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  • The Death of Elvis

    Forty-two years ago today, I was sitting in the lobby of a hospital in Tyler, Texas, swatting at flies. My grandfather was hospitalized with the emphysema that eventually would kill him, and my parents were in Los Angeles, looking again for a way to treat the chronic disorder that would contribute to my dad's death some three decades later.

    It was a typical, sweltering East Texas day in August, which was one reason the flies had moved indoors. I had ridden in the car some 30 miles from Longview with my grandmother and my aunt, hoping to see my grandfather. That was doubtful. Hospital rules prevented 12-year-olds from visiting patient rooms and he was not in any shape to come down to the lobby.

    So I sat there, bored out of my mind, killing flies.

    At some point late that afternoon, news started to spread that shook me to my adolescent core: Elvis Presley was dead at age 42.

    Adolescents in the mid to late 1970s were not supposed to be Elvis fans, and I certainly did not get any cool points from my peers. “Fat Elvis” had become a parody, a bloated yet hollow shell of himself even for those immersed in the 1950s Happy Days-Laverne & Shirley nostalgia of the time.

    But my peers didn’t understand what Elvis meant to me. At the time, I don’t think I understood why he meant so much.

    My dad and aunt were teenagers when my grandmother discovered Presley in his first appearance on the Louisiana Hayride. A year and a half later, on Dec. 15, 1956, my grandfather drove my grandmother (then 51) and my dad (then 16) the 60 miles east to Shreveport to see Elvis’ concert at the Hirsch Youth Center at the Louisiana Fairgrounds.

    I still have the program from that show, which remarkably was taped and released on one of the hundreds of Presley compilations in 2011. Listening to the low-fi affair still brings a smile to my face, knowing they were both there.

    My first rock and roll record was Elvis’ first album, bought by my dad in a record store on Ninth Avenue in Texas City. I remember sitting with my parents watching Aloha from Hawaii, the first show televised around the world via satellite. My first concert, at age 6, was an Elvis show at Hofheinz Pavilion. My second, at age 9, was his performance at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

    In a weird way, Elvis felt like a member of my extended family, although I was woefully short on accurate information. I hadn’t liked his last few albums, not knowing they were cobbled together by his label because he no longer enjoyed recording. I didn’t understand why he had not been able to recover from his divorce, not realizing it was in large part because of guilt over self-inflicted wounds. I didn’t connect the dots when my parents returned from a trip to Las Vegas in 1975, having been disappointed in Presley’s concert because he looked and sounded “bad” — code, as it turns out, for overweight and stoned out of his mind.

    All I knew, at age 12, is that people aren’t supposed to die at 42 unless they are at war or in some type of accident. People don’t die while sitting on the toilet in their bathroom, especially when they’re only five years older than my dad and six years older than my mom.

    We left the hospital that day and went to Gibson’s, one of those catch-all department stores not far from my grandmother’s house. My grandmother bought me “Moody Blue,” Presley’s last studio album that came in blue vinyl, and I played it on my aunt’s turntable that night.

    Today, in the words of music writer Bill Holdship, Elvis has “now been gone as long as he was here.” And I have remained an Elvis fan, albeit one who — with the benefit of information — is more discerning and less a blind member of the cult. While I separate the schlock from the sublime, I remain in awe of his talent and charisma. I also am grateful for the way he brought my family together on a common subject for a lot of years.

    In retrospect, I also can thank Elvis for introducing me viscerally to the concept of mortality at what now seems like so young an age. I didn’t realize it then, but Presley’s death was the first time I understood life can be more fleeting than you imagine. And it taught me, not for the last time, that you just have to appreciate what you’ve got.

  • Dear 2016...

    11:33 p.m., December 31, 2016

    Well, if all goes well in the next half hour or so, I can say we survived. And then some. (Given the rash of creative talent that has passed away this year, "and then some" seemed like a proper qualifier.)

    It's truly been a year of great highs, lows and transitions: 20th wedding anniversary, high school graduations, moving kids in and out of new homes, Broadway, a movie, First Lady shout outs, college, new jobs, travel to 18 different states (some multiple times), Paris, Zurich, new business, old business, stressful business, deepening friendships, learning opportunities, missed opportunities, sinus infections, the flu, global uncertainty, and the love of family.

    As my kids move into rapidly into adulthood, I've tried to be a better father, in as much as my role is shifting from professional schlepper/caregiver to advisor, helper and confidant. As our home moves to a (mostly) empty nest, Jill and I have gone on a series of adventures that I hope will continue for many many years to come. It's nice when you can do that with someone who is both your best friend and the great love of your life.

    I'm increasingly aware of how the traits that our parents passed on to us are being forwarded to subsequent generations, and how a seemingly innocuous incident that occurred decades ago can have long-term effects on your life. (Spoiler alert: This is not a new revelation caused by binge-watching "This is Us," although the show is highly recommended.)

    And, I'm increasingly aware of how fragile life really is. How short it is in the grand scheme. How much we need to live it for as long as we can in a truthful, caring, and loving manner as possible.

    I was born 17 days after the Baby Boom era ended, which means I was part of the Generation X transition plan. This year, more so than any other, we saw the loss of so many people who were part of the fabric of my life from birth.

    A partial list of those we’ve lost in 2016: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Abe Vigoda, Gary Shandling, Patty Duke, Doris Roberts, Prince, Anton Yelchin (Chekov in the new “Star Treks”), Gary Marshall, Marni Nixon (voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn in three classic musicals), Gene Wilder, Curtis Hanson (director of “The Wonder Boys”), Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds.

    Hell, even Nancy Reagan didn’t want to stick around for the possibility of a Trump administration.

    And tonight, scanning the last-minute headlines to make sure Betty White was still safe, I saw that we lost William Christopher, who played the loving, bumbling Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H.

    Say what you will, but I'm glad to see this turbulent year gone. Like many, I'm concerned about what the future holds, not just here but around the world. I'm also concerned about the lack of empathy our society — not everyone, I swear it's not that blanket of a statement — shows toward traditionally marginalized populations.

    So if you're lucky enough to give a significant other that kiss in a couple of minutes, take a second to think about love, what it means, and what you can do to spread it around.

    Thanks for reading my latest rant. Here's to a better year in 2017. Let's live it up...