Saturday, October 14, 2017

I Guess It's a Cantwell Thing

I Guess It’s a Cantwell Thing: A Fictionalized Account of a True Story by D.C. Corso

“How about this tree?” Fran asked, pointing to the pine tree that was currently throwing shade our way.  

I set down my can of Diet Coke beside my beach towel and shrugged, standing up. I approached the tree, giving it a quick once-over. “I guess it’s okay,” I said, but upon closer inspection, I realized it wouldn’t do. I pointed at the base of the tree. “Someone left a bag of dog poop. So…maybe not.” 

Fran laughed, seeing it now. “Yeah, I guess not.” 

I spotted another, smaller tree, right at the end of the rocky outcropping we always just called “Cantwell Rock.” I imagine every other family that went there called it after their own family, but to us, it was Cantwell Rock, where we had at least one family picnic each summer at Pinecrest Lake. “What about that one?”

Fran nodded. “Looks good. As long as there’s no bags of dog shit under it.”

“So we’ve agreed on the minimum requirements for a final resting place.” I picked up the two jars containing my share of our Mom and Dad’s ashes and we walked over towards the little tree. 

“Keeping the bar low is always a good idea,” he nodded. My brother was like that: keep it light. Don’t expect too much. Actually, that could have been the family motto: Don’t be too serious and don’t expect too much. You might end up pleasantly surprised. Okay, so it's not as cool-sounding as the Stark family's "Winter is coming," but on the plus side, at least we're all still alive, unlike the Starks.

It was a cute little tree. It was easy to spot if you were approaching by boat, and therefore easy to remember for future visits. “Yeah, it’s a good tree.” 

My original plan for Pinecrest this summer was to spread Mom and Dad’s ashes with the whole family there, like some faintly creepy family reunion. I’d imagined all eight of my brothers and sisters there at the cabin on the lake, each of us holding our unmarked pickle relish jars filled with each of our shares of Mom and Dad’s cremains, sitting on the porch with cocktails and telling the old stories for the millionth time. 
We’ve told the stories so many times that the actual telling of the tales is more ritualistic than informative; it’s not like there’s someone new who hasn’t heard about the time Cathy and John wandered off onto the fire trail and got lost until Cathy made John go up to strangers and cry pathetically until they asked what was wrong. Or the time that Fran was ten and got left behind at the gas station in Oakdale, and the old man who worked there gave him an ice cream cone and patiently waited for the Cantwell family station wagon to return. Or when Dad packed the luggage on top of the car so high that he couldn’t back it out of the garage. Or the year that we had a reunion and someone came up with the awesomely inappropriate idea of printing up t-shirts for everyone reading (unironically!) CANTWELL CLAN. Yeah, there was a reason I never wore that shirt outside of the cabin that year – CLAN is definitely not something you want to have plastered across your chest. It’s just wrong. I couldn’t even donate the shirt to Goodwill; the homeless have enough problems without associating themselves with a clan.
In retrospect, I guess it was kind of ridiculous of me to think that all of us could actually clear our calendars for the same three days in August. Only my brother Fran showed up, sporting his awesome Brad-Dourif-as-Doc-Cochrane-in-Deadwood ‘stache. I hadn’t really known Fran too well growing up, since he’s about 12 years older than me and had already moved out of the house by the time I was able to retain memories. And for a while, he’d been the black sheep of the family, a motorcycle-riding hippie with a genius IQ, the fourth child in a family of nine, while I was the baby of the family, the good kid who craved everyone’s quiet approval. But as it turns out, we probably have the most in common of any of us.
Anyway, there we were: only two of the remaining nine Cantwell kids, looking for a proper place at Cantwell Rock to spread my parents’ ashes. Oh, sorry - my share of my parents’ ashes. Fran didn’t have any because he never collected his from my sister Gail, who somehow ended up with the job of Parental Ash Distributor. Gail and Chuck somehow always get stuck with the jobs like that, although I have no idea how that happened. And Fran probably just thought that someone else would want them more than he did. I could see his point: it’s kind of a weird feeling to just carry home two unmarked jars of your parents’ ashes after having Thanksgiving dinner at your sister’s house. Leftover turkey and stuffing? Sure. Ashes…not so much.
“So…who’s who?” Fran asked, nodding to the jars I’m holding. 
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I used to know. Um, I think this one is Mom.” I held up the jar filled with lots of white ash. “I remember thinking it was odd because there were more ashes of her than there were of Dad.”
“Yeah. That is odd.” He squinted at the jar that I suspected held our mom’s ashes. “Oh, maybe Pauline got half of Dad’s ashes, and so there was less to split up?”
“Oh, yeah!” Why hadn’t that occurred to me? Of course our stepmom would have taken half the ashes for the Naval Ceremony they had back in New York. Yeah – the one that nobody told anyone about. I didn’t really mind, since that was typical for our family and not something done out of spite. We just honestly assume, when we hear about things like weddings or funerals, that someone else might actually give a shit. It’s honestly like we’re a whole family full of absent-minded professors, bumbling our way through other people’s emotions. 
Without asking my brother if he had parting words, I unceremoniously dumped the ashes at the base of the tree, careful to wait for the breeze to stop. “We don’t want to pull a Big Lebowski, do we?” I add, tapping out the ashes first from one jar, and then the other. I knew he would get the reference, and he laughed. 
I stood up once I was finished and the ashes were settled, already mixing with the dirt at the base of the tree. I placed some pine needles over them, as if that would keep them from blowing away. “Um, so yeah,” I said finally. Neither of us were religious. A prayer would mean nothing. So instead, I said, “Sorry, guys. I guess you’re stuck with each other, now. But you’ll like it here, I think. Thanks for giving us Pinecrest. And Cantwell Rock.”
It felt weird saying those words instead of an Our Father or a Hail Mary. Or even a “Peace be with you,” like at the end of all those visits to church as a kid. But by the same token, as a family, we had never done funerals for anyone in our family. We’d do kind of a memorial party; I guess you could call them “celebrations of life”, but no funerals. So it made sense that we’d not really know what to say when dumping the ashes of our divorced parents who’d just happened to pass away six months months apart from one another, at the ripe old ages of 91 and 93.
“Want me to take your picture?” I asked, putting away the empty jars and coming back with my iPhone. Fran was instantly game, and immediately took up a pose. He made imaginary guns with his hands and pointed towards the tree, grinning broadly under his straw hat. “What is that supposed to be?” I snapped a few photos even though I had no idea what his pose was.
“Isn’t this the pose from those photos at Abu Ghraib?” 
I rolled my eyes and had to laugh. Leave it to a Cantwell to hilariously send up your parents’ ash-disposal with a touching recreation of infamous torture photos. “Oh my God, Fran!” It really was perfect. I loved my big brother more in that moment than I ever had before. It felt really good to laugh just then, and he joined me. We’d never actually say we loved each other, but we didn’t need to. We were forever unified in finding the inappropriate hilarity in horror and the macabre. We were Cantwells; that’s just what we did. It was in our DNA. It was what made us who we were. 
We packed up our picnic things, including the empty jars that were now lined with the ashy residue of human cremains. Later, I put them in the recycling bin. I understood that to some people, this may seem uncaring or harsh. But the thing I think both I and my brother understood was that it didn’t matter how a thing might seem. What mattered was the take-away. And that day, we exorcised the gravity of death from the beauty of the life. Who needed empty jars? Who needed prayers and words, when we had love and laughter?
Not us. Not the Cantwells. And definitely not me.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If Anyone Asks, Say It's a Seminar!

When I opened my mailbox this evening, the word "BIBLE" leaped out at me from a flier shoved in the back of the box. I took it out and at first couldn't decipher if this was a pro-Christian, anti-Christian, or worse, some white power meeting being advertised.

I scanned all four pages quickly to try and determine what exactly this was, but things just got more confusing when I read this:

Huh. So....what point was trying to be made? Is the speaker saying that Christians were wrong? Seems to be. Or are they saying the Bible can clarify confusing topics like gravity and the shape of the earth? Well, I wondered, WTF does the Bible really say? Passing time on the elevator, I glanced at the bottom of the first page of the flier, which advertised that "this fascinating seminar" was coming to my area next week.

I don't know about you, but when I see the words "Christian" and "seminar" in the same flier, I imagine those "parties" that Landmark (not the indie film distributing company -- the OTHER Landmark) and Scientologists hold. You know, the kind where they don't let you pee or eat for more than six hours and separate you from the now-hated friend who dragged you here? The kind where they try and get you to sign over all your worldly possessions and promise you guaranteed fame and success?

This made me wonder if the word "seminar" was supposed to lull my liberal left-coast brain into a false sense of security. "Seminar" means education, right? Secular education. Oh, wait... As I read on, I pick up that yeah, this is pretty Christian stuff, although the words "God" and "Christ" only pop up once in the whole pamphlet. But I am too distracted by the illustration on page 2 to really think about it.

AWWWWWWW YEAAAAAHHHHHH! Sweet! Sign me the hell up! So whatever the Bible really says, it apparently has something to do with sea monsters, bears with either scrolls or bones in their mouths, Aslan from Narnia, and a four-headed leopard. With wings. Maybe this is all in Revelations or something, but I grew up Catholic and I SWEAR I would remember Aslan being in the Bible. I mean, I know C.S. Lewis was Catholic and all, but...I digress.

Let me take a moment here to say: I mean no offense to Christians *in general*. I know many and in a sense, I guess I am one since I try to live by the Golden Rule. I especially don't mean offense to the ones who live good, simple lives and help their communities in a sincere effort to help and learn. In particular, I am not wishing to offend the Christians who are contentedly NOT mailing fliers to me.

Page 3 socks it to us with the topics or rather, the "answers" that will be presented over a 4-day period (not sure if they let you go home in between seminars, but let's assume they do):

It reads like a Biblical Cosmo cover. I expected to see "7 Ways to Tell if Your Man is on the Prowl" underneath "Evidence The Bible has not been Changed". What does that even mean, anyway? Changed via bad translation, or conspiracy or aliens or something? Because that would explain a lot. Anyway, presented using words like "Evidence" and "Proof", the implication in these titles is: And we're totally not evangelical Christians. Srsly. Because would Evangelists have topics using these words? These must be scientific people if they are offering proof that the Bible is God's word (**disclaimer: "as Compared to Other Books" may refer to that tattered copy of The Thorn Birds that's still on your parents' bookshelf**).

At last, we come to the back cover, which recaps that this seminar is indeed a deal at Absolutely Free. But once again, I am distracted by the picture in the lower left-hand corner - yup, this is the sampling of whom this congregation welcomes: the ethnically diverse, heterosexual family (although the white folks have no kids - does this mean something??). Oh well, I think - best not to over-analyze. But then, what would I do on a Thursday night?

But who is the Speaker at this seminar? It's this guy:

It took some time on Google, but I found out he either is or was a pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in San Francisco. It was kind of a let-down to realize that there was no big secret agenda going on - just a bunch of churchgoers. I did get a little excited when I stumbled across a guy on Google with the same name (different spelling) who is a screaming revisionist and racist. You know, the kind of people who refer to Jewish people as "Zionists" and who are convinced that the Holocaust didn't exist? Yeah, those guys. But as I said -- different guy.

As I wrap this up, I'm feeling a little bad because technically, I live essentially a "Christian" life, albeit in the non-Jesus worshiping, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and pretty much agnostic sense. So who am I to make fun of Christians just for trying to win over a few new members to their SDA team?

I think it's really more the brochure that I find offensive. It reminds me of political propaganda, no matter how pure and equality-loving the message is. Having an open meeting at your church? Then just say so. Don't call it a seminar and use phrases that you hope will appeal to a non-believer in some ploy to trick them into showing up. Just invite us. Sure, it'll be pretty quiet, but at least it's an honest quiet.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

I Heart Sci-Fi Originals, Part the First

As one who spent a large portion of the late '80s watching -- and sometimes making fun of -- horror movies with my friends, I know that much of the fun of a horror movie (esp. bad ones) lies in your ability to let humor override the scare when the scare does not deliver. It's hard with good scary movies to accomplish this, because films like The Descent and Ravenous do such a great job of drawing you in, making you laugh to release tension, and still managing to scare the crap out of you. Best to just enjoy those films for what they are and leave the wisecracks at home. I think Snakes on a Plane set the gold standard for many of these movies: after all, it's all in the title, right? Either you're gonna go see a movie titled Snakes on a Plane, or you aren't. There is no in-between (and yes, I saw it opening night - the first time ever I have seen a movie snake roar).

Sci-Fi Originals, which essentially picks up where MST3K left off, provides bad horror at its best...or worst. Every once in a while, they do a pretty decent job of camping it up on a basically decent script with fair-to-middlin' actors. Yet even then, you're embarrassed to admit that it spooked you a little and you kinda liked some of the characters. The uncharacteristically decent Wyvern (a Nordic flying dragon) is the only one of these that springs to mind.

What makes Wyvern different from most of the other films on Sci-Fi? Well, it has four things that most other films featured here lack: (1) a setting that feels real (in this case, a remote Alaskan town); (2) a script that doesn't take itself too seriously; (3) a cast of actual actors, not relatives of the producer; and (4) decent CGI that doesn't look like it was done by unpaid student interns. Oh, and two actors from "Northern Exposure", who bring credence to the whole Alaskan thing. Yep -- Barry "Maurice" Corbin, who for once is not playing an Army guy, plays Haas, local live-off-the-land guy. And remember Marilyn (Elaine Mills), the doctor's receptionist? She plays the deputy, although now I know why she rarely spoke in "Northern Exposure". Almost mercifully, she is an early victim of the title monster. We also get to see Don S. Davis (Major Briggs from "Twin Peaks") playing a convincingly eccentiris ex-Army guy. These are familiar faces, and I always like to see them again, even if it's in a movie about how global warming is freeing giant monsters from the melting polar ice caps. I take my comfort where I can get it.

Abominable, on the other hand, looks like it was filmed for about five bucks at a rental cabin in Southern Cali. Yes, there's loads of bad CGI and an ending that tries hard to have a twist that comes off more cartoonish than scary (wait, is that a bad thing?). However, it does have a little bit of suspense (not enough) and apparently Lance Henrickson (who needs no introduction) is in the first five minutes. I missed that part -- blame knitting again. Even Sam Raimi has a cameo. I can only assume the director had a lot of friends in high places. The lead is played by the actor who played Crazy Lloyd Braun in "Seinfeld", making it even more weird when the deputy shows up...and it's Kramer's lawyer ("Who told you to put a balm on it?").

Hollywood must be a very small town, indeed.

But possibly the very first film on SciFi that I watched from start to finish (while knitting - does that count? I guess I was listening to it more than watching it) was this movie:

Yeti is not a good movie, nor does it try to be one. It does not score on the camp level, and neither does the acting and what I assume was a script. No award-winner is Yeti. Not only did I hate every single character, but I could practically hear the pitch the producers gave this one: "It's like Alive meets Abominable! In the Andes -- we shoot it in the Sierras near the director's cabin. C'mon -- it's got Dom DeLuise's son! How can we miss?" Let's just say this plane-crash-in-the-mountains movie has its real defining moment when the CGI interns gave the Yeti the ability to jump twenty yards in a single bound in the last twenty minutes of the film. 8/ WTF? The only possible reason I could think of for this was either the interns got bored or money ran out, so they couldn't actually spend time laying down some artwork. "We're gonna be here all night with no overtime -- just make the damn thing jump to the other side of the camp, fer Chrissakes!"

Still, what do you want for free? As long as there's movies with titles like Mansquito and The Man with the Screaming Brain out there, I'm gonna watch them. I could go on like this forever, but I think that in order to give these features the shit they deserve, I better revisit this next week. Maybe we can talk about Ice Spiders or Flu Bird Horror.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Want to feel S-M-R-T smart?

Then go to Yahoo! Answers.

No, srsly. Back when I was unemployed and inevitably on my laptop all day, I started reading (and god help me, answering) a few of these questions. It wasn't on purpose, like I said to myself, "Hey, you know what sounds like fun? Reading some idiotic questions for a few hours!" But there are only so many times you can check the jobs on craigslist and before you really need something like Yahoo! Answers to make you feel like maybe you don't have it all that bad, after all. Case in point: I could have been like Bethany here...

This is of course one of those questions that you suspect is a joke in sheep's clothing, but then again.... The dead giveaway is when the winning answer is the biggest smartass.

Then there are questions like these:

Is there something wrong with my KITTENS? PICS OF THEM?

*[pic of perfectly normal kittens linked - one is a tabby, the other b&w]*

this is my kittens why is it that the one on the right is the colour of all the rest of them which is 4 all together and the one on the left is the odd one out and he is massive why is he black and white? should we take him vets has he got a desise?

Additional Details

they are one month old

[Sorry, I tried to do a screenshot but it's too huge...]

I especially like the fact that this astute seeker of knowledge thought it was important to note their age. In fact, that is the one thing that makes it seem almost real...until they overplayed their hand and spelled disease incorrectly, yet "white" and "colour" are spelled correctly. That is, assuming they are Canadian or British. I dunno. The jury is still out on this one.

I will refrain commenting on the INSANE number of "Am I Pregnant OMGLOLZ1!!!" questions out there, as well as the equally large number of ways to say "OMG U shld srsly take a TEST LOL!!!" Okay, so I just commented by mentioning it. But let us never speak again of the "TTC" category of YA. Really, it's for the best, punkin. *pats hand*

Anyone got any favorite Q&As from Yahoo Answers, or a similar source?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Step to My Mad Survival (Television) Skillz

Remember when Survivor first hit the airwaves? It was as if every network executive suddenly was scrambling to hop on the reality TV train. Part of this may have something to do with the idea that they could get the network to pay for their vacations, but it wasn't just Survivor-styled television that took off. Suddenly, reality TV became television. You couldn't turn on the TV without ending up on Bad Girls Club, American Idol, Road Rules or the unfortunate Rock of Love (Brett Michaels, have you no shame?). It was trash TV heaven.

Then, just when reality TV was about to die its just death in the court of public opinion, some douchebag (one word or two?) at A&E dreamed up Intervention, suddenly lending a sleazy sort of class (like an heiress with a chancre sore) to the genre by creating a sub-genre. Yeah, that's right -- I call it the Somewhat Scripted Penny Dreadful. We, the viewers, get treated to a PAINFUL 60 minutes of someone who once had a mediocre existence and now clings tenuously to a totally miserable one. It could be anything from booze to meth to gambling to OCD that drags us down into the vicarious snake pit of their lives; it all ends in tears one way or another. Yet, somehow, these people have families and friends willing to humiliate themselves on national television, on the off chance that it might save their lives.

And that, my friends, is what I call true Television Genius. It's the same sort of network brilliance that decided a WWII Nazi prison camp was a great idea for a sitcom, or that Americans would actually watch a show where amateur Christina Aguileras galore compete for a questionable prize. Shows like these should never have made it past the pitch...and yet they did. Not only that, but they each pulled in obscene amounts of viewers who actually went back week after week for more punishment.

Me? I prefer the old-school documentary true crime shows like Forensic Files, Cold Case Files (featuring the dulcet narratorial voice of Bill Kurtis), and Dominic Dunne's Power, Privilege & Justice. Why do I like these shows? Obviously, not for the high production value or excellent reenactments (in fact, the grainier and hammier the reenactment, the better). I like them mainly for two reasons: (1) to ponder what it is that makes people do bad/stupid/evil things, and (2) because the narrations cure my insomnia faster than warm milk. An extension of this is shows that simply rehash old news footage and add wacky noises, like World's Wildest Police Chases, The Smoking Gun Presents the World's Dumbest Criminals, Part 457 etc. This is just my version of crack. Don't hate me, pity my ignorance.

Most recently, however, I've noticed a new trend in reality grit TV: I call it Survival TV. This trend hit it big with 2008's newest entry from A&E (somebody gave that douchebag a promotion and a film school education) titled I Survived.

At last: a show that speaks to ME. I think it's significant that just after Hurricane Katrina throws our post-9/11 psyche to the wolves, this show is pitched. Imagine the tough sell here: for the most part, this is just one person (okay, three people per episode) sitting against a black background, telling their true and gritty story. The only soundtrack is a very ominous, low tone (not tones, tone). Sometimes, they'll flash a picture of what we interpret to be the setting, artfully arranged and shot in an honestly creepy way. But it's only creepy because we know that the story this woman is telling about that quaint-looking cottage is about her three days of terror with a lunatic. And I don't need to tell you why that dusky shot of the woods is terrifying. Simple: it scares us because we supply the mental picture. Our storytellers are providing us with the story that comes alive with a disturbing clarity that a re-enactment could not possibly top. The stories for the most part are illustrations of how totally at the mercy of random moments and sheer luck we all are...and that the spoken word as story is not yet dead.

I meant to give a big critique of these shows when I started out, but I have to admit: this is the one survival show that takes us back to the days when we'd sit around the fire and trade ghost stories (yes, I mean summer camp, but also back before the days of the written word). Real, true storytelling can be very compelling, and congrats to the one-time douchebags at A&E for sensing that we're smart enough to paint our own pictures.

Is it also exploitative? Hell, yeah! But it's as tasteful as exploitative gets. Apparently, many Americans enjoy a vicarious piercing of the veil that the tension in this show provides. But we know the hero survives because, as Rachel Ack of The Ack Attack would write, *lol episode title*.

Which brings us to Escaped, recently premiering on my new favorite channel, Investigation Discovery. I'm not going to say much, other than it's like American Justice meets I Survived, only without the tension of I Survived. I guess you could say that it's the poor man's I Survived. I don't mean to trash the show; they tell stories from the standpoint of survivors, but because of the nature of the title, it tends to mostly tell stories of women who escaped sex slavery. And while it's made me much more disparaging of the porn business at its worst level, at no point am I on the edge of my chair wondering if the girls will get out of the basement in time. There's a slightly lurid feel to watching this show; it's something akin to how you feel watching a documentary on Jeffrey Dahmer. I mean, do we really need to hear this story again?

I think the biggest problem with Escaped (or Escaped!, as the network refers to it) is that for all its stories of human degradation and depravity, it lacks the heart that I Survived relies on for its backbone: the tale of the man who makes a wrong turn and ends up stuck in his car in a snowbank for a week, or the elderly couple attacked by a mountain lion. Man vs. Nature! And that's where this show picks up:

I happened upon it while trying to lull myself to sleep one night, and ended up recording it to watch with my husband the next day. I Shouldn't Be Alive is like I Survived with re-enactments; however, it focuses entirely on situations where man missteps in nature and realizes just how ill-prepared for a worst-case scenario he really is. It's largely hit-or-miss; either you're on the edge of your chair, or you hate the bickering jackasses who were stupid enough to sail across the Sea of Cortez on a freakin' catamaran. The episode that hooked me, though, was one where a father and son get stranded in the Alaskan wilderness when their raft flips into freezing cold water. They lose all their gear -- food, camping equipment, and dry clothes -- about 60 miles from the nearest town. BOOYEAH! With good actors for the re-enactment scenes, this one stands out in my mind as a Story With Heart *and* Tension.

Like I said though: at least half the time the people portrayed are testosterone-driven dicks who
goad each other into ridiculous situations which they never would have ended up in had they paused to give it proper thought.

Then again, what on earth would we have to watch if they did?

Food for thought: Just how many categories and sub-categories of reality TV are there? Talk amongst yourselves, class -- break into discussion groups and show me your comments.