Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Seven Year Delay

This morning my iPod shuffle and the relative solitude of the drive to work provided me with the memory of a distinct moment of my youth. The song was "Time In a Bottle" by Jim Croce.

Jim Croce died in a plane crash in September, 1973. I was nine years old. I knew little at the time about popular music, and cared about it even less. I remember hearing of his death, and knew it was he who had recorded "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," a song played often on the radio, and which I had enjoyed. That was about it.

About seven years later I was discovering the vinyl record albums my brother, nearly six years older than I, had been collecting and storing in the upstairs bedroom we shared. His stuff was generally off-limits to me, so, while he wasn't home, I made sure to be extra careful when handling his record albums.

The distinct moment to which my iPod brought me this morning was when I laid the needle on the first track of one of the two Jim Croce albums in my brother's collection. I lay on the floor with his headphones on so I could play it as loudly as I wanted. Even then I knew only that Jim Croce had recorded a couple of hit songs, plus one or two other popular pieces, and had died tragically while his star was still rising. With his songs piping directly into my ears, I was struck by the poetry in his words, by the emotion in his voice, and the weight of his music. And there, on my back on the hard floor of my shared bedroom nearly a decade after Jim Croce died, the full depth of the loss the music world experienced on the day of his death hit me. And I wept.


Monday, January 11, 2016

A Bit of a Ramble, Mostly About Death

I was never a huge fan of David Bowie. I've been more appreciative of his music in my middle age than I was in my youth and young adulthood, and I understand the impact his recent death has had on the music industry and on his fandom.

What turns out to be the most disarming aspect of his death is that Mr. Bowie turned it into his final artistic expression. One can't know — at least at this point, one day after his death — if he intentionally timed the release of his new album to be around the date of his death (it was released two days before he died), or if it just turned out to be an ironic coincidence (someone involved with the production of the album has said that Bowie intended it as a "parting gift" to his fans). But what can be known — or at least perceived — is that, during the writing and creation of his final music album, he was fully aware of, and prepared for, his impending death. Aware, and inspired.

One need only absorb the disturbing themes, recurring imagery, and haunting words of two songs from the recent release, Blackstar:



Nobody outside those in his closest circles knew he was dying until word came late Sunday night, January 10, 2016, that he had passed.

Constructive Contemplation
People rarely think of a terminal cancer diagnosis — or terminal anything diagnosis — as a positive thing, but one can imagine that it certainly gives one perspective. Clearly, in David Bowie's circumstance, it gave him the sound and vision for his final curtain (see what I did there...?)

But what about the rest of us? Is there anything we should be thinking about for the rest of our time manufacturing carbon dioxide? Of course, there are life insurance and succession plans and wills and trusts, but those are things that take effect after we die. We tend to put off a lot of living in an effort to secure a comfortable life in our future. But isn't life today worth as much as life tomorrow? Why suffer through the now when tomorrow isn't promised to us? Life ultimately sucks when you look at it from the end of the run: if you had a great life that's ending, that sucks because it's ending; if you had a crappy life, well, that sucks, and now it's ending. Total suckness.

I used to feel that my biggest fear was to die alone. I think that's the top of the list for a lot of people. But I don't fear that any more, because, after all, everyone dies alone. Sure, you may be surrounded by family. You may even go flying off a bridge in a bus with a hundred other people, all fated to cease in the same instant. But even then, you'd be alone. Death is a solitary thing. No one goes with you.

No, my biggest fear is to be the last of my family and friends — but family, especially — to go. Not that I wish it upon any of them, either, but, being the youngest of seven children, I've known all of my siblings for my entire life! With my parents and one sister gone already, I don't think I can take that five more times as I stagger through old age.

What is your biggest fear? Don't you think that you — we — should go about the rest of our days seeing to alleviate that fear? Or at least face it, embrace it to assuage the stress it causes us while we think death is far away?

Does it take death facing us and our stocking feet at the end of a long, polished hardwood-floor, tilted hallway to give us the inspiration to do something interesting with our lives?

David Bowie lived an interesting life. May we all endeavor to express our lives as profoundly and as openly as he expressed his dying.

And my uplifting parting shot for this downer post, a guest-starring appearance by David Bowie on the Ricky Gervais HBO comedy, Extras. I hope you'll have a laugh:


Monday, December 28, 2015

Star Wars: A Franchise Awakens

A child of the '70s, I was blown over like a corn stalk in an Iowa tornado by Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It was action-adventure like no one had ever seen, the perfect blend of action, drama, romance, comedy, and cliff-hanger, with a devil-may-care attitude toward the physics and science of space travel, that appealed to adults and children alike. I remember when the credits rolled, I wanted to scream, "More!" The film set the bar very high for even its own sequel to reach, and how clever was Star Wars creator George Lucas to make it "Episode IV?" Clearly there was more to come! The end of the film laid out all the loose ends for a second film to tie up ...if it was successful....

I heard somewhere along the way that George Lucas intended the Star Wars saga to be three film trilogies and, though I hoped and dreamed they would all be made, never in the wildest of those dreams did I imagine that I would be well into my fifties before the credits rolled on the final film.

Well, that final film is in development, its future set in motion by the release of the first film of the final trilogy a mere ten days before the writing of this review.

In development since the Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm and the Star Wars franchise in 2012, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) has some big shoes to fill. Not only is it the next film in the series, not only does it pick up with the characters — not to mention the actors — we left behind after Return of the Jedi, but it is the film fans have been waiting thirty-two years to see.

Episode VII starts with the familiar, goose bump-inspiring fanfare and the scrolling text that disappears into the infinite distance over the orchestral theme you'll never forget, and one can't help but fear a return to the days of George Lucas-helmed Episodes I, II, and III and the atmosphere of stories so overloaded with information and so rushed one could be led to believe Lucas had a terminal diagnosis and simply had to get them made as quickly as possible! And let the cavalcade of fuzzy, clownish, computer-animated characters remain unmentioned.

Director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt continue to stroke us with the pleasantly familiar, as we see names like Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa (a general, now!) float past into oblivion. But the script leans a little too heavily on the familiar, as we see so many themes reminiscent of the original trilogy that at times this film feels like a rehash. Embers of the defeated Empire, now reconstituted as the First Order, search the galaxy to capture Luke Skywalker ...again. A scene in a cantina, replete with all sorts of shady characters from throughout the universe, and a quirky band ...again. The First Order are still in the planet-destroying business with a bigger, better version of the Death Star ...again. A villain wearing a dark helmet with breathing apparatus and voice enhancement set to "sinister." A battle of minds between father and son.

Thematically, Episode VII is a repeat.

But Abrams and company fill the screen with lavish imaginings of worlds and planets and beings, with enough fresh twists on The Force, new and likable characters, family dysfunction, and a few references to the original trilogy with tongue planted firmly in cheek — to make it watchable and — even better — enjoyable.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has been a hot topic of filmgoers' conversation since Disney announced it was moving forward with the final trilogy. And as the release date neared, the hype grew exponentially, prompting many to ponder if the film could live up to it. For Disney and for Abrams and company, the pressure of meeting that hype pales in comparison to meeting the standards that the Star Wars franchise long ago established for itself. After the damage to the franchise and to fans' enthusiasm for it caused by the reception of Episodes I through III, the climb back up to that standard is formidable.

Does Episode VII meet the hype?

Unfortunately, it doesn't. A generation's worth of buzz and anticipation makes that impossible.

But does it meet the standard?

Yes. Yes it does. Each film in the Star Wars original trilogy triggered a response in its fans beyond and deeper than emotional; a gut feeling. In this film, that gut feeling is there, a muscle memory of the response to the original trilogy that is lacking for Episodes I through III. Despite a reliance on the familiar, "The Force Awakens" successfully resuscitates the Star Wars brand.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens — Numb Butt Cheeks® rating of 7.5* — may not inspire you to see it 20-something times like the original film did for many, but you may feel like that kid again, walking out of the theater wondering what could possibly be next for that band of rebels, and wanting to scream, "More!"

("Star Wars The Force Awakens Theatrical Poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

*The Numb Butt-Cheeks® scale of zero to ten: a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of zero indicates such a disregard for the film that one could get up to go to the bathroom at any point without worry of missing anything exciting or important; a Numb Butt-Cheeks rating of ten indicates there is no way one would get up and leave, save for a distinct tearing of bladder tissue.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Suicide Note

I didn't know you. I never will.

The closest I will come to knowing you will have been the distraught — distraught — woman who passed me several times a day all week through the entrance vestibule two floors below the Critical Care Unit to head outside for a smoke. Never was she far from tears — apparently having just shed them, barely hanging on the edge of them, or outright crying as she sped through. All. Week.

Or the parade of teenagers who came to the hospital today, wide-eyed, a little scared not knowing what to expect. And then, by ones and by twos, they stumbled out of the elevators, faces warped by sorrow, such young, fresh, pretty faces twisted in sad grimace.

A middle-aged woman stood in the the lobby, directing traffic, diverting and dividing the stream of adolescents, sending some to the elevators, some to the chairs to wait. I approached her. "Is it a teacher? A student?"

"Their friend," she said. "He was seventeen."


Until that moment I didn't know for whom your mother cried through the week. One assumes the loss of an elder, a parent or grandparent, withered by age or ravaged by some nefarious disease.

At that moment, I knew you were still alive. I had overheard it this morning; a man spoke about you in hushed tones into his mobile phone. "Yeah. It's over. They're gonna pull the plug today."

Still alive. Yet the middle-aged woman in the lobby said, "Was."

And so word had gone out that today is it: the technology amassed and arrayed around you in that room somewhere two floors above me, the hums and whirs and beeps that had prolonged your existence for much of the week, would be shut off. And the people who made up the stuff of your life, for whom you were the stuff of theirs, came to say good-bye.

A group of teens — your friends — later shuffled outside to the benches where they could talk, blow off some steam, and have a smoke. And cry.

I stepped outside and approached them. I broke a rule. "What happened to your friend?" I asked.

A young lady, perhaps more world-aware than most her age, said, "I really can't tell you that. I--"

"I can!" A young man spoke with a loud voice and a low threshold for a family's privacy. "He tried to hang himself."

"He did hang himself," said another young man, seated a couple of bodies away from the first. "That's why we're--" An aimless, formless gesture of one hand expressed everything he felt for you that his words couldn't.

I made what I hope looked like a sympathetic expression with my face, and I walked away.

Is this what you wanted? Are these the people upon whom you wished to inflict so much pain? Is their agony worth more than yours in trade? Is what any of them did to you — or didn't do for you — worth what you're putting them through, now?

Did you talk to any of them about it? Could you have talked to them? Were you not aware that so many people loved you? That many of them would have shared your burden? That one of them — just one — might have needed your help to get through?

Did you talk about it to an adult, someone who went through all of the same fear, sadness, anger, loneliness, despair, and pain as a teen, and who came out the other side understanding that you get through it! You get over it! It's not bigger than you! If it's not going to kill you on its own, it's not worth dying over.

But, clearly, you believed it was bigger than you. You made this day one that your friends will never forget. You've opened a hole in your mother that will never close.

I shed a brief tear as I bore silent witness to the heartache your final decision has wrought on everyone who loved you. My tear was for them — your friends, your teachers, your mother — because I know the pain of losing a loved one to suicide, and in that moment I knew your friends and your teachers and your mother.

But I didn't know you. I never will.


Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Nostalgia: It Ain't What It Used to Be

The good old days weren't always good
And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems.

--Billy Joel, "Keeping the Faith," An Innocent Man, 1983

We often look back and reflect on "the good old days," a time — or times — in our lives when life was better, smells were sweeter, food was tastier ...whatever. It was better. Unless a life has been nothing but total shit, we all do it; we pine for those days again.

Or do we?

Personally, I don't want to go back. I happen to like my iPhone and my computer and my Blu-Ray player and my TiVO (even though it's been on the fritz for about a year; I need to get that fixed (HAH! Good days to come!)) and cars with reverse assist cameras and selfie-sticks. What I find myself pining for is the feeling of yesterday, because that's what nostalgia really is.

Whenever I think about "the good old days," I remember that, back then, I didn't realize that then was a time I would look back on fondly and miss. Such realization makes me wonder if today is a day, or if autumn, 2015, is a period of my life I'll look back on in 15 years, sighing and smiling.

The passage of time has a way of softening the edges of our memories, shining a golden light on those we cherish, and often sugar-coating the ones we're not so fond to recall. As I think more about the days of yore, I realize that those days weren't any better than any that have passed since. Thirty five years ago our existence was still overshadowed by the Cold War and the lingering threat of nuclear annihilation, but I still got to see all of my friends every day. In the mid-1980s I enlisted in the Air Force and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, but people bought the Yugo. I pursued a career that lasted 16 years, but its bookends were the deaths of my parents. I got married, but it ended in divorce. I'm in love with a wonderful woman, but Donald Trump.

Times are not good or bad. People fell in love and bore children while war raged. Mothers wept over their lost sons while the nation celebrated victory. Nostalgia isn't rooted in a time of our lives or in an historical era. Nostalgia is rooted in whom we surrounded ourselves with at the time and how they made us feel. And, usually, those times are associated with a period in our lives when we had fewer responsibilities and demands on our attention than we have now. It's easier to enjoy the company of friends when you don't have the insistence of a career or a young family pulling at you. The memories are sweeter when you could cuddle under a blanket with all of the kids and watch a silly movie together than when each teenager's attention is wrapped around a hand-held personal entertainment device plugged into their ears in some remote corner of the house while you sit at the kitchen table and crunch the numbers figuring out how to continue to feed them.

I believe we shouldn't pine for times that were great or special or "better." They weren't. You've lost touch with the people that made your existence then more enjoyable.

Reach out. Find those people. If lines were crossed or bridges were burned, maybe it's time for reconciliation. If it's simply that too much time has gotten between you and those people, maybe they're thinking about those "good old days," too, and a word from you out of the blue would make their day. Or their month.

But don't forget the people around you now. Take stock of them. Appreciate the good feelings you can associate with them, for they are the stuff of tomorrow's memories.


Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Magic, Fleeting

I am a morning person. It's not by choice, but by fate; it seems I always have to roll out of bed at oh-dark-thirty to silence a wake-me-up-unwillingly device. Don't get me wrong, though. I do like mornings. The problem is that I also like late nights. The two, it seems, don't get along together too well.

Browsing through some old photos recently, I came across one I took of a group of young men with whom I was in training to be a Security Specialist in the U.S. Air Force. The photo dates to late winter or early spring of 1984 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and was taken in the morning, probably a half-hour or so after sunrise. There were many such mornings during the first 18 weeks of my brief Air Force career, but I recall a much different feeling about them then than I have now.

The photo that inspired this post.
Lackland Air Force Base • San Antonio, Texas
winter/spring, 1984 (photo: Tony Gasbarro)

Prior to my time in the Air Force, if I was awake before sunup it was because I had either stayed up all night, or I had been dragged out of my bed by my father for some unwelcome assist for which he insisted upon dragging me out of my bed, after which I most likely leaned my head against the window of his truck on the way to wherever and slept until all the normal people were awake.

When the Air Force insisted that I get out of bed while the surrounding world was still dark, I felt a more urgent need to comply. As the old Army commercials used to say, I found myself doing more before 9:00am than most people did all day. No, seriously, when was the last time you drew an M-16 rifle from an armory and climbed into the back of a two-and-a-half-ton truck and rode to a firing range, hmmm? But there I would be, in the classic, military "hurry up and wait," standing around with other young men drawn from their bunks by their sense of duty — or their fear of military courts-martial — and looking at the eastern sky.

Back then there was something magical about a sunrise; thick, black darkness, the horizon purpling and then brightening, blending to orange, clouds illuminated from below, puffy reds and pinks against rich blue. It was a sight I had rarely seen before as a diurnal sleepyhead. There was a magic in the stillness of the morning, then, that could even drown out the horseplay of those other young men around me. The air never held a sweeter aroma at any other time of the day than it held in the early hours, nor a sweeter sound than the morning birds as they busied themselves with their tasks. I remember often wishing that, somehow, the day could stay like that all the time and never grow bright and hot and difficult.

But as military training carried into regular duty, and surreal twilight carried into responsibility and routine and real life, that sense of magic wore off somewhere. I trudged along in life, returning more or less to the diurnal sleepyhead that I had been before. Circumstances later in life have brought me back to the oh-dark-thirty game, but now — somehow — it seems easier to do without threat of military courts-martial or the wrath of Dad. Do I require less sleep? Is there some subconscious reasoning, informed from many years of routine, that says, Just get up and get going! Lying here won't make it any easier? Has breakfast become that important to me?

Probably due to that same subconscious reasoning, my return to early mornings has not brought along with it the magical morning feeling. Been there - done that, I guess.

I still look to the east, still regard the dazzle of the sunrise firing up the clouds, still hear the birds singing, still notice the stillness... but no magic.

Maybe it's the fade of youth, the slow ebb of testosterone. Maybe, as morning is to the day as spring is to the year, I realize I'm in the autumn of my life.


Maybe I'm just tired of getting up so damned early.


Monday, November 23, 2015

The Power of the Smile

This is purely anecdotal; if you seek documentation on any of this, I will not — CAN not — provide it, however my word is gold and you had better believe it or poo on you.

I've spent most of my adult life rather self-conscious of my appearance; weak jawline, head — in my opinion — too small for my body, two eyebrows that would prefer to be one, and now, for the last nearly 20 years or so, male pattern baldness. I will admit that these drawbacks are, perhaps, perceptions that prevail from my days of low self-esteem as a teenager and young adult. There is one attribute, however, that bothers me more than the others here listed.

Dammit, I AM smiling.
It would appear that I tested the old wives' tale that recalls your mother yelling at your pouting former child self: "Wipe that frown off your face or it'll freeze like that!"

Now, I didn't have a particularly sad or troubled childhood. I didn't have a particularly happy or exciting childhood, either. Admittedly, I was a fairly mopey, moody, pouty child for no good reason. And I think those youthful days of rapid cell-division and lack of excitement and having to take no for an answer and resenting it really did freeze my face into somewhat of a sad pout. It bothered me often whenever a friend or acquaintance would see me engrossed in a task or absorbed in contemplation, and would say, "Hey, cheer up!" or "You should smile more."

It wasn't until about three or four years ago that the old wives' tale stated ringing in my ears. I felt beaten down by four rotten years of pain and loss (separation and divorce, father's death, job layoff, taxi "career," Jon & Kate Plus Eight canceled), and I could almost feel my face collapsing in on itself. The shit show tapered off to a lame revue in 2011, and through 2012 and '13 — despite growing debt while trying to defibrillate the taxi endeavor — things felt like they were turning around. But in photos I still looked sad. Was it true? Could my pain and sorrow of the prior years make me look pained and sorrowful? Always? Did my face indeed "freeze that way?"

I decided that it had. And I decided that if constant moping about the rotten things in my life, if frequent — perhaps perpetual — pouting could "freeze" my face in a permanent frown, then could I not reverse it by smiling? After all, I figured, is it not just muscle conditioning? Could smiling not retrain the muscles? Could the simple manipulation of the muscles of my lower face and jaw train them, strengthen them, to stay that way ...or at least train them not to draw my face downward into the visage of a bitter hermit? I decided that it could. I decided I would try it.

So, alone most of the time in the taxi, I started exercising the smile muscles. As often as I could remember to do it, I did it. At times I smiled constantly for as long as I could, until the muscles in my cheeks began to spasm and hurt. Then I would relax for a while, and then I would do it again. Day in and day out I practiced, alone and with customers in the car; they couldn't see my face, usually, or, if they could, I just looked like a happy guy. Or crazed, maybe. But mostly happy.


After several months I assessed in the mirror the progress of my little physical therapy project and determined that there either was no merit at all to my exercise theory, or it would take much longer for me to turn my frown upside down on my relaxed face. It had, after all, taken 45 years to bring it to that point.

But then I noticed something peculiar.

What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity.
--Joseph Addison

In my previous life — my video career — I spent quite a lot of time on audio/video crews for large business meetings and conventions. Many of the keynote speakers there weren't talking about number crunching or sales goals or building client lists, but rather they talked about the how paying attention to the basic elements of life affected numbers, goals and lists. Quite a few of them talked in varying detail about attitude, and how it affects not only you, but how it affects those around you. A positive attitude, you see, is essential for moving forward, they said. And they said that the first step toward having a positive attitude was to smile.

Wait. What? "Smile?" What a bunch of horse shit, I thought. How can you smile if you're feeling crappy? How can you smile if life just took a dump on your head? But quite a few well-paid keynote speakers delivered that same basic message. Their claim: the physical act of simply smiling releases dopamine in the brain; if you just smile, you instantly feel better; and if you feel better, you perform better; and if you perform better, you serve better; and if you serve better ...blahda yada yada....

Horse shit.

Some years later I found myself assessing my mug in that mirror, bending my face into what had become a most familiar position — a smile — in an attempt to not look so down in the dumps all the time, and, though not particularly happy about anything, I realized that at the moment, and throughout the exercise, I had experienced a peculiar sense of well-being. Even though smiling had begun as purely a physical exercise, the smiles triggered a sort of muscle-memory of happiness, and I experienced happiness that was anchored only in the smile. Doing this daily had truly improved my general mood. Though it seemed I still had a relaxed bitch face, smiles came more easily, more quickly, and they fit my face better than they ever had. My interactions with my taxi customers had become more relaxed; I more easily took the negatives in stride; and my bad moods cleared more quickly after setbacks.

Had smiling really enriched my life? Well, I can't say with any certainty that smiling had a direct impact, but shortly after I retired the taxi, I met Donna, and I've been smiling a lot more ever since.

The words of all those keynote speakers have since faded, but their message has stayed with me:

Smile. It may not make the world a better place, but it will make YOUR world a better place. And what better place to start?