“He was an extraordinarily intelligent man,” they say, “someone who worked tirelessly to protect the people from change.” To me though, he lacked pragmatism. His bright mind, molded by his god-view, was distorted to defend a status quo established centuries before. Unyielding and narrow minded, his decisions would impact millions for a generation and beyond. I think he enjoyed in the notoriety. Personally, I didn’t like the man’s demeanor.
The neurology team had been working with him closely since the accident had rendered him effectively powerless to communicate. Being able to half blink one eye had been his only way to get his basic needs laboriously expressed to his carers. These novel neurological implants opened up a world of possibility to him through using thoughts to simulate basic muscle movement to control the cursor on a computer keyboard display. They waited eagerly for his first words from his prison in over two years. The letters written to the screen came slowly: H-E-L. What a great start, they thought as the rest of his message was revealed: P-M-E-D-I-E…
*This is based on a conversation with a friend, TK, who did help to create and develop such a life-changing communication tool, but with a much more positive outcome.
I was in the gym this morning and thinking about what I could use a subject for today’s blog entry when one of the wall screens showed a conference taking place with the banner “National Signing Day” in the background. Being a non-sporting type of guy I was intrigued so, after my workout, I toddled off to the trusty old interweb and “ran a search” as we used to say, in the pre-googly days of dial up.
Now I don’t really have much to say about National Signing Day, or football in general, but I thought it would be great to turn this into a pun about National Singing Day, perhaps (see what I did there?). A quick bit of research showed that, along with all the sad misspellings commemorating today’s “big event” on twitter, there is some limited consensus that a National Singing Day exists (or rather A Sing Up Day) today too!
However, and much more poignantly, I also uncovered that today, February 3rd, is also noted as “The Day the Music Died” since it memorializes the dreadful plane crash in 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and their pilot, Roger Peterson near Clear Lake, Iowa.
For my younger readers (!), the phrase comes from Don McLeans’s classic song American Pie, first released in 1971, but it has now become part of American musical folklore.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Holly, Valens and “Big Bopper” were early players in a youth culture shift that shaped the attitudes of the western world forever. They moved the focus of the old, staid world towards a more upbeat, positive, freer society that, in turn, paved the way for myriad positive societal changes throughout the US and beyond. Through the medium of music, and showmanship they showed the youth of the era that change could happen from the ground up.
Now, nearly 60 years later, I wonder if some of that spark has been lost as we have succumbed totally to the material nature of the modern world. It seems to me that the youth of today are more obsessed with plastic celebrity than raw talent; being force fed conformity through technology and the fear of making mistakes I wonder if they (and we) have lost something.
Perhaps it is time for those free spirits to be re-kindled and for me to bring up my homage to the simple instruction kit that was used in the 1977 Sniffin’ Glue fanzine some 18 years after The Day the Music Died to inspire the birth of the “punk” movement, and encourage the then disenfranchised kids to pick up a guitar and form a band.
Rock on, kids!
I have just come back into the house after having spent time out in winter storm Jonas, shoveling the snow outside the back door for the dogs, and also to cutting a path to the chicken run to see if the hens are ok. They are, by the way, in fact so “ok” that one of them was in the nest box laying and was quite cross that I disturbed her!
So, I dry myself off, make a cup of tea and think about what I should write today. I post some pictures of the storm to facebook for friends and family to see and, as I procrastinate, I see that someone has posted a link to a challenge to write the saddest story you can in 4 words.
Quick as a flash the following phrase springs to mind:
“Man dies shoveling snow”
Whoa, there – not another bleedin’ subliminal message, thinks I. As a “man of a certain age,” what am I to make of that?
Well, a quick search of the wonderful wide web tells me that around 100 people in the US die from heart attacks in the winter while shoveling snow, although there are thoughts that the real figure may be more than double that. Although it’s mainly sedentary men who this affects, causing those of us who consider ourselves to be “fit” to think we’ll be alright, this is not always the case. Apparently plenty of younger, fitter guys (and their families) befall this unnecessary tragedy too, as the exertion of lifting snow, coupled with cold air which works to constrict arteries, creates “a perfect storm” for a heart attack.
So, to keep this message short and sweet I offer another 4 words and a sobering, but humorous image, that everyone should heed as Storm Jonas makes its way up the East Coast:
“Be careful out there”
For my day job I work for a large corporation, doing corporate activities that generally involve me “flying a desk”, as I like to describe it. For those of you familiar with the corporate world you can perhaps empathize with the following story: We are in the process of a management-led activity to “improve morale” and increase the level of “teamwork” following a series of layoffs and restructuring, all amid a general atmosphere of continued uncertainty. This activity involves a full day of team building exercises which will include each of us being prepared to share with the group something that inspires us.
I have a naturally skeptical disposition when faced with this sort of activity, having been through initiatives of similar ilk many times over the last 25 years or thereabouts, so I have been facing this week with mixed feelings of boredom and dread, as I don’t want to derail the well-intentioned plan, despite my innate misgivings. In fact, I have been struggling hard for a week to find a relevant example of inspiration without wishing it to be too trite.
Now, fast forward to a completely unrelated activity: the recent tragic early death of a local artist, friend and teacher of my wife. Although I did not know the lady directly I accompanied my wife to her memorial service at the local Quaker Meeting House and was very moved by the deeply heartfelt personal nature of the modest occasion. The memorial allowed for anyone present to speak on any memory or thought about the deceased for as long they wanted and one mourner stood and recited the following poem:
“I am an artist.”
I am an artist.
My definition of art is creating
something with my hands that is an
expression of who I am.
Art is a part of me.
I can’t escape the urge to create,
to get out my feelings in the way
of paper and glue. Or losing myself
behind the lens of my camera.
I am so thankful for my art.
It’s my own personal therapy.
And in the process I am leaving my mark
in the works I create.
I am an artist.
And there is nothing else in the world
I would rather be.
I don’t consider myself to be a spiritual person, having been bathed in secular science all my life, yet as I listened the words struck a chord within me which I think will remain with me for a long time and I felt truly inspired. I truly believe that the unique act of creating art for art’s sake is a wonderful activity; personal yet shareable, challenging yet cathartic, and most importantly mind-expanding.
We should always have this in the back of our mind on this as we peer through our viewfinders and create our masterpiece.
For Mary and Diane
I originally wrote this piece in October 2014, when it inspired me in that moment to go for a contemplative lunchtime walk and to sit under the autumnal trees overhanging a local brook and create the artwork above. I have since returned to this artwork several times and it even hangs at work in a friend’s workspace. It also seems ironic that, some 15 months later, our organization is repeating the same training, so making this post relevant again and, much more tragically, only last night a second artist friend of my wife’s lost her battle with cancer too, re-emphasizing the cyclical nature of the world perhaps.
Yesterday morning I heard that Dale Griffin had died at the age of 67. Although not a household name, I enlighten you. He was the drummer with the 70’s British band, Mott the Hoople, who are probably best known for their famous anthem, “All the Young Dudes,” penned by David Bowie, which went on to become a staple song of the glam rock era. That’s right, David Bowie, who died only a few days earlier at the age of 69, only a few days after Ian “Lemmy” Kilmiser, at 70 years old. As I was contemplating this, I heard than Eagles co-founder, Glenn Frey, also died the same day at the same age as Dale Griffin.
My initial thought was WTF is happening to the musicians that shaped my youth? They’re dropping like flies! Who will be next? Given I have a fairly eclectic musical taste and I have already lost Frank Zappa, Ian Dury, Joe Strummer, and too many others to mention who provided background to my adolescent years and beyond, or possibly shaped it, it’s hard to say but one thing is for sure: this trend ain’t ever gonna stop. After all, as the oft quoted adage goes: only two* things in life are certain – death and taxes. We can perhaps avoid or defer the latter but the first is unavoidable, even for the rich and famous.
When I was much younger I would have probably made some smart-alec remark like, well they were old, what did you expect? But now I have grey hair and ache a bit more in the morning I seem to see it a little differently. Lemmy only made the traditional “three score years and ten” by a few days and the others didn’t quite get there. We live In an era where magazines espouse that “60 is the new 50,” life expectancy is generally rising, and people who we would originally classed as “the elderly” when I was a kid (i.e., people who are of retirement age) are now expected to have gym membership.
Perhaps we need to be reminded sometimes that it’s not the length of time we have lived but how we have lived and the impact we have made.
And look at the lives these guys led! They sure packed a lot of living into their time on earth. Being a rock star may be a hedonistic lifestyle, but it’s also creative: listen to what they left for us. They represented different musical genres but they each allowed their millions of followers, be they angst-ridden teens, partying youths, or older adults to indulge in their creativity for a while. They made us smile, cry, and just think about life, the universe and everything, even if only for the length of a single song. We should celebrate that, and not dwell unnecessarily on their deaths.
So, as I bid farewell to these great artists I unashamedly steal some lyrics from the Hoople/Bowie song in celebration of how their musical legacies “carry the news (there you go)…”
* or three, if you know the old adolescent joke, but that’s another story.
This is going to be a very weird post, and I hesitated to write it at first, but here goes; make of it what you will. It covers an incident on Jan 4th this year. It will not contain any images.
For reasons unknown I had had the sound of Billie Holiday’s haunting voice singing the classic song Strange Fruit buzzing around in my head on and off for a couple of days. If you are unfamiliar with this 1939 song, based on the 1937 poem by Abel Meeropol, I suggest you give it some time. It always gives me the chills, and with recent political activities and hate crimes it somehow seemed to stick in my head as the year’s first earworm, albeit an unusual one. I was replaying the song in my head as I was getting ready for the morning’s activities.
Anyhow, it was the first school run of the new year and I was driving my daughter to school on my way to work when I noticed that there was a police car parked awkwardly at a local park with the children’s playground cordoned off with tape.
My daughter looks over and whispers hoarsely, “Oh my God, there’s a man hanging by the swings.” I ask her if she was sure and she says she is pretty sure of what she saw. We talk for a minute or so and I drop her off at school, after I confirm that she is ok after what she had briefly glimpsed.
I hesitate at the school and decide to come back past the park to see if she was indeed correct or whether it was some kind of prank, and I can clearly see a man dressed in black hanging from a rope in the swing set with his back to the road. It was a truly disturbing sight, and it is disturbing recalling it now, some two weeks later.
I didn’t really have time to think, only feel my emotions. Part of me felt quick sickened by the sight, part of me felt saddened by the fact that this poor man had been in such despair to do this to himself, and so publicly too. Also, part of me felt angry that he had not been covered up somehow, to at least afford him a modicum of dignity while all the time in the back of head was the sound of Billie Holiday’s voice.
However, there was also one other thought that had slipped into my conscious mind, much darker and very fleeting: should I stop and get a photograph? I dismissed this thought rapidly as I felt it would be an invasion of privacy, and trampling on tragedy, but I am ashamed to admit the thought was there nonetheless. I am quite shocked that I even thought of it and, to some extent, I even think that writing this blog post is a step in that direction, but I am, selfishly perhaps, justifying it to myself as a cathartic expression of my feelings.
As I continued on my journey to work, my mind was filled with conflicting ideas. I considered my own actions, or inaction, and considered what sort of person would be able to photograph such a scene. I thought immediately of Malcolm Browne‘s photograph of Quang Duc during his self-immolation in 1963, and of the Eddie Adam’s 1968 Saigon execution: Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief. I am sure I would not have been able to photograph these tragic scenes, at least not without significant mental turmoil, and I wonder how such photojournalists can do what they do. They must truly be be remarkable individuals, made of stern stuff and truly driven by the ideal of portraying the truth.
As I listened to NPR on the car radio I was surprised to hear a report on how California is now allowing physician-assisted suicide. This seemed to be a sad, but fitting end to my morning…