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!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Singing Hatikvah and finding hope in Israel

Blogger's Note: I came across this column recently, first posted here in 2012, and thought it worth sharing once again. 

IDF soldiers during special ceremony in Jerusalem.
There is much still swirling around my noggin as I process the ups and downs of my most recent journey to Israel earlier this month. What lingers about at the moment is a very special happening during the first week of the trip as I transitioned yet again from flabby civilian to IDF volunteer. I’ll explain.

On this particular morning in early May, I joined with a group of volunteers from around the world – Australia and New  Zealand; Israel, France, Germany, Holland, Russia and Poland; the U.S. and Canada – shuffling about on an asphalt parade ground on a massive IDF base near Tel Aviv.

We were all volunteers for Sar-El, an organization that places people on IDF installations in Israel to help out as needed. Mostly the work is cosmically menial; but it’s work that needs to be done and it releases “real” soldiers to handle more important tasks.

Each morning after rolling out of our bunks in our oh-so spartan quarters, getting cleaned up and dressing in uniforms – yes, we wear IDF-issue outfits; how cool is that – dining on a hearty breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt and all the tomatoes and cucumbers we can scarf down in 30 minutes, we join with a company of young solders for morning flag raising.

On this day, our madrichot – that would be Tamara and Eleanor, our guides and commanders – decide to take the morning ritual to a new level. We’ll not just heft the iconic blue and white banner of the Jewish state into the sky over Tel HaShomer, but also sing Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.

Hatikvah manages to be both uplifting and melancholy, an anthem that poetically speaks of hope and the Jewish soul, all wrapped up in a musical score of aching beauty. For most Jews, certainly those of us raised on the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland, the melody rests lightly in our hearts and souls, easily recalled whenever the first mournful notes are played.

The problem is that the words are in Hebrew, a remarkably difficult language to learn – especially for foreign volunteers who are often older than Israel itself. It’s one thing to say hello, shalom, in Hebrew; it’s a bit more rigorous to recall and recite the sophisticated lyrics of the anthem.  

So while a few brave and bilingual volunteers begin singing, the rest of us stumble about, humming the tune and sounding off whenever the word Hatikvah is mentioned. Meanwhile, the company of regular soldiers nearby, young men and women drafted into the IDF and serving out their time as laborers, stare at us in bemused silence, trying to figure out why we’re singing their national anthem.

But like the country itself, there’s something contagious and endearing about Hatikvah, both the words and the melody. The silliness of the effort gradually morphed slowly into a grand effort, the mournful tune giving way to the stirring anthem that has sustained and unified the Jewish people for decades now.

Even some of the young troops are caught up in the moment as together we share the words of the poet Tali Herz Imber, “Our hope is not yet lost, The hope of two thousand years, To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

I can’t help but think that on this day, if only in a very small way, I’m part of the ancient promise, first whispered to Abraham; a vision that is no longer simply a hope, but today a reality.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Remembering Dad: A lesson in what matters most

Me and my Dad in the early 1950s. 
Blogger's note: This is a column I wrote for the AJC back in 1996. My daughter Lauren has been hocking me for months to post it on my blog. This, then, is for Lauren -- and my Dad.

There's a beautiful story I stumbled across recently that captures something truthful and transcendent about the human condition.

A little girl comes home and tells her mother she's confused.

It seems her Sunday school teacher has told her that God is bigger than we are but manages to live within each of us.

The little girl wonders how this can be. "Wouldn't God break through us?" she asks her mother. Of course, God does "break through" each of us when we're doing Godly things.

Ever notice the joyful look of people working really hard to help other people? Every notice how some people who seemed lost in their own lives find meaning and hope when they reach out to support a friend or stranger?

Helping ourselves by helping others isn't a new belief. It's a concept that is detailed and embraced by most religions around the world and by people of faith who intuitively understand the importance of charity and good deeds. It's a lesson I've been taught since childhood.

That it's taken me years to comprehend says much about my inability to learn things quickly and little about my teacher.

There was a man in my life who attempted to teach me the lessons of giving by example. His life was a constant reaching out. There were big things. Money to charity. Time devoted to civic and religious organizations. Taking care of his wife and children.

But it was the small things that  I remember most, the day-to-day efforts to reach out, to do good, to let God "break through" his life.

An example: It was one of those sultry summer days, hot and humid and threatening to rain. We had stopped at a small market, a mom and pop operation that sold milk, bread and cold drinks. While we talked to the owner, a neighborhood boy -- shirtless and shoeless, wearing only shorts -- came in to buy a drink, reached into one of those slush-filled boxes that were popular in the '50s and pulled out an icy "Co-Cola".

Just as he turned to leave, the bottle slipped and crashed on the floor. The boy froze. He stared at the mess and seemed dazed.

It wasn't till years later that I realized that the dime he had spent that afternoon was probably all the money he had in the world, that there was a good chance he had saved his pennies for a week or more, eagerly anticipating this treat.

My mentor reached over to the drink box, pulled out another bottle of Coke, popped off the cap and handed it to the boy. The youngster held onto the bottle like it was worth its weight in gold.

It was a tiny gesture, certainly devoid of any cosmic import in the overall scheme of things. And yet it speaks to the heart of what we humans are all about when at our best.

My friend and teacher is now 82. He does volunteer work in Columbus, both for the Police Department and for a local hospital.

He stays busy and reaches out to others.

It's a lesson I'm just starting to appreciate.

It's a lesson my father -- William Feinberg, called Bill by family, friends and strangers -- continues to explore in his journey through life.

A footnote: My Dad died in 1997, a year after this column was published. Hundreds of people attended his funeral, many of them there to pay their respects to a man who had touched their lives through his good works. Honorary pallbearers included representatives of the city's police department, where he worked as a volunteer, and Saint Francis hospital where he had logged over 2,000 hours as a volunteer.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Life with Bailey: Short visit turns into grand adventure

Rule No. 1: If Bailey is happy, everyone is happy!
It was a cold and blustery day last January when Bailey, her mom, dad and doggie sisters dropped by for a short visit. Their home had been hit hard by the "arctic vortex" that blew its way across the region, dropping temperatures into the single digits and causing all sorts of weather-related problems.

My daughter and son-in-law's house was temporarily afloat, one little leak spilling gallons of water across much of the main floor. At first glance it seemed a minor, if troubling issue that might take a few days, perhaps a week or so, to fix.

Absolutely no problem, both I and the lovely Miss Wendy figured. Here was a perfect opportunity for all of us to hunker down and weather the storm; spend some quality time with the kids and really get to know Bailey, our precious little granddaughter, up close and personal.

I did mention this all happened last January, right? If you look at a calendar and crunch the numbers, that means we've been together for five months now. The good news is we're all still talking to one another and, even better, this little adventure is nearing its end!

In just a few days, Bailey, her parents and doggie companions will be schlepping back home and Wendy and I will once again become empty nesters! Despite the challenges that come with four adults, a baby and two dogs living in close quarters, I'm thinking it will be a bitter-sweet moment when the gang moves out and the house goes quiet.

The silence will be especially heavy in Bailey's room, filled with a crib and changing table, toys, diapers and the heady, soft scent of a baby. Her yips and yaps, cooing, crying and laughter have become part of the space, hanging lightly in the air and my memory.

It's not often that grandparents get to experience the first steps a newborn takes into the world -- eyes focusing, rolling about, sitting up and reaching out for sounds and colors. But Wendy and I have watched with expectant glee as Bailey mastered all these little things, her babyish ways ever so slowly morphing into what has become her unique personality.

What lingers around heavily at the moment is the soliloquy she offers up some mornings, a quiet cooing that spills lightly into joyous squeals, signaling the start of a new day. I've lain awake in my bed, watching the early-morning shadows march across the ceiling and, filled with contentment, listened to her soaring song.

A moment later, standing at her crib, I've watched Bailey glance about and, spotting me and whoever else has the morning watch, break into a smile that never fails to warm my heart. Find a way to package such innocence and spread it about, and the curse of cynicism would be vanquished from the world.

And so it's on this cosmic note that I choose to remember this bit of life, an adventure that I'm thinking we'll be sharing for years to come. The story will most always begin on a melancholy note, "do you remember back in 2014 ..." And at least for a moment we'll recall the donuts and fleas, web connections and Sesame Street, stacks of laundry, shared meals and walks around the neighborhood.

But mostly I'll recall Bailey's soaring song and the morning smile that filled my world.