Something we cannot know

Happy 2013!

I read about the death of Spencer Cox with great interest today. It’s not because I knew him, or was even remotely familiar with what he had done with his time here on this earth. It turns out that he did some amazing things, helping to get some of the first effective medicines to fight against AIDS to the market in the mid-1990s.

I remember the hysteria about AIDS in the early and mid-1990s very well, and if he had anything to do with helping to allay that hysteria, then good for him. He clearly had an impact on the lives of thousands, if not millions. I’m honored to devote a few lines of my blog to recognizing the things he accomplished.

But what really got my attention was his age. Spencer Cox was just a few months older than I am when he recently passed away. With New Year’s eve coming up in a few hours, it reminded me that some of us who will celebrate the arrival of 2013 won’t have another new year’s to celebrate after that. Certainly, if someone were to ask Spencer Cox on the last New Year’s day what 2012 would hold for him, his own death probably wouldn’t have been on the list.

I hope, with all that I have and hold dear, that 2013 is a great and full year for me and everyone that I know (and for you too, gentle reader, whoever you might be). I’d like to have another 12-25 new years to celebrate before my time on this earth is up. But I don’t get to decide when my supply of New Years will run out, either. And the truth is none of us can know this, with any degree of certainty.

I’ve said many times in this space that I celebrate life by commemorating death. Why else would I have written about Larry Hagman and Adam Yauch, about Don Cornelius and Champ Summers, and about Whitney Houston and Ronnie Montrose? They were all with us when 2012 began, but they couldn’t know that 2013 would arrive without them. Nobody wants to think about that, really, but let’s remember what Benjamin Franklin said are the only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

So as the ball drops in Times Square this year, and the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” are played for the only time all year, I plan to remember that the New Year might be a great one, and it might be an awful one, and it might even be a partial one (although, again, I certainly hope that it isn’t).

Here’s wishing everyone who reads this a happy and full new year in 2013, or whenever it is that you find this.

Here come the culture wars

The economy seems to be picking up, and so the plan to attack Barack Obama with “double-digit unemployment” seems to have been put on the shelf. So how to challenge an incumbent president who killed bin Laden and saved Detroit? By revving up the culture wars, of course! The birth control dust-up with the Catholic bishops was an opening salvo, and now the recently-departed Whitney Houston is being brought into it, as well.

The decision by Governor Chris Christie to lower flags to half-staff  in her honor is completely his call to make. And unless you plan to move to New Jersey sometime soon, there’s nothing that people outside the state can–or should–do about it.

The people who are getting worked up about this–at the media’s suggestion–would likely have no problem if Lee Greenwood were to be afforded a similar honor at some point. But no, she was a drug user, and so we can’t honor her. But that reaction misses the point. Drugs may have played a role in the creation of many artistic works. And writers such as Hemingway and Poe have famously suffered from alcohol abuse, and no one thinks twice about honoring them or their artistic works.

Go back with me to 1991 for a moment, when the invasion of Kuwait had just taken place. The sound of Whitney Houston’s voice, and the image of the Super Bowl flyover, was a huge measure of reassurance at an uncertain time. If you missed that video the first time, or you’ve consumed a steady diet of extremist blowhards in the meantime, it’s presented up above for your consideration.

It’s hard to do this sometimes, but separating the art from the artist who created it is a vitally important thing to do. Whitney Houston had a successful singing career, and touched millions of people by the sound of her voice. That’s what you hear when you turn on the radio, and that’s what comes through in the video above.

To take such an honor away from her, because she made personal choices that may not have been the best ones to make, seems to be putting up a glass house around us as a society. And do we really want to do that, just so some politicians and media outlets can divide us for their nefarious reasons? I hope we’re better than that.

A voice to remember

I remember it like it happened yesterday. I probably begin a lot of posts in this way, but this memory is especially vivid.

It was February of 1986, which was my senior year of high school. My father had agreed to drive my sister and I up to Evanston, Illinois the next day, since I had been accepted at Northwestern (more on that here), and I had to give them my decision by March 1. It was one of my last remaining days of high school, and instead of roaming the halls I would be on a college campus instead. That was a very big deal for me.

Watching the Grammys, on a Sunday night that felt like a holiday in some sense, I saw–and heard–Whitney Houston for the first time. She looked positively stunning, but somehow she sounded even better than she looked. It hardly seemed possible for any person to have a voice like that. It was sweet and powerful, in equal measures. My words alone can’t really do it justice, so watch the clip above and hear it for yourself.

As my father drove our rusty, light blue Impala northward the next day, on a trip that was to ultimately change my life, I heard Whitney Houston’s voice inside my head and realized that the future held great things for her. And for several years, I was right about that.

I had nearly forgotten, as all of the madness swirled around her in later years, how amazing her voice was. But hearing the news of her passing on the radio, followed by the inevitable tribute songs, brought it all back to me. As Jackson Browne sang in one of his songs, “That girl could sing. She could sing!”

I never really was a Whitney Houston fan, because teen-aged males weren’t allowed to publicly say that. But I realize now, as I did back then, that her voice was indeed something special. And for the next few days, I’ll be hearing a lot of it on the radio and on TV. But for me, at least, it can never sound any better than it did inside my head, during that car ride from many years ago.