Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ordinary People

The nervous little man with the curly hair leaned over to urge his young daughter toward the movie theater door. He looked familiar, like an uncle out of context or an old school chum from high school, aged almost beyond recognition. When I realized who it was, the smile on my face probably telegraphed a warning to him that I might say something to interrupt his clearly cherished daddy-daughter time. He smiled reluctantly, desperately, as if to plead, “Please, not now. We’re good, right?” And then Billy Crystal continued toward the theater doors on a night out in Westwood Village in California, ushering his little girl ahead of him.
Life in Brentwood was surreal at best. Movie star sightings were less frequent than one might expect, but they were invariably a jolting reminder that our culture rewards an elite few with riches and status the rest of us can hardly imagine. These ordinary people experience a lopsided familiarity with millions of television viewers who sometimes expect the relationship to be reciprocal.

It seemed wherever we went in our adopted neighborhood in 1986, the quest for stardom was tangible, either in conversation with new friends who landed a part in a daytime soap, or as evidenced by 8x10 glossies hanging just about everywhere. Even our apartment manager’s office was lined with photos of her handsome, bald, aspiring actor husband. Perhaps he thought that the world needed another Yul Brynner. Unfortunately for him, Telly Savalas and Patrick Stewart came along with the same idea. Who loves ya, baby?

An essence of star-seeking scrutiny hung in the air like a bad stench. Seated near a window at a restaurant in Santa Monica, I recall being repeatedly stared at by passersby on the sidewalk outside. Maybe I was “somebody.” It was unnerving, and as a Midwesterner unused to this Californian curiosity, I found it completely annoying.  I instantly
assumed there was dressing on my face, splashed by a frazzled Meredith Baxter-Birney, who cut in line ahead of me at the salad bar with barely an “Excuse Me” as she returned to scoop up a forgotten item for one of her twins.

The phenomenon struck closer to home as well, only a half block from our back door. We found we could walk to Baskin-Robbins if we ducked behind the parking structure that shielded us from Barrington Court. We passed this routinely on our evening walks past the house where O.J. Simpson later went on a murderous rampage. Just your usual neighborly goings-on, California style.

The consistently gorgeous weather sustained a constant craving for ice cream during the endless summer of 1986. A short line led almost to the door of the 31 Flavors. Near the tubs of ice cream stood a very tanned man with a little square head. I could almost imagine him saying, “…sometimes I just go berserk!” while his cup of rocky road was scooped from the freezer case. Tom Laughlin had put on some weight since his success in 1971 with Billy Jack.

The early days of the frozen yogurt craze attracted a more health conscious crowd.  We were no different, and the perpetually nice weather resulted in a more active lifestyle, but no less desire for sweet treats. We sat curbside in our car one evening enjoying a cup of TCBY’s finest when a guttural-voiced fellow sauntered by.

“Who does this guy think he is, Arnold Schwarzenegger?” I commented, barely looking up from my Dutch chocolate. It was. The Terminator passed by without incident, though if we had it to do over again, I would have shouted, “I’ll be back” as we drove away. I bet he never heard that. The thing is, we left and we never went back. Southern California was too much for our Midwestern sensibilities. Money makes you stupid. Fame drives you crazy. Los Angeles has lots of both.

Monday, August 4, 2014


I wasn’t always the impressive specimen I am today. It took work. During my senior year of high school our gym class had a six-week weight-training module that most of us hated. We wasted time around the free weights and Nautilus machines and dreamed of nice weather and flag football.

The final exam for our weightlifting segment was straightforward. Demonstrate improvement against a pre-test in your ability to lift various amounts at half a dozen stations. These were basic lifts like curls, bench press, military press and deadlift. I flunked.

I went home that day and bought a 220 pound weight set from a neighbor. I then set about building a weight bench out of plywood and two by fours. Thinking back on the weights I rested on that un-engineered little piece of furniture makes me shiver. I’m fortunate that by the time I outgrew it and bought a real bench I hadn’t crushed my trachea under a pile of splinters and steel. It was all very “Pumping Iron” stuff in the basement, listening to Jethro Tull and ELO while I worked out – alone.

Within six weeks I had shown remarkable improvement. The human body at age 17 is hungry for growth. Building muscle and strength is easy when you have a metabolism, motivating humiliation and all the time in the world. At school I caught my gym teacher during a moment when he wasn’t yelling at someone.

“Mister Boyle, I’ve been working out at home and was wondering if I could take the weightlifting test over?”

“That’s over,” is all he said, and looked away.

It was a testament to his inadequacy as a teacher. A missed mentoring moment, a chance to make a real difference in a student’s future. All lost. I was demoralized, but in a strange way, it convinced me that redemption was to be my own, and to continue on a path to fitness was my only option. Boyle may have wandered off to molest a cheerleader or teach Driver’s Ed, I’ll never know. But I went home and worked out harder than ever.

College is a pivotal time when many kids get really excited about fitness, or completely fall away from it. I joined the Chicago Health Club, later to be acquired by Bally’s Fitness, and have worked out at health clubs ever since. Thus it came to pass that I was on an abdominal crunch machine at the Kennedy-Cumberland Bally’s one afternoon in the early 80s. Those were the days of legwarmers and headbands. Big hair and big arms. Olivia Newton John was “Getting Physical.” Jane Fonda, Body by Jake, Denise Austin, Chuck Norris and yes, Richard Simmons were all strutting their stuff and getting rich on the new fitness craze.

The equipment used to blast abs and thighs was all over the map. Total Gym, Nordic Track, Bowflex, Nautilus and of course Susanne Somers and her thigh master. Arnold Schwarzenegger hit it big in 1982 as Conan the Barbarian. Hulk Hogan was popular among WWF fans at the time. Major wrestling events were held at the nearby Rosemont Horizon stadium, a new venue for that spectacle.

But back to the club and my abs. I sat in a black vinyl chair that stabilized my back and restrained my ankles with black vinyl rollers. I was very comfy. A stack of black weights to my right was adjusted with an inserted shiny metal pin. I selected about five little steel plates that may have totaled 50 pounds. I grabbed the two black straps over my shoulders to further secure me in place, then bent forward to isolate my stomach muscles. This brought my shoulders down and my knees up, supposedly by virtue of my abdominals. Crunch and repeat for a set of 10 to 12.

I quickly noticed that on an identical machine two stations to my right another gym warrior was mid-set, in stride with my motion, but precisely opposing my cycle, so that when my head went forward, his went back. Of particular note, the entire stack of weights on his machine was moving up and down, slamming with a clang at the bottom of the stroke, then straining under the tension of the pulleys and cables as some unimaginably strong abdominals commanded them to do their bidding.

We proceeded like this for several sets. The upper part of the Nautilus device shielded my neighbor from my prying glance. This was where they displayed illustrated instructions that showed me exactly where my muscles were being developed, and the proper steps for achieving safe and effective results. A little further down the aisle, two big-haired Newton Johns were loitering and giggling quietly, watching the other guy get out of the machine just when I did.

Now, I am not a small person at six foot one. But as I unfolded myself into a standing position the giant at the other machine continued to rise until I stared at the shoulder of his bright yellow muscle shirt. His bandana-clad head was a full head higher than mine, and the rest of him occupied a proportional, outrageously muscled six foot seven inch frame. Hulk Hogan looked big on TV, but standing next to him was absolutely intimidating. He smiled at the girls, who followed him and tried to start a conversation while he lumbered like a brontosaurus into the free weight section. I headed the opposite direction to the juice bar and drank my feelings. As I raised the plastic cup to my mouth I surreptitiously glanced down at my bicep and flexed just a little bit, then drank some more.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Dolphin Is Also A Fish - Part Two

Tank-side visits were off limits to humans after hours, by dolphin decree. They were extremely territorial animals, capable of splashing an unwelcome loiterer to a point just short of drowning. “Get away” was the clear message.

One memorable evening I sauntered over to the tank, hot and uncomfortable, looking to be splashed. The girls were docile, slowly swimming at the surface of the water in clockwise circles around the edge of the pool while I stood watching. The moon was full and the air was calm.  The only sounds were those of the gently lapping tiny waves created by the motion of the dolphins through the water, and the rising and falling of the surf in the nearby ocean. In a bold move I leaned over the edge of the concrete tank, dangling my hands in the water within reach of the two swimmers. 

As each approached I held my breath, expecting a deserved and inevitable splash. Two or three laps later, Phoenix and Ake (Ah-Kay) were still calmly swimming past my immersed hands, now rolling a quarter turn to gaze upward at my face and then swim on. A progressively more intimate relationship developed over the course of a half hour that evening. Phoenix initiated the behaviors and Ake followed suit. Their quarter turn roll became gradually more pronounced and the pace slowed as Phoenix extended her left flipper above the water's surface, first in a salute and on subsequent passes, in a sort of handshake, a touch. 

Several curious Earthwatchers silently joined me. All extended their hands toward the dolphins, touching, stroking and caressing the extended fins - firm, rubbery and wet. We watched each other, and as I gazed into their oh-so-human eyes, they seemed so much like my own that they appeared misplaced in this fishy form. I gradually became aware of the link that was broken somewhere in the ancient familial path that sent us on our separate evolutionary ways. Myths spawned by the old Samoans of reincarnated warriors in dolphin form became obvious manifestations of this kind of observation.

Soon the girls resumed their normal swimming pattern and we dropped back from the tank lest we ruin the moment with a splashy awakening. We withdrew to the moon shadows near the back of the lab and spoke in hushed tones. A second year assistant from California, a surfer, spoke for us all, saying, "dude...that was awesome!"

But that was just a hint of what was to come.

Several mornings later, daily tank-side prep and cleanup was in progress. I moved the usual research objects into place for our morning training session: beachball, surfboard, basket and Frisbee. The sun was scorching as always, and the dolphins swam leisurely in their pool. Phoenix watched me over the edge of the concrete tank, a light blue wall about four and a half feet high. Each circular pool was equipped with a central drain and a watertight access door to allow entry for cleaning when empty. The door was several steps down, with a two-foot square window for underwater viewing. That the dolphin was watching me was unusual. They tended to ignore us until appointed times for feeding, work or play. Because of this, I pretended to ignore her, relying only on my peripheral view for fear of scaring the watcher off. As minutes elapsed, water began showering lightly over my shoulders. I was being intentionally splashed, but not in the usual aggressive way. This was a gentle attempt to gain my attention.

I turned and faced my assailant, wished her good-morning and asked, “What are you up to?” Upon making eye contact, the dolphin quickly swam away as I feared she would. But she bobbed immediately to the surface of the water in the area by the underwater door, and then returned to her original position. Splashing water in the direction of the door, she dove again, disappeared under the surface, and now that I was paying attention, re-appeared, framed in the underwater window. Not only was this inordinately cute, deliberate and unprecedented, but the behavior held within it an equation that struck a chord I’d been trained to recognize: command, respond, reward.

It took several repetitions before the stupid human in this encounter understood the dolphin’s intentions.

Command: splash toward the door.
Respond: greet at the underwater window.

And with that, I walked toward the door, quickly descended the steps and met my dolphin counterpart face to face at the viewing port. All that was missing was a reward. And with that, the face behind the glass disappeared and the entire body popped above the surface of the water, extending in the “hug” position. My reward: command, respond, reward.

I’d been trained. Oh my God! The dolphin had trained me. I was a bit of a slow learner, but I eventually understood and was changed forever in my estimation of animal intelligence and my sense of place in this amazing world.

* * * * *

My month of participation was over. As the plane taxied for takeoff I paged through project literature. Nowhere were such experiences alluded to or mentioned.  Lou Herman's words echoed in my head.  “.... severely enlightened."  He knew. And now I did too.
“Like, totally better than Flipper, dude."  I laughed under my breath, gazing out the window as Diamondhead slowly receded beneath billowing white clouds as the plane headed back to Chicago. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Two Guys, One Cup

I was not quite one year old when Disneyland opened in Anaheim California in July of 1955. I was twelve by the time my family could afford to go there, the only vacation that ever took us farther than the Wisconsin Dells. We took a plane to California in August of 1967. My God, we took a plane! That was so unlike us.

Think back if you’re able, or imagine if you can’t. There was no Great America then. The Dells were just a place where you could ride the “Ducks” and watch a dog jump between towering rock formations from your vantage point on the river below. Amusement parks at that time included Kiddieland, Santa’s Village and Adventureland if you’re from Chicago. And of course the legendary Riverview Park, which closed the year we took our trip.

In the early 1960s we watched Walt Disney’s, “The Wonderful World of Color” on our black and white TV. Thinking back, I guess I filled in a lot of the colors with my imagination, or did so in hindsight after I saw the real thing. But Disneyland was heavily promoted on that show. Its construction was overseen by Walt Disney himself and was a hoped-for destination for most young baby boomers. Going there was a dream come true.

Disneyland was a day trip, lacking the on-property accommodations of the Buena Vista property that opened in Florida in 1971. So, to say I ran my parents ragged is probably putting it mildly. We had a finite amount of time to see every corner of the park, from Frontierland to the Magic Kingdom, and I wanted to see it all.

But it was in Fantasyland that I had the ride of my life.

My sister had gotten ill at dinner the night before. She wasn’t up to roller coasters or spinning rides. My parents mostly watched from a distance once they’d begun to experience motion sickness, so I had to go it alone, which I did eagerly.

The list of attractions I hadn’t ridden was growing lean by late afternoon.

“What’s that one?” I asked as I ran toward the Mad Hatter’s Teacup Ride.

The line was short, perhaps because it was intended for smaller children, or maybe because it looked too tame. But it easily accommodated adults who needed to ride with kids.

I waited for the swirling multi-colored platform to come to a stop and for riders to exit on the far side, leaving the teacup doors open behind them. I scampered to an empty cup and watched all the other vessels fill with parents and children, or small groups of older kids. I was alone. I looked longingly at my parents, willing them to join me and make the ride worthwhile. After all, each cup had a central wheel that riders gripped and turned to spin the cup. The more riders, the better the ride. Being alone pretty much guaranteed an unexciting time, if I could turn the cup at all.

I saw my parents look at each other and mumble a few words. They were still a pale shade of green. As they talked, one more rider passed through the gate. I think he may have noticed my plight and decided to do me a favor. He was a mountain of a man, a refrigerator with legs. He had a crew cut on his round head and looked like Dick the Bruiser of early professional wrestling fame. His t-shirt bulged with Muscle Beach bulk, and his neck was pretty much hidden between his shoulders and jaw. He grinned ear to ear as he entered my cup, closed the door and was seated across from me.

Dick The Bruiser
I don’t recall that he ever said a word before the door was latched shut and the rotating platform began to move. I gripped the central wheel and strained against the weight of the cup, the man and myself. I was barely able to rotate it by more than a foot or so before releasing my grip and attempting again. By that time our motion had stopped. I looked across at him as if I’d failed. He allowed only a moment to lapse before smiling and grabbing the other side of the wheel. His arms bulged as he squeezed the metal ring and began to turn it like a man possessed, a trucker out of control on a mountain slope, steering hand over hand to maximize control and momentum. No ship captain avoiding an iceberg has ever spun a wheel with more intensity or purpose.

I attempted to keep up with the motion of his Popeye-like forearms, matching his hands in a coordinated dance around the wheel, but failed almost immediately. Instead, I was thrown back in my seat by centrifugal force, plastered like pasta against the wall. He laughed like a madman now, getting an immense thrill out of the entertainment he was providing and from the ride itself. We were masters of the Mad Tea Party, spinning seemingly out of control. I saw glimpses of my laughing parents as we passed them on the periphery of the platform, rushing briefly past my dizzy gaze, a snapshot in time with each revolution. Any concern they might have had dissolved instantly as my obvious joy became apparent.

Spinning faster now, the big man mastered a rhythm that allowed him to accelerate the cup further, throwing his head back on his thick neck and bellowing in a joyful outburst that caused people passing by to stop and watch. We spun and spun and spun some more. I was helplessly held against the side of the yellow cup, my shoulders pressed against the hard shell, my hair streaming behind me. The elation I felt in the dizzying spin was the drug of childhood, the loss of control and lightness of being we leave behind as we age. I had the advantage of youthful resilience, my insides still tight within my young body, but my arms felt like concrete. Lifting them was impossible, so I just sat and laughed, and laughed some more. And then the ride began to slow.

Soon it was over. The man let out a sigh and mopped his brow with the back of his bear-like hand. I thanked him, still giggling, and we left the cup, dizzy and barely able to stand. The cute little teacups silently awaited their next victims, colorful and motionless. Meanwhile, the line for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was noticeably longer as we headed off to Space Mountain, and the big man disappeared into the crowd.