9-11 in one word

???????????????????????????????Yesterday my daughter had an assignment for social studies… to come home and ask a parent to describe 9-11 in one word. It was hard to think of one that would offer more meaning than horrible, scary or sad. It is all of these, but as we are distanced from the events by time, there are other words that come to mind. After writing down several, the one I chose was “end.” The moments before I got the phone call from my husband telling me to turn on the TV represented a different world, one that hadn’t yet revealed the bad side of possibility. For many of us, the violence of severe political, religious, etc. conflict was at a substantial distance. The destruction of the Twin Towers put it right in front of us.

Optimism is not gone, nor is faith or hope — all those things that help a community or nation recover from such a thing. We have witnessed that life goes on — 13 years of it, in fact — and we see those things reflected in our remembrances. But I imagine that for most of us, those concepts are tainted a bit by that day.

GenXers were getting a foothold on their adult lives when 9-11 took place. The oldest of us were just reaching our mid-30s. That day was devastating for so many people across generations. For us, it might be considered a loss of innocence, that time when our invincibility was called into question.

I told my kids yesterday that I once had a key card to a hotel room near the Twin Towers that had to be torn down due to the destruction. It was from a trip my husband and I took there only a few months before 9-11. The kids asked why I kept it. I didn’t have an answer, but maybe it was because it was a piece of the world that existed before.

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6 Things Only a GenXer Would Find in The Basement

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Who knew that cleaning out a basement would provide so much material for a blog? Well, I kind of did, but I had no idea what little treasures I’d find back in dusty corners among 30+ cans of left-over paint (not our fault — previous owners were ridiculous about keeping them), garbage bags filled with concert t-shirts, and countless bins of toys illustrating consumer culture gone berserk (actually, I made the kids reduce this by 50 percent last summer).

If you are a GenXer and you’ve made it to midlife, you’ll appreciate the following… and you might even have similar sorts of things in your own basement.

A library of mixed tapes. When I say “library,” I imply that it has been catalogued… curated, if you will, to include the very best music of my time. But to say such things about my collection of mixed tapes is misleading. As I read the card inserts of the cassette cases, it became clear that the music I felt worthy of transferring from one tape to another (or record off of WVUR) was disappointingly limited. How many mix tapes should I really have created including The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now” and When In Rome’s “The Promise”? I am a good 20-plus years past my youthful prime, and I have more diverse single playlists on my iPod than what remained of my entire collection of mix tapes.

Actually, this box represents only a fraction of the mix tapes I found. It was filled to the top. For the record, the Rush and Anthrax belong to my husband (or one of his former roommates). Those are his toes too.

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Other relics of modern technology. Cassettes were to music in the 80s what CDs were to encyclopedias in the 90s — a brief interlude of technology that put what used to take up so much space (10-inch vinyl, a bookcase full of texts) on something much smaller and more portable. Now you can get much of what was previously available on these formats on the internet — for free or a small fee. But for a short period of time, the idea that you could take a 32-volume behemoth and capture it on a thin round piece of plastic was so revolutionary, even Microsoft got into the act.

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Fashion history. You knew it was coming, didn’t you? You thought, “Is it possible that these people have a pair of parachute pants in their basement?”

Yes, when everyone else dropped theirs off at the Goodwill in 1985, someone from my family kept his in a pile of clothes that, while reduced to only a few garments by now, still contains this pair in cement gray.

But does he still fit into them? That’s an answer that will remain unpublished.

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No young man circa 1984 would feel completely dressed without a matching Members Only jacket. But this one is even better — it’s a vest. And it’s a coordinating shade a gray, making it the perfect piece for the monochrome look. BONUS — it still fits!! Back in the day, if this dude had walked into my hometown’s teen disco, The Casbah, I would have faced some tough competition!

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Religion notebook doodles only a student in the 80s would make. My husband received As in Religion (Catholic school), but you wouldn’t know it from the cover of his notebook. Perhaps he was trying to hide the secret to his success behind these stylized band logos. Either that or, Dude, Jesus must have totally rocked in the 80s.

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And if Hubby was hiding A-worthy notes behind the cover, could this be his visual interpretation of the Crusades?

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I didn’t attend Catholic school, so I am not one to judge. But I wonder what Sister Mary Joseph made of this art.

The glory of 80s hair. Okay 80s hair band fans, check this out — a 1987 copy of Hit Parader. This magazine was first published back in the 40s, but it peaked in the 80s, and I think you can see why.

In my teen years, Hit Parader was the alternative to Rolling Stone that my mom would let me buy due to RS’s “mature” content, though I’m not sure how she came to this conclusion. The artists always looked much less stoned on the cover of RS than mags like Creem and Hit Parader.

This particular issue features Jon Bon Jovi on the cover (yes, it says “Too hot to handle” just below his name), with the promise of updates on other bands like Def Leppard and Poison, along with a Cinderella centerfold. (I’ve gotta ask, did people really tape Cinderella to their wall?) The neon pink masthead is a nice touch too. I wonder if they did that because they had a heartthrob on the cover.

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Don’t hate me because I have a Weeble. Not only do I have one of these in my basement, I have a whole Weebles Treasure Island Set! Of all the things that I found in our basement, this Weeble is probably the one thing that elicits the most envy.

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A Black Celebration for Valentine’s Day

Flaming HeartsA couple decades or so back in time, my friends and I celebrated Valentine’s Day in a way that was freeing in both its interpretation of the holiday and its obligations. We organized a Black Valentine’s Day party and invited everyone we knew to attend (not a big crowd, as we were on an overseas study program). The only requirement was that one dress in black and not hijack the event with their own romantic notions.

This kind of celebration was a relief to most of us, including me. After graduating from valentine collection boxes wrapped in red and pink construction paper, I spent Valentine’s Day in some interesting ways, including almost getting hit by a car on an icy highway, receiving flowers from a boyfriend a few days after we broke up (he had already ordered them), and receiving flowers from a stranger who had the same name as another “friend,” who awkwardly confessed to me that he didn’t send them when I called to thank him. (Months later I found out that the sender was some random guy from a party I attended who sent them on a whim.)

Armed with our party parameters, a boom box, and some lager, wine and junk food, we took over a big common room and threw one of the best Valentine’s Day parties we’d ever attended since the days of drinking Hawaiian Punch from Dixie Cups in grade school. I have a few incriminating photos of people breaking the “no romance” rule, but that was after a beverage or two, so it was possible that it had little to do with Cupid.

I would bet just about any amount of money that our playlist for that evening included New Order, Depeche Mode, U2 and Terence Trent D’Arby, among others. We popped cassettes in and out of the boom box all night long, yelling, “Wait a second,” while we fast-forwarded and rewound to our selections, the gap between songs filled by the clinking of bottles and glasses and the chatter of 30 or so people who were united by a common goal — to leave Valentine’s Day with a lighter heart.

If you were to put such a playlist together today, what would you include? Let me offer you some inspiration with something from that original Black Valentine’s Day celebration.

I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing All Over Again

Courtesy of keen.com

Courtesy of keen.com

Remember that Coca-Cola ad from the early 70s featuring the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”? This latest one from the Super Bowl captures that same spirit, and I find myself both skeptical and touched by it.

When I saw the ad during the Super Bowl, I didn’t register what was really happening. The song starts off in English, and I was at a party where people were talking, so I didn’t actually hear that there were parts sung in foreign languages. And why would I take special note of the various cultures represented visually? We are, thankfully, well past the point when seeing people with different skin color, hair and clothes draws attention.

So when I viewed the commercial yesterday as a result of all of the buzz, my initial reaction was to dismiss it as a ploy. But then I remembered the old commercial from my childhood — the one with “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” — and I thought about what might have been behind this idea.

We live in a time that seems less conformist but also more polarized than that of my childhood and the preceding decades. Although we hope that it’s because people are more open-minded about differences now, I think that what is considered acceptable behavior has shifted. Previously, a racist comment uttered at the office or in line at the grocery store might have been met with tentative uncommitted nods or obligatory silence by people who disagreed. Now, those making the comments are outing themselves as ignorant — even if their intended audience only thinks so because of how inappropriate such remarks are. Prejudice will always exist, unfortunately, though not necessarily along lines of race or nationality. There seems to be plenty of prejudice today about political parties and religion, among other things.

What struck me about the Coca-Cola commercial is how they motivated themselves to do something so bold. Obviously, they know that their money will come from a more diverse population from here on out. Those who complained on social media that “America The Beautiful” is our national anthem and that Coca-Cola blasphemed by having it sung in different languages are in the minority. (Let’s not be prejudiced against their intelligence, though. Chances are that their initial outrage got the best of them, and they really do know what our national anthem is.)

Still, it was a risky move — people who support the old status quo are very loud. Perhaps Coke’s execs were inspired by the Cheerios ad from earlier this year that featured a bi-racial family. Maybe they just wanted to be talked about… after all, they paid good money for that spot.

I’d like to think that there was a creative type sitting in his or her office several months back who had this idea… to extend the brand’s history of unity vs. division and bring it into the present in a way that is obvious and unafraid. It’s not enough to teach the world to sing anymore. We need and want unity on a different level. It would be wonderful if someday acceptance could go beyond race, nationality and culture to include those who feel more intensely, struggle in ways that can’t be defined by our narrow definition of disability and just happen to think differently.

We’re not there yet. In our schools, conformity is a sought-after quality in many ways, from test scores to fashions. The Disney Channel may feature ethnically diverse casts, but they are funneling kids in one direction (no pun intended) when it comes to things like behavior, respect (for self and others) and personal choices. Any parent raising a child who “marches to their own beat” knows what it feels like to walk the tightrope of supporting their need to be who they are and the desire to protect them from others’ opinions.

The irony is that while we want our pop culture to celebrate differences, we aren’t entirely ready to bring them into our day-to-day world… even we GenXers whose legacy of skepticism is strong.

The lyrics from Rush’s “Subdivisions” — conform or be cast out — remain relevant, but maybe less so than they used to be, which would be a very good thing. I hope a company like Coca-Cola knows that to the rest of us, acceptance is about more than selling soft drinks.

1984 Never Ends

1984It’s a sweltering August evening. I’m in the front passenger seat of a sleek black sports car listening to music at high volume in a parking lot somewhere in Northeast Indiana. It’s 1984.

Not the year 1984… rather, the CD my husband and I were cranking after coming from an anniversary dinner to the resort where we were married.

But it could easily have been 1984 in the same vicinity, in the same month, on a similar hot night, in a (much likely) less impressive car with the same CD playing. In fact, that anniversary evening, I had that sensation that is not quite deja vu and not quite flashback, a cocktail of past and present that reminds you that some moments line up on a parallel. There are things in your life that don’t just remain the same… they keep popping in at various points, layering on new meaning each time.

I remember the weeks before 1984 was released. There was all manner of speculation about what the album would be. It was a bold statement to name the album after the year, as if it would be the artistic statement that summed up the era. I would be surprised if that was the band’s intention. The real big news was that Eddie played keyboards on it.

When I first saw the video for “Jump” on MTV, it was actually kind of disappointing, because I listened (and still do) to Van Halen for a harder, more swinging sound. But as soon as I heard the rest of the album, I could overlook it. The one thing it did was open the band up to broader air play, which used to be a much more important thing for a fan than it is now.

There’s something about Van Halen, and especially 1984, that reminds me of being young, more than any other music from that time. In a way it enables me to experience that feeling even now. So, while listening to 1984 might not seem an obvious choice for celebrating a wedding anniversary, it was perfect for my husband and me.

Coincidentally, today is Eddie Van Halen’s birthday. It’s a fitting way to wrap up my week of birthday blog posts on songs that shaped my life.

Music as a Time Machine

One of my uncles with the next generation at Lake Michigan.

One of my uncles with the next generation at Lake Michigan.

I’ve heard that smell is the strongest sense for memory, but for me it’s hearing, specifically music. Songs are like snapshots, and there are certain ones that every time I hear them, it’s like a photo has slipped out of an album onto the floor, and when I pick it up, my mind is flushed with memory.

This is different from hearing a song that was played at your wedding or a favorite album from high school. These songs have meaning only so far as they remind me of an certain era of my life and are otherwise unrelated to what was happening at the time. Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” is such a song.

When I was a child, my brothers, especially the older of the two, and I were the most spoiled niece and nephews on the planet. My mom was the oldest of six kids. She was from what I later understood to be a stereotypical big Irish family, all packed in a post-World-War-II tract house in Merrillville, Indiana — a place where the door was open to all manner of friends and future family and people parked their cars on the lawn, because there wasn’t enough room in the driveway. It was a working-class neighborhood where people didn’t care about the impropriety of such a thing.  There was lots of noise and teasing and competition and love.

The house was tiny. When we stayed overnight, people were either displaced to the living room couch and floor, or we ended up there, where we were woken at probably something like 1 a.m. by my just-over-legal-drinking-age uncles upon their return from The Chatterbox. They were funny guys with an affinity for the kind of humor that amused school-age kids, and we’d laugh so hard that we’d beg them to stop because our stomach muscles hurt.

Each summer we’d spend a week there, visiting the drive-in theater, McDonald’s, the Venture store for toys and the beaches at Indiana Dunes. One my uncles had an old blue car, the kind with bench seats, and whenever I hear “If You Leave Me Now,” I am back in that car again, on my way to Lake Michigan where my brother and I are going to be tossed into the water dozens of times and given the largest soft-serve ice cream cone we could imagine on the way home. I’m looking down at the floor mats, my hand on the back of the passenger side of the front seat, leaning forward in expectation. I’m barefoot, and there are grains of sand that roll around under my big toe because it’s August, and the car has already made the trip to the lake more than a few times that summer.

“If You Leave Me Now” was popular one particular summer (of many like this), but it wasn’t as if every time we turned on the radio we’d hear it. I knew it was meant to be sad, but it wasn’t to me. There were probably songs we heard more often, but it was that moment of awareness that pulled it all together like a finishing thread.

No one from my family lives in that house anymore. Everyone has moved on to places where parking on the front yard would elicit some very confused looks from neighbors and possibly even a visit from law enforcement (or the community’s security officer). I haven’t seen pictures from that time for a decade, at least. For now, I don’t need to. I have a song from the soundtrack.

Cruising Tunes

cassette in carInsurance.com recently did a survey on best and worst driving songs, and when I got over my jealousy of the marketing team who worked on that program, I thought about the general subject of listening to music in the car. The number one pick was “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, which actually makes sense to me, though one might think something like “Drive My Car” or “Radar Love” would take the top spot.

When I was in college, my friends and I would enjoy what we called a “campus cruise.” We would pile into someone’s car and drive around the campus and adjacent student-housing areas just to see if we could catch anything interesting in action. Two gentlemen a few ladies in my group were interested in lived (or hung out at, I can’t remember) the same house, so it was convenient to drive around that block a couple of times. But mostly we meandered with no specific destination in mind. While the idea of this now is probably incredibly offensive to young folks, this was the 80s, and Ronald Reagan had been assuring us for years that it was our God-given American right to not deprive ourselves of any pleasure, as the world — and everything in it — was ours for the taking, especially petroleum products.

So, after plopping out of bed well after the sun rose and devouring a lukewarm pizza from the student union, we’d hop in someone’s car, roll out of the parking lot and pop in one very special cassette — Kick by INXS.

There is nothing on Kick about driving. “Don’t Stop Believing” isn’t about cruising either, but you can imagine why it was the top choice. It’s a turn-up-the-volume-and-belt-it-out anthem that transports you to a place where you are unashamed of who you are, what you want and what’s happened to you. For whatever reason, it seems like when we are behind the wheel of our car, we are in a place that is both public and private. We can sing out loud… to whatever we want… even if it’s Steve Perry and we have no chance of hitting more than four of the notes he does.

We didn’t sing to Kick. We generally ignored or fast-forwarded through the opening song, “Guns in the Sky,” but we did rap along to “Mediate”. We thought we were totally cool to “Devil Inside”. We imagined someone singing “Need You Tonight” to us, maybe even Michael Hutchence himself. Why not? We were in the car. Your imagination can take you anywhere when you’re in the car.

Kick was an obvious choice in the late-80s for a group of gals, but there is something very open-road-freeing about that album for most people, I think. It’s actually one of my husband’s favorites — a guilty pleasure for him, because his standards for musicianship at the time were so high it was surprising Kick even was a blip on his radar. The music is punchy and celebratory, like sticking your arm out the open window on the highway… before you became aware of the rare possibility that a pebble or some other small object could pop up from under the wheel of the car in front of you and puncture your skin and, in turn, starting telling your kids to keep their hands and arms in the car until you got to the last block before home.

The more I write about this, the more I miss it, and its context. A song like “Mediate” told us that the world really wasn’t all right, and several of us had already caught on to the false prophecy of the Reagan years. But we weren’t quite ready for reality. We knew it was coming, but it was our time to savor the last bits of youth.