Monday, April 27, 2009

Thank You, Masked Man...For Nothing

Who was that masked man? I wanted to smack him upside the head.

I had just about forgotten this swine flu business this morning when a guy walked by me on Broadway wearing a mask.

This clown was done up like Jesse James, so either he was planning to knock over a bank or he's actually a bigger hypochondriac than I am.

This was right outside my office and if it had been a few seconds either way, I wouldn’t have seen guy and would have probably been a little less stressed. But I did and now I’m not.

I was tempted to yank the mask clean off his face and yell at him for overreacting, but I didn’t want to catch any of his germs. So off he went, leaving behind paranoia like the Long Ranger dropping off silver bullets.

I’ve had a lot of trouble with my health over the years so talk of germs, bugs, infections, outbursts, pandemics, plagues and imminent death tend to make me a little nervous.

When I started reading the news about the swine flu, I, of course, hit the panic button with both hands.

Clearly, I’m not the only one. As I write this, Reuters is reporting that “panicked sellers fled investments in air, land and sea on Monday as fears of a flu pandemic rekindled memories of the Asian SARS crisis that caused widespread industry turmoil six years ago.”

Reuters said that investors wiped $5 billion off the value of leading U.S. airlines in just 10 minutes of trading, with all of the carriers most heavily exposed to Mexico racking up double-digit losses.

Meanwhile, top EU health official urged Europeans on Monday to postpone nonessential travel to parts of the United States and Mexico because of the swine flu virus. And the Daily News is reporting that New York business people are worried that swine flu could keep tourists away from the city.

The News quoted a CDC doctor who urged Americans to wash their hands frequently, avoid crowds if possible and stop "giving that little kiss of greeting right now." He also said masks are not needed…yet.

I was working at Goldman Sachs during the SARS outbreak and one our tech guys, in a lame attempt to be funny, said “I have SARS” when I asked him about a project he had forgotten.

People in Hong Kong wore masks all the time during the SARS outbreak and some of them actually were decorated with elaborate designs, proving that there’s no need to give up on style just because you’re terrified.

Maybe I could wear those Mexican wrestler type masks and adopt a germ-fighting alter ego as I put a hammerlock on disease.

Nothing to Sneeze At

Of course worrying about a problem does absolutely nothing to solve it, and in this case, it’ll probably make matters worse by weakening my immune system. And that makes me worry even more.

I ride the subway to work, which is kind of like a biohazard on wheels. People cough, sneeze, spit, scratch their privates, relieve themselves, and probably do a whole hell of a lot more stuff that I don’t even want to think about.

I almost laughed when a news story offering tips about the flu advised staying six feet away from other people. Stand six feet away from other people on the subway—during rush hour? You’re lucky to if you can stand six inches away.

I’d have to be the motorman to get that kind of privacy. (What’s that job pay, anyway? I'll do it if they give me a mask.)

All morning long I’ve had that Police song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” playing through my head as I moved away from anyone who so much as sniffles in my general vicinity.

I’ve often been tempted to wear surgical gloves on the subway since so many diseases are spread by touch.

It wouldn’t be as obvious as a mask, particularly the desperado special that clown outside my building was wearing, but I could still get some protection.

However, I know that if I start wearing gloves, in no time at all I’ll be wearing a face mask, then a hazmat suit, and then a deep sea diver’s outfit, and pretty soon I’ll be done up like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, which is kind of overdoing it for the R train.

I’ve always been good at washing my hands regularly, but now every time I touch a doorknob or a banister, I picture billions of icky little germs waiting to pounce on to me skin. And they’re all wearing masks.

I pressed the button on the elevator--ack! I used the ATM across the street from my office--ack! Where's my space suit?

When I’m ill, I warn my friends and family to keep their distance and do my best to stay away from the rest of the population. It seems like everybody else walks around coughing and choking without the slightest regard for anyone around them.

I know people are frightened about losing their jobs, but a couple days away from the office will help you to recover faster and make me breathe a lot easier. So if you’re not concerned about your own health, the least you could do is worry about mine.

This morning I cough a few times and made a superhuman effort not to freak out. You’re just clearing your throat, I told myself, as my blood pressure rose. No need to be alarmed.

Okay. So we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Worldwide problems call for worldwide action, so we have to present a united front.

Now let’s all pull together and beat this thing. And if you cough on me I’ll beat your brains out.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Grim Anniversaries

This is a week for dark memories. Sunday was the 14th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and 16th anniversary of the Waco raid, (thanks, Jen) and it was 10 years ago today that the Columbine massacre had us shaking our heads and wondering what the world was coming to.

I was a reporter in Pennsylvania when the Waco seige was going on and after the final assault, a TV station in Allentown interviewed some genius who listed all the ways the FBI had done it wrong. It was a waste of videotape, frankly, and it taught me to be careful about the people to whom you give time and newsprint.

I did some kind of local angle story myself, but a state trooper I often worked with assured me that no cop would second guess the assault on the record.

I was working at the Waterbury Republican-American when we got news of Oklahoma City. The city editor saw it on the AP wire and told everyone in the news room. And I was working at CNN when the Columbine shootings happened.

On all three occassions there was the usual shock and disbelief. There were wild rumors and speculation at first, followed by funerals and investigations.

Each time one of these nightmares happen you like to think that we as a society will learn something. And each time we're wrong. Since these two incidents, we've had 9/11and God alone knows how many mass shootings. The first quarter of 2009 alone has seen one massacre after another.

What we haven't had is any call for gun control; the NRA terroirsts have seen to that. Anti-government rage continues to surge as the conservative media stokes fear and paranoia among the militia types.

So we mourn the victims and pray for their families and pretend that things will be better from here on in. Until the next time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Make Mine A Double

Say, is it my imagination or are there a lot of Bernie Madoff lookalikes walking around town?

It seems like every time I turn around I see a guy who is the spitting image of the man everyone wants to spit on.

A guy walked by me on Broadway the other day who looked so much like the Ponzi scumwad that I was afraid people were going to run up and punch him.

Granted I work on Wall Street, the barely-beating heart of the financial district, and I live on earth--most of the time--so I probably have Bernie on the brain.

And, yes, it doesn't take much to do the Bernie: white hair, colorless skin, beady eyes, and evil to the bone. A lot of people do fit that basic profile, but even so, the numbers seem staggering.

This is like cloning, which is far too scary to even think about. Maybe Bernie's has a bunch of doubles running around so he can get out of jail free.

Hitler had a double named Gustav Weler, which turned out to be a tough gig, seeing as he was shot in the head by Soviet troops. However, there are numerous Web sites who claim it was actually the double who bought it in the bunker, while the real Fuhrer was far, far away.

Winston Churchill, concerned about Nazi assassination attempts, had at least one double, who stayed at Churchill's home and even made personal appearances in the role of the PM. This guy presumably turned out better than his Nazi counterpart.

When I was growing up, just about TV show had one episode where the hero is plauged by an evil double. It usually ran right after the episode where the hero suffers from amensia or is wrongly accused of murder.

Now if you had an episode where the hero suffers from amnesia while being plauged by an evil double who is wrongly accused of murder, then you'd have something. I don't know what, but you'd have it. And better you than me.

Anyway, whenever a TV show hero faced off with the evil double, there would always be the moment when the hero's closest friends couldn't figure out who was who. They'd ask questions of both characters to see which one was the right one.

The old Superman show had episodes where criminals impersonated both Jimmy Olsen and the big guy himself. The shows gave the actors a chance to play crooked versions of their characters before being clobbered by the Man of Steel in under 30 minutes and thrown into prison.

There was one epside called "The Clown Who Cried," where an evil clown--I'll leave it to you to decide if that's redundant or not--named Crackers impersonates a good clown named Rollo to rip off some charity gig. (Finish this sentence: "The only good clown is...")

Look! Up in the Sky!

The two clowns duke it on top of a building, where many bloodthirsty clown battles take place, and no one can tell who's Crackers, who's Rollo and who cares. But suddenly one clown shoves the other off the roof and then tumbles after him.

Now it's raining clowns and Superman makes the snap decision that only an evil clown would toss a colleague off the roof, so he flies up to rescue Rollo while leaving Crackers to crash to the concrete and crumble like a stale Ritz.

Since this was Superman's show, his choice was the right one and Crackers curls up his floppy toes while Rollo gets all Pagliacci and sheds the tears of a clown.

I recall my mother being particularly interested in this episode of Superman , because of her fascination with the name Crackers and her fear of clowns, though, as far as I know, she never threw one off a building.

I once knew a woman who worked at children's parties as a "Christian clown." I never caught her act, thank God, but I always wondered if it involved squirting people with holy seltzer water and slapping Satan in the mug with the Great Cream Pie of Jesus.

I don't think she ever fought to the death with clowns of other faiths, which could lead to a clown crusade or a clown jihad with suicide clowns blowing themselves to little squeaky bits.

George Bush was a Christian and a clown, though nobody was laughing and I doubt even Gustav Weler would want to be a double for him.

It seemed that every comic book or TV villian who was a master of disguise was always, and I mean, always called "The Chameleon." I know about the whole color-changing thing, but couldn't they come up with any other handle?

When I was a kid, I recall at least two TV shows that featured creepy chameleons who were tripped up in their impersonations because they always wore the same distinctive ring no matter what identity they assumed.

So you change your face, your voice, your body, just about everything about you, but you still wear the same piece of jewelry, whether you're impersonating Steve McQueen, Butterfly McQueen or the Queen of England? Yeah, that's real believable. Has anyone checked Bernie Madoff for a ring?

Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond's hairless heavy, had his share of doubles. Even his cat had a double in Diamonds are Forever, which Bond discovers when he stomps on the bad kitty's tale in an attempt to determine its true owner.

I lost track how many times Bond actually killed that guy, but it took several actors and a number of sequels to finally blow Blofeld away. Bernie Madoff could be a good Bond bad guy. You can picture him stroking a felonious feline in his secret lair while plotting the downfall of the economy.

I notice that I have the same hairdo as Blofeld, or at least two versions of him. I can only hope no one mistakes me for the Bond nemesis because Roger Moore wound up tossing him off a helicopter and right into a smoke stack.

I wouldn't wish that on anyone, not even Bernie Madoff. Well, then again....

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Resurrection Day

"The resurrection gives my life meaning and direction and the opportunity to start over no matter what my circumstances." ~Robert Flatt

I can’t believe I’m hearing the words “wind chill factor” on Easter Sunday, but I’m willing to overlook that and think good thoughts on this day on rebirth and renewal.

I’m feeling kind of rundown after running around in the rain yesterday to do my Saturday chores. I hope I’m not coming down with anything; but if so, well, this, too will pass.

I just watched televangelist Joel Osteen (yes, I did, actually), who spoke about being planted versus being buried.

You bury a corpse, he said, but you plant a seed and stand back to watch it grow. I like that, especially given my often (constant?) negative attitudes.

I went to my usual weekly service this week at Trinity Church, or as I like to call it, “Sanity Church,” since the people there help keep me from flipping my lid.

I wasn’t going to go on this particular day because I was running late for the 12:05 pm service, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to make any other service this week, so off I went. I'm glad I made the effort.

I missed the opening hymn and caught the tail end of the prayer for confession and forgiveness of sins, but fortunately I was in time for a fabulous sermon by Rev. Mark Francisco Bozzuti-Jones.

I have to be honest: I love this guy. His sermons are so honest and moving that some days I swear he wrote them specifically for me. He’s intelligent, compassionate, and selflessly dedicated to his congregation. We need many more like him.

This particular sermon was so good that I started taking notes as this were a news event that I was covering. It felt a little strange taking notes in church, but I liked what I was hearing. Now I wish I had brought a tape recorder to get his exact words.

This was on Spy Wednesday, the day that Judas betrayed Jesus. Rev. Jones read from the Gospel of John that describes how after Jesus gives Judas the piece of dipped bread, “Satan entered into him.” Then Jesus told Judas, “what you are going to do, do quickly” and Judas went into the night.

Rev. Jones talked about how we are like Judas when we turn away from God. He noted that John’s Gospel makes several references to light and asked us do we want to live in darkness, like Judas or do we want to live in the light.

As I was leaving the church, I made a point of thanking Rev. Jones for his sermon and he gave me a hearty "you're welcome!" I do feel welcome there, thanks to him and the other people at Trinity.

Planting seeds…living in the light…I think I get the message here. It's about something so powerful that even a driving rain or the wind chill factor can’t slow it down.

Happy Easter.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Perchance to Scream

I’ve had a series of dreams recently that were so bizarre they could make you long for insomnia.

In the last two weeks, I dreamed I was a gun-toting killer, the victim of a nasty poltergeist, and an extremely reluctant member of a police SWAT team.

I like to describe dreams as the funhouse mirror reflection of your mind and these latest gems could easily serve as Exhibits A, B, and C of that theory.

The SWAT dream was the most recent, occurring two nights ago. It starts off with me as a cop approaching a traffic jam and telling my fellow officers that I’ll take care of the situation.

Only I don’t do such a good job and a female officer asks me sarcastically, “that was your plan?” I’m not sure what that was, but it clearly doesn’t impress anybody. And it did nothing to clear the traffic.

I am about to respond when an armored vehicle roars up and a senior officer shouts, “get in the truck!”

I protest, but he was very insistent, so I climb aboard and off we went. I remember thinking that, I don’t do raids; I’m a theory guy. But then I realize that theory guys aren't much help when the fertilizer strikes the air conditioning unit.

The dream fizzled from there, but I’m certain it originated from a news story I read about the three police officers who were gunned down in Pittsburgh.

You might have trouble recalling this particular massacre, since we’ve had so many in this country in the last few weeks—California, North Carolina, Alabama, and most recently, Binghamton, NY.

But it’s not like we need tougher gun laws or anything else. Just ask the NRA, or as I like to call it, Murder Inc.

In my second dream, I’m arguing with a friend of mine who is giving me a hard time for all the things I didn’t do with my life. It gets very heated and we finally stop talking to each other.

I go to bed and this ghost that looks like a little girl in a long dress who is running around my room raising all kinds of hell.

At one point I look up while she’s going bump in the night and I spot her by the closet covering her eyes like some old Three Stooges bit.

“I can see you!” I shout as she runs from place to place like a shooting gallery duck. “I can see you!”

I think I was angry because I didn’t think any self-respecting ghost would do such a lame job of being invisible.

I somehow know this ghost is a spiritual reflection of my friend and I go to the next room, where my buddy is residing in the back of deep, dark closet and tell her to help me out. But she refuses.

I literally woke up screaming from this little scenario. I mean, I actually heard myself shouting. I guess I don’t appreciate people criticizing my life, especially since I do that so well myself.

Trigger Man

The final and most disturbing dream had me as a cold-heart killer.

I was standing in the lobby of an apartment building late at night when two men come out of the building and I promptly take a pistol out of my pocket and start firing.

I don’t recall being threatened by these people. I wasn’t enraged and I don’t know if I even spoke to them before I opened fire. I just shot them.

One of my victims—God, that sounds so creepy-- was older, with a full beard and I referred to him as the Rabbi. The younger one’s features were a blur, possibly obscured by shadows.

As soon as they hit the floor, a young man comes out of the building, looks down at the two corpses and then turns to me.

He has this weird smile as he asks me what happened. I keep saying that I didn’t know, that I hadn’t done anything, but the man just rolls his eyes in disbelief.

The scene shifts to this huge cluttered office and the editor of the publication I work for told me I have to interview the county coroner.

The county’s office is located on the same floor as my publication—this was a dream, after all—and when I walk over to interview him, I’m told he’s too busy.

I notice two bodies covered in sheets outside the coroner’s office and realize they are my victims, which explains why the coroner is so backed up.

Only then do I realize that I am in big trouble and I begin telling myself that I did nothing wrong, over and over again.

While this is disturbing, death and killing in a dream doesn’t always mean death and killing. If you “kill”someone in a dream, yes, you may actually harbor murderous thoughts toward them, but it also could mean you want to end your relationship them.

I’m pretty sure that the bearded man—the Rabbi—is my therapist. We’ve been together for some time now and I had been speaking with him recently about moving on.

I’d like to free up that particular night, save myself the hassle of going uptown, and, of course, save some money. I’m not saying that I’m cured or that, God forbid, I’m “normal.”

I’m just interested in other disciplines—mediation, chi gong, Tai chi, primal therapy, chakras, who the hell knows?

The other man—the one I couldn’t identify—was probably me, or one version of myself that I want to kill off.

By shooting these two figures I was “ending” this particular connection. As far as the leering man in the hallway, I think that was my conscience in full guilt mode, leering and mocking at my own misdeeds.

I told my shrink about this dream and he seemed to take it very well, considering I had assassinated him in my dreams.

I have to confess that it was pretty awkward sitting across from someone and telling him that you dreamed you murdered him. I’m sure shrinks hear this and much worse, but it was still a bit weird.

So what’s causing all this? I think of Ebenezer Scrooge with that “bit of underdone potato” line and wonder if my diet is behind these nocturnal hallucinations.

I’ve heard it said that creative people are subject to nightmares. But then so are lunatics. I’m still thinking about moving on from my shrink, but with all these nutty dreams, maybe I should stick with him just a little bit longer.