24 December 2017

The Makings of a Meltdown

I haven't blogged since August's total solar eclipse. To be honest, I forgot I'd even written that entry. I wasn't even sure I'd written anything this entire year. I've had less to say, and less belief that there is any value in anything I have to say. I'm told that there is, though, or at least that I don't get to decide that there isn't, so I thought I'd take a moment to share something from my current experience in case it may be of some use to you, Dear Reader.

In case you're new to my blog, first of all, welcome! Secondly, I want to emphasize that nothing I am about to share is anything I believe to be unique to me. On the contrary, I'm sharing precisely because I know so many others have their own version of my experience. It's that common thread that I wish to address. I hope maybe you'll find something helpful in hearing a different perspective on that shared experience, but if nothing else, maybe you'll take some small comfort just in knowing that someone else shares it with you. And if by chance none of this applies to you, I'm willing to bet it applies to someone you know, and again, I hope you might get something useful out of what I have to share.

Holidays used to be enjoyable for me. Halloween was sort of the prologue, with Thanksgiving the end of Act I, Christmas the end of Act II, and New Year's Eve the finale. My birthday is 1 December, so sometimes it's been lumped in with the Thanksgiving extravaganza and sometimes it's felt like a sort of interlude. There's a certain kind of energy and momentum throughout the months of November and December that I've always felt corresponded to this structure. I used to think it was just something I thought of as a kid because of the school calendar and looking forward to those breaks, but I've found it to be true all the way to the present day.

If anything, that energy and momentum have intensified as I've aged, to the point that I find these entire two months unbearable.

I recently discussed the matter with my therapist, who floated the notion that I may perhaps have Seasonal Affective Disorder ("SAD"). I allowed that maybe that's true, but that it was worth noting that the things about the holidays that weigh on me most have nothing to do with how much sunlight there is. I could live in Australia, where it's bright and warm this time of year, and still be left with the same things that overwhelm me here. The weather does get to me, certainly; after twelve years of steroids, the cold has become brutal for me, and of course all the airborne maladies that circulate that my worthless immune system can't handle are frustrating and isolating.

But none of that is what weighs heavily on my mind this time of year.
What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?
-Ebeneezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Stave One
I've had suicidal thoughts since I was 9, so clearly my mental illnesses predate having developed Crohn's disease. But it is certainly true that the effects of living with Crohn's have exacerbated my mental illnesses. They used to be there, but I at least felt I had a handle on them most of the time. I was moody, certainly; I'm not trying to downplay anything. But at least I felt more or less in command of myself. I was compelled to enter inpatient treatment for suicidal depression in 2011, and again in 2015. I've only narrowly avoided it again this year, though the year isn't yet over and as I write this, it feels all but certain that I will. At this rate, I'll be hospitalized again in 2018, twice in 2019, quarterly in 2020, and by 2022, I'll be a permanent resident.

That isn't much to look forward to, Dear Reader. It's also not going to happen because there is no way Medicare is going to pay for it, and I am sincerely sorry to you the taxpayer for the financial burden of keeping me alive. It's not an investment that has paid any worthwhile dividends. All I ask is that you be mindful that while this is true of me, it is not true of other benefits recipients, and the lust for cutting those programs and hurting those recipients must be curtailed and stopped because they don't deserve to suffer.

I had one New Year's resolution in 2017, the same that I've had for the last several years, which was to finally get divorced. I won't go into why that hadn't happened yet for a marriage that effectively ended in 2011, but the pertinent part is that it finally happened this November. Holding the paperwork in my hand was largely satisfying and relieving, but there was also a part of me that felt the weight of my failure having become complete. I failed as a husband in several areas, but the underlying problem was that I had become not a provider of security, but a burden and a liability. I couldn't fault her for wanting out of a life under these conditions.

She has since moved on and built a life free from these constraints. I'm sure there are difficulties in that relationship, just as there are in all relationships, but whatever they are, they don't include the things that were imposed on her by being stuck with me. I, however, remain fixed in place (if anything, deteriorating). My prospects for happily ever after require willful self-deception at this point.

I was feeling the severest impact of that finality going into Thanksgiving. I declined all of the invitations that had been graciously extended to me by my friends. I should take a moment to emphasize that "friend" is the only f-word I use sparingly. I have strictly delineated tiers of "acquaintances", "pals", and "friends". And in truth, the friends that I refer to throughout this blog post aren't even friends anymore; they've become my family, dearer to me than most people with whom I share DNA. I make no secret about that.

I canceled on plans to get together with them that weekend. I canceled my birthday plans, which would also have included them. I deactivated my Twitter account. I deleted the Facebook page I'd set up for myself as a "writer". I took sleeping pills as soon as I woke up to knock myself right back out. This went on for about a week. I am told, Dear Reader, that this is not healthy and I advise against it.

My friends, of course, know how unstable I've become, and they became concerned--alarmed, even, and justifiably so, I'm afraid. I didn't reach the point where I no longer trusted myself not to act on the thoughts and impulses to harm myself, but I stayed on that borderline for weeks on end. If you've been there yourself, you know how draining that is. If you haven't, I must ask that you take my word on it that it is exhausting in every sense.

The night of my birthday, one friend texted me to ask if I was up for some company. I thought it would be okay and said so. I knew I needed to finally open up to someone about all this, and she has become one of my closest confidantes. It became immediately apparent, though, that she was not alone. There were four friends in all, bearing no less than two boxes of doughnuts, and a gift (in direct violation of my no-gifts policy). I was touched.

I was also entirely incapable of enjoying the visit.

Seeing them all there so unexpectedly provoked the fear that they were there to stage some kind of depression intervention. It set off the defense mechanism I developed ages ago that I call The Entertainer. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what we talked about for the two hours that they were here. I'm vaguely aware that I did a lot of the talking and that there was a lot of laughing, which is, of course, the entire purpose of The Entertainer. Mentally, though, I wasn't there with them. I wasn't anywhere. I had shut down, and I didn't have conscious thoughts until well after they'd all left. I feel awful that I was so fake with them that night. They certainly deserved better.

There comes a point in every struggle where we reevaluate what we're doing and why we're doing it, and ask whether what we're doing it for is worth what we're having to do for it. I've had to ask myself often whether surviving the latest depressive episode just to return to a status quo existence that I've come to resent is any kind of victory at all. Even on my best days, I am acutely aware that my body may very well turn against me without warning at any moment. I can never feel entirely comfortable or even safe; I live in genuine fear over every bite of food I take, wondering if that will be the one that causes a blockage and sends me into surgery.

Hanging over all of this is the socio-political climate in which Republicans now control both houses of Congress and the executive branch (and effectively, the Supreme Court). One of the central tenets of their entire ideology is the gutting of the very programs that sustain me, and millions like me. To hear Republicans tell it, people like me are living high off the hog at the expense of decent people. There is nothing luxurious about poverty, Dear Reader. Again, you may well know this yourself from your own experiences. How can I believe anyone who tries to disabuse me of my perception of myself as a burden when an entire political party has committed itself to culling our great society of the leeching that I perpetrate on all of you?

So there I am two nights ago at my friends' annual Christmas party. I hadn't given any gifts for Christmas in several years, but I did bring some this time. They were things of my own that I hoped they might like. I struggled with the embarrassment that these were not new gifts. Intellectually, I knew it would not offend anyone, but inwardly I was certain they would all be underwhelmed and disappointed. I grew more self-conscious by the minute, to the point that I sincerely contemplated putting them all back into my backpack since no one had seen me put them under the tree in the first place, so no one knew that I'd even brought most of them. (There were two that did not fit into my backpack; I couldn't do anything to hide or deny those.)

Conversation quickly turned to a string of topics that I knew nothing about. I wasn't going to hijack anyone's discussion because poor little Travis felt left out; that was stupid. I was doing okay for awhile, though, certain that an opening would present itself. It didn't.

Instead, a couple of acquaintances showed up. One of them, I am embarrassed to admit, makes me feel especially inferior and inadequate. It's not his fault; he's never said or done anything to make me feel this way, and I know in the back of my mind that if he knew that I felt this way around him, he would feel terrible about it and want to make me feel better.

He reminds me a lot of what I used to be. He's interesting, he's fun, he's upbeat. I used to be the life of the party, regaling everyone with anecdotes and jokes, trying to direct or redirect the energy of the night, while also making a point to seek out the introverts and make them feel comfortable away from that energy. I'm an amivert, so I can shift between the two extremes of leading the conga line and hiding in a corner. I've done both at the same party.

Having this guy around is like looking at a sort of alternate reality. I still have anecdotes and jokes, but they're ones everyone has heard a thousand times. They don't even need me there to tell them anymore; I'm sure they can hear them all in their heads by rote. When I talk about things, they're things that I used to do. When he talks about things, they're things he's either just done or is about to do. In short, he exposes me for the has-been I've become. (And again, this is not at all his fault!)

I retreated to another room, to try to calm myself with meditation. I can do that in crowded, noisy settings, so it wasn't the fool's errand that it may seem. I couldn't do it this time, though, and instead devolved into a mild meltdown. I tried to text some other friends, hoping that could bring me some focus and help ground myself. Nope. I felt increasingly worse as time passed. According to the time stamps on those messages, I spent more than an hour of the two that I was at the party sitting alone. If anyone took notice of my absence, it didn't prompt them to look for me. And in truth, I don't know that they weren't aware of me and hadn't decided to just give me some space to myself.

I should take a moment to emphasize here for anyone who was present that night that I don't begrudge any of you for enjoying yourselves! I know no one there wanted me to feel the way I did, and I know that this is all on me. I'm the one with the screwed up filter and I'm the one who reacted by hiding instead of making an effort to engage. I haven't shared any of this for the purpose of making anyone feel any kind of guilt.

I have, however, shared all of this for the purpose of illustrating what can go into a meltdown. All of this has swirled around inside me even in the company of people whose devotion to me is beyond reproach. These are people whom I love, and who I know love me; people with whom I feel the safest and most comfortable. And even in their midst, these are the kinds of thoughts and feelings I've had to endure for the last month and a half.

I don't know what you experience in the way of meltdowns, Dear Reader. Maybe you've never had one in your life to this point. Maybe you can scarcely recall a time when you weren't trying to get through one. You're probably somewhere between those two extremes, though. And so, I suspect, are the people around you. People you love, as my friends love me.

This brings us to the Moral of the Story wrap-up. If you identify with what I've shared here, my message to you is to try to be patient with yourself, and to try to trust the relationships that you've built with the people around you. Despite what depression may tell you, they do value you. You're not a holdover from days gone by they've been too polite to ditch.

If, however, you identify less with me and more with my friends, I suppose all I can hope for is that maybe this gives you a little better understanding of what may be going on beneath the surface. They may at times react in ways that look like they don't value your relationship, whether by being superficial or withdrawing entirely. Please try to be patient with them, and trust the relationship that you've built with them. Despite what their outward behavior may tell you, they do value you. You're not trivial to them.

24 August 2017

Total Eclipse of the Hope

I thought I had already written a post that addressed this subject, but it turns out I'd only touched on it in various other pieces. Since it's fresh on my mind (it's still ongoing right this moment), and since I have been encouraged to resume writing, here we are, Dear Reader.

This Monday (21 August 2017) brought a total solar eclipse to Hopkinsville, Kentucky. One of my friends (a brother, truthfully) was so gung ho about it that he booked a cabin months ago for the occasion and invited pretty much everyone he'd ever been in an elevator with to come share the experience. I'll be candid; I had no interest in the eclipse. Those few minutes were kinda neat, but if my guts had conspired against me and kept me from witnessing it, I would not have been fazed or disappointed.

No, I went for the opportunity to spend time in the company of loved ones I've not gotten to see much of in 2017. I fell into a months-long depression after the election in November. I may elaborate on that in a future post, but at the moment it's sufficient merely to establish the continuity of this post. Beginning in April, my physical health joined my mental health in misery. My useless immune system could not fend off some kind of bug. This went on for the better part of three months, during which I was frequently bedridden, living off Pedialyte, Jell-O, and sporadic mashed potatoes. Any spoonie can attest that this physical state will exacerbate any existing depression. That was certainly true for me this go round.

I arrived in Hopkinsville in good spirits. A little queasy, but mentally upbeat. I attended a screening of Eclipses and the Phases of the Moon, at the end of which we were treated to some bonus content, including a laser show set to Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" (which we were told was not included in the full Pink Floyd laser show program, so that was neat). I struggled to stave off dehydration, but lots of Pedialyte helped (thanks again for that suggestion, Dallas!). We played a round of mini-golf at Maggie's Jungle Golf, a whimsical place populated by statues of critters indigenous to the jungle, including African elephants and lions. Mini-golf is one of my all-time favorite activities, and that was 100% an indulgence on the part of my friends, who otherwise would not have even thought to bother looking for a place to play.

I even got to spend some one-on-one time with one particular friend who has an uncanny ability to make me feel good regardless of what state I'm in when we begin. I treasure every minute I get to spend in her company, and I was fortunate to get to spend quite a few such minutes. I was inspired to sketch a tree where she and I holed up for about half an hour, just talking. I used a set of brush pens another friend generously send me awhile ago. I was pleased with how the sketch turned out. It's curious, but for once I feel too protective of a piece I've done to share it publicly. I dunno why that is, but I feel too protective of it right now. Maybe at a later date, I'll upload it here.

Anyway, all of this brings me to the point at hand, which is that many, if not most, people seem to believe that depressive episodes are brought on by unpleasant experiences. That can be true for me, but so too is what I have experienced since I returned home. A great experience can also activate the depression that remains dormant just under the surface for me.

I remember two years ago, when I was on a fantastic Johnny Cash-themed road trip with a friend. By pure happenstance, a Crohnie pal of mine was visiting Memphis at the same time we were rolling into town to tour Sun Records. We rendezvoused for lunch. My pal was picking my brain about suicidal ideation. I told her that good experiences do not nullify those thoughts. In fact, I was having them while we were eating. I suppose it's the showman in me, mindful of the value of "going out on top". I struggle with this whenever I feel good about things just as I struggle with it when things are awful.

The last few days have resurrected the worries that harangued me throughout my Year of Hell (October 2010-October 2011). I withdrew from just about everyone then. I had become convinced that they only still included me in anything at all out of a sense of obligatory politeness. I feel I'm merely riding the coattails of the loyalty established between us long ago when I was still healthy and a meaningful contributor. That hasn't been true of me for a decade now. I can't keep up with my friends. Not financially, and not even physically. I used to be the one who had to slow down to remain in pace while walking with others. Now I'm the holdup.

I have been consumed these last few days with self-loathing. I'm a burden to my friends who are too polite to just tell me so directly. They would have a more enjoyable time without having to accommodate me. They want to avoid even inviting me to outings, and they hope when they do let slip that something is going on that I won't impose myself on them. And, of course, there's the ubiquitous certainty that they'll all be better off without me. I should withdraw from them and spare them the hassle.

Intellectually, I know none of this is as I see it right now. I do not question for a moment that these are people who genuinely love me (a love I hope they know is sincerely reciprocated). I'm not sharing these thoughts to try to bait anyone into trying to convince me how wrong I am to think this way. I am, however, sharing these thoughts so that those of you who are still trying to learn about depression might take away from my experience some new insight. Perhaps you, too, experience this phenomenon. In that event, I hope maybe it helps to know it isn't unique to you, that there are others like you whose brains aren't content with organic upsetting experiences and have to manufacture them out of the good ones, too.

02 August 2017

The Unforgivable Pete Rose

During the summer of 1989, Arby's and WDRB, the Louisville Fox TV affiliate, ran a promotion to win tickets to a Cincinnati Reds game. The visiting team was the Atlanta Braves. I was a Reds fan, my baby brother was (is) a Braves fan. We and our mom all signed up for the raffle. Amazingly, my name was drawn and we all got to go!

[I am not allowed to tell this anecdote without mentioning that the morning of the game, my mother had a horrible migraine and wanted nothing more than to stay home in dark silence and puke her guts up, but endured sheer agony on our behalf.]

We convened with all the other raffle winners at Mall St. Matthews to board two Greyhound buses. I was, to put it mildly, stoked. A guy in charge of the whole operation took notice of my enthusiasm. He came over and started chatting, and then asked me if I would like to go down on the field before the game. I have no idea how I responded, other than to say that it was in the affirmative. When we got to the ballpark, we made a mad dash to the nearest souvenir shop so I could buy a baseball to take with me to get signed. My mom even had the presence of mind to buy a ball holder to keep it safe and clean.

There were two other boys who had been selected for this once in a lifetime experience. It was a bit like getting a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka's factory. We went into parts of the stadium otherwise off-limits to fans. We took an elevator down to the clubhouse and quickly walked through to the field. The Reds were still taking batting practice. We were introduced to a few players, all of whom indulged us and chatted for a moment or two and signed our baseballs. Dave Collins. Chris Sabo. Even Eric Davis, whose swing was by far my favorite to try to emulate.

Then we were led to the dugout to meet the Reds manager, the Hit King himself: Peter Edward Rose. No one in my lifetime has loomed as large in the world of baseball as him. He could have blown us off. He could have even been polite about it and said something like, "I'd love to chat, but I'm trying to get ready for this game." We would certainly have understood that. Instead, he invited us to come over and took questions. He asked us questions. He signed all our baseballs, shook our hands, made us feel like true VIP's.

Shortly thereafter, Rose was banned from baseball for having violated the game's policy against gambling. Like others of my region and generation, I've always defended Rose. No one has yet presented any evidence that he bet against the Reds. There have been insinuations that maybe he did, but nothing has been demonstrated to affirm it. So far as I've ever been concerned, the integrity of the games in which he had the ability to affect the outcome was not compromised and that's been good enough for me.

Last year, the Reds inducted him into their team's Hall of Fame and retired his #14 jersey number. I went to the final game of that weekend, the day they retired his number. I went with two of my oldest friends. In fact, we were all teammates in 1990, the only season of Little League I ever played. That's how far back we go, and baseball was what brought us together in the first place. It was as much a celebration of our friendships as it was of Rose. My physical health was cooperative for most of that day, though it was unbearably hot and I had to retreat to the cooler indoors part of Great American Ball Park for the final two innings. Still, a glorious day!

I've just finished reading a New York Times article, though, that has truly gutted me. In it, I have learned that during Rose's time as a player, he had a sexual relationship with a girl who at the time was under the age of consent--which was just 16 then. He has readily admitted that he did have this relationship, though he maintains she had turned 16 already.

Suppose for a moment that I believed his version (which I don't). This sexual relationship took place during the 1970's. Let's be as generous as possible and say it was 1970. He's telling us he was 29 years old and thought it appropriate to have sex with a 16 year old girl? No. No, I can't go along with that. The NYT piece goes on to mention that this was not Rose's only such transgression:
Monday's filing also included an excerpt from the 1991 book "Collision at Home Plate: The Lives of Pete Rose and Bart Giamatti," in which James Reston Jr. wrote about Rose having a 14-year-old girlfriend, and allegations from the former USA Today reporter Jill Lieber Steeg in a 2000 SportsCenter documentary that Rose had a sexual relationship with a high schooler.
How the hell I managed to miss both the 1991 book and the SportsCenter doc, I have no idea, but I did. By 1991 I'd lost most of my interest in baseball, so I may well have seen the book for sale, but I would have walked right past it to the Star Trek paperbacks. I was certainly following SportsCenter in 2000, though, so it's genuinely surprising to me that I would have missed that.

I can't explain how I missed it, but I can understand how I managed to not hear about it after it was broadcast. It's true that we collectively do have some kind of fixation on tearing down public figures, but it's also true that we have collectively protected the sexual predators among us. Look no further than Bill Cosby, whose predatory acts had attracted some attention ages ago and then been promptly dismissed out of hand and covered up so thoroughly that many of us had even forgotten we had, in fact, once been warned about what he was doing.

You may recall, Dear Reader, that two years ago, I shared in this blog that I had experienced what I euphemistically refer to as "an incident" in my childhood. Rose must surely have benefited from that same protectionism as Cosby, because there is no conceivable way I would ever have heard such a thing and ever forgotten it. Hearing about it today is upsetting enough; hearing about it before I'd finally begun to address and work through my trauma in the last few years would have been overwhelming for me.

It gets worse, though. The NYT piece continues:
Years later, during a 2015 radio interview, [John] Dowd [the special prosecutor whose investigation exposed Rose's gambling in 1989] said that a memorabilia dealer, Michael Bertolini, had stated that Rose had girls as young as 12 brought to him during spring training. Bertolini denied telling Dowd this, and last year Rose sued for defamation.
I haven't had TV service in a few years, so I've not kept active with the Reds or anything else to do with baseball. But this was recent enough that again, I'm at a loss to explain how this failed to come to my attention. There was no social media to be sure that the SportsCenter revelation was passed around, but in 2015 this radio interview aired and nothing ever came across my Facebook or Twitter feeds?

Had I been aware of any of this, there is no way I would have ever agreed to have gone to his jersey retirement ceremony last year. And yes, it does sour me on the experience that I had in my youth that I shared at the opening of this post. This is where it would be fashionable for me to claim that Pete Rose has now ruined my childhood. Except, he didn't ruin mine. He ruined the childhood and teenhood of his victims.

There will surely be defenders who will want to argue that I don't know definitively what happened; that without a conviction, it's just hearsay; that even if he was convicted, that it would still be separate from what he accomplished as a player. I wrote a few years ago another piece, Rape Is More Than Legalese. I would encourage you to take a look at that in its entirety, Dear Reader, but I will leave you here with the final thought from it:
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 hope that the woman who has come forward recently, any of the survivors implied in the other things reported by the New York Times piece, and anyone we don't know about, are all able to find some peace and to heal. They're the ones who matter in this; not the preservation of hero worship from those of us who grew up admiring the guy who set the all-time Major League Baseball record with 4192 career hits, and certainly not Rose. He didn't deserve to be our hero, and the survivors damn sure did not deserve for him to be their villain.

04 April 2017

Princess Josephine, 10/16/2006 - 3/30/2017

Four years ago, I wrote about how my cat Josephine came into my life. It breaks my heart to now have to write about how she left it last Thursday (30 March). I wrote this originally in a Facebook post that evening, primarily as a means of informing as many of my family and friends all at once as I could, sparing me from having to type it out repeatedly. I haven't been able, however, to bring myself to write a blog post about her. I don't know why I should distinguish between the two, as though somehow whatever I write on Facebook is inferior to what I would write here. That curiosity is for another time, though. For now, I've just chosen to copy and paste because there really isn't much for me to add.

My favorite picture of Josephine.
Josephine had exhibited nothing whatsoever to indicate anything was wrong, so her passing was entirely unexpected. Her behavior up to the time I went to bed was completely typical. She was energetic, had an appetite, was affectionate as ever.... I need to believe that whatever happened, happened suddenly and that she was spared any suffering.

Almost every night for the last decade, Jos has purred me to sleep. When I haven't felt well and was whiny, I'd beg her to come to bed just so I could fall asleep. Time and again, she would dutifully come tend to me, even when I could tell she just wanted to get back up and go do whatever it was she wanted to do. When I've been inpatient, whether for Crohn's or mental issues, I've relied on the muscle memory of snuggling with her to coax myself into sleep.

She really was a soulmate, and I mean that in its truest sense. We just belonged together. She made me feel accepted and loved in ways that no one else has; no other pet, and not even any human. I don't mean to slight anyone when I say this.

She was amazingly patient with me. I would pick out her eye crusties. Sometimes I would muss with her head, as I did on our final night together, just to see how much she would tolerate. I always gave up before she did. She could not have been more docile (unless you ask Muffin, whom she unfortunately and surprisingly did take to bullying over the last year and a half).

Jos was so close to me that my absence was a source of separation anxiety for her. Even just going upstairs set off a timer for her, and when it expired, she would mew until I finally returned. She didn't really need me to do anything to make her feel better except just to have me back in her field of vision. That was enough to content her.

I'm still too stunned to feel much of anything else. I feel an expected emptiness which I know the passage of time will help alleviate. I can't imagine, though, that going to bed will ever not feel empty after this loss.

My imagination was entirely right about that last point. Going to bed has been truly painful. That first night, I tried clutching a throw pillow. I threw it after maybe a full minute, rejecting the unacceptable substitute for my princess. I can get through being awake okay-ish, but even the act of physically getting into bed is agonizing. I haven't been able to fall or stay asleep for days now.

Jos indulging my by wearing an elf hat, Christmas, 2011.
Note: I have no idea when Josephine was actually born. 16 October is her "birthday (observed)", as that is the day that the incident involving Josephine Baker, for whom she was named, took place. This is recounted in the piece I mentioned in my opening remarks that I wrote about her a few years ago. I'll spare you having to scroll back up for the link in case you're interested. It's right here.

08 February 2017

Senator Rand Paul on the Confirmation of Betsy DeVos

I wrote recently in this blog about my concerns of the nomination of Betsy DeVos to the cabinet position of Secretary of Education. I included the content of the letter I sent to Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul in that post. I was unable to get through to Senator McConnell's offices, but I was able to get through to Senator Paul's. I recited the content of my letter to the receptionist. I knew that was unnecessary, but I hoped it might be cathartic to know someone in that office had to actually listen to my words. I received no such catharses. Both Senators voted to confirm DeVos, over the objections of so many protests that phone lines were either overwhelmed or shut down entirely. Senator Paul sent the following email:

February 7, 2017

Dear Mr. McClain,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding the nomination and confirmation of Elisabeth "Betsy" DeVos to become Secretary of Education. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on her nomination. 
Providing advice and consent on personnel appointments and nominations is one of the most important duties of the United States Senate. As I have in the past, I carefully evaluate each nominee on the basis of their record, qualifications and their demonstrated commitment to upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution. Like you, I believe it is critically important to place only the most qualified individuals in positions of such importance.
Mrs. Betsy DeVos was nominated by President Donald Trump on November 23, 2016. Following a nomination hearing on January 17, 2017, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee reported the nominee favorably by a vote of 12-11. Mrs. DeVos is a school-choice advocate, philanthropist, and pillar in the education reform community. Mrs. DeVos and I share the belief that when it comes to education, the federal government has been more of a hindrance than a help. Her emphasis on the provision of choice to administrators, teachers, and parents refocuses us as a nation towards the children we are educating. Therefore, I voted to confirm Mrs. DeVos as the Secretary of Education in the HELP Committee and on the Senate floor. On February 7, 2017, Secretary DeVos' nomination was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 51-50.
Again, thank you for contacting my office. It is an honor and a privilege to represent the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the United States Senate. For more information on these topics as well as my many other legislative initiatives, feel free to visit my website at www.paul.senate.gov.


          Rand Paul, MD
          United States Senator 

26 January 2017

On Kentucky Senate Bill 48

Senate Bill 48 was introduced three weeks ago, but I only just learned about it. Here's the official summary (emphasis mine):
     Amend KRS 173.480, relating to public library districts' initial board appointments, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint the first members of the newly created library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.490, relating to public library districts, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint members or fill vacancies of the library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.725, relating to petition-created library districts' initial board appointments, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint the first members of the newly created library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable; amend KRS 173.730, relating to library districts created by petition, to allow a county judge/executive with the approval of the fiscal court to appoint members or fill vacancies of the library board when any of the prospective appointees presented to the judge, in the judge's opinion, are not suitable.
Maybe I've been made skittish by the pushes by Republicans in other states, like North Carolina and North Dakota, and maybe it's a residual effect of having read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but when I read a bill placing library boards at the mercy of a county judge/executive's "opinion" about who is "suitable", I become apprehensive. To that end, I've written a letter to my state senator, which I've seen fit to republish here.

Senator Harris,

I am a constituent of yours and I am writing you concerning Senate Bill 48, pertaining to library boards. Specifically, the bill would allow county judges/executives to replace board members when, "in the judge's opinion, are not suitable" (directly quoted from several passages in said bill).

This smacks of partisan efforts to exert control over our public libraries, not to support our librarians, but to micromanage them to suit the ideological whims of county executives. The danger of implicit censorship could not be clearer.

In Oldham County, we have been blessed with a fantastic library system. To a person, the staff has been consistently insightful and helpful for as long as I've been going, which dates back to my childhood in the early 80's. Our librarians work hard to understand and meet the needs of our community. SB48, by its very existence, denies that and threatens to remove from them the autonomy under which they have operated to date.

I ask that you stand with our librarians and oppose SB48. Let your colleagues know that their efforts need to be put to work securing reliable, affordable health care and bringing quality jobs to the state, and not in trying to micromanage a community system that has flourished without their intervention.

Travis McClain

I would encourage all Kentuckians to take a few moments to dash off a message to their state senators and ask them to reject SB48. You can find your senator here.

19 January 2017

On the Confirmation of Betty DeVos as Education Secretary

There is a call to action from citizens to urge their Senators to vote not to confirm President-Elect Trump's nominee for Education Secretary, Betty DeVos. You can join the effort here. I wrote a letter to my Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. I've decided to make it an open letter by also publishing it here.

More effective than writing letters, though, is to actually call your Senators' offices. Letters can be ignored, but phones have to be answered! You can find your state's Senators' contact numbers on the official Senate website's directory here. As of this update, only three more Senators are needed to commit to rejecting DeVos's confirmation. It's doable, but the clock is ticking!

I am a constituent who grew up in Oldham County. Our schools have been fantastic, to the point of leading numerous families to defect from Louisville to see that their children had the best possible education opportunity they could provide.

I went on to complete my bachelor's studies at the University of Louisville, where I was one of only nine students in my graduating class to major in history and graduate cum laude or better. I saw time and again while I was in those classrooms that my education in Oldham County had brilliantly prepared me for college.

At times, I have certainly felt sorry for my fellow Kentuckians who didn't have the same opportunity I enjoyed. There is no question whatsoever that our education system has room for improvement.

To that end, like several of my closest friends, I intended to go into teaching myself. As I was preparing for my senior year at UofL, though, I developed Crohn's disease. I quickly learned that it isn't compatible with the classroom even as a student, and I was dissuaded from even trying to earn my Master's, let alone becoming a teacher myself. That breaks my heart every day, I can assure you.

But I know the character and caliber of my friends and their colleagues. They *are* making a difference in their various schools, from preschool to high school, teaching math, language arts, music, social studies, science, art, and special needs. They are singularly devoted to their students, and in seeing to it that every child they teach is engaged, inspired, supported, and aided in his or her journey. It is difficult work, to be sure, which is why they need the support of a Secretary of Education who understands and appreciates the demands, responsibilities, and ambitions of that work.

I am writing you now regarding the nomination of Betty DeVos to become our next Education Secretary.

I recognize that Mrs. DeVos has taken a keen interest in our education system, but that interest is insufficient qualification for such an instrumental posting. Like millions of other concerned citizens, I followed her confirmation hearing closely. I was dismayed by her refusal to commit to protecting the rights of disabled and LGBTQ students.

I am similarly bothered by her conspicuous avoidance when asked whether she would continue to uphold Title IX, particularly in regard to its application to address the very serious matter of campus sexual violence.

Our students deserve better than the glib "vision" that Mrs. DeVos has put forth. They deserve to attend schools that are given clear leadership and necessary support from the Education Secretary. Their teachers deserve that same leadership and support. Mrs. DeVos has demonstrated that she does not understand or value those needs, and as your constituent, I respectfully urge you to use your vote to tell the incoming President to find another nominee for the post who deserves to occupy it.

With respect,

Travis S. McClain

27 December 2016

In Memoriam: Carrie Fisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


20 December 2016

Let's Talk About PTSD and Coloring Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let that sink in.

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

And that brings me back to Lady Gaga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 December 2016

Post-Election Helplessness: The Beginning of the End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 October 2016

Marian Edington, 1927-2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01 October 2016

"Star Trek: The Astral Symphony"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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