Twilight over Tioga Lake

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What is the Real Near Death Experience?

I'm not trying to be morbid or anything.  But death is something that has kind of been on the mind. I attribute it partly to strife in the world, and to the fact that in a month I will be visiting a country that is currently at war.  This is something I have never done before.  And some people in my life are understandably concerned.

But how do I feel?

Incredibly fortunate.

I feel this way because I, like many, live a sheltered life.  It will be an incredible experience to go to a place where stability is not guaranteed.  It will be incredible no matter what.

It is not like I am completely unafraid of death.  I have recently developed a fear of flying.  And what is that really is about is a fear of dying.  It is not so much  about death, but that I don't want to stop living.  I don't want to miss out on what's to come.  But what can I do about it?  Not a whole lot.

There is the possibility of danger on my trip.  There is the possibility of that anywhere.  Life is the near death experience.  And that is exactly why we should live without fear.  Try to, anyway.

Here are a couple poems about this subject.  Spread the love and not the fear.

The Worm and the Word

I search for signs of death on this afternoon walk.

Like much of San Francisco, Buena Vista park once housed the deceased.

Their bodies were quarried long ago, but the headstones remain.

Fractured into large bits, they are much more useful as pieces of the walls that line the walkways.

Scouring the damp paths, something else catches my eye--an enormous worm, trying to burrow into the wall.

He is not the diminutive garden variety, but a long, engorged night crawler--being bright daytime, he is pulling an “all nighter.”

Boring into a stone wall is a futile job.  So I grab him. 

The violent disruption of work inspires a spasmodic dance of protest in my hand.

I watch, delighted.

I glance down at his attempt at penetration.  The stones were scraggly gray granite, except one.  

Ivory marble glowed ghostly from the earth.  A fragment of gravestone.

Still holding the creature, I squat down and drag my fingers across the stone.  It is bone cold smooth, and lovely.

I have to laugh.  The cliché of it all--finding a worm, the eater of decay, digging near a gravestone!

Stroking my viscid  friend with my thumb, I see the one remaining word upon the grave--”DIED.”

My laughter folds into a thoughtful frown, as the mention of death often will do.

That is all that is left of this person?  No “Loving Husband,” “Cherished Mother,” “Beloved Brother” or “Sister?”  

No.  Just that he or she, some unknown time in the past, “DIED.”

As if to remind me of his role in all this, my companion waves his blind head in the air.

Where was the worm going? Is he finishing a job started long ago?  No doubt this annelid’s ancestors rendered the bones of ours.  Will his progeny feast upon our children’s children’s children?  

I see the word again: “DIED.”

But are the dead forever dead?

I look up at the eucalyptus tree.  That body now rests in the chloroplasts of leaves.

I feel the sun’s photonic fingers tickle.   The individual’s soul is beyond Antares. 

And all that is left to the rest of us is one word and one worm.

I look around at the cretinous mass of joggers and dog walkers and baby-pushers. 

We all brush death off, though the leaves and stars await us as well.

My clammy friend stirs, hopelessly trying to bore into the crease in my hand.

I place him in the soft dirt above the stone, with a nod of respect to him and the missing dead.

Someday, we’ll meet again.

Whispering Room

All I know about the Columbarium is that it has a "whispering room:" a perfect circular shape that allows one to whisper and be heard on the opposite side.

Sounds like a fun diversion, and I take my six year old companion Ali in a spontaneous moment.

We arrive at the stately and solemn building, my eyes glancing over the words "This is an Internment for Endowments."   Don't know what that means.  We enter.

Inside, the hushed air quiets us.  Lazy light drifts through stained glass, and we notice four orbicular levels rising above the open center.  

Look around.  We are surrounded by names.  Names on strange drawers built into the wall, and boxes, and shelves, and oh....I see where we are.  We are with the dead, with their dusty remains to this earth.

I keep fearfully still as I carefully explain to Ali.  Will he be frightened?  But no, he is calm and accepting, as children often are of these things.  Taking my cues from him, I decide it is safe to explore. 

Slowly we circumnavigate, trying to imagine these named niches as a living body.  They were once messes of flesh and water, blood and organs, disappointments and dreams.  Now they are neatly compartmentalized on a shelf.  So much simpler.

We see this "Internment" is more personal than your average graveyard.  There are letters, jewelry, toys, other possessions the deceased is allowed to "keep."  These artifacts speak of travels, interests, loved ones.

George has a stone hippo.

Kelly, a glass carousel horse.  

Otto--only 2 years old--a Hotwheels car.

Vincent--a Kit Kat!  Even the ashes of a cat are with one man.  I am astounded by the ingenuity of humans, even in death.

Outside of Richard's urn, there is a gathering of cards, teddy bears, and flowers.  I see "Happy Birthday!" and "I miss you" written on the cards.  I can't help to touch an antique metal tin among the offerings.  Now I have a connection to this man I will never know.

Ali, a boisterous little Italian, is unusually pensive and quiet.  I point out interesting items and read him names and epitaphs, and he takes it all in.  But I censor some unspeakable tragedies, like several family members who all died on the same day.  I can only picture an appalling accident.

We notice the drawers have handles on them, which leads to some questions I don't really want answered.  Can you ask to see your beloved's ashes?  Would you want to?  Do they continue to decompose until there is nothing?  Nothing to see, anyway?

Up and up we wind to the top floor, intruding our presence among the forever rested.  We decide not to try the whispering game after all.  Such a diversion would be abrasive.

There are many "Reserved" empty cases, so patiently waiting for their owner to come home.  One stands out-- a Post-it note attached to it says, "Ann--Now you never have to worry about leaving San Francisco!  --Jim."  Funny, sweet, and macabre.  I am a bit taken aback by this laugh at death.

I try to meditate on a vacant mini-lot.  How does it feel to look at your own "plot," knowing your dust will be there longer than you were on earth?

I think about it....

But all I can think is how small it is.  So small...and suddenly I am cramped and nauseous.  I tell Ali it's time to go.

Outside, we breathe the uncloistered air and take stock of our corporeal selves.  I brush myself off, as if particles of death stick to me.  But don't they always?  Living matter is formed from the dead....

Suddenly, a hawk lands so close to us!  It is viscerely alive, shocking to experience after being around the unseen fragments of former life.  The hawk should be hunting, but it just watches us.  We don't dare to move.

Ali speaks first, and finally his voice leans towards plaintive wisdom.  "Elissa," he asks.  
"Will you show me how to write my mother's name?  So I can find it when she dies?"    

Before today I may have found his question sadly strange.  But now this is serious.  

Statued under the hawk's hypnosis, I say, "Yes Ali, I will."  I will write down all the names.  Someday, every one of us will join the growing pile of dusts.  How will we begin to find the ones we love?

I have to smack myself from this terrifying trance.  

As we leave, I watch the hawk watching us.  It keeps watching us.  Watching us until we're gone.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Don't Fight It, Feel It

I have been kind of a baddie about the blog lately.  My excuse is that I was taking some classes that occupied time I would have spent writing.  One of these was a writing class, and the other was an art history class.  This foray into "Elissa Enlightenment" resulted in a withdrawal and a C.  
So much for that.  Who needs a class to reach enlightenment, anyway?  

The writing class did produce some good writing, at least.  This piece is about my recent epiphany regarding certain cultures I used to loathe, and now embrace fully.  Part of it uses excerpts from my Vegas piece in the "In Sleaze I Trust" entry.  But I assure you it is much shorter.  That one was damn long.

The title of this entry is the title of a song from one of the best bands in the universe, Primal Scream.  There are so many things we have the urge to fight against, to resist--whether it is something tangible or a state of mind.  And sometimes we should.  But I suggest to take a look at what you may be fighting and ask yourself--Is this worth the fight?

I'll give you a little example from recent life.  I work at a preschool.  After the first rain, an enormous puddle formed in our play yard because the drain was clogged.  We knew the two year olds in our class would want to play in the puddle.  And we knew they would get soaked.  Only a few had a rainboots.

We thought about tying plastic bags around their shoes.  Finally I said, "Let's just take their shoes and socks off.  It isn't that cold out.  So what if they get wet.  We'll change their clothes."

And that is exactly what we did.  Don't fight it.  Feel it. 

Teachers and children alike had the most joyous time jumping, splashing, laughing, and in some cases rolling in the puddle.  Half the kids had no pants on by the end.  Wonderful hilarity.

The sad part?  We were the only class out of 10 that even went outside.  The other teachers did not want to fight their children about going in the puddle, or have to change them afterward.

But for us, there was no fight at all....

Enjoy the piece.  Enjoy it all.  

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Las Vegas and Disney World

"Self-fulfillment is no longer considered selfish; it's considered spiritual."  
--The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World for Grown-ups

I used to be terrified of Las Vegas and Disney World.  
How could a person possibly dread the ultimate pleasure center, or the "Happiest Place on Earth?"  For me, the concern was not the place itself.  It was about my reactions to them.  One's identity is a process in the teens and early twenties.  Part of my identity, for semi-valid reasons, was a fear of alcohol, drugs, and general losing of control.  Hence, a trip to Las Vegas would be a peek into Pandora's Box.  Who knows what I would find there?  It would be better to never know.
My aversion to Disney World had less to do with fear and more to do with extreme loathing for all things excess, plastic, and corporate.  Kind of like Santa Claus, the "magic" of Disney was real only when I was younger.  Obliged to visit many times after my brother Dan went to work there when I was 20, I drove my family crazy by complaining most of the time.  And even that did not ruin the magic for them.
Then something happened when I turned 30.  Trips to Vegas and Disney World were due, and yet I found myself surprised to be looking forward to them.  What was this?  Granted, there was nothing wrong with being more relaxed about things.  But was losing part of who I was?  I had always had an aversion to being "normal," one of the masses.  If I actually enjoyed Las Vegas and Disney World, would I of them?
I had been to Vegas twice before.  The first time it was one of the last stops on a cross-country trip, and followed several stops at very scenic and peaceful national parks.  To be affronted with the clanging noise, florid lights, and humanity at their lowest I found overwhelming and depressing.  We didn’t even stay at a casino, but at the Aztec Inn.  Never heard of it?  Don’t bother to investigate.  We did some gambling and I had enough fun, but was way too glad to leave.  The second trip was a few years later with some girl friends.  I had loosened up considerably and enjoyed myself more.  We did more gambling, went to some bars and clubs, stayed at the Tropicana.    While it was fun, I still was affronted by seeing humanity at its greediest and sleaziest.   This most recent trip not only changed my view of Vegas, it kind of changed my life.
When my girlfriends and I landed in Vegas for my third time, we did not head right for the casinos as is expected.  We hopped in a cab and headed downtown.  Downtown Vegas is off the strip.  I imagine people who actually live in Vegas go downtown, as do the cool kids like us wanting to do something “different.”  
Downtown has a very different feel to it than the rest of Vegas.  The casinos are very old-school style, with animated neon signs rather than dancing fountains.  The hotels actually look like hotels, rather than gargantuan play palaces.  It is much mellower, almost like Reno--but not as sad.  One of my friends thought we should check out the famous bar that most people never visit, Hogs and Heifers.  It is the bar the movie "Coyote Ugly" is based on.  Now how could that not pique your interest?
Hogs and Heifers turned out to be one of the coolest bars I’ve ever been in, period.  Big, hairy bouncers with a defined “don’t fuck with us” look bordered the door.  Yet they welcomed us with a “Hi ladies, come on in!”  The first thing I noticed was a sign that said “No Whining.  No ties.  No douchebags.”  My friends had decided lately that “douchebag” was the insult of the times, so I took it as a sign we were meant to be here.  
The place was huge, dark, and the patrons stood along the walls, evaluating newcomers.  Some bearded daddies were playing pool and cheerfully invited us to play with them.  Signed dollar bills wallpapered the ceiling, many bearing celebrity signatures.  Animal heads lined the walls, and the ones above the bar were draped with hundreds of bras. A bumper sticker behind the bar said, “What Happens in Vegas Ends up on Myspace.”  I loved it.  
The bar ladies were scantily clad, quite hot, and did indeed use megaphones.  You did not mess around in there.  Within a half hour of us arriving, a woman got escorted out for being too drunk and a guy for apparently being a douchebag.  “Say goodbye to the asshole, everyone!”  one of the bar ladies blasted through the megaphone.  “Goodbye, asshole!”  we all obeyed.  
The stories held true, and in time the ladies jumped up on the bar and danced.  And damn, they could actually dance!  Afterwards I asked one of them how she does this move where her entire body vibrates.  I could not understand the logistics of making your body do that.  I inquired.  She was very friendly and gave a demonstration.  I’ll never be able to do it, but I appreciated the lesson.    
I learned something from Hogs and Heifers.  There is a genuine, uncorrupted side of Vegas.  Sure, the bar is famous and had its shtick, yet it wasn’t gimmicky.  It wasn’t showy or pretentious.  You didn’t have to spend tons of money.  The people there were down to earth, nice, and real.  I thought about my experience at Hogs and Heifers as I feel asleep that night, and realized it was refreshing, and made me feel good about Vegas.  But then I second guessed myself.  Did I actually felt good about Vegas, a place I used to avoid?  Did this mean I was a sell-out?  I decided to wait and see what other interesting paths this trip would take before I judged myself.

The story of Disney is a bit different.  Obviously, I never had to fear that Pluto was going to force me to do tequila shots.  My family visited Disney World a couple of times when I was a teenager, and I was completely taken in by Disney's attempts to make me feel special.  I truly saw it for a wondrous, captivating place.  But when I entered college, suddenly I knew everything.  Consequently, I thought many things were evil.  Disney World and the Disney company were included in this.  That is when my brother went to work there, and family trips started happening almost yearly.  My comments during the last couple trips were along the lines of the following: "Everything here is giant and plastic!  Disney is an evil corporation that runs half the world!  Why can't we, like, go to another country or something for vacation?  Dan, how can you work for these people?!"
My brother's response was, "Elissa, it's like being part of the magic."    
He did not joke.  I was certain my little brother was permanently brainwashed.

Scoff if you must, and believe me, I used to.  But while I do think my brother was (and still is) very cheesy, I slowly began to see his side.  Disney World exists purely to make you feel good.  Participating in extravagant activities not only doesn't damage you-- it can be good for you!  Like Vegas, there is much to learn from these in-your-face icons of entertainment--if you have the right attitude, of course.  I started to view them as a whole different culture, like how I might in a foreign country.  
While Vegas makes little attempt to hide its seamy side, Disney World projects itself as pure, uncorrupt goodness.  You really are not allowed to have a bad time .  You are pretty much guaranteed that an employee who has directed thousands of cranky kids, close-to-death grandparents, and maxed-out parents onto Space Mountain will still smile at you.  You don't have to worry about a bathroom being dirty.  The rare occasion that I did see a piece of trash on the ground, a "cast member" (what they call employees) dropped out of the sky to sweep it up, and he or she never failed to smile at me while doing it.  As much as I might tease my brother, I had to give credit to these never-to-fail employees.
Disney World gets at the core of your emotions and sense of nostalgia.  Depending on where you are in the parks, the scent of chocolate chip cookies, jasmine, or campfire smoke is being pumped at you through nearly invisible pipes.  I was 14 when we first visited, and we actually got a brief private audience with Mickey Mouse.  (Today you have to wait in line for hours and then have impatient guests glare at you.)  Honestly, I was thrilled.  And Mickey seemed genuinely as excited to see me (as excited as someone who cannot make facial expressions, that is).  Even at the height of my cynicism, I really couldn't grumble at the sight of one of my favorite characters.  Sometimes I would even feel tears come to my eyes!  Keep it together, Elissa! I would think to myself.  If you start getting emotional, that means Disney has won!  When I went on this last trip, I just let the emotions happen.  Why should I hold back?  There is no sense in resisting the Mouse.  And it felt much better not to be directing anger at a place I could never possibly change.
Vegas can bring out emotions in a person too, and not just the joy or desolation brought on by gambling.  For me this happened during this most recent trip when we went to see the Cirque Du Soleil show, Ka.  I am doing my best to become a connoisseur of Cirque Du Soleil.  I had seen two shows that nearly made my heart explode with joy.  Ka would no doubt be especially fantastic, since it is in a permanent theater.  
We walked into the cavernous theater to find the space above laced with intricate passageways and cages.  Giant flames spewed forth from a stageless stage area.  “Oh my god, my stomach just dropped!” one of my friends gasped.
“I have goosebumps!” I exclaimed.  This was the type of thing that would have made me cry from excitement when I was a child.  I did so when I saw all the World Champion Ice Skaters and went to my first IMAX show.  
It turns out all three of us would come close to tears several times throughout the show.  Ka was the most extraordinarily over-the-top production, yet it was perfect.  The stage moved all over the place, including vertically--completely.  At one point it was like an enormous Plinko game, and the actors fell through pegs and dropped into the air.  There was a very sweet and quiet moment when a boy and a man made shadow puppets with their hands projected onto a large screen.  The animals they made had expressions, for God’s sake!  
The scene that floored me the most was when the stage became a Day-Glo colored jungle, with weird tubes and pipes and ropes dangling from the ceiling.  The actors swung on “vines” doing crazy acrobatics, and gigantic puppets of snakes and insects meandered up and down the trees.  The whole experience was something like an innocent, happy acid trip.  I’ve heard that some kids these days like to do hallucinogens at these shows.  I think if I had done that, I either would have run out screaming or tried to join the joyful jungle.  
Drugs were quite unnecessary.
  Although it was a totally different experience than Hogs and Heifers, it left me with a similar feeling--a positive one.  You could go to Vegas and actually have uncorrupted fun.  Granted, it would cost you--our tickets to Ka were $100.  But it was $100 of pure psychedelic joy!  The sole purpose of a Cirque show is to make you happy, to appreciate the phenomenal feats our fellow humans can accomplish.  Everyone that goes to Vegas needs to see this, or something similar.  Now that I had seen one of Vegas' over-blown productions, had I truly sold out?  According to the old me and my old standard, maybe.  But I had finally accepted that there is really no harm in that.   
One way Disney World exerts its insanely positive influence is through its employees.  This can show itself in bizarre and amusing ways, adding to the "cultural" experience of it all.  The cast members have strict protocol hammered into them to make sure every guest feels welcome and at ease.  Dan once told me that cast members are not allowed to point using one finger.  If they were showing a guest where something was, they had to use two fingers.  That way it did not look like the employee was pointing at someone, which contains the unthinkable possibility he or she could be poking fun at the guest.  
Naturally I did not believe Dan.  "Just watch!" he said one night at the Magic Kingdom.  We approached a girl working at a snack stand and asked her where the closest restrooms were.  
"There are right over there," she said, as she pointed the way with two fingers!  I almost died.
Disney's Animal Kingdom is the most recently created park, and that is where my brother works.  One time my family was admiring the tigers in their habitat made to look like the ruins of an Indian temple.  There were no cast members to be seen.  Suddenly one tiger swiped and roared at another.  It was a very powerful and resonant sound; I felt it in my chest.  The crowd gasped.  As if by true magic, a young male cast member had appeared behind us and was explaining that the tigers were buddies just playing around, and absolutely no harm would befall them.  Everyone looked at each other with skeptically raised eyebrows.  "Where did he come from?!" I whispered to my mom.  That is anyone's guess, but it was just another example of how almost nothing can go wrong at Disney.  Again, this is something I used to deride, saying it was way "too perfect."  While things like the two-finger point and employees falling from the sky are comical, I now see there is nothing wrong with a place that goes out of its way to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.  Indeed, it can be a welcome change to the norm.

Another reason I was once averse to Vegas and Disney World was because of the sheer sensory overload they gave me.  Once you land in Vegas, there is no escaping the jangling of slot machines, the over-conditioned and smoke-saturated air, and dizzying neon lights.  The sheer size of everything in Disney World is overwhelming.  The hotels have monstrously huge bowling pins, movie characters, cowboy boots, or Big Wheels outside of them, depending on the theme of the hotel.  The huge and frenzied crowds at Disney are the main thing that ruin it for me now.  I have wanted to pull out my “I’m a mandated child abuse reporter!” a number of times upon seeing parents scream at their exhausted and overwhelmed children.  While I still do not always enjoy the sensory bombardment, I have at least begun to find amusement in it.
To survive in Vegas, one must embrace the kitsch.  Again, it helps to see the absurdity as culture, or even art. Take the monumental bronze of Siegfried and Roy and one of their beloved tigers, for example.  It is not Andy Warhol, but does it not shock and appall--and amuse--just like a Warhol can?  I have not visited it yet, but there is a “Neon Graveyard,” where all the signs of departed casinos go to rest.  During my last visit to Vegas, we stayed at the Venetian.  There is an actual canal in the hotel, lined with shops and even gondolas.  It was pretty incredible, though I did miss the sewer smell of the real Venice.  I used to deplore this fakery.  Now I’ve realized I should just appreciate it for what it is--another way to make you forget about reality, and hopefully make you happier for the time being.  
While Disney World also has its share of enormous and cheesy things, there are also many minute details to be discovered.  This is what separates the Disney parks from all other theme and entertainment parks.  The Animal Kingdom is divided into “Continents,” including Asia and Africa.  But the “continents” were actually designed and built by people native to Asia and African countries, right down to ragged posters hanging on walls.  The “Himalayan” section of Asia was particularly impressive.  Actual used backpacks, hiking boots, and camping gear hung from restaurant ceilings.  I imagine it was like really being there, but without the fear of malaria.  Tibetan prayer flags and music drifted in the breeze.  The waiting area for the ride Expedition Everest was a literal museum.  The ride is a roller coaster in which you encounter the (maybe) mythical Yeti.  You wind through hallways with all sorts of real artifacts from Tibet and Nepal, including some "evidence" of Yeti encounters, such as giant footprint.
Every park and area has little things that contribute to this feeling of a whimsical non-reality.  R2D2 is depicted in hieroglyphics in the Great Movie Ride.  Two skeletons at the famed Pirates of Caribbean are huddled over a chess game.  Turns out they are at a stalemate, and that is what led to their deaths.  My favorite one of these is at the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.  It is a giant building that contains an elevator drop ride, and the story is that you have been transported back into a 1920's Twilight Zone episode.  There is a directory of the hotel mounted in plastic on the wall in the lobby, and little plastic letters are used.  If you look at the bottom of it, there are some letters that have fallen.  They spell out, "DANGER.  TURN BACK NOW."
Perhaps the best thing about Las Vegas and Disney World are what they have shown me about myself.  I was judgmental, fearful, and naive about two places who exist only to give people an escape.  Now I not only enjoy the escape, but embrace many aspects of it.  A few reasons account for the change.  One is simply growing up, which for me meant becoming much more relaxed about situations in which I do not have total control, such as a night out in Vegas.  Another reason is after traveling to more far away and vastly diverse places, I discovered I really don't know much at all.  Who I am to judge a manically happy place like Disney World, when so many people who would love to go there never will?  Disney World and Las Vegas exist solely to make their visitors happier and forget about "real life" for just a little while.  I can certainly use some of that in my life these days.  
But Disney World and Las Vegas have more to offer than raw entertainment.  There is genuine goodness, interesting things, and--dare I say--culture to them.  A visitor merely has to get off the usual path or open his eyes or peek a little closer to find it.  Disney and Vegas are not going to offer you the same growth a trip to Cambodia or South Africa might, but they certainly can challenge you and help you learn things about yourself--and isn’t that what every good trip should do?
I am quite pleased with myself that I have embraced regression, cheesiness, excess, and plain weirdness when it comes to places I visit.  I am still the same person.  But I am so much happier now.



About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."