Thank you, Prince

How is it that losing a physical embodiment of your memories, even if you never were in his presence, makes you so sad?

The death of a musician for a fan always interrupts their day with a mix of disbelief, nostalgia and poignancy. You want to post their music on your Facebook page for commiseration or stream them on Spotify as a personal memorial. (With Prince, your opportunities for this are extremely limited, but I help you out below.) But some artists are more than just great to listen to. Some have woven their music into your very life in a way that makes you unable to separate it from who you are and what you became.

For many GenXers, Prince is probably one of those artists. He was our very own virtuoso rock star. Our very own James Dean riding on his motorcycle in Purple Rain. Our very own taboo-breaking icon.

Prince was pop and funk and rock and psychedelic and blues and soul and even a bit of metal — everything that had taken hold in the modern era of popular music. He transcended each genre to create a sound that was uniquely Prince. Anytime another artist covered one of his songs, even if it was the first time you heard it, you knew it was his — and not just because of the way the title was written.

It was hard to wrap your head around Prince. One year you are turning the volume down on “Darling Nikki” so that your parents don’t hear it belting from your room. Then years later you find out Prince has become a Jehovah’s Witness.

He’s Prince, then a symbol, then Prince again.

He emerges from years away from Top 40 radio to single-handedly kick the most ass ever (and probably forever) in the rain at the 2007 Super Bowl halftime performance.

Then he saunters out to present a Grammy in 2015 in a Dreamsicle-colored chemise stating that albums still matter — and that black lives matter. And you imagine if anyone could crystallize that truth, it would be him.

It’s hard to wrap my head around Prince’s death. His music makes me remember moments that otherwise would have disintegrated into forgotten personal history. His songs are like glue that holds together the narrative of a certain time in my life. With his death, those years are just a bit further away from me.

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Is this a good guy with a gun, Mom?

Do we really want our kids seeing threats everywhere?

Do we really want our kids seeing threats everywhere?

If you send a child to school in this decade, you know the feeling that creeps up on you. Will my reality be shattered by another — the fact that this country offers little protection against someone breaking into my kids’ school and firing off multiple rounds of ammunition with the intention of killing as many people as possible?

This is one of those things you simultaneously try to bury in your subconscious to protect your sanity and emotional fortitude to send your child to school and also keep top-of-mind so that you can do your civic duty of participating in a collective force against the gun lobby.

Maybe you don’t want to believe that guns are the problem. Maybe your political and social views have had you favoring lawmakers who happen to support your values but also are funded by gun manufacturers through the NRA. Maybe you are beginning to understand that conflict of interests. My guess is that you still feel the same fear most parents these days do. If this is the case, I am still talking to you. In fact, I am especially talking to you.

We’ve seen many articles and opinion pieces — lockdown drills have been added to the fire and tornado drills we grew up with. Kids shouldn’t have to know how to barricade themselves in a closet because someone armed like a terrorist has come to kill them. Teachers shouldn’t have to devise way to squeeze 20 little kindergarteners into a cubby space to hide them from a disturbed individual with dozens of rounds of ammo. Armed combat should not be part of the requirements for being an educator of children.

Today I saw something just as unsettling — a photo of a man exercising his open carry rights in a donut shop, taken from the perspective of a family sitting 20 or so feet away.

It didn’t appear that this man was participating in a staged protest. He was simply buying a donut, or some coffee, and he happened to have a sizable weapon sticking out of his pocket.

In the foreground of the photo is a child. I think about what this looks like to him.

If I was sitting at that donut shop, what would I have done?

The gun lobby protests that in a world where there are so many guns, more guns are needed — that to be armed is to be safe, that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to be a good guy with a gun. But research shows that this is very, very rarely the case.

Look at the photo. What do you see? If you love guns, you might see a piece of gear you admire. If you want responsible gun control, you see someone whose mind you want to change. If you are the NRA, you see dollar signs.

Do you see a good guy with a gun?

I don’t know this man, as is the case for the thousands, perhaps millions, of people who will see him on social media in the coming weeks. I have no idea if he has any intention of harm. He could simply be a misguided individual who is otherwise kind and thoughtful — a real good guy.

But if you are a child drilled in the art of hiding from people with guns, I think what you might see is the monster who, rather than hiding in your bedroom closet, lurks outside the door to your school. And now he’s in the donut shop. Is it time to hide under the table? Can you barricade yourself in the restroom before he opens fire?

If you are a parent, how likely is it that you will stick around to find out?

I don’t want to demonize this man. It has been my policy to avoid name-calling and assumptions about people who own guns, because I believe that putting people on the defensive won’t support change. This image isn’t about this man. It’s about the gun, and what it represents to our children.

The gun lobby may find reassurance in this scene, but my guess is that most people don’t — especially our kids. Isn’t it time that we make guns less a part of their lives?

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.”

 

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.

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.