Honoring Real Life Heroes, or, Defying Mother Nature in the Key of “C”

This is a repost in honor of Veteran’s Day.

Ermey

“Did your parents have any children that lived, Private Pyle?”. — Our Hero, meeting R. Lee Ermey at a Veteran’s charity event

On this blog I use the term Hero a bit liberally. Obviously, I use the word to (hopefully) inspire ordinary people to become for fully realized versions of themselves. But my use of the moniker Our Hero is ironic, bordering on immature foolery, when I think of my real life Hero, Sgt. Jacob Scherrer, USMC. On Veteran’s Day, it’s important for me to draw a distinction between the metaphorical and the literal with a modest tribute.

When I was a kid, my Dad, a real life Hero and World War II and Korean War vet, would take the family to his Marine Corps League picnics. One year in the middle of the big raffle, Mother Nature unleashed a thunderstorm that can only be described as semi-biblical. The skies opened and peppered the attendees with a Terrible, horizontal rain and 75 mph winds that scattered lawn chairs and potato sack race equipment (sacks, mostly).

But rather than cower and seek shelter, the Marines – the Few and the Proud – stood at attention, saluted Mother Nature in defiance, and fired back with an aggressive rendition of the Marine Corps Hymn (“From the Halls of Montezuuuuma, to the Shores of Tripoli…..”, in the key of “C” for those of you singing along). Everyone joined in: the feisty old Greatest Generation guys like my Dad, the Vietnam Vets (some of whom may have added a one-finger salute), green enlisted Marines. Even the families; wives and kids, standing, hands on hearts and belting it out. It was one of the most surreal and oddly moving things I have ever seen.

And you know what? The Tempest stood down after the third verse. The clouds receded. The sun shone in fear and respect. No little drizzle was going to wreck their corn on the cob, their potato sack race, their big raffle. Not even the Irresistible Force known as Mother Nature can stop Devil Dogs. These guys go into Hell and take on the Impossible because they know they can. Because Marines Believe.

ADHD Digression/Shiny Object Alert!

The photo above was taken by my Dad some years back. He was excited to go an meet R. Lee Ermey, retired United States Marine Corps Staff Sergeant and host of the Mail Call show on the History channel.  Some of you know him better as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket. The ball busting drill instructor? He was promoting a veteran’s charity at the time, and he visited our town. My Dad was not into Hollywood types or celebrity worship, so I was surprised when he asked me to go with him.

This encounter shows the difference between my Dad and me. Dad wanted to meet a man he admired, not just for his entertainment endeavors but for his serious work on behalf of US veterans. I saw an opportunity for an ironic photo with a pop culture icon. When he was just a kid, my Dad was willing to sacrifice his adolescence, his physical well-being, and his life for his country, so that his adult son could have the freedom to take adolescent, ironic photos. It stuck me at the time, and it was humbling. At that moment, I was reminded of the classic line from A Hard Days Night.

Old Man on Train: We fought the war for your sort!

Ringo: Bet you’re sorry you won.

Fortunately, Dad thought the pic was funny too, so I don’t feel like such an ungrateful goof. Ermey was extremely congenial, and Dad and I walked away impressed and very happy, each in our own way.

Needless to say, every Veteran’s Day reminds me of Dad, who passed away a few years ago. Needless to say, so does R. Lee Ermey. Semper Fi, Gunny. Semper Fi, Dad.

 

 

 

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Why do Heroes and Heroines Always Have to Lose Their Parents?

I have three daughters, so it just so happens that we stumbled upon an obscure little animated film that my girls quite enjoyed. Frozen, I think it’s called. Ever heard of it? And, as other commentators have noted, many parents have had to have tough conversations with their little ones, who are asking, in the most heart-breakingly squeaky voices (spoiler alert!): Why did Elsa and Anna’s parents have to die?

Sniff. I’ll have to get back to you on that, girls.

It got me thinking. Parental mortality is not just a Frozen thing. It’s been thoroughly researched; it’s a Disney movie thing. Check out the death toll:

  • The Lion King - Mufasa bites the dust, no lion
  • Cinderella - Mother is dead, Dad follows shortly ever after
  • The Little Mermaid - Mother dies, nautically
  • Bambi – Deer Mother dead by redneck hunter, undoubtedly displayed taxidermically
  • Finding Nemo - Mother dies, flushed down toilet if I remember correctly
  • Frozen – Parents die in a cruise ship accident
  • Sleeping Beauty – Mother takes the infinite slumber

It’s a blood bath! That’s not even counting the unknown whereabouts /  suspicious disappearances of the parents of orphaned characters in Aladdin, Lilo and Stitch, The Jungle Book, and more. At this point, I’m like one of those obsessed detectives in a good mystery story: pinning photos to a board, drawing arrows, putting the puzzle together. These deaths are connected.  Like Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, I’m in my Mind Palace, synthesizing, hypothesizing, Jazzercizing, whatever it takes to get to the bottom of this.

“Holy Grief, Batman!”

And it’s not just Disney characters. Look at comic books. Superman’s parents, Spider-man’s parents and his surrogate dad Uncle Ben, Green Lantern, Wolverine. And let’s not even go down the Batman rabbit-hole. He’s the poster boy of Parental Abandonment Issues, in his case morphing into obsessive vigilantism and a preference for the company of young men in tights. Again, that’s one for Dr. Freud.

Movies are no different. Luke Skywalker has the most Evil deadbeat dad in the galaxy, his mother is dead, and his adoptive parents are also murdered, on the orders of his deadbeat dad! Then, he gets a new Father figure in creepy hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he gets killed by, guess who? Dear old dad! Abandonment issues? Check. Dr. Freud can see you at 3:00, Mr. Skywalker. Sit down in the waiting room, next to Harry Potter.

Q: But Dad, why did they have to die?

For the purposes of this post, and to answer the innocent wonderings of my oldest daughters, I am setting aside the great philosophical and ontological Questions of all time. I’m asking Thomas Aquinas and Sigmund Freud and Mother Theresa and Bertrand Russell and the Dalai Lama and all the others to sit on the bench, because I am approaching this as a Storyteller. I came up an answer.

A: Because these stories are about growing up. And growing up means things change. 

In short, heroes and heroines need to step forward and become who they are meant to be. It’s an exercise in independence. And in myth and fiction, parents represent the safety and security of home. But, as Joseph Campbell would remind us, the Heroic Journey cannot begin until the Hero/Heroine leave (or are ripped from) the comfort of home and embark on a Quest into the Abyss. They move through the Underworld, passing Thresholds and Battling Monsters.

So, in other words, Parental Mortality is a storytelling device. A shortcut. A cliche. An easy way to force the Hero/Heroine to grow up fast. But, it’s not that easy. Because sometimes, it’s personal.

“A mother is she who can take the place of all others,but whose place no one else can take”. - Author unknown

Writing is one way that people deal with grief. It’s a cathartic thing. And those who create Heroes and Heroines infuse their own emotions into the art that they create. I have read that Walt Disney, after achieving a great deal of success with his animated films, bought his parents a home in North Hollywood. An issue with the furnace in the home led to the death of Flora Disney, due to carbon monoxide poisoning on the night of November 26, 1938. Many speculate that this may be a contributing cause for the conspicuous Maternal Abandonment, Absence and Mortality in his subsequent films. He blamed himself, and he expressed it in his art. Perhaps many of the artists who created these characters were dealing with similar feelings as they wrote.

“A dad is a son’s first hero, a daughter’s first love.” – Author unknown

My wife and I have lost all four of our parents since we were married almost nine years ago. Granted, we were adults, but it was no less jarring. Rachel has been and remains devastated, even as months become years, so deep and profound is her grief. Her dad was her foundation, her counselor, her rudder, her constant. His death was a world-shaking event for her, and she is still correcting her course. Her relationship with her mom was more complicated, but their last year together was unexpectedly and miraculously beautiful. Being the person she is, Rachel feels these losses deeply, honestly, sometime desperately. One of the reasons I love her so much is her lack of guile, her inability to pretend things are something they are not.

I’m more of an enigma, I guess. There are supposed to be five stages of grief. I seem to be stuck in the same one since losing my mom and dad. Denial. I just refuse to deal with the sadness. The loss of direction. The loss of love. The loss of unconditional love. I suck at feelings. But I’m starting to realize that a lot of the anxiety and fear I deal with on a daily basis is due to a maelstrom of emotions that I have suppressed and ignored and starved and denied. And now, they are pulling me apart at the seams from the inside.

Lately, out of necessity, my feelings have found their way into the things I have written. It’s no coincidence that I spent six months writing about the desire to speak to lost loved ones in The Conjurors. The whole story is about grief, loss, the meaning of it all, the feeling of confusion. And a major theme in my more recent work is the need to make your parents proud. My dad was my first hero. He did things that they write movies about. Guys like him inspire guys like me to write about Heroes in the first place. And like movie heroes, he had to fight inner demons as well as real life Villains. And even though I had action figures of Batman and Luke Skywalker growing up, these days, the one guy I would stand in line for hours (or, in modern parlance, buy tickets on Fandango) to see, is my dad.

My mom was just as heroic. She was the toughest woman I’ve ever met, which is why I think I was drawn to a pistol like Rachel. Mom was the one who I could talk to. Her love of Books and Music and Storytelling and Poetry are such a huge part of who I am. And she was so irrepressible, humble, sensitive and selfless. She held our family together with grace and humor. When things get really overwhelming, I wish I could wrap her tiny frame up in my arms, chin on her head, until she made it all go away.

Usually, on this blog and in life, when things are getting too serious, I crack wise. Tell a stupid joke. That’s my defense mechanism. It helps me hide from healthy emotions. Emotions that I don’t know how to deal with. But, wait. Not this time. My dad taught me courage. Not just how to stand up for what you know is right, but the courage to admit your flaws, and to try everyday to be a better man. And my mom taught me ways to channel my fears and emotions, through art and humor and human connection. Nothing can replace what we’ve lost when a parent dies. But, if we embrace our grief, we can feel what we felt when they were here. We can know them again, like children. And even ask like children…

Q: Why did my parents have to die?

 

 

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*Watch for a future post where we examine how Heroic stories teach us the ways that death can be a catalyst for a fuller life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Give ‘em Hell Harry! The Greatest Escape of All

Repost from once upon a time…

It’s Halloween. Allhallows Eve. Samhain. The perfect time for a scary story. So bolt your doors, lower the lights and gather ’round children, for a chilling tale of unearthly apparitions conjured by those who seek to undermine the dominion of Death himself. Read on… if you dare…Mwahahahahahahaha!!!!!! Maniacal laughter and so forth!!!!!

Harry Houdini and his wife Beatrice

“When I say ‘conjure spirits’, I mean ‘make a liquor store run’.” Harry Houdini and his wife Beatrice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A long time ago (today, actually), Our Hero (me) was writing a screenplay, audaciously Dreaming of Cinematic Glories. It was inspired by real historical events about the world’s greatest magician and escape artist, Harry Houdini, and his quest to conjure spirits and commune with the souls of the dead. After the death of his beloved mother, Harry was drawn into the mysterious, cultish world of the Spiritualist movement by his friend, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes, among other accomplishments). Houdini and his friends swore a solemn oath to return from beyond the grave to visit one another. Harry and his wife Beatrice (Bess) even devised a secret code known only to the two of them, so that they would know for certain that the visitation was authentic.

Houdini died on October 31, 1926 under bizarre and suspicious circumstances. And, for ten years after his passing in 1926, Bess held seances on Halloween night in an attempt to summon the ghost of her dear husband. In 1936, she held her final, unsuccessful Houdini seance (according to her, “ten years is long enough to wait for any man”), but Harry’s brother and other devotees picked up the torch. Every Halloween night, a seance is held in hopes the famous prestidigitator might make one final curtain call, and perform the greatest magic trick of all: escaping death long enough to contact the living.

Publicity photo of David Copperfield from the ...

“Observe, as my virginity… disappears!”.  Publicity photo of David Copperfield. Source: Wikipedia.

If anyone could do it, it would be Houdini, a man possessing abilities some considered to be unnatural. He specialized in cheating Death, by emerging from the infamous Chinese Water Torture Cell, by surviving live burial, by escaping from a locked trunk dropped into the Hudson River. He made magic cool, and enabled teenage nerds like David Copperfield, Doug Henning, and David Blaine to get to second base with actual girls. Since I get to second base on the regular, I would settle for escaping from my cubicle. I’m hoping the renowned illusionist Harry Houdini can help me.

Halloween seances? Raising the dead? Phantom encounters? Shadowy cults? Anybody else getting goosebumps? At least I hope those are goosebumps, and not, say, scabies.

In honor of the man who defied Death for our entertainment, we offer this audio clip, the final Houdini seance that Bess ever held and attended, on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles.

If the ending seems disappointing and anti-climactic, it’s because this recording doesn’t tell the full story. For, as the crowd dispersed without a written message or manifestation to satisfy their paranormal appetites, lightning crashed and a biblical storm erupted and drenched the attendees. Witnesses recounted that the deluge only hit the Knickerbocker Hotel itself, and did not affect the surrounding area. Perhaps this was Harry, reaching out, communicating from beyond. Keeping his solemn oath…

Happy Halloween, Heroes. And pleasant dreams.

Mwaaahahahahahahahaha!!!!! Nefarious laughter!!!!!!!

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My Inner Child’s Resume

I originally posted this some time back, thought it was time for a rerun.

I looked through an old photo album the other day. I guess I was simply feeling Nostalgic, but looking at photos of myself from grade school led to a Revelation.

I used to be absolutely Fearless. Unselfconscious. Almost frighteningly so.

I believed there wasn’t a thing in the world I couldn’t do or be. This often resulted in the unfortunate wearing of a Costume in public.

I wanted to be Evel Knievel for the longest time. He was the definition of Awesome. In fact, everything I wanted to be during that time was Awesome. In many ways the late 1970′s-1980′s were a Golden Age of Awesomeness.

If my Inner Child had become all of the things he had Dreamed of, his Resume might look like this (click image to zoom):

OurHeroResume-page-001

OK, I was a weird kid.

Yes, I wanted to be Michael Jackson. Yes, my parents were concerned.

Still, this is the kind of person I need to become again. Someone that lives in the Culture of the Possible.

What does your Inner Child’s resume look lke?

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Rise and Grind, Little Ones!

Hail, Heroes!

It has been one entire eon since we last chatted. That is about to change. Our Hero is about to embark on a fresh new Quest, similar to the First, but way different.

This effort is in celebration of our new Adventure, and because I am preparing to pitch my second Opus, working-entitled Breaking Kayfabe, to the market. I learned a lot from my first foray into the shark-infested waters of the Hollywood spec scene, so for this Quest, I am doubling down. More of everything. More assertive marketing. More social networking. More blogging. More, more, more.  It’s time to rise and grind, if I’m to believe the motivational video I just watched.

To kick off Heroic Quest 2: Electric Boogaloo, I’ll be re-posting some of my past blog entries. Since only about a dozen or so Courageous individuals read them the first time, I thought I’d dust off a few old (and I’d argue under-appreciated) chestnuts.

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evel

“Bones heal, pain is temporary, and chicks dig scars.” –Robert Craig ‘Evel’ Knievel

“Healing is expensive, pain is painful, and chicks dig sensible, steadily-employed guys with a killer cubicle.” –Evel Knievel’s insurance agent, Herbert Nudds

When I was a kid, my hero was Evel Knievel. That swagger. That red, white, and blue jumpsuit. That cape. He was an American superhero: iconoclastic and rebellious.  I even had his action figure and toy stunt bike, dreaming gossamer dreams of flying across the Snake River Canyon on a rocket cycle, cigarette dangling from my lip nonchalantly, as the world’s collective sphincter puckered. Seventies cool.

“All my life, people have been waiting around to watch me die.” –Evel Knievel

“Call me an incurable optimist, I’ve got a really good feeling about this jump.” Evel Knievel doing his thing. Photo source: http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/autopia/images/2007/11/30/evelk_4.jpg

As a so-called responsible adult, beavering away in the safety of my cubicle, I came to see Mr. Knievel’s accomplishments in a more cynical light. I mean, who chooses “human projectile” as a career? And he wasn’t even very good at motorcycle jumping. More often than not, he crashed! In spectacular, humiliating, bone-crushing fashion. How are we supposed to feel sympathy for him when he sets up some asinine, terribly dangerous stunt and then, predictably, gets hoisted by his own petard? Tenderizing his already suspect brain matter with the concrete. Breaking every bone in his body until you could spread his insides on a cracker. Instead of standing before an adoring throng, peeling away on his Harley in triumph, he is instead peeled up off the pavement like chewing gum, and unceremoniously hauled away in an ambulance, while his insurance agent’s sphincter puckered. Not nearly as cool as I remembered.

“Where there is little risk, there is little reward”. –Evel Knievel

“Bet you double or nothing I stick the landing.” Knievel jumping the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Photo source: https://encrypted-tbn2.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTDg6mQbbISXeIWlsBy0pocGG0WwBHMup_wfawa1XDGpEg5Z65JYA

But, something happened. My inner Knievel started to rev his engine, imperceptibly at first. Over time, it became deafening. I realized that I avoided risk with the zealotry of an insurance agent, and therefore was not living life to the fullest.

Fear of failure paralyzes many people into abandoning their Dreams. Worse, it makes them circle like vultures, waiting to watch others dare to try. Secretly hoping they will fail. Waiting around to watch them die. And when they do, they pounce. Ridiculing. Trolling. TMZ’ing. Having a Hell of a lot of fun at their expense.

But the vultures, the ones who never put themselves out there, will never know the reward of pursuing audaciously. Of failing nobly. And of fighting through doubt and pain time and again to try again, and keep trying until you succeed. That’s the real lesson of Evel Knievel. His choice of career notwithstanding. As a young man, he was going nowhere, in and out of jail, heading towards a wasted life.


Fun fact: Ironically, Evel Knievel worked in insurance sales before embarking in a career in daredevilry.


 

“At least I’ve got good insurance. Oh, right. Dang.” Knievel tasting the agony of defeat. And the contents of his pancreas. Photosource: http://www.sptimes.com/2007/12/01/images/tb_Knievel_300-2.jpg

Finally, he embraced what he loved, and he went at it with everything he had. Designing his own stunts. Building his own ramps. Doing his own promotion. And he, for a brief time, was the biggest star in the world, and hero to millions. Never mind that nobody would sell him an insurance policy. This was pre-Obamacare, after all.

Because he knew, even with his tenderized brain matter, that Reward takes Risk. That failure is temporary. That Daring Greatly usually looks stupid to the unimaginative vultures among us. And that chicks dig scars.

Be a DAREDEVIL! Dare. Fail. Repeat. Reap your reward.

 

 

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Once More Into the Fray!

Once more into the Fray…

Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.

Live and Die on this day…

Live and die on this day…

–Jon Treloar

Hail Heroes, near and far.

Have you ever poured your Heart and Soul into something, given your ever-loving all for a Goal or Dream, only to fail? Or be rejected?

It has been ages since I’ve transmitted from my remote outpost. Much has happened, and much has not happened. I fully expected to send this post from a yacht or somesuch, so sure was I about the wattage of my future as a professional confabulator.

When I last sent my signal into the ether, I was on the verge of Victory. The Culmination of a Quest. I had completed my maiden screenplay and had queried some Hollywood heavyweights. Impossibly, many even expressed a strong interest in the material. Several copies of my script sat in the hands of producers and agents, each with the profound power to explode my life. And so, after many months of frantic efforting and Questing, I waited.

And waited. And so on.

Finally, I received some responses. “The writing was strong, but not quite what I was looking for”. “Isn’t Dreamworks developing a similar project?”. “Fascinating, but not for me”. Right.

“Tense, your shoulders are. Deep tissue massage, you require.” Luke and Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back (1980). Photo source: http://www.mtv.com/news/1717975/catching-fire-empire-strikes-back-similarites/

 

Frustrating? Yes. Demoralizing? Hell yes.

Failure and/or rejection is a kind of metaphorical death. It takes everything a Hero has got to get back up and try again. And many people never get back up. That is an actual tragedy. Because in the striving and failing and regrouping, we become powerful. It’s our Training Montage, our Proving Ground. It’s Rocky chasing a creepy older guy’s chicken. Daniel-San waxing a creepy older guy’s car.  Luke Skywalker running around a jungle giving a tiny, creepy older guy a piggyback ride in a Baby Bjorn. If you can just endure the pain and repetition and disappointment (and creepiness), soon you will be a Heavyweight Contender/Karate Kid/Jedi Knight.

So am I going to throw in the towel? Not by a damn sight. I’m a glutton for punishment. It’s time to bear down and go twice as hard. So, after some time off, I’m regrouping.

  • First, I’ve negotiated some time off from work to dedicate to my writing. A writer has to write. Every day. Period. Amen.
  • B, I’m returning to the blogosphere. Can’t be shy about getting my wares out there, can I?
  • Nextly, I’m going to set up a website for my screenwriting work. See B above.
  • Also, I’m going to go back and rewrite my script again. Based on reader feedback, the plot is not as taut as it could be. When I’m done with it, you’ll be able to bounce a Spanish dubloon off of it.
  • Finally, I am beginning work on a new script.

It’s like I finally caught a glimpse of my Dream, and it looked me in the eye and whispered, “Come and get me if you can”. I can’t shake it now. It disturbs my sleep. It’s mine for the taking. And if it takes me months or years, I will not stop until I’ve reached my goal.

If you finally take a shot at your Dream, and you fail, are you going to hang your head and trudge home?

Or, are you going to embrace your Purpose, shout your Goal to the heavens, and retrieve your Helmet and Lance and charge once more into the Fray?

 

 

 

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