Sunday, November 25, 2018

Carnival of Life

There’s no better way of celebrating the holidays than watching an old-time horror movie—at least that’s what my family did this year.

I got together with my sister and auntie on Thanksgiving Day for the usual blast of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and apple pie. And wine. Oh, yeah, plenty of wine.

The food was fabulous and I ate like it was my last meal. I know people always say that on Thanksgiving, but this time I really broke the record.

Even my loose pants couldn’t handle the strain of my bulging waistline.

It was bitter cold in my part of the world on Thursday, so I was extremely thankful to be indoors spending time with the people I love. And the wine. Really thankful for the wine.

After dinner we waddled over to the living room to watch some tube and relax.

This is the start of the Christmas insanity and there are plenty of holiday movies and specials to watch, but it just so happened that my sister had recorded Carnival of Souls, a horror movie cult classic that never failed to scare the screaming hell out of us when we were kids.

It was the perfect antidote to all those obnoxious Black Friday commercials that poured out of the TV, urging us to buy stuff until we keel over.

Made in 1962 on a shoestring budget, Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary Henry, a young woman who mysteriously survives when the car she and her two friends are riding in sails off a bridge and plunges into a river.

Mary, who has no memory of what happened, moves away from her hometown to play the organ at a Salt Lake City church. However, she is being haunted by a ghoul in a black suit whom no one else can see, and her life soon goes straight to hell—literally.

Birds Gotta Fly

Director Herk Harvey—who played the aforementioned ghoul—worked at Centron Studios, an industrial film company in Lawrence, Kansas, and he got the idea for the movie after driving by the crumbling Saltair Amusement Park. The park plays a major and very spooky role in the movie.

The film was made on the cheap, but Harvey and screenwriter John Clifford accomplished so much.

They put together a pretty scary flick without blowing through millions of dollars and cramming the thing with half-assed special effects and computer generated quackery. They actually had to rely on skill and imagination. Aspiring filmmakers could learn a whole hell of a lot from this movie.

I have no idea how many times I’ve seen this movie, but if I had a dollar for every viewing I suspect I could buy my own amusement park.

In one of the film’s creepier scenes, Mary finds that people cannot see or hear her, even when she’s right up in their faces and she can’t hear any sounds at all.

It’s a very disturbing depiction of isolation and perhaps an unwitting commentary on the loneliness that continues to plague our society.

Only now the problem has been exacerbated by the cellphones and the I-pods that we’ve grafted onto our hearts and minds.

Mary is about to crack when she is able to hear a bird chirping. And, it’s strange, but the scene got me thinking about how short and precious life is; how something as mundane as the sound of a bird chirping suddenly becomes valuable beyond measure when it’s taken away.

The film continues to a grisly climax, which I will not spoil for those who haven’t seen it.

I know that it sounds strange to get a life lesson from a nearly 60-year-old zero budge horror movie, but it’s the lesson that matters, not the source.

I’m really grateful that I picked up on that message because I want to hear those birds chirping for as long as I possibly can.

And wine, oh, yeah, I’m really thankful for wine.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Long Night’s Journey

It must have been the longest night of my father’s life.

My dad was a veteran and I grew up hear his stories about fighting in World War II.

These stories were frightening, tragic, and occasionally funny and I never tired of hearing them.

There was this one time when he was trapped in a foxhole during a lengthy attack.

The shells kept on falling and my father had nowhere to go, so he was forced to take cover in this wet, filthy hole in the ground all night long.

I can’t begin to imagine how terrifying that experience must have been, to be trapped in the freezing darkness while the whole world blows up all around you.

When the sun finally came up and the explosions ended—for the moment, anyway—both my father’s feet were so badly frostbitten that he couldn’t walk.

A pair of medics eventually showed up, loaded him onto a stretcher and began taking him to the nearest field hospital.

As they walked the artillery fire started kicking up again. The two medics panicked, dropped the stretcher that was carrying my father, and jumped into a ditch on the side of the road—leaving my dad completely exposed.

These two guys were pretty green and they didn’t realize that the artillery blasts were outgoing and heading in the enemy’s direction. My father was an old hand by then and he knew exactly what was going on.

The two medics climbed up out of the ditch, picked up the stretcher, and resumed carrying my father back to safety.

Walk On

Once again, the cannons roared and once again these two medics dropped my dad’s stretcher on the side of the road. When they dropped my father a third time, he let his feelings be known.

“That’s our artillery, for Christ’s sake!” he shouted. “If you see me get up off this stretcher, then you’ll know we’re being attacked!”

The medics got the message, straightened up, and took my father in for treatment. I always laughed at how my father lambasted those two medics, but to be honest I can’t say I blame those guys all that much.

An explosion is an explosion and I would imagine that you have to survive a number of them before you’re able to figure out the details.

But what kind of price do you pay when you go through repeated artillery attacks?

We’ve had plenty more wars since that time and the weapons have gotten more horrific.

The soldiers get a ceremony on Veterans Day, but eventually governments find another reason to go to war and we have a whole new generation of scarred survivors.

I remember watching a documentary about World War II with my father one night. The film included newsreel footage of several GIs taking a break from the fighting.

“Look at their eyes,” my father said. “You can see that they’ve been through shelling.”

I looked but I can’t really say that I saw anything unusual about these men. Now that I’m older, I’d like another chance. I’d like to look into those tired eyes one more time and maybe get an idea of what my father saw.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Big Ball of Irony

It feels like someone broke open the gates of Hell.

Wildfires have been ripping through California, killing at least 25 people and burning more than 100,000 acres.

California was the site of our latest Second Amendment massacre, which happened in Thousand Oaks, where a deranged gunman shot up a local bar on Friday, killing 12 people, including Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who was planning to retire in a year or two.

The slaughter was committed by yet another loner psychotic with a gun who also killed himself.

There were all the usual elements of a mass shooting: footage of survivors and family members sobbing in each other’s arms; lines of police cars and ambulances streaking up to some blood-soaked location, and, yes, thoughts and prayers for the victims.

There’s also the mini-biographies of the victims, most of whom were so young and ready to start their lives.

Several of them had actually witnessed last year’s Las Vegas mass shooting and one of them, Telemachus Orfanos, survived that massacre only to die in this latest obscenity.

His mother, Susan Orfanos, furiously rejected the thoughts and prayers routine for the worthless bilge that it is.

"My son was in Las Vegas with a lot of his friends and he came home,” she told reporters. “He didn't come home last night, and I don't want prayers. I don't want thoughts. I want gun control, and I hope to God nobody sends me anymore prayers. I want gun control. No more guns.”

Even the killer was having none of that, as he made social media posts during the massacre.

“I hope people call me insane,” he wrote. “...wouldn't that just be a big ball of irony? Yeah... I'm insane, but the only thing you people do after these shootings is 'hopes and prayers'... or 'keep you in my thoughts'... every time... and wonder why these keep happening...”

Call Me Insane

You have to wonder just how bad things are when even the killers are calling bullshit on the whole thoughts and prayer schtick.

I should mention here that I actually do pray for the victims, even though the list gets longer every week. I don’t have any power to change what’s happened so often prayers are the best thing I have to offer.

But I also know that there are times when prayers aren’t enough and that God really does help those who help themselves. God didn’t give Noah the Ark. He told him to build one, warning him that the Great Flood was coming and that Noah should get busy with the hammer and the saw.

That’s what we have here, only instead of water we’re drowning in innocent blood.

But nothing will change. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Donald Trump said guns had nothing to do with the fact that all those people had gotten shot.

Who could argue with that kind of logic?

The orange goon is also peddling a right-wing fairy tale about the wildfires, blaming them on “gross management of the forests,” instead of climate change, and threatening to pull federal funding if California doesn’t “remedy the situation,” like some cheap hoodlum.

Today is Veterans Day, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. President Bone Spurs is in France now, but he couldn’t drag his fat ass to Aisne-Marne American cemetery because of allegedly bad weather.

This is the “man” who spends more time on golf courses and attending rallies than he does on Pennsylvania Avenue.

My father was a World War II veteran and he told me that his platoon spent so much time training in mud-covered areas that they were dubbed “Lenihan and his Muskrats.” I wonder what he would have thought of Trump’s excuse for skipping a memorial service.

A century ago, politicians pushed this lie that the First World War would be the “war to end all wars.” It reminds me of the NRA fantasy that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and Trump’s own gem about climate change being a hoax created by China.

You could twist words anyway you like, but the fires are still burning, the mass shootings are still happening, and the gates of hell are flying off their hinges.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Eye in the Sky

There’s a scene in Martin Scorsese’s mob classic Goodfellas where Ray Liotta’s uber-paranoid gangster is convinced a helicopter is following him.

As the coked-up criminal frantically tries to escape the mysterious chopper, Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire” cranks up on the soundtrack.

I always loved that scene, but recently I got a chance to experience what that guy was going through.

I had gotten up nice and early one morning for my daily meditation. I’ve been meditating for a few years now and I am slowly seeing the benefits of this daily practice.

I set the timer for 20 minutes and do my very best to be mindful and present. And I think it’s helped me a lot.

I’m a little better at taming the anger and reining in the depression. It’s been an extremely slow process, but I’m encouraged by my progress and I want to continue improving.

Now some sessions are better than others and on this particular morning I was really nailing it—if I do say so myself. I was breathing so deeply and slowly that it was almost like an out of body experience.

In this raucous, crazy city a short period of early morning silence is solid gold.

And then a helicopter flew over my house.

All right, I thought, give it a few seconds and it’ll be gone. The pilot is just zipping overhead on his way to somewhere else. It was mildly annoying, but this is New York, after all, and you can’t expect to live in total stillness.

Only the thing didn’t go away. For whatever reason, the chopper pilot double-parked in a patch of sky right above my head and refused to budge.

I tried to ignore the noise and focus on my breathing, but that wasn’t working.

You Can Climb a Mountain, You Can Swim the Sea

Okay, then, I reasoned, since focus is an important part of mediation, I could focus on the helicopter’s noise and still achieve my higher state of consciousness.

But that didn’t’ work either.

I found myself getting angry, which is exactly what I’m trying to avoid when I meditate.

I thought of the old “black helicopter” conspiracy theories that were big in the Nineties, when the tinfoil hat crowd was convinced mysterious choppers were mutilating cattle or taking over the government or some other such conspiratorial chazzerai.

Only this was real.

The timer eventually went off and I was about as close to mindfulness as I was to the North Pole. And the helicopter was still there.

The whole meditation was ruined, I grumbled.

Of course, any yoga or Zen master would’ve gently dismissed such a pedestrian idea.

You can’t ruin meditation. Any attempt at meditation is better than no attempt at all and mindfulness is a lifelong practice, not something you do for 20 minutes in the morning.

I’ve been suffering from a nasty cold for the last few days and the negative thoughts have been roaring through my mind like the attacking helicopters in Apocalypse Now.

These enemy aircraft—anger, despair, resentment—have been buzzing around for years, but they’ve been hovering in my subconscious for so long that I've just tuned out the noise.

Meditation has helped me spot them sooner. It’s just tougher to fight them off when I’m sick though because my guard is down and I slip back into the old bad habits.

Okay. I know this illness will pass, I’ll get back into my routine, and I will continue to improve.

And when the helicopters come after me, the first thing I’ll do is jump out of the damn fire.