Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tryin' to Live My Life Without You

When I was growing up, I wasn't very popular.  As I recall, I was the only girl in the senior class at my high school who was not asked to the Senior Prom. I had no boyfriend, but truth be told, I didn't have many friends of either gender. It was not a very tolerant era, and since I was SO different from what a girl of that time was supposed to be, it meant that I spent a lot of time by myself. I had a crush on a guy who lived a couple of streets away from me, but he didn't know (or care) that I existed; and not knowing any other guys I could ask to be my date, I stayed home.  Looking back on it now, I probably didn't miss much, plus I saved a lot of money by not having to buy a fancy dress. But at the time, I felt like an outsider.  Only my love of rock and roll, and my favorite deejays, helped get me through it.

In college, I found my home at WNEU, the campus radio station; but being a few years ahead of the curve meant I was not welcome yet-- the station did not want (or allow) female deejays. It took me till my senior year to finally get on the air, and to be a radio station music director for the first time. I loved being a deejay (playing people's favorite songs and cheering them up the way the deejays had cheered me up a few years earlier). But I found that I loved music directing almost as much-- I had the opportunity to listen to all the new songs, and help to decide what the station would play.

Through music directing, I came in contact with record company promoters, and made some friends that I still have to this day. This was also the first time I encountered promoters from Canada; they sent me what were then called "imports," in case we wanted to play them.  And throughout my radio career, no matter where I worked, I continued to be a music director, and I continued to maintain a good relationship with a number of Canadian record promoters, who introduced me to a lot of interesting new music.  Most of it never became popular in the States, but every now and then, a band broke through, and I was gratified to know I had helped to make that happen.

In addition to feeling a sense of pride in helping to "get the ball rolling" for Rush back in 1974, one of the added bonuses for me was all the new friends I met as a result.  First and foremost, I became friends with the guys in the band (and even when they became famous, they never forgot what I did for them early in their career).  I also became friends with their management.  But then came lots of live concert performances, and I began to meet the fans. No matter what city I was in (and I saw Rush play in so many places), the fans always welcomed me.  We all shared something in common: we loved a band that the critics generally hated; and we recognized how talented these three guys were when the critics did not. 

For more than four decades, I knew that wherever Rush was playing, I would not only be welcomed by the band if I wanted to go backstage, but I would also be welcomed by the fans who came to see them. The fans seemed to recognize me:  they would wave, or call my name, or hug me, or in the internet era, they would "friend" me on Facebook.  Sometimes, at an event or at a concert, I would see someone with a sign that said "Thank you, Donna Halper." It meant a lot to me.

Sometimes, fans would ask me to speak at a Rush-themed convention, or teach a class about Rush's music; or they wanted to take a "selfie" with me if they saw me somewhere.  I'd like to believe that some of these folks might have wanted to be friends with me with or without Rush; but there's no denying that our devotion to Rush is what brought us together and kept us in contact with each other over the years.

And then it all changed.  After R40, Neil decided to retire; Alex and Geddy, loyal to the end, were not about to create a new version of Rush without him.  These days, while we still have some wonderful Rush tribute bands, what we don't have are live concerts from Rush. I miss those concerts.  But I also miss the friendship I shared with the guys, and with the fans. There was a certain camaraderie, a certain warmth, a certain unspoken bond whenever the fans got together for a show. Of course, we were all different: we had different politics, different religious beliefs, different favorite songs. But we could put our differences aside and enjoy being part of the extended Rush family. It was an experience I've never had with any other band (or with any other group of fans).  And nearly three years later, it's something I continue to miss.
   




Sunday, April 29, 2018

It's Hard Out There for a Chaplain

When I heard the news that the Chaplain of the House of Representatives, Father Patrick Conroy, had been asked to resign by the Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, several questions occurred to me almost immediately.  The first was, "In a country with separation of church and state and no establishment of religion, why do we even have a House or Senate chaplain?" But the other was, "I never heard one bad thing about Father Conroy. So, why did Mr. Ryan force him out?"

As I understand it, chaplains are supposed to be non-partisan and non-controversial.  The job itself has a long history-- the first House chaplain was the Reverend William Linn, back in 1789; similarly, the Senate also chose its first chaplain in 1789, electing Right Reverend Samuel Provost to the position. The main duties of congressional chaplains are to offer the opening prayer at the beginning of each session, to greet religious leaders who may come to Washington DC, and to provide pastoral counseling to the members of congress, when needed.

House Chaplain Father Conroy, a Jesuit priest (and the first Jesuit to occupy the role of House Chaplain), had served since 2011, and by all accounts, the announcement of his departure was a surprise, as was the fact that he was leaving at the request of Speaker Ryan.  Details about why remain difficult to obtain, but some sources are reporting certain conservative Republican members of the House felt he was too friendly with Democrats, although no evidence for that assertion was offered. One representative, an Evangelical Christian, also made a comment that implied he wanted a minister rather than a priest to be chaplain; he said it was important for the next chaplain to have a family (something priests are not permitted to do). 

Other Republicans seem to have objected to a prayer Father Conroy offered when the tax cuts were being debated this past November:  he prayed that there would not be "winners and losers," but rather, that both the rich and the poor would equally benefit from the new tax law.  After he gave that prayer, he was admonished by Speaker Ryan, and accused of being too political. (After reading that, I had another question: "Aren't chaplains supposed to cite Scripture? If I remember my Bible, compassion for the poor is mentioned often in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. But I guess it shouldn't be mentioned in Congress.) Unfortunately for Father Conroy, many of his defenders were Democratic members; few if any Republicans spoke up on his behalf.  I don't know if that's because he wasn't a good chaplain, or if the Republican members didn't want to contradict Speaker Ryan's decision.

I admit I find this situation mystifying.  When I was an instructor at Emerson College in Boston, there was an opening for a Jewish chaplain, and I ended up in that position (the previous chaplain had retired, if my memory serves, and while there was a search for a replacement, I had the opportunity to step in for one semester).  Interestingly, while students did come to me for spiritual guidance that semester, not one of them was Jewish.  I counseled Protestant and Catholic students, using my background in counseling and my knowledge of Scripture, but mainly being someone who was willing to listen.   I hope I did okay; I certainly tried my best.  Nobody complained that I was Jewish: I was available, I was glad to help, and that seemed to be enough.

And yet, here we are in today's highly polarized world, where everyone is taking sides on something that used to be totally lacking in drama.  Republicans seem to want a pro-Republican chaplain (or at least one who doesn't speak up about poverty); Evangelicals want a minister (preferably from their denomination); Democrats want the current chaplain to stay on; and Father Conroy just wants an explanation about what he did that was so wrong.

Whether we ought to have a congressional chaplain at all can certainly be debated. But I do think there is value in someone who has stood for ethics and compassion, and who has gently tried to remind the members (many of whom are quite wealthy) that the poor are always with us.  Father Conroy seems like a man who did his job with dignity and set a good example. I'm still not sure why doing that resulted in his being fired. It's one of many things in congress that make no sense. 

   

Saturday, April 14, 2018

My Love-Hate Relationship with Social Media

As some of you already know, in November of 2014, I was diagnosed with cancer.  It wasn't entirely a surprise; most of the women on my late mother's side of the family have gotten the same diagnosis at one time or other.  But it was still upsetting, and I wanted to tell someone.  Of course, I told my husband, and I told my sister. But the reason many of you already know I had cancer is because I went on Facebook and Twitter and wrote something about it.  (I got hundreds of encouraging comments, and lots of stories from people who were cancer survivors.  It really did help to lift my spirits.)

I admit that talking about my health on social media was not the sort of thing I was raised to do, which may explain why a part of me was conflicted about doing it. I still remember when I was growing up, and there were rules about keeping certain things private.  Of course, it was a time before social media and the internet had been invented; but even if they had been, I'm not sure I would have used them to tell people I'd never met that I had cancer.  Back then, health was supposed to be personal.  You could acknowledge that you had a cold (although people could probably figure it out as soon as they heard you coughing and sneezing); but you would not have discussed having cancer unless you were with people you knew very well-- and even then, you might downplay it, so as not to worry anyone.  

Fast forward to today.  Recent surveys say more than 70% of Americans regularly use social media.  As I've noted before, that can be a good thing: we can now easily keep in touch with friends and relatives, and we can get instant updates about causes we believe in.  But among the downsides: on too many social media pages, people are over-sharing constantly.  Okay fine, I understand wanting to get some comfort during difficult times, but it really seems nothing is private anymore. I've seen people discussing everything from coping with menstrual cramps to seeking marital advice.  None of this is scandalous, and I do hope the folks who were in need of assistance found it.  I'm just saying there are some things I would never tell complete strangers on a public forum.

I don't think I'm the only person who struggles with how much information is too much.  Perhaps it was okay for me to tell the folks who follow me (some of whom I know personally, but most I do not) about my cancer diagnosis.  However, I don't know if it would be a good idea for someone who is a lot younger to post about having cancer:  potential employers now read our social media posts, and rightly or wrongly, they might feel hesitant to hire you if you seem like you're not very healthy.  Agreed, there is no shame in having cancer (I'm into my third year of being cancer-free, and thank God for that); but my concern is that some folks are giving away too much of their personal life, and that may not be such a good idea.

Even after all this time, I'm of two minds about social media:  there's a part of me that has grown accustomed to it, and I enjoy the opportunity to reach out to others and share my views.  But there's another part that is more cautious, reminding me that speaking my mind can have consequences.  For example, whenever I post something about politics, I know that many commenters will be courteous; but more often than not, I will also encounter the haters and the trolls.  In fact, there are times I feel that being on social media brings more aggravation than it's worth. But then I think about the people who have been kind to me, and the causes I've been able to learn about; and over all, I believe there's more good online than bad.  And so, I continue to write, hoping that I am not one more person who over-shares, and hoping that most of my readers find my posts worthwhile.  

Friday, March 30, 2018

My Passover (and Easter) Message for 2018

I was talking to someone who reached out to me on social media (he had read something I wrote, and he didn't agree with it); we were having a courteous exchange of views, but then, he told me that if he couldn't change my mind, there was no reason for us to keep talking.  I never heard from him again.

I can understand that attitude: it's so much easier to only talk with people who agree with you, who tell you that you're right and the folks on the other side of the issue are clueless and misguided. And I also understand that relationships dominated by argument and disagreement don't tend to last.  But here's the problem:  if we only spend our time with those who share the same beliefs as us, and if we only think of people on the other side as potential converts to our point of view, we miss out on seeing each other as human beings.  It becomes all too easy to reduce "them" to a stereotype, to criticize, to demonize, to reject people who might turn out to be worth knowing.

And let's be honest-- we've all done it.  Many of us, myself included, can quote Scripture (or philosophy) about the importance of love and kindness; and yes in our lives, we do try to be loving and kind.  But there are also times when we can be judgmental, when we can gossip, or spread rumors, or be harsh when we should have been compassionate.  There are times when we don't see the other as a person, created in the image of God.  For example, I have seen otherwise nice kids bully someone from a different culture or mock someone with a disability; and I've seen their parents tell jokes about people who are different, or say nothing when a racist or sexist or homophobic slur is used.

If you're Jewish, tonight (and for the next week) it's Passover, and at the ritual meal-- the seder-- we are commanded to welcome the stranger, and to remember that we too were once strangers in a strange land.  That is why every year, I've invited people of many religions and cultures to my seder-- not to try to convert them, but rather, to let them know that they are welcome. In fact, they make my holiday even more special by being there to share it. 

And if you're Christian, you know that Jesus often spoke of the need to care about the people who were marginalized, the people society tended to treat with scorn.  It seems to me that if you are serious about your religion, it can't just be something you think about on a religious holiday.  It ought to be something that guides your life and impacts how you treat others.

Perhaps I sound naive.  Perhaps you'll laugh at what I'm saying.  But the way I see it, since we are all inhabiting the same world, I believe that finding positive experiences we can share (even with those who are different from us) can lead to greater understanding.  I'm perfectly okay with the fact that not everyone thinks like I do.  But as long as they respect my views, and as long as they want to share some portion of my life, I want to welcome them.  May your holidays be happy, may you be a source of peace, tolerance, and love, and may you join with me in welcoming the stranger-- at Passover, at Easter, and at other times as well.         

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Preserving our Memories in the Digital Age

I'm holding a rare artifact right now-- it's a fan letter, written in longhand, from late December 1935. It was sent by a man from Newburyport MA to his favorite radio announcer, Howell Cullinan of WEEI in Boston. You've probably never heard of Howell, but he was someone people in the audience thought of as a friend, and they loved to listen to his program.  In addition to being a news reporter and announcer, he was also a story-teller, a raconteur, and a world-traveler; he even wrote two books about his adventures, and about his experiences in early broadcasting.

At a flea market a few months ago, I found some letters sent to him in the early to mid-1930s, and I must admit I was excited to read them; they helped me to understand how important he was to his listeners.  But I may be among the last people to read and appreciate these kinds of artifacts, since they were composed in cursive.  Fewer and fewer schools are teaching kids to write in long-hand these days. In fact, in a growing number of elementary schools, I'm told that students only learn to print; the focus is now on learning to type (since keyboard skills are necessary for online communication).

I understand. Really I do.  Times change. We're living in the digital age, and handwriting doesn't matter as much as it used to.  And yet... as a media historian, I believe we're losing something that is still important. Several weeks ago, in the Boston Globe, there was a wonderful essay about the importance of letters and notes.  The author brought up an issue I've thought about a lot:  "For historians, handwritten letters are a gold mine. So what happens when they disappear?"  (You can read the entire essay here, and it's definitely worth thinking about.  https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2018/02/25/you-got-mail-for-now/gqCidhkYwEDMSSkNJVb2WP/story.html )
 
Losing tangible aspects of our past is no trivial matter. I've written six books, as many of you know, and I couldn't have done my research without having access to handwritten notes, diary entries, postcards and letters, which were in the possession of some of the people I was researching. Being able to read them took me back to that exact time and place, and made me feel as if I were there; it made me feel closer to the folks whose lives I was studying.  Reading a 1935 fan letter, written by an actual listener, it was as if he were speaking to me in the present, talking to me about why Howell Cullinan was his favorite radio announcer.

Okay fine, I can read digitized and transcribed copies of some of these materials, but contrary to what my students believe, there is so much that is not online, so much that isn't digitized yet-- and in the case of materials from folks who weren't especially famous, so much that may never be digitized.  And while today's emails, tweets, and text messages are quick and convenient, they're also ephemeral-- they can be deleted in an instant.  There's also something impersonal about them, even when you dress them up with an emoji or add a meme.

Call me old-school, but I like to work with original handwritten documents when I can; and I like going to library archives and seeing actual historical items first-hand.  I feel the same way about viewing old photographs, old books, and old magazines-- yes, the online versions are a wonderful convenience for researchers, and I am grateful for access to them; but to hold an old publication, to look at the item itself, brings up a sense of amazement, a feeling of gratitude that somehow this part of our history has survived. (And I am sure the librarians and archivists who are reading this know exactly what I'm talking about.)

The other day, unexpectedly, I found some old photos of my mother and father from back when they were dating. Yes, I digitized several of the photos so that my friends on social media could enjoy seeing what my parents looked like in the late 1930s/early 1940s.  But holding the actual photographs was very emotional for me.  And whether it's old letters or old photos, preserving these memories, and respecting them, is worth the effort.

I'm not asking everyone to be hoarders or pack rats.  I'm simply saying that we've become a throwaway culture, where all that matters is the newest technology, and stuff that's considered "old" (or old-fashioned, like handwriting) is disposable. Maybe one day, after I'm no longer here, someone will find the fan letters I saved from my radio career, most written in cursive; and perhaps they will be curious about who I was, or why I kept them, or what these items meant.  And I wonder if there will be anyone who can explain.   

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Mystery from My Past

There's something I've never been able to figure out:  how did my last name get to be Halper?  I understand that it's a common last name for Jews with European ancestry (also seen as Halpern, Helpern, Helperin, Helprin, Halpert, or even Alpert); but where did the name itself come from?  Well, according to some reference books, "Halper" is a name that goes back more than four hundred years-- it originated in Germany, and came from a town named Heilbronn.

Except... I can find no evidence anyone on my father's side (the Halpers) lived in Germany nor even paid that country a visit.  My father's relatives are all from Russia, in the area that is today Belarus.  And the only place we know my paternal grandfather ever traveled was to what was then called Palestine (today Israel).  He emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1906, and his immigration records do not indicate a name change.

If you have ancestors who came here in that massive wave of European immigration during the 1890s-1920s, you may have heard stories about names being changed at Ellis Island.  I certainly heard those stories as a kid; and I was told that's what happened with some of my relatives-- for example, at some point, Beresofsky became Bear, and Drazznin became Dresner.  Perhaps something similar happened to your relatives too, as a longer or difficult to pronounce ethnic name got shortened or Americanized.  But I cannot find out more about the Halper side of the family-- the documents don't show any other name, nor even any other spelling of it.      

Since nearly all of my older relatives are now deceased, there is no-one who might be able to offer a theory.  But I wondered if new technology might provide some additional information.  So, I sent away for my DNA report from Ancestry.com:  on TV, there are these great commercials where someone suddenly discovers they're related to George Washington (rather unlikely in my case) or they find they have Norwegian relatives they knew nothing about (also unlikely for me).  I figured my DNA would show that my maternal ancestors were from Lithuania (or possibly Poland) and my paternal ancestors were from Russia.  And sure enough, there were no exciting discoveries.

On the other hand, I found two distant cousins I never knew I had-- both on my mother's side of the family.  We've been in communication, and there are a few questions about my mother's relatives we are trying to answer.  But how I came to be a Halper is still a mystery.  And unless one of the readers of my blog is an expert at genealogy, it's a question that may remain unanswered.  As someone who does research for a living, I much prefer questions that do have an answer.  But for now, this one gets filed under "not enough information," a mystery that may not ever be solved.    

Friday, February 16, 2018

Wanting Assault Weapons Banned Isn't a "Gun Grab"

After seventeen innocent people, most of them high school students, were murdered in yet another mass shooting, I went on Twitter to remark about two verifiable facts:  most of our mass shootings have involved so-called "assault weapons," with high-capacity magazines; and when the Assault Weapons Ban was in place, there were fewer crimes involving these weapons.  Agreed, people who wanted to commit murder were able to get other weapons; but weapons like the AR-15, and high-capacity magazines, which could kill large numbers of people quickly, were no longer easy to get. And many studies showed the ban did make a difference, although of course, it was not a panacea.

So, I suggested it was time to restore the Assault Weapons Ban that Republicans allowed to lapse.  (In fairness, this isn't entirely partisan: some Democrats, and many Republicans, have taken campaign donations from the National Rifle Association.  But there was a Republican president and a Republican-led congress that allowed the ban to expire.)  I did NOT say I wanted to revoke the Second Amendment, nor did I say I wanted the government to take away all guns.  But of course, that was the predictable response:  you liberals want to ban all weapons.  Not true. It is worth noting that many liberals and progressives appreciate the Second Amendment; I have friends who enjoy sport-shooting, for example.

But what most liberals and progressives do not support is Second Amendment absolutism:  that's the belief of some conservatives that, according to their interpretation of the Second Amendment, they have the right to carry any gun anywhere at any time.  I don't want to argue about the intent of the Second Amendment--there are varying interpretations, and that's a good debate for another day, preferably not while we're still thinking about the kids who were murdered by an angry and emotionally disturbed nineteen-year-old who had no problem buying an assault weapon and lots of ammunition.

Truth be told, Congress has passed laws placing restrictions on just about every right in the Bill of Rights. No right is absolute, in other words.  We live in a society where our behaviors affect other people.  I may have freedom of speech, but I cannot slander someone; there's freedom of the press, but it does not protect unscrupulous people who use their position to libel someone they don't like.  And while congress shall make no law about an establishment of religion, there have been rulings about prayer in the public schools.

So, I fail to see what the issue is with keeping assault weapons out of the hands of average folks-- to me, the only people who need such weapons are in law enforcement or in the military.  There are plenty of weapons folks who want to hunt or sport-shoot can use, and plenty of choices for those who want to protect themselves. But we seem to be living in a culture where certain people (often egged on by the National Rifle Association, which has a vested interest in selling more guns) think all that matters is their rights.

Meanwhile, grieving parents are asking, "What about my rights? Don't I have a right to send my kids to school and know they'll be safe?"  Again, the predictable reply from some conservatives on social media is "We need more guns! Let's have armed guards in every school!"  But this school did have an armed guard. Unfortunately, Florida is a state where it's really easy to get an assault rifle. We currently have a congress that is big on offering "thought and prayers" and small on taking on the NRA.  So... I ask you:  which right is more important-- the right to own weapons meant for war, or the right to protect our kids?  Which right matters more-- the right to buy any gun at any time, or the right to raise our kids in a less violent society?  I'll be interested to hear what you have to say, because this should not be a liberal versus conservative issue.  And yet, these days, it seems that everything is...