Category Archives: 1980s

Book Review: Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Jennifer Finney Boylan had me with that cover.

Actually, that’s not true.

Well, partially. But that cover is pretty kick-ass, isn’t it? I feel like making it my Facebook profile picture.

I was sold on this book simply because it’s written by Jennifer Finney Boylan. I’ve been a fan of hers for awhile now — loved her novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About (one of my Best Books of 2016) and her memoir I’m Looking Through You: A Memoir of Growing Up Haunted (one of my Best Books of 2013) — and I admire her advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ community. (She’s the outgoing co-chair of GLAAD.)

And it doesn’t hurt that she’s from Philly. Like me.

The dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s famed and creepy as hell Eastern State Penitentiary is  the setting for Long Black Veil. Darkly suspenseful, fast-paced, and character driven, this is told through alternating narratives that segue smoothly between 1980 and 2015. It accurately captures Philadelphia’s gritty essence from a bygone time. It’s about secrets, friendship, identity and authenticity.

You can read more of my review in today’s issue of Shelf Awareness.

(And yes, this one will be on my Best Books list for 2017.)

 

Thanks for sharing this post!
0

Living on a Prayer with Bon Jovi in Pittsburgh

Immediately after performing “Runaway,” a song released 33 years ago, Jon Bon Jovi made a confession to the Pittsburgh crowd gathered at PPG Paints Arena on a Wednesday evening.

“I think I’m singing like shit tonight and I apologize,” he said, promising his fans he would keep “pushin’ on,” and adding “if you stick it out with me, I’ll stick it out with you.”

And that’s sort of how it has been for those of us who grew up with Bon Jovi, hasn’t it?  His music was part of the soundtrack to our youth, the backdrop to everything from our first loves to our last slow dance at the prom. To prove it, there was an entire arena on Wednesday night full of Gen Xers who, intentionally or not, seemed to be throwbacks to the 80s with mullets and big hair and clad in Slippery When Wet concert t-shirts from 1987 and clutching cans of beer while unabashedly belting out every single word to the likes of “You Give Love A Bad Name” and “Lay Your Hands On Me.”

Same as it ever was.

At first I thought Jon’s admission that he had been battling a cold since Saturday was simply concert shtick or, perhaps, a clever intro to “Bad Medicine.” I still thought that when he brought a fan up from the audience to help out on “Born to Be My Baby.”

But when he walked over to the edge of the stage and recited Prince’s infamous, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life” — that’s when I admit to feeling a little freaked out and unsettled. Here’s yet another rock icon of my youth saying he’s not feeling well and invoking the words of another who died way too young and reminding us of our own mortality and his. My generation doesn’t need any more reminders of the fragility of life, that we’re getting older and that, personally speaking at 48, more years are likely to be in the rear-view mirror than down the road.

Whoa, we’re halfway there, whoa, livin’ on a prayer … 

On Bon Jovi’s new album “This House is Not For Sale,” one of the tracks is called “God Bless This Mess.”   I think it kind of puts into context this phase of life and how we’re starting to feel its effects.

“My voice is shot, I’m going grey, these muscles all ache
Don’t cry for me, I’m the life of the party
I’m smiling most of the time
I may be gritting my teeth, can’t get back where we started
These days I’m doing just fine.” 

The song has been frequently included on this tour’s setlist, but we didn’t get to hear it in Pittsburgh because as the world knows by now, the Pittsburgh show was abruptly cut short — 90 minutes into what would have been a two and a half hour performance — and with no rousing encore. It’s a decision that has some expressing frustration, mostly via social media temper tantrums, about getting an abbreviated version of the show.

To which I say, get yourself a fucking life. If you’re complaining about something as trivial as being “cheated” out of sixty minutes of a concert — during a week when innocent people were gassed to death in a unfathomable literal hell on earth — then check your privilege at the door, thank you. Sure, it’s disappointing to not get something you expected. But there is nothing that comes with a guarantee in life. Nothing.

And that’s what Bon Jovi’s songs are all about. They remind us to enjoy that moment, that guy, that girl, that kiss, that night, that time, that love.  I went to the show with my 15 year old daughter and we danced our asses off and sang at the top of our lungs. We had a great time, enjoying every moment. For the record, I thought Jon sounded fantastic and his performance was great.  My girl loved it and said it was one of the best nights of her life.

“Take my hand,” I said, as we crossed a busy street to get back to our car.

We looked at each other. “We’ll make it, I swear!” we sang.

We remember how we were, once upon a time, not so long ago. We take nothing for granted, holding on to what we’ve got. These days, we’re all living on a prayer.

Thanks for a great show, Jon. Get well soon. 

Thanks for sharing this post!
0

Currently … Listening, Attending, Anticipating, Celebrating

Our daffodils bloomed this week. Or maybe it was last Saturday, I’m not sure. And even though they arrive on a different date each year–sometimes varying by several weeks, depending on the vagaries of Pittsburgh’s weather–they always seem calibrated to appear at the exact moment when I need an emotional pick me up.  Despite this particular bloom pictured above from the front yard, they’re looking a little droopier than usual this year. Maybe the late season snow of a few weeks ago is to blame, I don’t know.

Listening….
As I mentioned in my previous post, I spent most of this week being obsessed with S-Town, the new podcast by the team behind Serial and This American Life. It’s only seven episodes of about an hour each, give or take, so you can easily listen to the whole thing during your commute plus some time at your desk or as you work out or however you listen to podcasts. And if you don’t listen to podcasts, this is a great one to start with. I’m so in awe at the reporting and sheer craft of storytelling with this one.  If you’re not listening, you need to start. Now.

Attending … 
You wouldn’t know it from my not-so-great cell phone photo, but I had second row seats on Thursday night as J.D. Vance was in Pittsburgh to give a lecture about his best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy. I’ll have more to say in a separate post but I enjoyed his talk more than the book. I mean, I thought it was fine as a memoir but as the touchstone for the cultural commentary that it has been anointed as … I’m not sure. It’s certainly a book that has struck a nerve, good and bad.

Anticipating … 
After going through a One Direction phase that lasted four long years (and cost a fortune in tickets for three separate concerts and related 1D merchandise), The Girl has seen the light and discovered the music of my youth. We’re talking Michael Jackson, Prince, and Bon Jovi, in particular.

(Let’s pause for a moment while the heavens part and angelic music plays — notably by two of those three, who could be playing a celestial jam.)

I am, obviously, delighted about The Girl’s new appreciation for ’80s tunes –mainly because all said merchandise and music is already available in the basement, free of charge and accessible via convenient mixtapes and CDs. Have at it, kid.

Anyway, many months ago, she heard that Bon Jovi was touring and would be stopping in Pittsburgh. She begged to go and I was unconvinced. I should have known better, given this girl’s history when it comes to music. When she finds someone she likes, she is a fan for life. Finally, I relented over Christmas dinner.  If she worked on improving her algebra and biology grades and went to after-school tutoring if she needed extra help, I would consider getting Bon Jovi tickets.  Soon, I was getting texts from her updating me on every grade.  Like every day. And there was not a day I did not hear about Bon Jovi.

And you know, this girl worked her ass off. These are not her strongest subjects, not by a long shot, but she raised her algebra grade from a 75 to an 80 (the highest ever) and biology from a 77 to an 85. So, we’re going. And she is beside herself and absolutely delirious. She has been talking about nothing but this concert for months.

To tell you the truth, I’m just as excited as she as. I love Bon Jovi and have since the beginning. Saw them in concert when I was The Girl’s age. I think it was back in ’85 or ’86 when they played The Spectrum in Philadelphia, maybe for the Slippery When Wet Tour. It could have also been in ’89, but I seem to think it was earlier. Anyway, The Girl finds this to be the epitome of cool. And since The Girl is 15 and a half and I am still regarded as a cool mom who The Girl enjoys hanging out with,  I’ll take it.

Celebrating …
This is my birthday week and I’m thrilled that Jon and I are both still rockin’ on. Usually I try and take my birthday off from work but because of the Philly trip last month and another somewhat unplanned Philly visit over Easter, I don’t want to burn too many vacation days this early in the year. So, tomorrow will be a typical, normal work day — hopefully without too much stress. Maybe I’ll even take my full lunch hour and leave work on time. I bought myself a flourless chocolate cake from Trader Joe’s. My daughter wants to hang with me at a Bon Jovi concert. There are worse ways to welcome in 48.

“Welcome to wherever you are
This is your life, you made it this far
Welcome, you got to believe
That right here, right now
You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be
Welcome to wherever you are….”
~ Bon Jovi, “Welcome to Wherever You Are”

 

Thanks for sharing this post!
0

Book Review: Tomboy Survival Guide, by Ivan Coyote

tomboy-survival-guide

For several weeks, I’ve been hinting about a new freelance book review gig. I’m thrilled to announce that I am a new contributor to the popular book site Shelf Awareness.  My first review for Shelf Awareness was Ivan Coyote‘s memoir Tomboy Survival Guide about growing up transgender in the Yukon during the 1980s and their process of discovering and accepting their gender identity.

As coincidence would have it, this review was published last week — on Election Day, no less — and I share it with you now, during Transgender Awareness Week. In these uncertain and frightening times, Ivan’s voice becomes even more important.

Read more about Ivan’s story and my full review of Tomboy Survival Guide in the Biography and Memoir section of Shelf Awareness for Readers for Tuesday, November 8, 2016.

Thanks for sharing this post!
0

sunday salon/currently …moment in time

Sunday Salon 4

Sitting out here on the deck, with the sunny and 75 degrees and no humidity weather as perfect as it gets here in Pittsburgh, this feels like a moment in time. Summer is definitely winding down. Only two days remain before school starts, and it’s a milestone one: this is the year we turn a corner and become the parents of high schoolers.

“I remember thinking, back when we were in the NICU, that their high school graduation year of 2020 seemed so far away,”  The Husband commented on Wednesday, as the four of us sat in the school’s auditorium for high school orientation.  This is where it all starts, the principal said, the plans and decisions and classes that shape the next four years.

Of course, he was careful to say that there’s still time to decide on a post-graduation pathway; nothing needs to be determined this week.  But the message was clear: time’s a-tickin’. Time keeps on tickin’, tickin’ tickin’ into the future …. 

It’s all a bit unsettling. Even without a new building to navigate and new school personnel to get used to, the beginning of school historically tends to be a difficult, stressful, anxiety-levels-through-the-stratosphere transition for our family. Much of this past week has been spent trying to mitigate as much of that as possible. To put it mildly,  it’s been exhausting on every level.

Bright Precious DayOne of my go-to coping strategies has been to seek out a mindless read, and Jay McInerney’s latest, Bright, Precious Days is fitting that bill perfectly. It’s another incarnation of the insufferable lives of Corrine and Russell Calloway, the protagonists in two of McInerney’s Brightness Falls and The Good Life. Just like his earlier works, Bright, Precious Days is yet another one of McInerney’s name-dropping romps through the New York City playgrounds of the glitterati.

If you’ve read any of McInerney’s earlier novels, you know what you’ll be getting with any of his subsequent books. Bright, Precious Days does not veer from the formula that has made him successful. It’s a navel-gazing, salad-eating, charity-gala-going, Chanel-wearing, hedge-fund managing narrative set in New York (of course) between 2006-2008.  Hillary is running for president against a guy named Barack whose only major political experience is a short stint as a Senator;  the subprime mortgage crisis and the recession hasn’t yet happened, and people still carry flip phones.

It all seems like an ancient time, as much of a relic from the past as the cocaine-laced ’80s that define McInerney’s characters own bright, precious days. Those they lost in the era of drugs and AIDS, as well as the horror of 9/11, are still very much part of their present.

Like I said, sometimes you just need a book where you don’t have to think much and if I was in a different state of mind, this might not be holding my interest. But it’s doing its job right now by being an effective diversion, so that’s something. And even though The Husband and I never were nor will ever be in the same social and economic class as the Calloways, there’s a part of me that can relate to them.  At 47, we don’t feel old enough to have kids in high school, despite my insistence to The Husband at the school orientation that we are, in fact older than the typical parents.  At nearly 50 (the age of the Calloways), it seems we should have our act together by now, have done more, know what we’re doing with our lives.  Instead, the decisions we’ve put into place and the assumptions we’ve made about our future feel shaky, at best.

It’s twilight.  The clouds are aflame, there’s a slight autumnal chill in the air. All any of us really have in this moment in time are these bright, precious days.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #84 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

Thanks for sharing this post!
0

Mrs. Thomas’ Long Week (an encore post from The Husband, in honor of Elvis)

Cleveland Weekend - Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (21)

Longtime readers may be familiar with this post, written by The Husband. It’s one that I feature here on the blog every August 16 to commemorate Elvis’ passing, not because I’m an Elvis fan — I have a strong visceral dislike to all things Elvis, which is another post altogether — but I think this is one of The Husband’s best pieces of writing and I love it.  (And him.) Feel free to leave him a comment, if you wish.  Photo taken by me at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, August 2012, where Elvis’ Lincoln Continental is, indeed, in the building.  

Beginning 39 years ago today – early in the evening – Mrs. Thomas took to her room after crying out, quickly calling her mother and telling her to “get the hell over here” and plopping her 8-year old son in front of the television to await his grandmother’s arrival.

Mrs. Thomas didn’t come out of her room the rest of the night. Nor did she come out the next day. Nor the following day, either.

It was only on the fourth day after the sudden death of her beloved Elvis that she finally emerged. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her eyes were red with traces of days-old mascara running up and down her cheeks.

She showered, got something to eat, and returned to her room for two more days.

I know this because I was an 8-year old witness to much of it.

On the evening of August 16, 1977, I was watching television when CBS News ran one of their 30-second national news briefs. A photo of Elvis Presley was in the upper right corner of the screen as the anchor – probably Roger Mudd or maybe Morton Dean – said something to the effect of, “Reaction continues to roll in from around the globe as news of the death of Elvis Presley today at the age of 42 has brought a throng of thousands of grieving fans to his home in Memphis…”

I remember turning to my mother and saying, “Mrs. Thomas is going to be in trouble.”

I was friends with Mrs. Thomas’ son, who lived across the street from our first floor duplex apartment. It was from my friend and his mother that I first learned about Matchbox cars, NASCAR racing and Elvis Presley. Shortly after the Thomases moved in, I was invited over to play. In a tour of the apartment – which took about 7 seconds, although at the time I was too young to know that we were just barely making enough income so that we were always just a little bit behind – I saw an enormous portrait hanging over Mrs. Thomas’ bed.

“Who is that?!?” I said to my friend.

I heard a gasp from behind me, where Mrs. Thomas must’ve have overheard me. If I’d have said the same thing about the enormous portrait hanging across from Mrs. Thomas’ bed – that of Jesus Christ – she would not have been as upset with me.

“Who is THAT?!?! THAT is Elvis Presley! How have you gotten this old [seven, at the time] not knowing Elvis?!?!”

I’d put that about mid-1976. Over the next year or so, then, it was rare for me to be over the Thomas apartment and not hear Elvis on the stereo, or see Elvis on the TV – as the Thomases were the first people I ever knew with a VCR.

(Which is funny because they had no more of a pot to piss in than we did, yet there was this incredibly expensive primitive video player. Might not have been called a VCR, as I don’t remember any tapes.)

Anyway, Mrs. Thomas had every single one of Elvis’ movies – whatever format it was in – and they were always on. I remember not liking the movies terribly much – even at that age I realized it was essentially Elvis Presley playing himself in some unrealistic setting like Hawaii or a 19th century western town. The music, though. Well, the music was incredible. I can’t tell you the first song I heard, but the one that I remembered liking immediately was “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck.” Just a great tune, with every element of Presley’s talents all over it. Never liked ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ [still don’t]. But all of the others I soon knew pretty well.

It became ‘normal’ to see the large bust of Elvis that rested on Mrs. Thomas’ bureau, not to mention that painting, and just accept the fact that Elvis was that important – that of course you’d have a bust and portrait of him in your house, you idiot. It was vintage 1970s; in retrospect, I swear that damned painting was on a velour canvas. I just remember it was fuzzy to the touch [although we never let Mrs. Thomas know we touched the damned thing, believe you me].

So it was on that mid-August night 39 years ago that I saw what was going on there on the TV and told my mother that Mrs. Thomas was going to be in trouble. What I meant, of course, was that she was going to be a holy emotional fucking wreck. I just didn’t know some of those words at the time, so ‘in trouble’ was my way of saying, ‘she’s going to be majorly fucked up by this news, mother.’

And, indeed, she was. It was too late to walk across the street to check on my friend and Mrs. Thomas. At least that’s what I remember my mother telling me. I remember looking at the window across the street at the Thomas’ second-floor apartment front window. The room was black but I could see the neon-like images of what was the television screen in the living room. By that time, I figured out later, Mrs. Thomas had plopped my friend in front of the TV and retired to her room. The next day, early, I walked over and sure enough there was my friend and his none-too-happy grandmother. She, no doubt, figured her days of raising an 8-year old had long passed.

I asked my friend’s grandmother how Mrs. Thomas was doing.

“Not good,” said his grandmother. “She’s crazy. She wasn’t this upset when her father died.”

Just then, I vaguely remembered one time when I overheard Mrs. Thomas calling her father something along the lines of a ‘lazy, no-good boozing prick’. I chose not to share that with my friend’s grandmother that morning. At first, I was scared for my friend. I could hear Mrs. Thomas crying in her room over the sounds of Elvis’ music.

My friend and I went out to play [back in those days, ‘what are your kids doing this summer?’ meant that moms across the country simply opened their front doors, turned to their offspring and lovingly said, ‘Get out!’]. We came back for lunch and the soundtrack – Mrs. Thomas’ shrieking with Elvis providing back-up – were still going strong. Same thing at dinner. By this point, my friend’s grandmother looked like she wanted to strangle her daughter but was afraid to open the door to her room to begin doing so.

The next day, when it continued, I remember asking my friend what he thought of all of this. How did he feel about Elvis’ death? “He’s Elvis, man,” my friend said. “He’s Elvis and he’s dead. It’s too weird.”

That was about as introspective as we two 8-year olds got that summer. When, about a week later, Mrs. Thomas was well enough to go back to work and slowly resume what now seems, in retrospect, to have been a very sad and mundane life raising a son as a single parent, I noticed that more Elvis memorabilia had somehow been acquired. Maybe it’d always been there and I’d never noticed it. More likely, Mrs. Thomas had instructed her mother to bring the stuff with her, as her mother still lived in the house where Mrs. Thomas grew up a young girl in love with the 1950s Elvis.

Over the years, I’ve encountered others who had a similar Elvis-worship. While I thought the Elvis portrait Mrs. Thomas possessed had to be a one-of-a-kind, amazingly a few years later I saw the same damned thing over another friend’s mother’s bed – no lie. I guess that was the painting you put over your bed. While I encountered other Elvis-worshippers, Mrs. Thomas is the one I recall most vividly simply because she was the only one I witnessed suffering in the aftermath of Elvis’ actual death.

As I say, the music was something I dug right away, and always have. Throughout my life, I’ve maintained that if you don’t like Elvis, and you are American, then there is something very, very wrong with you. In your soul, I mean. I know that sounds ridiculous, but Elvis is so quintessentially American, that to not like the music [hey, I agree: the movies suck], the persona, Graceland, etc, meant that somehow you’d missed the whole point of America. At least as it existed in the second half of the 20th century. I can’t quite explain why – in words – that I feel that way. It just is.

[Note from Melissa: I’m so not an Elvis fan. Never have been. Never will be. Never liked him. I don’t get the whole mystique and appeal. Infer from that what you will. Carry on.]

So, today, on the 39th anniversary of The King’s death, I think of him and his music. I think of Mrs. Thomas, too. All of these years later – assuming she’s still alive – I wonder if this day still fills her with the kind of grief it did back then – the shock of it aside, of course. Now that I’m five years older than Elvis was when his head hit that porcelain toilet as his heart finally gave out, I still love the music, and the persona [the movies still suck, though].

I also still think that Elvis is as quintessentially American as any other icon of the 20th century. That he’d be 81 years old also reminds me just how young he was when he died.

And, just how young I was, too.

Thanks for sharing this post!
0

zombies

Halloween Parade (19)

Front row to Halloween. Taken by me, October 2008, somewhere in central Delaware.

“All You Zombies” shuffles onto my Spotify playlist
as I pull into the parking garage
late for work on a Thursday
but because The Hooters are a track
on The Soundtrack to My Life
available on 45, cassette tape, compact disc
I remain seated in my car
(my paper-laden desk can wait)
because me and Jen and Seunah are singing
on a cold January night in an overheated gym
where we paid five bucks to see Philly’s hottest band
because someday they would be really, really big,
someday in our big scary future.

Thanks for sharing this post!
0