For as long as I can remember, listening to the spoken voice has been a source of great pleasure to me. Since as an only child I had no siblings to do battle with, a small radio was among my closest companions. I listened in bed, even late at night when I was supposed to be asleep, and my enjoyment of the sound of voices has only increased over the years. And now there is not only radio but a cornucopia of podcasts by way of apps such as Stitcher and Podbay, everything from the revolutionary, idea-sharing TED Talks to Old Time Radio, any of which I can download on my iPad or smartphone.
When listening to a voice I’m not distracted by the speaker’s looks, or gestures, or whatever might be going on in the background. I sometimes even close my eyes when “watching” a television interview.
We spend a good bit of time discussing the way people look, or we have strong opinions about how they sound – if they’re singing. But unless there’s something distinctive or irritating about a spoken voice, we don’t give its quality much thought. We listen to what’s being said and hope to derive its meaning without distractions.
But voice qualtiy is critical because it sets the tone for how we will perceive a topic and, to advertisers, what we will buy and what movies we’ll see.
We wouldn’t recognize most of the professional narrators and voiceover artists we hear every day if we passed them on the street. Would you recognize Don LaFontaine? Probably not, but you’ve heard his voice not only in commercials but also many, many times in movie trailers – he has recorded 5000 of them – which often begin ominously with the words, “In a world...”
The legendary Alexander Scourby, although primarily an actor, possessed a distinguished voice that was instantly identifiable during the mid to late decades of the last century. He narrated a multitude of television documentaries, and his extraordinary output included more than four-hundred audio books. In Christian circles he was well known for his recordings of the entire King James and the Revised Standard versions of the Bible. In the audiobook industry, his is still considered “the greatest voice ever recorded.”
Although you might not recognize the name of actor Will Lyman, his voice is well-known as the narrator, since 1984, of the PBS series “Frontline”. And his polished voiceovers have been heard on countless documentaries for the National Geographic, History, Discovery and Learning channels.
Peter Coyote is well known as an actor. But his skills as a narrator are as formidable as his skills as an actor and won him an Emmy for his narration for the Ken Burns PBS series “The Roosevelts.”
How often have we been astonished when we finally see the face of someone whose voice we’ve been listening to, perhaps for years? We’ve formed a mental picture and are disappointed when we discover that the person looks nothing like he sounds. We might even be inclined to agree with the quip, "He has a face made for radio".
Despite having had a busy musical career, I often wanted to try new things. So back in the 70s I took a voice and speech class at the Pittsburgh Playhouse drama school. The teacher who, it so happened, was not a native-born American, decided that my diction wasn’t quite up to snuff. I sensed that he heard, or thought he heard a certain “ethnicity” in my speech, which in those days was considered a defect.
Wouldn’t he be surprised, in the 21st century, to learn that two of the highest paid and most recognized voices in media today are African Americans – James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman – whose voices undoubtedly betray their “ethnicity.” And it is amazing to me, a child of the “Good Old Days,” how many commercial voiceovers are done by African Americans. Obviously the advertising executives, whose only allegiance is to the bottom line, have discovered that these voices “sell soap.”
It’s not for no reason that Morgan Freeman was chosen to narrate the profile of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Convention. And regardless of what you might think of Hillary, you have to agree that Freeman’s voiceover was highly effective.
Many of the individuals performing narrations are well-known actors – James Spader, Oprah Winfrey, Alec Baldwin, Sigourney Weaver. But most are known only by their voices.
And it’s encouraging to realize that age doesn’t have to silence the venerable voices in our midst. Johnny Gilbert, at age 92, continues to introduce Jeopardy!, a task he has performed since 1984. Don Pardo, born in 1918, was the announcer for Saturday Night Live for thirty-nine years until his death in 2014.
If you’re a fan of audiobooks but don’t want to fork out beaucoup bucks for Audio.com or some similar "pay to play" service, check out Librivox.org, where volunteers read hundreds of books. The quality of the volunteers' voices is hit or miss. But one that I particularly enjoy is John Greenman who specializes in the works of Mark Twain. I can’t imagine wanting to listen to anybody else reading Innocents Abroad, Twain's matchless account of his world travels.
Another excellent source of free audiobooks is the Carnegie Library via Overdrive.com. Because most of the books are read by the authors, we are not always guaranteed a pleasing voice. I recently listened to a portion of Dick Van Dyke’s Keep Moving, from which I had hoped to get some pointers as I age. He was eighty-nine when he wrote the book, and although I adore Dick Van Dyke, I couldn’t quite handle the geezer-ish voice placed upon him by the passage of time. It was Dick Van Dyke, yet it wasn’t Dick Van Dyke.
(Incidentally, if you go to the library site, unless you don't mind waiting for your selection, be sure to click “Available Now” to access the list of books available immediately.)
Lucky is the person whose voice is pleasing to others. I’ve always felt that I had an acceptably pleasant voice and have heard myself in many interviews and not been horrified. But I can’t tell you how many times, when on the phone with a customer service rep, I’ve been called “Sir.” I used to thunder, I’m a Madam not a Sir!” But I’ve gotten so used to it I no longer even bother.
And besides, I’m sure in her long career, the smoky-voiced Kathleen Turner has more than once been addressed as “Sir” on the phone.
I must be a masochist. First thing in the morning I fetch the Post-Gazette, scan the front page, and then turn to the op-ed pages to check on the day’s opinion pieces, some local, some national, to get their take on the latest batch of upsetting events happening in our world. On Tuesdays and Fridays I immediately turn to Page 2 to see what Tony Norman has to say. (For those of you who do not deign to read the Post Gazette, Tony Norman is, in my opinion, the publication’s most interesting columnist, whose trenchant and often wry observances frequently make it from my desktop to desktops around the land.)
After I’ve perused the Post-Gazette I download the New York Times to find out what their platoon of columnists has to say about the latest shocks to our collective system.
Terrorism – It’s becoming a du jour kind of thing – bombing du jour, mass shooting du jour. It’s reached the point that we turn on the morning news, listen to a report of the latest bombing, turn over, and go back to sleep.
We’re in a quandary, to say the very least, as we scurry about plugging up one leak in the damn while four more burst forth elsewhere. More dogs, more security, more searches – aiming to defeat an enemy who relishes watching us dance on hot coals.
Determination to stay alive is the strongest urge man possesses. But when our enemy has managed to rid himself of that primal urge, how are we to fight back?
The Campaign – Nothing is happening right now that gives me hope. We have a choice between two painfully flawed candidates. Many months ago I asked my husband, “Don’t the Democrats have anybody else to run for president?”
Evidently they didn’t, and we’re seeing the results now. I’m not a Hillary hater, but it seems to me that someone with less baggage and more charm might have come to the fore. Hillary is brittle and unspontaneous. Nothing about her makes me think, “I like that woman.” My husband says, "She's competent." I say, "Competent is boring."
And I'm now questioning her competence having just heard the FBI report on her email activity, which was described as “extremely careless.” That doesn’t exactly bespeak competence.
I’m sorry, but I don’t give two hoots about whether we have a woman president just so we can say we do. I would like for us to have an excellent president.
My choice, ill-informed as it may be, would have been Joe Biden. He’s a sympathetic figure, an affable, back-slapping kind of guy who, notwithstanding a tendency to utter an occasional verbal boo-boo, is liked, and he knows plenty about domestic and foreign policy and as much as Hillary does about the presidency. He has been the best vice president a president could possibly want.
What can I say about Trump that hasn’t already been said? It’s obvious that his success is based primarily on his ability to give voice to the rage of millions of disaffected white people – the ones whose idea of cultural activity is tailgating and target shooting – who will never get over having an uppity Nee-gro in the Oval Office.
The Republican Party has only itself to blame for this unlikely turn of events. They've spent the last eight years doing everrything they could think of to undermine Obama while the gods were about to pull the rug from under them. Whoops!
Brexit - Obama can’t be directly blamed for the rage of the Leavers. But he is blamed for initiating or continuing events that have led to the mass migration of “undesirables” into the European Union and Britain. The Brexit vote will result, for many years to come, in as yet unimagined, unintended consequences. But the Leave gang, along with their squeamish, right-leaning counterparts in France, Hungary and other European countries are having a hard time accepting what they see happening and feel helpless to prevent.
These developments have given permission to a certain contingent of (mostly) young males to torment those they see as “the other.” A Mexican-American man who has been living in England for eighteen years is accosted by a group of thugs shouting at him to “Go back to Africa!” Africa? The hooligans are not only mean and xenophobic, they’re also stupid if they can’t tell the difference between a Latino and an African. All they see is brownish skin.
Cultural upheaval – There are changes happening that those of us who have been around for a while find mind boggling. I often wonder how my father, who died in 1980, would react to the 21st century culture wars. He would think he was being hoodwinked, that these new “norms” of society couldn’t possibly be true.
Weather – We watch footage of floods and tornadoes and fires that rob people of their homes and a lifetime of possessions. I’m not a climate scientist and haven’t the slightest idea if global warming is responsible. But whatever the cause, the degree of devastation makes me wonder how these people go on without losing their minds.
Assorted shootings, beatings, stabbings – In locales urban and rural, people who have been driven insane by drugs or circumstances are doing away with one another. A mother shoots to death her two teenage daughters to avenge a dispute with her husband while another mother slashes the throats of her four children, all under the age of five. Two policeman shoot to death a black man who is being held on the ground more confused than threatening. The policemen's bodycams have unaccountably gone missing before the shooting occurs.
We learn about these horrors while watching the 6 o’clock news – one disaster after another, one ghastly example of man’s inhumanity to man, while we sip our Chardonnay and dine on grilled salmon. Why do we do it?
We are retirees, and the news is an important component of our lives. It doesn’t require anything of us other than our attention, and it doesn't make our feet hurt. When we socialize, we can’t talk about our jobs. But we can talk about the news.
And there's a tendency in humans to engage in schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person's misfortune. We might not be feeling pleasure, but we are experiencing the only thing that is keeping us halfway sane: The belief that what we’re seeing is not going to happen to us.
I love The Week - the magazine, that is. For many decades I’ve been a subscriber to news magazines. In fact when I was around eighteen my father the newspaper editor noticed me reading Time and was obviously relieved that his slightly scatterbrained daughter had finally developed an interest in what might be going on outside of East Liberty.
Eventually, along with Time, Newsweek began arriving in our mailbox. Very much like Time, it filled in the gaps, those stories perhaps not covered in Time, and it provided a slightly different slant on what I already knew.
Although I thought I was pretty hip to be reading Time and Newsweek, I became aware as the years went by that smart, sophisticated people, or those who imagine themselves to be so, read The New Yorker or The Atlantic or any of a number of other magazines geared more to the intellectual than to middle of the road readers like me.
Having been gifted, in recent years, with a subscription to The New Yorker, I would zip through each issue, from back to front – which, for reasons best figured out by a shrink, is the way I read most magazines – and occasionally hunker down to read an article about a subject that genuinely interested me. But my beef with The New Yorker is that the articles are too darned long. If I want to read a book, I’ll read a book. I know people who have actually stopped reading books in order to have time to read The New Yorker. Seems a trifle backwards to me.
A couple of years ago my husband and I became aware of the news magazine The Week. At first it seemed a little flimsy. The articles are short, too short, surely, to contain much information. But the publishers assume that we already have a decent grip on what’s going on in the world. Their mission is to present assorted perspectives from publications around the country and the world, and from the left and the right, which I find refreshingly balanced.
In addition to news and opinion pieces, The Week always includes a two-page article about varied topics such as “Surviving Solitary Confinement” to “Where WWII Bombs Still Lie in Wait” to “English Is Not Normal.” (“It’s a wonder English ever caught on because it’s weirder than just about every other tongue.”) Not all of these articles interest me, but the people at The Week have gauged their readers’ interests.
Another feature, which initially gave me pause, is the pictorial “Best Properties on the Market,” houses around the country with unusual characteristics such as, “Homes with Columns” or “Houses in West Coast Wine Country.” “Homes for the Literary-minded” includes a six-bedroom stone house with large library located in Sewickley PA. Most of the homes are in the seven figure category, but there’s always a “Steal of the Week” that one of us might be able to afford. Scanning the photos I initially think, Is this news? Maybe not, but I have never found myself bypassing those pages.
A selection of cartoons culled from various U. S. newspapers nearly always includes one by the Post-Gazette’s Rob Rogers. That gives me a thrill, and I’m sure it gives Rob a thrill, too. Imagine being so well-regarded nationally.
Book, art, film and television reviews and recommendations are in the mix as well as travel, health and science, technology and business. All news magazines include such reviews, you say. Yes, they do, but somehow not in as appealing and concise a way as The Week does.
I download the magazine into my iPad, each Thursday evening, two days before the print edition arrives in the mail. And it’s a struggle not to talk about articles I’ve just read to my Luddite husband, a hard copy man for sure, which he won’t be reading for a few days.
The iPad version can be handily read in portrait or landscape format, unlike Time, which seems stubbornly to be locked into the portrait format.
In my back-to-front perusal it’s fun finally to arrive at the world and U. S. news where maps snap into view, each with a pushpin protruding from the relevant country highlighted in red.
And of course there’s a sprinkling of light fare – “Only in America,” “Good Week/Bad Week” and, in case you’ve given up completely a few nuggets titled “It Wasn’t All Bad,” anecdotes that give us hope.
In case you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this it’s simply because we don’t know anyone else who subscribes to The Week, but we think many of you might enjoy it. If you are a subscriber, I’d be interested to know that. And if you’re not, give it a whirl.
Meanwhile, happy reading, whatever your periodical of choice happens to be.
I don’t get Brownie points, free subscriptions, or anything else for writing the foregoing. In case you’re interested, take yourself to http://theweek.com.
There are so many apps, games and online sources of information that I'm a little reluctant to mention two that on snowy, stay-at-home days, gobble up some of my hours in a most enjoyable way. You might know about both of them already, but I thought I'd mention them just in case you don't.
A couple of years ago I learned about a nifty language-learning web site, Duolingo, on which one can study any of more than fifty foreign languages free of charge, and even better, free of ads. Who needs to spend hundreds of dollars on Rosetta Stone or some other overpriced course?
At the very least Duolingo is entertaining. Its graphics are perky, and there is a clever assortment of exercises and games, accompanied by fanfares, bells and whistles, that can keep you occupied for hours. I’m working on French, and although I never expect to speak or write like a native, I know that the practice is good for my aging brain as I add new vocabulary each day and refresh what I learned in college.
Although I had been aware of Duolingo for a while, only recently did I learn that it was originated and is headquartered in Pittsburgh. Begun by Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn and a group of young colleagues, Duolingo's goal is to provide “Free language education for the world.” To find out what languages are offered go to: https://www.duolingo.com/courses.
Another site, which came to my attention on a cold day in January, is Quora, a platform for questions and answers, which might sound snooze-inducing, but I find it fascinating. Anyone can register to ask and answer questions, although there are a few guidelines to follow having to do with the aptness of a response and, of course, standards of decency. Most participants are ordinary people, many from foreign countries. But answers have been posted by such heavyweights as Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, British comedian-actor Stephen Fry and, last but not least, Barack Obama.
Quora states that its mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge. “We want to connect the people who have knowledge to the people who need it.” A worthy goal, indeed.
Upon signing up Quora asks you to fill out a profile. I wrote that I live in Pittsburgh, am a Carnegie Mellon graduate, a musician, and that I like to cook and write. Somehow Quora knows how to direct appropriate questions to my page, although it hasn’t caught on yet that that I know absolutely nothing about engineering and robotics.
The first question I answered was, “Why is the Andy Warhol Museum located in Pittsburgh?” I simply typed in that Andy Warhol is a native Pittsburgher and that he attended Carnegie Mellon.
Many of the questioners, who are obviously not native English speakers, are curious about all kinds of things having to do with living in this country, speaking and writing in English, and topics regarding American dining and etiquette. A visit to the site will leave you amazed, and sometimes amused, by some of the questions. For example:
What has been the worst generation in America so far? A respondent begins: “Mine, the Baby Boomers. We are the smuggest, most entitled, laziest and most selfish generation since the Roaring Twenties, and probably before that...”
Another inquiry caught my eye because I’m a senior citizen and a veteran cruiser:
- Is it really cheaper per day to stay on a Princess Cruise ship than live in a nursing home? The answer is yes. For the reasons why visit https://www.quora.com.
Some other questions and answers I found interesting:
- Is it more correct to say “you and me” or “you and I”?
- What is the intended purpose of philosophy?
- What is it like to be raised by two people of the same sex?
- For Italians what is the most annoying mistake Americans make with Italian food?
Someone wanted to know:
- What are the worst decisions in U. S. history? This respondent began, “America’s transition from a drafted military force to a professional military force...”
And this one made me chuckle – and think:
- What is a difference between the way Americans think about Europe compared to the way Europeans think about America? “Americans think 100 years is a long time. Europeans think 100 miles is a long distance.”
Meanwhile, I’m off to spend some time at Duolingo and Quora before it’s time to put dinner on the table.
I watched Barack Obama deliver his last State of the Union speech with bittersweet pleasure. I will not live long enough to see another such handsome man, who is brown like me, stand before this assembly of our nation’s government bodies, to summarize the state of our union and lay out his hopes for our country. It isn’t all that it could be, but it remains leaps and bounds ahead of any other place on earth, no matter how venerable or exotic or grand.
What a man he is. What a husband and father. What an intelligent presence. And what character he must possess to have endured the bludgeoning he has received, the slings and arrows aimed at him while managing to retain his equilibrium, and his humor. The fact that he has not been assassinated – by bullet, by fire, or by noose – is a miracle. Say what you will about the Secret Service, they have obviously been doing something right.
How such a kind and good man could be so reviled by so many, so blamed for everything that’s wrong in the world is a never-ending source of amazement to me.
There is a website, Quora.com, on which readers ask questions about all kinds of topics, from the silly to the serious. “Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever sat next to on an airplane?” “What is a food in your country that would be considered unacceptable in ours?” “After 7 years of having him, was Obama a good president overall?”
Many readers have weighed in on that question – some positive, some negative. I don’t usually pass along lengthy passages written by others, but I’m including the following, by a respondent named Barry Postma, because I found it refreshingly fair, and there seems to be a shortage of fairness these days. Feel free to agree with him or tear him limb from limb. Feel free to doubt that he is a Republican or even in his right mind. He writes:
“He has been a pretty good President. As a Republican, I consider him the best Democratic President since JFK.
“I was frightened by his inexperience in 2008, but he has led well. He's one of those people, like JFK, who use inexperience as an excuse to question old assumptions and try new approaches. It turned out to be a virtue.
“I feared that his peacenik, unrealistic anti-war rhetoric would abandon Afghans and Iraqis who were dependent on our protection. But the withdrawals were gradual and considered. Maybe ISIS would have been less successful if there had been a major, continual US presence in western Iraq or if the USA hadn't assisted rebels in Syria. But it's also possible that ISIS became inevitable in 2005 when Bush didn't hand the nation-building enterprise over to the UN and bring our troops home. What Obama really did was temper Bush's policy with a little restraint, which was about as wise an option as any available to him.
“I'm impressed with the agreement with Iran that prevents them from developing nuclear weapons while recruiting their cooperation against ISIS. (I'd rather give credit for that to Obama than Sec. Kerry because I just don't like Kerry. A personality conflict, I think.)
“I was an opponent of ACA (ObamaCare). Clearly, not everyone was able to keep their existing plan as promised, and the falling health care costs we expected haven't materialized. [The rate of increase of health care costs has shrunk, but more because of a lagging economy than because of ACA. So says http://www.factcheck.org/2015/06...] I'm still unsure about it, and saving money in my personal finances by paying penalty taxes rather than buying health insurance. But what I dislike most is sudden change, and taking ACA away is the big change now. I concede to the status quo until evidence against it is overwhelming, which it is not against the ACA so far. Instead, the evidence is mostly neutral.
“On guns, I disagree with Obama's theory that regulating guns will have any effect on mass shootings, but I like what his 23 executive orders did (namely, put more cops in schools, enforce existing law better, promote gun research, and keep the background check system up to date). I disagree with Obama critics that claim he wants government to buy up all the ammo, intentionally botched the ATF's sting operation, or intends to take away everyone's guns. The rhetoric on both sides is silly, but the actions Obama has taken within the executive branch have been reasonable and moderate.
“Obama did the right thing focusing immigration resources on illegal immigrants who are not DREAMers. People who illegally immigrated as infants, toddlers, or young children didn't willfully break any laws, whereas grown adult border-crossers clearly did. That's the right place to put the focus.
“I also support the acceptance of Syrian refugees, which Obama and my Republican governor agree about.
“Obama's early speech to the moderate Muslims of the world was a fine idea, if overly idealistic and lacking in follow-though.
“Obama has kept about 45% of his campaign promises, and partially kept 25%. That's 70% that were at least partially accomplished. That's not bad at all!
“Obama championed a few traditionally conservative ideas, like putting more cops in schools and strengthening border security. He's preferable to, say, Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi in his willingness to work across the aisle.
“He seems like a decent guy and a strong family man, something I don't believe about Bill Clinton or Donald Trump.
“He's put up with the Birther and "He's a Muslim!" nonsense with poise and dignity, even humor. That kind of character is admirable and rare.
“Overall, I think he did remarkably well, for someone with whom I disagree about so very much. I'd happily shake his hand and thank him for his fine public service.”