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.

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“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.

ZEN AND THE ART OF MACHINEGUN MAINTENANCE

Can we have a reasonable discussion about guns? Say yes, or I’ll have to scrap this post altogether. Gun guys..? I totally get it. I used to be one of you; and perhaps I still am, in spirit, at least. When I was a much younger man, I was a martial artist, and was on the editorial staff of some martial arts publications. One of these, called Warriors, covered the entire spectrum of the fighting “arts,” unarmed and armed, including firearms. Through my association with this publication I met and interviewed dozens of people to whom guns were an integral part of their lives: law enforcement personnel, military, mercenaries, gun enthusiasts, and even a few people who might be considered on the fringes of legal enterprise. Many of them qualified for carry permits and had concealed weapons on their persons, in public, most of the time.

There was one guy I would see from time to time who probably fit into the “fringe” category. He was ex-military or a retired police officer; I don’t recall which. I distinctly remember one particular visit he made to our NYC offices. When I asked what had brought him to New York, he hesitated only slightly before saying that he was there on behalf of a “client” who had expressed some interest in blowing up the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Understand that this was many years before the events of September 11, 2001 would alter the landscape of global security drastically and permanently. Were such a conversation to take place today, of course I would have contacted NYPD immediately. Back then, things were different; I was a kid trying to make my small mark on the magazine industry, and he was this shadowy but heroic figure, prone to boasting about his sometimes larger-than-life exploits.

The Waldorf event thankfully never happened. My point is simply that I have spent considerable time around guns and the people who revere them, and am well aware of the impact that they have—positive and negative—on our society. I understand the devastation they can cause, but I also have an appreciation of the fact that many people are fascinated by them, covet them, and/or have been raised in families or in certain parts of the country where they were common, even necessary, components of daily life. It is not in my nature to kill an animal for sport, but I have known, and liked, people who were raised in parts of the country where hunting is an integral element of existence. Don’t we have to respect their views, even though we may not agree with them? Isn’t that the manner in which reasonable people view disagreements with other reasonable people? I would hope so.

Unfortunately this isn’t generally the case with our national gun debate. For whatever reason, reasonable people are a scarcity when gun control becomes a topic of discussion. Radicals on both sides of this issue appear unwilling or unable to have a dialog that doesn’t end in a shouting match, or worse.

During my tenure with martial arts publications, primarily Warriors, I developed an appreciation of firearms and decided that I wanted to have one. I eventually acquired a license and became the proud owner of two guns: a Ruger.22-caliber target pistol and a Berretta .380. I took a firearms course, and discovered, to my surprise, that I possessed considerably better-than-average shooting skills. I did not have a carry permit for them, of course, but I frequently took them (unloaded, packed in their soft cases, in the trunk of my car) to a local shooting center for target practice. I greatly enjoyed these target sessions and enjoyed, perhaps as much, caring for these weapons. There was an almost Zen-like quality attached to the rituals of disassembling, cleaning, oiling and reassembling my pistols, which was, believe it or not, relaxing, calming, and oddly satisfying.

I was a gun owner for perhaps two years, but the moment that the adoption papers had been filed for our daughter-to-be, Carolyn, was the moment I decided that I didn’t want guns in my home anymore. I think I sold them the same week that the adoption process became official. The point is, while I liked guns (and enjoyed having them, using them, and caring for them), I found that I didn’t need guns. My life was on the verge of entering a new phase; one in which I felt guns had no rightful place because they would only complicate matters. My priorities had changed, and therefore my perspective had been altered as well. I sometimes feel like those people who are the most vocal proponents of unrestricted gun freedoms fail to appreciate priority or understand perspective. To them, it seems, the Second Amendment is the only thing in the Constitution that matters.

While their oft-quoted axiom, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” may be technically true, what they fail to realize, or at least refuse to admit, is that, unfortunately by their nature, guns enable some people to kill other people easily and efficiently. Especially so-called assault weapons and other guns featuring rapid fire and high-capacity ammunition capability. While statistics can be spun to reflect virtually any viewpoint, the fact remains that, though violent crime in the U.S. has actually decreased over the past dozen years or so, America still leads the world in deadly gun violence. This according to virtually every measurable statistic one can quote. And if you are an American under the age of nineteen, you are four times more likely to be killed by a gun than a peer living in Canada; seven times more likely than in Israel; and 65 times more likely than a child residing in Britain. A person under the age of 25 is killed with a gun in America every 70 minutes.

I don’t like statistics either. But my gut tells me that if our country featured fewer guns, in fewer hands–including fewer high-power, high-capacity weapons–fewer innocent people would lose their lives to gun violence. Doesn’t that make at least some sense, if you consider yourself a sensible person? Or we could take a different approach entirely; one that I think even the NRA would get behind. Suppose we passed a law that required every U.S. citizen 18-years or older to purchase and carry a firearm everywhere he or she went? Granted, we would likely have more people injured or killed by guns accidently or through crimes-of-passion each year. But such a mandate would, by its very nature, reduce the incidence of gun violence perpetrated against unarmed innocents to virtually zero.

Sensible? No. Radical? Yes. Ridiculous? Certainly. The difference is that I am not really being serious when I propose such a law. Radicals within the pro-gun lobby are deadly serious when they not only resist each and every attempt at additional controls on firearms, but also push with all their considerable weight in Washington to get more–and more potent–guns into as many desiring hands as possible. They’re not kidding. They have no sense of humor whatsoever when it comes to the Second Amendment. And while we’re at it, what exactly does the Second Amendment guarantee? As I read it, “II” concerns itself primarily with the states’ rights to form and regulate militias; though the 14th Amendment may have broadened the context into the area of individual self-defense. Even so, do you think that the Founding Fathers ever envisioned Columbine, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, or any of the other more than two-dozen mass shootings in this country, just since 1999? I don’t think so; if they had had such foresight, I’m pretty sure that “II” would have been written very differently.

AR-15There is a famous saying in Zen Buddhism: “The one who is good at shooting does not hit the center of the target.” I’m not sure that the gun-guys are hitting the center of the target when it comes to what’s really important about the on-going gun debate. There is one request that I would like to make to the guys-with-guns, as a former gun-guy who understands, at least to a reasonable degree, where you’re coming from: The next time an innocent child, or schoolroom-full of children, is mowed down by some gun-nut with a Bushmaster AR-15 equipped with 30-round magazine, would you please just speak from your heart, if you must speak at all, instead of spouting the NRA company line? And those of us who may be on the other side of the gun issue should strive to keep our own rhetoric to a minimum as well.

While both sides may never agree upon exactly who or what kills people, or who should/should not be permitted to possess guns, we should agree, at least, that innocent people need not be dying at such an alarming rate. Especially not children. And that something needs to be done about it. To me, that’s the center of the target.

 

 

 

 

“SOMETIMES THE MAGIC WORKS…”

There is such an enormous amount of pressure on kids these days, I honestly don’t know how they deal with it; sadly, many of them cannot, and in one form or another, they pay a price. While I really don’t think most of us intentionally created this climate of stress that hangs heavy over them like some personal, sinister cloud, I’m not at all sure that we did enough to dispel it, either. When my daughter Carolyn was still in elementary school, my wife Jan and I would often encourage her to study, work hard, and get good grades. Seemed innocent enough at the time; it was, after all, no more than our parents had said to us as we were growing up.

What we were not aware of until it was too late, was that the scholastic atmosphere, especially in towns that have a reputation for academic and/or athletic excellence, was already thick with a threatening torrent of competitiveness that would rain heavily on even the staunchest child’s parade. This new era of cut-throatedness, starting at the primary school level, spawned and quickly proliferated the cottage industry of personal tutors and coaches. Consider: According to industry research, the number of school-aged children who have personal tutors and/or coaches (scholastic and athletic) has grown steadily over the past 20 years. Today, somewhere between $5- and $10-billion is spent annually, in this country alone, on the extra training which has become necessary to produce higher SAT scores and/or lower 40-yard dash times.

The competition for desks at the top-100 universities has become so fierce, that a winner-take-all, win-at-all-costs mentality has been established over the past two decades in grades Pre-K through Twelve. So when I say to my child, “study, work hard, and get good grades,” it doesn’t mean the same thing to her that it did to me, when I was her age. To me it meant, try to get an “A”, and try really hard not to get anything below a “C.” To my child it meant that anything below an “A” was unacceptable, and it was perceived by her (reinforced through peer pressure if not directly from her parents), as failure. Because today, with the popularity of Advanced Placement courses, and the additional clicks on the grade-point average that they induce, the coveted four-point-oh which we strived for back then, and only the gifted few achieved, isn’t good enough anymore.

Imagine what it must be like, being a young person today and knowing–down deep in your gut–that “perfect” isn’t what it used to be. How does one face each and every day thinking, “If I’m not better than perfect today, someone’s going to pass me by, and I will be failing at life”? And we wonder why it is not at all unusual to hear pre-teens talking frequently about being “stressed.” When my high-school-aged daughter used to tell me she was stressed, about school, or friends, or a difficult volleyball or softball game, I wanted to reply, “Sweetheart, you don’t know what stress is!” I didn’t say that, but I wanted to. Turned out she really was stressed, and I wasn’t giving her enough credit for the sometimes overbearing pressure that she was experiencing.

I think that the best advice I ever gave my child in this area came from my own experience stumbling awkwardly toward adulthood. There was a point in my life, probably in my early Thirties, when I faced a crisis of confidence. You may understand where I’m coming from. It’s that period in one’s life, ten years or so removed from college, when one starts thinking about one’s future, and the grand plans of youth that have yet to be realized. And I began to wonder if they ever would be realized; and it worried me greatly. I started putting more and more pressure on myself to make those dreams a reality, and the harder I tried… The harder I tried.

MOV_2af59e36_bI remember watching a movie called “Little Big Man,” a 1970 film directed by Arthur Penn, which starred a young Dustin Hoffman–when lightning struck! Based upon the comic novel by Thomas Berger, the story unfolds in flashback, with the Hoffman character, 121-year-old Jack Crabb (in cutting-edge makeup for the time), recounting the story of his life in the old West. Jack and his older sister Caroline survive the massacre of their parents by the Pawnee and are taken in by the Cheyenne. Caroline escapes, but Jack stays behind and is raised by the kindly patriarch of the tribe, Old Lodge Skins, played in grand style by Chief Dan George. When Jack is 16, he is “rescued” by the U.S. Cavalry and embarks on a great life-journey, which includes being a gunslinger, meeting Wild Bill Hickok, and becoming a scout for General George Armstrong Custer. (It’s a great film; please see it, if you haven’t.)

Crabb eventually finds his way back to the Cheyenne and is taken on a brief excursion by Old Lodge Skins, so that the elderly Chief, who believes he has reached the end of his life, can give up his spirit to the Great Spirit. Old Lodge Skins lies down on the top of a hill, presumably to die, with Jack looking on intently. It begins to rain, and the Chief clearly has still not given up the ghost. “Grandfather?” Jack inquires after a short while. Old Lodge Skins slowly raises himself up, saying, “Am I still in this world?” “Yes, Grandfather,” says Jack. “I was afraid of that,” the Old Chief replies with a sigh. Then he utters the phrase that has remained with me, and guided me, all these years. “Well,” says Old Lodge Skins with a sly smile, “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

SometimesThat was it; that was the key! At that moment I understood that as human beings, it is our duty to get our own personal magic (mojo; call it what you will) working as often as we possibly can. But we need to realize, too, that this gift we all possess, perhaps to varying degrees, cannot be tapped into each and every time we summon it. It’s often there when we need it, but sometimes it fails to materialize when we need it most. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Simple. Elegant. Prophetic. The pop prophet William Martin Joel says something in a similar vein, in his rock anthem Angry Young Man: “I’ve found that just surviving was a noble fight.” Some days you eat the bear; some days the bear eats you. Some days, just not getting eaten by the bear is a genuine accomplishment.

I relayed the Little Big Man story, and the realizations it conjured in my young mind, to my daughter, Carolyn, way back when; I’d like to think it did her some good during her own, much more graceful, dance toward adulthood. But the words that I think did her the most good–and what was probably the best advice she ever got from her parents–fittingly came from her mother. On the very rare occasions in her life when Carolyn failed at anything, her mother, my wife Jan, would tell her (and tells her to this day) to: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” If you are fortunate enough to know Carolyn, you understand that there is very little dust on this young woman. Most times, the magic worked.

“THANK YOU.” “NO PROBLEM.”

There was a vicious attack on the English language recently, while I was, regrettably, asleep at my post. Evil ninjas raided stealthily (they’re very good at this stealthy thing, in case you hadn’t noticed; of course you hadn’t noticed) in the dead of night and snatched “you’re welcome” from the lexicon, replacing it for all eternity with the much hipper, but infinitely more annoying “no problem.” I have a major problem with “no problem.” When exactly did “you’re welcome” become unhip and thus uncoupled from its heretofore perfect partner throughout the ages, “thank you”?

I don’t get it; the phrases don’t even work together. Why not change them both, or not at all? You know what would be better, assuming that such a change is even preferable or necessary? How about, “Yo, dude.” “No problem.” Or even the more hip, “Dude!” “No prob!” Such is a change I could get behind; it makes some sense. But “thank you/no problem” is clearly a half-assed solution if, indeed, it is “assed” at all!

Let’s assume (I know, I’m making an “ass of u and me,” but after all, it’s my blog.) that I’m a patron at the local Grand Lux Cafe (where the thank you/no problem abomination apparently has run amok), and you are the server. (Here’s another exchange that’s all too common in semi-fine dining establishments these days… Waitress: “Hello. I’m Tiffany. I’ll be your server this evening!” Me: “Hello, Tiffany. I’m Alan. I’ll be your customer this evening!” This sort of jolly repartee really endears one to one’s server; one should try it! But I digress…) Anyway, Tiffany brings me a glass of warm, cloudy water, because I have graciously, but foolishly, perhaps, declined her kind offer of the $16.00 bottle of Pellegrino water. I say, “Thank you,” though I don’t really mean it. She replies, “No problem.”

Here’s the problem… If the simple and generally required act of the server bringing the customer a glass of warm, cloudy water could even remotely be construed a potential problem-causing scenario, Tiffany has no earthly right earning her livelihood as a server! She has accepted this position under false pretenses! I’m sorry, but it is a server’s responsibility to serve, and Tiffany is generously compensated for her efforts (in large measure because we customers are obliged to compensate Tiffany generously for her efforts because Tiffany’s employer is not obligated to compensate her generously). So Tiffany need not say “no problem” after having served something to a customer. Problem should not even be a topic of conversation; there is no problem, thus the phrase need not be uttered at all.

The phrase that begs to be uttered, however, in response to “Thank you, Server Tiffany, for this warm, cloudy glass of water that is clearly not Pellegrino,” is: “You’re welcome, Customer Alan. I am happy to be of service.”

untitledYou may ask if there are any situations in which “no problem” would be an acceptable response to “thank you.” I can think of only a couple… Say, for example, that one is Superman, and Superman has just spied, with his super-vision, a potential global-extinction-causing event in the form of a meteor, roughly the size of Rhode Island, which is hurtling, considerably faster than a speeding bullet, toward the planet. (Earth, not Krypton. “No problem” may very well be the accepted, even preferred, response to “thank you” in Kryptonese.) Superman, being the kind of guy that he is, naturally speeds off to confront the meteor and deflects it away from Earth by utilizing his super-breath, thereby saving billions of living creatures and earning the everlasting love of Lois Lane and all those other women in the Superman comics whose initials are “L.L.”

Now, if Lois Lane were to say, “Thank you, Superman” at the conclusion of his heroic deed, Superman could rightfully say, “No Problem, Lois.” The reason that his response is accurate is twofold: 1. The Rhode Island-sized meteor hurtling toward Earth represented a genuine problem. In other words, a problem existed; and, 2. Averting global disaster was literally no problem for Superman, because he, of course, possesses powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. (Knowing Superman as I do, however, my best guess is that he would have replied, “You’re welcome, Lois,” if such a situation actually arose; this owing to his powers of super-politeness and super-correctness. But that is clearly beside the point here.)

What’s that you say? The scenario outlined above is too farfetched to even remotely be taken seriously? You’d like another? No problem… Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you are vacationing in Japan. You stop for lunch at the local Grand Lux Sushi Shop. At the precise moment that you begin to devour the hunk of Unagi Nigiri that you have purposely saved for last, there is an otherworldly bellow emanating from the street adjacent to this semi-fine Japanese dining establishment. You rush outside along with several other patrons at the exact moment that Godzilla, who has also decided to stop for lunch at Grand Lux Sushi, is scarfing down People Rolls by the handful. Godzilla reaches for you, and you reflexively grab onto the arm of the Asian gentleman with the shock of bright red-orange hair who is standing next to you. Godzilla, momentarily startled, now reaches instead for the family-of-four vacationing from the Netherlands. He dispatches them, lets out a fire-inducing belch, and moves on quickly in pursuit of the delivery truck, several blocks away, filed with tasty maple kinako on grilled mochi, with which he intends to conclude his luncheon.

2997107546_cff7c38d57When it is clear that the danger has passed, you turn to the red-orange-haired gentleman upon whose arm you are still hanging and say, “Thank you!” He correctly responds with the Japanese equivalent of “No problem.” The response, “no problem” is correct in this instance because the flame-haired gentleman did virtually nothing to save you, with the possible exception of allowing you to latch onto his arm. Godzilla thought better of lunching on you and your sunset-haired companion owing to his well-known aversion to ginger, which, when ingested tends to cause his eyes and throat to swell shut.

By your disapproving scowl, I understand that nothing I say today will bring you over to my side in the you’re welcome/no problem debate. So I will at least propose this temporary, partial solution to the near-conundrum. Can we at least agree to change the word “tip,” which every schoolchild knows stands for the phrase “to insure promptness,” to something more appropriate in today’s linguistic climate. If we simply change tip to tinp, Tiffany can merely nod her pretty head and smile sweetly after having delivered the warm, cloudy water and been the recipient of a customer’s “thank you.” For, you see, Tiffany is now secure in the notion that her tinp, which translates as, “to insure no problem,” has taken care, once and possibly for all, of the no-problem problem.