I Know it’s Weird, but I’ve Got a Thing for Cover Songs

This week Jason Isbell released a charity album of cover songs of Georgia artists and it’s fabulous. Among the great tracks is a cover of Kid Fears by Indigo Girls with Brandi Carlile and Julien Baker performing the Amy and Emily parts and Jason lending a hand with the Michael Stipe bits. Kid Fears is one of my favorite Indigo Girls tracks and Isbell and friends do a great job with it.

I know some people don’t care for covers, but I love it when an artist I like covers another artist I like. I think it’s sort of a tribute to the original song, and it’s awesome to know a newer artist appreciates the same older songs that you do. For me the key is not worrying about whether the cover is true to the original version but rather enjoying the new take even if it jumps genres. In fact, I kind of like it better when the track jumps genres. A great example of this is Dwight Yoakam’s cover of Train in Vain by The Clash. He countryfies it, but it works as a country song because the lyrics resonate in the country world.

A few years back Rolling Stone magazine readers ranked their favorite cover songs of all time with Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower topping the list. Jimi’s version, for me anyway, is better than the original. I think that’s rare, and as I said I’m not looking for better but rather different. I like U2’s version better than Dylan’s as well, but I think Dylan is a far better songwriter than he is a performer.

Sometimes a band or artist can have a huge hit with a cover. Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sold 1.2M copies and nearly topped the charts while Cohen’s original didn’t chart at all when it first came out. Buckley’s cover makes most “best covers” lists but for my money k.d. lang’s version sung at the 1988 Calgary Olympics is even better. The Fugees took Killing Me Softly With His Song to number one in 1996 while Roberta Flack’s original version peaked at number six. Heck, Alien Ant Farm took Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal to number three while MJ’s version only reached number eight.

Once in a while a hit song comes along that listeners don’t even know were covers. UB40’s Red Red Wine is one example — it was actually written by and performed first by Neil Diamond. Bow Wow Wow is most famously known for their hit I Want Candy but it was written and performed in 1965 by The Strangeloves. Tainted Love by Soft Cell was 20 years old when they recorded it and had a hit. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was a mega hit for Cyndi Lauper but it was released earlier by its writer Robert Hazard (yep, the same guy who had a new wave hit with Escalator of Life).

I like covers so much I have a growing playlist of them on Spotify and whenever I hear a new one I like the playlist grows. It’s currently at 179 songs and counting! To make my list, I either have to like the song itself, the cover band, the original artist, or all of the above.

Some highlights for me include The Beautiful South covering the Pebbles hit Girlfriend (because why wouldn’t a British alternative band cover a 1987 R&B hit by an American New Jack Swing artist. The Beautiful South is one of my favorite bands and they love a good unexpected cover. They’ve also covered diverse hits by Blue Oyster Cult, the Bee Gees, the Smiths and Ramones to name a few.

Another favorite if mine is Tori Amos covering Smells Like Teen Spirit, which she does in her own raspy sexy way.

California-born Gary Jules is mostly known for his cover of the Tears For Fears song Mad World, which the band liked so much they covered his toned down version at a live show I attended. How’s that for a tribute?

All this is to say a good cover song can be a hit on its own, or be a nice diversion from an artist’s typical work, or can just be a ton of fun. What are some of your favorite covers? Let me know and I may add them to my Playlist.

U.S. Covid-19 Vaccine Rollout Symptom of Everything that’s Wrong with our Country

There are a lot of things wrong with America, but none perhaps as concerning of our growing inability to get shit done. Wasn’t it always an American hallmark that we kicked ass and took names? As the saying goes, we put a man on the moon, but…

I don’t think it’s a political issue, although the Trump administration has fucked up more than its share of basic government function over the past four years. No, this inability to do things started long before we elected that orange moron. Maybe it started after the attacks of 911. Instead of hunting down the perpetrators, we bungled our way into a quagmire in two countries that didn’t attack us on Sept. 11, 2001 and made things worse for millions of people living in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our response to Hurricane Katrina was pathetic and immoral. Our trains don’t run on time and crash all the time. Our cities are crumbling and we can’t even ensure our citizens get clean water to drink. Our forests are burning down and taking whole towns with them. Our healthcare system is a clusterfuck of bureaucracy, escalating costs, and coverage gaps. We can’t even do something as basic as hold an election without major issues. Seriously, I could go on all day but I might have to shoot myself afterward it’s so depressing. America feels like a banana republic not the greatest country on the planet. There’s plenty of blame to go around, on every side of the political spectrum, but also on all of us for allowing this to happen under our watch. It’s our country, therefore it’s our fault that things are so bad. I know, it’s not all bad — we still make a damn good hamburger.

The pandemic has, unfortunately, highlighted our ineffectiveness. I don’t think it’s fair to compare our response to, say, New Zealand’s. They are a small island with fewer citizens than New York City alone. But the list of countries managing this virus better than us is a little sad. We’re number one in total cases and total deaths. Near the top of the list in deaths per million citizens at 1,201. China is 45th in total deaths despite having four times our population. There are a lot of what the orangutan in chief called shithole countries kicking our ass on this virus. Somalia has had 130 total deaths from coronavirus. Laos — none. Nobody has died from Covid-19 in Laos. All these facts are readily available here: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

But nothing we’ve screwed up over the past few years is as terrifying as how we are rolling out the Covid vaccine. Seriously, we have a solution in our hands and we’re tossing bricks like Shaquille O’Neal at the free-throw line. There’s plenty of blame here for the Trump administration. By delaying vaccine purchases and not developing a national roll out strategy he caused this mess. Punting this roll out to the states to figure out may end up causing tens of thousands if not millions of lives. Still, you’d think state government could figure this out but things are going terribly wrong. Because in America we can’t do basic things anymore.

The obvious question is why? Are we just too big? Are we too divided politically that we can’t agree on something as nonpartisan as a deadly virus? Have we spent years underfunding infrastructure while propping up corporations and billionaires? Are our best and brightest eschewing public office because why would any smart person be foolish enough to put themselves in that no-win cycle of fundraising? Yes. Yes. Yes. All of the above and more.

I’m furious with the vaccine rollout here in Arizona. And not just because I have significant risk factors and haven’t been able to get the vaccine yet. I also have been trying desperately to book vaccine appointments for my parents. Meanwhile, I’m seeing people with far less risk than myself smiling on Facebook as needles are plunged into their arms. It’s not their fault — good for them. The system is ridiculous and ripe for fraud. Here’s a headline I saw today that sums it up — The Wild Ways Young People Justify Jumping Ahead of the Line for the Coronavirus Vaccine. Again, not blaming them for jumping ahead of the line. It should never have been an issue to begin with.

I know things are bad in many states. I just read about a friend in Texas who drove hours to get a vaccine only to be turned away because they ran out. But Arizona’s rollout has been especially bad. When the administration left this task to the states, Arizona could have done the smart thing and brought together state and county health officials, corporations, and medical experts to formulate a logical plan to vaccinate our seven million citizens over the next six months. Instead, our state punted to the counties. And now we’re left with a mishmash of policies and procedures that are unfair, ineffective, and delayed and that will result in lives lost. It’s that serious. Lives will be lost.

In Maricopa County, where I live, in order to get the vaccine you have to register on the Arizona Department of Health Services website to get an appointment for the vaccine. There is only one large-scale vaccine delivery site, at State Farm Stadium, and those appointments are booked through the end of the month and the site is not yet taking February appointments for some unknown reason. The state’s registration site is confusing, leaving many eligibility details to interpretation resulting in people who should not be first in line getting vaccines. Meanwhile, people under age 75 with pre-existing conditions are still waiting for registration slots to open and crossing their fingers that when the slots do open they can get an appointment and that there are vaccines available. I can wait until my turn (I’m 1B but apparently there are two phases of 1B though nobody mentioned this. Or maybe I’m 1C. Not sure, which is the point). Or I can fib and say I am a teacher or a childcare worker and hope nobody asks for proof, something I’m hearing is exactly what is happening at the State Farm Stadium site. If you show up with an appointment you get a vaccine even if you lied on the registration form. And again, I’m not blaming people who have done just that. The guidelines are unclear. If you work for a company that has previously been deemed essential does that mean you are 1B or 1B phase two? Do you work or volunteer with children even though you do not work for a school, and does that make you eligible? It’s unclear so people are checking that box and heading down to the distribution sites and getting vaccinated even without proof of employment. Of course there is fraud in this system — it was designed to enable fraud.

For the record, even if you are in 1B phase one there are no appointments left at State Farm Stadium in January despite it being open 24/7 and February appointments are not yet being accepted. So I can’t get a vaccine in Maricopa County for now.

Which brings me to the rest of the state. Every county has its own plan and its own way of determining what phase it is in. Pima County finally opened their registration site on Thursday, and it immediately crashed. I decided to try to sign up in Pima and when I went through the process the final outcome was a note that said the county was going to evaluate my eligibility and get back to me. Get back to me? When? How?

Meanwhile, I heard from someone on Facebook that Banner Health was taking registrations for appointments at a site in Pima County so I headed to that site and was successful in getting appointments for my parents and myself. Though I’m still not 100 percent sure if I’m truly eligible at this time or if my mother is truly eligible. For her it’s because you have to be 75 in Pima County to get a vaccine, but only until Tuesday at which time they are opening it up to people 65 or older. By the way, Maricopa County has decided not to open up to those 65 and older for now despite guidance from the state saying they didn’t think they had enough vaccines. And they probably don’t. Whose fault is that? I’d say it’s the collective “leadership” of the U.S. — the greatest country on the planet?

So here we are. A year into this pandemic and science has gifted us with a vaccine and we can’t come together and create a smart, logical, and fair process for vaccinating every citizen. It’s just a vaccine dammit — we put a man on the moon!

A COVID-19 Shot in the Dark

I am a man of reason. By that I mean I rely on science to inform my opinions and many of my decisions, from climate change to astrophysics (no, the earth is not flat) to health. When I’m unsure of something, I look to the research. This worldview has shaped my belief system, my politics, and my health decisions. It is why, for example, after my heart attack in 2011 I continue to take the medications I’ve been prescribed, and why I eat a low carb diet. I do my own research, and then I trust the science. I’m not saying this to be derogatory to anyone who trusts faith, pseudoscience, or “holistic” treatments for illnesses — I’m just not the kind of person who sees an ad on television for a memory enhancer and decides to take a pill derived from jellyfish. Show me the peer-reviewed study, please.

I bring this up because today I was given the first of two injections of a vaccine for COVID-19 as part of a phase three medical trial being done by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca in cooperation with Oxford University. I get my second shot, or booster, in four weeks. Why, you ask, did I volunteer to be a human guinea pig for a coronavirus vaccine? Because of science.

To start with, I am at high risk for developing serious issues if I get coronavirus. This is because of my heart history, but also because I’ve had asthma since I was a child. Coronavirus is most definitely more deadly among those with pre-existing conditions and I do not want to be a statistic.

Second, it is unclear how much longer we’ll all have to wait for a vaccine and I’m getting tired of living in fear. I have seen this virus devastate lives, and almost take the life of someone close to me, and why not opt in for a chance to get a vaccine early — by the time a vaccine reaches phase three it has been proven to be pretty safe and as we learned earlier this week with the news from the Pfizer vaccine trial the results can be tremendously positive.

There is not much downside to taking the vaccine during a phase three trial. Yes, I had to read and sign off on about 20 pages of legalese to receive the injection, but for the most part the vast majority of side effects have been mild with some patients reporting fever and achiness following the booster. There have been a few isolated cases of a neurological condition but there is no evidence yet as to whether or not those cases were caused by the vaccine and in fact in one of the cases the patient received the placebo rather than the vaccine. And so far nobody has grown a tail.

The upside is that by early December I may have antibodies to the coronavirus and this will limit my chances of getting the virus or having a serious issue from the virus. I am not taking my mask off any time soon, but it feels like a light at the end of the tunnel and that’s exciting. If, by chance, I was one of the 33% of trial patients who received a placebo rather than the vaccine, well I guess I’ve at least helped the medical community bring this vaccine to the world and as a study participant I may even be vaccinated as a thank you for participating in advance of the general population. Hell, even if a slew of vaccines are ready for mass use in December as suspected it could be months before any of us get it so I’m happy to have jumped the line.

Which brings me back to reason. Vaccines work. Not sure? When was the last time you got measles or polio? I trust science. Science is why when you get a cut on your finger you do not die from infection (thank you Sir Alexander Fleming). Science is why I didn’t die from a heart attack in 2011, instead I had an angiogram and had three stents placed, thus keeping the blood flowing through my body (thank you Dr. Charles Thomas Stent — not joking).

I’m no hero for participating in this trial. Yes, it will help the world. And yes, I will make a few hundred bucks. But I’m doing it for myself and my loved ones. I have spent the better part of the last six months wearing a mask when I’m in public, dining on patios rather than inside, working from home, and generally living like a hermit. I miss my friends. And I want it to end. I want to get my life back. I really hope I was one of the 66% of AstraZeneca trial participants who received the actual vaccine and not the placebo.

Just the other day AstraZeneca reported they expect the trial results to be ready this year and could begin large scale vaccinations in December. Phase one and two results were extremely successful and warranted moving into the phase three trial with the AstraZeneca vaccine being shortlisted as one of the more promising candidates.

Despite the anti-vax movement (proof that people will believe anything if it’s repeated enough times), vaccines are among humankinds greatest achievements. Don’t take my word for it — check out what noted pro-science and bullshit detectors Penn and Teller have to say:

Postcard from the Apocalypse

Last night as I lay in bed about to fall asleep, I had an existential moment. I imagined I was in a hospital bed, about to be intubated because of the coronavirus, and I had a fleeting moment to share a few dying words with my wife and son. As I literally lay there trying to think of what to say, I wondered to myself — have I had a good life? If I were actually about to die, would I be satisfied with what I’d done in my 53 years on the planet?

The coronavirus pandemic has put most of us on edge. For some of us, it has simply been an inconvenience. For those of us with underlying medical conditions, perhaps it has caused you a moment or two of panic like I had with my bedtime musings last night. I’ll be honest, because of my heart issues along with being a lifelong asthma sufferer, it has freaked me the fuck out. I know this virus is probably not going to kill me. Still, it has made me think about my life and that, my friends, is a good thing. Here me out.

In 2012 when I suffered a near fatal heart attack, I took stock of my life up to that point and decided I needed to make a few changes. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was unhappy in my career and nearly dying enabled me to find the strength to leave public relations and become a nonprofit fundraiser. Eight years on, I know I made the right decision.

It turns out, a crisis is a natural time to take stock in your life and an even better time to make a change. I don’t know if it’s the best time to make a big life change, but I’d argue it’s as good a time as any. Lord knows you probably have the extra time to do a life inventory since you’re stuck at home with nothing to do but binge watch Ozark and sleep on the sofa.

On my walk this morning I thought more about the people I know who made big life decisions and in every case, it turned out to be for the better.

…I thought about my buddy Dan, who in his forties realized he was unhappy in his marriage and his career was unfulfilling. His father died, and he used that big moment to get divorced, quit his job, and go back to school to become a doctor.

…I thought about my pal Eugene, who was divorced, hadn’t graduated from college, was overweight, and was unfulfilled in his career. He found the strength to go back to school to finish his degree, and in the past few years he has dedicated himself to fitness (he has lost a ton of weight), found a wonderful new woman, became a father again, and is doing fulfilling work.

…I thought about my friends Mike and Michelle, who moved from California to a small town in South Dakota to make a better life for their severely autistic son.

…I thought about my friend Julia who just announced to the entire world that she was transitioning to become Julian.

…I thought about my friend Cameo who in her late forties just got married and recently adopted twin baby girls.

…I thought about my friend Reggie who recently lost his eldest son to suicide who has turned that tragedy into a book and has become a champion for mental health awareness.

…I thought about my friend Sara who left her life behind in Vietnam and moved to America to find her birth father and live the American dream.

I thought about all my friends, and there are far too many of them, who are dealing with cancer, or heart disease, or some other serious medical condition. And moving forward with life one step at a time.

These are just a small handful of the heroes I know. Think about all the others out there making big moves. I guess what I’m saying is that life is short, and in times like this why not begin to take the steps necessary to live a more authentic life, whatever that means to you. I understand there are a lot of barriers to change right now with so much of the world shuttered, so just begin with what you can. Start doing research. Take some small steps. Start a plan to get where you want to go.

  • Refresh your resume
  • Start planning your retirement
  • Call a divorce lawyer
  • Start writing that novel
  • Come out
  • Start looking for a job in Bend, Oregon or San Luis Obispo, California or Durango, Colorado
  • Sign up for an acting class
  • Run for public office

Don’t get caught on your death bed wondering what if.

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Henry David Thoreau

Brown is Back and So is the Padres Identity

Being a fan of a sports team is more about identity than it is about winning. How else do you explain the long-suffering Cubs fans who stayed true to their team despite a 108-year World Series championship drought? Or the fans of the Detroit Lions who have gone 58 years and counting since their last championship? Or the Atlanta Hawks who have gone 48 years without a championship? Winning, it seems, is not in fact the only thing despite what former UCLA football coach Red Sanders is famous for claiming.

Being a true fan of a team means that team is in your blood. It’s a part of you and a part of how your friends perceive you. Ask 100 people what they know about me and I suspect one of the first things most of them would think of is that I’m a Padres fan.

The identity of a team includes the vibe of its community, its traditions, its great players, its uniforms, its logo, and yes, its colors. When you think of the Dallas Cowboys you think of the blue star. The Yankees? Black and white pinstripes. The University of North Carolina? Carolina blue. When you think of the San Diego Padres? Okay, nobody really thinks of the San Diego Padres. But if you did, you’d swear they were always brown and you’d recall that iconic swinging friar!

But the Padres have been some various shade of blue for the past three decades. It has never felt right. And yes, I grew up in San Diego in the 70s and early 80s when the Padres last wore brown as their primary color. So of course there is some nostalgia involved. But it’s more about identity than a longing for the glory days of the past because there were no glory days of the past. The team has been around for 50 years and despite two trips to the World Series they’ve never won a championship.

I’ve always hated the Padres in blue. I understand why they switched to blue, orange and white in 1991. Marketing. Brown is not exactly a popular color. But blue has always been a mistake and yet decade after decade they’ve doubled down on it, finally moving to plain old blue and white for the past few years. But blue is the color of their biggest rivals, the Dodgers. You don’t try to look like your rivals. Could you imagine Ohio State changing its color scheme to blue and maize? No. They wouldn’t. Because it’d be stupid. Which is why the Padres changing to blue in 1991 was stupid.

I know what you’re thinking. Brown is an awful color for a sports team. It’s why there are so very few brown sports teams. You have the Cleveland Browns of course. And the Baltimore Orioles are brown and orange. The University of Wyoming is brown. But it’s not a popular color. Hell, Brown University uses silver and red as its primary uniform colors.

But when I think of the Padres I think of brown and yellow. I think of Ozzie Smith, and Nate Colbert, and Dave Winfield. I’m not saying the Padres should bring back those god awful brown and mustard uniforms. When the Astros decided to move on from the rainbow uniforms of the 70s and 80s they didn’t switch to green. They modernized their look using their primary colors of blue and orange.

The Padres should be brown. They should have always been brown. And I’m thrilled they are bringing back the brown permanently starting with the 2020 season. Is it going to make them a better team? No, of course not. But it will bring back their identity and frankly give them something to hang their hat on that not a lot of other teams have — a unique look. When you see the Padres moving forward you’ll think of brown. And that’s as it should be.

I don’t love brown. But I love the Padres and they are brown. Maybe you don’t think you look good in brown? I don’t care. You know who does? Manny Fucking Machado.

And you know who else looks great in brown. The franchise — Fernando Tatis Jr.

I can’t wait to see the Padres new uniforms when they are released. I can tell you as well that my Christmas list will be full of nothing but brown Padres merchandise. I love that the Padres are going to be distinct again.

Brown is back, baby!

50 Things I Love About My Wife

This is a photo of Leslie and I just a few months ago in Paris. I look all of my 52 years. Leslie looks like she’s still 30. Damn I’m a lucky son of a bitch.

Leslie Gutman turns 50 years old today and she’s not happy about it. Time is a bitch that never slows, and while 50 is a monumental age I don’t think it’s something to fear, rather it’s something to embrace. Hell, a lot of humans don’t make it to half a century, and many who do don’t look half as good as Leslie. I mean, she still gets carded buying alcohol sometimes.

But what Leslie is failing to realize is that she may be 50, but inside she still lives her life like she’s 25. She is physically active, she has a robust work life, she has lots of friends, she travels, she’s relatively healthy, her mind is sharp. She’s a freak of nature. She epitomizes youthful exuberance — and frankly I wish I had just a fraction of her joie de vivre.

So to honor my wonderful wife on this special occasion, I submit to you 50 reasons why I love her. Truthfully, it only took me a few minutes to come up with these and I could have kept going all day. I love everything about her (even the things that drive me crazy). Isn’t that what love is really all about?

In no particular order, here you go:

  1. I love how she literally saved my life…twice.
  2. I love how she puts the needs of others above her own.
  3. I love how she plans recurring medical appointments on her birthday so she doesn’t forget them
  4. I love how whenever I’m feeling down about something she reminds me how great I have it
  5. I love how she still giggles like a little girl when she hears something silly (this is the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters!)
  6. I love how messy she keeps her car and fights me if I try to clean it up as if she knows where everything is and there’s a reason for it
  7. I love how she’s always prepared for anything
  8. I love that she volunteers to do taxes for the under-served
  9. I love how she celebrates the hell out of Christmas even though she’s an atheist
  10. I love how wherever we go on vacation she buys a new Christmas ornament for the tree to remind us of the trip
  11. I love how she never goes outside without a hat, sunscreen, and water
  12. I love how much she helps Connor with the big decisions in life (and the small ones too)
  13. I love how much she enjoys bad reality TV
  14. I love the fact that she cooks dinner almost every night even after a hard day’s work
  15. I love how tipsy she gets after just one Mojito
  16. I love how she looks so damn young that she still gets carded all the time
  17. I love how she can talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything
  18. I love how unconditionally she loves her family (except for her brother. Did you even know she has a brother?)
  19. I love how she tries on 10 different outfits before heading out for the day and then just when you think she’s got it set she emerges from the bedroom with something else on
  20. I love how every day she comes home from work and asks me the same question – anything exciting happen today? (as if)
  21. I love how she embraces Connor’s friends as if they are her own kids
  22. I love how she likes Flo Rida and Pitbull despite how crappy their music is
  23. I love how diligently she plans vacations, leaving nothing to chance
  24. I love how she unabashedly loves any television show with vampires, werewolves, or demons
  25. I love how she watches the evening news every day even though the news is a shit show and never seems to change
  26. I love how she drives with the driver’s seat back in what looks to me like the most uncomfortable way possible
  27. I love how uncomfortable she is with change (wait, we’re switching from Google Play Music to Spotify?)
  28. I love how she calls to check in on my parents more than I do
  29. I love how she keeps a drawer full of greeting cards for every occasion just in case
  30. I love how even after 25 years of marriage she still knows how to turn me on (sorry, TMI)
  31. I love how dedicated she is to watching Kentucky basketball simply because she has a long-term crush on Coach Calipari
  32. I love how competitive she is no matter what’s at stake
  33. I love how whenever she sees something she doesn’t like at work she writes a sternly worded memo to the highest ranking executive she can find
  34. I love how she’s remained dedicated to her company for more than 25 years even while I’ve changed jobs 13 times in the same time period
  35. I love her smile
  36. I love how everyone I know calls her for advice about life
  37. I love how she manages our finances so spectacularly that I haven’t bothered to log into our bank account website in…like…forever
  38. I love how she pronounces eggs like aygs
  39. I love how much she likes the Saturday Night Safety Dance on SiriusXM 1st Wave
  40. I love how she can find anything on the Internet. Seriously, she’s a web ninja.
  41. I love how she gets teary eyed during sappy television commercials
  42. I love how when she puts her mind to something you might as well call it done
  43. I love how she’s already got a dog picked out to replace me when I croak (and she’s even named the damn thing after me)
  44. I love how much she knows about finance
  45. I love that she’s stuck with me through thick and thin
  46. I love how loyal she is to brands she loves
  47. I love how she plays off a Malaprop as if she meant to say it
  48. I love how much she loves and cares for Connor
  49. I love how she goes to the doctor prepared to tell him or her what her diagnosis is already
  50. I love how much she shows her love for me even after so many years together

Happy 50th Birthday Leslie Gutman. I love you with all of my heart.

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!

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.

 

 

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.