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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Today In My Obit ...

Yes, my obituary. No, I'm not sick or making some kind of creepy statement. I was just remembering a journalism class from my graduate school days where we had to practice ordering facts and researching follow-up information by crafting fictitious obituaries. And not just the short name-rank-and-serial-number type ... we had to create obits that , in reality, would cost a fortune to ever have printed. I also remember the final project in that class was an obituary for a famous person and like four people chose Michael Jackson. Weird, huh?

Anyway, even though I basically write and research things all day at work, I thought I might start doing some simple exercises in the evenings ... when I felt like it ... to strengthen my "voice." And since it was always such an eerie but kind of trippy thing to do, I'm gonna write my OWN obituary.

To suit
the mood, I'm gonna make my death mysterious ... found by family in bed, no signs or foul play, and no history of drug use or serious health issues. I'm also going to have been much more involved in my community, sitting on the volunteer boards of several charities and serving as a "big brother" to more than a dozen disadvantaged youths over the years. And besides my international travel fetish and my love of all things Native American, there's going to be a section devoted to the important people I've influenced and maybe a quote from one or two of the more famous individuals I had met on my short trip down the highway of like.

The last part of my self-imposed assignment made me chuckle to myself, but it also got me to thinking ... had I ever met anyone who was actually famous? Not a mayor or a broadcaster from the six and eleven o'clock news kind of famous ... hell, I run into them all the time at Denny's packing away waffles and sucking down coffee like it was air. No, people that if you told someone you'd met them, they'd go "Damn ... them's some famous folk!!"

I must be more Irish than I've been led to believe because I actually have met a handful of bonafide famous people. First off, I've met the late 40th President of the United States and Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan. Well, I shook his hand twice. When I was in high school, I was into choir. I had a pretty decent voice and I liked to sing. And if anybody knows from watching "GLEE," no choir director in his or her right mind turns down a willing male participant. So I sang ... and I danced in something called "Show Choir" ... and during the summer before my junior year, my choir director ... a funny gentleman named Mr. Francis ... got me to apply to be in the "All-Ohio State Fair Youth Choir." This group of fresh-faced high school vocalists from all over the state resided at the state fair during its entirety and provided daily performances for the public and special interest groups. It sounds geeky, but it was really a wonderful experience.

During the first week of the fair, the group was ushered downtown to a fancy hotel to sing three numbers for a Republican Party support initiative. This was no easy task because there were like 120 of us. I clearly remember being told to be quiet as we moved down these corridors created by the spaces between partition walls. And every few yards, there was a beefy security guard standing just out of our way. Then the line broke out into the light and we were led onto risers. Being a fairly tall tenor, I was placed a few rows back just right of center. We sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" ... I still remember my part ... and then stood there as a stately, well-groomed gentleman asked us to remain while he introduced someone who was making a few special remarks before our other two selections.

So there in the hot banquet hall in out white shirts and crisp navy slacks we stood as former President Reagan was helped to the podium. He would have been around 86 at the time ... he was the oldest person to date to be elected to the U.S. presidency at age 69, after all ... and was clearly in declining health. We were told later that the man known for his "war on drugs" and "trickle down" economic policies was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease just a few years earlier, but he still worked hard to support his political beliefs. His remarks at the event were brief but well received. But what was the best part for me was the fact that when he both entered and left the stage, he shook the hands of all of us "kids" around him. I actually shook the hand of a one-time world leader. I'm getting goosebumps just writing about it.

It was close to four year later when I had my next brush with fame. I was away at college when a good friend, Andy, called me and wanted to know if I might be coming home that weekend. Andy got a job right out of high school at a big printing plant, but he and I made a real effort to stay close. I told him that, yes, I was coming home and started to describe how much laundry I had amassed when he interrupted me. "Dude," he said, "a guy at work bought tickets for him and his wife to go to a comedy special at Ashland University, but something came up and they can't go. He gave me the tickets ... for FREE!!"

"Who's performing?" I asked, caught up in Andy's obvious excitement.

"Jerry Seinfeld!"

Andy was a huge fan of "Seinfeld," the quirky NBC comedy "about nothing" that ran for nine seasons from 1989 to 1998. For me, the show was a hit or miss thing, but I though Seinfeld himself was a truly humorous guy. The Friday night show was packed with students and fans like us. The Ashland University show was part of the comedian's "getting back to my roots" campaign, which included shows on dozens of college campuses and at small venues. Jerry was on fire that night ... and he did some of his really old bits, like the "single sock in the dryer" shtick. I laughed like a fool.

It was fairly late when the show got out, and then we had to navigate through congested parking and regular Friday night traffic to get to the highway. I asked Andy if we could stop and get coffee and he said there was a place right beside the exit ... he actually wanted a milkshake. Well, great minds must think alike because about 20 minutes later while we were working our way through a coffee, a milkshake, and a huge shared plate of chili-cheese fries, the door to the diner opened and in walked Jerry Seinfeld with two other gentlemen. They took a seat and I don't think the server knew who he was. But most of the scant patrons did, and a middle-aged woman approached his table and proclaimed her "biggest fan" status. And I'm not ashamed to admit that, once the "borders" were breached, Andy and I were the next two at the star's table. We kept it brief ... after all, Jerry and his associates were just stopping to get a quick pie and coffee fix ... but Andy did run out to the car to retrieve his program and got a wonderful comment and autograph. I bet if I called him right now, he would know exactly where that program is stored.

Later on in my college career, I was accepted into a writer's symposium and one of the final guest lecturers was Ray Bradbury, the award-winning author of dozens of sci-fi and fantasy novels ... such as "The Martian Chronicles" and "Fahrenheit 451" ... as well as a collaborator on several film and televisions adaptations of his work. The symposium organizers had a cocktail party for Bradbury and I weaseled my way on to the prep committee so I could go. The author was 82 at the time and in a wheelchair, but the man was so robust and full of wisdom and charm that you forgot any of his physical limitations. I learned more about storytelling in 30 minutes from just loitering near Ray then I had during the entire symposium. When he asked those around him for questions, I was too intimidated to speak up. One of my life's little regrets, I guess.

Pop music has always been a love of mine ... simple, emotional, and built to stay on the tongue of the masses. A few years ago, I ran into a sister of a friend who happened to be dating a mid-level manager at one of Columbus' hottest radio stations. Anyway, she remembered how much I loved Cyndi Lauper and invited me to a concert she was performing at a smaller club near the Short North. I was thrilled. She gave me some details and said that her sister was going and that the four of us could sit together.

I wasn't familiar with that trendy area of the city or its small supper clubs. Parking was almost non-existent, but finally I found a spot and met my friend Wendy outside the club. She had our passes ... not tickets, but passes. The club was definitely small, dominated by a stage, a piano, and a few musical instruments. We found Wendy's sister, Traci, and her boyfriend, Hobie, easily, and sat to enjoy an opening act of a local jazz/swing fusion group. The place was dark and moody and I felt like I'd leaped back in time to the 1940s. And that feeling continued when I sat with rapt attention as the bleached nightingale named Cyndi Lauper did a short set of her velvet classics "Time After Time," "True Colors," and "All Through The Night," as well as a few bawdier melodies and covers.

The lights came up and the more than 70 guests applauded wildly. Amidst scuffing chair legs and murmurs of adoration for the performances, I started for the door when Hobie gently grabbed my arm. "Hey, man ... don't you wanna meet Cyndi?" he asked. I grew suddenly concerned ... surely I was having some type of brain malfunction that affected my hearing. Meet her ... meet HER ... Meet Cyndi Lauper!

She was sitting backstage on a small sofa surrounded by a small group of people ... the club owner, her assistants, a few fans, and other people from the radio station. She looked fragile, a bit winded from giving so much of herself to the audience. But once she caught her breath, the light of her personality hit us all like crashing surf. She joked, told stories, and talked in that thick Brooklyn accent she affects so well. She was like the "crazy aunt" you never want to leave when she visits from out of town ... you know, the one who is so much fun that you wonder if anyone would notice if you threw her clothes away and hid in her suitcase. It was a surreal moment when Cyndi took my hand and called me "a tall drink of tap water."
Earlier in this post I said I had experienced a "handful" of intersections with the famous. Well. Reagan was my "thumb" encounter ... strong and upbeat even when things grew dark. Seinfeld was my crazy "pinkie" run-in ... all mirth and frivolity. My "index finger" moment was Bradbury ... pointing out the crazy workings of the literary world. Any Cyndi was my "ring finger" meeting ... where sheshown like a dazzling diamond.

My "middle finger" moment is dedicated to actor Billy Bob Thornton. He's an intense actor and plays a surprisingly diverse range of roles. But a few years ago, I "met" Thornton at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. And by "met" I mean he was so drunk he ran into me and nearly knocked me on my ass without a "Sorry, man" leaving his inebriated lips.

POINT OF RANT: Manners are
truly dead, and Billy Bob Thornton was their assassin!

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