Midlife crisis averted courtesy of AC/DC

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Photo: Paul Failla

Thank you AC/DC for stepping in front of the train that is the midlife crisis and bringing it to a halt, because it was about to roll right over me.

Last night the band played at Wrigley Field — a show that completely and utterly rocked, and not only entertained me but also brought a bit of the fountain of youth back to seeing live music.

Lately, seeing bands has not been so good for my fragile midlife state.

First there was the Phish show where my husband had to hold me back from telling a collection of 17-year-old boys smoking way too many bowls that their mamas were waiting at home, hoping they’d come back in one piece, so please just stop. My latest midlife angst was brought on full-scale earlier this year by seeing Van Halen perform… on Ellen… playing “Jump.” Our vow to no longer pay money to see old 60s artists perform occured after seeing far less of Crosby, Stills & Nash than we should have due to all the Baby Boomers getting up to use the bathroom.

After a quick text conference with my husband and the luck of finding a sitter to watch our kids (who are more B-96 than WLUP) we headed to Wrigley to get some tickets. (Bargain shoppers would be impressed by how much we paid.)

After passing up the $10 light-up devil horns to get our $11 drinks, we found ourselves right on time to not hear the opening song so well (public service — don’t get 300-level tix for guitar-based music at Wrigley) but moved toward our section (500 level, up high but great sound) for the second, “Shoot to Thrill.” It just got better from there.

The people-watching was superior. The diversity of generations was surprising, and for once we might have been older than the average age. There were plenty of the expected rock dudes and guys formerly known as such. But there were also“kids” in their 20s and old rockers in their 60s. We saw middle-age moms wearing the devil horns with their middle-school sons. We saw college girls humoring their moms who were dancing in the aisle to every single song. There were clusters of GenX chicks throwing from their elegant wrists some of the daintiest horns I’ve ever seen, their diamond-y watches flashing from 10 rows down.

These folks sound like cliches, but how many of us appear our unique selves to the outside world? Didn’t matter. Everything about that AC/DC show was about rock-n-roll. Everyone in that stadium (except for maybe the worried-looking woman in front of us) was enthralled with the spectacle that it was.

The highlight of the show was the closing song before the encore — “Let There Be Rock,” the song that inspired my fingertips to text our sitter and see if she was free that evening. Until that point the walkway that extended from the main stage and ended at a smaller circular stage in the crowd had been unused. At the end of the song Angus Young played his way to that circle to launch a God-knows-how-long solo. When he got to the center, he flopped on his back as ticker tape exploded from all around the stage lit like fireworks from the lights. I don’t care how Spinal Tap such antics might seem, it was awesome!

And he kept playing, making his was back to the main stage. Everything went dark, but you could still hear him playing guitar. When the single spotlight came up a few minutes later, he was on top of his wall of amps, the single shadow of his school-boy-uniform figure on the giant black curtain. It was exactly what I needed to see.

Witnessing this, I might have been envious of his energy or felt old because I don’t have it. I might have imagined with regret a younger me climbing on my husband’s shoulders in the first row. Instead Angus invited me in, like he did for every other person in that stadium. For my place and time, there was nothing better to remind me of who I used to be and actually still am.

Thanks again, AC/DC. This one might last me until I turn 50.

Chicago woman has mixed feelings upon hearing B96 blasting from child’s room

A Lincoln Square mom reported today that she was both horrified and heartened that her 10-year-old son was cranking B96, a station heavy on artists like 5 Seconds of Summer and Ariana Grande, on his clock radio.

“At first I wondered if it was some car rolling by, but then I realized that the sound of auto-tune was coming from upstairs,” she said. “When I opened my son’s door, I found him lounging on his left side propped up on his elbow, reading Minecraft: The Essential Handbook and tapping his foot every-so-slightly to a salsa beat.”

Though her son told her he was listening specifically for “Blame” by Calvin Harris because the station was known to play it on an hourly basis, the middle-aged woman, who prefers to the term “midlife,” suspected peer influence. According to her, B96, which she vaguely remembers being called “Party Radio” a few decades back, has never been included on their car’s radio presets.

Son with Little Martin.

Three chords and beyond…

The 40-something GenXer says that she has spent years preparing her son to study rock’s canon as a teenager, fully expecting him to develop an interest in Radiohead or even Rush at some point in his adolescence. Already he showed promise by regularly differentiating between Paul McCartney, after whom he was named, and John Lennon, and correctly identifying the masterful guitar work of Eddie Van Halen. Every once in a while he hums the opening notes of “The Immigrant Song.” She had recently introduced Prince to his educational repertoire.

But the rock-obsessed mom admits to going through a “Killer B phase” when she attended college in Northwest Indiana and was exposed to Chicago’s diverse radio market.

“Sure, back when they were playing ‘Rhythm Nation’ and Dead or Alive, I listened,” she said. “I guess I should be happy that he is recognizing the current trend of producers taking the credit for songs, because being able to hear a producer’s touch is a pretty advanced listening skill.”

She added that maybe it’s time to teach him about the influence of Mutt Lange through his work with AC/DC and Rick Rubin’s ground-breaking cross-genre vision on the landmark Run-DMC album “Raisin’ Hell,” which she notes she owns on vinyl and CD.

“Do not get me started on the Aerosmith vs. Run-DMC ‘Walk This Way’ thing unless you have a half an hour at least to talk,” said the self-proclaimed amateur rock music analyst whose husband has shared his differing opinion on the topic. “We are never coming to an agreement on that around here. But at least we can present both sides to our son and let him make his own decision, which I know if he’s listening to me will be the right one.”

It’s Harder To Be A Gen-X Parent Than To Parent A Gen-Xer: Reason #1, Standardized Testing

Where are all the students? At the computer lab taking the PARCC test.

Where are all the students? At the computer lab taking the PARCC test.

My mother-in-law has said more than once that being a parent today is so much more difficult than it used to be. I think she might be right, so I am launching a series here to invite commiseration, which I am calling, It’s Harder to Be a Gen-X Parent Than to Parent a Gen-Xer.

Let’s start with the topic of the moment, standardized testing. I am not an educator, so the only true experience I have is having taken standardized tests, reviewed my kids’ test results, and prepared my kids to take theirs — you know, things like making sure they have snacks in the backpack, get a good night’s rest, don’t get sick, have some protein at breakfast, avoid stressors within 5 days before or following the tests, don’t get itchy, wear their preferred turtleneck, feel great about themselves and their capabilities so they can do their best all within the context of don’t worry, you’ll do great.

But even with my limited perspective, the message from educators and parents is clear to me — kids of my children’s generation undergo far more scrutiny by testing than I did back in the day, and it’s interrupting their education.

When my parents were parents, I don’t remember standardized testing being that much of an issue. Once a year, maybe less often, your mom gave you some extra no. 2 pencils to take to school, mentioning that oh, by the way, you were going to have some tests that week, no big deal. There were no snacks, nothing special aside from the fact that you got a break from the usual routine. A few weeks later, your scores showed up, and you weren’t entirely sure what they meant, and they had no relevance to your life (until high school). They also had much less influence on your teacher’s performance reviews or salary, if any.

In March and May of this year, many (or most) of the schools in Illinois (where I live) will administer something called the PARCC test. I can be relieved that my kids do not attend public school and therefore don’t have to take this test (this year, at least), because this thing appears to be a disaster-in-waiting. In the city of Chicago, there is a movement for parents to refuse the test. These people aren’t just trying to rock the boat because they like waves. Apparently of the 26 states that originally intended to administer the test, only 10 are going through with it. Even school administrators are speaking out, according to this piece in the Washington Post about a superintendent in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka who “warns” parents about the downsides of the test.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at the practice test for fourth-grade math. I’ve had two kids in the fourth-grade who have been taught with two separate (though similar) curricula, so I feel that I am pretty familiar with what fourth-graders are expected to know. My kids’ school sets the bar pretty high. It’s a Blue Ribbon school, so my assumption is that the teaching is strong enough for my assessment to be valid.

Here’s what I found. The first screen was a set of instructions that I hope teachers are walking through, as they are somewhat convoluted if you have the attention span of a nine-year-old. This is not a straight-forward fill-in-the-bubble deal or even pick the right answer. Some questions will have more than one answer, and you have to do this. Others will have only one right answer, and you have to do that. Fortunately, it was far more intuitive when I got to the questions, but what a way to elevate the nerves before the kids even get to the first question.

The first two problems were pretty straight-forward, though not necessarily easy. One on place value was, “The value of the digit 4 in the number 42,780 is 10 times the value of digit 4 in which number?” The test-taker has four numbers to choose from all with the number four somewhere in them. A kid may know place value when asked, “What is the place value of 4 in the number 42,780?” but this question requires them to use place value in an additional way by working in the 10-times-the-value part. I can’t say this is beyond what’s expected of a fourth-grader, but they aren’t factoring in any warm-up here, are they?

The third question was interesting. It involved adding three multi-digit numbers from a chart to get a total number of reports for a science fair, then figuring out how many tables would be needed to fit the reports, working with two different size tables, one size of which was available in a fixed amount. Once you used up all those tables, how many of the other size would you need at minimum?

Then there was a part two that asked a similar sort of question. And I might actually be wording this question better. (If you want to check it out, it’s the Computer-Based Practice Test under PBA Practice tests at this link.)

Granted, every step of that question is acceptable for a fourth-grader. They need to be able to read from a chart, add multi-digit numbers and multiply. But there is a certain amount of mental endurance necessary for answering questions that have multiple layers.

My son recently had a similar, though less complicated, question for extra credit on a test. He ran out of time, so we went over it at home. I know adults who opted for liberal arts majors in college just to avoid this kind of math. (Granted, one could argue that math avoidance didn’t help us compete with educational systems around the world, but my guess is that the problems we expect teachers to solve have little to do with an overabundance of English and history majors.)

Full disclosure — I am not one of those parents who doesn’t like Common Core math. Actually, the way that it has been taught to my children, I think it’s an improvement over how I learned. My issue with these tests is whether or not they align with how the kids are learning in the classroom.

This PARCC test and others like it seem a lot like veneer, the idea that problems will be solved by the introduction of more (and more complicated) testing. Standards will be followed. Students can be evaluated. Teachers can be told to raise their scores or else.

What about the learning, or, even more important, the desire to learn? Are these kids going to school to gain knowledge and explore the world, or are they showing up so they can be measured and make a few people who guide educational policy feel better about this country’s performance compared to Korea and Finland? This seems like a ridiculous question, but how close does this recent article in The Onion feel to reality?

They say in carpentry, “Measure twice and cut once.” Maybe in education the new saying could be, “Measure, measure, measure and measure again. And then measure some more.”

 

Grammy Highs, Lows, Questions and Folly

Grammy AwardOh, the Grammys. Yes, I know they don’t necessarily award the best in music. Yes, I suspect that they plant certain nominations to raise their television ratings. But yes, I am loyal, as often the Grammys deliver on something interesting to see, even if it’s a train wreck.

As the saying goes, “if you can’t say anything nice…” But I can say something nice, so I’ll start with that.

Beck had a big night — two awards and a great performance with Chris Martin of Coldplay. His award was announced by Prince, and even Kanye graced him with attention.

Thumbs up to the Grammy broadcast producers, too, for pairing Sam Smith and Mary J. Blige. His earnestness and her passion were a good combination, not to mention how well their voices sound together. I was getting a little tired of that song by the end of the night, but that was only because the clip was played those zillions of times Smith walked on stage to collect yet another award.

Lady Gaga proved herself to be a master of reinvention, and she didn’t even wait for her AARP card to show off her chops with the standards.

AC/DC? It’s been a tough year for these guys. Their opener dragged a bit, but they redeemed themselves with “Highway to Hell.” (The devil horns in the audience, though, didn’t help.) It was a female country artist who really rocked it — Miranda Lambert with “Little Red Wagon.” She was even bleeped.

And Annie Lennox. If you didn’t see it, I hope you have it DVRd.

But the Grammys always leave me with questions and curiosities and deliver more than a hint of folly, especially when Kanye West is around. Here are a few I had last night.

Since when are novelty songs nominated for Record of the Year? “How was it that “All About That Bass” was treated as a serious contender? It’s not as if this subject hasn’t been covered before. Off the top of my head Sir Mix-a-Lot and Queen come to mind as having honored the more robust female physique decades ago. Of course, that was a case of men, not women, sexualizing more ample female bodies. Perhaps that’s why those songs tend to elicit snickers and not Grammy nominations.

What are the folks behind the Grammys broadcast going to say about the problem with McCartney’s microphone? I can’t wait to hear the excuses. Maybe they’ll just ignore it, hoping it goes away, like that disastrous performance when they paired Taylor Swift with Stevie Nicks in 2010 for “Rhiannon.” Who knows. But McCartney handled it like a pro. I can’t imagine what kind of tantrum Kanye West would have thrown had his mic been silenced. (We might look to the toy aisles at Target for an answer to that question.)

Speaking of looks, what do you think Prince’s expression was when Kanye indulged himself in a flashback moment and began to take the stage when Beck won Album of the Year? We couldn’t see behind his shades.

Maybe it was just more of this.

Prince

 

 

 

Also, do we need to stop referring to him as the Purple One and begin calling him Orange Julius?

Why was Best Rock Performance not televised? Every artist in that category is well-known, and there is a whole lot more creativity going on among them than the Record of the Year or Song of the Year nominees. (It might have been nice for one of those songs to have been included in these cross-genre categories… break the cycle of “girl power” anthems.)

Maybe these guys just weren’t interested in showing up. Can you blame them? The 2015 Grammys may have been a lot of things, but it wasn’t rockin’ (Miranda Lambert excepted).

 

Songs That Make Life Better

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Yes, I have a copy of the soundtrack to “Times Square” on vinyl!

There’s this great post over at 500 Reasons Why The 80s Didn’t Suck on 52 songs you could not live without. (Truthful blog title, by they way. Eighties music doesn’t suck, and I’m happy to debate the point with anyone.) This is great inspiration for Songs That Shaped A Life, because… how could I live without my songs?

I’m going to put a little twist on this. Thinking of 52 songs I can’t live without leaves 100s alone and unmentioned. So, this list is 25 songs that make my life better. Call it my birthday mix tape. It may not look the same next year, but for now, here goes…

“Maiden Chant,” Liz Story
“Maybe I’m Amazed,” Paul McCartney
“Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” Night Ranger
“Shake the Disease,” Depeche Mode
“Panama,” Van Halen
“Supermassive Black Hole,” Muse
“I Will Possess Your Heart,” Death Cab for Cutie
“You Don’t Have To Cry,” Crosby, Stills & Nash
“Cowboys and Angels,” George Michael
“Song for the Dead,” Queens of the Stone Age
“New Kid In Town,” The Eagles
“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” The Smiths
“Blue Monday,” New Order
“Green and Gray,” Nickel Creek
“Dream Brother,” Jeff Buckley
“Magic Man,” Heart
“To Live and Die in LA,” Wang Chung
“Love Is The Answer,” England Dan & John Ford Coley
“Here Comes The Rain Again,” Eurythmics
“Madonna of the Wasps,” Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians
“Eyes of the World,” The Grateful Dead
“You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” Gladys Night & The Pips
“The Killing Moon,” Echo & The Bunnymen
“Champagne Supernova,” Oasis
“Gymnopedies,” Erik Satie, composer

Why these? I recall that each of these had me within the first verse, sometimes just with the opening notes. There are plenty more, though, so I’m not sure why I am even attempting such a list.

Feel free to comment with any of your own. You’ll probably remind me of number 26, number 27…

What They Play When You’re Gone

It’s “Songs That Shaped a Life” week, that time of year when I get even more self-indulgent than just writing a blog and devote my posts to songs that were instrumental (get it? ha-ha!) in some aspect of my past.

Late in 2014 my Uncle Gary passed away less than a year after being diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. Instead of a formal funeral, we held a memorial service that my parents, aunts and uncles planned. My mother asked me to handle the music, including selecting songs to open and close the service.

This wasn’t an easy task. There are plenty of go-to choices for such an occasion. But this “last dance,” if you will — the final event where everyone gathers to wrap up your life and send your soul along to whatever is next — is one of those times where you don’t get to pick the music. You have to trust that whoever is handling it has the where-with-all to represent you.

Uncle Gary loved his music, and when we were kids, he shared mostly upbeat Motown songs. Those, along with several other of Gary’s favorites, were on a video that played during the visitation. For this, we needed something more reflective, something that honored the sadness we all felt without crushing us under it.

There were two things everyone knew about Uncle Gary. One was that he was a walking Academy Awards encyclopedia all the way back to the Hollywood Golden Age he so loved. The other was that he was one of the best teachers you’d ever meet. His commitment to his students was so strong that you probably don’t even need all ten fingers to count the number of people who match it.

The closing song had to be “Over the Rainbow,” his preferred version from Judy Garland. It was one of his favorite songs and conveyed the right mood for that ceremonial first step of moving on.

About a dozen songs came to mind for the opener, like Warren Zevon’s “Keep My In Your Heart,” Evanescence’s “My Immortal,” The Alarm’s “Walk Forever By My Side,” Elton John’s “Empty Garden.” These were all fitting, but none of them had a particular connection to who my Uncle Gary was.

I don’t know how the opening song came to me, but it was like a muse dropped it onto my head as I was sitting in my office. It represented his love of childhood and mirrored the closer — “Rainbow Connection.” Many of the versions I first found featured odd vocals in the spirit of its most famous performer, Kermit the Frog. After digging, I discovered this one by Peter Cincotti. I knew the moment I heard it that he would be happy with me for choosing it.

 

 

I Am Not Not Charlie (Sharestentialism Part 2)

Blank feedLast week’s social media response to the killings at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris reminded me that sometimes I don’t really have a lot of guts when it comes to speaking up. As the “I am Charlie” meme spread across Facebook and Twitter feeds like a match dropped in a hayloft, I didn’t post a thing… not a single thing about the atrocity.

My reaction to the news was sadness for the victims, for their families, for the relentlessness of extremists. I was sad for the concept of freedom of speech. As a big fan of satire, I was sad for the risks those who engage in it take.

But I posted nothing. And as I watched my feed fill up with the bloody pen, I felt really awkward. I couldn’t bring myself to post anything about Charlie Hebdo on my timeline because “Je ne suis pas Charlie.” I’m not. I don’t possess the courage those artists at Charlie Hebdo had. I don’t have the talent. And before this terrible incident, I didn’t even know what Charlie Hebdo was.

I wanted to say this at the time, but I didn’t have the courage to do even that. What if I offended someone who did post the bloody pen to their page?* What kind of supporter of the free press would I look like if I posted such a thing?

In this act of not posting, I was proving my point, I guess. I really am not Charlie.

But then along came a real journalist — one even who writes for the Financial Times — pointing out that, yes, guess what, we’re not Charlie. Other real journalists followed. It wasn’t backlash. Rather, it was honesty. And it was something I could have posted the moment I thought about it.

But I didn’t. I am not even “not Charlie,” apparently. It seems my ideas need the approval of legitimate press, even when I’m pretty sure they aren’t original.

Sharestentialism is my term for the idea that you are what you share. But like the concept of white space, how does it relate to what you don’t share? By not sharing that I’m not Charlie, I was sharing that I have no guts, at least to myself (and my husband in whom I confided my mixed emotions.) I wondered, too, if the absence of “I am Charlie,” from my status update indicated a lack of concern.

Can the image we portray through social media be defined as much by our “silence” as it is by what we share? If the assumption that we are judged (at least sometimes) by what we post on social media is true, then what about what we don’t?

 

* I feel I must apologize to anyone who posted the bloody pen, and also isn’t Charlie. I know you were doing it out of solidarity.