BY Zachary Klein

I’ve known Michael for close to thirty-five years. During that time we decorated my apartment together (he was living downstairs), wallpapered (actually Michael did that with Sue), and attended his “decades” party. He threw them at his place and completely remodeled the interior to match the time in which the party was taking place. And of course Michael designed the previous covers for my Matt Jacob novels.

But more importantly, I’ve watched his growth as an artist and learned that acclaim and acknowledgement don’t have to change who you are and who you want to be. That’s a gift that keeps on giving as I travel through my own creative endeavors. But rather than  go on about Michael, his life, and his work—please just enjoy.

RT. 66

Not the highway. Not the song. (Yes, there is a song.) Rather, the long winding path that leads to the Social Security office where I visited last week

This was a funny birthday. Not ha, ha funny. Odd, really. The day came and went without sturm und drang, included a nice dinner out with Sue and Jake, and a sweet telephone call from my older son Matt and his wife Alyssa. Unlike last year when I fell into a funk about mortality (mine), this year seemed smooth sailing. Even after I left the Social Security building there was still no depression.

It was something else entirely, and it hit a couple days later, actually on my music night. I totally sucked. Really sucked. So bad that when I began my lesson, I had trouble playing without squeaking and squawking.

It wasn’t the horn.

I made it through the lesson despite doing everything wrong. Then came time for playing with the ensemble (Polar Vortex). In general, I have difficulty playing at a fast tempo (even a medium tempo to be honest). That night I could barely get my fingers to move at all. It got so bad that for the last 20 minutes of our session, I just stopped playing, sat down, and wondered what I was even doing in the group. I had long before come to terms with being its worst player, but never felt so defeated. Often, exactly the opposite. When I struggled, it usually gave me greater determination to try harder. Not that night.

Much later, lying in bed watching Pawn Star re-runs, I tried to figure things out. Somewhere between a reproduction Gatling gun and a signed first-edition Edgar Allen Poe, I started to get it. There simply isn’t enough of my life left to become a decent musician. The night at music school had been a metaphor for decisions taken and, more importantly, not taken. Despite having always wanted to play an instrument, why hadn’t I first started to learn music long before? Why hadn’t I begun lessons, something where I don’t have natural talent at the time when I began to write—where I do have natural talent? It could have, should have (?) been reversed.

I guess “what ifs” and “if onlys” smack everyone upside the head some time or another. Sue teaches at a “low residency” MFA at Lesley University and, frankly, I’ve been pretty jealous. I’ve helped people with their writing, but working with students on a regular basis would have given me great pleasure. But if you only have one diploma (8th grade) despite attending high school, some college, part of a master’s program, and creating a school for high-school dropouts in Chicago, the end result is strikingly clear.

No teaching for me.

Other decisions also steered me in directions that precluded others. During that long, television-lit night, I reviewed every single one of them. Why did I leave Chicago’s People’s School? Why did I stop my counseling practice in Boston when I knew I was really good at it? Why did I fight my agent, editor, publisher about what they wanted, when I had a critically acclaimed set of novels under my belt. Why did I just stop writing?

Why did I choose serial careerism instead of becoming really, really good at one thing?

Sleep, wonderful restorative sleep. Next morning (after my usual growling, semi-hostile, coffee-deprived wake up) I reconsidered. Sure I’d made decisions that offed alternatives. Everyone does. And, I’ll make book that everyone has regrets similar to what I’d been feeling.

Three cups of coffee and I finally saw daylight. Understood what had immobilized me the night before and saw my way out from under. Blood under the bridge is indeed, blood under the bridge. I have a wife I love and who loves me, children and a daughter–in-law I adore, and oncoming granddaughters. I’ve worked and continue to work with people I respect and who respect me, friends who have my back, and more than just food on the table. Truth is, I can turn my head 180, look at the decisions I did make and feel satisfied.

Bottom line: I got it good and that ain’t bad. Better get my ass back to practicing the sax.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. ~ Rabindranath Tagore


“But I did not shoot the Deputy!”

Over the past two months one of our cats has been pissing in the house.  Though she finally stopped after two difficult-to-administer doses of Prozac, we’ve been on guard.  So, when I noticed a small puddle behind the toilet I approached gingerly.

Hmmm, during the last little while I’ve gotten used to identifying that cat smell at ten paces.  This was odd.  No odor.  Over the last several years of watching the multiple versions of CSI.  I feel I too have become a “spatter” expert.  And this spatter did not seem to constitute a crime.  But where is Grissom when you need him?

I moved in closer.  Still no odor.  With a Jewish sigh, I plodded to the kitchen for paper towels.  With a deeper one, I dropped to my knees and dried the floor.  Still no odor.  Then I noticed the pipe between the toilet and the wall had a turning knob on it.

Now those who don’t know me gotta be thinking who is this idiot?  Those who do might still be shaking their heads in wonderment, but understand that I am perfectly capable of walking past broken cabinets, handleless drawers, closet doors that won’t shut, and metal blinds twisted into grotesque modern sculptures without even seeing any of it.

Hell, the bottom wooden step leading to our house had lost a two slats (that someone kindly placed onto the porch) but it never occurred to me to do anything about them.  Drove my friend Bill so crazy he came over with an electric something (drill?) and screwed the planks in with the correct nails.  (Screws?)  Not really sure.

And there lies the problem.  Even if I actually see that something is broken, the only equipment I know how to use is duct tape.  Actually, it’s not pretty but perfect for many fixes–upholstery, holding things in place, and patching, but wouldn’t really work on steps.  As Sue all too often puts it, I’m a “Jew with tools.”

See, my idea of tools are mechanical pencils and I struggle to reload them.  Never know whether to refill from the top or shove the lead  (assuming I chose the correct mm) up the bottom.  There’ve been times  when I was certain of success only to have the damn lead fall out when I  went to use the fucker.  Much to my dismay, a lotta times.

Which means when given a hammer as a kid I begged for books.  Of course, growing up no one ever needed a hammer.  We rented.  And when I left home I continued to rent.  Right up until Sue suggested buying a house in the late 70s and I fought tooth and nail against it since the idea of fixing anything was as foreign to me as Istanbul.  Praise the lord I lost the argument since the house has allowed us multiple career changes, but it was clear I wasn’t going to be what anyone could call handy.

Now I know “Jews with tools” is a horrible stereotype.  My brother-in-law is a contractor and builder, the Jewish friend who plays piano in my ensemble is the same.  Even my own son is an electrician apprentice.  But that “horrible” stereotype fits me like a high-priced, custom tailored suit.  If I do manage to spot a household problem, here’s my solution.  Yell at the top of my lungs, “SUE!!!  We (you’ve) got a problem here!”

Now let me make it clear–I’m not a total numbnut around the house.  I can fill a dishwasher with the best of ’em.  Until my shoulder problems, I religiously made the bed every morning and regularly did the laundry.  I will again, once I can move my arm into certain positions without risking the operation.  (As the surgeon said, no do-over on this one.)

And I can pick up clutter like nobody’s business, despite the rebuke that “picking up isn’t cleaning.”  It sure as hell is when everyone who lives here drops everything into the first room they land.

I also find everyone’s keys on an almost daily basis.

Which all leads back to the bathroom find and fix.  Down there on the bathroom floor, I didn’t panic.  I held my crouch and stared at that damn pipe.  I didn’t yell for Sue (who wasn’t home anyway, though that never stopped me before).  I assessed the situation and slowly, carefully, tightened up that knob on the pipe.  Then I placed a bowl under my best guess as to where the water was dribbling from.

I call this a breakthrough.  Though still without any tools.  Unless you count the bowl.


As an extra opportunity for fun and male bonding, best man, Josh, sent an email saying he and Matt had set up a helicopter tour of New York City on the morning of Matt’s wedding.  The six men walking down the aisle, Matt, Josh, Matt’s brother Jake, Richard, [Alyssa’s father], Andrew [Alyssa’s brother], and myself were to fly over the city from Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the Washington Bridge and back to see the sights from above.

At first I wasn’t particularly worried.  I still have to wear a post-op sling virtually all the time and figured I’d get the kibosh from my physical therapist.  Who, to my surprise and chagrin, said as long as I’d be strapped in it would be fine.

Fine for her perhaps.  Not so fine for me.

See, my idea of high risk recreation has to do with driving my car without getting plowed by cell phone talking drivers in three-story SUVs.  Or riding a bicycle on the sidewalk because the street has cars, trolleys, buses and trucks.

This lack of lust for HRR (High Risk Recreation) had been confirmed when I was a teenager and my girlfriend and I rode the Steeplechase rollercoaster at Coney Island.  I survived, but just barely made it to the men’s room in time to upchuck.  When she asked whether we could ride it again, I seriously considered breaking up right then and there.  But it was her car and I needed the ride back to Jersey.

This fear of fast was reinforced about thirty years ago when I tried a white water rafting trip in Maine.  I was fine right up to the moment they passed out a loss of life and injury waiver, explaining that we’d better pay attention to the raft leader or we’d be tossed out like popcorn kernels from a hot open kettle.  My stomach knotted, throat tightened, and writing hand began to shake.  Still I signed, grabbed a paddle, and struggled onto the raft (which did have narrow sides upon which to perch) along with Sue and two other friends.

It began seductively well.  Floating down a river on a warm, sunny afternoon, the shoreline lined with beautiful trees, lulled me into a false sense of security.  My breathing normalized, I paddled along with the rest of the passengers, and listened carefully to our guide as he calmly told us what to do.

Which abruptly ended when he suddenly shouted “whitewater ahead!”  At that moment every instruction that had been given flew out of my mind and all I could do was hope I wasn’t gonna be that popped-out kernel.  The raft began to toss up and down and all the while the guide shouted instructions that my fear refused to hear.  I just hung onto my paddle and side until the rocking and rolling was over.

Once the river calmed, the guide looked back at his crew and said with a wide grin, “That was a small one.  Wait ’til we hit something decent.  Hope you’re enjoying this.”

Enjoy?  Hadn’t thought that word existed once we hit the white.  But before I had a chance to beg him to take me to the shore, he shouted again, adding “this is a big one so listen up or we’ll roll over.”

That did it.  No more side sitting for me.  I crawled onto the bottom of the raft and tried my best to grab onto its rubber floor.  Not easy, but I managed to hold something (I think it was my friend’s foot).  I stayed hunkered down there for the entire rest of the trip.

When you cross the finish line, they take pictures you can buy.  Somewhere in our collection is one with the top of my head just over the side and Sue calmly leaning forward on the very front tip of the raft.

At least I hadn’t tossed my cookies.

That experience led me to wonder about people who live for HRR.  Last week I read about four people dying in an aborted attempt to reach Mt. Everest’s summit.  Saturday I read an article that described a record breaking, successful climb of that same mountain by a seventy-three year old woman.  Go figger.  I sure can’t.  I couldn’t even read Into Thin Air.  Hell, I still keep my eyes on my feet when I walk up stairs.  Different strokes.

Even though Mt. Everest is one hell of a spit from a guided helicopter tour, you couldn’t tell it by my inability to speak as we approached the take-off point.  And I really hoped that nobody in our party saw my good hand shake (they let me wear my sling) when they strapped a flotation device around my waist before we boarded.

But once inside I immediately felt my anxiety dissipate.  I had expected five-point restraints with our backs up against the chopper’s sides, but instead found plush leather seats with normal car seatbelts (though we had to wear earphones with a speaker in order to talk to each other).  I had also expected to be buffeted about by the wind but nada.  No whitewater rafting here.  Even when the pilot banked, it was smooth and comfortable.  And the magnificence of the city was overwhelming.  Seeing New York’s skyline from above was stunning–even the new Yankee Stadium looked sweet–and I’m from Boston.

When we touched down, I actually felt sad.  Wished it had lasted much, much longer.  I woulda even been happy to fly over New Jersey.

But our tour was finished and, as we lined up to march between the lines back into the tour building, I was struck by the truth that we really only have one life to live and, where good judgment is necessary, it should never be dictated by fear.

“At the heart of the matter is a battle between wish and fear. Fear generally proves stronger than a wish, but it leaves a taste of disappointment on the tongue.”  George Packer

(A special thanks to Sherri Frank Mazzotta who stepped up last week while I stepped away.  Very much appreciated.)