Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Great 2006 AHA Road Trip And Hope Shredder

I am coming up on a very important anniversary: attending my first American Historical Association annual conference in Philadelphia back in 2006.  I was there as a grad student making my first of six consecutive runs on the job market.  I came into it nervous but with great hope, I came out of it with my confidence shaken and my hope for the future shredded.  This time of year every year I thank God and the universe that I no longer have to subject myself to the horrors of the academic job market.

The trip started with high expectations.  A friend and I rented a car together, and decided to drive all the way to Philly and to share a hotel room to save money.  Being grad students we had to economize the best way that we could in the face of the ridiculousness whereby penniless grad students are expected to pony up big bucks to travel to a faraway city and get a lavish hotel room all for twenty minute interviews that could easily be conducted over the telephone.  We at least sprung for a full size sedan, and drove a beautiful Chevy Impala, much more reliable and much roomier than my '92 Mazda Protege, which was being held together by spit and bailing wire at that point.  The automatic seatbelt had stopped working and the horn had been removed because it had developed a mind of its own.

We drove that Impala over 700 miles straight on from central Illinois to Philly, listening to Johnny Cash over and over again, particularly "Sam Hall."  I remember stops at those isolated service stations on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, furtively smoking cigarettes backs against the cold January wind.  We rolled into the City of Brotherly Love on a cold night, parking at a surface lot near our downtown hotel, which was bustling with the nervous energy of hundreds of junior scholars trying to keep their shit together in the face of overwhelming fear and anxiety.

I didn't really see my friend until we left because he had something like twelve interviews, which made me curse studying Europe rather than Asia, which was hot that year.  I did have four interviews, however, a decent haul for someone without a PhD yet.  Once I got to the conference hotel, I realized that I may have made some unorthodox decisions.  I intentionally did not wear a business suit to my interviews, but dark tweed and tie with a dark shirt and black pants.  It seemed like a good idea before I left, but now I felt exposed.  That uneasy feeling stayed with me when I went to the hotel suite where my first interview was located.  Some background: this was for a job I considered ideal.  It was at a university in Chicago, at that point my favorite city in America.  It was primarily not a research position, but  those faculty in the department had research bona fides.  This was my ideal job, but I was having to interview for it without ever done an academic job interview before.

I predictably bombed.  I epically fucked it up so bad that I have only recently been able to come to terms with it.  I prepared intensely for this interview, I even took the time to look up and read the scholarship of the people on the committee.  I can still tell you to this day that one of the committee members wrote about the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome as well as the postwar communist insurrection in Malaysia.  Things were going okay, then they asked me about how I would teach a set of specific topics courses.  At that moment it hit me that the committee chair had told me in his phone call before our interview to prepare some answers for this.  But being a moron, I had forgotten about it, and had done an insane level of preparation for things that weren't nearly so important.  I came up with some answers off the top of my head, which were obviously not impressive.  They practically shooed me out of the room at the point.

I knew I had fucked up, and then I had to go to an interview with a large public university in Texas.  While this school was in a small city I had been to before and disliked, the school itself would have massive research support and a light teaching load.  My confidence was so shaken, however, that some of my answers to their questions were so quiet that I had to be asked to repeat them.  (The committee members were really nice, at least.)  Being trapped in a hotel suite with a group of people deciding your future is so stressful that I can only last 30 minutes, but the interview ended up lasting 45 minutes because the chair informed me that the person after me had moved their slot, and for some reason decided to extend my interview.  At that point I thought I was going to vomit.  I was too demoralized to sustain my "interview face" for that long. There went another job down the drain.

My third interview was with a small liberal arts college in rural Virginia.  It was in the Appalachians, my favorite landscape in America, and I'd heard good things about the collegiality of its department from someone acquainted with the school.  This is the one interview where I felt comfortable, largely thanks to the friendliness of the committee.  At the same time, I got the feeling that they had a very specific need to fill, and I was not the guy to fill that need.  Still, it was the one interview I left Philly thinking I hadn't totally fucked up.  I had even managed to overcome the awkwardness of interviewing in an actual hotel room, rather than a suite.  And yes, one of the committee members was sitting on a bed.  (Having your future decided in what feels like a "drug deal gone bad scenario" isn't comfortable.)

I definitely didn't do a great job with my last interview, which was on the last day of the conference in the morning with a private university in Los Angeles.  It was also my one and only interview in the official interview area.  Sitting with a bunch of other anxious and shell-shocked grad students in ill-fitting business attire made sitting outside of the hotel rooms waiting to be let in seem positively heavenly by comparison.  It was a place that smelled of fear, desperation, and broken dreams.

I remember the committee chair coming to get me, and walking with him past table after table after table.  This space seemed endless, and filled with the voices of young academics trying their hardest to impress while holding it together in a huge sweaty cacaphony.  I was seated in front of four people, almost like a tribunal.  I had a hard time knowing who to look at, and I still remember the committee chair being amused at one of my answers.  They were looking for something, and I wasn't it.  It didn't help that at that time in my life I was probably afflicted by undiagnosed anxiety disorders and depression, so in such situations I was incapable of acting naturally and probably came off as the kind of weirdo that you cross the street to avoid.

The time between the interviews is a little bit of a blur.  I have some strangely specific memories, though.  I walked with a friend down to the tourist sites, and I had to wait in a ridiculous security line to see the Liberty Bell.  My PhD university still had an alumni party at the AHA back then, and I quaffed the free booze and got some words of comfort from the people I knew who had been able to find in prior years.  Over the three days I ate at a lot of Irish pubs, since there were many in the area and they were the one affordable non-fast food eating option.  I ate from a huge box of mandarin oranges bought to supplement my diet of lamb stew and shepherd's pie.  I spent my spare time reading George Packer's Assassin's Gate and contemplating the war in Iraq.  Such things were actually a welcome distraction from the intense waves of fear washing over me.  If I didn't get a job, I didn't know what I was going to do with myself.

Those thoughts crossed my mind the next day as I drove with my friend on a bitter cold morning back to Illinois.  I remember the snow on the ground in the woods of central Pennsylvania, and my friend telling me stories about growing up in China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.  I was at least really happy for him.  I look back at this trip, though, and I have a hard time feeling any sentimental nostalgia.  While I know this isn't the case for most people, my time in grad school was pretty idyllic.  I had amazing friends, lived the life of the mind, and was lucky not to have any financial emergencies at a time when I was poor.  The trip to the AHA suddenly made me realize that this idyll was coming to an end, and that it was not going to have a happy ending.  In the ten years since I have lived in three different states, met my wife, started a family, and switched careers.  The ending has been happy, but only once I made the decision to leave academia.  There's so much I cared so much about back then that I don't care about anymore, especially the academic job market.  I think back to the great 2006 AHA road trip and feel longing for my friends who live so far away today, but no longing whatsoever to be part of that world anymore.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tamir Rice and the American Police State

I don't watch videos of police shooting suspects anymore because I watched the Tamir Rice video when it was first released.  I have never, ever seen anything so absolutely horrifying in my entire life.  The image of a 12 year old boy being shot down by a police officer in about two seconds has been burned into my mind and I cannot get it out.  From time to time over the last year it has bubbled up to haunt me whenever I hear about new cases of police violence.  I think about my students, many of whom fit Tamir's profile, yet older apparently more "dangerous," and get sick to my stomach with fear and anxiety.

By all accounts the officer who shot him was an incompetent, trigger-happy shithead.  The fact that he was allowed by the city of Cleveland to have the power of life and death over a child is in itself a crime of epic proportions.

Yes, there were some odd circumstances, namely that the dispatcher had made the situation sound much more dangerous than it actually was.  But even if Tamir Rice was holding a real gun, there's nothing, absolutely nothing that can explain the fact that he was left laying there, bleeding out, without any medical help, other than the complete and utter disregard that the officers on the scene had for his life.  If do not think he race had anything to do with that lack of regard then I don't even want to bother talking to you.

Of course, he didn't have a real gun.  He didn't point it at anyone.  Tamir lived in an open-carry state, where it is not a crime to carry a gun openly.  Watching the video, it is completely obvious that there is no way that Timothy Loehmann was able to properly assess the situation.  He was intending, perhaps from (or before) the moment he arrived, to shoot and kill Tamir.

And yet, there is no indictment.  Indictments are so easy to procure that lawyers like to joke that "you can indict a ham sandwich."  Yet in Ferguson, New York, and now Cleveland, it seems impossible to indict a white police officer who kills an unarmed black person.  It's almost too obvious to state this, but so many people in America don't want to believe it, so here it goes: when it comes to African Americans, the United States is a police state.  Any police officer who kills an African American will not be punished, because white society is so deeply invested in its fear of black people and its desire to enforce white supremacy.  Few white people will say that openly, of course.  But their lizard brains react in terror when they see black people taking to the streets to protest brutality, and those same lizard brains automatically search for ways to exonerate white police officers who kill black people.  Anything that challenges the status quo of radical residential segregation with black ghettoes patrolled by police officers who are above the law in their ability to use violence makes their fear reflexes go off the charts.

And yet white people are vastly overrepresented in the militia, open carry, and anti-gun control movements.  Many of them are constantly fearful of a "big government" that they think is trying to control their lives, all while endorsing that government's surveillance of Muslims and mass incarceration of people of color.  The crime rate goes down, but they freak out nonetheless about a perception of rising crime.  That perception is merely a barometer of their own fear that white supremacy is being undermined.  Again, they are not fully conscious of this fear, because in "post-racial" America the only racists are the ones wearing white sheets, and they think that to notice and talk about race makes someone the "real racist."

The anxieties around white supremacy are so deeply ingrained in the backs of the minds of white people that even I have to tell my own lizard brain to shut the fuck up from time to time.  (The implicit bias tests get at this issue.)  That's just how powerful this mental disease is.  Until it is eradicated, and more white people can choose humanity over fear, I worry that the American police state will be able to maintain itself, killing more innocents as it goes along.

Monday, December 28, 2015

What My Theoretical Baseball Hall Of Fame Ballot Would Be

When I was younger I had an interest in sports journalism, but I was so painfully shy and anxious that I wasn't able to interview anyone on the school basketball team for articles in my middle school paper, and that was the end of that.  Now that I am older, less shy, and a better writer, I think about an alternate universe where I am a beat writer for a major league baseball team.  That job would, of course, give me a baseball hall of fame ballot.

All hardcore baseball fans have their own opinions of how they'd vote, and this year I thought I would actually lay out my own, and hopefully generate some thoughts about why criteria ought to be used to make such a decision.  Before breaking down the ballot, I'd like to offer my own considerations:

Did They Used To Be A "Future Hall of Famer"?
Some players are routinely called "future hall of famers" when they're still playing.  This usually means that they are so good that no one really doubts their worth.  Except for certain exceptions (see: PEDs) I think players who were assumed to be going to the Hall when they retired ought to be the first candidates considered.  This year I look at Pedro Martinez and Ken Griffey, Jr and say, "yeah, well duh!"  I know this applies to a small number of players, but that small number was so great that it seems insulting to have to put them through the wringer like we do with borderline players.  This is also why I hate the practice of certain sportswriters not letting players in on the first ballot.  No player has been a unanimous first ballot hall of famer, which is just a joke.  

Comparison To Others At Their Positions In Their Era
I think one major thing to think about when voting for the Hall of Fame is the value of the players relative to their own time.  This is why I don't like the use of milestone stats.  If a player plays in an era of high offense, 3000 hits is not as important.  If a player was the best at their position for the greater part of their career, they should be an automatic induction.  This is why I hated that Ron Santo was kept out for so long.  In a vacuum his numbers look borderline, but he was the best third baseman in the National League in his time, and along with Eddie Matthews he was the best ever in the National League before Mike Schmidt.  I think the idea that baseball stats are comparable over time is a useful myth for baseball fans, but it is still a myth nonetheless.  All stats should be adjusted according to era, which is perhaps a better way to look at the likes of Sosa and McGwire, rather than getting in a snit about PEDs.

Longevity And A High, Sustained Peak
I think hall of fame players should have both played long careers and had a significant, multi-year peak.  This was why it took Jim Rice so long to get in. During his peak he was the best hitter in the American League, but he fell off and retired fast.  Had he played three more quality years, there would have been little doubt about his candidacy.  In his case the height of his peak canceled out his lack of longevity.  This standard can be a little cruel.  JR Richard, like a lot of power pitchers, had control issues in his youth, but then became an absolutely amazing pitcher before having to retire due to a stroke.  He probably would have put up Randy Johnson-level numbers, but never had the chance.  Longevity alone also isn't enough. I love that LaTroy Hawkins has pitched in 21 seasons and in more games than all but nine other players in MLB history, but just doesn't have hall of fame stats otherwise.  To judge peaks I tend to look at how players rank in certain statistical categories.  I am still not sure if a player who is very good throughout a very long career but never the best at any time, like Bert Blyleven, is fit for the Hall.

Ignoring Awards and All-Star Votes
I should also be clear about things I do not consider, namely awards and All-Star nods.  The latter is totally erroneous, because 1. The voting is based on only half a season 2. The starting nods from fans are largely a popularity vote and 3. Managers have to pick a player from each team and to fill holes, meaning the All-Star teams are NEVER the collection of the absolute best players.  As far as awards go, these are often correct, but often just wrong, especially if we are talking about MVP, Silver Slugger, and Cy Young votes in a pre-Sabermetric age when stats like wins, saves, RBIs, and batting average were given far too much weight.  As far as Gold Gloves are concerned, they were long a notoriously subjective award until very recently.  I hate it when a player isn't named and someone says "but they won X number of Gold Gloves and were on X number of All Star teams!" So what?

A Floor Standard
If player is not clearly better than the worst players in the Hall, they should not be inducted, since this would both be a sign they aren't worthy for the Hall, and would also keep standards for the Hall of Fame from being lowered.

A Consideration of PED Use
This has been one of the biggest issues in recent Hall of Fame classes.  I do not follow either extreme.  I will not disallow players because they played in the Steroid Era, nor will I pretend as if PEDs have no effect on a player's status.  In the first place, if a player would not have been able to get into the hall without PEDs, they're out, no matter how contrite they are. This means that despite his big milestone numbers, Rafael Palmeiro is out.  (Look at his power number before and after 'roids.)  In the second place, players who were not known to have used PEDs until AFTER they had already built HOF careers should be considered.  Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens obviously fall into this category.  But I have another consideration: genuine contrition and honesty.  If players keep lying about it even after they got caught, and then maybe apologize or come clean due to ulterior motives, I am not inclined to let them in.  For players who are speculated to have used, but where no evidence exists, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, but only if they are not borderline cases for induction.  That sucks, but the Steroid Era has consequences.  Those who say let them all in apparently think it's okay to punish those players who played clean twice over.  The juicers got the records, the status, and the contracts that came with it.  If they wanted the Hall of Fame too they shouldn't have cheated.

Without further ado, here are the players I've picked from the 2016, grouped into separate categories:
players I would definitely vote for, players I would certainly not vote for, and players I wouldn't vote for this year but would consider in future votes.

Hall of Fame
I would vote for:

  • Ken Griffey, Jr: No duh! One of the best all-around players of his era, one of the greatest power hitters of all time, and never a hint of rumor about PEDs
  • Tim Raines: Best leadoff hitter in the National League in his era and over 800 stolen bases in an era when the game had less scoring and thus both of those things were very valuable
  • Mike Piazza: maybe the best offensive catcher ever with a carrier OPS+ of 142 (rumors of PED use unsubstantiated)
  • Jeff Bagwell has never been directly linked to PEDs despite suspicions. His numbers alone merit induction, especially his career 149 OPS+, attained at a time of high offense
I would definitely not vote for:

  • Brad Ausmus, David Eckstein, Jeff Kent, Mike Sweeney, Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Lowell, Garret Anderson, Randy Winn, Luis Castillo, Mike Hampton, Troy Glaus, and Jason Kendall on pretty obvious grounds
  • Billy Wagner, Lee Smith and Trevor Hoffman, who were excellent closers but are also beneficiaries of the save stat
  • Sammy Sosa for the fact that his homer numbers would have been impossible with his pre-PED wiry physique
  • Mark McGwire both for use of PEDs as well as being a one-dimensional player, a kind of supercharged Dave Kingman
  • Fred McGriff, whose numbers don't quite measure up, but should get some recognition as an excellent player
  • Nomar Garciaparra for not having a long enough career of full seasons
  • Jim Edmonds: fine all around player, but never really had a truly great season
  • Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens for PEDs, though Clemens and Bonds had HOF careers pre-PEDs
    Players I wouldn't vote for this year, but think are worthy of extra consideration and perhaps might get a future ballot:

  • Edgar Martinez, whose numbers are borderline, but who also was the first designated hitter to be great at that job, rather than being a cast-off outfielder or first baseman.  My issue boils down to whether "DH" is a position or not.  Because I am inclined to say no, I doubt I could vote for Edgar, as much as I loved him as a player.
  • Larry Walker did not have great longevity and had numbers inflated by playing in Denver in the Steroid Era, but he was also the best hitter in the National League from 1997 to 1999.  Also a great fielder.
  • Mike Mussina's most impressive stat is his win total, which is an arbitrary stat.  That said, he showed a lot of consistency over a long period of time as a top flight starter. Then again, he never led the league in ERA, strikeouts, or WHIP.
  • Curt Schilling was clutch in the postseason, but his regular season stats are borderline for the Hall
  • Alan Trammell's case is really, really hard.  His offense is not quite good enough (110 career OPS+) but he was a fine fielder.  However, he was not ever a leader in any season in any fielding category.  It's tough, but this is a case where you have a tremendous player who is not quite Hall worthy.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Low Cut Connie "Shake It Little Tina"

Keeping with my resolution to pick more tracks of the week from current artists, I've been digging Low Cut Connie since I heard a blazing in studio set from them on the Sounds Opinions radio show/podcast a couple of months ago.  They are truly a rock and roll band, as opposed to a rock band, because they've got rhythm (the roll).  This is good-time party shake your ass music, and not enough of it gets made anymore.  All the danceable music these days is spat out by machines, so as good as it is, it just don't SWING like it should.

If you want to hear that swing, check out "Shake It Little Tina" from the band's most recent album.  The song is an homage to Tina Turner in the late 1960s, and like a lot of their songs, the original meaning of the term "rock and roll" is never far off.  It's largely a piano-based band, but the piano as a percussive instrument, the way it was used by Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles.  This song also has a great skanky guitar part that makes this sound like one of the best Rolling Stones songs the Stones never recorded.  In fact, Mick and Keef haven't come up with something this good in over thirty years.  Long may it groove.

Being A Parent Makes Me Both Hate And Love Christmas More

After yesterday's consumerist orgy it's time for some preaching by Reverend Billy

One of the biggest cliches in the book is that parenthood changes everything, and it's a cliche because, well, it's true.  In many ways this is obvious.  I usually subsist on six hours of sleep a night, and have cleared the eight hour mark maybe a dozen times in the last three years, usually only when I was too sick to sleep less than eight hours.  Smaller things have changed too, like Christmas.

Through most of my adult life, Christmas was pretty ho-hum. With two three year old girls, that has changed drastically, and Christmas has become a lot more significant in my life.  In many respects, this has meant that I love Christmas the way I loved it when I was a child.  My daughters take such joy in the Christmas season, from the songs to the gifts to the time with family.  It's very difficult for a lot of that not to rub off on me.

At the same time, however, it is extremely difficult for me not to develop great levels of hate and resentment against Christmas.  The Christmas season is perhaps the biggest reminder I have of how much power the broader society has in shaping my daughters and how hard it is for me to instill the values I want to impart.  In the first place, the consumeristic side of Christmas is especially pronounced with children.  I don't know if there has been a change in this since my childhood or what, but every year my children are buried under a tide of toys and trinkets.  I blame the Wal-Martization of America, which was not yet complete when I was a tyke.  It's easy, without thinking, to buy a child a mountain of toys, since they come at dollar store prices.  They also have dollar store quality but never seem to leave the house, forming a giant mass of cheap plastic crap to take up space, be stepped on, and constantly clutter living spaces up while rarely being played with.

The people giving the gifts have great intentions, and I really don't fault them for anything, obviously.  It's more that the Christmas season injects the usual consumerist ethos with steroids. And I guess it would be a real dick move to ask that any money spent on toys just be put into my daughter's college funds.

What's harder to stomach is the enforcement of patriarchal norms.  My daughters love Star Wars and superheroes, but for those who don't know them well, they default to all manner of pink princess stuff.  My daughters practically get buried alive in it.  What is even crazier is that they get non-princess toys, like cars and airplanes and even mini-baseball bats, in special pink, girl forms.  The message is pretty clear: being a girl means having a gussied up, less realistic, less REAL version of what boys have, because deep down cars, and trucks and baseball bats are for them, not girls.

Even if they were getting gifts I liked more, the whole thing would make me uneasy because of the massive waste of it all.  The sheer scale of gifts is frightening in its extremity; so much so that we barely give them anything for Christmas because we know that the deluge is coming.  Seeing the massive pile of presents in our living room right now is actually making me feel sick at the waste and decadence of it all in a world where so many have so little.  It's not because this stuff cost so much, quite the opposite.  It's the thought that this bounty of stuff is the result of exploited labor, both in the factories where it's made and the stores where it's sold.

Beyond all that, Christmas events encourage them to get all dressed up, and what's wrong with that? Those who know me know I like to dress up.  But for my daughters, they are quickly turned into little objects, told they are pretty, etc.  There's nothing wrong with being pretty, but when that's the one thing other people want to notice about them, the patriarchy is lurking.

So now that I am a parent, Christmas is filled with vastly conflicting emotions.  On the one hand, I feel such happiness at the smiles on my daughters' faces, and the cheerfulness they showed when racing down the stairs yesterday morning.  It's great to see them interact with their extended family, especially their cousins.  On the other hand, I feel so trapped and horrified when seeing them buried under mountains of cheap crap produced by exploited labor that reinforces sexist gender roles.  Maybe next year I can develop some counter-programming.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

America 2015 (A Year On The Brink)

"So It Goes" by Nick Lowe seems to be an appropriate song for this year

Every year about this time I take stock of what's happened, both in my personal life and in the larger world.  This year, 2015, will either be seen in the future as an important turning point (a la 1968), or a momentary outbreak of change that quickly subsided (like 2011, the year of Occupy.)

The thing that dominated the political scene in America this past year was the color line.  In regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014 did not quickly become a thing of the past, as unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray showed. In that case the attorney general actually secured indictments, but the trial process has been difficult.  Movements against racism went well beyond the police.  In Chicago the mayor himself was implicated in covering up a cop's murder.  At the University of Missouri students actually managed to get their president to resign for not doing enough to address racism on campus.  Pressure was put on Democratic candidates for president, and now Bernie Sanders is explicitly endorsing the movement's goals. The Democrats rely on black votes to win elections, and the BLM movement might thus finally break the two-party consensus of "tough on crime" dating back to Clinton.  Despite the setbacks recently in Baltimore and the continuing headlines of police shooting unarmed African Americans, the new anti-racist movements could be poised to bring about some major changes.

Of course, whenever the color line gets challenged, white people spring forth to its defense, and fight that defense more fervently the more that line gets challenged.  The Republican Party has been using racial resentment against president Obama for years, but in 2015 that coded resentment was out and proud, thanks to Donald Trump.  His campaign initially benefited from him being perceived as a straight-talked who would upend traditional politics.  He achieved staying power, however, by going after Mexican immigrants in openly bigoted terms.  The success that this has brought him has forced many other Republicans to follow suit, leading to the opening of an Overton Window.  Trump has advocated mass deportations of millions, the kind of thing carried out in only the most repressive states, and yet his popularity keeps rising.  Fear and resentment of Muslims has grown in staggering fashion, so much so that Republican officials fell over themselves to be the first to castigate Syrian refugees and proclaim that they weren't welcome.

In a sign of the times, the violent white supremacists are coming out of the sewers and out into the open in ways I've never seen in my lifetime.  Some of them shot four black protesters in Minnesota, and the protests at the University of Missouri were partially spurred by white supremacist graffiti. Anti-Muslim hooligans have been defacing mosques and Muslim centers all around the country.  Trump is speaking to these and their grievances, and white power groups and figures have now endorsed him.  Trump may very well go down as a historical oddity, like Boulanger in France in the late 1800s.  But like Boulanger, Trump represents deeper forces at play.  Just as France in the fin-de-siecle was a place of extreme political and cultural divisions, so is America.  In both cases reactionary elements have a romance with authoritarianism and removing "internal enemies."  The anti-Semitism of the late 1800s has been replaced with Islamophobia and racial resentment, but both rooted in the desire by a particular group to "take our country back."  If 2014 finally ended the fatuous talk in the media of a "post-racial America," 2015 was the year that openly expressed white supremacy came back into the national discourse.

In the midst of all of this, guns played a big role in 2015, from San Bernardino to Umpqua. This past year confirmed something we already knew after the Newtown massacre: gun control is just not going to happen.  If a room full of dead children wasn't going to move the issue, nothing else ever would.  Something most progressives don't seem to understand is that for a large group of people, guns are a crucial element to their very identity, and many of those people think gun ownership is a bulwark against government tyranny.  Beyond the headline-grabbing massacres, the open carrying of guns at protests has gone from something that once caused great alarm a few years ago to a commonplace occurrence.  America was always a heavily armed society, but it is now one where guns are allowed almost everywhere, and where they are being used in protests to intimidate and imply the threat of violence.  Americans now think that in response to the threat of terror that we need MORE guns, not fewer.  Banning assault weapons used to have huge amount of support, now only a minority would back it.  2015 may very well go down as the year that the NRA's interpretation of the role of guns in society actually became conventional wisdom.

Looking forward I try not to let my usual pessimistic tendencies predominate.  There are levels of political action and activism by young people that I have not seen in my lifetime; it's the kind of thing I so sorely wanted to be a part of in college where I formed a club with a handful of friends to that end because there were no organizations on campus for social activism.  While Bernie Sanders will likely not get the nomination, the fact that he draws the level of support that he does is heartening.  Anti-racists are making the likes of Rahm Emmanuel run for cover and are forcing many institutions to confront structural racism.  Years of activism by the gay rights movement paid off this year with the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage.  Transgender people are getting rights and recognition when they used to only get scorn and mockery.

At the same time, I can't escape the thought that these green shoots of progress will only prompt a much stronger reaction, uprooting them violently.  Trump is leading the Republican race as a quasi-fascist, and even if he doesn't win, his army of supporters is still out there, ready to act and ready to listen to another demagogue.  There is still no justice for Sandra Bland and countless others.  The most fearful among resentful white people are literally sticking to their guns.  2015 was a year on the brink in America, 2016 will likely decide whether that brink will be breached or not.

Monday, December 21, 2015

December Sunsets and the Velvet Underground

I was looking through the back pages of my old, and defunct blog, and found a memory worth sharing from 2005, ten long years ago.  It comes from my last year in graduate school, right before I attended my first American Historical Association conference and slowly began to realize that my future was about to get really rocky.  Something about the winter solstice really resonates with me, and instead of trying to write something new, I thought I'd share something old that better articulates the feelings that this time of year can give.  These are feelings independent of Christmas, but of the elemental effect of the longest night of the year, the reason why the ancients decided we needed some times of good cheer to counteract it.  Here it is below, complete with reference to a discman.  Dolores the cat, I can gladly say, still lives:


December sunsets, I love them so. So today, after feeding my friends Rachel and Ed's wondrously lustrous feline Delores, I took a walk around in the late afternoon, listening to the Velvet Underground's first album on my discman. It's one I love, especially in December, it just sounds wintry to me for some reason, even though I first started listening to the album in the spring of 1994. Nico's voice (or Nordic foghorn, more accurately) is like a chilly north wind, and the sparks of feedback courtesy of Lou Reed's guitar shoot into my skull like the cold air knifes through my coat. When I listen to "Heroin" or "All Tomorrow's Parties" on that album, though, they seem to physically warm me somehow.

John Cale's background drone on "Heroin" replicates the hazy feeling of a December dawn. The setting sun today created that orange-grey dusk that somehow sets my heart affire in ways that I cannot comprehend. It is ethereal, as if I am on another planet further from the sun, where the sun is more of a star that provides light but no warmth, and a dim light at that. Perhaps it is in the shortest days of the year that we come closest to seeing universal death, and it just might be that brush with mortality that gets me every time.

Or maybe just memory. Growing up, my family would go to Mass on Christmas Eve at 5PM, the church's "children's Mass." Because my parents have a pathological fear of being late, we always arrived more than half an hour early, able to take any seat in the church, and right as the sun was setting. The church lay in a spot where the sun would strike the stained glass quite directly, flooding the church with a golden bath of color and warmth. It would set before the special Mass so full of ritual, and in a child's eyes, magic. (When a child is very young, that's what religion is to them.) The setting sun of Christmas Eve was probably the closest I came to religious ecstasy in my life, and I guess there's a piece of that exhilarating feeling in the sunset I saw today.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Kraftwerk "Autobahn"

My musical habits are such that every now and again, totally out of the blue, I will suddenly get obsessed with a certain kind of music or revisit something old with a new passion.  That's been happening to me this week with Kraftwerk, a group I first started obsessing over about five or six years ago.

Last week I listened to a music podcast about the Moog synthesizer, and that had me going back to listen to early electronic music, including Kraftwerk.  Then, while looking for Christmas gifts at the Strand bookstore on Friday, chanced upon a quite excellent book about the group, David Buckley's Publikation.  Well since then it's been back down the rabbit hole.

I have all of the bands classic 1975-1981 albums on LP, and have been spinning them again non-stop. What fascinates me about them is that they are so futuristic in sound, but were made (and disseminated) in analog form.  There is something very interesting and entirely thrilling about dropping a needle in the grooves of a record and through this obsolete technology hearing sounds that still seem like they come from the future.  The synthesizers themselves have an oddly human feel to them, not unlike R2D2's boops and bleeps.

That reference feels apt, as I have also just watched the original Star Wars, which once the sheen of the "special edition" is stripped away, looks very much like a product of the 1970s. "Autobahn" is the Star Wars of electronic music, the moment when the possibility of the form truly took flight, and made what came before seem boring and staid by comparison.  I find it telling that both were produced around the same time in the 1970s.  Just as the "New Hollywood" of the early 70s had begun to burn itself out by 1977, the hippie dream of the 60s was looking pretty tired by 1975 in the music world.

"Autobahn" was simply like nothing else at the time.  Over twenty minutes long and taking up a whole album side, it replicated a car journey with only a little bit of stiff speak-singing in German over the electronic soundscape.  The song always surprises me because it actually doesn't seem that long, mostly because it just locks my mind in to its grooves.  Nowadays it makes me a little sad, mostly because electronic music in the hands on modern pop producers has completely shed its avant-garde origins.  It's used to make the pop sounds that pop that much more, to explode in our ears with computer force but without much creativity behind him, the equivalent of the massive electronic groans and blasts used to punctuate action movie trailers.  Much like how the blockbuster success of Star Wars in 1977 took something daring and exciting and turned it into today's flaccid, paint by numbers blocklusters, Kraftwerk's revolution in sound was altered into an unending tide of mediocre pop songs.  The unaltered Star Wars may not be available legitimately anymore, but I can still drop the needle on "Autobahn" and be transported to a time when the synthesizer was a daring emblem of an uncharted musical future.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Return of the Jedi Is Both Underrated And a Missed Opportunity (Repost)

(Editor's Note: I wrote this back in April, but it seems pretty relevant this week.)

I've had Star Wars on the brain a lot recently, in large part in response to the news and speculation about the newest installment coming this Christmas.  I've also been listening to the enjoyable Star Wars Minute podcast, and recently read Chris Taylor's stellar How Star Wars Conquered The Universe.  Both have got me thinking a lot about Return of the Jedi, the film in the series that most fans (including myself) see as the start of a drop-off in quality.  It's here where some of the bad tendencies began to express themselves: groan-inducing comic relief (Jar-Jar is the spiritual child of the Ewoks), uninteresting cinematography, recycled stories (second Death Star, anyone?), and immature, unconvincing handling of human emotions.

Of course, this is not what I thought when I saw the film on opening night in 1983 as an excited seven year old.  Empire was one of the first movies I can remember seeing, and I saw the re-release of Star Wars the next year, in 1981.  I was super-excited to know if Vader really was Luke's father, and whether he would finally be a Jedi.  Vader's turn to good and unmasking blew me away, Jabba's palace fascinated me, and for a seven year old, the Ewoks were basically the greatest thing that ever happened.  It is easy in hindsight to diss Jedi, but in its time it really gave the people what they wanted: a return to the fun and derring-do of the original film after the downer of Empire.  After all, it was the 80s, and just as the second film reflected well the national mood in the midst of Carter-era malaise, Jedi's flashiness and singing Ewoks triumphing over an evil empire was made for the Reagan years.  Too often people judge this film from the perspective of having watched it twenty times, rather than that first experience in the theater in '83 after so much anticipation.  When I remind myself of its context, I can enjoy it so much more.

Of course, that doesn't change the fact that Jedi could have been a whole helluva lot better.  You could start with the fact that Lucas' co-producer Gary Kurtz was gone for this installment.  Film is an inherently collaborative medium, and too many people buy into the notion of Star Wars as the singular product of George Lucas' genius.  A lot of other people made it what it was with their unique contributions, including composer John Williams, sound designer Ben Burtt, Kurtz, and a whole host of others.  According to Kurtz, Lucas had neglected story in favor of toys and spectacle, and after clashing over the shape of the film, Kurtz left.  His vision for the third film was darker and more emotionally sophisticated, with Han dying, Leia faced with political difficulties, and supposedly ending with a more ambiguous scene of Luke walking off into the sunset.  (Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, whose work helped make Empire the great film that it is, is also on record saying he tried and failed to get this version made.)  The Taylor book also implied earlier conflicts concerning cost overruns incurred by Kurtz in making Empire.

I don't get wistful about much, but when I think about the film that could have resulted from those ideas I wish that time travel was a reality and I could somehow go back and get Kurtz and Lucas to mend fences, and to somehow broker a deal between Lucas and the Director's Guild.  Richard Marquand helmed Jedi, and there's a reason that name isn't exactly familiar.  Because Lucas had not included an opening credits sequence to Empire, the Guild fined Lucas, who then quit, making it difficult for him to secure an American director for the film.  Before that point, both Steven Spielberg and David Lynch were possibilities, and my mind reels at what those directors could have done.  Instead we got Richard Marquand's unremarkable direction, compounded by (according to Taylor and Marquand) his tendency to go along with whatever an intrusive Lucas acting as uncredited co-director wanted.  Worst of all, the film looks a little cheap in comparison to Empire, something brought about by Lucas' desire not to repeat the budget issues of the prior film.

It's easy today for Star Wars nerds like yours truly to mock Jedi, but they ought to remember the space it occupied back in '83.  When today's adult nerds were little wee ones seeing this for the first time it was giving exactly them what they wanted.  This film shows how making blockbusters for the whims of contemporary audiences is not the path to lasting relevance for a film, and how film-making is inherently collaborative.  I really hope these lessons are being heeded by JJ Abrams and those others responsible for bringing Episode VII to the screen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The GOP Hopefuls Think They Live In a Michael Bay Movie

I'd be willing to bet that Ted Cruz touches himself when he looks at this poster

The Republican debate last night was truly frightening, and not because the candidates kept telling me that I needed to be afraid of ISIS.  A bunch of people who claim to be qualified to lead the world's most powerful empire voiced violent fantasies of war and hate, and openly disparaged democracy in the process.  They all talked of "penetrating" and "annihilating" and "destroying ISIS" which will happen by them just making it so through pure force of will.  More than one candidate openly supported tyrannical regimes in the region and disparaged the notion of supporting democratic movements.  All I heard was "killing our enemies matters more than democracy."  They have dropped the pretense to any higher ideal other than death and murder to an extent that is truly scary.  The rebel forces in Syria are currently fighting and dying (on our behalf) wedged between two ruthless enemies, but came in for abuse from the presidential candidates, all of whom claim so solemnly to be lovers of "freedom."

This train of thought was aired most loudly by Ted "carpet bomb them until the sand glows" Cruz, but others essentially said the same thing. They are practically creaming themselves over the fact that the American public is being so fearful after the attacks in San Bernardino.  They know that after terror attacks so many in this country lose their senses, and their lizard brains will vibrate with delight when conservatives promise vengeance.  9/11 turned Dubya into a leader after floundering around like the feckless idiot that he was, and the current Republican candidates are hoping that a whole lot of blustery tough talking will give them a similar halo.

The way they talk about "boots on the ground" as if those boots aren't on the feet of real life human beings that they will be sending to foreign lands to kill, die, be maimed, and undergo psychological trauma is truly monstrous.  They act as if their actions won't have consequences or reactions attached to them, and that they can be the heroic figure who kills all the bad guys.  They think being president is like something out of Michael Bay movie, or at least they think so little of their constituents that they assume they are so naive and stupid to believe that the world works that way. I would scoff at such a mentality, but so many in this country are so ignorant of political reality, and so hopped up on a wicked brew of nationalism and bad action movies, that they will gladly go along with it.  We are living in interesting times, indeed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Holding On To That Star Wars Feeling

Title of this post inspired by "That Teenage Feeling" by Neko Case

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is coming out this week, and I will probably get around to seeing it on a weekday matinee with my wife in the week after Christmas on a day my children are in day care.  Ah, the glamour of parenting!

My feelings about seeing it are a little mixed, even if (or perhaps because) Star Wars has meant more to me than any other piece of culture.  When I first heard about it, I thought (rather boldly) that I would not see it, since it was just another Hollywood cash grab taking an old property to milk it for money.  I figured it would be just another boring product of the machine, only with "Star Wars" slapped on it.  Why bother?  After seeing the second trailer, I began to change my mind a little, and allowed that I would go see the film and have some fun.

Then my mind changed yet again.

I think the triggering incident was the new season of The Star Wars Minute, a podcast that breaks the Star Wars films down, minute by minute.  They finished all of the original trilogy this summer, and even though the hosts made their hate of the prequels known, they've decided to do them now, too.  The difference is striking, obviously.  The original Star Wars minutes were bursting with layer upon layer of interesting things, the individual minutes of the prequels hold no such bounty. Instead each one keeps asking the same question: how on earth did something so good go so bad?  It only reemphasizes how special those original films were, and that everything since has only diminished my great memories of them, submerging them under a tidal wave of cinematic sewage.  (I can't even rewatch the originals, since Lucas has fiddled with them so much that I can only watch a late 1990s version of them.)

The danger of this with the new film is even greater, considering that the original characters are going to be appearing again.  I want this movie to either be phenomenal, or to be a catastrophic disaster akin to the Star Wars Holiday Special. If the new films are so bad that they have to be seen to be believed, I will cherish them. Films like that are rare jewels.  On the other hand, the worst that could happen is that if the new films are mediocre, or competent but not great.  Why?  Because it would turn Star Wars into just another crummy Hollywood film franchise.  I need for Star Wars to be something more than that.

What perhaps disappointed me the most about the prequels was that they so rarely gave me what I can call "that old Star Wars feeling."  It's hard to clarify, but it's the feeling that welled up in me when I saw the originals and which sometimes comes back when I rewatch them.  It is a swelling in my soul, a kind of magic.  I think I felt it twice during the prequels.  The first came when the credits opened on The Phantom Menace with the John Williams score blaring.  That moment transported me back to my youth, and was so mystical that I didn't notice the inanity of the crawl at the beginning and its talk of trade federations.  The other came at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  Obi-Wan's impassioned speech to the now burnt and defeated Vader got that old feeling welling up from inside me again.  I felt like the seven year old who watched Vader take off his mask with wonder and dread.

That feeling came pretty late in the game, and probably had less to do with the movie and more to do with fulfilling thirty years of anticipation over the moment when Vader become more machine than man.  I wish I could believe that the new film will give me that old Star Wars feeling, but I am beginning to think that would be too much to hope for.  Looking at JJ Abrams' track record, he has talents but not genius.  I am sure that I will see a well made piece of Hollywood entertainment when I go to Force Awakens.  That would be fine if it was just another Marvel movie, but I am chasing a feeling that goes well beyond such crude matter, to quote master Yoda.  Is that fair to the movie? Probably not, but this is something that transcends fairness, whether that's realistic or not.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Shamir "In For The Kill"

I don't talk enough about new music on this blog, mostly because I write about how music meshes with life, and that means discussing music that's been a part of my life for a long time.  This is a shame, since I have been a bit overwhelmed at the amount of good music coming out these days.  Music in the download age is a paradox where what's popular has become extremely narrow.  Hence the ability of Adele to sell a crap ton of "units" at a time when physical media is supposedly dying.  Beneath the pop music behemoths are many, many great artists doing great stuff.  It has been a huge challenge trying to keep track of it all, since there are few places to hear new music, which means I need others to tell me where to find it on Spotify.

Courtesy of a music podcast I recently discovered Shamir, whose album Ratchet I've taken to immediately.  It's great stuff, but it also makes me feel old, since elements of his sound are very reminiscent of 1980s electro-funk music.  The music of my youth is now so old it is being mined by the youth of today as a kind of curiosity.  This has been a good thing -especially in Shamir's case- because so many young artists are taking elements that have been lost for decades, but are also stripping away some of the accompanying dross.  For example, because of the wave of bad, overproduced, synthesized pop music in the 80s, for years I soured on pretty much anything synthesizer heavy.  Synths were a sign of artificiality, falseness, frivolity.

Such a puritanical stance is, of course, deeply stupid.  That fact struck me when I met a self-professed "punk" in grad school who wouldn't listen to Joy Division because they used a synthesizer, and realized this was somebody who was mistaking ideology for thought.  (This is a common problem in academia.) Shamir uses synths with sounds that remind me of the 80s, but they're mixed with a plethora of other sounds that are breath-taking in their diversity.  "In For The Kill" is one of my favorite tracks of his, and an example of how people who complain that the music of today is inferior to that of the past need to listen a little harder and dig a little further.

Friday, December 11, 2015

You Can't Go Home Again (For Christmas)

The holiday season does strange things to me.  I tend to get hyper emotional, in good ways and bad.  This evening my daughters wanted to watch the Garfield Christmas special (don't ask), and I started getting a little misty-eyed over a piece of supremely cheesy entertainment.

In case you haven't seen it (and why would you), Jon takes Garfield and Odie back to his parents' farm for Christmas.  His grandmother is also there, and she talks of the lonely nights petting her cats thinking about the past, now that her husband has been gone.  This about had me lose it, since my own grandmother, who had spent sixteen years alone, died not too long ago.  And yes, when we would get together for my mother's family Christmas, it was at my grandparents' farm.

I haven't been in Nebraska for Christmas since 2012.  We were going to go this year, then an unexpected financial burden put an end to it.  With two three year olds it is a difficult undertaking, involving four pricey plane tickets and renting a car to drive the 150 miles from the airport to my isolated hometown.  Wrangling toddlers in the airport and getting them to not act like insane monsters on an airplane for over three hours is a task too difficult for the labors of Hercules.  The treacherous and unpredictable winter weather on the plains also makes the venture especially risky.  Back when I used to drive home from Illinois and Michigan I would hit blizzards, even getting my car blown into a ditch near Council Bluffs one time.

I've also come to realize that the Christmas of my youth can't be recaptured, which is cold comfort when I'm feeling down about being so far from home on Christmas.  We used to gather around noon at my grandparents' house, their farm about an hour's drive west.  The best part was the trees surrounding the farm yard, where I would play with my cousins and build forts out of junk.  We handled so much old rusty barbed wire that I am surprised that none of us got tetanus.  I also loved playing with the many farm cats, who we gave eccentric names to.  After a bit we'd be called in for Christmas dinner, which usually involved both ham and turkey. That was usually just a prelude to the pies.  My grandmother made so many of them, from banana cream to pumpkin to cherry, seemingly never-ending.

 I usually brought the toys I just got for Christmas, so my afternoons were occupied in a state of concentrated playing in my grandparents' living room at the foot of the aged fold out couch and massive picture window that claimed a few confused birds in its time.  When I got older I might be reading the books I got, which also fit with my teenage antisocial tendencies.  The adults would play pitch (a four handed card game rarely played outside of Nebraska) while drinking pop and snacking on Christmas cookies.  The supply of food was pretty much never ending, and for some reason around 5 they would reheat lunch and I would still manage to cram some more of my grandmother's mashed potatoes in my mouth.  (They were truly amazing.)  On our way out the door my grandma would usually give all of us cousins (and there were a lot of us) a bag of her homemade kettle corn, and sometimes a hand-knitted blanket or afghan.  (I still have them today, and they somehow still carry the slight whiff of the farmhouse smell.)  In my head I can still hear the quiet cacophony of car wheels on a gravel road underneath an impossibly black winter solstice sky as my family departed, my grandparents waving good-bye from the yard.

The thing about holiday rituals is that they provide comfort in their repetition, the comfort of memory.  By doing the same thing you did the year before and the ten years before that you revive the memories of all the Christmases past and simultaneously live them out.  Losing these rituals completely throws off the equilibrium of holidays, and is why I am desperate to go home for Christmas.

The more I think about it, however, the more I realize that the ideal Christmases of my memory ended much longer ago than I first realized.  At some point some members of my family insisted on renting a banquet room at a nearby Holiday Inn rather than doing the traditional farm house Christmas.  This, I believe, was due to the sour nature of some of my family members, who simply wanted to cut the time with their extended family short.  I found these Christmas gatherings to be positively miserable.  There were no trees to go exploring in, no yard cats to play with, and no dusty basement to go poking around in.  It was a lot of adults talking and tepid hotel buffet food. If I was lucky I could cadge some quarters from my dad and go to the hotel arcade (remember those?) and play some games of Operation Wolf.

Later on, after my grandfather passed, we started getting together sometimes at my aunt and uncle's house, which while fun, wasn't the same.  These days there's no gatherings there, or anywhere, for that matter.  The submerged tensions and antipathies that had been festering for years between my mother and some of her siblings have broken out into open warfare.  I'd rather not get into the details, but things have been said that cannot be unsaid, things so odious that I can't and won't ever forgive them.  My cousins and I are still on good terms, but we have been flung far and wide to the four corners of America, from Portland to Mobile to Denver to New Jersey.  The farm where so many of my childhood memories are located is now owned by someone who out of spite would probably never let me visit it again.

It would be great for my immediate family to make our own new traditions, so my daughters and nephews and niece could have their own memories together, but being so far away means that this won't happen.  The land of my birth is probably destined to be a distant and strange place to them. I wish so badly I could share my grandparents' farm with them at least, but that will likely never happen.  At least my wife's family has some good traditions.  We eat Cuban food from a venerable place in Union City on Christmas Eve, then feast of roast pork the next day after my father in law makes a delicious garlic shrimp brunch.  It's great, but it does not have the comfort and resonance of the rituals I grew up with.

This Christmas I am going to try to do it a little more Nebraska style.  I am planning on replicating my Mom's delectable Christmas treats, from nut clusters to Ritz crackers filled with peanut butter and dipped in almond bark.  Maybe I will try to teach my New Jersey relatives how to play pitch, too.

Of course, it's not all bad.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Surviving The Baseball Off Season

I am not sure how it happened, but I went from being a baseball fan to a baseball obsessive.  This off season it has been particularly difficult to do without my daily friend for seven months of the year.  I've tried to get into other sports to compensate, but nothing seems to work.  Part of my problem is that I don't really root for a specific NBA team, which makes following pro basketball difficult.  The moral issues with big time college sports make it super difficult to care about it.  I love soccer, but EPL games are in the morning on the weekends, when I am spending most of my time with my kids.

This means spending the off season giving myself regular injections of baseball through any means I have, lest I get the shakes and be unable function.  Here are the things I've been using this off season.

Sully Baseball Podcast
I've mentioned this podcast, and think it's a great one for baseball fans.  I like it because Sully is about the least indulgent podcaster out there.  He keeps the episodes to about 20 minutes (perfect for a long walk with my dog), and has a great, conversational style. It might sound insane that someone, on his own, is doing a baseball podcast every day of the year, including the off season, but his off season episodes are some of my favorites.  Those episodes are not reactions to the games the day before, but musings on the nature of baseball itself, which is exactly what I need in the cold winter months.

Will Leitch, Are We Winning?
Leitch is a sports journalist and one of the founders of Deadspin, the one sports site I check on a daily basis.  I just finished this book, which I really enjoyed.  Much of this has to do with the fact that Leitch is my age and he grew up in central Illinois, a place I lived for several years and where I spent the best years of my pre-married life.  The book tells the tale of him going to a Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field with his father and a close friend.  Leitch and his dad are Cards fans, his friend is a Cubs fan, and it happens to be the game in 2008 when the Cubs clinched the division.  The book is funny in how it lays out the turf war between the Cubs and Cardinals in central Illinois, but is mostly about the father-son relationship and baseball.  While there's a little too much Dad Hagiography for my tastes, it's still a good and enjoyable book.  Especially recommended for baseball fans in the Midwest.

As a sidenote, this book brought back a very specific baseball memory for me.  I found out from the book that I had attended the same game as Leitch one time, since he mentioned a 15 inning Cubs victory against the Cardinals during their 2003 run to the playoffs late in the season.  I went to this game with two friends, one of them a rabid Cubs fan.  (As a White Sox fan I was not super invested, but secretly wanted a Cubs victory.)  When Sammy Sosa smacked the homer to win the marathon game, I immediately felt my friends' arms wrapping around me in a tight hug.  I felt so happy for him in that moment, but alas, things in 2003 wouldn't end well.

Joe Pepitone, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud
A few weeks ago my local library had a book sale, and it did not disappoint.  I've managed to make some great finds over the years at library book sales, especially when it comes to out of print sports books.  At one in my Illinois days I managed to get a hardcover first edition copy of Veeck as in Wreck for a pittance.  This time around I picked up Stolen Season (which I have yet to read) and Joe Pepitone's (in)famous memoir (which has just been put out in a new edition.)  My copy is a little pocket paperback with some pretty racy stuff inside.  I was surprised at how little the book had to do with baseball.  The theme (which you can glean from the title) is that Pepitone squandered his talent, spending his efforts on boozing and womanizing.  His descriptions of growing up in Brooklyn with an abusive father in the 1950s are both harrowing and fascinating.  It came out in the mid-70s, and is thus an interesting document of how the social movements of the 60s lifted and broke the halo over athletes.

Games and Clips on Youtube
When I was a wee lad I would still buy baseball card magazines in the off season.  I still remember one article with advice on how to cope with a world without baseball, which recommended taping a few games during the season to keep and watch in the off season.  With baseball finally getting enlightened and smart about its online content, you can watch whole games from the past.  Here are a few I enjoy.

1979 All Star Game
An amazing document of the late 1970s and a time when baseball uniforms weren't afraid to be outlandish.  This game has an amazing array of players to boot, but my favorite might be a balding Gaylord Perry in the classic brown-yellow Padres Taco Bell uniforms.

Bill Murray Calling a Cubs Game
Bill Murray has seemed more like a sad, depressed loner in his public persona recently (but hey I loved his Christmas special.)  In the 80s he was more of a funny goofball, and I watching games regularly on WGN, I always loved it when he would come on and have a little fun.  This stuff brings forth the looseness of watching a baseball game, much more preferable to the fake solemnity often attached to football games.

Game 5, 2006 World Series
Sometimes, however, it is good to remind oneself of baseball's cruelty.  The Tigers and Cardinals faced off in the 2006 World Series, which took place shortly after I moved to Michigan.  I was moved metaphorically by the passion of Tigers fans there, and pulled hard for them.  I still remember being with a couple of friends on a weekend trip to Ann Arbor, at a bar where this game was playing.  When the Cardinals won (in a situation where the Tigers could have gone ahead) I swear I heard a collective cry of anguish from Traverse City to Grosse Pointe.

Game 4, 2005 World Series
As a White Sox fan, it's sad to see the South Siders in such sorry shape these days.  When I get morose over their fate, I at least know that I can go back and watch this game, when they clinched in the 2005 World Series.  They may not win another one in my lifetime, but I will always hold close a team that a lot of people underestimated, who then made mincemeat out of their opponents in the playoffs.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Crossing the Rubicon?

The past two weeks in American political life have been insane.  White supremacist terrorists shot black protestors in Minnesota. A Christian fundamentalist shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in a terror attack in Colorado.  Two ISIS supporters in San Bernardino murdered 14 people in a mass shooting.  Evidence seems to show that the mayor of Chicago tried to cover up a murder committed by one of his police officers.  The leading presidential candidate for one of the major parties is making fascist appeals to bar Muslims from the country, a day after the president's call for calm evidently fell on deaf ears.

The United States appears to be in uncharted territory these days.   Having studied the history of Europe, current events seem more in line with crises in fledging democracies in that continent in the late 19th and early 20th century rather than echoes in American history.  

I am thinking in particular of France under the Third Republic and Weimar Germany.  (Although I know the second metaphor is fraught with peril.)  In both cases the political middle disappeared, and society found itself divided between competing political forces, one that supported a democratic society, and the other willing to compromise democracy in the name of nationalism and the preservation of tradition and its traditional power.  For example, in the 1890s, the French Right called their opponents the "Anti-France," and aimed to protect the church and military while attacking Jews and the Left.  While they were dealt a defeat during the Dreyfus Affair, they came back in the 1930s and reacted to the Popular Front government of Leon Blum by proclaiming "Better Hitler Than Blum."  During the occupation in World War II, they got their wish.  I shy away from Weimar metaphors, but seeing the increased visibility of armed gangs with assault weapons at mosques and attacking Black Lives Matter protestors reminded me of nothing else than how politics in the Weimar era was literally fought in the streets.  

For the first time in my life I am questioning whether America's democratic form of government will endure.  The state now has a surveillance and carceral mechanism unparalleled in American history, just sitting around to be used by the powers that be against political dissenters.  The police and military are routinely named the most trusted institutions in American life.  The constant shutdowns and gridlock in DC make it easy to denounce regular politics, and for a "man of action" to get broad support.  Donald Trump has jumped ahead in the Republican presidential race by attacking immigrants and Muslims, and promising to expunge them from the body politic.  The leaders of the Republican party have been so weak that Trump insulted the military service of John McCain, one of their most venerable members, and were basically too chickenshit to call him out directly.  They have a choice between standing up to the demagogue, pretending he will go away, or trying to co-opt him.  They have tried choice #2, but #3 looks like it might be happening very soon in the future.  I doubt he'd win, but it would be a sign now that all bets are off when it comes to whipping up the forces of nationalism and politicized racism.  

Like the Third Republic, it might take decades of low-grade political civil war, but the result could very well be the same.  In my darker moments, like today, I fear we may have crossed the Rubicon without even realizing it.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Bessie Smith "At The Christmas Ball"

There is no genre of music so treacly, so silly, and so lame as Christmas music.  Or so I thought, until I started to delve into more off beat entries in the genre.  Turns out there's a wealth of great jazz, blues, and country Christmas songs that explore the darker side of the holidays.

One of my favorites is "At The Christmas Ball" by Bessie Smith.  Only she could sing a song about Christmas and make it a boozy, bluesy lament.  As always with a lot of her songs, the piano echoes in a way that it sounds like it's bubbling right out of the earth.  There is an ethereal darkness in her records, partially due to the way the primitive recording equipment at the time captured sound, but also because of her incomparable style of singing.

In Bessie's world Christmas isn't for family or religion, but for having a good time.  (I would expect nothing less from the woman who gave us "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.")  This doesn't sound much like party music, though.  Bessie sings about getting drunk and finding dance partners, but the song sounds more like the hangover the day after.  Next time you're tired of hearing the godawful likes of the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" or Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime," just put on this Bessie Smith tune to clear it all away.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Penn Station Project (The Hilton Passageway)

There are many grimy, dirty places in Penn Station, but there is none more obscure in its dirt and grime than the Hilton Passageway. 

In a station full of bustle and crowds, it is often almost completely, eerily empty.  I discovered it only after about six months of commuting.  I take New Jersey Transit to Penn, but when I get out I have to get to the 123 subway train, which is on the other side of the station, about two short New York blocks.  The obvious way is to walk down the main concourse, flanked by cheap eateries and curious retail establishments, from the shoeshine place that sells umbrellas on rainy days to the subterranean Kmart.  (More on the main concourse in a later installment of the Penn Station Project.)

One day I figured out that there was a shortcut through a dirty, almost deserted hallway with exposed pipe.  It’s usually full of wheeled carts carrying piles of trash bags, which had me initially assuming that it was a service entrance for the custodial staff.  I soon discovered that it was a perfectly legitimate path to cross the station, but one so hidden and dirty that people easily overlook it.  Some of the wiser homeless people in the station seem to have discovered this.

I love this space for many reasons, not least of which is that there are multiple signs alerting passers by that they are in the “Hilton Passageway.”  Did Hilton Hotels actually pay for this?  Is it an homage to Conrad Hilton?  Does it have nothing whatsoever to do with him?  I haven’t the slightest idea.  I love it too because of its quiet in a place where the crowds are maddening. It is my morning contemplation chamber, that little space between the train and the subway where I can think a little about the day stretched out before me.  At the end of the day its quiet squalor is a sign that I am about to go home and be delivered from the working world.

It is not a space for the faint of heart, though.  The pipes are exposed, and giant formations of lint and dirt sometimes sway in the wake of the blown in air that feels drained of oxygen and tastes like iron filings.  I feel terrible for the people who work on this level of the station, as they are deprived of oxygen and sunlight, and would not be surprised if decades of prolonged exposure didn’t turn them into Morlocks.  It is the ultimate rebuke to the decision to tear down the original Penn’s marbled glory.  Even though I have learned to love it, it’s really more a case of Stockholm Syndrome than anything else.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Need To Understand Soft Middle Of The Anti-abortion Movement

Like a lot of people, the shooting in Colorado Springs has shocked and horrified me.  As always happens after mass shootings and terror attacks, the takes have been hot and unending.  One thing that has struck me, however, is the depiction of those opposed to abortion.  While I understand why pro-choice people would lash out in anger after this attack, they are repeating the common mistake of failing to understand their opponents.

I have been involved in a few protests over the years, but the first ones I ever attended were anti-abortion protests.  There was one every year in my hometown that involved long lines of people on the two main streets (forming a cross) holding signs that read “Abortion Kills Children.” I participated in that protest at least twice.  My parents both were and are strongly against legalized abortion, and they still attend anti-abortion events.  Other members of my family are also very vocal and politically active on the issue.  My views on the subject have changed, although I understand where my family members are coming from, even if I don’t agree with them.

One thing I have noticed, ever since I was a child, was that the ways that many pro-choice activists characterized opponents of abortion seemed completely alien to my experience.  One accusation I kept hearing was that those against abortion were simply misogynistic men who wanted to control women. This surprised me, since the biggest and most passionate opponents of abortion I knew then (and now) were women.  These were also not meek, submissive women, either.  The men I knew didn’t seem particularly patriarchal in their attitudes compared to the rest of the male population.  By the way, I am not discounting in any way that criminalizing abortion carries with it an attempt to control and limit women.  However, to view opposition to abortion only through that lens is a distortion that will make it extremely difficult to understand the resilience and power of the anti-abortion movement.

My concern with abortion in my youth had everything to do with growing up in the John Paul II Catholic Church.  It was the one and only political issue that the priests would speak on from the pulpit, and they spoke on it incessantly.  I swear it was the subject of every other homily I heard, and I heard a lot of them.  I was a very devout believer, and my relationship with the abortion issue, like a lot of other Catholics in places like rural Nebraska, had a lot more to do with my religious beliefs than my political orientation.  On pretty much every issue except for abortion, I was liberal, rather than conservative. As my more Leftist political outlook flowered in high school, I tried to see protecting fetuses as part of a greater concern with social justice and protecting the powerless from harm.  That's at least how I tried to reconcile two sets of beliefs that seemed at odds with each other.  Over time my mind changed, but it took awhile.

Of course, a lot of other people with similar upbringings have yet to change their minds.  When I visited home this summer, I was struck and surprised by the sheer volume of anti-abortion billboards, both on the roads and in the towns.  It was part of the landscape, like the clouds in the sky.  I get the feeling that in that part of the world being anti-abortion is just another way of expressing allegiance to the local identity, as is being conservative, as in "of course I'm not pro-choice, I'm not some sort of weirdo from back East!"  This is the soft middle of the anti-abortion side, the sector you don't hear much about.

Events in Colorado Springs have shown how there is also a violent, extremely radical sector of this movement, one that acts with bullets and bombs.  Unlike what some folks have implied, the soft middle doesn't go for this.  One close family relation of mine lives not far from Wichita, and even though she is very active in supporting pro-life causes, she took to social media to denounce the murder of Dr. Tiller. I'm a little put off by a lot of popular commentary on the anti-abortion movement, because it lumps people together with vastly different viewpoints, even if they agree on making abortion illegal.

Abortion is an issue I have shied away from discussing here, both because it is probably the issue with the least fruitful public dialogue attached to it, and also because I do feel a twinge of shame at breaking from my family members on an issue they probably care about more than any other.  While I tend to take the pro-choice side these days, I am tired of the blanket stereotypes and bad faith when it comes to interpreting the motives of abortion opponents.  I am sure it makes those who want to keep abortion legal feel good about themselves, but it won't help them if their goal is to actually advance their cause.