Grazer, Green Day and being present for it all

It recently took a Hollywood producer, a war photographer and a punk rock concert to remind me the importance of being “in the moment.”

Last Wednesday I went to a presentation at Chicago Ideas Week that featured Brian Grazer, a filmmaker who wrote Splash, won an Oscar for directing A Beautiful Mind and has been Ron Howard’s production partner for 35 years. He also models his hair after the way mine looks when I roll out of bed.

According to an anecdote in Grazer’s book, Fidel Castro really wanted to know how to accomplish the style. My answer: “Seven hours of solid sleep in varying positions.”

Grazer was there to discuss his book, A Curious Mind, which I read in search of secrets as to how he had gotten into the film industry (Answer: he was a law clerk who wrote a movie about a man who falls in love with a mermaid). By the time I finished it, I was about to leave the journalism profession for a corporate gig, and it ended up meaning a lot more to me because it describes Grazer’s “curiosity conversations:” Interviews he solicits with people like then-Senator Barack Obama, Dr. Jonas Salk (upon whom he vomited out of excitement) and others. His stories acted as a much-needed assurance that leaving a profession built on asking questions doesn’t mean shelving curiosity entirely.

At the end of his presentation, Grazer gave two words of advice:

“Be present.”

Ironically, a number of people got up to leave after he finished his speech even though there was one more speaker on the agenda — photographer David Turnley, who has covered wars around the world, spent almost 20 years with Nelson Mandela and was campaign photographer for President Obama in 2008. He gave one of the most captivating presentations I’ve ever seen. I followed Grazer’s advice: I was present for his entire speech, during which he told the stories behind some of his most iconic photographs:

Nelson Mandela Gazing Out Barred Windowgulf_war_91sept_11_2001

Unfortunately, taking Grazer’s advice meant missing Grazer’s book signing in the theater lobby, which was going on at the same time as Turnley’s speech. I think Mr. Grazer would understand (and I intend to explain it when we meet again — which we will, if I have anything to say about it).

A swift cab ride later, and I was home in time to experience intellectual whiplash with the final presidential debate. If you don’t remember what made Debate Night Smackdown Vol. 3 so awful, here’s my summary: My ideal band name is now “Nasty Woman and the Bad Hombres,” and our first album will be named “Big League/Bigly.”

That brings me to the second night of “being present.” After 12 years of constant love and periods of absolute obsession, I finally got to see Green Day. If Beyonce’s Formation tour stop at Soldier Field in May was about empowerment in a world of bigotry and discrimination, Green Day’s Revolution Radio show at the relatively closet-sized Aragon Theater on Sunday was about catharsis in a world rich in information and poor in wisdom.

When I started listening to the band in 2004, it was because their American Idiot album was an angry scream of reason that cut through the din of George W. Bush and the media telling us to “be afraid, be very afraid.” How depressing, then, that their concert 12 years later would be a similar refuge from the same fear-mongering roar. I had hoped that songs like “American Idiot” and “Holiday” would continue to seem outdatedly angsty today, just as they had during the Obama administration.

Sure enough, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong took a moment during “Holiday” to introduce President Donald Trump as the president of the wartorn dystopia the song describes. Note: lyrics are satirical, offensive and still thought-provoking:

I took that video because I wanted to immortalize the political atmosphere. But I also took it to show it off on my social media, because the price of a concert ticket — especially one as dear as to that particular show — also pays for a number of envy-tinged “likes” on Instagram and Twitter.

Is adding photos from the show in this post considered hypocrisy, irony or both?


But I was put in my place during the next song, “Letterbomb” (also off American Idiot). Halfway through, Armstrong yelled at the audience to put away their phones. To paraphrase it: Life isn’t happening on the internet, it’s happening here. We’ve come here to escape all the nasty stuff outside (OK, he didn’t say “stuff”), so pay attention to what’s up here and around you, not on your screens.

So that’s what we did. For the next two hours, we jumped, danced, head-banged, fist-bumped, screamed, cheered, rebelled and moshed to songs across Green Day’s catalogue. I still took some photos and shot a clip of the encore (below), but for the most part I focused on the music and mass-catharsis.

It seems like artists have the right idea. John Lennon wrote “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” John Hughes said via Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast: If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Green Day sings “So take the photographs and still frames in your mind / Hang it on a shelf in good health and good times.”

Amazing how being present can result in having the time of your life.


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  1. While in Italy last month, I left my camera in the hotel. To be in the present, to make real memories, one cannot be busy checking focus, etc., one has to be “there”. So I have almost no photos to show others, but a brain full of sights, smells, tastes and experiences to enjoy for the rest of my life or until dementia sets in……

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