Monday, March 9, 2015

Love, loss and hope

On a recent gray and dreary day, the lovely Miss Wendy and I thought it a perfect time to visit our neighborhood multiplex cinema. We ended up seeing a horror flick that still has me rattled.

That's all a bit surprising, since I was raised on a jarring mix of films featuring werewolves and vampires; stumbling and bumbling mummies and fantastical blobs; the Frankenstein monster and a wide assortment of aliens. In recent years, I've even sat through some really frightening misadventures featuring flying superheroes, massive explosions and ubiquitous car chases.

Of course all these Hollywood creatures and creations were ephemeral, mostly filled with special effects and comic bogeymen hiding about in the dark.

"Still Alice", meanwhile, is a film that has little to do with make believe monsters and demons. The spooky stuff it offers up is scarily grounded in reality. It tells the story of Alice Howland, a middle-aged professor of linguistics at Columbia University, who is bright and beautiful and, unfortunately, slowly losing her mind to early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year for her quietly moving and point-on portrayal of Alice, capturing her intelligence and lust for life that is achingly lost as her mind and memories wither away like a flower wilting in the noon-day sun.

The first hint of something gone terribly wrong in Alice's perfect life -- she's smart and lovely, has a wonderful job and a beautiful family -- is when she ever so slightly stumbles about in search of a word while giving a lecture. Only days later she's losing her way when out on a daily jog, soon enough forgetting the names of friends and family and misplacing her cell phone in the fridge.

In a world turned upside down, Alice finds herself taking baby steps in reverse, losing all the special qualities and unique experiences that had once defined her charmed and special life. Her family watches in quiet horror, trying to figure out how best to continue living in a world now frighteningly askew.

Their choices and decisions, both good and bad, are the stuff of life, an aching reality captured in Alice's slow descent into a mindless hell. Ever so quickly, the third act is upon us, and even quicker yet, it all dissolves to white.

Lydia, Alice's youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart, a jarring blend of anger and defiance, mixed with  love and strength) takes center stage, speaking a jumble of words that, after a time, morph into a lyrical monologue of hope.

I was so taken with the moment that I spent a few minutes on the web and discovered the scene was borrowed from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America": "And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls ... Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."

Lydia asks Alice if she understands and Alice, staring off in dazed befuddlement, becomes reanimated -- if only for a moment -- and manages to say "love ... it's about love."

It's a somewhat satisfying, if melancholy ending to a sad and melancholy film. It also, at least for me, had the ring of truth.

Five years ago my mother was lost and stumbling along the road that "Still Alice" explores. After a couple of years of steady decline, her last days were spent in a kind of suspended animation -- gone, but still here; mute, dazed and befuddled.

I often stopped by the nursing home where she was living and helped feed her if I was around for lunch or dinner. On one particular day, I managed to get her to eat several spoonfuls of some sort of pureed goo, then handed off the chore to a nearby aide.

As I stood to leave, my mother glanced up at me and, after weeks of silence, managed to say, "I love you."  They were the last words I ever heard her speak.

So I'm thinking Alice had it right; it's about love. I'm also thinking that Lydia got it right when she shared the words of Tony Kushner: "Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."

Friday, February 27, 2015

Remembering the day I was contacted by Mr. Spock

Live long and prosper: Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock
Most everyone knows the story of Mr. Spock, aka Leonard Nimoy, coming up with the Vulcan greeting based on what he recalled seeing as a youngster attending High Holiday services with his grandfather.

Years later, it was that memory, he said, that led to his developing the iconic gesture – hand held out in front of his face, the middle and ring fingers spread apart in what is now a very familiar pose.

The four-word greeting, almost always uttered by Mr. Spock in his oh-so emotionless manner, also nicely echoes the Priestly Blessing – “Live long and prosper.”

Lenoard Nimoy managed to do both. He died Thursday from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was 83.

About all I have to add is a bit of shameless name dropping.

Several years ago, when I was still working for the place with the printing press, I wrote a news brief about a little controversy brewing in the local Jewish community. Apparently some rabbis were upset with a new art exhibit at the Jewish community center, featuring nude photos of women draped in religious garb – tallis, tefillin – and not much else.

The exhibit was drawn from a book of photography, Shekhina, created by, you guessed it, Leonard Nimoy. Some critics found the photos revolutionary, others salacious. Most in the Orthodox community were outraged and demanding that the JCC shut down the exhibit and, if possible, beam Mr. Spock far, far away.

The following morning, when I checked my e-mail, I had a note from an LNimoy asking if I was interested in hearing the real story of the Shekhina. In utter amazement I realized that, well, Mr. Spock was trying to reach me.

After jumping over a few minor logistical hurdles, I eventually hooked up with the Vulcan on the Left Coast and had a delightful conversation that became the focus of an expansive feature story about his life, art and the genesis of the Vulcan greeting. I recall Mr. Nimoy telling me in detail how he sat next to his grandfather as a child, enthralled by the pageantry of the High Holiday services, especially the moment when the Kohanim blessed the congregation.

The rest, as they say, has become boob-tube history and Trekkie lore! On a personal note, it was also pretty cool talking to an actor I first spotted on the small screen as Spock in the late 1960s in the TV room of my frat house in Athens.

A footnote. After much give and take, the executive director of the local JCC announced at the time that he had spoken with all interested members of the Jewish community and would be taking their views into account as he decided the future of the Shekhina exhibit. Apparently he was still trying to figure out how best to handle the issue when the show finished its scheduled run six weeks later.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Working, playing and a peek-a-boo surprise

Kodak moment: Bailey Boo and Pops make two
It was one of those special moments, the instant when Bailey first took hold of my hand and tottered about like a drunken sailor. She has yet to fully find her sea legs, but is gamely attempting to push her way into the future.

She cruises about these days, lifting herself up, holding onto anything handy -- a table or shelf, bedroom wall or pile of boxes. It's all about getting from here to there, pushing and pulling and grabbing hold of the moment.

It's tough work, this leaping forward and figuring out the sights, sounds and logistics of life. After all, she's only 16 months old. But Bailey is a happy warrior, laughing and giggling her way around obstacles, gleefully offering up a word or two of gibberish that has recently started making sense.

The road is clear. The future beckons.

There's much to be learned by watching a baby. If lucky, the game begins with health and a little wealth; enough stuff, at least, to keep the focus on the natural and important bits of living -- eating, sleeping and pooping! Bailey's now exploring walking and talking; each day filled with something new and amazing.

So if you're in the game and have a baby around the house, it's an incredible and joyful journey. It can also be peek-a-boo surprising. I'll explain.

Just last weekend, the lovely Miss Wendy and I managed to spend some quality time with Bailey, a day filled with tottering around the house, sliding and gliding and giggling with glee. The plan was for Bubbe and me to watch over Bailey while Lauren and Josh had a night free.

After feeding and watering the baby, reading books and singing songs, playing with blocks and dolls and phones and remotes -- hey, anything with buttons and lights is in play -- standing up and sitting down and rolling about for an hour or so, it was time to put on our jammies and go to sleep. Yeah!

This is probably a good place to mention that playing -- lots of playing -- is a good thing. Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. It's really the work of childhood. At least that's the thinking of Fred Rogers -- yes, that Mr. Rogers!

I wholeheartedly agree; but I digress.

Bailey, as she is want to do, cried out for a second or two after being gently tossed into her crib; then she rolled onto her tummy, found her thumb and a comfy corner and lightly floated away on a metaphorical cloud.

Here's another observation. There's probably nothing more stressful then a fussy youngster; and there's probably nothing more comforting then a happy, sleeping baby. After all, when Bailey is happy, everyone is happy.

And so it went for the next 12 hours or so, until night gave way to the lengthening and lingering shadows of morning. Wendy and I momentarily pushed aside the light, then grudgingly gave in to the demands of life, stretching and yawning and listening for the morning song of our grandchild next door.

But all was quiet -- too quiet! The sun was rising well above the horizon and Bailey had yet to cry out. It was a good hour passed her usual wake-up call and for an instant a seed of panic took hold of our hearts.

We wiggled out of bed and padded quickly to the nearby nursery, ever so gently pushing back the door. Light streamed into the room and I could spot a corner of the crib, but no sign of Bailey. I pushed the door a bit wider and still no sign of her. The seed was growing

Another shove, swinging the door fully open, and I found myself face-to-face with my granddaughter. Bailey stood with her arms atop one corner of the bed, her head resting comfortably on her hands, a little angel, just about perfect in all the ways that matter. She might have been resting their in regal repose for only a moment, perhaps an hour or more. A look of bemused indifference spilled across her features. Our tardiness was forgiven.

We stared at one another for an instant longer and then Bailey smiled, a gap-tooth grin that I took to mean good morning and where the heck have you been. The day was newly born and grand adventures rested mightily on the horizon. Life beckoned and time was wasting.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

New York, New York, it's a helluva town ...

So yet again the lovely Miss Wendy and I were in the Big Apple last week, enjoying the sights, sounds and, yes, even the frigid weather. Hey, it's the one time each year that I have the opportunity to wear a really heavy coat, a scarf and gloves. Cover up just right, and even when it's sleeting, you just might manage to feel toasty and warm while looking cool in water-resistant basic black!

And so it was that Wendy and I found ourselves high up in the balcony of the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, waiting out the final minutes before the curtain went up for "On the Town," a glorious revival of the happening musical that first hit Broadway during the waning days of World War II.

Those of us of a certain generation will recall the movie version of the show, starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin; focusing on the ups, downs and conquests of a trio of sailors on a 24-hour leave in the Big Apple.

Wendy and I had, in fact, been in the city for several days and, in a fashion, had been playing out the touristy bits of the show; making it uptown and down, even riding in a "hole in the ground", living out the frenetic tone set in the show's signature number:

New York, New York, a visitor's place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it's a visitor's place!

Indeed, a visitor's place! Have I mentioned the food?

Wendy and I once again managed to eat our way across Manhattan, adding a few new and nicer restaurants -- Le Marais, a kosher steakhouse in midtown and Rafale, an Italian ristorante in the village -- to our usual stops at delis offering up a smorgasbord of Jewish delights: matzo ball soup and mushroom barley; corned beef and pastrami; chopped liver, lox and bagels; knishes, kugel and kasha varnishkes! If you have to ask, well, let's just say kasha is a Jewish delicacy and leave it at that!

Now pass the Rolaids or, better yet, Bromo-Seltzer!

Somewhere deep in our gluttony, we managed to push back our dinner plates and make it to several Broadway musicals. Aside from "On the Town," we tapped our tootsies at "Wicked" and "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder".

What lingers about most when thinking of these two shows is the final number in "Wicked" leading into intermission, "Defying Gravity". As some of you may recall, Elphaba, the lovely and talented Caroline Bowman, tells us that it's time for her to trust her instincts and "leap," time to defy gravity.

And, wow, does she soar, high above the stage and audience. It's one of those transcendent moments in theater when most everything -- the music, singing, lights and special effects -- blend together splendidly, offering up a fantasy that momentarily springs to life.

Another such moment took hold at the Lyric Theater, seconds after the lights dimmed but a moment before the curtain went up for "On the Town." As I mentioned earlier, Wendy and I were high above the stage, surrounded by tourists and locals, folks from around the world and down the block; all of us settling in for a little fun and frothy entertainment.

The front of the stage was covered with an American flag, a huge piece of artwork that I thought in some fashion might be linked to the red, white and blue vibe of the show -- you know, sailors out and about in search of fun and romance!

With little fanfare, the full orchestra began playing the national anthem -- yes, the U.S. National Anthem! I looked about, a bit puzzled, and spotted folks around me looking around, confused and uncertain how to react. Was this part of the show? Should we stand?

One by one, then row after row, people began rising, then singing. The orchestra played with gusto and, taken with it all, the audience responded. After only a moment, the Star Spangled Banner filled the theater, the acoustics catching the lyrics and tossing them about, a chilling spectacle that built on itself. The final words, "land of the free ... and the home of the brave," hung lightly in the air as the room went absolutely quiet, then burst into spontaneous cheers.

The flag lifted, the show began and five minutes into the production we were lost in the music and lyrics of  Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green as we learned that "the Bronx is up, but the Battery's down ... people ride in a hole in the ground ... New York, New York ... it's a helluva town."

And so it is!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Two weeks at sea: Booze, babes and a spiritual epiphany

After a rough few days, the sea grew inexplicably calm.
I was lost in a world created by John Grisham, deep into his latest novel and paying little attention to my last day at sea. The always lovely Miss Wendy and I were nestled comfortably in a cozy corner of the Brilliance of the Seas, enjoying the final leg of a two-week journey that started in Boston and would end the next day in Tampa.

Our little holiday swept us -- and a few thousand other passengers from around the world -- along the eastern coast of the U.S., into the warm and quiet waters of the Caribbean. We spent restful days sailing around a dozen or so islands just north of South America, stopping briefly at ports in St. Kitts and St. Lucia, Barbados, Curaçao and Aruba.

I did mention there was booze, right? And babes! Okay, truth to tell, most of the ship's passengers -- including the babes -- were born when Truman was in the White House, Frank Sinatra was atop all the musical charts, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and the "Cold War" was warming up!

Let's just agree it was a "mature" crowd that was out and about and enjoying the sun and tropical breezes, maneuvering our way around the massive ship filled with twists and turns and decks of steps. The getting from here to there was almost always worth the effort, even for folks using canes, walkers or motorized scooters!

I did mention there was booze, right?

On deck 11 of the Brilliance was a massive buffet, the Windjammer, that magically morphed from breakfast to lunch to dinner each day, the cherry on our holiday sundae. Below decks there were additional restaurants and specialty cafes; bars and bistros; spas, pools, hot tubs and comfy nooks for sunning; a fitness center and exercise rooms.

A seven-floor atrium was centrally located in the belly of the beast, often filled with music, dancing and a wide assortment of entertainment; surrounded by additional bars, cafes and a mini-shopping mall stocked with high-end jewelry, low-end tchotchkes and, wait for it, duty-free booze!

On decks five and six near the front of the ship, the Pacifica Theatre opened its door each evening for shows featuring the Brilliance of the Seas Orchestra and a gaggle of the most entertaining performers -- Bruce Smirnoff, Greg London, Zoe Tyler -- whose mugs you might spot if you ever google "B" list talent.

That said, I need to add they were a special group, entertainers doing their schtick -- comics, singers, a vintriloquist and juggler. They were, without exception, consummate professionals offering up a perfect way to end each perfect day. I did mention the booze thing, right?

So there I was on my last full day of cruising, the very definition of chilled out -- rested and relaxed and working my way through yet another novel, the third in less than two weeks. I happened to look off in the distance and spotted the sun dipping behind a cloud, then noticed that the Caribbean had gone still.

I was so taken by the moment, that I wandered over to a nearby railing and felt a gentle breeze whipping about the ship. The sea was inexplicably calm, a pristine expanse of water reaching out to the horizon that was preternaturally smooth, rays of golden sunshine mirrored in the quiet deep.

The world, at least for an instant, had become a place of aching beauty, a bit of truth and poetry that, frankly, touched my heart. I'm not a particularly religious sort of guy, but the 23rd Psalm popped into my noggin.

He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.

A moment later life took hold yet again, filled with the sounds of folks at play, enjoying the day and one another. I returned to my lounge chair, Miss Wendy and Mr. Grisham. And I couldn't help but smile when I realized my biggest decision on this afternoon was deciding whether to order a Margarita or a Piña Colada.

I solved the problem by ordering both!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bailey turns one and we're all happy, happy, happy!

Say cheese: Bailey all smiles as we celebrate her birthday.
So, here's something worth celebrating: Bailey turns ONE on Friday!

It's been a year since Lauren and Josh called us all -- the waiting and anxious grandparents -- back into their little hospital hide-away and introduced us to the tiny package of pink that would become the center of our universe.

Bailey was quietly regal, I recall, bundled up in a swaddling cloth and already checking out the world with a gleeful look of curiosity and good cheer. I was smitten!

In recent months, the simply being part of early babyhood has given way to a singular personality, a bright and beautiful little girl taking her first tentative steps into this bright and beautiful world. I'm thrilled to report she's mastered cooing and gurgling and moved on to screaming songs of joy; she can point and wave and clap; play peek-a-boo and throw the occasional kiss.

She's added finger foods and other mushy stuff to her diet while managing to slowly lose some of the baby fat that's made her oh-so huggable and lovable! Happily, she continues to sleep through the night, mostly, even though a squadron of teeth are beginning their final assault on her gums. But that's a story for another day.

All of this stretching and growing -- physically, mentally, emotionally -- is hard work for Bailey; but she's done the chore with grace and good cheer. Truth to tell, if I could use only one word to describe her life and attitude, her spiritual essence, it would be "happy."

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Pharrell Williams was thinking of Bailey when he recorded his iconic, toe-tapping tune that is HAPPY and bright and filled with joyous energy. Okay, it might surprise me a bit; but, hopefully, you get my drift.

To paraphrase Forest Gump's mom, "happy is as happy does ..." And Bailey knows how to do happy! Her winsome smile and infectious laughter is a gift that I can't resist, a balm for everyday woes that never fails to warm my heart.

So it would seem the only thing left to say is Happy, Happy Birthday, Bailey Boo. I can hardly wait to see what the coming year brings. The really good news is whatever happens, I know it will all be good. After all, happy is as happy does!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Code Black: Scary look into our broken healthcare system

The always lovely Miss Wendy and I stumbled onto an interesting film recently in our little corner of the world that was entertaining in a scary and informative sort of way.

Code Black isn't a summer blockbuster, features no caped crusaders, car chases, or scantily clad vixens; and the good guys -- a hearty and wholesome band of emergency room doctors-in-training --  definitely don't always win. After all, the movie is a documentary, not a fantasy.

The film moves along at warp speed, an adrenalin rush of activity focusing on the daily grind inside the emergency room at Los Angeles County Hospital. It's a bustling and happening place, as often as not laboring under a "Code Black," the designation offered up when waiting rooms and treatment bays are spilling over with patients.

It's been said of "C Booth", the hospital's legendary trauma bay, that more people have died and been saved there than any other square footage in the country; death hangs heavily in the air. But, thankfully, so does hope.

Given all the guts and gore splashed across the screen, it would seem likely that the dramatic tension of the film would have to do with the doctoring at the heart of the action. But, no, the documentary gains traction as the filmmakers explore the impact of our anemic economy on healthcare today and the growing bureaucracy that is slowing down the works.

As the needs of the community grow exponentially, one harassed administrator is forced to shutdown a wing of the emergency room for lack of operating funds and the loss of nurses to higher paying jobs at for-profit hospitals.

Meanwhile, patients wait patiently for care while doctors are kept busy filling out paperwork -- requisition slips, medical records, privacy forms and such. It's all a little maddening. One frustrated resident, clearly upset by the misplaced priorities that rule her life, explains she often has only a few minutes to spend with patients, then must spend precious time documenting visits.

During breaks in the action, the soon-to-be physicians share their back stories, hopes and dreams, and worry about the future of medicine.

It would have been easy for the film's producers to take a political stand, weighing in on Obamacare, questioning the high-cost of care and insurance, wagging a metaphorical finger at the senseless and infuriating gridlock that's taken hold in Washington.

But to their credit, the production team steers clear of partisan politics and focuses their energy on examining the day-to-day problems that have become emblematic of a healthcare system in turmoil and the wannabe physicians struggling to hold onto their humanity and youthful idealism.

I'm thinking it's a battle worth paying attention to in a world just slightly out of whack -- and growing whackier by the day!