Friday, April 30, 2021

Oh, the Places You'll Go

In my most recent blog post, I recalled the anniversary of Rush getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, on April 18, 2013, and what a privilege it was to be there.  But around this time of year, there's another anniversary I like to recall: May 13, 2011. For obvious reasons, this one didn't get the media attention that Rush got, but it certainly meant a lot to me: it will soon be ten years since I got my PhD at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, at the age of 64.


If you had told me when I was growing up in Dorchester, Mass., that I'd one day have a PhD, I would have been skeptical. At that time, I had fallen in love with radio, and even though there were no female deejays, I knew that's what my dream job was.  When my family moved to nearby Roslindale, I continued to dream of being on the air: I loved rock music, I loved listening to my favorite deejays, and I couldn't wait to join them.  

Of course, growing up in the 50s and early 60s, I was told girls could only be teachers or nurses or secretaries, and being a deejay was something that guys did. Still, I dreamed of proving everyone wrong. In fact, one of the first things I did when I got my first car was drive to Paragon Park--an amusement park at Nantasket Beach, about 20 miles from my house, to see the WBZ Radio deejays who did remote broadcasts. But all I heard from teachers, peers, and even my parents was that I would never be a deejay and I ought to choose something more realistic. (My other dream was to be a sportswriter; I was told girls couldn't do that either.)

Many of you know that when I enrolled at Northeastern University in Boston in 1964, I applied to work at the campus radio station. But they told me girls couldn't be on the air-- because, I was told, they don't sound good on the radio; I asked how many female deejays they'd had, and the program director said none-- because they don't sound good. I always wondered how he came to that decision if he'd never given any of us a chance...  It was really frustrating (and depressing) to get sent away, and for a while, I nearly gave up, but periodically I kept coming back, and gradually, attitudes began to change. In October 1968, I was given my own show, becoming the first female deejay in the history of Northeastern University. 

From there, it took a while before any commercial stations would hire me (radio still wasn't hiring a lot of women), so I taught in the Boston Public Schools, and continued to apply. In 1973, I was hired at a small station in Cambridge, Mass. called WCAS, and that led to my getting hired at WMMS-FM in Cleveland later that year. And if you are a Rush fan, you know what happened at WMMS in the spring of 1974, when I received a vinyl album from a Canadian record promoter friend of mine, and I got a song called "Working Man" on the air. And several months later, when Rush got their first U.S. record contract, they came to Cleveland for an appearance (Neil had recently joined the band), and I was there to celebrate the occasion with them.


My radio career took me from Cleveland to New York City, to Washington DC, and finally back to Boston. After being an announcer and a music director for about 13 years, I opened up a radio consulting business, working all over North America with a wide range of radio stations, hiring and training announcers and managers for nearly thirty years. (And during all that time, I kept in touch with Rush; I still do, to this day.) Along the way, I met some amazing performers: Bob Seger, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks, Madonna, Z.Z. Top, Kiss, Dolly Parton, and so many more. Not bad for a working-class kid who was told when she was a kid that she'd never have a career in radio. 

And then it all changed. Deregulation of broadcasting happened. Then media consolidation happened. And by the early 1990s, a handful of big companies had gobbled up hundreds of small and medium-market stations. Many of us lost our jobs-- I lost my consulting business, and suddenly, in my 50s, I had to confront the prospect of reinventing myself. It took me a while to decide on the next chapter (I knew there had to be one), and I decided to go back to school and become a professor. I had been a part-time instructor (I had even won several awards), but I knew I'd never get hired full-time in academia without a PhD.

Unfortunately, nobody seemed eager to give me that chance; every school I applied to turned me down. And then, finally, the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (nearly 90 miles from Boston) took me in.  It wasn't easy, and it took me nine years, going part-time-- teaching in Boston (usually at Emerson College) and then driving out to Amherst; but I have never regretted doing it.

I was 55, and I hadn't been a student in thirty years, and at first, I worried that I wouldn't be able to do it. But it was something I needed to prove to myself-- especially to show certain people that I wasn't "too old" (something some folks had actually said to me), that I could do the work that younger students were doing. And I did. I even got good grades. I will always be grateful to UMass. for seeing my potential. 

And as it turned out, getting the PhD really did change my life. I don't know if I sound any smarter (or if my blogs are more erudite), but the fact that I was able to become a professor and get taken seriously by folks in the academic world is because of that degree. I completely understand why Dr. Jill Biden wants to be called by her title-- she too went back to school as an older adult and she too got a degree that some folks did not expect her to get. If you've ever undertaken a doctorate, you know how much work it requires. (My dissertation was 365 pages long.) Meanwhile, here I am, age 74, still teaching, still writing, still blogging. And I'm proud of what I finally accomplished... ten years ago, May 13, 2011, an anniversary that I will always remember, because it proves it's never to late to write that next chapter or take that next step. 

    

Thursday, April 15, 2021

An Anniversary to Remember (18 April 2013)

I can still recall where I was when I heard the news that Rush had finally been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was in mid-December 2012, and I was sitting in a Lesley University faculty meeting. I've told this story before, but it still stays with me. I never keep my phone on when I'm at work, so it was set to "vibrate" in the unlikely event that someone was looking for me (one of my doctors perhaps-- I had been having some health issues).  Suddenly, my phone began to vibrate...repeatedly, with phone calls and messages. I looked down at my news-feed, and that's how I learned the good news about Rush. 

It really affected me: I mean, if you know anything about me, you know how long I had fought for Rush to be inducted. It seemed like such an injustice that they hadn't been. And now, at last, they were going to get the recognition they deserved. I got a lot of calls from radio and TV stations, wanting to interview me, asking how I felt. When I first heard the news, I got tears in my eyes-- tears of joy, because I was so happy that these three guys who mattered so much to me (and to the worldwide community of fans) would take their place in the Rock Hall.

One station that interviewed me was CTV, and I was so happy that Pegi and the nice folks at Rush's management got to watch it. (In the screenshot from that appearance, the background is the Boston skyline; but in reality, I was in a studio in Newton, Massachusetts--about ten miles from Boston. When I did the interview, the producer superimposed the Boston skyline, as the morning team from CTV in Toronto chatted with me.) I talked about my role in getting the band's career going in the States; I talked about the millions of fans who loved this band, and wanted to see them inducted; and of course, I talked about how certain judges (including Jann Wenner himself) had disliked Rush and opposed their induction for years. But now, there were different judges, and finally, things had changed. I couldn't have been happier about it.

I didn't expect to be invited to the induction, which was out in Los Angeles that year. To be honest, I had no idea whether I'd be able to get out there, nor if there were any tickets left.  But Pegi called me to let me know the guys wanted me to attend, and she took care of my flight (which I appreciated-- they don't pay us professors the big bucks!); she also assured me I'd have tickets (and good seats).  And she made sure I was staying at the same hotel as Geddy's mom and sister, and all of us were able to hang out together.  THAT was very cool. I've been friendly with Pegi for many years, and it was wonderful to share the event with her. I also made some new friends: I am in touch with Geddy's sister to this day, and it was also such an honor to meet his mom, who was pleased that I could speak Yiddish.


It seems like only yesterday, but it was eight years ago. I've told a lot of stories about that evening-- like how the capacity crowd seemed dominated by Rush fans, and when Jann Wenner came out to introduce the band, we all made sure we let him know how we felt about him. The booing lasted for what seemed like five minutes at least. He was a good sport about it, and he knew exactly why we were booing him.  And speaking of something that took a long time, I recall the long acceptance speech (it seemed like it lasted forever) that Quincy Jones gave. I'm firmly convinced that's what inspired Alex's legendary (and hilarious) "blah-blah-blah" speech. And it was an inspiration to see how many musicians, including the Foo Fighters, and Chuck D of Public Enemy, had words of praise for Rush-- and how many musicians expressed their admiration for Neil.  It was also wonderful to see how proud the band's friends and family members were. And the live performances... the jam session... to experience it in person was truly magical.  

I met a lot of fans while I was in LA. For reasons I have never understood, some of them applauded me. I applauded them right back.  After all, when you are a fan of Rush, you are a member of an extended family.  I was glad that so many of the fans were there in person, to enjoy a moment we had all waited for. (Others got to see it later, when HBO broadcast it. I don't know about you, but I had fun reliving the evening; I watched it several times, in fact.) 

Today, looking back on it, my only regret is that Neil is no longer with us. But it still makes me smile whenever I think back on that evening in Los Angeles, when Rush finally got the respect they had long deserved. The doubters said it would never happen; the folks who never liked Rush said it would never happen. But we who loved and believed in this band knew that sooner or later, it had to happen. And on 18 April 2013, it finally did.      

 


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

We Really Do Need Infrastructure Week

I made the front page of my local newspaper a month ago, but it wasn't for any great accomplishment of mine; it was because I live in a neighborhood that had eight power outages in six months, and like many of my neighbors, I was fed up. All of us have been working from home for a year now, and losing power every few weeks (often for no apparent reason) was not making any of us happy. So, I contacted my representatives, I contacted the mayor, and yes, I contacted my local newspaper. The question, of course, is why was all that necessary? I mean, in 2021, isn't it reasonable to expect that our electricity should be working?  

And don't even get me started about internet service. It's well-known that Americans pay more than our European counterparts, and we get service that often isn't as good.  I pay an outrageous amount to my internet & cable provider (Comcast) and there's not much I can do about it, because in all too many areas of the US, there is no competition. There's often just one provider in a region, and the consumer can either take it or leave it.  Worse yet, numerous parts of the US don't have access to broadband at all-- and that has become a necessity in these days of online classes. (I've seen some studies that say one in three US households lacks even basic broadband. That is nothing to be proud of...)

As a professor, I've also seen the impact of that lack of access firsthand: I can't tell you the number of times when students of mine have endured persistent internet failures, or couldn't get connected at all. Depending on where you live, internet connections can be good or they can be awful, but access is often expensive, it's often unreliable, and there's not much you can do about improving it-- or so they tell you. (Meanwhile, the major providers run ad campaigns telling everyone how great their products are...as if everything is fine. But it's not.)

And it's no accident that we're in this situation. Way back in 2013, Susan Crawford, a professor and an expert on tech policy, published a book called "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age." She discussed how the federal government-- and politicians from both political parties-- allowed a few giant telecom companies to dominate the market, raking in enormous profits while all too many Americans either completely lacked access, or couldn't afford very much of it. Meanwhile, these giant companies successfully lobbied politicians (and made huge donations) to avoid much oversight. And here we still are, with little competition and outrageously high prices for inferior service. 

In fairness, even if service were more affordable, it has been years since our electrical grid was upgraded, and the same is true for making high quality broadband more widely available. This past year has shown the flaws and the weaknesses in our infrastructure, and yet, I have not seen much movement from congress. In the last administration, we waited in vain for the "Infrastructure Week" that never came. In this administration, we finally got our "Infrastructure Week," but already, it is getting caught up in partisan bickering. 

I am not suggesting that Pres. Biden's new plan is perfect; I know it's expensive and I am sure there are areas where it can be scaled back. But at least he brought a plan forward. Now, I'd like to see both parties have a serious discussion about improving our roads and bridges (which are indeed crumbling), and come up with some strategies to modernize our power grid and internet-- strategies that go beyond each side ridiculing the other's proposals. Meanwhile, I never know if a windy day will cause my electricity to go off. And many students either have no broadband or can't count on their internet to be reliable.  So, yes, it's time to talk seriously about our failing infrastructure. And then, it's time to stop the bickering. We need fewer tweets, fewer slogans, fewer talking points, fewer partisan insults.  It's time for our members of congress to do the job we pay them for.  It's time to work together, to make the improvements Americans so desperately need. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Reasons to be Cheerful

This past Thursday, I got my vaccine shot. I felt incredibly lucky-- to get on the schedule at all (many folks are still waiting) and then to get the J&J vaccine, which is only one dose. My arm was a little sore and I felt a little drowsy later in the day, but otherwise, no problems. As I said, I felt incredibly lucky.

Gradually, I see real progress being made, as more and more people I know are getting vaccinated. I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when I'll be able to go out to eat with my husband, or get together with my friend Meg for ice cream and good conversation, or see a live concert. I can envision being able to hang with some of my students, or bringing cookies to an actual (not a virtual) meeting.

And with so many positive signs, that's why I was puzzled by the governors who immediately got rid of their state's mask mandates, or totally opened their beaches, bars, and restaurants to large crowds. Okay fine, I understand. We're all frustrated by the kind of year it has been. But we are SO close. People are finally getting vaccinated in large numbers. Why not let those numbers increase some more before removing all the precautions? What harm could waiting a few more weeks do? 

And another thing that puzzles me-- I was reading that sizable numbers of self-identified Trump supporters are opposed to getting the vaccine. In a recent PBS/NPR/Marist poll, 47 percent of people who supported the former president in the 2020 election told pollsters they plan to refuse to be vaccinated.  This mystifies me.  I mean, vote for whomever you want, but getting the COVID vaccine should not be a political issue. It's about public health. It's about taking another step towards herd immunity and a normal life for us all.

But politics aside, the good news is that spring is on the way. I'm not a big fan of Daylight Saving Time, but each year, when we move our clocks ahead, it's a reminder that the weather will soon be warmer. It feels good to be able to go outside to enjoy the sun, or watch the trees and flowers as they bloom. This year, the changing of the seasons feels like another positive sign:  perhaps we are finally coming to the end of what began a year ago... an end to lockdowns, an end to large numbers of people being hospitalized, an end to spending much of our time isolated from those we care about.

I haven't felt very optimistic till recently, but I really do believe we are turning the corner. I hope the positive trend continues. There are people I haven't seen since last March that I'd love to see again. For now, it's more waiting and more Zoom meetings. But soon, perhaps, it will be visiting friends, enjoying ice cream, and giving out lots of hugs. I don't know about you, but I can hardly wait.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Whatever the Next Thing Is

Let me start by saying I'm glad that more and more people are getting vaccinated against COVID. My husband just got his appointment, and I was really happy for him. (I haven't been able to get mine yet, but I'm sure it will happen soon). Once enough of us are vaccinated, we'll finally be able to get back out there and try to resume our pre-COVID lives. That's certainly good news. 

But I've been thinking about what my life has been like during the pandemic. For many people, myself included, life has largely been lived on Zoom. That's where I teach my classes, mentor my students, have faculty meetings, and talk with my boss. For months, about the only places I've gone outside of my home are grocery shopping, getting gasoline for my car, and the occasional doctor's appointment.

And it occurs to me that I've lost my conversational skills. Those little social rituals we all take for granted-- like chatting with folks in line at the coffee shop, or stopping to talk with someone on the way to a class, or making small talk while waiting for the bus... a lot of us haven't done any of that in a year. In fact, I am not sure when the last time was that I just chatted with another human, for no reason other than that the two of us were in the same place, waiting for the same thing.  

I'm not sure I know how to do it anymore. And no, I'm not trying to be dramatic. Of course I know how to talk to people-- I do it for a living. But that's my point: I know how to teach an interesting class (or at least I hope I do), or be a guest on a podcast, or get interviewed by someone who is seeking my expertise as a media historian. In other words, I know how to make work-related conversation.  Casual, friendly conversation, not so much.

In fact, I find when I try to do it, it comes out all wrong.  I feel awkward, and overly self-conscious, as if I need to choose my words carefully. I don't think I'm alone in this. I've been reading some articles about how isolated many of us have become; and how ill-at-ease many of us feel about what the future holds. So, will we all be able to just transition back into whatever  life we had before the pandemic? I doubt it, given how many of us have lost someone to COVID. And even if we haven't lost someone, we've certainly lost the life we had before. And nobody is really certain what kind of life will come next.

I think about my late mother, who truly was a brilliant conversationalist. She was the kind of person who could adapt to just about any circumstance.  I have the feeling that she'd adapt to this one too. But I'm not sure I will have as easy a time. I've always felt out-of-place at social gatherings. (Nobody who knows me believes that-- they've seen me as a public speaker or an educator or heard me on the radio, and I'm very confident under those conditions; at social gatherings, however, I never seem to know what to say.)  At least before the pandemic, I got some practice making small talk. But it has certainly been a while since I've had to do it, and now, I'm worried that I won't be able to re-learn whatever conversational skills I had before.

Perhaps you share my sense of feeling out of balance, of worrying that what you have to say will get taken the wrong way by someone else, or that you'll unintentionally offend someone, or that whatever social skills you used to have are really in need of an upgrade. As someone who uses words for a living, I am sure I'll be fine at my job-- I adapted to online teaching, and I'll adapt back to being in the classroom.  But so much has changed in a year. Society is so different now. And all I can say is I hope I'll be able to make the transition to whatever the next "new normal" is.


Monday, February 15, 2021

What's My Age Again?

As many of you know, Valentine's Day was my birthday;  I turned 74. Given my family history, with so many of the women on my mother's side dying of cancer, I feel incredibly fortunate that I'm still here, and able to enjoy some birthday cake for yet another year. 

I don't know what to say about being 74. I mean, to my students, I probably seem "old," and compared to the average person who is 18, I probably am. But I don't think of myself as a "senior citizen," whatever that means. I just think of myself as Donna, living in a world where the concept of aging is being redefined.  

When I was growing up, people retired at 65, and the idea of continuing to work into your 70s (not because you had to, but because you wanted to) was still not common. At a certain point, older people were expected to be content with golfing or playing cards or watching TV-- not that there's anything wrong with any of those things. But American culture seemed to have the idea that older people didn't have much to offer after a certain point, so they might as well leave the stage and spend their time taking up a hobby.  

And while we were all taught to respect our elders, the "elderly" were not revered-- I recall how comedians made jokes about folks of a certain age who were all supposed to be senile. (Not sure you could make those kinds of jokes today.) It was youth that was worshiped, leading even some people in their 40s (especially women) to lie about their age or undergo cosmetic surgery to keep looking young. Society back then was especially hard on women who didn't "age gracefully." And to be honest, I'm not sure we're more accepting now, although these days, even men feel pressured to look youthful.

So, here I am trying to negotiate a world that says I'm too old, while acknowledging my need to continue being relevant. That's why I got my PhD when I was 64. That's why I reinvented myself as a professor. That's why I keep doing research, and why I even turned down a sabbatical: as long as I have the energy and the ability, I want to keep trying to make a difference. I can't imagine retiring. I can't imagine not being out there.

Maybe I shouldn't think that way. Maybe at my age, it's time to do a little less. But doing less has never made me happy. There are people I want to mentor, and more research I want to do; more new information I want to discover, and more new subjects I want to teach. I hope I'm still doing a good job as a professor-- you'll have to ask my students about that. And while I can't pretend I'm in my 30s, I hope I can continue to prove that someone in their 70s isn't quite over the hill yet.

For those who reached out to wish me a happy birthday, I'm grateful.  I hope to make the most of my 74th year, and perhaps a year from now, I'll be able to write a blog post to celebrate my 75th. I've had an interesting life-- a lot more so than was ever predicted for me. Many of the folks I knew growing up didn't have high hopes for me; perhaps I've exceeded some people's expectations. But I haven't exceeded my own yet, and there's still so much that needs to be done. I look forward to doing my part, this year, and for however many more years I have.           

Sunday, January 31, 2021

In Search of a Normal Life

I've always been fascinated by the history of words; from the time I was a kid, I always wondered where a word came from, how its meaning changed over the years, and when it acquired its current meaning.  Take, for example, the word "normal." These days, it generally means something that is "usual, typical, or expected." But as any student of history can tell you, what was considered normal in times past might not be considered normal today. 

For example, a century ago, health books said it was not normal for girls to participate in sports. Parents were advised that sports were normal for boys, but if girls were allowed to play, they would acquire masculine traits.  Meanwhile, it was considered normal for kids as young as twelve to work full-time in factories, even around dangerous machinery.  And it was normal for upper-class women to wear long skirts and corsets (having a slender waist was the goal), while upper-class men were expected to wear a frock coat, a vest, and a shirt with a stiff collar.

But while it's interesting to look back on how society's idea of "normal" has changed since the 1910s, let's consider what has changed since just last year.  In February 2020, few of us were thinking much about COVID-19. In my typical week, "normal" meant sitting in traffic as I drove to my teaching job at Lesley University (about twenty-five minutes from where I live). It meant hanging with students who wanted to talk, taking them out for ice cream (or cookies), attending faculty meetings, and sometimes going over to a nearby library to do some research for an article I was working on (I have always done a lot of free-lance writing). 

A year ago, I never thought anyone except my husband would see my messy home office, and that was okay: as a media historian, I have lots of reference materials, old magazines and books and other rare memorabilia; and while I know where most things are, I'm sure my filing system would look a bit chaotic to a stranger. But now, my home office is where I teach my classes. I've  organized it as best I can (even installed a Baby Yoda to be in the shot when I Zoom or Skype), but I am sure Room Rater would give me a 2 or 3, rather than a 10. Still, it's normal for me these days to teach online and try my best to educate (and entertain) students, many of whom I've never met in person.

I'm still not sure how to define "normal" in February 2021, but some people seem to have found a way. For example, whether you like our new president or not, he seems kind of normal to me--and I mean that in an old-school way: he doesn't call people names or Tweet angry messages day and night; he goes to church once a week, he likes bagels, he likes ice cream, he enjoys playing with his dogs or spending time with his wife. In other words, he has a predictable and low-key routine-- even if he's now doing it all from the White House rather than from his home in Delaware. 

I too have tried to create a predictable and normal routine, but things still feel very much out of place. I miss giving people hugs. I miss visiting old friends and taking them out to lunch. I miss going to a movie or seeing a play. I'm glad I can Zoom or Skype with people (I gave a talk several weeks ago to students and professors in Karachi, Pakistan, which was a lot of fun), and I'm glad I can reach out to friends and colleagues on social media. I'm encouraged that slowly, people are getting the COVID vaccine. But somehow none of this feels "normal," even after almost a year. You'd think I'd be accustomed to it by now. After all, I'm often told this is the "new normal." Of course, I'm happy to be alive to see it. I know things change, and I know I can adapt to those changes. But frankly, I still miss the old normal. And I don't think I'm alone in that.