08 August 2014

Things I Love: Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs

I haven't written anything in this sub-series in quite awhile, and with summer waning it seemed prudent that I get to this duo quickly. I enjoy traveling. I don't think I've ever gone somewhere that I outright disliked. I've been to plenty of places I'd like to visit again sometime. But I know this much: I will only ever feel at home in a place where summer is marked by honeysuckle and lightning bugs.

"Honeysuckle-2" by Aftabbanoori - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I'm not a plant person. Other people fawn over flowers and trees and I'm just like, "Yeah, boring." They may pretty up the landscape but I don't know the difference between any two botanical specimens and I don't care to know. Honeysuckle, though, is the exception.

The obvious reason, of course, is that the scent of honeysuckle is so sweet. I love to smell a single honeysuckle up close, and I also love to just be near a whole patch of it. In addition to the smell, of course, is the taste. I haven't actually tasted honeysuckle in ages but I can flash back in my mind to how exciting it was to extract and get just that tiny sample of nectar. And I think honeysuckle is pretty. It's not as ostentatious as a lot of other plant things that people fawn over, like roses and sunflowers, but maybe that's part of the appeal for me.

Then there are lightning bugs. Some folks call 'em fireflies, and I'll never understand why, given the choice between the two terms, anyone would leave "lightning bug" on the table. It has lightning in the name. That's baller.

Photo from Firefly.org.
Like tasting honeysuckle, part of my affinity for lightning bugs is directly connected to a childhood activity I've not engaged in for ages: collecting them in a Mason jar. I remember many a summer evening trying to fill a Mason jar, its top mutilated by a table knife to assure the little creatures wouldn't suffocate. I don't remember ever really doing this on my own, though maybe I did. I remember more vividly competing with neighborhood kids to see who could catch the most. A couple of the boys would squish them and that always upset me.

In addition to how cool it is that they glow in the dark, I always liked how it tickled when they would land and walk on my hand. Every other insect that's ever walked on me has squicked me right out, but lightning bugs have just the right balance and heft that it feels kinda nice. I would periodically elect not to capture one that landed on my hand, certain that it would give other lightning bugs the message that it was safe to come to me. I would wind up catching plenty more, so as far as I know those "all clear" messages were, in fact, relayed and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty rotten liar who doesn't speak lightning bugese.

There are other things I associate with summer, of course: Tropicana lotion, Kingsford charcoal, freshly cut grass, pink lemonade, drinking water from a garden hose. I dig all of those things. But honeysuckle and lightning bugs? Those things rule.

28 July 2014

Recollections from My Deathbed

Science says we dream all the time, but I rarely have any recollection of them. Last night, though, I had one in which I was in a hospital bed. A doctor who kinda reminded me of former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told me there was nothing more that could be done for me except to try to make things less painful and more peaceful. I don't think it was ever explained just what had happened. I like to think I sustained mortal wounds in a spectacular battle, Optimus Prime-style, but it was probably just my stupid guts. He said I had maybe a couple of hours remaining. Most of my family and friends were in the waiting area. I asked for each of them to be sent to me one at a time, and for him to do whatever he could to buy me enough time to say something to each of them.

I told some what I had learned from them; others, what I hoped they'd learned from me. In broad terms, I like to think those around me have helped me to define and apply my core values: compassion, patience, encouragement, trust, respect, kindness, acceptance. Likewise, I hope I've in turn helped others to find the self-confidence to question things, to find and use their voices, and hopefully to take a step they didn't originally think they could or maybe didn't even want to take.

I don't recall the issue of forgiveness coming up. I've made mistakes and I've been wronged, but I generally feel square with the world these days. My conscience feels clean at night and I don't carry the toxin of grudges. Sometimes I forget how valuable that is.

I told a couple of jokes I like to tell to some of my visitors. I like to make people laugh.

Guy gets pulled over by a cop for speeding. Cop walks up and asks for his license and registration. Guy says, "Well, officer, I'm gonna be honest. My license was revoked, and I don't know a thing about the registration for this car. I stole it just now from a little old lady I've got tied up in the trunk."

Cop says, "Wait right here" and then calls for backup. Within minutes, they're surrounded by every cop in the tri-state area; SWAT and helicopters and K-9's, the whole deal. The police commissioner himself tentatively approaches the driver and asks for the guy's identity.

Guy very cautiously produces his wallet and shows the commish a perfectly valid driver's license.

"I don't suppose you have the registration for this car?" the commish asks.

"Right here," the guy says, extracting it from the glove box.

Perplexed, the commish asks if the guy would consent to opening the trunk. Guy says that'd be fine, so they go around to the back of the car. He unlocks the trunk. No little old lady.

"I don't get it," the commish says. "The officer who called us in said you had no license or registration, that you'd stolen this car and had the driver tied up in the trunk."

"Yeah? I'll bet the lying s.o.b. said I was speeding, too!"

I brought up a favorite shared memory to some of my visitors. The best anecdotes can be conjured by shorthand, of course. A time and place (Salinas, KS; December, 2002) or a phrase ("twenty-four m***********' doughnuts!") will do the trick. No one said anything to me about the memory on their mind. Maybe because it was my dream? I don't know. I remember telling my cousin that this blog was full of my little stories and that it would be here for her once I was gone. [Note to self: record more anecdotes here.]

Some visits were entirely silent. A few just climbed into the hospital bed next to me and I did my best to just hold them for a few minutes. It was easier that way. I felt particularly mischievous and faked already having died just before one friend came to see me. I laughed. She didn't. I'm not going to reveal which friend this was because I think she'd be angry with me in real life if she knew I'd done that to her, even in a dream. Besides, I might actually have the presence of mind to pull that stunt one day and I don't want to spoil it entirely.

In all, I guess I remember about a dozen different visitors, with the sense of having met briefly with twenty or more in all. I don't remember how it ended. Maybe I'm still in that bed saying goodbyes. Maybe I just kind of slipped away. It could even be that I started to wake up around the end of the dream. I can't say. It didn't feel like awakening had interrupted the dream, but it might have.

I made one friend smile by simply going over a quick list of singers I was now going to have the chance to hear: Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Ray Price. I hoped they all sounded like they did later in their careers. I don't know why it should have mattered in the dream for me to remark, or for me to remember that detail from the dream, but there it is. I feel like he and I sang something together a cappella, but I couldn't rightly say what it was if we did.

As far as my arrangements, I let it be known in the dream and I'll say it here: Cremate my remains and scatter the ashes. I don't much care where, but no one gets to keep any of them. I don't want to be a tangible souvenir. I'm not sure how legally binding a blog post can be, but in the event that something should happen to me and I haven't made any formal final arrangements, someone please be sure to remember this!

20 July 2014

I'm Vulnerable, so Why Aren't I Worthy?

A friend of mine brought to my attention this TED Talk by Brené Brown. The impetus for my friend sharing this with me was the connection made by Brown between people who have ownership over their vulnerabilities and being "whole-hearted people, living from this deep sense of worthiness." Here's the entire talk, if you're the kind of person who'd rather go over primary source material first, rather than through the filter of a secondary source (i.e., my reactionary post about it). If you'd rather read the transcript, it's here.

Whether you just watched that or not, I want to highlight what Brown says beginning at 9:39:
The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable,nor did they really talk about it being excruciating -- as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing.They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
Now, Dear Reader, I suspect you already see the connection I've made to Brown's remarks but just to spell it out, I identify with this characterization to a tee. It's something I have used for most of my life, really. I know it's hard for a lot of people to even articulate things about which they feel vulnerable, much less summon the fortitude to raise their hand and draw attention to these things. But I can articulate things reasonably well, and I am also willing to expose myself to criticism.

I was reminded of all this in 2011, when I was hospitalized at Our Lady of Peace to treat suicidal depression. What helped me more than anything about being there were the conversations in which I found myself articulating and volunteering things that others couldn't, or wouldn't. But after each group session, at least one other patient would privately thank me for speaking up.

Sometimes they were just uncomfortable speaking in front of a group - difficult for many people anyway, much less at a time in their lives like where they were at that time! Sometimes, my fellow patients just didn't know how to put into words what they wanted to share. Regardless of what their reasons for not volunteering to put their vulnerabilities on display, I was reminded throughout that weekend that I am capable and comfortable doing it.

This brings me back to Brené Brown and her research linking ownership of vulnerability with self-worth. Reading the transcript of Brown's TED Talk, I nodded along at almost all of it. It was like she was explaining why I am the way I am. I very much agree with Brown's points about how being comfortable with our vulnerability is a linchpin of our connections with other people; it's why my hospitalization helped me in 2011, and I like to think it's why you, Dear Reader, get something helpful out of this blog every now and again. That possibility is why I share what I share, after all.

So why have I never felt the self-worth that Brown's research correlates to ownership of vulnerability?

Why can I put myself on display so openly and make those personal connections, etc., but not feel that "sense of worthiness" that Brown says I should also feel?

18 July 2014

Top Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Riker

I decided it was high time to run down my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, by character. These lists are presented in chronological air date order, rather than any kind of ranking. I arbitrarily restricted each list to five episodes - four and a quarter hours of viewing sans commercials. 

Because each list is limited to just five episodes, I excluded two-parters. So do me a favor and don't complain that this list is invalid because it doesn't include "The Best of Both Worlds" and/or "Chain of Command". Yes, both are brilliant and Jonathan Frakes's Riker had some great moments in them, but if I went with those, that would have precluded most of this list. Which brings me to...

Top Five Episodes Starring
Jonathan Frakes
as Cmdr. William T. Riker

"A Matter of Honor"
2/6/1989 | Teleplay by Burton Armus, Story by Wanda M. Haight & Gregory Amos and Burton Armus | Directed by Rob Bowman

It's a simple concept: Riker serves as first officer on a Klingon ship as part of an officer exchange program. It's a whole lot of fun, though, to watch him defend against the machismo of the Klingons. This episode is basically every geek's fantasy of standing up to the jocks, and it's why we love Riker.

"First Contact"
2/18/1991 | Teleplay by Dennis Russell Bailey & David Bischoff and Joe Menosky & Ronald D. Moore and Michael Piller, Story by Marc Scott Zicree | Directed by Cliff Bole

Riker goes undercover to observe an evolving society, but is injured and discovered to be an alien. It's an interesting look at various reactions to the existence of other life - and it's hard to really be interesting about a subject as heavily discussed in the genre as that. There's also the matter of an indigenous woman blackmailing Riker into fulfilling her kinky fantasy of having sex with an alien as the condition for helping him escape. Generally, this is considered something of a lark but it invites a rather serious discussion about sexual negotiations. The episode handled the issue clumsily, I'm sorry to say, but I do appreciate that it's in there to get us thinking and talking.

"Frame of Mind"
5/3/1993 | Written by Brannon Braga | Directed by James L. Conway

"I might be surrounded by insanity, but I am not insane!" This episode is Frakes's shining hour in my book. It's why I was unimpressed by Inception; Christopher Nolan basically took the same concept but spun it as a ho-hum heist instead of the captivating psychological drama that TNG did. (There. I said it.) This episode was very much on my mind in 2011 when I checked into Our Lady of Peace. I was relieved that my experience there was nothing like what Riker endured here. That last scene, of him tearing down the set by himself, is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, and it's only become more powerful for me in recent years. This episode could have easily been cheesy or outright insulting, but between writer Brannon Braga, director James L. Conway, and Frakes's performance, it's one of the crown jewels of the show.

"Second Chances"
5/24/1993 | Teleplay by René Echevarria, Story by Michael Medlock | Directed by LeVar Burton

Season Six was good to Number One! One of the last episodes of that season brings us this one, in which we discover that a storm caused a transporter glitch eight years ago to create a second William T. Riker who was stranded on a planet that our William T. Riker got to leave. Being marooned is a nightmare, and so is being involuntarily replicated in some way, so combining the two is genuinely disturbing. Today, the episode plays strongly as an allegory for post-traumatic stress disorder. I would imagine this one is extremely powerful for a lot of our military families.

"The Pegasus"
1/10/1994 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by LeVar Burton

We often point to Data and Worf to trace the growth of TNG, mostly because they had the most conspicuous event episodes, but "The Pegasus" showcases Riker's growth. We're reminded, through his account of his relationship with then-Captain Eric Pressman just how much a stick in the mud he was when we first met him - and then we're asked to imagine that he used to be even worse! But beyond that, this episode has a smorgasbord of great elements: The mystery of what happened on, and to, the U.S.S. Pegasus; the cat and mouse game with the Romulans to find her; the test of character and loyalty; and, of course, that delightful pre-credits teaser featuring Captain Picard Day.

There you have it, Dear Reader: My top 5 Riker episodes. Agree? Disagree? What would you pick?

Picard | Riker

15 July 2014

Praying for Myself

I seldom discuss matters of faith in this blog, or even at all, because it's a deeply personal and complicated subject for me. Lately, though, something has been on my mind and I haven't found a satisfactory perspective so I thought I'd take the chance and put it out there. It's my sincere hope that maybe some thoughtful discourse will follow.

If someone specifically brings to my attention a prayer request, I usually oblige. On those occasions, I'll let the person know that I did, but that's more just to acknowledge that their request hasn't fall on deaf ears. What they need at those times is some kind of reassurance that someone is aware of their situation and cares. I can handle that. I will also often, on my own, ask God to help others find their way through a difficult time or to bring healing to them - physical, emotional, spiritual, whatever. I rarely tell anyone I've done this. I'm not seeking credit for anything that may come from those prayers, after all.

What I can't handle, though, is asking for anything for myself.

This isn't a matter of pride for me, or vanity. It's more just a simple matter of manners with me. I just don't want to be That Guy. You know, the one who puts you on the spot every time you see him with some request or another.

Plus, I don't like being micromanaged, so I figure He doesn't, either. If the point of my faith is to trust that God knows and cares about me, that He wants good things for me, and that there's a place for me in His plans, then isn't asking Him for something tantamount to badgering Him about His plans?

The most famous Scripture about praying is:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. - Matthew 7:7-8
Is this about teaching me that I can have what I ask for but only if I ask for it? That seems kind of petty to me. I've always had a chip on my shoulder toward anyone who can see someone else needs help but won't give it or even offer it until that person asks. I've always perceived that as pettiness winning over compassion. It goes back to my childhood, knowing some people who seemed to relish being asked for help. These people practically rooted against the person in need, just to see them pushed so far that they would finally ask for help. It was about their ego, not compassion. Maybe that's an unfair grudge to extend to God, but there it is.

Anyway, I run into another problem here. By restricting myself to only those areas where I am powerless to do anything more on my own, I am by default firmly in the realm of Big Picture stuff. I don't ask for anything material in nature. I'm usually rankled by it, but I accept that He can be there with us while still allowing us to suffer. I'd like to have more good days than bad, physically. I'd like to have better mental health. I seek companionship. I don't want to die alone and be eaten by the cats, though I'm pretty sure that's what's in store for me.

There are some things within my power to affect these things, but most of those aren't so much things I can do to make things better so much as things I can do that will make matters worse, and obviously trying to avoid doing those things. For instance, I know there are foods I can eat that will send me straight to the ER. I have the agency to choose not to eat those foods, so I can avoid the ER. But avoiding the ER is not the same as improving things.

This also brings me to the matter of my struggle with the very concept of "deserving" things. I run from that concept as quickly as I run toward a pan of brownies. I can't wrap my head around that. I can't even say, "I deserve" aloud. Can't do it. Not even as a setup for a hyperbolic joke. Maybe I don't deserve anything. People flip out whenever I suggest that possibility, and I think it's because they're terrified that if I don't deserve anything then maybe they don't, either. I can see why that would be troubling to someone who believes they do deserve things, though I've honestly never considered that my standing should have any implications for yours.

Almost ironically, the reason I don't go near the "deserving" claim is my faith. To invoke a secularism here, I refer to a song:
"You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table/There'll be time enough for counting when the dealin's done." - "The Gambler" written by Don Schlitz
It's not my place to tally up where I stand or what I've "earned". I trust simply that when the time comes to be judged that whatever I've done right will be recognized along with whatever I've done wrong. I'm sure some others out there there view life more as a matter of cashing out along the way, but I don't. I'm still sittin' at the table, so the counting has to wait.

I have, though, finally broken down and asked Him lately for something. I don't want to discuss it, except to say that all I ask is a fair opportunity at something; something that feels as though it could be something He's put before me in the first place, but is not within my power to realize. Again, it's a matter where my power lies more in the area of being able to screw it up than in making it happen. I feel selfish and vulgar each time I've brought it up.

So, for those of you who do pray: Do you ask for things for yourself? Do you think in terms of what you "deserve"? How do you feel about all this? What am I missing here?

11 July 2014

Top Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Picard

I decided it was high time to run down my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, by character. These lists are presented in chronological air date order, rather than any kind of ranking. I arbitrarily restricted each list to five episodes - four and a quarter hours of viewing sans commercials. 

Because each list is limited to just five episodes, I excluded two-parters. So do me a favor and don't complain that this list is invalid because it doesn't include "The Best of Both Worlds" and/or "Chain of Command". Yes, both are brilliant and Patrick Stewart gave two of his finest performances in them, but if I went with those, that would have precluded most of this list. Which brings me to the first in this series..

Top Five Episodes Starring
Patrick Stewart
as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

"The Measure of a Man"
2/13/1989 | Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass | Directed by Robert Scheerer

Most people would call this a Data (Brent Spiner) episode, because it's about an effort made to classify Data as Starfleet property on the basis that he was found by a Starfleet away team and that artificial intelligence is not recognized as true sentience. For me, though, the thing is that Data is really the passive object of the plot; not its chief actor, who is Picard. From a dramatic storytelling perspective, "The Measure of a Man" is really more about how Picard handles the situation, fighting every step of the way for his second officer's rights - but also for his own values.

10/1/1990 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by Cliff Bole

The aftermath of "The Best of Both Worlds". Picard confronts his personal trauma and his bullying big brother, Robert. It's a deceptively simple look at coping mechanisms and brotherhood. If made today, this theme would have dominated the entire fourth season of the show instead of being wrapped up tidily in a single episode, but that's how shows were still produced in those days.


9/30/1991 | Teleplay by Joe Menosky, Story by Philip LaZebnik and Joe Menosky | Directed by Winrich Kolbe

My personal favorite episode of the entire series. Picard is on a planet with Dathon (Paul Winfield), whose entire language is built on metaphor. They're isolated from their respective ships, and together they have to overcome their language barrier. Admittedly, the setup is contrived but the heart of the episode is spectacular. I've always found linguistics fascinating anyway, and it's always nice when science-fiction can be bothered to step away from the convenience of having all these different species speak in English. Bonus: This episode introduces Picard's spiffy suede jacket.

"The Inner Light"

6/1/1992 | Teleplay by Morgan Gendel and Peter Allan Fields; Story by Morgan Gendel | Directed by Peter Lauritson

Because of my no-two-parters clause, this Picard list is missing "The Best of Both Worlds" and "Chain of Command", but "The Inner Light" is pretty much obligatory. Zapped by an alien probe, Picard goes into a sort of forced dream state in which he relives the life of someone else. There are lots of reasons people love this episode, but mine has always been just the fact that it's an acknowledgment that ordinary lives are important, too. Plus, there's Jay Chattaway's lovely theme.

2/15/1993 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by Les Landau

When Picard's artificial heart fails and he dies, Q intercepts him and gives him the Christmas Carol/It's a Wonderful Life treatment by showing him how differently his life would have been had his foolhardiness not earned him that fake ticker in the first place. I'm a sucker for the concept anyway, but even beyond that, it's a compelling commentary about how we grow as people in unexpected ways. Thematically, the episode would have worked built around any of the show's characters, but it really needed to be someone with some mileage. Because it's Picard, the wistfulness of the introspection feels more authentic than I think it would have had the story been about one of the others.

So, how about it? Are any of these your favorites? What would you have picked - and what would you have removed from my list to make room for it?

Star Trek: The Next Generation is streaming on Amazon PrimeCBS.comHulu, and Netflix.

10 July 2014

Gail Simone's Run on "Batgirl" Ending

The news broke on MTV.com this morning: Starting with issue #35, Batgirl is getting a new creative team...which in turn means that issue #34, shipping in August, will be the final issue penned by Gail Simone and illustrated by artists Jonathan Glapion (pencils) and Fernando Pasarin (inks). DCComics.com's page dedicated to the book shows Batgirl: Futures End #1 ships in September, written by Simone. The art on that book is by Javier Garren. Futures End is set five years into the future, where things have gone apparently pretty wrong. I can't tell from the solicitation if this is a one-shot coda to Simone's run on the book or a spin-off.

It was three years ago that DC launched The New 52. I hadn't looked at monthlies in an entire decade by that point, save a brief flirtation with Superman/Batman that lasted all of about four months. It was the prospect of a Barbara Gordon-as-Batgirl book that most interested me. By the time I took to reading Batman comics a quarter century ago, Babs had already been paralyzed by The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke. I instantly loved the character, though, and I always felt cheated that my generation didn't get to have Barbara in action as Batgirl.

We did later get Barbara-as-Batgirl in Batman: The Animated Series, which was spectacular, and in Batman & Robin, which wasn't, but it wasn't the same as having her in that persona in a mainstream, in-continuity book. I respected what they did with her as Oracle, but it too wasn't the same. Of course, at that time, I was healthy so I didn't have then the deep appreciation I have now for what Oracle represented and means to a whole lot of readers.

Though I hadn't read anything in comics for ten years, I did keep tabs on things from afar. I had heard a lot about Gail Simone's work. Her reputation was for a balance of heart, humor, and above all, respect for people. The immediate fan reaction was divided over whether or not Barbara should revert to being healthy and active as Batgirl, or if she should remain paralyzed as Oracle, but it was unanimous that Simone should be the one entrusted with such a sensitive project. I felt confident going into issue #1. I was instantly sold.

The very first Batman comic book I ever bought was Detective Comics #603, written by Alan Grant. I would read a whole lot more of his Bat-work over the years, including the first three years of Batman: Shadow of the Bat. (Grant continued writing after Zero Hour, but I stopped reading. I was just fatigued as a reader by then.) Grant's take on Batman is the one that defines the character for me. His Batman is about social justice; of a man with all the privilege in the world whose life experience has led him to use that privilege in service of others. Grant's Batman is one who cares about people. His Batman saw the "undesirables" in Gotham City as human beings who deserved a champion.

In one of the first few issues of Simone's Batgirl, Babs encounters Ricky while apprehending him as part of an inept group of robbers. When a ruthless vigilante mutilates Ricky in the name of "justice", Barbara comes to his defense. It's a scathing rejection of the anti-hero fetish that has run roughshod over our nobler values, not just in comic books but sadly in our politics and society at large. It was then that I understood the devout following that Simone has earned over the years. Everything that clicked for me in Alan Grant's Batman stories was alive and well in hers. In a single word: Compassion.

I also quickly discovered that Gail Simone has a nightmarish imagination and seems to delight in conflating these values of compassion with some truly disturbing plots. Anyone who thinks that believing in things like empathy precludes going in some dark places needs look no further than her storytelling. I'm reminded of a comment Johnny Cash made during his At Madison Square album. The Man in Black was telling a story of playing shows for troops in Vietnam and trying to cheer them up in the infirmary. When asked whether that visit made him a hawk, Cash answered, "No, that don't make me a hawk. But it does make me a dove with claws, though." A dove with claws. That's probably the most concise distillation I've ever heard for what I value in a hero - real or fictitious.

Anyway, so I've read the MTV.com interview with the incoming creative team. Their plan is a near-total reboot of the book. Barbara will leave the working-class area where she's been and move on up to the East Side. The book is going to showcase "flirt, fun, and fashion". It's intended to be lighthearted, easy reading. The part of me that has been digging Jeff Parker's Batman '66 believes we need more lighthearted comics and sees a lot of potential for Barbara Gordon as Batgirl to be the epicenter for such a book.

And yet...

Even rarer than lighthearted comics these days are ones that espouse the "dove with claws" values that Simone has fought for on the page through Barbara, as well as in real life. If you want to see what a real dove with claws looks like, just pop on over to her Tumblr blog or Twitter feed. Or read any of the zillion interviews she's given.* She gives voice to people who are all too often marginalized and outright erased. She writes these stories this way because she cares about human beings. That's why Batgirl works. She's sensitive to what Oracle means for an entire generation of readers.

I wish the new creative team the best of luck. I mean that. These characters are bigger than any creator or creative team. They're transient. I get all that, and I made my peace with that back in my youth. But I fear that it's going to be awfully hard for Barbara Gordon to continue to engage and represent the "undesirables" of Gotham City if she moves into an insular posh end of town where, by design, those people can't go and aren't welcome. We're told that Barbara's trans roommate, radical activist Alysia Yeoh, will continue to exist in the book - but that she's staying where she is and now the Gotham River will be between the two friends. That feels an awful lot like the new team's way of saying, "We just don't want to deal with all that stuff".

And that's why it's so important that for three years, Gail Simone did.

Batgirl #34 - Gail Simone's Final Issue(?)
*Speaking of interviews with Gail Simone, I conducted one with her at C2E2, along with half a dozen other folks in the business, for a piece on the convergence of comics and Hollywood, from the side of comics. Right after I got home from that show I fell down the rabbit hole of depression again and those recordings and notes have collected dust, but I promise: I really am going to finish the piece now that I'm back in a healthier place!

05 July 2014

Can Anyone Remember When I Used to Be an Explorer?

There's a genuinely great moment in Star Trek: Insurrection, an otherwise mixed Trek outing. Captain Picard, wary of his assignment to recruit a new member to the Federation for the express purpose of deepening the roster at a time of war, wonders aloud, "Can anyone remember when we used to be explorers?"

That's about how I feel about my health. A little more than a week ago, I finally got to see honeyhoney perform in concert, at a little dive called Zanzabar in Louisville. I'd wanted to see them perform for six years, and was thrilled to finally get to do so. It was also my first concert since Black Joe Lewis in 2012, which you may recall was quite a big deal for me, Dear Reader. I invited several of my friends to turn up for the show, but only one managed to make it. (Funnily enough, this friend also has Crohn's.) We had a ball, and I was thrilled to share the experience with her. After the show, we got to chat with Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe for a bit. My friend shot this picture of me with them, and we have really creepy reflective peepers. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do, right?

I've spent most of this entire week completely exhausted, though. I spent a little bit of time Monday evening with my niece. She called me again on Wednesday to see about hanging out, and I had to pass because I could barely keep my eyes open. I missed most of my friends's annual Fourth of July party last night because insomnia Thursday night into Friday morning caught up with me and I slept through the afternoon and early evening. I woke up just before 7:00 in the evening, dashed over as quickly as I could, and was too run down to stay past around 10:30. They were actually still lighting off fireworks when I bailed. I slept for about 15 1/2 hours once I got home, not getting up until late afternoon/early evening today.

And this, Dear Reader, is on the "good" side of what life with Crohn's is like.

Nobody told me about this part. They told me all about the Prednisone, and upper GI's, and other such things, but they didn't say anything about whole weeks lost to fatigue and unearned soreness. It didn't used to be like this. I know it didn't. I can prove it, because I have a record of all the baseball games, concerts, and movies I attended in my teens and twenties. There is evidence that I used to be a goer and a doer. I spent two weeks in Barbados back in 2000. I spent a combined two weeks in Las Vegas at the end of 2002. Sure, when I worked at Cracker Barrel, I wasn't as able to up and go do things because I had to work weekends (that's the nature of restaurant work, after all), but even then I managed to make my way out to my fair share of events.

And yet, these days I often feel as though I've researched someone else's life rather than recalled my own; that these artifacts belong to someone else rather than to me. There are, of course, plenty of other activities that didn't have a ticket stub. I know I spent evenings in the summer of 2001 at a defunct driving range in Pendleton, KY, whacking away at golf balls for hours on end with my brother and various friends. Used to just take off driving with no destination in mind with friends (remember when anyone could actually afford to go joy riding?).

I'd hear a song that caught my ear and wind up spending an entire day crisscrossing Louisville's music stores, hunting down every single thing I could find in that artist's discography. It was as much about the search as it ever was about the acquisition. I loved those days of hoping one record shop might have something none of the others had, and there were no meaningful barriers to making the effort to find out.

But, that was a long time ago in another life.

Today, any outing at all for me has to consist of at most a few specifically targeted places. They have to be near one another, and I have to know exactly what I'm hoping to find so I can get in and out before I feel too miserable to continue. Sure, I can research a discography online these days, and between Amazon, eBay, and iTunes find most anything, but it isn't the same as doing the legwork. Because, again, it was never just about acquiring the music. It was about going on an adventure, not even knowing what existed so I hoped to be surprised at what I found. I remember getting the biggest kick out of discovering The Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney, which I bought on a lark because I was on a Collin Raye kick at the time. (It turned out he did an absolutely brilliant cover of "A Whole New World", by the way, that was well worth the purchase.)

Sometimes I wonder, when I think of what it was like when I was healthy, just how the passage of time and the wear and tear on me appears to the healthy people around me, who were there for the good times. I used to be the given in pretty much any plan. No advanced notice necessary. No one even asked if I wanted to go do something; they just showed up and said, "We're going out" and I'd throw on some pants and away we went. Then it reached the point where invitations were extended more as a formality, knowing I'd wind up either declining or having to cancel at the last minute. Everyone has always been polite about it, reassuring me that they understand why I can't or didn't attend one function or other.

Of course, my health isn't the only thing that has changed these last nine years. We've all gotten older, become more involved with different things that preclude up and going out on a whim. That's just the nature of things. Aside from my health, I'm the one freest to go along with an idea these days. Everyone else has a significant other and/or at least one child. Some have demanding careers. There's nothing unique in any of this, but at the very least, there's satisfaction to be found in being a spouse or a parent, or in a career. There's no satisfaction whatsoever to be found in simply having rotten health.

Days like today bring me a combination of disappointment and resentment toward myself. It's been a decade now since Crohn's first appeared in my life (I was misdiagnosed in 2004), and I still feel bitter about every time I've had to say "Sorry, I can't do it", "Sorry I'm late", and/or "Sorry, I need to go." Some might roll their eyes at this post and mutter something about how I'm "feeling sorry for myself". This isn't Depression talking/writing, though. This is just a part of the frustration that goes with this stupid disease and the wear and tear it wreaks.

How about it, Dear Reader? If you have a health problem limiting you, how do you feel about it? If you've been part of my life going back to my healthy years, I'd be curious to hear how you perceive the changes in me over these last nine or ten years. And if you were at that honeyhoney show, I'd love to know if you could fill in a couple gaps in the set list!

27 June 2014

The Longest Two Innings of My Life

My official player photo.
I played just one season of Little League, back in 1990. I had only really gotten into baseball at all in 1988. I wasn't really confident enough to play - athletic things were always outside my comfort zone - but my brother was old enough to play Tee Ball in '90 and so it just sort of seemed obligatory that I should give it a go that season.

In those days, pitchers were restricted by innings, rather than pitches. We had two pitchers, but it happened that one was suspended for a not-relevant-here incident at the same time the other had hit his innings pitched limit for the week. We needed someone to take the ball. And so I did what no one else seemed willing to do: I volunteered.

Mind you, I had no illusions that I was going to be a phenom. That wasn't the point. The point was, someone had to take the mound and throw the ball. I've never had any problem putting myself out there, whether to be helpful or amusing. My ego has enough sense of humor that I don't embarrass easily.

So anyway, I was the starting pitcher in this one game. One of the restrictions in Little League at that time (perhaps still; I don't know) was that no matter how many outs were recorded, a team could only send ten batters to the plate per inning. When you're batting, you hate that rule because it automatically caps your offensive capabilities. When you're on defense, you're less against that rule because it assures your wait to bat again won't be too long. When you're pitching and you're struggling, you know that rule was written to preserve your ability to live with yourself.

I was, frankly, terrible.

I threw for two innings, before being relieved by another teammate. I'm not sure I recorded a single out, and I am sure that if not for that ten-batter limit, I might still be out there struggling. Everyone managed to either get a hit off me, or drew a walk. I hit at least two batters. I felt embarrassed when I hit the first, and furious with myself when I hit the second. I don't really remember much from the second inning, except pure dread.

None of my teammates spoke to me between innings, or even throughout the rest of that game. Not as I recall, anyway. In fairness, I had retreated so far inward by the end of the first inning that my recollection on this point can't be trusted. I can only say that I felt completely alone. I didn't mind so much that I looked bad out there; I had never pitched a game in my life. I knew only a little about grips and less about technique.I was responsible for setting the tone for the game, and I had done a dismal job of it. Worse, I'd put us behind by allowing in however many runs I'd coughed up. They say it's lonely at the top, and let me tell you something: the pitching mound is only a few inches elevated above the rest of the field, but it's the loneliest place on the entire diamond.

Our manager had actually been absent for a week or so at this time, but reappeared some time by the end of that first inning. One of my former teammates insists otherwise, but I know without a doubt that it was during this game that he reappeared because I had never been more relieved or hopeful to see him - or any other human being - in my life. The other coaches had kept things going in his absence, but he was the one responsible for the team. His responsibility was greater than mine, and I was desperate that he would find a solution. He sent me back out to pitch the second, saying he hadn't really had a chance to see much of the first. I took the ball and went back out there. Mercifully, when I returned to the dugout after that inning, he took me out of the game. I sat and sulked in the dugout for all of the third and probably the fourth, as well.

All these years later, two of my friends who were on that team still enjoy busting my chops over how awful a pitcher I was. One of them was the ace pitcher whose spot I had taken because he was suspended. I wasn't in competition with him or anyone else when I volunteered to pitch. I knew I was a sacrificial lamb. I honestly thought I'd do better than I did, of course, but there was no time for anyone to work with me about pitching before the game. It was just one of those things where you had to do something and hoped for the best, knowing that at its worst, it was still better than forfeiting a game outright. You can't stage a comeback in a forfeit, after all. Better to be defeated on the field of play than to not even try.

I learned a lot from just that one season of Little League, and in particular my two innings pitched. Just because I enjoy or want to do something doesn't mean I can, or should. Sometimes I wonder if I haven't internalized that lesson too strongly and allowed it to become a glass ceiling for myself. Maybe I've abandoned things too quickly at times over the years. That's a little life lesson that's sort of been on my mind lately, for various reasons

But another thing I can attribute to that outing was that it's a whole lot easier to watch someone else struggle and sling barbs at them than it is to put yourself out there and take the risk. I have never once regretted that I volunteered to eat up a few innings of pitching when my team needed someone to do it. The only part I have ever regretted was that I was so far in over my head.

24 June 2014

Weathering the Storm of 35

Hello, Dear Reader. It's been awhile. Let's do some reviewing and catching up, shall we?

Remember how awesome 2012 was for me? That year, from start to finish, was terrific. I finished my novel that year. I went out to see a lot of movies, most with various friends. I returned to Chicago for the first time since my honeymoon. I attended my first concert since Bush was in office. I dated someone for a little while, and when she ended the relationship, it didn't crush my entire world. I handled it just fine. I had Depression under control and even Crohn's seemed to be less brutal to me that year. I capped off that year with one of my best birthday celebrations of all-time and a lovely Christmas. 2012 was awesome.

2013 was a serious step down. I returned to Chicago, but my health was terrible that whole weekend. I was miserable pretty much the entire time. The lone bright spot for me, really, was that I finally got to meet a dear friend in person in Atlanta and my health actually was cooperative for that. That visit was wonderful, and it was really the only oasis that entire year. I didn't share all the parts that sucked, because I try to only share the down stuff when there's a clear potential use to you, Dear Reader, and honestly, I could not point to any value to you in knowing the extent to which my 2013 sucked.

The end of 2013 brought me an earth-shattering discovery that upset me so much I drank until sunrise, singing along with Randy Travis's Storms of Life album on vinyl ad infinitum. Now, I've been awake all night before in my time, but that was a first for me. It was about the loneliest I've felt in a long time. It retroactively cast doubt on a whole lot of things; things upon which I had built a strong part of my self-image. All of a sudden, even those few things I used to take solace in believing were good about myself felt like hollow lies.

[I'm not trying to tease what this discovery was, because it's off-limits for this blog.]

We had a nasty winter here. Hell, I think there's still some snow somewhere in the backyard. It was isolating, bringing vintage "winter blues" even to otherwise balanced friends of mine. Plus, it made my hips and back hurt round the clock. Throughout all that, I found myself swept along in a current of self-doubt, self-loathing, fear, and worthlessness. I did return to Chicago with my friends in April, for our third consecutive visit, and that weekend was genuinely great. But the very next day after we returned home, I reverted to where I had been before we left and I quickly devolved even further.

I reached a point where I didn't see a point in writing. Like, anything. No novel, no short stories, no blog posts, no nothin'. I came to feel the world already had too much white noise, and it didn't need me contributing to it. It seemed like people who, in 2012, had discussed with me my posts about depression, instead skipped my content entirely and shared things written by Allie Brosh and Wil Wheaton. I readily concede I had some sour grapes. I know Joe Q. Public reads Brosh and Wheaton and not me, and that's okay, but when my own friends were sharing links with me asking, "Did you see this?" and it turned out to be a sub-topic I had actually written about myself without a single acknowledgment, that stung.

Not that I'm in competition with Brosh or Wheaton, or even that in any way they're competitors. Mental health as a subject is still in such dire need of responsible, positive-looking advocates that even as we canonize leaders, we can't really afford to quash or exclude even the quietest of voices. And, in truth, Brosh and Wheaton are doing me a lot of good, too, even when I don't read what they write, because someone else is reading it.

I did self-publish Reunion at the Bluegrass Inn last year, which was kind of exciting at first, but I've only sold a handful of copies to date. Mind you, I didn't expect to make it onto a best-seller list. But as with my non-competition with Allie Brosh and Wil Wheaton, it wasn't that the world at large didn't pay me any heed that got to me.

Not one member of my own family has bought, or even asked me about buying, a copy. None have even tried to hit me up to give them a copy. I had one close friend tell me outright she just wasn't going to pay so high a price (~$13) for a physical book because she only reads ebooks these days. That I had written the book, and priced it as low as Lulu.com would let me, weren't sufficient to bait her into buying. I gave up on trying to promote the book. I deactivated my Facebook "writer" page. I even took down the book for sale for about a month.

This may read like a whole lot of self-indulgent overreacting on my part, and I readily concede that maybe that's all it is. I do know, however, that people who have not tried to pursue creative endeavors are truly incapable of understanding how fragile the creative person's ego is. It's not like anything else in life, to not just create but to put a key part of yourself into the work, and onto display, only for it to be snubbed and rejected, resonates on a visceral, personal level.

Put another way: I grew up with some people telling me I had the aptitude to be a writer, a whole lot more telling me that being a writer was too lofty and I needed to not even bother trying, and when I finally did try, it was met with a resounding yawn from even some of the people closest to me. What other conclusion could I draw, except that the world did not need me contributing to its white noise?

Other things were on my mind as well, but again, these are things I don't discuss in this blog. I withdrew quite a bit from the world through the end of May. I felt like I had felt back in my Year of Hell: like I was just running down the clock, trying to decide when to concede defeat and wrap things up. I never got bad enough that I was seriously going to try again to commit suicide, but I thought about it quite often. Sometimes, I find it comforting just to remind myself it's still an option at my disposal. You probably don't understand that morose comfort, Dear Reader, and I'm grateful that you don't. But I have, and still do, take some solace in knowing that I don't have to be here any longer than I'm willing to bear it.

The last weekend in May was mixed for me. I felt up and down and up and down and I confess I did a lot of drinking alone that Friday and Saturday. I wasn't necessarily self-destructive, but I definitely didn't give a tinker's damn what it did to me. I was in a lot of emotional pain that weekend. A friend who'd moved away years ago was in town with his wife and their young son. I threw together some breakfast plans, reuniting the four of us guys who'd been the core of our group in high school, along with their wives and kids. I, of course, attended solo and hungover. (And I was the last one there, despite being the closest to where we met.)

It was nice to catch up, but I'd more or less consigned myself to muddling through enough daylight that I could get back to the rum I hadn't quite killed the two previous nights. Two friends insisted I spend the day with them instead, though, and I capitulated because I know when I'm in a phase like I was at that time that when I have the chance to be engaged, I need to make myself take that chance. Even if I phone it in and just go through the motions, it's important that I do that much. (If you know what I'm talking about, I congratulate you on going through enough motions that you're still here.)

Things turned around for me that afternoon. I'll explain more another time, for various reasons, not least of which being that this has already turned into a far longer piece than I had intended. Another key reason is that I really don't yet know what there is to say, except that I've felt a lot more peaceful overall. I'm still prone to fits of anxiety and moodiness, of course; these things don't all just go away overnight. But I'm certainly on an upswing.

Why did I write all this? Because a few people have insisted that I need to resume writing, and I promised that I would try. But also because I know some people who are in a dark place right now. I know better than to say, "See? I'm all better now so you will be, too!" That would be disingenuous and insulting to them (or you, if you happen to be in such a dark place, Dear Reader). I can't even know how long this upswing will last, though I have some hopes and aspirations for it.

But my core philosophy for managing Depression has always been: Weather the storm. This storm ran from the night of 1 December 2013 (my 35th birthday) through the morning of 1 June, a full six months. The storm has finally abated, though, and I had my doubts, especially throughout May, that it would end in any way other than me capitulating to Depression. I don't really know what specific "moral of the story" you're supposed to take from all this, but as always I hope you're able to find something in it somewhere that's helpful to you in some way.

Healthy people don't understand how hard it is to even "just" go through the motions at times, nor do they appreciate how exhausting it is to make yourself put in that kind of effort. They also don't understand why it really is an accomplishment, just meeting the bare minimum demands of the day for days, even months, on end. But I know, and if you're doing it right now, so do you. Keep doing what you're doing. Not because I can promise a pot of gold at the end of your rainbow, but because there will at least be a rainbow at the end of your storm.

That's science.


I totally forgot to conclude with this quote I recently came across and, as one of those romantics who believes baseball is the best metaphor for life, I instantly loved it:
"Life will always throw you curves, just keep fouling them off... the right pitch will come, but when it does, be prepared to run the bases." - Rick Maksian
Just keep fouling off those curve balls. The spectators may get bored, and others around you may get frustrated, but that really is the best advice I have ever heard. I learned from watching Paul O'Neill play first with the Reds, then later with the Yankees, that fouling off pitches isn't about screwing up getting a hit. It's about screwing up a pitch and making the pitcher throw you another that might be more to your liking.

14 May 2014

On the Issue of Access to Restrooms by Trans Students

I read this morning on the Courier-Journal website that apparently, there's some flap over allowing a 16 year old trans student access to restrooms and the locker room at Atherton High School. Principal Thomas Aberil has created an online survey, seeking input from students, parents, school staff, and members of the community. Because this is an issue that has become increasingly important to me as my own understanding of the trans community has grown in the last couple of years, and because it's not one that I've really addressed in this blog so far, I present in its entirety my response:
I graduated in 1997. At that time, even what has become the mainstream LGBTQ community was marginalized. Since that time, especially through social media such as Twitter (yes, Twitter, where far more substantive discourse takes place than non-users believe), I have learned far more about the issues faced by members of the trans community than I ever would have understood living in the Louisville metro area or through my education - including, I regret to say, the University of Louisville, where I earned my B.A. in history.

The concern over female student safety is certainly legitimate. The notion that a trans student sharing a restroom and/or locker room with cis-gender female students is a threat to their safety, however, is decidedly illegitimate.

The Courier-Journal quoted Clint Elliott as saying:

"Imagine this scenario — a transgender student, a biological boy who decides that he wants to identify with the female gender, and yet he acknowledges that he has a girlfriend and is sexually attracted to girls," Elliott said. "Are parents supposed to be OK with allowing such boys to use the girls' restroom and locker room facilities?"

The ignorance displayed here is appalling in the abstract, much less on the more important issue of affecting a real person's life.

It may shock Mr. Elliott and those he represents to learn, but there are already cis-gender female students who have girlfriends and are sexually attracted to girls sharing those same restrooms and locker rooms that he seeks to deny the young trans student in question. I'm sure he's in denial about this, just as I suspect he chose to be oblivious to having shared a restroom and locker room as a student himself with male students who were sexually attracted to boys.

The issue then shifts to whether this trans student might be some kind of sexual predator. Mr. Elliott would do well to learn about the issues facing the trans community. Statistically, they are the most at-risk group in any community - yes, even in Louisville - for being sexually assaulted and abused. The notion of trans students having access to restrooms and locker rooms as some kind of "loophole" for predators is more revealing about how Mr. Elliott views males than it illustrates any understanding of the trans community.

Consider that the student's girlfriend remained involved with her even after coming out as trans. The relevance of that cannot be overstated. Even as adults like Mr. Elliott are distraught at the notion of this trans student urinating in a stall adjacent to a cis-gender female student, her own girlfriend has seen so much in her that their romantic relationship has continued. Additionally, the Courier-Journal article quoted a friend of this young student, as well as the friend's mother, in support of her.

If we're to leave this matter to one of passing judgment on the student's character - which itself is a dubious and asinine approach to such an issue - then surely we should defer to the respect and trust that the student has earned, rather than surrender to the ignorance of those in our community who know only that they fear what they can't be bothered to understand.

Time and again, the reaction from fearful people has been to try to segregate and contain those whose differences trouble them. The reason it doesn't work is that people still exist whether they're recognized or not. This student exists whether Mr. Elliott understands her needs or not, and she exists outside of school, too. Even if the school capitulates to the hysterics of Mr. Elliott and those he represents, she will not be the last LGBTQ student to walk the halls of Atherton High School, to go shopping at Mall St. Matthews, to attend a Cardinals game at the Yum! Center, to see a midnight movie at Baxter Avenue Theatres, to attend a concert at the Louisville Palace, to try to catch a foul ball at Slugger Field, or go anywhere else in our community where there are (gasp!) restrooms.

I respectfully and strongly urge the site based council to support this young student, and those like her present and yet to come. Expanding the scope of in-class curricula to educate students - who will one day succeed Mr. Elliott in the Louisville Metro area - about the trans community will help mitigate these nuisance outbursts in the future.

08 May 2014

A Thrilling Conversation About Comedy with Ben Acker and Craig Cackowski

What follows is an interview I conducted on Saturday, April 26 with Ben Acker and Craig Cackowski. This transcript was submitted to, but to my surprise and great disappointment rejected by, the movie website to which I contribute. I feel strongly that fans of The Thrilling Adventure Hour deserve to at least read these insights into the relationships that Mr. Acker and Mr. Cackowski have with films that influence their work, their thoughts on comedies, and the elements that make a comedy work. With permission, I have published the piece here as intended.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour recently celebrated its ninth anniversary. The show featured at this year’s C2E2 convention in Chicago, where a special live performance was given on Saturday, April 26. I sat down for a conversation about comedy with show co-creator and writer Ben Acker, and one of the stars of its core ensemble, Craig Cackowski. Both are veterans in the field, and each takes seriously the business of being funny.
TRAVIS: One of the things I noticed in the "Odd Couple” episode is that very clearly, Mr. [James] Urbaniak was channeling Walter Matthau, especially in the tossing spaghetti (“Now it’s against the wall!”) bit. I’m not familiar with Neil Simon’s play, so I don’t know if that’s in the stage version or not, but I guess the first question is, how conscientious are you guys about raiding movies for references and moments like that in the show?
BEN ACKER: We are diligently borrowing iconic moments from movies and subverting them. Often, just up to the very thin line between straight-up plagiarism and straight-up not-plagiarism. [laughs] And it’s parody, so… “Steal from the best”, I believe is the expression, “and give to the worst”. [laughs]
TRAVIS: There’s an interview I heard with Chet Atkins once, and he was talking about how over decades of trading guitar licks and learning from, and teaching new ones, his philosophy was “Well, I borrow stuff, but I forget where I got it.”
ACKER: Sure. That happens.
CRAIG CACKOWSKI: Everything’s out there in the ether, and you just kind of distill it somehow and sometimes it’s hard to know where it came from, but if you go back and think about it a little more, it’s like, ‘Oh, it must have come from there’.
ACKER: The question was, how do I write the show? I went to Syracuse University, and there’s a giant mural of Sacco and Vanzetti on campus, so that became our “Odd Couple”.
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: Right, so how do you go from two Italian anarchists to Matthau and [Jack] Lemmon?
ACKER: I’ll tell you how. We heard – it was James – [to Cackowski] was it James, do you remember, who played Lemmon, or Matthau? I think Jim played –
CACKOWSKI: Who was he playing? It was [John] DiMaggio, right? DiMaggio was Matthau and Urbaniak was Lemmon, yeah.
ACKER: It came from hearing DiMaggio’s Matthau. Like, on the Kevin Pollak chat show.
TRAVIS [remembering]: Urbaniak was Matthau.
ACKER: Okay. They both have each voice. But hearing the one do the one and then the other saying, “Can you do the other?” and “Yes”, alright, and who’s a famous pair from history we can make “The Odd Couple”? And Sacco and Vinzetti seemed like a ridiculous pair to make. So that was simpatico. Which leads to that pasta on the wall. That was the play, the movie; totally not the TV show. I think. [To Cackowski] You’ve seen every episode.
CACKOWSKI: Oh, of course.
ACKER: If you ever get the chance to interview James Urbaniak, he has added lyrics to The Odd Couple theme, and it is worth hearing. [humming of Neal Hefti’s iconic theme; laughter]
TRAVIS: I re-watched the movie last February, and I think I had the theme song stuck in my head for, like, nine months, so thanks for putting that back in.
ACKER: You won’t get it out until Christmas now. Just listen to “Everything is Awesome” from The LEGO Movie. It’ll knock anything out of your head.
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: That leads to one of the next questions, which is, there are various styles of comedy, and from what I can tell from listening to the show, you guys skew toward the more educated style of comedy. I mean, Sacco and Vinzetti are not the guys that are being referenced in Comedy Central stand-up specials. So, how do you – what are these influences that bring you to that end of the spectrum? And specifically, since I’m writing for a movie website, which films in particular might have led you down that path?
ACKER: Yeah, we like to put smart and dumb right next to each other, you know? But The Hudsucker Proxy was a big influence for me. I saw that when I was in high school and that was like the first movie I remember where I was like, “I want to make movies like that.” Which, funny enough, it turns out I’m trafficking in the same substances.
You know, all the comedy comes from character, or most of it. That’s our angle. So, yeah, The Hudsucker Proxy is one that… It’s “-ish”, you know? It’s pastiche-y of the old stuff without necessarily being it.
CACKOWSKI: Well, it’s kind of throwback to a film of that era, but it’s also uniquely Coen brothers.
ACKER: Right.
CACKOWSKI: It couldn’t be made by anyone else.
ACKER: Yeah.
CACKOWSKI: So there’s a modern sensibility that goes into –
ACKER: Yeah, and [mocking] “There’s a modern sensibility that goes into…” Thank you for my talking point, Craig! [laughs, continues to mock] “There’s a modern sensibility to pastiches of older things”. Like, we love, you know, His Girl Friday. We love, obviously, the Thin Man movies. Well, not obvious to you. There’s a segment that Craig is not necessarily in all the time. [Referencing that I had only had time to listen to the episodes featuring Cackowski prior to the interview.]
TRAVIS: Well, I have ESP, so it was obvious to me.
ACKER: [laughs] There’s some things that are just low-hanging fruit, so clearly we were going to say the Thin Man movies. We do a piece that involves a drunk couple solving ghost problems and mysteries. So those fast-talking, old-timers…love those.
CACKOWSKI: I think we have a smart audience, in our live shows in L.A., and our podcast listeners, and they have a high standard. It seems like you guys write to that.
ACKER: Yeah, I mean, that’s a Second City influence: write from the top of your intelligence. Also, the show is clean. We don’t swear.
TRAVIS: That was something else that I noticed. When you say you’re putting smart next to dumb, in the few episodes I was able to listen to, it felt like very highbrow comedy to me, and that’s something that I’ve found to be terribly rare just in general, but to be honest, especially in film these days.
ACKER: It may be silly instead of dumb, I guess. That’s a nicer word to say. [laughter]
TRAVIS: Irreverent.
ACKER: Yeah. With the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright movies, there’s the genre they put them in, but there’s also the characters at the core.
TRAVIS, to CACKOWSKI: That brings me to a question specific to Col. Tick-Tock. I was wondering: is there a reason that that is the character, in the whole podcast that I saw, that was the one that you had done? I didn’t see that you had done any other characters.
CACKOWSKI: That’s my lead character, and I pop up as support characters in a lot of the other pieces.
TRAVIS: Okay. Is there a reason that you’re doing the time travel fix-it guy?
CACKOWSKI: Talk to the casting office! [laughs, gestures to ACKER]
ACKER: The reason was –
TRAVIS [to CACKOWSKI]: I was wondering whether there was something that drew you specifically to it, but if there is a reason that they said, “Hey, you’re the guy!” then yeah, sure.
CACKOWSKI [to ACKER]: How did I get that part?
ACKER: The way it worked is that the show has three segments, and the first one was [“Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars”], with Marc Evan Jackson and Mark Gagliardi, some heavy hitters in the show, and then the last one is called “Beyond Belief”, and Craig Cackowski is a real heavy-hitter in the show. And every time we had a middle segment, it was like, “This is Craig’s lead thing”. We wanted to spotlight on Craig, and not one of the worst members of our troupe. [laughs] Right? Like, “Get him out on the front!”
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] I think the original idea for Col. Tick-Tock was just that he was the most prototypically British character.
ACKER: And grander.
CACKOWSKI: There wasn’t a lot of substance beyond that.
TRAVIS: I felt a certain Fry & Laurie [vibe] to that, especially with the performance of Queen Victoria.
ACKER: The original concept was a thirty second narrative, sandwiched between a two-minute and a seven-minute theme song.
CACKOWSKI: [laughing] The longest theme song ever!
ACKER: A really quick episode, yeah. As we grew to doing the podcast, it was much more satisfying to write an episode for. Also, in the intervening time, we discovered Doctor Who, and we were already unwittingly doing, but didn’t know. So it turns out, that’s real neat. It feels like tonight’s episode, the one that we’re doing in the live show tonight, addresses the Doctor Who connection more overtly than any one that we’ve done before.
CACKOWSKI: That should get a ton of laughs.
ACKER: I would think so.
CACKOWSKI: Although, we did have Karen –
ACKER: We did have Karen Gillan as a guest before and – have you listened to that episode?
TRAVIS: I didn’t get that far, I’m afraid.
ACKER: Ah. Yeah, she was fantastic. But that was definitely a nod to Doctor Who and the parallels. [laughter]
l to r: Travis's hand, Craig Cackowski's coffee, Craig Cackowksi, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
l to r: Travis's hand, Craig Cackowski's coffee, Craig Cackowksi, Ben Acker. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: One of the things that I was noticing was that you were talking about the “low-hanging fruit”, and obviously if you’re dealing with anything time travel: Back to the Future. And yet, even through the stuff that I listened to, there was no –
ACKER: We have Back to the Future episode in “Amelia Earhart[, Fearless Flyer]”, which is another time travel bit on the show.
TRAVIS: - and so, first of all, I was going to ask how much patience does it take to withhold from going to that early on in the series?
CACKOWSKI:  That’s more American than we like to play with Tick-Tock.
ACKER: Oh! On the topic of Tick-Tock’s Britishness: Apparently, we diligently do not do research on ideas before we put them onto the show, and just as enthusiastically, we haven’t done research into British stuff, aside from watching movies and TV. Recently on Twitter, English people have been talking about how much we – our terrible use of British slang just completely knocks them out of the show. Like, they’re not in. [laughter]
CACKOWSKI: It tickles me how much they –
ACKER: Sure. They can’t listen to Col. Tick-Tock: “I am from England and I cannot hear it.” [laughter] It drives them crazy.
CACKOWSKI: It’s like blackface to them, almost, it’s so offensive.
TRAVIS: That reminds me what Simon Pegg said about watching Star Trek and the only character he hated was Scotty, because James Doohan’s voice just did not have any authenticity to him whatsoever.
ACKER: Right. Somebody’s exaggerated idea of what a Scotsman would be, yeah.
TRAVIS: I want to stick with Back to the Future because there is a sort of debate amongst the members of this site [Flickchart], because we assign a filter tag to anything that’s applicable, so that it shows up on those charts. Well, it’s listed as a comedy. And of course, because it’s so wildly popular, it’s often ranked the #1 comedy of all-time, according to the data. Now, this is controversial because Back to the Future is not straightforward comedy. I describe it as a sci-fi movie with a sense of humor, and I was wondering how you guys, being in the comedy business, would see that side of –
CACKOWSKI: We’re resolving the debate once and for all! [laughs]
TRAVIS: Well, you don’t have to resolve the debate, but use it as a microcosm to comment on those gray areas where a movie isn’t necessarily thought of – the Simon Pegg stuff, you know?
CACKOWSKI: Isn’t that a romcom? [laughs]
ACKER: Back to the Future is a romcom? Where he has to learn that he shouldn’t sleep with his mother? [laughs]
TRAVIS: Which is really hard when it’s a young Lea Thompson.
ACKER: Like a Broadcast News-style romcom, where ultimately, the characters have to, through their relationships – the romantic relationships that they’re in – through the body of the film, realize “It’s not this one. That’s not the right one for me.” That’s not who those characters –
TRAVIS: That’s not the guy she’s supposed to procreate with.
CACKOWSKI: I’d consider it a funny sci-fi film. That’s where I stand.
ACKER: You know what? I’m gonna say…it’s a comedy. Comedy’s more important than the sci-fi in it.
TRAVIS: So the sci-fi is the vehicle for the comedy?
ACKER: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely right.
CACKOWSKI: I’m never going to work with you again, man. [laughter]
ACKER: [laughing] This is the interview that caused the end of the Thrilling Adventure Hour! [To Travis:] No, it’s not you. This has been a long time coming. [To Cackowski:] I’ve got no respect for you. [laughter] But I just want to say, all the things you were saying about Back to the Future and how it’s a top-grossing movie, “Is it this?” “Is it that?” It’s like Ghostbusters, which is, you know, a better movie.
CACKOWSKI: You think Ghostbusters is better than Back to the Future?
ACKER: Honestly, yes.
TRAVIS: Well, is Ghostbusters a horror movie?
CACKOWSKI: No. That is a comedy. Ghostbusters is a comedy.
TRAVIS: I ask because it shows up there [meaning the horror chart]. Shaun of the Dead shows up high on the comedy and on the horror charts, and fans of both genres balk at that.
CACKOWSKI: Right. It’s a zomromcom!
ACKER: [laughing] A zomromcom?
TRAVIS: Edgar Wright said that, and that was the greatest tag line ever. I remember going to see it with friends, and we walked in and said -- we laughed at it on the marquee on the way in, but on the way out it was like, “Yeah, that is the best summary of what we just watched.”
ACKER: I went to a screening the night before it opened. It was my friend’s birthday and he brought us to this thing and Edgar Wright and the cast and Simon Pegg were there, promoting this thing, and they talked about how obviously Romero, obviously comedy stuff, but the Four Weddings and a Funeral director [Mike Newell] was just as big of an influence on them making it.
TRAVIS: Really? Huh.
ACKER: Yeah, that was part of what they were trying to do, was make sure it stands as a romance.
CACKOWSKI: They wanted the relationships to be believable, and zombies as a metaphor for growth –
ACKER: Yeah.
CACKOWSKI: If you don’t get invested in the relationships between the characters, then the jokes wear thin after awhile.
ACKER: Yeah.
Acker amuses Cackowski. Photos by Ronnie Ashley.
Acker amuses Cackowski. Photos by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: I don’t have a background in professional writing but, obviously, you do, so one of the questions that I’ve noticed comes up at every actor question and answer session is, “What have you ever ad libbed?” As a writer, I want to know your thoughts on why is there that fascination audiences have with whether or not an actor was able to subvert all the hard work that went into that screenplay, and [to CACKOWSKI] maybe you’re the better one to answer that?
CACKOWSKI: Well, I’m trained in improv and I’m an improv teacher. But I’m also a trained actor. I’m a theater major and went on and I’ve been doing and teaching improv for twenty years and –we do, occasionally, in the live shows, usually just from a mistake, when someone misses the line.
TRAVIS: I caught that in the “Odd Couple” episode, as a matter of fact. No, it was “The Wilde Party”.
[ACKER laughs]
TRAVIS: It was…they had a hard time spitting out…what was the word? It was like four syllables, like “inconceivably” or something like that.
ACKER: Might have been DiMaggio, wasn’t it?
TRAVIS: Very clearly, that prompted an ad lib –
CACKOWSKI: Yes. We will occasionally riff when there’s a mistake, but the script that these guys write is so tight that it needs to be honored. And I don’t believe in improv for improv’s sake, or just to fuck around, you know?
ACKER: I think audiences want to know about it because the actors are who they revere and to see the actor’s creativity is sport for their fandom or their appreciation. And also, improv suggests this being-in-the-moment and capturing something unique and special, so to see a favorite moment and get it validated that extra inch of “And that was right there, they didn’t plan it” or “It was cosmic”, that gives value to this moment that they like.
CACKOWSKI: You can find those compilations on YouTube, of “these were all lines that were improvised”. Iconic lines from movies that were improvised, like “You talkin’ to me?” “There’s no place like home.” “Top of the world, ma.”
ACKER: [laughing] Was that improvised?
CACKOWSKI:  [laughing] As much as “There’s no place like home” was, for the purpose of this bit I was trying to get off the ground. [laughter] “Play it again, Sam.” “Rosebud.” [laughter]
TRAVIS: Orson Welles just winged it on that one.
CACKOWSKI: [in character as Welles] “I still haven’t come up with a name for that sled yet. Uh…Rosebud. Fizzy Chimichanga.”
ACKER: “We’ll find it in editing.”
CACKOWSKI: “I’ll just say a bunch of stuff.”
ACKER: [laughs] He’s directing himself.
CACKOWSKI: [still in character as Welles] “Cosgrove. Sleddy. Sleddy Sleddy Sled Sled.”  [laughter]
ACKER: [repeating] “Sleddy Sleddy Sled Sled.” [laughs]
CACKOWSKI: Sleddy! [laughter]
TRAVIS: My personal thought has been that people like the idea of subversion in general. There’s the defiance of not being slavishly adhering to what has been imposed on them by the –
ACKER: I like the idea of a script imposed on them. [laughs]
CACKOWSKI: But even “You talkin’ to me”, like it was just Scorsese decided to put it in the movie. He could have left it on the floor, so you know, it was something DeNiro came up with in the moment, but Scorsese recognized the genius of it and decided to leave it in.
TRAVIS: Which is why he’s Scorsese.
CACKOWSKI: That’s why he’s Scorsese. Well, that’s how he’s Scorsese.
WorkJuice Players publicity photo by Elizabeth Sisson for Ladykiller.
WorkJuice Players. Publicity photo by Elizabeth Sisson for Ladykiller.
TRAVIS: We’ve got just a few minutes here, so –
ACKER: Sleddy Sleddy Sled Sled.
TRAVIS: - what are some films that make you laugh, that you’ve seen them a dozen times and they still make you laugh?
CACKOWSKI: For me, This Is Spinal Tap, and that’s a movie that’s all improvised.
ACKER: Is it? Now who’s naïve?
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] Raising Arizona. That’s probably the funniest Coen brothers movie.
ACKER: According to Craig.
CACKOWSKI: According to me. [laughter] For old-timey, I’d go My Man Godfrey –
ACKER: His Girl Friday.
CACKOWSKI: You know what one of the funniest movies is, and here’s another one where it’s a genre-bender. It’s thought of as a musical, but Singin’ in the Rain is one of the funniest movies of all time.
ACKER: Preach.
TRAVIS: That’s one of my friend’s favorite movies of all-time.
CACKOWSKI: It’s brilliant. It’s got a lot of laugh out loud moments in it, and I would say the comedy might even trump the musical in it.
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker, Travis McClain. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker, Travis McClain. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: And what about movies that absolutely made you bust a gut the first time, but then on a second viewing, fell flat for you – and I’m not necessarily asking you to call out any movie here – but how do you feel about those? Is the fact that it was successful that first time tainted by the fact that it didn’t hold up, or do you just throw out the fact that it didn’t hold up and just enjoy the fact that it got you the first time?
ACKER: [thinking] I don’t have a movie in mind.
CACKOWSKI: You know, I haven’t seen This Is the End a second time yet, and I’m guessing that that’s one that might not hold up for me.
ACKER: Which one is that?
CACKOWSKI: The movie that came out last year with James Franco and Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, where they were all playing themselves.
ACKER: I think Temple of Doom didn’t hold up a second time.
CACKOWSKI: As a laugh out loud movie? [laughs]
ACKER: Wait, was this laugh out loud movies, or just movies that don’t hold up?
TRAVIS: I will fight you.
ACKER: [mock-Trailer Guy voice] “The funniest movie I’ve ever seen…” Oh! Return of the Jedi. [laughter] Not as good the second time, when you realize it could have been a Wookiee planet. You go, “Oh, they were pandering to four-year-old me and it worked!” [laughter] So it’s a little bit of their fault, but a little bit of my fault.
CACKOWSKI: You know, I’m such a snob about comedy that usually if a movie makes me laugh, it always makes me laugh.
ACKER: That can make sense.
CACKOWSKI: But as somebody who does, and thinks about, comedy a lot, I don’t go to a lot of big-budget comedies because I think they pander a lot.
TRAVIS: Very clearly different from the sensibility that I perceive through what I’ve listened to.
ACKER: [To Cackowski] Now, you have lists of top movies. Like, you keep Hornby-esque lists of –
CACKOWSKI: I am a movie list guy.
ACKER: What are your hundred favorite movies?
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] Do we have time for a hundred?
TRAVIS: That’s up to Ms. Davis.
ACKER: You know what, just go real fast.
CACKOWSKI: GodfatherSchindler’s ListBrazilCitizen Kane –
ACKER: You’re building to Wonderful Life.
CACKOWSKI:  - It’s a Wonderful Life –
ACKER: These are your #100-95.
CACKOWSKI: [laughs] No.
TRAVIS: Where is Lawrence of Arabia?
CACKOWSKI: Lawrence of Arabia? That’d be in my second hundred.
TRAVIS: I will fight you, too.
CACKOWSKI: [laughs]
ACKER: Going to be a lot of fighting here.
CACKOWSKI: Top 200 means I think it’s incredible. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of movies. Number 200 is pretty good.
ACKER: He doesn’t take it seriously. [laughter]
l to r: Ben Acker, Travis, Craig Cackowski. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
TRAVIS: And last question, because we are in Chicago.
TRAVIS: Favorite movie set in Chicago? Could be comedy, could be something else. Could be The Untouchables, could be The Sting –
CACKOWSKI: Ooh, High Fidelity is a great one.
ACKER: Uh…well, Ferris Bueller. Wait. Was Perfect Strangers a movie?
CACKOWSKI: [laughs]
TRAVIS: It should have been. Or, I guess, still could be.
ACKER: Yeah, Balki goes back. [laughter]
CACKOWSKI: Perfect Strangers: The Movie, Balki goes back?
ACKER: Oh! But that wouldn’t be set in Chicago so much as in Mypos. [laughter]
CACKOWSKI: That’s right. His home was in Mypos.
ACKER: It opens with a dance of sadness and closes with a dance of joy. We’re writing this movie, you guys!
CACKOWSKI: Oh, you know way more about Perfect Strangers than I do.
TRAVIS: I want a story credit on this. You get the screenplay, I want a “story by”.
ACKER: “Based on a Question by…” [laughter]
TRAVIS: Well, gentlemen, it has been terrific chatting with you. Thank you for your time.
ACKER: Thanks so much.
TRAVIS: I really appreciate it. And I have no idea how to turn this thing off, so it might record until the end of the day.
ACKER: Great!
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker, Travis McClain. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
l to r: Craig Cackowski, Ben Acker, Travis McClain. Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
The next live performance of the Thrilling Adventure Hour will be Saturday, May 10, at Town Hall in New York city. Tickets are on sale now. A special live crossover show with Welcome to Night Vale will be performed later this summer at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
My thanks to Ben Acker and Craig Cackowski for their generous time, and for not fighting me.
Thanks also to Danielle Davis at Ladykiller for facilitating the interview, and to Ronnie Ashley for his able assistance.