Sunday, November 8, 2009

I Was A Volunteer Werewolf

I recently spent a Saturday night crouching in the woods under a half-moon, wearing a werewolf mask and claws and a dark cloak. I was part of a three-person werewolf crew, enlisted to put the final scare on groups who braved the annual Bastyr University Haunted Trails fundraiser. Our station consisted of a muddy clearing at the end of the trail, where a tent with body parts and camping equipment strewn about were a testament to the recent slaughter of some unsuspecting fans of the great outdoors.

One of life's great opportunities is to find yourself in a brand new situation, seemingly unsuited for a task based upon preconceived notions ("I'm not a people person", "I'm shy", "I'm non-confrontational"). In this instance, I had doubts whether I had it in me to leap out at strangers menacingly. I tend to use my Pacific Northwest, Scandinavian-American, laid-back self-image as an excuse to avoid confrontation. I've never been an aggressive or argumentative person, and playing the role of a bloodthirsty werewolf where people are paying $12 to be confronted and frightened gave me pause.

The first few times I emerged from my hiding spot, sneaking up on groups' left as they were distracted by the tent to their right, I felt like a werewolf that behaved like me: respectful of personal space, hesitant to approach strangers, avoiding prolonged eye contact and thus hypothetical conflicts that I conjure up in my mind. My werewolf started out mute and tentative, apologetic for disturbing others. I elicited no reactions of surprise or terror, but surprise and terror are what people who go to Haunted Trails want to experience. After several lackluster attempts at ambushes, I decided to, pardon the self-help cliché, “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

There's an amazing moment during the behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Jack Nicholson mugs and charms his way through the much of the documentary, but there's a moment of preparation before shooting a scene in which he slowly, forcefully transforms his Jack persona into the deranged author-turned-homicidal maniac Jack Torrance. He clenches his teeth and heaves his body, steadily gaining force, growling "I am an ax-murderer, I am an ax murderer" over and over. He's like a boxer psyching himself up before the Round 1 bell of a prizefight, and it's an astonishing transformation.

This scene served as my inspiration to transform my hesitant, polite werewolf into an imposing, snarling monster preying upon trail walkers. Crouching in the shadows with my mask and claws, under a moonlit clearing, I thought about that Jack Nicholson moment. Following his lead, I gnashed my teeth and tensed my muscles, ready to lunge at each new group that emerged from the trail into the clearing. It was an exhilarating feeling to leave the non-threatening Teen Wolf behind and strive to be more like An American Werewolf in London.

As the night went on, I learned to profile each group based upon the screams and chatter overheard during their approach. Teenage girls would prove to be the best sports; they were the most easily spooked, the loudest screamers, and the most enthusiastic participants (teenage boys, full of insecurity and bravado, substituted attitude and sarcasm for enthusiasm). There was something deeply satisfying about eliciting genuinely frightened screams from strangers. They'd paid good money to be scared, and I was surprised to find that I thoroughly enjoyed obliging them.

Why do we love haunted houses and slasher films so much? Do we want the adrenaline rush, or the thrilling sensation of fear, knowing that these mediums don't pose an actual danger to our person? Perhaps modern middle-class life in industrial societies has had so many of its rough edges smoothed over that we crave the occasional opportunity to experience a fight-or-flight response in a controlled environment. Whatever the reasons for our love of being scared, I enjoyed doing the scaring as much as most of the trail walkers enjoyed being accosted by our werewolf trio.

At the end of the night, after almost five hours of lunging at over a thousand people, I thought of a scene from another film, American Beauty. As Kevin Spacey's character Lester Burnham starts to wake up from a 20-year state of suburban torpor, he marvels at his ability to challenge himself and, in the process, start to change his life:

"It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself."

I look forward to more surprises, now that the mask is off.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Voicemail Greetings From The Edge

Monday: You've reached xxx-xxxx. It's Monday, which means that Sunday and its attendant melancholy is temporarily behind me. Please leave offers of employment, notification of winning raffle tickets, or the lyrics to The Boomtown Rats song "I Don't Like Mondays" after the tone.

Tuesday: Hi, this is (SHP). I'm either at a café reading old literary journals, at a matinee screening of a film that scored at least a 75% "fresh" rating on, walking around Green Lake listening to my iPod, or buying groceries at the QFC/Bartell/Trader Joe's Axis. Please leave a message at the beep, and I'll try to get back to you within the next two hours.

Wednesday: Greetings, and thanks for leaving a voicemail instead of a text message or a pop-in at my apartment (I find the former too impersonal and the latter a bit too spontaneous). Today is what's known as "Hump Day" by the American workforce, and "just another day" by the rest of us. You know the drill: wait for the tone, and let me know what's up.

Thursday: Hello, how are you? Only a couple more workdays for many of you before your customary two-day break, so take heart if you're having a rough go of it at the office this week due to layoffs, declining wages, and increased worker productivity. Be thankful you have a job, and hold onto it as long as you can. Speak after the beep and I'll get back to you shortly.

Friday: This is xxx-xxxx. Please leave detailed instructions as to when and where this week's happy hour will take place. Otherwise...I'm not sure why else you'd be calling on a Friday, but state your business nonetheless and I may call you back tomorrow.

Saturday: It's (SHP), and if I'm not answering my phone, it may be because it's between 9 and Noon and I have headphones on, grooving to the finest dub, reggae, and dancehall courtesy of Kid Hops and his "Positive Vibrations" radio show on KEXP. My landlord is an acupuncturist and her office is directly below my apartment. She gets annoyed when I play loud music on Saturday mornings while she has patients, hence the headphones. Talk to you soon.

Sunday: Hi there, I can't take your call at the moment, because it’s Sunday and I’m doing my best to fill the day with a steady stream of activities, distractions, and soul-nurturing endeavors to keep the Sunday Blues at bay. If I'm having relative success in this project, there's a good chance I'll return your call sometime today. If not, then we may have to wait until Monday to talk. At any rate, please leave a message after the tone, and rest assured that your call is very important to me.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Postcards From Wallingford, Seattle, 98103

Dear Andy,

Greetings from the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. It's a mostly middle/upper-middle class neighborhood north of downtown, across the freeway from the university district (Univ. of Washington). There are a lot of restaurants, an indie movie theater (I saw a great French film, "The Class", last week), both a specialty beer AND a specialty wine shop, a state liquor store (you can only buy hard stuff at state monopoly stores, like in Scandinavia), a few bars...pretty low-key. There are a lot of 30-something married couples with babies, teenagers running amok each afternoon (apparently there is a high school in the neighborhood), and a few homeless people, but not as many as downtown. Hope you are doing well...



Hello Andy,

It's another dispatch from 98103. I've been hanging out at coffee shops this week (there are two good local places across the street from each other), reading up on the history of this neighborhood to pass the time. In case you wanted to know, this area was named after one John Noble Wallingford, a real estate speculator and major land-owner back in the day (he died in 1913). If you're ever playing a Seattle version of Trivial Pursuit or Jeopardy!, this could come in handy. I also recently discovered that there's a beautiful lake nearby, Green Lake, which has pedestrian and bike paths. I've been taking walks there mornings. The weather is stereotypically Seattle right now (cold, rainy and windy), but it's still beautiful. Give my best to everyone back in the neighborhood.



Hey Andy,

I'm still using Wallingford as my home base during my Seattle stay. This week I found a great tea house, a cupcake café, a Chicago-style pizza place, and a dive bar/lounge at a Chinese restaurant that serves stiff, cheap gin & tonics. People here are friendly enough, though many are quite guarded. I'd heard that Seattleites are difficult to get to know, and it's true that there isn't a lot of eye contact or small talk in public (again reminding me of being in Scandinavia). Most people are friendly enough if you approach them or ask them a question, but you need to approach them, because they generally won't approach you. Everyone seems to be making a concerted effort to not invade anyone's personal space. Very different from back home. Also, I've noticed that a lot of people in Wallingford, and Seattle in general, dress extremely casually, almost shockingly so. I've never seen so many people wearing flip-flops, sweat pants, tank tops, basketball shorts, and other athletic wear while not at the beach or working out. After hanging out in Manhattan and Chicago during my trip, it's quite a change. I often feel overdressed when stepping out for the evening. Oh well. I'll be home soon...


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

America To Plastic Bags: "I Wish I Knew How To Quit You"

"[O]ur time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

- President Barack Obama, Inauguration Day speech, 1/20/09

One of the starkest philosophical differences between President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama is surely the latter's consistent calls for shared sacrifice on the part of the American public. Compare this to George Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks. He had the entire country behind him, in addition to the goodwill of virtually the whole world. We stood ready to do whatever it would take to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America." Instead, Bush urged us to go shopping at the mall, and his Homeland Security Department advised us to buy duct tape to protect ourselves from possible chemical and biological attack. Unlike Americans during World War II, we were not asked to sacrifice or change our way of life one bit, other than to pay attention to a mind-boggling array of color-coded Terror Alerts. (Whatever happened to those alerts, anyway? Is the Global War on Terror over, the threat neutralized?).

Candidate and now President Obama, on the other hand, has consistently urged each of us to participate in our democracy and to get involved in our community, as we all have a stake in both. Obama seemed to channel a bit of his inner community organizer with the pull quote above, one of the parts of his speech that particularly resonated with us after eight years of Bush's "you're on your own" governance.

I'd like to address sacrifice, the perils of standing pat, and putting off unpleasant decisions vis-à-vis an issue that, while not as dire as climate change or the recession, is one that we can all address and, in so doing, sacrifice for the greater good. That issue is the rampant and casual use of plastic shopping bags.

Here in sometimes-progressive Seattle, we were on track to tackle this problem head-on by imposing a 20-cent-per-bag fee. As expected, the plastic-bag makers ramped up a PR campaign against the fee, and they convinced enough Seattleites to sign a petition against it, causing the Seattle City Council to delay the plan. We will vote on the plastic bag fee in August of this year.

One of the main arguments against the fee is that it is unduly burdensome on consumers, especially in such tough economic times. There is a simple solution to avoiding a 20-cent fee, however, eliminating any potential financial burden. The solution bring your own reusable cloth or nylon shopping bags whenever you go shopping! You can keep them in your car, in your purse, in your messenger bag, even in your coat pocket if you get one of those nylon models that can be folded inside out, creating a little egg-sized ball of recycled bag goodness (think of those Adidas and Nike windbreakers with the marsupial pocket that were so popular in the '80s). Rest assured in the knowledge that bringing your own reusable bags to QFC or Bartell Drugstore is not only environmentally friendly, it’s downright cool (sexy, even).

Somewhere along America's evolutionary path, the idea that we're entitled to unlimited convenience and resources has taken root in our national psyche. The hubbub over a modest measure to start charging people for these disposable, fossil-fuel-based bags is a sign of how spoiled we've become.

Again, if you'd rather not pay the fee, bring your own bags. I do it, my friends and family do it. It's not even that much of a sacrifice. There will be plenty of other ways in which we're all going to have to sacrifice, in the coming months and years. Bringing reusable bags to the store is a simple way to start weaning ourselves off the endless cycle of disposable consumer products.

As un-American as it may be to point out, the American way of life to which we've all grown accustomed is unsustainable. The sooner we can start adjusting and scaling back, the better we'll be when the inevitable critical mass occurs and various resources start to run out. The truth of our situation isn’t pretty or easy to face, but now is the time to muster the courage to forge a different, more sustainable path.

You say you don't have any cloth or nylon reusable shopping bags? Here's a handy list of links to help you purchase your very own bags, thus immunizing yourself from those those pesky, burdensome 20-cent fees!

In addition, most, if not all, grocery and drug stores now sell inexpensive (i.e. a dollar or less) reusable bags, if you don't mind that the bags are generally emblazoned with store names and logos. Any of these bags will eventually pay for itself, once the voters pass the bag fee measure later in the year.

Be creative, get some reusable bags, vote for the bag fee in August if you’re in Seattle, and start building a plastic-bag-free America!

Here are some statistics related to plastic bags, courtesy of

* Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.

* According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.

* According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion)

* Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food.

* Plastic bags don't biodegrade, they photodegrade - breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest.

* Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.

* In 2001, Ireland consumed 1.2 billion plastic bags, or 316 per person. An extremely successful plastic bag consumption tax, or PlasTax, introduced in 2002 reduced consumption by 90%. Approximately 18,000,000 liters of oil have been saved due to this reduced production. Governments around the world are considering implementing similar measures.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Message To All Remaining Congressional Republicans: STOP LYING

Today at Daily Kos, I read this post regarding a statement made by Senator Richard Shelby, R - AL, expressing doubt as to whether President Obama is a U.S. citizen.

Of course, this ridiculous talking point and xenophobic and racist smear has been thoroughly debunked, but being Senator For Life from the State of Alabama apparently means never having to bother reading articles in The So-Called Liberal Media (SCLM).

Now, this is the senior United States Senator from Alabama, mind you. What does this astonishing level of either mendacity or ignorance say about Shelby and the Alabama voters who have been electing such a cretin to federal office since 1979, first as a Democrat and then as a Republican (he opportunistically switched parties right after the Gingrich Republican takeover of Congress in 1994)? Perhaps this is just standard operating procedure for a member of an increasingly irrelevant minority political party, working in concert with Limbaugh, Drudge, Coulter, and other right-wing dead-enders.

Here is the letter I sent to the shameless Senator:

Dear Senator Shelby:

You were quoted by the Cullman Times as having doubts as to whether President Obama is a U.S. citizen:

For your information, this malicious rumor about the President has been thoroughly debunked. Please refer to this Los Angeles Times article for a copy of President Obama's birth certificate, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is indeed a U.S. citizen and thus eligible to serve as President of the United States:

Please issue a retraction to your statement immediately, and please stop spreading this false rumor.


(Secret Hug Pro)

Can we start putting all politicians under oath before they talk to reporters? Now that's some change we could believe in! In the meantime, please write Richard Shelby and tell him what you think of his dishonesty and smear-mongering.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Things To Do While Waiting For The # 16 Bus

- Come up with a to-do list (daily, weekly)

- Check voicemail, text messages

- Check the skies for precipitation

- Shuffle through iPod

- Think about set lists for next round of mix CDs

- Think about the film I just watched

- Daydream about past events, future goals (Is eight months of unemployment a deal-breaker during a job interview? Will I ever be contacted for an interview? Is 37 too old to turn one’s life around? Why did she lose interest and move on? Could I have done anything to prevent it? Will the future be Star Trek utopia or Blade Runner dystopia? Is it possible to be truly happy while acknowledging history and paying attention to current events, or is the cliché about being blissfully ignorant true? Will I ever be “a writer“, whatever that title means? Is Obama a progressive Trojan horse or just another centrist corporate Democrat, Clinton part II? Do I really care about politics, or was my obsession during the campaign rooted in some deeper psychological need? Does anyone read my blog, or is it like the tree falling in the forest that no one hears? Do I dare start making my blog more personal and confessional, or should I stick to political rants and Top 10 lists?)

- Be in the moment, watch traffic flow, birds, squirrels; notice for-sale signs, businesses going under, commerce taking place

- Wonder how Jane Jacobs would rate Seattle's urban planning

- Go over job-hunt strategies

- Map out social events for the week

-Ask myself:
1. Have I talked to my mother, father and brother lately?
2. What's playing at the Guild 45th, Neptune, Seven Gables, and Varsity?
3. Why are there so few 16's running?
4. Have I had 8 glasses of water today?

- Keep shuffling through iPod

- Watch people at bus stop, size them up, try to figure out their stories (Are any of these people happy? Do most of them hate their jobs, those that have a job? Most everyone I know is dissatisfied with their work, but is my social circle indicative of the population as a whole? Riding the bus provides a first-hand look at the casualties of George Bush’s America, some of most beleaguered and discarded Americans this side of the Harborview E.R. I can‘t imagine how some of these people survive at the bottom rung of the ladder during this Neo-Gilded Age, but somehow they seem to find ways to eke out an existence in the absence of a social safety net, all the more amazing in that America is the stingiest industrial democracy in the world in terms of public assistance, even in the best of times. “There but for the grace of God go I“ echoes through my head each time I board these busses. I can’t tell if they used to be middle class, or are they the working poor, or are they newly homeless? How many are mentally ill, how many were abused as children, and why don’t we care about our fellow citizens? Maybe it’s too much for us to bear when we realize deep down that each of us is probably only several paychecks and a medical emergency away from begging for spare change outside of QFC and the liquor store.)

- Wonder if monorail expansion will ever be revived during my lifetime

- Feel grateful to live in in a big, progressive, coastal city

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Quotation To Live By

"Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in a human situation."

Graham Greene