RICKSTER IS THE COLUMNIST FOR THE WEEKLY PUBLICATION, "THE SOMERS RECORD"

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Friday, October 13, 2017

SINGING A FEW BARS BEHIND BARS

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (06-29-17)

     I'm one of those guys who thinks that too much exposure to Broadway show tunes can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, inflammation, stomach pain and blotchy skin. Please use only as directed, by a qualified stage director. Last Thursday was different. I was privileged to be among a select audience invited to hear a recital of songs performed by inmates of the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The roles were reversed, and we were the captive audience. I was curious to see if music could survive there, on a diet of frozen meatloaf and spaghetti.

     The place is a maximum security prison, so first we had to wait on line to be processed. That means we empty everything out of our pockets, and store our cellphones in a locker. Mine is still in there, but it's up for parole in six months.

     They waved us with those metal detector wands. I remember when security guards used to search you manually, and I almost got myself taken down plenty of times when I got too fidgety during the pat down. It would be so ironic to get tased for being ticklish, when there are so many other good reasons to tase me. There was no cavity search, but I had just been to the dentist the week before. After I was processed I felt a little better, like cheese but without the holier than thou attitude.

     Then it was showtime. The songs were presented in a cafe setting, which the inmates had painted and decorated themselves. They offered a sentence or two about the artist or the songwriter, and "sentence" is not a word to toss around lightly here. They belted out songs by Carole King, Johnny Cash and Leonard Bernstein. They covered "The Lion King," "Wicked" and "The Color Purple." They poked a little fun at themselves with "Ain't Misbehavin'," and provided some situationally-updated lyrics for "If I Were a Rich Girl."

     The girls were fantastic. All of them could carry a tune, although some carried it quite a bit farther than others. Judging by some of their reactions, some of the songs hit close to home, especially those about children, family and time lost. Led by Broadway veteran Anne Twomey Lloyd and ably accompanied by arranger/composer Michael Minard, they all shared a heartfelt enthusiasm, and a genuine feeling that special moments in life are found wherever you make them.

     Prison is a pretty regimented place. Every note that is sung there has to fall in line and play by the rules. You can't have quarter notes wandering around where only half notes are allowed, and you can't have a rest in the middle of a measure unless it is approved in advance. And yet even in a highly regulated environment, music rose from the auditorium. What probably seemed like growing a tree on the dark side of the moon when they started, blossomed into a magnolia by showtime.

     The program was made possible by Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a non-profit organization that runs programs in New York prisons through which inmates can express themselves through the arts and transform their lives from outwardly-based to inwardly-based.

     These are women who have done bad things in their lives, and there are those who would question why we should point resources in their direction, when so many other sectors of society go without. It's a good question, as austerity sucks the arts out of school and community budgets. The answer lies in the fact that most prison inmates eventually return to a life outside these walls. And while they are inside them, they can either learn skills that will make them better at what they did before, or they can learn self-discovery and self-worth. That choice is mostly up to us.

     If music follows these women around for the rest of their lives, it has been proven more likely that that the police will follow someone else. I'd like to thank them for an enjoyable evening, and I'd also like to thank them for not singing "Tomorrow," because you can bet your bottom dollar that I'd be singing that damn thing until somebody locks ME up and throws away the key.

Friday, October 6, 2017

LOFTY VIEWS ON A RIVER CRUISE

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (06-22-17)

     I've never gone on a cruise before because I've had recurring nightmares about all the things that could go wrong. In one nightmare I board the ship, and notice that the other passengers are wearing legionnaire's hats, there are legions of them and they all have runny noses and a persistent cough. In another the captain announces that we'll be experiencing some rough weather due to the confluence of a hurricane, monsoon and tornado occurring directly above the ship. In a third, I am singled out of the audience during the staff show and forced to wear a blonde wig and dance with a French woman to the song, "Barbie Girl."

     But I finally went, on a river cruise up the Rhine, and thank goodness none of those nightmares came true. Except the last one. And now I'm appearing in the nightmares of others. I expected to be forced to walk the plank sometime on the third day.

     I'm too cheap to travel first class, so we were in a small berth, more like a child berth, on a low level probably in between the boiler room and the cargo hold. We did have a nice big window, but it was right at sea level. You'd be surprised how many angry ducks there are on the Rhine river. We passed castle after castle, but we could only see into the basement. I could make out a dungeon, with a lot of torture devices, but it could have been a home gym.

     The castles were lovely but I don't see why they were built at all. If the Normans, for instance, came over from Norm or wherever they're from, and wanted to conquer our house, first they would complain about the driveway. Then they would raid the fridge, turn on the TV and ask, "Why does this couch smell like cat pee?"

     We boarded the boat in Strasbourg, which is the biggest city in the Alsace region of France. An Alsatian is the same as a German shephard, and that applies to all dogs and some humans. The next day we stopped in the wonderful little town of Rudesheim, overseen by the statue of Germania, which represents the unification of Germany. If you take the gondola up to the pedestal the views are breathtaking, although that might be the altitude.

     We proceeded on up the Rhine, our cameras working overtime, along with our barmaids. Greg, one of the only other Americans on the boat, noted, "Castle, church, village. Repeat as necessary."

     On the fifth day we reached our destination, Amsterdam. If you've ever been to this lovely city, and all went right, you probably don't remember a thing about it. Or so you allege. There are so many ways to get yourself killed in Amsterdam, and all of them involve crossing the street. If you can maneuver in between the bicycles and pedestrians, cars and buses, the tram suddenly appears out of nowhere and you have to dive for cover. Don't dive into the canal, because the traffic there is worse.

     Then we were off on the train to Berlin. We traveled the country of Hamburg and Frankfurt, and I got to thinking how nice it would be to get back to the States and get myself a hamburger of frankfurter. I dreamt of a REAL American breakfast. And by that I mean a Belgian waffle, French toast, a cheese Danish and an English muffin.
 

Friday, September 29, 2017

AN ELEPHANT NEVER FORGOTTEN

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (06-15-17)

  Last month the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus gave its swan song performance. Who would have bet that it all might have begun with an elephant in Stephentown (later to become Somers), New York, known as Old Bet? Certainly not Old Bet, walking along carrying a full trunk, quietly thinking, "Dude, I'm not that old."

     Her owner, Hachaliah Bailey, was a farmer who heard about the elephant while he was at a bar. Perhaps you heard of it too: two elephants walk into a bar, with a priest, a rabbi and a parrot. I haven't got time to explain it all, but take my word for it, the parrot has the best line of the story. Anyway, Hachaliah bought the elephant for $1,000, so the story goes, not the one with the parrot, thinking that it would do twice the work of an ox on his farm. As it turned out, the elephant became such a sensation that he ended up exhibiting the animal for money, and purchased other exotic beasts, possibly monkeys and bears, to add to his collection.

     Together they formed a touring "menagerie," and these menageries became very popular in the 1800s. They were the precursor to the modern circus, and Somers became thought of as the "Cradle of the American Circus." It would have been nice to be called the "Birthplace of the American Circus," but another city took that name first. They also took "Jungle Gym of the American Circus" and "Diaper Bag of the American Circus."

     Although Barnum and Bailey circus impresario James Bailey wasn't related to Hachaliah, his name was. James was an orphan who was given a job by Hachaliah's nephew, and eventually took his name, probably when he wasn't looking. The circus grew into an American institution, with many facets and incarnations. But the public's fascination with elephants never wavered.

     When the time came that tastes changed and people became concerned for the welfare of circus animals, revenue dropped. The circus' days were numbered, and now that number is up, after 146 years.

     Imagine the types of skills that are now available to be re-assimilated into the work force. What jeweler wouldn't want a ringmaster in his shop? Sure, he already has guys who know about rings, but have they MASTERED them? What about hiring a contortionist for your business? You can stick him inside a box, and he'll let you know if you are thinking outside of it. If you're running a local fire department, get yourself a fire eater and don't feed him for a couple of days. A fourth grade teacher in the New York City public school system with experience as a lion tamer could prove invaluable.

     And then there are the clowns. I was a class clown for many years, but never pursued it as a profession. Many people did, and now clowning is not a career path anymore. Specifically WHERE will these people clown, or will they just clown around? Will there be an overabundance of circus performers at children's parties, or will they simply run for Congress?

     Closing the circus is also a game changer for people running away from home. To have no circus to run away to is the worst news for any kid who doesn't live in a mobile home. If you run away from a mobile home, a potential embarrassment awaits you if you find it parked next to you 20 minutes later.

     I once ran away from home, although I didn't actually run, I sort of moseyed away from home. I packed up my belongings in case my parents wanted to rent out my room the next day. I did it to take a stand- my father wanted to cut my hair. You may think that a haircut is not much of a reason to leave home, but you haven't seen my father's haircuts.

     So let's raise a glass to the sword swallowers, the jugglers the trapezers, the knife throwers, and the original fat lady, Old Bet. The fat lady has sung. And now if you'll excuse me I have to go work out with my trainer. She's teaching me to balance a ball on my nose.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

DANCING AROUND THE TRUTH

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (06-08-17)

     Once every month a Somers eatery transforms itself into a drinkery AND dancery- It's Disco Night! I try to attend if at all possible. The turnout is good, and I can at least expect to see a few other poor souls there born under the Eisenhower administration, and even some from the Roosevelt administration. If anyone in my rock band knew I secretly like disco music I'd be kicked out in two seconds, so keep it under your hat.

     Dancing itself has a point of diminishing returns. You want to be competent enough not to hurt other people, but sometimes it looks like people are trying too hard to impress, instead of just flowing with the music. I was watching this one gal, and she was so fluid and effortless. I was thinking that she had great punctuation; she knew where to put a comma and she knew where to put an exclamation point, and sometimes she just shook her asterisk.

     Usually it's four or five girls dancing together, and some poor sap will try to infiltrate the perimeter. I think to myself (since it's inconvenient to think to others), good luck dude- I've been married 30 years and it's hard enough to please one person, let alone five. Even if one of the girls kind of likes you, the other four are going to shame her out of it, unless you look like Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.

     The night wears on and everyone's latent alcoholism kicks in. Women have been drinking bright green drinks that look a lot like anti-freeze, and they're ready to go for a higher degree of difficulty. That's when I have to make sure nobody makes a dangerous dance class maneuver anywhere near my one good knee. It's never a plus-sized gal dancing out of control, or even a  multiplication-sized gal, they usually have everything moving in the same direction. It's the athletic girl who wouldn't be able to put one foot in front of the other ten times if she was asked to by a cop with a flashlight, who tries for a triple axel so close to my face.

     The DJ was pretty good, at least sometimes he played a whole song. Peoples' attention spans are so short now that they seemingly cannot sustain an entire song anymore. You don't even need a lead guitarist these days, because the DJ is going to be moving on right after the first chorus. And if you're a lead guitarist, don't give me that long face, because we don't really have time for it. You're going to have to shorten your face.

     Anyway, the DJ played that Rihanna song that I like where she finds "love in a homeless place. "Hey dopey, it's 'hopeless place!'" My wife said- I can never remember lyrics too well. If it's "hopeless place" I assume Rihanna is referring to our garage.

     Let's see... he played that "Get your sexy on" tune. I was going to do exactly that, but once I get my sexy on it's hard to get it back off again. Then the DJ took the mike and started chanting along with the song, but his diction wasn't that great and it sounded like he was singing, "I got chicken hands!"

     He played that Robin Thicke song, which consists of two chords. There are only TWO chords in the entire song, and he had to collaborate with the guy who wears the Smokey the Bear hat to write it. TWO CHORDS, and he was successfully sued for STEALING THE SONG! Did he write one chord and the guy with the Smokey the Bear hat wrote the other one?

     All through the night the waitresses are shuttling in and out, they are super efficient, really cute and all under five feet tall. There's a whole society going on down there that I know nothing about. If these girls were in charge of the government, when all was said and done, a lot more would get done.

     Then they played Sinatra's "New York, New York," and I knew that either the enchanted evening was over, or the Yankees won. When you hear that song you have to slip out quickly before somebody turns on the lights and exposes those mysteries that are better left untold.

Friday, September 15, 2017

THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (06-01-17)

     My friends Jamie and Ana invited me along to a drum circle in Katonah that they had come across on Facebook. It's diversion that has become popular due to the simple joy that people experience when they hit something that is disinclined to hit them back.

     I pictured a bunch of dudes playing the drum solo from Moby Dick on bongos, all starting at a slightly different time. But it wasn't like that at all. This group employs a West African tradition called djembe, which translates to "gather in peace." Makes total sense except for all that racket from people banging on drums.

     Our instructor Matt taught us about them. In West Africa the bongo is an antelope, not a drum. These drums are made of cherry or aspen wood, and covered with goatskin. Here's a word of caution: goatskin sounds great, but wait until it is stretched over a drum before testing it out. I tried doing paradiddles on a goat at a petting zoo, and the damn thing chased me all over the place and I had to hide under a llama. If you ARE a goat, consider leaving your skin to a drum maker upon your death, and give back to the community.

     While we're on the subject, I signed an organ donor card, but I want to make clear that not all of me should be used upon my death. Most of my organs are holding up okay, but my eyes are quirky, my knees are a disaster and you might want to stay away from my brain. If anyone wants to stretch my skin over a drum I think I'd be okay with that. While I'm alive, I don't think I'll be donating a kidney or anything, because it would be just like me to develop a kidney problem the week after I donate one, and then I will have to ring on somebody's doorbell and ask for it back with a sheepish look on my face. I do have an electric organ that I'm trying to learn how to play, and my wife has offered to donate that as soon as possible.

     Anyway, Matt taught us some simple phrases to play, using the three different sounds, a bass sound hitting the middle of the head, a tone that produces the tuned pitch of the drum, and a slap that fills in beats by hitting towards the rim.

     In Mali culture, the drums are used ceremonially, and not for communication, which was good news for me. I pictured myself drumming something entirely inappropriate, such as your daughter needs braces, and having a tribe elder come by and hit me over the head with a kudu antler or something.

     Some of us, and I'm not mentioning any names here (Rick MelĂ©n) had trouble remembering the rhythms, and so Matt had a saying: "If you can say it, you can play it." Meaning, just come up with a simple phrase to help you feel the beat. In this case, he chanted, "Please pass the chicken sandwich," and we all played along perfectly. Except that then I couldn't remember if he said "chicken salad sandwich," and then I started thinking how great chicken parmesan would be for dinner. After everyone else ended I had about 13 extra beats while I straightened out the menu. Never play the drums on an empty stomach.

     What about people who can't keep a beat? I knew a gal who used the rhythm method of birth control and she had six kids. But Matt said that everyone has a sense of rhythm at its most basic form: your heartbeat. If you can't get THAT together, you're probably not going to live long enough to pass the chicken sandwich.

Friday, September 8, 2017

A DOG DAY AFTERNOON

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (05-25-17)

     Two weeks ago Gidget and I attended the 12th Annual Dog Walk and Pet Fair at FDR Park in Yorktown. The event was billed as a fund-raising event for dogs of all shapes and sizes, but most of the participants were dog-shaped. Gidget is the feisty, impertinent, gorgeous, 45-pound, natural redheaded actress that I've been seen around town with. You can see her in her starring role in "Gidget Gets a Package" on YouTube.

     We arrived a little late, and fell into the procession of canines and their friends strolling the perimeter of the park. As we were walking the parade route I noticed that a fire hydrant along the way was running. It was running as fast as it could, and the last I saw of it it was headed towards the Taconic Parkway.

     We made it to the main tents and sponsor area, where there were many vendors and booths. There were people selling dog accessories, dog tattoos (not sure if the tattoos were for you or the dog), "dog sports and training (not sure if the training was for you or the dog)," and all kinds of treats (these were for the dog, I found out the hard way).

     There was a real estate booth there, I'm not sure why, but if you get home and find that your dog has entered into contract on your house, at least you'll know how it happened.

     Of course the SPCA was sponsoring adoptions of many fantastic animals. Many people there had taken in dogs, from the SPCA or other shelters and rescue operations, which is certainly commendable. I was turned down when I even tried to adopt a highway, since I told them I wanted to keep it in my garage and use it to avoid traffic at the shore.

     Everyone loved Gidget and we made a lot of friends. A cold nose in your rear end on a chilly day once would be startling enough to cause you to jump two feet into the air. When it happened 20 times in a row, the other dogs assumed Gidget was a kangaroo and gave up. It even happened to me once, I didn't turn around but I'm guessing it was a dog.

     This may offend some dogs, hopefully only small ones that I'm not as scared of: I consider every dog that is smaller than mine to be a Yorkie. I don't care much for Yorkies.
"Well, this is not a Yorkie," you say. "It's a scnipperschnoodle. It's half Schipperke, half Pekingese, half schnauzer and half noodle."
"What about the other half?"
"The other half is a cheese Danish."
"What's that in the back?"
"Trailer hitch."
"It sounds like a mutt."
"It's not- It cost $3,000 and I had it designed specifically for my needs using a questionnaire from the internet, and produced with a 3-D printer. I had to pay for it with bitcoin."
"Well, where is the origin of the breed?"
"DuPont Laboratories in Tonawanda. So it's part lab."
"It looks sturdy."
"It has on-demand 4-wheel drive, so it's great in the snow. You attach a sled to this dog and I guarantee you you'll never see either the dog or the sled again."
"How's its disposition?"
"Dreadful. You have kids? Your kids won't even know it has a horrible disposition if they're not old enough to know what a disposition is. They'll just think it has an awful personality, and you're good to go. By the way, my mother-in-law has one, too."
"A scnipperschnoodle?"
"No, an awful personality."

Friday, September 1, 2017

SOMETHING MY MOM BROUGHT UP

SPECIAL TO THE SOMERS RECORD (05-18-17)

     I was just thinking of something my Mom once brought up: ME! I consider it one of her greatest achievements, not because of how I turned out, but because in spite of it, people who knew her thought the world of her. Everyone has a story like that, and last Sunday we got a chance to remember them. Without Mother's Day, would any of the other Days have been born?

     Let me tell you what my Mom had to put up with: Quite a bit. She was the one standing in between me and my father, who usually wanted to slap me for something I did. My Mom usually wanted to slap me for something else I did, and it must have cost her plenty to defend me so often.

     Not every mom would put up with a kid who played the drums. I would practice in the basement, and if she needed to get my attention she would turn off the basement lights. I wondered if she would use the same technique if I was practicing axe juggling.

     Parent-teacher night was another shame she had to endure. I discovered early in my academic pursuits that the academia that I was trying to pursue was moving quite a bit faster than I did. The teachers always tried to convince her that I had a lot of untapped potential as a student, but she finally had to admit that maybe they might have been mistaken on that one.

     I used to try to thank her with a Mother's Day gift, but even though I am great at giving gifts, I will admit that I am horrible at picking them out. I would get her a box of my favorite candy, and if she was on a diet, I could make the gift even more valuable by taking it with me when I left.

     Sometimes we would take her out to dinner, and once we went to a ritzy restaurant in Chappaqua. My Mom lived through the Great Depression, when they ate dust bunnies as a snack. We are not fancy people. So when the waiter tooktwenty minutes just to seat us, refold our napkins, move our silverware around and re-style our hair, we were already in a precarious state. Then my Mom's dinner finally arrived, and the waiter uncovered it with a giddy flourish, and it resembled a hot dog, and we realized we may be in a Martin Short skit.

     My Mom eventually said that she didn't need a gift, she just wanted to spend a little time with me. I thought the perfect thing might be for us to mow my lawn together. But I realized that even though I wanted to spend a little time with my Mom, I didn't want to spend ANY time with my lawn, and if you've ever met my lawn you'd know why.

     It was only after my Mother died that I realized I'd been shortchanged in my inheritance. I have five siblings and I jealously wondered if they received more than I did. I'm not talking about money, I'm not talking about things. I'm talking about DNA. I could use a little bit more of what she had: patience, gentleness, friendliness, empathy and the ability to smile through just about anything. If I were half the woman she was I'd be two-foot eight, look better in a skirt and be a little bit more well-adjusted.

     Every man, woman and beast has a story about their mom. Even a horse remembers that his mom was a nag, and used to scold, "Don't be a foal!" and "Cut out that horseplay!" How many sons received that warning, "Get down from there, you'll break your neck!" How many daughters heard those words, "If they told you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do that, too?" Or, "I'm doing this for your own good." It's only decades later that we found out she was usually right. So to all the moms out there, thank you again for all that you do. And to the idiot who didn't get down from there, and DID break his neck, thanks for ruining it for the rest of us.