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Panic Attack: The Movie

I couldn’t think of an answer at first, so I settled on: “It’s like I’m dying.”

My brother looked off and tried to process the claim, but the only thing he could come up with was, “Oh.”

Not his fault. My response was too big and vague and who the hell even knows what dying feels like anyway unless they’ve already done it?

But it made me wonder if a panic attack is the kind of experience that can ever really be conveyed to someone whose brain doesn’t work like that. (Correction: doesn’t break like that.)

Thing is, when a panic attack hits me, it doesn’t feel like my brain is messed up — it feels like my entire body is. My muscles seize up and start to shudder. My chest tightens. My stomach clenches. My veins constrict. I can’t breathe. I need to get outside because the walls are too close, but I can’t move my body to make it happen. If it’s especially bad, I will literally whimper the word “help,” even if the room is empty.

It’s just… like I’m dying.

A panic attack is an event — an experience. Death is too. But I’ve only experienced death at the funerals of friends and family, when it’s all been cleaned up for us so we won’t cry so hard. I’ve never seen death happen… at least, not outside of a movie theater.

Maybe that’s just it then; maybe panic disorder isn’t like real death at all. Maybe it’s more like simulated death… like a movie, where no one mourns you and you get to do it again and again and again, like take 366 on the set of mental illness’ “Groundhog’s Day.”

I started sifting through a lifetime of fake blood and fake gore and fake body counts from a childhood filled with all the 1980s shoot-em-ups that used to seem so real to me. I was looking for something very specific: the death scene that best encapsulates my experience during a panic attack — one where the victim is found postmortem with a look of horror frozen on his face.

And so, after careful consideration, the movie death that comes closest to summing up the feeling of a panic attack is (envelope please)…

DEATH BY DINOSAUR.

In the first Jurassic Park (the only good one), there’s a pasty lawyer who is nervous and sweaty and devoid of humor. In fact, he’s such a disposable cliché that I don’t even remember his name and am willing to bet five bucks that the credits list him only as “lawyer.” Bottom line: we know he’s a goner from the first scene. He’s the young blonde who runs out of gas in front of The Bates Motel.

But it’s not the way he dies that is especially panic attack-ish. It’s the build-up… a slow build-up. First, he gets a feeling in his gut that something is wrong. Then he hears the giant footsteps coming and feels the jeep shake. He watches the cup of water ripple with wide eyes. His environment is slowly changing around him and he’s powerless to do anything about it.

At first, he doubts, “Maybe it’s the power trying to come back on.” (I do this too: “Maybe I’m getting tired. Maybe I’m just having a bad day.”) But we’re both screwed, because a T. rex just dropped a bloody goat carcass on the sunroof. Now we feel the need to run. The lawyer finds himself a tiki-themed restroom and cowers on a toilet seat. (I’ve done the same… without the tiki theme). Both of us have time to contemplate what is now inevitable. The lawyer watches the walls of the little hut fall apart around him. My brain falls to pieces just as easily.

Pause. That’s the moment. Keep it paused, right there. That’s a panic attack.

Worst of all, you have no idea how long it will last because you just lost the remote. You’re stuck. You are the soaking-wet lawyer, huddled on the toilet with the hot breath of this-shouldn’t-be-happening terror on your face. Motionless. Horrified. Jeff Goldblum can’t save you — nobody can.

There’s an appropriate amount of embarrassment in this death scene too. The poor guy is sitting on the can, shaking like a coward. Exposed for what he is. Having a panic attack can be just as embarrassing.

So, sit there. Endure it. Clamp your fingers around your head until someone you can’t see finds the remote in the dark and hits the eject button.

And, when the disk slides out on its tray, the whole thing will be over. No death. No dinosaur. Back to life… slower, shakier and sicker to your stomach than before.

In short, “Panic Attack: The Movie” isn’t something you want to see, but I hope you have a better sense of just how bad it is. If you’re still not convinced, you can check out the freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes to see the zero percent it received from everyone who’s ever been trapped in its theater for the undisclosed run time.

And, like a franchise that The Walt Disney Company has acquired to exploit for no other reason than total market saturation, the sequels come fast and furious. They get worse too. God, they get worse.

The only good news I have for you, if you suddenly find yourself stuck in a folding theater chair — the one with ankle and wrist restraints on it — is as follows:

They won’t run the film all the way to the end. You won’t die. Just try to remember that, as much as it sucks, it’s all just light on the wall.

This article was published by Mighty Proud Media, Inc. as:
“The Hollywood Movie Death That’s Most Like a Panic Attack”
in the Spring of 2018. Click to view here.

Rhythm & Write

I love jazz. I know, that’s not a particularly original statement – Louis Armstrong named an entire album just that in 1966. But I really do and, to be clear, I’m not saying that I love all jazz. In fact, I probably don’t even love most jazz. But I do love the right jazz – music that feels improvisational, fresh and fluid, but retains a coherency between the players and their instruments that jive. 

I can’t play a lick of music but the right piece of jazz will convince me that it’s easy – that I could pick up an axe and join right in. It’s the illusion of zero effort that we humans are drawn to like nothing else. We want beauty to be wholly incompatible with bloody knuckles and sore lips. We want there to be magic behind the scenes, not the hard truths of the creative process.

Sure, artists who are able to purge flaw from performance can deliver us masterpiece and remind us that perfection is not only real, it’s attainable. But jazz ensembles offer something different. They test the human foibles of trial and error during jam sessions – an anything goes environment where they learn from each other, expose limitations, explore inspirations and, above all, mix it up. When they get really comfortable with one another they can anticipate and deviate in new ways that take their art to a whole new level.

That’s where jazz and writing start to share a lot in common. When writing is at its best, when it’s in a groove and the story begins to wake up from the page, the characters and themes start to take on a life of their own – I’ve heard jazz musicians describe a jam in the same way. The music becomes a ouija board that no one is in total control of. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t – it’s trash.

But that’s okay.

Sometimes I’ll get in a groove and think I’m on fire only to snap out of it later and realize the hours I just spent wailing on the keyboard should all be deleted. Literally. From existence. I’m sure this has happened to more than a few failed jazz recordings over the years. The illusion of a groove is indistinguishable from (and just as intoxicating as) a genuinely inspired moment of craft.

But that’s the key – jazz, like writing, is at its best when the risks and rewards are hard to discern. Weeding them out becomes an exciting dialogue between creator and creation. Sure, it can suck badly sometimes and often that sucky conversation leads back to the almighty delete key. But sometimes it’s just a rough path well-worth taking on the way to something inspiring.

A good piece of writing will talk back to you – the characters become your bandmates and they will inevitably start giving you some cues to follow while offering ideas to carry the story in previously unplanned directions. Listen to them. Follow their lead. So what if it goes nowhere? At least you know that’s not the direction that’s best for the group.

The more we writers jam, the more we might get in good with our bandmates. We need them as much as they need us. It’s tough work, but we might just get a few tips in the jar by the end of the night – maybe even some positive word of mouth or a kind review. And when we do, we’ll tell everyone it was effortless. Hey, it just makes for a better story.

I Heart Robots

The golden age of pulp science fiction is a guilty pleasure of mine. Authors like Clifford Simak, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury blew the covers off Galaxy Magazine and Astounding Science Fiction during the 1950s. Their best efforts spoke directly to the fear and bigotry of the era. They could get away with it too because there was latitude in SF when other genres had none or very little to offer.

Science fiction is always written for the present. It may imagine the future, but it’s not speaking to it. As a result, an old pulp can be uniquely appreciated as a window into the forgotten dreams of another generation. Their visions are forever frozen in the time they were first published – like a mosquito locked in amber. This leaves us free to perform an autopsy on their predictions and ponder the folly of our own.

For me, there is no more endearing symbol of failed prediction than that venerable science fiction staple: the robot. Even on the pages of a pulp, where words can create any visual one dares to implant in the mind of a reader, you’ll be stopped dead in your tracks by the description of a robot that sounds implausibly bulky, slow, stupid and dated. He is very often derivative – a man-shaped collection of metal boxes who has analog dials for eyes and light bulbs for ears. He may even print out paper reports like a typewriter or have a built-in liquor cabinet in case you forgot yours.

Great stuff.

But I don’t love old robots just because their silly, I love them because robots are unlike any other technological achievement we dare to dream up. Sure, a rocket will take you to the moon and a flying car would be a great way to get to work, but a robot in its fully-realized SF form is meant to live by your side. It’s the promise of companionship and assistance, but there is also an element of the mastery of life in its conception – something we often reserve for the divine. There’s a do we dare? part to the robot equation, one that speaks to the foundation of what it means to be human. That’s why we are so desperate to imagine them.

In pop-culture, you don’t have to look too far beyond films like Metropolis or Forbidden Planet or Star Wars to get a delicious sampling of the iconic robot evolution the twentieth century left for us. Sure, the real answer to “What will they look like?” is probably us. But that can’t satisfy our need to dream them up on paper, on film, or – one day – in the flesh.

Robots in SF are just characters in a story like any other. But when left to age on the shelf they become a beautiful reminder of just how horrible we are at predicting our future. It’s exciting, really – the fact that we have no idea what is going to happen to us down the road. It makes the adventure of humanity a real cliff-hanger each and every day.

The robot also reminds us that all things must past – that we too will one day be looked upon as quirky curiosities from an era that no longer exists. They’re a reminder that science fiction and the dreams we create within it are not futuristic at all: they are mortal. They will perish with us, forever reincarnated as a message from the past that future generations will inevitably pick apart and find humor in. But even the most ludicrous examples will offer a visual of what we intended to hand down through hard work and innovation and, above all, imagination.

How future generations get to where they are is entirely up to us. And though, as individuals, we might not have the gifts to see it coming – as a human collective, we can work out the true path all of us are on.

And we will. And that’s so awesome.