Category Archives: Personal

…you weren’t here long enough.

19905403_10154873073733251_8429214582927218739_nSadly, our Bay City Central Class of 1988 has lost another of our classmates too soon. After nearly eight months of battling a brain tumor, Rehana Khan-Brown is now at peace. She died Sunday night, July 9, at her home in Bay City—just a few days shy of her 47th birthday—surrounded by family and loved ones.

I was casually friendly with Rehana in high school. Thanks to Facebook, we were able to re-connect and, over the years, shared common interests and commented on one another’s threads. Occasionally, we’d exchange messages back and forth; usually dealing with something politics-related we read and wanted to talk about it. One time she even said I should run for president. I’m reasonably certain she was joking, but the sentiment wasn’t lost on me.

The thing I’ve learned the past few days is just how many people’s lives Rehana touched. The outpouring of sentiment she received on Facebook has been incredible to see.

I don’t pretend to be a close friend to Rehana. We were acquaintances, at best; certainly friendly with one another, but I’m way down at the end of the bench on this depth chart. That being said, I’m glad I was on her team. We were a part of a larger collective that holds together pretty tightly to this day. My heart is with those who knew her best; her closest friends and family.

One thing I always appreciated about Rehana is she co-organized our one and only official class reunion. It took place in 1998. It is my sincere hope that someone—or a group of someones—can come together to plan a 30-year reunion.

Maybe that’s trivial (and certainly the least of our worries today), but I think Rehana would like that. After all, what better way to honor her than with a celebration?

Years ago, Rehana posted to my FB wall, “You’re my hero!” We joked about it at the time. I don’t recall the context of that statement at all. I’m guessing it had something to do with the upcoming general election. Anyway, it made me laugh; including her insistence I “just take the compliment.”

Truth is, she’s the heroic one. Faced with the battle of a lifetime, she gave cancer everything she had for eight months. She fought for her life. She fought for her family. To this day, I marvel at her strength and courage to stare into that diagnosis and choose to never give up. To put yourself through that sort of fight requires strength, love and courage that I can’t even begin to imagine.

If you’re looking for a hero, THAT is a hero.

Anyway…I’m very sad that we lost Rehana this weekend. My sincerest condolences go to her family; especially her kids. This isn’t about me, but I know what it’s like to lose a parent too soon. So…yeah. I feel for them the most.

You weren’t here long enough, Rehana, but you packed an awful lot of love and living into your nearly 47 years. We all should live a life as full as yours.

Peace be with you on your journey.

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breakfast with dad at 4 a.m. in las vegas.

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Mom & Dad, circa 1994. I think this was at the ARCOM prom that year.

I’ve told this story about my dad a few times to folks, but I don’t think I ever wrote it down. Back in April 2000, my parents and I went to Las Vegas for a quick, four-day vacation. It was our second trip to Vegas. We stayed at the Imperial Palace (now the Linq) and got into town early in the day.

Back in 2000, Dad and I were dealers Blue Chip Casino. It seems kinda silly in hindsight, but back then, it felt like Vegas dealers were the major leagues of dealers. We both fancied ourselves decent dealers and decent blackjack players, so it was a chance to watch Vegas dealers to see where we stacked up. We weren’t jerks about it, though.

On that first afternoon in town, we sat down at a 21 table at Harrah’s while Mom was off playing a slot machine. We were the only players at this table. I don’t recall what our hands were, but I do remember the dealer was showing a six and flipped over an ace and proceeded to take a hit. Both Dad and I yelled, “whoa!” The dealer looked at us like we were idiots because, in Las Vegas, the dealers hit a soft 17. It’s written right on the tables.

Once Dad and I realized we were idiots, we both put out dealer bets on our next hand as a mutual act of contrition. It was our way of saying, “you aren’t an idiot, sir. We are the idiots.” The dealer laughed about it.

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Family Christmas, 1990-something. Not sure why Major looks like we’re choking him. But the worst tragedy in this photo is my Cosby sweater…and my hair.

We made our way down to the Venetian, which was still being built during our first trip in 1999. It was an out-of-this-world experience walking through the casino. Dad and I sat down at a Caribbean Stud table (good luck finding one of those in Vegas anymore). It was hard to not be mesmerized by the sheer opulence of the place. The marble floors, the paintings on the ceiling, cocktail drinks in actual glasses…it was something. “It’s like playing cards at the Vatican,” I said to Dad while we were losing at the worst card game in the world.

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Dad, circa 1968, before Shawn & I were born. I have no idea where he is in this photo.

Later that night after dinner, we knocked around the Imperial Palace gaming floor. I was playing double-deck pitch blackjack—which was relatively rare on the Strip in 2000. Dad walked up and jumped into the game. He’d never played before and seemed to need constant reminder on a few simple rules: hold the cards with one hand only, scratch the table for a hit, tuck the cards under your bet to hold. He kept wanting to hold his cards with both hands, much to the chagrin of every dealer we had. He eventually got the hang of it.

I don’t remember what time we sat down at the table to play, but pretty soon it was about 4 or 5 a.m. and we both ended up getting our asses kicked. “Let’s go get breakfast,” Dad said to me as we were walking away from the table. “Should we go get Mom?” I asked. “Nah,” Dad replied. Now, this led to a bit of a tense situation later on. I tried to warn him. I swear, I tried to warn him. Anyway…

On the escalator ride up to the restaurant, Dad and I were quietly reflecting on the ass kicking we just took at the blackjack table. Looking over the ledge of the escalator as we were near the top, I turned to Dad and said, “You want to throw yourself off first or should I go?”

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One of my all-time favorite photos. This was July 2, 1990. We were on our way back from Chicago after seeing the Tigers vs. the White Sox at old Comiskey Park. Just east of Gary, the engine blew a rod, bringing us to a grinding halt on the highway. As you can see, Dad was pretty stressed by the whole thing.

After breakfast, we made our way to the room. The sun was already rising, lighting up the morning sky. Dad and I were (mostly) sobered up, but our noise ended up waking up Mom. I think she brewed herself a cup of coffee as she listened to Dad and I replay the carnage at our blackjack table. “So,” Mom said after the story. “Should we go get breakfast?”

I wasted no time throwing Dad under the bus. “I told you,” I said. “I told you we should’ve gotten her.” I know, I know. Not cool, dude. I get it. I panicked, I admit it.

Mom was NOT happy with our decisions. While we slept, she went downstairs and gambled.

That trip was 17 years ago. Dad died a few months later, unexpectedly. I was a couple months shy of my 30th birthday when he died. It was a gut punch that never goes away. But I have a lifetime of good memories about Dad that I carry with me. That late-night /early-morning breakfast we shared to lick our wounds is one of my favorite grown-up memories. I’m sorry it came at my mother’s expense, but I’m not sorry that we had our own father-son bonding over eggs and bacon, replaying our mutual ass kicking and how we’ll do better the next night. I couldn’t tell you a single thing we talked about; probably about dealing, which hands really killed us and what we’ll do differently after a few hours of sleep.

Over the years, I’ve met lots of people who didn’t have a good relationship with their fathers; or some soured into adulthood to the point where they no longer speak to them. I feel bad for them. Even though I will always feel cheated out of 20 or 30 good years with my dad, I’ll never live with regret over our relationship. But I’m sure I speak for the both of us that we both might regret not walking away from that blackjack table about an hour or two earlier. It might’ve saved us from two ass kickings that night and early morning.

Lest you think Father’s Day is a sad day for me, it’s not. Even though I only had him for 29 years and some change, I realize I had it better than most. So, no, Father’s Day is still a good day for me because I’m thankful and happy for what Dad gave me while he was here.

So, Happy Father’s Day, Dad. You left us too soon, but you were the best while you were here.

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monday, 14 may 2007: the decision that changed everything.

000_0459Ten years ago today, I started working for the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. At the time I took that job, I told myself it was going to be a major turning point in my career.

I said this because it fulfilled several goals for me:

  1. I wanted to work in a downtown office in a big building (Chamber’s offices were on the 19th floor of Chase Tower, Indiana’s tallest building)
  2. I wanted a job that connected me to the movers and shakers in Indy
  3. I wanted a job that expanded my role and responsibilities

With those three boxes checked, I immediately believed my career and life trajectory would take a drastic turn, thanks to the Chamber opening doors for me. I was only half right. Ten years ago today, my life’s trajectory took a drastic turn. But it never went to where I expected.

I had it all going for me. So why did I leave that job after one year and eight months? “Mid-life crisis,” is how I usually answer that question, jokingly, but it was more than that. So let’s take a look back in time, eh?

This is where the story begins.

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Chase Tower (now called Salesforce Tower). The tallest building in Indiana is smack-dab in the middle of Indianapolis. And I loved working there.

May 2007: Suite 1950
That was (and is) the Indy Chamber’s suite address at Chase Salesforce Tower in downtown Indianapolis. Truly an impressive structure, it is the tallest skyscraper in Indiana. Each day, I would be going to work in the heart of Indianapolis. While some folks hate the Urban Jungle, I love it. “Welcome, Kevin MacDonald” was written on a printed sign, greeting me as I pushed open the glass double doors on my first day. I walked down the hall, past a small cube farm—a cubicle “garden,” if you will—took a right at the Chamber president’s corner office and arrived at my office, about a third the way down the hall. There it was. My own office on the eastern side of 19th floor of the Tower. I felt important. I felt like a bigshot. I really did.

I’ll spare you the day-to-day details of my tenure there because, really, it’ll sound like the goings-on at any office in America.

The reality is my Chamber gig was great. But it was a volatile place. Not in the sense that people were screaming at each other and you’d have to duck a stapler being thrown at you. It was more subtle than that; more understated than that. Turnover there was high, that I recall. I did the math on it once and it was something like nearly 10 people had left over the course of a year or something.

It was a pressure-cooker job, but that didn’t bother me. I loved the Chamber and everything we were trying to accomplish while I worked there. In fact, I am still very loyal to that place. Sure, my frustration with certain elements of the job led me to bang my head against a wall to ease the pain, but isn’t that the same at any job? Truth is, I bought into the Chamber’s mission. It was an organization founded by Col. Eli Lilly to make Indianapolis a better place. That truly meant something to me.

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Riding the elevator to the 19th floor. Clearly, I was a serious man with a serious job.

My All-Time Favorite Chamber Experience
Working for the Chamber also availed be access to the major players in the business community as well as the political community. Even though I was a bit player at the Chamber, I was still privy to knowledge of big doins’ around town. My favorite story is of the city’s successful bid to land Super Bowl XLVI. It was May 2008 when Indy’s host committee presented before the NFL owners. Local businesswoman and past Chamber board chair Cathy Langham was on that committee.

Having met her and spoken with her at several Chamber events in the past, I asked her to call me with the results of the vote. I had a Post-It note with her cell phone number stuck to my computer monitor, in case I didn’t hear from her. She called me immediately following the vote to tell me we won the bid. This moment in my professional history is one of my all-time favorite moments because, for about 10 – 20 seconds, I knew something REALLY BIG before anyone else in Indianapolis knew.

About the time I hung up the phone, I could hear other phones ringing around the offices and cheers of “we got it!” Within minutes, it was breaking news on local television. But for about 10 seconds, thanks to my connection with Cathy, I knew before anyone else.

No, I can’t put that on a résumé, but it represents one of the more unique and interesting aspects of working for the Chamber.

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The road to this place…

About That “Mid-life Crisis”
Yeah, about that. Around the same time I was working at the Chamber, I had another goal, competing with my realized Chamber goals. For those who don’t know me, this particular life goal I’m referencing may seem like it’s out of nowhere. In some ways, it was, but it was what I wanted and in my head, I started to plot and plan for it right around New Year 2008.

What is this life goal? I wanted to be a dice dealer at a resort on the Las Vegas Strip. As a communications manager for the Indy Chamber, I couldn’t have been farther away from that goal. I hadn’t been a dealer since about May 2001. That’s a long hiatus for a job that requires some intense mathematical skill as well as the manual dexterity to not look like an idiot, fumbling cheques all over a dice table. But as the weeks and months went by, the desire to be a dealer again grew with every passing day.

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…would go through this place: Blue Chip floatin’ Casino! Michigan City, Indiana.

Was I burnt out on being a PR monkey? Maybe, but as my fire for communications seemed to be fading, I became more and more in love with the idea of being a Vegas dealer for a few, simple reasons: I could make decent money at a job that was stress-free (by comparison) and never required me to work extra hours from home. I could go to work, do my job, then go home and not think about it until my next shift. That seemed so desirable at the time. It really did.

Of course, that also meant bidding adieu to my favorite side hustle of all time: PA announcer for the IUPUI Jaguars athletics program. I had just wrapped up seven-ish seasons of working the mic for every men’s and women’s home basketball game (save one, when a flat tire sidelined me), a few softball games and most of the men’s and women’s soccer matches. At the time, I thought this was the end of my era. So did they. The good people of IUPUI even honored me at the final home game of the 2007 season with a plaque in recognition of my time there. It was humbling, but nice to be appreciated. Sure, at the time, we all thought that was the end of the road for me. But I pulled a Jordan (or a Magic, or a KISS) and came out of retirement when I got back to Indy in 2010, working another three years or so before officially retiring. No, they did not give me a plaque this time, but we parted on positive terms.

Welcome Back!
As for becoming a Vegas dice dealer, I knew I couldn’t simply pack my life into my Blazer and skip across country on a lark. For one, the casinos have gone corporate. They no longer will take an audition from someone in black-and-whites who wanders in, just because you asked. And two, I hadn’t dealt in seven years at that point. I had to “get my dealing hands back,” as I told people.

To do that, I turned to an old friend: Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Indiana. I worked there for about a year and a half in between my job at IU South Bend and IUPUI. Blue Chip welcomed me back with open arms, offering me full-time employment as a dice dealer on the graveyard shift. I took it. I still remember taking the phone call from John, the shift manager, when he offered me the job. “We want you to come back,” he said on the phone. It sounds corny, but that meant something to me, hearing that. It felt good to know I was appreciated (well, before I got on a live dice game again, at least).

Amidst several familiar faces and many more new ones, I made my return to the gaming floor over Fourth of July weekend 2008. My very first shift was all blackjack, highlighted by getting stuck on a table for the first 2-1/2 hours of my night, thanks to a shift manager who had forgotten about my table. “Welcome back!” he said, once alerted to the problem. That guy’s in prison now (for other reasons we don’t need to discuss).

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My Chamber office. One of the coolest offices I’ll ever have.

Meanwhile, Back at the Chamber
The good people at the Chamber allowed me to work part-time, remotely for a few months. Initially, the arrangement was…well, let’s be honest: it was a struggle for everyone. Working a graveyard shift meant I was trying to do Chamber work when I should’ve been sleeping. I ended up taking projects to the casino with me and writing news releases, newsletter articles and whatnot during my 20-minute breaks. It was hard for everyone involved; harder than they wanted to say (until it had to be said).

I made my way to Indianapolis about once a week or so to check in at the office. But by the time we reached October, it was clear this was no longer working. At the time, it was hard to admit that. But it was the simple truth. I couldn’t be in two places at once—mentally or physically—so I had to make a decision. By the time Halloween 2008 rolled around, I was no longer working at the Chamber.

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Employee #040776 at Wynn Resorts.

By November of the following year, I relocated to Las Vegas and was working as a dice dealer at the Wynn and Encore; the finest resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

I walked away from one goal to pursue another goal. And got it within 18 months.

Mission accomplished and they all lived happily ever after, right? If only…

Oh Yeah…There’s More
What I didn’t tell you is, in the midst of all this mid-life crisis nonsense was, of course, a girrrrrl. I know, I know. Cliché, no?

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On a break in the EDR (employee dining room) during a shift at the Encore.

We met while I was working at the Chamber and started going out. It was going very well until you-know-who decided he had to run off and join the circus and that was more important. Yeah, tell me THAT goes over well with the ladies, am I right? “Sorry, honey. You’re great an all, but I wanna go to a place where I’ll be surrounded by degenerate gamblers, hookers, endless smoking and drinking and all manner of social addictions. Gottagobyeeeeee!” I’m a real charmer, I know.

Out of respect for her, I will not share the details of our conflicts beyond simply saying it didn’t work out. That’s all that needs to be said. I’ll simply say that decision of mine set off a three-year, off-and-on-and-off-and-on-and-off-and-living-together rollercoaster ride of a relationship that never settled into a good place for either of us.

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My first Las Vegas apartment, just as I was moving out. And yes, that’s about as furnished as it ever got.

Our relationship played heavily into my decision to move back to Indiana from Las Vegas in March 2010—not even five months after moving to Vegas. The other major reason was the economy. I was the low man on the totem pole at work and getting very few shifts. There was also a rising sense that I made the jump too soon. Sure, in my heart, I was ready to go to Vegas. But from a rational standpoint, I probably needed a little more time so I could establish myself. The struggle to stay afloat seemed too daunting and, given what the heart wanted at the time, it seemed best to pack up and move back to Indiana. Even though my employment prospects were pretty bleak in that moment, I knew I was coming home to the love and support of family, friends and The Girl.

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On the road back to Indiana, late-March 2009. Gassing up somewhere in America in the middle of the night. I was broke. My car was broke. It was nothing short of an adventure.

We all lived happily ever after, right? Well…fast forward 10 years later, Sunday, 14 May 2017 and here I am. Living in Las Vegas.

Again.

How did that happen? I’ll save the rest of the intervening years (2010 – present) for another day. It’s an interesting story by itself, but let’s stay focused on my 10-year anniversary of going to work for the Chamber. There’s good reason I want to do that.

The Fulcrum
Even though the jump from the Chamber to Blue Chip in 2008 feels like the turning point for everything that followed, it was really my decision to work for the Chamber in 2007 that served as the true fulcrum; the actual jumping-off point of every life decision I would make to follow. Without my move to the Chamber, none the dominoes that fell to put me where I am today—and where I’ve been over the past 10 years—would’ve have fallen the same way. Again, goes back to that “trajectory” thing. Moving to the Chamber set the course.

My stint with the Chamber has also cast a long shadow over the past 10 years of my life; mostly in a good way. Other times, not so much. Either way, I embrace it all. Sure, there were a few more bumps in the road than I would’ve preferred, but that’s life, man. There will always be bumps in the road. How you navigate over them and around is what matters.

There is no moral to this story; no fairytale ending or any of that crap. It’s a simple reflection on a moment in time in a series of moments in time that proved more pivotal than I ever anticipated. I thought I was just taking a new job that would advance my career. It turned out to be so much more than that.

As I sit here, less than a month away from embarking on a new professional journey, I can’t help but consider the parallels between then and now. Just as I did 10 years ago, I approach my unwritten future with excitement and happiness.

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Somehow, I ended up back in Vegas. Go figure.

How Did I Get Here?
There are mornings when I’m driving to work and I catch myself admiring the mountains in the distance that surround Las Vegas. I’ll turn off NPR and drive in silence, appreciating the Sheep Range mountains to the north, which loom over my morning commute, every Monday thru Friday.

I’ll look across the skyline to the east and trace the outline of iconic Las Vegas Strip resorts—the Stratosphere, standing tall like a needle in the desert; the Wynn, like a piece of shiny, curved glass, gleaming in the sun; the High Roller, slowly rotating like a giant bicycle wheel. As I approach downtown, I laugh at the fact that I’ve passed no less than five local casinos to get to work…and lament that I have to drive directly into a tangle of highways colloquially known by locals as “The Spaghetti Bowl.”

I allow myself to appreciate the scenery, the weather, the gigantic tourist attraction that pays my taxes (thank you, tourists!) and another day of drawing breath, and I ask myself, “how the hell did I get here?”

The answer: it all started on Monday, the 14th of May, 2007, when I went to work for the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce…

Sure, the last four or five years have been every bit the roller coaster as that 2007 – 12 stretch, but we’ll save that for another day. In the meantime, I will never stop appreciating everything—and the support of everyone—that led me to this moment.

Even the bumps along the way.

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Filed under Indiana, Indianapolis, IUPUI Jaguars, Las Vegas, Life, Personal

…until we meet again.

NYE-1993

Brit, TJ & I on New Year’s Eve, 1993.

I got the call yesterday that an old friend from my college days died. Even though TJ and I hadn’t spoken in several years, the news hit me like a kick in the gut. It knocked the wind out of me and left me at a complete loss for words. TJ and I met sometime during my freshman year of college. Our paths crossed often, as we ran among the same circles of friends. Like a VENN diagram, our paths kept crossing.

Somewhere along the way, our mutual interest in music clicked—probably when I learned he worked at Camelot Music at University Park Mall—and that’s what set the wheels in motion. Over the next several years TJ and I, along with several other students at IU South Bend—Brit, Tom, Robin, Mark, Pat…and too many others to name here—became the big circle of college friends. Between student newspaper, student government, campus activities, trips to conventions and trips to Florida for Spring Break, these were the people with whom I spent most of my time. Invariably, TJ became something of the hub for all most of us.

All the guys hung out at TJ’s house; “the Den,” as we knew it. Whenever I was hanging out there, I could count on seeing at least two or three other people who’d just show up. Usually, Brit, TJ and I hung out. Or Tom, TJ and I. Or maybe Rob H. would come over. And then Brit’s here again.

It’s a good thing TJ’s parents and sisters were so cool with it, because we spent countless hours in that Osceola basement room of his.

TJ’s collection of CDs rivaled mine; probably dwarfed it, actually. If you recall, this was long before the internet was a thing, so our only conduit to new music was MTV and Camelot Music. TJ had the hookup on the occasional new stuff coming down the pike. Our mutual interest as audiophiles evolved to a point where I purchased a cheap mixing board and would take it to TJ’s house, where we’d record what would be described as podcasts today. Our maiden voyage was TJ, Tom and I. Then, while I was away at Spring Break, TJ and Brit took over and made mixtapes.

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My continued love of Badfinger is all TJ’s fault.

In case you ever wondered whom to blame for my love of the 70s band Badfinger, blame TJ. He stumbled upon original vinyl pressings of Straight Up and No Dice. The sound quality was horrible, through no fault of TJ, but rather whomever previously owned the copies. “It sounds like they were played with a nail,” he once said. But we slapped those albums on cassettes and played the hell out of them on a daily basis.

You may recall me talking about Celestial Navigations recently (featuring actor Geoffrey Lewis in storyteller mode). I hooked into those recordings, courtesy of TJ.

Later on, TJ and I became de facto DJs for our friends’ parties: Kim Hall’s graduation party and Audrey Knoblach’s New Year’s Eve party. What I remember the most about Kim’s party is it rained like a son of a bitch! It poured buckets; so much so, that we had to move the party indoors, off the back porch.

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Halloween 1989: The Phantom (me), the Sky (Tom) & the Joker (TJ).

Music nerd-dom aside, all the time we spent together back then continues to inform my decisions today. No, seriously. TJ was one of the most ridiculously organized people I knew. He had organizational systems for everything. When we were in student government together, I picked up on his systems and have used them in some form ever since. You laugh, but it’s true.

After college, we all went our separate ways, but kept in touch. Around 1997, when I moved back to South Bend for a job, TJ and I began a weekly ritual of getting together every Wednesday night at Mr. D’s for a beer (or three). We kept this ritual until I began working at a casino and my work hours prevented it.

Somewhere around Spring 2001, TJ called me from out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken much lately for the simple fact that we were just living our day-to-day lives. His father had gotten very sick and was in the hospital. From the tone of his voice, I knew it was serious; more than just a routine procedure. I know he reached out because we’re friends. I also assumed he reached out because, not even a year prior, my dad died.

I went up to the hospital the following night. TJ, his sisters, mother and entire extended family were there. Having been in similar situations, I could feel the tension, anxiety and stress in the air. Everyone was pleasant and chatty, but it was clouded by such a palpably nervous atmosphere you could cut it with a knife. I don’t know if everyone there realized how grave it was for TJ’s dad, but they put on brave faces and hoped for the best; TJ included. When I left later that night, TJ walked down to my car with me. This was the only time he let his guard down. I think he knew he had to be strong for his mother and sisters. “Kevin, I’m losing my dad,” he said to me when we were outside. I really didn’t know what to say.

To this day, I regret that. This is not about me, right now, but that always bothered me. I even apologized to TJ a few months later, after his dad died. I felt like I let him down. Having just gone through a similar experience with my dad, you’d think I would be able to offer some words of comfort or wisdom. I had nothing. I think I was too sad, knowing what they were feeling and going through.

And a word, for a moment about TJ’s mother, whom I always loved. At the funeral for TJ’s dad, she said to me (knowing about my dad), “this must be hard for you.” She just lost her husband and she’s looking out for me.

It’s probably been at least 10 years since I last spoke with TJ. The last time we connected was on Myspace, if that tells you anything. I knew he’d gotten married, but that’s about all I knew. Nothing bad happened. There was no falling out or anything. Again, life gets in the way.

Even though we haven’t spoken in years, TJ always remained a friend. He was still a part of one of those circles from way back when, even if that circle got a little less active. After all, most of us in that circle no longer live near one another. TJ moved to the Indianapolis area. I moved to Vegas. Brit’s over in The Region, near Chicago. Tom’s in California. Robin’s in Detroit. And several others I haven’t named have moved around too, I’m sure. If not that, people have families now. It’s fairly cliché, when you stop to think about it.

Anyway…I’ve spent a lot of time tonight reflecting on all those days, nights, weekends, parties, bowling leagues, student government meetings and other nonsense we shared back before I was even 21. Goddamn, we had some fun back then. Yeah, it’s nearly a lifetime ago, but those memories feel like they happened just yesterday. And even though years and miles separate us, I’m glad TJ was a big part of those memories.

But, yeah. It’s still like a kick in the gut today. That being said, I’ll leave it on this song, a favorite of mine and a favorite of TJ’s.

Until we meet again, friend.

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for the love of born in the u.s.a. springsteen’s biggest seller is also his least admired.

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Born in the U.S.A. holds something of a unique position among Bruce Springsteen’s fans. The 1984 album is Springsteen’s most successful by a country mile, topping out at more than 30 million copies to be the 23rd best selling rock album in history. A critical smash as well as commercial one, Born in the U.S.A. was a constant hit factory in the mid-80s. It was also Billboard’s 1985 No. 1 album.

With seven of the album’s 12 songs entering the top 40, Born in the U.S.A. is indelibly embedded into the soundtrack of the 80s:
• Dancing in the Dark
• Cover Me
• Born in the U.S.A.
• I’m On Fire
• Glory Days
• I’m Going Down
• My Hometown

Full of raucous rockers and hopelessly infectious hooks and lyrics, Springsteen was all over the radio airwaves and MTV broadcasts while conquering the globe on a mammoth world tour.

Bruce Live

For many Bruce fans, like me, this album was the gateway into lifelong fandom for his music. Now here’s the funny part: it’s probably the least respected, least discussed and least played among Springsteen fans. It has less to do with its commercialism, too, honestly. By itself, Born in the U.S.A. is great, fun, toe-tapping rock record. But stack it up next to other albums in Bruce’s catalog and it gets dwarfed rather quickly. Born to Run, The River and even The Rising are hailed as bigger, better classics by fans and critics alike. However, upon listening to Born in the U.S.A. again, today—32 years after its release—I’m here to reclaim it as one of Bruce’s finest moments.

Perhaps the reason it gets lost in the shuffle is because, as far as Springsteen albums go, it’s a bit disjointed. Sure, it’s full of big, stadium-rock songs and a couple powerful ballads—several that Bruce still plays in concerts, to great response from his audiences—but there’s no overarching theme or tone that have become staples of Springsteen records. Pluck out albums from different ends of Bruce’s catalog—Darkness on the Edge of Town or Wrecking Ball, for example—and there were obvious threads running through both that tie everything together. Springsteen fans are accustomed to it. With Born in the U.S.A., the songs are great, but play more as a collection of singles more than a contiguous story.

Now, in fairness, the songs are great and, in many ways, darker than people probably remember. Songs of isolation (Dancing in the Dark), anger (Born in the U.S.A.), economic blight (My Hometown), lost love (Bobby Jean) and brotherhood (No Surrender). But in the 80s, people seemed to completely miss the message. That was no more evident than general response to the title track. A song about the struggle of Vietnam vets when they came home was mistaken for some sort of Sousa march. Even Ronald Reagan thought it was a flag-waving, patriotic anthem. I was 13 years old the first time I heard the song. Even I knew what it was about. It’s a great song, but its message got lost in the chorus’ sing-along-ability, I suppose.

Springsteen’s been mostly redeemed for this, really. His fans don’t hold it against him. And Dancing in the Dark has evolved into one of the band’s signature romps in concert. But I doubt Born in the U.S.A. will ever get the respect it deserves. It’s ironic, because the album truly is 100 percent filled with A-side material. To that end, it’s like a greatest hits album. In fact, that’s the best way to describe it. Greatest hits records are disjointed by design, but full of great music…and disrespected by many artists and audiophiles alike.

Dancing in the DarkWhile Born in the U.S.A. was the album that made me a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Dancing in the Dark is the true Patient Zero. I was hooked from the very first time I heard it, which was on a summer afternoon in 1984. I was in my bedroom when the song came on the radio. “Here’s a new song from Bruce Springsteen,” said the DJ. I wasn’t thrilled, initially, because I never really liked Hungry Heart when it came out a few years prior (sacrilege, I know, because I now love that song). As I listened to Dancing in the Dark, I thought, “this is pretty cool, actually.” It wasn’t anything I expected. Soon thereafter, Dancing in the Dark was in heavy rotation for me; still is, really. As a kid, it was just a fun, infectious rock song. The older I get, the more the song resonates with me. I’m sure that’s a common refrain among Bruce fans. And, really, how can you dislike a song that introduced Courteney Cox to the world?

Courteny Cox

I’m sure, if you pin down Springsteen fans and ask them about it, they’ll all tell you the same thing: they love Born in the U.S.A., but it’s not even in their Top Five. While I may not include it in my own Top Five, I’ll always hold Born in the U.S.A. in high regard. Believe it or not, Born in the U.S.A. is every bit as strong an album as Springsteen’s best albums. Better than The River? Well…

 

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no hell below us, above us only sky.

john_lennon_glasses_265703457(I tell some variation of this story on this day every year)

I was only 10 years old when I learned John Lennon was murdered. I was in the fifth grade, but had known the Beatles since I was in the 1st grade (the year my brother Shawn and I got our first record player for Christmas). Since we had no records of our own, we played all our parents’ old records. The Beatles were in heavy rotation. Magical Mystery Tour was always my favorite album; Fool On the Hill was my favorite song.

89a746de9d00ed60a91071f964eb229eWe learned of Lennon’s death the following morning, while sitting in our dad’s Cutlass Supreme as it warmed up before Dad drove us to school. It was my day to ride in the front seat. The news came on the radio that Lennon was shot the night before. Dad was outside, scraping the windows. When he got in the car, I told him what we just heard. He sort of grumbled, but didn’t say much. Dad wasn’t much of a morning person and was still half asleep, I think.

Later at school, I turned to a classmate in my fifth grade classroom—Greg LaMarr—and said, “did you hear John Lennon got killed last night?”

“Who’s John Lennon?” Greg replied. I guess I was a little bit ahead of the curve for a fifth grader when it came to music.

This part of the memory is slightly fuzzy, but I remember going to my grandparents’ house (on da Sout’ End) after school. Seems my parents had to take Shawn somewhere for something. Or, maybe not. Either way, he wasn’t at the house with me. I spent the time watching TV to see if there was any new news on the shooting. The most vivid recollection of the news that evening was when President-Elect Ronald Reagan was asked about Lennon’s death. He said it would go down as one of those “where were you when” moments, like JFK’s assassination. For whatever reason, that always stuck with me.

By the time I got home, all I wanted to do was listen to Beatles records. I went up to our room, played Sgt. Pepper’s while sitting on an old, yellow couch, and cried. Yes, I was that sad over John Lennon’s death.

R-1091800-1364215287-7531.jpegThat I recall, the song (Just Like) Starting Over was in fairly heavy radio rotation in late 1980. As much as I liked the song, I didn’t buy the 45 until after Lennon’s death. In my mind, I remember buying it at K-Mart in Hampton Square Mall and there were Christmas decorations throughout the store.
It’s been 35 years since Lennon’s death.

Over the years, we’ve learned more about him as a person outside the music and it’s not always pretty. Like most people, John Lennon was flawed. He sometimes treated women harshly and was a bastard to his oldest son, Julian. It doesn’t tarnish the legacy of his music. Not to me, at least. I suppose I’ve learned to compartmentalize certain things about people.
But that’s not what this is about.

Thirty-five years later, I wonder what else Lennon could’ve given us. Another great album? Another great song? Perhaps a Beatles reunion somewhere along the way? Who knows. Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it. Either way, it sure would’ve been nice to find out.

I guess all we have left to do is imagine.

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running the 5k at the las vegas rock n’ roll marathon: a shared experience to last a lifetime.

BibI am not a runner. I hate running. Even when I was in my best physical shape, running beyond three miles was out of the question. But I miss being in shape and want to turn back the clock a bit on my aging and so I’ve reintroduced myself to cardio workouts with the goal of being able to run three miles a day again.

As part of my goals, I registered to run a 5K this past weekend here in Las Vegas. It’s the opening event of the Rock n’ Roll Marathon. I knew I was not ready to run the entire course, so I resigned myself to walking most of it and running here and there. All told, I probably ran a half-mile, at most. My time sucked. My place in my age bracket sucked. But I finished. That’s all that really mattered to me.

A Day at the Races.
Pre Race BatonsAt the race, one of the local hotels gave out flashing glow sticks to participants. I didn’t get one. I needed to focus on finishing without looking pathetic, I reasoned. Carrying this flashing baton through the course would not help me focus. In hindsight, I should’ve grabbed one. These little props became something of a bonding object for runners on the course. People would bump glow sticks through switchbacks and make positive remarks to fellow runners. It was pretty cool to witness.

And then I nearly screwed it all up. One girl was slapping glow sticks with everyone running toward her. She held hers out in front of me, even though I didn’t have one. Cool, I thought. This kid was extending her camaraderie to me. What a great, cool gesture. So I reached out as we intersected…and slapped that glow stick out of her hand and kept running.

As I heard the stick hit the deck, I looked back and saw her chasing it down. “I didn’t mean for that to happen!” I said out loud.

A couple running about 10 yards behind me saw this play out and couldn’t contain their laughter. “Great,” I said to them. “Now I look like the asshole out here!”

They laughed. I ran, mostly out of embarrassment. It’s what I do when confronted with a situation where I know no other solutions. I run away.

A Modest Goal: Finish Before You Do

Fear the yellow compression socks!

Fear the yellow compression socks!

All through the course I was flanking two female walkers who were either 10 yards ahead of me or 10 yards behind me. It was like we were trading places every half-mile or so. It was right then that I set my only goal (beyond completing the course without being carried out of there on a stretcher). I told myself: I will finish before you do. I have no idea where they started, but I needed something to push me, so I used these two unwitting participants. And the chase was on.

I caught up and passed them about a mile or so into the course. They were probably only 10 yards or so behind me, but I wanted to be out front for awhile. I thought I was way ahead of them at the midway point when I was getting some water (spilling water, mostly, as I was getting jostled by runners). Prior to the water station, they were behind me. Next thing I know, they were well ahead of me by about 30 yards. I spent the next mile or so reeling them in.

About 100 yards from the finish line, I had them lined up. They were about 5 yards ahead of me and I knew I could take them in the last 25 yards. I began to ready myself for my move.

And then they started running.

“What the…???” I thought to myself. We’re 80 yards from the finish line and they’re pulling away from me. I could feel my one-and-only goal slipping away from me. I had no choice but to get on it and began running again. They kept running, too. “Faster. Faster. Faster,” is all I could say to myself. Sure, it wasn’t really that fast, but I knew I had to outpace them if I wanted to “beat” them.

“I want a girl with shoes that cut and eyes that burn like cigarettes…”
Cake’s Short Skirt Long Jacket was playing as I neared the finish line. There’s nothing particularly motivating or inspiring about it, but I love the beat and I love the lyrics. And I enjoy listening to it when I’m doing cardio work. On this night, it would be the victory song.

Right about the time Cake’s singer is telling us he wants a girl who gets up early and stays up late, I made the move. With about 40 yards to the finish line, I caught and passed my target. All race long, I flanked them to the right, but my path was blocked toward the crowded finish line, so I had to accelerate, slip through about two or three runners and overtake the girls on the left.

But they were still running! I had to continue legging it out to the finish line, which was my plan all along. I’d like to say raw adrenaline carried me to the end, but that would be a big, fat lie. I was dog tired, but I needed to accomplish that one, little goal. It wasn’t a sprint, but it was the fasted I’d run on the entire course that night.

And it was a close finish, too. If you look at my finish line photo (quite a sight, if I do say so myself), they are flanking me by about 10 yards.

The Finish Line. Quite the form on display right there, eh?

The Finish Line. Quite the form on display right there, eh?

Mission: accomplished.
Me Medal
Me Post RaceThis was my second 5K. Even though I’m not much of an athlete and my knees and ankles need a full 24 hours to recover, there’s a reason why I’m enjoying these events: the positive energy. Sure, there are some seriously athletic people out there. In fact, I watched the starters of the race finish in less than 16 minutes before I even started. But everyone I encountered before, during and after the race is happy, excited and having a great time. And best of all: everyone is encouraging all the participants, cheering them on throughout the course. No one is making fun of someone who has less ability. No one is body shaming anyone. No one is mad at the slower runners.

If only every day were so positive.

A Shared Experience That Becomes a Lifelong Memory
For me, the real story happened before and after the 5K. I met and spoke with people from all over the country who flew into Vegas for this event. That’s half the fun of taking part in this event. People you don’t know and will likely never see again have a shared experience that will become part of a lifelong memory shared with friends via social media and with co-workers when they hang their medals and bibs on their cubicle walls.

I first met two young women who were, like me, en route to the monorail to get to the course. One was from Flagstaff, Arizona and the other was from Minnesota. “This must feel like summer weather to you,” I said to the Minnesotan. They both were running the 5K (“probably going to walk it, though,” the Arizonan said.) and participate in the 10K on Sunday morning.

“We did it last year,” said a senior woman in a group of three ahead of us in line at the monorail. “And then we got drunk and signed up for it again this year!”

I’m sure she was joking, but this exchange captures the general mood I encountered ahead of the race: everyone was loose, having fun and anxious to get there.

I lost all of them at the monorail, which was packed to capacity and then some. New riders at every stop had to squeeze and get intimate with their fellow riders. I imagine this is what it’s like during the morning commute in New York City. Even amidst an overcrowded, uncomfortable train ride, nobody complained.

Corral 12.

Hanging out in Corral 12...waiting for the start.

Hanging out in Corral 12…waiting for the start.

This was my starting point. Knowing 11 other groups would have to start before we could even get a whiff of the start line, I surveyed the crowd. It’s an interesting bunch that takes part in events like a night-time run in Las Vegas. There was a group of Canadians who, after the singing of the National Anthem, sang Oh, Canada. They received a genuine and loud ovation from the participants.

As expected, several people wearing costumes were on hand: A family dressed in Superman/Supergirl costumes, more Elvis impersonators than I could count, groups with matching shirts, I saw Batman more than once, and lots of women (and men) wearing tutus.

Prior to the race, I struck up a conversation with an older fellow to my left. “Are you running tomorrow?” he asked. After I said no, he told me this is his fifth half-marathon of the year, “and my last,” he said. “I’m 70 years old.”

He did not look 70! I don’t know what 70 looks like, but he was in pretty good shape, as you would have to be to compete in multiple 13-mile races in one year. He joked that he does it so he can get the medal—and free beer—after the race. He went on to tell me he’s had trouble getting motivated since his wife died five years ago. “I dedicate all my races to her,” he said.

Jeez. Talk about motivation. Here I am, huffing and puffing to finish a 5K and here’s a guy who runs half-marathons because he has trouble rolling out of bed every day since his wife died. I am a weak, weak man.

After the race, I struck up conversations with several participants over one, simple subject: college football. It was a did you hear about….who won the….what’s the score of that game? sort of chat. Within one group, I encountered Alabama fans and Iowa fans. The Alabama fan was born and raised in Michigan City, Indiana (where I used to work at the Blue Chip floatin’ Casino). It’s a small world, sometimes.

The point of all this is not that I did something semi-athletic. The point is I took part in a huge, social event and surrendered to it. I will never see any of these people ever again, but they all played a big part in a my lasting memory of the 5k at the Las Vegas Rock N’ Roll Marathon.

Sure, I got a medal—and a beer!—but that medal represents more than the 3.1 miles I huffed and puffed across to get it. For me, it’s about the positive energy I gathered in Saturday night and intend to use as a motivation to keep moving on a path toward next year: a half marathon.

You’ve been warned.

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