Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Gen Xer Reflects On Kurt Cobain's Birthday

Nirvana in their fullest glory at the Reading Festival

When I got into my car this morning I was listening, as I usually do, to Clay Pigeon on WFMU. His morning show, which you can stream if you are unlucky enough not to live in north Jersey, takes a lot of the old morning show conventions (school lunches, this day in history, etc.) and has fun with them between spinning righteous tunes. When he got to famous birthdays he mentioned that today would have been Kurt Cobain's, then dropped the needle on "Very Ape."

This got me thinking about my generation. We were born in the Baby Bust amidst skyrocketing divorce and Reagan era reaction against the youth. In a one-two punch our society wanted to shackle us (for poor kids of color this was literal) while our families had less time for us. To be blunt, we weren't wanted. For someone born in the mid-1970s, the early to mid 90s promised deliverance. This was especially the case in terms of music. Punk and rap, two genres once kept in the basement, burst forth into the mainstream. By the late 90s both had been homogenized and drained of much of their thrill. Cobain and Tupac were both dead by gunfire, one a suicide the other murdered. In the late 90s stupid pop music, godawful Limp Bizkit rock and hip-hop drained of political consciousness ruled the charts.

This reflected a general feeling, at least by me, of missed opportunity. There are three days in what I would call the "long 1990s" where I felt my hope for the future die. The first was April 8, 1994, the day Cobain's body was found. The second was April 20, 1999: Columbine. The third was September 11, 2001, when I knew the bloodshed of that day was going to unleash far worse.

You may have your own days, mine are definitely contingent on me being a midwestern cishetero white guy. The other days I mourned with others who were also shaken, but Cobain's death I mourned alone.

Other students at my high school were just confused. Why had someone who had it all, who was rich and famous, killed himself? Their stupidity and lack of depth on that day made me insane with sadness and fury. I was, shall we say, not the happiest person in high school, and prone to depression. I fully understood why someone would take their own life, because the thought had crossed my own mind a few times. I idolized Cobain not only for his music, but for his sarcastic wit, his lack of rock star macho bullshit, his obvious humanity. I was an outcast and a weirdo and he was to me the weirdo messiah. Because other people thought an outcast like him was cool, that meant perhaps an outcast like me could somehow be cool, too. He was to me a sign as well that my generation was capable of making something new under the sun. His death seemed to tell me I was wrong, both about outcasts and my generation. For this reason I have a hard time listening to Nirvana and a lot of the loud indie rock I loved back in the 90s. It reminds me too much of the death of my youthful hopes for the world.

It's with this in mind that I am thinking of the Parkland students, who are filled with the same zeal I had at their age for wanting to become an adult in a better world than the one I was raised in. I'm middle-aged now, but I will be following their lead and getting my protesting shoes on. My generation was derided as complacent, now the media pretends we don't exist. It's time to prove them wrong on both counts.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Postcard From Virginia Beach

Perfect song for a rainy night in the Tidewater by one of its native sons

I'm writing this at night with my wife and daughters asleep, next to a window overlooking the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean. We made the extremely necessary decision to get out of town over a long weekend, and opted to go to Virginia Beach. It was far enough away but not too far of a drive, and more importantly, well south of New Jersey. The off season beachfront hotels are so desperate for business that I am paying less for this room than I did for the one at a roadside hotel in Dover, Delaware, last night, whose stunning view consisted mostly of an empty lot and a Pizza Hut.

This trip has been incredibly therapeutic, as good travel often can be. The rain-slicked, wind-chilled streets are empty of beach goers, and instead a great backdrop of quiet contemplation and escape. The ocean itself, as it never fails to do, puts my soul in the right mood. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the landlocked prairies of Nebraska that the ocean has a special pull on me. It is not in the mountains but by the ocean that I truly feel awed by nature. Staring out at its massive size and never-ending horizon I feel the hand of the divine and the reminder of my small place in this universe. That reminder is actually comforting, since it is also a reminder of the smallness of my own problems in the grand scheme of things. If I get to retire, I want so badly to live in a seaside town.

Buoyed by the warmth in my soul that the ocean is giving me, we have been enjoying the small pleasures that make life bearable. Looking at the gorgeous expanse of ocean while driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, during lunch today with an old friend and her kids, watching my daughters' joy at the local aquarium, and washing some fresh oysters down with a crisp beer, I have been happier than I have been in months. All I can do tonight is wish that I could feel this way on an ordinary day, that I did not need the promise of vacation to get through so many frustrating, regular weeks of my life. Now I guess I understand why my dad always seemed so happy and excited on our family vacations. I'm feeling thankful tonight that he gave me an example to follow.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

To Win On Guns We Have To Fight

People who want gun proliferation and want to stop gun control are a formidable force not only due to the NRA lobby. They care a lot about the issue, a helluva lot more than the average proponent of gun control. Progressives who want gun control get incensed after the latest shooting, then forget about it next week. Sometimes they even refer to the cycle of "thoughts and prayers" leading to nothing in an entirely self-defeating way. "Nothing can be done' they.

Well, I for one am sick of the excuses. I am furious, not only at the politicians bought by the gun lobby and the gun humpers who support it, but also by liberals and progressives who do all of their political fighting on social media and never turn out to do something more meaningful. And you know what? I am also sick of the hand-wringing folks on the left who greet every gun control proposal with a "well actually this is all caused by xyz structural issue in the American polity." OK Mr. Smarty Pants that's nice, but how in the hell do we stop the bloodshed?

You know why I am sick of it? Because people keep dying. Because two weeks ago I had to spend four hours after school getting drilled on what to do if a shooter came into my school. Because my five year olds are doing exercises already. Because we as a nation have essentially agreed that we expect students and teachers to be slaughtered like hogs in their schools from time to time as if it is a natural and unavoidable fact of life.

Stop whining about the NRA and put your shoulders to the goddamned wheel. There are a lot more of us on this issue than there are of them. Organize! Mobilize! Make it so that Republicans crossing us more than they fear crossing the NRA. Until that happens, nothing changes. Instead of seeing this as too daunting, take up the challenge!  We simply cannot keep living like this, and the only way forward is clear as day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Thoughts Provoked By Reading John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy


World War I was the event that first got me interested in history. I have maintained that interest, an interest so pure an abiding that I have never wanted to sully it by formally researching and writing about it. (Yeah, I'm a weird guy) This means that I occasionally fall down a Great War rabbit hole and have to keep digging until I come out on the other side.

Recently my interest in that conflict combined with my love of modernist fiction, and I picked up John Dos Passos' USA trilogy. So far, I have not been able to put it down. The forty minutes in the morning and afternoon I spend reading it while riding my New Jersey Transit commuter train to and from New York City have become cherished to me. It tops out at well over a thousand pages, and I am already half-way through.

It is a book famous for its devices, including stream of consciousness "Camera Eye" interludes, several interlocking narratives from the points of view of a broad range of characters, "Newsreels" os scraps from actual newspapers, and best of all, impressionistic biographies of key figures of the age.

I love this aspect of the book because what I call the "contemporary historical novel" is one of my favorite genres. These are typically novels where the author is recounting a recent past that the audience has lived through, and attempts to make sense of it. Dos Passos wrote the three novels (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) in the 1930s, but wrote them about America right before, during, and after World War I. We get an amazing sweeping view of a certain time and place, and it's the kind of thing we had in the 21st century about our own recent past. If I had the time, talent, and inclination, it's what I'd write. Alas, I am no one's idea of a novelist.

Reading the trilogy I have been struck by how the modernist art of the early 20th century has maintained its power to provoke. When I show my students early abstract paintings they still get shocked or put off by them. It is great and a little sad that writers and artists so long ago can be so fresh. It says a lot about how timid and safe so much of what we consume today can be. Relatedly, I am flummoxed at how these books these days are not rated much, and have become an afterthought. call me crazy, but I'd put them above what Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis were writing at the time, and I like all of those authors.

In terms of the content of the books, I have made another sad realization. It used to be when I read novels written in the early 20th century that the chasms of class differences between some of the characters seemed quite alien to me. Nowadays those differences feel all too relatable. After four decades of neoliberalism American society has practically gone back to its New Deal self, a small band of affluence sitting above the toiling masses. At least Dos Passos is deeply concerned with those disparities and revolutionary ideas. Few writers today seem to be.

One of Dos Passos' motifs is the larger story of America's rise to global political and economic power. His trilogy is partly a meditation on the start of the so-called American Century. It is interesting to read it when we are now in that century's twilight. I only hope that there is a historian or novelist or film-maker out there who can document this era in all its tragedy and messiness the way that Dos Passos rendered his.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Warning Signs That Your Elders Are Watching Fox News

Be on the lookout for pushers like this!

[Editor's note: I am giving over my blog today to Dr. WH Bear, an expert on the scourge afflicting our citizens in their golden years. Be vigilant, and don't forget to report seniors with dilated eyeballs.]

As we all know, the so-called "golden years" bring all kinds of emotional adjustments. Elders may start acting out for the first time, they may change so much that you barely recognize them anymore. I know that this can give many young people anxiety, and they never want to believe that the elders in their lives, perhaps even their parents, are using and addicted to Fox News.

Now you may want to dismiss this, and see it as just a phase they'll outgrow. After all, you'll say, "don't all old people need to have some time to experiment?" Or you might say, "I dabbled a little in Fox News, and it didn't hurt me!" You may say that now, but soon enough your sweet aunt will be talking your ear off about "chain migration" and will be ruining family events by going on about president Obama's birth certificate. You might think that your neighbors are harmless when you hear Sean Hannity's voice coming out of their windows, but soon they will be putting "Blue Lives Matter" signs on their lawn. You also might not be aware that the current strains of Fox News are five times more powerful and addictive than they were twenty years ago.

While some elders loudly proclaim their Fox News addiction, others may try to mask it. Here are some warning signs to look out for:

They use strange new lingo, like "Benghazi" and "Solandra"
One notable effect of Fox News addiction is that its victims become passionate about obscure issues embedded in larger contexts they don't understand. For example, most of them do not know that Benghazi is a city in Libya, or can even locate Libya on a map. However, they will use it in conversation as much as possible.

They have a sudden interest in buying gold
Fox News conditions its viewer to lose their sense of reason and to accept whatever claims, no matter how outrageous, are made on that channel. Many unscrupulous types know this, and like to peddle all kinds of rip-offs to Fox News viewers whose minds have been weakened. Those promoting the buying and selling of gold seem to be especially active, so beware.

They lack of awareness of major news events
If people watch news all day, you would expect them to be very well-informed by what they are watching. However, a Fox News addict will be strikingly ignorant of major news events, especially those that present the president in an unflattering light. If they talk at length about "Operation Fast and Furious" or "Solandra" but don't know about the latest Trump scandal, they are likely Fox News addicts.

They are scared of Antifa, the New Black Panther Party, and the "knockout game"
Now it is normal for elders to have heightened fear and anxiety about the changing world in their old age. However, Fox News addicts seem to show peculiar fixations on very minor and insignificant left-wing organization or moral panics with a subtext of violence committed by young people of color. Addiction to Fox News has been known to trigger increased levels of paranoia.

Once you know that your elders are addicted to Fox News, it can be very hard to know what to do. This is not the kind of thing any child imagines that they will have to deal with. Remember, the parental controls on your television are for your use, and your elders will likely not be capable of changing them back. They may protest, but some "tough love" is needed to save their minds and souls from the hell of addiction.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Trump's Media Enablers

The Emperor has no hair

Politically this last week has been one of the most depressing of the Trump administration. Last week the wannabe despot gave a state of the union address that received a level of media hype of the kind I have never witnessed for any president. The cable news networks were desperate to get eyeballs on the screens and ratings in their pockets. The speech itself was hardly notable, except for its complete lack of policy proposals.

Of course, the media tried to polish Trump's turds, as they always do. They talked, yet again, about pivots. Why? Because the media CANNOT admit that this is not situation normal. They cannot admit that this is not a regular president, not even a bad regular president, because acknowledging reality would actually force them to stand for something. We are living in a Twilight Zone episode where millions are crying out about how the emperor has no clothes, but those in charge of the media, who are supposedly the most suited to see this, refuse to do so. They are not equipped to deal with what this man truly is: a wannabe despot consumed by ego and sociopathy who is totally unfit for the job, and who owes his position due to the bigotry of wides swathes of America, as well as the assistance of a foreign power.

And, as one could easily predict, after Trump was done reading insincere nonsense off of his teleprompter, he went back to being his usual self. In a move reminiscent of Mao or Stalin, he accused Democrats who did not stand and clap for him of treason. He released a classified memo in an attempt to thwart a criminal investigation against him, and that memo actually turned out to do nothing to exonerate him. Did any of the pundits who fawned and talked of "reset" apologize or admit they were wrong? Of course not. I am sure that when Trump has his stupid military parade they will be fawning again, going out to talk to dipshits at lunch counters in the backwoods and reporting that people just love seeing their leader supporting the troops.

As much as I hate Trump and his minions, this week my rage is reserved for the media. The president has called them the enemy, has declared war on them, and they have responded by shirking their duty. Trump claimed to have had the best state of the union TV ratings in history, which simply wasn't close to being true. And yet the Times called it a "boast" rather than a "lie"! The media are simply too chickenshit to defend their integrity. Trump is a goddamned ignorant, bigoted moron, but he is extremely smart at manipulating the media. He used the media to get hours of free publicity in the primaries. Every week a new scandal emerges from his administration, but he just keeps shotgunning them out there and putting on the Trump Show. A tweet will get more news than evidence of corruption or collusion.

So please folks, pull the plug on the Trump Show. Play the long game. Donate, vote, canvas, write, call, fundraise, protest, and strike and for God's sake turn off cable news.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd, Animals


[Editor's Note: It's been far too long since I've done a classic album on here, so here it goes.]

There was a certain time in my youth where I listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall album pretty religiously. I can even locate it: late winter of my junior year of high school, 1993. Roger Waters' curdled sensibility and rage against school and society was tailor-made for angsty teenaged me. That was actually my first Floyd album. The following summer I picked up Dark Side, and found myself totally entranced by the more proggy, psychedelic band I found on that album. The two tapes alternated in the stereo of my Mazda Protege, depending on my mind. When I felt good, it was Dark Side, when I felt rotten, The Wall.

Later I developed a taste for the early Syd Barrett Floyd, as well as their gonzo material that bridged their 60s sound and their 70s stardom. Only much later did a friend introduce me to Animals, a true bridge album from Pink Floyd the band to Pink Floyd the Roger Waters apparatus. It's an album that has The Wall's social commentary and anger, but maintains the old prog religion. In fact, it's a far proggier album than anything the Floyd had done since Meddle. Listening to it now it sounds like a missed opportunity, as The Wall would take the band into a more conventional musical direction and more overblown conceptual direction. 

Animals starts and ends with two parts of a simple, mournful acoustic song called "Pigs on the Wing." It's about love, not society, but makes for a soft takeoff and landing on a difficult album. The rest of side one is taken up with "Dogs," about those people who obediently follow the rules of society while seeking to dominate others. Richard Wright's organ is subdued, but provides an eerie, horror movie mood underneath the proceedings. Gilmour's fast acoustic guitar is like the sound of a dog bounding quickly after a ball, but the mood darkens when his voice comes in. While the song is credited to both Gilmour and Waters, it definitely has more of a Gilmour feel to it, especially the amazing, typically searing guitar solos interspersed. The lyrics are very dark and reflective of Waters' new direction. There's talk of backstabbing and duplicity, all so one can grow to be old, alone, and dying of cancer. The stretch in the middle of unsettling music and dog noises is pure prog and adds to the somber and off-putting mood.

Unlike other Floyd albums, this one will put me in a down mood pretty fast, and I usually only listen to it when I am feeling in the dumps. I don't exactly need to be reminded these days of how cruel and mean-spirited people can be, or how careerists and opportunists are constantly poisoning just about everything. I happened to buy it on a trip home over the holidays from grad school in December of 2000, precisely when I was in a bit of a down period. Perhaps that's why it took hold of me so fast.

Side two starts off with "Pigs," which if we know our Orwell is talking about all those self-appointed "leaders" who constantly engage in parasitic, sociopathic behavior. Unlike your run of the mill dog, a pig is secure in their power, and has no need to backstab to climb the ladder because they are already at the top. The song itself is loud and punishing, perhaps a riposte to the punks who had deemed the Floyd and their contemporaries dinosaurs. It's also rather relevant these days. Former PM David Cameron is purported to have had sexual relations with a dead pig in his youth as part of one of those Oxbrige groups where everyone grows up to run the country like it's still 1890. And of course, the president of the United States is as piggish as they come, from his porcine body to his tiny, groping hands.

The music of "Pigs" is simpler than usual Floyd, a sign of the direction the band was heading. At this point, however, it's not overly simple. The last long song, "Sheep," ends things in a rousing fashion. It starts, however, with a nice jazzy Wright keyboard number, really the last time he was allowed to fill that kind of space on a Floyd record in their classic era. (After this Waters would cruelly demote him to the status of a sideman, rather than a full band member.) The sheep, of course, are those people who go meekly about their days, living lives of quiet desperation being ruled by pigs and bossed by dogs. While the whole "the people are sheeple" thing has gotten out of hand these days, in the late 70s it was not yet fully played out. In addition to organ this song has some fine bass work from Waters, which gives it a pulsing groove a la "One Of These Days." In this version of things the sheep actually do rise up and take down those who presume to dominate them. 

I do not find "Sheep" as musically cohesive as the other tracks, but right now its theme speaks to me. In this era where pigs run our politics and dogs overwhelm our workplaces, I'd like to think that they finally get theirs. Animals may not be in the Floyd pantheon, but it gets at some of the realities of modern life in ways that other allegorical renderings are rarely able to elucidate. Other Floyd records may be better, but there will never be one more relevant.