Sunday, May 29, 2022

"Jerry, Jerry, Quite Contrary"

By Jerry Zezima

When it comes to gardening, I’m a blooming idiot. But that hasn’t stopped my wife, Sue, from enlisting my sorry services in planting vegetables, transplanting plants and making the flower beds comfy because, as I told her when we went to the landfill for some free topsoil, I work dirt cheap.

As I also told her, there’s no tool like an old tool. Which explains why, in a pathetic attempt to assist in the beautification of our little piece of earth, I was hit in the head by my own rake.

It happened when I dug a hole with a shovel, another dangerous implement whose main goal in life is to wrench my back, so I could plant a peony that I bought for Sue, not realizing that she would make me stick it in the ground.

This entailed using an iron rake to smooth out the area that would become the peony’s home. Or, rather, its temporary home. (More on this in a moment.)

The rake and the shovel must have been in cahoots because, as soon as I dug the hole, I put down the shovel and promptly stepped on the teeth of the rake, which immediately rose up to club me on the cranium.

It’s a good thing it didn’t smash my teeth, in which case I’d be dealing with roots of another kind. It’s also a wonder, considering the thickness of my skull, that the rake didn’t break, which not only was a distinct possibility but also, I told Sue, rhymes.

Naturally, she was very concerned.

“Is the rake OK?” she asked.

It survived the trauma nicely and was ready for more dirty work. But first, Sue and I went to the landfill for the aforementioned topsoil.

We hadn’t been to the odoriferous facility in a couple of years, when I took my lovely bride there for our most memorable wedding anniversary.

“This place is a real dump,” I told her.

No one can say I’m not a hopeless romantic.

This time, I brought lawn and garden bags to fill with rich, dark chocolate. Sorry, I mean soil.

“Loam, sweet loam,” I cooed.

“Just dig,” Sue snapped.

When we got back to home, sweet home, I dumped the topsoil into Sue’s vegetable garden, which was pretty seedy and needed new seeds, and smoothed it out with the rake, taking extreme caution against another physical attack.

Usually, our yard runs the botanical gamut from A (azaleas) to Z (zucchini), but this year, Sue isn’t planting the latter, which is fine with me because the only thing I would find less appetizing is poison ivy, which I’m not itching to try.

“I hope this doesn’t squash your enthusiasm,” I told Sue, who looked like she was ready to throw in the trowel.

Instead, she used it to plant herbs on the right side of the garden, hot peppers in the middle and tomatoes on the left, along with string beans and a hyacinth bulb.

“The jalapeño and cayenne peppers will blow your brains out,” said Sue, who loves them because she’s hot stuff herself.

“They couldn’t do that to me,” I replied, not even bothering to elaborate. Sue agreed anyway.

Then it was time to plant flowers, notably azaleas and peonies, for which I had to dig holes around the perimeter of the property so Sue could put them in the ground and bring them to dazzlingly colorful life.

“They’ll do well with proper watering,” said Sue, adding that it should be done from underneath, not overhead.

“What do you think happens when it rains?” I asked.

“That doesn’t count,” Sue explained.

She also said that the peony I helped plant in front, where I had the tool mishap, needed to be transplanted to the back.

“It doesn’t like where it is,” Sue said.

“Did it tell you?” I wondered.

“Yes,” Sue said, implying that she has more intelligent conversations with plants than she does with me.

So now I have to do more dirty work to make the peony happy. I hope the rake doesn’t hit me in the head again.

Copyright 2022 by Jerry Zezima

Sunday, May 22, 2022

"A Brave Grandfather Branches Out"

By Jerry Zezima

I used to think that the high point of grandparenthood was doing incredibly silly things with my grandchildren. Now I realize I am not the top grandfather anymore. That’s because I recently met one who climbs trees for a living.

Rene Funez is a happily married man with four children, four grandchildren and nerves of steel. I am a haplessly married man with two children, five grandchildren and nerves of aluminum, which is why Rene came over to my house.

He and Mario Osorio were charged — though not, thank goodness, electrically — with removing the top portion of a not-so-mighty oak whose limbs, twigs and branches were hanging over power lines in the backyard.

“Rene is 62 years old,” Mario told me after his acrobatic colleague had strapped a pair of spikes to his legs and, with a chainsaw hanging from his belt, scampered like a squirrel up the 50-foot tree. “And,” added Mario, 44, as we watched safely from below, “he calls me an old man.”

“I’m a geezer, too,” I said, noting that I am six years older than Rene, “but I could never do what he does.”

“Why?” Mario asked. “You look like you’re in good shape.”

“That’s because I do 12-ounce curls,” I answered. “But I’m petrified of heights.”

I explained that when my wife, Sue, and I moved into our two-story Colonial 24 years ago, I had to go up on a ladder to clean the gutters.

“I thought I’d end up in the gutter,” I said. “So we got gutter guards.”

Since then, I have remained on terra firma, a Latin phrase meaning, “What you will be buried in if you fall off the roof.”

“Or,” I added, “out of a tree.”

“I have to tell you a secret,” Mario whispered. “I’m afraid of heights, too. That’s why I don’t climb trees.”

“You leave that job to an old guy?” I said incredulously.

“Yes,” Mario admitted. “Rene is a lot braver than I am.”

But they work well as a team. While Rene was making like rockabye boomer on the treetop, literally going out on a limb to prune, cut and saw off potentially dangerous branches that could have fallen on electrical wires and left the entire neighborhood in the dark, Mario was the boots on the ground, easing the massive woody boughs down with ropes and pulleys.

“Watch out!” Mario warned as one big branch seemed likely to land on my noggin.

Unlike Mario and Rene, I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

“If it had hit me in the head,” I noted, “it would have splintered into a hundred pieces.”

“Your head?” Mario wondered.

“No, the branch,” I replied.

“At least you would have had some firewood,” said Mario.

“That would be pretty dangerous,” I noted.

“Why?” Mario inquired.

“Because,” I said, “we don’t have a fireplace.”

When Rene had finished, he swooped down like Batman, put down his chainsaw, took off his spikes, looked over at the logs, limbs and branches piled into a corner of the yard, and smiled modestly as I showered him with compliments.

“I feel guilty,” I told him.

“How come?” Rene wondered.

“I’m a grandfather like you, but I could never do what you do,” I said.

“God watches over me,” Rene said.

“He went to bible college,” Mario said of his sinewy co-worker.

“When he’s up in a tree, he’s closer to heaven,” I said.

Rene nodded in agreement and said, “I’m going to keep working for another five years.”

“You’ll be 67,” I pointed out.

“After he retires,” Mario suggested, “you could take his place.”

“Never,” I said. “It would be the height of folly. Besides, I’m one grandfather who is happy being a bump on a log.”

Copyright 2022 by Jerry Zezima

Sunday, May 15, 2022

"Music to My Years"

By Jerry Zezima

When I think of the legendary concerts in music history — the Beatles at Shea Stadium in New York City; Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and other rock giants at Woodstock; me as the guest triangle player for the Stamford Symphony Orchestra — the one I remember as the greatest was my granddaughter Chloe’s third-grade recorder concert, which was held recently in the cafeteria of her elementary school.

I am not the kind of person to toot my own horn — except, of course, the one in my car — but I will toot Chloe’s. Or I would if I could play it. Still, her performance deserved a Granny Award, which is named for my wife, Sue, who happens to be the maestro’s grandmother.

Sue and I were among the dozens of lucky concertgoers who included Chloe’s little sister, Lilly, a kindergartner who skipped class for the monumental event, and our younger daughter, Lauren, the girls’ mommy.

As 80 students from five classes stood on risers — Chloe was, fittingly, in the front row — I thought about my only concert appearance. It occurred about 25 years ago at the Palace Theater in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut.

Even though I am not proficient on any musical instrument — I can barely get through “Chopsticks” on the little kiddie piano in our family room — I somehow talked the Stamford Symphony into letting me play the triangle before a sellout crowd of 1,500 bemused but ultimately appreciative patrons.

Required to wear formal attire, I rented a tuxedo that made me look like a deranged panda. As the musicians were warming up and the unsuspecting ticket holders began settling into their seats, I introduced myself to the conductor, Skitch Henderson, who was Johnny Carson’s original “Tonight Show” bandleader.

“I’m the guest triangle player,” I told him.

“Do you have any experience with the triangle?” he asked.

“Only in high school geometry,” I answered. “I got a D.”

Henderson looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. Then he smiled weakly and stammered, “Have fun!”

The selection for my solo was Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeoman of the Guard.” Considering that I was sweating nervously, it should have been called “The Yeoman of the Right Guard.”

I stepped forward, triangle and beater in hand, and set off a series of dings, bings and clings for which I received rapturous applause. At the end of the concert, I got a standing ovation.

Since I figured I could never top that one magic moment, I immediately retired from my brief music career.

That’s why I looked forward to Chloe’s concert. Even though she didn’t have a solo, she was prominent enough in my eyes (and ears) to be the star of the show.

Under the direction of Lauren Anasky and with help from accompanist Rob Ozman, the kids began with a stirring rendition of “Hot Cross Buns.”

The other selections were “French Song,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Old Brass Wagon,” “Tideo,” “All Alone,” “Leapin’ Lizard,” “The Clock and the Moon,” “Starburst” and, the grand finale, “Whacky Do Re Mi,” which the children sang.

All through the performance, I concentrated on Chloe, who not only played perfectly, but wiggled and warbled wondrously.

At the conclusion of the half-hour show, the moms, dads and grandparents in the audience rose to their feet and gave the talented musicians — especially, I like to think, Chloe — a huge round of applause.

She handed her instrument back to a school staffer and greeted us with characteristic modesty. But I could envision her going on to bigger things, like playing the recorder in a legendary concert at Carnegie Hall.

If the conductor could stand the shock, I’d love to come out of retirement and be the guest triangle player.

Copyright 2022 by Jerry Zezima

Sunday, May 8, 2022

"The Grapes of Laughs"

By Jerry Zezima

With apologies to Elvis Presley, who is not taking requests these days, I’m a hunk of burning love, not only for my wife, Sue, who doesn’t always think I’m hot stuff, but for wine, which we both (Sue and I, not Elvis) really enjoy.

That’s why I took her to a cool event, “The Burning of the Vines,” at Jamesport Vineyards on Long Island, New York.

“I brought a book of matches, just in case you didn’t have any,” I told Ron Goerler, whose family has owned the vineyard for 40 years.

“Thanks,” he said as we stood outside, next to a huge pile of vines that sat in the bottom part of a stainless steel fermentation tank, “but I have some lighter fluid.”

“Is the fluid a good vintage?” I asked.

“No,” Ron said, “but the wine is.”

It’s called Thiméo, a red blend named for the son of the owners of Bossuet, the French company that makes the barrels used by Jamesport.

“I guess they have you over a barrel,” I noted.

“Are you a wine club member?” Ron asked, looking perplexed.

“Yes,” I replied. “You lowered your standards.”

Ron shook his head and smiled. Then, after igniting the vines, he addressed the several dozen people sitting at tables on the vineyard’s grounds, telling them that they could throw sticks on the fire to get rid of their troubles.

Tom Burke, a fellow wine club member, tossed in a stick, looked at his wife, Francine, and said, “She’s still here.”

Francine, a good sport, laughed heartily and said, “He’s been saying that for 56 years.”

Sue and I are relative newlyweds, being married for only 44 years, during which time Sue has frequently needed a glass or two of wine after a barrage of my stupid jokes.

JP Gamez, the winemaker at Jamesport, told us that the vines on the bonfire were from the vineyard’s winter pruning.

“I don’t like prunes,” I said, “so you might as well burn them. By the way,” I went on, “do you stomp the grapes with your feet like Lucille Ball did in that famous ‘I Love Lucy’ episode?”

“Everybody asks me that,” JP said.

“What do you tell them?” I wondered.

“I take my shoes off first,” joked JP, whose wines are delicious.

A few minutes later, we were visited by Rachel Sunday, Jamesport’s very nice director of retail events.

“Today is your day,” I noted.

“I have one every week,” said Rachel, adding that Sue is a great wine club member.

“What about me?” I asked.

“You’re a public nuisance,” replied Rachel, referring to a line on my business card. “But we’re happy to have you, too.”

Just then, I saw Angela Bucalo, lead server, wine pourer, assistant to the assistant manager and staff star.

“JZ!” she exclaimed. “Did I miss the arson?”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “it’s still going. And I brought matches.”

“You have to meet Tom and Francine,” said Angela, who brought them over to our table.

“You’re Tom,” I said, shaking his hand. “And you’re Francine.”

“You must have ESP,” Tom said.

“Actually, it’s ESPN,” I told him.

We hit it off right away. While Sue talked with Francine, I accompanied Tom to get some dessert, the sweetest part of a buffet meal.

“Here’s the key to a long and happy marriage,” Tom told me confidentially. “Whatever she says, you say, ‘Yes, dear.’ ”

“Is that why marriage is dear season?” I asked.

“Now you’ve got it,” said Tom, who retired after working for 37 years running the photo lab at The New York Times.

He told me about the time he sang a duet with Luciano Pavarotti.

“Pavarotti said, ‘Not bad for an Irishman,’ ” said Tom, who is half-Irish and half-Italian.

“I’m half-Italian and half-Martian,” I told him.

“I believe you,” said Tom, adding that he once spent two nights with Sophia Loren. “Strictly business,” Tom added. “It was a photo shoot. I gave her a signed picture. She said, ‘Do you want me a sign a picture for you?’ I said, ‘Sure, Ms. Loren.’ She said, ‘Call me Sophia.’ She signed the photo, ‘To Tom. Fondly, Sophia.’ ”

When I told Francine that Tom regaled me with the story of his two nights with Sophia Loren, she said, “I wasn’t jealous. She doesn’t have to live with him.” Then she gave me her secret to a long and happy marriage: “Be best friends first. Everything else will follow.”

All in all, my best friend Sue and I had a terrific time.

“In fact,” I said, unable to resist yet another stupid joke, “it’s been one vine day.”

Copyright 2022 by Jerry Zezima

Sunday, May 1, 2022

"The Cold Facts About Ice Cream"

By Jerry Zezima

As a journalist, I have always enjoyed getting a scoop. As an ice cream fan, I recently got a scoop that turned out to have a chilling effect:

It’s hard to eat this sweet treat when the air temperature is colder than your ice cream.

That’s the lesson I learned when I took my granddaughters Chloe and Lilly for their first ice cream outing of the season.

Also on this arctic expedition were my wife, Sue, and our younger daughter, Lauren, the girls’ mother.

According to the weather app on my phone, it was 42 degrees. But with the windchill, the nefarious meteorological gauge designed to make hapless ice cream lovers even colder, the “real-feel” temp was at the freezing mark: 32.

This did not deter Chloe, who gazed up at me with wide eyes and pleaded, “Poppie, let’s go for ice cream!”

To which Lilly added, through chattering teeth, “Come on!”

Then, in unison, they sang, “You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream!”

I felt like screaming when my nose hairs started to stiffen in the brisk breeze.

But I didn’t want to disappoint the girls, who the previous week had missed the ice cream truck’s first appearance of the year.

We were in their house when the chirpy yet annoyingly monotonous jingle rang outside.

“Poppie, the ice cream truck!” Chloe shrieked.

“Let’s go!” Lilly chimed in.

I ran outside in my stocking feet (I wasn’t actually wearing stockings, which are a lot more stylish than the smelly socks I had on) only to see the ice cream truck rounding the corner.

“No!” cried Lilly.

“Run after it, Poppie!” urged Chloe.

I didn’t want the girls to think their big, strong grandfather has tender tootsies, which is really the case, but I convinced them that I had a better chance of running down the truck — without, I fervently hoped, being run down myself — if I went back inside and put on my sneakers.

I emerged shod in shoddy shoes, which didn’t do any good because the truck didn’t seem to be returning. Still, I heard its faint song playing on the next street.

“Call for the ice cream man to come back, Poppie!” Chloe begged.

“Yell!” Lilly yelled.

I took a deep breath and, with all my hot air, shouted, “Ice cream man, come baaaaack!”

He didn’t hear me. A moment later, I saw the truck roll down an intersecting street on its way to another neighborhood.

The girls were crestfallen. I was, too, since I had a sudden hankering for a vanilla soft serve.

That’s why, when I had the chance to redeem myself and play ice cream hero (as opposed to ham and cheese hero), I said what I always say when the girls ask me for something: “Of course!”

You can’t say I’m not a strict grandpa.

So the girls and I, along with Sue and Lauren, went to a nearby ice cream parlor where Chloe and Lilly are regular summertime customers.

The only problem was that it isn’t summer. It’s spring. And it felt like winter. Or at least fall.

We had the four seasons. I’m surprised Frankie Valli wasn’t along for the ride.

Lauren and the girls got out of their car; Sue and I got out of ours. We went to the window and ordered a vanilla soft serve cone with rainbow sprinkles for Chloe; a cup of chocolate ice cream with chocolate sprinkles for Lilly; and a cup of vanilla soft serve without sprinkles (because I was driving) for yours truly.

Sue, who has ice cream for dessert every night after dinner (she puts it in the microwave for eight seconds), was too cold to order a cup. So was Lauren.

I was a tad chilly myself, even though I wore a fleece that wouldn’t have prevented a polar bear from freezing to death.

So we all piled into Lauren’s car, which had the heat on, and spooned, licked and slurped our sweet treats in the first outing of the season.

Here’s another scoop: Ice cream is always better when it’s warm enough to sit outside and eat it.

Copyright 2022 by Jerry Zezima