Saturday, January 30, 2010

Facebook: Opinions, Observations, Rants, Bullcrap

For me, Internet socializing has come a long way from my days of being on GEnie network, posting impassioned messages and opinions on R.E.M., Dungeons and Dragons, Babylon 5, and DC Comics on various BBS message boards.

I use Facebook now as my primary means of online communicating with people. In fact, it's even sort of replaced some of my opportunities to use E-mail. But, like anything else that's part of my life for more than five seconds, I've developed opinions, observations, and tactics unique to the subject at hand. Some come from first-hand experience, some from second or even third-hand. Read on...

1. Facebook cannot, must not, should not, replace actual contact with people. Yes, it's a nice way for some of us lazy folk to maintain some form of contact with those people that we don't hear from often, but it musn't be used as a crutch or as a replacement for real social contact.

2. It's just an online service, not the end-all be-all. I've seen people get FB burnout, where they're on it constantly, thinking of it as some sort of ultimate wow experience, only to crash and burn and become disgusted with it. It's simply a means to communicate, nothing more, nothing less. All things in moderation.

3. Show some restraint if many of the people you are friends with in "real life" also read your FB stuff. While I haven't seen this as much on FB as I have on Myspace, this is crucial. Your online presence is probably not the place you want to admit to kinky sexual practices, for instance. It's called WTMI, or I like to refer to it as, "You're being a disc jockey on radio station WTMI, Way Too Much Information, 24 hours a day!" All I know is, if a friend of mine admits on some survey or quiz about what they and their significant other have done in a sleeping bag on a median strip on I-93, it'll be difficult when seeing them in person to not think to myself "Sleeping bag, highway, median strip, 2 am, jar of mayo, duck, windup monkey, UGH!!!" restraint. It's cool to sometimes imply that you can be a little daring, a little naughty, sure, and it's always nice to tell the world "Hey, my spouse and I still have a lot of fun!", but specifics needed, thanks.

4. Don't forget who reads your stuff. This is a corollary to #3. But whereas #3 is about too much information of a personal nature, this observation/rule is more aimed at "Things that aren't inappropriate per se, but may get you in trouble anyway!" While it may make you feel better to "yell" out in a post and say "I'm sick of how often my co-workers belch, fart, and sneeze loudly around me!", well, what if your co-workers are also on Facebook? Or "My family is composed of idiots; it's amazing I turned out as well as I did, and not end up on a clock tower with a high powered rifle", and your parents, siblings, grandparents read it. Again, a little forethought goes a long way. Who's reading your stuff? What if you're posting about how you love to goof off at work and make yourself look busy, and some prospective new employer reads that?

5. Facebook is not going to charge you!!! Really, I'm sick of this. People say "But John, Facebook has 250,000,000 members! You can't tell me that some exec isn't thinking 'If we charge five bucks per person, we're set for life! Mwahahah!'" Yes. I'm sure there are greedy corporate types sitting in a chair, stroking a cat, wearing a monocle, and going "If we charge for Facebook, we'll get sixty bill-y-un dollars!" But do you know why Facebook has a quarter-billion members? Because it's free. As soon as they'd charge anything, I'd guess that the vast majority of people would conduct an exodus that would've made Moses and the Children of Israel proud. And they'd go off to the next hot, happening free social site.

In fact, many of those Facebook-will-charge-you "cause" pages actually have viruses/trojans/other bad things. Not only did you just get suckered into thinking Facebook is charging, your computer now has something evil lurking in it. Nice.

6. Slacktivism sucks. A friend of mine on Facebook turned me on to that word. No, not "sucks", "slacktivism," wise guy! There is an argument that says that, when it comes to worthy causes, there's nothing that can be done for their sake that should be considered useless, ridiculous, lame, etc. And indeed, one faces an uphill battle if one derides an activity being done for the sake of a cause, just because that someone thinks it's kind of ridiculous. All of a sudden it's "What, you WANT people to die in earthquakes?", or "What, you don't like gay people?", or "Oh, so you want women to die of breast cancer?", ad nauseum. Really, you can't win. In matters of emotion and passion, logic is about as welcome as a PETA member at a deer hunting party.

But here's my take, and I feel comforted to know that there's at least one other person on Facebook who agrees with this. While there's certainly people out there whose acts of compassion and charity are definitely not limited to just posting something cute online, I believe that a large number of people would go "OK, this issue is important, so I'll join this cause/page/change my status, and there...I've done my part! I'm all set! I've made the world a better place, even if just a tiny bit."

No. No you haven't. And that is my big problem with slacktivism. Someone can shake their fists and say "By golly, waterboarding torture/abused animals/breast cancer/prostate cancer/AIDS/war/earthquake devastation/evil corporations is a bad thing, and I'm going to do something about it!" So they join a FB page, take part in the latest cutesy status thing that ostensibly raises awareness, and they feel like they've done their part, and need do no more.

That's why I, personally, do not join cause pages, even if it's a cause I feel passionate about (and believe me, I have a few!). For me, it's a matter of personal taste, to each his own, sure, and I certainly don't hold it against those who do participate.

7. You get what you pay for. Facebook is free. Therefore, there are going to be problems that would not show up on a social site that charges and is therefore able to afford better technology to avoid those problems in the first place. It's annoying, but you can't beat the price. And as far as the ads they run, some of them I find aggravating, but since they don't charge me for being on, they have to pay the bills somehow, and they do have bills. So it's a trade-off. Beats the Hell out of Myspace, in any event.

8. Wow, look at all the people from all over! Ever have one of those dreams where you have all of these people you've known from various times in your past, all together, talking to you about something like, oh, I don't know, needlepoint? It's where you go "Yeah I had this dream where my sister, my high-school biology teacher, my rabbi from when I was a kid, my college sweetheart, a former boss of mine, and one of my business partners all got together and were advising me on what sort of curtains I should put up in the dining room! It was weird!" The one thing about Facebook that really strikes me as cool above all other things is the number of people from so many different areas of my life, all together in one spot, people who don't know each other, and yet are having posted conversations together on some of my statuses! It's bizarre, and yet also thoroughly amazing. I've found so many people from so many times and places in my life (or they've found me), and it's really fantastic. For instance, if anyone had told me that a girl I kind of sort of knew in high school would eventually become a friend of mine on Facebook and would advise, nay demand, that I undergo a colonoscopy, I'd say that person was smoking crack. Hey, I consider myself a "people person", and frankly, I love the fact that I'm in contact with so many people from my past.

9. Who are you and why should I care? One of the biggest advantages of Facebook is that it puts you in contact with people you'd thought you'd never hear from again. One of the biggest drawbacks of Facebook is that it puts you in contact with people you'd thought you'd never hear from again. And yes, this is a counterpoint to #8.

We all have those people in our lives that while we never really disliked, we also never really connected with. But, by virtue of you having gone to school with them, or worked with them, or belonged to the same group as, or, and this one's more often the case than not, you and they are closer friends with a common third person and so you all hung out and accepted each other by default, you end up tripping over them on Facebook.

And really, when those people Friend me, I find myself at a loss. While I can't think of any reason why I should turn down the request, I also can't think of any reason why I shouldn't. But, in the spirit of trying to be nice, and to stay open to the possibility that we could become better friends now than we were in earlier times, I accept. And yes, sometimes we have indeed improved contact, and I like to think I've had a second chance of being friends with some people, a chance I may have passed up the first time around.

10. To me, unfriending people is like a company having rounds of layoffs. So yeah, I think I can honestly say I've never turned down a Friend request, provided I had a reasonably clear idea who the person was (or if they know someone that I know). But, while some people love having 1,575 friends, I actually prefer a smaller group, and have been known to winnow down the ranks from time to time. Hey, if you're reading this and are a Facebook friend of mine, then you've already made it through four rounds of cuts! Woo hoo! Don't you feel all warm and special and loved?

Here's the reasons I've unfriended people:

People who Friend me, so I accept and make multiple attempts at talking with them and they never respond, even though I know for a fact that they've been on repeatedly? You're outta here!

People who Friend me, and subject everyone to an unrelenting barrage of "life sucks" and other complaints, PWMing to the exclusion of anything else? You're outta here!

People who use Facebook as a platform to brag about how wonderful their lives are, and how much they're kids are super-geniuses and so superior, and furthermore we've never had any real decent conversations of any sort? You're outta here!

People who Friend me even though my connections with them have been tenuous at best, and we never really talk, and there seems to be no common ground? Sorry, but you're outta here!

It's true that I have a bunch of Facebook friends that I don't speak to with anything even vaguely approaching regularity. And there's also people who I've friended who are actually friends of family members or friends of friends, or perhaps are people who share a common interest (and appropriate real-life group participation) with me, who I may not talk to very often, but that's okay too. There's common ground, and the knowledge that eventually, there'll be stuff to talk about.

At this point, I can say that I'm happy with everyone I have on my Friends list, and don't see myself doing any further "winnowing".

11. There still are some weird situations... OK, so you're friends with some people on Facebook. And they're friends with some people that you have unresolved issues with, sometimes up to the point of there being mutual non-speaking terms, people who in fact used to be real life friends with you. That is weird. A friend posts some comment, or link, and you chime in, and this other person who used to be a friend until a falling out, chimes in as well. You know he's there, he knows you're there. But neither talks to the other. It's like being at a party, talking to people in a small group, yet you and two other people in the group are at odds, so you just ignore each other even though you're all standing right there, talking about the same subject to the same people!

That to me is one of Facebook's biggest disadvantages. Before the advent of social networking, if you and someone were at odds with each other, you just stopped talking, and simply avoided each other. You could confidently say that you'd never have to deal with this person again, or have any reminders, or even the most off-handed contact. But watch out! Now there's! Now they're always there!

Happily, there's not too many people that fall in that category for me. And even that small number would dwindle by a couple if only I left Carol or at the very least, turned a blind eye to the fact that a former friend bears an irrational grudge against her and doesn't want to even acknowledge her existence. Yeah, that's all it'd take. Fortunately, I'm not alone in this; all Carol would have to do to get back into contact with this other couple would be to leave me. Again, small potatoes, a trifle really.

So yes, Facebook has the chance to be a little awkward sometimes, especially for people like me who don't like leaving things unresolved, or bearing grudges, or harboring dislikes. Alas, sometimes peace and co-existence comes at too high a price, and you have to put your foot down, make a stand, and in your best Gregory House voice declare, "You're an idiot!"

Another example of Facebook weirdness is those people that you know in real life, most likely have some sort of history with, and who know that you're on Facebook, and vice versa, and yet neither of you have made a move to friend the other. Furthermore, you have little if any contact with them in any other circumstance. It's almost like there's this mutual, unspoken message of "Yeah I know you're there, but I really don't want to be your friend, because when you get right down to it, I really don't like you and/or have much to say to you".

The final example of Facebook awkwardness is the "I thought we were closer friends than this" syndrome. That's where you find out that a friend had a party, and you weren't invited (even though you live less than an hour away, for instance). Or if a friend from out of state visited your area and got together with mutual friends, and you weren't even aware that they were in your area until you read the posts or saw photos on Facebook after the gathering. That's when you go "Hm. Well then. I thought we were better friends than that. Guess not. Thanks, Facebook, for illuminating my path with your online truths!"

So, like many other things in life, Facebook is a mixed blessing. And, like things such as guns, cars, free speech, or stuffed badgers, it's a tool that can be used for good or evil.

Be good...

Friday, January 29, 2010

My Musical Education- Part Three

When we last left our hero, he had managed to stagger out of high school with his sanity and self-respect semi-intact. With the exception of a few bright spots, music had not been much of a help in keeping morale up. All of that was about to change.

I began college in 1977 at Suffolk University in Boston, majoring in Journalism. I quickly joined the newspaper, the Suffolk Journal, and through it managed to absorb information about up and coming music groups, courtesy of the Arts and Entertainment reporters.

That, and I was also listening to WBCN 104.1, which at that time was called the Rock of Boston, and rightfully so. You wouldn't know it from hearing it now, but once upon a time, BCN was one of the most influential rock stations in the country. Their DJs were experimental, progressive, and chronic rules-breakers, and they introduced their audiences to new groups like U-2, Devo, B-52s, and many others.

The beauty of this new era of music lay in its non-conformity. Disco, bloated arena rock, soft rock, all of these were being pushed aside by angry young men like Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Jim Carroll, Blondie...

(Sad aside...a few hours before this writing, Carol and I stopped at a supermarket to pick up some groceries, and heard Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" on the store's music system. Alas.)

Anyways, gone were complex dance moves, the ridiculous leisure suits, the hair being just right. Now, you just grabbed some second-hand clothes at an "experienced" clothing store at Harvard Square, went on down to the Rat in Kenmore Square, and flailed around like an epileptic ferret. Now THAT I could do!!!

It wasn't just the Punk/New Wave/Alternative sound for me; I also was introduced to Weird Al Yankovic's demented genius (fittingly enough, by listening to Dr. Demento), and even had room for stuff like Billy Joel, particularly "The Stranger", an amazing album with practically every track a masterpiece.

And now, for an aside: Dear Billy Joel. You are an accomplished piano player and songwriter. However, you are NOT a rock and roller. You are not, have never been, and never will be. Oh, and by the way, if you keep dumping wives/significant others for progressively younger, in another few years you'll be dating sperm. Please stop. You're creeping me out.

You can see how my eclectic music tastes came to be.

The early 80's brought the Go-Gos, Wall of Voodoo, Madness, Big Country, The Alarm, etc., but by far the best thing to come out of the early 80's for me was this college band from Athens Georgia that I first heard on WBCN with their hit "Radio Free Europe". Yes, my favorite band of all time, R.E.M. I was captivated from the first time I heard RFE.

Thanks to MTV (which believe it or not, back in the early 80s, played VIDEOS), I was introduced to this weird duo, whose debut video consisted pretty much of the two guys running frenetically around, wearing cardboard tubes covered in pieces of carpet on their heads. Yes, it was They Might Be Giants, and their bizarro lyrics.

A special mention needs to be made here about Christian rock. My Christian Fundy stage lasted from about 1974 to 1989. During this time, I was exposed to many Christian bands, many of them trying to rock out, but in a Christian sort of way. My conclusion? Christian rock pretty much blows. But there are two shining exceptions:

Phil Keaggy. This man is a guitar genius. His guitar work is legendary among many musicians, particularly those who admire guitar playing. True story: once, Jimi Hendrix was interviewed and was asked "Do you consider yourself the greatest guitarist ever?" His response was "I don't know...ask Phil Keaggy".

Steve Taylor. Christian New Wave. His stuff was GOOD. And doctrine-wise, his songs took aim at the wishy-washy Liberal Christians, as well as the overly restrictive narrow-minded Conservative Christians. His music advocated taking a stand, yes, but not being a fascist about it, a well-thought out moderate approach, a position which I adhere to nowadays.

The rest of it? Toss it all out. This means you too, Amy Grant. Ugh.

So, building on the music tastes cultivated as a kid then as a teenager (for nothing was thrown out or was simply added to), my musical tastes as they stand today were pretty much cemented in place. In fact, I'm not sure there's even call for a Part 4.

And thanks to programs like iTunes and Napster, I've been able to reconstruct a lot of music from my past, resulting in playlists that extend from the 50's to present day. A situation, I'm lead to understand, that's not so unusual among my peers.

Naturally, I've done my best to pass on these music tastes to my kids, and I'm gratified when I see teenagers today checking out stuff from the 50's and 60's. Kind of makes you feel like there's hope for the future!

I conclude with a t-shirt slogan that was created in response to a snarky slogan from a few years back:

"No, I'm not getting too old; your music really DOES suck"

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

My Musical Education- Part Two

This could have been the shortest entry in the series. I could have simply written the following:

"My Junior High and High School Years were from 1972 to 1977. I listened to the music of the time. Do the math."

But that, while factual enough to give people an idea of what I had to deal with musically, is not completely entertaining. So....

When we last left our decrepit hero, he had made it through early childhood and elementary school, and was now about to plunge into the living Hell known as Junior High/High School.

I began Junior High in Cambridge Mass, and ended it in Hull Mass. What I recall in Hull was that we had the privilege of playing music in the cafeteria during lunch. I remember hearing "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" far too many times than anyone should ever have to, even in the context of administering capital punishment.

Ah, but I was also exposed to "You're So Vain" by Carly Simon. Which made me look for her album. Which resulted in me seeing her photo on the cover of "No Secrets". Which laid down the groundwork in my thinking that brunettes are a superior life form.

I also recall hearing a song called "Somethings Wrong With Me" a lot as was done by a pop musician named Austin Roberts, who went on to do a putrid song called "Rocky", which has nothing to do with boxers and "Yo Adrienne", which is a pity, because if anyone deserved a good punching, it was the guy who sang that crapfest.

But then we move into the High School years, and oh wow. Oh good Lord. When I think of the category "Music popular in my high school," all I can think of is:

1. The disgusting music/cultural phenomenon known as Disco (Motto: Hey kids, if you already feel out of touch and unpopular, let's throw in a music form that requires that you dress and dance a certain way, and if you don't, it shows how even less "with it" you are!)

2. The mind-numbing soft-rock stylings of Chicago.

3. And Elton John.

Now fortunately, Elton John rocked, and continues to rock. A fantastic entertainer, an amazing pianist, and...well...kind of an inarticulate vocalist. Let's all sing along to one of Reg Dwight's signature hits, shall we?!

So, good-bye, Yellow Brick Road!
Where the dust of sororities bow!
Your cat just peed in your penthouse!
Blowing Jack in my prow!
Back to the havoc go round in the world!
Back to my horny black toe!
Oh I finally decide my future bride!
Beyond the yella brick raaaaaaahhhhaaaaahhaaaaahhhh!!

Wasn't that fun? Well, it sure beat the Hell out of disco, or "Color My World", with that interminable piano riff.

The Beatles were no more, but there was Paul McCartney singing silly love songs. And even though it was...pleasant, it was not the Beatles. Disappointing. I couldn't get into John Lennon's mush-headed "Imagine", George was singing about his sweet Lord Krishna, and Ringo was singing a disturbing song about a 16 year old girl being his.

Oh but that was okay, because if you were tired of someone knocking at the door, there was always the Bay City Rollers! S! A! T-U-R! D-A-Y! Night!

Feel free to commit suicide any time now. Really. I won't hold it against you.

There was also KC and the Sunshine Band, which sounded dumb at the time, but now has a sort of kitschy coolness.

Now, before there was Emo, Goth, or any other permutation of Misery Rock, there was that unholy trinity of miserable singers who created Songs To Slash Your Wrists By. I'm talking about Henry Gross, who had a hit called "Shannon", about a dead dog (I am not making this up); Terry Jacks, and his miserable "Seasons In The Sun"; and Gilbert O'Sullivan, with his smash (s)hit, "Alone Again, Naturally".

Let's sing along to a snipped of the actual lyrics!

"...I remember I cried when my father died, never wishing to hide the tears.
And at 65 years old, my mother God rest her soul, couldn't understand why the only man she had ever loved had been taken.
Leaving her to start, with a heart so badly broken
Despite encouragement from me, no words were ever spoken
When she passed away; I cried and cried all day
Alone again, naturally."

Whee! Help yourself to some sleeping pills! They're in the cabinet on the right! Wash them down with some vodka! This song was a HIT. A HIT!!! A genuine pop music HIT!

Now, it may seem that my high school years were just a big parade of crappy music. Fortunately, there were some bright spots.

My father had a restaurant, and one of the customers was this guy nicknamed Big John (he was rather heavy), who worked at a used record store nearby, Skippy Whites. When I visited the place, the wide world of 50's and 60's oldies came alive, and I eagerly bought up as many 45s as I could and cultivated an appreciation for them.

This was bolstered from, of all places, the popular tv show "Happy Days", which would feature snippets of oldies (before it devolved into all Fonzie, all the time), so I went and bought those songs as well.

I also became aware of this guy named Dickie Goodman, who made 'novelty records' that receive heavy Top 40 airplay. They were spoken records, with Dickie playing an interviewing journalist. He'd ask questions of his subjects, and the answers were snippets of rock songs, taken in such a way that they fit as answers to his questions. He made songs about relevant 70's stuff like Watergate, The Energy Crisis, and Jaws. Later, I was to find out that he had been doing this since the early 60's, but instead of culling snippets of Olivia Newton-John, the BeeGees, or Ringo Starr, he was borrowing from The Platters, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino.

Also, through the wonders of Top 40 AM radio, I got my first exposure to Cheech and Chong, with "Earache My Eye" and "Sister Mary Elephant".

Top 40 also brought forth nifty one-hit wonders like Reunion's "Life Is A Rock, But The Radio Rolled Me", or Carl Douglas' "Kung Fu Fighting".

One of the high school church group staff guys was a big Yes fan, so I got turned on to just a little bit of "progressive rock" otherwise known as "art rock", otherwise known as "pretentious nonsense". I'm talking to YOU, Moody Blues! If the trees are drawing you near, then lay off the weed!

And one of my fondest memories of a rock song, and a reason why the movie "Waynes World" will always have a special place in my heart, is being on a date with my girlfriend in my senior year of high school (I didn't date the girls from my high school, though not from lack of trying; I dated girls from Park Street Church's high school youth group), and hearing "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the radio after we left the movie theater.

So yes, it would be a lie to say that music in my High School years was a complete wasteland. I just had to look harder to find the good stuff. Though I still maintain that the 70's produced more hideous songs, minute for minute, than any other decade that featured rock music. Hey, it's Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," and "You Don't Mess Around With Jim", which are pretty much the same damned song!

And if that earlier-mentioned trinity of crappy pre-Emo artists hadn't completely sapped you of your will to live, check out some of Harry Chapin's miserable "story" songs like "Cats In The Cradle".

And, as a bizarre side note, I still had my dad's music tastes to deal with. He didn't like rock and roll. He hated it, said it was too loud and repetitious. So, what did we hear when we drove home from his restaurant? WCOP AM 1150...Country music.

This brought me into contact with singers like Tom T. Hall, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams. I didn't like everything I was forced to hear, but I didn't hate it all either. I even ended up getting a citizens band radio for my car when "Convoy" became a hit.

Speaking of my car, I should wrap this up by pointing out that it was in High School that I put together my first song parody. My town, Hull, is a narrow peninsula that juts out into the ocean, so sometimes, when there'd be a storm, those waves could get rather scary. It inspired me to take Gordon Lightfoot's hit song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (another of those classic 70's vintage happy-joy-joy songs, this one about 29 sailors whose ship goes down just 15 miles from harbor, in Lake Superior), and change it to "The Wreck of the Buick LeSabre" (my car's make and model). The song was a stirring piece about my attempts at driving myself and my friends through a nasty storm.

So, that was junior high and high school. What was to become of me? Would my non-conformist soul be crushed by disco? Would my brains be turned to mush by the brass overkill and maudlin lyrics of Chicago? Would the steady stream of pre-Emo misery singers make me want to throw myself under a bus before I even graduated?

Little did I know that a new, raw, chaotic, non-conformist sound had already taken over New York, and would be introducing itself to me soon after graduating!

To be continued....

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Musical Education- Part One

Music is one of those subjects that stirs strong opinions and passions in everyday people, and I'm no exception. I find myself far more likely to offend someone because of my strongly held opinions of what music rocks and what music sucks, than, say, my political or religious viewpoints, and I'm quite firm on those, particularly the latter.

No, it's music that brings out the critic/passionate defender in us all, and I think it's because music has the capacity of really touching people and affecting moods and attitudes. This series of self-indulgent, introspective posts deals with how music came into my life.

My first album, and I remember this clear as day, was bought for me by my father. It was these four guys with what was considered long hair at the time. And I wanted to wear my hair the same way. The album was called "Meet the Beatles".

I played that album to death. What's more, my father bought me a bunch of Beatles 45s, and we're not talking Capitol records here, either...we're talking Tollie Records, the label that released their version of the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout". Yeah, the early stuff. Damn, I wish I still had those...

Anyways, I'd spend many happy hours as a six-year old, playing with my electric trains in the cellar, and playing my Beatles album, my Beatles 45's, and a Roy Orbison album, whose title I forget.

My father was of Portuguese-Bermudian extraction, so what music did he like to listen to? Polkas. The Pennsylvania Polka, Beer Barrel Polka, yeah...I don't know. So I ended up listening to that. He also liked Country music, particularly spiritually-oriented fare like Tennessee Ernie Ford. As a kid, I recall seeing an album called Sacred Country Music, and thinking that it said Scared Country Music! My dad's fondness for country music also sparked my interest in Johnny Horton's "story" songs like "Sink the Bismarck" and "The Battle of New Orleans".

There was another case of rock music exposure that I recall. Back in the mid to late 50's, a lot of groups were trying to break into the big time. A common tactic for some of these up and comers would be to find a song in the public domain, "rock" it up, release it, and hope for the best. One group, Johnny and the Hurricanes, took the folk song "Red River Valley" and rocked it out, turning it into "Red River Rock". If you've seen the John Hughes movie "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles", you can catch some of it.

Anyways, I recently found the song, and when I played it, well...they say that the sense of smell is one of the most powerful memory aids, and that may be so, but I'd put music as a close second. When I heard Red River Rock for the first time in over 40 years, I could remember, and I mean remember exactly, where I had heard it when I was just a little kid. I can recall the living room, the old brass thermostat on the wall, the sun pouring in through French windows. It's all clear after about, what, 45 years?

Oh yeah, and my dad also bought me the Mary Poppins soundtrack, but I rapidly got sick of chim-chim-cherees, and let's go fly a kite, up through the toilet pipe (which is how my friends and I sang it, and we thought we were geniuses in doing so).

When I was eight or nine, my parents decided that it would be good if I took piano lessons. Many years later, I can still find Middle C, and I harbor an irrational pathological hatred of the Christmas song, "Jolly Old St. Nicholas".

Next Time- Junior High/High School: The Scourge of Disco, the Wimpiness of Chicago.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I Read The Mail Today, Oh Boy...

Sometimes you get a piece of mail that just makes you laugh out loud while shaking your head. Last night, we received such a piece. But in order to fully appreciate it, we must harken back to the year 2009, otherwise known as The Year We'd All Like To Pretty Much Forget Ever Existed.

In those dark days, the economy was in ruins. Well, it still is, but it at least seems to be trending better. Anyways, in those dark days, layoffs were rampant. New hires, promotions, bonuses and raises were suspended all over the country. People had to get creative when it came to finances, and staying afloat well enough to ride out the current crisis.

That's when, early last year, I launched Operation: Have Your Cake And Eat It Too. In this operation, the goal was to slash $500 out of our normal monthly operating budget, but without giving up anything.

When the operation was over, I managed to cut a little over $400 from our month;y operating budget. The only thing we gave up was our premium cable channels (HBO, Skinemax, Showtime, etc, but we never watched them anyway, except Dexter on Showtime). In fact, we even managed to increase John-John's auto insurance coverage (thanks, Geico!).

The overall savings would've been a little over $500, but for the following incident.

With the Prime down at zero, the easiest way to save money was to refinance our mortgage. We actually had a bidding war between our current mortgage holder and another of the big banks, and I kept playing both sides off the other, until finally our current holder gave us an offer we couldn't refuse. I supplied them with the 8 billion metric tons of paperwork and documentation, swearing we were who we were, and that we made such-and-such a year, and we had the following assets. When it was all over, they quoted a nifty monthly figure, and we met for the closing.

So there we were, Carol and me on one side of the table, the loan officer and her assistant on the other side. They slid over the reams of papers you need to sign and/or initial. One of the more important documents caught me eye...the one that gives you the monthly figure we 'd be paying. And...the last two numbers were transposed. So by way of hypothetical excample, if the figure quoted to us was, say, $1219 a month, the figure on the form said $1291.

Call us thrifty, but that's a significant difference. That's almost $100 a month.

I called it to the pair's attention. They looked at it. Their eyes widened slightly. They took out calculators and began adding numbers. One or the other would leave the conference room, checking on something else or talking to someone else, then return, looking puzzled and slightly embarrassed.

When the checking, rechecking, crunching of numbers, whispered conferences, and furrowed brows were finally over, the bottom line came out: they had screwed up the numbers from the get-go. The figure on the form was the correct one, not the one initially quoted to us. All of the people who had gone over the figures had missed it. All of them. No one double-checked.

Now, some of you may ask why we didn't notice it. But that's not what we're paying these people for. We're paying them to do the work, crunch the numbers, and tell us what we're supposed to pay. That's their job. They know the ins and outs, the costs, the rates, the additions, etc. This is what they do for a living.

I was furious, but I kept it clamped down. I was actually shaking in my chair, with the effort not to explode, then I had to exert a further effort not to visibly shake so much. The loan officer said, in an ostensibly helpful and compromising tone, "You don't have to sign can just withdraw right now, if you want to."

Oh yeah, that'd work. Here we are, weeks of preparation, all the searching for paperwork, the faxing, all of that, plus getting time off from work to do the closing. We're all seated here, the documents are in my hand, we've already paid the appraiser. Yeah. Sure. We're just going to stop right now. No, we were already committed. The die was cast, we crossed the Rubicon, Hannibal crossed the Alps, Stimpy pressed the Big Red Button, choose your metaphor.

"You can yell at me if you want to...", the load officer meekly said, while Carol looked at me with that mixture of compassionate concern ("Are you going to be ok?") and the dread that one gets when one realizes a nuclear bomb is about to explode in their proximity.

I took a deep breath, and let out a shuddering exhale. I was still livid. "No," I said. "Let's just do this. Let's get it over with. We've come too far and done too much to turn back now." And so, accompanied by a chorus of embarrassed profuse apologies from the loan people, we signed.

Here's a handy clue as to when I'm truly angry: I stop talking. Or if I have to talk, it's in clipped, monosyllabic responses. This is for face to face conversations, mind you, not texting/IMs or the like..those latter media by their very nature require brief answers a lot of the time.

We wrapped up the business, got a free pen, they shook our hands, we gave them brief, curt good-byes, they apologized some more, we left the building, got into the car, and there, I exploded with a torrent of curses and invectives that would've made a trucker proud.

So, what does this all have to do with getting the mail yesterday and laughing?

The loan officer and her assistant have quite the company and...they're going into business for themselves! That's right. Lucy and Ethel walked away from the chocolate conveyer belt and decided to open their own business. And the kicker is, it's a company that does what they were doing at the big financial firm! I could see if they had decided to go into business for themselves doing something like opening up a restaurant, or a courier service, or a meth lab, but...this?

So yeah. I had to laugh. Carol did too.

Furthermore, Carol noted that the other ludicrous thing about getting this announcement in the mail was that they sent it to us in the first place. I can guarantee you that the loan officer has not forgotten us or her screw-up. So now, less than a year later, she's sending us this announcement about going into business for herself, oh, and that we should recommend her fledgling business to any real estate people we know? Because that's what her letter told us.


So yeah. I guess this is one of those "Some day you'll look back at this and laugh" moments, and we're laughing now. Although I don't wish ill upon Lucy and Ethel, all I can say is, if our experience is the norm, they won't be in business long.