What’s in a Name?

I was named after my dad, Charles David Stephens, and I absolutely hate my name.

Here’s a hint if you’re ever naming someone- Don’t end the first name with the same letter the last name starts with. Charles Stephens is painfully sibilant. It sounds like a lisping drunk. It’s like ‘S’s were on sale the day I was born. That, coupled with the fact that ‘Charles’ is far too formal for a kid lead me to go by ‘Chuck’.

Of course Chuck had it’s problems also. It sounded so guttural. It sounded like the first syllable a caveman would utter after his child was born. If your name is Chuck don’t even think about singing the name game (Chuck chuck bo buck, Banana fana fo.. Oh my). There were no cool, famous chucks. Sure there was Chuck Yeager and Chuck Jones, but what about Chuck Barris, Chuck Mangione, Chuck Wollery or Chuck Norris? They were just lame cliches. Sure, the 80’s gave me Chuck D, but it was too little, too late.

The worst was ‘Chuckie”. Argh! To this day I’ll get angry if someone calls me that. First of all it’s the kind of name that instantly screams ‘This is a kid!’. Davey Jones, Billy Graham, Willy Horton, Jimmy Carter, Johnny Cash, Benny Goodman or Tommy James never had that problem, but I challenge you to come up with an adult named Chuckie.

To make matters worse, in 1978, at the tender age of 7 (me not her), Ricky Lee Jones had a hit song called Chuck E’s in Love. Granted, this was Chuck E and not Chuckie, but they sound the same. Imagine it- you’re a 7 year old boy and everyone you know thinks it’s hilarious to sing this song to you and ask who it is that you’re in love with-


A little background is in order- Ms. Jones lived in a seedy SoCal motel with then boyfriend Tom Waits when this song was written. They had a friend named Chuck E. Weiss who also lived at the motel. One day Chuck E. disappeared. Eventually he called and told Tom that he was in Colorado because he had fallen in love with his cousin (what evs- it was the 70’s- at least he wasn’t Polansky). When Ms. Jones returned home Tom said “Chuck E.’s in Love!” She liked the cadence of the phrase. A hit song was born and my childhood was made a bit more unbearable.

A few years later The Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza and arcade franchise came to town. Suddenly, I was a giant costumed rat, with the tagline ‘At Chuck E. Cheese you can be real cheesey!’. Um, cool?

To make matters worse, in 1988 the movie Child’s Play was released. I never got 80’s horror movies. We were at risk of being vaporized by nuclear bombs at any minute- I didn’t have time to be afraid of abused kids in hockey masks or burn victims with finger blades. The horror movies that got me were The Day After and Testament. Child’s Play featured a possessed doll named Chucky. To make matters worse, the doll had that horrible Cabbage patch/ Garbage Pail Kids esthetic. It was pure cinematic trash, and it shared my name, one more reason to hate it.

The only person who could call me Chuckie and not set my hair on end was my grandmother. She was a classy southern woman who grew up poor, married an officer in the diplomatic corp and lived in London, Turkey and Greece. She gained a lot from her travels, but she never lost that velvety, warm southern accent. It’s funny that my loser uncle who never moved out of the house could call me Chuckie and it would grate on my nerves but she could say it in the same conversation and it would soothe me. I’d love to hear that again.

My grandmother has gotten on in years. Alzheimer’s has taken her memory. Hell, Alzheimer’s has taken her. She’s become child-like. Sometimes it’s sweet and innocent, like last Mother’s Day. We took her out for brunch and she ordered fried shrimp. She ate half the plate and we packed up the rest in a doggie bag. On the way to the car she said ‘Chuckie, what’s in that bag?’ I told her it was fried shrimp and her eyes got big. ‘Are they for me?’ she asked, hopefully. I said “Of course they are, Happy Mother’s Day!’ and she was tickled pink all over again.

Sometimes, though, it’s not so sweet. This once polite, loving woman needed several male orderlies to subdue her when she was taken to the hospital after a fall last year. They could hear her stream of obscenities all the way out in the waiting room. All the hostility she hid behind a veneer of southern hospitality was dragged to the surface by the disease.

The last time I saw her, half way through the visit, she leaned in and whispered “Who are you?’ kind of sheepishly, like she should know and was embarrassed.

I gritted my teeth against tears, smiled and said “It’s me grandma, it’s Chuckie”.

She smiled and went on with her story, the same one she’d already told several times that afternoon. When it was time to go I could tell that she’d already forgotten who I was.

As much as I hate that name, I.d give anything to hear it one more time.

 

Standard

It’s Not You, It’s Me

It’s the classic story- boy meets news site, news site gets lame, boy writes snarky blog post

 

This is so hard. We’ve had some really good times. You’ve made me laugh. You’ve made me cry. You’ve made me think. Sometimes I got so mad at you, but then you’d show me something awesome and I’d get over it.

Lately things have changed. You’ve been doing some stuff that I’m just not into- weird prison stuff, violent sports, bad art and way too much food. I understand, we all need room to grow. I’ve been growing too. I see a lot more good in the world than I used to. I like working to make things better rather than sitting around with a bunch of other aging hipsters moaning about how bad things are. It’s OK- like I said, we need room to grow. I guess I’m growing up and you’re growing… lame.

There, I said it. See, it’s just all been done before. I know you think that thing with the former warlord in Africa was cool and edgy, but it reeked of desperation. You fell under his spell like a weak little sheep. That’s not a good look. The continued attention to prison, mixed martial arts and militant politics? It honestly seems like your trying to cover for… something. You’re like Guy Fieri and Jello Biafra’s love child- a bit too over-the-top. That’s another bad look. Just sayin’.

The thing is you just make me angry. You use your words to divide and inflame. You lie and bend the truth to fit your version of the facts. You’re shrill and demanding and unpleasant and I can’t take it any more. I get it, you’re not happy- neither am I.  Misery loves company but you’ll have to find a new playmate.

I don’t want you to think I’m bitter. You are still great when you try, it’s just not often enough any more. I need someone more in touch with my needs. I need someone a little more up-beat and positive. I need someone to put a smile on my face every morning. I need a partner to help me find solutions. I need new ideas and a fresh start.

So there it is VICE, I’m leaving you. Let’s not make it weird. I’ll go my way and you go yours and tomorrow morning and from now on I’ll get my pop culture musings and snarky commentary elsewhere. Of course it’s a small internet, so we’ll see each other from time to time. I may inadvertently follow a link from another site or see you off in a sidebar somewhere with your irresistible click bait. It’s cool- we’re both mature enough to interact in an amicable, respectful manner.

We tried, it’s over but we’ll always have Ferguson.

*Note to self: Copy, change pertinent facts and address to Gawker Media et al.

Standard

RIP Stanley Lunetta

I hate when this happens. I was just researching an article about synthesizers when I typed Stanley Lunetta’s name into google and got an obituary. He died last month at 79.

Who was Stanley Lunetta? He was a rare bird. He was the kind of guy I’ve tried to be- adventurous, open, always learning. He was a musician/percussionist in Sacramento, California. He taught percussion at UC Davis and Chico State. He played with Sacramento’s Music Circus for 54 years. He had his fingers in a lot of avant garde musical projects through his life but what put him on my radar was his work in sound sculpture and circuitry.

These were some earlier experiments.

When I started studying electronics it was with one goal in mind- to make an unholy racket. I had guitars and drums and keyboards to make pop music- I wanted to create something unique. I started off with Forrest Mimms’ Stepped Tone Generator, AKA the Atari Punk Console. It made fun sounds- as long as I twisted the knobs. I wanted something that would play itself. I tried mechanical and optical solutions to create the right balance between order and chaos. There were a lot of blind alleys and false starts. Then I found CMOS logic chips and the disciples of Stanley Lunetta.

As my electronics knowledge increased, so did my  confidence. I was ready to find electronic solutions for my self-playing synthesizer dreams. I bought a few CMOS CD4017BE Decade Counter ICs. This is a chip that turns a row of outputs on and off, one after the other, over and over again. If the outputs are connected to LEDs, they will flash in order repeatedly. I played around with this chip and started looking into more CMOS chips to try out when I found the electro-music.com Lunetta forum.

Here was a community of DIY music enthusiasts. They were building these crazy modular, open patch synthesizers using cheap CMOS chips and simple circuits. This idea was pioneered by a guy named Stanley Lunetta and some of his students decided to name this type of DIY synthesizer after him.

Lunettas use CMOS logic chips to create patterns and tones. CMOS chips are digital logic gates, the basic building blocks of computers and other digital devices. These individual chips are used in simple circuits that can be connected with jumper wires in different configurations. This allows for complex, evolving sounds- from melodies and rhythms to abstract soundscapes and avant garde noise. This open patch wiring set up also encourages exploration and experimentation- you don’t write a song with a Lunetta synth, you discover it.

My first Lunetta.

This was exactly what I was looking for! The cool thing about Lunetta synthesizers is that you can’t really buy one- you have to build it. This encourages custom designs and new innovations. ‘Lunetta’ also covers a wide range of ideas and concepts. Some folks limit themselves to CMOS chips, op amps and passive components. Others throw in Arduinos, analog filters, effects processors or even circuit bent Speak’nSpells. You can use quality banana jacks, brushed aluminum panels and professional panel labels or you can use old cigar boxes and recycled parts. It’s really accessible. I ordered some chips on Ebay and got busy. I’m still busy!

I’ve been improving and adding to my Lunetta synthesizer for a few years. It has over 40 modules that combine to create very complex musical patterns. I used this as a framework for my own electronics education, learning new skills as I needed them. Now I use CMOS based synth circuits to teach young people. The Lunetta modules are simple so they give early success while teaching the basics of electronics and circuit building.

So there it is- Stanley Lunetta was a musician and educator in Sacramento, California who lived an awesome life and was well liked by his peers and colleagues. He had a successful 60 year marriage. He left behind a list of experiences and accomplishments that anyone would be proud of. That makes him a good man.

He also shared an idea with some young people and sparked their imaginations. They took that idea and shared it again. That idea spread and grew and evolved into a community of folks sharing designs and ideas in creative ways. That makes him a great man.

RIP Stanley, thanks for the spark.

Here’s a recent track from my Lunetta and a drum machine.

Standard

Now, Even Our Spoiler Alerts Need Trigger Warnings

I don’t know why I even read comments or message boards any more. I know people are the worst- why do I need to see it reinforced?

I was checking out a film on IMDB. Apparently, there is a ‘controversial’ scene and folks on the message board we’re trying to skirt around it while discussing the film. Then I saw it- the comment that proved how self-centered some of us had become. It was the Inception of self absorbed entitlement. A young woman (I assume from her user name) said that she was glad no one had posted any spoilers, as she was planning to read the novel the film was based on and she didn’t want that experience ruined. She then proceeded to ask if the controversial scene was a sexual assault, because she had heard that it was and she had trouble watching or reading about that sort of thing.

OK, let’s take a look at what happened here- this person didn’t want any spoilers ruining her experience. Got it- that’s reasonable enough. She logged onto a major motion picture fan site, looked up the specific movie she didn’t want spoiled and went into the message boards to a thread about a majorly spoiler-y plot element. Umm… OK I guess. Probably not the smartest thing to do, but what evs- it’s your internet. She  then commented expressing her gratitude that no one had spoiled it. Well that’s really nice of you- how sweet! Finally, she asked someone to do the very thing she was so worried about. Why? Because she had a hard time watching or reading about sexual assault. What? You just spoiled the scene that you didn’t want spoiled because you needed a trigger warning for a subject that you brought up (without a trigger warning, mind you!)! This, my friends, is every single negative stereotype of the younger generation- a millennial version of Larry the Cable Guy.

I hope this is the work of a master troll. I can appreciate the subtle art here if that’s what was intended. Seriously- it’s like the Onion and Reductress had a baby. Unfortunately I think this was a real person, so wrapped up in their own personal brand of entitlement and snowflake-ism that they can’t see how utterly ridiculous they are. Argh!

Here’s the thing- the world is a harsh place, full of uncomfortable discussions and information you don’t want to know. Avoid it if you must but don’t expect the world to change for you. We tell young people ‘It gets better’, not because the world improves, but because we grow and toughen up and get much better at handling the hard bits and jagged parts of the world around us.

Even chickens figure out that they need to leave their shell if they want to grow.

Standard

We Don’t Need Superheroes- We Need the Opposite of Supervillains

Fiction is a pep-talk a culture gives itself. We can learn a lot about a people by the tales they tell. We gravitate to stories that reinforce what we believe and hold dear. From our earliest days we’ve created myths, legends and fairy tales to teach moral lessons and boundaries. The fiction we create tells us how to be ‘Us’.

 

Joseph Cambell kind of messed up how we think about fiction when he showed us the trick- almost every story told revolved around the monomyth, or archetype of the hero’s journey. You’ve heard this one before- a young person (usually a man because history is kind of sexist) discovers a calling, embarks on a journey, overcomes a great obstacle or other task and returns a better man for the experience to share the rewards with the world. Of course there’s a lot more to it than that, but this is an article and not a college class. Anyway, Star Wars, Superman, Lord of the Rings and the Lion King are all based on the hero’s journey. So is the epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Moses and The Count of Monte Cristo. This basic plot device is at the core of our fiction and therefor a mirror into the collective psyche. How we reflect the hero’s journey says a lot about us.

 

In modern times, the most obvious representation of the hero’s journey is our fascination with comic book superheros. I mean, it’s right there in the name. Superheroes. While the conflicts or great tasks our hero encounters could be spiritual or intellectual or any number of less violent endeavors, our interpretation is that of the fight between good and evil. In the comic book world the superhero always has a nemesis- a master crook or supervillain- to provide the hero’s challenge and dramatic tension.

 

The superhero lives in a world gripped between two polar states- good or bad; hero vs. villain. The hero usually works alone or with a sidekick. His main job is to fight crime- foiling bank heists and museum robberies on a regular basis. Of course the hero can’t possibly stop every crime in town. His job is never done. He’s effective enough to keep the city happy but inefficient enough to stay in business.

 

So what about the other guy? He stays busy. The super villain has his fingers in a lot of action. Lex Luthor has Luthor Industries, a huge company dedicated to crime and mayhem. That’s building up a huge surplus of ‘bad’. Most superheroes have multiple foes, also. Batman has the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman and the Riddler. Each of them had an army of minions (or at least a decent sized gang) to do their bidding and insure a steady supply of ‘bad’. In the economy of the comic book world, the production of ‘bad’ is an order of magnitude larger than the effort to stop it.

 

How does the Superhero fight this huge industry of crime? Superman goes about his day as a reporter, writing public interest pieces and sports results until someone screams for help or he stumbles across a plot. Batman hangs out by the fire in his manor with a young protege and a manservant until the mayor decides to let him know he’s needed. Basically, the superhero goes about his business until there’s a crime to stop. All he does is react- he takes no active role to make ‘good’, he just partially hinders the supply of ‘bad’. As long as some ‘bad’ actually happens and no ‘good’ is ever produced, it doesn’t take long for the ‘bad’ to build up like fish poo in an aquarium, until all of Metropolis is floating belly up. The cards are stacked against our hero from the very start.

 

Hold on because it gets worse. We call it a ‘story arc’ for a reason- in the traditional hero’s journey the hero starts at one level, the action/danger/challenge increases and then returns to the original level. There is a building of tension and then a release. The hero’s reward is returning to his family and friends, winning the girl/saving the world/learning the Truth and living happily ever after. The superhero never gets this reward. The episodic nature of comic books sees him enter the conflict each week, over and over again like Sisyphus, Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, except that those are stories, so eventually even those heroes find some relief. Our superhero faces the same parade of foes over and over again. If insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results, then the Justice League is a mad house. To paraphrase Orwell “If you want a vision of the future, imagine the Joker lowering Batman into a vat of acid over and over – forever.”

 

So what does this interpretation of the hero’s journey monomyth say about our culture? Maybe we’re convinced that trying to beat the bad guys is a waste of time. Maybe it says that we see the world as an unrelenting slog of futility. Maybe it means we’re a morbid and cynical people who can’t stand a happy ending. I don’t know… maybe, but I think it’s something more hopeful. Maybe, deep down inside, we all still realize that we can’t do it by ourselves. One man can’t stand against the bad things and hope to make them better and we’re foolish to think so. We create these stories of broken, wasted heroes to try to remind ourselves that our hope doesn’t lie in superheroes- it lies in anti-supervillains. We need people willing to be good as fervently as the Joker wants to be bad. We need leaders who can direct their own armies of minions to wreak hope on the world. We need people to create corporations as dedicated to making the world better as Luthor Industries is to exploiting it. We need people willing to respond to the root cause of problems rather than just react to the symptoms.

 

Maybe our modern interpretation of the hero’s journey is our way of reminding ourselves that it is, after all, just a myth. There are no heroes and no special journeys. There are no villains. No one is ‘chosen’ to save us. In the real world we are all heroes. We are all on a journey. We are all capable of good or evil. Most importantly- we all have to work together to save ourselves.

Standard