Another Middle Finger – This Time, It’s Personal

No, this post is not about my fractured middle finger from a few posts ago, though it is healing nicely, thanks for asking.

Yesterday morning, I was driving to drop off my kids at their mom’s house on my way to work. They were subdued and barely conscious, having just woken up minutes before I herded them into the car. It was a peaceful morning, and the sun was already hot as it filtered through my dirty windshield. I came to an intersection, and stopped at the red light. I tapped on the steering wheel in time with the music on the radio, waiting for the light to change.

I was in the third of four lanes of traffic, so there were two lanes between me and the curb on the right. I had a few cars in front of me, but no cars to my right, so I had a clear view of the bus stop at the corner. I wasn’t really paying attention to anything, just waiting for the light to change, as I glanced at the people waiting on the bench for their bus.

Then I saw him. Young man, mid-twenties, sitting away from the rest of the people at the bus stop. Scowl on his face, arm extended, middle finger raised in the air. Both the scowl and the finger were directed at me.

This bus stop stranger was flipping me off. Read Whole Post

The Perfect Father’s Day Gift

I gave my dad an onion for Father’s Day.

As Father’s Day gifts go, it was unusual, to say the least. Generally speaking, produce is not commonly given as gifts to anyone, let alone men on Father’s Day. But it is true – my dad got an onion on Father’s Day some thirty-five years ago.

I was six or seven years old – about the age my daughter is today – and holidays were special occasions. Father’s Day did not seem to have the same importance to me that Mother’s Day had, and I attributed that to the fact that I saw my mom regularly every day. I had a relationship with her. I felt close to her. So it was natural when Mother’s Day came around, I would want to honor that. I may not have understood what “honor” meant at age seven, but even a kid knows how to express love. But Father’s Day was different for me, and at the time I didn’t know why. It just wasn’t as big a deal. I wanted to get my dad a gift for the day, but I had no idea what to get the man.

Because I did not know him.

I did not see my father regularly every day. I did not have a relationship with him. I did not feel close to him. And as a result of this, I did not have any idea of what kind of gift to give him for Father’s Day.

At seven, I understood that gifts should be made of things the recipient likes. In that sense, Mother’s Day was easy, because my mom loved flowers, and she loved the artwork we would bring home from school (at least she acted like she did!), so I remember making paper flowers for her one Mother’s Day – yellow daffodils –  and she demonstrated love and appreciation in return.

So I tried to think of what my father liked. And at seven years old, I could think of only two things: cigarettes and beer. Both of those were out, of course. Too young to buy either, even if I had the money to do so, which I didn’t. But what did he like? What did he enjoy?

The only thing that came to my mind was an onion. This is because I had seen my father eat onions all the time. The cutting board of our kitchen frequently smelled strongly of onions, for he would slice off the ends of the onion, then peel the papery outer layers of the onion and leave the remnants on the cutting board, much to my mother’s vexation.

My father would eat the raw onion like an apple — biting into it whole.

At the time, as a kid, the only thing I thought about this was, “yuck”. (Actually, as an adult, I still think “yuck” at the idea of eating an onion like an apple.) But he did a lot of things that I considered “yucky” when I was a little boy – he hunted and killed deer and elk; he fished for trout and salmon and all manner of water-dwelling creatures whose taste did not agree with me; the smoking and drinking were very unappealing. So it was just one more thing about him I didn’t understand.

But I figured, he liked onions – I’ll get him an onion. So a few days before Father’s Day, I got the biggest onion I could find in the onion bin at the grocery store, and in order to make it a surprise, I hid it behind the couch until Sunday morning, and gave it to him as a gift.

I remember the appreciative look on his face, a sort of tolerant detachment that he always seemed to favor me with whenever we did actually interact. He thanked me for the onion, saying it was “real nice”. Eventually, he ate it.

It was not until many, many years later that I learned the only reason he ate raw onions was to mask the odor of alcohol on his breath when he went to work.

My father drank, and my father experienced much loss through the years related to his problems with alcohol. Whether he recognizes the loss of a relationship with his youngest son, I don’t know. He doesn’t really talk about that.

Today, we speak at holidays and such, and when we do, we speak of surface things – the weather, his boat, any luck he may have had at the casino recently… He’ll ask about me, and I’ll give him the “bird bath” version of my life (not going very deep), and he may ask about his grandchildren, depending on how the conversation is going. Eventually, one of us will mention the time and how we ought to let the other one go, and we say goodbye and hang up. And that brief, awkward interaction will last me for another six months, or until another holiday comes around.

No, it’s not the kind of relationship I want with my dad, but it’s the relationship I have. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “fake it til I make it”, but no matter what I have done, I’ve never been able to cultivate any sort of bond with the man. I’ve tried, but I can’t conjure something from nothing. I’m not that good of a magician.

I spent many years in a lot of anger and sadness about my father. I felt like I got “ripped off” in the dad department, when I’d see my friends with dads who participated in their lives and I had a man who lived in the same house with me but was completely unavailable.

I felt like my father never gave me anything other than a legacy of wreckage and loss, of heartbreak and missed opportunity. Gifts no child would want. As an adult, I came to feel such resentment over this – and of course, that resentment was only poisoning me.

When I learned that “forgiveness” was something that I do for myself, and not something that I bestow upon another person once I deem them worthy, I took a big step forward in my emotional growth. A wise person once pointed out to me that to forgive simply means “to see it another way”. If I can see something from another viewpoint aside from my own, it allows space to breathe, to contemplate, to release.

How I could “see it another way” in my father’s case was, “He did the best he could, and his best wasn’t all that good — according to me.” And – he was a sick man, a man with his own wounds, and was unable to give his youngest son what he needed most. But he did the best he could. The truth is, if he could have done better, he would have.

Today I’ve gotten to the point where I am “okay” with this. It is not what I would want for myself, but it’s okay. But every now and then, I get into a little bit of self-pity, and I go down that path of “I didn’t have this, I didn’t have that, I missed out on this, I wish I could’ve done that…” Pointless wallowing in my own disappointment and sadness – it’s a slippery slope into a trap, and I best avoid it at all costs. For when I fall into that trap, I get stuck, and misery ensues. I’ve found the way out of self-pity is to be of service — to get out of self, and into others.

Today, I have two kids who know their Dad loves them completely. They have seen their father dress up in costume, play games, have impromptu Saturday Night Living Room Dance Parties, teach them about life, hug them when they cry, blow raspberries on their bellies while they giggle and squeal, race with them, help them make good choices, talk to them in funny voices, introduce them to art and music and nature and Spirit, dazzle them with my vast knowledge of the universe, and–if I’m lucky–get them to eat a vegetable once in a while.

Nobody taught me how to do this. Nobody told me this is what I should do for my kids. I didn’t read this anywhere. All of this came to me from a simple question: what did I want my dad to do when I was their age? From the time they were babies, that has been my guiding thought in how best to serve my kids – to be the kind of father I wanted to have for myself.

And I’m a fantastic Dad. In a way, I have my father to thank for this — for it was his parenting that engendered this vigilance I feel to be that fantastic Dad. Because of the example he provided in how not to be a father, I have become a better dad, and a better man.

I guess he did give me a worthwhile gift after all. Maybe I’ll thank him for it when I call to wish him a Happy Father’s Day.

Hugs, Not Rx

“Health Care” – two words that bring to mind calm and peaceful images, like “atomic blast” or “prison riot”. Few subjects seem to have such a polarizing effect on friendly conversation these days. Relax – I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that hot-button topic. But today I was reminded of a series of health-care-related incidents of an unusual sort – incidents that, although quite simple, utterly amazed me when they occurred. This is a story about three doctors – three men who showed me that my whole view of medical practitioners was very limited, and who –perhaps unknowingly– restored my faith in mankind.

I’ve had a lot of doctors over my lifetime. Some better than others, naturally – doctors are just like any other segment of human society in that you’ll have your really good ones like Heathcliff Huxtable and your really bad ones like Hannibal Lecter. And while those are two fictional examples, there is surely no shortage of evildoing doctors in the history books. But I would imagine that those are the rarities, and that most doctors would be considered at least respectable, if not benevolent.

Some of the doctors I’ve had were flat-out brilliant, and some seemed rather out of touch with modern times and probably started practicing medicine when leeches were still considered a cure-all. Some were wise and instilled instant comfort and confidence, and some seemed young and green — the ink on the medical license probably not even dry yet. Some were very thorough and took their time with me, and some seemed to be working in an HMO medical factory where we patients were herded along like cattle for a seven-minute consultation where no eye contact was made.

Throughout my life, my experiences with doctors all had one consistent theme: I saw doctors as service providers. I never really thought about the human beings they were under the white coats. I never thought about them as regular people who just happened to have a bunch of letters after their name. I went to them when I had a problem, and I expected they would know what to do to fix it. I never really saw them in another light until two years ago.

Two years ago, when my marriage ended, I was a mess. I think anyone who goes through divorce can probably admit to having days where it seemed like the world was crashing down on them, and they were simply at their worst emotionally, mentally, and physically. I was no exception. It was the hardest period of my life, and while the emotional and mental difficulties were expected, I was unprepared for the physical effects the grief would have.

I couldn’t sleep. I was a ball of anxiety as I went through each day spinning on thoughts ranging from fears of financial devastation to forlorn heartbreak to wrathful plots of revenge. It was hard to drift into a peaceful slumber when, just as sleep was about to engulf me, I would think of a new expense to worry about, or I would invent a new scenario of “what really went on behind my back”, or I would come up with a new way of committing murder without getting caught. Sleep just doesn’t enter that kind of neighborhood.

I lost weight – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for me, and in fact I’ll be the first to say that The Divorce Diet is just about the most effortless form of weight loss there is. [I envision an infomercial about The Divorce Diet in which I give testimony, my broad smile resembling The Joker without make-up, with a “before” photo of a heavier me superimposed in the background; I stare sort of wide-eyed and crazy into the camera, saying “It was effortless! The weight just fell off of me – it simply disappeared! Sort of like my hopes and dreams of retirement, or any sense of who I was as a man!”]

Every time I looked in the mirror, I would see this haunted visage staring back at me. I barely recognized that man (“Hey, I lost my double-chin! Thanks, Divorce Diet!”). I had dark circles under eyes that were perpetually red-rimmed, and though I looked like a wreck, I didn’t care much about that. However, my heartbeat felt irregular and I always seemed short of breath. When I started to notice my hands trembled slightly, I realized that I should probably see a doctor. Not for myself, for at the time I didn’t really care what happened to me; but for my kids, because they needed their Dad.

I made an appointment to see my General Practitioner, a man about my age who I will call Dr. Justin. I had been a patient of Dr. Justin for several years and felt comfortable with him – he embodies all of the “good” qualities that I think a doctor should have: smart, kind, thorough, friendly. I genuinely liked him, and thought he would be able to give me some advice on what to do about the lack of sleep, the shortness of breath, the shakes.

After being checked in and getting weighed and blood-pressure-checked by the nurse, I sat in the examining room in a daze. All my days were spent in a daze back then. After a quick knock, Dr. Justin came in, smiling and a handshake ready. He asked how I was and I said simply, “Okay”.

Maybe it was something in my voice, maybe it was the dark circles and red-rimmed eyes, but he evidently saw that I was not, in fact, “okay”. He frowned slightly and sat on the little wheeled stool and looked at his computer pad that has taken the place of clipboards in twenty-first century doctor’s offices.

“Wow, looks like you’ve lost some weight,” he said, looking at the nurse’s notation. “That’s great.” He looked up at me and again must have seen the dark clouds brimming there, for he then said, “So. What’s going on?” He didn’t say “What are you here for today?” or “What seems to be the problem?” or any of the standard questions. Simply, “What’s going on?” Casual and friendly, it put me at ease.

I let out a deep sigh and told him what was going on with me. He listened. He just listened and waited for me to tell what I had to tell without interrupting. When I was done, he was again simple, casual, and friendly. “Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. I know how hard it must be right now.”

He then went on to talk about what he has seen in men our age, when dealing with stress, crisis, life-changing events. He spoke from his position as a doctor treating men just like me, and I could tell he spoke the truth. His words were not meant to make me feel better, they were just meant to give me awareness, to share experience. I liked that he didn’t treat me as a victim; he just treated me as the wounded man I was. Wounded, but still a man.

We spoke for nearly forty-five minutes (which is an eternity by today’s doctor’s office-visit standards) before he even talked of treatment. He gave suggestions on what I could do to manage and cope with what the conditions of life were presenting me at the time. Eating better will help with sleep. Sleep will help with the shortness of breath and the shaky hands. Exercise will help most of all, he said, and suggested I find a new activity to try.

“Take this opportunity to re-invent yourself,” he said. “Do something you’ve always wanted to do. Try new things. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you, and you’re healthy for the most part. Think of things that you want to do, and go do them. You’ll get through this.”

I knew our time was at an end, and there was really nothing left to say anyway. I felt tears want to well up at his last few kind words, and I held them back. Too many people had seen me cry lately, I didn’t want to add to the list in my doctor’s office. I took a deep breath, stood up, and said, “Thank you, Doctor.”

He stood as I did, and I reached to shake his hand like I always do. But instead of grasping my hand, he opened his arms and embraced me. My doctor gave me a hug.

I was so stunned by it that I barely had time to register that I was being hugged and thus hug him back before it was over. I had never been hugged by one of my “service providers” before, and I was completely surprised. I felt a lump form in my throat and I didn’t think I’d be able to talk, but as I stepped back I managed to croak another “Thanks” before picking up my paperwork and heading for the door.

“Be well,” he said as I walked away. I looked back with a nod and what felt like a genuine smile. As I checked out and took the elevator down, I marveled over that hug. So unexpected, so out of the ordinary, so appreciated.

The following week, I sat in my therapist’s office, a man I’ll call Dr. Kerry. I had been seeing him for years at this point, so he had counseled me through all the recent months of my marriage disintegrating, but this was my first time seeing him since I’d hit the “emotional bottom” of the separation process.  This was the first time I’d seen him since I learned the truth about what I now simply call “The Betrayal”.

I usually get 45 minutes in his office, and it is always a useful 45 minutes. When I leave Dr. Kerry’s office, I have something I didn’t have when I got there – some new insight or awareness that had not occurred to me before.  He knows me well, and he’s good at what he does: what he does for me is help me to see that I’m really okay.

As he ushered me in to his office and I took my standard place on the couch across from his chair, he could tell by one look at me I was not okay that day.

“What’s going on today?” he asked quietly, speaking in a soothing tone that is like the cool side of a pillow on a hot night. I started talking, then raging, then weeping, then talking some more. I was all over the place in my narration, covering the whole range of the human emotional condition. I could’ve been speaking in tongues for all I know – I only knew that I was in pain and it hurt badly. He mostly listened, and offered comments where comment was needed.

I spent a long time dumping a whole mess of emotion into his office that afternoon, until he eventually said to me –in the gentlest way possible—“We gotta stop there.” I looked at the clock and saw that a full 60 minutes had passed – something that had never happened before. I also saw that I had used up the whole box of tissues that sat on the end table by the couch. I nodded and wiped my eyes with the last tissue I held in my hands, and tossed it into the wastebasket as I stood up.

He, too, stood up at the same time, and once again, as I moved to leave his office, my doctor stepped forward and gave me a hug. I had been seeing this man for several years, but up until that moment I had only ever shook his hand. That day, he apparently saw something that Dr. Justin also saw – a deeply sad man who needed to be embraced by another human being.

I hugged him back briefly, and again managed a “Thanks” as I let go, but as I pulled away, he held me by the shoulders at arms length and looked me in the eye. He spoke clearly, directly, and with a gentle force that was meant to get past all the negative messages I fed myself. “You will be okay,” he said intently, his eyes kind and clear and certain. He half-nodded and raised his eyebrows as if to ask if I understood, continuing to lock me in his gaze. I nodded silently, then turned and headed for the door.

I felt slightly embarrassed, but tremendously grateful. I felt like I was not alone.

About a month later, I had my six-month check-up with my dentist. I’ll call him Dr. Xerxes. This man has been my dentist for nearly fifteen years, and every six months he gets an update on my life. I was nearly four months past-due for this particular check-up, so it had been almost a year since I’d last seen him – a long, dark year. I’d postponed my appointment for months because I just couldn’t get it together to go, I was so stuck in my misery. I finally got to the “Life goes on” stage of progression, and made good on my appointment.

Dr. Xerxes came breezing in to the exam room, all smiles and perfect white teeth, and said “Hey man – wow, you look great! You’ve really lost some weight!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” I said, thinking that forty pounds is more than a “guess”.

His eyes widened and he flashed those perfect teeth again, and said, “Well, you look great! How’d you do it?” I noticed that he, too, was looking much slimmer than the last time I’d seen him. “You working out?”

“Well,” I said, and suddenly remembered that my former wife was also his patient, and would likely be seeing him soon if she hadn’t already, and so I chose my words carefully. “I’m – we’re — separated right now, going through a divorce, so it just kinda happened.” I shrugged awkwardly and smiled equally so. “The weight loss, I mean. It just kinda happened.”

His smile faded from his mouth but not from his eyes – they still shone with bright awareness and knowledge. “Ahh,” he said, nodding sagely, “The Grief Diet. I know all about that,” he said, and took a step back and gestured to his body.  “I lost 25 pounds on it,” he said, confirming my suspicion that he was slimmer than I remembered. “My wife and I divorced last year.”

Suddenly the room equalized and I felt completely at ease with Dr. Xerxes, and it occurred to me that he was always good at helping me feel at ease when I’m in his chair. I guess this explains why I’ve been seeing him for fifteen years. He’s also good at what he does.

Instead of having his hygienist do my cleaning that day, he opted to do it himself – a first in all my years as his patient. He cleaned my teeth himself as he talked with me about my situation, his experience, the commonalities we shared. He commiserated with me, he supported me, he made me laugh. He invited me for drinks if I needed to talk. I was moved beyond words at this outpouring of concern and care from my dentist.

And again –perhaps not so surprisingly this time—upon check-out, he stepped toward me, thanking me for coming in, and opened his arms to embrace me, which I did, much less awkwardly than the previous two times with the previous two doctors. This time felt natural, as if it were not unheard of for professional health care providers – even male professional health care providers– to hug their patients.

Three hugs from three doctors. Simple gestures that had an extraordinary effect on me. I have not forgotten them, and my appreciation for these men increased exponentially as a result. Since then, I have discovered that men in all walks of life are not only capable of hugging another man without any sense of awkwardness, but do it regularly, intentionally, as part of who they are. Today I am happy to count myself as one of them – a man who is alive and kicking again, who does not carry the fear and pain and sadness that shuts men down and hardens their hearts.

Everyone, everywhere, at some point or other, needs to be embraced by another human being. And when a person is at his lowest point, that need becomes acute. These three doctors of various disciplines understood this, and when I was at my lowest, they seemed to know exactly what was needed. It was more useful and effective than any pill they could have prescribed. I wonder if they teach this in medical school. If not, maybe they should. 

Today, I hug everyone, warmly and genuinely, because I want to – because I have love and compassion in my heart. When I greet someone, I hug them. When I say goodbye to someone, I hug them. When I congratulate someone, I hug them. When I thank someone, I hug them. I find that I usually hug at least one human being every day – as much for myself as for them.

In terms of health care, one could call it “preventative maintenance”. Hugs are good medicine. No insurance necessary.

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.

Just Another Day (after)

I admit that I had pre-conceived opinions of the idea of a “Tribute Band”. I judged them as musicians who could not make a name for themselves on their own merit and thus rode the coattails of a well-known artist in order to gain some small amount of celebrity without having to find a “real job”. Herbert Spencer correctly labeled contempt prior to investigation as a principle that would keep a man in “everlasting ignorance”. I now see my old ideas on the subject were completely flawed.

Last night I had the opportunity to attend a concert featuring an Oingo Boingo tribute band called Dead Man’s Party. I went with two guys I’ve known since high school, Lee and Larry, whom I had only seen once in the last 20 years. When I got to the theater and saw them, I was amazed at how quickly we fell into the old familiar rhythms of humor, wisecracks, and good-natured jabs at each others’ expense. I asked myself several times why I had not seen these men in so long, for I felt so glad to be with them, it was good for the soul.

We made many jokes about the opening act, featuring a lead singer who could not have been more than 12 years old and the courage to belt out a few AC/DC tunes. When his voice changes, he might have a future – an original song they performed that this young kid wrote showed promise.

The next act was a Misfits tribute band, and I was horrified to hear myself saying “all these songs sound the same” – but they did. We laughed heartily at the bass player’s intro count – “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!” – to every song, and were forced to watch the lead guitarist -sporting a black leather vest- shred on the guitar in a manner that caused his gut to vibrate like a coin-operated bed in a cheap motel. When they announced, “This is our last song”, we shared a collective cheer.

When the headlining act came out, Lee – who has seen Dead Man’s Party on multiple occasions and who organized the evening’s get together – shot out to the pit to express his inner rock fan. I was immediately impressed by the bands tight sound, and how incredibly alike they sounded to the actual band. The lead singer had all of Danny Elfman’s good-natured-yet-creepily-psychotic expressions and mannerisms – and also a hell of a voice. He absolutely sold me from the first song.

Sitting at our table on the outer ring of the theater, the band launched into “Private Life” and I couldn’t take it anymore — I had to get up and dance. So I told Larry I was going out there and I hit the pit. Seconds later, Larry was right behind me.

Getting to the center of the pit, I found Lee and tapped him on the shoulder as I joined in the singing and the fist pumping. Lee turned and saw me and the look of joy on his face was worth the traffic I sat in to get to the show – he embraced me in a big, joyful hug and we joined in the singing, with Larry taking up position on the other side. The three of us bounced, jumped, shook, slammed, singed, screamed and laughed through song after song.

This will sound trite and cliche, but I was transported back to the days (or nights) of my youth, attending Boingo shows at Irvine Meadows and doing all the bouncing, jumping, singing to the same songs. The effect was surreal — it wasn’t Boingo, but it was a Boingo show. The band nailed every nuance of every song, and played selections from the catalog that went further back than even I remembered. The band were clearly having a great time themselves, and the atmosphere of fun spilled over the edge of the stage and enveloped the audience of thirty- and forty-somethings who were all there for the same reasons we were: to hear music that we grew up with, that harkened back to a time when life was a party and the biggest concern we had was whether we would get seats on the terrace or end up on the lawn.

The band played over 2 1/2 hours and played nearly every song I could think of. The party atmosphere increased as the night went on and the strangers in the audience became friends as they stepped on each others feet and apologized, only to be met with an “It’s okay dude!” and a pat on the back. I was jumping like a coked-up gazelle during my favorite songs and more than once bumped into someone I didn’t know. Never was it met with anything other than a good-natured smile and a wave of dismissal to say “don’t worry about it.”

I don’t know where the energy came from. I am twice as old as I was when I would attend the Boingo Halloween shows, and recently the concerts I’ve attended have had the mellow, relaxed vibe of John Mayer or David Gray or Natalie Merchant – even the U2 show I went to at the Rose Bowl last year –where I stood the entire show and danced occasionally — couldn’t match the frenzy of wild abandon I reached as the band launched into “Grey Matter”. I was sweating buckets and knew that I’d be paying a price for all the leaping and bouncing and slamming I was doing, but I didn’t care: at that moment, I wasn’t a fortyish single dad getting a rare night out with adults; I was a free and vital young man who was living life like it was 1989, and I lost track of any care or concern I had.

After the show ended and we were in the Denny’s next door, I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt high, though I was stone cold sober. I was giddy, and couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like I had just been through a transformation of some kind, and in a way I had been: I’d been transported back to my youth, where I partied for a few hours, and then transported back to the present where the effects still lingered. The smile is still on my face as I write this nearly 24 hours later.

A tribute band wields magical powers. I imagine those powers are proportional to how much an audience member loves their music, or what kind of memories that person associates with the original band. For me, Dead Man’s Party hypnotized me into thinking I was 21 again and enjoying a kick-ass New Wave show, and they did it all while singing and playing instruments. That’s no easy task – I’d say that’s a “real job”.

By the way, I am so not 21 anymore. I am paying the price today with sore legs, no voice, and impromptu napping. Magic spells seldom last long.