Thursday, July 9, 2009

without judgment

As people around the world analyze the life and death of Michael Jackson, I clicked on a story link that gave me a bit in perspective. For Generation X, it is the end of a cultural era. One of those reference points for a generation always in the shadow of the Boomers. I straddle the generations, so, from childhood, I vaguely remembered Michael from the Jackson 5. I remember more that he was a part of the soundtrack of the student union at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Freshman year, there I was, a kid from a small farming town of just over 1,500 thrust into the expansive campus in the capital city. I didn't know how to study, wasn't in the dorms and was going through enough inner and family turmoil to be more than just a little confused about my direction.

The student union was positioned on the shore of Lake Mendota. Heavy wooden chairs and tables inside; metal ones on the outdoor terrace. Back then the drinking age was 18 and you could buy a pitcher of beer at the bar along with a bag of popcorn. People were allowed to smoke in the building and scents from standard commercial cigarettes were often overpowered by the smell of cloves. It wasn't uncommon to see people pass a joint around either. Everything was accepted, or at least tolerated.

If I remember any sound from the Union, besides that of the heavy chairs scraping across the floor, it's the sound of the jukebox that was situated just to the left of the main entry to the Rathskeller. A real jukebox packed with 45 records and songs that can take me back to that year if I let them: Take me to the River (Talking Heads version), Dock of the Bay (Otis Redding's plane crashed in nearby Lake Monona just days before the song was released in '67) and the Jackson 5's "ABC."

I used to go to the Union to study, I would say, but really I was there to socialize. Or to watch other people socialize while I disappeared at a small table under an arch. It provided the atmosphere where I could hang out and meet new people without being in a real bar. It was where I met a future housemate. It was where I would sometimes go in the summer after my first year of college, before I took off for an out-of-state school and other diversions before finally getting my degree from UW-Milwaukee (yes, it took three schools and about four majors for me to find my way).

A few years later I went back to the Union. The lighting seemed brighter in the Rathskeller. I remember that there were bouncers. The old jukebox had been replaced by a more modern model that played CDs. And though I was still in my 20s, I suddenly felt old and very far away from those days when I was 19 and trying to figure it out. Now I'm 44 and still trying to figure it out, though that is what life's journey is all about, I suppose.

And after all the turmoil that Michael went through - from child prodigy and maybe even musical genius, through his mistakes, I imagine that he was still trying to figure it all out and along the way he got painfully, publicly lost. The people he hurt may one day forgive him. A large part of the public will not. But can we at least appreciate that for a time he shared with the world his talents? When I think about it, I remember those old Jackson 5 songs "I'll be there," as well as those groundbreaking songs from the 80s. He contributed to the soundtrack our generation grew up with. That will always be there.

Note: I began this post on June 26 and called it "milestones." I said what was going through my head at the time. Lots has been said since his death, and earlier this week was the memorial service. After reading things written by other people, I wasn't sure how to finish this post. It's hard to not judge, but now is not the time to judge. Now is time to allow people to be sad and also to celebrate what was positive in his life. It's what any of us would want when our days are over.

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