Saying thanks to The New Yorker

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Many years ago (almost 34 years, to be exact) I wrote a letter to the editor of a wrestling magazine. The young teenager that I was at the time watched a lot of professional wrestling on TV, and they were to me what Batman and Superman were for those who read comic books. Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Dick the Bruiser and, most of all, Roddy Piper were living, breathing examples of escapism and super powers. I would practice wrestling moves on the bed at home, or with my two younger brothers. It was a fun time in my life, and I miss it in some ways.

I felt sufficiently moved by my admiration for Roddy Piper to write a letter and put it in the mail slot of the hospital where I went to visit my dying grandmother. I never really thought they would publish it, though. Just saying it, or writing the words down, was enough for me at that time. But they published my letter in the fall of 1982, and the excitement I got from seeing my words and my name in print is something I haven’t since forgotten. My name has occasionally made its way into print, but literally millions of my words have been submitted  for public review since then. It’s tremendously gratifying to know that many of my ideas and words are floating around, somewhere.

Two days ago, in the aftermath of Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week, I was again moved to send out a letter to the editor of a magazine, this time The New Yorker. I was barely aware of who Prince was back in 1982 when I wrote my first letter to the editor, but I learned not too long after that. And just as the Internet has come along and brought great change to the way news and ideas are shared with the public, I didn’t actually write out a letter this time, but I did compose the following as an email:

It’s April 25, and the news of Prince’s sudden passing still feels shocking and raw. We’ve all had a weekend to mourn and reflect on what his music meant for those of us who grew up in the 80s, as well as those who either discovered his music after that, or those who followed his newer music right up until the end. It’s a hard time for all of us, no matter which category we may fall into.

Your April 25 cover is a fascinating glimpse into this present day. There’s just no way that anyone connected with your magazine could have known that, by the date appearing on the cover itself, we would lose a man who was an absolute wizard on the electric guitar. Nor could you realize that the man whose music broke down every barrier–racial, gender, and generational, to name just a few–would leave us within days of this cover’s appearance. And yet, there it is on your cover, in red and blue (and the fact the two colors combine to make purple is another inexplicable coincidence).

We can see people of all concert-going ages, backgrounds, and stations in life joined together in a room, enjoying themselves in a way that would not be possible in any other public setting. The guitar’s fretboard we can see on the cover, but the guitarist’s identity in this idyllic scene remains unknown. My interpretation is that the guitarist most likely to make such a gathering possible is the one who is being commemorated in purple in your next issue.

I’m already thinking of these as the most accidental–and yet most appropriate–covers pairing that we’ll ever see. Many thanks for such an unintentional gift.

Whether the New Yorker does anything with this note is besides the point. I had something to say, and I said it. And the internet and this blog allow me share this message with whatever part of the online world wants to read it, too. Just having an outlet for the idea is enough. And when the Prince tribute cover arrived in the mailbox today, I had to put the covers side by side and share them here. They are the beautiful ones, indeed.

The sky was all purple

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Springfield, Illinois–the town where I grew up–doesn’t have very many suburbs, but I lived in one of them. And for this suburban child of the 80s, the electric guitar reigned supreme. Led Zeppelin was my favorite, of course, but any record would either rise or fall in my estimation of it, based solely upon the level of guitar work it held forth.

Eddie Van Halen was in the pantheon of guitar gods, and others sometimes entered into his dominion. Sammy Hagar played some mean guitar, and those two joining forces in the 80s made me absolutely giddy with joy. Judas Priest had two dueling guitarists, which also raised their stature, at least for me. In a nutshell, to paraphrase Gordon Gekko, guitar was good.

Prince’s Purple Rain provided the first glimpse to me of how gifted he was on the guitar. The solo at the end of “Let’s Go Crazy” was ferocious, and the only thing I knew that was any better turned out to be that album’s title track. Prince sings the final lyric to that song, lets out a note that would make Les Paul proud, and then punctuates a beautiful song with some positively searing guitar work. None of the spandex-clad dudes from the Sunset Strip could touch that.

Maybe that’s why I loved Prince’s halftime show at the Super Bowl so much. He asks the crowd “Can I play this guitar?” and then proves to everyone that yes, he can play it, and better than any other guitarist could.

Nobody ever puts Prince high enough on the list of “greatest guitar players of all time.” Names like Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck invariably appear, and they’re all great artists. I would not want to disparage any of them. But when Prince chose to turn it loose on the guitar, nobody did it like him.

I’m watching the sunrise this morning in Wilmette, Illinois (although I don’t actually live here). The suburban kids who live here, and in a million other places, might not treasure the electric guitar in the same way that I once did. But those who do would be well-advised to savor the guitar work Prince laid down through the years. Then they might understand how a little bit of greatness can go a very long way.

A siblings day remembrance

 

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I was very fortunate to have some fun people to grow up with. Peg is my only sister, John is my older little brother, and Mickey is my younger little brother. I could tell stories about them all (and I have to my own kids, at various times), but I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.

Thanks for all the memories and laughs!

Now it’s Mom’s turn

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Last month, on the occasion of my Dad’s birthday, I shared a picture of him and a few words in this space. His clothes and his hair had changed over the 40 years since the picture was taken, but he’s still around and I’m very glad about that. He didn’t pull a David Bowie and die two days after his birthday (and yes, my dad is at the same age Bowie was when time caught up with him).

So today, a mere six weeks later, it’s my Mom’s turn. She too is in her 1970s finery, in this case a brown sweater that you can look at and almost hear the opening bars to Hotel California or Don’t Stop playing in the background somewhere. I grew up in the ’70s and the ’80s, and while I love the music of the 80s, the fashions of the 70s were so much more interesting.

My mom gave everything she had to me and my siblings, as we were growing up so many years ago. The only way to repay that is to recognize it (which simply can’t be done as you’re growing up yourself) and then, if the time comes, to do the same for your own kids. The circle is then reinstated, and the world keeps spinning on.

I know that my Mom reads my blog (she’s one of the few, I would imagine) so I’m happy to share a few words (and a groovy picture) in the hopes that we’ll get to do this all over again every March 24, into the foreseeable future.

Cheers to you, Mom. And thanks very much.

The coolest card so far

Baseball cards are a cheap buzz for me. It goes back to when I was six or seven years old, when my dad gave me some change and told me I could go into the store by myself and buy a pack of baseball cards. It was the first thing I had ever purchased on my own, and it had an effect on me that I still remember all these years later. Needless to say, baseball has been important to me all through my life.

There’s a thing I do, sometimes, when I find myself in a Dollar Tree store. Up by the registers, they offer a variety of trading cards and stickers for sale. Sorting through them takes some time, but there’s a company that packages 30 cards together, of all years and brands, for the grand sum of one dollar. Somebody once got the idea that these things had some intrinsic monetary value, and as a result there are now billions of them, sitting on the shelves in Dollar Tree stores everywhere, waiting for someone like me to help relieve the oversupply.

The collective value of 30 old baseball cards isn’t even 30 cents, so it’s not a financial proposition for me. These things cost a penny apiece when I was a kid, because that’s all the value they have. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

But each pack of these things is a chance to find something interesting. The cards are old enough that the “promising rookies” who petered out and never got a whiff of the major leagues can be identified. Every player is a story that’s as easily discovered as a trip to google or baseball-reference.com. 30 potential stories for a dollar? It’s hard to beat that.

So yesterday I found myself in a Dollar Tree store, and I picked up a pack of old baseball cards. The cheap buzz comes in from tearing open the plastic, looking at the cards inside, and enjoying the rush of potential discovery. It’s probably what heroin feels like for some people, but without the side effects like addiction and the risk of an OD. It’s the lowest grade rush that I’m willing to look for.

Yesterday’s pack contained the most unusual and unexpected card I’ve ever run across. The pictures of the front and shown above, but basically the Score company, in 1991, put an American flag on the front of a card, and a prayer for the safety of soldiers in the first Iraq war (and for world peace in general) on the back. There was no has-been (or never-was) baseball player shown, but a reminder that baseball is the American game, and some things are far more important than being able to hit a curveball (or to throw one, for the pitchers of the world).

I thought of my friends who went to Iraq, and those who have served our country in uniform. Having never done so myself, I am grateful for those who do. I don’t like wars, and I’m critical of politicians who send soldiers into battle for reasons that later turn out to be false and misleading.  But that doesn’t mean the bravery and sacrifice of those in uniform is lost on me. Far from it.

This piece is written to honor those who serve, and to recognize that the 30 chances to tell a story in each pack of outdated old baseball cards can sometimes lead to something much more interesting than I ever thought possible.

A day with my mom

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I’m getting to a place in life where many of the people I know have lost one or both of their parents. I have to admit to an embarrassment of riches on this front, because both of my parents are still with us, and still physically and mentally vibrant. I don’t usually think in terms of blessings, but it’s impossible to see this as being anything else.

My mom came to Chicago this weekend, to see both of my daughters perform onstage. The weather was abnormally spring-like for late February, and I was glad because it allowed us to get out and enjoy the city. The planet’s still in trouble from all the things we’ve been doing to it, but at least it gave me the chance to enjoy a day with my mom. Everything’s relative, isn’t it? And yes, I did intend that pun to get through.

My mom has given me and my siblings everything she had, and feels bad that she couldn’t do more. I feel that way about my own kids, and every parent has the same feelings, I suspect. But if we’re really lucky, we’ll get the chance to spend a day with them and tell them how much it is appreciated. That’s what love is made of.

 

My hipster dad

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About five years ago, or perhaps even longer than that, my parents gave me a box filled with old memories like report cards, event programs, birthday cards and, most importantly, pictures. The photos from my youth have certainly been fodder for many interesting #TBT posts on Facebook and other social media outlets.

Once a photo makes it onto the Internet, it can live forever in the online world. And so it is with this beauty, taken in the Summer of 1976. My dad, who was not yet 30 years old, is holding my baby brother, who is turning 40 years old himself this summer. I love the colors, the glasses, the hair, and the way this photo preserves a moment in time that can never be brought back again.

Today’s my dad’s birthday, and I wish him the very happiest of days. And, as a bonus, I offer this image of his bad self, so that 40 years from now someone else can appreciate that 70s style.

Scars that can’t be seen

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For the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle disaster in 1986, I offered up my memories of that terrible day on my Facebook page, and then shared the senior year photo that I had taken when I was 17 and thought that the future would go on forever.

Looking at it again today, I was struck by the absence of the ever-present scar under my right eye. When I had the picture taken, I requested that the photographer airbrush it out, because vanity wouldn’t allow me to share it with everyone else in the senior yearbook pages. I couldn’t get them to fix my chipped front tooth, but removing the scar made me feel good even though, as I type this out, it’s still there on my face, as it has been since I was about 9 or 10 years old.

As I looked at the picture today, for the first time in decades, I thought back to the day it happened, when I got the scar that will follow me to my grave. It’s strange that I never really thought about it before today. Like my belly button and my fingers and toes, I just considered it to be a natural, immutable part of me. It may well be immutable, but it sure wasn’t natural.

Back in the summer of either 1978 or 1979, my siblings and I kept ourselves occupied in the summertime at what we called “the playground thing” run by the local recreation department at the elementary school I attended. Had it been anyplace else I wouldn’t have gone, but I was familiar with how to get there, and it was fun to play sports and shoot carroms and do things that kids used to do before video games captured everyone’s imagination, mine included. Once the Atari set in around 1980 or 1981, I wouldn’t have done anything like this. But in hindsight, it was a lot of fun.

At the end of the summer, there was a wrap-up event at Iles Park in Springfield, which was a block away from where my grandma and grandpa lived. Again, if I wasn’t familiar with the park already I wouldn’t have gone, because I wouldn’t hav been able to convince my mom to take me someplace I knew. Such was life for the 10-year-old that I was back then.

So we played games and ate food and had fun with lots of kids we didn’t know from all around the city. I was having a great time, when a kickball game was arranged on a baseball diamond. I had only played kickball on the asphalt playground at my school, so playing it on a dirt infield was a new treat. What a day I was having!

I don’t think I knew anybody who was on my team that day, and that made it even more fun. Since I played first base sometimes on my Khoury League baseball team, I gravitated over to that position when we took the field for the kickball game. And when some kid on the other team lifted the ball into the air to my right–toward second base–I knew I could catch it. I focused on the ball, took a few steps to my right, and then–nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. Nothing that I can remember is a better way to put it. The next thing I knew I was in the hospital, with stitches being applied to my face. 13 stitches in all. I had collided with an older, bigger kid who was playing second base and was convinced that he could have caught the same ball that I was chasing after. I never saw him coming, and the force of the impact drove my plastic glasses frames into my cheekbone. One of my front teeth had also sustained a chip that wasn’t fixed for many years after that. While dentistry could mask one of the effects of that day, surgery to hide the scar was never really an option. My glasses had created the scar, but they can hide it pretty well, too. It isn’t until people see me without glasses on that they even notice it’s there. And that’s fine with me.

I looked at that retouched photo today and thought–for the first time–about the kid who ran into me that day. I heard that he had got on his bike and rode away after it happened. Maybe he didn’t want to hang around and see if I was OK. And in the big picture, I turned out fine, the chipped tooth and the scar notwithstanding. I wondered where he is now, and what happened with his life. I wondered if he remembers a kickball game on a baseball diamond in Iles Park a very long time ago. But then again, he didn’t end up with the souvenirs that I did, so why would he remember it like I do?

Questions like this are ones you can never get the answers to, and it’s better that way. What happened on that day was as much my fault as it was his. And since he was bigger than I was at the time, I got the worst of our collision. That’s life. Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.  So to the unknown kid, whoever and wherever you are, please know that life went on for me after that day. And it only took 35 years before I gave you another thought. That’s pretty good, right?