Saturday, April 05, 2008

Seven Weird Things About Me

All righty, I've been tagged. The big leagues have come a calling. There is a blogging type called a meme, and while I've seen them in others' blogs, I've never participated in one before. Mostly because I haven't been asked. So, I looked it up, and found, among other references, this blog on blogging that explains memes. For our purposes, it's a common theme that many people pass on to many others, to get their take on. I'm sort of thinking chain letter for story-tellers. My friend and blogging big-wig Danny Miller invited me to this party, to share seven weird facts about myself. Rather than think this to death, I decided to copy my inviter and do this as spontaneously as I could do. While I HAVE rewritten parts of the explanations for content, the seven items themselves were literally written down at once, and within 5 minutes. I haven't even changed the order, although I don't believe the order is relevant to much:

1. I have been a groom in four different religions' wedding ceremonies, and a groomsman in two others. Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Methodist were the ones I've said "I do" in, although the first two were the same day and one marriage. I've also been a groomsman in a Greek Orthodox and a civil wedding. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the Buddhist ceremony was easily the most beautiful, and, as might be expected, the Catholic/Jewish weddings easily won the most chaotic day prize. Of my life. A full mass before the first wedding at the church, then the Jewish wedding at the reception hall. The Buddhist ceremony was surreal and so calming I was afraid the wedding party would fall asleep. The bride and I almost did. Our 'wedding march' was the hum of two very large prayer bowls being rubbed around the rim by large padded sticks, and then we were blessed by a Buddhist monk that looked older than the one that called Kwai Chang Caine 'Grasshopper'. Very sedate, zenlike and beautiful. Not a bad gig for a nice Jewish boy.

2. Johnny Carson signed my high school yearbook on prom night. It was 1976, we had just been to prom, my date and I, along with 3 other couples, were looking for a place for dessert, and one of us had heard of a little restaurant with a piano bar in Lincoln Park that was open til the wee hours, and we all thought it would be very cool to get out in our tuxedoed finery. We strolled in, completely full of ourselves, until we realized the only other occupied table in the place was a large round one near the stage that had about 10 people at it, one of whom was quite obviously Johnny Carson. The hostess who seated us saw we recognized the celebrity, and ceremoniously walked us to our table right past Mr. Carson and his entourage. We attempted not to gawk too much, but it was probably in vain, because as we were passing his table, he said "Prom night, eh, folks?" To which we replied, glibly and en masse, something profound like "uhhhhh huhhh". He chuckled, during which I recovered just barely enough English to ask if he'd mind signing a yearbook. He said sure, and four of us actually ran out to the car to retrieve our yearbooks. He signed each one graciously, and we let him be. Their party finished their meal and left before our dessert even showed up. When we finally asked for the check, our waitress said it was taken care of by Mr. Carson. How cool was that??

3. I have been in four musical productions (two professional), and 17 non-musical ones (11 for money), and I cannot sing a note, nor dance a step, and I am a lifetime stutterer. And please believe me when I tell you this is not false modesty. Although the stuttering is much less a problem than when I was a child, it always astounds me that when on stage, although I am as nervous as I can imagine ever being, it focuses me to the point that I have never frozen on a line or stuttered a letter. But the singing and dancing. The singing they've been able to hide me fairly successfully, but not always as a "dancer". One brief anecdote: I was cast as Pedro (the lead muleteer) in a college production of Man of La Mancha in the mid eighties. The other muleteers (there were 4 others) were professional dancers. They had several choreographed numbers, but only one that included me. Their whole rehearsal schedule before entire act runthroughs was something like a total of three hours... A couple of very simple background dances they could do in their sleep. Those poor souls. Their one number with me took something like 10 hours of total rehearsal time. And every one of these sainted souls put up with me with good humor and patience. I wish I could remember their names and give them credit. And for those of you with dance knowledge, the toughest part of my whole choreography was a very simple ball change. I don't even have two left feet. I apparently have no working feet.

4. I used to live in Steve Goodman's old house, and he was Bar Mitzvahed with my cousin. Chicago folk/blues legend Steve Goodman ("City of New Orleans", "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request", "Lincoln Park Pirates", etc) was a close family friend and when he moved to do high school at Maine East in the Chicago suburbs, my family bought their old house on Monticello Ave in Chicago, where I lived from preschool through half of third grade. Because he was 10 years older than I was, I never knew him beyond meeting him a couple of times in a group. But it IS a weird fact nonetheless.

5. I am in the midst of a thirty year "Seder Strike". My grandfather used to lead Passover seders before he died (1975), and he led them with the iron hand of a Conservative Jewish Patriarch. Not the four hour Broadway productions of some of our Orthodox friends, but nevertheless, it was a good two hours before getting to the bulk of the food. After grandpa died, the consensus was for me to run them, being the member of the family most able to read the Haggadah in both Hebrew and English. But the natives became restless. They insisted on the shorter, food-friendlier version. This being the peak of my holier-than-thou period, I refused to run a seder any shorter than the full-book version. The family called my bluff, and instead decided to run the "Things I remember" version, where they do a blessing or two, name the stuff on the seder plate and ask the Four Questions. Since my brother's wife, children, and soon-to-be grandson have never seen a real seder, my mom and dad say they'd be willing to sit through one. Thirty years from my last real family seder, I now plan to get back to Chicago some day to actually lead a seder. My version of "Next year in Jerusalem".

6. When I die, I want to be cremated. That's not really the weird part... lots of people wish to be cremated when they die. The weird part is the reason. It's not religious, it's not for 'green' reasons, it's just cause I'm afraid I'm going to wake up in the coffin in the grave. Tell me all you want that I'll be embalmed, or otherwise preserved... and that it won't be physically possible for me to wake up buried. I believe you. I also believe I might wake up in the coffin.

7. I hate to fly. Also, not a weird fact, in and of itself. The weird part, at least according to what I've heard, is that I have flown at least 40 times in my life. Every person I know who has flown that much has at the very least developed a coexistence with flying. Some may not like it that much, some do like it, some love it.. but they've all at least dealt with it sans histrionics. I have spent four days traveling across the country on a train, IN COACH, because I didn't want to spend 6 hours in a plane. I do love train travel, even in coach, but it's much more because I can't get on a plane without hyperventilating and pacing and panic attacks for days before, sometimes weeks. But yet, in some cases (work, or where the train doesn't go, like Vegas) I have flown. And never, ever, gotten used to it. Not even a little bit. That seems weird to me.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Memories Poisoned In The Blink Of An Eye

Four years, when followed by twenty seven more years, leave certain memories, some crystal clear, some gently foggy, some just feelings and impressions. I'm fairly certain that all of those memories, from today through the rest of my life, have just been irreparably altered. And that makes me both incredibly sad, and really pissed off.

Dekalb, IL - August 1976: It stinks here. Not meta- phorically, but literally. I've just moved directly from my parent's house into one set of the "high rise" dorms here, Grant Towers, and I have a majestic view of corn fields. And post-harvested corn fields too, not the well ordered green and gold waves of corn stalks from middle Americana. For reasons that I've never found out (being agriculturally challenged), the barren, corn-less stalk fields all smell like fertilizer. I remember thinking "why don't they fertilize BEFORE they plant (as I later learned, they do, it smells like this for three seasons a year)?" For weeks, all I smell, morning, noon, and night, is manure. Probably a lot longer than weeks, but I'm betting I just got used to it. What you see in the picture above was taken from the field at the opposite end of my old dorm and campus. But you get the general idea. I've got my "Frampton Comes Alive" alternating with the Steve Miller Band's "Fly Like an Eagle" album (yes, Virginia, in vinyl), just newly released and wearing my record player needle to a nub.

The tallest building within 30 miles in any direction (besides the 4 high rise dorms, which towered to something like 10 stories) is the student union, at a whole 4 stories high. Th
at's pretty much it til you get to Aurora, IL to the east, and probably until you get all the way to Rockford in the west.

Not that it was all Mayberrys
and cream, mind you. There WAS the time that we had to scrounge up $300 at 3AM on a Saturday morning to bail my roommate out of the Sycamore County Jail for theft and vandalism. It seems that the previous morning he had broken the last of our alarm clocks (mine in fact) when he completed his daily wakeup ritual, which regularly included activating its snooze alarm by throwing it against the wall. The night in question, my roomie decided he liked the practicality of having a huge wall clock, just like the one that hung over the elevator on the other side of the towers. So he simply strolled over to the girl's side of the tower, stood on a chair, removed the clock, tucked it under his arm, and walked across to our side of the building (right in front of the lobby staff) to put it in our room. The lobby staff, being duly observant, if a bit non-plussed, called the cops, who visited my roommate within about 5 minutes. It was a slow night at the Sheriff's office. Oh, and did I mention, there were some illicit intoxicants involved here. Fast-forward a bit to:

Dekalb, IL - Winter, 1978: Just come back to school for what's euphemistically referred to as "Spring Semester" barely ahead of one of one of the worst snow storms in recorded Illinois history. Wasn't here a day before everything is shut down. There are literally 20 and 30 foot snow drifts across the huge open fields that lay between campus and the hous
ing areas. By now I'm in a fraternity, living on Greek Row, which, by grace of God and probably architects, is about a half a block from a strip mall. This strip mall consists of my favorite bar, the Red Lion, my favorite pizza place, J.P. Hannigans, and a movie theatre. Nothing else there. And it was even legal. At the time, Dekalb was allowed something called "home rule", whereby a township could make the legal age for hard liquor 18. So while in most of the rest of Illinois you had to be 21 for hard liquor (18 for beer and wine), in Dekalb, freshmen of 18 just had to prove it to drink their favorite cocktail. Yeah, life is good. Of course, most people anywhere near campus didn't even have cars, or need them, because the buses were free, into and out of campus.

So anyways, the school is closed. There are pathways, most of them actually tunnels, through the drifts, from every doorway to the street, w
here they connected, like a giant ant farm, to the strip mall that had the bar, pizza place, and theatre. Did I mention life was good? It was more than a week before they opened the school again.

Dekalb, IL - February 14, 2008 - The parties, the relationships, the football games, and even the classes. These were the the things I remembered about Northern Illinois University. Until today. Today I saw the pictures. I heard the interviews. Squad cars lined up like some bizarre parade. Students milling about aimlessly in shock. Parents, students and faculty hugging and crying. It's 4:54 AM right now, and I haven't been to bed yet. Even though very few of the people in Cole Hall on Friday were even born the last time I was there (and in fact, the shooter was born the year I left Dekalb 27 years ago) , there will always be a link between what happened to them, and what I think about when I remember N.I.U.

I doubt I know anyone even near campus, much less anyone involved, but everyone there who was a part of it will be in my thoughts and prayers. We're linked, for better or worse, because their memories are now tainted the same way as mine. And always will be. I hope, for their sakes and mine, that some day BOTH sets of memories will be equally accessible.