The Four-Legged Horror Movie

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I had always loved dogs. That is, until I met Peanut, a chihuahua owned by an old girlfriend, Rhonda. His name was the least of his problems. He had bulging, leaking eyes that made him look like he was being perpetually squeezed. He had a bronchial disorder that made even calm breathing sound like he had been chain smoking all his life. He had a mysterious skin condition that covered most of his body, caused almost all of his hair to fall out, and left a sticky substance on the hand of anyone who dared to pet him. Last but certainly not least, he had a protracted rectum. In short, he was repulsive whether he was coming or going. A four-legged horror movie. The cumulative effect of all these conditions caused the trembling common to chihuahua’s to afflict him tenfold, and gave him the appearance of a rodent suffering from hypothermia. 

Rhonda spent a fortune in veterinary bills on Peanut but nothing improved. I just couldn’t see the upside. All the money she had thrown away trying to restore Peanut to awful seemed like a terrible waste to me. I joked with her that the only expenses I would have had if Peanut were mine was a tennis ball and the gasoline required to drive to the Grand Canyon for a game of fetch. 

Rhonda had four other dogs of various breeds. For the sake of avoiding lurid and possibly vomit-inducing imagery, let’s just say Peanut was the “janitor” of the group. Maybe “hazardous material clean-up” is a better description. Whatever your imagination is doing right now, triple it. That’s right. Theirs was what is known in science circles as a symbiotic relationship. The other four dogs received assistance with personal hygiene in their hard-to-reach nether regions, and Peanut received a constant supply of tasty snacks. They were all very happy with this arrangement. The only ones who were not happy with it were any humans (such as myself) who were unfortunate enough to witness the ungodly spectacle. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about Peanut trying to lick my face immediately after one of his many daily haz-mat disposal procedures because, as if to make the monstrosity complete, he had the personality of a shaken-up bag of rattlesnakes. One would think he would have tried to compensate for his appearance (and odor) with a sparkling personality, but no. People who say dogs can’t hate, or that dog spelled backwards is G-O-D, never met Peanut. He was evil incarnate. The stuff of nightmares. The kind of thing that suddenly pokes its head out of a hole in the wall of a labyrinth in the bowels of hell just when you think hell couldn’t get any worse.

Peanut took an immediate dislike to me. I didn’t take it personally because he hated everyone, including Rhonda. It was a mystery to me why she was so devoted to the little pustule. While watching TV or having dinner with her, I would feel his bulging, lopsided eyes watching me, filled with unspeakable evil, probably fantasizing about tearing me limb from limb and devouring my entrails. I would attempt to stare him down, thinking he might suddenly become aware of our vast size disparity, but his glare would only intensify, as if he was saying, “Come at me, bro!” I always ended up looking away. It was terrifying. I once searched the skin under his fur while he was asleep to see if I could find the 666 that Demian’s father found on his scalp in The Omen.

I decided to try to be more mature one day and at least attempt to make friends with Peanut. I slowly sat down next to him, spoke to him in loving tones, gave him a biscuit, waited for him to finish eating, then, smiling broadly, extended my hand to pet him. 

I still have the scar.

Therefore, I was panic-stricken when Rhonda said Peanut would be staying at our apartment for a month. Apparently, he had some other ailment she didn’t want the other four dogs to catch. I suggested a kennel, a doggy B&B, or better yet, a dungeon where he could be fitted with four small manacles for the sake of the public safety (myself being “the public”) but she wouldn’t think of it for her darling Peanut. To make matters worse, I was working at home at the time and she worked elsewhere, so I would be alone with the Evil Seed every day.

The day he arrived, she handed me a list of medicines, special foods, instructions, and his walking schedule. Walking schedule? Now I had to hang out with him? It didn’t help that the apartment we shared was in an affluent neighborhood known for dog lovers. At any time of the day, posh-looking people walked posh-looking dogs, all of them with their noses in the air. Then there was me, walking the canine equivalent of Freddy Kreuger. Our neighbors’ usually warm smiles would gradually contort into grimaces as they saw us coming and beheld the full horror of Peanut up close. Then they would retch violently, depress the button on their spring-loaded leashes, reel in their precious Fifi’s and Lulu’s, quicken their pace, and give us a wide berth as they would one who walks with the plague. 

At first, I was embarrassed by this treatment. I even apologized once as someone fled in horror. But after a week or so, to my amazement, I started to feel – yes, I’ll say it – compassion for Peanut, and contempt for the snobs who shunned him. When they would look at Peanut with repulsion, I would say, “What’s wrong? Never saw a protracted rectum before?” I actually began to enjoy annoying them and disrupting their perfect world and delicate sensibilities.

After that, my feelings toward Peanut began to change. Even I didn’t see it coming. The pivotal moment occurred one day when I was at my desk working and Peanut was sleeping by the fireplace. He was having a harder time breathing than usual. I stopped working, knelt by him, put my hand on his chest and thought maybe he was so mean because he was in pain all the time, or because he was overcompensating for his tiny stature. Plenty of humans behave similarly. How must life be for a dog that weighs only a few pounds? I’m ashamed now that I didn’t feel anything for Peanut before this epiphany. I can only blame it on my youth. 

That day, I resolved to help Peanut overcome his health challenges. I became very studious about his health regimen and spent more time with him. To my amazement, we actually began to have fun together. There was a personality under all that attitude, after all. (His and mine.) Of course, it also helped that he was alone, with no other dogs to perform his haz-mat services on. That would have been a deal-breaker for me. Despite ourselves, old Peanut and I became pretty good buddies. 

This all took place many years ago. Peanut is long gone by now and either guarding the gates of hell single-pawedly, or in command of larger dogs that do. 

Clare Booth Luce wrote, “I don’t have a warm personal enemy left. They’ve all died off. I miss them terribly because they helped define me.” That little monster did help define me, so much so that I’m writing a story about him twenty years later. He helped me find something inside myself I needed to find, something imperative in this world – the ability to love the unlovable. He also taught me that the more love you give, the more you receive, and that sometimes one must try a little harder to love someone, and to access theirs. Maybe there’s something to that God spelled backward thing, after all.

What Happened to Peace and Love?

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There’s no way to say any of the following without sounding like a crotchety old carbunkle, but for all you youngsters today who may not know it, back in the 60’s and 70’s, there was a real, serious, dedicated movement that centered around coming together as friends, seeing beyond differences to the heart and soul, ending war once and for all, etc.
We have gradually lost sight of that goal as time has passed. It’s like we’re all standing among the ruins of a half-built Utopia without the will or ability to complete it. In fact, many people seem to be determined to widen political/religious/social/racial divisions and wipe out everything not exactly like themselves. (Exactly what the Islamic terrorists are guilty of, ironically.)
I was a kid in the 60’s, but I was befriended by a group of hippies, and let me tell you, they lived their philosophies. They made me feel like a prince at a time when I felt pretty small and insignificant. I told that story in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book called Random Acts of Kindness.
I’m not saying we should all become hippies, or even that they were right about everything. For instance, I don’t respect the fact that they wanted to put limits on everything except their own behavior. But what can’t be questioned is their level of commitment to peace and love. I wonder if we’ll ever get back to that ideal of seeking understanding and compassion. We can’t have anything unless we first actually want it, and wanting is useless without action. In other words, if we don’t define what we want, there’s no way to ever achieve it.
There will always be evil and naked aggression that needs to be squashed by non-pacifists. (ISIS, Al Quaeda, the Taliban, Nazi’s, fascists, etc.) But it’s equally and maybe even more brave to seek peace in our daily lives with people we have nothing in common with, to try to connect as human beings and see past (or not even notice at all) our racial/sexual/economic/educational/religious divisions, and all the other ways we divide ourselves from others. After all, the first requirement for doing evil to another is to think of them as something separate from ourselves, or even non-human. That’s why the first thing Hitler and every tyrant like him did to win over the mindless masses was to label the group he wanted to persecute as “vermin” that needed to be exterminated. This is how he convinced men who weren’t born killers to murder women and children. 
Every measure of peace must be attempted before breaking out the guns, or fists. At least the hippies were brave enough to try, you know?
Here are a few songs from back in the day that illustrate my point. Feel free to message me with your favorite.
Why Can’t We Be Friends – War
Stop Children What’s That Sound – Buffalo Springfield
Love is the Answer – England Dan and John Ford Coley
Everyday People – Sly and the Family Stone
Lean on Me – Bill Withers
Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire
The Times They Are a-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Blowin’ in the Wind – Peter, Paul & Mary 
Give Peace a Chance – John Lennon
Some Mother’s Son – The Kinks
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Living Well, Dying Well

In December of 2014, my father died after five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, and breaking his hip, then being tortured by a grossly incompetent medical staff at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Panorama City, California. I won’t go into detail but it was a real trip to hell and the staff were the demons running it.

My dad died on December 21st, his young dog died without warning four days later on Christmas Day (also from a brain problem, ironically), leaving my mother completely alone. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, her house was burglarized. She not only felt sad in her empty house, but afraid, too. 

As I was dealing with the burglary, my father’s sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been dead for four months but nobody noticed because she was an agoraphobic recluse. She lived badly and died badly. A tragic end to a tragic life. More irony (or something more) – she died within a week of my father, even though she was twelve years younger than him, and she didn’t even know he had passed. It was as if my father’s soul, free of that broken body, found her and said, “Come with me, sis. This is no life for anyone.” Maybe his dog died to be reunited with him, too.

We will all die, and usually badly, in physical terms, from some diabolical, incurable (is there any other kind) disease or combination of them. This is the inherent courage of living – knowing the end will come, but waking up, getting cleaned and dressed, smiling at strangers, and making the most of every day anyway. We all deserve a medal. There is valor in just staying positive and living life knowing the end will come, whether or not we believe in heaven and the continuation of the soul.

My father’s miserable last month of life, made infinitely more miserable by the ghoulish staff at Panorama City’s Kaiser Permanente hospital (with a few rare exceptions), would have been completely hellish except for one moment at the end, after the morphine drip that would end his life had begun, when somehow, he opened his eyes and searched for me in the room full of friends and family. A friend said, “Mark, he wants you.” I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, crushed that I wasn’t able to save him. I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him and held his hand. He couldn’t speak because his throat was ravaged by numerous botched tube placements. (Another thing Kaiser stole was my father’s right to say goodbye.) He pursed his lips, pulled me close, and gave me the last kiss he would ever be able to give me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of mom, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I asked if he understood and he nodded yes. I thank God for that moment now, and am still baffled at how he was able to reach through his brain diseases and all the drugs flooding through his system to give me that moment. A golden moment if ever there was one. I have despaired greatly since his death, about how he died, so without that the despair would have been infinitely worse.

Which brings me to my point – dying well. That moment said everything there was to say about my father. He had a rough upbringing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with loveless parents, crushing poverty, and almost daily fistfights, but he never complained. He came to America and started a business that flourished for 35 years while others rose and fell around him. He lost his stomach to cancer at 45 and was cut down from 200 to 150 pounds. And again, he never complained. He never complained or made the slightest whimper in the hospital despite his hip and femur being broken in four places, despite his throat being so dry his tongue cracked open, despite the hospital staff making every mistake it was possible to make out of a combination of incompetence and heartlessness. And he didn’t complain as morphine ended his life. Instead, he reached for me and gave me a kiss.

I thought of my dad when the actor Gene Wilder died recently. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t act anymore during his final decades. He was sent scripts constantly so demand for his talent was still there. He said he didn’t like all the cussing and vulgarity. Decency and integrity like that is almost non-existent in Hollywood, where money and attention are usually the only factors considered when making a decision.

Gene Wilder suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease during his final years. He said he rarely went out because children still recognized him as Willy Wonka and he had trouble smiling so he didn’t want to make anyone sad. He didn’t get bitter and hostile because life was dealing him a terrible hand. He was good, sweet and kind to the very end despite his troubles. He lived well and died well.

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While writing this, a scene from the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams came to mind. A patient (played by Peter Coyote) was very angry and bitter that he was dying young. Patch was determined to help him make the transition more peacefully. Here’s the scene:

When I was in my early twenties, I climbed over the wall of a cemetery one night and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles, trying to summon up something, anything, that would prove to me that there was something beyond this life. I had been told that Ouija boards could be dangerous portals for demons, but I didn’t care. My faith in God had been destroyed by atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell and I desperately needed to know if we were immortal or worm food. I chose that night for this “seance” because it was Friday the 13th, and not only a full moon, but a blue moon, too. I figured the timing couldn’t be better. But nothing happened. I sat in that hole in the ground in dead silence until I felt enough like an idiot to pack it up and go home.

But maybe something did happen. My brother had a troubled life filled with drugs and prison and died of an overdose at 37. My mother had breast cancer twice. My life wasn’t exactly easy, either. Maybe demons stay below the radar and do their damage instead of making flashy displays like they do in movies. Life doesn’t feel like nothing to me. It feels like a mystery. It feels like a struggle between good and evil. I can feel the devil push me one way and God push me another. We can write it off as imagination or believe in something larger than ourselves. It’s always our choice.

But no matter what the ultimate truth is about the afterlife, there’s one thing I know – life wasn’t given to us to spend it in misery and sorrow. It just feels right to be happy, generous, kind, loving. I don’t understand people who spend their one, short life buried in greed, anger and/or hatred. Such a waste. Kind of like having a sumptuous meal prepared by the world’s greatest chef then pouring ketchup all over it.

Timothy Leary said dying is one of the greatest things any of us will ever have the chance to do. He was right. How we die is perhaps the largest reflection of who we truly are, beneath all the surface behavior and easy words. Depending on how we live, we will die with integrity or despair. *

My goal is to have the same smile on my face on my final day as I do today. Death shouldn’t extinguish the light within us. It already takes enough.

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  • Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development.

 

That We Were Kind (poem)

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Does anyone know where the little boy went?
The little boy who used to be me?
He’s still alive somewhere inside this shell
Though the shell is all you can see.

Can you still see him reaching out for love
From behind these time-worn eyes?
The child with a heart as bright as the stars
Hiding beneath this thin disguise?

What a cruel trickster Father Time can be
Changing our costumes as we age.
From infant to child, and from young to old,
A new character with every stage.

We might as well be four different people.
The adult barely resembles the child.
The external transformation is so complete,
Young and old are rarely reconciled.

But there are some whose eyes still twinkle,
For whom the child within never dies.
The outside world can see only the surface.
Only they know how their surface lies.

What can we learn from all this changing?
From the fact that nothing is real?
How can we judge by a deceptive facade
That hides the way we truly feel?

The way to get the whole picture, it seems,
Is to think of everyone that we see
As the child they were, who they are today,
And the old person they soon will be.

We should also see them as dead and gone,
Their short life on earth finally done,
With all their trials rendered null and void,
All their battles either lost or won. 

Whitman wrote, “The powerful play goes on
And you may contribute a verse.”
The same is true for every person we meet.
We make their lives better or worse.

Thus, we should measure disheartening words
And make sure they need to be spoken
So we won’t be among those who caused dismay
If they reach the end of life heartbroken.

And when those we’ve known are old and gray,
Remembering years they left behind,
Comforting words we said might return again
With the memory that we were kind.

~Mark Rickerby

That We Were Kind (poem)

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Does anyone know where the little boy went?
The little boy who used to be me?
He’s still alive somewhere inside this shell,
Though the shell is all you can see.

Can you still see him reaching out for love
From behind these time-worn eyes?
The child with a heart as bright as the stars
Hiding beneath this thin disguise?

What a cruel trickster Father Time can be,
Changing our costumes as we age.
From infant to child, and from young to old,
A new character with every stage.

We might as well be four different people.
The adult barely resembles the child.
The external transformation is so complete,
Young and old are rarely reconciled.

But there are some whose eyes still twinkle,
For whom the child within never dies.
The outside world can see only the surface.
Only they know how their surface lies.

What can we learn from all this changing?
From the fact that nothing is real?
How can we judge by a deceptive façade
That hides the way we truly feel?

The way to get the whole picture, it seems
Is to think of everyone that we see
As the child they were, who they are today,
And the old person they soon will be.

We should also see them as dead and gone,
Their short life on earth finally done,
With all their trials rendered null and void,
All their battles either lost or won.

Whitman wrote, “The powerful play goes on
And you may contribute a verse.”
The same is true for every person we meet.
We make their lives better or worse.

Thus, we should measure disheartening words
And make sure they need to be spoken
So we won’t be among those who caused dismay
If they reach the end of life heartbroken.

And when those we’ve known are old and gray,
Remembering years they left behind,
Comforting words we said might return again
With the memory that we were kind.