Why Johnny Won’t Read

Image courtesy of Abe Books

This is not a post about why schools don’t teach. It’s also not a post about why too many of the list of “approved classics” that schools make our kids read are by Dead White Men (DWM) (though too many are). There are lots of posts about that already, and you can read those, if you like. I don’t have anything new to say on that topic. Really!

Nope. This is about why kids are so often bored out their mind by those classics, and resist reading them. Or at least, why I think so, which is a slightly different thing. And I’m going to start this here little essay by talking about the Thornton Wilder Classic “Our Town”.

Our Town, boring the living crap out of Your Author

I fucking hate “Our Town”. I can’t stand it. I despise it. It bored me to tears when I was forced to read it the first time, an it bored me out of my mind when I had to watch a production of it when I was in high school. I listened to the analysis of my AP English teachers; I understood what they were saying; I got the allusions. I’m not a stupid guy. I just fucking hated it. The question is: Why? (Yes, I’m aware some of you don’t care. You can bow out now.)

There are two reasons. Well, three. The third reason is I never bought the whole “Christian rapture” thing, so spending the entirety of the afterlife waiting around in chairs in a graveyard sounded idiotic to me. The second reason is, if I had a chance to relive the highlights of my life, are you kidding? I’d grab that in a heartbeat! I totally got Wilder’s point about memory being bittersweet, and it being tough to look back, and Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, and saw that point made again in Pixar’s Inside/Out. And you know what?

To heck with that! Sign me up!

Even in high school I could think of a half-dozen times in the past I wanted to visit. The times when my grandfather was still walking before his stroke! The time my grandmother took me to Ocean Beach Park, but I was too little to really appreciate it! Or when she took me to see the live Peter Pan at the theater in Boston! I couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 and could barely remember that; I’d definitely want to relive that, feeling bittersweet about my grandma being dead or not. It’d be a gas to see her again. Or when my dad took me to my one and only live NFL game in 1972. It was so overwhelming I could barely remember it.

I’d actually like to remember this!

And believe me, as I got older, the list of memories I would be thrilled to relive got even longer. Particularly as my body started to break down and my experiences became more—ahem—adult in nature. If you get my drift. Sit in a graveyard doing nothing waiting for the rapture? For hundreds of years? Are you serious?

But that was only the second reason. The real reason, and why I think kids have trouble with lit in general, is this:

“Our Town” is a tiny town out in the sticks of New England, and I’ve spent my whole life in Suburbia.

This isn’t new, and I am far from unique. This has in fact been the case for hundreds of millions of kids going back now to the 50s. Kids who grew up in the suburbs, with dads (and now moms) commuting to work while they went to school in the suburbs. While we’re reading books about everything else.

Now yes, you want to read books in part to experience vicariously things you can’t in real life. That’s certainly one reason I read science fiction. I’m not getting a jet pack any time soon—at least not at this rate. So it’s up to Dave Stevens and The Rocketeer. It’s up to Heinlein and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel to get me to the galaxy in Andromeda. It’s up to Samuel Delany to get me on a starship powered by Illyrion, where I can plug my nervous system directly into the control systems to hunt down a Nova. I have to depend on Frank Herbert to get me to Dune. And so on. All very well.

Still waiting, engineers

But here’s the thing: Kip, the hero from Have Spacesuit, Will Travel goes to a High School that sounds a lot like the one I went to. Cliff Secord from The Rocketeer lives in L.A., in a Craftsman house. They did wild things, but these details helped anchor them in my boring, suburban world of Safeways and freeways and commutes and lockers and school buses and newspaper deliveries and TV shows and Slurpees and comic books and going to movies and whatnot.

“Our Town” had none of this. None. And that’s what I’m getting at here. The classics we’re asking kids to read have no commonality with the kids we’re forcing to read them.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and no, I’m not suggesting we take “the classics” off the table. Not at all. That is not where I’m going with this. Quite the contrary. Because I want to point out that, despite all of this, and my hate for “Our Town,” and Tale of Two Cities, and Romeo and Juliet, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and other “classics” I was forced to read, there have been plenty of others that I have not just enjoyed but loved over the years. And the question is: How? How did a cynical, late-20th-Century GenXer from the ‘burbs get into that stuff?

Context, and presentation.

Now, this isn’t going to work with everything. As I’ve probably hammered into the ground, no amount of presentation and context is going to make me love “Our Town”. But let’s look at, say, Shakespeare. I should hate Shakespeare. The plays are long. The language is difficult. The subjects are often obscure. And yet there are many Shakespeare plays I like, and some I downright love. WTF!

Context, and presentation.

The first Shakespeare play I saw was “Merry Wives of Windsor” at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 7th grade. My English class studied it ahead of time, and my teacher was great. Plus it’s a comedy. Plus we stayed afterwards, and the actors chatted with us about it. And we sat close in. And then afterwards we got to ask questions about it. Sure, it was more complex than, I dunno, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but they made it approachable. So the next time I encountered Shakespeare—”Julius Caesar”, it was—the fact that I didn’t like it much wasn’t because It Was Shakespeare™, but because, well, I didn’t like it, is all. (And I’ve found in later years I’m not much of one for tragedies in general. Not just Shakespeare; any tragedies. I couldn’t stand The Departed, for example.)

Shakespeare Santa Cruz had a genius for this, not just with Shakespeare, but with anything. The brilliance of staging Samuel Beckett’s minimalist, absurdist “Waiting for Godot” in the middle of a redwood grove simply cannot be overstated. Or changing the sexes of the parts of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Until you’ve seen Titania played by a 6’2″ black man with a powerful bass voice, you’ve never seen it.) Or “A Doll’s House” set up like a 1950’s sitcom. I didn’t always like these plays, but the staging provided the context that brought them home to me.

Just an ass…telling a fairy…he loves her

Similarly, when you consider something like Little Women, or Moby Dick, or Heart of Darkness, a little imagination can provide the context needed for a young reader to enjoy them. And I did enjoy them, because I luckily had people to provide that little extra for me; my grandmother in the case of the first, and excellent teachers in the case of the second and third. (I treated Moby Dick like a science fiction book which, to a kid in the 70s suburbs, it pretty much reads like, honestly. A whaling ship of the mid-19th Century might as well be a spaceship for all that it resembles your world of freeways, McDonald’s hamburgers, and food wrapped in cellophane.)

And this is what I’m suggesting for the readers of classics now. Provide some context. People can enjoy them. Look at how many people are watching the TV show Dickinson, when the material is injected with a little context and imagination. Or the film Sense & Sensibility. I won’t draw the obvious parallels between Emma and Clueless, because other people already have, but there are other examples. Enough to get people started. Why don’t we use them? Why do we keep dumping kids straight into these books and expect them to enjoy them and then are surprised when they act like with “Our Town”?

I’m not dumping on teachers here. I’m reaching out to everyone: Parents, Uncles, Aunts, school boards, older siblings; everyone who has access to kids. Do like my ex and I did and watch Sense & Sensibility with your kids and then give them Austen. Have them watch Clare Danes and (a very young) Leo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet and then try them on a more “standard” version. Watch the new version of West Side Story and then say, “Hey, did you know…” It’s not “cheating”; it’s being smart.

Seriously, who can resist these women?

No one has to like all the “old classics”. Especially all the old classics by DWM. But it’s a good idea to at least figure out a way to give them a try before you give up on them. Really. Because while some of them IMO really don’t translate well to our era, or our sensibilities (I’m sorry; I’m never going to be a fan of Lolita), a lot of them do.

I’m never going to like “Our Town”, though. Sorry about that.

Deserted Island Music; and Why

NOT a desert island, because you need to drink, silly!

Many people list their top 10 albums, or their top 20, or whatever. I have tried this exercise and found that I can’t do it. For one, my list is never a round power of 10, and for another I always have songs left over from albums that I absolutely must have, but the albums I can take or leave. (k. d. lang’s “Pullin’ Back the Reins is a good example; I can take or leave most of the rest of Absolute Torch and Twang.)

So this list is my top albums that I absolute couldn’t do without if I were stranded on a deserted island, along with a few songs I also just have to have. Along with why they’re magnificent and why you should rush out and listen to them yesterday, or why they’re special to me, whether they’re great or not. It’s not a list of albums I’m putting here so people think I’m cool (which I think is all too often the focus of a lot of these lists), or because I think the albums are great (though I do think some of them are great), or because I think my taste is better than anyone else’s, or anything like that. This is just the music that I love, is all. So for example I sure didn’t put Miles Davis here to score points with Jazz lovers; I put Kind of Blue here because I friggin’ love it.

These albums are in no particular order at all; just as they came out of my fevered noggin.

Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell recorded plenty of awesome music, and I won’t belabor her greatness here. Many rate Blue as her apex; some Hejira. I won’t argue with them, though I personally believe this album is a peerless masterpiece. It’s special to me because it was one that was a soundtrack to my youth, and nothing can dislodge that from my brain. Mitchell’s soaring voice, the matchless musicians backing her, the incredible orchestration, and the tremendous, crystal-clear sound engineering are just astounding. And of course it brings me right back to summer days and evenings in our little house in the rolling hills of Northern Virginia in the early 70s, when I was still a grammar school student, kids could wander the neighborhood without fear of kidnap, “playdates” hadn’t been invented, and no one had been impeached since Andrew Johnson.

Mile Davis, Kind of Blue

I’m hardly alone in thinking this album is a masterpiece. People who know Jazz ‘way better than me will tell you all kinds of things about how it birthed entire new modes of the form. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout that; all I know is it’s beautiful, and has Miles Davis and John Coltrane both on it, and is just wonderful from end to end. I’ve had it in every format from vinyl to digital and I always will.

The Who, Who’s Next

The Who’s masterpiece (yes, I know I keep using that word; sorry). From the ashes of a failed follow-up project to Tommy that almost caused Pete Townshend to have an emotional breakdown, there was this. All the songs are great, whatever their provenance, but the absolute best is “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, a song that hides an incredibly cynical and biting message inside an unabashedly anthemic sound, something Springsteen duplicated with “Born in the USA” (an equally misunderstood song). I don’t care how great people think Radiohead is; Pete Townshend does stuff on this album Thom York wishes he could do. Plus Pete had Roger Daltrey.

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Yeah, yeah, yeah; you’ve heard it all before about this album, and what more can I possibly add? Nothing. The fact is, it lives up to the hype. It’s simply a great album, from start to finish, and I would have to have it on my island. And that’s all there is to say about that.

k.d. lang, Ingénue

There are people who say it’s Beyoncé. There are people say it was Whitney Houston. There are people who say it’s Mariah Carey. Some will go for Aretha Franklin (which is hard to argue). Others Etta James. Or perhaps Barbra Streisand. Or Adele. But for me no one can sing like k.d. I’ll never forget seeing her on Saturday Night Live, singing “Pullin’ Back the Reins” with my mouth literally hanging open, sitting motionless for the entire song, flat-out awed by her performance. And nowhere is her talent on such full and complete display as Ingénue (though Shadowlands is damn fine). This album sucks you in, holds you in its spell for 40 minutes, then sends you on your way, and you can’t believe it’s over. And then you have to listen again. It’s a blessing to the world, this album. I could not possibly do without it. Thank you, k.d.

King Crimson, Discipline

Robert Fripp is a prick. He is also stupendously talented, a hard worker, a perfectionist, and puts out some amazing stuff. King Crimson is his baby, and he has moved personnel in and out of it over 45+ years as if they were musical instruments themselves, and with no more thought for their feelings. The results are sometimes brilliant, sometimes IMO unlistenable, sometimes just downright weird. With this collection of musicians and on this album, he hit the perfect balance of players at just their right degree of virtuosity, and they put out a work of art. Lots of people disagree with me, and that’s fine; this one speaks to me, and that’s the point of this list. Adrien Belew’s whack, extroverted guitar improvisations are the perfect foil for Fripp’s anal-retentive, obsessively over-produced finger-picking. When backed up by Tony Levin’s non-rock-based bass and his expressive Stick playing, held tightly in place by Bill Bruford’s precise-yet-muscular drumming, it all comes together beautifully. This is my favorite incarnation of King Crimson by far, and they made two more albums (Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair) that are almost as good before Fripp got itchy balls and blew it up for something different. This is the only one I can’t do without.

Talking Heads, Remain in Light

Talking Heads popped loose and gained their hold in American pop culture with Speaking in Tongues and their amazing, exuberant, basically-perfect concert film (except, IMO, the Tom Tom Club segment) Stop Making Sense. Both are wonderful, and I love and enjoy both regularly. Sometimes I just listen to Stop Making Sense, reliving the night when I and 5-6 friends and I piled into my housemate Peggy’s boyfriends car (it was some big, giant American 70s thing; a Lincoln Continental or some such) and rolled on down to the Sash Mill, a local art film theater in Santa Cruz, to watch it with a crowd of other raucous UC Santa Cruz students. A memorable night for sure. But nothing for me tops the swirling, sometimes loopy, sometimes surreal, polyrhythmic wonder that is Remain in Light. I never tire of it. (Much to the irritation of my friend Susan; “Don’t you listen to anything else?) Bizarre, transfixing, frustrating, odd, funky, danceable…it blew my brain away and never stopped.

Peter Gabriel, Security

Peter Gabriel was in Genesis before they became a singles-making machine under Phil Collins. Now, I’m not saying they were a bad band with Phil Collins, or that I dislike Phil Collins’ work, or anything like that; I’m just establishing a baseline here, as we say in the nerd biz. Gabriel was into World Music way before it was a thing, working with African musicians and rhythms in the mid-70s, most notably on the anti-apartheid anthem “Biko” from his third album. (A live performance of which I saw at the Oakland Coliseum Arena in the mid-80s as the anti-apartheid movement was gaining momentum, the memory of which—an entire crowd of 15,000 people in Oakland standing on their feet, fists in the air, chanting “OH OH OHHHHHHHH!” together with Gabriel’s multi-ethnic band—still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up on.) His music is not for everyone, despite being prominently featured in Everyone’s Favorite Teen RomCom Say Anything. It is complex, deeply personal, often wildly weird, and lyrically (to put it mildly) obscure. But it is most definitely for me, and this album is IMO his best. (Though So, his next offering, is damn fine.)

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III

Yes, I’m well aware that most people will choose Led Zeppelin IV (or “Zoso” as some folks call it after the image that accompanied the vinyl album). I don’t care. Led Zeppelin IV is an excellent album and I would never argue it wasn’t, and you’ll find at least one of its songs down below, but for pure repeat listening value nothing tops this one for me. If you want your classic dose of crunching, mind-melting Zep blues-rock with mystical influence, you can listen to The Immigrant Song, but for me the strange, drifting, almost soft tone of the rest of the album is what draws me in. And while it’s hard for anything to top the intensity of “Kashmir” from Presence, “Since I’ve Been Loving You” is in my opinion their rawest and most blues-inflected song ever. I can get along without IV; I can’t get along without this one.

Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert

If you keep an open mind, you can learn from practically any source and any person. I have been blessed by having dated a wide variety of women with a wide background, who have exposed me to lot of different cultural influences, which I am forever grateful for. From my ex-wife Sami, who introduced me to Cajun culture (music, cooking, dancing) to others who have showed me everything from Lindy dancing to Shibari, I’ve really been lucky. And in this case, it was my first college girlfriend Alison, who introduced me to the amazing Keith Jarrett and his magical playing in Germany. I couldn’t get along without it. Thanks to all of you (many of whom I’m still friends with), and to Alison for this one.

Bob Marley, Legend

It’s not really fair to include a “greatest hits” album on one’s “favorites” list, but in this case I just have to. I’m a big believer in the letting artists define their craft through an album, although there are some exceptions. Creedence, for example, pumped out singles. AC/DC is another band that was just a singles machine. And in Marley’s case, while I wouldn’t put him in the same category, I think it’s fair to collect his best together like this. And this is one of those albums that’s actually on a lot of other folks’ “best albums” lists, too, so why the heck not? And I’d need it on my island, anyway.

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon / Wish You Were Here

I couldn’t decide whether to list two albums by the same group as separate entries, or to squoosh them together under one. I went with the latter choice; throw rocks at me if you wish. Both of these albums mean a lot to me, though for different reasons. Dark Side of the Moon because it is such a lovely, exquisite distillation of all the best of acid rock into one basically flawless album. Wish You Were Here because it served as the soundtrack for a period of my life that was both incredibly painful and yet growthful—mid-college—containing breakups and new relationships, friends made and lost, growth and discovery, that I wouldn’t trade for anything no matter how much it hurt and cost me at the time. I wouldn’t want to be without either one.

Santana, Abraxas

An album that, to me, can only be played in warm weather (as indeed all of Santana’s songs seem designed for in my mind). Santana’s first Gold record, a record on which Greg Rolie (later to become hugely successful with Journey) sang and played; the one with “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”. Santana’s liquid, singing guitar playing (B.B. King made his guitar cry; Santana makes his sing), the mix of Spanish rhythm, Jazz, and rock, and the swirl of 60s psychedelia mixes just perfectly on this disc for me.

Donald Fagen, The Nightfly

Every time I put on this album, I think I’m only going to listen to a song or two, and every time, I listen to the whole thing. This is not by any stretch a classic album, but I just love it. I first found it through MTV, which back in my day played music videos instead of just episodes of Ridiculousness. It’s absolutely an album for Boomers, which I am not, despite my birth year; I am wedged into a very uncomfortable zone between Boomers and GenX. But somehow I really enjoy it; from the funky, paranoid-yet-horny synth-driven bop of “New Frontier” to the sweet, hopeful romanticism of “Maxine”, to the snapshot memory of “Walk Between Raindrops”, I find it compelling. And the opening hopefulness of I.G.Y, with it’s callbacks to Hugo Gernsback-driven jetpacks and space habitats, is almost specifically-designed to be Doug-bait. It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. (added 1/1/2022)


And here are the songs I just couldn’t leave behind, either:

  • “Pullin’ Back the Reins”; k. d. lang
  • “Air from Suite #3 in D, II”, J. S. Bach
  • “When the Levee Breaks”, Led Zeppelin
  • “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, The Clash
  • “Hotel California”, The Eagles
  • “The Boys of Summer”, Don Henley (NOT a song for the summer, you boneheads!)

Press Coverage Has Sucked For a Long Time

If press coverage these days doesn’t drive you to drink…

It’s an article of faith right now—and has been since at least the beginning of the Trump era in, shall we say, late 2015?—that press coverage sucks. Or to put it in the kind of language they like to use, “Has been inadequate to the task of dealing with a political system that has learned how to manipulate the press’ natural tendencies to advantage the political class.”

ie they suck.

Not all of them suck, of course. Many fight the good fight. Plenty of bloggers such as Digby (who now posts for Salon as well as running her own blog), Dan Froomkin, Professor Jay Rosen of NYU, Lucian Truscott IV, Josh Marshall, Aaron Rupar, Marcy Wheeler, and many more try to hold the feet of the Northeastern media to the fire. But they can only do so much, and unfortunately, as we can see from the coverage, it’s not nearly enough.

(By the way, I prefer “Northeastern media” to “mainstream media”, because in addition to capturing its insulated nature, it also highlights its regional myopia. When you live outside the DC-NY corridor, as most of us do, you begin to notice just how Northeastern-focused the news is. And if you live in the West, it takes something completely extraordinary to get the kind of coverage that, say, a gallery opening will get you multiple network coverage for in New York City.)

I’m not here to talk about in what ways current coverage suck—the whataboutism, the false equivalences, their perpetual and absurd efforts to achieve “balance” and “objectivity” through idiotically ignoring gross injustices on one side of the political aisle. Plenty of the above-mentioned folks have done that repeatedly, and better than I can. I just wanted to note how long this has been going on for.

One of the problems in our culture in general is the inability to look farther in the past than the last quarter, year, or election cycle. This isn’t just true in politics, but in general. We can barely remember last winter, let alone two Presidents ago. So when people talk about how the press sucks, there’s an alarming tendency to think it’s only really sucked this badly since Trump was elected. And that’s both nonsense, and dangerous. I want to offer a couple of brief case studies to show why that’s utterly wrong, and how deep the rot goes.

When George W. Bush was installed in office in one of the most jug-headed court decisions in history, one so bad the Supreme Court itself tried to hermetically seal it off from every other one of their other decisions, he had already spent several months proving the press was a bunch of easily-manipulated twits, and then spent the rest of his Administration proving it. Think about these key points.

During his campaign and his presidency, W. constantly came up with denigrating and derogatory nicknames for the reporters regularly covering his beat, and yet was punctilious about requiring everyone to address him by his title and honorifics. And they all accepted this BS. He bullied them, and they swallowed it rather than demand—perfectly reasonably, as mature adults!—that they be addressed by name. He established early on that he could bully them in public and that they would take it. And even report it a cute, colorful side-bar item!

Bush and his team repeatedly refused to release information to Congress and the press despite wide outcry, simply waiting until the immediate media storm had passed. There was never any follow-up. Don’t you think the Republicans, many of whom later worked with and for Trump, noticed this? The Bushes took advantage of the press’ short attention span.

The Bush Administration came up with the entire concept of “alternative facts”, although they did it in reverse, by sneering at “the reality-based community”. Ron Suskind wrote about this in an article in New York Time in 2004. But did the press adjust their coverage to compensate? Hollow laugh; they still haven’t compensated.

And finally—and this is the one that always amazes me—Bush bought his house in Crawford, Texas in 1999 as a pretend-ranch, and the press let him get away with it.

It is completely obvious that Bush bought this house just to fuck with the press. It’s well-known the Bush hates horses. He never kept any livestock on his property. He bought it immediately prior to his run for President, and sold it shortly after he left office. It was out in the middle of nowhere, and he went there in the middle of Texas summers “to clear brush” when temperatures regularly top 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go (unless you count Waco, which I don’t). This was a massive, obvious troll of the press. And yet they simply swallowed this patent BS without a quiver, calling this piece of property the “Western White House”.

What a joke.

How are we supposed to take press seriously after that? Why should politicians? Why should Trump? Why should his followers?

But the problem, and the disconnect goes back even further. I can’t say how far back it is, but I know the disconnect is pretty old. I first noticed it during Clinton’s impeachment.

If you’re too young, or can’t remember, Clinton’s popularity and approval during the impeachment hearings stayed in the 60 percent range. This absolutely astounded the press (and outraged the Republicans), who simply couldn’t believe the American people didn’t want to get rid of a President over some oral sex. That people might be disgusted by Ken Starr digging into the Clintons for years and finding nothing and then suddenly changing his mind about closing the investigation didn’t occur to them. Or that people might find Linda Tripp’s actions awful. Or that they might find Starr and the Republicans motivations more than a bit suspicious. Or the fact that the economy was doing really well meant that they really didn’t give a rip what was happening among Clinton, his wife, and a third party.

The point is, the press was wildly out of touch with what people were interested in. “Where is the outrage?” the press (and Republicans) wanted to know. I kept thinking, “Well, if you people ventured farther west than Fairfax, you might figure it out.” But of course they never did. They rarely ever do. Except to imaginary diners just outside of Philly. Where they talk to imaginary blue-collar white people.

And now the press is pretending to wake up and say, “Gee, maybe we’re a bit out of touch with the people; what should we do?” No folks; you’ve been out of touch for a long time. America told you bluntly in the Clinton Administration you were out of step; you ignored us. George W. Bush trolled you to your faces and you ignored it. Trump had to threaten your lives before you finally got a clue, and you’re still resorting to the same tired, useless, bothsideism that you always have.

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post frequently writes that local news coverage and local papers are in danger, and that they are a backbone of our democracy. And I agree. The problem is, if journalists can’t break out of the old molds, what’s the point in supporting them and their work? (I’ve asked Sullivan this and similar questions; she doesn’t ever reply.)

I hate it when people write “complaining” blog posts without offering suggestions, but the thing is, I don’t have a suggestion. What needs to happen is something over which I have no control: The Northeastern media needs to pull its collective head out of its shorts and start doing real, actual journalism. And I have no idea how I can effect that. Or affect it!

If you do, please let me know.

Meditations on Art and One’s Muse

Joni Mitchell, Miles of Aisles tour

Recently two of the artists I grew up listening to—Bette Midler and Joni Mitchell—were feted with Kennedy Center honors. The music of both filled the house when I was growing up, though aside from having careers overlapping in time and both being of an era and an age, the two women could not really be more different. (They both did cover “Twitsted” within a year of each other, though!)

Bette is, of course, a flamboyant, fiery, outspoken redhead who loves to perform. An old-fashioned cabaret singer transported somehow into our era, Bette is bold, brassy, and (in her own words) a broad in basically every sense of the word. Starting from the New York Continental Baths with Barry Manilow, Bette has done stage shows, films, albums, and is currently PO’ing right-wingers on social media.

Definitely not afraid of performing!

Joni is a quiet (from a publicity standpoint), introspective singer-songwriter who always seemed to rather resent the performing side of her profession, and has said many times she considers herself more of a painter than a vocalist. Her albums explore multiple genres, but I think can be summed up as “intimate” in way that Bette rarely is. Not that Bette can’t be passionate and emotional; it’s the difference between extrovert and introvert; Dionysian and Apollonian.

It was in reading interviews with Mitchell, both recent and older ones, that got me thinking about artists, their muse, their preferences, and their disappointments. Because as I said above, despite all her fame and received plaudits as a singer-songwriter, she doesn’t consider that her main vocation; she thinks of herself as a painter. And I think this is captured best by a quote captured on a live recording back in 1974:

A painter does a painting, and he paints it and he paints it, and that’s it, you know. He has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and maybe somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But he never, you know, nobody ever, nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint us Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it and that was it.

Joni Mitchell

Well, I had to include it!

You’d think a woman as talented, as lauded, as universally acclaimed as Joni Mitchell would be thrilled to have millions of people familiar with her work, so much so they call out for it at concerts. But no; she wants to hang it on the wall and move on. That’s how her muse speaks to her.

And this isn’t all that unusual, if you read a lot of artist biographies or the introductions to stories or liner notes or watch interviews. You can often hear these awesome artists pining for the things they can’t do, even while producing some amazing stuff. Lennon and McCartney both chafed at being Beatles after 4 or 5 years, and yet produced an absolutely astonishing output of material. They wanted to be poets, or movie auteurs, or artists. You watch them clicking together in Peter Jackson’s Get Back, even when they’re tired of each other and Lennon is strung out on heroin and you think, “How can they not want to do that forever?” But they don’t.

In baseball there’s a famously weird (and almost certainly autistic) pitcher named Zack Greinke. He’s astonishingly good, and probably will end up in the Hall of Fame. But if you watch him in interviews and in games, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the fact that he’s one of the best pitchers of the last 20 years; he’s said, repeatedly, he wants to be a position player, a shortstop. He wants to hit in the lineup regularly. But they won’t let him, I suspect, simply because he’s too good (and valuable) a pitcher. To be honest, I feel sad for him. The man will end up historically good doing something he doesn’t really seem to enjoy.

The man in question

But I have to say I disagree with Mitchell’s assessment, and think she made it because at heart she’s a painter, and not a singer. Her disappointment isn’t that she has to keep repainting Starry Night; it’s that she doesn’t get to paint and be recognized for it, like poor Zack Greinke, and I can understand that.

Because when it comes to live performance, every night is different. The audience is different. The room is different. The vibe is different. You feel different. If performing is part of your muse—as it clearly is for Midler but isn’t for Mitchell—then you betcha you wanna paint Starry Night every night. How many times did Lynyrd Skynyrd play “Free Bird”? I’m sure they got tired of sometimes; of course they did. But I bet most nights, it really juiced them. If you watch Alex Leifson and Geddy Lee of Rush in the documentary Time Stand Still, you can see that performing absolutely lights them up. Why else would Mick Jagger and Keith Richards still be on the road 60 years later playing “Satisfaction”? God knows they don’t need the money!

And even in the visual arts Mitchell isn’t quite on the money. Famously, Japanese ukiyo-e artist Hokusai made Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji. How many paintings did Claude Monet do of the Rouen cathedral in the late 19th Century? Or Cezanne of Mont Ventoux?

Fuji-sama in one of her aspects

The muse take you were it takes you. For Joni, hers is a one-and-done kind of thing, and that works for her. I have no issue with that at all; she’s produced an incredible body of work. But for others, the answer is different, and I think it’s important we accept that for different artists, different rules obtain.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll listen to Court and Spark again. Because whether she ever plays it again herself, I can’t get enough. God bless you, Joni.

Of Aging, Patience, and Kids on my Lawn

Seriously, does anyone have more “Get off the lawn” energy?

Its a widely-observed phenomenon that people tend to get grumpier as they get older. Aside from a tiny minority that somehow seem to become nearly saintly, the vast majority move into what we shall call the “Get off my lawn!” phase of life, where random outbursts of anger at…well, whatever is irritating them, seem to come more and more frequently. The classic case being the grumpy old widower yelling at kids playing on his lawn.

I’ve given this a lot of thought as I have, inevitably, aged towards that category myself. Especially given the common wisdom that straight white cis middle-class men—a category to which I belong—are supposed to get more conservative, or even reactionary, as they age. Which concerned me as a progressive, because honestly, I really a lot didn’t want to become a reactionary. Or even conservative. “A man who has not been a socialist before 25 has no heart; if he remains one after 25 he has no head,” the old saying goes. “Hooey,” decided I when I was somewhere in my late 20s.

But I definitely have noticed something happening as I’ve aged. Fortunately, it has nothing to do with socialism, or political convictions, or even kids. It’s honestly a lot simpler.

I’m less patient is all.

Now, on a simple temporal basis, this is easy to understand; I’ve got less time. My grandmother on the side of the family I take after the most—my Mom’s mom—passed away at 90. So let’s say I’ll live to 90. Or even 100. Fine. (I don’t think I will, or that I even want to. I suffer from chronic pain controlled by morphine and regular medical procedures. I am a cancer survivor. I have a degenerative neurological condition that makes my hands shake. I mean, do I really want another 40 years of all that? But I digress!) Let’s say 90. Just do the math here.

When you’re 30 and you’re going to live to 90, you’ve got 60 more years. Two times what you’ve already lived! It’s bloody forever! You can afford to be patient! Yeah, you may need to learn patience, it may be hard, but you have the time.

When you’re 60, you’ve got 30 more years; have of what you’ve already lived. The clock is ticking, baby. Believe me, I’m not there yet and I can hear the damn noise already. And I guarantee you even for the folks who aren’t feeling the pressure consciously, their bodies are telling them. It’s a lot harder to keep that waistline in check, butts and boobs are sagging, grey is in their hair (what they have left), wrinkles abound. It’s easy to get impatient with things because your own body is betraying you on a daily basis. You get impatient with it. And that makes you impatient in general.

I used to look like this!

Not to mention you’ve seen a bunch more stuff in the world than you did 30 years ago. I saw my first impeachment when I was 11. Now I’ve seen four. And not one of those guys ended up in jail. I’ve actually lost track of how many times the Republicans have threatened (or actually have) closed down government over a budget battle where they eventually caved. Five times? Six? I don’t remember! Three different GOP administrations have crashed the economy into the ground and left the Democrats to pick up the pieces. Three!

And it’s not just politics. The tornadoes in Kentucky are a horrible disaster. And how many disasters have I lived through in my life? I couldn’t possibly remember. The first was Hurricane Agnes when I was 9. Even just counting “hurricanes that cost billions” it’s got to be over a dozen by now. Add in earthquakes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, plane crashes, wars, etc., the brain kind of overloads. I’m not saying all these things aren’t terrible; I’m just noting there’s only so many of them you can take in before some part of you says, “Right; I’m done.” It’s not that you want to tap out; it’s that you want it over. You lose patience. You’re tired of the bullshit.

Which gets me around to my main point.

I don’t hate having kids on my lawn and actually invite them. I love having kids on my lawn. Seeing kids having fun brings me joy. Jeez, grumpy old widowers, I totally understand that you want to tap out, but don’t blame the kids, they’re just playing! Blame the politicians, oil executives, callous capitalist jerks, and so on! Let the kids climb trees and jump in the leaves!

What makes me grumpy, what I’m impatient with, is what a lot of people call “being diplomatic”. Here are a couple of examples that have direct bearing on my life, one very small, the other large.

Right now my company has implemented a vaccine mandate policy where you either have to get vaccinated by a certain date and show proof thereof, or file for an exception (usually religious). Without either of these, you have to resign. It being a high tech company, the vast majority have just gotten vaccinated, though a small minority have filed for exceptions. And here’s where I get grumpy and am tired of being diplomatic.

A very, very small minority of these anti-mandate folks are either anti-vaxxers, or anti-mandates. And there’s no question in my mind they don’t want to abide by the policy just because they feel they’re entitled not to. No other reason; just because. I’ve deduced this from the (mostly pathetic) arguments they’ve put up on the internal company channels, and the bigoted “manifesto” they sent to the company executives protesting the policy.

Now, because of corporate policy, I have to be diplomatic and say things like, “That statement comes from a web site of dubious quality”, or “that argument has been proven false”, or whatnot. But because of the aforementioned lack of patience and associated grumpiness, I want to say, “OH SHUT UP YOU ENTITLED, SELFISH, IGNORANT JERKS! Get vaccinated and stop whining!” (And that’s not even getting into the fact that straight white cis Christian men are using a religious exemption created for historically marginalized minority religions not because of “deeply-held regious beliefs,” but simply because they don’t wanna. It disgusts me.)

Just do it already, FFS

This is my old, progressive version of “get off my lawn.”

A broader example would be Taiwan. My son is Taiwanese. He’s not Chinese. The world’s policy about Taiwan is, in a word, nuts. And it makes me nutty having to listen to it, or deal with people who try to convince me it makes sense.

[Brief aside: If you’re unfamiliar, the U.S. treats Taiwan as a separate country, but pretends it’s actually part of China and never, ever says the word “country” when referring to Taiwan. China behaves as if Taiwan is part of China, even though they have zero authority over it. Taiwan pretty much ignores this to the extent they can, except for the fact that they sit right next door to a nuclear-armed autocracy that would like to occupy them like Hong Kong and would except for the U.S. Navy and world opinion.]

No grump-old-man Doug says: Screw all this “pretending Taiwan isn’t a country just because it makes China get their knickers in a knot” BS. They need to get over it. At my age, I have zero patience with coddling to the tender consciences of politicians in general, and politicians in other countries in particular. The heck with ’em! Get off my lawn, you snowflakes!

Not China

A lot of this stems from my basic life stance, which is that I have no itch to power, and don’t understand people who do. So I don’t understand politicians in general, people like Mitch McConnell in particular, and autocrats like Trump, Putin, and whoever-the-fuck is in charge in China right now (frankly I don’t keep track because it seems to change every few years and I have enough trouble keeping up with our clown show). I do not and never will understand why China seems to get so bent about people calling Taiwan a country, and intent on grabbing more territory. Why can’t they leave Tibet alone? Why are they constantly pushing into India? Why do they need to grab even more tiny islands in the South China Sea? They have the biggest and most populous country on Earth; isn’t that enough? WTF, Chinese leaders!

Those are just examples. My point here is that men in particular and humans in general are not destined to get more conservative as they get older, but I do think they tend to get more impatient, and thus more grumpy. And this grumpiness is going to manifest in different ways. In my case, it’s a profound impatience with “diplomatic niceties”; just say WTF you mean, people! With some of those insensitive old widowers, they’re yelling at poor kids. With power-hungry straight white cis Christian men, they get more conservative because they see that as a way to get more power and money (I guess?).

But take heart, you aging GenXers; you don’t have to become more conservative! You can be like me and get more radical, and PO and whole different set of people!

And meanwhile, invite those kids on your lawn! They need a place to play!

Listening to the Music


Recently, Peter Jackson’s edit of The Beatles’ epic 60+ hours of material from their Get Back sessions was released on Apple, and I’ve been slowly imbibing it. And for me—pushing 60, and old enough to have grown up listening to this music as the background of my childhood—it’s kind of a weird experience.

We had music on basically all the time when I was a kid. It was either playing in the background in the living room our 6-record turntable (just thinking about those vinyl albums thwacking down onto the surface makes me wince in pain), or on the radio in the card. The Beatles, of course, but my parents had eclectic tastes, so there was also Simon and Garfunkel (and Paul Simon), Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Bette Midler, Steely Dan, Seals & Crofts, Harry Nilsson, Jesus Christ Superstar (and other soundtracks), Stevie Wonder, Vince Guaraldi, Dave Brubeck, Crosby Stills & Nash, and of course everything else on the radio.

Yes, these actually existed

This was also the case once I left home. My college roommates and housemates were almost all music people, too. The first thing I would set up in moving to a new place—and I moved 12 times in 12 years in Santa Cruz—was my stereo. And before the iPod/iPhone/MP3 digital era, that was a hassle, kids! It wan’t the fanciest stereo in the world, but it had a turntable and a cassette player (ask your granny), and it did the job for me.

21st Birthday gift from my Mum!

But this is a new era. When I had kids, and they got a little older, a couple of things happened. First, they didn’t like my music, and didn’t hesitate to let me know it. They were fine with Ella Fitzgerald (who isn’t?) and ZZ Top’s “La Grange”—which they called “the How How song”—but weren’t so good with, I dunno, Fleetwood Mac or The Nightfly. “Fogey Rock”, my daughter called it. (She was listening to Kei$ha, but I heroically refrained from criticism.)

The second thing was, the iPod came out, and were inexpensive (and easy-to-use and indestructible) enough to buy as birthday and holiday gifts. And so everyone could listen to the music they personally liked, and long road trips could be much more peaceful than Mama or Papa pointing out they were the parents and so if they wanted to listen to the soundtrack of Chicago, that was tough darts, go back to your coloring and LEGOs and make sure the dogs have their treats!

Killer of family music listening

But under the heading of unintended consequences was that we stopped actually having a “family stereo” in the house. Not even a central set of speakers and a plug-in for an iPod. And so my personal domicile stopped having an audio soundtrack all the time. And over time, other than by myself in the car, or (rarely) while I worked with headphone on, I stopped listening to music almost entirely.

A solution might have been to have music playing in my bedroom, but there were two problems here, as well: Our special-needs kids were constantly bursting in, and my partner and my relationship was deteriorating, so it just created another area of conflict. And that was that. Until my kids grew up, my daughter moved out, and my partner and I split up.

Now, with just my autistic son and I, I find myself with a lot more…well, space to listen in. I may still have to use my headphones more often than not, but I’m listening to music a lot more again. My old music catalog, of course, but I went ahead and splurged on the monthly Apple Music cost and am slowly expanding my reach. Right now I’m listening to Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill for the first time, for example. (Hey, I was raising a family!)

Thanks Alanis!

Which brings us back to The Beatles and Get Back. (I’m slowly coming around to the point here.) As I was watching, it caused me to look up some detail online, which led me Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” (Which one has to take with a grain of salt from an organization that didn’t include Carole King in its Hall of Fame until this year, but never mind.) So I’m scrolling through the list, with a little perspective, given I’m, as previously noted, pushing 60.

One thing Rock fans often fight over is which genre “counts” or “matters” or “is more vital” or some such rot. eg in the late 70s, punk rock was seen as a reaction to the “overblown excesses” of “art rock” or “progressive rock”. The back-to-basics approach of groups like The Ramones or The Sex Pistols was viewed as a necessary correction to all that silly noodling around with string orchestras and synths those pompous jerks from London (King Crimson; Genesis) and Long Island (Yes) and so forth were doing. Kick over the jams, you dinosaurs!

And watching Yoko Ono scream into the mic—God it was painful—and listening to some of the stuff on John Lennon’s first solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which were clearly precursors to punk, it’s pretty clear all these narratives are bollocks. These tensions have always been there in rock and roll/rock music. Pete Townsend wrote some of the most orchestral, art-rocky music ever with Tommy, Quadrophenia, and “Baba O’Reilly,” and The Who also blasted the living crap out of people with “My Generation”. Same band. What is “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks but Punk 15 years early? It was always there, just without the clothes pins. (And The Beatles had the leather and smokes in Hamburg, thanks. Lennon wore a toilet seat as a collar, FFS. Don’t talk to me about Sid Vicious.)

What I’m getting from Get Back is just how much the music mattered to those guys, and how much effort they’re putting in—amidst the squabbling and weariness and irritation and pressure and everything—to putting out the best music they can. Will overdubbing do it? The acoustics in here suck; will doing it somewhere else be better? Will playing live give us a better sound? How about Eric Clapton? Billy Preston? They want the best for the music.

And ultimately that’s why the arguments seem silly to me (and why I went on the long digression): To all these artists, they’re doing all this for their music. Pete Townshend managed to fuse synthesizers and hard rock and bitter, cynical lyrics and an anthemic sound into one amazing song for “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Who gives a shit he used synths to make his point? The Ramones amped up their beat to 160 per minute because for them, that got their point across. The Clash used the trappings of Punk and a lot of incredibly sophisticated studio techniques in conjunction to kick your teeth in with their songs. Rush managed (somehow) to fuse bizarre time-changes, complex poly-rhythms, eclectic science-fiction lyrics, and almost oppressive virtuoso musicianship with heavy metal stylings to create unheard-of Progressive Metal because that’s the music they wanted. The music. That’s what mattered to them. Neil Peart tossed in reggae rhythms to “Spirit of Radio” because he had been listening to The Police and thought it was cool. THE MUSIC, people.

Just because it’s a really awesome album

So now I’m listening to the music, and there’s a lot of music out there, and what I like I like, and what I don’t I don’t, and I don’t apologize for either one. And when I’m dancing to 30s dance tunes by Duke Ellington I’m loving that, and when I’m listening to Alanis Morissette for the first time, I’m loving that. And I hope you do, too. And to hell with musical political BS.

And BTW: Jagged Little Pill just wound up. Pretty cool; I can see why it sold 30+ million copies.

Some words on consent

This post contains coarse language. You have been warned.

In the era of #MeToo, ass-clown and probably pedophile Matt Gaetz, ex-President and serial sexual molester Trump, and the years-long focus on sexual predation, powerful men being outed as predators (Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, et alia), you’d think the rules on sexual consent would be clear to my idiot gender by now.


I can’t even imagine how frustrated women must be by this. “No means no, you boneheads! Where is the confusing part!” Well, that’s not the confusing part. The confusing part, and where we men are dumb, testosterone-filled, hard-on-driven morons, is the withdrawal-of-consent portion.

Up front I want to explain that I am not Not NOT excusing our behavior. No. NO NO NO. I’m explaining why we seem like such a bunch of dumb bunnies whose blood has all run down into our genitalia. Partly because it has, and partly because we don’t get how consent can be withdrawn.

I know; “How can you be so stupid?” Well, that’s what I’m here to tell you.

See, for a long time, the whole point of consent from a guy perspective was, once you finally had it—through marriage, or engagement, or “going steady”, or whateveryou had it for good. A marriage license was a license to have sex whenever you wanted, whether your partner wanted or not. “Going steady” meant you got to make out with your partner, with some ground rules (“I’m not that kind of girl!” mean no PiV sex). Or whatever. But the idea in the boneheaded male brain was, fine, negotiations over, we’re done.

I’m not saying this is reasonable, or fair, or okay, or equitable. I’m not saying we should go back to this. I’m agreeing this is patriarchal BS. Unfortunately the vast majority of men carry it in the back of their tiny little brains at all times. Guy thinks: Once we’ve negotiated consent with you, we’re done. If you agreed to have sex, we get to have sex. If you agreed once, that’s it forever. If your clothes are off, we’re going to have sex. Etc. No more negotiations! Consent achieved!

Obviously, this is insanity.

But I’m telling you, this is what guys are thinking when their dicks are hard (if you can call it thinking). Not about birth control, or negotiation, or (often) your pleasure; that they already have consent to have sex. It’s a done deal. So when a guy is told at some point, “Stop,” a part of him (or if he’s an incel ass-clown, basically all of him) is utterly bewildered. “Duuuuuh, what? But you said ‘Yes’ [yesterday | last week | in 2011 when I married you | when you downed that fifth margarita ]. What do you mean, ‘Stop’?”

And of course, the closer you get to the actual moment of PiV sex with us knuckleheads, the more this cognitive dissonance is going to cause neuron failure, and who knows what will happen then. If he’s actually bending over you, nude, johnson in hand, all bets are off. Will he become enraged? Faint? Head explode like a Cronenberg film? One hopes he’ll say, “Of course not, babe; maybe later? Do you want some water? Are you warm enough?” And I’m sure some percentage of guys (including me, I hope) will do so. But scroll back, read, and see what you think.

There is a way to combat this utter nonsense, and that’s education and persistence. My son Joseph is autistic. And with Joseph, to get him to understand a concept I have to tell it to him in brief, answer his questions about it (but not go into too much detail or he’ll get bored and tune me out), and then revisit it. Over and over and over. But the good news is, he does end up getting it. Folks on the autism spectrum are supposed to not understand empathy. But you know what? After living together in close quarters with me, Joseph brings me coffee and biscuits while I’m working, offers to make me food, and does other things on the “empathy” scale. (It’s pretty awesome, honestly.)

If he can learn this stuff, your average lunk-headed, penis-driven man can learn consent as well.

I’m not saying it’s fair we have to train men like this; it’s not. Of course it’s not. But I’m trying to recognize reality here. Men are idiots. You can either bail on us—and I wouldn’t blame you if you did—or you can dig in. Just keep repeating it to us—well, not me; I think I have it now, but you know what I mean—slowly, simply, until we get it.

  • “Look, Biff; just because we had sex last week doesn’t mean you can grope me in Safeway whenever you like.”
  • “Saaed, I’m not in the mood, so get please let me just read my book. Yes, I’m serious!”
  • “Yes Roger, I know you’re ‘hard as a rock,’ but I changed my mind and you’ll just have to live with that.”
  • “Juan, you push that thing against me again and I’ll have Madame Maxime lock you in a chastity cage so fast it’ll make your head spin.”


Yes, I know I’m being mildly humorous with these examples, but I’m deadly serious about the thinking behind what’s causing guys to behave the way we do. We think “consent once”=”consent always”. Furthermore, that some things no sane person would consider “consent” do equal consent: Being unconscious, being drunk, being stoned, being high on nitrous oxide; being frightened or otherwise emotionally distraught (say by peer pressure). This idiocy can only be countered by constant and sustained repetition of the facts:

  • No means no
  • Consent must be pro-actively given
  • A partner can change their mind and withdraw consent at any time

You’d think this would be simple and obvious. It isn’t. I’m truly sorry it isn’t, and that my gender is such a bunch of idiots, but we are. I’m doing what I can on my end, I promise.

Matt Gaetz and the Conspiracy of Silence

Art by Hermit

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last 10 days or so, you’re probably aware that Florida Congressman and right-wing blowhard/Trump apologist Matt Gaetz finally had karma catch up with him in a big way. I won’t go into the details; plenty of people already have. It’s your typical story about a hypocritical right-wing “family values” Republican turning out to be another lying, cheating ass-clown, with the additional unsavory whiff of this one being a pedophile into the bargain. Nasty stuff.

Gaetz has long been an egregious asshole, practically daring people to drag him down. His past as a drunk driver and party boy is no secret; his reputation as a spoiled daddy’s boy well-know; his penchant for getting himself into trouble and expecting to be bailed out sadly typical of right-wing scions, from low-level twits we barely know to ex-Presidents we wish we didn’t. And now ol’ Matt’s been caught. And yes, the schadenfreude is sweet.

But that’s not why I’m writing.

Apparently one of Gaetz’s many odious habits has been to share nude pictures of his sexual conquests with his male colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives. Any male alive is familiar with this kind of behavior—though not, I hope, to this extreme degree—and Alexandra Petri of the Washington Posts asks, in essence, WTF?

Petri is of course much more eloquent, and a good deal more polite. But her question bears answering, especially in this #MeToo era when so many men want to respond #NotAllMen. Why would anyone do such a thing, she asks. “To me, this is something you do, ideally, zero times.”

But if you can’t do it zero times, then ideally it happens only once. It happens only once, because the moment you do it, the person you show it to responds the way a person should respond. You produce your photograph to your colleague, and your colleague looks at you and says, “Never show that to anyone, ever again. Go home and rethink your life. I do not feel closer to you. If anything, I want to have you removed forcibly from my presence by strong gentlemen whose biceps are tattooed with ‘MOM.’ The fact that you thought this would make us closer makes me question every decision in my life that has led me to this point. Leave now and never come back.”

And that’s what I wanted to address. Why doesn’t it happen zero times? Or if it does happen, who don’t the #NotAllMen crowd respond as Petri points out above, and shove it back in the face of the Gaetzes of the world? I mean, this is a totally rational, valid question.

I’m a June baby. Which means I was 17 when I graduate High School. And I’m of average size, and never had much of a growth spurt; grew at a very slow, steady pace. Wasn’t a particularly large, muscular boy. So I was pretty small and slightly-built compared to my school cohort.

And I did a lot of sports. A lot of sports. Baseball, soccer, swimming, basketball, tennis, ultimate frisbee, fencing, some at the collegiate level. This may seem like a digression, but it’s germane in that I am familiar with locker rooms. Too familiar, honestly.

I was also a nerd. I did drama; I did computer science; I was good at math; I was in marching band for a while.

I was bullied. A lot. And in the 70s and 80s, there weren’t any anti-bullying rules.

So I’d like to invite Alexandra into the locker room with me. Biff Tannen takes out a Polaroid of his girlfriend in a revealing pose—in a bathing suit, or in panties, say. Five other guys, all bigger than me, some or all of whom have bullied me, are standing around. What do you say?

Another scenario: Derek and his buds are gathered around his locker, which is just two down from mine, bragging about their (real or imagined) sexual exploits. The glance over at me. “What about you, pussy (or faggot, or queer, or Brainiac, etc)? You ever got in anyone’s pants?” What do you say?

What did I usually say? Nothing. I would shake my head and look away. If I made any kind of negative noise—or hell, noise at all—I would get bullied. They’d surround me and demand an answer. Shove me. Smack me. Once I was stripped of my swimsuit and thrown in the pool naked. Once my bicycle was vandalized for three days straight (and I spent the rest of my high school walking to school out of fear a new bike would be vandalized more). Once I was accosted outside swim practice and only avoided a fight because the coach came outside and then my ride arrived. These are the lessons you learn as a teen.

Repeat this dozens of times in dozens of locker room. With millions of boys all over the country, straight, gay, bi, and trans.

(Gaetz, I might add, reminds me of every bullying high schooler I ever knew. Shorter, yes, but that same laughing, “I can get away with anything” attitude oozes out of him.)

So you grow up, and there are at least two groups: The incels we all know so well, who had it reinforced that sharing those jokes and pictures was perfectly okay because it was fine with their buds, and if someone objected they could stuff them in a locker, strip them naked and throw them in the pool, vandalize their belongings, etc. And there are the bullied, who have been browbeaten for years (some of these are those who say #NotAllMen, I suspect).

(Obviously it’s more complicated than this; these are broad generalizations. And it’s way worse for GBTs.)

Now you’re an adult and you know you’re not going to get stripped naked and tossed onto the floor of Congress; of course you do. But that’s a lot of PTSD to overcome; a lot of programming to fight against. What would I do? Well, what I’ve done is tell that person it’s inappropriate, unprofessional, and to please not do that again. I’ve sometimes reported it to the supervisor. Sometimes I’ve been the supervisor and warned the person.

But for women reading this, I want you to know that though you may think this is an exaggeration, to me when I engage in those confrontations it feels like it must feel to an abuse victim to report their abuser. And I say this as an abuse survivor myself. Even that “small, awkward no” that Petri is (very reasonably!) asking for takes more effort than you might think.

I want you readers to understand I am not copping out; I agree completely with what Petri is asking. What I’m trying to do here is answer her implied question: Why can’t you guys confront this behavior? Why are you not speaking up? I’m not saying we shouldn’t; I’m not saying we can’t; I’m just explaining why it happens less than it should.

Some people have compared the social environment in Washington D.C. to high school. Frankly, I have absolutely no doubt that’s true. In all the worst ways.

Of Superheroes, Storytelling, & Grumpy Old Men

He’s always around somewhere!

I was born in the 60s

This may seem like a digression, but it’s actually a core component here. I was a precocious reader born in the 60s, one of more tumultuous periods of generation gapdom. There were stories in all the papers and magazines I (precociously) read about the “generation gap”. About how the adults running the country and corporations and police departments didn’t understand the young, dirty, long-haired peacniks, and why was that so, and how come we can’t all just get along?

I also happened to grow up loving musicals. Disney cartoon musicals of course, but for whatever reason Broadway musicals as well—Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Gypsy, and whatever was being played on TV. One of those was Bye Bye Birdie, which was about (Hey!)…the generation gap. In the 50s. And so was Grease to an extent.

As I got a little older—not much, but into my teens and 20s—I learned this was not a new phenomenon. At all. That young folks had been pissing off older folks for a long time. Not just in politics, but in the sciences! And in the arts, too! Physicists had called Einstein a fool and worse with his theory of relativity! Quantum mechanics was called insanity! Germ theory was called nonsense and Pasteur a quack! My beloved Monet, whose art I adored, had been scorned by the realists. I even learned that Socrates had uttered the Greek equivalent to “What’s the matter with kid’s these days? Why can’t they be like Albert?”

The bottom line was I realized that that French dude had been right when he said, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. It all comes back ’round when it comes to people complaining about new stuff, it seemed to me, even when I was pretty young. So I’ve always had a somewhat jaundiced eye when it came to Famous Old White Dudes proclaiming Wisdom about New Stuff.

Right now, there’s a plethora of comic book-related stuff in our entertainment media. While this delights me, as I am both a science fiction and comic book fan, I know it is driving a lot of more serious literary people bats. I get that. I can empathize. In the 70s and early 80s, it was a dry friggin’ period for my sort, to put it mildly. Comic books were (and still largely are!) look down on as completely unserious literature. Science fiction films were few and far between. Comic book-based films were basically unheard-of, and those that did come out were of marginal quality. It was a wasteland for my type of geek. Now it’s a damn geek golden age, and you can bet I’m enjoying it.

But one person’s Golden Age is another’s wasteland, and for every episode of The Expanse and WandaVision and Upload on TV, every release of Avengers: Endgame and sequel of Deadpool to the theaters, someone is outraged and angry that that amounts to a zero-sum loss to “more important” TV shows and films that “should” be seeing the light of day.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I’m sure angry Paleolithic hunter-gatherer grumpy old men 20,000 years ago yelled at teens squatting in caves painting bulls and pigs on the walls. “Get out there and gather berries with Aunt Grung and hunt boar with Uncle Alley Oop! Stop wasting time on that drivel!” I think it must be a chemical released into our limbic systems at a certain age or something. It certainly seems to have been released into Martin Scorsese’s.

Before the world fell apart last March, Scorsese said, “I don’t think they’re cinema. I was asked a question about Marvel movies. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.”

Scorsese—being a legend—has had his comments analyzed to death. The above-linked article talks about people’s fears of all movies becoming comic book films, which is in my opinion absolutely absurd. They’ve defended the quality and variety of MCU films; they’ve talked about how people want more spectacle these days given how they can get any kind of entertainment they want at home; blah blah blah. My though is much simpler: Scorsese’s just become a grumpy old man, is all, and comic book movies are new.

Back in the day, Scorsese was the Young Turk, exploding onto the scene with the transgressive Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Outraging audiences with Goodfellas, a film without an actual hero, where gangsters were the “good guys,” but no one was actually relatable. He took a genre—gangster films, something that went back nearly to the beginning of cinema as an art form—and turned it on its ear and inside out. He was the one everyone was talking about. And now when he releases The Irishman, it gets treated with the respect a new release by James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon or Charles Dickens would. The gangster genre has been legitimized and transformed by Scorsese and others (including Francis Ford-Coppola, who also chimed in against comic book films). They’re mainstream now.

Comic book films of this type and scope are new. Their language is still evolving, still being defined. A number of very talented directors have taken shots at expanding the vocabulary of comic book films—Christopher Nolan, of course, but also James Gunn, Zack Snyder, Robert Rodriguez (especially in Sin City), Taika Waititi, & others—and many more will continue. Westerns didn’t go overnight from Cowboys chasin’ Injuns straight to Unforgiven and Little Big Man; there was a long period of development in between while talented actors, directors, cinematographers, editors, composers, and thousands of others turned their attention to the genre. The same thing is true of gangster films. Would 2001: A Space Odyssey have happened if there hadn’t been Destination Moon, Forbidden Planet, and hell even the Big Bug films of the 50s first?

Yes, I acknowledge the Republic serials of the past, with Flash Gordon and the Superman movies and so on. Those are foundational, and certainly in the DNA of many directors currently working (Spielberg and Lucas have acknowledged this overtly). But the vast breadth and scale of comic book films is completely different from “Hang George on a wire”. As is the comedy of Waititi, or the involuted storytelling of Christopher Nolan. This is a New Thing, and it’s evolving. And Grumpy Old Man Scorsese doesn’t like it. C’est la même chose. He doesn’t have to, he doesn’t have to watch, and that’s perfectly okay.

What’s not okay is for him to dismiss an entire genre just because he’s grumpy. Like literary folks dismissing genre novels out of pure snobbery because they have (heaven save us!) plots and romance/science fiction/mystery/fantasy components. Genre is just as valid as officially-sanctioned lit-such-chure, and comic book films just as valid as a Scorsese gangster opus. And while it may take time for the Goodfellas or Godfather of the comic book films to emerge (though some say The Dark Knight might be an example), I’m confident it will.

So let’s leave Scorsese, and Coppola (who deconstructed war movies with Apocalypse Now FFS!), and whoever else has achieved Grumpy Old Man Yells at Cloud status, and leave today’s directors to do what they’re doing, and enjoy it. Let’s watch what they’re doing with WandaVision, because it looks fascinating. Let’s watch the amazing female characters of The Expanse and be damn grateful for them and push for more. Let’s revel in Elliot (nee Ellen) Page’s portrayal of Vanya in The Umbrella Academy, a trans actor starring in a TV show! Let’s enjoy the MCU films, and the other comic book films, and watch as the genre gets built, and (inevitably) destroyed, and deconstructed, and revivified. Because it all comes around again.

And don’t let the Grump Old Men get you down. Even when they’re famous legends.

“Big Tech” and “Monopolies”

There is no “Big Tech”

This is going to be a contrarian post. It’s going to make some people mad, so I want to toss some caveats your way right up front:

  • I do not think Facebook is a good company, and I totally agree something needs to be done to bring them in line with some kind of human moral behavior. Their behavior over the last five or so years has been reprehensible, and it’s clear they’re going to do absolutely nothing about it unless forced. (I also think Zuckerberg is a an absolute tool. But what would you expect from a guy who became a zillionaire from an application that started out as a piece of software that was meant to rank “hot college babes”?)
  • I also do not think Apple, Google, Amazon, and Twitter management are without flaw. Nor do I think nothing needs to be done about the areas in which their corporate behavior impinges on the public sphere. I think government action is the only thing with a remote chance of reining in the over-reach of giant multinationals.
  • It’s clear to anyone with a brain that big tech corporations (as opposed to what the media refers to by the intentional scare term of “Big Tech,” of which more later) engage in questionably-legal and definitely-immoral practices and need to have the whip cracked over them.

I want to be clear with all this up front because a lot of what I’m about to say will sound like high tech industry cheerleading. People who know me as an individual will know it’s not; they know I’m incredibly cynical when it comes to big corporations in general, and tech upper management in particular. But for those few who read this who don’t know me, it’s important we set that groundwork. Okay? Okay!

To our muttons!

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the power of “Big Tech” and how it has “monopoly power” and needs to be “broken up”, like Ma Bell back in the day. (For you young’uns, that was what AT&T was back before the Nixon Administration in the 1970s. And if you’re wondering how it got “broken up” when it’s still around and still huge, well, I’ll get to that.)

The problem here is, while there are some tech companies that hold a scary amount of power in the public sector and over consumers (as noted above!), there is no monopolistic “Big Tech” equivalent to Ma Bell or Big Oil or Big Pharma that the government can go after cleanly to “break up” in a similar way. Sorry. It’s just not true, as much as crusading-but-tech-ignorant journalists would like it to be. And there’s a few reasons why.

Yes, there are some tech companies that are “big”. No question. But no one has defined “Big Tech” ever. People just group a list of companies under the rubric of “Big Tech” and assume we all know what “Big Tech” is. The problem here is, unless you define the term, it’s meaningless. Or rather, it only means what each person who reads it thinks it means, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.

When you ask someone what “Big Oil” means, people say, “The few companies that have a monopoly on oil drilling, production, and distribution.” When you ask what “Big Pharma” means, they say, “The few companies that have a monopoly on drug research, creation, manufacturing, and sales.” But if you ask what “Big Tech” is, people will probably give you a list of companies, and probably not the same list! Apple, Facebook, and Google, probably, but then all bets are off. What about Salesforce? Cisco? IBM? (I’ve never heard anyone talking about IBM when speaking of “Big Tech”, but IBM is the largest [in employees] and oldest tech company in the world!) I read an article where Spotify (4500 employees, €6.5 billion) was listed as a “Big Tech” company that needed reining in. What about Twitter? Or Hewlett Packard? PornHub? If you don’t define the term, it could include any tech company.

When you are asked in grammar school to define “color”, you don’t stand up and say, “green, red, and blue.” No; you give the dictionary definition and then use a color as an example. Facebook or Apple or Google can be examples of “Big Tech,” but not the definition of it. And until someone defines the damn term, it might as well not exist.

I know this may seem pedantic, but seriously: What is it: “Big tech companies that are doing stuff we don’t like”? Tech companies of a certain size? (That should include companies like IBM and Cisco and HP, when it clearly doesn’t.) Tech companies that only operate in certain areas? Which areas would those be, exactly? Apple is what we in tech call a “systems company,” which means they make both hardware and the software that runs on their hardware. Amazon is a “services company;” they provide services, ie a web site that does their delivery stuff, as well as their cloud computing service AWS, and other stuff. Amazon and Apple are not in the same business (though they do overlap in some areas, and yes they try to steal customers in those areas where they do). Amazon doesn’t make iPhones; Apple doesn’t threaten Amazon’s core physical object sales-and-distribution model.

Similarly Google, while also a services company, provides services in totally different areas than Amazon. They provide software tools: Their famous search engine, of course; their mapping tool with all the data they’ve gleaned from that; their analytics tools (something many folks might not be aware of), which allow folks like me to analyze web traffic. Twitter, a different kind of software company, provides an application and web site, and their revenue model is based on ads and (probably) monetizing their very valuable user data. They filter news to their members, and allow what we in tech call one-to-one and one-to-many interactions via their 280 character tweets. This is very different from the services Google offers, as you might imagine.

Think of these four companies and try to squeeze them into one box in the same way you can squeeze BP, Exxon-Mobile, Shell Oil, and Chevron under the heading of “Big Oil”. Yeah, they’re all tech companies, sure, but the things they sell and do are very, very different. Grouping them together would be like grouping Dyson vacuums, Thomasville furniture, and GE refrigerators together because their “Big Household goods that cost more than $300”.

“Big Tech,” in other words, is meaningless. It’s a scare term that echos “Big Oil” and “Big Pharma” that the press uses to help increase clicks, views, and sales. It’s lazy, reductionist, and doesn’t help address the very real problems in the high tech world.

Which brings us to the “monopoly” issue. Which is just as dicey for almost the same reasons.

As I promised, O Young Ones: Back in the day was Alexander Graham Bell. He created a device and a bunch of patents, and his clever father-in-law created a company called (imagine!) Bell Telephone Company in 18-friggin’-77. Yuppers; the 19th Century. And for durn nigh 100 years, this systems company (Remember those? Provide both the hardware and the software, in this case telephone service.) had a full monopoly on phones and phone service in the US. You wanted a phone, you got a Bell phone. You wanted phone service, you got it through Bell. The history is of course way more complicated, but that’s the gist.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Ma Bell (as it was called) got broken up by anti-trust legislation during the Nixon Administration. This led to the AT&T we all know today. A bunch of “Baby Bells” were created, and after several decades and a bunch of re-orgs and buy-outs, we have one huge AT&T that looks a lot to me like the Ma Bell of yesteryear. But I digress.

So that’s a monopoly in small: If you want it, only one company has it. You want sneakers (trainers, if you’re in England)? Sorry, mate; Nikes and nothing else. No Adidas, New Balance, Puma, Air Jordans or whatever. Nikes. Period. End of story. A car? Ford. No Hondas, Subarus, Chevys, Porsches, or anything else. A Ford. In any color you want so long as it’s black. Etc. That’s a monopoly.

Now folks are saying “Big Tech” (which, as noted above, hasn’t been defined) has “a monopoly”, which “has to be reined in”. Okay, fine. I’ve already agreed that some big tech companies need to be reined in. But I’ve completely deconstructed the “Big Tech” label. So what do these various “big tech” companies people always squawk about—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple—have a monopoly on, exactly? I promise I’m not being disingenuous here; I’ve given this quite a bit of thought. I agree that (for example) the immoral behavior of Facebook, who have allowed neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other violent groups bent on illegal acts to run rampant, needs to be reined in. People are saying, “They’re a monopoly! Use anti-trust laws!” And as a tech nerd who’s been doing this for 30+ years I say, “Fine; a monopoly of what, exactly?”

And that applies to all the companies people mention when they speak about “Big Tech”. Apple has a monopoly on, um, well…not smartphones. They have a walled garden for their iOS apps, so I guess they have a “monopoly” on iOS apps. But they aren’t the one creating the apps, so that’s not the case. A monopoly on downloadable music? Not really, no; people can get streaming music lots of places these days. So Apple is not a monopoly of anything that I can define, and you can bet if the government—a bunch of technoboneheads as a rule—tried to take Apple down via monopolistic anti-trust laws, their lawyers would eviscerate the government. And to what end? What is the goal in calling Apple “Big Tech” and a “monopoly”? Best define your terms before you go after someone just because you don’t like what they’re doing!

Same with Amazon. There are two areas where Amazon is dominant: Cloud services, and their goods delivery system. In Cloud services they certainly hold a large lead, but they’re not a monopoly; several other companies (including IBM, where I work) are working hard to cut into their market share. In goods delivery yes, I can accept they have a monopoly. It’s being cut into at the margins by various factors—local stores arranging their own deliveries or curbside pickups, companies like DoorDash doing restaurant deliveries so as to avoid Google Eats, etc. And Amazon works like gangbusters to maintain their lead in this area, no question; this whole “scan your trunk” business creeps me out no end. And I’m not sure how I feel about “delivery by drone”. Still, I think government would have tough sledding proving monopoly here, given Amazon isn’t manufacturing the goods, but merely acting as a jobber, as it were. A middleman. They use UPS and FedEx for much of the actual deliveries.

Another factor that makes tech different from Ma Bell or Big Oil or Big Pharma is its volatile nature. My favorite job in tech was working for SiliconGraphics, or SGI. When I was there in the early 1990s, we called ourselves “the best computer company on the planet,” and we believed it. We had Kenny Loggins (“I’m alright”; “Danger Zone”) play at one of our corporate events. At another we had Patty LaBelle. Our hardware was used for the first Toy Story movie. We built a beautiful new campus in Mt. View.

Which is now occupied by Google.

And that’s the point. In the 1990s Steve Jobs announced a joint effort with Microsoft where Bill Gates gave Apple about $150 million dollars to help save Apple’s corporate bacon. Microsoft was flying high, Apple was barely scraping along, Jobs had been called back as “interim CEO” (“interim CEO for life” many in tech joked), and many though Apple was dead. But then came the iMac, the Think Different campaign, and the iPod, and now do you pay more attention to Microsoft product announcements or Apple product announcements? In the 90s, Motorola was king of the cell phone world, along with Nokia and a few others. What about now? In 1995, Google didn’t exist. The Web barely did. Amazon didn’t. Zuckerberg was 11. Salesforce, which now has a giant tower that looks like a vibrator in downtown San Francisco, was still 4 years in the future.

My point is tech is absurdly volatile. Companies can go from giants to penny stock jokes in the blink of an eye. This does not Not NOT mean I think we should ignore their horrible actions; just that I think we need to have some perspective and be smart about how we respond instead of using scare terms like “Big Tech” and deploying monopoly busting anti-trust tools that might not even work.

Which brings us—finally—to Facebook.

IMO Facebook is evil. I’m not a believer of original sin in the religious sense, but even so I would say Facebook’s current situation is a consequence of the original sin of its own birth as a web site for finding “hot chicks” at Harvard by an entitled immature straight white incel tool. While it became, for a while, a home for family and friends to exchange pictures, information, gossip, and news, it (unsurprisingly) evolved into a friendly home, news source, and place of organization for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, incels looking for their fellow travelers, and other odious persons.

Zuckerberg could easily have stopped this. Despite what he, Jack Dorsey, and other high tech execs say, it’s not that difficult to put hard guidelines in place and then tell your staff to follow them. As a tech writer, I’ve had such edicts passed down to me many, many times, and I’ve followed them even when my personal opinion on them has varied considerable from the corporate guidelines. Zuckerberg could have disallowed all advertising that had unverified info in it. Or allowed his employees to delete any material that related to white supremacy (so long as Facebook defined it clearly). He chose not to. This is either greed, moral cowardice, or approval; there is no fourth option.

And as far as a “monopoly”, if Facebook is one, what is it a monopoly of? Social media platforms? (No.) Social media personal information sharing platforms? (Again, no.) Then WTF is it, exactly? You won’t get any argument from me that it needs to be regulated in some way, but using monopoly laws aren’t going to work if you can’t define it as a monopoly, and if a technonerd like me can’t, do you think Congressional luddites confronted by Facebook asshole lawyers will be able to? It is to laugh.

“So where does this all leave us?” you might reasonably ask. Well, I’m glad you did!

  • To review: There is no “Big Tech”; just some big tech company that need some serious slapping down
  • Each of those companies needs an individual approach to said slapping, not “they’re a monopoly; they need to be broken up!” because in tech that’s not likely to work
  • Facebook is a big problem that needs addressing in serious ways, and not through anti-trust laws unless those laws are severely rewritten with modern tech companies in mind

One final note: As I noted earlier, tech is furiously volatile. Right now there is some bright person out there figuring out how to supplant Facebook, or Amazon, or Google. I don’t know who, or where, or even in what damn country, but they’re out there plotting to be the next Salesforce or whatever. Because that’s the way tech works. And instead of solely focusing on my third bullet point, we need to also write laws and create guidelines that allow those folks to flourish and not get tromped down by the Zuckerbergs and Dorseys of the world. To allow them to build their own companies and force Facebook and Amazon and Twitter to the side, or to create completely new markets in tech that we can’t even imagine right now. To develop products that are as mind-bending to us as the iPhone would have been to Doug in 1995.

Because the real answer to fighting these jerk-weeds is not just to play catch-up and try to dig them out after they’re already entrenched, but to help other people from getting squashed by the entrenched jerk-weeds. To not use scare terms like “Big Tech” and broad-but-ultimately-inapplicable “monopoly” laws, but rather focus on the (boring, tedious, complicated, but necessary) details of what’s going on and fight them on those terms. To bring a friggin’ gun to a gun fight, not a tennis racquet to a baseball game.

And with that, I have blathered enough.