices cracked the $4.00/gallon barrier and they were talking about $5.00 or $6.00 prices by the end of the summer. Well ... it didn't happen, although at the time, it seemed like we were easily headed up, up and away. The fact is, as fast as prices are plummeting now, that's how fast they were shooting up earlier this year. Listen, I'm not complaining here. It feels good to be spending only a third of what I was spending on gas - actually, it feels tremendous. And with the way things are looking with the rest of the economy, the increasing layoffs, the Dow inching below 8,000 for the first time in many years ... it may well be that the less expensive fuel is the only thing keeping this country's act together. I can't imagine what things would look like if fuel prices were too high now, as well.

Anyway, on the way home today, I had to pick up my cleaning and I made the turn at 53rd and Main, where I spotted - yes, yes ... my favorite gas sign, still showing that $1.25 figure. Will we? Can we? Dare I even whisper it? Listen, when the gas price was at $4.00/gallon, I would've scoffed at the very thought of a return to what I can only call "yesteryear" prices. When it then dropped down to the $3.00 level, I still wouldn't have given it a chance - I just figured it was someone playing hanky-panky with the oil price levels - for political advantage. Yes, I'm one of those cynics,I can't lie. Then, when the price started approaching the $2.00 level ... well ... I remember driving past the Quik-Trip sign one morning and I actually saw them changing the price board - where the first digit was moving from "6" to "5" to "4" to "3" to "2" to ... "1!!" What a countdown. I think I pulled my car over to the side to take in that special moment. And that was only about a week and a half ago.

So, now that it's at $1.59, what's to think it won't ... now, I don't want to jinx this. Could it actually break a dollar? A friggin' dollar!? I can't remember the last time gas cost less than a dollar a gallon, can you? I'll have to check that out. I mean, wouldn't that be something? Of course, few of us will have jobs, food prices will continue to soar, and I won't have any place to service my Pontiac Vibe when it needs help - (it's a General Motors/Toyota joint-venture car, so let's just hope the Toyota people let me in the door when I come 'a callin'). But at least the price of gas will be a true bargain, thank God for that. I knew there had to be a silver-lining to all of this.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Garden Village News Club

The group was great, much larger than expected, actually. I'd say, by the time I pulled out the first article, about 20-25 people had taken their seats - they were ready to go. It was time to talk about the world.

Mary Jane first suggested the idea to me about two months ago - to come up to Garden Village (my adopted retirement community - the first place I visited for interviews when I arrived in Kansas City) - and do a kind of current events discussion group thing. (Mary Jane is the activity director at Garden Village). We didn't know what it was going to look like but I certainly had no problem with winging it, this being the debut and all. I knew I was comfortable there, so it was pretty much going to work out, no matter what.

Over the weekend, I spent some time perusing through the NY Times, KC Star and looking at different web news portals. By the time I'd finished, I'd plucked out about ten articles - more than enough to keep us busy for an hour or so. I was excited about heading back up to Garden Village since I hadn't been up there in ... well ... it had been too long.

"Save One For Me!" - As soon as I walked into the place, I saw Mary Jane, walked over to give her a hug and heard a voice from above. It was Martha, one of my favorite Eldercation interviewees. She was walking on the third floor and I saw her waving over the balcony, flashing her warm smile, as always. She was laying a claim to the next hug, of course.

Once Mary Jane and I had worked our way up to the third floor, there were more hugs to be had - and new introductions as well. Mac was there - all 101 years of him (he'll be 102 this coming December 23). And Faye was there, too - some of my favorite folks. Mary Jane and I decided to move the group from a formal, rows-of-chairs setting, over to an area with couches, pillows, comfortable easy chairs - to keep things more relaxed and intimate. I'm glad we did that.

Once settled in, it was time to start class. And it didn't take all that much to get started, let me tell you. No matter the subject, the group was more than eager to express themselves. One subject, in particular, started to take over the session and you won't be surprised by what that was. One week out of the election - possibly one of the most important elections of our time - the news cycle was still focused on the political world, so there was little I could do to avoid the topic. And, trust me, I knew this was going to be the issue of the day and did my best to set up escape-hatches beforehand, just in case things started to get out of hand.

"I don't want any bloodshed today," I joked more than once.

And they all laughed when I said it, too. Still, I could feel the energy and could see that certain people were just itching to "have their say," which they were able to do ... until I stepped in with a "Whoa" and another joke about people not killing one another. The good news is that we ended up having a spirited discussion about voter turnout over the past 50 years, and there was another article which talked about a proposal to have early elections in Missouri for the next election. Those topics kept things pretty neutral, which was good. Toward the end we talked about the current economic crisis which then prompted folks to share stories about the Great Depression, which always interesting to hear about, especially because of what's going on these days.

And that's the way things went. It didn't take all that much to fill an hour. In fact, I wasn't looking at my watch, but I'm pretty sure it ended up lasting closer to two hours - the time flew by. Before people started to take off, we talked about a next meeting and decided December 8th would be a good date for all of us. We also talked about people clipping their own articles for the next session - items they run across in the paper, online, or even something they see mentioned on TV. This way, everyone agreed, they'll be more involved for much more than just the one or two hours we spend together.

When it was time to finally break things up, everyone came up to thank me for coming in - for putting the discussion group together which, of course, was more Mary Jane's idea than it was mine.

"Thank me? Why?" I said. "I love doing this."

The fact is, every time I head up north to Garden Village, I get re-energized. I view that place as a kind of fueling station - a place that reminds me about why I'm doing the work I'm doing. Weeks and weeks go by where all I do is sit in the Roasterie or the library and I write, transcribe, write, and then transcribe some more. And I start to forget why I'm doing all of this in the first place. But five minutes sitting in a circle looking out at 20 faces - 20 curious, smart, smiling, fantastic faces - and I'm home again. And it feels good.

Monday, November 3, 2008

"I Love This Day!"

Well ... the day before works, too.

This past Saturday, after spending the better part of the morning down at a Vietnamese community event downtown, I headed to do some grocery shopping and ran into a friend.

"You vote yet?" she asked.

I told her I was planning on doing it the regular way, on November 4. "I've never voted here before and I want to take it all in," I told her. "You know, get a taste for the way they do it in Missouri."

"Well," she laughed. "Good luck with that."

Ten minutes and five horror stories later, she convinced me to try a different approach. Especially with the 2008 "unknown factors." I love, I mean I love that there is talk of an 80% turnout rate this year. (I'm praying for that, but it would truly shock me) But, having said that, I really didn't want to deal with an 8-hour line, so ...

Will 3 Hours Do?
- Angry? No way. And the best thing is, I don't think there was one angry person in the lot. And I'm talking hundreds of people in the Plaza Library basement - one of four or five Kansas City absentee ballot locations.

This was such a joy today. Meeting people, I've learned over the years, is my absolute pass-time, so Election Day (or the day before Election Day) was, once again, right up my alley.

When I first arrived at the library, I wasn't surprised to see over 200 folks already lining the basement hallway. I started an informal poll, asking a few people how long they'd already been there - doing my best to gauge how long it was going to take. Honestly, it didn't matter what they told me, I was there to stay anyway, already armed with about 10 hours-worth of interviews to edit. (btw - I'm heading down the home-stretch, folks. And I'm excited about it)

I Stayed - I Visited -I Voted - As soon as I took my place at the end of the line, I met the most wonderful, warm woman. Little did I know at the time, that I'd be talking with this woman for the next three hours - every minute of it interesting, by the way. Of course, this always help time flow by, which it did. We talked about all kinds of things, including the election - (which we did very quietly, so as to not upset the election workers or other voters - the last thing I needed was a riot) The woman's name was Clara, a 50-60'ish? African-American woman, who was there with her husband. As great as my time with Clara was, I have to say, the entire group of folks, all kinds of people from all different races, ages ... you name it - they were great.

I wanted to make sure to get something about this experience in this blog. I have a feeling something incredible is going to happen tomorrow. I really do.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Time To Get To Work"


Man, do I love older people.

For well over a decade now, I’ve been immersed in a senior-citizen-filled world as I finish a book I’m writing, focusing on their life experiences. Hearing these people talk about one subject, in particular, - the Great Depression – has affected me in ways you can’t imagine.

“You know … you live through something like the Depression, in an area like the Dust Bowl, it’s gonna affect the way you view the world,” North Kansas City’s Roy “Mac” McCormick explained recently, (Mac is 101, by the way). “And when you have nothing, lemme tell you,” he continued, “You have to work. And I mean work hard,” he added, smiling.

Listening to Mac got me to thinking about a number of things, but, in particular, I found myself reflecting on how the concept of hard work relates to our involvement with the political process, government and, more specifically, this fall’s Presidential election.

It is crucial that we all work harder at becoming involved and better educated as this campaign unfolds. And this doesn’t mean simply flicking on your car radio during your commute, or turning on the TV for 15 minutes when you’re first up in the morning or about to drift off to sleep. It takes much more than that. Taking a cue from our older citizens, (who, by the way, are historically the most involved sector of our citizenry, voting-wise), it’s time to read, engage, dig deeper, and then read and listen even more. If we seize the moment, these can be truly revolutionary times. From what I’m seeing out here, some of the very best writing and expression we’ve had in a long time is happening right now, but it’s up to each one of us to take advantage of this bounty.

Sure, I understand that it’s sometimes tough to sort through the data hodgepodge being served up via our news and entertainment outlets. This system not only doesn’t enroll people, it pushes them to run to their “information comfort zones”; places that serve to merely massage a person’s already existing belief systems. These people end up seeking their information solely from those places telling them what they want to hear – nothing more. This kind of myopic cop-out is not only lazy in its approach, it is downright dangerous to our collective health.

A quick story: the other day, I was writing in my favorite coffee shop and noticed a senior woman reading Senator Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope.” I glanced up intermittently, and wondered why this woman was reading the book. I came up with three scenarios: (1) She’s a Democrat, voting for Senator Obama, reinforcing what she already believes. (2) She’s a Republican, voting for Senator McCain, but she’s open-minded and wants to learn more. Number (3) is what I call my “wishful-thinking” scenario. The woman is an independent, undecided voter, also doing the work by gathering the information she needs to make her informed decision.

When the woman got up to leave, she walked by me and we exchanged smiles. Of course, I had to ask.

“Is it good?”

She winked, lifting the book to show me.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “Very much so,” she added.

We chatted a bit and, not being shy, I proceeded with my “scenario-check.” Not being shy herself, the woman shared with me that she wasn’t sure yet. “I want to learn more,” she explained. “And I’m reading John McCain’s writings as well,” she added.

I loved it. A woman hungry for information, not hiding in her comfort zone. Fighting off the avalanche of sound bites and slogans, this woman was eager to make her decision based on her own research, not on someone else’s carefully crafted spin.

When did Americans lose the ability to think for themselves, anyway? It seems most Americans are, in fact, not only swayed by superficial dribble, but they are increasingly relying and thriving on such information. I mean, something as simple as reacting to a speech becomes problematic today, because of the volume of pundits – commenting, arguing … downright yelling at one another. Here’s a thought: if a speech or candidate inspires or nauseates you, simply go with your gut. The problem today is that immediately after folks watch a particular speech or debate, they then allow the talking-head commentary to chip away and hijack their initial feelings.

And so all us must fight back against this urge to take the easy way out. Instead of fleeing into our narrow cubby holes, we need to work harder in our quest to seek out solid facts about the real issues. And it’s here I would caution folks not to allow polls to distract them. Today’s seemingly endless flow of polling numbers merely adds another useless layer to the process; talk about the tail wagging the dog. Remember, there is only one poll that counts – the poll taken on Election Day – which brings me to the last, most critical, step of the process.

Please vote on November 4. No matter what it takes, get to the polls on Election Day. Pull that lever, push that button, or punch that chad (with vigor, please). Take personal responsibility for expressing what you want most for your self, family, community, and … your country.

Okay – Enough.

Now …

Get to work.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

That Was A Good Nap

Yes, I'm still here.

Lots of folks have been asking why I haven't been posting and there's only one reason, actually. I'm working on the book. Reading that line just now, it just dawned on me that that's not a very good reason for my blog-silence. Still ... I'll go with that.

So, it's on this crisp fall Sunday afternoon, I've decided to share with my blog friends, something I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It's not something I would ever post on the Eldercation site in that I'm careful to keep things pretty down-the-middle here; I won't share things like political views and the like. Well ... okay ... I talk about the Mets every now and then, so you all know where I stand on the baseball front. After their latest mental meltdown, however, I won't even go there. At least not until pitchers and catchers report. Then - we'll see.

Biggest Election Of My Lifetime - Is that an overstatement? Perhaps. Let's just say this is an important one. I'll leave it at that.

Having said that, my journal writing over the past year or so always seems to have something about the Presidential campaign and, now that the big day is fast approaching, I decided to submit one of my pieces to the KC city paper - The Kansas City Star. And the good news is, they liked it. So much so, they published it this week. Well ... sort of. Aside from changing the title, having me cut out about 200 words (they then cut out 150 or so more) and spelling my name incorrectly 66% of the time - I have to say I was still happy the piece made the paper. (See - "Follow The Lead Of Our Informed Older Citizens, Kansas City Star - 10/14/2008) It was good to be able to fold together (i) my feelings about older people as well as (ii) my opinion about the way our political system has been developing. The original, full-length piece is, I think, much better, so that's what I'm posting below.

Enjoy and, most important, make sure you vote on November 4.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Francis Would Be Proud

Every time it arrives, I think I'm going to resist it. But, what can I say? It's something that just ... happens. Every four years, I become obsessed with The Summer Olympics. Well, perhaps not obsessed, but I sure do enjoy watching the games. And "watching" is a whole different ball game for me these days. I don't have a TV. I haven't had one now for ... 472 days, 14 hours, 3 minutes and counting. I'm kidding, of course, I haven't really counted the days, but it is pretty close to that time span. The fact is, not having a TV hasn't exactly cut me off from the world. The computer has stepped right into that void and provided content and distraction whenever I've needed both.

The NBC Olympics website is great - they've figured how to make it work, let me tell you. And to think that, at any point, there are millions of folks from all over the world signing on to watch The Games - it's incredible. Of course, NBC has fixed it so the user can't watch most of the events live - they want folks to be tuning in to the network for those kinds of events. But I have been able to watch some things live. I think it was the US/China basketball game the other night - I was able to see that real-time. An impressive team this time around, I must say. It appears Coach K has them taking things pretty seriously.

My favorite moments so far have been watching the swimming races (the finals of each event) online. The links take you to to the day's scheduled events and when you see the "In Progress" link and click on it - you're taken to a page where you see the swimmers listed by lane and then ... they're off. The start time is listed on the first page and by looking at the comparative Beijing/US times in the upper left corner, I can know precisely when the races have started. And, so far, they've been running the races right at the scheduled times. I'm talking, to the minute. Then, once the race starts, it's just a matter of continually hitting the refresh button, watching the new times unfold on the screen (along with position, first, second, etc...) until ... it's over. They list all the splits, world and Olympics' record times and the like. It's great. The relay breakdowns are actually the best. The first time I watched a race this way, I was surprised at how excited I was getting just from looking at a bunch of numbers flashing across my screen. But, I have to tell you - it works. (e.g. - The "RACE" - photo above - you know the one I'm talking about - the men's freestyle relay - The Jason Lezak comeback win. The split numbers unfolding on the screen kind of freaked me out when I first saw them). I suppose I've been broken-in to some extent, because of the "no TV" thing. I've been watching baseball on's Gameday now for two or three years. I love it.

Once 12-24 hours has passed after an event, that's when NBC let's hold of its grip a bit and posts the videos on the site. By then, of course, I know the results and have read the articles, but it's still great to see the actual performances. And then, call me a sap, but I still love watching those medal ceremonies. Which brings me to my point (it took me what? About ten minutes to get here??)

Now, is it me or has anyone else out there noticed something about the American national anthem - the one they're playing at the swimming venue? Do you know what I'm talking about? I think that version of the "Star Spangled Banner" just may be the most beautiful version I've ever heard. I'm being serious about this. The combination of the strong brass arrangement with the soft, absolutely gorgeous string portion in the middle ... I have to tell you. It's brought tears to my eyes a few times already. And it's not like I'm Joe-Patriot or anything. Don't get me wrong - I love this country and don't take things for granted - I'm glad I was born and live here. But it's not like I'm tearing up every time I attend a Mets' or Royals' game and hear the anthem. This particular arrangement gets to me for some reason. And then, to see the looks on the faces of the athletes ... well ... I think Natalie Coughlin's gold medal ceremony the other night was one of the most touching things I've seen in a long time. It was just something about the way she was "feeling it" up there. It moved me.

Anyway, it's almost time for tonight's races. I have to get my fingers ready for a lot of clicking. By the way, I don't know how many of you have tried or even heard of "Wii" - my niece and nephew have turned me onto it, so we play whenever I visit them in Florida. Talking about getting one's fingers in shape - check out this video I found on YouTube. I thought it was hysterical - Extreme Wii Olympics 4X100 Relay

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Knowing Your Place

Okay, so it's not quite "Twilight Zone" material. Still, I had to laugh this morning when the following happened.

My newest favorite place to organize and write these days is The Roasterie, in a very nice section of Kansas City called Brookside. A nice change of pace from Starbuck's, The Roasterie is basically right up the street from me. So ... I went in this morning, knapsack over my shoulder, marched up to the counter, thought about what I felt like ordering and then ...

"Grande coffee."

And as soon as the words rolled off my tongue and out of my mouth, I started laughing.

Then, the apology.

"I can't believe I just said that," I told the man in front of the register. "That was a bit wild."

"It's okay," he smiled, "It happens more than you'd think.

Not to make a huge deal out of this, but think about that for a second. Well, you don't have to. I'll do it for you. The funny thing about this is that it took me literally years to get into the habit of talking in "Starbucks-speak" whenever I'd place my order at Starbuck's. I'd always have to glance at the overhead menu board, just to get the correct wording down. We all know the dangers of not saying the right words. Heaven forbid, to end up with a latte with soy milk when the target beverage is a cappuccino with 2%.

But this morning at The Roasterie, one of the anti-SB's types of places - a local place, you know, fighting back against the "Wal-Martization" of our culture, etc...., And here I was throwing Starbuck's right smack into their faces. Shame on me.

Luckily, they didn't throw me out of the place, onto my tush. They not only allowed me to stay, but they actually served me my "16 ounce" regular coffee with a smile. I like these people. I think I'll continue to go there and will simply think before I speak when it comes to ordering my coffee. It's crucial in today's day and age, to know your place. I won't make that mistake again.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Talking Shop

I loved the way Janice was squinting as she held the Fiber One bar in front of her, squeezing her eyes, doing her best to make out the tiny print.

"Does that say shellac?!"

I laughed out loud, then chimed in.

"I know, can you believe it?"

I was having a bit of fun at work, this having been the 5th person that morning I showed the breakfast/snack bar to. I was looking to show my new-found discovery to anyone wanting to listen; something to break up the day.

Here's the deal. I'm not any kind of food nut, I'm really not. Am I becoming more careful with my eating habits as the years tick by? Of course I am. That just seems to be the smart way to go. So when it comes to reading labels, I'm right there. Scoping out for the big culprits like partially hydrogenated oils, trans and saturated fats, and one of the most silent, yet destructive ones - sodium. It's amazing to me how something can taste so completely un-salty while at the same time containing 1000 mg. of sodium. From what I can tell, so many foods today, especially the processed ones, are "built for the road" as they say. It's all about distribution and getting the goods out to the consumer so ... that means these items must last; they have to survive the long haul and then stay on the shelf until purchased. And to make something last that long, well ... it has to be preserved, kept alive, kept fresh. "Fresh" - isn't that a curious word to use here? Think of all those Hostess cupcakes sitting in their little display cases all over the world. My guess is those cakes can last just about 'til the end of time, if that's what it takes.

But that's a different subject for a different day. For now, let's talk shop. And I mean that literally. I'm talking wood shop. So, you may ask, "Where is Harry's mind headed here? How did he go from a Fiber One bar to wood shop?

At work, feeling hungry but not wanting to eat a whole meal, I went downstairs to the little cafeteria area and, not finding something I wanted, decided to check out the vending machine to find something of the low-salt variety; that's something I need to be more aware of these days. Again, a different subject for a different day. So, in the midst of the Cheese-Its and Pop Tarts, the Fiber One bar seemed to glow. It was the one item having at least the appearance of being, what I'd call, healthy. So - 75 cents went in and, within a few seconds, the bar was mine.

When I returned to my desk, as I often do these days, I immediately studied the label, partly because I really do care about what I'm putting into my body but also, because I genuinely hate it when companies market something as "healthy" when, in fact, the ingredients show the food is anything but healthy. At first glance, when I saw the clump of copy on the side of the Fiber One bar's wrapper, I pretty much knew things were headed in the wrong direction, health-wise. The numbers looked fine, actually. The sodium was low, about 90 mg for the whole bar - one serving size. And since the fat levels looked good too I figured I'd cleared those hurdles. But then came the long laundry list of ingredients. I'm not going to bore you with every item here - you can check this out, (click on the pic to the right - it should come up very large for you so you can read the copy easily) I pulled this from the General Mills website, where you can find the ingredients of any of their products. I love that companies are doing this now.

Take a look. What do you see?

Two words. "Confectioners Shellac."

Hmmm. Interesting.

The fact is, the word "shellac" stuck out when I first saw it. But because it appeared in tandem with the word "confectioners" I figured, "Okay. It's shellac but ... if it's confectioners shellac, that must be okay, right? I mean, it's confectioners, so ... It's not like I'm eating wood stain, or Cuprinol.

Okay, so I have to tell you - this one was weird to me. Come on - Shellac?! In a breakfast bar? In anything I'd ever eat? I read on and, sure enough, there was that word again. And the second time, it was alone. Now, there was absolutely nothing to counteract the effect. They're talking shellac here. Naked, isolated, unadulterated shellac. [FYI - From Wikipedia: "Shellac is the commercial resin marketed in the form of amber flakes, made from "lac," the secretion of the family of lac-producing insects, though most commonly from the cultivated Kerria lacca, found in the forests of Assam and Thailand."] Sounds delicious, doesn't it?

Come to think of it, the bar does that that light brown, glazy, shiny, smooth look to it. I figured it was syrup, honey, molasses or something.

Well, it's the "or something" that I've come to realize is the real culprit in most of the foods we eat. This is why I'm increasingly cooking and preparing my own foods at home. I figure that's the only way I'll ever really know what's heading into my mouth and then blood stream. Sure, even the produce may have God knows what on it but, I figure it's all relative and I'm headed in the right direction. When I go out for a meal? I do my best to get things as simply prepared as possible now - broiled, grilled, etc, ... And the "on the side" approach is fast becoming my default way to order. These days, it's the goopy sauces I look to avoid; all those things I used to love. Again, as I said before, I am most certainly not a food nut. Trust me, given the opening when the spirit moves me, (and it'll probably be with my brother the next time he visits me in KC), you'll be able to spot me sitting down to a nice helping of burnt ends and beans. And it will most likely be at LC's here in town.

Dietary prudence is a good thing and I'm glad I'm taking care. Still, there are times we simply can not prepare our own foods. Sometimes we have to rely on the likes of a General Foods Corporation to do it for us. And I suppose there is some good news here. If I ever choose to eat the Fiber One bar when I'm out in inclement weather, then I suppose I'm all set. At least my food and I are protected in that way and it's good to know the GF's product development folks have figured out a way to water-proof its treats.

"Well, all I know is there's chocolate in here." That was another colleague's reaction as she leaned in to check out the label.

"Oh. So let me get this straight then. As long as there's chocolate in there, that's cool then," I smiled. "It could read, 'cyanide, chocolate, arsenic, rat poison,' and you'd be okay with it, right?"

We laughed hard.

We're In Good Hands - So, that's that. I'm heading up to Mass. today to see family and I can tell you, the Fiber One bar is still in my bag, unopened. In an emergency, what can I tell you? I just might have to eat it. The fact is I'm not really sure why I still have it. I think I was saving it to snap a photo of the wrapper for the blog. But since the General Foods' folks have all that info neatly laid out on their website (see above), there's no more need for the photo. That being said, I figure there's no need to keep the bar any longer. Unless it's raining, of course. Then I'll eat it. At the very least, I can conduct an experiment. What do you think? Will the raindrops bead up on my arms and legs?

When did the American food distribution system get so amazingly advanced? Those folks are so, so smart. Isn't it good to know they're looking out for all of us this way?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

That's What I'm Talkin' About!


For years - I'm talking 18 of them - I've been telling my folks about Saigon Grille. When I lived in the city, there were times I must have ordered from that place about four times a week. And, whenever I called, it felt as though my "Curry Ga, rice and salad w/ two Cokes" (standard order) was at my door almost before the phone clicked off. I love Vietnamese Food. Malaysian food, Thai food - anything ... what do they call it? Pan Asian? "Best deal in town, dollar for dollar," is what my friend Howard used to say. I couldn't have phrased it better.

My folks have taught me a lot of things over the years, but when it come to adventurous cuisine, they've been pretty much straight down the middle. Listen, they're NY'ers, born and bred in Brooklyn, so it's not like we had pot roast and green peas for dinner every night. Our upbringing was filled with good, what I'd call ethnic food. From the trips to Union Turnpike Deli - to Ratners - to Chinese food - to Italian food at God knows how many places - (I'm not going to list every restaurant I've ever eaten at here, or every meal, although ... I swear I think I could do it, as bizarre as that sounds). Still, when it comes to the more adventurous cuisines, the spicier, more unusual arenas - Indian food, Vietnamese, Thai - those categories have pretty much been my deal - discovered on my own as I made my way out to the world, independent of my folks tastes.

"Have you ever had Vietnamese food?" my dad asked the other night.


At that point, I reminded my dad about my one-man-show of support for the Saigon Grille on the corner of 94th and Amsterdam.

"We went to a new place. Terrific food." he said, as I listened to my dad excitedly describe what they ate. I loved listening to him talking about this new discovery, with my Mom chiming in, in the background, talking over the loud TV.

It's not like my folks are narrow-minded. My God, they were the ones always looking to instill in me the instinct to branch out, try new things. And that included foods. The reason for their more conservative approach to food choices may have stemmed from the fact that my Mom has had stomach problems, pretty much since she was a teenager, so that's just the way things unfolded for them, and then, for us. And even with her stomach issues, My Mom's often made some bold choices, only to then sometimes pay dearly for those choices. I love that about her, actually.

So, all those years of me mentioning my love for Curry Ga, or Chicken Tikka Masala, really, anything curry - and my Mom would immediately shun the very idea of eating "foods like those." And I always understood that reaction since they would probably kill her if she ate them. And, of course, my Dad, out of respect and love for his wife of now, 58 years, pretty much steered clear of those foods, too. After all, there were plenty of other choices on the menu.

Gunfight at "The Hu Ke Lau Corral" - Interviewing all the seniors I meet, I especially love when they talk to me about discovering new things at a later age. New cities, sights, hobbies, talents, TV shows, a type of music, and so on. To hear about people "stretching," expanding their boundaries at a later age - it's inspiring. That's the way I plan to be.

My Mom has been going to a yoga class over the past few months, largely due to the fact that both Stuart and I are Bikram veterans and she has been watching us thrive in that environment for many years. And now, hearing my Dad excited that way, about Vietnamese food? I love it.

Talking about this reminds me about an incident; a funny (not so funny at the time) incident. It was back, I 'd say it was around 1968 or so; I was about 10 or 11. It was at the Hu Ke Lau Chinese ... well ... I think it was actually labeled Polynesian food. It was good, really good. Was it at the level of a Bill Hongs or any of the NY Style Chinese places? No. But, what else could you expect in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts? I mean, I don't think there was anything even approaching good in Springfield, so, all I can say is thank God for the Hu Ke Lau. I remember meeting our best friends, the Posnicks, there on Sundays, I loved those nights out. Sundays, as most Jewish people know, seemed to always be the evening of the week chosen for the "Great Treif Escape" -a chance for the Reform to Conservative to Non-observant Jews to indulge in their lust for spare ribs and pork strips, not to mention the best Lobster Cantonese I've ever tasted. I've thought about the Hu Ke Lau over the years. I haven't been back there, but hear it's still very much around and, actually, quite the rage. Something about an amazing twin lobster special and the best comedy club in the Northeast?? Can you believe that?!

But, here's where the aforementioned incident kicks in. You see, I didn't always love Chinese/Polynesian food the way I'm describing it here. Apparently - and I vaguely remember this - I was a Chinese Food resister back in those days. You've heard about Viet Nam War resisters? Well, I was looking to steer clear of Moo Goo Gai Pan. And so, whenever we'd head out to "The Falls" for those special Chinese/Polynesian dinners, apparently, I would tense up, clench my fists, and sit tight-lipped when it came to order-taking time.

"What's Harry J. gonna eat?" That was the burning question.

Of course, my folks were tolerant of their first born son for the first few episodes, I remember that. And then - now, you're not going to believe this - I'd order a steak and French fries. At The Hu Ke Lau, "Chinese & Polynesian" Restaurant. Honest to God, the fact that they even had that on the menu strikes me as odd when I think about it now. (Note: I just checked the current menu and, sure enough, under "American Fare" they still have the NY Sirloin on the menu, now tauted as "the best steak in the valley!! Grilled to perfection..." So, at least I had the chops to choose only the best, even when I was so far afield). And the truth is, it was pretty good, I remember that - again, part of my "remembering-every-meal-I've-ever-eaten" syndrome. I think my biggest issue at the time was that they only used Hunts Ketchup at the restaurant. At 10 years old, that had the potential of being a personal breaking point. But I made the adjustment. My parents breaking point? They were flexible, I remember that. I don't remember how many times they let me get away with the steak and French fries gig, but I do recall the lectures, short and sweet. The "you've got to try new things," "stretch your palate" lessons. At first, they'd throw those lines at me and I'd simply continue to chown down on my meat and potatoes meal. That was until - the showdown. I like to call it the "Gunfight at the Hu Ke Lau Corral" - complete with the blue waterfalls and wishing-well fountains. It was pretty in there, kind of like a ride at Disney World, complete with palm trees, fountains, Hawaiian-style music, exotic women (wait-staff). It was like Bali Hai in there.

Anyway, the proverbial shit hit the fan one Sunday night; my folks finally made their stand. That night, when I went to order my 1 1/2 pounds of the "best steak in the valley," I noticed the shadow of my Dad's hand closing in from the right. And just like that, the option fell off the table, so to speak.

Now, I don't recall the exact moment, but I'm pretty sure some screaming was involved. Right in the midst of that placid South Pacific motif. I pretty much freaked out at the prospect of not getting my steak and French fries as planned, sans Heinz. But, to their credit, my folks held the line; I can only guess that they had discussed this well ahead of time. Some kind of pact where they said, "Okay. We'll give this little character 6 steaks and then ... that's it. He's got to make the shift." We'll, I'd certainly reached my limit and now, it was time to ... freak out.

"Broadened Horizons" - Okay, so the happy ending is that I ended up loving Chinese and Polynesian food. The fact is I suppose I can credit that one unfortunate scene as a graduation, of sorts. I mean, if my folks hadn't done what they did, I'd never even thought about approaching places like Saigon Grille. The fact is, I might have ended up being a very boring person. Thank God that didn't happen.

So, back to the other night, hearing my Dad talk about their new taste sensations. That interchange caused me to smile all the way out here in Kansas City. That whole "circle of life" theme popped up in my head again. To remember how my Mom and Dad had been the ones to teach me to expand my taste bud horizons in those early years. With the training wheels off, I took their lead and later went off to college, then Europe, then the South, and then traveling cross country for Eldercation - all the time trying all kinds of tremendous new foods along the way. I was the one branching out and my folks pretty much stayed close to home, food-wise.; again, often for practical health concerns. And yet, the other night, it was so good to hear my Dad, at 84, sounding kind of excited about, of all things, Vietnamese food.

"And, what about Thai!?" he added at one point.

That's what I 'm talking about!!

Stretching culinary wings, even in their 70's and 80's.

The circle of life - They teach me; I teach them; We learn together.

Good Lord, I miss my Curry Ga.

"Next Stop - 86th Street/Broadway."

1-9-train, here I come.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Spirit Wins

As always, I arrived early, very early for my flight. And as I stood in the airport's Economy Parking “A” Lot at five AM, the cool, humid air, sounds of intermittent jet engine roars with a few bird tweets mixed in – I couldn’t help but stare up at the Eastern sky. That pale, kind of dark yellow, navy blue – the slightest hint of a new day.

“It’s perfect,” my old college buddy, Deb Galkin used to say. “No color grading like it. We try to recreate the grading in the arts world, but, you know, you can't outdo nature," she'd laugh.

I thought of Deb this morning while watching the sky change shades that way. The gibbous moon with Venus close by, a few other stars disappearing into the encroaching light, about to be tucked away for the day. I also thought about my Uncle Seymour while looking at that morning sky.

I hadn’t seen him in several months, perhaps longer. Two months ago, my Mom and brother told me Seymour was very sick, in the hospital – it wasn’t good. I didn't think I’d ever see him again, actually. I checked in with them daily for the reports. Up and down, his body failing, organ by organ; his spirit fighting back. Hospital to rehab to hospital to rehab … this was some tough going for Seymour, as well as for my Aunt Florence. Still, sure enough, to everyone's amazement, Seymour rallied.

“He looks good,” my brother reported after his visit with Seymour a few weeks ago. My June 14th NYC trip already in place, I was hoping I would have a chance to see Seymour at some point during that visit. I was praying that spirit would triumph over body.

It did.

And last Monday, I walked into Room 2002 at the South Nassau Medical Center in Oceanside, NY. At first, I can’t lie – it hit me hard, the way he looked. This large, robust, jovial, yes … sometimes loud and outspoken, but enormously kind and loving man – he looked very different. I won’t go into it here but, within two seconds, all the reports I'd been hearing had been confirmed.

“Know who this is?” Aunt Florence asked him.

His eyes watery under his silver-rimmed glasses, Seymour turned his head, looked up and did his best to say something; it was hard for him.

“Harry J.,” he whispered and smiled.

I smiled back and, heading his way, started to lean over and down to kiss him on the cheek. But he pulled away.

“I wouldn’t,” he struggled to talk. I wasn’t sure why he said that. Perhaps it was because of the way he looked? The fact is I didn’t care. I simply wanted to hug him but, instead, settled for a holding of his right hand – I felt him squeezing.

The three of us visited together for some time as I settled into a chair across from Florence, both of us next to the bed. Seymour slept off and on and then, when Florence had to leave to meet someone over the house, I chose to stay. I’m glad I did.

The Rabbi from Seymour & Florence’s synagogue came in at one point – introducing himself to me and offering his soft rabbi-like hand. Rabbi’s hands are always like that, I’ve noticed.

“How’re ya doing my friend?" The Rabbi walked over to the other side of the bed. Seymour smiled at him.

“You know, I have to tell you,” the Rabbi looked over to me. “Just last week, I was watching him enjoying a corned beef on rye. And some chopped liver.” Seymour smiled at that.

Bens?” I asked.

“No, no …” Seymour mouthed something. The Rabbi picked up on it and corrected me, telling me the food was from Woodro Deli, in Hewlett.

I remembered the Woodro. 1985, studying for the NYS bar exam, my friend Michael Feit and I used to eat ungodly amounts of food from that place. It was our way of dealing with the ungodly amount of data being gorged into our brains at the time – our delicious way to de-stress, I suppose. I think I may still be digesting some of that meat.

That was the summer I lived with the Mensch’s – a summer filled with Torts, Contracts, Property, tons of New York law stuffed into the Pieper bar review course. That summer was a strenuous but wonderful experience, to be able to live with family like that. It was actually the second time in four years I’d done that, the first being in 1982 when I worked my first job in the music business at MCA Records. Those were great times – the corner room, (I'm pretty sure that was Fred’s), the two beds, the corner bathroom, piano, Scotty at The New Yorker, Carvel, The East Bay Diner. The house on Balsam Street in Oceanside, Long Island was a second home for me. I loved it.

You know, I’ve often thought that life's joyous moments often boil down to some very simple things. For me, one of those moment types is eating and drinking delicious food and drink with good friends - people I love. I mean, can it really ever get any better than that? And the fact is, I've had plenty of those experiences with the Mensch family and those memories are going to be fixed in me for the rest of my life, right along side the same kinds of memories of my own family.

* * * * * * * * * *

I sat by the bed, my mind wandering too much, as it normally does. The thoughts floating off to my own Mom and Dad, and then to Emma; to the days when, perhaps, I’ll be sitting next to their beds this same way. I pushed those thoughts aside, bringing my attention back to Uncle Seymour.

He reached for the TV controller, which we worked together until the selector landed on Channel 4. The U.S Open playoff between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate was winding down, an incredible event. Seymour and I watched it together until he dozed off again. My mind wandered again, minutes ticking by.

“Who won?”

Seymour was awake again.

“Who do you think?” I looked over at him, happy that he was so interested and alert, which he most definitely was.

“Tiger,” he whispered.

I can't tell you now glad I am that Seymour and I had that chance to share the 2008 Open that way together; I’ll always remember that. The same way I still remember Tiger’s 18-under win at the 1997 Masters. My dad was in Miami Beach's Mt. Sinai hospital that day, the day after his heart bypass surgery. It's interesting how Tiger’s been there for me and my family in ways he’ll never know.


I leaned in to say goodbye, this time smiling as I lifted his hand to kiss it.

“Like the Pope!”

He smiled as he also tried to cough. It was hard for him, I could see that.

“So … Uncle Seymour…”

He looked up. The plastic tubing slipped from his nose, which I helped to replace.

“Next time … (I was fully aware of the significance of those two words, by the way) ...
Corned beef sandwich?”

His eyes shut quickly as he shook his head back and forth.

“No," he whispered hard.

I thought I’d said something wrong, which, come to think of it, would be just about impossible with him. I always felt I could say anything to my Uncle Seymour.

His eyes still closed, a pause, then a deep breath. His eyes opened wide. And then ... one word.


And then, a huge smile. A Seymour smile. The smile everyone else who knew Seymour loved.

In that moment, spirit kicked body’s ass, I can tell you that for sure.

I kissed his hand one more time and watched his eyes shut again. And, as I left the room, I thought that thought. You know what I''m talking about.The one that has me never seeing this man again – my overactive imagination again doing its thing. My brother calls me the “Fellini of mind movies.” Still, unfortunately, that particular thought proved to hit the mark. That was, indeed, the last time I'd see my Uncle Seymour alive. He passed away two days later, two days after we watched the U.S. Open together.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’ve never won a lottery but I have to tell you, life appears to be filled with what I would call “mini-lotteries.” My visit with Seymour and Florence the other day – the timing of it – that was the equivalent of winning a mini-lottery, to be sure. What a blessing, to have been able to experience moments like that.

I’m on the plane now, heading North to meet my Mom in New York to attend Sunday's funeral service. Seymour was Mom’s only brother and she his only sister. I feel strange saying this, but I’m kind of looking forward to the next few days. I feel calm. I was thinking during my 4:30 AM drive up 29 North to airport, this will be the first time in I don’t know how many years where I’ll be spending some time alone with my mother. Quality time, as they call it. She’s been so dedicated to taking care of my Dad for such a long span now. I will cherish, I mean really cherish this next 48 hours with my Mom, with my family. The Mensch family. Yes, yes, that Fellini mind again, delving into that “zone.” Thoughts about the day I’ll be heading to my own parents funerals. But, that will be then. This is now. And, right now, I’m on a plane heading up to NY.

And when I’m there with my Mom, if there’s time, you know what? Why not? A trip to Ben’s or Woodro for a nosh? Perhaps a nice sandwich? I know, I know, what could be worse for you? But, what the hell? Enjoying delicious food with people you love. And not with just any people. We’re talking genuine Mensch’s here.

Nothing could be better.

Here's to you, Uncle Seymour.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Those Were The Days

Every time I pass by this sign, I can't help but laugh.

When I first moved in to my KC apartment, needing to find some places to get some basic living essentials, I started scoping out the neighborhood. As it turns out, there is an intersection just up the street from my place - about a five minute walk, if that much. Cleaners, post office, breakfast/brunch restaurant, pizza joint, and not one, but two Italian restaurants, both of which are supposed to be pretty good. Who could ask for anything more?

I remember the first time I made my way up the street, my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of the sign you see here - it's on the corner of Main and 53rd. At first, the numbers kind of freaked out my system; they didn't make any sense. "The numeral order must be wrong," I thought. They guy posting the digits must have been in an altered state. Within seconds, of course, I saw the messed up building in back of the sign and and put things together. The whole South Plaza area is undergoing a face-lift so I'm sure this corner won't stay the way it is for that much longer. Still, I love that the landowners are allowing the sign to remain, "as is," - a snapshot from days gone by.

The sight of this sign caused me to think: When was the last time gas (unleaded) was $1.25 a gallon? That seemed like something easy to Google. Then again, what isn't easy to Google? Here's what I found.

Unfortunately, the days of $1.25 didn't occur all that long ago. The first time we saw those prices (I'm talking New England here - my home) - it was April, 1996. (See this EIA - Department of Energy site) It's interesting, because soon after that level was reached, there was a reprieve of sorts; the prices dropped to 94¢ in March, 1999 (I love writing the "¢" sign, when talking about gasoline. It's thrilling) But, that was it. From 1999 on, the "gasoline ¢" sign-combo was to be left in the dust. It's been up-up-and-away ever since then.

Just a thought: I just noticed looking at this data that, historically, when the prices burst through a dollar level (e.g., $2.00) in May, 2004, the same pattern emerged. It crept past $2.00, then fell back and forth a bit into the 1.80-1.90 levels, doing a kind of little dance. Then, it finally slipped back into the $2.00 region, never to return to the $1.XX levels again. It kind of makes you wonder. It's as though the industry was dipping their toes into the water, just to see how the new concept would take? Just how much we would take. And, once free and clear into the new dollar region, the mental barrier then broken, it was on to the next frontier, the next level. It will be interesting to see what happens as we burst through the $4.00 level. Just a thought

Anyway, I hope they keep this sign up at Main and 53rd; at least until the new restaurant or Walgreen's comes into the neighborhood. It's fun to reminisce. But it makes me wonder - as we keep looking at the real signs, the ones in front of the open gas stations - how much more are we going to take? How many dollar level bustings are we going to go through until this country does something about its predicament?

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Current State Of Pajamas

The bed was made perfectly. I mean perfectly.

You did that?" I asked.

"Every mornin'," Mac smiled. I can hear his voice now as I write this. By the way, his age: 101.

The bed was tight.

"I could bounce a quarter off that thing. Wasn't that the test?"

"You were in the Army?" he asked.

That, of course, made me laugh and prompted me to start in about my extensive camp experience. It wasn't exactly the military but ... we did have daily inspections, so I knew how to make a mean hospital corner, too.

We chatted about beds and inspections as we sipped some coffee.

On the side of Mac's large bed, there was a shelf. And on that shelf there were a few piles of stacked and folded clothes, also organized neatly by Mac. That's when I saw the pajamas. And that got me to thinking.

First of all, I like that word: "PAJAMA."
Say it with me a few times.
Nice, huh?
First stop, you guessed it - Wikipedia.

Pajama - if you want to learn more than you really want to know about "pyjamas", check out the history at this link. It's interesting to me how this night sleepwear found its way to our culture.

Anyway, after I realized how much I loved the sound of word and repeated it to myself about 20 times, the next thought rolling into my ever-busy head was this: Do people - not toddlers - I'm talking adults here - do they even wear pajamas any more? I don't think I've owned, let alone worn a pair of PJ's for ... let's see ... about 40 years? That would be about right. It's just something that dropped out of my lifestyle, slowly; I can't pinpoint when it occurred. I mentioned camp before and I think that may have been the last time I wore them. Two or three pair would find their way into my truck, all complete with name tags, of course. August Berkshire Mountain nights were pretty chilly so we needed all the coverage we could find - pajamas + sweatshirts and pants + ten blankets = we were still freezing. It was great. Until we had to step out onto the cold floor after reveille each morning. That wasn't so great.

Writing this out apparently opened up a long-lost brain-file because a very specific image popped up. I remember having this one favorite pair of PJ's, which may very well have been my very last pair, come to think of it. It was a kind of navy blue and white, small checkered pattern pair, with navy trim along the collar and cuffs. It was long sleeved and ... soft? Oh my, yes. It was the kind of soft that emerges in a piece of clothing after it's been washed hundreds of times; that snuggly kind of cotton soft. I loved wearing those pajamas. And they looked good on me - I have to say, I wore them well. Not that that meant a hell of a lot, seeing as the only people who ever saw me in them were my immediate family and closest sleepover friends. (I noticed this pic on the left, the one with the model-boy. It reminded me of that last pair. Of course, I had a head)

But, again - do men wear pajama's any more? I'm curious but not curious enough to do a full-blown mini survey, although I thought about heading down to Macy's or Hall's to interview some sales clerks. I have my research limits, though. I've pretty much figured out that my time is better spent working on my book. Still, it seems to me that PJ's have become somewhat impractical. I mean, most of the time, unless my place is freezing, I figure there's simply no need for what I'd call full nocturnal dress. I'm not going to get too up close and personal here but let's just say I don't see myself heading out to buy a pair of PJ's any time soon.

As I'm jotting this down, it just dawned on me - is this is a non-father's experience talking here? Because if I did have kids, I probably would be "dressing up" more at night. Perhaps my dad friends can let me know.

So, that's that. Enough speculation.
Mac wears 'em ... and folds 'em ... neatly ... every week.
I love that.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Singing With Friends - Part 2

I hung up the phone, thanking Stu, and wrote for awhile. And that was that.

Well ... actually, it wasn’t. The stirred-up memories didn't dissipate so easily.

I thought about home, where I grew up. The LHS music department, long the pride of the state, and how Peter took what was handed to him and created what then became one of the most formidable music programs around. The chorus I heard over the phone sounded every bit as tight and professional as any I’d ever heard, cell or no cell. As good as my early 70's group? Never. lol - I’m kidding ... sort of. Seriously, I wasn’t the least bit surprised about the excellence. I knew they would be great because I know all about the excellence Pete expects from his students; he always instilled that in people. I know he did that for me. As we know, high school can often be a very confusing time for students. I know it was, at times, for me. But to have a guy like Pete ... He was a teacher, sure. But it was different with him. Sure, we all respected him. Because he was a teacher. But he was also a friend – a good person. Talented, sensitive and … cool. I mean - this teacher sang the music we all loved back then. It wasn't just about Brahms and Mozart. This guy played guitar and, at times, performed like he was a recording artist. He really was one of us. And it was that sort of "hip" side to him that opened the music door to many others who might otherwise have never peaked behind that door. I remember my more jock-like friends - guys who played baseball, football, lacrosse - who took an interest in the music department because Pete was heading up the program. That was special.

I'll wind down with this memory. As special as my personal Lyrics experience was, there was also a group called "I Cantori" - a nine-person madrigal group selected each year as a sort of sub-group of the Lyrics bunch. I was lucky enough to be part of that experience as well. I loved those Cantori rehearsals - I think they were Sunday nights? - at Pete's home? Near or on Trafton Road, across or very close to Forest Park, from what I can remember. It's funny, I remember "Mandy" was hit song then and for some reason I connect that song with those rehearsals, go figure. And the ten of us (Pete included) would get together once a week and run through some pretty intricate and challenging music. And from what I can remember, we were pretty good. Sometimes, a group member would host a rehearsal. I remember the group once coming over to my house, where my mom had fixed snacks and we sang in the living room, by the big grand piano. I remember my folks telling me what a treat that was hearing us downstairs that way. Eve, Candy, Sheryl, George, Anna, Ryan, John, me (I think I'm missing a tenor??) – quite the group. Lots of fun.

"Lau Dote Nomen Domeni ... " That was our particular I Cantori signature tune, I believe. I can still remember every Latin word. Just in case, I looked it up - here's the sheet music:

Laudate nomen Domini, vos servi Domini; ab ortu solis usque ad occasum ejus. Decreta Dei justa sunt, et cor exhilarant: laudate Deum principes et omnes populi.

Beautiful song. I found a bunch of YouTube links - here's one - you can hear how pretty this melody is. Our default version was much more up-tempo from what I can remember. Still, it was good to hear this again.

As I wound down after the calls, I thought about my time as Peter’s student. After high school, I stayed in touch with him for a bit of time. At one point, some 15 years later when I was managing and working as an attorney in the music business, we even collaborated on something. Pete was working with one of his students who was a member of a very talented R&B group, and he was trying to get something going with them in the city. As it happens, our lives unfolded after that and we gradually lost touch, reconnecting periodically and even for a flash last year during my trip cross country.

I plan to reach out to him when the dust settles; after he's had a chance to take in, what I can only imagine has been a very special period for him. I'll call him because I want to be the next person in line who lets him know, not only what he’s meant to me, but what he's meant to all of the people who have come through his program - through his life.

It was wonderful to be swept back in time like that this afternoon.

Okay. So I know I was in Kansas City and they were there - what did I say - 1357 miles of American real estate between us? But you know what? What I said back in high school still stands. “Singing (or mouthing words) with friends ...” - It is, most definitely, still a great experience. Even from all the way out here.

That should be testimony to the kind of thing Pete has given all of us.
I will never forget him and what he’s about.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Singing With Friends

The End Of An Era - A few weeks ago, my brother called and told me our music teacher/director/guru from high school, Peter Thomsen, was retiring and that they were having this big party and concert for him in Longmeadow (see the "Education" portion, the part about the music program). Stu sent me an invitation and a link to a great website showing photos of Pete during his own musical training, then with students over his 34 years of teaching. (The website provides a good snapshot of what Pete's all about so I encourage you to click this link and head over there - "A Musical Life.") Looking through the photos nudged my thinking back to those days and brought a huge smile to my face. So of course, it didn't take long for me and Stu to start talking about the possibility of us heading back home together to be part of the celebration. I then spent a good deal of time on the web researching flight and car info, coming within a whisker of locking in plans for a trip to New England. I was that close.

Of course I wanted to see Pete; honor him. After all, singing in "Lyrics" (Longmeadow High School's cream-of-the-crop, chorus-wise) provided some of the best times of my young life, maybe my whole life, for that matter. In my yearbook at graduation, I wrote something which ended with this line: “... singing with friends is one great experience.” And it was. Come to think of it, it still is. Music has been, and always will be, a huge part of my life – it’s in the family blood. Apparently more than I ever knew, having discovered one long lost relative during this trip who ended up being a conductor of a major symphony orchestra. (See "We Are Family" - April, 2007)

I joined Lyrics in the fall of 1971, after making the team via a rare mid-season audition, (George Rommell will remember that). And that was it. The transformation was pretty amazing. Immediately, I went from being a low-B student who didn’t give a hoot about anything – to a straight-A student who started the process of putting things together, at least the pre-20 part of it. Just like that (snap!) I was in with a more-or-less different crowd, the honors students. Sure, I still played ball with my friends, but something shifted when I entered the music program. And I loved it.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get to the retirement shindig, having too much on my plate here and not feeling right about leaving my boss in a lurch with a key colleague being out for a bit. Add to that, I’ve been away a bunch lately and ... well … something had to give. I'm really digging in to finish this book. That, and that, alone, has become my priority.

Fastest 1,357 Mile Trip Ever - Stuart called me about ten minutes ago. There was a racket. It sounded like people clapping? Then singing? What the f ... ? I saw the caller ID so I knew it was him but what the hell was that about!? I tried to call him back. No Answer. "He’s playing games," I thought. Was he calling to tell me the Mets/Yanks score? I knew the Mets had won, so I wanted to fill him in in case he didn’t’ know that. I tried him back again. No answer. He left me a 2nd message in the interim. "Playing games," I thought again. I listened to the second message. Noise and more noise. It sounded like he was in a train station - somewhere in a crowd. Or a concert??

Light bulb - "On."

Stu had driven back to MA a few days earlier to pick up some things to bring back to Chicago, see Emma, friends and … that's right. To head over to Pete’s retirement celebration.

I felt ... well … I was thrilled for Pete. Happy for Stu. But suddenly I wished I was there, too.

I kept the phone on vibrate and set it next to the laptop while I continued my work at Starbucks on 39th.

Stu called back a few minutes later. Somehow I was expected this call.

“Ready?" he asked. "I’m sitting next to Scott and Kim Hamilton ...”

“The Lord Bless You and Keep You?” Have they done it yet?” I asked.

“Here’s the thing….” Stu paused as the crowd started to settle down. There was lots of noise going on and clapping doesn't pick up all that well on a cell's tiny speaker.

“Okay. H? They’re about to do Hallelujah Chorus” and then “The Lord Bless You ..."

More clapping. I think I heard some cheering as well.

"And George is here. Rommell. "

My brother was like Dan Rather on the front lines in Viet Nam, providing me with a blow by blow description of everything unfolding in the LHS auditorium.

Man, Oh man - Western Mass. was tugging at my insides. "I blew it," I thought. "Really blew it."

You know something? A person has a chance to pick special moments in a lifetime, and those kinds of moments don't, how do they say it? Grow on trees? This was one of those moments, I could tell. And I wasn’t there. I made a choice, sure. But, I don’t know. This may have qualified as one humdinger of a mistake.

Singing with Friends - “You ready? Stu asked. "Okay, now – I’m going to put this on speaker. Don't say anything."

I sat at my Starbuck's table and covered up both ears so I could hear better.

"Okay, here we go. Now, don’t say anything – you’re on speak ...”

"You already said th ..."

"I said, don't say anything!!"

I smiled. Everything was in place.
Me in a Kansas City Starbucks.
Stuart with his cell phone sitting on the his lap in the Longmeadow High School auditorium.
The chorus, poised to do their thing.

Then, it was easy. I just listened.

Now, not to sound over dramatic ... Oh, what the hell? I'll be dramatic. It's as though the music coming over the phone lifted me from that little wooden Kansas City Starbuck's seat and transported me back to Longmeadow in the early '70’s. I was in high school, again.

Within about a minute of listening to Peter’s most recent and last Lyrics and super-chorus groups, I smiled when I noticed I was singing along, mouthing the words – every one of them. First to the Hallelujah Chorus, and then … well … here’s what happened next.

“Okay, we're goin’ up now…" Stu continued his play by play. H - It's like half the people here ... At least half the audience is alumni ...”

[A little background here: "The Lord Bless You And Keep You" (hereinafter -"TLBYAKY") is a gorgeous SATB choral piece, the signature sign-off piece for every Lyrics chorus for as long as I can remember. Pete actually carried that tradition over from his predecessor, Mr. Alfredo Carbonell (another terrific music teacher, by the way). I just remembered - Our group of students was Pete’s first at LHS. Mr. Carbonell retired after my freshman year and then - enter Peter Thomsen. Anyway… TLBYAKY was the song. In the years that followed, post graduation, off to college, then back for Thanksgivings ... I and fellow LHS music alumni would return to the LHS auditorium for concerts; we all wanted to keep that experience going for us, at least for a bit longer. We all loved returning home and seeing Pete with his new crop of talented voices. And when it was time to conclude a concert, Pete would turn and make his request. And alumni would head up to the stage and, for another moment, we all had a chance to, once again, sing with friends].

Some jiggling, lots of noise, then quiet. A few seconds passed. I could just picture it. Pete standing in front of this huge chunk of his past, right smack in front of him. Faces. 34 years of faces. People whose lives he has touched and have touched him, in return. The ultimate 2-way street. The obvious line: Mr. Thomsen's Opus - I'm positive that very thought ran through more than a few minds in that room. I could picture Pete, the first dip of his arms - the signal to ... commence.

I listened to the song. I remember thinking the tempo was very slow, slower than I ever remember singing it. Who knows? Was the chosen tempo Pete's doing - him holding back a bit? Trying to hold onto the moment - make everything last just a bit longer? I could hear Stu's voice every once in awhile and was trying to picture him singing while holding the cell phone.

This was great.
The song was great.
The chorus was great.
Everything was great.

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