Sunday, January 27, 2013

Strange Vibrations

I was in Walmart last week when the overriding feeling of being surrounded by zombies overtook me.  I walked over to my son Daniel and half-way joked that we were surrounded by "Walkers" (a term they use for the Undead on The Walking Dead).    He laughed nervously but I could tell he knew the energy in the space was off — way, way off.  The back of my head started to tighten up and I was having a hard time being able to focus.   We had gotten some gift certificates to Walmart for Christmas and decided to use them even though I rarely shop there because I get a weird head buzz (not in a good way) almost every time I go.  Some Walmarts are better than others, but the one near us is really hard for me to shop in.  I decided not to say anything more until both of the kids begged to go because they were feeling dizzy and uncomfortable.   We gathered up what we could buy that day and walked to the register - walking past people with blank expressions on their faces, glazed looks in their eyes and not really looking like they were enjoying their shopping excursion.  Our cashier looked miserable and our discomfort got worse, but we were so close to finally being out of there.    We fled the glaring fluorescent lights and managed to exit to our car as sunshine dissipated our angst.   Both of the kids asked me how I was doing and I responded "Fine, now that we're out of there - but next time we go on-line to shop at Walmart."   

We drove to the peaceful repose of Target where we grabbed a quick bite and some Starbucks and finished the list of items we thought we could buy at Walmart.   I've always liked the vibe at Target - the icies and popcorn to keep the kids happy while you shop.  There are smiling salespeople who look like they enjoy working there.  It feels like home - it should because I'm usually there at least once or twice a week.  It's comfortable.  It's the retail version of "Cheers" - they might not know my name - but the folks at the food court usually remember my order.  It's that sort of positive energy that I'm drawn to.   This is not a knock at the people who work or shop at Walmart per say, but just an observation of how I perceive the energy at Target as being positive versus the energy of Walmart being negative.  Target is a physically and emotionally more comfortable place for me to shop.   Now my kids have started to pick up on that same kind of Walmart energy with very little prompting from me except for an occasional snarky zombie comment.  

It can be tough to be sensitive in a rather insensitive world where you can leave anonymous insults on Twitter or YouTube or create fake Facebook accounts to trash a perceived enemy.  People are not always receptive to the needs of others which creates angst which causes more anger which causes more angst so it becomes a vicious cycle.  If you can pick up on those types emotions like me, it effects you on numerous levels.  If I walk into a room and the energy is off - I'll feel it no matter how much of a happy face someone tries to put on.  I know if a co-worker is having a bad time even before she opens up to me because I can just sense it.  Sometimes I can feel their physical discomfort - like a stomach cramp or a fight they just had with a spouse and how tight their chest feels.  I've learned over time how to seal off my aura so that other people's emotional turmoil doesn't imprint on me.   It's sort of like a psychic raincoat - I can still feel the rain, it just doesn't get me as wet.  

I guess that's why I've never been a fan of certain kinds of horror movies - like the ones that show serial killers or evil entities that destroy people.  Sure the vicarious thrill of seeing other people suffer at the hands of Jason, Jigsaw or The Grudge is scary fun when you know that you are safe in a movie theater but being in a place where that much fear is conjured up for sheer entertainment just makes me uncomfortable.   I'm more likely to see The Walking Dead or The Lost Boys which show how people manage to survive and depend on one another.  It's the triumph of the human spirit that really appeals to me in those shows or movies. 

So it's natural that I've always been drawn to comedy.   I've loved sit-coms since I was a little girl who would watch I Dream of Jennie or Bewitched, or I Love Lucy over and over again.   If I woke up with a bad dream, before I would go into my parent's bed, I would try to think of a funny sketch I saw on The Carol Burnett Show. I'd think of Nora Desmond, or the dentist sketch with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman which would make me laugh under the covers and would dry my tears.  It would reassure me that everything was alright - in fact I used to pretend that Carol was my second mommy.   Laughter always sent the bad things away.  

It's interesting that I learned that approach at an early age since there are tons of research that back up the fact that being positive and having a sense of humor helps you feel healthier, helps you combat disease and improves work productivity.  According to an article in the British publication The Independent by Roger Dobson in 2008, "Happiness and laughter have been shown to increase natural killer cell activity in blood and free radical-scavenging capacity in saliva, as well as lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It is also thought that laughter causes the release of special neurotransmitter substances in the brain, endorphins, that help control pain. And there are more direct physical effects of laughter, including increased breathing, more oxygen use, and higher heart rate."  He goes on to report that according to the Oxford University Press medical journal, Rheumatology, an additional study showed that blood levels of key inflammatory compounds dropped considerably after patients with rheumatoid arthritis watched a humorous film.   

Laughter can change the whole feel of a room.  It can literally lighten the air and make just about anyone feel better.  Yet, there are those that know that people are more vulnerable to negative energy.  If they can keep them in a state of constant agitation they can exploit them easier.   According to a study by UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center  entitled “Using Biological Markers To Measure Stress In Listeners Of Commercial Talk Radio,” hate speech increases the amount of a stress-related hormone, salivary cortisol, which has the potential for negative health implications including the development of cancer and other inflammatory diseases. The research indicated that listeners of a radio segment with high prevalence of hate speech, experienced clinical anxiety and in turn had higher levels of the stress hormone, regardless of their race, ethnicity, ideological alignment with the speaker, or their level of previous knowledge on the topic.  You have to wonder if all the health problems that Rush Limbaugh has been experiencing over the years are products of the negative ideology that he has been spewing for decades - the man is a former prescription drug abuser, has a heart condition and yet lives in denial by still being overweight, smoking and drinking wine.   I honestly can't listen to more than five minutes of his show without feeling my own blood pressure increasing.  But even people who share the same ideology are going to feel upset by agreeing with all the terrible things he's saying.   It's a lose/lose situation for everyone but Rush who makes $64 million a year peddling his form of demagoguery.  

There is a darker spiritual side to constantly imbibing negative ideas and the energy that it produces - it can actually form a poltergeist.   Unlike what the movies would have you believe, poltergeists are actually created by negative energy, anger and stress brought on by living people.   It can manifest by causing all sorts of problems from making noises, to moving things to even attacking people.   I was going through a really tough time at work about two years ago along with my mother going into assisted living and my siblings at each other's throats.  The stress was taking it's toll.  I was constantly upset and angry - going to work was extraordinarily emotionally draining and hearing about the family squabbling didn't help.  It really could have consumed me if I let it.  Worse, those feelings could have created something I couldn't control because I was feeling so depressed and angry.  Luckily, I have a supportive husband and found a book called Healing with Angels by Dr. Doreen Virtue which helped put things in perspective.   I began to snap out of my funk and even when I was eventually let go from my job, I was emotionally strong enough to handle it.  On my last day in my cubicle, I stayed back while the rest of the staff went to a Christmas Tree lighting.  I used a few prayers in Healing with Angels to cleanse my work space of all the negative energy that might have accrued there because I didn't want it to affect the person who would eventually be at my desk.   As best as I could, I released it and tried to forgive those that needed to be forgiven more for my peace of mind then for theirs.  

Having the comedy troupe helped me forge through that difficult period because creating shows that made people laugh helped me and I knew it helped the audience.  When we used to do our comedy web-shows at a local coffee shop, folks would walk in not really knowing what we were doing.  Once they caught on, they would stay and enjoy, laughing with us and at us.  Sometimes they would come up and say that they were having a horrible day but being there with us completely turned it around.  I always love getting that feedback because while it's great to hear that we're funny and talented - hearing that we helped lighten their mood means way more.   We'd hear from isolated teens in the chatroom that our show was cool because they could make suggestions for scenes.  We would perform them without judgement because that's not what the show was about - we just accepted our audience for who they were not because we wanted them to think like us.  We were not there to push anything more than a very silly agenda - and being a part of the show helped people feel better.  

It's ironic that when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, one of the first things they banned was laughing in public - because if you can spread anger and misery, you can control people.  If you are happy and laughing you are more likely to think clearly and objectively which is something that ideologues don't want you to do.  If you are angry they can control you because misery loves company.   It makes you wonder how Bill O'Reilly's studio must feel most of the time or Rush Limbaugh's or Mike Malloy's radio booth.   They might not believe in poltergeists because - they are making money spreading their angst about anyone who does not think like them and that probably makes them happy.  But what about the people who believe in what they say hook, line and sinker.  What about those that believe the only credible sources of information are FOX News or talk radio?   The ones who believe that the president wants to take away all their freedoms and they are victims of a "liberal" or "conservative" agenda.  They are the folks I truly feel bad for because most of the time they must sit around with like minded folks feeling a false sense of oppression that is self imposed.   Their anger is high, so is their blood pressure and the myriad of health problems it causes.   I feel bad that those folks feel so bad.  

I'd like to propose an experiment to those that are hooked on their afternoons with Rush and Mike Malloy and their evenings with The O'Reilly Factor or Rachel Maddows - try just not tuning in for a week and see how you feel.   Is your sense of outrage less?  Is the vibe in the room different because you choose to watch The Big Bang Theory or The Middle rather than the usual talking heads?   Life can be full of laughter if you just take 15 to 30 minutes a day to find it.  Laughing for half an hour will improve your health and your psyche.  Maybe the fine folks at Walmart need to learn that and pipe comedy albums over the sound system instead of soft rock.  I might also suggest cutting back on the fluorescents and making it a fun place to work for your staff.  Maybe if those changes are made, I might consider going back sometime.   In the meantime, I'll find my happy place at Target. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Paranoid Conspiracy

It always amazes me how easily people will believe in even the stupidest things.    The latest and saddest one to date is by the "Truthers" who believe that the whole Sandy Hook Massacre is a hoax because they have uncovered conflicting accounts from witnesses and police accounts to lead them to believe that the entire tragedy was created to take guns away from law abiding citizens.   Their smoking gun includes a photo of a six year old girl named Emilie Parker who was reported as one of the Sandy Hook victims who was later seen in a photo with President Obama wearing the same dress that she wore in a different photo.   The reality for those supposed "truthers" is that the girl with the President is Emily's sister who looks like her and she just happened to be wearing the same dress her sister wore possibly as a way to feel connected to her.   For them, it proves that the President is in on the conspiracy and is using it to further his political agenda.  Forget that if that was true, it would be very sloppy for the President to be seen with someone who was assumed dead, but for those want to believe in the unbelievable, nothing is impossible and the truth that's out there is the one they manufacture. 

The "truthers" would be easily dismissed if they were just a group of whack jobs who congregated in basements or in chatrooms and kept on writing weird letters to the National Enquirer editors.   But unfortunately in this electronic age, they have unleashed their collective fury on people we would consider heroes of the Newtown tragedy.  Somehow by harassing people like Gene Rosen they feel righteously indignant at the possible fall-out of Sandy Hook - which in their minds includes the repeal of the Second Amendment.  Rosen, who lived just one-eighth of a mile away from the school, found six shell shocked kindergardeners on his lawn and offered them food and comfort.  He is now the subject to terrible harassment for this kindness.  These "truthers" have set up  false websites and Facebook pages that suggest that Rosen is a pedophile or an actor looking to be in the movies.   These paranoid people will stop at nothing to discredit those they see as threats even if it proves to everyone else the extent of their lunacy.    A few YouTube videos that uses some of these "truths" have gotten anywhere from 45,000 to over a million views.    I'd like to think the bulk of these views are from people who are outraged at the hoax implication but why do I think most of the views are from like-minded nut bars who need to prove that their crazy theory is true.  It's a sad state of affairs but then conspiracy theories are not new — and for those that are easily duped into believing them, the simple truth does not hold the mystique that an elaborate hoax does.   Think about it - first there was Hurricane Sandy and then the tragedy took place at Sandy Hook - both incidents in the same part of the country within weeks of each other -  somehow it has to be related, right? 

Of course, President Obama has been plagued by another set of crackpots called the "Birthers" who insist that he was not born in this country even after he submitted both this birth certificate and his long form birth certificate to prove he was born in Hawaii and is a legal citizen worthy of being elected.   It's interesting that 13% of Americans still believe that he was not born here -  of that number, 23% of them are Republicans.   However, the problem with paranoid conspiracy theorists is that no matter how many actual facts you throw their way, they will find a way to dismiss it as forgery.   There are lawsuits trying to block the President's inauguration as illegal or even suing John Roberts, the Chief Supreme Court Justice who will swear him in.  It would seem that after two resounding wins in 2008 and 2012 that those "birthers" would be silenced and realize they are in the minority because the rest of America is not buying their level of crazy.   But alas, the more the reality of a second Obama term is coming to fruition the more these people want to vehemently deny it because the rest of us "just don't get it".  In their minds, he was obviously born in Kenya.  The talking head of this movement has been Donald Trump, a rich man who has a vested interest in defeating President Obama both for publicity and political reasons.   His constant demand for documents which are produced, authentic and certified never seem to satisfy him - because like many conspiracy theorists, anything can be forged.   You will never know the truth until it's admitted publicly.   Interestingly enough, Macy's and NBC are standing by him, possibly to allow consumers and viewers who are not in the majority of his viewpoint to vote with their wallets.  If The Apprentice ratings are dismal (which my guess is they will be this season) he will be cancelled, ironically with his own tagline - "It's not personal, it's business."   

What's interesting in the minds of those that believe in conspiracies is that if they believe in one conspiracy, they will likely believe in multiple ones even if they contradict each other according to an article on  "They're explained by the overarching theory that there is some kind of cover-up, that authorities are withholding information from us," said Karen Douglas, a study researcher and reader in the school of psychology sciences at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. "It's not that people are gullible or silly by having those beliefs. … It all fits into the same picture."  In the first of two experiments, Douglas and colleagues asked 137 students to rate how much they agreed with five conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997.  "The more people were likely to endorse the idea Princess Diana was murdered, the more they were likely to believe that Princess Diana is alive," explained Douglas. "People who thought it was unlikely she was murdered were also unlikely to think she did not die."  

Of course not all conspiracies are make-believe.  The attacks on 9/11 were coordinated by a group of terrorists who wanted to kill the most number of Americans that they could.   Their coordination of the attacks were by definition a "conspiracy."  However, the conspiracy folks would have you believe that that Bush administration knew and allowed it to happen or even coordinated the attacks so they could invade Iraq. If that were the case, wouldn't they have done a better job coordinating the size and scope of the war?  Eleven years of fighting is a long time to be mired on a conflict that was manufactured by "big government."  Obviously the conspiracy folks have a greater confidence that our government is efficient enough to hide the facts for over a decade with brilliant accuracy than I do.  Have you ever had to deal with the federal government to correct a tax issue or to get a name change for your Social Security?   Good luck getting it corrected the first or even the fifth time.  The reality is that our government bureaucracy is not set up for that kind of collusion.  I mean really you can't expect thousands of government workers to keep those secrets under wraps - it would be impossible.  Yet, for conspiracy experts the government is all knowing so it's all plausible. 

A prime example that the government simply would not be able to handle a huge conspiracy is Watergate.   The whole scandal started out simply enough - a few burglars broke into the  Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate Hotel in Washington in June 1972 during the course of the Presidential Campaign to wiretap the headquarters.   The original five were arrested but their arrests led a FBI investigation which led to the White House and President Nixon recording key conversations that would implicate him and eventually led the way for his impeachment.  On August 9, 1974, Nixon took to the airwaves and resigned.  Later his Vice President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.  Keep in mind, this was back before there was the internet and thousands of places to keep information - yet Nixon was brought down by the dogged fact finding of two Washington Post reporters.   After Nixon's resignation and subsequent investigations, 48 people were found guilty of the cover-up.  While many different branches were implicated including the CIA, in the end, all the President's men fell including Nixon himself.   Yes, there was a conspiracy, but it started to fall apart almost immediately after it began.   

The Kennedy Assassination is another topic that is ripe for a full on Government or Mafia conspiracy.   How could Lee Harvey Oswald have acted alone to kill the President?  It seems impossible for it to be so random - it must have had to be something more - part of a larger plot because that one moment changed the course of history.  History should not change because to the act of one insane individual.  It had to have been a plot - there are just too many contradictions.  Yes, there are conflicting witness reports but ask any detective about trying to piece together a crime scene and they will tell you that it's not unusual for there to be wide variety of differences in witness accounts.   The third shot that was captured on film was more than likely the exit wound and not a fourth shot from a second shooter.   Jack Ruby killed Oswald within days after the assassination - surely that must have been part of the plot.  All indications are that Jack Ruby also acted alone.  The movie JFK perpetuates many of the myths and actually adds more for dramatic effect.  Filmmakers like Oliver Stone feel that it must have been a conspiracy because Kennedy was going to pull troops out of Vietnam and if that had happened the war would have ended.  All those young soldiers would still be alive.  Someone must have ordered the murder to prevent that from happening.  If Kennedy had lived, Stone would not have gone to see the horrors he witnessed as a young man serving in Vietnam and documented in his film Platoon.  His friends would not have died in that horrible place.   The government had to be behind the President's murder that extinguished Stone's own youthful innocence because the universe cannot be that random and cruel - and yet sadly, sometimes it is. 

I was discussing the content of this blog with my 12 year son and told him that there are some people who would dismiss Sandy Hook as a hoax because they see conspiracies in everything, including things like Global Warming, 9/11 and the death of Princess Diana.  I took the Devil's advocate role when he tried to explain that global warming is real.   My answer for all the photos that he tried to show me of the Polar Ice caps melting was that they were forged and unless he had been there himself to witness it, he had no definitive proof to offer that it was real.   I could see him getting frustrated even though he knew that we were role playing.   Later when we were getting ready to go to church and I couldn't find my keys or make-up, I jokingly attributed it to a conspiracy.   It was meant as a joke but then I realized that if you see the world as full of plots and conspiracies, you don't really have to take responsibility for how messed up your life is because there is some puppet master making sure you don't get to where you need to go.  Your relationships fall apart because those around you don't possess the same level of understanding that you do or they are part of the plot to undermine you.  Your search for the truth will never end because the truth you are looking for was never there to begin with. 

So for those that bought into the Mayan Apocalypse and now have a whole basement full of rations much like the ones you had for Y2K, sorry things did not work out.  To those that think the government is watching us through our DVRs or tracking us via our driver's licenses, I would suggest that if you are going to turn over any more rocks looking for plots, try going to an actual park with real rocks where real human beings are taking in the sun and enjoying life.   You'll hear children laughing and feel sunshine basking on your face.   You might even remember a time before the world became a cold sinister place.   However, if it does make you feel any better, I will admit that there is someone who is after you.  They are closer then you think - I mean really, really close.  Just get up slowly and go into the bathroom and take a good hard look in the mirror.   You'll find that the truth is staring right back at you because if all you can believe in are conspiracies, you are easy to manipulate.  People like Donald Trump who perpetuate these crazy theories know that.  Don't get paranoid though, it's not personal - it's business. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Undecorated Truth

If there is one thing I really, really hate doing after the holidays it's taking down all the decorations.  It's not just the hassle of packing away everything - taking down the outside lights, the Christmas tree, the ornaments, the Santa figure who is dressed in gold and ready to golf (I got that one at a 75% off sale the day after Christmas) and putting it all in the attic.   It's that the holiday season is really, really over.   No more anticipation of presents or buying things to make everyone else happy, no more pressure (okay - so why am I missing Christmas, again?).   I guess when I was a kid at Christmas time, anything was possible, things were sparkly, and the time leading up to December 25th was so much fun.  The school parties, the car rides to see Christmas lights, and the Sears Roebuck Toy catalog where a child's fantasies could come true.  You had a only few presents to buy as a kid  and the weight of Christmas was not on your shoulders - it was on your parents.   Putting up decorations was fun and seeing Christmas lights (back then it was the big bulb kind not the little twinkly lights kind so they were extra bright) made me feel really secure.  I remember being able to see the Christmas lights outside my bedroom window and falling asleep happily because I was sure that nothing bad could happen as long as they were up.   When Christmas was over, I would close the shutters on my windows because the lights were gone and now my eight year old brain could conceive of robbers claiming through my windows - somehow the glow of the holiday lights or the possible burns they might receive from the bulbs kept them away.    

I guess the thing that strikes me most as I put those decorations away that get used from year to year is how different things will be the next time I get them out.   Last year when I put them away, I was still unemployed with no real job prospects on the horizon.   I had only been out of work for two months so my spirits were still pretty high.   I wondered then as I wrapped up the angels in newspaper what my life would be like in late November when all of it would go up again.   Would I be working?   What would I be doing?   This year I am lucky enough to have a great job that I enjoy going to rather then a job that used to give me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach because my ex-boss made me feel like nothing I did was good enough.   What difference two Christmas seasons can make!

There were the milestone years when I had put away the ornaments in January 1995 when Max and I had been married for three years and I found out that I was pregnant.  I knew that I would have a baby to buy presents for by the next Christmas.   I remember how stressed everyone was during Christmas 1999 wondering if the Y2K would bring down everything we knew  in just a week.   When New Year's 2000 was rung in with barely an interruption, I was able to put the decorations away knowing that the world as we knew would not descend into the chaos that you see on a show like Revolution.  I knew that Max and I would try for another baby, but had no idea if that infant would be on the way in November 2000 when everything would go back up again.   December 2000 brought with it a bouncy baby who was three weeks old when Christmas arrived that year. 

I guess for many people, Christmas more than any other holiday brings about those milestone moments.  It's different than an anniversary or birthday because all those are celebrated at different times of year - it's not a  mass experience.  It still means so much to you personally but not everyone in the world is taking part in it.   For better or for worse, Christmas comes on the same day every year - it never varies and that deadline is always there.  You have the same amount of time to get everything done that everyone else does and how you deal with that holiday pressure is up to you.   You can be the sobbing mass on the floor certain that you will never get your projects done in time (okay, so maybe that's just me) or the person who has it together and all their presents wrapped and ready by the first week of Advent or those that go shopping the a day or two before Christmas and still get it all done (for the record, both those types of people are irritating!)  

But there are the good things too.   There's the ornaments that your children make in school, or an art class or Sunday School that will forever be part of your decorations.  Those imperfect little ornaments with the paint splashing inelegantly all over the place because their little hands or minds were not able to stay within the lines.   You remember their faces as they put their latest creation on the tree - facing out for everyone to see.   It was messy, it was uneven, it was theirs and it was beautiful.   There's baking with your kids and trying to keep their fingers out of the cookie dough.  The smell of banana nut bread which was the same as when you were a kid because you're using the same childhood recipes that your mother used to.    You sit back and think - "Okay, for all the hustle and bustle - this right here is the good stuff."   

What makes Christmas more special then any other time of year is that the world is awash in red, green, blue, silver and gold.  The world is brighter and shinier.   I can also tell you as a person who has worked in non-profits for over 20 years, December brings in a ton of donations both cash and in-kind.   People want to carry that holiday feeling forward and help others.   It's not that they aren't generous at any other time of year, it's just that at Christmas you feel for those that don't have what they need and in your own little way you try to help even if it's donating $20 worth of board games to a toy drive because that's all you can do.  

Then the bleakness of January sets in.    Yes, it's a New Year, full of promise but all the pretty lights are gone and you're left with the starkness of your resolutions.  It's generally cold, overcast and unless you live in a warm climate, not very sunny - wearing shorts is a non-issue.   The lacy tapestry of barren trees paints the sky - their limbs naked for months before spring brings back their light green leaves.   So you're left in a bit of a funk.   Valentine's Day is near, but it's just not as much fun as Christmas.   The momentum of the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year's train comes to a dead stop - three months of holidays gone for another year.   It just goes by too fast. 

Last night, exactly 18 days after Christmas, Amber and I took a drive from our house all the way to Downtown Duluth which is about 2.5 miles.  Our lights were still on as one of the last die-hards in the neighborhood and we wanted to see who else were still holding onto the holidays or were too lazy to take their decorations down.   We found just four homes in those miles rather than the dozens that had lined the streets in the weeks leading up Christmas.   By next week, I imagine those three other houses will be out - tonight our house is back to normal.  The mantel has the family photos back up and the burgundy and gold have been replaced by blue, yellow and white.  The cats are upset that the tree is not a permanent fixture.   The decorations are down and things look ordinary again.  

I guess this stuff hits me harder now because eleven years ago, my parents came up after Christmas to visit after staying with my sister Kathy.  It seemed like any other visit.  I was starting a new job and was glad to spend New Year's Eve with them, to go out to lunch and ring in 2002 with my husband, six year old daughter and my year old baby.   The lights were up, my parents were visiting and absolutely no one could climb through the windows and try to rob the place (we lived in a third floor apartment so that robber would have had a very long reach).   They left to go back to Miami and as per tradition, the decorations would stay up until after January 6th which was my father's birthday and the Feast of the Three Kings.   Then on January 7th, we got the call that my father had a heart attack and had died suddenly.    I remember going to the airport and passing those houses with decorations still up on the way and crying.   I remember the blur of those days afterwards, being with my brothers and sisters together in the same place for the first time in years and crying.   I remember flying back and seeing still more of the diehards with their outside lights still up and crying.   The worst part was coming home and taking down our decorations because when they went up, my father was still alive.   Now, I had to take them down.  The world seemed very dim, gray and sad.   There would be no bright bulbs to make it better.      

I always feel so sad when the lights have to come down.  I seem to relive that every year now which is why I dread doing it so much.  This year though, I didn't cry as hard and I did not seem as heartbroken.  Maybe it's because life goes on, and that little infant from 2002 is 12 years old and makes me laugh everyday.  That six year old little girl is a teenager who is smarter than she gives herself credit for.  My husband is kind, brilliant and uses his strong arms to give me hugs when I need them.  Right now, life is good.   So who knows what the next 12 months will bring.   I know I will always miss my dad - that's a given.   But maybe it's finally getting easier to let go - to miss my dad but not feel destroyed at the the loss.   The ornaments will come out next year with all their imperfections and those stupid animated deer will probably not work the way they are supposed to.   It's those rituals in life that keeps us going, living and remembering those we loved and have lost and holding those we have closer then ever.   For whatever it's worth, that's my undecorated truth.  Sometimes it's great and sometimes it hurts - but now,  I'm finally okay with that.  


Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Ghost of a Chance

I was walking down a dank, dark aisle in an old theater called the Cinematheque in Coral Gables, trying to find the bathroom. I was alone as the rest of the cast was rehearsing in the green room. As I got about halfway down the aisle, the hair on my arms started to stand on end, and I felt like I was not alone.   I tried to shake off that uneasy feeling, but the mustiness got more robust, and the air around me got colder. I knew what was going on, and I started to panic.   I tried to step further, but something was blocking my way. The path to the ladies' room was getting harder to see and it felt like I was moving on one of those moonwalks — my feet were suddenly very unsteady.   I was really starting to get uncomfortable and cold.   I breathed, closed my eyes, and said, "Hey, I mean you no harm - just respect. I just need to use the bathroom. I tried to hold it, but I had this Diet Coke Big Gulp before rehearsal, and now my back teeth are swimming. OK, you probably didn't need to know all that, but I really need to go, and if you end up scaring me - I might pee all over the place. No one wants to see that, so please let me by."
When I opened my eyes, I was right in front of the bathroom door, but I didn't remember walking the rest of the way - I was suddenly there. I ran into the stall, did what I needed, and ran out of there saying prayers and a big thank you to the entity that took pity on a poor human who just wanted to take care of business. I returned to the rehearsal room with my 25-year-old face as white as a ghost.   Max asked me what was wrong, and I told him.   Max understood as he had seen a full female apparition on the main stage, so he did not doubt my story.   He told me it might have been the gangster ghost standing in the way, but the woman ghost probably helped me get to the bathroom.   I didn't care; I was just glad to be out of there and vowed to never have another large drink before rehearsal if it meant I had to go back into that dark theater alone.

Later in the run of that same play, The Man Who Fought the World (you've probably never heard of it, and for a good reason - it was awful), at the Cinematechque, some of the teens in the play asked Max and me about the curse of Macbeth. We told them immediately never to say that word in a theater and that if you had to refer to it, it should be called "The Scottish Play" or "The Scottish Tragedy."   The legend of the MacBeth is that it's cursed. The first time it was produced, the boy playing Lady Macbeth died suddenly, and Shakespeare himself had to play the role. Theater people, being the superstitious beings that they are, don't like to mention the full name of the play lest they invoke those dark forces themselves. Many people believe that the three witches' mutterings at the play's beginning bring about evil and cause a myriad of production misfortunes. The teens thought it was exciting, but one of the more sarcastic young men immediately said, "I don't believe it, and I'll prove it to you - MacBeth, MacBeth, MacBeth!" just to see what would happen.   A minute later, the top of a plastic trash can popped up, flipped over three times, and landed right back on the can.   The snarky teen looked at Max and me wide-eyed and asked what to do. We told him that the theater ghost had felt disrespected and knew of the curse; therefore, he had to undo his actions. He had to go outside, turn around three times, say, "Piss Pot," and ask to be let back in. The teen ran out, did as he was told, and returned to the theater a minute before his cue to go on.   After that, he showed way more reverence for theater traditions, and I doubt he ever said "Macbeth." 

When Max and I considered moving to Atlanta, we decided to have lunch at Underground Atlanta.   I remember sitting at the table across from Max and seeing what looked like a faded Super 8 movie playing behind him with a parade of Confederate men with their heads bowed, strolling, covered in blood, and feeling defeated and upset.   I'll never forget how sad their faces looked. They seemed to be walking in slow motion, and I looked up to see if a projector was near us that was showing the movie. There was nothing.   I asked Max to see if he could see it as well.   He didn't see it but asked me what my impressions were. I described it as I saw it, and it faded away. We've lived here since 1998, and I've never been back.   I found out later that Underground Atlanta was near a Confederate hospital, and the injured might have been brought there. It was mostly a train station and one of the many places General Sherman burned when he ravaged Atlanta in the Civil War. It might explain that overwhelming feeling of defeat that I sensed. 

These are a few encounters I've had with ghosts or otherworldly entities. I'm what you call a sensitive - I can pick up on things that most people can't. I've found that I'm more sensitive to angelic presences, earth, and animal spirits - but I can pick up on ghosts if they are in the area and want me to "feel" them. Most people can if they open themselves to the possibility but dismiss those funny feelings as a cold draft of their imagination. They refuse to even consider the idea of a ghost because they have been told they are evil demons or that it's not Christian to believe in them.   Yet, ghosts have been in folklore for quite some time, even in the Bible. In the Old Testament, Book of 1 Samuel chapter 28:7-25 —  the King of Israel visits a medium when God does not answer him when war approaches. The prophet Samuel has died, and King Saul asks the medium to bring Samuel from the dead to see if he has additional insight for the upcoming war. The Ghost of Samuel tells him that his fate is sealed as it was when he was still alive. The Bible clearly states that this is the Ghost of the prophet Samuel, so believing in ghosts does not go against traditional biblical faith. There are references to ghosts in ancient Egyptian writings, and most cultures believe in the presence of ghosts.   But somehow, that belief is frequently scoffed at as being flaky.   Recently, Regis Philbin admitted that he had seen a ghost while on the Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman frequently told Regis in the interview that he didn't see a ghost and that it was all in his imagination.   Regis could hold his own while telling his story, no matter how often he was dismissed. I'm sure he and Dave are still best friends, even if Dave tried to make it out as a drunken vision when Regis was younger. But what about those who have seen something like that but are told they are crazy or that it was evil and never to speak of it again? Many of us have had encounters that we can't explain but weren't lucky enough to have someone like Max to tell and be believed. Luckily, many cable shows will validate what they've seen, and those individuals can feel less alone because of what they've witnessed.  

My kids love the show Ghost Adventures. It has three guys named Zak Bagans, Nick Groff, and Aaron Goodwin who go into "haunted" places and try to get proof of ghosts with EVPs (Electronic Voice Prints), which capture ghostly voices, and full spectrum cameras that can capture apparitions and EMF thermometers which can trace changes in temperature since they can drop dramatically when you are around ghosts. They try to debunk any evidence they find so that when they get something ghost-like, it can be proved scientifically by ruling out things like outside light or noises. They do capture some exciting things that cannot be easily explained. The biggest problem with the show is that Zack, Nick, and Aaron seem to invade the area where the ghosts hang out and harass and sometimes threaten them to get a reaction.   If it's an evil spirit they're after, they will ask that the entity "come out and get them" and then jump back and squeal like little girls when the ghosts do what they're asked.   I just don't get that, and it bothers me. From what I know, most ghosts are lost between worlds. Some are "unintelligent," which means they are trapped doing the same things repeatedly because they are unaware they are dead. Then there are the "intelligent" ghosts who can communicate how they died, know who is visiting them, and show themselves by knocking over things, touching people, and making them feel funny. Being a ghost is like being on a lost highway and looking for that exit that will finally take you home.   You see a film crew who might be able to help you, only to have them disrespect your plight, film you being lost, and then leave without giving you directions on how to get to your final destination.   I tend to root for the ghosts when those guys do get their comeuppance, especially when they ask a ghost that many consider a demon to try to do something to them. That's like going into a strange neighborhood with gang members and saying, "I don't believe in you, so come on out and kick my ass."  Don't be surprised if you get an ass-kicking later when the cameras are off. It's very irresponsible. 

The Dead Files takes a different approach. It uses an ex-NYC detective, Steve DiSchiavi, and medium Amy Allen, who "sees and talks to dead people."  Steve researches paranormal activity at a location where their clients request help because they are experiencing ghost-like hauntings.   Amy takes a walk to see what psychic impressions and entities she can pick up.   Amy even sits down with a police artist to sketch out the entities she sees to help prove or disprove what people see or identify a specific person they think might be responsible for the haunting in the afterlife.   Steve and Amy communicate when the reveal when they reveal their findings.   She also offers advice on how to help the ghosts move on because often they are just trapped where they are, scared, and they act out on humans. This approach makes the most sense and can offer peace to a place perceived as haunted. It's up to the property owners to take that advice — sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Even worse, sometimes they take advantage of the Dead Files experience to promote their business as haunted by ghost seekers. Again, that lack of respect is just asking for a celestial bitch slap.  

When the kids were smaller, we had an unintentional otherworldly encounter caught on film. We went to see the Christmas lights at Dorothy Oven Park in Tallahassee.   My mother took a picture of the lights as we left. Later, we found some exciting impressions once the photos were developed. It looked like a ghost in a tri-corner hat from the Revolutionary War traveling with one or two other entities. We looked at the other photos, and none had the same anomaly -  just that one.   We showed it to some "Ghost" experts who looked at the photo and asked if it was a digital photo or taken on film. When we replied that it was taken on 35-mm film, they said that we had captured something and that it might be ghosts, which was inconclusive.
The following year, we went to see the lights again and had no intention of trying to capture anything on film - it was just our annual holiday outing. My mother wanted to get a photo of the kids on the swing. When we developed the film this time, we noticed four bright white misty figures standing behind the kids, and the tri-corner figure was to the left looking away. They seemed to be gathered around the kids, saying, "Hey there, happy holidays from your friends, the ghosts!"   I was a little disconcerted when I saw the photo because these things were around my kids, and I wanted to ensure they were good and not negative spirits. I sent the photo to another occult investigator, who returned with a different interpretation. She felt the entities were too light to be bad and that more than likely they were spirit guides who just wanted to make their presence known.   My sister thought that my dad might be the one with the hat since he was a Revolutionary War buff. I wouldn't rule anything out.   It did make me feel better that my kids were surrounded by loving entities who were there to protect and guide them.   We've been back many times since and have never caught those images again. That could be all we were supposed to see.  
So, for your naysayers who don't want to consider that there is something out there that logic cannot explain - open your mind to the possibilities. Ghosts are mentioned in the Bible; there are similar ghost stories in ancient texts that would have been impossible for the authors to have copied from one another. Shakespeare sincerely believed in ghosts and incorporated them regularly in his plays like Hamlet. In the opening scene, Horatio, who is Hamlet's best friend, doesn't believe in ghosts even though the castle guards claim to have seen the Ghost of Hamlet's father walking around the castle at night. Hamlet reminds him, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."   So, for those who refuse to believe,  don't scoff at those who have claimed to see a ghost or something they just can't explain.   It's not all bad - and sometimes death is not final. Ghosts are just entities that have yet to find a way to walk into the light. They are just like the rest of us - they need help finding their way home. What's more human than that? 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Super 8

For those of you that are under 40, you probably don’t remember the ritual that was watching home movies.  Not to sound like an old fart, but back in the 1960’s we didn’t have the instant playback that you have with digital video, your cell phone or hell even VHS video back in the 1970’s.  First you had to get a super 8 camera where you could take home movies and purchase the cassettes which held about 50 feet of film or two and a half minutes of action.   Needless to say, you couldn’t linger too long on one subject because after a little over two minutes, your film would run out.  This situation led to wedding movies going from a quick ceremony, to a few seconds of the first dance, a quick look at the sharing of the wedding cake, a few seconds of the tossing of the bouquet and finally leaving the reception in a hail of rice.  Your wedding could be condensed to a few minutes with no editing needed, and no audio.  There was no sound to go with the movies until 1973 when a sound track was added to Super 8 film. So if your drunk uncle got up to give a toast, there was no audio record of it.  All you saw was either people laughing or mortified but no sound to give you a hint that he blurted out that it would never last, he slept with his sister-in-law or that he was pretty sure the bride was knocked up.  When it was played back, the only sound you heard was ticking of the projector as the film popped up and down.      

The limited amount of time that you could record on a movie cassette led to people trying to pack in as much action into 150 seconds as possible.  Many of these movies ended up feeling like you were seeing the 1960’s through the eyes of someone who had Attention Deficit Disorder.   Even if you had 10 to 15 rolls to record that special event, it still took a few seconds load between switching out cassettes so you would still have lost pieces of action between where the last roll ended the new one began.  Worse, it would take at least a few days to send off the film and get it developed so you couldn’t really be sure that you got everything.  Primitive as it seems now, it was the best technology that we had at the time.   It was the only way we could go beyond capturing  a nanosecond of action in a photo.  Rather than explaining how your child learned how to walk, you could show them taking those precious tentative steps out into the world.  You could see them doing it in those ridiculous puffy pants with ruffles on the back, the hair in a silly sprout and toddler saddle shoes.   You could see the pride of the Mom or Dad taking their child's hand and leading them down that path with a big silent smile on their face – and appreciate how timeless that moment is.   Different clothes, different decade, but still those tentative steps have to be taken by every toddler and experienced by every parent.

I guess the reason I’m waxing nostalgic about all this is because for my holiday project for my mother and my brothers and sisters this year, I decided to convert a few reels of personal home movies into digital video.  I tried at first to do it myself but trying to get a 40 year old projector to gently play the precious moments of my recorded childhood  didn't work out so well.  I found that the decades of dust made the machine smoke and when I tried to un-jam the film, my finger got shredded in the sprockets before I could even get my video camera set up.  I decided then and there to have the professionals transfer it.  The quality would be better and the chances of bloodshed were much lower.

My brothers got a selection of home movies from my mother’s house which has been pretty empty since she moved from Miami to Tallahassee to go into assisted living.  The films spanned from 1957 from when they lived in Medford, Massachusetts to various vacations up to 1974.  My mother was pretty meticulous about labeling the outside of the film canisters so it was easy to see what year it covered and what activities were documented.  I got a dual 8 mm viewer from the place that I was having the film transferred so that I could see the movies in advance to decide which movies were worth transferring.  Putting the film on the spools and cranking them through the viewer brought  back to life those memories that had remained still for all these decades.  Birthday parties with pony rides, trips to Mathason Hammock, a family vacation to Pioneer City, or just playing in the backyard were all subjects of these long forgotten films. 

I picked out the best of our collective toddler-hoods.  I got 200 feet of film from 1957 when my parents still lived near Boston and my sister Sharon and I were still six to seven years from existence.   It was interesting seeing my older sister Kathy playing with her baby brother Bill in the pool in their backyard, seeing her climb on monkey bars and totally mug for the camera.  Again, these films were silent so any sound of her little voice singing to her brothers was never captured.  There’s the footage of my brother Bill’s second birthday which proved that no matter how advanced we as a species become, kids will always love ice cream, cake and getting presents – those emotions are pretty timeless.  Then there are the images of my brother Steve as an infant being passed around and adored as infants always are.  Then there is the footage of my parents young and just starting out with their family.  My mother is wearing bright red lipstick which was your make-up basic back then with matching nail polish.  She looks vibrant even in light of the fact she had three children in five years.  My dad looks thin and has no problem pushing a stroller or shooting some of the movie footage so that my mother is actually documented in the movies.  My grandparents still look like my grandparents but with less gray and more energy.  It’s a little freaky to see all these people and how they looked before I was born.  I’m not jealous mind you, just interested in the dynamic before I came along.  There is one part where my mother is throwing back her head and laughing out loud - something I rarely saw growing up probably because probably after having five kids to look after, she didn’t has as many LOL moments.

When I got to the footage of 1966, I got to see myself at three and my sister at two playing in the backyard.  My brother Steve who is about nine at this point is clowning around as I douse him with a hose.   My sister Sharon running around topless in the backyard with me in my favorite bathing suit (I still remember how much I loved that suit!)  The two of us were so close then, she was my little Dee-Dee. I was 16 months old when she was born and I couldn’t say Sharon but I could call her Dee-Dee.  It stuck through the time we went to college.   I remembered how much she hated sand on her toes and would insist on sitting in a chair while the rest of us played in the water.  It’s those little seemingly small details you remember the most.

I decided to get about 600 feet transferred which would be about 40 minutes of digital video.  Ironically, I had to drop off the film and wait for about a week for it to be transferred much like my mother used to when she took her movies to be developed at Zayre’s or Walgreens.  I asked them to put it in a Quicktime format so that I could edit on iMovie.   I uploaded the video into my computer and watched these images come to life once again but without being washed out by a projector bulb.   There we were, the Cody kids in all our youthful glory – just learning to walk, play and swing.  I looked at one scene of me at three getting ready to jump into a plastic pool with a blue two piece bathing suit.  I take a running start then hesitate and go back and run back before stopping again and then plopping with both legs bent.  I’d watch that piece and want to tell that little girl that it’s okay to be bold – jump in without hesitating.   As I grew older, I would often hesitate – sometimes it worked in my favor but most of the time it didn’t.  I guess that’s why I became so attracted to improvisation in college – you can’t hesitate if you want to be any good at it. 

I finished the editing the video and put the holiday footage together at the end from 1957 and 1963.  I hoped my mother and my siblings would like it.  I took it with me to Tallahassee so that my sister Kathy, my brother Bill, my mom and our families could watch it together.  I also uploaded it on Vimeo for my sister Sharon and Steve to watch.  The time came for us to watch it in Kathy’s living-room on her DVD much like we used to as kids when my mom got our the projector so we could see the footage she had just gotten back.  I was amazed how much Kathy and Bill remembered of their Massachusetts days.   We laughed at the our antics as children and at the patience my father had at trying to keep a band of five kids together while my mother documented what she could.  My mother remembered people we couldn’t and it felt good to hear her connect to those old memories and see herself as that young mother excited to have her daughter try on a coat from Felines Department store.  Here’s a link to a 60 second mock movie promo I did for The Codys – A Party of Seven.

I guess my hope with all this is to remind the Cody kids how close we used to be before adulthood, marriage and our own families got in the way.   Our mother is beginning to lose her memory and soon these home movies will be all we have to connect us to our past because she won’t be able to recount those moments to us anymore.  In a way, I guess that’s what this blog is about.  If my kids ever wonder who I was, they can look here and get an idea of what their mother thought and the things I went through, both good and bad.   It also makes me think for all the video equipment I have around here - I need to take video of them and save it because they will be grown and out before I know it.  I’ll want them to remember the good times and not all the times I had to say that we need to watch our money. You know, the silly times in the park or on vacation in Chattanooga or just playing around in the living room.  I'm going to be 50 years old this year and yet I still remember vividly playing in my childhood Miami backyard, the smell of the fresh cut grass and how much my brother Steve used to make me laugh.  It seems like yesterday and yet it was 47 years ago.   I just want my kids to remember their childhood and to be able to smile about it because it all goes by so very, very fast.