Audiobooks while you mow

Or podcasts, for that matter. Or music.

I am a big fan of  making use of all available time. During the spring and summer months, I mow two suburban lawns. That means about three hours of walking behind a lawnmower.

Here’s the problem, though: ordinary earbuds don’t provide sufficient hearing protection while you’re mowing the lawn. Nor are you likely to hear much of what you’re listening to, unless you only want to listen to KISS and AC/DC.

If you want to listen to spoken audio content while you mow the lawn, or operate other kinds of machinery, then you need to get a pair of WorkTunes Connect Hearing Protectors with Bluetooth Technology Headphones, made by 3M. 

It took me only a minute to sync my pair with my iPhone, which is loaded with podcasts and audiobooks. These headphones muffle the sound of my lawnmower to a very small background rumble, and I can hear the spoken audio content perfectly.

You can also accept incoming calls on these bad boys. Even with the lawnmower going, the party on the other end of the call can hear you perfectly if you speak at normal volume.

Highly recommended for audiobook enthusiasts who mow their own lawns. Audiobooks make the task of lawn-mowing much more pleasant.

**Get a pair on Amazon

AI narration: an experiment

One of the dominant players in the AI audiobook narration field recently offered access to its platform at a deep discount.

As an author, it behooves me to keep up with such things, even when I have my doubts. I have long been skeptical of the much-ballyhooed AI panacea. But I thought I should try AI narration before I completely wrote it off.

And like I said: the company was offering a deep discount.

I gave the whiz-bang AI narration platform a try. It does indeed output a narration from text. 

That narration is far from perfect. Not something that I would package as a for-sale audiobook…not at this point.

But I might use it for some short stories for YouTube and my website.

More on this later…

-ET

Classical music in small doses 

Amadeus, the biographical drama about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the mid-1980s. Starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, and Elizabeth Berridge, Amadeus brought the famed 18th-century composer and his times to life.

Amadeus remains one of my favorite movies of all time. But when I saw it for the first time, as a teenager in the 1980s, I was inspired: I had a sudden desire to learn more about classical music, or at least about Mozart.

This was more than a little out of character for me at the time. As a teenager, my musical tastes ran the gamut from Journey to Iron Maiden, usually settling on Rush and Def Leppard.

So I read a Mozart biography. I was already an avid reader, after all. Then it came time to listen to the actual music. That’s when my inspiration fell flat.

I found that Mozart the man was a lot more interesting than his music. At least to my then 17-year-old ears. Nothing would dethrone rock music, with its more accessible themes and pounding rhythms.

Almost 40 years later, I still prefer rock music. In fact, I still mostly prefer the rock music I listened to in the 1980s.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1781 portrait
**View Mozart biographies on Amazon**

Recently, however, I took another dive into classical music.

Classical music, like popular, contemporary music, is a mixed bag. Some of it is turgid and simply too dense for modern ears. Some pieces, though, are well worth listening to, even if they were composed in another era.

Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” is one such piece. For the longest time, I mistakenly assumed that this arrangement was written for the 1986 Vietnam War movie, Platoon, in which it is prominently figured.

I was wrong about that. “Adagio for Strings” was composed in 1938, long before either Platoon or the Vietnam War.

“Adagio for Strings” is practically dripping with pathos. It is the perfect song to listen to when you are coping with sadness or tragedy. This music simultaneously amplifies your grief and gives it catharsis. You feel both better and worse after listening.

“Adagio for Strings” was broadcast over the radio in the USA upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. It was played at the funeral of Albert Einstein ten years later. The composition was one of JFK’s favorites; and it was played at his funeral, too, in 1963.

Most of the time, though, you’ll be in the mood for something more uplifting. That will mean digging into the oeuvre of one or more of the classical composers.

While the best-known composers (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc.) all have their merits, I am going to steer you toward Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) instead.

Dvorak was born almost a century after Mozart and Beethoven, and longer than that after Bach. To my philistine ear, Dvorak’s music sounds more modern, while still falling within the realm of the classical.

Antonin Dvorak

I would recommend starting with Symphony Number 9, Aus der Neuen Welt (“From the New World”). This is arguably Dvorak’s most accessible work, and my personal favorite at present. Symphony Number 9 contains a lot of moods. It takes you up and down, and round again.

This is not the story of an older adult turning away from the pop culture of his youth for more sophisticated fare. Far from it. Dvorak is not going to replace Def Leppard on my personal playlist. Bach and Mozart have not supplanted Rush and AC/DC. 

But time has made me more musically open-minded. Almost 40 years after I was inspired by the movie Amadeus, I have, at long last, developed a genuine appreciation for classical music.

But that is a qualified appreciation, for an art form that I still prefer in measured doses.

-ET

Gen Z returns to my gym

As of early this year, I have noticed something in my gym: the young people have returned in large numbers.

The young people were there in large numbers before COVID, usually to my annoyance. They were the ones who were always holding up everyone else, as they attempted to text while they worked out. I often found myself scheduling my workouts when Gen Z members were likely to be fewest in number.

The pandemic, however, bred a different kind of teen and young adult: homo housebound-introvertus. Throughout the lockdowns of 2020-1, an entire cohort of young people sequestered themselves in their rooms. There they became [even less] engaged in the real world, and [even more] immersed in the make-believe realm of social media.

They didn’t go to the gym, either. My gym was closed for only a few months in 2020, from the middle of March through early June. But the young people didn’t return when the gym reopened.

They didn’t return in 2021, 2022, or most of 2023, either.

While I don’t have any empirical data to back this up, the COVID lockdowns seemed to have had another effect on teens and young adults: weight gain. Many of them packed on the pounds. Here in Ohio, the average 16- to 24-year-old was beginning to look like a 50-year-old who had spent decades sitting behind a desk and eating too many takeout lunches from McDonald’s. I was starting to wonder how many of those kids would even make it to the age of 50, the way they were going.

Here’s the thing about youth culture, though: its only constant is change. If the recent (early 2024) influx of young people in my gym is any indication, the era of the Gen Z marshmallow may be coming to an end.

They’re still neurotically obsessive about their phones, though. The downside of the youth resurgence in my gym is the return of the inconsiderate member who sits on the ab crunch machine for five minutes while he checks his text messages. Because—dude, you can’t let a single text message go unread for even five minutes.

That’s as annoying as ever. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to bear for a healthier generation of young adults. I don’t want them all to die off before I do, after all.

-ET

Pope Francis, the Freemasons, and the lapsed Catholic

Not far from my house is a Masonic Lodge. I drive past it on an almost daily basis. Nevertheless, I have never given the place much thought, other than to absently note its existence from time to time.

I know that many men of the Enlightenment era were freemasons. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a freemason. So were George Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin.

George Washington as a freemason

Freemasonry is not something that I’ve ever considered becoming involved with. This is not because I outright dislike it, but rather because I’m just not a joiner.

Chalk it up to my background as an only child. Only children are capable of playing well with others. But we don’t particularly like to. And we especially don’t like to follow other people’s rules.

It will therefore not surprise the reader to learn that although I was raised Roman Catholic, I am a lapsed Catholic.

This isn’t because I’m opposed to the Catholic Church as a matter of principle. On the contrary, I consider the Roman Catholic Church to be a beacon of light in a messed-up world.

Nor did I have any traumatic experiences with priests as a child. My Catholic upbringing—which included Catholic schools and a stint as an altar boy—was pleasant and without incident. I have happy memories of those days, in fact.

Nor am I an atheist. I’m gullible at times, but not that gullible. I don’t like to articulate my religious beliefs in public. But suffice it to say that I believe in a Higher Power.

My lapse from the Catholic Church is related to my dislike of rules set by others. As a student I was taught that the Pope speaks ex cathedra. I simply can’t accept that any one mortal person speaks for the Almighty.

But back to Freemasonry. Pope Francis has recently reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s opposition to Freemasonry. This disapproval dates back to the aforementioned Enlightenment era.

There are doctrinal reasons for the Vatican’s objections to Freemasonry. But the bulk of the Church’s historic animus derives from competition for worldly power. Freemasonry is anti-clerical by inference and inclination. Freemasons also cheered the decline of Church power in Europe that accompanied the national unifications of the 1800s.

All of that is—or should be—so much water under the bridge. But not for Pope Francis.

On the other hand, Pope Francis has expressed suspicion of the traditional Latin Mass, implying that the use of Latin is “a reaction against the modern,” and even “backward”. Imagine saying the same thing about Jews speaking Hebrew, or Muslims reading the Quran in Arabic.

Since he became Pope in 2013, Francis has been almost a gadfly at times. He has developed a reputation for making half-baked pronouncements about environmentalism, economics, and geopolitics.

On matters that actually relate to Catholicism, he is a traditionalist when traditionalism suits him, and a modernist when that mood strikes him. In The World According to Pope Francis, Roman Catholics may not belong to a fraternal organization once patronized by George Washington, no less. But they also do not have license to celebrate the mass in the language that the Catholic Church used for centuries.

I’ve never been drawn to Freemasonry, but the current Pope might make me take a look at it, just to be contrary.

As I said: I don’t like to be told what to do.

-ET

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.

The 8-track was a plastic cartridge that had dimensions of 5.25 x 4 x 0.8 inches. Like the audio cassette, the 8-track contained a magnetic tape. But unlike the audio cassette, the 8-track was much less prone to kinking and tangling.

The 8-track was actually 1960s technology. The 8-track took off in the middle of that decade, when auto manufacturers began offering 8-track players as factory-installed options in new vehicles. Throughout the 1970s, 8-track players were popular options on new cars. 8-tracks were further popularized by subscription music services like Columbia House.

Columbia House magazine ad from the late 1970s/early 1980s

I purchased my first home stereo system for my bedroom in 1982, with money I had saved from my grass-cutting job. I bought it at Sears, which was one of the best places to buy mid-level home audio equipment at that time. The stereo included an AM/FM radio, a turntable for vinyl records, a cassette deck, and an 8-track player

I quickly discovered that I liked the 8-track format the best, because of its relatively compact size and ease of use. That spring I bought 8-track versions of Foreigner 4, Styx’s Paradise Theater, and the Eagles Live album. All of these produced good sound (again, by the standards of that era), and none of them ever jammed or tangled. I was convinced that I had found my musical format.

It has often been my destiny to jump on a trend just as it is nearing its end. Little did I know that my beloved 8-track was already in steep decline.

8-track sales in the USA peaked in 1978, and began falling after that. The culprit was the slightly more compact, but far more error-prone audio cassette. This was the format that all the retailers were suddenly pushing. By the early 1980s, cassette players were also replacing 8-track players in cars.

I would like to say that I yielded to the march of technological progress, but this wouldn’t be truly accurate. The audio cassette, invented in 1963, was slightly older technology than the 8-track.

I did, however, yield to the march of commercial trends, simply because I had no choice. Nineteen-eighty-three was the year that retailers began phasing out 8-tracks in stores. You could still purchase them from subscription services, but they were disappearing from the shelves of mall record stores and general merchandisers like K-Mart. By early 1984, the venerable 8-track had completely vanished.

In recent years, there has been a movement to resurrect the vinyl record. I’ve noticed no similar trend aimed at bringing back the 8-track. At this point, in the early- to mid-2020s, I may be the only person left on the planet who still fondly remembers this bygone musical medium.

-ET

“Dry January”? How about “Dry 37”?

Dry January is a thing this year. The concept is simple: abstain from alcoholic beverages for the 31 days of this month.

Although I applaud those who are taking a break from their normal indulgences, I can’t resist the temptation for oneupmanship. I’ve been dry for 37 years now and counting.

I was never a problem drinker or an alcoholic, mind you. But during my high school years, I did my share of experimental drinking.

Actually, I started experimenting with alcohol in junior high. Hey, it was the 1980s, and there was no helicopter parenting. No smart phone apps that parents could use to track your whereabouts. All kids were free-range kids in those days.

I didn’t go to school drunk, or anything extreme like that. I played sports, I got decent grades. But I drank a little, too.

I quickly discovered, though, that I didn’t like hangovers.

There is no sick like hangover sick. A bad hangover is ten times worse than a typical case of the flu.

I remember spinning rooms on winter mornings. I remember dry heaves long after there was nothing in my stomach.

But for a while, at least, I continue to drink. Why? Why do teenagers do anything? Because that’s what other teenagers are doing.

Then came the New Year’s Eve of 1986. My first New Year’s Eve after high school.

A girl I had known in high school had a party that night. I attended. I got drunk.

(I will note, however, that I had a ride from a sober driver. Even though I imbibed in those days, I never drove under the influence.)

I woke up on New Year’s Day 1987, and I felt absolutely horrible. I felt like an old man. And I had yet to have my 19th birthday.

I went for a run in the cold, bracing air, hoping that would help me sweat out the alcohol. The run helped a little, but not nearly enough.

I was still living with my parents. Of course, they wanted to go out for breakfast. Not wanting to alert them to my condition, I went along.

I’m usually up for a hearty breakfast. That morning, though, I was capable of nothing more than plain oatmeal. And even the oatmeal was a challenge against my gag reflex.

I remember my mom’s plate of scrambled eggs, sausage, and gravy. Just looking at it, let alone smelling it, made me want to vomit.

My head ached, along with the rest of my body. Why had I done this to myself?

So on New Year’s Day, 1987, I made a decision: I was never going to do this to myself again.

And I haven’t, not for 37 years. For 37 years, I have been a nearly complete teetotaler.

And you know what? I don’t miss alcoholic beverages. I never crave alcohol, and I’ve never once regretted my decision to stay away from it.

So here’s my challenge to those of you who are contemplating this faddish “Dry January”. Try my challenge instead: “Dry 37”. Abstain from alcohol for 37 years. Then go back to it if you still crave it.

My guess is, you won’t.

-ET

Kansas and the perils of creative indecision

Kansas was one of my favorite bands while growing up. But this was always something of a minority viewpoint. Sadly, Kansas is a band that never reached its full potential.

Kansas, like the Canadian rock trio Rush, always had an intellectual, progressive streak. Kansas always wanted to make rock music “something more”.

Here’s an example: the band’s debut, self-titled album contains a song called “Journey from Mariabronn.”

What the heck is Mariabronn, you ask? That’s a reference to German-Swiss author Herman Hesse’s 1930 novel, Narcissus and Goldmund.

Highbrow, yes. But a little too highbrow for popular music. Even in the artistically indulgent 1970s. How many 16-year-olds—either then or now—are conversant in mid-twentieth-century German classic literature?

Kansas basically had two commercially successful albums: Leftoverture (1976) and Point of Know Return (1977).

Leftoverture contains the spiritual rock anthem “Carry On Wayward Son”. This song brought the band mainstream success. This is also the Kansas song that non-devotees are most likely to recognize.

On Point of Know Return you’ll find “Dust in the Wind”, another Kansas song that still gets a fair amount of airplay.

That was about it, as far as commercial success went for Kansas. Although the band soldiered on for years (a version of Kansas continues as a going concern today), the group was fading out by the mid-1980s.

Kansas’s songs are well-thought-out, often to the point of being abstruse. In short, most of the group’s music isn’t immediately accessible to the casual listener. And that’s a fatal flaw in rock music, where the competition is fierce, and audience attention spans are notoriously short.

Kansas was also riven by an internal philosophical dispute. Founding member and chief songwriter Kerry Livegren became a born-again Christian in 1979. He often infused Kansas’s lyrics with quasi-Christian themes. These were seldom preachy or bombastic, but their spiritual import was hard to miss.

The other members of the band weren’t on board with this new direction. Many of Kansas’s albums during the 1980s (Drastic Measures (1983), comes to mind here) contain songs that aren’t really enough of one thing or another. It wasn’t explicitly Christian music, but it wasn’t mainstream rock—or even progressive rock—either.

The last Kansas album I bought was Power (1986). Kerry Livegren had left the band by this time, and the remaining members cobbled together an album that was imitative of the commercial rock music that was popular at that time.

Power contained a few worthwhile songs. But by this time Kansas had simply become too unpredictable as a musical entity—even for fans like myself.

Kansas had a good run in the 1970s, but the band ultimately floundered because its members couldn’t agree on what the band was supposed to represent musically and artistically.

Kansas was never going to be Foreigner or Journey, let alone a Led Zeppelin. All the group’s movements in those mainstream directions were awkward stumbles.

Christian rock was a thing in the 1980s and beyond. (The Christian rock group Stryper, founded in 1983, still has a fan base.) But Kansas never fully cultivated that market, because at least half of the band’s members were uncomfortable with the “Christian rock” label.

So Kansas was ultimately a lot of half-hearted missteps in many competing directions. But not enough of any one thing.

What’s the lesson here? Creator, know thyself. That advice applies not only to rock bands, but to anyone trying to stand out in a marketplace filled with “me-too” offerings.

-ET

Gen Z and the workplace fall out of love 

If the mainstream media is any indication, the youngest generation of adults and the corporate workplace are already falling out of love with each other. What happened to all that enthusiasm about “hiring young talent”?

Gen Z workers are being “stereotyped as lazy” by some managers. Meanwhile, a group of Gen Z TikTokers (is there any other kind of TikToker?) are complaining online that the marketplace doesn’t acknowledge their worth. And when it does, it works them too hard.

@notkaityfuqua

Like baby it’s not that simple🫠 #corporate #corporatelife #corporatetiktok #millennialsoftiktok #millennial #work #worktok #burnout #9to5 #worklife #jobtok #stress

♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys – Kevin MacLeod & Kevin The Monkey

I’m a member of Generation X, the first generation of young Americans officially designated as “slackers” in the workplace. (In fact, I think the term was originally coined on our behalf.)

That was back in the early to mid-1990s. Then, as now, generational norms and practices were changing in the workplace. In the early 1990s, most senior management positions were occupied by men (almost exclusively men, in those days) who had begun their adult lives in the late 1950s.

These were the so-called Silent Generation of men. They had been too young for service in World War II, and too old to be drafted for Vietnam. This was the generation that discovered Elvis, and settled down to marriage and family before the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Think Richie Cunningham and Happy Days.

That crowd had faith in institutions. They were no-nonsense and reflexively suspicious of anyone under forty. That was a generation that had never been under forty, not even when they were in high school.

The Baby Boomers, meanwhile, were eager workaholics. They were the forty-somethings in middle management in the early 1990s.

The Baby Boomers had dabbled in rebellion in the 1960s. Then they took advantage of the 1980s economic boom, becoming the yuppies (Young Urban Professionals) of the Reagan era. Despite their early flirtation with the counterculture, most Baby Boomers trusted the system. After all, the system had functioned well for both them and their Greatest Generation parents.

@thenatashaann

Why is the job market so bad? Let me tell you #unemployed #unemployed2023 #unemployment #unemployment2023 #jobmarket2023

♬ original sound – natasha bernfeld

Young Gen Xers, circa 1990, weren’t necessarily lazy. Almost all of us had worked through high school and college, to one degree or another. We were, however, stubbornly cynical of institutions and cagey by nature. We weren’t eager joiners.

And while we were willing to work, we were very much coin-operated. We weren’t enthusiastic about toiling for years at a low-level position in the hope of an eventual payoff. We knew how that often went. “Downsizing” was a corporate buzzword of the early 1990s. The old social contract was dead–or at least revised.

Therefore, we were regarded as “slackers”. But we weren’t slackers. We just had a different set of underlying assumptions and motivations.

Today the surviving members of the Silent Generation are in their eighties and nineties. They haven’t been in the workplace for years. The Baby Boomers are in their sixties and seventies. The Boomers are either recently retired, retiring, or soon to retire.

So that leaves Gen Xers at the top. How ironic. (Gen Xers have always loved irony.) The typical senior management position is now filled by a fifty-something Gen Xer, that “slacker” of 1990 or 1992.

And what is that Gen X senior manager doing? He or she is complaining about the youngest adults in the workplace, Generation Z. That’s ironic, too.

I’m sure some of the complaints about Generation Z are valid. Too many Zoomers are performatively sensitive, a quality that immediately irritates Gen Xers. Whatever else you might say about Generation X, we always had thick skin. I am quick to roll my eyes whenever a twentysomething publicly behaves like a wounded kitten on TikTok. In that regard, Gen Xers are as gruff as members of the Silent Generation were.

What will happen over the next thirty years is that Generation Z will adapt to the workplace in some ways, and the workplace will adapt to them in other aspects.

That’s what happened in the past, after all. Gen Xers who succeeded in organizational settings eventually learned to set aside some of their cynicism. On the other hand, there are a lot more Gen X women in management than was ever the case for Baby Boomers or the Silent Generation. In that way, the workplace largely adapted to Generation X, the generation of “girl power”.

Generational adaptation, then, is something that goes both ways. Thirty years from now, fiftysomething Gen Z managers will be grousing about those Gen Alpha employees, who strike them as lazy, indifferent to organizational norms, and downright incomprehensible at times. It could not be otherwise.

-ET

Bikini baristas and the increasing randomness of Facebook ads

You may have noticed that your personal Facebook feed contains a higher-than-usual volume of ads and “suggested content” posts of late. This is a direct result of Facebook’s strategy to increase its ad revenues.

Advertisers pay Facebook for a.) the number of times an ad is shown, and b.) the number of times an ad is clicked. (I’ve run many Facebook ads myself in the past, so I do know what I’m talking about here.)

Facebook’s current business plan, apparently, is to push out as many ads as possible, to as many users as possible. Never mind the all-important factor of ad relevancy.

Case-in-point: a conspicuous number of ads from Bikini Beans Coffee, a Tempe, Arizona-based company, have been appearing in my personal Facebook feed in recent weeks.

As the name suggests, all of the baristas at Bikini Beans Coffee are lithe young women in bikinis. If the ads are any indication, they are all quite attractive.

I’ve also perused the Bikini Beans Coffee menu. The company’s drink selection looks promising, with only a small premium added for the jollies associated with being served by half-naked young women.

My brain is already turning to mush…

But why run such ads to me, in particular, among all the 243.5 million Facebook users in the United States?

Well, first of all, I’m a middle-aged man. A middle-aged man’s brain is known to turn to mush when a scantily clad, attractive young woman is placed before him. That is an established fact. Middle-aged men often have a significant disposable income. When their brains turn to mush, they open their wallets.

Also, I’m a coffee connoisseur. I regularly research different kinds of coffee online.

But Mark Zuckerberg is still ripping off Bikini Beans Coffee. Why?

As I mentioned, Bikini Beans Coffee is based in Tempe, Arizona. The company has five locations. All of them are somewhere in Arizona, mostly near Phoenix.

I, on the other hand, am in Cincinnati, Ohio.

I’m unlikely to drive 26 hours (1,800 miles) for a cup of coffee, even if bikini-clad coeds are involved. My brain might turn to mush in front of attractive young women, but that form of manipulation has its limits.

I haven’t even contemplated going to Arizona, in fact. This means that none of my search activity, either on Facebook or elsewhere online, would suggest that I will be in Arizona anytime in the near future.

Facebook, therefore, is more or less throwing advertisers’ spaghetti at the wall. Bikini Beans Coffee has been paying good money to show me photos of its nubile, skimpily-attired baristas. That exposure (no pun intended) isn’t free.

This is why I rarely run Facebook ads for my own business anymore.

Facebook nowadays is a mess. Facebook has been battered in recent years, by privacy concerns and iOS updates that have undermined its tracking abilities.

The social media landscape has become more crowded and competitive, too; and this is a battle that Facebook is mostly losing. As most of you will know, young people have been abandoning Facebook for TikTok. Older Facebook users are spending less time on the site. Many older users (some of my friends included) have deleted their Facebook accounts in recent years.

This means fewer and fewer opportunities to show ads. As a result, Meta (Facebook’s parent company) is growing desperate. More shots in the dark, more spaghetti thrown against the wall.

If you’re running ads on Facebook, Meta is playing ever more random games of chance—not with their money, but with yours.

-ET

9/11+22

Twenty-two years have passed now, since the concerted terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

As I’ve remarked in recent years on this date, I’m acutely aware that for the younger generation of adults, 9/11 is not memory, but history.

My grandparents and Pearl Harbor

While the date retains its significance for those of us who are old enough to remember it, I’m realistic about such matters. And hey, I was young once, too.

My grandparents often spoke of Pearl Harbor as if December 7, 1941 were yesterday. For me, though, Pearl Harbor was a historical event that took place 27 years before I was born. It simply didn’t carry the same weight for me.

It’s therefore okay if you’re in the under-thirty crowd, and find that talk of 9/11 doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop for you that it does for many older adults. I’m not here to lecture you on that.

The past makes the present

You should, however, learn about 9/11, just as I learned about Pearl Harbor and World War II. I learned about Pearl Harbor and World War II not because those events were immediately relevant to me, but because understanding those events helped me to better understand the world in which I was growing up, in the 1970s and 1980s. World War II, after all, shaped the “postwar” world. Hence the name.

And the same applies to you, coming of age in the post-9/11 world. You need to know about 9/11 not just for commemoration and respect, but also for understanding the somewhat messed-up country in which you are coming of age.

(And just for the record: I don’t envy you on that one.)

9/11 and the beginning of the culture wars

9/11 began a chain reaction that transformed the United States from a relatively optimistic and united country in the 1980s and 1990s, to a far more cynical, distrustful place riven by partisan divisions.

Here’s a very short explanation: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans were initially united. Our nation had just been attacked, after all, and the 9/11 terrorists attacked all of us. The September 11th bombers didn’t care if you were a Democrat or a Republican. If you were an American (or, indeed, anyone who didn’t subscribe to their particular interpretation of Islam), they were willing to take your life in order to make a point.

After the attacks, though, we couldn’t agree on what should be done in response.

Should the US return to its mostly Western, mostly Christian roots, in a defensive posture? Or should it more assertively embrace multiculturalism and diversity?

Should we ban the Quran? Or teach it in schools (so that Americans will better understand Islam)?

Should we withdraw from the Middle East? Or remove bellicose dictators from countries like Iraq by force?

Questions like this are at the heart of what we now call the “culture wars”. Although we don’t argue very much about Islam nowadays, we are preoccupied with a similar raft of questions. For example:

Should we focus on what unites us as Americans? Or should we dwell on racial injustices of the past?

Should we accept the “heteronormativity” of human societies within a context of tolerance for all? Or should we take extraordinary steps to promote alternative interpretations of sexuality and gender?

Believe it or not, such questions were less prominent in 1993 or 1983. While these matters may have occupied the occasional university classroom debate, the vast majority of Americans would have looked at you cross-eyed if you’d posed such questions.

9/11 focused a quarter of the population on both real and imagined grievances (the “woke”), and a quarter of the population on both real and imagined external threats (the MAGA crowd).

The rest of us remained in the middle. But guess what? 9/11 also turned the term “centrist”—once something that most people aspired to be—into a pejorative. And now we have a culture in which almost anything can become a source of controversy or outrage. No one is listening to the centrists anymore.

9/11 weaved suspicion and fear into the fabric of daily life. I remember taking commercial flights in the 1990s with nothing more than a boarding pass and a quick show of my passport. No one was going to body-search you before you boarded a plane.

Until 9/11, that was.

America was not an “innocent” country before 9/11/2001. (Our innocence had ended in the 1960s.) But it was a country that was much more at ease with itself, and with its fellow citizens.

Everything changed on 9/11/2001, and mostly not for the better. That’s why you need to learn about 9/11, even if you are too young to actually remember it.

-ET

Shaven armpits, manscaping, and the hairy question of beauty

Paris Jackson, the only daughter of the late Michael Jackson, recently posted an Instagram video in commemoration of her father’s birthday. She received some negative remarks about her armpit hair.

Based on the photos I’ve seen, Miss Jackson’s armpits are unshaven but trimmed, not what I would call overgrown or hirsute, by any stretch.

But this raises a question. How does untrimmed body hair affect beauty and sex appeal? Body hair—on both men and women—seems to go in and out of fashion. National and cultural factors also seem to exert an influence.

I am naturally hairy, for better or worse. I had chest hair when I was still in junior high. I also have hair on my arms, legs, and back.

I was born too late to capitalize on all this excess bodily carpet. In the 1970s, chest hair was associated with male sex appeal and masculine virility. Burt Reynolds and a handful of other hairy male celebrities drove this trend.

By the time I reached full adulthood in the 1990s, however, things were going the other way. This was the dawning era of the manscaped metrosexual.

Then both men and women began trimming and shaving their pubic hair. I won’t go too far down that line of inquiry, so as to keep this post safe for work. But the larger message here was that body hair was out of fashion.

I was late in picking up on this, as I am on so many things. One day, a friend flippantly asked me if I planned to show up at a summertime social event in a tank top with my “back hair hanging out”. (This person is not a friend anymore, but that’s another story for another time.)

I might have replied that in 1976, my ample body hair would have been considered the height of sexy. But this conversation took place well into the twenty-first century.

I have since succumbed to the manscaping trend. I now keep my back hair in check with a battery-operated device called a Mangroomer. I have become accustomed to having less body hair than I once did, and I’ll pull out the Mangroomer when I start feeling a little shaggy back there.

As far as women’s armpit hair goes: I suppose I’m a prisoner of my early biases. In my formative years, women religiously shaved their armpits but never shaved their privates. Once again, my inclinations and preferences are the exact opposite of twenty-first-century trends.

-ET

Gordon Lightfoot (1938 – 2023), his music, and me

When I was a kid in the mid-1970s, my dad used to sing this song from the radio. The refrain went:

“Sundown, you’d better take care

If I find you’ve been creepin’ round my back stair.”

This was Gordon Lightfoot’s hit song, “Sundown”, of course. In the year the song climbed the charts, 1974, I was but six years old. I therefore didn’t grasp its meaning. But the song still brings back memories of that time.

And now that I’m old enough to understand “Sundown”, I find it an unusual take on the familiar romantic love triangle: that of the cuckolded male.

Fast-forward to 1986. My high school English teacher, wanting to demonstrate how stories could be told in poems and song lyrics, played “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for us on one of the AV department’s record players. Yet another of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs.

I immediately connected with this song, even though I was unaware of the historical reference behind it. My teacher told our class about the November 1975 shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. That gave the song even more weight. It was a work of imagination and art…but also something real.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was released in 1976, to commemorate the shipwreck of the previous year. It remains one of my favorite songs from a musical era that I was too young to appreciate as it was taking place.

Last November marked the 47th anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. This got me thinking about the song, and about Gordon Lightfoot. According to Google, Lightfoot was still touring in his eighties.

But all tours, and all lives, must come to an end. Gordon Lightfoot passed away on May 1, of natural causes.

While Lightfoot and his music were a little before my time, I always appreciated his work. There are few songs quite as haunting and memorable as “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”. And whenever I hear “Sundown”, I always hear my dad singing along with the radio in the mid-1970s.

A brilliant musician, and an artistic life well-lived. Gordon Lightfoot, 84, RIP.

-ET

**View Gordon Lightfoot’s music (CDs and vinyl) on Amazon**

 

When Jerry Springer spoke at my high school

Former politician and talk show host Jerry Springer has died.

Most people know Springer for his gonzo talk show work on national television. Decades before that, he was a well-known figure in Cincinnati politics and local broadcasting.

Springer spoke at my Cincinnati-area high school in 1985. At this time, the biggest skeleton in Springer’s closet was a 1974 scandal in which Springer, then a Cincinnati City Council member, paid a sex worker with a personal check. Springer resigned from city council in a certain degree of disgrace.

Several of my male classmates couldn’t resist calling out, “Where’s the check”? while Springer was speaking at our school in 1985. Springer, a good sport, laughed off their taunts and moved on.

Jerry Springer was never one to be impeded by other people’s opinions of him. I recognized that in 1985.

After the Jerry Springer talk show debuted in 1991, I tuned in a few times. In all honesty, the show was never for me. But I didn’t watch much network television of any kind during the early 1990s. I was too busy, and my life too disjointed.

I’ll always remember the local, Cincinnati version of Jerry Springer, anyway. The speaker at my high school who wasn’t about to be deterred by an embarrassing incident from his past, or others’ ungracious insistence on calling attention to it.

Perhaps there is a lesson for all of us here. One can go far, despite being hampered by very human flaws and a less than perfect track record. The trick is to shrug off the crowd’s disdain, and keep moving forward.

Jerry Springer, 79, R.I.P.

Celebrity crushes I (almost) never had

One of the nostalgia-based Twitter feeds I follow recently posed the question: “Who was your celebrity crush when you woke up on your 13th birthday? I’ll start.”

The Twitter feed’s author then posted a vintage poster of Christie Brinkley from the early 1980s. If you’re of a certain age, you’ve no doubt seen this one before: Brinkley clad in a one-piece blue swimsuit, her facial expression maddeningly sultry, her blowing hair accentuating her in all her early twentysomething feminine glory.

This got me thinking about the whole concept of celebrity crushes, why some people get them, and why I have always been more or less immune to them.

Not that I’m above tilting at romantic windmills. When I was a freshman in high school, I developed an aching crush on a senior girl at my school who was also a popular cheerleader. Talk about hopeless causes.

And it actually got worse from there. From my adolescence through my early adulthood, I subscribed to the Groucho Marx school of romance. Marx, you might recall, once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” There was a time in my life when my interest in a member of the opposite sex burned in inverse proportion to her interest in me, or lack thereof. (Fortunately, I have learned to put that one behind me.)

But I have always confined my interests to people who were physically present within my immediate environs, and at least theoretically attainable. I never fixated on anyone whom I knew only from television, movies, magazines, the radio, or the Internet. What would be the point of getting worked up about someone who lives on the other side of the country, or the other side of the world?

I have, at times, become briefly infatuated by the combination of an actress/character. I am part of the generation that grew up watching the Brady Bunch in rerun syndication. I suppose I would be lying if I denied that I had a pre-sexual, boyhood crush on Jan and Marcia Brady, played by Eve Plumb and Maureen McCormick. But even then, I recognized that these characters were contrivances, not real life. To romanticize them overly much was delusional.

Maureen McCormick as Marcia Brady, circa 1970

Later on, in my teenage years, I found myself drawn to Diane Franklin’s innocent, doomed Patricia Montelli in Amityville II: The Possession (1982). But I also saw Franklin portray a manipulative schemer in The Last American Virgin, which came out the same year.

I will admit that Molly Ringwald’s interpretation of Jewel in Fresh Horses (1988) stirred a little mini-crush in me for the 105 minutes of that film. By that time, though, I had already seen Ringwald in a variety of roles. The illusion ended as soon as the closing credits rolled.

Celebrity crushes seem to cross lines of both gender and generation. Consider those film clips from the 1950s, which show young women of the Eisenhower era going absolutely nuts over Elvis. When I was in grade school, a conspicuous number of women in my class maintained fantasy relationships with Shaun Cassidy and Scott Baio. Perhaps your twenty-something daughter once had a thing for…what was his name…Justin Beaver?

In more recent years, I’ve read stories about Taylor Swift’s stalkers, and the lengths to which they will go in order to get a few minutes of facetime with the constantly hyped and too-omnipresent singer. In their throes of futile devotion, they send her both love letters and death threats. One broke into Swift’s New York City apartment twice in one year. Police found the man sleeping in her bed, like a demented Goldilocks.

I would have no interest in meeting Swift, let alone turning her into a quest of some kind. I’m baffled by the legions of male and female Taylor Swift fans who self-identify as “Swifties”.

But Rolling Stone identifies the typical Taylor Swift devotee as “Millennial, suburban, and white.” I’m a Gen Xer. The oldest Millennials were born when I was in high school. I’m about 15 to 25 years older than the typical Taylor Swift fan.

And indeed, most of Taylor Swift’s overly ardent male fans seem to be Millennials, too. Come to think of it, I have never heard a man of my generation make so much as a wistful remark about Ms. Swift.

There is, however, an online legion of men my age who hold long-simmering crushes on Diane Franklin. This seems to come up every time the actress (who is amazingly humble and good-natured for a “Hollywood person”) sits for an interview.

You need only peruse some of the 1980s- and horror-themed podcasts on YouTube to get a grasp of this. Every middle-age male podcaster who interviews Diane Franklin seems incapable of not telling her that he had a teenage crush on her back in the 80s. As if she hadn’t already guessed that.

She always smiles unflappably, and waits for her interviewer to move on. All of them eventually do, but sometimes after belaboring the point a bit too long.

Franklin was, indeed, one of the crush-worthy young female stars of the 1980s, starring not just in the aforementioned Amityville II and The Last American Virgin, but also in Better Off Dead (1985). She even had a role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). No, I never had a crush on her; but I do remember her as an actress.

About two years ago, I decided to become more active than usual on Twitter. I looked around for various 80s pop culture-related Twitter accounts to follow, and this inevitably led me to Diane Franklin, who has a presence on the platform.

Franklin has a mid-sized account, of about 10K followers. I skimmed through her most recent tweets, and I noticed that she was interacting with some of her followers.

“Oh, what the heck?” I thought.

I followed Diane Franklin and sent her a tweet. She tweeted back. I tweeted back. And so on.

Then it struck me. Diane Franklin and I were actually having a conversation (though it was doubtless more enthusiastic on my end). If only that 14-year-old version of myself, circa 1982, could have seen this!

She may have glanced at my Twitter profile. I look my age, and my tweets would have revealed me as someone old enough to have seen her 1980s oeuvre when all those movies appeared for the first time in the cinemas.

Then I paused, and considered what I was doing. I suddenly realized that I was in imminent danger of becoming one of THEM: one of those now middle-age, formerly teenage Gen X males who still carry quixotic torches for Diane Franklin.

“Oh, no! This is weird!” I shouted. “This is creepy. I’m not going to do this!…Or at least: I’m not going to do it anymore.

I quietly deleted all my tweets addressed to Franklin, and then I unfollowed her. I’m sure she barely noticed my disappearance. She probably didn’t notice at all.

I’ll never approach Diane Franklin on Twitter again, needless to say, nor any other female celebrity. That was a one-time lapse. (I’m not much for social media, anyway.)

I still have fond memories of Diane Franklin’s films, of course. I still appreciate her acting skills and good public graces.

But I have this rule: “No celebrity crushes.” I’m not going within even a hundred miles of such make-believe and self-delusional territory, not even for a celebrity who was gracious enough to communicate with me, and not even within the make-believe world of Twitter.

-ET