Friday, January 15, 2021

"What Does Democracy Mean to You?"

My maternal grandfather came to America in 1910. He was from Lithuania, and by most accounts, things were not very good for the Jews there. So, he came to a country where there was supposed to be more opportunity, more freedom. And he carved out a life that was better than what he would have had if he'd stayed in the Old Country. He never got rich: he was a tailor, and he lacked the kind of education one needed to move up. But he was hopeful that his children would do better than he had done.  That was typical of the immigrant experience: immigrants who came here hoped they could build a better life for their kids.

What made me think of my grandfather was a video I saw earlier today, from retired Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman. He spoke of how his father brought him and his brother here from Russia, in search of that better life, with more opportunity and more freedom. And he spoke of how much he loves this country even now, despite the turmoil, violence, and chaos we've seen over the past few weeks. Even though he was forced to leave the military, through no fault of his own, he remains hopeful: he is finishing up his PhD, while serving as a board member at the Renew Democracy Initiative, a non-partisan, non-profit organization whose mission is "dedicated to empowering the public to uphold constitutional principles in their civic behavior.

I admit I wasn't familiar with RDI, but I began seeing a number of short videos on Twitter today from some well-known people in media, politics, and entertainment, all taking what Lt. Colonel Vindman referred to as the "Renew Democracy challenge."  In a Twitter post, he wrote, "During a dark time, we need to showcase the best of our democracy. Share a short video about what democracy means to you & nominate three friends to do the same!"  I watched some of the videos, and while I decided not to make one myself, I thought the question was worth answering.

To me, democracy means my life is not subject to the whim of one man or one political party or one ideology.  As someone who likes to think for myself, I don't want to be told what to think or who to vote for. Thus, I don't want to live in a country run by an all-powerful, autocratic ruler who cannot be replaced, and whom everyone is forced to obey.

To me, democracy means acceptance:  even though I am a member of a minority religion, I am free to observe and celebrate my faith, with no fear that the government will ban my beliefs (nor imprison me for the way I worship).  Similarly, even though I may disagree with my political leaders, I am free to express those views, including on this blog. The First Amendment promises freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and many other rights that folks in some other countries don't have. I value those rights. I don't take them for granted. And I would hate to lose them.     

To me, democracy means that even in the worst of times, people can build coalitions and work together to make positive change. Yes, we are going through a difficult and contentious period of time, and some people want to overthrow our government or do harm to those they disagree with. But I refuse to give in to despair, even though the events of the past week have horrified me. I know not everyone agrees with the folks who attacked the Capitol; I know not everyone sees violence or hatred as the answer. In fact, there are millions of us are willing to put our differences aside, to try to move this country forward.

So, there you are.  I invite you to consider what democracy means to you, and I'd be eager to hear what you have to say.  Now more than ever, we need to remember how important democracy is, and we need to teach our kids why it matters. Lt. Colonel Vindman is right: it's a good time to defend the democratic ideal-- not with violence or threats, but with the determination that we will be part of the solution... not part of the problem.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Turn the Page: Saying Goodbye to 2020

Thomas Neal Cartmell died yesterday, after a long battle with cancer, at age 72. If you're a fan of classic rock, you know him by his performing name-- Alto Reed-- and for his outstanding work with Bob Seger. As a member of the Silver Bullet Band, Alto was the sax player on one of my favorite mid-1970s songs, "Turn the Page." (You can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GONmFCkCGCc)

I find myself thinking about that song a lot since Alto passed-- many of my friends are musicians, and it's an excellent depiction of what life was like on the road back then.  If you were a relatively unknown band, like Rush was in those days, you spent long hours in your tour bus, driving from city to city, day after day. The famous bands had elegant and comfortable buses; the up-and-coming bands, not so much.  It could be a lonely and challenging way to make a living: sometimes, the fans liked you, sometimes they didn't, yet you had to keep going. "And you don't feel much like driving, you just wish the trip was through..." 

Much to their surprise, Rush found a home away from home in Cleveland, where fans loved their music and eagerly came to their concerts. But in other cities, the reception wasn't as warm. Still, the guys persisted, never giving up, never slowing down, determined to bring their music to as many fans as possible. (And since I was speaking about Bob Seger, it's interesting to note how at one point in March 1977, Rush found their path intersecting with his, as they were his opening act in New York City. I remember it well.)


In 1987, Rush had their own song called "Turn the Page," a different song, of course, but the lyrics seem to speak to this moment: 

"Every day we're standing
In a time capsule
Racing down a river from the past
Every day we're standing
In a wind tunnel
Facing down the future coming fast..."
 
Tonight, all of us are facing down that future. Most of us will welcome it, because 2020 was such a brutal year and we're ready to say goodbye and good riddance to a year that took so many important people from us (including our beloved Neil Peart)-- thousands dead from COVID-19, so many celebrities and iconic figures gone; it's a world where it often seems anger and resentment are on the rise, and where kindness and compassion are in short supply. It's an insecure and uncertain world, with a future that holds no guarantees. And at times like these, what comforts many of us is music, friendship, and the faith that things will get better.
 
It would be easy to succumb to despair, given all that many of us have been through. But I look at us as survivors. We made it through a horrible year, and we're still here, despite the losses and despite the pain and despite the disappointments. In the end, it was the human connections that got us through 2020. I'm sure many of know know what I mean: even when we couldn't be there in person, we found ways to reach out through social media, or through Zoom or Skype, by sending a card, or by picking up the phone and calling. We encouraged each other, and we shared each other's lives as best we could. And we made it to the end of 2020.
 
And now, as 2021 arrives, I hope and pray that things will be better than they were in 2020. So much loss, so much sorrow, so much pain for so many people-- surely the year ahead will be better. If I could give all of you a hug, I would. If I could thank you all individually for being there for me, I would. And if I could give you a round of applause for coming on this journey and reaching the end of a difficult year, I absolutely would. We made it. The new year is here, and I'm ready to turn the page. I know you are too.  Happy new year.     
   

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Keeping Things In Perspective

As many of you know, I'm a cancer survivor. In fact, assuming I'm still here on the 17th of December, it will be six years since I had my surgery. And even on the days when I'm feeling frustrated by pandemic restrictions, or when some minor but annoying thing goes wrong in my life, I remain eternally grateful to be alive.

When I was a kid, I vaguely recall someone (perhaps it was my parents) reminding me that whatever I was upset about, there were people who had things much worse. That always seemed like such a cliché, and at the time, it also seemed really unhelpful.  But since my recovery from cancer, and since the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, I've found it's actually a sensible way to look at life. 

These past few months have been quite a lesson about keeping things in perspective: some of my students have endured periods of homelessness, or they can't attend classes regularly because they lack the technology at home. In fact, some of them have parents who are unemployed and the rent is due.  Meanwhile, I have colleagues who lost family members to COVID, and I have an older friend in assisted living who isn't allowed to have visitors. My musician friends still can't perform anywhere, and I know so many businesses that have had to close.  Whatever my problems are, they are nothing compared to any of that.

As I write this, my husband and I just observed another night of Hanukkah at our home, lighting the menorah by the window, to shine some light on the darkness outside. And all over my neighborhood, everyone else has put up their Christmas lights-- in the midst of such an insecure and difficult time, it's nice to see some beautiful decorations.  

It's also nice to know that there is a vaccine for COVID and soon, lots of people will be able to get it. Perhaps in the new year, the pandemic that has impacted so many lives will finally be under control. To be honest, I won't be sorry to see 2020 end; I'm sure lots of you would agree with that. But in spite of everything, I try to focus on how fortunate I am; that's worth remembering when I'm having an aggravating day.  And I know this year, more than at any other time, that so many people have things a lot worse than I do. 

And so, in this holiday season that is very different from previous years, let me wish you, my readers, health and happiness, love and light.  Even in times like these-- especially in times like these-- we all need a reason to celebrate; and I pray that you will have lots of reasons (and lots of celebrations) both now and in the new year ahead.  


Monday, November 30, 2020

Being Fair to the Facts

I just read a newspaper article that really irritated me. It was about a social studies teacher who was familiarizing his students with how American elections worked. Nothing unusual there-- I studied that back when I was in high school, five decades ago. But when he told his students that Joe Biden had won the 2020 election (a well-documented fact), many of his students got upset with him. They began telling him about election fraud, about corrupt voting machines, that thousands of dead people had voted, plus there were illegal ballots; and above all, Joe Biden couldn't possibly have won because he stole the election from President Trump. 

Needless to say, the teacher was not amused, but he wasn't entirely shocked. Living in a red state, he knew that students heard these sorts of things at home. Plus, given the world of social media, it was all too easy for students to encounter many inaccurate claims. As a teacher, he was known for being non-partisan; thus, he figured his job was to correct the kids-- and to show them fact-checking sites that refuted their assertions. Over all, he just wanted his students to know what happened, no matter which party won. So, he showed them how votes are tabulated, who counts them, the safeguards in the system, and why their assertions were inaccurate. And he told them that in the 2020 election, Mr. Biden had received more votes-- both electoral votes and popular votes. 

But that did not satisfy his students. They kept defending the president, and repeating what he had said. They kept insisting that there was "massive fraud," that Pres. Trump had been robbed, and that he had actually won.  And then, some irate parents began complaining about the teacher; one parent even demanded that their kid be taken out of the teacher's class immediately. In other words, the parents wanted the teacher to stop telling students anything that contradicted what the president was saying-- even if those claims were false.

If you were teaching those students, what would you do? I've heard versions of this story from a number of teachers, all of whom were advised not to be "controversial" and not to teach anything that students (or their parents) would perceive as partisan. But that seems like an impossible task, since no matter what a teacher might say, there is someone who is bound to be offended. And in this case, things are complicated by the constant presence of Mr. Trump, continuing to assert that he was robbed, continuing to stir up his supporters, and continuing to cast doubt on the election (and on the electoral process).      

I have been very disappointed that this president persists in spreading baseless accusations. He has every right to be upset that he lost, but the fact remains: he lost. And spreading misinformation on partisan TV channels and websites is horrible for our democracy.  I hope he will concede, as others have done before him. And I hope he will admit there was no fraud and no cheating-- there was simply the fact that someone else won the election. Meanwhile, all over the country, teachers and professors are left to pick up the pieces, as Mr. Trump tries to make his own ego feel good, while doing real damage to the public's faith in our democracy. Conservative media are also being very unhelpful by giving Mr. Trump's false claims a place to be heard: yes, their audience loves it, but again, the harm to our democracy could be lasting.  

I don't know when it became controversial to teach that the person who got more votes was the winner of the election. There have been many times over the years when I couldn't believe that candidate X didn't win and candidate Y did... but I was never tempted to deny reality or avoid telling my students what the facts were (whether I liked those facts or not).  2020 has been a brutal year in numerous ways, and I am one of many who won't be sorry to see it go. But I hope we can also put an end to the ongoing effort by this president and his enablers to insist that facts are not facts, and to insist that only Mr. Trump's version of the truth is what matters. It doesn't. He lost. I understand he wishes that he won. But he didn't. And it's time for him to accept that fact, so the rest of us can move on. 

   

Sunday, November 15, 2020

"What Are They Really Like?"

Periodically, Rush fans reach out to me on social media, and I always try to respond. Some of them seem to only want to thank me, or to express their love of this band that changed so many people's lives. But every now and then, someone asks me a specific question about Alex or Geddy or Neil-- does Geddy have a favorite song out of all the ones Rush sang over the years; or what did the other two guys think of Alex's "blah-blah-blah" speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; or why wasn't Neil at the vast majority of the meet-and-greets over the years.  

Sometimes, I know the answer, especially if one of the guys expressed an opinion (I do know the back-story to the blah-blah-blah speech, and I do know why Neil avoided meet-and-greets).  And sometimes, I have no idea but can make an educated guess (I don't think Geddy has ever had one favorite Rush song; but I'm sure that the band got tired of playing certain songs, and like most bands, they retired some of them and reintroduced others over the years, just to give the fans some variety).

But the most common question I get asked is a version of "What are they really like?" It's an interesting question. I spent four decades in broadcasting, and during that time, I met a lot of celebrities and stars-- Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Madonna, Dolly Parton, Bob Seger, Garth Brooks, Linda Ronstadt, Charlie Daniels, ZZ Top, Dr. Hook, and many others. My interactions with them were usually brief: in radio back then, the record companies would often bring the performers around for deejays at major stations to meet. I generally got to say hello and maybe exchange a few words before the record promoter interrupted and took the person to say "hi" to some other people.  Some of the performers were very friendly and seemed happy to meet me (and the others at my station). Others treated it like a chore or acted like they were doing us a big favor just being there. 

In a very few cases, I actually got some time to have a conversation before the performer had to move on.  I had a very pleasant chat with Bruce Springsteen (we shared an orange juice), and an equally pleasant one with Frank Beard of ZZ Top (he asked me out...I politely said 'no').  I also had some wonderful conversations with jazz musicians like Phil Woods (he did the sax solo on Billy Joel's pop hit "Just the Way You Are") when I worked at WRVR in New York, a jazz station. I could drop a few more names, but my point is that while I have a lot of good memories, I don't know how to answer the question about what any of them were "really" like.

All I can say is that at a certain time, under certain conditions, I had the privilege of being in the same room, or at the same party, or perhaps I was doing an interview; but in all cases, the context was that I was a radio deejay and music director, and the performer was there to promote a new album or make an appearance as part of some event the record company arranged. And yes, it was exciting for me, a working-class kid who had often been told she'd never be anything in life, to be hanging with the rich and famous, even briefly. 

So, I do understand why fans ask what some famous person is really like. We see these folks on TV or read about them, or maybe go to a concert and watch them perform. But we rarely get the chance to spend time with them, away from work. Given that many of us don't get to meet our favorites celebrities, or perhaps we only see them briefly and get an autograph, we imagine what they must be like, and when we find someone who actually knows them, we just have to ask. (I admit I've done this myself over the years.)

But in the case of Rush, I can give you an answer.  I'm fortunate that they've kept in touch over the years (and so have the folks at their management company), even though we're no longer colleagues in the music business. That in itself is unusual: normally, when you're in media, relationships can be transactional. You need something from them, or they need something from you. But in a very few cases, there is no agenda, just some nice people who want to keep in touch because that's what nice people do. What are Rush "really" like? Based on my experience over the decades, they truly are nice people; and as I've said many times, success has never spoiled them. And while I can't say what every famous person I've met is really like, I can say with certainty that the members of Rush are in fact wonderful to know, and I consider it an honor to know them.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Waiting for the Answer

I don't know about you, but lately, I find myself lying awake some nights, just worrying about what's going to happen. I know it's not helpful to worry (or to lose sleep), but things seem so out of place and so uncertain.  I'm not sure what to do about it. Part of it is the ongoing pandemic-- it seems almost everyone knows someone who contracted the virus, or we worry about getting it ourselves. Friends of mine are out of work, stores I used to go to have gone out of business, and even in states where the numbers of cases were declining, now they're rising again.  

But it's not just the pandemic that has many of us worrying. I'll admit that what really makes me uneasy is the upcoming presidential election, only a couple of days from now.  We may or may not not know the results on November 3rd, but what concerns me the most is what comes next. As a Democrat, of course I hope Joe Biden wins, but I have friends who are still supporting this president (for reasons I admit I don't entirely understand), and they hope the president is re-elected. In either case, large numbers of folks are not going to be happy with the result.

Normally, that wouldn't worry me; it happens after every election, and then we move on. But the past three years haven't been normal. This president has done little to bring us together. In fact, he has regularly made hateful remarks about Democrats ever since he took office. Every day, my conservative friends, who get much of their information from whatever the president says, amplified by whatever right-wing commentators tell them, hear relentlessly horrible stuff about those of us in Blue States. They also hear mainstream reporters attacked and demonized, along with anyone (Republican or Democrat) who doesn't show sufficiently loyalty to Mr. Trump.

To those who love this president, he's amazing-- he says he conquered COVID-19, and he says a cure is on the way. The rest of us see things very differently-- we believe he has no plan, and we wish he hadn't marginalized the experts. And we believe he is putting the health and safety of his supporters at risk by holding large rallies, even during a pandemic, as if to show that what he wants (and needs) is more important than protecting the health of the nation. And no matter what happens on November 3rd, he has so demonized mask-wearing (and social distancing) that large numbers of people now refuse to do it.

So, if he loses, will he leave peacefully? He has refused to say that he will. Will his supporters accept that "their guy" lost?  Some are already making threats; I hope it's just talk, but what if it's not? And in a world where inflammatory rhetoric and conspiracy theories have been mainstreamed, will we as a country-- both sides-- be able to reestablish trust in government, and restore trust in each other? It may take time, but can we go back to treating each other respectfully, and not insulting each other when we disagree? Can we work together to address the pandemic and heal the problems this chaotic presidency has left us? These are the things that keep me up at night, and I don't think I'm alone.    

We are living in difficult and potentially dangerous times. I'm basically optimistic, and I want to believe we'll be okay. I want to believe we'll recover. I want to believe the past few years, with the anger and the insults and the hatefulness, will soon be over. But to be honest, I don't know what's going to happen. I just hope (and pray) that our democracy and the institutions we've relied upon, the ones many of us believe this president has corrupted, haven't been too damaged. We've been through difficult times before, and somehow we've survived. I'm sure we'll survive this too. And whichever side you are on, I just hope we can be friends when all is said and done. Being enemies is just too exhausting. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

You're Only As Young As You Feel

I was thinking about Bucky Pizzarelli the other day. In fact, I gave him a shout-out when I was a guest on WEEU radio's "Talk It Out" with Dan and Tyler on October 8th. We were paying tribute to some celebrity musicians we lost in 2020, beginning with the legendary and deeply-missed Neil Peart of Rush, and proceeding through the year to Eddie Van Halen. (You can listen to it here: http://830weeu.com/?p=58497)  

But as I went through the list of other musicians who left us in 2020, in among the bigger names like Charlie Daniels and Helen Reddy and Kenny Rogers, there was Bucky Pizzarelli, a widely-respected jazz guitarist, whose music I used to play when I worked at a jazz radio station in New York in the mid-1970s. He died of COVID-19 on April 1, at age 94. He was still performing well into his late 80s, and was someone who never let his advancing age (or arthritis, or anything else) stop him, as you can see in this music video from 2012, when he was about 86. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNDI5qsTWD0

As some of you know, I have a friend named Judy Valentine. She is a former radio singer and children's show co-host on TV. She's 96, and sharp as can be. She still loves to entertain, but since the pandemic, she can't go to the activities she used to attend. She misses that. She has told me she sometimes wishes she could find some part-time work, something where she could still make people happy. But let's be honest-- in our culture, we don't quite seem to know what to do with older people, especially those in their 80s or 90s. Agreed, some are frail and suffer from various illnesses. But others are not, and all they want is to still feel useful, in a society that continues to worship youth.  

Stereotypes about "the elderly" (or the euphemistic "senior citizens") still permeate popular culture. While Alzheimer's is a tragic, and thus far incurable, disease (and many of us know people who suffered from it), not every older person has it. When someone forgets something, as all of us have done at one time or other, that doesn't mean the person is on the way to cognitive decline.  Yet, it still seems a common belief that older people are no longer capable, because they've "lost a step." Agreed, someone in their 80s probably can't perform brain surgery; but I've run into some older folks who are even more intelligent (and have a lot more common sense) than people who are much younger.         

The other day, Pres. Trump sent around a doctored photo of Joe Biden, photoshopped to make it seem like he was sitting in a nursing home, in a wheelchair.  Mr. Trump's supporters probably thought it was hilarious; I mean, it's a common discourse on the right that Mr. Biden is elderly and senile (he is neither). I not only didn't think it was funny-- I thought it was sad, because it confirmed all the stereotypes about older people.  Whether you're a fan of Mr. Biden or not, he's still out there doing what he loves, and doing it effectively. Is he the same politician that he was 30 years ago? Probably not, but why is that the standard? He has continued to keep up with changing times, and he has continued to keep himself relevant. I think that's commendable.

And that's why I admire people like Bucky Pizzarelli, who did what he loved for as long as he could do it-- he played music and he made people happy. Instead of marginalizing people who are aging, we should give them the chance to perform at their best, whether in entertainment or business or politics or whatever. I've long believed we sell people short when we stereotype them based on their age.  There's a quote attributed to baseball legend Dizzy Dean, and while it may be apocryphal, it has some truth to it: he supposedly said, "I ain't what I used to be, but who the hell is?"  My point exactly.