Sunday, May 15, 2022

A Few Thoughts About Ageism

As many of you know, I turned 75 on Valentine's Day. When I was a kid, folks who were 75 were often called "elderly." There were many stereotypes about the elderly back then-- they were usually thought of as frail, forgetful, incapable of doing what they used to do. Sometimes, they were called senile. The idea that someone in their 70s would still be working full-time was considered unlikely-- after all, folks of that age were unable to remember things, and unable to keep up the pace of younger people.  

Fast forward to today. As you also know, I got my PhD at age 64, and I've been a professor at Lesley University since 2008 (I taught part-time at Emerson College before that). I can't imagine retiring, and I'll let you decide if I'm "frail" or "forgetful" or (gasp) "senile." In many ways, we Baby Boomers have redefined what it means to be in our 70s. A sizable number of us are still working-- some part-time, but some full-time. Some of us are retired but still do volunteer work. Some of us are engaged in a variety of hobbies. And yes, some of us are indeed suffering from various illnesses and unable to do what we used to do.

My point is that everything changes, including our definitions of the "right" age to do X or Y or Z. I know folks who didn't start college till they were in their 40s. I know folks who didn't get married till they were in their 50s. I know folks who are in their 80s and sharp as the proverbial tack, and I know folks who are in their 30s who have no common sense whatsoever. The word "elderly" is no longer our preferred term-- it has a judgmental connotation. We're senior citizens these days-- although I admit I don't like that term any better. 

Meanwhile, let's look at congress, where Mitch McConnell is 80. Nancy Pelosi is 82. Bernie Sanders is also 80. President Joe Biden is 79. And former president Donald Trump is the youngster in the group-- he's about to turn 76. What brought all this to mind is that I saw someone posting on social media the other day that Mr. Biden is "senile." It really irritated me. Just because you don't agree with someone, don't say they are cognitively impaired. I don't for one minute think Mitch McConnell is senile-- and I rarely agree with him on anything. Yes, of course, aging can affect a person's brain, but its impact is different for every person. 

So, let's not return to ageist stereotypes from the past. Mr. Biden is a stutterer, and he has never been a good public speaker, but that is not a sign of "dementia." Alzheimer's is a terrible disease that robs people of their memories-- but not every older person will get it. So, if we can avoid tossing words around that demean and stereotype older people, I think that will be a good thing. As I said, we all age differently. I'm actually impressed when I see folks in their 80s doing what they love. My hope is that I'll be like former CBS News anchor Dan Rather-- he's 90, and still active (and still very much aware of current events). But above all, I hope we can learn to respect those who are older, and honor those who still want to make a contribution to society--whatever their age.  


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Why I Miss the Fairness Doctrine, and Maybe You Do Too?

I grew up with AM radio, back when it still played music. Every city had at least one great top-40 station, and many of those stations had very entertaining personality deejays. The on-air talent in the 1950s and 1960s focused on playing the hits, but some of the announcers were also very amusing, and they knew how to make their listeners feel as if they were part of a community of fans. That was still true as music gradually shifted over to FM in the 1970s: when Rush sang in "The Spirit of Radio" about beginning the day with a friendly voice, that is exactly what radio meant to its loyal listeners.  In fact, if you were having a bad day, listening to your favorite station definitely would change your mood for the better.

Back then, the FCC mandated that radio broadcast a certain amount of news, and a certain amount of public service programming (the newscasts tended to be on the hour; the public service programming was usually buried early on Sunday mornings). Some stations also had talk shows, but they were very different from the ones we hear today: because of the Fairness Doctrine, these shows had to present both sides of the issues. In addition, insults and name-calling were generally not allowed-- in the mid-to-late 1960s, as society grew more polarized during the Vietnam era, a few talk hosts became more confrontational, but they were not the norm. Most talk show hosts tried to be interesting and informative. And although some had their pet causes, they tried not to sound angry or rude when discussing them. 

But gradually, deregulation allowed various rules to go away. Among them was the Fairness Doctrine, which ended in 1987, paving the way for one-sided talk programs that no longer needed to present any other points of view. Among the first to see the possibilities were conservative Republicans, who began putting partisan talk shows on the air. More than three decades later, over 95% of talk radio remains dominated by conservative perspectives, to the exclusion of everything else. And for those of us who had become accustomed to courtesy and informative debate, many of these programs offered neither: they featured name-calling, insults, and mockery of anyone on "the other side." 

What brought all this to mind was a three-part article in the New York Times about Fox News' commentator Tucker Carlson and the impact his cable TV show has had on the Republican Party, as well as on the American public. I know some of you never read the Times, and you may think it's a biased hit job. Not so. It's actually a very important piece about how allowing one-sided, confrontational talk shows to proliferate on radio and TV has turned our politics into professional wrestling, with partisans on each side seeking opportunities to verbally attack their opponents, and to score as many points as possible, even if that means fighting dirty.  Winning is everything, even if it means making false accusations, exaggerating, distorting, and demonizing "the other side." Tucker is a master at this style. He knows what his audience wants, and he delivers it, night after night.

But should a talk show host be the dominant force in our politics? Should a talk show host have more power than the president or members of congress? I know many folks who love his show and believe every word of it, even when it's pointed out to them that much of what he says is demonstrably false (and brutally one-sided). The problem is that talk show hosts care first and foremost about ratings. They don't care as much about what their rhetoric, or their framing of events, is doing to the country. Spreading hatred of "the other side" while praising "our side" is great for ratings. Fearmongering about immigrants, or liberals, or Black people, or Jews has always been good for building an audience. But it isn't so good for building friendships across party lines or promoting a sense that we're all in this together.

In other words, as the Times article points out, what's good for Tucker's ratings may not be so good for America. If the Fairness Doctrine were still around, we might still have the tools to limit anyone (on either side) who wants to use the airwaves for scary conspiracy theories or myths about the dangers that some group allegedly poses. But the end of the Fairness Doctrine has meant the gloves are off. The FCC won't do a thing: supposedly the 'market' will-- except hate has always been a big winner, and it always finds a large and eager audience.  

No, I don't want to see Tucker censored. And no, I am not blaming him for everything that's wrong in our politics. But having grown up with talk radio (and TV) that tried to be fair and accurate, I still can't get used to the airwaves being used for spreading anger and outrage (especially when the outrage is manufactured to build ratings and get certain politicians elected). I know there's no political will to bring the Fairness Doctrine back. I also know that a sizable number of people seem okay with talk shows no longer being courteous. And yet, I miss the shows that used to be informative rather than angry. And I especially miss the ones that began the day with a friendly voice...  I wonder if I'm the only one who feels that way.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Once a month, I have the privilege of being part of a Rush-themed webcast. Each member of the panel takes a song from this month's Rush album and analyzes it. This time around, we did "Signals," from 1982, and the song I talked about was "The Weapon." 

It begins with a famous quote, from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inaugural address, delivered in 1933, when America was in the depths of the Great Depression. The president came to be known for his "Fireside Chats," radio talks about the issues of the day, during which he encouraged and inspired the audience, and made them feel as if he was talking directly to them.  And he understood that in difficult times, it's easy to give in to fear.

Neil Peart understood that too, which is why he quoted from Roosevelt. On numerous occasions, Neil wrote about how easily our fears could be weaponized -- used against us to paralyze us into inaction or to make us hate "the other." In a world where people are so often seeking simple answers to complex problems, it's easy for unscrupulous leaders to claim the problem is "those people" or "that country." In the lyrics to "The Weapon," Neil speaks of how "the things that we fear are a weapon to be held against us."      

It's Passover as I write this. Part of the observance of the holiday is to tell the story of the Exodus, of the miracle by which the Jews were set free from slavery in Egypt. In Exodus, chapter 18, we are instructed to tell the Passover story in a particular, and very personal, way: "And you shall tell your child on that day as follows: 'It is because of what the Lord did for me, when he took me out of Egypt.' ”

In other words, remember that even though this event happened several thousand years ago, it is just as real today.  Agreed, most of us are not living in bondage, and I am not trying to trivialize the story, especially in a world where slavery has not been entirely eradicated.  But on some levels, if you think about it, many of us endure a certain kind of emotional slavery. We keep making the same mistakes, we keep fearing the unknown, we keep fearing those who are different... and we're convinced that nothing will ever change.

In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is "Mitzrayim," but I am told that word also connotes "the narrow place." Each of us is stuck in our own narrow place, and often, we can see no way to break free.   Passover is about the Exodus, about leaving Mitzrayim, but it's also about leaving the place that is keeping you confined. Neil was right when he said the things we fear can be a weapon to be held against us. But the good news is it doesn't have to be that way.

And if I have a Passover message, it would be that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. I know about fear: I've grappled with it many times in my life. But if there's one thing I've learned it's that kindness and compassion-- and love-- are more powerful than fear. Sooner or later, love wins-- if we turn away from our fear and embrace new possibilities. So, whether you are religious or not, make time for those new possibilities. And don't allow fear to be weaponized against you, not now, not ever.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Why I'm Excited about the 1950 Census

April 1 is not just April Fools Day this year. It's also a day that many historians (including me) have been awaiting for a very long time: it was 72 years ago when the 1950 census was conducted, and now, finally, that census will be made available to researchers, genealogists, and anyone else who wants to find out what their relatives were up to back then.  (I have no idea who decided upon 72 years, but that's how long before a census can be made public.)

Perhaps you weren't around in 1950; or perhaps you have relatives who were.  In my case, I was three years old at the time, one of many kids who was part of the post-war Baby Boom. From what I've been told, my mother and father lived in a small apartment; and now that their first child was growing (and they eventually hoped to have another), they knew they needed a bigger place to live. I don't know if they had moved yet (the census will tell me), but they certainly were getting ready to.

For obvious reasons, I don't recall much about the first three years of my life-- there may be old photographs of me somewhere, but all I've found up to now are a few baby pictures from when I was one year old, and a few from when I was five or six... but nothing from when I was three.  I do have a lot of questions about those early years, especially about my relatives-- most of them are gone now, so I can't ask them, but it's amazing what you can learn from old census documents.

As a media historian, I'm also eager to look up some people who are not related to me at all: celebrities, baseball players, radio stars, TV announcers:  TV was still a new mass medium in 1950 and many homes didn't even have their own set. I recall that both of my parents loved listening to the radio, and growing up, there were radios in several rooms of our home (including a radio on the kitchen table). My mother loved the songs from the old country, the ones her mother had sung to her, but few radio stations played Yiddish folk songs. Fortunately, my mother also loved big band music, and lots of stations still played that in the early 1950s. I remember hearing some excellent vocalists and big bands during my childhood.   

Most of the census documents that were previously available -- especially the ones from 1890 through 1930-- tell the stories of people long since deceased. And while the 1940 census did include a few folks who might still be alive, the 1950 census will probably have a lot more. That means many of us will be able to ask questions of those people, as we look back on an era that was so different from the one we're now in.

My recollection is that the early 1950s was a simpler, more trusting time, compared to today. As a culture, everyone was more polite: people said "please" and "thank you" more, and cursing in public was considered a major no-no. People seldom questioned what was in the newspaper (my father always said,"They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true."), and everyone was excited to watch the newest TV shows. On the other hand, gender roles were very rigid, the politics were quite conservative, and the kids who wanted to be rebellious did so by becoming fans of rock and roll-- which was a new and controversial genre (and our parents thought it was just noise... so inferior to Big Band music).

So, I'm sitting here, and I can't wait for some of the census records from 1950 to be rolled out on sites like there are so many people's lives I want to learn more about-- where they lived, where they worked, whether or not they were married, and so much more.  It's interesting to realize that the information from the 1950 census was written down by "an army of 140,000 census enumerators, equipped with fountain pens and government forms" (according to the Washington Post). I doubt the folks who did it had any idea that 72 years later, some of us would be accessing the digitized, online version of their hard work. So, is there anyone from the 1950 census you're curious about? If so, let me know what you find out!  

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Lasting Value of Word Games

Every night, as soon as the newest Wordle puzzle becomes available, I pause whatever I'm doing to see if I can solve it. For those who aren't familiar with Wordle, it's a word game where you try to figure out the five letter word. It's a combination of logic and lucky guesses: the rules are posted, and they're pretty easy to learn, but the bottom line is you get six chances to figure out the word and solve the puzzle. But unlike many other online games, if you can't solve it, you have to wait another 24 hours for the next one to be posted. 

In a way, I find that comforting.  It prevents becoming obsessive about solving it-- you can't play it over and over because there's just one puzzle a day. I feel the same way about the New York Times Spelling Bee: they post the puzzle once each day, and if you can't solve it, you have to wait for them to post the next one. Spelling Bee is a lot more complicated than Wordle, and unlike Wordle, which is currently free, you have to pay a subscription fee to try your hand at the Spelling Bee. But in both cases, these puzzles are thought-provoking, good for your vocabulary, and an enjoyable way to kill some time for a few minutes.    

I've always loved word games. As a kid, I often played Scrabble with my mother. I don't know if she let me win or if I eventually became good at it, but I recall how excited I was when I got a good score-- it made me feel really grown up. I liked crossword puzzles too-- in fact, if a puzzle involved seeking out words, it was generally something I enjoyed.

These days, another reason word games are important to me is they keep me mentally sharp. At 75, I want to make sure I can retrieve words from my memory the way I did when I was younger, or use logic to figure out a word from the clues I've been given. But there's no right age to enjoy word games-- they're good for kids, and they're good for us grown-ups.

I don't know if today's kids play words games as much as we did back when I was growing up. Most of the kids I know spend more time staring at screens than they do engaging in solving puzzles. But I do hope parents are introducing kids to the joy of words, and the many opportunities puzzles can provide to enhance vocabulary while just having fun.

During the pandemic, when so many of us were stuck indoors, it was a nice escape to work on a crossword puzzle or try to solve a word search. But even now that we're back outside, going to work and getting into our daily routines again, I still put aside a few minutes each day to sit in my office and relax with a word game. It's educational, it's a challenge, and it's entertaining. So, if you follow me on social media, perhaps we can compete at Wordle and compare scores with each other. After all, playing word games is a lot more fun than arguing about politics-- and it's a lot better for your mental health!     

Monday, February 28, 2022

Rising to the Occasion: In Praise of Volodymyr Zelensky

It was William Shakespeare's character Malvolio, in Act III of the play "Twelfth Night," who said, "Some are born great... some achieve greatness... and some have greatness thrust upon them." It's an important quote, especially given what is going on in the world right now. We have been watching as a powerful autocrat, Vladimir Putin of Russia, invades the neighboring country of Ukraine, trying to take it over-- the first step in his dream of one day re-creating the old Soviet Union.

Of course, Ukraine has no desire to be part of Mr. Putin's dream. Ukraine is a free and independent country, and it would like to stay that way. It does not want to rejoin the Soviet Union, nor does it want to be ruled by Russia. All over the world, including in Russia (where protesting has been criminalized by Mr. Putin), people understand that. Many have been marching and demonstrating in support of Ukraine, and against what Russia is doing.

The Ukrainian military is badly outnumbered, but as I write this, they've held Russia at bay, much to Mr. Putin's surprise. They have fought bravely, refusing to give up and refusing to give in. And what has been especially inspiring is the leadership of Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Few people expected him to come through. After all, he was a former comedian and actor, and when he was elected, his presidency got off to a slow start. Many in his country began wondering if he would ever be the kind of leader Ukraine needed. But as it turned out, he was exactly the kind of leader Ukraine needed, and the past few weeks have proved it.   

President Zelensky has rallied his country, giving eloquent speeches in defense of democracy. He has motivated his fellow Ukrainians, even as he fearlessly confronted Vladimir Putin. Zelensky had at one time played the role of a president on TV. Now, he was doing what an actual president should do, refusing to back down, refusing to let Mr. Putin intimidate him. (He even endured the bizarre spectacle of the Russian leader calling him a Nazi-- Mr. Zelensky is Jewish and he lost relatives in the Holocaust, making Putin's name-calling even more offensive.)

I'm not good at predicting the future, so I cannot say with certainty that Ukraine will win this war. It's a war that should never have happened, and the Ukrainians who are fighting to preserve their young democracy deserve our support. I applaud President Biden for bringing the allies together and getting everyone in NATO on the same page. It wasn't an easy thing to accomplish, but he got it done. Mr. Biden understands what's at stake, and whether you like him or not, the fact remains that he too has risen to the occasion.

But the person who deserves the most praise is the former comedian, the former TV actor, the man everyone underestimated. Volodymyr Zelensky has had greatness thrust upon him, and he wears it well. May his leadership continue, may Ukraine's independence survive, and may all the enemies of democracy be defeated...whether in Russia or wherever else they may be.      

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Making Memories: Some Thoughts About a Birthday (Mine) and an Anniversary (Rush's)

I never thought of myself as an especially memorable person-- I mean, yes, I knew I was different from the way girls in the 1950s were supposed to be, but I didn't expect to become famous. On the other hand, I wondered if I'd be able to do anything unique or noteworthy. I certainly hoped I would, but I was surrounded by folks who told me I wouldn't. I was determined to prove the doubters wrong, but to be honest, I didn't know if I'd succeed.

Fast forward to 2022.  On Valentine's Day, I turned 75. As a cancer survivor, I was happy to still be here, able to celebrate another year. My husband made a wonderful dinner, we had birthday cake, and we spent a peaceful evening at home. But I was genuinely surprised to see that about 900 people reached out to me on social media, to wish me well on my birthday.  Most were Rush fans. But some were former colleagues in radio or the music business. A few were former students, or folks I had mentored along the way. Some I hadn't heard from in years, but there they were, saying hi and wishing me well. Some, I had kept in touch with for decades-- including Bob Roper, who had sent me that first Rush album back in 1974, and record promoter Heavy Lenny Bronstein, with whom I go back to my days in college radio. Evidently there are some folks who do think I'm memorable after all.

And speaking of memorable, I was reminded by several Rush fans that not only is February 14 an important day, but so is February 15-- that's the anniversary of the release of "Fly by Night," which came out on February 15, 1975. I remember it well-- after Neil had joined the band in July 1974, so much changed for them. They did a live concert at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland on Monday December 16, 1974, and they played a couple of the new songs they'd been working on. As I recall, the songs were so new that they hadn't performed them before-- "Fly By Night" was one, and I loved it immediately. So did the audience-- a very receptive and enthusiastic crowd that fell in love with Rush the same way I did-- after hearing "Working Man" in the spring of 1974. (Among the best decisions I made as a music director was getting behind "Working Man" and encouraging everyone at WMMS to play it. It worked out better than I ever dreamed it would.)

And I remember how Geddy and the band got ready to play "Working Man" at the Agora, but first he stopped and gave me a shout-out, and encouraged the crowd to do the same. I was not expecting that-- as I've said many times, over the years, I helped lots of bands and never got so much as a thank-you. But Rush were always unique in that regard-- they never forgot the people who were there for them. Geddy looked right at me and smiled, and the audience gave me some applause, and then the guys launched into a dynamic live version of "Working Man." And just like the opening chords of "Finding My Way" still give me chills, I can't help but feel a sense of pride whenever I hear "Working Man." I was able to watch the guys go on to have a successful career: "Fly By Night" was just a preview of their new direction, and it proved that Neil's contribution would be immense. It was amazing to witness it first-hand.

So, here's to birthdays, and here's to anniversaries, and here's to friendships. I wish Neil were still here, but I am grateful for his music, and grateful for the fans who still love Rush, and who think of me as family too.  And while I've written a lot of books and articles, and had a number of accomplishments of my own, I don't know if 900 people would have reached out on my 75th birthday if it weren't for a certain rock band from Canada, who came into my life unexpectedly, and changed it for the better.