Wednesday Wonders: Another curious route to a story

How buying a cheap pair of wireless headphones six months ago and a random discovery about a new computer led to an epiphany about the timing of nostalgia.

I can tell you exactly how this particular story came about. It all started when I ordered a pair of wireless headphones in order to do Zoom meetings way back in March, when I started a new job that is 100% remote.

Now, the problem was that I needed something that wasn’t BlueTooth, because my computer didn’t have that, so I wound up settling on an RF model. That is, one with a transmitter pack of the type that would plug into the computer’s audio jack, with the headphones themselves completely unattached.

It’s not really at all unlike what a reporter or performer would wear — a battery pack, usually taped to their back, connected to an audio source, like a microphone, with the audio signal picked up elsewhere.

It worked great, even though I did have to wind up buying extra rechargeable AAA batteries for the transmitter and a whole set of rechargeable 9-volt batteries for the headphones.

Side note: Something I learned during lockdown: Rechargeable batteries are the best investment you can ever make. Get enough for all the little battery-operated doodads you have around the house, and then double that. Sure, it costs a lot up front, but you’ll save an assload pretty much instantly.

Case in point: The two times early on that I forgot to turn off the headphones and drained the 9-volt battery would have cost me more in non-rechargeable replacements than five rechargeable 9-volts with recharger cost in the first place.

But there were two big issues with these headphones. Number one is that I could not leave them on all the time so as not to run them down, meaning that I would have to go through the start-up process just before every Zoom meeting started — power up transmitter, switch on headphones, push ‘activate” button and then “connect” button, and hope that it worked.

Still, not being physically tethered to my computer with a cable was totally worth it — and I’d accidentally wrecked too many of those at the business end by forgetfully walking away while they were plugged in and on my head.

And no, I’ve never driven away from a gas pump with the nozzle in my car, thank you.

Of course, a lot of headphones are also just cheaply made crap. Even the Beats by Dre ear buds that we were all given one year as an office present didn’t last long after the internal wiring crapped out on one side. I’ve had earbuds I’ve gotten at the 99 Cent store that lasted far longer and sounded just as good.

Surprise, surprise — cheapness turned out to be the problem with these. It wasn’t more than a week before the foam earcups just detached from the headset, and no way in hell I could get them back on, because the retaining edge had clearly been machined into the earcup, and I just didn’t have the machinery to do it.

Meanwhile, after a month or so, the control buttons on the right ear cup — i.e., the ones absolutely necessary to make the things work — suddenly pushed in, as in sank below the surface of the back of the ear cup, so became useless.

Still, since they were so cheap, I ordered another pair. These lasted a bit longer, although they still had the foam problem and, eventually, the part where the headband attached to the left ear cup just snapped, and not with any particularly sudden or sharp movement.

I’m not going to call out the brand, although I will say that, since they worked with a computer, these technically were digitAL earphones.

After the second pair died, I spent eight bucks at the Rite-Aid next door for a plug-in pair that didn’t have the greatest sound quality, but did what I needed, and so it went until a week ago last Monday.

That morning, I read a news story explaining why it might not be a good idea to update to Windows 11 right away, so I had to check to make sure that “auto-update” was not turned on. I only found out later that Microsoft is actually allowing people to opt out this time, miracle of miracles!

Anyway, in the process of looking for the setting, I inadvertently discovered, nearly six months after I’d bought it, that my new computer does, in fact, have BlueTooth.

I tested it by tethering to my phone and, sure enough, it worked.

Well, fuck me sideways with a wooden hanger.

Delivered the next day — a pair of BlueTooth headphones that have been working like a charm, and have the best of both worlds, and more. For some reason, they have an FM tuner built in, an SD card slot for off-line music listening, a built-in battery with 30-hour life that’s rechargeable via USB-C (the best of the USBs) and the ability to also connect to an audio device via a cable.

Not to mention that the sound is just lightyears better than that from either the crappy RF phones or the cheap wired ones. And so is the battery life. I’ve had them on most of today, after their first full charge, and have been through several Zoom meetings and lots of audio, and the battery is still at 60%.

So this led me to testing out their audio qualities, and I began searching left and right for things to do that it with. Eventually, a vague memory that led to a search for “Star Wars disco” opened up a portal on a ton of albums from the late 70s that were basically DJ’d into the EDM of the era, but all based on Big Band music from the 1940s, and that’s when I was reminded of the great Truth of Nostalgia.

Nostalgia runs in 30-year cycles.

Why? The simple reason for this is that this is the point when kids who grew up on something have come of age but have also achieved enough power within various industries to start shaping culture instead of just consuming it.

So 1980s kids were consuming pop culture. As grown-ass adults in the 2010s, thirty years later, they started remaking, reimagining, or reforming all that shit from their childhood. Right now, we’re seeing the 1990s coming back.

But this is nothing new.

Let’s go back to the 1950s, for example, when one of the most popular movies was Singin’ in the Rain. And what was the story about? Why, the transition of silent films to talkies in the 1920s, and how new technology threatened traditional art forms. Westerns and gangster films were also big. The former were a big film genre in the 1920s, and the latter were an actually thing in the 1920s, thank you Prohibition.

And yes, Singin’ in the Rain was most likely a subtle commentary on the threat that television presented to theatrical films at the time via new technology, since it parodied the reaction to Hollywood and the introduction of talkies — i.e., films with sound.

Meanwhile, a teen idol from the 1920s, Rudy Vallée, made a huge comeback in film and TV in the 1950s. Brace yourselves for Harry Styles coming back in our 2050s, at the start of which he’ll be (gasp!) 56.

Then again, in 1950, Rudy was already 49.

But let’s get back to the nostalgia pattern. The 1950s definitely locked onto the 1920s because they both experienced post-war booms that kind of petered out, transitioned from somewhat liberal to very conservative, and saw new technology changing life as they’d previously known it.

The 1960s, meanwhile, mapped onto the 1930s, because both decades were eras of protest and economic uncertainty, along with foreign wars (The Spanish Civil War and Vietnam) leading up to World Wars (WW II and the Cold War.)

Both decades were also periods of sexual liberation, even if the 1930s were more subtle about it, but, for example, in big cities, gay men and lesbians were absolutely accepted in certain fields, like theatre or interior design. In Hollywood, a lot of gay people were openly so within the industry, provided that any hint of it never leaked outside of studio walls and publicity dates with persons of the opposite sex could be arranged and manipulated in the press.

Talk about “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” although that ironically came back in the third wave of the 1930s/1960s, also known as the 1990s, which are coming back right now one more time, although I guess that the “don’t tell” part now refers to whether a woman has had an abortion.

One big phenomenon from the 1990s — groups like Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the whole swing revival. They were actually modeling the 1930s, not the 1940s. Two very different styles — neither of them involving Harry or watermelon sugar, which may or may not be Style’s nostalgic callback to Richard Brautigan’s 1968 novel, seeing as how Harry falls into the 1960s/1990s/2020s/2050s pattern.

But it was finding all of this music from the 1970s that made me realize the 30 year thing, especially the epiphany that disco was just a playback of 1940s post-war big-band music. In the 1970s, it was post-Vietnam and party time, while in the 1940s, it was post-WW II.

Both artforms, though, had the same goal: Drag asses onto the dancefloor and get them to all shake their booties, and, sure enough, in the 2000’s, Christina Aguilera came along to bring it all back with her song Candyman — aka the video that makes every gay man question his sexuality.

This was also right around the time when the successor to the 1940s and 1970s crash-landed on the scene as EDM, or electronic dance music, and went mainstream.

Guess which decade the 1980s lapped up. Yep. That would be the 1950s, and it’s abundantly clear in both New Wave music and styles — remember those skinny ties, black suits, and poofy skirts? They were just the 1950s with neon highlights.

And punk wasn’t immune from 1950s influence, either. In its roots, they were just a revival of the Rockers and Teddy Boys of 1950s England, with the New Wavers and second generation glam acts like Adam Ant and Boy George cast as the Mods.

Cinematically, one of the most interesting curious from the era is Walter Hill’s 1984 film Streets of Fire largely forgotten now. It’s mostly notable only for marking Willem Dafoe’s screen debut as the villain, which he performed when he was… 29, or just a year short of being nostalgic for what he was appearing in. He really broke out in the movie Platoon, made when he was 31.

But the thing about the movie is that it was completely ambiguous as to when, exactly, it was set. A lot of the design aesthetics were firmly stuck in the 1950s, but the soundtrack and the attitudes were decidedly modern. Well, for the time.

Jump ahead to the 2010s, and both the 1950s and the 1980s feature prominently, with films like The Master and Inside Llewyn Davis nodding at the eras. The former was set in 1950 and, while the latter is set in 1961, it’s still before the assassination of JFK, which really was the emotional border between the two decades.

And remember that Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight? Yep. Set in the 1980s, and so is Stranger Things, which debuted in 2016, and Call Me by Your Name, set in 1983 and released in 2017. So is The Wolf of Wall Street, which I have to honestly say is one of the worst movies I ever forced myself to sit through. The only redeeming feature in that hot mess is Joanna Lumley.

So here we are in the 2020s, with the 1990s, 1960s, and 1930s sneaking back into the zeitgeist. Once again, we have the sexually and socially liberated vs. the repressed would-be oppressors, the economic battle between the haves and the have nots, and simmering protests that break out into hot fires at the drop of a hat.

In the 1930s, unemployed workers took to the streets, protesting the same economic inequalities that we have now, all in the shadow of the Great Depression. In the 1960s, it was students occupying their campuses and taking to the streets, initially to fight for their First Amendment rights on campus, then ultimately to protest the Vietnam War. Remember, the military draft lasted until the 1970s, so they had a direct stake in objecting.

The 1960s also brought us events like the Watts Riots, echoed by the L.A. Riots in the 1990s, and the George Floyd BLM protests of this decade. and every one of these events happened for the same reasons: Police abuse and murder of people of color.

While the 1930s were a bit open about sexuality in a very hush-hush manner mainly in large cities where anonymity was much more possible, in the 1960s, the sexual revolution came roaring out of the closet, and not just for gay people.

Suddenly, women had The Pill (literally approved as the decade began), which gave them a lot more autonomy over their reproductive choices than relying upon trusting their partner to either wear a condom (without slipping it off)  or pulling out (without still managing to splash the target.)

Of course, the fun police in various states tried to make it illegal for married couples to use birth control because, um… “You must make babies, dammit?” At least Planned Parenthood was there to get these laws overturned through court battles, ensuring that a married woman could take The Pill and still bang her husband as of 1965.

The idea of sex before marriage being a sin also pretty much fell by the wayside as modern teens scoffed at old morality and started doing it left and right. By the way, these people are what are known as Boomers, although given their sexual behaviors in the 1960s — well, at least that of the cool ones — maybe some of them should be called Bangers.

The 1960s were also when the modern Gay Rights Movement got going with a little incident called the Stonewall Riots, which were the endcap on the decade.

In the 1990s, the gay rights movement really took off big time, largely in response to the absolutely abysmal response of the Reagan administration to the AIDS Crisis that had started in the 1980s. This was the decade when the first celebrities started coming out (Scott Thompson long before any of the others), gay characters started to show up in mainstream media and not as stereotypes, RuPaul first burst onto the scene, and someone being gay started to become not as big a deal as it used to be because of increased visibility.

In the 2020s, we’ve got all of that, plus the Nirvana Baby trying to sue the band and other entities over his appearance on the cover of their 1991 album Nevermind. Never mind that the grown-up version of that baby has reshot that cover three times, twice while underage, albeit with his dinky winky covered in the other versions.

And you know how old that baby, Spencer Elden, is now? Take a wild guess.

That’s right. He turned 30 in February of 2021, so his nostalgia meter is right on track, apparently. None of which absolves him of being an asshole, of course.

Update: Also right on track, the day after I wrote this story, this bit of news popped up. They’re creating a spin-off of That ’70s Show starring the parents from the original and it’s called… That ’90s Show. Guess when it’s set.

And does anyone remember That ’80s Show? It only ran for a few months. Premiering in 2002, it was a decade early and might have done a lot better in the 2010s.

Image source: paul bica from toronto, canada, (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Chapter Thirteen

It isn’t all puppies and unicorns when you try to improve yourself, and I’m no exception. In this excerpt, I discuss the setbacks I hit and how I dealt with them.

Inevitable setbacks

Since this chapter flashes back to the Prologue, it’s appropriate to have its own prologue. Remember the diary we started back in Chapter Five? Well, I keep one, too, and I documented a lot of what I went through below, good and bad, although I wrote this chapter after I came back out the other side. If it reads at times like I’m in the midst of the Sturm und Drang, it’s because I’ve basically collaborated with myself from that time period when everything seemed like it went pear-shaped.

And yes, I’m quite aware of the irony of using a food metaphor in a book that’s supposed to help you lose weight, but at least it’s a somewhat healthy food metaphor. But I do digress…

For me, Labor Day weekend of 2017 was a high-point in this entire process. That’s when the incident I mentioned in the prologue happened. What I didn’t mention there was the purpose of the camp. It’s put on by a group called the California Community of Men, or CalComMen for short, which is basically a heart-centered social group for, as the leader puts it, “men who love men.”

They specifically avoid using the label “gay” alone because the group is more inclusive than that and covers the entire spectrum of men — gay, bisexual, transgender, and yes, even straight. A big part of avoiding labels, I’ve learned, is that there are a lot of men in the group who came out very late in life, many of them who had already been married to women and had families. I’ve done none of those things, but there are also plenty of other members like me, so it all balances out.

A lot of their events are clothing optional, which was another attraction for me. And no, it’s not all about sex parties. I should explain that there actually is a range when it comes to men’s social groups like this, ranging from the very prudish ones that don’t have any kind of nudity or hanky-panky going on at their events all the way to the ones for which that’s their entire raison d’etre. If I remember correctly, the group on the no sex side is almost totally spiritual and political in nature, while the group where sex is all but required goes by a rather quaint acronym that is a homonym for the crew of a submarine. Since I’ve never been involved in either of those groups directly, I won’t name them here, but you can probably find them if you look.

Of course, the sex fest group really gets the definition of naturism wrong, because it absolutely isn’t about sex at all. It’s about being comfortable with your own body and getting in touch with nature. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I’ve pretty much always been a nudist, I feel comfortable that way, and especially now that I’ve gotten back into shape I have no problems hanging around naked with other people.

But, as it turned out, this camp had suddenly become pretty much not clothing-optional except for a couple of indoor events mainly because one of the attendees at the previous session had not followed the rules, ending up in places he shouldn’t have been, which got the attention of neighboring camps. But that was fine with me because that wasn’t what this whole experience was about.

It was about trying new things and testing myself and making a lot of new friends and when I came back home, I was on a total high. I had also taken the Tuesday after Labor Day off at work, so I and my cabin-mate, whom I had met the day before camp because he needed a ride up from L.A., decided to go back via Palm Springs and spend the day and night at a small clothing-optional resort that had hosted CalComMen earlier that summer. Shout out to Tortuga del Sol. We practically had the place to ourselves.

I had an appointment with my cardiologist the day I came back to work, and my heart had improved nicely. This was also when I impressed him when I told him that I was losing weight despite eating things like pasta.

“Pasta!” he exclaimed to me, incredulous. “You eat pasta and look like this? You should talk to my wife and tell her your secrets.” He punctuated this by patting his belly.

And then, the next day, I got laid off from my job of a decade that I had loved so much because the company was having cash-flow issues, largely driven by lackluster web sales, something that has become more and more common everywhere that isn’t a website that starts with “A” and ends with “mazon.” It wasn’t a total layoff and I’m still writing for them freelance, but, obviously, it’s a lot less income and I’m no longer an employee, so I get to do things like pay for my own health insurance which, obviously, is really, really important to me because of everything that’s happened.

At about $460 a month for the same plan I had from work, I thought it was expensive until I tried to fill a prescription before my COBRA had kicked in — one of my heart meds of the “you can’t stop this one cold turkey” variety — only to find out that its real price was more than half of my monthly premium. Fortunately, Kaiser is very understanding, so instead of charging me outright, they agreed to bill me with the idea being that by the time that did happen my insurance would have kicked in and I’d pay the usual $11. And that’s what happened.

And yes, why a life-saving prescription would actually be more than my car payment in the first place, I have no idea. Welcome to America!

But… it was only because of a few things that my world did not crash down immediately. Number one, like I mentioned, I was still on a total high from camp. Number two, for once in my life I’d saved money like a madman, so there was a nice cushion waiting. Number three, the severance deal I got was ridiculously generous, so I was essentially paid through the end of the year, along with the freelance income and unemployment I’d be getting.

On the other hand, I do tend to have what’s called seasonal affective disorder, also known as “it gets dark early, so I get depressed easily.” The rest of September and October went pretty well, but as November came around and the clocks changed, I started to drift into a much darker mood and saw my motivation slip away as well. Now, I didn’t relapse by gaining weight or smoking again, but I was definitely no longer on my end of summer high.

Around the holiday season — which, in America, is basically “everything after Halloween,” —  I also had back-to-back romantic fake-outs. The first was someone who friended me and messaged med on Facebook after he’d joined a group I belonged to. At first, he hit on me hard and I bought it for a little bit, but things began to not add up pretty quickly. For example, he claimed to be an engineer living in the U.S., but his English was barely passable — and you don’t get that kind of degree without good language skills. He claimed to be from Brazil, but I couldn’t get a word of Portuguese out of him, and he’d just ignore any questions I asked him in Portuguese. (It’s a quirk of Google Translate that Spanish to Portuguese is much more accurate than either of those languages to or from English, so I came fairly well-armed.) As soon as he mentioned that he’d be going to Africa to negotiate a contract for a project, that’s when the dime dropped, so I just played along until he tried to bait the inevitable scam.

The way the scam works in a nutshell is that the Con Artist (them) asks the Mark (you) to help them out by cashing a large check for them. They can’t do it because they don’t have a bank account or they’re trying to hide the money from a spouse or the government, or whatever reason. By the way, in exchange for doing this for them, you get to keep a generous chunk of that check — 10%, 25%, whatever.

When the Mark falls for it, the check appears to be absolutely legit. It goes into their bank, it clears, and they send the balance, less their fee, on to the Con Artist, who promptly vanishes. It isn’t until weeks or months later that the Mark’s bank finds out the check was a fake — and guess who gets left holding the bag for the money that never existed? It’s called Advance Fee Fraud, and it’s a really, really old scam.

Of course, when my would-be con artist mentioned going to Africa, I told him to beware of Nigerian Princes and he asked me what that meant. I then proceeded to explain to him exactly the advance fee scam he was going to try to pull on me, but I guess he didn’t get the clue. When he asked me if I had a bank account, the alarm bells were going off big time, so when he asked if I could help him get money from a business partner “through your account,” I flat out told him “No” in Portuguese.

Funny coincidence, though — at just about exactly his moment, one of my good friends posted a video on Facebook from a man who’d gone through almost the same thing — minus the lonely hearts angle. Instead of blocking his scammer or reporting him, he told him, “I know you’re trying to con me, but tell me where you are and why you’re doing this, and I’ll see what I can do to help you legally.”

And, what do you know, he actually did. His scammer was in Liberia, and the man told him that he needed pictures from his country and would pay for the ones he could use. The scammer sent some photos and… they were awful. Eventually, the man sent him a $30 digital camera that was still much better than whatever the scammer was using… and the photos still sucked. But after the man gave the scammer some tips, the photos improved. This led to an Indiegogo campaign with the goal of creating a book of the pictures to document life in Liberia.

It succeeded, and as the man promised, he sent half the money from book sales to his now would-be scammer, with the promise to contribute the other half to some cause in Liberia. The Liberian photographer told the man that the schools there really needed help. This led to the photographer using the rest of the book money to basically buy out all the school supplies in town and give them to the students, happy ending for everyone.

Yeah, my friend is great at finding inspirational stuff like this. I’ve told him many times, although I still don’t think he believes it, that he has always inspired me to be a better person because he’s such an awesome human.

So… I made the same offer to my would-be scammer. I told him I was on to what he was doing, but if he told me where he was and why he was trying to scam people, I’d see what I could do to help him. I made that offer a couple of times, in fact.

Unlike the Liberian, he just kept doubling down. “I’m in Maryland, and I need you to use your account to get me money from my business partner.”

Well, so much for that, and I unfriended him. But you can’t say I didn’t try. Right?

* * *


Continue reading “Chapter Thirteen”