We Deserve To Be Rocked!

The late Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard, which came out in 1987 and which I read a few weeks ago, isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever pulled off a shelf. I mean, the plot is not particularly compelling. And whatever points Vonnegut was trying to make don’t congeal. But sometimes I’m a forgiving soul! And this was one of those times. Meaning, I enjoyed Bluebeard (though there’s no arguing that The Sirens Of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, among others, are better Vonnegut creations). It’s a breezy read. Its witticisms and absurdist underpinnings kept me flipping the pages. And eventually the book found its way into my heart when it helped to spur the production of this essay. See? It can pay to read a mediocre book!

Bluebeard is the supposed autobiography of septuagenarian Rabo Karabekian, a once-acclaimed but now-forgotten abstract painter who, through no real efforts of his own, has become ridiculously wealthy. But his riches mean little to Rabo. Hell, just about everything means little to him. He isn’t a basket case, but he passes through his “golden years” with emotions that rarely jump above a flatline pattern. Rabo would do well to allow joy to enter his life a whole lot more often.

I’ve incorporated Bluebeard into this opus as a result of my attention having been turned to one of the first pieces I wrote for this website. That occurred when I noticed, on my WordPress statistics page, that somebody in our big, old world recently had taken a look at said story, upon which I had bestowed an incredibly ungainly title:  Are We Just Boring As We Get Older? Jackson Browne, And I, Say It Ain’t Necessarily So (click here if you’d like to read it).

Well, last week I read that Browne essay to relearn what it’s all about. Shit, like I should have been able to recall something I penned almost five years ago? I’m lucky when I remember which drawer I keep my underpants in. Turns out that the piece is about the power of music to improve your life. Browne, a primo singer-songwriter who has been going strong in the music biz for over 50 years, has clear thoughts on the subject. Here are his words from my story. They are what he had to say, back in 2014, to interviewer David Dye when asked if people become boring in later life: “As you age, you look for ways in which to sustain yourself . . . Music is restorative, the act of doing it, the act of listening to it. Man, it’s good for you. It can really make the difference in how the rest of your life goes, and especially how you feel physically.”

Right on, Jackson! I couldn’t agree more. Music can calm you down. It can take your mind off your troubles and woes. And, way better from my perspective, music might lead you to inner regions that are so pure and enchanting, you can’t believe your good fortune in being there. Jackson’s quote put me in mind of Rabo Karabekian. Music seems to be absent from Rabo’s life, and he’s all the poorer for it.

Rabo aside, I’d guess that music plays anywhere from a reasonably big to a real big part in most peoples’ lives. Speaking personally, which I sure do a hell of a lot of in this publication, I’d be one sorry f*cker were music to be taken away from me. Listening to music sometimes makes my day. At the least, it helps to get me through each day. Unlike in my youth and middle age, I don’t need to hear tons and tons of music (like Rabo and Jackson, I’m into my 70s), but not a day goes by without a healthy dose, at minimum, of tunes greeting my ears.

And most genres of music suit me just fine. Jazz, blues, reggae, soul, classical, you name it. But more than anything, I like to be rocked. Rocked, that is, by loud, pulsating rock music, the varieties of same that prominently employ electric guitars. This doesn’t happen too much in my house, where my wife Sandy prefers music to be on the more sedate side of the spectrum. But I’ve made it a point over the past 12 months to attend concerts that rock me to the bones. I hadn’t done enough of that in the previous 10 or so years. Paradoxically, Sandy often accompanies me to these shows.

Rocked I was, and mightily, on January 11 when my much-better half and I went to a four-hour, five-band rock concert at City Winery, in Philadelphia. The bands took no prisoners. Nothing resembling a ballad was played that night. I liked each act, but one was head and shoulders above the rest. Namely, Joe Grushecky And The Houserockers (Joe is from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, has been rocking and rolling forever, and is pals with Bruce Springsteen). During long passages on each of their songs, the singing stopped and the group’s three-guitar attack took to the skies. Closing my eyes, I let the dense, rushing waves of sound bring me as close to “heaven” as I’ll ever get.

Joe Grushecky And The Houserockers (Joe has the red guitar. Some band members wouldn’t fit in the photo.)

Yes, music, whether you’re a listener or performer, can be a nourishing force that opens hidden doors. And it’s not the only one, of course, though I have to think that it reigns supreme. For some people, painting or sculpting might take them to magical places. Or skiing. Or playing basketball. Who knows how long the list is. I believe that, consciously or not, we all crave more than the everyday, no matter what our age. And that, at least now and then, we want to soar. Man, we deserve to be rocked, in a good way of course, musically or otherwise. Damn straight about that. Our time on Planet Earth is limited, after all.

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Eggplant Parmigiana And Good Advice

It’s not every day that a visit to a shopping mall inspires someone to write about eggplant parmigiana and good advice. This is one of those days. Off we go.

I can’t begin to explain how or why, for many years, I stopped eating eggplant parmigiana, somehow forgetting that it is one of my favorite dishes. I hadn’t overindulged on eggplant parm, thus getting tired of it. And I hadn’t turned away from Italian cooking in general. God forbid! No, sometimes life takes weird, head-scratch-inducing turns, and my losing awareness of eggplant parm’s existence was one of them. This southern Italian mélange of fried eggplant, tomato sauce and melted cheeses, which had gone down my gullet numerous dozens of times during the 1960s through 1990s, became a stranger to me in the current century. Until September 15 that is, about 10 weeks ago, when eggplant parm vivaciously reentered my life. Hallelujah!

That night my wife Sandy and I were at a good restaurant a few miles from our suburban Philadelphia home. Marco Polo is its name and Italian cooking is part of its game. We have thrown business Marco Polo’s way for around 25 years. Scanning the menu I was awakened from my eggplant parmigiana amnesia, for it was as if a Roman god or goddess slapped me upside my head and then trained my eyes on one and only one listing on the menu. My mouth began to water almost uncontrollably. I became a sputtering, emotional mess. “I must have it! I must! I shall!” I nearly screamed.

Eggplant parmigiana at Marco Polo

And so I had it. And, man, was it superb. The eggplant was moist and tender, the tomato sauce as sweet as a sunny springtime day, and the cheeses very fine and, importantly, not overwhelming in amount.

Since that joyous occasion I’ve eaten eggplant parmigiana six more times, most recently on Saturday past (November 24), when Sandy and I once again dined at Marco Polo. I’m hooked on the stuff! For the remainder of my earthly stay I plan to keep it that way, in moderation. I could do a lot worse.

Okay, then. That’s the eggplant parm part of this story. Now it’s time for some good advice, and also for a valiant attempt to connect those two themes.

Once in a blue moon I head to the wondrous, three-level, enclosed shopping mall near my home. Usually, like most people, I go there to shop. But two or three times I’ve gone to try and find something or other to write about for this publication (click here to read one example). On November 24, seven hours before dining at Marco Polo, the latter was my intention. There was a pretty good chance, I figured, that the visit might prove to be journalistically fruitful.

Maybe an essay about frenzied shoppers and kiddies sitting on Santa’s lap should have been the result of my time at the mall. But, you know, that just ain’t me. Instead, my attention was drawn to a sign in Macy’s department store, the first place I investigated within the mall. The sign, a store directory, said “Find Your Way” in big letters across its top. “Holy shit!” I thought to myself. “That’s powerful advice. It’s important for people to find their way, their true path in life. Fulfillment will result if they do.”

Whoa, what had come over me? I’m not the philosophical sort. I’m in the middle section of the deep-thinking pool, at best. And it wasn’t ganja that brought out that unlikely response from me, seeing that I haven’t smoked weed in 30 years.

Whatever the reason, I then went on a quest to locate other examples of good advice in the mall. And indeed I found some. “Believe In The Wonder Of Giving” commanded another Macy’s sign. “Love Your Mother” (meaning both your female parent and Mother Nature) proclaimed a tee shirt in Bloomingdale’s department store.  “It’s Never Too Late To Have A Happy Childhood” smiled down upon the customers at Build-A-Bear Workshop. And the finest advice of all came from a poster at Sephora. “Be Kind. Be Open. Be Gracious” it urged. Needless to say, the poster also should have said “Be Helpful.”

Damn straight, I was on a roll!

The final emporium in which I met words of wisdom was a Hallmark store. A small box, meant to be hung on a wall or placed on a table or shelf, contained a message that I paused over: “Do More Of What Makes You Happy.” A pleasure-seeker to a sizeable degree, I could relate, because I took it to mean that we might as well boost our fun a lot while we can, seeing that the number of spins we make around the Sun are, shall we say, on the limited side.

But there’s a more expansive way to look at the message, as I decided the following day when it rose to the surface of my mind. There it joined with memories of my most recent Marco Polo meal and got me thinking. Eating eggplant parm is a fairly trivial endeavor, but it sure enough makes me happy. And when I’m happy, my frame of mind improves, increasing the volume of positive energy that I deliver to the world. In other words, increasing the frequency of my being kind, open, gracious and helpful to others. The uptick is on the minor side, no doubt. But considering the state of affairs on our planet, every little bit counts.

This isn’t just about me, me, me, though. If hundreds of millions of us followed the Hallmark store’s advice, the upticks might add up to something special. Hey, maybe the world would significantly change for the better. You never know. After all, those four adjectives  — kind, open, gracious, helpful — are where it’s at.

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