Friday, October 11, 2013

Mix Tape

Becoming a young adult in the 1980s gave me a front row seat to a unique and short lived societal phenomenon – the mix tape. Typically 90 minutes on two sides of a cassette. 20 to 30 carefully chosen songs. Each side a unique theme.

In an era of digital music where playlists are created in a matter of minutes, where an 80 minute CD can be burned with minimal effort by any 10 year old, and individual songs are readily available for purchase (cheap) or for swapping (free), the mix tape concept loses its short-live glory. Or, maybe it doesn't.

In the mid-eighties through the early-nineties, tape mixing was an all evening affair. It would often take 2, 3 hours or more, lots of planning, erasing and re-recording. Because of the time investment, much more thought went into the song choice and order than a playlist of today. The mood of an entire side of music could be scuttled by a poorly chosen song. A sloppy recording job – missing an intro or cutting off a fade-out – could take a brilliant tape and turn it into a hack-job.

By the mid-nineties, most adults' music collections had not transferred completely to CDs, and certainly not to MP3s. Songs were often recorded off of LPs (now referred to as 'vinyl'). Because individual songs were not readily available, one needed access to the entire album that contained the wanted song. This usually entailed borrowing albums from friends, buying 12 inch singles, and in some cases buying entire albums to record one or 2 songs to tape.

In movies made after the 1990s, there are from time to time disparaging references to mix tapes. They are viewed as a relic of a bygone era and seem worthy of disdain. In truth, the mix tape was at times a modern equivalent of a suitor writing poetry. A several hour introspective commitment scouring your music collection, looking for songs that demonstrate where your relationship is now and where you want it to go. The songs must be ordered to flow well for listenability and of course there needs to be the perfect blend of pop & edge.

Prior to the mid-seventies, the fidelity of cassette tapes just wasn't up to the task of capturing the music in a form worth recording. As a result, the length of tapes available for purchase was generally more geared to other activities. Being an early adopter of the mix tape phenomenon, I first started packing my favorite Beatles and Doors songs on 60 minute Memorex tapes. Initially, my motivation was to cut out the 'clutter', simply flooding the tape with my favorite songs, the hits. But quickly, I learned that 20 hit songs in a row becomes boring. Carefully chosen clutter improves the tape immensely. Eventually, my tapes would include only a handful of favorites. These songs became the pinnacle, the apex. The rest of the tape was the art. The intentional backdrop required to elevate the pinnacle songs to soaring new heights.

As I became more adept at tape mixing, I began to record a brief snippet of a song to enhance the tape. My most impressive tape introduced Sonic Youth's "Youth Against Fascism" with Frank Black's brilliant and bizarre "you f---ing die" diatribe, and I plugged Public Enemy's "You're Quite Hostile" refrain into the silence after Fugazi's "Waiting Room" introduction. The power of the mix tape. You engineer the music better than the producer. And then you listen to it so many times that 20 to 25 years later, the songs still seem to belong together.

I have a paid hobby as a spin instructor. Because of this, I still have the opportunity to mix 60 minutes of music twice a week. Obviously, this is all done digitally now, and decorum requires that I avoid phrases like "you f---ing die". While I still pay attention to song combinations, I'm often looking for contrast in addition to flow. Where my mix tapes would be rolling hills of sound, mood and energy, my spin mixes are much more likely to resemble plateaus and valleys. Slower, more mellow songs often followed by fast, angry songs. The idea is to shake up the workout with the music. Irony helps lighten the mood. I'll throw in an odd, old pop song – Afternoon Delight or Summer Loving – just to get a laugh and give people a break after a long segment of hard-driving beat and tempo.

The shuffle features common with digital music, first with CDs and now MP3 files, have made us desensitized to music flow. I suppose the radio has always been guilty of throwing disjointed songs together, but the artists' LPs were often carefully crafted to create a mood, to tell a story. Unlike the hours of effort to create a mix tape, the ease of working with digital music has made us lazy. While taping, the time investment made us want to be sure we got it right the first time. When burning a CD, or simply dumping music onto an MP3 player for a run or a workout, it is so simple and cheap (free) that if a song doesn't fit into the mix, we can either re-burn the CD or delete the song from the playlist and get it right second time around.

For years now, I have wanted to learn the ins and outs of music engineering. Essentially giving myself a skillset that I had with cassette tapes. There are so many things that I want to do, so many
songs I want to blend, trim, edit. Fade-outs & fade-ins, eliminate F-Bombs. Here's one of my "things" – I am almost completely incapable of reading directions to learn how to do something. I either need to work through trial and error, or someone needs to show me how to do it.

I've downloaded DJ programs and tried to work through the process of engineering a song, and I just can't do it, I can't figure it out. And as a 50ish adult, I don't know anyone who can show me how. Because my kids are almost teens, in a few years they will likely possess an innate ability to navigate these software programs. If I can just hold off a couple more years, maybe they can show me how. But without this skill, I will never fully recapture the music mixing style of my early adult years.

Like so many of the conveniences of the modern world, something special is lost when activities become too easy to do. Tape mixing was truly an art form, and it has become lost to all but a few – including me.

Possibly, I'm overthinking this – a habit of mine. In the eighties, cassette tapes were the best technology available. The Sony Walkman was the iPod of the time. A few years earlier, we were still listening to AM frequencies on transistor radios. Tape mixing was our attempt to control the flow and order of music – something only a DJ could previously do. But the medium grew. Tape mixers truly cared about the final product. And to this day, I've yet to hear a home-crafted CD that comes close to the top five tapes I’ve mixed.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Elephant in the Room

This essay was written in January 2010 -

Public option, death panels, Blue Dogs, rationing, Group of Six… A recent Google search on “Health Care Reform” returned 27 million results. Like many Americans, I’ve reached my saturation point on this issue, but at the same time, I know that reform is crucial to the budgets of middle class Americans.

As the finance manager of a large community center, I spend an excessive amount of my time and energy worrying about and working around the high cost of medical plan premiums. I appreciate the efforts of our government representatives, and I truly hope that reform provides better quality and less expensive insurance for more Americans.

But throughout this whole health care debate, public officials are avoiding the elephant in the room. No one is talking about the most controllable driving force in our escalating health care costs… Health.  

Most adults understand what it takes to live a healthy lifestyle. We’ve been hearing it our entire lives: eat your vegetables, minimize alcohol use, don’t smoke, buckle-up, exercise. More recent messages include: monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol, minimize stress, lose weight, maintain a healthy Body Mass Index.  

Americans are a pretty savvy bunch. Two-thirds of us own our own homes; we hold down jobs; manage our households; get kids to school, soccer games and birthday parties on time; and despite financial pressures, we find ways to enjoy luxury items like gaming systems and HDTV. Yet most of us are unable to take care of ourselves.  

More than two-thirds of all American adults are overweight, and half of those are categorized as obese. One-fifth of adults smoke cigarettes. One sixth of us still don’t use seat belts. The list goes on.  

These behaviors have a direct impact on the cost of health care. Being more than 10 pounds over the optimum weight range increases one’s chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, musculoskeletal conditions and a several other health problems. Smoking promotes cancer, high blood pressure, weakens bones, increases the risk of diabetes and can even contribute to male impotence. Meanwhile, only one-third of adults get the minimum recommended weekly amount of exercise.  

I believe that many people don’t make an effort to improve their health because they are overwhelmed by the number of changes they feel they need to make to live a healthy lifestyle. But instead of swinging for a homerun, I believe that by making small, incremental changes, one at a time over the course of a year, each one of us can totally transform our own health.  

Fifteen months ago, I decided it was time to work on some of the issues that plagued me for years. Through diet and exercise, I was able to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol, both slightly elevated, into the healthy range. I also lost 15 pounds that brought me squarely into the center of my optimum BMI range.   

I didn’t do this all at once, and I didn’t do anything radical. To lose weight, I ate less, exercised more and went to bed a little bit hungry every night. To lower my cholesterol and blood pressure, I took the things out of my diet that everyone knows are unhealthy – chips, fast food, egg yolks, excessive coffee, and pretty much all of the excess salt. Also, by working with a holistic health practitioner, I added some foods that promote health – more filtered water, herbal teas, a high fiber diet, certain supplements and enough almonds and walnuts to keep a family of squirrels smiling for years.  

Through this process, I found that most of these changes are just habits. After a few weeks, it became reflex to reach for nuts instead of pretzels, for celery instead of chips. I found that I really could live with just one cup of coffee each day.  

So go ahead and stress about the cost of health insurance, but at the same time, do something to reduce it. Quit smoking, wear your seatbelt, alter your diet, or start exercising. It may be the most patriotic thing you can do for your country.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Food Fight

This Cartoon was a family effort - my concept (pun really), my daughter's art, and my son's idea to use hamburgers and hot dogs,

The Worst Generation?

“To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Franklin D. Roosevelt said this in 1936 as the primary elements of World War II were falling into place. The generation to whom FDR spoke has become known as the Greatest Generation. Sometimes I worry that we will be known as the “Worst Generation”.

If generations can be classified as givers and takers, we are clearly the biggest takers in the history of the nation. Sixty years of American prosperity taught us some ugly habits. We value “stuff”. We feel entitled to luxury. And we try to emulate the rich and famous. We fight any effort to raise taxes, yet we continually expect additional services and benefits from our governments. Rather than looking out for our neighbors, we grasp what we can for ourselves. While this is not exactly a new American trait, it has become pronounced, even respected. As the nation's financial resources become more scarce, the rhetoric becomes more hateful. We are truly a nation of us v. them. Again, not a new phenomenon, but more evident, especially from our elected leaders. The nation known for its safety net of social security and medicare has now decided that it no longer wants to afford it.

Further, we seem completely incapable of tightening our belts to weather a tough time. Like an irresponsible family, we continue to rack up debt with no thought to when, let alone how, we can pay it back. From 1980 – 2008 our deficit spending averaged more than 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product. Since 2008, 8.5%. Clearly, this trend is building. Many, including me, believe that the on-going economic stimulus is needed to help those who are hurting, but no one seems willing to pay for it.

Beyond debt, the United States has wracked up trillions in deferred maintenance. Our highway system alone, with its decaying bridges and crumbling roads, needs to be addressed in the next handful of years, but the American populace reacts with knee-jerk instincts whenever additional taxes on gas are suggested as a funding source.

We are experiencing first-hand one of the great events in American history. The financial meltdown of 2008, and the resulting economic turmoil, gave our country an opportunity to shine. This is our rendezvous with destiny. And our rendezvous, so far, has been fully squandered. Rather than soldiering through a truly difficult period, we point fingers at those less fortunate in our own society. We demonize those requiring help, and we cry 'foul' whenever we are asked to give more. 

At some point, we as a nation will need to sacrifice to pay back the debt. The trillions of dollars that we have borrowed has a steep price tag. The interest on our debt in 2012 was $360 billion. Compare this with the much publicized and universally maligned annual sequestration savings of $85 billion per year, and it is almost laughable. We continue to put off big decisions with finger-pointing rhetoric because taking action is too painful. Social Security, Medicare, and our national debt all need attention, and need that attention now. Each year we put off action on these compounding issues exacerbates the problem in the future.

Our grandparents' demons, Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler, were despised en mass by the American public. It should have been relatively easy to generate a national response against fascism, yet even then, it took an attack on our Naval fleet to generate the necessary popular and political support to enter WWII. But once committed, the United States was unstoppable. We instituted laws that ensured the basic necessities to those in need. We raised taxes, significantly, on almost all Americans – with the highest tax rates topping 90%. Everyone rationed goods regardless of their ability to afford them, and consumerism, buying goods just to own them, was virtually non-existent.

Our national 'can-do' mood lasted decades. We built the United States into the global model of what a nation can achieve. But over time, we seemed to lose our focus. What started as a concern for the national, and even the global, good subtly shifted to concern for individual good. By the 1980s, yuppies, junk bonds and the 'me-generation' dominated the headlines.

Pre-WWII, the Greatest Generation doesn't strike me as all that different from who we are today. Although when pushed, they sprang into action and impressed the world. Today, we are being pushed from all sides. Rather than wring our hands, too fearful to take action, let's follow the example set by our grandparents and great-grandparents. It is time for collective sacrifice; time to stop the long slide we are experiencing; time for all citizens contribute what they can.