Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Yacht Rock And Middle Age Softening

My favorite Yacht Rock episode: Steely Dan vs. The Eagles

I turned 40 last September, but it's only been in the last couple of months that middle age has seemed real. Aches and pains don't leave me, but set up shop like unwelcome squatters in my body. Every few days my right ankle feels like somebody whacked it with an aluminum bat. I don't even remember what minor injury brought this on, but the pain isn't going away. My knees creak and crackle when I sit down, my back is as stiff as Al Gore when I wake up in the morning. I still exercise and eat reasonably well, but those habits don't seem to be working as well at holding off my thickening midsection as they used to.

What I am noticing even more than my softening belly are my softening tastes. Yeah sure every now and then I want to put "Loose" by the Stooges on the hi-fi an let 'er rip, but I am just as likely to want to put "Right Down The Line" by Gerry Rafferty on the turntable. My activities this holiday weekend are a good example of my middle aged softening. On Memorial Sunday I had about an hour of time to myself while my daughters were upstairs failing to take a nap. (I tried, I really did.) I spent it sitting out on my screened-in back porch, drinking coffee and reading while listening to a genre of music known as Yacht Rock. (More on that in a bit)

There was a time not long ago when my Memorial Day weekends were very different. I remember traveling to Atlanta or Michigan to meet up with old friends while draining pints, growlers, and sixers of the finest brew. Before that, in grad school, it was three days of the same, just with more people and less travel. Things have changed, obviously, especially the music.

I was first introduced to the concept of Yacht Rock about a decade ago through the great and eponymous web series. (The guys from it now have their own music podcast, well worth checking out.) Yacht Rock is best described as the smooth LA rock music of the late 70s and early 80s best embodied by Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Hall and Oates, Steely Dan, and Toto. I knew the music already, I just hadn't really conceptualized it yet. The show made me laugh, mostly because of how seriously it took this music, which I thought (Steely Dan apart) was irredeemably middle of the road and cheesy.

Somewhere, somehow along the line I actually started listening to the music for its own sake, and even enjoying it.  While the likes of 10cc, Gerry Rafferty, Fleetwood Mac, and songs such as Player's "Baby Come Back" aren't Yacht Rock by the narrow definition offered by JD Ryznar and the other creators of the show,* I added them to my rotation, too. I chalk it all up to my middle-age softening. At this point I am going to give myself over to it and stop fighting it, since there's nothing more pathetic than an old person trying to be young.

With all that in mind, here's my top five list of Yacht Rock songs (narrowly defined):

5. The Doobie Brothers "What A Fool Believes"

Here's the song that kicked off the Yacht Rock web series, and with good reason. The Doobies were yer typical 70s blues rockers, with a few hits to their name. In the late 70s they sold their souls to the Yacht Rock devil, going high on the charts by sanding the sharp corners and replacing their bluesy funk with something folks call "the Doobie bounce." Michael McDonald's otherworldly voice when he sings "Wise man has the power" launched a thousand yacht rock songs.

4. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald "This Is It"

Now here's some smooth music with a little bite. It starts with Kenny and Michael, the two towering figures of Yacht Rock, singing all soft and coy, but then Kenny lets loose with some spunky emoting while Michael McDonald blasts forth with his tell-tale voice that "this is it!" How could you not believe him? This is possibly the smoothest song about fighting ever written.

3. Michael Jackson "Human Nature"

Few people know this, but Toto is ALL OVER Michael Jackson's Thriller album. Eddie Van Halen famously plays the solo on "Beat It," but it's Steve Lukather with the kickin' guitar riff that drives the song. On "Human Nature," however, the music is as smooth as the water of a placid cove. The gloved one singing on the bridge combined with the crystaline synth is awful dang pretty, like a sailboat on the blue horizon.

2. Michael McDonald "I Keep Forgetting"

This is probably the only Yacht Rock song to give birth to a gangta rap classic. ("Regulate" by Warren G and Nate Dogg.) McDonald was the king of Yacht Rock, lending his lead vocals to the Doobie Brothers and his backing vocals to just about everyone else, from Steely Dan to Christopher Cross. (His ubiquity gave rise to a classic SCTV sketch.) In the 80s he had a chance to show off his talents as a solo artist, and this song does not disappoint. His, shall we say, "unique" voice has the perfect bed of spooky electric piano and busy eletrobass to rest on here.

1. Steely Dan "Deacon Blues"

Let's get a little meta, shall we? Here is a Yacht Rock song about, of all things, being old. Steely Dan was my Yacht Rock gateway drug, I started digging them after a friend made me a mix tape (remember those?) with some Dan deep cuts on it. While the first Steely Dan records were not completely smooth, 1977's Aja was as smooth as Cary Grant in Charade. "Deacon Blues" is sung from the perspective of an aging jazz musician, one know living on the "suburban streets," never having found fame, but still playing his music. It contains some of Donald Fagen's best lines, from "I cried when I wrote this song/ Sue me if I play too long" to "They've got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/ They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/ Call me Deacon Blues." It's a song about sticking to your guns and being yourself, but from the perspective of wise middle age rather than callow youth. For that reason I love it.

*They see Yacht Rock as something very specific, more scene-related than sound related. The same studio musicians played on the narrowly-defined Yacht Rock stuff, and it had a heavy jazz influence

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Track of the Week: The Cars "Magic"

It got well over 90 degrees here in Jersey today; summer has surely come.  As the asphalt gets sticky and the sweat rolls off of my head, my thoughts often turn to summers past. One sure way to really spark those memories is with a "summer song." In the internet age it has now even become a regular things for folks to publicly discuss what they think will be "the song of the summer."

In 1984, one of those songs was "Magic" by The Cars, which my local hits station would play for many summers after 1984. While that station was very milquetoast in its playlists, the DJs were still allowed leeway to play songs they liked of an older vintage. Central Nebraska was thankfully late to the game of corporate radio. (Alas, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would finally change that.) This song thus evokes summers growing up generally, and not just the summer of 1984.

"Magic" comes from the Cars' Heartbeat City album, which saw them shedding the angles and nerves of their New Wave-ish past in favor of a bright pop sound perfectly made for the airwaves of the Reagan era.  (Mutt Lange was the producer, fer cryin' out loud.) It was of its time, but an example of that shimmery sound wedded to good songs and interesting ideas. (Prince managed to do this the best on Purple Rain.)

It's a song that announces its bid to be a summer song from the start, as the first word of the song is in fact "summer." Of course, it's not just, or even mostly the words that make this an ideal summer song. The guitars burst forth, more processed than a McDonald's value meal. The bass is slappy and up front. The drums are metronomic and gated like an Atlanta suburb. The synthesizers are bright and whistle on the catchy "uh oh it's magic" hook in a way that's to get out of my head.

Since I'm a teacher, summer is actually a pretty magical time. The first three weeks or so feel like being a World War I soldier on leave from the trenches, but gradually I start feeling relaxed and happy, even if I am knee deep in toddler toys and spend each afternoon praying they'll take a nap. Hearing this song reminds me of those glorious childhood summers, the ones before I turned 13 and started doing summer jobs in the corn fields. Those summers seemed endless, and were probably the least stressful days of my life. A busy day was one where I mowed the back yard for two bucks then walked down to the Walgreen's to buy five packs of baseball cards, which I would take home and dutifully organize. Little did I know then how good I had it.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The White Man's Party

A friend who lives in Texas recounted an interesting story in an email to me today. While waiting in line at the airport, he overheard a conversation about Trump from Trump supporters. Evidently one of them thought that the wall with Mexico was necessary, because without it the influx on Latin immigrants would make it so that the Democrats would always win, and that then the country would be a one party state on the road to dictatorship.

The latter claim is, on its face, ridiculous. However, this person's assumptions say a lot. He assumes, essentially, that anyone who isn't white will be voting for the Democrats, and that his party would rather dwindle into irrelevance rather than appeal to those voters. At base, he is consciously or unconsciously thinking that the Republican Party is the white man's party, and that he wants to keep it that.

It's easy to forget, but George W Bush won substantial percentages of the Asian and Latino vote back in 2004.  There was a time when it looked like the Republicans were going to use values issues and promises of prosperity to lure voters for these groups into their tent. With Trump as the nominee, that has now obviously changed. His appeal is primarily to ethno-nationalism, which is why working class people of color are not attracted by all of his tough talk on trade.

By embracing Trump, the GOP may finally be admitting that they are indeed the White Man's Party. It's not so unprecedented in American life. Back in 1868, when the Democrats were fighting Reconstruction and appealing to the racist whites who now back Trump, they proclaimed themselves thusly:

Of course, times have changed. The shifting demographics feared by that man in Texas make this strategy more difficult. Then again, the reactionaries today are using one of the same weapons used by their Redeemer forbears: vote suppression.

Trump is certainly doing nothing to disabuse anyone of the notion that he represents the white man's party. His campaign even announced that it would only be considering white men to be Trump's veep, since anything else would be "pandering." This statement and Trump's rampant misogyny point to the fact that he is indeed the leader of the white MAN's party, not white people's party. You may wonder if this is a winning strategy, considering that it potentially alienates white women. The thing is, intersectionality cuts both ways, and also interacts with whiteness.  A majority of white women voted for Mitt "binders full of women" Romney, and I would hazard to guess that white women, when it comes to politics, are more invested in whiteness than in their gender.

The fact that a majority of my white brethren will probably vote for Trump in the general election is deeply upsetting to me.  It's also a reminder that, as others more famous than I have said, treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

My Star Wars Day Wish

Today is May the 25th, and every Star Wars fan worth their salt knows that today, not May the fourth, is the true Star Wars day. It was on this day in 1977 that Star Wars was first released to theaters, and the world has not been the same ever since.  Despite that fact, it is extremely difficult to obtain an official, legally distributed copy of that film, which seems mighty odd that the local Target's bins are practically bursting over with the likes of That's My Boy and Fantastic Four. The only version available is one altered in key respects by George Lucas after twenty years of tinkering.

The crime of this came back to me recently when I taught an intercession course at my school about Star Wars. One thing I wanted to bring across was how and why so many people were wowed so spectacularly when they first saw it in the theater. I set that up by showing parts of other sci-fi films that preceded it in the 1970s, like THX 1138, Silent Running, and Logan's Run as well as the Flash Gordon serials that had been a big influence on Lucas. I decided to show them only the first reel of the film (even though we were seeing it on DVD), and then for us to analyze it.  And while I knew that there were not the kinds of severe alterations in the first reel that so badly alter later scenes (especially in Mos Eisley), I knew that there were small changes, some barely detectable. That fact bugged me, since it was hard even for me to know what was there in 1977, and what was not.  I realized that my students could not actually see the thing in 1977 that had carried such a heavy impact.

Forget all the whining by Star Wars fans like myself upset over "ruined childhoods."  In the first place, my childhood was ruined a long time ago by an abusive kindergarten teacher. In the second place, it's what posterity has lost that is more important. I came to realize that the vast majority of my students had never actually seen the original Star Wars, only the special editions. The original had been disappeared before they were even born.  Considering the massive cultural importance of Star Wars, it is a crime against history to suppress or destroy such an important cultural artifact. It would be like painting a permanent mustache on the Mona Lisa, or putting a neon sign in the background of Starry Night. It is my most fervent Star Wars day wish that the powers that be release a remastered version of the original 1977 version of the film on blu-ray.  If they want to include it with the special editions, or versions with different sound mixes for the true obsessive, all the better.  Perhaps that way George Lucas' feelings can be spared. Hell, I'll even allow them to call the original version "bonus materials" if that makes him happy. I would pay a pretty penny for it, like a lot of other Star Wars fans, so Disney, 20th Century Fox (who still owns distribution rights to the first films), and Lucas will all benefit. Despite rumors that it's going to happen, for some reason I doubt it.

Above all, I wish for a remastered 70mm version of Star Wars released to the theaters. I first wrote about that last year at this time, and plan on making the same plea every Star Wars day to come.


The film podcast The Projection Booth is a must-listen for me, and they've termed this month "maudit May."  They have been discussing films so snakebitten or unfortunate that they cannot be seen, such as Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind, which the master never completed.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that Star Wars is their film this week.  Wasn't the world saturated with Star Wars, and DVD copies easy to find?  After that initial thought, I remembered the reason: Star Wars cannot be seen in its original 1977 version, which George Lucas has kept under lock and key, and which he has even claimed no longer exists.  (I call shenanigans on that one.)  Instead we are stuck with constant revisions of the original film, which I can only see now with cheesy add-ons made with low-grade 1990s CGI.  This great film now has a completely clunky, idiotic scene with Jabba the Hutt jammed in where Han is forced to step on Jabba's tail to account for the gratuitous retrofitting of a fake-looking CGI slug, in addition to all kinds of silly crap happening during the trip into Mos Eisley spaceport.

The new sequels make me mildly excited.  You know what would make me truly elated?  Seeing a restored, remastered, 70mm version of the 1977 original in stereo sound on the big screen.  This would still technically be a "special edition" because the original, first release of the film in May of 1977 had multiple sound mixes, both mono and stereo.  The stereo mix was a bit of a rush job, and Lucas actually preferred the mono mix because it was more refined.  (Little known fact, the sound mix was still being put together just days before the film hit theaters.)

Seeing the original film with cleaned up sound fit for modern theater speakers in glorious 70mm would truly be something else.  I saw the 1997 special edition at the now demolished Indian Hills theater in Omaha in 70mm on a towering, concave screen built for Cinerama.  Despite the annoying additions to the film, it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life.  Please Disney, get this right and give the people what they want: the movie they fell in love with (or at least the closest we can come to it) looking fantastic and sounding great in glorious analog film.  There are a lot of people who will put cash on the barrelhead for this.  If that isn't motivation enough, at least bring back one of the most culturally significant films ever made and stop allowing it to be suppressed in favor of a far inferior version.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Stop With The Narrative That Trump Is The Candidate Of The Downtrodden

In 1970, after the Kent State shooting, construction unions staged demonstrations attacking the peace movement, praising Nixon, and espousing "love it or leave it" nationalism. That nationalism is what drives Trumpism today, don't let anyone tell you it's all about economic despair.

I've written about this before, but I keep hearing the same damn false narrative and I have to respond to it. Today my friend and fellow (much more noteworthy) blogger Chauncey DeVega sent me a Thomas Frank article from a couple of months ago where Frank makes the same false argument that Trump's support lies in the economic slide of the white working class, not in racism. On its face, this just isn't true. If Trump is about soothing economic pain, why are the black and Latino working classes, who have suffered WORSE than the white working classes not voting for Trump en masse? Why aren't they energized by his language about "trade deals"? I mean, the answer is so obvious that I don't even have to say it. A man who does little to disavow the support of the Klan and who wants to deport millions of Latino immigrants and incites hatred against them is not going to get those votes.  There are also a lot of working class whites who do not support Trump, despite living in the Rust Belt. Trump's working class white support also tends to run high in the South, where whites are already disproportionately Republican compared to the rest of the country, with race a big element in that.

It pains me to go after Frank, because he has consistently been one of my favorite political observers. I think this is a case of someone trying too hard to say "see I told you so!" Frank has been saying for years that the Democrats' shift to the middle of economic issues has enabled Republicans to pick off Democratic voters with culture war issues. There's a lot to that, but Frank is misinterpreting the implications when it comes to his thesis. He wants to hit the Democrats for their failures, but Trump's support has a lot less to do with those failures and a lot more to do with the culture war that Frank did not talk about: nationalism.

Frank has discussed so called "values voters" in the past, but the current election has shown us that the real culture war, the one that has sustained itself since Nixon, is not over gay rights and abortion, but American identity. In the early 1970s hard hatted construction workers attacked anti-war protestors and praised Nixon, waving the flag and proclaiming their loyalty to the nation. After all, the one great privilege traditionally conferred by whiteness on lower-order whites is full citizenship, to be "free white and 21." Those hard hats thought of America as "their" country. Forty years later, the Tea Party movement stripped away a lot of the "values" issues to reveal naked nationalism inflamed by the "Kenyan Usurper" being in the White House.

I am sure there are plenty of white workers who think that Trump will somehow bring the jobs back, but they like him because they see him bringing jobs back for people LIKE THEM. Frank says that white working class voters aren't attracted to Trump because they want to support a flaming racist. That may well be true, but that does not change the fact that race is still a huge part of their support. They are well aware of his hate against Latinos and associations with white nationalists. Here's the deal: whites who are anti-racist look at that and refuse to back Trump, no matter his policies. Even those Trump voters who do not consciously respond to his racism are willing, consciously or not, to support him knowing full well that he is a white supremacist. That are okay with that, at the very, very least.

Most of his supporters, however, are willingly or even enthusiastically accepting the white supremacy as part of the total package. Look people, Trump voters are not new. They are the same people who voted for George Wallace, Jesse Helms, and David Duke. (While Duke lost the Louisiana governor's race, a majority of whites voted for him.)  Going back at least to Andrew Jackson there has been a place for the politics of white racial resentment pitched to the white working class, and working class whites more than happy to turn out in support. Trump is part of that tradition, but has incited more support than the likes of Pat Buchanan due to his novelty, political savvy, and media manipulation.

There are plenty of working class whites who do not respond to Trump's poison. Those are the voters that Democrats need to cultivate, the ones willing to be part of a multi-racial coalition. As far as those whites that don't, they just aren't needed anymore, and it would be insulting to the people of color who vote Democrat for the party to court that vote.  The Democrats rode the New Deal coalition of white workers, southern whites, African Americans, and educated liberals to victory for over three decades. That coalition was broken (after years of weakening) by Nixon's Southern Strategy and culture war appeals. Now the Democrats can forge a new, equally powerful coalition. African Americans, Latinos, Asians, the youth of all races, educated liberals, a big chunk of white workers, and a large portion of white women (still not a majority) vote for the Democrats. Instead of wooing whites who cling to skin privilege, the Democrats should build this other coalition, which has the potential to leave Trump battered come November.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mopey Mid-80s Pop Music

In lieu of a track of the week this week, I thought I'd write a little something about a very strange subgenre: mopey mid-80s pop. The music hitting the charts in the 1984-1986 period rarely sounds timeless to our ears today, considering how it incorporated production techniques that have aged poorly. Pop music today is produced within an inch of its life, but it sounds like a Ferrari.  Pop tunes like "All About That Bass" are the aural equivalent of the CGI cities being destroyed at the end of superhero movies: able to be enjoyed purely on technical merits, even if they're pretty soulless. By comparison, those mid-80s songs sound like a 1985 Datsun hatchback with a loose muffler. But the gauzy layers of nostalgia allow me to enjoy them, regardless.

In the midst of the bold, over the top productions of the mid-80s that reflected the Reagan era's confidence and materialism, there were sour notes. Many of them come from British artists, which might say something about the popular response to Reagan as opposed to Thatcher.  Here are some of those songs, overproduced and shiny in many cases, but nowhere near "Walking on Sunshine."

Mike + The Mechanics "Silent Running"

This song is the inspiration for this list. I heard it mentioned on the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast last week, and remembered the uncanny feelings this song would give me as I heard it coming out of the radio on a dark 80s night. As you would expect from a band including one of the members of Genesis, there's a strange prog rock shaggy dog story about some kind of dystopic future involving space travel. It's amazing that anything so obscure made it so high on the charts, but the synths and effects-laden guitar fit right in with 1985.

Simply Red, "Holding Back The Years"
Man, this has got to be one of the biggest downers to make it big in the days of hairspray and spandex, the 80s equivalent of "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted." Despite the overly smooth accompaniment and soprano sax, I actually really like this song. It reminds me of rainy spring afternoons and having to stay inside during recess. On those days I would feel a kind of wistful sadness. Yes, I was a strange kid.

Wham! "Careless Whisper"

Speaking of sax, this song has perhaps the most iconic sax riff of its era, and that's saying something. Coming at the end of the Make It Big album, it throws cold water on an affair that began with the Big Brother Reagan Loves Me opener "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go." Now George Michael is telling us in a distraught voice that "I'm never gonna dance again." Just 40 minutes before he had yelled out "take me dancing tonight!" Perhaps the whole transition is a bigger metaphor for the exuberance of neoliberalism souring in later years.

Human League, "Human"

Even in 1986 I thought it was silly that a group called Human League would put out a song called "Human."  It's a far cry from their breakout music of the early 80s, which delights in the uptempo fun of synth pop even when telling the tale of heartbreak that is "Don't You Want Me." Nope, this song is just mopetastic. So much so that I think it was created in a lab for songs to be played in the waiting rooms of dentists' offices.

Mr Mister "Broken Wings"

If there's anything sillier than the Human League putting a song out called "Human," it's a band calling itself Mr Mister. It's easy for me to laugh now, but I loved this song when it came out. "Broken Wings" coincided with the earliest stirrings of my adolescence and all the emotional volatility that it implied. Perhaps that's why all this mopey music appealed to me.

The Cars "Drive"

The Cars had managed a wonderful alchemy where they combined the sounds of the new wave and power pop underground with mainstream rock. Their late-70s debut was all killer and no filler. By the mid-80s the Cars had adapted their sound to the times and had a bunch of hits. Unlike the sunny fun of "Magic," "Drive" was deadly serious. Sung by Benjamin Orr instead of Ric Ocasek, it featured shimmery synths and little in the way of guitar. It's a song about seeing your former lover cracking up after they've pushed you away, a mopey topic indeed. Despite all that, this song has a soft spot in my heart because it was an early point of discussion with my wife and I when I first met her. (Two people that hung up on 80s pop culture were meant to be.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

I Didn't Lose The Bern, The Bern Lost Me

This year has been a first in my life as a voter. I am going to be withdrawing support from a candidate I was once very excited about due to the actions of his supporters. Since my one little vote will never sway an election, I always vote with my conscience, since that's how I'm able to sleep at night.  For a long time, despite my doubts about his capability of wielding the power of the presidency, my conscience was with Bernie Sanders. I consider myself to be a social democrat and his program to temper the excesses of capitalism and use the state to improve the lives of its citizens by effectively redistributing wealth was exactly what I'd been waiting to hear from the Democratic Party.

Now my conscience doesn't feel so clear, and it has little to do with Hillary Clinton, whom I mostly liked then and now (while still maintaining a healthy skepticism.) The behavior of Sanders and his supporters is exposing some major problems with certain sectors of the left. Early on I dismissed the "Bernie Bro" as an invention, but my time online has shown me that Sanders supporters tend to be excessive in their unwillingness to hear criticism of their candidate and aggressive in their treatment of others.  Whenever he fails at the polls, or fails to capture the votes of crucial parts of the Democratic coalition (African Americans in particular), there's always an excuse or a conspiracy theory. 

This week, with the violent displays at the Nevada Democratic state convention, things have gotten much uglier. I am also hearing talk of major disruptions at the party convention in Philly this summer by Bernie supporters.  This is happening despite the fact that he has no real way to win the nomination, and Donald Trump has emerged as the Republican nominee. The stakes of this kind of stuff are thus very high. 

I think I have discovered the conceit that lies at the base of all of this. Many Sanders supporters see him as the living and breathing embodiment of the popular will. This means that all who oppose or disagree with him are the forces of corporate evil or dupes. This explains the friend on Facebook who compared HRC to Reagan, as if the architect of the first real go at a national health insurance program was the equivalent of the man who railed against "socialized medicine."   

Furthermore, if Sanders is indeed the embodiment of the popular will, the only explanation for his defeat must be corruption and treachery. Hence the media gets blamed, or super delegates, or Democratic Party chicanery.

OK, Sandroids, you finally wore me down. I actually have detected a conspiracy! On random Tuesdays, Democratic Party voters are congregating scattered locations and going into covered booths where no one can see what they're doing. I've discovered that they are marking ballots that are kept secret, and that they are conspiracy to mark those ballots for Hillary Clinton. What's more, a majority of the Democrats actually appear to be in on it! How treacherous!

In all seriousness, it is hard for me to make common cause with people who treat politics like a religious cult. My days of dogma are long gone. When the primaries finally come here to New Jersey in June, I will not be so sure who to pull the lever for. Sanders supporters have themselves to thank for that.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Untangling Class, Race, and "The Good Old Days"

Quite a few trees have been felled and servers burned out in the cause of explaining the support for Donald Trump's presidential bid. As is usually the case with complex questions, people are looking for monocausal answers. Some in the mainstream media have gone out of their way not to talk about racism as a factor in Trump support, preferring to see him as the candidate of downtrodden working class whites. Others (more rightly) have highlighted the obvious face that white racial resentment is a huge element of Trump's support, but also tend to see talk of formerly middle class workers longing for the "good old days" to be a fig leaf for white supremacist yearnings. Though the latter group may be much more correct in their outlook, they also conveniently set aside the legitimate reasons so many would in fact pine for "the good old days." Not understanding that will make it very difficult to defeat Trump.

In the first place, the white racial resentment driving Trumpism is obvious, and the evidence for its strength grows with each passing day. A recent article in Salon shows this very starkly. Even without the statistics handy, the fact that working class people of color are not supporting Trump is a pretty glaring sign that his appeal is in no way purely or even mostly class based. As the article shows, Trump supporters are more likely to hold negative views of African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and the LGBTQ than even other Republicans, and higher opinions of white people as well.

At the same time, Trump supporters look to the past, when things were better for "people like us." In my mind that's why I call them Archie Bunkers. If you remember All In The Family, Archie was always railing against the same people Trump voters don't like, except for Muslims, who had yet to become as vilified by his ilk. Every show started with he and his wife Edith singing "Those Were The Days," a song that longed for a former time when "men were men" and there was no "welfare state." Then as now, this pining for the past before the social revolutions of the 1960s is politically reactionary when put in those terms. Archie himself benefitted from the white affirmative action aspects of the New Deal, from his union job to a house whose mortgage one could assume was backed by the FHA. It's when others benefitted from the welfare state that he got mad, a pretty typical occurrence after the Great Society among Nixon's "silent majority."

But the old Archie Bunker still lived in the postwar world of high paying blue collar jobs and a growing middle class. Large swathes of the country in the last forty years have experienced great economic decline, from the Great Plains farm belt to Appalachia to the Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakes. The Rust Belt declines have had an even harder impact on African Americans (just look at Detroit, Cleveland, and Flint), but it is working class whites who have leveraged these declines into Trumpist anger. Whereas deindustrialization kept other groups from getting the entree into the middle class that they sought, the same factors have been pushing whites in many areas out of the middle class that had just been entered into by their parents' generation. The anger over losing has been transferred onto the "other," which Trump has exploited. Loss of economic power can be blamed on immigrant laborers and foreign trade, not on the vicissitudes of capitalism.

When a lot of older white folks answer poll questions and say life in America was better before 1965, they're not necessarily pining for an older social order. My own hometown in the farm belt of Nebraska is a place that was certainly a lot better off economically before the massive blows to the farm economy in the 1980s. However, it is possible for voters to be driven by BOTH racial resentment and economic privation.  The latter is not imaginary, and the notable spike in deaths caused by drugs, alcohol, and suicide in working class whites shows the human toll this is all taking. But a lot of the same people who are upset at seeing their towns crumble as the jobs have moved away also have plenty of hate in their hearts and cling to a threatened white supremacy which they used to count on.  Working class people of color continue to have it a lot worse, but the discrepancy is not enough to satisfy the need by many white people in this country to be in a special slot on the hierarchy.

The thing is, a lot of those whites unhappy at the economic turn are not turning to hate. The Democratic party has to reach those voters. I am not making the usual call for Democrats to appeal to working class whites at all costs, because those days are over and the Democrats ought to prioritize those loyal to them. Instead, I want the party to solidify its connections to those working class white voters willing to be in a multiracial coalition. While there is a stereotype that the white working class is overwhelmingly Republican, that is actually skewed by the numbers from the South. Outside of the South, it's much less the case. The Democrats can use the "good old days" narrative in a more positive way by arguing for worker protections, strong unions, and support for college and child care. Trump is actually handing them an opportunity, I only hope that they take it.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Track of the Week: Beach Boys "Hang On To Your Ego"

As readers of this blog know, changes in the seasons have a big effect on my emotional state. Here in mid-May we are in a time of year I've always loved: late spring. It's warm but not yet hot, baseball is starting to get serious, and school is almost out. There are albums that I never listen to other times of the year but spin incessantly in late spring. The most notable is probably the Beach Boys' magnum opus Pet Sounds. It's an album that's light years ahead of stuff like "Fun Fun Fun," famously inspiring the Beatles to try to top it on Sgt Pepper.

The music fits this time of year, since it's about life transitions. Beneath the sparkly, beautiful surface are words of doubt and sadness. Evidently on "Hang On To Your Ego" things got a little too real, and Mike Love forced a change in Brian Wilson's lyrics over the same backing track, which appears on the album as "I Know There's An Answer." "Hang On To Your Ego" is thus one of the great deleted tracks of all time, as far as I'm concerned.  Instead of bland words about self-discovery, it's a warning against losing yourself to outside forces. While people tend to focus on it as giving caution to those who use LSD, the lyrics are mostly about people and the social pressures they exert. Usually songs on that subject are too adolescent or simple-minded, but this one has an air of wisdom about it.

The best part, of course, is the music. The sounds are surreal and psychedelic without being tacky. Some are so fittingly odd, like the bumblebee hum of the giant bass harmonica paired with a banjo, that I can't listen to this song passively. More than once this week I've had the windows of my car open and this song on the stereo, breathing deep the fecund late spring air and enjoying a quiet moment of grace.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Cranky Bear Has An Election Pep Talk For Us

[Editor's note: after a long week of work I am exhausted and will hand over blogging duties to Cranky Bear, my rather passionate and impolitic friend. Cranky's views do not necessarily reflect those of this blog or Werner Herzog's Bear.]

Cranky Bear coming at you, with a big ass bottle of imperial oatmeal stout, because sometimes the Crankster feels like being sophisticated. Well folks, this it. Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. A lot of folks are understandably worried about this. Hell, I am too. A crypto-fascist who has brought white supremacy, hatred of Muslims, and nativist eliminationism into the political mainstream and is now one step closer to the presidency is certainly someone to be worried about.

But here's the deal. A lot of y'all are worrying in the wrong ways.  I hear you say "Oh my God, Trump is gaining in the polls! Oh my God, lotsa Bernie voters are going to stay home in the general election! Oh my God, Trump keeps lying/saying bigoted things/acts like an ass, but his campaign isn't sunk yet!"

Y'all are worrying wrong because you're doing it so damn passively. To paraphrase US Grant's words to his subordinates about Lee: stop worrying about what Trump is doing, and worry a lot more about what you're gonna do to him.  Stop worrying about Trump becoming president, because it ain't gonna happen if you do what you need to do.

He won't be stopped by John Oliver or Samantha Bee. He won't be stopped by being caught in a lie, because everything that comes out of his garbage mouth is a lie. And he sure as shit won't be stopped by fighting with him on Twitter, as much as I enjoy Elizabeth Warren's sparring with the orange pumpkin of doom.  He won't be stopped by arguing with that dipshit you haven't talked to since high school on Facebook. Nope, he is going to be beaten when we all go out and organize organize organize until election day, when we and all the people we've organized go vote and turn this racist braggart into the thing he claims he'll never be: a loser.  All this other shit just don't matter. Get off yer ass, fer Chrissakes, and take to the goddam streets.

Are you people Democrats, or what? Your party used to get out the vote like a fucking champion. While I don't endorse the policies of Richard J Daley, a lot of his spirit was there in Chicago this spring when folks showed up and let Trump know that they would not be having his shit in their city. On your turf get your people out there and to the polls and the state level results will follow. If you're in deep red territory rally the troops and get them to keep the faith.

The Republicans can given you a massive opportunity on a big bright shiny platter, and you're wringing your little hands about it.  Fuck that. There has never been a more unpopular man to get the presidential nomination of a major party. So you love Bernie and don't like Hilary and don't want to get out the vote for her? Well I don't care.  Cut the shit and big on your big girl/boy pants and do what needs to get done. How the fuck else is your "revolution" gonna happen if the Congress is still being run by ideologues whose ideas are to the right of Attila the Hun? I mean, deep down, don't you want to wipe the smug look off of Paul Ryan's face? Even if you aren't crazy about Hilary, that'll certainly be worth it, right my Berniebros?

Put down your damn phone. Get off the fucking Twitter. Get off your Cheetos-enhanced asses and knock on some goddamn doors for a change. Let the orange shitlord and his hairpiece talk as much shit as they want, you go out and organize and BREAK him and the sycophantic assholes in his party come November. Make Mitch McConnell's turkey waddle chin quiver as he cries bitter tears of defeat. Be able to taunt your racist uncle on Facebook the day after the election. Trump and his army of troglodytes have put away the dog whistles and have come out of the sewers to openly proclaim their bigotry. MAKE THEM PAY.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Billboard Top Ten May 14, 1983

This is another post in my continuing series whereby I look at the top ten Billboard hits in a given year for the week I am writing in. This month we're going back to 1983, when 80s culture had truly solidified itself.

10. After The Fire "Der Kommissar"

The most revolutionary band of the 1970s didn't come from the United States or the UK, it came from Germany. Kraftwerk's influence on modern popular music might eclipse just about everybody this side of the Beatles and James Brown. In the early 80s, German music had a lot of cachet to it, which explains why one hit wonders After The Fire had their hit covering Falco's "Der Kommissar." This song is such a wonderful relic, from the maladroit "rap" at the start to the stiffly, Teutonically funky riff to the fruity synths. Alles klar, Herr Kommissar?

9. Laura Branigan "Solitaire"

There's a certain group of pop singers who were huge in their time but now largely forgotten, and Laura Branigan has got to be near the top of that list. "Self Control" was one of the most perfect 80s pop songs, but that legacy is lost. This is not at that level, but it has some layered synths and an air of melancholia about it that reminds me of late-period ABBA.

8. Prince "Little Red Corvette"

Seeing this song on the countdown makes me sad, thinking of the great talent we just lost. Prince may have made better songs, but "Little Red Corvette" might his best pop single. It's got groove, longing, and some interesting sounds that don't overpower the song. Prince, who always projected himself as the sexy lovehunter, plays the role of the broken-hearted romantic here, and he actually has me believing it.  Listening to this song after "Solitaire" and "Der Kommissar" is a striking lesson in just how far ahead of his contemporaries on the chart he was.

7. Irene Cara "Flashdance...What A Feeling"

It might sound weird now, but as the Reagan-era was entering its full flower, America fell in love with a movie about a steelworker who did erotic dancing. Despite the attempts of the Moral Majority, the sexual revolution, in the guise of Prince and Flashdance, could not be denied. The film could actually be interpreted as Reagan propaganda. Never mind the destruction of America's industrial towns, you can go on to be a star! This song is also an early entry into two very 80s genres: movie soundtrack songs and "inspirational" songs. I guess we all need a little inspiration to make it through the day in a world made of steel, made of stone.

6. Dexy's Midnight Runners "Come On Eileen"

I LOVED this song back in the spring of 1983. I was just first listening to the radio back then, and when this one came on I always cranked it up. Something about the fiddle riff just grabbed me. It's fun and bouncy, exactly the kind of song that a kid can love. Little did I know it was about lost innocence.  This song nevertheless gets 'em out on the dance floor to this very day; there's a joy here that's irresistible. Perhaps it's because the cold synths are here replaced by warm fiddle and banjo, and metronomic beats with a little bit o' swing.

5. Thomas Dolby "She Blinded Me With Science"

This song is proof that by 1983 the English New Wave bands who grabbed hold of MTV were able to parlay their video success into pop hits. This is a delightfully silly song, what with the old British dude yelling "Science!" and all kinds of wonky synthesizer sounds behind it. This will likely be the first and last synthesizered song about a mad scientist to hit the top ten.

4. Men At Work "Overkill"

It's easy to forget today, but Men At Work's Business as Usual was one of the top-selling albums of the 1980s, going platinum six times over. They combined album-oriented rock with a strong dose of New Wave nerviness, a winning combo in 1983. This song is not nearly as remembered today as "Down Under" and "Who Can It Be Now," but it still has its charms, including the requisite early-80s sax.

3. Greg Kihn Band "Jeopardy"

Hoo boy, now this right here is a relic. There's a little bit of 70s musk lingering in the electrofunk groove of "Jeopardy," one of the last vestiges of the polyester decade to land on the charts. It's also got a kind of jammy feel to it, very unlike a pop song. Not sure why this song went so high on the charts.

2. David Bowie "Let's Dance"

It's kinda crazy that Bowie and Prince are both on this countdown. On his Let's Dance record, Bowie hired the great Nile Rodgers to produce and decided to leave behind his experimental period and jump head first into 80s pop. While the other pop stuff he produced in the 80s was pure shite, this song is fantastic. Like "Come On Eileen," I delighted when it came on the radio, perhaps a sign that I liked old school, swinging dance rhythms. Bowie had earlier dabbled in soul music back in the mid-70s with "Young Americans," and I actually find "Let's Dance" superior because the sound isn't imitating anything, it sounds uniquely Bowie. This song makes me melancholy, both for Bowie's death, and the fact that he was not able to repeat the success of this formula on his other 80s records.

1. Michael Jackson, "Beat It"

Thriller was the first album I ever owned. When I brought the tape home from Kmart, I rewound side B so I could listen to "Beat It" first. It was the whole reason I wanted the album in the first place. We wouldn't have a boom box until the next year, so I played it on the 1970s portable tape recorder with zero bass my mom had while I ran and danced like a maniac around our semi-finished basement. It's notable that what was arguably the best rock song on the charts in 1983 was sung by a soul music superstar. Pairing Michael Jackson with Eddie Van Halen was the 80s equivalent of Louis Armstrong playing trumpet for Jimmie Rodgers. The tight beat is merciless and the Gloved One gives a tough vocal full of oomph and his unique electricity before Van Halen reels off one the craziest guitar solos ever to make it onto a number one hit.  Thirty-three years later I still love listening to this track.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Don't Adjunct

It finally appears that there is a growing awareness in American society of the crime of adjunct labor exploitation. Today Gawker did an extended piece (in a running series) about it. I remember a time when students in classes taught by adjuncts didn't even know what adjunct professors were.

It's May, which is when the so-called "secondary" academic job market is in full swing. In this job market positions are minimally advertised, if at all. In this market departments look at their ledger of courses marked "staff" in the system and are looking for someone to fill them. Whereas regular job searches can be painstaking, the secondary market can be quite haphazard.  A lot of the folks on the secondary market are just about to get their PhDs, but have struck out in the tenure track search. I remember the May of 2006 vividly, because I was one of those people. I remember the pure, unrefined fear for my future that I was feeling, and I empathize greatly with those feeling it right now.

All of a sudden, I went from someone who was unwanted to having four job interviews for temporary gigs and three job offers, all for "visiting" positions. Not good enough to score a campus interview in the regular search, I was suddenly a hot commodity on the secondary market. (This was during a time when enrollments were shooting up and before the crash of 2008. After that even the secondary market got dicey.) It was then that I started to realize just how much of the academic labor system was kept afloat by temporary labor. (None of the institutions where I matriculated relied on it much, so I had been shielded.)

During my visiting gig I realized that I was relatively lucky. A friend of mine adjuncted, which meant he taught the same number of courses as me, but got paid a little more than half as much (without benefits), meaning that he supplemented his income with classes at another local university and a part time job. There was no reason for this disparity, other than the fact that the school I worked for wanted a ready stable of cheap, on the spot labor.  (At least he got promoted to visitor the next year. Evidently some of the same folks who adjuncted are still there today, a decade later.)  While there and at another institution I soon observed that adjuncts are paid as low as the market will bear, and can have classes taken away from them at the last moment, meaning their standard of living is always in doubt.

The Gawker article has all kinds of adjunct horror stories, and I've heard and witnessed my share myself, even if I never adjuncted. I've heard and seen enough to know that scholars leaving their grad school days behind need to hear this message: don't adjunct.

Of course this is not absolute. You gotta eat, after all. But you should only do it for as little time as possible. You should spend your time while adjuncting finding ways to get jobs that aren't adjuncting.  This is not victim blaming, because it's no one's fault that they are an adjunct, it's the fault of a corrupt system that refuses to pay people a living wage for their labor.  If you're at a school with a unionization movement, join up and fight, but if a union is not in your future, start planning your escape.

You can't pull any yahoo off of the street and ask them to teach a college course, but adjuncts are paid and treated like, well, yahoos who are just pulled off of the street.  On an hourly basis you'd make more money doing practically anything else.  I get sad when I hear stories of long-time adjuncts who die destitute, and then I get angry, but then I get frustrated. Don't do that to yourself. You are highly educated and the economy is growing again.  There are paths out. I and a lot of people I know have found jobs outside of academia that involve better pay, more respect, and security. It's not easy to make this transition, but it's a helluva lot easier than being a "freeway flier."  You might love the life of the mind, but trust me, you can pursue that in your free time, too.  (That's what I do.) You might love being part of academia, but academia won't fix your broken tooth or pay for your retirement if you're an adjunct. It will put you on the street when it needs to. Academia has no loyalty to adjuncts, so it is absurd for temporary academic laborers to feel any sense of loyalty to academia.

When all is said and done, wretched adjuncting jobs will be around as long as there is a mass of people willing to take them. Once enough people refuse to spend their time being exploited like this, things will change. Until then, it'll just keep getting worse and worse. Adjuncting work not only keeps you poor and insecure, it helps maintain a system that keeps other people poor and insecure, too.  Don't be a sucker or a cautionary tale. Don't adjunct.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Track of the Week: Radiohead "Lucky"

This week brought the news of both Donald Trump's impending nomination and a new Radiohead song. I find the coincidence to be entirely fitting.

Of all the musical artists around, Radiohead has most directly addressed the alienation and absurdity of modern life. The lingering despair and lack of meaning that I experience in moments like being stuck in an airport terminal with some smarmy haircut on cable blaring their empty words on a big screen TV is the food for their art. In the aftermath of 9/11 I listened to OK Computer, Amnesiac, and Kid A as the only music that seemed to make sense. After Trump's electoral victory on Tuesday, I did the same.

So many songs on those albums are great, but only one gives me hope: "Lucky." It was first released on a benefit album for refugees from the war in Bosnia, and is fittingly about survival. Near as I can tell, it is about someone who survives a plane crash. Confronted with horror and the failure of the technology we rely on for our existence, the narrator feels "it's gonna be a glorious day." But the song ends with a note of doubt: "we're standing on the edge." The words are hard to discern in any case, what's more important is Johnny Greenwood's guitar. The mellotron dread of the song's beginning builds to a beautiful soaring lead by Greenwood, personifying the chilling thrill of surviving a brush with death. 

At times in my life when I've felt distressed I've laid on my back, closed my eyes, and waited for that sound to come out of the speakers and wash over me. Thank you Radiohead for coming back exactly when I needed you.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Trump And The Nationalist Moment

These last two days I have been profoundly depressed by the fact that Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, and that many members of that party are falling in behind him. Of course there are the usual academic leftists trolling that both sides are neoliberalism blah blah blah, but they are missing the point and the threat. As anyone could have predicted, the news media have also missed his fundamental nature, speaking of "blue collar anger" and "people left behind" without stating the obvious: Trump is an ethno-nationalist and that's why people vote for him. 
These groups, and so many others, act is if nationalism is not a vital force in American politics, when it has traditionally played a profoundly powerful role. Trump's brand of ethno-nationalism can be traced back to Andrew Jackson, the Know Nothings, Madison Grant, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. Like Jackson, he has managed to make that appeal broad enough to push close to the apex of power.  By getting the nomination, and even if he loses in a landslide, Trump has effectively legitimized this hateful brand of nationalism. Once a candidate, any candidate, gets a major party nod the media acts as if directly confronting them, rather than reporting "he said-she said" is beyond the pale.  

Just chew on that for a moment. A man who has called on a ban on all Muslims into this country (an unprecedented act of religious discrimination in this nation's history), a man who has demonized immigrants and called for a wall to be built with Mexico, a man who has called for an invasion of Iraq to confiscate its oil, a man who has made overtures to Vladimir Putin, a man who has called to murder the families of those deemed terrorists, will not be treated as a crackpot or bigot, but as a legitimate politician with ideas deserving respect and consideration. 

I don't think Trump is going to win, but I said the same thing months ago, and so can no longer be so sure of myself on this count. Any candidate with major party backing and a compliant media facing off against an opponent with potential scandals over her head still has a chance. Trump is also following a worldwide trend. Nationalism is on the march across the globe, evidence that the new globalist millennium predicted in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall was merely a temporary condition. Heck, I would date its end in 2001, giving that global world a maximum of twelve years.

In Europe the nationalist Freedom Party came in first place in the recent first round of presidential elections in Austria. In Germany, a country where nationalism was once considered outside the pale, the Alternative for Germany Party is gaining ground. In Britain a coming referendum may take the UK out of the EU, and Scotland narrowly decided against secession last year. In Eastern Europe Hungary and Poland have moved in a hard right nationalist direction. Most menacingly, Vladimir Putin has maintained power through claims of a return to nationalist greatness and the retaking of territory in the Ukraine.

A similar nationalist orientation is very apparent in other parts of the world, too. This is especially the case in Asia's two most populous nations. The BJP in India is an explicitly Hindu nationalist organization. Chinese leader Xi Jingping has emphasized Chinese nationalism. Heck, ISIS might be an international movement, but its goal is the creation of a new nation state.

I recently read a book about the creation of the post-WWI world order.  Those behind it really thought that they had created lasting peace in the world. It's something we can mock today, but in say 1927 it wouldn't have been so far-fetched. The major powers were limiting their arms and Germany appeared to have transformed itself into an economically healthy democracy. Of course, that all changed in the 1930s, and nations like Germany, Japan, and Italy decided that they had no use for the spirit of Locarno.  I fear in our own uncertain economic times with demagogues on the loose and nationalism rising that we are living in a similar era.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

What If? Trump's America In 2017

Trump Possibly Secures Presidency In Unprecedented Scenes In Washington

January 4, 2017

America has had contested election results before, in both 1876 and 2000, but nothing like in 2016.  As in both of those elections, the Republican candidate lost the popular vote, but ended up winning the election, and in both cases it was had to be decided outside of the voters or Congress.

It was clear on election night that Trump did not have a majority of popular votes. Voters in populous blue states like California and Trump's native New York made sure of that.  However, the electoral vote came down to a small number of swing states.  Controversial voter ID laws in several states, including Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Florida, were credited for Trump's victories there. In Ohio lines to vote in many urban areas lasted eight hours. In many areas voters complained of harassment by the Real Americans, a pro-Trump militia formed after an assassination attempt on the candidate in September. (His opponents called it a staged ploy, and the circumstances are still murky.)  Some precincts in Florida supposedly had their ballot boxes stuffed by Real American operatives, but Florida governor Rick Scott has refused to investigate.  Similarly, the North Carolina state government has refused to look into allegations of voter intimidation.

The Clinton campaign contested the results in several states. Attempting to sort it out, the Supreme Court met at the end of December, but deadlocked on a 4-4 decision, owing to the fact that Republicans in Congress have still not approved an Obama administration nominee. For over a week the capital stood in a state of suspended animation. Finally, this morning a brigade of Real Americans, escorted by members of the armed forces, marched on and occupied that capitol while Congress was debating possible solutions to the electoral impasse.

Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans are reported to have been taken to an undisclosed location.  A certain Colonel Pride of the marines has reportedly called Congress back into session, with the new rump Congress approving a hastily drawn up resolution calling for Trump to be installed as the next president of the United States.  There is still no word as to whether these soldiers had orders from higher up on the chain of command.  There has also been no word from President Obama, who has been away from Washington at Camp David. Speculation is rising that he has been put under detention by military authorities, but there still has been no firm word yet.

Neither Trump nor his representatives has yet said anything, but reliable sources report that he has left his Florida home and will soon be flying to Washington this evening, where Real Americans have planned a torchlit parade down the National Mall. Anonymous sources in the Clinton camp acknowledge that the former Secretary of State may be contemplating self-imposed exile.  At this hour there is a state of confusion in the capital, where tanks and armed guards have been appearing on the streets.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

When I Get Old Let Me Die During Baseball Season

This week I had the sad occasion to attend to funeral of a very closer friend of my wife's family. He was one of those people who was not related by blood, but as much or more a member of the family as any of my wife's blood relatives.  He'd been ailing for a long time, but never wavered in his love of the New York Yankees.  In fact, it was one of the first things mentioned by the priest in his funeral homily.  Although I am a Yankees hater in long standing, he was the kind of Yankees fan I respect: humble and committed. Whenever I saw him (which was often, since he lived next door to my in-laws) I knew that six months out of the year we'd have an easy topic of conversation: baseball. Even if his body was in bad shape and he needed a scooter to get around, he stayed up on his team.

In that respect he reminded me a lot of my dad's grandfather. Living in Nebraska, his connection to the game was more about the game itself, rather than major league team fandom.  Back in his day every small town in Nebraska like his (with only 250 people) had a town team, and he evidently played on it well into his 40s, and batted with a unique cross-handed style. He was also instrumental in the moment when my enjoyment of baseball in the abstract became an obsession.  In the spring of 1986 when I was 10 he stayed at our house for a couple of weeks while getting some treatments at the hospital. At first I resented this, since my parents gave him my bed and I had to sleep on the living room couch. Very quickly I got over it, and I enjoyed hearing his stories of growing up in rural Missouri in a time when cars were new (he was born in 1903) and life moved at a more deliberate pace.

It seemed every day when I came home from school he would be sitting in the recliner, watching a Cubs game on WGN. (Back then all of the Cubs' home games were still during the day.) He didn't watch because he was a Cubs fan, he watched because he just loved baseball so much. His habit then got me into the habit of watching Cubs games when I came home from school, and soon enough, I was hooked. During the next season I was buried under baseball cards and I would go to my sister's softball games and "call" them in a Harry Caray voice. (Oddly enough I never became a Cubs fan, and stuck with the Royals until my later betrayal.)

Like my wife's family friend, my grandfather died in April, just as baseball was returning. (I have a distinct memory of being sad at my grandfather's passing, then seeing in the paper that Bo Jackson had struck out five times in a game, and wondering why everything in life had to be so terrible.) At the funeral last week I had an odd but intense revelation: if I am so lucky to live to old age, I want to die during baseball season. The rituals of each game will be a calming balm to soothe me as I ready myself for the end. The memories wrapped up in the game, from my walk-off hit in Little League to taking my infant daughters to the ballpark, will be there with each pitch.