Brad Rourke's Blog

Robin Williams and Ordinary Tragedy [UPDATED]

August 12, 2014 · Leave a Comment

[UPDATE: Today (8/14) we learned via a statement from his wife that Robin Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease and he was not ready yet to share the diagnosis with the rest of the world. She also reports that Williams' sobriety was "intact." The below essay could have been written in the aftermath of any celebrity death that related in some way to a struggle with sobriety, so I will let it stand. However, it does not apply to Williams in this case. I (like many) write before I had all the facts. This is a lesson to learn. -- Brad Rourke]

What to say about the death of Robin Williams. It is tragic and like so many I feel a deep sense of loss. It’s funny how you feel like you come to know certain celebrities solely by the cues you pick up from their roles and interviews and what is written about them. As if they are friends.

Robin Williams in 2011

Robin Williams in 2011

But I also know how ordinary this death was — like that of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Another life claimed by addiction. Happens every day. I personally knew a number of people who also died, and a number of people for whom it is a surprise they are alive (and a proof of grace).

Some, like Williams and Hoffman, had long-term sobriety. Yes mental illness appears to be involved but the greater factor appears to be the drama of alcohol and drugs. Each had a long spell of sobriety that was recently lost, and they were struggling to regain an even keel.

Such deaths are wasted unless we can take something from them. The lesson I take is that just being sober for some number of years does not cure a person. The disease of addiction is powerful and must be respected. It is the disease that says “I do not exist. You’re fine.” Truly, the essence of the devil.

But here is the good news, to the survivors, to we who face addiction. Sobriety is within reach, even after relapse. Others who face this disease want to help — indeed, need to help, as it keeps us sober. “No matter how far down the scale we have fallen, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” This is not an extravagant promise.

That is the message we carry: there is a solution. It is available to all, and there is help in literally every city, town, and village. It is there for those who want it and we need only seek it. We will be welcomed and understood in those places.

Photo: Eva Rinaldi

→ Leave a CommentCategories: culture · daily life

A Song About A Bridge

May 24, 2014 · Leave a Comment

BridgeEarlier today a friend of mine was talking about a difficult time in his life and it reminded me of a song I wrote some time ago that used his experience as a starting point. My friend spent time living under a bridge after going through some difficult times. Thing was, he didn’t see his situation as particularly bad — he had a roof, after all, and others he knew did not. It took him some time to change his life, but now that bridge is a distant memory.

That bridge and my friend’s attitude toward it stuck with me, and I eventually wrote a song. There’s a song by Nickel Creek that is from the standpoint of a lighthouse that I was into at the time, and I tried to imagine a relationship between my friend and the bridge — from the bridge’s point of view.

I never recorded this song with any of the bands I have been in, but I did create a demo of the song in 2012, as I was collecting songs for a project I have in the back of my mind called “Exile’s Hymnal.”

This song is called “Nowhere Else At All.” I hope you like it.

Nowhere Else At All
By Brad Rourke

They roll
Across my back
Soul after soul after soul
To work
Back again
It makes no sense or difference where they go

If I could choose my day
And only do what spoke to me
I would crumble into rubble
And I’d leave the road alone
To make its noise

Only thing
I got no choice
So here I’ll stand
Alone for one and all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all

Above they drive
Below they walk
A backpack and a gun to call their home
No one sees
Beneath their feet
The city stretches out take its own

In the rain
That never stops
There’s shelter underneath my steady back
For a man
Who’s lost his luck
Who don’t suppose it’s ever coming back

I’ll be the walls and roof
All for this man to give him proof
That something he relied on
Listened to him when he thought
He’d lost his voice

Only thing
I got no choice
So here I’ll stand
And shelter one and all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all
The bridge from nowhere near
Crossing over into
Nowhere else at all

Photo credit: Shaun Bell (Flickr)

→ Leave a CommentCategories: music

Work, Art, and Leisure Collide: Remembering Two Songs By The West End

May 4, 2014 · 1 Comment

Today I happened to play an old playlist while I took a run. In the mix, a song came on that took me back and sent me on a reverie. I thought I’d share it.

Some years ago I was in a band called The West End along with my good friends and neighbors Monique DeFrees (drums), Mike Shawn (keys and vox), and Matthew Taylor (bass). I played guitar and sang. Later, another good friend, Kate Gordon joined and improved our vocals immensely. We played about 2/3 covers and 1/3 originals — it was the originals that kept me in the game because I loved writing and performing new songs. I saw them as similar to blog posts or essays.

(Most people don’t go out to see original live music except by established bands so we had to also play covers that people recognized. We made them our own, but it still was never as fun as for me playing our own music.)

Eventually, we saved enough money by playing gigs to pay for recording studio time, a producer, and CD duplication — and we had ourselves an album! It was called This Ride Could Be My Last.

The song that came on my playlist was from that album. I hadn’t listened in a while. You know what? It holds up.

But I wanted to share a bit about where the song came from. There are two songs on the album that relate directly to a professional project I had been working on. The songs are “Father Lou” and “They Go.”

The Project: End of Life Decisions

At the time I wrote these songs, I was embroiled in research for an issue guide I was working on for a client, the Kettering Foundation. The topic of the issue guide (a report designed to support public deliberation on a difficult topics) was the end of life. Who decides what happens at the end of life? How do we as a society want to think about the notion of assisted suicide? Euthanasia? How do we balance personal freedom with sound and fair policy? More than perhaps many such pieces of work, the topic was quite wrenching.

(In case you are interested, the issue guide is available here.)

Building a Song From an Observation: “Father Lou”

The first song that comes out of this period is a quick little number called “Father Lou.” It started out (in my mind) as a very slow, dirge-like tune — but my bandmates wisely told me to speed it up. Click the player below to listen:

This song came to me sort of fully-formed, and it unfolded in my mind all while I was on a run (like today’s) through a sketchy area in Memphis, Tennessee.

Part of the work we do in developing issue guides like the one I was working on is hold focus groups with ordinary people to talk about the issue at hand. We want to see how real people talk about the issue, what their chief concerns are, and how they start out thinking about the issue. Focus group houses are in all kinds of neighborhoods, some fancy and some marginal. I find myself fairly often in marginal areas because we want to get “truly ordinary” folks in our groups, not the professional types that are more easily recruited to take part in focus groups in fancy facilities (these usually cater to corporate clients).

Anyway, there I was in Memphis, and the group was later that night but it was mid-day. So I went for a run through the neighborhood. I came upon a set of city blocks where it seemed like every other driveway had a car on blocks. The other driveways also had cars in them, and it took me a while to figure out why this might seem out of place to me: It was midday and in many other neighborhoods these cars would all be at work. But here they were.

So the lines that would become the third verse popped into my head. And then the song sort of built itself as I ran.

It’s not about end of life questions, it is actually about a character I had in my head at the time — a priest who goes to a Skid Row area thinking he is going to rescue everyone there. Little does he know that people see him as a figure of fun and ridicule, and eventually they turn on him.

(At the end of this post you can read the full lyrics.)

Song as Issue Guide: “They Go.”

Another song on the album is more directly related to this end of life issue guide. The stories I heard as I listened to focus groups while working on this guide got deep into my head and rattled around. One day, while taking a stroll outside a Dayton hotel, this scenario of someone stuck alone in a hospital with a terminal illness came into my head. Somehow this mixed with an image I had of a family member who had recently had heart surgery — he complained to me in a conversation about how the nurses come and go all through the night while he tried to rest and recuperate.

These two ideas mixed together and I wrote a song about this person alone in a hospital, with a terminal illness, writing a letter to a friend. The two friends had promised one another on some drunken night to “take care of it” if either was hospitalized and incapacitated, destined for a lingering death.

So this song popped out: The chorus is based on the “coming and going” all night, while the overall theme comes directly from the thoughts running through my head as I developed a framework for public deliberation on the topic of end of life decisions.

I hope you like them.

The Lyrics

In case you are interested (I usually want to know them), here are the lyrics for each song:

FATHER LOU
By Brad Rourke

There’s a certain part of town
Where the fire trucks never run
There’s nothing there to burn
That would be missed by anyone
There’s a sidewalk over there
Behind the sheriff’s impound lot
Where bedrooms are reserved
By spreading cardboard out

Into this place comes a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent there on a mission from the lord
Save these lost sheep from the sword

He walks these crooked streets
Spreading handouts all around
Like everyone’s a mark
And the carnival’s in town
They all stick out their hands
And gladly take his grace
Some laugh behind his back
And others in his face

How many times before he learns
Watch your back or get your fingers burned
Saving souls is no work for the weak
You’ll catch your death just standing on the street

There’s a certain part of town
Where cars stay home all day
Some on blocks and others got no place
To go to anyway
Remember Father Lou
He used to hang around down here
Until we jacked him for his wallet
And his body disappeared

Into this place came a man
Trying to do the best he can
Sent here on a mission from the lord
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword
Save us lost sheep from the sword

And, finally:

THEY GO
By Brad Rourke

Come and see me where I’m at
I wish I could pay for that
You’ll have to make your own way
I might not last another day

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

There’s nothing private in this room
The lights always seem to go out too soon
Right when I’m just settling down
Nothing left for me but the night sounds

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive

Hope this message reaches you
And if it does you’ll know what to do
Remember that night of promises
Do what you said if it comes to this

They come, they go
Always at the same time
They come, they go
It’s how I know I’m alive
They come, they go
I’m alone most of the time
They come, they go
If you hurry you’ll make it here in plenty of time

→ 1 CommentCategories: community · music

Building a Different Kind of Political Candidate

January 25, 2014 · Leave a Comment

I’m in the middle of doing one of my favorite activities, something I’ve been involved in since the late 1990′s. It’s the Candidate Training Program, run by the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia.

1533885_10152639661618438_164317675_nI was a part of the design team for this program and have been involved in different ways every since. It’s a multipartisan group (D, R, I) of people who are running for their first political office. Over the course of four days, some of the top political consultants in Virginia share the nuts and bolts of running campaigns from the standpoint of planning, direct mail, fundraising, media relations, crisis management, and more. It’s top-drawer advice and is very effective: roughly a third of alumni have gone on to win races, an astronomical statistic considering that most first time candidates lose.

Here’s what makes the program different from other candidate training programs, though: It is built around ethical decision making. The design of the program is meant to elicit thoughtful reflection by the candidates on what they feel their relationship with the public ought to be. We open with an in-depth discussion of ethical decision-making principles, and then check in repeatedly throughout the weekend to unpack what the experts are saying, relating it to the kinds of relationships the candidates are trying to foster.

Over the years, I’ve written a number of blog posts from and about these sessions. Some of the notable ones are:

  1. Resistance” — things I’ve noticed candidates just don’t want to do . . . but must.
  2. Oh, D.E.A.R.” — Tips on campaign crisis management from a real pro.
  3. Free Advice For Candidates” — Just a compendium of tips I’ve heard the experts tell first-time candidates over the years.
  4. On The Lam” — A scenario for discussion that I developed and distribute, based loosely on true events. 
  5. All The News That Fits” — Another ethics scenario, again based on true events.

 

→ Leave a CommentCategories: ethics · leadership · politics

I Don’t Mind If You Shop On Thanksgiving Day

November 26, 2013 · 1 Comment

Our national, annual tradition has begun. The leaves have turned, in some parts of the country snow is falling, autumn and cooler temperatures have settled in and taken hold. Something we call the “holiday season” has arrived – a series of festivals with interesting harvest-based and pagan roots but which we have collectively imbued with other spiritual meaning. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s – the end-of-year hat trick.

And the tradition? It’s the handwringing and backlash against those who seek to “distort” the “true meaning” of these holidays. Many will decry the massive partying of New Year’s, the removal of Christ from Christmas, and the removal of thanks from Thanksgiving.

The current example, since it’s November, is the handwringing over the encroachment of commercialism into Thanksgiving. Every year the “Black Friday” sales begin earlier and earlier. More recently, Black Friday sales have given over to Thanksgiving Day sales in stores – retailers used to take a break on turkey day but earnings pressures and consumer desires have conspired with the result that some now shop on Thanksgiving Day.

"Thanksgiving At The Trolls" by martha_chapa95 (flickr)

“Thanksgiving At The Trolls” by martha_chapa95 (flickr)

This has created an anticonsumerist backlash, with people promoting (ironically, mainly through social media which is supported through ad revenues) “buy nothing” days.

I sympathize with the sense that our consumer culture has gone off the rails, and cutting back is a good idea. But to claim that Thanksgiving is somehow a sacrosanct holiday is incorrect and actually disregards the history of the celebration.

Thanks For Bounty

Since the founding of the colonies, various (in fact, many) “thanksgiving feasts” have been held. Our archetypal such feast occurred at Plymouth Plantation and the story goes that after some lean times the colonists, with the help of the friendly natives, finally caught a break and had enough to eat. So they “gave thanks.” (At least that’s how they taught it to me at Will Rogers Elementary School.)

In fact, this “original Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast that was meant to celebrate a bumper crop. It was a party specifically built around consumption. And throughout the early days of our nation, various officials declared “thanksgivings” with frequency – almost always in celebration of something awesome happening. George Washington, for instance, declared a “day of thanksgiving” in 1789 to commemorate the “opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, declared the final Thursday of November that year to be a national day of Thanksgiving in recognition of all that had gone well even in the midst of a catastrophic civil war which had “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.”

The message was not “thank the Lord for what you have,” but it was “thank Providence for this awesome bounty.” A subtle but meaningful difference.

Enter Commerce

The “holiday” finally began to be codified in 1939. For some time it had traditionally been held on the last Thursday in November. (Prior to that it had been ad hoc.) Still in the midst of the Great Depression, president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving in 1939 would be held on the fourth Thursday of November. His intention was to extend the Christmas retail season so merchants would have one more week to achieve profitability. In fact, this idea was suggested to him by the owner of the firm that would become Macy’s.

There was, of course, controversy over this move, as a tradition had grown that Thanksgiving ought to be the last Thursday of November. This backlash was driven not so much by anticonsumerist sentiment but by sports: By this time, there were many traditional sports rivalries that played out on that last Thursday, and it was inconvenient for teams to change their schedules around. There was also a partisan angle: Republicans opposed Roosevelt’s move and called the holiday “Franksgiving.” But Roosevelt stuck to his guns, and declared the next-to-last Thursday Thanksgiving.

In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day (this split the difference between the last-Thursday folks and the next-to-last Thursday folks, as the fourth Thursday is sometimes the last Thursday in November and sometimes the next-to-last). On December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed the bill and for the first time the date of Thanksgiving became a matter of national law.

I don’t plan on going to the mall on Thanksgiving Day. Nor do I plan to go out on Black Friday. But not because I hold these days as sacrosanct commerce-free zones – it’s because I don’t much like crowds, to be honest.

I will give thanks this week: Thanks for the health of my family, thanks for all that has been given me, thanks that we will be together. And I will think with compassion about how it all could have gone another way for me. That’s a sentiment we might do well to hold every day.

I don’t, however, plan on covering myself in sackcloth and ashes. Our Thanksgiving tradition is specifically rooted in consumption. I’m not going to overdo it, but at the same time I’m not going to pretend that Thanksgiving is meant to be a day of abstention. It’s a feast.

(Photo: martha_chapa95 / Flickr)

→ 1 CommentCategories: culture