Sunday, January 25, 2015

Monsters and Corpses

What was I doing on January 7th?

It was a Wednesday, I know that much from looking at the calendar, but nothing else about the day sticks out in my mind.

Illustration by Graham Winn-Lee

I went to work, came home, ate dinner, watched TV, did the usual routine, apparently, with nothing out of the ordinary.

But I recently realized what I didn’t do on January 7th. I didn’t remember it was the anniversary of my father’s death.

My father died on that day in 2008, and, as best as I can remember, I didn’t pray for his soul, go to church, or even put a notice on my Facebook status.

The day just slipped by me without any acknowledgement of my father’s passing. I’m not sure what to say about that, except that I’m very sorry.

I backed into this realization while reading the news stories about the American Sniper controversy that started when filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted that his uncle had been killed by a sniper in World War II and how his father thought snipers were cowards.

American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s biopic about Chris Kyle, is currently the top movie at the box office, and Moore’s comments were interpreted as at attack upon the late marksman.

I recalled how my father, himself a World War II veteran, hated snipers with a passion, too. He described the terror that soldiers felt when one of their own was suddenly stuck dead by an unseen assassin. At least with an artillery attack you could hear the shells coming.

I was amazed to learn that the US didn’t have an official sniper course during World War II, contrasting sharply with Germany, the Soviet Union, and other countries. Maybe that’s why my father’s generation hated snipers so much. The good guys didn’t do that kind of thing.

My dad told me the Germans used to leave behind a sniper in a town just to slow down advancing American troops.

“They’d kill a couple of guys,” he said, “and then they'd come out with their hands up and say ‘I surrender.’”

My father didn’t say it so many words, but he strongly implied that the GIs didn’t always go for the “surrender” routine and that some snipers never made it to the POW camps.

Calling the Shots

The fear of instant death was intense, my father said. One time a young recruit, who hadn’t been in combat, foolishly fired his rifle just to make some noise.

One of my dad’s buddies, a huge guy who had seen a lot action, went berserk, charging forward, mistakenly grabbing the wrong soldier by the throat and lifting him clean off the ground.

My father intervened, swearing that the big guy was strangling an innocent man.

“Was it you, Lenny?” the man demanded. “If it was you, then it’s all right.”

“No, it wasn’t me,” my dad said, and the big man let his victim go.

My father said his platoon once cornered a German sniper in a barn and set the building on fire in an attempt to flush him out. The sniper was trapped and the soldiers could hear him shrieking as the flames consumed the barn.
“Scream, you son-of-a-bitch,” one of my dad’s buddies said, “it’s music to my ears!”

That may sound harsh to some people, but war is an ugly business.

It’s not about parades, waving the flag, or some schmuck in a flight suit prancing around on an aircraft carrier chirping “Mission Accomplished.”

It’s about death, death in mass numbers, and if you want to win, then you’re going to need snipers. You’re going to need someone to make those corpses, but when you’re done don’t be surprised if your soldiers have turn into monsters.

That’s what war produces, monsters and corpses, because if you’re not one then you will quickly become the other. And that’s why war should be avoided at all costs because even the survivors will be scarred for life. I honestly don’t know how much damage the war did to my father, but it’s impossible to believe that he or anyone else came away from that experience unscathed.

Finnish marksman Simo Häyhä, dubbed “White Death,” is credited with over 500 kills during the Soviet invasion of Finland. When asked about killing so many people, he said "I only did my duty, and what I was told to do, as well as I could."

I wonder if anyone has ever asked a general or a politician if they have any regrets about the people they indirectly killed in wars. Did anyone ever ask a defense contractor how he felt about all of those who had died so he could collect his bloodstained money? I tend to doubt it.

Soldiers may pull the triggers, but so much happens before we reach that moment. They’re the last link in a very long, very twisted chain.

I wish my father had never gone to war. Yes, I forgot the day he left this world, but I’ll always remember how he served his country and how he did his duty as well as he could.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Live and Be Well

Dr. Joel raised his right hand to me in a gesture of farewell.

“Go and enjoy life, young man,” he said. “Stay out of doctors’ offices.”

Now there’s two great bits of advice—enjoy life and steer clear of doctors.

And I really liked that “young man” bit, but I felt compelled to gently inform Dr. Joel that I’m turning 58 this year and that perhaps “young” wasn’t the most accurate adjective he could use.

“You’re younger than I am,” he remarked.

So be it.

Dr. Joel is my gastroenterologist but I’d think he’d make a terrific rabbi. He’s just so caring and knowledgeable.

I had gone to him for a second—third?—opinion about surgery for the internal misery that drove me to the hospital in November.

His answer? A decisive “No!”

He believes that the incident was a flare-up in my colon that has since righted itself, and thus there is no need to cut me open. Dr. Joel showed my CAT scans to one of the top surgeons at Maimonides Medical Center and he also nixed the knife.

He actually told Dr. Joel that operating on me would be malpractice. That’s about as definitive as you can get.

Obviously nobody wants to get surgery. It sucks to get cut open and have several inches of your colon removed. But I would do it if there were a serious and immediate threat to my health.

However, if it’s not critical than it pays to be conservative. In addition to the scalpel, I’m also concerned about the anesthetic.


Freedom Awaits

I’ve had the so-called “twilight anesthesia” for colonoscopies, but I’ve never done the fully sleepy. And I ain’t in no hurry to try.

I sat in Dr. Joel’s office for a few more minutes until I realized that I was free. And then I gathered up my belongings and got the hell out of there.

Of course I’m relieved that—please, God—I won’t have to go back into the hospital. I’ll monitor my health and since I now recognize the scary symptoms of a colon attack, I’ll haul-ass to the nearest hospital at the slightest sign of a flare-up.

The only risk here is that something could go wrong when-and if-I’m nowhere near civilization. But since I hadn’t planned any canoe trips down the Amazon or excursions to Antarctica, I should be okay.

So now comes what for me can be a bit of a challenge: enjoying life.

My late father once told me that I look for things to worry about and he was spot on.

As soon as I get some bit of good news, I waste no time in finding some other form of grief to fret about. Dr. Joel would not approve.

Luckily I got an important message this morning that has reinvigorated my zest for life. It seems that the one, the only Precious Zamba wants to meet me.

Hi,” her email began, “am Precious Zamba by name, a female never been married, i have seen a lots of profiles but am very selective, you are one of my selection, please kindly write me on my private emailaddress so that i can send you some of my pictures and introduce my self to you.

Isn’t that precious? I suspect it may also be bullshit, but it’s nice that someone cares, even though she doesn’t exist. Hi, am Rob by name, a male, never been married, and, judging by my inbox, I’m clearly not selective enough.

Still, as I long as I'm able to stay out of doctors’ offices, I’m going to zamba until the cows come home.

I’m only following doctor’s orders.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ten Years After

So have I really been at this for a decade?

It’s hard to believe, but 10 years ago today I sat down and cranked out the first post of this blog.

I had no idea what I was doing and it showed. I rambled, ranted, and shared far too much information.

I’m still doing all of that today, come to think of it, but at least I’m trying to keep the posts a little shorter.

There have a lot changes in that time, including the death of my father and the sale of our family house.

There are other changes in my life that haven’t happened as quickly as I would’ve liked, but I don’t see any reason to give up.

While I’ve threatened to post more often, it’s been hard to break the weekly routine that I settled into some years back. I have all these projects bouncing around my imagination that make more frequent blogging pretty close to impossible.

For a while I thought about giving the blog up when I reached the 10-year mark. That’s plenty of time, I reasoned, put it aside and devout more time to fiction.

Yes, I probably should do that, but I don’t want to. I’ve made some incredible friends over the last decade, enjoyed the work of some very talented writers and photographers, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

I think blogging has made me a better writer and a better storyteller, and I believe it’s helped improved my fiction as well. I’m getting better at finding stories in routine events, as opposed to waiting around for something big to happen.

There may come a day when I truly don’t want to do this anymore and I’ll bring down the curtain, switch off the lights, and walk out of this blog. But today ain’t the day.

I look back at all those long posts I've done, but today I don't have a hell of a lot to say other than thanks so much for sticking around.

I wonder what’s going to happen next.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Get A Grip

I grabbed the pull-up bar in my grammar school gymnasium and started lifting myself up off the ground.

I was in the sixth grade and not in the least bit interested in athletics—a sharp contrast to the aging gym rat I am today.

Behind me, Mr. Keating, the gym teacher, and my classmates, watched as put my chin over the bar once, twice…

And then I let go.

I wasn’t tired or in pain. There was nothing wrong with me physically, but emotionally I was done.

I had decided that I wasn’t strong, I wasn’t a jock, like some other kids in my class, so clearly I couldn’t—or perhaps shouldn’t--do anymore pull-ups.

In other words, I quit.

When I hit the ground, I turned to see the shocked expressions of Mr. Keating and all the kids in my class.

“Why did you let go?” Mr. Keating demanded. “You could’ve done more!”

He was right. I could’ve done at least two or maybe even three more pull-ups. But subconsciously I elected to get by rather than excel.

I had no answer for Mr. Keating and I still can’t explain why I to this day I will often hold myself back in both my professional and personal lives.

It’s often been that way with relationships, where I either avoid getting together with women I liked; or when I do get together with them, I found some way of torpedoing the relationship. And then I’d whine about not having a girlfriend.

What’s particularly upsetting is that I only recognize my self-destructive behavior after the fact, when it’s far too late to undo my needless denial. Oh yeah, I should’ve done this or I should’ve done that, but I chose to do nothing.

I was feeling a bit down this week so I tuned into to some self-help guru’s webcast on developing an abundance mentality.

Hope You Guessed My Name

I’ve listened or attended a number of similar kinds of talks and typically they’ll give you a little taste of what they have to offer and then try to sell you the secret for a reasonable price. Of course, you’ll have to act fast to get the special discount.

It’s easy to see why these self-help types are so successful. They’re selling people what they already have—their untapped potential.

They promise to show you how to tear down the walls you’ve built between yourself and the person you could be. Get a better paying job, start you own business, meet the person of your dreams. Do more pull-ups in Mr. Keating’s class.

I usually tune out when the sales pitch starts, but this time it was different. There was something about this woman’s voice and my own fragile mindset that had me wondering if maybe I shouldn’t get out my credit card and sign up for this program.

Logically, I have to wonder if what she’s offering is any different from the stacks of self-help books, CDs and DVDs that I have around my house—many of which I haven’t read, listened to or watched yet.
I just want to stop holding myself back. The prizefighter Randall “Tex” Cobb once talked about how great fighters can keep on going when things are going bad—when “you can’t get out of your own way,” is how he put it.

That’s what I want to do. I want to get out of my way because despite all my promises, resolutions, and meditations, I still think there’s so part of me who doesn’t want to move forward because that means taking risks.

I recently saw an Off-Broadway play called “Pocatello” where a character at one point says, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” Critics complained that it was a hackneyed line, but I was intrigued.

Clearly the character meant that she was hurting, but I wonder it’s not such a bad thing to be confused about who you are.

If you identify yourself as someone who can’t get ahead, someone will never win, and will always be struggling, then perhaps an identity crisis is just what you need. It might not be a crisis at all.

Maybe you’ve held on to a warped, unhealthy version of yourself that is better off forgotten. Perhaps you could let go of that person you think you are, the one who holds back all the time, and find out you’re somebody much better.

I still haven’t decided if I’m going to sign up for that abundant thinking course yet. It seems wasteful to pay someone to tell me something I already know. But then I’m not changing, or at least not as quickly as I would like.

Ultimately no one can make you change. You have to get out of your own way, grab hold of that bar, and pull up all by yourself.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Last Train to Willoughby

I stretched out on my couch Thursday morning, soaking in the beautiful winter sunlight, and journeyed into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.

Yes, this was the Syfy Channel’s annual New Year’s Twilight Zone blitz and I was happily traveling to that fifth dimension beyond which is known to man.

I’ve seen most of the episodes scores of times, but that doesn’t prevent me from unlocking that door with the key of imagination.

Twilight Zone is my comfort zone.

I caught several of the classics, including “The Howling Man,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” and “A Game of Pool,” arguably my favorite show of the series. The episodes often feature such notable performers as Robert Redford, William Shatner, and Jonathan Winters early in their careers.

And on this particular morning I was enjoying another gem, “A Stop at Willoughby.”

It's the story of Gart Williams, a harried New York advertising executive who can’t handle the high-pressure corporate life. Gart seemingly spends his days going from his hard-hearted boss at work to his cold-hearted wife at home.

One night on his commute to Connecticut, Gart falls asleep and wakes up to find the train has stopped in an idyllic 19th Century town called Willoughby.

This is a "peaceful, restful place, where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.” It's a beautiful summer day, a band is playing, and kids are going off to fish.

Last Stop

As I sat in those warm, healing rays, I could see my reflection on the TV screen, as if I had melted into the episode and was free to walk around Willoughby myself.

Cue that famous theme music…

We can all sympathize with Gart’s situation—at least I know I sure as hell can, give my somewhat turbulent work history.

I often dream about my ideal spot in this world, ranging from Los Angeles to San Diego to Sydney, Australia, and several places in between. It seems to be pretty much anywhere but my current location.
The idea of escaping to a simpler, more innocent time and place is irresistible, and the world has only gotten crazier in the 55 years since the episode first aired.

It’s also impossible. Gart pays dearly when he tries to enter this Currier & Ives painting and we see that the road to Willoughby is quite literally a dead end.

Tomorrow I return to work after a four-day weekend that went by entirely too fast.

I’m also returning to my gym after a nearly two-month layoff due to medical issues that haven’t been entirely cleared up, and naturally the weather is expected to take a nasty turn.

And while I made a point of keeping my New Year’s Resolutions incredibly simple, I’m still feeling that early January pull to wipe out my to-do list before the end of the week.

Has anyone seen my fishing pole?

But that’s not the answer. I don’t intend on making any swan dives off my bus ride home. You have to work at making your dream real. Fantasy doesn’t count for much anywhere…except in the Twilight Zone.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Never Let It Rest

All right, this is about as simple as I can make it.

It’s a New Year and rather than rattle off a list of resolutions that will probably go belly-up before Presidents Day, I’m whittling my 2015 aspirations down to one single word.

Better.

Yep, that’s it. Better. Pretty hard to screw that up, right?

I want to eat better, work better, think better, and live better. I want to be a better friend, a better companion, a better worker, a better brother, uncle, nephew, and cousin.

Hell, I just want to be a better human being.

I’m not making any grand declarations of spectacular change; I’m not vowing to embark upon some brutal exercise regimen or undergo a massive spiritual conversion. I’m not ruling any of that stuff out, mind you; I’m just not making any promises.

Better keeps it simple.

My mother used to recite ditty to us about self-improvement that went, “good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good is better and the better best.” That should keep me busy for quite a while.

There are number things I want to do this year, but I’d much rather do them than bloviate about them. I want to tell the world what I’ve accomplished, rather than what I plan to do.

And I didn’t wait for January 1 to adopt this mindset. I got started a few weeks ago so I could beat the resolution rush.

I can change my way of thinking any day of the year and, in fact, I believe New Year’s Day can create a psychological burden that can be too great overcome.

Sole Man

I prefer easing into change. It’s…better.

I am forever in search of signs, symbols, and portents to guide me on my journey through life and this year is no different.

First, I taped photos of a chained Houdini to my refrigerator, the wall of my computer room, and my bulletin board at work to remind myself how important is for me to break free of the toxic emotions that have been weighing me down for far too long.

I’ve locked myself within the axis of misery formed by anger, fear, and worry and now it’s time break free.

The image of Houdini proved invaluable this very morning—New Year’s Day-while I was making breakfast and I let some reflex anger crawl through my mind.

As I closed the refrigerator door I suddenly locked eyeballs with the Great Man himself, handcuffed to hell and back, and ready to escape.

On New Year’s Eve I saw another sign—literally—during my morning commute. The city was eerily quite on this last day of 2014 as many people had decided to take their vacations this week.

As we came up Church Street, I looked at the signs in the window of a neighborhood shoe repair store. I’ve been going by the place for years now, but only yesterday did I find a message in the two words spelled out vertically in red neon.

The first word was “Repair” and the second was “Shine.” Talk about starting the New Year off on the right foot. (Ugh, sorry about that.) This is a time to repair the damage of the past so we can shine.

I spent New Year’s Eve joyfully doing nothing. Earlier in the day I was getting a little bummed about having no plans for the big night, but my recent health woes have put the whole holiday season in the background. And it was just too goddamn cold out.

Today I had a delicious Chinese dinner with my sister and auntie and now I’ll enjoy a nice long weekend.

I don’t think Houdini could do any better.