Feb 18, 2013

Saying Goodbye, Staying Connected

Why are you still here?  Why do you still care?  Why can't you say goodbye?

Two of my favorite people are leaving.

Joe Milazzo is a longtime friend.  I met Joe in 6th grade.  That was the year my parents pulled my sister and I out of the Coney Island elementary school we had attended and we wound up at our zone school in Gravesend, P.S. 215.  It was traumatizing, spending kindergarten through 5th grade with the same kids, the same friends, and then being traded to the local team during your farewell season.  It's tough for grown men, professionals - much tougher for an 11 year-old.  My sister cried that morning as we were ushered unceremoniously into two separate rooms of a new world filled with new faces and new challenges.  Making connections.  I was shy enough of a kid, this didn't make things much better.

Joe was one of those new faces, he was friendly and endearing and made it easy for me to fit in.  In our band class, Joe played trumpet and you could already tell that he had a knack for music.  When you're the new kid, all the cool instruments are already claimed, so I got to enjoy all the glamor and glitz of the trombone that same year.  Joe was the first kid I knew who listened to heavy metal - he lived two blocks away and would invite me over to listen to his Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot records.

As we got older, Joe and I floated in and out of each others lives.  We didn't attend the same schools after grade school, but we always ran in the same musical circles, saw each other at the same shows, came to each others to show support whenever we could.  When I started my record label in 2005, I signed Joe's band, Black Pig, to a very artist-friendly deal.  Because I wanted to work with a guy like Joe.  I've always admired his creative spirit - he's a talented painter and poet in addition to his musical endeavors.  But I've always recognized that Joe Milazzo was a good guy, too.  We signed a contract over some Peronis and a Rice Ball Special at Joe's of Avenue U and I put the Black Pig album out.  The album's title?  It Is What It Is.

This past weekend, I attended Joe's record release party in Brooklyn.  Joe's new solo album is all Joe - the recording, the production, the artwork.  He is a true DIY artist and he chose to release his album the night before he would be traveling to Cuba, where he will be spending the next two months of his life.  We shared some conversation and a few hugs, Joe told me he loved me and thanked me for how I had contributed to his passions in my own small way.  I told Joe how proud I was of him, that I admired his bravery and his Kung Fu attitude.

A few years ago, Joe went to New Orleans with just a backpack and just painted.  He was living off the land for the most part, and he'll be doing the same in Cuba.  Joe is of Cuban ancestry and wants to meet his family, discover his roots, paint.  He's also on a quest to find his grandfather's long lost paintings.  It takes a certain spirit to do that sort of thing - a romantic one - and I've never been that sort of adventurer.  I hope I will be one day, once I find someone to see the world with.  Joe reminds me of my Uncle Sal, who was always one of my favorite people on this planet.  My uncle was fascinated with genealogy - about finding out who he was, about why he was.  Before his untimely death, my uncle saw the pyramids in Egypt, zip-lined thru the jungles of Africa, went down the Nile on a raft.  He explored various parts of Italy and met a lot of our distant relatives along the way.

Before I said my final goodbye to Joe, I asked him if he would be staying in touch.  He replied that, among other things, going to Cuba was an excuse to get him away from exactly that.  Detoxing from it.  Staying connected.  Sometimes disconnecting can be the best thing you can do for yourself.  But in today's day and age - an age of social netstalking and touch-of-a-button access to virtual lives - it's a challenge for us all.  No matter your destination, it is always there.  And often, instead of bringing us closer to each other, it perpetuates the loss we're already feeling in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls.

TJ before he discovered hair products, me before I discovered I loved Scotty B.
TJ Taormina is one of my co-workers on Elvis Duran and the Morning Show.  We've known each other for ten years.  Last week, TJ asked me to step into his studio so he could share something with me.  Over the past 5 years, this has been a bit of a ritual.  "Hey Ron, can you come drop a line for this promo?"  "Hey Ron, can you sing a few bars for this thing I'm working on for my friend's birthday?"  "Hey Ron, tell me what you think of this intro I'm working on."

Last week was different.  TJ asked me to step into his studio so he could tell me he was leaving the show.  He was offered the opportunity to host his own morning show in Boston and he was taking the gig.  I was floored, but so excited for my friend.  I've always been flattered that TJ has invited me to participate in his projects, but I've been even more grateful that he has recognized my talents as an asset, even after he moved higher up on the radio food chain.  That sort of sensibility is rare in our industry and no one is more deserving of a big break than TJ.

Recently, TJ started dating someone special and she is going with him.  TJ is following his dreams and he has someone by his side to share this new experience with him, to be part of the journey.  I'm just as excited for him because of that part of it.  I told him that he had it all figured out, I told him how proud I was of him.  I told him to cherish this time in his life.  I wanted to tell him "Don't fuck it up," but that's the sort of advice a guy like TJ doesn't need to be given.

After sharing the details of his new gig, after explaining how surreal and validating what was happening to him was, we shifted gears and TJ started talking about me.  He was offering words of encouragement, telling me how talented he thought I was, how I had a lot to offer the show and how in spite of his absence, I could still thrive.  It's odd hearing someone ten years younger than you tell you that You Can Do It.  But it makes sense too.  I'm a late bloomer.  I'm just figuring it all out now.  I think TJ figured it out a long time ago.

Still, TJ is taking a big chance.  TJ is not coming back in two months.  He could have stayed a star here in Market #1, New York City.  He's a great product, a commodity - young, personable, intelligent, a student of the radio game.  He started as an intern at Z100 and he has grown leaps and bounds ahead of a lot of his compatriots, including me.  But radio is a tricky business and TJ could well easily fall on his ass up in Beantown.  No matter how bad he wants it, no matter how hard he works, this could turn out to be a misstep.  But sometimes you just have to roll the dice.  I don't think that's what will happen.  Because TJ has it all figured out, he is making a bold move and he's doing it with a clear conscience.

I didn't ask TJ to take me with him and I don't expect to fill his shoes.  I know we'll stay connected.  But I'm happy to see him go.  Because one way or another, TJ's departure is going to mean change not just for TJ but also for me, for my co-workers, for the show.  When someone makes a move on the chess board, it affects all the moves of all the other pieces, it affects their motivation.  TJ's leaving at a time where I've never been more motivated to get things right, to figure out what he's already figured out.

I'm still trying to figure out if I'm strong enough to say connected to my dog.  His separation anxiety has improved enough that I can actually go out on weekends.  But he is still a mess, a major expense.  I try to put it into perspective for my friends:  Imagine you got divorced, then your house got destroyed by a hurricane, and you decided that was the perfect time for you to adopt a baby and raise it by yourself.  That's what my Buttons experience is right now.  But I see it as just another challenge to be grateful for.  Because if I'm ever gonna have a kid, there is no better dress rehearsal than raising Buttons.  He is more than a handful, and he has been my second full-time job since my divorce.  I run him two miles every morning now and he still freaks out on the dog sitter from time to time, he still won't eat all his food, still cries when I leave, still drops a spiteful shit on the sidewalk a couple of times a week instead of going when and where I tell him to.  This is what having a baby is, except babies wear diapers instead of shitting on the sidewalk.  My dog tests my patience and my strength, and I need to be tested if I'm ever to have a family.  I need to be a man. 

It has become just another Bring It On situation.  Bring it on.  What's next?  I saw a lot of familiar faces at Joe's sendoff, and most ask how things are going, and you just go down the list - the house is still a cold hollow shell, insurance and FEMA are still trying to screw me, the dog is still crazy, dating is still uninspiring, love is still so close yet still so far.  But I always end my Ronnie Update on a positive note, just as I always seem to end my Ronnie Blog.  Because in spite of all this strife and all these problems, Ronnie is doing okay.  Ronnie still believes that this is all for a reason, that this will all get better.  Ronnie, somehow, still has hope.

At Joe's party, an old friend told me I looked like a teenager.  This guy and I barely ever cross paths, but when we do, it's just like yesterday.  We got talking about running, about how we both found it and have embraced it, how we consider it a fountain of youth of sorts, how it has played its role in my resurgence.  I've been running for almost a year now, nearly logged 1000 miles on the pavement, and it's now something I look forward to.  It never seems a chore.  When you find something that inspires you, something that you're good at, it's an unbelievable feeling.  It reminds you that finding someone that inspires you, who lifts you up and makes you a better man, is still the most important thing.

Later on at the bar, a girl I'd never met before told me I had a good spirit.  Women tell me I'm handsome now, that I have a nice body, and it fills me with confidence even when I'm not filled with any excitement for the girls.  Confidence is something I've lacked for most of my life, but no longer.  Because I feel handsome, I do have a good spirit.  I feel good about myself, I believe in myself.

Believing in myself isn't the problem anymore.  Believing in others is still difficult.  Because it's the love and affection, the support of the people in your life that can make all the difference.  But you've gotta be given the opportunity to show what you're made of, and some people rush out the door too quickly.  People enter your life and ultimately they all exit.  Some exit gracefully, some exit tragically, some are easily forgotten, there are always that one or two that are impossible to forget.

When people exit your life for a good reason, when they exit like Joe and like TJ do, it's a great feeling.  But when they exit poorly - suddenly, unfairly - how can you ever feel good about it?  Sometimes people hurt you badly on the way out.  We all have our reasons.  I have left more than one relationship because I wasn't doing my part, because even tho things were going well on the surface, I wasn't fulfilled.  I wasn't happy with the person I was.  I could have tried harder, I could have made adjustments.  But I was still lost, I was still fucked up.

But Ron....It Is What It Is.

Fuck that noise.  My kitchen sink residing in my bedroom is what it is.  Not finding a parking spot is what it is.  The weather is what it is.  Some things we can't control.  But we can control ourselves, our own destinies.  We're in charge of our lives, we're just weak.  I am so tired of it.  So tired of hearing people say, in so many words:  I'm fucked up.  He's fucked up.  She's fucked up.  That crippling acceptance that's supposed to justify your bad decisions.  How about you Get Yourself Right?  We're all flawed, man.  We're all fucked up.  Recognizing that is not supposed to be a crutch, it's not supposed to be an excuse for your mistakes.  It's supposed to be a revelation.  Do you want to stay that way forever?  Do you want to accept that bullshit from someone else and still move forward?  I tried that - for five years I tried and I wound up miserable because of it.  Shed that weight and your world will change.  Otherwise, you'll always be stuck in the mud.

The first step is becoming aware of what it is that's really holding you back.  A lot of people never wise up to it, some of us never evolve.  If you recognize what needs to change, only then can you truly be saved.  But if you recognize it, and you still don't change it, that's the most tragic thing of all.  Because you're so close.  Because self-awareness, being able to look inside yourself and be willing to take a stand, that's a gift.  Often it's someone else who enters your life and opens up your eyes to what you need to do to get right, that pushes you to the peak of the mountain rather than secretly gasping for air halfway to the top.  We can be gifts, too.  We need each other, we need help, we need support.  Very often it's love that makes us rise up, that can change the game.  But love is not enough.  Love is the flower you've got to let grow.  You can't pluck the petals and put them in your pocket, it's not the same thing.

Very few people understand the magnitude of what has happened to me this past year and they will never understand.  And that's okay.  Because it's my life, my loss, my pursuit of happiness.  I don't need anyone else to understand because I understand.  I finally understand.  It took nearly four decades, but I get it now.  I know what matters most, I knew it before the hurricane washed most of my world away.  The storm just reinforced what's most important - chemistry, self-worth, love, hope.  Not fixing all the broken stuff inside my house, rather fixing all the broken stuff inside of me.  Getting yourself right.  Staying connected to the people that matter.  Never giving up on them.  That doesn't mean things will turn out the way I want them to.  But I'm finally on the right path.  Nothing seems too daunting, too difficult.  Anything is possible.

My friends Joe and TJ are on that path, they're both inspirations.  They're doing it the right way, the honest way.  They're taking chances, pursuing their passions, making something of themselves. They're not settling.  The minute you settle for less than you deserve, you get even less than you settled for.

If I've learned anything from all this recent devastation, it's that it's never too late to get your shit together.  Before the heartbreak, before the hurricane, I had a decent little life - good job, money in the bank, record label, house, dog.  But I was broken, I was still a coward when it came to certain things.  I'm no longer afraid, and if I can be brave, you can too.  Say goodbye to the worst parts of yourself and you'll never have to say goodbye to the things you want the most in this life.  It's not as hard as you think it is.  You just have to do it.

So do it.

Feb 7, 2013

Don't Blame Yourself

I lost it yesterday.  Broke down in front of two of my co-workers, my friends.  I held back on the train ride in.  Barely.  But by the time I got into work, two hours later than I had planned to arrive, I could no longer keep it together.  My relationship is on its last legs, and I have the hurricane to blame.  I have circumstance, timing, The Way My Life Turned Out to blame.  And of course, I have myself to blame.  But just like with everything else that has happened in my life these past two years, everyone keeps telling me this:  What's done is done.

Don't Blame Yourself.

I've done my share of screaming and crying at work these past few years, behind those soundproof glass doors and in my boss' office.  Most of it was about my ex-wife.  I remember breaking down in Elvis' office the first time I knew I needed to get out of my marriage, the first time I dropped the D-bomb out loud.  My boss and I don't hang on the weekends, we're not best buddies.  But somehow he has been there through this whole mess, a blessing and a savior, and a kind ear.  My co-workers have borne witness to these tough times in my life, and I sense that strange combination of pity and admiration whenever I'm around them.

Two months after I was hired to work on the morning show, my uncle died in a car wreck.  I was married a month later.  Two years after that, I was ready to pull the plug.  That's when the first screams were heard, the first tears were shed.  That's just the way it has gone.  It was a mistake.  After the divorce, I swore aloud in a co-worker's studio:  "I'm not gonna be The Damaged Divorce Guy." 

And I wasn't.  I was keeping it together.  If anything, my life was better.  Calmer.  By last summer, I was emerging from the darkness and into the light.  I was training for the NYC Marathon, I was dating a beauty, I was happy, I was healing.  And then the last five months of my life happened and I wound up worse off than The Damaged Divorce Guy could have ever imagined.  Now The Damaged Divorce Guy looks at me and wipes his brow and says "Shit, at least I'm not him."

The relationship I'm talking about, the one that brought me to tears yesterday - and not for the first time - is with my dog.  Buttons.  I've recounted my saga with my loyal Westie in this space, and since then he has taken a major turn for the worse.  I dropped 500 bucks at the vet last weekend so they could run a bunch of tests to tell me that nothing is physically wrong with Buttons.  He's the picture of perfect health, he's just nuts.

It's my dog's head and his heart that are damaged, and I suppose I can relate.  After all, my dog and I have experienced the same separations together - from people we cared about and from the house we lived in.  It has been a fucking adventure of epic proportions.

When Sandy came, it made a manageable situation quite unmanageable.  Starting right after the holidays, my dog wouldn't let me leave the apartment without wailing.  Classic separation anxiety.  Buttons has to be alone so I can go to work, so I can have a life.  A girl comes to my apartment five days a week and watches Buttons.  He has bitten her three times.  This girl's name is Ilana, she's a Park Slope hipster chick with a nose ring who loves to sketch, read comic books, listen to heavy metal and watch Law & Order.  She also loves dogs.  She's sticking with Buttons even while I consider turning him into sausages. 

But in spite of Ilana's sacrifice, I still can't deal with my dog biting people, even if he has restricted his bad behavior to when I'm not around.  It stresses me out.  So Buttons is in full-on rehab right now.  It's sink or swim for my dog, and he's on his last life preserver.  It reminds me so much of my divorce, this situation.  About how I tried everything to make my marriage work and it just didn't.  I invested more money and time into it, I preached positivity in the face of hopelessness, and in the end, I still wanted out.  It's costing me a small fortune - behaviorists, babysitters, medications, muzzles.  You try to stay patient, you try to convince yourself that this can be fixed.  Through the tears and the deep breaths, you look at it as just another obstacle that needs to be overcome.  Surviving a superstorm will put the rest of your struggles into perspective, I can tell you that.

This used to be my music studio.
Then there is the existentialist in me that sees the dog as this final piece of the shitty part of my life.  That he has to go before I can truly be reborn.  I've wrestled with this for awhile.  He's just a dog.  And that's what brings the tears, envisioning life without him.  It's another familiar feeling, feeling the void of someone's departure.  Because I love the little fucker and I want him to be okay.  I want him to emerge victorious just as I want myself to.  I feel like his only shot to be a good dog is with me in his life.  I want to do it together, I don't want to give up.

Dealing with the worst parts of my life isn't the problem, tho.  It's not sharing the best parts of my life - the running and the exercise, my adorable baby nephew, the music and the piano playing, the food and the wine - that hurts more.  It lessens their impact a little, experiencing them alone.  That vital piece that would change everything, change how all these shitty situations - the damaged house, the demented dog - could unfold, it's still missing.  Partnership.  I haven't taken a vacation in four years.  I need to have ridiculous meaningful sex on a tropical island, I need to get into a studio and scream, I need to dance close to someone, I need a fucking massage.

Instead, I cried at work, drew some more tears from the well.  I'm a sensitive guy, man.  Too sensitive sometimes.  It's just my nature, and in a lot of ways, it's also my dog's.  You can't unlearn being sensitive.  You just learn how to keep the mask on tighter and longer.  The best you can hope for during times like these is that you learn how to handle it outwardly even if your house is fucked, even if your dog is a loon, even if you still spend your days burning for someone inside.

You have to live.

Are you familiar with The Book of Job?  It's a famous Bible story in which a prosperous man is abandoned by God and loses everything.  Satan tests Job to see where his faith lies, to see how deep it truly rolls.  And in spite of losing all he once possessed, in spite of all his suffering, Job never considers God less than a homeboy.  He never reproaches the same entity that blessed him with all that is now gone.

Because blessings - life's gifts - they're fleeting, they're rare.  You can't ever take them for granted, toss them aside, or you will lose your way in this world.  Trouble will find you no matter how much you think you can avoid it.

That was me just a few short months ago, trying to set my moral compass.  Making excuses for being weak and taking the gift I was given for granted.  I was looking to be handed the answers instead of making my own.  This gift wasn't perfect, but nothing is perfect.  It still had the potential to be amazing, to be the most fulfilling part of my life.  And it was always up to me to get it right.

And I did it.  I got myself right - and it's fucking amazing how easy it has been, especially in consideration of all that God has taken away from me.  And I didn't do it because of the hurricane.  I got right because of love - because I felt like I didn't deserve it unless I felt truly worthy of it.  Maybe that's not the case.  Maybe I would have lost it no matter how good or bad a guy I truly am.  But I got right, and I've stayed right, and I believe that if and when love finds me again, I'll be worthy.

But I'm no Job.  I'm just Ron.  I have no festering sores.  That mole on the side of my head that grew to resemble a chocolate chip last summer?  It's gone.  It fell off.  The pain, the rashes in places they didn't belong?  Gone.  I'm still blessed with many things - my family, my career, my health.  So why the fuck do I deserve anything more than that?  Isn't that enough?  Doesn't that make up for the heartbreak, the wacko dog and the dark, moldy house?

Yes and no.

Because I believe that this is all a test.  Life is a test, always.  You make certain decisions that mold your destiny - you recognize the good ones and you learn from the bad ones.  I have learned from my mistakes, I have grown.  I have retired my worst habits and tempered the bad ones.  I have taken the fire of my failures and used it to fuel my spirit which in turn fuels my body.  I have dedicated myself to being a better person, a stronger man.  And I look at my suffering as an eye-opening blessing, an opportunity.  Because it could be so much worse even if it could be so much better.

So now I no longer do anything half-assed, and that includes getting my crazy dog fixed.  You can't put a Band-Aid on a bloody stump and expect it to heal.  I dedicated the first month of this year to fixing myself - looking my best, feeling my best.  I finally got through all of my Sandy-survived clothes and half of them no longer fit.  I'm a shirt-filling Medium now instead of an undersized Large, and that's perfect.  Not too big, not too small.  Just right.  When you run as much as I do, you can't afford to look like this:

Steroid user
Running keeps me sane, it's an hour-long escape from all this madness.  I lift my weights, but I want the physique of Bruce Lee.  I want to be lean, toned and flexible.  Running has cost me half of my wardrobe (who wants to go shopping??) but it has doubled my confidence.

My curl bar and my pushup bars survived the storm and I've taken that as a sign and put them to work.  I hit the gym after my runs now instead of hitting a pipe.  I eat cucumbers for lunch and edemame for dessert.  On the days I cheat, I just run harder and longer.  I'm discovering my abdominal muscles.

Now it's a new month and I'm maintaining my drive while I still struggle to turn away from love, my fickle mistress.  You can't turn it off, you can only temper it for so long before it boils over.  So you keep that mask on tight, you keep pretending that it doesn't matter even when you think it's all that matters.  You try to unlearn being who you are just so you can stay sane. 

Damn you, Leonard Bernstein.
You try to free yourself of the little hope you're hanging on to because you recognize that some things are no longer up to you.  And you've got enough shitty stories already.  So you wait for the bad news and you brace yourself to struggle with it forever.  It is what it is.  You go on dates even if your heart isn't in it because that's what you're supposed to do.  You run alone and you run like a beast.  You do more pushups and you keep being honest with yourself about who you are and what you need to get you through the day.  Maybe it's not supposed to be love.  We all second-guess ourselves, we all have our reasons.

But I don't blame myself.  I should be enough, and if I'm not, then I'm not.  I said it all, I confessed my sins, I did what I had to do.  I know what I have to offer, and if the lights ever go down behind me and the Al Green cranks up in my brain the next time a girl walks into my world, I will dedicate myself to being enough, always and forever.
But love and I are on probation.  Healing is the order of the day.  The house, the dog, my heart.  Being happy.  I'm happy with myself for the first time in a long time even if I'm not satisfied with the current circumstances in my life.  I'm finding my way, I'm turning down sex (yes, guys do that too - well...some guys), I'm taking it one day at a time.  I'm repenting.

That doesn't mean I don't feel what I feel, but they're useless feelings if they're not met halfway.  I'll wait for it to happen.  And until then, I'll keep my head as best I can.  I'll keep the faith.  Bad things happen to good people, but good things happen to them too.   In the end, God returned to Job and bestowed him with more wealth and happiness than he had before all that suffering.  There can still be a pot o' gold at the end of my shitty rainbow.

We all deserve the right to fight for our own destiny, but you have to let all the bullshit go.  You have to.  Just do the best you can.  I look in the mirror now and I don't point fingers.  I look in the mirror and I like the bald romantic idiot staring back at me.  I recognize that I'm fixed, that I'm no longer to blame for what happens next.  That I'm giving my all even when I'm struggling, with a clear conscience.  I'm pure, I'm guilt-free.  I have seen the light and I'm running in the right direction, straight towards it.

The rest will fall into place.