The River's Badge

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Did Country Music Die In 1998?


 (Somehow he got a record contract)

As stressful and time-consuming as my job was in 1998, at least it sheltered me from the tunes on the radio.

The last thing I wanted to do was give up on country music. I'd been drenched in country for thirty-odd years by then. That was a hard habit to break. I think country radio knew how bad the songs were, but they were slaves to programmers  -- no more would a disc jockey break a hit record -- there were no more Ralph Emerys or Bill Macks. Spinning records was akin to a job ringing up a cash register. 

The country landscape was barren. George was beginning to drift toward treacle (it would get worse). But he still had a couple of good tunes:




Diamond Rio was close to wrapping up. They'd had a phenomenal run, but I guess everything (except George Strait) comes to an end eventually:



 

Yes, this was an Aerosmith song, but Mark Chesnutt was always a good song picker. He would get better after this (believe it or not), and would go on to reach the pantheon of my all-time favorite country singers. This isn't my favorite, but hell, Mark was still keepin' on. 

 
Clint was back. He wrote this song with Steve Wariner. Aside from "Better Man", this is one of my favorite Clint Black songs:



 

I thought I would throw Reba in here, because she actually recorded a country song in '98. I wasn't a fan of Reba's theatrics. They were "tricks". I like a singer who sings.



 

Who was hot in 1998? Well, there was Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. There was Jo Dee Messina. There was the Dixie Chicks, who I liked a lot until they (Natalie) went nuts. A lot of my standbys had hits, but not hits that I liked -- Steve Wariner, Brooks and Dunn, Shania Twain, Randy Travis.

Somebody who didn't even reach the Top Country 100 had the best album of the year. I don't understand popular tastes. I don't understand why this wasn't one of the top hits of the year. But you know what? Quality survives. That's why Dwight Yoakam is still one of my all-time favorite singers. 

From "A Long Way Home":



 

Sometime in 1999 I abandoned country music all together. That's where it ended for me. I miss it, but it's not coming back. Now I listen to Sirius, when I listen to music at all. I don't listen to music much.

Things change, Dwight told me. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

1997 In Country Music ~ And Work

(when a company disappears)

I suppose others experience it, too -- when a company to which they've devoted their best years disappears. It's eerie to think that one's past is gone, just like that, never to be retrieved or visited, except in memories.

There once was a company called US Healthcare. Really. Even though I can't even find a picture of its logo on Google images. The company was founded in 1975 by a man named Leonard Abramson. The company started small. It was first called HMO of Pennsylvania. There was one office, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. I had no clue where Blue Bell, Pennsylvania was, but the city had a rather pretty name. (I now know, in hindsight, that Blue Bell is a suburb of Philadelphia.) In 1983, Mr. Abramson took his company public and renamed it US Healthcare.

In 1990 Mr. Abramson was looking to expand his operation and began a search for a city whose citizenry possessed a good work ethic. That's where I came into the picture. Somehow, Bismarck, North Dakota was chosen. I say "somehow" because Bismarck never got chosen for anything except possibly "world's windiest town". It's true we had (have) a good work ethic. We didn't know any better. We all just naturally assumed we were supposed to work. We didn't know there was a choice. Perceptions of work vary by geographic longitude. I understand this now because I live in Minnesota. Perhaps we Dakotans had an innate guilt that if we didn't go the extra mile we'd be viewed as lazy. Thus we always did much more than was asked of us. Other big companies eventually learned to exploit that guilt, but US Healthcare was the first.

The Blue Bell employees worked thirty-seven-and-a-half hours a week and got paid for forty. We clocked forty hours a week and were grateful for the opportunity. Our Blue Bell trainers viewed us as utter morons, but we abided that and held our collective breath until they whirled back on the jet plane home to PA. Condescending disregard was de riguer for us. 

I only secured my position by divine providence, but I held on for dear life. After all, it paid $6.00 per hour, which was twenty-five cents more than I was making as a Farm Records Secretary. We were the experiment. Let's see how they do and if they can hack it, was the mindset of the Blue Bellians. Well, we did great. Because we worked our asses off. We cared about getting it right. I didn't know anything about health insurance, but I knew how to follow instructions. I began life at US Healthcare as a claims examiner and eventually convinced someone to take me on as an assistant supervisor, and then as a full-fledged supervisor. 

I excelled in supervision because I knew how people wanted to be treated from my many years of being a nobody. It's not rocket science, people. I understood how far a good word could propel even the lowliest of us. How bestowing a modicum of respect could engender results that surprised and delighted even the most self-effacing wallflower.

In 1996 Freaky Phil called me into his office and presented me with an offer that I could "think about overnight and then come back and say yes". It was a pilot program the company called "IKFI" - "Integrated Key From Image". It was a glorified data entry unit that US Healthcare was ready to pilot. Phil's offer felt like a demotion. I was a claims specialist and now I had been selected to slum into the realm of data entry, with a three-person staff of temps. I guess my construct of making peace with Phil hadn't worked after all. I knew my fellow supervisors would look down on me and thank the lord it hadn't been them. That sense of mortification haunted me. I went home Friday evening and fretted for two long days. Some divine sense of approbation told me that this was an actual "opportunity". I didn't see how it could be, but I knew, instinctively, that it was.

I carried my claims binders over to an unused, echoey area of the building. There were cubicles set up, but their desks were loaded down with broken computer monitors and other miscellaneous castoff equipment. A fine layer of dust covered every surface. Someone, in an optimistic frame of mind had long ago constructed a glass supervisor's enclosure in the corner. I grabbed a tissue from the box and tried to scour a peephole in the greasy film. I sat down behind the desk and squinted at the squiggly lines and numbers on my monitor that represented "something", which I would eventually learn was the workflow I was tasked with managing. I received a crash course in the keying process by phone from another Philly Patronizer. I don't remember her name, but her voice dripped with a combination of pity and disdain. Thus, I sat alone in a ghost unit and played with my new toy for three days, until my three temp workers showed up to begin their assignment. I think the company hired temps -- and only three of them -- because they were not convinced this new experiment would work out. 

The IT guys back in Pennsylvania were like actual humans. They were invested in making their new process work, and they didn't treat me like a simpleton. I appreciated that. My three new employees were surprisingly awesome. One girl, Gaby, had emigrated from Germany. She was quick to learn and a joy to be around. The four of us stepped through the ether together and bonded, like hostages do. Phil stopped over often and sat down in my visitor's chair just like he used to do. He never offered any words of wisdom or counsel. He was just bored, and this area of the building was a new place for him to peruse. He exhibited zero interest in this new US Healthcare experiment, which perhaps signaled his confidence in me as a manager, but I don't think so. I think he simply didn't care. 

Dave called a couple of times. Dave was the VP of Something or Other -- possibly the Claims operation -- the guy I'd spilled my guts to a couple of years earlier regarding Evil Connie. I never knew how I ended up on Dave's radar. Maybe he chose me for this new position because I'd demonstrated that I was a fighter. And there was no question that Dave chose me -- Phil was simply his imbecilic conduit. 

Dave was a yeller. He loved to yell at and scare people and take their measure. It was an odd management style, but one that lots of executives use. Dave called one day and yelled at me about something. I responded with facts and figures, not necessarily calmly, but I didn't back down. Dave never again bothered me. I think I garnered his stamp of approval that day. My state of mind was, no other fool will take this job, so sink or swim or stand on the unemployment line, which was a definite possibility, take me or leave me. I never asked for this.

From three to twelve to nineteen, the temps began to stack up. The building manager began constructing additional cubicles. I finally said to Phil, "Come on! Let's hire these people!" Let's make them legitimate. My staff was supporting an entire company, lessening claims examiners' load. We garnered zero respect -- we were, after all, data entry drones -- but I knew and my staff knew that our results were pivotal. 

Suddenly I had thirty-seven folks. I had to designate an assistant/trainer. Kristen had begun as a temp, like everyone had. She was whip-smart and fast, and better at the nuts and bolts of the job than I could ever be, and I was pretty good. She was a kid - maybe twenty years old. I picked her. Kristen handled the day-to-day operations while I composed performance reviews and dealt with the Philadelphia overseers. 

In the blink of an eye, things began to spiral exponentially. I had thirty-seven employees and was instructed to add a second shift. Then I inherited the referral process, which encompassed another twenty-two people, plus their two supervisors. 

By the end of 1997, the IKFI Department had one hundred and fifty staff and five supervisors. 

And I never received the designation of "manager", even though that was definitely what I was.

My new overseer was named Peter. He was a kid, but I ignored that because he was ostensibly my new "boss". Peter resided in the hallowed confines of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, so our interactions were mostly by phone. Peter took a trip out to the hinterlands a couple of times a year, to check in and assert his authority. He was a decent guy, albeit "by the book". On one of his semi-annual visits, he mandated that we do a survey of our IKFI employees. The next day he paged through the survey results and iterated that there was a consensus that I practiced favoritism. I protested strongly. Peter responded, "Perception is the truth". 

"Perception is the truth" is one of the few management principles I've always remembered. Meaning, whether it's true or not, if people believe it, that is their reality. Peter bestowed upon me my most vital takeaway from my lone foray into management. 

The other thing Peter did for me was to survey the building landscape and recognize that I was sorely being squeezed out, between my five supervisors and the paucity of real estate. "There's an empty office in the corner, just sitting there. Why don't you move into it?" he asked. I stared at him wide-eyed, feeling like a common criminal. 

"You think?" I asked. 

"Why not?"

And thus I claimed the very first and only office I ever owned. 

My relocation was not viewed warmly by Claims management. In management's eyes, I was a pretender; an interloper. After all, IKFI was the branch's unwanted stepchild -- not a "real" department. It didn't have the cache of Claims. Phil was still nominally in charge of the office, but he had acceded the bulk of his duties to his new assistant manager, Linda. Apparently an assistant was needed, because Phil really didn't much feel like working, and someone had to do the actual job of managing. Here is where men and women differ -- Phil didn't care if I had an office or whether I'd pitched a tent in the parking lot. Linda viewed my new digs as a threat to her dominance.

Linda had clawed her way to the top by the sheer force of naked ambition. She was a skinny bleached blonde who was a mom in the sense that she waved hello to her kids just before their bedtime, and left the actual child rearing to a paid "girl". She was the kind of mother who acknowledged she actually had children only when they did something she could boast about, which was apparently not often. She had a boy and a girl, Boy and Girl, we (and she) will call them. Linda's background was not in health insurance, which was perfectly okay by me. My background wasn't in insurance, either. Everybody's gotta start somewhere. But whereas I had found my way to management by enduring the scourge of barely minimum-wage jobs, Linda was a person who inserted herself into her every boss's good graces by flattery and batting her eyelashes. 

I got the measure of Linda the day I phoned her to tell her my mother-in-law had passed away and that I would be taking my three days of bereavement leave, and she responded, "Do you have all your work caught up?"

Linda had initially been hired as a claims supervisor (a nice leapfrog I wished I'd been granted), and then proceeded to kiss as much ass as was required to boost her way to the top. She'd been a sycophant of Connie's, and Connie loved nothing more than boot-licking toadies. Once Connie had been shown the door, Linda latched onto whichever manager happened to occupy the corner office. Thus she eventually became the Dwight Shrute of Claims, Assistant To The General Manager. In her new position (and new office), she had everything she'd ever demeaned herself to be. 

It was an out-of-the-way means of accessing the building, but occasionally Linda took the detour to climb the steps outside my new office, just so she could amble by and shoot disdainful glances in my direction. Some days I'd pretend not to notice her; some days I'd give a little wave, which took her aback, and she'd jerk her hand in the air in an awkward faux-Nazi salute.

Linda deplored the fact that she no longer had control over me, but she made up for that helplessness by denigrating my department in passive-aggressive comments. I didn't care. I loved the fact that my manager resided fifteen hundred miles away.  

I had never before noticed, but now, in my new office, the office's piped-in music was unnaturally loud. I kept hearing this song, and had no idea who sang it or what the name of the song was. Google didn't exist yet. I think all we had was America Online and maybe Netscape. My local music store, Musicland, however, had bored personnel who stood around waiting to answer stupid questions, so I stopped in one evening and repeated a few lines of lyrics to the clerk, and he pointed to a section of CD's labeled, "Boz Scaggs". 

I love this song and I don't care if it doesn't fit any musical category. 




Let me just say that Boz Scaggs is ultimately cool. From "Lido" to "Look What You've Done To Me", he was always there, beneath the surface; under my consciousness. But always there.

It was weird hearing songs from the fabricated tape loop. The company who supplied the tunes didn't want to offend, so they were never too country or too rock -- middle of the road was where they landed. They were inexplicably big on Steve Wariner songs, one of which sort of broke my heart a couple years later, but that's a whole other story.

I didn't pay a lot of attention to radio then, because I had a lot of work stuff rattling around in my brain, but my kid liked this song, and therefore I rather liked it, too:




Make no mistake -- I was still buying CD's -- but country was beginning to disappoint. George released a mediocre album, the new people weren't very good singers (Tim McGraw). Thank God for Mark Chesnutt:



And Diamond Rio:


A singer who rarely got her due, but one of the all-time best singers (country or otherwise) of the modern era, Trisha Yearwood was possibly eclipsed by her future husband's success in the nineties, but wow, I love this:


This was not a great song, but it stands out for two reasons -- one, it was played on the radio ad nauseum, and most importantly, the lyrics featured Bismarck, North Dakota. Sure, you may scoff, but how many songs feature your hometown, unless you live in Amarillo or San Francisco?


As out of touch as I was with the musical world in 1997, I still vaguely remember the media-created controversy regarding who sang this next song better. I know one of the versions well, because it has been my personal earworm for over a year (and I have almost rid myself of it; yet, here I go again). The other version I frankly don't remember, so I'm going to play along and then issue my official decree. (And all this drama for a crappy movie.)






I like Leann Rimes (or "liked" Leann Rimes when she took music seriously, which she apparently no longer has time for, what with her beach bikini pics and all). I loved "Blue". She sang the hell out of that song. But here's the difference for me: Trisha has a warmth to her voice -- like honey. And Trisha's singing is not forced. It just is Trisha on her front porch, maybe with her farmhand husband,  Garth, strumming an acoustic guitar. Trisha doing what comes naturally and drawing in neighbors from miles around, just to hear an angel sing. 

Leann is eyelash-batting. Trisha is instinct.

Music can be a life lesson.














Saturday, February 3, 2018

1996 ~ Country Music ~ And Work


When Evil Manager Connie was shepherded out of the building in 1994, I finally felt like I could be myself; not a simpering lackey dutifully following behind her big fat ass as she conducted a tour of our new office wing.

I had swallowed my meager pride and forced myself to genuflect before her eminence in a last-ditch attempt to hold onto my job, which was the best-paying job I'd ever had and would ever have in Bismarck, North Dakota -- a city bereft of presentable positions. My deceit worked -- Evil Connie wasn't too perceptive. In actuality, she was such a megalomaniac, she believed that I'd suddenly fallen in love with her. She, in turn, came to see me as one of her dutiful soldiers. I was ON BOARD! In truth, I hated -- despised -- her very existence.

I played that painful game for three long (l-o-n-g) years, before I got my chance; a chance I didn't seek out, but one that fell in my lap. One I hadn't planned for; an opportunity that was thrust upon me.

I didn't waste it.

I take pride (and credit) for getting that miserable piece of human existence fired. (All you other USHC supervisors -- you're welcome. Except for you, LeeAnn and Linda, because you were the ultimate ass-kissers and you two will just need to live with yourselves.)

Nearly a quarter of a century later, corporate culture has progressed to the point at which managers can no longer abuse their subordinates with impunity. Human Resource departments are eager to justify their value, and they cherish nothing more than culling the herd. In '94, the little people needed to simply shut up. Like I said, I didn't seek out the opportunity to spill my guts. Somebody asked me and I didn't waste the opportunity. I had three years of vile hatred choking my intestines.

Once Savior Replacement Manager had moved on to brighter vistas or soothing retirement, our VP, Dave Kolton, recruited a guy he'd worked with at Mutual of Omaha in Lincoln, Nebraska, to make the slippery move to Bismarck and be in charge.

Phil was an easy mark. We all pegged him immediately as a lazy guy who'd much rather page through the local phone book than actually manage. I was surprised I didn't pop into his office one day and catch him clipping his toenails.

My unit was situated right outside Phil's office, so he focused on me preternaturally. I didn't purposefully dress provocatively -- short skirts were the order of the day -- but Phil wasn't shy about commenting on the fact that he saw my legs "all the way up" as I was bending over, peering at my employee's CRT, helping her with her question.

Phil was a pervert.

A lackadaisical pervert.

Phil and I had our go-rounds. He was an Aries to my Taurus.

One day, as I was erasing words from my whiteboard, during one of our "Goal and Go" days, he sauntered up and said, "Your unit is always the first to leave." I whirled around, fuzzy eraser in hand and hissed, "My people do more than their share and YOU KNOW IT."  Little Phil skulked away and for a second I thought, "You've blown it...again".

I thought I'd have to begin scouring the want-ads once more, and I beat myself up the entire weekend I'd ridden Evil Connie from our existence, and now I'd overplayed my hand. But damn, my people didn't deserve the flick of his hand!

(You would find me somewhere behind the sign, near those windows, smoking.)

A funny thing happened, though: Bespectacled Phil was actually cowed. He avoided me for about a week. Eventually he and I came to an unspoken understanding. He would no longer make half-assed comments and I would address him with a modicum of respect. Sometimes he'd stop into my glass-encased "office" and plop down in my second chair, shoot the breeze; try to be funny. I always laughed. I wanted detente. I wanted to keep my job. I'd experienced much worse managers. So Phil was a lazy sloth; at least he did little harm. In hindsight, I think he was supremely insecure and puffed himself up to mitigate his vulnerability. That's the difference between men and women. Women castigate themselves for failures. Men over-compensate.

My unit was comprised of over-achievers. No claims unit in the history of US Healthcare had ever achieved 100% quality for a full month. It was unheard of. Until my unit came along and smashed it; not just once, but over and over again. I had some really smart employees -- really smart. Take care of your people and they'll make you look good. My people made me look good. That would lead to something completely unexpected the next year; something I was sure I didn't want, but that Good Ol' Phil told me to "think about and then come back and say yes".

However, before that day arrived, there was music. Maybe small towns breed homogeneity. Maybe we're supposed to disdain that; but maybe we like having people around us who share our tastes. We all liked country in 1996. Those who didn't rarely brought it up in conversation. There was the rare Mariah Carey fan, and I was okay with that, although I admit I tried to steer that wayward wanderer toward George Strait -- as a public service.

My theory is that the music that resonates with us is from a time when we felt good. I've had those eras. I felt good in the mid-eighties, when I had two shining, growing boys and I really liked my hospital job. I felt good in the mid-sixties, when music was new and glistening and life held endless potential. I felt pretty good in the mid-nineties. I'd discovered that I had a voice and I could use it and I wouldn't necessarily get fired.

This music made me feel good:


 
There was this new girl. I wasn't completely sold on her. Female country artists had a certain protocol they needed to follow, plus she didn't sound like or present herself like any female country artists I knew. The thing was, one couldn't ignore her. I secretly loved her, but publicly dismissed her. I was a rather rigid music aficionado then:



I was never on board the Garth Brooks train. I thought his songs were mostly maudlin and frankly, not country. I think Garth might admit as much. I never understood the Garth Mania, but I guess he was a cross-over and that meant...something. I bought approximately four Garth Brooks CD's and was able to winnow out two...three at the most...decent songs. I did like this one, though, but alas, Garth didn't see fit to film an official video for it. I guess if you don't have a piano and red splotches of blood, it's just not worth one's time:



Clearly, the best country song of 1996 was one that Patsy could have recorded in the sixties. My old DJ friend Bill Mack (not an actual friend, but a lion of country radio who I cherished) wrote this song. Too bad LeAnn Rimes apparently couldn't live up to her hype. She is a phenomenal singer, but she chose to go a different way, which is okay. She'll always have this:



Speaking of Cheyenne, here's George again:



1996 will always be mine and George's year. Professionally speaking.

It would not be long before country became sewer waste and my life would be turned upside down. Music and I soon would take a break.

But it was sublime while it lasted.







Friday, February 2, 2018

1994 ~ Country Music ~ And Work


My new career path of "being in charge" became exponentially better in 1994, once Evil Boss From Hell was canned. Connie, as I detailed in my previous post, had committed an error many in the corporate world make; becoming drunk with power. It's silly when you think about it -- a company only wants you around as long as you are useful to them. The corporate bosses don't care how high an opinion you have of yourself.

Our little office being a far-western outpost of the East Coast Insurance Corridor, we'd had little oversight. As long as our numbers were good (really good), as far as our overseers were concerned, everything in Bismarck, North Dakota was peachy. They didn't know, and probably didn't care that Evil Connie had created her own little fiefdom on the prairie. The office dynamic was much like all offices; underlings who gushed over her, their red lipstick prints imprinted on her butt. The rebels, who either didn't know any better (me) or just said "F it". A couple of us thought our charge was to produce results and to treat our employees like "people". Ha. I was desperately naive, but this was my first time being "in charge", so I operated on instinct.

I stepped confidently into Evil Connie's office for my annual review. My unit's numbers were superb. I was expecting a few kudos and a decent bump in salary. Instead, I was accused of "making the other supervisors look bad". I'd brought caramel rolls for my staff one overtime Saturday morning. "LeeAnn didn't bring caramel rolls!" she charged, jamming her bony finger at me.

I was upbraided for not stopping in to say goodnight to Evil Connie on a daily basis.  As the haranguing continued, I began to cry. The evil woman refused to even reach behind her to grab a Kleenex out of the box to quench the ugly snot that was now dripping from my nose.

Evil Connie's parting words to me were, "Either you become part of my team or I'll replace the team."

The only person I ever told (I didn't even tell the person I was married to -- I was too mortified and ashamed for jeopardizing our family's well-being) was my mentor; my fellow supervisor, who I called that evening. She'd endured the exact same diatribe the same day. Carlene was maybe the rebel of the bunch, but not really. She simply had conducted herself the same way I had -- with a modicum of respect toward her employees. It was maybe a bit better to know I wasn't alone, but I still scoured the newspaper want ads that night. It was clear my days at US Healthcare were limited. I would stop in every evening from that point forward and say goodnight to Evil Connie, and hold onto my job as long as I could, or until I could find another source of income. Our town was tiny and open positions were nearly non-existent. I stepped inside my glass-enclosed cubicle at the front of my unit every morning and tried not to break down in sobs.

(FYI -- #metoo isn't just about sexual harassment. Abuse comes in many forms.)

The Philadelphia honchos generally showed up once a year, if they couldn't find a way to get out of it. To us, they were voices over the phone; I barely recognized their faces when they appeared in the office. I'd see strange men tramping through the corridor and it would dawn on me that these were "the bosses". One was named Dave and I don't remember the other man's name. They showed up unexpectedly in the summer of '93 and sequestered themselves in an unused office. We supervisors gaggled about, speculated. This wasn't a scheduled visit. Eventually, around 1:00 p.m. my phone rang and I was summoned. Dave and Other Guy asked me questions about Evil Connie. I have no recollection what I spilled. I do remember telling them that Peg and Inez deserved to become supervisors (they had languished as assistants for far, far too long and they were smart). I must have said things about Evil Woman, but I don't remember. I do remember wondering why, of all the supervisors, I was the one they zeroed in on.

That was the day I sat in my car at 5:00 and watched, before I shifted into reverse, Evil Connie exit the building with two paper grocery bags and a potted plant. I slumped down in my seat and stared. It seemed like she was leaving forever, but I was disoriented; flummoxed.

I will never know how it happened that Dave and Other Guy homed in on me. Carlene was the only one who knew and she professed innocence and I believe her. She had her own story to tell -- she didn't need to use me as a surrogate. Am I sorry I helped to get Evil Woman fired? No. I've learned that karma doesn't always work, but sometimes it does. After all these years, do I feel sorry for Evil Connie? No. I will say that she taught me one thing, though -- always watch your back. There are always more people who'd rather shoot you than shake your hand. And it's all based on their insecurities; their shortcomings. Their inherent flaws.

(Shortly thereafter, both Peg and Inez secured supervisor positions. It remains one of the few times in my life I ever felt listened to.)

Once Evil Bitch was gone forever, some poor decent, capable, professional man got shipped in to take over.

I don't remember his name (alas), but someone back in the home office must have been jealous of him; wanted to get rid of him, so they gave him the least desirous post they could find on the map. New Manager was a good company man, so he (no doubt reluctantly) acceded to his new post (I would soon enough find out how that whole scheme worked).

This man was completely hands-off, which is how a manager should have been. But he did understand that we were all winging it, and he brought in professionals to teach us how to be supervisors. We all met at lunchtime in a conference room and were schooled in management theory. Our new manager passed out paperback copies of "Leadership Secrets of Attila The Hun" and sent us home to read and absorb. This man is now long retired, but as professionally distant as he was toward us, I will never forget what he did for me. I didn't need to get up close and personal with him; I didn't need to shed tears in his office. I needed him to manage and mentor, and that's exactly what he did.

As the soul-crushing cloud of Evil Woman dissipated, life at US Healthcare became sweet. Somebody came up with a "get to know you" game, in which we devised ten questions for each person to answer, and we had to find someone whose answer matched the one on the card in our hand. It was a free-for-all of everyone milling about, trying to notch ten correct responses so we'd win. It was a game without a prize, but that wasn't the point. I remember one of us supervisors came up with, "What kind of car do you drive?" and our aloof manager had answered, "Infiniti", a make of car of which I'd never heard, but I realized this guy had money, and why not? He had a thankless job in a rustic wilderness. He deserved some kind of reward.

Me, being me, devised the question, "What's your favorite song?" That was fun. I soon learned that, out of the one hundred and fifty-or-so of us, one hundred and forty-nine loved country music. That warmed my heart, because country deserved to be loved in 1994. Diamond Rio, Collin Raye, Mark Chesnutt, Dwight Yoakam, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Little Texas, George, Pam Tillis, Clay Walker, Alan Jackson. It was a country music renaissance in '94.

Life was suddenly good and we had music like this:




Sorry, no live performance video of this one, but come on:


My man:


I confess; I love this song:


I saw Diamond Rio in concert once, in an intimate casino setting, and I also saw the mandolin player, Gene Johnson, eat a steak and baked potato in front of me, bothered by autograph-seeking fans, but while I was seated behind him, I gave him his space. Anything else would have been disrespectful, but I did and do love Diamond Rio:



They used to make heartbreak songs:



Alan Jackson's flame had turned into more of a smolder already by '94 -- he was settling into a real career that would eventually land him in the Country Music Hall of Fame. That doesn't mean he wasn't still making good records; they just weren't Oh Wow! records. I like this one:


This recording did sound familiar, but I didn't know (or had forgotten) that it was a Jackie DeShannon song. In my defense, it had been the B side of another track, and it was released in1963, when all I cared about was Top Forty (though I had no idea what Top Forty actually was). Regardless, Pam Tillis did Jackie DeShannon proud:




I could include tons more hits from 1994, but suffice it to say that it was the tail end of the golden age of country. I was thirty-nine years old and on my way to horizons and heartbreaks I couldn't even conjure.

1994, however, was the last time music played a huge part in my little life story.







Friday, January 26, 2018

1993 (and Lari White)


In 1993 my career was finally on track. I'd dwelled in the bowels of part-time work since approximately 1979 -- retail, standing in high heels for approximately four hours a night; hospital work for which I wore a uniform of polyester white slacks and polyester cobalt blue tunics that needed to be washed and ironed on a board propped in the middle of my living room every other day, since I only possessed two pairs of each; before pinning on my white plastic name tag and heading off for an evening of clipboards and lab slips. Honestly, that hospital job was my all-time favorite, but it was a dead end. It wasn't like I was going to advance to a position as an M.D.

By 1990, I'd landed an insurance job, of which I had absolutely zero knowledge. Luckily for me, one of the people they'd chosen for the thirty-seven open positions dropped out, and I guess I was first runner-up. My only claim to fame was "medical terminology" knowledge. I guess that was good enough.

All thirty-seven of us rookies attended claims processing class in a cavernous room stocked with rows of CRT's, on the third floor of a downtown office building that had rooms for rent. Our trainers had flown in from Philadelphia, and they disdained us and weren't shy about sharing that view. We were rubes, after all -- rural western plains folk; simpletons.

The flock of us inhabited that windowless room for six long weeks. At one point in the midst of training, our overseers announced that three of us had been appointed as supervisors, but it wasn't too late -- we remaining castoffs could still apply to be assistant supervisors. I went for it -- what the heck -- what were they going to do, fire me for trying? I flamed out. So I was back to learning how to process routine eye exams, holding my arm in the air fruitlessly, hoping to get a simple question answered, and generally failing to accomplish that.

At ten o'clock and twelve, all of us would filter down the elevator to the concrete planters outdoors and smoke cigarettes. Those who were non-partakers would mill about until it was time to go back. My most vivid memory of those weeks was that I got to park in a winding, escalating parking garage, which sure as hell beat slopping through snow from the hospital exit through a frigid, wind-whipping January squall in order to rev my car's motor for ten minutes before it was sizzling enough to drive home.

Once our brand-spankin' new building was completed, we moved out of that stuffy room and  a couple of miles north, and by 1991 I'd finally landed that vaunted assistant supervisor position I was convinced I wanted. I think there must have been some sort of expansion -- no, I'm sure that was it -- and new supervisors were needed. As an "assistant", I had a leg up, so, yes, I for once and all got to be in charge.

Being in charge is just as awesome as one imagines it to be. I was born to be in charge. I was a benevolent leader, which did not sit well with The Big Cheese Woman, and she at one point threatened to fire me for having the utter nerve to bring donuts for my staff on a required Saturday overtime shift. But I (alas) outlasted her and in fact exacted my revenge by helping to get her fired. She was an evil, evil woman, and I relished watching her walk out the door of US Healthcare for the very last time with her two brown paper grocery bags of belongings. Karma was delectable.

Once The Evil Bitch was gone, life became sublime. Our staff had by then tripled and we had girls and women poring out of every hallway crevice. I had convinced our Pennsylvania overseers to promote two deserving women to the post of supervisor -- one had been my assistant. I believed then, and still do, that one should be promoted based on merit and not according to "who we like or don't like". That same bullshit that permeates every corner of corporate life.

Bumpkins that we were, all of us; young, old, and middle-aged; loved country music. And it was the nineties, when country music was exciting and relevatory. Artists like Tracy Lawrence, Carlene Carter, Clint Black, and Suzy Boguss pored out of our FM radios and our TV screens via CMT.

I remember my local DJ calling Lari White "LAW-ree White". Maybe that's how she preferred to be addressed. So when I purchased her album, "Lead Me Not", I always said (inside my head), LAW-ree White.

She was good -- we forget, maybe because her flame flared so quickly -- but we really shouldn't forget.







This is the song that will always be "Lari White" to me:


Hearing Lari White reminds me of sultry summer nights. Saffron street lights in the black night. Girls I used to know; Peg and Laurel and Lynette and Tracy.

And limousines in the night.


RIP, Lari White. You shouldn't have left us this soon.




Saturday, January 20, 2018

A Year Lost To Time -- 1962

(all cars looked like this)

My sisters could tell you more about 1962 than I am able to. It's not that I wasn't around -- I was -- I was seven, which is an age when one is barely conscious of the world around them. I was confused, trying to feel my way in the vast universe that primarily consisted of my school bus, home, and Valley Elementary School. 

In second grade my school caught on fire. That was something different. It was mid-winter, and all of us kids were stuffed into waiting buses, and then the teachers exited the school carrying boxes of snow boots and pressed them into our confused hands. I went home with one boot that fit and another red rubber boot that was two sizes too big. I don't recall being traumatized. Little kids tend to accept whatever happens to pop up. I had to go to a different school while mine was being rehabilitated. There were only three elementary schools in my town -- Riverside, Valley, and Crestwood. My class got bused to Crestwood, where my teacher commenced to instruct us in the hallway. Again, I was not unnerved by having to squat on the hard linoleum floor for six hours a day as the regular Crestwood kids stomped past on their way to the lunch room and stared at us. 

This went on for approximately six-to-twelve weeks, and then we returned to Valley, which looked brand-spankin'-fine, like a blazing inferno had never engulfed the furnace room. I tend to think everyone over-reacted. I had a boyfriend, who I liked but didn't like, Jon Bush, and I got mixed up the day we moved back to Valley, and pushed him away. I thought my teacher had only wanted me to correct one classmate's paper, but she had meant for me to correct everybody's. She got mad when she saw me give Jon a shove and she reprimanded me sternly. Last time in my life I ever shoved anyone. 

The big event in my seven-year-old life was Valentine's Day. We crafted our Valentine receptacles out of shoe boxes; decorated them with bric-a-brac from Mom's sewing box and festooned them with red Crayola hearts. Everybody had to give everybody a valentine. There was no quibbling. Mom chose the valentine pack based upon the number of students in my class. It was a difficult decision, however, determining which valentine to bestow upon whom. If a girl was a good friend, I gave her the prettiest sparkly heart. For Jon, I didn't really want to lead him on, but I did need to distinguish him from the other boys in my class. The sentiments printed on the cards contained subtle differences. For example, "You've Roped My Heart Podner" was far more meaningful than "Hi Cookie!" Choosing the appropriate valentine for each person in my class was a very serious undertaking. In retrospect, perhaps I placed too much significance on the process.

On Valentine's Day, when I got home with my shoe box stuffed full of hand-printed hearts, I perched on the top of the stairs and sorted and categorized my cards and created little songs to accompany them as I danced them about. I was a bit too invested in Valentine's Day.

That, in a nutshell, is my memory of 1962.

Music was haphazard. Granted, music was filtered through my sisters' tastes. My oldest sister was kind of flighty -- one could never pin her down as far as what she truly liked. My second oldest sister was damn moody. I didn't dare ask her what music she preferred, or anything, really; because she might just fly off the handle. I was her mangy mutt -- someone she was forced to tolerate, but really a giant pain in the ass.

I'm guessing my sisters didn't really like this song, but it was a giant hit. This is because radio in 1962 wasn't radio as we know it today (if anyone actually listens to radio today). Singles weren't slotted into crisp categories. There wasn't rock ('n roll) and country (western) and easy listening. The DJ played them all! And mixed them up! Right after Jay and the Americans came Frank Sinatra! Yes, disc jockeys didn't just stab a button and up came a whole pre-fab playlist. DJ's actually played real records and they picked them out themselves. They also gauged local hits by how many call-in requests they received -- yes. Ahh, so antiquated.

Anyway, this single, I'm guessing, was for the "old folks", because we all listened to the same radio station (in my case, KRAD), be we seven or seventy-seven.


Much like this:


Yes, there was a common thread running through the old folks' songs. Lots of violins and a rhythm that was sort of a "slow gait". Connie Francis was a mega-star in 1962. I remember playing at my cousin's house when one of those "be the first caller to guess this singer" blurbs came on the radio. My aunt hollered to my cousin, "Connie Francis!" and my cousin dialed the radio station's number. "Is it Connie Francis?" she asked. "You're our winner!" My cousin won the black MGM single and all she had to do was have her mom drive her to the station to pick it up. I played that game, too, except all the songs I knew were records I already owned, and I did my own guessing without my mom's help. I often ended up with double copies of the same '45, but it was the notoriety that counted. 

To be frank, there were only two renowned female singers in '62 -- Connie Francis and Brenda Lee -- so there was a fifty-fifty chance my cousin aunt would get it right. Sadly, I can find no live performance videos of this song (Connie is shy):



You can see why I had such a laissez-faire attitude toward music. Well, toward everything, really, but that's kind of a seven-year-old thing.

There were a few more rockin' hits in 1962; songs that my sisters much preferred. Face it, it was a new world. JFK was president and he was young. Ike probably liked Nat King Cole, but it was time to rocket into the second half of the twentieth century. Sputnik was being launched into space, whatever Sputnik was, and John Glenn had climbed inside a "capsule" and putted across the sky.

Yep, this was more like it:


Dang it, I loved this song in '62. I danced and sang in front of the upstairs bedroom mirror to it. It had a nonsense intro and harmony and a good beat (you could dance to it). What's not to love for a little kid?


In 1962 "twisting" was of supreme importance. My sisters did a masterful rendition of the dance in our kitchen one winter evening, to the family's delight and consternation. I've featured Chubby Checker's version here too many times, so here is a variation:


The "peppermint" twist was what all the cool cats did, especially in New York. You know, people like Truman Capote and Lee Radziwell. And their martinis.

The twist was by far not the only dance craze of the time. No. There was any stupid dance that any dunce could do, even if just by accident. The twist was really good exercise, but if one was tired, they could always do the mashed potato, which essentially involved simply contorting one's feet in and out. The remainder of the body could rest. Hey, I'm not a snob when it comes to dances. My generation had the jerk, which was ordinary arm exertion, as opposed to foot movement, but the result was the same. One could be their regular lazy self and still "dance".



Believe it or not, this single hit number five on the charts. You may think this is a tired old saw; the song that pops up every time a movie scene demands it, but there was a time when this was new. Of course, at seven I didn't know what a "stripper" was. My big brother knew. You gotta admit, it had a good beat.


Aside from the kitsch, music was beginning to show signs of what was to come. 


There was this new group that not many people paid attention to. They wore matching plaid shirts. So hokey. I don't know whatever happened to them. Maybe I should do a Google search.


I'm including this simply because it's good:



Gene Pitney was a rock star in the days before there was such a thing as rock stars. I suspect he probably really wanted to be on Broadway, but nevertheless. This guy could sing. And he had the look -- the early sixties Anthony Perkins look.



Yea, goofball was around. Sorry, I mean Elvis Presley. My sisters liked him a lot. I almost wish I liked him, but I'm not sure why. In '62 I frankly thought Ricky Nelson was better. Aside from being a caricature, it struck me that Elvis tried too hard.


My sisters had this album. I wonder if they remember. It seems, in my recollection, that my two sisters shared singles and albums. I'm averse to that. I think music should be the possession of one person. The reason I like this song is because it foreshadowed the direction my life would go, musically. It's not rock (or rock 'n roll). It's country. They called it rock 'n roll in 1962. It wasn't:



To sum up, at age seven I was confused, befuddled. I had the beginning of an inkling of what music was -- good music and bad music. Music wasn't the sum of my existence then. 

It soon would be.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Your Future Has Been Decided


Don't you love those stories about how someone abandoned their staid old life and embarked on an entirely new career at age fifty?

Sorry, I'm not buying it.

I'm a believer that what we will become has been decided for us by age five. We can fight against it, but we can't change the essence of ourselves. There may be detours along the way, but most of us come back to our real nature eventually.

When I was five, my career goal was to be "in charge". Rather a nebulous ambition, I admit, but there is a logical rationale behind it. I was a shy kid (which, by the way, is not a fun way to be); timid; scared of making a wrong move and drawing others' eyes to me. A darkened corner was my preferred resting place. Shy kids aren't wobbly toothpicks -- they do have a strong spirit, but it stays hidden. Shy kids are probably more resilient than most people. They depend on themselves -- for comfort, for validation. They know their talents, but take them for granted. I was a kid who drew pictures and made up stories and songs. These weren't pursuits I needed to "learn"; they were just what I did.

Alone in the clammy basement of our farmhouse, the games I played were those of a teacher instructing her class (of empty chairs I'd set up in front of my card table "desk"), or of a priest saying mass -- again in front of my card table altar. Mass was said in Latin at that time, so I just made up words as I held my chalice high -- "Domini...something..."

The thread that tied these games together was that I was at the front of the room and I was in charge.

Shy kids want to be in charge; be noticed; be the center of attention -- but only if they are in control.

I suppose I was, too, a bit of a ham. I craved attention, but only at my behest. You can look at me when I tell you it's okay to look at me.

Today, all these years later, I am a teacher, so to speak. I like parts of my job -- those that put me in front of the room. I can walk among my students and lecture extemporaneously. In real life, I'm generally tongue-tied, my words sputtering forth in fits and starts; but in front of a group, I'm transformed. There is no explanation for it, and I don't spend any minutes pondering it. It is what it is.

It's me. The essence of me.

I bided my time for a lot of years, functioning as a clerk-typist or another button-pusher -- a cashier -- working quietly; unobtrusively, before the opportunity presented itself, or perhaps before I made my own opportunity. It's difficult to say after all this time if the possibility found me or if I found the possibility. However, once I became "in charge", I was at home. And that's when I shined. All that practice at age five paid off, finally.

I could tell you about my kids and how what they were at age five turned out to be what they became, but trust me on this -- I was there. I saw it, and I know it.

I'm not saying that our life experiences after age five don't shape us. Everything shapes us. But those experiences are the extra cheese atop our pizza. They enhance, but they don't create.

Musically, at age five, I was adrift. There were good records released, but music confused me. It was schizophrenic. Some of it was as dull as the test pattern on our big console TV; some of it my big brother informed me was good music. The only song I made up my own mind about; the only one I definitively knew was good, was this:


The number one hit of 1960 is one that Don Draper would really like; one that Adrian Cronauer made fun of:



My most lingering memory of 1960 is that Connie Francis was the girl singer. One could win a free 45 RPM single from the local radio station by being the first caller to identify who sang this song:


As girl singers went, I preferred this: 


Yep, taste is not acquired, but born.

In 1960 it was the battle of the girl singers -- Connie Francis versus Brenda Lee. We know who ultimately came out on top, don't we?

This song sucked, but that didn't stop the DJ's from playing it over and over. We were bereft of decent music in the midpoint of the twentieth century . Even at my tender age, I knew this song was just wrong:




My brother informed me this was good music. He was not wrong:


My older sisters were such slaves to pop fads. I'm so glad that never, ever, happened to me. I mean, I never once did The Jerk or The Watusi. Never.


My dad liked this song. I was never an Elvis fan (sorry; still am not), but if my dad liked something, that carried even more weight than my brother's opinion:


I missed this song in 1960 and only caught up with it later. At least the five-year-old me doesn't remember it. My loss. This guy would see me clear through the eighties. And...whoa...


This musical interlude not withstanding, remember the five-year-old you. The five-year-old you is who you really are.

Don't try to deny it.