Tuesday, June 25, 2013

TWO YEARS LATER, WE'RE STILL LISTENING, NICK... and we still miss you


At CNN's 10th Anniversary Party

[This was published 6/27/2011, two days after our buddy Nick Charles passed. His advice - and his journey - are still important to us, are always still in our hearts.]

Sometimes the things we're positive we are best prepared for can blindside us the hardest. Even when a death is imminent and has been publicly acknowledged. When the one about to take leave has celebrated the life he has lived. When he has talked over its approaching end with his family and planned the last details, right down to choosing music for the memorial, and we have almost accepted its inevitability as the moments slip away.

In the two days since we awakened to learn that our pal Nick Charles had quietly left in the night, I have been searching for words to write and frankly they are not coming. This would probably be a big disappointment to Nick, after all the effort he put into teaching us by example that it ain't over till it's over, and that there's nothing to feel sad about when you know you have followed your heart.

It's just that I keep thinking... Nick, of the golden smile and the famously kind soul. Nick, CNN's extraordinary first sportscaster. Nick, who was diagnosed with late-stage bladder cancer that already had spread to his lungs, who underwent all the treatment he could handle, then decided he wanted to spend his remaining precious moments unimpeded by the side-effects of more chemotherapy. He wanted to be free to "feel everything". And he did, he and his loving wife Cory and five-year-old daughter Giovanna. He went on  pushing himself, reluctant to close his eyes for a minute, passionate about traveling with the family and passionate about boxing, calling fights for HBO. This man pulled no punches, he gave it everything he had.

Along the way, it was very important to him that we, the ones he would leave behind, clearly understand that none of us is ever completely helpless. "We have control over the way we feel about each day," he would say. "Do you understand?" And we said we did. Why, then, should we now find ourselves paralyzed in disbelief?

I suppose Nick would say there are some things humans just have to go through, before they can move on. But move on now.
   "But it's too soon," we would say.
    And he would flash that brilliant smile. "Weren't you listening? There's no time to waste."



More on Nick Charles in these blogs, accessible to the right:
NICK CHARLES, FEELING IT ALL   March 7, 2011
ADVICE FROM GROUND ZERO      April   6, 2011

Thursday, March 21, 2013

SKIING ITALIA...drums keep poundin' rhythm to the brain.

Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
 
Just so you know where this is going.....

                                ON THE OUTSIDE:            

 

ON THE INSIDE:

 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

This terrified penguin poops big jellybeans. He was a gift, as I went off to learn to ski in the
 
Dolomites of northeastern Italy. He’s on a sled, not skis, but it’s the same idea….terminal
 
slipperiness with optional stopping. Skis don’t have brakes.  His mental condition inspired
 
me to Google "ski accidents" while I was packing. That's like shutting  a hypochondriac in a
 
closet with a medical encyclopedia. By the time I got on the plane, I’d racked up an
 
impressive list of alpine misadventures, but had no clear idea of how to avoid having one of
 
my own. Is there a pattern here? Even now, they’re piling up:

 
Claude Nobs, founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival, took a fatal spill on Christmas Eve, as
 
did expert Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, two months ago. Robert Kennedy’s son,
 
Michael , a few years ago in Aspen - but he was playing football on skis, without a helmet.
 
(Plus, everyone knows he was not a champion of good judgment, reportedly having seduced
 
his kid’s 14-year-old babysitter, although he swore he in fact had thoughtfully waited two
 
years until she was 16, legal age in Massachusetts.) In Austria, a British mother of three
 
collided with another skier. Spanish golf star Miguel Angel Jimenez is out of action with a
 
broken leg, after he lost control in the Sierra Nevada. In Maryland, another “wonderful
 
skier” caught an edge and tried to take out a tree. So did U.S. Congressman - and Cher’s
 
former husband - Sonny Bono.

 
And the Beat Goes On… drums keep poundin’ rhythm to the brain. Or not. Bono, in particular, caught my attention. “Could he have avoided it?” I asked myself, as I felt my boots snap securely into the ski bindings on Day One of my lessons; or was it, as my father would have said, just his time? Daddy was a believer in that sort of thing; he didn’t even like to fly. “I don’t care if my number’s up,” he’d say, “I just don’t want to be on board when somebody else’s number is up.”

I was thinking along those lines as I picked up speed on the kiddie Learners Slope on Day Two, and slammed headlong into a 6-foot laughing plastic bear mounted on a pole.  ”Aaaaaa!” I threw my arms around him. At one point, I remember glimpsing my skis silhouetted against the blue sky. It was spectacular. Parents stopped watching their three-year-old aces and began betting on whether I was going to get up. In Italy they bet on everything. My sci maestro (ski instructor) bent down to say with a grin that he’d never “seen-a someteeng-a  like-a  dees-a” before. He reminded me of my hockey teacher standing over me, hitting my helmet with his stick like it was the most fun he’d had all day.
  
By Day Five, with all that casualty research still rattling around in my head, I’d gotten up the nerve to take the ski lift. Don’t laugh. Previous attempts to ride to the top of the easiest slope with a T-bar stuck between my legs resulted in letting go of the damn thing too early.  I’d flung it away with a flourish, certain this would impress the Italians. But there wasn’t enough momentum to keep going forward at the top, and gravity took me down backwards, like Wiley Coyote. This time my instructor, Roberto, was a tireless, fearless man with a great sense of humor and an appreciation for Harleys, guitar playing and anything by Bob Seger. 
He used this to distract me while the chair lift came up from behind and grabbed me off my feet. Like a deluded Private Benjamin, I’d thought it would stop for me.  

At the top, on the Blue intermediate slope where I had no business even getting my skis wet, Roberto made me sing “Against the Wind” as I negotiated its twists and turns in a beginner’s snowplough position, with him skiing backwards directly in front of me. The muscles in my legs were screaming. But then… then, there were two long moments that made it all worthwhile, spots where the slope was about as steep as my driveway and I could really enjoy it. That had been his plan all along, so that I could have that experience. Thank you Roberto, I could not have done it without you.

At the bottom, I decided my father would be happy to know that my number had not been up. And I gave myself credit, after all, because nobody had had to carry me down.



Monday, December 17, 2012

GUN OWNERSHIP, NANCY LANZA AND YOU


Nancy Lanza
The United States of America was not built on cozy tea time chats with British troops. The principle of gun ownership and the citizen’s right to bear arms is not outdated. Nor is the concept of forming opinions on such things based on fact, not emotion.

No one knows the events that led to this week’s tragic Connecticut shootings. No one knows what transpired in the home Nancy Lanza shared with her son, Adam. Only the police might know whether Adam was able to arm himself by breaking into a gun safe or cabinet. Or whether he might have found a gun she kept for self defense and used it to blow out the lock on a cabinet. Or did he have free access? Did his mother have reason to believe he shouldn’t? In light of myriad reports, second-hand accounts, innuendos and undisciplined discussions about Nancy, lambasting her because she owned more than one firearm – which was strictly her business - consider this:

Try to imagine your own life painted in the words of critics. If you have an upscale collection of kitchen knives that you keep sharpened and in a wooden block for easy access, you are “slice happy”. If you own a gun and responsibly stay in practice by going to the range once a month, you are ominously “honing your sniper skills”. If you do this with more than one legal weapon, you are “obsessed with guns, proficient with multiple firearms”. If you keep food, water, batteries, medicine and blankets in the basement, you are “a closet survivalist, stockpiling supplies”. If you have all those things in the basement along with extra rounds of ammunition, you are “prepared for Armageddon” (as in “Armageddon outta here, but you first!”).

Shame on you.
Can I have your number?

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

SHAGGED BY BIG BUSINESS... and what you can do about it

Seriously, when did the customer stop being always right? Or even right a small percentage of the time, like maybe on holidays or on the customer’s birthday? When did the consumer become the whipping boy of dictatorial high school dropouts in charge of setting policy, and when did this become so commonplace that we feel we have no choice but to accept it? Even well-meaning acts of charity now come with Terms and Conditions… some, with outright threats.

As I sat in my car outside a Goodwill store the other day, ready to go in and donate a few things I’d been saving, I read something that made me want to throw up in a trash can and donate that. The sign on the building bore a stern warning: “Anything left outside will be considered illegal dumping. Violators will be prosecuted. POLICE TAKE NOTICE”.  Police? Prosecuted? Really? This charity, this nonprofit business, is going to press charges against John Doe for thoughtfully  contributing a gift that they can sell for actual cash. Are they insane?
 
It gets even worse with the folks who take your money in exchange for a product or service. At every turn, they are dictating the terms to you, telling you how it’s going to be, instead of the other way around. Who said they could do that, and when did it happen? This disrespect for the business relationship can show itself in the subtlest of ways. I recently made an online payment to a credit card, and the confirmation number was accompanied by “Payment Accepted”. Accepted? I’m giving you the money, remember? It’s up to me to decide if I want to give you my business, and it’s up to you to be grateful as hell for it, not give me the impression  you’re doing me a big favor and that you can, in fact, take me or leave me.
 
Then there are the more blatant manifestations. Have you ever noticed how used we are to being strong-armed into slapping a checkmark on the “Terms and Conditions” box for virtually everything? Most of the time we don’t even read it, because we know there is no room for negotiation. It was placed there by faceless lawyers long gone on their latest Scottish golf trip, who don’t even know you exist and don’t care. And what would be the point of asking a salesperson who showed up in North America fifteen minutes ago and  doesn’t understand English (but somehow managed to get a driver’s license) to read it with you, much less explain it?
It never occurs to us that this is the exact opposite of the way things ought to be, and used to be, even if we’re not old enough to remember it. The truth is, if we don’t check that box – which usually means relinquishing legal rights if the business relationship goes south – then there’s no deal. And nobody cares but us.
Clerks stopped listening to what you had to say, when the owner stopped being the clerk. When on-site proprietorship gave way to absentee ownership, and traditional small businesses gave way to big business, big bucks and big CEO salaries.
When the rare business actually follows up on a sale with a “we hope you’re satisfied” note, we’re shocked. Immediately we suspect an ulterior motive. If the note comes via email, we’ve been banged around so much we presume we’ve been hacked or pfished, or that any reply will shoehorn us into marketing databases from here to Smolensk (which it will).
 
Businesses shag us at will, and they never respect us in the morning. While that Love Boat has sailed and there's nothing you can do, there is a way to take some of  the sting out of it. All you need is patience, a telephone with a speaker (so your hands are free to multi-task) and the number of the corporate headquarters of the business that has disgusted you most recently. This will take hours, but it will pay off if you don’t give up.

I have a friend who went out of his way to take his car in for an oil change at a Wal-Mart where the posted hours clearly stated the auto shop was open until 8pm. When he got there at 6:50pm, he was told everyone had gone home, “just because”. He complained to store management, and eventually was compensated with a $10 gift card. Just warming up, he then called Wal-Mart Corporate and came away with a $100 gift certificate. His advice: Watch Perry Mason reruns while you loosen up; try to appear rational; be calmly unrelenting in explaining the compensation you feel you deserve, for whatever indignity you’ve been through; ask "What might be ethical in your performance here?";  note times, dates and individuals you contact. Most important of all: Enjoy it for the sport that it is .
At least let’s make ‘em buy us dinner.

 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

LET ME TALK TO YOUR BOSS. HE COULDN’T POSSIBLY CARE LESS THAN YOU… or could he?

Consumer activists will tell you, when you have an issue with a purchase and are getting nowhere resolving the dispute with the staff, you should go up the food chain until you get satisfaction. The only person you want to talk with is the one who will tell you “Yes”, and make you happy by working out the problem. This is usually successful in civilized society, if only because businesses have come to understand their PR can make or break them.

Unless you’re in Cranston, Rhode Island and happen to wander into Tony Papa’s Italian Restaurant  half an hour before closing.  On that evening, you have entered The Twilight Zone.


I’d worked up a world class craving for humble pasta and meatballs in red sauce, with a little salad.
It's the easiest thing to prepare, and fortunately easy to find on their menu. When the waiter brought our Chianti, we said we were ready to order. I pointed to the section of the menu that says FAVORITE ITALIAN DINNERS. There are three, one of which is Meatballs...Nestled into Your Choice of Pasta. The notation immediately below says “All Italian Dinners include Your Choice of Salad or Pasta or Daily Potato and Vegetable” Perfect! I opted for the salad and the vegetable, and settled back to anticipate Italian heaven. Wrong.
   “You can’t do that,” the waiter said.
   “Why not?”
   “Because you can’t have a salad and pasta.”
   “Why not?”
   “Because it says salad or pasta.”
   “That’s if you’re ordering it as an accompaniment. According to the menu, if I wanted to, I could actually order even more Pasta instead of the Salad or Daily Potato, along with a Vegetable,” I explained as I ran a finger along the lines to show him, word for word, in case he was new to the job or hadn’t read the menu in awhile or couldn’t read at all. “But all I really want is the salad.”
   “No. Not both.”
   “What’re you, my mother?” I said with the sweetest smile I could muster. Proximity to spaghetti brings out the Italian in me, and that can mean zero-to-sixty sarcasm that morphs into Neopolitan super-bitchiness. It’s a gift.
   “Sorry, no.”
   “Is the owner here?” I asked.
    “Yes, he is.” 
    “I’d like to talk with him, please.”
   The waiter returned soon: “The bartender says you’re wrong.”
   “Is the bartender the owner?” I peeled off my sweater, it was getting hot in there.
   “No.”
   “Then let me talk with the owner.”
As I waited, I knocked down the rest of the wine, and the owner finally emerged from the kitchen. A formidable, dark-haired man, more wary than friendly, wafting a scent reminiscent of a pet I once owned - a goat. As I apologized for taking his time, took a deep breath and patiently explained again (yes I did, it’s something I picked up - and couldn’t shake off - from living in Canada), he feigned interest in the menu. When my lips stopped moving, he answered.
   “No. Only the vegetable.”
   “But why? It says…” and I read it again with a lot of Pleeeeese, massa Tony!  in my voice, my pasta-and-salad craving now through the roof.  
   “Right,” he said firmly. He’d had to agree with me, and now I knew I had him. “So?”
   (Long pause)
   “The menu’s wrong.”
At that point, I think you'll agree ordering anything at all would have been a bad idea. We paid and left…with a copy of the menu, which you see above, as a souvenir of the complete breakdown of customer service. Later, online, I found another damning review of the same restaurant from a diner who had been a frequent customer and had brought many family members there. One fateful night he’d ordered the swordfish, told the server it was dry, and watched in disbelief as the owner sat down next to him, told him he was wrong and that he wasn’t going to prepare another one, and maybe wouldn’t prepare him anything else at all.
Please don’t confuse this dictatorial, insensitive, cold, short-sighted stupidity with the amusing, fictional "Soup Nazi" on Seinfeld. What’s happening at this insignificant little eatery in Cranston, Rhode Island is sadly representative of the downward spiral of real American customer service. It says: Stay Or Go, We Don’t Care.
I WENT. I do care. Fortunately a really great Italian restaurant, Sogno’s, is right down the street and happily awaiting new diners that Tony Papa’s ungratefully place-kicks out of its customer base.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

THE ROMANCE OF FLUSHING THE TOILET WITH BATH WATER...Summer Storm of 2012

I doubt you’ve ever been driven to do it. Who wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I’m going to save my shower water and dump it into the toilet when I’m through”? But on Day Three of what’s being called the largest non-hurricane power outage in history, I did it out of necessity. A feeling of complete incompetence had begun to set in, and I was blown away at my own ingenuity… so blown away I almost got high. Well okay, the ingenuity wasn’t mine… I sort of borrowed it. Let’s rewind.

As you know, on Friday night a freaky storm arrived in the mid-Atlantic states, which had been cooking in 100-degree temperatures, and it still refuses to leave. We were driving back to the D.C. area from New York, anticipating a hot shower and ice cold air conditioning, when lightning began streaking from the right and from the left, meeting just in front of us. It looked like two long electric hands coming together, fast and menacing, over and over. Then the wind kicked up to 70 mph. Through the hard rain, Chuck began picking out low, sheltered spots along the road into which we could make a quick dive if the lightning took exception to our being there. But we made it safely to his place, figuring we’d seen the worst. We hadn’t.
We now refer to last Friday night as The Beginning of the Op - it’s a Green Beret thing - as Chuck began to initiate countermeasures. When we got home we saw the electricity had been knocked out. It was so hot in the house, my lipstick was melting. And there was no relief: no fan, no A/C, no igniter circuitry for the gas hot water heater, no paddle fans, no cell phone charger, no juice for the computers. But who needs a computer when there’s no WiFi? Out came the standby generators, along with a truckload of lanterns and hurricane lamps, the ones I had bitched about taking up space in the basement. The place was turning into Little House on the Prairie. Or Gunsmoke. That night as I hand-washed the dishes in cold water in the darkened kitchen, I saw myself from a distance standing at the sink in bare feet wearing my pink robe, illuminated by kerosene lamplight, and I cursed the electric company and nearly threw up.
Day Two dawned. It was Saturday, and we’d gotten good at heating water on the gas stove and dumping it into a bathtub containing only about three inches of colder water. The Operation was going as smoothly as possible, and we decided to face it with grace and style, making the most of what we had. At least there was water. Chuck would make morning coffee, as I went to the linen closet for real cloth napkins. I heard him yelling so loud I thought he’d dropped a knife on his foot. He was hollering at the faucet… there was no water. And the mercury was headed up again. And one of the generators had gone on strike. This was the day we drove around town making a list of which cool restaurants and fast food places had WiFi. Meantime, there's still Chuck's daily gourmet dinner to count on. Today: tilapia sauteed with lemon and cilantro. Wine: Sauvignon Blanc.

Day Three, Sunday. Still no water or electricity. The telephone landline was temperamental and functioned only intermittently. But even intermittent service began to look good, when our cell phones stopped working. The Green Beret’s Water Management Program had been in place since the beginning, and now included using the bathwater to flush the toilets. Since one person can’t hold up a toilet seat with one of those fluffy covers on it and balance a pan of water at the same time, we hovered over the bowl as a team. After ten romantic months together, now hot, tired and on edge, it was this level of necessary cooperation that threatened to move us out of the Bogie and Bacall area and into Benny and Joon. Dinner: turkey and cauliflower casserole in a white parmesan sauce. Wine: Chardonnay.
Day Four, Monday. Bogey and Bacall are still in the auditorium! But elsewhere, at stores and other gathering places as hundreds of thousands of customers still go without power and water (and with the temperature still in the 90’s) the thin veneer of civilization is beginning to peel away as people stand in long lines for free ice and water. Their patience is running thin. In the parking lot of one of those places, we saw a Jersey Power truck idling… one of the electric companies that have sent crews to help restore service. Chuck launched into a clever Sopranos soliloquy in a Jersey accent - "OH, Jersey!  When're you gonna deliver the goods? She was born in Newark... by choice, I might add. I used to live in Mahwah. We got no electricity. So whaddaya gonna do?" - and the woman was so taken with the comic relief that she promised to send a crew out in the morning. Dinner:
pasta matricianna with Italian bacon. Chianti.

Day Five, Tuesday. Today. The water is back… sort of. A white, frothy liquid is slithering out of the tap. The Jersey Power folks came out, looked at our situation and delivered the news: huge power poles on the mountain above us have snapped in half and will have to be replaced… someday, and not by them. We’ll have at least five more days without power. But we do still have wine.  The wind is back and the sky is dark early tonight. The dog, a Weimaraner, has begun howling at the fire trucks that are going by more often. Dinner: chicken chop suey.  Fumee Blanc. Film at 11.


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

THE *#! CELL PHONE AS YOUR SALVATION

With each new-and-improved version of our cell phones, the love-hate relationship ripens into something ever more disappointing, as their promise of greater possibilities is delivered to us at the cost of basic, uncomplicated service. Then every once in a while, they don't have to do anything at all to become our best friends. 

It all began last Saturday in Atlanta. I was there to emcee the celebration of the 25th anniversary of my martial art, Choi Kwang Do, and the 70th birthday of its founder, Grandmaster Kwang Jo Choi. After a day of hardcore, competitive punching and kicking, everyone involved regrouped to prepare for the big dinner. Since 25 years is a silver anniversary, I wore a long, silvery sheath with a slit up the side. The hair went up nicely into a sophisticated French knot, and the glittery five-inch Guess heels I’d searched high and low for slipped on like butter.

The banquet was to be at the same location where we’d spent the day. I said I’d drive myself over, how hard could it be? This is where it gets tricky. Using the NAV app on my android phone, I pulled up to a building I’d never seen before. After a lot of heavy breathing – I hate being late where food is involved - I found the right place and arrived a mere 35 minutes late. Stopping by my “other office”, the restroom, I made sure I really had not torn my hair out on the way. Satisfied that I still looked kick-ass, I headed out, weaving through the ballroom full of tables to the front where a VIP place had been saved for me. Along my route, women were leaning over to appreciate the way my hot silver spikes matched my dress, always a reassuring sign. After all, you can tell a lot about a person by the way she takes care of her appearance. As I took my seat, beaming and filled with confidence, a server leaned close and smiled. “Ma’am…your shoe.”
“Thank you,” I said, “it is a pretty good look.” Reaching down to caress the sparkles under the watchful eye of the man sitting next to me, my hand ran across something smooth. It was toilet paper… a piece long enough to flutter like a biplane banner, stuck to the sole. At that exact second the cell phone in my evening bag began ringing, and saved me. “Excuse me,” I said, “it’s a government call.”
Fast forward twelve hours to April Fools Day. I probably should have known better and stayed home, but I decided to go out, and slipped into a simple little black catsuit. Still in Atlanta, I made some stops at my old haunts including DSW, Designer Shoe Warehouse, shoe heaven. Immediately I hit pay dirt: 70% off on killer black stilettos with straps, buckles and attitude… shoes so dangerous they should come with a warning label. I tried them on and took a few steps to make sure they were comfortable. Without warning, the shoes began strutting. Women were taking notice, even hanging up their cell phones to watch, and I told the shoes to stop that. DSW can be a pretty competitive place, what with the low prices and limited stock, and I didn’t want a cat fight in my catsuit.
The shoes didn’t listen. They were workin’ it, up and down the aisles. At least, I thought, there’s no toilet paper on them. At that point, two store clerks came over. “Yeah, I pre-empted, they’re really excellent shoes, aren’t they!”
“Did you sit in something?” one of them asked. “Something white?”
My blood pressure sank to my ankles. “Why? Where?” I said, frantically patting myself down. She angled me toward the full length mirror, and there it was. My butt had a big white stripe right down the middle. I looked like a skunk. I pulled at the fabric and let it snap back. Great clouds of white billowed into the air. I pulled again, it billowed again. Eventually I realized the Day Spa I’d just visited had talcum powdered me down pretty good, and it was coming through my pants. I tried to explain, but by then the crowd had dispersed. The salespeople, however, had not lost interest and looked to be contemplating calling the CDC, when my phone saved me again. I picked it up and shouted, “Well, the experiment worked!” to no one at the other end.