Sunday, December 09, 2018

Past Picture Perfect

I wish I had a camera.

You don’t hear that line much anymore in this age of smart phones that take photos, give directions, translate other languages, send text messages, give mambo lessons, and, oh, yeah, make calls.

But I remember the days when you’d see something cool or exciting or beautiful and you’d stand there just awestruck by whatever the hell you were looking at for a few seconds until you realized you have no way of sharing this moment with others—except by telling them about it.

I’m not knocking story-telling by any means, but sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand clich├ęs.

This mini-rant is brought to you by a stray memory that came sliding into my mind yesterday and refused to leave. It was back in the Seventies, somewhere in the vicinity of a little town called Peru, Vermont, where my family and I were staying for a few weeks.

One night we were coming of a local restaurant and heading back to our car when something caught my eye.

It was two dogs sitting inside a parked car--one behind the wheel, the other sitting in the passenger seat.

They were looking straight ahead and they seemed ready to crank up the engine and go for a drive around town. A professional animal photographer could not have set this up better.

I quickly turned to my family and pointed at the car-bound canines, whereupon my mother let out this tremendous laugh.

“Look at them!” she said.

Unfortunately, none of us had a camera. Smart phones didn’t exist back then, of course, but why the hell didn’t one of us have a film camera? My parents had given me cameras as presents when I was growing up, but for whatever reason I wasn’t packing one of them.

It’s just so annoying because I’m sure a picture of these two dogs would’ve gotten some kind award or prize. But I guess photographs had more value back then because it was tougher to get good ones.

We had a good laugh, drove back to our motel, and eventually forgot about the two driving dogs.

Flash in the Pan

Last week I was tooling around on YouTube last week when I came across a video of Sting and Bruce Springsteen from October 1988 teaming up to sing “Every Breath You Take.”

I waste far too much time on YouTube, but I’m almost able to forgive myself when I come across gems like these. One of the people writing in the comment section made an intriguing observation.

Not a single freaking phone in the air,” this person wrote. “Only people actually enjoying the hell out of this amazing concert. Good times.”

I realized how right this person was. There were no raised hands clutching I-phones, no relentless flash attack, and no crappy amateur videos that people insist on shooting and posting.

This was 1988 bro,” another commenter wrote. “When life was simple and FUN!!!

I think this second person is getting a little too nostalgic. I have fond memories of the Eighties, too—mostly because I was younger—but does anyone want to give up smartphones and the Internet for fax machines and beepers?

Beepers were the killer device in that distance decade, but today they seem about as sophisticated as a flintlock pistol.

I confess I’m guilty of being a camera hound, as I take photos of nearly anything that catches my eye—mostly because I can.

You don’t have to worry about getting film developed or even taking a bad shot because you can either take dozens more or digitally doctor the original photo until it looks just the way you want it.

All this picture-taking could have serious implications down the road for our beleaguered brains.

A recent article in Vox warned that “in many cases, scientists are finding that constant photo taking actually diminishes our ability to recall our experiences, diverts our attention, and takes us out of the moment.”

I have firsthand experience with this phenomenon. My sister and I were watching a fireworks display at Coney Island one summer night when she pointed out that I wasn’t really watching at all. I was too busy taking photos of the rockets’ red glare.

“You’re not watching the fireworks,” she said.

Point well taken. I’ll try to enjoy experiences while they happen, instead of trying to memorialize them ever so briefly for Facebook.

Now I should mention here that I’m working on a story involving a dog, so I suspect that’s where this seemingly random recollection actually comes from. To be honest, I think my favorite part of that double dog moment in Vermont isn’t so much the dogs themselves, but the beautiful sound of my mother’s laughter.

And you can’t take a picture of that.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Oculus Prime

There’s nothing like watching children at play to help you forget your problems.

I take a boxing class near City Hall twice a week and, on the way to the gym, I walk by the Oculus, the transit hub-shopping center-9/11 Memorial, but I rarely have the time to go inside.

I arrive before sunrise and when class is over, I don’t have much time for sightseeing.

Now, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly impressed with the Oculus when I first saw it. I found the $4 billion-dollar structure’s design to be a bit weird and off-putting. And what’s with that name?

The fact that all these shops and stores were located so close to the site of the 9/11 attacks didn’t help much either.

I know that life has to go on, of course, but the memory of the horrible day will always be on my mind when I walk around that area.

Last week I had some business to take care of in and around lower Manhattan so I took the opportunity to walk around the Oculus for a little while.

I had a good feeling when I went into the place as I held the door open for a man who was leaving.

“Thank you, brother,” he said on his way out.

My pleasure, my brother. It’s really not that hard to be kind and it feels so good when you help people out—even if it’s something as minor as this.

Got a Light?

The place was busy with commuters and tourists and the holiday decorations were up.

I took a seat on a large white slab that I eventually figured out was a bench and let the world roll on by.

I was seated before a family of snow people and I happened to catch sight of this adorable little girl who was chasing after a laser-projected snowflake that periodically appeared on the floor.

She laughed as she tried to catch up with the thing until it vanished, and then she’d start up again as soon as it reappeared.

I could have watched this little girl all day. She was so happy running after this elusive light that I briefly forgot all my problems and just enjoyed this impromptu show. I wanted to take her picture, by the way, but I was too busy enjoying the moment.

On my next visit I sat down on the white slab-bench and watched a little boy bond with the artificial snow people.

Of course, they weren’t the least bit artificial to this little guy as he hopped all around them like they were his best friends.

It never ceases to amaze me how children can create their own fun.

We give them toys, games, and, most disturbingly, smartphones, to keep them occupied, but their imaginations can quite literally create something out of nothing.

All they had was a beam of light and some sculpted pieces of fiberglass and metal. Yet, there they were, making spirits bright.

The holidays can be a time of pressure and sadness for many of us, but seeing these children reminded me that you can really find magic in the season—you just have to pay attention.

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.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bloody Curtain

I was sitting in the theater yesterday when I had this stray thought about the outside world.

While I was thoroughly immersed in The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s riveting drama about a rural Irish family that gets caught up in The Troubles of sectarian violence, I briefly wondered what was happening in the so-called real world.

The play runs over three hours and I was unable to appease my I-phone addiction and, given the current political climate, I had this strange feeling that something major could be going on.

Well, I found out a short time later over dinner that “something major” was yet another mass shooting in America, this time at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where an anti-Semitic psychopath shouting “All Jews must die!” allegedly shot 11 people to death and wounded six others before the cops shot him and took him into custody.

I almost wish I hadn’t looked at my phone.

I keep saying that it’s pointless to write about these slaughters, that nothing will change thanks to the gutless whores we have in congress and in the White House.

In fact, I was even working on another post for this week, but I can’t ignore this latest horror show, especially given the appalling week my country just endured.

In addition to the Pittsburgh nightmare, we also had a Trump-loving lunatic—which sounds redundant—send pipe bombs to two former U.S. Presidents and several major leaders and supporters of the opposing party, as well as CNN and Robert DeNiro.

Right-wingers were all too eager to suggest or outright say that the attempted bombings were a so-called “false flag” planted by Democrats, but in the end, as Bill Maher noted, the suspect turned out to be “an angry asshole in a red hat.”

We had another crazed white gunman in Kentucky gun down two African-Americans--Vickie Lee Jones, 67, and Maurice E. Stallard, 69—at a Kroger store.

Make America Hate Again

Police said the alleged murderer tried to enter a historically black church minutes before heading to the grocery store.

And during this terrible time, we’re saddled with Donald Trump, a raging narcissist and shameless bigot, who managed to blame the victims of the synagogue slaughter by saying the facility—a house of worship—should’ve had an armed security guard.

The nerve of those pesky Jews getting shot like that. Of course, four of the wounded were armed police officers responding to the incident and guns didn’t seem to do them much good. But don’t tell that to the Trumpanzees. They don’t handle reality very well.

This is the same nationalist president, by the way, who managed to tweet about the World Series just hours after the Pittsburgh massacre, so we know what his priorities are.

He also tweet-bitched that the pipe bomber was taking the attention off the really important things, like the alleged caravan of migrants who are inching their way up from Central America to steal our jobs and commit acts of terror.

However, at the rate they’re moving and the frequency of these mass shootings, there may not be anyone left to terrorize when they finally do get here.

Mike Pence, Trump’s bible-blabbing android, spewed the standard “thoughts and prayers” horseshit, which not only doesn’t help, but actually makes things just a little bit worse.

The Ferryman covers such issues as extremism, corruption, and senseless violence, and during the climax, when things spin completely out of control, one of the characters frantically cries out “what do we do? What do we do?”

The play ended 24 hours ago and I’m still asking that question. What do we do?