Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How Santa Claus Stopped Smoking

Yep, that's me



       I ended my smoking habit with almost breathtaking swiftness.
       This wasn't a planned assault on my disgusting addiction.  It was an intervention by forces beyond my conscious control.  In short, I got so sick, I had a lung infection so severe that I was given a view into what my future would be like if I didn't quit smoking.  It was terrifying. For once in my life I made a rational choice; I put away the tobacco and stopped smoking.  I got nicotine patches.  That part of the process, the nicotine withdrawal, is seldom a great problem.  Patches work.  Gum works.  A person can get off nicotine without too much difficulty.
          The other part is the hard part.  The body rhythms, the daily self-soothing, the hand to mouth nipple sucking, the inhale-exhale, the whole gigantic gestalt of what goes into a smoking addiction, the social rituals and emotional processes...that's the gritty work of quitting a tobacco habit.
          And there were the feelings.  Our emotions are seldom under control, they're like the weather, they just ARE.  But my god, the experiences I had during this awful month were like a roller coaster without the fun.  It had the emotional contours of an amusement park ride, one of those ultra-modern devious twisting machines.  Instead of pleasantly thrilling chills there was just the terror, intense despair, claustrophobia and a hundred other nasty feelings.  All of these feelings had been laid under provisional control and masked by smoking.  Now they were naked and pulsing, bare nerve endings of horror, and I was experiencing them.
          It wasn't brave of me to do that...I had no choice in the matter, so how can I call myself brave?  Had I  attempted to smoke I would have all but lost the ability to breathe for several minutes. If you have asthma, a lung disorder, or are prone to panic attacks, you know that being unable to breathe is the most terrifying experience in the universe. 
          I consider myself incredibly lucky, or blessed.  I probably had pneumonia.  I didn't go to a hospital.  I called my doctor, explained the circumstances, and was given a course of antibiotics.  I survived and healed thanks to modern medicine,  a resilient body, the grace of God, and the tender loving care of my wife.
          The rest of the story can be told by relating what I call "The Santa Claus Incident."
          Every year in December I have a little job.  I  dress in my Santa Suit and hand out gifts to three and four year old children at a Montessori pre-school. On December 14 at five thirty p.m,  I was scheduled to appear in a big class room with about fifty kids and their parents.  I would pretend to have just dismounted from my sleigh as I walked through the door. I would boom "HO HO HO!" and spend about an hour  having my picture taken with each child as I dispensed little packages provided by the school.
          At ten o' clock that morning I was reaching for my phone, with great reluctance, to cancel my appearance.  I was in no shape to be Santa Claus.  I was exhausted.
          The phone rang before I could dial the number.
          It was the school principal.  "You're coming, aren't you?" she asked anxiously. "The kids are looking forward to seeing you so much!  I got nervous and wanted to call and confirm."
          "I don't feel very well," I said. "I've got a little cough, but don't worry, I'll be there.  See you a bit after five, right?"
          "Oh thank you thank you thank you!  Wonderful!  We're so looking forward to it."
          What else could I do?  Santa doesn't get pneumonia.  I would soldier through, I would do my best. 
          I had been sick for about two weeks and thought I was on the healing part of the curve.  I was wrong about that.  I wasn't contagious, but I had another two weeks to serve in this particular zone of Hell.
          My wife dropped me off near the door that I customarily use at the back of the school.  As she went to park the car I had one of those attacks: the breath left my body and the next breath wouldn't come.  I put down the box with my costume, spread my legs and told myself the attack would pass.  There was nothing else I could do but fight for breath. I don't know how long the gasping lasted.  It was no more than three or four minutes, but those can be very long minutes.
          It passed.  I started to breathe.  I pulled myself together, found the school principal and went to the dressing room to work the transformation from air-sucking sick man to SANTA CLAUS HIMSELF!
          A Santa Claus costume is a torture device.  It's hot. It's constricting.  Between the wig and the beard there's window about four inches in diameter through which I can see.  The beard and mustache almost completely block my nose and mouth.
          I had been doing this little holiday job for years but in my condition I wasn't prepared for the  shock of being inside that all-consuming outfit. 
          I walked into the class room, managed to go "HO HO HO, MERRY CHRISTMAS!" and crumpled onto my special throne.
          Then a tsunami of children raced towards me, screaming with delight (minus a few toddlers hanging back, cringing with terror).  Behind the kids, the parents were firing their cameras and I-phones, smiling and laughing.
          I had a pure unmitigated panic attack.  I couldn't breathe.
The fake white hair was teaming up with my congested lungs.  My airways were completely blocked.  My heightened sense of claustrophobia was thrown into overdrive.  My field of view was constricted to a couple of inches.  I was wearing gloves, boots, a hat, a red fuzzy tunic, a wide leather belt and big baggy red fake fur pants!
          The impulse to get up and run was overwhelming.  Yet, I couldn't do that!  What a predicament!  Then the kids surrounded me and the ritual had begun. My decision had been made for me.
          If I was brave at all throughout this month of madness it was in that moment: that refusal to run in the face of panic.
          I had that two seconds in which to leave.  I could have thrown up my hand and said "STOP!  I CAN'T!"  Well, I doubt I could have spoken at all.  I was panting and trying to squeeze breath into my lungs and then I had a giant hacking cough.  A huge wad of phlegm exited my lungs at high velocity and stuck immediately to the inside of my fake beard, which then attached itself even more firmly to my chin.
          I could breathe again.  I could hang in there, talk to the kids, pose for the pictures, get my pay check and go home. Which is what happened.
          The worst of it was over but I will never forget the raw unchecked emotion that rampaged across my psyche. 
          I realize that something profound has taken place within me; I've been given a second chance, a dispensation, a grace.
Some immense force, something from WITHIN, turned me upside down, shook me hard, then set me back down....smoke free.
          I am deeply grateful. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

FRINGE: A Review Of The Creepy TV Series




          The scene:  A bicycle messenger zings his way through a crowded city street.  He's wearing his helmet and backpack and he's panting slightly as he evades pedestrians, snack vendors and taxi cabs.  He pulls up to his destination, quickly locks his bike to a traffic sign and runs towards the glass doors of the high rise office building.  He bumps into a woman emerging from the building.  His face is suddenly troubled.  His coordination seems to be failing.  He bumps into a man.  Something is clearly wrong.  He almost makes it to the front reception desk but now things accelerate: little stalks are growing out of his forehead, popping out of his eyes, wriggling from his mouth.  A woman screams.  The bike messenger topples to the reflective marble of the lobby.  He is writhing, his heels kick the floor.  The stalks multiply rapidly.  Each stalk, slimy and weaving, is topped by an eye; a very human looking eye.  More screams.  The bike messenger's clothes tear into hundreds of pieces and there is nothing left of the young man but a football-shaped creature with two hundred eye stalks.  At the creature's center a toothy opening appears, and many sharp teeth are exposed.  The creature exhales a brown vapor.  There are screams everywhere.  The brown vapor spreads and is breathed into the lungs of dozens of unsuspecting people.  Within seconds, each of these people is metamorphosing into a football-shaped creature with two hundred eyeballs on stalks.
          Welcome to the television series "FRINGE."
          How is it possible to have affection for a TV series, to watch it faithfully, yet know in our heart of hearts that it's crap?
          Somehow FRINGE pulls off this stunt.

In the foreground, actor Joshua Jackson as "Peter"

          There is such a thing as too much suspension of disbelief.  It's acceptable to let the craziest notions fly around in science fiction stories.  But FRINGE wants to have it both ways.  It asks our permission to fly the freakiest flags imaginable: parallel universes, re-animation of corpse brains, hairless time travelers, shape shifters with mercury for blood.  Yet it wants us to accept these ideas as somehow supported by fact. Maybe, the show implies, the state of our current science is almost, but not quite, developed to this point.  But it's close!  It's credible!
           However close, however credible, in the FRINGE world there are only two scientists who are advanced enough to work with these facts and one of them is either 1)dead 2) in a parallel universe  3) dead and in a parallel universe or 4) dead, in a parallel universe and temporarily occupying the body of an FBI agent.
          Every episode has us scratching our heads.  "Do you know what's going on?" I ask my wife.
          "Not a clue," she responds, equally perplexed.  Then I hit the remote and start the next episode.
          And there you have the big question: why do I watch the next episode?
          It's obvious that the writers are improvising. Don't get me wrong; improvisation has a large place in the writing process.  It is not, however, an adequate substitute for a well planned story arc.  The producers of the show got one thing right and they've been leaning on that one thing for five seasons.  That "one right thing" is the character of Walter Bishop as played by actor John Noble.

John Noble

          I've seen great actors, but I've never seen an actor like John Noble.  He has such exquisite control that he can hover on the edge of tears for minute after minute; the water pools at the bottoms of his eyes.  It hangs at the edges of his lower lashes, yet never quite falls.  His facial muscles convey the most delicate sadness.  It's as if he's so sad he CAN'T cry, the very act of weeping would sully the feelings he's experiencing.
          John Noble plays multiple roles in Fringe, since he must play not only Walter Bishop in THIS  universe, but the OTHER Walter Bishop (called "Walternate"), as well as various Walters in various time periods and states of exultation and/or decrepitude.  The other universe's Walter Bishop is The Secretary, that is, the political boss and chief boogie man.  Walternate is not warm and fuzzy like OUR Dr. Bishop.  He's much colder and more vindictive, but as is the nature of the competing universes in FRINGE, he is in a sense a mirror image of the sweetie-pie genius nut-case Walter Bishop who carries so much of the series' plot.

Lance Reddick

          The uber-story of FRINGE is that of a war between the two universes.  The viewer should understand that this so-called war is a political construct, that it's been cooked up by evil powers to serve their own ends.  We are familiar with many such wars in our own "real" universe.  That much is simple.  We get it.  It's a phony war but it has devastating consequences.  It was ostensibly "started" by OUR Walter when he built a machine that enabled him to cross over into the "other" universe in order to kidnap a version of his son.  The reason for the kidnapping: his real son, the one in HIS universe is dying from an unspecified disease. Walter can't let go of his son.  So he steals an exact copy from the other universe.
          By crossing into a parallel universe, Dr. Walter Bishop inflicts a deadly wound into the space/time fabric and thus damages both universes in ways that slowly become apparent as the series progresses.
          His son, Peter, grows up to live in "our" universe but there are a lot of facts about his past that are obscure, both to himself and to the audience.
          I could go on..and on...and on..for at least five seasons worth of FRINGE but there's no point. I don't really understand what's happening, who is who, where they are, which version represents which universe, and so forth.

          Somehow FRINGE holds our attention.  Every character is well played.  Actor Lance Reddick as Agent Broyles is so spooky looking that he could dance the waltz in a tuxedo and still scare the crap out of me.
          FRINGE is a crazy hodge podge of plots, subplots, superplots, and (let me invent a word here) unplots.  It hits you with a left hook when you're expecting a left hook, yet it still maintains an element of surprise, and, more importantly, an element of super-creepy fun.  FRINGE laughs at itself.  Hence, it's fun to watch.  The actors are having fun.  The show's producers are having fun.  Nothing is too outrageous, the genie is out of the bottle and FRINGE will soon pass from our television universe to go into pan-galactic syndication.

The two Agent Dunhams, one from each "universe"

          FRINGE is not brilliantly written but its actors compensate us with performances that turn the series into a drama that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Few such dramas can survive the leaden hands of less gifted writers, but the series somehow acquires fresh infusions of blood (uh...uh....) as it progresses.  By the time Season Four rolls around, I have the feeling that all the improvisations are finally gelling into a real story arc and that a few "high fives" are being shared around the writer's table.
          "We got there!" they congratulate themselves.  "We know what FRINGE is about!  Now we'd better pull our shit together before we start to grow boring, tiresome, repetitious and trite."
          They have, after all, been flirting with these show-stoppers since the pilot episode and have just narrowly missed the bullet with each new season.
          Addendum: We have now seen all of Season Four and unfortunately
my prediction has come true.  Aside from a couple of decent episodes, the series was puerile, the writing lazy, the plots derivative.  I understand that Season Five only recently ended its network broadcast.  If they had cut the cord at the end of Season Three they would have escaped with their dignity intact.  Alas, television production is subject to pressures of which we have no idea.  I can only say that my wife and I have a new slang term: we've been Fringed.  This is not a good experience, being Fringed.  It leaves one with the taste of stale hyperbole, like two day old coffee that's been endlessly re-heated in the office coffee urn.