Music for Coming of Age and Music That Reminds Me I’ve Aged

recordI’ve always loved music and I spent a good amount of time as a kid listening to records on the phonograph in my room. (Note to readers born after 1990; this was the equivalent of your iPod, but we shuffled songs by carelessly moving a  needle past the songs we didn’t like, usually scratching and ruining the record in the process).

My brother loved music too and he invented what he called bouncing, an activity I quickly copied, which involves sitting on the floor or in a chair and rocking back and forth fervently while singing to the music. As he grew, his bouncing activities were partially responsible for the furniture problems we experienced in the 70’s, because as his legs got longer, each bounce resulted in the  pounding of his feet on the carpet, which eventually wore it out. There was no way I could ever be blamed for this since my feet still don’t touch the ground when I am seated in most chairs. Years later I replaced bouncing with running, but those close to me know that I still bounce from time to time, particularly during snowstorms or other occasions when I am cooped up in the house for long periods of time.

There are so many artists and albums that have been part of my youth and early adulthood, but a few in particular stand out.

  1. Burl Ives – Big Rock Candy Mountain. This is my earliest memory of listening to music. I loved Burl Ives’ voice and he reminded me of Santa Claus, another person I admired until I was five and was forced to celebrate Hanukkah.
  2. Dr. Funhouse. This was a six-album collection of children’s classics and some new tunes as well. I could spend hours alone in my room listening to these records, only emerging for food, water and an occasional bathroom break. It’s funny to think how non-portable music was back then and what lengths I would go to in order to listen to my favorite songs over and over again.
  3. Alvin and the Chipmunks. I was mezmerized by the high-pitched voices of these talented cartoon characters until I realized I could make any artist sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks simply by placing a 33 1/3 LP on speed 78. (Note to those same readers born after 1990…oh never mind, I have no modern day equivalent to describe this).
  4. Up to Date – The Partridge Family. This was an exciting release because the album cover showed the birthdays of each  Partridge. This was considered exceptionally proprietary information back then. Fast forward to 2014 and I can view Danny Bonaduce’s Facebook page, complete with his full birthday and a link to his wikipedia page with a synopsis of his dysfunctional family and upbringing in excruciating detail.
  5. Love Will Keep Us Together – Captain & Tennille. I still can’t get this song out of my head or come to terms with the fact that love kept them together for 40 years and then the shit hit the fan. Read more about that here.
  6. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John. I remember singing Bennie and the Jets and All the Young Girls Love Alice while my mother vacuumed the house. I’m still not sure if she chose to ignore the lyrics her ten-year old was singing or she just couldn’t hear them over the vacuum cleaner.
  7.  Captain Fantastic – Elton John. I waited weeks for the release, purchased the album from Alexander’s department store for $3.99, cherished the album cover and liner notes and managed to choreograph the Hustle to Gotta Get a Meal Ticket from side two of the album.
  8. Rock of the Westies – Worst Elton John album ever. Plus, I owned it on an 8-track tape, and well, we all know what happened to that. The album forced me to move on to new artists.
  9. The Stranger – Billy Joel. I converted kicking and screaming, but in the mid-70’s  Billy Joel became Elton John’s temporary replacement. I eventually found my way back to Elton, which is a good thing since he manages to show up for concerts with much greater regularity than Billy Joel.
  10. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass – Greatest Hits. My dad played this instrumental album often and the songs always make me smile.
  11. Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits. When my dad first brought this album home, he said mom would love it. She listened to it once and said, “I hate it.” Dad said, “Give it time.” He was right. She has been a Neil Diamond groupie for close to four decades.
  12. A Night at the Opera – Queen. Bohemian Rhapsody still blows me away and I still have no clue what it is about.
  13. Saturday Night Fever – The Bee Gees. Oh please…you listened to it too.
  14. Fragile – Yes. Brings back fond memories of listening to my tone deaf brother Jeffrey trying to sing the tunes with a pseudo British accent.
  15. Best of Emerson Lake & Palmer. See number 14.
  16. Seconds Out-Genesis. For me, my high school anthem. Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Rush (especially Rush) be damned.
  17. Duke-Genesis. This album was a huge departure for Genesis and a foray into pop. It sucked, but the summer of 80 when it came out rocked so I have to keep it on the list.
  18. The River-Bruce Springsteen. I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but to reveal this publicly at my large state college in upstate New York with thousands of drunken fans sucking down chicken wings and “pop” would have resulted in an early death, so I went along with the ruse for four years (sorry guys).
  19. Tainted Love-Soft Cell. This one only has relevance to a certain someone who left me stranded in a club at 288 Lark Street in Albany 30 years ago; but of course I’m not bitter.
  20. Speaking in Tongues-Talking Heads. This was my favorite album in 1984 and a great part of my life my senior year of college when for just a few minutes we could stop listening to Bruce Springsteen.
  21. Soundtrack to Dirty Dancing. I found this on a first date in the CD collection of the person who later fathered my children; getting rid of it was a requirement for a second date.
  22. Diva- Annie Lenox-. Walking on Broken Glass was playing on the radio the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital. Reminded me of what a fragile little package I was holding.
  23. Blame it on the Rain-Milli Vanilli. Ok so the lip-synching thing wasn’t a shock, but it did change the way people thought about music, no?
  24. Jagged Little Pill-Alanis Morissette. This is the uber-rock anthem for pissed off women.
  25. So Called Chaos. This was the album Alanis made when she calmed down and stopped being so pissed off. She later went on to release Flavors of Entanglement, an album she created when she was in a “happy place.” Personally, I like pissed-off Alanis better.

What albums, CDs or iTunes define your life?


Technology of the Future: A 1970’s Perspective

punchcardWhen I was in the 7th grade I took a computer science class. Computer science in 1976 resembled technology today about as closely as Morse code resembles texting (well, actually the differences there are not that extreme). But for the most part, the advances in technology have been monumental, yet it was still exciting to be learning about computers during their nascent stages.

When we weren’t busy creating “if yes, then” flowcharts or punching zeros and ones on our blue computer cards, our teacher showed us movies about technologies of the present and  future. We saw examples of computers that were  so big they probably wouldn’t have fit inside Alexander’s department store and we learned about computer scanners that would one day be used at store check out counters to track inventory. In one of these films, the prediction was made that one day everyone would have their own portable phone, which was preposterous to me. First of all, wouldn’t they run out of number combinations in about a week and second of all, did I really need to deal with a phone cord that would constantly get tangled up in all the other shit I kept in my bag, which by the way would now need to be a really big bag because a phone weighs like five pounds.

In addition to having portable phones, these phones would have both voice and picture. This was all well and good when it was depicted on the futuristic cartoon The Jetsons, but did I really want this in my actual life? How  would I lie to my parents about where I was if I was ever lucky enough someday to have the sort of social life that warranted fabricating my whereabouts? (by the way, that day never came)  What if I had told a friend I couldn’t hang out because I was home sick and then got a call from this friend where she could see I was actually at the Queens Center Mall with someone else? Would this technology make us all painfully honest with no hopes of ever getting away with anything? Count me out.

In addition to not being able to fathom some of these new technologies, many existing technologies changed over the years in a way I never thought was possible. In 1974 my brother got a Texas Instruments hand-held calculator from our grandparents for his Bar Mitzvah. At the time, this calculator was as cutting-edge as  Google Glass is today (except for the fact that the calculator actually worked). Calculators were very expensive then and the assumption was they would always be so. Last time I checked, you could get a fully functioning calculator for something like 99 cents at Staples.

When Pong came out in the 70’s, I never expected the explosion of video games that would follow and always assumed everyone would be happy just hitting that little electronic ball back and forth until the end of time. Who knew we’d soon have games to help us learn math, improve our golf stroke, guide simulated people on how to manage their lives, become experts at killing people, and basically eliminate any form of human interaction with anyone ever.

Right around 1980, the Walkman was released in the US. I’d never imagined having a portable device for listening to music and once I got one I took it everywhere, even though it wasn’t exactly lightweight and its portability was questionable. Luckily, the first mobile phone that wasn’t the size of a brick was still a god ten years away, so I never had to carry both at the same time or invest in a handbag with wheels.




What’s in a Name?

nameMy mother had my name picked out before she had a husband picked out. She had three friends named Barbara and wanted a daughter with the same name. At first glance, this sounds like a heartwarming story about why I like my name, until one realizes that most women with the name Barbara are usually pushing 80. Barbara was the third most popular  name in the US for girls born in the 1930’s. By the 1960’s the name was losing popularity and today the name isn’t even on the list. I’m the youngest Barbara I know and many of the others I know with the same name are at least ten years my senior. Unlike boy’s names, many of which seem timeless, the popularity of girl’s names seems to change like the wind. The popular names of my generation such as Lisa, Susan, Karen, Debra, and Donna are rarely given to kids today and we’ve all been replaced by girls with names like Madison, Destiny, Sydney, and Brianna. Brooklyn and even Bronx have become popular names; I’m hoping some kid is named Queens soon. At least it’s more likely than being named Staten Island. ( I think).

My mother used to like to tell me about the origins of my name and how it  meant “little stranger.” But once I started doing my own research, I noticed that many simply translated it as “strange,” which while possibly a more accurate way of describing me, doesn’t have the sweetness and innocence of “little stranger.”

The funny thing about my name is that few people actually refer to me by it. It’s as if it’s too much of a mouthful for anyone with all those redundant syllables and repeating letters. People call me different names depending on what period in my life they met me. Friends from high school often call me Barbie, some call me Bobbie, others call me Babs and everyone I have ever met from outside of the five boroughs calls  me Barb. My own father hardly called me by my name, favoring his limitless nicknames including Barbie doll, sweetie-petitee, and the questionable Boober.

At this point I think there are only two people on the planet who call me Barbara; my mother, who has been so attached to the name for close to 80 years that she would never think of shortening or otherwise butchering it, and the Goy/Mench who always called me Barbara in his perfectly pitched Queens accent.

Don’t get me wrong; I like my name and it certainly has its upsides. I saved a lot of time when taking the SATs because when I filled in the bubbles on the answer sheet to write my name, I  only had to find three letters and then repeat them two or even three times. I didn’t usually have to repeat my name to strangers or spell it out (well, until Barbra Streisand came along, confused everyone, and screwed things up for the Barbaras who had been following the rules and spelling the name correctly all along).

But these days it’s getting harder to carry this name. I’m sure if I had to apply for a job, a hiring manager would take one look at my name on my resume and assume I was hiding 30 years of work experience. When I am in situations now where I need to say my name, it takes longer for it to register with people. Case in point, I went into a coffee shop the other day where they ask your name and write it on the cup.  I ended up with a skinny mocha latte marked Aruba.

Let’s Get Physical (or Not?): Exercise in the 70’s

In the 70’s, exercise didn’t seem to play nearly as important a part in people’s lives as it does today. As kids, we were generally naturally active, because we only had seven television channels that showed nothing but snow for at least 30 hours per week, and moms had no problem kicking us out of the house on a weekend morning, telling us to go out and play, and reminding us not to show up again until dinner time. Exercise and sports were not heavily emphasized in my house growing up and my brothers used to say that they exercised their brains, therefore they did not need to exercise their bodies (insert eye roll here).  But I do remember a few fleeting moments of fitness over the years that influenced my future perspective on exercise and left the door wide open for Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda in the 80’s.

Jack LaLanne. When Jack LaLanne wasn’t pulling boats and tractor trailers with his teeth to demonstrate his strength, stamina, and incredibly durable dentures, he was wearing a jumpsuit and hosting an exercise show on TV geared towards stay-at-home moms. I remember mom doing a few standing leg lifts while Jack counted, but when he got to the jumping jacks, I think she went and lit a cigarette.

Jogging. When dad felt he needed to lose a few pounds (during the 4 & 20 Pies days), he would jog in a circular path around our connected living room, dining room, and kitchen wearing his crappy Converse sneakers. After his 40 laps he had probably traveled the equivalent of one city block at the speed of a Pong ball, but at least it was something. Once he completed his run, I’m sure he went and lit a cigarette. Actually, I would bet my life on it.

Metal Exercise Bands. Dad had the forerunner of today’s rubber exercise resistance bands which were heavy metal coils attached by two metal handles. The handles were pulled to stretch the coils and work your upper body . A great strengthening exercise without the fuss and muss of free weights or a barbell, until your sweaty palms forced you to lose your grip and  the metal handle wacked you in the eye. After receiving quite the shiner, dad retired the exercise bands and that’s when he started jogging in the house.

Grip Strengtheners. While most exercise routines with dad were short lived, he owned a gizmo that looked like an oversized nut cracker that he would squeeze to strengthen his grip. I never understood this one. He wasn’t too concerned if he was carrying around an extra 20 pounds and his heart wasn’t pumping blood around his body efficiently, but he always wanted to be sure that his grip was strong enough to open a jar of mixed nuts.

Gym Class. In the early years, gym class was more fun that exercise. One of the best games in gym class was dodge ball, because it was the only time of the day you were allowed to throw something at the other kids. But as we got older, gym class shifted from team games to activities that required some actual stamina. To make matters worse, in the older grades we were required to wear a gym uniform which for girls was a cross between a beach cover up and an adult diaper. When the weather got warm we would actually have to wear these outfits outside where the boys were also having gym period. Why the boys got to wear simple gym shorts and a tee shirt while the girls were subjected to blue and white striped polyester beach wear is beyond my comprehension and beyond the scope of this post, but suffice it to say that high school gym uniforms were the bane of every high school girl’s existence. The absolute worst unit in gym class was jogging. There was no real strategy for building up stamina and cardiovascular strength and on the days when the weather wouldn’t cooperate, we had to run around the school cafeteria as an alternative to the track which produced the same cardiovascular results as running laps around the family living room. To make matters worse, our track was not regulation size due to lack of space. We had to run five laps to complete a mile rather than the standard four. So when you were done with your forth lap and headed for the bleachers, the gym teacher would tap you on the back and remind you that you had one more lap to go. But perhaps the most awful thing about jogging was that in 1979 there was no such thing as a jog bra. Girls with more than a C cup risked knocking out an eye each week when they attended gym class. After several near misses, I swore I would never run again and I refused to run the popular three mile jogging loop at my college called Perimeter Road during any of my four years there just on principle. I never ran another step until 1991, and even then I wore two jog bras layered on top of one another, just to be safe.

Running Across Queens Boulevard. This was by far the best exercise program available growing up in Queens. It required strength, stamina, commitment, practice, mental toughness, Olympic-level precision, and a very strong desire to get to the other side in one piece. Luging and the skeleton pale in comparison.

In the 1980’s, more gyms started popping up and regular exercise became more commonplace. Perhaps this was because people began to see the health benefits of exercise, but more likely it was because people needed a legitimate reason to wear leg warmers, headbands, and gym shorts with white piping on the side.

Toys That Entertained, Intrigued, and Nearly Killed Us

cap gunBefore there was 24/7 television programming and portable gaming devices, kids had to find other ways to pass the time when they got bored with annoying their siblings or parents. Some of the toys we had were timeless classics, still enjoyed by children today, some were idiotic fads, and others were downright dangerous. Here are a few of my favorites.

Lite Brite. My mother was game for letting us do art in the house as long as none of the materials had the potential for mess-making. This is why I got a cheap paint set for Christmas and only had an eight-pack of crayons. She found the perfect solution to fueling our creative juices when she purchased Lite Brite, a light box with small colored plastic pegs that fit into holes to create a lit picture. All you had to do was put your peg in the spot designated, making sure you used the right color. Otherwise you would end up with a picture that was different, displayed some degree of originality, and didn’t match the picture on the box, meaning you were a rule breaker and not a follower and you might be a big problem for society later on. I bet Jackson Pollack never had a Lite Brite set.

Monopoly. I played so much Monopoly as a kid, that requests from my kids to play it now are usually met with a response such as “Are you sure you want to make that big a commitment?” and “On a school night?” During summer vacations, after spending a full morning at the pool club, Cha-Cha and I would go to her house for a 2 to 3 hour game of monopoly before returning to the pool. She always won and one day in a fit of rage, I threw Boardwalk out the window. This is when i reached my saturation point and the game has never had the same appeal to me since.

Clackers. Clackers were two heavy plastic balls suspended by string which were swung up and down so when they banged each other they made a clacking noise. Clackers banged into more than each other. They sometimes smacked kids in the face, teeth, noses, and cheek bones. Sometimes the string would break and the Clacker would go flying and shatter. I’m sure at least one or two boys took a Clacker to the balls as well, although I haven’t heard of any incidents being officially reported (like, who would want to admit that!)

Don’t Spill the Beans. In this game, players took turns tossing plastic beans into a tipping pot. The object was to get all your beans into the pot without tipping them over. The game was about as interesting as watching paint dry until the pot was very full and you secretly hoped that your competitor would just throw in the damn bean that would bring that pot to its knees. With this game, came the beginnings of my understanding of the concept of schadenfreude, deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others.

Twister. Twister was a game with a large plastic mat with colored circles. You would spin a dial that would tell you what colored spot to place your hand or foot on and no two people could place a hand or foot on the same circle. This caused players to end up in some twisted contorted positions. The goal of the game was to be able to stay in these positions without falling. At least that’s what the rules said. I think the goal of the game was to end up in a position that was the closest thing to foreplay you would know for a good six years.

Gilbert Chemistry Set. When my brother Jeffrey was about eight years old he got a chemistry set. Mom always seemed a bit uneasy with this, but I think she saw it as some sort of rite of passage. When the dining room table was covered with newspaper, we knew the mad scientist was at work.Watching my mother oversee his experiments was a painful as watching her oversee our menorah during Hanukkah, and with good reason. Apparently, the kit included potassium permanganate, which besides being poisonous has been known to make things catch fire. Oh, and the kit contained ammonium nitrate, a chemical that is used to make homemade bombs.

Easy Bake Oven. For the girls of my generation, this was the quintessential toy of the 70’s, on par with the Cabbage Patch dolls of the 80’s and Tickle Me Elmo in the 90’s. I never had an easy bake oven because my mom thought they were dangerous. My brother was given cart blanche on making a bomb, but I wasn’t allowed to make a brownie using a light bulb.

Mystery Date. This was a wonderful board game for young girls, that helped erase all that Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem had achieved for women’s lib. In this game, players try to select cards to create a matching outfit which must then match the outfit of the date behind the mystery door. Possible dates included the formal dance date, the bowling date, the beach date, and the skiing date. The date to be avoided was the dud, a guy with a disheveled appearance and a five-o-clock shadow. In my opinion, the dud was the hottest of the bunch and bowling guy was the real loser, which is why I got bored with this game after about a year and later went on to find my own dud. Note to any former duds (I mean boyfriends) who may be reading this: this is not about you, ok?

Snow Cone Machine. Throw in some ice, crank the handle, and pour a syrup over the top that tastes like melted Luden’s cough drops (for about two slurps when it then tastes like ice that was melted and refrozen multiple times). Hell, yeah; Mmmm; I’m in.

Super Elastic Bubble Plastic. The set came with a tube of some sort of super smelly plastic goo and a thin straw. The goo was placed on the end of the straw and you could create a ball with psychedelic colors by blowing into the straw. The fumes from this stuff were also psychedelic in another sort of way and you could get buzzed off of them. Users were warned to never inhale through the straw, but we all know what happens when kids are told what NOT to do. And besides, by the time super elastic bubble plastic was in, mimeograph ink was out…you can see where I’m going with this.

Tea Set. I had a Raggedy Ann and Andy tea set and was given strict orders from mom that it was just pretend and real liquid or food should never touch these precious plastic plates. She tried to draw me into her world of dysfunctional household items, but I rebelled and when she went out shopping, I convinced my father to have tea parties with me with my tea set, peanut butter and jelly on crackers, and grape juice. My mother still doesn’t know about this, so please, let’s keep it between you and me.

Cap Guns and BB Guns. Cap guns created a loud sound and a puff of smoke simulating a gunshot when the trigger was pulled. Small disks of explosive compounds provided the noise and smoke. (oh, what a relief; I thought maybe they contained something dangerous). BB Guns actually shot pellets that stung like hell when they hit you. Mom didn’t allow us to have these. Instead, she preferred that we go unarmed through the mean city streets of Queens while the resident bad boys of Saxon Hall shot at us…usually while smoking candy cigarettes.

Pong. Pong was the very first video game that was made available for home use. I was already a teenager by the time I first played this. My friend Susan was the first kid I knew to have Pong and I quickly became addicted to it. The game was an electronic version of table tennis. In retrospect, it required about as much hand-eye coordination as hitting a beach ball traveling at one mile per hour with an oversized tennis racket, but at the time, it seemed really challenging.

Cardboard Boxes. We had some great toys, but sometimes the best toy in the house was the cardboard box lying around after a delivery of groceries or some new bedding. We spent endless hours making forts, using the box as a vehicle without wheels, and climbing in and out of it. Boxes allowed us to be imaginative (unlike Lite Brite) and just enjoy something simple. I once got a huge cut on my elbow from playing in a cardboard box. It never healed properly and I have a scar from it to this day.It’s a great reminder of a fun- filled era of games and toys and lasting memories with friends and family.

Ten Questions I’ve Always Wanted to Ask the Brady Bunch

In the early to mid-seventies, one of the most talked about television shows among kids was The Brady Bunch. In many children’s eyes, this family was perfect and was the yardstick we used to judge our own families. Unfortunately, our own families never measured up to this one, and we had to face the cold, harsh reality that our families sucked and we would never get to live in a house with a cool staircase, a big yard, and live-in help. Yet despite the huge abyss that we believed separated our modest lives in Queens from anything Brady-like, I had my questions about that bunch. Here are just a few.

  1. If Mike Brady was such a great architect, why did they live in a house where six kids where holed up in two rooms? Couldn’t he get creative? Put up a wall or build an addition the the house or something? Didn’t he watch HGTV and know how to make this space work? Did Alice really need to live in or should that room have gone to another kid?
  2. Did Mr. and Mrs. Brady read any studies published about the issues of being a middle child? If they had, is it possible that Peter Brady would not have acted out, seeking attention by signing a contract to appear on VH1’s Surreal World?
  3. What was up with Carol Brady’s hair. Wasn’t there a better way to grow out your hair after a pixie cut? Wasn’t Vidal Sassoon on the set?
  4. What kind of health insurance did the Bradys’ have? Neither of the parents complained about the doctors’ bills when Peter (middle child!) accidentally hit Marcia in the nose with that football. They must have had a damn good plan.
  5. Why was it that the Bradys’ didn’t have any diverse friends that were say, African American, Asian, Muslim, or Jewish, but they were paling around with a midget? (Cousin Oliver, final season)
  6. Why didn’t anyone suggest speech therapy for Cindy’s lisp?
  7. Did Sam the butcher sometimes stay over in Alice’s room?
  8. How did a family of eight survive with just one TV? (I only remember seeing one in the den).
  9. What happened to Carol Brady’s first husband? Was he dead? Were they divorced? Did he have life insurance? Pay alimony? Didn’t the girls ever think about him? Couldn’t they have included a flashback episode?
  10. Did Jan really need all that hair? Hasn’t she ever heard of Locks of Love?

These questions usually played over and over in my head during the show’s Friday night 8 pm time slot, but by 8:30, it was time for The Partridge Family, which brought up a whole host of new questions including, where was their dad, was Tracy so musically inept that all she could play was the tambourine, and why the hell didn’t they fire that stylist who dressed them all in pre-Seinfeld puffy shirts?