28 June 2011

IFC, Fright Night Film Festival and Me

It's no surprise I enjoy discussing movies.  Take a look at the list of labels on this blog and you'll see "Movie" is far and away the largest word in the cloud.  In a bit of exciting news for me, if you hop on over to the Independent Film Channel website (IFC.com), you'll find an editorial about "Why Michael Bay should be taken seriously," penned by yours truly.  IFC is now the second website to publish my writing, and I have to say it's rather flattering.  I have been invited to submit more in the future should I so desire, meaning I now have three outlets for discussing film.  I just have to come up with something to say!

In other news, the Fright Night Film Festival returns next month here in Louisville.  It has expanded tremendously since I attended four years ago.  This year's lineup includes John Carpenter, Henry Winkler, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Clark, Margot Kidder, Fred Olen Ray, Jeremy Bulloch, Daniel Logan, Tiffany Shepis, Michael Biehn, Tony Moore and a slew of others.  As in years past, there will be a tie-in showing at the Georgetown Twin Drive-In attended by some of the celebrities.  This year will be two episodes of Happy Days, plus American Graffiti.  I have also read that Halloween will be shown, but that hasn't been named in all the promotional release information so maybe not.  Naturally, I began to count up how many autographs I'd like to score and what they'll cost.  The Fright Night webpage doesn't offer that information so I began tracking down the official web presence of the individual celebrities who interested me.

At one point I had considered buying an American Graffiti poster to get signed by Le Mat and Clark.  I was unable to find signing information at Le Mat's webpage so I sent an e-mail inquiry.  The reply came shortly thereafter to inform me that his signing fee "varies" from $10 to $20; more for posters.  I can understand how the fee might vary from show to show based on expected turnout, the compensation from the promoters, etc.  However, I specifically asked about the cost of an autograph at Fright Night.  I'm not saying Paul Le Mat or his people make this up as they go, but as a fan budgeting for a convention ahead of time I have no use for "variable" as I make my plans.  And what's this about charging more to sign a poster?  Whatever the reason, Le Mat is off my To Get list and I just can't make myself want to buy an entire American Graffiti poster just for Cindy Clark to sign.  I'm hopeful she'll have an 8 x 10 and a static signing fee.
Cop: "Do you know how fast you were going?" Le Mat: "It varies."
Fred Olen Ray, however, does not charge a signing fee according to the reply I received.  I may very well take my Scalps DVD.  Otherwise, I have no idea what I'll take to get signed.  I need to rummage through my comic books and see if I have anything with art by Tony Moore.  I think I might.  I'm also considering trying to track down a Night Shift poster to get Henry Winkler to sign.  I love that movie.

The other highlight for me personally will be that Albert Pyun will not only be in attendance, but he will be screening his director's cut of Captain America.  If you haven't seen that movie, imagine a TV movie made with YouTube production values and you have an idea how awful it is.  It's so bad I had to rent it about half a dozen times back in the day.  It's stunning to think, after Batman had just been a big money maker, that Marvel would license out Cap for something so low budget as this movie.  Even more curious is the fact they managed to get Ronny Cox.  I can only speculate that his children were taken as hostages.  In any event, I have a soft spot for the movie and I'm stoked about seeing a cut that includes even more awfulness.
You should see the Red Skull.  Seriously, go Google it right now.

20 June 2011

Drinkin' and Dreamin'

There are two people who have caught my attention today.  The first is Ryan Dunn, star of Jackass.  The second is Beth Dobson, who has Crohn's disease.  [Law & Order voice] "These are their stories."

Ryan Dunn had a good ol' time at a Philadelphia bar last night, reportedly having "at least three beers and three shots" in about four hours.  Reports vary; one witness claims they were Miller Lites and "girly" shots; another declared Dunn was "wasted" when he left.  How much he consumed and the extent to which it affected him is currently unclear, but it's hard to give the benefit of the doubt to an individual who has literally built a career out of defying consequences.  Regardless, Dunn crashed his Porsche 911, killing himself and a passenger.

Reaction has fallen into two camps.  One dismisses this as little more than an inevitability for someone with Dunn's reckless proclivities; the other has tried to elevate him to daredevil martyrdom.  I reject both reactions.  This was not a reality TV stunt gone wrong.  There was nothing for Dunn to prove by getting behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol, this was not part of his job.  This was tempting fate, certainly, but this was a far cry from when Roy was mauled by that tiger.
Daredevil martyr?  Hardly.
More significantly, there is nothing heroic or inspiring about Dunn or anyone else driving drunk.  I was nine years old when the worst drunk driving collision in the country occurred about 20 minutes from where I live.  Larry Mahoney was drunk on the night of 14 May 1988 when he drove in the wrong direction on I-71 in Carrollton, Kentucky and crashed into a bus full of 66 passengers--mostly youth--embarking on a visit to Kings Island amusement park in Cincinnati.

It wasn't the crash itself that claimed the lives of 27 people.  Dragging metal on the highway generated sparks that ignited the punctured gas tank.  The seat covers quickly caught fire.  It's estimated that the heat inside the bus at one point was as high as 2000 degrees.  The front of the bus was not accessible, forcing everyone to rush for the rear exit.  Before emergency responders were even on the scene, the fire became an eruption that prevented anyone from getting to the remaining 27 people on board.  Of the survivors, ten were physically disfigured from burns.  One lost a leg to amputation.  The emotional scar of our entire region remains and I dare not speculate how those present have coped with the event after all these years.  Trauma and survivor guilt are said to be rampant with those who made it out of the bus.

Ryan Dunn did not hit a bus full of youths.  But he easily might have, and we are remiss to praise him for "only" killing himself and a passenger who was willing to get into the car with him and let him drive.  Dunn had the choice to drink--a choice for which I am not vilifying him--and drive.  Fans may see this as part of the devil-may-care attitude that endeared him to them, but I wonder if once upon a time Larry Mahoney wasn't the life of the party, doing stupid things to entertain others.  Dunn's loved ones have my condolences, but for his fans to declare his death a "tragedy" speaks volumes to me about how poorly they understand the word.

Beth Dobson and fiance Ian Townsend
Which brings me to Beth Dobson.

Dobson, like yours truly, has Crohn's disease.  Unlike me, hers has become so aggressive that her mouth is said to be the only part of her digestive tract not affected at present.  It will kill her, unless a life-threatening course of treatment succeeds.  She is scheduled to have a heart line surgically implanted and then undergo 11 days of chemotherapy.  Then, Dobson will be treated in one of two stem cell transplant trials with no guarantee of success.  Theoretically, once the chemo wipes out her immune system, her body will be more accepting of new digestive cells grown from her own which will essentially "overwrite" her existing cells.  It's still a very new form of treatment not tested on many patients.  That's all challenging enough, but what if I told you that Dobson is a mere 20 years of age and that the initial surgery is scheduled for two days after her wedding?
I don’t see myself as brave because it’s just my life and people go through a lot worse. You just have to get on with it. I have been ill all my life.
It’s getting boring – and annoying. This is my last roll of the dice.
I try to be mindful of Dobson's philosophy.  I know there are plenty of Crohnies out there who have had worse experiences than me by far, and that's not even accounting for all the things in life that are worse than Crohn's.  My heart broke when I read her story.  It always seems worse when these things happen to someone young.  She's 20.  She couldn't have even been in that bar with Ryan Dunn last night, and here she is facing a literal life-and-death situation knowing the odds are against her and that even success will be painful and uncertain.

Want to talk about real courage and real tragedy?  It's not Dunn.  It's Dobson.

18 June 2011

"Storms of Life" by Randy Travis

Storms of Life
Randy Travis
Produced by Kyle Lehning
"On the Other Hand" and "Reasons I Cheat" produced by Kyle Lehning and Keith Stegall
Release Date: 6 June 1986

Randy Travis's 1986 debut album, Storms of Life, may just be perfect.  This isn't going to be a standard review.  Rather, I'm going to share how Storms of Life became one of the most important albums I ever heard and a major part of my formative life.  (Shorthand: "gonna get personal.")

I was familiar with the singles, and then my mom bought the cassette of the album.  Maybe it shouldn't have, but it spoke to me very specifically and very personally.  In 1986, I was seven years old (I wouldn't turn eight until December) and just a couple of years removed from my parents's divorce.  The dissolution of their marriage was ugly, and Storms of Life really helped me understand it.  I'll walk you through it, cut by cut.

"On the Other Hand" (Paul Overstreet/Don Schlitz)

This song is sung from the perspective of a married man to a woman who clearly wishes to be his mistress.  The first person narrator describes the chemistry with this woman as a reawakening, and that actually made sense to me.  I thought it was reasonable that two people who had been together long enough could just kind of lose their excitement--even if I didn't understand what that excitement was all about.  This song, maybe because it was one of the first songs I studied about the topic of cheating, maybe because it's the first song on this album, framed the entire subject of what happened with my parents for me.  Of course, the guy in this song chooses his wife over his "passion" and that's not how it played out in my world.  Still, it gave me an insight into my dad's side of things.

"The Storms of Life" (Troy Seals/Max D. Barnes)

A guy down on life for reasons never really explained, driving around in his truck lamenting how poorly he handles things when they go bad ("Always gettin' high/when I get low").  My dad has owned and driven a truck my entire life, so it was pretty easy to picture him at some point during all the ruckus driving around wondering how it ever got to that point.  Whether he ever did, I have no idea.  I always assumed this was the same narrator from "On the Other Hand," only we'd jumped ahead some to after his wife found out about his near-infidelity.  It took me quite a while to make peace with this song, actually.  For the longest time, I resented it as some kind of emissary trying to make me sympathize with my dad.  Eventually I overcame that and took ownership of the song myself.  It's one of my favorite songs of all time, and I love the specific descriptions throughout.  I think of this song instantly whenever I pass "an Old Mail Pouch sign fading on a barn."  Terrific writing.

"My Heart Cracked (But It Did Not Break)" (Phil Thomas/Ronny Scaife/Don Singleton)

"You're spreadin' lies/all over town" opens this song.  It's about a guy trying to be defiant about just how crushed he was by a break-up.  The uptempo sound belies the desperation of the lyrics, and it was really this song that taught me a sad song can sound joyful.  To be honest, I identified with this song as being about me more than either of my parents.  I downplayed how much it all bothered me, in part because I didn't want to have to admit that it had that kind of power over me (though I doubt I would have put it in those words at the time).

"Diggin' Up Bones" (Paul Overstreet/Al Gore)

I love this song if for no other reason than teaching me the word, "exhuming."  In this song, our narrator is left alone in his home, his wife having left him.  He's sitting in their bedroom, going through the things she's left behind: pictures, her ring, a negligee.  Very vivid descriptions walk us through this moment in this guy's life, confronted by the tangible evidence that she's gone.  Like "The Storms of Life," I can't say whether my dad ever had this moment but I always hoped he did.  And I hoped it sucked as much as it does for this guy.

"No Place Like Home" (Paul Overstreet)

This is probably the one song more than all the others that hit home for me.  This time, our first-person narrator is packing up his things to leave and stops to plead with his wife to try one last time to make it work.  I don't know that my parents had this conversation; if they did, I know it didn't work out as it does in this song.  Later, when I learned about the concept of alternate realties, this song was the first point of divergence to cross my mind.  Somewhere, I think, is a reality where my parents did have the experience of this song.  I'd be very curious to see how that reality's me turned out.

"1982" (James H. Blackmon/Carl J. Vipperman)

In this song, our first-person narrator laments about how "there was a time when she was mine/back in 1982," realizing that "she is what I should have held on to."  The funny thing about this is that my parents's marriage really began to go sour in 1982.  I'll never forget one night after my dad had left, he called my mom and tried to have a "No Place Like Home" conversation, saying he would break it off with his girlfriend and start fresh if she would take him back, that he realized he'd made a mistake.  I was in the kitchen.  Why my mom didn't have me leave the room, I don't know.  Maybe she was too caught up in the moment to even know I was there.  What I do remember is that she told him, "No."  Another adult was there; likely my grandmother, but perhaps a neighbor or a friend of my mom's.  Maybe more than one of those choices.  I listened as she recounted the conversation to whomever was there.  Part of me hears "1982" and feels spite; another part of me feels pride.

"Send My Body" (Randy Travis)

This one is about a guy convicted of an unnamed crime ("wrongdoing" is all the song tells us) and he accepts this, only wishing that they send his body back home and have him buried underneath his mama's apple tree.  My brother loved this song because in the course of singing along with the line, "my mama was a damn hard workin' woman," he got to cuss.  By 1986, our mom was very much a damn hard workin' woman, "and she tried to raise us kids without a pa."  Our dad may have had biweekly visitation, but he was no more involved with our raising than any babysitter we ever had.

"Messin' with My Mind" (Joe Allen/Charlie Williams)

Here we have a playboy admitting he's actually fallen for a girl.  This one I kind of claimed for myself, projecting into my future that I wouldn't just get seriously involved at the drop of a hat.  I never became the player that this guy claims to be, but I did stick to the part about rarely being available/vulnerable.  I only even dated a handful of girls before my wife, and none of them were ever particularly serious.

"Reasons I Cheat" (Randy Travis)

Going all the way back to "On the Other Hand," "Reasons I Cheat" tries to explain to me what the source of my family's drama really was.  Every reason he gives in this song is a commonly cited impetus in conversations with people, but I never felt like any of them were the real reason.  The very tense of the title suggests that this guy is a serial cheater, as though cheating is more of an ongoing hobby than anything.  And yet, there's something about the way Randy Travis sings this one that tempered my anger.  This song taught me that even if my questions were ever addressed, I would never have the answers I seek.  Ultimately, my family was much better off with my parents divorced than we would have been had they "toughed it out."  So while I wish we'd all been spared the Year of Hell, I eventually made my peace with the fact that what happened apparently needed to happen.

"There'll Always Be a Honky Tonk Somewhere" (Johnny MacRae/Steve Clark)

Something lighthearted to end the album, this is about how even in the future when there's "farming out in space," honky tonks will be around, populated by the same kinds of people who keep them in business today.  I had no idea what a honky tonk really was, beyond the description from songs and what I'd seen in some country music videos, but in this song I learned that it's basically a bar where people go to either have a good time or to just be around other people during not-so-good times.  By 1986, I'd seen some Cheers, so in my mind a honky tonk was Cheers with cowboy hats.  I liked that idea.  Still do.

So that's the story of how Storms of Life helped me make sense of my parents's divorce.  It was particularly of value to me since the songs are all sung from the male perspective and my dad never shared his side of things with me beyond the standard, "I had to get out, couldn't live with her anymore" line.  Randy Travis made it sound miserable, and that's what I wanted to believe he was during all that.  And yet, Randy also made it sound reasonable; almost sympathetic in a way.  Almost.  The album wasn't meant for seven year old boys of divorce, and maybe that's what made it perfect.  None of the adults in my life tried to engage me in a mature way about that time, and I thank Randy Travis, producers Kyle Lehning and Keith Stegall, and all the songwriters for revealing that world to me.  I was still angry and hurt by it, but at least I had a better understanding of what had actually taken place, and why, and that knowledge really did help me process it all after three years of keeping my questions to myself.

13 June 2011

Welcome to the Twitterverse

Ever since I posted my thoughts on the nature of Twitter, I've been meaning to compose an actual introductory guide to the Twitterverse for newbies.  It's a little late, but here goes.

If you're familiar with Facebook (and, really, who isn't?), think of Twitter as your wall if only status updates of 140 characters or less was all you saw.  This is not to say that you can't still reply to someone else, or post photos and videos; you can do all of those things on Twitter, but it's much cleaner looking.  For those of you old enough to remember telephone party lines, think of Twitter as a text-based version of that, where anyone from around the world with a Twitter account can join in the conversation.

The smartest thing you can do when joining Twitter is begin by finding and following people you already know.  Once you begin following someone, you'll begin seeing their tweets as well as tweets from other people that have been re-tweeted by the person you're following.  These are tweets that your friend wanted to share.  Think of it like "recommending" something on Facebook.  You, too, can re-tweet someone else's post and share with your followers.

Speaking of followers, Twitter is not like Facebook or MySpace in that no one needs permission to follow you.  If this bothers you for some reason, you can set your account to private.  Even if one of your followers re-tweets you, it will only be visible to anyone else who is following you.  You can block someone, but this only prevents their tweets from appearing in your timeline; yours will still be visible to them.  Twitter believes in unrequited love.

If you want to ensure that a specific person sees your tweet, you'll want to "mention" them, which means you include their screen name, preceded with the @ symbol.  If you only want a specific follower to notice your tweet, begin with their @screenname.  For instance, if you want to report to Anderson Cooper that you've just found a space pod with a baby in it, you would tweet:
@andersoncooper Driving in Smallville and found a space pod with a baby in it!
Now, this tweet will not appear in anyone else's timeline but it will be visible on your Twitter page.  You can send a Direct Message if you want privacy, but this only works if the recipient is also following you.  But let's say that you're following Anderson Cooper and you're also following the President, and Anderson Cooper tweets:
@BarackObama We have a report of an alien baby found in Smallville.
If you're following both Anderson Cooper and the President, you'll see this tweet.  Otherwise, you won't.

Let's say you want all your followers to see your tweet, but you still want to name someone.  You might tweet:
I hope @andersoncooper comes to Smallville to report on this baby that has fallen from space!
One common thing you'll encounter on Twitter are hashtags.  These are words or phrases all strung together as one word, preceded by the # symbol.  This automatically makes the hashtag a clickable link that will display all recent tweets with the same hashtag.  This is useful if there's a popular topic being discussed and you want to draw attention to your comments.  For instance, you might tweet:
Waiting to be interviewed by @andersoncooper about the #spacebaby
#spacebaby would be your hashtag, and you would be able to immediately click on that phrase, which will display the most recent tweets that also contain #spacebaby.  It may be that yours is the only one, or it may be that there will be thousands of other tweets about the #spacebaby.  Regular tweeters, you'll discover, often use hashtags as shorthand punch lines.  Let's say Anderson Cooper doesn't believe you've found a baby from space.  He might tweet:
Going to Smallville to cover the #spacebaby. #cantbelieveiwenttojournalismschoolforthis
See how #spacebaby makes this tweet show up for anyone looking at tweets about the topic, but he turned "can't believe I went to journalism school for this" into a hashtag.  It's very unlikely anyone else has used this hashtag, but it punctuates the tone of his tweet.

Who to Follow
The easiest thing to do is begin by following people you know.  If they re-tweet something from someone they're following but you're not, you can follow the third party.  It's sort of like a pyramid scheme, really.  Celebrities are a mixed bag.  Firstly, you've got to be cautious about fake celebrity accounts.  There are verified celebrity accounts, and these will have a blue icon with a check mark next to the screen name of the celebrity.  @andersoncoooper and @BarackObama are both verified.  Just because a celebrity account does not have the verified check mark icon doesn't mean it's not legit, though.

Even if they are legit, however, you may find yourself disappointed.  Some celebrities maintain a Twitter account as nothing more than a self-promotion tool, often operated by other people on their behalf.  Barack Obama rarely tweets, and when he does it's almost always the equivalent of a White House press statement.  You're not going to find the President tweeting, "On my way to Metropolis to speak at STAR Labs.  Long flight!"  He doesn't do that kind of tweeting.  Anderson Cooper, though, tweets for himself and often replies to tweets that mention him.  In fact, he has incorporated Twitter into his TV show, AC360, reading tweets on-air to further involve his viewers with his broadcast.

Some people tweet endlessly, it seems, and you'll have to decide whether it's worth it to have two out of every three tweets in your timeline come from one person.  I've had to un-follow several tweeters for this very reason.  I am currently following 162 accounts, but several of these are friends who rarely tweet.  In all honesty, there are probably only about 130 "active" accounts and many of those are fairly redundant since I follow several news feeds.  I probably don't really need to follow NPR News, Huffington Post and CNN Breaking News (in addition to specific journalists like Anderson Cooper), but I like the individual personalities and I don't like relying on one specific news content provider.  My point is that I have a manageable list for me.  You may be overwhelmed by that many tweeters, or you may find yourself bored waiting for someone to say something new.

Hopefully this helps you make sense of the Twitterverse, and in case an infant from the planet Krypton should ever fall from the sky near you, now you'll know how to report it to the world.

Crohn's + Depression + Medication = Tragedy

Some time earlier this afternoon I came across a link to an article from a local news service in Buffalo, NY. On 4 June, 23 year old Michael Israel took his own life after a decade of living with Crohn's disease.  He battled depression for most of this time, it seems, and was in significant physical pain.  His mother, Julie, reported that, “Michael’s sophomore year of high school was the last year that he actually had any quality of life. He suffered. He ached all over. Sometimes, he would walk around like an 80- year-old man.”  To manage this pain, Michael had been prescribed hydrocodone, Xanax for anxiety and Cymbalta for depression.  Apparently, Michael reached a breaking point and shot himself in the head.

Avi Israel.  Photo by Harry Scull, Jr.
Naturally, every paragraph in this article hit home for me.  Crohn's, depression, anxiety, derailed life, pain, Cymbalta...only the names and dates would be distinguishable to casual readers of this article and my own story.  It reminds me of how the Columbine shooting unnerved me all those years ago, leaving me wondering just why these people have zigged when I've zagged.  Now, if the Israel family should find this blog post (and I can't imagine why they would), I want them to know I'm not insensitively trying to make their tragedy somehow about me.  His story--at least, what little of it was conveyed in Dan Herbeck's article--really does hit home for me in an eerie way.

His parents are understandably upset by their son's medical treatment.
Israel and his wife, Julie, said too many of the doctors who treated Michael over the years would simply give him pain pills and send him on his way, rather than sitting down with him and talking to him about his disease.
“We’re not on a witch hunt for doctors,” Israel said. “Mike had one wonderful doctor who refused to give him pain pills, but used to sit with him, answer his questions and talk to him about his disease. We wish more doctors would do what this doctor did.”
I've read some comments that argue Michael Israel should have done more to ensure his physicians were all on the same page.  Trust me, when you have Crohn's and you're seen by a doctor, there's a strong probability it's in an urgent care center or emergency room because you're having an out-of-control flare.  You'll allow Fozzie Bear to treat you, so long as he promises to make it stop.  This is my account of my first hospitalization in 2008.  The short version is that I resisted the gastroenterologist assigned to me at the hospital and managed to stave off surgery (three years so far, thank you very much) and upon being discharged I met with my regular G.I. at the University of Louisville Ambulatory Internal Medicine clinic.  He agreed with me on the matter of my treatment plan.  In that one anecdote alone, you've got an overwhelmed patient handed over to a doctor who doesn't know him, and who disagrees with another doctor about how to treat said patient.  Believe me, it's awfully easy to fall through the cracks in the American health care system.

I know they have WiFi there.
I understand that the Israels are dedicating themselves to organizations meant to discourage over-medication of youthful patients, and I can appreciate their need to do something in response to their tragic loss.  One of the most important things that can be done--and really should have already been done--is to create a national patient database.  This nonsense of having to request medical records from another physician's office has no place in the 21st Century.  There's no reason we can use cloud-based information sharing to store our MP3s from Amazon but not our medical records.  Patients who are paranoid about invasion of privacy should, of course, have the option to decline participation, but the technological infrastructure should already exist and those of us who do desire our medical treatment to come at the hands of fully informed physicians should benefit from such a system.

The Affordable Health Care Act provides for, and promotes, this kind of much needed technological advancement.  I'm sure the Republicans will cry that it's an outrageous "overreach" of government that will saddle hypothetical future generations with an unacceptable bill to pay, but I suspect the Israels would very much have appreciated a system where each of their son's physicians knew what the others had done with/for him.

To be fair, this only addresses the situation where one physician is ignorant of another's treatments.  It does not address instances where a physician disagrees with his or her colleague.  That, of course, is the nature of the practice of medicine.  It may be that there's room for refinement in the guidelines for treating patients, but of course that's a matter for the Department of Health, American Medical Association and other such organizations to decide.  I'm just a patient.

One last thing I want to address is the subject of physicians as drug-dealing middlemen.  It seems in 2011 America, we have two kinds of physicians.  The first only listens for specific words in the exam room before scribbling out prescriptions.  I cannot stand this kind of doctor, as this kind cannot be bothered to let a patient finish describing his or her symptoms.  Does it make a difference if you stopped me before I told you my left arm was numb?  I'm not a doctor, but that seems important enough I was gonna tell you about it.  The least you could do is let me tell you and then decide whether to ignore me.

The other kind of physician, of course, is the wannabe detective.  Each patient this physician treats is a criminal suspect.  I sustained second-degree burns on my left hand a few weeks ago and went to an urgent care center. The doctor initially offered me Tylenol, which I refused because my wife had some in her purse and we all know how much they jack up the price.  I thought it was more prudent to take the pills we already had, than to be charged $10 for the same damn thing.  Rather than applaud my sense of thrift, I was now viewed as a drug-seeker.  Right.  I rejected Tylenol because I really wanted to get my fix.  I wanted it so badly I gave myself second-degree burns.  I went through about ten cold packs in the span of an hour because the moment they stopped being cold they were useless to me for containing the heat and pain.  But somehow this was all just a pretext for asking for hydrocodone?  Are you fucking kidding me?

Look, either you're a doctor or you're a cop.  You can't be both.
Which brings me back to Michael Israel.  I avoid hydrocodone and similar pain drugs whenever possible for two reasons.  Firstly, I figure the longer I can go without resorting to them, the better.  This way, I have something to fall back on later.  Secondly, those drugs aren't good for one's digestive system and since the nature of my disease is digestive, it doesn't seem prudent to hit my guts with too much of that stuff.  But then, I haven't felt his pain.  I'm sure it's a shock to someone in good health, but just because two people have the same diagnosis doesn't mean they have the same experience.  Maybe I have a stronger constitution than did Michael Israel, or maybe I've just been a hell of a lot luckier.  I don't know.  I'm not qualified to pass judgment on him or anyone else (and I'd appreciate it if you'd refrain from doing so).

Were drugs responsible for Michael Israel's suicide?  Again, I'm not qualified to answer that.  I suspect he'd tell you that the depression was the real reason even if the side effects from the drugs exacerbated his sense of helplessness and frustration.  Depression is awfully powerful, as I've already shared.  Cymbalta, like other anti-depressants, is risky.  It can have the opposite effect, making a patient feel even more despair than before.  I only took it twice, and each time it hit me like I'm told a date rape drug works.  I slept for about a day after taking it and had no memory of anything I said or did during the brief time I was conscious.  I have not taken a third Cymbalta pill and do not intend to do so.  If I had tolerated it even just a little bit more, who's to say?  Maybe I'm the news story in March and Michael Israel sees the red flag, changes his treatment and is here today.

12 June 2011

On Sexual Violence

Sometimes I forget how old I am.  When I grew up, we as a society agreed that sexual violence was a bad thing.  We promoted self-defense classes for women and girls.  As forensic science evolved and was no longer restricted to the most prolific cases, we became far more confident we had the right perpetrator.  Whether the sex was consensual cannot be told from DNA, but at least we know definitively that this semen matches that guy.  Many railed against this change in culture, fearing that it meant a fickle woman could have a lover prosecuted if he failed to bring her breakfast in bed the morning after or if she woke up with P.M.S. and just went crazy for no good reason.  Men were now vulnerable and couldn't trust their sexual partners.  At least, that's what the detractors argued.
How can a show about sexual violence be one of the most-watched of its era,
but we still have such a poor understanding of the subject?
The anti-anti-rape crowd was emboldened by Joel Rene Valdez.  Valdez was just another despicable rapist made unique by his victim.  She had the presence of mind to plead with him to at least wear a condom during the assault.  Valdez's legal defense argued that any woman who would "ask" him to use a condom is clearly a willing participant and that it wasn't possibly rape.  Early on, it worked.  The initial grand jury refused to indict him on charges of rape, believing that his victim was a willing participant on the basis of her begging him to use the condoms she had in her apartment.  A subsequent grand jury did vote to indict and ultimately, Valdez's defense failed and he was convicted but the case resonated powerfully across the country.  It convinced many that the only way to avoid being branded a rapist was to avoid women entirely.

It's important to remember that AIDS was only just becoming understood by mainstream America at the time of Valdez's attack.  This was a relatively new element to sexual contact, and there was nothing else like it.  No other sexually transmitted disease or infection comes close to the devastating impact of AIDS.  How this unfortunate woman had the ability to even think about such things, I cannot say.  But I can say that her mental focus is not something to be held against her; it's something to admire.

Throughout the Reagan 80s, it was characterized as a "gay disease," and to appease the homophobic "moral majority," the federal government formally ignored it.  How hands-off was Reagan?  In his massive, 748 page autobiography An American Life (reviewed here), AIDS is not mentioned one time.  The most devastating event in public health since penicillin was introduced happened on his watch, and he couldn't even be bothered to acknowledge it.  [For a thorough look at how the Reagan administration responded to AIDS, I urge you to read this article on Daily Kos.]
"How that information is used must be up to schools and parents, not government. But let's be honest with ourselves, AIDS information can not be what some call 'value neutral.' After all, when it comes to preventing AIDS, don't medicine and morality teach the same lessons." - Ronald Reagan, 2 April 1987
The narrative of rape in America is still defined by men.  It's sad when it happens, but you know, maybe she was asking for it.  I mean, once he gets going he can't be expected to just stop, can he?  How is it his fault if she changes her mind at the last minute?  Sure, most women are raped by men they know; maybe it's because most falsely accused men are attacked in court by flaky women.  I'm disgusted even typing all that, much less by the fact that there are people who really do believe these things and marginalize rape victims.  Why is it that any woman wearing a short skirt is "asking for it," but no man who insists on being alone with a woman has ever been said to have invited her to claim rape?  Why the double-standard about when simply being somewhere is evidence of complicity for a woman, but not evidence of aggression for a man?
Real men respect women.
Here's what pushes me over the edge about that philosophy.  It effectively argues, as one blogger put it, "that boys will be boys."  As I replied to her post:
Speaking as a guy, I am personally offended by the "boys will be boys" doctrine. It sends the dual messages 1) we're all latent rapists waiting for the right combination of means and opportunity and 2) that we consider all women "fair game" as potential rape victims.
Well, let me tell you something.
I am not a latent rapist and no woman or girl I know is "fair game."
Furthermore, we need to change the perception of rape.  It is rarely motivated by sexuality.  Rather, it is an act of violence perpetrated by someone who wishes to dominate another.  It is not about desire.  It is about control.  Until we understand this, we will continue to believe that attractive rape victims asked for it, and that unattractive rape victims were attacked out of desperation.  How a woman looks has nothing to do with whether she is entitled to not be raped, or whether she is entitled to justice.

CBS's Lara Logan did not "ask for it" in Egypt.
It was bad enough when the anti-contraceptive crowd spoke out against condoms because, you know, no non-Catholic should have access to a device to prevent unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases and infections because it would bother them.  And while I am personally against abortion as a form of after-the-fact birth control plan (for now, at least, you can still easily find condoms, people!), I never thought I'd live to see a day when a presidential candidate would openly campaign on a platform of seeking criminal charges for abortions even in the case of rape and incest.  Yet that is precisely how Rick Santorum intends to woo voters, which means that Santorum believes there are lots of voters out there who are just itching to have someone in office to stick it to those atrocious rape victims who are destroying the moral fabric of America.  Here's him speaking about what he calls the "phony" loophole:

I personally don't believe "It bothers me because that's what my church taught me" is sufficient justification for imposing legislation or withholding access to medical services to other Americans.  I'm under no obligation to believe as you believe, and I cannot fathom how I would be required to live in accordance with your beliefs.  How am I still free if your beliefs are writing the laws under which I live?  Even if your arguments against abortion aren't founded in religion, it still amounts to you wanting to legislate against someone else because it makes you squeamish.
Popes: Wrong on heliocentric universe,
wrong on contraception.
No woman should have to leave her home and wonder whether she'll make it to wherever she's going without being raped.  No rape victim should have to be told she "asked for it," and that "boys will be boys."  No impregnated rape victim should be forced to carry to term the consequence of her assault.  Any opposition to this is tantamount to protecting and promoting a culture of rape.

Often I write these diatribes knowing that at best I might be found by some readers and occasionally I get feedback (which every writer desires, even if they can't admit it to themselves).  This time, though, I can provide you with at least one action you personally can take right now.  Click here to sign an online petition to urge Congress to pass H.R. 1523, the SAFER Act.  Details of the bill are described on the petition page.

08 June 2011

The Presidents in Comic Books 2: Truman

The Presidents in Comic Books
Harry Truman
The second installment of this sub-series features the man famously implored to "Give 'em hell!"  Harry Truman succeeded Franklin Delano Roosevelt as President of the United States upon his predecessor's death in 1945.  Here's an overview of Truman's appearances in comics.  Note that he has continued to appear in comic books since his death, particularly in the pages of Captain America.  I have confined this list to issues published during his lifetime.

True Comics #44 (Summer 1945)

Real Facts Comics #4 (September 1946)

Superman #48 (September/October 1947) - featured in the lead story, "The Man Who Stole the Sun!"

The Story of Harry S. Truman (c. 1948) - can be read online from the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Captain Marvel Adventures #110 (July 1950)

Picture Progress #5 (January 1954)

Herbie #7 (February 1965)

Captain America #155 (November 1972) - Truman passed away 26 December 1972

07 June 2011

What's in a Rose?

Like many an adolescent, I was infatuated with a girl in my class in sixth grade.  I won't name her, but for anyone who might wish to conduct an investigation I will tell you that our math class seating chart was arranged alphabetically and she sat next to me in every configuration I recall.  Toward the end of the year we had been rearranged and now she sat to my left.  She was fairly popular and all that and I was, to be kind, not.  I was a pimply geek with a bad haircut, horribly out of touch with pop culture.  I tried to amuse her with jokes whenever the opportunity presented itself, but that was the extent of my boldness.  I knew better.

So one day it happened that we were all working on some task or another and our teacher was out of the room for an extended length of time.  Why this was the case I cannot say, but it afforded my classmates an opportunity to chat amongst themselves.  I had no conversation partner, as She Who Must Not Be Named turned away from me to chat with someone else.  No matter, I wanted to complete the assignment at hand and anyway I had no new material to try out on her.

Then it happened.

I sneezed.

And out of my nose came an impossibly long line of snot.

Seriously, it nearly touched the desk.  I was in the middle of the classroom with no access to any kind of tissue.  I knew it was only a matter of time before someone saw.  I did what my Irish and Scottish ancestors have done for centuries: I thought on my feet and acted quickly.  I snuffed it right back up into my nose.

And that's when I noticed that She Who Must Not Be Named had turned around just in time to see me retract a bright yellow tentacle into my face.

She laughed, surprised more than anything, I think, but never said a word to me about it.  Or anything else, for that matter.  Like I said, it was near the end of the school year.  I trudged through, kept my head down and just waited for summer.

The next year, we had no classes together but she remained on my list of girls I found attractive but knew better than to approach.  (It was a long list.)  Now, why it happened that I had the impulse I had, I cannot tell you because I cannot recall.  I'm simply prone to embarrassingly grand gestures, I suppose.

I got it into my head that a bright idea would be to bring a rose to She Who Must Not Be Named.  At school.  Where other people could actually see this taking place.  People who already had marginalized me and let me know I was not one of them.  Sure.  What could go wrong?

Into the gymnasium I walked, carrying this rose (where I got it and how I explained it to my mom, who must surely have seen me take it with me that morning, I cannot recall).  Naturally, it called a lot of attention to itself.  I took my customary place about seven rows up into the bleachers and waited for the bell to ring, releasing us to migrate to our first period classrooms.  During that time I was the talk of the bleachers.  I heard jokes of various natures (most juvenile, some offensive).  At least one popular girl came directly to me to ask where that rose was headed.  I coyly avoided answering, and she left still curious.

The intended recipient never ventured into the gym that morning or, as near as I can recall, any morning.  By this point I knew I had to rid myself of the albatross as quickly as possible so I stalked the halls (that sounds a little threatening, doesn't it?) until I found her.  In the time it took me to find her, I had attracted quite a following.  I can't speak for any of the witnesses, but I guessed at the time they were all hoping that it would lead to a big laugh of some kind.  Maybe I was going to woo a girl just as much an outcast as me, and we would become the Anti-Homecoming King & Queen.  Maybe it was for a popular girl, who would no doubt put me in my place and satisfy all her peers who would naturally resent any attempt by me to pursue a girl of their caste.

As it was, I found her.  I can't recall what I said, but I know it was very simple.  Something like, "I'd like you to have this."  I figured the rose itself was a surprise and with a crowd formed the moment was already a circus.  No need to proclaim that I'd spent the better part of the previous school year staring at her and thinking impure thoughts.

I'd love to tell you that this at least ended with something spectacular, worthy of being in the next American Pie direct-to-video sequel but the truth is I think every person there was disappointed.  She simply refused to take the rose, and with a slightly panicked look on her face, walked away to her class.

I hung my head.  The crowd, their curiosity satisfied but not their thirst for spectacle, dispersed.  I caught a look of pity from a classmate whom I knew to be a friend of She Who Must Not Be Named and I asked her hastily if she would try to complete the delivery for me.  Graciously, she took the rose from me and said she'd try.

To this day I cannot tell you what became of that rose.  I heard several accounts throughout the rest of that day.  One held that she had thrown it away.  A variation of that story informed me she had brutally destroyed it, petal by petal, before discarding its mutilated remains.  I was told it went into her locker, where it wilted and died by day's end (something about a lack of water and sunshine or something; I don't know, I'm not a botanist).  It was rumored to have found its way to an unidentified third party altogether, as a sort of souvenir of the embarrassing incident.  Whatever became of it, I can confirm that it did not lead to anything positive for me.  I've not exchanged one word with She Who Must Not Be Named since that morning 20 years ago.

There is an amusing coda to this story, however.  Shortly after I crashed and burned, one of the popular guys brought flowers of some kind to impress one of the popular girls and it worked.  Now, I suspect it was entirely unnecessary given that they were in the same social strata, but nevertheless I took some small measure of pleasure at having been the trailblazer.

06 June 2011

The Midnight Rider 3.0

Recently, Sarah Palin attempted to co-op the legacy of Paul Revere in some public remarks that re-cast the scout as having "warned" the British that we were armed and waiting.  Now I could go into the ins and outs of Revere's legacy (he never saw the lantern light, didn't reach Concord and it was either William Dawes or Samuel Prescott who actually completed the mission and sounded the alarm), the historiography of Revere (credit goes to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for making him a household name almost a century later) and lecture about how it's okay to put forth a different interpretation of what happened but wrong to attempt to change the very nature of what happened when discussing history (see: Palin defenders swarming Wikipedia to literally rewrite the page on Revere).  I could do all that, but you know what?  My heart's just not in it.

Ultimately none of that matters outside the realm of academia or this blog because people have been handed a shorthand version of all this that reinforces specific world views and they're not interested in anything that conflicts with their preconceived notions.  I'm so accustomed to it that I try to avoid any conversation about history unless it's something entirely benign and unlikely to mean much to anyone in the room with me.  I can recite various amusing anecdotes about Daniel Boone, point out that Caravaggio was often arrested for carrying a sword without a permit and laugh about how CIA plans to assassinate Fidel Castro often appeared to be derived from watching Bugs Bunny cartoons (seriously, we tried to send him exploding cigars) and that makes me fun at dinner parties.  But when it comes to things like Paul Revere or the Puritans, Sarah Palin has demonstrated that I'm hopelessly outmatched in explaining why what's being peddled isn't a competing interpretation but an outright revision designed for one purpose alone: to legitimize actions taken today by linking them with the past.

What irks me really is that there was no reason to screw around with Paul Revere.  His story as it actually was has been good enough to inspire patriotic admiration for quite a while.  What, we weren't satisfied with his ride as it had been?  Furthermore, it's not like there weren't revolutionaries who hadn't said and done things more in keeping with what Palin wanted to invoke.  But, you know, whatever.  I've become so discouraged in recent months that I just don't even care anymore.  You want to rewrite what Paul Revere or said and did, go ahead.  At this point, I'm just disappointed Palin didn't go all out.  Maybe have the British strap a bomb to Revere's horse that would detonate if the horse ran slower than twenty miles an hour.  Better, why not change the horse into something else?  I mean, hell, the 1770s were so long ago they probably still had dinosaurs running around, right?  Who would ride a horse when they could ride a velociraptor?  Not only is it fast, but it can be a weapon, too!  If Paul Revere had been a real patriot, he'd have ridden a raptor.

Once upon a time, our society admired education and accomplishment in the fields of academia.  Today, though, Sarah Palin gets away with reinventing Paul Revere to suit her purposes because her base is just as ill-informed as she apparently is (though I suspect she's sand-bagging everyone and likely laughs behind closed doors at how successful her prideful ignorance act has gone over).  Revere was nothing more than a scarcely recalled silversmith until Longfellow mined his story and rewrote it himself to rebrand the footnote into a legend.  If Palin wants to give us Revere 3.0, so be it.  After all, what do I know?  I only hold a degree in history from the University of Louisville, which in Palin's America can only mean I surely can't be trusted to actually know a thing about history.

03 June 2011

On the Death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian

When I first heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, I found a hero.  As an American, I equate freedom with life itself, and I can think of no purer form of freedom than being empowered to end one's own life.  Maybe I say this because I've spent most of my life contemplating this very subject.  Maybe others freak out because they fear death and don't even feel comfortable talking about it unless there's an actual death to force them to think about it.  Whatever the case, I think very favorably of the work that Dr. Kevorkian did.

Hospice care in the United States was directly changed by Dr. Kevorkian.  Before his prosecution forced the issue of elderly death into the national discussion, the majority of aged Americans died at home.  Today, more spend their final days cared for by professionals.  Now, this by itself is not a clear-cut win.  There's something to be said for the comfort of home, and we all know that hospice care is frequently found to be sub-standard.  In fairness to hospice workers, it's a very demoralizing line of work that leads very quickly to burnout and mental/emotional reactions that most people--even in the medical field--don't have to face on a daily basis.  Regardless, I think it's a positive thing that we are no longer banishing the elderly to their bedroom and wait for them to expire.  Now they can at least be in facilities with proper treatments for pain, because we as a society were outraged over the conditions brought to our attention directly by Dr. Kevorkian and we demanded expanded hospice care services.

The argument against Dr. Kevorkian's work, of course, is that all life is sacred and must be preserved however possible.  I reject that philosophy wholeheartedly.  I applauded when I heard that Osama bin Laden had finally been caught and killed, and I do not apologize for that reaction.  I take no pleasure in hearing of abortions, but I'm also not about to tell a rape victim that she's just stuck because it would bother me if she didn't carry to term the product of her violation.  And I believe that those who know that tomorrow will be worse than today should not be guilted into lingering to mollify the squeamishness of those around them.

So here's to you, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, for making a difference.  We can see acts of violence perpetrated in our movies and TV shows, but we cannot stand to be reminded that those acts would have real consequences.  We want our video game victims to fall down and then disappear; we don't want to have to actually see death.  But for a time, you forced a society that lives in constant denial about death to actually spend some time thinking and talking about a subject that we generally shun.

DC Comics September 2011 Relaunch

From DC Comics's website:
If you know us, you know we both hate secrets. In fact, you might’ve seen one (or both) of us have a grin or two on a convention panel recently. Why? Because it’s hard to keep a secret as big as the news we shared yesterday.
DC Comics will be making history this September. We’ll be renumbering the entire DC Universe line of comic books with 52 first issues. We’re publishing innovative storylines featuring our most iconic characters helmed by some of the most creative minds within the industry.
Not only will this initiative be compelling for existing readers, it’ll give new readers a precise entry point into our titles. And on top of that, all of these titles will be released digital day-and-date across the board.
Yesterday was just the beginning. After all, we don’t want to spoil the many surprises we have up our sleeves. It’s so important to us to make sure you maintain those feelings of excitement and unexpectedness when you pick up a new issue of our books.
We’re energized and looking forward to have you come on this journey with us as we make history this September.
–Jim Lee & Dan DiDio, DC Comics Co-Publishers
Reaching out to younger viewers is clearly the driving force behind this move, hence the move to disregard the previous numbering system for each title, new character designs and it's even rumored that major character developments will be entirely negated--including a report that Barbara Gordon will return as Batgirl after 22 years since being crippled by The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, and Superman may apparently no longer be married to Lois Lane, instead romantically involved with Wonder Woman.

Great news, Babs; come September, this never happened!
I've written elsewhere in this blog about how important I feel it was that comic books were available through mass retailers like gas stations, pharmacies and grocers in communities like mine that did not have a comics specialty shop, so I won't dwell on that issue.  But I would like to comment on the nature of what DC Comics is attempting, and offer my own unsolicited advice on what DC should consider as they go forward.

I was a regular reader of all the Batman, Superman and Green Lantern books in the 90s, and when Zero Hour came out, I read all the pertinent #0s and the mini-series and then I bailed on Superman entirely and dropped my Bat-reading to Legends of the Dark Knight and whatever incarnation of The Batman Adventures was active at the time (I believe it was Batman & Robin Adventures). I only kept up with those because they were self-contained series, and it wasn't too long until I stopped keeping up with those, too. I don't see this forthcoming relaunch as a particularly attractive jumping-on point, but maybe others will.

Remember when Hal Jordan killed everyone
and reset the entire DC timeline?  Yeah, I thought not.
Ultimately, the fate of the industry lies in its willingness to be innovative. There are lots of talented writers and artists out there, but it seems that few have been given the chance to really do anything interesting with the characters they don't personally own. Gail Simone's work has cultivated a devoted following (noted elsewhere in this very thread, for instance), but the standard has really been to just rotate talent from one book to the next, and then to disregard the most immediate predecessor's run through a bold new declaration that will, of course, itself be subsequently disavowed or undone by the next creative team.

Say what you will about Archie being a square, but readers of those comics know what they're going to get from month to month. It may not be particularly dramatic material, but Archie has never aspired to be a heavy hitter. It's a modest, lighthearted series that has stayed focused for decades and even cultivated some longterm spin-offs. There's something to be said for that kind of consistency.

Also, I think it's high time that DC and Marvel both began to consider adopting a publication scheme focused on mini-series rather than ongoing titles. We've seen cable TV shows move toward 13 episode seasons that allow more flexibility with production and more concise storytelling throughout each season that tends to keep viewers engaged. Dark Horse was built on mini-series. And if DC is in fact committed to distancing themselves from their previous numbering system, then I have to ask what the point of committing themselves to the ongoing format even is. I say let each story arc be its own mini-series, allowing readers to more clearly identify what they're buying.

I don't want to guess if I pick up a random issue of Green Lantern next month whether I should have read three different other GL spin-off issues first, and I shouldn't need a checklist to tell me where a given issue fits into things. If, instead, that 22-issue, multi-title crossover story was metered out in a 22-issue limited series numbered #1-22, and united by a series-wide, unique title, I might be more tempted to make a commitment. It's hard to have a sense of fidelity to a story, when it requires me to buy multiple series; and it's hard to feel loyalty to a series, when a story requires me to be a polygamist.