Ghosts

Haunting your house since time immemorial.

When I was a kid, I watched every cheesy 1950’s horror movie broadcast in the New York City area. Some of them gave me a mild chill while others scared the living crap out of me.  One of them, Fiend Without a Face, fed my nightmares for years. It was about malevolent aliens composed of human brains and spinal cords who were rendered invisible by radioactivity. To this day I try to avoid disembodied nervous systems.

But of all the aliens, monsters, vampires and zombies, the movies that struck me to my core were ghost stories. Why? Ghosts don’t have fangs or claws. They rarely even physically harm anyone. But they stir a primal fear in us. Their mere appearance drives us into paroxysms of horror.

They’re here.

Ghost stories evolved in the modern era, with Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist becoming the high water mark in the genre. Now in full color with full gore, we had connected our historical fascination of ghosts with scientific certainty. Kooks and crackpots exalted and filled bookshelves with ridiculous claims and silly narratives (many of which were read by young library visitors in New Jersey) .

Having matured into a Man of Science, I reject all those silly theories and spine-chilling stories. Yet somehow, I still maintain a nagging fear when I convince myself that somewhere in the darkness a phantasm awaits. Why is this?

I returned to my library books of yore and discovered something quite profound: ghosts are the inevitable manifestation of our warmth for nostalgia. They are the impossible past leaping forward to invade our present. They are deeply personal reflections of our foibles and regrets. This is far more terrifying than the external threat of tooth and claw. Let’s look back on the history of ghosts, then we’ll wrap it up with some observations about modern ghost stories.

Ancient Babylonians had some serious ghost problems.

Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt had ghosts galore. The spirits of the Dead sometimes languished among the Living and affected their lives. Back then, ghosts weren’t very malevolent. The Roman writer Cicero told the story of Simonides, who buried a stranger’s body he had chanced upon. To return the favor of a proper burial, the dead man’s ghost appeared before Simonides and warned him not to board a ship he was scheduled to sail upon. Simonides took the ghost’s advice and that ship later sank at sea. Thanks, Mr. Ghost!

Pliny the Younger maintained the “unburied dead” concept when he wrote about a house in Athens haunted by a ghost who terrorized the homeowners until a chained skeleton was located beneath the house and properly buried. Ghosts regularly appeared in Homer’s epics, appearing with spine-shivering regularity and delivering warnings that our heroes would ignore at their peril.

Boo!

The Christian era buried the Pagan Gods but retained the myth of ghosts. On the third day after Christ’s interment, the stone was rolled away and Jesus walked out in his burial shroud. His followers immediately freaked out. It’s a ghost! It took some convincing from the risen Christ to convince them he was not a malingering phantom but actually a supernatural manifestation of God, leaving now to take a seat at the right hand of the Father.

Phew! Glad that all got sorted out!

The Roman Catholic church taught that the spirits of the Dead ascended to Heaven, fell into Hell or were held in indefinite limbo in Purgatory. There was no canon for disembodied spirits to walk the Earth, so the Church assumed any such apparition was surely a demon. And thus began the Western tradition of ghosts as malevolent monsters, usually in league with witches.  They caused crops to fail and damned villages. This led to some rather unsavory public policies among European and American societies. Thousands of men and women were burned alive in the quest to stamp out the effects of demonic spirits.

But the ghosts that haunted my dreams were those popularized in the Victorian era. They terrorized us without engaging in murder or slaughter. Their very appearance was their stock in trade: “Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, the stony grin of unearthly malice.” They caused such fear that otherwise sane individuals would go utterly mad and require incarceration in an asylum.

Forevermore!

Edgar Allen Poe became the poet laureate of the spectral apparition. With Gothic pen in hand, he scribbled stories of vengeful spirits haunting the nights of the Living, marking their lives with reproach and guilt. Once again, these phantasms didn’t attack our protagonists with murderous rage. Instead, Poe used vivid descriptions of defiled corpses and eldritch estates to invoke a sense of dread. The ghosts were the inevitable manifestations of our uncertainty about shadows flickering down the hall and odd bumps in the night. The Divine Edgar knew what struck fear in the hearts of the Victorians and he exploited it for all it was worth.

Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, writers continued frightening readers with tales of lurid pasts coming awake to haunt us. From Lord Dunsany to HP Lovecraft, the spectral world was forever reaping the harvest that foolish men had sown.

Cashing in on the craze.

Of course, it wasn’t just Victorian writers making a living from the Dead. An entire industry of “spirit mediums” sprang up, promising to bridge the gap between fictional ghost stories and our everyday lives. For a fee, of course. These charlatans and delusional eccentrics understood the effect of ghosts on the primal consciousness of the average citizen as well as Poe did. The cultural descendents of these con artists continue to operate today.

Yet somehow the lore of the ghost has fallen out of favor in modern times, replaced with rotting zombies and vampires who go to high school. The “Poltergeist” and “Amityville” films renewed the ghost myth in popular culture, but even the laudable “Ring” films were a drop in the bucket of blockbuster werewolf, vampire and zombie outings. A recent series of laughably stupid television programs and “Paranormal” ghost movies continue to exploit our preternatural fear of ghosts, but modern viewers want blood and guts, not bumps in the night.

Modern horror films are less cerebral.

We can attribute this to our truncated attention spans and less-than-introspective lifestyles. If a spy film has no car chase, Hollywood won’t back it. If a horror film has no gore in it, independent studios won’t back it. The days of Vincent Price raising a sharp eyebrow as a clinking noise echoes through a Bavarian castle are long gone.

Surprisingly, it the ghost myth that is most likely to frighten the average person in the night. We don’t assume that creaking noise or muffled footfall is a vampire or a werewolf. Or even a zombie. Instead, we brace ourselves for the possibility that a ghost is in our midst. We squint into the darkness and cast our eyes quickly over our shoulders. Did I just see something? Was that a shadow? How did it move? What is out there? “Hello! Is anybody out there?”

We aren’t calling out to find a person. We are calling out to dispel a ghost. Whether we are successful or not – that is the question. Because if we are not, then we will certainly be faced with a spectral mirage of someone long dead. It may not physically harm us, but it cannot be killed and it cannot be wished away. It has an agenda. And it has nothing to fear, while we have everything to fear.

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Design

Umm…yeah. This.

There’s plenty of bad design out there. There’s plenty of ergonomic what-the-fucks. The “tear here to open” that rips apart. The child-safety cap that requires the patience of Job and the strength of a gorilla to open. Today I’d like to share some of my gripes about these every day problems.

The Corporate Bathroom Towel Dispenser

Go ahead. Make my day.

These crappy things have been dumping armloads of extra paper towels onto the wet floor since the 1950’s. You pull to get a towel and the weight of the others makes it rip. So you tug, thus releasing a torrent of unwanted towels. And let’s not forget the people that leave a half-torn towel stuck in the dispenser so you have to pry and pull with your wet soggy hands just to get the failed process going all over again.

And don’t get me started on the motion-sensor dispensers. They make us look like a bunch of desperate, wet-handed mimes performing Vaudeville at the Moulin Rouge.

Short Faucets

You’ll never get all the soap off, loser!

The reason you’re reaching for the lousy towel dispenser is because you just washed your hands in a bathroom sink with a tiny faucet. In order to get your giant mitts clean, you have to mush them up against the back wall of the sink just to get some clean water flowing over them. Is it really too costly to get a faucet that reaches a few inches further? I guess it is.

One Function Shower Control

We got hot, we got cold. What else you want?

These things are common in hotels. Trouble is, we never really know what THIS place thinks hot or warm or cold really means, or how long it might take for the hot water to fully kick in. Worst of all, you have no flow control. You get ON-COLD, ON-HOT and OFF. Notice how OFF is the at the far end of HOT, so to shut it off you must first scald your head with boiling water.

I understand why hotels need to control water use, but I’d like them to offer two types of rooms: one for people who can manually adjust two faucet controls and one for the morons.

Low-Flow Toilet

I ain’t flushing that thing. Sorry. Not my problem.

I’m as a big a hippie as any other. I believe in conserving resources and recycling and being nice to the Earth. But I draw the line at low-flow toilets that fail to accomplish their primary mission. I don’t care what the tag says at the store, these things cannot flush man-size turds at all. There’s no point in being “low-flow” when it takes two or three flushes and a stick from the backyard to get the job done. Fuck that. Give me a 5-gallon turbo-action Turd Destroyer. I’m so glad you can still find them at the re-use store.

Coffee Makers

One cup? Two? Five? Spin the wheel and get a big surprise!

If you want an American-style cup of coffee, be sure to use one of these pieces of crap. Don’t pay too much attention to the fact that the two water calibration lines don’t correlate or that the coffee packet doesn’t really say how much you should use. Just shove the coffee in the bin, fill up the trough with water and pray to whatever God you prefer. You are almost guaranteed to get either feather-light dishwater or sludge from the bottom of an oil barrel. Either way, it will be piping hot, so you’ve got that going for you.

Round Doorknobs

I am all there is!

Yes, door knobs! Why did we North Americans fill our homes with these lousy things? You have to have a lizard grip, supple shoulders and an awkward elbow to pull open every door in the house.  These things are poorly designed for the job: causing a latch bolt to retreat. In most homes in Europe, they’ve evolved to the lever push-down handle. It’s easy, it’s reliable, it doesn’t loosen up and it applies great amounts of force with very little effort. Just one more thing those dirty Europeans got right.

Band-Aid Packets

I am the Devil and you are my slave!

So you just cut your finger. Blood is gushing out. You squeeze the wound closed with whatever rag was on hand. It seems to be slowing, so it’s time for a Band-Aid. But unless you have some decent fingernails and two hands free, you’re not gonna open that packet. And who has two hands free when they’re busy tending to a wound? And let’s not forget those worthless “pull string to open packet” systems they foisted upon us. That stupid red string would slip right out, leaving you with a closed packet, a bloody digit and a head full of fury.

One would think that with billions of dollars of profit, Johnson & Johnson could hire one engineer to solve the problem. But, no. If you don’t like it you can go ahead and bleed to death. See if anyone cares!

Digital Speedometers

Better watch it, Buster!

These things are stupid on several fronts. First and foremost: unlike an analog speedometer, they don’t tell you much about your acceleration or deceleration. These are good things to know when you’re – you know – driving. Next: it tempts people to glance endlessly at the speedo. 39…40…41…42…OMFG…41…40…39…OMFG! One mph here or there doesn’t mean anything. I want to see where I’m at every once in a while and if I’m accelerating I want to know what the rate is. Finally, these things are poorly solving a problem that didn’t exist. Nothing causes more waste than a marketing team director who “has a great new idea”.

STFU, Mr. Marketing Guy. Just put a speedo in there and let us move on with our lives.

 

Electric Stove Elements

Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me! I wanna be burny!

I am plagued with these things. Precise temperature control is impossible. They are ugly as sin and collect drippings and crap, then burn them to uncleanable rusty globs. Disgusting. Worst of all, if you have oil in the pan there is no way to get an even spread because not one of your stove elements is level. Sure, you could prop one end up with tin foil but you’ll never get it right. It’ll just slosh in this direction and that. There is no hope. Give up.

The newer covered induction elements are much better. But nothing beats a properly leveled gas stove. Period.

Mexican Candles

Praise Jesus, especially when the power goes out!

I love these things. They’re a buck apiece and burn for many many hours. Trouble is, they tend to heat up, turning the candle liquid inside. When you blow it out it cools off and buries the wick. Now, when the power goes out you find yourself digging away at the wick in order to tease it out. And when you try to light it, it just won’t stay lit. It drowns itself in wax. So what seemed like an inexhaustible candle turns out to be a one-use waste of money.

Oh, and the photo above says “Ecce Homo”, which is Latin for “Behold the man”, which Pontius Pilate said when producing Christ for the crowd to mock. These candles are not saying Jesus was a homo. I hope we got that all straightened out.

Low Slung Deck Chairs

Go ahead. Sit down.

A descendent of the Kennedy Chair, which was in turn a variation of the Eisenhower Chair, the low-slung deck chair is the bane of the American patio. They look so cool and sleek and inviting, but once you’ve plopped your fat ass in there, you’re not getting back up. You can’t. So instead you give up and start barking commands at the wife and kids. “Get your old man a beer and another cheeseburger, would ya?”

Now that you’re drunk and full of greasy food, the likelihood you’ll ever stand up is gone for good. So you drift off into a nap. Later on, the wife wakes you to let you know the guests have all left and the kids are watching TV. You now have the excuse of post-nap lethargy to ask your wife to pull with all her might and get your fat ass out of that damn chair.

Next Sunday the whole process repeats. But damn – it looks so good on the patio, doesn’t it?

And finally…

Clock Radios

HA HA! Your career depends on me!

Probably the most lasting and egregious form of bad design, the ubiquitous digital clock radio is the biggest piece of shit ever foisted upon an unknowing world.

The various manufacturers have different schemes for making the various settings and none of these awful designs have improved on the plain old alarm clock. There are wind-up travel alarm clocks that have worked admirably for many decades. Until I lost mine, I’d bring it on trips because it was dead simple and totally reliable.

Nowadays, when you come rambling into your hotel room at 2am and need to set your clock to wake you up at 6:20 sharp, you’re screwed. You can barely focus your eyes on the tiny buttons and text, much less make the logical leaps required to perform the sequence for a reliable alarm. So you call down to the front desk for a wake up call that never comes because someone called in sick that day.

In sum, fuck all these cheap plastic clock radios. I hate them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mountain Goat Incident

Rainbow over Rainier: a portent of danger!

In July 2003, my friend John and I went on a an overnight trip to Spray Park, a flowery alpine area on the northwest flank of Mount Rainier. We went for the wildflowers, the glaciers and the beautiful landscape. Little did I know it would bring me face to face with mortal danger!

The hike in was wonderful. Clear skies and pleasant temperatures made the strenuous ascent a little easier. We passed up through the treeline, past waterfalls and alpine glory.

The requisite waterfall shot.

Eventually, we broke through the trees and found ourselves on the glaciated flanks of Mount Rainier. We were lucky to find a perfect campsite adjoining the glacier. We had a clear, flat area and access to water. We spent the evening shooting photos, playing songs on our kalimbas and watching the golden hour of sunset pass over the top of the world.

Sun sets before Rainier, which stands reflected in our little camp pond.

The night went by without incident, but John was taken ill. He caught some kind of nasty cold. The next morning, he put down some coffee and biscuits but informed me had no energy to continue up the mountain. There was a plaque at the top of Observation Rock (the rock jutting up on the right in the above photo). The exact elevation at that point is 8,364 feet and I thought it would be a cool idea to climb up there and see if my fancy new altimeter wristwatch was really accurate.

I would have to do it alone.

Approaching Echo Rock.

My plan was to head straight out of camp, then hug the glaciated area along the base of Echo Rock. I would then follow the gently rising slope in the upper center of this photo to Observation Rock. I wanted to hug Echo Rock because the ascent was easier and the shadowed area had firmer snow on it. Up I went.

Once I got to the shadowed area at the base of Echo Rock, they appeared…

MOUNTAIN GOATS!

A herd of mountain goats appeared over the scree above Observation Rock and headed right toward me! The digital zoom on my lousy camera could not do justice to the apprehensive atmosphere they created. They were marching right toward me!

Like most city folk, I wasn’t sure what the protocol was for dealing with mountain goats in the wild. Do you run? Do you puff out your chest and make noise? Do you climb a tree? What? I had no idea. So I just kept my mouth shut and hoped they’d walk past me. They didn’t.

Closer and closer they came!

They crossed the glacier and moved just above me. Here you can see the Alpha Goat regarding me with disdain. It was at this point things got really weird. The Alpha Goat bellowed to his flock: “Follow me! We will destroy this intruder!”

And so began the onslaught. These enormous beasts sidled past me and climbed up the scree above me on Echo Rock. At first I thought they would simply climb up and away from me. I was wrong.

Once the entire herd had mounted the scree, they started kicking rocks down onto me! I had to side step, duck and leap like a running back. Huge rocks bounced up all around me, many nearly clipping my head. I had nowhere to run. I backed off, but that’s where the rocks seemed to be landing. If I stayed forward, they mostly bounced over my head. And besides, I was afraid the whole herd would rush me if I ran.

An enraged goat grimaces at me mockingly.

I was unable to capture photos of the actual rocks flying at me because:

  • I was busy leaping, ducking and sidestepping.
  • I was in fear for my life.
  • Fuck the camera! I had bigger problems.

But I did pull out my camera a couple times to get fast, lousy photos of the goats. My hands were trembling, which didn’t help. However, I got a few more shots off. This one was the most shocking:

A baby goat forced into homicidal rage.

Most of the goats – about 15 of them – were kicking rocks down at me. But the baby mountain goat refused to engage in the cruelty. I continually moved below the baby goat because it was the safest place to be.  Then, one of the goats ambled over to the baby and started head-butting it and bleating loudly at it. He was saying “Kick rocks at the human or consequences will be severe!”

To my horror, the baby goat complied and kicked a few small rocks at me!  The rotten turncoat bastard!

An angry goat sizes me up closely.

The cavalcade of scree started to slow down. I had evaded their reign of terror. The goats now knew I was made of sterner stuff than they had expected. As the rock attack abated, I got off one more “angry goat” photo and started backing away slowly.

To my relief, the herd dismounted the scree just above me and started back up the glacier, curving out and around Echo Rock.

I stood victorious as the failed assassination broke up and the goats fled.

I took some very long breaths that morning as the goats gave up and headed back up the glacier. I didn’t know it, but far below my friend John was watching the whole thing from his telephoto lens. He was prepared to mount up and haul me off if I had gotten beaned by a big rock. I was in good shape back in 2003 and my 20-mile-a-week jogging habit had served me well. The five aspects of fitness: strength-endurance-speed-balance-flexibity. You need all five at times like these!

Off they go in search of a weaker human.

After they were gone, I took a few minutes to collect myself. I was uninjured, but I was still a bit shaky. I sat down on a rock and looked across the glacier. Just ahead was Observation Rock. The whole damn point was to climb up that stupid rock and I wasn’t about to turn around now. Not after all this shit.

I decided to get my act together and scamper up the rock.

Observation Rock beckons!

The hike across the glacier and up the rock was uneventful. But once at the top, I found I was not alone. Two Irishmen – Fergil and Tim – who were touring the North Cascades had been up there for some time. They offered me hot tea and snacks, which I greedily consumed.

Fergil sorts his gear.

I didn’t mention anything about the recent incident. Instead, I mentioned my cool new altimeter watch. I needed to see the plaque and see if the numbers matched. We jumped over to the plaque and I was pleasantly surprised to see that my watch was only off by about 10 feet. My sea-level calibrations had proved accurate!

We all sat down and quietly enjoyed the day when Fergil finally mentioned, with typical Irish understatement, “Bit o’ goat trouble back there, eh?”

I smiled. “Yeah”.

Then we all broke up laughing. They had watched the whole thing from Observation Rock. Apparently, I looked like a real fool jumping, ducking and sidestepping the goat rock attack. Yeah, laugh it up. It’s different when it’s your ass on the line against an enraged baby goat!

The boys and I loaded up. They were heading around the west of the mountain and I was heading down. They took a photo of me and we went our separate ways.

A rare photo of your humble narrator in the wild.

John was glad to see me back at camp. I told him everything that happened. I think he found the whole thing adventurous and was sorry he wasn’t there, but I put his mind at ease and assured him it was much uncooler than it looked and sounded.

We broke camp and headed back down to civilization. On the way I got a few nice photos.

In the end, adventure can be sought but sometimes it is thrust upon you. Be ready!