A Farewell to David Bowie

 

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I’d be lying if I said I was a huge David Bowie fan prior to January, 2016. But the circumstances around his shocking death, two days after his 69th birthday, have forced me to re-evaluate things. The loss of Bowie is a reminder of his enormous influence on the world of music, fashion, cinema, and personal identity. There won’t be another one like him.

Today I downloaded Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar, from iTunes, because I wanted to know what music a man puts together while staring his own mortality in the face. As I listened to it for the first time on my drive home, through a gentle snowfall in suburban Chicago, I was anything but disappointed. In fact, during a sax solo near the end of I Can’t Give Everything Away, I felt very privileged to experience such an extraordinary work of art. If I’ve ever felt that way before, I don’t know when it was.

Music is as old an art form as humanity has, but growing up I thought that art was limited to painting and drawing and perhaps sculpture. Things like music and dance and writing and photography didn’t fall into this realm. But Bowie presented us the whole package. To call his music and all his various personas art was exactly the point. He created his sound, and his look, and his words, and you either got them or you didn’t. That’s what art is, in whatever form it might take.

More than anyone else I can think of in my lifetime, David Bowie personified art itself. And until he died–and I considered all the ways that he had offered himself to us–I never understood this. But I get it now, and I’ll carry this new appreciation with me for as long as my body and my mind will allow.

As I mentioned earlier, David Bowie died two days after his 69th birthday. My father–who is as unlike David Bowie as anyone could be–will be 69 himself in about a month’s time. So in addition to expanding my understanding of art and how to appreciate it, Bowie has given me a much-needed reminder of how precious and finite life can be. Like everything else in the 18 hours or so since I learned of his passing, it is a reminder that I’m thankful to have received.

May we all go out with such a flourish.

2015 is slipping away

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Now that Christmas is behind us, there’s just a few days left in 2015. It’s been quite a year, as I suppose is true of every year on the crazy blue marble we call home.

Our losses this year included Ernie Banks, Minnie Minoso, Stuart Scott, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper, and lots of people who weren’t ballplayers or sportscasters or pro wrestlers.

We lost many people– just as we have every year–but we also gained some people, too. People who will change the world someday, as they grow and learn and figure out what it is the world needs, and how they can go about providing it. That day will come, even if many of us won’t be around to see it. As long as the world is spinning on its axis, people will be finding new ways to make life better.

But we also got a few things back in 2015 that I thought were gone forever. “Bloom County” was my favorite comic strip back in the 1980s, and its creator Berkeley Breathed has recently revived it for the 21st century. I genuinely look forward to seeing Opus and Milo and Steve Dallas and the rest on Facebook every day.

But even more than that, 2015 was the year that Star Wars came back. I never really followed the first three movies in the series as they were coming out over the past decade or so. I had resigned myself to thinking that the series came to an end–at least for me–around the time we first saw the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. But Disney has rejuvenated the franchise, and reminded me of how much I had enjoyed the characters and the story when they first came into my life back in the late 1970s.

It’s been an interesting year, and given the rate I’m posting in this space lately, this could very well be the last time I’ll post anything here in 2015. With that said, let’s hope that 2016 will bring us more surprises worth writing about.

 

He never had a chance

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This undated autopsy diagram provided by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office shows the location of wounds on the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald who was shot by a Chicago Police officer 16 times in 2014. A judge on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015 ordered the city to release squad car dashcam video of the shooting. The officer has been stripped of his police powers, but remains at work on desk duty. (Cook County Medical Examiner via AP)

Today I’m going to the football game between Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Soldier Field. I’m wondering if there will be any crowd control issues, given all that has happened in the wake of the Laquan McDonald video release. I certainly hope not, but my mind goes back to Camden yards in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray case. They played a game in an empty stadium, rather than serve as a target for what was going on in the streets at the time. That’s not going to happen today, so we’ll all have to wait and see what plays out.

I’m taking my cellphone to the game. If anybody wants to sign up for periscope, a twitter app that allows for videos to be broadcast live, and follow me @Rlincolnharris, I’ll put anything interesting online. I hope I don’t get that chance, but I’ll probably show something at some point, regardless.

But my larger point, which I may come back and revisit after this is all over, is that a kid like Laquan McDonald never had any chance of making it onto campus at either school. None whatsoever. He likely attended a school in the Chicago Public Schools, or CPS. I taught in CPS myself, many moons ago, and I left as quickly as I could find something else to do. And after years of being under-educated or merely just looked after, Laquan McDonald probably did the same thing.

At 17 when he was killed, it’s possible that he was still in school when he was killed, but I think I would have heard something about that by now if he was. My guess is that his crappy school, whatever name it was known as, had nothing to offer him, and so he left. No diploma, no opportunity to get a job (because those were shipped overseas a long time ago, or they never existed to begin with), no chance at anything but a life on the streets. It is preferable to death on the streets, but in time he would have found that, too. The officer who is being charged with Laquan’s murder just got there first. And the murder charge is all a show, too. It won’t stick, and when the case is dismissed or the jury refuses to convict, we’ll be right back here all over again.

I hope they play the football game today. And I hope something somehow changes so that a kid like Laquan McDonald can aspire to go to either school someday. The first could happen, but the deck is very highly stacked–overwhelmingly so–against the second.

Remembering what to be thankful for

patI learned today that Pat Elchlepp, a high school classmate of mine, passed away last night at the age of 47. He was a couple of months younger than I was, so the Grim Reaper has my full attention as I type this out, trying to come to grips with how very, very short life can be.

I write about death a lot, in this space and elsewhere. I drive through cemeteries and go to estate sales to remind myself that everyone’s number–mine included–will come up someday. But when someone that I was acquainted with three decades ago moves on to whatever comes next, it hits hard. We can’t begin to know how many more days and months and years it will be until our time is up, but we must keep on living them all, with an appreciation that our lives are meant to be savored for as long as they should happen to last.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and there is much to be thankful for. But the biggest blessing of all–and the one I will not lose sight of–is that I’m still here to get stuck in traffic, and taste a cup of coffee early in the morning, and sing along with an old song on the radio. They’re simple things, but my classmate Pat isn’t able to enjoy them anymore. I hope he’s in a good place today, and I thank him for reminding me to be grateful for today, tomorrow, and every day afterward.

R.I.P. Patrick Elchlepp

Griffin High School, Class of 1986

August 13, 1968 – November 24, 2015

If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly

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Seeing a copy of Def Leppard’s Pyromania album on vinyl this evening made me happy. It took me back to when I was a teenager living in my parents’ house in Jerome, Illinois.

I don’t have too many memories of that time in my life, other than wanting to move away and live somewhere else. Anywhere else. And I knew that starting college was the only chance I was going to have for making that happen.

So I did what I could to bide my time. I kept my grades up, but I would be a liar if I said I worked very hard at it. And I found escape in the music of the day. Def Leppard came along at the end of my freshman year of high school, and from then on it was a procession of Motley Crue, AC/DC, and what are known today as “hair metal” bands. There was some Springsteen thrown in for good measure, and some Led Zeppelin–lots of Led Zeppelin, really–and others like Night Ranger and Loverboy and even some Ratt. I owned at least two Ratt albums on vinyl, back in the days of my high school angst.

I never owned Def Leppard on vinyl, though. I had a copy of Pyromania on cassette, and even a copy of their first album On Through the Night on cassette. And I was in college by the time Hysteria came out, so I never owned that one at all. Loved the music, but never got around to buying it.

I took the copy of Pyromania out of its inner sleeve and looked at the grooves of the vinyl. I was reminded of what a tactile experience it was to hold an LP in your hands, so you could put it on the turntable and drop the needle onto it. CDs are smaller, and the feeling is less pronounced. And a cassette hardly felt that way at all. Maybe it was the plastic involved, or the portability of a tape that allowed it to be carried around in a car. Vinyl LPs never had any of that. You kept them in your room, or wherever the turntable happened to be.

As I was looking at the grooves of the record, my eyes wandered into the middle, where the needle would have gone to after the last song of a side was through playing. There were always a series of little scribbles or numbers in there, but nothing worth looking at too much. But Pyromania–at least the UK pressing of it that I was holding in my hands–contained a special little treat that I, as a cassette owner of the album, knew nothing about.

On side 1, in small but still legible capital letters, the words “IF YOU’RE GONNA BE A BEAR” appeared. I got a good laugh when I saw it, because it seemed like a weird thing to have on a record album. But then I started thinking about it: If your’re gonna be a bear, then what? The obvious thing to do was flip it over and see if there was anything else. And it turns out, there was. “BE A GRIZZLY” appeared in a similar place on side two.

The quote appeared in the movie Cannonball Run, which came out before Def Leppard’s album did, and so it’s possible–although not terribly likely–that someone was making a reference to that movie. The quote was originally attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, so perhaps whoever did this had that as their source of inspiration. But whatever it was, it felt like an old secret was revealed to me tonight, and I’m happy to spend a few moments writing about it here.

Unta Glieben Glauten Glomen….

Paris in my prayers

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I’m not religious, so it’s a bit disingenuous for me to say that I’m praying for Paris tonight, in the wake of the terrorist attacks that have shaken the city of Light. But I want to let the world know that if this city can survive the Nazis, it can survive whatever assholes planned and pulled this one off.

The week I spent in the Marais district back in the late 20th century has remained with me ever since. I hope to go back there again one day before I die, and when I do, I’ll think about tonight. Perhaps I’ll even dust off my old blog and write something about it.

The orange sunrise

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On my morning commute the other day, I was looking toward the sunrise, waiting to merge into traffic. I was stopped at a red light, fortunately, or I wouldn’t have had the time to get my camera open and take this picture.

Filters can allow for any effect at all to be achieved with a photo, but I didn’t have to do anything to make this one look good. Nature and what Thoreau once called “The Great Artist” did all the work for me. All we have to do is appreciate it.

A Halloween creep-out

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Today I dropped off my teenager at her Saturday class, and then took a detour through the local cemetery on the way home. It’s a gray, cold, and slightly rainy day here in Chicago, and it’s also Halloween, so I figured why not.

I parked the car in a random spot, got out and walked around for a bit, determining how old people were when they passed on. Some were older than I am now, and some were younger. Life is short, no matter how many years and months and days you actually end up getting here on earth.

A one point I stopped and scanned the horizon. It was 360 degrees of rain and cold and falling leaves and general reminders of death. It was so creepy that I actually enjoyed it. I’m definitely in the Halloween spirit now.

As I started walking back toward the car, a small gravestone caught my eye. It was grey with a rounded top and some jagged edges. Nothing fancy, but its isolation was what made me notice it. There was nothing within at least 20 feet in any direction, which is unusual for this cemetery. And along the top one word was carved: ROBERT. No dates, no description of who the person was or when they walked the earth. Just my given name, ROBERT. The creep factor went off the charts with that one. But I think I’ll enjoy this day, both for myself and that other Robert who can no longer do so.

A vote of confidence

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Saturday morning, Chicago

I was out walking my dog this morning when I had to find a dumpster. The dog had completed his task for the morning, and I had dutifully–an ironic term there, I suppose–picked it up in a plastic bag. Disposing of it in a dumpster was a necessary prerequisite for returning home and giving him his treat. Every dog owner knows this routine.

After disposing of the dog’s business, I spied a penny on the ground in the alley. More than half the time I see a penny on the ground, I pick it up and look at the date stamped on it. It’s given me food for thought on several instances, such as with 1995 and 1968 and 1986. There are a few others, but I don’t want to take away from today’s find more than I have to. Because 1983–the year stamped on today’s penny–was a pretty significant year for me.

In the fall of 1983, I tried out for the school play. I was a sophomore in high school, and wanted to try my hand at acting. It’s not clear to me today why I did it, because I was an awkward and shy kid at that stage in my life. What made me want to get on stage and recite some lines is something I still don’t fully understand.

I got a small part, a General of some sort, who had maybe two or three scenes in the show, which was M*A*S*H. The final episode of the TV show inspired by the play had aired earlier in the year, and the juxtaposition of these two was probably not a coincidence. “Suicide is Painless,” the haunting theme song for the show, was played as we came onstage to take our curtain calls at the performances. I’ll always have fond memories of being in that show, and regret that I never seriously thought of acting again after this show. But the things you didn’t do in life cause more regrets than the things you did do, and I understand that now. Not so much when I was fifteen, though.

The big moment of this play, and the reason I’m typing this out today, is because of the director of the play, Brother Vince. He was a rather heavy-set guy who was something of a priest-in-training. He spent one year at my high school, and was my religion teacher. He also decided to direct a play, so at least I knew who the director was. I doubt I would have tried out for the show, otherwise.

I wasn’t a football player–which is what everyone wanted to be at my school–and my parent-imposed exclusion from the jock culture left me to explore other options, instead. I started writing for the school newspaper, which I enjoyed a lot, but I wanted something else to go along with it. And the school play seemed to be a good outlet for it. Three decades later, both of my daughters are in every play they can find, and I think of this as carrying on whatever it was that I once did, but to a degree I never thought possible. And I’m so proud of them for doing this.

But back to M*A*S*H for a moment. I attended an all-boys high school, but the girls from the all-girls school up the street also auditioned for the play. I wanted to be around the girls, as any hormonal teenager would, so being in the play gave me a chance to admire them from afar. No way did I have the confidence needed to actually speak to any of them. But being in their presence was enough for me, at that stage of my life.

I had learned my lines for the part I had, and one day the director, Bother Vince, offered me the role of Trapper John. It was one of the meatiest roles in the play, and the guy who was originally given the role–a junior who also played on the school soccer team–either quit the play or was made to decide between the team and the play. The latter option had never occurred to me before today, and what the true story is I’ll likely never know.

I knew that this role offered more stage time, which I wanted, but would entail having to learn a lot more lines than I already had. I didn’t want to let my director down, but I was hesitant to take on the added responsibility. I finally agreed to take the part, because I reasoned that the offer would not have been made unless he thought I could handle it. I took it as a vote of confidence, and I accepted the challenge that came with it.

I learned the part, and found myself tremendously emboldened by the experience. The soccer team’s season ended a week or two before opening night, and the guy who had the Trapper John role may have wanted to reclaim his old part. It was never asked of me to relinquish the part, and I don’t know what I would have done if this had happened. In my mind, it was my part, because I had put in the time to make it so. And so it was, when the curtain went up on a weekend in early October of 1983.

Acting gave me a sense of self-confidence, which is something I had never had before. When I was on the stage, everyone in the audience was looking at me, and hearing my voice. For a kid who had spent his life seeking out the shadows at every opportunity, this was an elixir of a kind I had never yet known.

A great thing happened to me, some 32 years ago. I found a sense of confidence that needed some discovery and some nurturing to fully reveal itself. Whatever happened to Brother Vince after that year, I have no idea. But his decision to stage a play, and to offer me a bigger role than the one I originally had, and then stick with me through to the end, is something that I’ll always be grateful for.

My older stage diva needs a ride to her college class, so I better wrap this up. But I’ll see her on stage again before too long, and I’ll be sure to think of Brother Vince when I do.