IDENTITY CRISIS

Could you describe yourself accurately over the phone to someone you’re going to meet for the first time in a crowded restaurant? Many years ago I spent a frustrating hour waiting for a blind date who was supposed to be, according to her description, a slim, young flaxen-haired girl of average height.

I eventually spotted her wandering around the tables, searching for me. She was a thirty-something, pudgy, peroxide blond, about 5 feet nothing in her stilletos who was looking for a guy, according to my description, who could have been Clint Eastwood’s stand-in.

Who knows, she might have been an avid Mets fan who also shared my addiction to crossword puzzles, freshwater fishing and pepperoni pizza. By sneaking out I may have lost potential a good buddy.

Mother seals in the nature documentaries can pick out their pups on enormous beaches, packed flipper to flipper with crying infants. We seem to have lost that ability. A typical family gathered around a newborn will have a serious debate about the inherited looks of the baby. “Anyone can see he’s the spitting image of his father.”……….”I don’t see Oscar in him at all. He favors his mother.”…….”He definitely has Aunt Martha’s nose. See how it turns up and then down again?”…….”You’re all wrong. He’s an Uncle Billy look-alike, but with modern plastic surgery there’s no cause for alarm.”

This identity problem is often manifested on a grand scale. Many will confess that, to them, all Asians look alike . That could mean they can’t tell the difference between Jackie Chan and Madam Butterfly.

And why do we have imperfect ideas about our own appearance? Why are we sometimes willing to dismiss all the visual evidence and believe, for the moment, that we resemble someone else?

Watch closely the next time you’re exiting a Brad Pitt or Liam Neeson movie. Some of the men will be swaggering, acting like six footers, lean and very athletic. This only lasts for about 20 yards. Swaggering while sucking in one’s gut can be exhausting.

We also manage to misinterpret photos and drawings of ourselves, believing they’re inaccurate because of poor lighting or an artist’s style. The talented artist Deb Polston illustrated my humor columns years ago. “Deb really creates great cartoons of me,” I said to my son back then.

“I never thought they were cartoons, Dad.”

“Well, caricatures then, with exaggerated features.”

“Dad, I’ve always considered them accurate portraits.”

“Portraits?…..Really?”

NOISY NIGHT VISITORS

I just watched “The Shining” again. I should know better. Spooky movies should be avoided on nights when you’re home alone. Wait a minute! What was that? It sounded like moaning upstairs someplace. Why is it an old house can be perfectly quiet all day, but right after sunset, begin to squeal and rattle like a three-master in a typhoon?

Last week it got so bad after I watched “Poltergeist” I had to ask my neighbors, Brock and Julia, over to sit with me awhile. It was quite embarassing. The twins are only 14.

I once had a great dog. I thought she’d keep me company and be a calming influence, but Molly heard twice as much as I did and spent most nights snarling at dark corners and barking at strange sounds. Molly ran away years ago during a Dracula TV movie, but sometimes I hear her growling up in the attic. Well something is growling up in the attic!

With 20/20 ears and Irish roots, I not only hear every little twitch of lumber and creak of plaster, but I often attribute them to supernatural causes. Some of the noises are hard to explain otherwise.

It can’t always be just the house settling or cooling down or the wind flapping a loose shutter. Those would be random noises, but sometimes I hear a definite tempo like that stacatto in the back room now. It sounds like a ghostly troupe of flamenco dancers.

Speaking of definite tempos, last night there was a rap-tap-tapping on the north side of the house that lasted a half hour. My Morse code isn’t what it used to be, but I’m sure there was one stretch that twice spelled out “Otto Blegnitz”. I don’t know an Otto Blegnitz. I’ll have to Google him and tell him I’m getting his messages from the other side.

Way back when my whole family lived here, I sometimes had to pretend I didn’t hear strange noises, or at least I didn’t consider them strange. “That’s only a tree limb brushing the side of the house,” I’d say. But down deep I’d be wondering who or what was dragging something through the attic.

Sometimes the family would insist I take a look, just to be sure. I would chuckle and say, “This is so silly, but if it makes you feel better….” Once, while checking strange attic noises, I stumbled in the dark and an old fur coat slid off its hanger and fell on my back.

I found my family cowering in the living room. “Didn’t you hear that blood-curdling scream in the attic?” my wife gasped.

“Oh, that was no scream,” I said nonchalantly, “I found my old cornet up there and was trying to play “Moon River”, but I’ve lost my lip.” Then I went into the bathroom and threw some water onto my face, trying to keep from fainting.

I also see strange things, night and day, but they’re not as clearly defined as that clanking down in the cellar right now.

I can’t be precise about what I glimpsed peripheraly today, running behind the couch. Whatever it was, it was certainly fast and had a rounded top, like possibly a gnome wearing a derby. It couldn’t have been Molly. She was a small dog and never wore a derby.

CRUDE AWAKENINGS

So much has been written about sleep, “Nature’s soft nurse” who “knits up the raveled sleeve of care”, but too little attention has been paid to the subject of waking up. Why is that?

Anyone who drops off to sleep, “perchance to dream”, will have to regain consciousness eventually. Why have the poets neglected this? I once thought I might be the one to write about the pleasures of awakening to a new day, ripe with opportunities for discovery and adventure, but Sergeant McBrootle changed all that.

Sgt McBrootle, or old #%@*! as he was known to the lower ranks, felt that bugles were all right for parades and horse races, but, to awaken men sleeping off the effects of 16 hours of calisthenics and marching, something more to the point was needed.

Two hours before dawn on our second day of basic training we were given a demonstration of the sergeant’s theory. Reveille began with the tossing of a garbage can filled with steel mess kits down the barracks stairs, folllowed by McBrootle’s obscene shouts while marching up and down between our bunks, banging on a washbasin with a bayonet.

It was an effective method. The transition from sleep to wakefulness was instantaneous and universal, but there were glitches. Two rattled rookies had to be coaxed down from their upper bunks. One was actually hanging from a rafter. There was also the suspected heart attack.

Sgt McBrootle would probably have worked out these little bugs had he not been seriously wounded in combat the following year. The combat took place behind the For Dix mess hall. He’d been pummeled with a heavy wash basin. There were several hundred suspects, but no arrests.

However, two months of being shocked into wakefulness by the McBrootle method took its toll. I was no longer an “Oh what a beautifyl morning” (OWABM) riser , but, for survival purposes, had switched to the “Dead on arrival” (DOA) category.

The world is probably divided evenly between OWABM’s and DOA’s which, in my opinion, is one of the major causes of high school dropouts, broken marriages, assault and battery cases and unsolved disappearances.

In a slower-paced society, DOA’s might find suitable employment as night watchmen and similar professions where the wake-up process can take a half hour or so of coaxing, but a real cure must be found very soon. Many of these unfortunate DOA’s are now in high government positions.

In the meantime, some of us DOA’s can be lured back to consciousness by the inviting aromas of bacon, eggs and coffee or an electrifying announcement like, “Thank goodness, the fire engines have finally arrived!”

IT’S WEED TIME! HOE, HOE, HOE!

“Spring has finally sprung,” the daffodils sang outside my kitchen door this morning, a joyous song, well received, but with slight misgivings. There, beside these cheerful golden blossoms, were early signs of pesky intruders.

A weed, according to Webster, “is a plant that is not valued where it is growing.” That could even apply to a beautiful sunflower that migrates into your vegetable patch competing with the tomatoes and cabbages for water, sunlight and nourishment like a drop-in third cousin who disrupts the family’s sleeping and eating arrangements. You can’t throw him out. A fourth cousin maybe, but not a third cousin. He’s a close-enough relative.

It also defines the dandelions and crabgrass growing vigorously wherever they please, in your garden, lawn and through the cracks in your driveway. In the meantime the expensive grass seeds you planted in the lawn’s bare spots have failed to sprout although you watered and spoke warmly to them daily. Even your unprintable threats had no effect.

Weeds are mentioned in the Bible’s parable of the sower where some represent the worldly distractions that impede our spiritual growth. In another parable they stand for the bad characters who will ultimately be weeded out and (Ouch!) burned.

There are many weeds in our lives, events and people that are uglifying our garden. Some are not intrinsically bad, but just in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a Good Humor man with his chimes ringing while he’s parked outside a Weight Watchers’ meeting.

Junk mail, TV commercials and traffic jams are weeds we have to live with. A federal weed-killer, the “Do Not Call List” is about as ineffective as a toothless, friendly watch dog.

We need more effective “herbicides” for the cookies, spams and scams. In a few months some annual weeds will begin to proliferate, the political campaign ads. However, we can strike back. Don’t forget to vote.

TALKING TO THE TULIPS

Do you talk to your plants? Many people feel it’s beneficial for their potted friends to hear a warm, encouraging voice. But we not only talk to our petunias, we seem to think every living creature on earth and even inanimate objects understand our endearments and reprimands to some extent.

Just yesterday I apologized to my wilting forget-me-nots for neglecting my irrigation responsibility and wished them a speedy recovery. Later, I had harsh words for a footstool I’d tripped over. After all, why was it lurking in the middle of a dark room like that? It should have known better.

There may be hope for meaningful talks with our plants, but there’s still a lot to be learned. Scientists have discredited the belief that plants respond favorably to classical music. They are as deaf to Beethoven’s music as he eventually was., they say. However, the threatening sound of an approaching hungry caterpillar has been shown on lab instruments to show sudden defensive plant responses.

I am confident our experts will eventually discover ways for us to communicate more efficiently with our leafy friends. I’ll keep in touch with them in the meantime, but now I’ll have some lingering doubts.

Suppose, like us humans, all plants don’t speak the same language and the sweet nothings I’ve been uttering to my geraniums are actually filthy curses in the gardenia lingo. My encouragements might be going in one petal and out the other.

Also, at my age, my voice has become a little raspy. It just might resemble the multiple footsteps of an approaching hungry caterpillar and, when I think I’m endearing myself to my daffodils, I’m actually terrifying them. That could explain the dry rot.

YOUR FAMILY STORY ON BROADWAY

What would it be like if our family’s life story was subjected to the unmerciful scrutiny and the no-holds-barred comments of a Broadway critic? How many of us could withstand a probing analysis of the acts and scenes of our family’s life and still emerge with egos intact?

Our very real lives are not plays in spite of what Shakespeare wrote. All the world may be a stage and we may all be players, but nobody is going to close us down with a few deft thrusts of a vitriolic pen. But still, it would be interesting:

” ‘The McAverages’ is an off-off-Broadway production that has been running for what seems to be forever. It took ten years to cast and has pushed its budget beyond the two million dollar mark. Despite frequent ho-hum performances by the male lead, the show has managed to stay on the boards and off the rocks.

One of the weaknesses of this multi-character piece is an apparent lack of plot direction. It opens as a love story and that theme prevails throughout, but there are distinctly farcical scenes and, as the younger characters move through adolescence, the theme begins to approach cheap melodrama.

Yet, it holds one’s interest. The very aimlessness of the script and the variety of pace piques the audience’s interest. How is this thing going to come out?

The sets are by Sears Roebuck and estate sales. Casting was by amazingly good fortune and by various always welcome storks. All of this adds to the realism generated by the cast members and their freewheeling pets.

The attractive leading lady is well cast and turns in a stellar performance. However, in the later scenes as the younger players mature and shed braces and pigtails, the heroine’s attractiveness could have faded a little, but this is an observation, not a complaint.

Most of the play’s incongruities are generated by the male lead. Is he a dashing urbane man of the world posing as an accident-prone bumpkin, or is it vice versa?

Is he basically cheerful but subject to periods of depression or is he a pathological grouch who has occasional seizures of jollity? And why does the script have him shouting so much, especiallly when he’s demanding quiet?

While the play’s tempo often swings from humdrum to hectic, the general mood seems to be comfortable affection between characters. You may not always enjoy or even understand the interplay, but you will sense that the characters do.

‘The McAverages’ is an interesting play to visit and I wouldn’t mind living there.”

VACATIONS: RESTFUL OR RESTLESS

There are several schools of thought on how to spend one’s vaction. Some believe these intervals were meant for complete relaxation. They should be quiet times, they say, dedicated to rest, meditation and cultural pursuits.

There are other opinions including those held by the Drunken-sailors-on-shoreleavers and the Keep-moving-till- you-droppers. Vacations, after all should be periods of freedom when you can do what you please within the bounds of federal and local laws and the accepted rules of decency. If you prefer to vegetate and recharge your batteries, that’s certainly your right. But if you want to risk returning from your holiday with a worn out body and bank balance, that too is your is your option.

This freedom of choice argument would then seem to settle the question and make the subject noncontroversial, but that’s true only if you happen to be a hermit. Most vacations involve more than one person and the chance of mixing incompatible types is very high.

Take the Bumbles, for instance, a loving, devoted couple who agree on most everything for 50 weeks of the year, but diametrically opposed when it comes to planning and pacing a vacation.

“Where are we Henry?” Mrs. Bumble gasps, awakening in the speeding car. “This is Nevada, my Dear,” replies Mr. Bumble (a retired Navy vet) who is hunched over the wheel with his eyes fixed on the horizon.

“But we were going to tour San Francisco . You promised we would as we were breakfasting on EggMcMuffins in the hotel’s parking garage.” Mr. Bumble swerved around a tractor trailer and replied, “We did tour San Francisco, my love, but you dozed off again and missed Fisherman’s Wharf and Telegraph Hill at sunrise.”

Mrs. Bumble nibbled thoughtfully on the remains of her EggMcMuffin. “I don’t remember any of that. It was the same in Los Angeles, just a blur, and I so wanted to tour Beverly Hills.”

“As I’ve explained, my sleeping beauty, we made a quick pass through Beverly Hills and I have a nice video of the run to show you, including my debate with Dr. Phil about his right to privacy complaint. For Pete’s sake, I only pulled into his driveway for two minutes to take some pictures.”

“So this is Nevada, Henry? I hope we’re headed for Las Vegas.”

“Yes and I’m glad we agree on our destination. Are you planning on gambling?”

“No, I read about some very nice Buddhist monasteries there. I’m going to reserve a cell in one of them. You can pick me up on your way back to the airport in a few days.”

There are also cases where the roles are reversed and the wife is the frantic excursionist. If small children and a mother-in-law are involved, the vacation can resemble a two-week rehearsal for a Marx Brothers movie.

SNOOZING SENIORS

One of the reasons the days seem to fly by as we get older is that we spend a lot of time unconscious. Like babies with their numerous nap times, we are mercifully ushered through some trying lifetime episodes.

Fewer things are new and interesting to us old fogies. So much “new stuff” is really old hat and boring as we move past middle age toward the Pearly Gates with convenient dozing stations along the way.

The television industry should realize the number of older, couchbound viewers is increasing and the time has come for major programming changes. No matter how loud, raucous, terrifying or even nauseating they make their final scenes, they’re losing a good portion of their audience by 10 p.m. as aging eyelids begin to quiver across the nation.

So far this year, I’ve seen only the first halves of eleven TV specials. Like most of my surviving senior friends, I can’t master the current difficult manipulations required to record a TV show. My grandchildrens’ explantions of the many “simple” necessary button clickings might as well have been recited in Swahili.

It’s not all that bad. After enduring decades of less than scintillating piano school recitals, political speeches, business meetings and other boring episodes, Mother Nature finally provided me with an escape hatch. I remember the very day, several years ago, when I realized I had a key to that hatch.

“Did you enjoy the slides of the McGlumphy’s Pocono vacation, Dear?” my wife asked as we drove home from a house party. “They were….uh….interesting,” I replied. “I tried to show polite interest and Paul was considerate enough to show only a few .”

“There were 180 slides, my Darling, and if snoring is showing polite interest then Amy Vanderbilt is a lady wrestler.”

That’s one of the disadvantages of benign narcolepsy. People take it personally. They don’t resent my weakenig eyesight or my stiffening joints. They’re actually sympathetic and helpful then, but if I slip off to dreamland while they’re droning on about their granddaughter’s finger painting progress, that’s different.

Still, we have to learn to live with each other, so I try not to hurt other people’s feelings. However, sometimes the results are absurd.

Once at a dinner party I was seated next to a podiatrist who regaled me through six courses with detailed accounts of his surgical prowess in dealing with multiple plantar verrucae (warts). I held out as long as I could, nodding and smiling with an occasional “Wow!” but finally Morpheus won out and I tipped over into my rhubarb cobbler.

Apparently the hostess was alarmed and dialed 911. The next thing I knew, an EMT was shaking my shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll be okay Sir,” he said. “I’ve made several calls like this with unconscious seniors. You should get a check up, but snoring and smiling are always good signs.”

ELUSIVE SUAVITY

As a young man I yearned to be suave. It was my goal and I was making some progress by watching David Niven, Rex Harrison and James Bond movies.

I came to realize suavity is not a physical characteristic or an accumulation of skills, but an instinctive attitude enabling one to always claim the limelight. Sadly, my suavity quest ended dismally years ago on my first trip to Italy.

I’d spent hours studying the history, customs and language of the country. I wanted to be the calm, urbane person in my tour group who moved smoothly through Italy as if it were my second home.

I came to realize suave pretenders don’t stand out. They stick out. I learned this early in the tour where I was too often the proverbial sore thumb. During those two awful weeks I left a trail up and down the Italian boot of raised eyebrows, noses and a few fists.

As a take charge person I assumed the responsibility of planning the day to day details of our small party’s itinerary. The ensuing debacle was as much the result of faulty communications as it was a complete suavity crash.

I had no idea my grasp of Italian was so faulty. It sounded good to me. Even the members of my tour group said my delivery had a ring of authenticity with the arm waving and all. But gestures are no substitute for intelligibility. After rechecking my English-Italian dictionary later I was able to piece together and explain the more embarrassing episodes.

There was the hotel dining room fiasco when I tried to ingratiate myself with the headwaiter to get special treatment for my group. My friends must have assumed, like me, that Guido and I were having a friendly chat, but I subsequently discovered from the dictionary that I was saying to him, “Good night, Madam. When is your name? Please see that my friends get good crazy.” And he was replying, “Sir, you are standing on my foot.” I suavely informed my group that I’d made arrangements for VIP treatment.

That was Sunday evening. No waiter came to our table until late Tuesday when we were scolded for bringing sandwiches into the dining room. I tried to explain we hadn’t been served for two days and we were quite hungry.

The dining room problem was a minor glitch compared to the railroad station episode where I tried to manage the details of our side trip. The station was a beehive when we arrived during the commuter rush hour. It was my job to book passage for my party of six on a fast train to Venice.

Before I knew it, I’d spent many thousands of lire and held six tickets that I couldn’t read. A kindly old Italian gentleman noticed my quandary and offered to help. “Your tickets are for a special non-stop train to Venice,” he said. “It is an excellent train that will arrive there this afternoon. “

“Bene!” I said. “Just what I wanted.”

“Not so bene,” he replied “That train left ten minutes ago.”

In the next half hour, the Italian railway system and I exchanged considerable amounts of tickets and lire. At one point I had tickets for an express train, but no guarantee of seats for the six-hour ride. During a critical communications breadown we were booked on a boat train to Sardinia.

Believing I’d finally solved the problem I hustled my group off to the express platform while I searched for a luggage porter. The porter and I arrived with the bags just on time. Not on time for me to board, unfortunately, but on time to wave goodbye to my friends who appeared bewildered to be leaving without their suitcases.

I was suavely confident that I could solve that problem. “Enjoy Venice,” I called to them. “Arrivederci!”.

The porter tugged at my sleeve. “No Venizia, Signore. Your friends are going to Vienna.”

“Oh well,” I shouted suavely to my departing friends, “Auf wiedersehen!”

EVERYBODY DOES IT

It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m very busy lying here working on my to-do list. I’m almost finished digesting a salami and cheese midnight sandwich and I’m beginning to figure out the barking pattern of that sad dog on the next block. Then maybe I’ll come up with an idea for this blog.

Ms Thalia, my ancient Greek muse, often works nights and sometimes gives me what seems to be a real brainstorm while I’m tossing and/or turning. I jot it down in the dark in my note pad and try to read my scrawl at dawn.

Once, years ago, when I was a humor columnist, it took me hours to decipher Thalia’s “Shopping for clothing” suggestion. It was a very ripe idea, ruined by my faulty penmanship. I read it the next morning as “Stopping for nothing”. The result was a column completely lacking in structure and humor. My editor said it read like the ravings of a madman and suggested psychotherapy.

I’m fully awake now with no trace of the dull buzz that comes just before I drop off, so let’s get to today’s subject of “Sleep” inspired by my muse or perhaps by the salami and cheese sandwich.

Sleep is mankind’s universal pastime. (We can’t call it an activity.) We spend one-third of our lives in its realm. If we could do it all at once, we would sleep until about our twenty-second birthday and then proceed, wakeful and uninterrupted, for the next forty-four years or so.

However, we’re not built that way. It is essential that we slip into unconciousness at regular intervals to maintain a certain level of well-being and to avoid walking into things and falling off chairs at our workplaces.

Periodic sleep is required to soften the sharper edges of life and should be a welcome interlude in the hectic pace that society sets. But man, the only animal capable of prolonged worry, has invented insomnia so he can fret about many things including not being able to fall asleep.

Insomnia is not all bad for all people. Many are making a nice living off other people’s wakefulness, by selling them pills and advice. If it weren’t for insomniacs, late night entertainers like Jimmy Kimmel might otherwise be selling vacuum cleaners door to door.

However, our subject is not insomnia, but sleep which Ovid called, “The most gentle of divinities”. Shakespeare said it is “Nature’s soft nurse.” I agree with both. I’ve always had an affinity with divinities and an appreciation of soft nurses.

While insomnia is not all bad, sleep is not all good. Going to sleep is like pressing the fast forward button, making one-third of our day flash by in 40 or more blinks. But we need sleep like we need coffee breaks, seventh inning stretches, holidays, weekends and vacations. Most of us are designed for the 100-meter dash and not the marathon.

Sleep is therefore…..Wait a minute! Did I detect something there. Is sleep finally approaching? Did you hear a buzzzzzzzzzzz?