Tuesday, December 27, 2016

CONNECTION



         On a bright morning, a man could be seen driving west along I-287. He crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge that spanned the broad Hudson and continued to Route 303 where he turned south. After the small village of Blauvelt, he left the highway, drove a few blocks and pulled up in front of his destination. It was April 7th and spring was evidenced by the profusion of yellow forsythia and daffodils.
Alex Schaefer made this trip on this date for many years. He parked in front of the cemetery. The burial ground was a small one, not much larger than a square city block, backed up by a patch of woods. Alex recalled reading somewhere that the ancient Saxons called them God’s Acre. It was well maintained, set unobtrusively in a quiet neighborhood near a high school. An iron fence supported at intervals by tall stone pillars enclosed the cemetery. The burial ground was bisected by a low railing that separated the occupants by faith—Christians on their acre, Jews on theirs.
         Alex entered the open gate carrying a small bunch of daffodils and walked toward the rear of the cemetery where his father’s grave lay. There were no other visitors and only the chirping of birds disturbed the quiet. His practice was to place the flowers on the grave and then address his father. As he approached his father’s resting place, rehearsing the brief family summary he always delivered, he saw something black on his father’s grave. A blackbird or a crow he guessed, but whatever it was remained stationary as he drew nearer. The object rested on the small footstone that read “George Schaefer, 1899-1975, A Man for All Seasons”. It was a telephone! The telephone was an old-fashioned one with a shiny black handset resting on a low base with a rotary dial. He was astonished to see that a cord ran from the phone and plunged into the grave.
         Some prankster Alex presumed—a macabre joke. He looked around, half expecting to see a few high school kids in the woods or hear derisive laughter. He lifted the handset to his ear and was stunned to hear a dial tone. He dropped the handset into the cradle and stood staring at the instrument. Alex felt stupid.
Many years earlier, while hunting geese on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Alex had come upon what appeared to be a flock of geese feeding in a field. He crawled on his belly for twenty minutes hoping to get within range before they flew off, but when he stood up to shoot, there was no movement. He had been stalking a bunch of decoys. Chagrined by his faux pas, Alex was certain that unseen eyes were laughing at him. He felt ridiculous then as now.
Alex tried to pull the cord out of the grave expecting to find a cable to the woods, but the cord resisted. He picked up the handset again. The dial tone was still there. He remembered an old phone number the family had when he was young—DEfender 3-7367. On an impulse, he dialed the number. It was ringing.
“Hello?”  It was his father’s voice.
 Alex’s heart leaped in his chest. He could never forget that almost musical, professorial quality with its clear enunciation and friendly timbre. His father had been his best friend, supporting him during the difficult days of his childhood. He died taking Alex’s two sons to the circus. More than anything else, Alex wanted to speak to him. He could hear a radio in the background, Ethel Merman singing, “You’re the Tops”.
“Who’s calling?” his father asked.
“Dad, it’s Alex. Your son,  Alex. I wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday.”
“You must have the wrong number. My son is here in his room. Sorry, I can’t help you.”
“Wait. Don’t hang up.” There was a click. Alex was talking to a dial tone.
He dialed the number again. A busy signal. After a minute, he tried again. Still busy. Alex kept dialing over and over to no avail.
Finally, he dialed “O” and a voice said “Operator”.
“Operator, I’m trying to reach a number, and it’s always busy.”
“What is the number? I’ll try it for you,” she said. He gave her the number.
“I’m sorry, Sir. That number is no longer in service.”
“But I just—.” Dial tone.
Alex felt frustrated. He dialed “O” again and when the Operator came on, he said, “I’d like to speak with your supervisor.”
“One moment, Sir.” After a minute, another voice came on.
“A short time ago I was connected to a number. Then I got busy signals, and now the Operator tells me that the number is no longer in service.”
“What was the number?”
“DEfender 3-7367,” Alex told her.
After a pause, she said, “Sir, the DEfender exchange hasn’t been used for almost 40 years.”
“But I just spoke...,” Alex expostulated.
“I’m sorry, Sir. There’s nothing I can do.” Dial tone.
Incredible as it seemed, he had actually spoken a few words to his long dead father. Now, he wanted to continue. Here was a chance for him to talk to his father again, and it was being taken away from him. Alex was becoming irritated. Then he remembered another phone number his father had used, perhaps ten or more years after the first number. HAvemeyer 3-6624. His hand was trembling as he dialed it. It was ringing. Once again he heard his father’s voice. This time his father spoke a little slower. He sounded older.
“Hi, Dad,” he said. “It’s Alex. Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks, Alex. Where are you?”
Alex didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t tell his father that he was at his grave. He ignored the question.
“I’m fine, Dad. How are you?”
Someone in the room spoke to his father.
“Just a minute, Alex,” he said, but after a moment the connection was broken by the dial tone. Alex frantically redialed, but got a busy signal. He dialed the Operator again and was advised, “I’m sorry, Sir. That number is no longer in service.”
That was it. He couldn’t think of any other old phone numbers. Reluctantly he drove home in a state of depression. Alex spent the evening searching old documents trying vainly to find other phone numbers. He called his brother who was able to provide one.
“What do you need those for?” his brother asked.
“Just doing some research,” Alex said.
Alex tried calling the number his brother had given him as well as the other two old numbers, but nothing worked. Somehow he felt it had to be the phone in the cemetery.
Alex spent a troubled night filled with dreams like old family photographs. After a quick breakfast, he drove back across the river, clutching the number his brother had given him. This time he knew he would succeed. He really wanted to speak with his father again, if only to tell him all was well. He pushed the speed limit.
The day was overcast when he reached the cemetery. He walked quickly to the grave, but something was different. The phone was gone. He couldn’t believe it. He knew the phone had been there yesterday. Or had it?  Was yesterday’s experience a figment of his imagination? Was the telephone episode a fantasy?
 Alex got down on his hands and knees to examine the turf over the grave. There it was. Just behind the footstone, he saw it, a hole, about an inch in diameter, where the cord from the phone had entered the soil. It was unmistakable. He hadn’t imagined it.
Alex grew angry. It wasn’t fair. He was certain that the number his brother had given him would have connected. He got up and stood by the grave, considering what to do. A light rain began to fall.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” he said aloud. “I tried.” He turned and walked slowly back to the car.
Driving home, Alex’s thoughts vacillated like the windshield wipers. Who or what had put the phone there? And why? Was it some kind of a test?  Maybe a reward, but for what? Why me? These questions tortured Alex to the extent that he left the highway, pulled off to a quiet adjoining street and parked. The only thing he knew for certain was that after all these years he had been permitted to hear his father’s voice again. His mind vainly sought answers. He had to go back. 
At the cemetery he walked to the gravesite and stood staring at the footstone. The daffodils still lay there, but the rain was turning the topsoil of the turf into mud, and the hole where the cord had been was becoming obscured. Yet Alex was sure that the experience had been real. He even recalled the smell of the handset when he had clutched it to his face.
Alex imagined that in the infinite number of human experiences, there must be some that are beyond reason or understanding which defy explanation.
But then a thought occurred to him. If this had happened once, it could happen again. He wouldn’t tell anyone about it, but when he returned each year on his father’s birthday, there was always the possibility the phone would be there. Although it was only a taste, it was enough.
“Thanks,” he murmured to no one in particular.
Crossing the bridge, the rain stopped, and the sky was beginning to brighten. He turned off the windshield wipers with a sigh of relief.
Alex walked in his front door to be greeted by his wife.
“What happened? You’re soaking wet,” she exclaimed.
Alex kissed her.
He smiled. “Something quite wonderful,” he said.


Monday, December 19, 2016

THURSDAY NIGHTS AT BLOOMIES



December, 1965
                                            

THURSDAY NIGHTS AT BLOOMIES

It’s not that I’d never been shopping before, but now, following a divorce, I suddenly found myself involved in the intricacies of cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. At the supermarket, I had to choose cereals and detergents from a bewildering range of offerings and select produce that I was capable of cooking. Laundromats posed new problems. I vaguely recalled the dictum of separating the white from the colored. Was this a holdover from segregation? Watching my laundry go round and round in the washer, I fantasized about meeting a beautiful girl who was an accomplished laundress, a gourmet cook and a nymphomaniac devoted only to me.
Despite these challenging homemaking activities, I was still left with boring evenings. Eventually, I thought of Bloomingdales on 59th and Lex.  Thereafter, I spent every Thursday evening wandering through the aisles of that great emporium, seldom making a purchase, but perusing the offerings in Housewares, Men’s Wear and Linens.
         I like good coffee as much as the next guy, and so, when I spotted an ad in the newspaper for a coffeemaker, my interest was whetted.  Bloomingdales was offering the Instabrewer for $29.95, purported to make super coffee. The ad called to mind an excellent cup of coffee I had enjoyed years before at the old La Fonda Del Sol Restaurant in the Time-Life Building. The waiter had prepared the coffee tableside and when I complimented him on its flavor, he displayed the coffeemaker.
“It’s called the French Press,” he said with a Castilian accent. “Forty-four beans per cup.”
 The Instabrewer in the ad looked like the French Press.  I decided I would go down to Bloomingdales that very evening.
         Arriving at the Housewares Department on the 6th Floor, I showed the ad to a clerk.
“Does it really make good coffee?” I asked. Of course, I realized that the question was akin to asking a waiter if the fish was fresh. 
         “Oh, yes,” he assured me.
         “How does it work?” I inquired.
         “It’s easy,” he told me.  “You just put some ground coffee in it, pour in boiling water, wait 5 minutes and then push the plunger down. The plunger has a filter, and you know, it pushes the grounds to the bottom. That’s all there is to it.”
         “And the coffee is really good?” I persisted.
         “Yeah.”
A small group of shoppers had gathered around us, listening to our conversation with the innate curiosity typical of New Yorkers.
         “How about making me a cup of coffee with it?” I asked.
         The young man’s eyes widened with shock. “I can’t do that, sir. I’m—”
         “Sure you can,” I interrupted.
         The Floor Manager, carnation in buttonhole, approached. “What seems to be the problem?” he inquired blandly.
         “This gentleman asked me to make him a cup of coffee,” the salesman said.
As if I had asked him to cook a gourmet meal.
         “I just wanted to try some coffee with the Instabrewer,” I explained.
         The manager smiled. “Of course. By all means.” Turning to the salesperson, he commanded in an imperious manner, “Make this gentleman a cup of coffee.” The manager nodded graciously to me and the onlookers and strode away. Nearby, several clerks pointed at me whispering “company rep.”
As the salesperson scurried off, several of the shoppers asked me what was going on. I said that I was interested in the Instabrewer and wanted a demonstration.
         “Does it make good coffee?” a man asked.
         “Yes,” I said with a conviction I had yet to feel. “It makes terrific coffee.” I explained how it worked.
         “I think I want one, too,” the man said.
         “So do I,” several of the women chorused.
         I was amused by the situation. What’s going on here? I’m a college professor, not a salesman. But apparently I’m now selling Instabrewers.
         The salesman returned with an Instabrewer full of coffee and a cup. He filled the cup for me, apologizing for the lack of cream or sugar. I tasted the coffee as a connoisseur would savor a vintage wine. I was tempted to extend my pinky. The group watched in expectation.
         “Excellent,” I declared. At least three of the group enthusiastically besieged the salesman with orders for Instabrewers. I bought one, too.  

         Another evening found me back in Housewares seeking to buy an electric can opener. I waited patiently while the clerk, not the one who makes coffee, was helping a customer select some wood stain. He produced a stained sample for her inspection. 
         “This is the walnut,” he said.
The woman studied it carefully for a moment. “It’s nice,” she said hesitantly, “but . . .”
The clerk showed her another sample. “And this is the oak, again.”
         I could see that he couldn’t help adding the “again”.
“That one’s nice, too,” she wavered.        
What followed next were samples of chestnut, ebony, cherry, rosewood and maple.
The clerk sighed struggling to suppress exasperation. “These are all I have.”  
“I just don’t know,” she said.
This interchange continued for fifteen minutes. The woman picked up one of the samples, studied it, sighed and put it down, as the salesman waited. But I was growing impatient. I turned to the woman and asked, “What are you trying to stain?”
“It’s for my kitchen,” she said.
“And what’s your kitchen like?” I asked.
“It has this wooden part, sort of like a big board with copper pans hanging on it and I want to stain it.”
I had noticed some copper pots and pans displayed at a nearby counter. I grabbed a number of stain samples, took her arm, and gently led her to the display of copper pans. I held up one of the stain samples near the pans, examined it critically and then tried another. The woman watched me eagerly. When I tested the oak sample, I nodded sagely and pronounced in a judicial tone, “This is the one you want.”
The woman seemed pleased with my decision and together we marched back to the clerk where she resolutely ordered a can of oak stain and departed.
This is absurd. Now I’m selling wood stain.
The clerk thanked me profusely. “That woman has been trying to get me to make up her mind for at least two weeks. She stops in, I show her the samples and she leaves without buying anything. Thanks for helping.”

My boring evenings came to a welcome end when the departmental chairman sent Laura, an attractive young graduate student, into my laboratory for training. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love.
 Christmas came around and one Thursday evening Laura suggested, “Let’s go down to Bloomies. We can shop for each other’s Christmas presents and then meet for dinner.”
After half an hour, having considered a myriad of perfumes, baubles, bangles and beads, I made my way into the Lingerie Department. It was crowded and I stood at a counter waiting to be helped. A young woman about ten feet away was standing at the same counter. She was in her early thirties, very pretty. A counter-top rack displaying half a dozen pairs of panties caught her attention. Small lacy things. I watched as she selected a white pair and held it up for a closer look. She doesn’t look like the type for white lingerie, I mused. She turned her head towards me aware of my presence. In that instant, our eyes met and I slowly shook my head. She dropped the panties like a small child who had been caught touching a forbidden thing. She selected another, this time a black pair, held them up and deliberately looked at me, her eyes questioning. Uh-uh, she’s not the type for black either. Again, I shook my head. Dropping the black ones, she now selected a pink pair and looked directly at me, obviously wanting my reaction. Neither of us smiled. This time I nodded approval. A salesgirl approached her and the woman bought the pink pair. She quickly walked away without another glance in my direction.

I bought the black ones.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

My First Novel

           One day, about fifteen years ago, I was wondering what my father’s reaction would be to present-day technology. He was an engineer and would have been amazed by DNA, the Internet and man walking on the Moon. These musings lead me to write my first novel called Stranger in Time. Here, is a brief description of the story:

            The American Revolution is over and Daniel Rowland, a young farmer, is digging clams on a beach in Guilford, Connecticut when a strange cloud overwhelms him. He awakens in the 21st century, awed by technology and bewildered by the lightning-pace of modern life. Daniel is regarded as an imposter despite his familiarity with obscure details of colonial life. With his wife and unborn son in the distant past, Daniel lives on the fringe of society, struggling to make a life for himself. He experiences crime, murder, and medical problems. Legal complications arise when Daniel tries to reclaim his farm lost in the intervening centuries, finally getting help from a present day descendent.


            If this piques your interest, check out my website www.ellner.com for more details.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

T’ai Chi for Life
Paul D. Ellner
            My first experience with T’ai Chi was about thirty years ago on Taiwan. I was spending a month there giving a series of lectures to doctors at the major hospital in Taipei. I observed that every morning, people came into the streets in front of their homes or work places to engage in a series of exercises that looked like an Oriental dance in slow motion. I learned that these exercises were one of the Chinese martial arts, performed for health reasons rather than combat.            
            About a year ago, now in my nineties, I needed something to help my balance, which had deteriorated along with my vision loss. Having heard that T’ai Chi might be helpful, I was referred to Keith Mutch, a T’ai Chi instructor. I found Keith at the Torrington Family Kempo (TFK: 860-626-1114), a spacious studio near Lakeridge on Winsted Road. He explained the principles of T’ai Chi to me and I enrolled in his hour-long bi-weekly classes.
            Classes were small and I often had the benefit of what was essentially a private lesson. Keith patiently explained all of the movements and the breathing, which started with some gentle stretches before progressing to the actual positions called the form.
            T’ai Chi was started in the 14th-century in China. This series of exercises was developed over hundreds of years and conforms to the principles of Chinese medicine. Its benefits are physical, mental and spiritual. T’ai Chi increases range of motion, can decrease high blood pressure, improves balance and reduces the effects of stress.
            After three months of classes with Keith, Connie and I spent the winter in South Carolina where I continued to practice T’ai Chi in our apartment and even took a few private lessons. Returning to Lakeridge, I have since continued classes with Keith, to find Gail Hauss, another Lakeridge resident, as my classmate.
            Gail has been practicing T’ai Chi for years, along with classes in yoga. Yoga tends to advocate stillness, while T’ai Chi seeks constant movement.

            T’ai Chi is suitable for all ages and is particularly beneficial for seniors.  I have found that T’ai Chi helps me with meditation. It has definitely improved my balance and on a few occasions, helped me to avoid a fall. I plan to continue T’ai Chi indefinitely.