Observations...

Studio City Blotter / Harry & Kate

 

The last time I saw my friend – weʼll call him Harry for the sake of this story – he was in New York in the midst of a tour with the big band he managed. Harry wasnʼt young, but that didnʼt stop him from indulging, on occasion, in the benefits of being on tour. Once such indulgence, sexual of course, lasted much longer than he ever imagined it would.

Now just to set the record straight, there are no STDs, AIDs, or other physical ailments involved – but thatʼs the bad news. Those problems can be cured, or at least managed, by medication. Itʼs the problems of the heart – or is it the head – that have stumped doctors and psychologists since time immemorial.

So my friend Harry, a moderately fit and attractive middle aged man, was in between exes and felt like sampling the fruits of life before his teeth fell out and his taste buds were no longer able to differentiate between low cholesterol pudding and high fiber porridge. And it just so happened that, for reasons that werenʼt entirely clear, the leader of the horn section, a high-energy spitfire blond weʼll call Kate, took an outsized interest in Harry. As we all know, the opportunities for changing hotel beds on tour are endless, so one night, after a few winding-down-after-the-show drinks had been consumed, Harry invited Kate upstairs to his room. She accepted, and thatʼs how the affair began.

New York was exciting that fall. Fashionistas stalking about in the latest trends, a robust economy, mild weather in the day and plenty of patrons cuing up in the chill evening air for a blast of nostalgia delivered by Harryʼs storied crooner and his seventeen piece band. Kate, a veteran in her mid-thirties, was in full control of the local hires, and even the rhythm section that always traveled with the singer let her set the pace. Her oversized lungs, bellowing under ample bosoms, never ran out of air, and her teeth never cracked the reed. But for all her strength and vigor, it was her lips and tongue that did the most damage. Not to the instrument though, but to Harry.

You see, after honking and blowing out all night, what Kate most desired after the show was something to suck in on. It was almost like she needed to be replenished with semen. To say that, at first, Harry was upset at this behavior, would be misleading. The week-long stint at the Oak Room was one of the best runs the band ever had (I think they recorded one of the nights and put it out as a live CD). and Harry was able to extend the tour for another month on word of mouth about the gig. Kateʼs performances, mellowed by her nocturnal activities, elevated her staccato runs to melodic heights. It was moment-in-time when the stars were aligned and all was well with the world, at least from the bandʼs point of view.

But stretches like this only last so long, and even though this occurred at the dawn of the Viagra days, Harryʼs gun only had some many bullets. As the shots became less frequent, so did Kateʼs satisfaction, and the bandʼs ability to kill the audience started to skew off target. By the time they were ending the second week in Boston, Harry was trying to spend more time with Kate outdoors than in bed – so they officially started dating. That meant that they held hands in public, ate together, and their poorly kept secret was now everybodyʼs business. Harryʼs long-term relationship with his artist, a prima-donna by definition, made his pairing with another musician on the tour awkward. Kateʼs ambitions to have her own solo career fueled the jealousy. Questioned allegiances, seating arrangement arguments, and general unraveling of the power structure ensued. But that wasnʼt the end of it.

Harry liked being fought over – and he liked the affection. And neither of those conditions could be met without Kateʼs attention. Tempers began to boil and the band took sides. Then one predictable travel day, when Harry had to stay behind for twenty-four hours to tidy up their business, the situation erupted at an airport in Pittsburgh. Something was said – it doesnʼt matter what anymore – and Kate flew into a rage and threw her cell phone against an airport waiting room window. The airport police who finally got Harry on the phone told her he needed to calm her down or they were going to lock her up for disturbing the peace. Harry got there a few hours later and escorted her from the underground holding cell directly to the hotel, but it was too late. No amount of intimacy was sufficient, and the relationship officially died when Kate realized that Harry wasnʼt going to sacrifice his proven breadwinner artist for her unpredictable future.

Mercifully, there were only a few more dates to play and Kate was professional enough to fake her way through them. But thatʼs not the end of the story. It was several months after they had all finally filtered back to Los Angeles and resumed their lives that Harry got a call from the head of the musicianʼs union. Kate had filed a complaint. Harry, who always kept meticulous records, explained the personal nature of the grievance, and assured the official that no union rules had been broken. In private, the Union official listened to Harryʼs explanation of her aberrational behavior, but insisted that, despite the probable truth and evidence to support Harryʼs claim, Kateʼs standing dictated that her claim that could not be ignored. Harry was told that he needed to settle.

Now I should mention here that Kate had not entirely abandoned the idea that Harry would someday recognized her star potential, and hoped that even if his romantic interest had waned, he would give her career the time and attention it so obviously deserved. For his part, Harryʼs libido had gone into remission, and he was much too busy to make time for what he categorized as a high risk act. Kate, he assumed correctly, had initiated the claim as a way to get his attention.

But Harryʼs good standing with the Union was important, so he knew he needed to resolve the matter. He did so by drafting a Union approved document that did not admit to the shortages Kate had claimed, but paid her a lump sum bonus in the same amount for all the "extra effort" she had given on tour. Kate and the Union head accepted, but, about two weeks after completing their business, the Union official called Harry again – this time for advice. Kate, he told him, had been so appreciative of the officialʼs handling of the case that she had begun to call him – frequently – at home. His wife was starting to suspect that it wasnʼt official business and could Harry offer any advice. All Harry could do was laugh. “Tag, youʼre it,” he told him.

Writer's Lament

 

In a well-lit cafeteria on a nondescript Sunday morning, a pauper sat easing the first hunger of the day with a cup of tea and bread. Alternately eating and staring into space, he consulted a notebook with his pen.

This was another day of waiting. Not mindless waiting, oblivious to the world around him, but resigned and calculated waiting. Waiting for inspiration, waiting for opportunity, waiting for fate to call his name. It was not the first, and probably not the last Sunday morning that would find him imagining honey and jam on vapid bread, or copyrights and forwards in his sloppy binder. There was no good reason to expect praiseworthy reviews for the jumbled ideas scattered on his papers – no one else had ever seen them. Still, was resigned to exhaust the ink in his purloined stash of pens, and repurpose more discarded copy paper until he didn’t know when.

The cafeteria was moderately crowded, but he sat without apprehension or anxiety, having become inured to the whispers and stares some time ago. And who could say that this no-one wasn’t Thomas Moore writing “Utopia”, or Homer first envisioning his “Odyssey”? Or that he wouldn’t sit there until he was.

The Laundry Bird

 

It was startling when I first heard it; a harsh warble somewhere up in the trees that mark the entrance to the deep woods. Our house is tucked into the side of a steep, rocky hill where suburbia ends, and I couldnʼt see anything through the thick cover of leaves. The sound continued, off and on every few days, always in the same general area, and I couldnʼt imagine what kind of agitated birds might be nesting up there.


It wasnʼt the turkey vultures that I know live there. They rarely make any noise as they glide over the back yard looking for casualties and roadkill. They might squawk once in a while to keep in touch as their ever-widening circles drift higher and further apart, but if they found something edible, the calls would become loud and frequent until all the members of their clan were informed of the bounty. Iʼve seen as many as thirty of the giant birds sitting quietly in the trees and bushes near the carcass of a dead deer, waiting their turn, chatting amongst themselves like the queued patrons at the food concession of a sporting event. It definitely wasnʼt the turkey vultures I heard.
And it definitely wasnʼt the nesting red-tailed hawks either. Iʼve heard them caw now-and -again, but mostly they glide silently and whistle to each other with audible radar. They might hum quietly to themselves, relishing the bloody delight of a fresh squirrel as they pick at the sinews and fur, but they never boast about it because they donʼt want to invite anyone else to lunch, and this sound I heard was way too loud for a discreet diner. I guessed it could have been some other kind of hawk I never heard before. Maybe a new arrival from somewhere south taking advantage of climate change?


But it definitely wasnʼt the giant pileated woodpeckers. Theyʼre my favorite birds and I know exactly what they sound like. Ever hear Woody Woodpecker? Thatʼs the pileated, to a tee. And it wasnʼt crows or bluejays. They usually come as a group and can be seen moving through the branches, cackling obnoxiously like a group of teenagers playing jungle warfare. Starlings and grackles behave the same way, and the sound was too strange to confuse it with a mewing catbird or a cooing dove. But I thought it must of been something big, because no bird except a wren could make a noise that loud. But I knew it wasnʼt a wren because, besides the squeakiness, there was an underlying, low-frequency grind that repeated itself. Almost as if the creature was somehow making its stomach talk through its throat. I did say it was weird. I thought it might be an insect because they can get pretty loud, but it definitely wasnʼt just a cicada or katydid because their chafing wings make a chorus of familiar sounds that arenʼt at all scary or strange.


There are only so many big birds around here, so I guessed it could have been a nesting duck or goose, although this thing definitely wasnʼt quacking or honking like a water-bird. Iʼve heard low-flying swans make a weird whistling noise as they whooshed over the lake, but they sound like all the other water-birds when theyʼre not flying and I donʼt know what any of the water birds would be doing high up in the trees half the summer.
I thought it might be a wild tom turkey looking for a mate because that gobbling sound they make is pretty close to the low tone part of what I heard, but turkeys donʼt go into the upper registers and squeal – or at least Iʼve never heard them do it. And I think they nest on the ground, donʼt they?


Then I thought it might be an owl because I know they probably nest up there. Owls can be weird and, no matter how many summersʼ nights Iʼve heard them, those spooky hoot owls sound like howling ghosts and always manage to scare me. Their echoey hoots bypass my sleepy mind, run right down the back up my spine, and I wake up with a jolt. Maybe thereʼs a creepy owl that has a daytime song that does the same thing. There are lots of kinds of owls, so I thought maybe it was an owl I donʼt know about. But what would owls be doing up in the middle of the day? It was bright daylight every time I heard the strange squealing sound. Sunny, hot, and definitely not the usual time one expects to hear owls.


So then I thought maybe it wasnʼt a bird after all. Maybe it was some kind of other creature. Definitely not a deer or bear or coyote or anything big and hairy. The sound was too high-pitched for that. I figured it had to be made in the throat or through the nose of something smaller. Iʼve heard the ground hogs make those kinds of squealing noises during mating season. They usually do it at night though, right on the hill outside our window. Iʼve heard them grunt and bark and yelp too– I canʼt imagine what groundhog mating must be like – but I donʼt think groundhogs climb trees or mate in the branches of a towering oak in the middle of a hot day.
It had to have been been something else. Maybe a fox or skunk, or some kind of giant climbing rodent I never knew existed. Or maybe a weird kind of tree frog, or the desperate sound some frightened animal makes when itʼs being attacked or eaten. I had no idea.


The sound went on, every few days for several weeks. One day my wife heard it and got really excited. She thought it might be a new species or a group of aliens camped out behind the house. She called me outside to listen and we both just stood there, waiting for the creaky warble to cascade down from behind the leafy curtain. I got the binoculars out and adjusted them to infinity. My eyes arenʼt that good anymore, but I thought I saw something white moving through the treetops. My wife had a look and she saw it too. Then the sound stopped for the day and we just sat there wondering.


This whole mystery lasted throughout the summer. Weʼd be sitting on our patio and it would start, and go on for about fifteen minutes, and then nothing for the rest of the day. And it was always the same sound. That was another weird thing about it. It was almost like a recording on a vinyl record that skips in the same place. Eventually we just gave up trying to figure it out. Whatever it was never came any closer and didnʼt seem like threat. It was curious that our dogs didnʼt ever bark at it. Thatʼs what really got me thinking that maybe there was another explanation. Dogs always know what the other animals are up to and they obviously didnʼt care. Then in October, when the leaves were starting to fall I heard the noise again. But this time I could definitely see something moving; something white, lurching through the treetops like a fisherman plays his lure on top of the water. Maybe it was the babies finally leaving the nest, hopping along the branches? I got out the binoculars again and there, on top of the rock ridge, I finally saw it clearly, inching methodically through the trees, squeaking Iike a rusty wheel; a tidy row of drying underwear jerking its way along the laundry line behind my neighborʼs house.

How to Sell a Car in New Zealand

My son recently went to New Zealand to surf away some of the tensions accrued earning a magna-cum-laude graduate degree at a very competitive four-year university. He wanted to take some time off before going on to graduate school and had arranged to partially support himself doing freelance web design with the laptop-based equipment.  After helping him think through the details of his “year off”, my wife and I were mostly supportive.

A bright pink poster from the cult film “The Endless Summer” dominated the wall of his room and the idea of recreating that experience consumed him. He bought surfing magazines, rented surfing videos, and even donned his winter wetsuit to brave the less than glamorous, winter-chilled New Jersey shore in his quest to become the Zen surfing master he aspired to be. His interest in surfing eclipsed and supplanted his prior musical ambitions, and his career trajectory as a performer was relegated to strumming an acoustic guitar in between waves. We were not happy, but thought that ultimately, neither guitar playing nor surfing would come to define or support him.


His plans called for a preliminary six-week stint in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where he would join his close friend and traveling companion before the both of them set off for New Zealand. Plans were made to stay in New Zealand for three or four months before moving on to other surfing destinations in Thailand, Indonesia, and South Africa. Their “World Tour” had been developed over a their final semesters at college and nothing, seemingly, had been left to chance. Google maps and extensive Internet research had provided them with and abundance of information about the places they were going. They met regularly to discuss where they would be staying at each location, how much living there was likely to cost, and what type of local work they might be able to find. They looked into work visas, exchange rates, food shopping, youth hostels, transportation, travelers insurance, internet access, simm card phones, and, most of all, local surfing. Buying a car was not part of the original plan.

Tickets to their sequenced destinations all the way to Indonesia were purchased before the final semester ended, and they were both in Brazil by August, living as they had envisioned. The first reports included the pleasant surprise of friendly English speaking roommates in the flat they had rented near Sao Paulo University, and although the surfing beach was too far away for more than one expedition, and the weather less than inviting for riding the waves, the stay in Brazil was relatively successful. His friend was offered a full time position at the conclusion of his journeys, and our son filmed and edited an interesting piece on local graffiti artists while being paid to help with the website of his States-based client.

After Brazil, they stopped for two weeks in French Polynesia where they managed to get a few days in the water, though much of the time there  was devoted to procuring food, shelter, and relief from insects and spare accommodations. Dan redesigned the website of a local “hotel” owner, who, as payment, allowed them to sleep in one of the elevated outdoor wood platforms with open walls and a thatched palm roof for a few days. They met a few other seasoned travelers who confirmed their observation that their time would be more favorably spent in New Zealand than Samoa and cut their visit short.

They landed in Auckland in October and immediately put their well-conceived plans into motion. But renting and apartment in an area of town that they had thought would be ideal proved problematic, so they settled for a sparse flat near the center of town. Thanks to an exceedingly affordable international dialing plan, we had regular contact via his cell phone. Somewhere along the line the travelers forgot about getting jobs, and all their energies became focused on satisfying their pent up desires for remote beaches and perfect sets.

Having calculated that it would be cheaper to buy, use for a few months, then resell a vehicle than simply rent one, they purchased a1999 Nissan station wagon from a local dealer and emailed us a picture of the two happy surfer boys with the boards strapped to the roof rack. The picture, taken on the first day, was taken at the site of their first certifiably attained remote surfing beach a few hours before they discovered the flat tire. Fortunately, they had purchased and extended warrantee, and the dealership paid for the tow truck and sold them a new set of tires.

Auckland’s urban excitement was not enough to hold their New York metropolitan attention, and having already been to most of the local spots, they decided to abandon their apartment and head out on the road in search of other remote, legendary surfing areas. Their transportation proved perfect for the mission, and over the course of the next few months they moved from beach to beach, stopping to hike the sights along the way and sleeping in the tent they had purchased, experiencing all the glory of the endless summer – or so we were told.

After an extended tour of the country’s legendary surf spots, they sold their car back to the dealer and shipped a few boxes full of belongings home before leaving for Thailand. Several weeks later, two heavy boxes from New Zealand arrived at our house. During one of our regular phone calls, our son urged his brother to open the boxes he had mailed and retrieve the gifts he had sent home for the family. His brother eagerly complied, separating his trophy tee shirt from the abalone shells for the family collection, keepsake surfing magazines, dog eared books, dirty clothes, and collected knickknacks. It was a disorderly unpacking and the contents of the boxes lay strewn on an unused bedroom floor for the next few months.

A few weeks before he was scheduled to return, and several months after he had left New Zealand, we were asked to look through the contents of the boxes and retrieve the check he had been given as payment for the car. I couldn't fathom why he had mailed the check home, and we were initially unable to locate it in the pile of unsorted contents. Through increasingly urgent phone calls, we were instructed to look for an envelope with the check hidden in one of the books that had been sent back. We had no luck, and to make matters worse, each time we looked the pile got more chaotic. The potential loss ran into the thousands and I did not hesitate to inform surfer-boy of the waterlogged  thinking that prompted him to send a check from foreign country home in a box rather than cash or deposit it where it was issued.

After I had fulfilled my role as parental admonisher, I decided to have just one more look around the room without the distraction of his frenetic mother or brother. I finally found, under a pile of tattered magazines and ragged shorts, a small white envelope with a check stapled to the receipt for the automotive transaction. But my relief was extremely short-lived, because as I triumphantly descended the stair waving the discovered treasure, I read the words “non negotiable” stamped diagonally across the face of the oversized check in giant twenty point type. I was shocked that my otherwise brilliant college grad would accept a bogus check. I shared my amazement with my wife and other son, who couldn’t wait to call his older brother to give him the embarrassing good news / bad news.

Despite his brother’s hilarious and punishing observation that he had accepted a “Happy Gilmore check” as payment for his car, our other son was not moved to panic. He kept saying that the dealer was a nice guy, but It seemed to us that he was living in denial. The loss assessments ricocheted from recrimation to resignation. I repeated my explanation of what it means when a check is stamped “non negotiable” several times, giving him examples of the inducements I regularly receive from credit card companies. He couldn’t believe that the guy he thought was so cool had actually cheated him and entertained some particularly hostile payback fantasies. Pointing out the wisdom of not making the situation worse, I suggested that his options were limited to stopping by New Zealand on his way back home to confront the con men or hiring an Auckland attorney to try to recover his losses. Unfortunately, the receipt from the auto dealer lacked any verifiable description of the vehicle or seller, and the box intended for the vin number was predictably blank – so proving any part of the transaction was going to be basically impossible. Still valiantly hopeful, my wife agreed to deposit the check in my son’s local account, despite the fact that he didn’t have enough money in it to cover the returned check fees. Although no one was brave enough to ask me what I thought anymore, I did consider the possibility that a bounced check might be more prosecutable than just a bogus one, even if the maker was unknown and lived in a foreign country ten thousand miles away.

Weeks passed with no resolution. Our son returned from his travels looking every bit the surf-hardened budget-traveler he had been. We picked him up at Penn station on a freezing spring afternoon and he walked through the biting rain in a tee shirt toting two fifty-pound bags without complaint. Perhaps he had grown up, learned some life lessons, realized some of his dreams, and fulfilled his vision quest. He attacked the remnants of his boyhood room with admirable vigor, and within a few weeks piles of his outgrown past had been evicted and carted off to the recycling center. He still wasn’t sure which of his many interests would define his career path but seemed determined not to make any drastic mistakes
and we were happy to accommodate his deliberations. Of course there were moments – days actually – when we all had doubts about his year off, and no one doubted his decision more than he did. But as the days turned into weeks and his interest in video journalism started to get some positive feedback, we all felt a glimmer of hope.

One day he returned from a trip to town with a wry grin and reported that the check marked “non negotiable” had in fact cleared, and the money was in his bank account. We were amazed, to say the least. I suppose there is no better definition of coming of age than when you get to look your father in the eye and say, “I was right and you were wrong,” and he accepts it without argument.

Koll's Law

Young bio-chemical scientist, Siegfried Koll, was stymied. He had to present his doctoral thesis to the University Board in two days and still hadnʼt come up with enough of a commercial angle to satisfy the requirements. In the tight post-war economy of Germany, administrators demanded that their researchers find a way to justify the expense of their schooling by explaining how their ideas could contribute to the growth of the country.

Siegfried had been studying the effects of specific diets on laboratory animals for six years, and was very confident in the scientific part of his presentation. His specialty was rabbits, and he had developed an ingenious blend of readily available organic materials that caused the animals to experience pronounced growth spurts. But what made his research so special was how different sub-species reacted to the diet; Rabbits from the northern territories could be made to develop bulbous white tails, while ones from the east would grow large elongated ears. He could subtly change the mixture to cause animals who habituated the southern forests to grow larger and be covered with dense fur.  The secret was in the food mixture.

Siegfried had toyed with the idea of presenting the Board Administrators with the solution that large rabbits could be farmed as a new food source, but a colleague who had presented a similar idea using rats had been denied his certificate so he had ruled that out. He also thought about breeding the critters for their pelts, but there wasnʼt much demand for exotic fur in the devastated ranks of German aristocracy. He had tried making a delicacy of deep-fried rabbit ears but no one thought they tasted good. The superstitious use of rabbitsʼ feet and cottontails had been outlawed by a society that shunned paganism.

With only two days to go before his presentation, Siegfried sat minding his toddler as his wife prepared dinner. His entire academic career and his future prospects for employment were at stake. His mind wandered, and in the moment he wasnʼt paying attention, his toddler began eating from the bowl on the kitchen floor where the house rabbits dined.

Siegfriedʼs wife noticed. “What are you eating Hans?” she scolded.

Siegfried scooped the boy up and wiped his face. The toddler was still chewing. “Spit it out!” he demanded. The toddler was uncooperative. “Well if you like that so much, you can have that instead of dinner!” he threatened. The toddler kept chewing and seemed unperturbed.

“Give him a whole bowl of it and see what he does,” his wife suggested sarcastically.

Siegfried complied, and the two parents watched in disbelief as their two-year-old happily consumed everything.

Then Siegfried tasted the mixture himself.

“Whatʼs in it?” his wife asked warily.

“Well itʼs mostly carrots and cabbage. I added some other chemical compounds as well, but they have no taste. The rabbits seem to love it. Try some,” he offered.

His wife reluctantly opened her mouth and allowed a forkfull in. “Not bad," she said, chewing. "Never tasted anything like it before. You say itʼs good for the health?”

“The rabbits have proven that.” Siegfried fell silent and had a vision.

Two days later he presented his theories to the University Board, topping off the event by distributing samples of the rabbit food for their oral edification. The administrators didnʼt really see the scientific value in growing mutant rabbits, but were duly impressed with the taste and texture of their special food. Siegrfried was awarded his degree for his solubrious food concoction, which was eventually named in honor of its inventor, Kollʼs Law salad.