Month: October 2019

Yea, though I walk . . .

750x450 elah

…through The Valley of Elah

Well, I went and did it again.  That is, I put a film on my Netflix queue without any idea of what it was really about.  But I got lucky this time with In The Valley of Elah.  Based on actual events, it stars Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron.

I don’t claim to be anything like an expert on Iraq war movies.  Far from it; I’ve gotten to the point that I steer clear of war movies and TV shows in general.  After pretty much 20 years of non-stop war in the Middle East, I’ve had more than my fill of the stuff.  Not to mention the military jet fly-overs at NFL games and all the other cheap and meaningless “we back our boys (and now girls) in uniform” chest thumping that accompanies those gladiatorial displays.

But you should see this movie.  In fact, you need to see it.  And, above all, the Washington politicians, generals and defense contractors who are responsible for this mess in the Middle East should be forced to watch it.  Again and again.  Just like in the Stanley Kubrick classic, A Clockwork Orangewhere the “ultra-violent” Alex is “reconditioned” by being forced to watch hour after hour of very nasty stuff indeed.  Strap those DC politicians, generals, defense contractors, and “neocon think tank” experts into chairs in front of the screen, clip their eyelids open, and make them watch what these endless wars have done to our largely White, rural American boys who do the dirty work of fighting them.  There’d be at least a chance that a semblance of reason would descend on Washington.

I quit!

Or, if that doesn’t work, let them read this post about Forrest Huckabey, a kid who did a couple of tours in Afghanistan as an Army sniper only to return to rural Kansas badly injured and with a whole world of permanent hurts.  And, on top of that, a wife and five kids barely hanging on by a prayer, chewing gum, and some baling wire.  Or, the Washington war mongers can get this story straight from the horse’s mouth and read about some of it here in this post, I Quit!, by Forrest’s wife, Lakin.  It details some of the “horrid” treatment Forrest received from his VA doctor.

The Dead Pool

They’re plenty of disturbing images in Elah.  But the most haunting is the one of the police interrogation of a soldier who’s accused of murdering, dismembering and then burning Jones’ son who has just returned, along with the rest of his platoon, from a combat tour in Iraq.  The horrific crime was committed over some minor squabble after a night at a strip club.

As the accused soldier looks into the camera answering questions, after a few moments you realize that “there’s nothing there there.”  No remorse.  No shame.  No anger.  Nothing.  His eyes are only windows into a dead pool.

Eventually, it dawned on me.  I was watching a gifted actor portraying a young man with post-traumatic stress disorder.  A young man who, probably time and again, had seen and done the unspeakable in Iraq.

And we wonder why most veterans who’ve served in Afghanistan say the war isn’t worth fighting?  Nor should it be surprising that vets are supporting President Trump’s decision to immediately withdraw from Syria, another Middle East military commitment with no apparent end in sight.

So, my opinion?  Send the DC “chicken hawks” to do the fighting in the Middle East.  Bring the troops home.  Enough of the valley of the shadow of death.

 

What’s “normal” got to do with it?

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A hole in our heads?  Or our hearts?

Why they call it Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus entirely escapes me.  There’s nothing normal about it.  For obvious reasons, however, the condition’s name has been shortened to its initials: NPH.

The cause of the condition also escapes me.  But here I’m joined by the entire medical/scientific complex.  Absent some other trauma to the brain, it just seems “to happen” to a few old folks like me.

But what NPH does to those whom it afflicts is pretty well known: excess spinal fluid accumulates in your skull which then “squeezes” the brain.  The symptoms that often follow are also pretty well known: weird, wet and wobbly.  I’ve written about this dandy little condition before in April of 2017.  The condition is usually progressive.  So, what’s new with me over the last two and a half years?

Weird?

Weird?  Yes.  But far more than mere weirdness; that’s the largely self-inflicted malady of my youth and, these days, millennials.  With NPH, it’s one of the most feared diagnoses of the elderly (aside from the “elderly” itself): Dementia.  Forgetfulness.  Memory loss.  Trouble dealing with routine tasks.

What’s changed in my mental acuity during these years?  Hard to say for sure.  Is that a good sign, an indication that the changes, if any, are so subtle that I can’t even put a finger on them?  Or a bad sign, that my memory is failing about how I used to be?  I can’t really say for sure.

I do take some comfort, however, in this blog.  If nothing else, it’s a strenuous mental workout.  It forces me to stay informed and, I hope, to communicate clearly.  Now, if I can just get enough people to confirm that opinion by following this blog, I’ll be in like Flynn.  So, come on folks, get with it!  I need your help.

Wet?

Urinary incontinence.  Now, there’s a fun one.  And I could tell you stories about my days campaigning door to door, far from any public bathroom, that you probably don’t want to hear.  Or what it’s like to get home and do my best to change my clothes and take a shower before anyone sees me.  Or my pants.  But I’ll spare you those as well.  

But here I definitely have good news.  Several years ago, after I finally got an accurate diagnosis, they put another hole in my head, installed a brain shunt, and began draining excess fluid from my head to my abdominal cavity where my body cleanses it before returning it to my skull.  So, with the shunt at work, the progression of the “wet” third of the condition has slowed markedly-if not completely.  But not, as I hoped-and as sometimes happens- reversed.

Wobbly?

The third one?  The good news is that it isn’t embarrassing.  The bad news?  It’s scary too, but in a physical, rather than mental, sort of way.

In the literature it’s called “gait disturbances.” But I liken it to being on the deck of a ship in a storm.  I tell myself that most people probably don’t notice me wobbling down the sidewalk as if I’d have trouble passing a roadside sobriety test.  And no-one has ever said anything about it.  But nevertheless, the formerly simple act of stepping off the curb is an adventure. Moreover, if I can possibly avoid it, I never go down stairs without a firm grip on the handrail.

I do my best to stay active.  I almost invariably park my car at the far end of the parking lot and walk to the front door of the store.  Twice a week I work out with a trainer who focuses on agility and strength.  For an additional three to four more days a week I work out on an elliptical and lift weights.  So, for my age, I’m in pretty good shape.  But mind over matter isn’t a breeze when the mind that controls the matter refuses to fire on all cylinders.

This getting old stuff isn’t for sissies

When I was a kid, there was a song that made a brief appearance on the charts of Denver’s ultra-cool “top 40” AM radio station, KIMN.  It was “Those Were The Days.”  Not sure why what started life as a Lithuanian folk song reached the top of the charts for teenagers, but it made an impression on me.

And now, pushing 70, with my share of the medical slings and arrows that come with advanced age, it’s more than just a catchy lyric:

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose

For we were young and sure to have our way.

There are probably about as many ways to interpret this tune as there are people who hear it.  But it reminds me, as Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French inventor, mathematician and theologian once wrote, that “there is a “God-shaped hole in the heart of each man that can only be satisfied by God, made known by Jesus Christ.”  

“Those Were The Days” and Pascal were talking about the same thing.  The nagging fear, even if we can often suppress it with mindless diversions, that this life won’t be all that we hoped for. That, in the end, we might not get our way.  And that, instead, the relentless march of time will.  Unless, that is, we can bring ourselves to allow The Great Physician to mend our broken hearts-and heads-as only he can.

 

 

 

 

 

Plucked out of the flood

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Only to be cast on the funeral pyre

As often is the case, I’m not quite sure how I came to have Netflix send me the 1927 German film, Metropolis.  But it finally moved to the top of my queue the other day and showed up in the mail box.

Directed by Fritz Lang, it’s considered by some to be one of the finest silent films ever made.  A grim sci-fi flick, it’s a tale of a futuristic society ruled by a pampered elite who oppress a working class that dwells and toils in subterranean squalor.

The movie ticks all the usual horror show boxes.  The mad scientist.  A Frankenstein like monster. Also interesting in these days of acting understatement are the histrionic techniques typical of silent movies.   The special effects were ground breaking for their era.  Also featured is a cast of thousands that, at times, rush around the screen like ants whose nest has been kicked over.

Storm clouds

It’s not possible to watch the film without thinking of the cataclysm that’s just over the horizon for Germany.  And, indeed, the rest of Europe, Western Civilization and the world at large.  Metropolis was produced during the brief, overripe cultural flowering of Germany’s post WW I Weimar Republic.  It was only a few years before Hitler came to power and night descended.

The film’s an odd mixture of Christianity and Teutonic mysticism.  The leading character, Freder, descends from the from his privileged existence in the exalted, upper reaches of Metropolis in pursuit of the beautiful, chaste Maria who becomes the hope of liberation for the machine like Untermenge who populate the underworld.  There, amid sets littered with images of crucifixes on Golgotha, Freder and Maria quickly develop a romantic attachment.

Inevitably, complications and confusions arise, leading to an uprising of the near subhuman workers against the ruling class.  The violence destroys the pumps that prevent the underworld from flooding.   Further misled by an evil double of Maria created by Rotwang, the mad scientist, the workers rush to the surface intent on overthrowing their overlords.  In the chaos, the workers’ wives and children are left behind in the rising waters.  But for the heroic efforts of Freder and Maria, all would perish in the flood.

A brand plucked from the fire

Lang went to great lengths to achieve realism in the film.  For the flooding scenes, he recruited 500 children from Berlin’s poorest neighborhoods.  By the time shooting was finished after 14 grueling days in water that Lang intentionally kept at low temperatures, the look of terror and exhaustion that appears on the children’s faces required no great acting skill.

In 1709 five year old John Wesley miraculously escaped from the upper floor of his family’s home when a late night fire burned the structure to the ground.   Years later, Wesley went on to lead a powerful Christian religious revival that swept over first England, then America, and eventually the world in the form of Methodism.  Wesley considered his escape from the blaze that destroyed his family’s home to be providential and later quoted from Zechariah 3:2 to describe it:  “a brand plucked out of the fire.”

Only to be cast back on the funeral pyre

As I watched Lang’s nightmare vision of children of eight or ten years slogging through frigid water, it became obvious that Lang’s child actors weren’t as fortunate as the young John Wesley.

My mind drifted away to scenes far more dreadful than silver screen cataclysms.  How many of Lang’s child actors, in real life, would be somehow crippled and declared by the Nazis to have a “life unworthy of life”-and then euthanized?  And, for those “lucky” enough to be fit for military service, then to be killed or maimed serving Hitler’s war machine in WWII, the bloodiest conflict in human history?  Or, if the child was a Jew, perish in one of the Nazi’s death camps?  Or serve as a guard in one of the concentration camps infamous Death’s Heads units?

Of those 500 children cast as extras in Lang’s movie, whose faces flicker across the gray screen from so long ago, it’s certain that many of them were characters in one of history’s most horrific, real life horror shows.

So, by all means watch Metropolis.  But prepare to be haunted by something far more disturbing than cheap cinematic thrills.