Today I Became An Old Man

Where have I been, you ask?

Yeah, I know it’s been over a year since my last post. As for the reason I’ve been away… well, you could call it a calculated absence; or you could call it lost in depression; or you could call it self-prescribed recovery time from an ended relationship; or you could call it a mid-life crisis… any of these would probably be correct.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. There may come a time when I write about what’s kept me away, but today I need to write about something else.

Today I became an old man.
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Wannabe Zombie

Zombies are my guiltiest of guilty pleasures. I know there is utter silliness at the core of zombielore but I can’t help it. I just enjoy it so much. I love zombie movies, love zombie fiction – one of my favorite TV shows is “The Walking Dead”, which is set in the zombie apocalypse. And the zombie apocalypse itself is the perfect marriage of two of my favorite genres: tales of the undead, and tales about the end of the world.

The website transformed my facebook profile pic into a work of ghoulish art.

I grew up on monster movies. Back in the 70’s, Oregon had a local television station that would broadcast old 50’s horror films late on Saturday nights on a program called “Sinister Cinema”, and that is how I was introduced to Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman… all the classics. I would stay up (or try to stay up) and watch these movies, for they fascinated me in ways that I didn’t understand then, and don’t totally understand now.

By the time I was 13, I’d seen all sorts of scary movies, retro and modern, and thought there was nothing I hadn’t seen before. Vampires, aliens, creatures, slashers — they all entertained me. Then one Halloween, I caught an airing of “Night of the Living Dead” on TV, and was forever changed. Good lord, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The dead — coming back to life! Terrorizing the living! Eating their flesh! It was crazy, low budget, black-and-white, and totally, absurdly horrifying. Did they really make a movie that featured a child eating her mother?

Since then, I’ve seen all the sequels, all the tributes, all the knock-offs. I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of zombie stories in the last decade, and when newer stories featured zombies that didn’t stagger along slow and stupid, but could move swiftly and run fast, my interest only increased. I have come to accept that zombie stories satisfy some weird craving I have for macabre entertainment. So when I saw that a local theater group in Orange County was putting on a stage version of the George Romero classic story, I was all in. Read On

Encountering God at the Gas Station

Happy Memorial Day. Yesterday I had a chance encounter with a veteran. And God.

Yesterday I pulled in to a gas station, silently remarking to myself how strange it is to be grateful to find gas for $3.95 a gallon. I pulled up to a pump and immediately noticed that my gas tank was going to be several feet away from the fuel hose because the person parked at the next pump had pulled his vehicle forward so far it was essentially taking up two spaces.

I felt a moment of annoyance and thought of pulling around to another pump, but all appeared to be occupied. I sighed, mildly frustrated, and recognized that the annoyance and frustration were signs that I was in my “controlling and managing” mode, and so I tried to let it go and just eased forward as far as I could. I cut the engine.

After I started pumping my oh-so-cheap gas, I had a thought to wash my windshield. The day before I noticed it was rather filthy and tried cleaning it with the car’s washers, but the wipers weren’t strong enough to completely remove some of the larger bits of smashed bug that dotted the glass. These would only be erased by some serious manual scrubbing.

I thought about how you used to be able to get actual cleaning solution in the water to wash your windshield at service stations, but nowadays it seems gas stations will only supply a receptacle of dirty water, and I again recognized the lack of serenity in my thinking. I let forth another sigh, and mentally said a quick prayer for acceptance and courage and wisdom.

I received all three instantly.

 When I turned to retrieve the squeegee, I saw that it was already being retrieved by a man. A very old man. The man whose car was parked in two spaces was now taking the tool I needed to clean my windshield. But instead of annoyance, I felt curious. I watched him.

He walked with a cane, slowly and with great effort, and he leaned upon it as he bent down to retrieve the long handled squeegee. He wore baggy shorts that billowed around his skinny legs, and what appeared to be wool socks with sandals on his feet.

It took him a few moments to get the squeegee out of the water and return to a standing position. His hair was white and his skin was covered in liver spots, the badges of old age. It seemed to take him forever to move from the water receptacle to his car, the water from the sponge-side of the squeegee dripping down onto the pavement, some of it splashing on his sandaled feet. All the while, he leaned heavily on his cane. This was a difficult task for him.

Without really thinking what I was doing, I walked over to him, giving him a wide berth so that I did not startle him by sneaking up directly behind him.

“Sir?” I called as I approached. He did not hear me, and so I moved a little closer and called louder, “Sir? Can I help you with that?”

He was taking the squeegee to the hood of his car instead of the windshield, rubbing it against the surface slowly, awkwardly. He heard me and turned to look at me, his face a mask that I could not read. “What?” he said, in a voice that did not sound as old as he looked.

I gave him a friendly smile and said, “Can I wash that for you, sir?”

He looked at me and I could see by his face that he was tired. His blue eyes were milky and I briefly wondered about his vision and the fact that he was driving, yet he wore no glasses.  He did not smile back at me, but he did respond. “Can you wash this for me?” he said, more to himself than to me. “Can you wash this for me” he said again – more a statement than a question.

He sounded mad, and for a moment I wondered if I’d made a mistake in offering to help.

“Yes, I’d be happy to do that for–” I started, but he continued talking.

“I need the exercise,” he said to me. “My doctor says I need to exercise as much as possible. Every little bit helps, he says, so I need to exercise wherever I can”, he said.

I smiled, trying not to look as awkward as I felt. I glanced at his vehicle and noticed that the dash board was covered – and the backseat filled – with belongings. Personal care items, clothes, a blanket, medication, papers…

I had a strong suspicion that the man lived in this car.

I looked back at the man, and he was looking at me. “I hate to exercise,” he said to me.

I smiled again, and it felt genuine this time. “Well, I hate to exercise too,” I replied. “I’m with you on that one.”

He said, “My doctor tells me that I need to exercise to keep my strength, but the truth is, I just want to be done. I’m ninety-five and a V.A. outpatient, and my doctor tells me that I need to exercise but I’m tired.”

He looked back at his car and said again, “I’m tired. I just want to be done.”

I did not know how to respond to that. I glanced again at the interior of his car, then back at his weathered, tired, face with the milky eyes that still seemed to see me clearly, and wondered about this man’s life. I wondered if he had any family. I wondered if he had any friends. I wondered if he did, in fact, live in that car.

“I’ve got arthritis and my bones ache, and my leg is bum so its hard to get around,” he continued. “But I just keep going.” He turned back to look at me. “What else can I do, right?”

I glanced back at my own car, with my children in the back seat completely unaware of the encounter I was having, and felt an urge to climb back there and just hold them tight. I was suddenly very aware of how precious human connection is. As I stood before this tired man who had reached a point where he had seen enough, I felt a sense of overwhelming gratitude. In that moment, I realized that there is nothing in the universe I want more than the life I have and the people I hold in my heart. In that moment, I felt young and vibrant and full of love.

“But you asked if you could wash this for me,” the man went on, “and here I go on and on about myself. No, thank you for offering, but I can do this.” He looked me in the eye and gave me an appreciative nod, then turned back to his car.

I wanted to help this man, and heard a voice in my head say, “Help is what we ask for; service is what we render.” I reminded myself that I can not help anyone, but I can be of service to them, willingly and lovingly. I had offered to be of service to this man, and he declined. Still, I tried once more.

“Are you sure I can’t clean that for you, sir?” I asked, sensing the answer before I received it. “I would be happy to do it.”

He touched the squeegee to the hood of his vehicle and said without looking at me, “No, thank you, I’m just going to get this spot off the hood. Its a –” and he mumbled a few comments about whatever it was that he was cleaning off his car, which I could not hear or understand. Then he glanced back at me and said, “Thank you, though.”

I smiled at him one more time. “No problem. You have a good day, sir.”

He did not say anything further and turned back to his car. I walked back to my own car and returned the hose to the pump, collected my receipt, and got in my car.

As I drove away, it occurred to me what a gorgeously beautiful day it was, and I breathed deeply. I turned up the music for the kids and we sang. I looked out at the sun and the clouds and the trees and felt joy. I thought about my interaction with the man at the gas station and felt sadness. Mostly, I felt a deep appreciation for all of it. Everything.

Especially for my dirty windshield.

Fowl Mood

The day had a ninja-sun overhead – the kind where you don’t see how hot it is until it’s too late and the sun is upon you, killing you mercilessly with silent efficiency. I had been grateful for the sunshine after the few days of cold, rainy weather earlier in the week, so it didn’t occur to me to check the forecast – or to even step outside to gauge just how hot it was getting at the time we left the house.

That is how I found myself at the Temecula Duck Pond on a Sunday afternoon, sweltering in the sun as the sweat poured down my face and the traffic screamed by, the drivers oblivious to the fact that I was melting, melting, oh what a world.

No, it wasn’t the hottest day on record, or even the hottest day within the past month. That’s not the point. The point is that I was out at a duck pond at the hottest part of the day, and all of the shade in this otherwise lovely little area was taken: occupied by the winged creatures we were there to see. Nearly every square foot of shade was taken by hordes of lazy birds that apparently didn’t realize they were perfectly equipped to float on the nice, cool water in front of them. Instead, they sat in the shade of every tree around the pond, leaving just one area free for our use.

We were there to feed these ducks. My daughter loves this park, and often when we go out to visit her grandmother, we will take some old bread to the park and feed them while my son climbs various trees. It’s usually a very peaceful and relaxing experience.

Today was different. We arrived loaded with stale bread and expectations that we would be revered as royalty by the grateful masses of ducks and geese and coots and whatever other birds were in residence. We brought a few snacks and beverages for a picnic, certain that this would be a lovely outing in nature on a beautiful October afternoon.  

Instead, we were met with oppressive heat and flocks of disinterested birds who could not have cared any less about us. The only park bench that was in the shade was occupied by some withered old ladies in track suits. All other benches were baking in the sun, and a stroll around the water soon showed us that every tree that provided shade was surrounded by birds resting on the grass. Dozens of feather balls sat immobile beneath the trees, little avian squatters that crowded the land that wasn’t being scorched by the sun. Sure, we could’ve driven the birds out of the spaces they occupied, running through the shade and causing them all to scatter in a flurry of wings and squawks – but who would want to spread a blanket amidst the feathers and other leavings of a bunch of fat city ducks? We walked on by and they cast a bored eye at me as we passed, as if to say, “That’s right, keep on walking, Breadman, nothin’ to see here.”

The only spot of grassy shade was in the very corner of the park, nearest the intersection of two major streets that drove away any hopes of a peaceful picnic. We might as well have spread a blanket out on a freeway overpass.  The pummeling heat made it look like an oasis, though, so I took it without hesitation and spread our blanket in the grass.

Not one to let me rest when I want to, my daughter immediately said, “C’mon, Dad, let’s feed the ducks!”

“Well, don’t you wanna have something to drink first?” I hinted, hoping that suggested thirst might buy me some time out of the sun. It worked, and we all sat down on the blanket.

After getting the snacks and drinks and cooler and family all settled on our little picnic carpet, I took my seat on the corner of the blanket – and immediately discovered that my spot was not actually protected by shade. I looked up and saw the sun shining through a wide gap in the branches of the tree overhead, right down into my face. I sighed, too hot and tired and annoyed to bother moving everything.

“Okay, let’s go feed the ducks,” I told my daughter, and we grabbed some bread and walked out to the water’s edge.

Normally, the ducks swarm the person bearing the bread, descending into an orgy of feathered mayhem as they fight and jockey for position to catch the crumbs flung at them from the land. Normally, I enjoy this activity. Normally, we are out of bread in minutes. Normally, it’s not hotter than the surface of the sun out there.

Today, the ducks didn’t care who we were or what we were offering. They were completely uninterested. We tossed bread out into the water, and the ducks just watched the pieces hit the surface and sink beneath it. Never did they speed to the piece of bread like they usually do. Not once did they fight over which bird would get the morsel of food. At no time did they display any hint of recognition they were being fed. They just floated there in a rain of dried bread and remained completely unphased.

A few took the food. If it didn’t land too far away from them and they didn’t have to exert too much effort to reach it, they’d stick their bills in the water and siphon up the soggy flap of dinner roll in front of them. But most couldn’t be bothered. More than one chunk of bread whacked a duck in the head. Many pieces fell on the backs of the birds and sat there like croutons until the bird moved. Most, however, just landed in the water and soaked it up, turning the dried hunks of bread into ghostly pieces of floating trash that, while biodegradable, looked like dead skin peeled off a sunburn. Our portion of the lake came to resemble a particularly unpleasant bowl of egg flower soup.

I’d eaten too many pancakes at breakfast that were sitting in my belly like a big ball of paste, the heat was making me miserable, and all I wanted to do was lie down in a cool room. The birds didn’t care we were there – why bother staying? I stuck it out as long as I could to allow the kids to get something out of the visit. I busied myself by wondering if anyone ever came here and poached these birds for their barbecue.

I don’t know how long we were there, but it felt like hours. We’d only touched a fraction of the bread we took, and only a few of our own snacks were eaten. Apparently we were as unenthusiastic about eating in the heat as the ducks were. Finally, we gathered up our stuff and headed for the car.

Walking to the parking lot, I saw another car pulling into a space across from ours. A family got out and started up the side walk to the little gate that surrounded the pond. One of them carried a plastic bread bag.

No wonder these birds didn’t eat anything. There is probably a non-stop conga line of bird watchers flowing into this park to dump their leftover bread into the gullets of these ungrateful creatures. I almost said something to the new arrivals heading in with their bread – to warn them that they were bound for disappointment – but I was hot and it would’ve taken too much energy.

In retrospect, I see that the resentment came from unfulfilled expectations – I expected to be adored by the birds, and they adored me not. I see now that it really was a perfectly fine afternoon. But I couldn’t see any of that until later. After a nap. An air conditioned nap.

Tis the Season for Horror and Madness

The lunatic on the street corner should have been the strangest sight of the evening, but he wasn’t.

The show started at 11:00 pm, and we had half an hour to kill after we found parking right on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. I needed coffee because I was out past my bedtime, but in this part of town, there were not a lot of coffee establishments within walking distance. We spotted a pizza place about half a mile down and decided to try our luck there.

Nearing the intersection of Lankershim and Vineland, we passed a bus stop where a man was bent over a bike and talking to himself. I glanced at him so briefly that I didn’t even have time to register anything about his appearance, other than he seemed young, in his twenties. But in that split second that I glanced at him, he looked at me, and I saw the insanity brewing in those eyes. As we passed the spot where he stood, I heard him say, “Don’t fuckin’ look at me.”

The bus stop where this gentleman loitered was right at the corner of an awkward intersection of three streets instead of two, which meant  that the crossing signal would take a long time to change. In other words, we were stuck standing a mere ten feet away from the charming man with the crazy eyes and sunny demeanor.

We kept our backs to him and ignored him while we waited for the light to change and allow us to cross. As we stood there, he muttered and raved and spoke in tongues – or at least it sounded like he was speaking in tongues; my hearing was never stellar, and coupled with the roar of traffic going by, it was hard to catch everything he said. I believe I heard him say something about fucking me up, which was odd because shortly afterward I heard him say something about how nice my ass looked in the jeans I was wearing. While I was prepared to fight should it become necessary, I have to admit it is flattering to be complimented by young twenty-somethings – I mean, it doesn’t happen often at my age.

He went on with lots of swearing and lots of sexual braggadocio – soon he was commenting on the attractive woman shown on the billboard across the street and what forms of sweet love he would make with her – love that involved lots of hitting, apparently. My friend just chuckled and glanced back at the man, and made a comment about demons or something – I didn’t hear what he said, exactly, as I was busy calculating all the different ways this encounter could go wrong.

Fortunately, however, the light changed and we made our way across the busy street and reached the pizza place, where they made a fresh pot of coffee just for us. On our return journey, the madman was nowhere to be found, and I was both relieved and disappointed. It is rare that I encounter actual madness these days, and I admit the thrill-seeker in me was hoping for another glimpse into it.

Our destination was Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre for the night’s showing of “Urban Death”, a performance that, as it turned out, was unlike any live performance I have seen. Entering the building, the smell of incense and candles indicated this was not going to be a typical theater-going experience (as if the name of the show did not indicate this clearly). We were near the end of the line of about forty people who were led in to a very, very small theater – the stage and seating area combined were not much bigger than my living room. We ended up in the back row, but since there were only four rows, it wasn’t really a problem.

The room was entirely black. It was filled with eerie synthesized music from a sound system that had sufficient bass to vibrate my bones but was not overpowering at all – it set the mood perfectly. The only light was a bright lamp in the corner that was positioned behind a mannequin in a red dress, standing with her head slumped to her chest and arms dangling down, her frizzy blonde hair obscuring her features. She looked like a doll waiting to be wound up. The light was filtered through her red dress, casting a bloody glow into the room.

The audience got settled, some going to the far corner of the room where the only bathroom was located. As we waited, a woman went to the four walls of the theater and appeared to be carving something into them. When she finished the wall I was sitting by, I looked at what she did – she had made a little cross in white tape. For a moment, I honestly wondered if it was to ward off evil spirits.

Something caught my attention, and I glanced back at the mannequin in the corner. There was something not right about it. The light was so dim that my eyes were having trouble adjusting, and combined with the eerie music filling the room, the cognitive dissonance was increased. The mannequin seemed like it was changed somehow. Different from when we walked in.

The eerie music continued to set a discordant mood, and the only thing that kept the energy in the room light was the casual chatter of the audience members waiting for the show to begin. I realized that the theater workers were waiting for the remaining audience members in the restroom to finish their business and take their seats.

I glanced back at the mannequin, and she moved slightly but suddenly, as though jolted by an electric shock. The effect was enough to make some goosebumps break out on my arms as I realized that this was no mannequin but a real woman who had been standing in the corner the whole time as the audience filed in. Every half minute or so, she would move in a sudden, slight jerk that seemed like she was being operated by remote control. It was sufficiently creepy to both delight and unsettle me.

As show time neared, her movements got more pronounced and more frequent, until finally, when the last audience member left the restroom and the theater manager slid the giant door closed, sealing us in the black room, the blonde woman in the red dress was standing in a pose that somehow made me think of Lady Gaga on a meat hook.

Then the lights went out, and we were plunged into darkness. For a moment the only things visible were little glowing crosses on the walls, and I realized the woman who was warding off evil spirits was actually posting glow-in-the-dark tape on the walls for the performers to use as some sort of visual guide – for with the lights out, the room was utter blackness. I mean can’t-see-hand-in-front-of-face blackness.

The next hour was filled with vignettes and images that alternated between startlingly horrific, hilariously twisted, and genuinely creepy. If I tried to describe them here, it would likely put you off your lunch, but trust me when I say that the scenes covered the full spectrum of the human horror experience: ghosts and ghouls, axe-wielding psychopaths, witches and monsters, cannibalism, genital-mutilation, things that snatch you and drag you into the darkness, and baby showers.

I found myself jolted in my seat one minute, laughing out loud the next, and feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up soon after that. I never knew what was coming next – whether it be a laugh or a scream – and the production kept the audience off balance that way. The sound preceding a vignette was often the only indicator of whether the scene would be of the humorous or the horrific variety – and even then, there were no guarantees.

The best moments were the ones that left the true horror to the imagination, and looking back, I realize that what we were actually shown was minimal – my mind provided the rest. In that way, the performance was brilliant. The over-the-top, shock-and-nauseate moments were fun for a Halloween-time vibe, but the moments where we were left to supply our own context were very effective in leaving fearsome images in my mind that stayed with me on the drive home. As a fan of horror movies, comedy, and all things bizarre, this show was right in my wheelhouse. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

As we stepped out the theater door back onto the sidewalk, red and blue police lights flashed in the night. Two cop cars and four officers gathered across the street, their spotlights flooding the streetcorner. A bicycle lay on the sidewalk, and a shirtless man was on his knees, hands cuffed behind his back, being questioned by two officers while the other two were inspecting the contents of a backpack.

It was the young man we encountered earlier, the lunatic with the crazy eyes. He didn’t look crazy now, he looked small, and somehow broken. He looked scared.

We walked the other way, to our car. I thought about that man, and our encounter with him, and how my friend mentioned “demons” at the time. The man was troubled, obviously. I thought about the demons he is fighting – demons of addiction, demons of mental illness, demons of a wounded heart. I’ve battled those same demons in my life; I recognize the fear he must be feeling. I have faced that same fear. Maybe that’s why horror stories, movies, and plays appeal to me so much: they are all, essentially, farce. Nothing in a book, stage or screen is as terrifying as the darkness inside a man.

Missed Connection

To the driver of the unremarkable white SUV who entered into the intersection of Jamboree and El Camino Real at the Tustin Marketplace this afternoon, who was making a right-hand turn just as I was making a left hand turn, and who entered into my lane just as I was entering it, and who did not seem to see me as he made the turn and who came within inches of colliding with me, to the point where I was bracing myself for impact and a huge auto-body repair bill, and who surprised me by somehow not hitting me after all, and who left me feeling amazedly breathless as I proceeded to get on the 5 freeway onramp thanking my stars that an accident was averted:

I’m sorry. It was my fault. I should not have tried to beat the yellow light. That intersection has a notoriously short yellow, and I should have just stopped. If I hadn’t been rushed, the “near-miss” would never have occurred. That’s why I didn’t lay on my horn, shake my fist or flip you off. I didn’t do anything because I don’t know what the universal sign is for “My bad.”

Now Cheer This

Today I saw a sign at a high school that advertised a “Cheer Clinic”.

A cheer clinic – a workshop where students can get together to develop their cheering abilities.

Really? Is a “clinic” needed for cheering? They already have cheerleading practice – where the students get together to work on their cheers and cheer-related activities, like hyper-competitiveness and haughty judgmentalism. Is practice not enough? Is the art of cheer such that one cannot develop the skills necessary to perform adequately through routine practice alone? A specialized day of training is needed?

Aren’t we just talking about shouting out scripted words at the same time we’re moving our feet and our hands & arms to a specified rhythm? Isn’t regular practice sufficient for this?

I was going to mention the common goal of cheering for the school’s team, but now I’m wondering – has “cheer” risen to its own level of importance where the participants no longer lead cheers for the game events, but compete against each other as displayed in “Bring It On” and other equally inane films? If the cheerleaders are busy competing against each other, who is rooting for the teams? Where are the athletic supporters? (insert rim shot here)

I admit it’s been a while since I’ve attended a high school sporting event and even longer since I cared, but what I recall about cheerleaders is that they contributed a fat lot of nothin’ to the team’s chances of winning or losing. They were human busywork, shuffling and bouncing and yelling at the bottom of my peripheral vision as I tried to watch the game at hand. I never really got their purpose, but I figured their usefulness (or lack thereof) would eventually be recognized and the practice would die out over time, like spanking students in public schools. I never really questioned anything about cheerleading – until today, when I saw the advertisement for a cheer clinic.

If there are people out there who insist on providing continued training for cheerleaders, it will only encourage the practice to continue. Cheerleading is the stray dog of school activities: if you feed it, it’s just gonna keep coming around.