Adventures in Loss

She was the first artist I knew. She was a painter. She made her living oil painting over the portraits my grandfather, a photographer, took in his Brooklyn studio. Their business was called Vega Photography.

She was the first chef I knew. When I was a child, her visits were hotly anticipated. She arrived bearing the gooiest and most delectable rocky road fudge you could ever imagine. Frankly, you couldn’t imagine it. Human imagination could never grasp such godly, culinary ecstasy. The fact that she made rocky road seems apropos. She always found sweetness in and around hardships.

Janet was born in Harlem. Her birthday was my half birthday. My half birthday was her birthday.

She played basketball in high school. Baller. FullSizeRender

She began dating Robert, my grandfather-to-be, when she was 18 years old. He was a photographer in the Army. They met at a dance. He drove her home. When he leaned in to kiss her, she slapped him.

Shortly thereafter, they started dating.

Shortly thereafter, Pearl Harbor was hit.

Robert was to be sent overseas, except a funny thing happened on the way to war. At the end of his final medical check-up, the doctor hesitantly asked, “Robert, I’m not supposed to ask things like this, but are you by any chance dating a girl named Janet Axelrad over in Bensonhurst?”

“I am,” Robert said. “I’m gonna marry her, and we’re gonna start a family too. As soon as I get back from the war.”

The doctor subsequently diagnosed Robert with flat feet. Accurately, I might add. Robert was never sent overseas. Instead, he remained stationed stateside, first in Colorado Springs, then in Oklahoma City, then in Kansas City. The doctor ensured that Robert could stay with Janet, which he did, marry her, which he did, and raise a family with her, which he did.

The doctor turned out to be Janet’s cousin.

As for the ship Robert was meant to deploy on?

It was torpedoed in the South Pacific and sank.

Janet married Robert at age 20, and had my father, Lee, at age 22. Four years later, she had my uncle, Cliff.

She was a first generation American, the daughter of Polish immigrants Harry and Gussie Axelrad. Harry opened and operated Cathedral Bar & Grill on Christopher Street. It is now an Italian restaurant called Gaetana’s. The floor tiles Harry laid down a century ago remain. I often wonder if he imagined his great-grandson would one day stand on those very tiles.

Harry spoke Polish, German, English, and Yiddish. The usage of Yiddish would decrease with each passing generation, though my parents never failed to tuck me in without a Schluff Gezunt. “Sleep well.”

Janet was a Modern-Orthodox Jew. She kept a Kosher kitchen. As a kid, I could never comprehend why she had so many plates.

Janet and Robert left Brooklyn for West Palm Beach in 1983, shortly before I was born.

A few years ago, I visited Robert’s sister Annette, who was still living in the Brooklyn home where Robert grew up. In the basement, I stumbled upon my grandfather’s dark room, still intact from the 1950’s. I took pieces of paper off the walls with handwritten quotes, as well as hundreds of paper scraps that I later spent a year piecing together, forming both a 19th century Dutch shipping calendar, which I kept for myself, and an early 20th century map of Brooklyn, which I had framed and gave to my father on his 70th birthday. Annette passed away and the house was demolished shortly after my visit.

My grandfather called Janet “Red.” Her big red mane was unmistakable and unavoidable. I was a perpetual disappointment to her strictly because my own red hair became increasingly brown with every passing year. FullSizeRender_1

“Where’s your red?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“Are you dyeing your hair?”

“No, Grandma.”

“Why is your hair getting so dark?”

“I don’t know, Grandma.”

“You know you really should stop dyeing it. It makes you special. Let your red come out to play.”

She never called me Michael. She called me, “My Michael.” I never knew exactly why. But I always liked the fact that she claimed some kind of ownership over me. I was in good hands.

I remember celebrating Janet and Robert’s 50th Wedding Anniversary at my older brother’s Bar Mitzvah. Robert died shortly before my Bar Mitzvah.

Unable to find a conservative temple in her area, Janet founded one herself. This is where she met her second husband, Harry Wolovitz. They were together for 5 years before he passed.

In 2010, due to declining health, Janet moved to California to be closer to my Dad. She lived in an assisted living home called Alma Via, a few doors down from the grandfathers of my friends Marissa and Jena. In her final days, she had dementia, one leg, and a tumor on her face. But she never complained. She continued to laugh. I loved her laugh. Her eyes would squint and her voice would crack and it was the cutest darn thing you ever did see.

The thing I’ll remember most about Janet is how we would look at each other from across a room. In the afternoons at Alma Via, Janet would park her wheel chair in the common area. Clusters of people in wheelchairs would surround her. While their eyes would glue to the TV screen, Janet’s eyes would gaze out the windows at the flowers and the sunshine.

Whenever I would visit her at Alma Via, I’d peek my head around the corner of the common area and stare at her until her eyes found mine. Sometimes it would take a few minutes, but it was always worth it. She would discover me, then stare at me blankly for a few moments. Then a smile would slowly creep across her face. Her eyes would twinkle. And we’d stay there for a few minutes, just smiling at each other from across a room.

The last time I saw her, we stared at each other for what felt like 50 years. Eventually I approached her.

“My Michael,” she said, slowly. “Where’s your red?”

I tapped my heart and smiled.

Then she tapped her heart and smiled.

Schluff Gezunt, Red.

____________________

Janet Axelrad Schwartz

1923-2017

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Adventures In Not Adventuring, Part II

A few years ago, I learned a very important phrase: “Treat yo’self”. Go out and ENJOY your life. Reward yourself for all that hard work. Travel has become my treat, my personal reward, my ice cream sundae. Last year, I had a three-week window snuggled between two of my biggest projects to date. This window happened to coincide with a business trip my parents were planning to South East Asia. So I bought a plane ticket and joined my folks for some much needed adventure.

I wandered the neon backstreets of Hong Kong. I took a boat around the floating villages of Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had one particularly magical day in the mountains outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. In the afternoon, I got into a water fight with four dancing elephants in a river. At sunset, a monk in a golden mountaintop temple blessed my family and me. In the evening, back at our hotel, I set up my first IRA with a (totally false) projected retirement year of 2050. I’m still not sure which of these activities was most surreal, and which had me counting my blessings more.

After a week and half with my family, I flew to Bali to meet Jesse, one of my best friends of more than 25 years. Bali had long been a dream destination of mine. Some artists have their blue period. I just wanted my Taymor period. (Julie Taymor infamously went to Bali on a fellowship after college, and ended up staying for four years. The multi-cultural mask and puppet work she developed during that time was later appropriated for Disney’s multi-billion dollar grossing stage production of The Lion King.)

Jesse and I arrived the afternoon before Nyepi, one of the largest Hindu celebrations and public holidays of the year. Nyepi is like New Years, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Yom Kippur and Burning Man all rolled into one. After our driver failed to show up at the airport, and we couldn’t reach our accommodations at Alam Shanti, Jesse and I gave in to a cab driver who had been trying to negotiate a trip with us for the previous few hours. As we drove through the streets of Denpasar on our way to the jungles of Ubud, all the roads behind us started to close. Villagers were making way for the parade of Ogoh-Ogohs, giant mythological demon statues that are used once a year in purification ceremonies throughout every village on the island. (Like Burning Man, the ritual ends with the Ogoh Ogoh’s burning to the ground. Unlike Burning Man, a grown ass man in a fur vest doesn’t try to sell you disco biscuits. )

That night, Jesse and I set out into the dark, damp jungles of the Monkey Forest, determined to find one of the street celebrations. We trekked and trekked. We were told the celebrations were over. I wouldn’t believe it, so we trekked some more, by this point completely lost in the jungle of a foreign island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Of course, right at the moment when we were about to give up hope, I spotted a glow up ahead. Jesse and I raced up and around the bend, encountering what I swear to you is the manifestation of all my wildest dreams.

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(It’s called the Bhuta Yajna ritual. Go HERE to watch it.)

The first night of any new adventure is always the best. Nothing beats IMG_0141that exhilarating sense of jumping into the complete unknown. Jesse and I found our way back to Alam Shanti with the greatest feelings of excitement, relief, and joy. At our doorstep, we found two boxes and a small note. The note read that the next day, we were not to speak, we were not to leave the property, and if we must eat, enclosed were our only rations to consume. The entire island will essentially be “closed”. I opened up my box and found a slab of dry meat crawling with ants.

It turns out that Nyepi is the Balinese “Day of Silence”. To commemorate the new year, the day is reserved for self-reflection, fasting, and meditation. And as such, anything that might interfere with that purpose is restricted. The roads are empty. The lights are out. Even the airport is closed. While it is officially a Hindu holiday, non-Hindu residents and tourists are not exempt from these restrictions.

The morning of Nyepi, Jesse needed to get a little work done, but the WiFi was down. I was itching to explore, but when I approached the gate to the property to leave, I was stared down by the Pecalang, traditional security men who patrol the streets to ensure that the prohibitions are being followed.

Jesse and I were frustrated for maybe about a minute.IMG_6656

But come on. You don’t get to plan all your adventures. Restrictions can in fact provide structure, discipline, and inspiration. And sometimes, the greatest adventures can be found in not adventuring at all.

So Jesse and I gave in fully to the day. We put away our computers and kicked off our shoes. We pulled flowers from the garden and made color stories on the tables. We read and wrote and played cards by the pool. We soaked in the sun and meditated and had staring contests with frogs. We didn’t explore, well not in the traditional sense. We weren’t productive, well not in the “adult” sense. But rest assured, experiencing Nyepi was one of the greatest treats of our lives.

Adventures In Grace

I took the long way home from work last night. Briefcase over one shoulder, camera over the other. Through the pine trees of Central Park, around the reservoir’s edge. I stumbled upon a man from out of town proposing to his soon-to-be-wife. I asked if I could capture the moment. They couldn’t stop smiling. Neither could I. I continued my long walk home.

As EB White remarked, this couple and I are members of the third kind of New York. We came here on a quest. May we always embrace New York with the intense excitement of first love. May we always absorb New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer. May we still generate heat. May we still generate light.

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Adventures In Making Montages

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I always did love a good montage. 

But to master the ancient art of monTAGing, a pupil must first gain practice with the montage’s half dumb little brother, the COLLAGE. 

Like any other suburban 12-year-old girl with a subscription to Teen Vogue, my collaging skills have evolved over the years. 

If you scroll down to Adventures In Making Sense Of Your Childhood, you’ll see some of my early work, a pop culture collage of everything 1998 that still hangs on the wall of my childhood bedroom. (I recently discovered 12 other collages hidden in the bowels of my closet – from history projects to 9-foot long homemade X-Men posters, the top THIRD of which is shown to the right.)

Over the years, I’ve taken to making collages more so for other people, whether it be taking photographs of my family and printing them on slabs of wood as a birthday gift, or photographing friends spelling out “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” word by word over many years of Hanukkah parties as an ongoing holiday card. We’ve got one more verse to go! (See below)

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(Even this past December, when a casting director suddenly asked me to put together an acting reel in less than 90 minutes for a part in a major studio film, I had no choice but to – you guessed it – make one giant montage of YouTube style silliness. It feels like I made a blooper reel for an idiot’s funeral. You can check out the Oscar worthyness HERE.

Our lives are already vivid tapestries, aren’t they? I just have a compulsion to translate and realize that notion in a visual, artistic way. I enjoy building things. I revel in the act of creation. I’m enthralled by the connection of color, tone, aesthetic, feel, mood, narrative, design, discord, direction, and placement.

I lived in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2007. I returned this month for a week and a half trip after a two-year absence. I was amazed to see how much the city has developed since I left, and in my humble opinion, how much more culturally expansive and compelling it has quickly become. On a more personal level, it was wonderful to reconnect with old friends as if little time had past. (Though it so clearly had when three friends revealed their pregnancies.)

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To adhere to the mission of this blog, and savor simply the extraordinariness of old friends, I chose not to embark on too many epic adventures. I almost went on two spontaneous trips – one to Mexico, the other to Joshua Tree – but I refrained. I know I can stay put for two minutes. I know it. So while I’m clearly working on my addiction to adventure, perhaps my addiction to MONTAGE is a healthy addiction. Like. My addiction to oxygen, you know? Especially when it produces this many smiles. So enjoy this love letter to the city of Angels from some of my SoCal pals, and Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours. 

Watch it HERE.

Adventures In Starting A Blog

My name is Mike. I am not an adrenaline junkie. But I am an adventure addict. Every day, I daydream endlessly about travel to far off places, cultural events across vast urban landscapes, and unique experiences that provide thrill, wonder, and great conversation changers when my Grandmother asks my brothers and me how soon she’s getting grandchildren. While this addiction has never felt truly detrimental to my health, unlike, say, my love for Ben & Jerry’s Blueberry Vanilla Graham Greek Frozen Yogurt, or, my hobby of ingesting knives, I think it has robbed me of something of value – finding adventure in the every day, and acknowledging wonder in the ordinary. So instead of a 12 step program, I have vowed to share 120 personal stories about every day adventure. From the hysterical to the heartwarming, from the mundane to the extraordinary. The Adventure Addict will be a compilation of short, true life stories, each presented with an accompanying personal photo. Through written and visual storytelling, it is my hope to create an interactive, engaging community – one that discovers and shares the extraordinary adventures that lie within every day life.

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

-Helen Keller

“Living on Earth is expensive, but it does include a free trip around the sun every year.”

– Unknown

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