Tuesday, May 21, 2024

My Precious (the Sequel): An iPhone Escape Plan

We're in big trouble, my fellow humanoids. We are leashed. 

Yeah, I'm talking about the phones again. But bear with me. I'm going to do something, myself, that you might find interesting or maybe even helpful. 

Smartphones were best described by a former boss of mine -- the principal of my old school -- who called them: "The electronic leash." A description could not be better. A leash keeps a dog from going where it wants. Sometimes, it chokes him. But maybe the worst part (if I were a dog) would be the constant awareness of it holding me back.

That's where I am with the phone, now. I only have one "fun" app on it: Instagram. I dropped Facebook from it years ago, though I still use Facebook on the computer -- the idea was to limit diversions, but that's basic stuff. Time-wasters are easy to eliminate. But what about just dodging the constant presence of the thing?

How weird is it to have an object that you feel needs to be at your side, literally, at all times? -- to carry it from room to room in your house? -- to panic-search your pockets if you leave home without it? I think we should also consider how obsessively connected to it we are as an element of our life, as if is some functionless medication or a kind of worship. I think the problem is worse than simply an addiction to games and social media.  

An example: my wife and I were watching a TV show called The Knick -- a show run by Steven Soderbergh about a hospital in the early 1900s. Every once in awhile, I'd pick up my phone and look up something. Did they do plastic surgery in 1900? Did they really use cocaine as a painkiller? Did they use silver sutures? Ok -- great. The phone can answer all of those questions and educate me in the process. This is a positive. The problem is, though, that I am being pulled out of the moment of the show. The experience of the evolving characters and story are being interrupted and diminished. See, I am not watching the show to learn about the history of medicine. I'm watching it because I love story and character and theme. 

It steals from life's moments -- whether TV shows, parties, trips -- with the promise of giving me something -- information in this case -- but the trade-off is not worth it. It's similar to the phenomenon of trading a video of a concert for the experience of it. 

The phone (pun intended) stitches together things that ought to be compartmentalized. I can look up that stuff later. I can read a book on the history of modern medicine. I can dive deeply into it instead of skimming the Internet for tidbits of info I will probably soon forget. 

My wife, Karen, used to write a blog and she once wrote about the phone being like Tolkien's Ring. If I remember, she wrote about it kind of light-heartedly because of how cool the phone was. (This was pretty early on in the smartphone era.) In the books, though, the Ring operates by exploiting the tendencies of the wearer and it turns those tendencies to evil. Gandalf, a powerful wizard, is all good. He has even been sent by the Valar (the gods, sort of) to be a protector of the world. But he denies the powerful magic Ring when it is offered to him because he knew he would "use [the] Ring from a desire to do good. But through [him] it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine." In other words, it would warp his strengths and turn them toward evil. In my hands, for example, the phone is a temptation to my greatest desire: to learn. "Look at all the information!" it whispers, constantly. But, Faust-like, the powers it gives me most often turn to ideleness or even an extended rabbit-hole detatchment from the world of the now. In the hands of a sex-obsessed person? Obvious. In the hands of a sports fan? Constant stat-checking. In the hands of a conspiracy theorist? Confirming biases. The phone really is so much like the Ring, it is frightening. 

The phone is a drain of mental energies; a constant pull. If it is next to me on the arm of the couch, sure, I can ignore a text. But it is there, like a pimple on the brain. It keeps asserting its presence with buzzes and flashes. What I need to do -- what I would argue we all need to do -- is to be able to forget about it from time to time.

A quick note here is that, first of all, one has to escape the games and social media and the notifications. That has to be phase one and I think I have done pretty well with that. Now, onto phase two.

Here's what I am going to do. If you like it, try it. 

When I am at home, I am going to turn my phone volume up and leave the phone on a cabinet in my house's entryway. I'm going to go back in time. If it rings, I will get up to answer it. If I get a text, I will decide whether or not to answer it. I'll be sure to tell my mom and my sister and my sons that if they really need me in an emergency, they should call, because I might not answer texts right away. And if there is something important pending, I can keep the phone with me -- if it is really important. The idea is break the leash and flip things: make the phone heel.

Fact: I never thought about my wall phone when I was a kid unless it rang. It never leashed my attention or stole it from anyone or anything else. I'm not a golden-age thinker. But, our minds are too constantly bombarded with input now. There had to be something better about that. 

Imagine the difference in mindset not so long ago -- even before answering machines. If I was watching TV and the phone rang, I had a choice: answer and miss the show -- you couldn't pause or record it -- or ignore the call and just hope they would call back if it were important. Was that better? I think so. Many times I or a family member would say, "Ah, they'll call back." That, in retrospect, seems like such a divine level of freedom...

We'd never survive it with today's FOMO. But I believe in balance. It can't be good to be tied to the electronic leash. And, if a hot chick is calling for a date, and you don't answer -- man, her number will be right there. The stakes just are not that high. Is it worth carrying the phone burden 24 hours a day?

I'll let you know how it goes.  

Monday, May 20, 2024

Vigilante Excrement: Thoughts on a Taylor Swift Song

Let me not talk about Taylor Swift's body of work, because I don't know much of it. I won't judge her as a whole. If you are a fan, you can tell me if this does or does not apply to the rest of her work.

[The picture is from DePalma's Dressed to Kill. I dunno. Thought it was an ironic connection... Also, finding pics is hard.]

Yesterday, I heard one of her songs in the car: "Vigilanti S---" [click for the lyrics]

One thing I have learned is that my young high school students, especially the ladies, are big fans of Taylor. One senior girl actually wrote her college application essay about how Taylor Swift helped her get through adolescence. So, there is much dedication there. And let's give Taylor credit where credit is due: she helped a kid as I am sure she has helped at least some others. 

At least as far as the song "Vigilante Sh---" goes, however, and considering the way young women feel about Taylor Swift, I'm going to be a little less tolerant of the woman than I have been -- just in this particular instance. 

I used to just think: Meh. She's decent pop music. What's the harm? A lot of people (musicians especially) often say, "At least she and her band actually play on stage." Yeah, ok. But I am of the camp that with fame comes responsibility. (If you think that is bunk, you might want to stop reading -- it's my foundation here.)

Considering how dedicated her fans are, I think she does some damage with her music -- at least with this song. (And if this is indicative of the rest of her lyrics, I'm even less of a fan. I have been told her music is mostly about break ups, etc, so...it may not be an isolated thing.)

My problem with this is that Swift is smart and her lyrics are clever and maybe a fingertip's reach from poetic, at least on this one. She (and I have observed this as a teacher) appeals to smart young women because of this. But, she delivers just enough intelligence to interest them, then she mires them in petty, unhealthy concepts: like revenge; like being hung up on a relationship after is ends instead of moving on. In the end, the concept -- at least, here and in the few songs I have heard -- is a cliché. Cliché inspires mediocrity. In a sense, she holds smart kids back a bit. (I'm not saying Swift is twirling her proverbial moustache and trying to do this...it is just happening.)

Like or hate what I like or hate, I grew up with lyrics like "Living on a lighted stage/Approaches the unreal/for those who think and feel/In touch with some reality beyond the guilded cage." Pretentious? Some think that Neil Peart's lyrics are (though, his response was: "I'm not pretending anything. I'm writing about what I sincerely think." 

Or, consider Billy Joel's lyrics to "She's Always a Woman": "She can lead you to live/She can take you or leave you/She can ask for the truth/But she'll never believe you/And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free/Yeah, she steals like a thief/But she's always a woman to me." If that is what pretention is, I'll take it over "Picture me as thick as thieves with your ex-wife." Billy Joel was pop, and look at the complexity he delivered. He stimulated the young mind, mine included, to look beyond the literal -- to think metaphorically and to see paradoxes in human behavior...IN A LOVE SONG. It can be done. 

The worst thing is, I know Swift can do better than that. But despite the popular bluster about her being kind of an industry crusader and innovator, let's face it, she is primariy concerned with selling records (or, in today's industry, seats at concerts). That's why you write songs like "Vigilante Sh---" (Either that, or that is what you are intellectually limited to, but, as I said, I don't believe that about her anymore than I believe that about Ed Sheeran, who is also not writing to his potential.) 

All of this falls down, of course, if you think popular artists have no obligation to "think of the kids." I think our society has stopped caring about its young people, so I'm probably in the minority. And, if older people are listening, who cares? The song was on my wife's playlist, yesterday, but she gets that this is light pop and she is already a mature woman who is not being influenced by Swift. For Karen, this is sassy fun. But maybe the danger is that songs like Swift's might help produce women in the future who don't see this difference; who think Swift's stance in the song is one of feminine strength, rather than just another of the millions of "you-hurt-me-so-I-am-hurting-you-back" song. 

Swift seems like a good egg. I just see this as I see it and, again, don't think she's being insidious. But it would be cool, if it is true that she writes mostly about breakups and the same old stuff, if she stretched out to show the world (and the kids) what she can really do. Maybe she has and I haven't heard it, but I stand my my reading of "Vigilante Sh---."

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

A Black Boy, in a Black Sea, on a Black Night

"See how elastic our prejudices grow when love comes to bend them." -- from Moby Dick, Herman Melville

I'm going to get posters and T-shirts made that say: SPREAD AWARENESS, NOT PARANOIA. Catchy, eh?

We have already convinced our young people that a moment of sadness is reason for concern -- a reason to seek help and to fear a mental health crisis. As a high school teacher, I see evidence of this every day. 

[Usual disclaimer: Mental health issues are real and people should seek help for them, but crying for days because your dog died is not a mental health crisis; it's a healthy reaction to grief and it is something you should be able recover from in time. Knowing the difference is the key. If you can't recover from it -- or if your sadness is caused by nothing discernable -- then you are having a crisis. In the end: better safe than sorry.]

I think we have made people so "aware" of mental health issues that they are paranoid every time they feel a bit of ennui and every time they don't feel like getting out of bed to go to work. 

We have done this with race, too, I think. When I teach American literature, I usually show the Patrick Stewart Moby Dick film. And, every time I do, my kids lose their proverbial feces every time Starbuck delivers a particular line. 

Pip, the cabin boy, has stowed away on one of the whaling boats and is thrown overboard. They search for him into the night and, after an apparently fruitless search, Starbuck says: "We must be mad, lookin' for a black boy on a black night in a black sea."

At that point, invariably, ripples of shock run through my classroom. When I ask them why they reacted to that line, they usually make some reference to racism. 

Fascinating, isn't it? The facts are these: It is dark on the ocean; the sea appears to be roiling black silk and the boy they are looking for is Black. Therefore, he is hard if not impossible to see. He'd be hard enough to find in broad daylight. A white boy would be hard to find in broad daylight...in the vastness of the ocean. Take away the sun, paint the sea black and add darker skin, and it is a fact: It would be nearly impossible to find poor Pip. 

(They find him, miraculously.)

Racism? I think not. The students' reaction is one of fear -- of being paranoid as to what is okay and what is not okay to say. 

We want our kids to respect each other as humans, regardless of ethnicity, for sure. But have we drawn thicker lines between them with well-inteneded lessons of political correctness? Have our commercials and TV shows -- which paint a world of racial harmony that just does not exist in our society -- led kids to think that any acknowledgement of physical differences amounts to racism? 

I think so. 

Some might argue that if we are going to be paranoid, racism is the thing to be paranoid about. I understand that sentiment, but if it leads to more division, more distance between us, then that reasoning sort of backfires. 

Maybe it's another problem that lies within professing to be "color blind." When one person picks another to marry, I think the understanding is that the significant other is simply the best person one has ever known. This person is so incredible that one has chosen to spend the rest of one's life with him or her. Even under those circumstances, when people of different ethnicities marry (even when they are in the deep fathoms of love and respect) I woudl argue that the two are conscious of their physical differences. The key is that those differences are not part of any evaluative formula. 

Pip, my friends, was a fine lad. He was simply harder to see on a dark ocean than an Irish kid would have been. Nothing in that is prejudiced or racist. It's all about how we literally see color. 

Monday, May 6, 2024

Subtle Immortality

once heard a brilliant homilist, Father Joseph Capella, say that there is a reason we are not called "humans doing" but "human beings." I'm not usually a fan of cutesy philosophical phrases, but this one is pretty profound, when you think about it. Maybe our purpose is to just be, after all. And maybe that is not so unproductive as it sounds. 

We humans tend to equate success with what we do and then we hope that those deeds will last. Percy Shelley made it clear that nothing we do will last. This is what he teaches us in his powerful poem "Ozymandias." 

I mean, the dude was the king of all kings. What do you need to do to be remembered in this world? If you can be the "king of kings" and wind up a pile of hot sand, what can Chris Matarazzo in New Jersey do to get a permanent monument erected to him? 

Who cares? 

Even the monuments are not permanent after a certain amount of time. There is simply nothing we can do, no matter how grand, in terms of social achievements, that will remain "standing" forever.

Pericles, in the philosophical statement above, is onto something: the only immortality we can achieve, in an earthy sense, is what I will call "subtle immortality." And that is sort of guaranteed, really; it's just that we are not aware of this quiet, nearly invisible permanence unless we dig deeply in the our own existences and that is exactly why you come here, right? To pull the rabbit out of the dark and mysterious hat? We will live on in the way we are, either conceptually or genetically, "woven into the lives of others." And that is pretty much it. We will be a thread in the tapestry of human existence, but not a discernable picture. We will be there, if unseen. We will be part of the structure, but we will never get credit.

That's ok, right? Unless you have the ego issue -- which we should all work to move beyond if we are to find true contentment, say centuries of philosophers.

The imperceptible will last. A thousand years from now, there is more likely to be a descendent of mine who rubs the back of his neck exactly the way I do when I think because of genetic connection; or, who will have been infected with a deep need for music, as I have, than there is likely to be a statue to my achievements. Even if I left a statue, it would eventually crumble as Ozymandias's entire kingdom did. But if a descendent puts his elbows on the table after dinner exactly the way I do because of genetics, I live on.

That said, I think Pericles was talking more about in the present; how we affect each other within a lifetime. I still think, though, we can expand that. I tried to teach my sons, for example, to be strong yet gentle men, because that is how I men should behave.

If they pass that down, etc, etc, etc....my effect on forever will be anonymous and tiny but permanent. I will have achieved -- as we all will -- a form of subtle earthly immortality, if more men, a thousand years from now, are gentle and strong than there are today.

(Hat Tip: Michael M for posting the Pericles quotation.)

Monday, April 29, 2024

Police Patience

think there should be an award for police officers. If they manage to do, say, ten years on the job without shooting someone at a random traffic stop, there ought to be a plaque or a trophy. We can call it the: "Hasn't Shot an Single Idiot in the Face Award." Because...man, that is an achievement, as I see it. 

Since last summer, I have watched a large number of "body camera" videos on YouTube. (What? I can stop any time I want to... If it wasn't for the stupid algorithms...) The number of people who turn a ten-minute traffic stop into chaos is overwhelming

What I see is officer-after-officer accosted with obnoxiousness from the start of every encounter. 

One I just saw showed a woman on the phone as the officer walked up to the car. The woman on the phone was shouting that "This ____ just a stopped me for no _____ing reason..." 

When the officer asked for identification, she was ignored. When the officer explained that the plates on the car were invalid, she was equated, by the driver, with a famale dog. When the officer asked for the woman in the car to step out, the woman refused to and was warned -- not less than five times -- that if she didn't leave the car, willingly, the officer would pull her out. The woman then got out and started to walk away, cursing. The officer told her to stand behind the car. The woman stood in front of the car. The officer told her to stand behind the car -- again -- and the woman walked over to the sidewalk and started backing into the bushes...etc...etc...etc... 

Eventually, the officer decided to cuff the woman, and the woman started screaming horror movie screams and asking, "What did I do? What did I do?" When she was put in a patrol car, the woman complained that she "didn't feel safe" in that car and demanded to be moved to another car... (I saw another video, by the way, of a guy who ran from the cops at a traffic stop, and, after he got tackled and cuffed asked "What did I do?")

I mean, I'd have to be thinking: Man, the gun is right here... 

I'm, of course, using hyperbole... These days you have to say that out loud. Swift woudl be in trouble in big 2024. 

...but, I have to give the good officers out there (and I believe most of them are good as I believe most people are good) credit. The patience it must take not to unleash one's wrath on people is astounding. 

Just a few weeks ago, I saw a dash cam video of a state trooper who pulled a guy over who had given him the finger and gotten in his way during a pursuit. The trooper walked up to the car and the driver said, "Can I ask why you were driving so fast?" TO THE TROOPER.

The trooper lost his marbles. He didn't hurt the guy, but he did go on to explain that he -- the trooper -- was driving fast because he was chasing a speeder and asked the driver how he expected him to catch a speeder if he wasn't speeding. The trooper also went on to cite the state law that grants permission for officers to ignore traffic laws while in pursuit situations. Then, he explained (at high volume) to the driver that he had 14 months left before retirement and he couldn't wait, "because of @#$holes, like you."

This is not about race by the way. I know when discussions come up about police and Black people, some say, "Well, if he'd just listen to the officer..." and then others counter with, "But Black people know the danger they are in in a rqcist world..." This is all, clearly, both possible and debatable, but I have seen videos with people of all ethnicities and of both sexes acting like drunken orangutans and transforming a routine stop into bedlam. 

Yeah, there are bad cops out there, but your average man or woman in uniform is just trying to make a living and make the world a bit safer. And, man, do they get asked to take a lot of malarky on a daily basis ith not enough pay for doing it. 

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Is That Milk In Your Pants?

Do you get embarrassed for people the way I do?

Like, a few weeks ago, my son (who is 22, for context) had a friend of his over to our house and the two of them wanted to take a walk in the woods behind us. Our back gate is in real disrepair, so I have it wrapped up pretty good with bungee cords, etc, so that the dogs don't get out. As a result, the young men had to jump the fence to avoid the inconvenience of undoing it all. 

I happened to look out there and saw my son, on the other side, with his fists on his hips, waiting for his friend who looked not unlike a drunken sea-mammal trying to escape the shallows... He was wobbling atop the fence and I could hear faint groans of pain through the closed window as, presumably, the pointy metal dug into his gut. My son sort of looked around and scratched the back of his ear, obviously reluctant to offer help, which might have embarrassed his friend for the less-than-Olympic performance. Finally, the young chap lolled sideways and thudded onto his back into the dessicating leaves and loam on the other side. 

It was then that my son offered a hand, pulling him up and swiping leaves off of his back. 

I was embarrassed for the kid. 

Currently, I am embarrassed for men for being so oafish. Or, rather, so enslaved by machismo. 

I keep getting ads for jeans on my social media. It's time for new clothes, so I have been looking around, so, no surprise. But, it seems the new trend is "stretchy jeans." I know these have been around for awhile, but I mean really stretchy jeans. 

In a frequently occurring ad, the opening is a guy producing a gallon of milk from within the front of his pants. Point made? It seems the whole premise of the ad is that there is ample room in these jeans for one's manly bits. This ad (and virtually every ad) emphasizes the copious room there is for "the boys" and how there is "no more getting your ____ crushed by your jeans." 

Well, of course that's a problem for you, Captain Virility! And of course you, you studly, Disney Gaston of a fellow -- of course you need jeans that can fit a whole gallon of milk in the front. 


What a bunch of insipient gorillas men are. Picture the casual conversation; a bunch of friends standing around at happy hour; one dude running a finger around the rim of his beer mug and leaning sideways against the bar: "Yeah, these jeans are just cut better. I need room in the front, if you know what I'm saying..." (Cartoon hearts pop like bubbles around the heads of the ladies. [In his mind.])

The only intelligent person in this whole ridiculous picture is the marketing genious who came up with the idea: Bring 'em on board with adolescent vanity. Make it a given that they are so well- endowed that room in their jeans is a big concern. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it was a woman. 

It just leaves me...embarrassed for my own sex. 

Monday, April 22, 2024

Trump's Dirty Tricks (An Apolitical Take)

I want to make it clear that I don't write about "politics." If you were to search the 14-year history of this blog, you would find, though, that I have written about the human condition surrounding politicians. Donald Trump has given me, let's say, much to consider in that regard. It's no secret: I have no respect for the man as a man, especially because I think he manipulates people on a level that I have not seen from a politician in my lifetime. That said: I think there are three types of people who support Trump.

1. Those who are racists and want to make America white again. (Because Trump's dog-whistles are pretty loud, like implying, recently, that Robert E. Lee is unfairly "no longer in favor," and then quoting him.) He's giving them his validation -- the way it was in the Stanley Milgram experiments: the authority is giving permission and encouragement -- "Stand back and stand by." Is he a racist? He may or may not be. I'm not sure. But maybe it is even more inhuman that, if he's not, he is simply reaching for the votes of racists. 

2. This group I feel compassion for: those who are fooled by his brilliant ploy of using the vague catch-phrase ("Make America Great Again") into thinking he is talking about that specific time in which they were happiest. When exactly was America great? "Oh," says the victim, "I remember..." (Yeah, I did call it "brilliant." If I say Hitler was a good orator, I am not saying he was a great guy.) Anyway, these poor people think Trump stands for all of the often laudable conservative values they espouse (some of which, to be clear, I also value); they just don't realize he's completely bamboozling them and that he, personally, holds none of the values they do. The paradox is that he is everything they, themselves, have taught their children not to be: misogynistic; a bald-faced liar; an whining complainer; an excuse-maker; an elitist. This is often the result of a lack of education. They don't know history and they have never read "The Emperor's New Clothes." Or, it could also be a willfully ignorant kind of hope. The conservatism I grew up with was about "truth, justice and the American way," not complaining, making excuses and bragging about where you can grab women. (Also, remember: the picture at the top of this post was made by Trump. It is not satire. This is the image he was literally selling.)

3. Those who really don't like him and know he is a dishonest creep, but who "like his policies."

It is the third group I would like to appeal to. The first two are probably beyond convincing. 

I remember having a long discussion with two very intelligent friends about Trump before the 2016 election. The topic was a philosophical one: How much does a president's character mean, in the grand scheme? After all, Clinton and even the sub-beatified Kennedy were not great guys. My friends (two of my best, to this day) felt that policy was most important. I remember saying that Trump, immoral worm that he is (I believed it then and I believe it now), was going to do great damage to the spirit of the country if not the body. I wish I had been wrong. (I know his supporters would argue that he was not the problem; I don't see it that way, and I am not hashing out that argument now -- that is about politics.) I think his example has shone the light on the hidden cock roaches everywhere. I think he has taught our young men that one can be president and treat women, including his own wife (he cheated on her -- there is no remorse), like garbage. (And, as I have said, he has also fooled otherwise well-meaning folks into his illusion.) 

In my 56 years alive, I have never seen such widespread, unabashed disregard for other humans and it comes in the wake of his influence. A MAGA lady at a rally, for instance, responding to a reporter's point that many children have died in Ukraine. The woman's response: "That's fine with me. Putin just wants back what is his." 

It is fine with her that children are dying. People like this never seemed to feel empowered to say these things out loud before in public interviews. Why now? It could be said I am using a false cause...but I don't think so. 

So, what is my message to group 3? If I am right about Trump's negative effect (you might disagree, but I can't see how) supporting him because you like his policies is a bit selfish: "I don't care if he is a disease to the national spirit, because I like his policies on the border." All I ask is that you consider that. 

I think it is nearly impossible to argue that Trump is a good person. He proves, out loud, every day, that he is narcissistic and unfeeling, and he is caught in lie after lie. He is clearly trying to win votes from racists. If you are okay with all that because you support some of his policies, then continue your Internet travels... 


Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Tao of the 80s Girl

t's all about where we are in the pendulum's swing, when it comes to history. If we are lucky, we find ourselves in the middle of the swing -- the spot where we have gotten it right; but, then, things get away from us again. It's inevitable, I think. 

In the Victorian era, an overload of modesty took hold of Western culture. Women buttoned up to the neck and wore dresses down to the ground. To show an ankle was scandalous. In a few short decades, the flappers were going out in public quite scantily clad. The pendulum had swung. 

I have to say, I miss one thing about the 80s: the ladies. And I don't mean this is a Steve Martin kind of "wild and crazy guy" way. I was not a "playa." (I dated one young woman all through high school.) What I miss is the girls' style from the era. (And while we are clarifying, I don't mean leg warmers and teased out hair. I mean their overall style -- their approach to...girlishness?) 

It felt to me like there was a certain amount of modesty still left, but that ladies were also, on a personal level, comfortable with being sexual creatures. (The personal part is an important distinction. I mean in relation to those they liked, loved or were in relationships with, not simply as they walked through the world. And, let's face it, social media wasn't a thing, so superficial public personas were fewer and farther between.) Many girls and women had escaped the pressures of prudishness, but they also had self-respect. If they were interested in you, they had no qualms about letting you know, but abandon all hope ye who "crossed the line" without their permission. 

The pendulum was in a balanced place, then. I'm not just falling into golden-age thinking here. In fact, there is very little I miss about the 80s. Objectively, from the distance of years, it just seems that way to me. It is, of course, open for discussion...

And I am not trying to judge women as humans, by the way. That's not up to me. I'm just explaining the "vibe" I remember. I think we were at the best spot on the pendulum swing in terms of modesty vs. sexual liberation. I mean, Madonna, at the time, was really pushing the envelope. I remember her "Lucky Star" video making me blush a bit as a young teen. Madonna was one of the factors that started pushing the pendulum away from the center we had found...

Why am I only talking about the girls? Well...because they are the ones who have been unfairly pushed around when it comes to what is "proper" since the dawn of dawns. Or the dawn of Dawns, for that matter. (Maybe we guys should have had more of that pressure. If we had, over the centuries, fewer women might have suffered abuse and callous treatment.)

What I am ultimately saying is that the girls in the 80s (the actual ones, not the movie and MTV video ones; the ones in my high school and college; the ones in my neighborhood and at my part time jobs) seem to have had found a balance. I guess what I am trying to say they had dignity but they seemed comfortable expressing their sexuality. 

Why bring this up? Well, I recently saw a social media video in which a guy was light-heartedly interviewing twenty-something girls in a club. What he was asking them was how they rated themselves when it came to servicing men, orally. No, I am not kidding. He was walking up to strangers and asking them how good they were at fellacio. And the girls? They never missed a beat. Never even blinked. They went into great detail as to their techniques. 

I think one of my "80s girl" friends would have punched him in the mouth. They knew where they stood and they'd let you know about their intimate secrets, but only if you earned their attention. You definitely were not going to talk to them like that out of the blue and hold onto your incisors.

There comes a time when sexual liberation crosses the line into sterile obviousness; where the poetry of flirtation becomes a prosaic set of procedures; when a seductive wink gives way to a crotch-grab, if you will pardon my crassness. Again, I am not judging these girls as humans. What I am judging is the culture we have created -- the one in which they were raised that made them get to a place that makes them think they need to give everything about themselves away for a ten-second spot on some dweeb's Instagram. 

And the girls in the video were dressed way beyond provocatively. In fact, I am pretty sure that one of the girls, if she didn't wear a coat home, could possibly have been arrested for public indecency. Contrast that with the 80s girls. What did they reveal? Maybe the old cut sweatshirt falling provocatively off the shoulder and a jaunty flip of the poofy hair? Maybe that was enough for a start? 

Just one dude's take on things. As always, it's all open for discussion. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Going Extinct: Jack Really is Dead

People tend to think that the worst thing about getting older is that one tends to lose one's understanding of the world. But what about when it goes opposite: when the world no longer understands them?

It is true that, often, older people don't (or can't) change with "the times" and they wind up disoriented or "out of touch." (Think: old Congressman asking Mark Zuckerberg ridiculous questions about the Internet.) 

I remember, for instance, my Grandmom, who would come over to stay with us on weekends and, when she wanted to watch "her show" (General Hospital) she'd call me to put it on because she didn't understand the remote control. 

I'd say, "Grandmom, just push this red button to turn on the TV and then hit the number '6' for channel six."

"That stuff confuses me, Chrissy. You just do it for me, ok?" 

The only thing is, this was a grandmother who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. The confusing influx of new technology [remote controls; cable TV; personal computers...] that threw her into total confusion is what my generation grew up with -- grew up alongside. I would argue that we (Gen X) saw more change in the world than any generation, in terms of not only technology but of culture. 

In short, we "get" the brave new world we live in, even if we don't much like it. We understand it just fine and I understand it just fine. (In fact, when it comes to tech, I find I understand it better than many young people.) 

What I am starting to believe -- not without some sadness -- is that the world may have stopped understanding me

In the 1920s or 1950s, or, in my days of youth, the 1980s, everyone got my "type." The dreamer. The creative person who wanted to drink deeply of life; to live for more than a paycheck and TV time at night for decades on end. The kind of person who wanted words and music to be his life. When people saw me, a jean-jacketed, bushy-black-curly-haired twenty-something on the train heading into Rutgers with his nose in a volume of Wordsworth's collected poems, they recognized: "One of those guys. A scholar." Then, they'd probably smile condescendingly to themselves at how I'd grow up, realize there was "no money in it" and move on. (Fooled them on that one.) I mean, there is no money in it, but...

Now? English departments are all but shutting down or they are merging with the other academically terminal patient: philosophy. Or they are seeking relevance by glomming onto "communications."

My students? I still love them and always will, but, over the decades, I have seen a change. It used to be they would get misty-eyed (at least most of them) when I did my best Dead Poets Society schtick about the sublime in the Romantic ideal or when I'd do the old "living/being truly alive" bit. (A "bit" by the way that I still embrace with complete sincerity.) I often go home exhausted not because of eight hours on my feet, but because of the emotional drain of hurling metaphoric balls that just are not being caught -- or, rather, that no one is even raising a glove for. 

Don't worry. I'm not going to give up until retirement day, I promise you that. But...

A few decades ago, there was a framework of relatability, at the very least. The kids knew about, say, a character like Jack from Titanic, who lived to embrace adventure and feeling. Therefore, they "got" Wordsworth (as a type of person, anyway). And, they "got" me, too, if in less dramatic and less handsome form than Leonardo DiCaprio. They understood people driven to feel and see the world. People driven to really be alive before they die. 

What happened? I don't know. Years of reality TV vs. fiction? Years of pushing STEM and ignoring the humanities? Years of vapid online entertainment -- malnutrition from chewing gum for the brain? A decline in reading?

I'm not sure. But it sure is disheartening when you tell your students, to illustrate the Romantic connection with Nature, that you spent eight days in the Grand Canyon, camping and rafting, and the only burning question in their eyes seems to be: "Why?"

When I was their age, I would see an adventurer, a poet, musician or an artist and think: I want to be like that guy. I'm trying hard not to sound like a complaining old man -- I actually enjoy social media and the wonders of modern technology, especially when it comes to making music. But you can't tell me that replacing the role models I had with "influencers" hasn't doused the passion for living in our young people. And when you can see the Taj Mahal with the click of a mouse, why make the trip?

So I guess there is still wisdom to thinking it is better to have loved and to die in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic than to have carefully managed one's finances, worked in a cubicle to a ripe old retirment age and live till 100, polishing one's golf cart. 

But to not be understood? It's jarring, that's for sure. My students don't see me anymore as "one of those guys" because those guys have gone the way of the stegosaurus. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Older Musicians: Keepers of a Lost Art

I was recently talking to a friend of mine, a musician, who lives in Buffalo, now. We used to be in an original band together, in the late 80s.

(The pic to the left is a cover band I was in in the 90s -- different one.) 

We were talking about the irony of how we work more now than we did as young musicians. (In fact, we are borderline working too much for comfort with our day jobs.) On one hand, this seems surprising. On the other, it's not, at all.

We're keepers of a lost art. Kids rarely form bands in high school, now. Why? There are no bands for kids to look up to -- not in the popular lens. (I know there are a ton of you who can point me to good and even great indy bands -- I believe you that they are out there. But kids don't always see them. Growing up, I couldn't throw a Wiffleball over my shoulder without hitting a great band on the head: Journey, Genesis, Rush, The Police, U2...even bands I wasn't particularly into were bands who could play their instruments and who wrote their own stuff: Zep, VH, Heart, etc, etc...)

Who's going to inspire a kid to play an instrument now? Taylor Swift? Lady Gaga? Ed Sheeran? Sure, they are good enough pop musicians, but...musical inspirations? I heard Neil Peart play on "Tom Sawyer" and asked my parents for a drum set that afternoon after school. My friends heard Eddie or Jimmy Page and had to pick up a guitar. My dad heard Harry James and started on a trumpet his parents couldn't really afford.

So, of course we're working. Where else is live music, outside of $300 (plus) seats in stadiums going to come from? Are you well-off enough to fly out to Vegas and pay $1,000 to see U2 at The Sphere? Cool. I'm not.

You can play the old records over and over, but we're out there delivering a living history show. We're recreating the magic of musicians playing together and moving air with our voices and our "axes." And maybe moving you to move, too.

So keep hiring us, because when we croak, you're out of luck.

Monday, April 8, 2024

If Everyone Were My Dad...

My dad once said, "If everyone in the world were Joe Matt (his professional music name), a little girl could wander out into the streets of New York City at three in the morning and she would be brought home safe."

I think I have mentioned this statement before. But he was right. My dad -- and you, I'm sure; and I -- would never hurt a little girl. But there are people who would. 

Can you imagine? There are people who would hurt a lost little girl. 

This morning, I heard a musician being interviewed on the radio. He is releasing an album of retro-sounding songs (70s era-sounding) and one of his songs, intentionally echoing Marvin Gaye, simply asks: How long will racism and disharmony last? Why can't we see each other as brothers and sisters? It's 2024. 

Apparently "we" can't. But I can. And you can, right? I see my fellow humans as just that: my fellow humans. Each of us is flawed, many of us are annoying and we all clearly see our physical and cultural differences. No one is actually "color-blind." But I see all humans as, intrinsically, of equal worth. Misdeeds can change that (like hurting little girls), but intrinsically, from the starting line of birth, we are all brothers and sisters who deserve equal treatment. 

Who are these people who aren't like you, me and my dad?

This morning, I heard more about Ukraine. More than 20,000 children have been taken hostage by Russia. Children. Where are the "Joe Matts"? 

Either we are all awful, or George Carlin was right that individuals are great, but when they get into groups the problems start. 

Are the majority forced into, say, war, by the minority who have the power? Or, do the minority with the power figure out a way to spread a disease through the minds of the common person that convinces those people that atrocities are ok because of circumstance?

All I can think when I see or hear news about Ukraine or Gaza is: people are horrible. I can see one side as more justified than the other, but, in the end, as Steinbeck once said, "All war is a symptom of man's failure as a thinking animal." In this sense, human kind is a failure. It's hard to believe we haven't put killing others behind us.

Will we ever just stop hurting each other? It seems like a such a simple task. Carl Sandburg had the solution: "Someday they will give a war an nobody will come." 

Well, if everyone were me or my dad (or you?) this could happen. War could stop tomorrow. Cruelty could stop tomorrow. 

But how many of us are like Joe Matt? Can there be so many cruel people in the world? Maybe most of us are evil. Maybe most of us are racist. Maybe most of us want to hurt others because it makes us feel powerful. 

I don't know. Maybe you are not as good a person as my dad and me. Somebody isn't.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Did You Really "Come Out Okay?"

My generation, "Gen X," really annoys me to no end when they start the nostalgic stupid-talk:

"I did [insert stupid/illegal/dangerous/cruel activity here] and I came out just fine...

"My parents [insert ridiculous borderline abusive parent tactics here] and I came out just fine..."

Did you? Did you really? Isn't it kind of arrogant to say, "I came out just fine?" How do you know? Could it be that you came out scarred and beaten-down? And, I mean, if one is total oaf, one won't know it, right?

See, because, maybe the reason we Gen X-ers have raised a generation of frightened, anxious and over-protected kids is because we grew up steeped in bad decisions and walked around frightened and intimidated by our elders and we were so heavily encouraged to "respect" them that even under circumstances of borderline (or actual) abuse, we suffered silently. [This did not happen to me, but it has sadly been the case for some.]

Maybe you didn't come out ok. Ever think about that?

I think about it, literally, every day. I keep a picture of myself as a toddler on my desk so I can ask myself: "Have I let that little guy down? Have I done my best to be the man he deserved me to be?"

We should all do that, I think. We need to stop justifying our own stupidity and that of our parents. We can love our parents forever and still acknowledge outdated parenting ideas. We can admit our own stupidity as kids and still maintain our cool factor.

To the Gen X-er who says, "My dad used to smack me with the fireplace tools when I slouched. That's what kids today need!" ...I say, "How about, no?"

Let's stop blaming some mysterious force for our mistakes with our kids and let's stop soothing our souls by pretending we are perfect.

Face the horror. Prove your parents really raised you with a backbone. Face your own imperfection. Prove all those cracks across the knuckles with the wooden spoon and those bike jumps over rusty scrap metal paid off.

Did you really "come out okay"?

Sunday, March 24, 2024

The History of Music Recording or Why AI in the Arts is Not "Just a Tool."

(Vocab: "Tracks" are basically slots for separate instruments in recording.)

1) A whole band, even the singer (often, 16 piece big bands and orchestras) gathered around one microphone, recording onto one track on a tape (before that, onto a wax cylinder). If someone made a mistake, you had to do the whole take over again. Performance was everything.

2) Two-track tape was invented. The whole band could record onto one track and the singer on another (or choose your configuration). The singer could try multiple takes and even (later down the line) "punch in" to fix mistakes.

3) More and more tracks were added: 4, then 8, then 16, 24 etc. Tape got literally wider. Multiple tapes could run in synchronization. Some big studios had as many as 100+ tracks.

4) Now, mistakes could be fixed with "punch-ins;" tape could be cut and spliced to mix a great chorus with a great verse from another take, etc. (Tape could even be slowed down, lowering the pitch, so a performer could hit higher notes. Robert Plant did this with Zeppelin. Disappointing? Have you hit your "tech line"?)

5) Digital recording was born. No more tape -- right to computer. Infinite tracks. Infinite takes. Editing became surgical. The computer could now "quantize" rhythms so they were perfect. Notes could be tuned, so that a singer could sound perfect. This is still the case, of course.

[It is at step 5 that I, personally, started getting miffed. I recorded my first CD digitally, but used no correction software and didn't even "punch in" -- every instrument, every vocal is a real, full take. (But, yes, I did redo tracks until they were where I wanted them to be.)]

6) AI is created. Now the music can be written for you. AI can already write (at this point) souless songs. A composer or a songwriter can ask AI to write a section in the style of Bach or Gershwin, and AI will do it (poorly, at this point) for him or her.

This is not "a tool." This is beyond even excessive manipulation of recordings. This is a replacement of the artist. Of the human.

Artists should take a stance against it. Consumers should refuse to buy it. (The consumers will not do this, however. They don't care.)

The great drummer and teacher, Tommy Igoe, said to me, in an online discussion, that fighting AI in music is like fighting gravity. There's no point. It is going to happen.

Well, while I'm at it, I have issues with gravity, too...