Thursday, October 30, 2014

Ode to a Cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

What If America Had Proportional Representation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sax-y Pop Songs of the 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Footnote on Suburban Fear

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Suburbia Is America's Fear Factory

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Track of the Week: Genesis, "Carpet Crawlers"

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

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

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