Ithaca Blog

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Value of Pets (Via Laughter)

I never had a pet in my life, except for a very little while as a very young child, when our parents decided to try out a dog. He didn't last long. His name was "Frisky" and my understanding is that this understated it, that it should have been "Felon," or at least "Vandal." He did a lot of tearing up of a pretty small house, a 13-foot wide Brooklyn row house. With those dimensions, damage was hard to overlook. Our mother also claimed she had nowhere to put Frisky's food where we kids wouldn't eat it. So the dog went, and our mother developed a life-long allergy to dogs - also cats, and even the idea of them.

It seems to me most people I know in Ithaca have pets. Animal companions, I mean, in the modern vernacular. And I know how much they mean to them. It's nice. It's nothing for me, but it's nice. I also know that research shows how animals can improve psychological and emotional health in their homo sapiens friends. So it's deep, too.

The reason I think of it is because of Facebook, where there are probably more postings of animals than anything, even pictures of food ("asparagus and ramps no-egg frittata, yum") and political rants. It occurs to me that animals are beloved by us for many reasons, but an important one is that they make us laugh.

Laughter is a rare enough thing. Animals, I reckon, make people who live with them laugh every day, if not every hour. That is a pretty solid attribute.

Once I consented to take in a friend's cat when the friend left town for a week. I was pretty ambivalent, and it took a while for that to change. It seemed the same for the poor kitten, who seemed unhappy at first, although not enough to vomit on my bed or anything.

But one day I came home, not cognizant of my temporary roommate, until she reminded me of her stature and presence by leaping up at me from a hidden spot in the stairwell, twisting her body and flailing at me, scaring (for a second) the human being out of me - followed by a large, human laugh, and some swearing: "Hey, you little son of a bitch!" I regained my composure quickly enough, and when I did, had time really to appreciate this dramatic, and comic, welcome home.

My point is that I really appreciate the value of laughs, and the way animals can provide them. (My point is decidedly not that I want to house-sit your cat, despite all this - sorry, but.) I know there are a lot of deeper things involved in these relationships, but if you have someone or something in your life to make you laugh every day, that is pretty good.

Lucky for me, I find a lot to laugh about in life at all times, in many ways. I try, too, to be a source of laughter. (Not by jumping out at people on stairwells, but in ways I can do without twisting my back.) Anyway, this is only partly about pets. It's mostly about laughter. I wish you a life of the latter, whatever nice ways you get (and give) it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Hamburgers On Good Friday

I came home from work tonight and started cooking dinner and looked at the calendar at the same time. I remembered that Friday is Good Friday and realized I should stick the ground beef and pulled pork in the fridge into the freezer as I won't eat meat on Good Friday.

It's not because I am a good Catholic; I am a bad Catholic. Not eating meat on Good Friday is about the only regular gesture I make each year to my old faith.

Call it superstition, if you want. (I prefer, at the most, "stition," not a "super" one - the best joke I remember (in fact, the only one) from that old TV show, "The Office", which I probably saw about a dozen times, or about eleven times more than I have seen any TV show in the past decade, except for "Treme" on HBO, which I saw all of. But I digress.)

My old friend Bill called it such, a few years ago. He was hanging with me at my old store, Small World Music, and I was having lunch: a piece of Dover sole. "Dover sole?," Bill inquired.

"Yeah," I said. "It's Good Friday. I can't eat no meat." I had some rice with it.

Bill was, I guess, a secular humanist or so. Nothing wrong with that. Technically, maybe, I am too. But he was also, generally, a weisenheimer, and maybe thought I was acting the same, putting him on. Certainly I wasn't, and told him so. I didn't need any comments from him about my ersatz faith, but I got some, so responded.

"It ain't no thing, Bill," I said. "Just a remnant of my upbringing. But an important one, symbolically. No matter what you know, or think you know, or believe, or don't believe, isn't it nice, once a year, to refrain from the taking of flesh? Like today, when a big guy got stripped of his?"

Oh, come on, Bill said, basically. Such a superstitious impulse from a rational, smart guy?

You can call it what you want, I said. It isn't rational. After all, this fish is flesh, too, or was. But my tradition asks you to refrain from one specific thing, one day a year, to commemorate a sacrifice of flesh and a commencement of spirit and the start of a tradition and belief. That is a pretty small gesture.

And a pretty lame, insignificant one, Bill said.

Call it what you want!, I said with a laugh. It's significant to me. I couldn't eat meat, wouldn't eat meat, on Good Friday for anything.

"Couldn't?", Bill asked.

"Couldn't," I said. "Physically and psychologically, I don't even know which is which, I couldn't eat meat on Good Friday. I wouldn't. I wouldn't even if I could."

Let me cut a long story short. Bill is a guy, argumentative and challenging. Me, too. He says to me, what if you didn't have that Dover sole? And I walked in here with a hamburger. For you to have. And told you I would give you $1,000 to eat it.

The parallels here to a certain story in the Bible might be obvious. But, obvious or not, I said to him, "I wouldn't do it."

"What if I said $10,000?" (Bill was from a wealthy family in Scarsdale and used to big numbers of money.)

I paused, for dramatic effect.

"I wouldn't eat it for a million dollars," I said quietly.

He howled. "A MILLION dollars? We're talking about a million dollars? YOU'RE a RELIGIOUS person? What about the amount of good you could do in the world with a million dollars? For eating a stupid HAMburger?" (He did not actually use the word "stupid", but a present participle that I generally do not write, and certainly won't recount in a religious discussion such as this, jocular though this discourse may be.) "Helping the poor? All that shit?" (Pardon that, but it is a tamer word than the other.)

"I wouldn't do it for all the money in the world," I said.

"Of course," I said, "a million dollars would be good to have, to help the poor, plus personally. But it would be the wrong way to get it."

By this time, I was making him mad. I didn't want to do that. But I couldn't help it, despite what I said next.

Really, I was just looking for out of the conversation. But, also, to make a capping point.

"Bill, get thee behind me," I said.

Really, truly, I am not so good. Well, not usually. But one day a year, at least, a little.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pat And Brian Burke, And B.B. King, And Joy At The State Theater

We just return from the State Theater, where we see our brother Paddy and his son Brian play acoustic blues as opening act for B.B. King. Let me repeat that: B.B. King. Heard of him? Would it make you nervous? (Not watching, I mean playing. It did make me nervous, though, waiting for the start.)

If it did Paddy, you couldn't tell. He took the stage smiling and seemed completely relaxed. I don't know how relaxed I would be sauntering onto a stage in front of a sold-out (1500 persons) crowd who paid a lot of money to see Mr. King, a blues legend.

B.B. King has his reputation and qualifications, going back decades, the best of the best, the most famous bluesman alive. He also has eight musicians behind him who are the best in the world. You (I mean Pat) have an acoustic guitar; plus your son, very talented and so close with you, coming out halfway through the set with his fiddle; and then what? Your skills and your desire to connect.

Tonight was a lesson in how far those things can go. The performance was nothing but joyful and engaging. Joy and engagement, and a respect for music in general and the blues in particular, are the reasons Pat and Brian started playing in the first place. Tonight, it all showed.

After two numbers, Paddy mentioned to the crowd that he spoke to our father on the phone yesterday about the gig. Dad is a Tony Bennett kind of guy, but loves music, so at least knows who B.B. King is. He congratulated Pat and, as Pat told the crowd, mentioned that yesterday was the tenth anniversary of our mother's death. Dad said, she will be there with you. "So - hi, Mom," Paddy said. "I'm going to play her favorite song now" - "Come Back, Baby," by Snooks Eaglin.

As promoter Dan Smalls said tonight in welcoming the crowd, "The State Theater is our communal living room for great events like this." Little did he know, or maybe he did. Nah, how could he. But maybe he does now. We hope he is smoking a big promoter-style cigar right now, reflecting on the triumph of the night.(Thanks, Dan, for the evening, and all you bring to downtown.)

And, of course, thank you B.B. King. Our honor, all around.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

216 "Likes" On Facebook For Pat Burke, With B.B. King

Did you ever get 216 "Likes" on Facebook for any personal news you posted?

Me, neither. But Pat Burke (yes, we are slightly related) did, this week (so far), for his casual announcement that he and his son Brian will play acoustic blues at the State Theater on Friday in support of (i.e., to open for) blues legend B.B. King.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story for the Ithaca Times about Bob Proehl, of Buffalo Street Books, who announced on Facebook that he was leaving his job there to become a full-time writer. Bob's announcement got 43 Facebook comments and 167 "Likes." I considered those numbers indicative of newsworthiness. My editor agreed, thus the story.

So, today, I consider: 216. That is more than 167. (A funny thing is that the FB "comment" tallies for Pat and Bob stand exactly the same, at 43. Weird, huh? Of course, Pat still has a few days to go. (I suppose I could write one myself to push Pat into the forefront. Of course, that would be nepotistic. Of course, as if all this isn't already.))

I guess what this means is that I should pitch a story to my editor now about Pat. If you know Paddy and me, look out. It will take some savage editing to keep it from requiring at least a triple-issue. Anyway, break a leg, my brother; and nephew Brian.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Pat & Brian Burke Open For B.B. King at the State Theater

The peripatetic blues team of Pat Burke (pere, guitar) and Brian Burke (fils, fiddle) apparently had nothing better to do this Friday. It was announced today that they will open that night for B.B. King at the State Theater.

Pat and Brian play an acoustic, rural style of blues such as Mr. King played growing up in the south in the 1930s. King eventually adopted electric guitar, under the tutelage of T-Bone Walker, and became one of its most innovative practitioners. His signature single-note solo style influenced all of blues and rhythm and blues, and created a blueprint for rock guitar.

The show is at 8 p.m. By Ithaca standards, tickets are expensive. They are also almost sold out. Today's announcement of these local stalwarts opening for this visiting legend will probably seal the deal. If you want to be there, you should act fast.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Super-Skunk Hoses Down City Block

A super-skunk, I report in awe, laid down a chemical/biological spray last night that a United Nations crew should investigate.

The stench woke me from sound sleep at 4 a.m. I live in a second-floor apartment. The windows were closed.

Once I figured out what had happened (well, it was obvious what had happened, just hard to believe), I crawled out of my room (stay low, more oxygen) to the inner-most sector of the apartment. But it is not that big an apartment. I still feared for my safety.

I don't think skunk spray usually kills, but whatever got hit directly with this would be lucky to die. Its social life is essentially through. It probably committed suicide.

A few years ago, the Fire Department came to our block at 5 a.m. when Six Mile Creek was rising to tell us we might have to evacuate. I wondered last night if they would come to tell us the opposite, that we were quarantined. Maybe no one would do it, haz-mat suit or not. I wouldn't, for a kick-off.