Life Lessons – From a Pulitzer-Prize Winner, a Country Star, and an American Idol

Chimesfreedom wishes you a happy and healthy new year with this post about a Pulitzer-Prize winning book interpreted indirectly through song, leaving you with a question to ask yourself every day throughout the new year.

Although Tim McGraw is not one of my favorite singers, there are times when popular artists record a song that is undeniably clever and catchy.  Popular songs are popular for a reason.  And I cannot help liking his song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” and the way it also relates to one of my favorite books.

“Live Like You Were Dying” exceeds anything else McGraw has recorded.  Part of the reason may be the somewhat unusual message in the song.  Although traditional country music has a history of delving into deep adult themes, often modern country music ends up as superficial as most pop music.  “Live Like You Were Dying,” though, summarizes one of the lessons from Ernest Becker‘s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Denial of Death.

Ernest Becker & Our Mortality

Becker’s book touches on several themes, but a principal theme may be summarized (in a somewhat oversimplified way for a short blog post):  (1) human beings are intelligent; (2) because we are intelligent, we are faced with the knowledge that we are rotting pieces of animal flesh that will someday die; (3) this knowledge of our mortality is overwhelming, so we push the knowledge to our subconscious; (4) to help us deal with our knowledge of mortality, we latch onto various cultural devices that help us suppress our fear of death — such as activities that subconsciously make us feel immortal, like rooting for sports teams, shopping, exuberant patriotism, writing a blog, raising children, etc.

There are both upsides and downsides to our subconscious quest for immortality.  It may drive us to do things that benefit others, but it also may make us subconsciously hostile to others who have belief systems different from us.  If you believe something different than I do, you threaten the subconscious protections I have created as a shield against my mortality.  In the last few decades, “Terror Management Theory” psychologists have done significant research regarding how these theories affect our real world interactions.

Ernest Becker’s books, in particular Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, explain the theories in more detail.  But his work is based on philosophers, psychologists, scientists, etc. going back more than a century.

What does all this have to do with a pop song by a country superstar?  Although there is an aspect of Becker’s work that initially sounds depressing, there is an uplifting side, and that is portrayed rather well in the song.  One of Becker’s points is that if you are consciously aware of reality — including one’s mortality and the ways we may try to suppress it — then it may help you embrace life and more accurately assess value to the things in our life.

Live Like You Were Dying

“Live Like You Were Dying” begins with a friend in his early 40’s telling the narrator about getting bad news from the doctor relating to his x-rays (otherwise the song is vague about the exact nature of the disease).  The narrator “asked him when it sank in,/That this might really be the real end?/ How’s it hit you when you get that kind of news? /Man whatcha do?”

The friend, instead of responding about being angry or depressed, tells the narrator in the chorus of the song:

An’ he said: “I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing,
“I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.
“And I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter,
“And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”
An’ he said: “Some day, I hope you get the chance,
“To live like you were dyin’.”

The friend then explains how he became a better husband, a better friend, and a better son.  The chorus repeats with the friend restating the wish about hoping that the narrator gets the chance “To live like you were dyin’,” explaining in the bridge, as the music builds:

Like tomorrow was a gift,
And you got eternity,
To think about what you’d do with it.
An’ what did you do with it?
An’ what can I do with it?
An’ what would I do with it?

Although the song was written by songwriter Tim Nichols and not by Tim McGraw, the video reflects McGraw’s connection to the song.  In the final chorus, starting at around the 3:00 mark, you see a Phillies pitcher throwing a strikeout to Willie Wilson of the Royals to win the 1980 World Series.  The image is not there because McGraw is a Phillies fan or because he hates the Royals; that’s his dad Tug McGraw on the mound.

Tug fathered Tim as the result of an affair and they did not have a relationship until Tim was a teenager.  But the two became close later in life.  Tug McGraw passed away from a brain tumor in early 2004, and Tim McGraw recorded “Live Like You Were Dying” later in the year in memory of his father.

In the song, because the friend is talking to the narrator, the singer is singing the questions to us.  So, you are asked, if you knew that each day was precious and you were dying, what would you do?  The question is relevant to all of us.

As Ernest Becker explained, we each only have a limited number of days to live.  More than 56 billion people in the world died between Jan 1, 2010 and Jan. 1, 2011, with most enjoying last New Year’s Day not knowing it was their last. Many of us will not be here a year from today.

Our time here is short, and each day we are closer to death, giving us the opportunity to live like we are dying — instead of just dying. This new year, each month, and each day, including today, is a gift.

What can you do with it?

What are you going to do with it?

Live Like We’re Dying

Bonus American Idol Copy of Idea and Song Title: In 2009, American Idol winner Kris Allen recorded a song with a very similar title and similar theme to Tim McGraw’s song.  Allen’s song, entitled “Live Like We’re Dying,” repeats the theme of McGraw’s “Live Like You’re Dying” with a riff that may be more catchy to those turned off by men wearing cowboy hats when they sing.

We only got 86 400 seconds in a day to
Turn it all around or to throw it all away
We gotta tell ’em that we love ’em while we got the chance to say
Gotta live like we’re dying

The song, written by four writers, is more generic than the McGraw song.  It tries to send a similar message without the personal story of the country song.

Oa recent road trip, I heard the song late at night driving through New Jersey, and the catchy tune did get stuck in my head.  But the meaning behind the song is not as emotionally powerful as in the personal story of the country song. Give it a listen.

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    Have a Safe New Year’s Eve (Billy the Kid Rises Again)

    Today it was announced that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will not pardon Billy the Kid. People debated this year whether Billy the Kid should be pardoned. The debate was based on a deal that Billy allegedly had made with the territorial governor in exchange for testimony in a case.

    According to USA Today, Gov. Richardson, whose term ends at midnight tonight, said that the evidence of the deal was ambiguous, so he chose not to act on the pardon. Others on both sides debated whether or not the evidence was so ambiguous.

    The descendants of the territorial governor and of Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot and killed Billy the Kid, asserted that they were outraged that Gov. Richardson had considered the pardon. We are invested in the legacy of our families, even for things that happened more than 100 years ago.

    Nobody knows what happened in that secret meeting between Billy the Kid and the territorial governor in March 1879. But, like Tom Petty in the song “Billy the Kid,” Billy keeps getting up in our American imagination.

    Chimesfreedom has been out of town, but we will have a New Year’s Post tomorrow, so be sure to stop by again in the new year.  Thanks for your visits and comments in 2010 as this site has got off the ground, and we look forward to seeing you in 2011!

    May you continue to get up from any adversity in the new year.

    The King’s Speech (short review)

    The King’s Speech (2010), about King George VI, is one of the best movies of the year. It is entertaining, interesting, and an excellent mix of drama, humor, and history.

    Do not be deceived about the “king” in the title and be turned off or expect a story focusing on royalty. Although the movie does give great insight into the life of the royals, it is mainly a movie about human beings. The movie begins with the future king as the Duke of York, known to his friends as “Bertie.” He is second in line to the crown behind his father and older brother, but events beyond his control will later propel him toward the throne. In carrying out is royal duties, he sometimes has to give speeches, and his speaking is hindered by a severe stammer. After various experts failed to help him with his stammer, Bertie’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) encourages Bertie to try one more expert, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.

    When Rush enters the movie, it really takes off in its study of the relationship between the commoner and the future king. Rush is outstanding in the role, and Colin Firth is also exceptional in making the viewer come to understand the imperfect person underneath the king. The acting all around is excellent, including Carter and including Guy Pearce as King Edward VIII. Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Winston Churchill was the only weak point in the cast. But the problem may have been in the difficulty of portraying someone as recognizable as Churchill without slipping into caricature.

    [This paragraph reveals small potential spoilers.] The title’s reference to “The King’s Speech” refers both to Bertiie’s difficulties in speaking and to the climactic speech at the end where he addresses the nation. While the focus on the former is compelling, the shift to the focus on the latter fell a little flat for a movie climax. Because of the tone throughout the movie, as well as maybe from previews, there was no suspense about whether the final speech would succeed. Plus, the uplifting movie’s ending foreshadows some dark clouds with the images of Hitler near the end and the introduction of Neville Chamberlain, who after the movie ends will have a policy of appeasement to the Nazis. So, the movie did not quite convince me of the speech’s importance, although it was important. It is hard to fault the movie for the climax, though, when it portrays true events and is not responsible for our knowledge of the upcoming events. But it is too bad that his speech alone could not have immediately defeated the Germans, in both the movie and in real life.

    Conclusion? The story, acting, and movie are excellent. In a year of few great movies, The King’s Speech is near the top of the crop.

    If you have not seen the movie, stop reading here and go see it. If you have seen the movie, you might enjoy hearing the actual speech from King George VI featured at the end of the movie here:

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The WWI Christmas Truce: a Beatle, a Beagle, and a Brooks

    On Christmas day in 1914, peace broke out on the battlefield among common soldiers. Several artists have interpreted the World War I Christmas Truce, including two of the biggest recording artists in history — Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks. Although the songs about the truce ignore some of the nuances of the historical record, there is only so much one may do in a three-minute song.

    The Christmas Morning Truce

    On Christmas morning in 1914 at several places along the trenches, an informal peace broke out among the troops.  At some places, German troops started singing carols, and then the British joined in.  Soon, some of the soldiers began showing themselves, and the enemies met in no-man’s land to exchange food and cigarettes, and in some places they played soccer.

    The truce occurred spontaneously at different locations with different men.  And it is estimated that more than 100,000 British, French, and German soldiers participated.

    Reactions to the Informal Truce

    But the World War I leaders on both sides did not appreciate the common soldiers’ truce.  Many days later, after word spread about the Christmas Truce, officers ordered that soldiers who possessed gifts from the enemy would be punished. At many places along the lines, the leadership broke up groups who participated in the truce and transferred the men elsewhere along the front lines.

    The following year, there would again be some informal truces, but due to pressure from the officers and due to the increasing brutality of the war, the 1915 truces were not nearly as widespread as the 1914 truces. The moment of peace had passed.

    Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace”

    The video to Paul McCartney’s 1983 song, “Pipes of Peace” — from the album of the same name — shows a dramatization of the truce.  In the video, we see English Paul and German Paul meeting on the battlefield. (Fortunately, none of the Pauls from the “Coming Up” video appear).

    The lyrics of “Pipes of Peace” do not describe the Christmas Truce and are vague enough to be used either as an anti-war song or a love song.  It is sort of like “Love is All You Need.”

    In “Pipes of Peace,” Paul sings: “All round the world little children being born to the world/ Got to give them all we can till the war is won / Then will the work be done.”

    Garth Brooks and “Belau Wood”

    By contrast, in Garth Brooks’s 1997 “Bellau Wood” — from one of his last pre-retirement albums, Sevens (1997) — the lyrics directly describe the Christmas Truce. The story is a fictionalized version of the truce set at the location of a later 1918 World War I battle.

    Brooks describes the peace starting with someone singing “Silent Night”: “As we lay there in our trenches / The silence broke in two/ By a German soldier singing / A song that we all knew.” But in the end, the message is similar to the message of the McCartney song:

    But for just one fleeting moment
    The answer seemed so clear
    Heaven’s not beyond the clouds
    It’s just beyond the fear

    No, heaven’s not beyond the clouds
    It’s for us to find it here

    I recall an official video of the Garth Brooks song “Bellau Wood,” but it does not seem to be available on the Internet. You may hear the song with a fan video below or go to this link where he sings the song and introduces it by describing how emotional it makes him.

    The Film Joyeux Noel and a Book

    An excellent 2005 French movie is based on the truce, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas). Also, a nonfiction book by Stanley Weintraub called Silent Night tells the real story in more detail.

    Although the movie Joyeux Noel is a fictionalized account of the truce, it does a good job of portraying the reaction to the truce, something that is often overlooked in the sweet versions of the story.

    In Weintraub’s book, he described how the High Command on both sides were not happy, but “many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts as propagandists, were not monsters.  Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas, by professionals who saw the world through different lenses.”

    At the end of his book, the author wonders what the world would be like today had the informal truce led to an immediate end of the war that was just beginning.

    Although the leaders’ reactions against the truce show the darker and realistic side of war, the fact that the truce took place at all is somewhat hopeful for our species. When France dedicated a WWI Christmas Truce memorial in 2008, German and French soldiers played a game of football (soccer) where there predecessors had played in 1914. This time, the peace endured.

    Snoopy and The Red Baron

    Finally, here is one more song that incorporates the WWI truce, featuring someone more famous than Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks: Snoopy.

    In this holiday season and in the upcoming year, may you understand that your enemies are not so different from you.  Peace to all the world and good will to men and women. Happy holidays.

    [November 2014 Update: The grocery store chain Sainsbury incorporated the Christmas truce story into a commercial.] Which song do you prefer? Leave a comment.

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    Blue Christmas & the Elvis TV Special

    It was the Christmas television special that never was. Peter Guralnick explained in his wonderful two-volume biography of Elvis Presley how Elvis’s famous 1968 “Comeback Special” started with the idea of a holiday special. But it turned into something completely different.

    By the late 1960’s, Elvis had become largely irrelevant to the current music scene.  In recent years he had spent his time in a wasteland of movies of declining quality.

    For a change in strategy, Colonel Parker negotiated a deal with NBC for a TV special around the holidays.  And Parker envisioned it as a Christmas special.

    But Elvis and Steve Binder, the director of the program, had something else in mind. They designed the special in a way to reestablish Elvis as a relevant music artist.

    The special featured several big set productions and an outstanding closing number written just for Elvis.  But the centerpiece of the special featured Elvis in black leather singing out the raw blues of his early work — both in stand-up and sit-down segments.

    Binder recorded two sit-down sessions with Elvis on June 27, 1968 for the December TV special.  Both versions of “Blue Christmas” are available on DVD. In one of the sessions, Elvis also sang “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” but it was not used in the show.

    The special, promoted as “Elvis” but now known as The ’68 Comeback Special, was a turning point in Presleys career. It relaunched him as a relevant music artist who would soon record such great songs as “Suspicious Minds.”

    “Blue Christmas”

    In the special, which was broadcast on December 3, 1968, Binder agreed to allow only one Christmas song in the show.  The song was “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis had first recorded in 1957.

    Elvis’s 1957 rock and roll performance defined “Blue Christmas.” But the song had been recorded almost a decade earlier in 1948 by Ernest Tubb. One of the most recent covers of the song was released by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with a horn section on a fun version of “Blue Christmas.”

    One can see why Binder allowed this one holiday song in the 1968 special.  “Blue Christmas” is steeped in the blues, and Presley knocks it out of the park.

    Watching the performance  feels like being in the living room jamming with the greatest singer in the world. The King had returned.

    Bonus Ranking: See where “Blue Christmas” ranks among the top depressing holiday songs of all time here.

    Bonus History Trivia: This week in 1957, Elvis was at Graceland celebrating the holidays when he received his draft notice on December 20, 1957.

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