Monday, May 25, 2009

Friday Night Lessons

Glad To Be Back - It's been awhile since I've posted on here - I know that. For those who've been following, there's a very simple reason for the absence. I've been finishing my book. Unlike some folks, I suppose, I seem to be at my best, writing-wise, only when I'm hyper-focused. So, that's what I've been doing. Hyperfocusing. And, apparently, that technique worked. Last weekend, I handed a finished first-draft of the book to my editor; I'm moving on to the next stage.

But, it's not as though my life stopped completely over the past couple of months. In some ways, my eyes have opened up to a number of things since I've lifted them up and away from the laptop screen. Months ... what am I saying? Years of transcribing interviews have taken their toll on my social life, as well as my upper back. But I'm pretty excited about what the upcoming year holds in store for Eldercation. Finally, I'll be able to share with many others, the value I've discovered from meeting so many incredible seniors from all over the country.

Now - on a completely different front - one of my recent "post-first draft" discoveries ...

A Teacher Is Born - About six months ago, a neighbor from down the hall asked me if I'd be interested in tutoring him. He's a young Korean gentleman (early 30's) and he wanted to improve his conversational English. "Expressions," he said. "You don't have to prepare too much. I just want to be more confident with my English speaking," he explained.

At the time, I was in the throws of meeting a deadline I'd agreed to with my editor, so I wasn't too keen on taking on a new venture, even though the young man was willing to pay me pretty well for a couple or hours a week. A few days, and then weeks, passed ... and then the idea kind of dissolved into thin air ...

... until Chin-Hwa moved out of the apartment building. (Note: the names have been changed to protect the innocent). When I ran into Chin-Hwa packing up in the hall, he was quick to bring up the tutoring idea again and, this time, with the book just about completed, I scribbled down my cell number on a slip of paper and asked him to call. "We'll figure something out," I assured him. Two weeks after that, I was walking into a new world to teach my first English class.

The Brightest Minds - As it turned out, Chin-Hwa asked if another friend could join in our "sessions," and knowing it would mean a bit more money for me, (along with some extra work), I told him I didn't mind. And so, Kazuo, (from Japan) joined Chin-Hwa and me at our first class - on a Friday night. We decided it would be best and easiest for the three of us to simply meet at their building. Oh, yes ... their "building." I'm going to take a moment to fill you in on this "building."

Briefly, Chin-Hwa and Kazuo are both scientists. When Chin-Hwa first told me why he was in the U. S., I thought it was to go to school, so I had them both pegged as young students. Well, that's not the case. These are two very, very bright young men. And I mean young. Chin-Hwa is the veteran at 31. Kazuo is ... well ... I call him "Doogie Howser," since he finished medical school at the ripe age of 24. Amazing, huh? Chin-Hwa and Kazuo both work at The Stowers Institute For Medical Research. The one sentence explanation about this company is as follows: the institute "conducts basic research on how genes and proteins control fundamental processes in living cells." If it sounds intense, I can pretty much assure you that what goes on inside this building is, in fact, intense. (A full background sheet can be found at this link, if you're interested - Stowers Institute Fact Sheet).

I mention Stowers here, because apart from the teaching part of this experience which I'm about to describe - the overall immersion into ... how can I best put this? Another world? Every Friday night, from 7-9PM I enter a context that is so completely foreign to me, there's simply no other way to describe it. And I mean "foreign" in a few different ways.

First of all, it appears that 98% of all the scientists in the building come from other countries. I love this. Not many of them speak with me, but they all seem to smile a lot. The truth is, I really enjoy being around folks from so many different backgrounds. That's a genuine treat for me here and it's happening at a time when I feel myself missing NYC more and more, to be honest. I really miss that diversification. I don't miss it enough to move back, mind you. But, a few more months down the road?? Who knows?

Secondly, another reason the Stowers' setting feels so foreign to me is because ... well ... the last time I was around this many microscopes and petri dishes, I was busy failing out of blue biology in the 9th grade. Or was it the 10th? It doesn't matter. I didn't actually fail, but I probably should have failed, that's how completely lost I was that entire year. Looking back on it now, it didn't take long for me to figure out that I wasn't, what one would call, a "natural science" kinda guy. I'm definitely more of the "social scientist" variety. Having said that, the first time I walked down one of the Stowers' hallways with Chin-Hwa, I'm pretty sure my mouth was wide open the entire time. For moment I was back in Mr. McCullough's room 112, staring at the open body cavity of a dissected bullfrog.

Chin-Hwa showed me around a bit, taking me into his laboratory area and explaining about his particular research - which is fascinating, I have to say. More on that in a future post. In fact, I'm pretty sure I won't get into the "teaching English" part of the story today; just taking in the Stowers' surroundings affected me in ways I never imagined. I came to see very quickly that this is one very powerful place. For one thing, the security is impressive - I'm talking "lock-down" impressive. And for good reason, as one of the security guards explained to me while he initially signed me in.

"They do stem-cell research here," he said. "So ..." he shrugged, "... you can imagine some of the stuff we have to deal with."

That little tidbit of info really added another level to my whole tutoring adventure.

To be continued ...

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Riddle me this.

Basmati rice in a hermetically sealed jelly-jar - I'm talking air-tight here, complete with one of those rubber rings around the edges of the top. I love these kinds of jars and picked up three of them at an Essentials that was closing down on the Plaza a few months back, figuring this would be the perfect way to store various kinds of dry goods. Rice seemed to be a natural choice, especially since I've been trying different rice types as I do more cooking and experiment with different dishes. (How to cook the rice? That will be a different entry; I didn't realize how challenging that can be). Back to the issue at hand.

You see the photo on the left. You see the photo on the right.

Get the point? Well, perhaps you don't quite yet. Here's what you'll need to do, take a better look at the picture on the right. Do you see two little dark specks? Now, allow your mind to do its thing.

"The Best Laid Plans ... " - So I came home the other night after a yoga class, having picked up some fixin's for my special - I don't know what you'd call it - but it has onions, yellow peppers, mushrooms, curry, garlic, pineapple chunks, red kidney beans, cashews and my absolute favorite, "Tuong Ot Toi Viet-Nam" chili-garlic sauce (do any of you know this sauce? Fantastic - here's a link to one online vendor. You've probably been served it when you go to a Vietnamese restaurant. I know Saigon Grille serves it. Mmmm, mmmm, good). So, anyway, I saute it all together and then serve it with, you guessed it, basmati rice (sometimes wild or brown to mix things up a bit). And then ... if I'm in a really good mood, I add some mango chutney to the deal, to give it that sweet and spicy touch. I call it ... well, actually, I don't have a name for it yet, but I'll take suggestions. Perhaps "Harry's Special Rice?"

That's where I was at the other night when I started unpacking the groceries. To say I was psyched for a good meal? That would be an understatement.

Now, this is when it gets interesting (and a little unsettling, for those of you who have exceptionally weak stomachs). I started sauteing the onions, peppers and mushrooms and went to grab the large jelly-jar with the rice, so I could get that on its way.

"What the h...?"

I dipped my head down a bit to get a better look, turning the jar so the light reflected off to the side, allowing me see things more clearly.

I'm not going to go into the details here - you have the photo up there, so you see what was happening. All I can say is I'm just glad this was "white" rice; thank God for the contrast. The dark speck was, you guessed it - a living creature and ... if one little friend wasn't enough, after I twisted and turned the bottle a few more times, I noticed the guy had some company.

Needless to say, Harry's Special Rice was going to be served sans rice that night; I didn't want the dish to be too special. The fact is, the whole situation grossed me out. I mean, to see moths in the rice like that. Still, as disgusting as it was, I was also, as I said, pretty fascinated by the situation. I couldn't help but wonder, "How the hell did those critters get into that damn bottle!?" I hadn't opened that thing one time since I bought the rice at Whole Foods and poured it out of the plastic bag and into the jar. And when that metal clamp locks down over the rubber ring thingy - there is simply no way anything gets into that jar, right? I mean, am I right or am I right?

It's Wikipedia Time!
- Well, I started out with Googling the words, moth, rice, basmati, gross. And, sure enough, I started to read posts about how rice can often contain the larvae of certain kinds of bugs, including moths. This certainly explained how something like the great moth caper could have happened. The fact is I usually wash the rice - someone told me it's a good way to rid the rice of the extra starch, allowing it to cook better, and all that. And that does seem to work, I have to say. But now I see that washing rice has some extra benefits.

A Sad Farewell - First of all, before anyone out there goes all "Michael Vick" on me, I love animals and would never intentionally do anything cruel to them. Having said that, after moving the bottle around for about an hour or so, I ... well ... let's just say the moths are no more of this world. My morbid curiosity pushed me to search for more bugs or perhaps even see some eggs. So, of course, this then prompted me to twist and turn the jar, up, down, right and left - over and over again. I'm guessing the thousands of kernels of rice must have suffocated those guys at some point during this process. At one point, I actually thought about that scene in "Witness," where John Book (Harrison Ford) releases that huge load of grain into that silo, suffocating that cop. I guess you could have called me a kind of John Book that night. That works, except that cop was evil and these two moths were most likely good, solid citizens. Or were they? They cost me my dream meal that night. Bummer.

Into The Fridge - Until I get to the bottom of what's going on in those jars, I'm not taking any chances. Everything open, food-wise, is heading into the cold. The good news is I haven't seen any other moth friends hanging around, but I'm still concerned. Then again, what's a person to do? I mean, if the larvae are already in there when I buy the stuff, who's to say ... Yecchhh. I can't go there. All I know is, I'll be scrubbing my rice every night from now on. Either that or the name will simply be "Harry's Special," and we'll go with the stand-alone dish.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Look What I've Created

I remember days, lying in bed in my old West 87th Street apartment, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the people above me pounding away on the floor - wondering - when the hell was I gonna get out of that place!?

The last year on the Upper West Side was not fun, I have to say. With the building sold, new owners moved in and determined to force us out on their greedy terms, life in the city was stressful, to say the least. I was tired of the whole thing but, like my co-tenants, I wanted to fight - until it was time to stop fighting. And as things wound down with the lawyers, I found myself turning my attention back up to the ceiling, and I'd think about the next move; dream about the next move. And, what's amazing to me now, looking back on those moments, at no time did one cell in my brain, for one microsecond ever think I would some day end up in, of all places ... Kansas City, Missouri.


And so, it's that very thought that swept through my head last night as I sipped sangria and munched on my mushrooms and shrimp, surrounded by a group of really good and nice people. One line kept popping into my head: "Look what I've created here." I mean, when I left New York to start my cross-country Eldercation trip, I knew I was heading to new places and I was excited about it. Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa - all these states I'd heard about, read about, flown over for so many years - finally, I was driving through the small towns, meeting the people. It's been ... for lack of a better term ... thrilling. And the thing is, never during this entire process, have I ever given much thought to where I'm going to end up once this stage of the project is completed. Having said that, I'll again mention - Kansas City was most certainly never on the radar.

And yet, there I was last night. Surrounded by people - new friends in a new land - all of us in Kansas City.

As I pointed out last month, the end of the year presented me with a good opportunity to do some solid thinking. That's when it gets dangerous for me. Still, I realized something pretty important - I was downright tired of dealing with my December 28 birthday the same way every year. Alone. What can I say? It's just in that "spot." In what I like to call that deep valley in between Christmas and New Year's. And so, this was the year I was determined to change course, seize the moment, and create something special. And I did just that.

There really is something envigorating about sharing friends. It's not something I've been especially good at over the years but, last night, I took a shot at doing just that by organizing a night out at a fun (and delicious) Spanish restaurant here in KC. Just about every person at the table last night has figured in my adventure here in some special way. I could have invited - in fact, I wanted to invite - more folks to the outing, but the La Bodega-man told me that 17 was pushing it. That was the number I had to work with, so I dealt with it. And it was fine.

Once again, I'm now looking just up around the next turn and I can't say for sure what's going to happen next. Then again, who among us can actually do that? (If someone out there can do that - I'd like to meet you, so we can write a book together. We'll be rich). What I do know is something big is going to happen for me - and I'm not just saying that. The last time I felt this way, I had just started my adventure with The Jerky Boys and, even then, friends of mine thought I was nuts to be giving up on my law degree (which, as it turns out, I haven't given up on at all. I use that knowledge every day of my life). If I took that Jerky Boys' feeling and multiplied it by 1000 - that's what I feel for this Eldercation project. As far as the first stage? The first book? I'm finished. After years of well over 1000 interviews, hours upon hours upon hours ... (upon hours) of transcriptions - long days and nights in the libraries and coffee shops - I feel I really have something special here. And so, now I'm on to the next challenge - how to get this information and message out there. I'm fighting a bit of a battle with that one -the same battle for which I had box seats during my years in the music business. I've always been a grass-roots, indie guy at heart and, from what I can tell, not much has changed in terms of my style and outlook. But I'm not going to go into that here. That would be a supreme waste of energy - energy better spent on the task at hand. That task being - producing and then marketing this book on my own. More on that at another time.

For now, I'll finish here by saying this - I bring up the winding down of the book because it's very much tied to what I was feeling last night during our little La Bodega fiesta. Now that I've lifted up my head, after being so focused over the past few years, I need to think about what's next? And before any changes come about, I wanted to make sure I took a solid snapshot of what I have right now - in this moment - with the people I've met here in Kansas City, Missouri. Amazing. Never in my wildest dreams. It's funny how this life thing works.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"The Right Person For The Times"

"The right person for the times."

That’s what someone said to me, I think it was, about 8 months ago, during the campaign.

Watching the inauguration today, while listening to President Obama speak, I thought of that line. I thought about how, sometimes, the times find the person. I think that’s what's happened here. It just feels so right. Now, I know, it doesn’t feel this way for everyone. I understand that. But, I feel the hope; I feel the power. And I’m guessing it is washing over the vast majority of our citizens as I write these very words.

Sure, today’s events are exciting; the images are moving. I know I teared up when Aretha sang. The parties will be fun tonight and we'll all share stories about where we were and what we were doing when the new President took his oath. But the fact is, the real work will begin tomorrow. And then the day after that. And then the day after that. And as much as we all have a tendency to look to others to help us meet a good many of our challenges, at the end of the day, it really is all about personal responsibility. It’s all about the choices each of us make every day of our lives. I like it when I hear our new President speak of such things. I find myself sitting up just a bit straighter when he talks about such things. He inspires me. He inspires many. It’s just what the doctor ordered, don’t you think?

The right person for the times?

I’d say so.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Basement Hockey

Caving In ... For many months now, people have been hassling me to join Facebook - to get in the game, and all that. I've resisted. The Capricorn in me, I suppose. I mean, I don't even text. What kind of a person am I? Listen, it's certainly not that I'm anti-technology or anything. The fact is I'm actually pretty plugged into things without needing every single contraption that's on the market. But, the past few years have been about wanting, needing some quiet. As one person put it recently - I've needed a place to incubate what is now just about to be completed - my first book.

And then ...

Three Facebook invites from some close childhood friends ...

Marshall's invite was the first to reach me here in KC, followed closely by John's and Jeff's.

Many have tried to get HJ to cross over into Facebook-land, but all have failed. Until this morning, that is.

So, what snagged me?

"Kick Save - And A Beauty!" - I remember hanging out in Marshall's basement a lot when we were all kids. First, there were the Strat-O-matic baseball games, with Marshall, John, Steve and me - that was our league. I was the last one to join in the fun, so I got to pick from all the droppings when the opening year draft first occurred. That would account for my 0-842 record. Actually, I think I won one game ... in 18 innings. It was exciting for me. (A quick note for my old league-members: that's Dave Winfield's "rookie" card on the left - which explains why it pretty much stinks. I'd be curious to see what it looks like today, after a Hall-of-Fame career. Remember the old-timers' cards? Walter Johnson? Hank Aaron? Babe Ruth? And my old favorite - possibly the only good player I had on my team back then ... Nap Lajoie).

I remember Marshall's bar mitzvah party, also in that basement. I made out with someone that night - I'll omit the name here - my folks raised me well. At least I think I made out with her. It may be that I was merely intimate with her shoulder for most of that night, I can't be sure now that I think about it.

Lastly, there were those hockey games. Marshall, John and I would suit up and whack those sticks around - that puck was pretty real, too, from what I can recall. I know this because I remember getting struck in what I'll call a "bad spot," when I was playing goalie one afternoon. Yes, that's the kind of thing one remembers some 40+ years later, trust me.

Anyway - it was fun to hear from such good old friends this morning. Sure, I have resistance to many of the things available out there on the market. So much of it feels like overload to me. But sometimes ... something special appears on the web that catches my eye; something that really works. Things that come to mind: Amazon, eBay, the original America Online with it's IM's, (check that out - especially when you're hungry), myspace, and now ... Facebook.

So ... I'm in. Hopefully, it will mean re-connecting with some special people I've known up until this point. It's funny to me - I love how I've discovered this particular site (and the rekindled friendships flowing from this discovery) right at the time I've lifted up my head, after years of relative isolation, while I've been traveling and dedicating myself to Eldercation. Those who know me well, understand my passion for what I've been pursuing. It's been a challenging but very rewarding time. I'm planning on you all seeing the fruits of my labor very soon.

For now, it's simply good to be back into the flow.

Happy New Year

POSTSCRIPT: Harry J. - sitting here and wondering, "How much of my life can I waste by spending waayyyy too much time on Facebook?" (I love it but ... boundaries will have to be set up).

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