REAR WINDOW

My wife Jan and I were lying in bed the other night when she drew my attention towards the small, half-round window which lies near the peak of the roof in the main upstairs bedroom. On the south side of the house, this perfect semi-circle peers out upon a well-defined patch of treetop and sky, an occasional plane, creasing the fabric of the heavens on its way to who-knows-where, and not much else. What I saw, when I looked there, were pitch-black tree branches, still clinging to the last-gasp modicum of leaves which thusfar had outlasted the cold, blustery fall, and a late November nor’easter. The tree branches appeared in bas-relief against the moderately softer charcoal gray night sky.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJan, who has always slept on her right side, had been relegated to doing so on her left for nearly the past year, owing to a broken right humerus bone suffered in a fall last winter. As she has been wont to say throughout all these long, painful and debilitating months of mending, therapy and recovery (bless her), even such clouds can boast silver linings. One of these shining swatches of interior cloud-cloth, has been the fact that, while lying on her left side on the bed in the upstairs bedroom featuring the small half-round, south-facing window, she has had the opportunity, for those moments seeking sleep (which sometimes lengthen into minutes; often many of them), to view life inching ever forward en route to eternity.

“I’ve watched the seasons unfold from here,” she said profoundly. “And each one is more beautiful than the last.”

“That’s a pretty amazing window,” I replied.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean, to be able to do all that for you, and for you to appreciate it the way you did… That’s a job well done for a lowly pane of glass. Don’t you think?”

“Yes,” she said, after a moment of reflection. “It really is.”

11177805_800This episode reminded me of the 1954 Hitchcock film classic Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Stewart plays professional photographer “Jeff” Jefferies, who is confined to a wheelchair in his Greenwich Village, NY apartment, owing to a broken leg sustained while photographing a racing accident. Jefferies passes his mending time peering out the rear window of his room into several apartments across from his and onto the courtyard below, observing the flotsam and jetsam of human life drifting past. Stewart’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder, allegedly committed by a consummately creepy, pre-Perry Mason and pre-Ironsides, Raymond Burr. So it is as this point, of course, where the similarity between Hitchcock’s Rear Window and our rear window ends.

But that brief conversation got me thinking about this thing called “Life” and the intricacies, ironies and subtleties therein, which conjoin and conspire to craft the all-too-brief measure between birth and death, and which can, at the very least, help to establish the defining line between a life well lived and one that may be otherwise. There are two things in particular that I would like to address in this post: the first concerns the seemingly irrelevant and innocuous choices we make, often without giving them a second thought, which can irrevocably change the course of one’s life; and the second has to do with the multitude of small, simple pleasures which can occur almost daily and which have the power, if acknowledged, to enrich one’s life immeasurably.

A case in point regarding the former… I met my wife, Jan at a party which I attended during a long Thanksgiving weekend nearly forty years ago. I was recently separated from my first wife, and living in a small apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ with no car and very little desire, on this particular Saturday evening, to do anything other than curl up with a bad book or watch an equally mediocre movie on TV. There was a knock at my door. It was my neighbor across the hall: the male half of a young couple I barely knew, asking if I might be interested in attending a party with them that night. I declined, but he insisted; he was aware of my 50-UNITED-NATIONS-PLAZA-SAKS-FIFTH-AVENUE-FULL_2carless, mateless plight, and probably wanted to cheer me up. Against my better judgment, I eventually, reluctantly, agreed. My wife-to-be, on the other hand, was, at virtually that very moment, being prodded and cajoled by a friend of hers into attending this same party, very much against her will. Jan had toiled that same day, amid the collateral damage perpetrated by Black Friday, selling cosmetics at Saks Fifth Avenue, in New York City. After eight hours of dealing and dueling with privileged humanity at its most vile, she wanted nothing more than an evening of soothing solitude.

Nevertheless, we both arrived at that particular affair—one which I had no earthly right being anywhere near, and one which she had virtually zero interest in attending. And “the rest,” as the metaphorical “they” utter far too frequently, if you ask me, “is history.” Had I been steadfast in my refusal, or had she, both our lives would have traversed vastly different trajectories, arriving, as does that occasional airplane creasing the patch of sky articulated by our half-round, rear window: who-knows-where. Is it not astonishing, at the very least, to contemplate where one’s life might have matriculated, had one chosen that alternate path on life’s journey, instead of that which was travelled? It is a constant source of amazement to me, each and every time I contemplate the many crossroads arrived at in my life thus far, as to where I might be today, had I turned left, not right at a particular juncture, or vice versa. As the days tick down toward yet another New Year, take a few moments to consider the choices you’ve made and your ultimate destinations arrived at. Then try to imagine a path not taken and where it might have led.

“Simple pleasures.” That phrase has become a virtual oxymoron over the years, like “jumbo shrimp” and “common courtesy.” In our technology-ridden, social-media-dominated world, the concept of simple pleasures has all but disappeared, not only from the lexicon but also from modern society itself. Perhaps seeking joy in simple pleasures has diminished steadily over the years for the plain fact that life itself continues to become ever more complicated2657036188_1c796f0ece and involved. Back when life itself was far less mentally and emotionally congested than it is today it was easy to find joy in the elegant minutia of daily life. Before coffee became an international fetish, for example, that first cup of percolated Maxwell House was, indeed, good to the last drop. I still look forward to beginning each day with my home-brewed java and the daily newspaper. Who the hell does that anymore!?

Somehow I can’t get the same simple pleasure by perusing the internet while sipping a seven-dollar mega-moca-choco-latte-ya-ya from one of the Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks that dominate every neighborhood. Why? Because I think that such an exercise is complicated as opposed to simple and is, for several reasons, virtually bereft of pleasure (including having to go to Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, and having to pay seven-dollars for a mega-moca-choco-latte-ya-ya, which, by the time it takes me to say that, has been rendered lukewarm, at best, and will be room temperature, or worse, by the time I get it home).

In my youth I began fashioning a list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures, as my not-yet-fully-formed mind’s eye viewed them. For some reason, as I recall, I had only three items on the list, but they were, in descending order of pleasure-inducing: 1. (Here I refused to actually name the item, saying only that it was so obvious that mentioning it seemed redundant; I’m pretty sure though that my randy teenaged mind’s eye was visualizing s-e-x.); 2. Running with a football. (I was still playing football at the time and the act of lugging a pigskin through-and-around other testosterone-fortified teenagers who were attempting to separate me from the ball, if not my head, was truly a great joy to me.); and, 3. Writing a perfect sentence. (Later in life, when I was no longer playing football, but was writing and editing professionally, this became Pleasure #2 on my list. Though the unmitigated joy of running with a football remains on the list to this day; it was that intoxicating). What is a perfect sentence? It is simply one that could not have been improved upon by any other person, living or dead. Not Shakespeare. Not Hemmingway. Not even Steven King or J.K. Rowling. Muhammad Ali is actually the author of what may very well be the greatest sentence (actually, poem) ever written, especially considering his epic life and unparalleled level of fame, worldwide. The sentence/poem, it its entirety, is: “Me; we.” Think about it…

I’ve added to my list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures over the years. The list now includes items like: Hearing your child laugh for the first time; Lying next to someone you love (there’s that s-e-x thing again); Elmer T. Lee bourbon on ice, occasionally accompanied by a Cohiba cigar; Pizza (almost any kind); James Taylor, live at Bethel Woods; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Grilled lobster; A New York Strip Steak, medium-rare; Driving a fast car, fast; Porsche 911s; A great book, movie or play; Reconnecting with many of my Beta Theta Pi Fraternity brothers after way too many years; Football; Baseball; Basketball; An old, wooden lacrosse stick with catgut webbing; A very cold Blue Moon with an orange wedge; A very hot Folger’s Black Silk with cream, sipped slowly while reading The Bergen Record; Saturday mornings 9001.inddat the kitchen table with my wife, Jan; Christmas; Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol; Saturday nights with my wife, Jan; My dog Sam curling up in my lap; My daughter Carolyn’s smile; The ocean; Woodstock, NY; A sweet, crisp seedless white grape; Watermelon on a perfect summer day; Fireflies on a perfect summer night; Watching Derek Jeter play baseball; Having watched Jim Brown play football; Lu Zabriskie’s eggs over-easy, crisp bacon and rye toast, still warm and firm, though expertly spread with unsalted butter; Mom’s homemade manicotti; Cargo shorts; Grandma’s meatballs; The gym, most days, anyway; The smell of fresh-cut grass; Retirement.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. One of the things that advancing age has taught me is that one must take the time, especially as one gets older, to do as many of the things that gives one pleasure, as often as one can possibly do them. If you really think about it, and make a list, I can practically guarantee that the vast majority of things on your own, personal list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures, will be of the simple variety; easily and cheaply done. I can’t eat Grandma’s meatballs any more, or watch Derek Jeter or Jim Brown play their respective sports, or eat Lu Zabriskie’s eggs over-easy, crisp bacon and perfectly-buttered rye toast. But many of the other simple pleasures on my not-so-simple list are still, thankfully, up for grabs. I, for one, plan on grabbing them as often as I can.

Don’t take my word for it. Instead, listen to the Founding Fathers of these United States who, in their infinite wisdom, guaranteed each and every one of us the right to “the pursuit of united-states-declaration-of-independencehappiness” in none other than the Declaration of Independence itself. They didn’t guarantee us happiness itself, you understand, but the right to seek it is guaranteed, by law. In other words, we are obliged to seek happiness whenever and wherever we can find it, as long as our own happiness does not cause some other person unhappiness. So, there it is. Go get it; and in doing so, bring some back for the people you love most. Happiness is a choice; if you fail to choose it, you can blame no one but yourself.

Oftentimes pleasure can come through the simple act of looking out a window, rear or otherwise, and relishing in the miracle and abundance of life which bustles all around us…

“I’ve watched the seasons unfold from here,” she said. “And each one is more beautiful than the last.”

“That’s a pretty amazing window.”

“Yes. It really is.

CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE?

My wife Jan and I treated ourselves to a movie date last week at one of the way-too-many megaplex movie theater complexes in the Megatropolis where we live, collectively known as the Tri-State Area, the Mega Complexity Capitol of the World. Going to a movie theater is something that we rarely do anymore, for several of what we consider to be very good reasons. The first of these concerns an ancient concept known as “value for the dollar.” Since we are both Seniors, we are as adamant as a people can be about value for our dollar; one of the requirements for being accepted into the Senior Fraternity is a willingness to utter the phrase “Do you give a senior discount?” as often as humanly possible during the course of a typical day. My wife is better at this than I am; but I am learning. We managed to score the Senior Discount at the theater, which, for an early afternoon showing on a Friday came to only ten dollars each, instead of the non-Senior rate of $14. Add on another $20 for an unusually small popcorn and a significantly small soda (no Senior discount at the snack stand), though, and it makes $40 movie dates rather a luxury for the likes of us. (Jesus! What do they charge for medium-rare steak and a medium-sized glass of pinot noir at these places?)

megaplexThen there is the issue of people talking during movies; this was one of the main reasons why we stopped going to the movies ten or so years ago. Gratefully, there were only eight people total at this particular showing, so unwanted talking turned out to be a non-issue. Another rather annoying concept in megaplex movie theaters these days is one of which I had been unaware. The film was scheduled to begin at 2:10, and we were in our seats by about 1:55. For the next fifteen minutes we were deluged with commercials for a variety of products and services in which, at my age, I have little or no interest; the kind of commercials one would expect to be subject to if one was watching so-called free TV. One certainly did not expect to have to pay $20 (not counting the high-priced, low-volume snacks) for the privilege of watching TV-type commercials in a megaplex which I could have viewed at home, for free, had I the inclination. But there you are. When 2:10 finally rolled around, it seemed like hours later, the previews of coming attractions portion of the show commenced; fully another 15 or 20 minutes of these ensued before the actual movie began at around 2:30. I know that, as an ornery, cranky Senior, refined folk have learned not to pay me much mind, but is anyone besides me annoyed at this alarming trend? I hope so.

Fortunately, though, the movie was very nearly worth the ordeal. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker John Carney, and starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, this film debuted in 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival under the awkward and unwieldy title Can a Song Save your Life? but was released theatrically this July as Begin Again. Ruffalo plays a down-and-out (and recently out of work) music producer who, while sitting on a subway platform in a drunken stupor contemplating suicide, decides instead to have one more drink before making up his mind. He walks into a nearby bar at the same moment that Knightley’s character, a young British songwriter-to-be, who was recently dumped by her obnoxious American rockstar boyfriend (adeptly played by American rocker Adam Levine), has very reluctantly stepped upon a small stage to perform an original composition. Though there are several instruments behind her, the band has taken a break, so she eases timidly into her song, while accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar. Her voice, though pleasant, is unremarkable and reed-thin, and she loses the crowd almost before the song has begun. Except for Ruffalo who, hearing her tiny voice amid the bar clatter, looks up to see this pretty but sad, intimidated girl singing what-is-left-of-her-heart out.

begin_again_xxlgAs he watches and listens, more and more intently, something strange, unexpected and wonderful starts to happen. The other instruments on the bandstand begin coming to life, one by one. First the hi-hat from the drum kit starts setting the beat; it is followed quickly by the piano; then the drumsticks come alive; soon the soulful cello emerges; and shortly thereafter, a sweet violin. Finally the entire bandfull of instruments is playing, sans musicians, behind her. Of course the only people who are of aware of this phantom orchestra are the Ruffalo character, and the eight of us in the theater that afternoon for the 2:10 showing. His music-producer instincts have kicked in, thereby giving a nearly perfect, though spontaneous, arrangement to Keira’s sad song of lost love, regret, and the virtually unbearable drudgery of moving on with one’s life, alone. The song, “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” is a revelation, as Mark’s character envisions it—to him, to us, and, before very long, to Knightley’s character as well. Up to this point, a good fifteen or so minutes into the film, I wasn’t at all sure I liked Begin Again. But the unadulterated magic and emotional crescendo generated by this remarkable scene grabbed me by the heart and refused to let go.

This is the kind of scene that remains somewhere in a corner of one’s mind long after much of the rest of the film has vacated. The reason for this is, I think, because it reveals something vitally important about the characters involved, thereby pulling us far deeper into their lives than the mere process of filmmaking alone can accomplish. The scene, and the film itself, is at its core about two disparate people who meet by chance for one exquisite moment in time. And that moment is the very one during which each person gets from the other exactly what he/she desperately needs to make them whole again, if only until the next life crisis descends. This is the stuff of art: that quality of a film, or painting, or book, or piece of music which transcends craft, vaulting the work onto a higher plane.

Ruffalo-KnightleyAnd it certainly helps, in film, if you have actors like Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo at your disposal. While I think that they are both very good actors, I would stop short of calling them great, at least for now. But they each possess qualities of likeability and sincerity, which elevate the occupation of acting and which, I believe, are quite rare in the profession as a whole. Of course I know neither Keira Knightley nor Mark Ruffalo, but I have come to know them a little bit, I think, through their work. They both seem to be genuinely good people, whose talents enable them to take on a variety of roles and make each one their own. Mark has a quiet passion (not so quiet in this role, though) which shines through always. This is also true of Knightly. And I get the distinct impression with Keira, that she does not consider herself particularly beautiful (though she may be loath to say as much to the numerous filmmakers and beauty product manufacturers who line up tirelessly in an effort to acquire her professional services). I somehow think that she may identify more with the characters she portrayed in films like Bend it Like Beckham and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, than she does with the many beauties she has portrayed in all those romantic costume dramas.

once-movie-poster-1It also helps if you have a writer/director like John Carney at the helm. While I don’t know a lot about Carney, I know for sure that one of his other films had a very similar effect on me. A few years ago, my wife Jan told me about a TV interview she had seen with Russell Crowe, in which the actor was asked what his favorite movie was. Rather than mentioning one of his own, which was probably the interviewer’s intent, he quickly answered, “Once.” Now, neither Jan nor I had ever heard of this film, so, of course we Googled it. Turned out that Once was an obscure, very low-budget, little film, written and directed by John Carney, which chronicled the professional and personal relationship between musicians Glen Hansard and his sometime collaborator, Marketa Irglova, who both play versions of themselves in the movie. Here, again, a song (rather a collection of them) almost literally saves the lives of the two protagonists. (Though Once remains a largely unseen film, as a play it is enjoying a hugely successful run on Broadway, having won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2012.) In Once, as in Begin Again, the two main characters share a kind of love which, though ultimately unfulfilled, makes each of them a better person for their connection than either could possibly have been had their paths never crossed. Is this not the unmitigated essence of love, at the quantum level? I think it is.

once-musicalSo can a song, in fact, save your life? Well, it literally did for Mark Ruffalo’s character in Begin Again, and did, as well, for Knightley’s character, if in a more metaphorical way. Such is also the case with the two main characters in that other Carney film and play, Once. Hansard plays a thirtyish busker (street musician) in Dublin, whose life is going nowhere. Irglova is a young Czech flower girl, who is attracted to his music and strikes up a conversation with him, saying that she, too, is a musician. They go to a music store where she sometimes plays piano and he performs one of his songs, “Falling Slowly,” for her. She is so enamored with the song (which, incidentally, won Best Original Song at the 2007 Academy Awards) and encourages him to seriously pursue his music. They begin writing songs together and eventually form a band with other buskers to record their music; Hansard’s character has reestablished his resolve to make his mark in the music industry. The two eventually part ways—he to go back to a former girlfriend in London, where his music career awaits; and she, with her young daughter, to reunite with her estranged husband, who has agreed to move to Dublin. Lives preserved, if not literally saved.

don-mclean-american-pie%20sep17In his rock epic “American Pie,” about the deaths of rock-and-roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in a plane crash, Don McLean writes, “Now do you believe in rock and roll; Can music save your mortal soul?” While I’m not sure about music’s effect on mortal souls, I do know of at least one song that apparently has literally saved numerous lives. The Bee Gees’ classic disco anthem called, appropriately, “Stayin’ Alive,” is used in many CPR courses to teach the proper cadence for administering chest compressions to unconscious persons. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive…”

GLOBAL WARNING: THE CLIMATE CHANGE CALAMITY

We used to have a stately, elderly oak tree growing in the center of our backyard. The base of this tree was nearly six-feet in diameter, and the grand girl stood at least 75-feet high. Our backyard is every bit of 300-feet deep, and the person, two owners before us, who lived in the expanded Cape Cod dwelling we now call home, had the property cleared of just enough trees to create an open park-like area which still provided ample shade for the hot summer months. This one particular tree was left standing, I think, because it was the most majestic of all and provided shade and shelter to the patio oasis which it so nobly guarded. It was the kind of tree that one could easily imagine might have been the inspiration for Joyce Kilmer’s iconic poem, Trees, the last two lines of which are: “Poems are made by fools like me; But only God can make a tree.” While I don’t think that Trees is a particularly good poem (and certainly not among Kilmer’s best) it is still a fitting tribute to one of nature’s most magnificent, diverse and abundant creations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout four years ago, owing to an especially violent thunder storm, a massive branch from this majestic tree, with all the length and heft of a medium-sized tree itself, came crashing earthward with a frightful sound not unlike the Hammer of Thor, the Norse deity also known as the Thunderer. While it badly damaged a favorite Adirondack chair and demolished some cherished shrubs and plants, the branch thankfully fell about eight feet short of the deck at the rear of our house. The next day, I called Rob, our reliable and amiable, but quasi-burned-out Hippie tree-guy who came in with his crew and cleared out the Godzilla branch in a couple of hours. Maybe six months later, on an unusually windy mid-October evening, a second monster branch from that very same tree, fully as ponderous and intimidating as the first, gave way to gravity, crushing the roof of our utility shed but otherwise landing mostly in our neighbor’s yard. Fortunately no one was injured, but “The Branch from Hell, II” did take out a couple of plastic garbage cans and badly crippled a virtually indestructible old Sears Craftsman lawnmower.

I called Rob again, and he showed up later that day in a faded Grateful Dead t-shirt, un-fashionably distressed jeans, and cowboy boots, with a red bandanna knotted purposefully around his thick, wavy-gravy head of salt-and-pepper hair. I noticed Rob’s arrival and soon joined him in the backyard to survey the damage. “What the hell is going on here, Rob?” I asked, exasperated. “Is it me, or are we having an unusual number of very windy days this year?”

gaia_earth_alc“Not you, man,” he said gravely, while perusing the best angle from which to attack this latest tree-beast. “She’s really pissed…”

“Who’s pissed?” I inquired.

Gaia, man… Mother Earth” She’s really bummed out about the way we’ve been treating Her. And She’s letting us know about it. Don’t ya remember that commercial back in the day: ‘It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature’? It’s comin’ true, man, and we’re payin’ the price. Big time.”

Rob went on to say that, owing to an apparent increase in the number of severe storms and extremely windy days we have been experiencing here in the Northeast recently, his business is booming. I had been saying to my wife Jan, and anyone else who would listen to me (a number which I can easily calculate on one hand, with fingers left over), that we never used to have so many brutally windy days, years ago. The amount and relative severity of storms, both summer hurricanes and winter nor’easters, had probably increased over that same period, as well, but not so much that I took any definitive notice. Because the tree’s structural integrity had now been seriously compromised by losing two of its main limbs, Rob took the old girl down and carted her away, massive log by log.

bread-riot-egyptThe year that this occurred, 2010 (the year that caused me to question what I perceived as having an unusually high incidence of very windy days), was coincidently (or not) one of the worst years on record for natural disasters, worldwide. The globe was ravaged that year by severe droughts in some areas and equally devastating floods in others. One of the worst droughts in U.S. history descended upon Kansas, wheat supplier to the world, gravely affecting the harvest that year. The political climate in Egypt in 2010 was especially volatile, and some historians, looking back at that tumultuous period in the hub of the Middle East, point to the scarcity of flour for bread, as a possible cause. Huh? It’s true. People took to rioting in the streets because there was no bread and the Government, such as it was, fought back. Interestingly, the Arabic word for “bread,” aish, is also their word for “life.” Their very life was being denied them and they reacted the only way they knew how. Most of Egypt’s wheat flower for bread-making comes from–you guessed it–Kansas.

As I write this today, during the first week of July, 2014. The phenomena that I witnessed four years ago (and, to be sure, much more learned and prescient people than I took notice of long before that) are much more commonplace today and should be viewed with near certainty as evidence of the downward spiral of climactic conditions which has gripped our planet. This is not just my opinion. And, dare I say it, it is not really opinion at all, but the clear consensus of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who have spent the better part of the last decade or two studying what was once the “global warming theory.” Twenty years ago, there was ample room for debate; if the world’s climate was changing, it could possibly be attributed to natural cyclical patterns. Even if this thing called global warming was, in fact, occurring, there was very little quantifiable evidence indicating that it was created, or even exacerbated, as a result of human intervention. Today, however, it would appear that there is almost total agreement among the world’s scientists: climate change is happening; it is being caused, in large measure, by us human beings releasing more and more massive amounts of deadly greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere each year. And this climate calamity is occurring much more rapidly than was originally predicted.

You may ask, if the situation is as dire as I am portraying it, why is there nothing of substance being done about it? I can give you a one-word answer: politics. While, at the latest estimate, 97% of the world’s scientific community agrees that the current climate “climate” is serious business; is occurring much more rapidly than previously thought; and is being greatly fueled by overreliance on fossil fuels… there is still the issue of that other 3%, who say, “Well, maybe not.” Why should the educated opinions of the 3% override, or at least stalemate, the equally educated opinions of the 97%? Again, politics. There should be no political influence at play where pure science is concerned; the information yielded through scientific research is, after all, empirical. There is no political right nor left in science. The “politics” of science is “truth,” and truth is arrived at only after generally exhaustive and impartial research yielding data that is then analyzed stringently, after which conclusions are drawn.

The Christian right, which has become a powerful political force in our country, sees life through the prism of the Bible. Many Christians remain skeptical on the subject of climate change, and, while I believe they attempt to approach this important topic with an open mind, I also believe that they look to the Bible as the ultimate arbiter. While the Bible says virtually nothing on the subject of climate change or global warming (call it what you will), what the Bible does say is: “God will one day erase this current universe (2 Peter 3:7-12) and replace it with the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21-22). ” So, in effect, the Christian position on this matter is: “So what? If God is going to replace this whole universe (including, of course, the Earth) with one that is so amazing and so wonderful that the current one pales by comparison, why should we give a corpulent rodent’s posterior who’s right about climate change?”

While I greatly respect their right to believe what they choose, I cannot justify taking science out of the equation. What I believe is this: I am also a Christian. (Okay, a lapsed-Catholic. But aren’t we Christians, too?) And I believe that God wants us to take care of this planet; whatever that involves. What I don’t believe is this: I don’t believe that God will necessarily save the world; the world is, after all, populated with probably as many unsavory characters as the savory variety. So why should He save the world? Plus, as virtually all Christians admit, “God works in mysterious ways,” meaning, the Big Guy has his own plan for the universe, and it is not for us to necessarily understand nor agree with his plan; only to fall in line. So, I don’t believe that God will necessarily save the planet; and I certainly don’t trust that our political leaders are capable of agreeing on anything, not even saving the planet. What I am therefore left with is believing in scientists to do what is required to ensure our planet’s livability, for our grandchildren, their children’s children, and beyond. If only anyone in power will display enough courage to let them do it.

God, Gaia and Science together should be able to ensure a future for the human race, right here on our home planet. All the rest of us really have to do is get out of the way.

YEARS(Some of the research for this post was gleaned from the Showtime documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” which should be required viewing for anyone interested in learning more about this topic. –AJP)

 

 

 

 

ON DEATH AND OTHER FUNNY STUFF

ImageOne of the heroes of my youth, after Jim Brown and Bob Hayes, was Woody Allen. Woody couldn’t carry a football worth a damn, and I’m pretty sure he would finish near the bottom, if he finished at all, in the 100-yard dash event at the Stand-Up Comedians’ Olympics. (Bill Cosby, his current crises notwithstanding, would win the gold, pulling away.) But boy, could Woody make me laugh. (I am very much like my Dad was, in that it takes a lot to induce me into obnoxious, tear-streaming, snot-squirting, out-of-control-ugly guffawing. Woody was one of a very few people who could do that to me; for Dad, it was Sid Caesar.) Now understand that I’m talking about the Woody of “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas,” and “Sleeper,” not necessarily the Woody of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and “Zelig.” Though I liked many of his later films, they always seemed to be less about his brilliant, off-beat, zany comedic genius and more about his brilliant, off-beat, zany neuroses. It began to bother me after a while, when I paid good money (what, exactly, would constitute bad money?) to sit in a movie theater for the privilege of observing Woody’s emotional deficiencies playing out on screen; especially when they weren’t making me laugh that much anymore. And, truth be told, his well-known, if alleged, affinity for very young girls, bothered me a bit, too. But the dude was funny.

“I am not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Among Woody Allen’s many emotional issues which were graphically portrayed in his films over the years, was his apparent preoccupation with—and fear of—death. I’ve never been particularly frightened by the thought of my own death (though I am terrified by the thought of the death of people whom I love), but I do think about it occasionally, and when I think about it, it is not really in a morose or morbid way. Instead, I simply wonder, sometimes at length, and in great detail, just what this thing called death might be. (That would be a great song title: “This Thing Called Death.” I could hear The Doors doing that one; or in a totally different vein, crooned by the likes of Frank Sinatra or Michael Buble. Bonnie Raitt would sing the hell out of that one… Which would be a good thing.) My inquisitive, scientific, logical side says that death is what death is: the absence of life. But then there is my long-lapsed-Catholic side, which necessarily sees it another way. While I don’t consider myself an overly religious person, I am a relatively spiritual one and, admittedly, the teachings of Mother Church die hard in many people of the Woodstock generation, if they die at all. Instead, like the essence of matter itself, our spiritual beliefs, can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed in form. While there is still much I believe, or at least accept, about my religious upbringing, some other concepts are more difficult to cling to.

“Death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down.”

ImageOne of the great songs about death (if there can be such a thing) is “And When I Die,” by, quite appropriately, the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. This is a truly epic composition—conceptually, musically and lyrically (in fact, as I think about it now, it should probably be on my “50 Best Songs of My Generation” list). Among many terrific lines in the song is this one: “I can swear there ain’t no Heaven; But I pray there ain’t no hell.” Lots of thought-provoking things in those lines, including swearing against Heaven (capitalized) and praying against hell (lower case). Interestingly, the composer of this song, Laura Nyro, was “goth” before “goth” became cool. She frequently dressed in black and wore purple lipstick, and darkness/death were familiar threads throughout much of her music. She was, however, a great artist, whom I think was underappreciated in her time. Nyro was reportedly devastated by the death of her mother, Gilda, to ovarian cancer in 1975, at the age of 49, and, ironically, Laura succumbed to ovarian cancer herself in 1996. Also at the age of 49. She was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

“The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.”

I find the concepts of Heaven and hell equally fascinating, but for very different reasons. For one thing, if you can just get past the fire, the snarling demons poking you with pitchforks, and the pain-and-suffering-for-all-eternity thing, hell might be an otherwise friendly place: filled with lots of interesting, unusual, and party-hearty people. Plus, most of your friends, and at least some of your family will undoubtedly be there. Where Heaven is concerned, I just don’t see how they could possibly have enough clean towels… But I kid. I find it curious that many of the atheists and agnostics I have had personal contact with over the years, while they swear there ain’t no God, Heaven, nor hell, swear with equal fervor, in favor of every other cockamamie concept that comes down the pike! Ghosts, aliens, witches, vampires, zombies, fortune-tellers, mediums; you name it, they’re on board with it.

“There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”

ImageI personally don’t accept the notion that anybody has the ability speak with the dead; if you believe that there are, in fact, individuals who possess the power to converse with the deceased, that’s your prerogative. I will not use this forum to ridicule your belief system. The only people I do have a problem with on this matter, and whom I will gladly ridicule in this forum, are those confirmed atheists who positively swear by people who claim to communicate with the incommunicado beyond the grave. Why? Let me put it this way: If there’s no Heaven and no hell, where exactly are all these chatty dead folk? Schenectady!? And, in case you hadn’t noticed, these people who believe that aliens are real, but God is fiction, generally embrace both Christmas and Easter. I guess that means they worship Santa Claus, a large, decorated-egg-laying bunny, and ET. If the dead could communicate with the living, why would they need a third-party signal-carrier to do it? Do they really require these conveniently, pre-wired people, with internal cell-phone antennae, which enable them to pull in signals from all those die-Phones operating in the Verizon Dead Zone? As with ET, do these mediums enable the dearly departed to phone home? Makes more sense than God, I guess. (Not for nothin’, but the Long Island Medium is clearly a Large.)

“It’s impossible to experience one’s death objectively and still carry a tune.”

What happens when we die? I wish I knew, as I’m sure everyone else riding this big blue marble-of-a-planet does. Religion gives us the confidence to imagine a dignified, comfortable, beatific, and fulfilling life-after-death. While I am not intimately familiar with the beliefs of every religion, I think that most religions, outside of Judaism and perhaps a few others, point to an afterlife as the ultimate reward for a life properly lived, according to each particular Faith’s specific operating system. If, for example, you are a devout male Muslim who believes in the infallibility of the Qur’an, and your death comes via martyrdom for your religious convictions, your ultimate heavenly reward will be 72 virgins. Why 72? I’m not exactly sure, but I think a significant rebate kicks in at around six-dozen. (Why virgins? Don’t go there.) If you are a female Muslim who gives up your life as a martyr to the cause, however, you are apparently not guaranteed 72 of anything, virgin or otherwise; though perhaps something even better. As I interpret the Qur’an, your ultimate reward is a dearth of men for all eternity; or just one, who will eagerly share his most intimate feelings with you, and who actually likes to vacuum. It’s your choice.

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”

SonnyMy cousin Frank (we always called him “Sonny”) died this past week; he had been quite a bit older than the rest of us cousins—so much so, that we almost thought of him as an uncle, rather than a peer. The thing I remember most vividly about Sonny was that he had a raucous laugh that could fill a room like no one else I have ever known. And that laugh probably could, as I recall its rich and throaty timbre, even wake the dead. Not in a gruesome way, but because what Sonny had said, or had heard, was so damned funny, that every person within earshot—dead or alive—wanted to share in the joke. He had that effect on people; you loved being in his company because he possessed this unusually abundant gift of laughter, which he willingly—even eagerly—shared with anyone and everyone who had the good fortune to come his way. My jovial cousin Sonny had inherited this gift of laughter from his father, my lovable Uncle Frank (who died way too soon, of a heart attack, while walking back from the grocery store one day); and both men earned their livings as movie theater projectionists.

I can almost see Sonny now (as I hope I always will), half-hanging out of the projection booth window at the opulent, old Oritani Theater on Main Street in Hackensack. His white t-shirt is a beacon in the dimly lit auditorium, and he is laughing heartily (though as quietly as he could manage), at something funny that is flickering into life on the giant screen far below. He’d viewed that same scene probably a dozen times or more, but he needed to see it once again, leaning as close as he dared toward the screen, to enjoy a laugh one more time along with the rest of his audience. Death isn’t funny; especially when it hits close to home. I get that. But, the thing is, I’ve always figured that if you could learn to laugh at anything (real laughter, not just the “whistling in the dark” variety), that person, place or thing you were laughing at couldn’t possibly frighten you ever again. They say laughter is the best medicine, and the longer I live, the more firmly am I convinced of the irrefutable truth of that statement. And if, during the process of learning how to laugh at our fears, we can also manage to laugh at ourselves from time to time, the healing that laughter brings will be much more complete.

I guess Woody Allen taught me that.

“THE HORROR! THE HORROR!”

It being Friday the 13th as I begin writing this, I have a small confession to make: I love horror movies; always have, always will. Now, I’m not talking about the so-called slice-and-dice genre which became de rigueur horror during the last couple decades of the 20th century. If you ask me, there is nothing particularly enjoyable, or enlightening, or entertaining (or frightening, even, truth be told) about watching actors become detached from various and sundry blood-spewing appendages by some fiend wearing a hockey mask or a leather hood, or a clown costume. (One used to call male thespians “actors” and female thespianettes “actresses,” but I guess that’s no longer politically correct. So when I type actor in this post, you readers are charged with the responsibility of deciding amongst yourselves if I’m referring to a male actor or a female actor. How does one make that determination? Damned if I know. I wonder if this also applies to non-human thespians. Was Lassie, for example, an actor? Or Flipper? Or Black Beauty? Gets a tad confusing, doesn’t it?)

Anyway… The kind of horror movies that I loved, and love to this day, are the ones upon which I was weaned, as a mere tyke lurching uncertainly toward puberty, and dutifully checking in the closet and under the bed each night as I concluded my evening prayers: “God bless Mommy and Daddy and Grandma—both of them. And everybody else. You know who I mean… I don’t have to name them all, do I? And—please God—keep Dracula away from my window. Especially during the summer, when it’s open. I’m not sure if this garlic necklace is going to work, and I’d rather not have to wear it because it smells bad. And people are starting to notice. Ame—oh—and the Wolfman, too! Jesus! Definitely no Wolfman! Ever! I have garlic, but where am I gonna get silver bullets..? Amen.” Those prayers must have worked, because I’m reasonably sure Bela Lugosi never bit my neck, and I’m quite certain that Lon Chaney, Jr. didn’t eat me. Except in my nightmares; had more than a few of those back then. But somehow the tradeoff was worth it, because those old high-contrast, black-and-white horror films were so cool, and so much fun, and so friggin’ scary, that I rarely ever missed one.

There was a local television series in the New York/Metropolitan area back then on WOR-TV called Million Dollar Move. MDM was like the initial incarnation of the concept of on-demand, which has become so popular today, though maybe not with TV advertisers. (If you ask me, on-demand is the greatest invention since Liquid Prell.) The deal with MDM was that they would show the same great old film every day for an entire week; there may well have been matinees on Saturday and Sunday, in addition, bringing the grand total of times a particular movie was shown in one week to something like nine. Whenever MDM was airing Dracula, or Frankenstein, or the Wolfman, or the Mummy. Godzilla… King Kong… Mighty Joe Young, or a mangled-and-bloody handful of others, I was there on the floor in front of the Philco as often as I could get away with it. “Move back from the TV,” Mom would demand. “Do you want to go blind!?” I didn’t want to go blind, so I moved back, but when she saw what I was watching, she’d say, “Again!?” while shaking her head and lifting her eyes heavenward.

dracula_ver2Heaven couldn’t offer much assistance, though, if you were in the unholy vicinity of Count Dracula and his legion of undead dudes. Oh, a crucifix might hold him at bay for a few moments, and accurately aimed Holy Water might give him a wicked rash for a bit, but eventually he was going to get you. Bela Lugosi was the one of the least likely Count Dracula’s of all time. Not only did he not have ferocious fangs which glinted grotesquely in the moonlight, it was, in fact, highly questionable as to whether he had any teeth at all. And he didn’t possess any of the super-powers that the current legion of undead actors exhibit. Sure, he could turn into a bat, when the spirit moved him but, let’s face it, that cardboard cutout bat didn’t really scare anybody (with the possible exception of the 1930s-era special effects coordinator, whose job it was to make that cardboard bat look like anything but cardboard, and who had an extremely difficult time fulfilling that responsibility). But if Count Dracula were to say to you, “Look… into my ice!” (in his thick middle-European accent), and you did (well, really, you had to), sooner or later you were undead meat. Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula scared the bejesus out of me as a kid, and his portrayal can creep me out, even today. Why? I don’t know, but he haunted my dreams for decades.

Bela Lugosi wasn’t simply playing Dracula; he was Dracula. There was an innate undeadness and blood-lustiness (“I never drink… wine”) about his interpretation of the Count that clearly shown through, each and every time he donned the cape on screen. And he actually looked two-hundred years old! These days horror is all about CGI, and, while today’s Draculas can do things that the Draculas of old couldn’t even imagine, we all know that it begins and ends in a computer. Sure, it’s impressive. But is it scary? I don’t think so, because we’re acutely aware that it is merely the artful manipulation of mega-doses of ones and zeroes. Additionally, owing to social media and the instant information the internet provides about everything, we can gather virtually every item of minutia that exists about today’s actors. Back in the day, we knew almost nothing about Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and the other horror movie stars of the mid-twentieth century. For all we knew, they actually were the creatures they portrayed on the screen. And that’s what made them so frightening to us as kids.

When I was about ten or twelve, Mom made me a Dracula costume for Halloween. My mother was a seamstress back in the day, and a very good one at that. I remember her telling me that during the 1940s she and a couple of her sisters worked operating sewing machines for an undergarment manufacturer in their hometown of Hackensack, NJ constructing brassieres. Later, when my family moved to Lodi, NJ, she took a job down the street at the Bridge Casket Company, sewing coffin interiors. This is what she fashioned the majority of my Dracula costume from. (So, essentially, I was an undead wearing a dead bed. Pretty cool.) I remember that I had a shiny black satin cape, which was beautifully lined on the inside with intricately textured white satin. I formed reasonably convincing vampire fangs out of white plastic, and I seem to recall that I won the first prize at the St. Joseph’s Elementary School Halloween Party that year. Though the nuns were clearly reluctant to give it to me. Bela Lugosi died way back in 1956. Or did he? I’m not so sure.

ImageLon Chaney, Jr. will always be the Wolfman to me. Though he never developed the pure acting chops of his father, who was one of the great actors of his time, his portrayal of the ill-fated Larry Talbot, in the 1941 classic, The Wolf Man, was dead-on. Chaney Jr. played Talbot/Wolfman with such angst and pathos that one couldn’t help but feel his pain and suffering, even as he was inflicting pain and suffering on others. In the film, Talbot learns of the death of his brother, and goes back to the family home in Wales, where his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (played by creepy Claude Rains, who had inhabited the title role in the 1933 horror classic, The Invisible Man), still resides. Larry meets a local lass named Gwen who has an antique shop, where he purchases a walking stick crowned with a silver wolf’s head. The girl, whom he becomes romantically involved with, tells him that the cane’s silver handle represents a werewolf: a man who morphs into a wolf on certain nights of the year. Of course Larry is soon bitten by a werewolf, which eventually leads him to the caravan of gypsy fortune-teller, Maleva, who confirms his dire fate. In fact, it had been Maleva’s own werewolf son who inflicted Talbot’s life-altering bite.

Maleva is brilliantly played by delightfully spooky character-actor, Maria Ouspenskaya, who soulfully recites the ominous werewolf ode to the canine-cursed Talbot: “Even a man who is pure in heart; And says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms; And the autumn moon is bright.” Wow! Freak me out, why don’t you! Of course, the pure-in-heart Larry Talbot becomes a werewolf himself, as soon as the wolfbane blossoms display themselves to the autumn moon, and the killing begins. Talbot has memories of his hideous transformation and horrible transgressions, which haunt him for the remainder of the film. He cannot contain himself when in wolf-mode and eventually even turns upon poor, lovesick Gwen. But Larry’s father, who witnesses the attack, bludgeons the creature to death with the silver wolf-head cane, unaware that he has killed his own son until, in death, the creature’s features slowly morph back to those of the younger Talbot. Chaney, Jr. endured countless hours in the makeup room for the time-lapse photography scenes of his transformations, which represented state-of-the-art special effects for their time.

ImageBut as good as Lugosi and Chaney, Jr. were at their craft, the undisputed heavyweight champ of the old-time horror classics was Boris Karloff. Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Frakenstein did not create the Frakenstein monster; Boris Karloff did. His portrayal of the powerful, but childlike and lonely creature set a standard that still dominates in the present day. Pictures of Karloff in full monster makeup embodied one of the iconic images of the 20th Century, and remains as powerful as ever well into the 21st. Like great historical figures in other endeavors—Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Albert Einstein come quickly to mind—their images are as fresh and relevant today as when these transcendent individuals had been in their primes.

Loosely based upon the novel by Mary Shelley, which was first published anonymously in London in 1818, and later reissued under Shelley’s byline in 1823, the 1931 film Frankenstein was an instant hit with critics and movie-goers alike. The film spawned several sequels featuring Karloff as the monster, and countless imitators throughout the numerous decades since. Though the film justly belongs to Karloff, it is Colin Clive, as Dr. Frankentsein himself in the original film, who utters one of the most famous lines in moviedom. When the compilation of body parts from corpses that he expertly joined together into human form is initially electrically animated in the lab, Clive, his face contorted in elation tinged with notes of fear and foreboding, shouts grotesquely, “It’s alive!” The scene comprises what is surely one of the most chilling moments in cinema history. Boris Karloff went on to star in The Mummy, and a vast portfolio of other horror films, well into his golden years, cementing him for all eternity as the Dean of the horror film actors’ fraternity.

ImageThere was one other transcendent horror icon from my youth who was perhaps the most influential but least likely of them all. John Zacherle was a local Philadelphia area media personality on WCAU-TV in the mid-1950s. His second gig on the channel was as host of an afternoon show called Shock Theater. He portrayed a ghoulish character named Roland, who lived in a crypt with his wife “My Dear” and a lab assistant named—what else—Igor. Zacherle, as Roland, introduced the horror film of the day, and would frequently break into the film with some brief insanely comic skit, while the movie soundtrack continued to play in the background. Zacherle was very close friends with another Philadelphia area radio and TV personality, who would go on, over his amazing career, to change the face of television forever. Dick Clark would occasionally have Zacherle join him on road tours of his up-and-coming American Bandstand program, and he gave Zach the moniker “The Cool Ghoul.”

When CBS purchased WCAU in 1958, they brought Zacherle to New York, where he and Shock Theater, renamed Zacherley At Large (CBS added the “y” to the end of his name in the credits, and it stuck) became a fixture for many years to come. Zach and his shtick bounced around among several local NY TV stations, including WOR and WPIX, eventually leading to the show Chiller Theater, which he hosted into the mid-1960s. Zacherley continued cropping up on the NY airwaves, in one guise or another, for many years. In 2010, the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia inducted him into their Hall of Fame. I distinctly remember one episode of Chiller Theater, which featured the 1958 sci-fi classic, The Blob. Most of that film has faded completely from memory, but for two things. The first of these was Zach’s frequent cut-ins to the film, which saw him sitting on the edge of a kiddie pool, stroking, petting, cursing and cajoling what appeared to be a fifty-pound burlap sack filled nearly to bursting with Jell-O. The other thing I remember about The Blob was the fact that it was the very first starring role for a young actor named Steve McQueen.

ImageHorror was far from horrible, when I was a kid. Instead, nightmares and beasts beneath the bed notwithstanding, it left me with some vivid and even cherished memories of my sometimes crazy (in a good way) youth. And, over the years, I’ve even developed a taste for garlic.

YEARS OF LIFTING DILIGENTLY

I saw a couple of things on TV recently that tweaked some memories concerning my lifelong secret identity as a gym rat and the years of my professional life during which I was an editor and writer for fitness and bodybuilding publications. The first of these was the viral video of President Obama pumping iron in a hotel gym in Poland. It was somewhat enlightening to see a President who is concerned enough about total fitness to incorporate some relatively serious resistance training into his exercise regimen. But this non-event nonetheless created the political ruckus that seems to be the norm these days in Washington. Legislators from both sides of the aisle (well, mostly from one) decried the POTUS workout session as a major security breach. Whatever.

The other memory-tweaker came while I was watching a thought-provoking documentary series on the Showtime cable network called “Years of Living Dangerously.” The series chronicles the causes and effects of global warming as they are playing out in several different parts of the world and negatively affecting the inhabitants of those regions right now, and almost certainly the rest of the world, in a few decades to come.

ImageOne of the show’s segments featured famed bodybuilder, actor, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was traveling with a team of Hot Shots, an elite group of courageous and highly trained woodland firefighters, as they were attempting to slow down a series of raging forest fires in his home state. The fascinating, frightening, and controversial subject of globing warming will be a future topic of The Frog Blog, but right now I would like to touch on a much lighter (metaphorically), though heavier (literally) set of topics: weight training and competitive bodybuilding.

I began weightlifting as a teenager back in the Sixties; I was a somewhat sickly kid who was fortunate enough to have an older friend and mentor (and, in truth, guardian angel) living nearby, who introduced me to weight lifting and taught me (among other life lessons for which I have always been grateful) how to weight-train safely and successfully. His tutelage proved so fruitful that I went on to play football and lacrosse in high school and into college. I developed such an affinity for resistance training that I have performed it diligently, on and off (because of a low-back injury), for my entire life, and continue to train five days per week today.

I don’t look much like a bodybuilder, owing to less-than-stellar genetics and my equally lifelong affinity for pizza and other foods that I should clearly be much more prudent about ingesting. (Many people don’t realize just how critically important a role diet plays in acquiring a lean and muscular physique; no one can see your six-pack abs, no matter how impressive, when they are covered by a layer of fat.) But where my years of resistance training have served me well is in the area of strength-gain. Today, at sixty-six years of age, I am still able to perform many resistance training exercises using weight equal to, or greater than, that of some fellow gym rats one-third my age. Yes, this surprises me nearly as much as it may surprise you; but there it is. While I certainly can’t train as intensely or for as long a period as I could when I was one-third my own age, much of the muscular strength and bone density increases that I acquired over years toiling in the gym remain.

Back in the day, I did my weightlifting mostly in garages and basements, among friends who had a similar passion for developing muscles. At the time, we did it partly to increase strength and fitness for football but, truth be told, we did it primarily (like we did other crazy things back then) to attract girls. I don’t know that it did any of us much good for girl-getting, but it certainly produced some strength and mass gains, and imparted a degree of friendship and camaraderie that, believe it or not, I still share with some of the guys with whom I trained all those years ago. At one of these basement/garage gyms where I worked out, my muscle-headed comrades and I used to wear our cutoff sweatshirts inside-out, because our gym’s motto was “Turn it inside-out,” meaning: train as hard as humanly possible during each and every workout. (Years later, the phrase “No pain, no gain” became the preferred weightlifting war cry in gyms the world over.) To this day, I still wear an inside-out, cutoff sweatshirt at the gym. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Steve%20ReevesWe used to read many of the muscle magazines back then, like Joe Weider’s Muscle Builder (later renamed Muscle & Fitness), Bob Hoffman’s Muscular Development, and Dan Lurie’s Muscle Training Illustrated. We worshipped guys like Steve Reeves, Dave Draper, Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva and, of course, Arnold himself, who was arguably the greatest competitive bodybuilder of all time. I say arguably because cases could surely be made for people like Lee Haney, who won eight consecutive Mr. Olympia titles between 1984 and 1991, and Reeves who, next to Arnold, was the most famous bodybuilder in the world (owing largely to a very successful movie career during the 1950s and 1960s), and possibly the most perfectly formed man in the entire history of humankind.

Twelve or fifteen years into the future I would become an editor and photographer for bodybuilding publications and have the opportunity to meet Arnold, Reeves, Scott, Oliva, Haney, and many others. I even trained with a few of them on occasion. I was ushered into the competitive bodybuilding fraternity, an exclusive club that I actually knew very little about, outside of what I saw and read in the magazines. Understand that I wasn’t a true muscle-head way back when. I had come to weight training from a childhood wrought with illness, and later to get bigger and stronger for football (and, okay, to get girls). I hadn’t been a fan of competitive bodybuilding per se, and didn’t train in the manner of a competitive bodybuilder, rather the way an athlete trains for his or her sport. Bodybuilding, as I would soon learn, was another animal altogether.

I will never forget the first champion bodybuilder I interviewed for the very first bodybuilding publication I was associated with, a mostly black-and-white, 64-page magazine with the curious and somewhat erotic-sounding title of Muscle Up. This guy, who shall remain nameless, was fresh from winning the Lightweight division at the amateur national championships; he was intelligent, well-spoken, and completely willing to speak about virtually every aspect of his sport. At one point he began enumerating the many anabolic steroids which he cycled on and off during the course of a typical year. Not knowing much about steroids at the time, but aware that they had a reputation for being dangerous and were illegal without a prescription, I said, with some degree of shock and surprise: “Wait a minute. I thought bodybuilding was supposed to be about health and fitness. Why the drugs?”

ZaneHe stared at me for several long, uncomfortable moments, then replied as one might speak to a naive, inexperienced child. “You don’t understand,” he said patiently. “Competitive bodybuilding has nothing to do with health and fitness. It’s about doing anything and everything you have to do to win. Bodybuilding is one of the unhealthiest things you can do to your body.” Now, my naiveté was not totally unfounded. The pioneers of bodybuilding, guys like Eugene Sandow, the “Father of Bodybuilding,” and later Clancy Ross, John Grimek, Bill Pearl, and others, rarely if ever touched anabolic steroids. Back then, they called what they did “physical culture,” and it definitely was about health and fitness. But, like every other endeavor in this world, when one introduces competition (and thus money, prizes or trophies) into the equation, people who compete at elite levels are so close in talent and training methodology that everyone grasps at any advantage available, legal or otherwise. Once anabolic steroids found their way into sports (all sports, but competitive bodybuilding was probably the first) the game became a case of “use or lose.”

While most sports do everything that they can to rid their games of performance-enhancing drugs, competitive bodybuilding was faced with an unusual dilemma. Once the fans got used to the bigger, harder, leaner physiques that steroids clearly yielded when used properly, there was no turning back. Sales of bodybuilding magazines, supplements, equipment and other paraphernalia, in conjunction with attendance at bodybuilding shows, were what fueled the industry. And once the fans were introduced to freakish size and diamond-hard definition, nothing else would satisfy them. The sport was forced to look the other way where steroids were concerned, or fade into obscurity forever.

If you look at bodybuilding champions from, say the Sixties, and compare them to those of the last 20 years, you will be astonished at the difference anabolic steroids have made. Yes, athletes in general are bigger, stronger and faster than they were fifty years ago. But when anabolic steroids are permitted to run rampant in any sport, the result are nothing short of superhuman. Just reference major league baseball at the start of the 21st century, if you need further proof. And it wasn’t only the guys who were taking drugs; after women’s bodybuilding came into vogue in the late 70s, early 80s, the girls began injecting massive doses of anabolics, too. The effects of supplemental mega-doses of the male hormone testosterone and its derivative chemicals could have devastating effects on men, but the toll they took on a woman’s body were far worse.

ImageDuring my sojourn in the bodybuilding world I became very close friends with a man who was on the periphery of the sport, as a judge, trainer, and mentor to kids striving to get to the next level in their bodybuilding careers. Bob was one of the nicest, friendliest and most engaging people I have ever met, and, as a college chemistry professor, one of the smartest, as well. But in addition to supplying help, instruction and encouragement to his charges, he also supplied many of them with the drugs they so desperately needed to compete but often could not afford. Like some earlier incarnation of Walter White, he “broke bad” in his own way by cooking steroidal cocktails in his private underground lab for distribution to those in need.

I eventually became Editor of one of those magazines I had read as a teenager, when the vitamin/supplement company Twinlab purchased Muscular Development from the Hoffman family and hired me to run it. I produced that publication for the next eleven years, becoming even more deeply immersed in the competitive bodybuilding culture than ever before. While I enjoyed my years as Editor of Muscular Development, interviewing bodybuilders, photographing competitions and socializing with the many friends I made during that time, I never felt completely at home in their world. I’m not entirely sure to this day what the reason for my discomfort was. But there was a dark underbelly to this world that one could only witness up-close from the inside. It wasn’t always there, and while I wouldn’t call it sinister or perverted, or evil, it was nonetheless unsettling at times. Beneath the glitz and glamour of the top professional events, there was something not quite right, that tainted it. Like dirty fingernails on an attractive and otherwise impeccably groomed person.

I wasn’t unhappy to leave the world of competitive bodybuilding and go back to my basement gym, wearing my inside-out, cutoff sweatshirts. While they were neither glamorous nor glitzy, they were always clean. And I felt quite comfortable in them.

 

OF MARITAL, MARTIAL & MEMORY

I have a hard time remembering my wedding anniversary. Guy thing, right? In my own defense, however, there are a couple of very real and reasonably acceptable (if you ask me, anyway) excuses for this lack of certainty concerning my marriage date. The first of these is that, owing to my advancing age, I cannot be expected to remember each and every significant event in my life anymore. Plus, it was a very long time ago; nearly four decades. And, again in my own defense, I can recall the date very easily, to within a day or two of the day that it actually occurred. I know for a fact that my wedding took place nearer to the middle of October than to the beginning or the end; I can just never seem to be sure whether the date was October 12 or October 14. Give me props, at least, for knowing, as well as a thing can be known, that there are fully 29 days in October (more days than are contained in the entire month of February!) that I am quite certain did not coincide with my nuptials. And I know the year. It was 1978. I’m pretty sure…

Reason being, and here’s where the uncertainty comes in, that October 12, 1978, just two days before my marriage, is the day that I went to Rahway State Prison. No, I hadn’t decided to knock off a liquor store on the way back from getting my wedding suit dry-cleaned. I was there to witness a professional light-heavyweight boxing match between top-ranked contender Eddie Gregory (who would soon become Eddie Mustafa Muhammad) and a highly-ranked challenger named James Scott. The reason that this nationally-televised prizefight was taking place in Rahway State Prison instead of Madison Square Garden, or some other, more appropriate venue, had to do with the fact that Scott was then an inmate at Rahway for his alleged involvement in an armed robbery and murder. The bout took place in the prison gymnasium in front of a few-hundred civilian spectators, officials and press. Possibly another hundred or so inmates were gathered upon the caged second-tier mezzanine which surrounded the gym, with the rest of the prison population watching on closed-circuit TV in the auditorium. It was as surreal a setting, and occasion, to which I have ever been privy.

I interviewed James Scott several times at the prison, and being there was something I never got used to; not that I ever really wanted to. The admittance procedure rarely varied; one had to pass through several heavily guarded checkpoints, featuring a variety of x-ray and metal-detecting machinery. At the final checkpoint, a guard sitting at a desk with a stamp and ink pad said, “Make sure you get your hand stamped. If you don’t, we can’t let you out.” Needless to say, I was always extremely diligent about getting the back of my hand stamped. The first time I interviewed Scott was in his cell, and I found him to be intelligent, articulate, and charming, and as willing to speak about his checkered past and incarcerations as he was eager to discuss his promising boxing career.

James Scott

I remember a police officer friend once telling me that every prison is filled with innocent people; if you ask them, anyway. After having spent considerable time with Scott, he’d convinced me that he was innocent of all charges. And there was at least some evidence which supported his version of the events that had led him to Rahway, among several other prisons he’d called home for the majority of his life. What had put him into Rahway Prison was the fact that his car had apparently been used in the robbery/murder which led to his conviction. Through James, I met his brother Malcolm, who was serving a life sentence at Rahway, and was head of the famed Lifer’s Group, which created the much publicized Scared Straight program. The Scared Straight guys periodically entertained troubled youth from the community and did their best to literally “scare them straight,” and thus away from potential lives of crime, through their violent, graphic, no-holds-barred depictions of life behind bars.

James Scott was born in The Brick City of Newark, NJ and received his very first pair of boxing gloves from his uncle, at age ten. Unfortunately, James never really got the chance to use them back then because, by the age of 13, he had plotted a course of crime which would lead to his spending more than forty years of his life behind bars. He was in and out of juvenile detention facilities, and began boxing during his initial stay at Trenton State Prison, as part of the state of New Jersey’s job training program. By the early 70s, Scott had become light-heavyweight champion of the New Jersey prison system and in 1974, he was released on parole and allowed to pursue the career for which he had already exhibited considerable talent. He left for Miami Beach, Florida, where he soon found his way to that city’s famous 5th Street Gym and hooked up with legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee. Dundee was then in the process of training Muhammad Ali for the second of Ali’s three epic battles with Joe Frazier, but agreed to take the young light-heavyweight under his wing.

Scott amassed a record of 10-0-1 between 1974 and 1975. But he decided to head back to New Jersey to continue his fight career, where he soon heard that police wanted to speak to him about something related to his car. By now well on his way to becoming a world-famous boxer, Scott willingly visited the local police station without an attorney, thinking that this was some minor technicality which would soon be resolved. Instead, he was placed under arrest again, because his car had been discovered in the vicinity of a robbery and murder; the seats were covered in blood and riddled with bullet holes. James maintained that he had loaned his car to a friend, but repeatedly refused to identify the individual. Nine months later, a jury convicted Scott of the robbery, and, though the DA failed to secure a conviction on the murder charge, Scott was nonetheless sentenced to spend the next 30-40 years at Rahway.

Flash forward to October 12, 1978… Eddie Gregory was next in line for a shot at the light-heavyweight crown then worn by Mike Rossman. Rossman had fought champion Victor Galindez the previous month, on the undercard to the Ali-Spinks rematch, and few gave him any chance of defeating the skillful and powerful Galindez. But Rossman managed to open cuts over Galindez’s eyes relatively early in the match, and the fight was stopped in the 13th round, with Rossman being declared the winner via TKO. Gregory’s bout against Scott at Rahway was seen as little more than a tune-up on Eddie’s road-trip to his ultimate destination: the Light-Heavyweight Championship of the world. Literally no one gave James Scott even a Cheese-Doodle’s chance at a rodent convention of defeating Eddie Gregory. Gregory himself said of his incarcerated opponent, “They say Scott is tough, but how tough can he be? So he fought a couple of stiffs inside the walls and he knocked them out… And now he wants to fight the top contender… I’ll carry him for 11 rounds and knock him out in the twelfth. It’ll be a good workout.”

News of the first professional prizefight to be staged within prison walls spread like crazy and a fledgling cable network with the head-scratching name of Home Box Office leapt at the opportunity to televise what they dubbed “Boxing Behind Bars.” They sent their A-Team to cover the event, including budding TV fight analyst Larry Merchant, legendary boxing announcer Don Dunphy, the voice of Friday Night Fights, and a charismatic young boxer who had won a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympic games, named Sugar Ray Leonard. I, too, was at ringside, right on the ring apron crouched next to the photographer from Sports Illustrated and his assistant, whose job it was to frantically change film for the five motorized Nikon F2s (three color, two black-and-white) which were then the gold standard for sports photographers.

Scott vs. GregoryThough the fight went the distance, it really wasn’t close. Scott started strong, coasted through the middle rounds, then dominated the bout from rounds eight through 12 to win in a unanimous decision. It was a crushing defeat for the number-one contender, who saw his dream of taking Mike Rossman’s title vanish in the space of 12 rounds, at the hands of a man Gregory wasn’t even compelled to fight. As the top-ranked light-heavyweight, he was already at the head of the line for a championship bout with Rossman. But no more. Though Gregory (by then, Mustafa Muhammad) would eventually win the title in 1980 via an 11th round TKO of then champion Marvin Johnson, many said he was never the same man after that night at Rahway State Prison. He lost the title in 1981 to up-and-comer Michael Spinks, who would go on, after ten successful defenses of his title, to beat Larry Holmes, thus becoming the first reigning light-heavyweight champion to capture a heavyweight championship. Spinks brother Leon, you may recall, had previously defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship in one of the most dramatic upsets in boxing history.

As for the victorious James Scott, he never got to fight for the title either. As champion, Rossman could choose the venue for any of his title fights, and after having seen Scott dismantle Gregory the way he had, the Champ absolutely refused to travel to Rahway Prison to fight James. Scott tried valiantly to convince him to do otherwise, and when Rossman refused to budge, Scott applied for a special work-release program, which would allow him to pursue a career outside prison walls. Unfortunately, time and time again, his petition was denied. The World Boxing Association eventually stripped him of his ranking; Scott retired, unretired, was allowed briefly to fight again, won and lost. Time, age, and prison bars finally won out. James Scott was eventually released from prison in 2005, at the age of 58, 59, or 60, depending upon which account you believe, and in 2012 he was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. He currently resides in a NJ nursing home, where Scott is slowly losing his toughest fight, to dementia.

I don’t know if James Scott was guilty of robbery or murder; make no mistake about it, though, there is evidence indicating that he may well have committed both. But I am grateful to this day that I had the opportunity to get to know him, just a little, and to witness, up-close, a great fighter performing at the height of his powers. Though there is conflicting documentation concerning the year of his birth (some cite 1947 while others report 1948 or ’49) documentary agreement exists concerning the day that James Scott came into this world. That day is October 17th.

Great. Another mid-October date to further cloud my murky marital memory.