Living Through The Narrative Arcs

We are all more exposed and more immersed in celebrity deaths with the advances in social media because we get to gauge the reactions of our friends and family to events that may have only been tangential to our lives. Yes, I was saddened by the death of David Bowie, but immediately thought of college friends who idolized him in each of his musical phases; of friends’ bands who learned “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City” and not much else; of my fellow Phish fans who can generate a grin simply by saying his name with appropriate cadence. Prior to our ability to broadcast our feelings, I’m not sure I would have stepped backwards quite as far with his passing.

Carrie Fisher threw me for a short non-infinite loop, and the timing having just finished “Princess Diarist” and the theatrical release of “Rogue One” was eerie.

When the celebrities have loomed larger in our childhood hagiographies, when the heroines and stars and swashbucklers of the stories we idolized in our formative years die in real life, we are, suddenly, trying to see the next chapter in the story no matter how long it’s been relegated to the recesses of happy memory. Billy Crystal wrote that Mickey Mantle’s death forced him into adulthood; when we are faced with the narrative arcs in real life taking the dramatic turn where the hero, the inspiration, the leader dies, we are immersed in that story not as a character but as a contemporary.

This is why Facebook amplifies these feelings — clearly, Facebook has become the narrative channel of the late boomers, while our kids use Snapchat and Instagram and more image based tools, we cling to the notion that we’re writing our own great American stories, all of the time. Facebook just lets us do it simply and immediately, incorporating real world events into the narrative arcs in a way that would make EL Doctorow or Jo Walton proud.

We can argue that statistically 2016 was a rough year for celebrities, but it’s more likely that our longer term view of celebrity has been amplified by improved average life span, more media coverage, and franchise reboots that remind us of the earlier, simpler parts of our own stories.

Do take events as turning points in the story line: What happens next is up to us, and that’s the thought I’m riding into 2017.

A Snowy Hockey Morning

We’re in the last weekend of youth hockey games before the Christmas break, the last few practices before the true winter stretch of tournaments and games bracketed by short days and weekends absent football. I woke up to a few inches of fresh snow yesterday, noticing the deer and rabbit tracks across the front porch, just enjoying the feeling of a true hockey morning.


I’ve been slowly reading bits and pieces of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti’s A Great and Glorious Game and stumbled upon his perfect summation of the nation’s pastime: It’s about going home. The scoring, the imagery, even the neighborhood love we sprinkle on the grass of our city’s ball fields are all about home: home runs, stealing home, pitch reaching home plate, home team batting last.

Football, on the other hand (and not to channel too much George Carlin here) is about defense. Protect the quarterback, block for the ball carrier, defend the end zone, tough pass defense, defend our house. It is indeed a game of inches, as that’s how turf is defended, a lineman’s step at a time.

Hockey, especially on a snowy winter morning, is about going places. It’s about going to the net, going to the puck, going out when most would prefer to stay indoors in the warmth of bed and the light of a morning read. My favorite memories as a hockey parent and manager were about going places, whether it was a ride to a rink in which we lost a muffin in the luggage rack (don’t ask), or the long gentle drive to a weekend in Lake Placid. Hockey, like baseball and football, has boundaries of play, but you can play off the boundaries; even the boards take you someplace unexpected (ideally behind a unsuspecting defender).

As parents, coaches, managers and spectators, we watch as the young hockey players are forever skating away from us, coming back a little older, a little more certain, a bit more self confident and hopefully grateful for the journey.

30 Days of Giving 6 7 8 9 10: Giving Voices

So much for the daily updates on this topic — I didn’t forget, I just got buried with work projects and post-Thanksgiving turkey recovery. Here’s a quick catch up to get us to the 1/3 point: I’m trying to fund voices that need to be heard.

Day 6: CaringBridge. When my friends Kevin and Sari’s son was critically injured in a late season ski accident, we were able to his treatment, recovery and progress via CaringBridge. When you want to communicate with a large audience but don’t have the emotional or physical strength to be on email or the phone, CaringBridge provides a mediated, modulated voice to inform those who want to know, and to receive their good words without further taxing your mental reserves.

Day 7: The Electronic Frontier Foundation. You have a safe voice online because of the work of the EFF, who have been fighting since 1990 to protect encryption, privacy and individual rights. I’ll admit to spluring on this one, going for the $65 funding level so I can get a cool encryption t-shirt.

Day 8: Immigration Equality, through my friend Alan’s fundraiser. What if you came to the United States seeking safety and asylum, knowing that giving voice to your true identity as LGBQT or HIV+ would effectively be a death sentence in your home country? Immigration Equality provides legal assistance to those people who need it the most.

Day 9: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ. Not just once voice but hundreds, carefully restored and playable in what is now the Macys in Center City Philadelphia. I’ve been fascinated with pipe organs since discovering that the late Chris Squire (Yes bassist) made his musical debut on the church organ, and some of the most complex polyphonic classical pieces were written for organ (Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, long before it was adapted by Jaco Pastorius for bass):

The former Wanamaker store holds something of a place of honor in various parts of my family, and the organ is cranked up for a fairly regular holiday concert schedule starting about now.

Day 10: Wikimedia Foundation. The voice of reason in online content, Wikimedia Foundation are the people who bring you Wikipedia, and do so without a single display ad or sponsorship. Wikipedia represents one view of democratic voices: crowdsourcing content such that the truth slowly converges not to what one person or one writer thinks, but to what the most people find the most reputable, corroborated and reliable over time. Imagine if all of life had “citation needed” or “This article needs improvement” overlays: we’d cut down on a lot of misinformation and encourage people to discover facts, figures and forces for themselves.

30 Days of Giving 5: Heinlein Society

I was introduced to science fiction by the Laura Donovan Elementary School librarian, who picked out a Robert Silverberg book for me to read. I’m pretty sure I read it at least three times, given the rather narrow selection of the genre in 1969 — but then I was introduced to the Monmouth County Library system, where Robert Heinlein, Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and others awaited. Science fiction has continued to be a staple of my life, with John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, and a host of others filling my head with visions of what is possible, impacts of the future on current policy and politics, and how we might bridge the present and the near present.

I discovered the Heinlein Society through a posting on John Scalzi’s annual holiday postings, where he allows readers to represent their artistic and charitable works to a wider audience. The Heinlein Society attempts to pay forward the legacy of one of the greats of the genre, and my donation supports its educational efforts. Hat tip to both Scalzi for networking good works, and to friend Marc for renewing my interest in my first sci-fi literary crush over a series of breakfasts.

Day 5: Support the Heinlein Society with a one-time, one year membership.

30 Days of Giving 4: Movember

I’ve been supporting Movember for three of the past five years. Movember exists to raise awareness and funding for men’s health issues, in particular testicular cancer, prostate cancer, and mental health. The Movember motto is simple: stop men dying young. I’m reminded of Billy Tucker, guitarist of Regressive Aid (for those of you in the Princeton/New York area in the early 80s), and guitar teach to Michael Melchiondo (a/k/a Dean Ween) who committed suicide after a prolonged illness for which he could never find sustained pain relief. More recently, keyboard and prog rock pioneer Keith Emerson also took his own life rather than face diminishment of his virtuosity.

I’ve supported my own campaign (I’m committed to doing 50% more physical activity this month than usual; rather than growing some gnarly facial hair that scares small children at the onset of the holiday season). But if you want the true experience of supporting someone with a great ‘stache, who does good work in addition to being a good role model, hit up Devils forward Adam Henrique (yes, I supported his campaign too, because I find it weird I’m out pacing him in anything in life — until he chips in his contributions for his work on the ice).

30 Days of Giving 3: American Special Hockey

While football is the typical Thanksgiving sports association, once the Bubba started playing travel hockey we took our post-meal show on the road in ice rinks around the Northeast. Hockey tournaments are a unique bonding experience – you can feel just about every emotion from joy to fatigue to friendship to frustration to amazement. I believe that the players I’ve coached and managed benefitted from hockey tournaments by learning how to represent our club, our team and themselves in public, in charged situations, and with grace in both victory and defeat. Each calendar demarcation carries some hockey tournament association – our annual Mites Shamrock St Patrick’s Day weekend, the Thanksgiving “shoot outs”, President’s Weekend, and the last weekend in March, which we historically spent in Lake Placid.

Along the way, we got to know some of the players and coaches with American Special Hockey, a program that provides hockey experiences for players with a variety of disabilities. Our New Jersey Devils Youth club has created the Dare Devils Program that matches junior mentor coaches with players and hosts an annual Halloween weekend hockey tournament for other special needs teams, so that players of all abilities get to enjoy this unique experience, forever tied to a holiday weekend. Get a personal look at the impact of the program in this (now 10 year old) clip from Linda Ellerbee’s Nick News and yes, you may recognize one of those junior coaches in his much younger days.
If you want to cut to the special hockey segment, it starts at 19:11

Day Three: I’m giving to American Special Hockey (you can choose a specific local club to support; I’m putting my donation to work for our NJ Dare Devils).

Fighting the Loss Of Peoplehood

Thanksgiving seems an appropriate time to reflect on what it means to be part of a people – not a person, but a member of a group that provides some context for your life. Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday to provide a respite in the fighting of the Civil War, a much needed break to reflect on a tortuous path to the present.

I became fascinated with the idea of peoplehood five years ago when my wife and I participated in a two-year project to explore where we came from with cohorts from Israel and northern New Jersey. Our group included those of Ukranian, Georgian, Moldovan, Russian, Moroccan, Yemenite, eastern European, western European, Latin American and Israeli descent. For two years we wrestled with the question of “what does it mean to be a people” – not a race, not a religion, not a geography, not any physically identifying characteristic – just a people. It’s a hard question. It gets to the issue of what it means to be part of the American people.

Things crystallized for me over the course of just a few months. In April 2013 we visited Babi Yar, the site of a WWII mass murder of Jews on the outskirts of Kiev. I lost my composure; I could not help but think, as we stood on the side of a ravine while people pushed baby strollers and skateboarded through the park, that I was standing grave side for some members of my family that never left that part of Russia in the early 20th century. Our peoplehood survived that horror.

Two days later, we were back in Israel, celebrating Independence Day, when my Twitter feed lit up about the Boston Marathon bombing, an attempt to strike fear into the very city that had been so critical in defining American peoplehood. Our Israeli hosts, most of whom had been literally under rocket attacks over the previous months, instantly knew how to comfort us. Our peoplehood bridged that horror.

It wasn’t until months later, during a family celebration that involved reading the Torah portion Ki Tavo that the pieces fell into place. Ki Tavo starts with a celebration of all of the wonders that the promised land will bring the Jews, if only they can act ethically and morally. The passage contains a long and Biblically colorful list of curses — not verbal but life-affecting disasters — that befall those who fail to keep their end of the behavioral bargain. The last curse is that you’ll be returned to Egypt – the implication is that you’re reverted to slavery. You have to read the passage in an undervoice so as not to call undue attention to it.

The worst curse in the Torah is that you lose your place in a people, your sense of peoplehood, your personal set of tribes.

That’s why I’m dedicated to standing up and working with those who feel that their peoplehood is threatened. Whether skin color or country of origin or the way you express your faith, your love, your gender, your desire to control your own body, your need for healthcare, your need for chronic care, or just your eating preferences, the most American – ethical, moral, leading the world – thing I can think of is to help protect your rights of being and belonging.

[Ed note: if you want an interesting take on the need to co-exist within peoples of all stripes and shapes, read the interpretation of “exile” in this Torah portion.]

[Ed note 2: I decided to transcribe this into a blog post after reading this piece in the Times (NSFW language), h/t to Alan and others for sharing it]

30 Days of Giving 1: Neighbors Together

In the spirit of thirty days of thanks, thirty days of giving, and perhaps a touch of advent, I decided that I’m going to make 30 small donations to causes, organizations and efforts that I find timely, important, and deserving of wider recognition. A confluence of thoughts pushed me down this path: really trying to make this a meaningful holiday season, the joy of having my entire family together for the first time in nearly two months, and a post by my cousin about an effort she’s driving to make Thanksgiving dinners for nearly 400 people who need a hot meal. Hat tip to a hockey parent who told me that her son will give part of his post-practice or post-game treat to one of the homeless people he sees while leaving one of our rinks; it’s such a simple example of standing up for people who can use an ally.

I’m avoiding disease societies, “walks” of any kind, religious organizations, personal fund raisers (GoFundMe and the like), and instead focusing on small causes with large impacts. And each one will have something of a story.

Growing up, my grandfather ran a general store in Smithburg, New Jersey, on the outskirts of what’s now the larger township of Freehold. He had a wonderful, kind vision of “credit” – you could buy agricultural products, food, or parts for anything and be extended store credit if he felt you needed it. Not every marker was eventually called; Grandpa Herman had an innate way of knowing who needed the help and didn’t make a big deal of extending them courtesy.

So here’s day one: Neighbors Together.

Time Stand Still: The Rush Movie

I went to the big screen premier of Time Stand Still [Blu-ray], the Rush documentary that tracks the band through the spiral of their final R40 tour. I went in with the usual assortment of bittersweet thoughts and linkages: “Time Stand Still” is one my favorite Rush songs, dating from my first show; it was the first Rush event in years that I was not attending side by side with my son, to whom I’ve passed the Rush fandom baton; it would re-open the grievous and grieving mood I was in after attending the Las Vegas show last summer, knowing it was likely the last time I’d see the three magicians of prog rock on stage.

I loved the movie. It wasn’t melancholy or upsetting or even maudlin; it was a celebration of being a misfit Rush fan and knowing that for as long as people listen to “2112” or “Hemispheres” with awe and air drumming, we will all share a bit of a common club culture. What I took away was that live performance is hard, which I knew from reading Peart’s books, but that it’s physicall and emotionally hard on all three members of the band, and that if they cannot, consistently, completely and confidently, execute their music at the top of the abilities, they’ll stop playing live.

At once, the movie captured the how and why of being indoctrinated into this strange club (certainly I was a fan before 1990 when I went to the “Hold Your Fire” tour in Worcester and was suddenly on another plane); it explained the incongruity of a band that’s ranked third in album sales, that has effectively no Top 40 hits, and yet sells out major arenas for an entire summer at $100 a ducat. It was a directional indicator of the future of the music business: live shows, solid fan interaction, producing music that you believe in.

Having now seen some of my favorite bands in the later parts of their career arcs, and constantly comparing them to previous shows, it’s safe to say I agree that the last 3-4 Rush shows I saw were the best — not just the best Rush shows, but among the singular best rock concerts I’ve attended in forty years. And so a funny, touching, “behind the scenes” look (Spoiler: Alex Lifeson doing a soundcheck of “Subdivisions” in screamo style is still cracking me up a week later) at the band as they finished touring on their terms, with their instruments held high, was not sad — it was a re-affirmation of why I took Ben to see them when he was four years old.

Ben and I, along with millions of other Rush fans, are much richer for the experiences.

Watch the movie, especially if you don’t get the Dirk, Pratt and Lerxst references, because you might just understand. Or at least I Love You, Man will make sense.