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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

BEING BIPOLAR, Part 9: Full Circle (or: Tale of an Odyssey)

(It wasn't MY idea to start this post off with that, honest.  Thanks Nicole!)

A note about this installment of Being Bipolar: it's the longest to date.  There's no escaping that and soon you'll see why.  It's also the most straightforward and absent clever floridity (is that even a word?).  But that has to be too.  It's an account of all that's transpired in the past three years since I departed on this quest for happiness.  Ultimately it became a quest for myself.  And if you press on toward the end, I want to believe that it may help others in their own quest for purpose and fulfillment.

Being Bipolar is a series that began in the winter of 2011.  It's an occasional attempt to explore aspects of the life of a person with manic-depression, or bipolar disorder if you will.  Ummm... I guess it could be pointed out that it's me who is said person.  It's never meant to be a regular feature of The Knight Shift.  It comes along whenever "the time is nigh" for another installment to be committed to the "publish" button.  In this series I do my best to be as honest and forthcoming about this condition as possible, within reason.  As with anything else of this caliber of subject matter, it should be noted that I am not a medical professional.  So don't take anything written here as solid medical advice in the way of drugs etc.  If you need immediate assistance, please go to the emergency rom of the nearest hospital, or call 911 on your phone.  You may also find a great deal of assistance from a local support group, such as those sponsored by National Alliance on Mental Illness (

The Journey Begins

Three years ago this morning, in a Camry packed with "the bare essentials" (including a cast-iron skillet, because one never goes on an epic odyssey without a cast-iron skillet) my dog Tammy and I left my old hometown of Reidsville, North Carolina.  Destination: unknown.  Like, literally, unknown.

All I knew is there was nothing for me if I stayed.  That's not a slight toward the people of that area: many of whom are and will forever be dear friends.  But there was no chance of a fulfilling life there for me.  Call it delusion if you must, but one night in February a few months earlier it was as if God Himself spoke directly to me:

"Chris, what are you still doing here?  Your father isn't coming back.  You know there is no happiness here for you.  No purpose.  No chance at family.  You know your dad would want you to be happy.  You know there is something more for you.  So... go!  Just go!  Sell the house and leave and don't give a thought as to where you are headed!  You won't find the happiness you are seeking immediately, and you are going to have to go through much to find it.  But you WILL find it.  Take a leap of faith as you NEVER have before.  Trust Me, Chris.  Leap into the unknown.  Just fill your car with what you think you'll need and take Tammy and the two of you... go!  You will be thankful that you did.  Trust Me, Chris.  And live as you never have before."

Selling the house where I grew up was difficult.  It was harder because of circumstances that need no delving into.  There was no choice in the matter for me.

But there was the issue of my having a mental illness.

I confess: it was intimidating.  It made me question my state of mind (as if it wasn't questionable enough).  But after pondering and prayer, and consulting with that inner circle of closest associates, well... it seemed right.  And then came that day when I said two words to my family:

"I'm leaving."

There was objection.  Some didn't want me to depart.  They thought it was a foolish notion, that I couldn't handle it.  Some wanted me to be placed in an assisted living environment: because the bipolar disorder was too severe for me to have a "normal" life.  And for months they tried to talk me out of it.

There was no convincing me.  There was no going back after those two words.  The path had been committed to.  The Rubicon had been crossed.

And so on the morning of June 12, 2016, I said goodbye at my parents' grave and hit US 158 and headed west.  Why west?  Because my best friend from college Weird Ed asked me to join him for a special nationwide screening of the original Ghostbusters and he was wearing his self-made Ghostbusters uniform.  If that was not an omen, I don't know what was.  Afterward Tammy and I spent an extra day near Asheville and tried figuring out where the heck to go to from there.  Keeping west seemed as good an idea as any...

A photo that speaks for itself.

There's no need to recount everything that happened over the following year.  The meandering path across America.  The many cities, including some towns I had never heard of before (ahhhh Emporia, Kansas: you will forever have a special place in my heart).  Places I had long wanted to see with my own eyes (the Grand Canyon, Dealey Plaza, the Very Large Array, three presidential libraries, the Gateway Arch...).  Native cuisines that had only been spoken of in awed whispers.  Seeing the Pacific Ocean for the very first time on Thanksgiving Day.  Climates I had never endured or enjoyed...

And the people.  So many amazing and unforgettable individuals.  And if Tom in Albuquerque is reading this, I will forever remember the hearty whiff of Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco from your smoking pipe.  That made me wonder if the timing of it was from God, letting me know that Dad was watching over me from afar.

We were on the road for very nearly a full year.  Including four months when I tried settling in San Diego.  Until the rest of my life it is a journey that will define me in no small part.

And then my life went straight to hell.

"You can't go home again."

Betrayal is something I've never handled well.  Maybe I never will.  And after returning briefly to the Reidsville area there came two betrayals from people I had long trusted.  And it very nearly destroyed me.

I had come back from across America seemingly empty handed.  But still hopeful.  Then the first betrayal, by some of my own family.  People who I had counted on to have my back with encouragement and prayer and telling me, as Dad was fond of saying, "Always think positive!"

Instead they gave me criticism and berating and telling me, in so many words, that I was hopeless.  And in a moment's flash I knew: they had to be disattached from.  I loved them and always will love them in a sense.  But it was my own life to find meaning from.  Not theirs.  And to hell with the "assisted living because you're incompetent"!

But then came the second betrayal.  The reason I returned when I did was that a longtime friend had set up an offer for a career far from Reidsville.  It was an opportunity I jumped on!  And then it turned out that my friend was leading me down a road of his own real delusions.  There was going to be no offer at all.

And then there really was nothing.  I had run out of the last drops of hope, of money, of reason to live.  I had even let down Tammy: something I had never wanted to do.  And I thought that she deserved better than a loser like me.

It was in Reidsville, in a hotel room, that I attempted to end my life.  And there's no shame in admitting that.  Not when it figures into what came later.

Had it not been for Weird Ed and his wife, God only knows what would have happened.  They came all the way from their home to where I was staying. We packed up my belongings and placed some in my rented storage unit and after that I screamed into the night at God.  Demanding an answer from Him.  Looking up into the dark sky and proclaiming that He had betrayed me, had lied to me.  Had forgotten me.  Or had let me believe that He had led me to take a leap of faith and there was nothing to come of it.

There had been two betrayals already.  Then betrayal by God.  And that was the worst of the three.

Ed and another friend had been conferring by phone.  They decided that I couldn't be alone.  That I needed to be somewhere.  That I needed time to seriously figure out how to straighten my life out.  Because there were matters in addition to the bipolar disorder that I hadn't faced yet.  One of those diagnosed a few months later was severe complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  And maybe another that hasn't been formally recognized but we're pretty sure is a condition present.

Like I said, betrayal by people I had trusted and by God who I had trusted most of all.  And... what was left?  There was no going back to to Reidsville.  Later I was told that one of my friends had asked the police there to check on me and they told her "Chris has a reputation" among law enforcement there for being sick of mind.  So much for them.  "A prophet in his hometown..." applies to more than real prophets, apparently.

Arrangements were made.  Tammy and I arrived at the home of a friend.  And we stayed awhile.  I thought that was the end of the journey.  That it had been an utter failure.  And when ideations still came to end it all, it was hard to resist those temptations.  I should have given up every hope and surrendered to the realization that my leap of faith had been brought to a wretched and wasted end.

I could not have been more wrong.

The Odyssey: The Second Half

Year One of this "journey of self-discovery" was a physical and spiritual one.  Year Two was even more intensely spiritual.  And it was one that forced me to address my mental state of being as never before.

For sake of confidentiality, most of the details will have to remain spotty at best.  Suffice it to say, my dear friends and hosts became encouragers and tenders to my immediate needs.  Were it not for them, I likely would not be alive writing these words: so deep was the despair I had fallen into.  And it wasn't very long before they began pointing me to resources that would become as magic waters to a soul parched for reason and meaning.

What kind of resources?  One of them was the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  For the first time in my life, I found myself in a support group meeting.  Going into that Sunday school classroom at a nearby church, I felt weak and intimidated.  But I showed up again the following week.  And the next.  And the next.  A few months later the facilitators were telling me that I had become like a whole 'nother person in the short time I had been coming.  NAMI has since led to new friends coming into my life and a profound kinship with those who are in the same boat as I.  There is even a leadership committee that I have come to serve on.

And then there was "the clubhouse".

It's such a peculiar notion that I had never heard of before and it demands an explanation.  Clubhouse International is a global network of local "clubhouses", each of which presents a model of social interaction and sense of community for people with a variety of mental illnesses.  It's not a place of residence, although it can help members find apartments (and nice ones at that).  But it is place where such can come together during the day and stay busy with... well, a wazoo of activities.  They are not only all across America and Canada but throughout the world.  At the one I was shown there were two kitchens (one for meals and one for breakfast and as a snack bar), a clerical unit where members can use math and organizational skills, so many more.  And there was a video production unit to make a daily in-house news show.

That's a real samurai sword, and she knows
how to use it too!
I applied and was accepted and became a member and threw myself into it and began having fun of a sort as I had forgotten could be had.  Especially with the video work.  Although I can't show it here, for one Friday the 13th I made an opening and closing for that day's show using movie footage of Jason Vorhees and clips of members and staff recoiling in terror as Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave" played on the soundtrack.  During the week of Halloween it was making a Stranger Things-style intro with some of the members and staff''s names who were at the clubhouse.  Another day had me crashing a helicopter on the front lawn of the place.

Ummmmm... yeah, I went a little wild with having a full-blown video facility on-site and a captive audience five days a week!  There were also opportunities to return to my roots as a reporter: covering social events beyond the clubhouse itself, and one occasion involving the house being plunged into darkness after a truck crashed into a transformer down the street.  Wherever there was action for the members and staff, I was there with my trusty iPhone and an iPad Pro to edit all the footage on.

It also must not go without saying that the friendships made at the clubhouse I have become a participant of, are many and already very precious.  These are people who have impacted my own life in profoundly astonishing ways, and I can only hope that my own may have made some mark on their own.  That would be a great honor.

It's a place of fellowship and it offered stability.  It gave me a creative outlet.  It let me be distracted from my own mind and despair.  And that's what was needed.  And in the meantime I was led to a new therapist, and a psychiatrist who helped me maintain my mediation regimen and "tweak" it a bit.

That was Year Two in a nutshell.  And in a peculiar way, it was a mirror of sorts of Year One.  Except that I remained in one place instead of being "will of the wind" across America.  And despite what had become a profound lack of faith in Him, I am beginning to see that God was using those two years to heal me.  To prepare me.  To point me toward something greater...

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

What happened next is gonna come across as creepy and maybe even dipping precariously into the dark side of the supernatural.  Feel free to judge me if you so wish.  But had it not been done, the blossoming of the ensuing time could not have been provoked into being.

Again, I must be vague.  But for sake of this chronicle: the "voices in my mind" that would not leave me in peace... the screams and laughter which held me hostage to the past griefs of my life... had become debilitating.  They barely let me sleep.  Were making it impossible to even consider finding work.  Were destroying all hope of peace for my spirit.

Last July, my therapist at the time made a suggestion.  That I should perform a kind of ritual that would serve to sever away the hauntings from my mind.  It was a drastic and daring and radical idea. And I considered the possibility of taking it several steps further.  Instead of doing it "here", I would do it "there".  In Reidsville.  Where it had all started.  The heart meat of the matter.  And now I would be driving a stake through that heart.

Thursday afternoon after this past Labor Day, on the drive to the clubhouse, I realized it was time to end it once and for all.

I packed some things and told my friends that "I'm going to finish this."  They knew what I was referring to.  And I got into the car and headed off into the night for the long, long drive to Reidsville.  It took awhile to get there, on highways I had not intended to embark upon so soon again.

What happened when I arrived in Reidsville needs not be revealed.  I doubt it ever will be for a public audience.  That it was shortly before a midnight when I came to the place of reckoning wasn't my intention.  But there it was: the pitch black of a moonless night, as dark as it gets, in a cemetery.  And had a passing sheriff's deputy seen what was occuring he or she might have thought that it was some work of a lone Satanist or practicer of voodoo.

It took almost half an hour to perform the final part of the reason I had come all that way.  Then with the ritual ended I gathered the materials and returned to the car.  Just before turning the key I sent a text:

"It is done."

So began the trip back to my own life.

When I finally arrived back, I had the first solid sleep that I had known in over a year.  What had come before and wouldn't leave me alone had been buried and left behind.  To quote Kylo Ren: "Let the past die.  Kill it if you have to."

A lot of people might have hated The Last Jedi, but the former Ben Solo's words are going to always hold special meaning for me.  Because he was right.  It wasn't a "supernatural" thing that I did that night.  But in a very real way, it was a magic of the mind that had to be performed.

And it worked.

One Month Later...

I applied for a job, and it was a good one.  And I nailed that sucker!

For six months I was working for a major company.  How major?  You've already most likely dealt with it (no it's NOT the IRS!).  And by the end of my time there the supervisors were telling me that my performance was excellent.  There was hinting that I had a future ahead of me as a management-type.

It wasn't long after starting the job that I got a house of my very own, for the first time in my life.  Even as I write these words, my miniature dachshund Tammy is snoozing contentedly beneath her favorite blanket atop my bed.  There is a kitchen and two bedrooms and the bills get paid and the lawn gets mowed and... well, more or less what most people with houses do (unless you're Donald Trump and your current house has a permanent staff for those sorts of things).

Then came what I have to believe is what God had been preparing me for  during all of those hurt-filled previous years.

The Advocate

"Peer advocate".  That's what the position read.  To apply for the job a person had to be at least eighteen years old and in treatment at least a year for a diagnosed mental illness.  If experience was the critical factor, mine had been an education in the School of Attrition and I'd bloody well earned at least a Masters degree.

So I applied... and the shock of my life was when for some reason they chose me to offer it to!

What does a peer advocate do?  As part of a nonprofit organization, I meet with others who have mental illness.  It could be bipolar disorder, as myself.  Or those with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder, or PTSD or a myriad of other conditions.  Some of those situations may be complicated by the presence of struggling with substance abuse.  And I meet them in their homes, in group places like the clubhouse I was taking part in, maybe even places of incarceration after brushes with the law.  But there is no judging.  Because I know what it's like to be judged on account of my own illness.  And I am there to encourage them.  To speak for them if needed.  To show them that they do NOT have to be content with a mere existence of indifference and meds.  That they can have life, and life abundant.  Their conditions may be a part of their life, but they never have to define that life for them.

My job as a peer advocate?  There is not a single night that I go to bed dreading waking up in the morning and going into the office.  And that office is loaded with amazing people who have become not just colleagues and professional laborers, but are already becoming sincere friends.  My own personal office is coming.  There just needs to be some shuffling around of furniture and whatnot.  I'm looking forward to it because there is one bad-a$$ poster from the movie Doctor Strange that is going up on the wall (and a Star Wars LEGO set for my desk).

What do I love most about this job?  The understanding that with each new day, I can go in and have a chance to make a difference for the better in just one person's life.  Maybe even more than one.  And it can be in countless capacities.  Like, the idea hit to begin a therapeutic approach using role-playing games... and that is now a project I'm spearheading.  And that's a lot of fun!

Helping people.  That is what God knew was what I wanted to do most with my life.  Whether it be with writing or teaching or now, being an advocate and supporter of those who also must live each day with mental illness.

And speaking of God...

Reconciling with the Father

I really hope and pray that the past short months have been what finally lets my faith rest in joy and comfort, and never have to waver as it has for so very long.

Maybe my faith had to die, that it could be raised anew.  There would be some symmetry there, would it not?  It's not a determining factor, I know that.  But being led to the job of being a peer advocate is one that calls to the fore every bit of experience that has been accumulated for nearly two decades: the bad and the good.  I know what it's like to be alone and suffering and in the dark places.  Now I get to help others never have to go through that by themselves.  I get to be someone who I wish had been there for me all along.  Maybe God was shaping me to be that kind of person.  It gets to draw upon my education.  My creativity.  My very wacky sense of humor!  Sometimes I wonder if it's all a dream.  Because until now I could not have imagined such a place to be and a purpose to have.

It has renewed my faith in God.  Now, please understand: my faith is still NOT perfect.  It never will be.  Not on this side of the veil anyway.  And there are still issues from my past that I contend with.  But for the first time in my life, since become a Christian all those years ago as a college student... it's like my walk with Christ is one of peace and fortitude.

Want to know something silly?  Well, it seems silly to some no doubt.  But I'm considering being baptised again (yes, I meant to spell it that way: "baptize" seems so jagged and forced with that lousy "z" in the word).  Not as a means of salvation (which I will never believe it can be) or as a sign of first commitment to Christ.  But it would symbolize my "new" new life.  The life that only now am I getting to have.  The shot at happiness and purpose that had not been possible before.

Which brings us to some retrospective.

They Were Wrong

Yes.  They were wrong.  As wrong as anyone could be.  Those who wanted me to stay put.  Who wanted to put me in some cheap apartment for the rest of my life.  Who thought that I was going to be helpless and now I understand that they wanted me to be helpless.  And what they desired for me, had I not rebelled against them, would have been a torturous and meaningless existence that would have ended in dying a life without any joy or purpose whatsoever.

It wasn't with the exact words at all, but my choice was a "screw you!" to them.  I broke away from them.  Took a chance.  Made a leap of faith.  Went off into the unknown.

No, it didn't end as I had thought it would.  But it did bring me to where I am today.  In a home of my own.  In a job that I love.  A real life of meaning and purpose.  Without that rebellion it would have never come to be.  And my little friend and traveling companion Tammy is with me too and crazy as ever!  All I could hope and pray for now is for God to bring a wonderful woman into my life... but my closest friends insist that it's coming.  I like to believe so, anyway.

God brought me here, and I will praise Him for that.  And I will revel in this life and the freedom that has never been had before.  I know of no other way to put it, than the final line of dialogue from the classic film (no not that cruddy remake) Papillon.  Kindly pardon the lingo but:

Why Am I Telling You This?

Because now I am a peer advocate.  And Lord knows, there are lots of my peers out there.  My kind.  My peeps.  My friends and family spread across the width and breadth of the Earth, though we may never meet.

And with these few (?) mean and inadequate words, I am going to be someone to you that I never got to have in my own life.  I am going to tell you that it's going to be okay.  I'm going to tell you that your life is far from over.  I'm going to tell you that you can make it.  That nothing is impossible for you (except break the speed of light... but maybe someone reading these words can figure that out someday).  That you do not have to be relegated to the class of person best left abandoned and forgotten, as some wanted to do with me.

I started out with a soul trapped within a mind turned against itself.  And for one brilliant season, got to soar like fabled Icarus.  And yet, I escaped his own fate and did not fall back to drown.  Whether by the grace of God or the people placed dearest in my life or the resources that were found, I was able to soar even further and higher.

If it can be that way for me, it can be that way for you.  It really can be.  But you gotta hold on.  You gotta keep going.  As George Michael once sang, you "gotta have faith-uh faith-uh faith-uh"!

You can't give up.  Even in your darkest times in the valley.  During those moments when the pain or numbness or both become the most overwhelming. Remember, it's always darkest before the dawn.  Or dawness before the light.  Or something like that.

I nearly gave up.  Too many times.  As I write these words I can't readily number the times I was hospitalized.  Only once was it voluntarily.  The rest were against my will because it was thought that I was a danger to myself.  Never a danger to others.  Just to myself.  Neither can I recall all of the times that I came close to ending my life.  How "the line" didn't get crossed all of the way, I will never know.  By all rights I shouldn't be here.

And yet here I am.  With happiness.  And with the chance for more happiness.  The most I've ever been able to know.

And if you are reading these words and are in the valley and can't see a way out and have surrendered to feeling that it's all hopeless, well... I'm here to tell you that it's a damn lie.  That you deserve to be happy.  It may not be the path that you thought it would be by.  Hey, it wasn't the path that I thought would be the one to happiness, either!  But looking back upon it all, for all the grief pain and betrayal and frustration and screaming at God even, well...

I wouldn't change a thing about it.  The pain turned out to be good.  As John Locke said in an episode of Lost, when asked why he didn't change the past when he and the other survivors had been taken back in time: "No, I needed that pain.  Got me to where I am now."

We are more than our successes.  We are more than our strengths.  We are also our weaknesses.  And it is by our weaknesses that we grow stronger.  We grow bolder.

We become those who get to help others who are going through the same pain we have known.  It is a responsibility that few could ever bear.  Maybe God lets us have it because He knows we can take it.  Because someone has to take it.

Want to know a secret?  The world isn't controlled by presidents, or kings, or generals, or tycoons or tyrants of big tech.  Who are the secret masters of the Earth?  It is the humble and meek.  The ones who show kindness and compassion to others with each new day.  THEY are the ones for whom the world endures and is held up by.  THEY are the ones who God has trusted to lift and edify those who might need and accept encouragement.

And if you are one whom mental illness has also wrought a terrible havoc upon your life, well... who is to say that you are not one of those either?  You might as well believe that you are.  Because I certainly do, without any shred of doubt.

What Happens Now?

The mission of Being Bipolar is now that of an altered trajectory.  Whereas before I was writing as one struggling to describe bipolar disorder out of a measure of self-pity, now it is as one who is accepting and even embracing the purpose God has given me through it.  Does that mean it's not going to plague my thoughts?  Nope, not at all.  As I write these words, I am going through a bipolar mixed-episode that's throwing me back and forth from mania to depression.

(What is a mixed episode like?  Try to envision Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street fighting each other in Thunderdome from that Mad Max movie.)

Starting Being Bipolar was a desperate attempt to win back some broken relationships.  It failed for the most part.  Then it became about trying to have a place in this world.  I don't know if that worked so hot either.  Now it is going to be a proactive mission to help others.  And I am hoping and praying that it might do that in ways it didn't before.

So, if you are one of those who this post has resonated with, I thank you for bearing me with me.  And I would very much appreciate it if you could have an open mind and heart toward those who you may know, who struggle with something that none of them would dare wish upon yourself.  If you cannot do that for me, please do that for them.

For that, I would be uttermostly grateful.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

ALIEN THE PLAY: In North Bergen High everyone can hear you scream

Last month marked the fortieth anniversary of one of my most favorite films: Ridley Scott's Alien.  It's one of the most perfect science-fiction and/or horror movies in the history of anything.  It's one that often there is some detail that I missed during all the dozens of previous viewings.  Like, it was a mistake for Dallas to let the Nostromo lift off from LV-426 without its systems fully working on the lower decks: they could have detected the creature that much faster and without any further loss of life!  Patience is a virtue, kiddies.

A few months ago in March, Alien may have been given its greatest tribute ever.  A group of students and their instructors at North Bergen High School in New Jersey premiered their production of Alien The Play.

And these young men and women... yowza!!  They pulled off the impossible.  And with a dire minimum of materials to make the costumes and sets out of apparently.  They made an on-stage theatrical adaptation of Alien.  Including the Space Jockey, the chestburster, and the xenomorph itself.

Photos of the performances went viral across Twitter and Instagram and that Facebook thingy.  Tongues were wagging.  Very quickly word of it reached Ridley Scott himself, who forwarded along a few thousand bucks for the kids to run an encore performance.  That happened a few weeks ago... and who showed up but "Ellen Ripley" herself, Sigourney Weaver.

As I've come to understand it, there's a video in the works using footage spliced from four cameras that captured the magic.  But if you wish, you can watch Alien The Play right now.  Click on the link below and behold the spectacle of this very faithful (and at times creatively funny) work of high school drama department horror:

Make some popcorn and stream it to your high-def set if you can, peeps.  Turn off the lights.  And prepared to pick your jaw off the floor.

An all-natural herbicide that will destroy weeds, not YOU

I'm coming to learn something about having your own home: it's a lot more work than I'd thought!  Maybe I should have paid more attention to Dad.  Well, at least there have been no rats and badgers and alligators so far (knocking on wood).

What there is however at this time of year are weeds.  Lots and lots of weeds.  Coming up through every crack in the driveway it seems.  And though my driveway isn't all that cracked up (compared to this domicile's proprietor) the renegade vegetation has proven to be a nuisance.  From the road it can look like the asphalt has been treated with Rogaine.  Or when Bugs Bunny rubbed plant growth tonic into Elmer's scalp during that scene in "Rabbit of Seville":

Weeds are something I can't remember Dad doing too much about with our driveway, since it was a gravel one on a dirt road.  But I don't know if he used Roundup.  There's been a lot of litigation about that product though and no small concern about it's effects on health of humans and our furry companions.  Consulting with friends confirmed it in my mind: do NOT use something made in a laboratory.  They're just too questionable.

So what's a guy to do?  Well, two possible answers were provided by said friends.  The first was to use a blowtorch, as is a common practice in Europe.  Couple problems with this though: my driveway would eat up a lot of propane in short order.  And there is still the lingering reputation I have as a pyromaniac back in the Cub Scout days.

A few other friends made another suggestion, practically identical every time.  It was an all-natural solution that was almost guaranteed to wipe out the weeds.  It sprays like a store-bought herbicide, affording lots of control.  It is also fairly fast-acting and thorough.

Here it is, what I've been using the past few weeks: a vinegar-based concoction that should give you some excellent results.  All you need is:
- two gallons of white vinegar.  I used 5%, which you can probably find in the cleaning section of a grocery store.  It's good for cleaning floors and also teeth-rotting finesse if you want to pickle those summer cucumbers with some extra bite.
- a nice-size bag of epsom salt.  A product which is said to be good for soaking feet and a superior laxative, but is NOT a good salt for seasoning a hamburger with (do not ask how I know this).
- a biodegradable dishwashing liquid.  I use Dawn, that classic standby.  But any biodegradable liquid for cleaning dishes should be adequate.
- a two-gallon garden sprayer, the kind with the pump and hose and nozzle that can direct the formula onto the detested vegetation.
Sprayer with driveway a few days after treatment
with vinegar/epsom salt solution
Very simple procedure.  And it's best if you wait for a good morning with clear skies, before the sun gets too high in the sky and the temperatures start climbing through the day.

Pour the vinegar into the sprayer.  Then drop in about two handfuls of the epsom salt.  Put the top on the sprayer and swirl it around good for a bit.  Then open the sprayer and pour in a few good squirt of the dishwashing liquid.  Close up the sprayer again and shake it up real good.  Then prime the sprayer's pump and aiming the nozzle in a safe direction (meaning away from grass you don't ordinarily want to decimate) get the juices flowing.  When it's set to go, start spraying the weeds wherever you find them.  A good liberal dose in all the spots should do the trick.

The mechanism is that the vinegar begins to kill the weeds outright.  The epsom salt also enhances the work of the vinegar but it mostly gets down in the the crevices and attacking the roots of the weeds.  Dishwashing liquid helps to keep the solution adhering to the leafs and stems of the weeds, which you want especially as the day progresses.

Results?  Starting at around 9 a.m. during the three times I've used the stuff so far, by noon there was already noticeable decay of the weeds.  By 6 p.m. the weeds' were structurally intact but obviously dead.  Solid rain a few days later washed away the deceased vegetation from the driveway.  It also worked wonders on the walkway up to my front door and those pesky spots on the back patio.  From the road it almost looks as if the driveway is a slab of solid unbroken asphalt.  It takes a focused look to really notice the cracks.  A few weeks later I used a third batch to clean up some persistent spots and had plenty enough solution to apply to the driveways of my neighbors.  Their driveways are now similarly absent of weeds (at least the parts most visible from the road).

There ya have it folks!  Something you can make on your own, with common ingredients found either in nature or that is completely safe to the environment, that will kill unwanted plants without endangering the health of your kids, your pets, or yourself.  True, you may have to apply it a few more times than a chemical formula, but it still works beautifully against weeds... and the peace of mind is well worth it.

Thanks to everyone who made this suggestion!

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"To remember"

"Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!  You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.  The eyes of the world are upon you.  The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you.  In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

"Your task will not be an easy one.  Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened.  He will fight savagely.

"But this is the year 1944!  Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41.  The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man to man.  Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground.  Our home fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men.  The tide has turned!  The free men of the world are marching together to victory!

"I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle.  We will accept nothing less than full victory!

"Good luck!  And let us all beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking."

~ message transmitted to the personnel of Operation OVERLORD - the invasion of the Normandy Coast - by General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  June 6, 1944.

National D-Day Memorial
Bedford, Virginia

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

So... I've been busy...

Look, it's NOT like this blog has become a red-headed stepchild to me.  Naw naw naw, far from it!  Hey, this site has now transpired across fully one-third of my entire lifespan (and hoping it will keep going on for many more thirds, or halfs, or 99.44% and that's without using cryonics).  And Lord knows, there's been plenty to muse about in the past few months.

So, what's gone on that kept all two of my faithful readers on tenterhooks waiting for their friend and humble narrator to return?  In a word: "life".

See, I was involved in one very hectic task for six months.  One that I'm going to be thankful for having for a very long time to come.  And right on the heels of that came something that has already become the most fulfilling and rewarding career that I have ever had and one that I could not possibly have imagined might be out there.  So for the past few months I've been throwing myself into that full-bore.  That it gets to utilize my trademark wackiness and creative engines makes it that much more fun.

Then there was the matter of my own house.  Yes, my own house!!  For the first time in my life.  Unfortunately being "here" and all my furniture etc. being "there" in another state, the living situation has been a fairly Spartan one.  Fortunately that is now drawing to a close.  I just have lots of stuff to go through, disseminating between useful and precious items and redundant crap that is best jettisoned.

But, it was always in mind to return to the blog and sooner than later.  To chronicle more of my personal growth but also the usual commentary on pop culture, politics, pets (Tammy the Pup is crazy as ever but she's still attracting ladies better than I drive the car), a recipe every so often, the usual nonsense.  I'm especially kicking myself in the butt that a review of Avengers: Endgame wasn't possible at the time.  So far I've seen that sucker twice and haven't yet busted my bladder.

Then there's the Star Wars scene.  What can be said about The Rise of Skywalker right now?  Ehhhh… not much.  I'm praying it will be at least half as epic and satisfying as Endgame.  It's a funny thing: for every time I've watched The Last Jedi and thoroughly liked that movie, the following viewing frustrates the hell out of me.  It's a very good movie and also not a very good movie.  It's a Schroedinger's sci-fi film.  Simultaneously excellent and lousy at the same time, depending on when and even where you see it.  So I'm hoping that The Rise of Skywalker will conclude the saga in grand fashion. And then... I don't know what I'll be doing with Star Wars.  The Skywalker family tale will have been concluded at long last.  What else will there be?  Yes, I know: The Mandalorian is coming to Disney + and there are the two new film trilogies coming from Rian Johnson and also the Game of Thrones creative team.  But those are going to have to be really fresh and arresting before I invest my valuable time toward keeping up with.

(Then again, only in the past week have I finally begun watching Breaking Bad.  I'm now early into that show's second season.  THAT is arresting a television series as there's ever been produced.  Breaking Bad is art.  Could Star Wars hit that kind of tone?  Ehhhh… doubtful.  But I'll give The Mandalorian a chance.)

Anyhoo, there it is.  And next week there is a post scheduled for this blog that is going to illuminate more on what's been going on over at this side of the screen.  Maybe it will surprise and encourage others just as much as it has surprised and encouraged me.  If so, then the frustrations and griefs over the bigger part of the past decade or so will have been worth it.  I want to believe so anyway.

Okay, 'nuff of the pathetic excuses.  Time for more blogging!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

"At The Crossroads": An invitation to a short story

For three days this past fall my dog Tammy and I were trapped in a motel room in the North Carolina mountains.  Hurricane Florence was thrashing the slats out of the state even that far inland.  It was the two of us and the usual hurricane emergency supplies: cans of deviled ham, some crackers, a few six-packs of Coca-Cola... and not much to do.

So I began writing a short story.

In the past few months has come understanding of why I've never been able to crack that block in my mind toward writing narrative fiction.  Yes, there have been the scripts for the various films(?) and other projects.

But anything like a smallish piece of prose?  The connection couldn't be made.  Not until toward the end of this last summer, and maybe someday I'll be able to talk about that.

Suffice it to say, so far I've written three short stories, begun work on another, and have finished the first draft of a one-act stage play (which could easily be adapted into a short film).  And then there's the children's book that's in the works.

A few weeks ago I wound up using one of the stories in conjunction with another project.  It was the one written in that motel room during the hurricane.  And I've contemplated sharing it with a wider audience.  This is the second piece that I've completed so far.  Perhaps the others will appear on some outlet or another later on.  I've uploaded it as an Acrobat file.

So here it is.  Submitted for your approval, I present to you:

Shyamalan's GLASS concludes the superhero trilogy we don't deserve and didn't know we needed

You know that a filmmaker has returned to fine form when you're compelled to a second viewing during a movie's first run.  Maybe even soon going back for a third.

After a few disappointments (including 2006's bewildering and nigh-incomprehensible Lady In The Water) my interest had grown wary - to put it mildly - in M. Night Shyamalan's work.  The wunderkind who in 1999 brought us The Sixth Sense and then Unbreakable followed by Signs and The Village (a film I will never be ashamed to defend) had been hailed as "his generation's Steven Spielberg."

But then Shyamalan kinda wandered off the reservation.  Went weird.  Became the strange relative who packs up and goes into places that only his deepest id seems to understand.  Sometimes he comes back from the quest with renewed vision and perspective.  Sometimes he doesn't.  Sometimes he fails to come back at all.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve that I finally saw Shyamalan's 2016 film Split.  Even before then it intrigued me.  The widespread word was that Split was shockingly good.  And I have become a bit of a fan of James McAvoy.  But then I heard that its final scene tied in with Unbreakable: a film that's enraptured me since first watching one late night at a theater in Asheville many moons ago.

Even without knowing that the connection with Unbreakable was coming, I would have caught the common thread.  Shyamalan had produced another comic book movie without being based on a comic book.  McAvoy's character - dubbed "The Horde" by the end of the movie - is described so much as superhuman depending on which personality is dominant at the time, that Split was at least an obvious spiritual sequel to Unbreakable.  The main deviation being that this was a super villain origin story (maybe the first one in cinema history).

But then that last scene in the diner, and a waitress mentioning the guy in the wheelchair from years ago and then we see David Dunn (how I regret not being in a theater when Bruce Willis comes into camera) simply muttering "Mister Glass".  The best magic is when it's done right in front of your eyes, and you think you're seeing everything but then it drops your jaws and you can barely realize how much you've been tricked the whole time.  That's what Split was: a full-blown stealth sequel.  And a portent that this wasn't over with yet...

Shyamalan had regained my tenantative faith.  He seemed on to something.  And I knew that I had to ride this out to the end to see where he was taking this.

So it is that on its opening weekend I caught Glass.  An attempt was made to write a review shortly afterward but... I couldn't do it.  Not without another viewing and absorbing the spectacle of not just this movie, but the entire tale leading up to it.

That second viewing came last night and it only affirmed what had been on my mind in the days since first seeing Glass: that M. Night Shyamalan has delivered a true thinking-person's comic book saga.  One well ahead of its time and I have to believe that admiration and appreciation for it is only going to keep growing.  Some call it the "Unbreakable Trilogy".  Shyamalan himself refers to it as the "Eastrail 177 Trilogy".  My personal preference is simply "the Eastrail Trilogy".

Whatever its name, Shyamalan has made Glass be the third act of the superhero trilogy that we don't deserve, that we didn't know we needed, and perhaps should be the morality tale we heed most right now.

Glass begins three weeks after the events of Split, and David Wendell Crumb is still on the loose.  Now nineteen years after the conclusion of Unbreakable, David Dunn persists in his persona as "Raincoat Guy", "Security Guard Man", whatever.  The latest nickname that social media has given him is "The Overseer": a superhero monicker that Dunn's now grown-up son and business partner Joseph (again played by Spencer Treat Clark) relishes in the back-office lair of their home security store.  Even now, Dunn is still looking out for people.  And trying to distract himself from his status as a widower.

When four cheerleaders disappear - the same M.O. as Crumb's previous abduction of Casey Clarke (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her friends - David and Joseph set out to track down The Beast.  And it's not far into Glass that the two metahumans collide in combat.  They are just as promptly apprehended and taken into custody and remanded to a high-security mental institution.  The same high-security mental institution, incidentally, where a near-catatonic Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) has been put away following his homicidal quest for superhumans nearly two decades earlier.

David Dunn, The Beast, and Mister Glass all in the same psychiatric hospital.  On the same ward.  Within eyesight of each other.  This won't end well.  Or maybe it is going according to the plan of Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who is determined to treat the trio for their "delusions of grandeur" simultaneously.  Joseph attempts to convince Staple that his father's apprehension is a mistake.  Casey - who has already grown stronger and more confident in the weeks since escaping The Horde - insists on seeing Kevin.  And Price's mother (a very wonderful return to the part by Charlayne Woodard) tries reaching through the fog to her son, stalwart in her belief that a true mastermind endures behind that vacant stare.

And anything more than this perhaps already too long synopsis would be depriving you, Dear Reader, of a rare comet illuminating the skies of what some are calling an increasingly dismal genre.  Because Glass is a true intellectual's comic book movie.  And it wraps up a true intellectual's comic book trilogy.  This is a saga about superpowers not as a feast for the eyes but for the mind.  The Eastrail Trilogy (yeah that's what I'm calling it from now on) is a morality exercise and it can't be broken down into a Cliff's Notes version.  The only other comic book trilogy in the same neighborhood is Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Saga: a character study as much as a straightforward adaptation.

I will remark however, on Glass and how it succeeds as the end of the Eastrail Trilogy.  Because in this comic book film universe there are indeed super-powered individuals.  And they are everywhere.  And more to the point they are each and every one of us.  Shyamalan's is not a world where superhuman abilities belong to the very lucky or the mega rich or the divinely born.  From the very beginning of this saga almost twenty years in the making, Unbreakable and Split and Glass have tried to drive home the message that, as C.S. Lewis beautifully put it, "you have never talked to a mere mortal."  Perhaps it's not so ironic that David Dunn in his hooded poncho bears great resemblance to The Spectre as Alex Ross depicted him in the groundbreaking 1996 graphic novel Kingdom Come.  "You have watched the titans walk the Earth," Spectre tells the elderly pastor Norman McKay, "and you have kept stride.  Perhaps you are more like them than you realize.  You exist... to give hope."  Ross drew the depiction of the mysterious hero that appears in the newspaper toward the end of Unbreakable.  Make of that what you will.

To give hope.  Isn't that more than enough of a superpower that each of us can acquire?  Despite how often too many in this world - the powers and princes and demagogues - tell us that we "are the victim", as Casey is informed at one point in Glass.  We can have and do have more power than we imagine.  It is the common man, and not presidents or generals or celebrities, who control our destiny.  Maybe that is why so many critics have given Glass unkind reviews.  This is a film that is metaphorically shattering their worldview: the worldview they demand that the rest of us must adhere to.  And then in that final scene, the dawning of a new universe and a world poised to change and never go back to the way things were...

Remember when The Matrix came out twenty years ago this spring?  The more I think about it, Glass caps off a story that is even more potent.  Is far more powerful.  Is much more needed right now in our culture.  But again, I might be saying too much.  As with the best of books and movies, it's better to go in cold.  And cold you will, because whatever you have ascertained from Glass's trailers, rest assured that it is not the movie you are expecting to go in seeing.

It takes a lot for me to make time lately to review a film, but Glass demanded it.  I'm going to absolutely recommend catching this during its theatrical run.  And if you can, by all means do take a refresher course with Unbreakable and Split before going to the theater.  It's not required but it will help in appreciating the grander scheme at work across this trilogy.  But even without that, Glass is a magnificent ensemble of cast, of concept, and of Shyamalan's grand mastery of the twist... and there are some.  Oh bruddah, are there twists.

Let's give M. Night Shyamalan a round of applause.  The kid done good.  And he's shown us something all too scarce lately: real growth and evolution of a filmmaker.  If the previous decade and a half or so of lackluster product has been his time in the wilderness, then it has been time well spent and I am most certainly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with next.