On Depression and Days Gone By

I’ve tried writing the beginning of this post at least seven times now. I tried to be clever. I tried to be deep. But it keeps ringing hollow. So I’ll start it simply: a girl I was once friends with died recently. I didn’t learn it until an old mutual friend passed along her obituary from today’s morning paper.

She was 32, but the last time we saw each other we were 17 and no one knew where the tides would take us all next.

Depression, with its insidious undertow, has pulled her away.

It’s funny how certain people enter and leave your life at crucial moments. Social media and cell phones and webcams have made it seem easier to maintain contact with old friends but it can overwhelm us with a steady stream of too much information from too many faces. As a result, some people fall away just as quickly as they did before dial-up.

So it was that Farrah, once a key part of my day-to-day, was lost in my life’s flow. College. The job market. The economic unmerry-go-round. So much has happened. Things got complicated. We all got busy. That’s what we’re supposed to say, right?

Farrah was once part of an elite team of a dozen students that made up my high school’s yearbook program. We held ourselves to a high standard and each year we competed for regional and national awards. The deadlines were tight and we often found ourselves sticking around in the humid computer lab, with its eggshell colored desktops, until what seemed like midnight. We physically mocked up the page layouts when possible and did some very early digital design work on Microsoft Publisher to lock it in place. I think it was Publisher anyway- sorry if my memory misfired Mrs. M.

There were all-day marathon edits interrupted by the occasional screaming-to-the-heavens moment and punctuated by random outbursts of manic energy. I seem to recall us spontaneously bursting into dance at one point (and probably more than one, to be honest). Another time we did footraces in the hallways to burn off the nervous energy. We chugged way too much soda to have been within healthy caffeine limits and probably single-handedly kept the local pizza place in business.

These were the days leading up to and following 9/11. They are now seen in a sort of golden haze in my memory. The days following the tragedy are often remembered with a disquieting sense of anxious energy, as though we were afraid that at any moment, things could get worse. As a result, my memories of those days are accompanied with a manic joy. We were goofy and we were smart and we had a job to do and we were going to soak up every moment possible.

As I said, there were about 12 of us. I was one of the only boys involved. I may have been the only one, actually. As such, the girls of the group tended to look at me as sort of a project. I sought out their advice about dating (thus far I had not successfully accomplished this milestone of adolescence) and in return, I found myself becoming a sort of counselor for their Guy Problems. At the time, I was still quite introverted and could still be painfully shy. God knows, I definitely had low/no self-confidence.

That was why these girls were so important to me. That’s also why it hurts to look back. Farrah and many of the other girls took me under their wing and helped me get my act together. They each seemed to have their own groups of friends, but they didn’t mind me joining them for a while to socialize.

I was most often working alongside Farrah our friend Sue. In retrospect, it was a sort of Odd Couple pairing. Suzanne has always been very kind and patient with a quiet sense of humor. Farrah tended to lean the opposite way, with an acerbic style I thought was hilarious. She didn’t tend to hold back. And boy, that girl could let loose with some invectives if the computer crashed before she could save a file or someone crossed her during school. But if I got her to laugh, I knew I must have stuck the landing on a joke…or fallen flat on my face. It was often a fine line, but I didn’t care- these ladies were a cool bunch.

As we polished the captions and hid in-jokes amid the book’s different section texts, I finally got the courage up to ask out my soon-to-be girlfriend, Kat. It felt like a big dramatic moment in my head I had to get just right, but there was Farrah, practically shoving me out the door. I am fairly certain at one point, the girls shoved me out of the lab and locked the door so I couldn’t get back in until I asked her to a dance. When I got back, I got some cheers shortly before I collapsed into a chair where I have to assume I melted into a puddle of jello.

Farrah rolled her eyes and made a ‘SEE?!’ gesture. She was smiling though.

After I asked Kat out, we dated for most of the school year. I remained involved with the yearbook team, but suddenly I had this whole ‘Boyfriend’ status that I took very seriously. Plus I had met a group of people who would later become my Fellowship, to the point where one just officiated my wedding. The other two would fly from multiple timezones to be there for me. They are dear to my heart.

So are Farrah and Sue and the rest of that yearbook gang. They were each so different and fun, and without them, I don’t know if I would have become who I am today. My first two years of high school were truly miserable. But that final year? It is golden in my mind’s eye. Despite the uncertainty of the world around us, we pushed on and did so much. In a funny way, I feel like we were preserving a slice of life in a very new world while working on that yearbook. Sadly, we did too good of a job.

I kid my students for their texting lingo, but I know my generation really kinda kickstarted it during the AOL Instant Messenger days. Sue could correct me on this, but I feel like it was Farrah who first suggested we hide a little reference in our senior quotes area. Mine, for example, was the (now staple) quote from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once and a while, you could miss it.” Under this was “I am F.I.N.E.!”

F.I.N.E. was our shorthand for Fucked-Up, Insecure, Neurotic, Emotional.

We were. It was a badge of honor. Our fuses felt like they had been shortened (as all teenagers probably do) and we were going to be taking off at any moment. I had been suffering Depression for a few years by that point, but didn’t realize it until much later. There were a couple of close-call moments. Over time, I got help. I’m still getting it. “We all have baggage,” my wife says, “but the question is, yours pretty? Does it match?” She lives with Depression too. Like me, she has dealt with a lot and it has been an incredibly hard road.

Depression is that riptide you don’t know is there. It may be gently tugging at you for a while and you may not realize it. But when it pulls hard, all you can do is hope you can conserve your energy and swim parallel with the shore long enough to eventually find a way out or be rescued. Not everyone gets out. For the longest time, I thought I could write my way through it. Words have been, and will always be, my way of coping with reality. But no matter how hard I tried to shape worlds and mold sentences to deal with my feelings, it took someone with training to help me understand what I was dealing with. I was wearing myself out trying to fight that riptide. And that’s an easy way to wear yourself out. The terrifying days are the ones where the beach is in sight, but no one is around.

Those are the days when the riptide is scariest. When it seems to be at its strongest and we’re at our weakest. And God, it can get so damn tiring.

For years, I’ve seen people (especially those of the previous generation) sneer at the idea of going to therapy. They scoff at medication. To so many, Depression is just another ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ situation. And this situation just makes me angrier every time I see it. If you break someone’s leg, you don’t tell them to just hobble on the other one harder. You say, ‘get thee to a hospital!’. Maybe not exactly like that, but you don’t suggest they ‘walk it off’. So why is it that when someone’s biochemistry is causing them to literally fight their better instincts, that people often wave it off as unimportant?

Farrah was a sweet girl, a sharp girl and one who deserved happiness in her life. I didn’t know she had Depression shadowing her and that knowledge makes the loss ache that much more. I’m not going to say we were best friends. I know we can’t stay in touch with everyone we ever knew for eternity…That said, she was an important person in my life and in the lives of others at a time when friends were needed. We were blessed to know her.

Depression-mental illness really-is  a terrible burden to bear. It’s a small comfort to know Farrah won’t have to bear it any longer. But if you do know someone struggling…please do what you can to help them. Even if it’s just give them a hug or take them away from the problem for a while. Sometimes the smallest gestures can lead to the biggest changes.

I know. Because Farrah and Sue and that merry band of misfits changed mine a long time ago. Bye, Farrah.

Until next time,
S

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Rule #32, Or: Enjoy The Little Things of 2016

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I’m 32 and have a heart condition that already tried to kill me once. I’d prefer NOT to think about all of the negative things that happened in the previous year. I won’t forget them, but I don’t want to dwell on them. So I decided to think about the good things that happened in the past year and list 32 of the best moments. Some are major life events, some are personal choices, a few things may seem insignificant to others but are crucial to me. So here are 32 little (and big!) things I enjoyed in 2016.

  1. Got married. Wait, you mean I’m NOT leading off with the not-dying thing? Yep. Because I waited 12 years for this event. We had one wedding shut down due to our venue being seized by the state due to the owner’s finagling of back-taxes (shocker: the feds don’t like that). We had to struggle through an economic depression. Jaime had to push through battle that was her PhD program. I went from promising film student to struggling teacher to journeyman editor and crew member to wandering worker (bookseller, cashier, valet) to producer and back to teacher again. We survived Hurricane Sandy. Car accidents on mountain roads. Depression. Nearly five years living apart. And we made it to the finish line for a glorious (if cold) day.

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    Don’t stop believing.

  2. Survived a major heart emergency. ‘Nuff said.

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    Sorry, Grim Reaper, not this time.

  3. Flew in a helicopter (due to said emergency). Hey, I’m counting this as a good thing because a) always wanted to do it and b) didn’t die en route. Also c) my insurance covered it because DAMN. Priciest 12 minutes of my life.

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    This is how I got my ride to UPenn and I’m STICKING WITH THAT STORY.

  4. Made the semi-finals in the NYC Midnight Short Screenplay competition on my first three scripts in nearly two years. I’m extremely proud of each of them and hope to film them someday. I’ve begun the 2016-2017 competition and already placed 2nd in the first heat, so we’ll see if this makes my top moments of 2017 next year.

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    Definitely beat one deadline with less than 60 seconds left.

  5. Made the finals with Bart in the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. Totally different rules, fewer rounds and far more competition from around the world and we still made it to the top 40. Bart and I hope to get our three stories published at some point, though our second story has the potential to be a novella, so we’ll see how that goes.

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    Note: we want Hemmingway’s career trajectory, NOT his life trajectory.

  6. Saw John Williams in concert. God…it was amazing to see an octogenarian create such magic with just a wave of his hand.

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    My life, if made into a movie, would be scored by The Maestro.

  7. Visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (for the first time for the latter) with one of my oldest friends.Powerful experience made all the more powerful by going on election day.

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    Not going to let Lady Liberty down, no matter who is in office.

  8. Moved into my first multi-bedroom apartment. The move itself occurred during the hottest stretch of the summer which, combined with the lifting, may have contributed to my subsequent hospitalization…but hey, having an office to myself? FANTASTIC for my creativity.

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    Shockingly.

  9. Lost more than 30 pounds in one year. At my lowest, I lost nearly 50, but nearly fifteen pounds of that was from fluid buildup being expunged at the hospital. That and not eating for a week.

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    So. Many. Protein Shakes.

  10. Visited the Catskills in Massachusetts. Beautiful country. I can’t wait to return.

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    Photoshop in some brachiosaurs in the background and I’d leave the comment “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”.

  11. Stayed in a Bed and Breakfast! The place even has pre-Revolutionary roots. Best sleep I had in months and I had one of the best breakfasts ever courtesy of the owners, who grew a lot of the food on the property.

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    Window into the past. Almost literally.

  12. Beat an Escape Room in record time. Go ahead. Try and beat our team’s time. Try.han2
  13. Bought my first coffee maker. Yep. Finally get what everyone likes about the brew.

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    Yep. I get it now.

  14. Saw Stephen King again and got to ask him a question. NBD.

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    When Uncle Stevie tells you to wait for the right revision to come…you listen to him.

  15. Met Ken Burns and got him to sign my copy of Baseball, the doc that started my interest in documentaries.

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    The guy has an editing technique named after him. You better listen to him too.

  16. Finally walked the Princeton Battlefield. One of my favorite places anywhere now.

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    Not throwing away my shot.

  17. Watched my kids take home the top three categories in a film competition.

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    Scorcese says ‘cinema’ is dead. I beg to differ. Just give them a few years. Cinema’s just taking a nap ’til these kids take over.

  18. Cheered as my gang took home Best Student Short at the Garden State Film Fest in Atlantic City, surrounded by industry pros.

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    When the man you apprenticed under celebrates with your apprentices, the circle has become complete.

  19. Discovered the Room Where It Happens and got hooked on Hamilton. Big time.

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    I’m aware.

  20. Completed countless movies on the AFI Top 100 lists (both), the 1001 Movies To See Before You Die List (almost ironic), and the Oscars Best Pictures List.

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    Whenever my kids say they haven’t seen “x”…or when I realize I haven’t seen a movie they’ve mentioned.

  21. Saw advanced screenings of La La Land and Silence featuring Q&As with Damien Chazelle and Martin Scorcese. Brought along former students. Blown away by both films.

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    LOVED. IT.

  22. Became hooked on tabletop/card games Splendor, SushiGo and Firefly.

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    My approach to gaming.

  23. Walked the length of the Point Pleasant Boardwalk. Never did that before. Don’t know why.

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    First long walk in my post-op world.

  24. Watched my film kids go off to amazing schools like NYU (three!), Montclair, Syracuse and more.

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    But God forbid it doesn’t work, please don’t go all Anakin Skywalker on me.

  25. Started listening to podcasts like Lore and Flash Forward. Hooked immediately by both.
  26. Successfully completed Uncharted 1 and 2. Topped Rank 50 on Battlefront before the hospital took me out of the loop.

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    Me trying to get anything else done while playing Uncharted.

  27. Books read: As You Wish, Bossypants, The Chimes, Dark Invasion, Dead Wake, Devil in the White City, End of Watch, Fragile Things, Furiously Happy, Good Omens, Just One Damned Thing After Another, Pirate Hunters, Rendezous With Rama, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, Smoke and Mirrors, A Symphony of Echoes, Tinseltown, Trigger Warning, Hamilton, The Wright Brothers, Ex-Isle
  28. NEW movies seen: Civil War, Deadpool, Zootopia, Rogue One, La La Land, Finding Dory, Hail,Caesar!, Suicide Squad, Batman v Superman, Arrival, Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Moana, X-Men Apocalypse, Doctor Strange, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Silence, Zoolander 2, Jackie, Midnight Special, A Monster Calls, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Sully, The Magnificent 7, Inferno, Nocturnal Animals (with more screeners yet to be watched)
  29. New TV watched: Westworld, Man in the High Castle and Stranger Things. Yes. Bring them back now please. Loved The People vs OJ Simpson. Also looking forward to The Last Mogul going to series for Amazon. I tried Timeless but the formulaic approach bored me.
  30. Cheered for friends with new additions to their families on the way!
  31. Got drawn into a comic book.
  32. Helped prep a superhero show, a documentary and the full series arc of Trials (a scifi series my friend Bart and I have been working on for years) all for 2017 action.
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    The Atomic Super-men save the day in 2017.

     

  33. Oh! And one more for the road…started this blog! A blessing I didn’t expect. Here’s to the things we did well in 2016, the things we want to accomplish in 2017 and to the drive we’ll need to do it!

Until next time!
Scott

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Whatever Doesn’t Kill You, Or: The Scars of 2016

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Well, 2016, you damn near killed me. Statistically speaking, you should have. 1% survival. That’s what you left me with. And I’m still here. Despite the plot twists no one saw coming, I still had a blessed year. How do you like that?

It was a horrific time, by most accounts, and as such, I feel guilty in a lot of ways for feeling like 2016 was one of my more successful periods. If that doesn’t say a lot about my wacky world, I don’t know what will: I nearly died, and I still count the year as being a major win.

That’s part of it, I guess. I should have died and didn’t. I’m still handling the fallout from walking away from the hospital, mentally and physically. I will never be the same. In a lot of ways, I think that’s for the best. God knows, I was appreciative of a lot of the little things in life before…but now I cherish them.

Look, I am appalled with the political climate here in America. I didn’t vote for the guy coming into office and I find him to be morally reprehensible. The loss of people like Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, David Bowie, John Glenn, Gene Wilder, Muhammad Ali…those hurt. A lot. I’m still reeling from the loss of Carrie and her mother Debbie on consecutive days, as Carrie has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. I’m seeing the worst of America’s culture put on display as people guilty of horrible things are allowed to continue their hateful and destructive ways.

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Yep.

Part of me wonders if I went into the operating room in one universe and woke up in an alternate, bizarro world that is similar to-but not exactly the same-as my world. It’s the scifi writer in me. Or it’s the good-person-coping-with-the-horrid-crap-that-keeps-making-headlines in me.

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Some days it feels like this.

That’s why I’m damned happy to still be here. It’s a challenge, and God knows I love a good challenge. This world needs good people to stand up and lead the way. Decency should never be optional. Goodness should never be sneered at. Justice is something to strive for, not spit at. The truth must be upheld, not bent for one’s personal benefit. I believed these to be true before I went into surgery and I believe them even more strongly now.

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We need to rescue ourselves in 2017, not wait to be rescued.

I was horrified by the scars I received from open-heart surgery for the first few weeks. I couldn’t even look at them for the first few days. They scared me. They reminded me how fragile I was. But as the dried blood washed away and my body healed, I started to realize something: they weren’t a sign of my weakness. It’s a sign that I made it. That I get to tell more stories, shape more minds and share love and wisdom for more days.

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I have more work to do. We all do.

I write stories and hope for Happily Ever Afters. I also know that just having an Ever After is enough most of the time. So you’ll have to pardon me when I look at 2016 and picture this:

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A win for the Good Guys.

That was a day 12 years in the making. It was a day after mid 20s weather and a day before mid 60s. There were more leaves the days leading in and less the days after. And it was perfect. We were surrounded by people who loved us, had supported us and, for many, needed a break from the Larger World beyond the safety of our dance floor.

There were so many things I did right this year (and did Write, including this blog). There were a lot of things I did wrong. I saw good people leave and graduate and move away…but I saw so many grow up and evolve and become more and accomplish small wonders.

I have no resolution for 2017. It’s going to be a day-to-day strategy most of the time. I hope to find more ways of spreading positivity to those around me. I’ll make mistakes. I’ll stumble along the way. But I pray that I’ve got it in me to see this story through for many more years to come and make 2017 a fresh start.

There is hard work yet to come. But if 2016 has taught me one thing it’s this: be grateful to have time with the people you love and to have the time to spread that love.

Here’s to fighting the good fight in a new year. Here’s to the dreamers, the people left behind, the survivors, the people who have more to achieve, the ones who hold us up when we’re weak and the ones who make us feel strong.

Up, up and away.

Until next time,
S

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So What’d I Miss?

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There is no need for convoluted theories on where I’ve been (that you know of).

The problem with blogging for me is that a lot happens in a relatively short period of time and once I fall behind, I feel like I can never catch up again. Jaime thinks I should do shorter posts. While I’m not much for short-bursts of inane banter, I may need to start that way just to get rolling. So how to tell War and Peace like a short story? Let’s bullet point the bigger points:

*Visited Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty on Election Day with my west coast friend Joey. Subsequently drank away the misery of the night’s proceedings.

*Got married in what can only be described as a nearly-perfect day.

*Saw one of the biggest shooting stars I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few) the day after the wedding.

*Found out that the person-of-interest I identified in a cold case murder from the late 70s passed away, possibly escaping justice for good.

*Spent a low-key Thanksgiving with Jaime’s family

*Helped get one project I’m producing get to the next level while joining a documentary film on an infamous 1980s murder.

*Caught an advanced screening courtesy of my Writers Guild of America status for La La Land, which is a brilliant piece of film in my opinion.

*Finally returned to work on December 5th.

Ironically, I’m going to circle back to the wedding on my next post as it’s going to take more time than I have tonight. The return to work is still fresh on my mind, so it takes the precedent. Oh, and if you’re confused by the fourth bullet point…that’s a long story for another day.

Today I officially stepped back into my classroom for the first time since the end of June. It was a bittersweet and surprisingly emotional moment for me. This is my fifth year teaching at a job I originally wasn’t sure I’d A) enjoy B) even have a chance to be rehired for and C) would be much good at. Somehow, without college classes, I ended up becoming a decent teacher. Over time, I came to really enjoy the challenges it raised. We’ve won national awards, screened at a half dozen festivals and raised the profile of our program and our school.

Then I had my aortic dissection at the end of August and the whole gameplan became an audible. I had to change my newly formed strategy on how to handle the next four years of the program…not to mention what the heck I was going to do trying to coach a new teacher from the sidelines. It was not ideal, but I’ve been told approximately 10,001 times since the surgery that I have to rest and recover and take it easy and that it would all work out and…well, you get the idea.

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Seriously, Past Scott, get your head in the game.

Fortunately, the teacher they brought in, Ken, was able to navigate through the weird and wild waters of Long Term Subbing and the kids pulled off a few projects. Still, the absence from the studio made me realize just how much I enjoyed mentoring the kids.

So I found myself in the parking lot at 7:10 AM with Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story winding down. I didn’t plan for it…it was just the song that the randomizer put on as I pulled into my usual parking place behind the building. The day before, I was struck by a strong case of anxiety that continued on in the night, leaving me tossing and turning all night as if I were going in for my first day ever rather than my first day of Year Five. And as the lyrics sunk in, I realized just how close I came to being just a story to these kids. If the operation and odds had tilted the other way, I would have been a memory. They’d be one of the only real legacies I’d leave behind.

Not exactly a light revelation for the pre-sunlight hours.

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So I choked out a few tears and shook out the butterflies as best I could before donning the battered fedora and buttoning up the banged up leather jacket. I didn’t have my keys so I had to retrieve them from the main office before I could settle in to work. Along the way, colleagues and a few of my students stopped to shake my hand or offer a hug and smile. The previous Friday, I had emailed out a brief explanation for my hiatus and minimize the number of times I had to tell the story of how I nearly died. It worked, because the reactions focused more on warmth and optimism rather than shock and confusion over what happened.

The first couple of periods were free for me, so I had time to collect my thoughts and look at my office in dismay. During the summer I had filmed some material on the green screen and due to the arrangements with the custodians, anything on the tables had to be kept off the floors while they repainted and waxed the floors. As a result, a lot of my stuff is still piled up in my office as it was left. I usually come in a few days before class starts to organize and prep the room but obviously that time was spent in the operating room getting my heart rearranged.

My counterpart in entertainment technology on the music side came by to chat and quite a few of the seniors I had taught along the way came by to give hugs. Then the sophomores came in and it felt like things were going to be okay. They had welcome back cards and a few of them cried and everyone was smiling and for the first time since August 22nd, I felt like getting back a sense of normalcy wouldn’t be a Herculean task.

Don’t get me wrong. The wedding was an absolutely glorious day and easily the most fun I’ve ever had. The recuperation time allowed me to catch up on classic films and further my self-guided cinematic journey. I’ve started to write and prep projects and produce. But for some reason, seeing these 16 year-olds so happy to have me back in the room made me feel like the worst of the journey was over.

I know it’s not guaranteed to stay that way. There are always going to be plot twists. My life, in particular, is filled with them. But staying at home all day never felt completely comfortable. It felt wrong. I wasn’t doing what I should be doing. So when I got back into that incredibly uncomfortable rolling chair in the dimly lit classroom, I didn’t expect to feel the weight lift off my shoulders. But it did.

Some of the juniors and seniors popped in to see me early and the giant combined class at the end of the day was a little overwhelming…but it was overwhelming in a good way. There’s nothing quite like the mixed emotions that come with being told ‘I think a few of us felt lost without you here’. On the one hand, that’s really heartwarming to say. On the other hand, WHOA, no pressure or anything!

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Me, way too often, while teaching.

I’ve got to learn to pace myself, to find balance. It’s been a key to recovery the last three months. Now it’s balancing walking, drinking enough water, sitting just enough to rest my legs and talking enough to get the point across but not so much that I wear my lungs out like I did by 12:40 today. After nearly an hour of fairly consistent speaking, I felt my chest start to warm up. I wasn’t in pain, but it felt like I had run a long distance. The reason, I quickly realized, was that being more or less alone for two months for most of the day had left my lungs probably in need of some exercise.

The guy who never spoke up for himself enough when he was younger, than broke out of his shell with a vengeance, is now back to learning how to maintain lung capacity. Funny world we live in.

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It’s good to be back. Things aren’t the way they were, but maybe that’s for the best. The wedding feels like it really did mark a turning point. All the cliches about a new chapter or fresh start really feel appropriate after months of rehabilitation and worry and tears and pain. The years preceding it had plenty of hardship as well. It was a lot to carry around inside. To start fresh in any way, big or small, is a good thing in my mind.

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So here’s to new hope for fresh starts, wherever they come from and whenever they arrive. Cheers.

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It’s enough.

Until next time,
S
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On Halloween: Or, Mind Tricks and Cathartic Treats

I’ve heard Halloween be described as a day to Come As You Aren’t. I never understood that- I always wanted to dress up as characters I liked. Sadly, Halloween hasn’t been the same since college. Once I started living in apartments, trick-or-treaters have been as visible as The Great Pumpkin. But I did inadvertently suit up in an oddly symbolic way.

I go back and forth about Halloween. On the one hand, it’s kinda fun to dress up and pretend to be something different for a change. And as a kid, who doesn’t love free candy? I always wanted to rock a costume that showed off what I loved.

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Behold the terror that was Funasaurus Napolitanos. Found in Central NJ in the late 80s period. Fond of Butterfingers.

That said, it’s far from my favorite holiday and in some cases, it really freaks me out (I’m looking at you, people who turn their front yard into a JUST-a-bit-too-real representation of a zombie apocalypse). I mean, for a holiday that lets kids have sugar-fueled fun…some of those lawn decorations are pure nightmare fuel that will have the tiny tots questioning what Death is a little too soon in life.

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Not saying kids need to be this level of innocent, but still…

***SIDE TANGENT AHEAD***
(feel free to skip ahead a paragraph/gif to continue the Halloween-from-an-aortic-survivor-talk)
Can we just talk about how awful the parents are in the Charlie Brown universe? I’m not gonna touch the fact that Linus is left out in a pumpkin patch all night, alone, believing in some kind of twisted gourdian deity. I want to know this: what kind of neighborhood does poor old Chuck live in if he gets A ROCK FOR TRICK OR TREAT…not once, BUT MULTIPLE TIMES? Are they trying to give the poor pre-pubescent bastard a complex? God knows he had enough to deal with thanks to Lucy BEFORE they decided to send passive-aggressive messages in stone form.

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If the neighborhood is left vandalized, I wouldn’t blame Charlie Brown. I would say his neighbors EARNED IT.

***RANDOM SCHULZIAN SIDE TANGENT CONCLUDED***

Aside from the recent classic horror movie marathon I’ve been indulging in (still need to get to Gaslight and Diabolique on my DVR), my ‘spooky’ plans involved…well, nothing all that supernatural. Not even an episode of Supernatural, actually.

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Sorry Dean.

I did pick up my wedding license, which was exciting…I had a tiny moment of cathartic acceptance…oh, and I grabbed groceries too.

Wait, what’s that? A little bit of soul-boosting enlightenment courtesy of a holiday that is embraced by candy companies, goths and followers of ancient practices? How does that work from a lukewarm appreciator of the costumed festivities? Allow me to illuminate.

Today was my second day at physical therapy. It was weird being back in the hospital that I last really saw as I was being carted down the hallway on a gurney with a helicopter destination. I kick myself for not throwing a Venkman ‘Let’s run some red lights!’ in there as I was shuttled to the airlift pad. Alas, I was too dazed to seize that opportunity. I also realize that the reason why some of my wisecracks made some of those doctors and paramedics nervous was probably because they were afraid I was going into shock or suffering a brain injury. Nope. Just good old Coping Mechanism 101: when backed into the corner, quip your way out. That’s healthy, right? ….right….?

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Don’t judge me, Ben Stein.

Anyway…I got a few confused looks from the patients that were in the PT Center and even a rather venomous look from the wife of one of the patients who I GUESS thought I was doing an elaborate prank that took away from her husband’s medical care? See, I was easily the youngest person there by at least three decades. I don’t begrudge these people their need to rehabilitate from heart surgeries and injury. Far from it! But pardon me for having a poorly formed heart that tried to literally rip itself in pieces!

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“For God’s sake, just pull yourself up by your-”    “-don’t finish that sentence Clint, or I bring up your movie with Clyde the Orangutang.”

For the record, my rehab has gone smoothly enough. My numbers have been around 120 over mid-to-high 80s with slight elevation during the exercise. The facility is small, with some bikes, a reclining stepper, some treadmills, an arm machine and some small free-weights. I’m not allowed to really lift (which is hilarious since I brought in the groceries, but okay then), so it’s more cardio.

One of the physical therapists apparently is a fellow Superman fan. He spotted my hoodie and the shirt I was wearing. He wanted to know if I was wearing it for Halloween. I hadn’t done it intentionally. I do firmly believe that we attach ourselves to symbols that give us strength and hope, so it’s quite possible the reason I wore those to PT was due to my subconscious trying to get me to feel stronger.

An older woman next to me was having a hard time with a move she had coming up and she felt like she had no one who would care if she died today. That was a deep fear I had for the longest time when I was younger. Her saying it kinda brought back those memories of loneliness. The team worked on comforting her as best they could one at a time, and I saw her hugging one of them as I prepared to leave. For some reason, her words wouldn’t really get out of my head. I just kept walking on the treadmill.

She caught up with me on the elevator to return to the parking lot after the session ended. We spoke a little. She had had a few heart attacks and was having trouble with it all again. She assumed I’d had a heart attack too and rather than explain, I just lowered my shirt and revealed my scar. Her jaw dropped. When I told her I was 32, she stopped walking. “But you’re so young!” she said.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times people say that. Part of me shrivels up a little. It reminds me that I have to work extra hard if I want to live to be as old as the person pointing it out. It’s only topped by my favorite reminders “you’re lucky to be alive!” and “you could have died!”.

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Words…failing…at how DUH that is.

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Almost exactly how I react to these conversations. How do you want me to react?!

Then she did me a solid. Three words. Three words I know others have said but until today, they didn’t sink in. Maybe it’s because they came from someone who was struggling with her own mortality in a way I understood. Somehow, they just never clicked for me til now.

“You’re a survivor.”

Not ironically. Not sarcastically. Respectfully. From someone who’d had heart attacks and stents and probably caught a glimpse of the Grim Reaper in a reflection or from the corner of her eye at one point. Someone who I knew had the same fears I did. The age gap was bridged without much else said.

She tapped the Superman logo on my hoodie. “You do whatever it takes to keep going.”

I’ve been called a lot of things since I returned from the hospital. Most are variations on lucky or blessed. I’ve felt gratitude, relief, fear, pain, panic, melancholy, joy and most seriously, sadness. Someone in one of the support groups I’ve joined suggested I mourn the life I led so I could focus on the life I had to lead still. While I haven’t really truly mourned it yet, I’ve been taking steps toward accepting my new reality as best I can. Every piece of my old life I get back brings that much more of my sanity. Each task I learn I can still do without fear of a trip in the ambulance is a relief. Every boundary I push back on to see if I can get past it is a breath of fresh air.

Because it means I’ve survived. I am still here. My old life isn’t completely gone, despite the fact that so much has changed. My mind is now balancing itself as best it can to deal with this enormous revelation that I only have so much time. So what do I want to accomplish in that time?

One of the biggest comic book arcs ever came out when I was just a kid- The Death of Superman. I don’t remember getting the issue when he died, but I have a very clear memory of buying the issue that he returned to life in. See, DC Comics was never going to kill the icon that really launched the business. They put Superman into a state where he was basically dead but in reality, healing slowly inside of a machine that kept him alive.

And then came this:

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Excuse the mullet. It was the 90s and barbers are hard to find in the Arctic Circle.

He comes back from “death” weaker, but just as determined to do the right thing. He returns, as the ad says, Better Than Ever. He survived.

And so have I. Not sure what took so long for me to realize it, but here I am, two and a half months out from surgery, and the words are sinking in a little.I  may not be able to lift cars over my head or catch speeding bullets in my hand, but today I wore Superman’s shield. Halloween may be ‘Come As You Aren’t’ to some people but to me, I guess I’ll stick with ‘Come As You Wish To Be’.There’s work yet to be done to get my head on straight and get my body in a better place but Halloween felt like a step forward.

Now that’s a Treat.

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Up, up and away.

Until next time,
S

reelheart

 

 

 

Reel Education, Update 1

ReelHeartWork was started because I’m working through recovery from major surgery, because I miss talking movies and I need to stay working (stay WRITING) to keep my brain sharp. A couple of years ago, I decided to continue my film education independent of university-type studies. When you teach incredibly gifted students like I do, you can’t help but wonder if you’re doing them a disservice if they’ve seen more classics than you. So I doubled down- it’s time to get back to work and see what critics think are the greatest films of all time.

I just slogged through The English Patient, featuring Voldemort, Mr. Darcy and the Green Goblin who all seem to have an interest in The Horse Whisperer for some reason or another. Look, I would watch Willem Dafoe read from a phonebook while paint dries and grass grows…but this movie, set in a time period I openly admit to enjoying, bored the hell out of me. How in the world this beat Fargo and Jerry Maguire for Best Picture in 1996, I’ll never understand. It’s shot beautifully…but if I want to see the beauty of the desert, I’ll pop on Lawrence of Arabia. I met Ralph Fiennes at a Writers Guild screening for Grand Budapest Hotel- incredibly nice man! That said, if I wanted to hear three hours of him doing nearly-faceless raspy voice, I’d throw on the last two Harry Potters!

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“You made a ton of money Wade, but I got the Oscar.”

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“GRANDPA?!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With The English Patient now behind me, that completes my first full decade of Best Picture winners, with all of the 90’s victors now checked off on my list. It also completes a streak of 13 straight movies from 1990 to 2003 that I’ve seen in theaters or at home. The only other time period I’ve done as well with is the 1970s, with only Deer Hunter remaining to complete that decade. If I hadn’t moved when I did, I would have been watching that next on my DVR but alas, I chose to check off The Broadway Melody (1928’s Best Picture and the oldest winner I’ve seen to date as it was only the Academy’s second year of picks), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935 with Clark Gable being a badass) and the surprisingly interesting Life of Emile Zola (1937). They’re not on as much, so I figured it was a fair trade.

My Top 5 Best Picture choices so far from the movies I’ve seen? Hrm. Let me think.

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Perfect final shot. Perfect. Don’t even try to argue.

Casablanca
The Apartment
All About Eve
Rocky
Probably a tie between Return of the King and Bridge on the River Kwai.

I think Return of the King has to be in there because I love the Lord of the Rings series and it had a huge impact on me. Bridge on the River Kwai was just engrossing and Sir Alec Guiness was entrancing. I couldn’t get over how dynamic his performance was.  Casablanca is a great story with great performances (even if they didn’t know it at the time) and is shot so damn well. All About Eve is deliciously nasty and it’s just as relevant today as it was in 1950. The Apartment has just the best damn character work you’ll find- I want to be a mensch like Jack Lemmon in that film.

And Rocky? It’s hard not to love an underdog who fights because he wants to prove everyone wrong. That movie wasn’t about the win. It’s about going the distance. And that’s something that only gets more relevant to me as I look at increasingly scary odds for my future. One thing I know I’ll be doing soon though- I want to conquer those damn steps non-stop.

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Symbolic Goals: I have them.

Least Bottom 5 Best Picture winners thus far?

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Oh sweet JESUS, this kid again. YOU GET NOTHING! GOOD DAY SIR! 

Oliver!
The Broadway Melody
The English Patient
An American in Paris
Crash

Somehow Annie Hall, which I loathe, dodges the bullet here because I can appreciate it even if I don’t like it. Oliver! is the reason why people hate musicals (along with Annie and Cats probably) and the ear-grating singing from the young lead made me want to run screaming. Broadway Melody was a thin melodrama with bad comedy…but it was 1928 and they were working out the kinks of narrative storytelling with sound, so it gets a slight pass. I already spoke about The English Patient. American in Paris had some great dance numbers…but I couldn’t tell you anything beyond a few sentence about the story. That’s bad.

That leaves Crash, which is one of my least favorite films for just how ham-handed they were with the ‘EVERYONE IS RACIST!’ beat. There was no subtlety. It wasn’t clever. It was obnoxious! When high school kids pick up on it, you KNOW it’s bad. I sat through it once. I won’t be reviewing it again. Ugh.

As for the AFI Top 100, with the recent viewings of Dances With Wolves (long, but interesting), Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (see my previous comments in an earlier blog), Patton (again, long but well acted), In The Heat of the Night (ground breaking and damn interesting to watch), my numbers have all jumped up. That puts me at 82 out of 100 on the original AFI Top 100 list and 81 out of 100 on the new Top 100 list!

I haven’t updated my 1001 Movies To See Before You Die list in a few days, but I checked out The Phantom Carriage this morning and my DVR is filled up with other movies from the list, so while my last count was 221, I’m probably at 225 by now, with another 20 movies left on the DVR to get through.

I’m not sure why I’m doing this…but I feel like this is me completing my Jedi training or something. I need to finish these lists. The 1001 Movies guide will probably never be done, but I want to see if I can crack 3/4s. Maybe there will be a book in all of this. Maybe it’s just more fodder for ReelHeartWork. All I know is it’s opening me up to new ideas and worlds.

That makes it worth the effort.

Until next time,
S

reelheart

On Screaming Winds: Or, How Hurricane Sandy Is Still Striking Four Years Out

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Pictured: an idiot who doesn’t see Mother Nature about to slap the Northeast harder than its been hit in 50 years.

Four years ago today, my biggest worry was if I was an idiot for doing the one thing I swore I’d never go back to doing: teaching film. By the time night fell, Hurricane Sandy was already beginning her inexorable march into history. Four years later, things are different. The fear that I would regret leaving my network job for taking a job in a field I already swore off once (in a position that wasn’t even guaranteed) has long since ebbed. But if the winds howl or the rain pours hard enough, I find myself just as nervous as I was that day.

**Special note: All of the pictures below were taken by me. Some were by cell phone, some on my DSLR. But these represent my way of coping with and understanding the scope of a tragic time. If you re-use them, please credit me appropriately (Scott Nap). Thanks.

Let me say this outright: my PTSD is not the same thing as the soldier who returns from battle. That has to be a whole different kind of hell. But if you want to see a man’s skyrocket in a few seconds, just turn on a TV show with heart monitors beeping in the background and I will be your entertainment for the evening. But open-heart surgery wasn’t my first dance with this insidious ailment. Nope. That heartless wench Sandy took that part of my sanity four years ago.

I’m a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore. After the economic depression (and subsequent mental depression), I was forced to move back in with my parents for a couple of years. After spending my middle, high school and college years in the sleepy town of Island Heights, my parents decided to move across the bay to South Seaside Park. My mom grew up near the ocean and my dad has always wanted to be close to the water. So it was that I ended up approximately a half mile from where Sandy made landfall. I admit, I thought it was a joke to treat the oncoming storm like it was The End Times. The Worst Storm Since The Days of The Kennedy Administration proved me ever so slightly wrong.

See, we got burned at The Shore. Hurricane Irene was hyped to the point that it was easy to imagine Irene taking her cues from Satan himself. We’re talking dogs-and-cats-living together-mass-hysteria levels of Repent, Sinner talk. People packed up their cars, huddled in bunkers and hoped they’d have a home to wake up to the next day. Instead of Ragnarok, in Seaside we got heavy winds, a few downed tree and some flooding.

Then again, if Mother Nature sneezes near Seaside, the bay floods…so not a big shocker that the roads would be swamped. We’re used to it.

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The NJ Attitude: Sure, the world may be ending in a few hours, but damn I sure hope the waves are good enough to surf before my existence is wipe from this realm.

Fast forward a year. I went to lunch at a local restaurant, fully expecting the Sandy forecast to result in the same over-exaggeration of doom and underwhelming results.

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Pictured: Me being humbled by The Universe. This pier used to be straight. And intact. And why is there a lamp post in the middle of the bay. And why does this make me sad?

Everyone knows the image that sums up Sandy- the roller coaster in the Atlantic. It’s iconic. It also is a perfect representation of how skewed the story is often told. Seaside Heights and Seaside Park are more than just the boardwalk. You know when the story really WAS just the boardwalk?

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11 months later, when the south half of the boardwalk went up in flames due to Sandy damage.

Contrary to what some new outlets reported, Seaside has year-round residents. And many were displaced due to Sandy for months before being allowed to see how badly damaged their homes were…or if they were even there. In the case of my family, no news outlet ever showed South Seaside Park. In fact, aerial footage from news choppers centered almost exclusively on the boardwalk area until eventually drifting north up the island to see the fire that destroyed a block’s worth of homes and the breach of the ocean to the bay near the Mantoloking Bridge. If you weren’t in those areas, news was scarce. It took one intrepid resident in our apartment complex to call in a favor from someone in high places to get us imagery from either a drone or a satellite or one of the scouting planes that was surveying the damage.

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There was more to the story than this. But it’s still sad to see.

For the first three days we were without power. It may have been more- I honestly have a hard time remembering. Food went bad quickly. Since most of us didn’t pack for a long-term departure, we were stuck re-using the same clothes for a while. Families took shelter wherever possible. My mom and I went to my grandparents’ home in Lakewood while my dad went to his mother’s home just so we would have a little space and so we could take care of them if needed. Somehow this resulted in having a drink after making it through the second night of the storm with whatever we had on hand…which was two warm bottles of Sam Adams, which we split among the four of us.

The first night after Sandy hit land was the worst. All of the trees were creaking and moaning as the wind ripped through them. We made it through without damage at their house, but others weren’t as lucky. Those winds though…they still haunt me. I can hear them whenever a storm blows into town. If there’s heavy rainfall, I seize up a little inside because I can still hear the rain slamming, not even slapping, into the pavement.

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Zombie apocalypse or Wawa after Sandy: you decide.

After the power came back on, we watched the news in horror as the images kept flooding in. I eventually volunteered to scout the surrounding area to check the damage. Traffic lights were out. Power lines were bent like tooth picks. And the grocery stores, which are emptied when an inch of snow is rumored to be on the way, were particularly barren. Gas station prices were up and the lines to fill up for car travel or generators were at least 20 cars long in most places I drove past. I used this time to charge my iPhone, but it was hard not to see the homes caved in from trees, the debris strewn everywhere…and this was the MAINLAND. We were 20 minutes from the ocean at this point!

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Taken months after the storm, this newsbox pic is one of my favorite pics that I’ve taken..and one of my least favorite for context. It hurts to look at.

Returning to work weeks later was surreal. Some of my students experienced very little turbulence. One even claimed to have used his generator to play games on his XBox. I went through the motions, but when you only have access to three changes of clothes, it’s pretty apparent your life has changed. My co-workers chipped in to give the few of us who were displaced by Sandy a check each to buy clothes and supplies. Several of my students went out to get me shirts or socks. One brought in a winter coat and I nearly broke down in front of my upper-classmen. It was a lot to take in. But nothing prepared me for the return to Seaside months later.

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I have so much respect for the first responders, the police, the firemen, the rescue team members who prevented a catastrophe through discipline and heart. Many of our interior streets were in decent shape compared to the nightmares we were undoubtedly cooking up. But once we snuck on the beach despite the insistence of the local authorities, it became apparent what had happened.

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Innocence Lost.

 

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This is a tumbleweed consisting of cables and wiring. There were dozens of these.

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Our mail system would be messed up for over a year. But no as much as this.

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For some, going back to work would offer not refuge but reminders.

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Snooki jokes aside, The Shore should never look this trashy.

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When the beach is off limits in New Jersey…you know things have gone horribly wrong.

At the time, Chris Christie, our infamous governor, seemed to be making the right moves. He barked at people to get the hell off the beach rather than stay and risk death. He worked with President Obama to get funds in place immediately to help care for families, for repairs, for rehabilitation to an area that is crucial to the livelihood of countless families in New Jersey. Jersey Strong became our rallying cry, even if we wanted to weep when we saw the devastation that was reported from Cape May to Bayonne.

But the tides retreated.

We rebuilt. We healed…or tried our best to start the process.

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Circa March 2013, approximately two months until the destroyed boardwalk would be reconstructed and re-opened. It was also six months before everything in this picture was destroyed by an epic fire. But that’s another story.

I drive through old neighborhoods where I distinctly remember homes being and instead find empty lots. There is still no new roller coaster where the old one went tumbling to meet Poseidon. Rumors spring up every few months about the possibility of (ugh) putting up condos or townhouses in the area where the Boardwalk is no longer in existence. The bars and arcades have re-opened but locals know it isn’t the same. We try to stay strong, we try to visit even after we’ve moved away like I have. We remain Jersey Strong.

But when those winds pick up, if the rain pours too hard…sometimes even the sound of a strong shower head turning on…and the emotion come back. That deep-seated unease and fear that the world was going to change.

I guess it did anyway.

 

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A small memorial for The Way Things Were.

 

 

Until next time,
S
reelheart

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