29 March 2012

For Deposit Only: My Life in Checks, Part I

Yesterday, I discovered two boxes of canceled checks dating to when I opened my first bank account. It was August of 1997, and after having screwed off all summer since graduating high school, the time had come for me to at least take a job since I wasn't going to college. I went to work at Walmart, unloading trucks on third shift. I had the presence of mind to diligently use the memo line on each check (with rare exception), so more than mere records of transactions nearing 15 years old, this cache is a sort of archive of a specific period of my early adulthood. Here are a handful of observations, notable purchases and anecdotes triggered by my find.
I've blurred out any relevant information. Also: I HAD JAMES BOND CHECKS!
23 August 1997 - [My Mom] - $82.00
Somehow, it seems fitting that the first check I ever wrote was to my mother. It was a counter-check, since I had just opened my account and was waiting for my first real checks to arrive in the mail. (Counter-checks have since fallen out of favor; they were sort of like fill-in-the-blank generic check templates.) Strange amount, though!

27 August 1997 - BMG Classical Music Service - $17.32 - "Handling (7 CD's)"
With my fourth check, I joined BMG! I joined BMG Classical because I would still have access to their mainstream catalog, but also their classical stuff. Confession: I was only really interested in the movie soundtracks that were part of BMG Classical. You picked out seven CDs, paid for one and got three more free, and you agreed to buy however many more at full price over the next however many years. As best I recall, my introductory selections were:

Waking Up the Neighbours, Bryan Adams [I owned this on cassette previously]
Seal, Seal
Blue Clear Sky, George Strait <--- I still have this exact CD!
The Woman in Me, Shania Twain
Space Jam soundtrack

Not sure what the other two were, but if I can identify them, I'll revise this list.

11 September 1997 - various
A friend of mine in his senior year of high school showed up at my house early that morning, saying he was having a rough day and just needed to get away for a bit. We promptly decided that the therapy he needed was going shopping for Star Wars toys. Now, you must understand that at this time, each wave of Hasbro's newly-resurrected Star Wars line was gobbled up by speculators and scalpers within moments of hitting the sales floor. These vultures got there while the rooster was hitting his snooze button. You had to be very competitive and quite lucky to get your grubby paws on those toys. Off we went, starting with the Walmart in LaGrange, then off through Louisville. I won't embarrass myself with the details, but I will say that my total expenditures for the day are obscene by any standards. I hadn't been employed two whole months. Whatever. It was fun, and my friend and I still recall that day fondly. It was an important building block in our friendship and for that, it was worth every penny.

2 October 1997 - Walmart - $36.21 - "G. Strait Box CD"
Another friend had lured me back into listening to country music through George Strait's 1997 album, Carrying Your Love with Me. I began exploring King George's discography and quickly I became enamored enough that I accepted his challenge to own all of it. I still have this four-disc Strait Out of the Box. There are numerous other checks written to acquire more Strait, many of them to BMG Music Club.

8 November 1997 - ACT - $20.00 - "ACT Test"
It didn't take me very long to realize I didn't want to unload trucks the rest of my life but it took me a while longer to decide what I did want to do with it. I thought about my aptitudes and interests, and eventually I realized I ought to go into teaching history. History is, essentially, just storytelling and I love telling stories. Step #1: Take the ACT test that all my classmates took while we were still in high school. I didn't study for it and I only took it once. I'd like to think my math score would have been higher if I had taken a practice test, or taken the ACT while I was still an active student but the truth is, I was a terrible math student in high school and I don't know it would have mattered. Confession: I got through much of the science section by asking myself which of the multiple choice answers sounded most convincing if spoken by Mr. Spock. I'm not advising that as your Plan A, but as Plan Bs go, it seemed to work well enough.

25 November 1997 - Wal-Mart - $7.52 - "Sevens"
The new Garth Brooks album went on sale just past midnight, and I was on my first 15 minute break of the night at the same time. I clocked out and flew across the store to the electronics department, just in time to see the floor display revealed. How old school was I? I bought my copy on cassette. How much do I love Sevens? I still have the cassette. Also, I'm listening to it on CD as I type this. It is my favorite album by anyone, ever and that is not hyperbole meant to amuse you.

28 November 1997 - various
My first ever Black Friday outing, with my three core friends. I'll have to defer to their memories as much as the narrative constructed by the canceled checks, but we left way early and went just about everywhere we could think to go that day. I don't know what it says about me that my clearest specific memory is of Target putting out tables full of free donuts. But mostly, I just remember the sheer fun of the four of us caught in the frenzy of the shopping. What stores were near us? Which ones were opened already and which ones hadn't opened yet? We had some ideas, we gleaned information from other shoppers but we mostly just improvised. For me, that has always been the "spirit" of Black Friday--young guys with nary a plan in the world, just bouncing from hoopla to hoopla for the sheer hell of it. No one getting trampled, no one getting cussed out or pushing through lines or any of the unpleasantness that we tend to associate with the busiest shopping day of the year. I'm sure those things happened that day, too, but we were having way too much fun to notice or care. Every November, I wish I could recreate that magical morning with my friends.

5 December 1997 - Book Barn - $13.36 - "Grinch 40th"
The first Friday each December is Light-Up LaGrange, our town's variation on the annual festivities that take place in many communities and cities each Christmas season. Well, my friends and I happened to discover that the microphone and speakers for the main ceremonies were still active and abandoned. Me being me, we ran to the Book Barn whereupon I purchased the 40th anniversary edition of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Then we ran back to the courthouse lawn, where I seized the neglected microphone and did an impromptu dramatic reading of the story for a handful of amused onlookers. I had performed the book that December and the one previous for preschoolers in the school system and I enjoyed doing it. Then, we whisked me off to work just as the snow began to really fall.

I still own that copy of the book, plus the original copy that's been in my family since (at least) my childhood.

24 March 2012

Inside the Batcave: Opening Up to Others

There I was, 10 years old and seeing Batman in the theater. It blew my mind, which I've addressed often in this blog (and anywhere else I've had the chance!). The one subplot that 10 year-old Travis didn't really get into was the romance between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale. Mind you, I totally got why Bruce wanted to get with Vicki. I even understood his trepidation about exposing his dual identity, and that it wasn't just being Batman that he risked sharing. It meant opening up to Vicki and letting her share in the torment he had carried ever since the night his parents were murdered and all the anguish that had driven him from that day to this. For years, he had struggled to manage the guilt and anger, and this would require him to articulate things that had gone unspoken for ages.

That can be very difficult for someone who is trying to cope with emotional distress. It's hard enough to get hold of oneself; actually saying the words to explain it to someone else can be excruciating. In fact, if you recall the scene in the movie where he goes to Vicki's apartment, his feeble attempt to explain the duality of his life is pretty awkward and confusing. He can't organize his own thoughts enough to make it make sense of Vicki. When she finally leaves the room, he's able to mouth the words, "I'm Batman." It would have been easier for him to confess being the masked vigilante than it would be for him to start sharing with her all the emotions he's carried--and buried. Think about that for a moment. Being Batman is almost immaterial in this context, because that's not the real secret he's trying to share.

I got all that, even at 10 years old. What I didn't get was why Bruce was goaded into it by Alfred. I always chalked it up to a plot contrivance, to spur on the subplot. There's no obvious or easy way to get Bruce there on his own, so we have Alfred broach the subject. After Bruce agrees that she's "tenacious," Alfred hedges by adding:
"And if I may say so, quite special. Perhaps you could try telling her the truth."
Why is it any of Alfred's business? Is he trying to live vicariously through Bruce? 10 year old Travis couldn't wrap his head around it.

The Travis who spent a year staving off suicidal depression, however, gets it.

It's normal, and perhaps even prudent, to not share all of our demons with just anyone. Some things are best kept private. There comes a point, though, where not sharing becomes unhealthy. I've written previously about the importance of building a support network. I can attest from firsthand experience that it does help to know there are people who are on the inside, who know the truth of my duality. Yes, this blog is public and I don't hide behind anonymity here, but you'd be surprised how many people I know--including blood relatives--who will never bother to even look at this blog. In some ways, Dear Reader, you know me as well as, and perhaps even better than, people who've spent time with me in person.

Sharing our burdens helps alleviate some of the stress of carrying them. Obviously, Alfred loves Bruce and wants to see him lose some of that stress. And, on a selfish note, it would be nice to not have to be the only one helping Bruce with such matters. It's important to remember that no matter how much our closest friends and family love us, it can still be isolating for them to be the only ones who know what's going on with us. After a while, they're not just in on our secret; they're keeping it, too. That can become difficult. I know. It cost me my marriage.

It's one of the scariest things in life to do, opening up to someone new. It requires a tremendous amount of faith and trust. It means allowing someone to know we're not just a millionaire playboy, but also a traumatized orphan whose means of therapy consists of nighttime vigilantism. In my case, it means explaining not just that I live with Crohn's disease and that I've fought severe depression, but also having to share all the myriad ways they have set my life completely off-track. I have to explain numerous aspects of my life, many of which are embarrassing and even humiliating.
At present, I'm in the roles of both Bruce and Alfred. I'm sharing my own dark side with someone new. In that context this blog has been my Alfred, sharing things for me to break the ice. It's a bit of a cheat, I suppose, but it's also one of the most rewarding perks of being so candid here. As Alfred, though, I'm trying to be supportive and encouraging to a dear friend who is embarking on a new romance of her own. I know how difficult it can be to open up about things, and I know how shallow a relationship feels until you do.

Being her friend at this time has really given me new insight into the subplot of Alfred, and now I understand something that 10 year old Travis couldn't have. It may have served as a plot contrivance, but it's also the truest element of the character. Keeping the secret of Bruce Wayne being Batman isn't the greatest sign of Alfred's love. It's wanting to see him find the peace that comes from sharing his secrets with someone trustworthy who will also love him.

I'm not advising you to share everything about yourself with just anyone. Caution is always advisable, for obvious reasons. But we need to surround ourselves with people we can trust to help us carry on with our lives--and we must also be there for them, in turn. The best way to have a friend, after all, is to be a friend.

23 March 2012

"Detective Comics" #4-7 (Feb - May 2012)

Detective Comics
Written and Drawn by Tony Salvador Daniel
"Russian Roulette" art by Szymon Kudranski (#5 back-up story)
Inks - Sandu Florea (#4-7) & Rob Hunter (#5)
Background Assists - Joel Gomez (#7)
Colors - Tomeu Morey
Lettering - Jared K. Fletcher
Cover - Daniel, Winn & Morey (#4); Daniel & Morey (#5-7)
Assistant Editor - Katie Kubert
Associate Editor - Harvey Richards
Editor - Mike Marts
Batman created by Bob Kane

Okay, my second of three catch-up posts on the New 52s I've been reading brings my attention to Detective Comics, which I almost didn't even begin reading. Then I indulged and picked up issue #1 and was drawn in by Tony Daniel's opening story arc and I've been hooked since. It's much darker than Batgirl, but that suits Batman. I maintain that the opening "Dollmaker" arc could very easily have been an old school Legends of the Dark Knight tale and that's considerably high praise from me. But what of the subsequent arc featuring The Penguin...?

#4 "The Main Event" (Feb 2012)
Date of Publication: 7 December 2011

The "Dollmaker" finale is kind of a perfunctory wrap-up issue and a bit of a step down from the previous issues. Until, that is, the last couple of pages when Batman is just about to nab the escaping heavy and BAM! Something pretty startling happens in a full splash page. What I love most about this page is that there  is absolutely no text. No mental reaction from Batman, no "sound effect." Nothing. It may seem trivial, but this is the kind of layout that you don't see often in mainstream superhero books (or, at least, you didn't when I was a regular reader!). I admire Daniel's willingness to let his dramatic art speak for itself. Less is more, y'all.

#5 Wheel of Misfortune (Mar 2012)
Date of Publication: 4 January 2012

A new arc begins, pitting Batman against The Penguin. What I liked most about this issue is that it opens by showing us a sort of Occupy movement protesting what they perceive as Batman's unilateral maiming and skinning of The Joker (see issue #1). It's the kind of continuity that is rewarding for established readers, but I think is still self-evident enough for newbies to find accessible. I like the idea of a Gotham City where people aren't sold on whether they can trust the Batman. When you're a child, you take for granted that you can trust your heroes but there comes a point where cynicism sets in and you begin to scratch your head at a city that would just sort of accept the existence of someone like Batman running around as a vigilante. Who does this guy think he is, anyway? I like that Daniel gives us that element here. It establishes Gotham as a more believable place for me.
As for the story, there's not a lot. Batman tracks an assassin to The Penguin's new Iceberg Casino, as Bruce Wayne's new girlfriend Charlotte Rivers is working on infiltrating the place for her own investigative purposes as a journalist. My favorite panel is on page 9. Batman has been mobbed by the pro-Joker protesters, thinking him merely a pro-Batman protester, and has to fight his way out. As he flies off, one guy says, "Hey, I think that guy was the real deal!" His buddy replies, "Naw, we're still breathin'." I like that partly because it's humorous, but mostly because it gets at something kind of peculiar about protesters. They can express really pronounced rhetoric while, as individuals, they're much mellower about the issue at hand or the people involved but feel they can't express it.

"Russian Roulette"
There is a back-up story here, too, in which a low level thief plays a game of poker with some Russian criminals. It turns out that their most recent score was actually taken from Catwoman, who is about as understanding about this matter as you might expect. I liked it alright for short fiction. I really liked the art by Szymon Kudranski. It's very dark and in keeping with the aesthetic established by Daniel for 'Tec. I'd really like to see more by Kudranski in the future.

#6 "Kill Game" (Apr 2012)
Date of Publication: 1 February 2012

Back to the Iceberg Casino, where Charlotte Rivers is approached in her room by a formidable woman with an eye patch by the name of Jill Hampton...her sister! It seems Jill is the bad girl in the family and is currently plotting with a guy who goes by the name Snakeskin to pull of quite a heist at the Iceberg. Meanwhile, The Penguin is busy convincing a handful of low-level crooks to entrust their funds to his safekeeping. If the opening arc was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then this one is Ocean's Eleven as it would have been made by Quentin Tarantino.

This issue is a lot lighter in tone than previous issues, but I like seeing Batman actually have to do the legwork of an investigation. It suits the nature of a book called Detective Comics. My favorite bit is page 6, where Batman interrogates a desk clerk at a low rate motel frequented by Gotham's criminal element. The guy pulls a shotgun on Bats, but winds up shooting his own foot. "I stand there and let his fear take over. No need to hurt him any more than he hurt himself." Batman just stares. It's not even a particularly mean look, but it's more than enough to make both the desk clerk and me a bit uncomfortable.

#7 "The Snake and the Hawk" (May 2012)
Date of Publication: 7 March 2012

Batman is trapped with an injured Charlotte Rivers in the bowels of the Iceberg Casino. Always an all-options-on-the-table kind of guy, he decides to escape by having his Batsub crash into the casino. Subtle? No. But certainly effective and it makes for a great splash page. Here, unlike issue #4, Daniel permits a "KACHOOOOM" sound effect that's in keeping with the lighter tone of this arc. It's this kind of nuance that I appreciate as a reader. Shortly thereafter it's a matter of Batman vs. Jill and Snakeskin, with The Penguin and his new clients caught in the middle. Or is it Jill and Snakeskin vs. The Penguin and his new clients, with Batman caught in the middle? Either way, I kept thinking of Clooney and Pacino in Ocean's Thirteen. Fun stuff, though certainly lighter than the opening "Dollmaker" arc. At least, it was until the last page! Daniel knows how to spin a yarn, that's for sure. I'm eagerly looking forward to issue #8, "Scare Tactics."

Three notes about Detective Comics.

1) There will be a major crossover story in most of the Bat-books in two months, "Night of the Owls," spinning out of a story arc in Batman. To my relief, 'Tec is one of the few Bat-titles not participating. I'd love to see it stay that way, with this series set apart from such events. I have no desire to "have" to buy issues from other series, and I like that this is a sign that Daniel has creative power to continue making this book his own.

2) Starting with issue #8, this expands to a 40-page monthly and the price goes up to $3.99. There will also be a $4.99 combo pack version that will include a code for a digital download of the issue. I personally am not happy about the price increase, but I'm hopeful this expansion is due to Daniel having some stories to tell that justify the new page count. It's only because of point #1 that I'm able to resist being entirely cynical about this.

3) The first seven issues will be collected in the forthcoming Batman in Detective Comics Vol. 01 "Faces of Death" hardcover ($22.99, 6 June). Also, Graphitti Designs will release a T-shirt featuring Daniel's "Joker Skinned." It's priced at $18.95 (Medium, Large or XL)/$21.95 (XXL)/$24.95 (XXXL) and will hit the racks at your local comic book shop 25 April. It's gruesome, but I like that there's no text. I dig it.

22 March 2012

"Casablanca" 70th Anniversary Event

Casablanca 70th Anniversary Event
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid
With Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre
A Hal B. Wallis production
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
From a play by Murray Burnett, Joan Alison
Music by Max Steiner
Date of Screening: 21 March 2012

Warner Bros. rolled out their new digital print for the film's 70th anniversary with a one-night-only screening at Cinemark Theaters through Fathom Events. I was nervous I wouldn't feel well enough to go; I wound up having to lie down in the early afternoon. I did ultimately make it to the screening, however.

The theater was pretty light. I guesstimate no more than 50-60 people in an auditorium that could easily seat 3-4x that many. There was a 2:30 screening earlier in the afternoon, so I suspect many of the older viewers likelier to show up attended that screening.

There was an introduction clip hosted by Robert Osborne for Turner Classic Movies; it was kind of nice, I suppose, but they kept cutting to clips from the film and instead of exciting me I became annoyed because I wanted those moments to all be fresh for me on the big screen and I felt a little cheated out of some of their special charm.

The print itself looked pretty good to me, though some specific bits were kind of rough. Anything shot with a soft lens (mostly closeups of Ingrid Bergman) looked kind of damaged to me. At least once I was conscious of the digitization of the film because I saw what appeared to be the familiar exposure of pixels in a particularly bright shot of Bergman's face. The sound was great, though I was conscious of a lot of ambient static throughout.

As for the film itself, I'm even more in love with it now than I was before--which is saying something because going into tonight, it was already #12/1334 on my Flickchart! Claude Rains is hilarious throughout the picture, as are most of the supporting cast. Paul Henreid is the only one whose tone seems out of sorts in the film, but perhaps that's part of the key to why it works. He's such a straight man that the comedy never manages to overshadow the dramatic elements of the film. And it works for Victor Lazslo to be that devoid of humor, what with him having been held in a Nazi concentration camp for a year and all.

My favorite moment in the entire film, though, is when the patrons of Rick's defy the Germans by passionately singing "La Marseillaise." It's perhaps the most triumphant moment in the whole thing, and seeing it on the big screen with an audience made it even better. That scene is why we pay to go to see movies, and it's one of the reasons it feels so good to watch Casablanca.

Click here for my review of the Casablanca Two-Disc Special Edition DVD (now out of print)

19 March 2012

"Garth Brooks: The Entertainer"

Garth Brooks: The Entertainer
DVD Box Set Release Date: 1 November 2006
Original List Price: $19.98
Walmart Exclusive

I did see The Beach Boys perform after a Louisville Redbirds game once upon a time, but I honestly remember little from it. I still count Garth Brooks as my first ever concert. I'll never forget how excited my friends and I were when we learned he was returning to Louisville for the first time in several years.

This was early 1998, so online ticket ordering was hardly as smooth as it is today. We went to Kroger to buy our ticket sales bracelets ahead of time. They were those paper bracelets they give you at clubs and we had to go, like, a week before we could take them off because we had to have them to secure our place in line. Finally, the morning came when tickets went on sale. I have never stood in a line for anything, before or since, that rivaled the queue for Garth tickets. We were wrapped all around the building, coiled across the parking lot and off into the side property. We all panicked when we were told that the show had sold out and none of us had even moved to within sight of the front door.

Eventually, though, Garth added more shows until everyone in line anywhere in the area that morning had had a chance to buy tickets to a show. I had just started working at Cracker Barrel and had plenty of cash on hand, so I personally paid for the maximum allotted tickets (six). Garth had worked it out so that, with tax, each ticket came to $20.00. (When asked about that pricing scheme, he quipped it was so low "Because I've seen the show!") False modesty aside, Garth sold out four consecutive nights at Freedom Hall and it was that way in every city of the tour. No one else had done what he did, and it's this that The Entertainer seeks to document by collecting four TV concert specials from the 90s.

Before I even begin, I want to go ahead and complain about the editing. 99% of any references to, or appearances by, Garth's first wife Sandy have been excised. Banter between Garth and the band or the audience has also been severely curtailed, leaving us with a sort of "just the songs, ma'am" presentation that cheats the viewer of the full showmanship of Garth Brooks. Most glaringly, each of the four specials have two songs presented as bonus tracks. You have to go into the special features menu to play each song individually. In most cases, these were all performances that were originally presented in the body of work of the rest of the concert. It is an artificial way to inflate the sense of depth of the box and I have always resented this.
"Dude! There's a third verse to 'Friends in'-ZOMG! THEY SMASHED GUITARS!"
I. This Is Garth Brooks!

My brother listened to Garth Brooks from the beginning on cassette. He loved to blare "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" because he could get away with singing a cuss word (he was six when the album came out). I had soured on country music by this point; I was much more into M.C. Hammer in 1990, but I was exposed to Garth's music at middle school dances. I liked "The Dance" and "Friends in Low Places" was fun--though I was never quite sure how the deejay got away with playing that at our school function. Then came 17 January 1992. My brother and I were at our dad's for the weekend, rare for me by then. The three of us sat in the living room and watched This Is Garth Brooks! from start to finish. Outside of baseball and a handful of movies, I don't know that there was ever anything that the three of us watched and enjoyed together like that special. It blew my mind.

This was where the world was introduced to the third verses of "The Thunder Rolls" and "Friends in Low Places," and both were highlights of the special. The concert footage is interrupted by interviews with Garth, his band, crew members and his albums producer, Allen Reynolds. At the beginning of the special, Garth Brooks was a novelty who had to prove himself worthy of my attention. By the end of it, though, Garth Brooks had become larger than life and I knew there had been a paradigm shift in my interests.

The video quality is poorest on this special, likely because of the age. There was a VHS release, and I rented it several times at Roadrunner Video in LaGrange. Eventually, they sold it and I bought it. I still have that rental copy. Personally, I think it looks better on VHS than it does on DVD and I much prefer "Shameless" and "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" be incorporated into the special than presented as "bonus tracks." This Is Garth Brooks! also had a Laser Disc release.
Because, really, why wouldn't you set your stage on fire?
II. This Is Garth Brooks, Too!

Gonna be honest: I didn't see this one when it aired on TV in 1994 and I can't say for sure why that is. The original TV broadcast was structured differently; there were sketches of Garth at home, channel surfing and offering a sort of running, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style commentary on the special mocking his own performances. It's rather silly stuff that was excised for the DVD release here. I've seen both versions and while part of me wishes they had included the sketches as bonus content, I readily concede it plays much stronger as a concert film without those interruptions. There were no previous official home video releases of this special.
I'm not saying Garth was bigger than Jesus. But he was as big as The Beatles.
III. Live from Dublin

This special aired in 1998 as Ireland and Back. Its first 90 minutes are from a performance at Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland and the final 20-30 minutes was a performance of material from Sevens at a small venue in  Los Angeles. The Ireland concert is presented here without the Sevens coda. That greatly disappoints me, as Sevens is my favorite album by anybody, ever. Two of the songs from that brief set, "She's Gonna Make It" and "Cowboy Cadillac," are the bonus tracks for this disc. This special is a lot of fun and represents a rather dramatic evolution from the first two specials. There were no previous official home video releases of this special.
When your crowd is so big you can't even see them all.
IV. Live from Central Park

The concert, given 7 August 1997, quickly became legendary. Estimates place the attendance at nearly a million people and HBO's live telecast drew huge ratings. I missed it, due to not being at Central Park or having HBO. In early 1998, they released this special on VHS including some encore material that didn't air on TV. I bought it at Target and I couldn't even tell you how many times I've watched it on VHS over the years. It's just amazing to me to watch a master showman play a crowd of a million people for two hours. The thing that kills me about it is that even though the energetic songs are larger than life, the slow songs are just as introspective and intimate as they would be in your living room. This is the true magic of Garth Brooks: He could make you feel like you were attending the biggest party on the planet one minute, and make everyone else in the world disappear the next.

To fully appreciate this concert--and, indeed, Garth Brooks as The Entertainer--one needs to view the original VHS release. The removal of all the bantering here, plus the two songs ("Unanswered Prayers" and "We Shall Be Free") really hurt this one. If you just come to it on DVD I suppose you don't know any better, but if your purpose is to study the greatest entertainer of his era at his finest, you need the VHS.
Buy this VHS if you can.

V. Video Greatest Hits

Fifteen music videos are presented here, including the never-before-seen "I Don't Have to Wonder" from Sevens that was shot when the album came out but never released until this DVD box set nearly a decade later. Also premiering was "Anonymous" from 1998's The Limited Series box set. The videos are not presented in chronological order, and I can only guess that the intended effect was to reflect a sort of concert-esque sequencing. Four of them are concert clips: "Callin' Baton Rouge" is taken from This Is Garth Brooks, Too!; "Tearin' It Up (And Burnin' It Down)" is from Live in Dublin and the tribute to Chris LeDoux, "Good Ride Cowboy," was performed live in Times Square during the 2006 Country Music Association Awards telecast. "Ain't Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up)" is a montage of footage from Garth's first World Tour.

The rest, however, display Garth's willingness to experiment with the music video format. "The Thunder Rolls" incorporates its third verse into a drama of domestic violence that got the video banned from CMT. "Standing Outside the Fire" gives us the story of a young man with Down's syndrome (played by Chris Burke) who competes in a high school track race--against other students who aren't handicapped. "We Shall Be Free" is a survey of the social challenges--and progress--of the early 1990s and "The Change" is a tribute to the tireless rescue workers who responded to the damage at the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombed by Timothy McVeigh. My favorite Garth video, though, remains "The Red Strokes" in which he sits dressed in all white playing a white piano in an empty white room...and is doused in vibrant paint. It's simple, but I just want to live in that video.
I'm irked by the edits to these specials, and annoyed that the handful of widescreen music videos are not presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio (meaning they're pillar boxed on your screen, surrounded with black bars on the top and bottom and on the sides). The video quality of This Is Garth Brooks! is disappointing. Still, I just sat through all seven hours, interrupted only by eating and running in and out of the bathroom and found I enjoyed it all (when I wasn't thinking about what had been removed). This DVD box set is out of print at present, but there were so many in circulation just a few years ago that you shouldn't have any trouble finding a copy.

17 March 2012

"Batgirl" #4-7 (Feb - May 2012)

Gail Simone - writer
Ardian Syaf - penciller; cover art (#7)
Vicente Cifuentes - inker; penciller (#5); cover art (#7)
Ulisses Arreola - colors; cover art (#7)
Dave Sharpe - letterer
Adam Hughes - cover art (#4-6)
Alitha Martinez - penciller (#7, pages 6-13)
Katie Kubert - asst. editor
Bobbie Chase - editor
Batman created by Bob Kane

I'm way behind on these, so I decided to do a catch-up post. We're now seven issues into The New 52, and I gotta say Batgirl has more than delivered the goods. Each month, I read it last of the three books I've kept up with because I know I can count on it to make me smile. Gail Simone writes a very accessible Barbara Gordon. She recalls old school Spider-Man in a lot of ways; lighthearted, but believably competent and easy to root for at all times. The art team of Ardian Syaf, Vicente Cifuentes and Ulisses Arreola have created a very enjoyable aesthetic, vibrant and kinetic that suits the story material nicely. What of the individual issues, you ask?

#4 "An End to Dreams" (Feb 2012)
Date of Publication: 14 December 2011

The conclusion to the opening story arc, issue #4 brings us the final showdown between Batgirl and Mirror right at Christmastime. We open with Barbara having a freak-out over her own miraculous recovery from her paralysis, and this doubt is more than a specific plot point. It's a theme of the entire book so far. I'm sure some readers find it repetitive, but for me it's one of the endearing elements. Barbara continues to work on accepting herself instead of declaring, "All better!" and going about her business as Batgirl as though nothing was the matter. This is deftly offset by the sense of whimsy to Barbara herself, and Simone's snappy dialog, which keeps Batgirl from devolving into self-important, emo moping.

#5 "A Candy Full of Spiders" (Mar 2012)
Date of Publication:  11 January 2012

When new antagonist Gretel exerts a Poison Ivy/Mad Hatter-level of mind control to begin killing mobsters, Barbara has more blood on her hands. It's a level of guilt punctuated by the continued vendetta of Detective McKenna (who blames Batgirl's momentary freezing for the death of her partner in issue #1). Compound that "professional" uncertainty with the personal imbalance of the return of her estranged mother and it's not a particularly good Christmas. It gets even worse when Gretel steps into the middle of an Occupy Gotham protest to seize control of Bruce Wayne.

What I like about this issue is that Barbara's emotional resilience is tested in new ways from the "Mirror" story. I can certainly relate to having a strained relationship with a parent, and I imagine that's a common enough theme for many readers. In my case, my dad hasn't made the grand "I want to set things right" gesture that Barbara's mom has made. I can entirely appreciate why it's so bothersome for Barbara. Sometimes you reach a point in life where you're just more comfortable with a negative status quo than you are with the risks of trying to fix it.

#6 "A House Made of Spun Glass" (Apr 2012)
Date of Publication:  8 February 2012

In the conclusion, Batgirl has to go toe-to-toe with Bruce Wayne before unearthing Gretel's secrets and motivation--which eerily resemble her own. I really enjoyed this issue. Bruce and Barbara share a couple of really touching moments. This issue spoke directly to the part of me that has always wanted to be a sort of mentor. There's a specific kind of approval that only a mentor can give. Its effect is so strong that Barbara remarks, after Bruce offers words of encouragement, "Um. Wow? I feel like I could fight lions." I'd like to think that there are those in my life who've felt about me the way Barbara feels about Bruce. "He's not like Dad...he's never said he loves me. He's never had to."

The dichotomy between Barbara and Gretel also resonated with me on a personal level. You may recall, Dear Reader, my ruminations on Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and why they zigged and shot up Columbine High School and I zagged and haven't become that kind of person. Barbara could easily have become Gretel, and being confronted with that tenuous separation between who you are and who you're afraid to be is disturbing. I know; it gave me an anxiety attack.

#7 "A View from Below" (May 2012)
Date of Publication:  14 March 2012

Batgirl encounters her third new antagonist, the verbose and pretentious Grotesque. This guy wears a tux and a demonic mask, and has a penchant for the finer things in life. He's kind of interesting to me in the way that I always liked Mastermind, The Perfessor and Mr. Nice from The Batman Adventures. (Oh, how I'd love to see that triumvirate appear in this book!) It's a fun issue, balanced with the weight of Barbara's parents finally reuniting after years of her mother being gone. And, oh, yeah...a doozy of a cliffhanger in which Batgirl discovers one of Grotesque's goons was there on the worst night of her life.

My only qualm with issue #7 is that, to clear her head, Babs wakes up Dinah Lance (Black Canary) to spar. It works because of the chemistry between the two characters, but I felt after seeing Barbara and Dick Grayson (Nightwing) chase one another through Gotham, working out her issues in #3 that it was a bit too soon to go back to that particular storytelling well. Story-wise, I suppose one could make the argument that they're different situations since Dick intruded on Barbara, whereas here, she's the one who initiated things with Dinah. It's a fair point to make, but it still leaves me, the reader, with a bit of hero-on-hero action used to deliver exposition.

That aside, though, I completely love this book. I'm ardently against crossovers and I'm wary of guest stars, but so far Simone has handled them well. Nightwing, Batman and now Black Canary have come and gone, and I wasn't expected to really know anything about them beyond what I could glean from these issues. That kind of ephemeral appearance works for me, as it doesn't smack of bait to compel me to buy three other comics just to run down a single plot thread or consult Wikipedia to understand the one at hand. Accessibility is perhaps the greatest element of Batgirl and I give Simone major props for how well she's pulled it off to date.

I know there are plenty of readers who prefer to wait for collected editions. First of all, this book better sell well enough that your patience doesn't screw things up for me. Secondly, though, I think you're missing out. Not only is it that you could be reading this book now, but Batgirl is a perfect monthly. Some series are more structured with the collected editions in mind (Batwoman is obviously that kind of book), but Batgirl instead relies on the charms and conventions of a monthly. Every month now, I find myself eagerly awaiting the next issue, turning each page with a smile and closing it with anticipation for the next issue. That's a sensation that a collected edition just can't recreate.

13 March 2012

2012 NCAA Tournament

Er, wha'? Am I actually blogging about basketball? I am. I am, after all, a native Kentuckian and by law I am required to discuss basketball at least once every three years. I have never tried to fill out a bracket, but today I was challenged twice; once by President Barack Obama and once by Domino's. Now, I was content to let Mr. Obama's challenge pass. After all, he knows more than I do about basketball so there's very little chance of me getting any bragging rights on him. But then came Domino's, and they dangled an order of Parmesan Bites and Coke Zero. I'm not one to resist a crack at free grub, so I decided it was high time I filled out an NCAA bracket.
Obama Bracket Challenge | Obama Women's Bracket Challenge
Domino's Pizza |> NCAA March Madness
For those who care, here are my picks. Most of them were driven by pure recognition. I heard Tina Fey in my mind saying things like, "That's a place, isn't it?" Like, if I hear the name "Purdue," I think of basketball. Purdue does not exist in any other context in the entire world. Mind you, I have absolutely no idea how good they are, or even where the hell Purdue is. But I know I've heard Purdue mentioned in conversations about basketball, ergo they exist and St. Mary's does not, which is why I picked the #10 team over the #7 in Round 1. I realize this is the basketball equivalent of betting on a horse because of its name and you, Dear Reader, may think I'm all that is wrong with March Madness. You may be right. I'm not here to threaten the purity of your tournament, though. I'm just in it to get free grub and have something to discuss on the campaign trail.

It's a cut and paste job and I had to piece it together from, like, four different screen captures so it's not quite perfect but these are my selections.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" The Complete Fourth Season

Star Trek: The Next Generation The Complete Fourth Season
Starring Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, Jonathan Frakes as Cmdr. William Riker
Co-Starring Levar Burton as Lt. Cmdr. Geordie LaForge, Michael Dorn as Lieutenant Worf, Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher, Marina Sirtis as Counselor Deanna Troi, Brent Spiner as Lt. Commander Data, Wil Wheaton as Ensign Wesley Crusher
Created by Gene Roddenberry
DVD Release Date: 3 September 2002
DVD List Price: $69.98

As noted in the insert pamphlet and discussed in the bonus content, the fourth season of TNG really created the heart of the series. Under the editorial direction of Michael Piller, the writing staff got away from the formulaic "alien of the week" structure and shifted the focus to the characters.

The season opens with the concluding half of "The Best of Both Worlds," which isn't just TNG's most important event, but perhaps the most pivotal moment in the course of the entire franchise. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is taken captive by the Borg and involuntarily turned into one of them, his individuality suppressed and his knowledge exploited to decimate the Federation. An audacious rescue of Picard leads Riker to victory. The next episode, though, is not only the thesis of the season but for my money, TNG's most underrated episode. Fan lists of favorite episodes rarely include "Family," but they should. Picard goes home and begins to process his trauma amid conflict with his cantankerous brother, Robert.

Subsequent episodes spotlight Data (Brent Spiner) reuniting with his brother, Lore (Brent Spiner) to meet their creator/father, Dr. Noonien Soong (Brent Spiner) ("Brothers"); Riker tempted with a future in which he has a son ("Future Imperfect"); Troi (Marina Sirtis) once again trying to endure a visit from her overbearing mother, Lwaxana (Majel Barrett) ("Half Life"); and Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) seeing a recorded message from his deceased father and later leaving the Enterprise (and the series) to attend Starfleet Academy ("Final Mission"). Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) becomes significantly more prominent in the middle of the season, marrying Keiko (Rosalind Chao) ("Data's Day") and appearing in more scenes than just running the transporter. The crew also encounters Ishara Yar, sister of their late comrade Tasha ("Legacy").

Because the series was produced for syndication, ongoing story lines were discouraged (remember, this was more than 20 years ago) but there were some episodes whose implications allowed for subsequent payoffs. The most notable of these is the saga of Lieutenant Worf and his contentious relationship with the Klingon Empire. Throughout the course of this season, several of his fellow Klingons put the screws to him over his dis-commendation (reluctantly accepted in a third season episode to preserve the peace and cover the treachery of a powerful Klingon family). He learns of a son he sired with K'Ehleyr, a half-human/half-Klingon and eventually becomes the most important figure in the course of events in the Empire.

Two of the best episodes, "The Wounded" and "The Drumhead" have significantly more weight today than I think they had at the time they aired. Seeing them in the post-9/11, post-Bush world is a reminder that, as Jon Stewart noted, "If you don't stick to your values when they're being tested, they're not values. They're hobbies." TNG's morality could seem idealistic and at times, naive. I find these two episodes, though, terrific reminders that we're better as a people and as a society than we have allowed ourselves to be in the last ten years and I sincerely believe that we are capable of embracing the more tolerant and accepting views espoused in those two episodes. We need not bury our heads in the sand to avoid the poison of paranoia; we need not jump at shadows to remain vigilant.

It was an interesting season for me to revisit at this juncture of my life, as my own family is changing. There's the divorce, obviously. I'm adamant about continuing to be uncle to my niece and nephew regardless of the legal definition of our relationships; they're family regardless of anything else. My uncle is exploring the possibility of moving to Florida, and my cousin (with whom I am very close) is conflicted about whether she wants to go with him if he does. It was reaffirming to be reminded by the crew of the Enterprise that family isn't always obligatory, but that it can be chosen...and that it can overcome any challenges made by time and distance.

Favorite episodes:

  • "Family"
  • "Data's Day"
  • "The Wounded"
  • "Qpid"
  • "The Drumhead"

11 March 2012

Anglican Historical Memes

Outside of this blog, I have a presence on Tumblr. My main blog there is just an import of this one, though I periodically re-blog from other Tumblrs. You're welcome to ignore that Tumblr. However, I have recently just started a new one that has entertained me quite a bit: "Anglican History as Told in Internet Memes." The premise is simple enough: I take key events and figures from Anglican history and imagine how they would have been characterized in Internet memes. I add them as I create them, and there's no set schedule. They just sort of go up whenever inspiration strikes. Feel free to circulate these with your nerdy friends!

08 March 2012

On Appreciating the Beauty of Women

Today is International Women's Day and that leaves me conflicted about this post. I fear this may seem a trite or misguided subject in light of the injustices toward women across the globe. I can only trust that you, Dear Reader, are familiar enough with my blog that you understand I have my eye on the big picture, too. You see, I have recently had a very upsetting experience with a very close friend of mine whom I love dearly.

My friend has a small body frame and is wrought with insecurities over it. As she recently remarked to me, all too often our "Real women have curves" subculture is so preoccupied with validating the bodies of overweight women that women such as herself who are thinner than the "average" woman are left out in the cold. What do we say about, or to, such women?

Sadly, it seems we say nothing.

In the course of apologizing to her for inadvertently offending her last night, it came to light that she has rarely been told she's beautiful. "Sexy" or "hot," occasionally, but even if those were meant sincerely there's something so uninspired about them that there's no real flattery to be taken from such words. And this, I believe, is the heart of the matter.

I'm sure someone reading this is already frustrated that I haven't given the obligatory "You don't need someone else to say it" admonition. I won't. Philosophically I may agree, but there is always a difference between theory and application and the truth of the matter is, the human ego demands validation. Denying this is at the root of a lot of problems for a lot of people, whose insecurities are then compounded by a sense of shame that they even felt inadequate in the first place. Rather than negating the self-doubt, then, the "Look inward" crowd bullies the rest of us into feeling that our very insecurity is itself a deficiency.

I'll never forget watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Relics," in which Scotty from the original Star Trek series appears. When his 24th Century counterpart remarks of a shuttle craft that "she's not much to look at," the venerable engineer replies:
"Laddie, every woman has her own charm. You just have to know where to look for it."
I immediately embraced that philosophy as soon as I heard it articulated. How could I not? I had already bought into it before I heard it articulated. Had I not taken notice of various classmates of mine, including a lot of girls who weren't necessarily part of the popular cliques?

Too often, boys and men are unimaginative and selfish. They look no farther than the parts of a woman's body they don't have and define her physicality by those areas. There are plenty of women whose "charm," to borrow from Scotty, is in a feature that men also have. For example, my friend who inspired this post has lovely clavicles and an alluring throat. Anyone who would stop looking at her because she's not a D-cup is, frankly, too lazy to deserve the kind of influence he has on her self-image. No one, my friend informed me, had ever complimented either of the features of hers that I appreciate. I understand that breasts and buttocks outrank clavicles and throats for the average guy, but I cannot believe that I'm in such a minority that no one else managed to see these parts of my friend. In addition to the scores of thoughtless "mmm...boobies" reviewers, we have another dilemma that is perhaps even more frustrating: Those who see, but say nothing.

Reasons for keeping quiet are as maddening as they are legitimate. Some of us guys simply don't have the self-confidence to say anything to a woman (I've certainly been guilty of this over the course of my life). I've been hamstrung by my own sense of inadequacy that I have lived in fear that the slightest non-neutral remark from me would be an invitation for an emotional beat-down. I've conjured mental scenarios like those from medieval stories, where peasants were punished for daring to look at princesses. I am neither fast enough to outrun, nor strong enough to overcome, the royal guard.

Some of us, however, lack not the willpower but the thoughtfulness to say kind things to a woman in a meaningful way. This, I'm afraid, accounts for a lot of the "sexy" and "hot" remarks that my friend has heard. They ring so false to her because they articulate so little. The fact she was breathing may have been sufficient for some of those critics to give her approval. Perhaps some of them wanted to say, "You have lovely clavicles" but all they could manage was, "Damn, girl! You hot!" I don't know.

What I do know is that there are a lot of women out there just like my friend: Beautiful and insecure. To them, I would say that (trite as it may sound), you really are beautiful, whether it is properly articulated or not. Please do not conflate the failure of those around you to acknowledge your charm with whether or not it exists.

To the menfolk: Stop reserving your flattery for when you're trying to pick up a woman. It's perfectly okay to offer a kind word to a classmate, coworker, neighbor, whomever. It can be something as seemingly benign as, "I like it when you smile." Listen to Scotty and look for her charm and when you find it, acknowledge it. And when you do this, speak to the women around you not as potential bed mates seeking your approval, but as your sisters whose hurt you might be able to help assuage.