Saturday, July 02, 2016

The Accidental Breakdancer

The body is a gyroscopic miracle. Even my body. Even yours. 

I know this because I was in New York’s Penn Station the other night, talking on the phone to my wife. There was an unexpected hangup as Kathy and I were saying goodbye, so I was sending her a text to explain. (This is not the miracle. This is just me setting the scene.) I’ve got my phone in my hand, my earbuds are still in my ears from the conversation, my backpack is around one shoulder. It’s a warm night; warmer inside the station than outside. My thumb is telling Kathy to say hi to our ferret, Charlie.

Behind me, as I text, I hear a buzzing. “Excuse me, sir.” Bzzzzzz. “Excuse me, sir?” Buzzzzzz. I don’t know what this is, but I do know I’m out of the way, tucked into the side of the hallway, leaning against the wall. There are a bunch of late-night commuters walking past, so I assume the voice is talking to someone else. I look behind me anyway, because you never know.

It’s a guy riding one of Penn Station’s floor-polishing zambonis, basically the size of a golf cart, moving slowly toward me. 

I startle. I realize he is talking to me, and he needs me to get out of the way. He’s hugging the wall, same as I am. I reach down to pick up the bottle of water and the banana at my feet. There is literally a banana peel at my feet, but it is wrapped around a banana, so I don’t immediately clue in to the type of situation I’m in. I am still holding my phone in my hand, its earbuds connected to my head. My backpack, loaded down with a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, a bag of dice, a crime novel, a notebook, and a half-dozen comic books, is slung over one shoulder. It is full of the pressed pulp of dead trees; it isn’t light.

I’ve got one hand free to grab the banana and the water bottle. The backpack is keeping me off-balance, but I manage to lean over and pick up both items with my left hand, like some sort of boardwalk claw-machine miracle. This is a feat any schoolkid could do. I feel like an acrobat. 

As I start to stand upright. bringing the banana and bottle up from the floor, my glasses slide down my nose and off of my head. Warm night; sweaty bald man.

The polishing zamboni maintains its approach.

I have my phone in my right hand. I have my backpack over my shoulder. There is a banana and a water bottle in my other hand. I am off balance. I am bending over again. I am on one foot. There is a zamboni bearing down on me.

I try to slip my phone into my shirt pocket to free my hand. The pocket is unhelpfully horizontal, rather than at its normal vertical orientation, because I have bent over at the waist. I am balancing on one foot. I don’t remember putting my other foot up, but I am on one foot. I think it’s to counterbalance the backpack, pulling me to the right. Toward the zamboni. The inexorable zamboni. I think about my crime novel. Cause of death: Inexorable zamboni.

The guy driving, dreadlocked and smiling, says, “Take your time, take your time, man.” He’s chill, but he’s not stopping. And my glasses are on the tiles he’s about to polish. 

Somehow, bent forward and on one leg like an impossible backpacked flamingo, I manage to slide my phone into my horizontal shirt pocket. With my now-free hand, I bat at my glasses, my fingers suddenly unwilling to grip. The glasses move a few inches, still in the zamboni path. I teeter from the effort, a middle-aged example of Newton’s third law. Swat glasses, wobble: an equal and opposite reaction. The weight of my backpack sends me listing to the right. I flap my arms like a cartoon duck that realizes he can’t fly. I spiral toward the floor, Swan Lake–style.

A second swat sends my glasses out of the path of the zamboni and toward the center of the corridor, where people are rushing to catch their trains. I jettison my cargo: Backpack, banana, bottle all gone. I spring after my glasses among all the high heels and sandals. Did my upraised flamingo foot ever touch the ground, or was it a one-legged spiraling leap? Grainy Penn Station security camera footage will have to tell the tale.

Afterward, it’s all anticlimax. My glasses back on my head, the backpack around my shoulder, the bottle and banana tucked within. Phone miraculously still in my pocket.

“Take it easy, man,” the zamboni guy says. “Don’t hurt yourself.”

I wake up in the morning and wonder why I’m sore.

Rob

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thinking about Alan Rickman

I've seen a lot of reminiscences about Alan Rickman today -- mostly about his performance as Hans Gruber or Severus Snape, with mentions of Dogma or Galaxy Quest here or there.
But there's one movie he was in that I haven't seen anyone mention. I saw Closet Land in a film class years ago, an intense film that made a big impression on me. It had just two actors -- Rickman and Madeleine Stowe -- on one set, as Rickman interrogates Stowe, a children's book author, about subversive messages he suspects she's inserting into her books. It knocked me out, this two-person performance that had the power of a much grander drama.
Now, I haven't seen it in 20 years or so. It might strike me now as too sincere, or somehow quaint. The past 20 years have seen a lot of news about interrogation and torture, and today I'd be viewing the film through more experienced (more cynical? almost certainly) eyes. Roger Ebert, a little older then than I am now, thought it pious and smug. But I suspect with actors the caliber of Rickman and Stowe, it's as good as it ever was. And it made such an impression on me, that when I heard he'd died, this was the first movie I thought of. The particulars of the film had faded, but it had one resounding lasting impression: the memory that Alan Rickman blew me the hell away.
The movie is hard to find: Amazon has only six VHS copies available, and I don't think it was ever pressed onto DVD in the US. (Apparently there's a Spanish version that you can switch the language to the original English.) But if you want to see for yourself, your best best is probably YouTube, where it's available in 9 parts.
Here's part one:


Rob

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The House on Haunted Hill

Without seeing it. I’d always dismissed 1959’s The House on Haunted Hill as a duller-witted cousin of its relative contemporary, 1963’s The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise and based on Shirley Jackson’s excellent novel The Haunting of Hill House. And while The Haunting is more psychologically rich, and has some moments of terror that Haunted Hill can’t match -- that pounding on the door! -- I finally caught the William Castle-directed movie last weekend for Halloween. I shouldn’t have written it off, because man, it’s a pip.

Vincent Price is Frederick Loren, a millionaire who, along with his wife, played by Carol Ohmart, has invited five strangers to spend the night at a haunted house, with the potential of earning a substantial sum of money. One of the strangers is Elisha Cook’s Pritchard, who has a family history with the house, and walks in terrified. The others -- a secretary at Loren’s company, a pilor, a gossip columnist, a doctor -- all have reasons for needing a lot of money, quickly. And at once point they’re told that there’s a lump sum of money that the survivors of the night will split, giving them a reason to off each other.

And then Vincent Price hands everyone a loaded handgun.

What’s so much fun about The House on Haunted Hill is that there are so many reasons these characters should be fearing for their lives, even without the intervention of the supernatural. The guests have a financial motive for murder. The married hosts, while preparing for the party, have also told each other in no uncertain terms that they’d like to see the other dead. And there’s a vat of deadly acid in the basement! Pritchard (Elisha Cook is so good in this!) tells everyone, almost mesmerized by the morbidity, “It completely dissolves flesh and hair.” A little rat skeleton floats to the bubbling surface.

And then, of course, there are the hauntings themselves. A ceiling drips blood. An old woman appears out of nowhere. A character who has died is later seen floating outside one of the guests’ window. Decapitated heads appear in the darnedest places. Are these plants meant to scare the rubes, or are they genuine supernatural manifestations? Could be column A, could be column B -- the movie plays this close to the vest for the longest time. But with all the backstabbing and suspicion from the living, ghosts are just gilding the funeral lillies.


Rob

Saturday, August 01, 2015

A thinly veiled excuse to link to some Dan Bern tracks

Earlier today, I finally read a Village Voice article on comedians in New York I’d been holding on to since November, finally allowing me to put the issue in the recycling bin (achievement unlocked!). The lede runs through a list of an earlier generation of comedians, and may stand as one of the last mentions of Bill Cosby without any mention of rape. What an innocent time November 2014 was.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with Dan Bern years ago, when I was interviewing him at around the time his first album came out. One of the tracks was a song called "Marilyn," about Marilyn Monroe; I asked him why he sometimes used celebrities in his songs. He said something to the effect that pop songs can only have so many words, and sometimes you can pop a known figure in and make an instant connection with the listener rather than spending those words trying to build a new character. If there’s one out there that already does the job, why not take advantage of that?

Of course, people aren’t frozen in time. The scandal-plagued Tiger Woods of 2009 isn’t the same figure Bern sang about in 1998 (although Bern’s opening line, “I got big balls,” certainly hasn’t been harmed by time’s revelation). The Britney Spears Bern mentions in 2001’s “Alaska Highway” is the energetic teen singer of “Oops I Did it Again,” rather than the tabloid trainwreck she was for a while: Jason Alexander and Kevin Federline loomed in the future.

Shorthand or not, using other people’s lives in your art is a tricky thing. They tend to go on living them.


Rob

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Back on Track

I hit a later cult meeting than my usual (insane for me) 8:30 morning meeting, and I have to admit I was nervous. My food tracking was spotty this week, but I was aware of all the liberties I'd taken last week (spelled out as P-I-Z-Z-A), and resolved not to do that again. I kept a good eye on portions, and didn't drink very much, either (which makes this whole thing untenable in the long run, but there ya go).

Anyway, I was rewarded with a 2.8-pound drop, my largest since my first meeting this stint in the cult. Very,very happy about this -- it brings me to 11.4 pounds lost altogether ... apparently, the same weight as the frame of this bicycle. Now to go for the tires.

After my meeting, I stopped off at the produce store and bought pears, grapes, little peppers, dried hot peppers, carrots, radishes, asparagus, cucumbers, and bean dip, so I'm off to a pretty good start. The cukes, radishes, and dried hot peppers are going to get pickled this afternoon. Which reminds me, I meant to pick up vodka, too. I've got some sorrel/hibiscus tea that I think would make a good infusion, and I'm guessing will mix well with lemon/lime soda at Crawfish Fest in a couple of weeks.

Rob

Saturday, May 09, 2015

First Setback

I've been going to Weight Watchers for a few months now, steadily if unspectacularly losing weight. It changed today, with a gain of 1.2 pounds, bringing my total loss back down to 8.6 pounds from 9.8.

On the other hand, I rode 40 miles in the 5-Boro Tour this week, and actually enjoyed it. So that ain't nothin'.

I'll have to keep a tighter lock on what I eat this week -- I really want next week to be when I break the 10-pound barrier. Here's a photo of an 8.6-pound guitar, that presumably the Man from Mars art when he stopped eating cars.



Rob

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Trilobite Therapy

Had what may be the most frightening nightmare of my adulthood last night – certainly of the monster/horror variety, rather than the personal tragedy type of dream. I blame Coraline, Neil Gaiman & Henry Selick’s brilliantly concocted nightmare fuel. Not that my dream followed the movie exactly… no one was going to sew buttons on my eyes. But man, the bugs.

No, instead it started with me showing up at a psychiatrist’s office for “trilobite therapy,” because I was having terrible anxiety about the alien trilobites that had begun showing up in town. These things were colored orange-red to deep crimson; most were the size of a baseball glove, but some were smaller, and some were a lot bigger. From the top, they had a layered carapace, with numerous feelers in front of their tiny heads. If you flipped them over, you could see ten or twelve legs, sometimes wriggling, sometimes undulating in an unearthly rhythm.

There were several here in the psychiatrist’s office, and I stiffened up as I opened the door. What was supposed to happen would be I would lay down on one of the sofas, and the doctor would rest a few trilobites on me and I would, somehow, fall asleep. I noticed the actor Jason Alexander snoozing on one of the other couches, a trilobite poking out from beneath his shirt. The doctor put a softball-size trilobite on my back, and told me to lay back. Then he put another on my chest, this one larger, about the size of a toaster, but flatter. I could feel its legs sweeping against the fabric of my shirt. Finally, the doctor laid one over my eyes.

I think that’s the moment I pulled out of the dream briefly because I heard myself whimper.

I could feel the trilobites crawling around, but I tried to keep my eyes shut. Eventually, somehow, I fell asleep – perhaps I was even lulled into it by the rhythmic movement of their legs. When I awoke, the trilobites were still on me, but they had curled into themselves. I didn’t know anything about their biology, but they struck me as sated and asleep. Jason Alexander was gone. The doctor told me to pick them up and bring them to an old quarry near town, and to stand at the edge and throw them deep inside. I drove there to do as I was told. As I got out of the car, I saw another one of the bugs — much larger, about the size of a collie — and it shuffled over to approach me. In revulsion, I grabbed a length of rebar near where I parked, and drove it into the beast. It screeched and wriggled as I pushed the spear down, all the way to the chunk of concrete at the end of it. Then I retrieved the sleeping trilobites from my passenger seat and hurled them into the quarry, as hard as I could. None of them smashed; they just rolled a bit.

I noticed that there as a splotch on my arm, a deep black marking about the size of a sandwich roll. My skin was dry and flaky, and was gray-black, like charcoal. A trilobite had spent some time there. I pulled up my shirt, and there were other marks, too. Getting home, and running to the bathroom, I found them on my arms, legs, back, and thighs. All deep gray-black, like graphite from a pencil, and flaky and dusty. I looked at myself in the mirror, and could see only a dark stripe of charcoal where my eyes should have been. My eyes were barely noticeable, either discolored or sunken too deep to see.

You can bet that when my alarm sounded, I jumped out of bed without a second look.


Rob

P.S. The art attached is a detail from "Trilobite Boy" by Glendon Mellow. You can find more of his art here.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Pointy, pointy.

Went to my meeting today, and when I weighed in, I was down another 1.2 pounds. That's 6.4 pounds altogether, or the weight of this Excalibur Apex crossbow. (For a moment, at the scale, I thought I was down another three pounds, because last week's weight was never entered into the computer. But still, it's a loss, so I'll take it.)

This drop also means I have one less point to gobble up each day during the week... which will make nights like last Tuesday's soft-taco and wine guzzle a little bit tougher to pull off. But so far, so good. Three weeks in, and I've lost a deadly weapon.

Rob


Thursday, April 02, 2015

An Elephant Never Forgets to Post

To keep myself honest, I ought not to skip a week of reporting from my cult. Last week at my weigh-in, I dropped another 1.8 pounds… a pretty good figure, I think. That’s 5.2 pounds altogether, which is the same weight as this majestic elephant statuette holding a wishing bell. Or, you know, a sack of potatoes, but you’ve seen that before.



Next weigh-in is tomorrow morning -- a day earlier than these last two weeks. That is, unless I forget and have to go on Saturday again.

Rob

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Missing: One Fish

I had a pretty good week, cult-wise. I stayed on plan, despite all the goodies that show up to eat where I'm freelancing (this week, a major cooking magazine, super-tempting), and made some smart choices in their cafeteria for lunch -- smart enough that I even had a few beers this week, as I passed some time, for one reason or another, at bars near train stations.

And when I showed up to my meeting this morning, I had lost 3.4 pounds, the weight of this smallmouth bass caught by fisheries biologist Shawn Crouse at Round Valley Reservoir in NJ. I hope he's okay with me using his photo.


It feels great to have lost that weight, though it's a little odd, too. Somewhere during the week, I'd gotten the idea that I was only 4 pounds heavier than the last time I joined Weight Watchers; turns out the difference was 8 pounds. So while I know I lost 3.4 pounds, my weight is actually .6 pounds more than what I thought it was all week. BUT SHUT UP, BRAIN! YOU ARE TRICKSY, BUT YOU WILL NOT TAKE THIS VICTORY FROM ME!

Plus, on the way back from the meeting, I stopped at this produce shop and picked up beets and sweet potatoes and wonton skins. I have an idea for some vegetarian dumplings for dinner. If it's genius, I'll tell you how I made them. If it's a disaster, we will never speak of such things again.

Rob

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Once More Unto the Breach

So I’ve rejoined my cult.

I walked into Weight Watchers four pounds heavier than the last time I walked into Weight Watchers to start the plan. This’ll be my third time doing it; besides my attempt five years ago, I did it once in the 90s when I was still living in Pennsylvania, when the weight sloughed off easily, as I was, what, 24? Holy cow, I’m almost twice that now. Is there an Age Watchers meeting I can go to instead?

We’ll see how this goes. So far, I’ve been making pretty good choices...aside from a day of gaming where I blew through any leeway I had left in my week. So much… delicious… cheese. It was like Superman walking into a room of Kryptonite, back in the 70s when he lost his vulnerability to it and he could eat it.

Since then, I’ve been pretty good about my choices: veggie burgers, egg whites, lots of fruit. Lunch yesterday was some vegetable korma, some lentil daal, a little rice, and some stuff from the cafeteria’s raw food display -- a cucumber salad with yogurt, some fennel & arugula, and some pickled red onion. Plus fruit. Always fruit.

I weigh in again on Saturday morning. We’ll see how it goes.

Rob

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Everyday Magic

We’d just touched down in New Orleans a few hours ago, so excited to be out of the cold that Kathy was taking pictures of palm trees in the cab ride from the airport. Now we were at a Pisces Party at the Blue Nile, a club on Frenchmen Street. The party was a zodiac-wide birthday party/concert, with a catered buffet we were too stuffed from our earlier dinner to take advantage of. The musicians -- including our pal Loren, who’d invited us -- were all born in Pisces, calling themselves Los Pescadores. Alvin Youngblood Hart was the headliner. The event was raising money for charity, to help fill in some of the cracks of mental health care than the Jindal administration had cut in its red-state zeal. Later, a pinata would be lowered -- a color printout of the governor’s face taped onto a mermaid’s body. Everyone took some whacks at it, spilling candy across the floor.

I was several beers in, and feeling euphoric. From the travel, from the drink, from the music and getting together with a distant friend. So when I pulled open the door to the men’s room and someone was pushing on the other side of it, I stepped back and said, “Whoa...it’s like magic.” (Like I said, euphoric. Easily amazed is another way to put it.)

He just smiled, in something of the same space. “Glory be to us, brother” he said, holding out a fist.

I bumped it. “Glory be to us.”

Can’t get more welcome than that.

Rob

Sunday, November 23, 2014

That's Not My Church, Either


I’ve had a few friends say that watching Cosmos this summer was “like going to church.” That hasn't been my experience. It’s a good show – a really good show – but at the end of an episode, I feel informed, and a little smarter about my place in the universe…but not filled with any transcendent wonder. It feels like school, on those days when school felt like a good place to be.

My church moments are usually live theater – or live music. In theater, it’s often when some connection is made that I haven’t seen before. The end of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the first time I saw it… that was a church moment for me. Pig Iron Theater Company’s Dig or Fly, a fusing of the stories of Amelia Earhart, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, and Daedalus and Icarus, was another. Even a production of Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon I saw years ago at Philadelphia Theater Company, a play that reveals itself to be a scorpion halfway through, did the job. And Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia — I saw a production at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia — astonished me. Its staging and subject matter threw the doors of experience open wide. Film can do this, too...but it doesn't hit with the force of something live on stage before me.

Music, I never know where or when it’s going to happen. The first one I remember was watching The Moody Blues, and hearing Justin Hayward sing “Question.” Even from way back on the floor of the Spectrum, I knew that was a special moment. I’ve felt a light drizzle begin as the Who started to sing “Reign O’er Me” at Veterans Stadium, and I’ve seen David Wilcox, undaunted by a storm, scrap his set list and sing song after song about rain, until the set turned a corner into sunshine…about five minutes before the weather did. Hearing Bet Williams unspool “Lost in Provo” at the North Star Bar, or dancing as Neo Pseudo pulsed and jammed their way through “Follow the Drinking Gourd” some Thursday night at Café Mexicana in Manayunk, those moments were church. I was outside myself.

There’s the ecstasy. That’s where I find rapture.

Cosmos is an unusually engaging science program. It offers historical perspective and scientific insight, and presents some fascinating intellectual exercises. But as art, it hasn’t yet moved me. Not the way church should.


Rob

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Another Creepy Dream

So, here’s a dream - or a series of dreams -- from the other night, when I still had a little cold medicine in my system. Took a DayQuil at 4 or 5, dropped off to sleep around 10, and...


Kathy and I were heading south, for a quick trip to see my family. We stopped the car somewhere on route 1, realizing we’d left our toothbrushes at home. I stopped to get gas, while Kathy took her bike from the rack and rode back to the house to get them. Meanwhile, while my car was gassing up, some people came out of the little building next to the pumps and offered me a chance to sit down and have some Turkey dinner. They were really nice, but obviously faking it. I knew they were sharks, con artists, all of them. One man asked me what kind of maps I had in the car. I told him we had a New Jersey map, and a national map. He said, “We’ll get you a new national map,” in a way that made me think he expected the borders to soon be redrawn, or that there have always been secret borders I wasn’t privy to.


I had a little turkey with them, being careful to pay only in cash for everything. Kathy returned, and we were about to leave, when one of the women of the group stopped me by the driver’s side door and started poking me with her forefinger in the shoulders, right under the shoulder blades. She looked like she was being playful about it, but I kept my hand on my wallet just the same. Didn’t trust them one bit. And as we looked more serious about moving on, I could see a large group of people in the distance, running toward us.


I woke up.


I looked at the clock, checked the alarm. Headed to the toilet and gave it a late-night watering. Then climbed back into bed, and drifted off to sleep.


Kathy and I were back on another road trip, but this time we didn’t get farther than Metuchen when we pulled over. Kathy lit out again (I guess; she wasn’t in the rest of the dream), but I waited for her in a house, talking and having a drink with David Sedaris. We were just casually chatting the the front room of these too-friendly strangers, when I passed him a note: “Do you trust these people?” He wrote back quickly, “Not even a little.”


We made noises that we had to leave, and our hosts, all smiles, implored us to stay for just a little while longer, relax, take a load off. Grinning, with calculating eyes. I took a look outside the house’s screen door, and there, at the intersection at the end of the block, was a crowd of people, slowly milling about, their eyes on the house. I said, “David, we’ve got to go,” and we left the house, our hosts protesting behind us.


As soon as we stepped of the porch, the crowd at the corner broke into a run. I was running for my car, swarmed by these people, their faces angry or in masks, some of them carrying clubs. I had the feeling of being overwhelmed, swept away by a tide of muscle and wood.


I woke again. It was maybe an hour later. I looked out my window, but there was no one in the street. I got up and walked down the hall, looked out that window, too. No one.
I refilled the water in the humidifier in my CPAP system in the dark, and climbed back into bed. As I was drifting off, I saw a tall figure in a witch’s mask emerge from the closet, and I startled awake again.


Nothing more happened that night.


Rob

Sunday, September 28, 2014

There's Vegetarian...


...and then there's NASHVILLE vegetarian.

Rob
(Menu shot at Pub 5, 5th Ave. off Broadway, Nashville. Delicious food, rooftop dining, whiskey specials, amusing typos)