Monday, May 30, 2016

Rule No. 1: Ignore All the Platitudes

Several years ago when my god-daughter, now grown, graduated from high school I took it upon myself to offer some of the advice nobody gives you when you head out into the world. Time has passed, I think the advice still stands, and the young woman in question never ended up in jail. And, I think she throws some pretty good parties.

When your parents made me your godmother, your dad got it into his head that A) I had to take you to Europe one day or B) I had to pay for your college education.

Fortunately, your parents schlepped you off on that fabulous vacation last year. And I think you took care of yourself by being smart enough to get scholarships. Thanks, I don’t have $200,000 under my pillow.

That leaves me with the task of imparting wisdom. OK, you can start laughing now. But think about it. You and your classmates will be hearing platitudes ranging from “Wow, can you believe we finally made it?” to “The world is your oyster” and versions of climbing every mountain and fording every stream. While all true in their own way, those notions do not make up a complete picture.

See, nobody tells you the whole truth. I don’t mean in a scary way, just the things that later, you think, “I woud never have seen that coming.”

So here are a few. And trust me, I’ll not spend any more time in my life imparting my wisdom to you. You’re probably smarter than I am anyway.

* The combination of people irritating in a classroom – the suck-up, the know-it-all, the idiot who just can’t understand anything, the comedian who isn’t funny – is essentially the same combination of people you will encounter in any group situation for the rest of your life

* Don’t listen if the people you know think your friends are weird. In 10 years, people will be itching to come to your parties because you know such interesting people.

* You will miss your brothers. Someday.

* Never burn any bridges. That bratty kid you babysit might be your boss one day.

* Friendship takes work. Staying in touch takes work. But the payoff is tremendous. After a while, you realize that having a lot of friends isn’t a popularity contest so much as the result of working hard to be good to the people you care about. 

* Love doesn’t always conquer all. And when it doesn’t, it is a blow from which you feel you will never, ever recover. 

* But you do recover.

* You will always be the child, even when you are not. You can be 37 years old and have just given birth to triplets, and your parents will still think you don’t mind crashing in a sleeping bag on the family room floor.

* This might be the most important: If you find a pair of jeans or shoes that are absolutely perfect, buy at least two pair because clothing companies change their lines on even the most timeless of items for no other reason than to drive you insane.

 Goals are nice, but if you stick to them too much you won’t enjoy the ride and be open to other possibilities. Things come up that might not have even crossed your mind as a student. Ask any 50-year-old web designer. 

* Just you can’t sing doesn’t mean you can’t be a rock star. OK, even if that’s not in your career plan and you can sing like an “American Idol,” it’s more original than saying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” If there’s something you want, go after it with your whole heart and don’t listen to people who say it can’t be done. Unless, of course, going after it would set off an alarm system of any kind. 

Well, the last one borders on the kind of platitude you’re going to hear in every speech and see in every graduation card. So I’ll leave the rest up to you to find out.

After all, the world is your oyster.

This essay first appeared in The Des Moines Register on May 29, 2004.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Learning the Lessons from Bowie's Ch-Ch-Changes

A song, an anthem and an approach to life.

In the days after David Bowie died on Jan. 10, there were scores of tributes that spoke of his impact and tried to succinctly describe him or his work.

Fluidity seemed to be a big theme for this shape-shifting superstar – how he moved so freely in terms of personality, style, genre, gender and sexuality. Bowie was indeed all these things, but the vast range of tributes to him both illustrated and missed one of his most fluid elements of all:

He belonged to no particular generation.

Superstars with long careers have been celebrated after their deaths in ways as large or larger than Bowie was, but his passing was unique for how people remembered him most fondly. There were those who discovered him as he emerged in the 1970s. There were those who first heard him in the early 1980s during what at the time was seen as a comeback, though the brilliance of a lyric like “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” from “Let’s Dance” would have assured anyone immortality.

Some remembered him fondly because of the film “Labyrinth.” Some were as intrigued by the visual elements of his work. There are Tin Machine fans, and there are people who were excited about his new record before they knew it would be his last.

He belonged to each set of fans, as much as Bowie and his work belonged to anyone. And that was the true brilliance of his career.

There are few musicians who can transcend their era, much as they  might try. As much as Paul McCartney and the other Beatles continued to put out other work throughout their career, they are always going to be 1960s icons. It’s with snide condescension the apocryphal story floats around that there’s someone who asked the question, “Oh, Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?”

That remark exists because people get territorial about their generation’s music. Someone born in 1980 might love Jimi and Janis, but that love will always live under the notion that it’s not truly “their” music because they weren’t there when it happened.

This seemingly has never been a part of Bowie fandom. And never being part of a generation was his plan from the get-go. It continues to be a stunning fact that though “Space Oddity” is seen as part of the early 1970s Bowie canon in the U.S., it was first released and became a hit in the UK in 1969.

That would be the same 1969 that gave us Woodstock, Altamont, John and Yoko’s “bed-in” and songs from the musical “Hair” all over the charts.

Yet in the midst of that comes a skinny guy with a shag haircut wearing a space suit floating in a most peculiar way. Earnestness was replaced by irony, political statements were replaced with artistic ones.

“We were fed up with denim and the hippies and we wanted to go somewhere else,” he said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in an interview that was replayed after his death.

That hippie/boomer demographic has had hold of our culture for more than 50 years. The fact that appreciation for Bowie and the return of “Star Wars” are happening at parallel moments is interesting; if there was one cultural touchstone that finally didn’t belong to hippies and baby boomers, it was the arrival of “Star Wars” in 1977. And, like Bowie, it’s one that continues to be discovered by people of all ages and eras with people claiming it as a personal touchstone and not a generational one.

As a culture, we tend to paint generations with a broad brush. Just ask the millennials, who are constantly subjected to barrages of trend stories that define them by what they eat, how they live,  where they work and, seemingly, how they put one foot in front of the other.

If there’s a lesson from Bowie’s long life of work, maybe it’s less about springing from a certain time as creating a continuum of expression that takes its inspiration from a variety of things along the way. That can be artistic, but also personal: to not get stuck in a rut because of what we’ve always done or to not be intractable in our beliefs or interests.

A world like that would indeed be an oddity, but one that would be amazing to see. Even just for one day.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Remember Every Day of Your Life? Forget About It

Are these smart people, people with good memories, or both?

Barbra Streisand only had it half right. 

Memories do indeed light the corners of your mind, but they can drive you crazy, too. We all have those moments of wondering why we remember our sixth-grade best friend’s phone number but can’t remember what we did yesterday. 

And then there are those who remember everything. And I mean everything. 

A 2010 film, “Unforgettable,” documents a man from La Crosse, Wisconsin, who has been dubbed “The Human Google” by his uncanny memory of his own life. Brad Williams has been diagnosed with the rare hyperthymesia, also known as superior autobiographical  memory. Marilu Henner of “Taxi” fame has a similar kind of memory and she appeared with Williams on a “60 Minutes” story about the topic. Only 20-some people in the world have been found to have this ability.

The film is on Wisconsin Public Television on Friday, May 1. 

There are probably those who are amazed by that, in a good way. I can’t think of anything more horrible than remembering every day of my life. 

To some extent, I speak from experience. While my life has been far from tragic, no one has good things happen to them all the time. And it’s only in recent years that I realized that I have a really good memory – though nothing like Brad Williams or Marilu Henner - which I both treasure and curse.

“You’re the one who can’t get Alzheimer’s,” said a friend who herself worries about dementia because of a family history. “You’re the one who remembers everything.”

For most of my life, I thought memory was this thing we are all born with like an arm or a leg. And that, like other body parts, it might get beat up or worn out but everyone’s basic raw materials were always the same. Then I  grew up and lived most of my adult life in other places, where the memories I shared with friends didn’t go back very far. 

And I worked in newsrooms, which are filled with people with spectacular memories. Brad Williams himself is a radio news host. I learned my craft from people who were encyclopedias, some of whom unfortunately took important reference material to the grave because they never bothered to write it down. 

I, and my memory, fit right in with those folks. We all thought we could kick butt on “Jeopardy,” though it’s hard to know if those contestants are actually smart or just have spectacular memories or a combination of both.

As the years went on, I seemingly had a better memory than my non-newspaper friends about things we did over the years. But let’s just say there are particular things they did that I didn’t that might have clouded their memories as these events were originally happening. 

Then I moved back to where I grew up. Suddenly I was continually sitting in rooms of people who were there at the very same time things happened when we were little kids, and had no idea what I was talking about. The storyteller in me loved this – I had a whole new audience for tales they had no memory of.

I often wondered if maybe I just made that stuff up, but then I found others in my family who had the same memory. It made me realize that memory isn’t like an arm or a leg – it’s like a birthmark, everyone has one and they’re all different. Eventually I realized that my youngest brother and a few older cousins also have these good, detailed memories, and that because of the age difference between us all we could be like the old griot in “Roots” and tell the oral history of our generation of the family.

That’s the good part. The rest? Do you really want to remember every slight you experienced in life? Because the actual memory isn’t the only thing there like a movie playing in your head, so are the feelings that went with it. They clog my mind in ways that still sting a little, but mostly as an irritant because I’d rather remember where my garage keys are. 

Yes, boy in kindergarten, I’m still kind of ticked that you told Mrs. Jabs that I was up and wandering the classroom while she was out of the room when the truth was I was the last to sit down and there were actually no chairs left in the room.  No, boy in third grade, I’m not still mad at you for saying to once-skinny me, “Don’t you eat?” I’m still intrigued by the memory of a mean thing a girl did to me in kindergarten and how, in retrospect, it was already the pattern for the mean girl she remained.

I used to test my memory, too, when I was a kid. I’d take random moments to say, “OK, I’m just going to remember what I am doing right now and see if I can remember it for the rest of my life.” So the memory of me getting a drink from the bubbler in fourth grade while wearing a green polyester pantsuit remains. 

But jeez, where did I put my library card? 

Yet memory can be a beautiful thing, too. I remember my brothers’ first steps and words (sorry, Mom, they began with a “D.”) I remember the beautiful indigo color my favorite blue corduroy coat turned under the street lights when my family walked to church on a snowy Christmas Eve when I was about 4 years old. I remember the touch of my uncle’s hand as he held my chin and stroked my cheek at my grandpa’s wake. Remembering old locker combinations and other details from youth helps create good Internet passwords, so there’s that too.

I’m lucky. I’m not harboring evil memories that hound me. Just this odd documentary of my life that pops up in the strangest ways sometimes, randomly edited and maybe with an R rating for language. 

Too bad there are no outtakes that can appear on a DVD. Because then someone else could watch and tell me where my garage keys are.

Friday, February 13, 2015

40 Years Ago, 'SNL' Changed Late Night Forever

The original cast of "Saturday Night Live": nobodies who became legends. (NBC photo)

As much as "Saturday Night Live" has been in the popular culture for 40 years, which is being celebrated this weekend, it wasn't until 2006 until the first season was released on DVD. This, a look back at that first season almost 30 years later, first appeared in The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.) in December 2006.


The beginning came quietly enough, a call and response between a soft-spoken professorial type helping an immigrant with his English: 

    Repeat after me. I would like ...

    I wood like ...

    To feed your fingertips ...

    To feed yur fingerteeps ...

    To the wolverines.

    To dee wolver-eens.

And so it began on a TV Saturday night in October 1975, a bit of a different look for anyone who was looking for the Johnny Carson rerun that used to fill that spot. By the time that professor clutched his chest and collapsed of a heart attack, followed onto the floor by the immigrant who was told to mimic his teacher, late-night television had changed forever. 

Or at least it was on its way. 

For the first time, fans of "Saturday Night Live" can see the first season in its entirety with a new eight-DVD boxed set release of the original 24 episodes. Each episode is intact, including musical guests. 

Various versions of the 32-year-old sketch show have been available for years (come on, isn't "The Best of Chris Kattan" on everybody's Christmas list?). Cable reruns have chopped them up for decades, yet these DVDs are the first time in a long time anyone has seen the originals from beginning to end.

And for many Madisonians, it might be the first time many people have seen them, period. The local NBC affiliate, Channel 15, didn't carry the show until Feb. 14, 1976, opting to stick with its killer lineup of "Space: 1999" and "The Midnight Special." 

NBC affiliates in Milwaukee and Rockford carried it, though, and depending how good of an antenna a TV had, many people could watch it on those channels. School conversations on Monday centered around what happened on "Saturday Night" and not just Saturday night, told for the benefit of those whose TV wasn't good enough to tune in. I remember my sisters and I scurrying to nab the baby-sitting jobs in the homes that got a clear signal from Rockford so we could be sure to tune in. (And these people thought we loved their children. ...)

What didn't air here was a work in progress, and watching the DVDs doesn't so much solidify the "it used to be so much better" camp as chart the show's evolution.

That first episode, airing on Oct. 11, 1975, was nothing like the show that became iconic. For starters, it was called "Saturday Night" because Howard Cosell had a show called "Saturday Night Live" over on ABC.

George Carlin hosted the NBC version, and the first 30 minutes of the show included two of his four monologues, Weekend Update, the Muppets and two musical acts. Billy Preston and Janis Ian performed on the first show (because, really, nothing gets a party going like Ian's "At Seventeen"). 

Andy Kaufman was sweet and surreal, a world away from the obnoxious presence that led to viewers voting him off the show years later. The cast was barely acknowledged, introduced by announcer Don Pardo as "The Not For Ready Prime Time Players."

It didn't improve much the second week, which was more or less "The Paul Simon Show." He opened with a song, did some more songs with Art Garfunkel, later Randy Newman and Phoebe Snow did some songs, 10 in all in the show.

To think of "Saturday Night Live" at anytime in its history is to think of a certain format. So it's so surprising to see the early episodes and realize the format wasn't there. There was Weekend Update and a vaguely amusing opening monologue, and there were Bees. But all in all, it was a shadow of what it would become.

By the fourth week, things started to kick in. I have no idea what Candice Bergen was famous for in 1975, but she was the first host who clearly was not the star of the show. She was part of it, not the center of it, and the cast came alive around her. By the time John Belushi started riffing on Ray Charles while dressed as Beethoven, the show picked up a steam it wouldn't lose again for five years.

In finding a format of recurring characters and catch phrases, the show wasn't as revolutionary as it seemed. Yet the cast, which earned its tag as "The Beatles of Comedy," endures as a versatile troupe of performers. They did it all, a mere seven of them compared to the cast in recent years that seemingly required the show's first 10 minutes just to introduce.

The biggest impact was commercial; the show helped NBC find that younger viewers indeed were a powerful demographic, a demographic every media company has knocked itself out trying to reach ever since.

But was it better? Little things stand out to answer yes, including a raucous performance by the rarely seen Patti Smith Group, the utter delight of watching Gilda Radner, the brilliant danger of John Belushi and topical humor that few would have the nerve to try on network TV today. (The Richard Pryor episode oozes with it.)

Other things stand out to answer no, including painfully boring films by Albert Brooks and the mystery of why Chevy Chase was the show's first big star.

So watch it for a time capsule or watch it to ride a nostalgic wave. Just watch it and remember there was a time when nobody bothered to put anything decent on TV after 10:30 on a Saturday night. 

Generations of baby-sitters remain eternally grateful.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Listing A Few Favorites Is the Best I Can Do

A still from "Take Me to Church," a video that matches the power of the song.

My favorite song of 2014 was Sinead O’Connor’s “Take Me to Church,” not to be confused with the song of the same name by Hozier, which wasn’t bad either.

My favorite album of 2014 was Lucius’ “Wildewoman,” which actually came out in 2013 but I didn’t get around to buying it until 2014. 

My favorite concert was Neko Case at the Orpheum in downtown Madison, as much because I was standing front and center as for the music.

This is the time of year for lists. Lists for movies, lists for music, lists for TV shows, lists for books and lists for news events. What’s listed above is sort of mine, with one big difference from the ones showing up everywhere else: the absence of the word “best.”

If there’s one thing the explosion of information – be it downloading music or video, or just having it at your fingertips 24/7 – has done has underscored the endless supply of this stuff. Bands and songs and movies have always slipped through the cracks, but now that there’s so much more around that’s easily accessible it’s easy to wonder just how one goes about picking the best of anything.

Don’t get me wrong; I love lists. I used to buy every year-end magazine I could get my hands on. Even now  I try to wade through the various lists that are now on various websites. Paste, No Depression, Pitchfork, NPR and local sources all give fodder to confirm choices made during the year or to introduce readers to something else. The big difference is now it takes much more patience; where once you could look over a list and flip the pages, now you sometimes have to have the patience to click 50 times just to go one-by-one to find out what the favorite picks might be.

I’ve even been in the list-making world. In my multi-faceted career I’ve reviewed records, concerts and films. I’ve made year-end or decade’s-best lists that sometimes proved prescient and sometimes proved ridiculous (I’ll forever defend the brilliance of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”; I’ll forever shake my head at my glowing praise for “Rattle and Hum” and I will always hate “The English Patient”).

To review things years ago was to help introduce people to things they otherwise might not find, to help people use their time and money well when it came time to entertainment. Now people can often find it by themselves and they can figure out ways to hear it or see it for free.

The role of a critic in today’s convoluted entertainment world is somewhat befuddling. On the one hand, people need a guide through this crowded market. In fact, as with news websites, often critics use the word “curate” when referring to their favorite music as they organize it. On the other hand, the easy access to so much out there makes it easy to look at anybody’s “best” list and say, “Says who?”

All of this makes it hard to use the word “best,” at least for me. Part of it is that maybe I had my shot as a taste-maker once upon a time and I don’t feel compelled to be that person anymore. But mostly I think it’s a feeling that an opinion is just that and while one might have the information, they might not have the taste or at least the taste to match the reader. 

Sometimes, though, having strong opinions about this stuff can pay unexpected dividends. Recently a 20-something I know well introduced me to his longtime girlfriend, who I had never met. Since he was a kid we always talked about music, and we did once again as we got caught up.

“Remember that time when I was in high school you told me to help myself to any of your vinyl?” he said. “Remember how I took a pile of records and you made me take Devo because you thought I should know about them?”

Being in a mode of feeling less bossy about my music these days, I felt a little sheepish about that.

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

“No, I wanted to thank you,” he said, bringing his girlfriend further into the conversation. “When we met we bonded over a love of Devo, and I wouldn’t have known much about them if you hadn’t made me take those records.”

It would be an understatement to say that was the favorite thing I heard this year. Hands down, absolutely, completely and without question there’s just one way to describe it: It was simply the best. 


Sinead O'Connor: "Take Me to Church"

Neko Case: "Ragtime"

Friday, October 24, 2014

Coming Home Can Be a Winning Strategy

Once upon a time he was just a kid, now he's coming home a champion.

Forget what the old adage is, you can go home again. You just have to have your head and heart open to what might happen there.

Six years ago, I moved back to my hometown after being away for 29 years. I lived a whole life mostly far away from the place where my life began. It was college and professional life, some success and some heartbreak.

Next week when the NBA season begins again, LeBron James returns home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers after spending four sesasons with the Miami Heat. In a Sports Illustrated story last summer, the four-time MVP from nearby Akron said leaving Cleveland to go to Miami was his college education, the growing-up that every adult has to do. 

I liked that comparison, even if it might have been a slick PR move. James sought the bright lights of the bigger market and won two championships. But unlike so many superstars who chase that, he came back. And he came home before the twilight of his career. This isn’t Henry Aaron coming to the Milwaukee Brewers to be a DH for a few final seasons, this isn’t O.J. Simpson playing for his hometown San Francisco 49ers when he could barely move. This is a superstar coming home young and fit, an intriguing situation no matter the outcome.

Coming home isn’t for everyone. I can understand why some people might think it inconceivable. But doing so can create a certain kind of joy, one that is so esoterically difficult to describe that the Germans probably do have a word for it. 

That being said, and because I’m sure he’s really paying attention to me, I’ve got a few tips for LeBron James as he begins the next step of his professional career at home. It isn’t easy. But if it works out, King James, trust me: The joy will be indescribable.

People will call you by your sister’s name: OK, I don’t know if you have a sister, LeBron. I don’t even know if you have a brother. But when you go back home, people often just generally know who your family is, maybe not specifically who you are. That’s not a bad thing, if you don’t have siblings who are wanted by the law. 

Usually it’s OK. Sometimes I don't even notice. Once, though, there was a guy who mistook me for my sister – who I do resemble - and when I corrected him, he said, “Really?” as if I did not know who I was. When he said, “Really?” a second time, I called him by his brother’s name. 

Everyone has an opinion about what you do: I'm a reporter, so people tell me over my morning scone that their paper didn’t show up that day. You, LeBron, make millions of dollars and probably should have to answer for everything in your organization even if it’s not your responsibility. Even so, don’t be surprised if someone you went to high school with complains about the price of beer at Quicken Loans Arena. Or maybe about the actual name of Quicken Loans Arena.

You spend a lot of time at the funeral home: This was one of the biggest surprises of all, something that never occurred to me. Suddenly you are entwined again with the people who were part of your life in ways you didn’t think of until you returned home, and sometimes they, or their parents or siblings, die. At some point you just realize it’s your place to be there, to be part of what helps bring people comfort. It sounds morbid, but trust me, it’s not.

You truly feel the expectations of people around you: Working in a visible job, one that people have opinions about, in your hometown has its own set of challenges that go with the joys. For every hand-written note that comes to you at your home address telling you “Your mother would be proud” comes a voicemail on your home phone from someone telling you something you should have done better. Writing a story that touches on topics that are familiar to the people around you is nerve-wracking enough, I can’t imagine trying to win them a championship.

You communicate via hug: Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Sometimes it’s the only way to communicate. Something terrible happened to someone you’ve known forever and you see them walking down the street or in your coffee shop or the grocery store. You know, they know you know, you both know there’s nothing that can be said so all you do is wordlessly hug them. I’m not one of those demonstrative, warm grade-school teacher types to whom hugs come so naturally, but in this case it’s as natural as can be.

You find out your teachers have first names: And they will want you to call them by their first name. You will not be able to. Ever. 

You become aware of who has dementia: Twice in recent years I have had people in my community tell me to say hello to my dad for them. Both times it was a heartbreaking revelation and both times I said, “Sure.” My dad died in 1999.

You will remember the goofiest things about people: Maybe it’s the way someone walks or the way they wear their hat. Suddenly you realize that’s someone you’ve known your entire life and maybe have never even spoken to. But after all these years, they have a bounce in their step that’s unmistakable, are wearing a certain kind of scarf they've always worn or there's a voice you hear in a doctor's office or a bagel shop that you don't even remember that you remember. 

It’s them – the person who’s been in the background of your life forever and you never realized until now. Now you’ll see them everywhere, and they’ll help you know one big thing: You are home.