Thursday, December 31, 2015
“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”
If you are like most folks you are probably considering your New Year’s Resolutions. You’ve got until midnight to declare your intentions. No pressure. Can you recall when you started making resolutions? Were you in college, high school, or the third grade? You probably made some resolutions because your parents made them. Mom wanted to quit smoking or Dad wanted to finally clean up his den.
Resolutions have been around a long time, and although nobody has proved it yet, I bet they popped up with the earliest agrarian societies, maybe even before. As far as records go, it is said that the ancient Babylonians were some of the earliest people on this mudball to make resolutions at the onset of the New Year. They did so, it is believed, to honor their gods by paying off their debts and returning their neighbors belongings. The Ancient Romans made promises to Janus so that he could absolve them of the previous year’s sins.
When I was in my teens, my resolutions were all about improving my down-the-line backhand and getting more zip on my second serve. Even to grow a few more inches. That’s long behind me now. Thank goodness. At least, I think it is. So maybe tennis has become a sideline for me, a way to blow off some steam on weekends. While I’m no longer gunning for Wimbledon anymore, my resolutions have kept the same germ. Mine are about goals. Smaller ones perhaps, but I’ve never been the type of person who is looking to shed: weight, smoking, gambling. I’ve got my fair of vices, but as I lope into the New Year I think of starting fresh, doing instead of denying.
I list places I’d like to visit, books I’m planning to read, journals I’m targeting to publish work. I also try to procrastinate less. This is one of those vices that has clung to me like a chummy barnacle. We’ve been living a symbiotic relationship for who knows how long. Benny Franklin said be at war with your vices. I say be chums.
When we make a formal resolution, we are said to be determined to follow a course of action with intended purpose. This word comes to us from Middle English (about 1350 – 1400). Merriam-Webster’s definition (a) states that it’s the act or analysis of a complex notion into a simpler one, and though this is not quite the specific definition we are homing in on when we make our annual pledge, I think this aspect nicely underscores the goal, which is to make our lives better, more focused.
Being a writer, I also cannot help thinking of the story definition of resolution which is the abatement of conflict. Some epiphany is achieved and the central tension has dissipated. While this is a great notion, the fact is that the New Year’s Resolution, in all likelihood will create gobs of tension. You’ve thrown down the gauntlet and are trying to change traits or characteristics that have been natural to you that have made you who you are for probably umpteen years if not longer.
No matter how hard it might be we still want to take another crack at our perceived shortcomings, and why not.
I remember a conversation my parents had when I was a kid, about seven if memory serves me correctly. Mom and Dad enjoyed their sparkling wine. I sipped my Canada Dry. The room still redolent of pine needles. We never got rid of the tree until after the Epiphany, Ukrainian Christmas. Mom kept pressing my Dad to share his resolutions with her, and, after a couple of flutes of sparkling wine, he finally did. “I plan to do next year what I didn’t get around to this.” He flashed her his smirky grin, and I remember liking the glibness of that response— its understated sagacity.
I’d like to think there’s a bit of that in me when I claw away at new things on the horizon: Underworld by Don DeLillo, the town of Chablis, and yes, publications in Narrative and Agni. I’m also hellbent on unearthing a real Trilobite fossil. No, keep the shovel. Can you lend me a small awl and a toothbrush? This requires a soft touch and patience.
Happy New You!
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent essay “Teach Yourself Italian,” I’ve decided to share a memory from way back how I got into Italian. Our paths couldn’t be more different. Whereas Jhumpa’s was a full-on Neptune-plunge immersion into the briny sea of that rich lingua, mine is more of a wading, or, more to the point, a toe dip.
In my freshman year of high school, I studied at Xavier in Manhattan. Prior to that, I had been tethered to the comfy confines of my childhood neighborhood, Forest Hills. I was both ecstatic and petrified about moving beyond that secure boundary. Besides having to commute to school by subway, I had to embark on the unbidden imposition of finding new friends. There was also the task of learning a new language. Nowadays kids start tinkering with a new tongue by the time they enter daycare.
I remember the surprise I had when I first grabbed my schedule and noticed that my 3rd period class had mistakenly listed Italian 101 instead of Intro to Spanish. I broached the subject with Brother Ciprian in the main office, but he explained in his avuncular yet stolid voice (as Jesuits often do) that there was no mistake and that I’d better dash or I’d earn my first tardy for my Italian class. I wasn’t miffed by the encounter so much as I was curious as what to expect in class. I really didn’t know anybody who spoke Italian, and everybody who I’d met, who studied another tongue in school either took Spanish or French or Japanese on the weekend. I knew that Latin was a choice and so was German, but since my Kantian predilection hadn’t been born at this callow time, I didn’t even give German a shot.
My teacher turned out to be a Dublin-born musician with a brogue thicker than her Irish-knit. She was very smiley and bubbling with ideas she’d been brewing since she’d just hatched from grad school. It was her first day too, and Ms. O’Shea wanted to make amici with her gli studenti. We were soon baptized with Italian names: Joe Simmons became Giuseppe, Lou Harris became Luigi, and, of course, I became Giovanni Gorman.
We went around the room and shared a bit of ourselves. After that, Ms. O’Shea decided to play some music for us. She fished a Maxell tape from her bag and slipped it into her tape deck. In case you were wondering, a tape deck is this thing that played music before CD players and after phonographs. You could consider it the great granddaddy of the iPod. The song she played was a catchy tune called “Lasciatemi Cantare” by one Toto Cutugno. It was nothing like the Louis Prima or Rosemary Clooney stuff I’d heard my parents or friends of my parents play. It was charmingly corny. “Lasciatemi Cantare” was pop music. Imagine Erasure or The Petshop Boys singing Italian. Okay, maybe I’m reaching, but it piqued my curiosity. Ms. O’Shea sang with a lot of feeling and most of us tried to match her musto. Warbling was about all we could offer.
Toward the end of the first week, on a Thursday afternoon, Ms. O’Shea arranged for us to go to a café. Our procession of navy blazers headed to Union Square. I was still getting used to the snug cut of my blazer, and the bunching up at the elbows. Maybe you didn’t have to suffer such an indignity back in your formative years. It’s no easy fete getting a teenage boy to wear one, but having been uniform-groomed, for eight glorious years, it didn’t take long to make the transition. Plus, I was only too happy to shed my gray slacks and clip-on green ties from my old school.
On the way to the café, I chatted with Paolo Bronsky who told me he was considering going out for the part of Maestro Borov in the school's Fall Production of Bye Bye Birdie. I told Paolo that I didn’t think that part was going to be available since we were supposedly putting together a show based on the original Broadway script, and the Maestro part was a Hollywood add-on. “Why not go out for the Mayor of Sweet Apple or Mr. Johnson if you want to land a shoe-in?” Paolo seemed to like the idea, and to be a good sport, he encouraged me to give Conrad a crack.
It was nice to chat with somebody who a penchant for theatre (music theatre anyway). Paolo also was in his elementary school production of “Hello Dolly”, and I must say he sure looked like a Barnaby. We were bragging about who had more Playbills between us when Ms. O’Shea interrupted, asking if we preferred to grab our coffees outside rather than inside. Her attempt at rapport-building was not unwelcome, but a foursome grabbing the last outdoor spot nixed our al fresco experience.
It was better inside. I told Miss O’Shea so and we ordered a round of cappuccinos. There were a few espressos too, and a couple of Coca-Cola-quaffers. We waited for Ms. O’Shea to go teacherly on us, but she ended up letting her hair down (even more so). Literally too, right out of her ponytail band. She passed out loose pictures of her trips to Italia. The architecture, sculptures, and piazza pictures were gorgeous, but she treated us to what really was more of the everyday experience. None of that postcard crap. So many faces, everyday Italians: kneading bread, selling fruit, bicycling, fishmongers hawking fresh catch, grannies wringing wet laundry. She had what seemed like a zillion pictures of food and people swooning over their food, gelato, salumi, wine. I’d already grown smitten with the land, the people.
Ms. O’Shea only lasted a few months. She got a big break, a singing gig in Toronto. A Jesuit Brother took her place. We missed her terribly. I played sick for a couple of days, but I couldn’t duck out forever. I wished, the lame-brained wish she’d come back, but it wasn’t right for me to quash her buona fortuna. The think is, she really lit a spark for Italia in me, and when I think about it especially when I’m swigging a Docletto or slugging back my espresso, I’m so glad somebody in that office goofed and signed me up for her class, even though, more often than not, I still butcher my sentences.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
(This essay first appeared in The Rose & Thorn in The Fall of 2008)
So you want to know my earliest realization that I was just another boob consumer? Trace it back to my Star Wars Action figure days. Fish out the collapsible C3PO from a war-torn pile of crummy Jawas and Storm Troopers, no they're all out of Snaggletooth again, but don't fret there's another Woolworth over by Fresh Pond Road if I could finagle my mom into a ride over there. The tough part was getting an advance on my already advanced allowance.
The thing was, if you clipped off enough of those coupons from the back of the action figure packages you could get a really nifty limited edition something or another. Feast your eyes on Boba Fett, the badass bounty hunter, puppet-strings of Jabba the Hutt. I was way psyched to be the first kid on the block with the hot new toy, especially since I'd read all about the missile that shot from Boba Fett's backpack-launcher.
I played hooky in anticipation of the special delivery. Why waste a whole day through ho-hum math classes and those retarded fire drills when Boba Fett could be hiding in my mailbox? Mom's deal was that if I stayed home I had to clean my room, take out the garbage, and other crap like that. In return, she promised to write my teacher a phony baloney sick note. She was quid pro quo all the way.
The big day finally came, but when I tore apart the package, my action figure didn't have a launchable missile. It stuck there welded in place, without any buttons or levers to fire it out. I had to see for myself if it was possible to tweak the design to suit my bounty-hunting appetite. Equipped with a pair of pliers I fished out from under the kitchen sink, I went to work. Dislodging the missile was tricky. I started off gently and soon swung into a rhythm whereby my half-cranks turned into roundhouse yanks that finally stripped the ammo clean off Boba Fett's back. It left me with a weird numbing feeling. Maybe neuter was more like it. It's hard to say. As I sat there with the red, bean-sized missile in the pinch of my hand I just didn't feel like gluing the stupid thing back on.
My buddy Kenji, the only other spoiled brat I knew who got everything he whined about, told me some dickweed from Oshkosh messed up his cornea blasting Boba Fett missiles off his front porch and that was why all the second batch figures were shipped neutralized. Kenji also mentioned that the puny Boba Fett was nothing compared to the new line (if you'll pardon the pun) that was being launched, scheduled to hit the stores for the holidays. According to him the new line would be as tall as Rom the Spaceknight. This brawnier Boba Fett would fill the void of the inferior one loafing under my bed.
In the meantime Rom posed as my scab Boba Fett, until the bathtub incident whereupon the better part of his foot was caught and snapped off in the drain. Mom nursed Rom's foot with the gauze she used to bandage my hands when I hurt myself digging around for baseballs behind the old ball field. The rejuvenated Rom met his ultimate demise outside the fourth floor window of the boy's bathroom at my school. The parachute never opened.
When Kenji popped in the original Stars Wars on his Betamax, we made some startling discoveries: 1) it was Han Solo, not Luke who killed the Rodian bounter hunter Greedo — Kenji liked to call him Guido; 2) upon closer inspection it did look like Princess Lea had an armpit-sniffing fetish after she and Luke swung to safety by way of Luke's trusty grappling hook. 3) Jabba the Hutt had already made his first appearance despite Kenji's insistence that it was Return of the Jedi where the tub-of-slob made his debut.
In their own right each of these were fascinating discoveries, but what bugged me, after catching The Empire Strikes Back, was that Bosk, another mail-away bounty hunter, also had a nothing part. What was up with Kenner and their whole peddling enterprise gassing up kids' hopes, getting us all psyched up to covet their action figures when they took away the best features (AKA Boba Fett's missile-launcher)? And more importantly why were they pawning off these bit part bounty hunters? They didn't have any of the characters from the cantina, not a single one, though Kenji and I wrote numerous letters lobbying for them — to Kenner, the Star Wars Fan Club for Midgets, George Lukas, Obi-Won Kenobi, whoever. Our only reply smacked pomposity. Wait until the droid factory hits the shelves so you smart asses can build whatever figures you want. O.K. so maybe they didn't add that last part, but the sentiment was implied by the persnickety little ink-stamped signature on the bottom of the form letter.
We didn't want more figures for the heck of it. We wanted to preserve the real-world integrity of Star Wars. Sure we had imagination, but it was cool to have Hammerhead and Walrus Man to spice up our battles.
One day Kenji and I got into a fight because he thought I took his Luke Skywalker light saber, a very jaundiced weapon with part of the tip spliced off. I'd lost mine some weeks earlier and had inserted a colored toothpick into the aperture underneath Skywalker's wrist.
“I didn't take your stinking light saber,” I said, “If you don't believe me, here, take the toothpick. You should clean your teeth.”
That's just how I said it. Of course, it didn't go over well and that's when he called me a grub.
“Not only are you a moocher,” he said, “But a copy cat too. You always want what I have.”
At that moment, I was furious and hurt by the assessment. My integrity, manhood, and friendship were insulted. An only child tends to blast a floodlight inward when the looker only needs a flicker. I took it to heart. Later on when his mom offered us a plate of Oreos and two tall glasses of milk he apologized.
“Forget it. I was only messing with you,” he said.
The thing is that little squabble did mess with my head. I could take punches, noogies, and the occasional pile-driver, but it hurt more that he thought, even for that moment, I'd stoop so low and steal his figure. It wasn't the Jedi way.
I don't really know when something loses luster. The cherished toy underneath the Christmas tree has a short half-life and simple, honest, malicious words leave permanent marks. To this day, I have a sweet spot reserved for Star Wars, though I wonder what's at stake when I trade figures on Ebay. What stories belong to the Han Solos, Darth Vaders, and Chewbaccas? Did two buddies have a break-up? Who were the bullies, the nerds, and all the others who played with them? These things I consider when making trades. Playing with another kid's old figures slips me into a forbidden past.
Kenji and I stayed somewhat friends, saw each other now and then when we played ball, burnt ants, and honed our joystick waggling skills. We shied away from action figures. Maybe I keep up with the Star Wars studs because I'm trying to make up for lost time. Maybe I haven't grown up.