Category Archives: 1980s

zombies

Halloween Parade (19)

Front row to Halloween. Taken by me, October 2008, somewhere in central Delaware.

“All You Zombies” shuffles onto my Spotify playlist
as I pull into the parking garage
late for work on a Thursday
but because The Hooters are a track
on The Soundtrack to My Life
available on 45, cassette tape, compact disc
I remain seated in my car
(my paper-laden desk can wait)
because me and Jen and Seunah are singing
on a cold January night in an overheated gym
where we paid five bucks to see Philly’s hottest band
because someday they would be really, really big,
someday in our big scary future.

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meeting judy (44/99)

You will, I hope, forgive the lack of a real post tonight.

After all, it’s not every evening that you meet a literary icon, a beloved author revered by millions of readers, and a champion of the written word.  (Oh, and one of the people responsible for your dream of being a writer.) Judy Blume - Tickets

Yep. I just spent an hour and a half in the company of the one and only Judy Blume.

And then meeting her during the book signing afterwards, during which I just said “thank you” repeatedly.

 

You’ll forgive me, then, for not having the words for a coherent blog post quite yet.

But I will.  Soon.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #44 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

 

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She Knew What We Did Those Summers: Remembering Lois Duncan (1934-2016)

I Know What You Did Last SummerKilling Mr. Griffin

My teenage summers were spent poolside at the Valley Club,  sharing secrets with my best friends over orders of French fries blanketed in Cheez-Wiz.  We lounged on beach towels with our Sony Walkmans blasting ’80s pop music loud enough to drown out our immature siblings’ screeches of “Marco! Polo!” in the deep end of the pool. We doused ourselves with enough Hawaiian Tropic oil that made us as bronzed as an Olympic medal.

When we weren’t in the pool or discussing Luke and Laura on “General Hospital,” we were reading anything we could get our hands on.

Maybe it was characteristic of my group of friends at the time or the pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era, but we read A LOT. Like everything and anything.

All the time.

And perhaps it was because of our rather uneventful, vanilla, goody-two-shoes suburban middle-class upbringing (and attending school with peers whose families were in much, much higher economic echelons), but we seemed drawn to darker stories with just enough thrill factor to keep us turning the pages.

Aside from Judy Blume writing about our deepest insecurities and rites of passages and V.C. Andrews’ creepy as all freaking hell Flowers in the Attic series,  young adult author Lois Duncan’s teen suspense novels are the ones that are seared into my memory from those years.

Thrillers about a car accident involving well-off teens that resulted in murder (I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1973); sinister cousins (Summer of Fear, 1976) and a high school prank intended to scare a mean teacher that goes horribly wrong (Killing Mr. Griffin, 1978) were stories as drop-dead real as anything we saw on the evening broadcast of Action News. (These were the years when people still watched the news.  And when the world had to be ending for the news to be considered “breaking.”)

Lois Duncan’s fiction was chilling and terrifying and made those of us who led a relatively sheltered and privileged life wonder if such horrendous things could really happen. Through her groundbreaking writing for teens, Lois Duncan showed us that, at least in fiction, they could. As we got older, real life would have no shortage of atrocities — one only needs to look at the past week for proof of that.

Sadly, Lois Duncan herself experienced personal tragedy in 1989 when her daughter Kaitlyn was murdered — ironically, just a month after the publication of one of Duncan’s novels with a similar plot. For years, she devoted her life to writing about her daughter’s still unsolved murder and supporting others whose loved ones were homicide victims.

Lois Duncan died on Wednesday, June 15 at age 82, leaving a rich literary legacy of children’s books, young adult novels, short stories, magazine articles, and nonfiction. Those of us who grew up in the late ’70s through the mid-80s enjoyed what I believe was a golden age of young adult literature by writers who bravely took chances with their work and were trailblazers for many of today’s equally outspoken and daring young adult authors.

Until I read her obituary in Publisher’s Weekly, I had no idea that Lois Duncan Steinmetz was a Philadelphia native, which endears her to me even more. (Her family moved to Florida when she was young. Still, in my mind she’s a Philly girl like me, making my days of reading her novels while growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs especially nostalgic.)

I think the hallmark of a great writer is someone whose books are remembered decades after reading them. Even if some details of the plots have faded, we can immediately recall how books like Killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer always made us feel.

Deliciously chilled to the bone, even on the hottest of summer days.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #19 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

 

 

 

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like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky

Storybook Ball (2)

“It’s not easy being green.
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water or stars in the sky.” 
“Bein’ Green” – written by Joe Raposo, sung by Kermit the Frog

I hate television.

I really do.

And right now I hate it even more than usual because ABC cancelled “The Muppets” after only one season.

The MUPPETS, people.

Who the hell cancels The Muppets?! I mean, you really must have one dark, shriveled, corroded soul to pull the plug on Kermit the Frog.

According to Variety, along with “disappointing ratings” in the 18-49 year old market, critics said the series was “not family-friendly enough and out of step with the history of the characters, created by the late Jim Henson.”

That, my dear Kermie, is pure bullshit.

Having watched every episode of the newest incarnation of “The Muppets,” this show more than did the late Jim Henson proud. The irony isn’t lost on me, either, that this news comes on the heels of today’s anniversary of 26 years since Jim Henson’s sudden and heartbreaking death. What a way to remember and honor the legacy of this creative genius.

As for not being family-friendly enough, the new “Muppets” had plenty of innocent laughs for the younger set combined with an abundance of in-jokes for those of us who remember with nostalgia days when iconic performers like Carol Burnett, Milton Berle, Lena Horne and many, many more were sidekicks to floppy, colorful, zany characters.

And really, since when is “not family friendly enough” a barometer for keeping a show on the air? Have you seen what crap supposedly passes for family-friendly TV these days? If we’re going to make that a criteria, then all we’d be left watching is a blank screen.

Maybe “The Muppets” were doomed in this entertainment culture.  As The Husband wrote in this post (“Remembering Sammy and Kermit: When Entertainment Was the True Reality Television”) which I published here six years ago,

“They were part of an era when ‘entertainment’ meant more than watching some fat bastard try to lose weight, some chick with enormous boobs and not-so-enormous talent try to win a karaoke contest, or some incredibly dysfunctional psychopaths try to raise eight children on television in an attempt to become famous. 

It meant real talent. Real magic.”

Real talent, indeed.  Those Muppets had it.

And we’re not likely to see their real magic ever again.

photo by me, taken at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Pa, May 2009 

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we could all die any day

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (65)

It’s been seven days since the news broke and I’m still listening to Prince at top volume in the car, still singing at the top of my lungs about doves crying and horses running free. I’ve exhausted my inventory of appropriate-for-work purple clothing.

My kids are perplexed at this behavior. “So, when did you become so crazy about Prince?” they half-sneer, their teenage mortification on full display.

We see this attitude frequently, The Husband and I, whenever we give off any indication that we are … well, human.  The eye-rolls when we kiss goodbye in the morning for a few seconds longer than usual with a sly slip of tongue or when we dance in the kitchen when our wedding song shuffles into queue on Spotify. To our offspring, we have no life besides folding laundry and cooking dinner, and despite our assurances to the contrary, we never did. And we certainly have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager. Never were we caught up in the adolescent maelstrom of emotions and hormones and young jungle love.

My attempts at explaining my sudden Prince obsession fall flat with my kids.  Although I wouldn’t describe myself as a passionate Prince fan, I have an appreciation of his music and his artistry.  And, like all of us who came of age in the mid-’80s, Prince’s music is an indelible part of the mixtape of my life.

Which is why, like everyone else, I was shocked upon hearing Prince had died.  Thursday was a surreal day; I wasn’t feeling well and took a sick day from work. By mid-afternoon, I felt well enough to pick up my son from school for a previously-scheduled doctor’s appointment. We were early, for once, with enough time to stop home so I could throw dinner in the crockpot.

“I texted you,” my husband said, greeting me as we walked in the house.  “Prince is dead. Flu-like symptoms, they’re saying.”

I stopped in my tracks.  If anyone knows how possible it is to drop dead of the flu in one’s prime, it’s my family. In 1985, my dad was a relatively healthy father of two teenagers when he got the flu.  Unbeknownst to any of us, the virus was silently and quickly attacking his heart and at 44, he became fourth in line on the transplant list at Philadelphia’s best hospital for when your heart breaks. He died several hours later, having been sick for less than a week.

We could all die any day. 

The aftermath of my father’s death ushered in several confusing and sad years for me.  In college, it was easy to party like it was 1999 because that represented a life we couldn’t fathom from our dorm rooms — Christ, we would be goddamned geriatrics when we turned the century, forty fucking years old.  It felt impossible, far in the future. We made a solemn, beer-buzzed pact: no matter what happened in this life, we’d be together on New Year’s Eve 1999, dancing our lives away.

We weren’t, of course. We became scattered and unknown to each other. Close friends we thought would be in our lives forever went missing, our long conversations now silent.  Instead of partying like it was 1999, we became adults, on edge and hunkered down with emergency cash from the ATM, cases of water and canned goods and duct tape, backups of our financial lives at the ready for Y2K, a moniker that could have been ripped from a Prince album.

Now on this side of 1999, in this strange year when nostalgia becomes more and more clouded with sadness and when we face our own medical crises and wonder just how much of our time and minds are left, our own Judgment Day feels closer than ever. Prince was right; two thousand zero zero really did mean we would be out of time or damn close to it.

I can’t convey all this to my wiser-than-their-years kids when they ask why I’m blasting Prince’s Little Red Corvette in my decidedly uncool red Chevy HHR as I shuttle them around town.  And part of me doesn’t want to.

Let them believe they have all the time in the world.

 

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Book Review: Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands (a guest post by The Husband)

ReaganThe Husband has started writing a bit again (thank you God) and is allowing me to share his book reviews with you. 

Without further ado, I give you The Husband’s words about Reagan: The Life, by H.W. Brands. 

As a history aficionado, there is something special about reading about a period of time in history during which you first learned of the events by opening the newspaper – that is, about a time in history that you lived through.  This is not possible, for instance, when reading about Lincoln and the various tragedies he dealt with during the Civil War. For those of my increasingly-advancing age, however, it is possible when reading a biography of President Ronald Reagan. The most recent such effort is from H.W. Brands, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.

The book is 737 pages, so bring a snack. Brands does a wonderful job of translating the enigmatic Reagan into a flesh and blood human being with strengths and flaws.  This is no easy task.  People tend to view Reagan either as a deity or, well, as the opposite of a deity. Brands makes ample use of Reagan’s own diaries, which are an invaluable resource to historians.  Unfortunately, because of the onset of Alzheimer’s, they also proved a resource for Reagan himself in recalling things that were slowly disappearing from his accessible memory.

Perhaps the central theme or thesis of Brands is a bit Freudian: because of his alcoholic father, Reagan spent his entire life conveying an eternal optimism [to counter the reality of what he came home to as a boy when his father had been drinking] that made him irresistible to tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately, Brands argues, that eternal optimism led to a resistance on his part to dealing with unpleasant realities [think Iran-Contra] that nearly ended his presidency.  Indeed, it was only because enough people refused to believe that Reagan was lying about knowing that money from arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua that Reagan wasn’t impeached.

The first 238 pages of Brands’ tome deal with Reagan’s life prior to his 1980 run for the White House. It’s a good primer on how ‘Reagan became Reagan’. One area of particular note is the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the effect FDR had on Reagan. Those not familiar with the 40th president are often shocked to learn the reverence with which Reagan held FDR. It’s important to remember, though, that for the first half of his long life, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. And, like all Americans living through it, the Great Depression left indelible impressions on Reagan. And how FDR tackled the Depression meant a great deal to Reagan – even if he came to believe that government was the problem, not the answer.

This seemingly contradictory hero-worship of FDR is just one of the many conundrums faced by students of Reagan. While he praised FDR for his leadership and his compassion, when Lyndon Johnson sought to extend the New Deal 30 years later – just as Reagan was preparing to run for Governor of California – Reagan castigated LBJ and the Great Society. The famous line Reagan used when someone asked him why he left the Democratic party was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party – the Democratic Party left me.”

As for Reagan the president, Brands makes a strong argument for something I’ve believed for some time: Ronald Reagan was not an empty-headed performer repeating well-scripted lines. Certainly by the end of his presidency there were moments when that is exactly what he had become. But that was because of illness. Although Nancy Reagan cites a fall in 1989 as the beginning of Reagan’s Alzheimer’s, I’ve always believed that – in the last two years of his Presidency – Reagan was in the early stages of the disease. That, when he told various investigators, “I just don’t remember” something pertaining to Iran-Contra, that he really didn’t.  He was still aware enough, though, to know that he could have checked his diaries to find some of those answers – and Reagan never mentioned the diaries until after he’d left office. For his first six years in office, however, Reagan was a heavily engaged chief executive.  Certainly not the micro-manager his predecessor had been [indeed, Brands argues that had Reagan been more like President Jimmy Carter, Iran-Contra would have never happened]; but someone who was leading his Administration’s policies, not merely mouthing the words.

Because I don’t want to write a 700-page book review, here are a few snippets from some of the seminal events of the Reagan presidency and how Brands treats them:

1) Assassination Attempt -Here, Brands drops the ball. He does not delve into enough detail regarding the seriousness of Reagan’s injuries – namely, how close to death Reagan truly came. The fact is, a delay of even five minutes in getting Reagan to the emergency room would have meant the presidency of George H.W. Bush would’ve begun nearly eight years earlier than it did. Brands does do a fine job of detailing Nancy Reagan’s trauma and the long-term effects Reagan’s brush with death had on her and how she worried about her husband. It also introduced astrologer Joan Quigley into the nation’s life. From the assassination attempt to the end of his life, Nancy Reagan relied heavily on Quigley – to a level that not even President Reagan knew – in influencing Reagan’s calendar of events.  This stemmed from Quigley’s claim to Nancy Reagan that – had she been consulted – she could have told Reagan not to travel on March 30, 1981.

2) Air Traffic Controllers – One of the reasons why the air traffic controllers were fired is they didn’t believe Reagan when – on August 3, 1981 – he told the press clearly that he would fire any controller who did not return to his/her job by August 5th. Most of the members of PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] thought Reagan was posturing. This was a fatal error. One of Reagan’s heroes – in addition to FDR – was Calvin Coolidge. As governor of Massachusetts in 1919, Coolidge had won national acclaim for firing striking police in Boston.  Indeed, it was that action that was the largest contributor to Coolidge being named to the Republican ticket with Warren Harding one year later. Like Coolidge, Reagan did not believe the controllers had a right to strike. For Reagan – as for Coolidge 60 years earlier – there was a clear distinction between the public and private sectors when it came to strikes. Those in the latter group had a right to strike. Those in the public sector did not.

3) Gorbachev – Perhaps the two most influential men in the second half of the 20th century were Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Brands does an excellent job in providing a blow-by-blow account of the to two biggest summits between the two men – Geneva in 1985 and Reykjavik in 1986. While the latter was initially viewed as a colossal failure, it actually paved the way to the eventual arms treaty signed by the two men in 1987. Ultimately, the one issue the two men could not get past was Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI], skewered by critics as ‘Star Wars’. Although Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with virtually every concession requested by Reagan at Geneva, Reagan would not abandon the testing of SDI, while Gorbachev insisted that any testing remain ‘in the laboratory’ for at least ten years.  Of course, we now know that SDI was never developed [President Bill Clinton killed it in 1993] but at the time Reagan held onto the concept of being able to shoot down incoming missiles. Although many derided Reagan at the time for the fantastic concept, Reagan argued that he wasn’t interested in SDI to prevent a Soviet attack: he was worried about a ‘lone mad-man’ with a nuclear device. Although seemingly paranoid in 1986, in the aftermath of 9/11, one can see Reagan as being more prescient than paranoid.

4) Iran-Contra – Nothing defined Reagan’s second term – not even the treaty with the Soviet Union – as much Iran-Contra did.  Brands concludes that Reagan knew well that we were trading arms for hostages; but was completely blindsided by the subsequent diversion of proceeds from those sales to the Contras in Nicaragua.  At the heart of the matter, according to Brands, was Reagan’s humanity. According to numerous sources – including his own diary – a daily question Reagan asked his staff was “Any word on the hostages?” Every day. It consumed him. He had berated and belittled Carter for being unable to deliver the hostages held in Iran and here he was completely helpless to free [at one time] six Americans held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. In Reagan’s mind, he constructed a framework whereby he was not really trading arms for hostages. Rather, he was making a gesture to Iran [arms, despite the fact that doing so was a violation of U.S. law] with two goals in mind: a) to begin to thaw the ice between the two countries with the long-term goal of working with Ayatollah Khomeini’s successors on reestablishing relations; and, more importantly, b) so that Iran would use its influence with Hezbollah to get them to release the U.S. hostages. Brands argues that Reagan is to blame in that his free delegation of authority bred an Oliver North and John Poindexter.  Reagan also made it clear to both men that he wanted the Contras helped, to keep them together “in body and spirit” despite the Boland Amendment which prohibited aiding them. With a lack of oversight and unmistakable instructions from Reagan that he wanted “everything possible” done to help the Contras, it is little surprise that North and Poindexter made the decision to divert the Iran funds without telling Reagan.

Brands’ work is strong. Although obviously very lengthy, it is an easy read and provides non-history aficionados with enough of an historical background to make those who were not alive appreciate and understand the times in which Reagan lived and led. In many ways Reagan will always remain an enigma.  The book only casually covers two of his deepest mysteries: his complicated relationship with his children from two marriages; and the fact that even those whom he considered his closest friends claim to have never really gotten close to him.

Brands’ work does bring Reagan closer to us. And what we find reminds us of why we liked him in the first place.

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Book Review: If I Knew The Way, I Would Take You Home, Stories by Dave Housley

If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You HomeIf I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home
Stories by Dave Housley
Dzanc Books
2015
174 pages

In the 15 stories and essays that comprise If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home, the likes of Gene Simmons and Jerry Garcia are merely opening acts for headliner Dave Housley.

Yeah.  Gene and Jerry, the ones of KISS and The Grateful Dead fame.

Make no mistake: with writing like this, the real rockstar of these short stories is Dave Housley.

“You show up, play your role, leave it all on the stage, get out of there with a check in your pocket. If you have the right kind of attitude, then you don’t think about it too much – maybe don’t think about it at all, until the next time.” (“Be Gene,” pgs. 3-4)

It’s clear that Housley is, indeed, more than thinking about what he’s doing and his reader. The stories in his third book are the perfect cocktail of sadness, humor, suspense and nostalgia. Set mostly in central Pennsylvania in the vicinity of Altoona and State College (this is terrain that Housley knows well) these are stories about people who have – as the title suggests – lost their way.  They knew it once, or at least they thought they did.

“There are one, two, three, four … thirteen different kinds of lettuce. When the hell did this happen? I almost ask the lady next to me, then realize I look out of place enough with my paint-spattered boots, jeans, and T-shirt, with my fingers covered in drips and drops and my smell of turpentine and all-day sweat. So I stand there like a moron, a thirty-year-old man confused by vegetables, How am I supposed to make the decision – “where we’re going” is how she puts it – when I can’t even pick out lettuce at the goddamned supermarket?” (“Where We’re Going”, pg. 69)

Like any collection of songs on an album (remember albums?) I loved some of these stories immediately and others will need a little time to grow on me. Among my favorites are the aforementioned “Be Gene” and “Where We’re Going” as well as

“Death and the Wiggles”
“Goliath”
“Behind the Music: A Christmas Wish”

“Rockabye” has the best opening two lines of all these stories – and, dare I say, one of the most brilliant choice of words strung together that I’ve seen in any short story.

“We see Daddy on Sundays at lunch. Sometimes Wednesdays , too, from eight to nine, if Mommy lets us watch the reruns.” (“Rockabye,” pg 25)

As someone who still has most – if not all – of her ’80s New Wave cassette tapes carefully tucked in several briefcase-like accoutrements, Housley’s essay “How to Listen to Your Old Hair Metal Tapes” was … well, something I wished I’d written.

“First you’ll need to find the box. Usually this will be a milk crate, sometimes a packing box, a gym bag or a backpack or a few balled up plastic supermarket bags. It will be tucked into the farthest corners available – your basement, your parents’ basement, a car trunk, a storage space, as far away as you can get from your current life and still call something yours. There’s an overly obvious metaphorical thing happening here – literally digging into your past, through layers of stuff you’ve supposedly left behind, blah, blah, blah. Don’t let that stop you. Remember that none of what you’re looking for was particularly subtle in the first place. And if you never wanted to listen to your hair metal tapes again, if you had truly given up on Def Leppard and A/C D/C and moved on to U2 or Coleman Hawkins or Radiohead, you would have thrown the box away….” (“How to Listen to Your Old Hair Metal Tapes” pg. 153)

“There are many things you have not kept hold of – bank statements, receipts, jobs, friends, relationships. The fact that you still have the tape with Def Leppard’s “On Through the Night” on one side and the first Motley Crue on the other but not your tax returns from 2008 or your college roommate’s email address is evidence of something you don’t want to think too much about.” (pg. 155)

“And it will always have that gauze of nostalgia, the soft edge that comes from growing up with something. Desperate as it was to be dangerous and edgy, with its amplifiers turned up to eleven, freak-show mascara and hairspray and pyrotechnics, your old heavy metal tapes are innocent.

Just like you used to be.”  (pg. 160)

Bam.

Like a good drink, If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home is a short story collection best imbibed in small increments, rather than in one binge. Otherwise, there’s the tendency to lose what you like about the drink in the first place and then things start to look and sound the same and then the writer loses their way.

No danger of that here. For those of us who grew up in the ’80s and may have stumbled a bit in the years thereafter, Dave Housley more than knows the way to a great story and takes his nostalgia-happy reader along for a most enjoyable ride.

 

 

 

 

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