A Lifetime of Listening

A friend over at the Fall Online Forum (FOF) recently started a discussion called “Music Formats and You.” There had been a little sparring among members about digital vs analog formats in various threads, so to pull the conversations into one place (and possibly to reduce bile levels elsewhere), he framed a new discussion with a simple statement and question:

All of us on here, I’m presuming, started out with music in an age where vinyl/cassettes were the norm. But music purchasing/listening has undergone a radical transformation over the last thirty years or so — so what has your experience been?

I responded to the question there in the community thread, and my answer turned out to be longer and more complex than I would have thought. So I decided to bring it over here and flesh it out a little in a couple of places, to see if stimulates any of your own reflections about how you’ve chosen to tickle your ear buds, then and now, and maybe tomorrow.

Here ’tis . . .

Being a child of the middle ’60s, my parents had a record player, and so I played records. (Nobody called records “vinyl” back then. I wonder when that affectation started?) From my earliest sentient years, I can remember having my own little record player, I think inherited from older neighbor kids. It was a little portable job, with red and white checkered paperboard casing and a white plastic handle, perfect for playing 7-inch singles like “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen, over, and over, and over again. It had 16, 33, 45, and 78 rpm settings, which added to the amusement factor when those singles were played at the wrong speeds.

At some point, I moved into fiddling with my parents’ record player. It was a bit more complicated, and I wasn’t sure why the discs on their platter were bigger than mine were, with smaller holes in the middle. But I persevered, and started trawling through their albums, with some unexpected consequences, in one notable case.

When I was living with or near my grandparents intermittently during the late ’60s and early ’70s during my dad’s military tours overseas, my aunt (who was just a few years older than me) had one of those groovy space ball 8-track tape players, so I used to play her 8-tracks a lot when I was there. Steppenwolf Gold is still a fave album from having overplayed it for years on 8-track, but I still expect to the hear the distinctive ker-CHUNK sound in the middle of some cuts that were split for time sequencing reasons.

My Dad was in the Marines and liked tech, so when he came back from Japan some time in the early ’70s, he had a cassette tape console for the home stereo. I had friends who were using little reel to reel recorders to tape songs off the radio, so I had a leg up on them in being able to make better mix tapes from radio and records, and to listen to the mix tapes that my Dad made. I am pretty sure we were ahead of the curve as a family on this format, since I do not remember other kids having cassettes so early.

I got my own little “all in one” stereo for my bedroom in 7th grade. It had radio, record player and 8-track, but no cassette. (We were still ahead of the curve on that front, apparently). I started earning my own money around this time with various small jobs and most it went to buying records. I mostly stopped making mix tapes since I had to be down at the family stereo to do that, and I preferred being up in my bedroom alone. As one does.

I got a knockoff replica of a SONY Walkman in 11th grade, and since I was not making many tapes in my bedroom at the time, I started buying pre-recorded ones so I had stuff to listen to while walking about, and later driving. When I went to the Naval Academy, we were not allowed to have any stereos or other music playing devices throughout the entire plebe year, but I carried this Walkman and a dozen favorite tapes in with me to Annapolis, and listened to them late at night under the covers. Plebe Year offered many challenges, and for a music junkie, being starved of tunes might have been among the most formidable of them, psychologically speaking.

Sophomore year at Navy, I got both my own modular stereo (now radio, records, dual cassette recorder) and a TEAC Tascam 4-track recorder. I bought tons of albums through college, and I made tons of mix tapes, along with recording my own music.

Compact Discs emerged during the latter part of my time at Navy. The first one I heard was Pink Floyd’s The Wall at high volume in an audiophile friend’s room and it was awesome. But by this time I had a collection of about 2,000 records and big carrying cases full of cassette tapes, and I really did not want to re-purchase everything in a new format. I knew that once I switched to CDs and embraced their (seeming) convenience, sound quality and durability, it was going to render my record collection obsolete, so I resisted CD’s charms for a long time.

My wife Marcia brought that era to an end one Christmas when she got me a CD player. I think the first CD I bought was Hawkwind’s Masters of the Universe compilation. As predicted and expected, over the next 15 years or so my CD collection grew, often as a result of trading off my records for store credit which I immediately used to buy shiny silver discs. I still made a lot of mix tapes from CDs to cassettes in this era, mainly for listening in the car (early automotive CD players were terrible), or to send to friends.

I got online in 1993 and quickly found a group of music nerds to hang out with in various communities, one of which had a mix tape trading group called TATU (“Tapes Across The Universe”). Sometime in the late ’90s the core of the TATU team (now mostly moved over to a little online Tree House called Xnet2) switched to trading CDs, so I acquired the ability to play and burn CDs on my computer instead of just via the home stereo.

I will note here, though, that I was among a probably small number of people who actually acquired the needed adapters and plugs to record between CDs and tapes and back on the computer, rather than on the stereo. That was a short and pointless technological cul-de-sac, and it was just a world of little shiny discs for a long time afterwards, until file sharing emerged.

With some probably unwarranted sense of pride, I note that I saw Napster as an ethical monstrosity and I never had an account for that or any other platform for stealing music that I had not purchased. Artists united, represent!! As a result of that particular paradigm shift, though, I did watch all the brick and mortar record and CD stores in my town bite the dust in rapid succession as the world moved away from physical ownership of music and into a world of bits and bytes alone. That was a great tragedy in this story arc, I think, and one from which we’ve never really recovered.

And so enter the iPod and iTunes era. As had been the case with my records when CDs emerged, I resisted this brave new world, because I knew, once again, that when I jumped to another entirely new platform, I would buying the very same things for a third or fourth time, and my CD collection would be shed like a husk at some point.

As was the case with my records, it was Marcia who eventually pushed me into the new paradigm, when she asked for an iPod as a Mother’s Day gift in 2011. I had to get it for her, of course, and I had to acquire an iTunes account so I could put music on it, though in the beginning I still just converted stuff from CDs to digital files, rather than buying songs from iTunes.

Being somewhat averse to Apple products (I still do not like Mac computers), when I finally decided to find a way to buy music online, I chose eMusic, which was more heavily weighted toward indie and underground music while iTunes just had the hits early on. I liked eMusic’s subscription model too: you paid a certain amount each month, and could download a certain number of songs from any album or single during that month. The download rights did not carry over from month to month, so I actually explored and acquired a lot of stuff that I would not have otherwise this way.

But over the years the variance between their model and iTunes’ model closed and it just became easier to have the single account within the Apple Empire. I got my own iPod at some point, and then we got one for the new iPod compatible family stereo, which was a relatively tiny box with relatively tiny speakers, so the old Bose Speakers and CD player and amp and all the other things that had defined the Hi Fi experience went out the door when we moved from New York to Iowa.

That remains the status quo as of autumn 2018: I have an iTunes account on my computer with about 14,000 songs available to me, all backed up on an external 1.0 terabyte hard drive. I manage six iPods for myself and my wife, making new mixes as new things come in for all of the various players. Apple recently ended their own “gadget era” (e.g. no more standalone music players, since you supposed to get music on your phone or tablet), so these great little players are on their way out, and I have acquired a stockpile of Nanos and Shuffles to rage against the dying of this paradigm as long as I can. Yeah, I could play stuff on my phone, but I don’t like carrying it around, since I have a big phone, while a Shuffle fits nicely in my pants pocket.

I still purchase all of my music online, album by album and song by song, though more often than not I actually pay for it with points that I can get from my credit cards (rather than getting airplane miles or whatever). I have not yet made the leap to Spotify or any of the other similar subscription streaming music services as I still like “owning” and not “renting” my music — even though the physical embodiment of my ownership is just a bunch of data in a little little six-inch by six-inch by two-inch black box, not the glorious milk crates of musty smelling cardboard and plastic of yesteryear.

At some point, yeah, I know I will have to jump forward again, and Marcia will probably deploy the cattle prod to make it happen at some point. But for now, I’m fighting it, knowing that I will ultimately lose this battle, as I always do.

I guess it’s the struggle that inspires me. Along with the tunes.

It sounded like crap, but no playback device ever looked as cool as the Weltron 2001 Space Ball 8-Track Player

Skycrane!!

We live on the 27th and 28th floors of a building with a view of Chicago’s busy heart, so we’re accustomed to seeing and hearing helicopters at or below our balcony level, doing police work, traffic reports, or stunts for movies and the gazillion stupid TV shows filmed in our neighborhood.

Today, though, soon after I brought Marcia her morning coffee, the helicopter noise was a bit more prominent than usual. I walked outside and had a GAWP! moment as a huge Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane buzzed right by me, and then settled slowly to hover above the corner of Randolph and Columbus, half a block away. Wow!

The Skycrane made two round trips from that corner up to the top of AON Tower — two buildings over with a rooftop just a smidge over 1,000 feet tall — carrying new transformers up and ferrying old ones down. Over the course of an hour or so I snapped and snapped and snapped, whee!

Here are some of the better shots from this morning’s entertainment, for the aviation dorks. Click for bigger versions, if you’d like, though I might have to apologize for my camera’s graininess if you do.

Research Without Frontiers

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column as a preview teaser of the forthcoming October 2018 edition of TREE Press, the monthly gazette of TREE FundYou can read the latest and back editions, and subscribe to future installments, by clicking here.

Earlier this month, I attended the International Urban Forestry Congress in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Congress was a unique gathering presented by Tree Canada, Pacific Northwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), University of British Columbia, Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and other partners. Nearly 800 people from 30 countries participated, and we were blessed with fascinating and useful lectures, engaging panel discussions, exceptional networking opportunities, and an unparalleled “battery charging” opportunity to spend time with colleagues away from our proverbial trenches, sharing our passions for urban forests around our ever-more-connected (for better or worse) tiny blue marble of a planet.

It was good to be reminded that TREE Fund is part of that global research network, and not just an Illinois corporation, nor just a United States nonprofit, nor just a North American charity. This is reflected in our grant-making programs: we typically award two Jack Kimmel International Grants in partnership with the Canadian TREE Fund annually, and a growing number of grants from our other programs have been going abroad in recent years too.

I know some readers may not consider this a positive trend, since I have had domestic partners challenge me on why they should support us if we are sending money overseas, just as I have had ISA Chapters ask why they should support us if researchers in their regions are not receiving TREE Fund grants. Regionalism is a strong force among human beings, nationally and internationally. But trees (and their symbiotic companions and parasitic predators) do not recognize property lines, nor do they hew to municipal borders, nor do they heed state lines, nor do they respect international borders.

Trees are migratory organisms across our ever-changing world, as they slowly and naturally respond to global environmental changes, or rapidly stake out new turf when we select them to line streets and shade homes on continents where nature never would have taken them. And while human preferences and prejudices vary widely from nation to nation, both native and non-native urban trees living in temperate Mediterranean climates like those found in Beirut, Perth, Los Angeles, Rome, Tunis and elsewhere may benefit from exactly the same areas of rigorous scientific inquiry, regardless of where the researchers disclosing it work and live.

I say all this as an older, pragmatic and practical American professional, and not as an inexperienced, pie-in-the-sky Utopian. Trees are a global resource, and tree science is globally relevant, regardless of any of our social, economic, religious or political leanings. TREE Fund is a small — but mighty — player in this planetary network, and we become stronger every time we gather with colleagues from around the world on behalf of the planet’s urban canopies.

Okay, so maybe this Vancouver tree does want some boundaries . . .

Keeping Charity Charitable

Note: Here is my “Leading Thoughts” column from the September 2018 edition of TREE Press. You can read the whole edition here, including our quarterly Research Report insert, which focuses on TREE Fund research conducted by Dr. Brian Kane, the Massachusetts Arborists Association Professor of Commercial Arboriculture at UMass Amherst.

As the leaves begin to color and drop here in Northern Illinois over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out our individual year-end fundraising appeal, as hard as it is to believe that the end of the fiscal year is already drawing near. We’re on track for another great year in 2018, but the unrestricted operating funds earned via the year-end appeal are crucial to our ongoing success, so my thanks to all in advance for considering us in your charitable plans in the weeks ahead.

The “charitable” component of that sentiment is more important than usual this year, as many of you are no doubt evaluating how changes in the Federal tax code could impact the deductibility of your gifts to TREE Fund and other nonprofits. While TREE Fund is not in the business of providing financial advice, we do know that many of you may find it financially beneficial this year to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing your deductions (including charitable giving), which will reduce the strictly financial tax return benefit you receive from each dollar of your charitable giving in 2018.

I respectfully hope, though, that you do not change your giving plans for that reason, since the charitable good you do for TREE Fund is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit you receive as a result of your philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and TREE Fund does indeed need your continued support if we are to build on and expand our research and education programs going forward, especially as Federal funding for urban forestry research and education may decline in parallel with lower revenues from Federal taxes.

TREE Fund is a charity, at bottom line, worthy of support for the good work we do, and for the benefits that our research and education results deliver to communities around the world. It is only through your charitable support that we are fully able to be a force for good in the world, funding vital, beneficial work that few others do. I’ve spent most of my career in the nonprofit sector, and I know that when push comes to shove, that sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through your gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax deductibility cannot.

Here’s hoping you share that sentiment with me, and that we can continue to count on you to do good for a good cause this year when you receive a letter from me asking for your support in the weeks ahead, or even if you’re inspired to give right here, right now. You may or may not receive a meaningful tax benefit from giving to us this year, but the moral and ethical benefit of sharing your resources openly and without restriction on behalf of TREE Fund or other charities you respect is profound and lasting. At the end of the day, it’s simply a good thing to do — and I remain personally committed to ensuring that we leverage your support widely, and serve as responsible stewards for funds entrusted to our care.

“Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present . . .” (Albert Camus)

September Morn

Holy moly, how did that happen, and where did the summer go???

(Well, actually summer started late in Chicago, and it’s as hot and damp here right now as it’s been all year, so maybe we’ve just shifted the season forward a couple of months, along with the summer storms . . . )

But, regardless of what the weather is weirdly doing, the calendar says it’s September! School’s back in session! Leaves are (conceptually) beginning to brown! Days are getting shorter! Turtlenecks are being brought out from under the bed! And so forth and so on! Makes me feel like I need to recap some summer stuff, so here goes . . .

1. Between rain showers, we caught five great sets at the 40th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day Weekend, always a signature event for us here. Among the legends, we saw Ramsey Lewis (who received a city proclamation on the date of what was said to be his last Chicago performance)(!) play a deliciously accessible set of his usual pop standards interpreted with brilliant piano arrangements, and then we caught Maceo Parker, who repeatedly noted “I do not play jazz” over a great set of funk and soul classics; Maceo impressed as much as a vocalist, bandleader and front man as he did on his alto sax, so that was a nice surprise in terms of the flow of the set. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society was probably the biggest surprise for us, not being familiar with the 18-member jazz orchestra, not Argue’s compositions. We’ve since rectified that situation and added his studio recordings to our archives. While Marcia was still in Des Moines, I caught Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening, though Mitchell herself was absent due to a family emergency. A very, very cool set with highly unusual instrumentation, including koto and theremin; cellist Tomeka Reid served as fill-in band leader, and she was a delight, as always. Finally, we caught local stalwarts the Sabertooth Organ Quartet playing a six-part suite to celebrate their 25th anniversary on the scene, and it all went down good and interesting, especially some choice bits with baritone sax and Hammond B-3 organ dueling at the bottom end of the sonic spectrum. Mmmm, nice!

2. Every year I say I am going to travel less for work, and every year, it doesn’t quite seem to work out that way as I find it hard to say “no” when asked to attend various conferences and events in our professional community. Three-quarters of the way through 2018, I’m at least keeping more density in the Midwest region per my travel map below, though that will shift outward a little before year end with trips to Vancouver, Mystic, Charlotte, Philly and Albany.

3. I am not posting weekly (or more) about the 2018 Tour des Trees anymore (for now), but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still support this year’s campaign: we are just as hair below $340,000, and we will continue fundraising through October 1, so you can still make a difference in what our 2019 budget looks like, here. One of the final pieces of the campaign was a wonderful picnic in Northeastern Ohio the week before Labor Day, and I was glad to be able to join the team there for good eats and good company and good fundraising. Local film-maker Jeff Reding of FilmMag Productions even came out and shot some video for the day, which was nice; you can see his mini-documentary of the picnic here.

4. Marcia, Katelin and I watched the final episodes of Adventure Time this week, and were happy with how this most unexpected gem of a television show went out on a high note, all these years on. So many amazing characters, such an outstanding example of patient and profound world-building, as fine a work of visual art as you’ll find on any screen anywhere, and with a nearly ridiculous level of internal consistency and re-engagement from characters major and minor throughout its run; check the plot summary and episode connections of just the final show, here, to see what I mean in that regard, if you’ve already watched it and need to know what you might have missed. I envy those who may not have been following along with Finn and Jake and PB and BMO and Marcy and others all these years, and who can binge the imminently watchable 12-minute episodes at leisure and in order in the months or years to come. When you do, holla my way. This is one of those shows that’s truly better when you talk about it with enthusiastic fellow fans, and I will miss our family’s “Wow!! Did you see it??” texts between Des Moines and Chicago every time new episodes aired, especially ones that advanced one of the many tangled plot lines in a meaningful way. I’m not a big TV person and don’t have many shows that move me deeply, but this was one that I truly loved, and its absence will create a hard-to-fill hole for me.

One of many best bits in the final montage of the sublime Adventure Time