Tile “M” for Worder

Tennis isn’t my game. Racquetball during my college years for sure. But, tennis? Nope.

Now, had I been born a few years earlier, courting Grace Kelly around town on my arm – even in a fantastical whimsy – would have been a possibility. She was a beautiful actress. As Margot Mary Wendice in the 1954 classic directed by Alfred Hitchcock, however, her graceful availability met its match. Tennis pro, Tony Wendice, finds out about his beaus off-court doubles action and can’t help but seek out the ultimate revenge … duh duh duuuuh!! … MURDER! Enter Charles Alexander Swann locker room left. Thus begins a tale of handbags, watches. keys, and … no perfect murder.

Alas, however, I did have the perfect word. SUMP. Tile “M”. This wasn’t a game played on a clay or grass court measuring 120×60 feet, or a mysterious game leading to an apartment full with intrigue and an executioner’s dalliance with a pretty lady. Nope. It happened in the virtual world of “Words with Friends -2” and, without dissembling a single emotion here, I was rather seven-letter overturned by the move. She stole my “M”. It was a letter already so courtly placed as the third in NEMO falling down from LANNER horizontally resting four rows from the bottom of the game board. So beautiful it was. There for the taking as I planned my move.

At once, she struck a blow. I felt trembling in my core. Unexpected, due to her prior text-babbling about “too many E’s … oh, toooo many E’s…”. In the shadow of my pride and delight, the whole virtual board seemed to be – in my mind, anyway – an open oasis for her to use. This little corner of my world – down where the “M” sat – was to be my multiple-point score … an ace she didn’t see coming. Ah, yes … the “S” to pluralize SQUAT draping down, “U”, then the magical “M”, … and “P” to finish off a 4-letter other-wordly experience she had no idea was festering in my mind.

Then. Then, “E-M-C-E-E” slapped me. She stole my “M”. Hijacked my happy little corner, she did. And I must say, …although I have no way to prove this, I believe there was a smirk about her face as she did it. Oh, for the record, I’m soooo glad she was able to use those E’s! (sarcasm, of course)

Currently, I’m losing 153-95 and not happy about it. I have 4 words against her 6 thus far with my turn in play at present. Due to my switching tiles and losing a turn, the turns are a wonky one-off at this point. There are 47 letters left in the game. Oh, boy. Fifty-eight points behind isn’t a satisfactory place to be against a player who plays well, steals my letters I don’t actually have until it’s my turn, and, admittedly, may be a slightly better tile-placer than I … “may be” until proven otherwise.

It’s just a game. I’m having fun. A moment of frustration shouldn’t ruin the fun. I am over it. I think, anyway. Looking at my current rack of letters, the next tile-ation will cause some consternation as I, now, find myself full with 5 vowels and little expectation. The 2 consonants facing back at me don’t offer much hand-holding hope, either. Seven letters of little longing at this point.

Racquetball was easier. Break a good sweat? Done. Those days are gone. Now it’s mind games more than physical exercise. Older knees know how to ruin quick, sharp turns and the high-energy, two-hour long little racquet, blue-ball chasing interludes of mine, perhaps, are over. I miss the echoes in a racquetball court. The squeak of rubber soles on the wooden floors and grunts that bounced around my youth are so missed.

Today, replaced by tiles, I guess. Oh, and other virtual games on my little hand held device. Once in a while, I pick up one of a few bowling balls in my closet and roll a few games to re-visit the 3-D world of gaming we used to live in back in the 20th century.

Games. We can’t forget how to play. Even the ones frustrating us at times, we can’t lose sight of the fun. I’m 95% sure the loss of the “M” yesterday is in my rearview mirror as I move forward with the current game. The remaining 5% is yet to be determined depending upon the remaining 47 letters in the queue. I will conquer the board, but may not win. The virtual quandary will be my inability to dump the board if – and when – I eventually lose.

No problem finishing a tennis match, however, because I won’t be playing one … virtual or otherwise. Wii won’t be doing it together, my virtual “Words with Friends-2” partner and I, since she can’t EMCEE the match and play at the same time. That in mind, I’ll sit with these ridiculous 7 letters in my rack trying to come up with my own version of, “Where on the board is SHE thinking of playing so I can hijack her ‘M’?”…

Grace? I have none at this point and most likely wouldn’t have her on my arm 67 years ago. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to plot my next move. Five vowels and two consonants … I believe I may be in trouble here. Calling the spirit of Mr. Hitchcock. I see another movie in the making …

Benedictine Deliciousness

Yesterday’s hours included a “haven’t had in a long time” morning fare. As the waitress approached my booth with plate in hand, I knew … just knew … the early rain outside wasn’t going to dampen my spirits. It’s been ages since eggs benedict sat wonderfully in front of me. Waiting.

Even though opening was a short three hours away, my prep work behind schedule, and a Sunday tired already setting in on my eyes, this breakfast was going to be enjoyed. I needed a break. A Sunday morning – away from it all – fresh break. A well done Hollandaise sauce calmly dripping over two finely done eggs on a plate was the perfect breakfast to see as a very nice waitress placed smiles in front of me.

Deep breath in, fork at the ready … Didn’t matter what other booths and tables were occupied at my local Eat N’Park. Restrictions prohibit the breakfast bar next to where I sat from being stuffed with fruit, eggs, toast, pudding, and all the other fixin’s we’ve enjoyed over the years. Paper menus have replaced vinyl fold-outs and condiments arrive in little nondescript tug boats instead of large ships of corporate pride. “Every other” are two-word common place signs featured on tables and booths. I get all this. I do.

As I sat marvelously enjoying my breakfast … casually chatting here and there with friends online, listening to Ed Sheeran, etc … I could see others becoming comfortable with all this. A new normal, kinda. Some things we’re getting used to everyday. No one there, shortly after 8:30 on a rainy, cloudy last day in February, seemed to mind distancing, masking, limited paper menus, or very tiny portion cups filled to the 1/2 inch brim with ketchup … anymore. No eyerolling at nice waitresses or complaining about … really … anything.

A quiet acceptance. Sounds of porcelain calm as utensils graced plates short distances away. Not too many folks were around yesterday morning. Even as I progressed into the second of two eggs and made significant effort in polishing off the pile of skillet potatoes, not a lot of fellow citizens came by to eat. Perhaps a couple, or two, and maybe a few families … that’s about all.

Heading out past the middle row of booths, I did happen by a retired reporter friend who is always very pleasant. Phil never had an unkind word working the local courthouse scene as I sidewalked my first hotdog cart for years. We met years ago and have continued a nice friendship since. So nice to swish by him during a morning when “haven’t had in a long time” was being revisited once again.

Life has those moments … and we need them. I wrote about them last time we met here.

I followed my own advice and sat down to enjoy those eggs, deep breaths, and observations. Fun. New? Yes, the Benedictine deliciousness certainly did make my morning stomach smile. I knew they would. Not too rich, they were. Well done. Side of potatoes and a glass of water? Perfect for the day’s beginning.

Something different to begin an otherwise normal day.

I hope you can find a booth to relax sometime. Order something different you haven’t had in a long time. Treat yourself. Life is a bit off for all of us now. We can be a little different once in a while, too.

Szechuan Time

It was delicious as always. Szechuan chicken from my favorite downtown Chinese restaurant is the best. Period. I ate all of it. The whole pint.

Not much of a surprise, as the day was a long one. Finally sitting down after eight hours on a mildly sore foot, I had the chance to eat. Given the choice between pancakes from the iron skillet at home, another take-out I can’t recall at the moment, or that wonderful spicy delicacy from my go-to, hometown marvelousness a few miles away, … it’s not surprising I had a happy fork last night.

The expected phone call from my dad was not taken on my home phone. Couldn’t. There are times when even a call from my dad couldn’t be answered. Nestled into a warm sofa, I wasn’t able to do much but move forkfuls of steaming baby corn cobs, green pepper slices, carrot wedges, peppercorns, chilies, brown rice, and really tender chicken a foot’s distance from the bowl to my mouth. He calls almost every night – wondering, in his way, how my day went. “Did you have a good day?”, are the six words usually starting the 3-minute conversation. That call is necessary and almost always on time. His time.

Retired time. A regimented, need-to be on schedule time. When the clock in his head dings, the call is made. So many times, I place my fork, soup spoon, or butter knife down beside a plate of anything to talk with him. He cares enough to call me, so I listen to his concerns about my life. I assume this sounds a bit callous of me to talk/write this way … and, honestly, writing those words is uncomfortable as well; however, talking and listening takes place so frequently – and the heart-to-heart parley is nearly the same every night – so I pass the time casually giving him half an ear. If the tone in his voice changes, I perk up a bit and attend to his words, otherwise, the three minutes passes without much adventure … to be repeated the next evening.

Last night I couldn’t – just was not capable of taking the call. Sometimes there is a follow-up re-ring on my cell when he can’t reach me. I almost expect a forest tone to puncture the near airwaves when he can’t reach me by old technology. Strangely, there was none. Maybe he knew I had a long day and a sore foot? Perhaps he smelled the deliciousness headed my way and knew – just knew – an unanswered first call meant a second call was unnecessary? Possibly a distraction came across his life’s pathway – and an unanswered, “good day?”, query remaining that way wasn’t a paternal problem anymore? Never mind how he got there in his mind. It didn’t happen. He never made the second call. I was not handling any phone instead of a fork … and all of the Szechuan chicken disappeared after 20 minutes of my uninterrupted blissful time.

Let me tell you of one joy in my life. Not dad calling every day … that would be too easy to write about, right? Although I will have time in the future to type those words if expectant tables are true, this is not one of those times. Today, you could assume Szechuan chicken is, but you’d be mistaken as well. Well, this isn’t exactly true. I have mastered spelling, “Szechuan”, by this sixth paragraph without opening the google spell-check window – so that’s something. Nope. Not dad. Not Szechuan.

Time. Time when I can relax. Time alone at my desk writing a blog. Time on the sofa eating one of my favorite take-out meals while watching one of many Johnny Carson re-runs I’ve seen before. Moments I’ll never see again, but clicks on a dial that mean something … not just rush-around, breathless, meaningless to-do’s that only fill in voids to get to the next “thing”. Silent, consequential instants – during which a mind can settle into funnies from the day, musical interludes, and friendships I care about – enter my purposeful time. Uninterrupted is nice.

Last night, and by extension the day, was about friends. I thought about them. Good and great ones. Long lasting, new and existing, old and young, happy and sad ones. I have a rainbow’s color full of friends. Not a day goes by when one does not cross my mind. One, specifically, lately. I would dream a better, hopeful pot of gold awaits her rainbow as she continues ahead in her destinal path forward. Cancer sucks. Specifically, this rare form she so optimistically faces during her time here.

Find your favorite meal, or favorite sofa. Don’t answer any calls unless you need to. Take time to cry, meditate, read, write, play, watch t.v., walk … whatever stops you from going. Be you for a few minutes. The dad in your life – whoever, or whatever that is – will call back. It, or they, still love and care about you … I promise.

My dad will call again tonight. We’ll arrange to meet for pizza because it is Sunday … and that’s what we do. He’s a man of routine. I’ll meet him at the local pizza shop just a few buildings up from the Chinese restaurant where Szechuan chicken made my life meaningful last night. No call necessary for his asking me, “Did you have a good day?”. I’ll answer, “Yep, dad, I did … and my week went well, too.”, because I know the follow-up he’ll ask. Five minutes later, the same question most likely will be asked again since he’s older and has some difficulty remembering these days.

The check will be paid forty minutes later and he’ll probably ask me how much to tip the waitress even though the bill is always the same amount. I’ll reply, “$3.50, dad … and let me since you are picking up the tab … ok?”. It is the conversation we have had every week for years. One day, I’ll miss it.

For now, it is a Sunday routine and last night night I missed his call, kinda. It’s ok. A conversation missed once in a while is ok as long as the time spent otherwise is well worth it. And it was.

I love Szechuan chicken. Period.

It Was Nice

It was a nice day.

Ok, so the weather wasn’t a perfect 72-degrees, sunny day here in central PA. We’ve been talking a lot about the snow, ice, and coldness around town lately. Roads and bridges resembled a Dickens tale up and until yesterday as most staggering about have had enough. I saw the melting frustration in my customer’s eyes, however, as some sparkling ones, inside happy heads, approached my concession window – on top of bounce-in the-step bodies.

It was nice to see.

A sunny, 45-degree day can do this to defeated outlooks. As in most loving communities, the past few months have taken their toll on everyone. Nagging our collective souls: lingering election fatigue, a continuing unmasking of new information about the virus, national and local business struggles on how to survive, heroes of ours dying unexpectedly, personal and spiritual tussles within ourselves … and, of course, the weather.

I don’t know what, from that list or any other challenge, was on the heart of any one of my walk-up, special, fellow walk-abouts yesterday. I do know my mind wasn’t quite on task upon opening as a dear friend was in a cold, sterile hospital room being consulted about her ongoing (possible) newer treatment for cancer. Possible, parenthetically, because her cancer is a rare, unwelcomed friend that’s been hanging around a bit too long and she’s kinda tired of it needing attention. “What to do going forward…?”, could have been one of the questions of the day swirling inside her always optimistic, outlooking window of a brain. “Is the treatment – and possible side-effects – worth it?… Do I want to go through all this, again, for a third time? … Just what, exactly, is my body doing with this cancer that I need to know?… “. Her thoughts were unknown to me. My thoughts about keeping sodas cold, or over-grilling a few burgers took a back-burner for a moment as the quiet of pre-opening a concession trailer during a rather nice February weather day took shape.

She was one. One person who wasn’t in-person, but on my mind as the protective, hinged roof rose to start my day. The sun did shine through my less-than clean windows – sliding their way across north and south. I did find my way through the emotional morning, though. Sales are like that. Turning a switch as my first customer sauntered his way up to my window … happily so. I like this moment. Happy is transferable. Smiles spread well. An insincere smile, they say, is better than a sincere frown.

He appeared happy. I knew it was going to be this way. After all, the weather brings out happy when – after weeks of rain, snow, and ice – slightly-warm sunshine breaks through malaise sitting on folk’s vitalities.

It was nice to see.

Content and untroubled words continued throughout the day … as did warmth. Now, warmth, in this context, was 45-degrees and a slight glare I could finally see reflecting off of the gray pavement a few feet below where I stood inside. Salt residue crunched under the feet of an increased number of folks who saw 8-foot banners my irresponsible self at last decided to hang back up. It was these wonderful right-of-spring, bright red “Hot Dog” flags waving in the mild breeze I loved to watch yesterday in between thinking about my friend and waiting on customers … wondering what they were thinking each time one would walk up to my window. Yes, It wasn’t spring. We’re 21 days away, but there was a definite spring in their step.

It was nice to see.

I need a day like that. A day to see other people. A day to be sad about what my friend is going through and a day to be extremely glad to enjoy the sun, the breeze, the opportunity to be in business … and share the happy in other people’s lives. One ordered just a plain dog and was simply joyous to do so. Another came by later – after passing by earlier in a hurry, unable to stop – and was plainly contented ordering five sandwiches … talking about life with me as I prepared his order. A long time casual friend, out and about, needing some time with me to chat up the weather in his life. A somewhat stormy, but familiar life. The sunset, to him, was so welcoming. I got it. I really did.

It was nice to … hear.

That was the day to me. Customers, friends online and off. I did hear from my dear friend as she returned home later in the day. A sunny, some-what warm day for everyone … including her. The sun knows no problems we face down here on this floating home of ours. It knows only what it can give to us – bright, warm faces and hope for a better tomorrow. I saw glimpses of that yesterday … in myself and in the eyes of so many others as they casually, yet intentionally, walked a few steps away from their cars to my slightly speckled windows I never did take time to clean. Windows I closed, seven hours after opening. With more optimism, I drove home on dusk-laden roads knowing happiness during those warmer hours meant something. A sunny, 45-degree day can do this.

It was just … nice.

Ugh, In A Good Way

It’s not unlike any other morning. How about you?

The living and dining rooms are bare, however. … that’s different. Painters are coming in soon to re-do all the walls and ceilings after decades of living created fades and fancies on their facades. Maintaining credibility has finally been too much. The ceiling, whimsically swirled in eggshell white, has been tarnished by water shenanigans lately and efforts to repair have been futile. I’m not the patch-and-persevere guy around here as most household fixes don’t last more than the time it takes me to find all the tools needed to do the job. Holes and cracks will, finally, meet their match. Professionals, within a few hours hence, will drop their wares.

The furnace still hums away as I sit only feet away from rooms so eagerly awaiting their refreshing, colorful rehabilitation. My office will not receive such treatment. As most go, paperwork, miscellaneous trinkets, and unknowns sit and pile around, preventing me from knowing whether or not this wonderful space needs a re-do or not. The ceiling drops down elegantly with forty-two, 2×2-foot squares that don’t require paint … just a quick trip to the local people-jammed box store to overpay for a replacement should one need replacing- (which explains why these above my head as I type are still the originals from two decades ago) …

Beside, to my left,…a reliable cup of tea. Generic green tea. The Clif bar already consumed, I sat down not knowing, really, anything. It was 3:30 in the morning – the usual time to roll out, wide awake, and begin to think about things.

I wound my way through misplaced furniture, packed boxes, and downed pictures – all repositioned in preparation for the non-Dougs to begin their work in a few hours. The walls have shadowed memories where the pictures hung. Curtains and drapes – so much a tapestry of life lived here – are not hanging in front of the big picture windows now. Little reminders on brads and nails no longer delicately dangle between sashes and sills. Quiet, in a very different way. I’m used to the furnace at 3:00 a.m. … not the starkness of change.

Ugh. In a good way, of course.

We need to change things up sometimes. A new, fresh coat of paint even when the furniture doesn’t want to move, or paintings in our life – so used to being on the wall – don’t want to come down. Material, window bandaged cloaks that have hidden our sunshine for so many years need to be removed to allow new experiences into our rooms. Every piece, every knickknack our hands must touch to move gives us opportunity to reevaluate its importance and look forward to having it by our side again .. or not. Affecting change, touching something other than the physical items before us … Ugh. In a good way, of course.

I’ve been working with someone. It has been a very different experience for me. The absoluteness of her ability to change my perspective on my musical life is a journey unlike any I’ve taken before. It hasn’t been about the lyrics, meters, and various other dots strewn about on lines and spaces. The depth of her passion for life and music in the midst of a life-threating illness brings me forward in my own life to a place where boxes in the middle of a living room are, well, kinda insignificant right now.

Yesterday we had our first rehearsal for a planned concert in the fall. I don’t think she’d mind me saying it’s “planned” with the caveat that all things “go as planned with her health”. So far, the new coats of paint in my musical life are: “Landslide”, “How High The Moon”, “I’ve Got The World On A String”, and “All or Nothing At All” with more cans to open. I sat, secondarily, behind the piano as she sang so gracefully in her uniquely qualified lower voice. We matched styles and colors as one painter would take to a canvas for the first time. I’m so honored to accompany her on this journey toward whatever the unknowns have in store.

All of our living rooms have these moments when the old ideas and “things” have to come down. Memories, of course, can stay, but the material stick-arounds need to go and be replaced with new, fresh things. Ideas on how to think, or what our lives mean, sometimes need re-evaluating, too.

My friend will continue to splash a new coat of paint on my thoughts as we rehearse, and when we talk to each other about … life. Her perspective being significantly different than mine – a 7 years older male. I don’t know what it’s like living in a room with a most likely time-certain terminal disease. I do know how to say, “F*ck Cancer!”, because my mom died from it, however, and every time I meet someone who is pushing their way through, I want to scream, “Ugh!!” … and not in a good way this time.

For now, the painters are only a few hours away and I must begin to think about the day ahead. The living and dining rooms will begin their transformation as boxes, painting, and trinkets remain dormant for the next week or so.

Please don’t continue to be stagnant in your life. Move some of life’s boxes and invite in some sunshine by taking down the shadow makers. Your living space is for just that … to LIVE. Give it a fresh, new coat of colors.

My tea mug is empty now. Thank you for being here. This morning turned out to be different after all.

Still Music to Me

There is a time in life when one needs to write about something very important in his life. Now is my time to write about music.

I certainly can’t know what is a “very important” in your life. Too many possibilities to venture a near guess. Faith, family, career, pet, health …? We’d need an afternoon over subtle mugs of warm tea and pleasant conversation for me to understand your life’s targeted importance. As individual as we are, so are our focused attentions and interests.

I love music. It is my connection to life. It is where deep connections are made with those I adore. The space around me when I sit at my piano is happily hallowed – where all of the surrounding mistakes of present day slings and arrows can’t reach me. While listening to music, an invisible cloak of safety surrounds my unsettled reasoning of the day … protecting all my insecurities. There is no equal to music’s magic.

I’m not the best at it. Humility comes with ten fingers that not only miss my mom, but also at least a small percentage of notes expected to be accurately executed one at a time always falling on the floor – unfulfilled. Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, … all of them most likely understanding my hearted attempts to carry forward their genius, but coming up a few strides short of the Sibelius Finnish line. They understand, I’m sure. Very few can achieve perfection. Those that do, do. Lang Lang, young Evren Ozel from Minnesota, and blind jazz pianist phenom Matthew Whitaker to name some amazing musicians surrounding our lives.

I mention my imperfections because we have them, right? I love music because it always reminds me I am not perfect. I am, humbly, better than the average pianist … and I know the limits within my skill set.

Within those limits are the connections I make to others as a musician. The over-arching category here for a musician is “artist” and what you see scrawled on walls about town is, for the most part, true: “Artists are kinda weird” … Especially those of us who think a bit outside the normal box of ideas. Our corners aren’t quite square, perhaps, and we don’t look at the world quite the same as most.

My mom was a weirdo, laughingly so. This is why I miss her – even as an older kinda-weird guy. She didn’t give me many sane, common sense ideas on how to be a normal, adjusted human. Her world was fun, frolic, and games. “Be nice and everything will always work out for you …”, she spoke repeatedly wondering if I had any pianistic, musical ideas floating around in my skull. As long as there existed Trivial Pursuit, a deck of Pinochle cards in the game cabinet, and an in-tune piano somewhere near, her brain was in Edenic paradise.

She’s not here anymore. I am … and I’m still a musician struggling with connections to other special musicians, sometimes – because they’re off-beat weird, too, having the same problems in life. I make mistakes in missing those communicative notes between us just like I can’t hit all the keys. Very few can, right? Communication is really, really, hard when the music isn’t there … when only words replace beautiful melodies and arching orchestral crescendos.

This is why music is so powerful … so special to me. Why that space is. Just is.

There is no equal to an eyes closed listening of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, Tim Minchin’s “Carry You”, or Cold Play’s “Fix You” covered by Straight No Chaser – all of which I listened to, again, before writing this entry tonight. I needed a shield around my irrationality of the day. Another cold day in February when connections weren’t as hopeful as I had hoped for, and abnormal wasn’t as normal as I am accustomed to – even as a weird musician type.

You know your “very important” in life. I hope this not only includes a “thing” like, maybe, music, but also really cool people with whom you can make a connection. You’re not going to hit all the right note or keys. Do the best you can to make what you do your best effort, anyway. If you’re struggling with what to do, call me and we’ll meet up for tea and conversation.

That is, if you can put up with a little bit of kinda-weirdness for an hour or two.

Mirror Words

If walking in to my special cafe was only this: a casual sit down almost every morning after entering a little after 8 o’clock on weekdays has been my norm. They closed on Saturdays due to the pandemic changing walk-about folks in town … less of them strolling about in our little town.

Never just that. I always need something to capture my imagination or bring out the silly sense of bravery I need to sustain me during the coming hours of the day. My dear friend across from me shifted her stressful self slightly to the left. As I ashamedly slouched in the early morning deep red vinyl bench … this image Kilroy’d itself in the beautiful, beveled glass hanging gracefully – for nearly a century – on the wall. How many reflections? How many men, women, and children examined their lives during the early morning cold, snowy minutes in February … in Hollidaysburg, PA.

I did. Slightly scrutinizing the items on my daily agenda before snapping this picture above, that is. It didn’t take much time to deep dive into a twenty-minute self-discovery because the image in the mirror amused my egg-consuming self. As I began dipping the daily under or overly toasted rye toast into those fried eggs, the mirror resemblance above didn’t go away. I couldn’t allow it. Basic words attached themselves to the depiction staring back at me. Mirror words? Yes. But slightly more meaningful since it seemed I was silently talking to myself.

Maybe it was in my eyes? I don’t really know. I look tired. This isn’t about me, though.

You never know when life looks back at you … suddenly. Moments – like early morning look backs in a very familiar town’s cafe – jump back in your face suddenly when friends shift slightly. Movements by others across from you, during comfortable conversations, can turn in heartbeats. Familiar words and places abruptly change. We know. Boy, do we know, right?

I know. This week, friends of friends lost a loved one. I didn’t know the young man who passed away suddenly days ago. He lived out of state, but was closely connected to a local family and, by extension, to a close friend of mine. She was sitting with me when the news of his passing pinged on her phone a few days after I sat in the comfortable morning booth. She’s a different friend than the one across from me the other day. Different place, change of scenery and seating accommodations, but a life-sudden look back for her that sent an unexpected chill down her spine. There was no mirror. Just two friends eating turkey subs beside a surprisingly warm high-top table for two near a large window facing out into another cold, winter day.

She was momentarily dazed – as expected. I would have expected nothing less, not even knowing the man who passed away. The text came in instantly – as news does these days – through her texting service, I believe, so I respected the moment’s demands and sat silently for a few seconds – perhaps a minute or two – until she respectfully replied back. Mere words, yet meaningful to those receiving on the other end. Folks in shock – as she was making a connection.

My friend Rick W., a fellow musician, posted the following on Facebook:

“Yes, you have all heard this many times. But, sometimes repetition drives the thought home. Life is indeed fragile, and can be over as quickly as one turns a light off. Embrace, love, be thankful for your family and friends, and most importantly, give yourself a hug because you truly deserve it!”

The death of the young man inspired Rick to type those words due to his close association with the family. HIS look back. His mere words that are not just those meant for his reflecting back on us. Helping us to remember one who is suddenly no longer here. A Covid death among the many.

One man no longer here I never knew. One man – out of state – who is, now, joined to me because I have a habit of walking into a favorite, old cafe where so many have gone before me. Tired eyes looking back at me I’ve seen so many times before … and always with a message of hope in some weirdly shaped glass bottle washing up from the ocean of our experiences. Glass from a mirror with mere words meaning so much more as each day passes.

We have hope that these reflections keep the memories of those gone suddenly are still alive in our memories. They changed our lives while they were here. Yes, an overused cliché. Yes, admittedly in my early morning brain, I could come up with better words perhaps, but there aren’t any. Life is precious.

I have a few in my life that make the moments very special. They are here. Now. No words are really necessary to express how special they are.

As I look back at myself – looking at myself looking at myself – it’s just a silly picture. A casual sit down almost every morning after entering a little after 8 o’clock on weekdays is my reality.

For years upon years, the morning ritual of a bathroom mirror reflection has been so commonplace for ALL of us. We forget how special our lookbacks can be. It takes that special little shift to the left of a friend for us to realize how special our lives are … not only to us, but also to those who call us friends.

But, these are just mirror words. Go live. Find your eyes and take a picture. Sit back and enjoy a few minutes of the joy that is your life. The now.

Horatio, Valentina, Nobuyuki, Evgeny, and I

I don’t own the rights to those pictures, nor do I have any idea how these artists do what they do with their hands.

Allow me to amend that last sentence. I know exactly how they play (exception below) – being a pianist myself. Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Scriabin? … Name the composer or era, and I either dabbled with the piece or listened to it masterfully played by an artist. Horowitz was my go-to early on. Later on, Misha Dichter, Andras Schiff, and Awadagin Pratt gracefully entertained my ears during lonely evenings. So much talent. So much skill beyond my level.

I’ve played some difficult pieces in concert. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, chief among them. For me, four months of concentrated, dutiful practicing culminated in a long, wonderful concert including Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Chopin – filling my heart with exhaustive pleasure once the last note fell on the stage. I was empty. Marvelous.

The title above was uncomfortable to type. I don’t belong in the company of those masters, humbly so. They are my peers, yet they know not how their music affects me when I watch … and listen. I know their skill. I know the how. Ten fingers, eighty-eight keys. The unknown to me is how Nobuyuki’s blindness does not interfere at all in his ability to execute flawless technique. As well, Valentina’s ease at the end of her long frame is so graceful and effortless. Evgeny was, simply, a child prodigy whose encore pieces are, alone, worth the price of admission. Horatio’s back story as poor Cuban immigrant draws me in. These four artists don’t know me, but we have a bond. Music. Specifically, a black and white adherence to what is good in the world.

The goodness comes when I need it. Be it a young man gently placing a 33-LP of Horowitz’s Chopin Ballade in G-Minor on his Technics turntable for the twentieth time, or a pandemically fatigued man who hasn’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks, piano music played by the masters always … always … fills my time, soul, and need for exhales. YouTubing through my mom’s earbuds with notable fancies the past fourteen days has been refreshing and a nice respite away from words.

I hope you have a go-to.

I have a person in my life now. A go-to musician who is in the midst of a major life struggle. We have a music-bond that, hopefully, will develop into a beneficial endeavor soon. Like, real soon. Yesterday, we took the first step in planning a set list of happy songs I’m so excited to start working on behind my Baldwin sitting quietly off to my left. She has a beautiful voice and a personality to match. I’m very familiar with her crazy family and, strangely, some of her zany friends, so placing all the pieces together for a concert shouldn’t be a complicated puzzle. I am a solo artist at times, but enjoy my role as an accompanist more … so this will be my absolute joy to walk with her along this path.

This is hometown, not international fame and fortune. This is music as it is for most of us. We’re not prodigies or folks who do acrobatic finger hopping for the masses. Our role is to sit back and enjoy their effortless skill when we need it … as I have lately.

To some of you, a novel. Perhaps a walk, painting, cooking, … maybe even writing. Whatever your go-to, be glad in it. Embrace it. Love it.

I adore my friends above even though they don’t know me. Of the four, Nobuyuki impresses the holy freak out of me. I just don’t know how he does it. With all my facilities intact, I can’t come close to his execution. Here’s a 4 minute treat for your eyes and ears:

With that, I’ll leave you to enjoy what’s pleasured my minutes the past two weeks.

They, among the few geniuses, are what makes my world happy when I need their music. Go-to it today and always, my friends.

Breaker, One Two

They’re called step-twos … and, no, I’m not a dancer. You don’t want to see me swash a chasse, shall we say, across the boards any time soon – if at all. I can smooth the 88 keys on a moment’s notice and gracefully step off a curb, but to stride an Astaire memory or click an amazing Hine’s tap? Nah … not even close.

Dancing my way through life with other skills than, … well, … dancing are my commodities. My sellable contributions to society. All of us need to know what we’re good at … and what we’re not for the sake of all that’s sane in our heads. To attempt small household repairs such as I tried this evening, one must know, truly know, his place in life and recognize the historical pattern BEFORE attempting such a simple task.

Enter these step-twos as I’ve named them.

I must have a gnome. An invisible little pain in the ass who interjects delicious little detours into every industrious home improvement project I attempt. He shows up every time. Every. Single. Time. Look, I’m no do-it-yourself pro sitting here claiming the ability to challenge even the most amateur wood and screw guy to a nail gun duel. In my circle of friends, there are plenty of electricians, wood dudes, roofers, lawn ladies and gents, … all of whom couldn’t play Chopin or Scriabin, but would know far more than I about a two-cycle engine or metric vs standard tools.

Still, with that, I do know some basics … like how to turn a screw. Seems a bit simplistic, right? Step one.

My day started swimmingly. Other than a major snowstorm, lunch with dad was pleasant. Delicious pot roast at the local chain restaurant surprised my appetite as a breakfast cancellation earlier unexpectedly appeared. A few small banking issues and run-arounds aside, the day shoveled up nicely. Light winter snow moved easily as did my attitude throughout the hours.

At 4:08 p.m., a suggestion came across and into my right ear. “Do you think we could go to the store and get a replacement for the breaker that’s defective?”. As the driver picking her up from work a few days a week, it’s necessary that I listen. With the radio down in volume and attitude up in attention, I reluctantly agreed … knowing I have the evening free and quite confident the simple act of replacing a broken tandem breaker is very … very, uhm, simple. Step one.

I’m relaxed, yet very absent-minded at that moment. During the three minutes drive home, “Remove the cover plate, snap out the old breaker, loosen the two screws, pull out two wires … and place an old breaker into my happy pocket”, casually organized its grammatically graceful self in my brain. All set. Step one.

Ah, but step-two – the forgotten bastard child of my plans and the future success of any home repair project – had yet to appear. The gnome. I should have gnome it was coming.

Aaaaand … there it was. Twenty minutes into trying to remove the breaker, I couldn’t. The lady of the house, from the stairs above, spoke words I always like to hear: “Just let it go. It’s not working. Maybe if I try. Can I hold a flashlight?” It’s not her fault at all … except, maybe, I hadn’t planned on doing this project at all … today. Sure, it’s been six months. Sure, the breaker may not even be the problem with the dining room lights. Sure I’m no Tesla or Edison here, but … I’m a husband and need to try. The damn breaker wasn’t coming out, so I called my friend – an electrician … on my cell … that doesn’t work in the basement.

Are you starting to see the pattern here?

He stops by an hour later, being the kind person he is, of course. I’m a bit miffed at this point since supper is on hold, already in step-two attitude mode (marginally inconsolable), and considering a séance at that point. With an expected bad breaker in hand, I head off to Home Depot for a replacement … in the snow which, by the way, doesn’t seem nearly as friendly as it was only three hours prior. John, my friend, headed home after a long day. Can’t say I blame him. I was nearly an overloaded circuit of emotional distress.

Mindfully aware my electrician friend knows I’m not fully charged as a certified replacement tech, he made sure I had the original in hand. I did, showing the same to Mr. Electric at Home Depot. Save a small difference in the clip on the back, he assured me the twin I eventually scanned at the self-checkout would compel me, once again, to enjoy a fine, fine winter’s evening. He freakin’ assured me! … Again, I know what I’m good at … and not good at. Picking out tandem breakers is NOT my thing. I need Mr. Electrical Expert to help me. Side-by-side, the two lined up. That was my single, one and only metric guiding me to breaker box bliss.

Back home, supper at the ready two hours late, I sat on the sofa. Only fifteen minutes prior, off to my concession trailer I had to run in order to get my proper screwdriver. Why would I have a regular tool like that here at the house? Damn gnome took it … I guarantee it! Shrimp and spaghetti was delicious, btw.

Down to the basement I went, belly full this time hoping it would curb my, otherwise, crappy attitude. Step-twos are really unpleasant for a guy like me when looking into an open breaker box with one open slot, a new breaker that would’t snap in because the back hicky-clasp-doodle is different than the old one, I wasn’t able to get one of the wires to stay locked into its hole, and all of this had to be done in relative darkness due to the overhead light being directly behind me … casting a big head shadow over the whole project.

With one final heave-tightening, I got the two wires tightened. With that, as of this moment … one of those three goals have been achieved; however, there’s no cover and the breaker isn’t in place. I’m done. So. Done.

Here’s the kicker – and why step-twos need to chasse of the curb that is my life and get hit by a bus. The very fan-lights that didn’t work … the non-breezy, non-lit part of my life that caused this day of mine to go into a tailspin …

They still don’t work.

Welcome to the breaker hell that could be step-three. Please, Gnome more.

Hum Along, Now

Before lifting up a happy concession window at precisely 11 a.m. this morning, there was a tap at the door a few minutes prior. Standing pleasantly before me was Christine – a regular customer who happened to need her plain cheese-steak earlier than usual. No explanation needed. She was hungry, my grill was hot, and the morning was ready for our food-friendship. As she walked away to wait in her car and I began to prepare the sauntery steak, I began to wonder …. “hmmm”, I muttered under my all ready to go breath.

Why today? Why not an evening plain cheese-steak after a hard day’s shift at the local box box retailer where she works? This was odd. Certainly there was no need for Christine to explain her off-schedule appearance to me. I am not my customers’ keeper, after all. Sitting here on a wooden stool, counting the beginnings of a hopefully busy day, does make one question, however.

Behind me stands a Beverage*Air sandwich unit that never has to explain itself or question why it’s here.

This cool piece of equipment goes about its day never complaining … always allowing me the privilege of reaching, underneath, into 35-degree shelving area for crisp lettuce, dill-ishous kosher pickles, cheeses, reduced fat chocolate milk, two pampered pepper varieties, and much more. Above the shelves are 12 drop-in, wonderfully heightened, pans 3-feet from the floor. At the perfect distance for my 6-foot frame, these metal and plastic containers go about their day hugging diced tomatoes, onions, relish, jalapenos, banana peppers, and various heterogeneous hamburger toppings. All together equipped it is … to serve as a cog in the machinery that is my sound business model: Customers want quality food, I make and serve it, …. then collect money for my service. “Quality, Service, Cleanliness” … as we used to say at McDonald’s back in the day.

My friend hums along. I noticed this a few minutes ago. Its unique murmur catches my attention as I begin to consider, “Why today?”. Christine is well beyond enjoying her cheese-steak by now as I sit here waiting for customers to arrive. It’s been fifteen minutes. They’ll eventually come. A Saturday – even on a cold January day – will attract enough appetites toward my pleasurable, replenishment poles, so I won’t worry too much about sitting in isolated conditions for long.

For now, as it hums, I “Hmmm?” . Without U, of course. Why Today?

Well, you’re here reading this … now, but not here … now as I write. Quite the mind-bender, huh? I don’t mean to make this difficult. Simply, I wonder why today, or any other day, did and event – or two, or three – happen out of place, or time?

Wednesday, a young lady accidentally ran her car into the pole in front of my location. No major injuries to her but the car she drove sustained a major bruise half way up into its engine block. On Thursday, smoke billowed from behind the pharmacy across the street. So large a fire, it was nearly eight blocks away but appearing much closer. Two unrelated events. Two happenings out of place causing me to two-finger my chin and go, “hmmm?” before considering a Saturday musing.

There aren’t any easy answers. My years of studying the other side of “why?” have produced no results. The young lady was most likely texting and, according to the paper, young kids were playing with fire and strong winds had other ideas. I’m not questioning the A-side causes, just the flip-side timing of things in life seems a bit wonky to me. On the B side of the why album is where I find life to be a bit scratchy and tougher to listen to.

Life should hum along easily, but doesn’t at times. Most times, actually, some wacky scratch in our present day recording causes the big needle to skip … and backwards time flies often to repeat the same mistake, make us listen to another of life’s motives we didn’t quite hear the first time, or, perhaps, a small how-do-you-do five minutes before opening up a concession stand. Why today? Hmm?

I had a friend once say to me, “There’s never a good time for bad news, and never a bad time for good news.”. That’s too idealistic and catch-all-ian for me. Surely there must me some room in here for other answers … not just absolute, never good or bad times.

I wish U were here to help me hum along in life as I sit hmm-ing my way. Customers have yet to place their orders and I’m gratefully calm, still. Somewhere on this cold Saturday, there are appetites churning about in the small mom and pops and large box stores, homes, and cars, … moms and dads, kids and teens, retired folks and travelers – some not knowing, yet, they will be here soon. My regulars and first-timers allowing me the privilege of serving up a steamy cheese-steak for them with melted provolone and, perhaps a line of mayo – topped with fresh grilled peppers and onions straight from my Beverage*Air friend behind me as I type.

… Always there, humming along – as you are here – even if only in a 2-dimensional space during a different now. Why today? I have no clue.

Thanks for your company today and being the U in my “Hmmm?”. Hum along, now.