Listening in on Manly Men, at the Gym

I’ve belonged to the New York Sports Club since 1996, except for a four-year stretch in the early 2000s. I’ve always enjoyed the chain, which provides a very consistent experience — I’ve used probably 10 locations in New York State and Connecticut since I joined, and I liked all of them.

Being the observer of human behavior that I am, I always keep my ears open for snippets of conversation. Locker rooms are good for that, better in Connecticut than in New York. On the other hand, the weightlifting areas at the New York clubs excel at providing manly conversations, since so many muscular studs are busy flexing their pecs and abs there at lunch.

Case in point, from the Rockefeller Center gym I now visit on weekdays. I was in the weight area downstairs, doing arm curls and other moves with modest weights, 10 lbs., enough to keep toned but not rupture anything. I was the exception. Two men were down there slinging the 105-lb. hand weights (that’s 105 pounds in each hand). They looked suitably bulked up.

One man next to me told another, “They lifted 31,000 lbs.”

“You mean, 3,100 pounds?” asked his friend.

To clarify, they asked one of the men.

“Yeah, we lifted 31,000 pounds together. It took about two hours,” he said modestly. They must have kept a running total of weights x repetitions x men.

The two observers were in awe of this manly accomplishment. 31,000 pounds!

One said in amazement, “Not even A-Rod could do that!”

Hearty male laughter followed. And that’s my tale from the sweaty inner sanctums of the New York Sports Club for today.

The Bobby Pickles Podcast

Podcaster extraordinaire and t-shirt design maven Robert Piccirillo, a/k/a Bobby Pickles, interviewed me on the steps of the New York Public Library recently for his podcast program. This marked the first interview I’ve done in a public setting and it went well. Bobby had the questions, the technology and the knack for connecting that makes for a fun give-and-take.  Give it a listen — it’s one of the best (and unlike my last interviewers, some radio shock jocks, no Holocaust jokes!).

Who the heck is Bobby Pickles? I’ll let him explain:

Robert Piccirillo, better known by his nom de plum, Bobby Pickles, is a professional podcaster/tee shirt peddler. Pickles began his rise to prominence in 2013 when he appeared on the TLC reality series “America’s Worst Tattoos”. Bobby is Co-Founder and CEO of FAT ENZO, a brand of satirical graphic tee shirts depicting people of history, literature and pop culture, which he peddles at Union Square in New York City. He is the host of The Bobby Pickles Podcast, which can be downloaded for free on iTunes. And he has a BA in English from the University of Florida.

So give my interview a listen, check out his other programs, and if you want to be really fashion forward, buy some of his t-shirts. Support Staten Island entrepreneurship.

Gov. Rick Perry, Live and Civilized

You can take the reporter out of journalism, but you can’t take the reporter out of the boy, or something like that. This evening I donned my camera and notepad and trekked to the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, to hear Texas Governor Rick Perry speak as part of his economic development swing through the Northeast. Tax- and regulation-plagued Connecticut businesses (especially the ancient gun trade) are prime targets for Perry’s appeal, so I wanted to hear him.

Clearwater 184

Perry visited Stamford with another agenda. He spoke as part of a series on “Civility in America,” with his topic being civility on the campaign trail. He reflected on his 2012 run for the Republican nomination for President, but also slipped in some tangy reminders of Texas’ success at attracting businesses and creating jobs.

“I thought I’d take a break from poaching all your jobs to talk about civility,” he said.

Perry pointed to the 24-hour news cycle, technology and the permanent campaign for higher office as factors behind the “coarsening” of public discourse, but said, “civility is a choice.” Asked about how a candidate can reinforce a message of civility in his campaign, Perry said the candidate’s conduct in public and private, with a “pleasant, decent and civil approach.” He pointed to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as presidents with that approach. Democratic politicians that impress him include Gov. Jerry Brown of California, Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Connecticut’s own Gov. Dannel Malloy and California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom.

On the GOP side, Perry mentioned Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, adding that Scott “very competitive” in representing Florida’s interests.

Warming to his theme of states and economic development, Perry said that governors’ key role is to “create a climate” where businesses will want to invest. He favors competition among states for business, and would like to see more power devolving to states for decision making.

“I’m here to help stimulate a conversation about policies to make Connecticut and the United States more successfully economically,” said Perry.

He also touched on Texas education topics, including the $10,000 college degree and — bringing back my memories of junior high school — the year that seventh graders in the Lone Star State spending studying Texas history. I remember it well and it must have stayed with me, because here I am writing about Texas 40 years later.


Throwing in the Towel

I’m throwing in the towel. Literally. I’ve had enough. In fact, last night my son and I threw in the towels and took baskets of wet laundry to a Norwalk laundromat to dry the clothes. After over 3 years of steady service for the two apartments in my building (me and the downstairs neighbors), the LG dryer is giving up the ghost. For weeks the dry function has performed worse and worse. I tinkered with the settings to try the manual setting and that worked for a while, but no longer.

I remember how we managed wet laundry growing up in Texas 50 years ago — a clothesline and clothes pins! The heat and dry air did just fine. But in Connecticut, that approach doesn’t work so well, especially without a backyard with plenty of sunshine access.

In a fit of creative, multi-track problem solving, my son and I went to the laundromat. To our pleasure 32 minutes of drying in two machines (a quarter for eight minutes) did the trick. I had forgot the simple pleasure of fresh, dry laundry. At the same time, I called a well-regarded local repair service to pay a house call and try to find the problem — most likely a faulty sensor. The LG spins fine, it just doesn’t generate heat. If it can be fixed, great, if not, then it’s back to the laundromat we go.

I’d like a simple clothesline, but that’ll have to wait for global warming to accelerate.

Mom, the War Years

In going through old family photos recently, I found a a profile about my late mother that looks like it appeared in the late 1940s in perhaps the McAllen Monitor or Mission Times, both papers from far South Texas, where my mother (and I also) grew up. Here’s this look at the family history:

She Talks Army, Navy Lingo

Shirley Lissner admits she isn’t bi-lingual. But she can converse in the languages of two services — the Army and Navy.

For Shirley, now with the Mission Citrus Growers Union, is a veteran of both branches — an experience few men and far fewer women can lay claim to.

Firs she joined the WAACS. After that service was incorporated into the Regular Army, she resigned, then enlisted in the Navy’s WAVES a year latger.

Shirley, a native of San Antonio, came here with her family in 1926. Previously they’d lived in Gonzales, “but I still can’t speak Spanish,”s she complained.

Joining the WAACS, says Shirley, seemed an interesting thing to do back in 1942, so she signed up and was sent to Nacogdoches, Texas, for basic training.

“Later, at Camp Polk, La., I got mixed up with a company going overseas,” Shirley laughed, “and when I found out where we were going i got out in a hurry. You had a choice then.”

The Brooklyn Port of Embarkation was Shirley’s next base. She worked there as a cryptograph operating, encoding and decoding messages.

“Forget everything you know; they told me when I left there,” Shirley commented. “I can’t tell you much about my work because I did just that — forgot it.”

Eight months after arriving in Brooklyn,or in 1943, the WACS went into the Regular Army, so Shirley left them. “I’d been through the first sergeants school at Des Moines but they discharged me as a Pfc anyway,” quipped Shirley.

During the Next year Shirley worked at Moore Field as a teletype operator. Then — “it was the uniform, I guess,” Shirley said — she enlisted in the WAVES in October, 1944.

Now quite experienced in communications, she was assigned to the Navy’s communications office in Washington, D.C.

“Our office was down the hall from the then Secretary of the Navy, [James] Forrestal,” Shirley remembered. “I was there six months before I started saluting him; I didn’t know who he was.”

Discharged in March, 1946, Shirley fared better in rank with her second service, having been made a T 3/C.”And I liked navy blue better than O.D., too,” she commented.

Shirley worked in San Antonio a year before returning here, where she’s a secretary with the Mission Citrus Growers Union.

She isn’t entertaining any ideas just now about any more enlistments. But . . . if another war comes . .  there’s always the Air Force, Shirley’s thoughts might be as she speculatively scans the sky!


Django at 40 is a Lonely Hunter

Think about these for movie concepts: introduce an energetic, driven black man to a white man from another culture who literally speaks another language. That’s one idea from Django Unchained from Quentin Tarantino.

Then take this idea: a budding teenage girl struggles to navigate adolescence, family conflict and economic troubles in a depressed era. That’s one idea from This is 40 from Judd Apatow.

Now, what if you smashed the two ideas together in one epic book that became a movie — with an amazing performance by an actor who, 45 years later, could win an Oscar nomination for his brilliant work in Argo?

The book and movie in question is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, published in 1940 when author Carson McCullers was only 23 years old. It tells the story deaf-mute John Singer and his impact on people in a Southern mill town in the late 1930s. One of them is a black doctor, Dr. Benedict Copeland, who must deal with the impact of segregation and racial oppression. The book completely sweeps up the layers of cultures and social ferment of its time and greatly impressed me through its artistry and McCullers’ vision. It’s one book I’d nominate for the mythical Great American Novel.

In the Django comparison, Singer would be Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), the dentist-bounty hunter who frees and befriends Django (Jamie Foxx). Singer speaks in sign language and gestures; Schultz speaks German and English. Django’s opposite would be Dr. Copeland, who stayed with his own values in the book and movie. Suspicious of Singer at first, the men form a friendship.

Released in 1968, the movie version of Lonely Hunter had a stellar cast. Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez played Dr. Copeland with stubbornness and compassion. Alan Arkin, who in his mid-30s, played Singer and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a role where he did not speak a single word, yet delivered a deeply empathetic and varied performance. He didn’t win the Oscar, but he won for Best Supporting Actor for 2005’s Little Miss Sunshine. Now, four decades later, he has his fourth Oscar nomination for his turn as film mogul Lester Siegel in Argo.

Not to stretch the analogy too far, Lonely Hunter explored territory later picked up in Django, of men working together in a relentlessly hostile society.

This is 40 connects to the family and economic issues of Lonely Hunter. Teen Mick Kelly was played by Sondra Locke, who won a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She deals with a bitter mother and a disabled father, plus bratty younger brothers. She dreams of better things — culture, romance — but financial struggles drive her in another direction. The book is much grimmer than the movie, as I recall, on Mick’s prospects. Her opposite number in This is 40 would be Sadie, the 13-year-old daughter of the main characters, played by Maude Apatow.

Granted, the pampered life of Los Angeles is a long way from Georgia in the 1930s (1960s in the movie) but the dynamics of family discord and adolescent anger are similar. While the outside packaging changes, the present of life remains about the same from generation to generation. We’re all lonely hunters.


Around the World with Bob Marley

The past two days I had the pleasure of watching Marley, a 2 ½ hour documentary about Bob Marley. I was familiar with his music and influence, and his lamentable death at the age of 36 from melanoma. But I didn’t know the total history and this documentary covers everything so well and so thoroughly that I will listen to Marley’s music and look for his worldwide influence afresh now.

Marley brims with concert and interview footage of the man, interviews with his children, wives/lovers and band members, and even Jamaican political leader Edward Seaga. This article is an exhaustive look at the movie’s content. What did I learn? Well, everything:

  • His father, Norval Sinclair Marley, was white and born in Jamaica in 1885. Norval’s mother, Ellen Broomfield, was Syrian Jewish. Norval served in World War I and was not a factor in Marley’s life, although the Marley’s family businesses appear in a key scene in the documentary.
  • Marley lived in Wilmington, Delaware, where his mother had immigrated, and he worked on a Chrysler assembly line.
  • Marley’s shows primarily attracted white audiences in the U.S. One music promoter wanted him to be the opening act for the Commodores as the only way to draw a crowd.
  • Marley was an intense performer and never phoned in a gig, based on the footage. He was always on, always giving it his all.
  • Despite an estate valued at $30 million, Marley refused to write a will, owing to his Rastafarian beliefs. The movie lightly touches, in a humorous way, on Marley’s lack of estate planning. In reality, families members have been waging bitter court fights over trademarks and business rights for the past 30 years, a tragic aftermath that would make a fascinating documentary on its own, the temporal flip side of love and peace.

Marley came close to being assassinated in 1976 during political turmoil in Jamaica. He was scheduled to play at the Smile Jamaica concert, and, despite some wounds, he did indeed play. The film captures all the electricity and emotion of the concert. I was particularly struck by Marley bringing on stage the two main political rivals in the country, Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, and he embraced both of them in a plea for unity and reconciliation. The moment showed Marley as a man who truly put his philosophy ahead of politics.

The scene made me think – could there be a U.S. performer or personality with the vision, message and respect who could make that kind of gesture? Who could bring political rivals together for a heart-felt moment? Bruce Springsteen comes to mind as a possibility. Oprah Winfrey? Both seem too politically obvious and not likely to embrace somebody they see as afflicted with GOP cooties. After much thinking, the one performer I can see uniting different schools of thought would be the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. His was a hard-bitten, compassionate message from a man who had seen the dark sides of life. He could appeal to anybody. But, unfortunately, he’s dead. Merle Haggard’s got the world view and he’s still alive, but I can’t see him with national appeal. B.B. King? An icon of the blues, world respected, but not exactly a philosopher king.

The film included a striking bonus feature about the impact of Marley’s music worldwide. It’s one thing to say the music still lives, but it’s quite another to concretely show people using the music as the basis of social and political action. That’s what Marley does, brilliantly. Segments from Jamaica, Brazil, Japan, Tibet, India, Kenya and, most tellingly, Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring, show the power of Marley to get people moving. The range of social situations is amazing, from the violence and poverty of Brazil to the sterile, uneasy prosperity of Japan. In the Tunisia segment, protesters daub song titles on walls and demand their civil rights and free speech with the colors of Jamaica prominent in demonstrations.

What prophet could ask for more?

Giants in Their Days, and Ours

A few weeks ago, I learned of the passing of James Miller of Mission, Texas, the father of my best friend growing up and an anchor of Mission’s civic life since the early 1950s. He was 93 years old. This news came the day after I finished reading the book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, about the extraordinary life of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who survived a Pacific Ocean plane crash and horrific treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war, and then a post-war descent into alcoholism. He not only survived but underwent a moral regeneration and continues to enjoy life daily – to keep up with him, just visit his website.

The book and the passing will forever link James Miller and Louis Zamperini in my mind. They grew up in the 1920s and 30s, served their nation ably, took what life dished out and bounced back up. I know other men like them, in their late 80s and early 90s now, who returned from the Pacific and Europe to build families and businesses, contribute to their communities, enjoy their grandchildren and appreciate every day of life.

They’re modest about what they do. One man I know, Eric Leiseroff, had the last bar mitzvah in Dresden, Germany in 1938, just before Kristalnacht. He and his mother left Germany on what might have been the last train out to Portugal in mid-June 1941, arriving in New York after the Germans invaded the USSR. Three years later, Leiseroff returned to Germany in the US Army, where his native German speaking skills made him a valuable intelligence GI. After V-E Day, he joined a team hunting down and interrogating members of the SS. After declining an offer to remain in Germany under cover as a spy, he returned to the US, found a job as a paper salesman that he held for 57 years and married. He and his wife just celebrated their 62nd anniversary. 

“I had a boring life,” he says. And yet for members of my generation, an incredible one. 

I last saw Mr. Miller and his wife Mrs. Miller (Esther by first name, but they were ALWAYS Mr. and Mrs. Miller to me) when I returned to Mission for my 35th high school reunion on June 2011. A trip to the Millers’ home always highlighted my journey to the past. I usually took a spin through Mr. Miller’s office, where pride of place went to a portrait of him as a Coast Guard officer in World War II. We’d drink tea, nibble on cookies, catch up on the news of the sprawling Miller family, of five children and enough grandchildren and great-grandchildren to populate a small village. My adventures in the Northeast always interested and amused the Millers. During one visit, I said, “I hope you don’t mind that I put a ‘Hillary for President 2008’ bumper sticker on your car,” I joked, and they responded with mock indignation. We’d take photos, say good-bye and I’d leave, always admiring the Texas sunlight filtering through the sturdy mesquite trees in the front yard. 

For all their modesty, these are tough old guys, survivors of times and challenges I can barely imagine. No human should endure what Louis Zamperini did, years of abuse followed by years of self-destruction with liquor. How he survived and how he ultimately—and abruptly—conquered his demons was so mesmerizing that Unbroken renewed my often-flagging faith in the power of reading books. The older I get, the more I skate through books, struggling to emotionally connect with either novels or non-fiction. Especially in novels, I often can barely care about the characters. The characters don’t matter, the books’ style and trendiness count for more than coherence or basic readability (perhaps I should take more care in my reading selections). But Hillenbrand writes with total clarity. Every sentence makes sense; every sentence relentlessly propels the story ahead with Dickensian cliffhangers that dared me to not immediately read the next chapter. 

Now I’ll try to put the reading lessons to work on a real writing project. I’m signed up November’s National Novel Writing Month event. I’m already way behind – easy rationalizations include weather, no power, other work commitments, need some more excuses? – but I’ve got ideas in my head and I just need to push them through my fingers. If Laura Hillenbrand, who suffers from a severe case of chronic fatigue syndrome, can writer an incredible book about Louis Zamperini, who beat everything that King Neptune and the Japanese Empire could throw at him and keeps chugging along in his mid-90s, then I can surely rouse myself to pound out some pages. These old guys knew how to keep going, maybe I can draw some inspiration from their examples.

A Launch Party for “Narco Estado”

Tuen Voeten goes where angels fear to tred. Few willingly plunge into African war zones or the Mexican drug chaos except souls equipped with a camera and very steady nerves. Voeten, a Dutch photojournalist, follows the action and returns with portfolios that give witness to the terror and humanity found far from his European home.

I met Voeten at a launch event for his latest book, Narco Estado, held at Ye Olde Carlton Arms Hotel in New York. Published by Lannoo Publishers in Belgium, the book contains Voeten’s photos taken during 2009-2011, when drug killings rocketed in Ciudad Juarez, the site of many of the photos, along with the cities of Culiacan and Monterrey. I read daily about the situation in Mexico at Borderland Beat and Frontera List (where I learned of the launch event), and Voeten gives visual shape to the horrific stories. Bodies lie sprawled in cars, on streets, in fields, in buildings, neighbors silently watch the police on the scene, a man with a vision cares for the insane in a desert compound, prostitutes wait for customers on dark and empty streets. With a journalist’s care for documentation, Voeten provides details on the time, location and context of each photo. His website describes the book this way:

From 2009 till 2011, Voeten focused on the drug related violence that is destabilizing Mexico. He visited the epicenter of the violence, Ciudad Juarez, as well as other hot spots such as Culiacan and Michoacan. With introductory essays by El Paso based anthropologist Howard Campbell as well as Culiacan based writer Javier Valdez Cardenas, this hard hitting photobook tries to explains why the drug violence in Mexico can no longer be ignored as a fringe criminal problem, since it is eroding the very fundaments of our human civilization.

Narco Estado is the latest result of a career spent on the edges of civilization. Other projects include. What’s next, I asked him? For now, he’s finishing up his dissertation on Mexican drug violence at a university in Belgium.

The location for the launch party also added to the atmosphere. Over the decades I’ve visited many New York hotels, from the massive Marriott Marquis and Waldorf=Astoria to smaller, sleeker hotels like the W. But I’ve never set foot in a raffish place like the Carlton Arms. Indeed, I never knew it existed until I attended the Voeten event.

Located at non-trendy 160 E. 25th Street, the Carlton is easy to miss from street level; you ring an bell and ascend a flight of stairs to reach it. And then  . . . the place feels like the setting for a Graham Greene novel, or a throwback to New York in the 1930s. Art decorates the lobby and rooms, overstuffed chairs encourage lounging, the rumpled and effective staff completes the atmosphere. The place has art openings and other events and I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for whatever comes up next. It felt like my kind of place in the city of polished megaliths, the scampering marsupial among the mastodons of lodging.