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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Beware Of Sea Zombies

Fog can be amazing.  If you didn't know any better, nothing else exists beyond the dense white cloud surrounding your immediate environment.  Of course you know your world is out there, the usual streets and stop signs, the corner Shell station and the Starbucks two blocks away.  You generally know where the landmarks are, so you navigate by memory and fairly solid faith.

But if you're in a strange place and trying to navigate in fog, it's not so easy.  It's like crossing the Mexican border after dark and not speaking Spanish.  If you've ever visited Nuevo Laredo at night, and know zero Spanish, you're in trouble.  Life moves with lightening speed, traffic and people.  There are street lights, headlights, everywhere lights and movement, flashes of what you know to be humans and cars but you can't compute the images, or understand the street signs.  You're completely and utterly lost.

It's like a speeding carousel within a cotton thick pyrotechnical fog.

I've read that when a woman has PMS, she literally has "water on the brain".  It's more difficult to think.  She feels dense, foggy.  This can be terrifying and frustrating (hence the handgun).  We can't find the words we're looking for, or leap from one thought to the next, because we can't see through the mental fog.

I'm hearing that menopause feels about the same way.  Goodie.

Back in 1980 there was a horror film, The Fog.  The plot was basically that sea zombies, the vengeful ghosts of mariners who were killed in a shipwreck 100 years earlier, traveled within a supernaturally glowing fog that rolled across a Californian coastal town and killed the living.   They ship's crew had perished because they'd followed a false beacon, a fire lit by conspirators, which caused the ship to crash into rocks.

Residents of the small coastal town knew the zombies were coming when machinery began turning on by itself, or payphones rang simultaneously, and then they would see the glowing fog, moving eerily over hills and streets, until finally closing in on a home or place of work.  But they were in acute trouble once the creepy white fog rolled beneath their doors.  That meant "adios".

It was an okay movie, but a little stupid, like when the driftwood sends messages to the buxom Adrienne Barbeau then bursts into flames.  But looking back, I see that the horror aspect of the movie was fueled by fears similar to fog-camouflaged sea zombies.  These fears are about anything believed to be dangerous that we can't see clearly, can't understand.  We deeply fear the monsters under the bed, in the closet, around the dark street corner.  It's anything we can't control or make sense of, spray dead with a can of Raid.

Fog can be old age, dementia, disability.  It's anything that slows or shuts us down, blinds us, holds us back or cuts us off forever.  Little deaths are still deaths.

Woody Allen's psychiatrist once told his little brother, an agoraphobic radiologist I used to work with, that all fears are related to the fear of death.  Death is the big grandaddy fear, the ultimate ending.  Beyond death is essentially a blind spot.  All we know for sure is that death means inevitable loss, darkness, physical and emotional pain.  And we want none of that.

If your Uncle Niles from Bardstown, Kentucky wrote back from the afterlife to gripe about the food, weather or sleeping arrangements, we'd feel better about dying.  Anything like normal, like life as we know it, even a less than ideal version of it, is comforting.  It's what we know.  But as things are, we can't see what's on the other side of this life.  We know something happens, that energy cannot be created or destroyed.  We become one thing or another, maybe scattered, or we go back to square one and start over again as an amoeba or paramecium.  We just can't know, not with sufficient incontrovertible detail.  And for our own sanity, we have to navigate this not knowing, rein in this fear with some kind of explanation or story to tell ourselves, because we're gonna think about death, and we need to know how to think about it.

So for now, just move slowly through the fog of not knowing, and try to avoid violent collisions with immovable solids.   Go ahead and trust that your familiar world is out there, or some not too disorienting version of it.  And do your best to remember where the curbs are, the ditches, guardrails, cliffs and rocks -- especially the rocks.  Don't be deceived by false beacons (and um, good luck with that one).

The other option is not to risk wondering or wandering through the fog.  Just stay home, binge on '80s movies or shop endlessly on Amazon, and pretend you don't see the glowing supernatural cloud.  Just ignore your television turning on and off by itself.  What's that annoying ringtone?  You'd better answer your phone.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


I remember my mother's hands, the olive skin moisturized with Vaseline Intensive Care, her long piano fingers, the nicotine stains on her right index finger.  The veins were large and spongy, swollen green anatomy snaking along the backs of the hands that caressed me, held me when I was afraid, held me when I was hurt, held me for no reason.

The veins were large, as if trying to escape, or maybe her skin was just very thin.  Way too thin.

Her nails were always painted.  I never saw them otherwise, or any color but a light honey frost to match her full lips.  Maybe she kept her nails painted because they had yellowed.  She smoked all her life, from age sixteen to forty-four.  Her autopsy report would state that her lungs showed signs of early emphysema.  Already, at age forty-four. 

Her hands were shaking the night she came home after a three day absence.  I'd been praying in our yellow bathroom, picking out shapes in the peeling paint.  I promised God that I would never ask for anything else as long as I lived if he would just bring her home.

Moments later our heavy front door swung open, hitting the wall hard.  She lurched forward, her blouse half-buttoned.  She stumbled into the kitchen.  I tiptoed behind her, trying to avoid the areas of the floor that creaked.  I found her swaying at the kitchen counter, holding a lit match to the nozzle of a Dristan bottle to make its opening larger.  Her hands were shaking, causing the yellow light of the match to tremble.

Those three days she'd been sitting in a grassy field, she told us later.  She wasn't sure how long she was there, but remembered trying to decide whether and how to kill herself.

Her hands fed and dressed three children.  Her hands kept a clean house.  Her hands shook a tambourine at an old Baptist church, underlined what mattered to her most in the books she read.  Her hands played an upright piano we kept in the dining room, wrote poetry and songs about God, heaven and hell.  Her hands lit cigarettes, opened beer cans, pill bottles.  Several times these thin-skinned hands were cupped full of pills, pills swallowed all at once.

I remember her hands softly scratching my arm, a comfort we both loved.  We took turns caressing the arm of the other, lightly raking the skin's surface with thin trimmed nails.  I'd snuggle up close wherever she was sitting, our legs drawn up beneath us, then one of us would take the arm of the other and begin the ritual.