Saturday, August 1, 2015

Suicide: The Transfer of Suffering

A meme came across my Facebook page recently that read, "Suicide does not end the pain, it gives it to someone else." I have had my foot on the edge before - I know all too well the sound of your own voice screaming so loudly in your head that nothing else can seem to quiet it.  In those dark moments, all a person can think of is ending the pain - but the solution that often comes to mind...taking our own life... does not end the pain, it multiplies it and spreads it to those we love.

On November 16, 2014, I lost my "baby" brother, Scott Lavey to suicide. I have been debating for some time to tell the story of that day here in this blog - not for my own sake - but in the hopes that someone thinking of taking their own life will stumble across it, read the story, and hopefully think twice about their decisions and how those decisions can impact not only them, but those whom they love.  

I had such a hard time putting my thoughts into words - expressing the jumble of images in a coherent manner that would make sense to the reader.  I wrote, re-wrote and edited this entry numerous times and still feel it is choppy and just plain... cold.... but it's the best I can do.  I can't make this story into a "good read" because it's not meant to be. It was the most horrific time in my life and there just isn't any easy way to say what's in my mind when I think back to this time or try to express what I feel in the present.

I would like to reiterate that the purpose of this entry is put out there into cyber space this story so others can hopefully learn from this tragedy and perhaps another tragic death can be prevented. 


Since I wasn't there for the actual event, I can only tell bits and pieces from what I have been told by my mother. I'm keeping details of the actual death to a minimum as it is my own experiences dealing with Scott's death that I can personally speak of - and the events in Scott's life that may have led him to make this decision were his own.

My mother was on the phone with my Dad who was spending the weekend hunting at my uncle's home in the south towns.  A call was made to the local police that one of Scott's friends feared he may take his own life.  My bother Joe, who was with my father, and who works for the local EMT company got word from his co-workers about the call immediately.  My mother went downstairs and Scott was not asleep on the couch where he would normally be after a night of drinking.  Dad instructed my mother to look in the garage - look outside - find him.... She opened the garage door to find Scott laying on the concrete floor just behind the door.

Mom hung up the phone and immediately called 911.  She told the woman who answered that her son had shot himself - the shotgun laying at his feet.  He wasn't breathing.  The operator asked Mom if she would like to try CPR.  My mother agreed but didn't know how - before the operator began instructing her, my mother pleaded with the woman, "please... pray for my son."

Scott had taken a hunting rifle that belonged to my great-father and shot himself point blank in the chest.  He died immediately.

I read the coroner's report when my parents received it months later. It goes on to give his age, weight, height, distinguishing marks such as his tattoos and his vitals.  He was listed as an extremely healthy 25 year old.   My parents were advised by the coroner not to read the final two pages of the report as it went into great detail about the gun shot.  My parents and myself read it - I can't tell you why we felt it necessary, but we did.  I sat there reading in great detail the havoc that bullet did to my brother... to think something so small can cause so much damage.

It was Sunday morning and I was on my way to 9:00am Mass in downtown Buffalo.  It was a grey November morning, cold - hardly any cars on the road as I drove down the highway along the Niagara River.  As I was approaching my exit, my cell phone rang.  I could tell by the ringtone that it was my Dad.  As I reached for the phone I thought, "why on earth is he calling me.. he knows better than to call me at this time on a Sunday."  Then it hit me... Oh God.. maybe something happened to my Mom!

I answered the phone to the sound of my father crying on the other end.  I know I have seen my Dad with tears in his eyes before, but I can't tell you another time I heard my Dad cry.  "Mike - Scott's shot himself, he's dead."  How I did not hit the guard rail, only God knows.  My eyes were filled with tears and I was literally wailing when I hung up the phone.  I sped the entire way home -- a good 25 minute drive...praying to be pulled over in the hopes I could get a police escort or a cop might drive me home.

All I could think about as I was driving was getting home to my mother.  She was alone in the house and with Scott's previous bouts of depression and struggles with alcohol was horrified something like this would happen.  Now her worst fears had come true and in that moment of darkest pain, my mom was all alone in the house.  I wanted to hold her so badly and tell her everything would be ok - I wanted her to hold me like she did when I was little and tell me the same: it would be ok.  "Why, Scott?? Why, Scott?? I'd keep yelling as I tried to focus on the road - trying to see through the tears.

I drove down my parent's street and saw all the cop cars and emergency vehicles parked outside. There were so many that I had to park a few houses down from my parent's home.  I got out of the car and ran towards the house. There were police officers outside the garage - I never looked in, guessing that was where it had all happened. "Where's my Mom?!?  Where's my Mom?!?" was all I could say to the police officers.  They told me she was upstairs in the living room.

All during the drive home I kept thinking, "Mom is all alone.... I have to get home... Mom is by herself." My sister in law Katie who lives near by had been the first to arrive at the house and was with my mother. I met Katie at the top of the stairs and just hugged her.  My mother was on the couch, still in her nightgown, rocking.  I sat down next to her and put my arm around her and just cried.

As much as I wanted to hold my Mom and never let her go - I couldn't bring myself to stay with her - and for this I will forever be ashamed.  Even as a kid, the sight of my Mother crying has been hard on me.  If my mom was ever hurt enough to cry, something in me always shut down.  Seeing her - her face filled with pain - I couldn't handle it.  I walked over to the kitchen stools a few feet away, still wearing my coat, and hung onto the back of those stools and just rocked....leaning down, putting my head in my hands and squeezing my skull - thinking I could some how contain the pain and grief - I just stood there....rocking...sobbing into my hands... shaking.

I knew my older bother Joe was on his way home with my Dad.. but they were still a distance away.  I kept waiting for my sister Kristy to arrive.  I needed to see Kristy - I was told she was coming but I kept waiting for her.  I needed her to be in the room to know she was there.  She'd go to Mom. She'd do what I couldn't do in that moment.

I wanted to see Scott.  It was really bothering me that he was alone - no family beside him. The officer who stayed upstairs with my mother would not let me anywhere near the garage door.  We were waiting for the coroner, which to us, seemed like forever. I sat in Scott's room for a while until the police came in to take pictures.  This was, after all, considered a crime scene. Once reports were made and the coroner signed off on the paperwork, it was time for the ambulance to take Scott's body away.

I wanted to go to the living room window to see Scott put in the ambulance, but was again gently stopped by the police officer.  "You don't want to see that", I was told.  I knew what I would be seeing... I knew he'd be in a body bag... I knew it would be hard... but I had to.  Even from the window I had to be there, with him... how could he be taken from his home...our home... without one of us with him?  I wanted to argue my case with the police officer but decided that was not the time for a debate.  Back to the kitchen stool I went...hanging on as if for dear life as Scott left our house for the last time.

 I was surprised to hear that it was the family's responsibility to clean up any "mess" after an incident like this.  One police officer did offer to dispose of the blood soaked door mat for us which we were thankful for.  By the time the police had left, more family had come to the house and I decided to face the scene in the garage. I walked out into the cold concrete room and stepped over the threshold where Scott's body had been.  There were still traces of blood on the concrete even after the mat had been removed. I crouched down and laid my hands on the cold floor.   When I rose, I started looking through the shelves for paper towels and cleaners that I new my Dad kept there.  I was numb, but I had to do... SOMETHING. I knew I didn't want my parents to see any trace of blood, but I'm not sure why I felt so compelled to do it myself.  When Kristy's boyfriend saw what I was about to do, he stopped me and insisted he take care of the cleaning.  It was very kind of him, but again -- I just felt it was something I needed to do... just like I felt I should have been able to watch him be taken to the ambulance. Still.. I didn't have the strength or will to argue or explain my feelings - I quietly walked away.

In the laundry room was a pile of Scott's clothes sitting in front of the washing machine for Mom to wash that morning.  I thought at least I could do this - I could wash this big pile of clothes so Mom wouldn't have to.. thinking I'd be sparing her the pain of having to do his laundry.  Little did I know that I now was taking something away from my mother.... the ability to do something for him one last time.. just as I had wanted to do in the garage moments earlier.

I went into the downstairs tv room and sat on the couch Scott often watched tv from or would fall asleep on at night.  I looked around at all the reminders that he had been there - his slippers, his video game controllers and dvds, his pillow and blanket.  In that moment the numbness began to wear off and was quickly - and briefly - replaced by anger.  Sitting there I picked up his pillow and whispered, "you son of a bitch."

I've lost many people whom I loved over the years, but when a tragedy like this hits, your range of emotions seem all the more intensified.  You're devastated and shocked at what happened, fall into despair over the loss, filled with anger at the decision that was made, guilty for the anger you feel or for the things you "could have done".  The sadness would randomly hit you like getting punched in the stomach, and when the sadness subsided the throbbing feeling of emptiness remained.

A few days prior to that Sunday, my parent's decided to put up their Christmas tree.  They were going out of town soon and my Dad would be out at his bother's hunting, so my Mom wanted to get the decorating out of the way, but also give herself more time to enjoy the decorations since she would be away for a time in December.  Assembling the artificial tree had been something Scott and my Dad did together, and before going hunting, the two of them assembled the tree (no easy task!) and strung the lights.  That Sunday, while the house was empty, my Mom was planning on leisurely decorating the tree.  Instead, the tree stood in the corner of the room, empty, as our world came crashing down.

A few days after the funeral (a week after his death), I stopped off at the cemetery to visit Scott's grave. My parent's did not have any plots when Scott died and purchased a family crypt at the cemetery where most of my family was laid to rest.  He's in the same mausoleum where my Mom's parent's are interred.  Actually, he's right around the corner from Grams and Gramps - we had to laugh...  in life, my Grandparent's lived so close to our house (one mile away), and now even in death they'd still be right around the corner.  Scott's grave is located on the inside of the mausoleum which makes it nice to be able to visit - you don't have to worry about the weather. I pulled a chair over to sit, and prayed quietly for a while.  It was a bit odd to see my parent's names already etched onto the stone, but to see Scott's name there, with a date of death was - and continues to be - surreal.

I felt so drawn to go see him shortly after his burial for the oddest reason.  When my old brother moved out I went to see his new home.  When my sister moved out, I went to see her new home.  When I moved out people came to see my home (Scott actually was the one to help me move in). As crazy as it sounds, I had to go see Scott in his new...home. Stupid isn't it? I just kept feeling like a heel if I didn't go see him - pay him a visit.  Odd how our minds work.

The pain doesn't go away after a few days or even a few weeks.  My family and I are going through what I called "the year of firsts".  The first Thanksgiving without him, the first Christmas - The first Easter... etc..etc".  As much as we tried to keep Christmas as festive as possible, we all admitted that we felt as if we were just going through the motions.  We decorated our trees (I helped my Mom decorate hers), but it just didn't feel the same - and seeing Scott's stocking on the mantel, empty, will never feel right.

I go through life just as I did before and have found amazing support and love from my family and friends - but still the pain is there.  Sometimes the images of that morning flash into my working memory so vividly that it hits like a ton of bricks.  Other times I can be driving along and a song will come on the radio and my eyes well up with tears for no reason.

 What's been one of the oddest adjustments for me has been referring to my siblings and I as the "three of us" instead of the "four of us".  The set has been broken up.  Now every time we talk about a family photo or doing something together, it seems odd without Scott to complete the set... the default setting in our minds when we think of our immediate family.  We were all at my brother's for father's day and my siblings and I were in the yard sitting in lawn chairs talking.  Joe made the observation that there just happened to be fourth chair next to us.. empty.. as if waiting for Scott.... where he would have been, should have been.  We quickly laughed it off saying, "naw.. Scott would have left by now" and imitated him saying goodbye in the way only he could, but I knew I wasn't the only one who was constantly reminded that our set was incomplete.

No, suicide does not end the pain - it just transfers it to those we love.  I don't know the kind of fear, pain and despair Scott felt that morning, but when he made the decision to try and end his pain in that way, he couldn't have known in that moment that the bullet that pierced his chest pierced the hearts of all those whom he loved. I once heard a line in a movie that said, "Death is like learning to wear a pair of eyeglasses or a ring.  It becomes a part of you, but you never forget that it's there." A wound was made on all the hearts of the lives that Scott touched - his friends and family. Sometimes it becomes a scar, sometimes the wound opens up again and the pain comes flooding in... but it's always there and always will be.

If anyone out there has stumbled across this page to read this story and are struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide, I implore you to reach out to friends and family.  Call the National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255.  Talk to someone - know that you and your life matter.  I wish Scott had had the clarity to see and feel just how much he was loved by so many and what a strong impact his death would make on his family and friends - maybe knowing that would have given him the strength to keep going and make it through another day.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Eulogy for my brother Scott

I was asked to post the eulogy I wrote for my brother, Scott, who passed away on November 16, 2014. I thank everyone for your kind words, love, prayers and support during this especially difficult time!

Scott, you are loved.


When you're a kid growing up, you see your siblings in a very different light then you do as an adult.  The annoying little brother gradually turns into a friend and confidant. You think that there is time to foster that friendship and strengthen that bond - to say things you never really said before - to do things together you may not have done before.  But sometimes, things don't happen the way you had planned... and time runs out.

Scott never had it easy.  When my sister Kristy was born we all went to the hospital to see her and hold her - take pictures together.  Scott was born blue - rushed from our mother's room and taken to Children's Hospital.  At the age of three he was diagnosed with a form of eye cancer and had to lose his left eye.   All this suffering in only three years of life.

Despite his hardships, Scott plowed forward in life at full speed - leaving the rest of us dizzy in his wake.  He was quite often a handful... needing all the resources my parent's could muster and even calling the grandparents in as backup when needed.  If  Mom kept a tally as to how many times one of us got into trouble, yea... Scott would have won... Though the rest of us did pretty well in our own rights too.

I have to say though, that as I reflected on Scott's life to write this eulogy, it was not the whirl wind of a kid he was but that man he became that keeps coming to mind.  The man who never considered himself as particularly smart, yet designed and built from scratch a home for a pet rabbit that had more thought put into its design than most human homes - and was probably far better constructed.  His capacity to love and his willingness to give 110% to anyone who needed him far surpassed his grades on any standardized test or exam.  Loving with his whole heart came naturally to Scott.
As he helped me to move into my apartment - just the two of us - carrying furniture and boxes up three flights of stairs he never seemed to grow tired and never complained.  I'd catch my breath and ask if he could help me take some piece of furniture upstairs -  he'd smirk and tell me he'd already brought it up while I was chugging my third bottle of water.  He was always the first to volunteer for the hard tasks and would never think of accepting anything in the form of payment. "It's for family" is all he would say.

Scott wanted so much to be a Dad and have a family -- and if you ever wonder what kind of father he would have been, just ask Collin or Brittney.  I don't know whose faces lit up more when they came to visit at my parent's house - the kid's or Scott's.  Like my Dad, he had a natural love for children and had no problem taking them in his arms - going outside to play - or just vegging out with a game console.  Though he was in their lives for a relatively short time, I have no doubt they will always remember with great excitement their Uncle Scott.

I will never know the heart ache Scott felt Sunday morning.  I will never know the struggle that he kept hidden behind that charming smile.  But I pray that now, as he rests in the healing embrace of Our Lord,  that he will finally see himself for the truly remarkable person that he was.  I firmly believe with my whole heart that someday - when God calls my name - that Scott will be there learning on the gates to Heaven - and with a hug and a simple: "Hey Mike", I will know that I am home. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"Does anyone still wear a hat?"

"I'll drink to that!"

A friend of mine came over recently and commented on the hats I have hanging in the hallway.  "How many hats do have??" --- the only truthful answer to that question is: never enough.

Hats /fedoras - more specifically "pork pies" (both diamond and traditional - brim always snapped up) are my addiction.  Carrie Bradshaw had shoes... I have hats.

My Grandpa Lavey passed away when I was in third grade, and I have few memories of him.  What I do remember clearly were the times he would come to my house for some family event and I would meet him at the top of the stairs to take his hat and put it in the bedroom with the coats.  Grandpa always wore a hat - at least in the cooler months.  He either wore a tweed flat cap or a tweed trilby (fedora-ish) that were so popular among older men in the 1980s.

Grandpa's hats were so unique to me in a world of cheap baseball hats. This was the 80s after all.. think trucker hats with mesh backs and advertisements on the front -- Grandpa's hats were classy.  For some reason I remember can clearly remember examining his hats with the satin lining and thinking this was just too cool!  A young fogey was born!

When Grandpa died, my Grandmother gave his clothes to anyone in the family who could get use out of them.  My Grandfather had a small hat size compared to most men - but his caps just happened to fit eight year old me.. who probably had a big head compared to most kids.  I was given one of the tweed flat caps he always wore.  I was thrilled.

Not being a sports fan (at all!), it never felt right wearing baseball caps.  There was a year in college where I bought every color ball cap with my University's logo on it that I could find.. but it never felt right.  I didn't want to wear a hat so closely associated with something I personally didn't relate to (baseball) - nor did I want to be a walking advertisement for something.. even if it was my school.  I ended up giving all my caps to my father who to this day tells people that he helped give me an education and all he got was a hat with the university's logo on it!  :)

In the early 2000s I was shopping with a friend at a local flea market and came across a stand that sold clothing.  The stand offered a small selection of cheap wool felt fedoras in only one style - but multiple colors and sizes.  It was a religious awakening!  I had always so closely identified with the 1940s and 50s and here was THE symbol (to me) of men of that era.  I wore the hat home.

Initially I only wore the hat to Church when I was dressed in a shirt and tie - but as I learned more about hats (the different crown styles - materials - brim widths - etc) and expanded my collection, I decided to just make them part of my every day attire.  Once I got passed the awkward "everyone is starring at me..." phase - the hat simply became a part of me and my personality -and now people identify me with the hats I wear: "I saw this guy in a fedora today and I thought of you!"

I think a lot of people have safety blankets - a ring, a watch, shoes, hats, purses - whatever it is - that either consciously or subconsciously have become a part of their persona -- becomes their symbol and their own little shield against whatever bogeyman might be out there in life.  Perhaps those same items act more as an empowering attribute that just makes them feel damn good about themselves when they put it on.  I haven't gone out of the house without a hat on literally in years --- and if I do leave the house without a hat, the breeze on my bald head makes me stop -- "wait... something feels different... MY HAT!  Dammit!!" -- and then I have to rush up three flights of stairs to get one.

The irony of my obsession?  I don't think I look particularly GOOD in hats.... and I've tried many shapes and styles before settling on my signature stingy brimmed pork pies (with the occasional c-crown thrown in for good measure).   I adore vintage fashion, but being a larger guy, can't always pull off a modern-meets vintage look without looking like a train wreck (if I can find vintage pieces in my size at all) - and if I dress ALL retro I end up looking like Oliver Hardy (Google him).  But the fedora is something I can wear with anything from jeans and t-shirt to a suit and tie - a nod to the past that holds up well in the present.  There are very few times I pass a mirror (I am not one to linger in front of them for long...) and think "damn I look good" -- but every now and then if the perspective is just right and the hat is tilted just so - I smile and head out to face the world with a little more spring in my step.

Oh the odd conversations that have happened - the man who starting talking to me (rather excitedly!) at a red light because his 5 year old nephew wears hats just like mine - random compliments from people on the street or in the grocery stores which catch me completely off guard (though the compliment is indeed appreciated!) - the sales lady who wanted to know where I got my hat because she thinks they're sexy and wants her boyfriend to get one - the random stories strangers start telling about people in their lives who also wear fedoras - people asking me if I'm a fan of AMC's Breaking Bad (damn you, Walter White!) or those who inevitably ask if I like jazz (I do not like jazz).   I'll even smile at the regulars at the bar whose names I have managed to commit to memory, but who find "Michael" too difficult to remember and refer to me simply as: "the hat guy".

Beyond the warm fuzzy feeling I get from wearing them and the conversations they have started (both fun and awkward) - they taught me a valuable lesson about personality, personal style and individuality: if you love something, forget about what other people may or may not think about you - DO IT - BE IT - OWN IT and --- ok, I have to say it... WORK IT! :-P  With the right level of confidence, you can pull off almost anything.

*tips hat*

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Number, please.

For years I haven't had cable tv... and honestly I was quite happy without it.  Gradually over time however, Time Warner kept increasing my Internet bill well above the $44 a month I started out with.  When I called to complain about the almost $20/month increase, I was told the best thing they could do was give me a bundle which included basic cable, Internet and digital home phone for basically the same cost as what I was paying for Internet only.  I reluctantly agreed.

I'm not impressed with having cable back.  There are only a handful of shows I watch -- and even those can be found online if you know where to look.  Every time I turn on the tv I find myself watching old re-runs of shows I've seen 1,000 times --- which are also available online.  Not impressed.

The home phone was something I was excited about.  I HATE talking on cell phones.  Even routing them through traditional corded phones doesn't help with the initial connection quality of the cell phone which sometimes can be an annoyance.  So now the "home phone" has become my default telephone system when I'm at home... saving the cell (and my battery life) for texting and use when I am out and about.

For the first time in years, I now had a new telephone number.  My cell number hasn't changed in a decade and it is one of the few numbers I still have committed to memory.  But as I would tell people my primary number had changed, I found myself struggling to remember the new set of 7 digits.  The solution?  I gave my phone number an exchange name.

In the first half of the 20th century, telephone numbers had words and letters in front of them known as exchange names.  The names/exchanges served a few purposes.  Back then, operators either manually connected the call (before dial service) or helped in looking up numbers and connecting long distance calls.  The exchange acted like a mini area code -- all the phones in a certain area would be part of that exchange...making the operators job easier for connecting your call.  The words also made it easier for people to REMEMBER the phone number (does anyone even commit phone numbers to memory anymore?) since words tend to be easier to remember than a long chain of random numbers.

Exchange numbers were made famous in popular songs and movies of this time.  Glenn Miller's PEnnsylvania 6-5000 was a hit song using the telephone number of the Pennsylvania Hotel.  The movie BUtterfield 8  starring Elizabeth Taylor is also a telephone number exchange.  The PE in PEnnsylvania corresponds to 73 on your dial.  BU in BUtterfield would be 28.  If you were calling the Pennsylvania hotel, you'd dial 736-5000.  But PEnnsylvania 6-5000 (or PE6-5000) is an easier way to remember the number...and lends itself nicely to a song.  :)

With the introduction of area codes and direct dialing, exchange names faded into the past... dropping names and numbers and using only their numerical counter parts.  There is a scene in the 1970s sitcom All in the Family where Edith Bunker has to make an emergency call to the doctor in the middle of the night.  She begins to dial and says (I forget the exact number she uses) "PL 4.....oh wait!  They're using numbers now!"  She grabs for her phone book, looks up the number and begins to dial again saying, "754....." before coming to the realization that, "It's the same thing!"  Oh Edith.. how I loved you.

Sadly my new number which begins with 260 doesn't lend itself to many great exchange names.  I ruled out any word starting with BO because I don't need people thinking of body odor when they called.  I thought about ANgelus 0  since I have a great love for Latin (and it is the name of a Catholic prayer) -- but the "s" sound in Angelus and the "z" sound of zero gave me an instant lisp when reciting the number.  I settled on "COmmodore 0".  The fictional exchange name did indeed make the number far easier to remember.

Being the vintage geek that I am, when recording my answering machine message (I wasn't paying $3.40 a month for Time Warner digital voicemail), I simply recorded, "You have reached COmmodore 0-1234 (obviously that's not the real number), please leave a message."  I figured anyone who knows me well and heard the message would laugh it off... and anyone I don't know will get confused (such as the telemarketers who began calling me the day after I got the number activated).

When I came home from Church this morning, the machine (for the first time) was blinking that I had a message.  Curious as to who called me so early, I pressed play.  Sure enough it was a telemarketer -- I could hear the call center chatter in the background.  Before the caller hung up, I could hear him say excitedly, "Oh wow!  He uses an exchange name!!" before the call disconnected.  Yes sir I do...but I'm still not answering your survey or buying your products.  :)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

And one for Mahler! -- I mean... Elaine!!

There are certain gay genes I just did not get.  I don't have a compulsive desire to live at the gym and as a result do not have abs of steel.  I may have abs of at least copper, but if I do, they are buried under a protective layer of fat for safe keeping.  I also do not follow theater or musicals - for the most part...though I have been known to burst out into song at work - much to the dismay of my co-workers.

I was however devastated to learn of the passing of Broadway legend, Elaine Stritch, who took her final bow on July 17, 2014.  Though I had never seen her live on stage and knew very little of the actual theatrical performances for which she is best known, I got to know her through television and Internet. I developed an immense love and admiration for this woman's bold personality and contagious laughter.

The only stage performance of hers that I can say I have seen in its entirety was her one woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty which comprised of her telling (and singing) her life story.  I saw it some time around 2003 when it aired on HBO.  I was channel surfing and came upon this program of a woman on stage wearing little more than an over-sized men's button down shirt and black tights.  Within five minutes of listening to the monologue about theater life in the 1940s and 50s, I was hooked.  This woman sure knew how to tell a story!

 Miss Stritch would make appearances in movies and television shows and I'd roar with laughter at her amazing comedic timing and unsurpassable  whit.  I actually tried to get into the series "30 Rock" in which she had a recurring role as Alec Baldwin's mother, Colleen.  After a few episodes I stopped watching and instead watched the "best of Colleen" clips on YouTube.  Hell, I was only watching it for Stritch, so I might as well focus on the clips she was in.  Look them up sometime.  They are hysterical!  As for the rest of the show?  I was less than impressed.

To me, Elaine Stritch represented a link to the era I have loved so much all my life.  The classic age of Hollywood and Broadway - most notably the 1940s and 1950s.  To see Elaine walking down the streets of New York (which I sadly had only done through clips and documentaries) was to see style personified.  Her billowing fur coats, her classic oversize glasses and modest, yet fashionable hats.  "Does anyone, still wear a hat?".  She was the complete opposite of the stained tshirt and pants down around your ass ensables and treated everyday as a chance to look and BE your absolute best.

The loss of Miss. Stritch was yet another reminder of the loss of that amazing generation and many of the values, styles and attitudes of their era.  Thankfully there will always be young fogies like myself to keep some of those trends alive, but there is no substitute for the original.... and Elaine Stritch was as original as they come.  Her determination, straight shooter, take no bull shit approach to life -- all while laughing -- stays at the back the mind. Once in a while I like to draw some strength from Elaine Stritch, whose persona has joined the many personalities that make up the chorus of voices in my head.  I think we all need a little Stritch to keep it real and keep ourselves (and those around us!) on our toes.

Through watching Elaine Stritch at Liberty on television and later online, I came to learn of the character for which she is perhaps best known: Joanne from Stephen Sondheim's musical comedy: Company.  Her signature song Ladies Who Lunch remains on my Iphone play list -- and my friend Bryan and I will randomly reference the lyrics to this classic in our many online chat sessions and text messages.  Our phrase of approval?  "I'LL DRINK TO THAT!"

As the entertainment world mourns the loss of this amazing talent, I must thank her for the lessons she taught her audiences --- not just through the characters she portrayed on stage and screen, but through the intimacies of her life which she shared in a very open way in numerous interviews and documentaries.  From discussing candidly her own fears and hangups -- how she constantly had to work to overcome them -- to her life long struggle with alcoholism (though she admits she had a great deal of fun thanks to the booze!), to boldly sharing her feelings on aging and diabetes.  She let the world know that everyone - no matter who they are or what they do -- has to deal with fear.  You just have to move on.  "As my husband used to say, everyone has a sack of rocks to carry."

So here's to the Ladies who Lunch -- and to Elaine Stritch!  Everybody rise!!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Perfectly - Percolated - Pot - of Coffee

Some people are hardcore coffee drinkers.  It's as if their mothers had fed them coffee in their baby bottles instead of formula.  For me, although I loved the smell that wafted from my Dad's coffee can of Folgers, I could never get into drinking the famous morning elixir.... until I had to. 

I have always been a tea enthusiast.  Whether it be the frigid nights of January or the hottest evening of August, I will brew a pot (yes a POT) of tea after dinner.  For the mornings however, tea just wasn't cutting it.  Tea does not seem to give me that caffeine high that coffee produces - and despite being delicious, I needed something with a little more "octane" for my wake up time of 5:30am.  I decided it was time to MAKE myself become a coffee drinker. 

Then the question arose of how to make my coffee -- and what kind of coffee to use.  For those that know me or follow my blog, I am not a fan of modern technology.  Oh yes, I am addicted to my iphone and would be lost without my laptop and Netflix, but I prefer a time when things were done more by hand and weren't as disposable as they are now (my Iphone 5 is less than a year old and I am already seriously thinking of replacing it because I constantly have issues with it -- while my 70 year old rotary phones work as well as the day they were made).  Also being limited on counter space in my small apartment, I did not want a bulky auto-drip machine taking up valuable space.. and the ever popular Keurig machine is just way to Star Trek-like for my home which is perpetually stuck in 1947. 

The solution?  A percolator of course!! 

I had never personally seen a coffee percolator in use.  Growing up in the 80s, Mr. Coffee machines were the norm.  Through my love of old movies I was well aware of this former coffee making king which was dethroned in the 1970s thanks to the plastic auto-drip coffee revolution.   But what kind should I get?  Electric?  Stovetop?  Aluminum? Stainless steel? Glass?  How do I use one?  

I'd seen old commercials that would talk about a housewife's ability to make good coffee... but never quite understood this commentary, jokes about the wife's brewing abilities.  After all, the machine makes the coffee -- if you don't like the taste, just switch brands... why blame the wife?  It wasn't until I started using a stovetop percolator  that I realized it was very possible to make an awful pot of coffee - usually by over brewing it.

As I mentioned earlier I am not a coffee enthusiast, but have really come to look forward to my morning pot of miracle juice... that helps to keep me from killing my co-workers when I stumble into my office early in the morning.  There's something about the routine... the ritual of actually MAKING my morning coffee that I really love --- Turning the burner on -- measuring out the water for the pot - counting the table spoons of coarse (NOT fine!) ground coffee and waiting for that moment when the water starts to percolate in the glass knob... then watching the water getting darker as the coffee gets stronger.  It's like magic!!!

It surprised me how defensive and snobbish hard core coffee drinkers get about different coffee making methods. No matter what the topic is, if you are passionate about something, I guess  you're going to be very defensive of your ideas... Politics, Religion, Coffee.  It makes no difference.  When I was first learning to make coffee on the stove, I Googled "using a stovetop percolator" and found all sorts of snarky responses such as: There's no such thing as GOOD percolated coffee... and Step one, throw out the percolator.  Step two, but a Keurig.  Being a fan of all things vintage and retro - I plugged along with trial and error -- watching all sorts of youtube videos and learning all I could about the percolator.

Now I have become a wiz at making coffee in my stovetop percolator.  I feel just like Edith Bunker or Jessica Fletcher!!   After trying out many models and styles, I have settled on a neat vintage Farberware stainless steel model pictured here. It's from the 1950s and looks so cool.  I feel like a little kid as I wait for that moment the water starts to bubble and splash and love to hear the sound of it merrily perking away.  Yes, a percolator can make a very bitter cup of coffee... but if you know what you are doing, you'll have perfection in a cup!!

For all percolators, use COARSE ground coffee -- the pre-ground coffee in most stores is fine grind made for autodrop machines - which pass the water through the grounds once.  If you use this in a percolator - which passes water through the grounds multiple times - you'll end up with battery acid as it will extract WAY too much out of the beans.  You can buy whole bean coffee and either grind it at home or in the grocery store.

Keep the pot over high heat until the perking action starts -- once the water starts bubbling steadily, REDUCE the heat to low/simmer.... it won't take much to keep the perking action going.  If you have the heat turned up too high you will burn the coffee (which is where the poor housewife of yesteryear would get the blame).  Let it perk gently for 6-8 minutes on low heat until the desired strength is achieved (you can see the coffee getting darker through the glass knob on top of the pot to help determine its strength).  I personally don't like my coffee super strong, so six minutes is great for my taste -- but if you like high octane coffee.. let it brew longer.  After the coffee is done, I use a teapot warmer - a cast iron trivet with a tealight candle underneath - to keep the coffee pot warm while not on the stove. 

When done correctly, percolated coffee is delicious!!!  When making percolated coffee the right way, you'll get a smooth/rich cup of java.

For Christmas my siblings and I pitched in to buy my Dad yet another fancy Keurig coffee maker since his previous model died after two years of use.  My simple stainless steel Farberware stovetop percolator is still making amazing coffee after 60+ years... and barring me denting it or breaking the handle (which is entirely possible because I'm a klutz), it should be making many many more pots of wonderful coffee for years to come!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Through the eyes of children...

Yesterday I had my small family over to my apartment to celebrate Mother's Day.  I say small family, but when I try to cram everyone into my apartment it feels like hosting a football team.  I'm not sure how we all managed to fit into my dining room, but we did ---- only once you sat down, you had to stay there! 

My niece (2) and my nephew (5) were also there.  As my friends and family would tell you, I'm not exactly paternal.  My apartment isn't what you'd call kid friendly and I must admit... neither am I.  When God was giving out that nurturing gene that gives one the urge to get on the floor and play with kids and speak fluently in gibberish, I was too busy waiting in line for my "cranky old man" gene.   I put on my bravest front and pretended that I wasn't having mini strokes every time the kids picked up something that was sitting on a shelf or table.

My niece and nephew really are good kids - and my OCD aside, the night went very well.  My apartment has an interesting feature that everyone else but me finds fascinating.  It has a "turret room" off the living room.  It's called that because this part of the house is shaped like the turret of a castle.  Due to it's small space, angled ceilings and lack of heat in the winter... it's just used as storage for all my many boxes of... stuff.  To me it's just an attic space -- but for others it seems to be an area of intrigue.  In fact, when someone comes to my house for the first time I will politely ask my mother before they come to not include the turret room on the tour.  After all.. who shows off their messy attic when they have company over?  I slaved for hours to dust and polish the rest of the place... so don't look behind the little door off the living room to see where the real mess is hidden, please.

On the few occasions my nephew has come over I normally don't allow him into that room -- for two reasons:  1.  It's a mess in there.  2. Children break stuff (so the little voice in the back of my mind tells me).  Finally though, I relented and let Collin and Brittany go into the mysterious turret.

Collin behaved himself and left my piles of junk alone... but the kid was in amazement.  You could see and hear his imagination going at full speed.  My mother turned to me and said, "this is something he will remember for the rest of his life.".  I don't know that it will stay in his memory the rest of his life since my apartment isn't a regular part in his routine, but it got me thinking of when I was a kid and would explore the world... at least the world as I knew it... on my own.

Usually this exploration occurred at my Grandma's house.  There were two great "worlds" to explore there:  Uncle Vinny's room and the crawl space.  Like a child entering Narnia, the crawl space was a magical world hidden in the back corner of the basement...dark...and full of treasures.  Treasures left over from the "old house" (the house they had lived in a few years before I was born).  Treasures from the 50s and 60s that I am convinced helped to spark my love of anything relating to the first half of the 20th century.
Because I can remember my own explorations as a kid, I think I am all the wiser about.. and more leery of little kids.  I know your plots kids because I used to be you!  My older brother and I would constantly explore my Uncle's room -- the electric guitar tucked away under his bed, the treasure chest (yes - he literally had one!) on the night stand by his bed -- and the record albums of bands I had never heard of before (after all, he didn't have the Sesame Street Gang's Biggest Hits album...sadly). 

In my defence though, I was always very cautious when "exploring" Grandma's house.  Yes, I went into boxes I shouldn't have -- closets that were off limits (there's a joke there somewhere), but I was always very careful to preserve with the utmost care the objects I was - discovering.  For me it was like being Indiana Jones in some far off temple finding priceless artifacts of some other world. They were to be treated with care and respect.  Like Indian Jones however... there was always that element of danger lurking behind every corner... mostly Grandma who would firmly remind us when we'd present her with what we had found that: "you didn't find it, I PUT IT THERE."

Today my Uncle Vinny (whose room we routinely explored) turns 50.  Yesterday I became acutely aware that a new generation was beginning to explore the world as they knew it and using their imaginations to conjure exciting and fantastic adventures where we adults see only boxes and clutter.  Though I will still hold my breath the next time the kids come to visit -- praying that my own treasures survive their excursions as I'm sure my Uncle and Grandma did for us - I marvel at their imaginations and curiosity and remember back to a time when even a trip down to Grandma's basement could become the adventure of a lifetime!