Sunday, May 1, 2016

When I Get Old Let Me Die During Baseball Season

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Track of the Week: Stevie Wonder "You Haven't Done Nothin'"

With all of the deaths of musical pioneers this year, I have been making an effort to appreciate those of advanced age that we still have with us.  Stevie Wonder is right at the top of that last, and a couple of weeks ago I found a pristine copy of Fullfillingess' First Finale on LP. It's one of the lesser-discussed records of his 1970s run of greatness, but just as good as the likes of Talking Book and Innvervisions, as far as I'm concerned.

The highlight is "You Haven't Done Nothin'," a red hot tune that appears to be about those who talk a big game about changing the world but doing little to actually make it happen. In this election year, full of empty promises, it's especially relevant.  Like the best songs on Talking Book, the riff is merciless hard funk with horns blasting gloriously over it. The song is a burning accusation against those who claim to act in the interests of others but really only care about themselves.

I've heard it said that the song was directed at Richard Nixon, but I hear it more as a denunciation of ostensibly "progressive" politicians who sell out to maintain power. Bill Clinton recently learned that his own actions in that regard will not be allowed to pass on by. I feel that people like him ought to be followed around perpetually by someone with a huge boom box blasting "You Haven't Done Nothin'."

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Christie's Hit On Rubio Now Looks Essential To Trump's VIctory

After last night's primary sweep, Trump looks all but assured of getting the Republican Party nomination on the first ballot.  Cruz and Kasich got blown out of the water, and the former proved himself to be completely desperate by announcing Carly Fiorina as his running mate yesterday.  Cruz and Kasich are just the last two non-Trump candidates standing, nothing more, nothing less.  They have proven incapable of stopping him.

Part of the issue is that they were not the strongest candidates to stop Trump. Kasich has never had a great deal of support in the polls, and Cruz is so extreme and despised by his fellow Republicans that they've hardly felt motivated to rally around him.

A mainstream candidate with broad appeal could stop Trump, but no such candidate exists on the Republican side anymore. Cruz is about as palatable to the GOP establishment as a barbed wire enema and Kasich has about the same broad appeal as asparagus flavored ice cream.  Marco Rubio would've been the most obvious choice, but he dropped out after a poor debate performance.  Of course, that performance was brought on by an attack by Chris Christie that was the political equivalent of a Jersey mob hit. Christie made that attack at a time when people questioned his continuance of his campaign, since he was at the bottom of the polls. Christie very quickly dropped out and endorsed Trump. I think we can assume that Christie's attack was coordinated with the Trump campaign.  The New Jersey governor likes living the high life, and he got to ride on Trump's private plane in return for kneecapping Rubio.  Now he can have as many M&Ms and as much Hennessy as his enlarged heart desires. (I have it on good authority that he's a Hennessy man.)

The Republicans could really use Rubio about now. They are in a situation where the means to stop Trump involve chicanery with delegates or changing the rules at the last minute. Such desperate measures can't be used on Kasich's behalf, since his appeal is so limited, and will never be used for Cruz because most Republican politicians hate him. Yes, they will back him as a last resort against Trump, but only because they have to. They would never risk alienating the rank and file on his behalf. I get the feeling that they would have done it for Rubio had he been able to stay in the race and get a reasonable number of delegates.

Now the Republican Party leaders are faced with the prospect of accepting Trump as the nominee, or with moving heaven and earth for Cruz, something they just can't stomach doing. So now they will be forced to do business with the demagogue, in large part due to the attack leveled by his hit man.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On Being A Member Of The Moral Panic Generation

Todd Rundgren's band Utopia knew that the Beatles burning of 1966 was more a sign of the early 80s than an image of the past

I was born in 1975, the year of the lowest birth rate on record in American history. That reflected both a sluggish economy as well as a shift away from the power of the traditional family in post-60s America. It also made me the perfect age to endure a whole raft of moral panics, which came fast and furious in the 1980s as a response to the very era of decadence that I and my generational cohort was born into.

During the years when I was first able to trick or treat, the rumors about poisoned candy intensified. In the early 1980s in my grade school years "stranger danger" became a constant fear. It didn't help that two boys were horribly murdered in Bellevue, Nebraska, (my home state) by a serial killer who picked them up in his car.  As I got older, sex, drugs, and rock and roll all became deadly and even devilish. By the time I was in middle school, I got heavy indoctrination in anti-drug propaganda, as was the style at the time. Tipper Gore and the PRMC were telling everyone that the music their kids liked was evil, and started slapping "explicit content" warnings all over it.  Others went further, claiming backwards messages were inserted to incite devil worship and suicide. Instead of empathy and compassion, the AIDS epidemic resulted in fear and scapegoating of gays and panic over how it spread. I was constantly on the lookout for drugs being pushed on me, and constantly told when I went to the big city (Omaha, in my case) to be on the lookout for gang members who would hide under cars and slash my ankle tendons as part of their initiation.  Hell, I couldn't even enjoy a harmless game of Dungeons & Dragons, which had been declared Satanic. At one point a family member panicked because someone had told her that Nintendo was Satanic, too. She couldn't actually remember the reason, but evidently my playing Nintendo was endangering my soul.

I've been thinking a lot about how this particular moment in American cultural history came to be. As more and more mothers worked, we were the daycare kids before becoming latchkey kids. The guilt and anxiety over this transition, combined with the rising influence of hardcore evangelicalism and Reagan-era backlash against the permissiveness of the 60s and 70s, perhaps made this all inevitable. Back in the sixties when Bible thumpers burned Beatles albums it was pretty obvious that the Fab Four were not under any serious kind of threat. All of a sudden, in the 1980s the Dobsons, Falwells, and Pat Roberstons of the world had their own media empires and powerful friends in office.  Boomers who may have strayed from the righteous path started going back to church, but it was more likely to be of the mega variety. Even for those of a more secular bent or adhering to a different religious sensibility, a reevaluation of values, as Nietzsche would put it, was in the offing.

Whatever the reasons, the sons and daughters were forced to atone for the sins of the mothers and fathers. Although members of my generation were the most likely in history to experience parental divorce, it was our generation, not our parents' generation, that bore the cultural fallout. We were an object of suspicion as much as we were of protective anxiety.  In school we were a "nation at risk" according to a famous report from 1983.  In my teen years the African American and Latino members of my cohort were labelled "superpredators." Youth were feared as products of a society gone wrong, cannon fodder in the culture wars.

But nowadays, my comrades in the moral panic generation have had the last laugh. I have a theory, borne out by data,  that the recent spike in those declaring themselves religiously unaffiliated began with my generation. Bombarded with a newly strengthened conservative Christianity powerful enough to engender court cases accusing day care centers of running Satanist death cults, many of us decided that religion just wasn't for us. We were bombarded with anti-drug education using spurious methods, but still were more likely than our parents' generation to favor legalization, which now looks like it is possible in the next ten years. With the advent of streaming on the internet, the attempt to limit music that teenagers can hear is now pretty much null and void. Hilary Clinton's "predator" comments -intended to harness the moral panic for the Democratic side- are now used AGAINST her. LARPing has become commonplace and is no longer fodder for scare-books like Mazes and Monsters.

People like to put my generation down as disaffected, but that disaffection is actually wisdom. We were fed massive tranches of steaming bullshit and fear mongering in our youth, and it's given us a healthy distaste for authority and a well-developed ear for malarkey.  (And yes, I am aware that generational thinking is notoriously subjective, but just indulge me this once.)  If that means we're not as big of "joiners" as our millennial juniors are, that's fine. We survived the wave of moral panics and defied them so that those younger than us could grow up with more possibilities for action and the necessary faith to be able to push for change. You're welcome!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Notes On A Quiet Saturday Morning

There is an eerie quiet in my home this misty Saturday morning.  My daughters stayed over with my in-laws last night so that my wife and I could go out on a much needed date.  Things seem thrown all out of kilter.  I actually managed to read the Saturday paper, something that was a singular pleasure of mine in my former, pre-parent life.  Nowadays I end up having to throw half of it away without having read it, my attempts interrupted by little voices asking for something, wanting to play, or me looking up to see my daughters about to deface something with a Sharpie or put stickers on the wood floors.

I ate a simple breakfast, but I could savor it without having to hear the strands of Peppa Pig or similar entertainment in my ears, or without assembling a breakfast for my daughters and pleading with them to actually eat it or not get it all over the table. Instead I'm playing an old favorite folk-rock record (Rod Stewart's Gasoline Alley, to be precise) and feeling something on a Saturday morning I haven't felt in so long: relaxation. My wife is sleeping in, enjoying the opportunity for once.

In my younger days, I never felt more at peace at any point in the week than I did on Saturday morning. My shower washed the working week off of my back, and the next Monday morning was still a rumor.  When I lived in Michigan I had a well-developed practice of walking two blocks to buy a copy of the Times, then strolling a few blocks more to a diner, where I would read the paper while quaffing coffee and devouring corned beef hash or some similar concoction.  I'd then walk home, totally at peace.

There are the days when I long for the boredom of youth. Long stretches of empty time are actually good for the soul. My current day to day existence resembles a kind of spiritual trench warfare. I get up at 5AM, wake my daughters up (or at least start them stirring), get dressed, and then walk the dog while my wife and daughters get dressed. Right before leaving with the dog at 5:20 I get the coffee going, and when I get back, I feed her and get breakfast ready for my daughters as my wife helps them get dressed. They come downstairs at about 5:35. I eat with and supervise them while my wife prepares their stuff for school. Then my wife comes out of the kitchen for her breakfast about 5:50 while I put shoes on the girls, brush their hair, and make sure they don't have yogurt all over their faces.  I am often unsuccessful in the latter endeavor.

About 6:05 we get up to leave, with varying levels of resistance from my daughters. We walk down the back steps, with varying levels of resistance, then strap them in their car seats, also with varying levels of resistance.  At 6:10 we back out of the driveway, so that I can be dropped off at the train station at 6:18 so I can catch my train that picks me up at 6:22. My wife then drives the girls to preschool before going to her own job.

We've managed to perfect the routine to the point that it rarely fails to get us all out of the house when we need to be.  But man is it exhausting, and after it I still have to do my arduous commute, great but demanding job, and then another duel with the New York commute on the way home. Sitting here writing a blog post (which usually only happens after dark) while slowly drinking coffee and listening to old records in the morning light is so astounding to me that I can barely believe that I am actually experiencing such a once mundane thing.

And yet.

I am desperate for my wife to wake up.  I so so badly want to get in the car and pick my daughters up from the their grandparents.  Being in this home without them feels wrong.  I want to see their smiling faces, I want to build Lincoln Log cabins with them. I want to watch old Batman episodes and play around in the sandbox. Before being a parent I did not know I was even capable of these feelings. As much as I can appreciate the taste of my former life I'm getting this morning, I wouldn't trade what I have now for anything.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince, Memory, And Taping Off Of The Radio

I'm one of the millions of people stunned by the death of Prince today, and I thought I'd add my small voice to the chorus of mourning.  His best musical years happened to coincide with my earliest consciousness of popular music.  Back in 1982-1984 I started listening to top 40 radio, but the only album I owned was Michael Jackson's Thriller on cassette. I resorted to a practice that kids these know nothing of: taping off of the radio.

In 1984 my parents bought a boom box that enabled me to do this.  The tape I made that year seems to have been lost to the sands of time, what I would give to have it back. So many evenings I sat with the radio on, my hand poised on the "record" button so I could get my favorite songs all to myself. When DJs talked over the intro it made me especially angry, because they ruined the song.

On New Year's Eve 1984 Casey Kasem was counting down the top 100 songs of the year, which made it the perfect opportunity for taping off of the radio.  My older cousin in high school at the time babysat my sisters and I, and it was her who had cultivated my interest in popular music to begin with.  (And she just emailed me as I was writing this. The age we live in now would've been incomprehensible in that 1984 world.) She encouraged our taping habit, and I distinctly remember being happy to have captured Billy Idol's "Eyes Without A Face," a song she especially liked.

Being young kids we had an established bed time, so my cousin promised that she would tape the songs we requested, and that she would tape the entire top five regardless of what was in it. The next morning I listened to the tape intently, and two songs most definitely grabbed me harder than any other: "Let's Go Crazy" and "When Doves Cry."  Yeah, I got a kick out of "Footloose" and "Say Say Say," but damn, "Let's Go Crazy" was really something else for me.

It had such a feeling of energy.  My sisters and I would go down into the basement of our house and put it on and dance around, hopping and running and laughing maniacally. It was such a fun song, and the lyrics about mortality flew straight over my head.  As much as I loved the song, the epic, flaming guitar solo at the end was what I truly adored.  It sounded like nothing else on the radio, which by the mid-80s was as homogenized as a stack of Velveeta cheese slices.  It's the closest thing to Jimi Hendrix that anyone one else has ever done. It made me hunger for other music that transcendent.

And that was the genius of Prince. He made pop music, but pop music with something strange and beautiful at the heart of it. He could sing soul songs, but then peel off a guitar solo that blew anything that rock guitarists were doing then out of the water.  Genres just didn't seem to matter to him. Now we are left in a musical world without him that is much poorer for it.  RIP

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Election Day In New York

This morning when I stepped out of the subway at 72nd street on my way to work the guy handing out free newspapers (AM New York, in this case) was using an old school newspaper hawking voice straight out of Orchard Street circa 1922. "Election! Election! Who's gonna win?"

I could feel a certain electricity in the air as I strolled up Broadway in the crisp spring morning air.  How would this turn out?  I can't remember the last time I was a place making a primary vote that actually mattered. At school some of my senior students were proud to vote in their first election, as was a colleague who was voting in her first American election after gaining citizenship.  It made me feel bad for my high levels of cynicism about the political process.

That cynicism returned later in the day.  I heard the Bernie supporters, perhaps worried about an impending loss, saying that the election was "rigged" due to voters dropped off the rolls in Brooklyn. I tend to think that this is more a case of incompetence and neglect, but in the paranoid imagination of many Bernie supporters saying such a thing is high treason. They seemed to know that a Sanders loss in New York would effectively mean an end to his crusade.

And while Clinton may win, I did not hear any genuine enthusiasm for her in the air. Getting enthusiastic for Hilary is like getting enthusiastic for Microsoft. The few people who really seem committed to her always seem like they are trying too hard to convince themselves of their conviction.

I didn't give the Orange Pumpkin of Doom any real thought until this evening when I sat down to watch the election returns, and saw that Trump had won New York even more handily that estimated.  Of course, the media hype of this win is way out of hand. We all knew that he would take his home state, especially after Cruz so egregiously insulted the people of New York.

It's a reminder that while in this country we tend to stereotype rural Southern folk as the repository of violence conservatism, it's the Northeast that fits the bill.  This area is crawling with white ethnics who guard their whiteness with a savage determination. While Republicans may be a minority in these parts, they are make up for their numbers with violent racism. If you want to find the heart of the white supremacist nationalism, don't go to Alabama, go to Long Island. Even if he goes on to lose, I am disheartened by the knowledge that I am living in a part of the world where Trump supporters still live, waiting to strike.