Blast From the Past: Prodigy

I’ve been going through a sort of 80’s rebirth lately. It all started with the re-unification of a group of friends my sister and I met in the early 90s on Prodigy. Remember that?

For those who don’t remember, Prodigy was an online service/community before the Internet/WWW became mainstream, and even before America Online became big. It was offered as a joint effort by, of all companies, IBM and Sears. When my mom bought us our first computer, a friend told us about Prodigy and told us we should buy a modem, because most modems came bundled with the software. So we bought a 2400 baud modem (can you imagine?) and I installed it myself (I always had a strange innate ability to figure out computers). I loaded the software, and our lives changed forever.

In a few short months, my sister and I came upon a bulletin board (there were no chat rooms then) called “Name That 80+ Tune” I forget where exactly we found it, but it was listed among hundreds of other topics and contained sub-topics where members a line or two of a song from the 80’s and beyond and everyone else had to guess the name and artist of the song. It started out innocently enough, but after a while, this little group started to actually get to know each other. There were times when messages would get posted to the boards almost instantly, so we created a separate “UCC” board, or “Utter Chit Chat.” And next thing we knew, we had friends all over the country.

Because there was no way to send photos via Email at the time, we sent them through regular mail. Next we all shot videos of ourselves and our hometowns and sent them to everyone — those were hysterical. At that point we really felt like we knew each other pretty well, so we started to get ideas about meeting in person. One girl, Lynn, lived in Chicago, not far from my sister and I; one guy, Tony, lived in New York and another, Scott, lived in California. Others included Beckie, who lived in Connecticut; Emily and Sarah, who lived in Seattle; Paul, who lived in Minnesota; Lauren, from St. Louis and Amy, from Phoenix.

We decided to meet in Chicago/Kenosha, since it was central and three of us already lived in the area. The first “union” brought five of six of us together, and the second brought four. Other, smaller “unions” happened across the country, with one of the guys, Scott, being the “constant” in almost all of them. Eventually, everyone had come in contact with one another in some way. Our little online community had grown into true friendships.

As time went on, and technology changed, Prodigy changed as well, and the group began to disband. We tried moving everything to America Online but by then the Internet and the World Wide Web were starting to gain popularity and nobody had time for silly bulletin boards. The main “group” still kept in touch via Email and phone, and a few of us met once or twice more, but after a while, life caught up with us and we lost touch with nearly everyone.

Until Facebook.

15 years after we first started all of this, our little group has reunited. I found Scott there, and he found another former member, Heather. Then my sister joined, and we found Amy and Beckie. So I decided to create a “Name That 80+ Tune” Facebook Group, and basically resurrected our old game.

I never dreamed it would be so successful. As of today, 15 people have joined the group, and of that 15, 13 were members of the original Prodigy group. We’ve been having such a great time, remembering all the crazy things we did, posting pictures of our ‘unions,’ and even planning some reunions. We’ve all grown up, some have gotten married, some have kids, but all of us still have a love for music and those goofy 80’s tunes. And we’re even back to playing the game, just like we used to.

What happened back then was so new and exciting. We created a community before MySpace, Friendster and Facebook. Heck, even before AOL. I don’t think it could ever happen today. It’s just too easy to exchange all of that information. Back then we were just names and words. There were no judgments based on looks, lifestyles or backgrounds. Today everyone has pictures, profile pages, websites and blogs… it’s almost too easy to find people, but not so easy to really get to know them.

And to think it all started on Prodigy, which doesn’t even exist anymore. In a way, I like to think we were pioneers.

The old Prodigy gang, in my parents’ backyard, 1993:  
Clockwise from top left: Scott, me, Tony, Beth and Lynn.

Schlameel, Schlamazel! Hassenpepper Incorporated!

A couple of weeks ago I joined the gang from Feast of Fools for a trip to Milwaukee for PrideFest.  It was my first time in Brewtown in over ten years, and I was really looking forward to it.  

I had visions of us exploring the city a-la Laverne & Shirley, soaking in the charm and the love of one of the Midwest’s most unappreciated gems.  I wanted the weekend to be memorable and fun, and to leave with a sense of pride in my Cheeseheaded heritage.

Sadly, the weather was absolutely atrocious.  

Group Shot!Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time. There were some really great moments, lots of good laughs, and we met some really nice people- but that weather was a real downer!

Surely by now you’ve heard about the draining of Lake Delton and flooding in Racine and other Wisconsin cities, and have seen the video of the houses falling into the raging waters

Thankfully nothing like that happened in the Milwaukee city proper, but it was still a near-complete washout.  Call it unfortunate timing.  It certainly wasn’t the city’s fault.

Milwaukee and I have a lot of history.  So it seemed sort of unfair that I’d forgotten about it while living in the much bigger, much busier city to the south.  I was really looking forward to getting ‘back to my roots’ a bit and seeing how much Milwaukee has changed in the last 10 years.

I remember visiting Milwaukee many times in my youth, and nearly every visit was the subject of a really good time.  As a kid there were numerous trips with my family and friends to Festa Italiana, German Fest and, of course, Summerfest at the Summerfest grounds (later renamed the Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds in homage to the late, long-term mayor of the city).  There were tons of Milwaukee Brewers games at old County Stadium, concerts at the Bradley Center or the Marcus Amphitheater, scads of visits to the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Wisconsin State Fair, and a great number of trips to Marquette University when my good friend Mark was going there for his undergrad.  

I’m happy to report that Milwaukee has changed a lot — in some ways for the worse, but in most ways for the better.  

For the worse, it seems that Milwaukee has gone the way of many smaller municipal areas and lost a lot of its gay-identified spots.  Places I used to visit in the early to mid 90s like Club 219, M&M Club and C’est La Vie are long gone.  Although LaCage is still there, I probably wouldn’t recognize it since it’s constantly being remodeled; and I think the venerable Triangle bar is still there.  I don’t know if this is the result of gays and straights co-mingling more, or the further loss of any sort of gay ‘neighborhood’ in Milwaukee; but it seems like the choices are a little more slim than I remember.

However, that doesn’t mean that Milwaukee is a bad place to be gay.  No other city in the nation holds a PrideFest like Milwaukee.  And whether it rains or shines, it’s always an amazing event.  

For the better, Milwaukee is a large city on a smaller scale, and from what I’ve seen, it’s really become much more cosmopolitan and chic than I ever remember it being.  There are so many great clubs and restaurants to visit, cute shops and walkways, and their riverwalk through downtown puts Chicago’s to shame.  And of course, the people are as friendly as can be.  There’s tons of entertainment and culture – from the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts to the Pabst Theater to the absolutely spectacular Santiago Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum on the lakeshore- MIlwaukee is prettier and even more memorable than I ever remember as a kid.

So once everything dries out up north and I get a free weekend, I think a return trip is in the works.  I need to re-orient myself to my former neighbor to the north.  I’ve done a lot of growing in the last ten years– and so has Milwaukee.  It deserves to get a second look. 

Father's Day – The sound of my dad's voice

Another Father’s Day has arrived.  The second since my dad passed on.

I’ve given a lot of thought about how to honor the day on my blog.  It seems that I’ve told just about every possible story and shared countless pictures of him in the past two years.  If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you probably know him pretty well.  

But the one thing I hadn’t included was his voice.

You see, one of the wonderful things about being born when I was born is the advent of so much great technology.  Generations of people lost family members over the years, and subsequently lost the ability to hear their voices or even see their faces again.  As time went on, we had photographs, then home movies, and then even audio recordings.  

When I was born, my parents purchased a portable cassette recorder made by Realistic, the house brand at the time for Radio Shack.  It probably about 10 lbs. heavy and needed an external microphone to record. 

Shortly after we were born, they tried to catch our first words on the recorder; then as we grew up, my mom or my dad would set up the tape recorder and sit with us and have us recite our names, our address, our phone number, and then have us count or say the alphabet, and then sing some songs.

It is on these tapes where I can hear myself counting to ten at the bright young age of two.

It is on these tapes where one can witness my budding interest in music – singing songs like “Top of the World” by the Carpenters and “It’s Such A Good Feeling” from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with confidence and pretty darn good tonality.  

But it’s also on these tapes where I am reminded of how loving and nurturing my parents were.  

Toward the end of my Dad’s life he became a very bitter and angry person.  These tapes bring me back to the Dad I really knew and remember the most.  They show how proud he was of me when I counted to 10 at almost 2 years old, then counted to 30 at the age of 4.  How he laughed when I said something silly (which was fairly often, especially when I was 4), but was stern when I wouldn’t give my sister her turn at the microphone, telling me that it’s only fair that she have her turn.  

Over the years, some of the tapes had broken, and some of our memories were lost forever.  But fortunately, most of them still survive to this day.  I took them into my possession a few years go and decided to digitally record them on my computer, preserving them forever.  I then burned them onto CDs for me, my mom and my sister.  

So on this Father’s Day, I want to share with you some of my memories.  You don’t have to listen to them if you don’t want to (they’re pretty long – about 20 minutes each), but if you do, you’ll have some sort of idea of what kind of a dad my Dad was.  He was a pretty great guy.  

Thank goodness I can still hear his voice today. 

Me with my Dad and Mom, November 20, 1972

After dinner, Mom and Dad ask me what I want for dessert, then ask me some questions, which I repeat back to them- sometimes repeatedly.  I also explain the contents of my Dad’s wallet, which has forever been a source of comedy and good memories for my family. (For years my nickname was “Wallet” because I always wanted to see my dad’s wallet and look at his credit cards.  Obviously a shopper was born.)  I also count to 10 – at 1 year and 11 months old. 

Me, my sister and my Dad, various dates, approx. 1974 and 1975

This tape has my sister and I sharing the microphone as best we can at various ages.  It seems like my sister is older and more talkative in some spots and younger and less talkative in others. I think my dad recorded over some stuff at some points, too – he was never much good at figuring out the tape recorder – but throughout he is there, coaching us to say things and sing songs. Toward the end, there is a segment with my Mom where she “interviews” us.  I was a pretty silly kid at this point.  To this day I still don’t know what “I am very it” and  “Everybody likes it to be here” mean.

Kitchen Floor – Instant Flashback

Originally uploaded by lauri N lily

It’s amazing the things you sometimes find on the internet.

While working on a project that has a somewhat retro feel, I remembered my mom’s kitchen floor that was laid in about 1975 or so, and stayed there until the mid-90s.  For some reason I found myself inspired to search “70s floor” on Flickr, just to see what I would find.

The second photo that came up was this photo.  This is the pattern that was on my mom’s floor during that time.

Seeing this pattern brings back a lot of great memories for me. I remember when it was laid in, and how new and wonderful it was. One of my favorite things to do was to pretend the little paths between the circles were streets and use them for my Matchbox cars.

We kept this pattern far too long. By the early 90s it was coming up in spots throughout the kitchen and was creating a safety hazard for all of us. In 1994 we replaced it by placing a low-pile blue carpeting over it, and in the early 2000s we replaced it again, this time removing all of the old layers (by then there were three- the carpet, this floor and the original linoleum underneath) and re-did the entire floor with another new carpet.

But this floor holds the most special memories for me. Memories of birthdays and breakfasts. Memories of Christmases and dinners, both formal and informal. Memories of chairs being dragged along its bumpy surface. Memories of echos of laughter and the dishwasher running. Memories of our dog’s toenails clacking across it as he came in from the cold, racing into the living room to play some more.

The power of the senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. It’s amazing how they work to dig up such wonderful memories.

Baseball, Boys and Dads

Today was opening day for the Chicago Cubs.

To most of you that’s not a big deal. In fact, I’m sure there are a good number of you who read that first line and said “Who cares?”

Well to this baseball fan, it’s a big deal. Because baseball means more than just nine guys running around a field hitting a ball with a wooden stick. It’s because, for the most part, boys and dads have a sort of innate relationship around baseball. Sometimes that relationship blossoms into a loving and wonderful coexistence; and sometimes it harbors a lifetime of regret and/or agony.

For me, the relationship between me, my Dad and baseball has almost always been a positive one. I remember playing catch with him in the backyard and going to the park to hit a few line drives (which were probably only bloopers but to me they were line drives.) I was never much good at playing the game, but I definitely recall the first few trips we made to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play.

One of my fondest memories is during our second visit to Wrigley Field. I was probably about 8 or so and my sister was 6. We were seated in the main grandstand area, to the right of home plate, just under the upper grandstand. They were pretty great seats. I had my program and my Cubs baseball cap, and my sister was sporting her trademark Cubs fisherman’s cap which was so cute on her little head. Mom and Dad were reviewing the lineup with us, getting us ready to start keeping score for the game.

I looked up and saw a mob of people forming from the Cubs dugout, walking up toward the stairs of the grandstand. In the mob I could see Jack Brickhouse, the legendary Cubs broadcaster. I knew he was probably just finishing the “Lead-Off Man” interview with one of the players and was heading up to the announcer’s booth in the Mezzanine. The only way to get there was through the crowd, so every time he made the trek, he would be besieged by autograph seekers.

I asked my dad for a pen, and he found one for me. In a flash, I grabbed my program and took off. I could hear my dad calling after me, “Ricky! Get back here! RICKY! You’ll never find your way back!” But I knew where I was going. I ran after the mob, and followed them down the stairs into the concourse. Just after turning to the right, I reached the the mob and tunneled my way between the legs of the taller fans. I got right up to Jack Brickhouse, smiled with my toothless smile, and said, “Mr. Brickhouse, can I have your autograph?”

Jack replied, “Sure, little fella!” and grabbed my program and signed it with my felt-tip pen. I looked at the signature, said “Wow! Thanks!” and dashed back to the seats.

When I got back, my dad was fuming and my mom was frantic. “We thought we’d never find you! How did you find your way back?” they cried.

I responded quite confidently, “I knew where I was going!” and not another word was spoken about it.

Throughout my dad’s and my life together, baseball remained as a constant in an otherwise symbiotic relationship. No matter what else was going on in our lives, we could always fall back upon what the Cubs were doing that year, or what bonehead moves the management made that would plunge the season into another fit of despair.

As I said before, I wasn’t much of a player. I did play on a Little-League type team in grade school, but I wasn’t all that good. I was always stuck in right field, and I spent more time picking dandelions than running after base hits. Dad, of course, was furious with me and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t a better player– but I assured him that it wasn’t because I didn’t like the game — I just didn’t enjoy playing it as much as I enjoyed watching it.

So that’s why, when the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus started rehearsing the song “What You’d Call A Dream” from the little-known off-Broadway play called “Diamonds,” I was struck by how much meaning the game has in so many people’s lives. Whether you’re the greatest or worst player, or whether you ever made the game-winning hit or cost a team the game; there’s something special and meaningful about the relationship between fathers, sons and baseball that can never be broken.

So this Friday and Saturday, when I’m on stage, choking back tears during that song, I will remember the trips to Wrigley Field; the days playing catch in the summer sun; the baseball cards and team rosters, and his recollections of years past; the afternoons watching WGN and Jack Brickhouse– and later, Harry Caray– call the games; and the good times–and bad– that revolved around the game.

What You’d Call A Dream

There are two men out, and its in the ninth, and the score is four to three
There’s a man at first, and a man at bat, and the man at bat is me
And I’m sorta scared, and I’m sorta proud, and I’m stronger than I seem
And I take a swing, and my dad is there, and its what you’d call a dream

For the ball flies in the sun, and it sails off as I run
The crowd is roaring, cheering as I go, so are all the guys on the team
And I run for home, and we win the game, and its what you’d call a dream
And the sun shines like diamonds
The summer sun shines like diamonds
The summer sun, high in a baseball sky, shines like diamonds
And the sun shines like diamonds

There are two men out, and its in the ninth, and the score is four to three
There’s a man at first, and a man at bat, and the man at bat is me
And it’s what you’d call
A dream.