The joke’s not on him from now on…he hopes

Posted March 31, 2022

I’m writing this piece on this day, because it’s my last chance to get maximum impact, before it’s too late. Let me put the theme simply:

I HATE APRIL FOOLS’ DAY

Over my lifespan, I slowly have learned not to hate people places or things. Rather, I now see that my tastes differ from others’; just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean that it’s bad, evil or stupid. It’s just my opinion. For example, as a kid, I used to say I hated tuna fish, until a friend’s mother told me that saying “ugh” when I was offered a sandwich was unkind, since many people really loved the combination of tuna, mayo onion powder and celery bits slathered between two slices of white bread. Years later, I heard someone elaborate on that sentiment, saying, “Don’t yuck my yum”. Okay, now I get it.

In recent years I’ve grown in acceptance on a wide variety of things—from people with opposing views, to activities I don’t enjoy, to places I choose not to visit.

So it is that I’m reserving my hatred for use in only one area: the first day of April. Listen, I have no truck with the date itself. For millions, it signals the start of “real spring” in many cold weather climes; it marks the beginning of America’s (former?) favorite pastime—baseball; it heralds new growth for flowers, plants and trees. On many emotional and psychological levels, then, April 1 marks the rebirth of hope. In fact, back in the era of the Julian calendar, April First was New Year’s Day and the time of the vernal equinox.

But then the Gregorian calendar came into use in 1563 in France. Within a few years, people who hadn’t acclimated to the date switch or who refused to recognize that the new year began in January and continued to celebrate in the fourth month were ridiculed as “April fools”. The “enlightened” would stage pranks, such as attaching paper fish on the holdouts’ backs  that were called “poisson d’avril” to symbolize a juvenile, easily hooked fish (i.e., a gullible person). By the 1700s, April Fools’ Day pranks took hold in Scotland  as a two-day event, during which people would affix fake tails or “kick me” signs to unknowing victims’ fannies.

Unfortunately (for me, at least,) this unofficial “holiday” has mushroomed in many cultures, fanned by media and online hoaxes, purporting all types of silly, outrageous, and often mean-spirited “facts”.

When I read, see or hear daffy-sounding stories on April 1, I almost always remind myself that it’s April Fools’ Day and simply disregard what I’ve heard as a prank (sometimes after investigation, just to be sure).

Now, I say “almost always” because I occasionally have gotten sucked into a prank when it has a ring of truth, or when it comes from a loved one. I’m thinking specifically here of an incident a few years ago when my grown son put out a Facebook item saying he was sitting in a Paris bar having an argument with someone. “Shawn wouldn’t write something like that, unless it were true,” I reasoned. “But wait…I just talked with him last night from his house in Massachusetts and he didn’t mention anything about flying overseas. Next, I semi-recall my wife calling him and finding out it was his little practical joke on his friends.

WTF? This is funny? My only child in a barroom brouhaha in a foreign country?

I guess I’m too old to get this kind of humor(?). But, honestly, age has nothing at all to do with these pranks, for me. All I can tell you, as I noted in the beginning of this rant is:

I HATE APRIL FOOLS DAY!!!!!

And one last thing: Don’t believe what you hear tomorrow or on future April Firsts…without doing a good deal of digging. Otherwise, you’ll be shoveling a load of poop.

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Breaking an unhealthy attachment…to his car

My wife and I bought a used 2008 Subaru Forester, used, about 11 years ago. It had less than 20,000 miles on it and was in great shape for a fair price. Since Margie was going to be the primary driver, she was particularly attracted to its low profile and compact-ish size for an SUV. Within another year, though, the gray paint started to peel off; but it was a covered flaw that Subaru rectified, temporarily with some fresh paint. Then, Margie bought another, smaller Subaru and I inherited the Forester, which quickly started peeling again. But I didn’t mind, because I added my own scrapes and dents to it, turning the vehicle into exactly the kind of shabby chic ride I was looking for.

But, all these passing years and relocation to the Southwest Florida heat have caught up with the Forester. To this day, I still use it around town and to pick up bags of dirt and mulch from the big box stores, for which it remains well suited. It now has nearly 120,000 miles on it, however, and limps along with a slow leak in the front driver’s side tire, which I’ve nursed for three years with random infusions from my bicycle pump, and an ever-present check-tire-pressure light on the dashboard, which is the result of a cracked wire casing somewhere that I’ve resolved by putting a piece of duct tape over the indicator on the dash. I have placed stickers all across gouges on the back bumper, including one directly on the large crater I created by backing into a parked pickup truck five years ago. When I saw an oblong decal from the Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge here on Sanibel Island that read simply, “Ding”, I knew just where to affix it on the Forester.

Finally, last week I took it in for a check-up at the local auto shop and got the expected news: All four tires have dry rot and need to be replaced; there are multiple slow leaks around the struts, although nothing that require immediate attention; the heat shields protecting the passenger compartment from the hot exhaust system rattle incessantly; and the exterior looks worse and worse with every rub against the garage door opening. The estimate for the mechanical fixes is three to four times higher than the current value of this rolling anachronism.

It’s time.

In the next few months we’ll get a newer used vehicle or a no frills new mini-SUV and probably donate the Forester to a charitable organization.

What I’m finding, however, is the real reason why I’ve held onto the vehicle long past its expected expiration date. It’s because I see myself in that Forester! I had back surgery nearly three years ago, which ended my 40-year running career; I’ve been wearing hearing aids for the past six years and just got two pairs of glasses–one for distance vision and one for in-close seeing; my prostate is enlarged and causing me to commute to the bathroom 3-4 times a night; and I just don’t remember things as well as I used to.

But, dammit, I’m not ready to turn myself in for a newer model and I’m not willing to go gently into that not-so-good night! The irrational part of my brain says that if I give up on my Forester, I’m giving up on Gil. Now, I know that, unlike the Subaru, my extended warranty hasn’t expired and I can continue to get replacement parts. But I also know that, truth is, I’m much, much closer to the junkyard than to the new car showroom. .

I know I can’t hold on to the vehicle anymore; it’s outlasted its serviceability. But I can keep battling to be useful here myself, That, in part, is what these regular writing posts are all about. As long as my synapses are firing and my fingers are typing, I still am moving ahead, not sitting idly waiting for dry rot to set in.

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Seven axed without him being asked

I’ve been asked recently to write about my favorite television shows, and my initial reaction was: How trite! So many publications have done a great job on this topic, so why would I want to add my amateur’s opinions on the past 70 years of TV history?  

In fact, I’m still catching up on the ones listed years ago on Entertainment Weekly’s Top 100 shows of all time. For example, the early 2000s series, The Wire, is ranked No. 1, and my wife and I had never seen the five-season arc, so we’ve been plugging away at it for several years…and still have eight episodes to watch.

That said, I’m bypassing the obvious “best shows” selections, like, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, M*A*S*H and all your faves, and dedicating the rest of this piece to seven wonderful series whose runs were cut off way too soon for my taste by networks driven only by huge ratings, and by other reasons known only to the “suits”. So, in chronological order by air dates, here we go:

  1. East Side/West Side (one season, 1963-1964). George C. Scott–the hard-ass juror in Twelve Angry Men, the heartless assistant state attorney general in Anatomy of a Murder, and the soulless gambler I loved to hate in The Hustler–played a crusading social worker in New York City, who fought for the rights of the unrepresented underclass. Cicely Tyson (in the first starring TV role for an African-American) played his so-much-more-than-a-secretary, as they sought justice for the downtrodden and abused. Created and executive produced by TV pioneer David Susskind, it was way too controversial for the high-roller tobacco companies and soap-makers that funded early shows on the small tube. But, watching it with my sainted mother when I was 17, our eyes were opened to the issues it tackled and we bemoaned CBS’s quick cancellation.
  2. My World and Welcome to It (one season, 1969-1970).   Despite winning Emmys for best lead actor (William Windom, who later player a treaclily avuncular doctor on Murder She Wrote) and for best comedy series, this thought-provoking show was canned after 26 episodes by NBC. America simply had no interest in the barely fictionalized version of famed cartoonist/author, James Thurber. But, then, I guess my tastes don’t match America’s; I found it delightful, probably because Windom was such a gute neshama (kind soul, as I tried to be) underneath his sometimes curmudgeonly facade.
  3. Frank’s Place (one season, 1987-1988). The show starred Tim Reid, who was so beloved in four seasons as DJ Venus Fly Trap on WKRP in Cincinnati that CBS built a series around him. Reid, an African-American, played a Brown University professor who inherits a New Orleans restaurant. The series started off with strong ratings but couldn’t sustain them because, according to published reports, viewers did not follow the show through changing time slots and were put off by the nontraditional format that veered from the usual sitcom mold. “We just didn’t please the Nielsen monster,” was how creator Hugh Wilson, who also was the driving force behind ‘KRP, put it.  Additionally, the large ensemble cast and film-style shooting techniques hit the network in the pocketbook. But the death knell may well have been dealt by junk-bond -mogul-turned-network-CEO, Laurence Tisch, who reportedly was sorely peeved with an episode that depicted a Wall Street tycoon condemning junk bonds. My personal feeling is that, even toward the end of the 1980s, audiences were loath to embrace a lead actor of color, and the show’s themes of racial and class disparities. No wonder I loved it!
  4. Freaks and Geeks (10 episodes, 1999). Judd Apatow and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids head honcho) directed this edgy and painfully delightful show about high school misfits that I related to from my own adolescence. But after NBC dumped it for ratings reasons, MTV offered to pick it up for a second season. The directors declined the offer, however, because “we all decided we didn’t want to do a weaker version of the show” on a lower budget that would cut the heart out of the series.
  5. Joan of Arcadia (two seasons, 2003-2005). Like Freaks and Geeks, this charming series was about the trials and tribulations of surviving high school. Starring highly likable Amber Tamblyn, who is visited  weekly by God in various guises of ordinary people and who is directed to do the next right thing, Joan…was a hit for CBS in its initial season but ratings plummeted in year two, leading to it being burned at the stake after 45 episodes. I loved the concept and Tamblyn, but was especially taken by her outcast boyfriend, Adam, (Chris Marquette) a long-haired gentle soul who drove every scene he was in. CBS was nowhere as enamored of the show as I was.
  6. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (two seasons, 2020-2021, so far, maybe). NBC has canceled this musical comedy/drama, starring winsome Jane Levy and the astounding Alex Newell, who identifies as gender nonconforming Mo in the brilliantly choreographed and performed series. Every episode was a one-hour musical play that delivered a thought-provoking message about the struggles of young professionals. Interestingly, Zoey’s mother in the series is played by Mary Steenburgen, who is learning to find her own way, as well, after, the premature death of her husband. I said “interestingly” here because Steenburgen also played Tamblyn’s mother in Joan of Arcadia. There is so much to enjoy in this show that I hope it avoids the guillotine and gets picked up by NBC Peacock, as is being talked about. And lastly…
  7. American Rust (9 episodes, 2021). This brilliantly acted saga of a murder connected to an undiscussed opioid scourge in a small Rust Belt town in Pennsylvania was doomed from the start. Appearing on Showtime, it received only a 27 percent Rotten Tomatoes audience rating, most likely because of the subject matter and the lack of a feel-good ending. As a fan of TV and films, however, I really dig a well-crafted plotline with underdogs I can root for, and outstanding performances, all of which shine through for me here. Tony and Emmy winner Jeff Daniels, as a crusty chief of police seeking to absolve the son of his girlfriend (Maura Tierney) is fantastically understated as a highly flawed lawman trying against the odds to do the right thing. One critic called it “a dreary, well-acted, badly written chunk of misery porn,” but I refute that assessment. I was far more willing to wait for this piece of fruit to ripen next season, and feel it was plucked and trashed way too soon, leaving me with a bitter taste in my mouth. But, then, it wasn’t my money being spent and Showtime had no interest in minority opinions. And unless there is a full-length movie wrap-up somewhere down the road, a la Ray Donovan, we’ll never know how the story turns out. I guess I’ll have to write my own ending.

So that’s my list of the unlucky seven series that faced the chopping block too soon. But before I leave you, I need to say a few words about three other shows that deserve a tip of my Red Sox cap because of the direct impact they’ve had on me. See, my wife, Margie, worked on all of them in her career as a television writer and we continue to reap residuals from them three decades after her retirement. I mean, I did enjoy the several Love Boat episodes she wrote, along with shows, The Facts of Life and Diff’rent World, both of which she served as executive producer. Her scripts all had themes of respect that resonated with me, but, additionally, her hard work paid off in an idyllic retirement for us. So, yeah, these shows certainly make my favorites list, along with the ones that were taken ooff the ventilator before their time.

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Hold the “then”… he’ll take the “now, thank you

The world is a very different place from what it was on May 11, 1946 when I popped onto the planet. In the nearly 76 years since, technology has exploded. I remember reading parts of Alvin Toffler’s prescient 1970 book, Future Shock, when I was in my 20s and feeling lost and hopeless at first. The key fact that sticks with me half a century later is Toffler’s assertion that 97 percent of the world’s knowledge would be discovered during my lifetime.

Using my exceptional powers of mental math, I quickly surmised that in the previous four thousand or so years of humankind’s existence, all the data known amounted to a mere three percent of the body of information available in the year 2022.

Toffler’s thematic point was that we were being flooded by a tsunami of new facts about our universe and that the only way to keep from drowning was to stay anchored to some sense of normalcy as the tides of change swept by. Among those anchors, he said (at least I think that’s what he said), were the stability of trusting relationships, a religious belief, a meaningful job, a creative passion, or the like. Without firm roots, we’d be set adrift into cyberspace, unable to breathe under the sea of new information. (Side note here: I confess I quite often do feel like I’ve outlasted my time on earth, because technology is roaring past me as I poke along resisting change.)

So, yeah, life is logarithmically more advanced and complicated from the days when I toddled out onto the sidewalk of my Brighton, Massachusetts apartment building. Sure, I changed careers in midlife, have lived on three coasts and have dabbled in a variety of interests and hobbies over the years. But I alsos have had darling, ever-tolerant Margie to love, support and guide me for nearly six decades. Our commitment to each other since we were teens has been that anchor keeping me from being tossed into the swells.

So, when I contemplate how my life is different today from how it was when I was a child, I first have to wade through the similarities between then and now. I mean I still look relatively the same, with accommodations made for Lasik surgery, medically necessary rhinoplasty, weakening auditory ability requiring hearing aids, etc. And of course, my hair is more gray than brown these days…but it’s still on my head, thankfully, and I refuse to dye it to look younger. I own that I’m crankier and less patient in my dotage, but I like to think my personality hasn’t changed significantly; I am pretty low-key, and am fairly easily persuaded to help others.

But, starting with the obvious and finishing with the esoteric, what is different is:

  1. Geography. As I write, it’s 75 degrees here on my island paradise in Southwest Florida, where I just had a golf lesson outside my back door this morning. Contrast that to a second-floor walkup in a city where it’s currently a balmy 31 just three days after it was -2. In those childhood days we had no golf balls, only ice balls.
  2. Easy lifestyle. In retirement, all my needs are provided for, as opposed to my early years when creature comforts were things to be wished for, and residing in a home my family owned was an always unfulfilled dream. We were the perpetual renters.
  3. General demeanor. I now look forward to each day with a smile of contentment, rather than having to put on a game face to battle sometimes hostile kids and my personal demons.
  4. Daily joy. I’m giddy at how well my son, daughter-in-law and grandkids are doing, rather than being hyperfocused on how nerdy I felt every day. (Bragging side note: Son, Shawn’s debut, mid-grade, superhero novel, The Unforgettable Logan Foster,has been released in the past month to rave reviews and is available through Amazon.com as well as many bookstores.)
  5. Excellent health—mentally, physically and spiritually. I’m astounded to report I’m 34+ years free of food, alcohol and drug obsessions, instead of still conniving to get my next fix of candy, booze and pot.

In summary, my life is different in the best possible ways, despite the worrisome world situation that swirls around my aging bones. Actually, it’s beyond my wildest dreams…and for that, I am enormously grateful to all who’ve touched my life, starting with my wife!

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O say can you see his OCPD?

The joke may be wearing thin, but it’s still true:

“Denial…it’s not just a river in Egypt.”

I’m talking about myself here—a guy who never picked up on his own mental health issues in all my years as a therapist diagnosing clients.

Only a battery of neuropsychological tests and subsequent analysis by a psychologist specializing in the field uncovered my Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition I’ve had since birth. That means I wandered through life for 70 years oblivious to the ingrained distractibility issues I’ve alternately struggled with and ignored all my life. And now, after recently completing another round of testing in light of increasing memory and focusing slips, I find I possess many traits of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) as well. This diagnosis differs from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in that, for me, it does not involve counting, handwashing, or constant checking-to-see-if-the-stove-is-off rituals. But it does explain why I routinely belittle myself (and sometimes others) for being less than perfect, especially after I (they) have worked very hard.

Symptoms also include a presentation of anger, indignation and righteousness, along with anxious depression. Yeah on all of those counts in my case.

And yet, I haven’t told others of these realities, instead hiding them behind a mask of false cheerfulness (no small wonder that I’m so okay with wearing a mask in public during this endless pandemic).

So, okay, if I’ve had latest the test results for a couple of weeks now, why, then, am I just writing about them today?

The answer is simple: Because now that I know I have OCPD, I recognize exactly what’s driving the bus here. See, I had trouble getting to sleep last night, thinking at 11 p.m. that I had to go down into my man cave and jump on the computer immediately in order to get in under the deadline I set for myself to write an essay every week.

This latest bout of madness began just over a year ago, when my daughter-in-law and son gave me a gift subscription to a website that sent out story prompts around 5 a.m. each Monday. The gift was precisely what this mental-blocked writer needed to get cranking again. I mean, I have a longstanding blogsite but had written only about 25 pieces in seven years until I received this welcome present in the waning days of 2020.

And here’s where the obsessive-compulsive behavior came in. I both dutifully and joyfully responded to every prompt question, even writing nine extra stories over a 52-week period. Besides posting them on the subscription company’s website (the articles will be edited by me in coming weeks, then bound into a book I’ll give my family as a historical document), I also published each one of them on my “Above the Roar” website on WordPress.com, as well as on my Facebook page. No one forced or directed me to write every week and to put these self-revealing stories out there in the public; in truth, I’m the only taskmaster cracking that whip…which is why I barely could keep myself in the bed last night. After all, I had made an ironclad commitment with myself to keep writing and publishing stories every week, even though my subscription ran out at the dawn of this new year. And that’s what I did through most of January. But not last week, leading me to the great agita I suffered last night. The only way I could get to sleep was to make a pact with myself to write last week’s piece today and then write another one in the next few days (certainly before Sunday this time).  

The next problem was what to write. I have a long list of topics generated by the website I previously had been subscribed to, but nothing floated my boat…until I realized why I’ve been so driven to come up with something in the first place.

Eureka! I finally have figured it out. It’s that diagnosis I’ve qualified for all my life but denied I have—Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.

So now that I’ve named it, claimed it and written about it, I can embrace it and be a little gentler on myself, while at the same time, keep on writing regularly (if not weekly), because that’s what I can continue to do as a writer.

Whew!

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Live where it’s warm; travel’s for the snowbirds

I recentlycame across an obviously pre-pandemic story prompt: What places can you travel to over and over again?” Why do I go all-Covid on this question? Because of the word “can”. I was taught way back in grammar school that “can” is not a synonym for “may”, or, especially, “be willing to”. The word “can” means “have the ability to” while the other words in quotes are more complicated because they involve permission from another person, or myself.

What I’m driving at here (and currently I’m not driving –or flying–anywhere in this Age of Omicron) is that while I may have the financial and physical wherewithal to travel, I’m not willing to risk venturing outside my bubble.

But, even if we’re talking theoretically about a flight of fantasy, in which I might go awandering if I felt I could do so safely, I primarily would choose to travel no farther than my own back yard.

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed going to Paris, Rome and London on a trip my very smart wife, Margie, won on a quiz show long ago, and I dug our junkets to the Bahamas, Bermuda, and Hawaii in the past. So, yeah, if I could be transported instantly (without jetlag or need to drag luggage, thank you) to the Great Barrier Reef, I’d be charged up to see it.

But, my attitude always has been: If I love a place so much that I want to keep going back there, why not just live there? That way there’s nowhere to I have to pack for and travel to.

So, that’s what I’ve done my whole life. I’m a water guy who has put down stakes for long periods of time on the East, West and now Gulf coasts and not strayed. I currently am thrilled residing on a subtropical island where daytime temperatures seldom dip below 70 degrees year-round. Happiness, for this thin-blooded guy, is being outdoors, rather than cooped up to ward off freezing, blustery weather.

It’s true I still relish visiting my native Massachusetts several times annually to be with my family and a beach I called home for many years. But, but, but…not in winter. The only times I have interest in wielding a shovel these days is in the garden or along the shore.

Honestly, I have dear friends living in cold climes who yearn for warm places to chill out in January, but I prefer to settle full time in such a place instead of fleeing to it as the next blizzard is breathing down my neck. Maybe I’m not very ambitious and don’t want to see the world as my oyster. But, then again, I don’t like oysters and am perfectly content with the reality that I’m missing a chance to find a pearl inside.

Okay, so I wish I didn’t have to travel to the bathroom all day and night (thank you enlarged prostate so much), but at least it’s a short trip that doesn’t require piles of cash and clothing. To put a button on this question, I’d have to say I’m quite pleased to be a stay-at-home guy. And the truth is, that’s exactly who I “can” be, regardless of what transpires in the mad, mad, mad, mad world.

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He’s flaunting his cinemania

Many times over the years my friends and I have held gab sessions based on the question, “What are your favorite movies? It’s always a great conversation starter, simply because tastes in films is akin to tastes in ice cream. Everybody has a favorite flavor for a special reason—because it’s the one your Mom or Dad liked when you were a kid; because it represented a birthday treat or the end of school, and so on. Similarly, we all love certain movies for what they stir up or represent for us.

For me, my list of film faves has increased in recent years since I joined a film society in my new home city. Yet, I still hold fast to those movies from long ago that evoked certain feelings.  But, in ruminating about this question over the past few days, I’ve figured out a way to break down my favorites into five categories:

* Classics (characterized by great film-making, superior acting, award-winning scripts, and thought-provoking/enlightening messages);

*Thought provoking movies (the kind that get discussed for hours and days after the screening);

 * Evocative films (the ones that bring back a specific time in my life and the circumstances surrounding it);

* The simply entertaining films that remind me of the popcorn and candy I ate in the theater while watching them); and, lastly,

* The guilty pleasure flicks (the ones I’m embarrassed to say that I’ll stay up till 2 a.m. watching, after couch-surfing when wife goes to bed).

Now that this question has helped me organize my cinematic addictions, I can discuss…starting now:

…Okay, not yet.

Before I begin, I want to point out that there are many “great” movies—Citizen Kane and Casablanca jump to mind—but they don’t dig their talons into me in the same way as the films I’ll describe here.

One more piece to this intro is that some of these movies would not have hung in my personal Pantheon earlier in my life. But nearly a decade ago I joined a film society in my new home city, which gave me exposure to a different first-rate foreign movie each week. That’s why some of the features below may not be familiar to American audiences; yet I have a fondness for them because I was selected to moderate these films, which entailed me screening them each 2-3 times and doing extensive research into them, including watching interviews with the actors, directors, and cinematographers. The result has been a much deeper appreciation of these hidden gems.

Then the pandemic hit in early 2020, shutting down our film society. Thankfully, a group of four couples soon started up our own group, which met one afternoon a week on Zoom. Again, it was the job of the rotating moderator not only to do the online legwork to flesh out our two-hour presentations, but to select the films to watch, which broadened the spectrum of selections. What I surprisingly found myself doing was choosing mostly old black and white films that I first saw in movie houses as a kid. So, some of those made the list which, at last, I’m ready to start sharing with you.

Classics

 Marty. This 1955 character sketch won Ernest Borgnine a richly deserved Oscar. It’s a slice of life study of a schlubby (oafish), 35-year-old butcher who lives with his mother in Da Bronx. All she wants is for him to meet a girl…until he does. I saw this movie when I was young, but it was only a year ago, when I re-watched, researched and then presented it to my friends on Zoom that I came to treasure it. As with all the films I’ll be mentioning, I hope I’ve piqued your interest sufficiently that you’ll see it and make your own decision. With that point in mind, I won’t divulge the beats of the story, so there’ll be no need for me to issue spoiler alerts in this essay.

Another amazing film I presented recently was the 1961 pool hall epic, The Hustler, which, like Marty, I hadn’t seen since I was quite young. Wow! I mean, wow-wow, wow-wow-wow! It’s another drama that has no violence (except for a silhouetted thumb-breaking scene, that is) and takes its time unfolding. Paul Newman, who ranks at the top with me, both as an actor and a human being, was magnificent. But a restrained Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats was his equal and freakin’ George C. Scott as the heartless gambler is transcendent in his role. To say more is to ruin this beauty. (I will say, as a side note, that any Newman film—starting with the glorious Cool Hand  Luke—is worthy of a long look, although the one he received his make-up Oscar for—The Color of Money  in which he reprised his Fast Eddie Felson role from The Hustler—is the weakest of the lot).

Then there’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, which I finally convinced my fellow Zoom-mates to let me moderate on one of our weekly gatherings, after a year of proselytizing for it. I vividly recall being enthralled in 1962 when I first saw it—astounded by the portrayals of Anthony Quinn as Mountain Riviera and Jackie Gleason again (highly underrated as a serious actor) as his money-hungry manager, Maish, who wants the now punch-drunk near champ to become a wrestler in order to keep the dollars trickling in. But a weird and wonderful thing happened to me as I prepared to present this film to my little group: My research divulged that the movie was a remake of a Rod Serling Playhouse 90 teleplay from 1957, which I subsequently watched on my computer. I was absolutely smitten with the performance of young Jack Palance as Mountain McClintock (the surname name was changed in the film because of Quinn’s Hispanic roots and appearance). Palance’s portrayal was even more heart-wrenching than Quinn’s. And funnyman Ed Wynn was a revelation as Mountain’s handler in the teleplay, as opposed to Mickey Rooney’s mail-it-in depiction in the movie. I can’t say I was as enamored with the comic’s son, Keenan Wynn, as a more hardened Maish in the tele-version. Overall, however, I’m so glad I got to see both highly worthwhile depictions (in much the same way as I have enjoyed the Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Gladys Knight, and Tina Turner takes on Proud Mary).

The Provocatives

For me, these films all have taught me something about different cultures and have opened my eyes to a new way of seeing things I previously had viewed through a clouded lens. All of them were made in other countries and help break down my Ameri-centric attitudes toward people unlike myself.

I’ll start with the 2020 best picture Oscar-winner, Parasite, a South Korean genre-bending masterpiece that defies description. Is this picture about a family scam gone awry? A black comedy? Tragedy? Farce? Morality play? Neo- Noir experiment? My only comment here is: Watch it.

Then there’s Minari, another South Korean film that was a best picture nominee at the 2021 Academy Awards. It revolves around a couple and two children (later joined by the wife’s mother who is flown in from Korea to help out) who attempt to farm and market Korean vegetables in rural Arkansas. A more relatable and tender look at the plight of immigrants and the overcoming of hardships, this movie had a blessedly uplifting ending that touched me deeply. 

I also want to mention briefly four films I had the honor of presenting to our Sanibel, Florida Film Society over the past six years. The first is Wadjda, a Saudi Arabian charmer about an independent-minded 10-year-old girl who wants to own her own bicycle in a restrictive Riyadh environment. The 2012 film was the first ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and was written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour under crazy-impossible conditions, given that she is the first Saudi woman to accomplish such a feat.

Next is Forgotten Kingdom, a movie set in landlocked Lesotho, an independent country surrounded by South Africa. The scourge of AIDS running through the mountainous nation, the element of magical realism, and a love-overcoming obstacles themes makes this film a big winner for me.

Similarly, the 2014 Mauritanian-French film, Timbuktu, thrusts the viewer intoan ancient empire (long known as “the Athens of Africa”) with all the problems of the new millennium. The film takes place during a 14-month takeover of the Mali capital by jihadists and focuses on how the residents of the history-steeped city cope with the sudden abrogation of their rights. The gorgeous cinematography abets the intrinsic beauty of this captivating work of art (yoiks…I sound like a pretentious movie critic).

I also want to mention the 2013 Australian biopic, Tracks, based on an autobiography of the same name by Robyn Davidson, a towering hero to school children the past four decades. The book and film, which chronicles Davidson’s solo trek of 1,677 miles across the Australian desert in 1977 with four camels and her faithful dog, captures the enormity of her undertaking and the breathtaking landscape. It’s well worth two hours of your life.

Yeah, I know I said all these entries were foreign films, but my fingers won’t let me leave the category without just a few words about Nomadland, a 2020 American film that landed China-born Chloe Zhao the best director Oscar at the Academy Awards that year, and earned Frances McDormand the best actress nod. I adored the film because it uncovered a substratum of life on the road I knew nothing about. Maybe it’s because I’m so old that the examination of the players’ rootless existence resonated with me. I feel that I’m personally enriched from having seen the film.

The Evocatives

I easily could have put Marty, The Hustler and Requiem in this slot because I first saw them during my formative years, but I already wrote about them earlier in this piece. There’s one more, though, I hadn’t even considered including until I tripped across it the other night on Turner Classic Movies (TCM)—Some Like It Hot. Sure, it’s dated and politically incorrect bigtime by 2022 standards, but it calls back the Saturday afternoon in 1959 when my 13-year-old buddies and I took our bikes on a 20-mile roundtrip adventure to the Coolidge Theater in Brookline, to see the it. For us, the hormonal draw was Marilyn Monroe, but the madcap comedy by Billy Wilder was a true romp for our adolescent eyes. Jack Lemon, Tony Curtis, and a prissy-comedic Rudy Valley were wonderful, the bumbling bad guys were fun to watch, and Marilyn, well…. I distinctly remember pedaling home on my new, three-speed, burgundy Raleigh, telling my pals I hereafter wanted to be called, “Spats”, like the head of the bumbling villains (now that’s what I mean by “evocative”, even if the moniker never took).

Before moving on, I want to tip my hat to the Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles film, Kelly’s Heroes. The plot of this 1970 film set during World War II is silly–a band of renegade American soldiers slip behind enemy lines to steal a cache of German bullion—but it was one of my father’s favorites and anything that made him laugh still makes me smile.

Now, let’s move on to the:

Simply Entertaining Movies

This category is about musicals for me, two in particular. Look, I really enjoyed the original West Side Story and am excited about viewing the Spielberg remake, but that film did not have the happy-ending bow I need to fit here. For that feeling, my top rating has to go to Singin’ in the Rain, for two reasons.

1. Today, 70 years later, I still can close my eyes and see Gene Kelly slinging himself around a telephone pole in a downpour belting out the title tune; and

2. My son, Shawn, played second banana, Cosmo Brown, in a summer stock production of the play. Watching that movie still brings me joy, as does Guys and Dolls with its great songs and comically seamy underbelly of a story.

And lastly comes the:

Guilty Pleasures.

C’mon, admit it. We all have these hidden in the recesses of our noggins…those flicks that we don’t want to admit to liking because they’re too cheesy, lightweight, or image-besmirching. Well, since I’ve schlepped you this far, I feel I owe it to you to out myself. And here they are:

Field of Dreams. I mean, Kevin Costner. Maudlin, manipulative emotions. A converted Kansas cornfield for god’s sake! Really? Yep. It’s the wannabe in me, the baseball theme, the playing catch with Dad, and the “If-you- build-it-they-will-come” hooks that conspire to hook me every time.

Tin Cup. I know, I know. Kevin Costner again (an actor I theoretically don’t like). But I love the underdog story, the golf setting, the scenes where he one ups a smarmy Don Johnson, winning a match with a rake and a shovel, and ultimately his personal triumph making the impossible shot long after he has tossed away the tournament.

And, finally (I can hear you drum-rolling on the table as your ring scars the finish):

Rocky. Wait….What? Which one?  I must cop to enjoying every one of the first four (V and beyond were awful in my mind, though I was charmed by the initial Creed). But for pure schlock, tug-at-the-heartstrings value, I have to go with the original from 1976. I was just getting into distance running in those days, and still can feel the urge to drink six raw eggs and run the streets before dawn whenever I think of the movie. Watching Stallone whip himself into shape, pulverizing sides of beef, thrusting his arms up in triumph as he reaches the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts steps always energizes me. Talia Shire and the actual fight with Apollo Creed, not so much, but I’ll routinely drop my plans whenever I find it on TV. And, key to making this list: I hate that I love it so much.

Well, that’s it. Not to say I don’t have other films I’d love to share with you (like A Face in in the Crowd, Being There, Elmer Gantry, and From Here to Eternity) but, as my bubbe would say, genug ist genug.

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Better to volunteer than be drafted

I often have been told I’m too hard on myself, that I need to cut myself a break. In fact, since I began writing weekly essays last year, I’ve heard from several people who’ve told me to “put down the whip”.

Okay, I confess that I’m hard on myself, and that my default mode is self-deprecation. And, yes, I further cop to having beaten myself up since childhood for setting the bar impossibly high (think of a pole vaulter trying to clear 25 feet, nearly five feet above the world record). But, conversely, consider what poet Robert Browning said: “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?” The implication to me is that a person ought to attempt the impossible if he or she hopes to achieve anything worthwhile.

To that end, I’ve done many things in my life that are a huge stretch for me, and I hope to keep doing them. On the one hand, I know it’s futile to chase rainbows. But, on the other, how can I be certain there isn’t a pot of gold at the end unless I continue the pursuit.

So what does this all have to do with the latest prompt I received from a website I belong to, which states: “Tell me about a time you volunteered for something that nobody else wanted to do”?

Well…everything, actually.

As a person working daily for many years on recovery from several addictive substances, it’s vital for me to push past my comfort zone and try something my brain rebels against. Sure, some things are very difficult to master, but far more of them are doable, despite being mundane or simply “not my cup of tea”. What I’ve found is that by taking on such onerous tasks and completing them, I learn to be humble as well as to gain a sense of satisfaction from accomplishing what others decline to do for numerous reasons.

What jumps to mind immediately here is my longtime willingness to run errands and take on chores that friends and family resist. For example, I recall that when my wife, Margie, and I lived with another couple many years ago, the other three adults at home would be ready to “buck up” to determine who would go to the store for an item needed to make dinner. At those times, I very often would say, “I’ll go”, which usually surprised and always pleased them (honestly, I never recall throwing fingers to determine who would be stuck going). Why not just go myself, I figured. It was less than a minor inconvenience for me, one which I was happy to do for the greater good.  I also have been more than willing to clean up areas around the outside of the house that had gotten overgrown with weeds, or remove junk that had accumulated in a basement or closet. To me, it’s no big deal to spend an hour or two to make all our lives better. (One of the healthiest parts of my emotional makeup is that I’ve never been one to “keep score”—as in: well you didn’t do A, so why should I do B? No, I’ve always been more of a how-can-I-help-kind of guy.)

To that end, every year when we visit our son Shawn’s family for Thanksgiving, I’m happy to take on the dishwashing chores. My attitude is that everyone else did oodles of work preparing the feast, so it’s only fair for me to participate in the clean-up. I truly relish the sense of feeling useful even if I do wind up with prune wrinkles on my fingers from scraping and rinsing 16 sets of dishes, silverware and glasses.

Similarly, I‘m willing to take my volunteerism on the road. As noted above, I am in recovery from a number of substances, and have received enormous support over three-plus decades from other people who share my desire to live a healthier life. We hold regular meetings which require members to assume no-pay jobs in order to keep these grass roots groups rolling. Now, anyone who knows me will attest to my loose organizational and accounting skills but I’ve realized that, in order to avoid backsliding, I need to take on a position to stay on the straight and narrow. As a result, I’ve served both as secretary and (gasp!) even treasurer of several of our local groups and have functioned the past 15 months as recording secretary for an umbrella organization that oversees a number of meetings. Yeah, in this case, I am qualified to take notes and produce monthly minutes for the organization, given my former career as a journalist who gathered information and turned it into stories for a living. But did/do I want to be responsible for this job every month? HELL, NO! Still (in direct answer to this week’s prompt), I do it for three reasons:

  1. I can do it; and
  2. No one else wants to do this job, which likely would go unfilled if I didn’t step up;
  3. I’d much prefer to volunteer than be voluntold to take the job by other members.

As I said earlier, this is another one of those personal growth opportunities for me, so I perform the task. But, in the process, I also have learned to establish boundaries. I’ve decided that by the end of this year, I will leave the recording secretary post and not seek another leadership position. By then it’ll be time for others to try some character building. Plus, the letting go will be a really good decision for me!

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He has no opinion on your opinion

Getting a subscription to the StoryWorth website as a Chanukah present last year was the best gift I ever could have imagined. It proves that other people often know what’s good for me than I do. See, I’m a regimented guy: I won’t throw out leftovers until I finish all of them, even if it takes four days. I usually complete tasks and assignments because I feel an obligation to the universe to complete what I started. No wonder I kept running marathons long after I had demonstrated to myself that I could.

So, when I’ve been sent a story prompt every week this year, I not only have written an essay on each one, but I’ve added a few extras. What a great utz (nudge, push) for this procrastinating writer. For example, I set up a blog on WordPress.com seven years but stopped contributing a couple of years ago…until these story prompts magically appeared on my e-mail screen every week at the beginning of the year. I’m endlessly grateful to my son and daughter-in-law for this present that kick-started me again. Now I don’t want to stop.

And I won’t…which brings me to this week’s question: “What do people get wrong about you?” I’ve been thinking about this notion for three days. And what keeps coming back to mind is a conversation I had the other night with a woman at a party. She said she loves pro football; however, she’s no fan of star quarterback Tom Brady.

“He’s good,” she said “but he’s arrogant.” Now, I must confess that, as a born-and-bred Boston guy, I always have loved Tom Brady as a player; what he does with the rest of his life has no bearing for me; it’s not for me to judge. Listening and reading about him for more than two decades has led me to the opposite opinion of what that woman said. Yes, it’s obvious to anyone watching that he always has been demanding of his teammates and assistant coaches in the heat of a game. Yet I’ve never once heard him denigrate anyone in or out of football in an interview, regardless of what someone else may have said of him. Conversely, to me, he projects both a genuine humility and gratitude for the opportunity to play a game he cherishes.

I bring up this woman’s view of Tom Brady because I find it germane to this question. The lesson of how he conducts himself is not lost on me. I work hard not to judge others, and I’ve learned over the years to stay out of others’ opinions—both of the state of the world and of me.

What I’m saying is that I have no interest in whether other people’s attitudes toward me are right or wrong. I don’t even try to endorse or refute them. I spent way too many years attempting to please everybody, with unsatisfying results. Today I strive to live by an expression I have come to internalize, which is: I love you. What you think of me is none of my business.

Sure, I’d be lying if I denied that I still enjoy being appreciated. But I’ve been around long enough to know that no one is loved by everyone and that it’s not my job to convince them of my worthiness, so it’s a waste of energy to try.

Feeling good about myself is an inside job. I work hard to be honest and caring to everyone I meet; by doing so, I get to go to bed each night feeling I did my best that day.

Some days, however, I am more human than humane, which is to say that I slip back into unkind mode. The best news is that a bell goes off in my head those days when I have been callous or, worse yet, cruel. On those occasions, I burn with self-anger and promptly apologize in sincerity for my behavior. THEN I MAKE EVERY EFFORT NOT TO REPEAT SUCH BEHAVIOR AGAIN. That’s the living amends part I seek to carry out each day.

In short, then, it’s none of my business whether I think someone “gets it wrong” about me. What is my business is how comfortable I am with the way I act and speak. And if I get a deep sense that I did the next right thing as it occurred that day, I’m happy with who I am at night, regardless of how others perceive me.

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The question: Are you Happy? The answer: Seriously?

My son picked out the following prompt for me to answer just ahead of the end-of year holidays: “At what times in your life were you the happiest and why?”

Let’s start with the simple, direct answer and get that over with so I can dig into the real question here:

The happiest time in my life is right now.

Really?

Definitely.

Why do you say that, Gil?

Because I spent a lifetime wishing to be happy and, after many years of work on myself, have come to realize there is no time like the present. And if I don’t wring every iota of joy out of this moment, I’ll regret it in the next instant. So it is that I’m thrilled silly (Thank you, Cousin Jay for that pithy phrase uttered decades ago) to be all there in the here and now.

Okay, strap in tight. Next up: the deep, philosophical part.

I long ago memorized a sentence from a Hazelden daily meditation book (Twenty-Four Hours a Day), that sums up the essence of this week’s key word for me: “Life is not a search for happiness; happiness is a byproduct of living the right kind of life, of doing the right thing (December 16th reading).”

What the quote tells me succinctly is that the pursuit of happiness is a dead end. It’s like a dog running around in circles chasing its tail. It unfailingly winds up with me biting myself in the butt.

I’m not saying I haven’t had mind-blowingly happy moments in my earlier life, but that’s what they were…moments, not lasting periods of good feelings. I mean, meeting Margie and developing a love relationship that has endured nearly six decades has been fantastic, but also filled with stretches of drama and` trauma, potholes and pitfalls. I was ecstatic when I learned Margie was pregnant, and over the moon when son, Shawn was born. But such blissed-out flashes quickly slipped away, like loosely-clotted Jell-O® through my fingers, as a lapsed back into morosity.

I honestly didn’t know what happiness was, except for those short-lived respites from negativity and pessimism like the ones I’ve cited. Most of the time I put on a happy mask to cover a sense of self-disappointment for not living up to what I thought I should be.That’s where the booze, pot and junk food served as my “rewards” for living a ruse.  In heroin parlance, I was forever “chasing the dragon”—the term used for trying to inhale the intoxicating fumes when the liquefied opioid is heated. Grasping for happiness in that manner was impossible, because it always floated away just beyond my nose.

Only when I stopped the self-abuse in the late 1980s and began facing life on life’s terms did I begin to fathom the beauty of the world as it is.

(Side note: I’ve been questioned several times during this year of writing weekly essays, regarding my reasons for why I routinely include self-deprecating scenarios about myself. I even have been requested to eliminate such forays into my darker side, but as I explained to someone just the other day, I must recall these self-destructive incidents as a constant reminder of where I came from and where I never want to return to. As is said in Twelve Step programs: “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”. I never want to forget the horrors of my old, unhappy life; in fact I need to keep them fresh in my memory so that will remember to relish the glory of the now.)

Today, I feel unfettered awe when I catch glimpse of nature in the raw—the sky blue-pink of a sunset, exotic birds gliding by my lanai, a child’s gleeful laugh. These snapshots stay with me in my recovery and make me grateful to have lived this long, blessedly healthy. And if I’m not perennially happy, well, I am at very least serene much of the time. And that’s as good as it gets for this guy.

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