Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Twenty Rush Songs That Mean the Most to Me-- Eddie Trunk Edition

Several weeks ago, I was surprised to receive an email from a nice guy who is the producer for Eddie Trunk's satellite radio show.  The reason I was surprised?  In August 2017, I blogged about an internet rumor that started on Eddie's show, about Alex and Geddy (allegedly) reuniting; it wasn't true, as I confirmed when I contacted Alex to make sure.  After that, I noted in my blog the importance of fact-checking and not just sending out rumors to everyone you know, even when it's a rumor you like. http://dlhalperblog.blogspot.com/2017/08/why-everyone-should-fact-check.html 

So, yes, I was surprised when Eddie's producer contacted me, asking if I would submit my top-20 favorite Rush songs for a show about Rush that Eddie was going to do; and he asked if I'd be part of the show, calling in to read my list.  As I've done with other interviewers, I explained that I don't think in terms of "favorite" Rush songs-- these are my friends, and I love them dearly. Asking me to pick favorites is like asking a mom "who's your favorite kid?" Obviously, there are days when one kid or other can be annoying, but over all, most moms love all their kids-- although, perhaps, in different ways.  I'm like that about Rush songs. Yes, there are some that resonate with me more than others.  But "favorites"? Not really.  I love all their songs, although in different ways; and I'm so proud of what Rush accomplished during their long career.

With that said, I agreed to compile a list of twenty songs that have special meaning for me, and I did call in to read the list. (I also was glad I could give a shout-out to female Rush fans, of which there are many.)  Eddie was courteous and it was fun to be on his show. After it was over, several fans who had heard it (or heard part of it) contacted me to ask if I'd publish my list. So, for anyone who is a Rush fan, I'm happy to share what I read to Eddie.  And of course, feel free to let me know some Rush songs that would be on your list.  

1.  (as you might expect) Working Man -- the song that started it all, back in the spring of 1974, and resulted in a more-than-four decade friendship with the band (and members of their families)

2.  Finding My Way (part of the same time frame-- the other song we got a lot of requests for at WMMS... to this day, hearing the opening chords, I get chills...it reminds me of those early days when Rush first were becoming popular in Cleveland)

3.  The Spirit of Radio (as a long-time deejay, as well as someone who has seen radio change-- and not always for the better-- this song has always brought up mixed emotions & nostalgia for me)

4.  Freewill (I often quote the lyrics about "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.")

5.  Limelight (more lyrics I love; it's a window into Neil's view of celebrity, and what many fans expect from their favorite rock stars-- "I can't pretend the stranger is a long-awaited friend.")

6.  Driven (my interpretation may be different from some people's, but I hear this song as being about taking control of one's life: "It's my turn to drive.")

7.  The Garden (I often recommend this to anyone who stereotypes Rush as just another hard rock band; this song is a very moving piece of music)

8.  Tom Sawyer (more great lyrics that I often quote, about thinking for yourself -- "his mind is not for rent to any god or government...")

9.  The Big Money (I read this as a song about the excesses of capitalism and the down-side of globalization-- "Big money got a heavy hand, Big money take control, Big money got a mean streak, Big money got no soul.")

10. Closer to the Heart (more lyrics that could apply as much to current events as to the era when they were originally written... "And the men who hold high places, Must be the ones who start, To mold a new reality, Closer to the heart...")

11. Distant Early Warning (I always loved hearing this performed live...the music video was cool too...)

12. Fly By Night (again, this just brings back great memories-- the first studio album with Neil on drums and writing lyrics... I was so excited to hear the guys growing and expanding their musical style)

13. Time Stand Still (some insightful advice about appreciating this present moment, being grateful for what you've got, before it's gone:   "Freeze this moment, A little bit longer, Make each sensation, A little bit stronger, Experience slips away..."

14.  Entre Nous (some absolutely amazing lyrics about love and relationship and being afraid to trust... "We are secrets to each other, Each one's life a novel, No-one else has read, Even joined in bonds of love, We're linked to one another, By such slender threads...")

15.  Show Don't Tell (another song I always enjoyed hearing in concert, and another with very practical down-to-earth lyrics about thinking for yourself and not being swayed by others: "You can twist perceptions, Reality won't budge, You can raise objections, I will be the judge, And the jury...")

16.  Roll the Bones (I just think this is a very creative and catchy song to listen to... something a little different... but a good message about being willing to take risks..."We go out in the world and take our chances, Fate is just the weight of circumstances, That's the way that lady luck dances, Roll the bones...")

17.  New World Man (I was glad this song got some top 40 airplay, back at a time when pop radio was totally resistant to playing any Rush songs at all, and even many album rockers avoided them-- for reasons I never understood...)

18. Anthem (a song from back when Neil was still influenced by Ayn Rand; he ultimately walked away from those beliefs, but some fans still refuse to believe he changed...I felt this song was another example of the progress Rush had made since Neil joined the band... and it sounded good in concert when they played it)

19.  Red Barchetta (I liked the science-fiction influences in the lyrics, plus the song sounded really good on the radio... it still does)

20.  Subdivisions (some people tell me they find the video a bit disconcerting; but the lyrics are insightful, warning us about the dangers of conformity, and what happens when one does not obey society's expectations... "conform or be cast out..." another fine example of Neil's songwriting prowess...)

SO, that is what I read to Eddie Trunk when I was on his show last Friday.  As I said, I have more than four decades of great memories and a deep appreciation for Rush, as musicians and as human beings; but these songs are the ones that have stood the test of time for me.  What do you think of my list?  
   

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh's Anger-- And Mine

I admit that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings the other day were compelling television.  And I'm sure that folks on each side saw exactly what they expected to see:  if you were in favor of Judge Kavanaugh before, his performance probably reinforced your belief that he was a good and decent man who had been wronged; he had every right to be outraged and to defend himself from partisan smears.  If you were opposed to Judge Kavanaugh before, you probably came away questioning his judicial temperament, wondering why he was so belligerent (he even used a number of Donald Trump talking points as he lashed out at every Democrat in the room), and wishing he'd tell the truth about his past drinking problems.

On the other hand, if you were female, your views of the proceedings may have been somewhat more complicated, no matter which political party you were from. As many of you know from my past posts, years ago, I endured two very difficult experiences of sexual assault:  one during my first year as a teacher, in the early 1970s; and the other during my time in broadcasting, later in the decade.  I'll spare you the details, but in the one case, the man who assaulted me was a principal; in the other case, he was a record company executive.

In both cases, I was warned not to say anything; I was told nobody would believe me even if I did say something; I was asked what I had been wearing or if I had led the man on in any way; and in the end, I was advised to just get over it-- after all, if a guy behaved inappropriately, that meant the woman hadn't done enough to keep him under control. Guys couldn't help themselves, I was told. Boys will be boys, I was told. And for several decades, I didn't talk about it. I just lived with my memories:  feeling helpless, feeling angry, and knowing that in neither case would the men who tried to force themselves upon me suffer any consequences at all. (And both probably did the same thing to other women, something tells me.)

Flashback to my sophomore year in college: I go into in the ladies room and I see a girl standing by the mirror, sobbing. I ask her what's wrong. She tells me she just found out she is pregnant. Her boyfriend, a star athlete and an influential member of his fraternity, wants no part of it. He basically blames her for it, tells her it probably isn't his, and says she'd better not try to ruin his reputation on campus. Instead of being upset with him, she blames herself.  

Flashback to when I was working at a radio station in Washington DC and a drunken rock star grabbed me and tried to put his hand up my shirt. I pushed him away, but what stays with me even today is how all the guys who were watching thought this was hilariously funny.  I did not. And I was told I needed to develop a sense of humor.

Watching Dr. Ford testify, I had a profound sense of deja vu. My experiences occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, yet here we are in 2018, and what has changed?  These days, the mantra is "believe the women," but in the wider world, many men did not believe Dr. Ford. Some of it was partisan, yes; but as with Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump or other powerful men, there are guys who will not accept any responsibility for their own behavior.  There's always a "yes, but," always an exception.  These guys always want to blame the woman ("But she was drinking" is one I heard about Dr. Ford--  although NOT about Judge Kavanaugh). When she says "no," they hear that as a potential "yes." And whenever a woman is upset with their behavior, they become indignant, or enraged. I've seen it before. And so have many of you.

Some of the comments on social media were depressingly familiar: the guys who claimed that most women regularly make false accusations against men; the guys who claimed she was promiscuous, or called her a liar, or said she was crazy.  It took great courage for Dr. Ford to tell her story to an entire nation, not knowing if anyone would believe a word she said, not knowing if the man who did this would ever be held accountable. For those who insist she identified the wrong guy, I don't think that's the case. I believed her. And I believe she's telling the truth. But whether our country can handle the truth is something that still remains to be seen.     

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Showing Teachers No Respect

On the cover of this week's Time magazine, there is a story I know about from first-hand experience: how little most teachers are paid. As the teacher on the cover says, "I work 3 jobs, and donate blood plasma to pay the bills."  She's not alone, and she's not exaggerating. In lots of cities, teachers (many with Master's degrees) are paid such low wages that they can barely make ends meet.  And it's not because these teachers are spendthrifts with expensive tastes-- far from it. Many are not only barely getting by-- they are forced to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets, as budget cuts affect some of the most vulnerable in our society... the kids who are trying to get a good education. 

While certain politicians boast about our great economy, they're omitting an important fact: wages in many industries have remained flat.  And nowhere is that more true than for teachers.  Reports from the non-partisan Department of Education show that teachers are one group of workers whose wages have stagnated the most.  In fact, when we adjust for inflation, teachers are earning less today than they did in 1990.  In some fields, educated professionals are seeing their wages rise.  But teachers in all too many cities are seeing theirs decline.  Worse yet, per-pupil spending has also declined, leaving all too many students stuck in dilapidated buildings, using old books. (And as I mentioned before, I know for a fact that many teachers have to pay for supplies themselves, or their students will go without.)  You can read more about the situation here:  http://time.com/magazine/us/5394910/september-24th-2018-vol-192-no-12-u-s/

I am a big fan of a charitable organization called Donors Choose, which allows people to donate money for school supplies and books.  I donate often, and I'm happy to do so; I'm glad I can help some hardworking teachers to get materials they need for their classrooms.  But I have often wondered why adequately funding our schools, and paying teachers a respectable wage, is something many states have decided is not a priority.  In some states, it's political: there are many conservative politicians who oppose teachers' unions and dislike the idea of public schools, and as a result, they have waged a war on public school teachers. But in other states, it's simply the result of wrongheaded decisions that waste money on some areas while depriving others of much-needed funds.

I understand that it has become customary for some folks to criticize public education. I wish they wouldn't.  Public schools have long been a part of American life (we have one in Boston that goes back to 1635), and many of us have benefited from attending them.  I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for the public schools, and I don't think I'm the only one who would say that.  And yes, I know there are some poorly-run schools, and yes I know there are some bad teachers-- but they are NOT the majority. All over the country, devoted and hardworking educators work tirelessly to make a difference for our kids. They are often not just teachers but mentors, counselors, and even mom or dad surrogates.  Teachers not only receive inadequate pay, but as a society, we rarely express our appreciation for what they are doing.   

Frankly, I think our priorities are somewhat skewed. We will spend money on building a big stadium for the local pro football team; and we will pay a college football coach triple what the average teacher (or professor) makes.  But when it comes to education, somehow there's just not enough money; and when it comes to new books or school supplies, some districts provide them, but others don't. And caught in the middle are the kids who want to learn, and the teachers who want to teach them.

This shouldn't be about politics, and it shouldn't be about public schools versus charter schools. While policy-makers debate where the money should go, the first priority should be improving all the schools, and giving all students the opportunity to learn.  But in too many places, educating our kids is treated like a burden or an expense. It shouldn't be either; it's an investment in our future as a society.  Few teachers get into education expecting to become rich; but a living wage would be nice, as would enough school supplies.  I can't think of a more important calling than being a teacher; if only our policy-makers agreed, because if they did, they'd show teachers a lot more respect.

Friday, August 31, 2018

What's In a Name?-- John McCain Edition

He was called a "giant of the Senate" by both Republicans and Democrats, and referred to as a man who "inspired universal admiration."  At his funeral, dignitaries praised him for his many accomplishments (especially his support of the military) as they looked back on his 40-year career as one of congress's most effective leaders. Within months after he died, a key federal building was named after him:  the Russell Senate Building, honoring the late Georgia Senator Richard Brevard Russell Jr.

Of course, not everyone thought Mr. Russell was such an amazing person. Agreed, he championed the National School Lunch Program and helped to establish what later became known as the Center for Disease Control; he chaired the Armed Services Committee for years, and was thought of as an expert in military policy. But he was also an ardent segregationist, who repeatedly voted against, or tried to block, civil rights legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He even opposed the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling that ended school segregation. Despite this, his senate colleagues believed there were many reasons he deserved recognition, and in 1972, naming the US Senate building after him made sense.

But in 2018, it makes no sense at all.  For one thing, it's no longer considered admirable to be an ardent segregationist. Yes, I know that even now, there are some white supremacists who have a devoted following (especially online); I also understand that many years ago, Senator Russell's racist views were far more common.  But I'd like to believe that times have changed.  I sincerely doubt a politician with openly segregationist views could rise to power in the senate today the way they could (and did) in previous generations.  It's also true that since the late 1960s, more people of color have entered politics, becoming governors, mayors of major cities, representatives, presidential candidates, and yes, President of the United States. In 1972, there were only 13 African-American members of congress; there are 50 today, and there may soon be more.

So why are some Republican members of congress resisting the idea to rename the senate building after another "giant of the Senate"-- the late John McCain? This should be a no-brainer. John McCain was a war hero, who spent more than three decades as a senator; he was true to his beliefs, a reliably Republican and conservative vote nearly all the time, and was very popular with his constituents. But unfortunately, he was not popular with Donald Trump, with whom he publicly disagreed on several policy matters (Senator McCain also objected to the president's crass and sometimes-vulgar way of speaking). Mr. Trump rarely missed an opportunity to criticize or mock Mr. McCain; the president didn't even send out a tribute to the senator's years of service as he lay dying. (And if Mr. Trump doesn't like someone, that means his base doesn't like that person either; this evidently concerns Republicans who want to be re-elected.)

I'm not a big fan of John McCain's politics; I am neither Republican nor conservative, and he was both.  He also supported some issues, such as the War in Iraq, that I did not.  But here's what I respected about Mr. McCain.  For one thing, he was among the few politicians who was willing to admit when he was wrong about an issue-- such as when he originally opposed establishing a holiday to honor Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and later came to regret that vote and apologize for it.  And during the presidential campaign in 2008, when one of his supporters accused then-Senator Obama of being a Muslim and implied he wasn't an American, Mr. McCain promptly refuted those assertions and said Mr. Obama was a "decent man, a family man," but someone with whom he just had policy differences. And throughout his career, as political polarization worsened, John McCain had friends who were Democrats; he sometimes worked with them on issues like campaign finance reform.

Whether President Trump liked John McCain or not shouldn't matter.  It seems to me that continuing to defend a building named for a segregationist is wrong. So is refusing to honor Senator McCain's many years in the senate to avoid offending Mr. Trump or alienating his base.  There are many Democrats who didn't agree with Senator McCain much, but they thought of him as an ethical person who cared deeply about the Senate and wanted to do right for his constituents.  It's time for Republicans in congress to do the right thing now and rename the Russell Senate Building to honor Senator McCain, sooner rather than later.     

    

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Random Acts of Kindness, Neil Diamond Edition

It was a Thursday night in mid-October 1971, as I recall. And while I may be wrong about the date, I still remember the exciting opportunity I had: I was about to interview Neil Diamond.  A friend of mine, who was a top-40 deejay, was the host of a history of rock and roll called "Retro Rock," on ABC Radio's American Contemporary Radio Network, and he needed some quotes for a feature we were going to do about Neil's music. Thanks to my friend, I had become a writer and researcher for "Retro Rock." And while ABC radio wouldn't let me on the air (girls were still a rarity on top-40 radio), it was fun to hear what I wrote getting put to good use. 

Back then, Neil Diamond was not known for mellow pop music; he did some really good top-40 rock songs and he had a number of hits. I loved some of those songs, especially "Solitary Man" and "Kentucky Woman."  I also liked some of his more introspective songs like "Brooklyn Roads" and "Shilo." And now, I was going backstage to meet him.

I'll admit it:  I was really, really nervous. I mean, I had spent three years in college radio, but I didn't meet any famous people. Neil Diamond was larger than life to me. I didn't want to make a fool of myself, especially when my friend had worked so hard to help me get an interview.  I wanted to make a good impression, and I wanted to get the information for the episode of "Retro Rock."

I don't recall much about the interview itself; I must have gotten the right quotes, because the episode about Neil's work did get on the air. But something else happened. We were talking, and he asked me about myself-- and for some reason, I told him. I said it was a very frustrating time for me, career-wise. While being an anonymous writer was okay, what I really wanted to do was be on the air; but because I was female, nobody would give me a chance.  And other than my friend, few people in radio took me seriously.  It was probably unprofessional for me to talk about myself. But it was a moment, and I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, so I told him.

What happened next was a surprise. He gave me a hug and said something encouraging, telling me not to give up.  And he signed the tour book I brought with me, with a very heart-felt autograph next to the lyrics of "I Am... I Said."  He wrote: "She was... she said. And no-one heard at all... except me."

Years later, I still have that tour book. I doubt Neil Diamond remembers that evening, and unless he reads my blog (which I also doubt), he has no way of knowing that although it took another couple of years, I finally did get on the air and I ended up having the career I always wanted-- including meeting a large number of famous (and nearly famous) people, discovering a certain Canadian rock band, and doing all kinds of interviews with all kinds of entertainers.

I tell you this story because I remember Neil Diamond's kindness even though it was nearly fifty years ago. There's a message here, and it's worth keeping in mind:  sometimes, when you least expect it, someone will reach out and say what you need to hear; or someone will show you compassion where there hadn't been much before.  It may not be somebody famous, but that's not the point. These random acts of kindness can make a difference. In fact, maybe you'll be that someone. Maybe you'll be the one to reach out and encourage a person who needs a kind word.  And when it seems like nobody cares, maybe you'll be the one to let someone know that's not true, the way a famous singer did when he reached out to a young and inexperienced writer one evening in 1971.    

     

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Who Are the "Best and the Brightest"?

Most of you never met my maternal grandfather. His Yiddish name was Shmu'el Feivel (which became Samuel Philip) and according to his immigration documents, he arrived in the United States from Lithuania in 1910.  Back then, European Jews were being persecuted or treated harshly, and their economic opportunities were limited. And so, like many immigrants from many countries, he decided to seek a better life in America.

My grandfather was a tailor. He came here speaking perhaps two words of English, and while he was a quick learner, till the day he died, he spoke it with a heavy accent. He never got rich, he never became famous, but he adapted well to his new country; he got married, had three kids (one of whom was my mother), and was probably pleased that in America, he was no longer treated like he had been in the old country.

But I wonder if he would even be admitted today, given our president saying we need to move to a "merit-based" system of immigration.  Did my grandfather have sufficient merit?  After all, he was not very educated, didn't speak English, and had very little money. Further, he did not know any people in the US who could vouch for the fact that he would work hard and cause no problem to anyone.  He believed, as many immigrants did back then, that America was a nation of immigrants, and he believed that if given a chance, he could make a good life here, for himself and the family he hoped to have.

Beyond the debate over what to do about "the border," and how undocumented immigrants should be treated, there is another story that is getting far less coverage. Mr. Trump wants to restrict legal immigration. He wants to change the policy so that America will only admit the "best and the brightest." The policy he has proposed would cut legal immigration nearly in half, something we have not seen in decades. Currently, the number of immigrants being given visas has dropped by about 12% during his first two years in office; but he wants it to drop even more. He has stated that his ultimate goal is to “curb the flow of low-skilled workers into the United States.”

By those standards, I would not be writing this blog post today, since my grandfather, a "low-skilled worker," would not have been allowed to move here, and my mother would never have been born here either. I find it troubling that the country that once gave unskilled workers from other countries a chance to contribute to the US economy (which, by the way, is still desperate for immigrant labor: many industries are eager to hire them) now suddenly says only geniuses with PhDs need apply.

I hope the president will rethink his position. Today's low-skilled worker may have a family that includes high-achieving kids; or that worker may get the chance to go to school and acquire the skills he or she did not have before.  It's hard to predict how things will turn out, of course. But this much I know: the vast majority of the folks who have come here have been an asset, not a liability. It would be a shame if people who are seeking a better life, like my grandfather did, will now be told they should not seek it here. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Moving Beyond the Stereotypes

When I was in high school, we studied some of Shakespeare's plays. The one that had the greatest impact on me (and not in a good way) was "The Merchant of Venice." Some of you may remember it. The central character, and villain, is the moneylender, Shylock the Jew.  And while there are a couple of verses where Shakespeare does try to humanize him, the vast majority of the play depicts him as exactly what people in Shakespeare's day thought all Jews were-- greedy, dishonest, obsessed with petty rules, and incapable of compassion. Given that England had long ago banned the Jews from living there unless they converted to Christianity, it's likely that Shakespeare and his audience had never met an actual Jew. But everyone certainly knew the myths about the Jews, and Shylock exemplified every single one.   

As much as I liked several of Shakespeare's other plays ("King Lear" was, and still is, my favorite), the blatantly anti-Jewish stereotypes in "The Merchant of Venice" really bothered me. But what upset me even more was that I was the only one who was bothered. My teacher and everyone else in the class were Christians, and they did not see a problem with the text at all. (Back then, many of those stereotypes were still commonly accepted in the popular culture.)  Thus, when I tried to explain my reaction to the depiction of Shylock, I'm not sure anyone understood why I was upset.

Yes, undoubtedly there have been greedy moneylenders in history, and I cannot deny that some may have been Jewish.  But many others were not: moneylenders have existed in every culture, and no one religion or ethnic group holds a monopoly on this occupation (or on being greedy). What bothered me in high school, and what still bothers me even now, is when someone has behaved in an offensive manner, certain people will immediately claim that ALL members of that group behave that way.  And when you try to defend your particular group, those people will believe the stereotype and say you are just the exception.    

It's easy to generalize about an entire group; it's harder to get to know them as individuals. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen enough:  surveys show that too many of us mainly hang around with people who look like us, believe like us, and even vote like us. No wonder myths and stereotypes persist.  I wish more of us could step back from our preconceived notions, stop misrepresenting each other's views, and make a genuine effort to understand how others see the world. That's probably why I remember that high school incident, and the feeling of not being understood, whenever I'm on social media and someone sends around a meme or a cherry-picked quote intended to show what [pick one] all immigrants, or all African-Americans, or all Muslims, or all Jews are really like.

I see similar generalizations in our politics too: I cannot tell you how many Democrats are firmly convinced that ALL Trump supporters are racists and bigots; and there are just as many Republicans who sincerely believe that ALL Democrats are judgmental hypocrites.  I often get Tweets accusing me of being a "typical liberal" (whatever that means), and I am sure my Republican friends get Tweets accusing them of being "typical conservatives."  And this is where we seem to be-- stuck in our stereotypes, unable (or unwilling) to move beyond them.  I used to be a deejay (and as a professor, I still make my living from talking), yet from what I've seen, I truly believe we could all benefit from listening more and talking less.

Fortunately, I know some people who do listen, who are both inclusive and tolerant.  But I know even more who are quick to dismiss (or mock) anyone whose reaction is different from theirs.  Social media has definitely made it easier to do that, and some of the political rhetoric we hear isn't helping. But if we're living in a culture of stereotype and blame, why be satisfied with it? Shouldn't we want things to change? I may seem naive to suggest this, but I believe we can (and should) improve how we communicate.  It starts with being willing to listen rather than argue.  Given our different backgrounds, I don't expect us to agree on everything; but at least we can try to respect each other, can't we?  So, I invite you to reach out to someone who can offer you an entirely different perspective. It may not be what you're accustomed to, but you may find yourself learning something new.  And if more of us take the time to do that, perhaps society will become a little less polarized than it currently is.