A Song You’d Sing a Duet with Someone on Karaoke

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 17: A Song You’d Seen a Duet with Someone on Karaoke

Fun fact: I have never karaoke’d, as a duo or otherwise. And I’m not sure I ever would, at least not without copious amounts of liquid courage. But if it did somehow come down to that, I can think of no better dueting tune than Sonny and Cher’s immortal 1965 hit “I Got You Babe.” (Here’s another fun fact: When Cher first heard it, she reportedly thought it was a dumb song that would never go anywhere. She’s still performing it in concert half a century later.)

Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of a cliche and can even induce eye-rolling under the wrong circumstances, especially after the movie Groundhog Day used it to such horrifying effect, but it’s a sweet song that’s in a key just about anyone can manage (let’s be honest, Sonny Bono wasn’t much of a singer), and to my ear, it perfectly captures the innocent optimism of young love. But it’s also somehow weirdly applicable to older love too; I can easily see it as a fond commentary on a couple that’s been down the road and back, and somehow, against the odds, is still together… weatherbeaten but happy with each other. Whether you hear it as an anthem to nineteen-year-olds or a reminder of your own lost youth or as a poignant declaration to your life partner of decades — hell, why not all three? — it’s one of those songs that just makes you happy to hear. At least it makes me happy.

I have no idea where this video clip comes from — obviously a vintage television program — but it’s a pretty poignant thing too. I first got to know Sonny and Cher on their weekly TV show in the early ’70s, which was largely built around the “joke” of Cher being mean to her hopelessly square husband. As I understand it, by that point in their relationship, her antipathy for him wasn’t an act. But here they’re both fresh and cute and visibly enamored of each other, before life and fame and god knows what ground whatever they had together into a pulp.

Anyhow, that’s really all I’ve got to say about this one. Short and sweet this time. Enjoy!

 

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A Song That’s a Classic Favorite

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 16: A Song That’s a Classic Favorite

The wording of this one seemed a little odd to me, so I had to spend some time parsing it to be certain of what it was asking for. I finally decided it should more properly be read as “a classic song that’s a favorite.”

As it happens, I like a lot of so-called classic songs. Of course, the definition of “classic” varies through time; these days, the oldies station is playing stuff that was popular when I was in college. Oy. For me, however, “classic”  is my parents’ music, the early days of rock and roll. It’s mom’s scratchy old 45s played back on a supposedly “portable” record player the size of a large suitcase, the one that needed to have a penny taped to the tone arm to keep it from skipping across the platter. It’s Chuck Berry drifting in and out of the static on a tube-driven AM car radio. It’s the soundtrack to American Graffiti, and the cherry Coke you drank at sunset with a hot summer breeze in your hair, and it’s the music that mom and dad’s DJ friend pumps out across the parking lot at their classic-car cruise night events.

Boiled down to a single tune, “classic” is Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” It’s probably one of the most recognizable songs of the early rock era, and it’s one of my favorites from any era. The song was a tremendous hit for Del in 1961, sitting at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks and coming in at number 5 for the year. It became a hit for him again in 1987, when Del re-recorded it (with somewhat different lyrics) for the producers of the television series Crime Story, which could be described as Miami Vice set in the early ’60s. Every week for two seasons, “Runaway” played over the opening-credits montage of Dennis Farina in a trenchcoat, neon signs, and tail fins. I barely remember the show itself, but those credits still play through my minds-eye from time to time.

However, it’s the earlier, decidedly more innocent version of the song that I’m going to place here. Obviously, it was recorded long before music videos, but I did manage to find a vintage clip from one of those teenage dance shows that were popular in the day. I’m not sure which show, exactly — I don’t think it’s American Bandstand, the sets don’t look right to me — but of course the point is for y’all to hear the song… so, enjoy. And let it take you back to those days when your relationship with your car was at least as important as the one you had with your best girl, and likely it was a more solid one at that…

 

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A Song You Like That’s a Cover by Another Artist

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 15: A Song You Like That’s a Cover by Another Artist

I took a break from these song challenge posts for a while because, in light of everything going on in the country and the world, they seemed frivolous, if not outright disrespectful to those whose lives have been upended by — say it with me — “these unprecedented times.” But honestly I’ve been missing them. Missing the escape from thinking about current events and my job and all the rest of it. I’ve missed writing. Writing has become a luxury I rarely get to indulge, and even though these entries aren’t anything much… they’re something. I enjoy doing them, and I enjoy talking about music even though I’m basically just an uninformed loudmouth sitting at the end of the cafeteria with his friends, blathering about whatever cassette they ripped off from the 7-11 last night.

Not that I have any knowledge of what that would feel like. No, sir, not me.

Anyhow.

I also just want to finish something. This challenge was supposed to generate 30 entries, and I’m only halfway through. So, let’s get back to it, shall we?

Stevie Nicks’ fifth solo album, Street Angel, was released in 1994. That was an unhappy period in Stevie’s life as she’d been battling an addiction to painkillers, and the album turned out to be a big disappointment for her. It was the least successful of her efforts away from Fleetwood Mac, with poor sales and no top-40 hits. Both the critics and Stevie herself have criticized the album’s production, and Stevie has also said she should have gone back and redone the vocals before it was released.

But you know… in my usual contrarian fashion, I quite like this album.  It has a pared-down quality compared to her work in the ’80s (no doubt due to the production she doesn’t like) and a world-weariness that suited my general mood at the time it came out. This is an album for listening to in the middle of the night, when you’ve gotten off the late shift and the heat of the day is still bleeding out of the asphalt as you drive home with the windows down, and you’re trying figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do with your life because it sure as shit isn’t what you’ve been doing.

Not that I would know how that feels either.

Stevie mostly writes her own stuff, but one of my favorite tracks on this album is actually a cover of a Bob Dylan song. I have mixed feelings about Dylan… I think he’s hugely overrated, to be honest. His lyrics are more opaque to me than poetic, and his singing voice… well, I’m no doubt revealing myself as the uneducated philistine that I am, but he’s always sounded to me like Eddie Murphy’s impression of Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. In the hands — or voice — of someone else, though, his songs can be… magical. Like this one. At least to me. Listening to Stevie NIcks’ rendition of “Just Like a Woman,” I hear her singing about herself… or about a daughter she never had… or about a girl I might have known in my early twenties, when we all feel impossibly old and jaded as well as unbearably fragile and clueless.That’s how I remember feeling, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

I love this song.

There was no video made for this one, so just enjoy listening and gazing at the album cover for four minutes.

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“We should be the America that cherishes each other…”

There’s never been any question that I would vote for Joe Biden if he is the Democratic nominee for president in 2020. I’d vote for a ham-salad sandwich if it was running against the current occupant of the Oval Office. But after listening to a speech Biden delivered today in Philadelphia ahead of the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, for the first time I feel some genuine enthusiasm for him. He’s a low-key speaker, to be sure. He doesn’t have Obama’s eloquent delivery or Bill Clinton’s charisma. But I like what he said. And I liked the sense of earnestness and empathy in the way he said it. This is a man who gets it… who sees America for what it is and for what it ought to be. He’s not a revolutionary, he’s not promising utopia, but he’s not a cynic either, and I think a Biden administration will be a step in the right direction. Or at least a a step back toward the light:

The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years, a tug of war between the American ideal that we’re all created equal, and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart. The honest truth is that both elements are part of the American character, both elements. At our best, the American ideal wins out. But it’s never a rout, it’s always a fight and the battle is never fully won.

… 

“I ask every American, I mean this in the bottom of my heart, ask every American, look at where we are now and think anew. Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be? Is this what we want to pass onto our children and our grandchildren: fear, anger, fingerpointing rather than the pursuit of happiness? Incompetence and anxiety, self absorption, selfishness? Or do we want to be the America we know we can be? The America we know in our hearts we could be and should be?

“We hunger for liberty the way Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas did. We thirst for the vote like Susan B. Anthony and Ella Baker and John Lewis did. We strive to explore the stars, cure disease, make an imperfect union more perfect than is been. We may come up short, but at our best, we try.

“My fellow Americans, we’re facing formidable enemies. They include not only the Coronavirus and a terrible impact on the lives and livelihoods, but also the selfishness and fear that have loomed over our national life for the last three years. And I choose those words advisedly, selfishness, and fear. Defeating those enemies requires us to do our duty. And that duty includes remembering who we should be. We should be the America of FDR and Eisenhower, of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., of Jonas Salk and Neil Armstrong. We should be the America that cherishes life, liberty, and courage, and above all, we should be the America that cherishes each other. Each and every one of us.”

Each and every one of us. E pluribus unum… out of many, one. That’s my America. And I want it back.

 

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Justice for All Is the Duty of All

“It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country. It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future. This tragedy — in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society? The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.

“America’s greatest challenge has long been to unite people of very different backgrounds into a single nation of justice and opportunity. The doctrine and habits of racial superiority, which once nearly split our country, still threaten our Union. The answers to American problems are found by living up to American ideals — to the fundamental truth that all human beings are created equal and endowed by God with certain rights. We have often underestimated how radical that quest really is, and how our cherished principles challenge systems of intended or assumed injustice. The heroes of America — from Frederick Douglass, to Harriet Tubman, to Abraham Lincoln, to Martin Luther King, Jr. — are heroes of unity. Their calling has never been for the fainthearted. They often revealed the nation’s disturbing bigotry and exploitation — stains on our character sometimes difficult for the American majority to examine. We can only see the reality of America’s need by seeing it through the eyes of the threatened, oppressed, and disenfranchised.

“That is exactly where we now stand. Many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions. We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation, and destruction is not progress. But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice. The rule of law ultimately depends on the fairness and legitimacy of the legal system. And achieving justice for all is the duty of all.”

— George W Bush, statement on the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd

I never thought there would come a day when I’d be posting a quotation from Dubya, of all people, let alone nodding in agreement with it, but here we are. Strange times.

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A Song You’d Love to Be Played at Your Wedding

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 14: A Song You’d Love to Be Played at Your Wedding

For this category, there really was only one possible choice. It’s a beautiful little ditty, one of the most incisive and tender expressions of the human romantic experience I’ve ever heard, a jukebox favorite that dates all the way back to 1973. It’s a love song… from a different point of view:

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A Song You Like From The ’70s

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 13: A Song You Like From The ’70s

Hot Chocolate was a British soul band that gained some notoriety for having an interracial lineup (as if being a British soul band wasn’t notable enough). They pulled off the impressive feat of scoring at least one hit single in the UK every year between 1970 and 1984. Curiously, they were far less successful here in the US, where they charted only eight times during that same period, and only five of those singles cracked the top 40. Their biggest US hit, however, has become a beloved classic that returned to the top 10 in three different decades and has been featured in a dozen films and several TV series, notably The Full Monty and the first Tales of the City miniseries that aired on PBS back in 1993. For me, it’s emblematic of the ’70s, encapsulating that weird combination of permissiveness and naivete that is my biggest impression of that era. It’s also just plain fun. I don’t have any specific memories associated with the song, but it never fails to lift my spirits when I hear it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate, released in their home country in 1975 and hitting number three on the US charts a year later:

[Incidentally, I debated whether it was appropriate to post this particular song today, given the civil unrest going on in Minneapolis and other cities because yet another of our black citizens has died at the hands of a policeman. Is it in poor taste to be promoting a superficial dance tune under such grim circumstances? I don’t know… maybe. But you know what? A song like this is exactly what I need to hear right now, when it honestly feels like the damn country is about to blow apart. It’s so demoralizing to think that Americans can be better than this, but they just fucking won’t. And I can’t think about it anymore tonight.]

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A Song From Your Preteen Years

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 12: A Song From Your Preteen Years

As much as it pains some of my friends to admit this, country music is woven deeply into the DNA of rock and roll — when rock first emerged as a distinct genre in the early 1950s, it was essentially a fusion of rhythm and blues with country, along with a sprinkling of gospel — and that country gene has often expressed itself in the body of rock over the years. One such moment was the so-called “crossover” phenomenon of the early ’80s, when a number of country artists were regularly posting hits on the pop charts. The late Kenny Rogers was the king of the crossover period, but you can make a good case that Juice Newton (real name Judy) was the queen, at least for the brief two-year moment from 1981-82, during which she scored seven top-40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The video for the first of these hits, her cover of a 1968 tune called “Angel of the Morning,” was the first country-music clip to be played on MTV, on the very first day that the music network launched. (Juice herself was the third female solo artist to be played on MTV behind Pat Benatar and Carly Simon.)

Her next pop hit — and her biggest — was “Queen of Hearts,” released in June of 1981. I was eleven years old that summer. I’d be twelve by the time “Queen of Hearts” reached Billboard’s number-two spot in September, and I loved this song almost as much as “Jessie’s Girl,” which was out around the same time. Hearing it these days instantly conjures memories of riding my red Schwinn with the banana seat on a hot summer afternoon, the sky impossibly high overhead and shining like polished aluminum, and a little black AM/FM transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, expanding my universe one awesome tune at a time as I pedaled my way past the tired old brick buildings and hay fields that were my home town. All of those things, from the Schwinn to the fields, are gone now. But “Queen of Hearts” is still a cool song.

Kind of a silly video, though.

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A Song You Never Get Tired Of

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 11: A Song You Never Get Tired Of

Let’s see if I can recapture the thread on this little exercise, shall we? A song I never get tired of… let’s see…

I’ll bet you thought I was going to post something by Rick Springfield, didn’t you? Well, believe it or not, even I need the occasional break from “Jessie’s Girl.” But there is a tune I don’t ever grow weary of. It’s from the infancy of rock and roll and it radiates such a youthful exuberance that it always lifts me up when I hear it. It’s just so… joyful… from the irresistible drum beat to the cool guitar breakdown in the middle to the goofy, playful way the lyrics are enunciated. I’m speaking, of course, of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” which was a number-three hit on the Billboard Hot 100 way back in 1957. It was Buddy’s second hit after “That’ll Be the Day,” and unlike so much else from the early rock era, I think it sounds as timeless today as it did when it was released. My mom has a scratchy 45 of it that I discovered when I first started to take an interest in music around the age of 12 or so; I put a few hundred more spins on that old platter before I acquired my first Buddy cassette. It’s also one of a small handful of songs I know of that got a sequel, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” a demo Buddy recorded two months before his untimely death in February 1959. It was released posthumously.

Obviously, this all took place long before the era of music videos, so I had intended to simply post the song. But as I was poking around, I came across this clip, which I believe comes from Buddy’s appearance with his band The Crickets on The Ed Sullivan Show in December of 1957. The audio might not be the original; it’s been heavily processed if it is. But take a look and enjoy the sound. Buddy is one of my favorites, and one of my favorite “What ifs?” I truly think that if his life hadn’t been cut so short, he would be revered today as one of the true innovators, right up there with the Beatles.

Incidentally, the real-life Peggy Sue was not Buddy’s girlfriend, as is commonly believed. Peggy Sue Gerron was in fact the girlfriend (and later wife) of Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets and cowriter of this song.

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My Friend Jaren

I didn’t make many friends in college.

It wasn’t because I was antisocial or anything like that. The issue was that I was a commuter student. As soon as I was done with my classes for the day, I was in my little VW Rabbit with the sun roof open, blasting for home 25 miles away. That made it difficult to participate much in campus life or get to know anyone outside of class. Looking back, it’s a huge regret, one of about a hundred things I’d do differently if I had the chance.

Even with that self-imposed obstacle, though, there were a couple people I became close with during my five years at the University of Utah. A guy named Jaren Rencher, for one. He was probably the first friend I made beyond high school. We met our freshman year, way back in the fall of 1987, in a course titled “Intellectual Traditions of the West.” ITW, for short. It was kind of an introduction to philosophy, a survey of all the important thinking — the intellectual traditions, if you will — that have underpinned western civilization over the past 3000 years, everything from Plato to Henry David Thoreau to Sartre and Camus. I loved it, if for no other reason than it felt to me like what college was supposed to be like.

The class was held in a musty brick building on President’s Circle, the oldest part of the university campus, where the trees are all one hundred years old if they’re a day. It looks like Hollywood’s idealized vision of a college campus, a place where Indiana Jones would’ve taught in between expeditions. Our professor for ITW was an eccentric gentleman who favored a 1970s denim leisure suit and wraparound Terminator shades. He showed up on the first day of each academic quarter with his thick white hair closely cropped… and then as far as I could tell, he never cut or combed it again until after finals. Our fellow students were nearly as eccentric as the prof. There were a couple people I’d known in high school. There was the smarmy pale kid who’d already read all the texts and couldn’t wait to demonstrate how much smarter he was than everyone else. There was the brilliant but fragile girl from the small Idaho town who had gray eyes and wore moccasin boots year ’round. I liked her. I liked her a lot.

And there was Jaren.

I can’t remember how he and I became acquainted. The class was a nontraditional affair loosely modeled on the Socratic method; we all sat in a circle and discussed the reading for the week, rather than the prof lecturing and giving quizzes, and it’s possible one of those conversations just carried on outside the classroom. It’s equally likely I spotted him doodling the Starship Enterprise in his notebook margin and thought, “He’s like me!”

Jaren was my first true nerd friend, you see, and I say that with the utmost affection and an admission that I, too, am a colossal nerd. Oh, I’d had plenty of friends before who liked Star Wars and Star Trek and Monty Python and Buckaroo Banzai. But Jaren was different…. he was what we would now call a fanboy, in the best, nontoxic sense of that term, and he allowed me to express my own fanboy tendencies in a way that my earlier crew had not. With Jaren, I could talk about the minutiae of starship design or Klingon culture or whatnot and not worry that he wouldn’t know what I was talking about, or that he was going to think I wasn’t cool. Jaren had read Asimov and Heinlein and Burroughs; he laughed at Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex,” and he had seen — and liked! — Forbidden Planet. He was the sort who didn’t just play D&D but designed his own dungeons and painted his own miniatures. And yet… he wasn’t that kind of nerd, the unjustifiably arrogant, socially inept Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons type. Indeed, I remember the two of us rolling our eyes at another mutual acquaintance of the nerdish variety who just took it all too damn seriously. There’s a fine line, and unless you’ve ever encountered a CBG type, it’s difficult to explain just where that line is. But he and I were in the same place just this side of it, and the other kid was way the hell over on the other side.

Jaren went with me to my very first Star Trek convention, a one-day affair held at the airport Hilton back when these things were small and simple and most of all inexpensive. I have a photo from that day, the two of us looking impossibly young, both of us baby-faced, both of us clean-shaven — well, aside from the mustache I’d been hopefully encouraging since I was about 13 — and both of us also impossibly happy, giddy even, alongside Nichelle Nichols, the lovely actress who portrayed Uhura on the original series, my first celebrity encounter. I also remember, somewhat incongruously, that Jaren bought a small die-cast version of the Enterprise-D that day, the latest incarnation of the legendary starship as seen on the then-new Star Trek: The Next Generation. I wasn’t too sure about TNG in those days, and I remember mocking him a bit for his treason against the one, true Star Trek.

But you know how these things go. Jaren took a couple years off to go on a mission for the LDS Church, as young Mormon men do, and when he came back to school, we were in different places with our lives. Then I graduated and fell into a midlife crisis while he went on to law school. I lost touch with him. A couple decades slipped away.

Then came Facebook, which for all of its downsides and corrosive, disruptive effects is also in a very real way a small miracle. One idle afternoon as I scrolled through its endless vortex, I happened to think of Jaren and wonder what had become of him. I searched for his name. I found him and sent him a friend request, wondering if he even remembered me, and if so, how did he remember me, as a dick or a good guy or somewhere in between? The usual insecurities brought on by technological reunion. He did remember, and evidently the memory was a good one. We reconnected easily, picking up our old banter and nerdy stream-of-consciousness conversation as if it had never stopped.

We reunited in the flesh at the 2014 iteration of FanX, aka (in those pre-lawsuit days) Salt Lake Comic Con, and I have a photo from that day as well. We’re older and a lot more bedraggled than in the first photo, but no less giddy. I met his wife and family that day, and discovered that he’d managed to inculcate in his kids a love of all the cheesy old stuff that had brought the two of us together years before; I nearly cried when I heard his teenage daughter proclaim that she loved the ’78 Battlestar Galactica and the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who.

Sadly, though, the intervening years between ITW and FanX had also brought Jaren a lot of troubles: financial, career, and most ominously, with his health. I soon discovered that we had diabetes and high blood pressure in common as well as classic sci-fi shows, but in his case, the ‘betes had been a much crueler mistress than to myself. A little over a month ago, he lost his foot and part of a leg to the damn stuff.

I messaged him the night before the surgery, trying to bolster his spirits a little with bad jokes and companionable talk. I promised that, later in the summer, after he had healed and this damn coronavirus pandemic had settled, I’d come get him in my old Galaxie and take him for a ride, just the two of us like it’d been when we were 18 and immortal. I followed that with an animated GIF of the Millennium Falcon launching out of Mos Eisley. He replied with a snippet of dialog: “Chewie… we’re home.” My vision grew watery, and I imagine that somewhere, miles away in a hospital room, his did too.

His surgery went well, as did his rehab. He came home two weeks ago, just in time to welcome his Battlestar-loving daughter home from her LDS mission. All seemed well, and I was looking forward to taking him on that ride, maybe in another month or so.

And then last Saturday, my old college friend, my nerdish comrade-in-arms, a smart, funny, kind-hearted guy who had published a few short stories and never stopped encouraging me to pick up my own pen again… died. At home, surrounded by his family, completely unexpectedly. A phaser-blast out of the blue. He was just shy of 50 years old.

I can only speculate on the cause, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. I’ve spent the last week thinking about him. About the old days in ITW, how we both crushed on the girl in the moccasin boots and on Nichelle Nichols. About the long years we were out of touch, and how many times we talked about getting together since we reconnected, but somehow hadn’t gotten around to it. How I’d hoped to recreate that old photo with him and Nichelle when she appeared at FanX a couple years ago, but again, didn’t manage to make it happen. How I’d promised to take him for that ride. And also, rather incongruously, about that little die-cast Enterprise-D I used to give him hell about. I found myself wondering if he still had it. Is it sitting on his desk or in a bookcase right now? I’ve never been inside his home. And I wonder.

I am grateful that we were able to reconnect at all. But I will forever regret the twenty-five years we lost and my failure to make good on spending real face-to-face time with him once we were in touch again. You all know that story as well, because we all do it and we all regret it when something like this happens. I knew that story, learned that lesson, years ago. Life is short, time is precious, we shouldn’t let those opportunities get away from us. And yet…

And yet.

Just for the sake of posterity, here’s what I wrote on Facebook about an hour after I got the news… my first unfiltered, unedited thoughts:

Jaren K. Rencher, from Intellectual Traditions of the West our freshman year to meeting Nichelle together… from nerdy conversations about Trek and Red Dwarf and Monty Python to middle-aged grumbling about the cards we were dealt… lost for years until the wonder of Facebook and Salt Lake Comic Con put us back in touch… now lost again to the undiscovered country. Save me a place at the tavern, dungeonmaster.

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