26 October 2016

Marian Edington, 1927-2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01 October 2016

"Star Trek: The Astral Symphony"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 September 2016

I Pledged Allegiance to My Conscience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 September 2016

Actors Theatre of Louisville: "The 39 Steps"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 August 2016

A Warning About A&S Moving Services

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Are.

You.

Kidding.

Me.

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

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

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

No one.

Because Not-Hulk Hogan is the owner.

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

30 July 2016

Rough and Rocky Travelin': An Important Anniversary

"It's been rough and rocky travelin', but I'm finally standing upright on the ground."
-Willie Nelson, "Me and Paul"

Today is a special anniversary for me, Dear Reader. One year ago today, I began outpatient treatment at The Brook for suicidal depression. I'm not particularly interested in reviewing how I got to that point. You know your own experiences and if you've been to that point yourself, you know all that matters here is our common frame of reference. If you haven't been in that place, I sincerely hope you continue to avoid it. It ain't no fun, that's for sure.

I'd already spent some time inpatient at Our Lady of Peace in 2011, but I'd never done an outpatient program. One of my greatest fears going into treatment has always been being rejected by other patients because I fail the litmus test for who gets to "really" be depressed. I envision a room full of war veterans and people who have been failed at every turn by our society and have endured horrors I've been spared.

I have a mutually trusting and respecting relationship with my physician, Tiffany (no last names in my blog). I agreed years ago when we began treating my mental health that if or when we reached a point where she felt that I needed to seek hospitalization, I would go. One night last July, I sat up late with a couple of bottles of pain pills I'd been prescribed but hadn't really used. One of them was from a dentist who'd extracted two of my wisdom teeth. I forget why I had the other, but I know it hadn't been prescribed by Tiffany because I'd also promised her after my stint at Our Lady of Peace that I would never use anything she prescribed me to harm myself. I've honored that promise. I'd held onto those unused pain pills because they'd been given to me by other physicians, which created a loophole.

That night, as I contemplated combining every single one of those pills, I was chatting on Facebook with a friend about the dark place where I was. She lives in New Jersey, so she couldn't exactly drop by and sit with me, which in retrospect was part of why I felt comfortable reaching out to her at that time. She persuaded me to contact a suicide helpline. I found one online where I could chat via messenger rather than have to speak with someone. It felt easier to write than to speak at that point. Eventually, that person reported me to the police, who came to my home at something like 2:00 in the morning. There were two cars and three officers. I knew they were coming, so I went outside with my arms extended open and raised to greet them. I was sure they were worried when they got the call that I may have a firearm. Statistically, that's how the majority of males who take their own lives do it.

Once it was established that I do not even own such a weapon and that I was calming down, two of the officers left. The third sat down with me outside on the patio for probably an hour. His compassion, his patience, and his encouragement were everything that we collectively want to believe our law enforcement officers bring to their communities. I surrendered those bottles of pills to him and assured him that I would speak with my physician in the morning. He left me his card, emphasizing to me that I could call at any time of day or night and that he would gladly respond. He understood how to make me feel he was there for me without making me feel pressured.

My physician called in my promise to seek treatment if she deemed it necessary, and I honored that promise. I wasn't going because I gave a damn whether I got better. I didn't even believe I could get better. At best, I could maybe get to a lull in the pain, but it would only return. But I was going because I knew even in that state of mind that there were a lot of people who had invested in me. I owed it to them to exhaust all other options before hitting that little red button, and though I'd gone into inpatient treatment before, I had never done outpatient. I couldn't say I had tried everything and nothing worked, because there was still that left to try.

Back in high school, I learned how to make origami dogs. I've made them sporadically over the years; sometimes to amuse myself, sometimes as an icebreaker, and sometimes because they help me with anxiety. On my first morning of outpatient treatment, I made one while waiting for other patients and our group therapist to enter the room. This particular dog served two of the aforementioned three purposes; it helped with my anxiety, and it turned out to be an important icebreaker.

The first patient to join me in the room could not have been more welcoming. She immediately set me at ease and made me feel okay about being there. She set the tone for that entire first day for me. There was a strong sense of camaraderie in that room. And before our first break of the morning, I felt included in it, and a key reason was the welcome I'd been graciously given by that one patient.

During my check-in, I accounted for how I'd come to be there. One of the things weighing on my mind was the pervasive sense that I couldn't do anything of value. Our group therapist, Jessica, observed that the origami dog had made some of the other patients smile. It was something I was capable of doing, and even if its value was limited, it had value all the same. I rejected that characterization. I saw it as her artificially inflating something trivial.

But then Jessica challenged me to make an origami dog each day.

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.

I had no interest in keeping the dog, so I decided to give it to a patient who'd made the biggest fuss over it. I asked if she had a name for him. She did: Waylon. I knew at that moment she and I were going to get along just fine!

It became a daily ritual. I made a dog first thing in the morning, always writing the date on the back of the head. Before the end of group, I would give it to another patient. Typically, I would decide the recipient early on and during break when most everyone else went outside to smoke in the fenced-in courtyard, I would place the dog on the table where that patient had been sitting. I never thought to ask if anyone ever discussed wondering who might get the dog when they returned to the room, but it honestly would not surprise me now to learn if they did. At some point, another patient actually bought me a pad of origami paper, already square shaped and in solid colors!


Someone joining the group for the first time went to the top of the list. I had, after all, benefited from the warm welcome. It seemed only right that I should make an effort to receive others in a manner consistent with that precedence. Similarly, someone being discharged would also receive one as a farewell memento. Sometimes the recipient was someone who had had a particularly rough session. It was a little consolation prize of sorts. The longer patients were there, the more they seemed to ascribe value to the dogs. There were times when, in the final minutes of a session, someone would ask me who that day's recipient would be. Because there were only so many other group members, there were patients who accrued several dogs as I rotated through the roster.

Jessica was right, though I doubt she envisioned the way those little origami dogs became a sort of mascot for our group. Generally, I explained the dogs to newcomers, but there were times when enthusiastic patients beat me to the punch. Those moments reminded me of children showing off something neat to one another. "And this one guy makes dogs and he might even give one to you since it's your first day!" The whole thing amused me, of course, though there were a few instances where I gave someone a dog and they expressed to me sincere appreciation for making them smile with it because they were having such a difficult time finding anything remotely positive in their world. In those moments, the dog became a tangible expression that that person was not alone, that we in that room cared about one another.

Despite the progress I made, it wasn't enough. By early September, I felt a return of that same despair. One night while out celebrating a friend's birthday, I sat alone at a booth while everyone else was on the dance floor or mingling elsewhere. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my calendar, looking to see when my loved ones' birthdays were. I didn't want to ruin anyone's day, after all.

And then, out of nowhere, came a young woman who sat across from me in the booth. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "Don't do it."

I was, to say the least, stunned. I tried to ambiguously dodge her, asking what she meant. But we both knew exactly what she meant. She explained that she could tell just from looking at me where I was and what I was planning. Some of her friends came looking for her and when they found us sitting together, voiced their objections that she shouldn't be spending her time with someone as old as me. I tried to reassure them I had no romantic or sexual intentions of any kind, but I don't think they believed me.

No, I had none of those things on my mind. I was too consumed with processing what was happening. I could have understood it if someone who knew me had read me so accurately and quickly, but there was this stranger out of the ether who was challenging me to my face. That was a Saturday night. During Monday morning's check-in, I shared this and admitted that I didn't trust myself not to act on those urges. Jessica saw to it that I was admitted that day into the inpatient program. I spent a week there. I kept making origami dogs each day, because I told Jessica I would. Plus, they served the same purposes they always served; they amused me, they broke the ice with some other patients, and they gave me something to do while I was feeling anxious.

Though I was discharged from The Brook in October, Jessica introduced me to three important parts of my ongoing mental healthcare. One of them is a free meditation app called Stop, Breathe & Think. I had never tried meditating before, and I was surprised to find it so impacting. It's helped me significantly with finding peaceful moments, and it's helped me to establish and maintain some semblance of a healthy sleeping pattern. (It gets disrupted regularly, but the meditating has made a world of difference in helping me reestablish it.)

The second key element is my therapist, Carrie. The Brook insists on patients having an aftercare plan in place before being discharged, including at least one scheduled appointment with a therapist. I'd had a demoralizing experience with one therapist in 2013. (When I expressed to her that I was deflated because I know I'm going to die alone and be eaten by the cats, she told me I should work on accepting that and making my peace with it, for instance.) But Jessica played matchmaker and emphasized that she was confident that Carrie would be a good fit for me. She was entirely right. Carrie has been patient, compassionate, encouraging, and respectful. She has also called me out on things at times. One of the requirements I have for admitting someone into my inner circle is that I have to trust that that person will stand up to me. Not only do I know I need to be kept in check at times, but it makes it easier for me to accept kind words from such people because I know they're not trying to mollify me. (I still struggle with accepting those kind words, but I know I can't dismiss them as easily as I dismiss them from others.)

Lastly, Jessica encouraged me to attend a meeting of our local chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. DBSA is a nationwide organization. On 20 August 2015, I finally gave in and took a chance on it. Again, I felt the same anxieties; would they tell me to get out of there, that they only had time for people with real problems? And again, I was made to feel welcomed in short order. The regular attendees there have cultivated a warm, safe atmosphere. They have made me feel trusted, respected, and liked. I've become a facilitator there, generally every other Tuesday evening.

One thing I've learned over this last year is that I already know what I have to do to properly manage my mental health. But when I have reprieves, like many other patients with chronic conditions, I tend to lapse in maintaining those habits. Becoming a facilitator at DBSA has ensured that I continue attending, even now that I feel the stablest and happiest I've been in three years. (I can make that claim with the confidence that my inner circle has expressed a consensus about this, that they've seen a significant change in me over this past year. One friend who I'm still getting to know but has quickly earned my trust and admiration told me just last night that I'm almost a different person from the one she saw a year ago!)

I invite you to join us at a DBSA meeting, Dear Reader, should you feel that you might benefit from attending. I can assure you that you will be greeted with the same warmth and compassion that greeted me last August, and I can offer that assurance because I've seen it extended to others at every turn. You'll find a link to a group locator on their website below.

The very last patient to join my outpatient group at The Brook was an active duty soldier. As was typical, I was the first (and only) person in the room when he arrived that morning. I greeted him and tried to answer his questions and set him at ease. He had been deployed twelve times throughout his career, including five times to Afghanistan. And he told me the single scariest thing he'd ever done was coming to The Brook that morning. I share that because I hope it might give you, Dear Reader, a little more ease about seeking treatment yourself. It is scary. So scary that this man felt less comfortable than he felt about going into a literal war zone. But that scariness comes from the uncertainty of what will transpire.

My hope in sharing all of this is that those of you with similar experiences might come away from this post feeling a little less alone, and maybe a little more encouraged about the potential for improving your own mental health management. And as always, I also hope that those of you who haven't had these experiences have gained some insight into what people like me have gone through.

RESOURCES
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
Stop, Breathe & Think

18 July 2016

Finding Purpose and Value in Superman

You know how sometimes you do something, but it isn't until later that you find a meaningful purpose for whatever it was that you did? I recently had such an experience. I've debated blogging about it at all because it feels self-congratulatory, and I can only ask that you trust me, Dear Reader, that that isn't my purpose. Rather, I hope that this post might be an example -- a sort of little reminder, you might say -- why you should be mindful of the potential value of things you do. I certainly discount pretty much anything I ever do as soon as I do it, and I know there are others like me who struggle with the same issue.

So, anyway, I follow Gail Simone on Twitter, right? Last week, she re-tweeted a link to a Today Show story about Benjamin Austin, a three year old boy who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Benjamin loves superheroes, and his family thought it might be nice for him to receive sketches of superheroes in the mail as a little pick-me-up. According to the Today Show story, his morale is presently strong, but of course as treatment goes on, that often wanes.

I've done some sketching off and on over the years and I've done my fair share of superheroes, so this seemed like something I ought to do. Like you, I see myriad requests from people for all manner of things on a daily basis, but I'm rarely able to offer any of the kind of material support they need. A sketch, though, is well within my skill set. Plus, I'm in a fairly good place these days regarding my mental health and I know I got here with a lot of help from a lot of people. I feel a certain compulsion (obligation would have the wrong connotation to use here) to try to circulate some positiveness in return now that I'm better able to do so.

Anyway, I pulled out one of my sketchbooks, just thumbing through to find a blank page. I hadn't even settled on a character choice; I figured something would come to me once I was staring at the paper. I never got that far, because along the way, I ran across a sketch I did eight years ago that I forgot I ever did.

We go back to 15 April 2008 at this point in our story, Dear Reader, to a time when I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction. In an effort to while away the time, and give myself something a little enjoyable to do, I decided to try my hand at sketching Superman in the style of Joe Shuster, the artist who co-created and designed the character in 1938. I'd never done a Shuster Superman. I discovered that his art style, which appears fairly simplistic, required a surprising amount of patience and attentiveness. Surely, the frustration of being in a hospital bed factored into my difficulties, but it took me about two hours to complete. I felt it turned out well, and I seldom feel that way about my sketches.

As soon as I came face to face with this piece, I realized it had to be the piece I sent young Benjamin Austin. It just felt right, you know? I wrote a little note (typed, not handwritten, because even my own physician has a hard time reading my writing and you know it's bad when it's too illegible for a doctor) explaining that I'd drawn this when I was "sick" (no need to elaborate) and that it made me feel a little better when I drew it and that I hoped it might make him feel a little better now.

I'm under no illusions that this little sketch will have any real meaning, beyond possibly a few moments of "Hey, that's Superman!" recognition enthusiasm before he moves on to some other sketch. Those few moments, though, give purpose to the sketch; a purpose I never envisioned when I made it.

As I said, I often discount the things that I've done. I seldom recognize that they have any value. And that, I think, is why this admittedly little thing has resonated with me as much as it has. It's a reminder that my perspective on the value of my doings is, shall we say, skewed. It's also a reminder that even if it's a small thing, I am capable of making contributions here and there.

If you'd like to send a sketch of your own, the mailing address provided by the Today Show article is:
Benjamin Austin
c/o The Malta Family
10 Wheatfield Lane
Mountaintop, PA 18707
In any event, what I hope you take away from this post is to be more aware of your own toolkit, whether it be things you've already done that can be made to be helpful to others, or the application of an aptitude that you may take for granted.

Here's a scan I made of the sketch, to which I added the caption and signature before mailing. (It didn't occur to me until after I'd signed it that I dated it 2016 without noting that it was presented to him this year, not illustrated this year, but whatever. It's not like this is museum-bound.)


25 June 2016

HONEYHONEY Summer 2016 Tour

HONEYHONEY Summer 2016
Friday, 24 June 2016
Haymarket Whiskey Bar | Louisville, KY

I'd been waiting years to finally get enough stars to align that I could go see HONEYHONEY when at last that came together two years ago. I'd gotten there early enough to actually observe their three-song soundcheck, with only about seven or eight other people even in the place at that time. Even without any intentional showmanship, they were terrific. It's always hard to guess from studio records how anyone will sound live, and I was thrilled that HONEYHONEY may actually be better live than on record.

Thanks to Crohn's, I haven't gotten to many shows over the last several years, but even with whole years of not seeing one at all, I managed to reach a milestone last night. According to setlist.fm, this was my 100th concert! By happenstance, one of my friends who came along was also there when I attended my first (Garth Brooks, 20 May 1998 at Freedom Hall in Louisville).

The duo of Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe (along with drummer Conor Meehan) blended songs from their first three albums, First Rodeo; Billy Jack; and 3, along with a cover of "Lake of Fire" by Meat Puppets, and Jaffe took lead on "A Satisfied Mind". I first heard that song on the album Country Music by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, and then Johnny Cash's version in the movie Kill Bill Vol. 2. Jaffe's arrangement was distinctive from either of those, a demonstration of the understanding of the difference between interpretation rather than imitation that has been central to the band's musical identity.

As I said, this was my second show of theirs and I'm now 0-2 on getting to hear "Thursday Night". Maybe next time? I was surprised when the 17-song set was over that "Little Toy Gun" wasn't in the mix. Since that last show, of course, they released their third album, 3, which I loved. I meant to bring along my vinyl jacket to have them sign, but forgot. Maybe next time? Two years ago, they played a few of the songs that made it onto 3, but it was nice to hear more of them performed live. There's something wondrous about watching musicians navigate the demands of playing as they intend, coaxing out of their instruments the notes that they've crafted, while also finding and exploring the emotional honesty of the song as well as engaging the audience. When Suzanne Santo tears into her fiddle, as on "Big Man", there's almost a sense of her looking for something, and then she finds it and there's a distinctive shift in the energy of the entire show.

Ben Jaffe (left), Conor Meehan (middle), Suzanne Santo (right), buncha drunks (foreground). Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
Ultimately, it was Santo who made this 100th concert truly memorable for me.

I discovered from the website that the venue, Haymarket Whiskey Bar, featured some arcade games...AND SKEE BALL.

I LOVE SKEE BALL.

I prepared for the show by bringing along $10 in quarters. There are two lanes, in a section of the venue betwixt the bar and the music hall. My friends and I played several rounds, razzing one another mercilessly about our mediocrity. After the show had concluded, I still had some quarters remaining and wanted to play a few more games. Enter: Suzanne Santo, fresh from signing the last of any fan requests.

Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
It turns out that she was just as excited by the chance to play skee ball as we were, and enthusiastically joined us. It was a flurry of a conversation, so I can't say definitively who proposed it, but my perception is that she was the one who suggested we play doubles, one duo on each lane. She partnered with me. I'd like to say that we dominated because we're the best skee ball players in the world, but there's no photographic evidence to affirm such a claim.

Though it was great fun playing skee ball with her, that alone wasn't what made this such a perfect 100th concert experience. There's one little detail that will stand out to me more than anything else from this show, and that was the reaction that Suzanne had when she discovered that I was paying for the games with my own change. Her face reflexively went to that look of "I wish I'd known!" guilt that we make when we find out something that changes the context of what we'd done. She even said she felt bad that I was spending my own money for her to get to play and that she would go get quarters.

I assured her I'd brought the quarters for the very purpose of playing, and more importantly that I had loved the show. (Besides, I think I spent, like, $2.00, for the two games that both lanes played.) She accepted it when I outlined the reasons why it was okay for her to play without putting in her own quarters, but I will forever cherish that little moment of such consideration and sweetness. You can be trained in playing instruments, to cultivate a public persona, and a lot of other things. But thoughtfulness is either genuine or it doesn't exist, and that little moment was heartwarming and became my new #1 reason for being a fan.

honeyhoney Setlist Haymarket Whiskey Bar, Louisville, KY, USA 2016

19 June 2016

Gun Control Measures: An Open Letter

Tomorrow, the United States Senate will vote on two bills that seek to address some conspicuously gaping holes in our regulations of firearms. One would require universal background checks for all prospective buyers, and the other would revoke legal access to purchasing firearms from those already on the no-fly list. DailyKos.com is organizing an online petition, which you can sign through the form at the bottom of this post.

Being a Kentuckian, represented in the Senate by Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, I expect my efforts to be dismissed out of hand. But for whatever value it may have, here is the content of the letter that I composed to accompany my signature:

While I appreciate the significance of safeguarding our civil rights, I also appreciate that we've made reasonable compromises along the way. To wit, we already restrict minors and convicted felons from legally purchasing firearms. Surely, those on a terror watchlist have also raised enough suspicion that prudence would be served by restricting them as well, without sacrificing the spirit of the Second Amendment.

Additionally, I have diagnoses of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. I was hospitalized in September with suicidal depression. But because I admitted myself voluntarily, I can still legally purchase a gun. This greatly concerns me, as well as members of the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance that I've come to know in Louisville.

We already have a voluntary "do not sell" list for people with gambling addictions. It seems to me that creating a voluntary "do not sell" list for people like me with mental illnesses who recognize that we ought not have access to firearms could join of our own volition (thereby sidestepping the controversial matter of governmental restrictions).

I expect to receive a generic "Thanks for contacting me concerning this issue, but I'm voting the other way" reply as I have to every other petition I've signed over the years. But it is my sincere hope that you will recognize the importance of taking measured, reasonable action in the face of such serious threats to our society.

To sign the petition and send a letter to your Senator, follow this link:



"Clean Room" #9 by Gail Simone

Clean Room #9, cover by Jenny Frison.
Clean Room #9
"Hell Above Us and Heaven Below"

Gail Simone - Writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - Artist
Quinton Winter - Colorist
Todd Klein - Letterer
Jenny Frison - Cover
Shelly Bond & Molly Mahan - Editors
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone
32 pages | $2.99 | Published 15 June 2016

After the intensity of issue #8, I knew only one thing for certain: I wanted to read issue #9 as soon as possible. I did buy it on Wednesday, but have been kept busy enough that I hadn't had time to sit down with it and accord it the attention it deserved until now.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

We open on a striking full page overhead shot of Astrid Mueller under the knife, unattributed dialogue blurbs detailing her medical condition and the efforts being taken to save her life. There are also a few such blurbs in an entirely different font that must surely belong to an Entity taunting Astrid. The first reads, "Honk if you love the devil" and the last, "It's harvest time in the meat hospital." Lettering usually goes unacknowledged, but Todd Klein has certainly helped to define the voices of the characters in this book.

Of course, more than all that is the splash page image of Astrid's face being cut right down the middle, her entire head split down to her upper lip by the scalpel and her forehead falling to either side in limp masses. We see some of her hair and the flesh of her throat and shoulders, but the page is dominated by what I think is a detail of her insides being overtaken by toothy parasites. Microscopic Entities, perhaps? It's a surreal image, so it's hard to even guess how literal that visual is, but the gist seems clear enough: Astrid has some issues.

Amazingly, Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter actually managed to one-up that opening page later in this issue, on story page 13, another splash page set during a flashback of young Astrid discovering what I guess is the Entity's ship. I'm gonna be honest: the only thing in all of fiction that has staggered me like this in terms of scale and ominousness was Unicron in The Transformers: The Movie. This thing is eerie as hell, sort of a twisted amalgamation of Bowser's Airship and the Crystal Castle that She-Ra defends. One cannot miss the dominant color of this thing being Astrid's primary color, pink.

Otherwise, the story isn't quite as intense as the last one, though that's more because issue #8 was just that perfect than because of any flaws with issue #9. The showdown between Chloe and Killian in the Clean Room over the former having brought Spark with her felt a bit rote since it was pretty obvious that Spark would, in fact, act to save Astrid. Of course, the final two story pages certainly restored the unpredictable nature of this book and negated pretty much all of the compassion for Astrid that we've felt for the last month since watching her be shot. The last time I felt this invested in -- and conflicted by -- a character in any medium, it was J.R. Ewing.

Speaking of shady Texans, we also meet a pair of "Christians" in Austin who clearly have designs on poaching Astrid's followers. My early guess is that we'll find they, too, know about the Entities (I don't think it's a coincidence that Chloe describes how the Entities have been perceived as demons over the years and been exorcised at times), though whether they're in league with at least some faction of the Entities is up in the air. As I've said often, it's hard to guess along with Gail Simone!

One last thing: I think this cover is my favorite of all nine so far by Jenny Frison. I really dig her covers for issues #5 and #7, but there's something about the dark shading here that makes this one more striking than it would have been had it been lit with the same aesthetic as previous covers. In a different context, Astrid's facial expression could be read as coy and/or sensual. But in this dark light (and three hands at her throat), it's creepy as hell.

26 May 2016

"Clean Room" #7-8 by Gail Simone

Because of physical health issues, I was too miserable to read issue #7 until well after it was published, and it took me almost a full week to even buy issue #8 after it was published, but I'm finally caught up! At the conclusion of the first arc, The Surgeon declined to clarify for Chloe Pierce (or us) whether the Entities are aliens or demons, instead characterizing them as "inmates". Astrid Mueller and Chloe reached something of an accord, the latter beginning to better understand the former's actual work and coming to see that Astrid has been playing a long game to combat the Entities.

Clean Room #7
"High Way to Hell"
$3.99 | 24 Story Pages | Published 20 April 2016

This story functions as a sort of interlude between the book's opening arc and the one that begins with the next issue. We open seventeen years ago with Astrid, age 17, hitchhiking her way through New Mexico to meet a hospitalized woman named Anika Wells. Anika, we learn, is a survivor of an attack by the Entities who staged the attempted murder of Astrid in her childhood. Their shared traumatic contact with their tormentors becomes the basis for a relationship that's genuinely touching to observe.

Story page 6, panels 4 and 5, alone offers us a glimpse at something we've not seen in Astrid to date: vulnerability. She sighs with heaviness in panel 4, then recomposes herself and moves forward with her characteristic outward resolve as she personally delivers Anika's meal. It's not until story page 7 that we see the extent of what the Entities did to Anika, a body ravaged down the middle, her left side shriveled and feeble. Astrid wants to talk about Chloe and what finding her could mean, but Anika is too far gone in depression. "You have to let me go," she repeats. And then we see something extraordinary: Astrid takes Anika's hand and kisses it, beginning to break down. She leans down to hug Anika, declaring, "I'm sorry. I can't do this without you."

This is an intriguing line of dialogue to interpret as a reader. Read only in text, it could be taken rather coldly, as though Astrid was denying Anika the release she's begging for because she still serves a purpose to Astrid. But with Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork, we are able to find a far softer meaning to the words. This isn't just about whatever function Anika performs for Astrid. It's about Astrid unable to bring herself to let go of the one person we've seen that matters to her. She's human after all.

On story page 11, we learn that after surviving the attempt on her life, Astrid became able to see the Entities..."starting with [her] own father." The matter isn't explored further here, but it recalls a moment in issue #1, when Astrid, recovering in her hospital room, asks her mother, "Why is Papa's face made of snakes?" We later see Astrid having a Clean Room session all to herself, observing her family at church just before the attack. She's interrupted by The Surgeon, who explains that the Entities tried to kill her because they knew she could see them, and unintentionally "unlocked" that ability that had been dormant before the attack. Ironic, no?

Way back in issue #2, we saw the Clean Room session of Dwight Fennister, for whom we initially were made to feel compassion before finding out that he had been sexually abusing children. Chloe was incensed that Astrid dismissed him without contacting the authorities. I surmised at the time that "I expect we're going to see Detective Markos find his mangled corpse at some point, tormented into killing himself by the hallucinations that appear to be developed in the Clean Room."

As it happens, The Surgeon presents Astrid with Fennister's severed genitals. He even seems put off by the matter, more disturbed by Astrid turning him loose instead of working with him, knowing that some gruesome fate awaited him. In legal terms, Astrid is clearly guilty of depraved indifference. But we also are left to weigh for ourselves how much we agree with her decision, something that will vary from reader to reader. I've contemplated this ever since that second issue back in November, and I still don't know how I feel about it. The fairest thing I know to say is that I don't think I could really know without being in that situation. If there's one thing Gail Simone does well as a storyteller, it's to take something complex and make it accessible without making it simplistic.

Elsewhere, Chloe and Detective Demakos compare notes on Astrid and how she fits into the rash of horrific suicides that the latter has been investigating. On story pages 15 and 16, he's the one who first tells us of Dwight Fennister. I had my "Aha!" moment then, but it wasn't until The Surgeon confronted Astrid about him that it really had weight. Chloe floats a theory that perhaps the Entities don't even care about humanity, that whatever effect they have on us isn't even malicious but more incidental. "What if we were just in the road when they drove through? What if we're jaywalkers in a never-ending hit-and-run? What if we're just..just...road-kill?"

We've learned more than Chloe has, and I don't believe the Entities are quite as detached as that. Their interactions, especially the ones that end in mangled corpses and tormented survivors, aren't passive happenstances. They're deliberate acts. But it does speak to the potential scale of just what is going on and how insignificant humanity may well be. We'll see.

Clean Room #8
"A Critical Event"
$3.99 | 24 Story Pages | Published 18 May 2016

I'd already seen tweets shared by Gail Simone of reactions to this issue, though thankfully ambiguous enough that I went in only knowing that it was shocking and intense without knowing what actually happens in it.

WELP.

We open with Astrid giving a lecture and then being shot on a double splash page (4-5) by what turns out to be her brother Peter. And the rest of the issue is dedicated solely to the aftermath of the shooting, with Astrid's team scrambling to apprehend her shooter and get her into surgery. Killian Reed, Astrid's "right hand", is given orders of what to do in this scenario. They include finding Chloe Pierce, whom Astrid is designating as her successor.

Yeah, those tweeters weren't exaggerating. Issue #1 was pretty rough on me chiefly because I was unprepared for the conversations and depictions of suicides. I also still hadn't quite finished stabilizing my own mental health at that point. I've found subsequent issues compelling and intriguing, certainly, but my reactions have been more cerebral than emotional...until now.

We're used to comic books shooting or even completely killing characters. But we're also used to the aftermath being more about revenge, with moments of sadness and reflection pushed back to the end of the story. It's sufficient to affect some readers, but I can't recall it ever really happening for me. The very first comic book I ever bought was The Transformers #24, which concluded with the death of Optimus Prime. Talk about a doozy to walk into..! That set the tone for me as a reader.

Despite the fantastic/supernatural Entities, Clean Room has so far been grounded in recognizable reality. Dedicating this entire issue just to Astrid's team reacting to her being shot is the finest example so far, because there's a realness to their reactions. Capone is furious and explosive. Killian is forced to restrain herself to only seething, with too many things to attend to to take time to process anything. The issue is frenetic, and Jon Davis-Hunt deserves special recognition for how visceral the whole thing is visually. Facial reactions are always important for conveying emotion and mood, and this whole issue is wall to wall emotion and mood. He brought his A game, though, and elevates this issue to about as high a level as I think I've ever experienced in a comic.

Story page 15, in which Killian extorts a surgeon into abandoning one patient to rush to Astrid, reveals to us some new insight into what the organization knows (or, at least, what it's been telling the suckers lining up to fill its coffers; hard to tell). In panel 4 of this page, Killian threatens: "When they come...when they take Earth and only the blue card allows entry into sanctuary...your family will burn with the rest of humanity." Armageddon is quite an escalation from the Entities coercing people into committing suicide or attacking them themselves, but the other key thing to glean from this is that the characterization of it sounds more like Killian is describing an alien invasion than a demonic uprising. Again, though, it's hard to guess along with Gail Simone and this may be a misread on my part.

One last thing. I haven't really mentioned Jenny Frison's covers for the series so far, save for sharing in my review of issue #4 a sketch that a friend of mine did based on her cover for issue #2 that he had me brush over with water to demonstrate the wash feature of my sketching pencils. The cover to issue #8 is the least immediately engaging cover of the series to date, but as the story progressed I came to appreciate its significance. This is not at all the kind of cover we're used to seeing for such an issue; on the contrary, we're used to seeing covers that are far more exciting than the stories that take place on the inside. There's something about the muted grays and soft pink highlights in particular that make the stoic, static image of Duncan, Killian, and Capone standing together with pistols held up feel eerier than I initially gave it credit. This isn't a poster-friendly piece, but it may be the most daring of the book's run so far.

Clean Room #1 Complete Script
Written by Gail Simone | Limited Edition of 30
Issue One (Second Revision)
Sold by Gail Simone at Emerald City Comicon, 27-29 March 2016

By happenstance, one of my friends attended Emerald City Comicon this year and I was able to arrange to have him pick up for me one of the thirty copies of this script that Gail Simone had printed for sale. I've long been fascinated by things like screenplays and scripts, and when the opportunity arose to get hold of this, I leaped at it. In particular, I wanted to see what this twisted book looked like in its infancy. This is what Clean Room looked like before Jon Davis-Hunt created the series's visual aesthetics.

I've read in other scripts of Simone's that she often describes specifically what she does -- and does not -- want in a given shot. There are explicit directions, for instance, that in the scene where Chloe wades topless into the water to drown that it not be at all sexualized. She also provided Davis-Hunt with links to online images for references of some of the things that she wanted, including the German town of Unna, where the Entity attack on Astrid took place.

Perhaps the most interesting line of direction that I read was about story page eight:
If you have ever conveyed despair, and giving up, in an image, this is the one to heap that feeling on, please. It's tragic, how perfect her resolve is. But sad, because everything she is and all the gifts she has are not enough, they bring her no comfort.
That's a hell of a thing to task an artist with imagining and realizing. (Of course, Jon Davis-Hunt deftly created the imagery that was asked of him in the published issue.)

I also learned a few little details that I don't think I consciously processed from the issue, including the fact that "The truck has a ROOK design on the door, like a rook in chess". I also got a kick for some reason out of the specificity that there "are two mostly empty bottles of cheap RED wine." I know that Simone doesn't drink, so I found it all the more curious that it be important to her that the wines be red. (For whatever it's worth, I'm almost exclusively into reds, so I approve of Simone's and Chloe's taste.)

After reading this script and the last two issues, Astrid has been solidified as one of my favorite comic characters. It did not escape my notice that the back cover of this script is a solid pink page.

Credits, Issues #7 & #8
Gail Simone - Writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - Artist
Quinton Winter - Colorist
Todd Klein - Letterer
Jenny Frison - Cover
Rowena Yow - Assoc. Ed. (Issue #7)
Molly Mahan - Assoc. Ed. (Issue #8)
Shelly Bond - Editor
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone

20 May 2016

"Clean Room" #5-6 by Gail Simone

I've fallen behind in blogging about Clean Room, but I've remained an active reader until last month. I bought issue #7 on time, but only today got around to reading it. Issue #8 came out yesterday. I've simply been too physically run down to do much of anything, including reading comics, for most of the last month. And, let's be honest: Clean Room isn't comfort food. So here's the first of two catch-up posts, this one devoted to issues #5 and #6, which conclude the book's opening arc, which will be collected next month as Clean Room Vol. 1: Immaculate Conception.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Clean Room #5
"All the Wrong Places"
$3.99 | 24 pages | Published 17 February 2016

Issue #5 picks up exactly where issue #4 left off, with Astrid in the Clean Room, where her assistant Terry had just shot in the head Jonas Kemf, the man who drove the truck that ran over Astrid as a child. Jonas was hosting an Entity, and Terry shot him out of fear. Astrid reacted not with gratitude, but with anger and despair; having the Entity trapped in her Clean Room was her objective. Losing the advantage of having him contained for questioning would be disastrous.

So...time for disaster!

News of actor and Astrid follower Rand Tanner's suicide is setting off a public relations nightmare for the organization. Killian Reed's solution was to dispatch underling Capone to blackmail movie star Chrissy Delecorte into throwing Reed under the bus by making a public statement that he'd rejected Astrid's efforts to help him. This takes place on story pages 5-7, primarily in Delecorte's hot tub. If we were to look at Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork without any captions, it might appear to be some kind of seduction. Capone strips completely nude and wades into the hot tub, even managing to get Chrissy to use a massager on her back by the end of the sequence.

But there are captions on those pages, and they're outright sinister. Capone quickly outlines that the organization already knows Chrissy is pregnant, and how that will be incorporated into the lies Chrissy will tell about Rand Tanner. If she cooperates, the organization will get her movie career back on track. Otherwise, they'll destroy her. Capone outlines all of this in a mere eight panels. This is something straight out of Dallas, y'all, and I love me some Dallas.

I also want to praise Jon Davis-Hunt for his work on this sequence. The body language and facial expressions are perfect. Chrissy is clearly defensive; Capone, predatory. Look at the last two panels of story page 6. The change in Capone's expression, from narrowed eyes and clenched jaw to wide toothed grin is outright creepy. The entire power dynamics between the two women shifted in the few centimeters between those two panels. It takes Chrissy the next page to realize it, but we know from Capone's smile that she's already won.

Credit also to Quinton Winter's colors throughout the book, but especially that sequence. The blue hues make it an inviting setting, but the lighting on the characters' faces is just eerie enough that at a glance, we can tell that even if we might want to be in that hot tub, we wouldn't want to be there now.

Why did I just devote four paragraphs to a three-page minor plot point, other than that it occasioned me to mention my love for Dallas? Because it's a great example of how Simone has kept this world rooted in our own. It would be easy to just focus at this point on the Entities; they're either supernatural or extraterrestrial or whatever they are, but whatever it is, it's inherently more exciting than extortion for the sake of good publicity.

In the long run, it's easy to guess that how the public views Astrid will become increasingly important to the plot, and this is an early, small move whose consequences may or may not become important as we go. Even if it doesn't, though; even if Chrissy Delecorte and Rand Tanner are never mentioned again, we'll have spent three full pages watching how Astrid's people conduct business and being reminded that there are still other things transpiring in this storytelling universe aside from the Entities. In short, by focusing on something so small, it expands the scope of the story.

Most of the rest of issue 5 is devoted to Astrid confronting the Entity, who has taken over Terry, and Chloe confronting another Entity named Spark. Not much happens there, but I do want to make mention of one thing. Spark explains to Chloe that one of the things he did to a previous victim whom he possessed: "I made her say the most AWFUL things. Sex things."

When I was in inpatient treatment last year for my own mental health issues, there was a patient there suffering from decades of PTSD related to abuse. She tried to talk about her experiences, but kept covering her mouth and crying, saying she didn't want to be a bad girl and say those things, but that a demon insisted she would, or else he would do heinous things to her. It was possibly the most heartbreaking thing I've ever experienced. I'm not qualified to say just what that "demon" was that tormented this other patient, but I want to believe that maybe it might find some semblance of Spark's remorse and that she's able to begin finding some of the peace that she's been cheated out of her whole life.

These life experiences of mine aren't on Gail Simone's mind when she writes, of course, but they're things that are part of my relationship with her work. She brushes against them, sometimes throttling them. Sometimes I see something in a single panel that provokes a visceral flashback. Sometimes I reflexively fill in the blanks of what she's written, even if she didn't intend there to be blanks to be filled in at all.

Anyway, back to the actual story. Astrid uses the Clean Room to exploit what she knows of Terry's carried guilt to break the Entity's hold on him. The more I think about the Clean Room and what Astrid accomplishes there, the more I think of Sybok in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Except, where Sybok used his ability to tap into peoples' most traumatizing life experiences to help them find release so he can recruit them into his cult, Astrid uses it to gain leverage.
"I'll let you in on a little secret, Terry. I don't choose my rooks for their invulnerability. It's important that I have a fail-safe, do you understand? I need to be able to break them. So I leave a crack in the tea cup." - Astrid, story page 20, panels 4 and 5.
Again, I have to praise Jon Davis-Hunt's artwork. This is a cold thing to do and admit, but there's obvious tenderness from Astrid at this moment. She knows she's just severely hurt Terry, and she knows his time as her assistant has come to an end. And she'll go to bed at night knowing it was necessary, because otherwise the Entity was going to kill her and do God knows what else with Terry. But in this moment, she's surprisingly soft. Notice also that she keeps her hands on her own knees, rather than make any physical contact with Terry. It's a striking visual reminder of the distance Astrid maintains between herself and others.

Oh, and the Entity named Spark flakes out on murdering Chloe, so The Surgeon arrives at the end of the issue to deal with her himself.

Clean Room #6
"The Surgeon Walks"
$3.99 | 24 pages | Published 16 March 2016

The first arc of the book reaches its crescendo, as Chloe is confronted by the Entity known as "The Surgeon", who appears as an elderly white guy who looks about as threatening as former President Jimmy Carter. He speaks with the measured, elaborate mannerisms of a southern gentleman. When Chloe first opens her door to him, he introduces himself on story page 9: "Well, hello, Chloe. You're looking just fine, little missy. But you have put us in a real pickle. May I come in?"

No, Gail Simone isn't reinventing the wheel here to make her villain well-mannered and polite. It's an old juxtaposition. But, like dedicating three pages to Capone's hot tub extortion in issue #5, it's something that fleshes out the scope and flavor of this universe. Credit her for deciding he isn't "just" polite, but elaborately so. Within that four sentence introduction, we've already deduced that he's soft-spoken. But we can also hear the Southern accent without any of the exaggerated phonetic spellings that comic book writers often inject to make sure readers get that. Creating a distinctive voice is difficult in the first place (or, at least, it has been for me in my writing efforts to date), but to make it so clear from the outset is truly impressive. Don't believe me? Try it. Make up the first few sentences an imaginary character all of your own invention would say.

It certainly helps, of course, to have Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter creating the visuals. An entire page is dedicated to The Surgeon being revealed at Chloe's door on story page 9. It's nighttime, so the exterior world is appropriately dark, but there's surprising restraint regarding the lighting. There isn't anything overtly ominous about the image. Even with the dialog captions, it looks entirely benign...at least, taken out of context and viewed all by itself.

There are two revelations in this issue. Firstly, Spark shows Chloe what actually happened to her fiance Philip: a recording from Astrid explaining the Entities and shows him some of their handiwork, all of which overwhelms him. You may recall, Dear Reader, that I was originally shaken by the book's suicide content when I read issue #1 to the point that I thought maybe I shouldn't even keep going. Perhaps there's no handier illustration just how much work I've done over the previous several months on my mental health than to say that I'm stable enough now that seeing Philip hold the gun under his chin on story page 7, with "BLAMM" sound effect in red and panels of his blood splashing on the observing cat didn't trigger an anxiety attack.

When I read issue #2, I wrote the following:
The top panel of story page 18 has Astrid coldly dismiss Chloe's insistence that she couldn't just let Fennister go: "I am not law enforcement, Chloe. I was looking for something else." Chloe believes that Astrid has shrugged off Fennister's confession, having deemed him "clean", but I expect we're going to see Detective Markos find his mangled corpse at some point, tormented into killing himself by the hallucinations that appear to be developed in the Clean Room. That, in turn, begs the question what it is that Chloe will eventually find out about her deceased fiance, Philip, that preyed on him so much that he killed himself. We know now that Astrid doesn't directly make someone suicidal; rather, they are killed by the manifestation of what is "cleaned" from them. This is rich ground for storytelling, because it gets at themes of morality and the shades of gray where monsters can become sympathetic and heroes become soiled.
So I was partly right; Astrid does use the Clean Room to break through whatever checks a person has in place against their torment, but it isn't because she's playing Judge, Jury & Executioner, and what happened to Philip wasn't his own darkness being used against him. It was him being completely overwhelmed by what she shared with him about the Entities. I suspect we're meant to infer that may have also been what prompted Rand Tanner to take his life. It's a bit like Navy SEAL training, which notoriously breaks many candidates, except instead of being a grueling challenge of the human body's ability to survive inhospitable environs, she loses potential recruits to the fragility of their minds to process what she's exposing.

I'm getting ahead of myself, but in issue #7, Chloe notes that "...people use that word ["suicidal"] as if it's a hat you decide to put on one day. It isn't." Philip surely already had suicidal tendencies, probably part of what led him to seek out Astrid in the first place. Firstly, I thank Gail Simone for addressing the issue that suicidal ideation is rarely (if ever) spontaneous. It's something that can lay dormant and then become overwhelming so quickly it may appear to be spontaneous, but it isn't. That's an important point that we collectively need to start addressing more clearly in our conversations about mental health.

Secondly, though, it helps us to recognize that Philip wasn't merely a happy-go-lucky ordinary dude who got freaked out one time and overreacted. Astrid misjudged how stable he was and whether he was ready for what she had to show him. It's as simple as that. (Unless she knew how unstable he was and tipped the scales against him deliberately for some reason. Hard to guess along with Astrid and Simone alike!)

The other big revelation of this issue is that the Entities have some kind of aerial abode, which Astrid's recruit Dr. Hagen (introduced in issue #4 and not referenced since) has spent fifteen years trying to locate and find a way to attack. Their solution is a "cloudbuster" battleship allegedly capable of "blow[ing] [their] invisible city out of Heaven." After acquiescing to Astrid's threat, The Surgeon answers Chloe's question of just what he and his ilk are.
"Are we aliens, or demons, is that what you mean, Chloe Pierce? Overlords or angels? We are none of those things. We are inmates."
So, thanks for clearing up that little mystery...!

The issue, and hence the arc, concludes with Chloe and Astrid appearing to make some form of amends and begin to shift toward a more collaborative relationship, but there's certainly still a lot of suspicion.

Astrid isn't the villain of the story, at least not at this point, though her methods are indefensibly shady and violent. She's evolving into a truly complex character, and I think the part that makes her the most commanding is that she's the one who has the most answers...and yet, she clearly doesn't have enough of them, either.

Credits, both issues
Gail Simone - writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - artist
Quinton Winter - colorist
Todd Klein - letterer
Jenny Frison - cover
Rowena Yow - associate editor
Shelly Bond - editor
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone