Tag Archives: history

Monday Musings: Writing Scared

It often takes me some time to settle on a topic for my Monday Musings post. Some weeks one issue or another is such an obvious choice that composing the post is easy. Other weeks I can struggle with the choice for a couple of days. To be honest, there is a part of me that wants to use this week’s essay to rant and rail against the ridiculousness of Daylight Savings, but that’s the lost hour of sleep speaking…

The truth is, I am troubled by a new calculus that has crept into my writing process: I find myself trying to anticipate the potential blowback I might receive from various subjects. I am, at times, writing scared. And that bothers me.

Now, no one who knows me, or who reads this blog, is likely to mistake me for a shrinking violet. I voice my opinions with passion. Usually. Certainly, I pulled no punches during and after the recent election. I believed our former President represented a fundamental threat to the integrity of our democratic republic, and I wrote accordingly. I make no apology for that.

I have touched on other issues over the past year — race, climate change, Covid denial — and I intend to keep advocating for the things I believe in.

The fact is, though, there are also issues I avoid, not because my opinions are so extreme — they’re really not — but because they are nevertheless likely to provoke extremists. I am reluctant to put myself in the crosshairs — figuratively and literally — of those on the Right by jumping up and down with too much vehemence on the questions that get them most exercised. I am reluctant to incur the wrath of my friends on the Left, with whom I agree often on issues, but less frequently on tactics. I am all too aware of the simple truth that with some subject matter, regardless of our intentions, we are likely to push someone somewhere too far.

We are living in an era of emotional inflammation. We are, all of us, a bit more irritable, a bit more sensitive, a bit more liable to fly off the handle at slight provocation. I know too many people who have stepped in the proverbial hornet’s nest without intending to, without even knowing the danger existed on whatever the inciting topic might have been. I have seen them swarmed by hyper-conservatives who berate and insult and cast wild, ugly, false accusations that are hurtful and damaging despite their lack of actual substance. I have seen others summarily judged and blacklisted by too many progressives who only a day before counted the people in question as allies.

I have seen people threatened by actors on both sides, and while many of those threats are made in the heat of the moment and probably do not promise real physical danger, who knows? And who wants to take that chance?

I’m not willing to assume the burdens that come with Being Controversial. I have a life to live, a career to maintain, a family to keep safe. Why would I want to put any of that at risk?

The problem with that thinking, though, is that it allows the bullies to win. It gives too much power to those at the fringes — the loudest, the most virulent, the least deserving of such influence.

And so I’m torn. A society like ours thrives on information, on diverse opinions, on healthy, productive debate. Many of the ills we see in today’s America exist because these things have grown scarce. We can’t agree on simple facts. We refuse to tolerate opinions that differ from our own. We’re shouting at volumes that preclude an honest exchange of viewpoints. I want to write what’s on my mind. I make my living writing fiction, but I engage with the world through my beliefs and my ability to articulate them. I enjoy a good political argument. I like it when something I write in this space fosters discussion among those I consider friends and colleagues.

Being afraid of that dynamic is relatively new for me, and entirely unwelcome.

I have no answers today. As I grope in the dark for some sort of meaningful conclusion to this piece, I wonder if I’m a fool to post it, if I’m inviting just the sort of backlash I seek to avoid.

John Milton called opinions “knowledge in the making.” We are richest as a people, as a body politic, as a society, when reasoned discussion and informed beliefs are not just tolerated but encouraged, when those who are fortunate enough to have a platform, of whatever reach and scope, are unafraid to avail themselves of it. I want to live up to that ideal.

Sadly, the state of our nation makes doing so all but impossible. We need to do better.

Which is why I will post this, consequences be damned.

Monday Musings: A Paean to the “Shuffle” Command

Let’s begin with the obvious: Everything that’s old is great, and new stuff sucks. It’s important to get that out of the way before we move on. I mean who are we kidding? The way things were when we were young — well, not so much “we” as “I” — the way things were when I was young? That’s how it should all be now. Progress is bad. Innovation is bad. Technology ruins everything and the world was a better place before people invented all that stuff. By which I mean, anything that hadn’t yet been invented when I turned 21.

Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling StonesMusic isn’t meant to be sold song by song. We’re supposed to buy albums. We’re supposed to put up with the bad songs in order to enjoy the good ones. That makes the listening experience better. For every “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” we should have to endure a “Doctor Robert.” For every “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” we should have to suffer through a “You Gotta Move.” It’s only fair. No one is entitled to a perfect listening experience, and songwriters deserve the chance to have their crappy songs heard alongside the good ones. This is America, damnit!

And don’t get me started on CDs versus LPs. What ever happened to the art of piecing together a two-sided album, of figuring out the proper song order so as to make those horrible, vinyl-wasting tunes that we hated as hard to avoid as possible? I mean sure LPs warped and skipped, and got scratched, making them all but unbearable after a year or two of solid use, but that’s a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having to interrupt a pot-induced haze to get up, walk to the stereo, and turn the record over.

Songs are meant to occur in a certain order. That’s how God intended it. And by God, I mean Mick Jagger. Or John Lennon. Or Joni Mitchell. Or David Crosby. Or Aretha Franklin. Or James Taylor. You know. God. As day follows night and spring follows winter, “You Can Call Me Al” is meant to come after “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Except not really, because that album came out after my twenty-first birthday. But never mind that.

The point is, albums set the order of songs and never shall they exist in any other configuration.

Except for mix tapes.

Okay, I confess. Back when I still listened to LPs (Kids, ask your parents. And get the hell off my lawn…) I made mix tapes all the time. I loved the idea of cutting out those songs I didn’t enjoy. I loved the idea of putting my favorite songs from any number of artists and any number of albums in one collection and being able to listen to all of them together. I loved listening to a new mix tape, of savoring the lingering surprise of the next tune from a completely different source.

Sadly, even in my pot-smoking days that surprise lasted for all of two or three listens. After that, the mix tapes became too familiar, taking on the wearisome predictability of the albums from which I’d culled the songs in the first place. As Rob Gordon (the John Cusack character in High Fidelity) says, “the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art.” But even the best made mix can’t save us from the fact that we remember and anticipate.

Enter the “shuffle” command on our phones and computers.

That stuff I said before, about everything new sucking? I didn’t mean this. And that part about all technology after the mid 1980s ruining the world? I might not have meant that, either. And the stuff I said about how great LPs were — that was total bullshit. Not that a case can’t be made. I mean, cell phones and computers and the constant presence of social media and “connectivity” in our daily lives — there’s a lot there to dislike.

But the shuffle command makes all of it worthwhile. Hitting “shuffle” is like putting in the ultimate mix tape. Every song is one we want to hear. Every transition is a surprise. Every listening experience is destined to be different.

Nirvana.

The state of being. Not the band. They definitely came on the scene after my twenty-first birthday…

The other night, Nancy and I were cooking dinner, and we had my iPhone on shuffle. (iPhones are okay. They were invented way before I turned 21. Really. I promise. Same with Bluetooth speakers like the one we were using. I swear.) And, quite seriously, I was struck that evening, after the fourth or fifth excellent song in a row, by the absurd amount of pleasure I derive from the shuffle feature. Ridiculous, I know. The world is in the midst of a pandemic. The planet is melting. American democracy is on life-support. But I can listen to a collection of Eagles tunes without fear of hearing “Chug All Night.”

It doesn’t get better than that.

Monday Musings: Taxes and Patriotism

I started work on my taxes this weekend, which is probably why taxes and government spending are on my mind for this Monday Musings posts.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: No one likes to pay taxes. And if we didn’t care about driving our cars on roads, or flying in airplanes that don’t crash into each other, or eating meat that doesn’t make us sick, or having some basic income in our golden years, or having access to health care after retirement, or going to beautiful National Parks, or doing about a thousand other things that we take for granted, we would love to keep all that tax money for ourselves, to spend as we see fit.

But, of course, we do want those things I mentioned. Plus we want a national defense. We want the police and fire and EMT services paid for by local taxes. We want to foster the arts and promote scientific research.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”

(A couple of other tax quotes for you: “The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return. It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.” — Arthur C. Clarke; “Income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf.” — Will Rogers.)

I agree wholly with the Holmes quote (and probably the other two as well) and also with Joe Biden, who said during the 2008 campaign that paying taxes is an act of patriotism.

Biden said this after Barack Obama was criticized for proposing an end to the Bush tax cuts. Obama did raise taxes marginally, only to see them cut again under the most recent Administration. I have every expectation that the Biden Administration will roll back at least some of Trump’s tax cuts — those that were targeted at corporations and the wealthy.

Without revealing too much, I will say that Nancy and do pretty well financially. We benefitted from the Trump cuts, and wish we hadn’t. We didn’t need the cut. Others did. We wound up increasing our charitable giving to compensate, and we will gladly pay more in taxes if it means cutting the tax burden for those who aren’t as financially secure as we are.

What bothers me most about the conversation surrounding taxes in this country is those who say they don’t want their tax dollars going to social welfare programs, because they don’t believe in giving others a free ride.

First of all, if they honestly think that living in poverty is a “free ride,” they’re insane. Folks in Texas lost their heat and electricity for a week, and there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid — all of it justified and deserved. But there are plenty of people in this country who can’t afford to heat their homes at all. There are people in this country who live on the streets, who wander from shelter to shelter seeking a meal or a bed or a bit of warmth. Every night in the United States children go to bed hungry.

In a civilized society, we try to take care of them, to feed and house, to warm and comfort.

And I would say to those who object to social welfare spending that I, too, don’t like all the things my tax dollars buy. We spend nearly $700 billion a year on the military. I believe that is way, way too much. We spend money to benefit oil and gas companies, big pharmaceutical companies, huge agricultural conglomerates, and all sorts of other corporate entities. Most of those expenditures come in the form of tax breaks and credits, but that doesn’t change the fact that they increase the tax burden on the rest of us. I object to much of that spending.

Some would tell me that defense systems, the search for oil, R & D for new drugs — these are things that benefit all of us. I might argue with these points — I don’t think new defense systems are necessarily good for anyone, and I know that finding more oil to burn is a terrible idea — but I understand the logic of the argument. And I would counter that lifting up those in need helps all of us as well, that improving education for those with the least pays dividends for all of society, that enabling all to participate fully in the nation’s economy improves that economy for everyone.

The larger point is this: We don’t get to pick and choose where our tax dollars go. I have to pay for a new weapons system and for oil and gas exploration that Exxon can easily afford to do on its own. Others have to spend on school lunches, teacher training, childhood health subsidies, vocational retraining, etc.

This is the price we all pay in order to live in a diverse, thriving nation.

Federal Deficit ChartAnd one more point I would like to make. Interest on the national debt currently gobbles up 8 cents out of every tax dollar. The budget deficit for 2020 was $3.7 TRILLION (slightly less than the chart above projects — I included the chart for the trend line). Even before the pandemic hit, necessitating emergency spending, the Trump tax cuts had driven projected deficits way up over where they were by the end of the Obama Administration. Some will try to tell you that those tax cuts simply returned money to the pockets of Americans. Bull. Every dollar that Donald Trump added to the deficit increased that interest expenditure I just mentioned and forced the rest to pay more. By skewing his cuts to the wealthiest among us, he basically forced the rest of Americans to subsidize a tax cut for the rich.

In any case, I still have a bit of work to do on our taxes, but it looks like we overpaid for the year. Most likely, we’ll take our refund in the form of prepayment of my estimated taxes for 2021. That’s just the way it works.

Have a good week.

Creative Friday: SITTIN’ IN Fifty (!) Years Later

Sittin In, Loggins and MessinaFor this week’s Creative Friday post, I’m doing something a little different, and writing about someone else’s creativity.

Lately, I have been on a kick of going back to old music that I once loved but lost touch with along the way. Some of it I have tried to rediscover only to find that it’s really not all that good and ought to have stayed lost. But a few of the albums I have gone back to have surprised me with their quality. One of them is an old classic: Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina’s Sittin’ In.

Actually, the album is officially credited “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina.” When they started together in 1971, Loggins was a young singer/songwriter at the start of a promising career, and Messina was already a rock veteran, having enjoyed success in Buffalo Springfield and Poco. Messina was brought in to produce a Loggins solo album, but wound up contributing songs and arrangements, not to mention guitar work and lots of vocals. In the end, they released the album as a duet. Over the next five years, before their somewhat messy break-up in 1976, they went on to release six studio albums and a live album. After the break-up they fulfilled some contractual obligations with another live album and a couple of greatest hits releases.

They’re probably best known for an old-time rock tune called “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” a song I never cared for all that much. And several of their later albums sold better than the first. But to my mind, Sittin’ In was the best album they put out.

It includes a couple of beautiful and popular ballads. Loggins wrote “Danny’s Song” to celebrate the birth of his brother’s son. This is one of those songs that no one knows by title, but everyone recognizes. The chorus has been sung by crowds in college coffee houses for nearly fifty years. “Even though we ain’t got money/I’m so in love with you, honey/And everything will bring a chain of love…”

“House at a Pooh Corner” is a lovely-if-saccharine-sweet homage to childhood, and another coffee house favorite.

But where the album really shines is in its up-tempo numbers, which combine the exuberance of straight-ahead 70s rock, with the instrumentation of country. “Nobody But You,” which opens the album, is one of my favorite songs of all time. By anyone. From the opening guitar lick, to the tidy, tasteful finish, the song simply soars.

“Back To Georgia” begins what was once the B side of the album with similar energy and power. The centerpiece of that second side is the smoky “Same Old Wine,” which could well have been written today:

Well we give them the election,
That keeps filling our heads full of lies;
Can we trust in new directions,
When their promises are in disguise?
Well someday the truth will catch up
I just hope it don’t catch us all by surprise.

The album also includes “Vahevala,” a calypso-influenced song that was the biggest hit on the album. It remains catchy and affecting, though fifty years on, some of the lyrics are, let’s say, problematic. A tight three-song medley on the old A side ends with the soulful “Peace of Mind,” and Loggins’ piano ballad, “Rock and Roll Mood,” completes the collection. There really isn’t a bad track here. I can’t say that about too many albums.

Without a doubt, part of Sittin’ In’s appeal for me lies in nostalgia. This is an album I listened to throughout my adolescence and well into my college years. It carries some wonderful memories, as well as some more poignant ones. But as I said before, I have been listening to lots of albums from that part of my life, and some of them don’t hold up well at all.

This one does.

If you don’t know it, you should check it out. If, like me, you had it once, but lost touch with the music, give it another listen. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Have a great weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.

Monday Musings: Beyond Impeachment

I really didn’t want to write another Monday Musings post about Donald Trump. I would like to be shot of him, just like a majority of the country. And (this is Washington’s dirty little secret) just like a majority of elected Republicans.

Clearly they remain terrified of the man and his rabid supporters, too many of whom have proven themselves willing to resort to violence. And so only ten Republicans in the House of Representatives supported impeachment. And only seven Republicans in the Senate voted to convict. And yet it is worth noting that these are the highest levels of support from members of a President’s own party in the history of American impeachments. Yes, that’s right. Never before have as many as ten House members voted to impeach a President in their own party. Before Trump’s 2019 impeachment trial, no Senator had ever voted to convict a President of the same party. Seven GOP votes for conviction this time around, in what was the equivalent of a landslide.

Don’t get me wrong: I am utterly disgusted by the cowardice and capitulation of most Congressional Republicans. Their continued support of this man — a man who incited his supporters to a murderous frenzy in order to overturn the legitimate results of a free and fair election — makes me sick and leaves me fearful for the future of our republic.

Yet, I think the impeachment trial was not only worth pursuing, it was also largely successful. The House impeachment managers were masterful in presenting their case. They established beyond doubt that the assault on the U.S. Capitol was a coordinated effort fueled by Trump’s false claims about the election and enabled by those in the Republican party who parroted Trump’s lies.

We have known for some time now that Congressional Republicans are spineless, that they are more interested in partisan gain than in the health of our political system. We knew there weren’t seventeen men or women in the party’s Senate caucus with the guts to vote for a conviction. And the specious and largely discredited argument legal argument they clung to — that a President can’t be impeached after leaving office — gave them the excuse they needed to vote for Trump without defending his indefensible actions.

But it’s worth noting that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Lord, how I LOVE typing that) took to the Senate floor just after the vote to acquit, and essentially endorsed the case laid out by the House “prosecutors.” Trump, he admitted, incited his supporters to riot. The former President did so over the course of months, repeating his “big lie” about the election being rigged, and he did so that very day with a speech that pushed an already agitated mob to do the unthinkable. The Capitol Building was ransacked; former Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and others were nearly murdered; police officers were assaulted and wounded. One died that day. Two others have died since. Six people died in total. And all of this is Donald Trump’s fault.

Many seem to believe that Donald Trump still has a political future. I suppose that’s possible. But I would remind everyone of something that activist/journalist Bill Palmer mentioned on his site shortly before Trump left office: After Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election and his triumphant inauguration in January of 2009, everyone in the country assumed that the Republican Party would be led going forward by Sarah Palin, McCain’s running mate. She was considered a rising star, the face of the new GOP, a virtual lock to be the party’s 2012 Presidential nominee.

Of course she proved to be none of these things.

In the same way, we shouldn’t assume that in four years Donald Trump will wield anywhere near as much power in the Republican party as he does now. He faces criminal proceedings in New York for his questionable finances. He faces prosecution in Georgia for his blatant violations of state election laws. He may face Federal charges for his incitement of the Capitol Hill riot. We simply can’t know what his future may hold. And I guarantee you that even Trump’s most vocal supporters in the Senate — guys like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley — would love to see him prosecuted, humiliated, and turned into a political pariah. They’d never admit as much, of course. They’re too eager to claim Trump’s supporters for themselves. But they know that as long as Trump remains the ostensible leader of the GOP, the party itself will be vilified and their own Presidential ambitions will be thwarted.

When it comes right down to it, they have no reason to support the man a day longer than political expediency demands. The trick, of course, is pinpointing that precise day, and I doubt any of them has the acumen to time this well. They will make themselves look like fools, undermining their own political hopes in the process. Ultimately they will have no choice but to throw Trump under a bus, just as he would do to them if need arose. They will, in short, wind up destroying themselves, Trump, and each other.

And, to my mind, on this President’s Day, that is a comforting thought.

Thieftaker Cover Reveal! THE LOYALIST WITCH

I shared this with subscribers to my newsletter and Facebook Group on Tuesday, along with another in a series of teasers from the new Thieftaker project.

Now, here for all to see, is the artwork for the new Thieftaker novellas (written under the D.B. Jackson pen name). The artist, of course, is the wonderful Chris McGrath, who has done the art for just about every Thieftaker project, and who continues to do just magical things with the world and character.

The new project is called THE LOYALIST WITCH — THIEFTAKER, FALL 1770, and it consists of three novellas: “The Witch’s Storm,” “The Cloud Prison,” and “The Adams Gambit.” The novellas will be released by Lore Seekers Press, and though we don’t yet have a firm release date, I can tell you that we are in the final stages of production, and I expect the first novella to be out sometime in the next couple of months.

Each novella will be released as an e-book, and then the three will be combined in an omnibus that will be released in both digital and paper formats.

And now, without further ado, here is the art! I am sooooo excited…

Thieftaker: The Loyalist Witch, Jacket Art by Chris McGrath

 

Monday Musings: Sports and COVID

Last year, on the weekend of the Super Bowl, I wrote a post for that following Monday about the power of sports in our culture. In it, I noted that the Big Game was one of the few truly shared experiences in our national culture, an event of vast reach that crossed many of the demographic boundaries that usually divide us as a nation. I also might have voiced some disdain for the hype, the glitz, the obscene expenditures on everything from the halftime show to the half-minute advertising spots.

What a difference a year makes.

When I wrote that post, of course, COVID-19 was not yet on our radar. Sports, among so many other things, had not yet been taken away from us.

I have missed sports far more than I thought I would. And I have found COVID-restricted sports less satisfying than I might have hoped. Usually while watching sports on television I begrudge the crowd reaction shots, the panning of packed stands, the background chants and shouts and, in the case of the Premier League, singing. I realize now, though, that those things meant something to me. I suppose, unwittingly, I got a vicarious thrill out of knowing there were thousands of people attending the game, reveling in the excitement of being there.

I don’t like the cardboard cutouts that have been placed in stadiums and arenas. I understand why they’re there, but I find it creepy and unsettling — a reminder, as if we need it, of all that is absent from our lives right now. I’m not crazy about the prerecorded crowd noise either, although, again, I understand why some venues use it. I’ll even admit that some Premier League venues (Nancy and I probably watch more Premier League soccer than we do any other sport) have done a really great job of simulating crowd reactions to play on the pitch.

Nevertheless, what I love about sports — about the entire spectacle: the game, the interaction of the players, the crowd response, even the cheesy organ playing and sound effects that still infect baseball games — is the organic nature of each event. Over the course of my life, I have watched — in person or on television — literally hundreds upon hundreds of baseball games, football games, basketball games. We’re getting there with soccer games. I have watched a ton of golf tournaments (yes, that’s right — deal with it), swim competitions, track and field meets… I could go on, but you get my point. I love sports and have watched a lot. And I have never seen any two games or meets or tournaments that were exactly alike. That may seem self-evident, but to my mind it speaks to the power of sports.

Every inning, every play, every trip down the court or assault on the opposing team’s goal is a moment of possibility. Anything can happen. Yes, the environment is controlled — action is guided by rules and confined by the field of play, but that actually enhances the experience. There is a certain level of safety in the unpredictability of sports (unlike the unpredictability of life itself, which is anything but safe).

Sports blends the thrill of the possible with the suspense of the unknown and the exploration of human potential and frailty. We watch athletes who are among the best in the world at what they do, pit themselves against one another in full view of thousands, sometimes millions. Will they fold under the pressure? Will they thrive? Will someone unexpected emerge as a hero? Will the most revered among them fail in a key moment, forever changing the way history views them?

Yes, some people will say “Who cares? It’s just sports. None of this matters.”

And they’re right. I won’t go so far as to say that the nerve-wracking suspense of a tight game, the excruciating progression of a key at-bat, has no long-term consequence. I’m merely a fan, and yet there are still sports moments that haunt me, the pain of a devastating loss as raw now as the day it happened. But the fate of the world isn’t at stake. And isn’t that exactly what we need right now?

Sadly, though, the version of sports we’re getting currently is lacking. The players and coaches are doing their best — I have no doubt of that. And I also don’t wish to be misunderstood: I welcome any sports we can have, and I have no desire to see anyone — athlete or fan — put at risk. I’ll take what I can get. Let’s be honest, though. These games are not the same. They can’t be. Playing before hordes of screaming fans has to have an effect on player performance. Yes, the greats claim that they can block out all awareness of the crowd. I don’t believe it. Do you? I haven’t seen stats, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in these COVID leagues, home field advantage has declined markedly. How could it not?

Okay, I just did a quick search online, and home-field advantage has, in fact, diminished in a number of sports. So, yeah.

Look, having any sports at all is great — far better than having none. But I long for the day when stadiums can be filled to capacity. I look forward to going to games myself, to attending spring training again with my daughter, to seeing minor league baseball in the cities near us.

Sports matter, not just to those of us who love them, but to society at large. And having people in the stands makes a huge difference as well. Don’t believe me? Consider whether Jackie Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues would have had the impact on America that it did if the seats in Ebbets Field been empty.

Professional Wednesday: Rethinking the Digital Revolution

I’m a dinosaur. I have been in this business for more than a quarter century. My first book was published during the Clinton Administration. I could list for you all the celebrities born since that first publication, but I’ve never heard of any of them…

To state the obvious, the business has changed in the time I’ve been a professional writer. Hell, the entire world has changed. Some of the transitions specific to publishing have been for the better, some have not. And, to make all of this a bit stranger, many of the biggest changes fall into both those categories.

Lately, I find myself thinking about the democratization of the arts facilitated by the digital revolution, trying to balance the good with the not-so-good.

Example 1: A dear friend of mine, one of my musical partners from college, has been recording and performing music for years. He does covers, he writes his own material. Prior to the pandemic, he performed regularly in the area around his home in the Northeast. Since the onset of COVID, he has done a series of online concerts and has also produced videos of himself playing — again, his own tunes and covers of songs by others. His music always — ALWAYS — sounds amazing. Not only is he incredibly talented, he has also mastered the technology at his disposal. The result is great music with astonishing production values.

Without digital technology, without the ability to turn his basement into both a recording studio and a performance space, he couldn’t manage to do any of this. Of course, he is hardly alone in this regard. Musicians around the world can now record and produce their own music, reaching audiences that they never would have found twenty years ago. And it is hard for me to look at this as anything but an unalloyed good. Major recording studios should not be the only arbiters of what you and I get to hear. Once upon a time, they were, but not anymore. As a musician myself, and as a fan of music in general, I’m pleased by this.

Example 2: As most of you know, I am an avid photographer. I specialize in nature photography — landscapes and close-up work — but I also have done a good deal of urban photography. I am, I believe, a very good photographer. I have also been, for years and years, a collector of photography books, and I have a small collection of photo prints by other artists, as well as many of my own enlarged images, framed, and hung on the walls of my home.

I have a high quality digital camera and I have several applications on my computer that allow me to process my photos to a fine degree. Once upon a time, when I first got into this hobby and was still shooting film, I was very much at the mercy of the photo labs that developed my pictures. I couldn’t control the production of each image the way, say, Ansel Adams did in his darkroom. Only with the advent of digital technology, have I gained access to the tools I need to develop my photos precisely as I wish to. At this point, I can produce professional quality images. My best photos, the ones on my walls as well as those in the one coffee table photography book I have created, can stand alongside the best images by some of my favorite professional photographers.

As with the musical example, given how much joy I derive from my photography and my ability to produce images with such quality results, I have a hard time seeing this as anything but a positive historical development.

Except…

Example 3: In my capacity as a writer, I have seen the impact of the digital revolution on my own profession. Yes, more and more authors can now reach readers. Authors who might otherwise have never had a chance to get past the gatekeepers at major publishing houses, can now put their stories within reach of audiences that crave what they offer. This means that unconventional, risk-taking stories can now be told and sold. It means that diverse voices now have an outlet for their work. Authors of any race, of any gender identity, of any sexual orientation, of any religious or cultural background, now have an easier time making themselves heard. I welcome all of these changes.

But those of us who are familiar with the publishing business also know that the democratization of publishing has not been an unalloyed good. Yes, eloquent voices who for too long were excluded from mainstream publishing are now reaching audiences. But there are also too many books being produced that require substantial editing, but aren’t getting any. There are too many authors now being published who weren’t excluded from the field because they were innovative or speaking from underrepresented groups — they were excluded because they had not yet mastered the rudiments of writing prose and creating narrative.

I know lots of young, talented authors — of different genders, races, cultural traditions — who are deserving of success in publishing, but who can’t make themselves heard in the new marketplace, because that market is already flooded with stories, many of them of questionable quality. Because I know the publishing world so well, I understand the nuances of these new dynamics, the good and the bad.

And I find myself reconsidering all that I said before about music and photography. I don’t know those industries the way I know the literary world, but I have to imagine that musicians and photographers face the same struggles and frustrations writers do. I do have a friend who is a professional photographer. He is successful, having worked for years for National Geographic and other prestigious publications. I know the fact that amateur photographers like me can now make our work look “professional” has made his business harder to maintain. I have no doubt that many professional musicians face similar challenges. So all the confidence I expressed earlier in this piece, about how the opening up of technologies in music and photography to everyone is nothing but good — that now strikes me as ill-considered, a reflection of my ignorance.

I have no answers. To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what questions I’m asking. I simply know that the artistic world has changed thanks to digital technology and the opening of artistic industries to everyone from the most advanced professional to the laziest weekend hobbyist. Lots of good has come of this. But for those who make their livings in the arts, these changes, taking place on a historic scale, present new and daunting challenges as well.

Monday Musings: What Memories of My Mom Have To Do With COVID

My mother’s birthday is this coming Friday, February 5. I’ve written about her before in this space. I’ve marked past birthdays with Facebook posts and the like. But somehow this year, with her birthday approaching, I find myself thinking of her even more than usual.

She would be turning 99 this year, but we lost her long ago — back in the mid-nineties, when my older daughter was just an infant, and my younger daughter was, to resort to cliché, not even a glimmer in our eyes. I won’t bore you with the sorts of general memories I’ve shared in the past — her love of travel and books, her slightly goofy sense of humor, and her passion for progressive causes and social justice.

My thoughts have gone in a somewhat different direction. I wonder what she would be thinking about the pandemic, and the state of our world. I know she would have been devastated by the earliest days of COVID, almost a year gone now, when her beloved New York City was virtually closed, its hospitals strained beyond capacity, its cultural treasures shuttered. I know she would have had nothing but contempt for those who refused to wear masks and failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease.

But I wonder what she would think now. The world is entering a new phase with the pandemic, and I’m not sure what to make of it myself. On the one hand, this is a time of tempered hope. The numbers are terrible, but not quite as bad as they were a few weeks ago. We have vaccines from several drug companies. The protocols vary, but the promise they offer — of limited but effective immunity — allows the optimists among us to envision a time when fear of COVID might fade a bit. Since the pandemic began, health officials have warned against comparing this strain of the Coronavirus to the flu. But if the vaccines work, if immunity can be introduced to broad swaths of the population, COVID might become something we can think as we do influenza: as an illness to be feared, but managed.

On the other hand, our hopes in this regard have to reckon with several troubling truths. First, COVID isn’t going anywhere. Regardless of where it came from, it will probably be around pretty much forever. And the comparison to the flu carries a darker implication. It will continue to mutate, just as the flu does. Already new strains have reached our shores from London, from Brazil, from South Africa. No doubt more are coming. Even now, these new mutations are exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the vaccines. Just as flu shots are somewhat hit-or-miss in their effectiveness, future COVID immunizations are likely to be as well. And COVID is far deadlier than the flu; vaccination failures will have tragic consequences.

What does all of this have to do with my mother? A good question, one I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Part of it might be this: She used to talk to me about the feared diseases of her childhood. As I say, she was born nearly a century ago, in 1922. When she was a child, penicillin didn’t exist. She was in her thirties, the mother of two small children, when the polio vaccine was developed. I remember once, when I was a kid, a friend of mine got Scarlet Fever, and Mom’s first reaction was to tell me how serious it could be. She almost had to remind herself that by then treatments had become fairly routine. I later learned that she had known children who died of it.

The truth was, my childhood, and that of my siblings, had been made far less perilous by the medical advances of the mid-Twentieth Century. Looking back, I believe that era will be looked upon as a historical aberration. Yes, medical advances continue. But we live in a world that is far more interconnected than it was in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The safety conferred by those advances must now race with accelerated exposures and mutations.

I don’t mean to make this a doom and gloom post. I do think that, by and large, the COVID vaccines will work. Our world will find its way, haltingly, to a new normal that returns to us some of the societal freedoms we’re all missing, while also remaining conscious of the novel threats we face. I’m sad to say that I believe my mother would be less optimistic. She would find all of this frightening, and I wouldn’t blame her. These are scary times. We are fortunate to now have in place an Administration that takes the danger seriously, that relies on science and health experts, and that has no political stake in denial.

That, though, only gets us so far. We need to remain vigilant. We need to watch out not only for ourselves, but also for one another. And that means masking, distancing, getting vaccinated when we are eligible.

Stay safe, friends. Take care of those you love. Take care of those you don’t even know. That’s how we overcome even the most pessimistic of scenarios.

Monday Musings: The Legacy of Hank Aaron

Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron died last week. He was, of course, a baseball legend, the former home run king. He was also a civic leader, a philanthropist, and a Civil Rights activist. And he’s been an idol of mine since I was a kid.

As a baseball player, Aaron was so good as to make superlatives redundant, and so ridiculously consistent that he managed to fly under the radar, at least in a relative sense, while rewriting baseball’s record books. He entered the Major Leagues in the game’s golden age, as part of the first generation of Black superstars. It is almost impossible to understate the revolutionary impact he and the other ballplayers of his cohort had on the game.

For those of us who love baseball, there are two statistical milestones that define supreme career achievement for batters: 500 career home runs, and 3,000 career hits. At the time I graduated from high school, only twelve players in the history of baseball had hit 500 home runs. Of those twelve, eight of them hit their first home run during the 1950s, and of those eight, five were black. At the same historical moment, only fifteen players had more than 3,000 hits. And only two players, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both part of that class of Black superstars, were on both the 500 home run and 3,000 hit lists.

Even after the steroid era, which saw so many players — many of them undeserving — join that exclusive home run club, Hank Aaron still holds the record for most seasons with at least 20 home runs (20 such years). He holds the record for the most seasons with at least 30 home runs (tied, at 15), and is second only to Babe Ruth in the number of seasons with 40 home runs (tied with others at 8). When Aaron completed his career in 1976, he was second on the all-time hit list, and first on the all-time home run list. If all of his home runs had magically disappeared, he still would have had over 3,000 hits. To this day, he remains the Major League’s career leader in runs batted in and total bases.

He wasn’t as flashy as Mays, and, in fairness, he also wasn’t as good in the outfield or as fast on the base paths. He won “only” one Most Valuable Player award (in 1957) and only one World Series championship. (He played in two World Series and batted a combined .364 in fourteen games.) He never won the Triple Crown, as his contemporaries Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle did. But he led the league in batting average twice, in home runs four times, in runs batted four times, in runs scored three times, in hits twice, in doubles four times, in total bases eight times, and in slugging average four times. He won three gold gloves for outstanding fielding. He stole 30 bases in a season once, and at least 20 six times. He was voted into the All-Star game twenty-one consecutive years — another record. He wasn’t particularly big or brawny, but he had as quick a bat as anyone in the game. Said one of his teammates, “Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, deep, deep, deep in the heart of the segregated South. He loved baseball as a child, but for years wondered if he would ever have the chance to play in the Major Leagues. He was thirteen when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s race barrier. Aaron played briefly in the Negro Leagues and then played in Jacksonville, Florida for a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves. He put up with racial taunts from fans, abuse from opposing players, and indifference, even hostility, from too many of his own teammates. Much of this continued when he reached the majors.

Still, in 1960, as a popular star on the Braves, he campaigned for Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, and was said to have played a role in JFK’s crucial victory in the Wisconsin Democratic primary.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, Aaron’s pursuit of the Major League home run record in the early 1970s, after the Braves had moved to Atlanta, forced him into the national spotlight as never before, to his detriment. He and his family received death threats and cruel, horrible letters filled with racist invective. He himself said years later that his chase of the record should have been a time of joy and excitement, but was instead the darkest period of his life.

And yet, his performance on the field never suffered. In the three seasons leading up to his record-setting home run, when he was in his late thirties and should have been fading as a ballplayer, he hit 47, 34, and 40 home runs. He entered the 1974 season with 713 career homers, one behind Babe Ruth’s hallowed record. He hit the tying home run on Opening Day. He hit the record-breaking shot in his first home game of the season three nights later.

Sports Illustrated, Hank Aaron, 715I was watching that night, along with pretty much every other eleven year-old, baseball-loving boy in America. I remember everything about it — the call from announcer Vin Scully, the twist and high stare of Dodgers pitcher Al Downing as he watched the ball sail out over left field, Aaron’s joyful trot around the bases, the two white guys in civilian clothes who appeared out of nowhere as he rounded second base and patted his back and shoulder, the way his jubilant teammates mobbed him at home plate and put him on their shoulders. I still have the issue of Sports Illustrated from the next week, with Aaron on the cover holding up the baseball next to a golden, bolded “715.” And I also still have the special edition baseball card Topps issued that same year proclaiming Aaron baseball’s home run king.

The movie 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s inaugural season in the Major Leagues. It stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the President, General Manager, and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought Robinson into Major League baseball. There is a moment in the movie, which may or may not be apocryphal, when Rickey tells Robinson of seeing white kids in the streets of Brooklyn, playing baseball and copying Robinson’s batting stance, pretending to be him.

That was my friends and me when I was growing up and playing baseball on my little dead end street outside of New York City. Except by then, thanks to the black superstars of the 1950s and 60s — Mays and Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Billy Williams and Willie McCovey and so many others — we took for granted that all of us, white and privileged though we were, wanted to emulate the Black players we idolized. We copied their batting stances and pitching wind-ups. We tried batting cross-handed, the way Aaron did when he was a young minor leaguer. We made our baseball caps fly off when we ran, like Willie Mays, and tried to make basket catches the way he did.

For many of us, baseball and other sports opened our eyes to the importance of racial equality and opportunity. That may sound ludicrous, like I’m trivializing race by couching it in the context of sports. But it’s the truth. I grew up in a politicized household. I was only five when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but my parents talked about him all the time, in glowing terms. In 1972, when I was all of nine years old, I knew about and followed Shirley Chisholm’s ground-breaking run for the Presidency.

Mine was also a baseball household. We watched other sports, but baseball was king. I heard about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella from my Dad, who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. I learned to love Willie Mays, because he was my brother Bill’s favorite player in the world. I understood that Black players had been excluded from baseball for too long and that this was a terrible injustice. How could the world be considered a fair place if Black players couldn’t even get in the game? And because I used to pore over statistics and records, I knew as well that whatever the game was like before Black players were allowed in the Major leagues, it could not have been complete. How could baseball, even in the age of Ruth and Gehrig, be the game that I knew and loved if players like Aaron and Mays were excluded?

Hank Aaron’s baseball legacy is clear. His social and historical legacy should be equally apparent. He was a man of grace, intellect, eloquence, and class who carried himself with dignity through an ordeal that should have been a celebration. By his example, his words and actions, his generosity and courage, he made this a better country. He will be missed.