Monday, June 24, 2013

Meryl Streep, Thomas Eakins and Me

The dashboard clock reads just past 6:15 AM as I pull into the small, irregularly-shaped parking area. Some days there is a car or two already in place, but today the lot sits empty. As I strip off my t-shirt the residual morning chill raises goosebumps on my bare skin. I maneuver the cargo from the roof rack and, with arms raised high over my head as if presenting an offering to the gods, stride slowly towards the water. Then, in a refutation of Darwin, I walk out of my modern human footwear and step by step return to the eternal soup. There is a gentle “plop” as I arc my vessel onto the surface. I lower myself into the seat, reach as far forward as I can and pull. As I waft out onto the water curls of mist yield to my prow and, with only a silvery-gray heron to bear witness, I propel myself across the lake. 

Thus begins my morning row.

Rowing as a sport first registered on my consciousness during the opening credits of The River Wild, as Meryl Streep skims down the Charles River in a single scull. “That’s pretty cool,” I remember thinking. Five years later, in1999, I was in Boston in the National Tour of Cabaret and was taking advantage of the pleasant weather to spend the afternoon in Cambridge, reading a book on the bank of the Charles. I glanced up from the page as a handsome, shirtless man in black spandex shorts glided by in a skiff. As an advertisement for the sport he was most effective. “That’s for me!”, thought I.

Online, I found Bernadette Getzler, a rowing coach in Chicago, which was our next stop on the tour. Bernadette was enthusiastic, patient and, charmingly, didn’t try to hide her amusement at my audible nerves when I first attempted to get into the boat. My skittishness turned me into a sort of ZaSu Pitts on the high seas. Bear in mind, sitting on a single scull is akin to balancing on a log; one false move and you instantly flip over into the water. And the water in the Lincoln Park Lagoon, where these lessons were taking place, was the quality of a fish tank in a Chinese restaurant.

After six weeks in Chicago I was proficient enough to continue on my own when our show decamped for a month in D.C. Rowing on the Potomac under the hot summer sun past the Watergate and the Jefferson Memorial was inspiring indeed.

And there ended my sculling career for the time being.  

Rowing is thought of as a “gentleman’s sport” and that’s understandable. The equipment is expensive; a new boat can run upwards of $8,000. The oars alone cost as much as a decent kayak. It must be learned; one can’t take a 20-minute crash course and head out to the open water. Simply getting into the moveable seat takes practice. Suitable locations are limited. A broad expanse of lake or a smooth more-or-less straight river are required. My scull is typical at 27 feet long (and only 32 pounds!) so there’s no impromptu plunking into a meandering creek as kayakers are able to do. It’s no wonder the sport has long been associated with eastern Ivy League schools.

When I left the Cabaret tour I moved to the Hudson Valley. The Hudson River by me is not ideal for rowing. It can be extremely choppy and pleasure speed boats and enormous tankers traffic it regularly. But there is a lake nearby that more than suffices if, of course, one owns a boat. An expensive boat.

My Bucket List contained a modest three things, and while I’m still waiting for an extended stay in Italy to study Italian, the other two have been checked off. I did in fact build my own house and six years ago I scraped together a bit of cash and bought a used single scull. For both the boat and the oars I paid about $2,500 and, except for several summers when I was working out of town, I’ve rowed almost daily during the warm months.

I row purely for pleasure. I haven’t had a coaching since Bernadette pushed me from the nest in Chicago and I’m sure my form is atrocious. My wrists don’t stay flat, I fall short of a really extended “catch” and my spine curves more than it would on a truly fine rower. I have no intentions of competing, though, and there’s no one around to critique my stroke so I do my best to police my own form and the rest is for my own enjoyment.

The lake I frequent is just a hair’s breadth under a half-mile. It necessitates a lot of turning around, but it also makes calculating mileage a breeze. I generally row 6-8 miles every morning. Given the quiet solitude of the scene one might expect I would enjoy the silence around me, but I prefer to listen to music as I row. I program my iPod to slow the pace of my session; the faster I go the sooner I tire and I like to stay on the water as long as I’m able. I find dreamy, languorous tunes work best. Primarily classical. Debussy, of course. Ravel. “Che Gelida Manina” from Bohème is sublime. Lots of movie music. Pretty much “The Love Theme from...” anything works well. The occasional vocal shows up. Cheyenne Jackson singing Lance Horne’s “Strange Bird” moves me along quite nicely and it turns out “The Moonbeam Song” by Harry Nilsson has the perfect rowing tempo. By coincidence, its 3:23 duration is the precise time it takes to traverse the lake from one end to the other.    

Why do I love this “gentleman’s sport”? The most obvious benefits are of the physical variety. Like cross-country skiing, rowing is that rare non-weight bearing activity that exercises all the main muscle groups while simultaneously providing world-class cardiovascular results. When I row in conjunction with my normal gym routine I can consume a whole mess of extra calories with impunity. The result is that, at 52, I find myself in the best shape of my life. And that includes my brief stint as a gainfully employed adult film star. 

For me, though, the psychic dividends are equally important. An hour or so each day spent floating mere inches above the the water’s surface--back and forth and back and forth--provides a perfect opportunity to think without distractions. I ponder whatever personal issues I might have, I (literally) work off stress during my time on the lake and it’s a great opportunity to mentally develop whatever creative project I have in progress. Including this very article. Formulating an essay about rowing while rowing is surely as true an example of organic creation as one could proffer. Or I can simply enjoy my music and the incredible scenery, uninterrupted.  

Dare I say it? It restoreth my soul.  

As I make my final return pass of the morning my visual guideposts (the old dead tree on my starboard, the dock with the faded blue kayak on my port) alert me that I have to mentally reconnect with the world so I can maneuver through the narrow slot between the water lily patches into the boat launch. I swoop my boat out of the water and over my head and walk it back to the roof rack. I’m exhausted but content. As I pull out of the parking lot, in the rear-view mirror I catch a glimpse of the red travel flag billowing gaily from the stern of my boat and I’m reminded that (here it comes, folks) life is, indeed, but a dream. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Rogues Gallery

All in one place! The complete collection of my crazy Facebook profile images! I'll add to them here as they're posted on FB.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

They Won't Take That Away From Me

Five years ago the New York Times profiled me about the work I was doing flipping real estate in Greene County, New York. After working many years in show business, I discovered I had a knack for renovating a house. I’d work on one property at a time, buying modest buildings at low cost, doing all the work myself and then reselling them. Again, at reasonable prices. With the profit from one, I would buy another and start the process over. The three projects I completed sold within days of going on the market at or near the asking prices. The work was creative and challenging and I was making a living, if not a fortune.

When the Times piece came out, I was about to begin work on a nondescript tract house that I eventually transformed into a mid-century dream. “Palm Springs in the Catskills,” was how I planned to headline the listing. For $190,000--furnished--this would be the bargain of the year.

I hoped to get the house on the market by October 1, and worked ferociously throughout summer 2008 to meet that deadline. Early on the morning of September 15, I tuned my radio to NPR, and, as I applied stain to the geometric room divider I had constructed, listened to the news of Lehman Brothers’ collapse. I was mildly intrigued by this but in an abstract way; after all, my track record turning over properties was stellar and the market in my area was wonderfully robust. Really, how could this possibly affect me?    

The house went on the market September 29. A mere smattering of prospective buyers came to view it, and I never received a single offer. Throughout that winter I watched my financial situation evolve from stable to precarious to hopeless. One gray day in early spring 2009, I could no longer deny the fact that if I sold everything I owned, I still wouldn’t be able to pay my debts. There’s a word for that: insolvent.

No tears for me, though! I’m resilient. I live a simple life and I knew bankruptcy wouldn’t affect my day-to-day existence in any profound way. In the meantime, I was broke and depressed and needed a job. Friends who ran a small hotel on the Caribbean island of Saba had invited me to stay with them that summer, provided I helped with a bit of renovation. That would take my mind off things temporarily. Until then I found a part-time position at an HIV community center in Albany, and I worked there before leaving for the Caribbean. It paid little more than gas money but did wonders for my spirit. Summer on Saba paid nothing but did wonders for my tan line. 

Back from my tropical sojourn, I tried desperately to scheme and juggle my way out of my financial calamity. Surely if I refinanced this or short-sold that or negotiated down the other, I could make it all work. Alas, the math was simply not in my favor.

Spring of 2010 I initiated bankruptcy proceedings. It was somewhat demoralizing, but I kept reminding myself that corporations that do so are praised for their boldness. Shortly before my court date, Bank of America, who held the mortgage on my flip house, petitioned to separate that property from the rest of my listed debts. My lawyer said that was standard procedure to save the bank from having to wrest it from the morass later on. The judge gave his assent, the debtor discharge was granted in October 2010, and we all moved on from there.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

In early 2012 my father-in-law was preparing my taxes and asked why I was getting end-of-year statements about the flip house. Beats me, I replied, that place is long gone. He wasn’t sure that was the case and suggested I follow up on it to be on the safe side. “Being on the safe side” has never really been in my repertoire, but I understood his point and called the bank.

“How can we help you resume payments, Mr. Judson?” each new voice asked as I was transferred over and over around the globe. I explained I didn’t want to make payments, that I wanted the bank to take the property off my hands, that I had gone bankrupt. “Of course, Mr. Judson. Shall we try to work out a payment schedule together?”

Finally somebody somewhere told me my foreclosure was working its way through the system, but that it was a slow process. In the meantime would I like to plan my next payment? I hung up the phone and went in person to my local branch and filed a formal report that I had tried to get the bank to initiate foreclosure. I was being on the safe side!

March 16 of this year I received a letter from Bank of America: “Although you have missed several of your monthly payments, it is not too late to get help. Please act quickly before time runs out.”

I suppose 40-odd missed payments can safely be counted as “several.” But time running out? Methuselah should have such a surplus.

This would all be comical if not for the fact that, unlike me, there were families desperate to hold on to their homes, but the banks have refused to accommodate them, even now. “My” property’s worth and condition has deteriorated terribly. Nobody is coming out of this a winner and I can’t even fathom what lessons might be gleaned from such a farce. 

In the original Times profile, I’m quoted as predicting that “the housing slowdown will come into play, even if it’s just the psychological effect.” To the other skills listed on my resume, I can now add “Master of the Understatement.” 

photo: Kyle Ericksen

Monday, May 13, 2013

I PhotoShop, Therefore I Am

I thought it would be fun to illustrate my schlock-horror-movie-inspired cicadas essay with an image resembling a 1950s movie still. Only after completing it did I see it could also serve as a fun profile picture. Never one to let even the merest slip of an idea go unexploited I decided creating images in different styles, with me as different characters, would be a fun project and would help keep me off the streets. I love working in PhotoShop. Love love love love love it. I’d marry PhotoShop if I could. Even the most mundane project is fun for me, and this series held the potential for whiling away the idle hours.

Settling on a theme of homoerotic imagery (imagine!) I looked around for some ideas and came across “Golden Boy,” a statue from 1914 originally commissioned for the pinnacle of the AT&T Building in lower Manhattan. The statue has had several official names over the years, including “The Spirit of Communication.” He’s wrapped in telegraph cables and holds lightning bolts in his raised hand and there’s a receiver of some sort at the the end of the cable with stylized energy or sound or something emanating from it. 

My first puzzle was what to use for the cable. A garden hose! And once I came up with that solution calling my version “The Spirit of Irrigation” seemed obvious. Instead of lightning bolts I’d hold a sheaf of wheat and some flowers, and a spray of water would stand in for the stylized energy coming out of the receiver.

I set up the tripod and the point-and-shoot camera in the living room and tacked up a sheet behind me. One thing a vinyl hose ain’t is supple, but even if I had been able to position the hose like the cable on the original, there’s no way I could have then walked to the camera, set the timer, pressed the shutter button and walked back into position without the hose completely readjusting itself. So what you see of me in the finished image is actually a collage of five different photos: one with the hose draped around one arm, another with the hose around my waist, a third shot focusing on the other, upraised arm, one shot just to get an acceptable expression on my face and--I will confess--another setup solely to allow me to concentrate on crunching my abs. (Vanity, thy name is Tommy.)

The hose and nozzle are the only things I actually photographed--every other element in the image was PhotoShopped in--and even the hose was cut-and-pasted to achieve the positioning I wanted. I shot myself wielding a carpenter’s level and standing on an upturned salad bowl. And wearing a jockstrap. The wings and the spherical base are taken from photos of the actual statue while the wheat and gladiola, the picture frame, the nameplate and water spray are from various stock images, and every one of those is altered in some way from its original appearance. 

Once I lost the jockstrap and donned the fig leaf (which, incidentally, makes me more modest than the original) I had to decide what setting to place my Golden Boy into. I couldn’t find an image of the top of the AT&T building that would work, so I tried fields of flowers, rows of crops, various other things, but nothing clicked. Just to get my bearings I stuck some clouds in the background and when I did it suggested, well, my dear it simply screamed Maxfield Parrish. So I took some mountains from one painting, a tree from another and decided my Golden Boy resides in The Land of Parrish. If they ever decide to remove Old King Cole from the St. Regis they can replace him with this. The rainbow came into the picture from remembering how, when we were kids running through the sprinkler, a spectrum would sometimes form from the spray of water.

To give you an idea of the complexity of the completed image, the simple cloud-filled sky is actually three copies of the of the same photo layered on top of each other but with different levels of saturated color. “Holes” of graduating size are cut into the top two layers to allow the underlying versions to show through. If it were in 3-D it would resemble a stage set with old-fashioned drops. Or the Hollywood Bowl. 

The nerdy geek in me thought some of you geeky nerds might be interested in how this was constructed. And that’s how! The only thing left up in the air is... what should I be next???

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Champion of Breakfasts

I frequently don’t have breakfast at all until after my morning treadmill. I’ve read that doing cardio on an empty stomach produces increased results. I don’t know if this is true, but I do it anyway, and I'll wolf down a protein bar en route from the treadmill to the weight room.

But on hiking days, something in the tummy is imperative before starting up the mountain. Something on the lighter side (i.e. not a lot of grease) and carb-laden for that boost of energy. One favorite is peanut butter toast (whole grain bread, crunchy peanut butter) sprinkled with Nestle’s Quik. No kidding! I put some Quik in a salt shaker and the small amount that drifts onto the PB puts the resulting flavor comfortably in the Nutella column.

The undisputed champ of carb breakfasts, though, is oatmeal. And the title-holder of oatmeals is steel-cut oats. You probably know McCann’s, in their charming metal cannister. It’s by far the most common brand. Also by far the most expensive. Quaker Oats now has their own steel cut oats in a humble round cardboard container at about half the cost.

Steel cut oats are to oatmeal what brown rice is to Minute Rice: it’s essentially the same product but with much more flavor and body. Rolled oats are--wait for it--rolled with huge rolling machines to flatten them out. It’s makes them cook faster, among other things. Quick-cooking oats are rolled oats cut into smaller pieces which allows them to cook even faster, and gives them even less texture. Instant oatmeal is a bowl full of wallpaper paste with artificial everything and should be avoided whenever possible.

For me, the biggest drawback to steel cut oats (apart from their cost--no longer an issue) is cooking them. They can be temperamental and they take a long time to cook. I’ve made them in a double boiler, which is more reliable, but that method can take up to an hour. Every time you want to make them... an hour!

Here’s my method for having delicious, perfectly cooked steel cut oats whenever you want them, instantly. It’s fairly complicated, so get a pad and pencil.

Combine 1 cut steel cut oats, 3 cups water and 1/2 tsp. salt in a large saucepan. Boil for 3 minutes over high heat. Turn the heat off.

Bingo! That’s it! Honest!

“Huh,” you’re saying? Here’s the one caveat: you do this about 8 hours before you want to eat. I usually make a batch at night and just go to bed after I turn off the heat. Leave ‘em right on the stove--you don’t even have to cover the pan. The next morning, give the pot a stir (they’re like glue at this point) to make them creamy again. Put a 1/2 cup or so in a small bowl, nuke ‘em, and you’ve got breakfast!

You can put the entire batch in the fridge and it should last close to a week.

Now, me being me, I have to gild the lily, so I usually throw into the water (right at the beginning along with the oats and salt) things like raisins or dried cranberries or prunes, whole fresh cranberries (which I always have in the freezer) and, usually, a couple of peeled, diced, Granny Smith apples. Along with ground cinnamon and ground ginger and a whole cinnamon stick. On days that I'm feeling particularly reckless, when I wake up and find the oats ready to eat, I'll stir half a can of pumpkin into the mixture.

The above extras add so much flavor and sweetness that you won’t need any milk or sugar or brown sugar or maple syrup or agave syrup or nothin’. I mean, it’s actually sweet. But, if you were to add a little cream and brown sugar, well, basically you’ve got dessert. After all, what is rice pudding but this recipe with a different grain? 

Indeed, sometimes a portion of this serves as my afternoon snack. It’s that good.

Try this method once and you’ll never go back to any other version of oatmeal. F’real!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

My First Time

It seems like you can't swing a cat these days without hitting a prominent person just out of the closet, and I think that's great! (The coming-out part, that is. For the record, I am firmly opposed to the swinging of cats.) A recurring theme in these recent stories is the sense of relief felt when one proclaims one's sexuality, the profound life-changer that simply uttering the words "I'm gay" can prove to be.
Although it's decades in the past, I remember my own pronouncement like it was a movie. It's not my coming-out story per se, but it's the first time I acknowledged to anyone other than myself that I'm gay.
It happened during a student/teacher conference when I was barely 18. Now, before you get your hopes up, I'm not about to divulge that the scene in Falcon Studios' Through the Woods where I sternly discipline a quartet of truant schoolboys is based on personal experience. This is about a different first time.
But, since you brought it up, that first time had already occurred several weeks before that meeting, when some guy picked me up in the balcony of the Regency Theater on Broadway and 68th, during a double bill of The Ziegfeld Follies and Yolanda and the Thief. That night, two things stuck out (yes, I went there), namely the fellow's fab record collection and the pained expression he wore when he asked, "Do you always come that fast?"
But I digress.
As a freshman at NYU's film school (in the first of several abandoned attempts at attaining a BFA), I directed a Super 8 short film based on "Little Miss Muffet." After an in-class screening each student director met one-on-one with the instructor for further critique.
The professor of that course was named Tom... uh... what was it? "Mc"-something? Or "Mac," maybe? "O'"? Heck, I don't know. But I do recall him vividly as a person. He was probably in his late 30s, on the burly side, like an ex-wrestler, and straight, to be sure. He had a full beard with a fair amount of gray in it, and he always wore a cable-knit cardigan over a flannel shirt, along with army-green cargo pants and hiking boots. Usually resting between his first two fingers was the stub of a cigar, and on top of his head, as a jaunty surprise, sat a tam-o'-shanter. James Mason would've played him in the movie. Oh! And he walked with a pronounced limp. I want to say that there was a shillelagh leaning in the corner, but here I think I'm art directing my memory a bit too thoroughly. Regardless, he cut quite the romantic figure.
I don't recall the specifics of "Muffet," but somehow germane to my little epic, Tom said simply, "You're gay, right?"
It was the briefest pause on my part, like when the film misses the sprockets and jumps in the gate; you notice it, but just barely. I blinked hard and replied, "Uh-huh."
And then the Earth moved, or, to continue the cinematic analogy, it was as if my chair had been wired for Sensurround and I got a surprise jolt. My entire universe had been altered by a single word. Well, not even a word, really, just a couple of grunted syllables: "Uh-huh." And, bam! Sensurround! We continued our conversation, but I didn't hear a thing. The blood pounded in my ears as I sat there thinking, "There's no turning back now; the cat's out of the bag." (I don't approve of keeping cats in bags, either, by the way.)
I left Professor James Mason's sepia-hued office and emerged into Washington Square Park, which was newly resplendent in glorious Technicolor. Everything had changed, even me! Heading toward the fountain, I had a sorta dopey grin on my face, my eyes darting back and forth to catch the passersby as they pointed and whispered to each other, "That guy there? He's gay now." I briefly considered making a beeline back to the Regency but decided it could wait.
The actual coming out to my close circle followed soon thereafter. My utterance to Professor Tom was the raindrop that burst the dam, the last straw, Monty Python's wafer-thin mint. There was just no keeping it all in after saying the words aloud.
I imagine most of you reading this have your own first-time-saying-it story. But those who don't, those of you who are still in the closet and aching to come out, I want you to do something for me. I want you to get up. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and say:
And when you do? Sensurround, baby. Sensurround.

photo: Tim Schapker

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Payoff

Of the many rewards of a strenuous early-morning hike is that when you return home, you’ve earned a big breakfast. Here’s a favorite:

I soft scramble five egg whites with the addition of one whole egg. I find that single yolk adds enough flavor and texture to justify the extra calories and fat. I always add some protein: frequently it’s a few turkey mini-meatballs I like to have on hand. Or maybe a chicken breast. But sometimes--like today--I plan ahead and take a couple of salmon fillets out of the freezer, which I grill with a little Mrs. Dash seasoning. While the eggs are cooking I heat up some red beans that I doctor with garlic, pickled jalapeño slices and homemade BBQ sauce, I slice up half an avocado and get out the salsa and sour cream. 

When everything’s cooked you just pile it into a bowl and wolf it down (like I just did.) 

Now, this is a whopper of a meal, in terms of nutritional counts: nearly 800 calories and 30 grams of carbs. But it’s also got over 80 grams of protein and all the calories and fat (except for the sour cream, which, relatively speaking, is negligible) are of the good kind. The salmon, of course, is the real culprit: 350 cals., 20 grams of fat. But we all know salmon is something we should splurge on once in a while. 

I suppose it’s just a breakfast burrito without the tortilla and cheese. But those two items alone would add an additional 500 calories and 60 grams of carbs! So, skip ‘em. 

Besides, along with the rest of my diet today, I’ll still come in under 2000 calories. And I’m now headed to the gym. Would I eat this every day if I weren’t hiking? No. But, dang, if this ain’t incentive enough alone to get up that mountain!