Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Legacy of Barbara Walters (and some thoughts about 2022)

I've mentioned in a previous blog post that I enjoy playing word games; it's a way to keep my mind sharp. I've especially become fond of playing Wordle, which I do once a day (you can only play it once); and then, I compare my score with online friends of mine who are also playing it. I found it amusing that the final word of 2022 was "manly." Okay fine, the words are chosen randomly; but at around the same time, coincidentally, we learned that TV newswoman Barbara Walters had died. Like many women from the 50s and 60s, she spent her early career dealing with men who did not want her to move up, who tried to prevent her from speaking, who limited how many questions she could ask a guest and when she could ask them (one male anchor made a rule that she could ask a question only after he had asked the first three). I admit I was never a big fan of hers, but I admired her for persevering, and she opened the door for a lot of TV newswomen.

On the other hand, she also changed the definition of "news" in some ways. For many years, newsmen and newswomen were expected to do hard news only. It was serious. It was formal. It was grounded in facts. It was supposed to be objective. (Even interviews with news-makers were done in a serious and detached style. News-people back then rarely showed their feelings. When JFK was assassinated in 1963 and Walter Cronkite broke in to tell the audience what had just occurred, he briefly showed his sorrow. Briefly. And this was unusual for the times. Human, but unusual.) 

But even the most traditional newscasts, then and now, have often ended with a feature that's considered "soft news"-- human interest stories, segments intended to inspire you or tug at your heartstrings. These stories have always been designed to provide an emotional reaction-- like the kid who hasn't seen daddy in a year because daddy is serving overseas; and we see the kid get a big surprise when suddenly, daddy is back home again, and everyone is hugging and they've all got tears in their eyes-- you know the kinds of stories I'm talking about.  

What Barbara Walters was good at was interviews with big news-makers; she was especially good at eliciting emotions from her guests (and from the audience). She often asked the questions reporters in the past would never have asked, but which everyone really wanted to know. She knew how to keep viewers glued to the TV, eager to see who she would talk to next and what that person would say. Oprah Winfrey developed a similar style, but Barbara did it first. In fact, Barbara normalized it for news-people. And by doing so, she helped to blur the lines between hard news and soft news. She also helped to change the audience's expectations. As Alex Weprin of the Hollywood Reporter noted, "Walters took the newsworthy interview and turned it into an event: must-see TV."   

In our internet world, where almost anything can be on YouTube or Instagram or TikTok within minutes, TV no longer has a monopoly on the celebrity interview. But no matter where we access it, we're still fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous. That's why even legendary newsmen like Edward R. Murrow did some interviews with movie stars or big names in the news. But it wasn't what he was known for. Barbara Walters turned it into a brand, and a very lucrative one at that. Whether talking about current issues with her colleagues on "The View," or sitting with powerful men and women and letting us be the proverbial fly on the wall, she expanded what a news reporter does--and is allowed to do. And she influenced an entire generation of newsmen and women.  

As I write this, 2022 is about to end, and I will leave it to others to do in-depth retrospectives. What I remember is that we finally got back to teaching in person after the pandemic gave us a year and a half on Zoom; I celebrated my 75th birthday and I also celebrated 8 years of being cancer free. My husband's health was better than a year ago this time, but it still wasn't where either of us wanted it to be. But it was wonderful to celebrate Hanukkah together at home, for which both of us were grateful.  

I watched with sadness as the nation had one mass shooting after another; and while families were devastated, the public seemed to become almost numb to it. And I watched with concern as antisemitism, homophobia, and white nationalism were on the rise in numerous places all over the country, and all over the world. I remember too many extreme weather events and too few solutions. The political rhetoric often seemed more heated; too many folks, especially online, seemed ready to argue over even the slightest thing.

But I also saw many people reject the extremes, reject the hate, and reach out to "the other" with kindness and compassion. I saw many people eager to just do the right thing. For those who have read my blog posts and articles, or watched the webcasts I was in, or reached out to me on social media to say hello, I cannot thank you enough.  2022 had a lot of ups and downs. But we're still here, and now it's a new year. Let's make the most of it. Let's work together to make the world a kinder and more courteous place. From my house to yours, much love, much health, and much happiness in 2023.      

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Best Things in Life Are Free (Believe It Or Not)

I was walking to class the other day and stopped to say hi to one of my students. She looked like she'd been shopping, so I asked her what she bought. She told me it was Christmas presents, and then she admitted she felt really pressured because she has so many people to buy gifts for. She was worried that she wouldn't be able to afford to buy something for everyone on her list. She said she planned to work extra hours at her part-time job, so that she wouldn't have to disappoint anyone (I suggested that focusing on her studies was important too, but I don't think I convinced her).

It made me a little sad that someone who is no more than 18 and working hard to help with her tuition is feeling guilty that she might let someone down who was expecting a present. In fact, it makes me sad every year to watch some of my Christian friends obsessing over what to buy for whom, and worrying about how they will come up with the money for that special gift that [insert name of person] really wants. 

As a culture, we didn't always celebrate Christmas in such a commercialized way, but we certainly do in modern times. I've seen folks competing over which house has the most lights, or whose tree is the biggest and best decorated. I've seen all the commercials that equate being a good parent with buying your kids the most expensive toys. In fact, I've seen so many people worrying about "doing it right" that it seems to create more stress than joy. (I also note that Hanukkah, which used to be a simple little children's holiday and not even a major part of the Jewish calendar, has also been getting more and more commercialized with every passing year. I'm not fond of that trend either.)

As someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas, I'm fine about whatever my Christian friends do. But frankly, I wish so much of the holiday season weren't about the money and the gifts; and I wish there were a way to go back to a more simple means of observance. Perhaps I'm naive, but it seems to me the best gift we can give each other is love: welcoming folks who have nowhere to go for the holidays, bringing food to first responders and others who have to work on Christmas, Zooming or calling folks who are too far away to visit and letting them know you care, sharing a pleasant meal and good conversation with friends and family...  

And if you find yourself feeling stressed or guilty because your budget is limited, you shouldn't. The important thing is being there and letting people know they matter. I know that everyone enjoys getting presents; but my point is that love has no price tag. There are many people out there who need a kind word, and sometimes making someone feel a little less lonely is the best gift of all. So, as you prepare for whatever holiday you celebrate, remember that the best things in life (good health, good friends, the beauty around us) are all free. Don't take them for granted, and don't minimize them. And in this holiday season, that's what I wish for you: health, peace of mind, and the knowledge that you are loved. Happy holidays.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Year, and the Concert, that Changed My Life

I was sorry, but not surprised, to hear that Cleveland's Record Revolution (or Record Rev, as we used to call it) was closing. If you are a Rush fan, that store is part of the history of how the band became famous in Cleveland, and went on to become famous in other cities. As many of you know, I was the music director at WMMS-FM in the spring of 1974, and a music industry friend of mine (Canadian record promoter Bob Roper) sent me a copy of an album (they were all vinyl albums back then) by a Toronto-based band called Rush. It was on their own label, Moon Records, and Roper told me his label wasn't going to sign them. But he thought they had potential. I listened to their album, fell in love with the song "Working Man," and ran downstairs (my office was upstairs) to tell the deejay on the air to play it. 

I'd be lying if said I knew at that moment that Rush would become famous. To be honest, I was concerned that listeners would be confused by their name. At that time, there was also Mahogany Rush, a Montreal-based band whose new album, "Child of the Novelty," was getting a lot of airplay at WMMS. No, they didn't sound similar (in fact, listeners thought Rush sounded like Led Zeppelin), but the audience knew Mahogany Rush and they didn't know anything about these three guys from Toronto. Neither did I. And when WMMS started getting requests for "Working Man" (a song I thought would resonate with the Cleveland audience), listeners soon wanted to buy the album, especially once we began playing other tracks, like "Finding My Way" and "Here Again."

The store in Cleveland that was known for carrying records from other countries, or "imports," was Record Revolution. I contacted Rush's management-- they were shocked to find that someone in Cleveland had championed Rush's album, especially since they weren't getting much airplay in their home city of Toronto. We arranged to get some copies of that Moon import down to Record Revolution, and chances are, if you lived in the Cleveland area and still have one of those original copies, you bought it there.  (I still have mine, but it's the one that Bob Roper sent me. And it will always be special to me.)

John Rutsey was still with the band when Rush first played a gig in Cleveland. He and I didn't speak much, as I recall; in fact, the guys were all quite shy-- and probably still amazed that they had fans in Cleveland. But then, in mid-August, Neil joined the band, and Rush got a contract with Mercury Records. This now-well known August 1974 photo shows me, holding that first Rush album which was hurried re-issued on Mercury. (I still have the dress, and I still have the Mercury album-- I was absolutely stunned to find the band had dedicated it to me.) Some folks have commented that the guys in Rush looked very serious, but actually, they were exhausted (and somewhat unaccustomed to having photos taken for the trade publications). From left to right, Matt the Cat (one of the deejays). Neil, Geddy, Alex, me, my boss John Gorman, and Mercury Records local promoter Don George.

Not long afterward, on August 26, 1974, Rush performed at the Agora Ballroom, on East 24th Street in Cleveland, for a WMMS Monday Night Concert. (Tickets were $3.00 in advance, and $3.50 at the door; those were the days!) The guys returned to the Agora again in mid-December to perform again, and they introduced a couple of the new tunes they were working on, now that Neil was beginning to take on some of the songwriting duties. But in late August, they were mostly doing the material they had performed with John Rutsey. Neil, being a great drummer even then, made some of those songs his own, complete with a drum solo when they played "Working Man."

It was a very enthusiastic crowd, as I recall. And I was so proud of Rush. But here is something else I didn't expect: before launching into "Working Man," Geddy paused, looked in my direction, and gave me a shout-out. I know why he did it. There had been some rumors flying that someone else had really been the one to champion the band. The guys, who were famously loyal even back then, wanted to let everyone know that they gave me the credit, not anyone else. And for years after, they made sure I was acknowledged (and thanked) whenever they were interviewed about how their career took off in the States.

1974 was a difficult year for me in many ways. I was very lonely in Cleveland, I didn't fit in well with most of my colleagues, and I was seriously underpaid (the men on the staff made much more than the women, as was the custom back then, sad to say). But when I became friendly with Rush, it led to so many other changes, including my being hired by Mercury Records in New York (briefly) as a talent scout in 1975. But most importantly, it led to a friendship that endures even now. I've seen many Rush concerts over the years, in many cities. But I will never forget the first time I saw them play when Neil had joined the band, the first time it became apparent that Rush was going to become a major force in Cleveland... and soon in other cities. 

I am sorry that Record Revolution is closing, as I said, and I am sorry that I am no longer in radio-- I miss being on the air every day of my life. But I am grateful that I am still in touch with Bob Roper, and with Geddy (and his sister), and with Alex. No, we don't talk as often as we once did, but we are still in touch, and I am also still in touch with several of the folks in their management, as well as with several close friends of Neil (who I also miss every day of my life). It has been a remarkable journey, from Cleveland to New York to Washington DC back home to Boston, and many other cities along the way. I've met so many wonderful fans, and I have so many wonderful memories. And it all started with a Canadian record promoter doing a good deed in April 1974, during a year that changed my life.     

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Times They Are A-Changing (Slowly but Surely)

So, as it turns out, democracy was indeed on the ballot during the midterm elections, and so were women's rights. Prior to the elections, numerous pollsters and pundits predicted a "red wave," but it never materialized. The Democrats held onto the Senate, and while Republicans were poised to take over the House, it would be by a very small margin. Millions of women voted, and so did a surprisingly large number of young people. Exit polls showed that voters from both parties disliked the idea of the government telling women what they could or could not do with their bodies. (Pundits had said the Dobbs decision would not be a factor, but they were wrong: it was on the minds of many of the voters, even in red states.)

For me, one of the biggest headlines was that voters from both parties overwhelmingly rejected some high-profile candidates with extreme views: candidates who had denied the results of the 2020 election; or defended the January 6, 2021 insurrection; or insisted that unless they won, the election was rigged and they would never concede. Some very well-funded Republicans with those views were defeated, and while a few managed to win, the majority of election-deniers in the battle-ground states lost. 

I was sorry that some of the Democrats I liked didn't win-- for example, Tim Ryan ran an outstanding campaign in Ohio, but he still lost to J.D. Vance. On the other hand, many people--even some who would never have voted for him--were inspired by John Fetterman, who overcame a stroke to win his race against Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. (Rather than being alienated by his speech problems during the debate, voters said they could identify with what he was going through, and they commended him for his courage. On Twitter, partisans mocked Fetterman, but in Pennsylvania, his supporters cheered him on, and he did not disappoint.)

Another noteworthy thing happened in a number of states: after the elections had concluded, the losing candidates (from both parties) offered their concessions and congratulated their opponent-- just like candidates used to do.  Of course, a few sore losers refused, but I was encouraged by how many candidates acknowledged their defeat, and did not claim something nefarious had happened.  

It's easy to think that a large number of Americans are bigots and haters because on cable TV and social media, those folks are given far too much attention. But here in the real world, in states all over the country, there were a number of "firsts" that suggested America is changing for the better, showing signs of becoming more diverse and more inclusive. Consider this: more women, from both parties, were elected to governor and lieutenant governor positions: Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Oregon were among the states electing a woman governor. Among the many other women from diverse backgrounds who got elected, Maryland now has a female lieutenant governor--she and her family immigrated from India when she was a child; and Massachusetts elected its first Black female attorney general.  

Some men also made history: Maryland elected its first Black governor, while California elected a Filipino-American attorney general. California is also sending a Latino, the son of Mexican immigrants, to the Senate; another Mexican-American man is now the first Latino secretary of state in Nevada.  Locally, New Hampshire elected its first transgender man to the New Hampshire state legislature. And it was also a good night for some candidates who were gay or lesbian.  I could go on with the many other "firsts" from coast to coast, but I do want to give a shout-out to 25-year old Floridian Maxwell Alejandro Frost, the first Gen-Z candidate elected to congress.

And as I look at what happened, both the good and the bad, I am comforted to know that we do still have a democracy, that some folks still believe in the right to privacy, and that in both red states and blue, people voted for the candidate they thought would get the job done-- even if that person was a minority, or gay, or trans, or from a party they'd never voted for in their life. Yes, a lot remains to be done before this nation can heal from some of the traumatic events of the past several years, but I see some positive indications that we really are more united than some pundits might think. To all who voted, thank you. To all who believed in our democracy, thank you. And to all who rejected the negativity and partisanship, and trusted our system of government, I thank you most of all. 

Monday, October 31, 2022

Refusing to Be Responsible

When I was a kid, my parents always stressed the importance of telling the truth, and not making excuses if I did something wrong. I'd be surprised if your parents didn't teach you the same thing. For example, if you didn't do your homework, don't lie and say the dog ate it (or these days, that the computer crashed and erased it). Be honest and admit you messed up; and be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions.

What brought this to mind was some recent news stories which involved people who did something far worse than failing to do their homework; yet their reaction was to blame someone else rather than taking any responsibility for their part in what went wrong. In one story, an ugly brawl broke out after a college football game between rivals Michigan and Michigan State, a game that Michigan won 29-7. Things evidently got out of hand as the game was ending, when angry words were exchanged between some players. The situation escalated as the teams went into the tunnel at the stadium, on the way to their respective locker rooms. By some accounts, a group of players from Michigan State attacked a player from Michigan, kicking and punching him. An investigation into who did what, who started it, and why, is still ongoing. But preliminary reports seemed to devolve into various people blaming everything from crowding in the tunnel to trash talk between players. Meanwhile, four Michigan State players have been suspended, as both coaches called the behavior "unacceptable," and lamented the "poor sportsmanship." But why did it happen? Teams lose games. Teams have bad days. So, why did some players think that brawling with the other team was a useful way to act?   

And then there was the brutal assault on Paul Pelosi, husband of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. The guy who did it had become a follower of the QAnon conspiracy theory; and having heard repeatedly online and in conservative media that Nancy Pelosi was to blame for the problems in society today, he planned to kidnap the Speaker (she wasn't there-- she was in Washington DC), and "hold her accountable." He planned to demand that she "tell the truth," and break her kneecaps as punishment if she lied about the terrible things he believed Democrats had done. We know this because we have his own statements to police. And yet, a number of Republican politicians, and even some famous people like Elon Musk, either rationalized what happened, or spread an outrageously false story that Mr. Pelosi was actually at a gay bar and had a quarrel with his attacker, whom he knew. (He did not know the man, and he was asleep at home, as witnesses to the attack attested. But that didn't stop the rumors.)  One Republican governor, when asked about political violence in America today, blamed it on Black Lives Matter. But however you feel about Nancy Pelosi, there is no excuse for someone breaking into her home and beating up her husband. Sad to say, some politicians could not bring themselves to say that political rhetoric has gotten out of hand, nor could they acknowledge their side's part without reminding everyone that the other side is just as bad.

But as my mother used to say, "two wrongs don't make a right." Whether some trash-talking football player egged you into a fight, or whether you sincerely despise your political opponent's policies, when did violence become an acceptable response? When did blaming "them" become the best way to handle a problem? And when did finding the right excuse replace admitting you were wrong? When I was caught lying about my homework, my parents were not amused. Even though it was not the biggest sin in the world, they didn't want me to think that lying and making excuses was okay. They wanted me to be ethical, or to at least understand the importance of ethics. That was then. Now, we seem to be in a historical moment when whatever happens, too many folks (especially celebrities and politicians) seem to think that saying "it's not my fault" is enough. 

But it's not. Leaving things unresolved and putting the blame on someone else sets a terrible precedent. I don't miss the "good old days," and I don't expect a return to "how things used to be." But I do miss the era when folks took responsibility for their actions, and I'd like to see that attitude make a comeback.  It starts with something simple: telling the truth and acknowledging when we do something wrong, as well as striving not to make that mistake in the future-- whether it's about a little thing like not doing the homework or a big thing like allowing our emotions to get out of control. My parents taught me that honesty matters, and I want to believe it still does. But it saddens me that some people seem to think getting away with lying matters more.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Left to Our Own Devices

When I was planning out my upcoming blog post early in the week, I had no intention of blogging about computers or smartphones or anything related to technology. And then, mid-week, as I was getting ready to go to work, I logged onto my computer to look at my class-notes, as I have done hundreds of times, but this time, I found... nothing. In fact, my documents weren't where they had always been-- where they had been just a few hours ago, in fact. So, I tried to get into my email program, but once again... nothing. In fact, the program didn't recognize me at all. It said I had no account and needed to create one.

The computer itself was working-- I could get onto the internet and search for a website with no problem, although my bookmarked sites were gone too, and so were my various saved passwords. Losing all those passwords was unexpected. (Yes, I had written them down, to be on the safe side, because who can remember all of them? I've got a good memory but I've also got a lot of different passwords!!!) Meanwhile, far worse than the sudden annoyance of having to log into every site I normally went to was the fact that all of the work I had stored on my desktop for years was no longer there, and I didn't know why.

Evidently, there had been some kind of major crash (I had no idea what caused it, or when it happened), but nothing was where it had been before. I could still access some things from my phone or my tablet, but the majority of my work, and all of my research, was stored on my desktop computer, and something was wrong with it. Terribly wrong. I have a program that backs up all of my files, but there were a lot of them and I needed some of those files before I went to work. That wasn't going to happen.

It's amazing the things you take for granted. I grew up in the era before the internet and computers, and I was a late adopter-- I didn't get onto social media till 2008-2009, and frankly, to this day, I'd rather talk to folks in person or chat by phone rather than email or text messaging. But I understand that the world has changed, and it's in my best interest to access the online world. Plus it has some very real benefits: I've found so many wonderful old magazines and newspapers have been digitized, making my research as a media historian much easier. And thanks to Zoom, I can chat with people from all over the world, in real time. As someone who grew up in an era when doing such things only took place in science fiction, it's great to be able to actually do them now.

Until it's impossible. Until the stuff you got accustomed to accessing with the touch of a button suddenly vanishes. That is really disconcerting, especially when you're not sure whether it can all be found again. (I have some files that go back to my very first year online-- 1996.) Believe me, I understand that a computer crash is not the biggest problem in the world, and people are going through far worse things. But at the time, all I could think of was what would I do if I had no access to nearly thirty years worth of correspondence, syllabi, articles, research, rare photos, and more. Fortunately for me, my husband repairs computers for a living, but even with his expertise, it still took several days to find and/or recover what went missing. As for what caused the crash, that's still uncertain (my husband thinks an automatic update went wrong, but who knows?). 

And now, as things are (sort of) back to normal, I'm struck by how dependent on the internet and social media I've become. It's something I didn't want to admit: after all, I tried my best to resist it for as long as I could. Perhaps something like this has happened to you, and if it has, I wonder if you too felt as frustrated and helpless as I did-- confronting the necessity of doing without something you didn't realize mattered so much... until it was no longer there.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Hard for Me to Say I'm Sorry

As I write this, Jews all over the world are approaching the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, the period of time between Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). While most people associate New Year with parties and making resolutions (the majority of which are seldom kept), Jewish New Year is a bit more serious. Yes, we have a festive meal, along with apples and honey, representing the wish for a sweet new year; but then, we enter a time of reflection, when we look back on what we accomplished, but also look back at where we missed the mark, where we failed to do the right thing, where we did not live up to the ideals we claim to have.

According to tradition, during the Ten Days of Repentance, we should sincerely apologize to those we have wronged. Whether the wrong was intentional or accidental, it's still an opportunity for us to reestablish communication with those who did not see us at our best. We've all treated others unfairly or taken out our mood on someone who didn't deserve it.  But even when, deep down, we know we were in the wrong, we often don't make amends. Instead, we blame the other person. Or we stop talking to them (or avoid them)-- anything rather than admitting that maybe we could have handled things better. And that's how relationships that could still be repaired never get fixed. 

If I'm being honest about myself, a lot of folks did not see me at my best this past year. Maybe it's the remnants of the pandemic (a lot of us lived on Zoom for a year and a half, and we lost many of our social skills); or maybe it's stress from various things in my life, like my husband's illness (he's better now, but things were kind of scary for a while). But the fact remains: I don't believe I was my usual friendly self much of the time. Instead, I often felt tense, or awkward, or impatient.  And I know for a fact that sometimes I took it out on people I care about. 

I regret it. I wish I had handled this past year much better than I did. And all I can do is say I'm sorry and promise to try to do better in the year ahead. But sometimes, saying that doesn't seem nearly enough. I guess in many ways, I'm my own harshest critic and I have a difficult time feeling like I deserve another chance. But during the Ten Days of Repentance, being self-critical isn't the goal. This period of time is an opportunity to ask forgiveness from others (as well as from God)...and to be willing to make a new start. Too many of us are so focused on our mistakes that we miss the chance to start again.   

And so, I hope those of you I've wronged will accept my apology. In a world where there is often far too much anger and too many people holding grudges, we can all use an opportunity to forgive-- and to be forgiven. And that is my wish for you who are reading my blog, whether you are Jewish or not: I hope that the New Year will bring more kindness, more patience, and above all, more forgiveness-- for me, for you, and for all of us.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Making Time for Compassion

I've been thinking a lot about religion these past few days-- and not just because the Jewish New Year will be here soon. What made me think about it is a news story many of you have heard about-- how Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, shipped a planeload of "illegals," most from Venezuela and Columbia, up to Massachusetts. He claimed he was doing it because Joe Biden has an "open borders" policy and it's time for Democrats in "sanctuary cities" to share the burden of all the illegal immigrants pouring across the border. 

(Of course, if this was about punishing Democrats in Blue States, Massachusetts has a Republican governor, but that's evidently beside the point. Also beside the point-- Pres. Biden has never spoken in favor of open borders, and like all previous presidents from both parties, he has struggled to control the flow of desperate people trying to get into the United States. Meanwhile, for years, Congress has been unable to get together on a solution to what everyone acknowledges is our broken immigration system. But I digress.)  

Supporters of Governor DeSantis applauded his action in flying the migrants up to a Blue State. He was praised on conservative talk shows too. Republicans politicians were almost gleeful at the thought of owning the libs by dumping lots of "illegals" on their doorsteps. Similarly, supporters of Texas GOP Governor Greg Abbott applauded when he shipped thousands of migrants up to New York and Chicago and Washington DC, all to score cheap political points, and to energize the Republican base, rather than addressing the root causes of the surge of folks at the border. (And no, it's not because there's a Democrat in office-- Republican presidents have struggled to find an answer too-- ask George W. Bush.)

But here's why I was thinking about religion. Many of the folks who were the most gleeful about seeing the "illegals" get shipped to the Blue States were folks who claim to be religious. They attend church, they quote scripture, and based on what I see on social media, they frequently pass judgment on everything that's wrong in society. And they have no sympathy for "illegals"-- they want them all shipped back to their countries, even the folks fleeing persecution or running from gangs. They seem to share the view that these immigrants don't deserve to claim asylum; they seem to believe that these are criminals who, in the words of a certain former president, are "bringing drugs; they're bringing crime; they're rapists..." 

Agreed, there are bad apples in every bunch. But the hungry and exhausted men and women and children who arrived in Martha's Vineyard, an island community nowhere near the big city of Boston (where the migrants were told they were going), did not seem to be criminals. They seemed to be people in search of a better life. Should they have crossed the border illegally? Probably not. But that is a bigger conversation, and as I said, it's one that politicians have been avoiding for several decades. Meanwhile, here they were, with no warning. By some accounts, Gov. DeSantis even hired a videographer to take photos of the chaos that he seemed to hope would occur upon the plane's arrival. More cheap political points-- but beneficial for his reelection campaign.

No chaos occurred, however. Instead, there was compassion. People of all religions and all backgrounds leaped into action and welcomed the new arrivals. People fed them and sheltered them. People made arrangements for a Catholic mass, and for medical care. Of course it wasn't an ideal situation (contrary to myth, Martha's Vineyard isn't just a playground for the super-rich... there are lots of residents who are far from wealthy). Of course people were concerned about whether they had enough resources to help. But all of that was put aside as everyone focused on doing the right thing.

So, perhaps that's the lesson: sometimes, being religious isn't about finger-pointing at those who are breaking the rules, or being gleeful when your perceived enemy is suffering. Sometimes being religious means showing the same love and understanding you would want God to show you in a time of crisis. I know we need to find a solution to the problems at the border, but I can't believe any God would want to punish people whose crime was seeking a better life; and I can't believe any Scripture would encourage us to hate or mock such people. So, welcome to Massachusetts, whoever you are. I'm sorry you were treated with such disdain in Florida and Texas. And I pray this will be the start of better things for you. And as for the folks who are applauding your struggles, I wonder how much mercy and compassion God will have for them when Judgment Day arrives... 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

A Touch of Grey: Some Thoughts on Aging (and Ageism)

There's a commercial for a nutritional drink called Boost in which a woman says, "Age is just a number. And mine's unlisted." Every time I see that commercial, it reminds me how even in 2022, women are taught that they shouldn't discuss their age. In past generations, women were even told to lie about it-- to say they were younger than they actually were. Actresses always did this: evidently, studio moguls didn't want to hire a woman who was "too old."

It was a factor on TV as well-- older men were distinguished. Older women were... invisible. And if you think I'm exaggerating, look at your local or national news: chances are if the person doing the weather is a guy, he's conservatively dressed in a suit and tie; but if it's a woman, she's wearing a sleeveless dress (even if it's winter), and more often than not, the dress is tight enough to show that she has sex appeal (even if she also has a degree in meteorology). Agreed, things have improved a little from a generation ago when guys could be balding and paunchy and still be on TV, while women had to look eternally young and cute if they wanted to get hired. Today, there are a few veteran female reporters and anchors who are older, but very few of them look their chronological age. Nor are they supposed to.

What brought all this to mind was a recent story from Canada, where a widely-respected and very popular CTV news anchor named Lisa LaFlamme was fired. All across Canada, people wondered if her age (she's 58) was one reason. And then, there was her hair. During the pandemic, like many of us, she wasn't able to get to a salon for a good haircut, nor was she able to color her hair. So, she began anchoring the news with grey hair. Somehow, the republic didn't fall. Viewers who liked her before liked her with her natural hair color. But evidently, this was upsetting to some folks in management. Also upsetting: when everyone came back to the office again, she decided to continue wearing her natural grey hair, rather than getting it colored. 

This shouldn't have been controversial, but for some folks, it was. Of course, her managers insisted that wasn't why she was being fired-- it was a business decision, they were taking the newscast in a new direction, etc. etc. But her fans put two and two together and came to the conclusion that she must have violated the unwritten taboo about women on TV not being allowed to look "too old." There's a segment of the viewership (and perhaps even the ownership) that still expect us to be "eye candy," it seems.

In Boston, in the 1980s, veteran news anchor Shelby Scott had something similar happen to her. I was quoted in an article about it in the Boston Globe recently, after she died: folks who remembered her called her an outstanding newswoman, a respected voice in Boston news... but back in the 1980s, when she reached her mid-40s, she was suddenly removed from anchoring in favor of someone much younger. And her male bosses defended the decision, saying it was time for a new direction (which is code for "it's time to hire a younger female"). Interestingly, the only people who defended her were other women who had encountered the same attitudes.

I understand that TV and movies are visual, and whether you're male or female, looking good on camera matters. But who gets to define "looking good"? I have watched lots of guys who are not exactly movie-star handsome, but they are informative and interesting. The same standard should apply to women. Having watched Lisa LaFlamme, and veteran reporters like Judy Woodruff and Christiane Amanpour, I find them personable, and they're comfortable on camera; but more importantly, they write well and they know their stuff. So, they have a few wrinkles. So, Lisa's hair is grey now-- why does any of this matter? Are we still stuck in the belief that women in media are not allowed to age? And if that's where we are, could someone please tell me why?

Monday, August 15, 2022

What Happened in Vinton (and why it matters)

I've never actually been to Vinton, Iowa, but I feel as if I know something about the place-- in fact, back in the late 1990s, I wrote a historical article about a momentous event that happened there: the first radio station ever owned by a woman went on the air in the summer of 1922-- WIAE in Vinton, owned and operated by Marie Zimmerman (and built by her husband, city electrician Bob Zimmerman). Not much was digitized in 1998, so I did my research old-school. I located living relatives and wrote letters to them, I looked through reels of microfilm, I contacted several Iowa newspapers, and I called the Vinton Public Library, where I chatted with the reference librarians. The folks at the library were very kind, and very helpful. They were also very interested in my research. Marie Zimmerman was one of the many forgotten women in the history of radio, and since she was from Vinton, the library was eager to see a copy of the article I was writing. Later, they even posted it on their website.

Fast forward to the spring of 2022, and all across the country, a well-organized group of conservative parents has been demanding that certain books be removed from libraries-- not restricted, but removed entirely. In some cities, these folks have demanded that specific books, those that allegedly have a "liberal agenda," be taken off the shelves:  books about Joe Biden or Barack Obama or even Martin Luther King, books about combating racism, books about LGBTQ issues, and books about sex education. When librarians did not comply, some folks simply checked those books out and then refused to return them. 

But at other libraries, the staff found themselves barraged with hateful phone calls, threats (including death threats), and online abuse; they were accused of hating America, of promoting pornography, of indoctrinating children, etc. etc. Some staff members, including several library directors, got so intimidated by the relentless abuse that they resigned. And some libraries even closed-- perhaps that was the goal all along.

I wish I were making this up, and I am sure some of you may think I'm exaggerating. I'm not. In city after city, this same thing has been happening, which is why I'm firmly convinced that this is all part of an organized effort to control what is in libraries, and keep certain ideas away from the folks who might benefit from learning about them.  

Much to my disappointment, one of the communities where the campaign of threats and intimidation occurred was Vinton, Iowa. As one publication reported several weeks ago, "The [Vinton Public Library] went on a temporary hiatus after a series of heated public board meetings, where angry community members blasted the library for its LGTBQ children’s literature and kids’ books by first lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris." Community members also demanded that gay staff members (or those who "seemed" gay) be fired; and since the community was predominantly Christian, they insisted that the library must carry more Christian books.

Don't get me wrong-- I'm fine about libraries carrying Christian books, or Jewish or Hindu or whatever else (including books by atheists). I'm also fine with parents wanting only age-appropriate content for children to read. But I am not fine with censorship. I am not fine with parents saying a library cannot carry books about people whose religion is different from theirs, or whose politics they disagree with. Nor am I fine with saying that someone who might be gay should be fired, or that books about gay people be removed. And above all, I am absolutely not fine with angry and hateful phone calls or online smears directed at hardworking librarians. So, the Vinton Public Library was forced to close, depriving kids, and parents, of books and computers and quiet spaces to study-- how is that a good outcome?

But this is where we are. There are some folks who believe they have a right to scream at librarians or force libraries to shut their doors, or try to get certain books banned. Of course, the effort to ban books isn't new, and both sides have done it over the years; it has also occurred in countries all over the world, and it usually does not end well.  Censoring books, or censoring ideas-- even ideas that are controversial-- that's a slippery slope. When I was growing up, I am sure my parents didn't want our local library to carry certain books, but I can't imagine my parents, or anyone from that era, screaming at librarians or trying to close libraries down. As someone posted on the Vinton Library website, "If you have a closed mind, you get a closed library." And that seems to be exactly what we are getting these days. 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

To Boldly Go Where No-One Has Gone Before

I was still a teenager when the original "Star Trek" made its debut in 1966. It was on NBC, and although I watched some of the episodes, I admit that I wasn't a big fan of the show. To be honest, I much preferred "Star Trek--The Next Generation," which debuted almost twenty years later. But there was something I did like about the original "Star Trek"-- it had what we today would call a multicultural cast.  I also liked the fact that the cast members were not all stuck in stereotypical roles. In many TV shows of the 50s and 60s, minority characters were either depicted as not very smart or unable to speak good English.  And women were still either secretaries or housewives; and especially in comedies, they were frequently depicted as somewhat scatterbrained.

But "Star Trek" was unique for its time. Yes, the main character was a white male (Captain Kirk), but the crew of the Enterprise included a Vulcan, a Russian, an Asian, a Scot, and a Black woman. And it was the Black woman who was unlike any other characters on TV in the mid-60s. Her character's name was Lieutenant Uhura, and the woman playing her was Nichelle Nichols. She was born Grace Dell Nichols, and most viewers were probably unaware of the fact that she was a talented singer, stage actress, and model. But I'm sure they noticed that on "Star Trek," she was not anyone's servant (one of the few roles given to Black actors and actresses). Nor was her character written in a patronizing way. Rather, Uhura was the ship's communications officer, someone well-versed in science, who was also capable of taking control of the helm when needed. 

Perhaps she was not aware how much her presence meant to young Black viewers-- Whoopi Goldberg recalls watching her and being delighted to see a Black character in an important role. And Dr. Martin Luther King was aware of Nichelle Nichols too-- when she wanted to leave the series for a role in a Broadway play, Dr. King personally encouraged her to stay with "Star Trek," because, he said, it was so important for Black kids to learn that they could be anything in life-- even someone on a star ship, or a doctor, a professor, anything. And so, she continued on as Lieutenant Uhura.

Of course, not everyone was happy she was there: America was still in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and some southern affiliates of NBC were uncomfortable with any show that had an interracial cast; one scene from 1968 evoked some controversy, when the plot called for her and Captain Kirk to share a brief kiss. But for the most part, her role was well-received, and greatly appreciated. It even led to her doing some work for NASA, helping to recruit Black and female employees, some of whom became astronauts. She also appeared in other film and TV roles over the next several decades.

Nichelle Nichols died on July 30, 2022, at age 89. Agreed, she wasn't a real science officer nor an astronaut, but her presence in the cast of "Star Trek" did what Dr. King hoped-- it created new possibilities. At the beginning of the original show, it talked about how the voyages of the Enterprise were about seeking out new worlds: to "boldly go where no man has gone before." I prefer the revised version from "The Next Generation"-- to boldly go where no-one has gone before. The way I see it, having a dream, creating a possibility, embarking on your life's latest adventure...this is something anyone can do. For many years, women and people of color were told those dreams and possibilities didn't apply to them. Today, they do, and characters like Lieutenant Uhura paved the way. Rest in peace, Nichelle. And thank you.     

Friday, July 15, 2022

Can AM Radio Be Saved?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of owning my own radio station. I had no idea what it cost to buy one, but it seemed like the best of all possible things to acquire-- after all, radio was a central part of my life, and I knew lots of other kids who felt the same way. We all loved rock and roll, we all loved listening to the deejays, and many of us enjoyed going to record hops and hearing the local bands perform. Owning a station seemed like such a cool thing to do, something that would make a lot of people happy.

In the 1950s and 1960s, top-40 ruled, and AM radio was king. Every city had live and local stations, and the deejays often made appearances at local businesses. I remember getting my first car and driving to Paragon Park, about a half-hour from my home. Paragon was a popular amusement park back then, but more importantly, WBZ Radio sometimes did live broadcasts, direct from their "Sundeck Studio." I was so excited to watch my favorite deejays in person; and as a college radio deejay, I did a couple of remotes too, from the quadrangle at Northeastern University in Boston. FM hadn't taken over yet. Many people didn't even own an FM radio, and most cars only had AM.  Perhaps the audio quality wasn't the best, but the signals carried a long distance, and whether you were listening with your portable radio or listening with your transistor, AM radio could accompany you everywhere, kind of like a best friend. 

These days, it's all different. If you turn on a station on the AM band (something few young people ever do), all you hear is angry political talk shows, foreign language programs, religious broadcasts, and lots of news and sports. Some AM stations do still play music, but increasingly, it's songs for people over 60, since research says they are the only ones who still listen. Everyone else long ago migrated to FM, or to the internet, streaming audio, and YouTube. Many AM stations have gone dark-- owners have just given up and pulled the plug.

But does it have to be that way? Maybe I'm naive, and maybe I'm a dreamer, but I want to believe that AM could still make a difference. For example, if you put a live and local station on the air, play interesting music, have strong ties with your community, and give the listeners something worth listening to, they might just give you a chance--even if you're on the AM band.  Anecdotally, I'm told some AM community stations are doing that-- entertaining the public, giving local bands a chance, providing something unique for their community. And people seem to like that.

I understand the media environment in 2022 is not the same as in the 1960s. I understand that most young adults haven't listened to AM in years. But what if we gave them a good reason to? What if we brought back radio that had entertaining personalities and was fun to listen to? It might not work everywhere, but somewhere, in some city, there's a signal going to waste, and some good people who want to make that signal mean something. I still want to own a radio station, because radio changed my life; and I don't want to give up on AM just yet, even if all the experts say the odds are against anyone succeeding. So, what do you think? Is it too late for AM radio? Or can AM radio be saved? I welcome your opinions. I've already told you mine!        


Thursday, June 30, 2022

How Shall We Pray? And Where?

I have a friend who is firmly convinced that I'm going to burn in hell because I'm Jewish and haven't accepted Christianity. It's what her church teaches, and she sincerely believes it. Every now and then, she feels obligated to witness to me (for my own good, as she sees it), but since I used to be chaplain and know my Bible fairly well, I'm usually able to hold my own in any debate about scripture. We've managed to stay friends in spite of this theological impasse (we have many other things in common); but I know that deep down, she keeps hoping she'll find the right verse to persuade me to see "the truth." 

But she won't. The problem, of course, is that her truth is not mine. I respect her beliefs, and I have nothing against them. I simply wish she could understand that I really like being Jewish and I have no wish to accept some other religion. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks who share her belief that the Jews need to convert, and I've met quite a few of them over the years. Some are very assertive about it, like the missionaries who go door-to-door, or the high school kids who called me a "Christ-killer" and pushed me down some stairs.

On the other hand, I've met some folks who were much kinder and gentler about it. They just assumed that everyone would be fine with Christian prayers or Christian symbols, and they were stunned (or offended) if anyone objected. I grew up in the era when there was still prayer in public schools-- it was always Christian prayer, followed by a Christian hymn.  And if a Jewish student ever asked about that (as I once did), the answer was that this was what the majority wanted. There was no expectation that those of us in the minority would be included, nor any understanding of why this morning ritual (in what was supposed to be a public school) might seem like imposing one religion and ignoring all the others. 

What brought this back to me was the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of a high school football coach who likes to engage in Christian prayer at the end of a game, surrounded by his team (and sometimes by players from the other team). The conservative Christian judges in the majority seemed okay with this. They said it was not imposing Christianity on the players, since they were not being forced to participate. Except, they really were. Imagine if one of the kids on the team walked away and didn't join the prayer circle. Imagine if one of the kids thought a football field isn't a place for a prayer circle. I suggest that such views would not have been warmly welcomed-- by their coach or by others in attendance.

Many years ago, I too was told if I didn't like the Christian prayers and songs, I could leave and come back-- but you tell me, dear readers, how I would have been treated by the other kids if I had done that. Yet here we are, decades later, with a Supreme Court that seems oblivious to the harm it might cause by allowing the football coach to do something he wants to do and potentially turn anyone who disagrees into a pariah.

I know some of you will think I'm being anti-Christian. I'm not.  I just don't think public spaces, like football games, are the right place for religious ceremonies-- from anyone's religion. Frankly, I don't think God cares who wins the football game. And I don't think God wants us to make a public show out of our piety-- I vaguely recall Jesus saying something in the New Testament about those who pray loudly so that others will see them; he recommended that we pray quietly and privately, so that only God sees us. The judges on the Supreme Court who voted to weaken the separation of church and state probably think they did a wonderful thing. But on behalf of those of us from different faiths than the majority, we wish they had thought more about being inclusive and tolerant, and less about imposing their "truth" on everyone else.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A Special Afternoon in Hollywood

I remember reading online once that "just about anyone can get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; if you've got the money, you can get one." That isn't true, and I know from firsthand experience. It's actually a complicated process, and certain very specific criteria have to be met. There's a formal proposal you have to make (stating why you believe you meet those criteria); there's a committee that gets together and considers your proposal; and if you are chosen, there are fees that need to be paid (for example, there needs to be crowd control, security for the celebrity or celebrities, etc). Then, you have to choose a date and plan the logistics. Bottom line: it can take months... or even years, and no, it's not just a matter of paying someone some money. 

I sincerely believed that Rush deserved a star on the Walk of Fame. I also believed they met the criteria: they had millions of fans, a long career, and numerous achievements in the music industry.  And, to be honest, I was frustrated at the disrespect the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was showing the band. No matter how hard I tried to persuade the judges at the Rock Hall, there was a group of them who had never liked Rush's music, and who refused to take them seriously. I knew this was as annoying to the fans as it was to me, and so it was, in 2007, that I decided to champion Rush for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

It would take three years and a lot of hard work before it finally happened. I had some wonderful folks working with me, especially Kevin and Keith Purdy, two brothers from St. Louis who were devoted Rush fans; and there were also a number of other folks who helped-- we were determined to get this done, because in our view, no rock band deserved a star more than Rush. So, we created the proposal, working with amazing folks in Rush's management (including the legendary Pegi Cecconi), and we kept on gathering momentum until things finally came together. And at 11:30 AM, on June 25, 2010, Rush was awarded their much-deserved star.

I was both surprised and flattered when Pegi asked if I'd come up and give a short speech as part of that ceremony. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, and if you want a copy of my speech, I still have it. I meant every word I said, and when I finished, Alex and Geddy seemed very moved by it. As I spoke, I looked out at the large crowd who came to share that special day. Neil wasn't there, nor did we expect him to be (he was there in spirit, of course), but his wife and daughter were, as were Geddy's family, and many other friends and relatives. It was Neil's friend Craig who took this photo of me and the guys standing by the star (below). I still remember what a sense of gratification I felt, knowing I had played a part in honoring this amazing band.         

And here we are in 2022, twelve years later, and it is as emotional for me now as it was then. Yesterday, I reached out to Kevin Purdy to ask for his recollections. Like me, he remains amazed and impressed by how many fans showed up, and gratified to have fought for this project until it reached its very successful conclusion. And I know for a fact that even now, people come from long distances to see that star, to get a photo taken, and to feel that sense of pride in being a part of the world-wide community of Rush fans.  It was a very special day, and one I doubt I will ever forget. And if you were there too, you know exactly what I mean.   

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

I became a baseball fan when I was about 11 or 12 years old. To this day, I don't know why: my father wasn't a big fan, and I had no brothers. (Back then, the common wisdom was that girls hated sports-- and only pretended to be interested if they had a brother or a boyfriend who played.) And once I discovered baseball, I especially loved listening to it on the radio-- Curt Gowdy and Bob Murphy were the play-by-play announcers in the '50s, and they really knew how to make the game enjoyable. In fact, even though our family had a TV set, I preferred listening to the games rather than watching them. (I was attracted to radio from a very early age-- I loved the deejays, of course, but I loved the sportscasters too.) And if a game went long, and it was past my bedtime, I'd hide my transistor radio under my pillow and listen till the game was over.

But I didn't know a lot of female fans. And when I tried to talk baseball with the guys, they seemed uncomfortable about it, especially if I knew more about the game than a girl was supposed to. So, I dreamed that one day, I might be a sportscaster or a sportswriter (two occupations I was told were not suitable for girls), and I listened to as many games as I could-- whether the Red Sox (my home team) or teams from other cities (late at night, distant signals came in very clearly on AM, and I could hear the Baltimore Orioles on WBAL, as well as other teams, in the major and minor leagues).

I never did get the chance to be a play-by-play announcer, but I did become a deejay (as many of you know) and I've remained a baseball fan to this day. In the late 1980s, when I began researching the history of broadcasting, I was finally able to answer the question about whether there had been women fans in the old days-- as it turned out, yes there were. In fact, in the famous song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," the original 1908 version was about a young woman named "Nellie" who was "baseball-mad" and couldn't wait for her boyfriend to take her to the ballpark so she could watch the game.  There were even young women who tried to play baseball, and not just as a stunt: I have a new article about that in the current issue of the Baseball Research Journal       

Today, it's no longer unusual to find women baseball fans, women baseball players, women baseball writers, and a few sportscasters are women too. Five years ago this week, I had the privilege of giving a talk at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown about some of the earliest women baseball writers, one of whom (Ina Eloise Young) covered the game as far back as 1906. Among the others I discussed were Pearl Kroll, who covered baseball for Time magazine in the late 1930s/early 1940s-- but the male sportswriters refused to let her into the press box; and Willa Bea Harmon, who covered the Negro Leagues in the 1940s.  It was a joy to tell their stories.  

But unlike when I was growing up, I don't see as many young people-- male or female-- at the ballpark these days. I also don't see many kids playing ball in the neighborhood or at local fields, the way they did when I was growing up. (I even used to go to watch semipro games in the Park League sometimes, and there were lots of young people in the stands.) There are many possible reasons for a lack of young fans: tickets these days are impossibly expensive, most of the games are at night, other sports have grown in popularity (like basketball and football) and overtaken baseball... but as a long-time fan, I would love to see more kids playing ball again. And now that the pandemic is finally receding, I can't wait to once again see some games in person. Meanwhile, I'll keep listening on the radio, and watching on TV. I can't help it: when I think of summer, I think of baseball...  

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.   

Monday, January 31, 2022

Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover

I've never liked the word "disability." I understand that whoever came up with it probably meant well, but it gives the impression that there are some folks who have abilities, and some who don't. I've got a similar problem with the term "special education"-- again, the intention was to create a more positive word than what it used to be called in generations past, but let's be honest-- does society really treat these kids as if they are special? Their teachers and advocates certainly do, but out in the world, too often the kids who are perceived as "different" are undervalued; in some cases, they are also mocked or bullied. Too many people penalize them for what they can't do, rather than rewarding them for what they can do. 

There is still an unfortunate tendency in our culture to violate the rule we were all taught as kids, the one about "don't judge a book by its cover." I've seen people make assumptions about kids who have Down Syndrome, or kids who have autism. And I've seen similar assumptions made about kids who are blind or hearing impaired. I find it puzzling that in 2022, too many kids are still being stereotyped as incapable of achieving: if certain kids are treated like their abilities are limited, those kids may come to believe it must be true.

But what if it's not? What if the kids who are underestimated and undervalued have a lot more potential than some people think? Agreed, not every kid is going to Harvard, but is that the standard for deciding if someone is successful? I've seen numerous kids with so-called "disabilities" far exceed what they were supposed to be able to do. I've seen numerous kids acquire skills they weren't supposed to be able to master. Because someone believed in them, they came to believe in themselves.

I'm the editor of the school newspaper at the university where I teach. Last semester, I was contacted by an advisor from Threshold, our non-degree program for young adults with diverse learning, developmental, and intellectual disabilities. Two of the students were interested in our newspaper and wanted to work for it. I had never had any Threshold students as reporters before. But it certainly seemed like an interesting possibility, and I wanted to give them a chance. 

There was a slight learning curve, but you can say that about any student anywhere. Gradually, they learned what was expected, and what we needed them to do. (I didn't treat them any differently from any of my other reporters. The only difference was they had their own support system in place, to help them with learning how to write in a newspaper style, and to help them edit their articles before submitting them. They did all the rest themselves.) I found them both enthusiastic, eager to learn, and eager to take direction. Whatever I asked, they went above and beyond.

The other students welcomed them too, and they became part of the team. When they had a problem doing something, there was someone to show them how. They learned quickly. And they really blossomed. In the end, they each wrote several articles, and took their own photos. They seldom if ever missed a class. And I wish you could have seen the smiles on their faces when they got published for the first time-- it was like I gave them a million dollars.

Theoretically, it shouldn't have worked. They were not enrolled in an undergrad journalism program, they had learning differences, they hadn't been on a college newspaper before, etc. etc. And yet, it worked out just fine. I was so proud of them-- and they really made a positive contribution to the newspaper. (And no, I'm not just saying that. With a little support and a little encouragement, they did everything that I asked... and more.)      

And if there's a moral to this story, it's that every time we decide ahead of time that someone isn't capable of X, we diminish that person's possibilities. Agreed, sometimes things don't work out. Sometimes the person couldn't do it after all. But what's the harm in letting the person try? Why not give them a chance, why not treat them like you'd treat anyone else?  So, yes, I'd like to see a better word than "disabilities." I'm not sure what it would be, and I'm not looking for another euphemism. I'm looking for a word that describes kids who may have certain challenges, but who absolutely can--and should--be allowed to succeed in their own way.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Conversation We Never Seem to Have

Early on Saturday afternoon, we heard the news that an angry man had burst into a synagogue not far from Fort Worth, Texas, and he was holding a rabbi and several other congregants hostage. The man was demanding the release of a convicted Muslim terrorist. In this case, fortunately, the hostages were finally released unharmed, but I can only imagine what their ten-hour ordeal was like.

And no, this frightening incident shouldn't immediately devolve into online comments about Muslims. It wasn't that long ago-- October 27, 2018-- when an avowed white supremacist, whose social media indicated hatred of immigrants and hatred of Jews, attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue. On that day, he murdered eleven worshipers. 

Both incidents share a common thread: an angry guy who decided to take out his anger on a group that had never met him, in a place where he had probably never gone before.  And many of us might ask: Why attack Jews at prayer? Why take out whatever grievances you have on people whose 'crime' seems to be that they attend synagogue? 

These kinds of attacks have become more common in the past few years. We saw Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, carrying torches and chanting "Jews will not replace us." And if you spend any time on social media, chances are you've encountered anti-Jewish comments. I've seen this happen on social media more times than I should have to. Yes, it's only words, but it still can hurt.

After an attack on a synagogue, or some other antisemitic incident, politicians issue the usual regrets and offer thoughts and prayers. But here's what usually doesn't happen-- the media rarely refer to antisemitism. It's usually framed like the perpetrator was some disgruntled guy who was angry about Israel (umm, no offense, but what does that have to do with threatening people praying in a synagogue?). Or they say it was some Muslim extremist. Or some white nationalist. In other words, it's often treated like a one-off. An exception. In no way part of any larger trend.

But it IS part of a larger trend. Agreed, many countries are far more tolerant today than they used to be. But let's be honest: many are not.  In too many places, kids are taught antisemitism from childhood-- and no, that's not just true of Muslim countries. Nationalism-- often Christian nationalism-- is on the rise throughout Europe, and there is little tolerance for anyone perceived as "other." Countries that used to welcome the stranger, including Hindu and Buddhist countries, are now treating the stranger as an enemy.

And in America, while most churches no longer teach overt hatred of the Jews, I can speak from first-hand experience that too many people are still learning it somewhere. I still meet lots of folks who only see me as someone who must be converted; or who believe the Jews are going to hell; or, worse yet, who still believe the Jews own the media or run the government or are to blame for [insert social problem here]. 

It would be nice if we could talk about this, rather than downplaying it.  It would be nice if church leaders, mosque leaders, and leaders of other faiths, would take an objective look at what kids are learning about Judaism. It would be nice if politicians would stop making Nazi and Hitler references whenever they disagree with some government policy. And it would be nice if the media would tell the truth about where things are: there really has been a rise in antisemitism in the US, and it needs to be called out. Pretending everything is fine isn't working. Ignoring prejudice doesn't make it go away. It's time to have an honest conversation, and come up with some strategies, so that people can go to synagogue or wear a Star of David or express pride in being Jewish without worrying about whether it's safe.