I Liked It Better When…

I liked it better when the music came in vinyl, with double albums and plenty of pictures and liner notes by famous rock writers, that you’d read and re-read and re-read because you were high after cleaning your dope and rolling joints on said double albums.

I liked it better when when planes were flown with precision and landed safely, and not into buildings, and there was more to eat on a flight than a salted peanut or two and you could keep your shoes and belt and coat on.

I liked it better when the people with all the money were older well at least 50 or so — or were, maybe, politicians, wheelin and dealin in smoke filled back rooms (who cares what they did I mean they were politicians.)

And when, if you were in a far right wing group like the John Birch Society, or some such, you were roundly pilloried for being a heartless anti-working class scumbag and oddball an outkast an outlier a liar a thief in the night a stealer of dreams not a mainstream hero with actual political clout and a blog a column a tv show.

I liked it better when a wacko’s only hope for notoriety was a soapbox and megaphone on the corner, or mimeographed fliers that you’d smell the chemicals off of and pretend it got you high like when you did for the girls in grammar school when the homework assignments were passed back from the teacher.

I liked it better when you just took the fookin job and when the HR person started talking about benefits about healthcare about sick days about paid holidays you drifted into the twilight zone because hooray hooray you were young and gonna celebrate because you got the job and who cared about all that other malarkey.

And when weekends were free from emails and texts and beeps and boops and noises of all manner that keep you shackled keep you tethered keep you harnessed but good every minute even the mornings with the industrial strength tequila hangovers that threaten to split your skull like a broad sword.

And when kids held doors for their elders because they were told to, that’s why, and when the kids didn’t die from anaphylactic shock from smelling someone ELSE’S peanut butter sandwich at lunch and their idea of fun and mischief was to put green peas on the snap locks of their attaché cases and release the catches so the peas would fly high to the next table and onto the heads of friends during school lunch.

And and and

I liked it better when these same kids played outside with all the pent-up energy that is kid-dom and oh the non-stop screaming and squealing and ball throwing and chasing and grabbing and laughing, oh

it’s the laughing that I miss most.

A Real New Yorker Falls

As I write this, the rain falls on a cold and dreary day and that, I suppose, is as it should be, for a Real New Yorker has fallen.

There is no great tragedy when a person dies at 85 — at least that is what some would have you believe.  The common wisdom is that the death of a child, or young adult is, somehow, sadder, because of all the promise that lays ahead in life and because the pain of the parents resonates so fully.  Children should not pre-decease their parents.

But what of the 85 year old who never really “gets old,” who never stops learning, or living?  We know so many who suffer from “Glory Days” syndrome, to borrow the title of the Bruce Springsteen song.  That is to say, those who reached life’s pinnacle in high school, or on the gridiron, oozing with the power and vitality of youth.  Too many of us willingly accept the diminishment of the years and comfortably curtail our ability — and desire — to keep learning, growing, staying in the game — and giving to others.

Not Elaine Katz, though.  

If it’s trite to say she was “one of a kind” then so be it. I never met anyone like her. She was a relentless ball of energy, with a bad eye and a bad back and who knows what else.  She was more than 20 years my senior yet when I was felled by a serious back injury, suddenly a cane appeared at my apartment’s concierge desk, with a note saying it was from Elaine.  She explained later that it had been her husband’s and she described a story involving the cane, a nasty cab driver, and lots of screaming and hitting — directed at said cabbie.

I knew her through the Riverdale Temple, which my wife and I joined in 2010, after 25 years of living in Brooklyn.  Here, we knew not a soul. But in short order, we were taken under the wing of the congregation’s leadership.  Elaine, it was clear, was one of the ringleaders.  She, too, was from Brooklyn, which I could tell from her sharp-elbow verbal approach and salty humor.  A scene with Elaine brandishing a massive horseradish root in a particularly funny way comes to mind.  (Use your imagination.)

At Board meetings, in adult ed classes, and during special events, she was a force of nature.  Her eyes sparkled as she texted away during activities, which were often interrupted by the strange steamship ring tone of her mobile phone.

I guess the technical term for Elaine would be “piece of work.”  Where my own parents eschewed the Internet, and allowed whatever native intelligence they possessed to metastasize, Elaine welcomed today’s technology and reveled in her expertise on multiple communications platforms.  Where my mother-in-law — herself a force of nature back in her prime — descended into a diminished life, compulsively obsessed with the most routine matters, Elaine carried on expertly, well into her 80s.

As her son Rob so aptly said in his poignant eulogy, “even in her advanced years, she never become an ‘old lady.'”

And that, my friends, is the key to life.  We all go sometime and we don’t know when or where.  The key is to keep pushing, every day.  Keep learning, growing, and soaking it all in like a sponge.

I was a late bloomer and I readily admit that I only started to hit my stride in my 30s.  Still, my attitude about the gifts I had been given was that there was always another year to build upon, always another decade to make my mark, always “all the time in the world.”

And then, 9/11 happened.  I ramped it up.  And then, in 2007, I received some abrupt, chilling, and fortunately, incorrect news about my health.  I underwent test after test at Methodist Hospital and, then, Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, and was enrolled in a cancer treatment unit and given a blue wallet card embossed with vital information.

When, ultimately, I was deemed fit and my problem resolved, I kept the card.  Now, to some that might seem strange.  But, it is there, in my wallet, to this very day. I keep it as a reminder: life is precious.  Life is short. “Cut the crap,” the card tells me every day, “and keep pushing ahead.  DO NOT WASTE YOUR TIME.”

Yes, it is raining today, and cold, and dreary.  The pelting rain will knock the leaves to the ground below, where they will enrich the soil and allow new growth in the months ahead.  We need the rain, for nourishment, for sustenance.  And as for the cold, and the shorter days, well, this is what it is, here in the northeast United States.  It gets cold, and then colder, and then warmer, and then hot.  Finally, it will cool again.

We will miss Elaine and feel sad about her loss.  But I can’t mourn her life.  Not really. She lived it to the fullest, and overcame the horrors and challenges — and welcomed the joys — that a long life surely brings. A life force like hers lives on, in the memories of all those she has touched.

I’m looking at the rain now, and the window is wide open.  It is cold in here.  The rain splashes the sill.  I feel it on my hands as I type.  It feels good.

Really good.