Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Man in the Red Crocs


There isn’t much to do in a waiting room except wait. Which is what I was doing last week at the VA at Jefferson Barracks. I go there twice a year for an exam and get my meds from them. Yes, I was in the Army but you don’t have to thank me for my service. It was their idea.
     So on this day there was just one other guy in the waiting room. Him and me and 22 empty chairs, plus a TV set at one end with a cooking show. (How many vets want to watch a cooking show? Just wondering.) So this guy was somewhere between 60 and 75 I guess, had a bushy white beard, lots of hair on top of his head, and a friendly face. He held a plastic bag that contained 3 or 4 round things. My guess is that it was fruit, like plums or apricots. I knew it wasn’t golf balls.
     My appointment had been for 10:00, but I was still sitting there at 10:45, so I was rather desperate for some relief from the boredom. That’s when I noticed his shoes. Red Crocs.
     “I like your shoes,” I said. That’s an easy way to start off a conversation. Guaranteed to get some kind of response, usually something in the way of       “Yeah, they’re comfortable” or “I got ‘em on sale” or just a simple “Thanks,” which usually ends the conversation.
     Not on this day. My bearded friend was delighted to talk about his Crocs. The following conversation is guaranteed authentic. I used my “Recorded” app on my iPhone.
     He said, “They look just like house shoes, complete house shoes with the heel back there and everything. The ones for the winter time don’t have holes in them, but they’re lined. Some people in life, and you know these people, their feet don’t hardly get cold.
But these are house shoes, and you can wear a pair of socks with them.. they’re plenty roomy.
     “Do you wear these all the time? Or do you wear other shoes?” I said.
     “I only wear these.” He got up from his chair, crossed the room, and sat next to me, so I could get a really good look at his Crocs.  “If I went to church, I’d wear ‘em to church. You can get ‘em in so many colors. Nowadays, most of ‘em at church, don’t even care how you dress, as long as you show up. You know, these kids.” He took one of his shoes off, handed it to me. “You can give ‘em away to the homeless as a last minute pair of shoes.”
     I held his shoe, by the heel. “How many pairs do you have?” I said.
     “I’ve got a total of three pair. A winter pair at home. Another pair like this that are dark blue. Just three pair. You can buy ‘em online. But for the first time you’re better off if you go to the mall. That way you can find out if you really like ‘em.” 
     He gave me directions to the nearest mall. I’d never heard of it.  Then a VA tech came in, talked to my friend about his meds, and said he’d have to go down to the pharmacy to get them. So I could feel our conversation coming to an end.
     As he started to leave, I said. “Nice talking to you.” He stopped and said the same.
     “What’s your name?” I said.
     “Michael.”
     “Where did you serve?” 
     In a matter-of-fact voice, he said, “I was in Viet Nam. 1968. Mobile river marine force. On a boat, with the Navy. We were in the Army, but the Navy transported us up and down the river, to get to where we needed to get to.” He checked the contents of his bag. “I was only there a year. Half of ’68 and half of ’69. But I did my part and I left.”
     I wasn’t sure whether to ask my next question, but I did anyway. “You come out okay?”
     “Yes,” he said, again as though he were talking about what he had for breakfast. “Well, kind of okay. Agent orange, of course. Agent orange has some effect on your body, it shows up later. Sometimes lots later. Well, they’re the boss, so what you say doesn’t mean anything. I guess I’m doing okay.”
     He took a step towards me and I thought he was going to talk about his health. I was wrong. He said, ‘One big change I’d like to see in this system, make an agreement with Walgreens to be able to walk into Walgreens, show ‘em your ID, and get your prescription there, and paid for by the people here.”
     “Good idea,” I said. And I meant it.
     He smiled, waved. “Have a good rest of the day.” And he left the room in his red Crocs.





Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Beware of Listening to Art Critics

You can put this in the category of "Too bad you didn't know then what you know now." I'm talking about art. Specifically, paintings. While looking through an old Life Magazine for an article on Charlie Chaplin's daughter Geraldine, I came across an article titled "Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?”

The date on the magazine is January 31, 1964. That was about a year before I was married and still wondering what kind of career was ahead of me. Here’s how the article begins:
“For some of America’s best known critics and a host of laymen, the answer to the above question is a resounding YES. A critic of the New York Times, hedging only a bit, pronounced Roy Lichtenstein “one of the worst artists in America.” Others insist that he is no artist at all, that his paintings of blown-up comic strips, cheap ads and reproductions are tedious copies of the banal.”
That’s a pretty tough condemnation. If I read something like that, I’d pass on Lichtenstein and buy a big-eyed child by Keane. The article continues, “But an equally emphatic group of critics, museum officials and collectors find Lichtenstein’s pop art “fascinating,” “forceful,” “starkly beautiful.” 

I was not in a financial position to invest in art in 1964 or anytime soon after that. I knew nothing about art as an investment. My loss. Here’s what the article says about him.

“A quiet affable man of 40, he fully expected to be condemned for the subject matter as well as the style of his paintings. But he little dreamed that within two years of his first pop exhibition, his canvases would be selling out at prices up to $4,000 and he himself would be a cause celebre of the art world.”

When I saw that figure, I remembered something I had recently read about art auctions in New York. Paintings are going for record-setting prices. There are a lot of very wealthy people who deem it necessary to display their breeding and wave their money by owning major works of art.
So I Googled “Roy Lichtenstein.”
I went to the website of Christie’s, the art auction house.
I found the latest prices on 4 of Roy's paintings. One of them, the one you see in the photograph above, like a thing with two heads, on the right side, just sold for $56,000,000. That’s 56 MILLION $$$$$. Lichtenstein Paintings at Christie's
I knew his work was hot, but 56 million? For something I could have bought 51 years ago for $4,000? I think that’s an appreciation of 14,000%. Just imagine if I had bought TWO of them. And add a couple by Warhol, while we’re at it.

Obviously I should not have been putting my money into Mad Comics. 

I'm not sure what the moral is here. Don’t listen to critics? Pay attention only to certain critics? Follow your heart? I don’t know. I think the moral is to not read any more articles about artists in old Life Magazines. 

The article concludes with this thought:
"Eventually, Lichtenstein and his admirers expect, the repulsiveness of his subject matter will wear off and viewers will become more aware, and perhaps appreciative, of the esthetic qualities of his paintings."

That's for sure! Fifty-six million bucks is a lot of appreciation for one painting. 




Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sadie & The Side Effects

Recently I took Sadie, my golden retriever, to the vet. (That's her in the foreground. Lexi owns the couch.) Sadie had developed a limp, "possibly arthritis in the shoulder," said the vet, who gave me a prescription for her. Meloxicam. 1 tablet by mouth every 24 hours. Note: If it hadn't said "by mouth," I'm not quite sure of how I would've administered the pills. I hate to think of the alternative.

I had the prescription filled, brought it home, gave her a pill, then decided to read the lengthy info sheet that came with the tiny pills. Big mistake. You probably know as well as I that you should never read about the possible side effects with any medication. Guaranteed you will end up not taking it, preferring to suffer with the disease or ailment rather than risk the side effects.

Meloxicam is classified as a NSAID. That's Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drug. Sounds like the perfect treatment for arthritis or anything that makes a joint hurt or, in a dog's case, makes her limp. I looked at my beautiful dog, in the process of slowly digesting her Meloxicam, and realized what may be in store for her.

Of course there were the usual suspects: heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, kidney failure, bleeding in the stomach and intestines, etc etc. It seems just about every prescription drug comes with these risks. Even Advil, Tylenol and aspirin have their dark side. I've never looked closely at a bottle of Pepto-Bismol but I suspect that lurking in that pink solution some evil malady awaits the man or woman with gastric distress.

So, back to Sadie and Meloxicam. It was some of the other side effects that caught my eye, started me wondering. For instance, "Asthma Attack." I would be hard pressed to distinguish between asthma in a dog and just plain panting. Unless, of course, they made a wheezing sound. No, I couldn't picture Sadie wheezing. Wheezing doesn't sound like a dog thing. "Dizziness" was another. I don't think I've ever seen a dizzy dog. I know dizzy people, but a dog? I guess that could be like a drunk dog, a weaving dog, like an art director I used to work with after several shots of vodka. He kept a bottle in his file cabinet. 

Among possible stomach reactions were constipation and diarrhea, which I won't discuss. Not a happy subject for man or beast. But there is one other that amused me. "Gas." Now I don't know if you've ever been around a dog that has gas, but it's a pretty disgusting scenario. Usually the action is silent, which means the effect hits you a few seconds after the expulsion. The dog is gone, and will have no idea what you're upset about if you try scolding him or her. Flatulence in a dog, however, can have dire social consequences. I know of this first hand. A friend of mine, many years ago, had a fox terrier named Daisy with chronic flatulence. Daisy seemed to store it up until my friend had a party. Then, while we were all sitting around the living room, Daisy would pick someone out, walk over to them, sit by their side, and emit a silent burst. She would then walk away. A few seconds later we'd all catch the drift and stare at the person in the center of the activity. The funny part is that no one would say anything, just accept it and move on. I'm convinced Daisy knew what she was doing. 

One final side effect deserves mention. "Slurred Speech." I can't even imagine what Sadie would sound like if she developed "slurred speech." I suppose that translates to "slurred barking" or "slurred whining." That reminds me of an old nightclub routine by Woody Allen. He talks about a pet store that specialized in damaged pets. Birds that can't whistle, hamsters with no tails, fish that can't swim. He mentions a dog that stutters. It goes 'B-b-b-bow, W-w-w-wow." A funny bit. I would put "slurred barking" in that same category. Like a dog who drinks vodka instead of water, then goes out to chase squirrels. 


Happy to say, the Meloxicam has alleviated Sadie's limp, and she is free from all side effects. As far as I know. Still, every day I check her for "swelling of the lips."

Monday, May 11, 2015

Cole and the E-Flat Chord

Several people emailed comments to me about my recent post about "Stardust." Usually I just put these away in a folder. 

But I have to share this one with you. It's from Steve Kopcha. You probably don't know the name, but Steve is one of the most creative, intuitive, dedicated ad guys I ever worked withe. He also has a sharp sense of humor, which you need to survive in advertising. Steve, who now lives in New Hampshire, was Creative Director at D'Arcy Advertising, in St. Louis, then in Detroit.  I think that was during the '60's and '70's.Steve was a major influence on Budweiser's great advertising. His presentations were effective and entertaining, even if the client didn't buy it all. After D'Arcy, he became a professor of advertising at Mizzou in Columbia. Along the way he honed his chops as a somewhat talented alto sax player. 

It's in this musical role that Steve responded to my thoughts about the old songs.


"Nice piece, and I agree with you 100 percent. Regarding the "old" composers, here's an anecdote for you:

Many years ago, I decided to teach myself to play the piano so I could play from songbooks. I was hesitant, because when I was a second-grade pupil, I just could not grasp the concept that the bass clef notes were not the same as the treble clef notes. Upside-down and backwards or something like that.

Then I had the Big Idea of my Life.

I already knew how to play the notes with my right hand---I could read them direct from the music, and hey, I could memorize the fingerings for the chords (the guitar/piano chords also in the music).

Once I did that, I could play any song as long as they had the guitar/piano chords printed. This is old stuff to you as a keyboard guy, but it was huge for this sax player. I discovered that when you fingered, say, an E-flat chord, you could fill in the holes with various arpeggios, etc. and they would mostly be right as long as you honor the key signature for sharps and flats. Your hand was already poised over all the right notes within the scale.

Then, the other big discovery:

After playing through many "Great American Songbooks" I noticed something happening, time after time.

The songs I found that had "something extra" going for them...the songs that were richer and more engaging to the mind...mostly all came from the same guy: Cole Porter.  And furthermore, many were in the key of E-flat, a nice key for piano and singer.

I became a Cole Porter fanatic, learning all i could about him. I even drove hundreds of miles from Detroit to Peru, Indiana, his home town (the chubby girl at the gas station in the middle of town thought I was from Mars, I guess, when I asked where Cole Porter's boyhood home was. "Who's he? Never heard of him," she said)  Yikes!

Anyway, when my son Mike went to Yale, I was thrilled to find out that Cole Porter, class of 1914, had written many of the Yale songs...and they still sing them today. 

Also, the Waldorf-Astoria (where Cole lived) had his piano on display in the lobby and I managed to sneak up to it one time and played an E-Flat chord, just for the magic of it. I did the same thing in Salzburg, waiting until the museum was almost empty to reach over the velvet rope and run my fingers down Mozart's clavichord. I thought I would die of rapture...touching the very same keys my idol, my adored Wolfgang Amadeus had touched.

Then I went down to the gift shop and bought some Mozart Balls...little chocolate confections about the size of a golf ball. They were good.

Thanks for the cool piece on the best composers and songs ever."



Thanks for the story, Steve. I, too, saw the Porter piano at the Waldorf many years ago, but didn't have the cajones to play a note, much less an entire chord. Beautiful piano, though.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"Sometimes I Wonder Why - "

Here's a short quiz for you music lovers. One of the most recorded songs of all time is "Stardust." The question is, Who wrote it? I'll give you two clues. One, he also wrote "Georgia on My Mind," and Two, Nat "King" Cole recorded the quintessential version of it. No, the answer is not at the end of this post. I'll tell you right now. It's Hoagy Carmichael. That's right, the guy from indiana with the strange voice.


Hoagy wrote a lot of other distinctive songs that made the pop charts, like "Skylark" and "Two Sleepy People," but "Stardust" remains one of the greatest American songs ever written. 

At least I thought it was, until I attended a seminar recently. Several of us were discussing popular music and immortal songs, when someone mentioned "Stardust." Five people, all under the age of forty, asked "What's that?". I sang a few bars - not a great rendition, but adequate. They had never heard it before!

I realize then that great American songs, the ones you and I grew up with, are in danger of joining TWA, Burger Chef and De Soto cars in the lost and found of our memories. Let's face it, where can young people hear songs by Hoagy, and Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwin's and Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin? Not on the radio stations they listen to, not on TV, not in clubs. They can search for it online, like old YouTube videos or iTunes, but they have to be motivated to slip into a search mode. Maybe their parents or grandparents have given them access to their LP's or CD's. Come to think of it, they probably don't know what an LP is, right? If it was written B.E. (Before Elvis) and it's not in a digital format, how relevant can it be? I'd love to find just one person under the age of twenty with one of Hoagy's tunes on his or her iPod or iPhone. I might as well search for the Holy Grail.

Just think of all the incredible music they'll never be familiar with. I don't understand how a person can go through life without knowing the rhyme Lorenz Hart came up with for "We'll take Manhattan...", or the repetitious note that signals Cole Porter's "drip, drip, drip" at the start of "Night and Day." I still believe those songs will live forever, but the audience keeps shrinking. There are rays of hope, however. Artists such as Rod Stewart, Boz Skaggs, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Michael Buble and Judy Collins have recorded many of those songs. You may know of some others. What we need is more of them. Perhaps Lady Gaga Sings Irving Berlin (although she did make an album with the ageless Tony Bennett). How about Pit Bull: A Tribute to Johnny Mercer. Or Kanye West Does Harold Arlen? Maybe forget that one. Immortality has its limits.

This populist approach just might be the solution: the start of a musical movement to Save the Great American Songs. I'd start off with "Stardust" performed by a popular singer. Who? I Googled "Most Popular Male Singers of 2014." Here are the top four: Drake, Jason Derulo, Chris Brown and Bruno Mars.   I have no idea what they would do to one of those great songs, or even if they could. You ever hear of them? Maybe there's someone out there, a Super Hero for Great Songs. Suggestions welcome.

And now, all together, join me: "Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night...."

Monday, December 15, 2014

For My Brother


An oncologist, a neurologist, and a cardiologist walk into a bar. The bartender says, ”What’ll it be?” 
They say in unison, “A miracle.” 
The bartender looks under the bar, on the back bar, says, “Sorry, we’re all out of miracles.” Then he adds, “How about a round of hope...on the house?” 
“Too late for that,” says one of the three and they leave.

Actually the three specialists meet in room 7104 at Barnes Jewish Hospital. They are there for a good reason: my brother, Barry, who lies silent on the bed.

The oncologist says, “I think he needs A.”
The neurologist says, “I’d like to pursue B.”
The cardiologist says, “I suggest C.”

The patient says nothing. It’s Barry’s life they’re discussing, but it’s all he can do to maintain his breathing, keep his heart pumping and his mind from floating into that nether world where the line between reality and illusion has been erased.

Eventually the scene plays out. The three caballeros agree on next steps, Barry is wheeled into three different rooms over the next five days, with brief stops in ICU and cardiology before the sensors are disconnected, the monitors switched off, the drip stops dripping, and he takes a chauffeured ride in his own personal ambulance 23 miles west to his villa in Chesterfield, to await the arrival of hospice, a special bed, raised toilet seat, little bottles of vanilla Ensure, pads and swaths and other appointments associated with “End of Life” care. 

You know as well as I that it’s really a “Death Watch” but everyone wants to avoid the dreaded “D” word. “End of Life” sounds like a play that is over, and everyone goes out to get a bite to eat.

For five days, we - the family and those closest to him - wait. None of us are really interested in the Blues or Tigers games but they dominate the large-screen TV in the living room. No one is really hungry but we eat whatever is set out on the table. This is the kind of scene that calls for a grandfather’s clock ticking loudly down the hall, chiming away the hours, a cold wind and swirling snow outside the windows, candles flickering in the drafty room. That’s one version, had it been described by Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens. 

Then there’s the Norman Rockwell version of “The Wait”: Gentle days and feathery clouds, a lowering sun, the family gathered as for a Thanksgiving dinner or birthday portrait, from the bed a faint smile, a few final meaningful words, the gentle send-off. That is the ending we had expected. 

That’s not how it happened. Eventually it became a silent ship, slipping away from the dock, headed through the dense fog to a rendezvous at an unknown destination. 

When Barry exhaled for the last time, about 12:20 on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 8, I expected the world to perhaps pause a little, a slight hesitation or flicker, just for a nanosecond in recognition of the passing of this most extraordinary man. But traffic continued to speed by on Olive Boulevard, venti lattes were brewed and served without cease, the gray clouds maintained their slow crawl across the heavens, and CNN didn’t break into its never-ending tales of protest and politics.

Where is it written that the older brother give a eulogy for the younger brother? If it is indeed written, it must be in the chapter titled “Planning Your Life and Other Misconceptions.” Because just when you think you have it figured out, along comes a surprise. His eulogy was difficult to write, even tougher to say aloud to the more than 200 witnesses at the temple on Wednesday. But, later on, I was lifted by the stories I heard about his acts of kindness and charity, his role as mentor, organizer of lunches and dinners with old friends, and his exemplary decisions throughout the highs and lows of his life.

Barry and I were different. 
His passion was sports. Mine, music. 
He was a short, chunky kid. I was tall, thin. 
He had fun at Washington U. I studied. (Got mediocre grades. I should have done it his way.)
He was a CPA. His career was numbers. Mine, words.
But in so many ways, important ways, we were alike. A product of loving parents Milt and Diana, a recognition of the importance of family, love and support for our kids. And we cared deeply about each other, stayed in touch over the decades through lunches and jazz concerts. 

How quickly the older generation is replaced by the younger generation, as they themselves soon become replaced by the next. With each passing, we lose part of ourselves. On that Monday, part of my foundation broke away. I now feel off balance, slightly askew. I know what’s missing but have trouble finding solid footing. For now.

A good friend of mine sent these beautiful words:
“Every loss is just that, something not to be recovered, but remembered well in the swirl of memories that make up our lives.”

Memories.

When Barry was three years old and I was eight, we lived on Midvale, across from Flynn Park. He used to follow me everywhere. I would leave with a couple of buddies to go across the street to play in the park, and he would tag behind, his knickers down to his ankles, his nose running, his shirt out. My little brother. On this particular day, I didn’t want him following us. So I got a long piece of rope from our garage and tied him firmly to a tree in our front yard. We left. Barry yelled and cried, but couldn’t get loose.

Now I realize that whenever I look back, my little brother will not be there. Not a footstep, not an echo, not a shadow. But I know his spirit - a warm, shining presence - will always be with me. And with his family and many friends. Perhaps that is a form of eternal life. I hope so.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eulogy for a Feathered Friend


We’ve come to that time of year when we pause to say “Thanks for the blessings we have received.” Unfortunately there’s a large segment of the animal kingdom that offers no thanks, only trembling fear and mindless flight.

Yes, Thanksgiving is upon us. As an integral part of the celebration, millions of turkeys will lay their necks on the block for us, hoping for a painless departure and eventual placement on a large platter surrounded by bowls of dressing, yams, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie, with a circle of hungry humans seated at the ready, teeth bared, knives and forks in hand. 


I know of no other nation that decimates such a large segment of its animal population to feed their citizenry. How this hapless bird became the centerpiece for this well-intentioned celebration baffles me. Ben Franklin believed the turkey should be the national bird instead of the eagle because there were so many turkeys in America. Somehow the gobbler ended up in the oven and the eagle ascended to the top of flagpoles.
It’s as though the eagle lobby was better organized than that of the poor turkeys. Given the recent state of affairs in Washington, the turkey would have been more appropriate. Be that as it may, the holiday gathered momentum under President Lincoln, who declared it a National Holiday in 1863. You’d think, with all he had to attend to, like the Civil War and Secession and Slavery, he would’ve had more important things to do. FDR got into the act in 1939 when he moved the holiday up a week. Of course it met with Republican opposition, headed up by Alf Landon. (I can’t believe our nation would’ve ever elected a man named Alf to be president). Europe was being overrun by the Germans, Britain was in deadly peril, but Americans now had more time for Christmas shopping. 

Here comes the really ugly part of this history lesson. 
“Parental guidance advised. Some scenes may be too graphic for young minds, or bird lovers.” According to the National Turkey Federation (I’m not kidding; Google it), 200,000,000 turkeys were eaten in the U.S. last year. Two hundred million! That’s bigger than the combined populations of Paraguay, Serbia, Thailand, Argentina and, yes, Turkey. Those poor birds waddled to their death much as soldiers did in the Civil War and The Great War. Only this onslaught occurs every year, regular as clockwork and the tides. More from the NTF: 46 million are eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas, 19 million at Easter. Good thing the Jews, Muslims, and atheists don’t have a bird-centered holiday.

The Turducken
I’m not suggesting you have a New York Strip on Thanksgiving, or even that amalgam of birds known as a turducken, a twisted invention that combines the boneless bodies of a turkey, a duck and a chicken. You can get one for $60 on the internet. I’ve heard they’ve added a fourth bird this year. A parakeet, buried deep in the center, with feathers, as kind of a colorful surprise for eating your way through the outer layers. If you stick with turkey, you obviously can roast it in the oven (the traditional way) but now I hear deep-fried turkey is a treat to behold. Also smoked turkey is a favorite in some areas. Whatever pleases your palette, go for it.

But remember the following day. Black Friday. It’s really not about WalMart and Best Buy and Amazon, and up to 70% off if you show up before sunrise. No, Black Friday is a day of mourning for the forty-six million who gave so we could receive. A grateful nation bows its head and gives thanks to the noble turkey.