Beyond the Gym: Rediscovering Nature & Peeing in the Woods.

During almost four months of Sheltering-In-Place to contain the Corona Virus in Northern California, I’ve rediscovered natural wonders, like watching wildlife as I walk alongside a riverbank, or the simple joy of peeing in the woods.

I didn’t plan to uncover these unparalleled delights. Like most remarkable moments of epiphany, they revealed themselves spontaneously.

With gyms and virtually every form of recreation locked down during California’s comprehensive COVID closures, walking or hiking on wooded trails or along rivers was one of the few, and healthiest, options available. I found renewed pleasure in walking outside, and didn’t miss the boundless boredom of the treadmill. For years, I found it ludicrous to look at a lock-step line-up of aging Boomers, earphones hugging their heads, running nowhere as fast as they could, frantically trying to outrace death.

Even before the pandemic put pumping iron on pause, gym membership, for me, was teetering on a very narrow beam. When I lived in San Francisco and was a member of a 24-Hour Fitness near the Embarcedero — where many of SF’s homeless came to shower — I watched in amazement as one fully clothed homeless guy jumped into the hot tub, convincing me it was time to change gyms, before he could change his clothes.

Moving up to Napa County, I first joined a very classy health club in St. Helena, and then a déclassé club in Napa City. The déclassé Club — which should have been its name — met my low expectations when I noticed all the expectorating old men were using the showers as their personal spittoons. I quit the club and it went out of business a short time later.

My last gym was a gleaming, light-filled spotless place — part of the In-Shape Health Club franchise that opened in Napa with two swimming pools, one indoors and one out. Yet, even such a pristine place, couldn’t work out the rank rattiness of gym rats. A sparkling locker room quickly lost its luster, with wet towels left lumped in piles, and sinks filled with shaved hair follicles. I got tired of complaining about cleanliness: why didn’t they enforce the rule about no shoes in the steamroom? Why was the pool so dirty? Why were kids under 16 permitted in the Jacuzzi when the sign clearly said “NO.?” Why were lethargic, lard-like “water walkers” allowed to clog up the clearly marked “lap swimming lanes?” The only consistent “NO”, was that NO ONE enforced the rules.

Nor did anyone keep after the germ-generating jocks to wipe down machines as a courtesy to others, re-rack weights, or to pick up their own mess. I got tired of telling people, “your mother doesn’t work here.” After the pandemic hit, I had pathogen-packed nightmares, with mask-less musclemen panting, grunting and vaulting virus in my direction. The idea of becoming a crazed Covid Cop did not appeal to me. I was looking to reduce stress, not produce more of it.

I was enjoying my hikes in nature so much more than I ever enjoyed the gym. Unlike many fellow Corona Virus hibernators, I hadn’t gained one single pound during the closedown. So, even when the State permitted health clubs to have a limited opening, I cancelled my gym membership — the first time in more than 40 years I would be without one, something unthinkable before COVID. I was $110 per month richer, and happy to spend it on some good Napa wines. I didn’t want any more worry of wiping down every piece of equipment both before and after use.

I was free. Better yet, the outdoors were free from disinfecting wipes.

There was, however, one fundamental problem with returning to nature. After hiking for 90 minutes or two-hours, I usually needed to pee. Public restrooms were out, since most were shuttered, and those that weren’t, should have been. With the Corona Virus lurking on every touchable surface, the last thing I wanted to do was brush against a surface that others might have touched. I know I’m clean, but what are you, to paraphrase PeeWee Herman — a perfect quote for quarantine times.

At first, I abstained from drinking any water for an hour before hiking, hit the bathroom before bolting out, and dashed home when my bladder began to beckon. But, regularly hiking together with my partner for the first time in years, I enjoyed our outings more and more. I wasn’t so eager for them to end, and she was better at “holding it,” than I.

So, last month, on a beautiful trail along the Napa River, I did what I had not done in decades. I peed outside. I knew I wouldn’t make it all the way home, so I spotted an off-the-trail spot, out of the sightline of other hikers & bikers, unzipped my safari shorts, and did what came naturally. It was glorious. I urinated on some rocks, not wanting to damage any plants or trees.

I glanced over my shoulder, expecting to be busted by Officer Lockstock, the corpulent cop in the Tony Award winning show “Urinetown”, who arrested people not paying to pee. No one. No bikers, no hikers. No one. I was free to pee for free. So exhilarating.

This week, on a magnificent trail in South Napa with a canopy of Eucalyptus trees, I had to go again after hiking for nearly three miles. I picked the perfect spot, behind a huge Eucalyptus, with a tree-trunk four times my size. This time, there was a slight, delightful breeze, and the gentle zephyr entered my open zipper, making me want to pee in the woods for worlds without end. I was, like a young boy, liberated from the gym, and free to pee outdoors again.

A Father’s Day Story of Love & Betrayal.

Since my father died on May 27, 1993 — my wedding anniversary–Father’s Day has always been painful. I watched him die a difficult, drawn-out death from a carnivorous cancer which started in his prostate and spread to his spine, paralyzing him. I read him the sports section everyday for the last two weeks of his life, quoting every line of each Yankee box score, and telling him the horse-racing results from race-tracks around the country. Baseball and horse-racing were my father’s passions. He had watched Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio & Mantle play ball in the Bronx, and had winning tickets on other thoroughbreds named Affirmed, Secretariat, Native Dancer, and Seattle Slew.

A few weeks after my father’s death, my friend Jim Morgo invited me to join him at Yankee Stadium on Father’s Day. He had prime box seats behind the Yankee dugout for a Yankees/Red Sox game. Jim knew I loved the Yankees as much as he adored his beloved Red Sox, especially watching them play at the Stadium. What better way to feel closer to my father, I thought, than to be in the surroundings where we spent our sweetest hours together.

At least once a year, every August since I was 10 years old, my father was given use of the field box owned by the Pershing Square Building Corporation, his employer. Six days a week, every week, for 35 years, my father labored in the bowels of their building at 100 East 42nd Street, operating the old steam boilers, to make sure the lawyers and accountants who worked on the upper floors were comfortable.

My father knew I loved watching double-headers, and that none of the corporate executives who had first dibs on the tickets, wanted to sit in the sweltering sun on an August Sunday to watch two baseball games. For me, six solid hours of baseball was a double treat. The world consisted of nothing but baseball all day, and I had my father all to myself.

The seats I sat in on that first Father’s Day I was fatherless, were only a few rows behind where my father and I sat, year after year, inning after inning. I looked around the Stadium imagining I saw him everywhere. There he was, getting a beer, or mopping the sweat off his brow with a clean, white handkerchief. Each time I spotted an old guy with a beer belly, I thought of my father hauling his paunch up and down those flattened Stadium steps to “hit the ‘head,” as he said.

Maybe coming to Yankee Stadium so soon after my father’s death was not such a good idea, after all. I was grieving him deeply, quietly. Being there, so close to where he and I shared so many perfect moments, made me melancholy. I was in the final months of my work in Mario Cuomo’s Administration, and was depressed over conversations I knew were going on between Cuomo, George Steinbrenner, Rupert Murdoch and NYS’ Commissioner of Economic Development Vincent Tese, to move the Stadium out of the Bronx and put it on the site of the West Side Rail Yards, in mid-town Manhattan. How dare they even think about doing that, I thought. My father is here.

I sat there, drinking in the Stadium’s atmosphere, memories swirling around me like one of those tiny dust tornadoes that swept across the infield every so often. I looked at the majestic white facades towering over right field and realized what a place of peace this was for us from an otherwise chaotic life. To remain silent while the old Stadium’s future was being decided would have been to commit a sacrilege against the memory of my father.

I knew how forcefully committed the Governor was to economic development, and how the sinister George Steinbrenner was threatening to move the Yankees to New Jersey if he didn’t get a brand new ballpark in Manhattan, where he could build high-priced skyboxes for corporate oligarchs. I knew that Rupert Murdoch was exploring the possibility of building a sprawling entertainment center, including TV studios, on the site of the new Stadium. And I knew that somehow, I had to find a way to stop this from happening.

That “way” came within days of my Father’s Day visit to Yankee Stadium. I came across a copy of a scheduled secret meeting between the Governor, Steinbrenner, Murdoch and Tese with a two-word topic: “Yankee Stadium.” I knew I had to act quickly to create a public outcry to save the old Ballpark. With the forces of money and political power in New York aligned against the House that Ruth Built, I took the only route left open: I leaked the information about the “secret” Yankee Stadium meeting to New York TimesSportswriter, Richard Sandomir.

The following day, June 30, 1993, a front page story by the Times’ Ian Fisher carried a headline announcing: “Fearing Move by Yankees, Cuomo Explores Idea for a NewStadium.” The Governor was livid, and was convinced that Sandy Frucher, a former top official in the Administrations of both Gov. Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, was the source of the leak because Frucher worked for Olympia-York, a company with an interest in the Rail Yards. Sandy insisted it wasn’t him, and he was right. I was the “source close to the Governor” the New York Times quoted throughout the story.

The uproar caused by the Times story stopped the proposed move of Yankee Stadium to Manhattan, literally, in its tracks. And it bought the old Ballpark a reprieve of another 15 years, and kept the Bronx Bombers in the Bronx.

For me, I wasn’t proud of causing Mario Cuomo and Sandy Frucher some agita, but I also wasn’t about to let my pride, or anything else for that matter, get in the way of fulfilling a promise to my father: to keep the old Ballpark alive, long after he was gone.

Invisible No Longer.

We knew George Floyd before he was suffocated to death under a White cop’s knee.

We’ve seen him dozens of times on television in the faces of the Black men, and women, who were killed because of the color of their skin. 

We’ve seen him thousands of times in books, newspapers and photographs of Black men hanging from trees, or telephone polls or scaffolds; thousands upon thousands of Black men, invisible to the law.

The great writer, Ralph Ellison, saw George Floyd clearly, long before George Floyd was born, and murdered.

In his remarkable book, Invisible Man (Random House, NY, NY, 1952), Ellison chillingly depicted how White people looked right through Black men, and saw only what they wanted to see, for whatever purpose they found gratifying.   

Ellison describes it through the eyes of a college-bound, young Black man, herded into a wealthy, elite White club, to provide the inebriated rich, powerful men of a small community with some entertainment:

“  All of the town’s big shots were there in their tuxedos, wolfing down buffet foods, drinking beer and whiskey and smoking black cigars.  It was a large room with a high ceiling.  Chairs were arranged in neat rows around three sides of a portable boxing ring.  The fourth side was clear, revealing a gleaming space of polished floor.”

Ellison’s educated main character was invited to the elite gathering by the White Superintendant of Schools to be honored for his scholarship, and was told he would be able to deliver a speech.  But, first, he, and nine other young Black men had to perform.

“In those pre-invisible days, I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington…I suspected the fighting might detract from the dignity of my speech.  We were led out of the elevator through a rococo hall into an anteroom and told to get into our fighting togs.  Each of us was issued a pair of boxing gloves and ushered into the big mirrored hall…”

“We were a small tight group, clustered together, our bare upper bodies touching and shining with anticipatory sweat, while up front the big shots were becoming increasingly excited…  Suddenly, I heard the School Superintendent, who told me to come, yell, ‘Bring up the shines, gentlemen!  ‘Bring up the little shines!”

“We were ordered to get into the ring…All 10 of us climbed under the ropes and allowed ourselves to be blindfolded, with broad bands of white cloth…I felt a sudden fit of blind terror …I stood against the ropes trembling… it seemed as if all nine of the boys had turned upon me at once. Blows pounded me from all sides…A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood…”

 “Everybody fought everybody else…I heard one boy scream in pain as he smashed his hand against a ring post…The (White) men kept yelling: ‘Slug him, black boy! Knock his guts out!  Uppercut him!  Kill him!  Kill that big boy!’  When the bell sounded, two men in tuxedos lept into the ring and removed the blindfolds…”

The White men—bankers, lawyers, judges, doctors, fire chiefs, teachers, merchants and pastors—all dressed in tuxedos, now arranged for the second act of the evening’s entertainment:  two Black “boys” would fight it out, before all would get some money.

I saw the howling of red faces crouching tense beneath the cloud of blue-grey smoke…I wanted to deliver my speech more than anything because I felt that only these men could judge truly my ability…A blow to my head as I danced about sent my right eye popping like a Jack-in-the-Box and settled my dilemma…I wondered if I would now be allowed to speak…”

The tuxedoed White men stopped the fight, but only because they wanted to see one more show.  They rolled away the portable boxing ring, and set up a small square rug in the vacant space surrounded by chairs.  An emcee gave the signal for the young, Black men to “come and get your money,” a collection of gold, coins and a few crumpled bills tossed in the middle of the rug.

As told, we got around the square rug on our knees.  ‘Ready, Go!’ the emcee said. I lunged for a yellow coin lying on a blue design of the carpet, touching it …A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat.  The rug was electrified…my muscles jumped, my nerves jangled, writhed…Suddenly, I saw a boy lifted in the air, glistening with sweat like a circus seal, and dropped, his wet back landing flush upon the charged rug, heard him yell, and saw him literally dance upon his back, his elbows beating a frenzied tattoo upon the floor, his muscles twitching like the flesh of a horse stung by too many flies… his face was gray and no one stopped him when he ran from the floor, amid booming laughter.”

To ground himself against the electric shock, the young, college-bound Black man, grabbed the wooden leg of a chair being stradled by a laughing, corpulent, drunken White man and tried to topple his tormentor onto the electrified carpet.  The fat, rich, White man kicked him viciously in the chest and back onto the charged rug.

“ The chair flew out of my hand, and I felt myself going…  It was as though I had rolled through a bed of hot coals.  It seemed a whole century would pass before I would roll free, a century in which I was seared trough the deepest levels of my body to the fearful breath within me, and the breath seared and heated to the point of explosion.  It’ll all be over in a flash, I thought…  It’ll all be over in a flash.”

Life was over in a flash for George Floyd, and it seems as if several centuries of hate and abuse have exploded before our eyes, no longer invisible.  And, Black men and women are demanding to be seen. 

####

The Ball’s in Cuomo’s Court.

NYS Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Just when I was beginning to think that Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings had about run their course, that he was getting repetitive and sounding pedantic, his briefing from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange was a tour de force.

 The first five minutes of Cuomo’s briefings are always substantive, fact-based presentations with vital information about the virus and crucial updates. On the morning when the NYSE physically reopened, a surgically-masked Cuomo rang the opening bell and reported on a new low level of COVID hospitalizations, down to 200 , and a daily COVID death total down to 73–the lowest daily level of human lives lost since the pandemic began to pound New York State back in March.

Over the past week, as New York’s COVID numbers continued to trend down, NY’s Governor has filled the space before his Q & A and after his 5-minutes of facts, with stuff that was beginning to appear less urgent: a history of the Executive Mansion in Albany, a PSA competition coordinated by one of his daughters, and some replays of Rachel Maddow’s comments.

 Andrew’s stretching, I thought; maybe it’s time for someone on his staff to tell him the briefings need to be shortened, less repetitive and not frothy. We’ve accepted some of Andrew Cuomo’s personal detours of stories, family or phrases, because his presentations on the facts and actions to best combat the virus have been so damn powerful and effective. Grateful for his superb and straightforward leadership, at a time when none is coming from the national level, we’ve allowed Cuomo a few digressions. He may be repeating himself, we told ourselves, but he’s repeating the right, science-based messages and socially responsible behaviors.

However, Cuomo’s NYSE appearance was both symbolically AND substantively significant in a new and valuable way. He stressed, “how smart you are in reopening, determines how successful you are,’ and praised the leadership of the Stock Exchange for requiring people to wear masks and allowing fewer people on the NYSE floor. The market responded well to Cuomo’s intelligent optimism by closing up 500 points. It was a marked contrast to Trump’s dangerous “re-open, vaccine or no vaccine,” brainlessness, and the cruelness of the President’s “transition to greatness,” self-serving gruel.

The true brilliance in Cuomo’s COVID briefing at the Stock Exchange came in how he framed the call for building infrastructure, by coupling it with a strong case for stimulating the economy, and creating jobs, during this time of reduced use of airports, trains, and tunnels. “Now is the time to build,” Cuomo repeated. “There is no better time to build.”

It was a skilled turning of the infrastructure issue–called for by everyone and acted upon by no one–into a new WPA to help pull the country out of the worst economic tailspin since the Great Depression. Visions of FDR danced in my head, especially following Cuomo’s reference the previous week to FDR’s wheelchair kept at the Executive Mansion in Albany, and the swimming pool where a Governor Roosevelt, legs weakened by Polio, did his physical therapy.  These were visible reminders of another virus, another epidemic from earlier times, and strong symbols of the courageous way to fight back. 

Masterfully, Cuomo coupled his call to “Rebuild America” (a logical extension of the “Rebuild NY” campaign we did when his father was Governor) with his demand for Congress to repeal the limitation on the State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions which have cost NY and California billions of dollars in lost revenue—a “theft” he righteously called it.   Again, he pushed Washington to pass an urgent stimulus bill aimed directly at helping State and Local governments, and avoiding massive layoffs of First Responders, healthcare workers and teachers.

Cuomo was taking his case to the White House—at precisely the time when the number of COVID deaths in the country passed 100,000– and if Trump had any shred of hope to salvage his presidency, he would embrace Andrew’s “Rebuild America” campaign as his own, and announce he favored Cuomo’s push to repeal the limitation on SALT deductions.  

Would Andrew Cuomo force the issue? Would he repeat the winning slogan from his daughter’s PSA competition: “I wear a mask for you; you wear a mask for me,” and underscore it by wearing a mask on his visit to the White House? Or, would he allow Trump to take the lead, as long as it benefitted New York, and fill the State’s $13 billion budget gap? 

The ball is in Andrew Cuomo’s court. After his championship performance at the New York Stock Exchange, Cuomo can take a shot at the hoop from wherever he wants. Cuomo’s large, sure hands and vision for the future, coupled with his comfort in showing his compassion and love for people, remind us at each appearance, what this country has been missing, what we need, and what we want.  

Slaughterhouses 3.

Slaughterhouses 3—

Immigrant packing,

Old people stacking, 

Prisoner racking…

Slaughterhouses 3.

Viruses seeking hosts,

Humans, soon ghosts,

One breath from death

Gasping, while living,

For light, for hope.

Slaughterhouses 3—

Immigrant packing,

Old people stacking,

Prisoner racking…

Slaughterhouses 3.

Lacking air,

Stick them there,

To feed us,

To bleed for us,

To pay for…lacking air.

Slaughterhouses 3—

Immigrant packing,

Old people stacking,

Prisoner racking…

Slaughterhouses 3.

Surprise, surprise—

They fall like flies,

Flicked from rotting meat,

Or, urine soaked sheets.

Jacking, hacking in the dark.

Slaughterhouses 3

Immigrant packing,

Old people stacking,

Prisoner racking…

Slaughterhouses 3.

Tests for All in the “High Risk” Group Called Humanity.

Napa County Dept. of Public Health’s Invitation for all citizens to get tested for COVID 19.

So, we were tested for COVID-19 this week, not because we had any symptoms, but because we had the option which all should have.

The public health policy wonk in me, wanted to experience the testing process, the way I went through the HIV/AIDS testing process year after year, when I was running a national HIV/AIDS education organization, and fighting another epidemic. My mantra during my days of fighting AIDS, was “Take the Test,” the same message being used now. I took the test then, to learn what kind of fears and feelings people experienced who were being tested.

In the battle against the HIV virus, we knew that “education was our only vaccine,” and, sadly, 40 years later, it still is. Now, with testing finally available in Napa County thanks to a public health partnership with actor Sean Penn’s CORE non-profit– I needed to learn whether I was COVID positive: to discover if I was as “high risk” as my entire age group was being stereotyped. 

Additionally, the possibility exists that we can see our three granddaughters at the end of this month–the first time in 10 weeks. Sure, I know my status could change between today and tomorrow, but I felt compelled to know what my COVID status was now, and find out how high a risk I actually was.

On Monday, we called the Napa Department of Public Health to set up appointments for us to get tested. The Napa DOH worker took our pertinent info, and said we’d probably get an appointment in a few days. We did. The call came three days later, on Thursday, and Carol Villano and I were asked if we could come to the Napa Fairgrounds—where the mega-music festival BottleRock is usually held on Memorial Day weekend–within a few hours.  This year, Sean Penn’s CORE Public Health workers would be the only star attractions at the Napa Fairgrounds

We donned our masks, hopped in the car and, just a bit nervous, headed to get our COVID-19 tests. When we pulled into the Napa Fairgrounds with Carol driving, I started taking photos. The CORE worker waved at me and said “No Photos”, and I later saw the sign which prohibited photos for privacy reasons. Right next to it was another poster that read: “Take the Test,” and “Hagase el examen” in Spanish. We were the 14th car in line, and started waiting at 3:14 pm. We kept our windows up and our photo IDs on the dashboard, as we were instructed. “Hagase el examen.” It felt like the responsible thing to do.

Cars of all colors and sizes were in front of us, and adults of assorted ages were calmly waiting their turn. Not a bad wait, I thought, picturing the miles- long lines that fellow humans in desperate need of food had to endure at Food Banks across the country. Think about that the next time you hear someone complain about wearing a mask.

Car-by-car, we crawled up toward the drive-in testing tent, where four masked and heavily gowned nurses were waiting to provide free testing. Carol watched carefully to make certain the nurses changed their gloves after testing each person, and they did so methodically. Each of the nurses wore a plastic face shield, to protect them from anyone who might be carrying the virus.

The only male nurse of the group, a young volunteer named Ralph, asked us to roll our windows down, and patiently explained what he was going to do with the swabs, and how uncomfortable it might feel going up one nostril. He asked who wanted to go first. I volunteered. Getting tested was my idea, so it was the least I could do. 

Ralph asked me to keep my mask over my mouth, while he gently tried to maneuver the swab up my right nostril. He ran into my deviated septum, blocking his path, and tried the other side. It was uncomfortable, as Ralph warned it might be. I didn’t make it easy for him, scrunching up my nose and my face to help the swab slide in as smoothly as it could.

 Carol, who wasn’t so keen on getting tested in the first place, did far better. Ralph swept the swab swiftly up her nostril, and she took it without flinching. Women are so much tougher than men.

The entire COVID-19 testing trip took 50 minutes, from the moment we checked in at the drive-through site, until the moment we exited the testing tent. Like 3,000 other residents of Napa County–where 3 people have died of the virus–we were fortunate to be tested–thanks to a movie star with a conscience, not a President without one. 

Since we are asymptomatic, we were told we’d find out our COVID test results within 3 to 5 days.  Remarkably, we found out we tested “negative” within 24-hours, since the Napa County Department of Health processed all of the days’ tests immediately. I was so astounded by the speed with which the Napa County DOH gave us our test results, that I volunteered to do contract tracing for them—especially since it was not nearly as invasive as the contract tracing we did during the AIDS epidemic.

 The professionalism, outstanding quality and first rate service of the joint program between our County DOH and Sean’s Penn non-profit CORE organization, was the kind of public health service that’s a model for the country, and one which should be provided all people, regardless of symptoms, location or wealth.

Carol and I tell ourselves how fortunate we are each day; that we have food, enough money, a roof over our heads, good health, and each other. On top of all that–unlike 97% of our fellow US citizens– we had the option to be tested for this dreaded disease, which has ended the lives of nearly 90,000 people. With numbers like that, we’re all part of the same “high risk” group, called humanity.  And we know, from first-hand experience, that there’s something we can do about it.