Troubling Times

I doubt if there is a real conspiracy behind these happenings — they may simply be a fortuitous confluence of events — that could easily lead to a peaceful takeover of our government by less than idealistic people.

  1. As Republicans won control of more State legislatures and Governorships, they have moved to consolidate their control by rearranging voting districts to ensure that Democratic candidates can’t win.
  2. As a parallel effort to maintain political control of their States, Republican lawmakers have steadily advanced measures to make it more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote.
  3. Local and State police forces have become increasingly militarized, replacing “Officer Friendly” with faceless cops hiding behind armored riot gear, shields, masks, water hoses, smoke grenades, tear gas, mace, and deployed via tanks and armored vehicles, thus escalating situations toward violent confrontation rather than peaceful resolution.
  4. Leaders of the “Religious Right,” largely by infiltrating the Republican Party, have succeeded in insinuating many of their own beliefs into laws, thus encroaching on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution.
  5. Republican-run States have lowered educational standards by systematically attempting to substitute the teaching of dogma in the place of science in their schools, while simultaneously eliminating funding for art and music education.
  6. The rise of the so-called “Tea Party” Republicans has signaled an end to rational governance, resulting in obstructionism, halting any form of progress toward accomplishing National goals.
  7. By not holding their presidential candidate to any standards of human decency, the Republican Party has given tacit approval to crass hooliganism by members of white-supremacist and other intolerant splinter groups,
  8. By putting Party above People, the Republican vendetta against all things accomplished during the Obama administration, attacking environmental protections, restraints on egregious financial transactions, careful diplomacy, public education, military restraint, (and the list goes on and on), they have placed the future of our Democracy in serious jeopardy.

The Executive Branch is in disarray, and the President has already moved to decrease the counterbalancing influence of both the Legislative and Judicial Branches. It won’t take much to strip any remaining power from them and to declare autocratic rule.

Is this the result of a conspiracy or just a series of random events that got us to this point? I don’t have an answer, but either way, we live in deeply troubling times.

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August 28

August 28, 1988, was hot and humid, and a perfect day to join thousands of sweaty bodies around the reflecting pond in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Our nephew, Mike, was in town, helping us paint the walls in our dining and living rooms, but he and I took a break to join the 25th anniversary celebration of the rally at which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech.”

The podium was full of dignitaries — celebrities, politicians, and civil-rights leaders — all of whom seemed to feel compelled to say more than a few words, usually self congratulatory. As the afternoon wore on, a few folks fainted from the heat and were transported to cooling tents by EMT personnel standing by. And after the echoes of the last speaker’s voice faded, the multitudes drifted away, leaving a handful of us loitering by the pond, resting our feet from having been standing for several hours.

Mike and I were reflecting on the event, marveling at the number of people who could stand so close together, not knowing, or caring, whose elbows were rubbing their own, without rancor or impatience. Just then a familiar voice came over the PA system, resonant, perfectly modulated. It was Dr. King’s voice, delivering the “I have a dream” speech, just as he had 25 years earlier. Most of the people who attended the anniversary missed it. For Mike and me, it was the highlight of the afternoon. Here was the voice, the words, the passion, that Dr. King had spoken from this very podium, sounding just like it would have sounded at the original event.

I challenge you to take a few minutes, close your eyes, and picture yourself on a hot August afternoon, standing in the midst of thousands of hopeful people, listening to this speech from start to finish. Put on your headphones, temporarily block out today’s world, and hear the words, feel the hope, and experience the dream that Dr. King expressed in that mighty speech.

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I have met a lot of different kinds of people in my travels. I grew up with Kansas farmers. I helped out in my grandfather’s Mom-and-Pop grocery store in Oklahoma City. I attended public elementary and intermediate schools in the days when my fellow students were all white, making my first black friends in high school. I lived in a hippie commune. I worked in the construction business. I was an electrical engineer for a number of years, working with technicians and other engineers of different backgrounds, races, and ethical persuasions. I taught classes in a junior college, in four-year colleges, and grad schools, each with diverse student bodies. I worked as a stock clerk for a car-loan company. I attended church services regularly for many years and sang in the choirs. I have been a member of a theater group comprising actors, dancers, and singers of many different types of people.

Some of the people I met were unabashed racists, but not many. I ran into a few men that disrespected women, but not many. There were others that hated foreigners, but, again, not many. Some folks had nothing good to say about the government, but they didn’t turn down their subsidies or their Social Security. And there were some people that believed that the world was changing too much or too fast and was going to hell in a hand basket. There were some, though not many, who believed so fervently in their religious tenets that they felt that everyone else should adhere to them, too. I found some form of intolerance to be always present, no matter the situation: whether construction site or university; church or commune; theater or farm community.

Although I was concerned that these displays of intolerance went against the rules of human decency that I had been taught, I was never terribly concerned that they would impact my life in any significant way. Racism was on the decline, I thought. Women were gaining the equality of which they had long been deprived, I thought. Americans were increasingly aware of how immigration strengthened our nation, I thought. Technology was improving everyone’s lives, I thought. Intolerance was on the run, I thought.

I thought wrong.

Individually, these intolerant populations never had much impact on elections, but when a single candidate espoused so many intolerant views, all these groups combined managed to elect as president a man who I believe is totally unfit for that office.

So now I must face my own areas of intolerance: I am intolerant of people who are willfully ignorant, who refuse to accept facts and thrive on rumors. I am intolerant of zealots of all stripes, who won’t or can’t understand the need for compromise. I am intolerant of anyone who claims that ends justify means. I am intolerant of people incapable of empathy with the disadvantaged. I am intolerant of people who exploit the weak, the poor, the uneducated, (or anyone, for that matter) for their personal gain or profit. I am intolerant of those who believe that they are more entitled to privilege than anyone else. I am intolerant of anyone who twists laws to cheat others of their rights.

I can’t help but feel that my own areas of intolerance are more righteous than those I oppose, and I can only hope that others like myself will soon be able to choose leaders who feed our own intolerant views.

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Sheri Tepper, Me, and the Lutheran Sex Tapes

Long before Paris Hilton made the term “sex tape” part of the vernacular – in fact, even before Paris Hilton was born – Sheri Tepper and I created what were without doubt the first explicit sex tapes of their kind. Not, mind you, the grainy, green, night-vision, sweaty, or passionate video kind, but audio tapes providing straightforward, factual information about a variety of topics focusing on human sexuality. Even more remarkable, the tapes were disseminated by Denver’s Lutheran Medical Center via their state-of-the-art Tel-Med system. (Click on this link for information about Tel-Med as implemented at a different medical facility.)

If you don’t know about Sheri Tepper then you have missed out on a great story-teller. She has authored over 40 novels (mostly science fiction/fantasy, but also mystery, and coming-of-age) with a strong feminist and eco-sensitive slant. (Click on these links for an overview and an interview, respectively.)

When I met her, she was Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood (RMPP) in Denver, and I was working for an applied research firm. I had just won a contract with the Centers for Disease Control to develop and deploy a series of audio tapes on human sexuality for a Tel-Med system. Two factors in my proposal contributed significantly to being selected: we were the only bidders not running a Tel-Med system, and we were the only bidders to include Sheri Tepper as a consultant.

Sheri was a fabulous writer. She was responsible for a number of pamphlets for RMPP, written especially for young people. One of my favorites was titled, “So your happily ever after isn’t.” In addition to straight facts, her work was humorous and easy to understand, and beautifully illustrated by Gary Barnard. (Of all her good works at RMPP, I think Sheri was most proud of her ability to keep RMPP fully functional without Federal funds, allowing them to serve constituents’ needs without the impediments of government restrictions).

We convened a panel of health professionals, social workers, educators, teens, and representatives of the hospital to define the specific topics. Sheri and I began to write. She arranged for a former newspaper editor to whip our prose into shape. Scripts went through many drafts, with the Lutherans making sure that we didn’t get racy. By the time we were getting ready to record the audio, Katie and I had moved from Denver to DC and I was sharing an office and staff with The Bicycle Federation of America, of which Katie was the new Executive Director. Her secretary was originally from the Bible Belt and every single time that the script held the word “orgasm” the secretary typed “organism” – every single time! But I digress.

I narrated the topics written for a male voice, and my only staff person, Pam, narrated the female voice tapes, and we delivered them to the Lutheran Medical Center in the summer of 1981. They were great! They were informative! They were easy to access and understand! They were obsolete shortly thereafter because of the Internet!

I was sad when I learned that Sheri had retired from RMPP, fearing that she would never write any more of those wonderful pamphlets. I needn’t have worried – much of her subsequent work was just as educational, just as humorous, just as satisfying to read. I was sad today when I learned that Sheri died on October 22nd, just two months ago. To borrow a phrase from my other favorite author, “So it goes.”

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As Easy as Falling off a Bike

It is often said that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” If you Google that phrase you will get links to at least two article purporting to explain the scientific principles that seem to confirm the veracity of the claim. That the two articles I read offered different explanations doesn’t really matter, because, in the long run, the last time I was on a bike, I fell off…or more literally, I fell over.

I should mention here that I am, or rather, was, an experienced bike rider. I started riding when I was 7 or 8, and cycling has been an important activity for me ever since, until a few years ago. I have ridden in the city and in the country; on the plains and in the mountains; in sunshine and pouring rain; with the wind and against it; for pleasure and for commuting. I rode over 50 miles a day one summer when I didn’t own a motor vehicle and had three jobs in widely separated parts of Denver.  In 1980, Katie and I rode several hundred Kilometers in the first bicycle tour of China.

I loved cycling. It was truly invigorating. In all those years, I only hit the ground once, when I hit a sandy spot during a turn. Fortunately, I was wearing gloves and a helmet, and suffered only minor abrasions.

A few years back, several factors conspired to keep me off my bike: heart surgery, spinal surgery, and moving to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to ride again, so I sold my bike to Liza’s boyfriend. But last year I thought I should give cycling another chance. It would be nice to ride with Katie, get some exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. So Katie and I found a bike shop in Charlottesville and decided to go for a test ride.

The first thing I discovered was that I couldn’t throw my leg over the back of the bike to mount it…mostly due to my inability to balance – a condition caused by peripheral neuropathy that limits proprioceptive feedback from my feet and legs. Two years ago I discovered that I can’t maintain a standing position unless I can see my feet.

[proprioception. (prō’prē-ō-sěp’shən) The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.]

Fortunately, bicycles come in many frame styles and a I found a step-through model that I could get on and off without incident. We took the bike into the parking lot in front of the store and I started my test ride. Boy, did that feel great! I was mobile again, after at least three years without a ride. I felt like I was enough in control to take the bike onto the adjoining street, but just as I was exiting the driveway, a car turned onto the street, coming in my direction.

I turned back toward the parking lot, full of confidence, and promptly found myself lying on the ground on my left side holding onto the bike as though I still had control. As near as I can recall, when I turned, my right foot slipped off of the pedal. While looking down to get it back in position, I twisted the handle bar too far to the left, and went over. Fortunately, neither the bike nor my body was damaged. Katie wheeled the bike back to the shop and I limped to the car, too embarrassed to face the bike salesman.

So I didn’t actually forget how to ride a bike, but clearly it would not be a good idea for me to think about getting back on two wheels again.

Hmmmm. Two wheels bad, but three wheels???? It would be a lot harder to fall off a tricycle.

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Bob Dylan – 1963

Sitting in a local winery tonight, listening to local musicians perform their own songs, I was reminded that you never know which of these really talented individuals will continue to entertain their neighbors and which will rise to greater prominence.

How many of the folks in Hibbing, Minnesota, back in the early ‘60s recognized that Bob Zimmerman would someday win a Nobel Prize? We often rub elbows with such folk, and never know it. I have, several times. In 1963, I heard Bob Dylan just as he was becoming Bob Dylan.

“In 1963, Bob Dylan played a club date in Chicago, at a place called The Bear (supposedly owned in part by his manager, Albert Grossman, a Chicago native.) A partial tape of seven songs from the show surfaced many years later, and it’s now been officially released on one of the “copyright extension” sets. During that same visit to the city, Dylan did an hour-long interview/performance with radio host Studs Terkel, which was also included on the copyright set, although it was edited to some degree.” (excerpt from

As followers of this blog know, I was an engineer at WFMT from 1960 to 1962 and recorded a number of Studs Terkel’s interviews (but not the one with Bob Dylan). I was still an avid WFMT listener in 1963.

One evening I heard an announcement that a new music venue had hoped to open on this night (I don’t remember the night) but their liquor license had been delayed so they were inviting folks to come down to their opening with complimentary soft drinks and free entertainment. The venue (I have forgotten the name, but it must have been The Bear) had several levels, each devoted to a different music style: jazz, gospel, and folk.

As it turns out, the folk opener was Bob Dylan. I jumped in my car and beat it to the place, but there wasn’t much of a crowd. I found myself sitting about 6 feet away from the stage and thoroughly enjoyed Dylan’s early songs, sung by the original early Dylan: Blowin’ in the wind, Don’t think twice, Masters of war, Hard times, and many others, including Boots of Spanish Leather (before it was released on record). I’ve often wondered where the heck that place was, and now, thanks to Hoffman’s site, I know.

I must confess that when Dylan outgrew his folk-music roots, I pretty much stopped listening to him. My loss. Katie and I did go to a concert he performed with Paul Simon in the DC area a few years back, but what I remember most about it was how ear-splittingly and painfully loud it was, and that it took two hours to get out of the parking lot after the concert.

Fortunately, other people continued to listen and to appreciate Dylan’s artistry. Congratulations to America’s new Nobel Laureate in Literature.

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The Great Oscar Brand Concert Tape Recording Caper

Legendary folk musician, Oscar Brand, died last night (9/30/2016). He was 96 years old and had been performing since his teens. Beginning in the 1940’s, he recorded nearly a 100 albums. And, unknowingly, he lured me into a “prank” that surely was a criminal act.

When I was an engineer at WFMT, Chicago’s Fine Arts Station, back in the early ’60s, I recorded a concert Brand performed at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. As I was coiling microphone cables after the concert, Brand strolled into the backstage area and, with a smile on his face, asked, “Did you get anything that you could use?” At the time I thought he was inquiring about the quality of the recording, which I assured him was just fine, but when I got back to the studio, I realized that he had included a generous sampling of his “bawdy songs” that would not be suitable for broadcast. I don’t think any of that concert was put on the air.

But that isn’t the concert that this post is about.

A few years earlier, in 1958 or ’59, Oscar Brand, along with his colleague Dave Sear, put on a concert at Northwestern University, where I was a student in electrical engineering. I didn’t go to that concert, even though it was nearby in the Tech Auditorium, less than a block from my dorm, mostly because I couldn’t afford a ticket on my budget. It was a great concert! Everyone who went raved about it. I felt terrible that I missed it.

But wait!

The university radio station, WNUR, a low power FM station meant to serve the campus, had recorded the concert. I could listen to it when it aired. I asked my friend Charlie, who was in the theater school, which also housed WNUR, to find out the schedule. Alas, there were no plans to broadcast the concert.

Fortunately, Charlie knew the chief engineer at WNUR and asked him if, perhaps, we could borrow the tape and listen to it, or even listen to it in the studio. Nope! Neither! Not an option. Begging did nothing to change his answer.

By this time, my engineering school friends had also gotten interested, and finding a way to listen to the concert became a challenge. My roommate, John, the twins, Pat and Paul, Charlie, and I created a plot to “borrow” the tape and make a copy.

Charlie’s reconnaissance revealed that the concert had been recorded on ¼” tape on a 10” reel at 7½ inches per second. In “half-track” mode, it would hold two full hours. It was kept in its box in a tape library in an unlocked part of the WNUR studio, located in the lower level of the Speech Building. The old Speech Building was built on a hillside, so the main entrance was on the first level, but the studio had its own entrance through a back door to the building on the lower level. After hours, the back door was locked and a student monitored the upper level entrance.

Since Charlie had several classes in the Speech Building, he would be the “inside guy.” Around 8 pm on the appointed day, Charlie talked his way into the Speech Building to retrieve a textbook that he had “accidentally” left in one of the downstairs classroom. He quickly grabbed the book and slipped into the studio and took the tape from the library. As planned, he opened the back door and propped the tape between the screen and the door, closed the door, went back upstairs and out the door, waving his book and thanking the monitor for his cooperation.

Meanwhile, the gang and I milled around at some distance from the building, so as not to appear suspicious. When Charlie returned and reported success, we drifted toward the back of the building, where I would retrieve the tape from its hiding place.

Even the best of plans go astray. Just as we approached the building, a man and a woman walked up to the back door, inserted a key, and started to enter the building. As you might expect, they almost tripped over the tape box. The couple stopped and discussed their options briefly. Then the man picked up the tape and they proceeded into the building, locking the door behind them. Through the door’s window, we watched with frustration as they leaned the tape against the very studio door from which Charlie had liberated it a few minutes before.

We agreed that Charlie couldn’t use the “forgotten book” ploy again and were about to go back to our rooms to come up with a new plan. Just as we turned away, we spotted an elderly gentleman with an impressive collection of keys on a large key ring approach the back door of the Speech Building. Charlie recognized him as George, the “night watchman,” whose job was to wander around campus and look into buildings to make sure that nothing was in flames. George appeared to me to be our last chance to grab the tape.

I left the group and strode purposefully to the back door, searching the shadows and looking confused. George was standing by the door, and asked me what I was doing. I replied, “One of the WNUR staff was supposed to leave a tape for me leaning against the door, but I don’t see it anywhere.” Then I “just happened” to look through the window on the back door and saw the target of our foray just inside. “Oh,” I exclaimed, “There it is. He must have misunderstood which door he was supposed to leave it by. Could you let me in to get it?” Slowly, George searched through his keys, found the right one, and opened the door, allowing me to retrieve the tape of the Oscar Brand Concert.

Thanking George profusely, I clutched the tape to my chest and rejoined the group and we retired to the dorm to celebrate.

Long story short (and it was a long story), we managed to make a copy of the concert and started to scheme how to return the tape to the studio library. Charlie had an inspiration: why not just drop it into the chief engineer’s car and let him return it. He must have known that the tape was missing and he might even have suspected who was responsible. Two days later, Charlie spotted the engineer’s car parked near the Speech Building with the windows open. He dropped the tape onto the front seat and walked away, undetected. Ironically, the tape never made it back to the library. We assumed that the chief engineer used the tape for his own personal recording and most likely destroyed the master copy of the concert in the process.

What a concert it was. It was the first time I had heard a 12-string guitar (which became my instrument of choice). I added quite a few of those songs to my own repertoire. Here is one of my all-time favorites: Old King Cole, with Oscar Brand on 12-string guitar and vocal and Dave Sear on 5-string banjo. (It’s 6 mb, so it could take a while to load.)

My tape deck stopped functioning a few years ago when, mirabile dictu, Charlie emailed me out of the blue saying he had digitized the concert and had attached the resulting mp3 files. I still listen to Oscar Brand’s Northwestern University concert. I never added any of his recordings to my collection, nor was I ever able to listen to his New York radio shows. But I will miss him, his reedy tenor voice, and his enthusiastic pursuit of American music. RIP, Oscar Brand, folk singer extraordinaire.

And now that I have confessed my crime, I fully expect to hear the police pounding on my door.

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