Contemporary history has shown us that roughly once in every generation, a cataclysmic event occurs that defines that generation. Today, we commemorate one such event on this 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet having been born in 1966, Pearl Harbor exists for me strictly as a smoky black-and-white newsreel from a time before my birth. History, and my own experience, tells me that the Japanese lost the war and 35 years later, Japanese-made electronic equipment was ubiquitous. Even the thought of my grandfather being angry with my grandmother for buying that “Nazi” Volkswagen Beetle back in 1968 seems laughable now. Blood was shed, the pain passed, new threats emerged and enemies are now allies.
It is impossible to tell you where I was 71 years ago, as I wasn’t even an idea at that point in time. September 11, 2001 and its aftermath will certainly stay with me until they deposit my ashes among the Atlantic waves. However, if I had to select one defining moment in my life where everything changed, I would have to go back to a moment in the evening exactly 31 years and 364 days ago.
I’ve always been a night person, and that night was no exception. I was living in a row house in the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia. I was 14, and had my own, rather small bedroom on the second floor. On the walls were pictures of the Beatles, taken from my vinyl copy of “The White Album” that I had purchased months before. It always seems that kids discover the music of the Beatles in their early teens, and I was no exception.
My mother had a habit of watching The CBS Late Movie (in the years before David Letterman). I was laying in my bed with the lights out, half listening to the television coming from downstairs, trying unsuccessfully, as I do today, to fall asleep at a decent hour. About twenty minutes before midnight, the local newscaster broke into the broadcast stating that John Lennon had been shot outside his apartment in New York City, was rushed to a local hospital and was reportedly fighting for his life. He threw it back to CBS and their nightly old TV rerun.
I turned on the light in my bedroom and looked up at the picture of John Lennon that was on my wall. I spent the next 5 minutes envisioning him living through it, recuperating, being interviewed by Barbara Walters at a time in the future, with his wife Yoko at his side, expressing optimism about life’s opportunities that suddenly presented themselves to him in the wake of his brush with death.
The newscaster broke in again, telling me that John Lennon was dead. My imagined interview would never take place, with one of my early heroes’ lives cruely cut short at the age of 40. A man who spent a life rooted in self-expression was gone. Thinking back on it, I can only tell you that I found myself laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling in shock. My mind raced as sleep overcame me. I can’t even remember if I cried.
The ensuing Christmas season, usually buried in crusty yuletide music, was suddenly awash in John’s music, both with and without the Beatles. His song “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” seemed to play every hour. To this day, I have a very hard time listening to that song all the way through. A few days after his death, people and radio stations worldwide observed 10 minutes of silence. In the months and years that followed, I took my first defiant steps toward cynicism and the general mistrust of authority that continues to color my personal philosophy.
It is perhaps a blessing to the outside world that I am tasked with writing about our healthcare system in this space, rather than religion or global governmental systems. Railing against government audits and the counterintuitive nature of our health insurance system ensures that I do as little damage as possible to the global order. Taking all of that into account, I do find it necessary from time to time to pull the curtain back and offer a window into my approach for the reader.
Earlier this week, one of the readers of this blog asked me how I came about my writing. I gave him my usual answer of having a love of language, absorbing dialogues from books, movies and TV (sometimes deep into the night), along with my general frustration with a great deal of the public whose grammar I find atrocious, but I don’t think I was completely truthful.
The potential of any human being is rooted in the ideas that one expresses. In a world with a population of over 7 billion, having one idea expressed out loud seems like such a small thing, until we think about all of the ideas that will never be shared, either because of a lack of ability, a lack of freedom of expression or out of some strange fear of ridicule. The power of ideas is directly proportional to the ability to bring them forth with conviction. I write neither for personal glory nor to take delight in grinding people under my 12-wide heels, but rather to make certain that no idea, either inspiring or atrocious, is left behind with my ashes.
Tonight, I’ll be expressing ideas in musical form at a local bar here in Milwaukee. The songs I write will never reach the public saturation level of an “Imagine” or an “All You Need is Love”, but I’ll step away from the microphone later knowing full well that I left nothing behind. I don’t mourn the dead anymore, for it’s better to mourn the living who have no realization of the responsibility that existence carries. In the end, that ranks much higher than any other cataclysmic event, past or present, on any scale of tragedy.