SHOPPING FOR ANSWERS

Whenever I bring this up, I feel a little like an embarrassed addict confessing to their addiction for the first time at crowded AA type meeting, but here goes…I like grocery shopping. Yes, I have said it here before and I proudly admit it openly. But please don’t judge. We all have our hidden embarrassing guilty pleasures, I mean, someone is running up that stream count of Little Big and Rebecca Black.  

But I figure, if you really like swimming, you should enjoy going to a pool or the beach. If you really like high-end performance cars, you should enjoy going to auto shows and racetracks.  If you really like shooting guns, you should enjoy going to a shooting range or the isolated property of that one conspiracy theory believing, twitchy-eyed ammo-hoarding acquaintance everyone has that likes blowing stuff up. And if you really like eating, you should enjoy going to restaurants and the grocery store.  And I do.    

Like it or not, I have always taken it upon myself to try and make grocery store visits more entertaining for those with me that are little less excited about food shopping. I have been known to quietly slip away and magically reappear wearing an oversized rubber butcher’s apron and gloves. I quiz strangers about the products they are buying.  I love trying to surreptitiously hide embarrassing items in my friend’s carts (suppository laxatives, XXXL sized depends, value-priced jumbo containers of KY Jelly…), I enjoy dancing in the aisles to the generic inoffensive music (an act that directly triggered a relationship breakup) and make a game of finding the grossest item on the shelves (canned pork brains in milk gravy usually wins). I will admit that after the first few years of marriage I had to stop doing most of these things with my wife… she is very tolerant, but I did not want to shop alone forever. 

Back in the days before everyone, except the old, annoyed and overwhelmed, used the self-check-out machines, the busy cashier manned aisles were lined with multiple supermarket tabloid papers that competed to top each other for the most outrageous eye-catching headline. Frequently, while standing amid the tightly packed rows of people, I emphatically read aloud a few of the wackiest headlines and stories in a booming serious newscaster’s voice.  “Chimp’s head put on human body”, “Titanic survivors found onboard”, “Fat cat owns 23 old ladies”, “Batboy leads cops on interstate car chase”…  Oh man, I loved the Bat Boy stories. For over a year it seemed every time I unloaded my cart, there was a new outrageous Bat Boy tabloid tale.    

When I was young, I mercilessly made fun of the idea of anyone throwing away money on those ridiculous semi-fictional papers. I still clearly remember one night shopping for last-minute items with an old girlfriend on the way to her mother’s house for dinner. After loudly announcing the headlines of a few far-fetched stories, I went on a rant about ‘what kind of dimwitted moron would give credence to this stuff’, only to later learn her mom compulsively bought them.  

I once asked her mother if she believed the stories in those papers and she gave a long pause before cryptically replying, “not completely”.  Another time she gave me that same vague non-committal answer when I inquired if she thought professional wrestling was real.  We had a lot of time to talk about that one; I was a good boyfriend to her daughter, and since no one else would go, I accompanied her to an evening of really cheesy low-end professional wrestling at a nearby small-town civic center. The burly brawler’s staggering punches missed by obvious inches, they bounced off the ring floor like kids playing on a harmless trampoline, and their extreme pain and stamina over-reactions were farcical, yet the crowd loved it and cheered on their heros like it was a true battle of good versus evil.  

Years ago, it was easy to spot which outlets were “news entertainment’ and which reported carefully researched authenticated facts. Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather did not do stories about Elvis sightings, bigfoot, or space aliens among us, although I would have loved to have seen that.  Nowhere was this separation more obvious than on New York City newsstands, where every day the manipulating sensationalist headlines of The Post sat inches away from the detailed thought-provoking Times.  Bias or slant were one thing, fiction based on reality was another and that’s where lately things seem to have gotten even more scary, because the news entertainment subjects have gotten more serious.

Today the lines separating the two are as murky as a Mississippi fed bayou swamp. Anyone with a computer can post an unresearched unsubstantiated harebrained opinion that, if read by enough people, will eventually get passed off as fact by social media or content hungry quasi-legitimate news sources.  As my old girlfriend’s mother did, it’s easy to get seduced and hooked on that crap because its far more stimulating than researching real news. It’s like a child picking between a cupcake or a brussel sprout; they will always take the immediately satisfying treat over the more bitter nutritional substance.   

It’s easy to fall into that trap. If everything you have read says the boy with the bat head is real, and all your social media linked sources have claimed Bat Boy is real, and everyone in your social circles talked about Bat Boy being real, you will likely grow to believe Bat Boy is factual. But just because most everybody attending that cheesy see-saw wresting match I went to believed it was all real, did not change the fact that it is was pre-scripted, choreographed, and mostly faked to prevent injury.  Yes, somewhat strong men did actually jump and smack and hit each other, but there was far more pretend acting than that modicum of real brawling. The goal of that night’s overweight clumsy small-time wrestlers was the same as those that propagate news entertainment. They both stir up the crowd and make a good show in an effort to get you to believe something and keep you coming back for more.  

The concept is not new, just the methods of disguising it are. Back in the old National Inquirer /World News heyday era, it was easy to spot a fringe loony when he was standing on a street corner soapbox spewing radical nonsense into a megaphone, versus today when it is slickly dressed up as a legitimate news sources custom linked to your individual social media. The sad outcome of all this, is that people are more interested in clashing than compromising.  Personally, I like to see all viewpoints, so I click onto Breitbart and Mother Jones to confuse the algorithms behind my newsfeed. 

I understand why people want to believe the outrageous and scandalous; these are scary days. But are they really any scarier than past eras or does it just feel that way because today’s issues are the ones we personally have to deal with? I’m sure the folks living through the fear and turmoil of the cold war, Viet Nam, civil rights movement, and Watergate thought their era was the scariest. And the folks trying to live their lives during the depression, fascism, and World Wars thought their era was the scariest. And so on, and so on through the ages.  

I guess this week I kinda accidently turned into that street corner soapbox loony with a megaphone screaming my simplistic ‘problem with the world speech’ into my tiny corner of the internet. I originally intended on writing about the best way to remind yourself how differently each individual sees things, was to read the wacked out stuff your neighbors post on the NEXTDOOR app/website. But that will have to wait for another day, I have to head out to the market… want to join me (smirk smirk smirk)?

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THE FLAMING PANTS OF A LIAR LIAR

Like most kids when they first move away from home, I was not the best at budgeting my spending money savings during my first year at college. It was tough; even bad beer and pizza were not cheap.  Luckily, this did not affect my tuition and dorm fees which had been covered by my parents and loans before I even got on campus.  And in theory I did not need food money because, like most every freshman, I pre-paid for Saga, the crappy campus cafeteria food plan. But sometimes you wanted something different.  I mean, I still have digestive nightmares over Saga’s bi-weekly stromboli night.  

I guess its assumed hiking a half mile across campus in all matter of weather, then standing in a long line with a big plastic tray, to finally be served something akin to the food that you might find at a $4.99 all you can eat west Kansas Botulism-R-Us truck-stop buffet is character building.  But I am not exactly sure what that character is.  They tried to make the gastronomically gross food at least sound more appetizing by using the old fancy name switcheroo trick. Unfortunately, it just took one taste to know the salisbury steak dinner was really lunch’s dry hamburgers soaking in a pool of mushrooms and gravy, or that the chicken cordon bleu was the same old processed chicken meat patties with leftover ham and cheese cold cuts baked on top.  

To avoid the repetitious scary entrees, a lot of students just ate the small salad bar’s precut red cabbage and iceberg lettuce mix with its half-dozen room-temperature toppings. There was one gawky kid we called the ‘Rice Guy’ because every single lunch and dinner all he ever ate was a giant mountain of rice with a blob of butter on it. By the end of the term, I must have seemed stalker-ish, as I obsessively searched for him every meal to see if that would be the day he finally consumed something different. That day never came, although I did catch him eating Fruit Loops for breakfast, but that was likely because they did not serve rice in the morning.  

My buddy/dorm-mate Mike was in a similar financial situation. As our second semester dragged on, we had to get more creative with our non-Saga meals.  For a while we lived off the school newspaper’s $1.99 Western Sizzler burger meal coupons, Finale’s super cheap 25 cent an oyster and crackers lunch deal, and Howard Johnson’s $2.99 all-night 2-2-2-2 (2 eggs, 2 strips of bacon, 2 sausage links, 2 pieces of toast) breakfast special. Although we talked about it a lot, rarely did we splurge for the more extravagant $4.99 similarly titled 4-4-4-4.  One night at the dorm, we desperately wanted pizza but did not have enough cash for the delivery guy. Then we got the idea of going down to the laundry room and moving all the washers and driers in search of dropped wayward quarters. It worked, but with only three other dorms in walking distance, that source of income quickly dried up. Luckily at that point, the school year was almost over.   

I took that first summer off and moved back into my old bedroom at my folk’s Miami condo while they were out of town for a few months. I was in need of a quick cash influx.  In desperation, I fibbed a bit to get myself hired at a very snooty retail store. I think most people that lie to get a job are falsifying something about their past. Either padding a resume’ or hiding a previous indiscretion. To get that job, I had to fabricate a future.      

You see, when I quit my previous job, just before moving away for college, the owner gave me a glowing letter of recommendation, that included the line “in our establishment he would always be considered for employment were he to seek it.”  I foolishly took that to mean, I always had a job waiting for me and kind of counted on it. While my friends quickly grabbed up all the usual fast food and grocery store summer gigs, I laid low relaxing for a week before making the appointment for my grand entrance back into my old workplace.  I thought I would be welcomed with open arms and handfuls of money.  But their business was down, and they were in the middle of an ownership change. They were apologetic and promised to be a good reference but said there was no budget for temporary help like me.     

They did not need me.  ME!?!?!  It was the first time I was slapped in the face by the ugly realities of the business world.  It would not be the last.  I had put all my eggs in one basket and now those eggs were on my face, all busted and leaving me in a big drippy cashless mess. This was not how I planned my summer to go. I thought I was one step up on everyone else, but instead I found myself left behind scouring the want ads for leftovers.  I guess it was as good a time as any to learn workwise, not to count on anyone else’s promises, no matter how well intended. And again, it would not be the last time I would find myself on the wrong side of sure thing business guarantee.  

While filling out my first round of applications, I was upfront about looking for a ‘summer position’ but most of those jobs were already filled. After a week of rejections, I realized that the word “temporary” was the key to nobody hiring me. As soon as I started omitting that fact, doors started opening for me and my glowing letter of recommendation was getting me all the way into the vestibule for some much higher paying jobs.  I rationalized my bending of the truth by concluding, if the business world was going to lie to me, it was okay for me to lie right back. I mean, I had every intention of doing my best either way, so I thought, what was the harm?   

During one particular interview, the straight-shooting owner of a posh high-end store directly asked me if I was going back to school in the fall. It was the first time my vague, hazy, skirt the issue answers had not worked. Thinking of the past week’s rejections and assuming it would take several months’ worth of clumsy students to score enough laundry room stray quarters for another pizza, I answered that I was “undecided” but was leaning towards starting a career and “thought his store was the best fit for me to begin that journey.”  Sitting in his tiny office sweating through my dress shirt, I recall thinking ‘that’s the type of answer that will get you this job… even if it was not entirely true.’   

He quietly stared at me for an uncomfortably long time, as if trying to read my mind, then asked if my “face was ugly under my beard.”  I quickly responded, “my mother does not think so.” To which he matter of factly stated “we all will find out next week if I hire you.”  I knew once we shifted from formal question and answer to a snappy barbed banter, I was in. After passing an extensive background check, a lie detector test, and the not ugly after shaving test, I was quickly offered a two-week trial run.   

As I have done with every job in my life, I immediately busted my butt to make it my own. It’s a strange work ethic that I don’t recall ever being taught, but just recently learned was also held by all my siblings too. The thought is, even if you are not technically the best or most qualified for a job, if you work harder than everyone around you, you will still be successful. The position at the store was officially made mine before the two-week trial had ended.  

The quickness that my work ethic was recognized reminded me of when Mike and I got our first ever jobs as busboys a few years earlier. Two hours into our first shift at the big deli style restaurant, one of the owners slipped us both five-dollar bills and told us we were already the best workers he had. Sadly, he was right. The place was a poorly run filthy mess and because of that, the other employees were horrible. Some were dealing drugs in the backroom, others chugged multiple glasses of the cheap house wine, and kitchen food fights were common.  We should have known something was amiss when we were hired on the spot with no experience. Our first tasks were to mix the current batch of cole slaw with the previous days’ and inspect the green contactor bags full of dinner rolls to remove the ones with visible mice nibble bites. After working an eight-hour shift where we were given no break to eat or sit down, we were told we had to scrub all the pots and pans in the kitchen before we could leave. We quit the next day.  

After that hideous busboy experience, is when I talked my way into the position at the store that gave me the glowing letter of recommendation. My father had gotten me a temp job there as a stock-boy and gift-wrapper the previous holiday season. I reached back out to them in the spring asking if they could use me as part-time help year-round. Throughout high school, I worked weekends and holidays at the fancy store happily doing all the grunt work nobody else wanted to do.  I was the lowest rung employee there, but it was better ego-wise then the menial jobs my friends had and paid a little better too. Eventually they trusted me enough to train me to deal directly with the customers. I quickly learned my natural ability to talk to people and think fast on my feet was not as common as I thought, which was good, because that was the only weapon I had in my ability arsenal.  

Back at the store I got that summer job at during my first college break, I was again successful and well-liked by the close-knit staff.  In no time I was invited along on the occasional evening happy hours and their fun Sunday champagne brunches at the popular bay-view restaurants Monty Trainers and Rusty Pelican. Initially I felt proud that I was part of the gang but eventually it turned to guilt when I realized these folks saw their positions as long-term careers, while I knew I was just working a temporary gig.  

The owner was not happy in August when I gave my two weeks’ notice. I did not take into consideration the investment he made in me or that he would now have to rush to get someone new up and running before their fast-approaching busy season. I felt like I let the entire staff down. I did not give him a reason for my quitting and purposely avoided his questions about going back to school, since that would have made it obvious that I had done all the paperwork for it months earlier.   

I’ve never been great at math, so I don’t think I would have ever been able to calculate what the astronomical odds were that the store owner’s pompously strait-laced frat-boy son would have started college at FSU the same time I did. But he did. Obviously, we ran in very different circles, but when I was introduced to him a few weeks after I took the job, he said he recognized me from the Saga cafeteria. I jokingly asked if he knew the Rice Guy too, but he just gave me a blank disparaging stare and we did not talk much after that.  

I’m sure he must have told his dad I was back on campus after we spotted each other not long after the new fall semester began. I felt two-inches tall and vowed to myself to not so much as even slightly stretch the truth on any resume or job interview again. And I have not.

A few years ago, after sifting through dozens of weak resumes, I set up an interview with a guy that seemed like the perfect fit for the job I was hiring for.  He said he just moved to town and was looking for a new career. I spent a month training him and thought he had limitless potential. He was a fast learner and fit in perfectly with the rest of the staff. He kept telling me he was happy and excited about working there until three months later when he suddenly gave notice. He never really answered my questions about why he was leaving but I kept thinking ‘what goes around comes around’. It took Mr. Karma a long time to visit, but I bet he had a good long laugh at my expense.  

Bearded Dan with Mike in our Freshman Dorm Room

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Shaved Dan during first summer off college.
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TOP OF THE HEAP

Many years ago, I bumped into a middle-aged guy that worked during the peak tourist season at a fancy Swiss Alps resort for three months and a busy Australian beachfront hotel a different three months. The two somewhat menial jobs were far from snooty white-collar executive positions, but both did include several perks like room and board. More importantly though, between the two jobs, he was paid well more than enough to comfortably take off the other six months of the year to travel the world at his leisure. He had been happily doing this for years and could not imagine living any other way.   

When I heard about his amazing non-traditional lifestyle, I was as jealous as a Barbary cock pigeon over his hen.  I thought, what a perfect life he had created for himself.  It was even better than the secret ultimate imaginary dream life I was forced to concoct in college.  I guess I should explain that last sentence… (not the random Shakespeare quote I shoehorned in there.  The imaginary life thing).     

You see, when I was at Florida State, I changed majors a few times. Okay a lot of times. I was trying to find myself and apparently there was no undergraduate class in Hide and Seek. I was not dedicated (or talented) enough for the theater department, besides the smell of ego and desperation is tough to be around 24-7. I loved writing but the English Department just turned out to be a stomping ground for future teachers, not quirky creative types. The Psychology Department was full of crazy people trying to solve their own issues, though I hung around long enough to get a Minor there, it was not enough time to solve my own mental problems. I also lasted long enough in the Marketing Department to get a minor there too, but I definitely did not fit in with the Alex P. Keaton types in the stodgy Business School.

I finally settled upon Advertising which seemed to combine all my other choices. But after four years of school, I still needed a handful of College of Communication credits to get my bachelor’s degree, so I took a fluff course that my department head referred to as that “hippie touchy-feely” class.  It was actually called Interpersonal Communication and was well known for its unusual assignments.

“To see the world differently,” our earthy sundress and Birkenstock wearing free-spirit female professor had us walk around a busy shopping mall blindfolded. She also required us to keep weekly journals containing our brutally honest perceptions of the other students in our group. Before we left on the last day of class, we were instructed to give each other the journals we kept on them, that way each of us could see how a handful of different people truly saw us from first impression onward.  

Another assignment involved creating a single-moment future snapshot. You had to write about a brief snippet of a random day in your life ‘10 years from now’ if you were living your personal perfect career/lifestyle ultimate dream life, with no regard to any mental, physical, or emotional limitations. Afterwards, she read them aloud and we had to guess who wrote which one and discuss if we could truly see them in that role.  

One student created an image of themselves saying their morning goodbyes to their big supportive family as they headed off in their fancy sportscar to their upper-floor corporate CEO office. Another pictured herself as a Steve Jobs / Warren Buffet type successful creative executive delivering a corporate speech to an auditorium full of admiring employees, idolizing fans, and adoring family, all hanging on her every word. Pretty much, most everyone’s dream included loving families and insightful business acumen leading them to grand-scale success.       

Knowing my loud, gregarious attention-seeking personality and obvious drive to do well in school, none of my classmates correctly connected my dream ‘decade in the future’ life image to me. I created a world where I woke up alone in a small New York apartment, walked at my own leisurely pace against the flow on the busy rush-hour streets to a nearby bakery for a fresh warm salt bagel. Then headed back upstairs to sit at a quiet desk by a window overlooking the bustling city to sit and creatively write. I filled in the blanks saying I saw myself as a pressure-less self-employed author, just successful enough to split my time at a small place in Manhattan and a little beach cottage in Florida.    

The bohemian instructor’s contemplative assignment was not just intended as a first step to achieving our dreams by clearly identifying them, but to also understand how we think we present ourselves versus how others truly perceive us in reference to reaching our goals. The point being, it’s hard to be successful if the people around you don’t believe in you or see you as capable. 

Once it was revealed that the quiet writer was my dream, the class was quick to jump on the fact that the mental picture I painted contained no wife, family, mass-adulation, or preeminent success. Because of my ‘bigger’ personality, they assumed I was simply being contrary, and was either not true to myself or just formulating a false incomplete picture so no one would figure out it was mine.

Everyone’s surprised, harsh and almost angry reactions to my somewhat solitary existence, ended up being an eye-opening experience for me… which, although not quite as she planned, was still the teacher’s intentions. It’s also why I pretty much discarded that dream and rarely ever mentioned it to anyone else afterwards.    

Of course, in hindsight, I think the ultimate dream future I presented was pretty tainted by what was happening in my real life at the time.  My dysfunctional relationship with my long-term girlfriend was on its inevitable last legs, I was barely speaking to my best friend who had moved to California to create a new life for himself, my parents had moved to another city removing my option of eventually moving back home to a place I knew, my hand-me-down old car was constantly breaking down, my savings were dwindling, and I was quickly coming to the realization that even though I was about to graduate college I had absolutely no clue where my life was going, what I truly wanted to do, and even what city was going to live in when the semester ended.  Although possibly short-sighted, at that moment, a peaceful solitary existence doing the one thing that brought me joy in the two places I was most comfortable in, seemed idealistic.    

Obviously, that dream life did not come true. But my mindset at the time helps explain why I was content living out of suitcase for 15 years as a semi-nomadic consultant away from home most of the time. I also think that’s why I was so enamored with the lifestyle of the guy that worked the hotel jobs for 6 months a year. Like me, his career prevented him from putting down any deep real roots or developing any intense long-term relationships.  Yet he had much more consistency, less isolation, and none of the crazy work pressure I had to deal with. 

Even though I thrived on the control, constantly changing challenges, and creativity that it took to succeed in my consulting job (and I loved the four months a year off), after a while I was becoming burned out.  I recall thinking about the Hotel guy’s life, and as we did in the hippie touchy-feely class, I tried to imagine myself 10 years in the future doing that job.  I only saw two major obstacles: my heart and my ego.  As for the heart part, I was lonely and growing tired of running from reality. I had always assumed when I met the right person, I would quit and settle down to a more normal life… which I eventually did. The Hotel gigs would not have changed that.

Now the ego part was a tougher pill to swallow. I used to brag that I could be content doing anything. I repeatedly said, “if I had to push a broom for a living, not only would I, but I could find a way to still be happy doing it.”  But when I truly thought about myself working a high paying, but low-end, hotel job, I was not really sure my ego would let me do it.  That damn go-go, claw to the top, American work ethic is burned into my brain. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I like managing, I like being in charge, I like having a title. Even if I’m just a big fish in a tiny, tiny insignificant pond.  If I was not locked in a room writing, I wanted to be in charge of the room.

I’m just not sure I could be as content as the Hotel guy doing a mindless menial labor job. Even if it did offer me wildly amazing benefits. Sure, if I had to for survival, of course I could… but if I am talking about personal perfect career/lifestyle ultimate dream life, no.  But then again things change. I’m not sure I could be that solitary author anymore either.  Which has me wondering, what would I write if I was given that college assignment today?  I’ll let you know, when I finally grow up. 

All the world’s a stage but this guy should not be on it. On stage in ‘On Vacation’ (oy vay)
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ON THE EVE, OF THE EVE, OF THE EVE, BEFORE NEW YEAR’S EVE

I was pretty young when I realized most bad days off, were still usually very good days. Lil’ loud Danny was still in one of those pre-phonics and fractions super-low single digit elementary school grades, when my Mom made me stay home half a week because I had some nasty cold or flu or measle-y mumpy bug. Yeah, I was sick, but I got to spend the entire day living-large, lazily lounging in my parent’s big bed, watching TV, while being served a never-ending stream of hot tea and toast whenever I yelled for it.  

For a kid that hated school and was always seeking attention, this did not suck. What a great discovery!  All I had to do was feel like crap and I got to be treated like a king. Of course, this was not always easy. Being the youngest of five I quickly learned faking was not an option, Mom had seen it all before.  I really had to be sick to get out of school. I started looking forward to being ill. I was not quite walking around licking doorknobs and hugging the ill patients entering Dr Kurze’s family medical practice next door, but that was likely only because I had not thought of it.  

Now I mean no offense to my Mother, who did an amazing job raising this motley bunch of goofy kids into darn good, somewhat-successful, well-meaning humans, but I heard my older siblings got homemade chicken soup when they were home sick. I’m assuming the easier tea and toast routine, (which since I was raised with it, is to this day all I crave when I am sick) is another example of things getting a bit more casual and relaxed by the time this late in life oops baby of the family (or Son #4 as Dad referred to me to his friends) came along. But this sometimes worked to my advantage too. I assume the only reason I got to be in the folk’s big comfy bed when I was sick, was so Mom did not have to traipse up and down the stairs anymore, to where the kid’s bedrooms were located. 

Being the unmotivated whiny brat that I was, during actual school vacations I used to complain to my weary, but usually patient Mother, that there was nothing to do. She would rattle off a long list of potential activities that I promptly ignored.  I think my real goal was not to find something to do but was actually to discover new and creative ways to whine about being bored. I raised obnoxiousness it to an art form. That said, I still knew that being a bored loud whiny brat testing my Mom’s patience at home, was infinitely better than being yelled at by my teachers for being a bored loud whiny brat in school.  

Since I got good grades in most of my elementary school subjects except math (and self-control), my elementary school teachers tried to get me out of their hair (and classroom) anytime possible. To this end, during my Elementary school career, they made me the ‘monitor’ for just about everything they could find. I was Milk Monitor, which meant at 10:00 I got to leave class every day to deliver small cartons of cold milk from the cafeteria to the kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms. I was SRA Reading Lab Lesson Monitor, who handed out and collected the color coded laminated short stories and accompanying quiz answers. I was the Science Lab Monitor, that rolled the cart with lab equipment and cheesy experiments from classroom to classroom. And I was AV Monitor, which meant I got to drag one of the rickety film projectors from the storage room and set it up in whatever classroom was showing a lame movie like Hemo The Magnificent, The Red Balloon, or Donald & The Wheel.  

It seemed strange to me because the teachers all trusted me. They knew I was at heart a good kid; they just did not want me around disturbing them and everyone else.  All that time away from my desk did not hurt my grades (except in math) but it did reinforce the lesson that being out of class was far more enjoyable than being in there. Even more important, it taught me if I was creative enough, I could legitimately get out of class without being truant. A practice that I successfully followed as much as possible throughout Elementary, Junior High, and High School.

That all said, the best day off of elementary school I ever had was in the second grade when my parents kept me out so I could go with my Dad into the Manhattan to get my first pair of eyeglasses. Most kids would have thought getting glasses sucked, but I never had a day like this before. I was not sick, yet I got to completely skip school. 

Getting out of our suburban Queens neighborhood was always exciting to me. It was also very rare that I spent a day alone with just Dad.  Plus that morning was the first time I recall ever riding on the subway. At that point, the only times I went into the city was when we all packed into the station wagon to go eat dinner in Chinatown or were just passing through on a trek over to New Jersey.

I got to lounge around the house later than usual in the morning because Dad did not want to leave till after rush hour was long over. Once we made it to the eye doctor, I was given no choice in which frames I got and ended up with the same dorky out-of-date utilitarian black glasses as my dad and all my brothers wore. But rather than being miserable about them, I embraced my glasses and saw them as a rite of passage. They made me feel like I fit in with the rest of the family. This was a very different experience than the one I had a few years later when I got painful metal braces that secured my status as a mega dork to the now very desirable opposite sex.  

After the optician appointment, Dad and I went to a pizzeria where I had my first meatball parmesan sub. We never ate anything like that at home, and I was hooked. Then, for the rest of the afternoon, I got to hang out messing around with stuff in a back office of the place where my father worked near the busy corner of Canal Street and The Bowery across from the entrance to the Manhattan bridge. That day off was so much better than being in school.  

Certainly, I liked summer vacation, but it did not have the same amazing feel as a random day off when the other kids were still toiling away inside the building. Yet, winter break was different. That felt really special too. Maybe because it was a couple of weeks off during the middle of the school year filled with fun holidays like Grandma’s birthday party (known as Christmas or Hanukah to the rest of the world) and fascinating New Year’s Eve. 

To little Dan, New Year’s Eve had some magical power. It was one of the very few nights Mom let me stay up super late to watch TV so I could see the ball drop in Times Square (the other night was Labor Day eve when I was allowed to stay up to watch my favorite movie star, Jerry Lewis, do his goofy shtick all night on the telethon).  

The world was different on New Year’s Eve. My parents and their neighborhood friends got together and acted uncharacteristically goofy and loud, laughing way more than usual (I did not really understand the effects of alcohol yet).  There were parties everywhere and just 11 miles from my house, normally hectic and traffic-y Times Square was transformed into a huge mass of celebrating humanity dancing, hugging, and singing right in the middle of those same busy streets Dad and I walked on to get to that eye doctor’s office.  

Most importantly, New Year’s Eve meant everything was changing. The actual concept of a new year seemed almost beyond my comprehension. A grand celestial shift marked by a new rotation of the entire planet. Everything was reset and started over with a clean slate. Face it, if you had only been alive a handful (or so) of years, the ringing in of a brand-new one was a monumental event.  It meant I would soon turn a year older and later enter a new grade of school. A new year brought me one step closer to being a grown man, where I could make my own decisions and stay home for a day anytime I felt like (or so I thought).  It seemed so important and bigger than just Mom getting a handful of new free calendars at the bank.  

It was not until I was an adult that I realized New Year’s Eve was actually the most anti-climactic of all the holidays. A few hours of celebratory drama, suspense, anticipation… then the ball drops, everyone yells and hugs, and five minutes later it’s all over except for the hangover. No magic, nothing really changed, life went on the same as it did the previous year, only now there were no fun holidays to look forward to as you slogged through the dreary short winter days waiting for restorative spring.  

So as I sit here starting to write this on the eve, of the eve, of the eve, before New Year’s Eve, I wonder if there is a way to rediscover that childhood magic of New Years? 2021 was a trying difficult year, but even with its heartache and loss, it’s hard to argue that it was not slightly better than 2020. Maybe it’s a slow arduous trek, but could we possibly be on the upswing. 

Maybe as I hang up my brand-new National Park Monsters 2022 calendar, I can recapture that childhood awe about the grand celestial shift and the new rotation of the planet.  A turning of the page and a fresh start. But if my long term-optimism for tomorrow fails, at least at a minimum I will know that after my New Year’s Eve hangover passes, my office is closed on Monday the 3rd, so I will have an extra day off when most of the rest of the world has to go back to work. And those days are always the best.    Happy New Year!

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HAVE A HOLLY JOLLY SOMETHING OR ANOTHER

With everyone else celebrating something very different than us, growing up the only Jewish family in a German /Italian New York City neighborhood, made the December holidays feel fraught with confusing mixed messages. From a religious standpoint it was like everyone else was focused on the sequel while my house stopped following the story after the first book. From a celebration/decoration standpoint, the differences were even more in-your-face.  

Feeling bad for the Christmas treeless little Jewboy, some of the neighbors used to save a few balls and ornaments for me to come over and hang on their trees. I guess they were trying to be nice, and I appreciated the attention, but it still felt like I was getting the short end of the stick. It’s not like any Catholic kids were ever lining up to come to our house to spin a dreidel and eat latkes.    

When I was a little boy, there was minimal hoopla in our house during the eight nights of Hanukah. At sundown we screwed-in the appropriate number of little blue ‘Christmas tree’ bulbs into our cheesy white plastic electric menorah, and then pretty much went back to our normal evening activities. Maybe there was a bigger fuss when my four much older siblings were little, but like a lot of stuff, things got a bit more casual and blasé by the time I was growing up. Somewhere along the way I was taught the religious significance and story of Hanukah, but we did not make a big showy deal-e-o about it like all the Christmas celebrating families did with their blinking bulbs, showy decorations, and front-yard manger scenes.  

Like all the other kids, I watched all the usual Christian-slanted Yuletide cartoons with Rudolf, Frosty, the Snow Miser, and Linus’s famous mega-preachy meaning of Christmas speech. But instead of making me feel festive, they reminded me that I was as different and out of place as the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys.  Yet I still religiously watched them. Then again, every Sunday morning I watched Davey and Goliath too, so I assume I was pretty used to dodging any contradictory religious bullets being fired at me. 

Still, there were so many convoluted mixed messages. In December, Mom used to fill her normally empty crystal display candy dishes with holiday treats. I never really liked the mini red striped candy canes, but everyone else must have because it did not take long for the dish to contain only broken cane pieces and nubs. I often wondered why our candy canes were not blue.

Instead of the more traditionally Jewy gold foil wrapped chocolate gelt coins, Mom put out less-expensive waxy tasting round Christmas-ball shaped chocolates wrapped in bright Noel colored foil. We often played marbles with them, and it was not uncommon for a stray lost one to not be found till March.  As a joke, one holiday season, my brother Neil put a little two-foot tall decorated “Hanukah Bush” (mini plastic pre-decorated Christmas tree) in the corner of his notoriously messy bedroom. A few weeks later my visiting brother Sam’s cat knocked it over, where it laid in that exact same spot gathering dust until the next Christmas season when the tree and joke were once again resurrected.  

I do not recall anything in that oil lasting 8 days Hanukah story, that mentions baking batches of holiday cookies, but then again, unless they were made with myrrh and frankincense, I guess they are not in the birth of Jesus story either.  Nonetheless, every year Mom baked several batches of different festive holiday cookies. Truthfully, they all kinda’ tasted the exact same but I still loved the pinwheel cookies best because, even if you could not discern the flavor, they visually had chocolate swirls in them.

Mom’s cookies always felt like a special holiday season treat because she rarely baked any other time of the year.  The other 11 months we just had store bought Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Fig Newtons or, on very special occasions if we were having company, Mom would drive down to the Italian bakery and buy a white string tied baker’s box full of those painfully dry sawdust consistency, colorful cookies.  Oddly enough, those also all basically tasted the exact same too. It did not matter whether they were the pink leaf shaped ones, the mini Neapolitans, or the ones with the circle blob of chocolate or jelly in the middle.   

I guess the part of the holiday season that seemed the strangest to me was our annual December 25th party.  Every year, at either ours, or my Mom’s sister’s house, we had a big family get-together with yummy snacks and a huge dinner. Then Later in the day Uncle Lester would make his way over to the large pile of festively wrapped gifts and hand out everyone’s presents. He always made lots of snarky jokes as he read the ‘to’ and ‘from’ tags and made us walk up to him to claim our gift. One year he purposefully gave all my brother Arthur’s gifts to me, leaving him with nothing. But that was my Uncle’s sense of humor. One year as my large family funneled out of our station wagon and into his house, he told me I was not invited. Then closed and locked the front door on my face as I tried to enter, leaving me to figure out how to get into the house through the back. It took years for me to realize he really did like me, but I never minded his surliness that day. It was worth it; we got gifts!

Now despite these activities sounding very similar to those going on that same day in most Christian households, we in no way ever, EVER referred to this as ‘Christmas’. You see besides it being Jesus’ defacto birthday, the 25th of December was also my Grandma Flo’s date of birth. This quirky calendar coincidence allowed us to take advantage of the fact everyone was always off work and home from school that day. So each year we had a big birthday bruhaha for Grandma, and since we were all together, we also used the occasion to exchange everyone’s holiday season gifts with each other. Makes perfect sense, right?  Well it didn’t to Lil’ Dan, but I got gifts so why would I question it.  

But I guess the biggest rosy cheeked, red suited elephant in the room that I have not addressed yet, was the whole Santa Clause thing. Yes, despite being Jewish and not having a tree, chimney, or fireplace, Santa still came to visit our house. On a recent family Zoom call, my older siblings could not remember us having the whole Santa shebang. But my Mom claims there is a photo of my oldest two brothers sitting on Santa’s lap.  

I absolutely remember Mom taking me to the local Mays Discount Department store basement, where we waited on a long winding dimly lit line for my chance to get plopped onto a fat disheveled Brooklyn accented Santa’s lap for about 30 seconds before I was rushed off. Mom addressed my question about multiple Santa sightings by saying Santa had many assistants that dressed like him, but you had to be good because you never knew if the one you were seeing was the real one. And again, just like with Grandma’s Birthday Party, no mention of Christmas was ever made. Yet on the morning of the 25th, my gifts from Santa were always waiting for me in a little lonely pile off to the side of the living room. 

I was just starting high school when my folks and I moved to Miami. That was the first year we had no holiday party. A year later Grandma passed away ending any chance of a future not-Christmas Birthday party. Most of my siblings and cousins were already out on their own at that point, so I was really the only one affected by the lack of a holiday celebration. During most of high school and college, I usually celebrated Christmas with my shiksa girlfriend’s family.  It was just like I was back in the old neighborhood, since for the first couple of years that we went out, her unapproving strict Roman Catholic Cuban father only referred to me as “The Jew”.

For many years after I graduated college, I had a job where I extensively traveled doing stressful consulting work. More often than not, I found myself alone in some middle-of-nowhere hotel room for the holidays. Since I usually worked 12 hour days 7 days a week, most Decembers I desperately looked forwards to Christmas. But for a very different reason than most. It was one of my very few days off.  I could actually sleep in, not have to deal with other humans, and have a quiet peaceful pressure-less day to myself. I loved it!

Friends and family would frequently ask if I was lonely. In hindsight, I guess I was. But at the time the intense work schedule seemed worth it, since later in the year I got to take several months off to just relax and play without any bosses looking over my shoulder. I think my childhood holiday history prepared me perfectly for being alone on Christmas day.  I used to make jokes about it.  One year I sent out a series of photos that read ‘my Christmas Day feast’. There was a shot of me spraying a fire extinguisher into a hotel room microwave, one of me in a convenient store holding a big handful of beef jerky, and another entitled ‘your holiday feast maitre-d’, with a balding rotund 7-11 cashier ringing up my sad snacks.  

After I met my wife, the holidays changed for me yet again. But alone or with others, I still feel like my holiday season is still mixed up and confusing. But I guess it’s been that way for so long, that convoluted has become the norm. So for now might I say, how ever and whatever you celebrate, have a very merry something and happy other thing too. 

YOUR HOLIDAY FEAST MAITRE-D
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JERK

Sometimes I’m a jerk. I don’t want to be. I don’t like my jerkface moments.  But when I least expect it, something trips the jerk-o-meter buried deep in my brain, causing the secretion of jerk-dorphins that block my normal restraint and cause me to blurt out something snarky that I will soon-after regret. 

It does not happen often, but that just makes it stand out more when it does. The jerkness just kinda’ uncontrollably slips out of me irreversibly souring the good mood of the room, like someone having unexpected loud noxious gas during a fancy formal dinner.  I try to immediately apologize afterwards or make amends, but it’s hard to shove an irascible Pandora back into her jerk-box.  

I was in rare form this past weekend when I inexplicably experienced two waves of jerk-ification, and unfortunately my poor wife had to deal with the brunt of it both times. We do a family Zoom call with my relatives every Sunday. This week I got frustrated and rudely grumbled at her because she always logs us into the meetings late. I know, who cares. It is insignificantly meaningless to anybody else, but it’s important to me. And it became one of those little pebbles rolling down a mountain that eventually turned into a loud crashing jerk boulder when it hit the bottom.

For almost two years of Sundays, since we started doing the calls, I had been relatively subtle, but consistent, in my complaining as I prodded her to crank up her computer for the meetings earlier. Sure, it would solve the problem if we just used a different computer that I had the password to, or one of our I-Pads, or cell phones… but the PC in her office is best suited for the calls and it’s where we are most comfortable. Yet almost every week I get frustrated by the same repeated routine.  

About five minutes after I start dropping hints that the call is soon, my wife finally heads into her office. Every week I impatiently watch over her shoulder as she realizes she has to take the time to reboot instead of just clicking out of sleep mode. Then once the computer is running, while searching for the email with the Zoom link, she inevitably gets distracted by her latest batch of critical work e-mails and IMs that she had been avoiding since Friday. Uncontrollably, she takes the time to click on and respond to the most pressing ones. This always reminds her that her miserable Monday morning is nigh and puts her in a grumpy mood. Meanwhile, every week I stand there pacing and trying to keep busy while I stew and steam that not only are we now late for the meeting, but that she has unnecessarily put herself in a grumpy mood.   

This past weekend I was a jerk. I finally snapped when it was the time that I felt we should be heading into the office. I did not yell or scream or flail my arms like a crazy man, but more harshly than usual, I exasperatedly brought up everything in the above paragraph. Now I know the issue is mine, but in my defense, I do not get to see my family in person very often and I consider any extra moments with them very precious.  My parents are in their 90s and my brother is dealing with a crappy illness, and since they are usually the first ones to log-on, I’ve grown to really like the couple of minutes extra time with them before the call gets crowded and the loud conversation wanders down its usual twisty road of silliness, confusion, and convolution.  

All that said, I really should have handled it better. But of course, that’s not what made me the real jerk. You see, unbeknownst to me, my wife was already trying to be nice and indulge me.  Knowing I get antsy, she had already gone in, restarted the computer, checked her stuff, and set everything up. So after I barked like a jerk 10 minutes before the meeting, without saying a word, as cool as a cucumber, she walked into her office took the 30 seconds needed to log-on, moved over to her usual comfy chair and watched me eat crow while I stared at a blank screen for 5 minutes till someone else joined the meeting. I felt about two inches tall and profusely begged her forgiveness for my boorishness. Yet that didn’t stop me from being a jerk again later.

We had a very productive day doing some well needed chores and wrapping up several unfinished projects around the house. We both worked like crazy.  After scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming, and moping the entire place, I was completely done with housework.  After the family Zoom meeting, we had a nice dinner and watched a little TV.  I then had a glass of wine, caught the last of the football game, helped her do some sorting, and at that point I was more than ready to climb into bed for a good night’s sleep.  

Now there are plenty of household tasks that we refer to as ‘we’ but both know are ‘me’. It’s more than fair, she puts in longer hours at work, so I do a bit more stuff around the house. It balances out evenly and we both feel we have the better end of the deal. But when I’m tired and literally slipping into bed, it’s probably not the best time to suggest starting another ‘me’ cleaning project.  

That said, as soon as my knee-jerky incredulous refusal left my mouth, I regretted that I was not nicer about it… even in those circumstances. The truth is, we really are both very respectful to each other and mindful of the other’s feeling.  Well, most of the time. We are both human and neither of us is 100% perfect (maybe she a closer than me). We don’t really ever fight but we do occasionally get snippy or short with each other. Then we both feel bad about it two seconds later and beg forgiveness. I guess it’s good we don’t take each other for granted, but I still dislike when my flawed humanness rears its ugly head.

I don’t have to be a genius geneticist to know I probably get my short-fuse ‘jerk genes’ from my dad’s side of the family. It did not happen constantly, but in his prime, my Father could irrationally fly off the handle with the best of them. But he was infinitely better than his father who was a supreme grandmaster at being a jerk.  As the generations pass, I like to think the family DNA has mutated enough that my occasional jerk behavior is the rare exception and not the rule. I think in general I am a pretty darn good guy 98.5% of the time. But during those 1.5% other times… well… I’m a jerk. 

UNDER MY THUMB
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SCHADENFREUDE

While reading the day’s unpleasant news stories about evil school shootings, vicious political fighting, potential overseas wars, and the new scary Covid variant with a name that sounds like a Transformer robot toy, I stumbled across the following wacky article (LINK). It gave me a well needed laugh, so I shared it with a few friends. Some felt the guy in the article was a malevolent sociopath while others thought he was a brilliant comedic genius. I guess it’s no surprise I fell more into the camp of the latter.

CLICK TO SEE ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Growing up I always had a bit of an offbeat sense of humor. My fourth-grade class Science Fair submission was a goofy shoe-box diorama of the inside of a boy’s body that contained things like a valentine shaped red heart, “unkosher” chopped liver, and an arrow pointing to the middle of his legs labeled Kid’s Knees. Years later for an 11th grade creative writing art class assignment to make greeting cards, I submitted one that had happy dancers on the front reading “Let’s All Sing” Cha Cha Cha, Let’s All Dance Cha Cha Cha, Brace Yourself Cha Cha Cha…”, with the inside saying “Your Mother’s Dead, Cha Cha Cha” above a casket illustration.   

I recall in both situations being insanely frustrated about getting ‘F’ s, since I felt my absurdist creativity should have been rewarded. My fourth-grade teacher felt failing me was not enough, so to teach me a lesson she tried to embarrass me by putting my crappy diorama in the actual schoolwide Science Fair. Unfortunately for her, I took the exposure of my cheesy jokes to a bigger audience of students and parents, as a victory. At least the Creative Writing teacher gave me an ‘A’ on my second card, a specialty belated “sorry I forgot your birthday” card from one twin to another. I never told her I got the idea for it when my brother forgot his twin sister’s birthday. 

Both those incidents were good lessons that taught me that not only is humor very subjective but that there is an appropriate time and place for it. And apparently, school was not either of those. But the line is blurry. I still think it’s hilarious that my buddy Mike and I sat in the stands of one of our High School’s football games trying to confuse the fans on the other side of the field by proudly displaying a series of home-made banners that read Nose Hair, Ear Wax, Eat Me, and Circumcise The Band. Though not technically in the classroom, we still managed to get in huge trouble at school for trying to be funny.

Granted, it’s debatable if the comedy in our sign gag came at the expense of others like the above article’s ice slipping music did. But nonetheless, towards the end of the game after we paraded the Circumcise The Band poster in front of our own student body (see photo), we were promptly escorted out of the stadium, the banners were confiscated, we almost got suspended from school the next Monday morning, and the assistant principle gave us an in-your-face long lecture about all the ‘other students now hating us’ because we were responsible for signs of any type being banned at the stadium. With all that, you would have to assume there were offended, hurt-party victims to our prank. Though, despite the ensuing months-long fuss about the incident, we were never really able to figure out who was actually harmed, hurt, or insulted.

I am assuming the kind of folks offended by our ridiculous signs, would be the same type of people unable to find the humor in someone blaring Boots Randolf’s wacky Yakkety Sax song whenever someone slipped on the ice. To me, the key point that made the article funny, was the people would have fallen either way. The mischief-making DJ just made everyone’s slippery tumbles more entertaining. So, was that wrong or funny? Or both? Even if I were the one slipping on the ice, I’m confident I would still burst out laughing at the sound of the music. But I guess the adverse reactions to my diorama, greeting cards, and goofy stadium signs proves not everyone would. 

The definition of ‘schadenfreude’ is the “experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.” I personally would find no enjoyment in someone else’s serious tragedy, but little stuff, like an ego-bruising harmless slip on the ice, …well… if they were not hurt… yeah… I’d find that funny. But not all the time; it’s a case by case thing with a lot of variables and maybes.   What I do know for sure, is that the line between funny and sad varies based on the person or context. 

If a stranger at the beach stumbled and spilled the large cold beverage they were carrying on themselves, I am sure I would reflexively crack up laughing. But if the drink were scalding hot skin-burning coffee, I would certainly not. If a friend spilled a huge cold beverage on themselves while dressed in their best suit on the way out the door to a stressful important job interview, I likely would not laugh out loud, but I would have a hard time holding it in and definitely would tease them about it later. Now, if they spilled it on themselves at the end of the night after crazily celebrating all day that they got the new job, I would absolutely laugh my butt off. Many different reactions to basically the same thing, and that’s just my take. 

The internet is filled with thousands of articles about Darwin Award winners stumbling, tumbling, and fumbling and FAIL videos of people crashing, colliding, and collapsing, so obviously there is a huge audience for that type of schadenfreude comedy. I grew up loving the odd and sometimes slapstick-esque humor of Jerry Lewis, Abbot & Costello, Ernie Kovacs, Uncle Floyd*, Monty Python, Pee Wee Herman…, so it’s logical that my sense of humor would include the lighter less serious edges of schadenfreude. But again, where is the line separating what is okay to laugh at and when?  

At an old workplace years ago, someone found a video online of a large ceremony at filled church where four older men were slowly carrying above their shoulders, a fancy wood platform with a large religious statue on it. When they got to the alter one of the men got confused, let go of the handle, and, to the horror of the loudly gasping over-reactive parishioners, the statue fell to the ground with a huge crash as it’s head broke off and slid down the aisle between the packed pews.  

Now half of the people at my job thought this was uproariously funny, while the other half were not only horrified at the video, they were also disgusted with everyone else’s repeated laughter as they constantly replayed it over and over.  Even the comments under the video show a huge debate between the people that thought it was funny and the ones that felt it was tragic. 

So when is it appropriate to laugh? My family certainly experienced gallows humor at my brother’s funeral (or ‘celebration of his life’ as my Mother insisted calling it), when his grieving wife solemnly tried to slide the custom-built box containing his ashes into the marble columbarium wall. Try as she might, it would not fit. After several attempts, a cemetery employee eventually stepped in to assist. As he aggressively shoved and hammered it into the slot in front of my obviously very upset family, my brother’s widow exclaimed “you had to be a pain in the ass to the very end.”  Appropriate or not, those closest to him all laughed. Knowing his personality and sense of humor, we all agreed that we would have expected no less from him. 

A week or so after I shared it, I found out the news story about the guy taunting people falling on the ice was not real and had originally been written for an Onion-type news satire website. But the debate over what and when something is funny certainly is real. Obviously, my whole life I have fallen on the side of pushing the boundary as far as possible and apologizing if I go too far. I just sometimes wish that line was a little better marked.

CLICK HERE TO SEE BOOTS RANDOLPH & CHET ATKINS PLAY YAKKETY SAX

CLICK HERE TO SEE THE STATUE FALL

HIGH SCHOOL HIJINX

 

* David Bowie, a fan of Floyd Vivino’s Uncle Floyd television show, recorded the song “Slip Away” on his 2002 album, Heathen, as a tribute. The lyrics mention Uncle Floyd and his puppets “Oogie” and “Bones Boy.” When asked how he had learned of the show, Bowie replied “John Lennon told me about it.” While in Berlin in 2002 touring for his Heathen album, Bowie said Slip Away “is another new song. It’s about a television hero in America from ’70s that myself, and Lennon and Iggy Pop used to watch in the afternoons. Crazy guy, and we were very addled and used to love fooling around watching this guy Uncle Floyd.”

You are still here?   Wow, no one reads all this stuff on the bottom.  OK, your reward for still hanging in here is you can CLICK HERE to see Ernie Kovacs’ Nairobi Trio

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SLACK ‘N’ GO

To an outside observer like me, it sure looked like my friend Ernie was living a carefree carpe’ diem existence. Now, since I’ve never really honed my Amazing Kreskin superhuman mind reading skills, I do not know for sure what was going on inside his head, but to this non-mentalist casual friend, he sure appeared to be a master of that famous laid-back West Coast Caly slack.

Sure, Ernie always had a job, but it never seemed to be a high-pressure, sell-your-soul-to-the-man, ulcer-causing career. To me, it appeared he lived in that elusive magical sweet-spot grey-area between drudgery beat-down working stiff and groovy happy-go-lucky beach-bum hipster. I’ve always been envious of people that could pull off that existence, I’m just wound too tight. When I was younger, I tried to at least appear more laid-back and relaxed, but the innate in-your-face New Yorker fast-paced push push / paranoia paradox inside me just wouldn’t allow it. 

Despite our lifestyle differences, I hit it off with Ernie the first time a mutual friend introduced us. He’s a quirky witty conversationalist who I found easy to talk to, since we both had large vinyl record collections full of fringe obscurities to geek out about together. A kindred spirit, when it comes to strange and bizarre non-traditional music, who like me, never met a juke box he did not like.  

For a while it felt like whenever I was hanging out visiting with friends in a casual Los Angeles dive bar, suddenly Ernie would magically appear with a beer in hand happily announcing that he just rode his bike 20 miles in crazy city traffic to get there. I never knew if he always biked across the sprawling busy city because he had no car or if he was just plain nuts… or both. I mean, he did show up to my beach wedding in Florida dressed as Hunter S. Thompson, so you never really knew for sure. 

A few years ago, Ernie finally got married and his life started to dramatically change. Now, two kids later, he has turned into Mr. Responsibility. A family first buckled-down husband who, when he is not doting on his wife and kids, is putting in massive hours at work to help pay for his ‘American dream’ house in the burbs. His bachelor slacker-esque life may be a distant memory, but even with the burdens and stress of traditional family life, he seems extremely happy and content with his current world. Is ‘reformed slacker’ an option on the current census forms?

One of the very cool things Ernie has done to incorporate his old world with his new, is each day while tending to his kids, he plays them a different interesting obscure record from his extensive collection. Then daily, he posts a new photograph of his children posed near that day’s album’s cover. Each picture is accompanied with a lengthy blurb about the record, musician, and any pertinent updates about his little ones. The incredible series of photographs has grown along with his kids, from the early shots of his infant first child sleeping soundly next to the propped-up album sleeve, to the more recent photos of his two raucous, walking talking toddlers manhandling the record covers.   

The accompanying posted on-line comments below his photos are always fun to read because of the contrast between the folks that only pay attention to the precious children and the others more concerned with making snide comments about his unusual music selections. As expected, I tend to write a little of both. In recent months, Ernie’s world has gotten so busy that the photos have dropped off to once a week instead of daily. Still, I think someday his kids will adore the collection of pictures. It’s an amazing documentation of their daily developmental changes that also capture’s their adoring Dad’s obsessive fun wacky side. 

I would have loved having something like that. The closest I had was that my dad bought a fancy new Polaroid camera when I was a little boy, so there are more family pictures with two to four-year-old Lil’ Dan then of my four older siblings combined. But Instamatic film was expensive, so after the initial novelty wore off, pictures were mostly just taken at occasional special events. The truth is, even with the rash of Polaroids, there are likely less than 100 photos of me from the time I was born till I started junior high school and no videos or movies whatsoever. Now-a-days with a smartphone camera in everyone’s pocket, most kids have more than 100 pictures taken of them every week.

Each stage of development, every minor event or major milestone, every holiday, every gift, every sporting event, every party, play, or performance is heavily documented by everyone attending and conveniently stored in cloud-based bits and bytes able to be accessed anywhere for eternity, or at least as long as the software you saved them on is supported by the internet behemoth owners of the data center instillations. Gone are the days of the flat cardboard box that sat gathering dust on a closet shelf with decades worth of unorganized stacks of loose photos.

In my lifetime, photographs have turned from something special that were carefully passed around and shared, to overwhelmingly omnipresent. I was around 9 or 10 years-old when I got my first cheapie click and shoot camera. The film came in a plastic easy to load cartridge and for dim light pictures I had to put on a square chunky one-use flash cube. Just about every picture I took came out blurry and out of focus, but they still seemed important to me. My mom advised me to document on the back of each photograph the date it was taken and the names of the people that were in it. I remember thinking that was crazy, how would I ever forget the names of these people and the details of these important moments of my life. I didn’t follow her advice…  I should have. Unfortunately, even with my current mountain of modern digital photos, I still have that same disorganization issue.   

My version of that cardboard box of stray photographs is a Dodger’s game give-a-way gym bag filled with those old paper sleeves that developed pictures used to come in. They all include that roll’s pictures, negatives and the two or three blurry shots that almost every roll contained. Before I got married, I looked at my old photos a lot. They helped me to feel less alone and disconnected. These days I rarely look at them, yet I still can’t bring myself to throw any of them away, even the ones that I have no emotional connection to. In my head, disposing of photos is like destroying the only documentation of a moment. As if that second in time will have never existed if I toss the photo of it. 

Seeing old photographs in a garbage can or junk store depresses me. My head always jumps to the conclusion that someone died alone leaving no legacy. Their memories of no importance to anyone else. I guess I leap to that assumption because I do not have kids. Not that I would want to burden my offspring with all my old junk, but I know that bag of old pictures I hold so dear and precious will likely end up in a dumpster after I kick the bucket.

I remember helping go through my friend Jamie’s possessions after she passed away. She had a lifetime’s worth of saved pictures in her bottom dresser drawer and a box in her laundry room. But aside from the handful the two of us cleaning her place out kept, there was no one else that wanted any of them. The memories connected to each picture died with her.

Even with that miserably depressing thought, at times I desperately wish there were more photos or movies of my family when I was growing up. I would adore having something like Ernie’s daily family photos. What I don’t understand is why my past is so important to me. It’s ancient history that I cannot change. I love my current life and the person I am today, so why am I so hung up on holding onto yesterday?  

And here’s the crazier part, I tend not to like the person I see when I look at the old photos or videos of myself that do exist. I was a doofy-looking reclusive little kid, a confused clueless teenager, and a lonely young adult hopelessly searching for an elusive happiness I falsely believed everyone else had. The videos of me in my 20s don’t show the cool laid-back Ernie-like self-image I was trying to project, but instead showcase a loud obnoxious needy guy still starved for attention like when I was a little boy.    

Like what happened to Ernie, after I met my wife, my life also seemed to find more happiness, fulfillment, and purpose. I am a better, more confident, satisfied, well rounded person since we got together. I no longer feel the need to live in the past showcased in my old pictures.

So why do I treat my old photographs like they are some sort of treasure and why do I so desperately wish there were more pictures or movies of my family and childhood? Why am I jealous of the children today that have so much more documentation of their world? Why do I wish my dad was like Ernie, sharing a piece of himself daily, while photographing every step of our families’ growth to be enshrined in images forever… or at least as long as the software we saved them on is supported by the internet behemoth owners of the data center instillations?   

ERNIE’S KIDS
LIL CITY BOY DAN ALONE ON THE STREET

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ALL THANKS & NO GIVING

I was on the precipice of that uncomfortable age when an impressionable bewildered pre-teen transitions into an apathetic arrogant malapert teenager, when my significantly older brother Neil asked if I wanted to join him for a late-night pizza with his friend Dave. An invite like this had never happened before, so even prior to stepping out of the house, I thought this was a strange occurrence. And that was before we nonchalantly walked around the long black hearse and carried the pie into the back entrance of a funeral home.

As Neil moved into early adulthood he slipped into a curious fatherly mode and I think I was the only human he knew young and malleable enough to let them be fathered by him. Though I am sure it helped him by stoking his fragile ego and making him feel more grown up, I was most certainly the bigger beneficiary of those days when he took his littlest brother under his wing to introduce him (me) to the finer things in life… Or at least the finer things as Neil perceived them. This was a man whose main hobbies were ham radios and hypochondria.  

He took me to my first R rated movie, first Broadway play, first Teppanyaki experience, and first dank Greenwich Village cafe. But there was a price. Like he also took me to my first French restaurant, and then proceeded to mercilessly tease me the rest of his life about ordering a hamburger there. But you take the bad with the good and if the payment for all that good was a little teasing, it was absolutely worth it. I was always incredibly grateful to him for those years. 

At that age, when something out of the ordinary happens, it sticks in your head. But when the unusual happens often enough, it becomes normal to you and it’s not till you look back with experience and perspective under your belt, that you truly realize the scope of just how odd something is. But even then, I knew eating pizza on the embalming room slab of a funeral home was not an average everyday event.  

Now, under the bright light of retrospection, my whole family was (is) a bit eccentric. That’s the nicest way I can say that I was raised in a house of loving, well-meaning oddballs. The chance of me turning out average and ordinary with this motley crew as my examples, was nil. The signature pages of every yearbook I own is filled with back-handed compliments that all begin with something like “you’re so strange but I like you…” or “you may be weird, but…”  and never for a minute have I doubted where that all came from.  

Of all my flaky family members, Neil stood out as the quirkiest. Which was an impressive feat when you consider one of my siblings is a prominent MIT educated economist fanatically into juggling, another is a trumpet playing, army reserve veteran, marathon runner, and then you have my sister, who in the years prior to raising her kids in a strict religious kosher household, thought nothing about sneaking into a Bob Dylan concert at Madison Square Garden by slipping in as the matinee crowd exited and hiding for hours on the top shelf of a janitor supply closet. My father named our guard dog Pussycat and Mom once threw a bowling ball into our basement wall… which was less destructive then when she crashed the family car into the just remodeled porch of a house.

With these folks as my examples of normal behavior, at the time it did not feel that bizarre to find myself walking into the closed funeral home with our pizza to meet up with Neil’s friend Dave. After the usual round of quick hellos, we all nonchalantly stood around the sterile tiled embalming room eating slices from the white pizza box that sat propped open on the lipped body-shaped table that normally was used for removing the blood out of dead people. I recall Dave saying something like it’s the most frequently cleaned spot in the building. 

Dave worked the quiet nighttime pick-up shift at the local Wurst Funeral Home. (I’m not sure if they were also really the “worst” funeral home as our frequent childhood prank phone calls always inquired.)  I have no clue how Dave got that job, but he had the appropriate look for someone that worked alone at night in a funeral home. He was a kind, soft spoken, gentle guy inhabiting a hulkingly tall and wide intimidating body. His large patch of scared skin from a severe childhood accident with a hot Iron press, just added to his ominous appearance. And during their teen and young adult years before they both married, moved, and reproduced, he and my brother were very close friends. 

As assistant leaders of my Boy Scout troop, Neil and Dave would show up to camp dressed as Hawkeye and Trapper from MASH with red-cross marked metal medical kit boxes filled with take-out Chinese food they picked up in Manhattan’s Chinatown on the drive out of the city to the campgrounds. Later, dressed in terrycloth bathrobes, they would amuse each other with inside jokes as they built their own mini-golf course behind all the tents and lean-tos playing several rounds of putt-putt. A lot of the scouts laughed at them, but I was quietly jealous and envied their ability to embrace their uniqueness despite the disparaging comments of others. Of all the many things Neil did for me, setting that example likely had the most profound effect on how I have lived my life. 

I liked Neil’s friend Dave. Even though I was a loud bratty kid almost ten years younger than him, he never talked down to me like most adults did. I only recall being in a car alone with him once, but during the drive, we had a long normal conversation like real adults. He talked about his life and paid attention to what I said about mine. Even at that age, I was hyper aware of music, and he had a Carpenters tape playing fairly loudly in the car. I had always thought of that band as girly, old people, wussy music and here was big Dave Mueller obviously grooving on them. 

Sure, I knew all the Carpenters bigger hit songs forwards and backwards from them being endlessly played on the cheesy AM radio pop stations I listened to, but in the era of Zeppelin and Floyd, they were like the most uncoolest band in the universe. Thinking I was missing something, I asked Dave why he was listening to them. In a confident unabashed way, he said “I liked them”.  

He explained their songs were beautifully well-crafted and suggested that if I took the time to really listen, I could hear how amazingly expressive Karen Carpenter voice was. Then he paused and said something, that coming from a big hulking goofy guy that likely got made fun of and picked on a lot in his life, made a big impression on me. ‘You don’t have to like or dislike something just because everyone else does.’  

It sounds so simple, but that is really hard to do. We all desire to fit in. As a kid or adult, no one likes being the outcast and that’s especially hard to avoid if you are a little different from everyone else…  like I was… as was Neil… and Dave.  I still did not run out and buy any Carpenters records, but it made me less quick to be dismissive of things and more respectful of other people’s tastes. 

Time is a funny thing though, and I have grown to like some of those old schmaltzy pop records from my childhood that the cool kids always make fun of. I am already used to being teased by my music snob friends about my unusual preferences, so what’s the harm in giving them more ammo. So yes, I like the Carpenters… and Abba (it was the publicity for their new album and virtual reality hologram show that inspired this blog). Maybe my tastes have evolved (or devolved) or maybe it’s because I associate all that stuff with the simpler times of my childhood, back when anything could happen… like dinner at a funeral home  

NEIL, DANNY, ELLEN

CLICK TO ROCK OUT TO THE WUSSY SOUNDS OF THE CARPENTERS

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GIFTED

I’m knee deep into my don’t ‘screw up’ or ‘let down’ gift giving part of the year. With an anniversary late September, my wife’s birthday in November, the usual December Christ-Hannuk-mes, and Valentine’s in February, this is the extended season I stress about the most. And it’s my own damn fault. As long as I did not completely forget and tried pawning off something like ‘a box of invigorating fresh air in invisible packaging’, she truly would be happy with any tiny bauble or gift that shows the smallest of thought. Not only that, she would gladly tell me exactly what she wants as a present, but I’m always looking to be Mr. Over-The-Top Super-Surprise Amazo-Gift Man. 

The truth is, she does not NEED me to buy her anything. Based on their near daily visits, she obviously has a close relationship with the Amazon delivery dudes. If something she wants comes to mind, it magically Primes its way to our front door faster than Scotty could beam up Kirk from a red-shirt killing crisis. Yet, I still constantly put myself under pressure to find the perfect something or another, that she did not know she wanted until she unwrapped it. 

Some of my gifts have gone over better than others, but with over 20 years of hunting and gifting for her, it has become a Mount Everest sized task to completely wow her. I might have had a few minor ‘mehs’, but luckily, I have never had any complete and total duds. It helps that long ago I learned the most important gifting rule: if you pick it out together it can be a needed practical item but if it’s a surprise it needs to be a ‘want’. This was another of those benefits of us meeting when I was a little older. As she says, I came pre-broken-in. And it’s true in this case, I recall exactly when I screwed the pooch and learned that rule the hard way. 

Back when I was starting college, my then girlfriend was about to move out on her own into her first apartment. As a Christmas present, I filled a massive brown box with individually wrapped practical, useful, everyday necessity items that I knew she would need once she moved in. Stuff like paper towels, a spatula, zip locks, aluminum foil, bath soap, napkins, detergent, wash cloths, toothpaste, TP, Underwood Deviled Ham…  I was so proud that I had carefully researched to make sure I only bought the exact brands that she used and liked. Sure, maybe I did not take into account that she would not enjoy opening a wrapped box of her correct brand of queen-sized maxi pads in front of people on the holiday, but besides that snafu, I thought it was a great gift. Afterwards though, she made it abundantly clear that ‘practical’ and ‘surprise gift’ did not go together. I have never made that mistake again.

I have not brought it up, but I might not be alone in feeling some gift-giving vexation. I think my wife is running out of ideas too. Amongst the odd little surprise gifts we exchanged on our last anniversary, she gave me a complicated 3-D pig jigsaw puzzle that contained a zillion tiny plastic pieces shaped like all the hog’s internal organs, meat cuts, and external body parts, while I gave her a modern version of the old kids View Master toy with custom photo wheels featuring us, our pets, and some of her favorite artsy photographs. Sure, this stuff is fun, but during the past two years we have been trying to simplify our world in a clean out, donate, and sell mode. Bringing in new silly stuff just seems counterproductive.

Besides the little wacky anniversary gifts, we together picked out and purchased a much-wanted hunk of art for the house by our favorite sculptor. Yeah, you know you have given each other a lot of gifts when it gets to the point that you have a favorite local sculptor. When we picked it out, we rationalized the price by saying it was supposed to cover this year’s anniversary and all the December stuff. But now, two months later, it looks like the artsy statue’s effective gift-givingness’ version of a statute of limitations expired prematurely. Apparently, we will need to be exchanging real gifts this December. In other words, again, right on the heels of doing a bang-up job with her birthday, I have to come up with yet another wizz-bang super surprise extravaganza. And for the first time… I got nothing in mind and I’m rolling into December blind.

A few years back, for my last big round-number birthday, she topped all of the gifts I had ever given her. She took me to my favorite restaurant, rounded up a case of my favorite near impossible to find, limited edition Malacca Gin, and oh.. yeah… got me a new car.   Okay, we still had to pay for it over the next few years, but she made all the arrangements and secretly got me the exact model I wanted, parking it outside of my workplace with a big giant bow on it (they really have those and on a Mini Cooper, its impressive looking).

I tried to top her on her next major milestone birthday by opening a hidden bank account and secretly adding a chunk of money to it every month for seven years. Then I bought little miniature toys to represent the three major purchases that she had always dreamed of making, put them individually wrapped into a plain brown box, and after she opened each one, I handed her a check to pick out whichever one she wanted in real life. Then I hired the chef at that same favorite restaurant to make her a private custom made meal, served on the porch of their then closed-for-covid, gourmet restaurant. Okay, usually we are not so extravagant, but she started it.  

I think truthfully, we both like it best when we do a mutually picked shared holiday present. Since we both love to travel, we got into a nice run of taking fun trips as our shared gift. We put just as much time and effort into planning our mini adventure’s details as we would have picking-out a more traditional present. But this way we got to enjoy the anticipation and the shared experiences, without filling up the house with more semi-useless cluttery stuff.    

But the initial wave of the Covid crisis forced the cancellation of a couple of those planed mini vacations and International travel has since become more difficult to navigate. Constantly changing lock downs, quarantines, flair ups, and entry rules have made it harder and more dangerous to plan travel. Beside, we already have the two postponed trips to make up sometime in the future. We keep thinking its smarter to wait till things get a bit more normal in the world. Who wants to go to a place only to discover half the business, attractions, and restaurants are closed. Our favorite thing to do when we get somewhere, is submerging ourselves into the local culture, and that is hard to do hidden behind masks and socially distanced.

So this week I finally did it. I confessed I had no ideas for the upcoming holidays and that I would finally take suggestions from her. I do not know if she was let down by my lack of creativity or relieved that she might finally now get exactly what she wants. She does have the occasional control freak tendency (I can spot it because I do too) so this might be what she has wanted all along. Yet, it still does not feel right to me and I am holding out hope for a last minute inspiration. But then what would I do about the stuff she requested. Would she be let down if I skipped those items after she went through the trouble of telling me about them? Would I now need to get both? Have I inadvertently set up a bad precedence where I now have to get a surprise and a requested gift? No wonder I am always tortured during this part of the year. If I can just make it to February 15th.

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