In Memoriam: Stan Kirsch

For most of my twenties, I was well-nigh obsessed with a television show called Highlander: The Series, which was a spin-off from the cult-favorite 1986 film about immortal warriors who live secretly among ordinary humans and can die only if their heads get cut off. If you think that sounds kind of ridiculous, well, I suppose I can’t blame you. I mean, the show is what it is: a relatively low-budget 1990s syndicated fantasy-action series that aired in the wee hours of the night, at least in the Salt Lake market. Looking back now, almost 22 years after the final episode, I have to acknowledge that it would probably be a tough sell to a modern viewer who’s not already a fan. Back in the day, though, I dearly loved it. Yes, I did.

As a young man trying to figure out who I was, I saw the kind of person I wanted to be in many of the show’s characters. Duncan MacLeod, the ancient Scottish Highlander of the title, and his immortal friends were confident, sophisticated, worldly. They traveled and read literature and knew about art and wine and whisky and food. They’d been everywhere and had friends and lovers — and enemies, as well, given the premise of the show — all over the place. They were equally at ease in an elegant chateau or a bare-brick industrial-style loft above a grimy martial-arts dojo. They hung out in a blues bar. They were cool.

And then there was Richie.

The character of Richie Ryan, played by a young actor named Stan Kirsch, was initially a sort of foster child for Duncan, a street kid that the immortal took under his wing and tried to teach how to become a better man. I think Richie was also intended to be a surrogate for the audience, an ordinary person who was naive to the existence of immortals until he chose the wrong home to try to rob, and then was drawn deeper and deeper into their world. Like a lot of young sidekick characters in TV of that era, Richie was occasionally hard to stomach. He was written as a smart aleck and could be something of a dork, and baby-faced Stan was never believably as tough as someone from Richie’s hardscrabble background would likely have been. (Maybe that was the point… a kid who acted like a tough guy and so visibly was not.) My own sense is that the showrunners weren’t quite sure what to do with him beyond a certain point. Richie was eventually revealed to be one of the immortals himself, whereupon he changed from Duncan’s child to an apprentice and then to a friend, if maybe not ever quite a peer. He gradually became less and less of a presence on the show, more a recurring character instead of a regular… and then, in a stunning development that was either audacious or boneheaded depending on your perspective, the character was killed off by Duncan MacLeod himself in the cliffhanger ending of the show’s fifth season.

The death of Richie Ryan divided Highlander fandom as thoroughly as anything that JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson ever did to Star Wars. I had just begun to explore the internet in those days, and I watched in amazement and dismay as the once-inviting Highlander message board I’d been hanging out on deteriorated into a vicious brawl between those who were fine with this latest plot twist and those who simply would not — could not! — accept it. The latter took to calling themselves Clan Denial, and somewhere in some distant corner of the World Wide Web, their cries of anguish and fury are probably still echoing. It was my first taste of the infighting that would eventually infect all fandoms in the internet age.

For my part, I thought killing Richie, at least in the manner in which it was done — i.e., at the hands of his friend, mentor, and father figure — was pretty shitty. I had never been a big partisan for the character so I wasn’t angry enough about it to go Clan Denial, but I didn’t like it, and I do think it was a factor in Highlander‘s rapid decline afterward. The show’s producers had made a mistake, and the abbreviated sixth season felt like it had a cloud hanging over it from the start. Richie — and Stan — returned for the final episode, which was a kind of riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, but, to use the modern parlance, the show had jumped the shark in a major way, and when I think back on the series now, I tend to think of it as ending before that tectonic fracture-point episode in which he was killed.

I realize I’m rambling a bit here… forgive me. I haven’t actually thought about a lot of this stuff in many years, and hearing the news last week that Stan Kirsch had died stirred up a lot of memories. Stan was only 51, just a year older than myself, and even though I was not particularly a fan of Richie — I was always drawn to Duncan, or to the mortal-but-very-cool Joe Dawson — I feel like I’ve lost a major piece of my past. I didn’t identify with Richie, but in some weird way, I find myself identifying with Stan. I just keep coming back to the closeness of our ages. He was the same age I am. And the show was such a huge part of my young adulthood, part of the whole mood and texture of that time in my life. In certain respects, it was more important to me at that time, more influential certainly, than my usual media obsessions, Star Trek and Star Wars. I was already a fan of it before I started dating Anne, but she liked the show as well and watching it together became one of our weekly rituals. I used to record the latest episode on VHS and then take the tape to her house. I remember one night when we ventured online together, possibly for the first time, looking to see if we could find anything related to the show in this new digital frontier we’d been hearing about, and the first thing we ran across was a trove of fanfiction… slash fiction, no less. We were equal parts shocked and amused by that stuff. And we even traveled to Los Angeles together to attend a farewell convention when the show wrapped production… our first convention together. We were pretty naive about the whole con scene at that time, and we utterly failed to meet most of the cast members who were there, including Stan, because we just weren’t sure how it was all supposed to work. We’ve since met Adrian Paul, who played Duncan, a number of times, often enough that I get the impression he actually recognizes our faces. But never Stan. And now we’ll never get that chance, and I feel a true, deep sense of regret about it. I just always assumed there would be time, you know? After all, we were both young enough…

I think what’s really bothering me is the fact that Stan died by suicide. I’ve seen speculation on social media that he may have been ill — some people who saw him at a convention last year say he was very thin — and of course there’s always talk about depression when someone takes their own life. But who really knows? Stan wasn’t in the public eye very much and I honestly don’t know much about him. I know that after Highlander, he guest-starred on several episodes of Friends, as well as NCIS and a couple other TV series. I know that he and his wife started an acting school a few years back and that it was evidently pretty successful. But that’s it, really. I’m sorry I don’t know more, and I’m sorry I never got around to meeting him in person. And when it comes down to it, I’m sorry that something had evidently gone wrong enough in his life or in his head that he ended up in that place.

When Highlander was first on the air, I was young enough that I really did feel immortal. There was plenty of time ahead to figure it all out and to do everything I wanted to do. I imagine Stan Kirsch felt the same way back then. So what the hell happened?

I’m feeling very mortal right now…

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Friday Evening Videos: “Never Let You Go”

For many years now, I’ve had it my head that I completely disengaged from popular music somewhere around 1991 (the year that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” brought everyone down), but that’s not really true. Yes, I was having more and more difficulty finding current music that I liked, as well as expanding my interests into other genres and time periods. But when I decided on a whim to build a Spotify playlist of ’90s songs that I remember liking back in the day, I very quickly piled up a little over eight hours’ worth of tunes. So obviously I wasn’t as oblivious to it all as I’ve imagined.

I haven’t done the research, but I have a hunch that a lot of my ’90s likes are probably clustered toward the end of the decade, when I was hooked for a time on an over-the-air music-video channel I discovered called The Box. It was a weird, fly-by-night sort of operation way down near the bottom of the UHF band (ask your parents, kids!). I want to say it was channel 58? Something like that. Down in the nether regions where reception was tenuous at best and a lot of the ghostly signals you managed to pull in were in Spanish. The Box had a primitive interactive model where you could call a phone number and request a video from a menu for a small fee, which occasionally led to crap like Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” playing multiple times in a single hour for days on end. But it also lent the channel a sort of organic, homemade feeling. You could see anything from hip-hop to German heavy metal to electronic dance music. I found that I liked a lot of the pop-punk acts that briefly flourished around that time, groups such as Lit, blink-182, even Smashmouth before they sold out and “Allstar” got played to death in movies and TV ads. I also liked a lot of artists that probably didn’t have much redeeming value just because they were easy on the eyes. There was Britney Spears, obviously, and her contemporary Christina Aguilera; the Spice Girls, of course; and even the tattooed cutie who sang lead for Aqua. Yes, I just confessed to kinda-sorta liking the song “Barbie Girl.” Don’t say a word.

One of my favorite songs from that era actually sounded like something of a throwback to the Awesome ’80s, at least to my ear. “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind is built around catchy pop hooks and some weirdly melancholy lyrics that the band’s lead singer, Stephan Jenkins, claims are about the actress Charlize Theron, whom he dated for three years. But what really earns my affection for this one is the breakdown toward the end when we hear that crunchy guitar sound I’ve always loved, the same sort of thing you hear in “Jessie’s Girl” or one of my other favorite Rick Springfield songs, “Love Somebody.”

I don’t have any specific memories associated with the song, other than just liking the sound and one of the lyrics resonating with my mood at the time (I’d just turned 30 when this song came out, and I was struggling to find a career and make some big life choices and with depression, and true to form for me, I was spending a lot of time looking backward):

“I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads/Nickels and dimes, yours and mine, did you cash in all your dreams?”

The imagery doesn’t specifically align with my own experiences — I haven’t had a mood ring since I was eight, for example — but it’s highly evocative to me, suggesting memories of your early twenties when you didn’t have much, but you didn’t have a lot of cares either, and now those times are gone, and how the hell did that happen? Those lyrics occurred to me earlier this week when I was struggling with something at work, and “Never Let You Go” has been running on an endless loop in my mind ever since.

This video isn’t terribly remarkable, aside from Stephan Jenkins being a nice-looking man — I always wanted hair like his when I was young, that thick, floppy, rockstar thing — and there are some hot ’90s babes in the background. But enjoy the song anyhow as we head into the weekend. Maybe you too remember a girl who was like a sunburn you would have liked to save…

 

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Star Wars: My Worst to Best

Some years ago, my friend Doctor Robert asked me how I would rank the various Star Wars movies. At the time, I begged off with a rueful grin and another slug of scotch. It was an impossible question for me, like being asked to choose which of the children is my favorite, or perhaps more accurately — since I was at that time trying my damnedest to believe all the individual films comprised a single unified story — like trying to pick the best chapter of a favorite novel. It was also, I feared, an unintentionally loaded question that could only stir up more rancor over the still-controversial prequel trilogy, a sore spot I was dearly sick of poking.

That was then, though. Now… well, now things are different. Let’s just say that my feelings about this series have become far more clear in recent years. And so, for anyone who cares about one grumpy old man’s highly opinionated takes on some silly movies about space wizards and their lazer swords…

(Incidentally, I know I wrote in my last post that I’ve grown weary of talking about Star Wars, and I have. But now that the “mainline saga” has supposedly come to an end with the release of Episode IX, it feels like this is the time for an overview like this. Besides… it’s less stressful to think about this than current events.)

Counting backwards from my least favorite:

11. The Force Awakens

I can hear the gasps of surprise and outrage from all the way over here. Sorry. I know many people truly enjoyed this one, and I routinely see claims that it’s as good as any of the original trilogy (OT), but… no. Not for me. Besides my usual complaints about JJ Abrams’ shortcomings as a storyteller, this film struck me as incredibly cynical in the way that it played on my generation’s nostalgia for the originals while simultaneously slapping us in the face with its depiction of our OT heroes. I’m not exaggerating when I say that TFA — as well as finding myself once again the outlier against popular opinion when it came to Star Wars — contributed to me falling into a months-long depression.

10. The Rise of Skywalker

Better than TFA, and I’ll confess that I generally enjoyed it. It even had several moments that moved me to tears (mostly involving the OT heroes, no surprise). But it’s still a JJ Abrams film with all the problems that entails, and it still revolves around the idea that the OT heroes’ struggles and victories didn’t amount to a damn thing. I didn’t like it when Palpatine was resurrected in the old Dark Empire comic-book series back in the ’90s, and I like it even less in a movie trilogy of quasi-remakes built on deconstructing the original films and recasting the old heroes as broken losers.

9. The Last Jedi

While public opinion seems to have crystallized around the notion that TLJ is the worst of the sequel trilogy, I personally think writer-director Rian Johnson did an amazing job of trying to build something interesting on the very shaky foundation left to him by TFA. I like how he redeemed and elevated Luke Skywalker in the end, as well as how he tried to redemocratize the Force and get away from the “chosen one” elitism that settled into the story with the prequels (one of George Lucas’ biggest missteps, in my opinion). Even so, I can’t say that I unreservedly liked any of the films in the sequel trilogy, and I think that all goes back to the creative decisions made before a single frame of film was shot about where the OT characters ended up following the end of their trilogy. It was just plain shitty to do that to longtime fans.

8. Attack of the Clones

Next up is the shakiest entry in the much-maligned prequel trilogy. I never have been able to untangle the mystery plot of this one, and there are moments in it that make me cringe (curiously, Threepio’s head getting grafted onto a battle droid body and changing his personality — “Die, Jedi scum!” — bothers me far more than Anakin’s thoughts on sand). But there are also many elements that I love: the ground battle between the clone army and all the crazy-ass Separatist machines, Slave-1‘s “electric guitar” bombs, the launch of the Republic fleet to the sounds of the Imperial March, the image of dozens of lightsabers powering up all across the arena on Geonosis, and even the greasy-spoon diner on Coruscant. Especially that greasy-spoon… because it just plain amuses me that there is such a place there and that Obi-Wan apparently frequents it.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

A nicely done war movie that I nevertheless rank fairly low because (a) it’s built around a plot point that nobody ever wondered about, (b) the tone is a little too grim-n-gritty for my tastes (i.e., everybody dies), (c) the fan service at the end is a little too blatant (heart-poundingly cool though it was), and (d) I can’t get past the deeply illogical conceit that Leia’s ship was hiding inside a big cruiser during the Battle of Scarif. (Leia was both royalty and a member of the Senate, and her ship was well-known as a diplomatic courier. In short, she and the Tantive IV were extremely valuable undercover assets — “You weren’t on any mercy mission this time…” — and I can’t believe the Alliance would risk either her life or her cover. In my opinion, the old NPR radio drama of Star Wars had a much more satisfying account of how she acquired the Death Star plans, and it bothers me that Rogue One retcons that version away.)

Also — and I admit that this is a meta issue and unfair to the movie itself — I learned about Carrie Fisher’s collapse that led to her death literally moments after seeing this movie with its weirdly plastic-looking simulacrum of her, when I checked my phone during the closing credits, and the association of those two events and the remembered emotions of that experience are… difficult. If not for that, perhaps I’d rank Rogue One more highly.

6. The Phantom Menace

Oh, hush. Just hear me out. If the meta experience of what happened around the time I saw Rogue One can lower that film’s rating, than surely the same thing can elevate this one’s, right? The excitement of the months and weeks leading up to TPM, the experience of standing in line to get in (no longer an issue with online ticket ordering), the uproar in the theater as the titles came up and various characters appeared… I cherish the memories of all that and those memories inform the film itself when I see it now. And in addition, I posit that the film honestly isn’t that bad, as unpopular — even heretical — as that position may be. It tells a straightforward story, it introduces us to wondrous new places (one thing about the recent sequel trilogy: I never once felt any sense of wonder with the worlds it visits; not once), and it contains two of the most thrilling scenes in the entire 11-movie series: the pod race and the final lightsaber fight between Darth Maul, Obi Wan, and Qui Gon Jinn. Plus, Liam Neeson is just cool. I’ve always wished we could’ve seen more of him.

5. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Easily my favorite of the Disney era so far, Solo is also the one with the least baggage hanging over it and the most purely fun entry in the series since 1983. The fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake, there’s no big metaphysical battle between good and evil, it’s just a swashbuckling heist picture with a coming-of-age tale overlaid on it. I was very disappointed that it didn’t do better, as I would’ve loved to have seen where it went next (I strongly suspect there was at least one sequel, if not a full trilogy, planned). Perhaps now that Disney+ appears to be the future for the franchise, a streaming series will pick up the dangling threads.

4. Revenge of the Sith

I always feel like I need to qualify or apologize for my reactions to the prequel trilogy, but with this one it’s really as simple as this: I spent the last 40 minutes or so of ROTS weeping. And George finally gave me the lava-pit fight I’d been imagining since I was eight years old.

3. Return of the Jedi

The weakest entry of the original trilogy is still above everything that’s not part of the original trilogy. Because… original trilogy. Plus, speeder bikes, the Millennium Falcon zigzagging through the rebel fleet, the Emperor taunting Luke, the space battle and flight through Death Star II (the very limit of what FX technology was capable of at that time), “I know,” and Leia going for the deck gun on Jabba’s barge. All things that just make me happy.

2. The Empire Strikes Back

Most people rank Empire as the best of the series, and I can’t disagree on objective, technical terms. It looks the best, it has the most mature story and best performances, and the whole universe seen on-screen just feels more… solid than it did before or since. I adore Empire. But when you get right down to it, there’s one I adore still more…

1. Star Wars

Always my number one. Always. The original 1977 Star Wars was the one that captured my imagination and dominated my childhood dreams, the one that kicked off the phenomenon and inspired all the variety-show sketches and low-budget rip-offs, the one that made the biggest dent on the collective American consciousness. People who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie likely know the names “Darth Vader” and “Death Star,” and this movie is the reason why. It is also the one film of the entire series that works best as a standalone story, in my opinion. All of the others are, to one degree or another, dependent on this one. Certainly they are all derivative of it. But if no other Star Wars film had ever been made, this one would still work on its own terms. And it is still the one I’m most likely to reach for when I’m in the mood to visit the galaxy far, far away…

And there you have it. Probably not many surprises here, at least not for people who’ve listened to me ramble about this stuff over a glass of whisky. Although I don’t foresee my own opinions changing much, it’s going to be interesting to see how the general wisdom on these films evolves in the coming years. I suspect that the prequels and George Lucas in general will be reevaluated against the sequel trilogy and their reputations redeemed somewhat; in fact, I’ve already seen signs of that happening. Along those lines, I also predict that fans will someday talk about all this much the way James Bond fans talk about that franchise; people will have their favorite eras and will debate the merits of each, i.e., it will come down to Lucas Era vs Disney Era, and preferences will likely depend in part on one’s age. Again, there’s already some of that going on, as the generation that grew up on the prequels displays a far different perspective on them than we older original-trilogy kids.

For me personally, I can no longer view the whole thing as one big happy story. I now realize after all these years of trying to embrace everything that I’m really primarily a fan of the original trilogy, and in particular of all the stuff that came out in the years between SW and TESB. Everything else — everything! — is, in my view, derivative of the OT and has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Which means that, for me, Star Wars will mostly be an exercise in nostalgia going forward. In other words, I’ve arrived at pretty much the same place with this that I’ve been at with Star Trek for many years now. And isn’t it interesting that I reached that point with both franchises as a result of films made by JJ Abrams? He is become Death, the Destroyer of Franchises. If I hear he’s been assigned to do the long-rumored Highlander remake next, I think it’ll be time for me to go live on a mountaintop somewhere…

One final thought: I think Star Wars might be finished as a movie series. There is still talk of a new trilogy in development that’s unrelated to the Skywalker Saga, but after all the truly vicious fan response to the recent films — and even going back to the prequels — I’ll believe it when I see it. Instead, I think Disney is going to take the safer route of producing SW television shows for its streaming platform, Disney+. I think The Mouse will find it less risky, as well as easier to satisfy all the splintered segments of fandom, to produce a number of limited-run, relatively cheap TV shows than to bet everything on occasional, very expensive feature films. And you know, I think that might be better for the content, too… a wider possible range of subject matter and tone, and maybe even the possibility of more inventiveness and originality, instead of stories always constrained by the need to fit the formula of “a Star Wars movie.” We’ll see, I guess. The Mandalorian has been a success, but the next one might not be.

In the meantime, we’ll always have the original trilogy…

 

 

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Last Night of the Teens

It’s New Year’s Eve 2019, which means that social media and the degraded remnant of the once-mighty blogosphere are filled with reminiscences of the past twelve months, as well as thoughts on the preceding decade as we roll into the 2020s. (No, I’m not going to call the next ten years “the Roaring Twenties.” That one’s taken. And I’m also not interested in debating whether a new decade begins with zero or one. When people talk about “the ’50s,” they’re including 1950, right? It’s all arbitrary perceptions anyhow; it’s not like the universe actually cares about how we silly humans mark our passage around the local star.) I feel obliged to do some reflecting myself because I’m nothing if not a bandwagon-hopper, but… well… I hate to say it, but this past year and the decade before it are really just a blur for me. At moments like this, you’re supposed to make note of accomplishments and life changes and all that jazz, but off the top of my head… I got nothin’.

Professionally speaking, I’m still working for the same company and in the same job role I had in 2009, which honestly surprises me (frantically rapping my knuckles on the wooden desk in front of me… no jinx today, please!). I at least have a different job title now, copy editor instead of proofreader. Even though, in practical terms, I’m doing the same damn thing.

I live in the same house in the same town, and I drive the same car. I’ve had no children in the past ten years, although I have grown closer to two of my significant other’s nieces and come to think of them as quasi-daughters (the rent-a-kids, we like to call them).

I find myself thinking in much more fatherly terms in relation to a lot of people. Ah, advancing age.

Now that my brain juices are beginning to flow, I can think of one big change in my home life since 2009: Anne moved in with me and she’s shown no sign of moving back out, so I’d say that’s working out well. We’ve even established a few quasi-traditions, like binge-watching an entire season of The Big Bang Theory over New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day. I’m not sure how that’s going to work next year, though, considering the show has now wrapped production so this year’s DVD set will be the last one we get…

Quite a few of my friends lost parents and other loved ones during the 2010s; fortunately, I still have both of my folks, although the past decade has seen them cross that mysterious Rubicon between not-quite-old and oh-wow-all-of-a-sudden-they’re-old-how-did-that-happen. I haven’t lost anyone else, either, but the artists whose work meant so much to me growing up have begun passing on with greater frequency, it seems. Just in the past few months, we’ve lost a number of 1980s rock stars — Eddie Money, Ric Ocasek of The Cars, Marie Fredriksson of Roxette — and just in the past few weeks, a number of people associated with the Star Trek franchise. And then there’s dear Carrie Fisher, our space princess, gone three years this very week. I still mourn her as much as any actual blood-related family member.

I have lost a couple pets since 2009, and in the last year, a feral cat that I kinda-sorta called a pet. Or at least… a familiar presence.

I became diabetic in the past decade, which sucks. I lost a lot of weight as a result, and returned to looking and feeling like the “me” I’ve always seen in my head, which does not suck. A number of my friends have faced — and continue to face, in some cases — serious illnesses, which definitely sucks.

I visited Scotland during this decade, something I’ve dreamed of doing for ages, as well as a number of lesser bucket-list destinations, like Hawaii; Washington, DC; New Orleans; and most recently, Seattle.

In the past ten years, Salt Lake got its very own comic con, which surprised me by turning out to be been very successful but then it got a little too big for its britches and had to be rebranded as “FanX” because of lawsuits from, ahem, that big convention in San Diego.

I’m ashamed to admit that my writing has largely petered out, not merely this blog but also my creative writing. That really bothers me. Likewise my personal reading habits have declined, although I’m a bit more sanguine about that failure; I read eight hours a day for a living, so it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for it after work.

Speaking of this blog, ten years ago, I was posting about the “miracle on the Hudson” when Captain Sully Sullenberger successfully belly-flopped a passenger jet into the river without losing a single person, and then a few days later the inauguration of Barack Obama and my hopes that bad old times of the previous decade were behind us. God, that seems like a lifetime ago, as well as so naive.

The 2010s have seen so much social progress — gay people acquiring the right to legally marry, the #metoo movement, a woman coming within a hair’s-breadth of winning the presidency, and even hope of finally passing the ERA — but there’s also been a truly disheartening backlash, which helped put a bellicose celebrity con man in the White House and led to literal Nazis marching in American streets. There have been countless mass shootings, countless conspiracy theories, and a rising background level of anger from all sides of the political spectrum. Every election now is a dire matter of life-and-death… or at least of Democracy vs. The End of All Things, depending on which side you’re on.

Ten years ago, nobody had heard the term “Brexit”; now the UK is on the verge of pulling out of the European Union and could face its own breakup following that, both of which used to be unthinkable.

In the past ten years, we’ve had five new Star Wars movies, but rather than them being received as an unexpected gift, the arguments are more vicious than ever and I’ve grown weary of the entire subject, as painful as that is to admit.

In the last ten years, movies I remember playing at the theater where I worked in my 20s have started to be remade.

In the last ten years, BluRay discs largely surpassed DVDs, and now both formats are declining in favor of streaming. CDs and even downloaded music files are on their last gasps, but weirdly, vinyl has made a genuine comeback. There are records on sale at Target, unlikely as that would’ve seemed in 2009.

In many ways, we seem to be closer than ever to the future I imagined when I was a kid: we now have reusable spacecraft that land on their tails like proper rocketships, solar panels are starting to pop up everywhere, electric cars are becoming a genuine thing rather than a weird niche market, and self-driving cars are just around the corner. Even my dad is using a smartphone. And yet… none of this seems very impressive. The world doesn’t feel that much different to me than it did in, say, the mid-’90s. Maybe it’s always been that way, although it’s hard to imagine someone who was alive in 1940 saying that 1980 didn’t feel different to them. Maybe it’s just me.

Now that I think about it, the past decade has been bloody exhausting. I never counted on that. In so many ways, this isn’t the life I imagined I’d be living, or the world I imagined I’d be living in, and frankly it hurts. So tonight, when I’m drinking my toast to the end of the year and the end of the decade, I’ll be wishing for peace. Not in the usual sense of an end to conflict, although that’s a laudable goal, but rather just the hope that things slow down enough for us all to catch our breath, to allow us let go of some of that… accumulated gunge that fills our heads and our hearts, so that maybe, just maybe, we — I — can dream again. I’m thinking of what Mary Chapin Carpenter once described as “cool quiet and time to think.” Wouldn’t that be lovely?

Of course, 2020 is an election year, so…

 

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Enter the Tauntaun

Following some recent misadventures I’d rather not go into, I find myself with a new addition to my personal fleet, a silver 2006 Jeep Liberty, which, if you don’t know, is a smaller four-door SUV roughly the same size as my old ’89 Bronco II. I got it for a real steal, too — in fact, when I made my counteroffer to the asking price, the dealer asked if I was sure about that amount, if I didn’t maybe want to go even lower. He was that eager to move the thing off his lot. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. While the vehicle is mechanically sound, or at least my dad was able to make it that way with only minimal effort, and the body and paint are in decent shape, the tires were as bald as Patrick Stewart and the interior…

My god, the interior.

I have never seen — or smelled — a vehicle that was such a filthy sty. This Jeep is thirteen years old, right? I have a hunch it’s never been cleaned in all that time. Ever. And judging from the evidence, the previous owner had kids and a dog. There was dog hair everywhere. There were stains on every seat, and on the backs of the front seats, and even on the headliner. Large stains. Brown stains that I really hope were coffee or chocolate and not some other brown substance. How the hell do you get a three-foot-tall stain on the back of the driver’s seat, anyway? I can only surmise that someone’s adorable little shit, er, offspring threw a large soda against mom or dad’s seat, and it never got cleaned up. Nothing ever got cleaned up, from the look of things. And did I mention the smell? It was unbelievable. A heavy, yeasty, organic funk like middle-schoolers’ gym socks, fried onions and spoiled milk. And indeed, I found a crusty white substance under one seat that I believe was spilt milk. I also found pretzels, popcorn, nuts, a whole granola bar (sans wrapper), a toy cellphone, a bunch of those colored glass pebbles that you use in fishtanks or decorative centerpieces, fifty-eight cents in loose coins, and about half-a-can’s worth of crushed Pringles. The map pocket on the driver’s door yielded a number of fossilized french fries. Oh, and there were straw wrappers everywhere. I mean everywhere. The previous owner must’ve just blown them off the straw while the windows were down and let them land where they may. But really, the big problem was the stink.

Look, I get it. I know parenting is hard, and I know that it’s not easy to keep clean when there are little kids and animals around. Accidents happen. Spills happen. And sometimes you can’t immediately take care of them because you’re on the road, in motion, places to be and all. But for hell’s sake, you can’t take ten minutes when you arrive at your destination to sponge things up? Seriously, did this person have no pride? If not pride, how about an instinct for self-preservation? I mean… how could you just sit in that filth day after day without doing something about it? The thought of what this person’s house might look like…

Ugh. Perhaps it’s best not to think about how other people live.

In any event, I spent my four-day Thanksgiving weekend cleaning the shit out of this thing… perhaps literally. I still don’t know what that brown stuff in the cracks of the seats was, and I really don’t want to. In the end, the seats remain badly stained — cheap seat covers from WallyWorld solved that problem — but the smell is thankfully gone and now I have a (hopefully) reliable vehicle to use on snow days instead of my Mustang.

One final thought: I’m not really one of those people who names all my cars, but in this case, an appellation jumped into my head while I was cleaning that so perfect, so fitting, I don’t see how I can not use it. So from this point forward, my new Jeep shall be known as… the tauntaun.

Because it’s a silver snow beast that smells awful on the inside…

 

 

 

 

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Birthday Playlist

My darling Anne has wanted to throw me a birthday party of some kind for years, but given my discomfort with birthdays and with aging in general, I’ve never been enthusiastic about the idea. This year, however, was a different situation. A big landmark like 50 ought to be observed, right? And besides, like I said in the previous entry, the birthday thing has been growing unexpectedly easier the last couple years, so I told her okay, let’s do something.

The result was an open house, which isn’t quite the same thing as full-on party but still serves to get actual living, breathing people into the same space as you instead of them just leaving digital sentiments on Facebook. Anne did a fabulous job of arranging food, decorations and a venue, which coincidentally was in the same building where she and I attended elementary school, and where my grandmother attended high school before that. I quite liked that. It felt…. symmetrical. And it was fun to be in the old place again. I had a lot of flashbacks that night.

I also saw a lot of friends, some of whom I haven’t managed to get together with in a very long. My evil twin and fellow Blasphemous Bastard, Dr. Robert, even flew out from Pennsylvania to spend the weekend with me, a sincerely touching gesture for which I can’t thank him enough.

Although Anne handled all the real work of putting the thing together, I wanted to make a contribution as well, something that would put my personal stamp on the proceedings that our guests could point to and say to themselves, “Yep, that’s Jason all right.” So I curated a slideshow of photographs from throughout my life to run on some digital picture-frame displays, as well as a playlist of favorite music.

The photos were the easy part; it turns out that I have a lot of favorite music.

After a first pass through my iTunes library, I was shocked to see that the list I’d assembled would take approximately three days to get through. So I started trimming, trying to whittle the whole thing down to only the bare essentials. The second version was just under two days in length. At that point, I decided to screw it and just put the damn thing on shuffle play and call it good.

In the end, I needn’t have bothered. I don’t think anyone paid the slightest attention to the music. Which is fine. It was better that people enjoyed the company and the conversation. But you know… I did go to the effort of building the damn thing, and I think a real thematic tone emerges when you look at it: a bit wistful, definitely nostalgic, but also hopeful and even determined. I’d kind of like it to have some kind of life beyond the couple hours it played at the event. So, for the sake of posterity, I now present my 50th B-day playlist for any who might be interested. Just click the highlighted text. It’s in PDF format, and be warned that it’s very long… but maybe you can use it to build your own playlist of songs that remind you of me, or you can just shake your head at my appalling lack of taste or something… but at least it’s out there in the world now…

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Ruminations on Fifty

I was barely into my teens the first time I saw Blade Runner. It was on a rented VHS videocassette, probably eight months or a year after the film’s initial release, so that would’ve been some time in 1983. And I would’ve been 13 years old. The movie has a very specific time setting — November 2019 — and I remember being taken by the idea that I would likely live to see that future, as incredibly far off as it seemed then in the early years of the Awesome ’80s. I once did the math on the back of an envelope to figure out how old I would be when that future arrived, and the answer — 50! — was as fantastical to my 13-year-old self as flying cars, off-world colonies, and genetically engineered replicants.

Well.

Here we are, only six weeks away from November 2019, that once-distant future imagined in the now-ancient past, and today, as hard as it is for me to believe, is my 50th birthday.

Fifty. Five-Oh. Five decades. Half a century. You can’t see this, but I’m sitting here shaking my head in wonder.

My friends and Loyal Readers (assuming any of you are still out there!) know that I struggle with birthdays, and with aging in general. Of course you know that, I write about it nearly every year. The thing is, when this time of year rolls around, it’s very difficult for me not to dwell on what I have to show for the time I’ve spent on this planet… or rather, what I don’t have to show for it. I don’t have children, I don’t own my own home — hell, I’ve never even moved out of the home I grew up in! — and while I do have this thing that can be called a career, I didn’t choose it so much as I slipped on a metaphorical banana peel and fell ass-backwards into it. It works well enough for me, but I can’t help help thinking something else would work better if only I could imagine what.

And I haven’t written any of those novels I used to talk about. That one really hurts.

Bottom line: When I look at pretty much any of the factors that are considered to be markers of success in our late-stage capitalistic society, I haven’t amounted to much. And yeah, that bothers me, as much as I try to shrug it off.

That said, however, the last few birthdays have seemed easier, and I’m surprised to find that I’m pretty sanguine about this one in particular, even though it’s a big landmark. Maybe it’s true what they say about giving less of a damn as you get older. But I think I was also comforted this year by some wisdom I received from an unexpected source, a young lady I’m coming to think of as my work-daughter  (as opposed to a work-spouse… yeah, I’m definitely getting older!). We were chewing the fat a few weeks back, and I mentioned my angst over not having done much with my life, and she responded, “Maybe not, but you’ve seen a hell of a lot.” I asked her what she meant, and she said that I’m always talking about all the things I’ve seen, from concerts to movies to different places to just “the good old days,” and she thinks my stories are cool. As I returned to my desk, I started thinking that she’s right… I have seen a lot of things in my time. (And here we circle back to Blade Runner and its replicant anti-hero Roy Batty: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… “)

Not all of those things have been good, of course. The first big headline events I remember being aware of were the death of Elvis Presley and the Jonestown Massacre, when cult-leader Jim Jones coerced hundreds of people to drink poisoned grape punch or else just had them shot. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis. The AIDS epidemic. The Challenger disaster. The terrorist bombing of a 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Exxon Valdez. The loss of another space shuttle, Columbia. The nightmare of 9/11 and all the disillusioning, disheartening stuff that followed it.

Mass shootings have become virtually commonplace.

I’ve seen nine U.S. presidents in my lifetime. One of them was impeached, one of them narrowly avoided it by resigning, and we’ll see what happens with the current one. There have been four out-and-out wars (by my reckoning) and more small-scale
“actions” than I can remember. Lots of economic ups and downs in that time too, though fortunately not a full-scale Depression 2.0 (not yet, anyhow).

I’ve seen all kinds of social mores and paradigms evolve, reverse themselves, or completely vanish in the last 50 years. I was an impressionable child during the free-loving, post-sexual-revolution years of the ’70s and I’ve long held something of a grudge that AIDS and a social backlash came along right about the time I was coming of age myself. I feel like I missed the party by that much. On the positive side, though, same-sex marriage is a thing now and, generally speaking, seems to be more and more accepted, despite the forces that are trying to push people of all descriptions back into their closets. Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more places, and practically everybody I know over a certain age is using CBD products to deal with their aches and pains. Meanwhile, cigarette smoking has gone from near-ubiquitous to barely tolerated, and probably soon to disappear entirely.

And then there’s technology. Good lord, the technology. Sometimes my childhood seems like it was in the 19th century, not the 20th. I remember when computers were something you only saw in science fiction movies, and then they were always the size of refrigerators, with spinning tape reels behind glass doors. The idea that it’s only a few decades later and we’re all walking around with one in our pockets, smaller in many cases than a paperback book, is truly boggling.

Home video — which didn’t even exist when I was young — has gone from video cassettes to DVD to BluRay to streaming. My earliest TV was a 17-inch black-and-white “portable” with a finicky vertical hold and rabbit ears. Our “big screen” during much of my childhood was a color set housed in an enormous solid wood cabinet, and you changed channels by walking across the room and turning a physical knob.

Music: from vinyl LPs to cassettes and 8-tracks to MP3s, Napster, iTunes, Spotify, and now, improbably, vinyl LPs again.

Fashion: I’ve lived long enough to see the fashions of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s all make comebacks.

Cars were enormous when I was a kid. My first one, a 1970 T-Bird, was approximately the size of a supertanker. They’ve become smaller, then somewhat bigger again. Sedans are fading away in favor of SUVs and minivans. Driverless vehicles are on the horizon (I’m not thrilled about that one).

I watched as our civilization survived the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, Y2K, the Mayan calendar “end of time” in 2012, and any number of near-misses by asteroids.

When I was a kid, we had nine planets in our solar system and knew of no others anywhere else. Today, Pluto has been downgraded to not-a-planet and we’ve spotted hundreds of exoplanets orbiting other stars.

But that’s all big, societal-level things. On a more personal note, I’ve seen the farm town I grew up in become a suburb, and Utah itself change from a somewhat isolated outpost of civilization — I always related with Luke Skywalker’s lament that Tatooine was the point farthest from the bright center of the universe — to a well-known and even desirable place to be.

I’ve seen Big Ben and the tomb of Sir Richard Francis Burton and swans lazily gliding along the river behind the colleges of Cambridge, England. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon and the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam and the Hollywood sign and the great cathedral of Cologne, Germany. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and a house shaped like a shoe. The lights of Las Vegas. Gettysburg. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Mustang Ranch. The Lincoln Memorial. At the Smithsonian Institution, I’ve seen Julia Child’s kitchen, Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s chair, Lincoln’s blood-stained top hat, and the star-spangled banner itself. In the British Museum in London, I saw the Rosetta Stone and the body of a man from the Iron Age. I’ve seen Hadrian’s Wall and Glen Coe, Loch Ness and Culloden, the Falkirk Wheel and the Kelpies. I’ve seen buffalo and alligators in the wild.

I’ve seen ditch banks burning in the springtime and alfalfa swaying in the June breeze. I’ve seen wide-open spaces and the enormous skies that tower above them. Two-lane roads and superhighways and turnpikes. I’ve seen a stash of dirty magazines hidden in a barn for the neighborhood kids to find long before anyone even imagined the Internet.

And I saw the Twin Towers before the bastards knocked ’em down.

Getting back to the subject of my birthday, I’d be lying if I said I’m not bothered by the physical signs of advancing decrepitude or by the idea that I now have more years behind me than ahead (referring to Blade Runner again, the scene where Batty confronts his creator: “I want more life… fucker.”) But when I look over this list, and I think of all the things I could add to it if I didn’t fear I was already straining your patience, I feel pretty good. All of that is more than enough to do my own version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” So Work-Daughter was right. I do have quite a lot to show for 50 years after all.

Not to get too sappy as I’m winding this up, but maybe I shouldn’t have been thinking about Blade Runner in connection to this day. Maybe a better choice would have been the movie I’m going to see this afternoon, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the tagline of which is “The human adventure is just beginning.” That feels uncharacteristically optimistic for me… but to my surprise, it is the way I’m feeling. And isn’t that weird?

 

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Friday Evening Videos: “Think I’m in Love”

Eddie Money died this morning at the not-very-old age of 70. Variety has the most comprehensive obituary I’ve found, if you’d like to know more about him… and I confess, I really didn’t know much.

The truth is, I’ve always sort of taken Eddie for granted. I’ve never owned an album of his, and the one time I saw him live — back around 2000 or thereabouts, along with Styx and REO Speedwagon in one of the first “triple threat” shows I attended — I dismissed him as the worst act of the evening. Looking back, I feel bad about being so snotty.

See, the thing about Eddie Money that I didn’t credit him for 20 years ago is that he was a journeyman entertainer. Not a virtuoso, not a genius, not really at home in the pantheon of flashy, strutting rock-and-roll gods… he was just a hardworking guy from New York who was easy to picture in his former career as a police officer. Dedicated to the job, out there every damn day without fanfare, like somebody in one of those golden-lighted all-American Ford commercials, doing the work to keep the country moving. I appreciate that sort of thing a lot more now than I did when I was younger.

He started logging hit singles in the ’70s, and it’s been startling today while reading the various tributes to him to realize just how many hits he had, and how many of them I’ve liked over the years. I remember singing “Take Me Home Tonight,” his 1986 song with Ronnie Spector of The Ronnettes, during after-school rehearsals for the one and only play I appeared in, and feeling pretty damn superior because I knew who Ronnie Spector was while my fellow castmates thought she was only a backup singer. However, my favorite Money song is from a couple years earlier. “Think I’m in Love” was the first single from Eddie’s 1982 album No Control, and it slams my personal sweetspot hard: guitar heavy; a catchy, propulsive sound; a certain sense of drama but an overall upbeat tone… this is the kind of song that makes me want to put the car windows down and drive faster than I ought to. The song went to 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was a staple of MTV’s early playlists.

It is also kind of batshit insane. Which of course all the best early videos were.

Rest in peace, Eddie Money. I’m going to crank this up now and fill the crisp, early fall air with some good rock and roll…

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Friday Evening Videos (Labor Day Weekend Edition): “These Dreams”

Anne and I kicked off the long holiday weekend Friday night with one of those “triple-threat” concerts that have become so common in recent years, at least for the old, er, that is, ahem, the classic acts that I enjoy. The line-up was Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Elle King, a newer performer whose sassy, sexy, won’t-take-any-bullshit-from-a-man attitude fit right in with the other two acts.

We’ve seen Heart paired with Joan Jett before, only a few years ago — the other “threat” that time was Cheap Trick — but my impression is that last night’s performance for both acts was much, much better. In the case of Heart, that possibly could be due to Ann and Nancy Wilson’s reconciliation following a nasty family dispute. Or perhaps they were better acclimated to the altitude this time around (a lot of performers struggle in Salt Lake’s thinner — and let’s be honest, dirtier — air). Or maybe we just had better seats that gave us a more even sound mix. Whatever the reason, this 2019 show promises to be one that will stand out in my mind, and there was one moment in particular that I think will stay with me.

The Wilson sisters had just led a lovely sing-along version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and from there Nancy launched into an acoustic take on “These Dreams,” from the self-titled 1985 album that was my introduction to this band. It was just her and her guitar, the drummer gently shaking a maraca, and Ann — ostensibly the band’s lead singer — occasionally chiming in for the chorus or a counterpoint. This song has always had a wistful quality, of course, but this performance tapped into… something… the end of a summer that feels like it never really got started, my impending landmark birthday, the generally dismal state of the world today and the always uncertain future… something. A balmy breeze was floating across the audience, finally bringing some relief after a sweltering day. I could smell sweat and the crisp, slightly floral scent of beer and a much fainter whiff of acrid marijuana smoke. And right around the line “White skin in linen/Perfume on my wrist” — an image that has always been strongly evocative for me — I felt my eyes growing wet. Yes, kids, I was actually getting weepy during a live performance of a 33-year-old power ballad. And I’ll be damned if I can tell you why. Obviously it was hitting some button within me… perhaps something long buried since the time when I was a brooding would-be Romantic who fancied myself some sort of tragic James Dean figure. Or perhaps the emotion was coming from a place that’s only accessible to a man on the edge of 50 who still feels the restlessness of his younger self but is far less able to do anything about it. Maybe it was simply a heartfelt rendition of a pretty song that’s always been a favorite of mine.

Whatever was going on, it seemed as if I felt a click throughout my body just at that moment, and my vision darkened ever so briefly the way it does when I’m looking through a viewfinder as the shutter cycles. I think that moment has maybe become a snapshot in my memory that I’ll someday be able to pull out of a mental shoebox and peer at through layers of grain and sepia, and I’ll recall everything that was happening just then: the tears, the breeze, the beer-and-pot smell, Nancy’s high but somewhat gravely voice singing that line about perfume on her wrist. The moment was quite simply magical. The kind of magic I used to feel in my room late at night, crackling up from the grooves of some old record I’d just discovered… the magic of stumbling across an unexplored world and knowing that I was going to make it my own. A kind of magic I rarely experience any more.

Not a bad way to wind up a summer that never really got started on the cusp of my 50th birthday.

Here’s the video for “These Dreams.” It’s a lot of 1980s excess and nonsense, I’m afraid. Big hair and big pretensions. But I love the song anyhow. If you’ve been waiting for the trivia, this was the third single from the aforementioned album Heart, and the first number-one hit for the band, which had released its first album 10 years before. The song was written by Martin Page (who you may remember for his own hit single “In the House of Stone and Light“) and Elton John’s frequent collaborator Bernie Taupin. “These Dreams” peaked on March 22, 1986, and was later re-released in 1988. I was a junior in high school the first time around, and a college freshman the second…

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Fifty Years Since that One Small Step

“In these eights days of the Apollo 11 mission, the world was witness to not only the triumph of technology, but to the strength of Man’s resolve and the persistence of his imagination. Through all times, the moon has endured out there, pale and distant, determining the tides and tugging at the heart, a symbol, a beacon, a goal. Now, Man has prevailed. He’s landed on the moon; he’s stabbed into its crust; he’s stolen some of its soil to bring back in a tiny treasure ship to perhaps unlock some of its secrets.

“The date’s now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as Man survives—July 20,1969—the day a man reached and walked on the moon. The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins are the best of us, and they’ve led us further and higher than we ever imagined we were likely to go.”

–Walter Cronkite, the legendary television journalist,
at the conclusion of his live broadcast coverage of the Apollo 11 moon landing

Today’s date is indelible. At least for those of us who care. My fear is that, these days, those of us who care are a distinct minority, a niche fandom like Trekkies or model train enthusiasts, just a bunch of aging white guys who indulge their inner 12-year-olds with a basement room in which they display their collections and imagine a world different than the way it is. If this day were a national holiday, as I’ve proposed before, maybe it would be different. Maybe people would remember and get excited and talk about the meaning of it all, and even become a little misty-eyed, as I do myself. But then… maybe not. Maybe a national holiday honoring the Apollo astronauts — and by extension all explorers, in my vision — would become just one more day for car dealers to hold a sale, and for families to grill some hot dogs without a second thought as to why they have this day off.

And then there’s that bit about “as long as Man survives” (forgive the outdated sexist usage in reference to the whole human species; it was 1969, after all). There are those who believe we humans don’t have much time left, that climate change and the bees dying and the oceans filling up with plastic will snuff out our collective flame by the end of the 21st century, if not a lot sooner. I’ll confess that on my more depressive days, I worry about that too, and I feel an absolutely crushing sense of futility. It’s on those days, more than any other, that I wish people would think about the Apollo program. That they would remember what human beings managed to do, and that they did it in a ridiculously short period of time, going from almost no idea of how to put people into space to putting them on another world in just slightly over one decade. Humanity can accomplish immense, glorious things if we put our minds to it. If we work together. If we restrain and channel our destructive impulses toward better, nobler, common goals, for the good of everyone and not just for the shareholders. Human beings built the pyramids, not aliens. And human beings did go to the moon, using technology that wasn’t much more sophisticated than stone knives and bearskins (to borrow a famous line from an old episode of Star Trek). The conspiracy theorists and the casual doubters who think it was all fake… these people infuriate me. Not because they’re scoffing at something I’ve always been fascinated by and excited about, although that is plenty irksome. But because they’re disparaging the one truth I firmly believe about our miserable little ape selves: that we can achieve greatness. That we can solve the big problems. The thing is, though, we need to believe that we can do it. We need to have the optimism that there is a way and that we can find it. And we need to be willing to spend the damn money.

Will humanity solve — or at least adapt to — the multiple environmental crises that seem to be looming higher and higher over our heads? I don’t know. I really don’t. Will we someday return to the moon? I don’t know that either, although it seems more likely right now than it has for many years. Honestly, I don’t even know anymore whether we should go back there, or if we should devote our efforts to Mars or to asteroid mining or to figuring out how to build O’Neill colonies in deep space. All I know is that we shouldn’t give up on the big things. On the hard things. That’s the real meaning of Apollo 11, the message we should take away from those fuzzy old black-and-white images of Neil and Buzz shuffling and hopping through the dust of another world. The lesson that we ought to be pounding into every school kid’s head every single day: the triumph of technology … the strength of Man’s resolve and the persistence of his imagination…

We need that spirit right now. Now more than ever.  I hope we can summon it soon.

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