My Dad Died Twenty Years Ago Today; or When a Parent Dies, It Fucks You Up Good and Proper

Part I:  The Times They Were a-Changin’; or Did Jay Leno Kill My Dad?

June 3, 1992 was the penultimate day of my freshmen year of high school.  On a personal level, the first half of this school year was kind of shitty, filled with acne and about three hours of sleep per night (caused by rarely missing certain late night talk shows and, moreover, not being a morning person).  The second half, surprisingly, got a little better.  There were a couple of people I was forming some real friendships with, people with whom I genuinely felt a connection.  I was growing more comfortable with my personality (which was only truly revealed to those I liked), worldview (which was [is] very bleak), intellect (which was [is] nothing special), and sense of humor (which was [is] esoteric and somewhat mean [at the time, it was a complete reaction to being around people who didn’t dig me all that much—the feeling was mutual and hundredfold, however], but, if you somewhat understood my angle, I had some golden motherfuckin’ moments … way fucking better than Henry Cho).

Well, since I doubt anyone is laughing and there’s an eerie silence when you’re on the stage, I have a feeling it could be an audience member’s watch. Yeah, I’m pretty certain that’s what it is. (To be fair, I haven’t seen your act since you were hosting Friday Night Videos.  You seemed like a nice enough guy, but man, you were really not funny at all.  If it’s any consolation, at least, you’re not Ray Combs.)

While all this was nice, it took a couple of more years for me to become comfortable with my appearance, which was helped greatly by growing out my hair—long hair really worked for me.  If anything, it was a little protest against these lame-ass people who were supposed to be inspiring me to learn, offering me their expert guidance, and providing me their profound wisdom in order to aid me during this pivotal transition from being a teenager to becoming a young adult.  However, none of that wonderful, whimsical, inspirational shit promised to us by various movies and television shows that we were exposed since birth came to fruition: I didn’t have the “one” teacher that got it, spoke my language, understood my problems, and changed my fuckin’ life.  Overall, it was an amazingly shitty assortment of former high school sports heroes, their cheerleader counterparts, and some real sad sacks that offered no real inspiration or advice other than to go to church, major in nursing or education, (and my favorite) “Have you considered joining the Army?”, or just flat-out mocked you because you wanted something more than a job that you hate, an ugly wife, accidental and unwanted children, and the alcoholism or religious fundamentalism that result from trying to cope with having just one or all of the above.  It was a toxic environment that stole my youth, killed my idealism, and turned me into a cynic far too early (seriously, I wish I could have had, at least, a couple of years in my twenties to have had a handful of “Bono at Live Aid” moments or something … instead, I became almost Bukowski-level hardened before I took the ACT).

Conversely, the period at the end of my freshman year was different from what would become my miserable status quo: it was an oasis of idealism before the giant, happiness-destroying sandstorm in the middle of the desert known as adult life.  Really, I don’t know what it was, but there was something strangely satisfying and exciting about this time period, probably a combination of youthful energy and incredible naiveté.  I was sincerely looking forward to the summer of ‘92.  (Hey, cut me a fuckin’ break … I was fifteen and still had hopes and dreams.  Like I mentioned above, I hadn’t lost my innocence yet … it took a couple of more years of disappointment to finally destroy me, and goddamn, those years destroyed me.)

Everything during this time had a sense of newness about it.  Anything could happen.  And there were a lot of things I was planning to do that summer.  I recently discovered music and really enjoyed listening to new bands; I was buying a couple of CDs a week and 120 Minutes, which I started watching when Dave Kendall was the host, was being viewed habitually.  We had an old VHS camcorder that we used to make little improv movies and record just about everything we did.  There would be trips to the comic book store.  There were movies to be seen.  A Link to the Past was going to played over and over again.  Friday nights meant USA Up All Night with Rhonda Shear, locked doors, and a very happy dong—meaning a rather relaxed and easygoing me.  I was soaking in all the pop culture I could, and if we shared the same interests and tastes, that is how I determined if I wanted to get to know you.

There were also some game-changing personal decisions that were going to be made that summer.  I was considering cussing for the first time (it’s strange to think there was a point in my life when I didn’t cuss—even stranger, some of my peers were already fuckin’ and suckin’ and pokin’ and proddin’ each other while I was having a needlessly intense internal debate about saying “shit” … Jesus, I was fucking lame).  In addition to finally allowing myself to utter the word “motherfucker,” I decided to be totally open with my thoughts, ambitions, political beliefs and atheism to anyone that seemed interested or asked.  I decided, for better or worse, to be myself.  No hiding.  No pretending.  No alarms.  No surprises.  There I was now, entertain me.  Yes, indeed, things were lookin’ up.  The teen years weren’t going to be a troubling time for me.  It all seemed like it was going to be a great—I was shittin’ kittens … everything was coming up roses.  However, there was some dark and heavy shit coming down the pike that changed the course of that summer and my entire goddamn life.

Mom, when you’re done shopping, I’ll be playing TMNT: The Arcade Game. Could you give me about 50 bucks?

After coming home from my second to last day of school that beautiful June afternoon, I went with my mom to Big Bear Plus (perhaps it was still Hart’s at the time).  She had to do some grocery shopping and pick up my dad’s medication.  Mom was in a somber mood that day; I could tell things were stressing her out, so I gave her some time alone.  I think she liked to get out and do the shopping because it was a brief escape from whatever was going on at home.  Leaving her in the grocery section, I made my way over to the department store side of the grocery/department store combo and browsed through the CDs.

After being intrigued by his performance on Late Night with David Letterman’s 10th Anniversary Special, I bought my first Bob Dylan album that night: Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.  On the trip home, I popped it into my portable CD player, skipped to the song I was familiar with, listened intently, and instantly became a huge fan.  I learned more from one listen to that album—of all things, a greatest hits compilation—than I learned in four years of high school.  I didn’t know it at the time (or perhaps I did), but I needed Dylan desperately at that moment.  I needed something that was realistic, idealistic, a little mean, a little hopeful, and smart.  If I would have discovered Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave that evening as well, I may have stopped seeking out new music altogether.

We arrived home and noticed my brother and grandma were at my dad’s side, who had spent the last couple of weeks in a hospital bed set up in our living room.  The entire scene was grim.  The look on my brother’s face gave the situation away.  My dad’s life would be coming to an end very soon.

I helped put the groceries away, and I immediately jetted off to my room.  Whenever I could, I tried to avoid going into the living room.  I couldn’t stand seeing my dad—or anyone—in that condition. Knowing the death of one half of the team that was responsible for giving you life was imminent puts you in a fucked-up state of mind, and I don’t even like life that much.  I had been mentally preparing for this for some time now, but still, the reality of it was quite jarring.  I put myself into my interests to keep sane: there was a lot of music being listened to, video games being played, and television being watched.  Luckily for me, a new interest—better stated, the “ultimate” interest and an entirely new way to live—was on the horizon.  That night, my life would be changed forever.

It was a Wednesday and a friend of mine invited me to an evening service at his church.  I was reluctant to go (I was not in any way a believer), but it would get me out of the house.  So I jumped at the chance.  The service started in rather standard way, but then it turned into a rousing lecture about death and what happens when you die.  It was good to hear these things.  Hearing about heaven sounded great.  I wanted my dad to be there when he dies.  I felt warmth and understanding from everyone at the service, which typically I’m creeped out by these types, but this was different … I finally understood what I’ve been avoiding and mocking all this time.  The positive energy there was overwhelming.   It felt great.  For the first time in my life, I knew that I was part of something bigger than myself.

The need to return home overtook my spirit and body with great urgency; I was in His hands now.  I told my friend that I needed to leave.  He understood.  The church was within walking distance, so getting back was not going to be a problem.  I ran home, and, to this day, it was the fastest I had ever moved in my life.  I was on mission: to make certain that my dad would go to heaven.  I busted through the door, ran to his bedside, and asked, “Dad, have you been saved?”  He only looked at me.  He had been unable to speak for the past few days.  “Have you?” I inquired again.  He slowly shook his head.  I had to work fast.  I wasn’t going lose his soul to the devil.  “Do you accept Jesus?”  He was losing consciousness.  I raised my voice, “Do you accept Him as your savior?”  He was slipping.  My dad was dying right before my eyes.  There was no time left.  I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, he quickly regained consciousness and spoke with more, lucidity, clarity and power than I ever heard him speak throughout his life.  In a loud, confident, and powerful voice, he said, “Yes!”  With that, he was gone, but I knew he was at a better place with God.  The last two paragraphs have been total fucking bullshit.  Let’s get back to what really happened.

Since I was really into movies and shit, I was excited that Tim Burton (at the time, I was really into him) was going to be on Later with Bob Costas for two nights in a row promoting Batman Returns.  I had the VCR set to record and was also planning on watching at its regular broadcast time.  (Again, school or not, I have always stayed up as late as I could.)  The show ended at 2:05 a.m.  I pondered the interview, which was pretty good, and called it a night.

Things were far from okay, but I had my little media rituals to keep me in check, to keep me sane. Fuck, I needed something to take the edge off.  My dad’s condition was dire.  In early April of ’92, his cancer was diagnosed as terminal.  He was initially diagnosed with colon cancer just two years previous, which had now spread to every vital organ in his body.  In two years, none of the treatments or experimental procedures had worked.  He was going to die, and I had a front row seat.

The back story of how we got to this point is interesting to know.  His initial diagnosis was a misdiagnosis.  During the summer of 1990, he had been complaining of stomach pains and went to the doctor.  The doctor thought that he had just pulled a muscle and advised him not to engage in any strenuous activities for a month.  This made sense because my dad was always working (his regular job, around the house, for other people), and it almost always included lifting heavy shit.  One night, however, the pain was so severe that he was doubled over in the bathroom, begging my mom to drive him to the emergency room, and in keeping the theme of school playing a role in this saga by providing significant dates of major occurrences, this happened on the first day of school my eighth grade year.  That evening he and my mom were told the shitty news.  However, I didn’t find out the news until that Friday.  I found out that my dad had cancer at a Walmart parking lot.  My grandma (who wasn’t supposed to tell us that day) took my brother and me to buy the first Final Fantasy (I’m still not too crazy about this game) and let the sick cat out of the bag.  “Your dad has got ‘the’ cancer,” she said, not making any eye contact with my brother and me, but directly looking at a Kentucky Fried Chicken yards away.  “It doesn’t sound good.  He might die.  You guys hungry?”  What the fuck do you say to that?

From late-August 1990 until his death, he spent about ten months, off and on, of his final two years in a hospital bed at Ohio State’s James Cancer Center.  There, he was basically a guinea pig.  The cancer was already in its late stages, so, as he said, it only made sense to donate his living body to science.  Once he left there, he returned to work at the water treatment plant, where he worked until a couple of months before he died.

May 1992 started out fine; he was cognitive, lucid, present, and could hold a conversation.  Actually, one of the last conversations we had was around this time (I’ll get to this later).   Then, on May 22, 1992, he began to falter.  His speech was becoming difficult to understand.  He was having trouble writing his name.  He was heavily medicated and was drifting in and out of consciousness.  His mind and body were breaking down.  May 22, 1922 was also Johnny Carson’s last Tonight Show and was the last time I heard my dad’s voice.

On June 4, 1992, a little over a week after the Leno takeover, my mom at around 5:30 or 6 in the morning awakened me.  She was sitting on the edge of my bed, quietly calling my name, “Shane … Shane …”  This already felt dreamlike, and I knew what she was going to say.  “What?” I said in a voice more quiet than a whisper.  “Your dad is dead, honey.  He died last night in his sleep.”  Like I mentioned earlier, I had been preparing for this moment since his initial diagnosis two years prior.  I nodded and the word “okay” made its way out of my mouth; for some reason, it made the most sense for me to say only that.  What else could I say?

Maybe after a week of watching Leno host the Tonight Show, he decided that life isn’t worth it … maybe it finally broke him … maybe he lost his will to live.  I doubt it.  Not even Jay Leno would make my dad want to die.  He was that strong.  My dad really wanted to live.  I’ve always been amazed by this, for I don’t share his enthusiasm for life.

Part II: It’s My Dad’s Funeral, and I’ll Grieve How I Want to; or Why Does that Man Always Dress the Same?

“Are you okay?” asked my mom.

“Yeah,” I replied in a soft voice.

“Do you want to go up and see him?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

The last thing I wanted to do is see my dad’s lifeless body.  The previous night he motioned for my mom to help him upstairs to their room.  He knew that his time was up and wanted to die in his regular-ass bed and not in the one supplied by hospice.  I didn’t want to see him in that bed, a bed I used to fall asleep in watching television with the entire family.  I wanted the last memory of my dad in our house to be him reading the newspaper on the couch, bitchin’ about Republicans.

“Okay,” mom said in an understanding tone.

“Would it be okay if I went to school today?”

“If you want to, you can.”

“Yeah, I think I will.”

I knew that there would be all kinds of people in and out of the house that day.  Most of these people would try to try talk with me and console me.  I suppose this was nice and to be expected, but I didn’t want an earful of religious bullshit, which I knew I would get from several of these people.  The other thing that I didn’t want is to deal with are people who would give me their stupid life advice.  I didn’t want to hear shit like: “Stay strong.  You’re the man of the house now.  Your dad would want it this way.”  I just turned fucking fifteen.  I’m not going to be responsible for the house and shit.  What the fuck did they expect me to do?  What the fuck did this even mean?  Moreover, I’ve never really bought into roles that people think they should fall into simply because of tradition.  In short, I needed to get out of the house to avoid being around people who I didn’t really like that much.  So, it made sense to go to school.  Being the last day, I knew that there would barely be anyone there.  It would be quiet and somewhat relaxing.  For the most part, I was left alone.  The only fucked-up thing of the day was when an announcement was made for dead-dad-flower-money, singling me out by name.  However, when that announcement was made, I was in study hall with people who had no fucking idea who the hell I was.  Regardless, it was just surreal to hear that announced over the PA system by our awkward principal.  It’s such an odd detail, but it left an impression.

I remember getting off the bus that day and running straight to my room.  Again, other than my mom, I didn’t want to be around anyone.  My mom must have been sharing some of my emotions.  I found out that she had left for a good chunk of that day, too.  She went to get clothes for us to wear to the funeral.  My mom would buy things way too big for my brother and me.  In high school, I was 6’ 1” and 115 pounds.  She bought me extra-large and, sometimes, extra-extra-large shirts, but always the correct size in pants—I was 28” around the waist, which I still am, by the way.  Her reasoning behind the shirts was that, eventually, we would grow into them.  My brother and I did not grow into them.  I have remained a small since the age of fifteen.  And while my brother did gain some weight, he hasn’t gained that much weight.  Mom expected us to physically turn into our father.

My dad’s ass.

My dad was as blue-collar worker as you could get (for all I knew, it could have been his ass on the Born in the U.S.A. album cover).  Physically, he was built like a tank: 5’ 11” and about 255 pounds (only about 140 when he died, however).  He wore his blue work shirt and his name tag 90% of the time; it didn’t matter if we were at McDonald’s or a more uppity restaurant (which hardly ever happened).  He also wore an orange toboggan that advertised some chainsaw company about 80% of time.  He had either a regular-ass mustache or a horseshoe mustache living on his face (I preferred the more eccentric horseshoe).  Also, I don’t know if he had terrible taste in eyeglasses, was limited to the choices of the time period, of just didn’t give a fuck (most likely), but he always wore oversized, plastic-rimmed glasses (which seeing him in those frames is one the main reasons I become a contact wearer).  My friends would ask me if he ever changed his clothes and why he wore the same outfit all the time. My dad’s look was locally and arcanely iconic. Even if you didn’t fucking know him, you were aware of his presence.  At about $20,000 a year, he knew what socio-economic class he belonged to and was perfectly okay presenting himself  everywhere as its unofficial ambassador (at the time, maybe a little embarrassing, but knowing what I know now, totally fuckin’ bad ass).  The work shirt was always on.  It was pretty bitchin’.  My mom debated whether or not to bury him in his work shirt, name tag, and orange toboggan.  Looking back, she should have.  It would have been a fitting tribute.  Plus, I know my dad would have liked the money that it saved.

Fuck Fonzie’s jacket and that Indiana Jones shit! This stuff belongs in the Smithsonian.

My dad is on the left.

I was dreading the funeral, for reasons that I already mentioned (ya know, the whole “being around people” thing).  Also, I really hate ceremonies and traditions.  They have always felt forced and silly to me—anyone been to a wedding?  I talked to my mom about skipping out on both the showing and the funeral.  At first, she was against the idea, but she slowly reconsidered and gave me the option to choose one or the other.  I chose the showing because it was less formal.  There would also be more opportunities to hide at the showing.  And, of course, there were.  And, of course, I took advantage of them.  At the time, I remember my mom facing some criticism for allowing me to skip out on the funeral.  In her defense, she knows me more than any of those that criticized her.  She knows how I deal with things.  I got more out of grieving alone than being around people who only knew me because we were related, or because they knew my dad.  Moreover, when I reflect upon that decision, I don’t feel any regret.  I’m still very comfortable with not attending and would make the same decision if we fired up the DeLorean and went back.

My sanctuary from avoiding the crowd was short-lived that Saturday.  Slowly, people started arriving at our house after the funeral for some sort of post-funeral gathering.  A friend of mine, that I was drifting apart from—due to me letting my freak flag fly high and his increasingly obvious well-adjusted, normalcy, came into my room to see how I was doing.  The conversation was fine.  We really didn’t discuss the elephant in the room, which, of course, was a dead fuckin’ dad.  Instead, we just behaved normally, but with a sense of “things aren’t going to be the same” or “we are losing our innocence” kind of feeling looming over us.  On the television, MTV was playing Unplugged performances.  Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” was a big fuckin’ deal that summer.  I remember uncomfortably sitting through that, which was followed by Mariah Carey’s cover of “I’ll be There.”  I remember saying, “I don’t like this.”  “I think it’s good,” my friend replied.  “No, it’s schmaltzy and trying too hard,” I quickly countered.  I then turned the channel, and something caught my eye on TNN: Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart”—an even bigger fuckin’ deal that summer.  Upon seeing and hearing the video and song, a wave of cynicism far stronger than my current state of grief came over my body.  It was a turning point because I was beginning to understood “why ” and “how” things suck.  I was picking up on just how overall shitty our culture was (is).  Yes, things were not going to be same, and I was losing my innocence.  It was a catchy song, though … I’ll give it that.

Part III: It Just Ends, and You Don’t Get Goddamn Parade; or It’s R.E.M. not REO …

While most other kids were doing normal teenage things: hanging out with friends, talking on the phone, going on dates, getting drunk, smoking cigarettes and weed, huffing paint thinner, popping pills, snorting coke, shooting heroin, developing a gambling problem, stealing from their grandparents, beating their mothers senseless, kissing, fucking, participating in orgies, and having babies, I was at home watching my dad slowly die of cancer.  I really missed out on a lot.  I wish I could have gotten to do some—or all—of those things.  I would have loved to have had a kid when I was in high school.  That would have been a lot of fun.  Instead, I was relegated to my room, alone with my thoughts, television, magazines, comic books, Super Nintendo, and CDs.  Honestly, though, it wasn’t that bad at all.  I was lucky enough to meet a few other people who were living in less than ideal circumstances.  Divorce, poverty, right-wing extremist or religious fundamentalist (typically, one in the same) parents, and just general fucked-upness were just some of the conditions that brought us together.  Comedian Marc Maron dubbed it “trauma-bonding,” which is a more than apt description for this cultural phenomenon.  (I know that this is an actual psychological term, but the way Maron described it really fits here.  Let me have it, please.)  Having the knowledge that life is fucking painful is probably one of the best conditions for a good friendship.  I could never stand being around people who were either too dumb to understand how shitty things were, or were too cowardly to admit it.  Miserable people are always more interesting, and, yes, more fun to hang out with.  Seriously, name me a truly happy person that is genuinely funny.

My father’s death changed me, but in ways I’ll never know.  I don’t know how my life would have different if he didn’t die, survived cancer, or was never diagnosed to from the get-go.  I only know that it would, in fact, be different, just not “how” it would be different.  Sometimes, I wonder if we would even get along.  I think that we would.  I know that our politics would line up, and that’s a big one (both sides of the family seemed to be left-leaning, which ranged from your standard, boring-ass Democrats to radical, but ineffectual socialists).  So, at least, our basic worldviews would line up enough not to cause me to be kicked out or disowned.  Having that in common means that communication about anything would be more effective.  I’ve seen kids with differing basic beliefs than their parents, and it’s fucking awful.

Would my interests be any different?  For example, would I be into fishing, beer, and know how to work on cars?  Fuck no, I wouldn’t.  Regardless if he were alive, I still wouldn’t have any concern for that shit.  No amount of bonding or love could make me be interested in something I had zero interest in and can’t stand doing to begin with.  Also, I’m not good at pretending to like things just to make the workflow run more smoothly.  So, no, I wouldn’t be hanging out in the garage just to spend time with him or something.  I would be inside playing video games and masturbating.  However, while situations involving cars, fish, and beer were not going to lead to meaningful, bittersweet father/son moments filled with fucking life lesson after life lesson, we would have shared other things.  We both had a strong dislike of sports and the culture surrounding it.  We both had similar tastes in movies and music, and I know we both thought Lynda Carter in her Wonder Woman outfit and Elvira were sights to behold (I’m eventually going to dedicate an entire blog about Wonder Woman, Elvira, and some key “others” being responsible for my sexual awakening.)

Here’s another one. Why? Do you even have to ask?

However, I don’t know if he would appreciate my negativity and depressive nature.  One thing my dad was not was a negative person.  He wasn’t some lighthearted, stupidly optimistic fool either.  Instead, he was a pragmatic idealist, if such a thing is possible.  My dad was more the tortoise than the hare.  He was methodical and deliberate.  Things could be falling apart around him, but he remained calm.  He thought in the long-term.  Every decision was well thought out and executed.   I have only some of that in me.  I tend to over think everything and never make a decision at all.  Overall, other than some controlling aspects regarding my mom (which are duly noted), he was a pretty good guy.  There are two major things that I know I inherited from my dad: his resigned, passive, but intense personality (which I will explain in greater detail) and his sense of humor.

Yes, another one …

Let’s start with his personality; for better of worse, it was transferred to me.  I don’t think it’s necessarily a good nor bad thing.  Personalities are complicated and can change according to what situation you are in and what company is kept.   For instance, if you know someone really well, you are going to behave differently than you would around a total fucking stranger.  My dad’s default personality was stoic, stubborn, and quiet.  That’s how most people saw him.  When he would enter a room, he would size it up, try to figure out what people were like simply by observing them.  He wasn’t the type of person that comes in and talks to everyone like they have known you for years—a trait that I can’t stand, along with people that feel the need to touch you when they don’t know who the fuck you are, like the people that hug “hello.”  If my dad, for whatever reason, decided that he didn’t like you or that there wasn’t enough common ground, he would completely shut down, not say a word.  Even if he found himself in a group of people that he overall liked, if there was just one person that he didn’t gel with or ruined the group dynamic, he would hardly speak.  (For those that know me well, doesn’t this sound familiar?)  On the other hand, if he liked you and felt comfortable around you, he could be very warm and chatty.  I think behavior like this is wrongly categorized as shyness.  It isn’t really shyness.  I always thought it was about not wasting anyone’s time.  I look for kindred spirits and real connections, so did he.  If there isn’t a connection, the conversation will be like pulling teeth.  Really, it’s just being self-aware enough to know if you’re going to like someone or not, which, in my opinion, is much, much different from shyness.

Last one … I promise.

The second thing I know I inherited from my dad was his sense of humor.  My dad was funny, but an acquired taste (of course, everything’s subjective).  He definitely wasn’t that fucking Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler type of bullshit: making faces, talking in “funny” voices, and trying way too hard.  That schtick gets old quick.  Have you ever been around someone who is an aspiring comedian and this type of humor is their style of choice?  It’s unbearable.  Really, it’s one of the worst things to have to be around; as if their comedy stylings aren’t bad enough, it’s only made worse because they believe everything that comes out of their mouths, every contorted face, and every over-the-top gesture is a comedy gem.  Fuck ‘em.  It’s so draining to be around.  Anyway, I’ve digressed enough.  Let’s bet back on track.

My dad would come home from work around midnight.  From the earliest I can remember until about the age of twelve, I would be in the living room, waiting for his arrival.  As soon as he came in the door, he immediately found his way to the couch.  I would go sit beside him.  Then, he would take his big hand and stick it down my pants, gently rubbing my penis.  (No, I’m just fuckin’ with you.)  I would remain in the floor with a blanket and pillow.  He was parked on the couch.  For the next two to four hours, we would be glued to the television.  Both of us were night people (actually, my entire immediate family was nocturnal), and luckily for us, local stations used to play b-movies all night.  WBNS in Columbus had Nite Owl Theater.  WOWK out of Huntington, West Virginia had Elvira’s syndicated show.  Also, since my mom worked at a video store, movies were brought home every night; we always had something new to watch.  Everyone in my family appreciated great filmmaking, but my dad and I recognized that most mainstream movies were so mediocre that they weren’t worth the trouble watching.  For every Taxi Driver, you would get several cheesy romantic comedies or bland, trying-too-hard-to-be-great-would-be masterpieces.  We preferred low-budget, fucked-up, and strange.  If it had monsters, aliens, beautiful women, and looked like they had just a week to make the fucking thing, the more we liked it.

As we would watch whatever bottom of the barrel opus rolling through the VCR on any given night, my dad would begin commenting on the movie Mystery Science Theater-style, but way fucking edgier and better.  His quick wit and impressive knowledge of a variety of things ranging from an obscure Rolling Stone’s song to the Sandinista National Liberation Front was impressive; the man knew his stuff.  He may have not have had a college degree and the high income and status typically (and wrongly) associated with jumping through those hoops, but the motherfucker was bright.  (Actually, a friend of mine’s dad that made a shitload more money and has a couple of degrees believes that dinosaurs are a lie and evolution isn’t real because it contradicts the Bible; my dad knew better than that shit, and he only went to high school.)  He was able to weave highbrow and lowbrow together, which I’ve always felt creates the best anything.  He could be lighthearted, whimsical, but still dangerous and menacing.  He could go to some very dark places: no subject was off the table.  Most importantly, he could provoke thought in an entertaining and funny way.  He was a good “dad” to have around.  Other dads were just dicks.  Seriously, some people’s dad’s I knew were mean as shit.  Not fun, man … not fun.

I watched Nite Owl Theater every night with my dad. The Gamera movies were some of our favorites.

My dad had a real edge to him, a “hipness” and “awareness” that other dad’s seemed to lack.  I remember going to friends’ houses and would be shocked by how dull their parents were.  I couldn’t believe people came from such joyless and humorless homes.  Most dads were not funny at all let alone edgy and dark.  My friends’ fathers seemed like men that were already dead, but just didn’t know it yet.  Seriously, they all seemed so boring, lifeless, mean (without humor), and shitty.  It bothered me.  I hated going to certain kid’s houses.  I would always want people to visit my house.  At my house, we could be ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong.  There were rules, but they weren’t stupid, arbitrary ones that just seemed pulled of someone’s ass to keep their children from having any type of fun.  The rules laid down by my parents seemed more rooted in safety and health rather than pissing off God by some crazy interpretation of a fucking commandment.  In other words, if your parents were super-religious, it wasn’t fun to go to your house … it was just fuckin’ creepy: kids that had alcoholic parents were more fun to be around than that shit.

I hope it’s obvious that my dad’s sense of humor was passed on to me; it’s the one aspect of my dad that I remember most fondly.  I liked that he didn’t stop himself from thinking or discussing certain things.  I liked that he didn’t pander to whoever was in the room.  I liked that he rattled some cages.  I liked that he would go after people that he thought were terrible human beings; I liked that, sometimes, he would be just has hard, even harder, on himself for lesser things than those he was criticizing.  For the both of us, no subject is taboo.  We will go anywhere, now matter how fucked-up or offensive it potentially is to others. I like how serious, intense, and dark he could go, not only with his humor, but in his thoughts in general.  However, my dad was able to come out of the darkness.  I can’t seem to do that.  My lighthearted and whimsical days are, for the most part, dead and gone.

Being dark, hopeless, depressive, pensive, and brooding are all components of my default mode.  For me, suicidal thoughts are just like breathing or my heartbeat, totally involuntary.  I don’t know how he was able to crawl out of this pit, but he did.  He could drop some pessimistic gem of comedic misanthropy and then go back to enjoying the sunset.  What the fuck, man?  How the fuck, man?  His ability to never allow himself to be truly depressed for a significant amount of time, even though he could go to these dark places, is the major difference in our personalities.  He had the ability to think and grasp the futilities and meaninglessness of existence, but was able to not dwell on them.  I can’t do this.  I think this is something that I got from my mom.  She can dwell on things for quite some time; however, she’s even able to eventually let go.  Me, on the other hand, I’m somewhat enjoy the misery and darkness.  I stay there, all the time.

My dad, when faced with terminal cancer, wanted to live.  He was fighting for his life every single day.  I was always amazed by his desire to live.  I remember looking downstairs once while mom was helping him eat.  I just watched the two of them.  It was so difficult for him to even chew, but he was doing whatever he could, trying his hardest.  When the day comes that I am diagnosed with terminal cancer (which could be any day now), I know myself well enough to know that I won’t have that “fight” in me.  I won’t try to beat death.  If anything, I could see myself trying to speed up the process.  Again, this is the biggest difference between my dad and me: he was a glass-is-half-full-kind-of-guy, and I’m a glass-is-completely-empty-and-has-a-crack-in-it-kind-of-guy.

A few weeks before my dad got so bad that he couldn’t even speak, he came into my room for a talk.  This was the last time I spoke with him in any significant way.  I was in the floor watching television.  Typically, I would remember such a stupid detail of what I was watching (I’m like that), but, for some reason, I don’t any idea what it was—don’t remember at all.  All I know is that I didn’t even bother to turn it off.  We were both aware that this was going to be one the last times we would speak to each other, and I didn’t even bother turning off the television.  However, I don’t think he gave a fuck.  He really didn’t come in to teach me any profound lessons or share some secrets of life.  He just came in to have a casual conversation, as if he didn’t have terminal cancer and everything was normal, and perhaps he didn’t share these things because they don’t exist.  I know there are people out there that believe in such things, that think you can follow certain rules and your life will turn out just peachy, but I am not one of those people.  To me, life seems very random and unfair, and despite what self-help books, daytime television, various religions, and the . salient exemplars of allegorical myths that tell you that you can do anything under capitalism, it is.  Life is pretty shitty.  Don’t buy into that fairytale ending bullshit.  Things don’t really work out.  Being good doesn’t lead to a great life.  Bad people are not punished.  Seriously, we have very little control over anything.  You don’t live life … life lives you.  Illness and death are perfect examples of that.

It’s been twenty years since my dad has died.  I think about him constantly.  Like I said, my life would probably be rather different had he not died.  I’ve always had a good relationship with my parents, but after my dad’s death, the bond between my mom and me has grown very strong.  I wonder if that was a direct result of his death or something that just would have happened with age.  Therefore, I wonder how close we would have become.  It would be nice to have another person around that knows you really well, just to simply have long conversations about things that more well-adjusted people wouldn’t dare discuss.  My family has always been a little fucked-up and edgy in this way.  It hasn’t been the complete “family” experience without him.  It’s kind of tragic, really. I feel like I really missed out on something that could have made life more interesting, entertaining, and possibly even bearable.

However, one of the most tragic things about his death was a miscommunication during one of our last conversations.  He noticed that I had been buying a lot of CDs and wanted to know some of the bands I was into.  I mentioned some of them.  When I said R.E.M., he stopped me.  “You like REO Speedwagon?” he said with a tinge of shock and disappointment.  He was weak, going through chemo, and it just didn’t feel right to correct him.  I said nothing.  “No.  No.  You like what you like.  You are what you are.  They have a couple of songs that are okay … I guess,” he told me as he was leaving my room.  I’ve been carrying the weight around that my dad died believing I was a huge REO Speedwagon (a band that I don’t have a strong opinion about either way, but isn’t really my style).  Also, the last movie he saw in the theater was Lethal Weapon 3.  Not a good way to go out.

Yes.

Not really.

No.

I remember being at the funeral home and looking down at his lifeless body, thinking how about surreal and dreamlike this entire thing was.  I then retreated to the back of the funeral home, away from everyone.  I noticed a room where no one was going, and I claimed it as my own.  After seeing my brother breakdown, which—to this day—was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen, and the fact I don’t like to be around people, I found refuge in this empty room.  Slowly, however, a few people began to trickle in, but they mainly left me alone.  I think they knew not to fuck with me.  They could tell I was deep in thought, probably even looked comatose.  I was just sitting there, thinking about how a person’s existence can be totally wiped out, and, other than a handful of people, really close family members and friends, no one really cares … and even among these people, emotions quickly fade and you become a name of a person in craft services in the end credits of a movie no one even bothered to see.  They go on with their lives, whatever the fuck “life” is, and that’s it.  Minutes turned into an hour, I was still sitting in that fuckin’ room, just one room away from my father’s lifeless body, thinking about how pointless it is.  In death, your life isn’t really celebrated.  You don’t get any parade.  You just get people off of work a day or two.  You don’t exist anymore.  You’re dead, and the most tragic thing about it is that it fucks up the people who were the closest to you, forever and in huge ways. One hour then turned into four, the showing was almost over, and I was still just sitting there in introspection, pondering the meaninglessness of life, the various personal and financial problems on the horizon, and if we were able to even keep our house.  I was fucking scared.  Twenty years later, I still am … more so of life, not so much of death.

This one’s for you, dad.


The Almost Conquest of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes; or James Franco and Tom Felton Aren’t Very Good

In 1968, Planet of the Apes was released to both critical and commercial success, giving birth to a new a franchise. Four more films were made based on the original mythology from 1970 to 1973. In 2001, Tim Burton directed his interpretation of the series with yet another film simply titled Planet of the Apes; no direct sequels followed. Burton’s film had great makeup effects, but fell short on every other level. Now, a decade later, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt reboots the franchise in earnest, without the inanity and goofiness that beleaguered Burton’s version. This change was as needed as it was welcomed.

Out of the original five films, I thought all of them were good, and three of them were great: Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes are (with their dated effects and all), in my opinion, some of the strongest science fiction films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, if not of all time. Science fiction is perhaps the best genre to explore humanity’s problems with itself, its challenges with the exponential growth of knowledge, and its difficulties with the sweeping social and technological changes that occur as a result from such knowledge. The original films dealt with sociopolitical themes that mirrored the tribulations that plagued society during the tumult of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: racism, class division, worker exploitation, nuclear war, and the general way in which power was distributed among members of society were all ideas that were explored (oh, how some things never change). Each film had a point of view and wasn’t afraid to tackle those themes with a certain amount of conviction and fervor. These films treated the situations that their characters were in rather seriously, but also took their loftier ideas even more seriously: this is what made these films standout. They were much more than entertainment and amusement. They were trying harder than most films. They were greater than the sum totals of all their parts. (Yes, I think this highly of them.)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets some things brilliantly right, and a few things offensively wrong. The film opens in an African jungle. Poachers are capturing chimpanzees and sending them to Genesys, a San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company that is using them as test subjects for a drug that is attempting to cure Alzheimer’s disease. The head of this project is Will Rodman (terribly played by James Franco). Events unfold that eventually force Will to bring a baby chimp home, but not after having the effects of the experimental drug genetically passed to him. Will’s father (terribly played by John Lithgow), who is ailing from the very disease that Will is working to cure, immediately takes a liking to the baby chimp recently named Caesar (wonderfully played by Andy Serkis). Caesar spends his days in the Rodman’s attic, watching the outside world through a circular window. At first, he seems at ease with his captivity, but this quickly changes.

We learn that the prototype of the drug increases the intelligence of the apes. Caesar eventually demonstrates intellect that is considered above average—even over human counterparts the same age. Caesar is taught sign language and communicates freely with Will. He begins to develop self-awareness and the burdensome and complicated emotions that arrive with such a cognitive state. Eventually, in an effectively emotional scene, he asks Will if he is a pet. Regardless of Will’s denial, he still feels like one. Caesar knows there is one else like him; he is alone. Moreover, once Caesar learns what Will does for a living, we assume that he starts to harbor trust issues and general disgust for the human race. Conflicted and confused, Caesar only grows more introspective, questioning, and curious; as a result, he becomes more difficult to control. After a mishap involving Will’s father and a neighbor, Caesar is captured by animal control and sent to a primate facility.

Once at the primate facility, the movie begins to shine. Caesar has never been around others of his kind. His first meeting with the other apes in a jungle-themed primate recreational room is handled very well, as are most of the scenes that take place at this facility. The amazing thing about this section of the film is that hardly any dialogue is spoken: it almost turns into a silent film. The significant glances and the determined looks on Caesar’s face are far more engaging than any human actor in the film. Seriously, the apes, including those in the background that are seen as only specks on the screen, are far more compelling than any human character. There are also some terrific and surprising moments involving a former circus orangutan and a silverback gorilla named Buck. More of the film should have taken place here. It would have given us a chance to know some of these apes more as characters rather than plot devices. For example, the orangutan and Buck are way more interesting than the scientists—I wanted to know about their backgrounds.

Eventually, Caesar grows tired with how the apes are being treated and begins to plan a revolt. He forms bonds with some of the apes, but he knows that most of them are not intelligent enough to understand how dire their situation really is; therefore, he sneaks out of the facility and fetches some canisters of the drug to aid in the evolution of his peers. They begin organizing, plotting, and eventually escape. Again, I would have liked more scenes involving the apes communicating and sharing their experiences. If we spent more time with the apes, it would have made their rebellion that much more satisfying.

Caesar leads his troops into the streets of San Francisco. They seemingly free all of the apes that are being held in captivity in the entire Bay Area and do battle with local law enforcement. Visually, there are some nice moments here. The image of Caesar popping up over a building’s ledge—followed by hundreds of other apes armed with makeshift spears was memorable. Also, the unwavering look on Caesar’s face as he approaches the Golden Gate Bridge via streetcar was particularly powerful.

The film concludes with Caesar and his army trying to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Caesar’s use of strategy was quite impressive. He uses the dense fog of the Bay Area as an asset. He commands three separate units to gain an overwhelming tactical advantage. After recently viewing Michael Bay’s hideous Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it was refreshing to see an action set piece that had a point, was presented in a logical way, and had characters that made smart decisions to carry out their desired actions. Overall, however, the conclusion felt rushed and was not entirely gratifying, mainly due to some poor writing and one really dumb human character.

Much praise is to be given to Andy Serkis and the designers that brought Caesar to life. Anytime Caesar was on the screen, I was entertained and excited by what could happen next. The amount of emotion conveyed through his eyes alone was amazing. Serkis did an incredible job here. I believed the performance, became emotionally attached, and cared more about a non-existent, computer-generated image over any flesh and blood human in the entire film. This was truly Caesar’s film.

All of the human actors were weak, but out of the terrible human performances, two actors need to be mentioned by name. The first of these is James Franco. He showed almost no emotional response to any situation throughout the movie—no matter how minor or major the event was. For example, when a major and startling revelation was discovered, he squinted and delivered his lines like nothing unusual had taken place, but the information he just received was truly mind-blowing. Moments like this really killed the film. (Also, for someone that’s about to earn a PhD in real life, you would think he could’ve pulled off playing a research scientist rather well, but he didn’t.) However, as bad as he was, he was not the worst actor in the film. This dubious honor goes to Tom Felton, who played Dodge Landon (with a name like that, you know he has to be bad), an abusive worker at the primate facility. I’m not even going to waste my time writing about his performance; there is life to be lived.

Other than all the human actors’ performances, the additional major issues I had were with the script. There was an unnecessary character, Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto), a veterinarian that was introduced in the first act as Will’s love interest. Other than a couple of lines about questioning the ethics of animal testing, she did nothing in this film. She was only there because it’s the standard Hollywood practice that main characters always have to be in relationships. Seriously, why can’t people be single in movies? The second major problem was that they should have delved into just how cruel the human race can really be. I felt that this was sugarcoated and glossed over. For example, the Ape Management Center that trained apes for slave labor in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was far more brutal than anything seen in this film. A few scenes like this would have made the plight of the apes more poignant and, for the simple sake of cinematic storytelling, made the film more dramatic. And the last thing that I want to bring up is the truly stupid scene where Dodge brought a friend and their dates to the primate facility to get drunk and torment the apes. This was the worst scene in the film. Everything about it was forced and rang false. I can’t imagine two women (no matter how right-wing, Ayn Rand-loving, and anti-animal rights you could be) that would actually put up with two guys shocking apes in cages. I know that I just mentioned that I would have liked to have seen the film explore the violence and depravity of the human race, but this was just stupid. There are better ways.

Rise of the Planet of Apes is an above average film, but it didn’t come together quite the way it should have—and that’s a shame. If certain aspects of the production would have been changed or tweaked, it could have been a great piece of science fiction. Instead, it’s a pretty good movie that turned out to be a missed opportunity, but they were so close in many ways. And being so close to greatness only makes its faults standout even more. When the film was working, it was exciting, emotional, and engaging. When the film was bad, it made your eyes roll. The film was simultaneously marvelously smart and disappointingly dumb. (Bipolar would the best way to describe it: its highs were high, and its lows were low.)

Fortunately, the film worked more than it didn’t. However, the negative aspects were so glaring that they tainted the overall product. The screenplay should have gone through a couple of more rewrites. The first act should have been totally thrown out or completely restructured. The melodrama needed to be contained. More time should have been spent with the apes. The human characters needed to be presented as complicated and conflicted people and not as simple-minded archetypes. The human characters also should have been shown as more sadistic and cruel, which would not only have been more realistic, but also would have given the ape revolution a more salient sense of urgency. James Franco and Tom Felton shouldn’t have been let onto the set, and, most importantly, the film missed a real chance to follow in the footsteps of the five original films to bring up serious sociopolitical issues and to make some sort of statement (like the more recent and superior District 9). Sadly, while some issues were there, they were left in the background—taking a backseat to forced scenes involving unnecessary, unsatisfying, and hackneyed relationships.

Personally, I felt that it would have been more interesting to explore just how far drug companies will go to make a profit, the comprehensive ethical dilemma of animal testing, or a “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” comment concerning the exploitation of the working class would have been nice. Instead, we got a movie that took its situations seriously enough, but seemed to ignore its bigger ideas.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was not a terrible film, but Caesar and his revolution deserved much better.

Rating:  3.5 out of 5