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Honesty vs. Hair Dye

I first went to Ecuador in the 90s. I’d had a beard in college and kept the mustache after entering the work world. People frequently compared my looks to Sam Elliot (in Mask) or Chuck Norris. I’ve written a number of times about my experience in South America – streets lined with walls topped with glass and barbed wire, armed guards on stools in front of almost every residence, “watchimen” who collected small change for keeping an eye on your automobile while you parked, auto exhaust, heat, the sun as a physical presence with a weight like gravity. Additionally, in NY, I’d been a person who was able to put everything into a quantifiable box: this look means x, that word means y. There was no reason to react emotionally- I could very logically and unfeelingly assess and put away almost every encounter. In Ecuador, the boxes were taken away. I understood the words (Spanish), but not necessarily the meanings. The classic example: one afternoon, I was sitting around in a t-shirt when a student came by to ask me a question. After a few minutes, he stated “Me encanta su camisa.” Translates: “I love your shirt.” I had no idea if the student was being snide, making a cultural comment, or if the words were literally true. I only had the words and I could not put them into the appropriate box.

Without my boxes, I began to react to everything emotionally. There was an episode of Star Trek where Spock started to have feelings. That was exactly how I felt. I had emotional reactions to everything — people burning trash in public parks, a bank teller who sent me to see the manager at closing — and I could not formulate any significant meaning out of the events in which I found myself engaged. In retrospect, it was a remarkable learning experience. At the time, I felt confused and exhausted. When I returned to the U.S., my hair had turned 85% white. Snow white. I won’t attribute the entire transition to culture shock or third world living – there is a genetic component as well. My mother went grey at a very young age. Still, it was a shock. I’d previously had a scalp of hair that denied no color- strands of black, red, blond, brown and variant shades of each had filled my head (my body, mustache and beard retained those colors even after my scalp went white).

I was dating a woman who was eight years younger than me and she felt the white hair made me look far too old. I was not the type to dye my hair, so she bought some Clairol and offered to treat me salon style. Having always been a sucker for hands on my scalp, I caved. We dated for four years and during that time I got used to having my hair dyed, although after a time or two I had to learn to do it myself. Oddly, the white hair took the dye at different depths of tone, so it rather mimicked the hair on my eyebrows, arms and face.

It was around this time that I began to study acting and eventually audition in the New York market. My first NYC role was as G. Gordon Liddy (yes, the mustache helped). It began a string of roles in which I played “the heavy” (the antagonist, the villain). When my relationship went South (literally-she moved back to South America), I took a chance at letting my hair return to its natural color. Oddly now, instead of being seen as “the villain” I was more often called in for “the father.” Also, now that I was back in the dating world, my ex had planted in my brain the consideration that my hair color made me look “too old” (her words). After six months of not being cast, I dyed my hair. Buona Fortuna. I was back in the casting mix within weeks.

I never thought much of the dying. It was part of my job. However, it sometimes confused matters. I was doing extra work on some episodic (it was a funeral scene). I went onto the set, looked about the room and spent some time deciding on what my relationship was with various people, the deceased, etc. I’d decided that he was my cousin, that we’d known each other intimately when we were young and then hadn’t seen each other for the last fifteen years. There was a moment in the eulogy where one of the main characters spoke about distances and I let it affect me. It made me somber and sad. After the scene, I noticed one of the producers walking around – he’d noticed my face and seemed to make a mental note. A few days later, I got a call from the casting agency. “Are you blonde?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “My hair is a medium hazelnut brown, why?” There was no reply. She hung up.   It only occurred to me later that perhaps the man who noticed me on set had seen me as blond. (I was convinced my hair color was what it said on the bottle).

The hair dye was trickier when it came to dating. Was I lying about my appearance? My age? Did it mean anything at all? I had some easy answers (to myself) – either I would say it was part of my trade or that the point of hair dye, like any other appearance altering (or enhancing) item -jewelry, clothing, tattoos, etc. — was that it more closely approximated how one feels about the self. Of course, when you see the 80 year old who dresses like the 18 year old, those sort of comparisons get strained.

I never considered the expense – since my hair was short, I would split one bottle of hair dye into thirds and that would last me for six weeks. Due to the white roots, I had to dye pretty much every 10-14 days. Once I had a child, it became much harder to keep up with the procedure. Working a day job for rent, going on auditions, taking care of my son (doing homework, making school pick-ups and drop offs, cooking dinner), I would sometimes go until my roots almost rivaled my dyed-hair in length.

I admit, when I showed up at auditions and saw the other actors who had obvious dye jobs, I began to reconsider. I generally did a good job on my hair, but the doubt creeps in that one lies to the self if the truth hurts. There weren’t too many role models out of Hollywood. Steve Martin was a young white-headed dude who let the hair come in as it was. Terrence Stamp – but that came with time. And forget rockers – do you really think Steven Tyler has long dark hair at 67? In pop culture, there is no such thing as aging gracefully and therefore any sign of what is seen as “aging” is shunned – even if it comes a bit early.

In 2013, I had the good fortune to work on Birdman. It was an small part as a stage hand at the theatre where “What We Talk About” was being staged (part of the film). It was fifteen days work and I went through a battery of auditions to get the part, even though it was technically background. The turning event for me was watching Michael Keaton. He is in the decade ahead of me now, but while he was in decent shape, he didn’t buff up for the part knowing he’d be in his underwear. In fact, there was something akin to raw courage in the way he confronted the role of an actor trying to make a comeback and all of his physical changes were on display- his hair had largely left him, his skin wore his age, though his body sported almost no extra weight. He legs were thinner-the legs of an older man. There was no effort at pretense- he went for raw truth. I felt it in the studio, but it was even more evident in the movie theatre where the large screen magnifies all our human blemishes and stands them before audiences like neon signs. There was truth on his side, and it overpowered anything else you might think about his physical being. Truth. Isn’t that what we’re after? As actors? As human beings?

So the performance stayed with me. And I began to think again about the purpose of hair dye. Is it, like fiction, a lie that tells the truth? Or does it cover something even more frightening because it’s true – age. Mortality. You are not 18 any longer. Satchel Paige is credited with saying “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” In the U.S., if you look at the behavior of most of us, we are teenagers. We loathe aging and we make old people go away to Florida (only half joking; the other half go to Arizona).

I had a few projects lined up, so changing my hair color was not an immediate possibility. I had also spent hundreds of dollars on my headshots and business cards. Replacing those would be unnecessarily expensive. And yet the voice grated at my ear. Truth. And finally, this past summer, when I had several months between jobs, I let it grow out.

It took me a long time to get used to my reflection in the mirror (I can’t say I’m still 100% adjusted). As soon as my hair was more white than dye, people started offering me their seat on the bus, even though I might be wearing a NYC Marathon jacket. They were clearly not looking at my frame, my clothes or my face -the hair alone had determined for them how old I must be. At first I found this daunting: “do I really want the white of my hair to be the only thing that people see?” “Will it be the same in the casting session?” “Will people suddenly add 20 years to my age?” “What about women? Have I just surrendered the possibility of dating anyone under 70?”

So far, the hair hasn’t made a difference in the casting. I played a Vietnam vet in a comedy and an organ harvesting doctor in another short film within months of letting my hair return to truth. I have two more projects coming up early this year, as a dying man who asks for a heart and as a prison guard who runs a gang inside the jail. I no longer have to worry about matching my hair dye for continuity if we shoot for more than two weeks or if the roots are growing out enough for the camera to see. And the look is growing on me.  But the biggest change has been the willingness to let the raw truth be on my side.

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Christmas eve, I walked to the post office. On the way back, I saw a woman crossing the street toward me. I only noticed her briefly from the corner of my eye. But I felt her come up alongside of me. As she passed, I felt this pulse of energy – crazy, swirling energy. I had planned to walk back to work through the passageway between Seventh and Sixth Avenues, but I felt compelled to follow her down Eighth Avenue. She was a few inches shorter than me, wore leather pants and a loop-knit sweater (the kind that looks like it is more air than sweater and skin is vaguely visible beneath).

At the corner, waiting for the light (as I was catching up), she flicked her dark hair from the right side, revealing the pale, light skin of her neck. There was a kind of madness in me – I wanted to grab her from behind and kiss that neck. The light changed and I started to feel like a stalker. She wore low-cut boots and she seemed to walk on the side of the left boot (more than on the sole). Her clothes were not sloppy, but at the same time were not fastidiously groomed — they had the look of clothes that were put on after a dance class or that had been worn during a short nap. Everything about the woman felt intimate and familiar to me.

At 44th Street, I forced myself to turn away, to walk across Eighth Avenue toward Times Square (toward where I work). I was almost hyper-ventilating with crazy energy. Once I was away from the woman, I realized I was chasing a ghost- she was a doppelganger for someone I’d dated. Now, some fifteen years later, one tries to make sense of things, if it is possible to make sense of that dramatic pull of energy that comes through the senses.

Mystical writing from many cultures indicates that what draws or repulses us in others is mostly a form of our own character — we are often drawn to those who are like us or seek to complete ourselves in those who are of an entirely different mold. These kinds of relationships highlight our own personality. Thus in reviewing the effect of a relationship, we may actually come to understand ourselves better. Krishnamurti insists that the mirror in which we see ourselves in the mirror of relationship.

I met L when she was auditing a voice class. I didn’t expect to meet her- or anyone like her. Some years earlier I’d come to the conclusion that most “love” is simply a form of convenience or addiction. I’d been in a long term relationship when I came to that conclusion. I wrote a short story about a man watching a woman sleep and being unable to come to terms with the fact that she was not the one he’d anticipated, hoped for or imagined. She was the one he’d found. And despite the fact that she was allergic to his sperm – a cosmic warning if there was one -they were trying to make it work. I’d come to believe that people formed alliances or treaties when they wed and the other thing, “infatuation” or “lust” if you will, was the central ingredient in “falling in love.” I didn’t see much room or evidence of anything much else.

So, yes, I was already in a relationship that was “practical,” for lack of a better word. I was helping her get a green card; she was helping me …do something. I haven’t figured out yet what that was. I kept thinking I would grow into the relationship, even if it was awkward at every turn. I would be patient. I chided myself- I’d never lived with anyone before. I just needed to adjust. Besides, there was no such thing as “love.”

I went to class and I heard L sing. There was a lot of passion in her singing, though I didn’t pay that much attention to her otherwise. Later, in the hallway outside of class, we started to talk. Quickly it appeared as if I’d known her for a thousand years or more. There was this ease and comfort of dialogue. We walked together to the subway with some other classmates. I played an impromptu joke on one of the singers who’d gone into the supermarket, banging on the window as in “Mrs. Robinson.” L joined right in. All of us laughed to the subway and at one point I swear I heard her say, “you’d better be single.” (She later denied having every said such a thing).

When I got home that night, R, the woman with whom I was in a relationship said, “what happened?”

I shrugged. “What do you mean?”

“You seem joyful. That’s not an emotion I’ve seen in you before…”

At this point I could spill all of my journals – the self-recriminations, the mistakes, the roads not taken – but what I want to recount is not necessarily the personal journey through these relationships, but the discovery of my character on those axes — the poles between “practical” and “passion.”

What is it that Pascal says in the Pensees – “the heart hath reasons that reason doth not know.” If reason is the tool of the practical, passion and love incite in us the irrational. I have infinite gratitude for L, as I have often said, “she woke up my heart.” I had stopped believing love was possible until I met her. What I experienced was sexual – I’m not going to deny that aspect of things – but it was more too. There was this uncanny sensation of having spent multiple life-times with L, as well as a unique energy exchange. I can distinctly recall more than one occasion on which L simply placed her hand on my back and a charge of electricity shocked through my body (and no, it wasn’t static electricity). I always felt like I could tell her anything and I made honesty my number one commitment- Of course, this was merely my perception -there were times we talked (after we broke up) and she intimated that I should never have told her x or y. “How did I think that would make her feel?” she asked. I always assumed honesty trumped smaller concerns.

The primary effect of L’s entrance was that I understood I would never be happy focused only on a practical life. I am an actor and I’ve had the same struggle through the years with work as during the time I tried to balance what I owed to my practical relationship versus what I owed to passion.  While ultimately passion may not be love, it is not lust either.

When I first came to NYC, my primary focus was to study acting. I’d come to the game late and was fortunate enough to have friends who’d studied at NYU and Monclair- they opened to door for me to terminology, various teaching methods, etc. When I began studying, I continued to teach writing at a Community College. It surprised me a little how quickly I picked up technique, but beyond that, how my years of meditation actually gave me a distinct advantage-the ability to focus and the ability to be in the moment (and yes, I’d heartily recommend meditation to anyone who considers acting simply for those two benefits). I was still dating the woman about whom I’d written my short story- she was thrilled by the idea that I might turn into someone famous; however, she disliked that I left on weekends to take classes, to rehearse with acting partners and all the work involved in learning a craft.

I made acting important and tried to balance it with the demands of my job (grading papers, preparing classes) and my relationship, what you might call the practical aspects of living. Had I been passionately in love with either -the woman or the teaching -who knows how I would have felt. As it was, I continually felt that time away from acting was time lost. After a year of technique and a year of basic and advanced scene study, I went to my first audition. I was cast as a lead. The play was “American Success” – a musical about the inter-twined careers of Timothy Leary and G. Gordon Liddy. It probably helped matters that at that time I sported a mustache and looked like Clint Eastwood’s younger brother (or Sam Elliot in Mask, as people often told me). The play debuted at the American Living Room series at HERE. On opening night, after my family left, I was incredibly aware that my girlfriend of the last four years had gone abroad. I stood in the triangle facing Sixth Avenue and loneliness welled up within me.(1)

My immediate thought was to blame acting. “I put acting ahead of people – and when the play was over all that I was left with was myself.” I raced off and tried to resurrect my relationship – it would involve moving to South America, giving up acting, but hell – people were more important! Even if it wasn’t what I thought of as love, I was incredibly attached to the woman.

I flew to South America, proposed, and was offered a job by my fiancé’s father. I finished the year teaching while training in Manhattan to become an import / export sales executive. And I was bored out of my mind. I kept thinking – this is a job a monkey could do. The prices are on a chart- there’s no negotiation – all I do is answer the phone (“How much does it cost to send a container of — ?”) and I’d look at the chart and read off the price. But the money would be more than I’d ever made. I struggled – could I be content with money? And a family? And what about acting?

I don’t want to get into much more personal history, but this is the lesson I’ve relived for most of my life — being forced to try and balance what I am passionate about with the more practical demands of survival in a capitalist society. In my pre-acting career, when I began writing and assumed I’d make my living as a poet (delusions of youth), I’d work for six to eight months and save enough money that I could spend the next four to six months writing. As a result, my work history has more entries than Burke’s Peerage. So this challenge has been present since I graduated from college. I understand now, however, that passion and love are not as synonymous as I once thought.

A few years ago, I re-connected with a woman who seemed to span both ends of the scale. She was a responsible young mother but also an artist. I could mention Sophocles or a minor character from Shakespeare without having to explain. I could pull out my Oedipus (ex-Rex) joke without the footnote. While it didn’t feel like I’d known her a thousand years, I could spend the afternoon walking with her and not feel compelled to invent conversation. Dialogue came and went and there was a gentle ease simply in her presence. I was patient- perhaps too patient – but I recall having walked her to her apartment. Her son was asleep in his stroller and I thought “Do I kiss her?” I leaned in close, and maybe it was the result of the stroller or my own expectations, there was suddenly no burning passion. In some strange moment of crisis, I felt that I should at least feel the compulsion of passion if I was going to kiss her. And so we hugged and that moment passed. Over time, I realized that was my one opportunity – though we’d later spent some time together and I grew more entranced each time, the kiss remained unshared.  When I was full of passion, I found myself without the opportunity.  I had yet to learn that passion comes and goes, but something else endures.

My son is now twelve and one of the great lessons I’ve learned is that I always love him. There are days I want him to be quiet, or to leave me in peace while I work, but it is never without love. The idea of a scale balanced between passion and practicality was simply something in my brain when it came to love. While love can begin at any intensity, it grows over time. It’s not really a feeling, it’s a connection, or a commitment — many times, it’s simply putting the good of the others ahead of yourself. Or at least putting yourself out for the good of the other.

While I work a great deal as an actor and a writer these days, I’ve also gone back to a “day” job. It’s hard to raise a kid without a steady income. And maybe it isn’t so opposite – maybe the work I do gives me the leisure to make films when I so desire. And at this time, it’s all about the work – doing the work, serving the script, living the process.  Passion for scripts comes and goes, but the love of the work is constant.  This is something I have only learned with time.  Still, I dream of the day I can quit and devote myself entirely to what I love… 😉

(1) One of the things I learned after years of acting is that the sensation of “being in the moment”- one of the requisites for good acting – is that when you return to the quotidian, there is a sense of being unplugged. In my case, I’ve learned over time that this post-acting phase manifests itself as a minor depression, a deep feeling of sadness coupled with loneliness. However, at the time of this show, it was my first such experience and I did not have the wherewithal to consider that it might be something related to acting and not my life.

 

Writing with Obstacles

I’ve had the occasion to perform readings of new works – in early drafts just for the writer and when the work is more polished in front of audiences. One of the more frequent “mistakes” I see novice writers make is to have too many circumstances come to the aid of the protagonist. Some years ago, I read for the writer and later in front of an audience a play called “The Iron Bear.” After the first rehearsal in the writer’s living room, I tried to find a metaphor for how the plotline appeared: “It’s like watching a swimmer in a strong current, but each wave is pushing the swimmer to shore. There are no obstacles. It’s much more interesting to watch a swimmer fight the current than to see one simply washed ashore.”

Recently, I started re-reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this novel (or any other Graham Greene novel). I own them all and when I can’t remember the plot any more, I pick it up again. Oddly, I forget the plots and characters rather quickly. This is unusual – W.H. Auden described potboilers as the book “you can’t put down at night and can’t remember in the morning” (The Dyer’s Hand). Greene’s novels are compact structures of plot and character. The plots move like a potboiler, but the writing is on a literary par with The Great Gatsby. Oddly, I can discuss The Great Gatsby in great detail – even if I haven’t read the book in 20 years (I don’t think I’ve ever gone 20 years without reading it, but the point is I remember all the details). Greene’s novels, however tend to fade like old curtains -the outlines are clear, everything else has been bleached by time and the sun.

Greene’s characters are never superheroes. They are extremely flawed men (usually) with the odds stacked against them. Fowler, the protagonist of The Quiet American has one expressed desire: he wishes to stay in Saigon with his young female companion Phuong. One of the immediately apparent obstacles is simply Fowler’s age – although Greene never specifies Fowler’s exact age, the character himself frequently refers to the “decade” or so he has left to live. To complicate matters, Fowler has a rival, a young American Economic attaché named Pyle. Pyle is as innocent as Fowler is jaded, hopeful where Fowler is resigned. They are a contrast in character – foils, if you will. Pyle boards Fowler at a restaurant and as his first contact, assures himself that Fowler is a friend. Not that any of this seems to matter to Phuong. She is happy with Fowler, but she is concerned about her future.

The matter would be settled in a minute if Fowler could marry Phuong – but that would be too easy. So the next obstacle is that Fowler is married. And without marriage, can Phuong’s future be assured? Greene ups the ante – not only is Fowler married, but his wife is a devout Anglican who told her fiancé before they married that there’d be no chance of divorce. It went against her beliefs. Pyle, on the other hand, is not married and is idealistic enough to fall in love after one dance with a woman who cannot speak his language (Phuong speaks Vietnamese and the local brand of French) – even to the point of marriage.

The location itself creates obstacles. Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are all living (or stationed) in Saigon shortly before French Indochina collapses at Dien Bien Phu. Fowler is a foreign correspondent who occasionally travels to some of the less secure locations in Vietnam-thus both his and Phuong’s future are threaten simply by his manner of making a living. Even Saigon, where things are relatively safe, has bridges that are occupied by the French during the day and the Vietminh at night. The restaurants foreigners patronize are on second floors-with grill work to guard against hand grenades.

Greene is not satisfied with letting the obstacles halt at this pass. We learn that Phuong has a sister who exerts a lot of influence and wishes to see Phuong married. She had accompanied Phuong to the dance where she met (and continued to meet) Fowler throughout their courtship. Phuong was never let out of her sight and the couple were never allowed to be alone – until the sister came down with a fever. One night. And then Phuong was with Fowler. The sister never forgave them and is still looking for marriage prospects.

One of the more bizarre twists of the story is that as a romantic idealist, Pyle never goes behind Fowler’s back, but insists on informing the journalist of his intentions at every step. Once Pyle discovers that he is in love with Phuong – he makes an arduous journey to find Fowler at the front. Moments prior to an artillery attack, Pyle informs Fowler that he’s in love with Phuong. Once he’s made his secret known, he is relieved. Pyle keeps insisting that he has Phuong’s best interests at heart. Obviously there are parallels in the personal relationship with the colonial and “democracy bearing” powers and the native culture-who for the most part simply wants to be secure and go about her daily business. Is this an obstacle? Think about it – someone is in love with your girlfriend and insists on telling you their every move because you are their friend. Enter conscience – it becomes harder to strike someone who shares their thoughts with childlike simplicity.

Complication next: a telegram comes for Fowler when he’s returning from the front – he’s to be promoted to editor of the Southeast Asia segment of his newspaper back in London. So not only can he not offer Phuong marriage, he may not be able to offer her much more future than a few months. It may be possible to take Phuong with him, so out of desperation, Fowler writes to his wife to ask for a divorce.

In the meantime, Pyle wants Phuong to meet with him and Fowler and to choose between them. Fowler has to translate as Pyle doesn’t speak enough French of Vietnamese to communicate himself. Fowler has not yet told Phuong of the telegram. She listens to the discussion, then chooses Fowler. Pyle is defeated. He will apply for a transfer.

Fowler writes to his editor- he is a reporter, not an editor. He tells Phuong of the telegram. She imagines going with Fowler to London – but mistakes the location of skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty.

On the road from a religious festival, Fowler and Pyle run out of gas and are wounded by an attack. Pyle more or less saves Fowler. While he recovers in the hospital, a letter comes from his wife. Phuong’s sister has gotten a position at the American Embassy (whether through the influence of Pyle is left up in the air). She speaks English.

Up to this point, Fowler has been honorable – he’s told the truth. Perhaps not immediately, but in his own way he honors Phuong with the truth. When he reads the letter from his wife, the answer is a resounding “no.” She will not divorce him. Phuong sits at his side with hope. And? “No definitive answer.” Fowler is desperate enough to lie.

My intention is not to create a plot summary, but a study of a character with desire confronting a series of obstacles. What Greene does so remarkably well, not just in this novel but almost every book he’s every written is to create a character so human – a character with a strong desire who is weak enough that surmounting obstacles takes tremendous effort. Imagine, if you will, that Fowler is standing on the block at a swimming pool. Phuong is sitting on the other side of the pool. He dives. He doesn’t swim well, so he moves slowly and with concentration. Pyle dives into the next lane and begins to ask if the water is safe. A few hand grenades explode in the pool, cascading spray. Phuong hands him an opium pipe while he’s trying to recover from the waves. He smokes (one of the other obstacles I haven’t touched upon). His editor starts to drain the water from the pool. Pyle claims if he gets to the other side first he’s going to take Phuong and marry her. Fowler swallows water and begins to drown. Pyle saves him and resuscitates him, then they are back in the pool again. Fowler’s wife starts to through rocks on his back.

None of this is true in an exact sense, but what I’m trying to communicate is a character trying to pursue his desire in a direct line – and that the more obstacles that come between the character and the goal -the more compelling the plot becomes. I didn’t learn this lesson until later in my writing career. I have early plays with a lot of obstacles and no matching desire. I have characters who are blown through a series of events that happen to them- not the result of their pursuing a goal. Much of the writing is good -smart dialogue, astute characterization – but what makes a story dramatic is the pursuit of a goal through a series of daunting obstacles. Hollywood actors have ruined much of the scripting possibility by insisting on characters without weaknesses, superheroes – when the more severe the weakness, the more daunting the obstacle, the more compelling the story.

 

Vertigo

A few years back, on a gorgeous October afternoon, I put on my running clothes, got in the car and started to drive to my favorite park for trail running. I’d only gone around the block when a sixty something year old Korean man ran a stop sign (his street ended at the straight-away I was on) and crashed into my rear end. I got out and looked at the back of my car – there was some body damage near the rear wheel well. The driver of the other car never got out. He gave me his license and I took pictures of both cars and the license. I felt fine, so I returned his information and headed off.

A few weeks later, on a longish run, I started to feel overwhelmed. I was listing to one side and everything felt like it was spinning. I bent over in the shade and took a few deep breaths. My first impression was that I was suffering some sort of overheating. I tried to stay toward the shade where I could. I was still about three miles from my car, but I made it back without incident.

Now we were getting into November. I’d made my preparations to make Thanksgiving dinner for my son. Despite the fact that it was just the two of us, I was going full out-turkey, potatoes, sweet potatoes, home-made stuffing, gravy, the whole nine yards. I only had to finish my day at work. I left a few minutes early and started to walk across the Columbia campus. I’d not gotten very far when the world started to feel a little shaky. So I sat on one of the concrete benches. The symptoms got worse. The world was spinning and I felt like vomiting. I had no idea how I was going to get to the subway, up or down the stairs or back to my apartment. I needed to lie down.

I staggered the rest of the way across campus. People made wide swaths around me – I realized I must appear drunk to them. Not my concern. I needed to keep moving. I used the handrails to guide me toward the train platform and kept myself as clear from the edge as humanly possible.. The train was packed with holiday sightseers, travelers, revelers, parade participants. It was loud and festive, but each lurch brought lunch to the back of my teeth.

I managed to transfer at Times Square and to make it to the bus stop in Flushing. The bus was a long time in coming. The line ahead of me was long and I simply prayed I would get a seat. I had inserted my Metrocard and gone about four steps when I felt the vomit rise in my chest. I turned and ran out again. Out on the street, the air was cooler and I managed not to hurl. But my Metrocard was spent – I had to walk home.

The walk was a slow staggering affair. I retched every few steps, vomiting up the remains of lunch and whatever liquid bile my stomach was using to digest it. I made it to my apartment and headed for bed. Once I laid down, the room started to spin. It was almost worse than standing up. I spent the rest of that night and most of Thanksgiving day trying to manage the five steps between the bed and the bathroom.

“Dad, are we going to have Thanksgiving dinner?”

I shook my head. Mistake. The room turned alternately right and left. I swallowed hard and headed for the bathroom again. By Friday I was in the emergency waiting room. Somehow 48 hours of tremendous disorientation is not an emergency – and I get it, I’m not bleeding all over the place, but I felt as thin as a wraith. I couldn’t eat and had puked or surrendered all of my bodily fluids (and solids) over the past two days. I was eventually settled into the hospitals “less-than-emergency” care unit. The doctors ran tests and gave me some medication to restore balance. The primary drug was a “blue” – valium. I thought – Jesus, are they trying to make me sleep? I’d only had valium once before, at the college infirmary when my back was in spasm. It didn’t help the back at all but it made me feel like one of those portraits that had water trickled on them from the top – all the flesh was running and dripping. I was moving in 3/4 time.

Weirdly, the Valium set the vertigo dial from intense to about 30 percent. The room had slowed spinning from 78 rpm to 33 & 1/3. I assumed that the rest would abate once the drug had run its course. I waited for release. But — and this is always a big PIA when I deal with medical staff — my heart rate was only 46. I tried to explain that I run marathons. A very low pulse is 100% normal for me. I usually clock it at 42.  But they claimed that the gaps on the EKG were too wide. I had to be sent to Emergency Care.

So I was wheeled into the busier and more medicinally scented Emergency room. Several doctors poked their head between the curtains. Most just looked. One asked what I’d been given. Valium. She nodded and left. I spent two and a half hours in Emergency, basically just lying in wait. Eventually, the nurse who wheeled me in told me that I could leave. She helped me to get my clothes and my eight year old joined me near the bed.

The dizziness never abated. It climbed to 40 or 50 percent and dropped as low as 25, but it was always a presence. By Monday of the following week, I’d decided to seek out an ear nose and throat doctor. I went through the provider book and searched for someone within walking distance. Riding a bus or subway made the vertigo (and nausea) climb. I found a young Asian doctor in downtown Flushing, who examined me and pronounced that the condition was not ENT related – he was pretty certain that I had a brain tumor and he had his secretary call a neurologist and insisted I be taken in as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the soonest I could be seen was a week from Wednesday. Now, not only was I dizzy, I had nine days to consider all the wonderful ways I might exit the planet before my son turned ten.

Of course, seeing the neurologist does not provide any results. It’s simply the step that initiates the testing – x­rays, CAT scans, artery scans, nerve tests. The neurologist gave me a prescription that first visit for Meclizine – a drug they give for motion sickness. Unfortunately, it had zero effect on me. By mid-February, a brain tumor had been ruled out. Carotid blood flow might be hampered, but it didn’t seem significant. Nerve response in the hands was near normal. A disk in my neck was squished – “like a marshmallow squeezing out.” I asked if it could have been caused by the accident. He said there was no way to say.

So after visiting the doctor two or three times a week for 10 weeks, he concluded all his tests and told me to schedule an appointment for two months later.

“But I’m still dizzy!”

“Take the meclizine.”

“It doesn’t work.”

“There’s nothing else I can do unless you have numbness in your hands. Do you have numbness in your hands?”

“No.”

The frustrating part of all this was that the way I deal with stress is to run. I’d been away from running now for 12 weeks and couldn’t even walk very far. I drove my son to school and at a stop sign, I’d look left. The world would spin from right to left. When it stopped spinning, I’d look right. The world would spin from left to right. When it stopped, I could no longer be sure that a car was not approaching from the left. It had been too long. Finally, one of Evan’s classmates’ parents helped me to get him to school in the morning.

One night it snowed. I love snow. It’s part of my youth and some of the happiest moments I’ve known. Evan and I went for a walk in Bowne Park. I had no idea how disoriented snowflakes could be. I fought it as much as I could. Evan was having a blast. I looked up at the snow falling through streetlights and fell on my butt. It was not the smartest move.

Eventually Evan’s mother suggested I see a doctor of Chinese medicine. She’d gone to see someone in Chinatown who spoke English well and spent most of his week teaching at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine. He only had office hours on Sunday. I had just looked at the insurance bill — they send it and ask you to confirm the charges. $12,000 worth of hospital visit, specialists, CAT scans and other tests – and I was still dizzy. I was willing to try alternatives.

The worst part of the journey was the subway ride. From Flushing to Chinatown on a weekend tallies in excess of one and a half hours of travel time. I left early and wandered past the herb store several times before I was aware of the place. Although the Kang Da Herbal Medicine sign was visible above the store, the glass windows seemed to look more like those of a hardware store. A middle aged Chinese couple were working behind a glass counter. The man was emptying packed boxes and his wife was putting the bags of herbs into drawers. I mentioned that I was there to see Dr. Huang. The man pointed toward two sidewalk variety kitchen chairs toward the back of the store. The surfaces of the chairs were littered with Chinese newspapers. When I lifted a stack, the chair beneath was made of red vinyl taped several times across the center with brown packing tape.

A woman’s voice came through the doorway at the back of the store. It was a step up and nearly impassible with the large leaning cardboard boxes that appeared pushed aside to make a passage. A man’s voice replied, soft and soothing. There is a scent in a Chinese herb store that is unmistakable – yet it passes description. Something like sweet dry leaves, or powdery hay, yet that’s not quite exact. I was a little apprehensive. I’d been to herbal doctors in the past and the results had not been documentable.

Like most herbalists, Dr. Huang’s hands were soft and fleshy, though he himself looked gaunt. He used a pad made of packing tape as a rest for my wrist and he put three fingers on the veins of my wrist. He tapped on the vein with his index finger, then waited. It appeared as if he were listening for the pulse to reply. Shifting his finger, he repeated the action -seemingly tapping out Morse code on my wrist- then waiting for the reply. With each exchange, he’d write Chinese characters on a notebook page. He went back and forth for several minutes between my pulse and the page. Then he asked me to open my mouth and he looked at my gums. He wanted me to go to the front of the store so he could look at the color of my eyes in the daylight. That was the extent of the exam.

While I sat in the chair, he looked at the figures on the page and wrote new characters beneath them. He explained to me that Chinese medicine requires a balancing of effects.

“What do you think is wrong with me?”

“I can only tell you in terms of Chinese medicine; I can’t translate them to Western medicine.”

“Okay.”

“You have too much wind in your intestines. It’s blowing the fire up to your brain -and this is causing your dizziness. What we have to do is to tamp down the wind, so that the fires subside.”

I nodded. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but if he could stop the dizziness, I was game. He handed me the recipe, which I was to take in to the front room. I thanked him and gave the list to the woman. She had a small scale that she balanced on the curve between her thumb and forefinger. She changed the weight and added herbs, then scattered those herbs across six paper plates. The collection of herbs included long white strips of root, dried tangerine peels, bark, circles that looked like sand dollars, a heap of what looked like sea shells (mother of pearl glistening), grasses, sticks (like cinnamon, but bitter), dried flower tops. She moved quickly, going from one drawer to the next, dumping a heap on the scale, adding or subtracting based on how much the scale dipped and dividing the bulk across the six plates. Sometimes she’d stop and reassess what belonged on each pile. My job, should I chose to go through with it, was to boil one bag nightly and to drink the resulting tea. I was told you start with 24 oz of water and boil it down to 8 oz.

Evan’s mother, who’d studied Chinese medicine in California, encouraged me to make two batches – adding another 24 oz. of water and boiling the herbs a second time. Then I was to combine both batches and drink one when it cooled and the other the following morning. I’ve been asked a few times what the herbs taste like – I can only give a metaphor. Imagine running through a muddy field of leaves after a Fall rainstorm. Then imagine tripping and getting a mouthful of wet mud, leaves and grass. That’s as close as I can come. The aftertaste is often so bitter that one’s body has involuntary chills -one’s head shakes with distaste. Yet, I was desperate. I stayed with the program.

Day 1 – not much change, except the house if full of the scent of boiling herbs for several hours.

Day 2 – more or less the same. But I don’t give up hope.

Day 3 -I don’t know exactly when I became aware of the change – but at some point I noticed that my vertigo was gone. I more or less woke up from a dream, went to the bathroom, walked out to the kitchen to drink the morning version of the herb and realized the world was not spinning.

I boiled and drank the herbs until they were gone. The following Sunday, I should have followed up with the herbalist, but in the return to normalcy, I probably took on too much. I was exhausted. I slept in, then decided to spend the day with my son.

On Tuesday, the dizziness returned. I cursed myself for not getting the second round of herbs. Now I had to wait to Sunday. When I got back to Chinatown, I told Dr. Huang what had happened. He laughed.

“Chinese medicine is not like Western medicine. It’s much more gentle on your system, but it takes longer to work. But I cannot give you more than one week. The herb should have some effect-so the following week, I have to adjust the portion I give. For example, you have a lot of dampness in your stomach. But it does not cause the fire, but once the fire dies down, we can take care of that.” He nodded at me. I understood.

I made the herbs that evening and by morning the dizziness was again gone. I continued through the week and went back every Sunday for a month. The cost was $68 per visit. It included both the cost of Dr. Huang and the six days of herbs. If you count the expenditure by day, it cost $22.66 of herbal medicine to get past the symptoms of dizziness (and another $11.33 once it returned). That’s a grand total of $34.00. If you count all the money I spent at Kang Da, the cure was $340.00. Most likely less than the cost of any single specialist visit (and certainly much less than what it cost to visit the hospital).

I don’t say this as criticism of Western Medicine. When I break my arm or go into cardiac arrest, I’m grateful for what the West does well. Tend to emergencies.  I was also happy to learn that it wasn’t a tumor (although it was the doctor who thought it might be a tumor in the first place).  For anything else, I usually hit 19 Pike Street before I consider asking Western medicine to discern what the problem is. I’m more than willing to admit I have too much wind in my intestines and it’s blowing the fire up into my brain.

 

Over the past few years, I’ve had the chance to travel to regions I would probably not have considered simply because I was working on a film. This past month I travelled to Lancaster, PA; last year I hit the chicken farm delta of coastal Delaware. Trips have also included Utica, NY, Greensboro, NC and western MD. I didn’t see much in Greensboro as we were shooting late at night and I was staying in a strip mall area by Sams’ Club and Walmart. Lancaster however was a reminder of so many things I’ve seen in the other places over the past few years.

We were shooting in the earlier part of the night in Lancaster. The owner of a 2016 BMW who’d agreed to lend the film-makers his car did not show. There was a burst of energy and suddenly the idea of a BMW was replaced with an actual 2016 Chevy Yukon. It’s a large vehicle. By the time I arrived at the parking lot, the crew had fitted the instrument panel with florescent lights and a camera rig was strapped onto the hood. I was asked to drive around the parking lot to get a feel for driving with the camera and lights. Very quickly I established that I had zero vision when turning right- if someone started to cross in front of the truck, the chance I’d see them was mighty slim. The director and his director of photography (d.p.) solved the problem by creating a convoy – I’d drive with people ahead and behind. My job was simply to signal when they signaled, turn in procession and stop when they stopped.

The scene we were filming was pretty short and something of a break-up. It starts nice and cozy and quickly deteriorates. It turned out that we could repeat the entire sequence three times before we got around the block. And so, for several trips around the block in downtown Lancaster, we went through the scene and returned again to the beginning, falling apart and quickly reset to smiling again. Somewhere in the middle rain started to hit the windshield. Rain was a problem, not only for continuity, but for sound as well. The director waved us in and said we had what we needed. They decided to take a break for lunch while the equipment was taken off the Yukon.

By the time we finished eating, the rain had eased. Rain hadn’t been in the forecast until the following day, so it caught us by surprise. Liza, the actress playing my wife and I climbed back into the Yukon. Now we had the director and d.p. in the back seat shooting over our shoulders and only a trailing car to give turn signals for us (the Yukon’s signal made far too much noise for the sound sensitive recording engineer). Fortunately we were only turning left around a single central block in downtown Lancaster. The re-circling began. After several trips with the fluorescent lights shining up at our faces from inside the truck, we started to attract the attention of some of the city’s nightlife constituents (especially those out smoking cigarettes on the sidewalks). More than once some well meaning Lancastrian knocked on the Chevy’s window to ask, basically, what the hell we were doing.

The final scenes were being shot outside the Fulton Theatre on North Prince Street. Since we were working with a five year old (who’d gone back to the hotel after lunch and taken a nap), we shot his scenes first. We’d learned preceding week how quickly a five year old can shut down when the nap was skipped. While the camera was resetting, a smattering of night-lifers came and went. We were just about ready to begin again, when a woman came to the corner of Prince and West King Street and began to howl as a man lifted her off her feet. “Get off me! Get off me!” she screamed. Tired as I was at this point (after 1 a.m.), I found it hard to discern if she was serious or whether she and her partner were trying to get on film. The man carried her out of our sight, but she continued to scream. The director and cast made a spontaneous group decision and gave chase. By the time they reached her, the man had bodily thrust her into the back of his car and was trying to close the door. Challenged by the group, he left her where she was, got in the front and started to drive away.

The woman leapt from the seat and the crew helped her to avoid falling. The director had the presence of mind to make note of the license plate. A few minutes later, the police were on the scene. The woman didn’t know the man – he was trying to kidnap her. I was glad that our film staff had been able to foil a kidnapping, but after an hour of police lights, I began to wish they would finish the report and turn off the lights. They were holding up the final shots and it had been a long day.

So yeah, that was the excitement.  The hotel the producer selected was elegant and only a few blocks from the shoot. I was not called the next morning, although Liza had to finish shooting her scenes as she would return to L.A. during the  ensuing week. I was awoken by the cleaning service at the crack of 11:00. Check out time. It took me a little while to gather myself and get out. The rain in the forecast had been mistaken. The world outside was bathed in a warm and glowing light. The leaves were changing colors and all was right with the world.  I had until the end of the day to retrieve my car and I desperately needed a cup of coffee before I ever considered driving.

I walked up from the Hotel Lancaster, past the parking garage, and before I’d reached the corner, I heard the sound of hooves and clacking wooden wheels. I half turned my head to see a young Amish man and woman coming up the street in a horse drawn buggy. I’ll admit my first impulse was to reach for the iPhone and take a picture, but a single heart-beat later a decent voice in my head told me they were just people and that I shouldn’t turn them into a freak show. My head had already swung back around to the front and I made a mental effort not to take a second look.

The front desk at the hotel had recommended the coffee bar and it was a popular spot. A couple of families dressed for driving to church in a Mercedes waited in front of me. I eyed the coffee cake muffin and hoped the crumble topping would be too adult for any of the kids. The wooden floor was old school —  wide pine planks that seemed to span a few centuries as well as the floor beams. The walls were plaster the tables wooden and, and, and WiFi. Yeah, it was a trendy coffee bar after all.

Walking down the street with my java and muffin, I tried to decipher the townscape. It looked quaint, like Sag Harbor or New Hope – would I run into a psychic outpost, a lesbian coterie or a crystal Shoppe? But the real estate belonged to lawyers, software developers and churches. Nothing eclectic. Nothing creative.

It wasn’t until I turned onto the street where we’d filmed the night before that I began to feel the heartland vibe. People sitting on the ancient courthouse steps with curled brown bags in their fists, the clothes that fit last year being worn over freshly inked tattoos and rolls of belly fat. Cigarettes in profusion, but behind the smoke a blank stare. This was a life lived in an out of the way town without much hope – not for change, not for improvement, not for love. This was a town the American banks and corporations had rolled up on, sending their blue collar jobs to Chennai, Guangzhou, Bangladesh. I wandered past a vagrant couple sitting on a bench outside a closed cafe, another vagrant twenty-something smoking against a brick pillar in the afternoon sun. I say vagrant as there was not a look of Sunday strolling in their eyes, there was no enjoyment in the sun and the bright Fall day. They simply looked as if they’d stopped because there was nowhere else to go – or no reason to go there.

I turned up a side street to a square that held a statue built in 1879 to demark the lives lost in the “War of the Rebellion.” I guess it wasn’t the “Civil War” just yet; it was still the fault of the South. A young man in a blue hooded sweatshirt slept at the base of the statue with a knapsack for a pillow. There were plaques added to the statue -for those who died in WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam (nothing yet for the Middle East). I walked past a row of closed restaurants – this was not a vibrant community downtown but the business place for lawyers and the court. Most everything except the churches was closed on Sunday.

The sidewalk was brick-face, but the park it walked beside was cement covered in that rubber adhesive they use under children’s swing sets. There were no swing sets, merely an open patch of rubber adhesive with two picnic benches off to one side. On the table top sat two men who looked like they were waiting for their case to be called. They wore poverty and drug use not just on their clothes, but on their skin. Beside them on the bench were three other people playing cards. The faces were a mix of black and white – the white bodies fatter than the black – but no one seemed to be living large. One of the black men headed off to one end of the park square (it was bordered by a spiked iron fence and opened at either end like a driveway). “I thought you said you wanted Bud Light,” he yelled. He slipped like a shadow across the road and disappeared between two buildings. It was only when I got near the corner that I realized it was the backyard to the Lancaster Hotel – the place where I’d stayed the night before. It seemed fitting, somehow- the façade of elegance in the front obscuring the drug­-stricken poverty behind.

I’d read some articles recently about the proliferation of heroin use in formerly prosperous places – there was even a 60 Minutes Report on the topic that included Rutland, Vt. While one report cited the increase in narcotic prescriptions for pain leading to addiction, I can’t help but think there’s some relationship between the lack of industry and the lack of hope. Places that once offered jobs – and with the salary a means of actually living (getting a car, buying a house, marrying, raising kids,) – are now centered in remote places like India, China and Pakistan. Not everyone is an Einstein. There are people who are good with their hands, people who formerly went to VoTech schools or followed their fathers into factories. With the factories gone and the newer automobiles requiring computer training, there are fewer and fewer places for people who are good with their hands. These are the people I see in the devastated blue collar towns – people whose best prospect of work is Walmart or McDonald’s -jobs that do not require their skills or attention. Jobs that give little respect and smaller prospects. The investment banks and their corporate partners have gutted the factory towns, broken the unions, shipped the jobs overseas and continue to blame the devastated economy on their being taxed -as if they actually paid taxes.

I’m an artist, not a politician, but it is the job of the artist to tell stories, to offer insight, to cast light on the dark places of the world in which he/she lives. This is a story I’ve seen in too many places lately. The heroin blight is just a symptom, one cause is the parasitic greed that continues to eat away at its host, the place in which it lives. I wish I could see the economic blight making a dent in corporate conscience, creating some sense of responsibility – but as long as the banks and corporations hold an antagonistic view toward labor (to them it’s merely a cost to be held down) they won’t see that the attempt to destroy the American working class doesn’t just give them cheap labor in foreign lands, it leaves a wake of hopeless and shattered lives across a large swath of their own soil.

 

Divorcing the Amazon

When a customer orders a package worth almost $100, many companies offer free shipping.  The package arrives within two-five days and everybody is happy.  There was a time when I ordered from Amazon, received free shipping, and the packages wended their merry way toward my doorstep.  I could track them online and watch their gradual progress.  That all changed with Amazon Prime.

Not so long ago, I ordered about $100 worth of films and books for my son’s birthday.  I used the (over $35) free shipping  as in the past the packages normally arrived at the front end of the expected arrival dates.  This year, the dates were from November 17-21.  On November 19th, when I check the shipping progress, I get the message — your packages will ship soon.   This is not ground speed, this is a company deliberately with-holding shipping as a ploy to instigate  a customer to join Amazon Prime and actually get the packages shipped when you shop. Ultimately, the packages were shipped on the 20th to arrive on the 21st.  In other words, Amazon did not use “low-end” budget shipping but the expensive “one day” shipping service.  They just ensured that the package would arrive at the end of the 10 day period.  This is not customer service. This is an attempt at customer manipulation.

Amazon Prime has always struck me as being a sort of “membership club.”  These clubs are becoming more popular business models these days — one pays fees for what used to be expected as customer service.  The definition of this kind of fee is largely “money for nothing.”  For some years now, the fee model has been the basis of investment bank lending.   If a company wants to borrow 10 million dollars, the bank arranges the transaction and charges a 2 million dollar fee, simply for putting “the deal” together.  Then the money is lent with the usual interest and principal payments.  Why do companies accept these deals?  The majority of the expanding companies are publicly held, so the executives who make the decisions do not stand to lose their own personal money by making the deal.  Once the fee-based deal is standard issue, privately held companies have no alternative if they require a loan but to accept.

Some years back, the banks lending this money also started offering business advise to the companies which they serviced.  Thus items that were given as customer service, i.e. sour cream for a baked potato, became what bankers (and their subsidiary corporations) began to call “value-added extras.”  The irony of the value-added extra is made apparent with the ATM service fee.  The banks claim to give the customer “value” by letting them withdraw money (or make other transactions) from the ATM — however, the banks themselves save money on all ATM transactions.  If every transaction made at an ATM was made at the bank, the bank would pay more per transaction because it used dedicated personnel.  But the “perception” is that the bank is offering the customer something “new,” something “convenient.” Therefore they charge for the machine transactions and kept the lobby transactions free (charging for what had been standard service would create an uproar).

It is against this erosion of customer service that my complaint falls.  Amazon, which had previously been a “go-to” site for value on a majority of book and music items, now wants to play the “pay for service” game.  I am not a mega-shopper.  I don’t have cable t.v. because I don’t watch $1,000 worth of t.v. each year.  For me, a pay-for service has to have a budgetary value.  I shop at Amazon three or four times a year.  Sometimes more, but that’s the average — Christmas, my son’s birthday, an occasional bout of book or music buying, and done.  I won’t use $89 dollars worth of two-day shipping in any given year.  I don’t watch enough t.v. to want their Prime series and I have an extensive album/cd/mp3 collection — I don’t need their music library for $89.  For some, this might be value — for my family, it is not.  But I’m loathe to be treated like this —  especially since I’ve been buying from Amazon since they were in the red.  I’m thinking of checking Buy.com next time before consider searching Amazon.  I’ve always liked big women but I think we’ve come to the end of our run.

This Work Thing

My son Evan constantly asks me — “Do you really have to go to work tonight?”  Truth be known, I probably don’t — my not showing up to make graphics at a major bank won’t stop Capitalism in its tracks.  The bankers will grind on their greedy ways without me.  But paying rent would still be an issue.  I explain that.  Then Evan asks — “why do people have to work to pay for some place to live?  Shouldn’t they be able to live for free?”

The kid asks hard questions.  I don’t know the answers.  Why should the people who raced to this country from Europe, stole it from the Indians, fought off the other invaders who wanted to steal it for themselves, be able to claim large swaths and sell or rent it to those who came after for the going Manhattan rate?  Or — what is it that makes Capitalism so Capital?

Another word for Capital is money.  So Capitalism = money-ism.  Moneyism basically makes up the rules by which people are allowed to make and keep money (or what it really stands for, property). Those rules are generally made up (or greatly influenced) by the people who already have and hold the majority of the property.

But this isn’t really the direction I started out going.  I simply wanted, after all this focus — my own focus — on making rent and paying off debts, to get back to the things I do for myself and others.  My social contributions.  It’s been a while, but here I am.