Friday, August 27, 2010

Before there was television

Until I was 7 or 8 years old, our family (like most families) did not own a television set. I believe that we got our first black and white set about the time that Disneyland opened in California, and it wasn’t until I got to college that we finally got a color television.

Prior to the advent of our first television, the “family entertainment center” was a late 1940’s upright Philco radio that looked a lot like the one pictured below:

I remember that we had to let the tubes warm up before the radio worked, but I haven’t the faintest idea what we listened to as a family, other than a vague recollection of “The Lone Ranger Series”.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president to use the radio as a highly effective motivational tool. The very first “fireside chat” was on March 12, 1933, and its topic was the banking crisis (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

Over the course of 11 years, he completed 30 fireside chats. One of the last ones he did was on January 11, 1944, and it also contained a lot of familiar themes.

In January of 1944, the United States was deeply involved in working with our allies to end WWII as soon as humanly possible. At the time of the address, Roosevelt drew from his recent meetings in Cairo, Moscow, and Tehran to discuss our war strategy in more detail. He warned about the dangers of private profiteering at public expense , which politicians in Illinois are slowly coming to grips with today, nearly 70 years later.

President Jimmy Carter gave exactly one fireside chat (in 1977), which earned him the title of “Jimmy Cardigan” due to his wardrobe choice for the evening.

Although it was warmly received at the time, the speech lacked the sheer drama conveyed by Roosevelt, who successfully led the country through internal and external crises most men, and many of our presidents, would have been overwhelmed by.

In our society today, many homes have multiple television sets, and it’s very common for people to have internet access from their mobile phones, while they tune out the sound of the outside world with their I-pods.

As a result, it would be virtually impossible today to recreate the powerful messages conveyed by President Roosevelt, who (sight unseen) unified and reassured a nation that was sorely in need of his leadership.

For that, we are all a lot poorer.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

when I'm 64

In less than a week, I will become 63 years old, perilously close to the age the Beatles referred to in their “When I’m 64” song that was included on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” album.

Paul McCartney wrote the song LONG before it was recorded by the Beatles - in 1956. The Beatles played the song occasionally during their Cavern days, and it was finally recorded in December of 1966.

On my “milestone” birthdays, I’ve usually celebrated by partying with family and friends (I got a very useful beer refrigerator when I turned 60, and Sharon hired a belly dancer for me when I turned 40) but the years in between have provided an opportunity for some quiet reflection.

Throughout my life, I’ve created a number of “five year plans”. Some of them worked out better than others. Although I was never able to bring any of them to full fruition, I usually managed to accomplish some of the things “on my list” before I created yet another 5 year plan.

There was a time in the mid 1990’s, when I worked at CIGNA, that I was on track to have $1,000,000 in the bank, and a house that was fully paid for, by the time that I turned 65. Life, however, had other plans for me, and there are a LOT of baby boomers who have had experiences similar to mine.

In 1998, Spencer Johnson published a book called “Who moved my cheese?”

That was about the time that a lot us “boomers” first realized that we were going to be facing far different retirement years than we had envisioned, and that the only way to survive was to become adaptable. In my case, I eventually concluded that it made more sense to sell my house and my car and move to China to teach English than to continue what I was doing. Although a lot of folks may conclude that my decision to move was carrying adaptability to an extreme, the truth is that it was a wonderful experience, and I don’t regret for a minute making the decision to take a journey halfway around the world where I didn’t even speak the native language.

A lot of folks in my “peer group” (including me) have started to draw our Social Security income as soon as we could in order to pay our ongoing expenses. The days of 25 (or more) years of service with one company, the gold watch, and the ironclad retirement plan are, sad to say, pretty much history.

However, there IS a little hope for some of us, if we take the time to read a book written by Teresa Ghilarducci, titled “When I’m Sixty Four: the Plot against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them”.

On my way to Kenosha the other day on my bicycle, I met a man coming from the other direction on HIS bicycle. He told me that he was 74 years old, but he looked pretty spry for his age. He wasn’t planning to ride as far as I was, or as fast, but he’s still doing better than a lot of people his age, some of whom couldn’t even walk around the block.

There WAS a time that I thought that 64 was REALLY old, and being 74 would definitely be ancient history. However, not long ago, Hugh Hefner said that 80 is the new 40, and there MAY be a grain of truth to what he said.

“Hef” became 84 years old on April 9 of this year. Like most people, I feel it’s a little odd that a guy that age would still have girlfriends in their 20’s, but he seems to be living proof that you are only as old as you feel.

To borrow some phrases from the Beatles, I’m not sure if anyone will still need me, or feed me, when I turn 64, and I’m absolutely certain I won’t have any grandchildren on my knees, but I AM certain of one thing:

It will be the start of a brand new adventure.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tom Brennan in the Yukon?

A lot of people know that I lived and worked in China for a year, that I’ve also traveled to two other foreign countries so far (Canada and Ireland) and that I’ve been to 30 of the 50 states in America.

What very few people know, however, is that there WAS a time when Tom Brennan traveled to the Yukon in order to make his fortune.

Before sharing those personal details with you, however, I need to take you back in time a little more than 100 years ago.

Long before “Carnac the Magnificent” became a staple on the Johnny Carson Show,

a man named George Carmack left California in 1881 and traveled north because he had heard rumors of gold strikes in Alaska.

For 15 years, he searched in vain. One day, out of frustration, he finally did what all good men do when they need time to think:

He went fishing.

While salmon fishing near the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory on August 16, 1896, he found nuggets of gold in a creek bed. His lucky discovery sparked the last great gold rush in the American West.

The day after discovering the gold, George and two partners staked their claim. Within two years, as many as 50,000 men came to the area in order to get some relief from the devastation caused by the Panic of 1893.

Although very few of them had much luck, Carmack eventually left the Yukon with $1,000,000 worth of gold. Large scale gold mining continued in the area for another 70 years, by which time $250,000,000 worth of gold had been pulled out of the ground. Even today, small mines continue to operate in the area.

One of the 50,000 people who moved to the area was Tom Brennan, the younger brother of my paternal grandfather (Mark Brennan). Like most of the people that went north, he failed to accomplish what he set out to do. As a matter of fact, he never even got back home. Not long after arriving in Alaska, a violent thunderstorm caused a large tree to fall on his head. Amazingly, he managed to survive the initial blow, but died three days later in a local hospital.

My parents had originally planned to name me Mark, after my grandfather, but my dad’s sister Josephine gave birth to a son shortly before I was born, and she named HIM Mark.

Since their name of choice was already taken, I was named after a man who was felled be a tree. My middle name came from my maternal grandfather, who was born in County Sligo, Ireland.

One of the 25 goals that I wrote down earlier this year was to visit every state in this country that I haven’t been to yet, so at some point in time, I plan to visit the state where my great uncle met his demise. More than likely, we’ll be traveling to most of those states in an RV (inspired by a couple of trips to RAGBRAI), but the NEXT time that Tom Brennan goes to the Yukon, it will be a much different journey:

let's go cruisin'

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

putting on the ritz

Prior to the advent of the American movie palaces of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the primary form of entertainment in America was vaudeville which enjoyed its peak of popularity from the 1880’s until the 1930’s. Although some elements of vaudeville (such as blackface performers) have faded into obscurity, the wide variety of acts eventually led to variety shows on television, the most prominent of which was the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960’s.

During the dying days of vaudeville, Irving Berlin (composer of White Christmas, THE most popular song ever recorded) wrote a song titled “Putting on the Ritz”. Although a musical of the same name was released in 1930, the most famous historical version is Fred Astaire’s performance in the movie “Blue Skies” in 1946:

go get 'em, twinkletoes

Even at his best, Michael Jackson simply could not compare to Fred Astaire, who was 60 years old when “Blue Skies” was filmed.

In 1981, a much traveled musician named Taco released an updated version of the song that also managed to bring in elements of the original vaudeville performances:

Although both versions of the song are fascinating to watch (as is the “Young Frankenstein” version of 1974) , the common theme to all of them is that no matter what your circumstances are in life, if you can somehow manage to convey an image of prosperity, you’ll do just fine.

Friday, August 6, 2010

eight days with a biker gang

Starting in May of 1965, the late Hunter S. Thompson spent a year living with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and ultimately published a book titled “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs”.

Born To Be Wild

Ultimately, Thompson made a fair amount of money from the book, which led to a number of other successful publications, but he had to suffer through a Hell’s Angels “stomping” in order to get to that point.

July 31 marked the end of my personal journey with a local biker gang. Although it was a very memorable experience, I didn’t suffer any ill effects from the trip, and I’m already looking forward to my next encounter with the gang, which will probably be a year from now.

In 1972, two feature writers from the Des Moines Register (John Karras and Donald Kaul) decided that it would be fun to ride their bicycles from the west coast of Iowa to the east coast of Iowa, a journey of approximately 450 miles. They invited some of their readers to join them, and when “the great six day bicycle ride” officially kicked off on August 26, 1973, 300 cyclists met in Sioux City, Iowa. Among the group was 83 year old Clarence Pickard of Indianola, who completed the entire trip on a used ladies Schwinn bicycle, while dressed in long underwear, a long sleeve shirt, trousers, and a silver pith helmet.

The name of the event was changed to RAGBRAI in 1975, and Roman numerals were adopted for the first time. (RAGBRAI is an acronym for Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) The trip that was completed this week was RAGBRAI XXXVIII

Over the years, the event has become increasingly popular, and the 2010 event included approximately 20,000 cyclists from most of the states in America, as well as several foreign countries. Lance Armstrong has completed the ride a few times, and recent events have always included participants from Livestrong, his charitable organization.

Since 1973, 26 people have died during the ride itself or from injuries suffered on the ride, but the majority of those deaths were from heart attacks suffered while resting. One of the RAGBRAI riders actually got hit by a deer last year, but managed to escape with only minor injuries.

Our daughter Kelly completed her first RAGBRIA in 2008, and was joined by her mom (the RV driver) in 2009. This year, I brought along my ancient Peugeot racing bike, and completed two days of hard core riding that totaled about 150 miles.

This year’s ride featured TWO weddings:

Rick and Mary Lynn

Kim and Sue at the Tiki Bar

After the wedding in Clear Lake, the new bride attached her bridal veil to the back of her helmet for the remainder of the ride.

It’s also been rumored that there have been at least a few children who were conceived during a RAGBRAI, which brings to mind Stephen King’s 1977 novel, “ Children of the Corn”

The stated purpose of RAGBRAI is to complete a bicycle ride, but the event has evolved far beyond that simple idea. Until you’ve actually witnessed the sight of thousands of bicyclists gliding over the rolling hills of Iowa, it’s nearly impossible to describe a ride that is literally poetry in motion.

I actually met “the banana man” this year, as well as one of the Elvis impersonators, and I had the pleasure of devouring the best pork chop I’ve ever had, courtesy of “Mr. Pork Chop”, who came to the event is a pink school bus with a pig’s snout painted on the front. On my second day of riding, “team Heifer” flew by on a black and white tandem, dressed in matching black and white costumes, with a cow’s tail flying stiffly in the breeze behind them.

By the end of week, the 12 members of our team had literally evolved to the point of family, and the host families that we encountered along the route weren’t far from that. Our “family” this year included Jim and Lisa in Sioux City, Mike and Cindy in Storm Lake, Bob and Donna in Clear Lake, Trisha and Tony in Waterloo, and Dan and Bev in Manchester, as well as the group of people pictured below:

Both of our kids live in a neighborhood of Chicago where weekly shootings are pretty much taken for granted, so it’s refreshing to be reminded of the fact that there ARE still cities in America where people don’t feel a need to lock their doors at night, and where it’s not all unusual for a dad to take his pre-teen sons on hunting expeditions.

The RAGBRAI route changes every year, and this year’s event started out in Sioux City, just like the original. Along the way, we passed through Clear Lake, which necessitated a stop in the cornfield where Buddy Holly passed away in 1959:

Hunter S. Thompson was the originator of the writing style called “gonzo journalism”. To quote Steve Martin, Thompson was definitely “a wild and crazy guy”, as evidenced by the quote below:

“I wouldn't recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me.” - Hunter S. Thompson

In spite of the fact that he probably would have had trouble riding a bicycle around the block, he DID offer a few tidbits of wisdom that could be applied directly to RAGBRAI.

One of them is this one:

"The person who doesn't scatter the morning dew will not comb gray hairs" - Hunter S. Thompson

If you translate that phrase into English, he’s telling us that only those brave souls who get out early in the morning to pedal like madmen on their bicycles will live to have a long and happy life.

He also offered the following piece of advice for NEXT YEAR’S event:

"Buy the ticket, take the ride." - Hunter S. Thompson