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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: David Bowie

Age brings more reminders of what we've lost

Stephen H. Provost

It’s a well-known phenomenon. You hear that song on the radio, and it takes you back to your senior prom, your first concert, summer camp or some other event relegated to memory. It activates that memory and makes it new again. You know you can never go back there again, but in that moment, you remember what it was like to be there.

You smile a little smile, and maybe you get choked up a little, too. It’s the essence of “bittersweet.”

Because music is such a potent reminder of the past, it hurts to realize it’s going to stay there. That’s what happened a couple of years ago, when a large number of famed musicians from my childhood all left us: David Bowie, Glen Frey of the Eagles, Prince, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of ELP, Leon Russell.

It wasn’t just the year the music died, it was a year a part of us died, because with their deaths, we knew they’d never be making new music again. We’d never get another chance to see them in concert. Even if their bands had broken up, there had always been a chance they’d get back together, at least for a reunion show. No more. I remember thinking about that when John Lennon died. There would never be a Beatles reunion. Maybe there wouldn’t have been one, anyway, but there had always been that hope.

Hope is about the future; memories are about the past. They work best in tandem, and when we lose one part of that equation, we’re a little worse off for it.

We didn’t just lose musicians in 2016. My childhood sitcoms were decimated by the deaths of Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch), William Christopher (M*A*S*H), Abe Vigoda and Ron Glass (Barney Miller), Alan Thicke (Growing Pains) and Garry Marshall (creator of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and Mork & Mindy).

They live on in reruns, but in some ways, that’s just as hard, because whenever you see them, there’s a chance you’ll be reminded that they’re no longer with us.

This happens to me a lot, with music, TV shows, landmarks, mementos, old photographs.

I see movies starring Alan Rickman or Robin Williams, and I can’t help but be reminded how much I valued their talents … and now, they’re no longer here.



You take things for granted when you’re young, at least I did. When I first became aware of things, I assumed they’d always been that way and that they always would be. I think the first time I realized they wouldn’t was when I moved back to my hometown, Fresno, at age 15, after six years away. The radio station formats had changed. The big discount department store called White Front, where everyone had shopped, was gone. The Lesterburger fast food chain, which had been ubiquitous in the 1960s, had gone out of business, too. It all seemed surreal, impossible even.

Three more years passed, and there was a new freeway and a new football stadium. Both were big improvements, but I still remember sitting on the splintery wooden seats at the old stadium and watching Fresno State’s football team rout Los Angeles State (back when it had a football team). The splinters aren’t a pleasant memory, but the game itself is, and they’re tied together in my soon-to-be-55-year-old mind.

Going south on a trip to San Diego last weekend on U.S. 101, I passed through the area where I lived for six years as a child and young teenager: Woodland Hills. I was reminded of riding in my parents’ Buick LeSabre down that same Ventura Freeway to see the Dodgers play every summer in the 1970s. People mention Bill Buckner’s error on his gimpy leg for the Red Sox in the 1986 series, and it triggers memories of when he was my next-door neighbor in Southern California, making circus catches in the outfield for the Dodgers before that leg slowed him down.

When I went back to Fresno as an adult a year or two ago, I took Samaire to eat at the first Me-N-Ed’s pizza parlor on Blackstone, where my folks introduced me to my favorite pizza (cheese and black olives) when I was 5 or 6. Yes, it’s still there, and that’s comforting. But it also reminds me that my parents aren’t, and that will never stop hurting.

When I see high school football games, I remember when I used to cover them as a reporter for the Tulare Advance-Register. When I drive by my old office, I remember when I used to work there.


Then there’s the music.

Whenever I hear the Eagles’ Best of My Love, I remember sitting by the radio in my room, listening to the week’s top 40 countdown and wondering what would be No. 1 that week.

When I hear Have You Never Been Mellow? by Olivia Newton John, I think of riding to summer school at A.E. Wright Middle School, the ride so much longer than it needed to be because of all the stops they made in the canyons and foothills west of the San Fernando Valley. And me, sitting there, my legs cramped and hurting because, even at that age, I was far too tall to fit comfortably in bus seats designed for third-graders.

Maybe it’s because I’ve done so much historical writing that these memories hit me so often, but I think it’s the other way around: The feeling that the past is somehow slipping away has prompted me to keep some portion of it alive, if only in recorded memory. I suspect it happens to a lot of people like this, even if they don’t write any of it down, and that’s why our elders reminisce so often about the way things used to be “back in my day.”

My dad did that, and now I’m doing it, too. Samaire can tell you how often I say things like, “that used to be … ” and “I remember when …” as we’re traveling.

It’s bittersweet to remember the things that are gone, but the alternative, forgetting them, is far worse.

Christmas is the story of our lives

Stephen H. Provost

I’m going to wade into the “war on Christmas,” but it’s not what you might expect.

I like Christmas, and I always have. In fact, it’s probably my favorite holiday. That’s no earth-shattering revelation, because millions of people like Christmas, and it’s almost certainly the most popular holiday on the calendar.

What is surprising, and a bit sad, is that so many people have become so concerned with why we like (or should like) Christmas.

One person’s reasons might not be the same as another’s, and that’s perfectly okay.

For me, it’s not for any religious or spiritual reason: I actually find the whole “war on Christmas” thing pretty tedious. If you want to be offended by “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” all I can ask is, “Aren’t there more important things in life?” I mean, seriously. We could always emulate the British and compromise with “Happy Christmas,” but isn't the whole point to give and receive good wishes, no matter what words we use?

Should we be forced to acknowledge that the pine tree in the living room or the yule log on the fire were borrowed from European paganism? Should we worry too much about the fact that a springtime birth for Jesus was far more likely, based on biblical accounts, or that a December date was likely chosen to correspond with the winter solstice? Should we be forced to give Santa the cold shoulder because he’s become an object of cultural affection that "should" be reserved for that babe in the manger?

(I have a hunch cold shoulders don’t work too well on someone who lives at the North Pole; maybe we should all just chill instead.)

Then, there’s the gift-giving. I don’t like Christmas for any love the commercialism or any desire to brave the Mongol hordes on Black Friday and bring home a flat-screen TV for half the normal sticker price. I like a good sale as much as the next person, but I don’t like traffic jams, long lines or commercial pitches. And I don’t like that unspoken pressure to buy something of a certain value just because I’m afraid the person on the receiving end of my gift might be giving me something more expensive.

A lot of people love Christmas because they spend it with family (and a lot of people who aren't on good terms with their families don’t love it for the same reason). Me? I’m the only son of an only son who passed away a few months ago. My mom’s been gone for more than 20 years, and I’m in touch with precisely one of my extended blood relatives, whom I haven’t seen in person for years. So, the “time with family” aspect of the holiday really doesn’t apply to me – apart from the fact that I get to spend more time with my wife and that my stepson, whose company I enjoy, comes for a visit.

No, what I like about Christmas are the traditions. Some of them are no more than memories now, but those memories are sweeter than the cranberry sauce I used to eat with my turkey before the Type 2 diabetes kicked in.

Thanks for the memory

I remember when Christmas was a televised songfest, an excuse for crooners like Perry Como and Bing Crosby and Andy Williams to sing the songs that helped make them famous, or for younger talents like John Denver and Karen Carpenter to start new traditions that ended far too soon when they died far too young.

I remember Bing singing The Little Drummer Boy with Bowie, and I remember John Lennon turning an old ballad into a Christmas song with an anti-war message. I remember when Bob Hope sang Thanks for the Memory, when Dick Clark narrated the Times Square “ball drop” at midnight on New Year’s Eve and when Guy Lombardo’s orchestra played Auld Lang Syn.

I remember when I thought trolls were singing yuletide carols and “ ’round yon virgin” referred to the fact that Mary was rotund – because she was expecting a baby. And I remember wondering why old acquaintances should be forgot and what anyone would do with a gift of seven swans a-swimming if they didn’t happen to have a pond handy.

I remember Charlie Brown picking out that same forlorn little Christmas tree year after year, about the same time the residents of Whoville were making the Grinch’s tiny heart grow three times larger. And I remember Burl Ives and Jimmy Durante going all animated on us with annual TV tales of Rudolph and Frosty, respectively. (Ives’ animated character, Sam the Snowman, may have looked a little like Frosty, but he narrated Rudolph’s story.)

I remember the gift requests Santa fulfilled for me as a child, from a Slinky dog one Christmas to a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots set another year. I remember the large, wooden castle I assembled at my aunt’s house when we spent Christmas morning there, and I remember how my grandmother always got more gifts than anyone else … because she had more close relatives than anyone else!

I remember riding down Christmas Tree Lane in Fresno every year with my parents. Traveling at 5 miles per hour with the headlights off, I’d marvel at the strings of colorful lights that turned the street’s towering Deodar cedars into living Christmas trees, and I’d smile at the hundreds of decorations that transformed the houses on either side into treats for the eyes.

I remember caroling with some of my friends in high school and hanging those special family ornaments on the tree.

Christmas as chronology

But Christmas isn’t just memories. It’s the fact that the list of memories keeps growing, just like Santa’s list. There are new neighborhood decorations to explore, new gifts to wrap and open, new traditions to create. (Ever tried Irish cream in eggnog? You should. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, it puts the old rum standby to shame.)

“Wait a second,” you may be saying. “Didn’t you say you were joining the ‘war on Christmas’? Everything you’re saying seems very much in the holiday spirit.”

That’s actually my point: Christmas belongs to all of us. It’s not just a religious holiday or a reason to run up thousands of dollars in credit card debt. It’s not even merely an excuse to gather with family or drop a few dollars in the kettle by the supermarket door. It’s more than all those things. Christmas is, in a very real sense, a living chronicle of all the things that have come before, from waiting up all night as a child to spending that first Christmas with your sweetheart to spending that last one with your parents. At times, it’s joyous; at other times, it’s bittersweet, very much like life itself.

Christmas tells the story of our lives, and perhaps it’s because I’m a storyteller that it holds such appeal to me. But regardless of the reason, I know I’m not alone. I’m wading into the war on Christmas because I want to end it. Let's stop bickering about why we like Christmas and just enjoy the season, because when it comes right down to it, we don’t need an excuse for peace on earth and goodwill to men (and women, too, of course).

We just need to express it, to make it happen. That, to me, is the spirit of Christmas.

May you have a joyful one.

You're irreplaceable, no matter what they tell you

Stephen H. Provost

Something touched me deep inside the day the music died. - Don McLean, "American Pie."

The past few days have been difficult. 

It didn't affect me directly when David Bowie died, but  it did affect me personally - as it did when Alan Rickman passed away a couple of days later. I didn't know either of these men. I wasn't a member of any fan club. I never dressed up like Ziggy Stardust, and I wasn't a Rickmaniac.

Both men were British, both were 69 years old and each was profoundly successful in his chosen field. Both died of cancer. But they shared something more than all that, an intangible something that made them, in a word, irreplaceable. Each was unique - fearless in ignoring, stretching and ultimately redefining the boundaries of their chosen professions for the sake being true to themselves.

"Actors are agents of change," Rickman once said. "A film, a piece of theater, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference. It can change the world."

"I don't know where I'm going from here," Bowie said, "but I promise you it won't be boring."

The sadness I felt at their passing had nothing to do with the fact that I'll never hear Bowie perform "The Man Who Sold the World" again or that I'll never see Rickman reprise his role as Severus Snape in some hypothetical "Harry Potter" prequel. It stemmed instead from the realization that I'll never witness them explore new creative challenges, which I have no doubt they would have met with the same finesse and originality they displayed in their previous work.

When a creative soul dies, it's as if creation folds back in on itself, curls into a fetal position and weeps. That's what I felt like doing because, in a sense, the music died again with Bowie. Just as it had with Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in that plane crash 57 years ago. Just as it did again on Dec. 8, 1980, when John Lennon was shot. And when Freddie Mercury died. And Elvis. And so many others.

I can tell myself it's resurrected every time their songs are played and it's reimagined every time a new, vital artist comes along to stretch the boundaries in new and undreamt-of directions.

But that doesn't make the loss any less painful. Any less personal.

As if those losses weren't enough to deal with this week, I also learned that some people I knew had been laid off. They aren't celebrities, like Bowie or Rickman, but when I heard they'd lost their jobs, it felt no less  profound to me.

I imagined them going to exit interviews and being being fed that same old half-excuse, half-apology: "Don't take it personally. It's just business."

I have no idea whether these words were spoken in their cases, but they've been used often enough that they've become a cultural cliche, a way for us to console ourselves when we hurt someone. When we leave a relationship. When we hand someone a layoff notice. When we cut someone from the team. We tell them not to take it personally because we don't want to feel personally responsible for the pain we're inflicting.

But just what are we implying?

That to us, the person on the other end of our rejection was never a person in the first place. He or she was just a position, an impersonal cog in a malfunctioning machine that needs to be removed for the sake of efficiency. An obsolesce at best; a mistake at worst. And now it's time to get "leaner and meaner," with the emphasis on "meaner."

I can't think of anything meaner than treating someone as less than a person, more cruel than chastising him or her for having the audacity to take it personally when you've turned their personal lives upside down.

Of course, it's personal.

And here's the thing: Each of those people - each and every one of us, in fact - is irreplaceable. No less so than David Bowie or Alan Rickman. Each of us has it within ourselves to stretch boundaries, to imagine new vistas, to change at least some part of our world forever. And each time we tell someone, "It's nothing personal," we spit in the face of a unique, creative soul with boundless capacity to make a lasting impact on the future.

As a creative person, an author, I feel we have a basic obligation to nurture one another's artistry and to affirm each individual's personhood.

On the other hand, I count it a tragedy when we dehumanize people to assuage our own guilt or protect our bottom line. It's as if we're thumbing our noses at the people like David Bowie, Alan Rickman and all the other artists who've challenged and inspired us. By depersonalizing them in our own minds, we're eating away at our own humanity, our sense of empathy, our very souls.

All of this makes me very angry; I think I have a right to be.

And yes, I take it personally.