Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Dove Above

by G. Jack Urso

 


is there a dove


that flies above


and watches with eyes


over wide blue skies?

 

is there a snake


that rattles and shakes


guides us to trees


of knowledge and leaves?

  

am i dust


i wish i knew


or am i just


an animal too?

 


Copyright 1995.

                         


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Candle Opera

 by G. Jack Urso



an aruni photography/Getty Images

The sad thing about candles


is not that their light goes out


but how brightly they once burned



For Annie, my most precious cat (2005-2022).


                         


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Abbot and Costello Discuss Zen

by Jack Urso



Costello: Hey Bud! Whatcha’ doin’?


Abbott: I’m reading this fascinating National Geographic article on the Japanese philosophy of Zen.

Costello: Reading it just for the articles, huh?

Abbott: [slaps Lou] Hey! Show some respect! What would you know about Zen anyhow?

Costello: I can sing a few bars. [singing] “Zen enchanting evening . . .”

Abbott: Come on, Lou . . .

Costello: [singing] “One day, nothing will be mine!”

Abbott: Knock it off! Look, either you know something about Zen or not.

Costello: Why, I just happen to know nothing about Zen.

Abbott: I bet you know nothing about Zen.

Costello: You betcha. Why, I even took a correspondence course.

Abbott: Really? A correspondence course, huh? OK, wise guy. What did you learn?

Costello: Nothing.

Abbott: Nothing?

Costello: That’s right, nothing.

Abbott: You’re telling me you studied Zen and learned nothing?

Costello: Precisely.

Abbott: I should have guessed you would've learned nothing.

Costello: Well, that was the whole point, wasn’t it?

Abbott: Look Lou, if you studied Zen, you must be able to tell me something about it.

Costello: I certainly can!

Abbott: OK, so what is Zen all about?

Costello: Nothing.

Abbott: [exasperated] Look Lou, this is a very simple question. Can you tell me even one basic tenant of Zen?

Lou: I can.

Abbott: OK, what is it? Please enlighten me, oh Swami Lou!

Costello: Zen instructs us to detach from our ego-consciousness to be free from the suffering of the world and the suffering we cause ourselves. Only when we empty ourselves of our desires and attachments so that nothing affects our state of being can we embrace the true nature of the universe. 

Abbott: [long pause] I never liked you Lou.

Costello: And I got a certificate to prove it!

Abbott: Really? Let’s see it!

Costello: [reaches into his wallet and pulls out a piece of paper] Here you go.

Abbott: There’s nothing on this!

Costello: That was the advanced course.
 
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Monday, February 28, 2022

Lone Wolves and Lost Boys

by G. Jack Urso

 

I pulled my PT Cruiser alongside the curb with a pile of garbage that occupied most of the grassy patch of earth between the sidewalk and the street. It was not garbage as such, but Ron’s belongings. Ron had lived above my friend Benny in a converted one-family home in an older section of Albany. All physical evidence of Ron’s life was gathered in front like so much debris pushed up on the beach by the tide after a storm.

The old house where Ron and Benny had their apartments (2011, Google Maps)..
Ron had already been a long-time resident before Benny moved in about a decade ago. Carl, the owner’s son who occasionally did repairs, and then only after complaints and withholding rent, said Ron had been there close to thirty years before he died March 8, 2013. One day the previous fall, Ron was so sick he called an ambulance and never returned home. Six months later he was dead and pretty much all evidence of his life was sitting on the curb and waiting to be hauled off to the landfill.
 
I looked over the pile. It reminded me of the belongings of a dead Viking king gathered about his corpse in a boat before being set out to sea and burned.
 
Lone Wolves and Lost Boys
 
Among the more social of mammals, besides humans, are wolves. Wolves live in a pack with a strict hierarchy. Every wolf has a place in the hierarchy and the punishment for stepping out of place can be severe. Nevertheless, even among this highly social group there are some wolves just unable to adapt themselves to the social hierarchy. Having neither the ambition to be an alpha male or alpha female, nor the willingness to be an omega (last in the pecking order, they slink off to live on the periphery of wolf society — contributing little except some genetic diversity on the rare occasions they are able to lure a female from the pack.
 
Human society is no less hierarchical. Preference is naturally afforded to those members engaged in the propagation, feeding, and protection of the tribe, such as parents, teachers, producers, hunters, gatherers, police officers, soldiers, etc. Yet, within even the most social of species, wolf or human, there are certain individuals who — either by design, nature, or ill-fortune — contribute little to the overall survival of the species, or who are cast aside when their usefulness to family and society is over.
 
Benny's apartment was a sort of club house for me and a small group of men who couldn't seem to find much of a place in the human hierarchy. Some, like my friend Benny, had been married and had kids, later to flee a toxic relationship. Others were married because frankly they’d be lost in the world without someone to wipe their ass. There were victims of life-changing accidents or verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Some experienced what can only be described as horrific tragedies, losing spouses or children. A few women whose lives charted a similar course hung out on the periphery, but it was largely a male group. Some of us were as close as brothers, some of us couldn’t really stand each other, but there we were — a gathering of lone wolves and lost boys.
 
Ronny, I Hardly Knew Ye
 
Ron was an older guy with a slim build, of average height, with a mop of brown hair and a bushy mustache flecked with gray. Jerry Seinfeld has a bit where he says people continue to dress and cut their hair in the style of the last year they were good looking, and Ron’s look was stuck somewhere in the mid-late 70s. He looked younger than his age and we were surprised to find out he was 61 when he died in 2013. At some point around 1985, Ron moved into the last home he would ever live in.
 
Benny had a near-constant stream of friends in and out of his apartment. While Benny and the other friends could pound back the beers, we were all astonished by Ron’s capacity. It was often we would see him come home with an 18-pack of beer and find the entire thing in the trash the next day. It was a prodigious amount. Ron occasionally clashed with Benny, usually over Benny’s love of loud music. Meanwhile, we had no problem hearing whatever games were on in Ron’s apartment, and it seemed as though sports were all he ever watched.
 
One day while we were hanging out, Ron began banging on the floor. This was his way of telling Benny to turn down the music. Usually, Benny would comply, but since this became nearly a daily occurrence, it grinded on Benny’s nerves. Benny went up to confront Ron and had a few sharp words. When he returned, his anger was defused, but more by what he saw than by the opportunity to blow off steam. Gathered on shelves all around Ron’s apartment, were boxes and boxes of model trains. Benny ran some the names by me. I had a sideline selling old board games online for a local book and game store and had some knowledge. Ron had items going back to the 50s and 60s, the golden era of model trains. There must have been thousands of dollars sitting on the shelves. Ron sat there every night, getting drunk, watching sports, and looking at his collection of old model trains.
 
Ron’s obituary was brief, a mere five sentences that revealed little except he was born in 1952, grew up in Guilderland, graduated from Syracuse University, and was predeceased by his mother and a brother. As a reporter/editor, I used to write obituaries for a local weekly newspaper. It was the most depressing task I ever had as a writer, though, in a way, I am writing one now. Obituaries are the last chance for people to tell the world someone mattered. The longer the obituary, the more involved was the person in the world, the more they contributed to it, the more they were loved and needed. Short obituaries, unless the expressed wish of the deceased, revealed exactly what it implied, a life lived on the edges.
 
Under the short obituary were a total of eleven comments who noted Ron’s kind and “grandfatherly” way about him. He enjoyed classic Jazz, was a Yankees fan, and in his younger days played softball and enjoyed picnics with friends and family.  As Ron was a public employee, I was able to find out he worked at the General Soils Lab for the New York State Department of Transportation, Building 7 at the State Office Building Campus about two miles from his apartment. His position was listed as an “Engrg Tech” (probably an administrative staff support position), earning $38,294 a year in 2012, according to public records. A two-room apartment in a 112-year-old building and $38,234 a year was not a lot to show for sixty-one years.
  
In some ways, Ron reminded me of my friend Jon. Jon died about ten years before Ron, and like Ron it was quick. One day he woke up sick and six months later he was dead of pancreatic cancer. We called Jon “Cruiser” because he cruised through life with little an apparent care in the world, despite his circumstances. Something of an overgrown frat boy, Jon’s hobbies largely concerned beer and sports. When he lost his driver’s license for five years due to repeated DWIs, Jon was unfazed. He simply got himself an apartment in a tenement downtown two blocks from work and right across the street from the court building where he reported to his probation officer, after which Jon would promptly head to his favorite bar.
 
Jon’s nonchalance was deep. He never complained, seldom bitched, and never spoke about anything serious. If Jon had any fears or regrets in life, he never spoke about them, including his current legal situation. It was an almost Zen-like state of living in the Now, except I wasn’t sure if one were to cut Jon if we would get beer more than blood. Yet, Jon was a Vietnam War vet. He kept about a half dozen or so medals in a shadow box that for the six years I knew him sat on the floor behind a chair gathering dust. One of them was the Vietnam Service Medal with two stars. It hinted that there was something underneath Jon’s well-practiced cool exterior. Yet, he never talked about the war except for fond memories about the bar girls. Then, the summer Jon came off probation, got his license back, and got a steady girlfriend, he got cancer and was dead six months later, like Ron. Just as Jon was rejoining the pack, rejoining the hierarchy, life pushed him out again.
 
I wondered if Ron ever had his chance or if he just let it pass by. There's a certain security in stagnation  The same apartment, the same job, year after year. Now, a decade after Ron passed, my life is little different than it was ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago, and I wonder the same about myself.
 
En Passant
 
John Steinbeck wrote about the kinds of lost souls who operate on the periphery of society in Of Mice and Men, the timeless tale of migrant farm workers and men crippled by life or nature and living a transient life, if not physically, then at least emotionally. In a way, Ron, Jon, myself, Benny, and the others who gathered at Benny’s, reminded me of characters in Steinbeck's novel  an ad hoc collection of souls thrown together by fate and misfortune. Lost Boys in a Never-Never Land stuck in an eternal childhood, outside society and family.
 
Carl, the landlady’s son and with whom Benny and Ron usually dealt with, had been chaffing the past six months of Ron’s illness. The rent stopped coming pretty soon after Ron was hospitalized, and while Carl chaffed at the loss of income (because it usually went straight into his pocket), his mother didn’t have the heart to evict tenant dying of cancer after nearly thirty years of on-time rent payments. Besides, it would take months to evict him anyway and it was clear Ron didn’t have long to live.
 
After Ron died, no family members or friends came to clear out his belongings. Carl offered to pay Benny to clean out Ron’s apartment. Everything had to get piled out on the sidewalk for the city to haul away on garbage day. Benny asked me to come over the next morning and help him move some of the heavy stuff out to the curb. I had to work, but I said I would drop by around noon. Benny said Carl was going to rifle through the apartment first and grab those model trains to try and recoup some of the six month's lost rent.

A tenant’s old belongings waiting to be hauled away.
When I got there the next day, I saw everything piled up curbside and went in. I found Benny sitting down in his apartment smoking a cigarette. He said he didn’t need my help after all. Carl helped him with a few of the big items and he carried the rest out to the curb. All he had left to do is give the place a good scrubbing to get rid of the dusty remains. 
 
I asked Benny if Carl snagged the model trains and if he saw any of them. Benny took a slow drag off the cigarette and exhaled, replying that that there were no model trains. All the boxes were empty, all of them. They were just a collection of empty boxes.
 
“Carl was pissed,” Benny said with a smile on his face.
 
So, apparently Ron spent the last thirty years getting drunk, watching sports, and looking at boxes that model trains, now long gone, once came in. My life is essentially no less stagnated than Ron's was. I’ve had nearly as many jobs in as many years since his passing. Instead of model toy trains, I sell old board games. Am I feeling empathy for Ron or just feeling sorry for myself?
 
The sun was setting by the time I left Benny’s. Scavengers had picked through Ron’s belongings, but little had been taken. Even the TV, a large, now obsolete, cathode-ray model that would have been the envy of most people in 2000 sat forlorn and rejected in 2013. Time passed quickly and moved on without Ron catching up, though in the end it finally caught up to him. I paused for a moment and looked over the totality of Ron’s life waiting to be hauled away as so much garbage the next morning. I kicked at the trash bag full of crushed toy train boxes.
 
Opening up the door of my retro-style PT Cruiser, I slide behind the wheel and drove off into the growing twilight, going home.
 
The author’s dearly departed 2006 PT Cruiser.

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Friday, January 28, 2022

Charlie Brown Down

by G. Jack Urso 


In late January 2022, Peter Robbins, the original voice of Charlie Brown in the first two Peanuts TV specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), and four other films, committed suicide. He died after a lifelong battle with mental illness, having not married or any children.
 
In a world of Frostys, Grinches, and Rudolphs, A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as one of the very few Christmas specials that include scripture in its dialog directly related to the birth of Christ. We see this in Linus’ recitation of the annunciation to the shepherds from Luke, chapter 2. The overall plot, a critique of the commercialization of the holiday, tapped into mid-century Western angst in the period of post-war prosperity. Together, these two themes intertwine to elevate the animated special into an almost spiritual experience.

I was born in late 1964, so A Charlie Brown Christmas was one of the first animated Christmas specials I can remember watching, being planted down in front of the TV at the age of one with my siblings to start what has been an annual tradition for me ever since. Young viewers could imagine being part of the Peanuts gang. In fact, the entire concept is from the child’s point-of-view with nary an adult in sight.

Robbins performed the role not just in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but also in the animated TV specials, You're in Love, Charlie Brown (1967), He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown (1968), It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown (1969) and A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). In the 1960s, Robbins essentially was Charlie Brown and the unique quality of his voice virtually defined the role and became the standard by which all later performances were compared.

Given Robbins’ mental health issues, there is perhaps some irony in a scene early in A Charlie Brown Christmas where Charlie sits down to discuss his ambivalent feelings about the holiday to Lucy’s 5-cent psychiatrist. How often, I've thought, did Robbins meet with a court-ordered or prison psychiatrist and wonder if he could get his five cents back.

Downtown Charlie Brown

There is a certain melancholy to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charlie Brown is somewhat of an outcast, alternatively rejected and pitied by the rest of the gang. Even his dog, Snoopy, doesn’t respect him. 

The equally classic soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi has an overall melancholy feeling to it as well. Despite the bouncy “Linus and Lucy,” which became the Peanuts theme, and the ebullient "Christmas is Coming," it is largely a reflective work in tone. The other key original composition for the soundtrack, “Christmastime is Here,” is wistful, almost somber. Though singing of Christmas Present, it seems more like a vision of Christmas Past, or a Christmas one wished for, but never happened.

At the heart of the storyline in A Charlie Brown Christmas is the Christmas tree. Tasked with buying a Christmas tree for the play, Charlie Brown finds what is essentially a sickly and rejected overgrown twig and immediately identifies with it. The tree is not only a stand-in for Charlie Brown, but also for the Christ-child, who entered the world poor, born in a manger, and befriended by shepherds and magi who brought his family gifts.

A young Peter Robbins, far right, standing next to director Bill Melendez and
other unidentified voice actors recording for a Charlie Brown special in 1968.

In short order, A Charlie Brown Christmas quickly became recognized as the apex of children’s animated Christmas specials. Its message has transcended not only generations, but also religions as people of all creeds, even atheists, have come to appreciate its timeless message.

One can also not ignore Robbins’ contribution to its success. Though only nine years old, he successfully manages to convey the range of emotions from concern, disappointment, depression, and despair to empathy. It is a remarkable, underrated performance. Because A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, are among the most popular of such TV specials, Robbins’ performances will likely endure as part of the holidays for as long as they are celebrated. 

The Low-Down on Brown

The Peanuts characters are archetypes of children one encountered in their own neighborhoods. Most people know someone like or can identify with one of the gang; however, it is the put-upon Everyman, Charlie Brown, that centers the strip — the ever hopeful, lonesome loser who always comes in last. The guy who has the football taken away from him at the last moment when he goes to kick it, and then gets up to try again and again.

I sometimes think we enshrine Charlie Brown’s and similar downtrodden characters' “keep trying” attitude to alleviate our guilt over the zero-sum calculus of society. For everyone who succeeds, someone fails. Someone gets a bag filled with candy, another gets rocks. We need Charlie Browns to keep trying because while we believe in the inherent inevitability of our success due to persistence, we fear life is still pretty much a crap shoot.

For anyone, the burden of that legacy would be heavy. For Robbins, born with a bipolar disorder, it was overwhelming. Yet, where does one go after peaking at the age of nine? This is the terrible inheritance for child stars who were part of iconic film and TV shows, like Anissa Jones (Buffy on Family Affair) discussed in my post “Family Affairs and Pieces of Our Childhood.”

Robbins at a 2013 court appearance (credit John Gibbins U-T San Diego AP).

For Robbins, that burden and his bipolar condition led to alcohol, drug, and sex addictions as well as obsessive behavior, stalking, threats of violence, and manic episodes. He did two stints in prison totaling more than five years where he suffered beatings from other inmates and put in isolation. When I worked in prisons, I once visited the secure holding units (SHU) at a maximum-security facility. It was a circle of hell. The thought of Robbins there, battling his own mental illness, fills me with a deep and profound sense of sorrow and tragedy.

When once parents struggled with how to tell their children there is no Santa Claus, they can now add to the list when to tell them Charlie Brown committed suicide.

Somewhere, I imagine Robbins is with all the other tragic former child actors, becoming something of a celluloid version of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys — eternally young, at least on film. Robbins, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, through his final act, is fated to return every year as a slightly bitter aftertaste to A Charlie Brown Christmas, reminding us of loss and tragedy every December.

And perhaps it can also teach us to better appreciate the forgotten Christmas trees in the world that can still grow and thrive with just a little bit of love. 


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