Music to our ears

“Fun” doesn’t follow me around all that often so when in Asheville, North Carolina the day after Christmas, the jazzy, up tempo beat of the Uptown Hillbillies was quite literally music to my ears. My wife and I paid the cover charge, showed proof of vaccinations and booster, and then waltzed into the pub where the air sizzled with the Western swing beat, a dance music that’s part country, part cowboy, part polka and part folk. It’s got a kick to it that lifts one’s spirits, leaving any tension or troubles behind.

Live music has been a casualty of Covid, but fortunately, we lucked out at the Cork & Keg. I was able to sit at a side table near the open front door, mask on, with two other gentlemen around my age, also masked up, nursing amber-colored glasses of beer. Nobody bothered me for anything just the way I like it. I was able to instantly settle into the rhythmic dance beats of Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Ray Price, while my wife danced up a storm, as she’s known to do whenever and wherever there’s any music within earshot. You can’t keep a good woman off the dance floor during the classic country music of the 50s and 60s with songs like ”Love me Honey Now as I’m Too Young to Die”.

On December 26th while some patrons drank beer, a few couples got up, took off their masks and waltzed with their partners. Some of the men wore cowboy boots as did their partners. Children too, were at the pub and were handed dollar bills to stuff into the tip jar out front near the fiddler Kevin Kehrberg. Western swing music is family friendly though it was a surprise to see little girls about five or six years of age there with their moms.

I, on the other hand was just happy to nod my head and tap my feet to the band’s ensemble of rhythm and pedal steel guitars, snappy fiddle, quiet brush drums and bass. The music mesmerized me and transported me back in time to a memorable scene from the Peter Bogdanovich 1971 critically-acclaimed coming of age movie ”The Last Picture Show”. Hank Williams music, tumbleweeds and dust blew across the sparse, empty Texan town square while Billy, a mute, mentally disabled, young adolescent boy sweeps a broom back and forth for no apparent reason. In my early twenties I watched ”The Last Picture Show” numerous times as it spoke to me with its loneliness and clumsiness about two high schoolers coming of age. (Cloris Leachman, who died a year ago, won an Academy Award for best supporting actress, while Cybil Shepherd broke into the big screen with her debut performance as Jacy, the blond attraction of every boy in town).

What is it about music that gets one feeling good? It’s certainly a universal language that resonates with anybody, whether one dances, plays the music, or simply watches the musicians play and/or sing. It’s good medicine for the soul, a welcome respite from the stress of the pandemic and the stress of being on a roadtrip.

Music is a social phenomenon that connects people to one another whether listened to live, on Sirius, played on vinyl or heard on the radio. Scientifically speaking, music releases endorphins providing feelings of comfort, relaxation, fun and pleasure.

I don’t know if the musicians were enjoying their time as much as the patrons but it appeared so. Russ Wilson playing drums and vocals took the lead most of the time until a special performer, Rebecca O’Quinn, a female singer, around 30 joined in. She carried a tune that worked perfectly into the masculine-driven sounds of the original band in what appeared to be an impromptu occurrence. (Rebecca has her own band Rebecca and the Renderings, also known as Fancy and the Gentlemen).

If I ever find myself back in Asheville, and the Uptown Hillbillies are performing with Rebecca, or even without her, I’d certainly go out of my way to catch their show. It was a fun time in a fun town at a festive time of the year.

Sit back and binge

I could be a member of Binging Anonymous, a new 12 step program, and while going public removes the anonymity from this fellowship, its just a handful of us in the blog community who will know.

Binging Anonymous or BA for short could also be known as lip-smacking snacking anonymous (L-SSA), though L-SSA admittedly falls flat. BA has a better ring to it. It fits well with its cousins AA and NA. The Steps ring true:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over salty snacks – that our life had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of …..

By being a program, BA is an acknowledgement that I can not easily manage snacking in a short period of time, most often when watching video or TV. It often becomes a self-indulgence in munching as in “he went on a binge”, or ”he binged the last six episodes of that Netflix series and went to sleep really late”. Guilt and shame can play a part in it.

Many people especially during the pandemic have binged. Some profess to it as an achievement. Of course no therapist would suggest binging or snacking to excess as a means to good mental health especially right now with so many patients feeling anxious, lonely, stressed out and/or depressed during the pandemic.

For me, watching TV or video is the trigger that sets me off to binging. I do it even though I regret it afterwards. I often get a migraine headache from all the salt, or feel terrible the next day for the self-indulgence experienced. I look at my bod in the mirror the next day and think ”this is not the me I want to be”. I have to learn a more healthy way of being. Or watch less TV.

HBO, Netflix, Hulu and the New England Patriots is the problem I say to myself. I break down and stop my conscientious attention to healthy eating while watching. It’s not easy to stay ”snackingly sober”. And food marketers and food chemists don’t make it easy for the viewing public or sports spectator either to stay true to one’s lifestyle goals.

Marketers know how to combine sweet and salty into a mouth-watering snack that’s hard to put down. Sometimes marketers and food chemists dream up snacks that are the best of two worlds: sweet and delicious but low in calories, sugar or fat.

Consider the FAT SNAX cookie package: it boasts 2 chocolate chip cookies with ”no sugar”, part of a Keto diet. And it’s “gluten free”. A picture of the chocolate chip cookie is packaged in an attractive blue metallic foil package that’s small enough to fit in your pocket or purse. It promises a chocolate high without the guilt. It’s the perfect cookie for today’s consumer. It may not be a big brand name snack anytime soon, but you found it in a health food store or Whole Foods and you’re going to enjoy it. You’re in the know. You could even be a brand influencer and convey a new status attained just by eating and sharing it on social media.

On the back of the package it gives me permission to indulge it on my own time:

You can eat fat and be fit. We left the sugar behind and cut down the carbs, without sacrificing taste. We create unapologetically fat-filled snacks, so you can have your cookie and eat it too!

Since they’re so satisfying with no fat and no sugar, I could easily eat four, or six, or even 20 of them. Why not – they’re fat- free!

We hear it all the time: Live a little. Take it easy. You worked hard, take a break, sit back and relax. Be good to yourself, for a change. You only live once.

But I don’t really believe munching is what these messages were getting at.

So you sit back and binge to make the show even more special. You add another sensation into the mix. Whether its football with three announcers, replays and vivid color on a 54” wide screen or a new ”must watch” Netflix series, simply watching the show is just not enough.

Munching is also a way to try to control or manipulate an experience, making it more than what it is. It’s a way to make a show a media event, and munching forces the show to be even more special, more memorable, a better story for sharing on social media tomorrow (or while watching the show). But life doesn’t have to be spectacular all the time, does it? It is satisfactory just as is. Isn’t it?

Why do people drink? To help lose their inhibitions. To gain confidence, to laugh and make friends, to get on the dance floor, to make mistakes.

On further reflection, snacking is a little different. I eat snacks to enjoy two things that naturally go together: watching and munching. But I’m not inflicting pain on others or poisoning my liver.

Snacking or binging is not really enough to qualify as a new 12 step program. I don’t think BA has a future.

An off the hook dilemma

Can I continue being “off the hook” and work part time?

Now that I’ve re-entered the workforce working about 10-15 hours a week, the question I labored over before accepting the position was whether I could remain “off the hook” and work at the same time.

When I started blogging ”off the hook” nearly five years ago, I quoted William Whyte who defined ”off the hook” as being able to return to one’s true nature, to focus on what to do with one’s (personal) life. I’ve written about this identity issue in plenty of blog posts.

Being off the hook means molding a new life with time on my hands and little structure to start. I have structured my days and nights with some new volunteer pursuits and activities and interests that I could only dream about while working full time and driving about 500 miles a week (often in traffic).

What else does it mean to be ”off the hook”?

To be ”off the hook” means many things: setting my own schedule. It means not driving to and from work, sitting in status meetings nor rushing around in a frenzy to get out the door when its still dark, cold and early in the morning. It means setting my own pace and filling the day with pursuits that are self-fulfilling and for the good of others. I still have responsibilities and obligations but it’s entirely different now.

Being ”off the hook” is setting my own schedule and having a sense of freedom. It’s doing my own thing, researching and writing and producing material, some of which contributes to a larger goal shared by others. It means not worrying about a presentation nor playing office politics. It means not putting on a face when personal matters are bothering me. (Because shit still happens in retirement. But at least I don’t have to go into the office and say everything’s fine, when it isn’t).

I can wake up when I wake up. I can go to sleep when I’m ready.

I can volunteer, try new things, I can go once and if it doesn’t feel right, I can take a break, without any repercussions. I can volunteer and cook lasagna for a family in need. I can donate time and money to causes I believe in.

But the truth is while retired I missed not working. I missed marketing and secondary research, writing, and learning new things about life sciences, resources and what others did with their lives. I missed not getting paid. I will fess up here: when my monthly college news magazine arrives in the mail, I typically first turn to the Obituaries to see what alumnae have done with their working lives, before and during their retirement, how they are remembered, what they enjoyed doing with their spouse or families, their reflections on life and purpose. I look at cause of death and age too and I’m reminded that this is my life and my time. Whatever I’m doing is not going to last for very long. I may be off the hook, but for how long? How can I make it purposeful for myself and others and our planet? Can I make a lasting impression or inspire others to do so?

So before I signed up for part time work, I decided to re-examine causes I want to contribute to: climate emergency, saving democracy, examining police misconduct. I want to build greater awareness and become a better person too, for myself and my loved ones. I want to help those who have less than myself, while being easy on myself too.

So after much deliberation, I decided to take the opportunity to re-enter the workforce. I’m using many of the skills I honed in my career, and am re-invented as one whose searching and sourcing talent for a laboratory engineering firm. I’m working remotely and on my own.

When off the hook I’m able to reflect on how grateful and fortunate I am. There are so many things that can go wrong or could go wrong, and I’ve been able to dodge them or not fall victim to them. And while I’ve made mistakes, I have been able to bounce back. I can breathe and see things more clearly now (sometimes). I know more about what really matters and what does not, and what I can do about it or not. That too is what being off the hook allows me to do. I am lucky.

A Solo Trip

A week before Thanksgiving I unintentionally embarked on a solo trip. Acting much like a millennial, I was briskly walking on my daily midday jaunt around the neighborhood and playing a game of “Spelling Bee”, a complex letter sorting game from the New York Times, on my phone at the same time. And then I wasn’t. I hit something with my foot and with my phone glued to my right hand, I fell on my left side. I knew instantly that I really took a tumble. I really hurt myself. In an instant I went from enjoying two favorite daily activities – simple physical exercise and mental exercise – to doing neither.

Being mobile has always been a priority. It’s why I walk and do some exercise most every day. Loco-motion is what I like. Little Eva sang it well in 1962 in her one and only gold platinum record:

“Do it nice and easy now, don’t lose control, … A little bit of rhythm and a lot of soul, So come on, come on, do the Loco-motion with me”.

I knew immediately that this solo trip was a real screw up on my part. Whereas walking is a prescription to stay out of the hospital, my screw up was going to land me in a hospital. (Count that three hospitals and two ambulances in a matter of two weeks).

There was a crunchy kind of sound when I tried to walk on. Something was not right. Something was very wrong. I was really worried.

So I proceeded to do something really stupid again. I walked on down the road for about 1/2 mile in the woods back to my house. I did not call ”911”.

I went to Urgent Care, had X rays taken and learned I broke my pelvic bone – in two places – on my left side. Fortunately it was a ”stable fracture”, and required no surgery. As such, weight bearing pressure (like walking) did not cause any more harm.

This wasn’t the first time I acted stupid while walking. Forty five years ago – I remember the occurrence as if it were yesterday – I was hit by VW beetle while (jay) walking between two parked cars near Inman Square. The VW ran through a yellow light and I practically walked right into it. This time it was my head that I damaged: and it landed me in the Cambridge City Hospital which was conveniently situated directly across the street. I didn’t have to call ”911” this time either, and couldn’t anyways because I had a concussion. But luckily, no broken bones, just black and blue marks in every joint in my body.

I was released and two days later we buried my grandfather.

But this time I will learn. No more phone time multitasking while walking. No more multitasking at all. Time to slow down and enjoy the roses.


In my October 29 blog post ”Reading Your Mind” there was commentary about driving. A couple days later in the November 10 edition of The New York Times, an article by Neil Vigdor reported that a drunken driver warning system will be installed in all new cars as part of the new $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

This innovative deterrent system will go along with intelligent braking systems and “blind spot sensors” that warn drivers not to change lanes. I found it ironic that there are new technologies being developed to augment driving performance and to cut down on drunk driving when humans refuse to make the right choices themselves.

Reading your mind

They’re out there, amongst us all. They’re sharing the highway with you, on your way to work, on your commute home or while doing errands around town. High schoolers out for a joy ride. Women texting their boyfriends cruising st 75 mph. They’re your neighbors who believe vaccines have tiny micro chips controlled by Bill Gates. Some others are stoned, some are drunk; some are stoned and drunk. Some are narcissists who believe the rules don’t apply to them, others mentally ill or back from a war, traumatized or otherwise depressed over a loss of a loved one due to Covid, or an accident or a mass shooting or abuse. There is no escaping the American driver.

I take comfort in knowing I don’t have to take my life into my hands driving amongst them much anymore because I’m off the hook. I spent half a lifetime driving behind the wheel to and from work. Driving was more treacherous and anxiety-producing than work itself.

Still, when one drives a lot one has time on one’s hands. One gets to thinking, to daydreaming and wondering ”what if?” or ”why not?”. I wondered – and still do – why there are so few ways for a driver to communicate to others while driving. Sure, there’s brake lights, directional lights and the horn. But that’s about it for a driver to alert, warn or inform his fellow drivers of his intentions or mindset.

So for example, before changing lanes a driver looks at his mirror(s) to first judge whether it’s safe to do so. He uses his directional signal to communicate his intent. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. For many drivers though there is no signal. Many drivers act as if they own the road, don’t care about you (or their own safety). And it shows.

I wonder how many drivers currently on the road don’t even have a license. No license means no insurance, and the two together probably means these vehicles aren’t properly maintained. I imagine treadless tires, wipers that don’t work well, with tie rods ready to fall off when a pothole is hit. Driving in the Commonwealth reminds me of the ”Hill Street Blues” police captain standing at the lectern warning his officers “to be careful out there”.

If I were in charge of my destiny while traveling on the roads I would write to Ford, GM, VW, Toyota, Tesla too, all the vehicle manufacturers and have them invent and install a special sensor that automatically senses one’s state of mind upon entry into the driver’s seat and communicates it to other drivers. Maybe it would be a colored light that flashes green or blue indicating the driver was distracted or depressed or angry. The sensor recognizes whether the driver’s mind is preoccupied. The sensor would act like a brain imaging machine that reads the mind and brain waves of the driver and communicates that to all the other drivers on the road. (A similar machine called ”The Truth Machine” which eliminated dishonesty was found in the 1996 science fiction novel of the same name by author Jim Halperin). If this new sensor were incorporated into every vehicle I believe it would drastically cut down on traffic mishaps and fatalities.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know one’s state of mind can effect judgment. Drivers preoccupied thinking about the future or the past rather than the task at hand is common. Anyone whose been in an accident knows how one false move or misjudgment can almost instantaneously change the trajectory of one’s life, the life of one’s passengers and/or the driver and passengers of the other vehicle.

I know this to be true: I landed in the Cambridge City Hospital with a concussion after being hit by a VW bus while jaywalking at age 22. I was at fault and the driver ran a red light. I know; a few years ago when I was blinded by the sun while on a ramp driving onto Rte 495 I accidentally hit the car in front of me and thankfully no one was hurt including a toddler in the backseat. Not so lucky was an acquaintance who mindlessly opened the driver’s side door of his car without first checking his side view mirror and slammed his door into a cyclist, hurtling him and his bicycle aside, paralyzing him for life. No wonder ”The Dutch Reach” was invented by Dr. Michael Charney a lifelong cyclist himself to help prevent this kind of mishap from ever happening again. I think of that accident every time I park anywhere and open my driver side door.

Yes, driving around here is not for the faint of heart. While driving, a little civility and consciousness of one’s fellow drivers could go a long way in getting to one’s destination and back again in one piece. Invention and installation of a mind reading sensing machine is not likely any time soon. In that case I suggest we go back to to practicing more courteousness and awareness because the same lack of respect for each other experienced in other parts of society seems to be the norm while driving around here. And that’s a sobering thought.

Two Sentimental Slobs

My father had many qualities, some good, some bad. One of them I like to remember him by was his unusual sense of humor. That’s why I keep one of the birthday cards he sent to me nearly twenty years ago when he was still going strong in his eighties.

On the front cover are two people. One on the left is a man eating a bowl of ice cream covered with chocolate sauce and sporting a cherry on the top, looking a little guilty. On the right, next to him is a trim woman with longish hair chomping on a carrot. In small print it reads “SOY” and “WHEAT GERM” on a table in front of her.

Above the two people it reads: “Happy Birthday!”

Below it reads:

“Do you know why people who eat health food are so slim and trim?”

(Card opens up):

“Because health food tastes like shit.”

In small print in all caps at the bottom, in parentheses it reads: “Enjoy your birthday cake!” – Dad

I laugh every time I read this card. It’s especially funny because he manufactured healthy snack foods like soy nuts, granolas, sunflower seeds.

Humor permeates mementoes, letters, greeting cards and advertisements I have saved over the years. The power of words, oral or print have always been of interest. Keepsakes that are humorous are a good counter measure today considering the eco-anxiety experienced around climate change, and climate denier Donald Trump threatening to run again.

One other keepsake was a photograph of the marketing communications department at Data General circa 1980. The original group of eight including the director – five men wearing button down long sleeve white or blue shirts and ties, and three women dressed in colorful print dresses are posed together for a group shot. Four of us sat in folding chairs and four others stood behind them.

The funny part was that each of us posed for the shot wearing the same Groucho Marx glasses, oversized mustache, latex nose and fuzzy eyebrows. I remember driving into Boston to Jack’s Joke Shop near the Commons to pick up and pay for eight Groucho Marx plastic disguises (and add them to my expense report).

I found a variation of the same schtick in a small black and white advertisement (that I’d kept) a few years later clipped from New England Ad Week called “Getting Ahead in Business”. It showed one Al Pirozzoli, the company president of a Connecticut advertising agency InComm, Inc. standing with fourteen staff members each holding a paddle with the likeness of the boss covering his or her face. The caption read that this group photograph proves the old saying that people who get ahead in business tend to resemble the boss. Mr. Pirozzoli expressed “pleasure at the family image” projected by the agency personnel.

There’s also a typed letter I received when I turned fifty from a longtime friend from my college years. The letter is headlined “Crossing the River Styx” and it’s contents is as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. I was speaking with this friend and told him of my “saving affliction”. He confided in me that he’s the same way and considers himself a sentimental slob.

These are just a few of the goods that make up my own private time capsule. My cache includes creative expressions that remind me of times past and people I knew. These memories define where I’ve been and who I am.

Psychologists and neuropsychologists who study memory know that visual and auditory cues are all that’s needed to trigger a whole boatload of memories from the past: be it a chance encounter with a person at a cafe visited in France, the whiff of brisket or cup of coffee.

I’ve been fortunate to travel and collect cultural items from my travels too. Old maps, advertisements, menus, business cards, a letter or card too remind me of people, places and things enjoyed. It’s a reminder to look for and savor life’s journey, and to not take life so seriously all the time. My roots are in being creative and resourceful and I don’t want to forget those times. I want to savor them again and again.

A marked man

So much of one’s discretionary income is designated towards personal presentation, how one looks, dresses, behaves. One’s likes and dislikes, values, beliefs and affiliations may be expressed in one’s individual presentation. To friends. Family. Lovers. There’s your hair cut and facial grooming. there’s your body weight and physique. Your hands and fingernails. Clothing. Jewelry and other wearables. Posture. Your odor. Oral language and written communications too. So many choices, so many options for different occasions, events and experiences. Most of these elements are transient while others like skin and eye color, a birthmark and height are features you are born with.

How we present ourselves is another way to talk about our identity. It was impressed upon me at an early age that how I presented myself or was “packaged” influenced interpersonal relations, how I was perceived and my success in the world.

As an independent information researcher I would work with different databases and directories. It is the concept of ”identity” that explains one of my favorite databases: a biometric tattoo database used in law enforcement and criminal proceedings. (Note: I have never used it; I have only read about it and its applications.)

First started by the FBI, it originally contained tens of thousands of images of prisoner tattoos. It has expanded beyond prisoner mug shots and now includes tattoos from all kinds of people: criminal suspects, victims of abuse, murderers, rapists, gang members and other criminal types. It’s a collection of symbols, designs, acronyms, faces, drawings. The tattoos are signs of a person’s identity, rank and status. The tattoos make a statement of one’s affiliations, associations, aspirations, as well as evidence of loved ones and symbols of religious and spiritual devotion.

I think I first became interested by visual search and recognition technology one summer while visting the FBI Forensic Science Lab in Washington DC with my family. We didn’t see the tattoo database but we did see the paint chip database along with extensive shoe footprint and tire tread databases. With the motor vehicle database paint chips were cross referenced to car and truck vehicles, makes, models and years. A vehicular accident like a hit and run that scrapes off a little paint can help investigstors narrow down the vehicle type from the accident. If there’s a good tire tread captured that too can be used. Then the motor vehicle registration-specific database (that only licensed private investigators, insurance personnel and police have access) can be utilized in an attempt to tie an individual to a crime scene. How cool is that?

Tattoo recognition technology uses algorithms to accelerate tattoo recognition and identification of suspects, prisoners and criminals as well as victims of abuse. Anil Jain, a computer science and engineering professor at Michigan State University in 2009 is credited with developing Tattoo-ID, a forerunner to the FBI database using a grant from the FBI.

Originally the tattoo database was used strictly by medical examiners to identify suspected gang members (with particular use when these suspected gang members were dismembered beyond recognition or killed in some other gruesome way) by usual identification means. But use has skyrocketed since an estimated 30% or more of law-abiding Americans now have at least one tattoo. A 2006 poll found 40% of Americans ages 26-40 had at least one tattoo.

Today use goes beyond identifying dismembered corpses. Tattoos are a good way to identify victims of crime or when natural disasters occur (likely to increase in need as more violent disasters occur more often and more innocents drown or are swept away etc. ) The U.S. State Dept has used tattoos to ID certain people and deny Visas. While DNA testing along with facial recognition gets all the attention, tattoos are skin markings using inks, dyes and pigments which are telltale signs as well. They are often very individualized like a scar or birth mark.

There is a ”tattoo language” or multiple tattoo languages. Gangs each have their identifying specific designs, images, symbols that silently communicate certain meanings. Rank and type of crimes committed are expressed in tattoos exhibited or worn. Sometimes tattoos are given out as punishments and reserved for particular parts of the body. Polling indicates that a lot of Americans wear tattoos to express gratitude about a significant event or to commemorate another person or event or experience.

Aaron Hernandez, the former star New England Patriots’ tight end who killed himself in prison had tattoos all over his chest, back, neck, arms and fingers including a five pointed star on his neck, a symbol of the violent gang, the Bloods. Some of Aaron’s tattoos were used as evidence in court that contributed to his conviction by the prosecution to prove he killed Odin Lloyd in 2013. Hernandez was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Whatever happens in one’s life a tattoo is available to express it. But if one decides on receiving a tattoo it is bound to the body which is in a constant state of change and movement. Some believe its an art form and for some others a means of expression or both. Is it a way to wear one’s heart on its sleeve (for all to see?) or to protect oneself from harm or something else? I’m less interested in the origin and more interested in the messaging or branding done that tips investigators, writers or researchers to more fully understand the individual.

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