19 March 2015

Bill Markham, 12/10/1945-3/19/2015

Though we lived in the same neighborhood, I first met Billy Joel in fourth grade math class, where we were both persecuted by a snobbish teacher who enjoyed the kind of job security that lets someone openly play favorites. Being treated unfairly by the same person (or people) can be a shortcut to bonding and that's how it was for us. It wasn't just that we tried to endure that miserable class together, though; our friendship was galvanized by a mutual passion for baseball.

We played catch a few times at his house or mine, and we'd get together some other kids to play a game in my backyard. For safety's sake, we had to use a tennis ball if we were hitting, because those yards were too small to create a proper diamond. Eventually, he succeeded in recruiting me to sign up for a season of Little League. It is not an overstatement for me to say that few things have ever turned out to impact my life nearly as much as that decision. I was placed on the same team as my friend, and his cousin. Their dads were our coaches. (We had a manager, too, but he disappeared for a bit during the middle of the season and that takes us off-topic.)

The very first thing I remember Bill instructing us was as profound as it was self-evident:
"Don't swing until the first called strike. Make them prove they can hit the strike zone."
I was ten years old and playing on an organized baseball team for the first time in my entire life. I wanted to swing at everything! But the thing is, even at that young an age, I had been around enough blowhards to know who was one - and who wasn't. Bill was not a blowhard. He knew what he was talking about, and over the years I came to understand that it was his self-confidence about knowing what he was talking about that allowed him to use his voice to speak up.

One of the games that remains vividly etched in my memory a quarter century later was a night game in which the infield fly rule was invoked. If you don't know baseball well enough to know what that is, don't worry, because what happened was the umpire who invoked the rule didn't know it all that well, either. But Bill knew what it was and how it was supposed to be applied, and he knew this umpire had it wrong. So Bill, drawing on his self-confidence about his knowledge, spoke up. And then he spoke up some more. And then he spoke up some more, more loudly.

Bill was ejected from the game.

Now, I had no idea what the hell the infield fly rule was about at the time, but I knew one thing: if Bill said the umpire was wrong, then the umpire was wrong. I've known a lot of people over the years who held positions of authority, but few who projected authority the way Bill did. He could get riled up, as everyone at that game got to see, but his default manner was actually that of a fairly mellow fellow. Sure enough, in the aftermath of that night game, it was determined that Bill had been right about the ruling.

Their family consisted of several already-grown children by the time I met them, but between Billy Joel and his cousin, and their respective elder brothers, there was a built-in foursome of friends. It didn't take me long to become friends with all four of them. Over the years, the joke has become that I'm the fifth cousin of that group. I think I've been to more of their family events than I've been to in my own family.

One of the most important of those events was Fourth of July, 2006. Billy Joel's aforementioned elder brother had just bought a house with his wife, and they hosted the shindig that year. I tried to let myself get caught up in the games of horseshoe and beer, but truthfully I was inwardly still sulking. Barely a month before that gathering, I'd been told pointblank by a woman at the University of Louisville graduate school that it would be a mistake for me to even try to continue with my education with Crohn's disease. There went my plans of going into teaching.

So I knew what I couldn't do, but I didn't know what I could do. In fact, I'd only even had the diagnosis for a little more than a year at that point. All I really knew then was that having chronic health problems was disruptive and not at all how things were supposed to be for me in my mid-20's. I was frustrated and discouraged in ways that I had never experienced - and keep in mind, I've dealt with depression since childhood, so that's saying something.

Anyway, it was finally late enough that the sun had finished setting and the fireworks were being set up by some of the others. I was just sort of flaked out away from most everyone else, trying to keep my negativity from spilling over and ruining everyone else's night. Bill came over to where I was and struck up conversation. We got to talking about how I was trying to make sense of what living with unpredictable, chronic health problems really meant for me.

Now, at that time, I knew Bill was having a few nagging issues that were starting to affect him but I didn't know much more than that. We talked about how important it is that when adversity comes along, you don't help it bring you down. I was reminded of his admonition not to swing until the first called strike. We talked some about how that philosophy applied to things like dealing with physical health problems just as much as it applied to standing in the batter's box.

I've had a lot of encouragement and support from a lot of people over these last ten years of living with Crohn's, but no one made me feel understood and comforted more than Bill did. He could just as easily have told me I wasn't sick enough to get to complain to him about not being well, but he didn't do that. Instead, it became a new part of our camaraderie. I don't know how helpful it was for him to know I understood the importance of things like having a hotel room near the concert venue as a contingency plan, but it meant a great deal to me whenever he would nod knowingly to whatever I had to say.

For much of the subsequent years, Bill's appearances at those get-togethers became more infrequent. He didn't get as excitable as he once did, and he would often leave to go back home and rest. But I always felt a vicarious triumph any time he felt well enough to even try to show up. Sometimes we would tease one another about which of us was in worse shape that day. My self-consciousness about having to miss things or leaving early led to anxiety about even having something to attend. Any time I managed to show up for something and Bill was there, though, I felt comfortable. I knew that someone there understood what I was going through, even if I didn't fully understand what he was going through.

I ran into him just a week ago, at McDonald's. He was there with his wife and Billy Joel's two sons (i.e., their grandsons). Funnily enough, I was there because I was going to catch up with Billy Joel's cousin. We chatted about different things that Bill had been well enough to do, or at least try to do, in the last several months. They'd gone on vacation to South Carolina, and were talking about having recently gone to see Billy Joel in concert (the entertainer, not their son). We talked about the kinds of strategies that they had to use to make such things more practical, given Bill's health. Even now, I struggle with believing I'm even allowed to try to go do such things, but talking with Bill was comforting for me. I genuinely loved to hear about any time he got to go do something he enjoyed.

It was easy to root for Bill. He was one of the most humble, honest, and respectable people I've ever known. His wry humor made me laugh. And, of course, having my own health issues, it was always nice to be reminded by someone I had known so long that there are always good days ahead to be had, even if they're outnumbered.

Today is not one of those good days. Late last night, Bill left us. I spoke with Billy Joel this morning (his son, not the entertainer). The service will be held at the same place where my grandfather's service was held barely a month ago. It turns out that we both have more than a few relatives laid to rest there. Among those on my side of things is my Uncle Stuart, who passed a few years before I was born. Now, I'll have two uncles there; one with whom I share genetics, and another who was simply kind enough to take his son's friend under his wing.

Thinking of our teasing of one another, I'm reminded of something that Kris Kristofferson said in 2002 after Waylon Jennings passed away:
"Over the years, I got to work by his side and be his friend and hear him say some of the funniest lines I've ever heard. Right now he's probably whispering in Johnny Cash's ear, 'See, I told you I was sicker than you.'"
I can hear that quip in Bill's voice, his impish grin waiting for me to laugh, or at least roll my eyes. I'm glad I got to see him one last time last week, on a night when we were both feeling well. Or, at least, when we were both feeling our respective versions of "well". Bill tethered himself to his good days. It's fitting, then, that our final conversation should be about that very thing. I can't promise that I'll consistently adhere to that philosophy, but in 25 years, I've always been mindful not to swing until the first called strike.

15 March 2015

"Cinderella" and the Disruption of Consumption

This past Tuesday, I attended a preview screening of Disney's live action Cinderella. My interest in the film was minimal, but one of my friends was excited to see it, so she and I went. I always write something about the movies I watch, whether at home or in a theater, and I even briefly considered writing a formal review to submit to Flickchart, but in truth I was really just there to spend time with my friend. However, something took place during the screening that I feel merits discussion so here it is.

Act I opens with the death of Ella's mother and concludes with the news of her father passing away off-screen. (Given that many other versions of the story - including Disney's own 1951 animated
 adaptation - begin after their deaths, I'm pretty sure I haven't just spoiled anything major.) There is no greater aspiration for any artist, in any field or medium, than to stir in others the same powerful emotions that they feel in response to their respective live experiences. Those who made Cinderella should know that they succeeded.

A young girl dressed in Disney Princess apparel sobbed for a few minutes, right along with her onscreen counterpart. I'm not admonishing Disney for making a little girl cry. On the contrary, I am acknowledging that their film, directed by Kenneth Branaugh, had such a visceral impact.

There is admonishment to be had, though, and it is leveled at the several adult members of the audience who made no allowance for how watching our protagonist - with whom we are meant to identify - endure the heartache of grieving for both of her parents. Surely, that is one of the most universally profound life experiences we must face as human beings. This child, her life experiences unknown to any of us, was forced to watch Cinderella go through that twice in the span of half an hour.

I had chatted briefly before the movie with the little girl's grandmother. They had won passes through WHAS-11. I imagine that they knew going into the screening that the fairy tale does involve Cinderella losing both of her parents, but the extent to which it may have been a trigger for trauma, I have no way of knowing. I'd certainly like to think they wouldn't knowingly subject her to something so upsetting, and that this was instead an instance of overpowering sympathy.

To tersely shush the empathy of that child despite all we had witnessed together, I can only conclude indicates that those intolerant viewers were so committed to consuming entertainment that they failed entirely to recognize and process the message of the art before them (and yes, even commercial art is still art).

I hope that empathetic girl heard not her impatient critics, but instead the mantra of Cinderella, handed down to her by her mother: "Have courage. Be kind."

And thank you, sobbing child, for being so "disruptive" with your compassion and making clear the contrast between empathy and apathy. Please, never become so hardened and jaded that you shush someone moved to tears by watching someone - even a character in a movie - grieve.

09 March 2015

Top 5 Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes - Worf

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

Because each list is limited to just five episodes, I excluded two-parters. In the case of Worf, that means no "Redemption" or "Birthright". It was hard to omit the former, because of how central it is to not just Worf, but the political landscape of not just the rest of TNG, but also all of Deep Space Nine. Alas, rules are rules, and that brings me to...

Top Five Episodes Starring
Michael Dorn
as Lieutenant Worf

"The Emissary"
6/26/89 Teleplay by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler, Story by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler and Thomas H. Calder | Directed by Cliff Bole

Not the first Klingon-centric episode of TNG, but certainly the first truly solid such episode - and the first real time that Michael Dorn got to do something other than be the Enterprise's bouncer. We finally get to see some definition to Worf's character. Unlike Spock, who was raised Vulcan and rejected his human heritage, and unlike Data, the android who wished to become human, Worf was raised by humans...and desires to be recognized as a Klingon. It's through his clashes with K'Ehleyr in this episode that we really get to understand how important that is to his self-identity.

"Sins of the Father"
3/19/90 | Teleplay by Ronald D. Moore & W. Reed Moran, Story by Drew Deighan | Directed by Les Landau

By now, we know how deeply rooted in his identity as a Klingon Worf's self-image is. What's the next step in his character arc? Tearing that away from him, of course! I didn't select this episode because it introduces several elements that will have ramifications for years to come, though certainly a case could be made for it on that basis alone. But even if you never see any of the subsequent episodes that connect to this one, it stands solidly all on its own as a compelling character study. Worf is faced with a whopper of a dilemma here. He's furious about being made a sacrificial lamb to accommodate some unseemly political machinations, and we share his outrage. And yet, "For he so loved the Empire, he gave his only begotten, er, family honor."

11/5/90 | Teleplay by Thomas Perry & Jo Perry & Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga, Story by Drew Deighan & Thomas Perry and Jo Perry | Directed by Jonathan Frakes

I hesitated to include "Reunion". For one thing, it doesn't function as a standalone story quite as much as it is a payoff to both "The Emissary" and "Sins of the Father". It also feels a bit obligatory. There's a lot going on, and I'm not sure how accessible it is on its own. But when I weighed it against other Worf-centric episodes, I concluded it's too important to exclude. K'Ehleyr returns, bringing along Alexander - the product of her liaison with Worf. On top of that, there's the whodunnit mystery of who has poisoned the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council, aiming to seize control of the Empire through his assassination. The climax of the episode, though, is perhaps the definitive event in Worf's entire development, and for that alone "Reunion" is required Worf viewing.

"A Fistful of Datas"
11/9/92 | Teleplay: Robert Hewitt Wolfe and Brannon Braga, Story by Robert Hewitt Wolfe | Directed by Patrick Stewart

Holodeck episodes can be fun, but rarely Top 5-worthy. "A Fistful of Datas" is probably the most satisfying, at least of TNG, because it functions on several levels. The obvious question is, why pick this for the Worf list instead of the Data list? True, Brent Spiner completely rocks his multiple roles as Frank Hollister and his minion sons, but at its heart this is really a story about Worf connecting with his son, Alexander. It's not the only, or even the first, such look at their relationship but it's my favorite. I think anyone who ever had a no-nonsense adult in their life finally display some whimsy can appreciate the appeal of this one. I would be remiss not to also make mention of how much I love watching Marina Sirtis's Counselor Troi adopt her Holodeck character persona, Durango. I almost saved this episode for her Top 5!

11/29/93 | Written by Brannon Braga | Directed by Robert Weimer

In a typical alternate universe story, "our" character(s) go visit a place that reflects a "What if...?" deviation of "our" reality. This time, though, Worf bounces across myriad alternate universes; some in which the "what if...?" is as benign as "What if Worf hung this painting on this wall instead of that wall?" And then, like every game show ever made, each "What if...?" ups the ante. What if Worf had a romantic relationship with Counselor Troi? What if the Borg had won in "The Best of Both Worlds"? When I first watched this episode, I got what they were doing, but I wondered why they picked Worf to be the central character for it. I think, though, that placing it in the context of just this Top 5 list answers that question: it's a unique way to examine through nuance a character with such an otherwise binary worldview.

Two things stand out to me about the credits for these episodes. Firstly, four of the five have "Teleplay by" and "Story by" credits, which indicates that the story began with one or more writers, but was completed with the assistance of others. The other thing is that two episodes were directed by other principal cast members (Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes). Maybe this is just happenstance, but I wonder if it doesn't speak to the extra level of attention that seemed to go into making Worf-centric episodes feel a little bit more "epic" in scope, down to assigning his fellow co-stars to help Dorn to give some of his strongest performances in the role.

Anyway, those are my five Worf picks. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts, Dear Reader!

Note: I'm doing these in cast credits order, and decided to skip Denise Crosby as Lt. Tasha Yar, as she wasn't in enough episodes to really give a strong Top 5 list. I did consider combining Crosby's Yar and Sela characters, but two of Sela's most prominent appearances were in two-part episodes that would be excluded outright anyway, per the self-imposed rule I have.

Picard | Riker | Geordi | Worf

08 March 2015

Middle School Memories: Mr. Bill Beasy

When I was in middle school, each grade was divided into two teams: Team A and Team B. Some students believed that Team A was somehow superior or reflected a better standing of the students selected for it. I never really cared, to be honest. But each team had its own roster of teachers, and there was no question that there was one teacher every middle schooler wanted to have: Bill Beasy, who taught science for Team B in 8th grade.

Mr. Beasy was one of those teachers you heard about even as a sixth grader. All anyone ever said was that he was awesome and that you'd be lucky to have him as a teacher, but no one ever elaborated why that was. I'd been on Team A my first two years of middle school, so it seemed unlikely I'd be switched to Team B for 8th grade, but sure enough, I was. I was always a so-so science student; some parts came somewhat easily to me, while others either disinterested or outright frustrated me. I was wary, but any apprehension I had fell away within the first few minutes as his student.

The very first day of class, Mr. Beasy wrote his home phone number on the chalkboard. He told us that we were welcome to call him at home if we needed help. Not just wrapping our heads around whatever the current assignment was, but if we were ever in need of actual, serious help. He'd be there, however he could be. There was just one stipulation: there were to be no frivolous or crank calls, because his wife was a rape crisis counselor and he would not tolerate anyone tying up their phone line for a laugh at the expense of someone who needed to speak with his wife. I never called their home, but I did write down the number that day. Just having it in my binder the rest of that school year was comforting. It was a hell of a hole card to be able to play if needed, I felt.

Mr. Beasy lived up to every bit of hype I'd ever heard about him. He was encouraging, he was enthusiastic, he was patient, he was upbeat, and he wanted each and every single student to succeed - in his classroom, in other classrooms, in life in general.

I have two Mr. Beasy stories I want to tell.

My class period included lunch, and on one occasion, a classmate left her purse in the cafeteria before returning to his classroom. The office called his room over the PA system to summon her to retrieve it. Mr. Beasy excused her to go to the office and continued lecturing for a few moments. Then he popped his head out of the doorway to see that she'd turned the corner of the corridor and was no longer in sight. Instantly, he turned out the light in the room and instructed us all to follow him into a perpendicular hallway, where we would remain out of sight of our classmate. That's right: my science teacher used five or ten minutes to round up 30-ish 8th graders to hide from a single student just for the laugh of pranking her that she'd returned to an empty classroom.

It was like throwing a surprise party, but you yourself were surprised to even be part of it. I'll never forget the look of childlike anticipation on his face, all of us trying not to giggle at the absurdity of the moment. No other teacher I ever had would have even suggested such a thing; Mr. Beasy thought of it and did it all off the cuff. Why? Because it amused him to do it. Because he recognized the need for levity. Because he knew there was a world outside of his classroom. That episode was a complete lark, and I hope to never forget how much fun it was.

My second Mr. Beasy story isn't particularly fun for me. Playmates Toys at that time had the license to make Star Trek toys, and I owned most of them. One such toy was a role-playing toy based on the Star Trek: The Next Generation Tricorder. I periodically brought odd things to school to amuse myself and others, and one day, I brought the Tricorder. As I've already mentioned, our lunch period took place during Mr. Beasy's class. So there we were, going through the cafeteria lunch line. They were serving chili that day, and I vividly recall how it bubbled on the steam table.

I, of course, made a show of "scanning" it with the Tricorder and quipping about how findings were inconclusive or it wasn't sure what we were looking at, or some other such thing. It got a chuckle from a classmate or two, but Mr. Beasy - who was standing right next to me - was not amused.

"There are plenty of children in a lot of places around the world who wouldn't think it was funny to make fun of food," he said. He couldn't even bring himself to look me in the eye. It cut me to the quick, I can tell you.

Prior to becoming our most-sought-after science teacher, Mr. Beasy had been in the Army as I recall. He'd been around the world and seen a lot of different living circumstances. He never spoke another word to me about that moment, but I can recall now exactly how small I felt then. I've never been particularly prone to feeling shame, at least not for my sense of humor, and at that moment, the whole world seemed infinitely larger. I wondered if I would even live long enough to reach the cashier at the end of the steam table and be able to extricate myself from the disapproval of Mr. Beasy.

That was one of the most humbling moments of my life to this point. I had never been particularly "well off", but it was Mr. Beasy who first called me out on my privilege - though he never used that word, and I didn't even hear it in its social context for quite some time afterward.

We never addressed that moment ever again. I have no recollection of even feeling like it soured our relationship as teacher and student; he was just as kind to me and just as apt to laugh at my jokes after that moment as he was before. But I'm here to tell you, Dear Reader, for the rest of the time we walked through that lunch line, I felt more contemptible than at any other point in my life. I've never again made fun of the appearance of food, with the exception of my mother's homemade gravy - which even she laughs about being somewhere closer to wallpaper paste.

It takes a special kind of person to see both the humor in having an entire classroom hide from a single student, and to admonish the wayward humor of an upstart kid who needed to be taken down a peg. Mr. Bill Beasy was/is just that kind of special person, and I'll always be grateful that I was on Team B in 8th grade.