Friday, February 23, 2018

"In Praise Of More Of My Stuff (Including Bad News About One Of Them)"

I stick with the stuff I have.  Other people purchase new purses willy-nilly.  (Casting no negative aspersions whatsoever, hoping “aspersions” alone does not already imply “negative”, though it probably does.)

I have had the same wallet for three decades.  My Lexus SC 400 dates back to 1991.  And my piano, I have owned upwards of thirty-five years.

Those are the “Big Three” of my enduring accouterments.  I hate to call them “possessions”, which sounds uncomfortably patronizing.  (Had Lincoln have lived, he’d have freed inanimate objects after freeing the slaves.  And would have ultimately given them the vote.) 

When I first got this idea, I tried to think about why I hold on to things so long. Habit?  Inertia?  Ornery stubbornness?  “Guilty As Charged”, as I am susceptible to all three.  But the most salient explanation came to mind yesterday.  Which I shall mention (reasonably) forthwith. 

If I remember to do so.

I see no reason to replace things if they are still working.  My wallet still holds my “particulars.”  My car still gets me where I want to go.  And my piano still plays notes.  (Although, sometimes, the wrong notes, a failing not attributable to the piano.)

We have developed a personal relationship over the years.  (I was going to say “intimate” relationship, but it sounded vaguely salacious.  “He did what with his wallet?  That’s disgusting!”) 

Our personal relationship is reciprocal.  I know them.  And they know me.

My wallet knows I obsessively “square it up” on restaurant tables, while I am awaiting the check.

My old car is fully aware that I brake for shadows, and I slow down to think.

And my piano is unblinkingly cognizant of my ability.

“You’re bad.  But you’re persistent.”

Why would I want to get rid of my compadres when we know each other so well?

The thing is, however, if I don’t end the relationship, time will.  (I was going to say “time might.”  But that ‘s not correct.  Time, inevitably, does.)

Which brings me, regretfully, to my piano.

I thought it needed a tuning.  Not because it sounded particularly “off” – my ear is good, but not so good I can detect creeping atonality – it’s just, it had been years since its last “Checkup” and, since piano tuners do not send out post cards with a cartoon drawing of a piano, going, “Let’s stay in tune!”, I unilaterally made the call.  (Before every note on the keyboard sounded the same.)

My longstanding piano is an “upright” – no pun intended – manufactured by Knight.  (“Since 1935.”  Though, apparently, no longer.)  Knight pianos were reputedly a preferred favorite of the Beatles.  Although I am not aware of any of the “Fab Four” playing one of them onstage, probably because it was easier to carry guitars when they went out on tour.  What about “drum kits”?  Well, as Paul once reputed cracked, “It’s just Ringo.  Who cares?”)

I called our last piano tuner four times, leaving a message on each occasion and receiving no reciprocating response to any of them.  I hope it was nothing personal.  I’d like to think that she… well, let’s not say what I’d like to think.

Needing a new piano tuner, I search around for a reputable referral.  The problem with asking for piano tuner recommendations from friends with magnificent Steinways is when you contact them, revealing you have an “upright”, they (imaginably) sneer haughtily through their noses, and laughingly “Delete” you from their “Call back” list.

After numerous failed attempts, I finally reeled in a fish. 

She arrived, she tuned my piano, and, in response to my casual “How’s it doing?”, she impassively offered her professional assessment.

I shall allude to her announcement obliquely so I do not cry on the keyboard.

It was the doctor, delivering the “bad news.”

It was the Vet saying, “We have to put ‘kitty’ to sleep.”

It was the homesteader, ministering to a laboring horse, going,

“Young ‘un, fetch me my rifle.”

There seemed to be no doubt about it. 

My venerable piano was not long for this world.

Something about a “cracked board”, but who cares?  I took the prognosis pretty hard.  (Too stunned to consider a “second opinion.”)

My beloved piano was down on the canvas.  And the count, metaphorically, was “Nine.”

Regular readers are aware I do not traditionally “do” optimism.  Still, there is the matter of loyalty.  Rather than replacing an old friend (which will then be “salvaged for parts”, the pianic equivalent of a disfiguring autopsy), I shall continue playing my old pal until “Lights out”, which my “Grim Reaper” piano tuner estimated at six months. 

Although they have, not infrequently, been wrong.

The time will eventually come when I am compelled to say, ‘Night, ‘Night, Knight.”

I just hope it’s not soon.

(Oh yeah.  Why do I cling to my personal accoutrements so long?  Because everything’s changing, including myself (and not in a “Benjamin Button” direction.)  I have control over so little.  So I insistently hold sway over what I can.)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

"I Have Four Jackets (From The Man Who Gave You 'I Have Eleven Belts'"

Although this accumulation is completely different. 

And by “different” I mean entirely justified.

Lemme… no.  I’ll do that in a second.  (Look out for the upcoming “Lemme.”)

But first, this.

Nobody needs eleven belts.  Especially, me, the indefensible possessor of eleven belts, as I have one magnificent belt that, when you flip around the buckle, it transforms from being a black belt into being a brown belt.  Or vice versa, depending on which one it was first.  (This is not magic – “Poof!  It’s a black belt!”  “Poof!  It’s a brown belt!”  The belt is black on one side and brown on the other.  But yes it’s magic, in that it’s an incredible invention, ranking in the “Top… maybe Seven” of my most cherished possessions, along with my still-working-after-thirty-five-years “Solar Calculator”, which needs no batteries, or even the sun.)

I readily acknowledge that I do not need eleven belts.  Anyone out there holding their pants up with a rope, or, more inconveniently still, their hand, what can I tell you?  It is an unfair world.  And not just about belts. 

On the other hand, I do need four jackets.  I mean, having four jackets is not life-and- death.  But they are hardly extravagant.  (Barring the quality of the jackets in question, which could probably be cheaper.)

Okay, now back to the “Lemme.”

It is uncomfortable-bordering-on-sadistic to mention California weather to people living in cold places in the winter.  I mean, I had a birthday recently, and we had a barbecue.  (The outdoor temperature was seventy-seven.)  A similar celebration in my hometown would be, like, “Home would you like your icicle?”

It is furtherly insulting to report that sometimes – at least by Southern California standards – it feels cold.  I truly believe in the concept of “thinner blood.”  I was in Toronto this past December, and my quivering blood begged me to go home. 

It feels legitimately cold here when the temperature drops to – why do I feel the need to keep apologizing – the high forties.  You can gauge the displeasure of these occasional “dips” on the residents’ faces.  It’s like, “We want our money back!”

Okay, here comes my counter-intuitive observation.

In one way for people living in cold places, winter is easier. 

One way!  One way!

Man!  I could feel the hostility erupting through the screen!

But just think about it.

You put your heavy winter coat on in October and you keep it on until May.  There are no calculating decisions to make.  “Should I wear it?”  Of course, you wear it!   (Fictional Historical Tidbit:  “Scott of the Antarctic” died because of, “Maybe I’ll just wear a heavy sweater.”) 

You wear the same coat the whole winter.

The hat, perhaps, provides options.  Earflaps up and tied over your head.  Earflaps down and clasped under your chin.  Earflaps dangling loosely around your ears.  That’s it.  Everything else – toque to galoshes – you just “suit up” and you go outside. 

If it is an absolute necessity to do so.

Here, although it is – apologies again – considerably warmer in the winter overall, there are detectable gradations in the temperature throughout the day.

Hence the necessity for four jackets. 

(Possibly more – if are inordinately sensitive to the gradations and are temperamentally immune to insidious “Jacket Envy” – but at least, minimally, two.  I don’t know anyone who weathers L.A. winters with one jacket.)  

The thing is – and it is not a “gift”, it is assiduously developed – 

one must be able to determine, with unerring accuracy,

which jacket to wear when.

The determining procedure is simple.  Yet incredibly subtle.

Consider my Thursday “Pre-Morning Walk” ritual.

I go outside on my porch and I stand there.  “For how long?”  Protecting “trade secrets” my enigmatic response would be, “Just long enough.”    Once this delicate assessment – the current temperature, making accommodations for the wind – has been confidently calibrated…

You know.

And then, you decide.
Is it the “lightweight windbreaker?”  Is it the heavier suede windbreaker?  Is it the light leather jacket?  Or is it the lined, heavier leather jacket?

You slip on the appropriate garment, and you’re off.

(Hoping you remembered which jacket you left your keys in before closing the door.)

The walk itself will tell you if you have made the correct decision.  “Over-jacketing” triggers “the sweats” and pitying looks from strangers who “jacketed” correctly.   “Under-jacketing” consequences range from the chills to a hospital stay.

Sometimes, due to the continuing, although minimal, fluctuations in the weather, you leave the house “jacketed” to perfection, and by the return walk home…

It no longer applies.

It’s like you need two jackets for one walk, the preliminary heavier jacket for “The Set-Out” and the breezier “Lightweight” for the return.

A Professional Tip:  It better to “over-jacket” than to “under.”  Heavier jackets, you can unzip.  Lighter jackets, you are a shivering goner.  Hopefully not literally, but you never know.

Over the years living here, I have developed “The Touch.”  I stand outside, “testing the waters, so to speak.  I then return to the coat rack, and like a golfer choosing the appropriate club, I pick the appropriate jacket. 

And when I get it right…

“How sweet it is.”

The “Modulated Jackets” event at the Olympics?   (An addition I have heard has been seriously discussed. *)

I am a definite contender.

*  The idea has never been mentioned.

But a guy can dream, can’t he?

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"Now You See Them..."

Which, as with yesterday, involves homeless people, although, this time, more mysteriously.

Dr. M was working late that evening, leading me to fend for myself for dinner. 

I had selected Café Gratitude, a trendy vegetarian restaurant a few blocks walk from my house whose “Messagey” menu items include “I Am Wonderful” (French lentil and butternut squash loaf) and “I Am Beautiful” (blackened tempeh Bolognese.)  When my waitress asked if I’d like water, I replied, “Yes, please.  ‘I Am Thirsty’.”

Eating alone, I had brought along a book, a biography of Andrew Jackson.  (A presidential “populist” who had actually born poor.)  After consuming my interesting bowl of “I Am Grateful” (shredded kale, black beans, garlic tahini, brown rice or quinoa – it kind of scares me that I can spell “quinoa” without looking it up – I paid my bill and went off to complete a nearby errand.

Two blocks away lay Gjusta, a trendy upscale bakery – which makes it two “trendies” in one story; I am a regular Mr. “Ask me, and I’ll tell you what’s ‘Happening’” – that sold crusty loaves of artisanal bread. 

How do you define “artisanal bread”? 

Unrefined flour, and expensive.    

I come out of Café Gratitude carrying my Andrew Jackson book, I head west one block, where I turn south towards Gjusta, the ancillary outlet of Gjelina, a trendy, California-style restaurant on trendy Abbot-Kinney Boulevard in the trendy Westside community of Venice.  (Hey, I am already “identified.”  I might as well go “All in.”)

When I turn the corner heading for Gjusta, I am immediately confronted by the largest encampment of homeless people I have ever experienced, set up shoulder-to-shoulder along the sidewalks on both sides of the street.  (To avoid any inadvertent touching of their “stuff”, I end up continuing my perambulation along the side of the actual road.)

Paraphrasing a “stage direction” I once wrote about a door bearing a dizzying number of protective locks:

“If you walk to see a lot of homeless people, take a look at this street.”

It was like “Homeless ‘Woodstock’.”

Okay, liberal guilt kicks in here.  Along with a generic apprehension of “The Other.”

My First Troubling Question:

“To look, or not to look?”

Offering a “Lose-Lose” proposition.

On the one hand it’s,

“What are you looking at?”

And on the other hand it’s,

“We’re not invisible, you know.”

I decide to look straight ahead, trudging silently down the edge of the thoroughfare.

I hear music emanating from some nearby electronic device.  It’s a country song I believe I know but make a conscious effort not to remember, fearing I will reflexively start singing along… and…

What if they don’t want me to?

Continuing down the street, I experience the disturbing Depression Era-like reality of two different worlds, uncomfortably intersecting. 

They’re them, and I’m me.

A man with money in his wallet, going to buy an overpriced bread.

Which is exactly what I do.  Along with a “muesli” cookie, because I have never tasted a muesli cookie, and because bakery smells make me susceptible to “impulse purchasing” baked goods.

I exit Gjusta totng my freshly baked Olive Loaf and munching my muesli cookie (which I can also spell without looking it up), and I start back, taking a less street-populated route home.

It is only when I secure the Olive Loaf in a (trendy) canvas container, touted for keeping artisanal breads fresh longer, that I realize I have left my Andrew Jackson book at Gjusta.

I immediately call them, and they confirm that my forgotten “Andrew Jackson” is there, left behind on the artisanal bread, irresistible cookie counter.  I check how long the bakery will remain open, and then hang up.

I get an idea, which is far better than a return walk to Gjusta, or an even more harrowing return drive in the dark, imagining the headlines:

“Bad Driver Triggers Terrible Car Accident Going Back For A Book”

Dr. M will be home soon.  When she does, I shall ask her to drive me over to the bakery where I will retrieve “Andrew Jackson.”

She arrives home, I ask her the favor, and she magnanimously says yes.

We head south in her car, about to cross into the street I’d walked down barely an hour before.  I alert her to what she is about to experience.   And as we start down that street, I look out the window...

And there is nobody there.

Nobody at all.

The two paralleling sidewalks, recently “Wall-To-Wall” with homeless humanity…

… is now entirely empty.

Where the heck did they go?

There is a logical explanation, involving a massive police “sweep” during the intervening hour, the homeless community relocated… I don’t know where.  But to me, it was like this miraculous “Disappearing Act.”

“Now, you see them… Now, you don’t.” 

The experience feeling, in retrospect, hallucinogenic in nature.  

Making me wonder if there was some “secret ingredient” in my bowl of “I Am Grateful” wisely unlisted on the Café Gratitude menu.

Or, maybe it was personally self-induced.

I had thought I had seen them.

But what if what I had experienced was simply congenital “Bread Guilt”?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

"The Only Reality We Know"

Sometimes, when you write a lot – as I seem to require myself to do – you are confronted by subjects you know nothing about.  This presented “Visit to Ignorance” elicits three responsive possibilities.  (I don’t really know if there are three.  That was a personally challenging “Leap of Faith.”)

One available option:  You can rethink writing about subjects you know nothing about, sticking instead to topics on which you are, at least minimally, conversant.  Two, you can preemptively acknowledge your limitations, following that forthright disclaimer with thoughtful, although speculative, opinion.  Or three, you can blithely ignore your demonstrable ignorance, forging aggressively ahead – Remind you of anyone? – as if you were factually knowledgeable.     

(Note:  Please forgive the excessive wordiness.  I am currently listening to this erudite dual-biography entitled Churchill and Orwell and, like all the books I listen to, its literary approach seems to appropriate my patois.  This cautioning alert will hopefully return me to “Me” writing.)    

I’m a “Middle” kind of a guy.  (There.  I’m back.)  So I shall select the middle solution: 


With a perspective.

I am thinking about the burgeoning numbers – I read an estimated figure of 41,000 – of homeless people populating the streets of Los Angeles, one of the largest communities residing – if that is not too lofty a descriptive – half a mile from my house, in the square block around Gold’s Gym.  (I have been told that’s because Gold’s Gym in not a personal residence, so there are no irate homeowners to vociferously complain.)

Anyway, it’s a problem. 

I imagine there are many reasons people are homeless – economic displacement, debilitating addiction, untreated psychological difficulties and skyrocketing housing costs, to name four, although I am sure there are others.

Still, sometimes, you hear of people marching to their own liberated drummer who deliberately choose homelessness, so as to be unencumbered by personal possessions, conventional mores and burdening obligations, people determined to live, unconventionally, exactly the way that they want to.

It is tempting to generate commercial entertainment out of such street-dwelling individualists, partly because they sound more like cultural “rebels” than scary people you are afraid to pass on the sidewalk, partly because voluntary homelessness is less generically depressing, but most significantly because it’s a unique and interesting story, the mythical “Man Bites Dog” of the homeless milieu.

And therein lies the difficulty.

It is inherent in the unearthing of “good stories” to chronicle “the interesting exceptions.”  Writers thrive on such provocative material; studios and producers bet on their hefty box-office possibilities. 

A compelling narrative, deviating dramatically from the norm – catnip for “creatives”, and tempting “Cha-Ching” for the slavering “auspices.”

How “seductively irresistible” can you get?

The thing is,

You make “colorful exceptions” (virtually) the only stories audiences receive, and they appear – by literally “The Process of Elimination” – to be the only stories there are.

And therefore factually representative of “The Truth.”

Exceptions Mistakable As Prototypes:

– The independent homeless person demanding to live life on their own terms. 

– The crusading deaf person refusing a possibly curative operation, fearing such actions might fuel the belief that hearing is generically “better” than not hearing.

– The SVU series, and their like, sending the message, through literally thousands of episodes, that no one – especially in big cities – ever returns home un-shot and unmonkeyed with.

The consequence of confusing “juicy” narratives with “The Truth”?

I pass a homeless person and I refrain from giving them a dollar,

Fearing I might possibly offend them.

They face enough insults already.

Who wants to, potentially, make things worse?