04 April 2017

Princess Josephine, 10/16/2006 - 3/30/2017

Four years ago, I wrote about how my cat Josephine came into my life. It breaks my heart to now have to write about how she left it last Thursday (30 March). I wrote this originally in a Facebook post that evening, primarily as a means of informing as many of my family and friends all at once as I could, sparing me from having to type it out repeatedly. I haven't been able, however, to bring myself to write a blog post about her. I don't know why I should distinguish between the two, as though somehow whatever I write on Facebook is inferior to what I would write here. That curiosity is for another time, though. For now, I've just chosen to copy and paste because there really isn't much for me to add.

My favorite picture of Josephine.
Josephine had exhibited nothing whatsoever to indicate anything was wrong, so her passing was entirely unexpected. Her behavior up to the time I went to bed was completely typical. She was energetic, had an appetite, was affectionate as ever.... I need to believe that whatever happened, happened suddenly and that she was spared any suffering.

Almost every night for the last decade, Jos has purred me to sleep. When I haven't felt well and was whiny, I'd beg her to come to bed just so I could fall asleep. Time and again, she would dutifully come tend to me, even when I could tell she just wanted to get back up and go do whatever it was she wanted to do. When I've been inpatient, whether for Crohn's or mental issues, I've relied on the muscle memory of snuggling with her to coax myself into sleep.

She really was a soulmate, and I mean that in its truest sense. We just belonged together. She made me feel accepted and loved in ways that no one else has; no other pet, and not even any human. I don't mean to slight anyone when I say this.

She was amazingly patient with me. I would pick out her eye crusties. Sometimes I would muss with her head, as I did on our final night together, just to see how much she would tolerate. I always gave up before she did. She could not have been more docile (unless you ask Muffin, whom she unfortunately and surprisingly did take to bullying over the last year and a half).

Jos was so close to me that my absence was a source of separation anxiety for her. Even just going upstairs set off a timer for her, and when it expired, she would mew until I finally returned. She didn't really need me to do anything to make her feel better except just to have me back in her field of vision. That was enough to content her.

I'm still too stunned to feel much of anything else. I feel an expected emptiness which I know the passage of time will help alleviate. I can't imagine, though, that going to bed will ever not feel empty after this loss.

My imagination was entirely right about that last point. Going to bed has been truly painful. That first night, I tried clutching a throw pillow. I threw it after maybe a full minute, rejecting the unacceptable substitute for my princess. I can get through being awake okay-ish, but even the act of physically getting into bed is agonizing. I haven't been able to fall or stay asleep for days now.

Jos indulging my by wearing an elf hat, Christmas, 2011.
Note: I have no idea when Josephine was actually born. 16 October is her "birthday (observed)", as that is the day that the incident involving Josephine Baker, for whom she was named, took place. This is recounted in the piece I mentioned in my opening remarks that I wrote about her a few years ago. I'll spare you having to scroll back up for the link in case you're interested. It's right here.

08 February 2017

Senator Rand Paul on the Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

I wrote recently in this blog about my concerns of the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the cabinet position of Secretary of Education. I included the content of the letter I sent to Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul in that post. I was unable to get through to Senator McConnell's offices, but I was able to get through to Senator Paul's. I recited the content of my letter to the receptionist. I knew that was unnecessary, but I hoped it might be cathartic to know someone in that office had to actually listen to my words. I received no such catharses. Both Senators voted to confirm DeVos, over the objections of so many protests that phone lines were either overwhelmed or shut down entirely. Senator Paul sent the following email:

February 7, 2017

Dear Mr. McClain,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding the nomination and confirmation of Elisabeth "Betsy" DeVos to become Secretary of Education. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on her nomination. 
Providing advice and consent on personnel appointments and nominations is one of the most important duties of the United States Senate. As I have in the past, I carefully evaluate each nominee on the basis of their record, qualifications and their demonstrated commitment to upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution. Like you, I believe it is critically important to place only the most qualified individuals in positions of such importance.
Mrs. Betsy DeVos was nominated by President Donald Trump on November 23, 2016. Following a nomination hearing on January 17, 2017, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee reported the nominee favorably by a vote of 12-11. Mrs. DeVos is a school-choice advocate, philanthropist, and pillar in the education reform community. Mrs. DeVos and I share the belief that when it comes to education, the federal government has been more of a hindrance than a help. Her emphasis on the provision of choice to administrators, teachers, and parents refocuses us as a nation towards the children we are educating. Therefore, I voted to confirm Mrs. DeVos as the Secretary of Education in the HELP Committee and on the Senate floor. On February 7, 2017, Secretary DeVos' nomination was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 51-50.
Again, thank you for contacting my office. It is an honor and a privilege to represent the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the United States Senate. For more information on these topics as well as my many other legislative initiatives, feel free to visit my website at www.paul.senate.gov.


          Rand Paul, MD
          United States Senator 

26 January 2017

On Kentucky Senate Bill 48

Senate Bill 48 was introduced three weeks ago, but I only just learned about it. Here's the official summary (emphasis mine):
     Amend KRS 173.480, relating to public library districts' initial board appointments, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint the first members of the newly created library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.490, relating to public library districts, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint members or fill vacancies of the library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.725, relating to petition-created library districts' initial board appointments, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint the first members of the newly created library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.730, relating to library districts created by petition, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint members or fill vacancies of the library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable.
Maybe I've been made skittish by the pushes by Republicans in other states, like North Carolina and North Dakota, and maybe it's a residual effect of having read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but when I read a bill placing library boards at the mercy of a county judge/executive's "opinion" about who is "suitable", I become apprehensive. To that end, I've written a letter to my state senator, which I've seen fit to republish here.

Senator Harris,

I am a constituent of yours and I am writing you concerning Senate Bill 48, pertaining to library boards. Specifically, the bill would allow county judges/executives to replace board members when, "in the judge's opinion, are not suitable" (directly quoted from several passages in said bill).

This smacks of partisan efforts to exert control over our public libraries, not to support our librarians, but to micromanage them to suit the ideological whims of county executives. The danger of implicit censorship could not be clearer.

In Oldham County, we have been blessed with a fantastic library system. To a person, the staff has been consistently insightful and helpful for as long as I've been going, which dates back to my childhood in the early 80's. Our librarians work hard to understand and meet the needs of our community. SB48, by its very existence, denies that and threatens to remove from them the autonomy under which they have operated to date.

I ask that you stand with our librarians and oppose SB48. Let your colleagues know that their efforts need to be put to work securing reliable, affordable health care and bringing quality jobs to the state, and not in trying to micromanage a community system that has flourished without their intervention.

Travis McClain

I would encourage all Kentuckians to take a few moments to dash off a message to their state senators and ask them to reject SB48. You can find your senator here.

19 January 2017

On the Confirmation of Betty DeVos as Education Secretary

There is a call to action from citizens to urge their Senators to vote not to confirm President-Elect Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, Betty DeVos. You can join the effort here. I wrote a letter to my Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. I've decided to make it an open letter by also publishing it here.

More effective than writing letters, though, is to actually call your Senators' offices. Letters can be ignored, but phones have to be answered! You can find your state's Senators' contact numbers on the official Senate website's directory here. As of this update, only three more Senators are needed to commit to rejecting DeVos's confirmation. It's doable, but the clock is ticking!

I am a constituent who grew up in Oldham County. Our schools have been fantastic, to the point of leading numerous families to defect from Louisville to see that their children had the best possible education opportunity they could provide.

I went on to complete my bachelor's studies at the University of Louisville, where I was one of only nine students in my graduating class to major in history and graduate cum laude or better. I saw time and again while I was in those classrooms that my education in Oldham County had brilliantly prepared me for college.

At times, I have certainly felt sorry for my fellow Kentuckians who didn't have the same opportunity I enjoyed. There is no question whatsoever that our education system has room for improvement.

To that end, like several of my closest friends, I intended to go into teaching myself. As I was preparing for my senior year at UofL, though, I developed Crohn's disease. I quickly learned that it isn't compatible with the classroom even as a student, and I was dissuaded from even trying to earn my Master's, let alone becoming a teacher myself. That breaks my heart every day, I can assure you.

But I know the character and caliber of my friends and their colleagues. They *are* making a difference in their various schools, from preschool to high school, teaching math, language arts, music, social studies, science, art, and special needs. They are singularly devoted to their students, and in seeing to it that every child they teach is engaged, inspired, supported, and aided in his or her journey. It is difficult work, to be sure, which is why they need the support of a Secretary of Education who understands and appreciates the demands, responsibilities, and ambitions of that work.

I am writing you now regarding the nomination of Betty DeVos to become our next Education Secretary.

I recognize that Mrs. DeVos has taken a keen interest in our education system, but that interest is insufficient qualification for such an instrumental posting. Like millions of other concerned citizens, I followed her confirmation hearing closely. I was dismayed by her refusal to commit to protecting the rights of disabled and LGBTQ students.

I am similarly bothered by her conspicuous avoidance when asked whether she would continue to uphold Title IX, particularly in regard to its application to address the very serious matter of campus sexual violence.

Our students deserve better than the glib "vision" that Mrs. DeVos has put forth. They deserve to attend schools that are given clear leadership and necessary support from the Education Secretary. Their teachers deserve that same leadership and support. Mrs. DeVos has demonstrated that she does not understand or value those needs, and as your constituent, I respectfully urge you to use your vote to tell the incoming President to find another nominee for the post who deserves to occupy it.

With respect,

Travis S. McClain

27 December 2016

In Memoriam: Carrie Fisher

I took myself to a matinee of Rogue One this afternoon. It leads up to the first scene of the original Star Wars movie, with a motion-capture recreation of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the final shot. A rebel hands her a data disc containing the stolen plans to the Death Star, and asks her what it is. "Hope," she answers. Cut to credits.

That was the memory of Carrie Fisher I was able to form before learning that while I was at the theater, news had spread that she had died. In fact, it was my therapist who told me about it at my appointment a few hours after the movie. If there's a more Carrie Fisher way to find out about something like this than from your therapist, I don't know what it would be.

I didn't grow up with Star Wars. I knew it existed, but there was no one in my life to see to it that I was exposed to it, so I didn't get around to watching the movies until I decided to rent them on VHS in 1992. So despite being from the generation I'm from, I can't share tales of watching Princess Leia save the galaxy shaping my childhood.

What I can share, though, is how reading Carrie Fisher interviews has shaped my ability to discuss my mental health.

Being a geek, I read various geek-centric magazines long before I finally gave in and explored Star Wars. There's no telling when I first read an interview with Fisher, or in which magazine, or what she even talked about in it. It doesn't make much difference, though, because as anyone who has ever read pretty much any interview she ever gave knows, invariably she would have touched on her mental health in one way or another.

I remember feeling confused and even a bit put off by the way she talked about having bipolar disorder. Her sense of humor made me question if she took it seriously, and if she didn't, why should anyone else? I didn't know anything about bipolar disorder aside from it being a volatile mental illness. It sounded scary. How could it be scary if she was making jokes about it?

Of course, this was all before I was ever given my own diagnoses and began to really learn about mental health. I didn't know the term "stigma", but I intuited that it existed. Things like bipolar disorder were unfit for polite society. They were embarrassing for the people who had it and they made everyone else uncomfortable. And then there was Carrie Fisher, who seemed incapable of being embarrassed.

I didn't understand it at the time, but what was actually taking place was I was reading an interview that some magazine decided to run because their readers loved Star Wars (even if it was ostensibly about some other film of hers, it was always really about Star Wars) and what Carrie Fisher was doing was showing us how to actually acknowledge and discuss mental health at a time when so few others seemed comfortable even trying. I was learning from her that it's okay to talk about it at all, for one thing, but I was also learning from her the ways that one can talk about it.

If I had to characterize Carrie Fisher in a single word, I'd go with "shameless". Ordinarily, we use that word to indicate someone who is brazen and defies manners. But here I mean that she rejected the very concept of shame when it came to her mental health and life experiences. I was already learning from David Letterman how to make oneself into a punch line, but this was something different. Every time she acknowledged that she had bipolar disorder, Carrie Fisher was effectively declaring, "I will not be shamed into silence about this."

Over the years, I came to better understand and appreciate the value of finding levity and making light of one's mental illness. I learned that, yes, you can make jokes and still take it seriously -- and expect others to also take it seriously, even as they chuckle along with your quips. It would be going too far to say that my sense of humor about my mental health came from Carrie Fisher; our styles of humor are fairly different in general. But it is 100% accurate to say that it was Carrie Fisher who gave me permission to have a sense of humor about my mental health, and for that I am eternally grateful. It's given me my most relied-upon tool to use against depression and anxiety. And as I'm sure you know, Dear Reader, having something that powerful to fall back on gives us something else, too:


20 December 2016

Let's Talk About PTSD and Coloring Books

Ten days ago, while I was curled up in bed writhing in pain from yet another Crohn's flare, Piers Morgan saw a tweet from CNN International about a story they were airing about Lady Gaga revealing publicly that she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here's his reaction:

You better goddamn believe I have something to say about this.

Just as Morgan and people like him have it in their minds that PTSD is exclusively endured by combat veterans, there's also a dangerous parallel problem facing sexual assault survivors, relevant here specifically because this is the source of Lady Gaga's PTSD. Two years ago, George Will took it upon himself to define what is and is not sexual assault in a particularly appalling column in the Washington Post. [I'm providing you a link here, but only so you can verify for yourself what he wrote, even though that translates into increased exposure for such loathsome writing.] Here are the opening two sentences, which set the tone for the entire diatribe:
Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.
He even actually typed and submitted for publication the following sentence:
Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.”
See, just as Piers Morgan has defined who can and cannot have PTSD (combat veterans only, thank you very much), George Will has defined who can and cannot be a sexual assault survivor. Between the two of them, there's allowance that what Lady Gaga has experienced even happened in the first place, but if it did, it wasn't really traumatizing.

The underlying problem here is ignorance, Dear Reader. Ignorance that exists for those who have been spared such things themselves, and whose formative years were lived during a time when those who weren't spared those things were intimidated into maintaining silence. That intimidation is still there -- Morgan and Will have provided the evidence I've documented here -- but people are no longer as acquiescent to "polite society" as they were in the past. PTSD sufferers and sexual assault survivors of yesteryear lived in agony, dismissed and erased even by their own families, but we no longer accept that twisted social contract.

I grew up under that social contract, and I just turned 38 a few weeks ago. I started having my first suicidal thoughts at age 9. I wasn't seen or treated for depression until I was in my 20's. Why? Because no matter how my mental health issues manifest themselves, I was just "moody". "Going through a phase." After all, I was "too young to have real problems." (Notice again that even when there's allowance that some hypothetical people may experience these things, you're not one of them.)

You may recall, Dear Reader, that I was hospitalized for a week last year in inpatient treatment for suicidal depression. It was my second inpatient stay in five years. We live in an era of fake news and people denying whatever doesn't suit the narrative they want, so here's my evidence. This is the first page of the crisis safety plan paperwork I had to complete. You'll note that the top line ("My diagnosis is...") is in different handwriting from the rest. I had to fill in everything else, but my diagnoses were added by the attending psychiatrist after I'd done my part. I've digitally erased some sensitive patient ID numbers and the names of contacts, but this is otherwise the real McCoy, right down to my own John Hancock at the bottom.

Again, I didn't even get to see the first line filled in when I had the page in front of me. They have you fill in this stuff during your intake process, and then review it when you're discharged. I had never been told until I was looking at this page that I had PTSD. Let me tell you, Dear Reader, that's a hell of a thing to learn about yourself. And the funny thing is, it wasn't one of those "That can't be right!" moments. It was instead one of those "Oh, well, duh!" moments. 

Last June, I shared in this blog about what I call "an incident" during my childhood. I refuse to describe the acts that took place; gawk at someone else, but frankly it's none of your business what specifically happened. All you need to know is that it did happen, and that it's affected me in the ways I shared in that post. Just so you don't think I'm fishing to boost my page view numbers (this blog isn't monetized, incidentally), I'll summarize.

I've been hyper-aware since I was 4 years old. Whenever I walk into a room, I immediately intuit where the places of entry/exit are. I can't even comfortably take off my shirt in public to go swimming because I feel that vulnerable and threatened. Notice I'm not using the past tense here. These are just some of the things that are still with me decades after "the incident". They'll be with me the rest of my life.

Which is why it's almost embarrassing that it never occurred to me that I might have PTSD. I mean, it's pretty damn obvious on paper. But when you've grown up being told time and again you're just moody and going through a phase and too young to have real problems, you stumble forward as best you can on your own because there's no meaningful help available to you. You don't meet the criteria written by Morgan & Will. Of course, as anyone who recognizes themselves in any of this already knows, you're still traumatized whether they confer upon you that "privileged status" or not.

And this brings me to the third antagonist in this post: Trump supporters. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented 1,094 bias-related incidents just since the election was held six weeks ago. Bigots aren't merely writing unkind tweets. They're committing acts of violence, or at least threatening it to the point that their targets are in fear for their immediate safety.

Perhaps most heartbreaking is that the location where the most incidents have been documented are K-12 schools. Being picked on as a kid sucks in general. I should know; I endured that for several years. But I wasn't targeted because of my skin color or my ethnic heritage. I can't fathom what it must be like for the children and adolescents right now under siege from the bigots emboldened by Trump's election. My thoughts were dominated by suicidal urges at that age, and I could at least come home after school and none of it followed me there. These kids can't turn on a TV, log onto Facebook, or even overhear adults have a conversation without being reminded that a whole lot of their neighbors (figurative, but also literal) wish to see harm come to them.

I've seen countless tweets over the last two days alone gloating about their candidate's victory. And ordinarily, I'd say that's perfectly fair to do. But the gloating isn't the kind that we're accustomed to in American politics. I'm not trying to whitewash anything here; I'm a liberal in Kentucky. I vividly recall the aftermath of the 2004 election, when even I kinda wanted my then-girlfriend to give in and remove the John Kerry bumper sticker from her car. I never said anything about it, because that's how I am, but I frequently became physically defensive going to or from that car at times just on account of that sticker.

There's one specific bit of trash talk that's particularly irked me, and it's partly because I've seen it from so many different tweeters that it can't be downplayed as just a few people saying it. Therapy tools have become a popular target for mockery, especially coloring books. I'll admit, when I first heard about adult coloring books and I found out they weren't, y'know adult coloring books, I shrugged it off as just another fad that wasn't for me.

But then, Dear Reader, I was hospitalized last year. And there I saw firsthand the power that something so seemingly trivial had for some patients. Patients with diagnoses and backgrounds like mine. Even George Will might have had a hard time denying a few of them their privileged status as survivors (though I'm sure he'd have tried his damnedest). After a week of inpatient treatment, I was stepped back down to outpatient.

The last new patient to join my group was a man older than me.  I can still remember the look on his face when he came into the room that first morning. I was the only one already there. I greeted him and did my best to answer any questions he had. It was clear that he was nervous. It turned out that he was a combat veteran. He'd done twelve deployments, including five to Afghanistan. And he told me, and then later our group once assembled, that the scariest thing he'd ever done in his entire life was walk through the door that morning.

Let that sink in.

Why was it less scary for him to be sent into twelve different war zones than to set foot inside a mental health hospital? Because it was a complete unknown to him. Not because he hadn't already been a patient before; at one time, he hadn't been a soldier before, either. But because the Piers Morgans and the George Wills have so ardently maintained their ideological definitions of who is and is not traumatized, depressed, a sexual assault survivor, etc., that even now it's that intimidating to broach, even for people who recognize that they need that kind of help.

And that brings me back to Lady Gaga.

No, Piers Morgan, it isn't her who is "vain-glorious". It's you. What she's doing is trying to divert the spotlight already on her to a subject where you and your ilk have cast darkness because it satisfies your egocentricity. I understand completely why she chose to share what she did, and I understand it because it's the same reason I share what I share: to try to reach others in ways that no one was there to reach us when we needed it. To be a voice competing with yours saying, "Quit seeking attention" with ours saying, "Please seek the help you need and deserve." And hopefully, to model for those people how it can be to go through all this and come through it in better shape.

I don't just share my experiences in this blog, which is probably for the best since I've been too demoralized about writing to do much with it over the last few years. I've become active in my local chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. There are meetings in a few different places throughout the week. I attend group meetings on Tuesday and Thursday, when my physical health permits. I've missed five consecutive meetings now, spanning three weeks. I've even become a regular group facilitator (again, as my physical health permits). I've met probably two hundred different people in my time as a member there. Some only come once or twice. Some come and go in streaks, dropping back in when they see they need some boosting. One of the DBSA mission statements is that we "accept racial, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity and promote their acceptance." It would be bad form for me to share anything that's shared in our group meetings, but I will let you in on one thing we all have in common.

We all needed our own Lady Gaga at one point or another, and we all try to be someone else's when we can.

Mine was Wagatwe Wanjuki. I can't even remember how she first came to my attention, but I'm sure it was through Twitter. She's a prominent figure in the fight against rape culture in general, and in particular, campus sexual violence. A survivor herself, she understands firsthand how devastating it can be. She's done a great deal of admirable work, including being part of the ED Act Now leadership whose tireless campaigning prompted President Obama to create the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. You can learn more about her advocacy resume on her website, but the important thing to know is that she's directly responsible for why I was able to come forward about "the incident" after keeping it secret from my inner circle all these years, and never even discussing it with my family.

I would never have written that blog post in the first place if not for her. I damn sure would never have published it if not for her. Not every survivor will want to share their experiences, and more importantly, not a single one should have to. I can only say that I found "putting it out there" has been empowering for me in ways I couldn't have imagined as a child. How could I have imagined it, when the directive seemed to be to never speak of it again?

I'm proud and grateful to count Wagatwe among my friends, and those whom I do call friends can tell you that's probably the only "f" word I use sparingly. I'm incredibly fortunate, to be honest, in that I have so many friendships. I've said often that if I've only ever done one thing right, it's been to surround myself with wonderful people. If you recall the beginning of all this, Dear Reader, I noted that in the scan of my paperwork, I'd digitally erased the names of contacts. Those were for question #7, where I was to name "Supportive friends/family member I can call" during a crisis. I had names written from left to right on both lines, and I could have kept going for several more.

Many, maybe even most, people aren't as fortunate as I am in that respect. I'm not talking about all this to impress you, Dear Reader, or to suck up to my friends (they don't need it). I'm getting to my final point in all this, which is that I know how hard all of this has been on me, and I have this kind of support system. I was too browbeaten by the Piers Morgans and George Wills to reach out to them about such things for entirely too long. So when I read that Lady Gaga has put herself out there the way she did and then Morgan berates her for it, yeah, that upset me a whole hell of a lot. Because I know for a fact there are people out there for whom she's all the role model they have to even realize they can take ownership over their experiences somehow. They may not have a friend in every time zone who might be awake whenever they're overcome by anxiety or despair, but they do have Lady Gaga. Never underestimate what anyone may find empowering, whether it's a celebrity sharing their experiences on CNN International or a coloring book.

And you damn sure better not undermine what anyone finds empowering around me.

14 December 2016

Post-Election Helplessness: The Beginning of the End

I haven't written much about the 2016 presidential campaign at all, and nothing since the election itself was held more than a month ago. A little while ago, I found this Facebook post by Robert Reich, wherein he identifies four "syndromes" people have experienced since the election. Go on and click the link and read it. I'll wait.

I have the fourth syndrome (helpless). Reich says there's lots to be done, and he's right about that. What's actually doable that can have a legitimate chance at success, though, seems to be far beyond my ability to affect. Call my legislators? Who? I'm a Kentuckian. Who am I going to call? Mitch McConnell, whose wife is one of Trump's cabinet picks? (I did call McConnell's office right after the Steve Bannon announcement, incidentally, asking him to convince Trump to rescind that appointment. If he's remotely inclined to even care, he surely hasn't done anything to indicate it.)

I've tried making people aware of things. I've tried challenging talking points. I'd have better luck throwing messages in bottles into the sea. At least those messages might somehow be found by people who give a damn. And I'm afraid my high-minded idealists are going to find that seeking a reasonable dialogue is impossible. The very thrust of the Trump movement was built on rejecting reason, cooperation, or anything resembling civilized behavior. These are people who seek to run roughshod over everyone different from them, or whom they just have it in mind to target because they can.

While I'm at it, I'm disgusted at this point by the "wait to see what he actually does" timidity. We're ALREADY SEEING what he's doing. People are already suffering because of the things he's said and done and encouraged others to say and do. Quit acting like these things somehow don't count because he hasn't been sworn in yet. THEY FUCKING COUNT. The women who have been assaulted on subways, the Muslims whose hijabs have been torn from their heads, the Hispanic students taunted by their white classmates that they're going to be deported; these injuries aren't scrimmages.

I remain hopeful that we collectively will weather this storm, that we will find ways to subvert, to challenge, to protect one another, to push back against the ugliness that threatens us all. But that doesn't mean I naively believe that all of us as individuals will make it to then. We won't. People are going to die, whether murdered by the white supremacists who see this as their time to act with impunity, made too vulnerable by the gutting of protection and assistance agencies pledged by Trump and his incoming cabinet, or those who simply become inconsolably overwhelmed and end their own lives.

I already know I won't live to see the end of this. I've voted in my last election. I've celebrated my last birthday. My death won't change anything, and I'm not under any illusions that it will. This isn't about some kind of martyr fantasy. This is simply about me recognizing my own vulnerabilities.

When I first started blogging, I didn't really have a direction for it. As I've admitted before, I think I was basically just trying to mimic journalism. It's pretty embarrassing to think about my feeble attempts at writing movie and CD reviews! Along the way, though, I came to see this blog as my legacy. It's what I'll leave behind when I'm gone. Stories I like to tell, mostly, but sometimes I've used it just as a way to make a sort of record of what was going on with me at the time.

Now? Now I don't even know how long this blog can realistically be expected to remain up. I've thought at times about having a book printed, collecting specific posts. There are several different printing services out there for just such a project. I'd certainly like to hear any suggestions for posts that I've written that you, Dear Reader, think ought to be "preserved" in tangible book form!

26 October 2016

Marian Edington, 1927-2016

I'm confused and Marian is laughing. Somehow, it feels right that this is the only photo of the two of us I can find.
Marian Edington was my wife's paternal grandmother. She lived primarily in eastern Ohio, just that side of the state line from West Virginia. I didn't meet her until a year into my relationship with my wife. We took a weekend to go visit her at her home. I remember we arrived around midnight, which isn't a problem for me, but I figured it was rather inconvenient for a host of her age and generation to receive us at that time. I was prepared for awkward, generic small talk and to spend the weekend feeling like a third wheel, but I was going so that my then-girlfriend could have some time with her grandmother.

I couldn't have been wronger. Few people have ever made me feel as thoroughly welcomed as quickly as she did. Within just a few minutes, we were sitting in her living room, her dachshund Pepper flitting about and entertaining all of us. Marian and I shared a sense of humor, which allowed us to get past the superficial level of introductory conversation in short order. I think we only stayed up for half an hour at most before retiring to bed that first night, but we had already begun making one another laugh. Legitimately laughter, mind you; not the feeble polite laughter you exchange to mollify someone. We cracked each other up from that very first meeting through nearly every conversation we had thereafter.

The next day, she confessed that she'd forgotten my name and for whatever reason, thought that it was Bryan. I assured her that my own grandmother flubbed names so often that I was used to answering to pretty much anything anyway. Thereafter, I was Bryan probably as often as I was Travis. The running joke amused us both. Sometimes if I happened to catch my wife talking with her on the phone, I'd have her pass along that "Bryan says hi". I think one year I even signed a Christmas card to her with that name.

We visited her sister, brother-in-law, and niece during that first visit, the sisters playing euchre against my wife and me. They had us at a disadvantage in that they knew how to play the game. We had an advantage in that Marian and I kept laughing enough that it disrupted her concentration at times. We still lost, of course. More importantly, though, the memory stands out so vividly for me because playing cards against someone can be quite a test. Your best friend whom you'd trust with your life can become ruthless and temperamental as a card player. Again, though, the experience was loose and lighthearted despite her taking it seriously enough that she did play to win.

That was the only time I met her sister; the next time we returned was for her funeral. I wasn't yet diagnosed with Crohn's at that time, but I was clearly exhibiting the symptoms. I was too physically miserable to attend the service itself. I felt bad about that, until everyone returned and I spoke with Marian. She was concerned about me that morning! I was touched that on the day she'd laid to rest her sister -- her lifelong best friend -- that she paid such consideration to my well-being. I know the difference between politeness and compassion. She was compassionate.

Nowhere was our relationship better explored than our discussions about politics. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum, but she had that rare ability to talk thoughtfully about politics so that the conversation was an actual dialogue, rather than an exchange of shouting talking points at one another. We found quite a lot of common ground and areas of agreement, which was refreshing, but I think I value even more the times we disagreed. She always gave my argument fair consideration, even when she rejected it. More importantly, those disagreements never jeopardized our relationship or even the mood of the conversation at hand. Our shared sense of humor helped with that, I think.

I'm saddened to know that she's now passed away, but I also know how difficult these last several years had been for her. She's at rest now, and it's a well earned rest at that. She was one of the most enigmatic people I've ever known. She was considerate, compassionate, fair-minded, wry, astute, and at times outright goofy. She was a gracious host, a thoughtful conversationalist, and someone who made the world a little bit better just by being herself.

How someone with her character voted Republican, I'll never know. (Sorry, Marian; couldn't resist!)

I last saw her a year before my wife and I separated, back in 2010. She was recovering from a nearly fatal car collision. She was severely depressed. She was resentful of the condition of her body, in constant pain, fatiguing easily, and reliant on a cane or walker to get around. As it happened, I was in enough pain myself that weekend that I was using my own cane. We sat outside one afternoon. She shared with me how bleakly she saw her present and future, despondent over the futility of physical rehabilitation. I listened quietly, knowing it was difficult for her give voice to these dark thoughts.

We were just about to leave to go out for dinner. I pointed to the sidewalk with my cane and said, "Come on. I'll race you."

She laughed. She chastised me for making her laugh. Then we laughed together.

That's how I'm going to remember her.

01 October 2016

"Star Trek: The Astral Symphony"

Star Trek: The Astral Symphony
Album Compiled and Produced by Cliff Eidelman
Original Release Date: 1 October 1991
List Price: $14.99 (CD) | $11.99 (Cassette)
Star Trek: The Astral Symphony takes you where no musical journey has gone before…
This historic compilation of memorable music from the original soundtrack recordings of all five Star Trek motion pictures will charge the senses and expand your listening pleasure, over and over again. The Astral Symphony is a unique and thrilling musical experience that will send you beyond the frontiers of your own imagination!
Admittedly, it's not particularly original, but it's the use of the word "historic" that merits consideration. Today, of course, digital music has made it possible for us to throw together playlists at will, but listeners of my vintage (or older) will recall a time when we were at the mercy of record labels to present us one-stop shopping for our music survey needs. It was a huge deal in 1994 when Garth Brooks released the 18-track compilation, The Hits, spanning his first five studio albums (excluding the Christmas album, Beyond the Season). Now, consider being the kind of nerd who actually cared about the music from Star Trek movies. We were lucky to even have soundtrack albums, abridged though they were. Any compilations were strictly homemade, copying from vinyl or cassette to another cassette.
In 1991, though, Paramount threw quite a merchandise-heavy party for the silver anniversary of their flagship franchise. They even took the (nearly) unprecedented step of commissioning composer Cliff Eidelman, hired to score that year's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to create an entirely original piece of music to be featured in that film's release trailer. That's right: the trailer got its own music. '91 was a heady time, y'all.

Paramount also handed over to Eidelman the soundtrack albums of his predecessors in the series, from which he assembled The Astral Symphony. It truly was "historic", in that it was the first ever legitimate, mass-produced compilation of music from the series. Eidelman, who in interviews claimed Jerry Goldsmith's works on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as his favorites, eschewed chronological sequencing and instead favored an arrangement designed purely for listening.

I concede my own bias, but in my world it's still among the finest playlists of all time. Sixteen tracks culled from five films, written by three different composers, spanning a full decade (1979-1989), and the only thing they have in common is that they're from the same movie series. Of those five films, only Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (both scored by James Horner) have strong aesthetic similarities. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is considerably more lighthearted, punctuated by Leonard Rosenman's jazzy cues, seemingly so irreverent that it's a wonder Eidelman squeezed in any of it, let alone a third of that album!

1. "Life Is a Dream"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
The most obvious piece of music to include would have to have been Goldsmith's theme for The Motion Picture, which series creator Gene Roddenberry loved so much he reused it eight years later for the TV spin-off, The Next Generation. There were two dilemmas to using the theme from that first film, though. Firstly, Goldsmith composed it without including Alexander Courage's iconic fanfare from the TV show, something Roddenberry had composer Dennis McCarthy rectify for TNG, and which Goldsmith himself adopted when he returned to the series for its fifth big screen outing.

The other issue was that the original music is a fairly long piece that bleeds into "The Klingon Battle". To be sure, Goldsmith's Klingon motif is memorable and worthy of recognition all on its own, but "The Klingon Battle" also introduces us to Vejur's theme. It's simply too complex and too long for a compilation. The solution? The end credits music from The Final Frontier. It's got the Courage fanfare, the Motion Picture/TNG theme, and even includes the Klingon motif, all in a tidy four minutes!

2. "The Meld"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
"Life Is a Dream" conjures images and feelings of adventurism, which is why cutting immediately to "The Meld" is so daring. This is the eerie, uncertain climax of the first movie, as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy bear witness to a fusion of man and technology. It's by far the most cerebral payoff the franchise has yet had in a movie, and Goldsmith's music is central to how we experience it. Initially tentative, it intensifies as the characters begin to realize what is taking place, until its triumphant resolution. On the surface, I doubt "The Meld" sounds particularly sensuous, but that's precisely what it is.

3. "Returning to Vulcan"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
We shift from Goldsmith to James Horner, though at a peculiar moment in time. Admiral Kirk has just left behind the body of his son, David, on the doomed Genesis Planet and has arrived at Vulcan with the remnants of his crew. McCoy converses with Spock, wondering how they'll manage to transfer the latter's spirit to his resurrected body. This is a deeply intimate, poignant moment in their relationship, one that not even Kirk is allowed to observe. Only us. It's a sensitive, forlorn piece of music and it follows "The Meld" more organically than I would have even thought to have tried.

4. "Battle in the Mutara Nebula"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
There's a lot to love about The Wrath of Khan, and chief among my personal favorite elements is its submarine-style final showdown between Admiral Kirk's U.S.S. Enterprise and Khan's U.S.S. Reliant. Horner leads us into battle with his main march, alternately suspenseful, thrilling...and scarily silent. Music, we're told, is the space between notes, and Horner deftly navigated the space between the notes just before the last volley of the firefight is exchanged. Just as we've begun to hold our breath, Khan is announced; his attack motif erupts so violently that it can be startling to hear all on its own away from the film.

5. "Enterprise Clears Moorings"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
What an odd choice this was, to jump back to an earlier point in the same film here! This is the martial(-esque) sendoff for the Enterprise at the outset of the film, entirely unaware of what awaits. For this moment in time, all is well. Sure, the footage is reused directly from the same scene in The Motion Picture, but Horner's music manages to reinvent the experience. Plus, at this point in the album, we could frankly use some wide-eyed optimism.

6. "Chekov's Run"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
I've often wondered if Eidelman placed this cue here because Chekov is the one principle member of the bridge crew who was not aboard the Enterprise when she cleared moorings. At first blanch, Goldsmith and Horner are different enough one might be hesitant about putting their works together, but then comes Rosenman and somehow, it actually works to consolidate the album. "Chekov's Run" is something of a time-out between weightier pieces, but it's also catchy and a standout all on its own.

7. "Ilia's Theme"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
To date, the only overture to play before a Star Trek movie, and it's gorgeous. Some have accused it of being derivative of John Williams's "Princess Leia's Theme" from his Star Wars soundtrack. I've always found "Ilia's Theme" more sophisticated and fuller. The opening piano and soothing strings evolve into an auditory world all its own. This is probably the single piece of all Star Trek music I believe could stand without any context whatsoever and still engage the same senses of curiosity and wonder that are evoked for those of us who know what it is.

8. "Without Help"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
The aforementioned Goldsmith Klingon theme dominates this piece, and more centrally than it was permitted to do in its lone appearance in his Motion Picture score. It does feel a bit redundant, given that it's also incorporated into the album-opening "Life Is a Dream" from this same movie. To be honest, I've always kinda wished Eidelman had instead opened with "The Mountain", which segues from the TMP/TNG theme into a wondrous theme for Captain Kirk's mountain climbing. That would give "Without Help" a little more spotlight. As it is, it draws our attention (at least, eventually) that Eidelman omitted Horner's own Klingon theme. Still, there's little point following "Ilia's Theme" with another thoughtful work so here's as good a place as any to stay within the same composer's aesthetic for an action piece.

9. "The Enterprise"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
"Ilia's Theme" may be the most perfect standalone composition here, but "The Enterprise" is my favorite single work in the entirety of Star Trek. The sequence it accompanies is completely self-indulgent and ought to be cut by at least an entire minute, and I don't care. I could watch the camera play peekaboo with the Enterprise model all day long, provided this lush and majestic piece by Goldsmith accompanied it. This concluded the first side of the cassette edition of the album.

10. "Prologue and Main Title"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
I've often felt it was important to understand this selection and placement in the context of the cassette, because somehow it just isn't as dramatic a followup to "The Enterprise" on CD. Much of this is a revisitation of Horner's Wrath of Khan "Epilogue/End Title", but with a key difference: this music does not resolve with a reprisal of Horner's swashbuckling main theme. Instead, it remains ethereal throughout, its final bars not a declaration of any sort, but rather an open-ended query, underlining Admiral Kirk's lonesome log narration in the film. There is promise somewhere in this music, but isn't for traditional heroic antics.

11. "Hospital Chase"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
After twelve and a half minutes of Goldsmith's elegance and Horner's moodiness, Eidelman splashes us with a 76 second romp from Rosenman. "Hospital Chase" and "Chekov's Run" both serve much the same purpose in their film as well as on this album; they're madcap dashes, placed where hopefully they'll ensure our attention hasn't begun to lapse. Between the two cues, I favor this one, though I do give Rosenman credit for infusing "Chekov's Run" with just enough Russian flavor to be noticeable without devolving into caricature.

12. "The Whaler"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
This is as close to a "serious" action cue as Rosenman gave The Voyage Home. I don't know that it's the piece I'd have gone with from that soundtrack here ("Gillian Seeks Kirk", "Time Travel", and/or "The Probe" would have all been just as fine), but I do appreciate the purpose that it serves, which is to transition us back into the relative seriousness of the Goldsmith/Horner compositions.

13. "An Angry God"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
Even though we know it isn't really God, our intrepid explorers are confronted with an encounter with a being powerful enough to be convincing as Him, which presents a musical challenge. Goldsmith had to convey the awe of the moment without overselling it; the suspicion without exposing the fraud prematurely; and the fear without reassuring us that it will all be okay in the end. It becomes outright frenetic by the end, evoking Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock vibes. "An Angry God" isn't a cue I would have selected, to be honest, but I get why Eidelman went with it.

14. "Genesis Countdown"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
What's scarier than God turning out to be a fraud? Khan. Khan is scarier than fraud God. And more perverse, in a way, given that he's using a weapon called Genesis to kill everyone. Horner's march sets the countdown in motion: can we escape certain doom? The resolute percussion, chased by the taunting horns, makes clear that this is a race, pure and simple. Fanfare erupts in false hope intermittently, dashed by Khan's relentless motif. The pace slows agonizingly as the cue continues; we're not moving as fast as death. Horner tells the entire story musically...down to the triumphant conclusion betraying us all.

15. "The Katra Ritual"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
The entirety of the first five Star Trek movies ultimately comes down to this one sequence: can Spock be made whole again? Horner's cue is unsettling, befitting the occasion, certainly, but also almost liturgical with its gongs and understated strings. This isn't quite as somber as "Returning to Vulcan", but neither is it wondrous as "The Meld" or majestic as "The Enterprise". It's something else entirely, and while it isn't necessarily hum-mable, it's thoughtfully written and really, the most appropriate climax to the album.

16. "Home Again: End Credits"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
Since Goldsmith's main theme opened the album, and Horner's "Prologue and Main Title" opened the second half, it stands to reason that The Astral Symphony should conclude with Rosenman. It's also a surprisingly smooth segue from the resurrection of Spock, being that "Home Again" opens with a reprisal of Alexander Courage's iconic TV show fanfare. This is the moment that both III and IV had been building to, after all: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest, back aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. By withholding Rosenman's main title until the end, it plays more jubilantly here than anywhere else, and it's an inspired choice.

I have no idea how many times I played my Astral Symphony CD over the years (including sleepovers with my friend Justin -- shout out, ya nerd!). I remember when I got a 6-CD changer, and I would load up the soundtracks to these first five movies, with the sixth slot dedicated to this compilation, and play through all of them. Even though I'd already heard "Ilia's Theme" and "Battle in the Mutara Nebula" by then, there was something different about hearing them in this order. Sure, I can make my own Star Trek playlists now (and I have), but really, they're all just my feeble attempts to capture the same wonder and excitement that Cliff Eidelman assembled on The Astral Symphony.

11 September 2016

I Pledged Allegiance to My Conscience

Much has been made recently of athletes like Colin Kaepernick electing to kneel silently during performances of the national anthem. I haven't talked about socio-political issues much in this blog for awhile, but this particular matter continues to kick around in my noggin.

See, when I was an adolescent, I became disillusioned with and cynical about America. It wasn't hard to become that way. The more I learned about the truth of our society, the more disgusted I became by the pageantry that directs us all to look at flags and proclaim ourselves the greatest people God ever created. And I was a straight, white, cisgender, natural born citizen in a Kentucky suburb. If I was that appalled, granted all those social privileges, surely the people whose daily lives were spent fighting those battles were way angrier than I was. After all, for me it was an abstract, ideological war of choice. I could have just shrugged it off, contented myself that "them's the breaks", and gone on patting myself on the back for being a grateful, blessed American.

I couldn't, though. My conscience had a hard time of it. Part of it, surely, was that I was very much an outsider being picked on frequently. I may not have known the experiences of the hypothetical Others, but I knew firsthand who their tormentors were. The arrogant, snotty white kids who so cheerfully and sadistically constructed and enforced their hierarchy with themselves at the top and me at the bottom put anyone they didn't approve of at the bottom. Some of those arrogant snots were teacher's kids, who did as they pleased with impunity. It didn't take me long to recognize that they were carrying out an extension of the values that my teachers were instilling in them at home. I was being taught to be subservient; they were being encouraged to indulge themselves.

Somewhere along the way in middle school, I just had enough of the pageantry. One morning, when we were directed to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, I stayed seated.

It wasn't because I hated America. It wasn't that I even saw myself in an adversarial relationship with my country. It was simply that the America I was seeing and learning about had fallen unacceptably short of the values my America proclaimed to hold dear. I saw myself as trying to keep America honest in my own little way, one 1st period class at a time. I never gave any monologue about all this. Most kids didn't even notice or care.

My teacher was aware. I knew he saw me remain seated, morning after morning. We talked some here and there throughout that school year, about things like my views on society. He never addressed my not standing for the Pledge, though. Not once. Never asked me what I thought I was doing, never lectured me about insulting the honored dead, never threatened to have me expelled if I didn't straighten out right then and there.

Maybe he never said anything to me about it because he figured it wasn't worth the hassle. I like to think, though, that he left me alone because even if he didn't agree with me, that he respected not just my constitutional right to free speech, but that he respected me enough as a human being -- yes, even an adolescent pupil of his -- to have given such a matter serious consideration. I wasn't being rebellious for the sake of showing off.

Remember, Dear Reader, this was the early 90's. We didn't scrutinize how lavishly each of us participated in patriotic pageantry. None of my peers at the time were made to feel conscious enough about such things that they took notice of my silent protest. Today's kids have grown up in a world where members of Congress were once so petty they had the cafeteria use the term "freedom fries" because France had the temerity to not throw in with us when we invaded Iraq. In those days, though, average adolescent kids were largely oblivious to details like how patriotic one demonstrated oneself to be. There's no clearer evidence I can offer of how trivial this was at the time than that my classmates, who harassed me mercilessly, didn't even register this as something to use against me.

do admire the ideals that my country has professed ever since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I am grateful to enjoy the benefits of a society that has been built by the hard work, sacrifice, and beliefs of those who have gone before me. I do respect those who have committed themselves to the protection of those ideals and of us all. If the Pledge asked instead for me to stand and proclaim my admiration, gratitude, and respect, I'd have done it. Ultimately, though, it was precisely because of that admiration, gratitude, and respect that I didn't.

Was I inelegant? Clumsy? Arrogant? Naive? Sometimes I look back and I think I was. Sometimes I look back and I think I was just ahead of my time, which is particularly distressing because I didn't even consider it then, but in addition to being white, straight, cisgender, and all that, I enjoyed one more privilege: I lived in a time when making that kind of a statement wasn't a national outrage. I can think of few things sadder than the realization that the America that disappointed me so much I protested against her was actually the more open-minded and accepting America.

02 September 2016

Actors Theatre of Louisville: "The 39 Steps"

Brown-Forman Presents The 39 Steps
adapted by Patrick Barlow
directed by Nathan Keepers
Featuring Carter Gill, Jesse J. Perez, David Ryan Smith, and Zuzanna Szadkowski
Scenic Designer - William Boles
Costume Designer - Alison Siple
Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood
Sound Designer - Stowe Nelson
Production Stage Manager - Paul Mills Holmes
Assistant Stage Manager - Jessica Kay Potter
Dramaturg - Jessica Reese

From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie of Alfred Hitchcock, licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

A week ago, I was running errands with my cousin downtown and we passed a window with a flier for The 39 Steps at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Truth be told, I'm just not all that into Hitchcock's filmography overall, but The 39 Steps is one of the few films of his I've seen that I did thoroughly enjoy. I was immediately excited, and then immediately disappointed when I remembered that I'm too poor to go to theater productions.

Then a fortuitous thing happened. Tuesday night, I learned that a select group of tickets to opening night had been generously made available for free to members of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance here in Louisville! I haven't written a whole lot about DBSA in this blog over the last year, but I've been going for a year now and have become a regular facilitator. It's been a tremendously important part of my mental health management, and I would encourage you, Dear Reader, to look into finding your nearest chapter in the event that you or someone you know might be dealing with these issues.

Helping me manage major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD is obviously the most important benefit of my participation, but getting to attend things like The 39 Steps is certainly a welcomed perk!

I knew going in that Patrick Barlow's adaptation had shifted the emphasis from the taut suspense of the Hitchcock film toward broader comedy. The very idea seems risky, but it works wonderfully. I have a low threshold for slapstick, but I was entertained and laughed for the duration of the performance. I'll confess that during the hotel sequence, I found my patience beginning to be tested, but once that ended and the story moved on, I was right back into it.

David Ryan Smith commands the stage throughout the production as Richard Hanay. Where his film counterpart Robert Donat is driven by escalating desperation to clear his name, Smith's Hanay is more a selfish man with ennui issues bothered by the inconvenience of the affair. It's the right choice, because Smith has to be the straight man in order for the comedy to work. If he's too intense, the comedy doesn't work. Smith's own comedic timing is impeccable. I was reminded several times of James Avery, Kelsey Grammer, and Orson Welles.

Supporting Smith are Carter Gill, Jesse J. Perez, and Zuzanna Szadkowski, all in multiple roles. Gill and Perez are central to why the comedy works. My friends and I agreed that had there been a larger cast, with each role played by a different actor, it wouldn't have been nearly as funny as it was to watch them flit about with dizzying costume and accent changes. Their performances on the train are truly magnificent, and how David Ryan Smith manages to not go all Jimmy Fallon and bust a gut being that close to them tossing hats back and forth to alternate characters, I don't know.

Zuzanna Szadkowski's phrasing and expressions are fantastic, but I also give her high marks for playing Annabella Smith, Margaret, and Pamela with wholly distinctive personalities. Where Gill and Perez are clearly swapping out hats and accents, the joke of all these characters being played by the same two actors is the real gag. Szadkowski, on the other hand, creates three entirely different roles. She vamps it up as Annabella Smith, taking innuendo as far as she can. As Margaret, she imbues the sheltered farmer's wife with believable curiosity. And as Pamela, she grounds Act III so that its payoffs have sufficient gravity.

I do have some nitpicks, though. For instance, there are some gags that rather lazily rely on one of the supporting men playing a feminine role, or as elderly people. The greatest offense, though, is that one of the put downs from Pamela to Richard is, "Now I see why you're an orphan!" That's simply, inexcusably awful. Putting someone down for being orphaned is appalling.

These moments are, thankfully, few and on the whole, I found The 39 Steps delightful. I want to thank Terri at DBSA for the work she did to secure these tickets, the people at Actors Theatre who provided them, anyone else involved in these arrangements I don't know, and I want to thank my guts for cooperating and letting me actually attend!

29 August 2016

A Warning About A&S Moving Services

My grandparents bought a house 48 years ago. I've written before about some of my experiences going to that house every other Saturday in my early adolescence, and last year when he passed away after sustaining a stroke, I wrote about the place he occupied in my life. My grandmother recently decided after nearly half a century of owning that house to sell it. She hired A&S Moving Services to come this past Tuesday and evacuate all her belongings.

My cousin was sitting outside when their truck arrived. No sooner had the first worker got out than he was already asking her how old she was. When she told him, he remarked that she "looks 16" and then immediately asked if she has "a man". Which means that not only wasn't being a paid employee doing a job enough to make him keep his thoughts to himself, even thinking she was underage wasn't enough of a deterrent to keep him from confirming before abandoning his game.

He surely wasn't feeling that he had to act quickly before there were any witnesses to his untoward behavior. Just about every member of the crew managed to hit on her at least once, which is particularly impressive since we left to run an errand within just a few minutes of their arrival, and once we returned, she had to leave after no more than half an hour for other errands. To call this unprofessional would be too forgiving.

But if mackin' on my cousin is unprofessional, I'm not even sure how to characterize the incident that prompted me to write this blog post.

Between being hit on and leaving for her other errands, I asked my cousin to take a picture of me behind the bar downstairs. I've always been fond of that bar. I remember all the kids being corralled downstairs on Thanksgiving. We'd alternate between sitting at the bar and grabbing hold of one of the two support poles and swinging ourselves in circles around them. Invariably, an inattentive younger kid would bumble into the kid swinging and a collision would occur. The concrete floor wasn't very forgiving. We all wanted to be seen at the bar when the grownups came to find out who was responsible for the crying.

My cousin got into position, using my phone, and took the following picture:

As my cousin was figuring out how to operate the camera on my phone, we were interrupted by someone descending the stairs. Two workers were coming to get the washer. The one in the lead felt compelled to call out to me, "That's gay!"





First of all, I'm disgusted by homophobia in the first place, and I'm even more disgusted when someone just assumes that I'm as homophobic as they are. I certainly have no use for someone who is a paid professional on the clock doing a job thinking it's perfectly acceptable to bandy about whatever slur they feel like using.

There's also the matter of this person -- again, a paid professional on the clock doing a job -- thinking it's perfectly acceptable to go around passing judgment whenever he may witness an act of sentimentality that may occur to the family of the people paying him to do that job. Who is he to have anything at all to say about me asking my cousin to take a photo of me for myself behind the bar in our grandfather's house?

For a guy his age who still thinks modeling his appearance on Hulk Hogan is cool, he managed to fall short of the already low standards I expected. Now ask me, Dear Reader, to whom I directed my complaint?

No one.

Because Not-Hulk Hogan is the owner.

I was furious. At one point, I took a walk around the block because one of my friends made the mistake of calling me while I was stewing over this and he patiently indulged me as I went on an angry tirade. He noted that it was surprising to him to hear me that hostile because it's so unusual for me (not unprecedented, but certainly atypical). I resolved that I would not let the matter rest. Since there's no one over the owner to bring my grievance to, I figured I would do the next best thing and share it publicly. I hope every person who considers hiring A&S Moving Services runs a Google search and finds this post, and that it encourages them to hire another service, operated by people with high enough professional standards that they don't go around hitting on women and insulting someone's sentimentality.