What Falls Away

I always loved going to garage sales. When I was younger and hadn’t lost any family members, I used to like having them, too. That has changed. I lost my brother twenty years ago, my mother-in-law almost ten years ago, and my father four years ago. So mixed among the usual clothes and CD’s, DVD’s and books were their clothes and other property. I kept my father’s office chair, the chair he sat in behind his desk, supporting our family. I kept all of his office items and papers, just because they held his handwriting. I kept the reclining chair from his home.

Since he died, I have pressed my face against the back of that chair where his head rested, against his clothes, and inhaled, hoping some odor is still caught in the fabric. My wife has done the same thing with her mother’s belongings, even her old cell phone. God in heaven, the desperation to be close to them again is overwhelming sometimes, or to just prove to ourselves that they existed. Because whatever it is that separates heaven and earth is thick and heavy and almost completely impenetrable.

There have been strange occurrences since my father died, like my toddler saying a word that identifies my father better than any other, just minutes after I prayed to him for a sign that he is free of the brain diseases that took his life. A shamrock appearing in a puddle under a trashcan after a similar prayer. (He was fiercely Irish.) Giving an old lady who missed her bus a ride on the first anniversary of his death and discovering that her destination was the very hospital where he died. Some people find pennies. Some feel like butterflies are the souls of passed loved ones. Maybe. But all these little messages, though better than nothing, are never enough when we need to hug them, touch them, hear their voices, see the love in their eyes again.

I haven’t been able to move on, not only because my dad died, but because of the way he died. Whittled away to nothing by Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia over five years, until he couldn’t remember who I was. He deserved better. Then there’s the anger at God for allowing all of it. I’ll never understand it no matter how agile the verbal gymnastics of stronger Christians is.

But I needed to move on so I put his old office chair out in the yard with everything else. I watched people walk away with his shirts, bought for a dollar each, as if that’s all they were worth. But I kept a few. The ones that hadn’t been washed before he died. There all I have left of him. But I put them in a box, out of sight, to be taken out again someday, years from now, or maybe tomorrow. I never know when I’ll need to, especially at night, when there are no distractions left to hide in.

And I suppose that’s grieving in a nutshell. We move on in little ways, in minuscule increments, until the loss becomes bearable. Nobody bought my father’s chair. It’s sitting in front of my house, at the curb, waiting for someone to take it for free. People driving by slow down and look at it, as if it were just a chair.

I understand now why people hire others to handle their estate sales. It’s bad enough to lose someone without haggling with deal-seekers over their property, too. Someone tried to talk me down on one of my father’s jackets and I felt like strangling him. But it wasn’t his fault. How could he know that jacket once held someone who was everything to me? How can anyone know the hurricanes that are raging in the hearts of strangers?

Death of a Piano

As a parent, you usually know when you mess up, but sometimes fails happen when you least expect it. For instance, last night at bedtime, I was looking for some relaxing piano music to help lull my daughters (3 and 7) to sleep and ended up finding this video about an old piano left on the sidewalk, and the reactions of people who pass by it.

My daughters asked if they could watch it. It seemed harmless enough. I thought it would probably be uplifting somehow, like maybe some concert pianist would sit at it and get one last nocturne out of it.

As we watched, I explained to my girls the difference between a regular piano with a long, contoured body and an upright piano, and how they were introduced to make pianos available to people with smaller homes or apartments.

I’ve been trying to inspire one of them to play because I always regretted that I didn’t learn. I took lessons as a kid but was a typical boy, more interested in playing baseball in the street. How could I know how much knowing how to play a piano would benefit me for the rest of my life? I can play the guitar bit and I love to sing, but man how I would love to sit down and play a little Beethoven or Chopin.

Anyway, a few people stopped to tinker with the piano but the camera was too far away to hear what they were playing. By the time the video was over, my girls were riveted, wondering what the fate of the old piano would be. Then . . .

they tore it to pieces.

My girls both started crying. I turned off the video exactly as I would if I were trying to protect their innocent eyes from an act of violence. Struggling to calm them and undo the damage I had unwittingly done, I said, “Come on, girls. It’s just a piano. It’s a piece of furniture that makes noise.”

It didn’t work. They cried harder. Insulting the piano only made matters worse.

Then I switched directions and acknowledged their feelings, saying, “I wish that would have ended differently, too. I was hoping someone would come by and take the piano home with them. That was sad, huh?” They both calmed down a little and, with quivering voices, said, “Mm-hm.”

Their reaction may also have been partially caused by the fact that we have an upright piano in our house. It has sat in the corner for years like an old friend, waiting for someone to muster the interest and determination to learn to make it sing again. It’s old. Like a hundred years old. I imagine it sits there silently dreaming about its glory days in some house in the 1930’s when the family piano player (almost every family had one back then) played while the others sang and danced.

I also remembered my own childhood, when I anthropomorphized absolutely everything. I would crumple up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash only to retrieve it, straighten it out, and apologize to it. (Really.) Maybe I had watched H.R. Pufnstuf too much and thought everything was alive. Or maybe children are just naturally more sensitive to the various kinds of consciousness – however subtle and immeasurable they may be – that imbue all things that are made from something that was once alive. Or perhaps an object’s usefulness, particularly the joy it brings the user, gives it a kind of personality. Plenty of musicians talk to their instruments, give them names, etc. There’s even an old expression used in love, “How about you and me making beautiful music together?”

So, though I hate to see them cry, I’m glad my girls felt sorry for that old piano. They knew it wasn’t just a piece of furniture. They know it’s much, much more. I think somehow they know, like all would-be musicians curious about an instrument, that only it can help them unlock all those secrets and fears and overwhelming feelings stirring in their young souls.

My favorite singer/songwriter, David Wilcox, (the American one, not the Canadian one), once said he was attracted to the guitar as a teenager for just that reason – because he thought it knew something about him that he didn’t, and that he couldn’t discover without its help.

When my girls busted out crying, I felt like I had done something wrong, but in the larger picture, I think my wife and I are doing alright. More importantly, I think they’re going to be alright. If they didn’t care about the old piano getting demolished, I’d be much more worried.

Teams – A Story Poem for Fans of the World Cup (and World Peace)

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There once was a war between two countries.
It doesn’t matter which countries they were.
A war is a war is a war with few differences
And in time, the details fade away to a blur. 

As the story goes, these two warring nations
Had to meet on another kind of battleground,
But not to kill – to play a game called Soccer
For the World Cup had again rolled around.

Both teams’ players were very young and naïve.
Most didn’t even know what the war was about.
All they wanted to do was perfect their skills.
Their only desire was to play the game all-out.

Maybe it was their simplicity and innocence
That caused the events on that amazing day.
They were athletes, not politicians or soldiers
And like all athletes, they just wanted to play.

But that’s not how the rest of the world saw it.
To them, the players represented much more.
A victory for them was victory for their country
And symbolized which side would win the war.

The day of the battle drew nearer and nearer.
The hostilities mounted and the hatred grew.
Some people even sent threats to the players –
“Don’t you lose that game, whatever you do.”

Emotions were high on the day of the match.
Not one seat was left unfilled in the stands
Both sides were dressed in their team colors
And flags waved proudly in everyone’s hands.

There were terrible fights in the parking lot.
The riot control brigade was out in full force.
The hooligans threw rocks, bottles and darts.
Fanaticism had robbed them of any remorse.

The players took the field amid the madness.
The stadium exploded with boos and cheers.
The patriots on both sides felt well justified
In attacking the boys with insults and jeers.

A bottle struck one of the players in the face
Before the game had even gotten underway.
The crowd erupted and more cops came in
With paddy wagons to take the unruly away.

The presence of so many men and weapons
Was enough to quell any further aggression
And the hooligans begrudgingly acquiesced,
Settling for less violent forms of expression.

Each of the players then took their positions,
Assessing each other with determined stares.
The weight of a country on each of their backs
As they whispered fervent, last minute prayers.

They prayed for a swift victory over their enemies.
They prayed they would make their country proud.
The whistle sounded and the charge was declared.
A deafening clamor spewed forth from the crowd.

The game was as reckless and angry as the war.
The pressure to please their fans was immense.
Disgrace and dishonor was certain for the losers
So each was determined to win at any expense.

A leg was broken within the first fifteen minutes.
One player lost a tooth but went ahead, anyway.
The refs were running out of yellow and red cards.
The game had become a ruthless, back alley fray.

The fans were hard enough to control when sober
But by halftime, the alcohol started to take effect.
The police became overwhelmed and outnumbered
And allowed fights in the stands to rage unchecked.

To make matters worse, a bitter rain started falling.
Bloodied and battered, the players grimly fought on.
It resembled a clash between two Medieval armies.
The attrition continued.  Three more men were gone.

The score was tied two to two in the final minute.
The crowd was rabid, blinded by hatred and fear.
The players, exhausted, struggled to keep going.
This was a military skirmish, and no less severe.

The score was still even when the clock ran out.
Extra time was called and the whistle rang again.
Their bodies battered, it became a battle of wills.
Each side scored; it was three to three at the end.

The coaches selected their boys for a shoot-out.
It was easy – only a few were still able to stand.
With steely resolve, the star player took his shot.
The ball slipped narrowly past the goalie’s hand.

Right up to the end, the drama never diminished.
It was the most glorious soccer game of all time.
But how it ended is what this story is really about
And it’s what takes this tale from good to sublime.

Through all the madness of unbridled competition
Fueled by millions of chanting countrymen’s pride,
The players realized, even in the midst of the war,
That they were no different at all on the inside.

Their skin color, language and flags were different.
They each heard the chants and screams for blood.
But soldiers share a bond that civilians can’t know
Who are far from the fight in the dirt and the mud.

The victorious team was jumping with joy and relief
But the star player who had scored the winning goal
Couldn’t seem to celebrate along with his teammates.
Something disturbing and profound stirred in his soul.

He had started the game with only winning in mind
And he’d heard terrible things about the other team.
Everyone had told him, “Those people aren’t like us.
They’re pure evil, no matter how normal they seem.”

But he had seen no evil as he played alongside them.
He just saw other young men trying to win, like him.
He looked up at the stadium, full of his cheering fans
But it didn’t seem glorious.  It seemed bitter and grim.

He looked over at the goalie who had missed the save.
He was kneeling on one knee, his face hidden in shame.
He walked away from the crowd across the field to him.
He looked back and the rest of his team did the same.

He touched the man’s shoulder and helped him stand up,
Then he whispered something to him nobody could hear.
The goalie smiled slightly, shook his hand and nodded,
Then walked away to his team who were gathering near.

The star player led his teammates to the center of the field.
The other team kneeled with them and they all joined hands.
The crowd fell silent, confused about what they were seeing.
Then he asked, “Please pray for peace between our lands.”

Many screamed in anger and stormed out of the arena;
Others stood watching, unsure of what they should do;
A few brave souls bowed their heads and started to pray;
But it was a different stadium when they all were through.

The star player stood up when the silent prayer was over
And said, “There’s an old saying – ‘Let peace begin with me.’
Well, I invite you all to come down and meet your enemy.
Let peace begin here and maybe the politicians will see.”

And one by one, the fans, who were so full of hatred before,
Started winding their way through the stands to the grass
And people who were supposed to have nothing in common
Were able to forgive and forget the old, stubborn impasse.

The story made headlines around the world the next day
But the war continued on until it finally burned itself out.
Nobody knows if that prayer made any actual difference.
Hatred often burns higher than the faith of the devout.

But the people who prayed that day were changed forever
For they learned the greatest lesson that any one of us can –
That despite all the commotion on the tossed, angry surface,
We’re all one human family; we’re all a brotherhood of man.

What the HELL is Wrong with Kaiser Permanente Hospital?

 

 

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I’m going to do my best to keep this short because it’s my least favorite road to go down.

I used the word “hell” in this blog because when you’re in the hospital with a very ill relative and the staff seems like they’re doing their very best to kill them, the hospital becomes hell and the doctors and nurses become demons. At least that’s how it felt on three separate, consecutive occasions.

I’ll warn you now – this is going to be depressing. In fact, I don’t really mind if you don’t read it. I’m only putting it down to get it out of my system, and to make a public record of Kaiser’s horrific ineptitude. I don’t even like to use the term “hospital” in referring to them. They should be out of business, and many of the people working for them should be fired or jailed for torture.

The first incident was when my mother-in-law had a stroke at the age of 52. It started with the ambulance driver, who didn’t seem to be in any hurry. Then, at the Hollywood Kaiser on Sunset Boulevard, everyone seemed to move excruciatingly slow. We found out later they didn’t administer medicine that might have slowed the first stroke and prevented a second one that occurred in the hospital, the one that ended her life. The doctor in charge, a tall Sikh with a black beard tied in a knot at his chin, wearing a turban, with no bedside manner whatsoever, actually chuckled and said “there it is” to his associate when he saw the MRI showing the second stroke or “bleed” as they called it. He didn’t know I was standing behind him. I asked him angrily why he laughed. He denied it. This is what I meant about the doctors and nurses seeming like demons. That is demonic. 

All we could do after that is wait for her to die. To say this lady was a saint is an understatement. She was selfless to the extreme. My wife loved her more than I’ve ever seen a child love a mother. Called her several times a day every day, no matter where we were. It was a true nightmare. A trip to hell – because she died, but also because the hospital staff clearly didn’t give a damn. Even after we knew there was no hope, nurses and others would walk into the room laughing and joking about this and that, like they were walking into a public bar. I got so angry, security was called on me multiple times for yelling at them. 

A few years later, my dad got pancreatitis. They shipped him off to what they call the “Cadillac Kaiser” in west Los Angeles. Another hell hole run by demons. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia a short while earlier but hadn’t started showing significant signs yet. The combination of the drugs they gave him and the unfamiliar environment caused severe Sundown Syndrome. He lashed out at staff because he didn’t know where he was, or who he was. They had to tie him to the bed. I didn’t disagree with this because he was like a wild animal. What I did disagree with was when he was moved to the ICU, a circular room with doors on its perimeter, and the staff couldn’t seem to even try to be quiet. Maybe I’m old fashioned or I’ve watched too many movies. You know, the kind with CLASSY nurses and doctors who actually care about their patients. These geniuses were actually telling stories and laughing out loud in a group in the middle of the nurse’s station. One of them was dancing to entertain the others. I finally couldn’t take anymore, walked out of my dad’s room and said, “Do you ****ing ***holes realize that people are trying to stay alive in here and need to get some ****ing sleep?” They all scattered like cockroaches when someone turns a light on. It was incredible. Of course, this isn’t uncommon. They say the worst place to get some sleep is in a hospital because a variety of people are always waking you up to give you medicine, change the bed, take vitals, etc.. but because of that fact, one would think the callous, insensitive, self-centered pricks would do their best to be quiet the rest of the time! In the old days, I’m pretty sure they did. I’ve seen old movies when hospitals actually had signs everywhere that read “silence please” or “quiet – patients resting”. Back when humanity still had some class and people still expected some civility from each other. 

The grand finale of this was when he got a stint put into his chest and I had to keep fighting to keep him in his bed because he wanted to leave, but didn’t know or care he had the stint connected to a major artery (for easier drug delivery, to avoid numerous injections). If he pulled it out, he could bleed to death. At least that’s what I thought. It was also painful to put it in and I didn’t want him to go through that again. When I called the charge nurse, a white woman in her forties (can’t recall her name now), she said, with a blasé expression and tone, “Let him.” I asked her what she meant. She said, “Let him pull it out. When he sees how painful it is, he’ll stop trying.” 

Aghast, I said, “He’ll bleed all over the floor and possibly slip in the blood and break and arm or leg. That’s your advice?” She unashamedly answered yes. I told her to get the F out of the room. That wiped the smug look off her face, which is what my goal became every time I encountered one of these burned-out, heartless bags of shite. When you know you’re dealing with a demon, and you can’t vanquish them (i.e., beat the hell out of them), which is the only way to handle a demon, the only alternative is to say something shocking to wipe the smirks off their faces. 

We finally got out of that pit of hell and my father returned to normal somewhat. Normal is a word I can’t stand usually. For instance, if I submitted a story to a publisher and they wrote back saying “we found your work very normal”, I wouldn’t be happy about it. We don’t realize what a beautiful word “normal” is until it comes to matters of health. “Your white blood cell count is normal.” “Your MRI came back normal”, etc. 

Over time, however, those diabolical diseases Parkinson’s and Dementia, would gradually pick apart my father like vultures. My father, who had always been the life of the party, an entertainer of his friends, the singer and joke teller of the group. Kaiser dropped the ball at every step. I begged my mother to let me switch insurance plans for him but she refused. She loved Kaiser for some reason, probably because she had never been seriously ill. Kaiser is apparently good at the small stuff but God help you if you have anything serious wrong with you. It’s as if their goal is to decrease the population. 

After five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, my father broke his hip in four places. He went to the Kaiser “hospital” in Panorama City. I hoped that things might be different than the previous two experiences because this was a new hospital. Nope. It was worse here than at the other two. One mistake after another. I think we were in what they called “3 west”. I won’t go into all the details except to say that this bunch of geniuses screwed everything up – blown IV’s constantly, failed attempts to insert lines and throat tubes, overdosing and underdosing, you name it. Of course, there was also the usual loud-mouthedness when he needed to rest. There was a “respiratory therapist” whose name I also thankfully can’t recall – a ghoulish, pale, bald, white man who seemed to have had his soul vacuumed out of him – who made his little rounds every day and looked into my dad’s throat, mainly because he couldn’t talk and his breathing sounded like someone trying to start an old car. He kept saying everything looked fine but a week later, when his health became worse (which of course is inevitable at any Kaiser hospital), he was taken to the ward between a normal room and the ICU, and suddenly couldn’t breathe. A nurse came in and pulled two lumps of hardened phlegm from his throat that looked like large pieces of steak. He said, “What the hell? This shouldn’t be in here after a week in the hospital?” He said they were stuck to the sides of his throat, in plain sight. Why didn’t the respiratory therapist notice that during those five or six examinations the week before? I mean, aside from the fact that he was a demon. 

I started filming the staff because I was sure at this point that I wanted to sue the hospital. I set my iPhone on a table facing the bed and would start the video any time someone came into the room. A Pakistani or Hindu, female doctor came into the room and said, “So I hear you like to film my staff?” I told her, “Yes, I can film my father anytime I want to, and I’m preparing my lawsuit. Your staff hasn’t done anything wrong yet, but 3 west was a nightmare.” My dad continued to have respiratory distress but every time I called for help, the respiratory therapist or nurse (if the RT wasn’t available) would walk infuriatingly slow, even though I was screaming that my father couldn’t breathe. 

That’s another thing about modern hospitals, especially Kaiser – doesn’t anybody run anymore? Again, I’ve probably watched too many movies, made during a time in America when people did their jobs right, cared about each other, expected a certain standard of behavior and job performance, etc. You know, before America and the class it once had went swirling down the crapper. 

Inevitably, my dad ended up in the ICU again. I don’t know why but I thought, “At least he’ll get better attention here.” Hope springs eternal. Again, every mistake in the world was made, from big to small. A young, female, Asian doctor inserted a tube into his throat so his medicine and food could be delivered directly to his stomach, something the other wards were unable to do after numerous attempts. She was a hero for a day or two until the line became clogged. Another doctor was called in and he determined that the line she had spent 3-4 hours struggling to insert was TOO SMALL! Again, why doesn’t a doctor who does this every day know what size tube to use? I asked the new doctor this after he had inserted the correct sized tube. He said, “Good question.” 

Again, I had to beg the staff to be quiet so he could get some sleep in between interruptions. I had a friend who was in the hospital and had finally fallen asleep when a nurse came in and yelled, “Hello, Mr. _____, it’s time for your sleeping pill!”

It was becoming clear that my father wasn’t going to make it, but the mistakes and inconsiderate treatment continued, anyway. Another empty-headed nurse came in while he was sleeping, free from the pain they had caused him for a few, brief, blessed moments – and shouted “Good morning! How are we doing today?” I asked, “Why can’t you people come into a dark room quietly? I mean, seriously, what the f*** is wrong with you?” Her dopey smile fell and she left the room. Another nurse came in and asked how I was doing. I said, “I’d like to leave a big, black crater of scorched earth where this hospital used to be. That’s how I’m doing.” 

Apparently, you can’t make jokes like that anymore. She told security and a detail of men was attached to me every day for the last week of my dad’s life. I told them I wasn’t actually planning to blow up the hospital and was only angry – you know – about their torturing my father to death and all – and the manager of security said, “I can tell you’re not a lunatic and I’d be mad if it was my dad, too, but we still need to stay with you because of what you said.” So I got used to the company following me around. If there’s anything I can say in the hospital’s defense, it’s that they didn’t escalate this to a terrorist threat and make it impossible for me to be with my father during his final days. However, since they were partially responsible for his death, or at least made his final weeks on earth a living hell, it was the least they could do.

My father was not in good shape when he went into that hospital, but because of all the botched tube placements in his throat, they took away his ability to talk, and his right to say goodbye to us. They tortured a man who suffered from confusion because of Parkinson’s and Dementia, which is like poking an animal in a cage with a sharp stick. If someone is healthy mentally, they at least know why they’re experiencing painful procedures in a hospital, but when someone has Dementia, they don’t even know where they are or why they’re there. That makes it torture to their minds. So for patients with brain diseases, compassionate care is even more important. There were procedures I couldn’t even be with my dad for – procedures that took hours – tube placements that were certainly very painful. If they treated him so poorly when I was around, I don’t even want to think about how they treated him when I wasn’t. 

The quality control people – two ladies I had a meeting with because of my complaints – at this hospital (Panorama City) admitted their staff had “dropped the ball” and asked me if I and my wife (a registered nurse at UCLA children’s hospital in Westwood – a real hospital that actually cares about people) would be willing to come back later and help train their staff. I said, “When I get out of here, I never want to see this place again.” 

Three different Kaiser hospitals – three trips to hell. I looked into a lawsuit but two different attorneys said that because my father wasn’t very well when he went into the hospital and because his death was the result of “a thousand cuts” and not just one major mistake, the chances of winning would be very small. Thanks to Governor Jerry Brown, another absolute idiot who isn’t qualified to govern a chicken coop but somehow never goes the hell away, a cap of $200,000.00 was put on medical malpractice claims in California many years ago. He even admitted it was a mistake but hasn’t reneged it because the medical lobby contributes so much to his campaign and keeps him in office. More clear, obvious, blatant corruption that nobody does a damn thing about. A single Kaiser hospital probably make $200,000.00 in an hour. My goal in suing them wasn’t to get rich – it was to make them blink – to stop a second and hit them in the only area they really care about – their money. But I couldn’t even do that. I couldn’t protect my father from their bungling callousness and I couldn’t avenge him.  

Kaiser is still in business and isn’t going anywhere. Other elderly people are being tortured to death by their inept staffs as I write this. There are many exceptions, of course. There are absolute saints working at Kaiser hospitals. There were a blessed few in the hospitals described above. But I pity them for having to work for this evil organization. 

Again, the reason for writing this blog isn’t to depress anyone. I usually try to stay light and inspiring. But sometimes we need to call out gross incompetence, especially when it’s paired with heartlessness and corruption. 

I also post this as a public service. If you have insurance with Kaiser Permanente, or have elderly parents who do, please consider changing it before it’s too late. If it were only one hospital, I’d write it off as coincidence, but it was three – three hospitals with staffs that – except for a few exceptions – seemed like demons. I’ve heard it’s because many of the nurses are elderly, Filipino women who were actually trained in the Philippines to NOT think for themselves and do their jobs like ants, so they never learned how to think outside the box. This was told to me by a young filipino woman, by the way. She said, “As they retire or die off, the care patients receive at Kaiser hospitals will improve.” 

Imagine that – vast numbers of people needing to see their loved ones die horribly as they wait for ineptitude and lack of independent, creative analysis dies off. Maybe Kaiser should put that in a TV commercial – “Don’t worry, folks. You and your loved ones will get better treatment gradually as our idiotic staff reaches retirement age.” If only there was any truth in advertising. Instead, I have to suffer through commercials about how caring and conscientious Kaiser is. I know different. To use an old cliche, I learned it the hard way. 

In case you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a page – one of many like it – with complaints by people who suffered similar nightmares with Kaiser Permanente –

https://www.consumeraffairs.com/insurance/kaiser.html?page=13

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom: Episode 22: God Jumps the Shark

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Welcome to episode 22 of Messin’ with Mark! For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .

When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there and saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”

“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.

Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”

I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”

Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one of them out from all the rest for humiliation.”

God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other seriously, then said, “Naaaaaaaahhh” and laughed some more.

Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark. 

Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.

So, to today’s episode – God Jumps the Shark

This is not the title God gave the episode. In fact, I never know what titles He gives them. But I’m calling it “God Jumps the Shark” because I think the show is getting old and he’s desperate for laughs. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “jump the shark” – it originated in Hollywood when the writers of a show called Happy Days, desperate to lift sagging ratings, had one their main characters, Fonzie, jump his motorcycle over a shark. It was so out of the blue and random, it was clearly a desperate attempt to give the show a kick in the pants. Thus the term “jumping the shark” was born. When your favorite show starts getting old and they do something ridiculous, they just jumped the shark. Of course, shark jumping is not as noticeable these days, with YouTube personalities always trying to outdo each other with increasingly outrageous antics and stunts. Jumping the shark is more the norm than the exception.

But I digress. Allow me to explain why I think my show in heaven is in trouble . . .

I had just returned from a week in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I drove for ten hours and was completely exhausted and restoring my comfort zone with some of my favorite snacks and one of my favorite TV shows, Svengoolie. All was right with the world. It was sort of like that scene in Uncle Buck when he indulges in all his comfort foods.

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I suspect it was this state of comfort that inspired God to mess with me again. He just can’t stand to see me relax.

Anyway, before I left for the trip, I noticed a skunk had taken a liking to my front garden, especially an area covered by wood chips. When I planted my garden and lovingly distributed the wood chips over it, I had no idea that I was really just building a skunk cafeteria. Every morning I would go outside and find little holes here, there and everywhere. I researched it and found that skunks like to dig through wood chips for whatever reason and search for worms and other bugs that live in the soil. I was keeping on top of the skunk’s damage before the trip but when I got home after being away for seven days, my front yard looked like a World War II battlefield.

I vowed to discourage him by turning the hose on him every night until he chose someone else to pick on. I didn’t want to hurt him. After all, everything needs to eat. But I didn’t appreciate the fact that he chose me to harass when there are plenty of other front gardens with his beloved wood chips all over town. The stinky little bugger could at least spread the damage around a bit.

I squirted him with the hose a few times before I left but that didn’t seem to discourage him. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the occasional shower.

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So the return to my comfort zone when I returned from my vacation was disrupted by looking out the window every fifteen minutes or so, waiting for his inevitable return.

It was after midnight and I was starting to doze off when I was awoken by the sound of dogs barking very excitedly right outside my front window. I opened the door and was immediately accosted by two very panicked mutts with wet faces trying to squeeze by me and get into the house. Then the smell hit me. In a moment, I realized they had just been sprayed by the skunk and were desperate to escape – into my living room!

I closed the door, grabbed my blanket (my favorite blanket, by the way), and blocked the bottom of the door to keep the stink out. Too late. The entire house already stunk. My eyes and throat were burning as I looked out the window and saw the skunk spraying the dogs again. As you can imagine, dogs don’t enjoy that one bit. And I’m sure the snoot-full of skunk juice comes as quite a surprise because they probably think the skunk is just a very slow, black-and-white cat.

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Then a car pulled up with two teenagers in it. They called the dogs and they both ran and jumped into the car. Apparently, these two Einstein’s saw the skunk and brought their dogs out to attack it. Seeing them call their hounds and flee the scene was quite a surprise to me. I didn’t think there were any hillbilly skunk hunters in this town. 

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Unfortunately for them, they didn’t have the requisite old truck so there was no truck bed for the dogs to jump into. They had a two-door Hyundai sedan so the dogs had nowhere to go but into their laps. They must have had to replace the carpet and seats in their car the next day, burn their clothes and soak themselves in tomato juice. 

Wow, I’m actually starting to feel sympathy for them. Excuse me a second.

Never mind. I just had to burp. Funny how gas can be mistaken for sympathy.

Anyway, the skunk survived but must have emptied its entire stank tank on my front porch. Skunk juice apparently has the power to penetrate walls and windows because after it was all over, it was as if the skunk was sitting on my couch with me, eating my snacks and asking me to change the channel, perhaps to a Pepe Le Pew cartoon.

I tried opening the back door to air out the house but the smell was there, too. I shut the doors to my and my daughter’s bedrooms to hopefully cut down on the smell in their rooms and they didn’t wake up so it seemed to work, but I tried to sleep on the couch, throat and eyes burning.

As I lay there, I realized it was the denouement of another episode of Messin’ with Mark. It must have been top-drawer slapstick for God and his angels, gathered around that flat screen in the sky, watching me fighting to keep the dogs out of the house and choking on skunk odor when I was supposed to be relaxing back into my comfort zone after a long trip. I can just imagine Him thinking, “Okay, he’s all set up, thinking this is going to be a normal night. Cue the skunk!” 

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As usual, as I lay there choking, I looked up and whispered, “Well-played, God. Well-played.” I could only hope this apparent desperation for new show ideas (I mean, a skunk? Really?) is proof that this show at my expense is finally on its last leg and will be canceled soon.

But then I realized . . . it’s God’s show. Who’s going to cancel it?

He always gets the last laugh.

 

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On Writing Well – The “Show, Don’t Tell” Rule

 

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The “show, don’t tell” rule is the very heart of good writing. It’s difficult to avoid, especially when writing a memoir or some other type of nonfiction. But rather than saying a character is unselfish, show them doing something unselfish. If the story is told well, the reader will figure out that the character is unselfish without having to be told he/she is. Readers want to do some of the work. They don’t want to be told what to think, they want to think for themselves and make their own discoveries.  

The same is true of settings. Instead of simply writing “the diner was filthy”, a good writer will write something like, “I walked into the diner and was immediately assaulted by the stench of old meat. A hostess approached me who was too old to still be working, forced a smile that unintentionally revealed unfathomable world weariness, and led me sullenly to a formica table with chipped edges. As I sat and slid into my seat, a rat scurried over my foot. I looked under the table just in time to see its tail disappear into a ragged-edged hole in the ancient drywall.”

One might argue that writing “the diner was filthy” is just fine because it says it all, it’s brief, and the reader can just fill in the rest with his/her imagination. The problem is it’s boring. It’s also lazy. It doesn’t engage the readers’ senses or put them in the room. It doesn’t inspire the imagination or pull them into the story.

Besides, it’s a heck of a lot more fun to paint a vivid picture and transport yourself and the reader to another world; a world they can see, hear, smell, touch and taste. 

But here’s the catch – always leave more for the reader to discover for themselves. Don’t spell everything out too much. As Stephen King said, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

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The Depth of Our Loneliness (poem)

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I found this old poem by accident yesterday, excavated from a tattered, 25-year old notebook, written during my single days. I’m happily-married now with two girls (4 and 7) so though the poem is sad, there was a happy ending to the story. My heart is full every day. I shudder to think where I would be if I had remained that Steppenwolf out there in the cold, circling the campfire.

 

I was twenty-one years old
alone in an all-night diner
after another bad date
with a woman who couldn’t love me
no matter how much I gave
or how hard I tried.

Looking back, I know now
that I was asking the impossible.
We can never be more than we are
no matter how badly
someone else wants us to be.

There are a billion and one moments
that make us who we are.
Who could ever sort them out,
let alone rearrange them?

She was older than me
and had been hurt before
She was broken
and I could not fix her.
She had folded in on herself
and I could not unfold her
but I wanted her so desperately,
I couldn’t stop trying.
I saw a paradise
that she couldn’t see.

So I kept returning,
like a colt to a trough
too cracked and beaten to hold water.

After enough nights like that one
and a very bad ending;
after the storm had cleared
and the debris was swept away,
I returned to myself
and it finally dawned on me
how uncomplicated love really is.

We know when someone really cares.
We even know if someone can’t love at all.
It’s built in.
But the heart and mind
have never been much for communication
and the depth of our loneliness
can be measured
by how much we make it not matter.

I understand her now.
Time has humbled me.
The world has destroyed my delusions.
I am more mature, safer.

But now, I am afraid
that I will never love as hard
as that kid
who sat alone in an all-night diner
tasting a new kind of pain
deeper than he’d ever known.

Now, the world has broken me, too.