I recently read an interesting article by self-help hipster Mark Manson that was titled, “7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose.”
One of those strange questions stuck with me long after I finished the article. It was Question #2: “What is true about you today that would make your 8-year-old self cry?”
The point of that question seems to be that, if what you are doing today does not capture the passion, purpose and idealism that you once had as a child, then perhaps you do not lead the fulfilling life you deserve. It got me to thinking about my own childhood self, and what he would think about my current activities. What would it be like if I were able to time-travel back to the year 1979 to visit with eight-year-old Stephen Roth? What kind of wisdom would I share with him, and what wisdom would he share with me?
Here’s how I think our conversation would go:
43-year-old Stephen: So how are things going?
8-year-old Stephen: Pretty good. Mom took me to the mall last night and we ate pizza and she bought me a Star Wars action figure. I got a Jawa.
43-year-old Stephen: That sounds like fun. How is school?
8-year-old Stephen: How do you think it is? I hate it. I finally learned how to read, so that’s good. But math and cursive are killing me. It gets better, though, right?
43-year-old Stephen: What? School?
8-year-old Stephen: Yeah. It gets easier, doesn’t it?
43-year-old Stephen: Eventually. Let’s just say that you are probably going to have some setbacks in your sophomore year of high school. I’ll just leave it at that.
8-year-old Stephen: (Scowling) That’s really not what I wanted to hear. So how about you? What are you up to?
43-year-old Stephen: Let’s see. Well, for starters, I have a wonderful wife and a four-year-old son. We have an English Shepherd named Keiko.
8-year-old Stephen: Is your wife pretty?
43-year-old Stephen: Of course she’s pretty. She’s a beautiful woman.
8-year-old Stephen: What color is her hair?
43-year-old Stephen: It’s dark brown. She’s a brunette.
8-year-old Stephen: I like blondes. Farrah Fawcett is a blonde. She’s very sexy.
43-year-old Stephen: Well, I think you’ll find that a woman doesn’t have to be blonde to be sexy. You’ve probably been watching too much TV.
8-year-old Stephen:Hey, as long as your wife is pretty, that’s okay with me. So what do you do? Do you have a job?
43-year-old Stephen: I do have a job. I’m a copywriter and content manager for a company that provides financial services for the trucking and transportation industry.
8-year-old Stephen: Hmmm. What’s a…what did you call it? A contest manager?
43-year-old Stephen: A content manager. It means that I create and manage all the writing and information that appears on our sales materials, websites, that sort of thing.
8-year-old Stephen: What are websites?
43-year-old Stephen: Um, there’s this thing called the Internet…You know what? Never mind all that. I’m basically a writer. I also wrote a novel that just got published.
8-year-old Stephen: That’s cool, I guess. But I was kind of hoping you would be doing something different at your age.
43-year-old Stephen: Like what?
8-year-old Stephen: Well, I hoped that maybe you would be kind of an outlaw. I mean, not a bad guy, really. More of a Robin Hood kind of person.
43-year-old Stephen: I see. You mean the kind of person who steals from the rich and gives to the poor?
8-year-old Stephen: Sorta. You ever seen a show called The Dukes of Hazzard? My friend Curt and me watch it every Friday night. Then, the next day, we get on our bikes and jump over a gravel pile and pretend like we’re driving the General Lee. The General Lee is a really cool car. It’s a 1970 Dodge Charger. Curt’s a little better at jumping his bike than me. He takes more risks.
43-year-old Stephen: (Smiling) Yes, I remember that.
8-year-old Stephen: So I guess I was kind of hoping you would turn out to be a Duke boy. Or at the very least, a sheriff’s deputy.
43-year-old Stephen: I see.
8-year-old Stephen: Basically, someone who drives a cool car really fast.
43-year-old Stephen: Got it.
8-year-old Stephen: You could also be a truck driver. You ever seen Smokey and the Bandit?
43-year-old Stephen: Of course I have. I’ve got it on DVD.
8-year-old Stephen: What’s DVD?
43-year-old Stephen: Oh, it’s…nothing. Look, I’m sorry you’re disappointed. I guess you’ll find out when you get older that your priorities change, that you have different interests and discover new talents. Sometimes we follow a very different path than the one we imagined.
8-year-old Stephen: (Staring off into the distance) Sure. Okay. So tell me, what’s high school like?
43-year-old Stephen: High school is a very interesting time. What do you think it’s like?
8-year-old Stephen: Well, in high school, I think it’s very important to be cool. There’s a lot of cool music and a lot of cool dancing. There’s also a lot of kissing. Like in Grease. You have to wear a cool leather jacket and slick your hair back like John Travolta. Also, the girls aren’t cool unless they wear tight leather pants. And they need to be blonde.
43-year-old Stephen: Okay. Well, high school is a lot more complex than that.
8-year-old Stephen: Really?
43-year-old Stephen: (Thinking for a moment) Well, maybe not that much more complex.
8-year-old Stephen: (Yawning) Are we done talking? Diff’rent Strokes is on in 10 minutes and I’ve gotta finish this stupid grammar worksheet.
43-year-old Stephen: I think we’re done here. Good luck with the next 35 years.
8-year-old Stephen: (Starting to cry) Thanks. It sounds like I’m going to need it.
The local newspaper has been making a big deal about it for months. Apparently, some people camped out several days in advance to be among the first to walk through the new building’s glass doors.
Each morning on my way to work, I drive pass the IKEA store, which looms over the Interstate like a blue-and-yellow fortress. The towering IKEA store sign alone is imposing. It has the exact same color scheme as the CarMax dealership at the next exit.
I have heard a lot about the IKEA brand over the years. Earlier this week, we received the company’s free “Book-Book” in the mail. Skimming through it, I thought the furniture looked streamlined, cold and impersonal. I understand IKEA is the leading furniture provider of single, male apartment-dwellers in most major cities. Now I know why.
I have never been inside an IKEA store. I am sure I will visit the new one in Kansas City sometime. I could use some help organizing some shelving in our laundry room. Right now, the room suffers from an inefficient use of space.
Kansas City is usually the last metro area to get a newish retail chain store. That was the case with Crate & Barrel, Trader Joe’s, and countless other trendy merchants. It seems we are something of an afterthought here in America’s Outback.
Nevertheless, it is a big deal in Kansas City when something new opens, not unlike a Taco Bell finally arriving in a farm town. There will be big crowds at the IKEA store for several weekends to come. I think I will sneak over there during the week, when I can examine the flat, efficient furnishings with minimal disruption and leave, more than likely, without having made a purchase.
Remember the rock video from about 30 years ago in which the auto mechanic meets this gorgeous blonde supermodel? He and his buddies serenade her and attempt a few awkward dance moves, and somehow the supermodel ends up riding off with the mechanic on his Harley. Remember that one?
Well, the mechanic and the supermodel stayed together for a few years, had a kid, then split up. A week or so ago, the two of them briefly reunited for the above photo.
The 60-year-old supermodel still looks gorgeous. The auto mechanic still looks like an auto mechanic. Good luck to both of them!
There’s a scene from The Empire Strikes Back that has always intrigued and fascinated me. If you are my age or younger, you may know this part of the movie by heart. Han Solo, Leia and the gang have just arrived at Cloud City, and Lando Calrissian is playing the good host by taking them to dinner. They arrive at the dining room and the door slides open to reveal Darth Vader at the end of a long table. Han fires his blaster a couple of times at Vader, who deftly blocks the shots.
Vader says, “We would be honored if you would join us.” Lando gives Han and Leia some lame excuse about the Empire arriving in town just before they did. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“I’m sorry, too,” Han replies. Han, Leia, Chewbacca and Lando enter the dining room, Vader sits at the table, the bounty hunter Boba Fett walks in behind him, and the door closes.
I have always wondered what happened right after that door closed. Most likely, the Storm Troopers rounded Han, Leia and Chewie up and took them immediately to the detention center. But Vader’s remark haunts me: “We would be honored if you would join us.” Maybe the Dark Lord planned some chivalrous gesture by treating Han and his friends to a nice dinner before hauling him off to be frozen in carbonite. I know that would be out of character for Vader, but that is what I want to believe happened. I mean, they had food and drinks laid out on the table as if they were getting ready to entertain. You can’t let that much food go to waste.
And if they did, in fact, sit down for a last supper, as it were, this is how I imagine the dialogue:
VADER: This is a day that will be long remembered.
SOLO: (Not looking up.) Could someone please pass the rolls? (Boba Fett passes a basket of rolls and Han takes one.)
VADER: The Emperor will be most pleased.
LEIA: You really think this is the end, don’t you? You may have caught us, but there are thousands out there just like us. Hundreds of thousands. I may not live to see it, but your empire will crumble someday soon, Lord Vader.
SOLO: (Placing a hand on LEIA’s arm.) Honey, now is not the time.
VADER: (Leaning back in his chair.) No, please… Let her speak. I find her lack of tact amusing.
SOLO: Chewie, stop it!
FETT: (Checking his watch.) I say we end this charade and freeze him.
VADER: The Empire will compensate you for your time. Has everyone tried the green bean casserole? I obviously can’t eat it, but I sense that it is very tasty.
LANDO: (Taking the dish.) Thanks. Want some, Han?
SOLO: Sure, why don’t you hand that over? Just like you handed your friends over to the Empire.
LANDO: (Whispering.) I had no idea you were coming. I hadn’t seen you since, what, since the Kessel Run? Then you just show up. (Taking a sip from his wine glass.) Look, I did the best I could.
SOLO: Oh, I get it. You’re a real hero.
LEIA: (Leaning toward LANDO.) When Luke hears about this, he’s going to blast your little floating city out of the sky.
VADER: How is Luke anyway? Has anyone seen him lately? What’s he up to?
(Everyone stares silently at their food.)
VADER: I only ask because, well, I do have a certain fondness for the boy. He clearly has talent. The emperor and I are quite certain that he can be turned.
LEIA: (Almost spitting.) He’ll die before he joins you.
VADER: (Lifting a gloved finger.) We shall see about that, princess. We shall see.
SOLO: You might have fooled us, but Luke’s too smart to fall into one of your traps.
LEIA: (Picking at her lime fluff jello salad.) Can I have another roll? Please?
FETT: Solo ate the last one.
VADER: (Lifts his hand, and a roll rises from the basket and lands on LEIA’s plate.) No…there is another.
(LEIA nods to the Dark Lord and takes a bite from her roll.)
– END –
I saw the above movie by myself in a multiplex theater in Columbia, Missouri in 1994. I was less than a year removed from journalism school and working as a general assignment reporter for The Mexico (Mo.) Ledger. I remember The Paper as a good, not great, Ron Howard movie that aptly portrayed a big-city newsroom during the pre-Internet 1990s. There were a few inspiring scenes about scrappy newspapermen and women making a difference, including one moment in which Michael Keaton, who plays the managing editor, actually has to stop the presses to keep an errant story from running. “Should I say it?” he asks a colleague on the press room floor, slyly acknowledging that shouting “Stop the presses!” is one of the most hackneyed lines in movie history.
Of course, Michael Keaton does say it, and I left the theater reassured that the trade I had chosen had some value and honor, and that I could, in fact, make a difference myself. I also left with the nagging desire to get the hell out of Mexico, Missouri.
In the fall of 1994, I got my chance. I interviewed with The Kansas City Star for a position as a community reporter. The job entailed covering suburban city council meetings and writing features about things like 120-year-old oak trees and high school valedictorians. Still, it was a chance to work for a big newspaper in a city of 2 million people. “Well, you want the job?” the gregarious bureau chief asked me on the second day of my interview. I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough. I practically flew down the Interstate back to Mexico (Mo.) to collect my things and cram them into a one-bedroom apartment in suburban Kansas City.
Like most metro dailies at that time, The Star was the only game in town when it came to news coverage. It had merged a few years earlier with the morning Kansas City Times, and the combined papers were owned by media powerhouse ABC Capital Cities. The Star was in the process of launching “community newspaper” inserts for different parts of the metro area to essentially run the suburban papers out of business.
Even though there had been rumblings for years about the decline of the big daily newspaper, The Star was a well-financed, profitable, regional force. It steered the flow of information in the city. Stories that appeared on local news stations were usually lifted from the pages of that morning’s Star. Occasionally, I would cover a city council meeting where a big zoning issue was being debated, and a TV reporter would slide up next to me and whisper, “Are you with The Star? So what’s going on here?”
Was the pace at The Star as frenetic, unbalanced and exciting as Michael Keaton’s newsroom in The Paper? Not really. But there was still a sense that what I did for the newspaper was important, even when it was just writing up school notes from the Shawnee-Mission District. Once in a very long while, I might see my byline on page A1. Then for a whole day I got to hear radio DJs and news anchors talk about my story. It was pretty exhilarating stuff.
I worked almost two years as a community reporter for The Star, then left for a health care reporting job in Florida. Many of my Kansas City friends remained with the newspaper and were promoted to other beats. When I returned to Kansas City, I attended a few parties with my old friends. You could spot the Star people at these gatherings because they were always huddled together in a corner of the kitchen, talking about the latest office gossip. Sometimes, an older Star employee would chime in with some gripes about meager pay and incompetent managers. After a while, I stopped going to the parties because I didn’t have much to contribute about the inner politics and machinations at the big newspaper.
Today, all but a couple of my newspaper friends have left that business for new careers, mostly in communications and public relations. The Star, like almost every other major daily newspaper in the United States, is a thinned down version of itself. The pages are shorter and there are fewer of them, all in the interest of saving money on ink and paper. There are periodic layoffs and constant speculation about when the newspaper will stop printing in favor of an all-digital product. The people who remain in the newsroom spend a good deal of their time posting story updates on Twitter because that is the new medium for instant, breaking news. The Star has to compete in social media because today’s consumers don’t want to wait until tomorrow morning to read the news.
A friend of mine mentioned The Paper in a Facebook thread the other day. I hadn’t thought about the movie in years, but I suddenly have the urge to see it again. In my mind The Paper seems quaint, almost antiquated, about a faraway time when big city newspapers were as burly, complex and industrious as the cities themselves, when a paper’s influence and power went far beyond ink on a page.
What a difference 20 years makes.
The popularity of last night’s Budweiser commercial only proves what members of the media and advertisers have known for a long time: that cuddly puppies always sell. Team one up with Clydesdale horses, and you have what equates to marketing gold. Just forget the inconvenient fact that this ad has nothing at all to do with drinking beer.
I am not fishing for sympathy here, but the last few weeks have been pretty hard on me. My father passed away in early October after a long battle with cancer. Then, two weeks ago, I learned that I would lose my job at the end of the year. I know that most people endure the loss of a parent or a job, so there is nothing special about my predicament. Still, 2013 has been a shitty year and, when things get shitty, I often find myself turning to an unlikely source for commiseration: easy-listening rock from the 1970s.
I’m not proud of this fact. Normally, I hold my nose when one of those syrupy, emotion-filled ballads from the Me Decade finds its way on my radio. I quickly switch the dial to something a little less sentimental, like Soundgarden or Guns & Roses, or maybe Sublime, even though I’m pretty much sick of all three of them. I will do anything to ward off the spot-on harmonies, woodwind accompaniments and minor key progressions of adult contemporary pop.But, when I find myself in times of trouble, I actually seek out this kind of music. A few years ago, when I was struggling through an especially tough time, I started listening to songs on YouTube by the early 1970s hit machine, Bread. I then took the next step, actually purchasing Bread’s Anthology on CD. Once my depression passed, the Bread disc was safely tucked away in my office closet, stacked somewhere between Bad Company and the Beatles. But last week, I pulled it out, popped it into my car’s CD player, and drove down the highway listening to the heart-wrenching strains of “If,” the majestic autumn colors whizzing past me like golden-hued clouds floating through a Zoloft-induced haze.
Again, I am not proud of this. But maybe it’s proof that there is a place in the world for slickly produced, emotionally manipulative and shamelessly unsubtle songs. Maybe it’s nice to know that, somewhere out there, there once was a millionaire pop star who felt just as miserable then as you do now.
In celebration of this service provided by the music industry, I have come up with my unofficial Top Five Songs to Be Depressed To. Maybe you’ll find something in here that can help you through your own bad times.5.) Jackson Browne, “Here Come Those Tears Again.” Browne was a big piano-playing troubadour during the Sensitive Seventies, but his vocals were about as versatile and interesting as Velveeta cheese. In this song, he gets some much-needed help from back-up singers Bonnie Raitt and Rosemary Butler, whose searing harmonies pack all the emotional punch of the jilted lover Jackson Browne is trying to portray. A good song for the post-break-up blues.
4.) Bread, “Diary.” I found her diary underneath a tree/And started reading about me, sings frontman David Gates. Which begs the question, what kind of person leaves her diary lying around under some tree? Only a woman who intends for it to be found and read by David Gates, apparently. The song’s protagonist quickly learns that the lover his wife is fawning over in her journal isn’t him. Somehow, he finds the inner strength to wish his lady and her new flame well, which must make him some kind of a saint. Either, that, or he’s sleeping around with someone else, too. It was the Free Love Age, after all.
3.) Glen Campbell, “The Wichita Lineman.” Jimmy Webb wrote some amazing songs in the late 1960s and ’70s, and “Wichita Lineman” is one of his best. It’s also very depressing and patently uncool, the kind of song you turn the volume down on when pulling next to another car at an intersection. The Wichita lineman in this song likes to listen in on the phone conversations of his main crush. Nowadays, he could just stalk her on Facebook, but back then you had to climb up a telephone pole on some freezing Kansas blacktop to get your creep on. A haunting, lonely song with some strange effects that, I guess, are supposed to sound like live telephone wires.
2.) Harry Chapin, “W.O.L.D.” I could have put “Cat’s in the Cradle” on this list, but that would be too obvious. And, to be honest, it is only the most famous of a whole career of hard-luck songs Chapin recorded before his untimely death in 1981. “W.O.L.D.” tells the story of a morning radio DJ who is past his prime, and may even be a metaphor for rock music itself. Anyway, this DJ is calling his ex-wife and asking her to take him back, even though he’s overweight and got a spot on the top of my head, just beggin’ for a new toupee. Naturally, the ex wants nothing to do with him, so the DJ goes back on the air, pretending to be a happy guy. Fake it until you make it, I guess.
1.) Bread, “Guitar Man.” This song starts out innocently enough. There’s this great guitar player who draws big crowds and makes the girls swoon. Perfectly standard rock star stuff, really. But, this being Bread, you know things will take a bad turn by the third stanza. The Guitar Man gets old, people no longer flock to his shows, but he keeps on playing, because that is what defines his detached, lonely, wandering life. Fade away, are the last words you hear on the fade-out of this song, which further entrenches Bread as The Most Depressing Band Ever.
As is the case with a lot of things, I was the last person in my office of young, hip professionals to learn about the Bronies trend. Bronies, I am told, are a growing demographic of young men ages 18 to 35 who are fans of My Little Pony, a cartoon TV show created in the 1980s and originally aimed at little girls. Hasbro decided to revitalize the franchise with the release of the 2010 movie, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and found an unintended audience of young men who liked the upbeat storyline, the anime-style animation and, well, ponies, I guess. The Bronies trend is now officially a thing, so much so that there is an acclaimed documentary about this community of men who celebrate, and sometimes dress up like, little ponies.
Upon learning about this from my hipster co-workers, then doing a quick Google search, my reaction was disbelief. Why on earth would adult men, some of them middle-aged adult men, obsess about a cartoon for little girls? I even thought about writing a smug, what-is-the-world-coming-to blog post about a fanboy trend run amok. Then, something curious happened. My three-year-old son started watching My Little Pony. It soon became his favorite show.
And you know what? It’s not too bad. It’s well-written, the animation is sharp and inventive, and there are many pop culture references (scenes lifted straight from movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example) that adults can appreciate. Unlike some kid shows, the overarching theme is positive and socially progressive – it’s the story of how six very different ponies join forces and learn that they can accomplish almost anything if they work together. I like it better than one of my son’s other favorite shows, Super Hero Squad, which is about the Marvel superheroes working together, mostly to blow stuff up.
A few weeks ago, we went to the mall with our son and stopped by a Build-A-Bear Workshop. He had no interest in building and naming a Teddy Bear. From the time we walked into the store, all he wanted was the baby blue Pony, Rainbow Dash, which also came with her own set of roller skates.
We got him the stuffed animal, which he immediately wanted to take outside. My wife, seeing an opportunity, strapped the pony to the back of his mostly neglected John Deere bicycle, and suggested he take his new friend for a ride. Our son got on the bike, started peddling, and has been crazy about it ever since. He doesn’t even need Rainbow Dash to accompany him anymore on bike rides to the playground. Still, she was the catalyst. I guess that friendship really is, as they say, magic.
Last night, our three-year-old son went to the movie theater for the first time. He saw Turbo, the new DreamWorks picture about a snail who has an insatiable need for speed. I’m proud to report that our son sat through the entire two-hour movie, and was so inspired by Turbo’s story that he raced his cousin to the bathroom right after the closing credits.
I am trying to remember the first movie I ever saw in a theater (which would have been my first movie anywhere, those being the days before home video). I think it was either Bambi, which I watched with my parents at a theater in Columbus, Ga., or Escape From Witch Mountain, which my mom took me to see in our hometown of LaGrange. I remember leaving Witch Mountain a little early, just as a helicopter with the bad guys landed upside down on the mountain. Maybe it was more than I could handle. Regardless of which movie was the first, I achieved this milestone in 1975, when I was four years old. It was the beginning of regular trips to the theater to watch a whole slew of Disney movies, from Pinocchio to Snow White to the less-memorable Shaggy D.A. and The Cat From Outer Space.
Do you remember your first trip to the movies as a kid? What movie was it? What year was it?
Image courtesy of DreamWorks.