Saturday, July 31, 2021

When The Cruelty is the Point

I still remember how many times my parents told me not to make assumptions about other people. They said unless I had walked in their shoes, I had no right to judge them. Similarly, those of us who have studied journalism are taught "Don't get out in front of the facts"-- in other words, don't guess, don't speculate, and if you don't know what occurred, don't claim that you do. That too is good advice. More people should follow it, especially these days.

The other day, I had the misfortune of reading some of the comments that were made when champion American gymnast Simone Biles decided to withdraw from competition at the Olympics, citing her emotional health.  The reactions were textbook examples of passing judgment on someone that the commenters had never met, and being cruel in the process. Suddenly, these folks were all experts on her behavior, eager to verbally attack her for what she had done to let them down.  What bothered me the most was that some folks had no compassion towards what she might be going through. They were just angry that she might cost the USA a medal. So they called her a coward. They called her gutless. They said she was letting her country down. And in some cases, they made remarks about her race.  

I saw similar disturbing comments when the four officers testified at the Select Committee hearings about the January 6th Capitol Insurrection. However you feel about politics, and however you feel about who won the election, these men did not deserve to be attacked, tased, beaten, or threatened with death. And the Black officer who testified absolutely did not deserve to be called the N word repeatedly by members of the mob. These officers were doing their job, protecting the building and protecting members of congress (from both parties). Yet the rioters subjected them to repeated assaults, and most showed no remorse.

That night, on Fox News, the officers were accused of "putting on a performance." On social media, they were called vile names and accused of being weak. Two of the officers, who were emotional about what they had endured, were relentlessly mocked and called cowards (along with other names I won't include on this blog-- sad to say, even the former president called them vile names). Nowhere was anyone willing to show even an ounce of empathy towards these officers. Their courage was ignored, in favor of intentional cruelty-- insulting and blaming them for the injuries they sustained. 

I have never met Simone Biles. But I had watched her perform numerous times, and been amazed by how talented she is. Like many, I was eager to watch her compete (even though, frankly, I don't think the Olympics should have been held during a pandemic that refuses to end). But when she said she couldn't do it, when she said she felt overwhelmed, when she said she had to put her mental and emotional health ahead of leading her team, I just hoped she'd be okay. Depression (and I believe that's what she has) is a very misunderstood illness. It deserves a lot more respect and a lot more understanding. And for those who thought insulting her was okay, shame on you.   

I have never met the four officers who testified at the Select Committee. By their own accounts, several are longtime Republicans, and several have voted for Democrats. But when they are on the job, their political views don't matter. Their duty to the constitution and to protecting the members of congress comes first. They helped save lives that terrible day. They did not deserve to be assaulted. The rioters made a misguided effort to stop our democracy from functioning, and these officers put their lives on the line to make sure our democracy survived. People of good will should thank them for telling their stories. Nobody should mock them or insult them or doubt their courage.

And yet, here we are, in a world where too many folks think it's okay to ridicule people they've never met... to ascribe negative motives to them or blame them or lash out on social media, just because they can. I keep hearing my parents saying "don't judge someone unless you've walked in their shoes."  I doubt the folks lashing out at Simone Biles ever competed at an Olympics. I doubt the folks lashing out at those four officers ever defended the Capitol against an angry mob. It's so easy to be a know-it-all when you don't have all the facts but you do have an audience of like-minded friends egging you on. 

I hope Simone Biles gets the support she needs. I hope the four officers know that most of us respect what they do. And above all, I hope that the folks who are showing such a lack of empathy will take a breath and think about what they're doing. At some future time, they may be the ones who need understanding and compassion. And they may be surprised to find that no-one has any to give.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Try a Little Kindness

I read a newspaper article yesterday that really bothered me; and no, it wasn't about politics. It was about breakfast. Or more accurately, it was about a restaurant that serves breakfast every day. But recently, the customers have been acting so rude and angry and insulting that the servers were driven to tears. One customer was angry because he wanted to place an order but the restaurant hadn't opened yet and he was asked to wait. Another group of customers were furious because they couldn't have the table they wanted. Some were irate that the young and inexperienced servers weren't bringing the food fast enough (like many restaurants, this one is short-handed, as they only re-opened recently and are still hiring staff).  

Long story short, after one outburst too many, the managers decided to close down for a day, to treat their young (and very demoralized) staff to a "day of kindness." When the managers posted about it on social media, they found that numerous other restaurants have been seeing the same kinds of behaviors from customers. Because of the pandemic, there's evidently a year's worth of pent-up frustration from the public; and employees at restaurants are bearing the brunt of it.  

To be honest, I find this puzzling.  Agreed, nobody likes to be kept waiting at a restaurant. Agreed, not having the table you reserved waiting for you is annoying. And so is having a server who seems to be inexperienced. But I've seen folks scream at servers at a coffee shop for giving them Sweet and Lo instead of Equal. I've seen folks get outraged when the line was moving too slowly, or when someone's favorite flavor of doughnut wasn't available. 

I know we've all been through a terrible year, and many of us are now able to get back out there. I, for one, am grateful. I, for one, am happy to be vaccinated and able to see my friends again. And frankly, as a cancer survivor, I have to say that if the worst thing that has happened to you is someone made your drink wrong or didn't bring your order as quickly as you had hoped, then it's still not a bad day. (Trust me: having a cancer diagnosis is much worse.)    

I think it would be good for everyone to observe a "day of kindness." Instead of screaming at the server, or mocking the host, or insulting the manager on social media, how about considering that they may have been through a lot this past year too, and they may need some time to get things back up to speed. I understand that many of us are feeling stressed, but how about putting things in perspective-- sometimes, a little understanding goes a long way.

My mother, of blessed memory, used to say, "You get more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar." Yes, I know, it's a cliché. And when you're having an aggravating day, it's hard to keep that sentiment in mind. We've all been impatient or curt or discourteous at one time or other.  But wouldn't it be nice if we all decided to follow the Golden Rule and treat others the way we'd like to be treated? It might not get you your breakfast any faster, but it might make the world a little less angry, and a little bit calmer. And the way I see it, that's a result we could all benefit from.     

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Why Are Teachers Being Demonized?

Not just anyone can be a teacher. In fact, it's an old and tired myth that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach." I can tell you from experience that teachers are some of the most well-trained and qualified professionals you will meet. And yes, most teachers are folks who not only can, but they do-- every day.  Most teachers have a minimum four-year degree. Many also have a master's, or like Dr. Jill Biden (and me), a doctorate. Many have certificates in areas of specialization. And some come from other professions but decided they wanted to be teachers. 

As a profession, teaching isn't especially lucrative. In lots of cities, it's quite low-paying, in fact. But folks don't become teachers to get rich. They do it because they love kids, and because they love the opportunity to help kids to learn. And while, like every profession, there are some teachers who probably should have gone into a different line of work, the vast majority of the teachers I know are dedicated, hardworking, and caring. 

Too many teachers work in underfunded school districts, in old buildings without any modern conveniences like air-conditioning or computers. They frequently have to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets (or go to crowd-funding sites like my personal favorite, And often, they are much more than educators; often, they are a combination of motivators, tutors, and even counselors when a kid is in crisis. 

But instead of increasing the funding for schools or helping to modernize the buildings or even giving teachers much-deserved raises, some politicians have decided that teachers are the enemy. I notice with dismay that in a number of states, the majority of which are dominated by conservative legislators, politicians have decided that teachers cannot be trusted, that teachers are indoctrinating their students and teaching them all the wrong things. 

I'm not sure what these politicians are basing this on, and I strongly doubt they've consulted with any of the teachers they are now criticizing.  In fact, I've read some of the bills that these state legislatures are proposing (or passing): they are telling teachers what they can or cannot teach, and what they can or cannot discuss. It's a dangerous trend, and it's not getting enough attention. But it should, because it is going to affect kids' education-- and not in a good way.

One proposed bill would fine teachers as much as $5,000 for talking about racism or sexism in the classroom. Numerous other bills, several of which have already been signed into law, ban the teaching of something that nobody I know in any elementary school, middle school, or high school has been teaching-- so-called "critical race theory." Teachers are also being told to avoid any discussions that would "demoralize" or be "divisive." And they are being told that certain historical facts must either be downplayed or avoided altogether, so as not to upset anyone. (One proposed law would ban any classroom discussions that could cause "psychological distress." By that vague definition, almost any subject could be restricted-- who knows how someone will react to it?)

As a college professor at a private university, I don't have to worry very much about politicians micro-managing my classroom. But I have many friends who teach in public schools, and they are feeling like political pawns. They don't understand why they are suddenly being accused of stuff they would never do. They don't understand why they are being treated with such disdain, and why people who are not teachers are telling them how to do their jobs. And above all, they are afraid that if one student complains (about almost anything), it could put those jobs in jeopardy. 

This has happened at other times in eras past, when one group or other has decided that X is too controversial and must not be taught. Okay fine, I understand the desire of school boards to supervise the curriculum. But letting politicians (from any party) determine what goes on in the classroom is not helpful. I know there are issues we are grappling with as a country, but forbidding these issues from even being discussed, allegedly to "protect" students, doesn't protect them at all. And frankly, I find it offensive that politicians believe their judgment should take priority over what teachers already know how to do. As I said, I know a lot of teachers, all over the country. The ones I know care deeply about their students. The ones I know are skilled professionals. These teachers deserve our respect. They deserve our gratitude. But now more than ever, what these teachers don't deserve is to be demonized by politicians-- the majority of whom have never taught a class in their lives.                     

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

In Praise of Fathers

If you are a Rush fan, as many folks who read my blog happen to be, you know that one of the things I always liked about Alex, Geddy, and Neil was that they were family men. That's unusual in the music industry.  But on the occasions when I saw the guys with their families, it was obvious to me there was a genuine bond. Living the life of a rock musician meant each of the guys was out on the road a lot. But I knew they loved their wives and kids. And I knew they loved their parents.

I was thinking about parenting this week, partly because Father's Day is coming up, and partly because of the sad news that Neil's dad Glen lost his battle with cancer the other day. I would be lying if I said I spent a lot of time with the Peart family over the years, but when I did speak with them, they were very warm and very courteous, and I liked them a lot.  I last saw Glen and Betty in person during the after-party at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. It was so obvious to me how protective Neil felt towards them. And when Neil passed last January, Glen and I exchanged emails several times. Glen was a dear human being, and it is no cliché to say that he will be missed. 

Society has long stereotyped what a "good" father is. If you watch old movies or old TV shows, you see fathers represented as men who make a respectable living. Men who know how to keep their kids in line. Men who are tough during a crisis.  Even in our modern and somewhat more egalitarian world, where men sometimes help with dinner or change a diaper, fathers are still expected to know how to fix stuff around the house, and to be the problem-solvers. 

My father, and I am sure Neil's father, and many fathers of that generation, were taught that version of fatherhood. And of course, there's nothing wrong with making a living or knowing how to fix something. But there's a lot more to being a good father. I think fathering is about ethics: it's about teaching one's kids to be honorable human beings and to do the right thing. I can certainly say that even though I never really got along with my father, he was an ethical person, and that was something I admired about him. 

By all accounts, that's how Glen Peart was too-- an ethical person.  And based on my conversations with Neil, he too respected that quality.  I still remember a conversation I had with Neil in 2010, when he told me he wished he had been around more for his daughter from his first marriage, and how determined he was to not repeat that mistake with his young daughter Olivia. When he retired from Rush to spend more time with his wife and daughter, I know how serious he was about that... how much he wanted to be a positive presence in Olivia's life-- not just a paycheck, but a person who was there for her.  

The other day, I found a letter my father wrote to me back in 1970, when I was away from home,  attending a summer institute at Indiana University. The words seemed a lot like my mother's, but the sentiments were definitely my father's. He said he was sorry we weren't getting along, and he said he wanted us to try to communicate better.  Over the years, periodically, we'd stop speaking to each other, and then we'd resume after a while. He never fully understood my need to move away and pursue my broadcasting career. But he learned to accept it. I'd like to believe he was proud of me.  

If you saw the movie "Beyond the Lighted Stage," you know that Neil's family had to accept the fact that Neil preferred a career as a rock and roll drummer, rather than working in the parts department at his father's farm equipment store. When Neil had a chance to become a member of Rush, his dad could have stopped him, but Glen understood how important being a musician was to his son. And so it was that both my dad and Neil's dad sent their kids out into the world with a strong sense of ethics to serve as a guide in difficult times.

And as we come to another Father's Day, I send my love to all the fathers who are willing to listen, the fathers who spend time with their kids, and the fathers who are willing to accept it when their kid chooses a different career path from the one that was expected. I send my enduring thanks to my own father, of blessed memory, for the lessons he taught me, lessons I still use to this day.  And I send my condolences to Neil's family: Glen did a fine job as a father; and how well Neil and his siblings turned out is certainly proof of that.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Glittering Prizes and Endless Compromises

Because this past week was the 47th anniversary of my first playing "Working Man" at WMMS-FM, I ended up with a lot of new followers on social media (I've got more than 7,000 now on Twitter, much to my surprise). Since many of them are new to following me, they're probably also new to my blog, which I've maintained since early 2015. Sometimes, I do blog about Rush (as you can see from checking out some of my past postings); sometimes I blog about sports, or politics, or education. But this time around, I wanted to blog about ethics. 

As Rush fans know, the title of this post comes from the lyrics in the song "Spirit of Radio," but this is a topic I've discussed with Neil (and with other folks) many times. We all want to think of ourselves as ethical. We all want to believe that--unlike some folks-- we do have integrity and, if given the chance, we would do the right thing, where others would not.  Life is rarely that simple, however, and even the best people sometimes find themselves in a situation where they tell a lie, or cut corners, or make excuses. In other words, we don't always live up to our own ideals.

But I've been wondering about where some of us draw the line. I mean, are there things you just would not do, even if you could get away with them?  And if you were called upon to make a difficult choice, how would you decide?  What brought all this to mind was two things that happened recently. One incident involved pro wrestler and actor John Cena, who made the mistake of acknowledging in an interview that Taiwan is a country (which it is). But China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province, and as a result, China's media and the country's leaders demanded that Cena apologize. Cena, who wants desperately for his new movie to be seen in China, almost immediately went on Chinese social media and issued a fervent apology-- even though, deep down, he knew he did nothing wrong. So, wasn't this one of the "endless compromises" that "shatter[s] the illusion of integrity"?  

And then, on a more serious note, there is the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, a time in our history when the editors of some allegedly reputable publications, the political leaders of a large city, and even some members of the clergy decided that lying was better than taking responsibility for their part in what happened. On May 31 and June 1, 1921, an angry White mob destroyed the prosperous part of town known as Black Wall Street, killing or injuring large numbers of Tulsa's Black residents.  Sad to say, some columnists incited the mob, using inflammatory and exaggerated headlines, and then praised what the mob was doing. Some White clergymen rationalized and excused the actions of the mob. And the city's White political leaders not only did nothing to try to stop them, but made sure the mob had weapons.  Later, although everyone knew what had really happened, they all worked hard to make sure the facts never came out (and that didn't change for decades).

So, if you were John Cena, would you have stood up to the powerful forces that could determine whether you made a lot of money, or would you have just decided to say what they wanted you to say, take the money, and go on with your career?  And if you were a White reporter in Tulsa, or the mayor, or the leading members of the clergy, and you witnessed the damage the mob was doing, would you have had the courage to tell the truth about it? Would you have tried to stop it? Or would you have decided it was safer to do nothing, for fear of public disapproval, or fear the mob might turn on you next? 

I understand how difficult it is sometimes to speak up, and speak honestly.  I understand that it can cost you friends (or folks you thought were your friends) or cost you the approval of people you work with, or maybe even put you in a dangerous situation.  But in a world where ethical behavior often seems to be in short supply, that's why we need to show more respect for those who try to be honest, especially at times when honesty isn't popular. My favorite philosopher, the late great Emmanuel Lévinas, said we should always put ethics first. Imagine how much better our society would be if more people thought that way, rather than thinking about the next lie or the next excuse or the next compromise whenever the truth seems inconvenient.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

I Never Wanted to Be a Star

When I was a deejay, one of the first lessons I learned was that not everyone would like my show.  Yes, nearly every deejay has a group of loyal listeners (I still have some of the fan letters folks sent me over the years), but there were always certain folks who just did not like you, for whatever reason. Lucky for me, I was on the air in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s-- the era before social media. The people who disliked your show back then could write you a letter, or maybe phone the station (where the receptionist would take their message), but there was no way for listeners to make their feelings known immediately. That was probably a good thing.

I can't imagine what it must be like to wake up today and find you're the topic of an irate discussion on a website read by millions, where folks can trash your show (or you personally) and get lots of "likes" for doing it.  Today, since people might be listening to you online, the fans can come from just about anywhere...but so can the haters. And thanks to the internet, folks can react almost in real time-- criticizing something you said, correcting you, letting you know they loved X or hated Y. And it's all public: anyone can read it, and even if you respond, it could be taking place on so many different sites that it's impossible to reach every person voting on whether you're the best or the worst. 

What brought this to mind was the news that Ellen DeGeneres is ending her syndicated talk show. I still remember how controversial it was when she "officially" came out as gay: she made her announcement in April 1997 on the cover of Time magazine, and some stores refused to carry it. Fast forward to 2021 when the news that an entertainer is gay is no longer seen as a potential career-ender, the way it still was in the 1990s.  Attitudes changed, and since 2003, Ellen has had a very successful (and lucrative) career hosting her own syndicated talk show. She had a reputation for being nice, friendly, and generous. At the end of each show, she told people to be kind to one another. People believed her.  

And then everything changed. By late 2019, some extremely negative stories about her had begun to surface, and by 2020, there were accusations that behind the scenes at her show, far from being a happy place, there was a toxic work environment. It's an interesting phenomenon. People had built her up and praised her and put her on a pedestal. And now, she was the object of scorn, ridicule, and condemnation. I've never met her, so I have no idea if the "good Ellen" or the "bad Ellen" is the real Ellen, but it didn't take long for folks on social media to begin weighing in. Most asserted she was really not the kindhearted, easy-going person she claimed to be. 

Ellen seemed surprised that so many people turned on her. And whether it's an act or not, she also seemed hurt. And in the end, she decided it was time to end her talk show. Truth be told, the controversies had eaten into her ratings; but even if there hadn't been any negative publicity, many TV shows over the past several years have seen their ratings slide, and hers was one of them. She probably could have hung on, but now that her image as a "nice person" was gone, doing her show was probably not as enjoyable. Nor, I am sure, was fielding all the criticism.  And while she's rich and she'll be just fine, I don't think she expected that fame would come with increased scrutiny, or that she would lose her popularity the way she did.

I have a button I got in 1976, a promotional item for a Cliff Richard album entitled "I'm Nearly Famous."  I've often thought it's better to be nearly famous, rather than so well-known that you have to constantly maintain a certain image, and people all over the world feel they have the right to judge you-- even when they don't really know you.  When I make a mistake or say something on a podcast that folks disagree with, yes some of them might make a rude remark on social media; but I'm not the subject of millions of fans endlessly discussing whether I'm the worst person who ever lived. And while I understand that celebrities know the tradeoff (they will make a lot of money, but they won't have a lot of privacy), watching yet another celebrity get built up and then ripped apart makes me glad I never did become all that famous. Fame can be a lot of fun, but as many celebrities know all too well, it can also be destructive. And that's probably why I never wanted to be a star.      

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.