It’s not yet Thanksgiving, but already the shops are jingling and moaning with the usual musical treacle that the holidays bring. It’s hard to go into a public retail space without hearing the same tired old chestnuts roasting over their various fires while trying to find new socks. When this happens in September, as it did in one shop I furiously stalked out of, it’s criminal. Dashing through the snow before the trees have even turned should be a criminal offense, with the miscreant companies forced to be wrapped in fake spiderwebs until December 1st.
But I digress. I’ll admit that I dislike 95% of holiday music. Whether it is religious or secular in nature really doesn’t matter- most of it is syrupy drivel stuck in a time-warp that creates a place that never existed- except maybe in a movie or two.
It occurred to me, and there are stats to back it up (we are in the 21st Century, after all) – that most holiday music we listen to was made in the 40s and 50s. We’re listening to ghost music. Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Andy Williams- those voices that croon many of the more popular Xmas standards- are all gone- most recently, Andy Williams. (d. 2012). And the songs about ‘jingle bell rock’ and ‘rockin’ round the Christmas Tree’ are from the Fifties. They’re the music that the grandparents of Millenials listened to as teens. Boomer music. With vanishingly few exceptions, most popular holiday music is that of our grandparents. There is little or no new music- just remixes of old stuff. Trans-Siberian Orchestra has done the most to create newer music- but even Wizards in Winter is not well known, and is an instrumental used to run light-shows.
Makes you think, in a way. When I was a kid, a lot of the same music- the exact same recordings- were the stock in trade of the holiday season, which was much shorter. There was no ‘Black Friday’, and it was considered gauche to put up your lights or tree before mid- December. Most stores refrained from decorating before Thanksgiving, and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade signaled the official start of the holiday season- with the Saturday after Thanksgiving being the launch date.
I’ve seen “Black Friday” ads in my email in May and June- it seems like a retail meme that cannot be let loose. And while I understand that a shopping frenzy once a year does keep people more stable, consumer-wise, it’s still something I recoil from. I love shopping- it scratches a primitive hunter-gatherer itch in me. But I hate greedy, grabby crowds, and the obligatory side of the holiday season- I prefer to give gifts when I see fit, not because I must. I frustrate my sister when she asks what I want for Xmas, because I really don’t want anything. And the question also reminds me that such questions are only asked by people who don’t bother to hang out with me to find out what my tastes are. Gifts should surprise and delight. A good gift should be a way of telling the recepient that you have been paying attention to them, and you know what they like and want without their telling you. Gifts are an acknowledgement of an almost mystical, telepathic insight. Someone I like might mention something in passing, setting a flag in my mind that reminds me in the middle of a flea-market that hey! They’ll LOVE this! But telling someone exactly what I want- giving them a laundry list of movies, books, shoes, computer software, music controllers, yard equipment, and home renovation wishes is really lame, and sucks the essence out of gift-giving. Yeah, sis- I want a new kitchen and bathroom. Got $50K? Didn’t think so. Well, I need some landscaping done. Shouldn’t be more than about $7 or 8K. Still too rich? Oh, how about this really cool digital music launcher? It’s less than $1K. No? OK, why not a nice gift card from Lowe’s or Amazon? If she insists- that is what I ask for.
But I digress. I am no longer the child who presented my parents with my List of Stuff- usually including things like electronic breadboards, crystal radios, and sciency stuff- and being disappointed that I kept getting dolls, tea-sets, and girly things. That taught me that I had to earn my own way- that people didn’t pay attention to what I needed, they got me what they thought I wanted. To this day, I look on any gift with suspicion. And I stopped celebrating Xmas 15 years ago. But the ancient yuletide carols that accompany me on my rounds for this increasingly bloated season put me back into that frustrated time and place- where people could or would not see beyond my exterior, and thought they knew what I wanted better than I did.
In a way, the holiday season is a sort of purgatory that ends every year- a forced march of misty-eyed nostalgia, of concentrated greed, spite, and misery, of forced cheerfulness and artificial frenzy, culminating in the Hangover of the Year.
I could write “Bah Humbug” on my roof with LED lights, and have been tempted to do so. But instead, I have chosen to be selective about this season and the various things it brings- including the ghosts of holidays past, and the hopes of holidays yet to come. I don’t decorate extensively, have a tree, or give gifts. I do put lights outside to welcome winter. I play winter music- including a few standards that have been sucked into the Christmas vortex- like ‘Let It Snow’ and ‘Winter Wonderland’. These songs do not mention Christmas at all. Even the signature song, “Jingle Bells”- a time-warp song if there was one- isn’t a Christmas song. It’s about an extinct form of winter transportation- horse drawn sleighs.
I don’t hate Christmas, but I’ll put up with the ‘whoop-de-doo and dickory dock’, ignore the artificial ‘war on Christmas’, and dodge the worst of the crowds for the next 6 weeks. Then, it will be over. My favorite day, December 26, will arrive, and I’ll start whistling ‘Summer is Icumin in’ just to annoy everyone. Sing, cuckoo!
Today is Veterans Day. The radio, TV and Internet are chock full of stories about combat veterans, memories of those who were killed in combat, or while serving. It almost seems like this day, which originally marked the end of World War 1, gets confused and muddled with Memorial Day, which is meant to remember those service people who have died. I do not mean to trivialize those losses, but to instead clarify that today should be devoted to those veterans who are alive. Veterans like me. I am a veteran of the Cold War and Desert Storm. I enlisted in the US Air Force right out of high school, a few years after Vietnam ended, and was given about a year’s pay and shown the door right after Desert Storm. I honorably served 13 years- eight of them overseas.
As time passes, my generation is finding itself increasingly overshadowed on two sides- on one, by the Vietnam generation, and on the other, by the men and women who served- and are still serving- in the longest conflict our nation has ever engaged in. The Cold War generation of veterans is probably the largest group of veterans outside the Enduring Freedom cohort, but, like the generation that served between World Wars 1 and 2, we’re largely overlooked.
That’s the breaks. I saw 3AM many, many times while I served, allowing the rest of the world to sleep well while we jousted with the Russians, playing radio and radar games. They had a radar that we called the ‘woodpecker’ because of its rapid pulses, that bled onto our orderwires when they cranked it up on those long nights, in an attempt to jam us. We’d jam them back- sometimes literally, piping mixtapes full of music over the sidebands and channels we knew they monitored. They got a nice variety- pop, rock, metal, euro-disco. I sometimes wondered if they didn’t try to jam us just to get us to crank out the jams. Those were my military memories- long nights on swing or mid-shift, maintaining various communications nodes, sometimes in the middle of nowhere.
Those long nights in central Europe and the UK took their toll. I developed a deep and debilitating depression, which plagued me like a growing millstone around my soul. It leached away any ambition, eroded my capacity to learn, and utterly flattened my life. Towards the end of my service, it was extremely difficult for me to both sleep and wake up- and the last year or so of my service plays back in bits and pieces, devoid of color, interspersed with periods of no memory at all. My growing inability to react or cope was taken advantage of by my colleagues, who used it to gaslight me and worsen my illness. They actively sabotaged my work, including my maintenance and supply logs, building up ‘evidence’ that led to my demotion and removal from that field. I actively considered suicide at that point. Losing my rank meant that I had exceeded my high year of tenure, and had to study for and pass the test to regain my rank, or be forced to leave. I barely had the spoons to function, much less study for a major test. I tried- and failed. I was honorably discharged, with a handful of money- and not much else.
I was told that the VA would not help me. I did not get anything more than a cursory physical. I tried, and failed, to get a DOD job at a neighboring base, as I burned through the money that I had been given. I was unable to think coherently- the depression still had me in its grip, and my ability to make rational decisions was compromised. Had I been in a better mental state, I might had gone straight back to the US, instead of futilely trying to find employment in the UK.
A traffic accident was the catalyst that changed all that. I was involved in a multi-car pileup on my way to London to seek permission to stay in the country. My car was totaled. I lost the part-time job that I had at a base 50 miles from my old base. I had to go home. I sold and gave away most of my belongings, and had the rest boxed up and sent to a warehouse in New Jersey. I spent the next 3 weeks couch surfing, waiting for other attempts to find work in the US to manifest. They did not.
Crushed, defeated, demoralized, and profoundly depressed, I returned to the US, and moved back in with my parents. I spent the first 3 months literally unable to function, staying mostly in my room, curled up in a ball of misery. The only thing that got me out of the house were the ‘make-work’ jobs that people on state unemployment were required to take in order to get their checks. One such job found me standing in the middle of I-40, doing some sort of survey. Another had me on a litter crew.
I was still too depressed to truly evaluate my situation, and my parents, my father in particular, did not help. He kept giving me grief, telling me what a sorry loser I was, and how I would never amount to anything, and that I needed to get a boyfriend and move in with him. I combed the papers for jobs- trying and failing to get one at a new Circuit City that was opening. I traded on my minimal experience with PCs to get a job at a printing company that lasted 9 days, and finally got a minimum wage job in the local newspaper’s subscription department. It wasn’t enough for me to be able to live on, much less thrive, but I stuck with it for a year and a half. Then I landed a job at Circuit City- the same store that rejected me 2 years before. My income as well as my self-esteem shot up.
I finally made enough money to afford the rent in a modest duplex apartment. Then Circuit City was sold, and my income collapsed, and I found myself on the bare edge of homelessness again. I saw the handwriting on the wall, and found another job- my current one, and landed it.
Throughout this time, I still struggled with depression and inertia. I’d been told by a colleague that the VA would help me, but my first attempt to contact them in ’96 was disasterous. There was no outreach, no interface, and no real interaction. In fact, I was paged as “Mr” when I was there, and my attempts to register and get a VA card were ignored and rebuffed. I swore that I would not return. A second attempt in ’02 ended the same way, with the interface group- VFW, utterly ignoring me. They later claimed not to have received my paperwork, even though I’d sent it twice. My claims of disability were also rejected.
In ’09, a friend on the internet recommended that I try using Disabled American Veterans as my representative. Suddenly, things started to turn around. I had physical problems that were service related, including PTSD and MST (I was sexually assaulted twice while serving), but those claims were rejected for ‘lack of documentation’. My explanation that the command staff involved refused to document them was met with indifference. No paperwork, no claim. I later learned that this was routine- both on the part of many command staffs, as well as the VA- women’s claims of sexual assault were literally dismissed, not documented and swept under the rug, or turned on them as ‘mental problems’. In fact, many women were routinely sent to be mentally evaluated when they claimed sexual assault, in order to find a way to document their incompatibility with service, and forcibly discharge them. That happened to me- but I was lucky: I was diagnosed with depression, and treated. That landed in my medical records, and that saved me.
With the help of the DAV, I got a minimal claim of disability from the VA- the smallest one- 10%. Then, an audit of my records revealed that I had gotten money when I was discharged- and I had to pay it back. Every penny. My tiny stipend vanished- garnished to pay back that money. I would not see a dime until 2028. The VA giveth, the government taketh away. The DAV appealed my case, and the VA noted that I’d claimed PTSD, and reviewed my records. They boosted up my disability considerably, but the payment is still being completely garnished. As it stands, I won’t see a penny of it until 2016.
I’m still not done with them. I have a physical injury that was also documented, which they either overlooked or ignored- that is giving me increasing difficulty today. With the help of the DAV, I will return to the VA with this claim, and try to obtain my rightful disability payment for it. Any money I get from it will go towards modifying my home to age in place.
I realize that I am one of the lucky ones- a survivor. I was technically homeless for a while, but not profoundly so. I had an incredibly debilitating illness that was invisible to most, and in spite of it, still managed to function- albeit barely. During the depths of that depression, I gained 50 pounds, and developed hoarding problems, mostly due to food insecurity and poverty. During the last few months of my enlistment, and most of the time I remained in the UK, I ate poorly, mostly ramen and ‘toast-chee’ crackers. They were all I could afford. In the US, I’d stock up on food- most of which went to the food bank or was thrown out because of hoarding. I still have to watch myself today, questioning every purchase to make sure I’m not returning to those habits. The depression remains- a constant shadow in my life.
I was lucky. And maybe, in spite of my father’s beliefs, I am worthy. In all the things that happened to me, I did not succumb to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. I did get suckered in by a couple of con artists- people who prey on crushed souls like my own, dangling hope and false love and salvation before us, becoming false friends in order to get close enough to strip us of our money, dignity- even lives. Somehow, there remained a kernel of self-respect and defiance within me- a tiny diamond core that was invincible, imperishable- a fragment of light that refused to surrender to the darkness. That tiny diamond gave me the strength to say no, to push back, to hesitate before taking a wrong turn.
That tiny core of resilience also enabled me to build discipline and routines that helped pull me out of the worst of the depression, and entirely out of poverty. The Universe acts in interesting ways, and when I was functional enough to think coherently and maintain routines, it led me to books and articles that enabled me to dig my way out of poverty, repair my credit, build savings, and finally purchase a home.
Today, I’ve had my current job longer than I served in the military. The time that has passed since those dark days has given me perspective, and put me beyond the shadows cast by that time. For a long time after I got out, I did not want to reveal myself as a veteran. I wanted to get as far away from the military and its satellite services as I could. I chose not to serve in the guard. I got rid of all my uniform items. I kept the plaques and pins, and a folder of paperwork, including orders and one pay slip. Reading it today, I am both appalled and amazed- appalled by the tiny paycheck, and amazed that I managed to survive. My peak pay was $16K while I served. I’m doing much better today. And I am no longer avoidant of my status as a veteran- I even got veterans plates on my vehicle, and I ask about veterans discounts, as well. While I don’t like some entitlement attitudes, in my case, I’ve earned mine. I’ve paid for them dearly- and in some ways, still am.
I have a Dickensian take on my service: It was the best of times, and the worst of times. I have great memories of the places, and some of the people I served with. And I also have some harrowing ones. They weave in and out of each other- a tapestry of light and dark, of delight and horror. The scars remain- but so does the membership in a growing group of people who, no matter their age or sex, have serving their country in common.
I have these thoughts every year on this day- thinking about my service, my struggles with poverty and illness, and my climb out of that pit. I think about the VA, and what I have ahead of me. I still need to joust with them some more- wrestling with their particularly vexing interfaces and active discouragement to obtain what I should have gotten when I was discharged- a proper evaluation, and compensation for my injuries. I think about the sobering statistics for female veterans- 65% of us end up homeless and impoverished. I worry that my own period of relative stability might end, and I will find myself on the street- a bag lady living in a hole in the wall. It’s a recurring nightmare, and a reality for many. I think that if I bothered to enter and win a lottery of means, I’d use some of that to create a trust to assist my female peers.
Happy Veterans Day.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been watching a Starz original series called “The Chair”. Its premise was to follow and film two rookie directors as they created a movie using the same script, budget, and location. It was produced by Chris Moore, who did “Project Greenlight”.
The ‘hook’ for the series was to have the audience vote on the two movies, and award the winning director $250K, which isn’t chump change. Its less prominent, but equally important hook was to promote Pittsburgh as a filmmaking destination. The series is set in Pittsburgh, as are both movies- giving the city a cinematic cameo- especially in the amazing credit sequences- and providing the backdrop- in mid-winter- for both movies.
The fledgling directors selected for this adventure were Anna Martemucci, of the Periods film family, and YouTube star Shane Dawson. Anna went to screenwriting school in New York, Shane worked off-the-cuff creating comedy video shorts in LA. Two radically different people- Shane with a huge, enthusiastic teen audience, and Anna, with a dynamic, supporting family.
Nine episodes (of ten) in, it’s clear that Anna made the better movie, but the odds are that Shane’s monster number of fans will utterly swamp her votes. Both directors made rookie mistakes- Anna had difficulty on the front end accepting the reins of leadership- she was used to working in a very collaborative way with her husband Victor Quinaz and brother in law Phil (who also had a supporting role in the movie). Shane, on the other hand, had his difficulty letting go of the reins of control- he chose to star in it as well as direct it (not easy for even seasoned directors!). And he refused to let anyone else edit his film, refused to take critical notes from his colleagues, or sit in on the audience evaluations. He was used to working on his own.
The end results were as one would expect- a warm, laid-back, cinematic movie from Anna (Hollidaysburg), and a frenetic vulgarity-laced extended-length YouTube video (Not Cool) from Shane. Each movie was unique, but watching both, one can see the bones of the original script behind the two very different visions. Both directors even got final cut- a rarity for first-timers. So, we saw their movies.
That’s what we’re supposed to see when we watch this show- the stories of these two people and their various collisions with the realities of movie making, culminating in the end result- two new movies. Good, fine television in and of itself, and a field day for behind-the-scenes movie fans.
But “The Chair” has some additional surprises for us. In a surprisingly original and meta- move, we’re also seeing the documentary being made of the show itself. A third story, about the creators themselves. Cleverly placed floating credits tell us who is whom, and what role they’re playing. It’s nearly like knocking the fourth wall down to pony-wall height, and letting us watch the watchers. No artifically introduced drama was involved, which is quite a change from usual ‘reality’ fare. There were clearly decisions made in the editing as to what discussions of the documentary crew, the budget, the reactions and interactions of the various producers, and the struggles of the various companies involved be revealed. We even get a memorable scene of the normally laid-back co-producer Zachary Quinto expressing anger and disappointment about one of the films. This takes “The Chair” from mere fly-on-the-wall voyeurism to nearly live television. It’s an edgy and daring step to take, and the people involved in producing it- Chris Moore and “Before The Door”, Zachary Quinto’s production company- did the thing. They hung it out there on the edge, and pushed the envelope. Did they bite off more than they could chew? Could they pull this off? Would they get funding? I found myself on the edge of my own chair wondering what was going to happen next.
I’ll be brutally honest- most TV is boring and predictable as hell for me. I know the tropes, the clichés, the probable plot-twists, the generic characters- as well as any long-time viewer does. So, surprising and engaging me isn’t an easy thing. But here was a story within a story, hiding in plain sight; the story of a newish production company (Before The Door has been around for less than a decade) going through its own School of Hard Knocks, and emerging on the other side with a few scratches and dings- but infinitely wiser and experienced. Having to shepherd two fledgling directors through this process, and dealing with the various surprises and pitfalls along the way- while at the same time tending several other irons that were in their fire -had to be a real stress test for them. But as far as I can tell, they soldiered through, and succeeded in telling a third, just as compelling story.
Because of other commitments, Zachary Quinto and Neal Dodson could not be as available for input during the shooting as they wanted to be. Zach was making “Agent 42″ and Neal was helping director J. C. Chandor put the finishing touches to the forthcoming movie “A Most Violent Year”. So their appearances were more like cameos- showing up briefly on Shane’s set once, and later at the screenings of the rough cuts.
So it fell to the third main member of “Before The Door”, Corey Moosa, to fill in for Zach and Neal, and demonstrate that he was able (and mostly willing) to go the extra mile for Shane’s movie. Shane’s script called for both exposed male genitals and a bare butt, and Corey, trouper that he was, managed to find the former for his director, and provide the latter himself. Corey also had a lot of screen time talking to the documentary crew about the processes himself. He turned out to be the most visible and memorable member of the Before The Door team, bringing them into the story in a warm and often humorous way. Zach has called him the ‘heart’ of his company (with Neal the ‘mind’ and Zach himself as the ‘face’), and Moosa demonstrated that amply in the course of the film.
He was especially prominent in attempting to both support and direct Shane’s efforts to permit more outside input and craftsmanship on his movie- including taking corrective notes from Shane’s staff, professional editing, and sitting in on the pre-screenings, but along with Shane’s producing partner Lauren, Corey was repeatedly rebuffed. Shane was determined to pull that load himself, without regard to his own actual competency in those roles. Sadly, that showed up in the finished product, angering Zach so deeply that he removed his and Neal’s name from the credits. Corey’s remained, in a producer role.
On Anna’s side, all three were listed in the credits of her movie. And additionally, her own company, Periods.Films, also showed up in the credits. Her own shortfalls were more along the lines of inexperience and perhaps a little too much insularity- the biggest problem audiences had with her film were the very subtly differentiated female characters (audiences complained that they looked alike) and some uncertainty as to who was narrating the story, and why. Was this Tori’s story? Scotts? Heather’s? I think she did a good job in getting that sorted in the editing and dialogue stages. And sometimes, in the heat of production, a rookie director gets so much input that it requires a fresh set of eyes in the editing bay to see what the audience is going to see in the character design (unlike Shane, she handed that task over to professional editors). We only see what the camera sees, not what the director sees in casting, rehearsal, and between shots. She got to know her actors quite well. We only got to know them on the business end of a TV screen. Unlike Shane, I expect that Anna will learn from her newbie errors, and go on to create many good movies.
But “The Chair” is ultimately about storytelling. And in that, they succeeded. I rarely let ‘appointment television’ cut in to my Saturday outings, but that has been an exception these last few weeks. I’ve had a ton of fun watching the show, and interacting online with the various producers, and Anna and her family. This was an unexpected bonus- another manifestation of the digital porosity of the fourth wall. I watched both films, and voted on them. And next week, we’ll find out who ultimately won. I am hoping that Anna will, but the odds are against that, considering Shane’s sheer numbers of fans. I hope he’ll learn from his experience, and if he wins, uses his winnings to polish his chops. And even if Anna doesn’t win, she’s well on her way to an interesting, and hopefully rewarding career. Female directors are still way too few and far between, and every lady we launch adds additional richness and depth to a popular culture that skews way too far towards young male tastes. I like comic book and superhero movies as much as the next person, but there should be room for other voices as well.
I miss Halloween. That might sound strange, since we’re right on the verge of it, but for me, Halloween is a relic of the past, of a life I no longer live.
I was out mowing my yard when my friend Lindsay blew up my phone trying to get my attention- did I want to see if I could go to Provincetown and see Zachary at a fund-raising gathering for the local theater group?
I contemplated the price of the KRK-8 near-field monitors, Audio-Technica M50x cans and the workstation desk I was about to get (digital music creation and mixing is my new hobby), and put them on hold. After all, a chance to see the fellow my dad dubbed ‘Ol’ What’s His Ears’ in such a venue didn’t come along often, and I could get the gear any time. (Plus, it might be on sale- I’m anything if thrifty!) Mingling a bit with Zach in the same room? Sure! Sign me up!
I’d just bought the plane tickets when a massive tornado came along and wiped out most of Mayflower and Vilonia. I don’t live there, but I have colleagues that did, and dealing with the aftermath consumed most of my time for the next couple of weeks. So, I didn’t get in on the ZQC plotting of the cards and cake. And when I did finally come up for air, it was nearly time to go, and I hadn’t had my usual pre-travel panic attack yet. I wadded up my courage, and dealt with it. I think the whole crazy thing with the tornado probably depleted my usual Panic Checklist- and wore it out.
I got to MA, met my friend Lindsay, and learned about the alternate universe in Peabody that plotted to make us loop endlessly around on 1 until we chanted the right combination of cuss words, invoked the u-turn god, and bribed the ‘nobody up our butt when we had to make a lane-change goddess’ and finally found our hotel. The next day, I invoked my own mental ‘do not make me barf on the damn ferry’ loop to get across to P-Town.
Provincetown is Santa Cruz East, y’all. The only thing missing was a boardwalk with a big roller coaster and ‘Keep P-Town Weird’ bumper stickers.
But, Zach… He announced his presence by posting some great Instagram photos of where he was staying. Elvis was in the building!