Saturday, September 20, 2014

Call me crazy, but I recently got an urge to write about, or at least list, all the people I know who have died.

I think the source of this urge can be traced back to a conversation I had with my girlfriend a few weeks back.

We had been sitting at our kitchen table and I had made a remark about someone I knew who had died, and then I said, "I know a lot of people who have died....You also must know a lot of people who have died, right?" And she said, "No, not really actually."

And then I realized that I know more than a fair share of people who are now gone. Just as a disclaimer, I don't mean what I'm about to write to be a tribute or a memorial, even though it still sort of will be, in a way. All I'm saying with this post is this: I sometimes think about the people that I know who have died, and their deaths have made grooves in me. Some of those grooves are deeper than others, but despite that, I think about these people relatively often, and I just wanted to get this down.
Jessica, she was in my kindergarten class and she died of a heart problem during the summer of kindergarten to first grade; Eric's grandfather, Eric was a childhood friend of mine and his grandfather was run down by a car while attempting to cross 108th Street in Forest Hills, Queens; Lisette, she was a girl I knew from middle school, a girl I actually dated for just one day, believe it or not; Jason Butler, he was a super charismatic, athletically talented and really nice guy I knew in high school who was hit by a truck as he was attempting to cross a street; Christine, she was a girl who was sick with cancer when I was in high school and eventually succumbed to the disease; Billy, he was a guy who used to hang around Great Neck and I think he died of an aneurism; my ex-girlfriend's brother, Joseph; my grandmother, Anna, who died of pneumonia a few days shy of her 95th birthday; Muriel Klein, my great aunt, who had lived in Howard Beach, Queens, for many years and had loved crosswords; Peter Franzoni, a kid who I had known from middle school and high school; Jessica Mena, a friend of mine and my good friend Matt's sister; Ellen Harris, my good friend Andrew's mother and a person I saw almost every other day for years on end; Dave Fleetwood, a supervisor for Chestnuthill Township, Pa., who was killed when a disgruntled citizen went on a shooting rampage at a township meeting.
Crazy, when I look at this paragraph above, this block, if you will, of deaths and lives lived. There's just so much there -- so much compression in it all. Perhaps the the strangest part of this whole undertaking, for me at least, is that when I read the names of the people listed in the paragraph above, I can often imagine their voices as well. And when I do, when I imagine their voices, it's then that much of what I think to be true or false gets thrown into question.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014


I want to be a little greedy right now. I say that because I'm interested in writing what I'm about to write only to achieve catharsis. I've always felt that writing in general is a form of catharsis, and a lot of my entries have been partially inspired by a need for a catharsis of sorts, but I've never really written just to "get it all out." I usually write to share something I think worth sharing or to explain something or to offer a fresh and provocative perspective on a difficult issue.

But not this time. This time I want to write because I sorta have to just get it out.

About five months ago, I learned that the mother of an acquaintance of mine had cancer of the spine. Upon hearing the news, I was concerned the way you are concerned when you hear that something bad has happened to someone you only indirectly know and have never even met. I was absolutely rooting for this woman, let's call her Linda, but in all honestly, I didn't think too much of it.

Still, I was kept aware of Linda's progress. Linda's daughter-in-law is my girlfriend's good friend, and the next update that I got was that Linda had undergone chemo and surgery and the surgery had gone well. But even so, the daughter-in-law, let's call her Julie, reported, Linda wasn't doing that great. She was depressed. She was depressed because she thought her life was over. The surgery, as successful as it was, had been pretty involved and Linda's recovery was not coming along easy, which made Linda believe that she wasn't going to make it.

But she did make it. And as the months went by, she started to get stronger. In fact, one night, two months or so after the surgery, Julie came over our house looking very cheerful, which was strange during this period because just how stressful the ordeal was for her and probably everyone else involved was often written on her face, and told my girlfriend and me that Linda was actually now doing a lot better. She was convalescing nicely and was feeling a lot happier in general. Julie said that Linda had gotten over the depression and seemed to have a new lease on life.

As I listened to Julie speak about Linda, I felt genuinely encouraged. I was happy Linda was doing much better -- perhaps she going to be even stronger than she had been -- and she now seemed ready to move on with her life.

Again, Linda and her condition slipped to the back of my mind. I really didn't think much more about her, until a month later when my girlfriend got a call on her cellphone from Julie. "What!" my girlfriend exclaimed into the phone. "Oh no…."

Oh no was right. Julie called to say that the cancer was back -- and with a vengeance. And to make matters worse, Linda was too weak to undergo any more chemo or surgery. The doctors said that the situation was so desperate that they thought it would be best if Julie and all Linda's relatives drop everything and come to the hospital to be with her.

Terrible news, of course, but honestly, I held out hope. I was sure that with all the medical miracles that are worked these days, the doctors would be able to help Linda in some way and that she would be OK. My girlfriend said that she thought I was being naive, but I didn't think I was, and I just chalked up my girlfriend's grave attitude to her being German -- "always" looking on the down side.

But two weeks after this phone call, my girlfriend got a brief Facebook message. Linda had died. The spinal cancer that had come back after her surgery truly was vicious, and it ultimately led to kidney failure and death. All I said upon hearing the news was one exasperated word, "No…" The news hit me hard. It hit me hard not only because it had all occurred so quickly but because even though I had never met Linda, over time I had become invested in her; I was sorta there with her. I was with her when she was down, but I was with her when she was up, too. I had really put, or had tried to put, myself in her shoes and feel with her when I had learned she was really down and I had really tried to feel with her when I had learned she was feeling up again, too.

But then to learn that the cancer came back with such a vengeance and that death came with what seemed like atavistic speed, it really shook me. Maybe I'm naive. Some people have called me that. But for what it's worth -- and I really don't know what it is worth -- the whole story still hurts me. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The off season

I WANT TO TALK about a really nice time I had with my mom last February. It all began when I took two weeks off from my job in Pennsylvania and went home to my mother’s house in Great Neck, Long Island.

At the time, I was very close to moving away to Germany, to finally joining my girlfriend, who lives there. I was to leave to Germany in two months, in April, actually. Thus, my mom and I knew that we should make the most of our time together.

My mom suggested that we go to Montauk for a few days. I think she thought it would be nice to see the seals that are supposed to migrate both to Montauk and the Hamptons during the winter and can be seen along the region's beaches.

I agreed to the trip and we set off early one morning during the beginning or the middle of the week. My mom wanted to make the time in Montauk really nice so she suggested we stay at a hotel that is well known and is right on the Atlantic Ocean. During the winter, the hotels in the Hamptons and Montauk don’t have nearly as many bookings so you can get a really good rate on a room.

We got to the hotel and even though it indeed was amazingly situated -- on a bluff, a few feet away from the Atlantic Ocean -- it was nothing too extravagant. A series of bungalows comprised the place and many of those bungalows, from the outside at least, were relatively basic and were on stilts.

As my mom checked in, I wandered over to an area in the lobby where there were display cases advertising merchandise sold in several of the hotel’s shops. In front of one of these display cases was a cocktail table and on it a glass bottle filled with water. There were several tiny cups half filled with water in front of the bottle. A small sign on the table said the cups were filled with the bottle’s contents and that I should help myself to a try.

I picked up one of the small cups, took a sip and was immediately shocked and disgusted. It was salty! It was warm, salty...saltwater! I examined the label on the bottle  -- I had only glanced at it before --  as well as the sign that told me to help myself. The label explained that what I had in front of me was local seawater, thought to be salubrious. The sign said that anyone interested in buying this particular brand of bottled seawater could purchase it in one of the hotel’s shops.

I must have looked a bit disconcerted after having drunk this liquid because when my mom finally came to collect me, she asked why I looked so strange.

“Oh, no reason,” I told her.

We wanted to go to the lighthouse that afternoon and look around for the seals but we both said that first we wanted to have a glance at our room. We walked out of the lobby, crossed the parking lot and walked into our building, "3."

The first thing I noticed about our room was the view. The room itself was smart and tidy but the huge window near one of the double beds was the pièce de résistance. We overlooked the ocean. In fact, we were so close to the ocean and on such a high perch that when you looked out the window all you saw was ocean, and sky, of course. There was a big balcony made of wood and even though it was relatively early in the day, the soft, evocative light falling on the room’s wall and carpet looked like something out of an Edward Hopper painting.

“Shall we go to the lighthouse?” my mom asked. I said yeah and we were on our way.

THE MONTAUK LIGHTHOUSE is very big. It’s also famous. It is located at the very end --  literally, at the very tip -- of Long Island, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a draw. Usually, tons of tourists can be seen mulling around the lighthouse, the lighthouse visitors center and the beach. But not on this day. The entire parking lot near the lighthouse was all but empty. My mom and I wanted to find the trail that was supposed to start on the beach in front of the lighthouse and end at the spot on the beach where the seals are known to congregate in winter, but there were no signs for it. We asked a few surfers who were hanging out by their car in the parking lot if they knew how to find this trail but they were as clueless as we were.

My mom thought the best idea would be to make a few calls on her cell phone for information. As she did this, I walked away from her and onto a promenade, where I began taking pictures with a camera I’d brought with me. It was a cloudless day, must have been around 48 to 50 degrees, and even though we didn’t yet know exactly how to find the place we wanted to go, I figured I’d take advantage of the moment. I took pictures of the ocean, of the big white lighthouse with that thick maroon cummerbund around its midsection and of the quarter-operated binocular towers that were on the promenade.

When my mom got off the phone, she was squinting because the sun was in her eyes but she was also smiling. I’m not exactly sure whom she called but she now thought she knew where to find the trail.

We found a break in the thicket separating the outer edges of the parking lot from the sandy beach and together walked onto the beach. Which, it turned out, was deserted too.

But my God, was it beautiful. The sky was a pure blue and the light was magnificent. Actually, the light in the Hamptons and Montauk, I should stop to say, is very special. It’s a very calm, warm light, which really brings out the essence of things. We walked closer to the shore and were immediately awed by the array of shells that were on the ground. Big shells, small shells, bright orange shells, iridescent shells, bone-white shells, tiny shells, shells with amethyst-color swirls, striated shells, shells with holes, blue shells.

My mom and I fight, or quarrel, a lot but sometimes when we’re surrounded by art or things that are beautiful or awe-inspiring, we get on this wavelength where we feed off each other’s passion for the objects at hand and subsequently whip ourselves into a kind of euphoria as we discuss and compare them.

This was one of those times.

There were dozens of impossibly large seagulls landing in the surf, touching down amid the palpable sea mist, and there we were, walking along a beach that was all our own, just amazed by the myriad of seashells and by all the pieces of driftwood and other natural objects.

After walking the beach for some time with our noses to the ground, we finally got to the place where the seals were supposed to be. It was a little eerie because we had walked several miles and the entire time we hadn’t seen another soul. The lighthouse was to our backs and by now appeared very small; tall grasses springing forth from sand and the odd pond were to our left, the vast ocean to our right.

I spotted a homemade sign planted in the sand that said that the path leading to the seals was straight ahead and in order to gain access to it all you had to do was first go off the beach and walk up on the large dune that was visible straight ahead

I showed the sign to my mom and said, “Look, we’re almost there.” I started to walk off the beach, into the grassy area, when my mom told me to stop, not to go. Though I protested, I knew what she was talking about: if we walked off the beach, we’d be walking away from any semblance of safety. Though by no means did it appear that we were in any kind of danger or would be if we left the beach, I sorta knew in my heart that, in this remote area, it would not be that wise to walk off the beach, where at least we were visible to others who might come on it.

I protested a little more, saying, “Come on! We want to see the seals.” But my mom said that she didn’t think it was a good idea and that she thought we should turn around and go back. I ceded to her wishes in a grudging manner but I was secretly happy that she had made the suggestion.

The sun was casting a bronze light on the entire landscape by this point, and we took our time as we headed back to the lighthouse, stopping every few minutes to look at the shells or to pick them up or compare them.

All the beachcombing really worked up our appetites and when we finally got back into town -- it’s about a 15-minute drive from the beach -- we were happy to see that at least one store was open, a pizza place. Montauk is essentially a fishing village and even though it has become trendier in recent years, there still aren’t many restaurants or stores in the old town, and whatever is there isn’t often open in February, the off season.

We walked into the pizza place and after we had had our fill -- I had a buffalo chicken slice and my mom got a corner Sicilian slice, just like she always does -- we decided to stroll the streets a bit. All the stores and buildings on the main drag in the old village are mostly two-stories, which makes you feel like you could be sauntering down some Main Street out of the1950s. I remember thinking it was curious to see a fishing shop boarded up. A fishing shop out of Montauk? Maybe those boards on the windows were there to protect the glass in a storm, I hypothesized.

We walked a little more and remarked on things like how peculiar we found it that a six-story apartment building was constructed among all the two-story buildings and how this six-story building stuck out like a sore thumb. We decided to turn into an alleyway for some reason and there we happened upon a huge seagull sitting on the roof of a car. My mom slowly took out her camera and took a picture.

BACK AT THE HOTEL, we decided we wanted to have dinner but we also wanted first to just hang out a bit. I decided I’d go workout for a few. The hotel’s workout room was within the hotel’s spa, so I walked to the building that housed the spa. There was almost no one there. A receptionist greeted me and told me how to get to the workout room. I repeated back to her the directions she had just given me, just to be sure, and then walked down this long hallway that had floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the right side and floor-to-ceiling windows on the left. The ocean was right there. The workout room was all mirrors and glass, as well. The workout machines were really nice and new and only a handful of people were working out in this room. But the best thing about the experience of working out in this particular spot, I thought, was the fact that it was possible to look out at the ocean while exercising. Again, I couldn’t help but think that in some way, because of that light, I was in an Edward Hopper painting.

When I got back to the room, my mom was sitting on her bed listening to the TV and looking at the shells she had collected. We both agreed we should go to dinner soon. But first my mom said she’d like to take a walk.

When she left, I took out some art supplies that I had brought with me. I had been learning how to paint with watercolors around this time and I sort of felt inspired. As my mom walked the darkening beach --  the sun was really beginning to go down at this point -- I sat at the desk and painted a seashell. At one point I walked onto the balcony and looked down. I saw my mom walking on the beach. The dusk was gathering and above the iron-gray horizon the sky was a band of red fading into a band of orange. You could hear the waves crashing and my mom looked absolutely tiny as she walked on this huge beach with no one else on it. She was bundled up and wearing ear warmers and the wind was blowing her hair. I went back into the room and finished the painting.

At dinner, we sat in a glass room that looked out at only blackness but by day looked out at the ocean. My mom didn’t order anything special but I had prime rib, and we sat there and talked and I felt like a real adult. I knew that I was going to be leaving to Europe pretty soon and I didn’t know when I’d be back, so I was really able to see my mom in a different light. I was able to evaluate the importance of our relationship. You don’t usually get to appreciate someone like that, at least while they’re still around. It was nice, sitting there with my mom, a candle on our table, talking over our meal and then over dessert, coffee and ice cream.

The next day we got up and drove back. It was kinda sad but OK, too. I missed my girlfriend and I wanted to talk with her on the phone. I hadn’t wanted my girlfriend to bother me with phone calls when I was hanging out with my mom, but by now I missed her and wanted to talk to her. During the car ride back, I napped a tiny bit. I also read a bit to my mom from “Moby-Dick.” I had been reading the book and I had kept mentioning how boring I was finding it, so my mom told me to read a few pages to her so she could hear for herself. She listened as she drove on the Long Island Expressway but after a few minutes she said that I should probably stop. It was too hard to drive and simultaneously pay attention to the difficult prose of that epic novel.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Pretty woman

So today I saw a pretty woman. Man, she was pretty.

I had just finished an appointment tutoring English and I was walking to the train station from the building where the appointment had been. It was a gray day and I put in my earphones and turned on my iPod to enliven the walk. The iPod was set to "shuffle" and the second song that came on was "Pretty Woman" by Roy Orbison. I was thinking about how utterly catchy and simple the opening drum riff is -- dun! dun! dun! dun! -- as I walked, passing an imposing brick penitentiary to my right. The song was up to the bridge, that part where it's like, "Pretty woman stop a while/Pretty woman talk a while," when I saw her.

But I hadn't known that she was pretty yet.

I just noticed that she was a girl. I saw that she was wearing tight pink jeans and brown boots. I was crossing the street toward her and she was bending down. But it wasn't anything sexy by any means. She was bending down because a piece of paper that had been in her hand -- I think it was a napkin -- had fallen out of her hand. The wind was blowing the napkin away from her and she was trying to catch it. She finally did and when she did, she quickly turned completely away from me and lifted the metal hatch to a dumpster that was behind her.

I noticed at this point that she was tall but I also noticed that her pants were sagging in the back, by her butt. I was unhappy about this because I couldn't check out her butt with her pants like that...I couldn't make out her form with her pants sagging. Also, I thought, "Wow, it looks like not every girl in Germany is perfectly put together." Because, man, girls in Germany, at least from what I have found, are always perfectly put together -- perfectly fitting jeans, tops, coats; perfect make up, hair; perfectly coordinating colors. But this woman's jeans, gosh darn it, were sagging in the back (though, to be fair, her look may have been thrown off a bit because she had been crouching when she was trying to catch the napkin).

Once I fully crossed the street -- at this point, you should know, the song was up to the part, "Pretty woman, yeah, yeah, yeah..." -- she turned from the garbage and looked my way.

And she was pretty.

She had brown-blonde hair up to her shoulders and every single strand, I swear, seemed to fall into place. Her face had sculpture. It was almost like a doll's face, but the woman was there. Yes, she did have high cheekbones, like many women and men here in Germany; the stereotype is true. Her eyes were blue and she wore just a touch of gray eye shadow, which turned them from what must have been a basic blue to royal blue. She was fit with a nice fitting coat and suede boots -- jeans tucked into them -- and the hood of her coat was fringed with what looked like fox hair.

She looked right at me and she was that kind of pretty that you just look in her face and you think, "Wow, now that's a pretty woman right there." And you get this feeling like, "Even if everything isn't perfect in my life, it's still kinda cool to be alive and to be able to have a pretty woman look you straight in the face like that."

I gave her a sympathetic smile -- after all, I'd just watched her chase after a dirty napkin and then lug open a big garbage hatch to deposit it. She didn't react to my look. She just looked at me.

I kept on walking until she was out of the frame of my view. Though she was out of my direct sight, something was still reverberating in my imagination. I didn't look back, though. I just kept on my way, listening to "Pretty Woman" and thinking about how it really is nice to see one.

Dun! dun! dun! dun!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Explained: "sympathy" vs. "empathy"

OK, I have a lot of energy right now so I think I'm just going to bang out a post. I want to discuss for a hot second something that has confused me when writing and when talking. "Sympathy" vs. "empathy." Come on, you know that you, too, have at some point been confused about when to use which.

But today, I finally got it. What happened was I was in a library waiting to meet someone and as I sat there waiting I noticed a big ol' Oxford English Dictionary sitting on a shelf. I had a few minutes before this person was to arrive, so I thought, "Let me finally try to get to the bottom of this 'sympathy' vs. 'empathy' thing." I had tried to get my head around the distinction in the past but had never been perfectly successful.

So I went over, grabbed the dictionary and opened it. And I finally got it, I think.

But I'm not going to reproduce here the exact OED definitions that I read. I'm not going to try to explain the difference between the two words to you that way. Instead, I'm going to sorta summarize both definitions and then help you fully get it by using the words in separate scenarios.

So basically "sympathy" is when you feel for someone; like, when you try your best to show a person that you care for his or her feelings. "Empathy" is when you actually understand and can really relate to the other person's feelings.

So, to illustrate "sympathy." Let's say you miss a very, very important train because the taxi you called to take you from your hotel to the train station was late, then got stuck in traffic, then was further delayed because the main road leading to the train station was closed.

Now, when you finally arrive at the ticket booth of the train station to see if another train is heading to the same destination later in the day, you say to the ticket booth worker: "Damn it! I can't believe I just missed my train. Now I probably won't be able to see my friend in another city who is very sick. I tried to make the train and wanted to so bad, but so many things prevented me."

If the ticket booth worker says to you -- "Jeez, I am so sorry. It sounds as though you tried to run to get here as fast as you could and it was very difficult for you. I see you're sweating. This all must have been very hard for you.  Let me see if there is anything I can do. Maybe we can get you on a special train tonight to where you need to go..." -- then she would be expressing sympathy for you. She cares for your feelings.

However, if the ticket booth worker were to have this response -- "Oh my god, I am so sorry that you missed the train to your friend. That's terrible. I remember one time, I also missed a train that I needed desperately. And I know exactly how you feel because I was actually on my way to see a friend that needed me really badly, too, and it was so terrible not to be able to be there for him because I just wanted to give him my support. I understand exactly what you must be going through"-- then the ticket booth worker would be empathetic to you. She understands -- truly understands -- your feelings.

Yup, so there it is, folks: the difference between "sympathy" and "empathy." I hope you've enjoyed the show.