Monthly Archives: June 2012

A Life Too Short – Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

(Today marks the 3rd Anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.  Yes, it’s been three years since he passed away.  And it made me think back to those strange sad days.  I was lucky enough to attend the funeral, and wrote about it back then, and in honor of the anniversary, I thought I’d post it once more.  If you’ve seen it before, a new column will be up shortly, so please excuse my indulgence and come back soon.  And thank you.)

July 8, 2009:

What you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center yesterday.

Yes, you saw the crying family, the heaped accolades, the well-deserved praises and the joyful singing.  You might have even seen the crowd walking in, with their gold and silver wristbands, denoting whether you got to enter the actual event(gold), or were relegated to the smaller Nokia Center (silver) across the way to watch it on video.

I had a gold wristband.  Did I win it in the massive email raffle that threatened to crash the internet?  Nope, wasn’t that lucky.  But I did have a good friend who had a friend in Scotland who was unlucky enough to win.  I say unlucky, because once he had the code, he couldn’t get a flight out in time to be here. So he gave the code to my friend, Salena, who invited me.

Was I the biggest Michael fan?  No.  I never bought the shiny single glove or the red leather jacket, and only ever attempted to moonwalk (badly) on skates.  But was Michael a part or my life?  You can ask anyone from 5 to 50 the same question, and if answered honestly, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”.  Growing up, I’d listen to the music of Michael and his brothers as my mother and I struggled to make ends meet on her single income.  A cassette of “Thriller” escorted me through England and Europe in the 80’s, and I met people who didn’t speak my language there.  But they knew those songs.  We all knew those songs.  His music is part of the soundtrack of our lives… all our lives.

Now, there’s a strange vibe about this event.  Yes, the King of Pop is dead.  Yes, we all know that.  It’s not in dispute.  But the event itself is a living thriving thing.  It pulses with life and energy and joy and grief, all intertwined.  When I left work on Monday, my staff told me to have a good time, to have fun.  I readily accepted these wishes, but then was staggered.

This was a Memorial event…. akin to a public funeral.  With 9,000 special guests, and 17,500 more attendees.  How do you dress for something like this?  How do you act?  What is the etiquette we follow?  This was not a Head of State.  Not Royalty. Not a politician, or war hero, or great scientist.

No, this was an entertainer… possibly one of the greatest entertainers that ever lived.  This Memorial could never be a somber, sullen affair.  This had to be a celebration, a time of remembrance, of shared joy and shared grief.

And what you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center.

You may have seen Smokey Robinson read the telegrams and messages of remembrance from those who couldn’t be there.  But you didn’t experience the long reverent silence that followed.  Not really.  Some commentators filled in on TV, from what I understand, but being there, in the arena, the minutes of respectful quiet was a centering experience.

The familyYou saw the gold coffin, draped in roses, being escorted in by the mourning brothers.  But you didn’t feel the almost electrical jolt that pulled 20,000 people to their feet as they realized what was happening.  The applause you heard was the joy and grief of 20,000 people being given the honor of giving Michael his final standing ovation.  And while you may have seen the family sit back down, you didn’t see that every other person in the Staples Center waited until they were sitting again before they sat themselves.

Our Memorial programs were collections of letters and pictures, but no listing of speakers and guests, so we were as surprised as you as each new person came up to speak and honor Michael.  The entire arena seemed to hold its collective breath as Queen Latifah read Maya Angelou’s touching heartfelt poem to Michael “We Had Him.”  When Stevie Wonder said that “This was a moment I wished I didn’t live to see come,” we were all up on that stage with him.

My friend Salena held herself well until Brooke Shields began to cry and then it was over for her.  And as Shields read from Atoine de Saint-Expurey’s the Little Prince, you could imagine Michael in his possibly greatest role, the one he never got to play… because he was living it instead.

You may have heard the random shout-outs and blessings to Michael and the Jackson family, but you didn’t see the Japanese girl weeping softly behind us, rocking herself and whispering “I love you, Michael. Sayonara, Michael” over and over.  Occasionally, she would reach out inconsolably as if she could touch him.

But when Marlon spoke, choking back tears, asking Michael to hug his twin brother(Brandon, who died at birth from respiratory failure), and was followed by 11-year-old Paris-Michael Jackson, who choked out her simple declaration of love for her father and caused 20,000 people to want to rise as one to hug her and comfort her in her grief, we knew we were embarrassingly, heartbreakingly in the presence of a greater truth.

Because as much as he was idolized and adored by his fans and followers… as much as he was one of the best-selling artists of all time…  as much as he was celebrated and scandalized in his lifetime… as much as he was a great many things to a great many people… in the end, it came down to an eleven-year-old girl who put it all into the proper perspective:  He was a human being and a beloved person.  A father.  A brother.  A son.  A part of a large and loving (and even sometimes dysfunctional) family.  And like a great many families, when someone is taken too young, the void left behind is great and deep.  Sometimes it takes a great many to start building the bridge across the chasm.   Sometimes strangers can help.  20,000 of us tried yesterday.

So for those who would disdain the event as undignified or self-serving or too carnival-like, too Hollywood… for those who can’t comprehend the simple act of honoring another human being for their life and ignoring their shortfalls… for those who don’t understand that a larger-than-life public figure can also have a very different private life… for those whose hearts are too small and closed to understand that mourning and celebration can go hand in hand, and that grief shared is grief divided… to those people, I can only say one thing…

What you saw on television was not what we saw inside the Staples Center yesterday.


Childhood’s End – Part I

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are

I blame Maurice Sendak.  It’s all his fault.  And when he died last month at the age of 83, it all came back.

This is about the things we carry from childhood into the rest of our lives.

There are stories that shape us, stories that teach us new ways to look at the world.  If you’re lucky, you read one of those when you were young.  If you’re very lucky, you might write one of those.  And if you’re truly blessed, you might write more than one.

I learned to read very early on.  Until high school, I was usually the most widely read person in my class.  I read everything.  I never got beat up, because I always asked bullies to let me finish this chapter first, and they lost interest.  A teacher later called me an “omnivorous” reader.  Since I didn’t recognize that word, I went and looked it up.  And it was true.

Luckily for me, my mother recognized this early on, and always kept the shelved stocked with books.  I tore through Dr. Seuss in the summer before 1st grade.  By third grade, I had moved to Jack London and Lewis Carroll.  Because she never censored or forbid me from reading anything in the house, I raided her Harold Robbins novels, and in 4th grade, I may not have understood why things were “turgid” or “heaving” but I knew it must be good.   A 4-volume set called the Life Cycle Library taught me about reproduction in 3rd grade, so I didn’t understand why it was such a hush-hush thing to talk about it in 6th grade Sex Ed.  You want to talk about where babies come from?  Sure, what do you wanna know?

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.

But the first book I ever bought with my own money was a slim little volume, maybe 48 pages, that was more picture than word.  That book was “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak.  I remember seeing the blurb in my schools book club flyer and liking the art.  So I carefully gathered my nickels and dimes together and placed my order, and when I got it, I took it home and devoured it.  It’s slight in terms of verbiage, running just over 330 words.

But in those 330 or so words…

My first inspiration

If you haven’t read it, then your childhood was for naught.  Telling the story of a wild child named Max, who goes on a fantastical journey to a lush island to become King of the Wild Things, “Where the Wild Things Are” opened my eyes to what was possible… how powerful we children were.  Because of our imaginations.  Our wonderful, terrible imaginations.  This was special secret knowledge, and it must have slipped through the barrier of “you’ll understand when you’re older.”

Knowing this, I hid the book under my mattress, because if my parents ever found out about this, there must be terrible repercussions.  They couldn’t know anything about this.  So I hid it away and read it in secret, my wonderful private piece of truth.  They first thing I ever remember hiding from my mother.

But one day, I accidentally left the book out, and my mother walked in, and the book was right there, right in the middle of the floor.  I held my breath, not listening to a word she said, making acknowledging sounds.  Chores?  Uh-huh.  Homework?  Sure.  Feed the dishes, eat the dog?  OK, fine. Yeah, mom, I feel great, why?

And when she left without commenting on the book, I realized something…

Oh my god, my parents are blind!!  They must be, to ignore something ticking like a time bomb right in front of them!!  How could she not see it?  Or maybe something more…. Maybe the force of my will was so great that I made her not see it.

Or maybe… maybe it was something else.  Something darker.

Maybe when you grew up, you forgot the power in words, in images.  The sense of wonder.  The limitlessness of your mind.  Maybe it got shrunk by bills, and work, and daily mundane chores, and even by us kids themselves.  Maybe it grew dim and faded under the weight of numbers and calendars and books without pictures.

Or maybe you chose to let it go, because it was easier to lead a simple, unimagined life than to live with the weight of what you had lost.  Peter Pan took Wendy and the boys to Neverland, but when she grew old, she lost the strength of her Happy Thoughts.  Maybe that’s what happened to my parents.

“Then from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat, so he gave up being king of the wild things.”

Max’s mother sent him to his room, and he ended up in another place completely, but was still home in time for a warm supper.  Because that’s what parents do.  They give us roots and wings.  I look forward to the day when I can share this book with my children.

Or even better, pretend I don’t notice it on their floor.   And see where their imaginations take them.

I write not because I want to be rich and famous (though I do), or because I want to leave a legacy of some kind (also true), but because I want someone to feel the same things I felt when I first read that books.  I want a reader to realize how great and complex and beautiful and tragic and emotional and ordinary and extraordinary the world is.  And it all started with “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Like I said, I blame Maurice Sendak.  And bless his every breath.

What book did it for you?

“Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”
As quoted in “Questions to an Artist Who Is Also an Author : A Conversation between Maurice Sendak and Virginia Haviland (1972) by Virginia Haviland”
Maurice Sendak