Tuesday, July 28, 2009

15 books

As a writer--and especially a reader--I love the written word, so without any further explanation here is a fun exercise.

The rules: This can be a quick one. Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Email 15 friends, including me because I'm interested in seeing what books my friends choose. Only 15...

1. When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie (this book and its sequel are the ultimate doomsday novels showing mankind at its best... and worst... I love the fact that the writers had the balls to do exactly what most authors would never dare to do... end it all. While the book was written in 1932, it still strikes me as an incredibly emotional read. For years, I have been trying to write a prequel... Let me tell you now, writing a novel is really HARD!!!)

2. After Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie (I first read this book and its first installment when I was in the 4th grade.... I've revisited these two books more times than I can count, even as recent as when I was stationed overseas. I highly recommend them both!)

3. Maurice by E.M. Forster (one of my all time favorite love stories written in 1913-14... The author considered this book so controversial that he refused to allow it to be published while he was alive. He left instructions that it could be published a year after his death, which was in 1970, and the book was released the following year. Oddly enough, the 1987 movie based upon it is remarkably faithful, which almost never happens).

4. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (yeah, yeah Charles Dickens is long-winded. But then the book's roots was a newspaper serial where the author was paid by the word--you do the math! At 39 chapters, this book captured me from page one).

5. Silas Marner by George Eliot (this too, was my mother's favorite novel as a child). I've not read it in years. It is one of the most moving books I've ever read. Most modern readers probably know this, but George Eliot was a woman... but Victorian English society in that time frowned upon female writers... interestingly enough, Charles Dickens once commented he thought the "male" author was a woman... Maybe I should revisit the book?).

6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (another book that launched my interest in science fiction... I discovered this book about the same time as #1 and 2 on this list. This highly regarded, esoteric award-winning novel is well worth the read! Like many other books on my list, this popular book launched a series).

7. Trapped in Space by Jack Williamson (books I read in childhood really had a profound affect on my life.. I have often wondered if it would read as good now 40 years later).

8. Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg (this was a Scholastic Books selection I bought when I was in the 6th grade. This is basically a sci-fi version of the American revolution. It was the author's first book).

9. Fantastic Voyage by Isaac Asimov (I read this long before I had the chance to see the movie... both stand on their own and both are amongst my favorite stories ever committed to paper and film).

10. 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (what can I say about this book that hasn't already been said? For some it was the ultimate "trip" (one of my high school friends got high when he saw the movie and totally tripped on it), for me the book was an incredibly good voyage into the unknown--as was the movie).

11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (I believe this was the author's sole novel. As a former teacher, this and Dickens' Great Expectations should always be required reading).

12. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov (in more recent years, the trilogy expanded to seven books before the author's untimely death [some written by other sci-fi authors]. The original three, Asimov's way of imagining the rise and the fall of the Roman Empire, were written during the "golden age of sci-fi," it remains one of my favorite series.).

13. Star Trek The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry (this was the Star Trek creator's sole work on the written page. It fills in some holes left by the movie and was a quick read. You didn't really think Star Trek wouldn't make the list, did you? BUT with over 700 novels published in the series I really had a hard time picking just one).

14. Star Wars by George Lucas (okay, Alan Dean Foster really wrote it. I read this book a full six months before the original movie came out in 1977. Remembering it now, I could not put the book down, as I read each page I thought, "oh my God, how are they going to put this on film???" To be honest, this book and The Empire Strikes Back shall be the greatest stories of the entire franchise).

15. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (this title is a series... seven books so far, but who's counting? It captures the 1970-80s San Francisco's gay culture in a very compelling, humorous and thought-provoking fashion. Who can ever forget the sweet, lovable Michael "Mouse" Tolliver or the antics of 28 Barbary Lane?).

Okay, I am cheating as I am adding an honorable mention: The War Against the Chtorr by David Gerrold (This book was originally intended to be a trilogy, but it has expanded to four completed novels with an additional three planned... that said, the last installment was published in 1993 and frankly, I wish the author would complete the series as it is a superior, psychological science fiction series!).

Monday, July 27, 2009


Coldplay definitely knows how to play a crowd. I, and 34,000 other fans were reminded of this when frontman Chris Martin "hired" us all to join the band during the "Viva" tour when they played the Alpine Valley Music Theater, near East Troy, Wisconsin, last Saturday night.

"We finally have more members than the Dave Matthews Band," Martin said as he joked with the audience. After prompting us to sing along, the audience attempted a line--poorly I might add--inviting Martin to chastise us by saying, "no, no, no c'mon we just hired you guys (okay, I am relating this as the "family-friendly" G-rated version)!"

We got it right after that.

Anticipation, excitement and elation were the emotions I felt leading into that night. How could I have not? My friend Shane and I had been planning this night long before I had returned home from my one-year deployment in Afghanistan (not counting some of the acts I saw while stationed in Kuwait in 2005-06, this was actually the first concert I had attended since seeing Elton John in the late 90s-- I really need to get out more).

If I had something to look forward to upon my return home, this concert clearly was it!

The light show, the uber-frenetic, pulsating show on big screen TV--seemingly programmed by someone with ADHD--the three-foot diameter balloons dropped upon us during the performance of their haunting "Yellow," the butterfly-shaped confetti, the "cell phone wave," the unwanted cloudburst mid-way through the show (which thankfully failed to dampen our excitement), the band moving twice to play on mini-stages amidst the audience and of course, their upbeat music (!) all added up to one big verklempt!

The band's charismatic, energetic performances fired up the crowd as they played songs familiar to the audience. The venue, while cavernous, felt intimate due to Martin's ability to connect with his fans.

For those of us in attendance at Alpine Valley, "Viva" is now history, however, my memories of such a great time definitely are not. What a show! For nearly two hours, the band covered songs from their current album as well as those of the past.

British alternative band Coldplay, members consisting of bassist Guy Barryman, Jonny Buckman on lead guitar, Will Champion on drums and lead singer Chris Martin, sounded great! Sometimes a band sounds great as a studio band, but true artists can move the audience both off and on the stage--happily, Coldplay is of the latter category.

I cannot imagine anyone leaving feeling disappointed by Coldplay's performance; the band was definitely there to please! "Viva" was a feast for my eyes, ears and spirit! I know I was overcome with verklempt. *

(* translation: think of Jonathan Winter's old line "I had goose bumps all over my body" and multiply that by a factor of ten!)

photos by the author

Run Sarah, run!

If anyone were to vote for this potential candidate, I would move to Australia. Maybe I should have said, "run voters, run!"

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dreaming like a child

As an 11-year old boy (and younger) I can vividly remember watching the dark skies scanning the vista of stars every night, anxiously awaiting NASA's next mission. As I watched satellites traversing the darkness at night, sometimes I dreamt I was up there too.

Unlike some of my childhood peers who were angered every time NASA pre-empted regularly scheduled TV programming for a space launch, I was glued to the television set with either a book in hand, or a notebook to draw sketches of the launch, which would in turn end up taped to my bedroom wall.

Today when a space shuttle goes up or a new probe is launched for the outer planets, America yawns... and I wonder where our sense of adventure and curiosity has gone.

I turned 12 three weeks after Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin travelled to, descended upon and returned home from the moon. Like another of my heroes, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, I was excited beyond words when the Apollo 11 mission touched down at Tranquility Base on July 20, 1969.

Ask my mother, and she will tell you countless stories of my model spaceships, the old Mattell toy astronaut Major Matt Mason, the drawings I created, all the books I read and the imaginary games I played with my siblings or by myself that were firmly rooted in the imagination--travels to the moon, to the planets and beyond; and to other worlds orbiting faraway star systems and galaxies... present-day, I miss those immature but lofty dreams of us doing something bigger than ourselves.

Today, being the 40th anniversary of the historic occasion, I've often pondered over why the space race seems so distant and unimportant to so many people (or worse, those who believe it all was a cruel expensive hoax); and I am reminded of the dreams so many of us had back then and I would guess a lot of us today, feel are yet unfulfilled.

With NASA's current configuration, orbital science experiments being conducted and with the robot explorers on Mars I feel so much is still being done in the name of science, but feel so much more could be accomplished. Politically, I wonder if NASA will ever be up to the role it held in our imaginations during the 1960s.

I know there are countless arguments of why space exploration should be halted; I've heard and listened to them all: our tax monies could be better spent elsewhere; the dangers involved; that we need to take care of our problems here and now-- I can sympathize with, but cannot agree with the view that the space program is a waste of dollars and talent; there is just too much evidence to the contrary, in my opinion... and while sometimes, I cannot argue logically against those viewpoints, some things remain better felt with the heart than with the head.

BUT (and it is a big 'but') I believe man is meant to do things that are hard and sometimes impractical. Whimsy, curiosity, lofty, big things, challenging things, mind-expanding exploration, seeking answers are all part of our psyche. I worry if we become complacent and give up on the dreams of wonderment that we will become a stagnant and uninteresting people.

With NASA currently being tasked to return us to the moon (and Mars) sometime in the next 20 years, I hope that the excitement of going back to the moon can be re-captured, but somehow I fear that society just isn't interested. Movies, TV, video games, political discord and unrest, war and famine and the like, in my opinion, have all worked together to rob us of a great deal of what imagination used to offer us. Sadly, I do not think, in general, that we as a society dream like we once did in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

When I see photos of the wonders of the universe captured by our mighty Hubble Space Telescope, I marvel at the beauties of the creation that are far beyond our reach.

Just last week, I had mentioned to my son Wes that it saddens me that our space program has not yet achieved a manned space program equivalent to the one portrayed in the movie "2001 A Space Odyssey." To me, it is inexcusable that we have not taken full advantage of the successes of the Apollo space program or that the Space Shuttle program is being allowed to wither and die.

It is ironic that Walter Cronkite died this past week just as we are remembering the first manned trip to the moon 40 years ago today. Some of my heroes of the space program are still with us-- Armstrong, Glenn, Aldrin and the current explorers in the space shuttle program. To me, they embody the best of what makes humanity special.

Today, I celebrate the 40th anniversary of those historic footsteps on the moon. It was an incredibly exciting time for me as a youth and hope we can go forth and do so much more (yes! Mars!). I hope that we, as a people and society can recapture that optimism; that is when we are at our best. Sometimes I just think it unwise to place a dollar value on our dreams. It is, after all, our saving grace that...

We dream. We work to make those dreams become a reality. And then, we dream of something bigger and work some more.

Friday, July 17, 2009


A legend died tonight.

The journalistic greats of my lifetime, they are all gone now. Howard K. Smith, John Chancellor, Peter Jennings, David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Harry Reasoner and now the last--and the best of the old school journalists--Walter Cronkite, the face of CBS News during the 1960s through the early 80s, is gone.

Walter Cronkite died tonight at age 92 after a lengthy illness.

Cronkite, the most influential journalist/news anchor of his time, personified accuracy, objectivity, empathy and integrity. Few journalists have had the longevity that exemplified his storied career.

And what a career his was! He covered events during World War II, the Nuremberg War Trials and went on to become the anchor for CBS Evening News. Often forgotten were his long stints with the programs "You Are There, CBS Morning News, The 20th Century, The 21st Century"--and countless, countless documentaries.

Under his tenant as evening news anchor, Cronkite oversaw the most tumultuous years in American history--and we saw it all through his objective eyes. For viewers of the boomer generation, Cronkite was the voice we remembered when news broke that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. No one can forget Cronkite's moving announcement when he choked, knowing he felt the pain as we did.

In 1968, after providing coverage for the Vietnam War from the safety of the New York news desk, Cronkite felt it necessary to see the war firsthand for himself. After returning to the states, he reluctantly announced that America could expect no more than a honorable exit by negotiating a peace settlement with North Vietnam.

If any would question Cronkite's credibility, they need not have looked any further when President Lyndon Johnson himself declared "if I have lost Walter Cronkite, I have lost middle America."

Cronkite had often noted his favorite topic he covered was NASA's manned lunar landings. It seems only fitting he died on what is the 40th anniversary of that historic Apollo 11 spaceflight.

On a personal note, I have often told my friends my heroes are journalists and writers. Cronkite in particular, was nearly a god in the world of reporters in my eyes. His example provided me a guide of what good news reporting should be.

For me, watching the Walter Cronkites, David Brinkleys, John Chancellors, Peter Jennings or the Tom Brokaws as they practiced their craft was my inspiration as a Navy photographer and reporter.

Last summer while I was stationed at Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to ask (then) Senator Barack Obama a few questions; I remember thinking to myself what would "Uncle Walt" have asked if he were there?

In later years when interviewed on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, Cronkite explained what made a good journalist:

"The ethics of a … responsible journalist is to put his or her biases, his or her prejudices aside in an attempt to be really fair to all sides at all times," he said. "And my pride is that I think I did that fairly well during my years."

By all accounts, Cronkite succeded in that mission as his name was synonymous with credibility. He was named in a 1972 poll as "the most trusted man in America." The fact that even 14 years after he had retired from CBS News' anchor desk, he was still regarded as one of the most influential news reporters of our time.

His authoritative presence immediately lent credence to any story he reported upon. Even after retiring from CBS News in 1981, he spent his "retirement years" working for CBS, PBS, the Discovery Network and NPR.

He was a force that time could not diminish, yet his integrity was not limited to only his career but in his personal life as well. His marriage to his wife Betsy lasted mere days shy of 65 years, when she passed away in 2005.

In today's world of instantaneous news coverage and 20-second sound bites, Cronkite's brand of journalism will sorely be missed. In the coming days, I hope the news agencies afford him the same reverence bestowed upon the likes of entertainer Michael Jackson. The difference here, in my opinion, is that Cronkite was a true legend deserving of the praise that is likely to be heaped upon him by his colleagues and those whose lives he influenced.

And in closing I'd like to quote Mr. Cronkite himself:

"And that's the way it is on this Friday, July 17, 2009. Good night."


Okay, now they've really gone too far!

Today, one of the most awesome landmarks of the Chicago skyline was robbed of its longtime heritage. After 36 years, the Sears Tower, the tallest building in North America, became (ugh) the Willis Tower (all I can hear is: "what you talkin' about, Willis?).

Personally, in the future I will refuse to acknowledge its new moniker!

Other name changes in recent memory that boggle the mind: Chicago Comiskey Park became U.S. Cellular Field; the Hoosier Dome (before being demolished in 2008) was renamed the RCA Hoosier Dome.

There is something just plain wrong when significant landmarks are named after corporations; the selling of a famous landmark's name, to me, is akin to a mind rape. Okay, that is pretty dramatic, but I detest corporate America feeling it has the right to plaster its name on everything from stadiums to skyscrapers from streets to college dormitories and study halls.

What's next? Here are my suggestions for renaming some familiar landmarks:

* The Trojan Empire State Building (if you get my drift)
* Big Ben Gay Clock (Clock! I said CLOCK!!!)
* The Lavender Gate Bridge (could San Francisco's landmark have been mislabeled in the first place?)
* The New York Rudy Guiliani Subway (where one can get the shaft everyday)
* The Halliburton-Enron White House (oops, that wasn't too far removed from the truth during the "W" years)
* Sure Deodorant Statue of Liberty (raise your hand if you're sure)

Okay, okay so those are all pretty lame, but my point is that renaming landmarks IS lame. It is one of those things that I find wrong with today's America... that being that we are far too easily bought out by the almighty buck.

Chicago Willis Tower? Yuck! What were they thinking???

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Don't ask, don't tell, don't care

As anyone who is reading probably knows, I am a Petty Officer 1st Class in the U.S. Navy. I recently returned to drill status as a Reservist after serving for a one-year tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Something interesting happened to me at Naval Station Great Lakes Training Center last weekend that... well, to be honest really surprised me. And certainly increased my respect for our young Sailors who are currently training to serve and protect our nation.

I was shopping for computer software at the NEX (that is the Navy Exchange, an on-base department store, for all you non-military types). While browsing, I had my back to three young Sailors when I inadvertently brushed my hand up against one of the Sailors' standing directly behind me.

I immediately turned to apologize and his response both startled and amused me. By the same token, upon later reflection I was proud of this young Sailor's progressive attitude.

As I apologized, he said (while smiling), "Now you owe me dinner." and then he caught me off-guard as he leaned closer and demurely mumbled ala "Friends" Joey Tribbiani, "How u doin'?"

We all laughed and after talking "software-geek" for a few minutes we all moved on. So what is the point of this story? It's simply this.

There are a lot of people in the today's military upper echelons and political circles worrying themselves senseless over the issue of whether gays and lesbians should be permitted to serve in this nation's armed forces.

The fact of the matter is, gays and lesbians are--and have always served our nation in what I consider the finest military force in the world. They have served with honor and distinction ever since there has been a United States of America... even before there was a USA... and to the many people who have voiced dismay that gays and lesbians serve, I have to say that today's youth seem to have little patience for such archaic notions.

So why the fuss? Probably for the same reasons that America wrung its collective hands over the issue of African-Americans serving in a racially-integrated military force ever since the Civil War. Outright and blatant bigotry is the simplest answer, however, things are rarely so simple.

It is no secret our nation has had its problems dealing with segments of the population that do not fit perceived societal norms. Before President Harry S. Truman signed an executive ordering an end to racial discrimination in the Armed Forces, it was not uncommon for black servicemembers to face discrimination from all fronts while serving.

Today, many gay activists feel President Obama should act in a similar fashion. He, on the other hand, claims "don't ask, don't tell" must be abolished by Congressional action. And their anger is perhaps not so misplaced as then Senator Obama, during his campaign for the presidency said he would move to abolish this policy.

Even today, in the 21st century, both political and military leaders alike seem to have difficulty getting past old-time prejudices haunting this man's military. I won't go into the details relating to the more than 12,000 servicemembers discharged since the advent of President Bill Clinton's compromise today known as Don't Ask Don't Tell. Or that 265 servicemembers have been discharged since President Obama took office.

Just last week, Congressman Patrick Murphy (D-PA) announced he is sponsoring House Bill 1283 that will jumpstart the effort to see this bill repealed. Murphy, a former U.S. Army captain and a Roman Catholic, said:

“My time in Iraq taught me that our military needs and deserves the best and the brightest who are willing to serve- and that means all Americans, regardless of their orientation. Discharging brave and talented servicemembers from our armed forces is contrary to the values that our military fights for and that our nation holds dear.”

"Old school" opponents constantly decry the dangers of damaging unit cohesion, breakdown of morale and discipline, all the same arguments used to justify racial separation in the 1940s and 50s. Of course, the changes were initially painful, but history has proven them beneficial.

The funny thing is today's youth, for the most part, could care less about one's sexual orientation and the ability to serve in our nation's military. Recent polls indicate that 75% of the American public concur. With such an overwhelming majority seeing no problem with gays and lesbians serving proudly and openly in the military, one has to ask why politicians and military leaders are dragging their feet?

So why did this young Sailor make me proud? Simply put, and it is similar to feelings I have always had about my mother. When I was a kid, my mom had little sympathy for racial discrimination of any kind. She instilled those same values into her six kids. I was proud that this Sailor's comfort in "his own skin" and his own sense of manhood wasn't so easily threatened. To this young man I met last weekend, I saw a glimmer of open-mindedness that gives me hope that when all is said and done, this too shall pass.

Perhaps today's leaders should listen more closely to our young. Cliches aside, they are our future... and they clearly could care less about one's sexual orientation.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy Independence Day

As we celebrate this nation's 235th birthday, I want to wish everyone a wonderful and safe holiday!

We are a lucky people with bounty aplenty.

Having served three tours of duty in the Middle East, I am thankful for my son Wes, family and friends--and for the countless members of the armed forces with whom I served in the U.S., Kuwait and in Afghanistan.

God bless my fellow Sailors and members of the U.S. Armed Forces serving abroad. May we thank and remember them every day, for without them we would not have the freedoms we enjoy today.