In hindsight, it’s painfully clear that the men’s sauna at the local gym is not the place to voice an opinion, especially one that might get you into a heated altercation, not that there can be any other type of altercation in the men’s sauna. There are several key arguments that support this premise. For one thing, the men in the sauna tend to be in great shape, strong, aggressive, and not always members of the local MENSA chapter. For another, the physical space of the sauna is quite restrictive, with a single exit and therefore no viable option for an expedient retreat. And finally, and perhaps not the least significant, everyone is naked.
Naked arguments rarely end well.
I had no intention of firing up a conversation or voicing an opinion of any kind when I walked into the sauna the other day, though I did immediately notice the barely over 5 foot tall, very square and swarthy guy talking up a storm to the other three listeners in the room. His name was Nicky, which I knew because of the huge gold chain hanging around his neck with the gold cursive word “NICKY” strung on it. I assume he wore it so that in the event he misplaced his head, someone would know where to return it. His audience sat on the second and third benches above him. They wore towels and were listening while Nicky held court.
Nicky stood with his right foot on the ground and his left leg resting high up on the first bench. He leaned his left shoulder against the wall and wore no towel. In sign language, this pose translates universally to the sentence, “can everyone see my dick?” He was shaving as he spoke, gesturing occasionally in between strokes of the razor, and touching himself fairly frequently to make sure everyone was keeping their eyes on the ball.
It wasn’t his exhibitionist pose that prompted me to speak, and there was nothing about his middling shortcomings that merited a comment outside of a shrug or a yawn. I wasn’t even listening to whatever drivel he was spewing to the other guys on the bench. But a few sentences in, and after shaving half of the right side of his face, he leaned forward and banged his razor on the seat, leaving a frothing little mound of shaving cream and stubble where one of us was bound to sit. Little rivulets of whiskers and Gillett shaving gel melted and slipped off the edge of the bench and into the seams of the wood.
And without really intending it, the word “HEY!” slipped out of my mouth.
Nicky stopped talking, and with palms out about groin level, as if I had somehow insulted his manhood, said, “What!?”
The obvious response at that point, would have been to reply “nothing.” But what came out instead were several rapid sentences that went into a little too much detail about how he had no business distributing his stubble all over the bench where people sit.
At that point, Nicky and his dangling trio took several steps to where I was perched on the lower bench. He stopped about a foot away from me and propped his left leg back up on the bench so he, his balls and I could settle this head to head. Adding disgusting to awkward, he was sweating like a pig, and the shaving cream remaining on the ¾’s of his face that he hadn’t yet shaved had formed little beads and began dripping off his face as he leaned forward, landing dangerously close to my right thigh. Then he read me the riot act about how it was none of my fucking business what he did and, furthermore, was my “sweaty ass on the bench any better than the shit coming off of his razor.”
I did have the sense not to respond to what I assumed to be a rhetorical question, at which point he – he of “look at my dick” fame – settled back to his corner pose calling me a “fucking queer.”
The seminal point in our discourse, however, came several moments later. He was blathering on about something, accenting his oratory every so often by glaring at me while he banged his razor clean on the wooden slats. I had tuned him out and had no intention of reengaging, when I caught a phrase about “some bitch” followed by the statement to the men on the bench of, “…I’m divorced, you know.”
Before I could think, the words “imagine that!” just kind of slipped out, far more loudly than I had intended. The silence that followed was broken by someone else entering the sauna, and I took advantage of the moment to slip out quietly and uninjured before too many thoughts could coalesce in Nicky’s head.
I saw him again several days later in the parking lot. He drove a bright red convertible Mercedes. He had the top down, and took the short route out of the lot, leaving the wrong way on a one way, flipping off the incoming right of way driver on his way out.
Though I’m sure it’s not in the context that Nicky had intended, when the world sees him, the consensus is unanimous. What a dick.
Gandhi, Dr. King, Lincoln, Bhutto, Mandela, Malala. These names blaze as beacons of courage, enlightenment, hope, social justice, integrity and resolve. Each exposed and confronted injustice at great personal expense, never skulking in the shadows, never cowering from threats, never mistaking violence for courage and always recognizing hatred for the gross extension of ignorance that it is.
I think of these names, not in the face of the mockery of leadership that is potentially Trump or Clinton, but as a staggering counterpoint to the cowards behind Charlie Hebdo, the attacks in Lebanon, Paris, Mali, a host of others, and now Munich and Nice. I think of these names to magnify the difference between true emissaries of lasting change and awareness, and ignorant brutal thugs. I think of them to underscore the expansive chasm that exists between courage and cowardice, between a true cause and mindless chaos.
We call them terrorists, which adds a perverse sense of legitimacy to their actions. We should stop that. We need to label them for what they are – cowards.
We sensationalize their actions in 24 x 7 news cycles, which also adds a perverse sense of legitimacy to their actions. We should stop that too.
Yes, report their acts of ignorance. Expose the facts. But lose the mega-font “TERROR IN….” backdrop and the frenetic 24×7 blather. Then diffuse their twisted fundamentalist rhetoric by accentuating the truth that their only voice or “cause” is, once again, mindless and spineless brutality against unarmed and unsuspecting, women, men and children – of all colors and creeds.
Our world is blessed with prolific acts of courage, sacrifice, support, community, love, inclusion and commitment. Let’s laud the courageous. Let’s highlight and nurture acts of acceptance, creativity, kindness and unity.
Let’s fan the flames of hope rather than drive the ratings and radicals that feast on fear.
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It is truly hard to know what to say, beyond uttering something like “fools” when forming a thought about our representatives in the House, Senate, and White House, who are all, of course, fools. Aside from the interesting statistic that for the first time in history the aggregate IQ of the House and Senate equals the exact number of members in Congress, there isn’t a single element of the government shutdown that doesn’t have you pulling your hair out in frustration or hiding under the bed out of fear. With a government operating like this, who needs third party terrorist threats?
You could hear America groan as the news broke on the first of the month. A chorus of “fools” swelled from breakfast tables to commuter trains as we all dropped our heads into our hands and bemoaned this most recent political obscenity.
But as I eavesdropped on fellow riders on the ever luxurious bus commute into the Port Authority, I began to realize with a sort of chill, that this chorus of “fools” was anything but a chorus. Behind every “fool” there was a “they.” And “they” were definitely divided between an “us” and a “them.” As it turned out, I was witnessing the only true byproduct of our government these days – a rift fanned with uncertainty and fear and a nation divided by hyperbole. Our parties (an ironic name when you think about it) have polarized us and themselves to such an extent that nothing can get done outside of pumping up the rhetoric to a level that drowns out even he remotest whimper of reason. Black. White. No grey. Dare to take the middle ground, and you will be branded by both sides as an extremist.
At the risk of presenting a thought we can all violently agree on, I do not have a great political mind. Defining my political acumen as “good” might actually be a stretch. And quite frankly, anyone can and practically everyone has expressed some version of what I led with – that our Representatives are fools. It’s easy, cathartic and safe. It accomplishes nothing.
And that’s when it hit me. There is a distinct possibility that we are the fools.
I mean, how stupid can they be? Our representatives lavish in positions of great wealth and influence. Despite a government shutdown, which many/most of them must want, they are still being paid and are catered to by enormous loyal staffs that are not being paid. They have the best health care plans in the world. As a unit they get nothing done. They have substituted “role models” with “poll models.” And they all have us in a lather, blathering about the ineptitude of our government in general, while somehow buoying up their individual positions as blameless, the single voices of reason in a sea of fools. Fund me, blog for me, tweet your support, rally your friends so we can protect us and beat back them, who unchecked will destroy the universe as we know it.
Well, as the two sides frenetically entrench themselves, cast blame and call for reinforcements, I’m suggesting all of us – regardless of our affiliations – put the vitriol on hold and take a bold and quiet step into the center. We firmly demand “QUIET” and calmly present our elected officials with a very simple amendment: Keep the government running. That’s why we hired you. If you fail to do that, each and every one of you loses his or her job. 535 pink slips. You will be fired, allowed to loiter on The Hill only until new elections are held (which none of them would be eligible for) within a six week time frame.
There is not an employer in the country who wouldn’t fire an employee (or employees) responsible for shutting down the business. Let’s hold our officials to that same incredibly low and common standard. We are, after all, their employers.
Only a fool would settle for anything less.
In second grade during our usual morning service before classes, Father Moore announced, “Today is Good Friday! Let us pray!” He was wearing the fancy set of robes and with arms widespread, he had veritably bellowed the words, implying that a “Hallelujah” or “Rejoice!” would be soon to follow.
It was my first year in parochial school, and I seriously entertained the thought that we might well be in store for a day dedicated entirely to recess to help usher in all the Good wrapped up in that Friday. I think I may have muttered a slightly audible “AMEN,” because our teacher, Miss Wright, had turned and was eyeing me.
Then Father Moore paused, dropped his arms to his side, and in a hushed and somewhat rushed cadence that could easily have begun with the words, “This just in,” gave a very unexpected, jarring, graphic and, for my 7-year-old tastes, a horrific accounting of Jesus’ death. I had never heard the details, or at least had never really listened before.
Jesus was whipped and beaten, a “crown of thorns” jammed on his head. He was forced to carry a heavy cross through the streets. People made fun of Him when he fell. Then, “they nailed his hands and feet to the cross.” When he spoke those words, Father Moore paused and looked slowly around the chapel. “Nailed” his hands and feet, for Christ sakes.
He was stabbed. He died a tortuous death, “hanging for hours in agony on the cross.”
And this was a good Friday. I couldn’t imagine what made up a bad one.
Miss Wright, in her amazingly insightful and compassionate way, leaned over, put her hand on my knee and asked if I was alright. I whispered the news to her that she had obviously missed, about Jesus’ last day (or third to last, depending upon your beliefs).
“They nailed his hands and feet!” I whispered to her somewhat urgently. Father Moore was mentioning two other people hanging on crosses when, with Miss Wright gently holding my left had, I raised my right one and squeaked out a question to the good Father.
“Why do we call it Good Friday?”
After he pinpointed me in the second grade pews, he answered.
“Because, Christ died for our sins.”
I can hear his answer to this day and still don’t have a clue what he was talking about. I raised my hand again and rephrased the question in true second grade form.
“Why do we call it Good Friday?” I had emphasized “good” to put a finer point on my point.
I imagine he was tempted to repeat his first answer, but after a pause, he said, “Good Friday made Easter possible.”
Miss Wright gently intercepted my hand as it rose for the third time, and whispered to me that “Black Friday” would have been a better name.
Forty seven years later, I still think she had the best answer. And as I ponder Black Friday and Easter from the sidelines of Judaism, Jazz, and Vedic meditation, I find myself reciting an old Robert Service poem I memorized some 20 years ago. Aside from fond childhood memories of Easter Sundays, large rabbits, fancy hats, and happier stories from the pulpit, it’s all I really carry with me anymore of Easter and Black Friday.
But it carries it well, and it captures for me the truth of a day that had practically chased me into Miss Wright’s lap so many years ago.
A Rusty Nail by Robert William Service
I ran a nail into my hand,
The wound was hard to heal;
So bitter was the pain to stand
I thought how it would feel,
To have spikes thrust through hands and feet,
Impaled by hammer beat.
Then hoisted on a cross of oak
Against the sullen sky,
With all about the jeering folk
Who joyed to see me die;
Die hardly in insensate heat,
With bleeding hands and feet.
Yet was it not that day of Fate,
Of cruelty insane,
Climaxing centuries of hate
That woke our souls to pain!
And are we not the living seed
Of those who did the deed!
Of course, with thankful heart I know
We are not fiends as then;
And in a thousand years or so
We may be gentle men.
But it has cost a poisoned hand,
And pain beyond a cry,
To make me strangely understand
A Cross against the sky.
In January of 1985, my west coast jazz sextet, Night Music, somehow finagled its way into opening a concert for Dave Brubeck and his quartet. The gig was at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco.
The day before the concert, KJAZ radio hosted a 3-way radio interview with their DJ, Dick Conte, me and Mr. Brubeck. About half way through it, Dick asked me how it felt to be playing keyboards on the same stage as Brubeck – playing his piano, no less.
I said, “It’s like presenting a paper about religion to GOD.”
The next day, after our sound check, Dick Conte called me backstage and introduced the two of us.
“Ed Manning, meet Dave Brubeck.”
I was standing there with a massive grin on my face holding his Jazz Goes to College LP that I had brought along for him to sign.
I held out my hand to him. When I did, he slowly reached out, and with a huge grin of his own, he gently laid his hand on my head and said, “Bless you, my son.”
L to R: Nate Pruitt, Dave Silliman, Rick Vandivier, Bob Johnson, Ed Manning, Skylark
I channeled a bizarre combination of an aging Katherine Hepburn and a highly caffeinated Pee Wee Herman as I began to speak at my Godfather’s memorial service in September. My hands shook so vigorously that they rendered the 12 point font of my notes completely indecipherable. And when I began to speak, my mouth opened, but the words, struggling to clear the massive lump in my throat, quivered to such a degree that the first word I actually squeaked was, “hymed.” I’m hoping, given the erudite crowd my Godfather generally drew, that people instinctively assumed that I was leading with a Middle Eastern prayer greeting of some sort.
In fact, it was simply my choked up rendition of “hi, I’m Ed.”
With my salutation leaving a number of people reaching to fine tune their hearing aids, I reverted to what in my head anyway, seemed to be roughly 37 minutes of complete silence. My plan to improvise and my faith that the right words would find me was giving me a “no service detected” message. I squinted at the trembling page in front of me for a prompt, but the only word I could make out, staring up at me in a large bolded font with exclamation points on either side of it was !!!!!REFLUX!!!!!. For the life of me, I had no clue what I had actually written as a headline, and I had the sudden mortifying thought that I had somehow grabbed my 80 year old mother’s pharmaceutical shopping list instead of my own notes.
I put the page down on the podium, and the blur once again became words. I took a deep breath and saw the actual headline I had written.
!!!!! RELAX !!!!! Read more…
Some background on “The Lesson”:
On a Saturday in April ten years ago, I was driving home from the gym in San Rafael, CA grinning ear to ear as the local jazz radio station played a cut from my friend Smith Dobson. Not only was it Smith, but it was a track from his Smithzonian album, released by none other than my jazz label, Night Music Productions. I beat my chest lightly waiting for the light to turn.
Two or three lights later, they segued from Smith to Smith, this time from his Live At Garden City album, also from Night Music Productions. In my head, I started crafting my resignation letter to the technology world and pondered my broadly celebrated reemergence to the jazz and record production scene.
By the time I parked in my driveway, I was listening to the close of a third song – Smith again (different label). Back to back to back Dobson. What a hoot. I thought birthday. I thought promo for a concert. I thought “interview,” and actually sat in the car convinced I would hear Smith’s voice at the close of the tune.
There was, of course, no interview. An emotional D.J. quietly mentioned his tribute to “the late Smith Dobson, who died last night in a solo car accident.” He was 54.
That night, I wrote a short piece in the form of a letter to God. It was taken from the same letter I wrote to God after my father died, less two words:
A few weeks after Smith’s memorial service, I put my thoughts together in a slightly more articulate fashion. Outside of a letter to a couple of friends, it’s never seen the light of day. So I thought I would post it (a little late, given he died on April 20th) as my digital version of a Yahrzeit candle.
It’s been ten years. I still miss him. I still miss his music. The world was a better place with him in it.
Eleven years ago Smith and I made a deal. We bartered a piano lesson, for a surfing lesson. On a spectacular calm May afternoon, we consummated the first half of the deal, waxed up a couple of boards, and drove to the 42nd Street break in Santa Cruz. I gave Smith a 15-minute beachside tutorial, an 8-foot long board, and then we paddled out. The break was gentle, small, and glassy, smooth as a Miles ballad. It felt like summer – a perfect day for learning.
We sat in the line-up for a couple of little sets, and then I paddled into a waist high swell, shouting out the steps we had gone over on the beach. I rode it 50 yards or so toward shore and then pulled out, eager to get back and ease Smith into his first wave. Then, just as I started paddling back to him, the fickle Pacific experienced a mood swing, jumping from ballad to Strauss’ overture to 2001. People whistled from the cliffs behind us, tympanis boomed, apes began jumping, and three or four double overhead swells bore down from the west.
In unison, the dozen or so surfers that were out, lay down and paddled, stampeding for the horizon. It was as if some big cat had appeared at the watering hole, and the herd was hightailing it for safety. And Smith was the calf that had been culled from the herd. He sat on his board waving and giving me two big thumbs-up. “Look mom, a leopard!” I remember thinking that I should have loaned Smith a bigger more buoyant board – maybe a life vest. I also remember thinking that I should have taken my lesson first, before I set Smith loose in the majestic Pacific.