The bygone, venerable 8-track

Members of my generation lived to see plenty of changes in the ways popular music is consumed. We were born in the golden age of the vinyl album. As adults, many of us are learning to cope with streaming music services.

Throughout most of the 1980s, the audio cassette tape was the most popular means of buying music and listening to it. When I see nostalgic Facebook posts about physical music media from the 1980s, the cassette tape is most often the subject.

But there was another musical format that was already dying out as the 1980s began, but which was actually quite good, by the standards of the time. I’m talking about the venerable 8-track tape. Continue reading “The bygone, venerable 8-track”

Jewel and the National Anthem: not sure I see the issue here

I’m plenty willing to call out celebrity nitwittery when I see it; but I’m also willing to call out a tempest in a teapot, whether it comes from the right or from the left.

Jewel, a pop singer who had her heyday in the 1990s, performed the National Anthem at the Indianapolis 500 yesterday. Fox News and others have been bellyaching about her interpretation of the song. Some have labeled Jewel’s version “disrespectful”. 

At first I thought she might have changed the words, or–even worse–injected some impromptu protest.

But no, she simply sang the song at a slightly slower tempo, accompanied by an acoustic guitar she was playing. 

Our National Anthem is a notoriously difficult song to perform well. Was this the best version I’ve ever heard? No, not really. But it was, on the whole, respectful. Jewel may or may not have been the ideal choice to perform the “Star-Spangled Banner” in a traditionally minded venue like the Indy 500. But she’s not a flag-burner. We ought not treat her as one.

Memorial Day 2023

I did not serve in any of the US Armed Forces. Given that birthday number fifty-five is a few months away, this is unlikely to change.

I’m therefore grateful to those who have served, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms and our way of life.

There is much wrong in the United States at present, at least compared to other times that I remember. Yet the fact remains: this is still the greatest country in the world, and the one that the largest number of people abroad aspire to make their home.

As Vladimir Putin, the mullahs in Iran, and Kim Jong Un remind us, civilization can never be taken for granted. The wolf is always at the door.

Below is a brief video about the history of Memorial Day. One personal note here: my grandparents, who were born in the 1920s, always called the holiday “Decoration Day”. This video explains why.

A Juneteenth controversy…and it’s not even June yet

Actually, more than one controversy; but they all share a common thread. It seems that a number of corporate and civic organizations have used white models in the promotion of various Juneteenth celebrations and activities for 2023.

The white faces were put there intentionally, in the name of making Juneteenth “inclusive”—which is code for: not only for black people. Critics called such representations “whitewashing”, “appropriation”, and “gentrification”.

Yes, this is another one of those ponderous culture war debates that can be argued interminably.

What am I going to do for Juneteenth? Nothing. I don’t feel a need to make a special observance on Juneteenth, just like I don’t feel the need to make a special observance on Orthodox Christmas Day (January 7), Yom Kippur, or Eid al-Fitr.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t respect these holidays, and the people who observe them. If you’re Muslim and you want to wish me a joyous Eid al-Fitr, that’s fine. Want to tell me about the history of Ramadan? I’ll gladly listen. But I’m not Muslim, and I’m not going to pretend that Eid al-Fitr has a meaning for me that it doesn’t.

Likewise, a consensus of black people has noted that they don’t want Juneteenth to become yet another corporate-hijacked holiday. Remember all the commotion over Walmart’s Juneteenth-themed ice cream last year?

It is perfectly okay to remain on the sidelines during a celebration/observance that applies only (or mostly) to a specific group of people. And as for the corporations: they should stick to New Year’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, President’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Christmas, and a handful of others. Has anyone really benefitted from the now tiresome and endlessly controversial co-opting of Pride Month by large corporations? (Yes, Target and Anheuser-Busch, I’m talking to you.)

Speaking of which: I won’t be putting a Pride flag on my social media during the month of June to commemorate Pride Month. I’m no flavor of LGBTQ, and the Pride flag doesn’t apply to me.

Nor is it near and dear to my heart. That doesn’t mean that you can’t fly the Pride flag to your heart’s content, if it means something to you. But please understand: that’s you, not me.

The good news is: I won’t pull a Target or a Bud Light on you. It seems to me that what the LGBTQ community needs fewer of right now is “allies” in corporate boardrooms, who are creating these unproductive controversies.

Oh, and I’m not going to list my pronouns on my social media, either. Cishet people look like total tools and utter fools when they do that. If you’re heterosexual, clearly male or female, and you unnecessarily list your pronouns on your Twitter, Facebook, etc., stop it already. You look like a virtue-signaling nincompoop.

Sensitivity overload in action

Similarly, I will leave all expounding on the significance of Juneteenth to African Americans. Sometimes the most respectful way to observe another person’s holiday is to simply say nothing about it at all.

The Bangles on American Bandstand, 1986

One of the many things I miss about the 1980s is all the great music: Def Leppard, AC/DC, and others.

But some of the female acts were incredible, too. The Bangles were among my personal favorites.

Here’s a gem I found on YouTube: the group performing on American Bandstand in May of 1986. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, I was about to graduate from high school, and Taylor Swift wasn’t even in diapers yet.

Susanna Hoffs, who is still quite active on the music scene, has always had a mesmerizing stage presence. (And yes, she’s still very easy on the eyes at age 64.)

Susanna Hoffs has recently written a novel, too, a romantic comedy entitled This Bird Has Flown. And though I’m ordinarily allergic to romance novels, I’m willing to give this one a plug. (Check out the book here, on Amazon, if you’re interested.)

 

On staying thin in Japan–and getting enough to eat

Every time I visit Japan, I lose weight–whether I want to or not.

As this video describes, getting your fill in Japan is something of a challenge. This is especially true if you have an American-style appetite, like yours truly.

At 5’10” and 160 lbs, I’m not exactly obese. Nevertheless, when I go to Japan, I find that I never get enough to eat. 

And I like Japanese food–sushi, sashimi, you name it. I love it. I simply want more of it than one finds at most Japanese restaurants. 

If you ever visit Japan, my recommendation is that you find a Chinese restaurant and eat there. Chinese restaurants in Japan specialize in cheap, plentiful offerings, just like they do here in the USA. I had some of the best 麻婆豆腐 (mapo doufu) of my life in Nagoya. 

-ET

Learn to fix your air conditioning unit

Not all of it, of course. But many common repairs and maintenance tasks can be handled by a reasonably attentive amateur with the right tools.

For example: the replacement of a capacitor. A local AC contracting company quoted me a price of $384 for this repair. The necessary replacement part costs $19.95 on Amazon. You’ll also need a multimeter, which can be purchased on Amazon for a very moderate price

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a writer, not a handyman or an engineer. Bookish types like me typically don’t like to get our hands dirty. Well, I discovered a few years ago what a self-defeating attitude that is.

I solicited a quote for a necessary home repair, and found that the company in question wanted about 10x the reasonable price for the job. Two other contractors in the area wanted 2 to 3 times the reasonable price.

I define reasonable here as: parts + labor + (reasonable) overhead + (reasonable) profit.

That said, there are limits to what you can do for yourself. The installation of a new AC system is beyond the scope of any homeowner; and environmental laws require that a licensed professional complete the work. 

But you should educate yourself about what is actually involved in common home repairs. And never accept a quote from a vendor that isn’t broken out as described above. Most contractors who serve homeowners don’t want to do this, because they don’t want you to know how much they’re overcharging you.

-ET

Florida, DeSantis, and LGBTQ pride: when a cancellation speaks volumes

The past few years have seen far too many efforts to involve pre-adolescent children in all things queer and LGBTQ. Irresponsible parents throughout the country have taken their children to drag shows and pride parades, all in the name of demonstrating how “open-minded” they are.

We don’t teach 15-year-old girls that heterosexual, 40-year-old men are their “brothers”. Nor would any parent embrace the idea of their 15-year-old daughter joining a group of 40-year-old, heterosexual men in a celebration of sexuality.

Why then, do these same parents take their 11-year-olds to watch gay men twerk while dressed in drag? It makes no sense at all.

As is always the case in the culture wars, one extreme begets another. We now have laws on the books regulating drag queens and drag shows, of all things. 

At the forefront of the effort to separate children from drag queens in the public space is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The governor has made some valid points regarding the unsuitability of drag shows for kids.

Yes, DeSantis is also a politician who is trying to capture the GOP nomination in 2024. Like all politicians and culture warriors, Ron DeSantis is capable of going a bridge too far, even when he’s basically going in the right direction.

DeSantis recently passed a law forbidding drag queen shows and other sexually explicit live performances in the presence of children. The fact that such an issue is even up for earnest debate shows us how far America has taken leave of its senses.

In response to the new law, various pride groups throughout Florida have cancelled upcoming parades and celebrations. Because if children can’t be involved in such festivities, then where is the fun? Such is the message they are sending.

I would have a lot more respect for these organizations if they went ahead as planned with their events, and huffily assured us that placing children before drag queens and sexually explicit performances was the last thing on their minds. These cancellations in Florida speak volumes. 

Another ‘Indiana Jones’ movie?

Matt Walsh (who is too young to remember when the first Indiana Jones movie came out in 1981) summarizes the various critics’ pans of the fifth movie in the franchise. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny will be released on June 30 of this year.

As is often the case, the humorless Walsh sees the downfall of Western Civilization in every cultural artifact. I’m not sure if I can read as many dire messages in these tealeaves as Matt Walsh does. But there are nevertheless some valid questions here, which one might arrive at with or without the assistance of Matt Walsh.

First of all: does the world of entertainment really need 80-year-old action heroes? We’re struggling, as it is, with an 80-year-old president.

Secondly: Isn’t it inevitable that a movie like this, featuring an elderly man teamed up with his spunky, wisecracking goddaughter, is going to hinge on generational and gender-based divides? And isn’t it inevitable that these conflicts are going to rub some people the wrong way, given the current state of the culture wars? (This is a movie that will likely draw equal ire from the “woke” and the “anti-woke” brigades.)

And finally: 142 minutes??? The first movie was only 115 minutes long, and that was in 1981, when attention spans were a lot longer. 

I’m as susceptible to 1980s nostalgia as anyone on the planet. I love the 1980s and generally loathe our current era. But even I have to admit: 42 years is at least two decades too long for a movie franchise to go on.

Nevertheless, I’m sure I’ll get around to watching this movie at some point. Like I said: I’m hopelessly susceptible to the siren call of 1980s nostalgia. 

Adam Conover and AI overhype

Although I have recently ventured back into YouTube, video is not my native environment. Video will always be secondary to writing for me, and always exist primarily as a signal booster for my writing, both in bookstores and here on this website.

Adam Conover is more of a YouTube native than I am, and he recently took down the AI hype machine in a video entitled “A.I. is B.S.”. 

Adam’s salient point is the true nature of the danger we face: Not that some super-smart techno-intelligence will take over, but that tech companies will manipulate us into using worse versions of what we already have, simply because they bear the trendy label of “A.I.”

In yesterday’s essay,  I explored this in the context of those unusable chatbots that now routinely answer phones at large companies.  Adam Conover has many similar examples.

The bottom line is that most commercial, overhyped applications of “A.I.” are problems in search of solutions.

AI-written fiction: a solution in search of a problem?

(Promotional video from Sudowrite)
Do AI writing programs fulfill any real market need?

So-called artificial intelligence (actually a misnomer, but we’ll let that slide for our purposes here) has recently been turned to the task of fiction writing. It is now possible to use AI writing tools like Sudowrite to create large bodies of text that can meet the minimal requirements for stories.

This is especially true in genres like romance, fantasy, and fanfiction. Self-published works in these genres have been posted online in large quantities, and are therefore readily accessible to AI bots that scrape and mine content for AI predictive modeling. These genres also rely heavily on repetitive tropes, which further facilitate AI predictive modeling. It isn’t hard to predict what comes next, if the same thing always comes next.

Let’s put aside the question of whether or not AI-authored fiction that meets some minimal standard is possible. Let’s allow that it already is possible.

Instead, let’s consider the question from another angle: does AI-authored fiction meet any discernible market need? Or is this a solution in search of a problem?

There are some tasks that humans don’t perform as well as software, and which humans don’t even want to do.

Take, for example, calculations involving many rows and/or columns of numbers. Even with a calculator and an adding machine, this is a tedious chore that is highly prone to error. That’s why we’re all grateful that we have programs like Microsoft Excel and Apple Numbers.

The first mass-market spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, hit the market in 1979. While not as good as the latest, 21st-century version of Excel, by the early 1980s VisiCalc had largely eliminated the need to perform tedious calculations by hand.

No one—before or since—has complained about “the machines taking over” where spreadsheet software is concerned. Nor has anyone ever claimed that spreadsheet programs don’t fulfill a genuine market need.

Now let’s pick an example closer to the hearts of writers. There was a time when writers who didn’t want to type their own manuscripts had to hire someone else to do it for them.

That meant hiring a typist. The most expensive (and comparatively rare) option was for a typist to sit in a room with the writer while he dictated aloud. More commonly, the typist worked from tape recordings or handwritten documents.

Prior to 1990 or so, manuscript preparation was actually a real problem for most writers. Imagine, in 1985, preparing an 80,000-word novel manuscript for submission to a half-dozen publishers. Self-publishing wasn’t an option in 1985. Amazon was a decade away; and a quarter-century would pass before the Kindle would  be invented. Everything that was published had to be submitted to a publisher first. On paper.

I prepared college term papers of a few thousand words back in the 1980s, using nothing but paper, a typewriter, and correction fluid. I found that difficult enough. I can’t imagine preparing the manuscript for an 80,000-word novel that way.

The digital revolution, which includes many AI components, changed all that. Everyone now has convenient access to word-processing software that would have been astounding in 1985. And if the writer doesn’t want to type, speech-to-text software programs like Dragon Dictate can even obviate the need for hitting the keyboard. Dictation software would have seemed like alien technology in 1985!

I’m sure that back in 1985, there was a small cohort of typists who made their living preparing manuscripts for novelists. I’d also bet that such work was low-paying, tedious, and no one’s idea of a dream job.

Software, in other words, does a better job than humans of getting words from a writer’s head into a manuscript format that can be consumed by others. Nor are many people clamoring to serve as low-paid scribes for writers. Once again, you’re going to have a hard time finding Luddites or complainers. No one would deny that digital tools improved the process of manuscript preparation.

But now let’s consider the prospect of turning over the conception and writing of a novel—the actual creative work—to a software program.

Let’s return to those AI-written novels and stories. And—once again—let’s leave aside the question of whether or not a minimally passable product is possible with AI.

The first relevant question is: can AI do the job better? I think the answer to that would have to be a resounding no.

I’ve read some of the fiction texts written by AI in recent months. I’m mildly impressed that software can regurgitate and recombine human-generated stories scraped from the Internet, without completely bungling grammar and syntax.

That allowed, the imitative nature of these stories is clear within a few paragraphs, and immediately recognizable as something written by AI. Every AI story I’ve ever seen is a pale imitation of one that you’ve seen a gazillion times on sites like WebNovel and Wattpad.

Why? Because this is where the AI-generated stories are coming from.

Not every reader will be familiar with Wattpad or even the process of writing fiction. But everyone has experienced the following:

You’re having a problem with your electricity, cable TV, or Internet service. You call the electric company or your cable/Internet provider for help.

A pleasant-sounding female voice answers your call. Then you realize, with a sinking sensation, that you have fallen into the virtual clutches of an AI chatbot.

The AI phone attendant can respond to your questions, after a fashion, but she cannot really understand your problem. She is simply following a series of pre-programmed routines. For that matter, there is no “she”. There are lines of computer code written to fool you into believing there is a “she” there.

Software is incredibly useful for certain intense, narrowly constricted tasks, like adding a list of one hundred four-digit numbers. What software can’t do is tell you what those numbers mean, how you should use them to make a decision about your family’s budget, or the next product line you should introduce at your company. For that, you need human intervention—probably your own knowledge and experience.

Software is largely incapable of integrating and interpreting complex data from diverse sources, and completely incapable of engaging in anything resembling the human process of thinking. My guess is that this will always be the case.

Want proof? Is there any one of us who would rather talk to an AI chatbot than an actual person when we call a company with a pressing problem? Have you ever called the cable company, gotten on the line with an actual human attendant, and asked to be connected to an AI chatbot instead?

Of course you haven’t. Because you know that the AI chatbot is ultimately a sham. Although the phone-answering AI chatbot can fool you initially, it really isn’t adding much value to the process. To get anything done, you’ll need to talk to a person.

Nor is the AI phone-answering chatbot really adding much that is even new, beyond the most superficial level. Back in the 1990s—possibly even the 1980s—there were automated phone menus that enabled you to push “1” for the sales department, “2” for technical support, and so on. The phone-answering AI chatbot is yet another example of an AI solution in search of a real-world problem.

If artificial intelligence cannot improve a process, in the same way that spreadsheet programs can improve the process of large-scale calculations, then what is the point of involving AI at all? More often than not, AI simply gets in the way.

Some people are infatuated with artificial intelligence, and believe that it always adds value. But technology can be superfluous, and even a hindrance, if it isn’t suited to a particular task. How many of us would seriously want to take an F-16 to work, rather than commuting in a comparatively low-tech Honda or Toyota?

At present, the world faces many acute shortages. There is a shortage of cheap, environmentally friendly energy. In many areas, there are shortages of medical personnel. Since the COVID pandemic, there have even been shortages of willing restaurant workers.

But one shortage the world does not face? The world faces no shortage of mediocre, barely passable fiction. Just check the Internet. The Internet is already overflowing with imitative, uninspired fiction that no one wants to read.

This is about economics as much as it is about art. As anyone who has ever tried to make a living with novels can tell you, the marketing/selling of fiction is an uphill battle. Even novels by traditionally published, brand-name authors require dedicated and expensive marketing campaigns. The same is true of the best self-published fiction. It doesn’t sell itself. It has to be marketed.

Is there any point, is there any fulfillment of a genuine market need, in filling the Internet (and perhaps, in some cases, the virtual shelves of online bookstores) with AI-knockoffs of Wattpad novels?

This is why I say that AI-written fiction represents a solution in search of a problem. Yes, I understand that some techno-utopians will consider the idea of an AI-written novel to be irresistibly cool for its own sake. The journalistic class, moreover, is presently infatuated with the concept. Various online publications have been hyping AI writing tools for months now.

But how many of us are interested in consuming the resultant products—the novels themselves? Which would you rather read: the next John Grisham or Stephen King novel, or something scraped from the Internet by a bot, and recombined with a software program?

Until you can come up with a satisfactory answer for that question, you can’t convince me that AI-written fiction fulfills any real market need.

Boy George: the non-controversy of the 1980s

Sometimes the past provides us with a lens for better understanding the present.

In the spring of 2023, Anheuser Busch launched an online marketing campaign that featured Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender social media influencer, as a spokesperson for Bud Light.

This resulted in a backlash and a boycott, with real financial consequences for the company.

But the backlash was predictable. The Bud Light/Dylan Mulvaney campaign did not take place in a vacuum, after all.

In recent years, many corporations have placed biological men in spaces allocated for women. Sports Illustrated has selected multiple transgender (biological male) models for its annual swimsuit issue.

Even Playboy has gotten into the act, thrusting female-presenting, biological male models before its heterosexual male readership.

The idea here seems to be that if you show heterosexual men enough transgender women, eventually they’ll start seeing them as indistinguishable from biological women.

This follows the twenty-first-century pattern of blunt-force culture warfare, something I’ll return to shortly.

But let’s get back to the Bud Light debacle.

It seemed to me that all sides were losers here. Anheuser-Busch was certainly a loser. Bud Light sales tanked, as Bud Light drinkers turned to other beers. The company’s stock value declined, too.

Alissa Heinerscheid, the Anheuser-Busch marketing vice president who had championed the Dylan Mulvaney campaign, was forced to take a “leave of absence”. That’s code in the corporate world for “fired”.

Did LGBTQ people benefit from this? Not really. Anheuser-Busch had just made them cannon fodder in its efforts to promote one of its products.

But our topic here is the 1980s, so I’m going to discuss some gender-bending controversies from the 1980s.

Or rather, gender-bending non-controversies. As it turns out, the 1980s were sometimes gay, and sometimes gender-fluid, too. But in ways that weren’t as deliberately confrontational as what you see in the present.

In 1982, I was 14 years old. My parents had just sprung for a basic cable television package, and it included MTV, then a brand new channel.

MTV played nonstop pop and rock videos. I was an immediate fan.

MTV introduced me to lots of new musical acts. I would subsequently buy the albums of some of them, which was exactly what the corporate minds behind MTV had intended.

On the American popular music scene, the early 1980s was the era of the Second British Invasion. Everyone who was big in youth music during that time seemed to speak with a British accent. MTV greatly facilitated this influx of British pop and rock acts.

One of these was a group called Culture Club. The lead singer of Culture Club, Boy George, appeared to be female. Boy George wore makeup and baggy feminine attire. He wore his hair long and in braids, in a distinctly feminine style.

Boy George’s mannerisms were feminine, too. He didn’t sing in a high-pitched falsetto; but his singing voice was high enough to pass for that of a woman.

Some time elapsed before I even realized that Boy George was not a woman. Sure, I sensed that there was something about the female-presenting singer that was atypical. But I was initially fooled.

Boy George is an extreme example, but he wasn’t the only popular musician in the 1980s to tinker with notions of gender norms. There was a whole subgenre of rock music called “glam rock”, in which male musicians took on deliberately androgynous appearances. This started with David Bowie in the 1970s. By the 1980s, groups like Motley Crue and Ratt were wearing makeup and quasi-feminine hairstyles. Women got into the act, too. Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics wore short hair and masculine business suits.

Culture Club, featuring the gender-fluid Boy George, was enormously popular in the early 1980s. In the fall of 1982, the group’s breakout song, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” reached the number two position on the US charts.

The term “transgender” wasn’t common in the early 1980s, but that’s what Boy George was. He was a man who presented as a woman in public. At the very least, he was a drag queen.

Suddenly, the gender-fluid Boy George was in front of millions of impressionable young people, every time they turned on MTV. And practically all adolescents and teens watched MTV in the 1980s.

If we cast the 1980s in terms of the present, the next logical question might be: when did the backlash start? Where were the alarmed parents, taking to microphones in town hall meetings throughout the country? Where were the calls to boycott cable companies that included MTV in their basic packages?

We didn’t have the Internet in the 1980s, of course. But we did have CNN, network television, newspapers, and radio. There were certainly political and social movements that went “viral” during this period, like the Nuclear Freeze campaign, or the Save the Whales Movement.

But here’s the thing: there was no backlash against all of this gender fluidity on MTV and thoughout popular music. Many adults were aware of Boy George. He was too large of a cultural phenomenon to escape their notice.

In 1984, People magazine ran a cover article about Boy George, with the words, “kids are getting his message”. Yet the adult authority figures of 1984 were notably unconcerned. Boy George did not become a flashpoint in a 1980s version of the culture war.

Was this because the 1980s were more liberal? Hardly. Keep in mind that the 1980s are remembered for their conservatism, and not without reason. Politically, this was an era that belonged to Ronald Reagan in the United States, and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. In many of our institutions, members of the World War II generation still occupied positions of leadership.

A group that called itself the Moral Majority was very active, too. This organization, led by evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell, took very public positions on matters of sex and propriety. For example, the Moral Majority constantly campaigned against convenience stores that sold magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Hotel chains that offered pay-per-view pornographic movies in guest rooms were put on boycott lists.

And yet, the Moral Majority and its various imitators didn’t care about Boy George, the gender-fluid, female-presenting lead singer of Culture Club.

I don’t ever recall hearing an adult fulminate against this man who dressed up in female attire to sing for young people. Not even once.

But the tolerance of Boy George’s gender fluidity went beyond the adults. What about that most maligned of demographics: young, heterosexual males? You may have been told that the 1980s was an era of “toxic masculinity”. Not in regard to Culture Club, at least, it wasn’t. As a teenage boy in 1982 or 1983, your decision to listen to Culture Club—or to ignore them—wasn’t seen as a statement on your masculinity. 

Boy George held back nothing, and still, no one on the right cared. In 1983, he was asked in a television interview whether he preferred men or women. He replied, “Oh, both.” In a 1985 interview with Barbara Walters, Boy George elaborated further, stating that he had had both male and female lovers.

And still, there was no call to shield American children from this bisexual, gender-bending singer who made absolutely no bones about who he was and what he was about.

But why were conservatives so blithely tolerant of Boy George and all this public gender fluidity, in the most conservative era in recent history?

Because other things were different in the 1980s, too. Tolerance went both ways. No one on the right insisted on making Boy George and gender fluidity points of confrontation, because no one on the left did, either. Nor did the people who ran our schools, media outlets, and Fortune 500 companies.

I was in high school during the first half of the 1980s. My teachers were certainly aware of Boy George. Yet none of them suggested in class that maybe some of us should change our gender identification because this famous singer appeared to be doing so. Teachers in American grade schools weren’t making such arguments, either.

Nor would a marketing executive at Anheuser-Busch in 1983 have been foolish enough to troll the company’s core demographic by making Boy George a spokesperson for Bud Light. Bud Light commercials of the 1980s were designed to appeal to the beer’s mostly male, mostly blue-collar customer base. Bud Light ads of that era featured the humorous canine character Spuds MacKenzie, and real women in swimsuits. Some Bud Light marketing campaigns even made use of both in the same ads.

Nor did Boy George—or any of his fans—demand that we pretend Boy George was an actual woman, just because he presented as female in public. In fact, Boy George—who is still around—has publicly taken issue with the contemporary pronoun police.

Back in the 1980s, Boy George wanted to do his thing; and his thing was flamboyant, gender-bending, and bisexual. He didn’t demand that you change your ideas of gender and sexuality in order to accommodate his ideas or his choices.

The main strategy in the culture wars of the twenty-first century seems to be not persuasion, but staking out positions that are practically guaranteed to be inflammatory, then daring the other side to knock a chip off one’s shoulder.

As someone old enough to remember the 1980s, I can report that in regard to most matters, people were a lot more laid back and tolerant then. There was an acceptance of diversity, but it was also understood that diversity went both ways. Boy George represented one kind of diversity. As did the predominantly heterosexual, rough-edged culture of the typical Bud Light drinker. What Alissa Heinerscheid, the now fired marketing VP at Anheuser Busch, dismissively called “fratty” culture.

This sense of moderation on all sides was why Boy George never appeared in a Bud Light ad in the 1980s, and he never incurred the public disdain of Bud Light drinkers. Even as many Bud Light drinkers happily sang along with Karma Chameleon when that song came on the radio, as it so often did.

‘Cancel culture’ in Spanish

Below is a (true) story worth listening to…from someone other than me.
 
This video is in Spanish (one of my lifelong interests), so those of you who have *not* studied the language can feel free to skip it.
 
This is an account of how the citizens of Spain had to deal with the challenges of freedom of speech following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. You’ll recognize some parallels to many of our current debates in the English-speaking world.
 
I follow a lot of the Spanish-language YouTube channels. Many of the same debates we’re having in the English-speaking world at present are playing out in parts of Latin America and Spain now, too.
 
I’ve even heard a word for “to cancel someone” in Spanish: the verb ‘funar’, which originated in Chilean Spanish.
 
Anyway, if your Spanish is up to the task, listen to this gentleman’s talk. It’s a little long, as YouTube videos go, but well worth your time.

 What was a 1980s latchkey kid? 

A latchkey kid is a child or early teenager who is “home alone” for a few hours each day after school. This usually happens because parent(s) are working, and therefore unavailable.

The latchkey kid phenomenon is closely associated with the 1980s, and the generation of Americans born between 1965 and 1970-something. (The so-called “Generation X”.) That said, this was not the experience of everyone who was a school-age kid at some point between 1980 and 1989. Similarly, the generation that grew up in the 1980s was by no means the first—or last—cohort of young people who spent time alone after school.

All those disclaimers aside, we can speak meaningfully of the observable phenomenon, even if it is less than universal, and not strictly confined to the 1980s. The latchkey kid was a definite 1980s trend, owing to some unique circumstances.

Working moms, aka “career women”

In the third decade of the twenty-first century, the word “career woman” sounds quaint. Some might even find it sexist. Of course women have careers, you might say. And you’d be right, if we’re talking about the 2020s.

But four decades ago, things were different…and changing. Millions of upper- and middle-class women were entering the professional, white-collar workforce for the first time. 

The concept of women doing paid labor wasn’t entirely new. Working-class women had long performed paid labor outside the home to one degree or another, usually out of simple necessity. And don’t forget Rosie the Riveter, who filled the vacuum in the male workforce during World War II.

There was also a long tradition of women working in specialized professional careers, especially teaching. (Almost all of my elementary school teachers were women.)

What was new in the 1980s was the mass entry of women into private-sector careers traditionally reserved for men. This is why you heard so much about the “career woman” in the 1980s. This really was a new dimension of female employment, and at an unprecedented scale.

These were also the women who were the young and early middle-age mothers of that era. Their children typically got home from school around 3 p.m., several hours before the end of operations in the typical white-collar workplace.

The result was millions of latchkey kids.

Economic uncertainty

At the same time, a struggling economy had led to high levels of unemployment in the early 1980s. The economy improved as the decade progressed, but unemployment in the United States peaked at 10.8 percent in 1982!

This economic dislocation was dramatized in the 1983 movie, Mr. Mom, starring Teri Garr and Michael Keaton. In the movie, an out-of-work automotive engineer becomes a stay-at-home dad. His wife, meanwhile, becomes the family breadwinner, accepting a high-profile position in the advertising industry. Hijinks ensue, as Dad the Engineer attempts to cope with grocery shopping, housecleaning, childcare, and other traditionally “female” tasks.

Mr. Mom is a comedy; and as would be expected of any movie made 40 years ago, it is largely dated now. Nevertheless, the film serves as a time capsule of the economic anxieties—and realities—of the early 1980s.

As manufacturing took a hit, some traditionally masculine careers (what could be more manly than automotive engineering?) went into decline. Jobs involving computers, marketing, and other forms of white-collar “knowledge work”, were beginning to rise in importance. Many of these careers appealed to women.

Small families and broken homes

The 1980s latchkey experience was also affected by recent demographic changes. The 1980s was, compared to the decades before and since, a decade of small families. By the time the first GenXers were born in 1965, the postwar Baby Boom was petering out. The World War II generation was done with reproduction and childrearing, and that burden increasingly fell onto the shoulders of the Baby Boomers themselves. Most of the Baby Boomers opted for smaller families.

Once married, the Baby Boomers divorced in record numbers, causing divorce rates to peak in 1980. The so-called “broken home” was another reason for the latchkey kid phenomenon. Divorce compelled many mothers to enter the workforce.

My latchkey kid experience

But what if both of your parents were happily married, and gainfully employed? That was my situation.

I was twelve years old in 1980. That same year, my mother took a job as a contract administrator at a local defense contracting firm. The company made the fuses that went into Cold War-era weapons like the shoulder-fired TOW missile and the Hellfire Missile System. 

I spent several hours alone each afternoon, between the time when school let out, and when my parents arrived home from work (usually between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m.)

Learning to entertain yourself without technology

What to do during that time? Homework? Surely you jest. There were a few other kids in my neighborhood, and I got along with them. But we could only hang out so much until we grew tired of each other.

How about TV? Afternoon television in the early 1980s was a wasteland for adolescents and teens. Cable television was just taking off, and nothing worth watching aired until the evening, when adult audiences were tuned in.

Most of the afternoon programming on the non-cable networks consisted of either cartoons or soap operas, neither of which was of much interest to a twelve-year-old boy.

Nor did technology offer much in the way of engaging entertainment. The Internet and cell phones were still decades away. Video games were in their infancy. (Think “Pong”.) If someone had uttered the word “iPad” to me in 1980, I would probably have assumed it had something to do with personal hygiene.

That left latchkey kids largely responsible for entertaining themselves. This was especially true on rainy days, and during the winter months, when it was distinctly unpleasant to hang around outside.

Most of us learned to entertain ourselves in various ways. I became an avid reader, and began dabbling with writing my own articles and stories.

I also immersed myself in various hobbies: coin collecting, stamp collecting, and angling. In the summer of 1978, my grandfather had introduced me to bass fishing. I acquired back issues of Field & Stream and Fishing Facts, and read them all cover-to-cover. By 1981, I knew more about developments in fishing than my grandfather did.

Ironically, this was just about the time that I dropped fishing for other, “cooler” pursuits. But I can still speak knowledgeably about the differences between spinning, spincast, and baitcast reels. I could give you a solid introduction to bass fishing in Midwestern and Upper-South lakes and rivers. (The basics of fishing, I’ve since discovered, really haven’t changed that much since I went fishing with my grandfather.)

The net effects of the latchkey kid phenomenon

All this time alone gave me the ability to ignore the crowd, zero in on an objective, and take a deep dive. I have resisted the modern obsession with cellphones and social media, the compulsive need to be constantly connected, and in constant communication.

Spending so much time alone, at such an early age, taught me to keep my own counsel. I don’t need that much approval from others. I really don’t care what most people think, either about me, or about what I’m doing.

This self-containment has obviously given me the advantage of independence. I have many, many faults; but being a joiner, a follower, or a bandwagon-rider is not among them. I never met a rule, group standard, or authority that I couldn’t challenge.

But all that independence and self-containment has a downside, too. The crowd can be a sinister mob, but that isn’t always the case. A thriving society cannot subsist solely on the uncoordinated activities of lone wolves. There are situations in which being a team player, marching in line, and having a willingness to be led by others are necessary and desirable.

I recognize this principle abstractly, but I don’t feel it in my bones. I’ve never been able to switch off my independence instinct for anything beyond a short-term, provisional basis.

My corporate career was notably lackluster, partly because I bristled at being ordered around. Nor did I naturally aspire to becoming the boss—the core motivator of most underlings. I have never wanted to take orders…or give them.

Oh, and I’m over the age of fifty and single. That might suggest that I have some commitment issues.

A final note on the latchkey kid. The term itself seems to be a retroactive one. Although my research tells me that it existed in the 1970s and 1980s, I don’t recall ever hearing it in those years, either in the media or in daily conversation. Nor do I ever recall anyone describing himself as “a latchkey kid”. The definition and analysis of the phenomenon have mostly come later. Back then, being a latchkey kid was simply what a lot of us did.

-ET

Mother’s Day in crazy times

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. It would be easy for me to say that those were simpler times; and they were.

I’m also an unrepentant nostalgic and traditionalist, so it should therefore surprise no one that I have a lot of respect for mothers and Mother’s Day.

But not everyone agrees.

Just last week, officials at Toronto’s Kew Beach Junior Public High School removed an innocuous Mother’s Day message posted to a marquee outside the school. Why? Someone complained that the message wasn’t sufficiently “inclusive”.

The message was this:

“Life does not come with a manual, it comes with a mom.”

Now, there might be a point here (though not the point the complainer was trying to make). I understand that not all children have mothers. Mothers die in childbirth. Mothers are absent because of addiction, divorce, and other unfortunate circumstances.

That wasn’t the issue here, though. The source of ire up in Canada was that the sign “didn’t take into account kids from different kinds of families like LGBTQ families”.

Two dads, in other words. Or a polyamorous parenting ensemble consisting of multiple adults of various gender identities and orientations.

It will be only a matter of time (mark my words on this one) before some school district or especially woke city council declares Mother’s Day itself to be insufficiently inclusive, and seeks to cancel it. Look at what just happened at Kew Beach Junior Public High School. Someone complained, and the people in charge caved, rather than bear an accusation of thoughtcrime.

There’s a lesson here: When we listen to crazy people, we get crazy times. When we cringe before ideological extremists, their values become our reality.

Mother’s Day is Mother’s Day. It doesn’t include everyone. It doesn’t include me, for example, because I’m a biological male and I’m not a parent.

And you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that.

Happy Mother’s Day, 2023!