Monday, January 25, 2016

They've All Come to Look for America: Some Thoughts about the Presidential Campaign

I must admit that I really like Bernie Sanders' newest campaign ad, the one that uses the song "America" by Simon & Garfunkel (and yes, he got their permission to use it).  I'm not the only one who is impressed-- even some of his political opponents agree that this ad is beautifully done, whether you support Mr. Sanders or not.  If you haven't seen it, here it is:

When I first saw it, the ad reminded me in some ways of Ronald Reagan's classic 1984 political ad "Morning in America."   It evoked some of the same emotions-- people who are going about their lives, happy to be in a country that's optimistic, unafraid, even hopeful. But sad to say, the current Republican candidates (who love to invoke Mr. Reagan's name) don't seem to share the optimism that he displayed-- their rhetoric is much more negative.  It's all about hatred for immigrants, the need to drop bombs and declare another war, the need to build a wall, or place a ban on Muslims, and the constant fear of an imminent disaster.  There are persistent references to what a mess the country is in, and constant criticisms of the president (as well as each other). For the current Republican candidates, there seems to be nothing to celebrate:  America is not a very hopeful place at all.

With so much pessimism, it's nice to be reminded that there are still many reasons to be proud of America.  Despite all the doom and gloom from certain politicians, every day, there are examples of altruism, kindness, and compassion.  For example, I recently posted a newspaper article on social media, about a wonderful young woman I've been mentoring; she's a legal immigrant from Haiti who is trapped in a bureaucracy not of her making; she is struggling to get a college education while working two jobs and driving long distances to get to class. (You can read about her here:  To her surprise, some readers sent donations to pay this semester's tuition.  Several even insisted on remaining anonymous. She cried when she learned that she did not owe the college any money this semester-- she could not believe strangers would want to help her.  And yet, they did.  (If you too would like to help, contact me and I'll tell you how.)    

I understand that America has its share of problems.  I understand that every four years, candidates promise change and often fail to deliver. And I understand that some voters are angry, and others are cynical.  Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left, although offering two very different visions, are both benefiting from how frustrated many Americans are feeling.  But beyond the rhetoric, beyond the recitations of what's wrong, there are still people who have come to look for America-- they are hoping to find the America where there is still tolerance, the America that welcomes the stranger, the America where there is still the opportunity to get a good education and find a good job, the America where it's okay to be hopeful.  And despite all the partisan rancor that I hear, I continue to believe that America is a place where liberals and conservatives can work together and solve problems, instead of calling each other names.  Perhaps that's why the Bernie Sanders ad made such a strong impression on so many people-- it evoked an America where it's not all about rage and hatred, but rather, about celebrating the things we all have in common.  That's the America I believe in, and I too have come to search for it, in a time when optimism seems to be sadly lacking in our politics.         

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Man of Words, Man of Music: Some Thoughts on the Passing of David Bowie

When I was in college at Northeastern University in Boston, I became the campus radio station's first female disc jockey in late 1968; I also became the station's music director, an incredibly fun and rewarding job which introduced me to some wonderful record promoters (a few of whom I'm still in contact with even now); but more importantly, it allowed me to hear the new music first.  And so it was in 1969 that I received a copy of a single and an album by an artist I'd never heard of-- David Bowie.  He was British, and his music was released on the Mercury label in the US.  No offense to the fine folks at Mercury Records (for whom I ended up briefly working after they signed Rush in 1974), but back then, the label did not have a lot of hits.  Still, I always tried to listen to as much new music as possible, so I put the single, "Space Oddity" on the turntable in the music library.  And because our campus station was transitioning from top-40 over to a progressive rock format, I also gave the album ("Man of Words, Man of Music") a listen.  To this day, I have them both in my collection, but I admit that at the time, I had no idea how influential David Bowie would become.

There was something about "Space Oddity" that I found compelling-- the American version of the single had been cut to 3:26 (in top-40 back then, a song was expected to be no more than about three minutes long), so it ended with the haunting lines "Ground control to Major Tom/your circuit's dead, there's something wrong/ Can you hear me Major Tom? Can you hear me Major Tom?"  That was it-- the song faded out with ground control desperately trying to re-establish contact with Major Tom.  I had never heard a top-40 single so disturbing-- clearly, Major Tom was depressed about something; clearly, he felt helpless, despite being a famous astronaut-- people admired him and wanted to know what brand of shirts he wore, yet all he could see was that "Planet Earth is blue, and there's nothing I can do." It was the Vietnam War era, and despite American optimism about putting a man on the moon, the ongoing war was casting a shadow on so many of us, especially those young men of draft age who were about to be sent to fight.  But whatever Major Tom was referring to, I couldn't get the song out of my mind.

I was evidently one of the few who thought the song was amazing-- while it was a hit in England, it never even got into the Hot 100 charts in the US.  Nor did the album get much airplay either (I still like "Cygnet Committee" and "Memory of a Free Festival," though neither has aged very well.)  But while "Space Oddity" was soon forgotten, it would find a new audience a few years later:  as sometimes happened in top-40, a song that had gone absolutely nowhere in its initial release (check out the history of "Dream On" by Aerosmith or "Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues) was championed by a particular radio station, and the re-release became a huge hit.  And so it was in 1973 that US audiences rediscovered David Bowie's "Space Oddity" and it ended up a top-15 hit, plus becoming a staple at album rock stations, which played the longer version (the one that had an extra verse).

While many people assume that David Bowie's best known (and most widely played) song "Changes" was a number one song, it never even reached the top twenty (it was first released in 1972 and only got to #66; the re-release did slightly better, getting to #41 in 1975).  But its introspective lyrics, and its commentary on the generation gap ("And these children that you spit on/ As they try to change their worlds/ Are immune to your consultations/ They're quite aware of what they're going through...") resonated with many of us.  In fact, throughout the 1970s, no matter what kind of radio station I was working at, I could just about always find a David Bowie song that was thought-provoking ("Life on Mars" and "Starman" were favorites of mine), or a song that was fun and radio-friendly ("Suffragette City" always got a lot of requests).

David Bowie was the master of reinvention.  There was his blue-eyed soul period in the mid-1970s, with songs like "Fame," "Young Americans," and "Golden Years."  There was his interesting collaboration with Queen in 1981, "Under Pressure," and his equally interesting (and surprising) collaboration with big band-era crooner Bing Crosby, "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," recorded in 1977 and still played during the Christmas season by numerous radio stations. (And yes, he also collaborated with Mick Jagger for the 1985 hit version of "Dancing in the Streets.")   And speaking of dancing, Bowie had his share of 1980s dance hits, with songs like "Modern Love" and "Let's Dance."  And I must mention one other 1980s song:  "Absolute Beginners." Recorded in 1985, it never really became a hit; but it has always been a favorite of mine, because it makes me think of my then-boyfriend (who became my husband a year and a half later): "... As long as you're still smiling/ There's nothing more I need/ I absolutely love you/ But we're absolute beginners/ But if my love is your love/ We're certain to succeed."  Fads changed, fashions changed, Bowie himself changed.  But he always remained relevant, and his music remained important.

As many of you know, I am a cancer survivor (so far); so, I must admit that whenever someone I respect, especially someone who is around my age, succumbs to the disease, it worries me.  But in the case of David Bowie, there's an important lesson to be learned from how he lived with cancer.  Here was a man who knew he had this disease, but he didn't let it stop him.  He continued to live his life; he continued to do what he loved.  He was turning out new music right up until the end... because what better way to fight your disease than to live each day to the fullest, doing what you most enjoy...  And that is exactly what he did.  It seems amazing to recall that I first heard his music nearly five decades ago, but throughout his career, David Bowie proved repeatedly that he was someone worth listening to and someone worth remembering.  May he rest in peace, and may we find the cure for cancer speedily, soon, and in our lifetime. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

A World of Misinformation-- Life in a Post-Factual Society

I know I've mentioned this before, but if there's one thing I continue to be disappointed about, it's how little the facts seem to matter in our modern world.  There is a famous quote I've always liked; it was most recently attributed to the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, circa 1988, but as it turns out, versions of the quote go back to 1946, when American financier Bernard M. Baruch first said it.  The point of the various versions is basically this: we all have the right to our own opinion, but none of us have the right to our own facts.

When I was growing up (and no, it wasn't that long ago), honesty and trustworthiness still mattered. A politician or a celebrity or a high-profile business executive who lied or distorting the facts was harshly criticized, both by the media and by the general public.  A newspaper that didn't get its facts right, or one that confused publicity with accurate information, was also criticized.  And contrary to what a number of my friends insist, this has never been partisan-- there are Democrats who have lied, Republicans who have lied, celebrities who have lied, and corporate executives who have lied.  (And then there's Donald Trump, who is in a classification all his own, having at various times in his life been a Democrat, a Republican, a celebrity, and a corporate executive, and who has created his own reality everywhere he went.)

When Bill Clinton lied about not having sex with "that woman" (Monica Lewinsky), GOP partisans in congress were gleeful because they thought they saw an opening for removing him from the presidency. But most Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, weren't gleeful at all; in fact, a majority of us did not agree that he deserved to be impeached, and surveys showed that repeatedly. It cannot be denied, however, that many Americans were bitterly disappointed that the president had lied, as well as that he had cheated on his wife.  Sad to say, other presidents from both parties had lied about sex before; but a less nosy media from a more innocent time did not ask about presidential mistresses.  And then it changed.

Beginning in the 1990s, attitudes about what should or should not be discussed in public were suddenly in flux. Serious newspapers and news magazines that had never before trafficked in gossip or scandal, and always tried to verify the facts, suddenly found themselves in the internet era, competing with online sources that could instantly spread rumors with the click of a mouse.  There was also the launching of partisan media sources, such as Fox News in 1996, as well as various left-wing and right-wing websites, and later, in the 2000s, MSNBC, social media like Facebook and Twitter, and plenty of blogs.  And what got lost was verifiable facts that we could all agree upon.  Now, everyone could seek out their own facts, and many people did.  Those who disliked the Democrats could listen to Fox commentators telling them that they were absolutely correct; and those who disliked the Republicans, could go over to the commentators on MSNBC and have their beliefs reinforced.  And along the way, we not only stopped talking to each other but we started mistrusting any media sources whose version of the facts didn't conform with ours. 

And that is why when Donald Trump says he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11 (even though not one mayor or governor from either party could verify what he claimed), his fans insisted he must be right.  When Ted Cruz ran an attack ad asserting that President Obama is "coming for your guns" (even though the president has NEVER said he wanted all guns banned), his fans insisted he must be right.  When Hillary Clinton has made claims that fact-checkers showed to be false or exaggerated, her fans insist she must be right.  And it's not just candidates:  Consider Josh Duggar, allegedly a fine example of living a pious Christian life. When he finally admitted he had cheated on his wife, many of his fans said they forgave him because we are all sinners.  (Well, yes, but we don't all hold ourselves up as paragons of marital fidelity while frequenting the Ashley Madison "dating" site.)

The point is that these days, it seems that telling a clever and entertaining story (one that reinforces the beliefs of your audience) is more important than having the facts on your side.  Time magazine has a fascinating analysis this week of how and why Donald Trump is winning, despite having earned the "Lie of the Year" award from the fact-checking site Politifact.  Even being caught making statements that are 100% factually inaccurate only makes his fans love him more, since Trump partisans are convinced the media can't be trusted (a talking point frequently asserted by a number of Republican candidates).  The Time article, written by David Von Drehe (and available here:, notes that Trump has done away with the "middle man"-- he no longer needs Republican party leaders to promote him-- he can do it himself, and do it well. People already feel as if they know him, having seen him host several highly-rated TV reality shows, and make numerous appearances on late night talk shows.  And they trust him because he seems to be so confident, so rich, and so successful.  And even when a Republican pundit like Karl Rove, or a fellow candidate like Jeb Bush, or even Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly criticizes him, he can just swat them aside, and his fans admire how he doesn't feel the need to answer to anyone. I've been following politics for years, and I have never seen a candidate who is rewarded with more media attention, more free publicity, and more popularity the more he distorts the truth.

But here we are, in a post-factual society, where well-known people can say one thing and do entirely another and suffer few if any consequences:  Bristol Palin promotes abstinence, yet has two (!) children out of wedlock.  She remains popular, and her fans defend her, rather than holding her accountable for not practicing what she preached.  Former congressman Anthony Weiner presented himself as a happily married man while sending lewd photos of himself to other women; yes, he is no longer in congress, but he is still a guest on talk shows and some sources say he is thinking of running for office again.  I won't be shocked if he is able to reinvent himself.  These days, even a major scandal won't necessarily doom your career.

Don't get me wrong-- I absolutely do believe in second chances, and I'm willing to forgive; lord knows I've made my share of mistakes over the years.  But I just wish that as a culture, we would place more value on honesty. When I was growing up, I was taught that a great leader was one who was unafraid to tell the truth and willing to admit a mistake.  These days, I see very few great leaders.  I see a world where politicians and celebrities rarely own up to what they did wrong-- they offer a convenient excuse or they change the subject. I find it frustrating, but maybe I'm the only one who does.  So, let me ask you this, my friendly readers:  Can you name me a current political figure or a current cultural leader you admire, someone who sets a good example for being honest?  Or has our post-factual society lowered our expectations?  I eagerly await your comments! 

Friday, January 1, 2016

What I Learned in 2015

Since this is my first post of the new year, I thought I'd look back on 2015 and offer a few thoughts about the year that just ended.  2015 was certainly a year with plenty of newsworthy events-- beginning with mega snowstorms in Massachusetts-- a record 108.6 inches, and ending with the unexpected (and to some of us, dismaying) rise of Donald Trump.  In between, there was my trip out to Phoenix to attend a baseball conference and give a talk about one of the first female baseball writers, Ina Eloise Young; the final leg of the Rush R-40 tour (of all the blog posts I wrote in 2015, was my most-read post of the year); a visit to Toronto to meet some of the cast of my favorite TV show, "Murdoch Mysteries" (which broadcasts in the US as "The Artful Detective"); and the multitude of worried online posts following the (false) rumor that Neil Peart was retiring from Rush.

At the university where I teach, I began my seventh year.  In February, I celebrated my 68th birthday, and in March, my husband and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary.  (And in addition to running his computer repair company, my husband took up baking as a new hobby; he proved to be quite successful-- I wish you could all sample his homemade peach or apple pies!)  But throughout the year, I had a number of health issues to contend with, including my ongoing recovery from cancer.  And while my battle with cancer was going well, several friends of mine lost theirs, including super-Rush fan Cheryl Collins Arndts.  In the celebrity world, I was saddened by the passing of folksinger/actor Theodore Bikel, comedienne Anne Meara of Stiller & Meara, baseball great Yogi Berra, actor Leonard Nimoy, and pro wrestler Dusty Rhodes (when I was growing up, I loved to watch professional wrestling, and years later, thanks to my broadcasting career, I got to meet some of the wrestlers, including Chief Jay Strongbow, Bob Backlund, Superstar Billy Graham, and AndrĂ© the Giant; I met Dusty too, and he was a lot of fun to talk to).

Much has been written about politics, including some commentary of my own, but suffice it to say that 2015 had a number of surprises that even confounded so-called "experts."  While most of the media coverage was focused on Republican Donald Trump, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders mobilized the left wing of the Democratic party, including many young people; Sanders' improbable campaign, fueled largely by online donations, attracted far less media attention than Trump's, but it consistently attracted huge crowds and passionate supporters.  And Jeb Bush, bolstered by a Super-Pac that spent millions of dollars on his behalf, got no traction at all with conservative voters. 

For Boston sports fans, there was the joy of the Patriots winning another Super Bowl, followed by the ongoing drama about "Deflategate," with accusations that Tom Brady had been guilty of cheating, by using under-inflated footballs.  While nationally, the media and fans in other cities were certain Brady was guilty, in Boston, the quarterback maintained his status as a local hero who could do no wrong; the more the national media criticized him, the more his local popularity grew (similar in some ways to what happened each time the media criticized Donald Trump and his supporters rallied around him even more strongly than before).  Meanwhile, American fans were excited about the U.S. Women's soccer team, which won the World Cup, dominating Japan in the final match and winning 5-2.  (But professional soccer remained far less important in the U.S. than in other countries, where it continued to be a national obsession.  In the US, other than following the Olympic teams, most fans preferred American football.) 

In pop culture, former Olympian Bruce Jenner announced his transition to becoming a woman, and re-appeared in June on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, using her new identity as Caitlin Jenner. Late night TV experienced several major changes, when David Letterman retired from hosting the Late Show (replaced by Stephen Colbert), and John Stewart retired from hosting the Daily Show (replaced by Trevor Noah).  And in music, there were top-40 hits I hoped I'd never hear again (really tired of "Shut Up and Dance," thank you very much), while I admit to being glad that Adele returned to the charts.  Meanwhile, Rush fans worried that they might never see their favorite band perform live ever again, but that still remains to be seen-- something we'll know more about in 2016, I'm sure.   

I've never been one to make New Year's Resolutions-- most people just break them, and I'm sure I'd be no exception.  So instead of a resolution, I'll close with some wishes:  I wish for a new year of less name-calling and more civility, both in politics and online.  I wish for a new year of more tolerance and less blaming of "them"-- whichever person or group is supposedly the cause of all our problems.   And finally, a special wish for all of you who have read my blog this past year:  may you enjoy good health, good friends, and good fortune throughout 2015.  And may all your new year wishes and dreams come true.