My Old Face

January 18, 2020

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The life expectancy in the United States in 1920 was 58.8 years, so if you met someone who was sixty, they were “elderly” and living on borrowed time. In 2020, the American life expectancy is 78.9 and there are approximately 80,000 Americans who are over a hundred years old. I’m 55, so a hundred years ago I would have been ancient and now I’m wondering if I even qualify as “middle-aged.” Wilfrid Brambell, the actor who played Paul McCartney’s comical grandfather in The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964) was 52 at the time. Beatle Paul is now 77 and heads back on tour this spring, headlining the Glastonbury Festival on June 27.

So who’s old now? “Old.”

And when someone tells you to “act your age,” what does that even mean? What does it mean to a 17-year-old or a 55-year-old? I remember during the previous impeachment, there was a general feeling that 52-year-old Bill Clinton was not acting his age with Monica Lewinsky.  (Harvey Weinstein, 67, redefined the relationship between age and douchebaggery.) And if he were not the leader of the free world, the infantile antics of Donald Trump, 73, might be endearing. “He’s an old man, but he’s so childlike!”

As I write this with my reading glasses on, I can tell you there are a few clear markers of aging besides the fact that the smoothness of my skin seems to be evaporating. The aches and pains creep in and the extra pounds tend to hang on a bit longer, no matter how hard I hit the gym. And it’s just harder to hit the gym since there’s something awesome on TV tonight. I always hated when my elders would complain endlessly about the chronic pains of life so I’ll keep my mouth shut, but if I drive more than five miles, my right knee hurts!

There’s also the constant reminder of the passage of time. As a teacher, aging is particularly profound. The majority of my college students were born in the twenty-first century. I’ll say something like, “Remember how the nation reacted to 9/11?” and they’ll say, “OK, boomer, I was 3 days old.” And I’ll say, “I’m not a boomer, depending on how you chart birth rates. I’m a Generation X elder.” (My five-year-old daughter has taken to saying, “OK, boomer X.”) Regardless, I am constantly reminding my students what the world was like before the internet. Last week I was explaining what a “travel agent” was. “A travel asian?” one asked.

The value of all the mistakes I’ve made is that I can offer Generation Z endless pearls of wisdom, like “avoid credit card debt at all costs,” and “figure out ASAP that women are people,” and “don’t mix wine and whiskey,” and “take a literature class or something.” Then I can sit back and put all my hopes that the world doesn’t blow up on them. It is nice knowing a few things about how reality works even if I have no idea how I’ll be paying for the chronic health issues that are surely around the corner.

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The bottom line is that I don’t feel old. I still want to be at the front of the stage when a hot young band is blowing the doors off of some basement club. I was in the front when I was 17 seeing The Ramones and I was right up front seeing Velvet Q scream through a set in Seattle a few weeks ago. (Check them out, Grams.) I try not to wonder if the kids are thinking, “What’s that old guy doing here?” Because that’s what I would have thought back in the day. But, to be frank, the reality is that I find more comfort in spinning an old Yes album, than knowing the next big underground thing. (I’ve taken to consuming critics year-end lists to find music I should’ve already known about. Big Thief!)

The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, got old. Boomers like Donald Trump and Dolly Parton, both born in 1946, are 73. The good news is that generation changed what it means to “get old.” If 73 is no longer “old,” 55 definitely is not. Ringo Starr will be on tour this summer for his 80th birthday, and Trump probably already has his sights on his post-indictment wife. (Sorry, Melania. Be best!) They made “thirty-something” cool in the eighties and they’ll probably make “eighty-something” cool in the 2030s.

So, lines on my face aside, there’s still a lot of life ahead. That includes mistakes, child-like moments of wonder, new paths, and nights pressed against the stage, remaining hair shaking to the beat.

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Reelin’ in the Tens: What was this decade about anyway?

December 29, 2019

Decades used to have a definitive feel, a look, a sound. The Eighties were so different from the Seventies, which shared little with the Sixties. As we put this decade to bed, there’s no real sense of collective experience. We don’t even have a name for the last ten years. The Teens?

2010 began with the Obama presidency digging us out of the Great Recession and the quasi-fascist Tea Party movement and ended with the impeachment of the quasi-fascist Donald Trump and another recession looming. The first #1 song of 2010 was “Tik Tok” by Kesha and the last #1 song of 2019 is a Mariah Carey Christmas song from 1994 (and then a dozen Post Malone songs). Do those bookends offer any clue to the history that unfolded in the intervening days, weeks, months, and years between?

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I imagine the historians will dub this the Decade of Social Media. People retreated from cruising malls and bars to shopping and dating online. The fashion of the decade was the laptop and the smartphone. It was the decade where people stayed home and when they went out they were permanently hunched over their devices while the world burned down around them. Why look for a scene when you can just Netflix and chill?

It was a fairly epic ten years for me. I became a parent in 2014, which completely changed my connection to the outside world. And becoming a parent of a girl grounded my feminist ideals into a moral imperative in a world of “Grab ‘em by the pussy” presidents. 2014 was the also the year I pushed my faculty union to strike against a bloated administration which was a factor in that bloated administration cancelling my secure faculty contract. But after a few years of scrounging, that freedom gave birth to a professional and creative revival. I got to spend the second half of the decade traveling the globe and writing volumes, including books, academic chapters, an ode to Bowie published in the Gay & Lesbian Review, and an article in Huffington Post on masculinity and right wing violence. Having a wonderful partner, who never tolerated my decades old bullshit, pushed me to unexpected accomplishments.

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I have a theory about decades (discussed in my 2011 book, The Mission of the Sacred Heart). There are two albums released in the seventh year of every decade that define both what’s happening on the surface and what’s bubbling underneath. For 1967, it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Velvet Underground & Nico. 1977 was Saturday Night Fever and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and so on. For 2017 it would have to be Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. Both represented the dominant themes of the decade, the empowerment of women in the face of institutional abuse (hats off to artists like Kesha and films like Bombshell) and the transformative Black Lives Matter movement (much love to artists like D’Angelo and films like Moonlight).

It was a decade that moved the ball on the leveling playing field, for transgender kids that need to pee and black kids who don’t need to get shot by the cops. But there was a massive attempt to turn back the hands of time to the bad old days, when America was (right) “great.” The rebellion against the global community sparked nationalism across the world; Trump and Putin, Brexit, mass murdering racists in Norway, neo-Nazis in Ukraine, and on and on. 2020 seems like it will be the beginning of decade of civil war. Can Harry Styles save us?

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It usually takes a while to get a feel for what a decade was all about. Give it a few years before we determine the relevance of The Bachelor and brand new pants pre-torn in Chinese sweatshops. The last decade of the “American Century” will have an official haircut and dance (Twerking?). There will be 2010s nights at clubs where they play all your old Katy Perry favorites and people dress like various Kardashians and joke about apps and Tim Tebow and they play the “Gangnam Style” video over and over again. I’ll remember it as the decade where I found my real purpose. There was no app for that.

On not dying youngish

March 5, 2019

Somewhere sometime in my twenties I wrote that my motto was, “Live fast die young, and leave a pretty corpse.” It seemed cool at the time. When your heroes are dropping off at 27, the romantic exit seems, well, romantic.  Now, not so much. Hitting 90 seems both horrific and preferable.

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This week’s deaths of Luke Perry (3 years younger than me, from a stroke) and Let’s Active drummer Sara Romweber (same age as me, from brain cancer) is a reminder that we continue to shed our peers at a rate that only accelerates. A large percentage of the Gen X elders that I inhabited the world with when I was twenty are gone. My aging icons will leave more rapidly. I’m ready of Bob Dylan and the rest of the lions of my youth to slip from this mortal coil. But so will those younger than me. Kids in tornadoes. Generation Z teens texting while driving, running over millennials talking on their iPhones. Then us.

George Harrison once said that death is like getting out of one car and getting into another. That’s sweet. I had a student who once asked the class what do people remember from before they were born. Silence. “That’s what death is like,” she said. Who knows? Nobody. That includes people who write hokey books about dying on the operating table and coming back to life. People buy that shit up hoping for proof that they well never cease to exist.

Sociologists will tell you that as people get old, they get more religious. I had a professor at Emory, Martin Levin, who called it the “nearer my God to thee” thesis. My father recently told me he’s just coasting into heaven. I hope so, Dad. It sounds so much nicer than just being unplugged by time. All those old friends waiting for you.

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Me, I know that I don’t know. In all likelihood, this is it. No pearly gates, no Casper the Ghost, no singing with Aretha or jamming with Hendrix. (Poor dead Hendrix.) And that’s OK. That means heaven is right here. In the excised Gospel of Thomas, one of the gnostic texts that was removed from the New Testament by the patriarchal church, hipster Jesus told his peeps that the kingdom of heaven is not in the sky somewhere. “Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.” I can dig that. Heaven is in a living room in Portland. Awesome, because I’m already there.

The bottom line is to make the most of the time while you are here. Make the place you are in full of love and light, not anger and darkness. And do it for as long as you can, because there might not be a tunnel to a “better place.” Stay healthy, don’t smoke, get check ups, get off the couch, be kind, and keep the memory of those who have past alive in your minds.

One of my favorite poems is by Liverpool poet Roger McGough, enticed “Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death.”

Let me die a youngman’s death

not a clean and inbetween

the sheets holywater death

not a famous-last-words

peaceful out of breath death

When I’m 73

and in constant good tumour

may I be mown down at dawn

by a bright red sports car

on my way home

from an allnight party

Or when I’m 91

with silver hair

and sitting in a barber’s chair

may rival gangsters

with hamfisted tommyguns burst in

and give me a short back and insides

Or when I’m 104

and banned from the Cavern

may my mistress

catching me in bed with her daughter

and fearing for her son

cut me up into little pieces

and throw away every piece but one

Let me die a youngman’s death

not a free from sin tiptoe in

candle wax and waning death

not a curtains drawn by angels borne

‘what a nice way to go’ death 

Sounds like heaven to me.

 

 

“Thanks, punk!” (For David Dickens)

January 10, 2019

I know the first time I saw David Dickens I was both frightened and liberated. I was a 16-year-old kid trying to figure out “punk rock” in 1980 Georgia. I knew what punk looked like long before I knew what it sounded like from reading Creem Magazine in the late 1970s. There were no internet streams of music or satellite radio. If you didn’t have a friend who had an older brother or sister who had somehow had gotten their hands on a Ramones album from some far-off big city record store, you were SOL. But I knew punk looked wild and David Dickens was a punk.

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In 1980 I was 16 with a drivers license. On the weekends I would tell my mom I was going to the midnight movie. Often I did. It was Rock n Roll High School on Fridays and The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Saturdays and I know David was often there, screaming “Where’s your fucking neck?” at the screen. Most of those weekends, I would head to the punk rock clubs with my fake ID. (Sorry, Mom.) The Metroplex on Luckie Street, The Bistro on West Peachtree, and 688 on Spring Street. They seemed like a million miles away from my subdivision in Stone Mountain. And Dave was there, all in black, blonde mohawk, and snarl. He looked just like the punks in Creem. I didn’t have to go to London. 688 was close enough.

David worked the door at a lot of those clubs and instantly identified me as a fellow misfit, part of the diaspora of suburban refugees looking for escape from Southern hypocrisy and fueled by the energy of the guitar and bass drum. In the suburbs, people married their high school sweethearts and raced into the doldrums of adulthood. Here there was space to be your true self. In your free space. It was a subterranean world of anarchist bohemian spirits, set free in a little corner of the Deep South. And David always let me in the door, no matter how fake my ID was. “Come on in, kid,” he’d say, his cigarette hanging out of his mouth, looking like he just walked out of a frame of Taxi Driver.

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By the time I was 19, his scene was my scene. I was practically living at 688, crashing on couches in Pershing Point, Atlanta’s short-lived East Village, and occupying space with punk artists at the Blue Rat Gallery. By then, David’s intimidating persona had given way to a kind of Catcher in the Rye character, benevolently keeping the scene in line and true to its ethos, occasionally corralling renegade punks like Billy Asshole and Malibu back into the fray. As a budding mod socialist and non-drinker, I had many after hours debates with him about the benefits of Marxism verses anarchism, with some four-piece band bashing in the background. Me in my Air Force parka, he with a ton of hardware clanging on his body. He was super-smart (not a dumb punk) so I was forced to raise my pee-wee game.

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David died a couple of days ago in his sleep. His heart just stopped. Apparently he’d had heart troubles and a recent gall bladder removal. As the word spread on Facebook, the heart of the scene stopped as well. Many of us had reconnected with the David through social media and he was still a warrior for freedom, ready to debate liberals and conservatives. I was glad to have him back in my world. The night before he went to bed for the last time, he posted a picture of a rich man trying to enter his grave with bags of cash, writing, “Like the man said … there’s a reason you never see a hearse pullin’ a U-Haul.” Maybe he knew.

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The news hit me harder than I expected. I found myself sobbing. Not because we were such close friends. It was because I never got to thank him. His persona was larger than life and as soon as I saw him, I knew I didn’t have to go to London or CBGB’s to find my tribe, it was right there. He could’ve looked at a little suburban punk wannabe like me and said, “Fuck off, you poser!” But instead, he said, “Come on in, kid.” I’m sure he died having no idea what an influence he had on so many of us misfits. He gave us permission to follow our unformed bliss and not be afraid to pay attention to our internal compasses.

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In 1977, George Harrison recorded a great song called “Pure Smokey” because he didn’t want to die without thanking Smokey Robinson for his wonderful music. George is gone and Smokey Robinson is still touring (and producing a Motown-based cartoon my kid loves) and knows how the George felt. I never got to say that to David. “David you gave me permission to be me. Thank you.”

As I get older, the rate of friends and comrades passing away will only increase. It’s time to start saying, “thank you.” David Dickens, thank you for letting me in.

In My Time of Dying

November 9, 2015

I’m just back from a trip to Georgia with Cozy and Andrea. I was invited to do a presentation to the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on hate crime. The trip also doubled as an opportunity to introduce my wife and child to the places where I grew up. Anyone who knows Atlanta knows that you can leave it for five minutes and come back to a completely different city. To be from that area means you have to be willing to let go of the things you loved. Those great woods I rode bikes in in Stone Mountain have been five different shopping plazas since then. That historic bar in Poncey-Highland is being bulldozed for condos. Just let it go. At some point all of us are dust.

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I flew out a few days early with Cozy since Andrea was working at the law firm. Yes, I flew across the entire country with a toddler by myself. The reason for this insane act was the chance to spend some extra time with my father who recently had some pretty epic back surgery and is looking at six months of recovery. He had’t met his granddaughter yet (or Andrea) and who knew when I’d next be heading to Georgia.

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It was a great meeting, even if Cozy was a little unsure of who this guy was who looked a lot like me. (The irony was that the first seconds after Cozy’s birth I thought how much she looked like my father, but then all newborns sort of look like old men.) Cozy and Dad did high fives and stared at each other a lot and I thought about this genetic connection that links over 70 years before it blasts backwards into time.

But the whole thing transpired not at my dad’s home in Alpharetta but at the recovery center in Marietta, where he is doing rehab from the surgery. It doubles as an assisted living center for elderly medical patients which meant the place reflected the best in geriatric medical care and the worst in what we do to the senior members of our families. While not a hospice, my dad was sharing the space with folks who probably didn’t have that much time left to live.

It’s now common knowledge that 30% of our medical expenditures go to end of life care. We spend billions each year to keep our grandparents alive for just a few weeks more. Why? Is it for them? For us? For the pharmaceutical industry? We ship our seniors off to cold care facilities where they share rooms with other old-timers and we bill the insurance companies to pay for staff that treat them as humanely as possible until they drop dead (well you don’t drop in a bed hooked up to machines) and the next old-timer can be moved in to wait for the Grim Reaper.  It’s quite bizarre when you think about it.

Other cultures bring their elderly close in to garner as much wisdom from them while they are still on this earth. We warehouse our aged far out of sight in nursing homes so we don’t have to witness the reality of our own eventual fate. I don’t know what’s to blame for this: patriarchy (Goddess cultures generally revere the elderly), capitalism (“eldercare” is a booming industry), or just our own stubborn refusal to acknowledge the we are not here forever.

It’s a uniquely American problem. (USA! USA!) Andrea’s grandmother lives in a village in Mexico surrounded by five of her eleven children. Her wit and wisdom are a part of their lives. Grandchildren come to help fix things and keep her company and great-grandchildren run around her wheelchair (and she sneaks some of them beer). It’s so different from the great charade we play with our elders. Dying at home? How barbaric!

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So it was really hard to see my dad in this setting. He’s only 73, the same age as Mick Jagger and the eternally touring Paul McCartney. Folks in my family live well into their 90s, and that was before people discovered that you shouldn’t have lard as a primary component of your diet. So Dad has at least a few more decades to share with us. If this was 300 years ago, he would be Methusala, but the life expectancy in this country keeps expanding. There are plenty of centenarions down at the Zumba class these days.

My dad will get better and be back on the golf course in no time. I took him skydiving for his 70th birthday and I want to take him diving with sharks for his 80th. But being in the setting of good folks who are just watching the clock to death really shook me. What happens when I hit that age? Am I going to spend my last days drooling and watching Wheel of Fortune? I can do that now!

It reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Liverpudlian Roger McGough called, “Let Me Die a Young Man’s Death.” Here’s a stanza:

When I’m 73 & in constant good tumor

May I be mowed down at dawn

By a bright red sportscar

On my way home from an all night party

I’m ready to stick around as long as possible but there are only so many trips around the sun left. When Cozy graduates from high school, I’ll be 68! (I’m going to encourage her to skip a few grades.) When I’m my dad’s age she’ll only be 23 and facing the issue of an aging parent that so many of us are now dealing with. (C’mon fetal stem cell research!) Hopefully, I’ll be the old wise man of the village with lots of kids on my lap and not in some sad “managed care facility.” When I go, let me die in my footsteps.

My mother likes to say, “When I get that old, just shoot me.” While I’m not willing to go to prison for homicide, it does make you think it would be so much better to go out in a blaze of glory than peeing on yourself in a hospital bed. Let me die a youthful death. I’m going for moshpit mishap at 98.