Sunday, December 08, 2019

New article at American Thinker: My six months at Amazon

The days after Thanksgiving once signaled training season for Christmas caroling. Recent years have instead heralded the shrieks of entire choruses of Maynard G. Krebs: “Work?!?”

The past few weeks have been no different and once again the squalls of disdain have almost invariably diffused from those tan arcologies of Internet commerce: the Amazon Fulfillment Centers.

Well, for a good chunk of the past year I was an associate in one of those very centers.  I am not employed or affiliated with Amazon at present and don't foresee that changing anytime soon.  Nobody from the company is paying me or giving me some kind of perk (and I'd refuse free Amazon Prime on general principles if Mr. Bezos himself extended the offer).  I’m not trying to curry favor and I don’t cotton to anyone.

But I would have done this anyway: provide a perspective that may differ wildly from what a lot of people have remarked about working in one of Amazon's distribution warehouses.

So all that being said, my first published article in over a year is up at American Thinker today"Six Months at an Amazon Fulfillment Center" says what it means and means what it says.  Half of a year on the floor, and I ended up being involved in everything from stowing merchandise to loading outbound trucks.  It also meant being there throughout the entire "Peak Season": Black Friday through Christmas Eve.

A snippet from the article:
My primary mission was stowing. It means pushing a cart of merchandise around the warehouse, finding bin space that a product can fit in, using a laser scanner on the bar codes and then physically moving the item into the bin. The facility’s inventory system was at all times tracking the associate’s rate of work as well as accuracy. Several times during the night the rates were posted so that each employee could see how he or she was faring. And as many who have written about working at Amazon have already noted, the managers are looking hard at those rates… 
My stowing during those first few weeks? Abysmal. In fact, I was the very worst of the lot from our orientation group. Getting fired would be a decision born within the circuitry of the Amazon master computer somewhere in Seattle, not any human judgment. My career came a few steps too close to ending during that first month or so.
What happened next? Did the rates rise? Or did your friend and humble narrator get a pink slip from the Amazon cluster-processoring mainframe thingy?!  Mash down here and find out!

The perfect commentary

Whenever I look at the news lately this image keeps springing into mind:

That's from Mel Brooks' woefully under-rated Silent Movie.

Then again, real life is looking more and more like a Mel Brooks production.  Isn't it?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanksgiving 2019 Gratitude Post

It's Thanksgiving Day so you know what that means: today we appreciate what we already have, so that tomorrow on Black Friday we will fight for things we don't really need.

I have had a love-hate relationship with Thanksgiving, for a complexity of reasons.  It's the materialism that comes afterward that especially disgusts me.  Once upon a time, the day after Thanksgiving could be a time of wonder and good cheer.  It was perfect people-watching season, and in general those people were nicer and more considerate to one another.  But those days are gone and in its place are hordes of zombies out of The Walking Dead hungry for brains bargains and banging on store windows hours ahead of opening time and... why are stores even opening on midnight after Thanksgiving anyway?!?

(That's a run-on sentence.  Miss Jones, forgive me.)

There.  That's my rant about Black Friday for the year.  No clever posts about "Seasons Beatings", I promise.

On the other hand, Thanksgiving is a great triumph for me.  And I'll tell you why.  It's because when I was growing up, Thanksgiving really did become something to dread.  Some people in my family turned it into a vicious occasion for insults and put-downs and somehow I always seemed to be the one most on the receiving end of it.  Who was most responsible for that, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.  Suffice to say however, the stereotypical "ruined Thanksgiving"...

...yeah, that was mine.  That was the hell I had to endure year after year after year, because of some who I recognize now were genuine psychopaths and generally mean individuals who didn't care for the real meaning of Thanksgiving.

So finally came the day when I took it back.  Made it my turn.  When I took Thanksgiving and had it never be a cause for fear again.  I did something that inadvertently made them grateful that I was really there, and not just the proverbial "kid at the card table".

Because I came to be the one who could deep-fry the turkey that they suddenly became very glad they were enjoying in all its juicy succulent glory.  Nobody in the family had ever done anything like that before.  The years of dry meat were vanquished.  Chris and his crazy dangerous stunt provided a meal that one family member quietly told me was the best Thanksgiving dinner that he/she had ever enjoyed.  And suddenly Chris was the one the family was always looking to for providing the turkey on Thanksgiving and then at Christmas too.

I had taken back Thanksgiving.  It's my holiday now.  And maybe I appreciate it better than some, who will remain anonymous for their own sake.  Thanksgiving is not a time for airing of grievances among loved ones or political disputes or making game plans for when the big boxes' doors swing wide open (and that is the last I'll say for this year)...

I've seen all of those and more and they disgust me.

But I'm not going to harbor on those anymore.  I've said my piece, for anyone who might glean some wisdom from those words.

No, I want to get back to something that too many have forgotten and that I will confess that I have neglected in recent years: the real reason for Thanksgiving.

America is unique among all nations, perhaps.  Although there have been some, like our friends in Canada and Liberia (where I am told the Southern accent is spoken most beautifully) who have adopted the custom.  We created a holiday to render thanks for blessings we have accumulated but far from deserve.  I like to believe that those blessings come about from the grace of God, or divine Providence, or whatever else you want to call some higher source of righteousness.

Minor theology aside, it was George Washington who signed a declaration of thanksgiving in 1789 (you can read the original text by clicking the image).  It was variously and sundrily renewed and re-invigorated throughout the the next century and a half until Franklin Roosevelt more or less "codified" it in 1939.  And so it has been a day to render gratitude ever since.

It is a day that, I must lament, I have been lax in my own duty toward.

The past number of years did take a toll on my thankfulness.  But it's a funny thing about this past week.  I found myself looking around and, for all that could still be better, I've more reason to be thankful than I have in a very, very long while.  And maybe it's time to render honor to God for that.  Because in my better moments (which might be coming more and more) I can indeed thank God for those blessings.

So I'm going to try to start a tradition on The Knight Shift: one that has been too long overdue.  I'm going to compose a list of things I'm thankful for, and try to follow through on it for as long as this blog stays on the air (almost sixteen years already!).

Without further ado, here is my Thanksgiving 2019 Gratitude Post...

I am thankful to have, for the first time in my life, a home to truly call my very own.  Y'all should see the giant Fallout poster that I hung in my living room last night.  Just what this place needed: Vault Boy giving his iconic "thumbs-up" to meet the day with.

I am thankful for my (still fairly new) job, and for team members and supervisor, who are more gracious than I merit and can roll with me when I'm having an "off" day.  They also, it bears mentioning, totally rock!

Part and parcel with that, I am thankful for my training and certification as a peer support specialist.  Maybe I'll stop being cheap and finally get that sheepskin hung on my office wall soon.

I am thankful for my miniature dachshund Tammy, who guards the place while I'm gone and persists in being my F.L.A.W. (fuzzy little attention whore).  She has also, it goes without saying, been a most faithful and trusty companion through many adventures and I'm looking to many more with her.

I am thankful for my new turkey fryer - it just arrived yesterday - that will at least be making Christmas dinner this year:

We're back in business bay-beeeeee!!!
I am thankful for my car, which needs to be cleaned of all the Chick-Fil-A milkshake cups that have somehow made their way into the floorboard.

I am thankful for my writing ability which seems to be coming back.  Writing has always been a gift I have tried to cultivate and further, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.  Maybe a book or two (or three)?

I am thankful that God has brought a wonderful woman into my... no wait, that hasn't happened yet.  I will be more thankful than I've ever been in the history of anything if He might still could do that.  And if you are a potential lass who I could court, write me at!

I am thankful for my iPad Pro, and all the myriad of uses that have been found for it.  Speaking of which: hey guys, Eve Echoes starts open beta next week!  Let's get our corporation going so we can get the jump on those Russian mobsters!

I am thankful that I am overcoming my fear of the kitchen and have begun cooking real food lately.  The memories of those creamed potatoes during that Boy Scout camping trip no longer haunt me.

I am thankful for good health.  Including my mental health... which, I am coming to realize, could have been much worse than bipolar disorder and PTSD.  I am not nearly enough thankful that, compared to some, I have it fairly easy.  And I hope that God never lets me forget that.

I am thankful that Star Wars seems to be back on the right track, and am hoping that in 21 days a lifetime of waiting for all nine episodes will be gloriously satisfied with The Rise of Skywalker.

I am thankful for my friends, who truly are as dear family to me.  They have been with me in the good times and have somehow endured me in the bad.  Again, a  blessing that I don't deserve but how I ended up with such amazing people in my life, I will never ever know on this side of eternity.

I am thankful for the family I am still close to.  May we have many more years of good times and great memories.

I am thankful that in the past few months, I have been able to confront and overcome some issues of my past, and stop them from hanging over me.  The first part of this post?  That's part of that process.  It was a hard thing to accomplish, but it needed it more than most will ever know.

I am thankful for one best friend's little girl, who is like a niece to me.  And I am thankful for another best friend who is soon to become a father to his own little girl.  "Uncle Chris" is gonna be playing Santa like a madman next Christmas.

I am thankful for another best friend still, who I could not have gotten to where I am today without her prayers and encouragement and, when needed, kicking my tail to help me get back on the path again.

I am thankful for new beginnings.

I am thankful that there may be be many more things to be thankful for, that are slipping my mind at this late hour.

I am thankful that God has let me get this far and I pray that He will continue to let me keep going just a little further.

I am thankful.

And I thank you for getting to the end of this post, all two of my faithful readers!

Monday, November 18, 2019

Will a forty-year old Atari 2600 work on a modern HDTV?

The notion has been bugging me for a few years now: could my old Atari 2600 - technology that's fully four decades old - be made to work on a high-def television set?  Seemingly no easy task, what with the analog connector and antenna switch box and those screws on the back of the televisions of yesteryear (that had the antenna feed either with those C-shaped ends or just bare wire).  And yet, we are talking about the grand-daddy of all home video game systems.  The forerunner of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the PlayStation, the Xbox.  Marcus Fenix may hold his own against Locusts but he never had to face down the unstoppable Evil Otto, did he?

The Atari 2600 Video Computer System was there first.  And it deserves some respect and honor.  And I decided it was time to hook it up to my high-def television, for hopefully still more years of fun and frolic.  So tonight I went to experimenting...

It turned out that it was much easier to pull off than one might expect.  In the end it was only one small part (an RF TV coaxial F plug female adapter, found in various online outlets for three to five bucks) that was needed to modify the end of the Atari's cable so that it could be run into the HDTV's coax jack.  Then it was turning on the Atari absent any cartridges, having the TV re-scan for channels so that it only detected the one for the Atari, and then turning off the console and inserting a cartridge.  Total time: about 7 minutes.

The results?  Here's a video I made of the entire procedure, including that magnificent moment when the E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial game came onscreen!  Which might be the best-ever use of the E.T. game.

Game play itself was a bit wonky.  Pitfall Harry ran straight into the scorpions and my poor little ship kept getting smashed into cosmic dust by the asteroids.  And not every game cartridge worked at all.  I'm going to assume that the cartridges; internal board and the console's slot have accumulated some dust.  Blowing or vacuuming it out should fix that problem.  And the Atari joysticks weren't as responsive as I remembered.  Or maybe I'm the one not as responsive (hey, be kind! :-)  Still, it's a nice accomplishment and I'm rather happy to have pulled it off.

Maybe next time I'll figure out how to hook up a Nintendo Entertainment System.  And play Super Mario Bros. 3 in all its original glory.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Thoughts on the premiere of STAR WARS: THE MANDALORIAN...

My friends, I know of no more proper way to put this: The Mandalorian is the best thing to happen to the Star Wars saga since the original trilogy.  For the first time in a way, waaaaaay long time there was that same sense of broad-brushed wonder that we were assaulted with in Episode IV: A New Hope.  And I started getting that vibe just within the first five minutes or so of the first episode, dubbed simply "Chapter One".

It only got better from there.  And that's beside the point of getting a canon in-universe name for the toilet (and getting to see one, something I think only Babylon 5 has shown us in the entire annals of science-fiction).  And of at last seeing what an IG droid looks like in action.  And carbon freezing up close and personal.  And that uberly cute ehhhh... "asset" in the final scene that will make Disney zillions of Mickey Bucks(tm) in moichandizing...

This is the Star Wars we needed and deserved.  If The Rise Of Skywalker next month is even half as good as The Mandalorian series after only one episode, then I will call on everyone to forgive the cinematic mis-steps of The Last Jedi (word is that George Lucas was brought in to help with the final chapter's story, so maybe the original nine episode plan will keep to The Plaid One's plan all along).  The entire heapin' franchise might at last have found its proper footing since its acquisition by Disney.  It certainly does seem that way with the gritty setting, intriguing characters, and Sergio Leone-ish tone of The Mandalorian.

Star Wars: The Mandalorian is on the new Disney+ streaming service, which pretty much busts the fabled Disney Vault wide open (though sadly Song Of The South is still lingering in a safe deposit box).  Speaking of Disney+, if you wanna have some real fun then tell your friends with the service to tell their small children that an even better movie than Frozen is something called The Black Hole.  Then sit back and enjoy the kiddies' anguished screaming!

(I suggested that on Facebook last night.  One friend privately messaged me about it: "Chris you are a sick sick monster and don't ever change"...)

Saturday, November 09, 2019

The Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago today

Here's my piece of it:

The slab of it at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum (photo taken December 21, 2016):

Oppression never lasts forever.

Christmas In Your Face!

Awright, c’mon people.  We gotta stop this.  As Barney Fife said, “Nip it in the bud!”  It’s gone on far enough.  If we don’t put an end to it now, in a few years the tinsel will start going up right around when Major League Baseball is having the all-star game.

Or maybe once again your friend and humble narrator is on the losing side of history.  Sometimes I feel like Kevin McCarthy at the end of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers: flailing arms at indifferent traffic, vainly hoping that somebody, anybody will heed the warning.

Last week was Halloween.  That afternoon I was on the highway en route to meet a client and started scanning through radio stations.  More than a few had well-curated themes for the day (“Thriller”, “Dark Lady”, even “Clap For The Wolfman” etc.).  Stopping on one channel, I was expecting to hear either “Monster Mash” or at least an Elton John hit…

Instead it was Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby”.

Practically two months before Christmas.  Four weeks before Thanksgiving.  Hours before Halloween candy was going to be doled out to the trickster-treatsters.  And already a radio station had begun holiday season music twenty-four seven.

By the end of the following work week, three stations had begun Christmas music pausing only for commercial breaks.  Those, too, have become riddled with sleigh bells ringing.

And then my Facebook feed began filling up with photos of Christmas trees going up.

Maybe it's just me, but at this point in November the only things associated with the holiday should be rehearsals and scenery for productions of A Christmas Carol

Rome wasn't built in a day.  Neither was Victorian London.
…or professional Santas needing to size up whether kids one to ninety-two have been naughty or nice:

Steampunk Santa
(Eric H. Smith, renaissance man extraordinaire)
Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez left us before their work was done.  I can see it now: A Charlie Brown Christmas Part II, with grown-up good ol’ Chuck on the sofa in his therapist’s office, lamenting how there’s too much Christmas.  And the shrink telling him “wah-wah-wah-waaaah.”

It has become a yuleslide into madness.  

What’s wrong with us?

What in a sane world should be no more than a single month of festivity has now crept across fully one-sixth of the entire year.  And now, well…

Christmas just isn’t that special anymore.

I always thought it would be something to be truly thankful for, to put up a Christmas tree with the kids no earlier than three weeks before the big day, Chipmunks singing all the while.  But Chipmunks music before Thanksgiving should be nobody’s idea of fun.

Dad used to shoot mistletoe out of trees with his rifle.  I’m not sure that mistletoe is even in season before November.

Anyone else remember the old Sears Wishbook catalogues?  How I used to ogle those beautiful two-page spreads of Star Wars toys.  Like the mirage of a distant oasis promising shade and water, and that sliver of magnificence beckoning to trudge through those three months until Christmas.  That’s all of the holidays that we had at that point on the calendar.  That’s all we needed, maybe even wanted.  Any more than that and it would not possibly have been enjoyable.  Indeed, it would have robbed from the eventual thrill.  The Wishbooks taught me in their own way that delayed gratification is a virtue.

Nobody seems to know what delayed gratification is anymore.  And that’s a tragic, tragic thing.  Waiting has become a weakness.  Patience, an alien quality.

Or maybe making Christmas come quicker is just part and parcel with our society in general.  When people are throwing tantrums about slow wi-fi and some getting literally killed for a Popeye’s chicken sandwich, something has gone terribly wrong.

Christmas should be a solid punctuation at the end of every year.  Instead it has become a vague bloated morass encroaching toward summer and spring.

Am I bearing any animosity or grudge toward those who are “getting into the Christmas spirit” way early?  No, of course not.  And if my friends and neighbors are feeling the sincere tug of the season already, well... I won't judge them.  Not at all.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize ever more so that there are very few things worth having ill will over.  Life is too short.  Way too short.

It’s just that making the Christmas season come about earlier and earlier is making the entire year go by faster and faster.  It’s making that precious lifetime even more brief.

And it would be nice if it could be stretched out and marveled at for its own sake.  Instead of what I’m coming to be persuaded that Lucy was right about: Christmas as nothing but a scheme by a big eastern syndicate.

That’s not what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Christmas shouldn't be in our faces.  It shouldn’t be worn on our sleeves this early on.  It shouldn't be in our wallets and pocketbooks.

Christmas should be in our hearts.  And what the heart pours forth so wantonly, too often becomes lesser so sacred.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

No, News & Record, most people don't care about the "Greensboro Massacre"

Despite now being a few years and several hundred miles away from my spawning grounds in Reidsville, I still tend to keep an eye on goings-on in north-central North Carolina.  Part and parcel to that is every so often visiting the website of Greensboro's News & Record... even though it's been years since that newspaper bore any semblance of objective reporting.  The decline has notably accelerated lately, along with most other "mainstream" journalism.

I guess it shouldn't have surprised me when I saw the headline of today's News & Record web edition, given the "historicity" of the anniversary.

Number-one rule of healing: you don't rip the Band-Aids off the wound.  And throughout all of recent memory the News & Record has not only yanked away the bandages, it does its damndest to keep the sore nice and festered.

It's not the best source to cite but Wikipedia has a pretty exhaustive article about "the Greensboro Massacre" that took place forty years ago today.  If you're not educated about the alleged sanctity of this occasion, here's all you really need to know:

On November 3rd, 1979, members of the Communist Workers Party and other allied groups staged a "Death to the Klan" rally in Greensboro.  And mainly, in what was widely considered the most crime-ridden part of the city: the Morningside Homes area.  The Communist Workers people had proclaimed that the Klan should "be physically beaten and chased out of town".  Some of those who participated in the rally brought guns.  Then a caravan of vehicles carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party drove down the street through the rally.  The attendees attacked the Klan cars as they passed by, banging on them with signs and bats and the like.

The Communist Workers had guns.  The Klansmen and Nazis had more and bigger guns.  The contingent of Klan vehicles stopped, its passengers opened the car trunks, and that's when the shooting began.  Here's the footage that a local television news crew filmed of the event:

Gunfire was exchanged by all sides.  After the shootout and the smoke had cleared, five members of the Communist Workers Party and their compatriots lay dead.  Several others were bleeding on the grass and alongside the curb.

Over the course of the next few years the Nazis and Klansmen most responsible for the deaths were put on trial and found not guilty (by both state and federal courts).  And those and more elements of the event are academic, already known to anyone who has seriously studied the tragedy and what led up to it.

Here's the thing though: most people don't care about the Greensboro Massacre.  Or who was involved.  Or even that five people perished that day.  Only a very small and ever-dwindling number of extremists try to keep that day entrenched in public awareness.  Well, extremists and the News & Record, of course.

What happened on November 3rd, 1979 was not the spilling of the blood of martyrs.  It was not even a real "massacre" in the classic sense of the word.  What happened that day was that two groups of people - and I note this without partiality toward either faction - were hellbent on venting hatred toward each other.  There was not going to be a happy ending.  Neither the Communist Workers or the Klansmen were going to walk away without inflicting hurt on their opposition.  People on both sides brought weapons and were set to use them.  Had it not been the Nazis and Klansmen who opened fire first, it well likely would have been the Communists and their allies who did.  It would have been the Nazis and Klansmen who died.  And might it be said that in the eyes of God that the deaths of one or the other would be the less regrettable?

It was two separate bands of fringe radicals who wanted to kill each other.  And that's all that the "Greensboro Massacre" ever was.  It was a waste of life without rationale, without sanity, and without wisdom or maturity or moral superiority that could be claimed by anyone involved that afternoon at Morningside Homes.

And it is totally without need to be chronically revisited by the city of Greensboro or imposed upon its citizens.

No, the "Greensboro Massacre" wasn't a benchmark in Greensboro history.  It is only an angry blemish, a relatively small blip in the civic annals.  No more or less than those of any other comparatively sized city.  Most regular people might shrug and move on, noting with some tinge of regret that it did transpire.

But otherwise, regular people don't care about "the Greensboro Massacre".  And they never, ever will.  It was a battle of punks and most people know that.  It was something not much different than a turf war between the Bloods and the Crips.

Because those same people recognize the shared hatred of that day and understand that there were no "good guys or bad guys" whatsoever.  Only baseless wrath and rage and any excuse whatsoever to unleash it on others.

If only they could be left alone without an overly-attentioned minority trying to rub their noses into the self-righteousness of "understanding".  There was even a "Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission" in 2005 that tried equate itself with the gravitas of the post-Apartheid hearings in South Africa.  All that it accomplished was dredging up a past that didn't particularly need to surface again.

Greensboro needs to move on from this memory of hate-fueled crossfire, in whatever sense one makes of the term.  It has no bearing on that city today, and much less on the world beyond its borders.

The hate that day was a common one.  Neither side was willing to let go of it. And for its sake, in the name of justice and party, there was shed blood and violent death.

(Chris pauses and looks around America)

Or maybe there was something to be learned from the "Greensboro Massacre" after all...

Saturday, November 02, 2019

JOKER! THE RISE OF SKYWALKER trailer! First post in four months (but I'm getting better...)!

So let's get the obvious out of the way first:

YOWZA!!!!  Maybe the greatest Star Wars trailer in all of history.  But ahhhh... will the movie deliver the goods come next month?  No other way to be honest about it: some days I find myself loving The Last Jedi and others, I find it sorely lacking.  There's just more that could have been done with the sense of pacing and time.  And spending that much time looking for one guy in a casino on the other side of the galaxy (which makes NO sense given the Resistance fleet's situation) should have been excised completely from the script.  But, it is what it is.  And this far along in the game I've gotta be loyal to the end.  The tickets for opening night of The Rise Of Skywalker were already in virtual hand two hours before the trailer premiered.  Bought 'em sight unseen.  Because, well... Star Wars.

That trailer marks a personal first for me.  Never before have I done a reaction video.  This may be the only time it happens.  So here's what occurred as I watched The Rise Of Skywalker trailer:

Now let's talk about that other film the buzz has been about...

Since catching it the first night I have seen Joker three times.  And if there is any better film so far this year it has thus far evaded my gray matter.  Do the Oscars even matter anymore?  If they do then Joaquin Phoenix should have a lock on Best Actor with his portrayal of Arthur Fleck.  And the film itself deserves the top prize for dang near every known quantity of modern cinematography.  But I need to talk about the mental illness aspect...

Some of you already know that my profession is in the mental health field.  Mainly, my role is that of peer support advocate.  I do my best to assist people with diagnosed mental disorders in leading more productive and meaningful lives.  And I do it from the perspective of one who has long had a diagnosed mental disorder: myself.  Since last time this blog was posted on I've become a trained and certified specialist in the field.  And in the lead-up to Joker it was wondered aloud by colleagues whether this was a film that I should be seeing.  I can see their point.  Indeed, I see now more than ever that their concerns were not only warranted but prescient.  There were some scenes in Joker that were like watching a biopic of my own life (but that's all that I'll divulge on that).  It wasn't so much the manic-depression that stood to be triggered as it was the complex PTSD.

It astonishes me that the triggers were there but they weren't pulled.  But as recently as a year ago, they would have been.  And I like to think that it says a lot about how far I've come as a person.  Maybe that indicates something about how much more the bipolar disorder and PTSD have come to be managed.  'Course, I can't take all the credit.  God put many people into my life who have encouraged me along the way.  Maybe my faith in Him is getting to come back, too (again, not something I'll go into for now).

The second time seeing Joker was to better digest it as a film for its own sake.  Within a few more days the movie had been seen by several others around our offices of the mental health department.  Joker has evoked more discussion in our field than a film is apt to do for any industry (well, except for how I heard that the techs at NASA were having a giggle-fit while seeing Armageddon).  And I decided that maybe with all of the conversation about mental illness as it's portrayed in this movie, that maybe I should catch it again.  And I did.  And some thoughts have been percolating about it.

So here it is: Joker is not a movie about mental illness.  At least not mental illness as is medically understood.

Let's look at Arthur Fleck with an objective eye.  He's a traumatized individual, and more than he understands at first.  But the one and only true psychiatric condition he's been diagnosed with is his uncontrollable laughter.  Including laughing at the most inappropriate times.  It makes a wreck of his life and is ruining his dream of being a stand-up comedian.  However, strip away those issues... and Arthur Fleck is basically a nice guy with no mental illness of his own.

So what does he have?  Psuedobulbar effect is a behavioral disorder.  Not a mental illness.  There is a difference between the two.  In general, mental illness can be treated.  Not so much a behavioral disorder and in that regard Arthur Fleck's situation could be much worse.  He could be a full-blown psychopath.  That he cares for his mother and for others apparently should be thorough disqualification of his having psychopathy.  Neither does he seem to demonstrate narcissistic personality problems.  The delusions he has?  Most certainly mental illness... but those only began to come about after his circumstances began to deteriorate.  Left on his own, Arthur Fleck would likely have had a shot at a fairly normal and productive life.

Except that he was born and raised in Gotham City.  By someone who wasn't the best of mothers.  And he has a behavioral issue that brands stigma upon him by a town without pity.  And then one night he takes a ride on a train...

No, Arthur Fleck has no mental illness.  He makes some mistakes, but none that would really ruin anyone else for life.  His is a behavioral disorder that otherwise has no bearing on his personality.  Which, could be argued that he's a guy with a basically good heart.  And then one bad night pulls all the triggers and he's set down the path to true madness.  Again, not really his own doing.

What is Joker about, then?  I see its moral as being much the one of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon: "Be kind to one another."

It's not mental illness per se that gives birth to the Joker in Todd Phillips' film.  It's just one bad day followed by a slew of other bad days, and it might be enough to destroy almost anyone (as Alan Moore explored in the classic Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke).  It's the toxic buildup of man's inhumanity to man, dropped upon one man who otherwise has no skin in that game.  And he utterly cracks.

With enough pressure, it might happen to almost anyone.  So no, this iteration of the Joker (one of many, since the Joker loves his past being multiple choice) isn't the spawn of mental illness.  He's not even the creation of society at large.  But he is the product of the worst of that society when good people choose to be indifferent and unwilling to be intolerant of true cruelty.

As I said earlier, Joker has led to a lot of conversation throughout the professional mental health field.  No doubt it will for quite awhile to come.  I can easily see Joker being shown and discussed in high school and college classrooms for the next twenty years, at least.  So many spheres of thought that this film encompasses: psychology, sociology, law, ethics...

Joker is a masterpiece in every sense.  And I look forward to adding it to my Blu-ray collection (which may be coming as early as next month, if rumors about those profit-savvy Warner Brothers rushing it out before Christmas hold water).

Anyhoo, all two of this blog's faithful readers might be wondering: "Chris, where you been dude?"

Mainly it's been the job I've had for seven months now.  The past few especially have been loaded with training and certification exams.  There is also the matter of how it's a new program we've been getting off the ground.  It's been an adjustment, especially mentally: juggling professional obligations with maintaining my own mind.  The past number of weeks have borne some radically positive fruit in that regard.  But across the board, results are being seen.  And there is a lot of personal satisfaction to be drawn from that... and also an honor and a privilege to be working alongside such amazing people.

So, go see Joker if you haven't already.  Brace yourself for a whole new era when Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker bows and we have saga rumors never more.  Watch this space for more posts soon!

And, be kind to one another.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Fifty years ago tonight...

"Good luck, Mister Gorsky!"

Okay, there was never a "Mister Gorsky" and Armstrong never said that.  But everyone else is posting "One small step for man..." and I just had to be the oddball tonight.

Happy Fiftieth Anniversary to Apollo 11's touchdown in Mare Tranquilitatis!

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

On the passing of H. Ross Perot

Hearing the news that Ross Perot had died earlier today was like feeling a punch to the gut of that persistent eighteen-year old in my personal nature.  Maybe it had to do with the memory of working the local Perot campaign headquarters in those heady days of fall 1992.  Located in rented space on a small shopping strip in Eden, North Carolina, at first glance it wasn't what I was expecting.  There was a shabbiness to the place.  But whatever it lacked in looks, it more than made up for it in frenetic energy.  There was a sense of unstoppable enthusiasm among all those good and wacky characters, and I must have worked at least a hundred hours there making phone calls on Perot's behalf, assembling yard signs, picking up bumper stickers to hand out...

I forget how much of a percentage Rockingham County went for Perot, but it was a fair amount.  It had less to do with our own efforts, I think, than the character and charisma of Ross Perot himself.  "Now there's a choice!" read campaign signs and many in the county took that to heart.  I certainly did, when I registered to vote the day after turning eighteen some months before.  I knew even then: Perot was going to be the one I cast a ballot for.

Maybe that's part of why to this day I'm proud that no one I've voted for President has won.  Each one of those victors in his own way made a mess of America.  And that "giant sucking sound" that Perot warned us would be jobs in these United States going south to Mexico?  He was right.  He was 1000% right.  NAFTA would never have wrecked its havoc on Perot's watch.  And for that alone, history has proven that he was more than correct.  For there was no doubting the patriotism and concern behind his warnings about it.

And I will also dare say that Donald Trump's win in the 2016 election had a great deal with the lingering sentiment from 1992.  Voters have longer memories than they get credit for, especially after a quarter century of two major parties bringing economic ruin to America.  Trump played a smart game: running as an independent candidate while using the Republican Party's infrastructure to mount his campaign from.  That was the one major deviation from Perot's approach.  But Perot did it first, and he broke the ground for what came later.

Did I agree with everything Perot stood for?  No, I did not.  My differences with him about abortion and gun control are as strong as ever.  Maybe stronger, even.  But no candidate is going to be someone any of us should hold to their positions with equal fervor.  The candidates who try to appeal to everyone are the worst of candidates.  At least Perot was honest about his convictions.  And even as a kid I wouldn't believe Perot could pull off anything about those issues.  His agenda was about something else, and many of us saw the handwriting on the wall: America was headed toward economic disaster and we needed someone of Perot's caliber to avoid it.

Did Perot cause Bill Clinton to be elected in 1992?  I've never seen that.  When the popular vote is worked out and compared with the electoral votes, Clinton was still going to win over George H.W. Bush... who still would have had the majority of the popular vote.  Perot drew voters from each of the two major party candidates, no doubt.  But with 19% of those votes spread out as they were, Perot proved to be at most a large element to not ignore, but not large enough to make that big a difference in the outcome.

There was no doubting Perot's commitment to America and her people.  A commitment that was demonstrated with two incidents in particular.  There was his compelling the North Vietnamese to provide better treatment of American POWs during that conflict.  And then there came the 1979 rescue mission of two employees of Perot's Electronic Data Systems (EDS) from an Iranian prison.  Perot hired legendary Green Beret vet Arthur "Bull" Simons to lead a team recruited from within EDS to plan and execute the mission.  It involved inserting team members into Tehran as the Iranian Revolution was nearing its climax.  The rescue worked, none of the team were lost in the mission.  It was chronicled about a few years later in Ken Follett's book On Wings of Eagles.

Not long after that rescue, the revolutionaries took over Iran completely.  They also stormed the American embassy and took its occupants hostage.  Their 555 days of capture was punctuated by a disastrous rescue attempt sanctioned by President Jimmy Carter that ended in the deserts of Iran.  One can only wonder what might have been had Ross Perot been called in to consult with.

 EDS already made Perot a very wealthy man and he became ridiculously more wealthy when he sold the company some years later.  A billionaire multiple times over, he went on to found Perot Systems.  And then came that night in March of 1992 when Larry King asked Perot on nationwide television if he would run for President.  Perot said he would, provided he qualified for the ballot in all fifty states.  A few short months later he had met all qualifications.  And though we could debate all day about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of his early departure from the campaign, none can question that when he came back months later promising "a world class campaign"... and he delivered on that promise.

Of course, that campaign cannot be mentioned without bringing to mind those informercials - which ran simultaneously every time on all the major networks - that Perot made.  In each one he laid out with nothing more than a pointer and a series of charts the situation in America and what would be needed to fix it.  From one of those came a personal catchphrase of mine: "It will be hard, but it will be fun."

It would be tempting to post a clip of myself doing my Ross Perot impersonation.  But not now.  I will however post a pic of the two campaign buttons I proudly wore that season.  One of which was made during a craft fair during lunch one day at my high school:

There isn't much else that one could say about H. Ross Perot.  Except that he may not have won in 1992 and then again in 1996 when he ran again.  But he left an indelible mark upon American presidential politics.  And that mark may have come back to haunt the Clintons more than two decades later after all.  Not a few times  have I heard in recent years "Ross was right".

Whatever one may think of the guy, it has to be said: he lived an enviable life and abided by his principles.  And we are each the better for that kind of example.

Godspeed, Mr. Perot.  And thank you.

Friday, July 05, 2019

MAD-ness takes its toll (or: No E.C. way to go...)

"What, me worry?"  Oh dear Mr. Neuman, if only the rest of us shared your eternal optimism.  What began nigh near seventy years ago as a mere horror comic by E.C. Comics paterfamilias Bill Gaines became the true benchmark of modern education in these United States.  Because MAD Magazine taught me lessons no school or philosopher or theologian would ever broach: stop trusting the media and the politicians and the advertising.  Take them seriously by not taking them seriously.  Have the spine to stand up and laugh at the insanities and inanities of modern culture.

Yes, there were others who preached the same in one form or another.  But nowhere as chronically effective and engrossing as did "the usual gang of idiots".  From the moment my best friend Chad let me read one of his MAD Super Special issues when we were nine years old, I was hopelessly reeled in.  Couldn't stop reading MAD.  Couldn't stop laughing at MAD.  And before I knew it, I couldn't stop living in the world according to MAD.

To parody the intro song from The Sopranos: "I was born under a MAD sign."

MAD Magazine was my childhood's symbol of rebellion against the established order.  It was for a lot of us.  Somehow we got away with reading MAD during recess at Community Baptist School: what became a wacko institution trying to teach us to hate Russians, that all Catholics were going to Hell and that even drawing a picture of a witch was tantalizing the forces of darkness.  Perhaps MAD gave me a mental bulwark against the real madness.  Perhaps it was the antidote against the spiritual poisonings of that place and too many other abusers of God's name.  Who knows: I may not have become a Christian at all were it not for MAD.  But that's a stark tangent from the gist of this post...

Sixty-seven years is a good run no matter what.  Still, a little part of me died upon hearing that MAD announced earlier this week that it was shuttering its publication.  Strangely, I'm surprised that MAD Magazine lasted as long as it did.  Its persistence in an online age of instant humor and automatic parody was no mean task.

But it was dawning on me three years ago that MAD's days were numbered and that the death by a thousand cuts were now self-inflicted.  When the magazine became hellbent on making every issue's cover mocking Donald Trump... well, that was symptomatic of a deep rot working within the heart of creative and editorial staff.  It was with rare frequency in the old days of MAD for any President of the United States to be referenced on the cover.  That it happened to Trump for at least a year or two says less about the man himself than it does about how far MAD had drifted from its mission to skewer everybody with equal malice and mirth.

Some of us however, and I am one of them, will contend that the omens turned ill around 2000 or so, when MAD announced it would do two things that founder William M. Gaines had decreed would never happen: it moved from black-and-white to all-color, and it began running advertisements.  Not the in-magazine parody ads, mind you (many of which were written by the inimitable Dick DeBartolo) but ads for real-world merchandise.  That's when I realized that MAD was decaying from a once-unassailable institution into a mere product or brand name.  Something that Gaines fought tooth and nail against - and succeeded - when MAD came under the Warner Communications umbrella more than forty years ago.

Maybe however, the decline goes back to 1992, and the passing of William M. Gaines himself.  For a man who was the very founder of MAD, he exercised only nominal duties in his role as editor and publisher.  Most of the time he signed off on articles and artwork just before deadline.  And that's just how he rolled.  The rest of his working hours were devoted to maintaining the MAD-cap hilarity of its environment.  As he once put it, the contributors provided the magazine's material while he "created the atmosphere".  And no one else could do it as Bill Gaines.  Whether taking on Congress about "inappropriate" comic books or standing up for his creative crew in the face of corporate ownership, Gaines was incorruptible and seemingly indefatigable.  And he would no doubt laugh at the accusation of "incorruptible".

Clearly, Bill Gaines was MAD Magazine, and MAD was Bill Gaines.

He's been gone for twenty-seven years now.  And too many others of "the usual gang" have left us also.  Each taking with them a unique perspective on how off-kilter wonky our culture really is.  Anthony Prohias, creator of "Spy vs. Spy", fled from Castro's revolution in Cuba and arrived at the MAD office speaking only a smattering of English.  He passed away several years ago.  Don Martin's signature cartooning style now belongs to the ages.  And what I have missed most about MAD Magazine is the absence of "The Lighter Side Of..." written and drawn by Dave Berg.  Panel for panel, Berg's depictions of the minutea of everyday life evoked more uproarious laughter than the rest of the magazine often did combined!  Here is but one sample of the Berg's-eye view of things, from issue #241 in September of 1983:

There will be two more issues of MAD Magazine with original content hitting the stands.  After that there will supposedly be special collections of previous material, but I'm not counting on seeing a reprint of "Forty-Three Man Squamish" anytime soon (or the rules for "Three-Cornered Pitney", also written by Tom Koch).  Perhaps there will be some dipping back into the well of yesteryear however, and those curating the collection issues will be impressed with a time when we really could laugh at ourselves, without fear or reprisal.  If so, MAD Magazine will have become something more powerful in death than it ever had in life.

But even if that never happens, MAD has cast a penumbra upon our landscape, one that will not soon be ignored.  I see MAD's spirit at work in so much graphic art and memes and crude parodies on Twitter and Facebook.  Black Spy and White Spy will forever be trying to outsmart each other, it seems.  And even Alfred E. Neuman, the gap-toothed mascot of MAD Magazine for almost its entire run, has found his way into the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Clearly, in some fashion or another, we have all gone MAD.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019


Two matters have persisted in my mind during the past several months leading up to Spider-Man: Far From Home.  The first, obviously, is "How the heck does any Marvel movie follow up on the heels of Avengers: Endgame?"  Those three hours were a staggering symphony of cinema, made all the more magnificent in that they wrapped up eleven years and twenty-some movies of what had come before.  Did Disney and Sony and Marvel seriously believe that a Spider-Man movie could raise the bar on that?!

But for me, the bigger issue was this: "When the heck do we finally see Spider-Man's little world explored and fleshed out on this canvas?"

Because Far From Home represents Tom Holland's fifth outing as the web-slinger.  And still by the time of this latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology we have yet to see Peter Parker's unique and classic sphere of influence explored to any great extent.  Oh yes, there has been Aunt May (absent Uncle Ben and that life-altering event in Peter's life) and the Vulture (played with unexpected dimension by Michael Keaton in Spider-Man: Homecoming).  But what about the weight of responsibility that Peter wrestles with?  How is he going to make money of his own without the Daily Bugle to snap photos for (and a J. Jonah Jameson calling him to the carpet at least once a week)?  How is he going to acquire his own rogues gallery when the world is unarguably now fixated on cosmic-level villains?  And where are those clones?!

(Okay, forget the clones.  In fact, let's just forget that "Clone Saga" mess ever happened...)

Peter's own world has its own feel and tone, and Sam Raimi captured and conveyed that perfectly for the big screen in 2002's Spider-Man.  And then two years later Spider-Man 2 upped the ante and became one of the very few sequels deemed better than the original.  Even Spider-Man 3, for all the things wrong with it, had some resonation with the source comic material.  Everything about Raimi's series was spot-on or dang close to it.  And rather disappointingly the Marvel Cinematic Universe incarnation has barely attempted that level of inspiration.

Which brings us to Spider-Man: Far From Home.

It's now months after what the world is calling "The Blip": when everyone ashed-away by Thanos' snap in Avengers: Infinity War has been returned to the universe, albeit five years later.  Far From Home is our first real look at the in-saga ramifications of Hulk's counter-snap, and as can be expected confusion is rife now that half the cosmos' population is back in existence after half a decade of oblivion.  Far From Home addresses "The Blip" rather nicely, exploiting the humor that often comes with such a disturbance.  Life is getting back to normal (more or less) and Peter Parker, weary of saving the world alongside all of those other heroes, is looking forward to a trip to Europe with his high school colleagues.  Including his best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon, who becomes more fun to watch in the role with each outing) and that elusive relationship with M.J. (again hard-to-get and aloof and played by Zendaya).  And maybe he'll be able to shake off the loss of Tony Stark: his father figure and role model.  Iron Man's sacrifice has turned into a global memorial... but the absence is felt nowhere worse than the gaping hole in the heart of Peter Parker.

Unfortunately it seems that Nick Fury (isn't it time that Samuel L. Jackson gets his own standalone movie in the MCU?) and S.H.I.E.L.D. are determined to draft Peter and his Spider-Man persona.  Seems that a hero named Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) from the Earth of an alternate universe - blamed on "The Snap" punching a hole in reality - is trying to stop four malevolent forces of nature from destroying our own world just as they destroyed his.  Mysterio has determined that the "four elementals" are going to attack Europe next and lo and behold, the track of their storm corresponds with the Midtown School's trip iternerary.  Fury catches up with Parker in Venice, lays it all out and... well, chaos ensues as usually happens in this kind of Marvel movie.

If you've been following the Marvel Cinematic Universe all along, this final chapter in the arc that's been building since 2008 serves as a wonderful coda.  If Avengers: Endgame was a grand feast, then Spider-Man: Far From Home is the much-needed and pleasurable palate cleanser.  It gives the fans a "cool-down" period, time to breathe... and there is already the tantalizing tingle that the next volume of this epic is coming sooner than later.  2008's Iron Man marked the start of this sprawling mythology, and in many ways Far From Home serves as the perfect bookend: for the films themselves and for us as the viewing audience.

How does Spider-Man: Far From Home cap off all that has come previous?  It doesn't even really try to.  It knew it couldn't.  And it still works beautifully.

As for that other matter: I still don't think that Spider-Man: Far From Home brought us fully into Peter Parker's unique corner of the Marvel saga.  But it's coming.  By the end of this film he has become his own person, and though the legacy of Tony Stark will not be forgot, Peter has indeed become the man who Stark believed he could be.  That world is coming... and especially with that mid-credits scene, with a cameo that will either blow the Marvel Cinematic universe wide-open or prove that some casting is simply indisputable.

I'll give Spider-Man: Far From Home four and a half webs out of five.  Still not in Sam Raimi-ish terms of quality but it's getting there.  And I believe it will land squarely on that turf in the next movie.  Maybe then we'll get the MCU's treatment of the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus.  Maybe the next Spider-Man movie will be called Spider-Man: Home Sweet Clone...

I'll stop while I'm ahead.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The photo that convinced me Trump will win again in 2020

It's a line from a They Might Be Giants song: "Politics bore me".  And that's where I've found myself lately in life: dulled out of my skull by politics.  Or at least politics as most people buy into.  For quite awhile I've noted that I'm more interested in ideas, not "ideologies".  And one comforting consequence has been that during the past four years I've been detached and aloof from just about anything pro or con about President Donald Trump.  To love him or hate him?  I'm not playing that game.  There is more to define a life than which politician a person sides with or against.

That doesn't mean I'm an uninterested observer of realities.  And in substantial part, I do approve of President Trump's policies and actions since coming to the White House.  Some still, I do not approve of.  But he's earned my confidence so far, and much more so than any President since Reagan.  Has he earned my trust enough to cast a vote for him in 2020?  Well, he blew that in 2016.  As also noted on this blog and elsewhere, I never vote for a candidate if he or she creates even a single negative ad against an opponent.  And Trump lost that on general principles.  So I'm having to wait and see what happens during the next year and a half.

Based on what I saw last night though, he may not have to mount much of a campaign anyway.  Because I would confidently state that Donald Trump's chances of being re-elected are around 85% and maybe higher than that.

Behold the photo that has the Democrat Party losing all hope with me for the 2020 presidential election:

Columbia, South Carolina, June 22 2019:
Where Democrat presidential credibility went to die.
That pic was taken at the James Clyburn re-election campaign's big fish-fry two nights ago.  All twenty-some (so far) announced Democrat candidates for United States President in the 2020 election.  There is still time for another two or three to jump on the train, and no doubt the months between here and primary season will whittle the body down and I'm figuring that it'll be a merciless bloodbath come just after new year's.  But even so: look at that photo.

So help me, I can't find even one person among that bunch that moves me.  Not one that is projecting energy, enthusiasm, boldness, or those ideas that I most look for in considering whether a candidate deserves my vote.

People keep telling me that "Chris it's a two-party system" that I have to accept.  Okay, fine.  But you know what?  If it's a two-party system then I and every other American damn well deserve that each of those parties gives us their very best.  That Republicans and Democrats alike produce candidates possessing vigor and vibrancy and vision.  Donald Trump won in '16, I sincerely believe, because (a) he had those qualities in spades and (b) he did't run as a two-party candidate.  He ran as an independent exploiting the Republican Party.  And it worked brilliantly.  And it's still working in his favor.

The Republicans as a party in general have yet to understand that.  And their Democrat counterparts?

I see that photo and the only adjectives coming to mind are "pitiful" and pathetic".

Democrats, it's time.  You gotta step up.  You gotta raise your game.  You must do better than this.  You have to look deep and hard and examine your principles and find someone, anyone, who is going to electrify the American people come November of next year.  Because this gang?  If you run with any of them, you are looking at a worse defeat than when Ronald Regan crushed Walter Mondale in 1984.  Right now Trump is cruising his way to victory riding on strong economy alone.  And all you've aimed at him so far is "we hate Trump".  That's not nearly good enough.  If you want to convince me, a wildcard independent, that I should vote for your candidate next year, you've got your work cut out for you.

Because I look at this photo of Democrat contenders for the White House in 2020, and I don't see serious candidates at all.  What do I see?  Something like the patients getting on the bus for a social in that scene from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest:

And there's not a Randle Patrick McMurphy anywhere among them.