Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Seals and Crofts, "Summer Breeze"

This time of year I always get a jones for this song, and I must sheepishly admit that it's the first that I ever bought on iTunes.  (It's the perfect iTunes purchase, since I didn't want a full Seals and Croft album, and buying it at the store would have hurt my street cred.)  Back when I lived in Michigan, the local oldies station used to play it a lot, and I always felt it was the perfect accompaniment to the long, golden summer evenings of Grand Rapids.

Its mellow feel and images also remind me of early summer nights when I was a child, the times growing up when I was by far the happiest.  At school I had few friends and experienced constant teasing and bullying.  It didn't help that my two best friends went to a different school after the second grade (our parents pulled us out of the draconian Catholic school we attended, but my friends lived in another public school district.)  During the summer I could spend more time with them, and many an evening was spent at my buddy Dan's place, shooting hoops until the sun went down and I had to go home.  I will never know such a purely care-free existence ever again in my life, which must be what my Dad meant when he told me to appreciate my childhood.

This song reminds me especially of early summer, which I think of as the period between Memorial Day and the summer solstice.  Out in my rural Nebraska homeland, the prairie exploded into life and the corn stalks suddenly shot out of the ground, their leaves green beyond green.  During this blessed four week period the days seemed to last forever, and the oppressive heat of summer in the Great Plains had yet to burn up the outdoors.  In these precious late May and early June days, you really could still feel a cool summer breeze.  Not so in July and August, when the Nebraska air gets so hot that it feels like the wind is blasting out of some kind of massive hair dryer.

In the early summer, I could still taste my freedom from school, and savor it without any thoughts of having to go back, which pretty much dominated my mind from late-July forward.  (Yes, I was an anxious child.)  It seemed like the summer movies that I cared about the most always seemed to come out during this particular part of summer.  On the evening after my last day of school in the first grade, my family went to see The Return of the Jedi at the newly finished mall multiplex, and being the exact right age to appreciate Ewoks, I went home exhilarated.  Six years later, after my last day of school in seventh grade, a friend and I saw the end of another epic trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  I still remember visiting my aunt and uncle's house after the movie was over, jabbering away at all the amazing stuff I'd seen, from rats in catacombs to the scene when one of the characters chooses the wrong grail.  That night, with school over and a joyous cinematic experience fresh in my head and the summer stretched out before me like the milk and honey-giving valleys of a promised land of easeful leisure, may have been among the happiest that I ever knew as a child.  When I listen to "Summer Breeze," I get to feel a small fraction of that care-free satisfaction.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Forgotten Disco Music of the High 80s

In the film Adventureland, which is set in 1987, there's a great scene when the characters go to a club, the kind of cheap, unpretentious place playing percussive, yet non-techno dance music that seems to have died off since then.  I was too young to ever have frequented such establishments at the time, although I did go to something like it in my hometown years later.  Since the city of my birth is rather behind the times, it still has a skeevy dance club playing pop music of the likes once common in the Reagan Era (the club, not the music.)  The place is called "The Slammer" because it has bars on the outside, for maximum skeevy charm.  I danced to some R. Kelly there once in the early 2000s, rather than Sheena Easton.

Back around 1986, the start of a period I call the High 80s because it seems to embody most of our stereotypes about that decade, I really dug the kind of dance music played in these kind of clubs, even if I was way too young and had I been of age too squeamish to set foot in one of them.  This music was literally "disco" music, in that it was made to be played by DJs in discotheques where people danced.  Of course, disco was a dirty word at the time, reminiscent of the lameness of the preceding polyester decade.  (This dislike of all things seventies was rather strong in the eighties.)  Nevertheless, this music had the combination of catchy melodies and funky rhythms that made disco so popular.  A lot of these stuff seems to have disappeared into the memory hole, so I think it's high time to give it its due.  Below are some of my favorite High 80s club tracks.

Shannon, "Let the Music Play"

This song appears in the aforementioned scene in Adventureland, and for good reason, since it's dance a song from the 80s about looking for love at an 80s dance club.  (How meta!)  Unlike a lot of other pop music of its day, it's got some musical chops, and Shannon sings with real heart.

Nu Shooz, "I Can't Wait"

This to me is the sound of the summer of 1986, and it forever will be, for better or worse.  ("Walk Like an Egyptian" by The Bangles is a close second.)

Level 42, "Something About You"

If Simple Minds ever wanted to get funky and slap some bass, this is what they'd sound like.  God help me, but I can't seem to stop humming this tune of late.  Perhaps it's the distinctive falsetto background vocals.

Eddie Murphy, "Party All the Time"

I just loved skating to this jam at the roller rink back in the day. It's one of the best celebrity vanity singles ever, mostly because super-funky Rick James is laying down the tracks. (I wonder how much blow was snorted at this recording session, perhaps enough to rival Fleetwood Mac.)

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Graduation Speech That I Would Give

Editor's note:  We are once again in graduation season, and with it there will be an ocean of mediocre speeches and lame platitudes, along with a precious few insightful oratories.  If I had the chance, here's the speech that I would give.

Today is an important milestone celebration, and like other such occasions in your life, you are going to have to listen to some person who don't know all that well give a speech.  I am well aware that what I have to say might be seen by you as something to be gotten over and endured before the real fun of handing out diplomas takes place.  I certainly have no reason to argue with your feelings, but I promise not to give you a bunch of empty words, but a message that comes from the bottom of my heart.

At graduations one often hears of following one's dream, or at least about the doors to the future being open.  Very rarely do we talk about the nasty things that the future might hold in store for us, or the fact that our dreams can be dangerous traps.  That might sound cynical or scary, but my life's experience has shown it to be true.

I dreamed of becoming a history professor for a long time, perhaps even before I went to college.  In the service of that dream, I put forth great effort and made many sacrifices.  I completed a master's program, then spent six years studying for my PhD.  Along the way, I lived hand to mouth in genteel squalor, letting major medical issues like a broken tooth go unfixed due to lack of funds.  I spent one year living in Germany, almost completely alone in a foreign country with barely enough money to survive, just so I could complete the research for my dissertation.

After climbing the dissertation mountain, I spent two years as a untenured "visiting professor" at a large university in Michigan where I was paid more than I was as a graduate student, but below the median salary for workers in this country.  I made about as much money as a friend from back home who had just started a plumbing career.  Being a contingent faculty member, I had to contend with being treated as a nobody by my employer.  No matter how well I did my job, nobody seemed to really notice or care; other contingent colleagues got away with showing films in all of their classes because the powers that be only noticed us when students lodged a complaint.  This was a long way from how I had imagined the life of a professor.  In the meantime, my life had been transformed by meeting the love of my life.  Unfortunately, she lived 800 miles away in New Jersey.

I endured a less than ideal employment situation with the hope that it would be a stepping-stone to a permanent position.  That turned out to be the case, but it meant moving to a small town in an isolated part of Texas, and teaching in a department where I was not even allowed to teach classes in my area of speciality most of the time.  My then fiancĂ© and I knew that we did not want to settle down there permanently, so we endured three years of living in a long-distance relationship, most of which time we were married.  The whole time I busted my back to publish research and present at conferences in a desperate attempt to build my CV for the job market, so that I could get a job closer to my wife.

In reality, I was trying to do the impossible, because I had chosen a dream that brooks no compromises.  Finding work as a tenure track professor is incredibly difficult, and those that want to do so basically have to live their lives according to the random fates of job openings, which are few and far between.  In normal circumstances finding a job in a specific part of the country would be next to impossible; after the financial meltdown of 2008, it became completely futile.  During my third useless attempt to move on from my increasingly intolerable job, I had built up quite a few accomplishments, including three journal articles in top publications and a book contract.  These things did not seem to get me anywhere; I couldn't even get an preliminary interview for an academic job.

In the winter of 2011, I could not have been a more miserable person.  I lived 1,500 miles away from my wife in a one-horse town where I constantly felt like an outsider, I worked in a job that was full of personal affronts and attacks (I'll spare you the details), and I was faced with the prospect of giving up on my life's greatest dream.  It's hard to believe now, but the idea of giving up on my old dream made me completely distraught, as if I was admitting defeat after over a decade of my youthful years of hard work and sacrifice.

Despite the nagging doubts and painful realization that I had indeed failed to accomplish my dream, I decided that I would leave the job I had fought so hard to get, and no matter what happened, that I would move to New Jersey to be with my wife.  This decision did not fit with the usual narrative we hear about our dreams, that after a great deal of work and perseverance, we can overcome great obstacles to make that dream come true.  For a lack of a better word, that narrative is bullshit.  Life is not about the pursuit of dreams, as much as it about choices and compromises.  That's the advice that a dear and wise friend gave to me when I anguished over my future.  He knew of what he spoke, since his wife of less than a year (who he'd been romantically involved with for almost a decade) abruptly divorced him after carrying on an affair.  Our consumer society gives us the illusion that we can have it all.  For most of us, we can't, and must face really difficult decisions about what really matters in life.  In your adult lives, you will face your own dilemmas and be forced to make your own choices and compromises, whether you like it or not.

In my case, by pursuing my dream, I was destroying my life. I was beginning to realize that sticking with my dream at all costs was making me completely miserable, and I didn't have to be.  Nothing I did was ever good enough for the academic profession, while all my wife ever gave me was love and acceptance.  I had been living in a place with a bare minimum of the things that interest me and a dominant culture that was reactionary, anti-intellectual, and hostile to outsiders such as myself, just so I could keep after my "dream."  Instead I could be living next to one of the world's greatest cities and all that it had to offer.

What really made my decision stick was the voice in my head reminding me of my own mortality.  This might sound rather morbid for such a hope-filled day such as this, but we lose control of our lives when we forget about our own eventual deaths.  We only have a short amount of time on this earth, and without that consciousness, it's easy to let oneself stay in the same miserable rut, unaware that each day spent there is one day closer to the grave.  I urge you to go forth in life conscious of your own mortality, that each day you live and and breathe is a fantastic gift not to be squandered.  Deep down in my own heart I knew that I could not take my CV with me after I died, and that living my life as if I could would be a disaster.

With that realization I made a leap and went for broke in my applications to private high schools in the New York City area, one of whom was nice enough to hire me.  I had always been terrible at job interviews, scared to death of failure.  Now that I had already failed in what I thought was my life's dream, I felt liberated from the fear of not succeeding and performed much better in my interview visit to the school than I ever had with any other prospective job.

I emphasize this because we live in such a failure-averse society, a place where the easy victory is valued over a hard-fought loss.  For the most part, we desire lives of ease and leisure where all that is unpleasant gets excised.  I can tell you that my failures have made me a much better person, mostly because they showed me what matters and what doesn't matter in life.  What matters to me, I found out, is being with the woman I love, in a place where I actually want to live, doing work that is meaningful.  Some days I get a little blue when I miss life on a university campus, but I can say without a doubt that I am much happier person now than I was then.

Of course, many of you will be more successful in achieving your dreams than I was.  Hopefully you have chosen less cruel career paths than academia.  Even so, we are living in an age of diminished expectations.  Unemployment is high for young graduates, job opportunities are drying up, and many of you who will get work will be laboring for free as unpaid interns, with little hope of advancement.  When you face these frustrations, remember that it's okay to fail, to keep your eyes on what really matters, and that you might even find yourself finding a dream that you were never looking for in the first place.  That's what happened to me, and even if my job title is more humble than the one I wanted, in my home and in my work I feel the love and acceptance that I've spent a lifetime trying to find.  On the paths that you will walk, I hope you can be as lucky as I have been.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Why I Don't Like Graduations

Graduation season is upon us yet again, and I couldn't be less excited about it.  I don't like graduations, I never have, and I doubt I ever will. I didn't bother to go to my own doctoral graduation because it would have been absolutely unbearable, but will continue to be stuck with the task of going to these ceremonies due to my chosen profession.  (At least, unlike at the university level, I will no longer have to sit through over a thousand names being called.)

In the first place, graduations are dreadfully boring. There is just no getting around this fact, no matter how hard you try. Most of their running time consists of names being read off from a list, something that's about as stimulating as watching paint dry. The rest of the usual graduation ceremony is filled by speeches typically of the most boring, sanctimonious, and vapid quality.

For instance, many valedictorians are completely uninteresting by their very nature. They are not especially creative or insightful, but good at getting top grades, and for this skill are allowed to speak banalities to a captive audience. Their tiresome addresses drone on with the usual platitudes that fall into two categories "isn't it great that we made it" and "this is just the beginning of the future." My high school graduating class had three (!) valedictorians, only one of whom could give a speech without mumbling, and his was one of the worst speeches I've ever heard in my life. A friend in my sister's class gave the only good valedictorian speech I've ever heard, mostly because it eschewed the traditional bullshit and attacked the petty clique-ishness and intelligence-insulting nature of my high school. It was the speech I would have given had I could.

If it's not grindy, teacher's pet students talking interminably, it's some lame-ass dignitary or politician puffed up on his or her self-importance. They purport to give students the wisdom of their years, but usually end up sounding barely more insightful than the high school students three decades younger than them.

What annoys me most about graduations, however, is their pervasive self-congratulatory aura, especially at the high school level. Let's be honest here, it is hardly a great accomplishment to graduate from high school nowadays, considering the lowered standards and pressure for teachers not to fail students. I would even be so bold to say that it hardly counts as any kind of accomplishment at all.  As far as higher education goes, I didn't really consider getting my degrees worthy of celebration. When I went into my doctoral program, I did it with the intent of getting my PhD. By graduating, I was merely doing what I had set out to do! Going to graduation seemed ridiculous to me, like expecting a parade for paying my taxes, or having a party to celebrate my lack of reckless driving citations.

(Of course, there are plenty of people out there who have had to overcome great personal obstacles in order to go to college and graduate, and I am fine with them getting excited about graduation. These students, however, are a decided minority.)

What bugs me almost as much is the fact that so many graduates don't even respect the ceremony that they think is so damn important. Until my senior year, the graduation ceremonies at my high school were a complete joke. The graduates talked the whole time, bounced beach balls, and shot silly string at each other. When the administrators cracked down, my mouth-breather classmates complained, saying it was "their day" and they should be able to do whatever they wanted to, as if their graduation from high school was some kind of great accomplishment demanding respect. At that point I wished attending graduation wasn't mandatory to recieve my diploma, because I had no desire to be "honored" along with a bunch of lazy, self-entitled dopes.

As many of you know, I am on a personal crusade against mediocrity, and no ritual in this country exudes mediocrity more than the typical graduation, from the speeches on down to taking pride in that which you were supposed to do in the first place.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

When I Hear the Word Innovation, That's When I Start Running for Cover

If you look over at the right-hand column of this blog, you'll notice that my most popular post is an analysis of buzzwords and jargon used by educational administrators.  My ears are very sensitive to these words, because when I hear them, I know something bad is about to go down.

Case in point, Mitt Romney has been flogging the education issue recently with the usual bullshit language of "failed schools," "choice," "accountability," and, you guessed it, "innovation."  That last word has now been so misused that I can barely believe that politicians are still invoking it.  When Mitt says "innovation" he means government-sponsored giveaways to the growing for-profit education industry and its fat cat corporate underwriters.  Hence his desire to get banks back into student lending, reduce regulations on for-profit colleges, and give federal dollars to K-12 for-profit schools under the guise of uplifting poor students.  (I find it ironic that Romney calls education the "civil rights issue" of our day, but does nothing in his proposals to address our segregated schools, which are more racially divided than they were at the time of the Brown decision in 1954.)

"Innovation" is our modern day "right to work," a disingenuous slogan by the capitalist elite to get the public to behind something that they would not support if they understood what it was really all about.  After all, the banking protections of Glass-Steagall were repealed in the name of "innovation," and Chase Manhattan guru Jamie Dimon has fought against greater regulation of our financial industry with claims that such rules would stifle innovation.

Well, we all know how that's turned out.  Our economy has found innovative ways to commit hair-kari, and Dimon's bank has recently developed completely novel and innovative paths to losing billions of dollars.  Turning our education system over to for-profit entities and letting our bankers run riot do not constitute innovations, but naked power grabs by amoral greed-heads who'd throw their own grandmothers down the stairs if it meant they'd be able to make a buck from it.  That's why when I hear the word "innovation," I hold onto my wallet and run for cover.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Billy Idol, "Eyes Without a Face"

There's a certain kind of mid-1980s pop music that I think of as "Y music" because I used to hear it when I went to the YMCA to go swimming or play basketball.  They played the local hits station over the PA, and since the complex was completed in 1981 with a light brown and powder blue color scheme, it was totally 80s-tastic to begin with, and reached new levels of awesomeness when "Abracadabra" by Steve Miller filled the air.  (There's one summer where I swear I heard that song in the locker room after my swimming lessons each and every day.)

Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face" always brings me back to the summer of 1984 at the Y.  It's a song tailor made for the YMCA experience: the shimmery synths fit well with the play of light on the water in the pool, and the relaxed vibe with a place that always seemed to exist outside of time for me.

The effects laden guitar reminiscent of Robert Fripp that comes stomping in halfway through was also one of the first things I ever heard approximating punk rock.  Idol had fallen far from his days as a punker in Generation X, losing the DIY ethos but retaining the sneer, spiky hairdo, and other surface accouterments of a once great musical genre.  Back in the height of the Reagan-era, the surface tokens of the former counterculture were as close as a kid in a rural town could get to the real thing.

There's nothing like those summers before I had to start working during my months off in junior high.  Childhood summer floated by with the kind of leisurely ease that I only get to experience today for an hour or two at a time, rather than for three months straight.  As lame as this song might sound today, committing the mortal 80s sin of overproduction, I get a warm feeling remembering those wide-open days of pure delight.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Classic Albums: Tenacious D

Many might look askance at me for naming a record put out just eleven years ago by a comedy duo in the classic category, but I think it belongs, for both artistic and sentimental reasons.  On the sentimental side, it brings me happy memories of graduate school, when my friends would play this album, and we would all repeat the jokes.  Some of us even saw Weezer in concert in Bloomington-Normal mostly to catch the D's opening performance.  (JB and KG were pleasantly surprised by the crowd's enthusiasm; little did they know that the local college radio station had been playing "Wonderboy" to death.)  This album saw its official release on September 18, 2001, a time when myself and others really needed a laugh-filled distraction from the world.

Artistically, the D are a throwback to the hard rock of the 1970s and 80s, which they masterfully satire with the kind of depth that only love can understand.  The riffs are killer but obvious, the lyrics profane and overblown, but the songs stick with you long after they're over.  Their first album, like those of yore, really has to be played in its original sequence; the shuffle option on the iPod turns it into incomprehensible hash.  This isn't just because of the comedy sketches that properly introduce may of the songs; it's an album that starts with catchier tunes, dips into more profane territory, and ends with a cannabis-induced epic about JB and KG (Jack Black and Kyle Gass, for the unitiated) leading some kind of global revolution and setting themselves up as monarchs, complete with interecine poisonings.  It's all so wonderfully dirty, strange, and goddamned funny that you're amazed that the powers that be let them make it.

Take the aforementioned "Wonderboy," for example.  It's catchy, it rocks, it works as an homage to the "dragons and kings" lyrical stylings of Ronnie James Dio, but ends with the immortal lines "There, the crevice!  Fill it, with your might juice!"  It's as if they were stoned at 2AM watching The Song Remains the Same one night and decided to take up Robert Plant's rhetorical question "does anyone remember laughter?" while simultaneously admiring Jimmy Page's monster riffs.  Speaking of Dio, they rock hardest on a song of that name where they vow to take his throne and don his "cape and scepter."  Their satire has a rare and admirable sincerity to it, since it's grounded in love and affection, not derision.  Even if they are making fun of classic rock conventions, like the road song on "The Road," Tenacious D so obviously enjoy playing the role of arena rock gods.

Independent rock music has become so serious and lacking in humor that Tenacious D's debut still sounds like a fresh antidote to the rest of the scene even today.  Sometimes you have to drop the pretenses and just rock out with the type of tunes made for ripping through some asphalt in a Camaro.  Tenacious D still interests me as an album because it manages to combine such fun with real sincerity.  Take the song "Tribute," for example, which KG and JB sing with earnest conviction, despite the presence of a snorting demon so hilarious that I have a hard time getting through the song without my own snorting with laughter.

After "Tribute," though, the rest of the album gets less reverential and more ridiculously, dirtily funny.  There's a plea for gentle sex wrapped in language that would make a sailor blush and a song about a threesome that includes the rather evocative imagery of "Me and KG come naked out of the side hatch."  Something about the term "side hatch" just cracks me up, I can't explain it.  The same goes for the final number, the multi-suite mini-opera "City Hall," which reminds me of the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" filtered through "Holy Diver" and several bong hits.  It's a fitting end to an album that has always brought a smile to my face in the hardest of times, an ability that very few have the capacity to do.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Joe Ricketts' Super PAC Shenanigans in Historical Perspective

The doldrums of the 2012 campaign season between the end of the primaries and the start of the conventions got a little tempestuous this week with the leaking of a planned super PAC assault on the president via his former association with Jeremiah Wright.  (Charles Blow, as usual, provides a cogent distillation of the issues lurking in the leaked memo.)  This campaign, fundamentally based in provoking and exploiting white racial resentment, was to be funded by billionaire and Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, who has now had to publicly repudiate this plan.

At first glance, this looks to be just another sign of the power of super PACs and their plutocratic benefactors since the infamous Citizens United decision.  However, when viewed in historical perspective, these most recent outrages are actually part of a much longer history of conservative oligarchs using their fortunes to manipulate the masses.

This has been on my mind of late because I recently read Allan Lichtman's history of the conservative movement, White Protestant Nation.  As the title implies, Lichtman argues that modern conservatism, with its origins in the post-WWI period's orgy of nativism and racist violence, has at its core the idea that the "real America" is under threat by enemies both political and racial.  Lichtman does not rule out its economic philosophy, however, and rightly distinguishes between free markets and private enterprise.  The latter is actually what conservatives are interested in, since they'd rather have the government intervene to protect their economic interests than to have it go away.  This helps explain while Ricketts could simultaneously plan an attack on president Obama due to his fears of government expansion while petitioning the city of Chicago and state of Illinois for public funding to renovate Wrigley Field, where the team he owns plays baseball.  Ricketts and his ilk do not want a true laissez-faire system, but prefer that the government socialize the risk as long as the profit is kept in their hands.

Lichtman's book abounds with examples of similarly politically engaged millionaires attacking liberal presidents and causes.  Back in the 1930s, business supported groups spent time and money trying to convince America that FDR was some kind of dangerous "socialist."  (Sound familiar?)  The American Liberty League, which pushed many of these claims, was almost wholly financed by the DuPont family.  Astroturfing is not new, and has been a crucial tactic in the conservative movement going back at least to that time.  The practice continued in the 1950s, with Texas oil tycoon HL Hunt's LIFE LINE, which broadcast its Christian fundamentalist, radical anti-Leftist views over five hundred radio stations.  The National Review could not have been born or kept alive through decades of unprofitability without the support of wealthy donors. During the 1990s Richard Mellon Scaife spent millions trying to destroy Bill Clinton's presidency through lies, scurrilous rumors, and outrageous accusations.  We know the Koch brothers today for their interventions in Wisconsin, but they have been massively funding radically partisan Right-wing causes since the 1970s.

The examples I've listed above are just the tip of the iceberg.  Conservative causes and publications have relied for decades on the largesse of a few wealthy donors, and have slung plenty of mud against any president who dares to defy their will.  Without these moneymen corporate overlords, who have been few in number but big in influence, I really doubt that political conservatism would be as dominant a political ideology as it is today.  (Consider Rupert Murdoch's role in funding and overseeing a cable network that is essentially a Right-wing Pravda capable of framing public debate.)

Ricketts is cut from their cloth, in ideology as well as tactics.  The memo outlining the proposed propaganda campaign against the president seeks to portray him as an alien figure steeped in radical thought who has "brought this country to its knees."  The apocalyptic rhetoric and paranoid hatred of those who do not fit into a conservative definition of "real American" (read: white) pretty much matches that of the Scaifes, DuPonts, and Hunts of times past.  I also found it interesting how the proposal contained several attacks on John McCain for failing to let loose the dogs of radicalized political war.  The radical conservative millionaires of times past also criticized moderate Republicans in the starkest terms.  They hated Wendell Wilkie and  Dwight Eisenhower, even though the latter won the White House for the GOP after twenty years of being shut out.

As is so often the case, what we think is new is actually quite old.  If progressives are to withstand the current assault by well-funded legions of ideologues, they need to remind Americans who the real elites are.  They are not Ivy League educated law professors living in big cities, but the billionaires who are so wealthy that they can throw money around and treat the political system of this country as their personal plaything.  The plutocrats always outspent FDR when it came to campaign dollars, but he kept beating them because the people were well aware of who was on their side and who isn't.  If modern liberal politicians want to pull off a similar coup, they better start giving the public more than just promises.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How the STFU Culture in Academia Enables Dysfunction

Those of you brave or bored enough to browse the user forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education's website should already know what "STFU" means.  For the initiated, I'll spell it out for you, it's an acronym for "shut the fuck up."  Back in my academic days when I suffered in a dysfunctional department, I would turn to the "Tenure Track" forums to see what others were told when confronted with similar problems, such as bullying in the workplace, incompetent chairs, unfair workload, and badly-designed course catalogs.  (Believe you me, the latter problem can make your life a living hell when you never get to teach the classes you want.)  Often, when junior scholars on the tenure track ask for advice in these forums online, older and wiser professors very commonly counsel their younger charges to, you guessed it, STFU.

They don't mean that the younger people should close their mouths and not post their problems online, but that they ought to hunker down, put their shoulder to the wheel, and wait to voice their concerns about their department until after they get tenured.  At that point you simply can't be fired for stirring up a little shit or registering complaints.  (Of course, chairs can and will find other methods of punishment for those who defy them, even if protected by tenure.)  While this method of dealing with a major problem, which basically amounts to sucking it up for six years, might sound a teensy bit counterproductive and unfair, it does seem to be the prevailing strategy for folks on the tenure track in the profession.

In many respects, I can't argue with it.  I've seen folks who refused to STFU and actually state their opinions and displeasures turned into targets and ostracized.  I've also seen sub-mediocrities with barely any publications get tenure simply because they never caused anyone on the tenure committee any offense.  Taking on others in your department, even if they are breaking the rules, is hard to do without suffering the consequences.  For instance, I knew for a fact that many graduate assistants in my department were being used as teaching assistants (they were grading papers, leading discussion sessions, etc.), despite the fact that this was completely against university policy and awfully unfair to the students who were not being compensated like TAs.  I brought this issue up in a meeting once, and did so in the least confrontational way possible ("I just want to have clarified what kinds of things the GAs can do.")  I would have gotten a friendlier response if I had laid a turd on the lectern.  None of the senior faculty backed me up, and those abusing the system quickly shot me down.  Soon enough, I was being labeled a "trouble maker."

On the surface, the STFU culture just might be another case of the world being an unfair place and younger professionals needing to pay their dues before they are allowed authority.  Hierarchies exist in all walks of life.  However, I think STFU speaks to a deeper dysfunction within the profession itself, one that renders a large swath of its members powerless and voiceless.  Junior scholars have been experiencing the brunt of the funding crisis in higher education.  Tenure track jobs are fewer and farther between, they have much higher tenure benchmarks than their older peers did, and the scrapping of library budgets and travel money has made it all the more difficult to get the support needed to do the research to achieve the aforementioned benchmarks.  Many (though by no means most or all) tenured faculty are content to ride the last helicopters off the roof, kicking their younger and less fortunate peers trying to climb on.

A majority of faculty are contingent, so they don't even get to sit at the table.  Adjuncts and visitors are typically treated like peons, and usually not given any role at all in the task of faculty governance of the university.  Those lucky enough to score tenure track jobs must adhere to the STFU code, and remain silent while they are disadvantaged by the wave of austerity the hurts some more than others.  This leaves the tenured graybeards as the only faculty group with any real power or say-so.  No wonder things are so rotten for junior scholars these days.  It's time to see STFU not as wise career advice, but a tool enabling the dysfunction of academia and the mistreatment of junior scholars.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Musical Interlude: Midwestern Songs by Midwestern Artists

This morning I cued up some Uncle Tupelo on my iPod while I rode the subway to work, and became surprisingly emotional.  Listening to this quintessentially Midwestern band reminded me of the place where I grew up, a land I have seen very little of in the last four years.  Sure, I am very happy here in New Jersey, but I lived the first thirty-two years of my life in the Midwest, and will never be able to get it out of my system.  Here are some Midwestern songs by Midwestern artists that give me memories of home, and not always the happy variety.

Uncle Tupelo is most remembered these days for being Jeff Tweedy's band before Wilco, which is a shame considering their spot-on evocation of disaffected life in the rural Midwest.  This song in particular strikes a deep chord with me, since I grew up in the kind of "three hour away town" described in this song.  (This means being three hours away from the nearest sizable city.)  I am not keen on going back there for more than a visit, but having to learn make my own fun and learn how to be alone with myself has made me a stronger person.

There aren't many songs that hit the charts in the 1980s that bring tears to my eyes, but this is one of them.  Having grown up in Nebraska amidst the farm crisis of the Reagan, I know the reality behind the "blood on the plough."  Three decades later, the towns my parents grew up in are all but dead and the small farm economy that supported those places is gone forever.  As Mellencamp says in this song, "I'm sorry for you son, those are just memories for you now."  Too bad people there keep voting for the same people who helped destroy their way of life.

If anything makes me feel guilty about living so far away from home, it's that I hardly ever get to see my ninety-year old grandmother.  This song about an old Midwestern couple isolated from their family rips my heart out every time.  The people living in the dying small towns of my home state find themselves increasingly alone, since these places offer nothing for young people, who must seek their opportunities elsewhere.

I'll close things out with a song that I think is one the most sublime ever written.  Jeff Tweedy formed Wilco after Uncle Tupelo, a band that achieved godlike status in the halls of hipsterdom.  Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo's primary song writer, helmed Son Volt, whose first album, Trace, is a real masterpiece.  The St. Genevieve of this song is not a holy person, but a town on the Mississippi River trying to stave off the massive flood of 1993.  The plain-spoken resilience tempered with fatalism expressed by this song is to me one of the great attributes of the Midwest, and one I am proud to keep alive amidst the neurotic, high strung nature of life in the Big Apple.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Why the Rupert Murdoch Scandal Matters

I have long held an unhealthy interest in British culture and politics.  There's a place in Manhattan where I go to nosh on authentic bangers and mash, I make Heinz Baked Beans at home all the time, I have seen all of the "kitchen sink" realist dramas of the fifties and sixties, and recently bought a long, winding historical novel about the miner's strike in 1984.  One thing about British society that has particularly fascinated me is its newspapers and attendant media culture.  (If you're interested in the topic, Harold Evans' recent, entertaining memoir My Paper Chase is a good introduction.)

Because Britain is a small country, it has several national newspapers, and these institutions still exert a formidable influence over the public.  I have long read the Guardian online (and in paper form when I get the chance), a reading relationship cemented in the early days of the Iraq War when the US news media seemed incapable of offering a critical perspective.  Despite the presence of that reputable newspaper (among others), the newspapers over in dear old Blighty have been dominated for over three decades by Rupert Murdoch, the same man responsible for Fox News in this country.

For quite some time now Murdoch has cast himself in the role of king-maker, and his newspapers have enjoyed a cozy relationship with those in power.  For years they needed to placate him, or risk the bloody fangs of his press's attack dogs being let loose upon them.  Now, with the multiple allegations of phone hacking, Murdoch's shutting down of The News of the World, accusations of widespread bribery of police, and a Parliamentary committee declaring Murdoch unfit to run a newspaper, it looks like the man who has wielded as much power as any of Britain's elected officials may finally be meeting his downfall.

If you doubt the importance of this moment, you should sample some of the joyous declarations from those in the Home Isles who feel as if some sort of dark spell has been broken.  This is a relevant story for folks in the states for two reasons.  In the first place, the bribery allegations and the possible breakup of Murdoch's media empire could have a major effect on the future of Fox News and his other American holdings.  Second, and more importantly, Murdoch's disgrace after years of apparent invincibility offers those of us in America who care about maintaining democracy hope.  Our current political system is a rigged game fixed by powerful corporate and media interests who see government, as FDR once said of them, "as a mere appendage of their affairs."  I hope the puppet masters take a good hard look at Murdoch's reversal of fortune, and tremble a little in their boots.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Battle with the Temptations of Left Wing Spenglerism

As loyal readers have probably noticed by now, I very rarely write about politics these days.  Politics motivated my blogging in the first place; I started my first blog as a direct reaction to George W. Bush's reelection in 2004.  However, as a friend mentioned last week about himself, I am having a hard time maintaining the outrage and passion about politics that I once had.

In some ways, this might not be a bad thing.  I have been saved much of the aggravation and pain I used to feel on a daily basis.  Nowadays, when I hear about the latest conservative abuse of history, voters yet again exercising the tyranny of the majority to advance their own bigotry, or the Republican party using obstructionist tactics to screw over the working and middle classes, I mostly just shrug my shoulders and move along.  I used to write about these things, now I don't bother.  It's not that I no longer hold my old political principals, it's that I have lost hope that there can be much done in response, or to arrest the decline I perceive all around me.

Three decades of supply side economics have done their work, and I fear that the rot has set in so deeply that there is simply no way for this country to reverse its slide into a drastically unequal society keeping its people in line through world-leading incarceration, hand held gadgets, and cheap plastics trinkets purchased via easy credit.   The Supreme Court has basically made it legal to buy elections and allow the corporate elite to spread unlimited propaganda without even revealing their responsibility for it.  One of our political parties has become a vehicle for an extremist political movement totally unwilling to compromise and always ready to obstruct anything they don't like, while the other party mounts a weak opposition and remains beholden to the corporate interests who call the tune.

I don't like that I have become this pessimistic, since political pessimism is ultimately counterproductive, and in the past has been associated with right-wing reactionism.  The title of this post refers to the German thinker Oswald Spengler, whose 1922 opus The Decline of the West, coming on the heels of the Great War's destruction, prophesied Western European culture's downfall.  He perceived modern democracy to be one of the spasms of a dying and decadent civilization, and preferred a return to more authoritarian forms of rule.  To go about the world seeing irreversible decline means losing faith in ideals and simply clutching onto what you can while all else crumbles.  Seeing the world in this fashion makes the prophesy of decline a self-fulfilling one.  Declinist narratives also inevitably romanticize the past and distort the possibilities for change in the present.

To try to wrest my political soul from a fall into bitterness and cynicism, I have been trying to focus my political energies on more local issues.  I think the nation as a whole might well be irredeemable, but a fight can be mounted to get same sex marriage here in New Jersey, to throw Boss Christie and his teacher-hating cronies out of office, and to put an end to the NYPD's racist stop and frisk campaign.  President Obama's open support for gay marriage this week was an important reminder to me that things can improve in surprising ways, even if that change is still largely symbolic.  I just worry that without more signs and wonders, it will be hard for me to keep my political faith.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

New York, New York

It was a year ago today that I interviewed for my current job.  I fell in love with the school immediately, but worried that I would not be able to make the transition to high school teacher, or that my lack of experience in the field would prevent me from getting hired.  Thankfully I got the position, and have been rewarded with a wonderful work environment and the chance to teach some fantastically engaged students.  It also meant escaping from my own personal hell in Texas, where I had been laboring within a tyrannical, bullying department at an almost comically reactionary institution located in a backwoods crudhole of town.  I wrote the following back then as I contemplated going to work in the Big Apple, a place I had a long and complex relationship with.  A year on, I must say I love the place even more despite the fact that its familiarity has eroded some of its mystique.

I am a very happy person this evening. I got offered the job in NYC, and have officially decided to take it. Obviously, I am overjoyed at finally being able to live with my wife, and with being able to work for a school that really seems to share my values (i.e. giving a damn about real education and treating students like human beings instead of slabs of meat.) However, I do feel a certain special giddiness about being able to get up and go to work in New York each day.

It's a city I have really grown to love first hand over the past few years, after decades of admiration mixed with an inferiority complex from afar. Those who are from the city or its surrounding area probably can't understand the bundle of emotions that the Big Apple invokes in the culturally advanced children of small heartland towns. For those in the provinces without cultural aspirations, they see New York as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy" to quote Obi Wan Kenobi. To them, it is the ultimate foreign island within the United States, a space of constant transgression full of homosexuals, immigrants, and effete intellectuals. This is why I find it so ironic that the people who seem to hate all that New York represents are the ones most likely to claim the legacy of 9/11 and get their knickers in a twist over the supposed "Ground Zero mosque." (I love Buck Owens, but even I can't forgive the following song.)

If you grow up in the cultural fringe but want to rebel against it, there is perhaps no better way than to embrace the city most reviled by rural America's most reactionary denizens. Growing up I had a certain obsession with the city that grew out of movies, books, music, Saturday Night Live, and broadcasts of games from Yankee Stadium. Taxi Driver was one of the first truly artistic films I saw as a teenager, and one that stamped a certain image of New York on my mind: a dangerous, sleazy, violent, yet exhilerating place. I got much the same vibe from one of my favorite bands, The Velvet Underground, whose junk-sick sounds were inseperable from Manhattan's dark heart. If you asked me when I was 21 to describe New York City, I would have played you "Sister Ray." On a similar, gritty note, back when I was 16, I would have spun "The Streets of New York" by Kool Rapp G and DJ Polo.

There was another New York of my imagination, of course. This New York was the cradle of culture, the epitome of the modern world at its most modern, from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was the place where all my favorite writers seemed to have lived at one point or another. It was jazz, art deco, and subways. It's where Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and countless others came to make there mark. Even though the city intimidated me in its distance, its size, and foreigness, I secretly harbored a desire to "be a part of it," as the song goes.

At the age of 19 while attending a college debate tournament in Princeton, I was lucky enough to have a couple of days to play around in the city. The first day was kinda touristy, we hit Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, and yes, the World Trade Center. I still remember standing in the observation deck looking out over the city, an endless undulating maze of skyscrapers stretching on to the horizon. The buildings seemed like giant file cabinets where people were stored, a thought that profoundly disturbed me at the time. Still, to this day, despite my love of the city and ease with which I move about it, I get a certain feeling of extreme alienation, of being but a small, insignificant blip in a startingly fast-moving, indifferent panorama.

Our second day in the city was more fun. My debate partner was quite the social butterfly, and she made quick friends with a Jamaican debater attending an Irish university who had done an internship on Wall Street. I've forgotten his name, but he was a good guy and a great guide to the city. We got under the surface of the city and strolled through places like Greenwhich Village. I was more of a goofball in those days, and while I am embarassed to admit it now, I must report that on the subway I got some of my friends to join me in a chorus of "New York, New York." Some the passengers threw loose change at us, I think as a compliment, or at least a slight recognition of our outsider's enthusiasm for Gotham.

However, my attitude about New York got a bit resentful as my twenties went on. Much of this had to do with my years spent in Chicago and my great love for the City of Broad Shoulders. (Even today I feel like I am cheating on Chicago by making New York number one in my affections.) Chicagoans are loathe to admit it, but they have a certain inferiority complex when it comes to New York born out of decades of condescension. I also resented the very real snobbery I was forced to endure over the years from people who would cast aspersions on my home state without ever having been there. New Yorkers seemed to me the most provincial people in America, all the while claiming to be the most cosmopolitan.

And while that "everything is better in New York" attitude still bugs me, I've learned to get over it. There are many wonderful ways that my wife has made me a fuller and better person, but one of the best has been her rehabilitation of New York City in my eyes. Our first real date was there, and even if the city wears me down, I will always think of it as the place where the greatest love of my life was kindled. Come to think of it, I am not going to "be a part of it," but I am really coming home.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Philip Bailey and Phil Collins, "Easy Lover"

I am well aware that loving this song might be crossing the line from sheepish into unconscionable, but it has so many positive memories attached to it that all of your derision matters not.  This song always takes me back to Friday nights at the local pizza place in my hometown in the mid-1980s.  It's the kind of uptempo pop rocker that the patrons liked to plunk their quarters into the jukebox to hear ("Eye of the Tiger" and "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." were other favorites.)  My family was cheap and we rarely ate out, but on the occasional Friday we'd go get pizza, and I really considered it a special treat.  Hell, my dad would even give us a few quarters to play Ms. Pac Man or put our own songs on the jukebox.  Coming from a man who bought his clothes at K-Mart (only after his old ones had gone totally threadbare) and drove a car so rusty that it left a trail of flakes on his way to work, this was always a pleasant surprise.

Just to give a sense of his parsimoniousness, this pizza place had a promotion where if you bought a glass Coca-Cola pitcher, you could bring it in for free refills.  We acquired this beauty at some point in the early 1980s and he continued to bring it with us to the pizza place years after the promotion had ended. Sometime in the 1990s the owner of the place told my dad not to bother, and that my family would always get free coke as a reward for our loyalty.  This victory of steadfast tightfistedness over the temptation to pay more money in order to avoid embarrassment will probably go down as my father's Austerlitz or Vicksburg.

"Easy Lover" might be a disposable piece of 80s pop, but damn if it doesn't have some hard-rockin' drums and kickin' guitar.  Phil Collins even sounds a little tough!  What makes it, of course, is former Earth, Wind, and Fire singer Philip Bailey's wonderful high voice belting the kind of soulful singing one rarely hears paired with a driving rock accompaniment.  In any case, it makes a great soundtrack to chowing down on a slice of pizza in a small Nebraska town in 1985.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why I Know a Lot About the Current State of Higher Ed that Andrew Delbanco, Anthony Grafton, and Louis Menand Don't Know

I should start right off by saying that the title of this post is in no way a denigration of messieurs Delbanco, Grafton, or Menand.  I greatly respect both their scholarly work, as well as their recent contributions to the discourse around the current state of higher education in America.  However, I would like to point out some major issues with who is being allowed to enter into that discourse.

I am not even in the same universe, scholarship wise, as the the three men who I've mentioned, and will freely admit that.  On the other hand, my time in the universities exposed me much more rigorously to the changing realities of higher education.  Instead of being perched in a tenured Ivy League post, I went through graduate school at a public university facing severe cutbacks even before the 2008 meltdown.  From there I worked as a contingent faculty member for two years at a regional state university in Michigan.  The institution, which was public and not research-oriented, is very typical of the type of schools that most university students attend today.  It could not have been further from the world of the Ivies, yet it is professors from the Ivies -with their billions of dollars in endowments and elite student bodies- who are filling the op-ed pages of the land with their musings about the current crisis.  I appreciate their concerns over the state of public higher ed (especially Grafton's), but being so far removed from the problem, their words lack the proper anger and urgency over what is being done.  The fact that faculty from non-elite institutions do not get to participate in the highest-level discussions of academia's current crisis also leaves the vast majority of university professors relying on the goodwill of others who do not fully understand the problem, despite their best intentions.

Most faculty members working at universities today are off of the tenure track, yet their voices are so rarely given major platforms to speak from.  The more privileged profs sounding the alarm about the exploitation of labor rarely have experienced the contingent system for themselves.  Over time I have come to realize that there is a wide gulf of experience and understanding separating those who have worked contingency positions and those who have not.  Even the most well-meaning tenure-track lifers who care about making the system more equitable can opt out of doing so at the end of the day, since their life chances and careers do not depend on changing things.  Many who have never had to work on the low side of academia still hold onto the falsehood that the Great Academic Chain of Being is a meritocracy, pure and simple.  Having worked on both sides of the fence, I know full well that there are many on the contingency side whose accomplishments would qualify them for tenure at most universities, but through bad luck and crummy breaks still haven't managed to find a permanent job.

Adjuncts have begun to organize through groups like the New Faculty Majority, but their words are rarely heard in the larger public discourse about education.  The vast, vast majority of Americans are totally unaware of the adjunct system and how badly it abuses those caught in its web.  They still think of professors as be-tweeded dons living a laid-back life of the mind, not as freeway fliers teaching six classes a semester to stay afloat yet still unable to afford health care.  As long as that perception persists, the problem of academic labor exploitation will only get worse, since no one outside of adjuncts and their allies will care to do anything about it.

Once I moved on from my contingent position, I was lucky enough to get a tenure track job at a regional public university in Texas very similar to the one I had worked at in Michigan.  It was here that I endured the effects of the financial collapse of 2008, which meant going without raises combined with bigger classes.  I was effectively getting paid less for more work.  Departments were being cut amidst a campus with a new recreation center (featuring a rock climbing wall and lazy river) and state of the art student center.  At many other similar universities administration has opted to give their customers beer and circuses rather than a worthwhile education.  (They also vote to give themselves raises even despite the economic hard times, something I learned after tracking down a copy of the school's budget.)

To be blunt, the elite institutions that our most prominent commentators on the state of higher education work for never have to face this stark choice between attracting students in order to survive and maintaing high standards.  As Ivy League profs, they've also never had to endure a rigorous assessment regime like the one foisted on me in Texas; a horror that aims to make university education just as stupidly rigid and test-driven as it is for other levels.  They've never had to balance teaching one hundred and fifty students a semester while trying to publish enough to fulfill tenure requirements much stricter than for those of previous generations.  This is not the fault of the esteemed elite scholars who are trying to make sense of higher education's crisis, but I do think that their removal from the day to day realities that faculty increasingly face keeps the enormity of the current problems from being fully revealed to the public.

The fact that our most prominent academic commentators on higher education reside in places far removed from the realities of most faculty and students does not disqualify them from speaking about higher education's travails, but I think it does mean that many other academics from much less exalted places are much more qualified to speak directly about what is really happening in our universities.  (By the way, I have not even mentioned online and for-profit universities, which are usually only spoken for by their administrators, rather than their faculty.)  These voices need to be sounded on stages with bigger audiences, and must be heard.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: 10cc, "I'm Not in Love"

If there's any genre of music that has undergone a consistent beating at the hands of pop cultural hindsight, it's 70s easy listening.  Limp, lifeless, and sappy, the likes of Bread and BJ Thomas are a laughingstock in these edgier times removed from the seventies' Qualuude and Watergate fogged malaise.

However, every now and then even the least regarded forms of music produce a beautiful jewel amidst the dross.  Case in point: British smooth prog rockers 10cc's "I'm not in Love."  The electric piano chords are oh so watery, the synthesizers airy and breathless, and the vocals unfold like little fluffy clouds on the horizon of a gorgeous blue spring sky.  It's so softsational, a tasty, sugary eclair of a song.  I consume my fair share of rock-snob approved vegetables, but it's always fun to treat myself to the occasional dessert.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Making My Peace With East Texas

This past weekend I went into Manhattan to see a showing of the new film Bernie, which was followed by its director, Richard Linklater.  (I've been a fan for quite some time.)  In case you didn't know, it's the true story of a funeral director in Carthage, Texas, who romanced and then murdered a rich widow, and whose winning personality and generosity made it difficult for the townspeople to disown him.  I liked the film a lot, but I laughed a lot harder than the New Yorkers in the audience on more than one occasion.  Linklater, born and raised in East Texas, really nails a lot of the region's idiosyncracies in all of their brash ridiculousness.  As he ably demonstrates, East Texas is a very distinct place with its own rules, culture, and way of life, all which tend to be rather strange to outsiders.

I lived for three years "behind the pine cone curtain," as they say, in a university town not too far from Carthage.  Apart from some fine students I had the pleasure to teach, and some great friends I was truly lucky to meet, they were three of the worst years of my life.  Most of this had to do with having a shitty job with a controlling boss and bullying colleagues, but much of it had to do with the town I lived in.  The locals seemed absolutely hostile to the university, even though it was the only viable employer in town besides a chicken gutting operation.  Outside of the campus itself, you'd never guess you were in a college town.  There was not a single used book store, no quality sit-down restaurant, and only one viable non-undergrad bar, which wasn't that much to write home about.  Bakery-made bread and copies of the Times could not be had.  At least the downtown had beautiful bones, it was full of gorgeous old buildings.  However, instead of being occupied by funky college-town type businesses, they either sat empty or housed antique stores.  Apart from Wal-Mart, non-antique retail stores were practically non-existent; I had to drive to other towns miles away to do my shopping.  At least I had access to a truly fantastic local coffee house, my one refuge outside of my friends' patio.

The politics of the place were truly scarifying.  On tax day in 2009, my town, despite its small size, had one of the biggest Tea Party rallies in the state.  A speaker invited by the students to a history club event referred to Arabs as "rag heads" in a discussion with a student after his talk.  One member of my department referred  to "lesser peoples" when discussing Native Americans (on multiple occasions.)  The school regularly invited in reactionaries to speak, including bringing in Dinesh D'Souza under the auspices of "international studies."  The faculty was almost completely white, and several departments were a whitewash, but no one in the administration seemed to care.

If you dared suggest to any of the locals that something was amiss, they looked at you as if you had just taken a dump on the American flag.  As far as they were concerned, Texas was the greatest place on earth, and East Texas was the crown jewel.  This defensiveness and lack of contact with the outside world infected the university, which had all the signs and consequences of inbreeding.  Its leaders all had connections to the place, and seemed to concern themselves most with doing whatever they could from keeping anything from changing. It became obvious to me, in both the university and the town, that I would always be an outsider, and a threatening one at that.

I spent three years fantasizing about getting out of the place, and when I drove out of town I blasted Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road" at top volume.  I had made a solemn oath to myself that whatever happened to me, I was never, ever going to die in East Texas.  Leaving (and moving to be in New Jersey with my wife) felt like some kind of salvation from the Almighty.  Needless to say, I never thought I would ever want to go back to the place I managed to escape from.

Despite all of these feelings, watching Bernie gave me a little sentimental twinge.  Most of it came from being reminded of a place where such cherished friends still live. Some of it, I must admit, came from a grudging attachment to the place.  Make no mistake, my relationship with East Texas is a hate-love relationship; it's just that there is a little glimmer of the love.

Some days I miss the food.  I used to get great Vietnamese sandwiches, succulent barbecue, delicious fried chicken, and mouth watering tacos on a regular basis.  The sit-down places sucked, but man the take out was out of sight.  Other times I miss the beauty of the pine trees, their smell, and the gentle sound of the wind rustling through them.  I also fondly recall the easy-going nature of the locals, and personal interactions so much less laden with bullshit than the ones I have now.

Most of all, however, I miss the bizarro character of East Texas so well captured by Richard Linklater.  It's a place that seems to cultivate wierdos, eccentrics, brigands, thieves, and colorful characters.  For an area with such a small population, the local crime reports always brimmed over with all kinds of crazy events.  Just recently an insurance agent whose face is plastered on prominent billboards throughout the area was implicated in a drug ring selling cocaine and GHB.  When I lived there, the authorities busted an illegal casino set up, I kid you not, in a double-wide trailer.  It's a fucked-up, backwards world where if you lift of the rock of its Southern Baptist exterior you find all kinds of sinful lichen and disreputable worms underneath.

Still, the memories of my time there are so painful that I don't think I could ever bring myself to go back for a visit.  Instead I have delved back in the work of East Texas writer Joe R. Lansdale, the true poet laureate of life behind the pine cone curtain.  I figure I also avidly read the works of Doestoevsky and Tolstoy, but have no desire to go back and live in nineteenth century Russia.  Present day East Texas is just as rich a literary seedbed, and just as maddeningly behind the times.  At least it makes for good stories, and my time in the purgatory of the piney woods lets me in on the jokes.