30 April 2013

C2E2 2013: Night of the Complaining Blogger, or Meeting Patricia Tallman

Introduction: At the generous invitation of my friends, I was given a chance to attend the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2) this year. I wrote some pieces for Flickchart last year, and they gave me a press pass again this year. Unfortunately, my health was far less cooperative this year and I missed almost all of what I was supposed to have covered. Here's an anecdote from my "personal file", though, that almost makes up for waking up Saturday morning puking my guts up.

In Flickchart's Reel Rumbles #24, I pitted the original Night of the Living Dead against its remake. I don’t expect you to remember but on Halloween night in 2011, I tweeted a link to that piece to actress Patricia Tallman, who starred as Barbara in the remake. That sparked a brief back-and-forth dialog between us. The short version is that she wasn’t very happy.

Jump forward to April 27, 2013. I’m in Chicago at C2E2, missing most of what I was there to cover because of health issues when I learn that Patricia Tallman is an unannounced guest of the show! She spoke at a panel that I missed, but she was present at J. Michael Straczynski’s booth. Straczynski has just launched Studio JMS, of which Tallman is the CEO. Studio JMS will produce comic books, as well as web series, TV shows and the feature film The Flickering Light, set to begin filming this fall. The launch title is Ten Grand, written by Straczynski and in comic book shops tomorrow.

All I had to do was get through the line before she left the booth and I could finally confront her face to face.

So, what was it that she actually said to me in 2011?
Patricia Tallman, surprised by either her audacity online or mine for confronting her. I'm not sure.
I didn’t have the tweets handy when chatting with her, but here’s the entire conversation.

Of course, as I surmised the night that we tweeted, Patricia Tallman is a delightful woman and we shared a laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing. You can see we've made up.
Travis & Pat, all made up.
Make no mistake, though, the moral of this story isn’t that some criticism on the Internet is all in fun or that Patricia Tallman is actually a very lovely woman.

The moral of the story is that Crohn's or no Crohn's, if you malign what I write, I will find you and confront you - even if it takes years.

Photography by Ronnie Ashley.

Who's Gonna Fill His Shoes?

I know I'm late on this, but I've been in Chicago where I was reminded hourly about how my health has conspired against me (more on that in a future post). Somehow, it actually seems appropriate that I should be taken by surprise away from home, in physical misery, by the news that George Jones had passed away.
In a pawn shop in Chicago, on a sunny summer day...
I had the opportunity last December to go see The Possum perform in concert for my birthday, but I elected instead to get together with as many of my friends as I could. It was the right choice, of course; I have no regrets about that. I do, however, lament that my stupid guts conspired to stop me going to Carrollton, where he made what turned out to be his final meet and greet for Herb Kinman Chevrolet after decades of annual appearances.
He said, "Son, you just don't understand. It's not the car I want
It's the brunette in your 'Vette that turns me on!"
Jones's commercial heyday had already come and gone by the time I began to pay attention to country music. I grew up with it, of course, and he was one of my dad's favorite singers but I was a kid without much of an ear for old school honky tonk warbling. Of course, it was inevitable that I would later come to appreciate his vocal talent and to understand just why none of the scandalous shenanigans that dogged him throughout his career ever seemed to undermine the respect that he earned as a performer.
There's nothing better once you've had the best.
The first time that Jones stopped me in my tracks was through the brilliant music video for his 1987 single, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" It was a love letter to the genre and its history. Country music celebrates its forebears with more reverence, I think, than most other genres (though I suspect jazz gives it a run for its money in that department). Even as a child, that kind of thing resonated with me. I guess I was a born historian.

My family owned and operated a consignment shop for twenty years (until my unreliability due to Crohn's became an influencing factor in closing our doors). In addition to our consignors, we also had countless regular and semi-regular shoppers. I enjoyed chatting with one woman in particular, whose father was a longtime Jones fan. When I worked in the front of the shop, I picked the music and it was often country. I'd go through phases of any given artist, so she often caught me playing some Possum when she came in to shop. We'd chat and I remember her often talking about how her dad loved not just Jones, but the steel guitar on all his songs.

I haven't seen her or her two daughters (both probably adults by now) since we closed the shop, but I found myself thinking of them tonight. I hope they're all doing well. The girls were always polite and patient while their mom and I commiserated about country music or other odd topics. I have no doubt they've both become fine young women.
The jukebox is playing a honky tonk song
"One more," I keep saying, "and then I'll go home."
Of course, the world was, is and probably always will be full of Jones admirers. My wife's uncle had a budding career as a country singer in the 1970s. He even cut an eponymous album. The influence of Jones on him at that point is pretty evident even before you put on the record itself; the album cover itself could have been one of Jones's. That wasn't a put-on for the album, by the way. I met the guy. He really did just look a lot like The Possum naturally. His name was also George, though of course that wasn't even a coincidence - it was a statistical likelihood for men of their vintage. He did get to meet his musical hero, I think when they both performed at Jamboree once.
I'd hear you on the radio
I sure did like your sound
Say, it's good to know there's still
A few ol' country boys around
In 2009, I read Jones's autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All. I could have sworn I had reviewed it either here on this blog or on Goodreads, but I can't find such a review. I will say, four years later what stands out most to me is how clearly he emphasized how overwhelmed he was by being a celebrity. He was a nervous wreck about that part of being a musician, even after decades of receiving the kind of external validation that would put most others at risk of arrogance. For Jones, though, it worked differently. It made him insecure and uncomfortable. I'm just a nobody, of course, so I don't pretend to have any experience with the scale of his experiences. Still, I certainly identified with that tendency to freak out over what be welcomed by most people.
Maybe I ran when I should have walked
I held it inside when I should have talked
But I always get it right with you
George Jones was to music what Daniel Day-Lewis is to acting. Most artists sing the lyrics the way that most actors read their lines, but when you hear a Jones song it's something different. It's palpable that he tapped into the emotional center of whatever the song is. Whether it's the silliness of "High Tech Redneck" or the devastation of "He Stopped Loving Her Today", hearing him is why songs are often characterized as three minute stories.

It would certainly be tempting (and obvious) to quote from the iconic "He Stopped Loving Her Today" at the end of this stream-of-consciousness reflection on George Jones but somehow it doesn't feel right to me. I leave you instead with the following:
It just don't get any better than this
That's about as good as good ever gets
If there's anything better, it's something I missed
It just don't get any better than this

20 April 2013

Artifacts from My Life: Infancy

Recently, I've been going through a lot of boxes and bins that have been dormant for quite some time. I've unearthed a handful of artifacts from my early life. So if you've ever been curious about that phase in my life, Dear Reader, here's a virtual tour of the first room in the museum dedicated to me that doesn't actually exist.
Methodist Evangelical Hospital, where I was born.
My birth stats.
My first outfit.
These are some of my first books. Yes, one of them actually is Let's Talk About Whining. If I'd known that was one of my first books, I might have chosen that for this blog's title. Me, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is one of those books where you can get a kid's name inserted into the story so that he or she becomes a character. What's particularly notable for me is that it features the address of the apartment where my parents lived when I was first born. I was only there for a few months before we moved to Oldham County. Speaking of Oldham County and whining...

Being born in December, I was only a year old and change throughout most of 1980. The decision was apparently made to enter me in the Oldham County Fair's baby show pageant. To this day, my mom is upset that she was told by a friend of hers who witnessed one of the judges change his or her vote from me to another kid whose family had connections. Such is life in a small town. Who knows? Winning that might have set me on an entirely different life trajectory. Whatever. I hope you don't even still have your ribbon, Kid Who Stole My Prize and Ruined My Life. Jerk.

Those are some of the things from my infancy. I leave you with the following image, dated March, 1979. Note, if you will: the metal chains, the exposed electrical outlet, the fact that my swing is directly in front of the register and the Winnie the Pooh doll that was almost certainly hazardous to any child young enough to still explore the world with its mouth. Yet here I am, a survivor of the death trap laid for me by my own parents.

19 April 2013

"From Here, It Looks Like an Achievement"

I took some things to Half Price Books last night. Just a handful of odd items I've had in storage for years that clearly didn't mean much to me and weren't going for any noteworthy amounts on eBay to justify going through all that hassle. Anyway, while I waited for the friendly and personable sales associate to tally up my offer, I rummaged through their comic books. I'm always on the lookout for cheap ways to fill in gaps in my library. In the Batman section was a single copy of Batman #404.

This issue is one of the most important Batman comics really of all-time. It was the first of the four-part "Year One" story in which Frank Miller updated Batman's origin story and established the foundation for the modern continuity. Even throughout DC Comics's various continuity tinkering, "Year One" has remained firmly entrenched as The Definitive Origin of Batman. I can't recall ever actually seeing a copy of this issue in person until last night.

Did I mention it was only a dollar?

Sold listing prices on eBay vary pretty wildly; some have sneaked through at a mere 99¢ to $103.95 for a copy that had been graded at 9.8 by the Comic Grading Authority. This seems to me a consequence of the shift in comic reading culture toward "trade-waiting" (i.e., passing on individual issues to wait instead for the collected edition). Regardless of that, even if you don't care about comic books at all, it should be pretty evident why this was an exciting find to make. I plucked it out of the box and carried it around with me. I browsed through some more things, received my payout and then came to a realization.

I already own the Batman: Year One collected edition trade paperback. I can already read the story contained in Batman #404. I didn't need to own the individual issue, even priced at just one dollar. I put it back into the box. Let someone else find it, I decided. Someone who will really flip their lid over it. Someone for whom that will be a truly exciting discovery and purchase. That Bat-fan out there just now starting to build her library, who thought she'd have to settle for the collected edition (like I did); let her be the one to spend her dollar and have the thrill of actually owning that important issue.

As I am wont to do, I later reflected on the situation in a more philosophical sense. I feel like I'm in a box of back issues myself, wondering: Will anyone ever be excited to find me?

17 April 2013

"From the Jaws of Death" by Stuart Logsdon

"From the Jaws of Death" is the title of the first brief issue of a comic book conceived by my Uncle Stuart in his teens. He completed ten pages, or at least nine of them (page eight is in black and white and it's unclear whether that was an artistic, stylish decision or if he just put off coloring it). He illustrated on both sides of each sheet of paper (which can be seen in most of the scans, unfortunately). Everything was done by hand, form layouts to lettering. It was only ever seen by his closest friends and those of us in the family -- until now. It is my pleasure and honor to present this first issue to the world, nearly forty years after it was written and illustrated.

You can also view each page individually here.

At some point, Stuart made the decision to retitle the story. Because the project was done entirely by hand, there was no Photoshop to simply change the title for him, and because he illustrated both sides of each sheet, this required him to remake both pages one and two.

The last day of school in those days was pretty informal. Many of my uncle's classmates elected to blow off school and instead go to Taylorsville Lake. Without telling even my mom, my uncle uncharacteristically made the choice to go with his classmates. He drowned there that day. That context makes this story - and particularly its revised title - eerie as could be. Like I said, he had to remake the other side of this page, too, which he never finished:

Perhaps one day I'll continue the fantastic story of Roger Harris. I've thought for years about wanting to try to add to this story, but it's awfully intimidating to muster the kind of hubris required to add on to something like this. All the same, I'm happy that at the very least, "On Borrow'd Time" can now be seen by the entire world.

My Uncle Stuart

16 April 2013

"Batgirl" #19 by Gail Simone (Jun 2013)

Batgirl #19
"A Blade from the Shadows"

Gail Simone - Writer
Daniel Sampere - Penciller
Jonathan Glapion and Marc Deering - Inks
Blond - Colors
Dave Sharpe - Letters
Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira and Marcelo Maiolo - Cover
Editor - Katie Kubert
Group Editor - Mike Marts
Batman created by Bob Kane

Date of Publication: 10 April 2013
$2.99/32 pages

I haven't reviewed Batgirl here for a while now. To be honest, I just didn't care for "The Death of the Family" storyline or how it was told, although I feel that Batgirl #14 was easily the strongest issue that I read of both that story and this book. Then, after that crossover event finished, Ray Fawkes took over the book for a few issues. I don't want to disparage the guy, but truthfully I'd have bailed on Batgirl had he become the permanent ongoing writer. It could have worked out once he found his footing, and I tried to be fair to him but it just wasn't the book I've enjoyed reading all along. The last issue, #18, showed us Barbara's reaction to the death of Damian Wayne. The cover is one of my favorites in the series to date, showing us a bereaved Barbara sobbing but Fawkes scarcely acknowledged the event itself in either his story or his characterization of Barbara. She expends all of three panels reaction - one to call Nightwing, who then blows her off because he's busy. It was business-as-usual and the story failed to live up to the cover - or even the "Requiem" story at all.
There was far more heart in this cover than in any of the inside pages written by Ray Fawkes.

I don't blame Fawkes for that, though. Once again, I feel that a glaring storytelling issue with these comics is the result of a lack of long-range editorial direction at DC Comics. Whether it's "The Night of the Owls" intruding into Tony Daniel's arc in Detective Comics or that "Zero Month" causing a two-month gap between the second part and conclusion of Simone's arc in Batgirl, DC seems obsessed with marketing synergy but not storytelling synergy.

Issue #19 is Gail Simone's awaited return to the book, though, and I couldn't have been happier. She wasn't there to show us the human being that Babs is handle the news of Damian's death, but she's on hand here for the final(?) showdown between our heroine and her psychopathic brother, James, Jr. This feels like the issue that Simone was trying to build toward months ago, before Scott Snyder's "Death of the Family" ran roughshod over the Bat-titles and before the boneheaded editorial decision to remove her from the book. I have to assume Brian Cunningham was the one responsible for that fracas, because he's gone from the book as of this issue and Katie Kubert has been promoted from Assistant Editor to Editor. That seems like a very strong step in the right direction.

When the estranged Barbara Gordon (senior? Is that a thing?) resurfaced at the very end of issue #4, I wasn't sure what direction that relationship might take. Watching mother and daughter try to reconnect - and enduring shared trauma in recent issues - has worked out very well, though. I feel good about the two of them and what it means for the book to see them continue to develop their relationship.

Then there's Alysia, Babs's roommate. She reveals in this issue that she's a transgender woman, which is really no surprise to me after following the Twitter friendship between Simone and Natalie Reed. They had made mention of exchanging emails, Reed answering Simone's questions, and that portended a trans character in the works. My only question was whether it was for Batgirl or another project of Simone's. I've liked Alysia since we first met her. I'm not a member of the trans community, but I remember how excited I was when I went to see The Men Who Stare at Goats and George Clooney said he had Crohn's disease. There's something about even a minimal acknowledgment in entertainment that people like you exist outside pharmaceutical commercials and support groups that's empowering and on that level, I get it. I'm excited for the trans readers who will find some solidarity in Alysia.

From the beginning, Alysia has struck me as the kind of woman who would insist on vinyl over digital, though, and I even tweeted Simone about that. I continue to hold out hope that one day we'll see her record collection and hear her expound on her love for vinyl. That would make me happy. It'd be too contrived to ask Simone to write a Crohnie into Batgirl, but how perfect would it be for us to be represented in her forthcoming, super-secret book The Movement? The jokes write themselves!

Batgirl #19 is the most suspenseful, enthralling issue of the book to date next only to issue #14. It felt right to hear Simone's voice telling the stories again. There's quite a lot of action from start to finish, but what Simone brings to the book that was absent from Fawkes's admittedly brief run is heart. This issue isn't about the action of a psychopath terrorizing his family. This issue is about how those events affect the people who endure them. Simone writes human beings, not rising and falling action, and that's why she's the perfect writer for Batgirl. I'm relieved that she's back on it.

That said, I don't buy that James, Jr. was ultimately just a jealous younger brother. His wiring was way more off than something as simple as that, and I have to think being used as a hostage as an infant - and then again as a child - really screwed him up. Also: What the hell is going on in Gotham City that a guy whose son is a serial killer gets to remain police commissioner? David Petraeus had to resign from the CIA over an affair with his biographer, but somehow no one has a problem with the police commissioner having a murderous son? I don't buy it.

Now, I just want Babs to go see a doctor. Anyone will suffice, even if just to spend an evening in the Batcave with Alfred tending to her. I wouldn't have thought about such things when I was healthy, but living in chronic pain has made me scoff at how Babs keeps getting up and going on about her business when by all right she should be lying in bed puking her guts up and relying on Alysia to bring her meds on a set schedule.

11 April 2013

Mental Health and Political Office

Much has already been made of a leaked recording of Senator Mitch McConnell and his aides discussing how they would attack Ashley Judd as a political rival. In the recording, plans are outlined to focus on Judd's history of depression and suicidal ideation. McConnell has cried foul that the recordings could only have been obtained via an illegal wiretap; questions of whether McConnell's staff worked on this potential campaign issue on the clock has raised ethics questions of their own. For the moment, I'm not terribly interested in either of those concerns. (I will say, I believe McConnell is Machiavellian enough to have set up the "wiretap recording" himself.)

As with so many things political, the issue is rarely the politician who says or does something outrageous, but rather the people they represent who support that outrageous thing. In this case, I can't even bring myself to revise my level of contempt for McConnell to include his planned disparagement of someone with depression because I know that the real enemy here is our cultural ignorance about mental health. Voters are people, and people at large don't understand mental health issues at all. It's surprisingly easy to ruin a political career by asking voters whether they trust a candidate to be "stable" if they know he or she has any kind of mental health disorder.

During that brief phase in which Ashley Judd was considering challenging McConnell for his Senate seat, I wrote an open letter to her with some questions and unsolicited advice. I never addressed the ways in which her publicly documented battles with depression might be a political liability, though I should have anticipated that.

I myself have flirted with political aspirations over the years, knowing the whole while that my mental health would be a liability to me. I would even be a liability to a partner or spouse seeking office, though I think the culture on that is changing enough that it could be portrayed as a "sympathetic positive" for a woman candidate who "cares for" a male partner with mental health issues. (Voters do like to obsess over how domestic a female officeholder is.) You may recall, Dear Reader, that I campaigned in a mock-election in high school. An attempt was made then to detract from my viability by associating me with Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven's Gate cult. It was ineffective because my schoolmates knew my sense of humor, but this was before I ever sought help for my depression. At that time, all anyone knew about me was that I was moody.

I share my experiences in this blog for the same reason that Ashley Judd has shared hers in the press and in her memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet: to help break through our cultural ignorance; to humanize mental health patients and to educate the general public. I believe that mental health patients and their advocates speaking out is the only way that we can ever change our cultural stigmas. I'm just a nobody, but when someone of her stature speaks it does get people talking and thinking. She knew that and she believed in it, which is why she came forward about her issues. As a candidate, I would have encouraged her to have stayed that course.

Politically, the best play open to her would have been to have said, "Yes, I had these problems and the whole world knows about them. Voters can find out all about them in my past interviews or my book, where I discuss them in depth. How comfortable they are with this is for them to decide, but I believe that voters want to be represented by someone they know will be compassionate and understanding. Mental health is a very serious issue and one that has been poorly addressed to date - in large part due to the stymying efforts of Senator McConnell, who has repeatedly opposed expanding programs to help mental health patients."

If McConnell wants to paint a mental health patient candidate as potentially erratic and self-destructive, who might what? Refuse to vote on reasonable bills just to make a point of some kind? Prosecute a political agenda that willfully throws the entire country in harm's way? Refuse to listen to or care about a whole swath of constituents because, you know, screw 'em? If so, then it's not Ashley Judd or a mental health patient that McConnell should oppose. It's himself, for doing all those things on a daily basis. Ashley Judd endured an abusive childhood and needed help processing that. What's Mitch McConnell's excuse for obsessively opposing President Obama on a daily basis at the expense of the entire country? Egocentricity? Psychopathy? Self-destructive stupidity? Voters deserve answers, Senator.

I don't know that Ashley Judd will ever see this blog post, but in case she does, I want to say this: I understand. I understand why it angers you to know that this could have been an issue to hurt your chances of offering the people of Kentucky a better representation in the United States Senate than they've had with Senator McConnell. I understand why it frustrates you that people are still so ignorant in 2013 about these things that he even thought it would be an effective strategy. I understand why it hurts to feel like this shows just how alone people like us really are in a world that doesn't understand us.

I'm just a nobody, like I said, but you're not. When you speak, the whole world listens. You don't have to hold a political office to help change the world, and I would strongly encourage you to remember that. Look at Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who have done more for the world out of office through their respective foundations than they could in the White House. You're free of any obligations to lobbyists or donors. You can continue to help educate the public about mental health, and to tear down the wall of ignorance that presently makes having a mental health issue like depression a political liability.

To anyone out there with a mental health issue who has thought about political office, I would say to you what I've thought myself over the years: Don't give up hope that the voters may actually be understanding. Depression and anxiety are distracting. We can't pretend otherwise. But we also aren't enslaved by them. We can act on behalf of others. In fact, in my personal experience I found that being helpful to others was the best treatment for my depression. If anything, I'd be a better officeholder because of depression, though I understand why the average voter wouldn't understand or believe that.

Our discussions about mental health are changing across this country, in large part because more Americans are coming forward and saying to their families and their doctors that they need help with something. It's becoming increasingly commonplace for people to at least know someone close to them who suffers from a mental health disorder. We're still "The Other", as evidenced by McConnell's confidence that attacking Judd's mental health would work, but it is changing for the better.

10 April 2013

Playlist: George Strait - Phase One, 1981-1992

It's been awhile since I last worked on a playlist, but I've been going through my music library in the last few weeks and kinda got on a George Strait kick. You might have noticed that when one of the handful of blog posts I wrote last month was about his Strait Out of the Box box set. I've wanted to make a George Strait playlist for quite some time, but with so much material it was hard to pick a specific scope. I ultimately elected to survey the first decade or so of his career, from 1981 into 1992. It was in '92 that Strait first collaborated with producer Tony Brown on the soundtrack album for the feature film Pure Country, which I wrote about for Flickchart. Brown has produced all of Strait's work since then, so it seemed to me that the pre-Tony Brown era would make for an interesting focus. Hence the playlist title, "Phase One, 1981-1992".

Remember, kids; for most of his career, King George released an album annually. That's twelve albums of ten songs apiece for a total of 120 songs; 130 if you include 1987's Merry Christmas Strait to You (from which I very nearly did select "What a Merry Christmas This Could Be"). There were also three different hits collections of ten songs apiece, released every four years, but they included no new material so they didn't actually add to the volume of songs for consideration.

There really weren't any non-album tracks to consider. There is a live performance of "All My Ex's Live in Texas" from the Grammy's, but it didn't feel right for this playlist so I went with the album version. Strait Out of the Box includes three recordings from before Strait signed with MCA and another three tracks that were recorded from an ultimately scrapped session but I didn't feel any of those six songs fit this playlist. The box set does include Strait's duet with Hank Thompson on "Six Pack to Go", which only appeared on a duets album of Thompson's, and that fit this playlist. More on that later.

"Rhythm of the Road"
(Dan McCoy) from #7

I knew the lion's share of this playlist would wind up being singles, so I wanted to use an album cut to open it. This one has a great sound, a lot of energy and its lyrics make it a perfect opening number for a concert.

"All My Ex's Live in Texas"
(Sanger D. Shafer, Lyndia J. Shafer) from Ocean Front Property

Coming right out of the unexpected "Rhythm of the Road", I liked this familiar favorite to settle the mood. Plus, it's nice to have the fiddle and steel guitar so prominent so early. This song so easily lent itself to being mocked and incorporated into the stereotype about country music, but it's so self-aware that it's one big joke where we all get to laugh with it and not at it. You can mock this song all you want and it doesn't matter. It's still shameless fun.

"Blame It on Mexico"
(Darryl Staedtler) from Strait Country

Another album cut this time. It has a similar aesthetic to "Marina Del Rey", which I dropped because I like this song more. It works well coming right after "All My Ex's", I think.

"The Chair"
(Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran) from Something Special

What I love about this song is that it's the most ridiculous pick-up ever, but set to music with Strait singing it somehow it's actually smooth and charming. I always liked the line "No, I don't know the name of the band but they're good" and that in the music video, the band is Strait's Ace in the Hole Band. I could never pull off anything like this, so I admire the hubris to make it into a song.

"Let's Fall to Pieces Together"
(Dickey Lee, Johnny Russell, Tommy Rocco) from Right or Wrong

I didn't mean for it to work out this way, but this is the only song from the Right or Wrong album that made it to the final version of this playlist. I liked pairing it with "The Chair" since both songs are basically first person come-ons at a bar. Where "The Chair" is playful, "Let's Fall to Pieces Together" is somewhere between vulnerable and defiant, hoping that someone else hurting will want to find solace together. This is a song that's been on my mind a lot lately, even before I started going back through my music library.

"Hot Burning Flames"
(Hank Cochran, Mack Vickery, Wayne Kemp) from Ocean Front Property

From this entire era, Ocean Front Property is my favorite album and when I made my first cuts, I had five of its ten songs selected for this playlist. Like "Rhythm of the Road", this one has a lot of energy and it's fun, but like "Let's Fall to Pieces Together", it resonates with me very directly these days. Right now I've only got that little spark but I continue to hope someone out there will want to turn it into "Hot Burning Flames".

"In Too Deep"
(Erv Woolsey, Jerry Max Lane) from Something Special

I owned Strait Out of the Box before I got around to buying several of the earlier albums, so this is one of several songs I first heard there instead of on the original album. I just love the sound of this one. There's something about undulating between fastly sung lines and slower sung lines that I dig.

"Wonderland of Love"
(Curtis Wayne) from Holding My Own

Strait himself laments that if there was one negative thing about Pure Country, it's that it overshadowed the Holding My Own album. I completely agree with him on that, and this album cut is a personal favorite. Like "In Too Deep", I first heard it on Strait Out of the Box rather than on Holding My Own. I like the idea of being comfortable saying to someone, "Sometimes I need assurance of your love". Yes, it can quickly become clingy and unhealthy but I think we make a mistake by not allowing those moments to be expressed honestly between partners. There's a playful tone to this song, but it really does address some very important relationship content.

"Ace in the Hole"
(Dennis Adkins) from Beyond the Blue Neon

The first George Strait album I ever heard was Beyond the Blue Neon. My brother and I both had Walkmans and were allowed to pick out one tape each. I picked Prince's Batman soundtrack, and my brother picked Beyond the Blue Neon. I've always enjoyed that album, and this song in particular. I love that the movie Swingers ends with Jasper the hound at Chuck E. Cheese covering this song.

"Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye"
(Tony Martin, Troy Martin) from Beyond the Blue Neon

I don't normally like to put two songs from the same album together on a playlist, but there's a sort of personal connotation for me that links these two. The music video for "Baby's Gotten Good at Goodbye" was out around the time that my brother got the tape, so there's a reflexive connection for me of that album and video. This song taught me a lot about subtle satire, incidentally. When I first heard it, I couldn't believe that "I still can't believe she'd leave so easily" despite the fact they'd fought so often that she left regularly. It sounds like such a sad song, but when you stop and think on it you realize this guy is a self-deluded jerk.

"Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind"
(Darlene Shafer, Sanger D. Shafer) from Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind

I would listen to just an instrumental performance of this and be soothed by the fiddle, steel and piano. That it's such a well-written lamentation of love lost is almost incidental. The first few notes (bars?) sound pleasant enough but then comes one of my favorite first lines ever: "Cold Fort Worth beer just ain't no good for jealous". Just like that, you know where you are and what's going on and that no good will come of it. It's an ubiquitous situation retold vividly.

"Ocean Front Property"
(Dean Dillon, Hank Cochran, Royce Porter) from Ocean Front Property

I liked the pseudo-sarcasm of the lyrics, but what really draws me to this song time and again is the instrumentation. Johnny Gimble absolutely kills that fiddle part. I've seen George Strait in concert thrice, and he never sang this at any of those shows, which still disappoints me.

"Gone as a Girl Can Get"
(Jerry Max Lane) from Holding My Own

This song also made its way onto #myraptureplaylist in 2011. I really like the unusual sound of this one, but also how masochistic it is. I mean, this guy just will not let up on how completely over him his ex now is. It's like Jerry Max Lane wrote this song when Taylor Swift was born in anticipation of "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to show us the guy's side of hearing that declaration from her.

"If I Know Me"
(Pam Belford, Dean Dillon) from Chill of an Early Fall

"You Know Me Better Than That"
(Tony Haselden, Anna Lisa Graham) from Chill of an Early Fall

These two are so obvious to link that I had to do it. They were also released as singles back-to-back in this order, so there's that. I really wanted to include the title song from Chill of an Early Fall. It made it through several rounds of cuts, but not the final playlist. This "Know Me" duo is an awfully solid representation of that album, though. I love the juxtaposition of perspectives even though the songs weren't written to be companions at all. "You know the me that gets lazy and fat/Oh she tells her friends I'm perfect and that I love her cat/But you know me better than that" - that's some of my favorite writing.

"Fool Hearted Memory"
(Byron Hill, Alan R. Mevis) from Strait from the Heart

Strait's very first #1 single is sort of a third-person omniscient narrator version of "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind". I thought originally about pairing them together in this playlist, but I wanted to break up their similar sounds. This isn't necessarily a song I think of immediately when naming my favorite George Strait tracks, but every time I hear it I get lost in it and that's how it made it through each round of cuts here.

"If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')"
(Tommy Collins) from If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')

Sometimes this song bothers me because I feel like it's saying that when I'm not in a relationship, my life is incomplete but then I remember that 1) I actually feel like that on my own anyway and 2) that's not the point being made here. Rather, the philosophy here is that no matter how much you may accomplish or acquire, it's  not a substitute for some lovin'. It's fun to sing along with this one, especially with some of its more absurd lyrics, like being "kin to the president and...help[ing] run the government" not making up for being lonely.

"I've Come to Expect It from You"
(Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon) from Livin' It Up

This is another of those songs where the sound is unusual and draws me in, and then I find myself loving the lyrics. This is a song about finally coming to terms with the fact that you've allowed yourself to be done wrong by someone who is very bad for you. It's really easy for someone on the outside, but it's a very hard thing to do yourself to get to this point.

"It Ain't Cool to Be Crazy About You"
(Dean Dillon, Royce Porter) from #7

At first blanch this seems thematically similar to the previous song but there's a sort of resigned acceptance here in the stead of the defiance of "I've Come to Expect It from You". I can't tell if this song takes place before or after "Expect" in the process of making a break from someone who's not right for you, and I think it works either way but I liked the sound of this order more than I liked it in reverse.

"Lefty's Gone"
(Sanger D. Shafer) from Something Special

Songwriter Whitey Shafer wrote this about Lefty Frizzell, and Strait recalls in his box set liner notes that when Shafer played the song for him, he had to leave the room because it upset him so much. It's a lovely tribute song, with very specific imagery ("He played the fair in Dallas one year in the cold October rain"), set to a nearly mesmerizing arrangement. Even if you had no idea who Lefty is/was, the song is so forlorn and tragic that I think it can even just work as a story, like "Mr. Bojangles" or "Dumas Walker".

"Six Pack to Go"
with Hank Thompson
(Johnny Lowe, Hank Thompson, Dick Hart) from Strait Out of the Box

This was recorded in 1986 for an album of Thompson's, but I can't find anything anywhere to indicate what album it was! During my undergrad studies I was instructed to always cite exactly where I got information, not where it originated, so on that basis I've cited this track as being from the box set.

Anyway, it's a great remake of the famed honky-tonk number, and Strait sounds very relaxed on it. I confess, I actually forgot to check the box set for material recorded in the years I've covered here until after I'd burned it to a CD. I wound up bumping "You Look So Good in Love" to make room for this. I hated to drop that, particularly as I know it's one of my brother's favorite Strait songs, but it was the right length. Plus, I think that song is just a bit too slow for the overall pace of this playlist, and "Six Pack to Go" is a better fit.

(Take note: there are six songs remaining on the playlist after this one.)

"She Loves Me (She Don't Love You)"
(Conway Twitty) from Livin' It Up

It's funny to me to think of ladies man Conway Twitty writing a tough guy song, but here it is. Gary Allan also covered it, but I found his reading too casual. Strait imbues it with the proper insistent attitude. "Here's your coat and there's the door/I think you better leave". Every time I hear this song, I recall his character's showdown with Buddy Jackson at the end of Pure Country: "Go on. Get your ass out of here!"

"Baby Blue"
(Aaron Barker) from If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')

It's long been speculated that Strait selected this song in subtle tribute to his daughter Jenifer, who was killed at 13 in a traffic accident. It's a bittersweet song even without that context, but whenever this song plays I don't think of it as being about a failed romance.

"Love Without End, Amen"
(Aaron Barker) from Livin' It Up

Whether "Baby Blue" was selected in memory of Strait's daughter, we know for certain that he had his son "Bubba" in mind when he recorded "Love Without End, Amen". He even went so far as to have the lyrics changed to reflect the year of his son's birth. I remember when my niece was born, my dad took my brother and me to visit our half-brother and his then-girlfriend in the hospital. We visited for a bit and then ate at the Pizza Hut in Shelbyville. They had a jukebox, and I played this song. I can be sentimental like that.

(Dean Dillon, Frank Dycus) from Strait Country

This song could have gone anywhere on this playlist, really. I don't really sympathize with the guy at all here, since his cheating is responsible for his wife kicking him out of the house, but Rob Hajacos's fiddle puts me in a trance. Strait could be singing about submitting to Quetzalcoatl and as long as that fiddle was there I'd sing along with it.

"The Cowboy Rides Away"
(Sonny Throckmorton, Casey Kelly) from Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind

This is my personal favorite George Strait song ever. I love everything about this recording; the lyrics and their image-conjuring narrative, the sound of the arrangement and instrumentation and Strait's vocals. I hate that even though he closes his shows with this song, he only sings the first half of it.

I did notice, though, that the last track on his forthcoming album, Love Is Everything, is titled "When the Credits Roll". A few days ago at the Academy of Country Music Awards, he performed with Garth Brooks in a tribute to Dick Clark. Garth performed "The Dance" in its entirety, then King George came on stage and sang the second half of "The Cowboy Rides Away", starting with the line "And as the credits roll, a sad song starts to play". Perhaps that performance will appear with the altered title to close out the album?

"Amarillo by Morning"
(Terry Stafford, Paul Fraser) from Strait from the Heart

If "The Cowboy Rides Away" was the finale of the set, then "Amarillo by Morning" is its encore. I love the song anyway, deconstructing whatever romantic notions there may have been about life as a rodeo cowboy. Buddy Spicher's fiddle performance is one of my favorites not only in this playlist, but of anything I've ever heard. Plus thematically I liked the cowboy riding away, trying to make Amarillo by morning, and this also brings the playlist full circle with "Rhythm of the Road".

There were, of course, nearly a hundred eligible songs that I omitted and it hurt me to make some of the choices that I wound up having to make. This era of George Strait's career is very interesting; he had clear ideas about who he was (and who he wasn't), but there were a few different producers to handle his work at this point in his career. It wasn't until Jimmy Bowen came along with Strait's fourth album, Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind, that Strait began co-producing his work. Despite the learning curve inherent to the early part of anyone's artistic career, this was his heaviest saturation of radio success - including a consecutive eleven #1 singles. I've tried to present here something other than a chronological compilation of those singles and instead a survey of this first phase in the evolution of George Strait's music career.

How Can I Help a Cutter?

I was asked yesterday if I might share my thoughts about cutting and Anorexia. I am not a cutter nor am I Anorexic, so I can't offer any firsthand insight into what those private hells are like. I do, however, have some experience trying to be there for people I love who have fought them so I can speak a little about that side of things. This time, I'd like to discuss cutting.

One of the things I never understood was that cutting isn't about self-harm at all. It's for a release of internal anxiety and stress. There was a book published last year whose title escapes me, but I caught the author discussing it on NPR one afternoon. She likened cutting to how some anxious animals will groom themselves obsessively to the point of rubbing themselves raw. There's a specific kind of release that physical discomfort can bring, and that's the purpose of cutting.

I never discuss the personal details of anyone else in my blog, so I'm a bit hamstrung about how in-depth I can go about this, but I will offer the following bullet-style advice to those of you whose loved one may be cutting:

  • Be calm about it. Think of your loved one as a Chinese finger trap; the more pressure you put into the situation, the worse it will become.
  • It's okay to ask, "How badly did you cut?" to get a sense of the extent of the damage. Sometimes you can get your loved one to show you the scars, but defer to your loved one about how willing he or she may be about showing you. If you encounter reluctance, let it go. If you're shown the scars, recognize that your loved one is extremely vulnerable at that moment. Be very careful how you react.
  • Don't judge him or her or try to shame him or her out of cutting. Don't encourage cutting, obviously, but accept that sometimes it will happen.
  • Engage him or her about what triggers may have led to the cutting. There's a certain parenting style that believes you tell someone to stop doing something and that they should then stop doing it, and that listening to any explanation for it is just making excuses. That mentality has no place in the dynamics of helping a cutter. A cutter needs release, and dialoging with someone whom they trust can help alleviate some of that pressure.
  • Use positive language. Say things like, "I'm glad you told me about this" and "I'm here for you". (Side note: Actually be there for him or her.)
In my experience, the better my handling of the situation has been received, the more likely he or she has been to confide in me when he or she has cutting urges. We have often managed to discuss things enough that the urge to cut could subside, if only for the night. Recognize that cutting is likely an ongoing issue rather than a limited phase. It's simply part of how your loved one is wired to handle internal stress.

The single most important thing you can do for your loved one is make sure that he or she feels safe confiding in you not just about the cutting, but whatever may be going on that could trigger cutting. A cutter very often feels isolated and ashamed of cutting, which in turn exacerbates the anxiety that triggers the cutting. Remember that it's even more important that you be an available confidante between cutting episodes than it is that you be there for the episodes themselves. You're not a firefighter responding to emergencies. You're a lifeguard watching the pool at all times.

If I were to address those who cut directly for a moment, all I know to say to you is that it breaks my heart that you feel the way you do. If it was in my power to alleviate your triggers, I would do it without hesitation. You're not weak for the times when you cut. You're strong for all the times you don't.

I hope something in all this is helpful to you, Dear Reader. As I've indicated, though, I have not been a cutter myself. For those of you with experience cutting - or others who have cared for someone who has cut - what do you have to say about it? What should the rest of us know or do that maybe we don't know already? What helps you to manage your cutting urges?

09 April 2013

Distant Voices

It's no secret, Dear Reader, that I've been down the last couple of weeks. A little while ago, I received the following comment from Anonymous on my last post, "It's Only a Paper Moon":
Ever since I found this blog last October, it's changed my life- I can't thank you enough.

I wish I could help you. The only item that I can think of, that I recently found, would be this Tumblr blog. Basically this blog gives depressed, struggling people hope. It might be a bit silly, but give it a try please. 
I was extremely humbled to read those kind words, and said so on Facebook. There, a former classmate of mine added that "Just because you don't see the difference you make, doesn't mean it isn't there!" Philosophically, of course, I know he's right but still - feedback is the only way that any of us ever knows that what we do is recognized. That's true of anyone who blogs, or just does the dishes at home. When I raised that point, he surprised me with this:
[U]sually though, to those something matters most to, it's almost an impossibility to give that feedback. Plagued with thoughts of what others will think, say, comment, not to mention what you the author might say. Not all writers are humbled by honest compliments. [H]owever, I'm glad you got to see that what you do matters. And for this one, there's probably 10 others who this means the same or more to, but are too scared to say it. If you change one persons [sic] life for the better, does that not give you a reason to keep on doing what you do?
I admit, I gave no thought to that whatsoever. I never thought that someone out there might be too self-conscious to comment on my blog. I promise: I don't bite! By all means, whatever is on your mind, Dear Reader, I invite you to share it. I do moderate comments, but only to the extent that I don't allow links to Japanese erection pharmaceuticals to show up. I don't edit anything legit, and it would mean the world to me to hear from you.

07 April 2013

It's Only a Paper Moon

Some friends hosted a little get-together last night, complete with bonfire. I had to have one friend come get me because I'd already needed some Klonopin while being at home. I haven't been this consistently keyed up since I was first discharged from Our Lady of Peace in October, 2011. I feel vulnerable to any and all stimulation - auditory, visual or other - and my comfort zone has become so small it's claustrophobic.

Still, I did go with my friend to the shindig. They were watching basketball in the TV room, which I avoided. I have no interest in basketball (unless I can maybe win free pizza or beat President Obama's bracket), but that wouldn't ordinarily have prevented me from at least flaking out on the couch while the others watched. Even from their kitchen, I found the excitement level a bit too much for me to handle. Plus, one of my dearest friends was having a particularly rough night and my phone was all but dead so I had to stay near an outlet so I could text with her while it charged. I hope I was somehow helpful to her, at least.

Then came the bonfire. It was actually one of the more successful ones we've had in recent times. It required a bit more collective work to keep going than I think we'd have preferred, but it was about the right size for us. Conversation outside was quiet and low key, which I appreciated. Two friends left around 10, leaving just the friend who had picked me up and our hosts.

That's when I became The Worst Bonfire Attendee Ever. Sitting in a foldout lawn chair staring at the flame-licked logs, I felt the familiar wave of anxiety and depression. I began to see myself as the log, consumed by fire, helpless to put it out. Not only was I no help to the log, I was actively rooting for it to burn. I thought of our society at large and how tempting it is to cheer when others burn, as I presently am. I felt sad for the log. We didn't need the warmth. We just thought it would be fun to have a fire. Sometimes I wonder if God puts no more thought than that into who among us burns.

I couldn't help it. I began to cry, consumed again by the same fears and resentments that have dogged me now for two entire weeks. This isn't melancholy; this is desperation. I really have felt the walls closing in around me again. I've become disillusioned with any sense of progress that I thought I'd made the last 14 months. I no longer believe in the paper moon above the cardboard sea. I do enjoy the support and encouragement of wonderful friends, but somehow I'm left feeling just as alone and afraid as I have ever been. I'll know at some point relatively soon about something important that could make a world of difference, but let there be no mistake: I do not have it in me to fight any further if I lose this round. I'll be the log on fire and I hope you'll get some warmth from me before I turn to ash.

Bring hot dogs. But no marshmallows. I hate marshmallows. At least do me that much of a favor?

06 April 2013

Princess Josephine

This is the third in a series of profiles of my cats. See also "My Hairy Butt" and "Muffin".

I was against ever having a cat, much less a second cat. But then one afternoon, this tiny little black kitten was trotting around outside and curiosity got the better of me. I opened the door to take a closer look but to my surprise, she bolted right through the door and flopped onto the couch in the living room. There was not a moment's hesitation on her part. I was rather stunned, of course. She displayed no temerity whatsoever. On the contrary; she behaved as though she belonged already. She made no effort to explore; she was already home and knew where everything was. I can't explain it any better than that.

I was still reluctant, so what we did was put her into the carrier and bring her to Muffin. If they seemed to get along, we decided she'd stay. There was some hissing - which was hysterical because he'd never done that - but she was entirely unfazed and eventually he seemed to shrug it off, too. Just like that, we had a second cat.
Josephine with a toy mouse, Christmas 2011.
I hadn't gotten to name Muffin, or the rabbit we had before him, Foufer, so I was insistent that at the very least I get to name this newcomer. It didn't take long at all. I recalled an anecdote that Dr. Bruce Tyler shared in one of the several courses I took of his at the University of Louisville. There was an incident in which famed African-American entertainer Josephine Baker strolled into a nightclub in Harlem. Being African-American, she was perfectly welcome to perform there, but she was not welcome as a patron. Just the same, she strolled to her table and basically double-dog dared anyone to remove her. That was pretty much what this audacious kitten had just done, and that's how she came to be part of the family and to be named Josephine.

I also enjoyed the play on the comic book characters, Josey and the Pussycats, plus I've long been fascinated by Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife was Josephine. Those were incidental, though; it was the Baker anecdote that came to mind and fit perfectly.
Hands down, my favorite picture of Josephine.
Josephine has a very mellow manner. She has never been particularly rambunctious or demanding. She does, however, have severe separation anxiety when I'm away from her very long. When we went to visit my wife's family in Florida a few years ago, we returned to discover that she'd ballooned in size and thrown up so much she gave herself ulcers. It took nearly a week for her to return to normal. She doesn't require much from me, though, which is the funny thing. She just likes to know I'm around. As long as she can see me, she's fine.

Josephine's favorite thing in the whole wide world is cardboard. If it resembles a box, she'll either try to fit into it or lie atop it. The moment I've opened packages, I've found her claiming the emptied box before I've even unwrapped its contents. It's kind of like that phase that toddlers go through, where you could just get them big boxes for presents and they'd be just as happy as they are with whatever you actually gave them, except that she hasn't outgrown this phase - just the boxes themselves.
While playing Operation with my niece, Josephine discovered she fit in its box.
Despite her size, she actually isn't much of an eater. She doesn't eat much at a time, though she does return to the food bowls more often than the others. She's actually reluctant to take most scraps. She'll pass on most meat, but loves her some fries. A couple of months ago, while I was eating some Rally's, I had lifted my burger to my mouth. She timed it so that both hands were occupied with that, then knocked over my fries, sneaked her head in, grabbed one and ran off with it all in the time it took me to take my bite of the burger! She had absolutely no shame whatsoever about that, and I was too surprised to even be angry about it. It was out of character for her to do something like that, and I have to be careful about chastising her because just saying her name in a cross manner can hurt her feelings so much that she'll hide for hours.

Josephine is also my chief snuggler. Most nights, she'll curl up beside me in bed with her front legs draped over my upturned arm, with my head resting against her. She's a big girl (so big that her shoulderblades don't actually touch), so it's actually pretty cozy for both of us. She instantly purrs and this is often how I fall asleep. When she falls asleep, she often snores which I still find hilarious. She's completely spoiled, which is why I refer to her as my princess.

05 April 2013

Doctor's Orders: I'm a Failure

I don't even want to write this blog post, frankly, but I'm under doctor's orders to do it. I've been unsuccessful in finding a therapist who will actually see me ever since I was discharged from Our Lady of Peace on 10 October 2011. I've relied on my informal online support group, the catharsis of this blog and semi-regular counseling sessions with my doctor. She's not trained in psychiatry, of course, but she knows how to listen and how to reach me. She's been invaluable to me.

Two weeks ago, I received some distressing news. I had an anxiety attack, and then another. I've nearly puked my guts up numerous times. At the end of last week, I had my first suicidal thoughts - not urges, just thoughts - in nearly a year and a half. I returned to see my doctor Wednesday. After brief discussion, she quickly decided that I'm past anxious and into a full blown depressive episode again. The suicidal thoughts have been stronger and more frequent. Again, they have not been urges so we're not at red alert right now. Just a very strong yellow (is there such a thing as a strong yellow?).

She instructed me in the interim to watch movies, because I enjoy them, and to blog, because that's been therapeutic for me. So here goes.

I feel overwhelmed, alone and helpless - just as I did throughout my Year of Hell. I'm scared. I'm resentful. I'm angry. I'm despondent. I just want to know where I can go and fall on my knees and shout, "ALRIGHT, I AM A FAILURE! I ADMIT IT!" so that the world will be contented enough to quit haranguing me about my being a failure. I know now that I will not enjoy the kind of happy, healthy, prosperous life that most do. I can sometimes distract myself enough about that that it doesn't overwhelm me and I can "live in the now" enough to not concern myself with such matters. But right now it seems that I'm besieged on all fronts with no way out. I can't even surrender and let that be that.

There seems to my logical mind only one true escape from it all, and that is death itself. That seems to be the only solution that will content the world; for me to no longer continue to be a burden on society held in daily contempt. It eats at me every day. I feel nearly hopeless; I'm clinging to one last shred of hope that may be extinguished by the end of next week. This is no way to live. I'm existing, having to defend myself even doing that to those who openly resent that fact.

I'm a failure. I admit it. I'm a burden, a leech and that's all I'll ever be. Isn't it enough for you that I admit these things, that I must live with that kind of shame and humiliation?

No one who is suicidal wants to be dead. They just don't want to continue living and they can't see any practical way of changing their lives. I'm there, again. Please, just let me surrender. Let me exist. I don't deserve it, I know, but I ask it all the same.