19 December 2014

On the Cancellation of "The Interview"

Much has been made in the last few days of Sony canceling the release of The Interview in the wake of North Korean threats and the linking of that state to the massive cyber attack on that company. There are several talking points that need to be straightened out.

This Is Not a First Amendment Issue

If the government issuing threats was our own, then it would be a First Amendment issue. This is a "North Korea doesn't understand that we don't live under their laws" issue.

Sony as "Cowards"

Sony has been castigated for capitulating, but that, too, is unfair. They made the decision after the top five theater chains - AMC Entertainment, Carmike Cinemas, Cinemark, Cineplex Entertainment, and Regal Entertainment - each elected not to screen the film. Sony really had little choice in the matter at that point except whether to go through with the charade of a release that would at best play in a handful of indie theaters in Los Angeles and New York.

To put this in perspective, filmmakers make several rounds of edits to each movie released in order to accommodate the entirely arbitrary taste of the Motion Picture Association of America to secure specific film ratings. Why? Because each rating is associated with a different size audience. The greatest fights are to get an otherwise R rated film down to PG-13, to catch the largest audience, and to get an otherwise NC-17 down to an R - because at NC-17, none of those five chains will ever bother screening it.

Theater Chains as "Cowards"

I'm surprised that the theater chains haven't been attacked the way that Sony has been, since it was their decision that forced Sony's hand. But in fairness to them, we live in an era where it's wholly irresponsible to ignore even the slightest threat. If I'm at Cinemark, for instance, and I hear that North Korea has threatened retaliation on the order of 9/11, my reaction isn't to laugh at the absurdity of the threat. It's to think of what has just transpired in Australia at the prompting of ISIS, and to remember the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. It doesn't take skyjacked commercial jets to decimate a theater chain. It really only takes a handful of assailants dispatched to a handful of theaters. A coordinated attack in just a handful of theaters would be sufficient to injure or kill countless people, first and foremost, but it would also have a devastating effect on the public consciousness about the safety of movie theaters during the second biggest time of the year.

Where Does This Leave Us?

There are two fronts to this question. The first is a political matter. President Obama isn't the saber-rattling cowboy that many Americans wish he was, but he has managed to work through diplomatic channels to address most of our antagonists throughout his time in office - and quite successfully, at that. Kim Jong-un presents a different problem. He's little more than a terrorist leader, but one who enjoys the protection of sovereignty. North Korea is pretty much already as run down as a country can get without being bombed on a daily basis, so I don't know that increased sanctions would make much difference.

The other matter, of course, is the film industry and how it proceeds. This is an extreme situation, but it does highlight one important matter: Hollywood isn't just making movies for Americans anymore, and being mindful of that isn't even a matter of sensitivity or defiance or anything in between - it's a matter of necessity. So far, all we've really seen is that our blockbuster movies have been light on dialog that may not translate well into different languages, and heavy on action sequences which require no translation. A perfect example is this summer's Transformers: Age of Extinction, which was clearly crafted to appeal to Chinese audiences - who did, in fact, respond with unprecedented enthusiasm. I'd like to think, though, that there are storytellers out there who can tap into the global consciousness with more sophistication and in the process create films that can speak to greater matters.

10 December 2014

Rape Is More Than Legalese

Much has been made recently about how to handle reports of sexual violence. There's the high-profile matter of the more than twenty women who have come forward with allegations of being drugged and raped by Bill Cosby. Recently, Rolling Stone magazine published a piece written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely about University of Virginia student Jackie's account of being gang-raped at a frat party. Erdely did not interview any of the alleged assailants, publishing only Jackie's account. In both cases, there has been a fierce insistence that the reports be framed in specific wording emphasizing that these are presently only "allegations", that both sides should be heard from in equal measure, and that taking accusations at face value is irresponsible.

I like to consider myself a fair-minded person, though I'm sure most people do. I can appreciate why our legal system is designed the way it is, with the burden of proof on the accuser and the defendant having the right to face said accuser. The basis of our system holds that between a Type I error (wrongful conviction) and a Type II error (failing to convict a guilty person), the Type I is the greater sin, and I personally believe in that. This is what everyone else seems to be arguing about, but I have no intention of addressing it further because the whole reason I'm writing now is that something greater is being missed:
We are collectively outsourcing the truth of a rape to the courts.
As a society, we have declared that a rape has only occurred if a jury says so; otherwise, we're simply too squeamish to even talk about the matter. It's okay not to be trained in counseling, of course, but the greater issue is that no one even wants to have that conversation. The only context in which we collectively have an interest in discussing rape is to suss out whether or not we have a villain on our hands.

We're not even nearly as committed to that aspect as we like to think we are. Study after study shows the unlikelihood of a conviction for rape. To begin with, the majority of survivors never report in the first place, for various reasons. It's customary to mention fear of reprisal as a key reason, and it surely is, but there's another more practical matter that's still poorly discussed or understood: It can take a long time for a survivor to process what happened.

TV shows and movies have taught us that rapists break in with knives or catch victims unawares on the street and drag them into alleyways. What we don't hear about, though, are instances of rape within the context of an established relationship. There's still a perception that being in a relationship includes some kind of implied consent for any and all sexual activities, carte blanche. Victims of this kind of assault may not even realize themselves for months, even years, that what happened was wrong. And when they do, self-blame becomes a paralyzing issue.

We could discuss ad infinitum the reasons why survivors don't report. There's a whole discussion to be had about how reluctant law enforcement agents can be about even pursuing these cases, or prosecutors who simply don't believe in the case, or why juries who hear the minority of cases that ever get that far and then declare it's unclear to them that what happened was, in fact, a violation. But all of these issues - which do matter in their respective contexts - are outside the focus of my point because in the end, it doesn't matter whether there's an arrest, a trial, or a conviction.

Rape survivors need to heal. Knowing that their rapist was held accountable can bring some peace of mind, of course; whether because it reaffirms their belief that people who do bad things ought to be punished, or simply the peace of mind knowing that that person will be behind bars and unable to attack again for the duration of the sentence. Most survivors will never know whatever comfort that brings, though.
It's unhelpful to link their healing to the conviction of their assailant, and it's outright unfair that we as a society have linked whether it even happened with that conviction.
If there's a conviction, we celebrate a job well done serving justice...and that's that. Except, it doesn't end there for the survivor. Those survivors who do get to see their rapists convicted and locked away are ultimately left with the same issues that all survivors face: How to heal? How to feel safe again? How to trust again? How to feel peaceful again?

We can accept at face value those who come forward and say that something happened to them. We can offer compassion to them. We can try to help them to feel safe. We can listen. We can trust. We can do all of these things independent of whatever may (or may not) take place in a court room - and we must, because living with the experience and aftermath of rape exists outside of a court room.

30 October 2014

Don't Be a Menace to Women While Shopping for Groceries in the Hood

Street harassment has been a social scourge for ages, and recently it's finally starting to become the subject of discussion that it should have already been. Invariably, when women summon the fortitude to speak up about wanting men to stop ambushing them as they're trying to go about their day, there's some indignant guy who says something like what was posted in response to this Buzzfeed post:

I love it when "feminists" get all up in arms over what they feel are rude comments. Not our fault you chose to feel hurt, but something gives me the feeling they were never catcalled in life due to their physical appearance. Basically have a thick skin when that happens and find a way to "grow a set".
These guys want everyone to believe - you, me, and even themselves - that they're entirely benign guys just trying to be polite and they take the most serious umbrage at being castigated for it. So let me share with you an anecdote, Dear Reader, about a time when this entirely benign guy knew better than to be polite.

In case for some reason you're new to my blog, I have Crohn's disease. I try to do my grocery shopping later at night, because it's a lot less crowded then so if I need to abruptly find a restroom, I don't have to worry about being stuck behind nine slowly moving people in a crowded aisle. One night a couple of years ago, I was grabbing a few things and I went to buy a pack of Oreos. Pretty innocuous, you know. So I'm walking around the store in my own little world, just thinking about Oreos and whatever else I was going to buy, and when I round the corner into that aisle, there's a woman standing near the Oreos.

I can't really describe what she looked like. She was a few inches shorter than me (I think), thin (maybe), and anywhere from ten years younger than me to ten years older. Let's put it this way: if we were playing a game of Guess Who? the only thing I would feel confident asking is, "Is your person a woman?" But her reaction to me stepping into that aisle where she was is etched in my mind forever.

Neither of us had any idea of the other; I didn't see her until I had stepped into the aisle, and she had no way of seeing me approaching until I was there. She was standing near the Oreos. I reached for a pack, and as I did, I saw her become defensive. She didn't gasp or shriek or anything quite so dramatic. But I could sense her tense up and become paralyzed instantly. If anyone had passed by us, they may not have even noticed her reaction; I have no idea how subtle it would have appeared from a distance. But standing there just a few feet from her, I could feel the air around us change and that's not an exaggeration. There was a clear heat caused by the friction. Even recalling the moment now to write about it, my shoulders and my neck have warmed.

Some guys in that situation might have tried to talk to her, to reassure her in some way. They would have been clumsy and just made it worse for her. Still other guys, though, would have used her being caught off-guard to pressure her into talking to them. They would have followed her around the store, maybe all the way out into the parking lot. God knows what they might try to say or do along the way.

Knowing as much as I do about these kinds of things, I grabbed the Oreos and just got the hell away from her as quickly as I could. That's what she needed from me: a return of her safe space; not a sales pitch about what a nice, non-threatening guy I really am.

I'll never forget the wave of fear that washed over her in that split-second. It was unavoidable; if she'd been able to see me coming, she may not have been startled at all. If I'd seen her in the aisle by herself, I would have gone on and gotten something else and come back for the Oreos. But it happened the way it did, and to this day I still feel awful over it. I keep that incident in my mind whenever I go out anywhere.

One thing I've made a point to do ever since then is to take my iPod with me whenever I go grocery shopping. My hope was that if I'm ever in that same situation, she'll see the iPod and feel less threatened by my suddenness and attribute it to me being self-absorbed and distracted by the music. I know of women who wear earphones without even listening to anything at all. They hope that the sight of the earphones will discourage street harassers, but they're too afraid of not hearing what's being said around them to actually play anything through their earphones.

So to try to alleviate concerns that my earphones are also just a prop to aid me in being a predator, I have my iPod shuffle my entire library rather than go through a playlist. This way, I'm almost certain to want to skip something every few minutes, and I'll actually be engaged by the device. Sure, someone could just fake that, too, but this is the best I've come up with so far to try to send a visual cue that I'm doing my own thing and not about to interrupt someone else doing hers.

If we ever run into one another in public, Dear Reader, I promise to say nothing to you and get away from you as quickly as I can. I really just want some Oreos, same as you.

22 October 2014

Don't Call Me the "B" Word

Over the course of my years on this Earth, Dear Reader, I've been called a lot of things. Some flattering, some not. I'm okay with most of what I've been called. Things like "candid" ring true, and I take great pleasure in being called "funny", for instance. "Moody" is certainly applicable, though people newer to my circles will find it hard to believe I've actually evened out quite a bit over the last several years. Recently, though, I've been called something new and I've fixated on it:


I've shared some rather personal things publicly here in this blog over the years, particularly my experiences with depression and anxiety. Crohn's disease, I tend to discuss more in terms of the affects on my daily life and emotional status than the physical aspects of living with it. I sometimes share other personal matters, too. And sometimes, as I did a couple of months ago, I share things privately with only my inner circle. One reason for that private sharing is not wishing to publicly make reference to someone else (a self-imposed rule of mine, that I protect the anonymity of people who didn't know when we shared our experiences that I would one day have a blog under my actual name). Other times I don't share things here simply because I'm not ready to let go of them and hand them over to the rest of the world.

In any event, it was in the course of discussing one such personal matter recently with my inner circle that a few of my closest friends called me the "b" word. It didn't feel right to me. At first, of course, my resistance was treated as false modesty but that wasn't it. Nor was it actual modesty.

After much deliberation, I've come to understand that I reject the label because all I've done is adapt to experiences over which I had no control. Bravery, I feel, requires an element of choice. Diving into the water to help a drowning person is an act of bravery because the rescuer elects to assume personal risk. But suppose the person in the water was pushed (it can even be a swimming pool; doesn't have to be the Atlantic Ocean). Is that person brave for being in dire straits, or for doing whatever possible to stay alive?

I don't think so. I think simply coping with an experience is outside the realm of bravery. Plus, there's the flip side - the implication of the reverse, that those who have struggled to cope with their experiences lack bravery. I don't believe that's true at all. Life is often overwhelming, and in different ways for each of us. We all have areas of vulnerability, from inexplicable phobias to traumatic experiences. It would be terribly callous to pass judgment on those who haven't coped with their respective issues as lacking bravery. Coping is a process. Sometimes, it's a never-ending process, depending on the issue and the way that it affects the individual.

On rare occasion, I think a case could be made that I've displayed bravery. Nothing terribly impressive or dramatic, mind you, but bravery just the same. Coping with my life experiences, though? What else was I supposed to do, or for that matter, even going to do? There was an action; I gave a reaction. That's Physics 101, not the litmus test for a medal.

If I ever do something noteworthy that involves bravery, you can be sure I'll crow about it in this blog. Take it from me: I haven't. And no, I don't consider sharing with others what I've dealt with an act of bravery, either, though I can certainly understand how for many people in various circumstances that would be such an act. Allow me to offer two entirely off-the-cuff examples from subjects that have been on my mind recently. I don't intend to equate or conflate these two examples, but rather to illustrate a range of experiences in which I believe that sharing does constitute an act of bravery.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai speaking out against the Taliban, for instance, and then telling the whole world what they did to her, surely required incredible courage. The women in the video game world being targeted and threatened by #GamerGate who continue to try to do their jobs knowing their home addresses may be doxxed within the hour, have certainly displayed fortitude that I both admire and lack. But again, these examples involve a certain element of choice. Yousafzai and the #GamerGate targets risk placing themselves in greater peril each time they've called attention to the respective injustices they're combating.

For those who have also been called "brave" for enduring some kind of experience, I don't mean to undermine whatever sense of self you've built around accepting the compliment. If feeling brave is how you've carried on, then by God, carry on being brave. I'm certainly not qualified to tell anyone how to process their own experiences.

But for those of you who are still trying to sift through things, and who hear the praise heaped on others who have made it farther along in the coping process than you have, take heart. The discrepancy between your progress and theirs may be due to myriad factors, but bravery is not one of them. (This is also a good time to remind you how unhelpful and unfair it is for you to measure your experiences against someone else's.)

06 October 2014

Is This Garth Brooks?

After all this time, Garth Brooks is finally back - and just in the nick of time, because George Strait's final tour ended in June. (I don't even want to talk about the engineering debacle that is the live CD from that last show.) I abandoned mainstream country music and radio years ago. Or maybe, as Ronald Reagan would put it, mainstream country music abandoned me years ago. In any event, it's a thrill for me to know that the G-Man is back. Sure, I want radio to embrace his comeback but since I won't be tuning in to hear whether they play his new stuff or not, I'd be lying if I said it made much difference to me outside of the effect being snubbed would have on his commitment to remaining active.

I say all this because I'm more or less representative of the audience Garth is counting on to be there for him in 2014 as we were a quarter century ago (yes, his eponymous album came out in 1989). The general consensus is that whatever music you listen to from your teens through early/mid-20's more or less defines your musical spectrum for life. A lot of people bail on mainstream music at that point for various reasons; some, because they find themselves too caught up in the demands of adulthood to stay caught up on album releases and concerts. Some, like me, simply reach a point where there's a noticeable paradigm shift and it just doesn't engage us like "the old stuff" did.

I'm not saying that music should stay the same; that would be ridiculous. There were listeners older than me who bailed when - and because - Garth Brooks came along, after all, just as there are younger listeners today who will one day check out of mainstream country music when their favorite bro country artist's heyday comes to an end. Circle of life. Hakuna matata.

The Cowboy rode away...and The Entertainer rode back in.
I gotta be honest, though. This comeback seems shaky so far. I don't quite understand the piecemeal approach to revealing each tour city instead of the whole itinerary. It sends the message to me that it's all being improvised as he goes along, hoping that each city draws enough of a crowd that he can more confidently start booking the large arenas he used to fill. I can understand, after the international embarrassment of the Croke Park shows falling apart, why he might be reluctant to commit himself openly to large venues ahead of time and risk finding out that the crowds aren't showing up. If we don't know he's planning to be in, say, Louisville, then we can't be disappointed if he backs out of coming here if he's disappointed by the turnout in Lexington.

What concerns me, though, is that it seems Garth doesn't just have an escape hatch; he's got one foot in it. He can nix shows and cities left and right behind the scenes without repeating the public embarrassment of Croke Park, but the cost is that it's simply too conspicuous that the guy who once told the entire world when and where to be is now trying to pull off a series of faux surprise parties.

As much as I would love to be at one of the Lexington shows, I just can't be spending $69 on a non-refundable ticket for a show my health may not even let me attend an hour away from where I live. I spent the first three weeks of September more or less bedridden because of an infection my worthless immune system can't fight, and I can only guess how ugly things are going to get as the weather turns and more bugs start going around. Plus, there's the anxiety issue I've developed over large crowds now that I worry about being able to get to a bathroom abruptly and quickly.

I took a gander at what songs he'd played at the first shows of this tour in Chicago on Setlist.fm, to get an idea what this iteration looks like. I discovered that "special guest" Trisha Yearwood isn't performing a traditional opening act. Rather, she's coming on-stage in the middle of the show to duet with him on "In Another's Eyes"...and then performing a five-song set of her own before relinquishing the show back to Garth. Nope. Not feeling it. And I have to figure somewhere out there, Steve Wariner is sadly staring at his phone, just waiting to get the call to come out on the road.

I've heard the lead single from the new album, "People Loving People". I don't hate it. The tune is catchy enough, but the lyrics feel like they're a few drafts away from being the "We Shall Be Free" redux that it's obviously meant to be. I do like the idea of a big picture social message song being his comeback single, though, because that was the one thing that always set Garth apart from everyone else. While his contemporaries were singing hokum about the mythical small towns of America, Garth was trying to build bridges across the entire world with the audiences who flocked to his shows on two international tours (1993-1994 and 1996-1998). Garth wasn't just singing about a dreamy idea of humanity; he'd actually left the comfort of the country music State Fair touring circuit and went across the Atlantic and Pacific alike. He was like Bono, but without the infomercial guilt.

Aside from the Garth & Trisha Show aspect, what I found most curious was the absence of both "American Honky-Tonk Bar Association" and "We Shall Be Free". I've never really cared for AHBA, and in truth I like the idea of the latter more than I really like the song itself, but these are two of the songs that really elevated the Garth Brooks show from a concert experience to being a sort of secular church service. "People Loving People" is clearly meant to tap into the legacy of those songs and evoke the same feelings of universal camaraderie, but their absence in the set list means the new, half-baked single is tasked with carrying that load on its own.

I've got all ten previous editions of Double Live - eleven, if you account for the fact I have it on cassette, too - so I was thrilled when it was announced that a new edition, including five new live recordings, was to be released on 30 September. I was stunned, though, to discover that I could not find a single copy at my local Walmart. Not because they'd already sold out, but because they didn't receive any. Maybe Walmart is being all passive-aggressive about his stuff no longer being sold exclusively through them. Maybe Sony/RCA Legacy dropped the ball somehow. I don't know. I just know that anything remotely "new" from Garth Brooks, including a re-issue, should be easily found at a Walmart and when it isn't, that's troubling.

Lastly, we come to the recent reveal of the new album's title and cover. Man Against Machine is an okay title, and I get the old dog/underdog angle he's trying to play up with it. But that cover? Oh, boy. It is outright ridiculous. My first thought was that it looks like a Chris Gaines project from the mid-00's. I just can't take it seriously.

The closest I can think of offhand was the laughable cover to Brooks & Dunn's Hillbilly Deluxe from 2005. If he's trying to appear hip, someone should have reminded him that he's, you know, Garth Brooks. No need to try so hard. George Strait's two most recent covers are terrific: last year's Love Is Everything and last month's The Cowboy Rides Away: Live from AT&T Stadium (even though the engineering on the latter is an absolute debacle). Rosanne Cash's The River and the Thread cover, like the album itself, is pretty much perfect. They look like albums made by, and for, grownups. This Man Against Machine cover, though? I can't tell if he's trolling bro country or embarrassingly trying to fit into it.

He had some of the most noticeable album covers of the 90's. Even No Fences went from what could have been a very dull, perfunctory artist-sitting-still cover to something truly striking just by adding that green tint and the low-profile typography. That's one of the easiest album covers to take for granted, but it really is perfect. I used to look at it and think, "For a guy whose stage show is so lively, this is an awfully static cover." But when I started to dissect it for what it was instead of what it wasn't, I realized how perfect it is. There's nothing you can add to that cover to improve it. It asks you to come to it. Man Against Machine looks far less confident. It looks like an album that isn't even sure who's going to listen to it, and so it doesn't know how to present itself.

Let me tell you, Garth. I'm going to listen to it, just like I've listened to everything you've ever released. Seriously, on your way to or from Lexington, stop by. I'll show you I've still got your Garth Brooks music video compilation on VHS and the cystic fibrosis charity single "One Heart at a Time" you recorded with half a dozen other artists in 1998. My brother, who wasn't so enthusiastic that he had to have those things, is still eager to hear your new stuff. Our younger cousins, though, are going to be a harder sell. I don't even know if you can win them over, but I know this much: if you can, it's going to have to be by the same way you won me over: be Garth Brooks.

08 August 2014

Things I Love: Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs

I haven't written anything in this sub-series in quite awhile, and with summer waning it seemed prudent that I get to this duo quickly. I enjoy traveling. I don't think I've ever gone somewhere that I outright disliked. I've been to plenty of places I'd like to visit again sometime. But I know this much: I will only ever feel at home in a place where summer is marked by honeysuckle and lightning bugs.

"Honeysuckle-2" by Aftabbanoori - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I'm not a plant person. Other people fawn over flowers and trees and I'm just like, "Yeah, boring." They may pretty up the landscape but I don't know the difference between any two botanical specimens and I don't care to know. Honeysuckle, though, is the exception.

The obvious reason, of course, is that the scent of honeysuckle is so sweet. I love to smell a single honeysuckle up close, and I also love to just be near a whole patch of it. In addition to the smell, of course, is the taste. I haven't actually tasted honeysuckle in ages but I can flash back in my mind to how exciting it was to extract and get just that tiny sample of nectar. And I think honeysuckle is pretty. It's not as ostentatious as a lot of other plant things that people fawn over, like roses and sunflowers, but maybe that's part of the appeal for me.

Then there are lightning bugs. Some folks call 'em fireflies, and I'll never understand why, given the choice between the two terms, anyone would leave "lightning bug" on the table. It has lightning in the name. That's baller.

Photo from Firefly.org.
Like tasting honeysuckle, part of my affinity for lightning bugs is directly connected to a childhood activity I've not engaged in for ages: collecting them in a Mason jar. I remember many a summer evening trying to fill a Mason jar, its top mutilated by a table knife to assure the little creatures wouldn't suffocate. I don't remember ever really doing this on my own, though maybe I did. I remember more vividly competing with neighborhood kids to see who could catch the most. A couple of the boys would squish them and that always upset me.

In addition to how cool it is that they glow in the dark, I always liked how it tickled when they would land and walk on my hand. Every other insect that's ever walked on me has squicked me right out, but lightning bugs have just the right balance and heft that it feels kinda nice. I would periodically elect not to capture one that landed on my hand, certain that it would give other lightning bugs the message that it was safe to come to me. I would wind up catching plenty more, so as far as I know those "all clear" messages were, in fact, relayed and anyone who says otherwise is a dirty rotten liar who doesn't speak lightning bugese.

There are other things I associate with summer, of course: Tropicana lotion, Kingsford charcoal, freshly cut grass, pink lemonade, drinking water from a garden hose. I dig all of those things. But honeysuckle and lightning bugs? Those things rule.

28 July 2014

Recollections from My Deathbed

Science says we dream all the time, but I rarely have any recollection of them. Last night, though, I had one in which I was in a hospital bed. A doctor who kinda reminded me of former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told me there was nothing more that could be done for me except to try to make things less painful and more peaceful. I don't think it was ever explained just what had happened. I like to think I sustained mortal wounds in a spectacular battle, Optimus Prime-style, but it was probably just my stupid guts. He said I had maybe a couple of hours remaining. Most of my family and friends were in the waiting area. I asked for each of them to be sent to me one at a time, and for him to do whatever he could to buy me enough time to say something to each of them.

I told some what I had learned from them; others, what I hoped they'd learned from me. In broad terms, I like to think those around me have helped me to define and apply my core values: compassion, patience, encouragement, trust, respect, kindness, acceptance. Likewise, I hope I've in turn helped others to find the self-confidence to question things, to find and use their voices, and hopefully to take a step they didn't originally think they could or maybe didn't even want to take.

I don't recall the issue of forgiveness coming up. I've made mistakes and I've been wronged, but I generally feel square with the world these days. My conscience feels clean at night and I don't carry the toxin of grudges. Sometimes I forget how valuable that is.

I told a couple of jokes I like to tell to some of my visitors. I like to make people laugh.

Guy gets pulled over by a cop for speeding. Cop walks up and asks for his license and registration. Guy says, "Well, officer, I'm gonna be honest. My license was revoked, and I don't know a thing about the registration for this car. I stole it just now from a little old lady I've got tied up in the trunk."

Cop says, "Wait right here" and then calls for backup. Within minutes, they're surrounded by every cop in the tri-state area; SWAT and helicopters and K-9's, the whole deal. The police commissioner himself tentatively approaches the driver and asks for the guy's identity.

Guy very cautiously produces his wallet and shows the commish a perfectly valid driver's license.

"I don't suppose you have the registration for this car?" the commish asks.

"Right here," the guy says, extracting it from the glove box.

Perplexed, the commish asks if the guy would consent to opening the trunk. Guy says that'd be fine, so they go around to the back of the car. He unlocks the trunk. No little old lady.

"I don't get it," the commish says. "The officer who called us in said you had no license or registration, that you'd stolen this car and had the driver tied up in the trunk."

"Yeah? I'll bet the lying s.o.b. said I was speeding, too!"

I brought up a favorite shared memory to some of my visitors. The best anecdotes can be conjured by shorthand, of course. A time and place (Salinas, KS; December, 2002) or a phrase ("twenty-four m***********' doughnuts!") will do the trick. No one said anything to me about the memory on their mind. Maybe because it was my dream? I don't know. I remember telling my cousin that this blog was full of my little stories and that it would be here for her once I was gone. [Note to self: record more anecdotes here.]

Some visits were entirely silent. A few just climbed into the hospital bed next to me and I did my best to just hold them for a few minutes. It was easier that way. I felt particularly mischievous and faked already having died just before one friend came to see me. I laughed. She didn't. I'm not going to reveal which friend this was because I think she'd be angry with me in real life if she knew I'd done that to her, even in a dream. Besides, I might actually have the presence of mind to pull that stunt one day and I don't want to spoil it entirely.

In all, I guess I remember about a dozen different visitors, with the sense of having met briefly with twenty or more in all. I don't remember how it ended. Maybe I'm still in that bed saying goodbyes. Maybe I just kind of slipped away. It could even be that I started to wake up around the end of the dream. I can't say. It didn't feel like awakening had interrupted the dream, but it might have.

I made one friend smile by simply going over a quick list of singers I was now going to have the chance to hear: Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Ray Price. I hoped they all sounded like they did later in their careers. I don't know why it should have mattered in the dream for me to remark, or for me to remember that detail from the dream, but there it is. I feel like he and I sang something together a cappella, but I couldn't rightly say what it was if we did.

As far as my arrangements, I let it be known in the dream and I'll say it here: Cremate my remains and scatter the ashes. I don't much care where, but no one gets to keep any of them. I don't want to be a tangible souvenir. I'm not sure how legally binding a blog post can be, but in the event that something should happen to me and I haven't made any formal final arrangements, someone please be sure to remember this!

20 July 2014

I'm Vulnerable, so Why Aren't I Worthy?

A friend of mine brought to my attention this TED Talk by Brené Brown. The impetus for my friend sharing this with me was the connection made by Brown between people who have ownership over their vulnerabilities and being "whole-hearted people, living from this deep sense of worthiness." Here's the entire talk, if you're the kind of person who'd rather go over primary source material first, rather than through the filter of a secondary source (i.e., my reactionary post about it). If you'd rather read the transcript, it's here.

Whether you just watched that or not, I want to highlight what Brown says beginning at 9:39:
The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable,nor did they really talk about it being excruciating -- as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing.They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.
Now, Dear Reader, I suspect you already see the connection I've made to Brown's remarks but just to spell it out, I identify with this characterization to a tee. It's something I have used for most of my life, really. I know it's hard for a lot of people to even articulate things about which they feel vulnerable, much less summon the fortitude to raise their hand and draw attention to these things. But I can articulate things reasonably well, and I am also willing to expose myself to criticism.

I was reminded of all this in 2011, when I was hospitalized at Our Lady of Peace to treat suicidal depression. What helped me more than anything about being there were the conversations in which I found myself articulating and volunteering things that others couldn't, or wouldn't. But after each group session, at least one other patient would privately thank me for speaking up.

Sometimes they were just uncomfortable speaking in front of a group - difficult for many people anyway, much less at a time in their lives like where they were at that time! Sometimes, my fellow patients just didn't know how to put into words what they wanted to share. Regardless of what their reasons for not volunteering to put their vulnerabilities on display, I was reminded throughout that weekend that I am capable and comfortable doing it.

This brings me back to Brené Brown and her research linking ownership of vulnerability with self-worth. Reading the transcript of Brown's TED Talk, I nodded along at almost all of it. It was like she was explaining why I am the way I am. I very much agree with Brown's points about how being comfortable with our vulnerability is a linchpin of our connections with other people; it's why my hospitalization helped me in 2011, and I like to think it's why you, Dear Reader, get something helpful out of this blog every now and again. That possibility is why I share what I share, after all.

So why have I never felt the self-worth that Brown's research correlates to ownership of vulnerability?

Why can I put myself on display so openly and make those personal connections, etc., but not feel that "sense of worthiness" that Brown says I should also feel?

18 July 2014

Top Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Riker

I decided it was high time to run down my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, by character. These lists are presented in chronological air date order, rather than any kind of ranking. I arbitrarily restricted each list to five episodes - four and a quarter hours of viewing sans commercials. 

Because each list is limited to just five episodes, I excluded two-parters. So do me a favor and don't complain that this list is invalid because it doesn't include "The Best of Both Worlds" and/or "Chain of Command". Yes, both are brilliant and Jonathan Frakes's Riker had some great moments in them, but if I went with those, that would have precluded most of this list. Which brings me to...

Top Five Episodes Starring
Jonathan Frakes
as Cmdr. William T. Riker

"A Matter of Honor"
2/6/1989 | Teleplay by Burton Armus, Story by Wanda M. Haight & Gregory Amos and Burton Armus | Directed by Rob Bowman

It's a simple concept: Riker serves as first officer on a Klingon ship as part of an officer exchange program. It's a whole lot of fun, though, to watch him defend against the machismo of the Klingons. This episode is basically every geek's fantasy of standing up to the jocks, and it's why we love Riker.

"First Contact"
2/18/1991 | Teleplay by Dennis Russell Bailey & David Bischoff and Joe Menosky & Ronald D. Moore and Michael Piller, Story by Marc Scott Zicree | Directed by Cliff Bole

Riker goes undercover to observe an evolving society, but is injured and discovered to be an alien. It's an interesting look at various reactions to the existence of other life - and it's hard to really be interesting about a subject as heavily discussed in the genre as that. There's also the matter of an indigenous woman blackmailing Riker into fulfilling her kinky fantasy of having sex with an alien as the condition for helping him escape. Generally, this is considered something of a lark but it invites a rather serious discussion about sexual negotiations. The episode handled the issue clumsily, I'm sorry to say, but I do appreciate that it's in there to get us thinking and talking.

"Frame of Mind"
5/3/1993 | Written by Brannon Braga | Directed by James L. Conway

"I might be surrounded by insanity, but I am not insane!" This episode is Frakes's shining hour in my book. It's why I was unimpressed by Inception; Christopher Nolan basically took the same concept but spun it as a ho-hum heist instead of the captivating psychological drama that TNG did. (There. I said it.) This episode was very much on my mind in 2011 when I checked into Our Lady of Peace. I was relieved that my experience there was nothing like what Riker endured here. That last scene, of him tearing down the set by himself, is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series, and it's only become more powerful for me in recent years. This episode could have easily been cheesy or outright insulting, but between writer Brannon Braga, director James L. Conway, and Frakes's performance, it's one of the crown jewels of the show.

"Second Chances"
5/24/1993 | Teleplay by René Echevarria, Story by Michael Medlock | Directed by LeVar Burton

Season Six was good to Number One! One of the last episodes of that season brings us this one, in which we discover that a storm caused a transporter glitch eight years ago to create a second William T. Riker who was stranded on a planet that our William T. Riker got to leave. Being marooned is a nightmare, and so is being involuntarily replicated in some way, so combining the two is genuinely disturbing. Today, the episode plays strongly as an allegory for post-traumatic stress disorder. I would imagine this one is extremely powerful for a lot of our military families.

"The Pegasus"
1/10/1994 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by LeVar Burton

We often point to Data and Worf to trace the growth of TNG, mostly because they had the most conspicuous event episodes, but "The Pegasus" showcases Riker's growth. We're reminded, through his account of his relationship with then-Captain Eric Pressman just how much a stick in the mud he was when we first met him - and then we're asked to imagine that he used to be even worse! But beyond that, this episode has a smorgasbord of great elements: The mystery of what happened on, and to, the U.S.S. Pegasus; the cat and mouse game with the Romulans to find her; the test of character and loyalty; and, of course, that delightful pre-credits teaser featuring Captain Picard Day.

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

Picard | Riker | Geordi | Worf

15 July 2014

Praying for Myself

I seldom discuss matters of faith in this blog, or even at all, because it's a deeply personal and complicated subject for me. Lately, though, something has been on my mind and I haven't found a satisfactory perspective so I thought I'd take the chance and put it out there. It's my sincere hope that maybe some thoughtful discourse will follow.

If someone specifically brings to my attention a prayer request, I usually oblige. On those occasions, I'll let the person know that I did, but that's more just to acknowledge that their request hasn't fall on deaf ears. What they need at those times is some kind of reassurance that someone is aware of their situation and cares. I can handle that. I will also often, on my own, ask God to help others find their way through a difficult time or to bring healing to them - physical, emotional, spiritual, whatever. I rarely tell anyone I've done this. I'm not seeking credit for anything that may come from those prayers, after all.

What I can't handle, though, is asking for anything for myself.

This isn't a matter of pride for me, or vanity. It's more just a simple matter of manners with me. I just don't want to be That Guy. You know, the one who puts you on the spot every time you see him with some request or another.

Plus, I don't like being micromanaged, so I figure He doesn't, either. If the point of my faith is to trust that God knows and cares about me, that He wants good things for me, and that there's a place for me in His plans, then isn't asking Him for something tantamount to badgering Him about His plans?

The most famous Scripture about praying is:
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. - Matthew 7:7-8
Is this about teaching me that I can have what I ask for but only if I ask for it? That seems kind of petty to me. I've always had a chip on my shoulder toward anyone who can see someone else needs help but won't give it or even offer it until that person asks. I've always perceived that as pettiness winning over compassion. It goes back to my childhood, knowing some people who seemed to relish being asked for help. These people practically rooted against the person in need, just to see them pushed so far that they would finally ask for help. It was about their ego, not compassion. Maybe that's an unfair grudge to extend to God, but there it is.

Anyway, I run into another problem here. By restricting myself to only those areas where I am powerless to do anything more on my own, I am by default firmly in the realm of Big Picture stuff. I don't ask for anything material in nature. I'm usually rankled by it, but I accept that He can be there with us while still allowing us to suffer. I'd like to have more good days than bad, physically. I'd like to have better mental health. I seek companionship. I don't want to die alone and be eaten by the cats, though I'm pretty sure that's what's in store for me.

There are some things within my power to affect these things, but most of those aren't so much things I can do to make things better so much as things I can do that will make matters worse, and obviously trying to avoid doing those things. For instance, I know there are foods I can eat that will send me straight to the ER. I have the agency to choose not to eat those foods, so I can avoid the ER. But avoiding the ER is not the same as improving things.

This also brings me to the matter of my struggle with the very concept of "deserving" things. I run from that concept as quickly as I run toward a pan of brownies. I can't wrap my head around that. I can't even say, "I deserve" aloud. Can't do it. Not even as a setup for a hyperbolic joke. Maybe I don't deserve anything. People flip out whenever I suggest that possibility, and I think it's because they're terrified that if I don't deserve anything then maybe they don't, either. I can see why that would be troubling to someone who believes they do deserve things, though I've honestly never considered that my standing should have any implications for yours.

Almost ironically, the reason I don't go near the "deserving" claim is my faith. To invoke a secularism here, I refer to a song:
"You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table/There'll be time enough for counting when the dealin's done." - "The Gambler" written by Don Schlitz
It's not my place to tally up where I stand or what I've "earned". I trust simply that when the time comes to be judged that whatever I've done right will be recognized along with whatever I've done wrong. I'm sure some others out there there view life more as a matter of cashing out along the way, but I don't. I'm still sittin' at the table, so the counting has to wait.

I have, though, finally broken down and asked Him lately for something. I don't want to discuss it, except to say that all I ask is a fair opportunity at something; something that feels as though it could be something He's put before me in the first place, but is not within my power to realize. Again, it's a matter where my power lies more in the area of being able to screw it up than in making it happen. I feel selfish and vulgar each time I've brought it up.

So, for those of you who do pray: Do you ask for things for yourself? Do you think in terms of what you "deserve"? How do you feel about all this? What am I missing here?

11 July 2014

Top Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Picard

I decided it was high time to run down my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, by character. These lists are presented in chronological air date order, rather than any kind of ranking. I arbitrarily restricted each list to five episodes - four and a quarter hours of viewing sans commercials. 

Because each list is limited to just five episodes, I excluded two-parters. So do me a favor and don't complain that this list is invalid because it doesn't include "The Best of Both Worlds" and/or "Chain of Command". Yes, both are brilliant and Patrick Stewart gave two of his finest performances in them, but if I went with those, that would have precluded most of this list. Which brings me to the first in this series..

Top Five Episodes Starring
Patrick Stewart
as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

"The Measure of a Man"
2/13/1989 | Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass | Directed by Robert Scheerer

Most people would call this a Data (Brent Spiner) episode, because it's about an effort made to classify Data as Starfleet property on the basis that he was found by a Starfleet away team and that artificial intelligence is not recognized as true sentience. For me, though, the thing is that Data is really the passive object of the plot; not its chief actor, who is Picard. From a dramatic storytelling perspective, "The Measure of a Man" is really more about how Picard handles the situation, fighting every step of the way for his second officer's rights - but also for his own values.

10/1/1990 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by Cliff Bole

The aftermath of "The Best of Both Worlds". Picard confronts his personal trauma and his bullying big brother, Robert. It's a deceptively simple look at coping mechanisms and brotherhood. If made today, this theme would have dominated the entire fourth season of the show instead of being wrapped up tidily in a single episode, but that's how shows were still produced in those days.


9/30/1991 | Teleplay by Joe Menosky, Story by Philip LaZebnik and Joe Menosky | Directed by Winrich Kolbe

My personal favorite episode of the entire series. Picard is on a planet with Dathon (Paul Winfield), whose entire language is built on metaphor. They're isolated from their respective ships, and together they have to overcome their language barrier. Admittedly, the setup is contrived but the heart of the episode is spectacular. I've always found linguistics fascinating anyway, and it's always nice when science-fiction can be bothered to step away from the convenience of having all these different species speak in English. Bonus: This episode introduces Picard's spiffy suede jacket.

"The Inner Light"

6/1/1992 | Teleplay by Morgan Gendel and Peter Allan Fields; Story by Morgan Gendel | Directed by Peter Lauritson

Because of my no-two-parters clause, this Picard list is missing "The Best of Both Worlds" and "Chain of Command", but "The Inner Light" is pretty much obligatory. Zapped by an alien probe, Picard goes into a sort of forced dream state in which he relives the life of someone else. There are lots of reasons people love this episode, but mine has always been just the fact that it's an acknowledgment that ordinary lives are important, too. Plus, there's Jay Chattaway's lovely theme.

2/15/1993 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by Les Landau

When Picard's artificial heart fails and he dies, Q intercepts him and gives him the Christmas Carol/It's a Wonderful Life treatment by showing him how differently his life would have been had his foolhardiness not earned him that fake ticker in the first place. I'm a sucker for the concept anyway, but even beyond that, it's a compelling commentary about how we grow as people in unexpected ways. Thematically, the episode would have worked built around any of the show's characters, but it really needed to be someone with some mileage. Because it's Picard, the wistfulness of the introspection feels more authentic than I think it would have had the story been about one of the others.

Picard | Riker | Geordi | Worf

So, how about it? Are any of these your favorites? What would you have picked - and what would you have removed from my list to make room for it?

Star Trek: The Next Generation is streaming on Amazon PrimeCBS.comHulu, and Netflix.

10 July 2014

Gail Simone's Run on "Batgirl" Ending

The news broke on MTV.com this morning: Starting with issue #35, Batgirl is getting a new creative team...which in turn means that issue #34, shipping in August, will be the final issue penned by Gail Simone and illustrated by artists Jonathan Glapion (pencils) and Fernando Pasarin (inks). DCComics.com's page dedicated to the book shows Batgirl: Futures End #1 ships in September, written by Simone. The art on that book is by Javier Garren. Futures End is set five years into the future, where things have gone apparently pretty wrong. I can't tell from the solicitation if this is a one-shot coda to Simone's run on the book or a spin-off.

It was three years ago that DC launched The New 52. I hadn't looked at monthlies in an entire decade by that point, save a brief flirtation with Superman/Batman that lasted all of about four months. It was the prospect of a Barbara Gordon-as-Batgirl book that most interested me. By the time I took to reading Batman comics a quarter century ago, Babs had already been paralyzed by The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke. I instantly loved the character, though, and I always felt cheated that my generation didn't get to have Barbara in action as Batgirl.

We did later get Barbara-as-Batgirl in Batman: The Animated Series, which was spectacular, and in Batman & Robin, which wasn't, but it wasn't the same as having her in that persona in a mainstream, in-continuity book. I respected what they did with her as Oracle, but it too wasn't the same. Of course, at that time, I was healthy so I didn't have then the deep appreciation I have now for what Oracle represented and means to a whole lot of readers.

Though I hadn't read anything in comics for ten years, I did keep tabs on things from afar. I had heard a lot about Gail Simone's work. Her reputation was for a balance of heart, humor, and above all, respect for people. The immediate fan reaction was divided over whether or not Barbara should revert to being healthy and active as Batgirl, or if she should remain paralyzed as Oracle, but it was unanimous that Simone should be the one entrusted with such a sensitive project. I felt confident going into issue #1. I was instantly sold.

The very first Batman comic book I ever bought was Detective Comics #603, written by Alan Grant. I would read a whole lot more of his Bat-work over the years, including the first three years of Batman: Shadow of the Bat. (Grant continued writing after Zero Hour, but I stopped reading. I was just fatigued as a reader by then.) Grant's take on Batman is the one that defines the character for me. His Batman is about social justice; of a man with all the privilege in the world whose life experience has led him to use that privilege in service of others. Grant's Batman is one who cares about people. His Batman saw the "undesirables" in Gotham City as human beings who deserved a champion.

In one of the first few issues of Simone's Batgirl, Babs encounters Ricky while apprehending him as part of an inept group of robbers. When a ruthless vigilante mutilates Ricky in the name of "justice", Barbara comes to his defense. It's a scathing rejection of the anti-hero fetish that has run roughshod over our nobler values, not just in comic books but sadly in our politics and society at large. It was then that I understood the devout following that Simone has earned over the years. Everything that clicked for me in Alan Grant's Batman stories was alive and well in hers. In a single word: Compassion.

I also quickly discovered that Gail Simone has a nightmarish imagination and seems to delight in conflating these values of compassion with some truly disturbing plots. Anyone who thinks that believing in things like empathy precludes going in some dark places needs look no further than her storytelling. I'm reminded of a comment Johnny Cash made during his At Madison Square album. The Man in Black was telling a story of playing shows for troops in Vietnam and trying to cheer them up in the infirmary. When asked whether that visit made him a hawk, Cash answered, "No, that don't make me a hawk. But it does make me a dove with claws, though." A dove with claws. That's probably the most concise distillation I've ever heard for what I value in a hero - real or fictitious.

Anyway, so I've read the MTV.com interview with the incoming creative team. Their plan is a near-total reboot of the book. Barbara will leave the working-class area where she's been and move on up to the East Side. The book is going to showcase "flirt, fun, and fashion". It's intended to be lighthearted, easy reading. The part of me that has been digging Jeff Parker's Batman '66 believes we need more lighthearted comics and sees a lot of potential for Barbara Gordon as Batgirl to be the epicenter for such a book.

And yet...

Even rarer than lighthearted comics these days are ones that espouse the "dove with claws" values that Simone has fought for on the page through Barbara, as well as in real life. If you want to see what a real dove with claws looks like, just pop on over to her Tumblr blog or Twitter feed. Or read any of the zillion interviews she's given.* She gives voice to people who are all too often marginalized and outright erased. She writes these stories this way because she cares about human beings. That's why Batgirl works. She's sensitive to what Oracle means for an entire generation of readers.

I wish the new creative team the best of luck. I mean that. These characters are bigger than any creator or creative team. They're transient. I get all that, and I made my peace with that back in my youth. But I fear that it's going to be awfully hard for Barbara Gordon to continue to engage and represent the "undesirables" of Gotham City if she moves into an insular posh end of town where, by design, those people can't go and aren't welcome. We're told that Barbara's trans roommate, radical activist Alysia Yeoh, will continue to exist in the book - but that she's staying where she is and now the Gotham River will be between the two friends. That feels an awful lot like the new team's way of saying, "We just don't want to deal with all that stuff".

And that's why it's so important that for three years, Gail Simone did.

Batgirl #34 - Gail Simone's Final Issue(?)
*Speaking of interviews with Gail Simone, I conducted one with her at C2E2, along with half a dozen other folks in the business, for a piece on the convergence of comics and Hollywood, from the side of comics. Right after I got home from that show I fell down the rabbit hole of depression again and those recordings and notes have collected dust, but I promise: I really am going to finish the piece now that I'm back in a healthier place!

05 July 2014

Can Anyone Remember When I Used to Be an Explorer?

There's a genuinely great moment in Star Trek: Insurrection, an otherwise mixed Trek outing. Captain Picard, wary of his assignment to recruit a new member to the Federation for the express purpose of deepening the roster at a time of war, wonders aloud, "Can anyone remember when we used to be explorers?"

That's about how I feel about my health. A little more than a week ago, I finally got to see honeyhoney perform in concert, at a little dive called Zanzabar in Louisville. I'd wanted to see them perform for six years, and was thrilled to finally get to do so. It was also my first concert since Black Joe Lewis in 2012, which you may recall was quite a big deal for me, Dear Reader. I invited several of my friends to turn up for the show, but only one managed to make it. (Funnily enough, this friend also has Crohn's.) We had a ball, and I was thrilled to share the experience with her. After the show, we got to chat with Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe for a bit. My friend shot this picture of me with them, and we have really creepy reflective peepers. Oh, well. Whaddya gonna do, right?

I've spent most of this entire week completely exhausted, though. I spent a little bit of time Monday evening with my niece. She called me again on Wednesday to see about hanging out, and I had to pass because I could barely keep my eyes open. I missed most of my friends's annual Fourth of July party last night because insomnia Thursday night into Friday morning caught up with me and I slept through the afternoon and early evening. I woke up just before 7:00 in the evening, dashed over as quickly as I could, and was too run down to stay past around 10:30. They were actually still lighting off fireworks when I bailed. I slept for about 15 1/2 hours once I got home, not getting up until late afternoon/early evening today.

And this, Dear Reader, is on the "good" side of what life with Crohn's is like.

Nobody told me about this part. They told me all about the Prednisone, and upper GI's, and other such things, but they didn't say anything about whole weeks lost to fatigue and unearned soreness. It didn't used to be like this. I know it didn't. I can prove it, because I have a record of all the baseball games, concerts, and movies I attended in my teens and twenties. There is evidence that I used to be a goer and a doer. I spent two weeks in Barbados back in 2000. I spent a combined two weeks in Las Vegas at the end of 2002. Sure, when I worked at Cracker Barrel, I wasn't as able to up and go do things because I had to work weekends (that's the nature of restaurant work, after all), but even then I managed to make my way out to my fair share of events.

And yet, these days I often feel as though I've researched someone else's life rather than recalled my own; that these artifacts belong to someone else rather than to me. There are, of course, plenty of other activities that didn't have a ticket stub. I know I spent evenings in the summer of 2001 at a defunct driving range in Pendleton, KY, whacking away at golf balls for hours on end with my brother and various friends. Used to just take off driving with no destination in mind with friends (remember when anyone could actually afford to go joy riding?).

I'd hear a song that caught my ear and wind up spending an entire day crisscrossing Louisville's music stores, hunting down every single thing I could find in that artist's discography. It was as much about the search as it ever was about the acquisition. I loved those days of hoping one record shop might have something none of the others had, and there were no meaningful barriers to making the effort to find out.

But, that was a long time ago in another life.

Today, any outing at all for me has to consist of at most a few specifically targeted places. They have to be near one another, and I have to know exactly what I'm hoping to find so I can get in and out before I feel too miserable to continue. Sure, I can research a discography online these days, and between Amazon, eBay, and iTunes find most anything, but it isn't the same as doing the legwork. Because, again, it was never just about acquiring the music. It was about going on an adventure, not even knowing what existed so I hoped to be surprised at what I found. I remember getting the biggest kick out of discovering The Best of Country Sings the Best of Disney, which I bought on a lark because I was on a Collin Raye kick at the time. (It turned out he did an absolutely brilliant cover of "A Whole New World", by the way, that was well worth the purchase.)

Sometimes I wonder, when I think of what it was like when I was healthy, just how the passage of time and the wear and tear on me appears to the healthy people around me, who were there for the good times. I used to be the given in pretty much any plan. No advanced notice necessary. No one even asked if I wanted to go do something; they just showed up and said, "We're going out" and I'd throw on some pants and away we went. Then it reached the point where invitations were extended more as a formality, knowing I'd wind up either declining or having to cancel at the last minute. Everyone has always been polite about it, reassuring me that they understand why I can't or didn't attend one function or other.

Of course, my health isn't the only thing that has changed these last nine years. We've all gotten older, become more involved with different things that preclude up and going out on a whim. That's just the nature of things. Aside from my health, I'm the one freest to go along with an idea these days. Everyone else has a significant other and/or at least one child. Some have demanding careers. There's nothing unique in any of this, but at the very least, there's satisfaction to be found in being a spouse or a parent, or in a career. There's no satisfaction whatsoever to be found in simply having rotten health.

Days like today bring me a combination of disappointment and resentment toward myself. It's been a decade now since Crohn's first appeared in my life (I was misdiagnosed in 2004), and I still feel bitter about every time I've had to say "Sorry, I can't do it", "Sorry I'm late", and/or "Sorry, I need to go." Some might roll their eyes at this post and mutter something about how I'm "feeling sorry for myself". This isn't Depression talking/writing, though. This is just a part of the frustration that goes with this stupid disease and the wear and tear it wreaks.

How about it, Dear Reader? If you have a health problem limiting you, how do you feel about it? If you've been part of my life going back to my healthy years, I'd be curious to hear how you perceive the changes in me over these last nine or ten years. And if you were at that honeyhoney show, I'd love to know if you could fill in a couple gaps in the set list!

27 June 2014

The Longest Two Innings of My Life

My official player photo.
I played just one season of Little League, back in 1990. I had only really gotten into baseball at all in 1988. I wasn't really confident enough to play - athletic things were always outside my comfort zone - but my brother was old enough to play Tee Ball in '90 and so it just sort of seemed obligatory that I should give it a go that season.

In those days, pitchers were restricted by innings, rather than pitches. We had two pitchers, but it happened that one was suspended for a not-relevant-here incident at the same time the other had hit his innings pitched limit for the week. We needed someone to take the ball. And so I did what no one else seemed willing to do: I volunteered.

Mind you, I had no illusions that I was going to be a phenom. That wasn't the point. The point was, someone had to take the mound and throw the ball. I've never had any problem putting myself out there, whether to be helpful or amusing. My ego has enough sense of humor that I don't embarrass easily.

So anyway, I was the starting pitcher in this one game. One of the restrictions in Little League at that time (perhaps still; I don't know) was that no matter how many outs were recorded, a team could only send ten batters to the plate per inning. When you're batting, you hate that rule because it automatically caps your offensive capabilities. When you're on defense, you're less against that rule because it assures your wait to bat again won't be too long. When you're pitching and you're struggling, you know that rule was written to preserve your ability to live with yourself.

I was, frankly, terrible.

I threw for two innings, before being relieved by another teammate. I'm not sure I recorded a single out, and I am sure that if not for that ten-batter limit, I might still be out there struggling. Everyone managed to either get a hit off me, or drew a walk. I hit at least two batters. I felt embarrassed when I hit the first, and furious with myself when I hit the second. I don't really remember much from the second inning, except pure dread.

None of my teammates spoke to me between innings, or even throughout the rest of that game. Not as I recall, anyway. In fairness, I had retreated so far inward by the end of the first inning that my recollection on this point can't be trusted. I can only say that I felt completely alone. I didn't mind so much that I looked bad out there; I had never pitched a game in my life. I knew only a little about grips and less about technique.I was responsible for setting the tone for the game, and I had done a dismal job of it. Worse, I'd put us behind by allowing in however many runs I'd coughed up. They say it's lonely at the top, and let me tell you something: the pitching mound is only a few inches elevated above the rest of the field, but it's the loneliest place on the entire diamond.

Our manager had actually been absent for a week or so at this time, but reappeared some time by the end of that first inning. One of my former teammates insists otherwise, but I know without a doubt that it was during this game that he reappeared because I had never been more relieved or hopeful to see him - or any other human being - in my life. The other coaches had kept things going in his absence, but he was the one responsible for the team. His responsibility was greater than mine, and I was desperate that he would find a solution. He sent me back out to pitch the second, saying he hadn't really had a chance to see much of the first. I took the ball and went back out there. Mercifully, when I returned to the dugout after that inning, he took me out of the game. I sat and sulked in the dugout for all of the third and probably the fourth, as well.

All these years later, two of my friends who were on that team still enjoy busting my chops over how awful a pitcher I was. One of them was the ace pitcher whose spot I had taken because he was suspended. I wasn't in competition with him or anyone else when I volunteered to pitch. I knew I was a sacrificial lamb. I honestly thought I'd do better than I did, of course, but there was no time for anyone to work with me about pitching before the game. It was just one of those things where you had to do something and hoped for the best, knowing that at its worst, it was still better than forfeiting a game outright. You can't stage a comeback in a forfeit, after all. Better to be defeated on the field of play than to not even try.

I learned a lot from just that one season of Little League, and in particular my two innings pitched. Just because I enjoy or want to do something doesn't mean I can, or should. Sometimes I wonder if I haven't internalized that lesson too strongly and allowed it to become a glass ceiling for myself. Maybe I've abandoned things too quickly at times over the years. That's a little life lesson that's sort of been on my mind lately, for various reasons.

But another thing I can attribute to that outing was that it's a whole lot easier to watch someone else struggle and sling barbs at them than it is to put yourself out there and take the risk. I have never once regretted that I volunteered to eat up a few innings of pitching when my team needed someone to do it. The only part I have ever regretted was that I was so far in over my head.

24 June 2014

Weathering the Storm of 35

Hello, Dear Reader. It's been awhile. Let's do some reviewing and catching up, shall we?

Remember how awesome 2012 was for me? That year, from start to finish, was terrific. I finished my novel that year. I went out to see a lot of movies, most with various friends. I returned to Chicago for the first time since my honeymoon. I attended my first concert since Bush was in office. I dated someone for a little while, and when she ended the relationship, it didn't crush my entire world. I handled it just fine. I had Depression under control and even Crohn's seemed to be less brutal to me that year. I capped off that year with one of my best birthday celebrations of all-time and a lovely Christmas. 2012 was awesome.

2013 was a serious step down. I returned to Chicago, but my health was terrible that whole weekend. I was miserable pretty much the entire time. The lone bright spot for me, really, was that I finally got to meet a dear friend in person in Atlanta and my health actually was cooperative for that. That visit was wonderful, and it was really the only oasis that entire year. I didn't share all the parts that sucked, because I try to only share the down stuff when there's a clear potential use to you, Dear Reader, and honestly, I could not point to any value to you in knowing the extent to which my 2013 sucked.

The end of 2013 brought me an earth-shattering discovery that upset me so much I drank until sunrise, singing along with Randy Travis's Storms of Life album on vinyl ad infinitum. Now, I've been awake all night before in my time, but that was a first for me. It was about the loneliest I've felt in a long time. It retroactively cast doubt on a whole lot of things; things upon which I had built a strong part of my self-image. All of a sudden, even those few things I used to take solace in believing were good about myself felt like hollow lies.

[I'm not trying to tease what this discovery was, because it's off-limits for this blog.]

We had a nasty winter here. Hell, I think there's still some snow somewhere in the backyard. It was isolating, bringing vintage "winter blues" even to otherwise balanced friends of mine. Plus, it made my hips and back hurt round the clock. Throughout all that, I found myself swept along in a current of self-doubt, self-loathing, fear, and worthlessness. I did return to Chicago with my friends in April, for our third consecutive visit, and that weekend was genuinely great. But the very next day after we returned home, I reverted to where I had been before we left and I quickly devolved even further.

I reached a point where I didn't see a point in writing. Like, anything. No novel, no short stories, no blog posts, no nothin'. I came to feel the world already had too much white noise, and it didn't need me contributing to it. It seemed like people who, in 2012, had discussed with me my posts about depression, instead skipped my content entirely and shared things written by Allie Brosh and Wil Wheaton. I readily concede I had some sour grapes. I know Joe Q. Public reads Brosh and Wheaton and not me, and that's okay, but when my own friends were sharing links with me asking, "Did you see this?" and it turned out to be a sub-topic I had actually written about myself without a single acknowledgment, that stung.

Not that I'm in competition with Brosh or Wheaton, or even that in any way they're competitors. Mental health as a subject is still in such dire need of responsible, positive-looking advocates that even as we canonize leaders, we can't really afford to quash or exclude even the quietest of voices. And, in truth, Brosh and Wheaton are doing me a lot of good, too, even when I don't read what they write, because someone else is reading it.

I did self-publish Reunion at the Bluegrass Inn last year, which was kind of exciting at first, but I've only sold a handful of copies to date. Mind you, I didn't expect to make it onto a best-seller list. But as with my non-competition with Allie Brosh and Wil Wheaton, it wasn't that the world at large didn't pay me any heed that got to me.

Not one member of my own family has bought, or even asked me about buying, a copy. None have even tried to hit me up to give them a copy. I had one close friend tell me outright she just wasn't going to pay so high a price (~$13) for a physical book because she only reads ebooks these days. That I had written the book, and priced it as low as Lulu.com would let me, weren't sufficient to bait her into buying. I gave up on trying to promote the book. I deactivated my Facebook "writer" page. I even took down the book for sale for about a month.

This may read like a whole lot of self-indulgent overreacting on my part, and I readily concede that maybe that's all it is. I do know, however, that people who have not tried to pursue creative endeavors are truly incapable of understanding how fragile the creative person's ego is. It's not like anything else in life, to not just create but to put a key part of yourself into the work, and onto display, only for it to be snubbed and rejected, resonates on a visceral, personal level.

Put another way: I grew up with some people telling me I had the aptitude to be a writer, a whole lot more telling me that being a writer was too lofty and I needed to not even bother trying, and when I finally did try, it was met with a resounding yawn from even some of the people closest to me. What other conclusion could I draw, except that the world did not need me contributing to its white noise?

Other things were on my mind as well, but again, these are things I don't discuss in this blog. I withdrew quite a bit from the world through the end of May. I felt like I had felt back in my Year of Hell: like I was just running down the clock, trying to decide when to concede defeat and wrap things up. I never got bad enough that I was seriously going to try again to commit suicide, but I thought about it quite often. Sometimes, I find it comforting just to remind myself it's still an option at my disposal. You probably don't understand that morose comfort, Dear Reader, and I'm grateful that you don't. But I have, and still do, take some solace in knowing that I don't have to be here any longer than I'm willing to bear it.

The last weekend in May was mixed for me. I felt up and down and up and down and I confess I did a lot of drinking alone that Friday and Saturday. I wasn't necessarily self-destructive, but I definitely didn't give a tinker's damn what it did to me. I was in a lot of emotional pain that weekend. A friend who'd moved away years ago was in town with his wife and their young son. I threw together some breakfast plans, reuniting the four of us guys who'd been the core of our group in high school, along with their wives and kids. I, of course, attended solo and hungover. (And I was the last one there, despite being the closest to where we met.)

It was nice to catch up, but I'd more or less consigned myself to muddling through enough daylight that I could get back to the rum I hadn't quite killed the two previous nights. Two friends insisted I spend the day with them instead, though, and I capitulated because I know when I'm in a phase like I was at that time that when I have the chance to be engaged, I need to make myself take that chance. Even if I phone it in and just go through the motions, it's important that I do that much. (If you know what I'm talking about, I congratulate you on going through enough motions that you're still here.)

Things turned around for me that afternoon. I'll explain more another time, for various reasons, not least of which being that this has already turned into a far longer piece than I had intended. Another key reason is that I really don't yet know what there is to say, except that I've felt a lot more peaceful overall. I'm still prone to fits of anxiety and moodiness, of course; these things don't all just go away overnight. But I'm certainly on an upswing.

Why did I write all this? Because a few people have insisted that I need to resume writing, and I promised that I would try. But also because I know some people who are in a dark place right now. I know better than to say, "See? I'm all better now so you will be, too!" That would be disingenuous and insulting to them (or you, if you happen to be in such a dark place, Dear Reader). I can't even know how long this upswing will last, though I have some hopes and aspirations for it.

But my core philosophy for managing Depression has always been: Weather the storm. This storm ran from the night of 1 December 2013 (my 35th birthday) through the morning of 1 June, a full six months. The storm has finally abated, though, and I had my doubts, especially throughout May, that it would end in any way other than me capitulating to Depression. I don't really know what specific "moral of the story" you're supposed to take from all this, but as always I hope you're able to find something in it somewhere that's helpful to you in some way.

Healthy people don't understand how hard it is to even "just" go through the motions at times, nor do they appreciate how exhausting it is to make yourself put in that kind of effort. They also don't understand why it really is an accomplishment, just meeting the bare minimum demands of the day for days, even months, on end. But I know, and if you're doing it right now, so do you. Keep doing what you're doing. Not because I can promise a pot of gold at the end of your rainbow, but because there will at least be a rainbow at the end of your storm.

That's science.


I totally forgot to conclude with this quote I recently came across and, as one of those romantics who believes baseball is the best metaphor for life, I instantly loved it:
"Life will always throw you curves, just keep fouling them off... the right pitch will come, but when it does, be prepared to run the bases." - Rick Maksian
Just keep fouling off those curve balls. The spectators may get bored, and others around you may get frustrated, but that really is the best advice I have ever heard. I learned from watching Paul O'Neill play first with the Reds, then later with the Yankees, that fouling off pitches isn't about screwing up getting a hit. It's about screwing up a pitch and making the pitcher throw you another that might be more to your liking.