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.