Friday, July 31, 2009

Book Signing at Local Art Fair

I will be signing copies of my new book, Last Hand: A Suburban Memoir of Cards and the Cold War Era at the Arlington Heights Art Guild’s 38th annual art fair "A Walk in the Park" at North School Park on Sunday, August 23rd.

The book, Last Hand: A Suburban Memoir of Cards and the Cold War Era, is a tale of the life and death of an American Cold War family living in Arlington Heights. The book takes the reader on a journey back to a bygone era before laptop computers, digital TV, and cell phones. The reader experiences the carefree summer days of the 1970s, attends public school, enjoys holiday traditions, rides along on a summer road trip, and sits in on a game of the all-but-forgotten (but once popular) game of pinochle.

The book is a blend of family memoir with social and cultural history. It portrays the changes occurring around greater Chicago, as the book recounts the migration from the city to the suburbs after World War II and the growth of the Chicago metropolitan area as the new expressways, shopping centers, and subdivisions appeared. In addition to family lore, the story is infused with the music, entertainment, customs, and local recreation of the time, making it clear why this era was so unique in American history.

You can learn more about the book and read excerpts at the book's website:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Death of a Legend

The news of Walter Cronkite’s death may not seem too significant to younger Americans. And while I wasn't a huge fan of Walter Cronkite in later years, there is little doubt as to his influence on the American psyche of his time. There have been many newscasters since but there was something about Walter Cronkite that made him unique that is difficult to describe to a younger person. To say simply he was the most trusted man on TV doesn’t convey what that really meant at that time. It’s hard for a twenty-something to have a feel for the cultural significance of network TV before the advent of cable. And Walter Cronkite was THE TV Network anchorman icon of the Cold War Era. It wasn’t that the majority of people knew Walter Cronkite, it was that EVERYBODY knew Walter Cronkite. He was part of American culture – like Coca-Cola.

Ed McMahon also died recently. Like Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite, it was as if a family member had passed away. These people where part of your family every evening.

Today there are hundreds of shows and channels to choose from on TV. And there is the internet to occupy our time. Although the country is still tied up to mass media culture, it’s no longer a unifying force but rather a divisive one. Walter Cronkite really represents another America, one that was gone before he died.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Norris Center

While cleaning out a closet recently I came across a poster my brother Steve did for the Norris Center while he was a student at Northwestern University. Steve was a film student at Northwestern from 1979 until 1983. I remember him working many hours at the Norris Center which is a student center at the university. When Scott and I would visit him, he was always busy doing some art project for them. He made t-shirts and posters. Scott and I would drag him away to play pool or ping pong and maybe a game or two of Robotron.

Steve even made a cool promotional film for the Norris Center. I didn’t see the film until fairly recently. They showed on the day that they were dedicating a plaque in Steve’s honor, remembering his work in film and his Norris Center roots. So, if by chance, someday you’re visiting the Northwestern University Campus, stop by the Norris Center, and play a game of pool. And, if you still have time, go and ask to see Steve’s plaque and artwork display.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

They Bankrupted Themselves

I remember it well. It was November 9th , my brother Steve’s birthday, 1989, when the Berlin Wall was opened so that East Germans could travel freely into West Berlin. I had taken that semester off from college in order to make enough money to continue my studies. What did I study? German and History. So, there I was, washing glasses at the bar and grill I worked at, looking up at the TV screen as one of the most significant events in German history was taking place. I was in Berlin just two summers before in June 1987, about a week before Ronald Reagan gave his famous “Tear down this wall” speech. I knew on November 9th that I’d go back again.

That was the beginning of the end for the Eastern Block countries and ultimately the Soviet Union. Everyone in the media seemed surprised at the events taking place. There was some uncertainty as to what might happen next. Would the Soviets intervene? To anyone really paying attention what happened wasn’t all that surprising. The fact was the Soviet Union was bankrupt. So was East Germany. The socialist utopians bankrupted themselves and with it destroyed the quality of life for billions of people. Could there have been military action on the part of the Soviets? Maybe, but they were tired. They didn’t have any money. Their economy was in the crapper. The other Eastern Block countries were equally or more broke than the Soviet Union. There just wasn’t anything left. The East Germans were pretty lucky because they had wealthy cousins in the West. For them there was a future and the hope of capitalism and freedom. Others would try to make their way west to find hope. And many did, here in the United States.

Now Berlin is a different city, a very beautiful and modern city. But looking back on those days I can’t help but wonder, what would have it been like if there was no West to provide that hope of capitalism and freedom? Would mankind have endured another Dark Ages? Or will it yet? We just may live find out.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thoughts of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

When I was a little boy of about four or five, I used to love Disney movies like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I enjoyed the songs and the creative dancing. I guess that’s not so uncommon for a little kid. But there was something about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that always freaked me out slightly; the Child-Catcher.

The Child Catcher serves the evil Baroness of Vulgaria (a country were children are imprisoned). Regardless of how brave I may have been as a five year old, the Child Catcher always scared me. Probably because he was so freaky looking with his long straight black hair, pale skin, and oddly shaped nose. He dressed all in black but darned a colorful robe to entice children.

The scene where the Child Catcher kidnaps two of the children in the story is always what frightened me most. He disguised what was a caged carriage to look like a circus carriage, like one you might see at an amusement park, to ensnare the kids. He was sneaky offering the kids sweets and goodies as he sung out to them.

You’re probably wondering, why, at the age of forty-two, would I be thinking of the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Well, that should be obvious. His funeral has been shown on just about every TV station in the country. I know what you’re thinking…”No, Tom, that’s Michael Jackson’s funeral.” But I’m here to say, I think Michael Jackson transformed himself into the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. If not, it’s a bizarre coincidence. I mean, it’s bizarre several ways. First, is the fact that when the movie came out in 1968, Michael Jackson was an impressionable nine years old. Second, is the unusual similarity in appearance. And the third weird connection would be the child molestation charges combined with the enticing Neverland ranch.

What puzzles me is our culture’s fascination with Michael Jackson. Sure, he was very talented but there many talented people on TV and radio. His music was very popular but there are other popular artists like the Beatles who I think are tied to the culture. If I’m around when Paul McCartney dies, I don’t expect around-the-clock coverage on every channel. I must be completely out of touch because I can’t think of anyone whether entertainer or world leader or anyone in between that should be covered by the media as Michael Jackson’s death has been treated. Maybe I can’t relate simply because he reminds me so much of the Child Catcher. At least I can finally put that childhood fear to rest today.