Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of Notes From the Ironbound, 2012

I have always loved this time of year, since it means that my favorite websites and radio shows re-air/post the best bits of the previous year.  Oftentimes I missed these things the first time around, so it's good to get a chance to discover them.  I also love looking at music magazines this time of year, since the best of lists give me an idea of what to check out, now that I am too old to be bothered to still keep up on new music on a weekly basis, like I used to.  (By the way, anyone have some album recommendations?)  Part of me just likes a list, and loves a retrospective.  After thinking about it a bit today, I realized that I've never really done a retrospective of the best of my blog.  Here's my own list of the stuff I'm proudest of in the last year, much of which did not get the pageviews that other, more mundane posts received (go figure).  The posts are listed in reverse chronological order.


It's Time to Talk About the Dysfunctions of White American Masculinity
My friend Chauncey over at WARN picked this one up, and led some bloggers whom I really respect to come here and leave some comments.  It seems like Newtown has already been forgotten, and serious talk about what need to be done in response has already evaporated.  Hopefully we can get the conversation back on track in regards to guns, mental illness, and yes, white American masculinity.

Why I Love the Rockford Files
This post and my love of The Rockford Files prompted my spouse to buy me a copy of James Garner's new memoir for Christmas, I can't wait to read it.  I don't write much about TV, some things just have to be praised.

Thanksgiving Memories
It's hard for me to write about my childhood memories without being maudlin or boring.  The positive feedback I got from some of my friends about this post convinced me that managed to avoid those sins this time.

Fun With County-By-County Election Results
Anyone remember that election we had less than two months ago?  We've moved on from that to the "fiscal cliff," but the results still bear scrutiny and analysis.

Video Arcade Memories
The arcade has gone the way of ditto sheets and phone booths, but it ought to live on in our memories.

Why I am Voting For Barack Obama
It bears repeating.

Say a Little Prayer For Asbury Park and the Jersey Shore Tonight
I wrote this as Sandy was bearing down on the Garden State.  My fear that Asbury Park would be wiped out proved ill-founded, but many other shore communities were not so lucky in the end.

The Highlight of My Commute Home From Newark
Still in love with my city.

Low Budget Culinary Pleasures
I thought this was brilliant, but the stats say no.  Perhaps that explains the demise of Hostess.

Can My Intellectual Marriage to My Academic Specialization Last?
One of the best of my "leaving academia" posts.

This was a very eventful year for me, mostly because I became a father.  I tend not to write about fatherhood, since it's a temptation to sappiness.  This time around I centered my new role on music, and I think it works.

The Edge of 37: Things Have Changed
Of course, fatherhood also prompts brutal self-reflection.

The Many Frustrations and Small Pleasures of Commuting Through Penn Station
My commute is getting so regular that I barely notice what happens around me on my way to work.  This post reminded me that I need to open my eyes again.

History Lesson: The Context of "You Didn't Build That"
Lest we forget Willard Mitt Romney and his campaign based on resentment against people of color and the poor of all races.

Why I Like Living in the Ironbound
An ode to my beloved neighborhood.

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: John Denver, "Country Roads"
The best and most personal entry in my "sheepish pleasures" series.

How the "I Side With" Quiz Might Reveal Big Trouble for Republicans
My punditry usually isn't all that profound, but I think I was on to something here.

Countdown to (Musical) Ecstasy: Learning to Love Steely Dan
I must've spent two weeks contemplating and writing this post in defense of a musical love that many refuse to understand.  I still stand by every word!

History Lesson: Voter Fraud Versus Voter Suppression
Voter suppression didn't work this time, but we ought to be vigilant against it.

Classic Albums: Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner
Perhaps my favorite entry this year in the "classic albums" series.

Chris Christie's New Jersey Hustle
In the post-Sandy afterglow it is more important than ever to shine a light on the real Christie.

Parenting Dilemma: When and How Do I Introduce My Children to Star Wars?
Still looking for answers.

Why Slap Shot is My Favorite Sports Movie
This post was the product of years of contemplation.  Coincidentally, this year I rediscovered hockey, but now must suffer the lockout.

How the STFU Culture in Academia Enables Dysfunction
Oh yes, I still burn with white hot rage at the inequities of academia.  STFU is one of the more insidious faults of the ivory tower.

My Favorite Reality Show is Over: Why I'll Miss the Republican Primaries
Seeing the right-wing ass clowns make fools of themselves was as close to circus sideshow entertainment on tv as you'll get this side of Honey Boo Boo.

A Lament for the Kansas City Royals
My favorite baseball post of the year.

Life Metaphors From Baseball
My second-favorite baseball post of the year.  Catchers and pitchers report in two months!

Washing Up
Perhaps my favorite post about the mundane tasks of daily life (showering, in this case.)

A Good Bar is Hard to Find
Luckily, since I wrote this post I managed to find two such bars, both worthy of being treasured.

Classic Album: Kraftwerk, Man-Machine
I like a lot of the metaphors here, and obviously the online readership does too, based on the number of hits it has.

Fearless Predictions for 2012
I predicted Romney's nomination, Obama's close win, and the "un-American" slurs used against the president.  Hey, I wasn't half bad at the prognostication thing, although I don't think Nate Silver will be having to go out and find a day job.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Elections (Should) Have Consequences

Watching the fiscal negotiations unfold in Washington, I can only think that either the memory of the American public is insanely short, or the GOP is willfully out of touch, or both.  Does anyone recall that we just finished a presidential election campaign that lasted for over a year, and that was supposed to determine this country's future political course?  I seem to remember one candidate campaigned both in 2008 and 2012 on a platform of raising taxes on the wealthy.  That candidate also happened to win both elections against opponents totally opposed to any tax increases, even on the wealthiest Americans.

I also don't seem to recall the opposition party ever coming out publicly in favor of cuts to Social Security, but now they are being held up as the price to be paid for tax increases.  If they had, I am sure they would have performed even worse in the last election.  On the whole "fiscal cliff" issue, one side wants to do exactly what it promised the public it would do, and which the public approved.  On the other side, politicians are pushing an agenda that never even came up when they ran for election.  I am amazed yet again at the ability of our "democratic" system to simply deny the public will in order to appease an ideologically-motivated fringe minority.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

We Live in Two Different Worlds

I leave Nebraska tomorrow to head back to New Jersey, and during my travels here I have been struck hard by the differences between the two places.  I don't mean things like the lower quality of pizza, less sophisticated style of dress, or less stressful way of life in these parts. I am talking instead about wholly different mental frameworks and approaches to politics. These frameworks seem to transcend individual experiences and circumstances

For example, I have heard two people who are active in their own unions slag the labor movement, which is considered an evil, job destroying monster by so many here.  I have heard angels and demons discussed as if they were real entities who played a role in our day to day affairs.  I have heard a general reaction against any kind of gun control legislation, even in the wake of our most recent mass shooting.  I know it's become trite to say so, but people living in different parts of this country are living within wholly different realities. 

I have increasingly come to believe that the current impasse on capitol hill and the larger dysfunction it represents can be chalked up to the fact that large swaths of this country simply refuse to acknowledge and accept the reality that Barack Obama is truly president.  He and everything he stands for is anathema to a large number of folks out here on the prairie.  They prefer to think that the last two presidential elections can be ignored, which they will continue to do.  As long as this bone-deep, culturally-reinforced antipathy remains, I fear that this nation will continue to be ungovernable.  That is the larger force behind the surface-level manifestation of the "fiscal cliff" fiasco, and one that I feared will not soon be resolved.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Having an Epiphany on the Nebraska Interstate

Yesterday my wife and I flew with our infant twin daughters back to my ancestral homeland of Nebraska.  When we landed in Omaha, our trip was far from over, since we had to drive another 150 miles to get to my hometown in the south-central part of the state.  Having lived out of the state for almost fifteen years, it has become much less familiar to me, yet that has allowed me the great pleasure of rediscovery.  I am now aware of what makes my homeland such a unique and different place, even if I do not plan ever to return to it permanently.

The reality of my estrangement from Nebraska hit me quite suddenly and quite beautifully yesterday as we drove west down I-80 into a typical December sunset on the Plains.  The low clouds on the limitless horzion glowed with brilliant hues of orange and magenta that reflected off of the snow-covered hills between Omaha and Lincoln.  The sheer expansiveness of the sky and unbounded vistas of the earth were once mundane to me when I grew up here, but nowadays haunt me with their almost brutal force.  Being crushed betwen sky and earth is a good reminder of one's own small place in the world, something that might account for the humility prized by Nebraska's people.

After the sunset faded, night fell.  It was Nebraska night in the time of solstice, almost primeval in its total and utter darkness.  This kind of night, especially in the midst of a balmy cold snap, makes the world seem a dangerous and threatening place for mere mortals as ourselves to be venturing into.  I love New Jersey and New York City, and I have happily tethered my life to those places, but they can never jolt me to reflect on my own fragile mortality the way that a single highway drive through a cold winter Nebraska can do.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Classic Albums: Iggy Pop, Lust for Life

As I mentioned in my last post, my friend Dave passed away on Friday, and over the course of our friendship, we shared a lot of musical affinities.  Today, as I was searching Spotify for some of this stuff, I found the album that we may have listened to the most together: Iggy Pop's Lust for Life.

I had already been a big fan of the album-opening title song through the film Trainspotting, which the both of us knew practically by heart, especially the "choose life" monologue.  Unlike Pop's work with the mighty Stooges, or his prior solo album (The Idiot), the rhythm is jaunty, the hooks catchy, and there's nary a distorted guitar to be heard.  Sadly, these attributes have lead to this poppier side of Pop being used in all kinds of television commercials.  (Hard to imagine something like "Loose" being used to sell toothpaste.)  Evidently the people at Carnival Cruises glossed over the lyrics about "liquor and drugs" and "striptease."  Regardless of its adulteration at the hands of international capital, "Lust for Life" is indeed a big-beated, big-hearted ode to finding one's will to live after surviving a death trip.

The album immediately switches gears from joyousness to the kind of sleazy kinkiness Iggy was known for with the Stooges.  "Sweet Sixteen" opens with Iggy howling "sweet sixteen in leather boots" to a jagged riff and gut-busting, stomping beat.  Now that he's told his tale of redemption with "Lust for Life," Iggy spends the rest of his time describing the hell he escaped from.  Much the same comes with the junk-sick moan of Carlos Alomar's guitar sound on "Some Weird Sin," an ode to casual sex as psychotherapy.  Iggy ends a kind of trilogy of decadence with the album's fifth song, "Tonight."  A beautiful post-punk ballad buoyed by an airy synthesizer line worthy of Kraftwerk, it begins with the tale of a groupie's overdose.  It's obvious that the triumph over self-destruction described by "Lust for Life" came only after a great deal of pain, struggle, and narcotics.

Sandwiched between "Some Weird Sin" and "Tonight" on the first side is "The Passenger," one of Iggy's most enduring songs.  The deadpan narration and dark sound add up to a brilliant commentary on the modern condition.  The main character spends his life spectating, watching, looking but never actually participating.  In a strange way, it's a prediction of our current online world, where everyone's a consumer and a reviewer and a rater, flowing along to the next stimulation, drained of any real human connections or emotions.

It's pretty hard to match a side one this magnificent, and side two of Lust for Life is not up to the task.  If side one is an intense blast from a man who narrowly survived life on the edge, side two is a more light-hearted, goofy take on existence.  "Success," for example, starts pretty serious, but then gets silly with its call and response format.  The soulful ballad "Turn Blue," goes on too long, but has a funny aside where Pop intones "Jesus?  This is Iggy."  Dave actually did a pretty dead on impression of that line, one that would really crack me up.  Things get more rocking on "Neighborhood Threat," but not nearly as menacing as on side one.  The funky, skanky "Fall in Love With Me" closes out the affair with a much cooler version of the type of music that the Rolling Stones were trying to make at that point in their career.

Listening to this album since I left Chicago back in 2000 has always meant happy memories of Dave and I's adventures, including the glorious night we saw Iggy live in the flesh at the Metro.  Our hero turned in an absolutely awe-inspiring performance, every inch the rock and roll shaman we idolized.  Now, with his sudden passing, those happy memories are leavened with the bitter tears of loss.  It's a paradox of the kind presented on this album's cover, which has long obsessed me.  Iggy's eyes sparkle, and he smiles the kind of wide smile I associate with high school yearbook photos.  Yet the brightness of his smile and eyes are kind of creepy, almost psychopathic.  In our lives pleasure and pain are more mixed than they are opposed to each other, and this album supports that hypothesis more than any other.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Musical Reminders of a Deceased Friend

This morning I received the horrible news that my friend David died suddenly yesterday.  I have known him since the age of 18, including an eventful stint where we lived together in a wonderfully bohemian apartment on the north side of Chicago.  I have known many memorable people in my life, but David was by far the most unique.  He lived without resorting to bullshit or compromising his integrity, and was never afraid of what others thought of him.  I wish I could say the same of myself.

In remembering him today, I have been listening to a lot of music that we enjoyed together.  Hearing these songs has been both healing and painful.

Black Sabbath, "Neon Knights"
Dave was a huge fan of Black Sabbath, and my first album by the godfathers of metal was a tape he gave me, with Paranoid dubbed on one side and the first Led Zeppelin album on the other.  It was an important moment, since my upbringing in rural Nebraska had made me disdain heavy metal, the music of the kids who used to bully me.  Early Sabbath was an easy sell for me, but Dave had all of their albums from across the decades.  I tried to resist, but eventually I caved to his evangelization, and learned to love Sabbath's Ronnie James Dio period.  Every time I hear this song I think of riding along in the passenger seat of his rusty 1980 Dodge Diplomat, chugging through the suburban streets of Omaha with the windows down and metal blasting out.

The Stooges, "Loose"
While Dave got me into metal, I turned him onto punk.  He fell for Iggy Pop harder and faster than I did, but by the time we lived together, we both listened to him on an almost daily basis.  Fun House was a special favorite in our apartment, and this song in particular.  The night we saw Iggy live at the Metro was one of the highlights of my time in Chicago, and one I will always remember.

Bob Dylan, "Ballad of a Thin Man"and "Like a Rolling Stone (Live)"
I also took pride in the fact that I got Dave interested in Bob Dylan, and the two of us listened to both Highway 61 Revisited and the second disc of the famous 1966 "Royal Albert Hall" concert a lot in our Chicago apartment.  I spent the year we lived together working as a library clerk between my master's and doctoral degrees, while Dave was finishing up his master's study.  I worked the evening shift, and I have a vivid memory of coming home at 10:30 to see Dave hunched over in front of the computer, banging out his thesis with "Ballad of a Thin Man" on repeat.  I took it as a sign that the stress was getting to him.

Dave was a misunderstood person in his grad program, mostly because he was a philosopher trying to be a historian, and not at all interested in the petty vagaries of the academic profession.  I think that's why the song spoke to him, just as Dylan's exhortation to his backing band to "play fucking loud"on the live version of "Like a Rolling Stone" fit with Dave's willful defiance of academic norms.  He was a much more intelligent person than I, but much less willing to play by the nonsensical rules of a corrupt game.

Pink Floyd, "Matilda Mother"
Dave and I got obsessed with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd at about the same time.  In honor the man, we had a poster of him set up in the alcove where we placed our stereo, kind of like a little shrine.  It was a picture of Barrett soon after his crack-up, he stared out under unkempt hair and baggy, dark eyes.  I was prone to bouts of emotional distress at the time, so I found a kind of dark humor in it, as I think Dave did too.  He was a huge fan of Tolkien and later did some scholarly work about him.  This song has such a Tolkien-esque, almost elvish vibe to it, which is why I associate so strongly with Dave.

These songs will never be the same for me, since they remind me so much of a person whose loss has left a hole in my heart.  Who will I discuss existential philosophy with now?  With who else can I share my memories of early 20s urban bohemianism?  My eyes are burning today from so much weeping, and my forehead is throbbing with pain over the strain of holding the tears back during the minutes they haven't been falling from my eyes.  At least these songs have given me some smiles between the sobs.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Informal Academic Job Market

This time of year gives me flashbacks to the six grueling winters I spent on the academic job market.  Around about now those fortunate enough to have interviews at the AHA are getting ready for the inhuman pressure cooker that is the conference's jobs pit, where dreams and dignity go to die.  Those less fortunate are rueing their fate, wondering if they will get a chance.  If all they want is a job, they need not worry, because another, informal and less public job market will be opening up around May.  You won't find many ads in the Chronicle of Higher Education for these jobs, but trust me, they're out there.

Here's the deal: at the end of the school year, department chairs have to scramble to fill all the slots in their introductory level classes in the Fall. Because of hiring freezes and tenure lines that go unfilled, with each year the gap between class sessions that need to be taught and the number of faculty on hand grows more severe. However, department chairs can safely rely upon the large reserve army of unemployed academics to take low paying adjunct work at the last minute. They never have to look far. Just as a contractor knows the corners where the day laborers wait and can be hired for low wages, department heads have a steady supply of newhomegrown MAs and PhDs who need work and are willing to teach classes for peanuts and without benefits.

The key to the informal job market is to be at the right place at the right time. Most department chairs want to put as little work as possible into finding the warm bodies necessary to fill in the classroom gaps. In the past I have witnessed patently incompetent people get jobs simply because of desperation on the part of department chairs. These incompetents then managed to retain their jobs because it was just too much bother to replace them with someone who knew what they were doing. The quality of education received by the students very rarely factors into the equation. Even worse, the naked exploitation of a captive labor force making poverty-line wages never, ever seems to make those doing the hiring lose any sleep.

As the formal job market gets worse with each passing year, the informal market will only get bigger. The math is pretty simple, actually: tenure track positions keep getting scarcer, but enrollments are still high. Until we shine a light on the informal market and force the same "accountability" on university administrators that's being forced on faculty, in no time at all the "formal" market will be a thing of the past.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gun Control Is Only Partly About Guns, And Mostly About Challenging a Dangerous Political Tendency

Anybody actually remember the 90s?  Sure, you might say,  I've still got my Super Nintendo and Lilith Fair t-shirts.  When trying to recall politics you might scratch your head, and think about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Janet Reno.  You might even have a chuckle or two about Linda Tripp and Ross Perot.

You, like most folks these days, might have totally forgotten about what the radical and armed Right was up to back then.  Since 9/11 we have tended to associate terrorism with radical Islamism in this country, but the horrific Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was the bloodiest terror bombing in the nation's history up to that point.  Separatist militia types were known to get into fracases with federal agents and spread paranoid fears about the "New World Order" and commando raids aided by black UN helicopters.

After 9/11, the face of terror changed, and with the new Islamist bogeyman haunting the nation's dreams, most everyone seems to have forgotten about the paranoid Right fringe.  Guess what folks, this fringe done got respectable, and instead of being consigned to the margins, it has wormed its way into the center of American life while the rest of us were asleep at the wheel.

At the same time that fear of terror bombings on airplanes led to an ever-growing list of seemingly ridiculous TSA restrictions and the government claimed powers to wiretap without warrants and to torture, gun restrictions melted away.  The assault weapons ban expired, and the NRA had a field day successfully pushing for guns to be allowed in just about every corner of American public life, from taverns to universities.  Second Amendent absolutism has gone from being a ridiculous theory peddled by a fringe movement to the law of the land.

States like Florida forced welfare recipients to undergo humiliating and wasteful drug testing, but have been handing out conceal and carry permits like Crackerjack prizes.  This same state has the infamous, NRA-backed "stand your ground" law, which makes armed citizens into their own judge, jury, and executioner.  The Sunshine State now touts itself as "One Million Strong," apparently so angry old white men can settle parking lot disagreements with hot lead.

The paranoid fringe now has a bevy of political figures at its beck and call, and plenty of voices in the media spewing its talking points.  Texas just overwhelmingly elected Ted Cruz to be its Senator, a man who has actually asserted that there is a UN plot to take away our golf courses.  Fellow Texas politician Louie Gohmert responded to the Newtown massacre by lamenting that teachers in the school didn't have assault rifles of their own.  These are the type of opinions that in a healthy society would be confined to ranters on street corners and senile drunks on barstools.  Fox News made one of these ranters, Glenn Beck, its de facto leader in the aftermath of Obama's election.  Beck regularly invited militia types on his show, and spun paranoid conspiracy theories and dire predictions of political apocalypse.

The old militia movement has morphed into something I call "God, gold, and guns conservatism."  It's not just for the armed militiaman reading The Turner Diaries by the fire in his compound, but the aging suburbanite who went out and bought a gun after Obama's election, and who has spent a large chunk of his savings on gold bars peddled during the commercial breaks on Fox News.

For gun control advocacy to be effective, it will mean confronting this very powerful and volatile tendency in American political life.  I get nervous thinking about how the God, gold, and guns crowd will react if new gun restrictions come down after years of progressive cowardice and indifference on the issue.  (Remember, even president Obama was willing to approve concealed weapons in our national parks.)  I fear a repeat of the political violence of the 1990s might be in the offing.  I can only hope that my fears are misplaced, and that the recent advocates for sane gun legislation stick in their fight with a powerful nemesis.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

It's Time to Talk About the Dysfunctions of White American Masculinity

Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework.  Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools.  We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things.  There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons.  However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.

Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student.  That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men.  I hardly think the connection is coincidental.  Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings.  I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.

Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control.  I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal.  That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America.  Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.

Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are.  When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront,  they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide.  Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did.

The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well.  Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill.  We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill.  They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in.  Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home.  While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.

We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives.  These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed.  When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst.  We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions.  We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks.  Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Geddy Lee: A Rush Playlist

There are some things I dislike, and you can never change my mind.  I don't care for Fox News, cheese, Taylor Swift, Michael Bay movies, or SUVs, and I never will.  That being said, I have learned to cherish one thing that I used to completely disdain: the music of Canadian rockers Rush.  Back in my youth, I loved punk rock and hated anything that smacked of musical showing off or sounded like prog rock.  I found Rush to be ridiculous and overwrought, from Geddy Lee's screeching vocals to Neal Peart's daft lyrics inspired by sic-fi and Ayn Rand.  The fact that third member of the band called himself Alex Lifeson made me chuckle.  I knew people who liked Rush, including a close friend or two, but they really seemed like a musician's band to me, appealing only to fellow virtuosos.

For some reason, about four years ago, something about Rush just clicked with me.  I got past the lyrics (which I still find to be silly) and Geddy Lee's vocal excesses (which thankfully aren't present on many of Rush's songs) and keyed into the amazing musicianship.  As my tastes have become more sophisticated, the three chords and a cloud of dust approach taken by most punk rock bands seems pretty limited.  There are a lot of bands out there that sound like the Ramones and Nirvana, there's really only one Rush.  Here's a playlist of my favorite Rush tracks.

"Tom Sawyer"
This is probably the band's signature tune, and for years the only one by them that I liked.  Unlike a lot of other hard rock bands from the 1970s, Rush actually adapted their sound to integrate electronics and non-rock rhythms in ways that sound natural, not forced.  (Moving Pictures and Signals have multiple reggae-influenced songs.)  The dark synths and almost folk rock guitar churning at the base of the song set a fantastic tone for the whole enterprise.  Peart's drums never sounded more exact or glorious.  Even the biggest Rush haters can't help but to like this song.

I have lived in small towns, college towns, small cities and big cities in my life, but never the suburbs, and for good reason.  This song evokes the deadening conformity of life on the crabgrass frontier like no other.

"Passage to Bangkok"
Unlike most Rush songs, this one's got a catchy chorus.  It's also one of the hardest rocking songs about the pleasures of smoking up a bowl of weed ever written.

So many rock bands write ten minute songs, so few of them can create something that deserves that kind of length.  "Xanadu" more than justifies its playing time, providing us a jaw dropping introduction that gives the listener a long, gourgeous slide into the song.  The rest of it ain't too bad either.

This album side-length song is really a kind of orchestral suite about a future world where music is banned, all is ruled by an authoritarian priesthood, a young man discovers a guitar and is put to death for using it, not before he incites a revolution.  The story doesn't quite hold up, but man, the music is amazing, and it keys right into my inner frustrated teenager.  Back in my old job, on days where the back stabbing by colleagues and assholery of superiors was too much to handle, I would close my office door and just blast this.  I don't think I could give a song any higher endorsement.  It also showcases some absolutely blistering leads by Alex Lifeson, by far the most underrated member of the band.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Why We Need to Talk About Gun Control Today: Some Analogies

I've been hearing a lot today about how discussing gun control is somehow politicizing the horrific events in Connecticut.  We seem to hear this every time there is a mass shooting, a type of event that has become so horribly commonplace in this country that we have well-developed methods of talking about it.  Others in the internet world are doing a far better job than I of discussing all this; I will only offer some things our unwillingness to seriously question our gun laws on this day is analogous to.

It would be like not discussing fire codes in the wake of the deadly factory infernos in Bangladesh or after the Triangle Factory burned up.

It would be like not talking about terrorism after 9/11.

It would be like ignoring homophobia in response to Matthew Shepherd's death.

It would be like refusing to discuss "stand your ground legislation" in regards Trayvon Martin's murder.

It would be like a doctor neglecting to tell a patient with heart disease about his bad eating habits.

In short, not talking about gun control today is an excuse concocted by those who wish to dodge responsibility, and they ought to be even more ashamed of themselves.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Notes on a Visit to the Fredericksburg Battlefield

[Note: Last March I took a road trip down to visit the proprietess of the WCFC and her hubby in North Carolina.  On the way there and back I decided to make pit stops at Civil War battlefield sites, and I meant to write my reflections down in these pages.  I never got around to it, though, mostly because my thoughts about the experience were too thick to untangle.  I realized that this week is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg, whose site I visited on my way back to New Jersey.  Seeing an article about the event in the Times' "Disunion" blog has motivated me to finally write about it.]

Over the last year or so I have revisited the Civil War with a vengeance.  It was an obsession of mine from about the age of eleven to the age of fifteen, when the Ken Burns series hit the airwaves.  I carefully taped it onto VHS at slow speed, and watched it over and over again.  By that time I had been able to visit the Bull Run and Gettysburg battlefields on a family road trip to Washington DC, which took on the air of a religious pilgrimage for me.  While in junior high I read Bruce Catton's classic three volume series on the Army of the Potomac, probably the most dense work of non-fiction I ever read at that point.

For some reason, I'm not sure why, I dropped my interest in the topic.  Nowadays my rekindled obsession with the Civil War tends towards the political and social side of the conflict, rather than Pickett's Charge or the skirmish on Little Round Top.  That said, I still get goosebumps when I visit the battlefields, which can have an otherwordly effect on me when the mood is right.  A couple of years ago I went to Chickamauga and stood at Horseshoe Ridge, where a determined line of Union troops under General Thomas -the "Rock of Chickamauga"- held fast against a Confederate onslaught.  Standing at that spot, where so many had died so brutally, I swear I could feel the presence of ghosts.  The air seemed to hang there, pregnant with memory and death.

That feeling could not prepare me for what I experienced at Fredericksburg.  I had a bit of dread going to that battlefield, largely because it was the Civil War battle that saddened me the most as a youth.  Appropriately fought in December's cold, the colossally incompetent Ambrose Burnside sent waves of attacks against entrenched positions on the heights above the town.  Union men were cut down mercilessly, many of them forced to spend the night of the battle hidden behind parapets of corpses, hoping to live to see the sun.

I visited on a crisp, overcast March afternoon, one of those early spring days when the winter chill still lurks in the breeze.  I was immediately struck by the fact that the town of Fredericksburg now stretched right up to the base of the heights, meaning that many people today live on the site of a mass slaughter.  Being there brought home to me, more than any other historical site I've visited, the reality of history.  The hill held by the Confederates, Marye's Heights, was tall, steep, and contained a ready trench in the form of a sunken road.  I'd always imagined the road to be sunk only so low that the Confederates had to lie down in it to cover themselves.  I discovered the road to be so deep that the men firing could stand up, with only their heads exposed.  Sending troops to charge that position was beyond futile, I could clearly see now that it was murder.

And that's when the reality of the accounts I'd read in the history books hit me, and I broke down and cried.  The thought of so many young lives being ended out of pure administrative stupidity was unbearable to me.  After getting myself together I trekked up Marye's Heights, on top of which sits a military cemetery, with its rows of uniform markers laid out like so many troops in formation.  The soldiers thus rested for eternity in the place they had expended their lives trying to reach.  In a strange way, this thought reassured me, even if I knew the whole battle was a useless waste of human life.

I ambled my way down the hill, jumped in my car, and drove through one of those identical, endless suburban commercial strips before merging onto the interstate, amazed that amidst this deadening debris of modern American life stood a monument to senseless death and destruction.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Top Five Songs By The Smiths

I've had The Smiths on my brain a lot over the last couple of days after reading an interview with the author of a recent book about them, which got me thinking about which album of theirs I like the best.  I've always thought of The Smiths as more of a songs, rather than album band, but I do think that Meat is Murder is the one album of theirs I spin the most.  In any case, I decided that it's been too long since I put together a list, and thought that a top five Smiths list would generate some debate (proprietor of the WCFC, I'm looking at you.)  These five are entirely subjective, of course.

1.  "How Soon is Now?"
This is the song that made me a believer, and it still holds up today.  My fifteen-year old ears perked up when I heard the wall of reverby guitars, and when Morrissey intoned "I am the son and heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar" I felt as if there was someone out there who understood me.  Johnny Marr's Dopler-effect guitars over the trance-like rhythm track still have the power to move my soul.  I still vividly remember one time I listened to this song as I drove south on Lakeshore Drive in Chicago on a clear summer morning, the sun rising gloriously above Lake Michigan, its golden light reflecting off of the buildings to my right, with the ethereal sounds of this song on my stereo.  I may have been alone, but I did not want to go home and cry and want to die.

2.  "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore"
This song is so fraught with personal meaning that it can be rather difficult to listen to, as much as I love it.  An old, dear friend and I would always put this on the jukebox and sing along on nights out at the bar in Chicago.  We would always giggle a little bit at the way Morrissey sang "Time's tide will smother you, and I will too," delivering the second line in a kind of sinister falsetto.  Whenever I hear this song, I am reminded of her, but the memories bite a little.  We had a severe falling out about three years ago, and haven't spoken to each other since.  As the man says, I've this happen in other people's lives, now it's happening in mine.

3.  "Half a Person"
When I first really delved into The Smiths as a teenager, they were a voice of understanding in a cruel and difficult adolescent world.  I was not conventionally masculine or confident, and I combined these deficiencies with an anti-social streak a mile wide.  You can probably guess that I didn't have any girlfriends, and that was certainly true.  However, I was a bit of a cracked romantic, and developed insanely intense crushes on girls well out of my league.  This simple song told by a "sixteen clumsy and shy" narrator spoke to me like nothing else.

4.  "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before"
Apart from Keith Richards and Chuck Berry, Johnny Marr has constructed more classic riffs than any other rock guitarist.  This song might have the best riff of them all, subtle yet undeniable.  Unlike a lot of other guitarists who are more fetishized, he serves the song rather than reeling off solos.  It's also got one of Morrissey's best quips, "I crashed down on the crossbar, and the pain was enough to make a shy bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder."

5.  "The Queen is Dead"
The Smiths were too understated and smart to rock out in the overt ways of other great indie bands of the time like The Minutemen and The Replacements.  They get pretty damn close with this song, however, with its punishing drums and jagged chords from Marr that sound positively violent.  It's all a great bed for Morrissey's denunciation of life in Thatcher's Britain, taunts lobbed at Prince Charles and the rest of the aristocracy, and a warning to the working class about the "pub who wrecks your body and the church who takes your money."  Unlike most Smiths songs, it goes well beyond three minutes, an extended explosion of anger, disappointment, and class resentment.  In an increasingly hierarchical and technocratic America, we need more songs like this.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

How the Fiscal Cliff Reveals That Nobody Really Believes in Austerity

The whole "fiscal cliff" business has really been wearing me out, and not just because the phrase itself is trite and misleading.  No, it has revealed, once and for all, that those claiming to be "fiscal conservatives"are anything but.  The same people who point their fingers of judgement at Europe, and shake their heads at protests over austerity are unwilling to actually implement austerity policies in this country.

Make no mistake, the provisions of the "fiscal cliff" are austerity, red in tooth and claw.  They involve both massive government cuts (including to sacred cows like defense) as well as sweeping tax increases.  If reducing the deficit is truly the quarry that the budget hawks on the right want to slay, then  they should be ecstatic with the "fiscal cliff," and simply allow it to happen.  If nothing is done to avert the oncoming austerity train, it would certainly cut the deficit significantly.

So why are so many Republicans opposed to letting this happen?  Mostly, it's because they actually aren't interested in austerity at all.  They certainly want to slash the social state, but have no interest in reducing our nation's bloated defense spending, and would like to see tax rates on the top brackets go down, rather than up. For over thirty years they have been selling the myth that cutting taxes on wealthy will release a cloud of libertarian faerie powder that will magically grow the economy so much that it will increase revenues.  Furthermore, they castigate any notion that government spending can have any positive effect on economic growth.  Of course, whenever defense is threatened, they crow about the loss of jobs, as if government only stimulates the economy when it buys missiles.  (This frame of mind is what Paul Krugman has dubbed "weaponized Keynesianism.")

Democrats can be awfully dishonest when it comes to facing the realities of the national debt, but at least they don't pretend to be something that they're not.  Until folks like Paul Ryan are willing to raise tax revenue and cut more than social and discretionary spending, they should not be called "deficit hawks" or "fiscal conservatives" in the media.  Furthermore, we should be referring to an "austerity bomb" or "austerity train" or even "austerity cliff" when it comes to the current crisis.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas Entertainment With More Plum and Less Sugar

Christmas brings out some of the absolutely worst stinking piles of kitschy pop culture cheese every year.  All kinds of godawful purveyors of lame pop music, from Kenny G to Wham! have essayed the Christmas song.  The Lifetime network, unwatchable on a normal basis, really goes for the treacly sentiment with their "Fa-La-La-La Lifetime" lineup of saccharine holiday movies.  Despite this yearly tidal wave of dreck, I never fail to get into the Christmas spirit, mostly because it is the one thing that makes the onset of winter's cold and dark bearable.  Over the years, I have also learned to cherish the Christmas-themed stuff I actually like due to its more critical take on the holiday season.  Here are some examples.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, "Daddy's Drinking Up Our Christmas"
The holidays have their dark side, and people often have a hard time living up to the ideals that the season puts before our eyes.  This song reflects that truth better than just about any other.

The Youngsters, "Christmas in Jail"
Similarly, this vintage R&B number tells the tale of getting nailed for a DUI on Christmas.  I'm sure it happens more often than we think.

Miles Davis, "Blue Xmas (To Whom it May Concern)"
Grinchitude never was more hip than this song, where one of the icons of jazz calls out the materialism and phony sentiment of Christmas over a finger-popping beat.

Edward Burch, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
Ed's an old friend, and a great musician.  Since I don't get to see him now that we've both moved out of Texas, I have to subsist on his YouTube performance of the original, depressing version of a holiday chestnut.

SCTV Christmas Special
During the early 1980s, SCTV made Saturday Night Live look staid and archaic.  Instead of cheap gags and catchphrases, they did things like a piano duel between Liberace and Orson Welles having a meltdown ("you people are pests, no money is worth this!")  Big fans of the show will appreciate the SCTV Christmas party, which brings together many of the show's characters.

Patton Oswalt's Riff on "The Christmas Shoes"
As I've mentioned already, the holiday season comes with truly wretched music attached.  What could be worse than a cheesy holiday song?  One performed by a Christian rock band, of course.  Patton Oswalt is one of my favorite comedians, and his take down of New Song's "The Christmas Shoes" is one of the funniest things I've ever heard.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why I Love The Rockford Files

Unlike a lot of people, I can't just sit down and burn through whole seasons of television in a day.  The repetition gets to me, plus I'd rather be reading.  However, there are some shows that I have slowly been working my way through over a matter of years, enjoying them like a fine aged whiskey rather than a case of Busch Light.  One of these shows is The Rockford Files, one I am a little embarrassed to love so much.  My requests to put an episode on usually results in a groan of pain from my wife, and my effusive praise of the show to friends and colleagues is normally met with a kind of exasperated silence.  I don't care what they say, I love it.

In case you don't know the show, it stars James Garner as Jim Rockford, a wrongly convicted ex-con who works as a private eye.  He lives in a trailer on the beach with his disapproving father Rocky, and usually ends up getting roughed up and not getting the girl or a big payday.  The supporting characters include Dennis, a grumpy cop who sometimes helps Rockford, Angel, a friend from prison with a knack for weaseling out of situations Rockford has to clean up, and Beth, his liberated woman lawyer and sometimes paramour.

As a fan of all things seventies, I love how the show (which ran from 1974 to 1980) epitomizes so much about the polyester decade.  Although Garner has a ruggedly handsome face, he is no traditional tough guy PI, and reflects the less orthodox masculinity of the time.  He keeps his revolver in the cookie jar, and rarely uses it.  He often gets beat up by roughnecks, harassed by the police, and harried by his dad.  Rockford is more likely to use his mouth and wits to get what he needs, rather than his fists or his gun.  Instead of working out of a fancy office, he takes calls in his trailer, and when he's not around, an answering machine, not a secretary, takes his calls.  The latter device is also used in the opening of every episode, where there's a different message on the machine each time, usually from a bill collector or Angel with a problem or wacky scheme.  Originally released in the midst of the mid-1970s stagflation, Rockford is a hard luck hero for people living through hard times.  Reflecting the Watergate era and general distrust in authority and elites, the villains are usually wealthy, connected types who the police have been unable or unwilling to bust.

All in all, Rockford is just a much more human hero than we're ever allowed to see.  The shots inside his trailer home show the faded wood paneling and the stains on his pot holders.  He inhabits a very unglamorous, low budget Los Angeles, full of strip malls and industrial parks.  The opening montage shows him fishing and buying groceries, fer Chrissakes!  Unlike with modern day shows, he's not laden down with all kinds of psychological or supernatural bullshit.  He is not a serial killer, does not suffer from a mental disorder, does not have a secret family, is not involved in organized crime, etc.  He's a likable guy, what's wrong with that?  Watching all these shows where I am supposed to have ambivalent feelings about the protagonist is just getting old.  It was an interesting twist back when Tony Soprano and Don Draper first went on the air, but enough already!  Can't I just watch someone I want to root for?

Beyond all that The Rockford Files gets all the small touches right.  Rockford drives a gloriously gold Pontiac Firebird, wears open collar shirts with sports jackets (my preferred professional look), and it's got an endlessly catchy theme song.  What's not to like?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Can the Yawning Divide Between Faculty and Administration Be Resolved?

Having moved from higher ed to secondary ed, I have noticed one thing that has stayed the same: faculty and administration fighting a low-grade war with each other.  At all levels of education, administrators tend to see faculty as a mere obstacle to be surmounted.  From their position in the commanding heights, administrators are constantly hatching plans, and constantly irritated that faculty resist putting them into action.  Faculty, by and large, see administrators and overpaid, air-headed meddlers who are completely clueless about faculty's day to day lives.  Administrators move on from job to job so quickly that faculty pay lip service to whoever is in charge, until the next boss shows up a year or two later.

This low grade war is costly.  I will even admit that there are times that administration proposes major changes worth taking, but that the knee jerk opposition of faculty, spurred by years of disrespect, derails effect change.  On the other side, administration never listens to faculty concerns about implementing their vague, sweeping plans, often leading them to end in abject failure.

I have a few ideas about how the low grade war can at least become an uneasy peace.  First and foremost, faculty need to be given more control over decision making.  Unless they have a seat at the table, they will never take any changes to heart, and proposed changes will suffer from a lack of input by those who actually have to implement them.  On the flipside, faculty need to respond by taking more responsibility for themselves.  This means actively participating in decision making, rather than passively avoiding it.  It also means doing more to hold their colleagues to a higher standard, so that they are worthy of having more power.

Even with more faculty governance, the divide will need to be eased by making administrators less exulted.  Their pay and perks should be cut, so that those entering administration do so for the right reasons, and also so that faculty don't see administrators as removed from them.  Jumping from job to job ought to be a liability for applicants to administrative jobs, which ought to be filled by faculty with real commitment to the institution.  Administrators should take the extra time to mingle and talk to faculty, not just send down directives from on high.  And faculty should be responsible in turn for creating real relationships with their administrators.

This won't create a utopia, or even full cooperation between the two factions, but will at least make positive change more possible.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Review of The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue

During my last few years in academia, I spent a lot of time reading about the state of the profession, which hardly helped my desire to stick with it.  Of the many that I read, none was perhaps more on target than Frank Donoghue's brief and insightful The Last Professors. In it, Donoghue argues that the current generation of professors in the humanities will be the last, and will soon be replaced in most, non-elite institutions by a "casualized" workforce. Unlike other commentators, however, Donoghue argues that this phenomenon has largely taken place already, and that there really isn't a whole lot that can be done about it.

The one knock against the book might be that it's too episodic and doesn't hold together as it should; at times it reads more like a collection of essays than a cohesive statement. That being said, Donoghue makes five very prescient insights worth considering. In the first place, as I just mentioned, he points out that the humanities professor is already a disappearing breed. However, the public and most tenured academics seem totally unaware of this fact. Few people in America realize that most classes these days are not taught be traditional professors, but by adjuncts, "visitors," and graduate students. Because practically everyone apart from the new academic labor workforce is ignorant of the changes that have already happened, almost nothing is being done about them.

The Last Professors also manages to get at the real issue with the rise of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix. It isn't that these fly-by-night companies necessarily take away students from traditional universities, it's that their labor practices and ethos are now being adopted by a whole host of university administrators. They now have models of how to destroy shared governance for good and to cultivate a low paid, "flexible," docile workforce. Tenured professors in the humanities will soon be a luxury good maintained only by the Ivy League and other prestigious universities who can get their students to pay big bucks for scholarly sages.

On an entirely different note, Donoghue exposes the serious issues in the realm of academic publishing, a subject that more academics should be taking seriously. State-level cutbacks have meant cuts for university presses, which have shortened their lists and now only publish books with a potential to make money. At the same time, more and more universities are increasing their research expectations, driving up the number of prospective authors at a time when getting a monograph published is that much harder. With so many professors publishing to get tenure and so many adjuncts publishing in order to get a tenure track job, academic research has become more instrumentalized, and by virtue of its greater volume, devalued and of lower quality.

As those of you who have braved the academic job market well know, a long list of publications does not guarantee a tenure track job. Donoghue might be at his best when laying out some plain truths about the jobs situation. He asserts, quite rightfully, that there is no job crisis because there has been an endemic shortage going back to 1970. We must put aside the hopes that the job market will somehow "recover" or "get back to normal." It has about as much of a chance of improving as I do of becoming queen of Spain. Donoghue correctly connects this state of permanent crisis at a time of growing enrollments to the tremendous increase in adjunct labor in the last thirty years, not PhD "overproduction."

Last but not least, The Last Professors addresses the myths of tenure. In the first place, Donoghue claims that it is being eroded, in large part because of the relentless causualization of academic labor. On top of that, he makes the claim that tenure actually doesn't protect academic freedom because professors without tenure can be fired for all kinds of reasons unrelated to their performance. When I was an untenured assistant professor, the fear of reprisal if I dared speak up about any of the issues I see with my department and university encouraged me to keep my mouth shut.

There are many more notable observations than these in The Last Professors, and I can heartily recommend it to anyone who is concerned over the future of the humanities. However, Donoghue might be a bit bleak, even for my tastes. He doesn't seem to think that anything can be done to rescue the humanities professors, who are meeting their Waterloo. It's not much better, but I prefer to see the current situation as Dunkirk: we humanities scholars have been defeated and are running for our lives, but we still have the hope of coming back victorious. It can happen, but we need to really start fighting. Like the labor movement of yore, faculty need to unite (and I mean tenured, tenure track, and adjunct together) and get in the faces of our more complacent colleagues and ask them, as the old song goes, "which side are you on?" I'm not sure it will happen, but dammit, if we're gonna go down, we ought to go down swinging.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Choose Life: An Ode to Trainspotting's Opening Monologue

My love of cinema grew into full bloom in the mid-1990s, at a time when I had moved from my isolated hometown to a city with an art house theater and video rental stores that carried foreign films.  One fateful night, near the beginning of my junior year of college, I went with my best friend to see Trainspotting, a film that both of us became instantly and totally obsessed with.  I saw it at least twice in the theater, and dropped lines from the film into conversation at every opportunity.

Beyond its obvious quality as a film, it appealed to my lifestyle at the time, which I guess you could call  "chickenshit bohemian."  I had developed a pretty intense dislike of mainstream American society, but wasn't brave enough to drop out of it, or cool enough to pass as a real, honest to God bohemian.  You could say that I was a nerd with hipster predilections.  Unable to truly rebel, I got off on the works of Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs, vicariously experiencing the drug-addled benders that I'd never have in real life.  I listened to lots of Velvet Underground to boot, blasting "Sister Ray" with abandon.

Needless to say, when Trainspotting began with Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" blaring out of the speakers and Ewan McGregor intoning the classic monologue about "choosing life" I was hooked like the addicts in the film.  By "life" it means conventional consumerist existence unto meaningless death.  This pretty well summed up my feelings about my probable future at the time, and even if I wasn't choosing heroin, I was desperately hoping not to choose the kind of life that main character Mark Renton described.  Of course, his unconventional lifestyle ends up becoming a nightmare, with a dead baby, violence, disease, and overdoses.

That didn't stop me from buying a poster with the words of the "choose life" speech written on it, something I positioned above my bed so that I could see it every day, a reminder of the need to keep my sights on something higher.  Fifteen years later, my bohemian pretensions are mostly memories.  I'm married with two kids, worried about being able to afford a home, and hold the eminently respectable job of high school teacher.  I'm pretty happy too, much happier than I used to be in my faux Henry Miller years.  That said, I'm not beyond popping Trainspotting into the DVD player from time to time, for a vicarious reminder of the edgy person I tried to fool myself into believing I could be.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Classic Albums: New Order, Movement

Up until now the records I've featured in my classic albums series have been major critical successes.  However, there are a few overlooked gems out there that I feel ought to get more recognition, and Movement is one of them.  For example, Allmusic only gives it three and a half stars, the lowest rating for any of the band's 80s and 90s albums.  It's generally thought to be a transitional album.  In case you didn't know, New Order formed out of Joy Division, whose lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980.  At this point the new band was trying to find its way, and it still sounded a lot like Joy Division.

I'd been turned onto Joy Division by friend in my Chicago days, and out of curiosity went out and got a used version of the Substance compilation of New Order singles.  I loved the first tracks (namely "Ceremony," "Temptation," and "Everything's Gone Green") best, and so jumped at the chance when I saw a used copy of Movement at a record store near the Belmont el stop on the Red Line.

I've probably listened to this album more than any other in my collection, in large part because I spent a good chunk of my life using it as a sleep aid.  Unless I am absolutely wiped out, I can't fall asleep in total silence.  The spooky, otherworldly feel of this album make it perfect as a Virgil accompanying me to the icy depths of the sleep world.  I started using it for this purpose during my Michigan days, and hearing the first, descending chords of "Dreams Never End" instantly conjures up memories of my freezing apartment in winter time, where I had to wear flannel pajamas and wrap myself in multiple blankets to stay warm in bed in a complex nightly ritual.  That song is one of the warmest on the record, and it sort of wrapped me in an aural blanket as I lay there curled up, hoping for sleep to take me away. On those cold, dark lonely nights in the midst of Michigan's unforgiving winters, this album had medicinal qualities.

Movement is so much about feel and mood that I don't think I can analyze it song by song, because I've never listened to it with songs in mind.  The album tracks are more moods than fully fledged songs, but in a good way.  "Chosen Time," for instance, floats in a kind of ether, it's staccato guitar lines like morse code from another dimension.  "Truth" sounds like a restless spirit haunting dark corners, perhaps an elegy for Ian Curtis.  Speaking of, songs don't get much spookier than "The Him," which is more obviously about Curtis' death.  The drum rhythms are an inverted funeral march, the guitar a feedback-laden ghost, both surging forward at uncanny moments.  My favorite song might be "Doubts Even Here," whose erie start, building up from almost total silence, makes me picture total desolation.  It's the sound of survivors emerging from a bomb shelter into an obliterated street.  Not many albums can create that feeling, and get their listeners to keep going back to it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Vintage TV Commercials Nostalgia

There's nothing that makes me able to touch the past more than seeing TV commercials from my youth.  Since I see shows from growing up in syndication, they are not quite so uncanny and tied to the past.  Here are a few that mean something to me.

I had a really rotten day at work today, just wretched all around.  When I left school, the first thing I thought was "Calgon, take me away!"  Little did I know between the work, commute, babies, and dog, I'd be living the life of an early 1980s career woman with a family.

I had cheap parents growing up, which meant I never got what I wanted for Christmas, and usually had to settle for something lower on the list.  I would spend hours staring at the pictures of toys in the Sears catalog that I wanted, and imagined what it would be like to play with them.  The one I wanted the most, of course, was the imperial AT-AT walker from Empire Strikes Back, although the micro Hoth set was a close second.

Beer commercials always fascinated me, since they seemed to offer a peek into an illicit adult world.  I was especially interested in the ads for old Milwaukee, which showed manly men doing manly things outdoors, only to end their days by a roaring bonfire drinking an Old Mil and intoning, "it just doesn't get any better than this."  Once I was of age to drink, I quickly learned that it very easily gets better than Old Swill, even if the commercials still amuse me.

Last but not least, Energizer didn't always have a bunny to sell their wares.  Y'see, back in the 1980s, Americans couldn't get enough of Australia, whether it be the dewey eyes of Olivia Newton-John, the dulcet tones of Air Supply, the big rock sound of INXS, Mad Max going beyond the thunderdome, or multiple Crocodile Dundee flicks.  To cash in on this rage for the antipodes, Energizer hired Jacko, a muscle-bound, bleach blonde Aussie with a kind of maniacal devotion to Energizer batteries.  Because of my 80s childhood, I still long to take a trip down under.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Classic Albums: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, This Year's Model

Sometimes thanks to the fates or the unknowable vicissitudes of the universe, I get turned onto the exact right music at the exact right time in my life.  I was lucky enough to experience such a moment of grace at the end of senior year of high school, when I picked up my first Elvis Costello album, This Year's Model.  At that age I was an awkward romantic obsessed with women but too socially maladjusted to do much about it except blow multiple dating opportunities with cute girls due to my inability to woo them properly.  (Evidently not talking to someone because you're too afraid to say the wrong thing might make her think you're not interested.  Who knew?)

I was a young man in need of a different kind of love song, a love song steeped in frustration and bitterness, and Elvis Costello gave me plenty of those songs.  (I actually lived out an incident of the kind described in "I'm Not Angry" where my love interest "went upstairs with the boyfriend while I'm left here to listen.")  Costello just seemed like he understood me, from the nerdy classes to his nervy voice.

This Year's Model's sound struck me then, and it still does.  Bruce Thomas' bass is full and up front, Pete Thomas' drums hard hitting, and Steve Nieve's organ, not Costello's guitar, usually carries the melody.  The organ and bass dominated sound, split between the high and low end, gives musical embodiment to the emotional tensions of the lyrics and Costello's voice.  The first track, "No Action," makes it apparent from the beginning that for all its lyrical acrobatics, this record is going to rock hard.  (In fact, I was a little disappointed initially when I started listening to Costello's later output, since it is much less hard edged.)  The tempo is jacked into fifth gear right from the start, and the key lyric "Every time I phone you I just want to put you down" makes it pretty clear that the listener can't expect love songs with happy endings.

"This Year's Model" and "The Beat" shift back into mid tempo, but positively drip with menace and romantic frustration.  Perhaps to break the tension, the next track is "Pump It Up," the best known track on the album and probably the catchiest, anchored by a killer Nieve organ riff.  Once you delve beneath the rave up on the surface, however, the lyrics are a desperate cry of sexual frustration.

From there, side one closes out with "Little Triggers" and "You Belong To Me," which are strongly reminiscent of sixties pop.  "Little Triggers" could pass for a doo-wop homage, and "You Belong to Me" sounds like a much more conventional love song, complete with a catchy hook.

Not to worry, since side two opens with "Hand in Hand," which turns the old love-song forms on their heads.  The romantic title has a sinister intent, when Elvis croons "If I go dooooooowwwn/ You're gonna come with me/ Hand in hand" with musical backing worthy of a Brill Building pop number as performed by the Electric Prunes.  It's a great set up for "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea"'s herky-jerky rhythms and snake and ladder organ lines.

With the mood building, This Year's Model shows why our shuffle playlist rather than album oriented listening habits have hurt us.  Just when you think that things can't get any better, the bright acoustic guitar lead of "Lip Service" cuts through the speakers, a ray of sunshine amidst the claustrophobic sound of the other tracks.  Or so you think, until Costello starts singing with a voice that's grainy and snarly even by his standards.  When he gets to the chorus and accuses everyone of "just going through the motions," my 18-year old non-comformist self felt like he had met his artistic life mentor.

I felt the same thing on "Living in Paradise," when I head the line "the thrill is here but it won't last long/ better have your fun before it moves along/ and you're already looking for/ another fool like me" and on the driving "Lipstick Vogue" with "sometimes love is like a tumor/ you have to cut it out."  Those words seemed to sum up my major frustration of the time, in that I felt such passionate emotions for other people but I had no way of converting those almost torturous feelings into anything real.

With things brought up to such a fever pitch at the end of the record, Costello breaks from emotional matters to politics with "Night Rally," a song aimed at the rise of neo-fascist groups like the National Front in the late 1970s.  It's a sort of anti-anthem, slowly building up to one of Costello's best vocal performances.  When he hits the verse that starts "Oh I know I'm ungrateful" with such passionate fervor, it gets me every time.  Perhaps he included that song last to remind his listeners that there are more important things in that world than our own emotional turmoils, a message I would not have accepted at age 18, but will fully acknowledge now.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Bring Back the Big 8: A Conference Re-Alignment Lament

As I have mentioned here before, growing up in Nebraska meant worshipping at the altar of Cornhusker football.  Back in those days (the 1980s and early 1990s) this meant playing in the Big 8 conference, which was mostly a matter of Nebraska, Oklahoma, and everybody else, until the rise of Colorado under Bill McCartney.  The regular season culminated in the day after Thanksgiving, when Nebraska played Oklahoma, the game that usually decided the Big 8 championship, and which left every downtown street and shopping mall in the state empty.  The winner of the Big 8 had the great honor of going to the Orange Bowl in Miami, which meant fans tossing oranges on the field when the game was in hand.

Back in those days college football conferences were based on regional geography, and carried with them regional character.  The Big 8 was the conference of what I call the "Deep Midwest," and reflected that region's (almost overbearing) humility and conservatism (in that the Nebraska-Oklahoma hegemony lasted so long.)  The old Southwest Conference was made up of almost all Texas schools (except Arkansas,) the SEC was a crucial component of Southern identity, and the ur-Midwestern Big Ten did not stretch west of Iowa City or east of Ann Arbor.

That started to change in 1990, when Penn State joined the Big Ten (which still kept the old name, despite having eleven teams) and Arkansas jumped to the SEC.  The latter move undermined the SWC, leading to its dissolution and the formation of the Big XII, which was the Big 8 with four Texas teams tacked on.  That move, which effectively killed the once great Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry by putting the teams into two different divisions, seems quaint today.  Now Rutgers and Maryland, well outside of the Midwest, have joined Nebraska as refugees to the Big Ten.  It might be cool for me to go down the road to New Brunswick and see the Huskers take on Rutgers in person, but that doesn't alter the fact that these changes are driven by nothing more than greed.

College sports have always been corrupt, of course.  We have already seen the bowl system made meaningless by a ridiculous number of games and an accompanying low bar for qualification.  Athletic departments continue to be awash in cash as academic departments and tenure-track positions are being mercilessly cut.  However, one true thing college sports could offer was a sense of belonging, both to a particular team, but also to a region, something that the conferences reinforced.  Having lived now in several different regions of the country, I am more aware than ever of the wondrous diversity of this nation's regions, and fear their increasing homogenization into one vast highway shopping strip anchored by Wal-Mart and McDonald's.

College football, like our nation as a whole, is being reduced to the lowest common denominator: the dollar sign.  Mitt Romney may have lost the election, but his capital management mentality still drives those who really run the country.  On this Black Friday I wear a black armband for the Big 8, another casualty of capitalism run amok.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday, mostly because it is so dang simple: get together with family and friends and enjoy a big meal.  I have had a lot of memorable Thanksgivings over the years, including the one last year where my wife and I spent three days preparing a meal so scrumptious that we and her family finished it off in about ten ravenous minutes, the Thanksgivings where I hosted my parents in East Texas where we had a delicious smoked turkey from one of the local down home food places, and the Thanksgiving I spent in London visiting the ringmaster of the WCFC blog, where we brought Thanksgiving to Europeans ignorant of its glories.

Holidays are really about memory, when you get down to it.  (This is one of the arguments I make in my now discarded book manuscript based on my dissertation.)  We like to replicate the same rituals year after year because they give us comfort and remind us of the past.  The turkey and stuffing are less about their worth as foods, and more about our need to recreate the comforting visions of times and people long gone.  Nothing conjures memory like smells and tastes, hence Proust's madeleine and the ecstasy I feel when I take a bite of canned cranberry sauce.  The homemade stuff might be better in theory, but it doesn't have magic properties.

When we repeat the rituals so many times, memories of specific Thanksgivings begin to blur into each other.  For that reason, I have a hard time recalling specific Thanksgivings from my childhood, even if the memories are quite intense.   Through most of my childhood and youth, Thanksgiving meant driving eighty miles west to my uncle D and aunt P's house in a railroad and meatpacking town of about 8,000 people where Nebraska fades from the Midwest into the West.  My family usually left home at about 10:30 in our 1984 Chevy conversion van, driving across Nebraska's beautifully barren post-harvest landscape.  Stubbled fields, shelterbelts of trees, and prairie grasses in subtle hues of brown stretched from horizon to horizon.  Many times snow lay on the ground, since winter often comes early on the plains.

My uncle Du was and is a Lutheran pastor, which meant access to the bumper pool table in the church rec room, and, on those Thanksgivings when the weather was nicer, the outdoor basketball court.  My cousin M, who is now a pastor himself, was close to me both in age and interests, so we usually had a lot of fun together.  I had two sisters, and he had four, so it made our bonding that much more natural.  When it was too cold outside to shoot hoops, we would play games on his parent's Tandy computer, including a simple yet engrossing program called Sopwith which M never could understand why I liked so much.  Being an antisocial child I was happy to have a refuge from the crowd.

The parsonage itself was an old two-floor house without a basement (a rarity in Nebraska).  It strained to hold my mother's family, since she had four brothers and sisters, they all had kids, and we all lived within driving distance of each other.  When it was time to eat, the adults sat at the long dining room table, while we kids sat at card tables in the TV room.  Once I reached my later teens and was allowed to sit at the adult table, I felt like I had finally grown up.

The big meal was usually served around noon, consisting of a turkey, a ham (which I preferred), mashed potatoes, and innumerable dishes called "casseroles" in the local dialectic.  For those who don't know, a Midwestern casserole is typically a dish of unnatural color and mysterious origins whose ingredients cannot always be discerned by sight and smell.  Putting these on one's plate was an act of gastronomical Russian roulette, but over the years I learned which ones were safe, and which weren't.  On the latter count, there was one dish made by my aunt K that her daughter swore contained baby food.  Like most Nebraska foods, the flavors do not come from spices, but from fat, cheese, and sugar.

This big meal was merely a prelude, however, to the real meal: dessert.  Before she lost her eyesight a few years ago, my grandmother was a fantastic baker, specializing in pies.  She often brought three different kids of pie (cherry, pumpkin, and pecan) made with her own homemade crust.  I always tried to save room for at least two pieces.  My mother, who relies on prepared food so much that she doesn't own a cutting board, was also a baking enthusiast, and she always brought a deliciously decadent dessert that my family still doesn't have a name for.  It consists of peanut butter sandwiched by ritz crackers covered in almond bark with sprinkles on top.  These treats alone were probably responsible for my childhood cavities.

Of course, like all family gatherings, Thanksgiving had its share of pitfalls.  My uncle is a very conservative Luther minister, and my father a devout Catholic who spent years in the seminary studying to be a priest before eventually dropping out.  The Reformation was alive and well in my family, and it was fought out in the living room.  Uncle De, my favorite, was the lone Democrat in the family, and was never afraid of pushing other people's buttons.  He's also a gambler, and so would spend a lot of time discussing the betting lines on the day's football games, something my dad and uncle D didn't exactly approve of.  My uncle Da, who I never liked (not least for his atrocious racism), got married to my aunt C, who has been fighting a low-grade war of passive aggression with my mother for almost three decades now.  I have spent hours with Da and C in the last thirty years, but have maybe had about twenty minutes of actual conversation with them in that time.

Luckily, I didn't need to.  Since uncle De had a lot of money riding on his football bets, I could always watch the day's games with him on the television.  If I wasn't shooting hoops, playing bumper pool, or another game of Sopwith, I'd join some of my family members in card games.  My grandfather loved hearts the best, but most everyone else preferred pitch.  Like a lot of card games, it's pretty regional, and probably most similar to euchre or spades.  It's a four-handed game with two teams of two, and we took it pretty damn seriously.  The only time my gentle grandmother ever acted mean to me in my whole life was when I was her pitch partner, and I overbid on a hand, causing us to lose.  It seems like a lot of the buried resentments and jealousies inherent to any family got sublimated into our cut-throat card games.

The day's festivities usually went on until about six, when the leftovers from the big feast would be reheated.  Often I tried to refuse, on account of snacking all afternoon on my mom's treats, but eventually gave in after my aunts lamented that food would be wasted.  Once the leftovers had been consumed and everything cleaned up, we all started trickling out the door.  My family usually left about 9, like clockwork every year.  We drove back in the cold dark night of Nebraska in the early winter, the semi trucks passing us on I-80 with a faded whine like ghosts in the darkness.  So many times I fell asleep before we got back, exhausted from a long day, my body in recovery mode after a sugar and carb bombardment.  There was nothing quite like that moment when my dad would shake me awake, the cold night air hitting me in the face through the open door, seeing our house and knowing a warm bed awaited me.  That short moment was full of contentment and security of the kind that I doubt I will ever feel again, and which I can only hope to conjure up again in the yearly repetition of the familiar Thanksgiving rituals.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cranky Bear Tells Red State Moochers to Shut Up

[Editor's note:  From time to time, when I am tired and need a break, I post one of the many missives I receive on an almost daily basis from my friend Cranky Bear.  I have been putting them aside recently, and after many entreaties from him, I've decided to give Cranky the reins for a day.]

Hello folks, Cranky Bear here with a coffee and a cannoli made in one of the Garden State's many fine bakeries.  It's only appropriate to take pride in my urban New Jersey home, since I write to you today of the obnoxious entitlement and mooching exhibited by rustic Red Staters.  They take much more than they give to the federal government, and then turn around and attack the people and regions who pay their bills.  For a pretty egregious example thereof, check out today's New York Times, where several Wyoming residents complain that president Obama won reelection by bribing the votes of racial minorities and white youth with government dollars.  Evidently, according to these self-styled hardy individuals cut from the free soil of the wild West, the moochers and the takers are leading the country to ruin.

To which I call "bullshit!" with my loudest Jersey snarl, the one I reserve for the dopes who carry on loud cell phone conversations in the designated quiet train cars on New Jersey Transit.  Wyoming gets more grant money per capita THAN ANY OTHER STATE IN THE COUNTRY!  Here in New Jersey, we only get back about sixty cents for every dollar we contribute to the federal government, the lowest percentage in the entire country.  Wyoming gets back $1.11, a net gain, yet they're the ones bitching about "takers."  Notice too that some of the leading net receivers of federal money are such "government tyranny" hating states like Mississippi, Alabama, Alaska, and Kentucky.  And yet we have to hear secessionist fucktards in these states bitch and moan night and day about the supposedly bad deal they get under the current system.

Please please please just shut the fuck up before you embarrass yourselves any further.  Either do that or give New Jersey its money back before opening your grits holes.  You might have heard that we had a pretty bad storm here in these parts, and need some money to help repair things.  Representatives from your states have taken enough time to get their mouths off of the federal government's teat to threaten to hold funding up unless they get some concessions.  Fuck that.  When we ask for the money, it's only giving back what we already gave you fuckers.

Yet we're not the ones bitching.  Why?  Because we believe that we are members of a larger society, which you don't buy into.  You think that it's everyone for themselves, that any government redistribution of wealth is "socialism."  Fine, then.  Put your (meager) money where your big fat mouth is, and enjoy life without all those government subsidies.  Or maybe you can just stop your stupid bitching for a change.