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:

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:  

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.

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. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Something to Believe In

A few random thoughts about the past few days, which, to say the least, have been strange.  For the first time in my adult life, I couldn't spend the Day of Atonement in synagogue, since the pandemic made going to temple impossible. So, my husband and I found a live-stream of a synagogue in Miami, and another in New York, and we vicariously joined those congregations to observe the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar.  But even though the services were beautifully done, and very moving, I still felt like a spectator, rather than a participant. 

We humans are creatures of habit, and there are some rituals we become accustomed to. I am grateful that services were online, but I miss being able to actually attend. (I admit to feeling the same way about teaching my classes:  I'm grateful I can engage with my students, but while it's nice to be able to see them on Zoom, I still miss bringing them cookies and I wish I could still walk around the room to say hi and see how they are doing.)

On the other hand, there are some rituals and customs that remain, even during a pandemic.  As I do every year on Yom Kippur, I go on a media fast.  In addition to the 24 hours of refraining from food, I refrain from email and social media. It's nice to spend a period of time not worrying about which messages need to be answered or which partisans are arguing with each other. So, I spent the time reading some scripture, reading some philosophy, and thinking about the importance of forgiveness-- forgiving others who have wronged us, and forgiving ourselves when we fall short of the goals we've set for ourselves. (I could probably do better at both, to be honest.)

Last night, I watched the presidential debate, and it made my head hurt. I've watched many such debates, but I can't remember one where the sitting president relentlessly interrupted, mocked the moderator, mocked his opponent, used numerous insults, and persisted in making assertions that were demonstrably false. And yes, his opponent fell into name-calling too, and that didn't make me happy either. I'm just not accustomed to so much rudeness from our leaders, in a time when serious problems demand our attention.  And I thought back at other debates I saw over the years, but I couldn't recall any president who talked that way to his opponent (or to the moderator). As I said, I'm not accustomed to it, but evidently this too is part of the new normal. I encounter a lot of folks who are okay with the president (and other politicians) talking this way. I still think that's a shame.

Yesterday, I heard that Helen Reddy passed away, at age 78.  I still remember the impact her big hit "I Am Woman" made in the early 70s. (A few stations didn't want to play it, because they thought its message was too strongly feminist, but lots of folks loved the record, and it eventually became a #1 song.) In fact, I still remember the key role radio used to play in introducing and then helping to create hit songs. The fact that radio is now an afterthought for many young people is something I've written about before, but every time someone dies who was a hit-maker in the 60s or 70s or 80s, it just brings me back to my deejay days, and I remember how lucky I felt to finally be on the air. 

As I said, it has been a strange few days and as the year 5781 of the Jewish calendar begins, all I can do is hope the struggles many of us endured in 5780 are behind us. Right now, it doesn't seem that these problems are going away, but by nature, I try to be optimistic.  Still, I admit to being worried about the direction our country is going, and I'll be glad when the election is over. For now, I'm glad for the opportunity to blog, and I'm glad for those of you who read what I write. These are difficult times for many of us, but the one thing I truly believe in is the power of friendship. And until we can once again feel "normal" (whatever that means these days), I appreciate having friends to share the journey with. There's not much else I can say beyond that.  

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Trying to Live My Life Without You

If you're anything like me, you can still remember where you were when you heard the news that Neil Peart had died. And perhaps, like me, you were surprised that he had lost his battle with cancer-- since you didn't know he had cancer in the first place. (I knew he had been ill, but Neil was a very private person, and I did not want to pry. I figured that whatever he wanted the public to know, that's what he would share. And I was fine about that.)   

But it goes without saying that his death was a shock for every Rush fan. Many of us cried when we heard the news, including rock critics who knew him, and people who never met him but felt like they knew him--thanks to the lyrics he wrote.  And today especially, on what would have been his 68th birthday, many of us are still in shock.  I did not speak to Neil much after he retired, but I often spoke to his best friend Craig, and I kept up with how he was doing. I was glad he was enjoying his retirement, and I was especially happy to hear news about his latest adventures, like taking his daughter on nature walks. And I had no idea that when I saw him after the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was the last time I would see him.    

I think for some fans, losing Neil was the final proof that Rush would not be reuniting, ever. Okay fine, most fans understood that fact intellectually.  The band had retired, and Neil had decided he needed to stop performing (that he had been suffering with tendonitis had been widely reported, plus he wanted to be there as his little daughter was growing up). Geddy and Alex had famously said in the 2010 documentary "Beyond the Lighted Stage" that Neil was irreplaceable. And if he ever left the band, they would not try to find another drummer. "if there's no Neil, there's no Rush," Geddy said. 

But fans being fans, there was still the hope, even after he retired, that somehow he might join Alex and Geddy one final time-- perhaps for charity. Or maybe he could go into the studio and record something with his former band-mates. After all, they were still friends, and they still kept in touch, so why not get together and make some music? Online rumors popped up periodically (I had to dispel quite a few of them); but no matter how many times it was pointed out that Neil was content, happy to be a "retired drummer," the fans kept hoping. Until the day when it became impossible to hope any longer.       

Since he died, I've tried to find ways to honor the man I thought of as a friend, the man whose music changed so many lives.  I make donations in his memory to my favorite charity, Donors Choose, which supports teachers and students in need of school supplies: I seek out classrooms (and individual students) who need musical instruments, for example. I've been keeping in touch with everyone at Overtime Angels, the group planning a night to honor him (it was supposed to be in October, but the COVID-19 pandemic put so many events on hold).  And I've been on a number of radio shows and webcasts, sharing my recollections of watching Neil play or spending some time talking with him about literature (how many rock musicians can quote lines from Shakespeare's "King Lear"?). I'm doing my part to keep his memory alive. But I'd be lying if I said I don't still miss him.

I only have one photo of me and Neil, the one from the summer of 1974. Neil was famous for avoiding meet-and-greet events, and whenever photos of the band were taken, it was always Alex and Geddy who stuck around for those occasions.  But others, including his friend Craig, have taken wonderful photos of Neil playing the drums, and sometimes I look at those photos. Seeing how happy he was still makes me smile. 


Back in 1989, someone at his record company asked him to explain how he and the band went about making a new record. He said that the songs are reflections on life, and not just reflections-- but also responses.  He said, as we travel on our metaphorical journey, each of us sees that life with different mirrors; and we see it filtered through our own lenses. But the lyrics Neil wrote were often unique in their ability to make the listeners feel as if he was talking about their life, their experience. His songs truly were the soundtrack for so many of our lives. In that regard, it's like he is still here. He lives on through the music he left for us, and the joy with which he played that music. It was an honor to share this planet with him. Happy birthday, Neil.