Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Things I Shouldn't Be Doing But I Am, OR: Everything is Irradiated

And now, a wall of text.

Early Monday morning, Cleveland Heights native Harvey Pekar passed away. Though no cause has been made clear so far, Pekar had struggled from lymphoma 15ish years ago, and reports on the internet tell me that he also had prostate cancer late in life. He was 70. You might know him from his appearance, and Paul Giamatti's portrayal of him, in the 2003 American Splendor film based on his life and his work in underground comics.

I'm not going to go into detail about the guy because it would be more fun for you to at least rent the movie and find out for yourself. He seemed like a cool guy to me, and this is the measuring stick I often use to judge most people in the public eye (George Clooney seems to make a career out of it, as did Paul Newman), but it seems that I'll never really have a chance to find out. I will say, though, that I've actually had multiple opportunities to meet him personally that I've always passed on. Not for a lack of wanting, I just always seemed to have something better to do. Plus, I never actually read any of the comics that he wrote, so I think I would have just come off as some sycophantic schlub. I'd like to think I saved him the trouble of giving one more person the old stink eye by waiting until I had first hand knowledge of his work.

Funny, then, that my hip-chick wife reserves Our Cancer Year, a graphic novel about Pekar's struggle with illness prophetically just before his death. She did it based on interest alone, not the irony that he had lymphoma and so do I. I'm sure it wasn't completely lost on her, but when we were having a conversation about it Monday evening, the look of realization on her face that maybe this is or isn't the right book to have at the moment was kind of priceless. I appreciate the thought, but she didn't need to be sensitive about it; I'll read it anyway and probably enjoy it.

It will also fit into a current trend that I must have subconsciously started right when I found out that I had the Big C. I really don't know if it's questionable practice or just fate's wacky sense of irony, but here's a list of stuff I probably should be avoiding, but have decided not to...

Fallout 3
A friend of mine pointed out that I play video games like you read books or watch TV; meaning very often. A few months ago, I bought an Xbox 360 and basically opened a vein and began mainlining games that were either exclusive to the console or that friends of mine have been meaning to force me to play. One of these was last year's superb post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 where you play the role of a man born and raised in massive nuclear fallout shelter hundreds of years after the world goes to shit only to be forced to leave it and forge a new life for yourself in the wasteland that was Washington DC. In this vast expanse of dilapidated buildings and rusted, mangled cars, one of the things that you have to be keenly aware of for survival (outside of mutated dogs and Mad Max-esque gangs) is your ever-increasing radiation levels. Drink some water, get irradiated. Take a potty break, get irradiated.

So, when my surgeon called me to confirm that I, in fact, had Hodgkin's, it was at that moment when my ex-vault-dwelling hero -we'll call him Marvin- relieved himself and received a small spike on his ersatz Geiger counter. I found this weirdly fitting that very soon from this moment, I would also be doused with these invisible rays to try to keep me alive. You may think that this had me scared shitless, but I am not a weaker man. No sir. Think of the benefits: Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, The Incredible Hulk was bombarded with gamma rays, all four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles swam through radioactive ooze to get where they are. I could go on, but you get the point. I'm going to breed an army of super soldiers, and I'll be their Professor X. And when the world needs saving and injustice is crushed, you can thank Fallout 3 for getting us there. Then you can thank me.

Dante's Inferno
No, no, not the epic poem. The other video game that I should have stayed away from. In it, Dante Alighieri is reimagined as a soldier from the first Crusade that returns home after a brief scuffle with Death himself to found his wife, Beatrice, murdered and her soul taken to Hell. Dante takes it upon himself to descend into the underworld to bring her back. Yes, this really is the plot of the game.

Dante's trek through the Nine Circles is as graphic as it is dark, but you'll have that when you take a trip through Hell. During the game, we find that our hero wasn't exactly the nicest guy: not only did he cheat on his wife, he killed countless innocent prisoners during his time in the Middle East and threw his brother-in-law under the bus for it. Dude was kind of a dirt bag. But we get that he's sorry for it, and he makes no bones about staying in the netherworld after springing his main squeeze from the clutches of, you know, Lucifer.

Now, I have a pretty good attitude about the whole cancer thing, but times like this make you think about the afterlife a little more often than usual. When your super angry protagonist is going through each individual realm of the dead, it's hard not to reflect on your own life and wonder if you might end up a moaning corpse that some ex-crusader is going to use as a ladder. I'll go ahead and spoil it for you in that Dante makes it out of Hell, and (hopefully) so will I, but the mind wanders even if what you're playing is ultimately mindless.

Breaking Bad
This same friend that observed my video game playing habits and I were talking about TV shows that we like one day. He's a pretty big Breaking Bad fan, a series on A&E about a high school chemistry teacher that finds out that he has terminal lung cancer so he reasons that his life kinda stinks, so he'll start a meth lab to bank some money for his family before he kicks the bucket. "Maybe you shouldn't watch it right now," he says.

But he's wrong! So wrong! The whole show reminds me of a quote from singer/songwriter/cool guy Warren Zevon, who also died of mesothelioma. When his doctors told him that he only had so much time to live, they encouraged him to quit smoking and begin treatment that would confine him physically. He basically told them to fuck off and recorded The Wind, a collaborative album with a variety of other artists (like Bruce Springsteen, but we'll get to him in a second) that became the crowning achievement of his musical career. Zevon knew he was going to die but he wasn't going to let him get in the way of ensuring his legacy, and I think that's something we can all appreciate.

If I found that I was also terminal, would I start a meth lab? Probably not. I would, however, make damn sure that the people that I have loved are taken care of in some way, even if I have to call every artistic friend that I know to create something to let them know that I'll miss them when I'm gone and that I'll be there when they need me. Maybe Springsteen will play on the soundtrack, too.

The Gaslight Anthem's American Slang
Like a lot of people, I've always had a love/hate relationship with age. Everybody wants all of the benefits of it (i.e. drinking, voting, respect of small children, the knowledge that if you want a twinkie you can just go get one) but without any of the consequences (i.e. wrinkles, mortgages, cancer, the fat that comes with twinkies). Age has been a recurring theme in a lot of the creative work that I've done in my life from photography projects in college to the writing I occasionally do for video game websites every now and then. I even started a novel about it about 10 years ago that I'll probably never finish. That's age's other big problem, stuff just gets in the way.

The Gaslight Anthem is a band that seems to understand this. On American Slang, their third album, singer Brian Fallon's imagery shifted from big cars/need for fame/lost love Springsteen homage that their last album, the fantastic The '59 Sound, dove so deeply into. Instead, the Jersey quartet found a liking to other frequent motifs that The Boss developed over time: fear of getting old, reflection once you get there, the regrets that come with it, and what to do next. Clearly, if The '59 Sound was their Born to Run, then American Slang is The River.

Frequent allusions to past youth creep in early in the album and are laced subtly throughout. The second track, "Stay Lucky," speaks of moving on past moments that never arrive and how you're "never gonna find it/ when your knees, they got so weak/ but it's right here/ when you need it/ like when you were young/ and everybody used to call you lucky." Noticeably less punk and more mid tempo than their previous work (especially the decidedly raw Sink or Swim), songs like "Bring It On" and the somber closing track, "We Did It When We Were Young" both accept this age with aplomb and look back with sad eyes on times gone by.

Spingsteen was 26 when Born to Run was released in 1975. The album was a turning point in his career by breaking his "next Dylan" image that his labels tried to sell and moving to a large, arena filling sound that was done with heavily layered guitar work and a huge rhythm section. He also did it with songs about leaving his "romanticized teenage street life" (a quote from's review of it) and embracing the fame that was dangling just outside of his grasp at the time. I turned 30 in December and if you ask me, 26 is pretty young to give up on your youth and move on. On the flip side, 26 is also a bit past the age where you realize that you're gonna have to be a man sometime. But just for the sake of argument, maybe 26 is that perfect age when the two thoughts become one. My 26 was probably the worst year of my life, and I sure as shit became a man because of it. Maybe it was for him, too, and he has a rock 'n roll masterpiece to show for it (and something that I will ritualistically pass to my future son. Candles will be involved).

I am terrified of growing old. When I was a kid, I remember a conversation my father and I had on the swings in the back yard of my house. I told him that I didn't want to grow up. He said that he didn't either when he was my age, but it wasn't so bad. I think about the last ten years of my life and how I drifted through it with a huge amount of ambition and very little drive. When I was 23, I wanted to have comics published by now. When I was 26, I wanted to have a career that challenged me creatively as well as pleasing me professionally. In 6 months I'll be 31 and the laundry list of things I wanted to show for it is barely 1/10 finished, no Born to Run in sight. To me, the duality of perspective on American Slang offers a sort of solace for that. Plus, the title track is a great single.

This week I'm on something of a sabbatical from playing video games, so I might just finish up Breaking Bad. Anything else you can think of that I should probably avoid (but won't)?


  1. John, I always like to post a comment so you'll know I read your blog. I have two things to tell you. (A) Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" album was one of the best ones I ever bought, and the single is still close to being one of my all time favorites. :-) (B) I don't want to get old, either. But you know what? I'm sure to a lot of people, I already AM old. And it kinda sucks. The older I get, the more it sucks. I look at really old people, and I tell Mark all the time "I DON'T WANT TO GET OLD!" The weird thing is that when you get old, you still feel like you're 16 on the inside! You don't ever really FEEL old. You just look it. You're 31 - you're so young. Don't worry about getting old (because I KNOW you will!). Try to enjoy being young (even though your life isn't so great right now). That's all I have to say. We're thinking of you. :-) Big hugs.

  2. I think you should definitely suspend your sabbatical. Also, for your ponderings I offer Left 4 Dead 2. Something about blowing the heads off something that is trying to eat your flesh seems like it might resonate. Also, it helps me write sermons. I can't explain why.

  3. It seems to me that getting old is what you make of it. Even though it seems that each day I wake up with sore knees and a little less hair, I still don't typically see myself as old. The issue is, as I begin my tenth year of teaching, I don't see myself as all that young any more. As I'm writing this, it makes me realize the saying "You're only as old as you think you are" is true. The minute you let your age determine what you do and what you enjoy, that is when you become older.