27 December 2016

In Memoriam: Carrie Fisher

I took myself to a matinee of Rogue One this afternoon. It leads up to the first scene of the original Star Wars movie, with a motion-capture recreation of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the final shot. A rebel hands her a data disc containing the stolen plans to the Death Star, and asks her what it is. "Hope," she answers. Cut to credits.

That was the memory of Carrie Fisher I was able to form before learning that while I was at the theater, news had spread that she had died. In fact, it was my therapist who told me about it at my appointment a few hours after the movie. If there's a more Carrie Fisher way to find out about something like this than from your therapist, I don't know what it would be.

I didn't grow up with Star Wars. I knew it existed, but there was no one in my life to see to it that I was exposed to it, so I didn't get around to watching the movies until I decided to rent them on VHS in 1992. So despite being from the generation I'm from, I can't share tales of watching Princess Leia save the galaxy shaping my childhood.

What I can share, though, is how reading Carrie Fisher interviews has shaped my ability to discuss my mental health.

Being a geek, I read various geek-centric magazines long before I finally gave in and explored Star Wars. There's no telling when I first read an interview with Fisher, or in which magazine, or what she even talked about in it. It doesn't make much difference, though, because as anyone who has ever read pretty much any interview she ever gave knows, invariably she would have touched on her mental health in one way or another.

I remember feeling confused and even a bit put off by the way she talked about having bipolar disorder. Her sense of humor made me question if she took it seriously, and if she didn't, why should anyone else? I didn't know anything about bipolar disorder aside from it being a volatile mental illness. It sounded scary. How could it be scary if she was making jokes about it?

Of course, this was all before I was ever given my own diagnoses and began to really learn about mental health. I didn't know the term "stigma", but I intuited that it existed. Things like bipolar disorder were unfit for polite society. They were embarrassing for the people who had it and they made everyone else uncomfortable. And then there was Carrie Fisher, who seemed incapable of being embarrassed.

I didn't understand it at the time, but what was actually taking place was I was reading an interview that some magazine decided to run because their readers loved Star Wars (even if it was ostensibly about some other film of hers, it was always really about Star Wars) and what Carrie Fisher was doing was showing us how to actually acknowledge and discuss mental health at a time when so few others seemed comfortable even trying. I was learning from her that it's okay to talk about it at all, for one thing, but I was also learning from her the ways that one can talk about it.

If I had to characterize Carrie Fisher in a single word, I'd go with "shameless". Ordinarily, we use that word to indicate someone who is brazen and defies manners. But here I mean that she rejected the very concept of shame when it came to her mental health and life experiences. I was already learning from David Letterman how to make oneself into a punch line, but this was something different. Every time she acknowledged that she had bipolar disorder, Carrie Fisher was effectively declaring, "I will not be shamed into silence about this."

Over the years, I came to better understand and appreciate the value of finding levity and making light of one's mental illness. I learned that, yes, you can make jokes and still take it seriously -- and expect others to also take it seriously, even as they chuckle along with your quips. It would be going too far to say that my sense of humor about my mental health came from Carrie Fisher; our styles of humor are fairly different in general. But it is 100% accurate to say that it was Carrie Fisher who gave me permission to have a sense of humor about my mental health, and for that I am eternally grateful. It's given me my most relied-upon tool to use against depression and anxiety. And as I'm sure you know, Dear Reader, having something that powerful to fall back on gives us something else, too:


20 December 2016

Let's Talk About PTSD and Coloring Books

Ten days ago, while I was curled up in bed writhing in pain from yet another Crohn's flare, Piers Morgan saw a tweet from CNN International about a story they were airing about Lady Gaga revealing publicly that she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Here's his reaction:

You better goddamn believe I have something to say about this.

Just as Morgan and people like him have it in their minds that PTSD is exclusively endured by combat veterans, there's also a dangerous parallel problem facing sexual assault survivors, relevant here specifically because this is the source of Lady Gaga's PTSD. Two years ago, George Will took it upon himself to define what is and is not sexual assault in a particularly appalling column in the Washington Post. [I'm providing you a link here, but only so you can verify for yourself what he wrote, even though that translates into increased exposure for such loathsome writing.] Here are the opening two sentences, which set the tone for the entire diatribe:
Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.
He even actually typed and submitted for publication the following sentence:
Consider the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. “sexual assault.”
See, just as Piers Morgan has defined who can and cannot have PTSD (combat veterans only, thank you very much), George Will has defined who can and cannot be a sexual assault survivor. Between the two of them, there's allowance that what Lady Gaga has experienced even happened in the first place, but if it did, it wasn't really traumatizing.

The underlying problem here is ignorance, Dear Reader. Ignorance that exists for those who have been spared such things themselves, and whose formative years were lived during a time when those who weren't spared those things were intimidated into maintaining silence. That intimidation is still there -- Morgan and Will have provided the evidence I've documented here -- but people are no longer as acquiescent to "polite society" as they were in the past. PTSD sufferers and sexual assault survivors of yesteryear lived in agony, dismissed and erased even by their own families, but we no longer accept that twisted social contract.

I grew up under that social contract, and I just turned 38 a few weeks ago. I started having my first suicidal thoughts at age 9. I wasn't seen or treated for depression until I was in my 20's. Why? Because no matter how my mental health issues manifest themselves, I was just "moody". "Going through a phase." After all, I was "too young to have real problems." (Notice again that even when there's allowance that some hypothetical people may experience these things, you're not one of them.)

You may recall, Dear Reader, that I was hospitalized for a week last year in inpatient treatment for suicidal depression. It was my second inpatient stay in five years. We live in an era of fake news and people denying whatever doesn't suit the narrative they want, so here's my evidence. This is the first page of the crisis safety plan paperwork I had to complete. You'll note that the top line ("My diagnosis is...") is in different handwriting from the rest. I had to fill in everything else, but my diagnoses were added by the attending psychiatrist after I'd done my part. I've digitally erased some sensitive patient ID numbers and the names of contacts, but this is otherwise the real McCoy, right down to my own John Hancock at the bottom.

Again, I didn't even get to see the first line filled in when I had the page in front of me. They have you fill in this stuff during your intake process, and then review it when you're discharged. I had never been told until I was looking at this page that I had PTSD. Let me tell you, Dear Reader, that's a hell of a thing to learn about yourself. And the funny thing is, it wasn't one of those "That can't be right!" moments. It was instead one of those "Oh, well, duh!" moments. 

Last June, I shared in this blog about what I call "an incident" during my childhood. I refuse to describe the acts that took place; gawk at someone else, but frankly it's none of your business what specifically happened. All you need to know is that it did happen, and that it's affected me in the ways I shared in that post. Just so you don't think I'm fishing to boost my page view numbers (this blog isn't monetized, incidentally), I'll summarize.

I've been hyper-aware since I was 4 years old. Whenever I walk into a room, I immediately intuit where the places of entry/exit are. I can't even comfortably take off my shirt in public to go swimming because I feel that vulnerable and threatened. Notice I'm not using the past tense here. These are just some of the things that are still with me decades after "the incident". They'll be with me the rest of my life.

Which is why it's almost embarrassing that it never occurred to me that I might have PTSD. I mean, it's pretty damn obvious on paper. But when you've grown up being told time and again you're just moody and going through a phase and too young to have real problems, you stumble forward as best you can on your own because there's no meaningful help available to you. You don't meet the criteria written by Morgan & Will. Of course, as anyone who recognizes themselves in any of this already knows, you're still traumatized whether they confer upon you that "privileged status" or not.

And this brings me to the third antagonist in this post: Trump supporters. The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented 1,094 bias-related incidents just since the election was held six weeks ago. Bigots aren't merely writing unkind tweets. They're committing acts of violence, or at least threatening it to the point that their targets are in fear for their immediate safety.

Perhaps most heartbreaking is that the location where the most incidents have been documented are K-12 schools. Being picked on as a kid sucks in general. I should know; I endured that for several years. But I wasn't targeted because of my skin color or my ethnic heritage. I can't fathom what it must be like for the children and adolescents right now under siege from the bigots emboldened by Trump's election. My thoughts were dominated by suicidal urges at that age, and I could at least come home after school and none of it followed me there. These kids can't turn on a TV, log onto Facebook, or even overhear adults have a conversation without being reminded that a whole lot of their neighbors (figurative, but also literal) wish to see harm come to them.

I've seen countless tweets over the last two days alone gloating about their candidate's victory. And ordinarily, I'd say that's perfectly fair to do. But the gloating isn't the kind that we're accustomed to in American politics. I'm not trying to whitewash anything here; I'm a liberal in Kentucky. I vividly recall the aftermath of the 2004 election, when even I kinda wanted my then-girlfriend to give in and remove the John Kerry bumper sticker from her car. I never said anything about it, because that's how I am, but I frequently became physically defensive going to or from that car at times just on account of that sticker.

There's one specific bit of trash talk that's particularly irked me, and it's partly because I've seen it from so many different tweeters that it can't be downplayed as just a few people saying it. Therapy tools have become a popular target for mockery, especially coloring books. I'll admit, when I first heard about adult coloring books and I found out they weren't, y'know adult coloring books, I shrugged it off as just another fad that wasn't for me.

But then, Dear Reader, I was hospitalized last year. And there I saw firsthand the power that something so seemingly trivial had for some patients. Patients with diagnoses and backgrounds like mine. Even George Will might have had a hard time denying a few of them their privileged status as survivors (though I'm sure he'd have tried his damnedest). After a week of inpatient treatment, I was stepped back down to outpatient.

The last new patient to join my group was a man older than me.  I can still remember the look on his face when he came into the room that first morning. I was the only one already there. I greeted him and did my best to answer any questions he had. It was clear that he was nervous. It turned out that he was a combat veteran. He'd done twelve deployments, including five to Afghanistan. And he told me, and then later our group once assembled, that the scariest thing he'd ever done in his entire life was walk through the door that morning.

Let that sink in.

Why was it less scary for him to be sent into twelve different war zones than to set foot inside a mental health hospital? Because it was a complete unknown to him. Not because he hadn't already been a patient before; at one time, he hadn't been a soldier before, either. But because the Piers Morgans and the George Wills have so ardently maintained their ideological definitions of who is and is not traumatized, depressed, a sexual assault survivor, etc., that even now it's that intimidating to broach, even for people who recognize that they need that kind of help.

And that brings me back to Lady Gaga.

No, Piers Morgan, it isn't her who is "vain-glorious". It's you. What she's doing is trying to divert the spotlight already on her to a subject where you and your ilk have cast darkness because it satisfies your egocentricity. I understand completely why she chose to share what she did, and I understand it because it's the same reason I share what I share: to try to reach others in ways that no one was there to reach us when we needed it. To be a voice competing with yours saying, "Quit seeking attention" with ours saying, "Please seek the help you need and deserve." And hopefully, to model for those people how it can be to go through all this and come through it in better shape.

I don't just share my experiences in this blog, which is probably for the best since I've been too demoralized about writing to do much with it over the last few years. I've become active in my local chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. There are meetings in a few different places throughout the week. I attend group meetings on Tuesday and Thursday, when my physical health permits. I've missed five consecutive meetings now, spanning three weeks. I've even become a regular group facilitator (again, as my physical health permits). I've met probably two hundred different people in my time as a member there. Some only come once or twice. Some come and go in streaks, dropping back in when they see they need some boosting. One of the DBSA mission statements is that we "accept racial, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic diversity and promote their acceptance." It would be bad form for me to share anything that's shared in our group meetings, but I will let you in on one thing we all have in common.

We all needed our own Lady Gaga at one point or another, and we all try to be someone else's when we can.

Mine was Wagatwe Wanjuki. I can't even remember how she first came to my attention, but I'm sure it was through Twitter. She's a prominent figure in the fight against rape culture in general, and in particular, campus sexual violence. A survivor herself, she understands firsthand how devastating it can be. She's done a great deal of admirable work, including being part of the ED Act Now leadership whose tireless campaigning prompted President Obama to create the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. You can learn more about her advocacy resume on her website, but the important thing to know is that she's directly responsible for why I was able to come forward about "the incident" after keeping it secret from my inner circle all these years, and never even discussing it with my family.

I would never have written that blog post in the first place if not for her. I damn sure would never have published it if not for her. Not every survivor will want to share their experiences, and more importantly, not a single one should have to. I can only say that I found "putting it out there" has been empowering for me in ways I couldn't have imagined as a child. How could I have imagined it, when the directive seemed to be to never speak of it again?

I'm proud and grateful to count Wagatwe among my friends, and those whom I do call friends can tell you that's probably the only "f" word I use sparingly. I'm incredibly fortunate, to be honest, in that I have so many friendships. I've said often that if I've only ever done one thing right, it's been to surround myself with wonderful people. If you recall the beginning of all this, Dear Reader, I noted that in the scan of my paperwork, I'd digitally erased the names of contacts. Those were for question #7, where I was to name "Supportive friends/family member I can call" during a crisis. I had names written from left to right on both lines, and I could have kept going for several more.

Many, maybe even most, people aren't as fortunate as I am in that respect. I'm not talking about all this to impress you, Dear Reader, or to suck up to my friends (they don't need it). I'm getting to my final point in all this, which is that I know how hard all of this has been on me, and I have this kind of support system. I was too browbeaten by the Piers Morgans and George Wills to reach out to them about such things for entirely too long. So when I read that Lady Gaga has put herself out there the way she did and then Morgan berates her for it, yeah, that upset me a whole hell of a lot. Because I know for a fact there are people out there for whom she's all the role model they have to even realize they can take ownership over their experiences somehow. They may not have a friend in every time zone who might be awake whenever they're overcome by anxiety or despair, but they do have Lady Gaga. Never underestimate what anyone may find empowering, whether it's a celebrity sharing their experiences on CNN International or a coloring book.

And you damn sure better not undermine what anyone finds empowering around me.

14 December 2016

Post-Election Helplessness: The Beginning of the End

I haven't written much about the 2016 presidential campaign at all, and nothing since the election itself was held more than a month ago. A little while ago, I found this Facebook post by Robert Reich, wherein he identifies four "syndromes" people have experienced since the election. Go on and click the link and read it. I'll wait.

I have the fourth syndrome (helpless). Reich says there's lots to be done, and he's right about that. What's actually doable that can have a legitimate chance at success, though, seems to be far beyond my ability to affect. Call my legislators? Who? I'm a Kentuckian. Who am I going to call? Mitch McConnell, whose wife is one of Trump's cabinet picks? (I did call McConnell's office right after the Steve Bannon announcement, incidentally, asking him to convince Trump to rescind that appointment. If he's remotely inclined to even care, he surely hasn't done anything to indicate it.)

I've tried making people aware of things. I've tried challenging talking points. I'd have better luck throwing messages in bottles into the sea. At least those messages might somehow be found by people who give a damn. And I'm afraid my high-minded idealists are going to find that seeking a reasonable dialogue is impossible. The very thrust of the Trump movement was built on rejecting reason, cooperation, or anything resembling civilized behavior. These are people who seek to run roughshod over everyone different from them, or whom they just have it in mind to target because they can.

While I'm at it, I'm disgusted at this point by the "wait to see what he actually does" timidity. We're ALREADY SEEING what he's doing. People are already suffering because of the things he's said and done and encouraged others to say and do. Quit acting like these things somehow don't count because he hasn't been sworn in yet. THEY FUCKING COUNT. The women who have been assaulted on subways, the Muslims whose hijabs have been torn from their heads, the Hispanic students taunted by their white classmates that they're going to be deported; these injuries aren't scrimmages.

I remain hopeful that we collectively will weather this storm, that we will find ways to subvert, to challenge, to protect one another, to push back against the ugliness that threatens us all. But that doesn't mean I naively believe that all of us as individuals will make it to then. We won't. People are going to die, whether murdered by the white supremacists who see this as their time to act with impunity, made too vulnerable by the gutting of protection and assistance agencies pledged by Trump and his incoming cabinet, or those who simply become inconsolably overwhelmed and end their own lives.

I already know I won't live to see the end of this. I've voted in my last election. I've celebrated my last birthday. My death won't change anything, and I'm not under any illusions that it will. This isn't about some kind of martyr fantasy. This is simply about me recognizing my own vulnerabilities.

When I first started blogging, I didn't really have a direction for it. As I've admitted before, I think I was basically just trying to mimic journalism. It's pretty embarrassing to think about my feeble attempts at writing movie and CD reviews! Along the way, though, I came to see this blog as my legacy. It's what I'll leave behind when I'm gone. Stories I like to tell, mostly, but sometimes I've used it just as a way to make a sort of record of what was going on with me at the time.

Now? Now I don't even know how long this blog can realistically be expected to remain up. I've thought at times about having a book printed, collecting specific posts. There are several different printing services out there for just such a project. I'd certainly like to hear any suggestions for posts that I've written that you, Dear Reader, think ought to be "preserved" in tangible book form!

26 October 2016

Marian Edington, 1927-2016

I'm confused and Marian is laughing. Somehow, it feels right that this is the only photo of the two of us I can find.
Marian Edington was my wife's paternal grandmother. She lived primarily in eastern Ohio, just that side of the state line from West Virginia. I didn't meet her until a year into my relationship with my wife. We took a weekend to go visit her at her home. I remember we arrived around midnight, which isn't a problem for me, but I figured it was rather inconvenient for a host of her age and generation to receive us at that time. I was prepared for awkward, generic small talk and to spend the weekend feeling like a third wheel, but I was going so that my then-girlfriend could have some time with her grandmother.

I couldn't have been wronger. Few people have ever made me feel as thoroughly welcomed as quickly as she did. Within just a few minutes, we were sitting in her living room, her dachshund Pepper flitting about and entertaining all of us. Marian and I shared a sense of humor, which allowed us to get past the superficial level of introductory conversation in short order. I think we only stayed up for half an hour at most before retiring to bed that first night, but we had already begun making one another laugh. Legitimately laughter, mind you; not the feeble polite laughter you exchange to mollify someone. We cracked each other up from that very first meeting through nearly every conversation we had thereafter.

The next day, she confessed that she'd forgotten my name and for whatever reason, thought that it was Bryan. I assured her that my own grandmother flubbed names so often that I was used to answering to pretty much anything anyway. Thereafter, I was Bryan probably as often as I was Travis. The running joke amused us both. Sometimes if I happened to catch my wife talking with her on the phone, I'd have her pass along that "Bryan says hi". I think one year I even signed a Christmas card to her with that name.

We visited her sister, brother-in-law, and niece during that first visit, the sisters playing euchre against my wife and me. They had us at a disadvantage in that they knew how to play the game. We had an advantage in that Marian and I kept laughing enough that it disrupted her concentration at times. We still lost, of course. More importantly, though, the memory stands out so vividly for me because playing cards against someone can be quite a test. Your best friend whom you'd trust with your life can become ruthless and temperamental as a card player. Again, though, the experience was loose and lighthearted despite her taking it seriously enough that she did play to win.

That was the only time I met her sister; the next time we returned was for her funeral. I wasn't yet diagnosed with Crohn's at that time, but I was clearly exhibiting the symptoms. I was too physically miserable to attend the service itself. I felt bad about that, until everyone returned and I spoke with Marian. She was concerned about me that morning! I was touched that on the day she'd laid to rest her sister -- her lifelong best friend -- that she paid such consideration to my well-being. I know the difference between politeness and compassion. She was compassionate.

Nowhere was our relationship better explored than our discussions about politics. We were on opposite ends of the spectrum, but she had that rare ability to talk thoughtfully about politics so that the conversation was an actual dialogue, rather than an exchange of shouting talking points at one another. We found quite a lot of common ground and areas of agreement, which was refreshing, but I think I value even more the times we disagreed. She always gave my argument fair consideration, even when she rejected it. More importantly, those disagreements never jeopardized our relationship or even the mood of the conversation at hand. Our shared sense of humor helped with that, I think.

I'm saddened to know that she's now passed away, but I also know how difficult these last several years had been for her. She's at rest now, and it's a well earned rest at that. She was one of the most enigmatic people I've ever known. She was considerate, compassionate, fair-minded, wry, astute, and at times outright goofy. She was a gracious host, a thoughtful conversationalist, and someone who made the world a little bit better just by being herself.

How someone with her character voted Republican, I'll never know. (Sorry, Marian; couldn't resist!)

I last saw her a year before my wife and I separated, back in 2010. She was recovering from a nearly fatal car collision. She was severely depressed. She was resentful of the condition of her body, in constant pain, fatiguing easily, and reliant on a cane or walker to get around. As it happened, I was in enough pain myself that weekend that I was using my own cane. We sat outside one afternoon. She shared with me how bleakly she saw her present and future, despondent over the futility of physical rehabilitation. I listened quietly, knowing it was difficult for her give voice to these dark thoughts.

We were just about to leave to go out for dinner. I pointed to the sidewalk with my cane and said, "Come on. I'll race you."

She laughed. She chastised me for making her laugh. Then we laughed together.

That's how I'm going to remember her.

01 October 2016

"Star Trek: The Astral Symphony"

Star Trek: The Astral Symphony
Album Compiled and Produced by Cliff Eidelman
Original Release Date: 1 October 1991
List Price: $14.99 (CD) | $11.99 (Cassette)
Star Trek: The Astral Symphony takes you where no musical journey has gone before…
This historic compilation of memorable music from the original soundtrack recordings of all five Star Trek motion pictures will charge the senses and expand your listening pleasure, over and over again. The Astral Symphony is a unique and thrilling musical experience that will send you beyond the frontiers of your own imagination!
Admittedly, it's not particularly original, but it's the use of the word "historic" that merits consideration. Today, of course, digital music has made it possible for us to throw together playlists at will, but listeners of my vintage (or older) will recall a time when we were at the mercy of record labels to present us one-stop shopping for our music survey needs. It was a huge deal in 1994 when Garth Brooks released the 18-track compilation, The Hits, spanning his first five studio albums (excluding the Christmas album, Beyond the Season). Now, consider being the kind of nerd who actually cared about the music from Star Trek movies. We were lucky to even have soundtrack albums, abridged though they were. Any compilations were strictly homemade, copying from vinyl or cassette to another cassette.
In 1991, though, Paramount threw quite a merchandise-heavy party for the silver anniversary of their flagship franchise. They even took the (nearly) unprecedented step of commissioning composer Cliff Eidelman, hired to score that year's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to create an entirely original piece of music to be featured in that film's release trailer. That's right: the trailer got its own music. '91 was a heady time, y'all.

Paramount also handed over to Eidelman the soundtrack albums of his predecessors in the series, from which he assembled The Astral Symphony. It truly was "historic", in that it was the first ever legitimate, mass-produced compilation of music from the series. Eidelman, who in interviews claimed Jerry Goldsmith's works on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as his favorites, eschewed chronological sequencing and instead favored an arrangement designed purely for listening.

I concede my own bias, but in my world it's still among the finest playlists of all time. Sixteen tracks culled from five films, written by three different composers, spanning a full decade (1979-1989), and the only thing they have in common is that they're from the same movie series. Of those five films, only Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (both scored by James Horner) have strong aesthetic similarities. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is considerably more lighthearted, punctuated by Leonard Rosenman's jazzy cues, seemingly so irreverent that it's a wonder Eidelman squeezed in any of it, let alone a third of that album!

1. "Life Is a Dream"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
The most obvious piece of music to include would have to have been Goldsmith's theme for The Motion Picture, which series creator Gene Roddenberry loved so much he reused it eight years later for the TV spin-off, The Next Generation. There were two dilemmas to using the theme from that first film, though. Firstly, Goldsmith composed it without including Alexander Courage's iconic fanfare from the TV show, something Roddenberry had composer Dennis McCarthy rectify for TNG, and which Goldsmith himself adopted when he returned to the series for its fifth big screen outing.

The other issue was that the original music is a fairly long piece that bleeds into "The Klingon Battle". To be sure, Goldsmith's Klingon motif is memorable and worthy of recognition all on its own, but "The Klingon Battle" also introduces us to Vejur's theme. It's simply too complex and too long for a compilation. The solution? The end credits music from The Final Frontier. It's got the Courage fanfare, the Motion Picture/TNG theme, and even includes the Klingon motif, all in a tidy four minutes!

2. "The Meld"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
"Life Is a Dream" conjures images and feelings of adventurism, which is why cutting immediately to "The Meld" is so daring. This is the eerie, uncertain climax of the first movie, as Kirk, Spock, and McCoy bear witness to a fusion of man and technology. It's by far the most cerebral payoff the franchise has yet had in a movie, and Goldsmith's music is central to how we experience it. Initially tentative, it intensifies as the characters begin to realize what is taking place, until its triumphant resolution. On the surface, I doubt "The Meld" sounds particularly sensuous, but that's precisely what it is.

3. "Returning to Vulcan"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
We shift from Goldsmith to James Horner, though at a peculiar moment in time. Admiral Kirk has just left behind the body of his son, David, on the doomed Genesis Planet and has arrived at Vulcan with the remnants of his crew. McCoy converses with Spock, wondering how they'll manage to transfer the latter's spirit to his resurrected body. This is a deeply intimate, poignant moment in their relationship, one that not even Kirk is allowed to observe. Only us. It's a sensitive, forlorn piece of music and it follows "The Meld" more organically than I would have even thought to have tried.

4. "Battle in the Mutara Nebula"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
There's a lot to love about The Wrath of Khan, and chief among my personal favorite elements is its submarine-style final showdown between Admiral Kirk's U.S.S. Enterprise and Khan's U.S.S. Reliant. Horner leads us into battle with his main march, alternately suspenseful, thrilling...and scarily silent. Music, we're told, is the space between notes, and Horner deftly navigated the space between the notes just before the last volley of the firefight is exchanged. Just as we've begun to hold our breath, Khan is announced; his attack motif erupts so violently that it can be startling to hear all on its own away from the film.

5. "Enterprise Clears Moorings"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
What an odd choice this was, to jump back to an earlier point in the same film here! This is the martial(-esque) sendoff for the Enterprise at the outset of the film, entirely unaware of what awaits. For this moment in time, all is well. Sure, the footage is reused directly from the same scene in The Motion Picture, but Horner's music manages to reinvent the experience. Plus, at this point in the album, we could frankly use some wide-eyed optimism.

6. "Chekov's Run"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
I've often wondered if Eidelman placed this cue here because Chekov is the one principle member of the bridge crew who was not aboard the Enterprise when she cleared moorings. At first blanch, Goldsmith and Horner are different enough one might be hesitant about putting their works together, but then comes Rosenman and somehow, it actually works to consolidate the album. "Chekov's Run" is something of a time-out between weightier pieces, but it's also catchy and a standout all on its own.

7. "Ilia's Theme"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
To date, the only overture to play before a Star Trek movie, and it's gorgeous. Some have accused it of being derivative of John Williams's "Princess Leia's Theme" from his Star Wars soundtrack. I've always found "Ilia's Theme" more sophisticated and fuller. The opening piano and soothing strings evolve into an auditory world all its own. This is probably the single piece of all Star Trek music I believe could stand without any context whatsoever and still engage the same senses of curiosity and wonder that are evoked for those of us who know what it is.

8. "Without Help"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
The aforementioned Goldsmith Klingon theme dominates this piece, and more centrally than it was permitted to do in its lone appearance in his Motion Picture score. It does feel a bit redundant, given that it's also incorporated into the album-opening "Life Is a Dream" from this same movie. To be honest, I've always kinda wished Eidelman had instead opened with "The Mountain", which segues from the TMP/TNG theme into a wondrous theme for Captain Kirk's mountain climbing. That would give "Without Help" a little more spotlight. As it is, it draws our attention (at least, eventually) that Eidelman omitted Horner's own Klingon theme. Still, there's little point following "Ilia's Theme" with another thoughtful work so here's as good a place as any to stay within the same composer's aesthetic for an action piece.

9. "The Enterprise"/Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Jerry Goldsmith
"Ilia's Theme" may be the most perfect standalone composition here, but "The Enterprise" is my favorite single work in the entirety of Star Trek. The sequence it accompanies is completely self-indulgent and ought to be cut by at least an entire minute, and I don't care. I could watch the camera play peekaboo with the Enterprise model all day long, provided this lush and majestic piece by Goldsmith accompanied it. This concluded the first side of the cassette edition of the album.

10. "Prologue and Main Title"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
I've often felt it was important to understand this selection and placement in the context of the cassette, because somehow it just isn't as dramatic a followup to "The Enterprise" on CD. Much of this is a revisitation of Horner's Wrath of Khan "Epilogue/End Title", but with a key difference: this music does not resolve with a reprisal of Horner's swashbuckling main theme. Instead, it remains ethereal throughout, its final bars not a declaration of any sort, but rather an open-ended query, underlining Admiral Kirk's lonesome log narration in the film. There is promise somewhere in this music, but isn't for traditional heroic antics.

11. "Hospital Chase"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
After twelve and a half minutes of Goldsmith's elegance and Horner's moodiness, Eidelman splashes us with a 76 second romp from Rosenman. "Hospital Chase" and "Chekov's Run" both serve much the same purpose in their film as well as on this album; they're madcap dashes, placed where hopefully they'll ensure our attention hasn't begun to lapse. Between the two cues, I favor this one, though I do give Rosenman credit for infusing "Chekov's Run" with just enough Russian flavor to be noticeable without devolving into caricature.

12. "The Whaler"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
This is as close to a "serious" action cue as Rosenman gave The Voyage Home. I don't know that it's the piece I'd have gone with from that soundtrack here ("Gillian Seeks Kirk", "Time Travel", and/or "The Probe" would have all been just as fine), but I do appreciate the purpose that it serves, which is to transition us back into the relative seriousness of the Goldsmith/Horner compositions.

13. "An Angry God"/Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Jerry Goldsmith
Even though we know it isn't really God, our intrepid explorers are confronted with an encounter with a being powerful enough to be convincing as Him, which presents a musical challenge. Goldsmith had to convey the awe of the moment without overselling it; the suspicion without exposing the fraud prematurely; and the fear without reassuring us that it will all be okay in the end. It becomes outright frenetic by the end, evoking Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock vibes. "An Angry God" isn't a cue I would have selected, to be honest, but I get why Eidelman went with it.

14. "Genesis Countdown"/Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan - James Horner
What's scarier than God turning out to be a fraud? Khan. Khan is scarier than fraud God. And more perverse, in a way, given that he's using a weapon called Genesis to kill everyone. Horner's march sets the countdown in motion: can we escape certain doom? The resolute percussion, chased by the taunting horns, makes clear that this is a race, pure and simple. Fanfare erupts in false hope intermittently, dashed by Khan's relentless motif. The pace slows agonizingly as the cue continues; we're not moving as fast as death. Horner tells the entire story musically...down to the triumphant conclusion betraying us all.

15. "The Katra Ritual"/Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - James Horner
The entirety of the first five Star Trek movies ultimately comes down to this one sequence: can Spock be made whole again? Horner's cue is unsettling, befitting the occasion, certainly, but also almost liturgical with its gongs and understated strings. This isn't quite as somber as "Returning to Vulcan", but neither is it wondrous as "The Meld" or majestic as "The Enterprise". It's something else entirely, and while it isn't necessarily hum-mable, it's thoughtfully written and really, the most appropriate climax to the album.

16. "Home Again: End Credits"/Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - Leonard Rosenman
Since Goldsmith's main theme opened the album, and Horner's "Prologue and Main Title" opened the second half, it stands to reason that The Astral Symphony should conclude with Rosenman. It's also a surprisingly smooth segue from the resurrection of Spock, being that "Home Again" opens with a reprisal of Alexander Courage's iconic TV show fanfare. This is the moment that both III and IV had been building to, after all: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest, back aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. By withholding Rosenman's main title until the end, it plays more jubilantly here than anywhere else, and it's an inspired choice.

I have no idea how many times I played my Astral Symphony CD over the years (including sleepovers with my friend Justin -- shout out, ya nerd!). I remember when I got a 6-CD changer, and I would load up the soundtracks to these first five movies, with the sixth slot dedicated to this compilation, and play through all of them. Even though I'd already heard "Ilia's Theme" and "Battle in the Mutara Nebula" by then, there was something different about hearing them in this order. Sure, I can make my own Star Trek playlists now (and I have), but really, they're all just my feeble attempts to capture the same wonder and excitement that Cliff Eidelman assembled on The Astral Symphony.

11 September 2016

I Pledged Allegiance to My Conscience

Much has been made recently of athletes like Colin Kaepernick electing to kneel silently during performances of the national anthem. I haven't talked about socio-political issues much in this blog for awhile, but this particular matter continues to kick around in my noggin.

See, when I was an adolescent, I became disillusioned with and cynical about America. It wasn't hard to become that way. The more I learned about the truth of our society, the more disgusted I became by the pageantry that directs us all to look at flags and proclaim ourselves the greatest people God ever created. And I was a straight, white, cisgender, natural born citizen in a Kentucky suburb. If I was that appalled, granted all those social privileges, surely the people whose daily lives were spent fighting those battles were way angrier than I was. After all, for me it was an abstract, ideological war of choice. I could have just shrugged it off, contented myself that "them's the breaks", and gone on patting myself on the back for being a grateful, blessed American.

I couldn't, though. My conscience had a hard time of it. Part of it, surely, was that I was very much an outsider being picked on frequently. I may not have known the experiences of the hypothetical Others, but I knew firsthand who their tormentors were. The arrogant, snotty white kids who so cheerfully and sadistically constructed and enforced their hierarchy with themselves at the top and me at the bottom put anyone they didn't approve of at the bottom. Some of those arrogant snots were teacher's kids, who did as they pleased with impunity. It didn't take me long to recognize that they were carrying out an extension of the values that my teachers were instilling in them at home. I was being taught to be subservient; they were being encouraged to indulge themselves.

Somewhere along the way in middle school, I just had enough of the pageantry. One morning, when we were directed to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, I stayed seated.

It wasn't because I hated America. It wasn't that I even saw myself in an adversarial relationship with my country. It was simply that the America I was seeing and learning about had fallen unacceptably short of the values my America proclaimed to hold dear. I saw myself as trying to keep America honest in my own little way, one 1st period class at a time. I never gave any monologue about all this. Most kids didn't even notice or care.

My teacher was aware. I knew he saw me remain seated, morning after morning. We talked some here and there throughout that school year, about things like my views on society. He never addressed my not standing for the Pledge, though. Not once. Never asked me what I thought I was doing, never lectured me about insulting the honored dead, never threatened to have me expelled if I didn't straighten out right then and there.

Maybe he never said anything to me about it because he figured it wasn't worth the hassle. I like to think, though, that he left me alone because even if he didn't agree with me, that he respected not just my constitutional right to free speech, but that he respected me enough as a human being -- yes, even an adolescent pupil of his -- to have given such a matter serious consideration. I wasn't being rebellious for the sake of showing off.

Remember, Dear Reader, this was the early 90's. We didn't scrutinize how lavishly each of us participated in patriotic pageantry. None of my peers at the time were made to feel conscious enough about such things that they took notice of my silent protest. Today's kids have grown up in a world where members of Congress were once so petty they had the cafeteria use the term "freedom fries" because France had the temerity to not throw in with us when we invaded Iraq. In those days, though, average adolescent kids were largely oblivious to details like how patriotic one demonstrated oneself to be. There's no clearer evidence I can offer of how trivial this was at the time than that my classmates, who harassed me mercilessly, didn't even register this as something to use against me.

do admire the ideals that my country has professed ever since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I am grateful to enjoy the benefits of a society that has been built by the hard work, sacrifice, and beliefs of those who have gone before me. I do respect those who have committed themselves to the protection of those ideals and of us all. If the Pledge asked instead for me to stand and proclaim my admiration, gratitude, and respect, I'd have done it. Ultimately, though, it was precisely because of that admiration, gratitude, and respect that I didn't.

Was I inelegant? Clumsy? Arrogant? Naive? Sometimes I look back and I think I was. Sometimes I look back and I think I was just ahead of my time, which is particularly distressing because I didn't even consider it then, but in addition to being white, straight, cisgender, and all that, I enjoyed one more privilege: I lived in a time when making that kind of a statement wasn't a national outrage. I can think of few things sadder than the realization that the America that disappointed me so much I protested against her was actually the more open-minded and accepting America.

02 September 2016

Actors Theatre of Louisville: "The 39 Steps"

Brown-Forman Presents The 39 Steps
adapted by Patrick Barlow
directed by Nathan Keepers
Featuring Carter Gill, Jesse J. Perez, David Ryan Smith, and Zuzanna Szadkowski
Scenic Designer - William Boles
Costume Designer - Alison Siple
Lighting Designer - D.M. Wood
Sound Designer - Stowe Nelson
Production Stage Manager - Paul Mills Holmes
Assistant Stage Manager - Jessica Kay Potter
Dramaturg - Jessica Reese

From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie of Alfred Hitchcock, licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

A week ago, I was running errands with my cousin downtown and we passed a window with a flier for The 39 Steps at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Truth be told, I'm just not all that into Hitchcock's filmography overall, but The 39 Steps is one of the few films of his I've seen that I did thoroughly enjoy. I was immediately excited, and then immediately disappointed when I remembered that I'm too poor to go to theater productions.

Then a fortuitous thing happened. Tuesday night, I learned that a select group of tickets to opening night had been generously made available for free to members of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance here in Louisville! I haven't written a whole lot about DBSA in this blog over the last year, but I've been going for a year now and have become a regular facilitator. It's been a tremendously important part of my mental health management, and I would encourage you, Dear Reader, to look into finding your nearest chapter in the event that you or someone you know might be dealing with these issues.

Helping me manage major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD is obviously the most important benefit of my participation, but getting to attend things like The 39 Steps is certainly a welcomed perk!

I knew going in that Patrick Barlow's adaptation had shifted the emphasis from the taut suspense of the Hitchcock film toward broader comedy. The very idea seems risky, but it works wonderfully. I have a low threshold for slapstick, but I was entertained and laughed for the duration of the performance. I'll confess that during the hotel sequence, I found my patience beginning to be tested, but once that ended and the story moved on, I was right back into it.

David Ryan Smith commands the stage throughout the production as Richard Hanay. Where his film counterpart Robert Donat is driven by escalating desperation to clear his name, Smith's Hanay is more a selfish man with ennui issues bothered by the inconvenience of the affair. It's the right choice, because Smith has to be the straight man in order for the comedy to work. If he's too intense, the comedy doesn't work. Smith's own comedic timing is impeccable. I was reminded several times of James Avery, Kelsey Grammer, and Orson Welles.

Supporting Smith are Carter Gill, Jesse J. Perez, and Zuzanna Szadkowski, all in multiple roles. Gill and Perez are central to why the comedy works. My friends and I agreed that had there been a larger cast, with each role played by a different actor, it wouldn't have been nearly as funny as it was to watch them flit about with dizzying costume and accent changes. Their performances on the train are truly magnificent, and how David Ryan Smith manages to not go all Jimmy Fallon and bust a gut being that close to them tossing hats back and forth to alternate characters, I don't know.

Zuzanna Szadkowski's phrasing and expressions are fantastic, but I also give her high marks for playing Annabella Smith, Margaret, and Pamela with wholly distinctive personalities. Where Gill and Perez are clearly swapping out hats and accents, the joke of all these characters being played by the same two actors is the real gag. Szadkowski, on the other hand, creates three entirely different roles. She vamps it up as Annabella Smith, taking innuendo as far as she can. As Margaret, she imbues the sheltered farmer's wife with believable curiosity. And as Pamela, she grounds Act III so that its payoffs have sufficient gravity.

I do have some nitpicks, though. For instance, there are some gags that rather lazily rely on one of the supporting men playing a feminine role, or as elderly people. The greatest offense, though, is that one of the put downs from Pamela to Richard is, "Now I see why you're an orphan!" That's simply, inexcusably awful. Putting someone down for being orphaned is appalling.

These moments are, thankfully, few and on the whole, I found The 39 Steps delightful. I want to thank Terri at DBSA for the work she did to secure these tickets, the people at Actors Theatre who provided them, anyone else involved in these arrangements I don't know, and I want to thank my guts for cooperating and letting me actually attend!

29 August 2016

A Warning About A&S Moving Services

My grandparents bought a house 48 years ago. I've written before about some of my experiences going to that house every other Saturday in my early adolescence, and last year when he passed away after sustaining a stroke, I wrote about the place he occupied in my life. My grandmother recently decided after nearly half a century of owning that house to sell it. She hired A&S Moving Services to come this past Tuesday and evacuate all her belongings.

My cousin was sitting outside when their truck arrived. No sooner had the first worker got out than he was already asking her how old she was. When she told him, he remarked that she "looks 16" and then immediately asked if she has "a man". Which means that not only wasn't being a paid employee doing a job enough to make him keep his thoughts to himself, even thinking she was underage wasn't enough of a deterrent to keep him from confirming before abandoning his game.

He surely wasn't feeling that he had to act quickly before there were any witnesses to his untoward behavior. Just about every member of the crew managed to hit on her at least once, which is particularly impressive since we left to run an errand within just a few minutes of their arrival, and once we returned, she had to leave after no more than half an hour for other errands. To call this unprofessional would be too forgiving.

But if mackin' on my cousin is unprofessional, I'm not even sure how to characterize the incident that prompted me to write this blog post.

Between being hit on and leaving for her other errands, I asked my cousin to take a picture of me behind the bar downstairs. I've always been fond of that bar. I remember all the kids being corralled downstairs on Thanksgiving. We'd alternate between sitting at the bar and grabbing hold of one of the two support poles and swinging ourselves in circles around them. Invariably, an inattentive younger kid would bumble into the kid swinging and a collision would occur. The concrete floor wasn't very forgiving. We all wanted to be seen at the bar when the grownups came to find out who was responsible for the crying.

My cousin got into position, using my phone, and took the following picture:

As my cousin was figuring out how to operate the camera on my phone, we were interrupted by someone descending the stairs. Two workers were coming to get the washer. The one in the lead felt compelled to call out to me, "That's gay!"





First of all, I'm disgusted by homophobia in the first place, and I'm even more disgusted when someone just assumes that I'm as homophobic as they are. I certainly have no use for someone who is a paid professional on the clock doing a job thinking it's perfectly acceptable to bandy about whatever slur they feel like using.

There's also the matter of this person -- again, a paid professional on the clock doing a job -- thinking it's perfectly acceptable to go around passing judgment whenever he may witness an act of sentimentality that may occur to the family of the people paying him to do that job. Who is he to have anything at all to say about me asking my cousin to take a photo of me for myself behind the bar in our grandfather's house?

For a guy his age who still thinks modeling his appearance on Hulk Hogan is cool, he managed to fall short of the already low standards I expected. Now ask me, Dear Reader, to whom I directed my complaint?

No one.

Because Not-Hulk Hogan is the owner.

I was furious. At one point, I took a walk around the block because one of my friends made the mistake of calling me while I was stewing over this and he patiently indulged me as I went on an angry tirade. He noted that it was surprising to him to hear me that hostile because it's so unusual for me (not unprecedented, but certainly atypical). I resolved that I would not let the matter rest. Since there's no one over the owner to bring my grievance to, I figured I would do the next best thing and share it publicly. I hope every person who considers hiring A&S Moving Services runs a Google search and finds this post, and that it encourages them to hire another service, operated by people with high enough professional standards that they don't go around hitting on women and insulting someone's sentimentality.

30 July 2016

Rough and Rocky Travelin': An Important Anniversary

"It's been rough and rocky travelin', but I'm finally standing upright on the ground."
-Willie Nelson, "Me and Paul"

Today is a special anniversary for me, Dear Reader. One year ago today, I began outpatient treatment at The Brook for suicidal depression. I'm not particularly interested in reviewing how I got to that point. You know your own experiences and if you've been to that point yourself, you know all that matters here is our common frame of reference. If you haven't been in that place, I sincerely hope you continue to avoid it. It ain't no fun, that's for sure.

I'd already spent some time inpatient at Our Lady of Peace in 2011, but I'd never done an outpatient program. One of my greatest fears going into treatment has always been being rejected by other patients because I fail the litmus test for who gets to "really" be depressed. I envision a room full of war veterans and people who have been failed at every turn by our society and have endured horrors I've been spared.

I have a mutually trusting and respecting relationship with my physician, Tiffany (no last names in my blog). I agreed years ago when we began treating my mental health that if or when we reached a point where she felt that I needed to seek hospitalization, I would go. One night last July, I sat up late with a couple of bottles of pain pills I'd been prescribed but hadn't really used. One of them was from a dentist who'd extracted two of my wisdom teeth. I forget why I had the other, but I know it hadn't been prescribed by Tiffany because I'd also promised her after my stint at Our Lady of Peace that I would never use anything she prescribed me to harm myself. I've honored that promise. I'd held onto those unused pain pills because they'd been given to me by other physicians, which created a loophole.

That night, as I contemplated combining every single one of those pills, I was chatting on Facebook with a friend about the dark place where I was. She lives in New Jersey, so she couldn't exactly drop by and sit with me, which in retrospect was part of why I felt comfortable reaching out to her at that time. She persuaded me to contact a suicide helpline. I found one online where I could chat via messenger rather than have to speak with someone. It felt easier to write than to speak at that point. Eventually, that person reported me to the police, who came to my home at something like 2:00 in the morning. There were two cars and three officers. I knew they were coming, so I went outside with my arms extended open and raised to greet them. I was sure they were worried when they got the call that I may have a firearm. Statistically, that's how the majority of males who take their own lives do it.

Once it was established that I do not even own such a weapon and that I was calming down, two of the officers left. The third sat down with me outside on the patio for probably an hour. His compassion, his patience, and his encouragement were everything that we collectively want to believe our law enforcement officers bring to their communities. I surrendered those bottles of pills to him and assured him that I would speak with my physician in the morning. He left me his card, emphasizing to me that I could call at any time of day or night and that he would gladly respond. He understood how to make me feel he was there for me without making me feel pressured.

My physician called in my promise to seek treatment if she deemed it necessary, and I honored that promise. I wasn't going because I gave a damn whether I got better. I didn't even believe I could get better. At best, I could maybe get to a lull in the pain, but it would only return. But I was going because I knew even in that state of mind that there were a lot of people who had invested in me. I owed it to them to exhaust all other options before hitting that little red button, and though I'd gone into inpatient treatment before, I had never done outpatient. I couldn't say I had tried everything and nothing worked, because there was still that left to try.

Back in high school, I learned how to make origami dogs. I've made them sporadically over the years; sometimes to amuse myself, sometimes as an icebreaker, and sometimes because they help me with anxiety. On my first morning of outpatient treatment, I made one while waiting for other patients and our group therapist to enter the room. This particular dog served two of the aforementioned three purposes; it helped with my anxiety, and it turned out to be an important icebreaker.

The first patient to join me in the room could not have been more welcoming. She immediately set me at ease and made me feel okay about being there. She set the tone for that entire first day for me. There was a strong sense of camaraderie in that room. And before our first break of the morning, I felt included in it, and a key reason was the welcome I'd been graciously given by that one patient.

During my check-in, I accounted for how I'd come to be there. One of the things weighing on my mind was the pervasive sense that I couldn't do anything of value. Our group therapist, Jessica, observed that the origami dog had made some of the other patients smile. It was something I was capable of doing, and even if its value was limited, it had value all the same. I rejected that characterization. I saw it as her artificially inflating something trivial.

But then Jessica challenged me to make an origami dog each day.


I had no interest in keeping the dog, so I decided to give it to a patient who'd made the biggest fuss over it. I asked if she had a name for him. She did: Waylon. I knew at that moment she and I were going to get along just fine!

It became a daily ritual. I made a dog first thing in the morning, always writing the date on the back of the head. Before the end of group, I would give it to another patient. Typically, I would decide the recipient early on and during break when most everyone else went outside to smoke in the fenced-in courtyard, I would place the dog on the table where that patient had been sitting. I never thought to ask if anyone ever discussed wondering who might get the dog when they returned to the room, but it honestly would not surprise me now to learn if they did. At some point, another patient actually bought me a pad of origami paper, already square shaped and in solid colors!

Someone joining the group for the first time went to the top of the list. I had, after all, benefited from the warm welcome. It seemed only right that I should make an effort to receive others in a manner consistent with that precedence. Similarly, someone being discharged would also receive one as a farewell memento. Sometimes the recipient was someone who had had a particularly rough session. It was a little consolation prize of sorts. The longer patients were there, the more they seemed to ascribe value to the dogs. There were times when, in the final minutes of a session, someone would ask me who that day's recipient would be. Because there were only so many other group members, there were patients who accrued several dogs as I rotated through the roster.

Jessica was right, though I doubt she envisioned the way those little origami dogs became a sort of mascot for our group. Generally, I explained the dogs to newcomers, but there were times when enthusiastic patients beat me to the punch. Those moments reminded me of children showing off something neat to one another. "And this one guy makes dogs and he might even give one to you since it's your first day!" The whole thing amused me, of course, though there were a few instances where I gave someone a dog and they expressed to me sincere appreciation for making them smile with it because they were having such a difficult time finding anything remotely positive in their world. In those moments, the dog became a tangible expression that that person was not alone, that we in that room cared about one another.

Despite the progress I made, it wasn't enough. By early September, I felt a return of that same despair. One night while out celebrating a friend's birthday, I sat alone at a booth while everyone else was on the dance floor or mingling elsewhere. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through my calendar, looking to see when my loved ones' birthdays were. I didn't want to ruin anyone's day, after all.

And then, out of nowhere, came a young woman who sat across from me in the booth. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "Don't do it."

I was, to say the least, stunned. I tried to ambiguously dodge her, asking what she meant. But we both knew exactly what she meant. She explained that she could tell just from looking at me where I was and what I was planning. Some of her friends came looking for her and when they found us sitting together, voiced their objections that she shouldn't be spending her time with someone as old as me. I tried to reassure them I had no romantic or sexual intentions of any kind, but I don't think they believed me.

No, I had none of those things on my mind. I was too consumed with processing what was happening. I could have understood it if someone who knew me had read me so accurately and quickly, but there was this stranger out of the ether who was challenging me to my face. That was a Saturday night. During Monday morning's check-in, I shared this and admitted that I didn't trust myself not to act on those urges. Jessica saw to it that I was admitted that day into the inpatient program. I spent a week there. I kept making origami dogs each day, because I told Jessica I would. Plus, they served the same purposes they always served; they amused me, they broke the ice with some other patients, and they gave me something to do while I was feeling anxious.

Though I was discharged from The Brook in October, Jessica introduced me to three important parts of my ongoing mental healthcare. One of them is a free meditation app called Stop, Breathe & Think. I had never tried meditating before, and I was surprised to find it so impacting. It's helped me significantly with finding peaceful moments, and it's helped me to establish and maintain some semblance of a healthy sleeping pattern. (It gets disrupted regularly, but the meditating has made a world of difference in helping me reestablish it.)

The second key element is my therapist, Carrie. The Brook insists on patients having an aftercare plan in place before being discharged, including at least one scheduled appointment with a therapist. I'd had a demoralizing experience with one therapist in 2013. (When I expressed to her that I was deflated because I know I'm going to die alone and be eaten by the cats, she told me I should work on accepting that and making my peace with it, for instance.) But Jessica played matchmaker and emphasized that she was confident that Carrie would be a good fit for me. She was entirely right. Carrie has been patient, compassionate, encouraging, and respectful. She has also called me out on things at times. One of the requirements I have for admitting someone into my inner circle is that I have to trust that that person will stand up to me. Not only do I know I need to be kept in check at times, but it makes it easier for me to accept kind words from such people because I know they're not trying to mollify me. (I still struggle with accepting those kind words, but I know I can't dismiss them as easily as I dismiss them from others.)

Lastly, Jessica encouraged me to attend a meeting of our local chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. DBSA is a nationwide organization. On 20 August 2015, I finally gave in and took a chance on it. Again, I felt the same anxieties; would they tell me to get out of there, that they only had time for people with real problems? And again, I was made to feel welcomed in short order. The regular attendees there have cultivated a warm, safe atmosphere. They have made me feel trusted, respected, and liked. I've become a facilitator there, generally every other Tuesday evening.

One thing I've learned over this last year is that I already know what I have to do to properly manage my mental health. But when I have reprieves, like many other patients with chronic conditions, I tend to lapse in maintaining those habits. Becoming a facilitator at DBSA has ensured that I continue attending, even now that I feel the stablest and happiest I've been in three years. (I can make that claim with the confidence that my inner circle has expressed a consensus about this, that they've seen a significant change in me over this past year. One friend who I'm still getting to know but has quickly earned my trust and admiration told me just last night that I'm almost a different person from the one she saw a year ago!)

I invite you to join us at a DBSA meeting, Dear Reader, should you feel that you might benefit from attending. I can assure you that you will be greeted with the same warmth and compassion that greeted me last August, and I can offer that assurance because I've seen it extended to others at every turn. You'll find a link to a group locator on their website below.

The very last patient to join my outpatient group at The Brook was an active duty soldier. As was typical, I was the first (and only) person in the room when he arrived that morning. I greeted him and tried to answer his questions and set him at ease. He had been deployed twelve times throughout his career, including five times to Afghanistan. And he told me the single scariest thing he'd ever done was coming to The Brook that morning. I share that because I hope it might give you, Dear Reader, a little more ease about seeking treatment yourself. It is scary. So scary that this man felt less comfortable than he felt about going into a literal war zone. But that scariness comes from the uncertainty of what will transpire.

My hope in sharing all of this is that those of you with similar experiences might come away from this post feeling a little less alone, and maybe a little more encouraged about the potential for improving your own mental health management. And as always, I also hope that those of you who haven't had these experiences have gained some insight into what people like me have gone through.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
Stop, Breathe & Think

18 July 2016

Finding Purpose and Value in Superman

You know how sometimes you do something, but it isn't until later that you find a meaningful purpose for whatever it was that you did? I recently had such an experience. I've debated blogging about it at all because it feels self-congratulatory, and I can only ask that you trust me, Dear Reader, that that isn't my purpose. Rather, I hope that this post might be an example -- a sort of little reminder, you might say -- why you should be mindful of the potential value of things you do. I certainly discount pretty much anything I ever do as soon as I do it, and I know there are others like me who struggle with the same issue.

So, anyway, I follow Gail Simone on Twitter, right? Last week, she re-tweeted a link to a Today Show story about Benjamin Austin, a three year old boy who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Benjamin loves superheroes, and his family thought it might be nice for him to receive sketches of superheroes in the mail as a little pick-me-up. According to the Today Show story, his morale is presently strong, but of course as treatment goes on, that often wanes.

I've done some sketching off and on over the years and I've done my fair share of superheroes, so this seemed like something I ought to do. Like you, I see myriad requests from people for all manner of things on a daily basis, but I'm rarely able to offer any of the kind of material support they need. A sketch, though, is well within my skill set. Plus, I'm in a fairly good place these days regarding my mental health and I know I got here with a lot of help from a lot of people. I feel a certain compulsion (obligation would have the wrong connotation to use here) to try to circulate some positiveness in return now that I'm better able to do so.

Anyway, I pulled out one of my sketchbooks, just thumbing through to find a blank page. I hadn't even settled on a character choice; I figured something would come to me once I was staring at the paper. I never got that far, because along the way, I ran across a sketch I did eight years ago that I forgot I ever did.

We go back to 15 April 2008 at this point in our story, Dear Reader, to a time when I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction. In an effort to while away the time, and give myself something a little enjoyable to do, I decided to try my hand at sketching Superman in the style of Joe Shuster, the artist who co-created and designed the character in 1938. I'd never done a Shuster Superman. I discovered that his art style, which appears fairly simplistic, required a surprising amount of patience and attentiveness. Surely, the frustration of being in a hospital bed factored into my difficulties, but it took me about two hours to complete. I felt it turned out well, and I seldom feel that way about my sketches.

As soon as I came face to face with this piece, I realized it had to be the piece I sent young Benjamin Austin. It just felt right, you know? I wrote a little note (typed, not handwritten, because even my own physician has a hard time reading my writing and you know it's bad when it's too illegible for a doctor) explaining that I'd drawn this when I was "sick" (no need to elaborate) and that it made me feel a little better when I drew it and that I hoped it might make him feel a little better now.

I'm under no illusions that this little sketch will have any real meaning, beyond possibly a few moments of "Hey, that's Superman!" recognition enthusiasm before he moves on to some other sketch. Those few moments, though, give purpose to the sketch; a purpose I never envisioned when I made it.

As I said, I often discount the things that I've done. I seldom recognize that they have any value. And that, I think, is why this admittedly little thing has resonated with me as much as it has. It's a reminder that my perspective on the value of my doings is, shall we say, skewed. It's also a reminder that even if it's a small thing, I am capable of making contributions here and there.

If you'd like to send a sketch of your own, the mailing address provided by the Today Show article is:
Benjamin Austin
c/o The Malta Family
10 Wheatfield Lane
Mountaintop, PA 18707
In any event, what I hope you take away from this post is to be more aware of your own toolkit, whether it be things you've already done that can be made to be helpful to others, or the application of an aptitude that you may take for granted.

Here's a scan I made of the sketch, to which I added the caption and signature before mailing. (It didn't occur to me until after I'd signed it that I dated it 2016 without noting that it was presented to him this year, not illustrated this year, but whatever. It's not like this is museum-bound.)

25 June 2016

HONEYHONEY Summer 2016 Tour

HONEYHONEY Summer 2016
Friday, 24 June 2016
Haymarket Whiskey Bar | Louisville, KY

I'd been waiting years to finally get enough stars to align that I could go see HONEYHONEY when at last that came together two years ago. I'd gotten there early enough to actually observe their three-song soundcheck, with only about seven or eight other people even in the place at that time. Even without any intentional showmanship, they were terrific. It's always hard to guess from studio records how anyone will sound live, and I was thrilled that HONEYHONEY may actually be better live than on record.

Thanks to Crohn's, I haven't gotten to many shows over the last several years, but even with whole years of not seeing one at all, I managed to reach a milestone last night. According to setlist.fm, this was my 100th concert! By happenstance, one of my friends who came along was also there when I attended my first (Garth Brooks, 20 May 1998 at Freedom Hall in Louisville).

The duo of Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe (along with drummer Conor Meehan) blended songs from their first three albums, First Rodeo; Billy Jack; and 3, along with a cover of "Lake of Fire" by Meat Puppets, and Jaffe took lead on "A Satisfied Mind". I first heard that song on the album Country Music by Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, and then Johnny Cash's version in the movie Kill Bill Vol. 2. Jaffe's arrangement was distinctive from either of those, a demonstration of the understanding of the difference between interpretation rather than imitation that has been central to the band's musical identity.

As I said, this was my second show of theirs and I'm now 0-2 on getting to hear "Thursday Night". Maybe next time? I was surprised when the 17-song set was over that "Little Toy Gun" wasn't in the mix. Since that last show, of course, they released their third album, 3, which I loved. I meant to bring along my vinyl jacket to have them sign, but forgot. Maybe next time? Two years ago, they played a few of the songs that made it onto 3, but it was nice to hear more of them performed live. There's something wondrous about watching musicians navigate the demands of playing as they intend, coaxing out of their instruments the notes that they've crafted, while also finding and exploring the emotional honesty of the song as well as engaging the audience. When Suzanne Santo tears into her fiddle, as on "Big Man", there's almost a sense of her looking for something, and then she finds it and there's a distinctive shift in the energy of the entire show.

Ben Jaffe (left), Conor Meehan (middle), Suzanne Santo (right), buncha drunks (foreground). Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
Ultimately, it was Santo who made this 100th concert truly memorable for me.

I discovered from the website that the venue, Haymarket Whiskey Bar, featured some arcade games...AND SKEE BALL.


I prepared for the show by bringing along $10 in quarters. There are two lanes, in a section of the venue betwixt the bar and the music hall. My friends and I played several rounds, razzing one another mercilessly about our mediocrity. After the show had concluded, I still had some quarters remaining and wanted to play a few more games. Enter: Suzanne Santo, fresh from signing the last of any fan requests.

Photo by Ronnie Ashley.
It turns out that she was just as excited by the chance to play skee ball as we were, and enthusiastically joined us. It was a flurry of a conversation, so I can't say definitively who proposed it, but my perception is that she was the one who suggested we play doubles, one duo on each lane. She partnered with me. I'd like to say that we dominated because we're the best skee ball players in the world, but there's no photographic evidence to affirm such a claim.

Though it was great fun playing skee ball with her, that alone wasn't what made this such a perfect 100th concert experience. There's one little detail that will stand out to me more than anything else from this show, and that was the reaction that Suzanne had when she discovered that I was paying for the games with my own change. Her face reflexively went to that look of "I wish I'd known!" guilt that we make when we find out something that changes the context of what we'd done. She even said she felt bad that I was spending my own money for her to get to play and that she would go get quarters.

I assured her I'd brought the quarters for the very purpose of playing, and more importantly that I had loved the show. (Besides, I think I spent, like, $2.00, for the two games that both lanes played.) She accepted it when I outlined the reasons why it was okay for her to play without putting in her own quarters, but I will forever cherish that little moment of such consideration and sweetness. You can be trained in playing instruments, to cultivate a public persona, and a lot of other things. But thoughtfulness is either genuine or it doesn't exist, and that little moment was heartwarming and became my new #1 reason for being a fan.

honeyhoney Setlist Haymarket Whiskey Bar, Louisville, KY, USA 2016

19 June 2016

Gun Control Measures: An Open Letter

Tomorrow, the United States Senate will vote on two bills that seek to address some conspicuously gaping holes in our regulations of firearms. One would require universal background checks for all prospective buyers, and the other would revoke legal access to purchasing firearms from those already on the no-fly list. DailyKos.com is organizing an online petition, which you can sign through the form at the bottom of this post.

Being a Kentuckian, represented in the Senate by Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, I expect my efforts to be dismissed out of hand. But for whatever value it may have, here is the content of the letter that I composed to accompany my signature:

While I appreciate the significance of safeguarding our civil rights, I also appreciate that we've made reasonable compromises along the way. To wit, we already restrict minors and convicted felons from legally purchasing firearms. Surely, those on a terror watchlist have also raised enough suspicion that prudence would be served by restricting them as well, without sacrificing the spirit of the Second Amendment.

Additionally, I have diagnoses of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress disorder. I was hospitalized in September with suicidal depression. But because I admitted myself voluntarily, I can still legally purchase a gun. This greatly concerns me, as well as members of the Depression & Bipolar Support Alliance that I've come to know in Louisville.

We already have a voluntary "do not sell" list for people with gambling addictions. It seems to me that creating a voluntary "do not sell" list for people like me with mental illnesses who recognize that we ought not have access to firearms could join of our own volition (thereby sidestepping the controversial matter of governmental restrictions).

I expect to receive a generic "Thanks for contacting me concerning this issue, but I'm voting the other way" reply as I have to every other petition I've signed over the years. But it is my sincere hope that you will recognize the importance of taking measured, reasonable action in the face of such serious threats to our society.

To sign the petition and send a letter to your Senator, follow this link:

"Clean Room" #9 by Gail Simone

Clean Room #9, cover by Jenny Frison.
Clean Room #9
"Hell Above Us and Heaven Below"

Gail Simone - Writer
Jon Davis-Hunt - Artist
Quinton Winter - Colorist
Todd Klein - Letterer
Jenny Frison - Cover
Shelly Bond & Molly Mahan - Editors
Clean Room is created by Gail Simone
32 pages | $2.99 | Published 15 June 2016

After the intensity of issue #8, I knew only one thing for certain: I wanted to read issue #9 as soon as possible. I did buy it on Wednesday, but have been kept busy enough that I hadn't had time to sit down with it and accord it the attention it deserved until now.


We open on a striking full page overhead shot of Astrid Mueller under the knife, unattributed dialogue blurbs detailing her medical condition and the efforts being taken to save her life. There are also a few such blurbs in an entirely different font that must surely belong to an Entity taunting Astrid. The first reads, "Honk if you love the devil" and the last, "It's harvest time in the meat hospital." Lettering usually goes unacknowledged, but Todd Klein has certainly helped to define the voices of the characters in this book.

Of course, more than all that is the splash page image of Astrid's face being cut right down the middle, her entire head split down to her upper lip by the scalpel and her forehead falling to either side in limp masses. We see some of her hair and the flesh of her throat and shoulders, but the page is dominated by what I think is a detail of her insides being overtaken by toothy parasites. Microscopic Entities, perhaps? It's a surreal image, so it's hard to even guess how literal that visual is, but the gist seems clear enough: Astrid has some issues.

Amazingly, Jon Davis-Hunt and Quinton Winter actually managed to one-up that opening page later in this issue, on story page 13, another splash page set during a flashback of young Astrid discovering what I guess is the Entity's ship. I'm gonna be honest: the only thing in all of fiction that has staggered me like this in terms of scale and ominousness was Unicron in The Transformers: The Movie. This thing is eerie as hell, sort of a twisted amalgamation of Bowser's Airship and the Crystal Castle that She-Ra defends. One cannot miss the dominant color of this thing being Astrid's primary color, pink.

Otherwise, the story isn't quite as intense as the last one, though that's more because issue #8 was just that perfect than because of any flaws with issue #9. The showdown between Chloe and Killian in the Clean Room over the former having brought Spark with her felt a bit rote since it was pretty obvious that Spark would, in fact, act to save Astrid. Of course, the final two story pages certainly restored the unpredictable nature of this book and negated pretty much all of the compassion for Astrid that we've felt for the last month since watching her be shot. The last time I felt this invested in -- and conflicted by -- a character in any medium, it was J.R. Ewing.

Speaking of shady Texans, we also meet a pair of "Christians" in Austin who clearly have designs on poaching Astrid's followers. My early guess is that we'll find they, too, know about the Entities (I don't think it's a coincidence that Chloe describes how the Entities have been perceived as demons over the years and been exorcised at times), though whether they're in league with at least some faction of the Entities is up in the air. As I've said often, it's hard to guess along with Gail Simone!

One last thing: I think this cover is my favorite of all nine so far by Jenny Frison. I really dig her covers for issues #5 and #7, but there's something about the dark shading here that makes this one more striking than it would have been had it been lit with the same aesthetic as previous covers. In a different context, Astrid's facial expression could be read as coy and/or sensual. But in this dark light (and three hands at her throat), it's creepy as hell.