20 September 2019

Oh, I HAVE Receipts!

This story begins, as so many do, with a Micro SD card suddenly becoming corrupt despite not holding any public office. Not to worry, says the SanDisk website! They're covered for five years. I just need my receipt. Not to worry, says I! I've got it in a comic book short box filled with damn near every physical receipt I've been given since 10 October 2011. (Calm down, I'm getting to that. Stay with the SD card for a moment.)

You know that trope of bartenders on Law & Order who remember that one guy from fifteen months ago and happen to have his receipt in a drawer, just waiting for a detective to come asking for it? I felt like one of those.

I just needed to scan it, take a couple pics of my SD card, upload those and some routine info, and then hope that when they say "Submitting an online Warranty Replacement request does NOT guarantee that your submission will be processed and approved for Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA)" that they don't mean me. Also, hold up. They don't even guarantee your submission will be processed? That's... something. But since I could find my receipt with ease, that must be an omen that my RMA will not only be processed but approved.

Alas, Dear Reader, we will never know. See, I got sidetracked sifting through that box of receipts. To jump ahead to the end of the SanDisk affair, yes, I screwed up and threw it in the trash that was collected just a few hours later. Normally, that would be the whole anecdote of a blog post. This one took me in an entirely other direction, though, and it's that that I wish to share and explore.

For six dollars, you get the donut, the hole, the whole damn thing.
Let me return to the earlier, obvious question of why I've kept all those receipts for almost eight full years. I had spent a few days being treated for severe, suicidal depression, and learned as I was ready to leave the hospital that my wife was ready to leave me. At first, it was presented as an open-ended but temporary thing so she could decompress after sticking out that year. That was fair and reasonable, and I was fine with it. I looked forward to her catching her breath and us working together again as the companions we had been before my depression isolated us from one another.

Like so many married couples, we had a joint bank account. Like so many married couples, one of us largely deferred to the other. In our case, I deferred to her since she was the breadwinner and also because she was meticulous about keeping up with finances, whereas I'm the type of person who finds out he's out of money when his debit card is declined. (That actually happened to me more than once back in my late teens.) I couldn't intrude on her every time I needed to spend money out of that account, but I also couldn't not spend money out of that account. I resolved to make do with as little as possible, and to hold onto my receipts in case there were any issues with the account's activity.

It took a month before I realized that she was not, in fact, ever coming back. It took a few more months before I fully accepted it. We still had the joint account. The bank would not remove me from it; we would have to close it altogether and start our own individual accounts. Fine, sure, whatever. I got set up with my own account. I didn't want to throw out those receipts, though. Before, I had held onto them as a matter of diligence; now I felt I needed them in case our relationship deteriorated further and I might need to account for any spending I had done.

"Okay, yeah, but Travis," you ask, "why did you need to keep every receipt from your own account?"

My default answer would be that it had simply become a habit, even in such short time. Having the receipts made me feel like a real grownup, who could function just fine without his wife overseeing things. Plus, I anticipated the scenario of my Micro SD card abruptly stop working and I would need that receipt. See? I learned something from all those Law & Order reruns.

But last night, I finally sat down and went through them, each and every one. Because I mostly just dropped them on top of one another, it was like an archaeological dig through several strata. The majority were routine things like groceries, medication co-payments, and way too many visits to Burger King. There were, however, several that stood out. Some of them just amused me, for various reasons.

I made a friend, but thought for an entire year she hated me.
Other receipts, though, were documentations that my life has not been, as it often feels, restricted to the bathroom or bed. In the time since my wife left me, I've explored artistic projects here and there, like painting a "Message Lost at Sea" and making my (mostly) annual Christmas cards, which have become increasingly more elaborate. I got to observe the total solar eclipse from one of the most perfect spots on the planet. I've moderated five live Flickchart panels at comic conventions and library events. Hell, I've walked through Johnny Cash's house in my socks.

I've also, in that time, been in inpatient treatment for suicidal depression twice more. I've lost my grandfather; an adopted uncle, Bill Marham; my mentor, Morgan Broadhead; and all four of my cats. I still had receipts pertaining to those things, too. I can tell you that my family went to eat at Texas Roadhouse after my grandfather's service, and my friend and I went for burgers at W.W. Cousins after Bill's.

I separated the receipts. Mundane ones, like the ones from Kroger that are obscenely long, could go. Most of the ones from restaurants went. (I kinda wish I'd kept the one from when I went to Qdoba for tacos after casting my vote in the 2016 election. It was as meaningful an act of defiance as I could manage that evening.) However, I also have the receipt from the restaurant where I first met someone who has become one of my dearest friends, even if neither of us will admit to it in front of other people. I've got one from a night when I spontaneously decided to make a diorama for a friend of mine who lives in Australia and had to dash off to Walmart in the middle of the night for yarn and plastic spoons, and the receipt from the post office when I mailed it to them. That whole project was an absolute lark!

One of my favorites, though, is a Walmart receipt from 22 November 2011. That was the first night that my niece stayed over with just me after my wife left. This was significant because she was my niece through marriage, not blood. I worried that I would lose her, too, as typically happens after divorces. I'd had little to no contact with my in-laws since my wife left. It wasn't promising. But then I ran into her with her mom and brother by happenstance the Monday before Thanksgiving at Walmart (which is why it's a Walmart receipt, Dear Reader). There was some reflexive awkwardness between the three of us. I love my nephew just as much, but it's fair to say that he and I are pretty different from one another. I think my world bores him. He'd become jaded about people leaving his life by this point, and while we still have a relationship and he knows he can reach out to me at any time, he's been more comfortable leading his own life. I get it.

My niece, however, was entirely unfazed. She ran to me and hugged me, and said, "I want to spend the night at your house!" I knew in that moment that our relationship would continue. Her mother saw to it that it could, and I am eternally grateful to her for that. She didn't have to do that, but it was unanimous: I'm her uncle, she's my niece.

Don't worry. The gum wasn't a topping.
She didn't spend that night with me, though, as she still had school the next day. We settled for the next evening, after she got out of school. I decided to introduce her to mini pizzas, which required the purchase of a few ingredients. (This is where the receipt comes in, in case that wasn't obvious.) She delighted in making those. My favorite moment was when I explained to her that this was something that I grew up with, and she responded, "And some day I can pass it on to my kids." It's a trivial thing, mini pizzas, but it meant the world to me to hear her assert the lineage and project its future.

After I'd been rummaging for a couple of hours, I realized I hadn't been entirely honest with myself. I had kept those receipts as a tether to that ambiguous period between when my wife left and when I realized she wasn't coming back. I haven't pined for her. She comes up in my conversations semi-regularly, but only because she was part of the stories I have to tell. ("Have to tell" in the sense that they're stories in my repertoire, not in the sense that I'm obligated to tell them.)

So what was I holding onto? Certainly not some belief, or even interest, that we might still work it out. I don't know what it was, honestly. Not yet, anyway. But I did decide to purge most of those receipts (you did remember that from the preface story about the Micro SD card, right?). It felt...

I dunno. I've stared at this screen for ten minutes and don't know how that sentence ends. I'd already thought about it for hours before sitting down to write this. I think this is one of those things that's just going to take time before I can understand it. Somehow, though, I know that this purge will bring me a closure I didn't know I needed. Apparently, though, I've had it since last year.

12 September 2019

On How I Became the Kind of Person Who Likes Johnny Cash


"There are two kinds of people. There's those who like Johnny Cash, and those that will."
-Marty Stuart
I was the second kind of person longer than I wish I could claim. It wasn't that I disliked Cash. It's that I had no real exposure to his music in my youth. I was a child of the 80's, which weren't an especially great decade for him commercially, outside of the Highwayman album with Waylon, Willie, and Kris. Oddly enough, though, I did know Rosanne Cash; I was in love with her recording of "Tennessee Flat-Top Box", which I didn't realize at the time was a cover of his song. I had shunned country music altogether throughout most of the 90's, too, until a friend introduced me to George Strait's Carrying Your Love With Me album in '97. That got me back into country, but by then Cash was off doing his American Recordings work with producer Rick Rubin. It was highly acclaimed and respected by the music industry writ large, which I ignored, and ignored by mainstream country, which in turn meant I wasn't exposed to his music that way, either.

But by the time that Cash released his American IV: The Man Comes Around album in 2002, I had taken to buying all kinds of stuff just to take a chance on it. I took a chance on that album and have been grateful ever since. I was bowled over in a way that I hadn't been before. It felt like a master class in music history condensed into a single album. By the end of the album, I had gone from the type of person who will like Johnny Cash to the type of person who does. I couldn't stop playing that CD for weeks. Later that year, I visited another friend out in Las Vegas, where he was stationed in the Air Force. I flew out there, we hung out, drove home for Christmas, then drove back to Vegas for New Year's, and then I flew back home to start the next school semester. I'm pretty sure I subjected him to The Man Comes Around at least once in each direction. He bought his own copy. I felt like an evangelist.

I don't know that anyone could talk about that album, or even Cash at large, without talking about "Hurt". That was one of those "stopped me in my tracks" experiences. I have no history with addiction, so it wasn't something that I related to on that level. But it did speak to my history of depression and periodically pushing people away. It was mature; mature subject matter, written maturely by Trent Reznor, and performed by Cash at his most mature artistically as well as in age.

Then several months later, the music video directed by Mark Romanek was released and I was stunned all over again. It was like taking a Johnny Cash 101 course in three minutes. I learned that the album was being reissued with the music video on a bonus DVD. You're damn right I bought the album a second time!

I wasn't alone in that reaction. It seemed all of America had been shaken by "Hurt". Hell, it won an MTV Music Video Award for Best Cinematography, and Justin Timberlake declared in his acceptance speech for Best Male Video that that award should have gone to Cash. Artists I'd never associated with country music at all were talking about how long they'd been fans of Cash and influenced by him in one way or another. How many were bandwagon fans, I couldn't say; but then, I also couldn't judge. (Though I did have the distinction of buying The Man Comes Around before ever hearing, or hearing about, "Hurt", so there.)



2002 was also Cash's 70th birthday year, and to mark the occasion, Sony's Legacy Recordings imprint reissued several of his most notable albums, remastered and in most instances, expanded to include bonus tracks. There was also a 2-disc entry in Legacy's The Essential series, and a tribute album, Kindred Spirits: A Tribute to the Songs of Johnny Cash. Another label issued the competitive/companion tribute album, Dressed in Black: A Tribute to Johnny Cash. I bought most of them; some I couldn't find and kinda forgot to look for later. Between those and getting caught up on his first three American Recordings albums, I was off to a solid start.

When the Unearthed box set was announced, I was outright giddy. Five CD's, four of them containing all newly released material! I had a CD burner by then so the fifth disc, Best of Cash on American compilation was a bit extraneous, but I couldn't find fault in its assembly or inclusion in the box. (Plus, it features an extended version of "Thirteen" so technically it also features previously unreleased material.)

Then June Carter Cash died.

Then Johnny Cash died.

Then Unearthed came out. I went to Coconuts (a defunct music store chain) the day it was released. I knew it would be pricey, but hoped it might be discounted as new releases often were. I went into the store not sure I would buy it then. But then I saw it and I held it and I didn't care what the price tag was. I think I paid $70 for it, but I can't say for sure. All I know is that it's my favorite box set I've ever owned or even borrowed.

The clothbound slipcase. The simple elegance of the design. Yes, the book containing the CD's in cardboard sleeve pages makes me uncomfortable handling them, but it does at least feel appropriately special. The comprehensive liner notes with an essay and interviews conducted by Sylvie Simmons, presented as a clothbound hardback book in CD case dimensions. And the music. The opener, a stark cover of "Long Black Veil", sets the tone. To my ear, it's significantly more compelling than the recording he made decades earlier, with its 70's arrangement and June's backing vocals that feel a little too estranged from the song and Cash's vocals. Sometimes, I like to just look over at my CD shelves and glance at Unearthed. I don't pull it out and play anything from it. Simply knowing I could is reassuring somehow.

For the next few years, everyone who had gushed over "Hurt" had even more to say about Cash. His songs started to be covered in concerts. Tribute songs started to become a thing. Some were okay, some were lazy, but then there was Gary Allan's "Nickajack Cave (Johnny Cash's Redemption)" on his powerful Tough All Over album, recorded in the aftermath of his wife's suicide. One can appreciate how a man in mourning would be drawn to the fable of how a desperate Johnny Cash entered the labyrinthine Nickajack Cave system, expecting to become lost and die (he maintained in his The Man in Black memoir that he was not suicidal; I'd like to review that with him), but instead was told by God to get up, that He still had plans for him.

But then the sincerity of the epoch devolved into being a fad, in which country songs name-checked him gratuitously. This is perhaps best exemplified by Jason Aldean's single, "Johnny Cash". Like the majority of Aldean's discography, it's about a hellraiser out having a good time, "Blasting out to Johnny Cash". I have two issues with the song. One is that it didn't need Cash at all; the song isn't about him in any meaningful way. Any artist would have sufficed. But the other is that I can't really think of all that many Johnny Cash songs that one would blast out to in the first place. Anyone with a cursory understanding of his music would know that. What, are you blazing down the street with your windows rolled down so everyone can hear "Flesh and Blood" as loud as your speakers will go?

Perhaps because The Man Comes Around and Unearthed both dropped in November, I've ever since associated Cash with fall. Though I think that also has to do with the aesthetics of the American series; they're brilliant works of art, but summertime jams, they ain't. (Except, of course, his cover of "I've Been Everywhere", which should be on every road trip mix disc and playlist.) The first day that I feel brisk air becomes Johnny Cash season. I have annually, without fail, at some point sat down and binge-listened to the entire American series, even including the aforementioned extraneous Best of Cash on American compilation that concludes Unearthed. Often, I'll go beyond that series and dive into his earlier works. I like to binge-listen to The Legend box set, though more often I'll compromise and go with the aforementioned 2-disc The Essential Johnny Cash compilation (not to be confused with the 3-disc box set, The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983).

I eventually got hold of Cash's Sun Records recordings; not the elaborate box set with every surviving take and outtake, but at least the released versions. This is my second favorite Cash era, I think in part because it's so clearly a prototype for the later American work. Backed by the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant) imbued most of those recordings with a similar stripped down feel. But it isn't just that. There's a palpable, youthful energy that's tempered by Cash having already been through considerable hardship and strife. My favorite songs from that era are "Guess Things Happen That Way", "Big River", "Cry! Cry! Cry!", "I Walk the Line", and "Ballad of a Teenage Queen". That one defies the stark Cash aesthetic, which may be what endears me to it. It has a malt shop bobbysoxer feel that seems so incongruous with Cash that it delights me.

So anyway, that's the story of how I went from being one kind of person to being the other kind. A few years ago, a friend and I went on a Cash-themed road trip. I've been meaning to recount that in this blog ever since we got home from it, but still haven't gotten to it. When (or if) I do, I'll add a link here.

08 September 2019

On Why I Left Facebook

On Friday, 6 September, I deactivated my Facebook account. There were, understandably, some questions why I elected to do this. I think it was especially concerning for some of my closer friends because they feared it was a red flag that I've slipped into yet another severe depressive episode.

The first thing I want to make clear is that this has been a long time coming and was not brought on by something any one may have said or done in the last couple of weeks. The second thing I want to make clear is that this is not a manifestation of depression isolation.

What Facebook means is unique to the user. For some, it's merely a distraction during downtime intervals throughout the day. For others, it's a way to put on airs. For me, it was an integral part of my support system.

I'm sure it sounds ridiculous; what healthy person even thinks of Facebook as a place to go for meaningful support in the first place? Remember, though, Dear Reader, that I am not a healthy person. Crohn's often isolates me physically, either directly or indirectly by way of my feeble immune system not being able to fend off the latest bug. Being able to connect with other Crohnies, from literally around the world, was immensely helpful for me when I was initially diagnosed and still trying to figure out what this stupid disease meant for me. They were people who had tips about how to navigate the side effects of Prednisone and understood how frustrating it is to have to give up anything from plans to go see a movie to plans to pursue a career in teaching.

Sharing a diagnosis is not itself sufficient basis for a relationship, however. I remember a Crohnie chatting with me privately one night probably a decade ago. He was boasting of how he held down two jobs and scoffed at the lazy whiners among us who hid behind their disease to get out of doing anything. We did not remain Facebook friends.

Mostly, though, everyone I met via Facebook was compassionate, empathetic, and supportive; not only toward me, but toward everyone I saw them interact with there. I can't say that I left Facebook because it had become toxic. I don't really understand that anyway. Facebook itself is not inherently toxic. It can be filled with toxic content, certainly, but you can isolate and even remove the people circulating such things. (I would add that it's healthy to do this offline, too. You don't have to be subject to inflammatory discourse.)

So why leave?

There's no single reason, honestly. Like many others, I have become increasingly troubled by exposes of Facebook's handling of users' private information. I myself am a pretty open and candid person, but even I have some things I'd rather share privately with select few. This brings me to a side point I want to make. There was a meme that circulated several years ago to the effect of "My partner can scroll through my whole feed and read any of my DM's because I have nothing to hide." I was infuriated by this for two reasons. First, if you're so suspicious of your partner that you would even want to read their private conversations, you've got a problem much bigger than seeing those conversations for yourself will solve.

More importantly, though, I may not be the one with something to keep private. I have had the good fortune to become trusted by quite a few people with various sensitive matters of theirs over the years. Their confidence should not be betrayed to appease the insecurity of a third party.

But, I digress.

I've purged my Facebook friends list in successive waves over the years during various depressive episodes. Sometimes, it was merely someone I only tangentially "knew" via a mutual friend. Sometimes, though, it was someone who had been supportive and encouraging of me. Why would I unfriend such people? Depression, Dear Reader, has a way of making it hard to trust that such people are sincere or that they really care; or, alternately, that I deserve their support. Better to burn the bridge than subject us both to the charade of them having to feign interest in my life and me enduring their show of it. I know how dysfunctional and unfair to well-intended people I had no real reason to mistrust that is, but there it is.

Last year at this time, I was hospitalized in inpatient care for the third time for suicidal depression. I conducted yet another purge of Facebook friends in the days leading up to the hospital. I was there for ten days, during which I had no access to any social media. When I returned and checked Facebook, I realized that I'd gotten out of the habit, and never really got back into it. In the intervening year, I've gone days on end without even thinking to check Facebook, and flitting in and out within a matter of minutes when I did, not bothering to engage anyone's content or put up any of my own.

I do still value each of my Facebook friends who remained there at the end, which is why I made sure to leave up a notification all week that I would be deactivating the account, and provided alternate ways of engaging me. I sincerely hope each of them take me up on that and keep in touch!

But the social setting of Facebook itself stopped feeling relevant to my support system. I don't feel the same sense of community or belonging that I once did. I've lost interest in some of the things I used to enjoy talking about there. Also, if I'm being entirely honest, I stopped feeling useful to anyone else's support system through it, either. Gone are the days of hours-long multiple conversations about deeply personal things with people in various time zones literally all across the globe. Many of those friends have themselves already abandoned Facebook, by minimizing their engagement if not deactivating their accounts altogether.

I'm usually the last to leave a party, but I do know when it's time to go.

04 September 2019

Playlist: Oldham 8 Theatres - Music From & Inspired by the Motion Pictures

I've been tinkering with several playlists recently, most of which I won't bother blogging about. But this one makes the cut because it's one I categorize as an "autobiographical" playlist, touching on a key era in my life: the years 1995-circa 2000, when I went with friends regularly to see movies at the now-defunct Oldham 8 Theatres. I already wrote a pretty comprehensive piece about the theater after it was shut down six years ago, so this is more of a survey than a memoir-ish piece.

Original photo taken from the Oldham 8 Facebook page; logo scanned from a newspaper ad.
I spent an entire hour tinkering with that cover art mock-up, Dear Reader. At some point, I'm going to burn this playlist to disc and you better believe I'm printing an insert for it using that image!

First things first. The playlist's subtitle, "Music From & Inspired by the Motion Pictures" is a direct reference to the ubiquity of compilation soundtrack albums that accompanied so many movies during that era. This format has largely died off thanks in part to a shift to scored music, but largely due to the rise of digital music. Albums of original songs are one thing, but we can throw together our own compilation mixes now and don't need someone at a record label doing that for us. But there for awhile, it was a fad that I really dug. I got introduced to a lot of different stuff by way of those Various Artists compilations. Hell, that's how I was finally exposed to Shania Twain; "No One Needs to Know" featured on the Twister album. I wasn't listening to mainstream country music at the time, so her Woman in Me album had entirely missed me.

Notes

  • This is not sequenced chronologically, but rather for flow as a playlist.
  • There is only one actual "Inspired By" song, though I do make mention of a couple that I considered as alternates just to live up to that part of the subtitle.
1. "GoldenEye" [Single Edit] by Tina Turner (from GoldenEye)

GoldenEye wasn't the first movie I saw at the Oldham 8; that was Powder, which also has the distinction of being my first ever date. However, two things. One, I don't think there are any vocal songs in Powder. Two, I hated Powder. GoldenEye was something else altogether. It was the first time I went to see a movie with two of my core friends, and just the second I'd seen with a third. It was also my second date, with the same girl, so she was part of that outing. It was my first Bond movie in a theater, and in fact I had only just gotten interested in Bond earlier that year, entirely oblivious to the fact they were even making this comeback flick. But more than any of this, GoldenEye was the first time that my friends and I organized as a group for a social event all on our own. It was a rite of passage.

2. "Humans Being" by Van Halen (from Twister)

That screening was the fullest I had ever seen a movie theater. It was so packed I legitimately began to have a mild anxiety attack until the lights went down and I was able to focus just on the movie. The speakers, still only seven months old, were hammered by the film's audio mix and never quite recovered. I was tempted to represent Twister with the aforementioned "No One Needs to Know", but nothing else better represents that film's speaker-busting loudness than "Humans Being".

3. "Men in Black" by Will Smith (from Men in Black)

1997 was the second consecutive year that the Fourth of July had been kicked off by Will Smith (following Independence Day). For years, I have marveled that Will Smith's filmography has been so full of sci-fi and yet we don't talk about him like he's a sci-fi star. He's just a Star with a capital "S", period. Anyway, no one dominated the summers of the years covered by this playlist like Smith. MIB was surprisingly short, at a scant 98 minutes--unthinkable today! It may have been light, but its breeziness is what made it so fun.

4. "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" by Mary Griffin with Frankie Valli (from Conspiracy Theory)

One of my mom's favorite cassettes to play in the car was a hits compilation of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, and the inclusion of "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" in Conspiracy Theory was probably my favorite thing about it, just edging out seeing Patrick Stewart in something mainstream. I'm not a huge fan of this arrangement, honestly, but it does represent a late 90's r&b aesthetic and how the music world insisted on interpreting things at that time.

5. "Fly Like an Eagle" by Seal (from Space Jam)

I wasn't in love with the movie, and I haven't seen it since, but its soundtrack was everywhere at the end of 1996. Had I made this playlist contemporaneously, I would surely have represented Space Jam with another song. However, that more obvious go-to has been forever tainted by things we have since learned about its performer. Still, Seal's cover of "Fly Like an Eagle" would merit consideration anyway, in part because he was a big deal at the time, and his r&b take on the song reflects the time as well as the movie.

6. "Jedi Rocks" by The Max Rebo Band (from Return of the Jedi: Special Edition)

Believe me, I don't want to include this. But the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition was a huge event for my friends and me, and it feels like that should be represented by a music cue exclusive to those versions. Unfortunately, that only leaves me with either this or "Victory Celebration", which replaced "Ewok Celebration" at the end of Return of the Jedi. That's combined with the end credits, so the run time would have cost me another song. Plus, much as I hate "Jedi Rocks", I'm more resentful of the removal of "Ewok Celebration". Yub nub forever!

7. "C U When U Get There [Coolio's Album Mix]" (from Nothing to Lose)

I wish I had seen Dangerous Minds at the Oldham 8 just so I could include "Gangsta's Paradise" instead, but I didn't. I did get a kick out Nothing to Lose, though. ("You got that slap 'cause you're with him!" is a line my friend and I quote surprisingly often.) I should have used the soundtrack version instead of the one from Coolio's own album, but 1) the single release artwork promotes the movie but features this version and 2) I don't have access to the soundtrack.

8. "You've Got a Friend in Me" by Randy Newman (from Toy Story)

I was just shy of my 17th birthday when the original opened, which I saw with most of the same group as GoldenEye. We were obviously a bit older than the target audience, which at that time was something to still be a bit self-conscious about. But we all adored it and thought it hilarious and, at times, touching. The theme of "How do you define yourself when your place in the world changes?" resonated with us as teens trying to figure out who we were, and I think that universal question is the heart of why the film has remained relevant and engaging.

9. "Spy Hard" by "Weird" Al Yankovic (from Spy Hard)

This is a surprisingly elusive song to track down. It was only issued as the B-side to the "Gump" single, and included in a career-spanning box set. The main title sequence to the movie is a send-up of Thunderball, down to riffing on Maurice Binder's silhouette swimmers and "Weird" Al holding the final note for awhile. My brother and friend and I made our own double feature out of Spy Hard and Mission: Impossible, using the time between showings to hoof it uptown for some BBQ. As we returned, the sky was eerier than we'd ever seen and we settled on it being the Apocalypse.

10. "Theme From Mission: Impossible" by Larry Clayton and Adam Muller (from Mission: Impossible)

Obviously, I had to pair this with "Spy Hard" to reflect that aforementioned double feature. I could have used Danny Elfman's main title arrangement of Lalo Schiffrin's iconic theme (it's a few minutes shorter), but this version by half of U2 had the single release. I suppose this constitutes the "& Inspired By" part of the playlist.

11. "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" by The Soggy Bottom Boys (from O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Country music was big in the 90's, so naturally it made its way to Hollywood. This was the pinnacle of that relationship, though because it was bluegrass, mainstream country radio shunned this single--despite the album going six times platinum and staying in the top three on the Billboard Hot Country Albums chart for damn near an entire calendar year. Anyway, my friends and I had already seen this once at another theater, but enjoyed it so much that one night, we spontaneously went to the Oldham 8 to catch it a second time. I may or may not have smuggled in a can of beer.

14. "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith (from Armageddon)

Aerosmith is obviously not a country band, though Mark Chesnutt did have a #1 single with his cover of this song, released to radio concurrently with theirs. I considered including Chesnutt's version of this for the "& Inspired By..." part of the playlist. I gotta be honest, though: I don't think about Armageddon when I think of this song. I think about a wedding reception I once attended where this was the song that the groom danced to with his mother. I swear to God that's true.

12. "How Do I Live [Video Version]" by Trisha Yearwood (from Con Air)

90's country flirted with pop quite a bit, led in large part by Shania Twain. This aesthetic is on display in Con Air's love theme, "How Do I Live", written by Diane Warren and originally recorded by LeAnn Rimes but replaced at the last minute by Trisha Yearwood's version. Both were released as singles, and Rimes's sold better, and I did consider going with that version to represent the "& Inspired By..." part of the playlist, as with Mark Chesnutt's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing". But Yearwood's was in the movie, and it's solid enough to make the list all on its own. Besides, the next track in this playlist is...

13. "Can't Fight the Moonlight" by LeAnn Rimes (from Coyote Ugly)

I had to include this, in part because it was an infectious single that got stuck in my head more than I liked, but also because Coyote Ugly was the first of only two movies I can recall seeing with a particular pal of mine. We saw it with a mutual friend, and went out for a leisurely drive that day. My pal was the front seat passenger, and she had her hand out the window, moving it as though swimming. This was three years before Finding Nemo introduced us to "Just keep swimming."

15. "Poison Ivy" by Me'Shell Ndegéocello (from Batman & Robin)

There were several movies I went to see a second time, but only two that I went back to because they were so bad, and Batman & Robin was one of them. Maybe I had just not been in the right mood or maybe I hadn't paid enough attention? (That's right: I legitimately questioned whether I had devoted enough of my brain to Batman & Robin.) Nope, turns out I was right the first time. It's awful. And yet, I've developed a sort of Stockholm Syndrome over it, and God help me, it genuinely delights me today. I almost went with "The End Is the Beginning Is the End" as a double reference to Watchmen, which I also saw at the Oldham 8, but years after the period covered by this playlist. In any case, I dig Me'Shell Ndegéocello's cover of "Poison Ivy", perhaps the most spot-on use of a cover song in any of the movies I saw during this period. The original song is almost playful; I prefer Ndegéocello's sultry reading.

16. "Oye Como Va" by Brent Spiner (from Out to Sea)

I went to see this with two of my friends. One of them and I had realized years earlier that the Lemmon/Matthau dynamic was pretty much the template for our relationship. The other was an especially straitlaced boy who self-censored even when it was just us, despite my constant efforts at being a bad influence and leading by profane example. We got caught up debating which of us was Lemmon and which was Matthau, periodically citing something that one said or did that seemed more like one of us. And sometimes, it was the trouble that they got into that most resembled either of us.

Anyway, at one point, reacting to things having begun to totally spiral out of control onscreen, our straitlaced friend, who for some reason had elected to sit behind us that evening, leaned forward and chuckled, "You are so fucked!" It was so unexpected that even he didn't know he was going to say it until he had, and I was so shocked that I literally fell out of my seat laughing. Also funny is Brent Spiner as the fussy, self-important cruise director, best demonstrated by his ridiculous enunciation on "Oye Como Va".

17. "The Calypsonians" by Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues Band (from Six Days, Seven Nights)

"The Calypsonians" was released on an album by Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues Band a couple of months ahead of its use in Six Days, Seven Nights. (I have some opinions on the movie being unfairly underrated, which I elaborated on in a post for Flickchart several years back, "Who Told You That Movie Sucked?") Anyway, Taj Mahal and The Hula Blues Band appear as themselves to perform the song in the movie during a scene in which drunk Harrison Ford hits on annoyed Anne Heche, whom he has already forgotten he just flew to the island with her then-boyfriend, David Schwimmer. We saw this the night of my brother's 16th birthday, having gone to Hooter's for wings first.

18. "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion (from Titanic)

I honestly can't think of a movie phenomenon quite like the one around Titanic. There was no bigger movie, and no bigger song than "My Heart Will Go On". The Oldham 8 went all out for its opening, dressing up the lobby like the sunken remains of the ship. They fogged the skylight, hung streamers, and the employees wore ghost makeup. It was huge. And I didn't see it that night, in part because I had been soured by the idea of it being used as the backdrop for a romance, but mostly because that was the same night that James Bond returned...

19. "Surrender" by k.d. lang (from Tomorrow Never Dies)

There was something almost subversive about going to see 007 instead of Titanic that night. It felt like an act of rebellion, rejecting the premiere of one of the most successful movies of all time by instead going to see...the 17th in one of the most successful movie series of all time. I was out of school and working by this time, so I remember my friends having to drive me straight to work from the theater. It was close, but we made it in time for the third shift. Also, I elected to represent the movie with its end credits song rather than the Sheryl Crow title song because this should have been the opening titles piece and I still haven't forgiven Barbara Broccoli or Michael Wilson for making the last minute substitution. Plus, I couldn't resist placing this here, to bookend the playlist with Bond.

08 May 2019

On The Criterion Collection (and Channel)


My free trial month of The Criterion Channel concludes tonight, so it seemed prudent to pause and reflect on the experience as I contemplate whether to continue. I've been a Criterion enthusiast for about a decade now, thanks to the annual Criterion viewing challenge held on the DVDTalk.com forum each September. Like a lot of folks, my experience with Criterion went through four phases:

  • Complete ignorance that it was even a thing.
  • Awareness that it is a thing, but intimidated by it because of how artsy its acolytes behave about it.
  • Curious enough to poke around but in over my head and finding a wild hit to miss ratio.
  • Dedicated enthusiast who fell in love somewhere along the way without realizing when.

I'm on what is laughingly referred to as a "fixed income", which means I'm pretty much broke, which in turn means I don't have an entire shelving unit full of their marvelous discs. Their streaming library, therefore, has been a key part of my relationship with Criterion. I left Netflix in 2011 to follow Criterion to Hulu, and I still haven't forgiven WarnerMedia for breaking up FilmStruck last year. I was keen to sign up as a charter subscriber to the standalone Criterion Channel when that was announced, and I looked forward to its 8 April launch with increasing enthusiasm. (And enthusiasm has been scarce for awhile, Dear Reader!)

First Meeting

My very first impression was that it's a relief to be treated with patience and not inundated with trailers if I lingered for more than four seconds on any one thing (looking at you, Netflix). There's an ambiance that implicitly says, "We show movies for grown-ups and we're going to treat you like one since you're here" and I sincerely appreciate that. I'm not entirely sure about the gray color scheme, though. I get that they were going for something solemn or mature, but it's a bit drab. Splashy color is certainly not the way to go, obviously, but some sharp black and white highlights wouldn't hurt.

The contents of the library are as engaging as ever. I'm thrilled to once again have ready access to most of Ingmar Bergman's vaunted filmography, complete with most of the supplemental materials included on Criterion's disc releases. There's a lot of progress on iCheckMovies.com to be had here, though oddly enough I haven't gotten a single check out of several of my selections.

Much has already been made about how Criterion doesn't generate user-specific recommendations based on what you watch. There's no rating system. They quite frankly don't care whether you like or dislike anything you watch. Despite the whole interaction taking place at home, movies aren't coming to the viewer; the viewer is going to the movies. For the most part, I kinda prefer it this way, but I do think there are some simple things Criterion could do that would be helpful without being intrusive. I'll get to that shortly.

Collections and Other Curations

My inaugural selection was Blithe Spirit, but after just a few more, I moved on to their Columbia Noir Collection. That Collection consists of the following films, with an optional sixteen minute introduction featuring insight from critics Imogen Sarah Smith and Farran Smith Hehme. (Each title links to my Letterboxd diary entry for it.) I devoured the entire set in five days, from 18-22 April, and it was a wonderful refresher on just what it is that I love so much about Criterion's curation.

My Name Is Julia RossSo Dark the NightThe Big HeatDrive a Crooked RoadHuman DesirePushoverNightfallThe BurglarThe LineupMurder by ContractExperiment in Terror
Curiously, I discovered later that there are actually two different listings for that Collection, and the second version also includes In a Lonely Place, set between Drive a Crooked Road and Human Desire. I honestly can't recall how I stumbled upon the variation, and the only way I know to call up either on purpose is to use the URL online. Within the app itself, I lost track of which version is where.


You got a Bogey....
Notice if you will that the second version also shows the film's run time. This is because the two are organized differently. Because Criterion has uploaded a lot of their rich DVD/Blu-ray supplemental materials (one of the best parts about the whole enterprise!), they've organized them in folders. A lot of movies have no supplements, because they haven't yet had the full Criterion treatment. They still get a folder, into which presumably any future supplements they may produce will go. The Columbia Noir Collection on top is effectively a Columbia Noir Collection folder in which each movie's folder can be found.

The second version--the one that includes In a Lonely Place--is instead presented more as a playlist, with the idea being that you just want to bounce from one movie to the next. Ironically, In a Lonely Place is the only one of these movies that has had a Criterion disc release, and therefore actually has supplements in its folder. But you wouldn't know it from finding either Columbia Noir Collection because the folder version doesn't include the movie at all and the playlist version includes just the movie, with no direct link to its own folder page.


And this exemplifies what's wrong with The Criterion Channel. User interface is only partially intuitive. There is no way to browse the entire library, so if you don't go looking for anything outside their curated spotlight collections, you may not know they even have it. I thought the point of The Criterion Collection was to showcase hidden gems; not to keep them hidden.

One thing I think that would be nice would be if they showed any collections that a specific movie is in. For instance, Human Desire, which is in the Columbia Noir Collection, is also presented elsewhere in a double feature with La bête humaine, as they're both adapted from the same novel. Had I come across Human Desire on its own, I would have appreciated knowing about those two curated presentations of it. Right now, Columbia Noir is still featured on the landing page, but there are already some collections that only turn up if you go looking for them. Having collections bring to our attention the movies within them is fantastic, but it'd be nice if the movies would reciprocate and introduce us to collections that feature them.

Searching for Bibi

The search feature is even worse, which I found out on 14 April when Bibi Andersson died. I wanted to stream something featuring her that I hadn't yet seen. But when I did that, here's what I got:


Andersson wasn't even in one of these (From the Life of the Marionettes)! It turns up in the search results, though, because her name appears in its synopsis:


Criterion has, to their credit, improved this somewhat since then; a search for Andersson now turns up Brink of Life and The Touch in addition to Persona and a movie she's not even in. It does not, however, turn up Scenes From a Marriage--the very role in which she was replaced for Marionettes!


I anticipated a Bibi Andersson Collection appearing the next day, as iTunes has so often been quick to do when a prolific musician dies. She certainly merited one anyway. But it seems that The Criterion Channel programmers were either indifferent or are inflexible about their schedule once they've posted it. I was rather disappointed by that. This is a catalog library, after all, with very few current-ish releases in the mix. It's not often that anything timely will occur, except, sadly, the inevitable passing of the remaining actors and directors whose work we've come here for the express purpose of exploring and celebrating.

Problems of an Audio/Visual Nature

In other technical matters, there are no English language captions for English language dialogue. So, if you're hard of hearing or deaf, I guess you have to commit exclusively to films in other languages. That's astonishing to me, and unacceptable in 2019. I can't fathom how they even went into beta testing without those captions, let alone how they made it out of beta without them.

There was also a persistent error that crept up in the final three minutes which caused movies to either abruptly stop and kick back to their folder pages or to have an error message that appeared over the center of the screen and dimmed the image, making it terribly frustrating to finish anything. This disrupted the ending of half a dozen or so of my earlier viewings, which wouldn't have been so bad if they had been modern films with six or seven minutes of end credits. But these were older films, many of which had no credits at all, so the last three minutes of the movie's run time was the big finale. I had to follow along with the deaths of no less than three characters under that error message!

That matter has been resolved as far as I can tell (I did have the error occur during a bonus feature two days after Criterion emailed subscribers to announce they'd fixed it), but other technical issues persist. There are often segments of movies that appear blurry. I encountered this with, among others, Samurai Spy (which, incidentally, I absolutely loved!) in their "Spy Games" Collection (which, incidentally, I also absolutely loved!). I attributed it to my Internet connection when I watched the movie on my TV via my Roku. But afterwards, I wanted to consult a few passages for my Letterboxd diary entry and found a couple of those were blurry on my laptop, too. No matter how many times I rewound, no matter how much time I gave it to buffer, those same sections played blurry. Either it's an outlandishly unlikely coincidence to happen so many times to the exact same footage, or there are issues with Criterion's files. There's no way to even see, let alone control, the bit rate of a stream so far as I've found.

I get that The Criterion Channel is a fledgling operation. But these kinds of blemishes are unbecoming of any movie app, let alone one with so prestigious a brand as Criterion. I have greatly enjoyed immersing myself in its content these last thirty days and for the time being, I do intend to continue as a paying subscriber. I hope that the next time I have reason to discuss the Channel, though, it's to report that a substantive overhaul has been completed. I really want this to succeed. I haven't felt this much enthusiasm for movies in literally three years. They have the content. And with FilmStruck, Criterion proved they could deliver a first class service. Hopefully, the service will again rise to the quality standards one expects from The Criterion Collection, and soon!

In all, I streamed 31 movies (plus another three alternate versions) in my 30 day trial. That's a bit lengthy of a list for a post already this long, so I'll instead just link to this Letterboxd list of Movies I Watched on The Criterion Channel. Not the most imaginative title, I'll grant you.

EDIT TO ADD

Oh! I forgot! I got the idea to create a Google Map of the settings for (not necessarily filming locations of) the movies that I streamed from The Criterion Channel:

05 April 2019

The Nurse Wore Gray

I've had an issue with my legs twitching for the last several years. It's intensified over the last month or so, so my physician set me up for a neurological conduction study this morning. The good news is, my nerves are all fine. I was never worried this would be anything like ALS, but still nice to know that's not a concern. The bad news, obviously, is that we still don't know why my legs twitch or what to do about it.

If you'll indulge me, however, I need to call out a problem I had with the hospital, Baptist East. Punctuality is important to me. I used to be a little more chill about it, but after all these years of Crohn's making me late to things, I've become rather self-conscious about it. It makes me anxious to envision people watching the clock and wondering where I am. I made a point to get to the hospital a full hour before my scheduled appointment. I can fill out any paperwork they may need, and if for some reason they can take me early, I'm already there. Remember that, Dear Reader. You'll need it later: I was there an entire hour early.

I couldn't remember where they said to go, so I picked the first building I could get to, thinking they could direct me. Without any hassle, the nurse [I am referring to everyone I interacted with as a nurse because I have no idea from scrubs who's a nurse or a tech or a receptionist] put my information into the system and found it easy peasy. She gave me directions and a map of the campus, and I went on my way. Anyone who has ever asked me where something is knows I suck at giving directions. I can more easily just go somewhere than recount to someone else how to do it. But I can follow a map!

The campus sprawls out across five buildings, I think; six if you count the parking garage. I thought I'd followed the directions properly, but found myself in the wrong place. Not to worry, Nurse #2 took pity on me. She didn't enter my name in the system as Nurse #1 had, but was confident she knew where such a test as mine would be conducted and directed me there. I was in the right building, at least.

This happened half a dozen times, Dear Reader.

I will admit that I had a hard time remembering some of what I was told. And it's fair that staff members aren't all completely knowledgeable about every part of the campus outside the fiefdom they toil away in daily. It also doesn't help that the entire building is homogeneous. If they ever had to build a TV or movie set to recreate it, they would only need to build two corridors.

Anyway, when I get to Nurse #5, he draws me a map on the back page of the campus map Nurse #1 gave me at the outset of this expedition. His map gets me almost to the right place. I stopped too soon at Nurse #6, who directed me right around the corner to Nurse #7. This is where things went south.

I explain to Nurse #7 that I think I'm in the right place, and that I have a 9:30 appointment. She asks what it's for, and I say, "It's a test of some kind, of the nerves in my leg." She may have asked me the name of the doctor. One of the half-dozen nurses in all this did, and it may have been her. In any event, I don't think I was ever even told a name so I couldn't provide that. She did not ask, however, my name. She tells me I'm in the wrong place and to go back to the last corridor and the first desk on the left. Okay, fine. I'm right on top of it, at least.

That brought me back to Nurse #6. She and her coworker both recognized me as soon as I walked in. I threw up my hands (I think only figuratively, but by now I was frazzled enough I may have done it literally). Nurse #6 gets up from behind her desk and escorts me directly back to Nurse #7. "He's here for a [whatever the acronym is for the thing I did]. He's in the right place." She couldn't have been more direct. Her tone was appropriately stern but professional.

Nurse #7 laughs.

And then turns away from me, back to her computer screen.

No mea culpa. No apology. She doesn't even give me any instructions like "Sign in here" or "Sit there". Enter: Nurse #8, who walked in just early enough to catch the drift of what was going on and stepped in to take care of me. She, I must note, was entirely professional, friendly, and managed to help me reset my mood simply by setting a serene tone in the room. I did recount my ordeal, and she offered an apology, though whether on behalf of Nurse #7 or for my entire ordeal, I couldn't be sure. I appreciated the gesture, though.

Between Nurse #8 and the doctor conducting the study was someone else. I have no idea where he fit into the hierarchy, but I gathered he had some supervisor-y role. I gave an abridged account of all this, cutting quickly to the part where Nurse #7 sent me back to Nurse #6 and then merely laughed when I was brought back to her. I didn't catch her name, but I noted that she was wearing gray. He shrugged it off, saying there were a lot of people who wore gray. I wanted to say, "I meant the nurse wearing gray at the nurse's station who can't be bothered to turn away from her computer screen" but I could tell his goal was to protect his colleague so I let it pass.

I made a point to arrive an entire hour early just in case I had any difficulty finding the right place. I used that entire hour. Admittedly, this was partly because I struggled to remember specific things (like what the hell the name of the test was, and I don't think anyone ever even told me the name of the doctor I was assigned). I don't fault Nurses 1-5. I can't honestly say to what extent they gave me poor directions and to what extent I followed them poorly.

But Nurse #7? Yeah, I fault her. I fault her for failing to even ask me my name to consult the schedule. I fault her for not knowing what kinds of tests her department conducts. But above all, I fault her for merely laughing when I was brought back to her desk. No "Oh, silly me", let alone an "Oh, I'm sorry". Just a quick chuckle and then she literally turned her back to me.

Just...wow.

29 March 2019

Yesterday's Game Today

In a recent conversation, the subject arose of what we'd do if we could go back in time and change anything about our own lives. I've given a great deal of thought over the years to the events that have shaped my life and molded me into who I am today. I can identify five major life events that constitute significant turning points. (Please, Dear Reader, let's dispense with the butterfly chaos theory; I can't very well dedicate my time to wondering how many seemingly insignificant things have affected me.)

I've concluded that for five of the events, there was clearly room for healthier reactions that could have helped me stave off years of mental and emotional duress, and to better maintain some of my relationships. I could today be more at peace with myself and the world at large (inasmuch as any attentive person with a conscience can be at peace with the world at large today). I could have continued applying myself as a student in my youth, and who knows what I could have accomplished if I had.

But the fifth turning point was developing Crohn's disease, and ultimately, there isn't much difference I or anyone else could make about how my experience with that has played out. I would still have had to make the same sacrifices--perhaps even more painful ones, had I actually become successful in some capacity. Walking away from my plans to become a history teacher was painful enough. It may have been devastating if I had actually gotten into that career and been compelled to give it up at that point.

The person I was conversing with raised the question of whether there was anything that I could at least do to help my younger self adapt to his diagnosis. Honestly, I don't think there is. Because I'm me, I delved into researching the disease when I was first diagnosed with it.

I set a Google News alert for it, which brought to my attention myriad news pieces. Most of them were small town papers profiling some local citizen who was persevering despite the malady; a shop owner, a librarian, a civil servant, what have you. But probably once every other week or so, there would also be news of results from a study that identified some new piece of the proverbial puzzle. Most of the time, I knew about those studies before my healthcare providers did. I would sometimes take those findings with me to my next consult, primarily just to have someone explain them to me so I knew how excited and hopeful to be. Most had yet to develop the God complex that resents patients learning and asking about such things, and so they looked into those studies further. I know they did, because they would refer back to them in a subsequent visit.

No, there was nothing particularly important that I know now that could have benefited my younger self vis a vis Crohn's. I could warn him that prolonged periods of isolation and being forced out of work would at times demoralize him so much it would strain--and ultimately cost him--his marriage. But even if I told him these things, he'd already learned that these were common components of life as a Crohnie. Learning he wasn't exempt would not have been especially significant. He would have to wake up each morning and get through each day until he had lived with the disease long enough to really understand what it meant for him. There's no substitute for having to live through something.

[I might, however, turn Younger Travis onto Pedialyte, rather than Gatorade, for periods of dehydration. Thanks, Dallas!]

It has, however, occurred to me that it might have been helpful if I could go back in time and better explain to those around me what to expect. To be clear: My friends have been terribly sweet and accommodating throughout my life as a Crohnie. My family has tried their best, though they've been clumsier about it at times. (My mother routinely forgets which foods I fear and don't risk eating and tries to assassinate me.)

It's been different with people I've met since my diagnosis, though. I think sometimes they forget that they only see me when I'm well enough to be seen, and so the image of me in their mind is somewhat inaccurate. I'm sore and fatigued on more days than not, harangued by nausea. It's not uncommon for me to spend the night running in and out of the bathroom instead of being curled up in bed snoozing. Or to be curled up in my bed cocoon during the day to recuperate from having been in and out of the bathroom all night. This part of my daily life goes almost entirely unseen.

People know when they don't see me, as I have to cancel on things entirely too often. And I know, because sometimes people have outright said it to me, that it can seem as though when I cancel on Plan A but attend Plan B, that that means that B was more important to me than A. That's simply untrue. I can't help being too miserable the night of A. Should I sacrifice B, to atone for having missed A?

In what I call my Year of Hell (September 2010-September 2011), I lost my ability to manage that guilt altogether. I withdrew from all of my friends because I couldn't face them anymore. I was certain they resented me for flaking out on them, and that they only even bothered to still invite me to things because I'd been grandfathered in during my healthy days. I was convinced that they didn't believe that I was as sick as I said I was. Eventually, that evolved into me feeling ashamed of not being around them and ashamed for when I was. And ultimately, the conviction that the best thing I could do for all of us was to take myself out of the equation and let them off the hook once and for all. The guilt and shame was too much for me to continue bearing.

One of the life lessons I learned from baseball is that you can't win today the game you lost yesterday. You can only play today's game and try to win that one. Yesterday's loss can sting. It can get in your head. It can be aggravating, embarrassing, or even painful. But it can't be done over. I learned early as a Crohnie to be careful about overdoing it on my good days. It can be tempting to try to strike while the iron is hot, to clean the entire house in a single afternoon after having been too miserable to do any cleaning in the previous week. But trying to do that can be ambitious to the point of being unfair to yourself, and even unhealthy as it establishes a standard to be met that may be impractical.

So if you have a chronic illness, Dear Reader, I imagine some of this rings true. I hope you're able to manage the frustration and guilt that goes along with having to miss out on things. And if you don't have such an illness but have someone in your life who does, I hope you might keep it in the back of your mind that just because they do B but not A that that is not inherently a reflection of how much they value either. Oftentimes, it's simply a reflection of how the calendar treated them. A was on a bad day and B was on a good one.

16 March 2019

Questioning Forgiveness

I've struggled to make sense of something of late, so I've come here to try to process it. To be clear from the beginning: I don't have any answers. I only have questions. They're really more questions for myself than for you, Dear Reader, though you're more than welcome to contemplate and report back to me with what you come up with.

The subject at hand is forgiveness. It's a central component of most religious traditions and a lot of secular philosophies dating back to who knows when. It's not unique to humanity, for that matter, as anyone with two or more pets can attest. I've seen two of my cats growl and slap violently at one another only to tenderly bathe and snuggle an hour later.

For years, social media has been inundated with "inspirational" content all about forgiving yourself, not beating yourself up for your mistakes, to put the past behind you, that you are enough as you are today, etc. Personally, I've always rolled my eyes at these banal statements, in part because they're so generic but also because they undermine the very process of self-examination and growth. Maybe a person has done something they should feel bad about having done. Maybe they haven't atoned yet. Maybe they still don't even grasp the true extent of what they've done and how they've hurt whoever it is they've hurt. Thanks for enabling, Tumblr user onlyeverfeelgoodnomatterwhatyouvedone79.

Longtime readers and those close to me will be familiar with what I term The Incident, but the short version is that I'm a survivor of a childhood sexual assault. I reported it, only for the investigation to be quashed and the whole affair effectively disregarded and seldom even acknowledged by those who knew about it. I never got the gratification of seeing him held accountable. There were a great many times in my childhood when that upset me. It undermined my beliefs in fairness, justice, and consequences. More than him, though, I resented everyone who had a hand in making it go away.

Then I befriended someone in high school and for the first time in a long time, I shared the experience with her over the phone one night. I surprised myself by opening up at all, and even more when I heard myself say aloud that I was going to choose to let it go because it had been poisoning me. My friend said something about how strong I was to do that, which I dismissed because I'm me, but otherwise refrained from commenting further. She didn't say anything about whether she felt I should let it go, or even press me to answer that for myself. What he deserved wasn't the issue; it was instead about what I needed. And I needed peace.

No, Dear Reader, I am not here to tell you to let go of everything that has hurt you or to forgive everyone who has ever hurt you. That's not my place to say, any more than it was my friend's place to tell me. And that's rather the point of all that has weighed on me of late, as we have seen public figures' acts finally come to light and met with some measure of consequence, from losing a job to incarceration.

I've written previously about how egregious it is for us to outsource to a jury to decide for us whether or not a sexual assault has been committed, in a piece titled "Rape Is More Than Legalese". The gist of it was that we can engage survivors in meaningful, helpful ways without having to wait for a conviction of their assailants. At the end of that piece, I wrote:
We can accept at face value those who come forward and say that something happened to them. We can offer compassion to them. We can try to help them to feel safe. We can listen. We can trust. We can do all of these things independent of whatever may (or may not) take place in a court room - and we must, because living with the experience and aftermath of rape exists outside of a court room.
I published that piece months before I opened up about The Incident, so yeah, there's a lot to be read between the lines of that post. I was very much alluding to the needs I had to help me process my childhood experience that were never met; needs that I know other survivors have. Learning to feel believed and trusted by others; learning to trust others again. These are difficult things to do. It's a long, messy process. One of the messier aspects is the matter of forgiveness.

I'm active with the Louisville chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, where I have become a group facilitator. A couple years ago, I facilitated a group on forgiveness. I introduced the topic with some prompt questions. Have you forgiven someone who has hurt you? If so, how did you come to that decision? How has it affected you to do that? If you haven't, do you think you could? What might it take for you to forgive?

Due to confidentiality, I cannot disclose any of what was said, but what is relevant is that each person in the room had come to their own position, shaped by their experiences. For some, it was too soon and/or too painful to even consider. For others, it was necessary for them to live again. The important thing is that there was no consensus. Nor, I would argue, should there have been. These are extremely personal decisions to be made, and each person should be free to come to them in their own time and in their own way.

The most important thing that we did agree on, which I will mention here, is that there is a school of thought out there that, as someone heals, they eventually reach some enlightened state of being in which they are able to forgive, like it's some black belt of healing. That may be true for some individuals--it was for me--but it's hurtful to impose that paradigm carte blanche. Doing so sends the message that anyone who has not forgiven who has hurt them hasn't done enough healing.

This brings me to another facet of all this, the matter of being the third party. There was a matter of two people I know in which one did something that made the other feel unsafe. I was angered on behalf of the Aggrieved, and the offender became Persona non grata to me. Recently, and unexpectedly, Aggrieved brought up that they had forgiven Persona non grata, that they were satisfied by their repentance and atonement, and that their relationship had been repaired. This upset me, I'll confess. It's not lost on me the hypocrisy that I, who have forgiven my assailant, fiercely opposed someone else offering forgiveness.

I've thought about my friend, and how she deferred to me to make my own decision about forgiveness. Who the hell was I to object to Aggrieved's decision to forgive? My own sense of trust had been broken by Persona non grata, and I wasn't prepared to forgive them. But wasn't that call the aggrieved's to make? I had shunned Persona non grata in support of Aggrieved; should I not now forgive and accept them back on behalf of the same Aggrieved? Hadn't I implicitly asked my friend to do the same? My friend didn't know my assailant, so those circumstances weren't quite the same, but the point stands.

What if we extend this to public figures? People we have never even met, but who loom large in our society and social consciousness. Since there's recently been renewed scrutiny of R. Kelly's serial sexual abuse of young girls, let's use him as an example. I never met him or, to my knowledge, any of his victims. I can't even say I feel betrayed by him the way I might if it came out that, say, George Strait had done such things. That would be upsetting for me, but even that would be removed by virtue of the fact I've never met the man.

I have even less standing to decide whether he should be forgiven than I had for Aggrieved. And yet, despite not even being connected to R. Kelly as a listener of his music, I feel a certain investment as a member of the society that embraced him and allowed his ascent to a position of influence and power. I don't want my society to reward people who hurt others as he has. To my knowledge, the only ones who have forgiven R. Kelly are the fans who care more about "I Believe I Can Fly" than whether he's hurt a bunch of young Black girls. But if any of his victims did forgive him and vouch for his repentance, as Aggrieved did for Persona non grata, who would I be to overrule them?

The final question this all brings me back to The Incident. I watched for years as R. Kelly's career survived and flourished despite what we knew having come to light. I sympathized with his victims who had to watch him remain a popular public figure whose only real punishment was an episode of The Boondocks. Even then, though, they had some modicum of justice that I never got. The whole world knew what R. Kelly did. It didn't seem to care, but at least it knew. Contrarily, there were people in my own family who didn't know about The Incident until recently. I have, in my own way, kept my assailant's secret for him all these years. Hell, I'm not even identifying him here.

Maybe that's what this is all about for me. Maybe I'm simply questioning if my forgiveness was unearned. Or maybe I'm dissatisfied that I never got justice. Or revenge, if I'm being honest. Should I revoke that forgiveness? Would it help me to out him in some way? Have I not attained the peace I wanted to believe I had?

As I said at the outset, I don't have any answers here, Dear Reader. Only questions.

07 March 2019

The Long Goodbye

In 2006, my family still owned and operated a consignment shop. One day, my grandmother found a box next to the dumpster behind the building. In it were two tiny, emaciated, flea-ridden fur balls with claws who had been callously discarded. We took them in. The smaller one didn't make it, despite my now-ex-wife footing the bill to get him into an ICU at an animal hospital for two days. The elder brother, though, was a scrappy little fighter from the beginning. You wouldn't know it from the name my ex saw fit to give him: Muffin. I never understood how that became a thing.

I love how stoned Muffin looks here.
Over the next few years, we would take in three other stray cats. Each had her own personality, and they each had their own relationships with one another. Josephine was my princess, favoring me over my ex, which in turn sort of nudged my ex to favor Muffin. I humored her, but I was never entirely convinced that he was sold on the paradigm of pairing up. Harriet distanced herself from all the other cats, but adored humans and competed with Jos for my attention (and my lap).

The last one was Ramona, who even my ex agreed we wouldn't keep. Her co-worker's sister had found her, but neither she or her sister could keep her. My ex volunteered to foster her until a new home could be found. Before a human could do it, though, something unexpected took place: Muffin adopted her. I didn't have the heart to separate them after watching him cuddle with her and bathe her, and watch over her protectively as she explored her surroundings. Not long after, Josephine also took to caring for her. Ramona became a beloved member of our family, and that was entirely because of Muffin.

Another thing that became part of our home because of Muffin was his futon. At one point, I had two of them. Just cheap little things, but whatever. When I inherited my grandfather's couch, I was going to rid myself of them. I put out one with that week's garbage pickup and was going to put out the second the following week. To keep it from becoming a problem by sitting outside and getting soaked in rain for seven days, I kept it inside, standing it on its side so I could get around it.

Before Thursday evening rolled around, when it was time to take it to the curb, Muffin had once again surprised me with something unexpected. He had taken to climbing and perching atop it, and the others followed his lead. It quickly replaced the cat condo as their favorite piece of furniture. He seemed so happy that I couldn't bring myself to take it away from him. Yeah, it was a total eyesore and a nuisance, but I seldom had any human visitors so what did it matter?

I wasn't sure what we would do with the cats when my wife left. There was no way Josephine could have handled being in a home without me; her separation anxiety kicked in if I was in the bathroom too long (which, as a Crohnie, I often was). She did a lot of stress eating and stress puking during our sporadic, brief vacations. It seemed unfair to separate Ramona from Josephine, and there was no way to separate her from Muffin, either, which meant the three of them had to stay with me. We floated the idea of Harriet, who didn't like the others, going with my ex, but that never materialized. I was glad, as I adored Harriet and her steadfast commitment to her ideology of not giving a single fuck about anything.

I also felt considerable anxiety. My ex had significantly better financial stability and could be a far better provider for their care. I've worried ever since she left that it was detrimental to the cats to be stuck with me. I know Josephine could not have handled it, but the others could probably have adapted well enough to be okay. That anxiety evolved into guilt once I began to lose them.

Harriet was the oldest, and it broke my heart when I had to say goodbye to her a few years after my wife left me. I was stunned a few months later when I lost Ramona entirely unexpectedly. The power dynamics shifted dramatically at that point, with Josephine taking to bullying Muffin at every turn. Something unexpected that came of that period was that Muffin and I became a lot closer. Aside from some friction early before we got him neutered, we'd gotten on well. I wasn't as important to him as I was to Josephine or Harriet, but we liked each other and he periodically showed me affection.

Another of his favorite activities: Having me hold him up to the light bulb so he could stalk flying insects. Notice the Springsteen shirt I'm wearing? He destroyed that before he was neutered, and I never forgave him for that.
And then we lost Josephine and our family of six had dwindled to Muffin and me. Though no longer tormented, he remained clingy. There was a palpable anxiety to him in the immediate wake of Josephine's unexpected passing. He refused to let me fall or stay asleep for weeks, climbing on me and meowing until I became conscious (or some state vaguely resembling it). That eventually subsided, but he seldom strayed from having me in his line of sight. His field of vision from his futon aided that.

In early 2017, he had a cold that just would not go away and caused him to lose some weight. I took him to the vet, who ascertained that he had a kidney disease. This required a prescription food, which he thankfully liked eating. It also meant he wasn't supposed to have scraps anymore, but I indulged him periodically. The dude loved pulled pork and yogurt, and it was pointless to try to keep him from either. The kidney food seemed to work just fine for him, as he resumed being active and playful.

Cut to September last year, when I entered into inpatient treatment for ten days. I had been severely depressed and struggled with suicidal ideation for months. One night, I realized I no longer trusted myself not to act on those urges so I honored a commitment I'd made to others and packed a bag and went to a mental health hospital. I spoke with Muffin while packing. He knew something was wrong, and I know he knew because of how he behaved. He vacillated between appearing nervous and trying to keep his distance (while still watching me closely). He also injected bursts of physical affection, rubbing against my feet and reaching up for me to pick him up and hold him. (Don't worry; I had my cousin take care of him, so he wasn't just left alone.)

His reaction when I returned home following my discharge was entirely unexpected. He freaked out and ran to hide under a table. I'd heard the expression "You look like you've just seen a ghost", but I'd never witnessed that phenomenon until then. He was absolutely terrified of me. I think he honestly believed he'd never see me again. It took a full five minutes to coax him into coming out from under the table just far enough to sniff my hand. It took another couple of minutes of doing that before he accepted that I was really me. And then he went berserk, climbing up to my chest and insisting on being held. That clinginess was even more intense than the phase of Josephine's reign of terror and went on for the rest of September.

He had, however, lost weight during my absence, which I initially attributed to the obvious stress he'd been under thinking I was gone for good. When he got another persistent cold, I took him back to the vet for another check-up. His kidneys were deteriorating, to the point that she advised against even having his teeth cleaned because his system may not handle the anesthesia. There was also some talk about him possibly having a developing cancer. She gave him six to twelve months. I became again consumed with the guilt that he'd have been better off with my ex.

Still, aside from not putting on weight, his appetite was healthy. He was still eating and drinking as normal, was still playful and active (within nominal range of active for a cat, anyway), and showed no outward signs of discomfort. Until the end of January, when he began to noticeably lose even more weight. I called the vet. It was clear that his time was coming to an end.

There had been less than a week between when my 14 year old dog presented warning symptoms and when she died in 2002. There had been scarcely a full twelve hours between when Harriet presented with feline leukemia and when I had to make the decision to euthanize her. There had been absolutely no warning with Ramona or Josephine.

As it played out, I ended up having an entire month with Muffin, though I had no way of knowing that I would get that much time. My strategy was simple: So long as he continued to eat and drink, could still get around on his own without seeming to struggle, and his breathing appeared normal, I would keep giving him food and water and would spend as much time with him as I could. There were some instances when he would stagger, but each episode only lasted maybe a minute before he would lie down for a bit and when he got back up, he could walk just fine again. There were several scares when he would lie down and become so still and limp that I honestly believed he'd taken his last breath. I vividly remember one night when that happened three different times, with him in my lap for two of them. But each time, he'd wind up shaking his head and coming to, and then getting up to go eat something.

I scarcely left his side for the entire month of February, dashing out only periodically to get groceries or hit a drive thru, terrified each time I did that I would not be there for him at the end. I talked with him often, telling him how much I admired his tenacity dating back to when I first met him as an abandoned kitten; how much I admired his loving nature, evidenced by how he watched over his brother and Ramona; how integral he'd been to building and shaping our family. I told him when he was ready to go, not to wait on my account. "I'm right here. You're not alone. I love you. Don't be afraid." I have no idea how many times I said that to him. It became a mantra.

Muffin's penultimate futon perch.
Saturday, 2 March, was a genuinely good day for him. He ate some yogurt. He even climbed his futon--twice!--for the first time in two weeks. I knew not to believe this signaled he would come out of it, but I was grateful to see him active and happy like that again.

It didn't last long. The next day, he stopped eating and drinking. By late that night, he had begun staggering. Within hours, it was obviously a struggle for him to even stand up. It was clear that I had to honor my promise to him not to let him languish in that state when the time came. The vet's office opened at 7:00. I was on the phone at 6:59. The vet wouldn't be in until 9:00. We were there by 8:40.

The doctor was terribly sweet and compassionate, and I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am for her consideration. I held him throughout the half hour or so that we were there, repeating our mantra. "I'm right here. You're not alone. I love you. Don't be afraid." He was entirely still and limp, not bothering to even try to turn his head to look at me. I wasn't even sure if he hadn't gone before the vet came in to administer the injections, though he hadn't. It was time to say goodbye, and I did, holding him.

I know that I gave him a safe, loving home. That anxiety that he would still have been better off with my ex persists. He saw me through five hospitalizations, the loss of the other cats (and the rabbit before them), and my divorce, along with two subsequent break-ups. I've had at least one pet since 1988, except for 2003 and I think 2004. I have none now. I don't know that I ever will again. For the time being, I don't want to go through this again. Maybe later, I'll reconsider and want that kind of companionship again. My sweet boy made a tremendous difference in my life and I am eternally grateful to have had him in it. I want to believe he felt the same.

And here is my all-time favorite photo of Muffin, which I feel perfectly captures his personality:

This was entirely my ex's doing.