Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ode to a Cat

My cat Stella had been ill for two months before dying next to me yesterday morning.  She went from being sick the day before to suddenly being barely able to stand up.  At that point I knew her time was short, and I stayed with her all through the night before she finally gave up her hold on life just before the break of day.

She didn't let go lightly, Stella was always a tenacious cat.  She survived being orphaned on the streets as a kitten, when I was lucky enough to meet her acquaintance at an animal shelter back in January of 2007.  I had just moved to Michigan back in August to take my first job out of graduate school as a visiting assistant professor.  While I liked the town well enough, I was living alone for the first time years and feeling isolated in the depths of a typically hopeless Michigan winter.  For a long time I'd wanted a cat of my own (my family had them growing up), but the life of a young scholar is certain, and I wanted to wait until I lived a more settled life.  It soon became apparent to me that a settled life would be long in coming.

I still remember our first meeting like it was yesterday.  I had first seen her in a plexiglass cage, her orange, black and white back against the wall while she slept.  I had not picked her to be one of the cats to meet, but a person at the shelter thought I should give Stella a go.  Sometimes I think of how easy it would have been to not have had her in my life, I could just as easily taken another cat home with me.  They brought me into a little side room with a table and chair, then brought Stella in.  She was little and sprightly, prancing about the room, then running up to rub her face on my hand.  Her kittenish exuberance brought a smile to my face, and we made an immediate connection.

It was extremely hard yesterday to keep that image out of my head, and painful to contemplate when gazing on her lifeless, emaciated body, and more painful still as I dug a deep hole in the flower bed to bury her in.  She had always been a very healthy and robust cat, active and avoiding the fattening that many cats undergo in their middle age.  This made her mystery illness that much more shocking.  During the first few years we had together her exuberance and desire for play was often exasperating.  She used to demand to chase string on a stick until she collapsed, her sides heaving.  She would complete flying backflips, and if I was trying to work instead of play with her, she would calmly put her front paws on the small of my back and subtly dig her claws into the most tender spot.

Unlike so many other cats, she could handle travel and life transitions.  She made trips with me from Michigan and Texas to New Jersey on multiple occasions, including by car.  During our time together we moved from Michigan to Texas, Texas to Newark, and Newark finally to Maplewood.  She was so happy in our new house, since it gave her the top floor as her turf and more territory than she had in our old apartment, where the dog was loathe to cede any ground.  She was with me every day in one of the most unpredictable periods of my life, where in the space of less than eight years I went from being a newly minted PhD on the contingent track to being an assistant professor to being married to leaving the academy to becoming a father.  During those long nights in Michigan and Texas when I wondered if I had wasted my life and potential, she was always there for me.  On those mornings when my serotonin levels dipped dangerously low and couldn't get out of bed, she would hop up and playfully bat my nose until I succumbed and got up.

I always figured I'd get eight more years with her, but life just isn't fair.  I don't know if I will ever get another cat, if only because I never want to feel this kind of pain again.

Monday, October 27, 2014

What If America Had Proportional Representation?

Back in the 1990s, when I first reached voting age, I voted for Democrats but never saw myself as one. I thought then, and still believe, that the Clinton administration actually did net harm to the poor, working, and middle class.  For that reason I voted third party for president in 1996 and 2000.  The one tangible domestic policy goal that Clinton accomplished was deficit reduction, and his successor wiped out that effort by giving away the money saved to the wealthy via tax cuts.  The Bush administration scared me so thoroughly that I actually began to identify with the Democrats, but their performance in power over the past few years has changed my mind.  Teachers organize on their behalf, and are repaid with a hostile "reform" agenda.  Latinos come out to vote for Obama in record numbers, and he refuses to push immigration reform forward.  Meanwhile, Republicans keep winning, but the GOP has been taken over by whacko ideologues to the point that many less insane members of the rank and file are a little embarrassed over their affiliation.  In general, it seems like conservative Republicans are the only group of people who have a party that consistently represents and fights for their beliefs.

This has got me thinking about something I've contemplated for a long time: proportional representation.  Americans like to brag on their Constitution, but it is actually a musty, out of date system that other nations have surpassed in the intervening decades.  The first past the post electoral scheme and two-party system both choke off a multiplicity of voices.  The result is plain to see in states like Texas, which is actually politically diverse, but is almost completely dominated at all levels by rabid conservatives.  I would estimate that about 45% of Texans effectively have no voice whatsoever at the state level.  Proportional representation is a more democratic system because it give those not in the majority actual representation.  If America had a system like Germany's, where every party netting more than 5% of the vote gets representation (both in state legislatures and in Congress), I would be willing to bet that more people would get their voices heard.  More varied ideas and policy proposals would be aired.  Proportional representation also rarely results in absolute majorities, and thus forces compromises by its very nature.

Of course, such a system will never come to be in America, so this is more of a parlor game than anything else.  It would also make sense to scrap equal state representation in the Senate, where Wyoming has the same level of power as states with many times its population, like California and Texas.  Getting rid of the Senate filibuster and its arcane rules would help, too.  Hell, while we're at it, dumping the Senate completely might be a good idea, but that's another conversation for another time.  In any case, here's some aimlessly fun speculation about what parties America would have under a proportional system:

The Left Party: This party would be a bonafide Leftist, openly socialistic party, although it would have trouble getting five percent of the vote.

The Progressive Party: This party would be made up of liberals and progressives, what now is the progressive and unheeded wing of the Democratic party.  It would never get the most votes, but would actually ensure progressive policies would be an active force.

The Democratic Party: Under a proportional system the Democrats could openly be what they effectively are already: a centrist party in a country with very little center.  They would also be so loathe to make a coalition with Progressives that they would prefer the Free Market Party as a partner.

The Free Market Party: This party would be the home of business interests and run of the mill libertarians.  Its focus would be on promoting capitalism, with little to no opposition in the ranks to things like gay marriage and abortion.

The Party of God: This would be a Christian identity party devoted to an explicitly dominionist policy of bringing about God's kingdom on earth.  No longer tied together by Republican loyalties, the Free Market Party would keep its distance, except in the rare cases that it couldn't form a coalition without it.

The America Party: This nationalist party would be based around nativism, guns, and anti-government paranoia.  It would be especially strong the West and South, and a perennial threat to the vote counts of the Free Market Party.  It would also rarely enter into a coalition with any other party, on general principles.


Then again, maybe I don't want a proportional representation system, since I would bet it would mean perpetual coalition governments run by the Free Market Party and the Democrats.  Only capitalists and fatuous centrists would run things, which isn't all that different from now.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Track of the Week: The O'Jays "For The Love Of Money"

I recently heard the sad news that the building that housed Philadelphia International Records is soon to be demolished.  That label put out some of the very best soul music of the 1970s and many of my own favorite tracks.  The O'Jays are my favorite of the group's labels, and I keep coming back to the 1973 smash "For The Love Of Money."

It's a song I heard a lot as a kid in the 1980s, used in soundtracks and incidental music, usually with the implicit approval of money-making activities.  It's funky effects-laden bass intro with the "money money money" chant was easily one of the most recognizable snippets of pop music out there, but I didn't know the name of the group or of the song until years later during the midst of my classic soul obsession.  (This began during my time in Chicago, where multiple stations played the great R&B of yore.)  I just thought of the song as "the money song."

When I actually listened to it as a complete song I heard the lyrics that were never included in all of the soundtracks and incidental music.  The song's title references a Biblical verse from Timothy that deems the love of money to be "the root of all evil."  I soon realized that this song was not a celebration of raking in the dough at any cost, but a denunciation of it.  In that regard it fits well with a lot of other socially-conscious soul music of the early 1970s, from Edwin Starr's "War" to the Chi-Lites "For God's Sake Give More Power To The People."

It is a testament to the demonic powers of late capitalism's culture industry that a song dedicated to warning people against pursuing riches over preserving one's soul has been twisted to mean the exact opposite.  I hear this song today as a very prescient warning, coming as it did right before the neo-liberal onslaught started gaining traction in the mid-1970s.  For forty years we have been living in a society where the "almighty dollar" takes precedence over all else, where everything has its price and anything can be bought and sold.  The results speak for themselves.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sax-y Pop Songs of the 1980s

This week brought the sad news of session musician Raphael Ravenscroft's death.  In case you didn't know, he was the man behind the saxophone riff on "Baker Street," perhaps the most iconic pop song sax riff of all time.  I've made my love of this song and its deeper meaning a subject of an earlier post, and I still mean every word.  That 1978 hit must have had a big impact on record producers, since the saxophone suddenly started appearing all over the hit records of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Of course, the sax had been huge in fifties R&B and rock and roll, and Motown players like Junior Walker could use it to wicked effect on songs like "Shotgun."  Pink Floyd brought in Dave Parry on their monumental Dark Side of the Moon album, where his sax really added something extra to their sound on tunes like "Money" and "Us and Them."  However, the only rock band with a consistent sax presence was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, where the "Big Man" Clarence Clemons' honking sax played a crucial role on "Born To Run" and "Rosalita."

Once "Baker Street" hit, the saxophone suddenly became a ubiquitous record producer tool.  In 1979 Supertramp hit it big with their Breakfast in America album, and saxophone offers crucial texture to "The Logical Song" and other tracks.  Other bands that didn't feature sax jumped on the bandwagon.  Take for instance cock rockers Foreigner, who had ridden to fame on sweaty-riffed odes to coitus like "Hot Blooded."  On their 1981 4 album their sound got a post-New Wave update on "Urgent," with its keyboards, metronomic beat, and effects-laden guitar.  What put it over the top was an absolutely savage saxophone solo by Junior Walker.  It screams and wails and communicates burning desire much more immediately than Lou Gramm's typically overblown vocals.  Without that solo I don't think this song is a hit.

As the 80s ground on, the sax was everywhere, often showing up on solo breaks, rather than as the main melodic instrument.  It fulfills this role on Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero," where the solo gives the song that extra little degree of 80s-tastiticness to put it over the top.  Similarly, just as "True" by Spandau Ballet gets too frothy for its own good *bam!* here comes the saxophone.  Former Eagle Glenn Frey managed to briefly crawl out of the polyester ooze of the 1970s and nail the Zeitgeist of the mid-1980s with two sax-driven hits: "The Heat Is On" and "You Belong To The City."  I swear that for a two year stretch whenever my mom picked me up from Wednesday night CCD (where public school Catholics like myself got our catechism) this song came on the radio every single time.  Perhaps the DJ on that shift just really liked it.  In any case, the sax riff on this song might be the "Baker Street" of the 1980s.

The one other contender for the title is "Careless Whisper," the song that bridged George Michael's time in Wham! and his solo career.  This is the kind of song that I am ashamed to admit a fondness for, but this saxophone riff cannot be denied.  It dominates from the start, and I've been hearing it at malls and airports for almost thirty years now despite the downer subject matter of the song.  It's a sound so distinctive that when I hear it and other songs with that sax sound I'm instantly transported back to the 80s, whether I like it or not.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Footnote on Suburban Fear

It seems like I'm not the only person out there thinking about the power of fear and its connect to suburban living spaces this week.  Today Sarah Kendzior and Umar Lee published a brilliant article on the dynamics of fear in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area.  They interview many local residents, who are more than happy to cop to their racialized fears and their support of Darren Wilson.  This piece is essential reading.

America's suburbanization is a disastrously failed experiment of massive proportions.  The sprawl contributes to our environmental problems, social atomization, and racial segregation and inequality.  And yet it won't of away, and I now find myself complicit in it as a suburb dweller, mostly because the city I work in (NYC) has become prohibitively expensive.  It is time for progressive-minded suburbanites to push for change in this environment, to challenge segregation and the attitude that feeds it, namely that suburbanites refuse to believe that they share a common fate with urbanites.  If that mental wall can be torn down, maybe some real progress can be made.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Suburbia Is America's Fear Factory

I've been writing a lot about fear these last weeks because the panic over Ebola has demonstrated fear's massive and destructive power in this country.  Fear is what got the PATRIOT Act passed after 9/11.  Fear makes the people of this country accept unprecedented intrusions into their privacy.  Fear has long been one of the most potent factors in the continuation of white supremacy.

Fear's roots run deep and are evident in the most mundane structures of our daily lives.  Nowhere is this more visible than in the vast, endless sprawl of American suburbia, America's fear factory.  Of course, suburban America is hardly monochromatic today, and many suburbs (like the one where I reside) can be racially diverse and relatively open-minded.  However, this is not the case with broad swaths of the sprawl, either here in New Jersey or elsewhere.  For example, I've heard tell of multiple denizens of sprawlville saying that they were putting off trips to New York City because they were afraid of ISIS attacks.  In the very safe and quiet suburb where she works there are people who live in fortress-like gated communities with the belief that the leafy suburban streets are too mean for their tastes.  Back when I lived in Newark and encountered people who lived in sprawlville their faces would scrunch in barely disguised disgust when I told them I lived in Newark.  When I told them I liked it there, they looked like they thought I was deranged.

Those anecdotes are hardly surprising, since suburbia was founded in fear.  Fear of the "other," fear of "them," fear of urban ways of living.  In some cases, like on Eight Mile Road in Detroit, suburbia meant the building of literal walls to keep out the people of color whom whites had taken flight from.  On streets that border Newark in my current town of Maplewood, residents blocked them off, ostensibly to prevent speeding cars taking them as a shortcut, but I wonder.  There's a suburban town where some of my wife's relatives live that's overwhelmingly white, but most of the times I see the cops pulling someone over, the drivers of the cars are African American.

American suburbanites are experts in finding new things to be afraid of.  In the 1980s and 1990s, it was the idea that going to the city meant risking having your ankle tendons slashed by gang members hiding beneath your car.  (This one was widespread in Nebraska when I was young, supposedly it was a common gang initiation.)  Nowadays I hear residents of sprawlville speak fearfully of the much hyped "knockout game."  In the 1970s and 1980s it was the bogus fear of strangers tampering with Halloween candy.  In suburbia no one can be trusted, everything outside of everyone's little castle is a potential threat to fear.  The fear is pervasive and never-ending, built into the very DNA of the place.

A majority of Americans live in suburbs.  While not all of those people live in suburbs according to the stereotype of them as white, middle-class autotopias a la Nassau County, a very large contingent do.  Is it any surprise that we are a country ruled by fear when such a large number of its citizens live in communities whose very raison d'etre is fear itself?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Track of the Week: Genesis, "Carpet Crawlers"

There is probably no genre of music that I have changed my mind over more dramatically than prog rock.  I became enchanted by punk's raw energy as a teenager, and according to punk's interpretation of rock history, I saw prog as apostasy.  Instead of heart and rough power it was all musical wanking, daft lyrics, and overcooked silliness.  Recently I've begun to actually enjoy a lot of 70s prog rock, since despite its drawbacks it often contains a musical complexity and creative daring missing in other forms of rock music.  My growing appreciation for jazz also might have something to do with this change of mind.

Genesis has become my favorite of the prog bands, at least in their Peter Gabriel version.  (Although I will admit a fondness for "Abacab," "Turn It On Again," and "That's All.")  I could also say Steve Hackett version of Genesis, since his guitar playing really blows me away on a consistent basis and was a crucial part of the band's sound before they went pop.  Gabriel's swan song with the band was The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, perhaps the strangest and most ambitious rock opera of its time.  It tells the story of how Rael, a Puerto Rican, graffiti artist youth living in New York gets sucked into another realm via the subway tunnels and must confront strange beasts and his own innermost self.  The concept gets a little ridiculous in places, but I tend to focus on the music rather than the lyrics.

"Carpet Crawlers" is ostensibly about horrid creatures Rael sees, but the song is really more a way to transport the listener into a focused mind space.  It has become my favorite to listen to while riding my commuter train into Manhattan in the eerie pre-dawn darkness.  Gabriel shows off his underrated voice in a warm, understated fashion that I find to be sublime when combined with the pretty Debussy-esque keyboard accompaniment and gently keening guitar.  Yes, the lyrical content is indeed daft and the musicianship a bit wanky, but the overall experience I take away from this song is the thrill of brushing against something truly, heart-breakingly beautiful.  Not many other songs can do that for me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Top Ten Road Movies

Back on my old blog I had a tendency to write a lot of listicles, before Buzzfeed ran the genre into the ground via self-parody.  I'm reposting my list of top ten road movies in large part because I recently took advantage of a 50% off sale at the Criterion Collection to finally buy Two-Lane Blacktop, one the great buried treasure of American cinema, and my favorite road flick.  Also, I have been missing the presence of the road in my life.  Growing up in Nebraska, the road was a necessary part of life, since everything was so far apart.  In college I spent most of my weekends in a van traveling to far-flung debate tournaments.  After leaving Nebraska after college coming home meant long drives from Illinois, Michigan, and Texas.  I grew to appreciate them as moments of meditation to the point where I would sometimes drive from Texas to New Jersey when going to stay with my wife for the summer (when we were still long-distance.)  Now that I'm settled in New Jersey in the nation's crowded Northeast corridor with two toddlers not yet up for long stretches in the car, I feel estranged from the road that was such an important part of my life.  My best connection these days are the following ten films:

1. Two-lane Blacktop. First, let me be clear. Other films on this list are better movies than Two-Lane Blacktop, but none is a better road movie. No other film captures the silences and repetition of long distance driving, or that wonderful feeling of entering a higher state of consciousness after driving hundreds of miles. It came out in 1971, and probably does a better job than any other film of capturing the ennui that beset the counterculture after the death of the hippie dream. Yes, the acting by first timers James Taylor and Dennis Wilson is as wooden as the HMS Bounty, but the highly underrated Warren Oates gives one of his best efforts.

2. Five Easy Pieces. A year before Two-Lane Blacktop, Jack Nicholson gave one of his most memorable performances in this story of a declasse musician who goes back home to the Pacific Northwest from the oil fields of Texas. It rates this high for two reasons. In the first place, it contains the best scene ever set in a roadside diner and one of Nicholson's most famous. Second, it gets at the reasons for the prevalence of the road movie in American cinema. America has long been a transitory nation, a nation of mobility and re-invention where the past can be escaped via a flight down the road. The film's finale very aptly and tragically shows how the road can be an escape hatch from responsibility.

3. Smokey and the Bandit. You didn't think these would all be art films, did you? What's more compelling than the quest of two men to haul a load of Coors beer from Texarkana to Atlanta in short time while being foiling the "high speed pursuit" of a stereotypically stupid, bigoted Southern sherriff? It's got a soundtrack full of seventies country music goodness from Jerry Reed and Waylon Jennings, and Sally Field at her spunkiest. If that's not enough, you get to see the wondrously funky automobile known as the Trans-Am do all kinds of crazy jumps.

4. O Brother, Where Art Thou? In my opinion this is the funniest movie the Coens ever did by a country mile. If you don't think so, then you're just "dumber than a bag of hammers" as Ulysees Everett McGill would say. It might barely qualify as a road movie, but since it's based on the Odyssey, the original road/travel saga, I'm putting it on the list. Just for that and the belly laugh I get during the scenes when George Nelson is outracing the cops. (Just for the Hell of it, watch it in Turkish.)

5. Vanishing Point. If it wasn't for the irksome intrustion of homophobia into the middle of this 1971 flick, it'd rate even higher on the list. It's the story of Kowalski, a former racer, soldier, and cop who has quit the square life because "speed means freedom of the soul." (It also inpired my favorite song by Primal Scream.) He takes some aphmetamines and makes a bet that he can transport a Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in only fifteen hours, which makes him a target for the fuzz. The whole way he is guided by another social outcast, a blind DJ and kind of Greek chorus named Super Soul, played to perfection by Cleavon Little (who's most famous for playing the sheriff in Blazing Saddles.) The ending may be the most nihilistic in the history or American film.

6. Every Which Way But Loose. Clint Eastwood playing a trucker + bare-knuckle fistfights + an orangutan = entertainment gold.

7. Almost Famous. Yes, it's more of a coming of age, nostalgia picture, but the scenes in the bus are some of the most sublime road scenes ever filmed.

8. Paper Moon. Everyone classifies The Last Picture Show as Peter Bogdanovich's masterpiece, but I think I actually like Paper Moon better. I don't know any other film that manages to so evocatively portray the wide open spaces of the Great Plains.

9. National Lampoon's Vacation. Remember when Chevy Chase was funny? This flick is one of my all time favorite guilty pleasures, if not for the Randy Quaid scenes alone. Although none of my own family vacations were quite this bad, I do have memories of sleeping in our van in a truck stop outside of Toledo (long story) and getting stranded in the Arizona desert.

10. Goin' Down the Road. Just to prove that road movies aren't a purely American phenomenon, Canada produced 1970's Goin' Down the Road, the movie Easy Rider wishes that it could be. This gritty slab of cinematic realism details the adventures of two working class guys from the Maritimes who go to Toronto in search of opportunity, only to find poverty and degradation. The ending, like Five Easy Pieces, shows the road as a tragic means of escape. (Perhaps even better than the film is the hilarious parody by the folks at SCTV.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Politics of Fear and the Silent Majority's Last Hurrah

Despite what many smug liberals I know like to think, conservatives are not stupid.  Their base might be made up of people who think the earth is 6000 years old and humans don't cause climate change, but they know how to win elections a whole helluva lot better than liberals do.  The Democratic Party has tended to assemble coalitions of voters as their base, then acted as milquetoast and non-threatening as possible to grab voters in the middle.  For instance, they court Latinos, but won't move on immigration reform lest they upset bigots.  Needless to say, this approach leaves their base unmotivated and undecided voters less than awed.

Conservatives, however, have expertly used the manifest reservoirs of fear in American life over the past fifty years.  (For more on our fearful society, read this post of mine from a few days ago.)  They know that most voters do not buy into their Randian, libertarian economic philosophy, and that appeals to religious conservatives (especially on gay rights) increasingly make them look retrograde.  However, fear is the trump card that reactionary politicians always have up their sleeve.  There are plenty of non-ideological, disengaged voters out there who in uncertain times will flock to the proverbial man on horseback giving calls for "law and order."

Republican candidates have been quick to use the current instability in the world, especially fears over Ebola and ISIS, in their campaign ads this year.  Somehow these problems are the fault of president Obama, despite the fact that neo-conservatives brought on the invasion of Iraq that created the ground for ISIS to grow in, and that Congress's forced sequestration cuts slashed money going to disease prevention.  The strategy is simple: scare the shit out of the voters so that they will be too afraid not to vote for you.

That strategy was first pioneered in 1968 by Richard Nixon's campaign, which adopted many of the themes of third party candidate (and arch-segregationist) George Wallace, but toned their edge enough to avoid charges of extremism.  Nixon called for "law and order" amidst the protest movements of the day, and would later claim to represent a "silent majority" of Americans threatened by calls for social change.  While Nixon would bring control and order, his ads accused the Democrats of having been responsible for the mounting dissention in American life.

That comes across most forcefully in an ad called "Convention," which involves no words.  A manic soundtrack of "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" plays over images of riots, the Vietnam War, and squalor, interspersed with photos of a smiling Hubert Humphrey complete with jarring, psychedelic sound effects.  It's got to be one of the most manipulative ads ever run, keying in on viewers' fears in a blatant fashion devoid of any larger message other than to fear and hate the Democratic candidate.  In that respect it is similar to Fox News video collages associating the current president with chaos.  That's no mistake, since Roger Ailes runs Fox and also ran TV for Nixon's campaign.

The strategy of fear worked so well in 1968 that Republicans have gone back to this well time and time again.  In 1980 Reagan claimed to rescue the nation from a federal government run amock.  In 1988 George Bush's used racial fears via the infamous Willie Horton ad to defeat Michael Dukakis.  After 9/11 Democrats were routinely accused of being "soft on terror," with the 2002 ads connecting Democratic Senator Max Clelland to Osama bin Laden an especially egregious example.  Conservatives know that most people don't follow their extreme political ideology, and that "values voters" are scarcer and scarcer with each passing year.  However, there is a big, broad middle of the American electorate that cares little for politics, but can be easily roused if it feels threatened.  2014 and 2016 just might end up being the Silent Majority's last big hurrah.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Track of the Week: The Kinks "Days"

The period from September until the end of the calendar year has long been my favorite.  It combines the excitement of a new school year (before I inevitably start to lose energy around February) with my favorite holidays and cooler weather before it gets wearying and depressing (usually in mid-January.)  Unfortunately, in recent years this season has brought the death of someone close to me.  Last year it was my grandmother, the year before one of my best friends, a couple of years before that my wife's grandfather.  This year my cat has been ailing, and after an emergency trip to the doctor last week, I took her home with the knowledge that she does not have much time left.

I've had her for almost eight years.  I adopted her in the dead of my first winter in Michigan, where I was working as a visiting assistant professor.  I had lived with other people all through grad school, and was not adjusting well to living alone, especially amidst Michigan's punishing cold and lack of sunshine.  For the four and a half years that I continued to live alone, my cat was my one daily companion, and a loving one at that.  She came with me to my tenure-track job in Texas, and then again with me to live with my wife in New Jersey.  We have been through a lot together.  She was a comforting presence during yearly bouts with the academic job market and some of the lowest points in my life.  There were days when my alarm would go off and I had practically no desire to get out of bed.  She would playfully mew and bat at my face until I got up, mostly because she wanted a drink of water from the sink, but it helped me survive some depressive troughs.  Since those days she's been remarkably tolerant of my daughters and has learned to live with my wife's dog.  Right now I am just trying to make her last days as pleasant as I can.

Pop music, like most of our culture, doesn't deal well with death.  The best pop song about losing a loved one is actually more literally about heartbreak after the end of a long relationship.  That said, "Days" by The Kinks has such fitting lyrics for mourning a friend.  "I thank you for the days/ Those sacred days you gave me" and "And though you're gone/ You're with me every single day believe me" describe my feelings about my dear friend David's untimely death and the loss of my grandmother.  It's a modest little song that's not musically distinct, but over the years, as I have sadly lost many near to my heart, it has meant more than just about any other song.  So much so that I find it difficult to put my thoughts into words, and beg that you just sit down and listen to it.  As the song says, 'The night is dark and only brings sorrow anyway."

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Football's Problems Are America's Problems

Even though football eclipsed baseball fifty years ago as America's primary spectator sport, baseball has maintained a symbolic importance that football has never had.  Historians and commentators have linked baseball's history to America's, seeing in Babe Ruth the exuberance of the Roaring Twenties, the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to LA as indicative of the Sun Belt's rise, and Jackie Robinson's struggle as a crucial moment in the civil rights movement.  However, football has rarely been interpreted as representing anything much beyond the game itself.

Recent events should make us rethink that separation, since recent scandals and controversies in football are reflective of larger dysfunctions in American life.  Take for instance today's bombshell in the New York Times, showing how authorities in Tallahassee have protected Florida State players to the point of obstructing justice.  That fits with a general pattern of behavior by universities, who have placed their star athletes above the law.  That lack of oversight was also apparent in allegations this week at a top high school football program in New Jersey, where seniors were accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting freshmen in the name of "hazing."  (Not to mention how Jerry Sandusky was able to prey upon children for years at Penn State.)  The willingness of educational institutions to turn a blind eye to criminal and abusive behavior by those who win football games reflects the general tendency in our society to protect "the stars," no matter how damaging their behavior.  Just recall how the bankers who wrecked the economy and acted in bad faith are collecting bonuses, not jail sentences.

At a time when corporate profits are booming when living standards are stagnant, football is raking in the dough while shafting the men who sacrifice their bodies.  The NCAA blocks the payment of money to the "student athletes" who make it billions of dollars.  The NFL drug its feet when it came to helping former players with scrambled brains, and recently locked out its own players rather than do more to share its wealth from those who actually generate it.  Roger Goodell is the kind of corporate technocrat ensconced at the top of America's major companies, with a one singular mission: generate profit above all else, even if some people suffer.

Last but not least, football's violence is part of American society's historical and insatiable lust for blood.  The players smash into each other with increasing force, with predictably damaging consequences for the men on the field.  Attempts to create new rules to moderate the force of the hits has brought mostly derision from the fans, who are upset about the loss of "real football."  If some of the modern gladiators lose the ability to remember where they are or commit suicide as a result of brain damage, so be it.  In some notable recent cases, the violence has spilled over from the field to the stands.  The league has finally been called out for its lax punishment of domestic abusers like Ray Rice, but Goodell's initial slap on the wrist reflected a general tendency in American society to not take action on domestic abuse.

With all of the Sturm und Drang about football's controversies and scandals, it's important to call out those responsible for a whole of crimes, from sexual assault to labor exploitation.  However, we should always keep in mind that these offenses are congruent with the corrupt, violent, and exploitative society that we all live in each and every day.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Republic of Fear

Back in 2004, at the height of the American war in Iraq, the BBC aired a stunning three-part documentary series called The Power of Nightmares.  It told the parallel stories of neo-conservatives and radical Islamists, arguing that both turned fear and the collapse of the liberal project into powerful support for their extreme violence.  I saw it the next year in the aftermath of the re-election of George W Bush, an event that today seems completely inexplicable.  At the time, however, it was easy to see that Bush and his handlers had skillfully exploited America's post-9/11 fear and hate.  The point about America's insatiable fear also came across in Bowling for Columbine, which while about gun control had one of its most powerful moments in showing how a constant drumbeat of fear by the television media to shock viewers into tuning in became all-consuming after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center.

In the past few years I have let myself forget the potency of fear in this country.  According to a recent Times article, conservatives have not forgotten, and are running political ads blaming Ebola and ISIS on the president.

This is a nation that exudes fear and paranoia, from anti-vaccers who refuse to innoculate their children to "doomsday preppers" expecting the apocalypse.  White people are drilled from day one in their lives to fear black people as some kind of dangerous, criminal other, which has had murderous consequences from Ferguson to Fruitvale Station.  Since the election of Barack Obama his conservative opponents have exploited the fears of his most bigoted detractors.  Expanded health insurance, for example, became a genocidal vehicle for "death panels" in the Tea Party imagination.
The response to the Ebola virus this week has been most telling.  The infection of one person in Texas has led to unhinged panic and conspiracy theories that is somehow has something to do with refugee children from Central America or a plot by Barack Obama to Africanize the country.  (The latter bit of nonsense comes straight from the mouth of hate-crone Phyllis Schlafly.)

Our republic of fear has birthed two destructive, open-ended conflicts still ruining lives, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.  Since the panics over crack in the 1980s we have been incarcerating our nation's population on a truly staggering level.  This same War on Drugs has given the police ridiculous power to confiscate property and ruin lives without due process.  To fight the terrorist bogeyman, the public is told they must allow the government to secretly tap our phones, look at our email, and scan our bodies at the airport.  For the most part, the public has acquiesced, despite the occasional complaint.

Political reactionaries with an authoritarian bent will continue to prosper, since fear is the fuel that they live on.  The United States will never be able to progress and improve from its appalling state unless it gives up its addiction to fear.  I can't say that I'm optimistic that it will happen.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Make Mine Gothic Horror

This year I'm really getting the Halloween spirit, perhaps because it's my first living in my own house.  We've got pumpkins on the front porch (soon to be jack o'lanterns) and some spooky decorations on the mantlepiece.  Most importantly, I've been delving back into the creepy world of gothic horror, broadly defined.

Most modern horror leaves me pretty cold, perhaps because much of it amounts to a theater of the grotesque.  Since the advent of the ratings system horror films have been free to be as gory as they wanna be, unleashing a parade of grisly deaths and slashers stabbing naked teenagers.  The whole slasher genre reeks of misogyny, and horror film franchises that have followed in its wake, like Saw or Final Destination, focus on delivering shocking, bloody deaths.  These films are basically the modern day equivalent of circus sideshow entertainment or gladiator battles, and appeal to humanity's baser instincts.  I certainly have some base instincts of my own, but slasher/gore films were never an appetizing way for me to indulge them.

Older horror films had to be a little more creative and to rely more on the imagination of their audiences.  They knew that just a little blood and the suggestion of gore could be much more frightening than explicit, graphic violence.  Take for instance The Horror of Dracula, the first Dracula film by Hammer studios starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.  It establishes an eerie, frightening mood from the beginning with a shrill, bombastic score and bright red titles over shots of Castle Dracula's statues.  The opening credits end with Dracula's name etched in stone, the score dropping suddenly into silence, and blood slowly dripping on the vampire's name.  The sudden inclusion of blood in a credits sequence is shocking, especially how the camera lingers on it.  Later in the film we don't see the stake go directly into a vampire's heart, but her blood curdling scream allows the viewer's imagination to create a scene for their mind's eye much more grisly than what would have been put on screen.  Much the same can be said for sexuality in these older films (Brides of Dracula is a good example), which must be suggested rather than explicit.

Most of all, I like my horror to be more about mood than killing.  Give me a dark, torch-lit castle, creaky wooden doors, a foggy graveyard at night, and haunted houses.  These are great places to spend a couple of hours on a dark October evening.  Some of the Hammer films are pretty lame, but their set designs are so amazing to look at that you barely notice.  The Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman's AIP studio flicks starring Vincent Price also manage to attain maximum creepiness through stellar set design.  Apart from a few exceptions, horror is a genre full of films with little artistic momentum behind them, produced cheaply and often carelessly.  I can enjoy bad horror films if they set the right atmosphere, and many of the bad ones get that very right indeed.

For instance, Son of Frankenstein is much inferior to James Whale's Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, the two best of the classic Universal horror flicks.  The stuffy Basil Rathbone lacks the unhinged, sullen spite of Colin Clive's Dr. Frankenstein, and there's a cute kid thrown into the story to boot.  That being said, the film is shot beautifully, and sets are absolutely gorgeous.  Much the same could be said for later Hammer Dracula flicks, which lack the power of the original, but still look fantastic.

Most horror films in the last last forty years have gone for shock and gore instead of mood and atmosphere.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.  There have been a few good exceptions.  Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu in the late 1970s, with amazing results.  Perhaps a similarly-inclined director today can go against the grain of the genre and revive the classic gothic tropes in interesting ways.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Track of the Week: George Harrison "Wah-Wah"

Yesterday my buddy and erstwhile friend of the blog Brian I. posed an interesting question on his Facebook page, inspired by a conversation on another feed.  If there was a theoretical extra Beatles album made up of songs recorded by the members solo in 1970-1971, what would the track listing be?  It's a fascinating question, not least because those years saw a pretty impressive amount of material from  the former Fab Four, even including Ringo's hit "It Don't Come Easy."  (Starr also played drums on George and John's records, and his distinctive sound is all over them.)

Of all the Beatles, George Harrison put out the best album with All Things Must Pass, a triple disc wonder full of great songs that Lennon and McCartney had not allowed on the later Beatles records.  As with Lennon and McCartney, he also used his first solo album to comment on the rather acrimonious breakup of the band.  (If you're interested and don't mind getting depressed and having your illusions shattered, check out Peter Doggett's You Never Give Me Your Money.)  Harrison's frustrations with being put in the corner were public by this point, made famous by a testy studio exchange with McCartney captured on the dreary Let It Be documentary.

Lennon was pretty savage about all of this on "How Do You Sleep," and McCartney was a bit more veiled, but no less vicious on "Dear Boy" and "Smile Away."  The bitterness in these songs drags them down, Harrison used his ill will to craft a song that sounds joyous: "Wah-Wah."  It starts with an amazing, swirling psychedelic guitar figure before percussive piano and one of Ringo's best "funny fills" slams in and a mesmerizing wall of sound bursts forth.  It rushes along irresistibly with some absolutely searing guitar leads, making it one of my favorite songs for driving on the highway.  You'd never guess it's about getting a headache from dealing with Paul McCartney.

I think that makes sense, since Harrison used his first album as a kind of declaration of artistic independence, and the sheer awesomeness (in both senses of the word) of the song itself sends a message: "listen to this, and realize I don't need you anymore."  After all, Harrison declares "I don't need your wah-wah," which also makes this song a good one to blast while you're quitting a crummy job of your own.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

On The Latest Flare-Up In The History Wars

Recent weeks have shown a new front in the public battle over the American past, namely the formerly innocuous AP US History curriculum.  One school board in Colorado decided to whitewash it of anything "unpatriotic," leading to walkouts by brave students.  (Like the young people in Ferguson, they give me hope for the future.)  For daring to present a version of history that actually complies with the college courses that AP courses have always pretended to emulate, the curriculum has been assailed by conservatives, much as they went apeshit over the NEH's proposed history standards in the 1990s.

As a child of the nineties, I'm not exactly enthusiastic about the return of the History Wars, but I guess they are inevitable.  These kinds of fights are nothing new.  I was reading Rick Perlstein's Invisible Bridge recently, and was reminded of the (literally) violent opposition to new school textbooks in West Virginia in the 1970s.

I am interested in examining exactly why the History Wars have returned with such vehemence.  Most of it has to do with Tea Party conservatism, which was called something else back in the 1970s, but was still the same force opposing textbooks that dispensed with a hagiographic vision of the American past.  Radical conservatism relies on a certain narrative of American history more than perhaps any other political movement.  They constantly make appeals to the "Founders," who they have transformed into divine figures who can do no wrong.  America to them is a kind of tool for God's will on earth, an "exceptional" nation bringing the light of freedom to the world.

The evangelical/fundamentalist flavoring of the Tea Party colors its historical vision.  America can do no wrong, since it is divinely inspired.  To point out any shortcomings, or how the Founders were not perfect and actually even fought with each other, is heresy.  This leads to some rather odd attempts to resolve contradictions, like Michele Bachamann's claim that the Founders had intended to do away with slavery from day one and were successful.  When someone points out that actual, professional experts think these interpretations are utter poppycock, it only inflames the anti-intellectual resentments of the Tea Party masses, making their resistance that much stronger.

Unfortunately, the rankly inaccurate and self-serving narrative of American history propagated by conservatives has some institutional power behind it.  Unlike liberals, conservatives have used school board elections to push their agenda.  It's rather inspired, actually, since most voters no little about the candidates and vote in small numbers, meaning motivated conservatives can vote their favored ideologues into power.  Like the rest of their radical brethren, they hear on Rush or see on Fox News that the liberals are at it again making their children hate America, and so thunder back with their denunciations.

On a deeper level I think they also know that a more critical and honest view of American history is damaging to their political prospects.  Knowing the centrality of racism, sexism, and economic inequality to this country's history might make young people want to combat those demons in contemporary society at a time when conservatives want to pretend they don't exist.  Knowing America's imperial history and all of the wars waged for profit and conquest might make them question whether they want to be cannon fodder in the next conflict.  The success of radical conservatism can be partially attributed to vast public ignorance of the past, and conservatives aim to keep it that way.  It ought to be the fervent, tireless mission of my fellow historians to ensure that they do not succeed.