The Mysteries of Life in the Moonglow

MoonglowWhen I graduated from college in 1988 I imagined one day I’d be a successful novelist. I was an avid reader of literary fiction, devouring the novels of great American writers like John Updike, Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe. Around the same time I stumbled upon a novel by an unknown author named Michael Chabon who had just published what I later learned was his master’s thesis work from UC-Irvine. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a coming of age novel and I was coming of age. It hit me like a ton of bricks — how could a 25 year old kid from UC-Irvine of all places write such a masterful work of modern fiction. I was inspired enough to look into MFA programs and even applied to Chapman College in Orange County. If Chabon could do it even though he wasn’t some East Coast literary snob why couldn’t I? By the way, I later learned UC-Irvine has an exceptional MFA program that only admitted 13 fiction students each year.

I ended up taking some graduate-level English classes at San Jose State, after all it was in my backyard and it too produced a tremendous literary talent in Amy Tan. But ultimately I wasn’t ready for graduate school (I ended up earning an MA in English many years later from Northern Arizona University) and went to work as a technical editor instead. And while my literary dreams never fully went away, I still haven’t written a novel. I think part of the reason is because I know in my heart I could never be as good as Michael Chabon, who went on to write some of the best American novels ever including one of my all-time favorite novels, Wonder Boys, as well as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for which he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. As an aside, Wonder Boys is one of the few novels I can think of in which the movie version is almost as good as the book (Robert Downey, Jr., Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand are great, not to mention Tobey Maguire and Katie Holmes in supporting roles).

Flash forward to today and Chabon’s latest novel, Moonglow, is one of the best-selling books of the year. I just finished it, and it is undoubtedly his best work since the mid-90s. Moonglow is a unique work of “fiction” in that the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Chabon has stated the novel is based on the true experiences of his grandfather, but he took many liberties to shape the story. Either way, it’s a beautiful tribute to his family’s legacy. The narrator of Moonglow is a writer named Michael Chabon, who over the course of the book tells the story of his grandfather’s life as he sits on his deathbed relaying his complicated past to his grandson Mike for the first time. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but suffice it to say Chabon’s grandfather was a remarkable man who married a complex woman. Like a lot of Chabon’s work, the story touches on Jewish identity, World War II, the Holocaust, and family dynamics. It also bounces back and forth between the the early days of his grandfather’s life and the later days, providing a complete picture of the man over the course of a lifetime. The fact that the reader really has no way of knowing which parts of the story are fact and which are embellishments only adds to the intrigue. And as always, Chabon’s writing is brilliant. His style is modern and the story has just enough detail to give the reader a sense of being in the moment, whether that is behind enemy lines in Germany during World War II or in an active adult community in Florida.

Moonglow is quite a tribute to Chabon’s grandfather. It makes me sad that I didn’t ask my grandparents more about their lives before they died. I know very little about my paternal grandfather (who died when I was very young) other than the fact that he owned shoe stores in Brooklyn. My maternal grandfather died suddenly around the time I graduated from college, and I only know a little about his life — he served in the Navy Reserves during World War II and when he married my grandmother he was cut off by his Orthodox Jewish family because my grandmother wasn’t Jewish enough. I imagine there was quite a story there, but I didn’t think to ask. I think that’s one of the reasons Moonglow is so touching. While Chabon’s grandfather was slowly dying from cancer he spent time with him and heard his stories. It’s a wonderful legacy for his grandfather and his entire family as the stories are now available for people to read for all time. In a way, Moonglow immortalizes his grandfather and that is a tremendous gift to his grandfather, his family, and the book’s readers.

As for my own literary dreams, there’s always hope. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel at 39. Raymond Chandler didn’t publish his first story until he was 45. Frank McCourt wasn’t published until he was 64! I don’t know if I have a novel in me, but if I write one that’s even half as good as anything Michael Chabon has ever written it’ll be a personal triumph.

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2016: Bad for Celebs, Pretty Darn Good for Gutmans

I’m not a big fan of the year-end holiday letter, mostly because I don’t care if your cat had a bladder infection in August. But the busier we all are, the less opportunity we have to connect in real life — and frankly when you have 1,000 “friends” on Facebook it’s easy to miss big life events. It turns out we’ve had some pretty big life events in the past few months alone, so in the spirit of connecting I figured I’d write a quick blog post to share the biggies.

There’s no question 2016 will go down as one of the worst years in memory for celebrities, who died at an alarming rate. The NYT ran a list of 2016 celebrity deaths earlier this week and it was scary (RIP Fyvush Finkel). And of course, 2016 will always be remembered as the year the lunatics took over the asylum that is the American government. Yet, for some reason, 2016 has been a pretty good year for my immediate family. We’ve had some big career events, some big life events, and one third of us moved across the country for a big adventure. Here are some highlights:

  • Leslie passed her Certified Financial Planner license exam last month after what seemed like a lifetime of studying. Big kudos to my amazing life partner!
  • I took a lateral move at the American Heart Association in June in order to better position myself for the future, and that move was rewarded this week with a promotion to a Foundation Relations Adviser role. The position is on our national Mission Advancement team based in Dallas, and I’ll be focused fully on building relationships and writing grant proposals to support the AHA’s mission. My territory will include foundations across the organization’s western region that makes up 16 states. I had my three year anniversary with the AHA this month and can say with all certainty that deciding to work in the nonprofit sector was the best career decision of my life.
  • Also this week I landed the largest single foundation gift of my short nonprofit career, a $75,000 grant to provide CPR training kits to high schools in rural Arizona. I hope this is the first of many partnerships I will develop to help improve the cardiac care of Americans across the western U.S.

    madison-place

    Madison Place at Greer Manor

  • This morning we found out that the offer we made on a townhouse has been accepted. My financial adviser (AKA brilliant wife) made it clear recently that given the financial climate and our desire to actually retire one day, we needed to get off the sidelines after nearly five years of renting. We have had a blast in downtown Phoenix in our luxury apartment in the sky, and while we like downtown we didn’t want to buy here. Our new townhouse is located in a great neighborhood (16th St. and Missouri) that is a nice mix of urban and suburban appeal, and it’s only 1.2 miles from Leslie’s office and zero miles from my office (yep, I will continue to work from home in my new role). So, we’ll be moving to the “Biltmore” area in February. If you live in Central Phoenix I look forward to seeing you soon at Luci’s Healthy Marketplace or Duck and Decanter – both walking distance to our new home!
  • 2016 has been a bittersweet year for us in terms of our amazing son Connor. In May he informed us that college was not his cup of tea and that he was dropping out of ASU after one year (this coming as we received a letter from ASU that he’d made the dean’s list). On top of this news, he also informed us that he was moving to New York to follow his dreams (and his amazing girlfriend Clare, who was accepted at the New School in Manhattan). After a few months of going back and forth to the Big Apple, he will be leaving us permanently next week (that’s the bitter part). The sweet part is that he has a great apartment in Brooklyn, he’s making a living as a freelance web developer, and this week, thanks in part to some dual enrollment credits from high school, he’ll be completing his associate’s degree from Rio Salado College. In January he’s enrolling in an innovative Nanodegree program through Udacity that will ultimately lead to him learning even more advanced web development skills. Whether he continues as a freelancer or decides to join a company, after the program he’ll be well positioned to earn a great living in this very competitive field. I am ridiculously proud of him for chasing his own dreams and doing it own way.

There’s more, but these are the big ones. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!

Why I Loved a 736 Page Novel About Trees

barkskinsI love novels that span generations and tell stories of families, dysfunctional and otherwise. Some of my all-time favorite books are epic tales of families told over hundreds of years, like Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Jess Walters’ “Beautiful Ruins,” and  Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex.” It should come as no surprise then that I was eager to read “Barkskins,” Annie Proulx’s saga of two 17th century immigrants to New France and the generations they spawned over the course of the following 300 plus years. Yep, I was worked up about a 736 page story about loggers!

It’s probably worth noting that Annie Proulx is one of the world’s best writers and the esteemed author of my favorite novel — “The Shipping News.” So I was certainly predisposed to enjoy “Barkskins”, despite its density. And truthfully, “Barkskins” is not for everyone. Some of the reader reviews I read on the Interwebs suggested the book was incredibly boring and long-winded and many readers put it down (or threw it away) after the first few chapters. Others, however, raved about the story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet and their descendants. I couldn’t put it down.

It’s pretty easy for my family to know when I’m enjoying a book — whenever they look over at me lounging on the sofa, my head will be buried in my tablet. This was definitely the case with “Barkskins,” which I devoured over the course of a week or so. I originally borrowed it from the library’s digital collection, but after a week I went ahead and purchased it so I could take my time and fold into the story with no concern about it expiring. Plus, $14.99 is a small price to pay for a novel that will stay with me for so long.

“Barkskins” is brilliant on several levels. First, Proulx is such a gorgeous writer her words flow like a river through a forest (see what I did there?). The story itself though is what makes this novel so absorbing. Proulx uses the history of the Sel family and the Duquet family to show the dichotomy of fortune in the new world. Both families are tied to the great forests of the American-Canadian northeast, but while one builds a tremendous fortune from logging the other suffers through generations of poverty and misery at the hands of the very same trees. At the same time, “Barkskins” is a story about the new world itself, how it literally grew out of the trees and how the growth of the new world used and displaced the vast forests. And Proulx gives us yet another layer of intrigue in the stories of how the Europeans came to the new world and ruthlessly savaged its native peoples for generations (and in many ways still does today).

Yet while we follow the stories of the Sels and the Duquets, we also learn the true value of the forests. The novel has an environmental message at its heart, one that Proulx builds toward as the novel progresses. The reader comes to understand the great power of the forest, to build houses and cities, to build countries, to build (and destroy families) but perhaps at the cost of the health of the very same land and perhaps the entire planet. Proulx thankfully doesn’t preach about our destruction of the forest, but she does lead us to the conclusion that we are at a crossroads. I for one am very pessimistic about the future of the planet, especially given the state of world politics, but Proulx leaves us with a glimpse of a path toward environmental salvation. There are ways to repopulate the forests, but it’s definitely more difficult to rebuild what was so easy to tear down.

Annie Proulx most definitely has a place among my favorite authors, and “Barkskins” is a majestic narrative that may go down as her opus (she is 80 years old after all so this may be her last novel). For me it had everything — it spanned centuries, had rich and memorable characters, and it had a message of the impermanence of life that resonated tremendously with me.

Completely by coincidence, the next book in my queue is “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey. I didn’t plan to read back-to-back stories about trees, but I’ll take it as a sign that I need to step up my environmental activism.

My Favorite Albums of 2016

I’m not sure what happened to 2016. In the annals of bad years, 2016 will go down in infamy. We lost Prince and Bowie. We lost Muhammad Ali and Gordie Howe. Gene Wilder and Alan Rickman. Harper Lee and Pat Conroy. Garry Shandling and Garry Marshall. And then we elected Donald J. Trump to the most powerful job in the world. 2016 pretty much sucked (and it’s not quite over yet).

So why should I be surprised that for the first time in decades of compiling my favorite albums of the year I struggled to find 10 albums to make the list? For whatever reason, most of my favorite artists didn’t release new albums this year. And while we did get one magical farewell album from one of the greatest of all time, this year’s lot (for me anyway) would make Ziggy Stardust catch the first rocket back to from wherever he came.

That said, all is not lost. I’m pleased to report I did manage to find 10 albums that I liked enough to make a list this year. I’m tempted not to put them in any order, but like they say, no guts no glory. So here goes:

10. Sturgill Simpson —  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Has hell frozen over? Is that, dear lord, a country album in a Len Gutman top 10 list? I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea who Sturgill Simpson was until his incredible cover of Nirvana’s In Bloom started making the rounds on the Interwebs. The song gives me goosebumps every time I hear it and I knew I had to listen to the whole album when it came out. Admittedly, Simpson is not your typical twangy pop country crap — he is described as alt country or outlaw country. Whatever you call it, the man has chops and can write a song.  A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a really soulful album that was inspired by his young son. Frankly, any album that features the Dap Kings is alright in my book.

9. Band of Horses — Why are you OK? It’s been six years since Infinite Arms made my top 10 list and truthfully I haven’t listened to much BOH since then. Something made me listen to this year’s Why are you OK? and I’m really happy I did. This Seattle band known for its Americana sound is definitely worth exploring, like this Casual Party.

8. Kaiser Chiefs — Stay Together. I didn’t know much about Leeds, UK band Kaiser Chiefs until I listened to Stay Together and I have to say they fall right in my sweet spot. I really love 80s inspired bands like Franz Ferdinand, Phoenix and The Kooks and Kaiser Chiefs fits the mold. I am definitely going back to listen to some of their older records to hear what I’ve been missing. In the meantime, check out Parachute from Stay Together.

7. Fitz and the Tantrums —Fitz and the Tantrums. The self-titled third album from Fitz and the Tantrums is another great dance album filled with that unmistakable Fitz sound. I make no apologies for loving these guys and while I certainly didn’t like this album as much as the band’s first two I did enjoy it. I was also fortunate to see them live this year for the fourth time in the past few years and you’re simply not going to find a more enjoyable live concert experience. Bring your dancing shoes and don’t forget to clap your hands to the beat.

6. Red Hot Chili Peppers — The Getaway. The Chili Peppers’ first album came out in 1984, the year I graduated from high school. I have to admit that over the years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with them. I didn’t like them early on, although here and there a song caught my attention. It wasn’t until 2002’s By The Way that I was really hooked, and I played that album over and over for years. By the time Stadium Arcadium came out in 2006; however, I’d cooled on them and that’s the way it stayed until the first time I heard Dark Necessities this summer. Oh man, that song stuck in my ear and when the full album was released I was a Chili Peppers fan again! Credit goes to Brian Burton (AKA Danger Mouse), who produced The Getaway, and put his unmistakable stamp on it. Damn, that guy knows how to make an album.

5. Bob Mould — Patch the Sky. You’ve got to appreciate a guy who finds his sound early on and sticks with it. When you hear Bob Mould there’s no mistaking it. Whether you first found him back in the 80s with Hüsker Dü or in the 90s with Sugar, I venture to guess that if you’re a Mould fan you like it all — as I do. So it really wasn’t a huge surprise when Patch the Sky came out in March and it was vintage Mould. If you are a fan and haven’t heard it yet I urge you to give it a listen and start with Voices in my Head. If you’re not a fan, you probably weren’t alive in the 80s!

4. The Temper Trap — Thick as Thieves. If you listened to music in 2009 you undoubtedly heard The Temper Trap’s huge hit Sweet Disposition, which went Gold in the U.S. and Platinum in the U.K. and the band’s home of Australia. But like me, you may have thought they were a one-hit wonder. Yes, they’ve been going strong down under since then, but Thick as Thieves should really put them back on the map around the world. The Temper Trap has a great sound that is one part modern and another part 80s throwback. I’ve listened to this record a lot since it came out this summer and it is solid all the way through, including this great track Fall Together.

3. Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die. Rarely does a band place back-to-back records on my favorite albums list, but this year following on the heels of 2015’s wonderful All Your Favorite Bands comes We’re All Gonna Die. I just love their sound, which has been described as having a Laurel Canyon vibe. Dawes is the kind of band that’s perfect for listening to while sitting on your patio on a warm day with a cold beer. Like I said last year, Dawes is an unabashed throwback to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Brown. Kick back and just Roll with the Punches.

2. Kings of Leon — Walls. I couldn’t get enough of KoL during the Only by the Night and Come Around Sundown years, but I cooled on the Followill boys in 2013 when Mechanical Bull came out. I liked it, but I didn’t love it, and in truth they were pretty overexposed there for a while. So my expectations were low when Walls came out this autumn, and maybe that’s what did it for me. Walls is KoL’s best album since 2008’s Only by the Night and since it just came out a few week’s ago I expect it will get even more ingrained in my head as time goes on. All due respect to the top album on my list this year (it deserves all the accolades it gets), Walls is really my favorite record of 2016. Take a listen to Waste a Moment and tell me I’m not right!

1. David Bowie — Blackstar. What can you say about Blackstar that hasn’t already been written? For Bowie fans it was a surprise farewell album that upon his death just a few days after its release left us stunned and in awe of the man’s genius. Who else but Bowie could have written an album about his own impending death with such grace and style. Blackstar is dark and moody, but the message is clear — his time was up. I challenge anyone not to get chills watching the video for Lazarus. Ironically, I had been listening to a lot of Bowie in the months prior to his death and I was critical of myself for not having dived deeper into the man’s discography earlier in my life. That changed in the weeks following his death as I listened to Bowie nonstop and will continue to do so until my own star is extinguished. I suspect Blackstar will take home plenty of Grammy Awards and will go down in history as the best swan song ever written. I’m not going to argue it wasn’t the best album of an otherwise mediocre year.

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I Am Spartacus!

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In the early 1940s, as American workers still recovering from the Great Depression found themselves still facing difficult working conditions, upwards of 75,000 Americans joined the American Communist Party as a way to rally around worker rights. The movement was focused solely on improving America and not on aligning with the Soviet Union. One of those who joined the movement was novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who along with a handful of his friends in Hollywood, fought to improve working conditions for everyone involved in the film making industry — not just studio heads and famous actors.

But as the “Red Scare” grew across America, fueled by political rhetoric and fear, Trumbo and his friends were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and when he and others refused to name names he was blacklisted from Hollywood and jailed for 11 months. Trumbo was an American citizen, born and raised in Colorado, and he spent time in prison because of an idea. For years during his Hollywood exile, Trumbo continued to write screenplays under a series of pseudonyms and won two Academy Awards he could not collect. After more than a decade on the blacklist, he was finally able to return to public life and work under his own name thanks in large part to actor and producer Kirk Douglas who hired him to write Spartacus and despite significant pressure against doing so from the industry and congressional representatives, credited Trumbo publicly with writing the screenplay.

I am writing about this today because yesterday I watched the film Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston and it struck me as eerily familiar. I knew a little bit about the Hollywood blacklist and the Red Scare, but I didn’t know Trumbo’s story and I certainly didn’t know how things exploded so quickly in Hollywood toward the exclusion of some of the best talent in the movie industry. The film was fantastic by the way, and Cranston undoubtedly deserved his Academy Award nomination. If you have not seen it, do so right away. And tell your friends to see it. Frankly, the story is so timely every American should watch it today.

It’s 2016, nearly 70 years since the blacklist began and Trumbo served time for an idea, and I’m afraid America has learned nothing from its own history. Nada. Bupkis.

Here we are experiencing another “red” scare. And while nobody has been blacklisted or jailed yet, we are one election away from sheer madness and a repeat of one of the darkest periods in American history. Back then, the red scare was fueled by people we knew — John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Hedda Hopper, Walt Disney and a great many members of congress and the political landscape. Americans were being divided. It was madness.

Today, we are experiencing the exact same thing. Exact. Same. Thing. Except instead of Communists, we are being systematically told that the enemy are Mexicans and Latino-Americans, Muslims and Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community. Anyone who conservatives and xenophobes consider “others” or different from themselves can’t be “real” Americans and must therefore be a threat to our country. You know, the country that Donald Trump wants to make “great” again. In this case, “great” means white and Christian and male.

But you know this. We all know it. Trump and his goon squad aren’t even attempting subtlety. They are proud of their blatant racist and sexist rhetoric. And what’s worse, it seems to be working. This is another “red” scare, make no mistake about it. But the bigger issue is, what can we do about it?

Which brings me to Spartacus. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the climactic scene of the film occurs when Spartacus steps forward to his accusers and exclaims: I Am Spartacus. He knows that by doing this he will be killed, but he knows too that he is right and that he’d rather die for doing the right thing than run away or hide behind others. But it’s at that point when everything changes — one by one each of his fellow gladiators step forward and exclaim: I Am Spartacus. Frankly, it’s one of the greatest scenes in film history and yes, it was written by Dalton Trumbo while he was on the blacklist. How friggin’ cool is that?

The blacklist began to end when Americans stood up and said: No More. First Kirk Douglas and then Exodus director Otto Preminger. Then one by one the blacklist fell and Hollywood got back to the business of making films. Yes, it took a while to heal, but eventually Hollywood healed. Three words took down the blacklist. I Am Spartacus.

So to those of you who think what Donald Trump is doing to America is OK, I say this:

I Am Mexican-American.

I Am African-American.

I Am Muslim.

I Am Gay.

Stand up for the “other” with me. Scream it loud and scream it wide. I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!

 

Go ‘Un’-Confidently in the Direction of Your Dreams

It’s graduation season and that means graduates around the country are being ushered off into the world with a never-ending series of clichés about the future. Take the Road Less Traveled. The World is Your Oyster. Oh the Places You’ll Go. Be Less Afraid. The Future Belongs to Those Who Believe in the Beauty of Their Dreams.

Great advice…that hardly anybody ever takes. The vast majority of people do exactly what’s expected of them. They graduate from high school, go to college, get a job, slave away for 50 years until retirement, then shuffle off this mortal coil. I think people take the road most traveled because they are afraid of the unknown. The common path is predictable and safe and nobody can fault you for following the herd. Unfortunately, that leads to a life that resembles another famous quote — Most Men Live Lives of Quiet Desperation.

I’m not one to talk. I played by the rules, went to college, and then worked in a series of not very fulfilling  jobs. It was only by accident that I veered off path, thanks in some part to a major health crisis followed by an ill-advised move to California. Frankly, I think my journey has been more about serendipity than anything I planned. But hey, I’ll take it. I’m finally really happy in life and hopefully I still have some time left on this earth.

road-less-traveledI bring this subject up because it’s graduation season, true, but it’s also the start of what looks like is going to be the last summer Leslie and I will have with Connor at home. And ironically, it is this particular 18-year-old who continues to teach me about life. It was supposed to be the other way around! As I said, most people don’t realize they are living an inauthentic life until they are in their 30s or 40s and decide to make a change — at a time when change is perhaps most difficult. This summer Connor has taught me to think hard about the choices I made in life and question what motivated those choices. In fact, I’ve been boasting about my life-changing decision to go to work for a nonprofit all while I’ve been questioning his motivations for doing what he wants. What a hypocrite I have been. He is choosing to take the road less traveled for real, at age 18, and rather than be concerned I should be thrilled for him. Instead I have been wary…but that changes today.

Connor, I am proud of you for following your bliss even though it flies in the face of so-called mainstream decisions. It took me until my late 40s before I did something controversial, and here you are at 18 going for it. You truly are an inspiration to me and I respect you immensely. It doesn’t matter what I did when I was 18. It doesn’t matter what most people do when they are 18. What matters is that you do what you want to do. And even if it doesn’t work out, I’m proud of you for trying. Now is the best time to try new things because you have plenty of time to adjust your path. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

One thing I can say I’ve learned in my 50 years is that you never know what life is going to throw at you. Here’s a popular quote that I actually like: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. If you are graduating from high school this month, or college, do me a favor and don’t listen to your parents. Don’t go to the local college because it’s what everyone else in your class is doing. Don’t take the job because it’s safe. Take a gap year. Travel abroad. Go work on a farm. Move in with your boyfriend or girlfriend. Start an alternative rock band. Work for a cause.

Or do what Connor is doing after one year at ASU — drop out, go to work for yourself, and follow the love of your life across the country. You have the rest of your life to wonder what if.

 

 

The Purple Reign of Prince Rogers Nelson

Gootar

In the summer of 1984 I had just graduated from high school and the world was my oyster. I had car and a hot girlfriend, I was heading off to college in late August, and I quit my job without telling my parents — I had nothing but time. My girlfriend and I went to the beach, we sneaked off to find places to be alone and we did whatever 18-year-old kids do. And the soundtrack to that summer was Purple Rain.

Prince was already huge by then on the heels of 1999, which catapulted him from a fringe R&B artist to rock and roll royalty. MTV was in its heyday and Prince had enormous hits with 1999, Delirious and Little Red Corvette. Purple Rain was released in June, though we had already heard tracks from the album on the radio and by June we knew all the lyrics and dance moves from the videos. When the film hit theaters, we lined up to see it at the largest theater in the area to take it all in with the giant screen and Dolby sound. It was, for us, a revolution.

Prince was larger than life and one of the first true crossover artists with appeal to R&B, Soul, Rock, Pop and Alternative music fans alike. He was George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson rolled into one. Thriller had come out six months earlier, and like everyone we liked it and danced to it and loved the music videos. But Michael was safe. He wasn’t really dangerous. He wasn’t subversive. He wasn’t sexual. He was mainstream and our parents liked him. Prince was everything MJ was not — and he made our parents nervous which made us like him even more. If Prince came on the radio while we were in the car with our parents, they blushed at the lyrics and we secretly laughed inside knowing we alone knew Little Red Corvette was not about a car.

Eighteen year old kids are like halflings — not really kids and not yet really adults. We were exploding with sexual energy and Prince made us feel grown up. I heard someone once describe Prince as “oozing sex” and that feels right. His lyrics were sometimes raw and sometimes double entendre, but almost always sexual in nature. They hit us right in our sweet spot and we couldn’t get enough.

And then there was Purple Rain. After watching the film the first time (and we watched it over and over) we felt like we understood Prince. We knew the film was semi-autobiographical, whatever that means, and we knew he expressed himself through his music. Purple Rain was about a young man overcoming his rough family life and his desire to have his music understood to reach his dreams. “The Kid” breathed via his music. And we felt it in our bones. When he plays Purple Rain after his father shoots himself, we are in that audience feeling his pain and his love. And like everyone else, we finally understood Prince.

But the movie is secondary really. Purple Rain is about the music. Top to bottom, song for song, it is a marvelous album. It’s a rock opera. You can dance to it, grind to it and cry to it. It’s soulful and it rocks. A lot of great mainstream albums came out in 1984 including Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Van Halen’s 1984. But 1984 will always be about Purple Rain for me and my friends.

Purple Rain was (and is) a great album and it has the most meaning for me because of when it came out and the impact it had on me. But it’s not even my favorite Prince album! That honor goes to 1987’s Sign ‘o the Times, which is a much more mature record musically and lyrically. In Sign ‘o the Times Prince shows us he can write about more than sex and women. The Village Voice wrote that it: “established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era—as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer.”

I admit I haven’t listened to much of Prince’s more recent efforts. I’m sure they are wonderful and I’ll probably spend some time with them now that he is gone. It’s been about 24 hours now since we first heard the news that he was gone, and I’ve listened to nothing but Prince since then and I’ll probably listen to Prince all weekend. I will relive the hits and marvel at how great they were (1999 is actually playing on the radio in the car dealership service waiting room as I write this). And I will listen to deep tracks and remember them too. I’ll probably download Sign ‘o the Times and Parade and Around the World in a Day and listen to them in their entirety as well. And I will miss Prince. But he left a lasting legacy. We’ll always have his music. And for that we should all be grateful.

‘Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish life was never ending,
And all good things, they say, never last’

10 Things Every American Should Know About Jackie Robinson

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres

Today is April 15 and it’s the 69th anniversary of the day Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY and broke the Major League Baseball color barrier. Major League Baseball retired Jackie’s number 42 for all teams a few years back, but each year on this day MLB celebrates by having every player on every team wear #42. It’s a beautiful tribute and an important day for reflection on how far we’ve come (and how far we still must go) toward racial equality in America.

Jackie Robinson is one of my personal heroes for several reasons. As a Brooklyn native, I am proud that my birthplace was the place where this amazing man stepped into the national spotlight. As a baseball fan, I love how he played the game. And as an American, I’m proud of how Jackie impacted race relations in America. Jackie Robinson truly represents all that is good and possible in this country.

Along with having just the right temperament needed to be the first black major leaguer, Jackie Robinson was in fact a tremendous baseball player. While his health limited him to just 10 years, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and his statistical marks are outstanding. But this is not a post about Jackie’s baseball career, because while baseball remembers him on this day all Americans should honor Jackie Robinson for his contributions to racial justice off the field as well. For baseball fans and non-baseball fans alike, here are ten things about Jackie Robinson that every American should know:

  • In 1942 after Jackie’s graduation from UCLA (where he was the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track) he was drafted into the Army and was later court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a non-segregated bus. He was eventually acquitted but his trial kept him from serving overseas during WW II.
  • Following the 1956 season, with his legs hobbled from diabetes, the Dodgers traded Jackie to the crosstown rival Giants. Rather than play for the Giants, he retired and took an executive job at Chock Full o’Nuts, a chain of coffee shops with a large African-American employee base. From 1957 to 1964, Jackie was the vice president for personnel at Chock full o’Nuts; he was the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation.
  • In December 1956, the NAACP recognized him with the Spingarn Medal, which it awards annually for the highest achievement by an African-American.
  • Jackie was very political and following his baseball career he was actively involved in American politics. In 1960 he campaigned for Richard Nixon because his record on race relations was better than that of Nixon’s opponent, Senator John F. Kennedy. However, following Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he switched party allegiance.
  • In 1966 Jackie was named special assistant for community affairs under New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
  • In the late 1960s Jackie was publicly critical of the fact that there were no African-American managers in baseball. In 1972 after reluctantly agreeing to throw out the first pitch at the World Series he said, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Frank Robinson was named the first black manager in 1974; however, Jackie did not live to see it.
  • Jackie spent a lot of time in the South during the racial unrest of the late 1960s, even appearing with Dr. Martin Luther King. Jackie was a hero to southern blacks for breaking the color barrier in baseball.
  • Jackie and his wife Rachel had a difficult time finding a suburban home to buy in the greater New York area in the 1960s because of discriminatory real estate practices. They eventually found a home in  North Stamford, Connecticut, but only after being taken in first by Simon & Schuster co-founder Richard Simon and his family (which included Simon’s young daughter Carly.)
  • Robinson’s eldest son, Jackie Robinson Jr., had emotional trouble during his childhood in part due to being one of the only black kids in Stamford. He enrolled in the Army in search of a disciplined environment, served in the Vietnam War, and was wounded in action. After his discharge, he struggled with drug problems, later became a drug counselor, and tragically was killed in a car accident at just 24 years of age. Jackie Jr.’s struggles with drugs turned Jackie Sr. into an avid anti-drug crusader later in his life.
  • Jackie suffered from diabetes and heart disease at a young age and died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972. He was just 53 years old.

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a great new documentary by Ken Burns on PBS about Jackie’s life. Look for it on TV or watch it online here.

From Russia With Love?

dna

Yesterday my ancestry research introduced me to the term Landsmanschaft, which is German for “cultural society”. When Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S., they joined societies made up of other immigrants from their village. One of the many things these societies did was provide for burial in the society area of cemeteries. It turns out, if you know the name of the society where your Jewish ancestors are buried, you can find out what town they came from in the old country. There’s even a neat database where you can plug in the name of the society and it’ll tell you the town it’s affiliated with. So, mystery solved — the Gutmans (including my great grandfather Samuel and his brothers and sisters, as well as his parents Benjamin and Mollie) came to New York around 1900 from a village called Pechora in central Ukraine.

But before I buy a Ukrainian flag and celebrate my new found ancestral home, it should be noted that the reason they were in Pechora in the first place was likely because around 1800 Russian Empress Catherine II declared that all of the region’s Jews were to be relocated into one area of the empire known as the Pale of Settlement. Once they got to the Pale, they were considered second class citizens and eventually the locals started burning down their homes and businesses and killing them in what were called pogroms. I suspect that by 1900 my ancestors knew they were in danger and decided to get out of dodge and head to America. It’s a good thing they did, because a few decades later Pechora became home to a German concentration camp and thousands of Jews were killed and buried in mass graves.

I don’t know from where my ancestors were forced out of in order to end up in Pechora, but I suspect the non-Semites didn’t like them there either. It was probably some other part of Russia, but it’s tough to identify with any country that hated your ancestors enough to round them up, force them out and/or kill them. So am I Russian? Ukrainian? Something else? My DNA suggests my bloodline is mostly Eastern European and West Asian. Of course, I believe all mankind came from the first humans who came into existence in Northern Africa. Does that make me African?

Which leads to an even more esoteric question: aren’t we all African? Americans typically have a lot of pride in their heritage or “home country.” We like to identify as Irish Americans or Italian Americans or African Americans. But it’s not that cut and dry, especially if you agree with the majority of scientists who now believe that we do indeed all come from a common ancestor who lived in Africa. Here’s what National Geographic has to say:

Our species is an African one: Africa is where we first evolved, and where we have spent the majority of our time on Earth. The earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens appear in the fossil record at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago.

Doing ancestry research is a fun hobby, and it definitely provides a unique window into how we got where we did. But for all the work, it’s good to remember that if we go back far enough we are all related. That’s a great lesson to keep in mind, especially in a world full of so much geographic and ethnic hate.

 

Are You Being Eaten by Lions?

My wife Leslie and I have a little saying for when things get rough: Are you being eaten by lions? The reference is from David Eggers’ outstanding book What is the What, which tells the story of a “lost boy” of the Sudan named Valentino Deng. In the book, Valentino and the other boys from his village have been forced to flee and are making their way through the Sudanese countryside without knowing where they are going or what awaits them when they get there. Every so often during this trek, a lion would randomly attack and run off with one of the boys. Thus, no matter how bad one’s life may seem, you have to keep it in perspective. After all, you could be dinner for a hungry beast.

For the past few days I have had a nasty sinus infection that has been kicking my ass. I’ve had some time to kill on the sofa, and so I’ve watched a few movies. Without really planning it, I ended up watching three movies with the common theme of people overcoming hardship. The first of these films was Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the tale of WWII veteran and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini. Louie was shot down over the Pacific during WWII and after surviving nearly 50 days at sea in a tiny life raft was “saved” by the Japanese who proceeded to send him to a prisoner of war camp where he was singled out because of his Olympic pedigree. Zamperini survived and went on to live a productive life which he dedicated to the God he believes spared his life. The following day I watched Tig, the story of comedian Tig Notaro’s surprising way of handling her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She used comedy to cope and her attitude helped her recover, but also helped her rededicate her life to her dreams. Finally, I watched Life Itself, a documentary about the life and last days of legendary film critic Roger Ebert. This film, which not surprisingly deserves an enthusiastic thumbs up, shows us Ebert’s remarkable climb to success, but more importantly his will to survive and continue his work even after his body was ravaged with jaw and bone cancer. The dude kept smiling even when he no longer had a face. That is attitude!

All three of these films, and frankly the Eggers book as well, left me with an urgent desire to give myself a little attitude adjustment. In the weeks and months following my heart attack in 2011, I told myself I wasn’t going to take life for granted anymore and I was going to live life to its fullest. For a while, I was true to my word. I got the car of my dreams, I moved to California (and back), and I eventually got a new job that I love. But even while I was singing my own praises for these actions, I was beginning to fall back into old habits. Part of it had to do with the complacency that came with time, but in truth I have also been dealing with another medical issue that I have not been public about and which has caused me a lot of physical pain. I have been down on myself while trying to battle this issue, and it has challenged me mentally as well (and challenged my wife’s patience). It has definitely been a struggle, and throughout it I’ve tried to remind myself that it wasn’t life threatening and…well…I wasn’t being chased across the Sudanese savanna by hungry lions. Nevertheless, I was letting it keep me from doing the things I want to do in life.

These films reminded me to quit whining and get back to living life. Frankly, I was most struck by Tig Notaro’s journey. She isn’t the first person to deal with a family death and then a devastating diagnosis, but she may have been the first person ever to confront these issues on stage at a comedy club. If you don’t know the story, just days after getting diagnosed with cancer, Notaro decided to talk about it on stage. The resulting stand up routine became legendary, it went viral, and soon after Tig’s entire life changed. She became hugely famous, she did every talk show, she sold thousands of copies of her “comedy” routine, she got a TV show, and more. Here’s a few minutes of the actual routine from that night if you haven’t heard it:

You can download the entire set online if you like. Of course Tig beat cancer, but afterward she started to live the life she dreamed for herself, including finding the love of her life, getting married and having kids. She literally smiled her way through cancer. She joked about it wherever she went. She didn’t let her health issues define her. Tig Notaro understood that she wasn’t about to be eaten by a lion. She was certainly frightened, and she thought she might die, but even during the worst time in her life she kept things in perspective.

I needed this little reminder that I wasn’t about to become lion supper. My health issues are not life threatening. In fact, aside from this little battle with my sinuses I’m actually feeling better these days. For a while there, I was feeling all woe is me about life. I was starting to let it get the best of me. But Tig Nitaro is right — you gotta laugh at this shit.