Monday, October 16, 2017

Billboard Top Ten: October 19, 1985

I've been spending a lot of late nights looking up old 80s music videos, and have found peak 80s to be in the 1984-1986 sweet spot. At this point the funk of the 70s had been completely erased, and Reagan's "morning in America" schtick was at its most popular. The top ten chart from this week in 1985 is just about as 80s as it gets.  On with the countdown!

10. Tears for Fears, "Head Over Heels"

By 1985 the post-punk British explosion and all that new wave jazz had evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) into a group like Tears for Fears. Their music was very poppy, but still personal and lyrically more deep than the average top 40 fare. (That's probably the reason it made it onto the Donnie Darko soundtrack.) At the time I really liked it.

9. Sting, "Fortress Around Your Heart"

This is another song I really dug back in '85. People forget what a big deal Sting was at this point, his name iconic as the other one-name-wonders Madonna and Prince. His solo music was not even as close to being as good as The Police, but this song had a little magic in it. The grayscale video and vibe of the song reflected the renewed 80s Cold War situation. It's better than anything else Sting would manage in his solo career.

8. Mick Jagger and David Bowie, "Dancing In The Street"

Ohhhhhh boy. This song and video has now become shorthand for lameness. It was a song put together for charity, so I can't be too critical, but man, this is a classic case of being too big to be told no. The 80s butt rock behind this track is as obviously tacky as the color of Mick's shirt and the print of whatever the hell Bowie is wearing. At this point Bowie's momentum from "Let's Dance" had crashed and Jagger was inexplicably feuding with Keef and trying to pass himself off as a solo artist. If you ever want to show anyone how bad the 80s could be, just show them this.

7. Dire Straits, "Money For Nothing"

Here's a song in that genre new to the 80s: songs that became megahits due to their videos. Gather 'round, kiddos, and I will tell you of a time when the sub-screen saver animation of this video was a revelation to us oldsters. The song and video were so meta because they were also commentaries on the ubiquity of MTV. The use of the awful word "faggot" in this song, even in a satirical context makes it difficult to listen to these days. That word was still flung around with ubiquity back then, so much so that on the playground I had no clue that it was a very specific slur. As bad as shit is nowadays, I would never want to go back to 1985.

6. John Mellencamp, "Lonely Ol' Night"

Back in my rural Nebraska homeland growing up there was a holy trinity of contemporary rock music: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp. The latter's rural Midwestern origins oozed through his music and really resonated with me. Even his minor hits got saturation airplay on local radio. This was one of my favorites, since it captured the feeling of being in a small town with no action and trying to find that spark of human connection.

5. Jan Hammer, "Miami Vice Theme"

Oh God did I love this song and this show. It was on Saturday night, so I could stay up late enough and watch it. It just made me feel so mature and cool just to be associated with it. The show also had one of the great all time opening credits sequences, which makes Miami look like the hippest place on earth, at least in 1985. The show and synthesizers were so cool in 1985 that its theme could make the top ten. Funny how what we thought was the future is now such an obvious relic of the past.

4. Ready For The World, "Oh Sheila"

I had totally forgotten about this song. The drum and synth sound is pure Prince. I even had to look up if this group was produced by him, but nope. It's a pretty clear version of "drive it like you stole it," but I think it still works.

3. Stevie Wonder, "Part-Time Lover"

This one is sultry and bouncy like a Hall and Oates song. It's a weird kind of thing where the man who originated the sound is imitating the people who imitated him. It's a decent pop song, but pretty lame compared to what Wonder was doing in the 70s. At least he's not embarrassing himself a la Jagger and Bowie.

2. Whitney Houston, "Saving All My Love For You"

I know it's not popular to say this, but Whitney Houston was one of the great wasted talents in musical history. She had an amazing voice, and would often use it in thrillingly creative and surprising ways. It was a shame that her voice was paired with consistently boring, insipid songs and arrangements. If only she had come up in the 60s and 70s, and not in the 80s, which was a dark decade for the poppier side of soul music.

1. a-ha, "Take On Me"

Oh boy, here it is. This right here just might be the most 80sed thing that ever 80sed. The keyboard hook alone makes this a true relic of its time. How in the hell did a Norwegian synth pop band hit the top of the charts? By making perhaps the most bitchin' emotional roller coaster of a video yet seen. Once MTV could take a band like a-ha to the top of the charts the mighty M was truly king. How long did that reign last? It's hard to say, but it as long as it did, it never captured the zeitgeist quite like in did in 1985.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Old Dad's Records 20 (Tom Petty)

This week I hit episode 20 on the Old Dad's Records Podcast. As I do with every fifth episode, I discussed a record of mine that's actually highly regarded and well-known. The choice this week was pretty obvious: Tom Petty. As I discuss in episode, I was a fan of his from around the time I was listening to popular music seriously. As I got older, I also realized what a great band the Heartbreakers were, and talk a lot about that, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

America's Year Of Living Dangerously

Events in the past year in the United States have helped me understand events in other countries I used to have a hard time wrapping my mind around. Having grown up in a stable democracy that had maintained the same Constitution for two centuries, it took effort to understand how people reacted to events in less stable countries.

Now, there are a lot of things I get. When there was a military coup in Egypt during Arab Spring, I was shocked at the popular support for it. How could the military taking over possibly be a happy event for people who wanted more of a voice? Now I realize that when it is a choice between an authoritarian trainwreck and a military takeover that many people might prefer the latter. This is the first time in my lifetime in America that I've thought this was a possibility. Hearing what I am hearing about Mattis and Kelly's responses to working with Trump I wonder if the praetorian guard scenario will play out.

Another thing that makes sense to me now is election boycotting. In many countries supporters of the candidate opposing the leader boycott the election when they feel that it isn't fair. I've usually wondered about this, since it seems like giving up before the battle is fought. Now I get it. If an election is rigged, boycotting it undercuts the legitimacy of the government. This action also helps rally and solidify the opposition. With gerrymandering and voter suppression rigging our system, a boycott in the worst hit areas does not sound like a far-fetched idea.

I am having these thoughts, of course, because I can feel America's democratic stability crumbling. Our president is threatening to shut down critical news outlets. In many states the vote is suppressed and districts drawn to ensure a Republican victory. The president is using his pardon power to forgive political cronies. Meanwhile little to nothing of substance is being done to stop this. Before long I predict we will see the kinds of events we normally associate with "troubled" nations. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Life During Wartime

I got today off from work, but my wife did not, and my kids are in school. Because our dog passed away recently, this meant I was going to be home totally alone today, something that I had not yet experienced in this house.

Initially, I barely noticed. I spent the early morning grading papers and banging out letters of recommendation, but after awhile I needed to take a break. At that moment I started to think long and hard about the state of the world. Nowadays when there is nothing to distract me (which is rare with my hectic schedule) I am paralyzed with despair over the state of this country.

At that point I realized I needed to get to the gym. I exercise only enough to avoid a heart attack and to balance out my love of bad food, but the endorphins are a nice side benefit. While I tried to listen to my favorite podcast while I was on the cardio machine, my eyes could not help looking up to the bank of TVs hanging from the ceiling. Since the advent of streaming I've pretty much stopped watching anything live on TV that isn't sports or TCM or Maddow or Rockford Files re-runs on MeTV. I had forgotten about the awful, disgusting horror of daytime television. There were insipid talk shows, dumb game shows, infotainment local news, lamebrain cable news, and worst of all, sports opinion shows. All I kept thinking about is how our country is being run by a homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, poor-hating, administration headed by an ignorant, lazy, traitorous, kleptocrat.

My mind kept going back to the DREAMers who are being used as hostages by Trump to extract his stupid fucking wall. I kept going back to the fact that each day brings evidence of how Russian intelligence manipulated our soulless internet companies to help put this horrible person in power. I kept thinking about the invisible people in Puerto Rico fighting for survival. I thought most of all about how our president is treating threats of nuclear war as a reality TV show.

Looking at that bank of atrocious television, it was clear to me more than ever that Trump is the perfect byproduct of this nation's worst tendencies. In other nations when autocrats try to grab power the people take over the main square. Here in America we have immersed ourselves so thoroughly in the cesspool of our empty, soulless consumerist nightmare that we are actually comfortable with a man like Trump in office. This goes even for those who don't like him, who chew their popcorn as they watch yet another episode of the Trump Show on Twitter, shouting their objections into the void but sitting on the couch rather than doing anything real.

Things are bad. They are getting worse. I have zero confidence that we are prepared for that. I feel like yelling out, like a GI from a Hollywood film from 1944, "Hey, don't you know there's a war on?!?"

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Nostalgia Rock And The Reagan Dusk

I've talked a lot on here about what I call the "Reagan Dawn," that cultural period from 1979-1982 where the transvaluation of values in favor of neoliberalism took place. I have also begun to theorize what I call the Reagan Dusk, which I date roughly from 1987 to 1991. This was a time when the promises of the Reagan Era appeared to have been false, and when the end of the Cold War forced a reckoning with the consequences of valuing missiles over people. There were contradictory forces to this self-reflection, such as the Gulf War and the peaceful collapse of communism. While these events seemed to say that America had triumphed, the social problems of the time appeared to expose them as Pyrrhic victories. (Neil Young's searing "Keep On Rocking In The Free World" and Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" both hit in 1989 and were calls to action after years of neoliberal regression.)

Culturally, this was a time when the day-glo of the 80s had muted into earth tones, primary colors, and baggy sweaters. (Watch the original Twin Peaks and look at the clothes and you'll know what I am talking about.) Rap music was confronting the realities of American life under Reagan, but the only acts to get played on the radio were the likes of MC Hammer, Young MC, and (yikes) Vanilla Ice. There was too a growing underground rock scene, but it was far left of the dial. Culturally the nineties started in late 1991, once "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped and NWA's second album went to number one.

During the Reagan Dusk, things in the rock music world were more confused. Hair metal was the most popular genre, but was despised by anyone over the age of fourteen with five working brain cells to rub together. The rest of us, searching for "authenticity" fed on a diet of what I would call "Nostalgia Rock." This was music rooted in the 60s, often by musicians from that era, which consciously or not opposed the values of that era to the ones of the late Reagan years. Some of this music was purely nostalgic (like George Harrison's "When We Was Fab"). Sometimes the artist simply played original songs in the mode of older forms (like Chris Isaak.)

The curtain-raiser on this phenomenon was the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup formed out of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers touring with Bob Dylan. Jeff Lynne had produced friend George Harrison's hit Cloud Nine, and Roy Orbison somehow got roped in, too. Petty was the only artist of the now, the others were long in the tooth. This band of geezers cut some hits on their first record in 1988, including "Handle With Care," which still holds up. (I love the contrast between Dylan's late period quack and Orbison's soaring opera tenor.) It also happened to be the beginning of a Bob Dylan renaissance, as evidenced by 1989's Oh Mercy. This Wilburys supergroup album, which might have been dismissed in a time less starved for authenticity, went multiplatinum and won a Grammy.

Soon the deluge followed. In 1989 a bunch of sixties artists hit the road, including bands that had broken up, like the Who. The Rolling Stones toured behind Steel Wheels, inevitably prompting "steel wheelchairs jokes." (The joke's on us, since it's almost thirty years later and the Stones are still rolling.) There was a lot of Boomer nostalgia involved, but also a lot of curiosity by younger people (like myself) who rightly thought "Paint It, Black" far superior to "Cherry Pie." The Stones' current music was mediocre at best, but Steel Wheels was showered with accolades and sold very well.

Other legends managed to find their way back into the charts in this late 80s era, like George Harrison, Roy Orbison with "You Got It", and the aforementioned Neil Young.  Hell, even the damn Grateful Dead had a big hit with "Touch of Grey." Younger artists who borrowed from older styles also broke through. REM became the sole band of the pre-"Nevermind" underground to surface into mainstream MTV and radio play with a Byrds-y sound rooted in the sixties. Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever spawned several hits also with a very retro Byrds-y sound that departed from the more electronic, progressive music on songs like "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "You Got Lucky." Chris Isaak's pompadour, reverby guitar, and Orbison-esque vocals made him look and sound like a lost rock and roller who had fallen asleep in 1962 and woken up in 1990. The Black Crowes emerged big time in 1990 with a sound deeply rooted in early 70s southern rock and had a hit with a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle."

By 1990-1991 things got meta, and songs like "Black Velvet" and "Walking In Memphis" began to comment on the music of the past and its authenticity. Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" was about Elvis while never saying his name. The song itself was a sultry blues, rather than Elvis' rockabilly, but recalled a music that could change the world. In 1990, that felt like a long time ago. Marc Cohn's "Walking In Memphis" made all kinds of references to American soul, gospel, blues, and rock n' roll but the song itself was built around a catchy piano hook that was very 1991. Cohn's love for this music is pretty obvious in the lyrics and his passionate reading of them.

But living in this time the years and years of nostalgia for a past music that mattered wore thin on youngsters like myself. I wanted my own music, and had been digging to find it. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, NWA, and Eric B and Rakim all energized me far more than what I was hearing on the radio. The music that mattered to me and felt important was not rock music. That changed in the autumn of 1991, when Metallica's black album and Nirvana's Nevermind dropped. Suddenly punk and metal were going from the losers and glue sniffers to the mall. Even the excesses of Guns n Roses' Use Your Illusion albums (released in late 1991) felt like a jolt to a rock scene desperately in need of one. Pretty much from that point forward the aping of the 60s lost its charm, and the new music made by the legends was immediately cordoned off into the geezer rock pastures. (Except for Neil Young and Tom Petty, who put out great stuff in this era.) For a teenager desperate for HIS generation to have its own musical heroes, it was a kind of deliverance, and marked the end of the Reagan Dusk and the dawn of the nineties.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Get Ready To Head Into The Fire

Two weeks before inauguration I wrote probably my most pessimistic piece for this blog: "Into The Fire":

"In a little over two weeks, Donald J Trump will be the next president of the United States, and I fear that we don't stand a chance. In conversations I've had with those who voted for Trump, both online and in person, they simply do not have any concerns or reservations about what this man has done or anything he is about to do. In most cases they are people who want their version of America to triumph, and that's a version where gays are in the closet, immigrants deported, bosses control their workers, people of color are invisible, and women are in the kitchen. If Trump has to break a few laws and break a few heads for that to happen, they simply do not care."

I stand by that because Republicans have stood by him. His corruption, unstable behavior with nukes, and championing of Nazis has not swayed them, which means that nothing will. As long as the Republicans control Congress, his agenda will win, and due to suppression, gerrymandering, and Democratic ineptitude, I will bet money it will continue after next November.

Right now, though, it looks like we are headed into the center of the fire. The Trump administration is intentionally destroying Obamacare, after being unable to pass new legislation. The Iran agreement is about to be torn up. And today, the president joked about the possibility of a coming nuclear war with North Korea. He called this "the calm before the storm," which means that he is planning on unleashing a storm. 

After being unable to get a legislative win, and after he has been losing advisors and cabinet members left and right, this famously impetuous and lonely man is deciding to go it alone, without any annoying restraints. He is psychologically tormented by the need to "win," and he will do whatever he can to get those "wins." He burning desire to destroy anything built by Obama means he will trash the health care marketplaces and tear up the treaties that his predecessor signed. Perhaps he will get his "win" by starting and winning a war. Isn't that the ultimate presidential "win"?

Things have been bad. They are about to get a lot worse. I want you to ask a question: what am I going to DO about it? That's a question not enough people have been asking.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

After Las Vegas, We STILL Need To Talk About The Dysfunctions Of White Masculinity

The movie Targets from 1968 may be the most prophetic in history

Sunday night I was thinking to myself about mass shootings, and about how we live in a society whose cruelty, lack of community, and worship of empty consumerism make it fertile ground for such things once easy access to firearms is put in place. I was thinking about this specifically in terms of white men. I know so many fellow white men who are middle class and seemingly doing okay for themselves who have his inexplicable nihilism. They seem obsessed with tearing a system down that benefits them, driven by intense resentments that they can't articulate. I sensed this nihilism in some of the folks I know who voted for Trump. "At least he will shake things up!" is easy to say when you're not the one being put in front of the firing squad. 

Sunday night I was also thinking about Puerto Rico, and the cruelty of a president and a nation so indifferent to the suffering of fellow Americans. I was remembering my time in Germany, and that as many things I did not like about German society, at least there was a sense of common good. Trump is the avatar of the worst of this country, its crass materialism and solipsistic selfishness. Those values are very powerful, and it is worth noting that they resonate especially with white men.

In any case, I went to bed Sunday night, exhausted but ready to face the week. I woke up Monday and immediately saw a news alert about Las Vegas. It freaked me out a little that I seemed to have had a premonition the night before. This shooting is, of course, the result of America failing to face many of its problems. One of the biggest is the dysfunction of white masculinity. I wrote the following essay in 2012 after Newtown. I am posting it again because every single word is just as relevant now as it was then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Episode 19 of Old Dad's Records

I just uploaded episode 19 of my podcast, Old Dad's Records. I have decided to go "live on the nines," meaning it's all live music this time. I am also drawing all the way through on 1970s rock music. I start with "I Want You To Want Me" by Cheap Trick. The live version of this song was much better and more popular than the studio version, and a great example of how a tight band sounds much more vital and real when they get on the stage. From there I pull out Grand Funk Railroad's Live Album from my pile of old records. This is the first record I've done that I just plain don't like, mostly so I can use it as a jumping off point to talk about other stuff. Last but definitely not least, I discuss seminal underground band Television's The Blow-Up.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Warriors, Rockers, And The Last Days Of Rebellion In The American Teen Film

The kind folks at Tropics of Meta have yet again allowed me to grace their wonderful website with my presence. This time I wrote about a troika of teen movies from 1979: The Warriors, Over The Edge, and Rock n' Roll High School. All showed teenage life in ways that were soon to be verboten in the 80s. In fact, The Warriors and Over The Edge were basically deep sixed by the studios that made them. I hope you enjoy, and also check great work by other folks on the site.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Requiem For A Dog

As a child I feared dogs. I am not sure about the origins of this fear, but I had it from a very young age, to the point that I cannot remember when I was not afraid of them. It did not help that I grew up in a place where trashy people kept their miserable dogs tied to a tree in their back yards, where they would bark and growl menacingly. Or that people let their dogs run wild, like the house on the corner with a massive doberman. There was also the time that I went to the park about age nine and some idiot had their huge dog running unleashed. I ran out of fear and the dog chased me and tackled me to the ground. My friends who had dogs would mock me for my demands that the dog be kept away from me. I interpreted their attempts to jump up and greet me as threats.

In adulthood I learned to be able to barely tolerate dogs since my outright fear was too embarrassing. It was thus an unpleasant surprise ten years ago when I found out that the woman I was wooing long distance had a big dog. (We had met in a third location.) I knew for our relationship to work I would have to be able to deal with the dog, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to.

To my surprise, I fell in love with the dog. She was a border collie-Bernese mountain dog mix, a big furry friendly animal who did not bark or jump. Instead, she would just come up to me and nudge my hand with her snout, encouraging me to give her some attention. Hannah melted my heart and made it possible for me to love dogs, something that I never thought that I would ever be capable of doing.

I'm sure you know the rest of the story. I ended up marrying her owner. After two years in long-distance marriage limbo, I was able to move to New Jersey and live with my wife and our dog. I am not sure how it happened, but at some point the first year I arrived I became the primary dog walker. Every morning the first thing I did was to take Hannah on a walk around our Newark neighborhood. She was a local celebrity, especially when I walked her after work. Little kids would run up and beg to pet her, or look out the windows of their cars and shout "bow wow!" She also made a new improbable friend: my cat Stella. The two kept each other company while my wife and I were out at work, and when I came home neither animal seemed starved for attention.

Hannah was ecstatic to have two parents rather than one. Her nightly ritual was to take a flying leap into our bed and nestle herself between the two of us, despite her sixty pound weight. The next year, that changed in ways I still feel guilty about. As we welcomed two girls into our life, Hannah was now permanently demoted. The first night we had them at home she was at least fiercely protective of the girls. However, as they grew older and started crawling, we had to keep her separate with a baby gate, something that she very obviously resented. I still kept walking her, and would slyly brag to my spouse that Hannah had switched her primary allegiance to me.

At least when our children were a year and a half old we moved out of our Newark apartment into a house. Hannah obviously enjoyed having more space, both indoors and outdoors, but sadly her feline companion died a year later. Her health took a deep dip, to the point that we thought Hannah was going to follow her into the grave. She managed to recover, and my daughters even began to develope a more sympathetic relationship with her.

Unfortunately, Hannah's health went into decline, as your would expect from a old dog. She had issues with incontinence that often frayed my patience and meant some very unpleasant surprises when I came home from work, stressed and exhausted. Some medicine helped with this, but she was not the enthusiastic dog she used to be. Instead of dragging me down the block on our walks, I had to cajole her to get out of the house. Last Thanksgiving I was seriously frightened at her health, but she managed to rebound to give us another year together.

Sluggish but cheerful, I hoped that Hannah was going to see another spring. But it was not to be. On Wednesday, as I was riding the train home from work, my wife let me know that she could suddenly barely stand, and was going into seizures. We both knew it was time. At the vet's office, it was obvious that she felt the same way too. In those horrible minutes of having to wait for the doctor to come in, I just kept petting and petting her, all while her face held the same panting grin that had melted my heart years ago. Her eyes had were now clouded, but she was still the same loving dog I'd known for a decade. I soon gazed into that face for the last time. When we came home we had to tell our daughters the news. One was nonplussed, the other shrieked a shriek of grief and despair that let me know that she understood what death meant, probably for the first time in her young life.

I'm trying not to let those last moments dominate my memory. Today, as the time for our usual late afternoon walk came around, I felt such an absence. I remembered all those walks with Hannah dragging me around. I remember her delighting all the neighborhood kids. I remembered a dog companion who made me capable of loving dogs. I do not think I will be able to love another one the same.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What Katy Tur's Book Inadvertently Reveals

We need more reporters like Bugs Raplin

I am just over halfway through Unbelievable, Katy Tur's breezy memoir of covering Donald Trump's campaign last year. I picked it up with great interest, wondering what somehow who covered him day in and day out would have to say. So far, I have been very disappointed.

There is little to zero insight in this book about Trump, his campaign, his supporters, or the way the media covered him. Instead, it's a self-serving story of Katy Tur Intrepid Reporter. Now don't get me wrong, she put a great deal of work into covering Trump and endured some really rotten treatment from him. At the same time, there has been ten times as much space devoted to the food at various events than the reasons Trump won the election.

I guess I should not have been surprised, since the journalists in the higher echelons of the media, as Tur's book inadvertently reveals, are only interested in The Game, and will never, ever question it. She talks with horror at the way that Trump insulted her at campaign rallies in ways that made her fear for her safety. She famously talks about the time he planted a kiss on her without her consent. She discusses Trump at different times as if he is a transparent fraud. However, when it came to her reporting from the trail, it followed the rules of The Game. She reported the horse race, never flat out telling the country that she thought the man she was covering was entirely unfit to be president.

I don't mean to single out Tur here, since she is just one member of the press corps that plays by the same rules. At least she's given some sense of what she really thinks of him, the others never do. Trump for them is not a moral catastrophe, he is a career, he is ratings, he is money. In the summer of 2015 I remember Rachel Maddow, someone whom I greatly respect, treating Trump's rallies as an amusing joke. This was the same man, of course, who had just called Mexicans murderers and rapists and was openly exploiting racial resentment. As true as that was, he was also a cash cow, something the head of CNN even admitted.

In being a cash cow, Trump played the media during the election like a fiddle, and continues to do so. Yes Trump is a failed businessman, but he is a very successful media figure. During the election he got the cable stations to broadcast his rallies unexpurgated, giving him an insane amount of free airtime on a scale that should not be allowed in a functioning democracy. (Oh for the days of the equal time provision.) He still finds ways to get the cable stations to hang on every word he has to say. HE sets the tone, HE sets the terms of debate. In any debate the side that fights on its own ground is halfway there to winning.

Worse than that, he knows The Game and knows the roles of the other people playing it. Trump constantly engages in dominance via humiliation. He attacked Katy Tur's reporting while she was in the room with his baying mob. John McCain endured years of rotten treatment as a POW, but had his sacrifice denigrated. He doxxed Lindsay Graham. He called Chuck Schumer "crying Chuck" after the Senator wept when recalling his relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. He claimed that Ted Cruz's father was involved in JFK's assassination. Despite all of this all of these people have gone on to either cover or work with him as if he is a normal person WITHOUT DEMANDING AN APOLOGY. The Game and playing it matters more than their integrity, something that Trump, who wants to place himself at the center of The Game. gleefully exposes with his behavior.

As long as our media and political elite value The Game above all else, it is useless. I've said it before, I will say it again. This is all in our hands. No one is going to come and save us, so we need to get to work.

Monday, September 18, 2017

My Letter To Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson

Doug Peterson is the Attorney General of Nebraska, my home state. He is one of the AGs suing the federal government over DACA, and I felt it necessary to tell him what I felt.

While I currently live in New Jersey, I was born and raised in the great state of Nebraska. I take a great deal of pride in the Cornhusker state, and for that reason I still care deeply about what happens there. For that reason it was with shame and dismay that I read that you were one of the state attorney generals responsible for a push against the DACA program.

The young Nebraskans that you want to deport to countries they hardly even know represent so much potential for the state. I grew up in Hastings, a town that has benefitted greatly from recent waves of immigrants, who have helped the city maintain its population and who have added new life and vibrancy. I have seen this repeated in towns across rural Nebraska, which is desperately in need of new blood.

Dreamers are especially noteworthy in the contributions they are making to the economy of the country and the economy of the state. Leaving morality aside, it seems that uprooting them from their adoptive country would be a terrible idea from an economic perspective. Of course, if there is anything that we can say about bigotry, it is that it is profoundly stupid. At the end of the day, I think we both know that people like you are opposed to the Dreamers because of who they are and where they are from. It is a sad fact that there is a great deal of hate and resentment in the state of Nebraska being directed at immigrants, and your actions give aid and comfort to the forces of racism. Prejudice is the only explanation I can see for you going out of your way to cut off the state’s nose to spite its face.

Please reconsider your cruel stance on this issue, especially as politicians are currently scrambling to protect the Dreamers. It is not too late to keep your name from going down in history as an enabler of injustice. It is not too late for you to put humanity above politics. In short, it is not too late for you to do the right thing for Nebraska.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Episode 18 of the Old Dad's Records Podcast

On episode 18 of Old Dad's Records I thought I'd talk about music that fits with the month of September. The song I chose was on the nose, but so what! The song in question in "September" by the great Earth, Wind, and Fire. It is a song of pure joy, and as such a necessary thing to have in my life in these dark times. For the album, I talk about Ram, Paul McCartney's second solo album, and the best argument I know of when I want to defend Macca's solo work. I end by recommending Detroit post-punkers Protomartyr.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why Medicare For All Matters

This week Bernie Sanders introduced his Medicare For All bill in Congress. In itself, this should not be a big deal. Congressmen like John Conyers have been proposing something like this for years. The difference is that enough prominent Democrats have rallied behind it that true universal health care has now essentially become a litmus test for Democrats.

This is a very important development. The last time that I felt this was the case was back in the early 1980s, when Democrats were still keeping the old time New Deal religion. After 1984, when Reaganism appeared to be the new reality, that changed. By the time a Democrat was able to propose a new health care system in the form of Bill Clinton, it crashed and burned. Barack Obama managed to get somewhere, but only by basically adopting a moderate conservative solution. Even that involved a great deal of struggle and opposition.

Now it appears that Democrats are willing to go all-in on a social democratic health policy. My hope is that this represents a major values change. The other side has profited from turning policy issues into moral issues. For example, the inheritance tax is opposed by saying "It's not right to keep someone from giving to their children." For years Democrats have failed to offer the proper moral argument in return, since that argument required a social democratic values system, as opposed to a neoliberal one. The Democrats have long been incapable of saying "It is morally wrong for the wealthy to perpetuate their power and advantage across generations," even though this was an uncontroversial opinion a century ago.

It is this values clarification that is necessary for the left to win out. Instead of getting lost in the weeds of policy wonkery, progressives are more willing to think big. This means starting from some assumptions, such as that every person's life has value and every person deserves to be healthy, safe, and protected. Even if the push for Medicare for all fails in this Congress, which is pretty much inevitable, it is changing the discourse in ways that are absolutely essential.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Looking At 42

My birthday was last week, on Labor Day. I've now hit 42, which is a good number. It reminds me of Jackie Robinson and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I refuse to let myself be sucked in by our culture's obsession with youth and fear of aging. Sometime in the past year I realized that, for the first time in my life, I am at peace with the knowledge of my inevitable death. Perhaps it's because I felt like I've finally accomplished enough to feel like I have not wasted my shot. I certainly didn't feel that way at 32.

At the same time, I have realized that I have changed in ways that are not all that great. In recent years I feel that I've regressed and become a much less good-natured person. In my teens and early twenties I was angry a lot, with a big chip on my shoulder. This was mostly due to emerging out of years of bullying at school, which inflamed feelings of contempt for other people and my surroundings. To protect myself from constantly being told that I was ugly and weak I told myself that I was better than the people around me. I carried this attitude with me to college, but getting social acceptance there helped wear it down. This process continued in graduate school (compounded by the humbling experience of my master's program), and by the time I hit 30 my friends would actually characterize me as "laid back" and "easy going." Nobody who knew me at age 17 would have said such a thing.

It was after getting my PhD that things changed again. Two years of being exploited in a low-paid "visiting professor" position and three years on the tenure track where I again had to face the kind of bullying that I thought I had escaped in my youth had some bad effects on me. I have become much more attuned to perceived slights, and to people condescending to me or trying to take advantage of me. I vowed after that to never again be a pushover and to always hit back twice as hard when someone came at me. Now I get mad. A lot. For awhile I thought that I had attained a healthy assertiveness that I had once lacked and whose absence had allowed other people to hurt me. Now it seems that I am in danger of becoming a bitter, angry person, the kind of middle-aged I guy I used to look at with a shudder.

Part of the issue is that as a teacher and a parent and a spouse, I have to expend vast amounts of patience on a daily basis, and I am finding all too often that when I get home from work, my reservoirs have been exhausted. I've resolved to try to fix this.

The inspiration came from thinking about some of the people I have been lucky to know in my life. I know people who have been through worse than me who are still the kind people they always were. They are the kind of people who never say anything bad about another person, who respond to challenges with patience. They are people are who are always able to maintain perspective about the problems in their lives. I need to remember their example.

If middle age has taught me anything so far, it's that the doors of possibility close with each passing day. Instead of thinking about the person I am going to be, which is what consumed my youth, I AM that person, and either have to be at peace with that, or think about how I can be better.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Memoirs of a Lapsed Husker Fan, Part Three

1995 was the year of Lawrence Phillips, in more ways than one

This is the third installment of a four part series. You can read part one here and part two here.

The 1994 national championship win will never be rivaled as my most meaningful sports fan moment. I don't think I can care about sports the same way now that I am older and wiser, and none of the teams I root for has the dramatic tension of the Osborne-era Cornhuskers. The aftermath of the win, however, was bittersweet. Penn State had managed to win the Rose Bowl and go undefeated, leading to whispers that the poll voters went for Nebraska only out of sympathy to old man Osborne. That rankled. Would Nebraska ever truly get the respect it deserved?

There was also something more serious afoot, namely accusations of sexual assault against defensive lineman Christian Peter. These had first emerged during the 1994 season, but in 1995 the University of Nebraska would award his victim, Kathy Redmond, a settlement. She has gone on to be a prominent activist in the fight to hold athletes accountable for acts of domestic and sexual violence. Peter's acts would be overshadowed during the season by Lawrence Phillips, as the 1995 season exposed a deep, dark underbelly of misogynistic violence on the Nebraska football team. While this team would go on to be the most successful in Nebraska and maybe college football history, looking back 1995 was the year that my Husker fandom stopped being naive and absolute and began to start cracking oh so slightly.

This was a team that absolutely dominated the opposition in ways that have perhaps never been seen before or since. The closest any team got to the Huskers was Washington State, who lost 35-21. Tommie Frazier was back from his blood clots, and at the top of his game. The Blackshirts were putting the fear into opposing offenses, and Nebraska's option attack put up obscene statistics. Four different running backs put up 100 yard games. I got to see them play Pacific in Lincoln, when the Huskers put up over 700 yards and their third string running back, Damon Benning, ran for 173 yards. I was able to attend the game because a friend of mine at Creighton was high school friends with one of the players. We even hung out a little afterward, and there just seemed to be this aura of absolute confidence around him and the couple of other players I met hanging out in the dorm afterward. These guys were not going to lose.

But beneath all of this was a scandal that began to permanently alter my feelings about Tom Osborne and the Nebraska Cornhuskers and college football writ large. Lawrence Phillips went to the apartment of backup quarterback Scott Frost (more on him later) to attack his girlfriend Kate McEwen, who was Phillips' former girlfriend. He dragged her down three flights of stairs by her hair in the midst of the beating. The news was absolutely shocking, especially Osborne suspended Phillips, rather than kicking him off of the team. His reasoning was that Phillips, who had lived a hard youth in foster care, was in danger of going completely off of the rails had he been kicked off the team.

I didn't buy it.

At the time, this was a kind of apostasy. I was sure that Osborne believed at least a part of what he was saying, but this, along with Christian Peter's continued presence on the team, disturbed me. Looking at my fellow Husker fans, I began to believe that they had struck a deal with the devil. In that long period of frustration between 1983 and 1994, Nebraska fans began to turn on their old image of themselves. They used to talk with pride about the team's record number of Academic All-Americans, the number of walk-ons, and the team steering clear of recruits who might be talented but lacked moral values. (Yes, there was some mythology here, but the narrative was important.) Husker fans had started to wonder if these straight and narrow traditions meant that the Huskers would never be able to go to the top. In 1995 it looked like the pinnacle had been reached after the older values were betrayed. Even worse, it seemed that most of the team's fans were willing to accept that. Of course, at the time I would put those thoughts aside on game day, which I guess was an act of true hypocrisy.

After crushing the opposition, Nebraska played in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship against the Florida Gators. Again, the Husker chip on the shoulder got inflamed, as Sports Illustrated predicted a Gators win, despite the Huskers' absolute dominance. I was actually pretty confident that they would win, which is why it didn't bug me that much that I was in Ireland at another debate tournament during the game. At about half-time a friend made the transatlantic call home to get the score, and when he told it to us, we thought he must have had a bad connection. At that point Nebraska was up 35-10, en route to a 62-24 domination. Lucky for me, my parents taped the game for me, and after I got home I watched it every day for a week. I laughed at the normally cocky Steve Spurier throwing his stupid visor, powerless to stop the Husker onslaught. I exulted when Tommie Frazier broke 8 tackles on a 75 yard run that might be my favorite Husker play of all time. It was his last game, and he went out in style as one of the winningest quarterbacks in NCAA history.

At the same time, Phillips had been brought back, and he started the game. The Huskers did not need him to win. The fourth string running back on the team was a freshman by the name of Ahman Green, who would go on to have a long NFL career. To those who supported Osborne, it was proof that Dr Tom really cared about his player, and not winning. To those who were critical, it seemed especially excessive to give a violent abuser a second change when it made no difference to the team's prospects. Phillips declared a year early for the draft, and would go on to have a troubled and violent life, until killing himself in prison in 2016. As the years passed and Phillips made more headlines for bad behavior, Osborne's decision became harder to defend.

The Huskers went from the top of the world in 1994 and 1995 to more uncertain territory in 1996. Tragedy struck in the off season, as backup quarterback Brook Berringer, who had won several games when Frazier went down in 1994, died in a plane crash. He was actually getting some attention before the NFL draft, rare for a Husker quarterback. The new starting QB was Scott Frost, a figure of some controversy. He was a local boy, from Wood River, and was by far the most touted in-state high school quarterback in my lifetime. He spurned Nebraska, however, to go to Stanford while Bill Walsh was the coach. Many Nebraskans considered this a betrayal, and when he transferred to Nebraska, he was not welcome with open arms. It did not help that he struggled early on, especially in a shutout loss to Arizona State. I remember screaming and throwing my Huskers cap, especially after he got sacked in the end zone. After that game, though, I wondered if I was taking Nebraska football too seriously. I also began to question the people who were so critical of Frost for having signed with Stanford, and by extension the expectation that being a true Nebraskan meant blind loyalty to the football team.

1996 was also a strange season since it was the first of the Big XII, which was the old beloved Big 8 with four teams from Texas added. The Big 8 had four teams in the top ten the year before, so Nebraskans resented it when the Texas squads acted like they were equal partners in the endeavor. The Big XII, part of the supersizing of conferences to make money that still plagues college sports, also destroyed one of the most important aspects of Nebraska football: the Oklahoma rivalry. Nebraska and Oklahoma were now in different divisions, meaning they would not play each other every year anymore. Something was lost in that year that never came back, and now that Nebraska is in the Big Ten, it never will.

After getting embarrassed in Tempe, the Huskers won the rest of their regular season games, including the season finale against Colorado, now the team's "official" rival and the permanent occupant of the slot on the schedule the day after Thanksgiving. I went to the 1996 game in one of the great adventures I ever had with my father. I was home from college visiting my family for Thanksgiving, and my sister was a student at the university with season tickets. She wanted to make the long drive back to Lincoln to go to the game, and my dad and I thought we would try to get some tickets at the stadium, and failing that, watching the action at a local bar. That day brought freezing rain, something all too typical on the Nebraska prairies in late November. Luckily for my father and I, it meant that the scalpers had to drastically reduce their prices. We got seats behind the north goalposts, and stood pretty much through the whole game and the rain pelted us. My coat, which I had thought was water resistant, really wasn't, and by the end I was soaked to the bone, unable to feel my feet. It didn't matter. Despite a struggling offense, Nebraska beat the hated Buffs through the grace of the Blackshirts, who wreaked havoc on their opponents. Nebraska got the lead in the first quarter on an interception return, and never gave it back. It was a tough win in a tough season without Tommie Frazier and it gave me hope for the end of the season.

Somewhere in here you can see me freezing my nuts off

In the old days of the Big 8, winning that big game the day after Thanksgiving meant Nebraska had won the conference. However, now they would have to play an extra championship game for the conference title, which they lost to Texas, and thankfully I did not see. (Yup, I was at a debate tournament.) That game seemed to imply that the days of Nebraska's conference dominance were over. In another such sign, the second-place prize for the Huskers was the Orange Bowl, once the Holy Grail of the Big 8 season. Just as conferences were changing, the bowls were too. The game was played on New Year's Eve, rather than New Year's Day, and while the setting left something to be desired, the Huskers crushed a very good Virginia Tech team, 41-21. I remember it well because it was part of a New Year's Eve tradition. My parents were close friends with two other couples, and every eve one of the families would host the other two, the adults drinking and playing cards upstairs, us kids running around and playing downstairs. That year I was 21, and I and some of the kids were having beers, too. I didn't know it at the time, but just as my New Year's Eve holiday tradition was soon about to end, my connection to Husker football was going to be frayed.

But that didn't happen quite yet. 1997 would be one last golden season for Nebraska, for Tom Osborne, and for me. It was my last football season living in the state, which I never would have imagined when it started. It was only appropriate that Nebraska boy Scott Frost would lead that team with a season worthy of Tommie Frazier, and perhaps even better. He rushed and passed for over a thousand yards, the first Husker quarterback ever to do so in a single season. He ran the complicated option like a well-oiled machine, and more than once followed a pitch to Ahman Green -another Nebraska kid from Omaha- with a punishing block on defender. Despite a very odd throwing motion, he was more dangerous as a pocket passer than most option quarterbacks I'd seen behind center.

Nebraska won all of their regular season games, but one was truly miraculous. Nebraska was behind late against a tough Missouri squad on the road, down by a touchdown. Frost threw a last ditch pass into the endzone. It looked doomed, but bounced (some say kicked) off of a Nebraska player's foot into the diving hands of Matt Davison. The "Flea Kicker" has got to be one of the most amazing plays in college football history, the NCAA equivalent of Franco Harris' "Immaculate Reception." The game went into overtime, and Nebraska won. Again, I was at a debate tournament, and in those pre-cellphone days had not heard the score. We went back to our hotel room to watch Sportscenter, and the highlights of the game had me jumping and hollering with my teammates in exuberant, joyful disbelief.

As if to dispel the demons of the last season, Nebraska went in the Big XII championship game in San Antonio against a local team, Texas A&M, and blew them off the field by a score of 54-15. Despite that, Nebraska yet again had to deal with doubters in the media. The Huskers were only #2 in the AP poll, despite such dominance. Michigan was also undefeated, but had won its games much less convincingly. Because the Rose Bowl still locked in the Pac 10 and Big 10 winners, the Huskers and Wolverines would not be able to settle it on the field. Instead, Nebraska needed a big win in the Orange Bowl against Tennessee to ensure at least a share of the title by holding on to the top spot on the coaches poll.

The Blackshirts made Peyton Manning make Peyton Manning Face

In case you don't know, the Vols' quarterback was none other than Peyton Manning, by far the most hyped college quarterback I'd ever seen. Of course the hype was not misplaced, as he would go on to greatness in the NFL, but at the time I resented the adulation he received. The Blackshirts must've too, because they held the vaunted Manning to only 131 yards passing. He found himself constantly harried by Nebraska's blitz, unable to get the ball down the field. In fact, he was pulled out later in the game in favor of Tee Martin, who would lead the Vols to the championship the next year, something Manning never managed to do. Nebraska's explosive offense blasted through the Tennessee defense. It wasn't even close, the Huskers won 42-17. Even better, the coaches poll gave the Huskers the number one slot, though the media did not. I still think Nebraska would have crushed Michigan had they played that year. Was Brian Griese honestly going to be able to do what Peyton Manning couldn't? In any case, Osborne went out on top. My ill feelings about his handling of Lawrence Phillips subsided a little bit.

Witness the domination

Little did a I know at the time, 1997 would be my last true season as a Husker fan. In September of 1998, I moved to Chicago to start my master's program. Before leaving, I wentto a Husker game against UAB, who Nebraska beat handily 38-7. It was a day after my birthday, and like my first Husker game in the flesh, it was a birthday present. Fittingly, it is also the last Nebraska game I have attended in person. It was a beautiful day late summer day, so different than my last trip to Memorial Stadium in the freezing rain. 

While that game had all the hallmarks of the past, from the fans releasing their balloons after the first Nebraska touchdown to the sea of red, the 1998 season felt different. The new Nebraska coach was Frank Solich, who had been Osborne's consigliere for years. Like Osborne, Solich was quiet and stoic in ways that reflected the ideals of Nebraskan masculinity. He was a short, slight person who had played fullback for the Huskers in the 1960s, a testament to his toughness. In true Nebraska respect for tradition and stability, Osborne's hand-picked coach followed him, just as he had been tapped by Bob Devaney back in the early 1970s. But that circle would get broken, like some of the Husker streaks. Nebraska's consistency had been one of the team's hallmarks, and it also reflected the state's values system. We were very proud of the fact that while the championships had not come until recently, Nebraska had been 9-3 or better in every season since 1968. That streak was broken in Solich's first year, as the team went 9-4 and lost a bowl game to Arizona in the Holiday Bowl. The team did not even make a New Year's Day bowl, which was embarrassing enough. The Huskers did not even win their division, much less the conference. For other fans a 9-4 season would not be such a disappointment, but for Husker fans it seemed that the immutable laws of the universe had been challenged. Some began talking that Osborne knew that this team was not capable of maintaining the streak, which was why he decided to retire.

There were other streaks, too. Husker fans took perverse delight in beating up on certain teams year after year after year. Kansas State had not managed to beat the Huskers since 1959. The Wildcats had traditionally been one of the worst teams in top division college football, but even after coach Bill Snyder had come in and magically transformed the team into a winner, the streak remained. In 1997, as the Husker offense truly hummed as Scott Frost hit his stride, K-State got shellacked 56-26. In 1998, the Wildcats finally got their revenge, winning 40-30. It would be Kansas State, KANSAS FREAKING STATE playing for the conference title while the Huskers sat at home. This was impossible, it was not supposed to happen. The lion had lain with the lamb, the seal had been broken, and judgement had been loosed upon the once unstoppable, arrogant Cornhuskers. I saw some of that game in my Chicago studio apartment, so far from the windswept prairies of my home state. Things had changed now for good, both for the Huskers and for me.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Trump's Pivot Back To White Nationalism

It is hard to know what goes on in the mind of a man like Donald Trump, but as near as I can tell, his psyche is dominated by compulsions. One of these, perhaps the most powerful, is the need to always be winning, and to get praise for that winning. Whether this comes from lacking love from his father or as a kind of sociopathy, the result is that he constantly craves validation. It is well known that he attacks the media outlets that he consumes, like the Times and CNN, because he NEEDS the TV he watches to praise him. This is also why he has aides prepare him a dossier of positive news every day.

After taking office, the validation did not come. His inauguration was poorly attended, and when evidence of that was broadcasted to the world, Trump set out sentient baggy suit Sean Spicer to scream at the press. The attempt at a Muslim ban foundered. It was quickly apparent that Trump was not going to get his needed adulation by taking this path. Instead of seeking victory through his white nationalist agenda, Trump pivoted to legislation, specifically the repeal of Obamacare. This way he could defeat the man whose popularity seems to torment him. With a Republican Congress, it should have been easy, but yet again he failed.

After being humiliated by that defeat, Trump has retreated into his core principles and his core base, which are both white nationalist in nature. He is back giving his ranting rallies to baying hordes. He has pardoned Joe Arpaio, poster child for nativist violence. He has given aid and comfort to Nazis and Klansmen in his reaction to the terror attack in Charlottesville. Now he has announced an end to DACA, and sent out noted Klan sympathizer Jeff Sessions to announce it.

Knowing that he can't get the adulation he craves, Trump is trying to "win" on the things he cares most about, which are mostly punishing immigrants, Muslims, and people of color. He is a shyster who does not appear to believe in little besides himself, but I would argue that his consistent and unwavering support for white supremacy show that he does indeed have a core set of values. Like a cornered animal, he is set to lash out. With all the scandals looming and his popularity in the toilet, I think the situation is especially dangerous. Failure to stop him is not an option.

There will never be a "pivot" on his part to be more "presidential." The real pivot is obvious for all to see.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Episode 17 Of Old Dad's Records

The weather has been positively autumnal here in New Jersey, and that particular seasonal change triggers all kinds of memories and associations for me. There are some old favorite records I like to bust out this time of year, and thought it appropriate to talk about them on the most recent episode of my podcast. I discuss Neil Young's "Old Man," which has exactly the contemplative tone I look for this time of year. After that I get into Bob Dylan's "country album," Nashville Skyline. In this discussion I reveal that "Lady Lady Lay" had once been my shower song of choice. After all that I rave about Solange, whose music has been played a lot in my house in recent days.

You can find it here:

Friday, September 1, 2017


There's a lot of the spirit of Houston in native son Lightnin' Hopkins

I have been watching the news from Houston this week with shock and horror. Houston is a city I know well. During my three years living in the isolated piney woods of East Texas, I was only a two hour drive away, and I made that drive every chance I could get.

I learned very quickly that Houston is an underrated city, a true gem. The weather there is forbidding, but I began to enjoy it as its own kind of thrilling, awfully intense experience, like eating a hot pepper. I'd come home from my trips with a trunk loaded with goodies. Books from Half Price and records from Cactus Music would sit alongside a box of wine from Speck's as I drove up highway 59, which went from a massive river of automobiles to a much sleepier road through the trees and pastures of East Texas.

I went to some Astros games, and learned that Houston fans are the most polite in the game. I still remember one game where a drunken buffoon in a Cubs jersey was screaming insults at Hunter Pence while refusing to sit down. It was the kind of behavior that would have led to a knifing in Chicago or New York. Instead someone let security know, and the hooligan was quietly taken out.

I saw in Houston tremendous diversity, great food, and a vagabond that spirit I enjoyed. Houston is famous for its lack of zoning, which creates some crazy juxtapositions, like a church right by a nudie bar. Its anything goes, let it all hang out attitude, perhaps derived from the oil wildcatters of yore, make Houston the perfect city to visit for a weekend of fun.

At the time I was living alone in one of those sterile, depressing apartment complexes on the edge of a sleepy, boring town. I craved culture, excitement, and that ineffable city feeling. Houston gave that to me. Houston was there for me when I needed it. So in return, I have tried to be there for Houston, donating money to the Houston Food Bank, which I recommend that you do too.

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Century Of Jack Kirby

I have some things to say about Houston, but I am going to let that wait. Instead, I'll just ask everyone to donate some money to the relief and rescue work going on right now.

Today I'd like to mark the centenary of Jacob Kurtzberg, better known to the world as Jack Kirby. His was a name I sort of knew, but I did not learn the true extent of his importance until very recently. Last year I got back into comics after a 25 year hiatus, and realized that they were exactly the escapist medium that my soul required to endure waking up in the morning frightened at living in a country falling into the abyss. I also started diving deep into the history of comics (one of my favorite things to read about), and then realized how much Jack Kirby meant.

It is hard for me to even summarize his accomplishments. He, along with Joe Simon, co-created Captain America in 1941, at the infancy of comics and before America had even gone to war. His famous first issue cover, showing Hitler getting punched, displayed the great kinetic nature of his art. If you look at other Golden Age stuff and then look at Kirby, the differences are impossible to miss. His art is just that much more exciting, and it set the template for what came later.

In the early 1960s he teamed up with Stan Lee to essentially create the Marvel universe, and had a hand in the origins of superheroes from Thor to Iron Man to Black Panther to the Hulk to the X-Men. He managed to create an huge array of iconic characters and "looks" in a very short period of time. With characters like Silver Surfer, he also added a new level humanity and emotion to superhero comics. After fighting with Lee he went to DC in the 1970s, where Kirby began his Fourth World universe, one of those things little known in the straight world, but idolized by comics fans. (You could even argue that he influenced George Lucas' notions of the Force.)

The fact that he created his magum opus a whole thirty years into his career is pretty amazing. Of course, part of the reason Kirby feuded with Stan Lee was that he was not compensated nearly what he was worth. This has to do the the comic book industry's work for hire structure, which did not give artists control over their creations. (That has changed somewhat at the independents, but is still an issue at the Big Two.) For that reason I consider him to be a patron saint of modern creatives, who are told that they can be paid with "exposure."

Movie theaters today are, for better or worse, dominated by characters created by Jack Kirby. This is an amazing thing considering that he was born into the immigrant slums of the 1920s Lower East Side, had little formal arts or literary education, and worked in an industry that for years treated their creations as disposable tripe. He helped make the medium meaningful, and in the process captured the imaginations of millions. Because he worked in a lowbrow medium that did not respect its artists, and was not a charismatic self-promoter a la Stan Lee, Jack Kirby is "the king" to comics geeks but unknown to the people who avidly pay to see his characters on the big screen. It's time that changed.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Memoirs Of A Lapsed Husker Fan, Part Two

Part one is here

Despite having my heart broken by the Huskers losing to the Sooners in November of 1987, my devotion to the team only increased. This is the kind of Stockholm Syndrome that most sports fans are familiar with. I still remember watching a big game as an adult with a group of friends, and as our team started losing and the curses and oaths started flying, a friend who was there to socialize and not as a fan simply asked "Aren't you supposed to like this?" to which another friend replied "Pleasure has nothing to do with it."

Like Job, the next few years would test me. In 1988 Nebraska lost early in the season to UCLA, giving up 41 points in a game where I spent a lot of time throwing a novelty foam brick that my sister had just bought at the screen. (After this game she declared the brick to be bad luck.) With national title hopes out of the way, however, the Huskers managed to go undefeated for the rest of the season. The best moment came at the end, when Nebraska beat Oklahoma on the road in Norman. The rain poured down, turning the astroturf into a slip n slide. Both defenses dominated, but Nebraska pulled out a win in a brutal slugfest, 7-3. It wasn't pretty, but it was the visiting fans in red that got to throw the oranges this time.

But then the Orange Bowl happened. Returning for the first time in five years, Nebraska had to play Miami again. The ghosts of the failed two point conversion haunted Huskerdom, and there was hope that the demons of Miami could be exorcised like those of Oklahoma. It was not to be. Miami won 23-3, but it might as well have been 63-3. They dominated the game, Nebraska never even threatened. This was the second bowl loss in a row, with five more to follow. This game was when the doubts began to be sowed in the minds of many a Husker fan. Was Osborne's running offense a relic of the past? Could Nebraska actually compete in recruiting with schools like Miami? Was the game passing Nebraska by?

The next season brought a new shock, namely the end of the old Big 8 order. For years it had been Nebraska and Oklahoma and six also rans. 1961 was the last time that neither team had won or tied for the championship. In the off season journalists and the NCAA uncovered a massive level of wrongdoing at Oklahoma, leading to the team getting put on probation for three years and Barry Switzer resigning. During the height of the War On Drugs it was especially damaging that Oklahoma players were using and dealing cocaine. For a Nebraska fan, this was vindication. We were good and moral, Oklahoma was degraded and evil, and they were now facing their reckoning.

While Oklahoma looked to be eclipsed for the forseeable future, the Colorado Buffaloes stepped into the breach. Their coach, Bill McCartney, had made defeating Nebraska the raison d'etre of his program. In 1986 the Buffs shocked the Huskers with an upset win, and he crowed that this was "our bowl game." (Remember, back then getting to a bowl game was actually difficult.) Nebraska had won in 1987 and 1988, but 1989 would be different. Colorado beat Nebraska, and looked confident in doing so. That was the hardest part to watch. The fact that they were running an option offense better than us was particularly galling. I still remember sitting on my aunt and uncle's shag carpet, the smell of tobacco and chili in the air, thinking that things were never going to be the same.

They weren't, for the Huskers or for me. I started high school in the fall of 1990, and my fall Saturdays were spent at marching band competitions and debate tournaments. This meant brining my Walkman along and stealing some time to listen on the radio in those pre-cellphone days. The Huskers played Colorado that season on the day of my very first debate tournament. A friend of the judge in one of my rounds sat in the room with us and listened to the game on his headphones, giving us updates on the score between speeches. This time around Colorado beat Nebraska on our own ground, and did it pretty handily. It seemed that McCartney had replaced Switzer as my chief tormentor. Things got worse when the Huskers traveled to play Oklahoma, and Husker quarterback Mickey Joseph broke his leg while being tackled out of bounds on the Oklahoma sideline. Rumors flew that it was a dirty Sooner player who pushed him into the bench.

The Sooners put up 45 points on Nebraska, as did their bowl opponent that year, Georgia Tech. Georgia freaking Tech! The Huskers finished the season ranked #24, barely in the top 25. 1991 had its high points, especially seeing former third stringer Keithen McCant rise to the top and do a capable job at quarterback. But this season also seemed to cement Nebraska's second rate status, and Colorado's ascendancy. The Huskers tied Colorado on the road, but should have won. The Buffs returned a blocked extra point for a safety, and the Huskers missed a game-winning field goal at the end, as snowballs rained down on the field thrown by Buffs fans. The refs did not call a penalty. Buffaloes fans were known for pelting Husker rooters with cups full of piss and snowballs with rocks inside of them. At least Oklahoma and Nebraska fans had a level of mutual respect in their rivalry, this was something else. Nebraska fans had always prided themselves on their decorum. There was a longstanding tradition that when the opposing team left the field at the end of home games, Husker fans would applaud them. The rivalry with Colorado brought out the worst, most soccer hooligan aspects of fandom.

The season ended cruelly, with another Orange Bowl against Miami. The Hurricanes were number one team in the country, the Huskers were merely a scrappy bunch happy to be there, and the 'Canes eviscerated them, winning 22-0. Getting shutout in a bowl game was pretty embarrassing, especially after four previous bowl losses, the last three lopsided. As I mentioned in the last installment, this game put me in a depression for about a week. I was a very lonely kid in high school, Nebraska football was one of my few escapes, and it had let me down. Even in my escapist pleasures I was a loser.

And then lo, in the off season, a star in the southeast led Tom Osborne to Bradenton, Florida, where he found Tommie Frazier, the chosen one destined to finally bring Nebraska to the Promised Land. Frazier was a quarterback with a cannon arm, strong legs, and the smarts to run Osborne's deceptively complicated offense. He managed to be recruited from Florida, home to the two teams -Florida State and Miami- that had been shellacking Nebraska on a yearly basis in bowl games. The new messiah was actually allowed to play starting quarterback as a freshman, something that the by the book Osborne never would have done in former times.

Even though the Huskers went 9-3 that season, which was not as good as their 9-2-1 the previous season, I could feel the winds of change. After an early hard loss on the road against Washington, the Huskers played with verve and fire. And then, on Halloween night, 1992, I experienced a level of schadenfreude that will never be topped in my life. Colorado came to Lincoln for an evening game, and Nebraska completely and utterly embarrassed the Buffaloes, winning 52-7. Frazier ran the offense to perfection, even pulling off a fumblerooski with the great lineman Will Shields. This would mark the beginning of nine straight wins against Colorado.

Of course, the Huskers still found a way to kill my buzz. They inexplicably lost on the road to Iowa State, a traditional doormat for Nebraska. I remember getting the news while at a debate tournament and assumed that I was being punked. Alas, it was true. While the Huskers still got to go to the coveted Orange Bowl, they had to face a powerhouse Florida State team. Nebraska was not blown out this time, but they looked overmatched, and never threatened to win. This was not a team that ever seemed capable of competing against the new powers of college football.

This is why what happened next year came as a complete surprise to me. Nebraska simply refused to lose. After a year under his belt, Frazier was even more competent. The defensive adjustments by coordinator Charlie McBride, criticized by Husker fans for being old-fashioned, starting paying off. He prioritized speed over power, turning defensive backs into linebackers and linebackers into defensive ends. The Blackshirts' blitz struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. The season ended with a rematch, facing Florida State in the Orange Bowl, site of so much Husker misery. If Nebraska won this game, it would give them the national championship, their first real shot at the title in ten years.

Florida State had defeated Nebraska in bowl games after the 1987, 1989, and 1992 seasons. It felt like more of the same. It seemed like we didn't have a chance. This game also inflamed the Husker fan sense of self-righteousness like no other. The media said we didn't have a chance, and even seemed to dislike us, not giving the Cornhuskers the kind of scrappy underdog narrative that they would give other teams. Rather, they sneered and acted like Nebraska didn't actually belong there. What happened in the game only made things worse. It was a tense, low scoring affair, but late in the game some crucial officiating calls went against Nebraska, allowing FSU to score to go ahead late. With very little time left Frazier managed to get the team into field goal range for a winning shot, but the futile kicker line-drived his chance short of the goal posts. After the game FSU coach Bobby Bowden was gracious, saying that Nebraska had played the better game.

This was cold comfort. Nebraskans were anguished and enraged. A tee shirt making the rounds with a referee on a red background read "We Refuse To Be Screwed." A story circulated that Trev Alberts, an All-American linebacker who played the game with a cast on his right arm, was asked by referees to "take it easy" on Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward. (Alberts, a killer blitz artists, had sacked Ward three times.) Did this actually happen? Were those calls really botched? Did the national sports media actually dislike Nebraska? I do not have the objective standpoint necessary to answer those questions. All I can say that as a true devotee of the Husker religion my sect felt harried and persecuted.

The next year, 1994, would take all of that anger and resentment and turn it into a kind of righteous will to win. It also happened to be the year I started college, at Creighton University in Omaha. Although I had elected not to go to the University of Nebraska, I was still surrounded by Husker fandom. I also stayed with competitive debate, meaning that I was still having to find ways to keep up with the games in between arguing with other people while wearing a suit. One of the highlights of the season was going to a debate tournament at Colorado College, and breaking away to go to the student center to watch the Huskers manhandle the Buffaloes. Oh the glee I felt watching the Colorado fans squirm!

That game, however, came after a great deal of drama, the kind of drama that felt written by Hollywood. In the fourth game of the season, Frazier went down with a blood in his leg. This was shocking, not just for the season, but for how it threatened Touchdown Tommie's life. Remember, this was not long after Hank Gathers' death on the basketball court. It didn't help that there was a total bro on my debate team from Wyoming, Nebraska's opponent in their first game without Frazier. He would taunt me by holding his leg and saying "ooh, I got a blood clot." He also had sex with and then slut shamed a young woman I was in love with, so my dislike of this guy was off the charts. When backup Brook Berringer came in and led the Huskers to victory, I felt personally vindicated somehow.

Berringer would do a great job at quarterback, but more as a drop-back QB and less as an option quarterback. Unfortunately, he would suffer a collapsed lung during the next game against Oklahoma State, and Nebraska would be forced to call on Matt Turman, who would make his own Husker legend. Turman was an undersized walk-on from Wahoo, Nebraska. He looked so ridiculously small on the field, and had to start against a resurgent Kansas State team on the road. It was an ugly, rainy game that Nebraska won by riding its defense and its starting tailback, Lawrence Phillips, who would rush for over 1800 yards that season. (More on him later, obviously.)

Berringer came back, and the team never looked back. It was he who crushed number two ranked Colorado, humiliating them with one of my favorite all time Husker plays: a fake option then long bomb thrown for a touchdown. People had derided Nebraska' offense as slow and plodding and simple, but in that one play Berringer showed Tom Osborne's creativity and love of trickeration. I may have strayed from the Husker religion, but seeing that play has the same effect as playing "A Might Fortress Is Our God" for a Lutheran.

At one hour eleven minutes you can see the play that sums up Brook Berringer's brilliance in 1994

All of this lead to the bowl game. Once again, Nebraska was in the Orange Bowl. Once again, Nebraska was going to have to play Miami on their home turf. Like after the 1983 season, Nebraska was ranked number one and Miami number three. There is no way that a script writer could have conceived of such a situation. It was like something out of the movies. To make it even more theatrical, Tommie Frazier had recovered from his blood clot. Would he come in to play? This was a hard decision, considering how well Berringer had performed, and how high the stakes were for Frazier's health.

It was a fraught game for me personally, since I was not able to see it in Nebraska. I was at an international debate tournament being held at Princeton University. We arrived on January 1, game day. I wore my Husker gear out to dinner, and some waiter walked by me and said "Go Penn State." That year Penn State was also undefeated, and there was some controversy over the national championship, since there was no playoff or even championship bowl game. Nebraska was in the Orange as the Big 8 winner, Penn State in the Rose as the Big Ten winner, and nothing was going to change that. I saw the waiter's imprecation as a sign that I was in hostile territory. It also added to that prodigious Husker fan chip on my shoulder, which was inflamed by the thought that people in the rest of the country didn't like or respect my team.

Being 19, I could not watch the game in the hotel bar, and so watched it with two of my debate teammates in our hotel room. One of them was exhausted from New Year's Eve partying the night before, and when the Huskers fell behind, he decided to go to sleep and save himself the pain. The Huskers were down ten to nothing after the first quarter. Tommie Frazier started the game, but could not seem to do anything against the Miami defense. Osborne then brought in Berringer, who was able to hit some key passes and throw for a touchdown. Miami scored again, though, and Berringer also threw an interception in the endzone. That's the point when my friend went to bed, and the point that I thought that I was going to see yet another Nebraska embarrassment. I kept watching out of obligation, more than anything else.

Then, somehow someway, Nebraska's style of play, which I had lost faith in, was vindicated. McBride's aggressive blitzing paid off, as the Huskers sacked Miami quarterback Frank Costa in the endzone for a safety. Tommie Frazier came back into the game in the fourth quarter after Berringer's interception, and you could feel the game shifting. Nebraska had always prided itself on its offensive lines and their sturdy endurance. At the end of the game, Miami was wore out, and the dam broke loose in a very Husker way. Frazier moved the offense down the field, and they scored two touchdowns by running fullback Cory Schlesinger up the middle on a trap play. The 'Canes seemed powerless to stop the line's push, and caught flat-footed by the trickery. For a Husker fan it was as if the trumpets had sounded and the walls of Jericho had come crashing down. I could not believe my eyes.

My fandom has faded but I can't rewatch this game because the emotions are too strong

But neither touchdown was the most dramatic moment. After the first score, Osborne decided to go for two, to tie the score at 17. The ghosts of the 1984 Orange Bowl were hard to avoid, even if the stakes of this conversion were not as high. When Tommie Frazier connected on a pass to Eric Alford, I went nuts. It was a very similar play to the one in '84, but this time it worked! Turner Gill, who threw that pass back in '84, was on the sideline as Nebraska's quarterbacks coach. It was almost too perfect. I KNEW at the moment that there was no way that Nebraska was going to lose.

Alright, now I'm crying

Right after the game ended I got a knock on my hotel room door. It was one of my team's coaches, who had been watching the game in the bar. We jumped up and down and hooted and hollered. I was over a thousand miles away from home and wanted to be back there so bad. When our tournament was over and we went to the airport, I snagged the most recent Sports Illustrated, and basked in the victory, so long in coming. The national sports media seemed to actually be happy about Osborne finally winning. That chip on my shoulder suddenly shrank.

Little did I know that Nebraska would somehow better the 1994 season the next, or that the 1995 season would also begin my much more complicated relationship with my favorite team. More on that next time.