12 May 2015

Crohn's Disease, Isolation, and Driftin'

My favorite Hank Williams song is "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". Not only are its lyrics rich and vivid and not only does Hank sound appropriately mournful, but there's a deftness to its title that I don't think is as fully appreciated as it ought to be. The song could very easily have been "I'm So Lonesome I Could Die". Same syllables, same rhyming sound. But if it had been "Die", the song would have felt hyperbolic, even if everything else in that recording remained exactly the same.

Admitting that you're so lonesome you could cry, though, conveys biting harshness. It doesn't even matter how prone to crying you may be; what matters is that you know where your breaking point is, and Hank is telling you he's just about there and it's because of how godawful lonesome he is. There's a duality to the song. Maybe we empathize with him, because we know what it would take to make us cry. Maybe, though, we feel he's the one empathizing with us, because he knows what it would take to make him cry, and here he is singing a song about it on our behalf. Does it matter? Not really. The point stands that it's the word choice of "Cry" rather than "Die" that gives the song its heft.

I've been fighting a Crohn's flare for five weeks now. After a few days of realizing it wasn't going to subside, I started a Prednisone taper, which typically does the trick. It brought a little relief on the first couple of days, when the dosage was strongest, but by the taper's end, they had become just a few more pills in my nightly regimen. Two weeks ago, I went in for IV treatment: steroids, antibiotic, anti-nausea medication, saline, and vitamins. I was thrown off at first because the physician who saw me wasn't my regular one, but at least she trusted that I knew my condition and didn't treat me like a WebMD-obsessed hypochondriac like a lot of doctors regard patients these days. I felt better that evening, though I was in and out of the bathroom until the next morning and I slept most of the next two days from exhaustion.

I'd been given a second Prednisone taper to begin after the IV treatment, hoping that the extra boost of the fluids would help the pills finish the job they couldn't on their own. Again, though, the Prednisone failed. I spent almost all day in bed on Sunday, alternately sleeping and writhing in pain. I returned to see my doctor in the morning. This time, we took images to see what was taking place inside me.

That's what I looked like on the inside, if you were to look right up (or is it down?) through me. At the top is a thing that looks like a snake's skeleton. That's my digestive tract. What we learned from that and a blood test is that a decade of Crohn's has essentially permanently damaged part of that area. This current flare isn't being caused by inflammation, which is why the steroids failed but the IV treatment that included an antibiotic brought me relief. We did another round of IV treatment this afternoon.

I sat there in a puffy chair in a room all by myself while my cocktail was delivered to me a drop at a time. I'd brought my iPod and played the Quantum of Solace soundtrack. Originally, I picked it because one of the few things for which I've had any enthusiasm at all of late has been Bond and I think I've only played that soundtrack maybe twice since I bought it.

Then again, though, maybe subconsciously I picked it because the last time I was hospitalized was in October, 2008 just a few weeks before Quantum opened here in the U.S.

I've avoided hospitalization throughout the intervening years largely through a combination of being vigilant about monitoring my condition and maintaining what I suspect most would regard as a low quality of life. I've contemplated myself just where I fall between "existing" and "living" on many occasions. There's a chicken-and-the-egg relationship between my physical and mental health, and I have a hard time sorting out which is responsible for a given funk like the one I've been in since late March/early April.

The last time I was hospitalized, I had my wife with me every step of the way. She was fiercely protective, and having worked in various capacities in the medical field over the years, she knew the language and protocols well enough to be my ambassador, my translator, and my guardian all in one. I could focus my energies on recuperating while she asked the questions I didn't know to ask, or the ones she knew I wanted to ask but was too miserable to put forth myself.

Sitting there today with IV fluids running into my left arm and James Bond music piped into my ears, it dawned on me how truly lonesome I felt. During one of my hospitalizations in 2008, I used up a great deal of energy fending off an aggressive gastroenterologist who wanted to start slicing and dicing on me and berated me for not being on Remicade. He ran a Remicade clinic, which he reiterated a few times. I never heard a physician concerned for my health speaking; I only heard a relentless salesman who had power over me. Ironically enough, it was the surgeon who agreed with me about my approach to give my treatment time to work before cutting into me.

Dr. Remicade also insisted my appendix needed to go while I was being cut on anyway, incidentally. A decade later, I still have it. If/when the time comes that I have it removed, I might ask if I can keep it. Take it to a taxidermist and get it turned into a trophy of some kind, maybe. I haven't thought it out yet.

If dealing with that guy was as exhausting for me as it was seven years ago when I had a devoted defender at my side, how can I possibly get through it on my own if it comes down to being hospitalized again?

It isn't that there's not another person in my life who cares about me or wouldn't try to be there for me. I've said for years that if I've only ever done one thing right in my entire life, it was surely to have surrounded myself with truly wonderful people. I have an enviable inner circle. It's not an exaggeration for me to say that I probably have more Friends than a lot of people even have Acquaintances. I've got so many Friends these days that it makes incredulous my insistence that I don't confer that title casually, but I really don't. Anyone I have designated a Friend has earned their stripes over the years.

But there's only so much that even a Friend can do when you're hospitalized.

They can check in on you, whether in person or remotely, of course. They can tell you they're thinking of you and they hope you get better soon, and of course they do. They can say that if you need anything, just to ask them, but there's no way to ask of them what you really need, because what you really need is to not be so lonesome you could cry.

That feeling can hit you at any time during a hospital stay. It can be when you first wake up and realize you're still there. It can be during breakfast when the patient in the next bed gets scrambled eggs and you get literally nothing because you're not allowed to eat or drink anything beyond the sip or two it takes to wash down your pills. It can be when you want to murder the scrambled-egg-eating patient next to you because he insists on watching Judge Judy as loudly as the TV will go...so that he can nod off and snore through it. It can be when the nurse comes in and you ask when someone will come by to tell you what the game plan is and they have no idea. It can be when you realize your hair is absolutely gross because of how long it's been since you showered.

It can also be when you start trying to outline the possible and probable courses that your health will take in the coming minutes, hours, and days. What if something goes wrong? What if it goes right but it just doesn't work? What if I'm in far worse shape than anyone realized? It gets uglier from there in a hurry.

The point is, that feeling of lonesomeness can - and does - strike at any time. Your Friends are on the outside, living through their hectic but scheduled daily lives. They're dashing to work in the morning, picking up kids in the afternoon, trying to attend meetings, practices, performances, tend to household errands, and even carve out an hour somewhere in all that for themselves to decompress. They can't be expected to burst into the room like the Kool-Aid Man just before you agree to a course of treatment that makes you squeamish because the physician has succeeded in wearing you down with his bullying. There's only a quantum of solace in knowing they would if they could.

I was asked earlier if surgery had been discussed with me at this point regarding my current flare. It scared the hell out of me.

I'd already recognized the possibility and even shared my anxiety over it with a few Friends, but somehow being asked about it pointblank spooked me even more. I'm not even ready to have someone ask me if surgery has been discussed. How would I go into it, if that's what it comes down to at the end of the week? (See: Three paragraphs up.)

Friday, 15 May, will mark the tenth anniversary of when I was told by an ER doctor that I "likely" had Crohn's disease. Being an ER doc, he wasn't allowed to diagnose it, but he was pretty sure and it turned out he was right. I'd been misdiagnosed with merely having GERD a year before that, and had suffered through symptoms for a year before even that, but I regard 15 May as my Crohnniversary.

I brainstormed months ago about "celebrating" (defying) the occasion by trying to get together as many Friends as possible to do something I enjoy that Crohn's has kept me from doing nearly as much as I would like. I settled on mini-golf. I truly love mini-golf, particularly at night. On a mid-May evening, it would still get dark early enough for the excitement of nighttime while still being warm enough to be comfortable.

I haven't formally canceled the outing, but it's almost certain that I'll have to. Even if this current antibiotic treatment works as hoped, these episodes are exhausting. If it doesn't work as hoped, I'll almost surely cry.

03 May 2015

On Self-Care; or, How Can I Help You?

Though the concept of self-care is not new, it's become increasingly commonly discussed through social media and blogs. It originated in the medical field as a term for identifying things that a patient can do to help manage their own care (a fairly self-evident definition, I should think). For instance, taking your medication as prescribed would be a simple and probably obvious act of self-care. Learning to identify triggers and developing healthy coping mechanisms is a more complicated, but also fairly obvious component.

Attack of the Crohn's

Three weeks ago, I began yet another Crohn's flare. I began a Prednisone taper, which tends to do the trick if I start it quickly enough. It failed, and by Wednesday last week, I realized I needed to go in for IV treatment (hydrating fluids, steroids, antibiotics, supplemental vitamins, and a partridge in a pear tree).

This wasn't the first time I've had to do that since my marital separation, but it certainly wasn't any easier, either. It's still scary, despite living with this stupid disease for just under a full ten years. Facing it alone reminded me how vulnerable I really am. Yes, it was self-care to recognize the warning signs of the flare and to begin treatment in a timely manner and to seek more treatment when that failed, but this self-care left me more demoralized even though it seems to have worked to stave off greater physical calamity.

Self-Care Is What, Now?

Self-care is something that's sort of evolved outside its clinical scope, and can be generalized as a "Treat Yourself" philosophy. I'm not here to pass judgment on the debate that has arisen from this expanded interpretation of the concept; that's not my place. But it is something that's on my mind right now so here we are.

I used to write about my experiences with depression regularly. Initially, I received strong, encouraging - and truly humbling - feedback. But then it seemed each post found a smaller audience than the last, and I realized all I was doing was adding to the world's white noise. I felt my series on depression had outlived its usefulness, and I largely got away from not just sharing those experiences, but blogging at all.

What Does Writing Have to Do with Self-Care?

One of the key things to managing my chronic depression is to feel useful. Sharing my experiences gave me that feeling, at least in the beginning. It bolstered my sense of self and it was something proactive I could do. Whether that meets the more stringent, clinical definition of self-care, I don't know, but I like to think it's a bit more substantive than "treating" myself to something that may make me feel like a proper human being instead of the stigmatized fugitive that I sometimes perceive myself as being, trying to keep myself going without drawing too much unwanted attention. I've been very fortunate to have been overlooked by the vicious trolls that seem obsessed with attacking mentally ill people's writings online, but at the same time I've also failed to really build any kind of audience that would let me know that what I've written has any value or merit.

So far, 2015 has been the worst year of either of my two lives (you may recall I regard my time as a patient at Our Lady of Peace as delineating my "first" and "second" lives). The first four months were endlessly brutal, not just to me personally but to just about everyone close to me. My family has been harangued by exhausting internal matters, including the passing of my grandfather in February and other things I won't go into publicly. Friends have been bombarded with everything from breakups to severe health issues, from job loss to the deaths of their loved ones. It's felt like everyone I know has been under siege for months, with no sign of relief in sight for any of us. That's exhausting and exasperating.

It also reinforces my sense that I'm useless.

What's All This "Useless" Business?

I haven't felt that I've made any meaningful difference for ages now; nothing that couldn't have easily been done by someone else if they'd just had the kind of time on their hands that I do when I'm not bedridden or trapped in a bathroom (which has been most of the last three weeks, not that that really matters). Well-meaning friends have cited examples of me being helpful to others, and while I don't deny that I've done those things, I also don't feel they justify my existence.

I've come to realize that I feel driven to redeem myself, though for what I can't say. Maybe Doc Holliday would speculate, "Being born". I've certainly held deep-seeded resentment about even existing since my youth. I can remember lying on the couch in our living room, inwardly seething at even being alive. I never shared those thoughts, because somehow I instinctively knew that rather than being understood or helped, I would at best be written off as "odd" but more likely chastised for not being sufficiently grateful about my life. As I've said on numerous occasions, though, depression doesn't have a damn thing to do with gratitude.

So What Kind of Self-Care Have You Practiced About Any of This, Hoss?

Recently, as I've tried to make myself engage with some of those closest to me about all this, including my remarkably patient physician, they've all come back to my writing. I became disillusioned with writing more than two years ago, which I think is evidenced by the noticeable decline in content published in this blog during that time. I tried starting to write a second novel at least twice, failing to gain any traction either time. I've become little more than a bench player over at Flickchart, where I've written next to nothing for nearly two years now.

Still, I have to concede that there for awhile, writing was a part of my self-care. It was a way to break through the isolation that depression creates around its prey, for one thing. It was also a way to use whatever aptitude for writing that I may have in a constructive, proactive way. I hoped I was helpful to others every now and again with something that I shared, whether to give them a new insight into what their loved one was facing or just to know someone else knew the view from where they stood. In short, writing was central to my self-care plan, and I got away from it.

I don't even feel useful to my loved ones - certainly not through writing, or anything else that I've been able to do for them here and there - much less have I felt useful to the world at large, which I know full well wouldn't miss me if I didn't wake up from my next nap. And if I'm being entirely honest, right now, I wouldn't miss much from this world if I didn't wake up from my next nap, either. Some people (don't make me name names; if you think you're one of them, you are). The cats. Doughnuts. My bed cocoon. I think that's about it.

Why Did I Just Read (skim) All of This? What Do You Want?

Firstly, let me say that I'm not sharing it because I want to read any comments about how "valuable" I am. I don't believe I have any value or worth, and I never have. I appreciate the effort you may want to make to get through to me, but trust me; your energies are better spent elsewhere.

As with previous sharing, on some level I guess I'm hoping those who may identify with where I am take something positive from it. Maybe just knowing that this happens to more people than just you might make it somehow less maddening for you, and if so, then I'm glad you found this piece, and I hope you find the peace that has been eluding me of late.

I do have something of a request, though, Dear Reader. I'm not recommitting to writing, as I still don't believe that what I write really matters, but what might be helpful for me is if I had an idea what you might find helpful. I've asked this before without much feedback, but I'm asking it again: If you could have me address something in writing, what would it be? It doesn't have to be about Crohn's disease or mental health. All I ask is that it be a subject - the more specific, the better - about which you genuinely would like to read if I addressed it in writing.

24 April 2015

Rosanne Cash in Concert

Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal

Thursday, 23 April 2015
Kentucky Country Day School

I learned about this concert a month ago; I believe it was through a BandsInTown email, but I could be wrong about that. I had spent the night with a friend and when I woke up, I decided I was going to buy a ticket. With my health, that's a game of roulette and it can be costly, which is why I quit going to concerts entirely several years ago. But after bantering with Cash via Twitter the last few years and coming to form a familiar perception of her separate from her identity as a famous entertainer. She's been encouraging during times of depression and I can always count on her to tweet #CrohnsSucks on my birthday (it's gonna trend one of these years, dammit!). It was in this somewhat personalized context that I felt that I needed to go see her perform. Kind of like if your online pal was in a band and came to town, except your pal is a bona fide superstar, if you'll excuse the unintended arrogance of that characterization.

Plus, there was The River & the Thread, her most recent (and Grammy-winning) album. I played it the day it came out last January and it instantly resonated with me like no album since Chely Wright's Lifted Off the Ground in 2010. You can read the entirety of my reaction here. The prospect of hearing even just a few of its songs performed live was irresistible.

When your pal is in a band and comes to town having created a true masterpiece of art - and I hesitate to use that phrasing only because of how commonly it's ascribed to undeserving works - you have to go. My physical self threatened to ruin the whole thing; I spent the entire day in bed, achy and exhausted from a rough Crohn's night. Thankfully, though, I rallied a few hours before showtime. Remind me to thank my doctor when I see her in a couple of weeks.

I'd never been to the Kentucky Country Day School, though I've shopped across the street from it for years at The Paddocks (formerly The Summit). I was just there a few weeks ago with my brother, as a matter of fact, to grab some Qdoba and we wound up sitting two tables away from my aforementioned doctor. It's a small world. Speaking of which, I couldn't help but to think of how we were there to hear Rosanne Cash sing songs about the Southern culture, shaped as much by geography and weather as by human choices, in a venue adjacent to a roadway decimated a few weeks ago by a washout:

Photo: +WAVE3
Anyway, the KCDS theater is what's commonly referred to as "intimate", meaning it's tiny but nice. I had been able to select my specific seat when I bought my ticket, and I snagged Row E, Seat 116 - the aisle seat in the fifth row! I had a spectacular view, though I suspect even those in the very back corner left satisfied with their vantage point.

I didn't take any pictures during the show, because I didn't want to be disruptive. *side eyes a few others in the crowd*
Because of the scale of the venue, Cash performed without her touring band. Instead, it was just her and John Leventhal, her husband/producer/co-writer and their guitars. Y'all, John Leventhal is a hell of a guitarist. I knew that by reputation, but actually watching and hearing him play was damn near revelatory. I was mesmerized at times by the sounds he created with just that single instrument. I have no doubt that the touring band members are all terrific, but I didn't miss them tonight. There was no feeling that this was an abridgment of the "real" show; this was every bit as complete as it should have been. Let's put it this way: I was so impressed by Leventhal's musicianship and stage presence that I can pull for the Mets now in any game that doesn't involve or affect the Reds. That's high praise.

The set consisted of seventeen songs, nine of them from The River & the Thread, which thrilled me. Each song was introduced - not merely prefaced - by Cash with its genesis and the context from which the song emerged. These introductions could have been perfunctory, even intrusive, but this was Rosanne Cash, so instead Cash-as-Narrator came to hold as much sway over the evening as Cash-as-Musician. I would be surprised at this point if she could even perform just one of these songs without including its overview, and to be honest, I kinda wish there was an edition of the album that included these interludes.

My favorite song on The River & the Thread is probably "Etta's Tune", and it was delightful to hear her perform that tonight. I will confess that "When the Master Calls the Roll" hit me unexpectedly and I was actually misty-eyed by its conclusion. That was followed by "Money Road" and "Ode to Billie Joe", and that entire passage of the show made me think of various friends of mine I wish had been there to share the experience. I don't quite know why I only thought of anyone else at that point in the show, but I felt awfully lonesome until the joyous "Tennessee Flat Top Box" relieved the melancholy.

I've seen my share of performers over the years, including some stand-up comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright, and I have never seen anything quite like the easygoing poise that Rosanne Cash displayed on stage, alternating between her dual roles as narrator and musician for nearly two full hours. I don't know how mindful anyone else in the audience may have been about that aspect, but I left the auditorium in genuine awe...though I'm also admittedly biased. She's my online pal, after all, and I'm thrilled she came to town.

Oh, and a special shout-out to her tour manager, Danny Kahn, whom I met at the merchandise table. He very kindly procured for me a copy of the night's set list, though there were a couple of tweaks made during the show from what was printed. I've posted the accurate list, including two encore songs, to setlist.fm here. (Don't go pestering him at shows, though; I only want to acknowledge his generosity, not put a target on his back!)

See? Told you we were pals.

03 April 2015

"Beauty Is..." Ray Price - The Final Sessions

Ray Price
Beauty Is... The Final Sessions
Produced by Fred Foster
Album Release: 15 April 2014

Ray Price once defended his adoption of lush strings in his music by saying he didn't know that country singers weren't good enough to use them. He'd watched for too long as pop and rock artists raided country music for songs and had bigger hits with them than their originators, and so he felt that meant he - and any other interested country performer - could likewise take from pop and rock what suited them. (I suppose if we follow this line of thinking far enough, Ray Price is to blame for the mediocre pop and rock music that's marketed as contemporary country music, but that's a whole 'nother matter.)

It's fitting, then, that for his final album Price should have insisted on bringing in strings to sweep us through this punctuation on his illustrious career. Those who know me know that I tend not to be all that into this aesthetic, in part because I think I'm accustomed to strings used in film scores, all too often clumsily intruding on emotional scenes by shouting at us, "THIS IS AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT! FEEL EMOTION!"

Here, though, the strings service the art. If these same songs had been performed in stripped-down, acoustic arrangements a la Johnny Cash's famed American Recordings series, this might even be too morose to play all the way through. The strings work here largely because their purpose is to carry us through the album, rather than to make sure we fixate on specific moments. They also help to supplement Price's vocals - still commanding, though for the only time in his career are there signs of his powers diminishing. It took being 87 years old and dying of pancreatic cancer to blemish Ray Price's singing voice.

What of the songs themselves, though? This is one of those instances where an album is more than a collection of songs. I suppose "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder" could be extracted from the album and stand solidly on its own. Price's duet with Martina McBride on "An Affair to Remember" (from the 1957 film) is a wonderful celebration of romantic storytelling. But for the most part, Beauty Is... was crafted as an album and needs to be heard in its entirety as such. I also salute the decision not to re-record "For the Good Times". It might have fit into the album, it might have been a powerful recording, but I feel it also would have overshadowed and undermined the rest of the album. I imagine that was Price's reasoning for excluding it, and I base that assumption entirely on what little I've come to know about his philosophies on music through some sporadic interviews. He wanted Beauty Is... to stand on its own.

I am not a crier by nature. That isn't any kind of machismo; it's a physiological thing. There have been times when I've wanted, even needed, to cry but have been unable to do it. I'm in need of that kind of release right now as I write this, in fact. But man...when I got to "No More Songs to Sing", and I thought of Price's widow Janie...God. I can't even guess whether that would be impossible for her to ever listen to again, or if she would find some kind of comfort in playing it repeatedly for hours on end. I'll never know, of course, and that isn't even the point I'm getting at here, but rather how moving it was for me to feel privy to something so clearly intimate.

Each month in 2015 so far has brought death to my inner circle; my friend's stepfather in January, my own grandfather in February, and another friend's father just two weeks ago in March. I don't know why I held off buying Beauty Is... for nearly an entire year after its release. Maybe because I wouldn't have been ready for it then. I needed it now, though. Price intended this as everything from a farewell to a self-crafted epitaph, but also to comfort those left behind. He and I never met, never interacted in any way whatsoever. I was not on his mind when he planned and recorded Beauty Is.... And yet, I can't help but to feel that this album was made for all of us - myself included - to have it there to turn to when we need to be comforted by someone who knew he was running out of time.

This isn't the kind of album that one throws on for "background". It isn't for everyday listening, or something to be played casually, or to be talked over, or any of the other ways we often mistreat music. It is, however, a powerful work of art and I am truly grateful that Ray Price elected to dedicate his remaining time to its creation.

19 March 2015

Bill Markham, 12/10/1945-3/19/2015

Though we lived in the same neighborhood, I first met Billy Joel in fourth grade math class, where we were both persecuted by a snobbish teacher who enjoyed the kind of job security that lets someone openly play favorites. Being treated unfairly by the same person (or people) can be a shortcut to bonding and that's how it was for us. It wasn't just that we tried to endure that miserable class together, though; our friendship was galvanized by a mutual passion for baseball.

We played catch a few times at his house or mine, and we'd get together some other kids to play a game in my backyard. For safety's sake, we had to use a tennis ball if we were hitting, because those yards were too small to create a proper diamond. Eventually, he succeeded in recruiting me to sign up for a season of Little League. It is not an overstatement for me to say that few things have ever turned out to impact my life nearly as much as that decision. I was placed on the same team as my friend, and his cousin. Their dads were our coaches. (We had a manager, too, but he disappeared for a bit during the middle of the season and that takes us off-topic.)

The very first thing I remember Bill instructing us was as profound as it was self-evident:
"Don't swing until the first called strike. Make them prove they can hit the strike zone."
I was ten years old and playing on an organized baseball team for the first time in my entire life. I wanted to swing at everything! But the thing is, even at that young an age, I had been around enough blowhards to know who was one - and who wasn't. Bill was not a blowhard. He knew what he was talking about, and over the years I came to understand that it was his self-confidence about knowing what he was talking about that allowed him to use his voice to speak up.

One of the games that remains vividly etched in my memory a quarter century later was a night game in which the infield fly rule was invoked. If you don't know baseball well enough to know what that is, don't worry, because what happened was the umpire who invoked the rule didn't know it all that well, either. But Bill knew what it was and how it was supposed to be applied, and he knew this umpire had it wrong. So Bill, drawing on his self-confidence about his knowledge, spoke up. And then he spoke up some more. And then he spoke up some more, more loudly.

Bill was ejected from the game.

Now, I had no idea what the hell the infield fly rule was about at the time, but I knew one thing: if Bill said the umpire was wrong, then the umpire was wrong. I've known a lot of people over the years who held positions of authority, but few who projected authority the way Bill did. He could get riled up, as everyone at that game got to see, but his default manner was actually that of a fairly mellow fellow. Sure enough, in the aftermath of that night game, it was determined that Bill had been right about the ruling.

Their family consisted of several already-grown children by the time I met them, but between Billy Joel and his cousin, and their respective elder brothers, there was a built-in foursome of friends. It didn't take me long to become friends with all four of them. Over the years, the joke has become that I'm the fifth cousin of that group. I think I've been to more of their family events than I've been to in my own family.

One of the most important of those events was Fourth of July, 2006. Billy Joel's aforementioned elder brother had just bought a house with his wife, and they hosted the shindig that year. I tried to let myself get caught up in the games of horseshoe and beer, but truthfully I was inwardly still sulking. Barely a month before that gathering, I'd been told pointblank by a woman at the University of Louisville graduate school that it would be a mistake for me to even try to continue with my education with Crohn's disease. There went my plans of going into teaching.

So I knew what I couldn't do, but I didn't know what I could do. In fact, I'd only even had the diagnosis for a little more than a year at that point. All I really knew then was that having chronic health problems was disruptive and not at all how things were supposed to be for me in my mid-20's. I was frustrated and discouraged in ways that I had never experienced - and keep in mind, I've dealt with depression since childhood, so that's saying something.

Anyway, it was finally late enough that the sun had finished setting and the fireworks were being set up by some of the others. I was just sort of flaked out away from most everyone else, trying to keep my negativity from spilling over and ruining everyone else's night. Bill came over to where I was and struck up conversation. We got to talking about how I was trying to make sense of what living with unpredictable, chronic health problems really meant for me.

Now, at that time, I knew Bill was having a few nagging issues that were starting to affect him but I didn't know much more than that. We talked about how important it is that when adversity comes along, you don't help it bring you down. I was reminded of his admonition not to swing until the first called strike. We talked some about how that philosophy applied to things like dealing with physical health problems just as much as it applied to standing in the batter's box.

I've had a lot of encouragement and support from a lot of people over these last ten years of living with Crohn's, but no one made me feel understood and comforted more than Bill did. He could just as easily have told me I wasn't sick enough to get to complain to him about not being well, but he didn't do that. Instead, it became a new part of our camaraderie. I don't know how helpful it was for him to know I understood the importance of things like having a hotel room near the concert venue as a contingency plan, but it meant a great deal to me whenever he would nod knowingly to whatever I had to say.

For much of the subsequent years, Bill's appearances at those get-togethers became more infrequent. He didn't get as excitable as he once did, and he would often leave to go back home and rest. But I always felt a vicarious triumph any time he felt well enough to even try to show up. Sometimes we would tease one another about which of us was in worse shape that day. My self-consciousness about having to miss things or leaving early led to anxiety about even having something to attend. Any time I managed to show up for something and Bill was there, though, I felt comfortable. I knew that someone there understood what I was going through, even if I didn't fully understand what he was going through.

I ran into him just a week ago, at McDonald's. He was there with his wife and Billy Joel's two sons (i.e., their grandsons). Funnily enough, I was there because I was going to catch up with Billy Joel's cousin. We chatted about different things that Bill had been well enough to do, or at least try to do, in the last several months. They'd gone on vacation to South Carolina, and were talking about having recently gone to see Billy Joel in concert (the entertainer, not their son). We talked about the kinds of strategies that they had to use to make such things more practical, given Bill's health. Even now, I struggle with believing I'm even allowed to try to go do such things, but talking with Bill was comforting for me. I genuinely loved to hear about any time he got to go do something he enjoyed.

It was easy to root for Bill. He was one of the most humble, honest, and respectable people I've ever known. His wry humor made me laugh. And, of course, having my own health issues, it was always nice to be reminded by someone I had known so long that there are always good days ahead to be had, even if they're outnumbered.

Today is not one of those good days. Late last night, Bill left us. I spoke with Billy Joel this morning (his son, not the entertainer). The service will be held at the same place where my grandfather's service was held barely a month ago. It turns out that we both have more than a few relatives laid to rest there. Among those on my side of things is my Uncle Stuart, who passed a few years before I was born. Now, I'll have two uncles there; one with whom I share genetics, and another who was simply kind enough to take his son's friend under his wing.

Thinking of our teasing of one another, I'm reminded of something that Kris Kristofferson said in 2002 after Waylon Jennings passed away:
"Over the years, I got to work by his side and be his friend and hear him say some of the funniest lines I've ever heard. Right now he's probably whispering in Johnny Cash's ear, 'See, I told you I was sicker than you.'"
I can hear that quip in Bill's voice, his impish grin waiting for me to laugh, or at least roll my eyes. I'm glad I got to see him one last time last week, on a night when we were both feeling well. Or, at least, when we were both feeling our respective versions of "well". Bill tethered himself to his good days. It's fitting, then, that our final conversation should be about that very thing. I can't promise that I'll consistently adhere to that philosophy, but in 25 years, I've always been mindful not to swing until the first called strike.

15 March 2015

"Cinderella" and the Disruption of Consumption

This past Tuesday, I attended a preview screening of Disney's live action Cinderella. My interest in the film was minimal, but one of my friends was excited to see it, so she and I went. I always write something about the movies I watch, whether at home or in a theater, and I even briefly considered writing a formal review to submit to Flickchart, but in truth I was really just there to spend time with my friend. However, something took place during the screening that I feel merits discussion so here it is.

Act I opens with the death of Ella's mother and concludes with the news of her father passing away off-screen. (Given that many other versions of the story - including Disney's own 1951 animated
 adaptation - begin after their deaths, I'm pretty sure I haven't just spoiled anything major.) There is no greater aspiration for any artist, in any field or medium, than to stir in others the same powerful emotions that they feel in response to their respective live experiences. Those who made Cinderella should know that they succeeded.

A young girl dressed in Disney Princess apparel sobbed for a few minutes, right along with her onscreen counterpart. I'm not admonishing Disney for making a little girl cry. On the contrary, I am acknowledging that their film, directed by Kenneth Branaugh, had such a visceral impact.

There is admonishment to be had, though, and it is leveled at the several adult members of the audience who made no allowance for how watching our protagonist - with whom we are meant to identify - endure the heartache of grieving for both of her parents. Surely, that is one of the most universally profound life experiences we must face as human beings. This child, her life experiences unknown to any of us, was forced to watch Cinderella go through that twice in the span of half an hour.

I had chatted briefly before the movie with the little girl's grandmother. They had won passes through WHAS-11. I imagine that they knew going into the screening that the fairy tale does involve Cinderella losing both of her parents, but the extent to which it may have been a trigger for trauma, I have no way of knowing. I'd certainly like to think they wouldn't knowingly subject her to something so upsetting, and that this was instead an instance of overpowering sympathy.

To tersely shush the empathy of that child despite all we had witnessed together, I can only conclude indicates that those intolerant viewers were so committed to consuming entertainment that they failed entirely to recognize and process the message of the art before them (and yes, even commercial art is still art).

I hope that empathetic girl heard not her impatient critics, but instead the mantra of Cinderella, handed down to her by her mother: "Have courage. Be kind."

And thank you, sobbing child, for being so "disruptive" with your compassion and making clear the contrast between empathy and apathy. Please, never become so hardened and jaded that you shush someone moved to tears by watching someone - even a character in a movie - grieve.

09 March 2015

Top 5 Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Worf

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. In the case of Worf, that means no "Redemption" or "Birthright". It was hard to omit the former, because of how central it is to not just Worf, but the political landscape of not just the rest of TNG, but also all of Deep Space Nine. Alas, rules are rules, and that brings me to...

Top Five Episodes Starring
Michael Dorn
as Lieutenant Worf

"The Emissary"
6/26/89 Teleplay by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler, Story by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler and Thomas H. Calder | Directed by Cliff Bole

Not the first Klingon-centric episode of TNG, but certainly the first truly solid such episode - and the first real time that Michael Dorn got to do something other than be the Enterprise's bouncer. We finally get to see some definition to Worf's character. Unlike Spock, who was raised Vulcan and rejected his human heritage, and unlike Data, the android who wished to become human, Worf was raised by humans...and desires to be recognized as a Klingon. It's through his clashes with K'Ehleyr in this episode that we really get to understand how important that is to his self-identity.

"Sins of the Father"
3/19/90 | Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore & W. Reed Moran, Story by Drew Deighan | Directed by Les Landau

By now, we know how deeply rooted in his identity as a Klingon Worf's self-image is. What's the next step in his character arc? Tearing that away from him, of course! I didn't select this episode because it introduces several elements that will have ramifications for years to come, though certainly a case could be made for it on that basis alone. But even if you never see any of the subsequent episodes that connect to this one, it stands solidly all on its own as a compelling character study. Worf is faced with a whopper of a dilemma here. He's furious about being made a sacrificial lamb to accommodate some unseemly political machinations, and we share his outrage. And yet, "For he so loved the Empire, he gave his only begotten, er, family honor."

11/5/90 | Teleplay by Thomas Perry & Jo Perry & Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, Story by Drew Deighan & Thomas Perry and Jo Perry | Directed by Jonathan Frakes

I hesitated to include "Reunion". For one thing, it doesn't function as a standalone story quite as much as it is a payoff to both "The Emissary" and "Sins of the Father". It also feels a bit obligatory. There's a lot going on, and I'm not sure how accessible it is on its own. But when I weighed it against other Worf-centric episodes, I concluded it's too important to exclude. K'Ehleyr returns, bringing along Alexander - the product of her liaison with Worf. On top of that, there's the whodunnit mystery of who has poisoned the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council, aiming to seize control of the Empire through his assassination. The climax of the episode, though, is perhaps the definitive event in Worf's entire development, and for that alone "Reunion" is required Worf viewing.

"A Fistful of Datas"
11/9/92 | Teleplay: Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Brannon Braga, Story by Robert Hewitt Wolfe | Directed by Patrick Stewart

Holodeck episodes can be fun, but rarely Top 5-worthy. "A Fistful of Datas" is probably the most satisfying, at least of TNG, because it functions on several levels. The obvious question is, why pick this for the Worf list instead of the Data list? True, Brent Spiner completely rocks his multiple roles as Frank Hollister and his minion sons, but at its heart this is really a story about Worf connecting with his son, Alexander. It's not the only, or even the first, such look at their relationship but it's my favorite. I think anyone who ever had a no-nonsense adult in their life finally display some whimsy can appreciate the appeal of this one. I would be remiss not to also make mention of how much I love watching Marina Sirtis's Counselor Troi adopt her Holodeck character persona, Durango. I almost saved this episode for her Top 5!

11/29/93 | Written by Brannon Braga | Directed by Robert Weimer

In a typical alternate universe story, "our" character(s) go visit a place that reflects a "What if...?" deviation of "our" reality. This time, though, Worf bounces across myriad alternate universes; some in which the "what if...?" is as benign as "What if Worf hung this painting on this wall instead of that wall?" And then, like every game show ever made, each "What if...?" ups the ante. What if Worf had a romantic relationship with Counselor Troi? What if the Borg had won in "The Best of Both Worlds"? When I first watched this episode, I got what they were doing, but I wondered why they picked Worf to be the central character for it. I think, though, that placing it in the context of just this Top 5 list answers that question: it's a unique way to examine through nuance a character with such an otherwise binary worldview.

Two things stand out to me about the credits for these episodes. Firstly, four of the five have "Teleplay by" and "Story by" credits, which indicates that the story began with one or more writers, but was completed with the assistance of others. The other thing is that two episodes were directed by other principal cast members (Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes). Maybe this is just happenstance, but I wonder if it doesn't speak to the extra level of attention that seemed to go into making Worf-centric episodes feel a little bit more "epic" in scope, down to assigning his fellow co-stars to help Dorn to give some of his strongest performances in the role.

Anyway, those are my five Worf picks. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts, Dear Reader!

Note: I'm doing these in cast credits order, and decided to skip Denise Crosby as Lt. Tasha Yar, as she wasn't in enough episodes to really give a strong Top 5 list. I did consider combining Crosby's Yar and Sela characters, but two of Sela's most prominent appearances were in two-part episodes that would be excluded outright anyway, per the self-imposed rule I have.

Picard | Riker | Geordi | Worf

08 March 2015

Middle School Memories: Mr. Bill Beasy

When I was in middle school, each grade was divided into two teams: Team A and Team B. Some students believed that Team A was somehow superior or reflected a better standing of the students selected for it. I never really cared, to be honest. But each team had its own roster of teachers, and there was no question that there was one teacher every middle schooler wanted to have: Bill Beasy, who taught science for Team B in 8th grade.

Mr. Beasy was one of those teachers you heard about even as a sixth grader. All anyone ever said was that he was awesome and that you'd be lucky to have him as a teacher, but no one ever elaborated why that was. I'd been on Team A my first two years of middle school, so it seemed unlikely I'd be switched to Team B for 8th grade, but sure enough, I was. I was always a so-so science student; some parts came somewhat easily to me, while others either disinterested or outright frustrated me. I was wary, but any apprehension I had fell away within the first few minutes as his student.

The very first day of class, Mr. Beasy wrote his home phone number on the chalkboard. He told us that we were welcome to call him at home if we needed help. Not just wrapping our heads around whatever the current assignment was, but if we were ever in need of actual, serious help. He'd be there, however he could be. There was just one stipulation: there were to be no frivolous or crank calls, because his wife was a rape crisis counselor and he would not tolerate anyone tying up their phone line for a laugh at the expense of someone who needed to speak with his wife. I never called their home, but I did write down the number that day. Just having it in my binder the rest of that school year was comforting. It was a hell of a hole card to be able to play if needed, I felt.

Mr. Beasy lived up to every bit of hype I'd ever heard about him. He was encouraging, he was enthusiastic, he was patient, he was upbeat, and he wanted each and every single student to succeed - in his classroom, in other classrooms, in life in general.

I have two Mr. Beasy stories I want to tell.

My class period included lunch, and on one occasion, a classmate left her purse in the cafeteria before returning to his classroom. The office called his room over the PA system to summon her to retrieve it. Mr. Beasy excused her to go to the office and continued lecturing for a few moments. Then he popped his head out of the doorway to see that she'd turned the corner of the corridor and was no longer in sight. Instantly, he turned out the light in the room and instructed us all to follow him into a perpendicular hallway, where we would remain out of sight of our classmate. That's right: my science teacher used five or ten minutes to round up 30-ish 8th graders to hide from a single student just for the laugh of pranking her that she'd returned to an empty classroom.

It was like throwing a surprise party, but you yourself were surprised to even be part of it. I'll never forget the look of childlike anticipation on his face, all of us trying not to giggle at the absurdity of the moment. No other teacher I ever had would have even suggested such a thing; Mr. Beasy thought of it and did it all off the cuff. Why? Because it amused him to do it. Because he recognized the need for levity. Because he knew there was a world outside of his classroom. That episode was a complete lark, and I hope to never forget how much fun it was.

My second Mr. Beasy story isn't particularly fun for me. Playmates Toys at that time had the license to make Star Trek toys, and I owned most of them. One such toy was a role-playing toy based on the Star Trek: The Next Generation Tricorder. I periodically brought odd things to school to amuse myself and others, and one day, I brought the Tricorder. As I've already mentioned, our lunch period took place during Mr. Beasy's class. So there we were, going through the cafeteria lunch line. They were serving chili that day, and I vividly recall how it bubbled on the steam table.

I, of course, made a show of "scanning" it with the Tricorder and quipping about how findings were inconclusive or it wasn't sure what we were looking at, or some other such thing. It got a chuckle from a classmate or two, but Mr. Beasy - who was standing right next to me - was not amused.

"There are plenty of children in a lot of places around the world who wouldn't think it was funny to make fun of food," he said. He couldn't even bring himself to look me in the eye. It cut me to the quick, I can tell you.

Prior to becoming our most-sought-after science teacher, Mr. Beasy had been in the Army as I recall. He'd been around the world and seen a lot of different living circumstances. He never spoke another word to me about that moment, but I can recall now exactly how small I felt then. I've never been particularly prone to feeling shame, at least not for my sense of humor, and at that moment, the whole world seemed infinitely larger. I wondered if I would even live long enough to reach the cashier at the end of the steam table and be able to extricate myself from the disapproval of Mr. Beasy.

That was one of the most humbling moments of my life to this point. I had never been particularly "well off", but it was Mr. Beasy who first called me out on my privilege - though he never used that word, and I didn't even hear it in its social context for quite some time afterward.

We never addressed that moment ever again. I have no recollection of even feeling like it soured our relationship as teacher and student; he was just as kind to me and just as apt to laugh at my jokes after that moment as he was before. But I'm here to tell you, Dear Reader, for the rest of the time we walked through that lunch line, I felt more contemptible than at any other point in my life. I've never again made fun of the appearance of food, with the exception of my mother's homemade gravy - which even she laughs about being somewhere closer to wallpaper paste.

It takes a special kind of person to see both the humor in having an entire classroom hide from a single student, and to admonish the wayward humor of an upstart kid who needed to be taken down a peg. Mr. Bill Beasy was/is just that kind of special person, and I'll always be grateful that I was on Team B in 8th grade.

28 February 2015

Top Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Geordi

Awhile back, I decided it was high time to run down my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation by character. I made it as far as Picard and Riker and then sort of fell out of blogging entirely. 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. This list showcases a character who wasn't really prominent in any of the two-parters so their omission isn't much of an issue here. So now, here are...

Top Five Episodes Starring
LeVar Burton
as Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge

"Booby Trap"
10/30/1989 | Teleplay by Ron Roman and Michael Piller & Richard Danus; Story by Michael Wagner & Ron Roman | Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

With the Enterprise caught in a mess, Geordi decides to make clever use of the Holodeck to create an interactive version of Dr. Leah Brahms, the ship's lead designer. What I like about this one is that we get to see Geordi as a professional, but also as a person. He's stubborn. He gets frustrated. He's charmed by the Holodeck's recreation of Dr. Brahms. It's all kind of weird, but it's a terrific showcase of the character. There is a follow-up episode, "Galaxy's Child", in which the real Dr. Brahms visits and is...well, she's not like the Holodeck said she was.

"The Enemy"
11/6/1989 | Written by David Kemper & Michael Piller | Directed by David Carson

The Enterprise responds to a distress signal from a downed Romulan ship. The setup is contrived, but the upshot is that an injured Geordi is trapped on an inhospitable planet with an injured Romulan while their respective ships have a showdown. It's a lot like the film No Man's Land, but without Nick Nolte. For me, the episode works almost entirely because it's Geordi in harm's way. This is really the first time I think we saw him tested in such a way, and while we're never afraid something awful will happen to him, we do wonder how he's going to make it through.

"The Mind's Eye"
5/27/1991 | Teleplay by René Echevarria, Story by Ken Schafer and René Echevarria | Directed by David Livingston

Geordi is captured by Romulans, brainwashed and returned as a programmed assassin sent to kill a high-ranking Klingon. This episode appeals to the cloak & dagger spy story fan in me. The suspense is sufficiently taut throughout, though admittedly blunted because The Next Generation was a prototypical episodic series. We never really worry that whatever happens in "The Mind's Eye" will affect events in the franchise for years to come - and so far, it hasn't. (Had this been an episode of Deep Space Nine, though...!)

"We can explain! No, really, that's what we're about to do. There are only a few minutes left."
"The Next Phase"
5/18/1992 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by David Carson

Geordi and Ro are accidentally phased off the regular plane of existence and are presumed dead. Ro confronts her own spirituality, something she'd previously denied. Geordi isn't having any of it, though, and doggedly pursues a scientific explanation - and solution. Part of the reason I picked this as a Top 5 Geordi episode is that he drives the narrative, displaying how intelligent he is without having Data to bounce things off of along the way. And watching his relationship with Ro develop is warm without being schmaltzy.

10/17/1993 | Written by Joe Menosky | Directed by Robert Weimer


This one starts off fairly contrived: Geordi is tinkering with a way to use his VISOR for remote control activity just in time to find out the starship his mother was commanding has disappeared in a dangerous place. Obviously, Geordi will use this new gimmick to rescue her. Duh. Except, he doesn't. It's the final act that makes this one stand out. It's one of the more daring episodes of the entire series, and a shame they never really followed up on what this one did to Geordi.

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

Picard | Riker | Geordi | Worf

20 February 2015

On Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard's latest (I hesitate to say "last" because I'm at heart an optimist, no matter what you may hear otherwise) #1 radio hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star", which peaked in February, 1988. I kind of remember being aware of "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room" from 1984, but otherwise Hag strangely managed to stay off my radar despite country being my primary genre. My mom's favorites were Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap; my dad was more into Conway Twitty and George Jones. Just like Waylon and Willie, Hag was just sort of out there in the ether, waiting for me to find on my own later.

It wasn't until I started following the threads of the genre for myself that I kept encountering Merle Haggard time and again. You couldn't read an interview with any country artist that didn't cite him as a key influence, and he was also often credited for keeping alive the music of pioneers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Hag was the epicenter of the entire genre, really. The liner notes for George Strait's 1995 box set, Strait Out of the Box, made that case clearly enough. When I finally got to see King George perform in 1999, he covered "Mama Tried" in the middle of his set. Two years later, when I first saw Gary Allan in concert, he covered five Haggard classics - a full sixth of his entire show. Finally, I broke down and ordered from BMG Music Club the 100-song box set Down Every Road: 1962-1994.

I'm gonna be honest: I didn't "get" it.

I understood that Haggard occupied the place in the genre that he did, as torchbearer and influence and all that, and I could glean the populist nature of his lyrics that earned him the moniker "Poet of the Common Man", but I just didn't connect with that box set. In truth, I found a lot of it kind of lethargic.

I was determined to keep at it, though. I bought a 1999 2-disc set, For the Record: 43 Legendary Hits, comprised of all-new recordings of most of Haggard's most iconic tunes. I even bought a tribute album, Mama's Hungry Eyes: A Tribute to Merle Haggard featuring artists like Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson. The punchier arrangements agreed with me more than did the original versions, at least enough that I kept exploring.

Finally, in 2003, I got to see the legend himself perform at Coyote's Music and Dance Hall in Louisville. His album, Haggard Like Never Before, dropped that same day. I'd attended probably a dozen shows at that venue by then. They were mostly cacophonies of instruments and singing, which I attributed to the acoustic of the place...until Merle Haggard & The Strangers played, and for the only time out of all the shows I ever caught there, I could hear each instrument clearly throughout the night. These guys knew what they were doing. It was downright revelatory. I bought the new album, which I rather enjoyed. I reconciled myself to the idea that I was simply a "newer, not original" Haggard fan.

And then last year, for whatever reason, it finally clicked.

In the span of about one week in May, I think I played the entirety of Down Every Road something like six or seven times. I took walks around the neighborhood listening to it on my iPod. I picked right up with it at home. I used a cassette adapter to play it while driving. I was captivated. Maybe I just hadn't hurt enough before. God knows, that time period was hard for me. The stripped-down arrangements that had previously been uninteresting were now audible manifestations of aching misery. Music is made by the space between the notes, they say, and there's something almost sadistic about the space between a lot of Hag's notes.

One of the subjects that comes up a lot whenever I discuss the music I'm into is how peculiar it is for a liberal like me to be so into country music. I'll admit, a song like "The Fightin' Side of Me" is pretty far to the right of where I identify (though I'll also admit the song is catchy as could be and I sing along with it in spite of myself every time). But here's the thing: I listen to a song like "(I'm A) Lonesome Fugitive" or "Sing Me Back Home" and I understand why the world needs Merle Haggard. Johnny Cash used his voice to highlight the experiences of marginalized people, too, but there's a key difference: Haggard had actually served hard time. He wasn't empathizing with inmates; he was writing and singing as one.

As I've fallen out of love with mainstream country music over the last ten years or so, it hasn't been because it's all started to sound like watered down rock and pop music; it's because the lyrics have become so banal and the landscape has become dominated by GOP fundraiser anthems. You can't go half an hour without hearing a pale imitation of "The Fightin' Side of Me", but good luck finding an heir apparent to "Sing Me Back Home". The humility and empathy that Haggard brought to his music is too nuanced, too forgiving and accepting, for today's country radio it seems.

Oh, and aside from songs empathizing with inmates (imagine someone on country radio pulling a stunt like that at a time when one state just brought back execution by firing squad!), Down Every Road features not one, but two songs about interracial romance: "Go Home", a cut from his second album, Branded Man, penned by Tommy Collins, about a nondescript (we can assume white) American and a Mexican woman, and the single "Irma Jackson", about a white narrator and an African-American woman. In both instances, the romances are dashed by social intolerance and bigotry. Haggard had intended "Irma Jackson" to follow his signature single, "Okie from Muskogee", in 1969. Capitol Records overruled him and compelled him to instead record and release "The Fightin' Side of Me" to cement his standing with conservative listeners - many of whom had been iffy about embracing a known ex-con. Capitol wouldn't let Hag even release "Irma Jackson" for another three years, in 1972.

I remember reading in the pages of Country Weekly that Haggard opened his first post-9/11 concert with "Silver Wings", a song in which the narrator pleads with his love not to get on a plane and leave him behind. (On the aforementioned For the Record re-recordings, this song was cut as a duet with Jewel.) They made note that later in the show, he did perform "The Fightin' Side of Me", because the crowd all but demanded it, but that Hag's heart wasn't in it. Two years later, when I saw him, he opened with that tune. I wondered at the time whether he had begun to open with it just to get it out of the way.

Later during that show, he ad-libbed in "That's the Way Love Goes": "Don't worry...except when George Bush is in office." The crowd must have misheard him because they erupted with applause. I think if they'd caught what he actually said, ol' Hag might've been Dixie Chick'd. (Speaking of whom, Hag was one of the few to offer any kind of support for them at the time of that whole debacle, though his position was that they shouldn't be persecuted; he stopped short of weighing in on whether or not he shared their stance on the President.)

The closing number was the lead single from the album that dropped that same day. The song was "That's the News", a scathing indictment of how even in the fall of 2003, mainstream America had already become detached from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On his next album, Chicago Wind, came a song called "America First", in which Hag argued that instead of nation-building adventurism, our collective resources would be better put to use addressing matters at home. President Obama has pressed that same case since his initial presidential campaign seven years ago.

Then there's his 1981 hit, "Rainbow Stew", which is practically a checklist for Utopia; everything from clean air and water to cars that don't run on gasoline, and "a President [who] goes through the White House doors and does what he says he'll do". That song didn't make the set list on the night I caught him in concert. If contemporary listeners thought the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan heralded the golden age envisioned in "Rainbow Stew", they were surely disillusioned quickly.

I'm hardly the first listener to note that Merle Haggard has taken contradictory positions over the years in his music (and in some interviews). But whether because his perceptions have evolved or perhaps he's just trying to look at things from a different angle than the last time he looked at them, there's an authenticity to each song that places Haggard above accusations of "flip-flopping". You can have your "Fightin' Side of Me" and I can have my "Rainbow Stew".

And in between those two ends of the spectrum are the songs about everything else, from falling in - and out - of love, getting in - and out- of trouble, having a good time with others and being overwhelmed by lonesomeness. You don't have to have lived each situation; Hag's done that for us already. If there's a song you can relate to, it's comforting to know someone else has been there. If you haven't been there, hopefully you can come away from any given song with something new to consider.

At the 2014 Grammy Awards. Photo by Kevin Winter.
Last week, when my grandfather passed away, I was the one who told my mother, face to face. That whole day was surreal and upsetting. Eventually, I turned off my cell phone, picked up my iPod, and went for a walk. I threw Down Every Road on shuffle. I walked until my thighs chaffed. I think I'd made it about 27 or 28 songs into the box by the time I returned to the house. I didn't really process either the music or the day's events. I was just in a sort of daze of aimless hurt. Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference what I played during that walk, but the fact that out of my entire library, I instinctively went to Hag - not an artist I associate in any way, shape, or form with my grandfather - surely says something.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Haggard song I find myself playing the most is "The Bottle Let Me Down". "Sing Me Back Home" breaks my heart each time to hear it. And I would absolutely love to hear Hag himself sing "Trying Not to Love You", which was performed by Alan Jackson for the Mama's Hungry Eyes tribute album, as well as by David Ball for his Amigo album. I have both those cover versions, but I can't find any evidence that Hag himself has ever released a recording of it. That song....Good God, I suffered through a months-long crush last year where that song was the closest thing to articulating what I was feeling. I just kept playing the Jackson version over and over, sometimes alternating with "The Bottle Let Me Down".

12 February 2015

James Stuart Logsdon, 12/4/1933-2/11/2015

Pappaw and me, December, 1980.
His birth name was James Stuart Logsdon. For select few, he was "Jimmy". For most people, he was "Stu". For me, he was "Pappaw".

Few people have loomed so large in my life as my grandfather. He was not an outwardly affectionate person. He was born without a filter and could - and did - offend pretty much everyone with whom he ever held a conversation. My uncle tells a story of going to lunch once with him, where being seated next to a table of nuns did nothing to discourage his rampant use of four-letter words. He could be belligerent and even boastful about it. I still have not seen Gran Torino, but everyone in my family who has seen it insists that it must surely have been based on my grandfather.

But there was no mistaking his number one priority: providing for his family. My brother remarked yesterday that even though they weren't what you'd call "close", he always knew that if he ever needed any kind of help, he could call Pappaw and know without any doubt that he'd take the call and be there to solve the problem one way or another. Just knowing that kind of help was a phone call away has been reassuring throughout my entire life.

No single event defined his life as much as the death of my Uncle Stuart (James Stuart Logsdon, Jr.) a few years before I was born. I can't think of any subject that came up somehow or other in every single conversation we ever had than Stuart. He remarked often that he saw in me a lot of the same things he saw in my uncle, and that was certainly at the core of our relationship. It wasn't that I was my uncle by proxy; other family members have also attested to our similarities.

I have been chided throughout my entire life for not being more outwardly assertive, that I don't stand up for myself, that I'm a pushover, etc. I have instead always felt that I'm simply not a score-keeper in life, that I'm patient and forgiving, and that under that outward layer of perceived weakness is an inner strength. This was the case for my Uncle Stuart as well. Any time throughout my life that I've doubted my nature, knowing that these were the same inner strengths that my grandfather and others respected and admired in my uncle has assuaged those doubts.

Big Stu & Donnie, circa 1993.
My grandfather's best friend was undoubtedly his brother, Don. They got together daily, or very nearly to it. The fact that my grandfather could so casually alienate people with his tongue attests to their deep understanding of one another. I'm not sure I ever heard of them having any serious falling out at any point in their lives, a testament to Donnie's ability to ignore Pappaw's casual vulgarity and to connect instead with his better traits. I always felt that I, too, had that ability because nothing my grandfather ever said ever fazed me.

In 2000, I had the opportunity to take a two-week course in Cross-Cultural Studies in Barbados. I was working at Cracker Barrel at the time, and I could have paid for it myself - but not in the time that the professor needed the money in order to secure my arrangements. It was my grandfather who made possible my going. He didn't flinch at the price tag, because he believed in education and experience and wanted me to have as much opportunity for both as I could.

Repaying him was out of the question; that's the kind of man he was. Knowing his fondness for beverages of the adult persuasion, I brought back to him a 50mL bottle of Mount Gay Rum as a thank you souvenir. Just a few days ago, I found it in a cabinet in his living room, unopened. It was the only booze to ever go into that house and not be drunk, because he ascribed to it a sentiment that was never articulated in any other way. I was truly touched to discover that he had kept it these fifteen years.

Education was one of the things he emphasized the most over the years, to all four of his grandchildren. He himself had not been a particularly standout student (and I recently came across one of his report cards that attests to that!), but he had scratched and clawed his way up the ladder at Louisville Gas & Electric through hard work and shrewdness. He started in an entry level position, but had reached the position of Senior Public Agency Rep. External Affairs when he retired after 41 years of service to the company. A framed lithograph commemorating his career is one of the few things adorning the walls in his bedroom.

In a rare display of whimsy, wearing my Dukes of Hazzard hat at one of my birthdays.
He took great pride in his career, and rightly so, but he also knew that glass ceilings were constructed throughout his time there and that for his grandchildren to be able to realize whatever ambitions we may have, that we would need the college education that he never had. The days of working your way to the top on skill and merit alone were over; sheepskin was the key to unlocking the next door, and he wanted each of us to have one. I didn't attend my commencement ceremony when I graduated from the University of Louisville (such an event seemed unwise for a guy recently diagnosed with Crohn's disease, after all), but I know without a doubt that had I walked, he'd have been in the audience that day.

My grandfather's favorite (and possibly only) hobby was horse racing. It was he who first took my brother and me to fabled Churchill Downs, during the Fall Meet of 1991. I remember vividly that on our way out, we'd stopped at a convenience store. I bought my very first Star Trek (#26) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (#25) comic books from a spindle there. The weather was dreary and drizzled, but the sheer excitement of going to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was akin to going to the Vatican with a devout Catholic.

I've been back to Churchill a few times over the years, and each time I made a point to call him for advice on placing a bet. Not because I necessarily needed the input - I didn't bet enough to worry about losing - but because it was a way to engage him. Those calls only lasted a few minutes, and he never said a word to me about them, but I know he had his TV tuned in and followed the races on which I'd bet, as much to see how I fared as because he was going to watch them anyway.

From left to right: My grandfather, his mother, and his brother.
On Wednesday, 4 February 2015, my grandfather suffered a stroke. I went to see him the next two days. On the first day, I recounted to him an anecdote from my last visit to Churchill. I was with my grandmother, her brother, and her sister-in-law. In one race, the #7 horse named Plenty O'Toole, the name of a minor Bond Girl in Diamonds Are Forever, the seventh James Bond (i.e., 007) movie. I felt like God wanted me to bet that horse. It was scratched. Despite his face being partially paralyzed, my grandfather rolled his eyes and smiled at the story. That was an important moment to me, because it confirmed for me that though he could not speak, but he could understand us still. And also that his wry humor was still intact, because he appreciated the story for what it was. It was, so far as I know, the last horse racing story shared with him.

He was unable to speak, but could squeeze our hands to answer "yes or no" questions. We all asked things like, "Are you cold?", "Are you in any pain?", and "Do you want a blanket?" He insisted he wasn't, wasn't, and didn't, respectively. He squeezed "yes" to some other questions, though. On Saturday, 7 February, my family left the hospital because the staff was going to remove his feeding tube and move him to another room. I had left my phone charger in his room and went back to retrieve it, just before the staff came in to do their business. I paused a moment as we made eye contact.

I placed my hand under his and I asked him pointblank, "Are you scared?"

Pappaw didn't squeeze my hand. He simply looked at me, and we both understood. He was ready to go. I said to him, "Don't worry about us. We're going to be okay. It's okay." He blinked, slowly. We held each other's gaze for a moment or two, and then I left. To my knowledge, that was the last conversation he had. Thereafter, he was heavily sedated with pain medication and remained unconscious for any subsequent visitors. It was comforting for me, and I like to think it was comforting for him, too.

One week to the day after he suffered the stroke, 11 February, my grandmother and I went to see him at the hospice care unit where he had been transferred. He was clearly unconscious, but had great difficulty breathing. It was clear he would not be with us much longer. At one point, he coughed up a little blood. Two nurses came into the room. One wiped his face, while the other swiftly removed his dressing gown and replaced it with a clean one. Just a minute or two later, at 9:30 on the dot, my grandfather passed away. I'm certain that the neat freak in him appreciated going out with a freshly cleaned face, wearing a fresh dressing gown, and the promptness of his time of death.

It will take some time for me to really process what his passing means for me, and for my family. I feel content that I did right by him there at the end, bearing witness without gawking, and showing him the dignity and respect that I always tried to show him. He left explicit instructions that his funerary services be devoid of pomp and circumstance; he hated such productions and wanted none for himself. Such gatherings are for the living, not the departed, but we will honor those wishes in a small service this Saturday. He gave far more than he ever asked in return, after all.

Pappaw & me. Note the LG&E company car outside the house.
For more on my relationship with my grandfather, read "The Great, Every-Other-Weekend Escape".
For more on my Uncle Stuart, read "'From the Jaws of Death' by Stuart Logsdon" and "What They Left Behind".