Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Thank You for the Music

Here are a few thoughts for all those people who say that depending on streaming from Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music is so much better than actually owning the music and having it take up valuable space on your hard drive and/or mobile device...

I'm old. I remember having a stereo system with lots of components. First it was the receiver and turntable. Then the cassette deck. Then the double cassette deck. Then the CD player. Then the five-CD player. That's a lot of equipment to have in your living room all wired together.

I also remember records...over 1000 45s and 300 albums also taking up space in my living room. I remember the cassette mixtapes I made from them. And then there were the CDs.

Oh yes, and I remember buying records...and the fact that for the 79¢ you paid for a 45, you got one song you wanted and one song you probably didn’t. That meant about 40¢ a song...in 1966 money. I’ll let you calculate the adjustment to 2017 dollars.

And as much as I tried (and I tried really hard), I could never come up with a good, easy to use, cataloging and filing system for all those records. And even when I did, there was no guarantee that I’d put the records right back where they belonged when I was done playing them.

Between the equipment and the media, I was begging for someone to invent something that would allow me to put all the music I owned into one small place so I could get my living room back.

And in 2001 it happened, with the introduction of the iPod. “1000 songs in your pocket” they said. That was pretty much the equivalent of the “A side” of all the singles I owned. But soon the capacity went up to more and more and more. My 64gb iPod Touch could theoretically hold 15,000 songs.

Better yet, though, came the ability to store even more music on the hard drive of my computer...provided I had a large enough hard drive. I didn’t have to keep all the music on my iPod, just my favorites. It took a while for me to replace all my vinyl with digital versions, and yes, in many cases it meant buying again; but I got my living room back, and my stereo now consisted of an iPod and a portable set of speakers.

But my point, my real point, is that all you people who complain about how much disk space it takes and how much it costs to buy music as opposed to renting it through streaming is this: It’s still less physical space, even if I buy an extra external hard drive for it, to own all that music digitally than to have all that vinyl sitting around the house...uncataloged and unorganized. And it’s still cheaper, at $1.29 per song that I want in 2017 money than it was for a double-sided single at 79¢ in 1966.

So from my aged perspective, that hard drive full of music that I’ve paid for is a vast improvement over that living room full of equipment, records, cassettes, and CDs.

And...I’ll always have the music because I own it. The day won’t come when some record label or artist decides that they don’t want me to be able to play it anymore...as they might with Spotify or Pandora.

Now don’t get me wrong…there are some great things about those streaming services. In an era when radio is increasingly specialized and you can no longer find a station that plays a little of everything, I use Pandora for discovery by creating a bunch of stations with different genres, and then shuffling them so that a song by Ingrid Michaelson could be followed by one by Ray Charles, Bert Kaempfert, the Beatles, Benny Goodman, Kathy Mattea or some artist I haven’t heard of yet.

And then…when I hear something new that I like…I’ll buy it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Are Some of Us Part of the Problem?

I’m going to ask my fellow liberals a question which may seem downright unthinkable, but which needs to be asked. After all, if we expect “them” to do some serious self-examination, then we really ought to do some too. And here’s the question:

Have some of us been part of the problem?

In other words, have some of us pushed so hard, so fast, and so obnoxiously that we caused the cultural backlash that helped put Trump in office?

I know...heresy, isn’t it? How is it possible to push too hard, too fast, and too obnoxiously for things that we believe are right?

Well, first of all, imagine hearing those words coming from “them”, because they believe that they’re right too; and they’re pushing just as hard. But more to the point, I want to tell you about something that happened to a friend of mine.

He recently had a woman who “identified herself, rather loudly, as a feminist” go ballistic on him for holding the door for her. What he saw as simply being polite, and not letting the door slam in the face of the person...male or female...behind him, she took as him trying to assert his masculinity and dominance over her.

And I can sadly say that this is not an isolated incident. I’ve heard of this happening to countless guys before, and I have to ask myself is it this type of loud, obnoxious “feminist” that causes certain conservative pundits to use the term “feminazi”?

Have they pushed things just a little too far, and destroyed any goodwill that the women’s movement might have had among some people?

I told my friend that this woman was not a feminist, but a bully and a jerk. I also reminded him that about 5% of any group is likely to be made up of bullies and jerks, and he just happened to have run into one of them.

But let’s look at this from the larger perspective. Have some of us on the extreme liberal end of things pushed too far, too hard, too fast...and too obnoxiously, thus setting the stage for the Trump backlash?

It’s a definite possibility.

Recently, I read a great book, Why Liberals Win (Even when They Lose Elections). At the end of the book, after the author has made his point from episodes in American history, he brings up a question...the same question I’m bringing up here: Are we sometimes our own worst enemies by pushing too hard?

Sometimes we’re too strident about everyone being “accepting”, so strident that we can’t accept other people’s honest differences of conscience, and we end up trying to bully them into doing things our way…which is, of course, the right way.

Really…can’t we be flexible as some major cultural changes are happening…changes that are happening way too fast for some people to easily assimilate, but that will happen nonetheless, no matter how much pushback we see at the moment?

Do Adam and Steve really have to have that bakery make the cake for their wedding? Or more to the point, do they really have to have that bakery decorate the cake in a way that is in total opposition to their beliefs? Can we consider for a moment that this might be like going to the kosher bakery and not just asking them to make a cake that we’ll be using on Easter Sunday, but to decorate it with “He is Risen”?

And…with all the other qualified people in the County Clerk’s office who could do the job, is it really necessary for them to insist on that clerk signing their marriage license? Is that asserting their rights, or is it bullying?

This brings us back to my friend and the self-proclaimed “feminist.” Are we, in our “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” push for social change, behaving like that woman and others like her, and losing any goodwill that we might have gained by taking a more measured and thoughtful approach?

It’s definitely a question worth considering.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Chocolate, Milk, and Sex Maniacs

Three years ago, in response to a disastrous Facebook conversation where I tried to explain that men’s feelings about sex are more nuanced than many women seem to think, and in which one of the women involved said, “Not all women are sex maniacs” (thereby implying that all men are), I wrote the blog piece Sex and the Third Rail.

Funny thing is, though, that I never really got the chance to explain how nuanced guys’ feelings about sex are. I simply wrote about the experience that led up to the blow up.

I’m going to try to do that now, using the example of chocolate milk.

Really…chocolate milk.

But before I start, let’s remember that all analogies are faulty in one way or another, so I don’t want you to start picking this apart. Just look at it as a chance to go, “Oh…I never thought of it that way before.”

OK, now that we’ve got that settled, let me ask you this question: Is chocolate milk all chocolate, all milk, or some combination of both?

OK, assuming that you’re not either stupid or trolling me, you answered that it’s some combination of both. Well, using the standard formula for making a glass of chocolate milk at home, I’ve figured that it’s 84% milk and 16% chocolate. That still means that it’s mostly milk…in fact, it’s overwhelmingly milk…but that little bit of chocolate you add, which is spread out all through the milk now, has a huge effect on the color and flavor. And…unless you have a centrifuge, it’s pretty much impossible to separate the chocolate from the milk.

Now let’s do a little substitution here, and say that the milk represents emotions and the chocolate represents sexual desire. If we do that, then I think we can say that guys are pretty much represented by chocolate milk. By pre-packaged chocolate milk. Sex isn’t the only thing we think about, we are emotional creatures, we are very emotional creatures; but sexual desire, like the chocolate in the milk, is all wound up in the emotions, and can’t easily be separated out.

It’s not all we think of, but it’s in everything we think about. And even then, it’s only a small part of what’s in what we’re thinking about. But it’s inseparable from the rest.

And we not only love chocolate milk, but we have a warehouse of it to give.

Now let’s consider women. Women seem to be more like a gallon of plain milk sitting next to a bottle of Hershey’s syrup. They can pour themselves out plain, and then add some chocolate to themselves if they wish. But the chocolate’s not there all the time, it’s not an intrinsic part of their makeup…it’s just an option that’s available to them should they want it.

And women have a warehouse that stores a lot of plain milk and some Hershey’s syrup.

The problem is that when a woman asks for a glass of milk, and keeps being presented with chocolate milk by her guy, he looks like a “sex maniac.” Similarly, when the guy asks for a glass of milk, and gets plain 2%, he’s wondering why it’s so bland, why there can’t be a little chocolate to it, and why she gets so mad when he tries to go get the bottle of Hershey’s syrup.

But…he’s not 100% chocolate syrup. That’s the definition of a sex maniac here…a person who wants to drink an entire 8-ounce glass of that stuff all the time. And I don’t think anyone could do that.

Although…there does seem to be a stereotype about women loving chocolate.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


It’s established pop music history that classic 50s songs like Sh-Boom, Tweedlee Dee, Hearts of Stone, and many others were recorded by black artists on minor labels before they were “covered” by white artists on major labels and became major hits. And it’s generally felt by many fans of the original versions that the original artists were “cheated” out of the glory due them by “inferior” cover versions by white artists. They feel that the cover versions “whitewashed” the soul right out of the originals by making them smoother and slicker, and more acceptable to “mainstream” audiences. To these people, the originals are the real thing, and the cover versions are (racial pun not intended) pale imitations that really had no right to exist.

As a music history person, I’m not sure that I ever felt that strongly, although once I discovered the original versions of songs I’d heard for years by the Penguins and others, I discovered that I generally liked the rougher versions better. As a music history person, I knew that everyone borrows from everyone else. In fact, I even wrote about it a few years ago.

However, I had a spectacular revelation at a barbershop harmony concert about a year ago. Here different barbershop groups, male and female, got together to present two or three favorite songs, done in barbershop style. These ranged from old barbershop classics to current hits. And as I listened to them sing these songs, it hit me…

The people who covered those 50s songs by black artists didn’t “steal” anything from anyone. They didn’t “whitewash” the soul out of anything. They simply did those same songs in a different style…a style that was popular with the mainstream audiences of the day. And they didn’t cheat those black artists out of their glory either, because the original versions weren’t going to be played on mainstream radio stations or bought by mainstream audiences anyway; they’d remain in the province of people who listened to what were then called “race” radio stations and bought “race” records.

The composers of those songs, however…well they cried all the way to the bank, having made money off of both versions.

Why is it that we feel that the original artist is the only one who has a right to have a hit with a particular song?

Let’s take a look at I Can’t Stop Loving You. Ray Charles wasn’t the first person to record it. That honor goes to country singer Don Gibson in 1957. His version made it all the way to number 7 on the Billboard Country chart but only to 81 on the (mainstream) Hot 100. But when Ray Charles recorded it in 1962, it went up to number 1 on the Hot 100, R&B, and Adult Contemporary charts. It was a reversal of the trend of white artists getting major hits off of songs first recorded by black artists.

I’m sure that Gibson, who also wrote the song, cried all the way to the bank, when the Ray Charles version introduced the song to an even wider audience and made it a standard. In fact, I bet that when he got that royalty check from the Ray Charles version, he thought to himself, “life could be a dream, sh-boom!”

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

¿Dónde Están los Trabajos? or Where are the Jobs?

When I was a kid there were four breweries near my hometown of East Orange, NJ. Rheingold was in Orange, and was a 15-minute walk my house. I often passed it walking to the Y on Saturday mornings. Pabst, in Newark, was a 15-minute bike ride away, and on the way to my grandparents’ house in Newark. Ballantine, also in Newark, was a 20-minute drive away, and we passed through its huge complex whenever we went to the Newark Drive-In. Anheuser-Busch, with its huge animated flying eagle sign, was the one we saw the least. It was only 18 minutes away, but we only saw it when we went to Newark Airport, and that wasn’t all that frequently.

Of those four breweries from my childhood, all but one were gone by 1987, taking hundreds of jobs with them. Ballantine, once bigger than Anheuser-Busch, closed its plant and sold its brands in 1972. Rheingold, a local favorite since the 1800s, folded in 1976. And Pabst closed its Newark brewery in 1986; leaving only Anheuser-Busch brewing in Essex County.

And we won’t even talk about the Schaefer, Piels, Ruppert, and additional Rheingold breweries across the river in New York City.

What caused the closing of 75% of the breweries in North Jersey?

I’ll tell you one thing for sure…it wasn’t “immigrants taking the jobs from ‘real’ Americans.” In fact, most of those breweries were founded by immigrants. It also wasn’t the jobs being shipped south of the border, to where cerveza could be made more cheaply. So then what was it?

One thing was the inability of what had been strong regional brands like Rheingold and Ballantine to compete with expanding national brands from Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, and Miller. Another…and perhaps the biggest thing…was modernization. When Pabst closed its Newark plant in 1986, they moved production to a much larger, and more efficient, facility in Northeastern Pennsylvania; a plant that was able to brew many different brands of beer with fewer people.

Now let’s move up to Central New York, where I live now, and let’s talk about modernization again. There’s a chocolate plant in Fulton that closed as a result of that. Once again, it wasn’t immigrants taking jobs away from “real” Americans; and it wasn’t the plant being moved south of the border, closer to where the cocoa beans came from. It was that there was a larger, more efficient, centrally located facility out in the Midwest.

The big air conditioning company in DeWitt…that we stole from Newark back in the 1930s? They did move south…closer to where their customers were. After all, why build air conditioners in Upstate New York and ship them to North Carolina, when you can build them in North Carolina to begin with? No immigrants involved here.

Then there are mergers and acquisitions…always big job killers. When the fire engine company in Florida bought the one in Central New York, all they really wanted was the customer list and the intellectual property. They didn’t need a factory up here; they already had excess capacity in a very efficient facility down there. Do you see any immigrants taking jobs away in this scenario?

Oh…and the big plant nearby that made soda ash for over 100 years using the Solvay Process. Those jobs abruptly disappeared in 1985 when a natural source for soda ash was found out west…where it could be mined much more cheaply. Who was to blame for those jobs disappearing, and can anyone bring them back?

No. No matter what anyone says, those jobs, like Little Sheba, are gone, and ain’t coming back. But maybe, just maybe, rather than trying to bring back the “good old days” that never were, there’s something new and better on the horizon that takes a bit of imagination to see and bring about…imagination that we haven’t been using because we still want to do things the old ways, and are unwilling to adapt to new realities.

And because it’s easier to blame someone else than to make those changes.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Birds Do It...

There’s a store here in town that specializes in erotic books, videos, and all kinds of sexual goodies. There used to be a Radio Shack next to it, and I would always joke about how the people who wanted to visit that other store would always stop in Radio Shack first for a couple of batteries. That way, if anyone claimed that they saw their car parked in front of Boulevard Books, they could always truthfully say that they were at Radio Shack.

But Radio Shack is long gone…at least from our area…I was actually surprised to see one in Denver last year. Now anyone who wants “plausible deniability” has to go to the nursing uniform store that’s in its place. And let’s face it, people are less likely to need a set of scrub tops than a couple of CR 2032 batteries. But this got me thinking…why does it even have to be this way in the first place?

The old song lyric goes, “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it”, so why do we pretend…or feel we have to pretend that adults don’t have sex? Or at least, why do we have to pretend that adults don’t want anything that you might find in a store like Boulevard Books.

Perhaps the question is why do we have to pretend that “respectable” adults wouldn’t want anything that you might find in a store like Boulevard Books…and why might you be embarrassed to run into someone you knew while you were shopping there?

I’ll tell you, it was embarrassing enough running into one of my 9th grade students in the lingerie section of Target a few years back. We stumbled into each other, pretended not to see each other, turned around, and kept on shopping. But still…why can’t we admit that 9th grade girls want nice underwear and that I might be shopping for my wife (yes, I know what some of you are thinking, and let’s just not go there right now, thank you very much). Had we run into each other in the sporting goods department, we might strike up a conversation, but because we were both in lingerie, we officially didn't see each other and it was something that was never to be spoken of…ever.

But going back to the original question, why is it considered a huge social embarrassment to be seen in, or even have your car seen next to a store that specializes in supplies for things that everyone knows that everyone does? Why can’t going to Boulevard Books be seen as no different than going to the local Ace Hardware?

And even if you decide to go the more “discreet” route, and do all your shopping online, why do those companies make a big deal out of promising to send your package in “plain brown wrapping”, with a return address and line on your credit card bill that doesn’t reveal anything?

Why the f*** can’t we admit that people f***, and might want a few items to go along with the experience?

There seems to be no stigma to buying certain items in the “sexual wellness” section of the local Walgreen’s, and putting them on the counter with your tissues, vitamins, and potato chips. There also seems to be no stigma to grabbing those items from the “personal needs” section of the local supermarket, and putting them on the conveyor with your cucumbers, sausage, and Naked Juice.

And holy crap, the stuff they have in the back of Spencer’s at the mall! But no one will give you a second look if you say you want to shop there. After all, maybe you’re looking for a lava lamp.

But still…a store that’s obviously dedicated to erotic books, videos, and sex toys? For some reason we still feel a need to make sure that no one sees us entering or leaving that place. And how silly is that?

So yes…I’ll admit to having visited Boulevard Books. But I’ve also bought batteries at Radio Shack many times.

And let’s not go there either.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?

…and never brought to mind?


That’s because the Inverse Square Law says so. And the Inverse Square Law eventually works its way on all relationships…including extended family members.

So what does the Inverse Square Law have to say about this? Well, the simplified version is that the intensity of a relationship falls off more and more quickly the farther away you are from it…until you’re down to practically nothing.

This came to mind as I was looking at the list of people we send Christmas cards and family newsletters to, and thinking about the five people who would be culled from it in the coming year. People who I haven’t heard from in like forever. And after I thought about it a bit, I realized that I was OK with culling them…because the Inverse Square Law had had its way with them, and maybe it was time to let them fade out. Maybe, for them, the Inverse Square Law had had its way with me long ago, and they were more than happy to let me fade away, but I kept sending those damned cards and newsletters.

But really, think about it…your best friend from high school, your old college roommate(s), all the people you hung out with at your old job, even your cousins from across town that you used to play with all the time…as you go farther away and see them less, the relationship is bound to fade as time goes on; and it’ll fade more quickly as more time goes on.

Unless, of course, you are intentional…or even unintentional…about keeping it up.

What are the intentional ways of keeping it up…of keeping the relationships from fading? The usual things: regular cards, letters, email, phone calls, and visits….in both directions. If one party thinks they’re doing all the heavy lifting, resentment will speed up the work of the Inverse Square Law.

And yet sometimes, even with being intentional about trying to keep up a friendship, there comes a point where it starts to feel forced and unnatural. There comes a point where you realize that maybe it’s time to let the other person go. After five years you still have a lot in common. But after 10, 20, 30, or more, your lives have diverged to the point where you have nothing in common anymore except some fuzzy memories from “back then.” Memories which may not be enough to shore up this fading relationship. There comes a point where you ask yourself if you’d still be friends with this person if you both met each other now for the first time.

What are the unintentional ways of keeping a friendship up? Well, one of the best known ones is Facebook.

Facebook is an odd hybrid of both intentional and unintentional. Yes, you’re intentional about joining Facebook. Yes, you’re intentional about accepting someone as a friend, or asking to be theirs once you find out that they’re on. And yes, you intentionally joined that group dedicated to your old high school, your old hometown, the choir you traveled across the country with when you were in college, or some other organization you were a member of at one time. Yes, you were intentional about all that. But after that, a lot becomes unintentional and coincidental in a way that feels very natural and unforced.

It becomes unintentional because Facebook’s magical algorithm has things randomly pop up in your feed from these people every now and then, for you to see, reminding you that they existed. And the beauty is that they didn’t have to specifically target you, which could be awkward. You just happened to be in the “virtual hallway” when they walked by. And if you happen to comment on one of those posts, you briefly enter their lives again, in a natural and unforced way.

As long as you are Facebook friends with someone, the work of the Inverse Square Law is slowed down.

And yet…and yet…sometimes there does come a time to realize that it’s time to let go of someone who used to be a friend. And sometimes you’re relieved when they let you go. Which brings us back to my original question:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot…and never brought to mind?

I’m thinking that sometimes auld acquaintance should be let go.

But...I’ll privately drink an occasional cup of kindness to those I’ve let go…and who’ve let me go.

Including the five I’m culling from my mailing list for next year.