28 February 2015

Top Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Geordi

Awhile back, I decided it was high time to run down my favorite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation by character. I made it as far as Picard and Riker and then sort of fell out of blogging entirely. 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. This list showcases a character who wasn't really prominent in any of the two-parters so their omission isn't much of an issue here. So now, here are...

Top Five Episodes Starring
LeVar Burton
as Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge

"Booby Trap"
10/30/1989 | Teleplay by Ron Roman and Michael Piller & Richard Danus; Story by Michael Wagner & Ron Roman | Directed by Gabrielle Beaumont

With the Enterprise caught in a mess, Geordi decides to make clever use of the Holodeck to create an interactive version of Dr. Leah Brahms, the ship's lead designer. What I like about this one is that we get to see Geordi as a professional, but also as a person. He's stubborn. He gets frustrated. He's charmed by the Holodeck's recreation of Dr. Brahms. It's all kind of weird, but it's a terrific showcase of the character. There is a follow-up episode, "Galaxy's Child", in which the real Dr. Brahms visits and is...well, she's not like the Holodeck said she was.

"The Enemy"
11/6/1989 | Written by David Kemper & Michael Piller | Directed by David Carson

The Enterprise responds to a distress signal from a downed Romulan ship. The setup is contrived, but the upshot is that an injured Geordi is trapped on an inhospitable planet with an injured Romulan while their respective ships have a showdown. It's a lot like the film No Man's Land, but without Nick Nolte. For me, the episode works almost entirely because it's Geordi in harm's way. This is really the first time I think we saw him tested in such a way, and while we're never afraid something awful will happen to him, we do wonder how he's going to make it through.

"The Mind's Eye"
5/27/1991 | Teleplay by René Echevarria, Story by Ken Schafer and René Echevarria | Directed by David Livingston

Geordi is captured by Romulans, brainwashed and returned as a programmed assassin sent to kill a high-ranking Klingon. This episode appeals to the cloak & dagger spy story fan in me. The suspense is sufficiently taut throughout, though admittedly blunted because The Next Generation was a prototypical episodic series. We never really worry that whatever happens in "The Mind's Eye" will affect events in the franchise for years to come - and so far, it hasn't. (Had this been an episode of Deep Space Nine, though...!)

"We can explain! No, really, that's what we're about to do. There are only a few minutes left."
"The Next Phase"
5/18/1992 | Written by Ronald D. Moore | Directed by David Carson

Geordi and Ro are accidentally phased off the regular plane of existence and are presumed dead. Ro confronts her own spirituality, something she'd previously denied. Geordi isn't having any of it, though, and doggedly pursues a scientific explanation - and solution. Part of the reason I picked this as a Top 5 Geordi episode is that he drives the narrative, displaying how intelligent he is without having Data to bounce things off of along the way. And watching his relationship with Ro develop is warm without being schmaltzy.

10/17/1993 | Written by Joe Menosky | Directed by Robert Weimer


This one starts off fairly contrived: Geordi is tinkering with a way to use his VISOR for remote control activity just in time to find out the starship his mother was commanding has disappeared in a dangerous place. Obviously, Geordi will use this new gimmick to rescue her. Duh. Except, he doesn't. It's the final act that makes this one stand out. It's one of the more daring episodes of the entire series, and a shame they never really followed up on what this one did to Geordi.

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

Picard | Riker | Geordi | Worf

20 February 2015

On Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard's latest (I hesitate to say "last" because I'm at heart an optimist, no matter what you may hear otherwise) #1 radio hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star", which peaked in February, 1988. I kind of remember being aware of "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room" from 1984, but otherwise Hag strangely managed to stay off my radar despite country being my primary genre. My mom's favorites were Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap; my dad was more into Conway Twitty and George Jones. Just like Waylon and Willie, Hag was just sort of out there in the ether, waiting for me to find on my own later.

It wasn't until I started following the threads of the genre for myself that I kept encountering Merle Haggard time and again. You couldn't read an interview with any country artist that didn't cite him as a key influence, and he was also often credited for keeping alive the music of pioneers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. Hag was the epicenter of the entire genre, really. The liner notes for George Strait's 1995 box set, Strait Out of the Box, made that case clearly enough. When I finally got to see King George perform in 1999, he covered "Mama Tried" in the middle of his set. Two years later, when I first saw Gary Allan in concert, he covered five Haggard classics - a full sixth of his entire show. Finally, I broke down and ordered from BMG Music Club the 100-song box set Down Every Road: 1962-1994.

I'm gonna be honest: I didn't "get" it.

I understood that Haggard occupied the place in the genre that he did, as torchbearer and influence and all that, and I could glean the populist nature of his lyrics that earned him the moniker "Poet of the Common Man", but I just didn't connect with that box set. In truth, I found a lot of it kind of lethargic.

I was determined to keep at it, though. I bought a 1999 2-disc set, For the Record: 43 Legendary Hits, comprised of all-new recordings of most of Haggard's most iconic tunes. I even bought a tribute album, Mama's Hungry Eyes: A Tribute to Merle Haggard featuring artists like Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson. The punchier arrangements agreed with me more than did the original versions, at least enough that I kept exploring.

Finally, in 2003, I got to see the legend himself perform at Coyote's Music and Dance Hall in Louisville. His album, Haggard Like Never Before, dropped that same day. I'd attended probably a dozen shows at that venue by then. They were mostly cacophonies of instruments and singing, which I attributed to the acoustic of the place...until Merle Haggard & The Strangers played, and for the only time out of all the shows I ever caught there, I could hear each instrument clearly throughout the night. These guys knew what they were doing. It was downright revelatory. I bought the new album, which I rather enjoyed. I reconciled myself to the idea that I was simply a "newer, not original" Haggard fan.

And then last year, for whatever reason, it finally clicked.

In the span of about one week in May, I think I played the entirety of Down Every Road something like six or seven times. I took walks around the neighborhood listening to it on my iPod. I picked right up with it at home. I used a cassette adapter to play it while driving. I was captivated. Maybe I just hadn't hurt enough before. God knows, that time period was hard for me. The stripped-down arrangements that had previously been uninteresting were now audible manifestations of aching misery. Music is made by the space between the notes, they say, and there's something almost sadistic about the space between a lot of Hag's notes.

One of the subjects that comes up a lot whenever I discuss the music I'm into is how peculiar it is for a liberal like me to be so into country music. I'll admit, a song like "The Fightin' Side of Me" is pretty far to the right of where I identify (though I'll also admit the song is catchy as could be and I sing along with it in spite of myself every time). But here's the thing: I listen to a song like "(I'm A) Lonesome Fugitive" or "Sing Me Back Home" and I understand why the world needs Merle Haggard. Johnny Cash used his voice to highlight the experiences of marginalized people, too, but there's a key difference: Haggard had actually served hard time. He wasn't empathizing with inmates; he was writing and singing as one.

As I've fallen out of love with mainstream country music over the last ten years or so, it hasn't been because it's all started to sound like watered down rock and pop music; it's because the lyrics have become so banal and the landscape has become dominated by GOP fundraiser anthems. You can't go half an hour without hearing a pale imitation of "The Fightin' Side of Me", but good luck finding an heir apparent to "Sing Me Back Home". The humility and empathy that Haggard brought to his music is too nuanced, too forgiving and accepting, for today's country radio it seems.

Oh, and aside from songs empathizing with inmates (imagine someone on country radio pulling a stunt like that at a time when one state just brought back execution by firing squad!), Down Every Road features not one, but two songs about interracial romance: "Go Home", a cut from his second album, Branded Man, penned by Tommy Collins, about a nondescript (we can assume white) American and a Mexican woman, and the single "Irma Jackson", about a white narrator and an African-American woman. In both instances, the romances are dashed by social intolerance and bigotry. Haggard had intended "Irma Jackson" to follow his signature single, "Okie from Muskogee", in 1969. Capitol Records overruled him and compelled him to instead record and release "The Fightin' Side of Me" to cement his standing with conservative listeners - many of whom had been iffy about embracing a known ex-con. Capitol wouldn't let Hag even release "Irma Jackson" for another three years, in 1972.

I remember reading in the pages of Country Weekly that Haggard opened his first post-9/11 concert with "Silver Wings", a song in which the narrator pleads with his love not to get on a plane and leave him behind. (On the aforementioned For the Record re-recordings, this song was cut as a duet with Jewel.) They made note that later in the show, he did perform "The Fightin' Side of Me", because the crowd all but demanded it, but that Hag's heart wasn't in it. Two years later, when I saw him, he opened with that tune. I wondered at the time whether he had begun to open with it just to get it out of the way.

Later during that show, he ad-libbed in "That's the Way Love Goes": "Don't worry...except when George Bush is in office." The crowd must have misheard him because they erupted with applause. I think if they'd caught what he actually said, ol' Hag might've been Dixie Chick'd. (Speaking of whom, Hag was one of the few to offer any kind of support for them at the time of that whole debacle, though his position was that they shouldn't be persecuted; he stopped short of weighing in on whether or not he shared their stance on the President.)

The closing number was the lead single from the album that dropped that same day. The song was "That's the News", a scathing indictment of how even in the fall of 2003, mainstream America had already become detached from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On his next album, Chicago Wind, came a song called "America First", in which Hag argued that instead of nation-building adventurism, our collective resources would be better put to use addressing matters at home. President Obama has pressed that same case since his initial presidential campaign seven years ago.

Then there's his 1981 hit, "Rainbow Stew", which is practically a checklist for Utopia; everything from clean air and water to cars that don't run on gasoline, and "a President [who] goes through the White House doors and does what he says he'll do". That song didn't make the set list on the night I caught him in concert. If contemporary listeners thought the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan heralded the golden age envisioned in "Rainbow Stew", they were surely disillusioned quickly.

I'm hardly the first listener to note that Merle Haggard has taken contradictory positions over the years in his music (and in some interviews). But whether because his perceptions have evolved or perhaps he's just trying to look at things from a different angle than the last time he looked at them, there's an authenticity to each song that places Haggard above accusations of "flip-flopping". You can have your "Fightin' Side of Me" and I can have my "Rainbow Stew".

And in between those two ends of the spectrum are the songs about everything else, from falling in - and out - of love, getting in - and out- of trouble, having a good time with others and being overwhelmed by lonesomeness. You don't have to have lived each situation; Hag's done that for us already. If there's a song you can relate to, it's comforting to know someone else has been there. If you haven't been there, hopefully you can come away from any given song with something new to consider.

At the 2014 Grammy Awards. Photo by Kevin Winter.
Last week, when my grandfather passed away, I was the one who told my mother, face to face. That whole day was surreal and upsetting. Eventually, I turned off my cell phone, picked up my iPod, and went for a walk. I threw Down Every Road on shuffle. I walked until my thighs chaffed. I think I'd made it about 27 or 28 songs into the box by the time I returned to the house. I didn't really process either the music or the day's events. I was just in a sort of daze of aimless hurt. Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference what I played during that walk, but the fact that out of my entire library, I instinctively went to Hag - not an artist I associate in any way, shape, or form with my grandfather - surely says something.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Haggard song I find myself playing the most is "The Bottle Let Me Down". "Sing Me Back Home" breaks my heart each time to hear it. And I would absolutely love to hear Hag himself sing "Trying Not to Love You", which was performed by Alan Jackson for the Mama's Hungry Eyes tribute album, as well as by David Ball for his Amigo album. I have both those cover versions, but I can't find any evidence that Hag himself has ever released a recording of it. That song....Good God, I suffered through a months-long crush last year where that song was the closest thing to articulating what I was feeling. I just kept playing the Jackson version over and over, sometimes alternating with "The Bottle Let Me Down".

12 February 2015

James Stuart Logsdon, 12/4/1933-2/11/2015

Pappaw and me, December, 1980.
His birth name was James Stuart Logsdon. For select few, he was "Jimmy". For most people, he was "Stu". For me, he was "Pappaw".

Few people have loomed so large in my life as my grandfather. He was not an outwardly affectionate person. He was born without a filter and could - and did - offend pretty much everyone with whom he ever held a conversation. My uncle tells a story of going to lunch once with him, where being seated next to a table of nuns did nothing to discourage his rampant use of four-letter words. He could be belligerent and even boastful about it. I still have not seen Gran Torino, but everyone in my family who has seen it insists that it must surely have been based on my grandfather.

But there was no mistaking his number one priority: providing for his family. My brother remarked yesterday that even though they weren't what you'd call "close", he always knew that if he ever needed any kind of help, he could call Pappaw and know without any doubt that he'd take the call and be there to solve the problem one way or another. Just knowing that kind of help was a phone call away has been reassuring throughout my entire life.

No single event defined his life as much as the death of my Uncle Stuart (James Stuart Logsdon, Jr.) a few years before I was born. I can't think of any subject that came up somehow or other in every single conversation we ever had than Stuart. He remarked often that he saw in me a lot of the same things he saw in my uncle, and that was certainly at the core of our relationship. It wasn't that I was my uncle by proxy; other family members have also attested to our similarities.

I have been chided throughout my entire life for not being more outwardly assertive, that I don't stand up for myself, that I'm a pushover, etc. I have instead always felt that I'm simply not a score-keeper in life, that I'm patient and forgiving, and that under that outward layer of perceived weakness is an inner strength. This was the case for my Uncle Stuart as well. Any time throughout my life that I've doubted my nature, knowing that these were the same inner strengths that my grandfather and others respected and admired in my uncle has assuaged those doubts.

Big Stu & Donnie, circa 1993.
My grandfather's best friend was undoubtedly his brother, Don. They got together daily, or very nearly to it. The fact that my grandfather could so casually alienate people with his tongue attests to their deep understanding of one another. I'm not sure I ever heard of them having any serious falling out at any point in their lives, a testament to Donnie's ability to ignore Pappaw's casual vulgarity and to connect instead with his better traits. I always felt that I, too, had that ability because nothing my grandfather ever said ever fazed me.

In 2000, I had the opportunity to take a two-week course in Cross-Cultural Studies in Barbados. I was working at Cracker Barrel at the time, and I could have paid for it myself - but not in the time that the professor needed the money in order to secure my arrangements. It was my grandfather who made possible my going. He didn't flinch at the price tag, because he believed in education and experience and wanted me to have as much opportunity for both as I could.

Repaying him was out of the question; that's the kind of man he was. Knowing his fondness for beverages of the adult persuasion, I brought back to him a 50mL bottle of Mount Gay Rum as a thank you souvenir. Just a few days ago, I found it in a cabinet in his living room, unopened. It was the only booze to ever go into that house and not be drunk, because he ascribed to it a sentiment that was never articulated in any other way. I was truly touched to discover that he had kept it these fifteen years.

Education was one of the things he emphasized the most over the years, to all four of his grandchildren. He himself had not been a particularly standout student (and I recently came across one of his report cards that attests to that!), but he had scratched and clawed his way up the ladder at Louisville Gas & Electric through hard work and shrewdness. He started in an entry level position, but had reached the position of Senior Public Agency Rep. External Affairs when he retired after 41 years of service to the company. A framed lithograph commemorating his career is one of the few things adorning the walls in his bedroom.

In a rare display of whimsy, wearing my Dukes of Hazzard hat at one of my birthdays.
He took great pride in his career, and rightly so, but he also knew that glass ceilings were constructed throughout his time there and that for his grandchildren to be able to realize whatever ambitions we may have, that we would need the college education that he never had. The days of working your way to the top on skill and merit alone were over; sheepskin was the key to unlocking the next door, and he wanted each of us to have one. I didn't attend my commencement ceremony when I graduated from the University of Louisville (such an event seemed unwise for a guy recently diagnosed with Crohn's disease, after all), but I know without a doubt that had I walked, he'd have been in the audience that day.

My grandfather's favorite (and possibly only) hobby was horse racing. It was he who first took my brother and me to fabled Churchill Downs, during the Fall Meet of 1991. I remember vividly that on our way out, we'd stopped at a convenience store. I bought my very first Star Trek (#26) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (#25) comic books from a spindle there. The weather was dreary and drizzled, but the sheer excitement of going to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, was akin to going to the Vatican with a devout Catholic.

I've been back to Churchill a few times over the years, and each time I made a point to call him for advice on placing a bet. Not because I necessarily needed the input - I didn't bet enough to worry about losing - but because it was a way to engage him. Those calls only lasted a few minutes, and he never said a word to me about them, but I know he had his TV tuned in and followed the races on which I'd bet, as much to see how I fared as because he was going to watch them anyway.

From left to right: My grandfather, his mother, and his brother.
On Wednesday, 4 February 2015, my grandfather suffered a stroke. I went to see him the next two days. On the first day, I recounted to him an anecdote from my last visit to Churchill. I was with my grandmother, her brother, and her sister-in-law. In one race, the #7 horse named Plenty O'Toole, the name of a minor Bond Girl in Diamonds Are Forever, the seventh James Bond (i.e., 007) movie. I felt like God wanted me to bet that horse. It was scratched. Despite his face being partially paralyzed, my grandfather rolled his eyes and smiled at the story. That was an important moment to me, because it confirmed for me that though he could not speak, but he could understand us still. And also that his wry humor was still intact, because he appreciated the story for what it was. It was, so far as I know, the last horse racing story shared with him.

He was unable to speak, but could squeeze our hands to answer "yes or no" questions. We all asked things like, "Are you cold?", "Are you in any pain?", and "Do you want a blanket?" He insisted he wasn't, wasn't, and didn't, respectively. He squeezed "yes" to some other questions, though. On Saturday, 7 February, my family left the hospital because the staff was going to remove his feeding tube and move him to another room. I had left my phone charger in his room and went back to retrieve it, just before the staff came in to do their business. I paused a moment as we made eye contact.

I placed my hand under his and I asked him pointblank, "Are you scared?"

Pappaw didn't squeeze my hand. He simply looked at me, and we both understood. He was ready to go. I said to him, "Don't worry about us. We're going to be okay. It's okay." He blinked, slowly. We held each other's gaze for a moment or two, and then I left. To my knowledge, that was the last conversation he had. Thereafter, he was heavily sedated with pain medication and remained unconscious for any subsequent visitors. It was comforting for me, and I like to think it was comforting for him, too.

One week to the day after he suffered the stroke, 11 February, my grandmother and I went to see him at the hospice care unit where he had been transferred. He was clearly unconscious, but had great difficulty breathing. It was clear he would not be with us much longer. At one point, he coughed up a little blood. Two nurses came into the room. One wiped his face, while the other swiftly removed his dressing gown and replaced it with a clean one. Just a minute or two later, at 9:30 on the dot, my grandfather passed away. I'm certain that the neat freak in him appreciated going out with a freshly cleaned face, wearing a fresh dressing gown, and the promptness of his time of death.

It will take some time for me to really process what his passing means for me, and for my family. I feel content that I did right by him there at the end, bearing witness without gawking, and showing him the dignity and respect that I always tried to show him. He left explicit instructions that his funerary services be devoid of pomp and circumstance; he hated such productions and wanted none for himself. Such gatherings are for the living, not the departed, but we will honor those wishes in a small service this Saturday. He gave far more than he ever asked in return, after all.

Pappaw & me. Note the LG&E company car outside the house.
For more on my relationship with my grandfather, read "The Great, Every-Other-Weekend Escape".
For more on my Uncle Stuart, read "'From the Jaws of Death' by Stuart Logsdon" and "What They Left Behind".