In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking

In the summer of 1993, I was in England, playing the role of student at the University of Cambridge. I lived in one of the historic colleges, I punted the Cam, I rode a bicycle through the grassy parkland known as The Backs, and of course, I downed quite a few pints of Guinness in smoky waterside pubs. But there was one quintessential Cambridge experience I never managed to check off my list: meeting Professor Stephen Hawking. He evidently lived somewhere near Selwyn College, my home-away-from-home for the duration of the International Summer School program, because several of my housemates reported encountering him on the street. But I never did. Not once during the month I was there did I so much as catch a glimpse of the famous physicist.

I’ll be honest, my desire to cross paths with him was, in part, simply because he was a celebrity. Hawking had been a household name for several years at that point, ever since the publicity around his bestselling book A Brief History of Time had made his face and his Cylon-like electronic voice as familiar as any movie star’s. But that wasn’t the only reason why I felt drawn to him.

The bigger piece of the puzzle is a little difficult to explain, or perhaps it’s only difficult for me to talk about. You see, the illness that Hawking suffered from, the thing that put him in that wheelchair and took away his natural speech, was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It’s the same degenerative nerve disorder that took the life of my dad’s brother. (He died, coincidentally, around the same time that A Brief History was published.) But while my uncle Lou lasted only two years after his diagnosis — entirely typical for ALS patients — Hawking lived with it for 55 years. Somehow, his body tamed the demon that killed my uncle. And that’s always fascinated me. I saw Louie every time I looked at Hawking: the withered body, the slumped head, the spastic flicker of a smile, even the sheen of drool around his mouth… the exact same effects that ALS had had on my uncle. Except… while my uncle died, Hawking lived. Some people might have felt resentment toward Hawking because of that; I never did, at least not that I can recall now. But I did feel a weird sense of connection with him. This man from an entirely different background, who would have had nothing in common with my blue-collar family, nevertheless felt like some kind of kin. And I wanted to meet him. I have no idea what I would’ve said to him if I had, but that was beside the point. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

A few years after my Cambridge sojourn, Hawking came to Salt Lake City to deliver a lecture. I attended, of course; I think half the valley’s population was there. It was held not in a lecture hall or even an auditorium, but in a sports arena. The title was something along the lines of “Does God Play Dice with the Universe?,” and I won’t pretend that I understood much of it. But again, that wasn’t the point. The point was to be in the same space with him, and to watch him. He didn’t move much, and of course his synthetic voice was essentially prerecorded. And yet he was compelling, even charismatic, in his stillness. I learned this week that an old girlfriend of mine met him after the lecture; another near-miss for me, like something out of a farce where the characters keep going through opposite doorways and around the same pillar.

Hawking probably would’ve enjoyed that image. By all accounts, he had a mischievous sense of humor, which he displayed in numerous TV cameos, starting with the memorable poker game he played with Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein in a holodeck fantasy on Star Trek: The Next Generation; through appearances in cartoon form on The Simpsons and Futurama; and finally the no-less-than seven guest shots he’s done for The Big Bang Theory. I loved these latter appearances especially. It cracked me up whenever Hawking would zing a one-liner past the uptight Sheldon Cooper and then flash an enormous grin of satisfaction. And yet… even when Hawking was smiling, I could see something in his eyes, the same haunted look I remember in my uncle Louie’s eyes. Maybe it was just my imagination, a projection of old hurts brought to the surface by Hawking’s reminding me of an ordeal I’ve never really gotten past. Perhaps it was a trick of the disease, some kind of physiological change wrought by ALS that suggests a particular emotional state that may or may not have been true. Or maybe, just maybe… in spite of all the things he accomplished with his mind, all the worldly success and fame, maybe there was still a part of Stephen Hawking that was beating against the iron cage of his own wasted body.

You’ve no doubt heard by now that Hawking died early Wednesday morning at his home in Cambridge. He was 76. Against all the odds, he lived out a normal lifespan in spite of having a far-from-normal life. Professor Hawking did not believe in God or an afterlife, and I won’t disrespect him with any well-intentioned sentiments to the contrary. The truth is, I’m not so sure about those things myself. But I will say that even if his actual consciousness dissolved like dew in the morning sunlight, at least some bit of that enormous intellect endures in his books, and more importantly in his work that scientists to come will build upon.

I never met Stephen Hawking, as I once hoped to do. But I guess it’s about time I got around to reading A Brief History of Time

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “In the Land of the Blind”

If you haven’t heard, my main man Rick Springfield dropped a new album recently. It’s called The Snake King, and while it isn’t exactly the blues record I’ve long hoped he would someday do — you won’t find any covers of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters here — the DNA of rock’s mother genre is threaded all through this collection of 13 tracks. The album’s thematic preoccupation with God, the devil, and sex is, of course, primal blues territory, and the blues sound rises and falls from song to song, meshing surprisingly well with Rick’s pop-rock sensibilities. It’s a far more natural fit for him than his flirtation with country on his previous album. Not that Rocket Science was a bad album; it’s just that…. this is better. Rick’s playing and songwriting both feel invigorated in a way that they haven’t for a while. In short, The Snake King is a great listen, probably my favorite release of his since shock/denial/anger/acceptance way back in 2004.

Rick evidently thinks so too, because he’s been doing quite a lot of publicity for it, making the rounds of various TV talk shows and giving a lot of interviews. And he’s even done a conceptual music video (as opposed to a performance clip), which is, as far as I know, his first such video since he was fighting to liberate humanity from its alien overlords with the help of a young David Fincher. [Edit: Turns out I’m wrong about that; he did a video for the song “Down” from his last album in 2016, I just missed that one somehow.]  Without further ado, here’s “In the Land of the Blind,” which happens to be one of my favorite cuts from The Snake King and a really nice sound to start your weekend…

Incidentally, Anne and I attended the launch party for The Snake King out in Los Angeles and even spent a couple minutes chatting with my main man… but that’s a story for another time…

spacer

Letter to a Teenager

I’ve never gotten around to having children, and being an only child myself, I have no nieces or nephews of my own to play surrogates. Nevertheless, I occasionally find opportunities to insert myself into the life of a younger person and act vaguely dad-like for a while… or maybe it’s more like a half-assed Dumbledore. I’m never entirely sure.

One of these opportunities popped up recently when a friend of mine solicited people to write down some “words of wisdom or important life lesson” — her words — to give to her son on his upcoming 13th birthday. I said sure, no problem, figuring I’d just toss out a few pithy bullet points that would fit nicely on a 3×5 card. Instead, I ended up writing a two-page letter to the boy. To borrow a phrase from the irrepressible Han Solo, “Hey, it’s me.”

I’ve vacillated over posting that letter here, fearing that (a) my Loyal Readers wouldn’t be interested, and (b) it’ll come across as self-serving or pompous or maudlin, or just plain lame, but I’ve decided to go ahead and do it anyhow. I believe in what I wrote in that letter, and I think it’s fairly good advice, if I do say so myself. Perhaps someone reading this right now knows a teenager they could pass these words to. Perhaps someone reading this actually is a teenager, although why one of those those would be reading this old-man’s blog, I couldn’t begin to fathom. But you never know, do you?

In any event, here’s what I wrote:

Sunday, March 04, 2018

 

Dear Sam,

 

As a present to you on your 13th birthday, your mom and Mike asked their grown-up friends if they would give you some words of wisdom and important life lessons. I don’t know that I’m particularly “wise,” but I am almost half a century old, and I’ve got the white beard to prove it, so I must’ve learned something in all that time, right? Well… we’ll see, I guess. Here’s what I’ve got:

 

  1. You’re about to become a teenager, and I won’t lie to you, being a teen can be pretty tough sometimes. Nobody takes you seriously, your feelings are all dialed up to 11, and everything seems like it’s going to be the end of the world. Trust me, though… it’s not. You’ll get through it, whatever “it” is. Also, don’t overlook the bright side of being a teen. At your age, you’ve got a universe of possibilities in front of you, and you’re about to start doing a lot of things for the first time. That’s exciting, or at least it should be. Cherish that feeling, because the “firsts” get a lot farther apart when you get older.
  2. On a related note, don’t hesitate to sample the possibilities. At this time of your life, you have the freedom to try out a lot of different things, so do it. Get a weird haircut, wear some flashy clothes, eat some bizarre foods. As you get a little older and move out into the world, try out different jobs, and if you go to college, different majors, to figure out what you’re really interested in and what you really enjoy. My biggest mistake as a young person was always thinking everything I tried was going to be permanent. I ended up paralyzing myself because I put so much pressure on myself to get it right the first time, for fear that I’d be stuck someplace I didn’t want to be if I chose the wrong thing. Don’t do that. Experiment. Look around for what makes you happy. Not what other people think will make you happy, but what makes you happy
  3. If something’s making you unhappy—a major, a career path, a relationship—don’t just hunker down and put up with it. Find a way to fix it, and if you find you just can’t fix it, then move on. I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy on situations I hated because I thought I just had to endure them. The old “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” thing is nonsense. You only have to lie in it if you keep lying there. I’m not saying you ought to spend your life bouncing around from one thing to another and never settling down, but don’t think that you have to stay someplace you don’t want to be either.
  4. Be decent to other people. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them, you don’t even have to respect them, but there’s really no reason to be unkind or hurtful to them. You don’t know what they might be going through, what kinds of things might be hurting them already. Besides, people tend to give back what you put out there, so if you don’t want others to be a dick to you, don’t do it to them.
  5. Here’s a big secret that grown-ups usually try to avoid admitting to kids, and often even to themselves: nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, and everybody is just trying to do the best they can. Everybody. Celebrities, athletes, the president, your parents, girls, even old guys like me. So don’t be too hard on yourself when you start thinking you’re clueless. We all are. We just get better at dealing with our cluelessness as we grow up and grow older.
  6. Learn some history. See old movies. Listen to old music. Talk to older people and really listen to what they have to say. Understand where things came from and how we got to where we are now. That may seem really boring and pointless to you right now, but it will become more important as you get older. Really.
  7. It’s a big world with a lot of wonderful, crazy, beautiful stuff in it. Explore it. Travel as much as you can. Experience as much as you can. Don’t let yourself live inside a safe little bubble surrounded by people who look and think and talk just like you, and where you see the same damn scenery all the time.
  8. Life is always worth living. Always. There may be days when you wonder what’s the point, and why should you struggle on and keep banging your head against the wall. On those days, you might find your thoughts going to some pretty scary places. But I guarantee you that there’s always something worth living for, whether that’s Buster Keaton movies (some of the funniest things ever filmed) or warm spring days or the taste of your favorite ice cream. Never give up, never surrender. And never be afraid to ask for help if you’re having days like that.
  9. Don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t beat yourself up too much when you do. Just try to improve the next time out.
  10. Don’t be afraid of other people. It doesn’t matter what race or religion or political party we belong to, we all want the same general things, to live a good life, to find love and good friends, and to feel like we matter to somebody. But you only learn that if you’re willing to talk to other people.
  11.  

    I’m almost done… bear with me…

     

  12. Seek out an old song called “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” It’s from the 1990s, so you’ll probably think it’s ridiculous and cheesy, but listen to it anyway. Pay attention to the lyrics, because there’s a lot of good specific advice in them that I haven’t covered here.
  13. And lastly, print this letter and put it somewhere safe; in the future, you will wish you’d kept things. Trust me on this.

 

Happy birthday, Sam. Thirteen was a pretty awesome age for me; I hope it is for you too.

 

Sincerely,
Jason Bennion
(some weird old guy)

I hope the boy I wrote this for will read it and find something of value in it. If he doesn’t, maybe somebody out there in Internet-land will. Hey, anything can happen, right?

 

spacer

Tarantino on Hitchcock

From a two-year-old interview with Quentin Tarantino:

“People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies. I love Richard Franklin’s and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock meditations. I prefer those to actual Hitchcock.” And Tarantino also prefers—passionately defends—Gus Van Sant’s meta art-manque shot-by-shot remake of Psycho over the original Hitchcock film.

I always knew my sensibilities were incompatible with this guy’s, even if he does know how to compose a nice shot.

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “Can’t Cry Anymore”

Man, if you’d told me 20 years ago that I’d someday be nostalgic for the 1990s… well, let’s just say I would’ve found that highly improbable. But then, the idea that the ’90s were 20 years ago seems pretty damn improbable to me as well.

I was in my twenties during that decade and, at the time, things didn’t seem to be going so well for Mrs. Bennion’s golden child. I’d graduated from college without the slightest idea of what to do next. I didn’t know how to search for quote-unquote grown-up jobs, or even what sort of job I wanted, and so I spent more years than I should have working low-paying, demoralizing temp gigs. While my friends were out there beginning careers and starting their lives, I was feeling stuck and beginning to have my first real battles with depression. In addition, I was feeling increasingly alienated from the one thing by which I’d always defined myself, popular culture. I’d also become politically aware just in time for our politics to begin their devolution into nasty, scorched-earth-style partisanship. And my love life was a source of never-ending angst, naturally. Basically, my twenties were pretty shitty. At least… they seemed that way at the time.

But time is a tricksy devil. It has a way of knocking off the rough edges and sanding the surface smooth. When I look back now on the decade of my twenties and the crazy era they occupied, I don’t see all the anxiety and self-loathing. Well, not much of it, anyhow. What I see now is a moment I wish I could recapture, honestly. I see a lot less responsibility and a lot more free time than I have now. I see energy and possibilities in quantities I wish I still had. I see the excitement of new love and of early travels, the joy of discovering things — discovering everything, really — and the confidence that comes from not yet knowing how hard the world can really be. I see a world that was curiously naive compared to the morass that surrounds us now. I see golden-hour sunlight and open roads, and I feel soft breezes in my face that are rarely so balmy now. Mostly, I just see myself young, more handsome than I believed myself to be and stronger than I knew.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that era the past few days, so here’s a song from back then that I liked. No particular reason, no specific associations. I just liked this one. I still do.

“Can’t Cry Anymore” was the sixth single from Sheryl Crow’s smash debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was one of my favorites back in the day. The song was released in May of 1995, nearly a year after the album itself, and although it only rose to number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was Crow’s third top-40 hit.

Have a good night, kids…

spacer

Valentine’s Quiz Thing

I’m a couple days late with this, but I’m a sucker for these silly quizzes that used to be so popular in the old days of blogging, so here’s a thingie I stole from Facebook:
 
💟 How long have you and your significant other been together? 24 years (!)
 
💟 Do you have any children together? Nope.
 
💟 What about pets? Our kitty boy Evinrude, plus various feral and semi-feral cats that include ‘rude’s mother and a sad-eyed, scruffy-looking bugger we’ve started calling “Stuart” because he reminds me of the pathetic comic-shop owner on The Big Bang Theory.
 
💟 Who said I love you first? I don’t remember… probably her. Girls are mushy like that.
 
💟 Who is the most sensitive? Depends on the subject. We both have our Big Red Buttons.
 
💟 Where do you eat out most as a couple? Geez, I don’t know… probably Five Guys.
 
💟 Who’s older? Me, by a year and a half.
 
💟 Who has the worst temper? Well… I’m more prone to spontaneous flare-ups, but she has this thing where she can simmer for hours that’s far more frightening than my passing storms.
 
💟 Who is more social? Me
 
💟 Who is the neat freak? Me, although I’m not extreme about it. In other words, I generate plenty of clutter too, but I usually break and start to tidy before she does.
 
💟 Most romantic? Her.
 
💟 Who is the most stubborn? We can both be pretty hard-headed about things that matter to us.
 
💟 Who wakes earliest? Her during the work week; me on the weekends.
 
💟 Who’s the funniest? We make each other laugh pretty often and pretty hard, so I really can’t say.
 
💟 Where was your first date? Squatter’s Pub. Anne is convinced I was trying to get her drunk. I just wanted to introduce her to good beer. (She hates beer. Sigh.)
 
💟 Who has the biggest family? Her — I’m an only child.
 
💟 Do you get flowers often? Occasionally, when she’s trying to butter me up. 😉
 
💟 Who was interested first? Her, no question.
 
💟 Who picks where you go to eat? We tend to play the “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” card a lot, so… both?
 
💟 Who is the first one to admit when they’re wrong? Her
💟 Who wears the pants in the family? Who wears pants?
 
💟 Who eats more sweets? We both have pretty demanding sweet-tooths. (Sweet-teeth?) Anne probably gives in to hers a little more often…
 
💟 Married? Um…well… somehow we never got around to that…
 
💟 More sarcastic? I don’t know… her, maybe? Depends on our respective moods, I guess.
 
💟 Who makes the most mess? Her
 
💟 Hogs the remote? We’re pretty egalitarian with that.
 
💟 Better driver? I’d say we’re both pretty decent drivers.
 
💟 Spends the most? Um… well, I am the one who just ordered that coffee table book of classic Star Wars newspaper comics…

💟 Who is smarter? I’ve got more book learnin’, but I let her do my taxes, so you tell me…
 
💟 Did you go to the same school? Yes, but I didn’t know her until after I graduated (she’s younger)
 
💟 Where is the furthest you two have traveled to? Scotland
 
💟 Who hogs the bed? Her — sorry, ducks.
 
💟 Who does the laundry? Her… but I help with the folding.

💟 Who’s better with the computer? Me. Which is scary because computers hate me, and I hate them right back.
💟 Who drives when you are together? Depends on whose car we’re in.
spacer

Sometimes We Play Music…

“People change over the years, and we hope that the we that is us never changes. Yesterday we were kids, and tomorrow we’ll be old, and we think we’re the same people we were, despite all evidence to the contrary.

“But sometimes we play music that lets us be us then and us now and us still to come, and it’s all worth it, every minute, every aching second, every gaping now.”

Neil Gaiman

 

spacer

Space Cowboy

So, I don’t know about you, but I’m just sitting here this morning watching that new trailer for Solo: A Star Wars Story on a continuous loop, like this:

 

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “Dreams”

I’ve built quite a persona for myself over the years as a musical curmudgeon: defender all things ’80s, grunge heretic, “Mr. Classic Rock.” If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know the drill. But while I can’t deny that I found less and less of the new music coming out during the 1990s to my liking, it is untrue that I didn’t like any of it. There were songs in that era that managed to catch my fancy.

Two of those were early hits by an Irish band called The Cranberries, although I honestly couldn’t have told you who performed them prior to this week. I know the band’s name now, of course, because of the sad, untimely death on Monday of their lead singer Dolores O’Riordan. As of this writing, there still hasn’t been any official cause of death released to the public. All we really know is that she died in a London hotel room at the age of 46.

It’s funny… I haven’t thought about either “Linger” or “Dreams” in years, but I’ve had both of them on constant repeat all week. They both summon up a kind of sense memory of my young adulthood… no specific associations, but rather just the way it felt to be in my early twenties in the early ’90s. “Linger” was the bigger hit, but somehow it’s “Dreams” that resonates the most strongly for me. The song was the band’s first single, originally released to little attention in 1992, only to become a top-15 hit in 1994 after “Linger” cleared the way. Listening to it today, I can recall how my body felt before all the hinges started to squeak, and in O’Riordan’s clear, girlish voice I hear all the yearning and hope and certainty that used to live in my own heart. Maybe that’s why the death of a woman whose face and name I didn’t know has shaken me so hard… well, that and her age, just two years younger than myself. The same age as my lovely Anne. And the fact that, as far as the public knows she simply dropped dead. She was on the eve of recording new music, a mother of three, reportedly feeling good about her life and with a lot.of living yet to go… and then she’s gone.

I’ve reached the age where you just never know. And I am as haunted by that as I’ve ever been by hazy nostalgia. Coming from me, that’s saying something.

spacer

The Most Terrifying Poem in the English Language

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.

If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.

And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.

He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.

 — Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Verses (1911)

 

 

spacer