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Finding the ladder: reflections on 80s music and me

Last night on Google Plus, some people were discussing 80s love songs they like. Most of them were from the stations I didn't enjoy, but I was familiar with many. But one person said the love songs then were all cheesy power ballads.

I understand that was a thing. I was there. In fact, musically, I was there in a way only a person born right in the middle of a decade can be; at ages 15-24. Those formative "becoming independent and finding your own way" years were the entire decade of the 1980s for me. 

However, I can name all the power ballads I'd have been familiar with back then on one hand and have a couple fingers leftover. If that's all you thought you could hear without slipping back into time, you were not trying at all. I barely tried to not hear them and had no trouble with it.

The point of this isn't whether you thought Whitesnake poorly defined love songs of that era, which they did not at all, because the 80s began before 1987, the point is that people won't give up working really hard at being narrow of thought and action. And smug about their narrowness, a lot of the time.

You miss so much good stuff that way! And you miss it if you too readily define it as something you are certain belongs in a group of things you disdain, and you miss it if you stay locked onto one channel because everyone around you is and you don't want them to judge you.

Music, listening to and loving music, should never ever be about what other people will say about you, and it is not best heard from a lofty position of superiority, or from the one channel they played in the shake shop after school. Or what MTV was during the Tiffany years. I knew that in 1980 when I was 15, and worked so hard to find more, but it was not until 1989 when I was 24, that some of my now-favorite artists of all time were fully revealed to me, by someone who had grown up with a better college radio station than me. It was a decade of searching, for me.

I still had plenty else to choose from besides the MTV rotation, largely because I didn't even have cable TV yet. When I did get it, I found the best videos were on BET. I told someone at work and she was all, "but isn't that the black TV station?"

Well, yes, however, you weren't required to submit a DNA test in order to watch it. And also, they didn't only play "black videos." I saw "Genius of Love" on there first. For one example. And also, what? It was the beginning of the Benetton era, if you were paying attention.

We have the internet now, and we get to look around so easily and see more stuff than we ever imagined existed. But plenty of it, most of it, was already there. If you sum up an entire era by what you remember during two or three years of it, you are, to me, like the person who just asks for 7s over and over again while playing "Go Fish." Be better. I'm certain you can be.

I went to the record store and book store and listened to what they were playing. I watched late night talk and entertainment shows that introduced new bands, and listened to what older people found to listen to. And because I grew up listening to old music, I knew there had to be more to new music. I was really worried classical music would go away, however, John Williams brought it back to the forefront and now I know that there are people who always have to be creating music in their heads and will always challenge themselves to incorporate sounds in new ways, try new and old things with instruments, and find other like-minded people to do this with. When people look back on this period of time, they'll have a dozen American composers to call the orchestral influences of the day, post-Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, and there are certainly more in other places, as well.

Back to love songs. I thought I didn't like love songs before I was a teenager, and thought I didn't like many then, but now I know that I'm just not really very fond of a few certain sounds that seem useful only for lament. And I like my lament prepared other ways.

When I named the 80s love songs I liked last night, mostly what I thought of were songs about making love. It makes sense, in a way, as 15-24 are visceral years for most human beings.

Looking back, this list defines my 1980s pretty much in a large nutshell, although as I said, I was always seeking out other channels of sound. Sorry that it's Buzzfeed. There are a few love songs on it I could have named last night instead of my R&B list. (And thus, here's a secondary faster-to-load list to more fully round out my personal 80s "pop" experience, though it leaves out "Wishing Well" and "Stay With Me Tonight.") But to name a favorite I'd be willing to claim now, I'd compare it to how I feel now when I hear Frank Sinatra sing "Witchcraft." Okay, such a thing is not possible. Still, back then, it'd have been "Ain't Nobody," by Chaka Khan. Tell me this isn't a great song.


But I also remember how I felt when I heard (the slightly cheesy now) "Hold Me Now" by the Thompson Twins, and how I felt when the person I loved turned out not to like it at all. Which should have been a warning, however, let's not digress.

This. Years later, this is the one. For me, this is a love song. 

Only, it was me. I saw the whole of the moon. At least, I always tried to.

The first day of school, the next first day of life

School starts today. My sons, in 11th and 12th grade, have two classes in common; Government and Politics, and Algebra II. The first week of OHVA is just pre-tests, organizing the schedule, meeting the teachers, watching the bugs get worked out of the system.

But they didn't do all that well last year, for three combined reasons, in some of their classes. Their consciences weighed on them a bit during the summer, and they're earnest about doing better this year. The little dears.

The school is being stricter this year about scheduling, turning in assignments, and locking units so that they don't get behind. In a way, I'm certain that is a very good thing. If they knew they could do it later, well, they wouldn't prioritize well, although I helped them make weekly schedules, and tried to monitor their progress. On the other hand, time of day flexibility is something I value, and it's hard to manage without the days going very long. They have several hour-long class connects which take up the middle of every day, and daily lessons assignments in each, some of which take a long time to go through.

They'll need my help with Algebra II, and with the languages; one is taking Spanish and the other French. We also have daily reading time, and I'm teaching them to drive. And hopefully squeezing it all in before dinner time.

There are plenty of kids their age who need less hands-on help with this stuff, I know that. My boys are practical types. I could leave them here to just run the house, and they'd do fine. If you had a conversation with them, you'd think them well-mannered, informed, even somewhat erudite. But they are not scholars.

When I was in high school, there were the scholars, the athletes, and the go-getters. Kids who seemed to be headed for trouble went to vocational-technical school. What about the rest? The ones shuffling along in the middle, just getting by; beloved and appreciated at home, yet largely overlooked in the classroom? I never quite got it from my oddly elite position in school, but that's half the people there are, at least. The pleasant, easy-going types who fill the chairs in the middle.

I want my sons to learn a vocation, far more than I want them to take up a profession. If you have a real vocation, you can go through life Being each thing you wish to be, which is something so many people still don't realize. My vocation does not pay, but it could have, and perhaps someday it will. I will tell you more about that, in shorter form, on another day.

My boys want to get out in the world, get their hands on it, see what's there, and then see what they'd like to make of it. I am being challenged that this is not the path to success. It certainly isn't one path. I'd hoped by now we'd moved past the idea of One True Path, especially to be uncovered by anyone at all at the age of eighteen.

The world is far too big a place for a teenager to be required to say from their tiny corner of it, "This is what I'll work to become." Whether it was "getting on down at the plant" or assuming what has become a huge debt load toward an office desk degree, we have been limited by binary post World War II thinking for far too long.

In his heart, the older one is a shaper, an arranger; crafting and repairing not only objects around the house, but situations and conversations. He is not a desk person. The younger one is somehow both laid back and dutiful. He was born with a sense of what's properly done, and the idea that this is just how people should go along. Do right things, which are good things, and not wrong things, which are bad things. And yet he has a very good sense of humor, as well. He might be a desk person.

When I was in tenth grade, we took a career aptitude test, and my highest scores were in things like forestry and other "outdoors in nature" pursuits. Well, no one even bothered to follow up and tell me maybe that would be a good thing for me to actually learn to be. I was supposed to go do an "intellectual" thing. And forestry? What is that even to a 15 year-old in suburban Kansas City? (Here is something about that test; it was in two parts, aptitude and interest. Now there's also a third part, values.)

But you know what? Somehow that test got something about me that no one else ever did, until I realized it myself just a few years ago. I looked, to everybody including myself, like a desk person. I am not a desk person.

What it looked like I could do and what I probably should have done were so disparate, I ended up doing neither one. People just expected me to go do some "smart person" thing, and in their mid-late 20th century minds, "smart persons" worked with their brains, inside of buildings, writing things down on paper, or typing them into a console. I didn't succeed because it isn't at all who I am. I love to write. But two of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope and Rex Stout, had several careers before they wrote books. What have I had? A muddle, that's what. (And beautiful babies, of course.) I'm still learning, though.

Most of us know now that there isn't just one path we get on and stay on; the world doesn't let that happen for everyone anymore, and for many of us, that's a good thing. So I want to challenge my boys to just get on their first path and see where it leads them, or where it encourages them to go. If passing Algebra II is the step Ohio requires them to take in order to get on it, fine. I'll drag them through it. But I'm eager to see them as adults who don't feel the need to say they "will never grow up" because they can't bear what adulthood is turning them into. Being an adult can be a pretty great thing, and my two youngest sons are going to make very good ones, regardless of their final GPAs.

We have a lot to get through this year, though. Here's to success, both measured and unmeasurable.