Friday, August 31, 2012

"Killer on the Keys"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

When it comes to pianists, only one -- goodness gracious! -- is a great ball of fire.

I refer, of course, to Jerry Lee Zezima.

With apologies to The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, who may indeed kill me if he ever finds out, I earned the name when I performed a flawless glissando in the last of the five piano lessons I took recently at Steinway & Sons in Melville, N.Y.

The crash course, “Learn to Play the EZ Way,” was developed and taught by Vince Warren, a talented musician (he also plays guitar, dulcimer and other stringed instruments) who works for Steinway.

As it said in a brochure for the class, “If your goal is to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at Carnegie Hall, this class will not get you there. However, if you would like to play popular music, jazz standards, etc., with very little commitment on your part, then this class is for you. No musical experience necessary!”

I’ve always known that the best way to get to Carnegie Hall is, of course, by taxi. You also have to practice. And be able to spell “Rachmaninoff.”

It was the part about very little commitment and no musical experience that sold me. After all, I had never played the piano, have never owned one and couldn’t even bang out “Chopsticks” or the Piano Concerto No. 3.

Still, I’ve always wanted to shoot the keys like Victor Borge, Chico Marx and, above all, Jerry Lee Lewis. So I signed up because the piano, despite being difficult to play in a marching band, is my favorite instrument.

“It’s mine, too,” Vince said at the beginning of the first lesson. “And it’s the most well-thought-out instrument. Notes you can learn to play quickly on the piano would take you months to learn on the trumpet.”

That was good news to me and my two classmates, Marguerite and Joe, a very nice married couple who drew inspiration from the fact that Vince never took formal piano lessons as a kid. Because of his teaching method, we wouldn’t have to take them as adults.

Like me, Joe had never played the piano, but he turned out to have a good ear for music. Or, as I told him, “two good ears.” Marguerite had played before on an old family piano. I was at a disadvantage because (a) I have a bad ear for music and (b) I didn’t have access to a piano to practice on.

“Don’t worry,” said Vince. “I’ll have you playing in no time.”

He wasn’t kidding. By the end of the first lesson (and helped by key guides, or “cheaters,” which line up with the piano keys), I was playing “Ode to Joy,” which unfortunately went for naught because Joy wasn’t in the class.

“Like you, Beethoven didn’t have a piano,” Vince told me. “There’s hope.”

I didn’t think so because Vince said that the key to music is math, which was my worst subject in school, if you don’t count all the others.

Amazingly, I got an A (the key of A) in Vince’s class, which costs $89.95 (email:

Using a songbook titled “Favorite Songs With 3 Chords,” we also played “Amazing Grace” (she wasn’t in the class, either) and “Londonderry Air” (which sounds like the backside of an Englishman but is actually “Danny Boy”).

The third of the five weekly sessions was a one-on-one with Vince, who told me I was doing well despite not having a piano to practice on.

Marguerite, Joe and I learned rhythmic values, rolled chords and, in the final class, glissandos, which are finger glides down the keys from one pitch to another.

When I performed mine, Vince exulted, “Jerry Lee is in the house!”

I may not be another Killer, but there was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.

Copyright 2012 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, August 17, 2012

"Taken Aback"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

I threw my back out, but the garbageman wouldn’t take it. I don’t blame him. When it comes to sore backs, I bow to no man. And if I tried, I wouldn’t be able to straighten up.

That’s what happened recently when I bent over (and not even backward) in an effort to be useful around the house. I’d just had lunch and figured I would be a good guy and do the dishes. So I opened the cabinet under the sink to get some dishwashing liquid. As I reached for it, I felt something -- possibly the insertion of a hot fireplace poker -- in my lower back.

I tried to stand erect but remained at a 45-degree angle, which I know was correct because I had haunting flashbacks to my high school geometry class. When I finally stood up straight, my throat emitted a blast not unlike that of a foghorn, which was appropriate since I’m usually in a fog.

Thus began a stretch in which I couldn’t stretch -- or sit, or stand, or walk -- without experiencing the kind of pain normally associated with childbirth or having the mortgage payment extracted from your checkbook without Novocain.

So I saw a chiropractor.

“You overstepped your kindness,” said Dr. Gary DiBenedetto of North Shore Chiropractic in Port Jefferson Station, N.Y. “This is what happens when you try to be useful around the house.”

DiBenedetto should know: He once threw his back out trying to repair his car.

“I was wrestling with some rusted bolts,” he recalled. “I got up and felt like my spine had been ripped out.”

“I’m rusty myself,” I said, “so I let a mechanic work on my car.”

DiBenedetto also remembered the time he hurt his back by jumping off the top of a mountain.

“I went to Haiti with my son on a relief mission after the 2010 earthquake,” he said. “We walked through the jungle with our volunteer group on something called the Waterfall Challenge and came to a rock ledge. It was a 30-foot drop into a waterfall. My son, who was 15 at the time, kept saying, ‘Go, Dad, go!’ So I jumped, but not straight. My butt hit the water. You don’t realize how hard water is until you land on it. I blew out my back. Here’s my professional advice: Never jump into a waterfall.”

In his 22 years in practice, DiBenedetto, 45, has heard it all.

“One guy hesitated before telling me that he hurt his back when he was in an unusual position with his wife,” he related. “I said, ‘I don’t need to know the details, but now you know what not to do next time.’ I see some crazy stuff.”

Bending over to get dishwashing liquid ranks right up there, said DiBenedetto, who put me on an adjustable table and gave me an exam.

“You have a ridge on your left side that’s higher than the right, which makes one leg shorter than the other,” he said. “That can put stress on your lower back.”

“I think the only thing that works for back pain is beer,” I said.

“Alcohol is a muscle relaxant, so you may be right,” said DiBenedetto, adding that only about 20 percent of his patients have back problems. “Many people have neck pain,” he said.

“I’m a pain in everyone’s neck,” I noted.

“I can see that,” the good doctor said with a smile. “Nerves also give people trouble, so I guess you have a lot of nerve coming here.”

Because my back felt better the day of my appointment, DiBenedetto didn’t crack it. But he did give me a brief education in chiropractic medicine. I came away from my first visit to a chiropractor with great respect for the profession.

“If you get hurt doing the dishes again, I’ll be here,” DiBenedetto said.

“Thanks, doc,” I replied. “It’s good to know you’ve got my back.”

Copyright 2012 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, August 3, 2012

"A Bunny's Garden of Eatin' "

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

A wascally wabbit is wavaging my wife’s stwaberry patch.

Sorry, it must be all those Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. What I meant to say is that a rascally rabbit is ravaging my wife’s strawberry patch.

The strawberries are the prizes in the various gardens that my wife, Sue, has planted around the house.

She would never let me plant a garden because I have a green thumb. I think it’s a fungus. I really ought to see a doctor.

In the 14 years we have lived in our house, I have killed virtually every form of flora I have encountered. It’s a good thing I don’t know anyone named Flora or I’d be in jail right now.

I once had my own herb garden in which I grew parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. (I apologize if you can’t get the song out of your head.) Herb, Sage and Rosemary had a menage a twine, which I used to tie up the tomato plants in the adjacent vegetable garden. It was pretty kinky. My deadly touch tragically put an end to their love nest.

The only thing I couldn’t kill was a humongous butterfly bush that grew about 12 feet tall and threatened to engulf the side of the house. Sue wanted me to remove it (the bush, not the side of the house), but my pathetic little handsaw had about as much effect as a plastic knife would have on a giant sequoia. So I had it chopped down by a landscaper whose name wasn’t Paul Bunyan but should have been. I played the role of Babe, not because I’m as strong as an ox but because I’m as dumb as one.

It was, therefore, a pretty risky proposition when I recently asked Sue if she needed help planting flowers. Maybe it’s because she had been out in the sun too long, but she kindly accepted.

“My Gerber daisies are doing very well,” she noted as we began our work.

“Gerber? You mean like the baby food?” I wondered. “You must have bought them in a nursery.”

I could tell that Sue regretted accepting my offer, but it was too late to do anything about it.

“I want to plant these flowers,” she said, indicating the flats on the patio, “so you have to dig some holes in the bed.”

“How will we get to sleep?” I asked.

Sue gave me a look that explained why the flowers are called impatiens.

I dutifully dug, but the holes weren’t deep enough, so Sue took the trowel and showed me the right way to do it. “You can just hand me the flowers,” she said. “I don’t want you to kill them.”

One thing that Sue trusts me to do is the watering. It is often my job to provide liquid nourishment not only for her flowers and herbs but for the strawberries in the side yard. They are sweet and succulent. Unfortunately, the rabbit thinks so, too.

“That bunny is eating all my strawberries,” Sue lamented. “I don’t know what to do.”

“Why don’t you put up a sign saying, ‘Silly rabbit, strawberries are for people’?” I suggested.

“Silly man,” Sue responded, “rabbits can’t read.”

Most mornings, when I am heading off to work, the rabbit will be sitting in the front yard, twitching its nose. Then it will look at me like I have two heads. Or one head with two very short ears.

One day I said, “Our friends have a pet rabbit named Stew.”

The bunny hopped away.

But it didn’t stay away for long. It came back later that evening, presumably for a strawberry dinner. Sue and I have actually grown fond of the little critter, so we don’t really mind sharing our bounty.

It’s a good thing I’m not responsible for the strawberry patch. The poor rabbit would starve.
Copyright 2012 by Jerry Zezima