30 October 2012

When Words Fail

Yesterday afternoon, there was a school bus accident in Carroll County, Kentucky barely half an hour from where I live. Two young children were killed. One of them was the son of a family I know. The child's mother has been the best friend of a young friend of mine. The child's aunt is my cousin's best friend. I've spent the day sending and receiving messages about the incident.

Death is the most universal subject there is. Medical science is dedicated, ultimately, to defying it. The arts have fixated on it to the point that some believe all art is really, ultimately, about death. For all the thought we've given the subject, though, there's nothing of any value whatsoever to be said. Even saying there's nothing to say has become a cliche.

And yet, we cannot avoid the compulsion to say something. Maybe it's because we hope that if we throw enough platitudes on the wall, someone is bound to find something that sticks. Maybe it's how we sign the attendance sheet, verifying to our loved ones that we are present with them at such a difficult time. Maybe we just can't stand the silence. I don't know.

Even this stream-of-consciousness post only amounts to a feeble attempt to reach out and somehow connect with someone about this. I don't expect anyone to have anything insightful to say, so it's fine if you've read this and don't reply. I'm not even sure I want to publish any comments on this post, to be honest, though I'll certainly read them.

27 October 2012

Playlist: American Cash

Few artistic collaborations of the last 20 years have been as highly respected as the American Recordings output of Johnny Cash, produced by Rick Rubin. Selections from the Great American Songbook, folk songs so old we don't even know who to properly credit for writing them and songs that originated with Alternative Rock and even Heavy Metal bands sit side by side in the American Recordings volumes. The overarching theme of the entire series is the universality of music. With Rubin's stripped-down production, Cash interprets songs from wildly disparate pedigrees as his own.

Creating a single playlist of the American Recordings series is not hard; you just drag all six individual albums and the Unearthed box set and hit "play". Distilling that to a single 74-minute CD, however, requires a lot of agonizing.

In my original version of this playlist, I included "Worried Man" (performed with Willie Nelson) from VH1 Storytellers. It's not an official "American Recordings" album of Cash's, but it was produced by the label and its aesthetics are certainly congruous with the rest of the Cash/Rubin albums. However, when they prepared that TV special for its CD release, they decided that the between-song banter should come after the preceding song on the same disc track. Consequently, the performance of "Worried Man" is followed by nearly two minutes of Cash and Nelson bantering about the latter's "Family Bible". I did create an edit of just the "Worried Man" performance for my own disc, but as I wanted to share this playlist on Spotify I realized that it was best to just omit representing the VH1 disc entirely.

Disclosure: All song and album title links go to Amazon using my personal Amazon Associates ID, meaning if you buy something through these links, I am compensated.


"The Man Comes Around"
(John R. Cash) from American IV: The Man Comes Around

Opening with this track was an easy choice, just because of that scratchy recorded narration at the beginning. It's the kind of gimmick that's really only effective in the lead-off position. Anywhere else, and the transition to the performance isn't as startling. "The Man Comes Around" isn't just here because of that, though. It's one of the strongest songs to come from Cash's own pen of the entire American era. The whole thing originated in a dream he had, which he subsequently identified as being from the Book of Revelation. This vivid depiction of the Rapture and Judgment Day is a perfect microcosm of Cash's entire discography.

"Rowboat"
(Beck) from Unchained

This wasn't actually a song I included in my first version of this playlist, but then a few days ago I had it stuck in my head and the only way to deal with it was to play it...several times. It's a very well written rumination on rejection, and I love to hear Cash's undulating voice: "sheeeee dooon't wanna be my friend no more."

"Sea of Heartbreak"
with Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood

(Paul Hampton/Hal David) from Unchained

I'm familiar with several versions of this recording, and I love each of them. This version by Cash features Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac and its tempo is just a bit faster than other versions I know. The upshot is that this feels more like a party song than an actual reflection on love gone bad. It's a bit peculiar at first, but it works quite well. And yes, I did pair this with "Rowboat" for the obvious reason. I was reluctant to do that because they appear together in this same sequence to open the Unchained album, but it works so well that I decided to just leave 'em here.


"Solitary Man"
(Neil Diamond) from American III: Solitary Man

The guitar work alone would have earned this recording a spot on this playlist, but the display of resolve and insistence on holding out for someone deserving really resonates with me at this point in my life. I joke about my desperation, but the truth is that I really do prefer to be alone rather than throw myself into something just for the sake of avoiding loneliness. I think this works nicely as a follow-up to the "Rowboat"/"Sea of Heartbreak" duo even though it lacks the nautical motif. Cash won a Grammy for this recording.

"Drive On"
(John R. Cash) from American Recordings

Continuing the "man alone" theme, but this time in a different light. "Drive On" is a story song from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, reflecting on his experience at war and also at having come back home. This was recorded in 1994, at a time when war had largely become something for historians and movie-makers rather than a daily life matter for the average American. It was well past time that we re-addressed our treatment of veterans, and "Drive On" is a perfect reminder that Cash always had his eye on marginalized members of our society. It's an even more poignant song now, a decade after our operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least this time, we've managed to remember to separate our disdain for the wars from the brave men and women fighting them.

"The Mercy Seat"
(Mick Harvey/Nick Cave) from American III: Solitary Man

One of the gems in my music library is a CD sent to radio programmers of Tim Robbins interviewing Cash in promotion of the American III album. They discuss each track, and there Cash remarked that he picked this song because he had been outraged at how many executions had taken place in Texas under Governor George W. Bush. American III was released in 2000, just as Bush was running for the presidency. Here again we have Cash as a social activist. Ever since he passed away in 2003, countless artists particularly in country music have claimed him as a "major influence," but what exposes them as name-checking wannabes is that none of them have displayed his social conscience. Can one imagine a mainstream country song railing against the death penalty?

"Cindy"
with Nick Cave
(Traditional) from Unearthed Volume Three: Redemption Songs

Being that Cave co-wrote "The Mercy Seat," I liked the idea of their duet coming here in the playlist. Plus, it felt like an appropriate time after five fairly heavy songs for a bit of levity. In the liner notes to the Unearthed box set, it was shared that Cave and Cash each knew different verses to this traditional song and their final recording represents an amalgamation of the song as they each knew it. That back story is a perfect illustration of the theme of the universality of music that runs throughout the American Recordings series, and why it's on this playlist. It also segues us into the "women trilogy"...

"Give My Love to Rose"
(John R. Cash) from American IV: The Man Comes Around

The second of the "women trilogy" here is a re-recording of one of Cash's own songs. Here, the narrator recounts coming upon the scene of an accident and finding there a guy who had just been released from prison as he lay dying. Though the song never actually discusses the topic of forgiveness, it's dominated by the concept. There's the fact that the dying man had been in prison - we don't know why. We do know, however, that he had been released, signifying that his debt to society had been paid. We feel bad that he's made it through his sentence only to die before being reunited with his wife and child, and we feel for them as well. Here again, Cash humanizes the marginalized.

"Delia's Gone"
(Karl Silbersdorf, Dick Toops; arranged by Johnny Cash) from American Recordings

Of course, Cash also recorded some pretty dark songs exploring the inhumanity of man. He had recorded this murder ballad decades earlier, with some different lyrics. This version is the opening track on the first of the American albums, also released as a single. A music video featuring Kate Moss as the titular victim used to play late at night on CMT during their segment dedicated to alt.country. I remember seeing it and finding it surprising, even somewhat shocking...and wishing they'd play it during normal broadcast hours.



"Devil's Right Hand"
(Steve Earle) from Unearthed Volume Two: Trouble in Mind

I love this song. I included Waylon Jennings's recording of it in my Waylon in the 90s playlist, and I was just as compelled to include Cash's version here. What's striking here is that this isn't just a cautionary song, but one that directly confronts the controversial issue of gun control. Steve Earle's song never says that guns should be banned, but he makes it very clear that they're nothing but trouble. "I soon found out/they can get you into trouble but they can't get you out." Earle could write and record such a song, and Waylon and Cash would each cover it individually and together with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson on their third and final Highwayman album, The Road Goes On Forever, but again it's worth asking: who of all those artists who were allegedly so strongly "influenced" by Cash would touch such a song?

"Satisfied Mind"
(Jack Rhodes/Red Hayes) from American VI: Ain't No Grave

I first heard this song on a Marty Stuart album, Country Music. Cash's recording featured in the Quentin Tarantino film, Kill Bill Vol. 2 (it's the song coming from the record player in Daryl Hannah's trailer). It's as scornful of the love of money as "Devil's Right Hand" is of gun ownership. It's much easier to find country artists and conservatives who embrace this song, though.

"God's Gonna Cut You Down"
(Traditional) from American V: A Hundred Highways

I vividly recall being at a New Year's Eve party, and a friend of mine streamed the music video for this on our host's computer. I was not particularly sober, but the persistent clapping and the ominous sound of Cash's then-deceased voice was so chilling that it's the only thing I actually remember from that entire night. It felt cheapened to me when it began to appear in commercials for TV shows and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but I have to admit that it really made the teaser trailer for the Coen Brothers's remake of True Grit pretty sweet.



"The Fourth Man in the Fire"
(Arthur Smith) from Unearthed Volume One: Who's Gonna Cry

Christianity was one of the most dominant themes in the Cash discography, but what I like about "The Fourth Man in the Fire" most is that he sounds like he's having fun singing it. Plus, I find the biblical story recounted here interesting. It's a captivating tale, and even if you don't believe in it there's little arguing that it makes for a very vivid and exciting story.

"Why Me Lord?"
(Kris Kristofferson) from American Recordings

This is easily one of my favorite songs about faith, and it pretty much had to have been written by Kristofferson. Who else could so deftly conflate the sardonic with the reverent? The hook is brilliant, and Cash's reading of the song is so sincere that even when I've become cynical and frustrated with faith, I find it moving to hear this recording.

"I Won't Back Down"
(Jeff Lynne/Tom Petty) from American III: Solitary Man

Tom Petty's original recording was initially used by George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign, but Petty had his lawyers issue a cease and desist letter because he objected to Bush's politics. That was (as far as I know) incidental to its inclusion on the same album in which Cash covered "The Mercy Seat." Rather, here Cash had tapped into the theme of defiance in the context of his mounting health problems following a particularly rough bout with pneumonia that nearly killed him.

"The Caretaker"
(Gordon Jenkins/John R. Cash) from Unearthed Volume One: Who's Gonna Cry

One of the basic, dominant themes of Cash's American Recordings is death and this may be the best microcosm. After all, here he sings in first person as the caretaker of a cemetery morosely wondering, "Who's gonna cry when old John dies?" It almost seems inappropriate to hear this recording now that Cash has passed away, but what I've discerned of his values and personality through his music and interviews tells me that on some level, he would find this song amusing now.


"When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder"
(Traditional; arranged by Johnny Cash) from My Mother's Hymn Book

Confession: the major reason this made the final cut was that it was short enough to fit into the remaining time. Still, I like to think it's a comforting reassurance coming right after "The Caretaker" to know that "ol' John" knew where he was headed even if he wasn't as sure who might cry when he left.


"Hurt"
(Trent Reznor) from American IV: The Man Comes Around

There's nothing really left to even say about this recording that hasn't been said ad infinitum since it and its powerful music video were released nine years ago. I'll simply note that I placed it here because even though the sound is entirely different from "I Won't Back Down," it's very much a companion piece in theme.



"I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now"
(Louis Herscher/Saul Klein) from American V: A Hundred Highways

After the weight of "Hurt," I liked moving directly into this recording. It's actually about an inmate who dies, finding his release from the chain gang that way but there's something about the peaceful way in which Cash sings the song that I find it reassuring somehow.


"Ain't No Grave"

(Composer/Writer Unknown) from American VI: Ain't No Grave

Lest we think too much about the death discussed in "I'm Free from the Chain Gang Now" and become saddened, Cash reassures us here that there "Ain't no grave gonna hold me down." The song is about the belief in the afterlife, but it also works as an allegory about the legacy of Cash's recordings carrying on his messages though he now sleepeth.




"Flesh and Blood"
(John R. Cash) from Unearthed Volume One: Who's Gonna Cry

I liked following the song about Native Americans with this celebration of nature and love. I don't quite know why, but somehow this song became my official song for autumn. Every year whenever I see the leaves turn golden and the air becomes brisk, I hear this song playing in my head. It's comforting and warm, and makes me smile.


"Pocahontas"
(Neil Young) from Unearthed Volume Two: Trouble in Mind

This is pretty much a social consciousness fever dream, commenting on the treatment of Native Americans. For those who wonder what Marlon Brando has to do with this, he brought a lot of attention to the topic at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony. He won the Best Actor award for The Godfather, but instead of accepting it, he sent to the stage Sacheen Littlefeather - dressed in full Apache attire - to use his screen time on live TV to announce that he would not accept the award in light of the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry (and, by proxy, American society at large). Native Americans were another marginalized segment of American society championed over the years by Cash.

"Chattanooga Sugar Babe"
(Norman Blake) from Unearthed Volume Three: Redemption Songs

This isn't quite as surreal as "Pocahontas", but it's still kind of an odd song. It's light and breezy, though, and while there were more substantive songs probably more worthy of inclusion, I felt this specific recording added an important balance to the personality of the playlist.

"I've Been Everywhere"
(Geoff Mack) from Unchained

Like "God's Gonna Cut You Down", "I've Been Everywhere" has featured prominently in TV commercials the last several years. This one seems more commercial-friendly, though, being that it's a love letter to the open road. It's sheer fun from start to finish. I don't even try to sing along with this one. I just kick back and try to keep up with Cash...and I fail every time.

"I'll Fly Away"
(Albert E. Brumley) from My Mother's Hymn Book

Cash called My Mother's Hymn Book his favorite album that he ever made, enjoying so much that he finally recorded the songs of faith he learned from his mother. It was originally the fourth disc of the Unearthed box set, then later given a standalone release. "I'll Fly Away" in particular seems a perfect song for the Cash discography: writer Alfred Brumley got the idea while picking cotton, humming a secular song about an inmate contemplating escape. Brumley carried out the idea to the context of escaping life for the glory of the afterlife. How could Johnny Cash possibly resist a song with that pedigree?

"Like the 309"
(John R. Cash) from American V: A Hundred Highways

"Like the 309" was the final song written by Johnny Cash. Thematically, it's clearly a descendant of "I'll Fly Away" only here Cash taps into the imagery of trains (another favorite subject of his). He's contemplating death, certainly, but it's not fear or dread behind "Like the 309." Rather, he's imagining his own farewell tour of sorts. It's this song perhaps more than anything else that convinced me that Cash would find "The Caretaker" amusing now that he's gone.

"Aloha Oe"
(Queen Lili'uokalani) from American VI: Ain't No Grave

About a third of the songs in this playlist would have made for a perfect conclusion, and there were several others that didn't make the final cut (including "We'll Meet Again"). "Aloha Oe" won out because it exemplifies best that overarching theme of the universality of music. Who else but Johnny Cash would think to record a song penned by a Hawaiian queen in the 19th century inspired by a farewell embrace given at the end of a hunting trip?

I'll leave you with this EPK (Electronic Press Kit) for American V featuring Rick Rubin:

26 October 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012

We're now less than a week away from the 1 November start date of NaNoWriMo and this has led me to question participating again this year. I've been working on the second draft of the novel I began during last year's NaNoWriMo. I'm little more than halfway through. I feel really good about the revisions so far, and I'm finding more confidence as I progress. I'd like to complete the second draft before beginning a new novel, but I have my doubts that I can/will.

I also don't really have anything to work with yet for another novel. I have absolutely no interest in any kind of sequel to my still nameless novel. There's no appeal for me in world-building. Of course, at this time last year I only had the very basic premise (a 15 year class reunion). I didn't even have the antagonists or any conflicts in mind, and those didn't come along until after I'd already begun to write.

I have had a few ideas for this year's NaNoWriMo, but they're not particularly thought out. I'm interested to try to write outside the home. Maybe hole up at the library for a bit, or stake out a table in the middle of the night at Waffle House, that kind of thing. I think it could be interesting to draw on the ambiance of a public setting, though I'm very wary about taking my laptop out and about. Should anything happen to it, I cannot afford a replacement. There's absolutely no way I could write a novel by hand.

I've also considered a Christmastime setting, though not necessarily a Christmas story. Think Die Hard here. A lot of people don't even remember that it's set at Christmastime, but it is. I wouldn't write a story about Santa Claus or some kind of melodramatic Christmas miracle type thing. Just mentioning things like wreaths and "Blue Christmas" playing, those kinds of details. I dunno why that interests me right now, but it kinda does.

The third idea I've considered is the only one that actually corresponds to the narrative itself, and that's a (very) fictionalized account of my experience being hospitalized last October at Our Lady of Peace for severe depression. I'm not so interested in recounting that as I am in telling a story that might help people get a better understanding what patients like me go through not just in such a facility, but once we're discharged. My idea would be to open at the hospital, but then follow at least one character out of there and back into his/her/hir daily life. It's something that I think would be very satisfying if I pulled it off, but it's also something that I find intimidating.

I'm aware that the majority of NaNoWriMo participants are largely just throwing things on a wall, trying to hit that 50k word goal. Some writers may hash out extensive outlines and do research, etc., ahead of time but I think most participants are less organized. There are lots of ideas that are written one day, creating plot threads that are abandoned two days later. Rather than delete the now-extraneous passage, the writer plows ahead just trying to hit 50k.

In a lot of ways, I got lucky last year. I've only deleted two passages outright. One, I wrote early when I wasn't sure whether to have one character feel sick the night before the reunion. I decided I wanted him to drink, though, and if he had just been nauseated the night before he probably wouldn't imbibe. That was a decision I made the very next day after writing a few paragraphs about him lying down.

The other passage was a sort of placeholder that teased some back story I ultimately found wasn't needed by the story. That consisted of three paragraphs that I simply deleted a few days ago during the rewrite. Otherwise, the edits I've made have all been about fine-tuning. Lots of repetitive words ("finally" appeared way too frequently), some unclear descriptions, that kind of thing. The narrative itself, though, has remained intact.

Part of me is apprehensive about writing a second novel so relatively soon. Remember, I didn't actually finish in November. I became sidetracked by personal life issues and didn't resume writing until late January. Still, I also feel like it's okay if all I do is throw a lot of stuff on a wall to hit 50k this year because I've already had one such novel come out of that process okay.

I've still got a week before I have to make the final decision about participation. We'll see.

16 October 2012

2012 Presidential Debate #2: My Answers

I've never done a live-blog of a debate before, so it seemed like a fun thing to do for tonight's Presidential Debate between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I'll answer each question as though it was put to me. I have no idea how this is going to go, so this post could be the best thing I've ever done or it could be a complete bust. We'll see!

Chance of employment for college grads?

Your best bet of being employed after graduation rests on an economy that actually respects educated, skilled workers. That won't happen if we have an economy built to line the pockets of corporate predators like Mitt Romney, who built their fortunes by finding ways of not employing people like you.

Not policy of Energy Department to lower gas prices?

Dept. of Energy's mission is to promote healthy energy policy. Lower gas prices should be a result of those policies, not its objective. If the energy policy works properly, gas use declines and with it, demand and then prices.

Reduce tax rates for all tax brackets and work with Congress to close deduction loopholes. How does that work?

Uh, basically, it works like this: Romney's plan is Reaganomics Redux. If you've forgotten the 1980s, it might be exciting to try. For the rest of us who have paid any attention, we know that the rich getting richer doesn't help anyone but the rich. It's a scam, frankly, meant to sound like sticking up for you so that you feel better about getting screwed.

How to rectify inequalities in work place?

The most efficient way unfortunately isn't something we can do quickly and that's we need to change our culture so that sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are chased out of power. In the short term, what we can do is promote transparency in pay so that employees know when they're begin cheated. We also need to help promote businesses run by women and minorities, so that it's easier in the short term for workers to catch a break from employers who know how hard it is.

How would a Romney administration be different from a Bush administration?

Romney would be as different as from the Bush administration as is convenient on any given day. But the important thing to note is that Candidate Bush was very different from President Bush. If you're not sold on Candidate Romney, how much more comfortable do you think you'll be with a President Romney?

What has Obama done to deserve reelection?

Wait, what? Dude, I'm a candidate! You think I'm gonna sell you on him? *le sigh* Voters of Kentucky District 4, remember to write me in for the House of Representatives this November!

What to do with undocumented workers who are productive members of American society?

You know that DREAM Act the Republicans keep killing? I believe in that.

Did State Department refuse request for extra security in Benghazi? Who denied request and why?

I have no idea. Biden says yes, Hillary says no, and all I know is that the ball was dropped. I'm just a dude trying to get written onto the ballot, you know?

What about assault weapons?

We can respect the Second Amendment while still being prudent. The idea that somehow we put decent people at a disadvantage by cracking down on the availability of assault weapons is nothing more than the makings of a shoot-'em-up fantasy world. Go ask Bill Brady about how this works.

What plans to counter outsourcing?

Stop rewarding it. My apologies to Mr. Romney's portfolio.

What is the biggest misperception of you, the candidate?

The biggest misperception of me is that I'm not a candidate. I really do want to be elected to the House of Representin'! Write in my name on the ballot, ye voters in Kentucky District 4!

14 October 2012

"Symbiosis" Premiere

Poster by Chris Humphreys.
Symbiosis
Starring Christine Bell, Destinee Bradley, Paul Brokaw, Nick Canchola, Shawn Coots, Bennett Duckworth, Jefferson Holman, Kurt Parks, Ian Schowalter, Allen Schuler, Sean Seivers, Logan Williamson
with Dave Conover and Bob Moak
Written and Directed by Beau Kaelin
Date of Screening: 13 October 2012
Village 8 Theaters

I've known writer/director Beau Kaelin for a while now, as he's the guy who runs the Midnights at the Baxter movie series and is therefore directly responsible for me finally getting to see Dick Tracy and Tombstone on the big screen. Symbiosis is his third film made since I met him and his fifth overall. It's also the first of his works I've managed to see. I knew his general taste, but of course there's always that trepidation about seeing the work of someone you know. What if it sucks?

Thankfully, Symbiosis doesn't suck. On the contrary, it's a lot of fun and genuinely creepy.

The premise is familiar enough: two teens discover some kind of creature in the woods, which turns out to be incompatible with the life expectancy of humankind. We're meant to obviously consider the title a description of the relationship between predator and prey, but what makes Symbiosis compelling is that this extends to the characters themselves. Summarizing the characters could read like a head-spinning joke of some kind: Bryan (Canchola) needs his stepbrother Nick (Seivers) for a ride out to the woods; Nick's buddy Eric (Williamson) has a grudge against Bryan's friend Cody (Parks) because Cody has been dating Eric's sister Leslie (Bradley) and she's been upset lately, only that's because of her clandestine relationship with science teacher Gerald Oswald (Coots). Got it?

All the performances are solid (rare for a guerrilla production), but there are two that particularly stand out. Beau had made quite a fuss on Facebook about how excited he was to work with Bob Moak again, and after seeing his performance as retired scientist Dr. Jordan Lomax, I understand why. Moak imbues the film with much of its credibility, delivering techno-babble laden exposition as though it's old hat. I have no idea what Moak actually knows about biology, metaphysics or the supernatural, but there's a familiarity and weariness to his performance that suggests he could go on for hours about such things.

The other performance that really impressed me was Christine Bell's as Sarah Oswald. She's only in two scenes. One is merely an introductory scene in which her husband Gerald comes home only to quickly make an excuse to leave; she's laid up on the couch with a broken foot. It's the second scene that wowed me. Alone at home, Sarah has become engrossed in an all-night horror movie marathon on TV and sits eating popcorn absentmindedly. Of course, she's unwittingly become prey at this point. It's the most gripping scene in the film because the entire thing rests on Bell's facial expressions and mannerisms. We've all seen scores of actors try to compensate for not speaking by overacting and flashing exaggerated faces and cartoonish body language. Bell sells it, though, with pitch perfect nuance.

At first, I thought that scene would be played for laughs; that Kaelin was going to descend into Killer Klowns from Outer Space-style violence. I wasn't alone. There were a few chuckles early in the scene when it became obvious what was taking place, but the energy of the theater shifted as it played out and by its startling conclusion, it was clear that we all knew from that point on, horror was going to displace comedy.

I'm not a horror expert; more an "apprentice" of sorts by now. I've seen enough to know that Symbiosis isn't merely an imitation of what has gone before. It's thoughtfully written and paced, with characters who are recognizable as people rather than fodder.

William Ragland's score can be downloaded here.
Chris Humphreys' posters can be purchased here.

12 October 2012

On the Cincinnati Reds NLDS Elimination

For the last several seasons, it seems Reds fans have caught that thing that Cubs fans have where they're compelled to shout the most negative hyperbole they can summon at any given moment. It's appalling, frankly. I've been a fan of this franchise since 1988 and anyone who thinks that there's a reason to despair about the Redlegs today has been watching too much football. Baseball is not a do-or-die sport and not every single play carries with it the fate of the entire team for all time.

Take a moment to consider that the Reds signed Ryan Madson to succeed Francisco Cordero as their closer this year, only to lose him to Tommy John surgery before he ever threw a single pitch. Joey Votto went down for two months in the middle of the season. Scott Rolen was on the disabled list for about a month. Those would be crippling blows to many, if not most, teams.

The Reds won 97 games anyway.

The starting rotation took the mound for every scheduled start. Only a makeup game that was part of a double-header was started by someone other than Starting Five. Johnny Cueto won 19 games. Homer Bailey threw a no-hitter in his penultimate start of the year. Aroldis Chapman (who missed two weeks due to fatigue, incidentally) saved 38 games. He went three months without giving up a single run. And Brandon Phillips made one superhuman play after another, sometimes several within the same game.

Going into the National League Divisional Series, I heard a lot of fans complain about the fact that this year, the schedule was for the team with the home field advantage to open on the road for Games One and Two, then coming home for the duration of the series. I've always hated that the LDS is a best-of-five series, and a large part of that is that its structure has always been 2/2/1 with the first two and the fifth games scheduled in the ballpark of the team with home field advantage. That often means flying across the country after two games, then after another two, just to play one. It's entirely unorthodox given the stable structure of 3 and even 4 game series throughout the regular season.

This year's 2/3 structure was far more appealing to me than the traditional 2/2/1. So it meant the Reds had to open in San Francisco for Games One and Two. Well, what of it? They were going to have to play at least one game there anyway. Best case: they sweep in San Francisco and come back home with three consecutive home games, needing to win only one. Worst case: they're swept in San Francisco and then come home needing to sweep three consecutive home games. I liked that. It seemed more favorable to the Reds than a 2/2/1 schedule.

In Game One, Johnny Cueto left after just one batter with back spasms. It was one of those moments that makes your heart sink as a fan. What happened? Sam LeCure came in and got the Reds through the first two innings unscathed, Brandon Phillips ignited the offense and then Mat Latos came in and pitched the most impressive four innings of his entire 2012 season. Aroldis Chapman gave up some hits and even a run, freaking out more of the Chicken Little fans. Apparently, they've never seen players experience the adrenaline of the playoffs for the first time. All things considered, I was roundly impressed by Chapman's performance in that game. The Yankees might make it look easy, but paying attention to every other team in the majors has made it clear that the postseason has nuances that the average fan doesn't even consider. That's on top of the fact that only the guys who have actually played in those environments know what it's really like.

In Game Two, Bronson Arroyo shut out the Giants through eight spectacular innings, not even allowing a baserunner at all until the fifth. The Reds came back to Cincinnati up 2-0 in the series. Homer Bailey was set to start Game Three - on a Tuesday. That was particularly encouraging as Bailey absolutely owned Tuesdays (Bow Tie Tuesdays for Reds fans, a tradition in which TV broadcasters such as Chris Welsh, George Grande and Thom Brennaman wear bow ties).

In the first inning, Brandon Phillips was thrown out trying to get to third. TBS commentator Ron Darling and numerous fans have fixated on the play as though it was the single most glaring miscue of all time. Frankly, they're wrong. The Reds had a 2-0 series lead. It was the first inning of what was an elimination game for the Giants. I thought it was brilliant for Phillips to put the pressure on the Giants from the very beginning. So he was thrown out by Buster Posey. The point is, he made Posey have to make the play. It was solid baseball.

The Giants prevailed in Game Three, and then went on to sweep the Reds in Cincy. Some fans point to Phillips being thrown out at third as the "worst" play of the series; some to Scott Rolen bobbling a grounder in Game Four and some to Mat Latos giving up a grand slam in Game Five. Some complain about 2/3 schedule (still). I'm sure somewhere, someone is convinced that Cat Latos is to blame for the Reds being eliminated.

The Reds played well enough to win all five games and the Giants simply played a bit better in three of them. It's as simple as that. There were no terrible calls that went against either team (as what happened to the Atlanta Braves in the Wild Card Play-In game). They had their A-team on the field and even though they lost Cueto to those back spasms, LeCure and Latos were outstanding and neutralized that loss in Game One. Any Reds fan who went into any of those five games lacking confidence needs to consider not following baseball anymore.

Having said all that, I do have a complaint as a fan: the schedule. Not one of these five games started at, or even near, 7:00 PM Cincinnati time. Games One and Two, the only two LDS games scheduled on the west coast, began at 9:30 local time. Fine. I get it. At least Game One was a Saturday night game, but I wonder how many Reds fans missed Game Two because they had school and/or work on Monday morning. Still, it wasn't an elimination game so if you're going to have to miss a game, that's the one to miss.

However, all three home games became mid-afternoon starts. Game Three started at 5:37; game Four at 4:07 and Game Five at 1:00. Really, Major League Baseball? Way to screw the fans of both teams. Reds fans had to hustle home to catch the end of their home games. Giants fans were still having breakfast when Game Five started! I understand that no one is ever going to take away a prime time start from the vaunted New York Yankees, but are you telling me the Tigers/Athletics and Nationals/Cardinals games all needed to supersede Reds/Giants on every night?

So, in conclusion: Reds fans need to lighten up. We got to watch a remarkable team have a terrific season. Yes, it's deflating to be eliminated but the Giants earned it. Tip your cap and move along. MLB should keep the 2/3 LDS structure, but they should be more thoughtful about game start times.

Oh, and while you may or may not want to follow Cat Latos on Twitter, you should definitely follow Dallas Latos, Mat's wife. She's feisty and a lot of fun, though generally NSFW.

10 October 2012

"Batgirl" #13 (Dec 2012)

Batgirl #13
"A Blade of Memory" | "Death of the Family" Prologue
Gail Simone - Writer
Ed Benes - Pencils and Inks
Ulises Arreola - Colorist
Dave Sharpe - Letterer
Cover by Greg Capullo and FCP Plascencia
Brian Smith - Editor
Batman created by Bob Kane
Date of Publication: 10 October 2012
$2.99/32 pages

Though I really did enjoy Batgirl #0, I was irked that it meant two months would pass between issues #12 and #13. This was particularly concerning since issue #12 left off with Batgirl lying on the floor having just been stabbed by Knightfall. I mean, I knew Babs was gonna be alright and all...but that's the least opportune part in a story to take a time-out for an origin story! I understand why DC Comics wanted the stunt of a company wide #0 month on the anniversary of their New 52 relaunch, but it seems to me the marketing cart came before the storytelling horse this time around.

Anyway, I was already looking forward to resuming the "Knightfall" story and then last night, Gail Simone re-tweeted this from Larry's Comics:



Recall, Dear Reader, that The Great Escape only had three copies of Batgirl #0 last month an hour after they opened the day after it went on sale. As luck would have it, I had a very rough time going to sleep last night so I found myself awake this morning in time to get to The Great Escape when they opened. Knowing that demand was high for this issue, a friend of mine ran to another comic shop on his lunch break looking to secure me a copy. It was already sold out there, just a couple hours after I had bought mine.

So that's the context - the wait and the worry over demand - in which I found myself finally reading Batgirl #13. The original solicits for this issue featured a very different cover from the one that was published. The earlier cover art depicted Batgirl clutching her wounded side, a reminder of exactly where we had left off with this story at the end of Batgirl #12. It's savage and ominous, and frankly it fits the tone of this issue perfectly.
The cover art that was solicited for Batgirl #13.
We've seen Babs behind the 8 ball frequently in this book, which is one of its charms. There's something gratifying about seeing her rally herself to overcoming the antagonist at hand, whomever that may be. Wounded and entirely outmatched, Babs engages in a tête-à-tête with Knightfall. Out comes the truth of Knightfall's origin story, which has been teased in previous issues but what is shared here is surprising all the same. Charise Carnes's account of how she became Knightfall is nearly as touching as it is depraved. In fact, it's almost the kind of origin story one would accept for an antihero or a particularly aggressive vigilante. Even though Batgirl recognizes that Charise is too far gone to be saved, we're left with a sense of sympathy for her all the same.

This is perhaps the strongest appeal of Simone's storytelling. In the pages of Batgirl, she's putting her own values under the microscope. "Knightfall" is a crucible for the values of defending the weak versus opposing predators. Ultimately, Simone by proxy of Batgirl rejects the argument that escalation is an acceptable doctrine. Batgirl displays compassion for both a young kid she had actually apprehended and busted up at the beginning of this arc, and even for Charise Carnes's tormentor - a guy that Batgirl herself would surely have relished in tracking and taking down had his activities been brought to her attention in the first place. It's refreshing to read in a genre dominated by characters who got into the superhero business with a chip on their shoulders that Batgirl is driven by her heart and values. Contrary to political propaganda, one can promote fairness and compassion without being a doormat.

As regards Ed Benes's artwork, I was quite happy with his work here. The action scenes are dynamic and exciting, making shrewd use of splash pages (take note, Batwoman!). Yet what comes through most are the emotions of the characters: the desperation of Batgirl, young Charise's horror and current Charise's seething rage. I read Batgirl last of my monthlies (presently I'm down to just this and Detective Comics), because I know it's the most dependable. One of the reasons is that Batgirl is an emotional book, driven by emotional characters. Benes's artwork perfectly reflects the tone of Simone's writing, and I look forward to their continued collaboration.
"Death of the Family"
The published cover makes very clear that Batgirl #13 is a prologue to the next major Batman crossover story, and it's very likely a big part of the high demand for this issue. Casual readers likely expected to see something of The Joker here, a rematch that's been the talk of fans ever since we learned Barbara Gordon was going to return to being Batgirl. The truth is, this is 99% entirely a Batgirl story. Only a single incident in the very end teases something larger, to be explored in the next issue. It's almost shameful for DC to so quickly bill this issue as something that it isn't.

A friend of mine bought Batman #13 (the first official part of "Death of the Family") and I plan to read his copy but I have no intention of delving into the story beyond the issues that are part of my regular reading. I just have no desire to buy an issue of any comic because I feel I "have" to buy it. Whatever comes of "Death of the Family," I'm only really interested in it in as much as it affects what I'm already reading. If it affects Catwoman, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Suicide Squad and/or Teen Titans, so be it. I don't read those comics so I don't really care what the ramifications of "Death of the Family" are for them.

It looks as though this crossover will dominate the Bat-books for the next three months. I'm sure I'll enjoy the issues I read, but I'm already looking forward to its conclusion so we can get on with business as usual in the pages of Batgirl.

07 October 2012

The Best of Bond...James Bond

The Best of James Bond: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition (8 September 1992)
The Best of Bond...James Bond (23 September 2002)
The Best of Bond...James Bond (28 October 2008)
Best Of Bond...James Bond: 50th Anniversary Collection (9 October 2012)
Best Of Bond...James Bond: 50 Years - 50 Tracks (9 October 2012)

It's hard to believe, but this year marks the 20th anniversary of the "Best of Bond" series of compilation albums. The original "Best of James Bond: 30th Anniversary" was available in two editions: a single disc, 19-track collection and a 2-disc Limited Edition package. The single-disc edition included the title songs from the first 16 Bond films, along with "007" by John Barry from From Russia with Love and "We Have All the Time in the World" by Louis Armstrong from On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The disc also included a previously unreleased recording of "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" by Dionne Warwick, originally recorded for Thunderball. The sequencing for that disc did not reflect the chronological release of the various tracks.

Songs That Appear on Every Edition
  • "James Bond Theme" from Dr. No - John Barry & His Orchestra [credited on 1992 and 1999 editions to Monty Norman]
  • "From Russia with Love" - Matt Monro
  • "Goldfinger" - Shirley Bassey
  • "Thunderball" - Tom Jones
  • "You Only Live Twice" - Nancy Sinatra
  • "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" - John Barry
  • "We Have All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Louis Armstrong
  • "Diamonds Are Forever" - Shirley Bassey
  • "Live and Let Die" - Paul McCartney & Wings
  • "The Man with the Golden Gun" - Lulu
  • "Nobody Does It Better" from The Spy Who Loved Me - Carly Simon
  • "Moonraker" - Shirley Bassey
  • "For Your Eyes Only" - Sheena Easton
  • "All Time High" from Octopussy - Rita Coolidge
  • "A View to a Kill" - Duran Duran
  • "The Living Daylights" - a-Ha
  • "Licence to Kill" - Gladys Knight
Songs That Appear on Multiple Editions
  • "007" from From Russia with Love - John Barry 30th Collection, 30th Limited, 2012 50 Years
  • "The Laser Beam" from Goldfinger - John Barry 30th Limited, 2012 50 Years
  • "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - Shirley Bassey 30th Limited, 2012 50 Years
  • "GoldenEye" - Tina Turner 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012 Collection, 2012 50 Years
  • "Tomorrow Never Dies" - Sheryl Crow 1999, 2002, 2008, 2012 Collection, 2012 50 Years
  • "The World Is Not Enough" - Garbage 2002, 2008, 2012 Collection, 2012 50 Years
  • "James Bond Theme [Moby's Re-Version]" from Tomorrow Never Dies - Moby 2002, 2012 50 Years
  • "Surrender" from Tomorrow Never Dies - k.d. lang 2008, 2012 50 Years
  • "Die Another Day" - Madonna 2008, 2012 Collection, 2012 50 Years
  • "You Know My Name" from Casino Royale - Chris Cornell 2008, 2012 Collection, 2012 50 Years

The 2-disc set presented the 16 main title songs in chronological sequence on Disc 1. The three supplemental tracks shifted to Disc 2, where they were joined by a different take on "James Bond Theme" by the John Barry Orchestra; four tracks from Barry's Goldfinger score that were included on the UK release of that film's soundtrack album but for some reason not included on the US release; a second recording of "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" by Shirley Bassey; a 20-minute suite of music from Thunderball that had not been included on that film's soundtrack; and some other items from the vaults.

Songs That Only Appear on 30th Anniversary Limited Edition
  • "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - Dionne Warwick [also appears on 30th Anniversary Collection]
  • "James Bond Theme" - John Barry & His Orchestra
  • "Goldfinger" [demo] - Anthony Newley
  • "Pussy Galore's Flying Circus" from Goldfinger - John Barry
  • "Golden Girl from Goldfinger - John Barry
  • "Death of Tilley" from Goldfinger - John Barry
  • "Thunderball Suite" - John Barry
  • "You Only Live Twice" [demo] - Julie Rogers [unattributed]
  • You Only Live Twice radio spot
  • Thunderball radio spot
  • Live and Let Die radio spot

The compilation was updated in 1999 as "The Best of Bond...James Bond 007." It presented the same sequencing as the original 30th Anniversary Collection (single-disc), but without "007" or the Warwick recording of "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." Instead, the '99 edition added Tina Turner's "GoldenEye" and Sheryl Crow's "Tomorrow Never Dies." These were tacked onto the end, rather than incorporated into the album sequence. Excluded from the 1999 compilation was Garbage's title track from that year's The World Is Not Enough, establishing the trend of the "Best of Bond" not including the current title song.

2002 marked the 40th Anniversary of Bond, celebrated with reissued CDs of most of the soundtrack albums and a new edition of the compilation album. Again, the original 16 title songs appeared as they had been sequenced on the 30th Anniversary album with the new songs added at the end, now expanded to include "The World Is Not Enough." The '02 edition is notable primarily for including the Parodi/Fair arrangement of the Bond theme used in the GoldenEye trailer, unavailable on any other release to date. It also marked the first time that the original "James Bond Theme" recording from Dr. No was properly credited to John Barry & His Orchestra (having originally been credited to Monty Norman).

Song That Only Appears on 2002 Edition
  • "James Bond Theme [GoldenEye Trailer Version]" - Parodi/Fair

No edition of the compilation series was issued in 2006 (the year of Casino Royale), but The Best of Bond...James Bond returned in 2008 to tie into the release of Quantum of Solace. This edition added Madonna's "Die Another Day" and Chris Cornell's "You Know My Name" (from Casino Royale). For the first time since the 30th Anniversary 2-disc edition, all tracks were presented in chronological order. Supplemental tracks this time included k.d. lang's "Surrender" from Tomorrow Never Dies and a recording of "James Bond Theme" credited to John Arnold. The 2008 edition was also available in a limited edition with a DVD containing music videos and some live performances of various Bond songs. Beginning with this edition, shorter edits of "Licence to Kill" and "GoldenEye" were selected to fit the programming onto one disc.

Song That Only Appears on 2008 Edition
  • "James Bond Theme" - John Arnold

Tuesday (9 October 2012) sees the latest incarnation of the series. As with the original version 20 years ago, there are two editions available: a single-disc edition includes the title tracks from the first 22 Bond films (plus "We Have All the Time in the World"). The "50 Years - 50 Tracks" 2-disc set adds a bonus disc of 27 more tracks culled from the various soundtrack albums (except Licence to Kill). Among the assorted tracks on disc 2 are Diana Coupland's "Under the Mango Tree" from Dr. No, Nina's "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?" from On Her Majesty's Secret Service and both of The Pretenders tracks from The Living Daylights. Returning from previous editions are "007," "The Laser Beam" (one of the Goldfinger tracks from the UK soundtrack), the Bassey recording of "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang," Moby's version of "James Bond Theme" and lang's "Surrender."

Songs That Only Appear on 2012 50 Years - 50 Tracks
  • "Another Way to Die" from Quantum of Solace - Jack White & Alicia Keys [also appears on 2012 Collection]
  • "Dr. No's Fantasy" from Dr. No - Monty Norman
  • "Under the Mango Tree" from Dr. No - Diana Coupland
  • "Opening Titles: James Bond Is Back/From Russia with Love/James Bond Theme" from From Russia with Love - John Barry
  • "Into Miami" from Goldfinger - John Barry
  • "Switching the Body" from Thunderball - John Barry
  • "Capsule in Space" from You Only Live Twice - John Barry
  • "Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?" from On Her Majesty's Secret Service - Nina
  • "Bond Smells a Rat" from Diamonds Are Forever - John Barry
  • "Fillet of Soul - New Orleans/Live and Let Die/Fillet of Soul - Harlem" from Live and Let Die - George Martin; B.J. Arnau (vocals)
  • "Underground Lair" from Live and Let Die - George Martin
  • "Hip's Trip" from The Man with the Golden Gun - John Barry
  • "The Pyramids" from The Spy Who Loved Me - Marvin Hamlisch
  • "Cable Car and Snake Fight" from Moonraker - John Barry
  • "Make It Last All Night" from For Your Eyes Only - Rage
  • "The Chase Bomb Theme" from Octopussy - John Barry
  • "Snow Job" from A View to a Kill - John Barry
  • "Where Has Everybody Gone" from The Living Daylights - The Pretenders
  • "If There Was a Man" from The Living Daylights - The Pretenders
  • "The Experience of Love" from GoldenEye - Eric Serra
  • "Only Myself to Blame" from The World Is Not Enough - Scott Walker
  • "Vesper" from Casino Royale - David Arnold
  • "Time to Get Out" from Quantum of Solace - David Arnold

06 October 2012

The Storms of Life - A Survivor's Anniversary

It's surreal to me that exactly one year ago from right now, I was ready to end my life. I can still vividly picture the bottle of sleeping pills and the Old Whiskey River ready to deliver the pills. I remember clearly playing Chely Wright's "Notes to the Coroner" and Waylon Jennings's "I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" repeatedly. I still don't know if I was trying to work up my nerve or get it out of my system. Maybe both.

I remember making myself call Our Lady of Peace to inquire about seeking help. Chatting for a few minutes, answering questions as ambiguously as I could. Having the presence of mind to pop in my Blu-ray of Batman. Did I call it a night, or did I simply collapse from exhaustion? That part's fuzzy.

That evening, packing to check myself into OLOP. I spent several minutes cleaning cat puke off my shoes, only to realize I couldn't wear them anyway because of the shoe laces. No belt, which was a bit problematic because I'd lost weight. I grabbed a few Batman graphic novels: Year One, because the animated movie adaptation was just about to come out and it'd been a while since I had last read the story; The Long Halloween, because it was October; The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, because I'd owned it for ages and still never gotten around to it. I started with Greatest, though I didn't get very far during my few days in the hospital. I read in my room some, but most of it I finished at home afterwards.

My wife had the radio playing on the drive. "Pray for You" came on at one point somewhere on the Watterson Expressway. I filed away that detail, unaware how prescient it would prove. I began to feel anxious, certain I was walking into a place that would scoff at treating me. I imagined a ward full of rape victims, battered women and war veterans, all wondering just what traumatic threshold I'd crossed that made me one of them. I became embarrassed, judged by phantom patients. I felt very small.

When I was admitted, I demonstrated that my sense of humor was still intact. I made the intake nurse laugh, and I also made her cry as I discussed how important it was to me to again be the husband my wife deserved. I admit: I was reluctant to enter as an in-patient. I had hoped we could start with some kind of out-patient therapy and escalate to in-patient if needed. It was made clear to me that wasn't going to work. I acquiesced. I wasn't resentful. I was relieved. I wasn't going to fight the depression on my own anymore. If there was going to be any breakthrough, it would come from professionals.

It was well after midnight by the time I was finally processed and brought into a room. In the morning, my roommate kindly walked me through the standard operational pattern of the place. He showed me where the laundry machines were. I liked him instantly. I won't divulge anything else about him, though, out of respect for his privacy. I'll only say that I hope he's doing well.

We ventured into the social room sometime between breakfast and lunch. We sat through a group session and then he began to introduce me to some of the other patients. I felt very much like an outsider. Lunch hit me pretty hard and I spent nearly the entire rest of the day lying in bed in pain. A nurse came to check on me at one point. I explained I felt miserable and she asked if she could get me anything. I requested Prednisone, which made her dismissive. "Well, Prednisone won't help with nausea." "It will if you've got Crohn's disease," I countered. She very quickly retrieved Prednisone for me, which thankfully did help.

It was around 10 when I finally clambered out of bed. The social room was pretty much deserted, save one table. My roommate was there, so I joined them. I began writing in a notepad. I didn't get far before I was drawn into conversation with the others. We got to chatting, the handful of us, breaking the ice. Some of us were there for depression, others for substance abuse. A few dealt with both demons. I felt better about being there by the time my roommate and I nodded off in our beds an hour later.

Saturday was the breakthrough day for me. The group from the night before reformed in the social room. We began to assimilate other patients, including several newcomers admitted that morning. By evening, our sociability had become a positive energy in the ward. We discussed picking the last movie we'd ever see, which sparked one of the more interesting side conversations I had during my entire stay there. Even patients who didn't join us could often be seen nodding along with something one of us said or asked. I found myself particularly emboldened by that observation. I began to ask questions and to offer observations during group sessions, knowing that someone else wanted to ask or say - or maybe even to hear - the same thing. I had forgotten that most people aren't as comfortable speaking in groups as I have long been. It felt good to use that aptitude on behalf of others.

By early evening, a few more patients had been admitted. I spotted one woman sitting by herself, scrawling on a notepad and visibly shaken. We had had a very cathartic day on the whole, many of us opening up as much in our social time as we did during sessions. I took a chance and approached the woman. Again, I won't discuss her particular story here but I will say that the next day, she timidly took a seat near our table and joined us. I took to calling it "The Cool Table," happy to be part of the popular clique somewhere for the first time ever. It was all in good fun, of course, and no one took it to be derogatory about anyone who wasn't sitting at our table. In fact, at one point, we had to expand and took over a second table to accommodate all the patients who wanted to get in on the camaraderie!

Sometime during Saturday, the decision was made to move me from my original room to another. The new room didn't have a security camera, a sign that they were no longer afraid I was going to try to injure myself while in their care. It was a subtle thing, but it was reassuring all the same. It bolstered my sense of progress. Throughout the weekend, several patients commented on my participation. Some of them thanked me during group sessions for something I'd said. Some waited to discuss things with me privately. A few of them didn't even talk to me, but rather about me. I especially appreciated that, hearing them talk me up as having been helpful.

When I got home on the 10th of October last year, I had already resolved that I was on my second life. I would not allow the things that had nearly driven me to end my life to carry over into my new one. I wasn't sure how to go about this second life, though. It took some time. My friends took me out that Friday. I had a  major anxiety attack, throwing up at least three times and having to step outside for air repeatedly. I drank a ginger ale and ate part of a cookie dessert thing that my friend ordered. I requested an anti-anxiety medication from my doctor at my first follow-up with her the next week. I took it pretty frequently any time I did much of anything for the first couple of months. I've taken it far less regularly, though I have still needed it.

I wasn't sure how to discuss my experience here in this blog, particularly since I do not use a pseudonym and because this wasn't just my story about depression. There was also my marital separation to be considered. Could I keep that out of the blog, particularly if I was going to discuss my experience with managing depression? Was it fair to anyone else if I discussed it here? Was it fair to me if I didn't? Finally, I wrote "Confessions of a Therapy Patient" and came clean about my situation. It was difficult to write, but cathartic. The feedback - both in published comments and in private remarks - was extraordinary. That led to an entire sub-series about depression, and I would encourage you to take a look at those posts.

I still grapple with those questions any time I blog. Even if a given post seems entirely innocuous, I'm always mindful that somehow it might become an issue for someone else later. It's a balancing act. Strangely enough, I never once thought about creating another blog for such content. There's something liberating about knowing that I've put my name to everything I've published here. Maybe at some point in the future, someone will hold it against me that I was once hospitalized for suicidal depression. But I also know from the feedback I've received this past year that there are also people out there who have found something helpful in some of my posts. Arm the critics while helping others? I'll make that trade every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Besides, as Captain Picard once declared, "If we're going to be damned, let's be damned for what we really are." What I really am is someone who has fought depression.

This past year, I've enjoyed my friends and family. I've renewed an old friendship and I've built some new ones. I've been lavished with attention and affection from the cats. I've written a novel. I went to Chicago with a friend, for C2E2. I had a terrific time celebrating my niece's 10th birthday one-on-one in July. I went to my first concert since 2008. I even saw a musical! I almost had a blind date. Just two days ago, I finally got to see Lawrence of Arabia in a theater!

I recently lost a friend, Brenda. I wrote a memorial here in this blog. Last week, my friend's sister messaged me privately to inform me that they read aloud the entirety of my memorial at the funeral service. That has to be the most humbling experience I've had yet with my blogging. Somehow, it's appropriate. My friend was one of my most ardent supporters as far as writing. She encouraged me every step of the way, but particularly about my sub-series on depression. She believed in my ability to help others through my writing. I never imagined that she would one day become the subject of such a piece, of course.

Brenda would have loved to discuss the screening of Lawrence of Arabia, but more importantly, I know she would have expressed her gratitude that I'm still here a year later. She would have encouraged me that things will go onward and upward, that I will enjoy the happiness I deserve and through my writing, I will find a way to help others. I'd much rather hear all that from her, of course, but it's a testament to who she was that I'm able to create the whole conversation in my mind.

I don't know how long this second life will last. None of us knows how much time we'll have here on Earth. I cannot concern myself with that. What I can, and must, concern myself with is what I do here. I endeavor through this blog and in my daily interactions with people to be helpful. To be there for others who need a cheerleader, a shoulder to cry on or a friendly ear. To share my experiences so that they might find something in them that may prove usable somehow.

And on a personal level, I go forward day by day, mindful that I'm okay. That I don't have to be an emotional fugitive.
It's okay to have a good day.
A transcript of my notepad writings can be read here: "Our Lady of Peace Journal, 7-9 October 2011".

05 October 2012

Praise for James, the Best AT&T Technician Ever

If you've ever tried to chat with me, you know my Internet connection has been terrible for years. I had someone come out to the house in 2010 only for the ultimate conclusion to be that there was nothing obviously wrong. I gave up and consigned myself to living with the unreliable service. I acclimated to it, in much the way that one tries to endure working under an abusive boss. In the last two months, though, it grew so out of hand that I discovered I wasn't wholly desensitized to its volatility. On 18 September, I decided to go to AT&T's website and try to chat with a technician about the problem. I made it down to #3 in their virtual queue before I lost my connection to the server. (How serendipitous!) Frustrated, I tweeted to @ATTCustomerCare. I received the following response:


I sent the email and waited, not really expecting much to come of it. Later that afternoon, however, I received a phone call from a technician named James. This wasn't one of the outsourced technicians following a cue sheet. This was a guy who actually knew what he was doing. He'd researched my problem and account history before calling, to get a feel for the situation. We tried troubleshooting some settings over the phone, but we both knew it was unlikely to solve anything. A home visit was scheduled.

I forget that guy's name, but he took a look around outside and discovered a "bridge on the gap" (whatever that is), but that was something he couldn't repair. He had, however, placed a call to the crew who could address the matter and assured me that I was next on their schedule for the day. They apparently couldn't find the house, never called me...and closed my file. Seriously. I don't know how knowing there's a problem and knowing you did nothing about it adds up to a resolution, but that's what happened.

To my surprised, however, James called again that next night. We discussed the technician's visit and the second crew's blow-off. He shared my irritation, apologized and scheduled another visit. This time, the guy came with his supervisor. They identified problems outside the house and repaired that damage. They left me their contact information, insisting that I call them directly rather than "have to wait" for someone to schedule something. I took that to mean "So we don't look bad," but whatever. Within an hour of their departure, my connection was again down. I called and left a voice mail message. No response.

James, however, did call yet again to see how things had gone. He made note that I had left a message with that day's repair guys, but we both agreed to be patient and see if the guy got back to me. It was a Friday, so we set the follow-up for Monday. Sure enough, James called me on Monday. The technician had not. James dispatched a fourth visitor. That guy came out and replaced my modem. His thinking was that my modem had been worn down trying to stay synced with the incoming signal that was disrupted by the issues outside the house, and that since the third crew had repaired those matters, a new modem should work just fine. Great.

Except, naturally, it didn't.

Still, James stayed on top of things. He called to see what my connection was like following the replaced modem. I still had problems. We scheduled a fifth visitor, though this time I had to cancel because I felt run down and miserable. Finally, today I had a guy who came out and took a look around. He noted that some of the stuff in the phone box outside the house looked corroded, but that since we had stopped having home phone service several months ago it wasn't necessarily a red flag. Ultimately, we decided he would just put in an entirely new line dedicated exclusively to the modem.

This whole thing began eighteen days ago. To his credit, James has checked in with me daily, never letting up. He has not shirked the matter as others would have done - and, in fact, have done. He's cracked the whip to ensure that I've had someone out here until the problem was resolved. He's remained friendly in every call, never once indicating annoyance or a desire to not have to deal with this problem anymore. On the contrary, he has demonstrated remarkable patience and an unfailing determination to see this matter through to a satisfactory conclusion.

We are prone to complaining about dissatisfying customer service, and I've done my fair share of that over the years. Some of my complaints have even been in this blog. I do, however, also believe that it's equally important to recognize and praise those who perform their jobs well. He's monitored things from his end, he's communicated with other people at AT&T, he's researched my situation, even going so far as to investigate whether any of my neighbors running off the same node had experienced the same kinds of activity issues as me. James has been the House of Internet connectivity issues, only with a friendly demeanor.

Frankly, I'm now spoiled. James has raised the bar tremendously high for customer service and I'll not forget any time soon the attention he has afforded my situation for more than two weeks.

Note: I have tagged this post under "consumer complaint" to ensure that this positive testimonial turns up in search results, a reminder that sometimes these things go very well.

02 October 2012

"Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings" of Waylon Jennings

Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings
Waylon Jennings
Album Release Date: 25 September 2012
Purchase from Amazon
Purchase from iTunes with exclusive bonus tracks
Purchase from Walmart with exclusive bonus track
Stream from Spotify

Earlier this year, I was ecstatic to learn that this posthumous album was finally going to see the light of day. Since Waylon Jennings died ten years ago (yes, it's really been a decade), a handful of recordings have seen the light of day. "The Dream" concluded a 2003 tribute album, and a different arrangement of "Goin' Down Rockin'" appeared on the first of the three-volume The Music Inside tribute series in 2010.

There was also the Waylon Forever album, which consisted of eight songs for which Waylon had recorded his vocals and left in the hands of his son Shooter to complete at a later date. Shooter eventually brought in his band, The .357s, to back his father's vocals. The arrangements there are busy and heavy, almost as though it was Waylon guesting on a .357s album rather than them supporting him on his. Regardless, it works wonderfully.

Goin' Down Rockin' was conceived in much the same fashion. Waylon recorded his part just prior to his death in 2002, leaving the project in the hands of band mate Robby Turner. Turner joined the band in 1991, succeeding the retired legendary pedal steel player, Ralph Mooney. Here's Turner's explanation of the production of this album in the EPK (Electronic Press Kit):



Waylon sounds terrific here, despite his health troubles. These weren't songs selected out of a grim awareness that his end was near. He was clearly happy to be clean and sober (and, frankly, alive). The arrangements here are much lighter than on Waylon Forever, allowing these songs to breathe. Part of it is that the songs were quite different. "Belle of the Ball," "I Do Believe" and "Sad Songs and Waltzes" call for a much lighter touch than "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" and "Are You Ready for the Country". Part of it also is that these arrangements were planned out ahead of time by Waylon with Turner.

The song selection here is also a major strength. Seven songs here had not been previously recorded by Waylon on any album. That gives Goin' Down Rockin' a rare personality for such a posthumous album. Never content with past success, Waylon wasn't looking back on his catalog for hits to recycle. He had his eye on something fresher, though some of these songs had already found their way onto various projects.

One of my personal favorite Waylon compositions, "I Do Believe" first appeared on the final Highwaymen album, The Road Goes On Forever, in 1995. "Wastin' Time" appeared on 1996's Right for the Time. "Never Say Die" and "Goin' Down Rockin'" were performed during Waylon's final 2000 concert, recorded for the Never Say Die album (and subsequent DVD). Only "Belle of the Ball" was culled from Waylon's heyday, first appearing as the B-side to the "Luckenbach, Texas" single in 1977.

It's the forward-looking nature of these songs that lets the album live up to its title. Waylon's twilight output bears no aesthetic resemblance at all to Johnny Cash's American Recordings. Where The Man in Black was archiving obscure folk songs alongside stripped down, somber takes on alternative rock tracks, Waylon was still just having fun, and it shows in every song here. Nowhere does that liveliness show more clearly than on the album-closing "Wrong Road to Nashville." Goin' Down Rockin' is exactly the kind of "final" album befitting Waylon Jennings: having a good time today, looking forward to tomorrow.

Note: Walmart has an exclusive bonus track, "Women from Memphis," and iTunes has three bonus tracks (acoustic performances of "Goin' Down Rockin'," "Belle of the Ball," and "If My Harley Was Runnin'"). Links to those versions can be found at the top of this review. At present, the iTunes bonus tracks can be purchased individually.