Football is all yin and yang. Part of the game is all straight lines and tightly timed. But the other part of the game is utter chaos. Sometimes it requires the brute force of a sumo wrestler but sometimes requires the finesse of a ballet dancer. Victory can be achieved with a kick-ass, one-foot play muscled up the middle or with a long graceful pass caught on the fingertips of someone running at breakneck speed. Perfect strategies come up against imperfect execution. The exact laws of physics against the inexact laws of human nature. It’s a formal waltz. It’s a demolition derby. Yin. Yang.
For some people, the streets of Nashville are paved with gold — they came, they were seen and heard, and they conquered the odds against making it in Music City, USA. And once they reach glittering stardom in the country music industry, their lives become legends.
But for those few who make it there are thousands more for whom the streets of Nashville are paved with broken glass.
I’ve met them everywhere. They sell advertising. They work for eye doctors, work as waitresses, waiters, and dishwashers in restaurants and bars. They work construction jobs or as part-time clerks in record stores. They work as dental assistants. And some don’t work at all.
Almost any night or day, you can walk along Lower Broadway in Nashville and find a former backup singer or former musician who once performed you may have heard of. They’ll sing as much of a song as they can remember for a buck or a quarter. Elsewhere, you can find old timers in taverns singing for tips and selling old LPs out of their car. These are the people who are ignored by the younger, fresh-faced kids who come to town on the bus with nothing but a guitar on their back and a pocket full of dreams.
A lot of aspiring singers and songwriters can be found at events called “writers’ nights.” Many taverns around Nashville will hold a writers’ night maybe once a week. A dozen or so performers are allowed to sing three of their songs in hopes that Mr. or Ms. Big Record Producer is sitting in the audience. Usually, however, the audience is full of mostly family and friends: Mom and Dad arriving from who knows where to wish Johnny or Jane some good luck, or the smiling male neighbor of some naive starlet with sparkles in her eyes. Writers’ nights are kind of a potluck. You see almost the entire spectrum of the country music business in a condensed version of “Star Search.” There are some aging has-beens, a lot of young idealistic wannabes, and some singers and writers on the verge of truly making it, with maybe a song or two already recorded by a real live Big Star.
Sometimes professional studio musicians will walk in and say “I’ve just finished a session with (insert any star’s name) and man, I need to unwind.”
I’ve seen some really talented people at the few writers’ nights I’ve been to. I’ve also seen a few who (all politeness aside) don’t have it and never will have it. I saw one guy that will live forever as the worst performer I am ever likely to see if I live a million years. But all of them try their hardest.
Eventually, though, some just stop thinking about making it in the country music biz. A lot of them pack up and go back home. Other stick around Nashville. They slide into a normal, day-to-day routine sans the dreams of greatness. Maybe they sing in the church choir. There are a lot of great church choirs in Nashville.
And a few singers, musicians, and songwriters hang in there on the margins of the industry. They are content to sing in the lesser known bars for next to no pay. I recently saw such a group of musicians at a small bar in Nashville. I was there with five in-laws. Also present were the bartender, a waitress, two guys shooting pool, a woman sitting by herself, a couple of guys standing at the bar, and a guy asleep on a sofa. Frankly, the place was a dive.
I don’t know a lot about music, especially country music. But I’ll say this: this was one of the best bands I’ve ever heard anywhere. The lead guitarist had real command of his instrument. His big mitts effortlessly ran up and down the strings. And he sang with a smoky voice as good as any of the old pros. The bass guitarist was a woman who did justice to several Patsy Cline tunes. The rhythm guitarist had fingers that moved so fast they seemed to blur. And the drummer pounded good and loud. Their arrangements of country classics were unique but still true to the original versions of the songs. My wife, Kathleen, got up on stage and sang a number with them. She sounded good, too. It’s in the family genes. Her dad made a living as a gospel singer: Don Williams of Don and Earl.
At the end of their set I asked the lead guitarist what the name of their band was.
“Well, my name is Allen. And this is Heather,” he said pointing to the bass player.
But the band didn’t have a name.
And Allen said he worked hanging drywall during the day.
Although Allen’s band doesn’t have a name and probably doesn’t have a chance of ever “making it” in Nashville, the band members still perform like they have a dream. Nashville doesn’t have a monopoly on dreamers. But there does seem to be more of them per square foot than anyplace else on earth. And a place so full of dreamers can’t be that bad — even if you do end up with a lot of flat tires from all the roads paved with broken glass instead of gold.
It’s hard for me to believe anyone can be married that long. As a person who did not get hitched until I was 38, I realize it is unlikely (though not impossible) that I will ever celebrate my 51st wedding anniversary with my wife, Kathleen. But this week my parents, Bob and Phyllis, will once again mark another year of marriage, 51 years in all.
Legend has it they met at the Eastwood Gardens dance hall on Detroit’s east side. My mother, being the youngest daughter in a large Italian family, must surely have sneaked out of the house or, at least, fibbed about where she was going. Parents, especially Italian parents, were much more strict in those days. She was with a group of other Italian neighbors and friends. She has said the Italian boys used to come along to “protect” the Italian girls from, I guess, non-Italian boys. I can imagine… My dad was from the west side of town, an area called Delray. His community was mostly Armenians and Hungarians. He was into big band music and sometimes played a trumpet. I suspect he was more into listening to music than dancing to it. I doubt he intended to find his future bride that day early in the summer of 1942 when he and a couple of buddies traveled crosstown to Eastwood Gardens.
My mom was sitting at a table up front. Dad was standing near the band. I don’t know if it was love-at-first-sight but it must have been something close to it. My dad is more a man of action than a talker. And when he sets his mind to do something — it happens. He didn’t really ask my mother to dance. What he did was look at her and kind of twirl his finger in the air. She must have understood this as an invitation to dance and she accepted. Being an Armenian, my dad looked Italian. I guess everyone with my mom, including my mom, must have figured him to be Italian so it was no problem getting the unspoken “permission” from my mom’s little group for dad to dance with her. However, not wanting to go into a long explanation about where or what Armenia is, my dad said he was French.
I’m not sure when my mom was made aware she was dancing with an Armenian named Popkin (Americanized to Robert). They courted that summer and fall and things must have been going well because mom said she bought him a birthday gift for his 21st birthday, November 16, 1942.
On December 14, my dad got a letter from Uncle Sam — he was being drafter into World War II. Like many other couples at that time, my parents decided their romance wasn’t going to be separated by any war.
Besides, mom said recently, “He didn’t want to let this Italian girl go.” They got married before a justice of the peace Dec. 16, 1942. My dad survived the war because, fortunately, the war ended before he got close enough to smell burning gun powder. A church wedding followed his return. And then children and then a move to the suburbs, bigger and better jobs, and more children — four in all.
As a youth, it was good sport to find fault with my parents’ generation. Now, at mid-life, I’ll say this much for that bunch: They had confidence and they had guts. My generation has not fared so well when it comes to marriage. We might have done well to listen more and criticize less. Last year we celebrated my parents’ 50th anniversary with a big dinner for family and friends. My brothers and sister and I thanked mom and dad for bringing us into the world, taking good care of us and giving us the guidance we needed as we set out on our own. This year, I won’t be with mom and dad — who are still healthy and spry — as they celebrate 51 years of marriage.
And though it would be nice if all their children could gather around them for the special occasion, in a way, I think wedding anniversaries really need only two people present.
In this case, it’s those two people who met so long ago when the world was young and lay before them like an unexplored land. Just like a 1940’s black-and-white Hollywood movie: A handsome man and a beautiful woman meet at a dance. They fall in love and get married. He goes to war. She has a baby. He returns. He gets a job. They build a house and fill it with more children. At one point he says: It ain’t easy. Then a little later on, when the house is filled only with photos of children and grandchildren, she wonders: Where did all the time go? And then she sees that one special photo of her, young and smiling, and her youthful husband, beaming confidence. She looks at him no as he naps on the sofa, older but still dashing, and she knows life can be sweet and — just like her favorite old movies — young lovers can live happily ever after.
The heroes of my childhood and teen-age years spanned the centuries: Jesus Christ, Spartacus, King Arthur, Robin Hood, El Cid, Don Quixote, Joan of Arc, the American revolutionaries (Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, George Washington, John Paul Jones), the leaders of the French Revolution, David Crockett, the leaders of the initial Russian Revolution which overthrew the czar, Lawrence of Arabia, Sgt. Alvin York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy.
Some of your heroes may be on that list and I’m sure you have others you own.
Of course, I have personal heroes, too: my dad, my mom, several uncles and neighbors and several coaches and teachers.
But the real and legendary heroes of history were the subjects of books, movies, and song. They seemed bigger than life, especially when portrayed in movies by the likes of Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Charleton Heston.
On the surface, these heroes had in common bravery, conviction, and perseverance. They were not afraid to speak their minds and to act on their high ideals. These heroes were able to lead great masses of people to fight for freedom and overthrow tyranny. They listened to their inner voices. They listened to voices from on high. Whether they lived with reckless derring-do like Robin Hood or deeply passionate faith like Joan of Arc — those around them were drawn to their strength and their calls to action.
Generally, these heroes fought for equality and justice. They spoke up for those who had no voice in the direction of their daily lives. They spoke up for the downtrodden.
If one is to believe most historical accounts, some of these heroes were selfless and modest. Others were bombastic and egotistical. A couple, during their lifetimes, were considered to be quite crazy. Such is the range of personalities we find in the pages of history. Most of them were killed as a result of their actions or beliefs. Thus is the fate of most heroes. What, then, becomes the fate of those who look up to these heroes?
Many, like myself, become liberals. Oh, sure, some of these heroes would present real problems if they were to run for election as president. I can hear Rush Limbaugh’s questioning now…
Rush to King Arthur: You want to construct a large, round table in order to promote “equality” among the nights. One questions: Who’s going to pay for this table?
Rush to Gandhi: Hey, pal, here’s a coupon to the beef and Bologna Bungalow. And get yourself a new tailor.
Rush to Robin Hood: Rob the rich and give to the poor? At knifepoint? With an economic plan like that, you won’t get four years in the White House. You’ll get seven to twelve years in the slammer.
Rush to Joan of Arc: Hey, Joan, have your voices ever told you to get a man? Go weave a tapestry or milk a cow, will ya?
Rush to Jesus Christ: Turn the other cheek? Turn the other cheek?! You call that a defense policy?
Rust to Martin Luther King: You gotta be “dreamin’…”
Yes, indeed, these liberals would have a hard time getting their programs past the scrutiny of ol’ Rush and his fellow Conservatives. Granted, sometimes heroes need great historic conflicts to rise to the occasion. Repressive regimes like Imperial Rome and Nazi Germany inspire the best in some people.
But nearly ever day can be an opportunity for us to stand tall for the little guy, for us to speak out against an injustice, for us to give to those less fortunate instead of taking for ourselves.
These are the lessons I learned from those I admire.
Almost anyone of them would get my vote. I regret to say that most of them would still be crucified or burned at the stake today — at least figuratively, if not literally.
Originally published : November 11, 1989
They are dancing on the Berlin wall.
Germans can no embrace long-lost family members, long-lost friends, and, for the East Germans, long-lost freedoms. They are dancing on the Berlin Wall.
They are chipping away at it with small hammers, with picks and axes. They are chipping away at it with almost 30 years of pent-up frustration and pent-up hope.
They are smiling, and singing, and hugging, and crying, and yes, drinking heavily. They are dancing on the Berlin Wall.
In front of the cameras beaming picutres around the world, in front of the guards, in front of the guns and in front of the stunned world, they are dancing.
“The Wall” was for so many years a symbol of a world divided, forso many years a reminder of the horror of World War II and how we traded one enemy for another enemy — one horror for the greater horror of atomic death.
“The Wall” was for so many years a concrete tomb for the minds and souls of millions of East Germans, millions of Eastern Europeans.
But today they are dancing on the Berlin Wall.
President Kennedy was right: as long as The Wall stood, we were all Berliners.
President Ronal Reagan was right: if people wanted to understand the difference between the East and the West, they need only visit Berlin and look at The Wall.
He pointedly asked the Soviets to tear down The Wall.
Yes. Now is the time: Tear down The Wall.
Tear down all the walls.
Tear down the Great Dogmatic Wall of China. Tear down the immoral wall of apartheid in South Africa. Tear down the barrier walls in Labanon. Tear down the rotting walls of the South Bronx. Tear down the walls of the Protestant churches an Catholic churches in Belfast, Ireland, and let us all celebrate under the open sky. Tear down the walls of the missile silos and the munition factories.
Tear down all the walls, brother and sisters.
As we have watched the Berliners celebrate, let them watch us observe Veterans Day. The cost of freedom is buried in the ground of France, England, Germany, and Italy. It is buried in the ground of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and every nation where anyone stood for and died for freedom.
The cost of freedom is not cheap, for life is the most precious thing on Earth.
And to live, the spirit must be able to expand, to breath without restrain, to fly, to sing, to dance. So dance, comrades, dance.
And then tear down The Wall. Tear down all the walls.
I want challenges.
I want to achieve those challenges.
I want to use my creativity, my humanity.
I want to maintain an independent spirit.
I want to enjoy people.
I want them to be glad they are around me.
I want to use life’s rewards to enrich the spirit of those near me.
I want to always reach for more understanding of people; more knowledge of the world.
I want to love and be loved – as a member of humanity and as an individual.
I want to feel alive.
Without poetry , there would be no prayers to say over the dead.
Without poetry there would be no love to coax lonely souls to union,
no passion to wrestle life from Nothingness;
no mother to protect the helpless seeds of Humanity,
no children to teach us mercy, and no soul to yearn.
Without poetry, soldiers and sailors would have no home to return to,
no markers for their graves.
Hate is simple: it is a parent who eats its young.
Hate takes many forms and war is the grandest of all.
But war isn’t always hateful. Sometimes it is as naturally inevitable as a thunderstorm.
When war comes, meet it with humility and shame, if you must meet it at all.
But remember this: Protesting against a war is the only way humanity can save itself from killing istelf.
What would the world be like if no one protested against war, if no one questioned the “right” or “need” to kill another human being (regardless of how crazed that other human may be)?
The anti-war protestor is man’s best part struggling against the worst in himself. The pacifist is the mirrored image of the warrior. Without the warrior, humankind would be unable to protect itself. Without the pacifist, humankind would be unable to stop itself.
The protest against hate, war, and death is the kernel of conscience we have that will save us from extinction.
Without protest against war, there will never be any reason to stop war. We would all die from the hate that lurks just beneath this thin-skinned facade we call civilization were it not for the pacifist.
If we must fight wars, make sure they are fought against the worst in ourselves.
Without protest, the flower buried beneath the rock would never find the poetry of the sun; the seed of hope would forever be crushed under the heel of Hate’s eternally marching boots.
When I ask my 28-month-old daughter, Rebecca Rose, “Where did you come from?” she answers, “Tennessee.” I guess that’s a perfectly fine answer for now, but there are times when she falls asleep on mommy and daddy’s “big bed” that I will lie down next to her and stare at her and still can’t believe I had any part in the creation of this incredible being.
Or sometimes, I’ll be in the living room and she’ll be by herself in her bedroom, singing away like a little bird on a spring morning, and I wonder, “Who is this singing? Where did she come from? … Tennessee?”
She came from a far-off star. She had existed there as some form of celestial energy since the begining of time. And one night when I and my wife, Kathleen, were out gazing at the heavens, little Rebecca Rose’s star shined in both our eyes and twinkled a magic twinkle. At that precious instant she came to Earth where she lived inside her mother until it was time for her to reveal herself.
I was one of those goofy dads who sang to my child in her mother’s womb. We knew we would call her Rebecca Rose if she was a girl. But a boy’s name was still being debated. Kathleen said she wanted to name him after me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. So Kathleen said jokingly, that if we had a boy, he was going to be named after a once-popular doll called Rainbow Brite.
In no time, however, we came to call our yet-to-be born child, Rainbow. And I would lie next to Kathleen’s tummy and sing a children’s song: “Rainbow, come out and play with me…”
And finally, she did.
Though I was a witness and a willing “assistant,” th ebirth experience was between my wife and daughter and itwa sn’t easy for either of them. In a different time or a different place, they both may have been in danger. But Kathleen’s spirit and modern medicine prevailed. Rebecca Rose came into the world weighing ten pounds, three oucnes, and just two minutes before Valentine’s Day, 1989.
While Kathleen lay recuperating, I held Rebecca’s hand as nurses pricked her toe for a blood sample. She howld but barely cried. She’s never been much of a crier. This may sound contribed but I truly do remember thinking to myself: “I wish that were the only pain you were going to feel in your life.”
In the 28 months Rebecca has been with us, we continue to be amazed at how fortuante we are. She is a happy child, filled with curiosity. She learns quickly and we need use only a modest amount of discipline. She is also a teacher, an organizer, and quite a performer. I know much of her personality comes from her mother who tries to make every day special. They have a very strong relationship, which I hope continues for the rest of their lives.
As for now, I’m the one who says “no” most of the time. I think I’m overly protective and try to anticipate every tumble and scrape she may encounter. And I guess I’ve always had a problem with responding to authority figures and she is always bossing around. So that’s another reason I tell her “no.”
I like it that she’s tough and independent. But she is also very sweet and loving. Soon after she was born, I initiated a three-way “group-hug” with our small family. She has now taken up that ritual as her own. That is one command of her’s I will always obey.
I also appear to be the only person who can put her to sleep at bedtime. Part of it may be because I’m her authority figure. Maybe it’s because she has so much fun with Kathleen, she wants to stay awake when Mommy tries to get her to sleep. Every day is full of excitement for her and it is very hard for her to calm down at night.
I don’t really tell her bedtime stories. I more or less talk with her. We talk about what she did all day. We talk about what she is going to do tomorrow.
Then I sing her a couple of bedtime songs that only I know and won’t share with anyone but her. I even changed the closing lines of “Rock-a-bye, baby” because the imagery of “down will come baby, cradle and all” seems too cruel.
In the morning, Rebecca Rose wakes up and summons me with a loud “Daddy!” I’m not sure why. Maybe she figures that since I’m the one who put her in the bed, I should be the one that gets her out.
But once she is out, she’s off and running again–until the day is through and it’s once more time for bed.
I’ve come to think of bedtime as our special time. As we chat I am still filled with awe. I hope it will always be so. But somewhere in my mind and my heart I know there will come a time when she won’t want or need daddy to help her fall asleep. She will experience lonely nights when everything she wants eludes her. She will experience the excitement adults feel when they realize they are on the verge of good fortune. She will wonder if she will ever find love. And when she does, she will wonder how long it will last. And when she realizes that true love is forever, she will hear her own songs as she falls asleep. And daddy’s secret lullabies will be only a faint memory.