It’s my birthday today. If you read last year’s blog, then you know that sometimes it’s a bittersweet day for me.
For some reason, this year, I don’t feel that angst that I’ve felt in some years. Is it because I know that it’s pointless to Google my dad’s name nowadays, that there will be no new stories? Or is it just the general healing process, when it’s finally only the happy memories and the current joy in my life that more overshadow the sad ones?
My first gift to myself was to take the day off work. I do love my job and am so blessed that I landed in an exciting and healthy industry of big data and analytics. But there are days I get run ragged. So I slept in, enjoyed a coffee in bed with the cat, a book, and gifts from my husband and kids. Honestly, if you are a cat lover, this Ragdoll cat is true to his name. My family wonders where they stand in the pecking order relative to the cat, and my son of course gave me a birthday card begging to paint a dog into the mix. We shall see. For sure, this empty nest feels too empty for my liking. Can’t we get to the grand kids phase sooner?
My family has always gone to lengths to make my birthdays so special. I noted that my daughter must have mailed my card the very day she went back to college, because the mail is so friggin slow from Florida. There is the one year that they baked me the most decadent chocolate cake ever, a recipe from O Magazine. What a labor of love given my husband is an awesome chef but has an aversion to baking. Thank goodness he downsized this year with just the two of us home.
I can think back too to the slumber parties my father used to let me host in middle school–all those girls and a bachelor, rock ‘n roll DJ father then. He made the best pancakes for us in the morning, loaded with butter, of course. I remember the year we all sat at the breakfast bar and he told one of my friends, Claire, how good her hair smelled. We all giggled knowingly. Anyone remember the shampoo, Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific?
In the year and a half now since my memoir published, I’ve heard from a range of people. Some never knew my father, never watched or listened to him on TV or radio. They could relate to my story from the shared scars that a difficult family upbringing leaves. Knowing that even a single person drew strength from my story makes sharing it worth while. I’ve also heard from people who were my father’s fans and friends. It hurts when I hear how some people are disappointed in him. Did anyone really expect him to be perfect? Perhaps that is often the case with people in the public eye, but it seems unfair to me. It’s helped me heal to hear from people who understood how equally generous and harsh he could be. Most say that their lives were better off for having known him.
I understand too that my family and some of my friends wish I would let him go. I get it. But I relate more to this view I heard recently in respect to our fallen veterans: they say a soldier dies twice – once when he dies and the second time when someone no longer says his name.
A New Year and a birthday is often a time for resolutions and goals. So here I sit, thinking it’s time to move on to the next story. It’s been bubbling away for several years now, only one chapter written. I have a title even! It’s fun. It’s warm hearted. And it’s about football. Ironic, right? But it’s inspired by my son and his friends- not my father. There is soooo much rich material to work with. I envision one of the mothers as a Tarot card reader. That will be fun to research. Now, if only I had more time to write! Let’s see what the year brings!
One of the themes in my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter, is forgiveness. I talked about this in my Fox TV interview and the reactions have run the gamut. Some agreed and others railed against it, thinking forgiveness is a pass, excusing a person’s bad behavior. It’s not. But I get it. Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness can feel like you are giving in and saying the other person was right, and if they weren’t right, then by forgiving, are we allowing ourselves to be a doormat? Also, it seems like we are becoming less tolerant – of slights, of mistakes, of differences of opinion even. If we can’t forgive the little things, then forgiving a bigger transgression becomes mission impossible.
I cannot say why I am able to forgive my father and when that feeling even surfaced. For sure, in college, when he first told me not to come home, I was pissed. I didn’t forgive him then and my anger ruled me. His anger ruled him, too. We were both being stubborn. The anger felt better, stronger than the hurt – a nice protective shell. But I didn’t like the person I was becoming then: hardening my heart to my father meant I was also hardening my heart to others. I laughed less and barked more.
The sociologist Renee Brown talks about how much we numb ourselves to such hurts. That’s why we drink more, surf the internet more, use drugs more. It’s so much easier to numb ourselves, at least in the short term it seems. There’s a reason too that some are called workaholics, and not just “hard workers;” excessive work can be their drug of choice.
During the second rift with my father, I wasn’t mad at him; I just didn’t understand him. During college, we had reconciled for two years and during this time, I tried to do everything to please my father. This included getting back together with the Swiss boyfriend, the only boyfriend my father ever really liked. When my father said he wouldn’t come to our wedding, it hurt. A lot. It hurt more so because my father had promised never to shun me again. In the days and years that followed, I didn’t think about the need to forgive him. I could only ask, “why?” Eventually, I blamed myself for all our problems, because that made more sense than a father turning his back on his daughter for no reason. I figured I must just be unlovable. (Yes, that feeling sucks.) It would take another ten years for me to start to wonder what was wrong with my father, to think perhaps the problem was with him all along.
Here, then, is what I see as one of my father’s faults: he did not forgive. He never really forgave me for my mistake in high school and held onto this as a justification for never speaking to me again. My father’s temper is legendary. People loyal to him say how much he helped their careers and made their lives better. With people who crossed him or disappointed him, he wrote them out of his life, no matter if a professional colleague or an extended family member. He nurtured his hurts and grudges, letting them ferment into a potent cocktail. Some who know him blame my step mother for fanning his anger and for blowing any slight out of proportion; this seems too much of a cliché to me. She was a catalyst but not the spark. Instead, I place more of the blame on his own childhood trauma. Understanding him has been part of why I could forgive. Cherishing the good times is the other part. He was both a fabulous father and an awful father. Of course my father would say he didn’t need forgiving – he had done nothing wrong.
Forgiving does not mean we forget. There’s a reason we study history in school, in the hopes that we can learn from the past. There are times when I think, “I could never forgive that – be it sexual abuse, murder – things way worse than what I have dealt with.” And yet, I hear from people abused by a parent, and they have been able to forgive. This doesn’t undo the wrongs. It doesn’t take away the pain. It doesn’t excuse the behavior. It simply means we will not let the anger and bitterness rule us.
Probably the hardest thing for me to forgive him for is his dying on Christmas Eve, without saying goodbye. I understand he thought he had more time and that he was afraid. So I can only go with the subtle messages he left behind, and this coincidence from that 2009 Christmas Eve church bulletin: a story from Henry van Dyke, the same Henry whose poem I found when I was eleven years old, rediscovered in my diary after my father died, and read at his makeshift memorial. “If you truly believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—stronger than hate . . . then you can keep Christmas.”
This chapter didn’t make it into the published version of TheSportscaster’s Daughter. This post is in honor of Elvis’ memory and his passing 40 years ago this week. Be sure to catch RewoundRadio on Saturday, August 19, at 12 to hear the show.
The summer before 7th grade, my friend from Alluvium, Jill Parker, and I took turns going back and forth between my house in Oakland in Northern New Jersey and her beach house in Brigantine, a small island near Atlantic City in South Jersey. 1977 was the summer of the son of Sam, the New York City black out, and of Jill and I helping to answer Dad’s fan mail. It was late afternoon on August 16, 1977, and we were walking home from the beach when a neighbor shouted out her garage that Elvis Presley had died. Elvis? He was too young to die. We shouted back,”How?” Our neighbor wasn’t sure if it was a heart attack or a drug overdose.
Neither of us could believe it. We ran down the street back to Jill’s house to ask Mrs. Parker if she had heard about Elvis. I called home to find out if Dad knew. Our baby sitter, Jane, had just heard the news too, and Dad was on his way to work. His show that night was a quickly-pulled-together tribute to Elvis, the King of Rock ‘n Roll. (see this YouTube video of Dad on WABC that night.)
While details of Elvis’ death began to emerge, Dad began planning a tribute to the man that had shaped the music industry, whose life had inspired so many, including my father’s. He envisioned a radio show that combined personal stories with music, a show that would tell the story of Elvis’s life. Dad didn’t believe Elvis had died of an overdose. He thought it was a heart attack and thought the press was trying to ruin a legend.
During the day, Dad worked the phones from our kitchen, trying to convince people to do interviews. Priscilla Presley turned him down immediately. The Colonel, Presley’s manager, agreed to an interview. Ann Margaret eventually agreed. Sammy Davis, Jr., signed on, too.
I was in the kitchen when Dad again made the pitch to Priscilla Presley.
“You owe it to your daughter. She’ll want to know about her father.… I promise you, I’m not trying to bury him.” “Bury” was Dad’s term for ruining somebody. Lisa Marie Presley would have only been nine or so, a few years younger than me at the time. Dad knew what he was talking about. I was not yet a mother who could fully understand how much a daughter needs to be able to look up to her father, but Dad’s argument was convincing even then.
Priscilla said she’d think about it. She wanted to hear some of the other interviews first.
Dad worked on the show for months, in every free moment he had. His goal was to have it ready for the one-year anniversary of Elvis’ death. It would be a three-hour radio broadcast that would be sold to radio stations around the country. Mike Phillips was Dad’s favorite engineer at WABC, and he would produce the show. Mike was one of the friendliest engineers to us kids whenever we went into work with Dad. Dad flew to Memphis and other places to interview people.
As Dad was already working three jobs (disc jockey, weekend sports caster, play-by-play for the Islanders), it was sometimes hard to schedule the personal interviews. He sent his then girlfriend Pat to interview some people. Dad crafted the questions, and Pat recorded the interviews.
When Pat came back from one of the interviews, there was a slight buzz on one of Pat’s tapes. Dad went ballistic. Pat shouldn’t have put the tape through the airport scanner, and Dad shouted that she should have taken it out or checked in her luggage. Pat stood her ground, that it wasn’t her fault. She didn’t dare pack the tapes in her luggage in case they got lost. Hopefully, Mike Phillips would be able to work his magic in the editing studio and get rid of the buzz.
Dad sent Priscilla copies of some of the interviews. They revealed Elvis the person, not just the legend. They showed that Dad was trustworthy. Priscilla eventually agreed to give Dad the interview, and as she had not spoken to any media since Elvis’s death, Dad’s interview would be the first. Dad made Priscilla a personal promise that she would get to hear the final version of her interview before it aired. He wouldn’t leak anything to the press.
Shortly before the tribute was to air, Dad and us kids were stood in the Grand Union grocery store in downtown Oakland picking up a few groceries. We were waiting in the check out line, when Dad noticed the cover of one of the tabloids. “Priscilla Presley Breaks Silence.”
Dad grabbed the tabloid and started skimming. “Sonofabitch! Sonofabitch!”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I asked.
His face darkened in rage. “I’ll tell you in the car. Hurry up.”
We rushed to bag the groceries. Dad sped home. “That sonofabitch Sklar leaked the story. I promised her. I fucking promised her!”
Rick Sklar was Dad’s boss at WABC. He had listened to segments of the show. Even though Sklar wasn’t personally involved in the project, Dad used the ABC studios to produce the program. Sklar had wanted to check on the show’s quality. Dad didn’t trust him, didn’t want him to hear anything ahead of the live airing, but in the end, he had to let him listen or he might lose studio time. Sklar had lied to him. He had betrayed and embarrassed my father.
The first person Dad called when we got home was Sklar. It was scary. When my Dad was mad, it was best to lie low and stay out of his way. Even from my bedroom downstairs, I could hear him shouting. The hole in the wall next to the kitchen phone was probably from that day.
The second person he called was Priscilla. He apologized. He took full responsibility, even though he hadn’t okayed the leak. He hadn’t even known about it, but a promise was a promise, and he had failed her.
I don’t know how Priscilla responded to Dad’s call. For me, it was clear that Dad made the show because he admired Elvis. He wanted Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie, to know the whole story about her father, not just the trash.
The show was aired around the country and eventually around the world. It was critically acclaimed. For years, it was broadcast on the anniversary of Elvis’s death. The royalties helped pay for my Dad’s wedding to Pat that fall. Even in 1978, my father had been an innovator. His bosses at WABC had told him nobody would want to listen to a 3-hour radio tribute. It was too long. But fans did listen. People told him he would never get Priscilla to talk. She had never given an interview, even following her initial divorce from Elvis. Why would Dad be any different? And yet she talked to him.
I wish I had a copy of this show. I consider it one of his finest works, both as a disc jockey and as a person. I wish someone would make a show about my own father, in the way that he did for Lisa Marie’s benefit. My father made a career of unearthing people’s stories, of understanding the person behind the public image. Some of his interviews of sports personalities inspired full-length movies, like The Rookie and Eight Seconds.
There is still so much I don’t know about my father. And yet I know such a show would only include his accomplishments, in radio and sportscasting. They wouldn’t help me understand him as a person, because my father didn’t let people get close to him.
Postscript, August 13, 2017
A special thank you to Lee Chambers of Digital Media Creatives who recently found a copy of the albums distributed to ABC stations on eBay and has restored it for me to be able to listen to. I have also tried to find the article from the tabloid we saw in the super market that day, but have not been able to find it, the pre-digital era. I suppose too that tabloids are not as well archived for research purposes.
Postscript, August 16, 2017
Lee reached out to the disc jockeys and producers at Rewound Radio who is now airing my father’s show, Elvis Memories, on Saturday, August 19, at 12 p.m. I’ve been listening to the restored version. It may be hard to imagine the context, the historical significance now, in an era of instant tweeting, but to hear Priscilla speak for the first time after Elvis’ death gave me chills. She beautifully recalls the day Lisa Marie was born. To many, Elvis was a music legend, but to Lisa Marie, he was just a father. Thank you to Allan Sniffen and John Troll for rebroadcasting such an important show. Thank you also to Sam Press, whom I met on Facebook and who uncovered the WABC TV interview from the night Elvis died.
It’s summer and I can’t wait for our annual trip to the shore, my place of peace, of happy memories, old and new. Except this summer, my daughter won’t be joining us, because she is in freaking Africa. Namibia, to be precise. I wrote in my memoir, “I revel to watch my daughter dive into the waves, the furthest one out; I have given her those wings, or more accurately, those fins.” Megan is twenty-one now, and a marine science major. She needed a research internship and apparently with the dessert and the water patterns and who-knows-what, Namibia has just the kind of dolphins and sea life that interest her. I pointed out: New Jersey has dolphins! She answered with a coy smile and silence. ….
My daughter returned home safely to the USA this past week. Phew! All is right with my world again. She truly has had a once-in-a-lifetime experience both travel and internship wise. She’s regaled us with stories and photos of marine life including spottings of mola mola fish (a huge creature), different classes of dolphins and wales, along with an array of safari animals. I love this photo from Sossuvlei, with the highest sand dunes in the world, salt base, and dead trees. She is glad to be able to once again sleep in her own comfortable bed, but loves the memory of sleeping on top of the jeep in a tent … to avoid getting accidentally trampled in the night by a wandering elephant!
We were checking out the community gym at our Bethany Beach rental Saturday, when I overheard the security guard at the desk say to a co-worker, “Jim Vance died.”
Vance. Jim Vance, one of my father’s best friends, one of the few people who probably understood him.
I had to stop and sit for a minute, because I had only just been talking about Vance to my husband earlier in the week. It seemed an odd coincidence.
The connection between Vance and my father was immediate, starting already when my father flew to DC in early 1980 for an in-person interview. Their on-air banter was as genuine as it was entertaining.
I wrote in my book about one particular exchange. During the commercial break, Vance had made a comment about women not baking anymore. When they came back on air, they were still arguing, Vance telling my father not to get him in trouble here. Vance countered, “I didn’t say they can’t bake; I said they don’t bake bread anymore.” Dad bragged, “My daughter Cindi bakes me raisin bread all the time.” When I heard that exchange, I immediately baked two loaves, one for Dad and one for Vance. The next night, on the air, Dad presented Vance his loaf of homemade raisin bread, and the camera zoomed in to show raisins poking through a golden crust. Vance wrote me a thank you note, a note I have cherished and saved for 30 years now.
They had their classic exchanges, Is “wrassling” as Vance called it, for real? Viewers joined in on taking sides on this debate, and I love the photo of the poster a fan made telling Vance to “sit on it.” There are the serious moments, too, when Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball player, overdosed in 1986, my father gave way to tears on air and Vance had to finish the story for him. On the lighter side, I have watched the episode of them cracking up over the runway model stumbling, multiple times.
I wonder about their instant connection. Was it the understanding of how they both had succeeded despite their difficult childhoods? Or that, after accomplishing so much, they should have had an inner strength and self-confidence, but neither really did.
Vance gave the eulogy at my father’s funeral, saying that his biggest fear was of failure. I wonder, if my father had been alive, what would he have said of Vance? For sure, he would have thanked him for making work FUN.
My condolences to Vance’s family and friends. May he Rest In Peace.
I was doing a reading and book club at a library when someone asked, “have you had a lot of therapy, because you seem really normal?”
It’s a loaded question and I hesitated to answer. For many, therapy is life and soul saving. For most of my life, therapy was not an option, a combination of my father’s view that it’s for crazy and weak people and that the cost is prohibitive. For me, therapy was synonymous with shame.
There was a time in high school when my brother got in trouble with the police for breaking into a police compound to steal car radios. The police said he was the look out, but knowing my brother, I think he just happened to be hanging out with his idiot friends who were the master minds of the attempted stealing. I don’t know for sure. The details were never openly discussed the night he came home from jail or in the weeks that followed. My father said my brother could leave home and change his name or stay, but home would be like prison. I suggested to my father that we should go to a family counselor. I mean, wasn’t this clearly one more of my brother’s cries for help? My father grimaced in disgust at my suggestion. I was disappointed, for my brother’s sake, but also for mine as by that point our family dynamics were killing me too. I just coped in different ways from my brother.
As counseling wasn’t an option, I turned to books for my answers. I still maintain that reading is one of the best ways of understanding and healing from childhood trauma. I journaled a lot, until my step mother started reading my private thoughts, no matter where I hid my diary. In college, when my father first told me not to come home again, I turned to a priest. He certainly helped me be strong and to choose love over hate, but he didn’t have the expertise in diagnosing our family dysfunction. I resumed writing in my journal, to unleash my anger, my pain, and to understand. When I look back on decades of journals, I see where I have progressed and where I have not.
Becoming a mother resurfaced a number of my own childhood traumas and fears that I would repeat my father’s failures with my own children. I sensed I needed help. The final straw was the prospect of our moving back to DC, my father’s town. I was working on my MBA at the time so I went to the student health center. Free therapy! But you get what you pay for. This therapist, who was probably a student himself, thought my coping techniques must be fine. I was an A student, a reliable mother, so I must be doing okay, right? No matter that I was dying inside. No matter that as my logic went, if my father and sister were happier without me, maybe my children and husband would be better off without me too. We had a few sessions, then I gave up. I tried a therapist who was covered by my husband’s insurance plan, all the time fearing the repercussions of this; a friend told me never to use insurance lest a future employer use it against me. (Is this a valid fear? I’d really like to know.) She was slightly better than the campus therapist, but it irked me that she ate lunch while I talked. With a baby, a toddler, and school schedule, the time invested with this therapist didn’t seem worth the scheduling effort. As life would have it, we didn’t move to DC and moved to Michigan instead, my immediate crisis averted.
So it was only when my father died on Christmas Eve, suddenly and unexpectedly, that I knew books alone could not save me from that degree of trauma. I asked friends – discreetly – for recommendations. The most recommended therapist did not take insurance. So this is the other issue with therapy: who can afford it? I gave her a budget of six sessions. She was awesome. She helped me heal, changed my thinking, and diagnosed my father as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I have since devoured four books on the topic. It’s not that my work was done in six sessions (that I did up to eight); it’s that she pointed me in the right direction.
I do think therapy can be wonderful with a good therapist and with hard work. But how does one know who are the good therapists? It can be dangerous to pick at wounds without a clear way to close them back up again. I have had some therapist friends of mine comment on patients who don’t want to do the hard work. Should someone really be in therapy for years? Maybe. Extreme mental illness, of course. But when therapy is a superficial crutch, I liken it to going to the doctor for a heart issue; he or she tells you to cut back on butter and to exercise more. You don’t. But you keep going back to hear the same advice, over and over again.
So I wish people used more than just therapy in their journeys to understand and heal. Reading and writing are gifts we all have. They’re affordable, too. I didn’t have the idyllic childhood that makes me “normal.” Instead, I’ve been blessed to have others in my life that have shown me what normal is. Ironically, it’s my father that gave me an unrelenting determination, the difference in that I’ve directed on continuing to heal.
The beach always soothes my soul. This one in Barbados.
The George Michael Sports Machine went off the air ten years ago this March, after a nearly 30-year run. George Michael’s legacy lives on via the many ESPN sportscasters he mentored, including Lindsay Czarniak and Michael Wilbon. He also had a recent cameo appearance in the hit spy show The Americans, which takes place in Washington DC in the 1980s when the The Sports Machine first launched. Michael’s interviews inspired several movies including The Rookie and Tin Cup.
But few know the personal story of George Michael himself, his rise to fame and the impact that fame had on his family. My father did not trust journalists, particularly after one harsh article in The Washington Post just as he was transitioning from disc jockey to sportscaster. He created a public persona and only revealed the parts of his personal life that helped boost that image. To an extent, all famous people have to do this, and yet, I think people would have found his true back story so much more inspiring.
Here are five things you may not have known about my father, George Michael, some of which are in my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter, some are not:
He Failed Before He Succeeded
My father was a rock ‘n roll disc jockey in New York before he became Washington, DC’s most revered sportscaster. At the height of his disc jockey career, he was rated the top disc jockey in the country by Billboard magazine. In November, 1979, he was fired from WABC. Ironically, it was on his first wedding anniversary to my stepmother, and the surprise party I had planned for them that night was not as festive as I had hoped. My father tried to hold back tears that night as he said, “I’ll never make this kind of money again.” When you are at the top in the biggest media market in the country, the only place to go is down. This was the same year he was being considered as a host for the Olympics, the Miracle on Ice game my father did not get to announce. At one point, his best prospects looked to be announcing the Islanders hockey games in winter and the Mets in spring, an even tougher travel schedule than he already had. Fortunately, he started as the sports director at WRC-TV in DC that April, five months after getting fired from WABC.
It was a difficult year for our family, but clearly, my father reached new heights in his career. I have always told my children to dream big dreams, and to work them from every angle, because that’s exactly what my father did. His first sports rejection came shortly after he graduated college when he did not get his dream job of announcing Cardinal’s baseball games, his beloved hometown team. So ultimately, it took him another 20 years to achieve his next dream job.
His Aunt Was a Pioneer in TV
My dad was a pioneer in sports broadcasting, creating his show in 1980 with video highlights from around the country. Sports highlights are the norm today, with people streaming content from phones and TVs. But in the 1980s, few people had cable or satellite dishes. The video highlights from sports teams around the country were one-of-a-kind. Some say he inspired ESPN Sports Center, and for sure, many reporters trained under my father. But he was not the only pioneer in our family. His Aunt Alice had her own cooking show on ABC in the 1960s, known to viewers as Nancy Craig.
He Didn’t Grow Up Poor
After my father died, a reporter asked me a lot of questions that I had never before contemplated: did he really grow up poor? Did he or didn’t he play soccer in college? These were some of the stories that he apparently had told as part of his public image. As a child, I had never heard him talk about growing up poor. As for soccer, I remember going to some of his neighborhood games when I was a child, and even recall his last game, when he injured his leg and was carted off in an ambulance. But all that was before his college days. After my father died, I journeyed to St. Louis to find out the truth. I visited his childhood home, that, by today’s standards, I would describe as middle class or even upper middle class. He didn’t grow up rich, but he most certainly didn’t grow up poor. As for his soccer, it seems he played some in high school, but never in college.
I wonder why he needed to paint this image of having grown up “on the wrong side of the tracks.” For sure, he was the first in his family to go to college, and to me, that is enough of a success story. His father was a butcher and owned a small grocery story, passing on a work ethic that influenced my father and me.
He Never Healed Family Rifts
My grandfather, Pop, had four wives. I have heard that my grandmother —my father’s mother—was a cold-hearted woman and a perfectionist. Dad was the baby of the family and his mother’s favorite. When my father was five year’s old, Pop disowned his oldest daughter, my father’s half-sister, for getting pregnant out of wedlock. Although Pop and his daughter reconciled before his death, my father never spoke to that sister again nor had any contact with her.
When my father died, he hadn’t spoken to me in nearly twenty years, repeating a painful family pattern. Our first estrangement began when I was in college, when in a burst of anger my father told me never to come home again. We reconciled for a period, but my father stopped speaking to me again when I moved to Switzerland, to marry my high school sweetheart, a man my father adored. I still can’t say for sure why this hurt him to the point that he refused to talk to me. He never explained things, and here, I can only speculate that it goes back to his own traumatic childhood. I also think his rising fame made his narcissism worse. It was “his way or the highway.”
He Was the First to Interview Priscilla Presley After Elvis Died
This past Christmas was a strange one, with George Michael the pop star dying unexpectedly Christmas day, seven years after my father died unexpectedly Christmas Eve. It was hard to read tributes to a different George Michael at a time of year I mourn my father’s loss more intensely. There are several tributes planned for the pop singer, and it reminds me of the tributes my father did for Elvis. He did a makeshift tribute the day Elvis died that people can still hear online (musicradio77wabc.com). My father knew the details of Elvis’s career like no other disc jockey or fan. But my father wanted the human side of Elvis, the back story, and for that, he needed Priscilla Presley. Initially, she had refused to talk to the press. I still recall my father’s phone call to her in 1977. I was in the kitchen, probably coloring or writing poems as I did in those days, as he said to Priscilla, “You owe it to your daughter. She’ll want to know about her father.” On the one year anniversary of Elvis’s death, my father’s multi-hour tribute aired around the country, with dozens of interviews from Elvis’s friends, co-workers, and Priscilla. People in the industry thought such a long radio tribute would never succeed, but it did, kind of like the syndicated Sports Machine that had also been met with skepticism. Priscilla, like so many sports celebrities after, trusted my father. He was exceptional in his ability to reveal their human side and unearth their stories. I wish somebody could have done the same for my father.
Cindi Michael is the author of The Sportscaster’s Daughter, selected by Redbook Magazine as one of the best books of 2016.
They say you never forget your first. No, not that first! I mean your first big book event!
It was exciting and humbling to participate in a panel of local memoirists at the iconic RJ Julia bookstore in Madison, CT earlier this month. RJ Julia is a dying breed – an independent book store that draws big name writers while also supporting new writers. I had been to RJ Julia while visiting my lifelong friend, Donna (she’s in my book) who lives in Madison. We even went to a reading by one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult. Jodi drew such a crowd, they had to move the event to the local high school. This bookstore is hallowed ground.
Our event was much more humble but equally inspiring. I was joined by my fellow She Writes Press author, Roni Beth Tower, author of Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance. Who doesn’t love a good romance? I chuckled as she read a scene from her book, her first date with her husband. Her husband attended the event – oh the support! – and didn’t so much as blush as Roni read that flirtatious scene. Sherry Horton shared Witness Chair: A Memoir of Art, Marriage, and Loss as her husband battled cancer. Hearing Sherry read her words, I thought, “what beautiful writing,” so it made sense to learn that she is a writing teacher. Shawn Elizabeth George spoke about yoga and religion from her memoir My Journey to Live from the Inside Out.
I read a scene from The Sportscaster’s Daughter, the chapter “Escape Night.” It’s a tough scene, a scary scene when my brother, sister and I try to run away in the middle of the night after our mother goes bezerk. We don’t run away that night, but our father does get sole custody of us the following weekend. People at the event said the reading was riveting. I have sometimes cried when having to do a reading in writers’ workshops, reliving so much of the pain of the past. The only cure to this is to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Authors have to try for that out of body experience. I had to keep telling myself: “It’s not me now; it’s the child version of me.” My voice still trembled, equal parts the vivid memory and a brewing cold (the first cold all winter, less than ideal timing!). I also greatly appreciated a tip from another writer: make your reading an excerpt, specifically edited for a live reading, adding context, and deleting parts that would have required someone to have read the previous chapters.
Some other things I learned from my fellow writers: bring some props. Sherry had an art theme and brought some things her husband had made. As I have a book club event at Oakland Library next week, I am contemplating playing one of my father’s old radio airchecks. But then, at RJ Julia, only a few people had even ever heard of George Michael. This has been my book’s duality: many are drawn to it because of the universal themes of family and self-esteem, some because of my father’s fame.
Other tips for my fellow writers:
Be prepared for the hard questions. One person asked, who do I now think is more of a monster-my father or my mother. My answer: neither. Another asked: are my brother, sister, and I still close, because that is how “The Escape” chapter ends; our father tells us we have to stick together. The answer to that is the long, sad story of my book.
Thank your hosts: Book stores rarely sell enough books at an event to justify the costs of hosting them. It is as much a labor of love for them as it is for us writers.
Remember the big picture: Your event may not be a sell out. If you have just one good interaction, be grateful for this. There is also the long tail of the associated promotion of the event, whether in papers, social media, the store’s newsletter and website.
I have another first this week: a reading and book club discussion at a library. This is not just any library, it’s the Oakland Public Library. Oakland is the town of my childhood when my dad first got custody of us, where the chapter The Golden Years takes place. I fully expect to be emotional. I can only hope also to be inspirational.
It was my birthday this week. Birthdays are often a time of joyous celebration, a look back on the highs and lows of the last year, and anticipation of things to come in the next year. But if you are estranged from a family member, a birthday can be a difficult day, marking another year of an unresolved rift.
In high school, my birthday was always a moody day for me. It falls during the busy football season, leading up to Super Bowl. My father, George Michael, was just getting started as a sportscaster in Washington, DC, so he was either away or too busy to celebrate it in January. We usually celebrated my birthday in late March, jointly with my father’s birthday. In those days, it was my friends who made my birthday special, with a surprise cake, or one year, by filling my locker with balloons.
Later, after my father disowned me, I downright dreaded my birthday. New friends, who knew nothing about my family circumstances, thought my birthday angst had more to do with my age. It didn’t. It marked another year he didn’t want me in his life. It was the one day of the year I could not resist Googling my father’s name to see how he was doing. Or more painful, perhaps, watching one of his shows on YouTube.
And yet, it was this annual habit of mine that gave me hope. It was January of 2008 when I stumbled across a story in Washingtonian magazine in which my father mentioned me by name, Cindi spelled correctly with an i at the end. He was recalling his wedding day, his second marriage, when my sister and I were maids of honor. My father had recently retired and this mention seemed to reinforce my belief that much of our rift was caused by my father’s fame – that once he slowed down, he would realize all he was missing out on as a father and grand father. I didn’t know then that my father was battling cancer. Neither of us knew that he would die within two years, too late for a reconciliation in this lifetime.
He’s been gone seven years now. There is no new news about him to torture myself with. At most, I might see a reference to how he shaped the career of another sportscaster. This year, I stumbled across a few tweets about him, people reminiscing about how innovative his show was at the time. I don’t even know why I searched on twitter this year – maybe it was because the Packer’s game was more painful to watch. In an odd way, these new mentions comfort me as I am glad other people still remember him.
I no longer have to lament that we didn’t reconcile in the last year: he’s gone, he couldn’t. So my birthday is a little less painful. And my present family always knocks themselves out to make it special. This year, we went to see Carole King’s Beautiful on Broadway, the music moving and inspiring. And there’s cake, always made with love when the kids are home, or when not, bought with love as my husband doesn’t risk that undertaking on his own. Whip up a Beef Wellington, any day. Bake a cake, no way.
A few years ago, we were visiting Key West and I got to see where Hemingway wrote. It’s a cozy room, separate from the main house. A place of solitude and creativity. I wish I could say I wrote in an equally inspiring place, but instead, much of my writing is done on planes, trains, and poolside. If I waited to write until I was in more conducive surroundings, I would never write. If you have a New Year’s resolution to write more in 2017, that means writing whenever and wherever you can.
I started my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter, in 2009 with a New Year’s resolution to make more time for creative writing. I had made—and broken—this resolution before. My day job as a big data expert also demands writing, but of the technical kind, leaving little time or inspiration for the creative kind. By the end of 2009, I had a grand total of two chapters. Then, on Christmas Eve, my father, George Michael, died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He died without saying goodbye, not having spoken to me in years. I had been assuming our reconciliation was nearing both because my father had mentioned me by name in a recent interview and because he had just retired. I had long assumed that my father would only come to his senses and have time for reflection when he slowed down. I was wrong, devastatingly wrong. Or I was right, and my father ran out of time. Writing helped me cope with the shock of it all. It helped me grieve and allowed me to spend time with him, reliving our happier times. That year, Fridays became my designated writing and grieving day. On those Fridays, I tried to write from the sofa of my living room, gazing out at the Kittatinny Mountains of New Jersey. For sure, I could not write emotionally traumatic scenes at my desk with three computers beeping at me.
My day job also means I often travel to conferences and clients across the country. If I am traveling on a Sunday, I have the choice of curling up with a good book on the plane, or buckling down and writing. A six-hour flight is a longer stretch of writing than I could ever carve out at home. I wrote the scene when my dad first told me never to come home again during a layover at Denver airport. In way, it was better I was not home that night to tuck my children in bed. I needed to be alone in a hotel with that painful memory, not wanting the past to contaminate my idyllic present.
As a swim team mom, I often took my daughter to swim practice at 7 a.m., Saturday mornings, a 45-minute drive each way. Parents weren’t allowed on deck to watch practices, so this became another window of opportunity to write. I’d drive to the local Starbucks, then return with my coffee and climb into the back seat of the minivan to write for an hour. For her swim meets, I often officiated, but for weekend invitationals, I would only work the meet one of the days. On my off day, I would sit in the corridor between races, writing on the iPad. It’s distracting, yes, as there are dozens of parents to chat with, going back on deck to cheer for friends, and watching the clock to be sure I didn’t miss her next race. And yet, for a half hour here and there, I would transport myself back to the 1980s to a first love, flirtatious banter, and a man who introduced me to country music, me the daughter of a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey. No doubt, passersby thought I was streaming a comedy show, as I chuckled to myself at the dialogue I was writing.
Revising is harder to do on the go, because I prefer to revise from the printed page. I was speaking at a conference in Rome, and for the flight home, I planned to review several chapters. I was in the business center at the hotel, printing sections of my memoir. Another American came in to print his boarding pass, and I sheepishly apologized for my 25 pages. Thank goodness I hadn’t printed all 50 in one go! He struck up a conversation, as I tried to hide my memoir. It felt out of place in a “business center.” He said he was from Maryland, and I mentioned I had gone to high school and college there, but now lived in New Jersey. There are two things that tie people from Maryland and DC together: The Redskins and politics. He must have brought up the Redskins, because next the stranger said, “Oh, the best sportscaster we ever had was George Michael.” My father. Had he seen his name on the page? Subliminally? The pain of his absence and our tragic ending was still raw. Normally I would have just walked away, silently at that point. But it was Rome, and I had been to the Vatican that morning, and the whole exchange felt both surreal and divine. I acknowledged, then, that he was my father. The stranger shook his head in disbelief. “I taught your sister, Michelle, in junior high.” I couldn’t believe it. The stranger added, “She had a tough time. Your father was never home, and the divorce was ugly, if I remember correctly.”
I ask you: what are the chances?
So on that plane ride home, I made some major edits that had been troubling me for months: how much to include scenes in which my father hurt my sister the most. I had wanted to paint a full picture of our family dynamics and to create empathy for my sister. But this chance encounter with a stranger reminded me that her pain is her story to tell, not mine; there were whole scenes I decided to cut on the flight home.
Would I have made the same edits had I been revising from the solitude of my living room? Maybe, but more likely, this chance encounter influenced the edits. It’s a good thing I write wherever I can.