Monday, September 18, 2017

My Letter To Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Episode 18 of the Old Dad's Records Podcast

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

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why Medicare For All Matters

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Looking At 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 8, 2017

Memoirs of a Lapsed Husker Fan, Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn't buy it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere in here you can see me freezing my nuts off

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

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

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

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

The Blackshirts made Peyton Manning make Peyton Manning Face

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

Witness the domination

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Trump's Pivot Back To White Nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 4, 2017

Episode 17 Of Old Dad's Records

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

You can find it here:

Friday, September 1, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

A Century Of Jack Kirby

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Memoirs Of A Lapsed Husker Fan, Part Two

Part one is here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alright, now I'm crying

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

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Memoirs Of A Lapsed Husker Fan, Part One

The game where I learned the truth about life

I do not think I will ever care about anything the way I once cared about the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football. My absolute, fervent devotion to the Husker religion was such that when I finally got to go to a game at the age of 12 I considered it the highlight of my life up to that point. Four years later when they lost yet another bowl game in embarrassing fashion after a promising 1991 season, I fell into a depression for about a week.

Since then, things have changed. Like the lapsed Catholic who goes to mass only on Christmas and Easter, I have retained only a nominal membership in the Church of Husker. I will put no other football gods before it, but my connection is more a matter of identity and memory than any true devotion. Just as many of those at Christmas mass need assistance in reciting the Nicene Creed, I cannot tell you much about the team's starting lineup. At one time I could recite the entire roster down to the third string, now I can't even tell you who the starting quarterback is. Like Holy Week for Catholics, the beginning of the college football season is a heightened time for Husker fans, even the lapsed ones. Games start on Saturday, and every year, without me even trying, the memories of my Husker past will flood my mind.

Those who have never lived in Nebraska will have a hard time understanding the cultural significance that college football has in that state, and how much the Nebraskan identity is wrapped up in the university football squad. On gameday Memorial Stadium is the third largest city in the state, and every game has been sold out since 1962. In the 80s, at the height of shopping mall culture, they would pipe in radio play by play of games on Husker Saturdays over the PA instead of Muzak. I have been to many fall weddings in Nebraska where the attendees rushed out of the church to turn on their car radios and get the score.

Unlike in states like Texas and even Kansas, there is only one Division I team. Unlike Ohio and Michigan, there are no professional football teams. In fact, there are no pro teams in any sport whatsoever. In a sparsely populated and regionally diverse state that stretches almost 500 miles end to end, from the biggish city of Omaha in the east to the western rangelands of the Panhandle in the west, Cornhusker football has long been the state's one fixed commonality.

It was even more so in my youth. I was born and raised in Hastings, a town of 24,000 in south central Nebraska surrounded by farms. It also happens to be the hometown of Tom Osborne, and when I was a student visitors to the high school were treated to two giant Soviet cult of personality icons of Osborne in the front stairwell, one of him playing basketball, the other playing football. (He was throwing a ball in the latter picture, which was always the source of jokes considering Osborne's offensive philosophy.) The road from Hastings to nearby Grand Island was called Tom Osborne Expressway. All of this iconography was put in place well before he had even won a national championship.

Tom Osborne in his youth

I began my Husker fandom at a time when it seemed that a championship would never come. Not because of ineptitude like those sad sacks rooting for K-State, but due to the cruel whims of the football fates. In 1982 Nebraska went 12-1, winning the conference and the Orange Bowl against LSU. The one loss came against Penn State, and was enabled by a highly contentious pass interference penalty that Husker fans of a certain age will still grab your arm and bend your ear about. The whole off season all anyone seemed to talk about was how the refs cheated us out of a championship. (I was too young to follow the team in 1981, when it lost the national championship against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, another torturously just short of the line season.)

The following year in 1983 Nebraska had one of the most explosive offenses in the history of college football, blowing out the opposition en route to an undefeated regular season. Tailback Mike Rozier won the Heisman Trophy. Quarterback Turner Gill ran the option offense like a football magician. Wingback Irving Fryar would go first in the 1984 NFL draft. The season ended, however, with an infamous loss in the Orange Bowl against a rising Miami. After storming back from a halftime deficit, the Huskers scored a late touchdown, and could have tied the game with an extra point. If Nebraska had tied the game, the AP voters would still have elected the Huskers national champions.

At that point Tom Osborne, in a decision that was second-guessed more times than Napoleon's invasion of Russia, decided to go for two and the win. He thought that winning the national championship with a tie just wasn't honorable. The conversion failed, and the moment would replay itself in the minds of Husker fans for over a decade. While we wailed and gnashed our teeth, this decision also made Osborne into a Nebraska hero.

Nebraskans place an outsize emphasis on honesty and honor. In my experience, they tend to put a lot less stock in material "success" than people in other parts of the country. Cornhusker fans felt that winning "the right way" was the most important thing, and Osborne choosing an honorable loss over a cheap win made him the avatar of what many Nebraskans thought of as their best selves. That did not, however, dull the aching pain of a true gut punch loss. Rozier, Gill, and Fryar were all gone, and we all knew that it would be a long time before the planets would ever align like that again, if they ever did.

The next three seasons were full of frustration. Even though Nebraska had failed to win national championships after coming very close in 1981, 1982, and 1983, it had at least won the Big 8 conference and defeated hated rival Oklahoma. Back then the Nebraska-Oklahoma game was something like a high holiday, often scheduled the day after Thanksgiving. My abiding memory of those games is being at my aunt and uncle's house, the smell of my aunt's chili and uncle's pipe tobacco in the air. Both teams dominated the Big 8 conference, and the championship inevitably came down to this game every year. Fans of the winning team would throw oranges on the field, since in those days the winner of the conference automatically went to the Orange Bowl. (Stadium security was a lot less lax back then, too.) The sight of bright oranges flying through the chilly November air was always a surreal one, bringing happiness when tossed by Nebraska fans, and blinding rage when tossed by Sooner fans.

In 1984, 1985, and 1986, Nebraska lost to Oklahoma. This was not merely being defeated in a rivalry. For Nebraskans, this was a matter of good and evil. Tom Osborne was the ur-Nebraskan, quiet, steady, honest, doing things the "right way." Oklahoma was coached by Barry Switzer, the loud, brash, bootlegger's son whose program had been rung up for NCAA rules violations in the 1970s and who seemed like he would have shot his dog if it meant winning a championship. The most famous player on those teams was The Boz, Brian Bosworth, an even more brash athlete whose constant disrespect for authority somehow won him fame and adulation. There was nothing more dishonorable to a true Nebraskan than that.

I have never hated an athlete like I hated The Boz (glad to see in his 30 for 30 that he's gained some humility)

After three seasons of good but not great teams, the 1987 Cornhuskers suddenly seemed like the team of destiny. It was that year that I went to my first Husker game, against a Utah State team led by future Detroit Lions disappointment Scott Mitchell. Even though our seats were in the corner of the top row, probably the worst in the house, I had the time of my life. The Huskers returned two punts for touchdowns, and rushed for over 500 yards. Steve Taylor looked like the second coming of Turner Gill, running the option to perfection. In the next game, against UCLA, Taylor PASSED for five touchdowns. It seemed like there was nothing that could stop the Husker juggernaut from cutting through the Big 8 like a combine through a corn field.

Oklahoma was also undefeated that year, but before the big game was to happen, their quarterback Jamelle Holieway, a master of the wishbone offense who had led the Sooners to a national championship, got injured. He was replaced by a freshman, (something almost unheard of in those days) Charles Thompson. The Huskers had the Sooners at home that year. Broderick Thomas, future NFL linebacker and leader of the Blackshirts (the nickname for the Husker defense), had started a trend by proclaiming Memorial Stadium to be "Our House." (This led to some enterprising person making giant cardboard keys with the slogan printed on them that sold like hotcakes.) There was no way that we were going to lose.

Then, in what I thought was proof of the existence of God's grace, I was able to go to the game. My best friend Danny's father managed a local bank, meaning that he had the right connections to get tickets. We took the 100 mile trek to Lincoln with our dads on a brisk November day, but I spent the week before preparing my soul, as if I were about to go on pilgrimage. The local video stores starting renting tapes of Nebraska's glorious win over Oklahoma in 1971, the so-called "Game of the Century," which put the Huskers on the road to their last national championship. I watched that game multiple times, thrilling at Johnny Rodgers' amazing punt return, and Jeff Kinney just barely managing to stretch over the line for the winning touchdown. I believed with the belief that only a 12 year old sports fan could have that I was about to witness a similar moment of world historical importance.

Our seats were fantastic. My friend brought binoculars, and I was able to get a closeup view of the great Steve Taylor warming up before the game. In my eyes, he was invincible. Before the game my friend and I asked our dads if we could rush the field and help tear down the goal posts after Nebraska won, a statement that I should have understood to be a terrible jinx.

Neither team seemed able to get an edge until late in the first quarter, when Keith "End Zone" Jones busted loose for a 25 yard touchdown run. The Huskers went into the locker room at halftime up 7-0, and as he walked off the field Broderick Thomas led the crowd in the "Our House" chant. I have probably never been more innocently and naively happy in my entire life as I was in that moment. I say innocent because despite a constant stream of schoolyard bullying life had not yet taught me yet that pleasure is fleeting, that I should always expect the worst, and that disappointment is life's default setting. I first learned those truths in the second half of that football game.

Amazing that thirty years later I can watch this game on my computer

Nebraska never scored again. Oklahoma's offense moved down the field slowly but pitilessly. Every time their running backs got hit by a defender they seemed to fall forward for just enough extra yardage to keep the chains moving. It was like a kind of football crucifixion, a slow death. After grinding out a touchdown, Oklahoma scored a 65 yard touchdown on an outside run, making it 14-7. It might as well have been 70-7, since Oklahoma's defense shut Nebraska down and Steve Taylor threw three interceptions. In the fourth quarter I actually joined the other fans calling for Osborne to put in his more pass-happy backup, Clete Blakeman. In my anger and frustration I had, like some kind of football Judas turned on Steve Taylor, the player I was marveling over just a couple of hours before.

The game ended in darkness, literal and spiritual. Walking dejected from the stadium after the game, my friend Danny slammed his game program to the ground and gave it a swift kick down the street. We barely talked on the two hour ride back to Hastings. In a moment that every sports fan has at some point in their lives, I did not understand how something I loved so much could cause me so much pain.

[Editor's Note: Part two will soon follow, when I will discuss the seeming vindication of my love for my favorite sports team]

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My Piece At Tropics Of Meta On Smokey And The Bandit

As loyal readers know, I am a contrarian in all things. This is why I am a Mets and White Sox and Everton fan. I just can't bring myself to embrace the bandwagon. So in a time when everyone is writing their hot takes about the political implications of the most recent blockbuster, I did my piece about a 40 year old trucker/car chase movie. At least the kind folks at Tropics of Meta were willing to publish it, and I am grateful for that.

I talk about how Smokey and the Bandit was an attempt to display a new, "post-racial" South to the country that had exorcised its demons, but had maintained its unique charms. Of course, recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere show that the fraught racial history of the South, and the nation at large, refuses to be ignored.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Episode 16 of Old Dad's Records

I just cut episode 16 of the Old Dad's Records Podcast. This time around I decided to make the theme prog rock, inspired by picking up Dave Weigel's The Show That Never Ends: The Rise And Fall Of Prog Rock. I've been reading lots of thick works of scholarship and long novels recently, it was good to burn through some brain candy. The book betrays the fact that Weigel is a reporter in his day job, meaning that there is a lot of information provided in a well-organized fashion but lacking broader commentary. I mean, if you're talking prog rock you've got to indulge yourself a little.  (If you are into the topic it is still worth reading.)

Prog rock is a much-derided genre, and one that I avoided for years. However, I have learned to appreciate the musicianship, especially since I listen to a lot more jazz music than I once did. Also, I think it is important to listen to music that is "progressive," in that it is trying to advance the boundaries of art. If something fails, it should at least be an interesting failure.

In the podcast I talk about Styx's "Mr Roboto," and then do a full analysis of Genesis' Selling England By The Pound. After that I rave a bit about Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, a new and gutsy country band.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Media Talking Points From A Scholar Of Historical Memory

My dissertation was about historical memory, and I have written plenty of scholarship and taught classes about it. For that reason, it is extremely irritating to look at the discourse around the removal of Confederate monuments and not see any scholars of memory featured prominently in the media. Since I won't be asked to go on CNN, here are some handy talking points you can use in your conversations with other folks.

Monuments are about creating a "usable past."
Folks who are in the middle seem most convinced by the argument that taking down these monuments is somehow "denying history" or "eliminating history." It is easy to understand why this argument appeals to (white) people with a low-stakes interest in this issue, but it doesn't hold water. Monuments as part of public memory are an attempt to create a "usable past." They are a way to create an interpretation of the past that is given an official stamp of approval. This is why you don't see massive public monuments celebrating emancipation in this country, but plenty of them in Caribbean nations where the population is mostly black.

Confederate monuments created a white supremacist usable past.
Other people have written about this, but it bears repeating: the vast majority of Civil War monuments in the South were built during the height of Jim Crow. They were not immediate responses to the war. They are also intended to push a certain interpretation of the war, the "Lost Cause." This narrative essentially said that the white South was the superior side fighting for a just cause, and only lost due to the material superiority of the Union. These monuments defended the old slaveocracy at a time when lynchings and other incidents of racial violence were accelerating. By being erected after Reconstruction and during Jim Crow, they are not mourning a defeat in the Civil War, but actually celebrating the victory of white supremacy in its aftermath. Context matters.

There is plenty of precedent for tearing down monuments.
This is something we know, but it bears repeating. The same people today saying that tearing down Confederate monuments is "destroying history" did not complain when statues of Lenin and Stalin were eliminated during the revolutions in the Eastern Bloc. Those monuments were symbols of hated, repressive regimes. The same goes for Confederate monuments. They are the symbols of white supremacy. Hell, American colonists in New York famously tore down a statue of King George III, and melted it into cannon balls. This event was celebrated in my history textbooks in school. No one seems to be crying any tears over the loss of that statue. We are not bound to the usable pasts created by people who lived a hundred years ago.

We should view this moment as a time for positive change.
While it is good to tear down monuments to white supremacy, we should be thinking about the usable pasts of this country that would be preferable. For example, Union monuments built in the North were also built during a time of intense white supremacy. While these monuments obviously do not celebrate the defense of slavery, they rarely, if ever, mention it. This is due to the "reunionist" feeling at the time where the memory of the Civil War eliminated its political causes, and instead the reuniting of the country was emphasized. Of course, this meant erasing African Americans from this history, and essentially accept a reunited nation for white people only. In North and South we need more public memory of slavery, and the role of slavery in the Civil War. We should use this moment to create a usable past that is more inclusive and more honest about this country's history.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What I Saw in Bedminster

Saturday morning I drove forty minutes out to rural western New Jersey to meet a group of people participating in the "People's Motorcade." This is a protest where protestors get around the lack of a nearby protest space by driving very slowly past the gates of Trump's golf course, their cars festooned with signs and noise blaring.

I had done it once before, back weeks before during the president's first visit. This time there were fewer cars, about twenty of them. Those participating were almost all from the immediate area, except for a family that, like me, had trekked from Essex County. This is a part of New Jersey that's rather conservative in its politics, especially compared to the rest of the state, so the locals really seemed to relish their event. It was begun by a single person, and is completely and totally grassroots.

In many ways this is a great thing. This kind of grassroots action is the necessary ingredient for successful political movements. However, I found it disheartening as well. Where was the institutional support? Why weren't larger groups coming in to bolster and support this? Since Trump has taken office there has been a massive tide of engagement by liberals and progressives, but the lack of institutional support and organization has made it difficult to sustain.

Our opponents do not make this mistake. Remember the Tea Party? It was astroturfed into relevance with massive infusions of conservative cash. It had a champion, Glenn Beck, on cable news spouting its talking points every day. We, on the other hand, are on our own.

This is why I am taking part in protests like the one I did yesterday. It's not only important as a political act, it is a reminder that I am not alone in this. Just standing there and chatting before we drove to the course was a kind of therapy. In a time when everything seems to be out of my hands, it felt like taking back some power. As I went past the entrance of Trump's golf course the first time I blared the Isley Brothers' "Fight The Power," on the second run it was Public Enemy. It felt good. Did it do anything? Not in the bigger picture, but it mattered for those of us who were there.

My good feeling died pretty quickly since right after I got home I started seeing the news out of Charlottesville. I'm still kind of reeling, to be honest. I only know that we have to get out there. We have to fight. If you ever wanted to know how you would have acted in in other times of moral crisis, now's the time to find out.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

August Dread

We put our daughters in camp this week and next, mostly because my wife's job starts up well before the school year. Last summer was her first in the new position and we didn't do this and I almost went nuts from having to wrangle two hyper and bored four year olds by myself for three weeks. This camp time has been nothing short of blissful. Today I sat on the back porch with a book and a cup of coffee, listening to Tusk as the leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. Earlier I started cranking out an essay for publication. In my relaxed state this week I had already written two others. I don't want these days to end.

But soon they will. For teachers August is the Sunday of months, a mix of relaxation and dread.

Those jerkoffs who always think teachers have their summers "off" never understand that our work is akin to being front line soldiers. Without leave we would lose our minds and the ability to keep fighting. Summer feels less like a break than a rotation out of the trenches. Like a World War I soldier, I am keenly aware when I am away that I will have to go back.

This is not meant to be a complaint. I love my current job more than any other job I've had. This year, as in the others, there were hugs and tears at graduation, and the kind of gratitude that warms my heart like nothing else. But getting to that point requires a truly monumental expense of mental, emotional, and physical energy. In my case I dread not the demands of teaching as much as my commute. It's an hour each way if everything goes right, which would be bad enough, but lately that hasn't been the case. Just getting to the train on time each morning requires a ritual of clockwork precision which includes walking the dog, preparing breakfast for my children, and getting a couple of headstrong toddlers out of bed and out the door before the sun comes up. I am usually worn out even before I get to my train, a train so crowded that half the time I do not even get to sit down.

Between my work, commute, and child care responsibilities on an average work day I get about two hours of free time if I am lucky. Some days it's none. I used to expand that time by staying up too late, but that had a lot of bad side effects, from fatigue to crankiness. Last year I resolved to get seven hours of sleep a night, and I mostly held to that. (Watching the World Series made that difficult, though.)

Soon the cycle will start all over again. As much as I am feeling the dread, I know that on that first day of class that I will answer the bell and will be full of energy and enthusiasm. At the end of the day, that's what you have to do if you want to be a teacher, and why so few people make it past their first few years, even with their "summer off."

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 15

This episode of Old Dad's Records is a "five" episode, meaning that I get to dissect one of my more prized records. In this case, it's Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. With the president threatening nuclear war and tearing apart the social safety net, it seemed pretty appropriate.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Life On Mars

Well, it's been six months since inauguration, meaning that we are only one eighth of the way through the first term of Trump's presidency. Every now and then I force myself to stop and look at what surrounds me and to remind myself the subtle changes that have already happened. We have already come to accept the fact that the leader of our country will go on Twitter to denounce his enemies, intimidate the press, and spew a torrent of lies and bullshit. That has become normal. Hell, it's become the daily entertainment for a lot of people. It reminds me of Kierkegaard's tale about a clown who rushes out to the stage of a theater to tell the crowd that the theater is on fire and they must leave. The crowd thinks it's a joke, and just laughs harder the more that the clown implores them, before it's too late.

We have made the destruction of our own democracy a kind of true life reality show. As I wrote about before, America went through a long Brezhnev period of rot, where the masses stopped actually believing in the system they were living under. I know more than one person who voted for Trump out of a kind of nihilistic glee. (At least one of them regrets it, but too late.) Even people who oppose Trump get fascinated by the show, forgetting the stakes involved. Back in the 2016 election, too many media voices treated him as a joke, and they still do. After all, they're not the ones getting deported, and it drives up their ratings and ad revenue. I get the feeling that Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death will be seen as a work of great prophecy by future generations.

And you what, I play my role in this. I watch Hayes and Maddow way too much. I spend a lot of time on Twitter. There is a difference between being engaged and being distracted, and I think I am becoming the latter. This morning I got a good reminder of that. I went to a nearby town to get some bakery bread, and there were folks setting up what looked like a protest in the small town square against Trump's immigration policies. At that moment I realized that while I had been diligently calling and writing lawmakers for the past three months, I had not been doing anything communal, not since I joined a protest for transgender rights in Austin, Texas, that I happened to run into back in March. That's not good enough.

Salvation is not going to come from anyone near the top. The top-level media still equivocates and still, after all these years, tries to play the false equivalency game. The Republican Party has signed a blood pact with the criminal in chief, and will not turn against him until maybe the 2020 election, if then. On the other side, if political smarts was TNT the Democrats could not blow their nose. Change is only going to come from those of us who take the time and make the sacrifices to act. That's a fact that I am going to try to keep in mind as the world around me becomes increasingly unbearable.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Dialing Back

Let me give y'all a peek behind the curtain.

The small number of people who read this blog on the regular have probably noticed the decreased frequency of posts in recent weeks. This is largely due to the fact that I slept in my own bed in only eight of the 34 days between June 28 and July 31. My travel schedule has made blogging tough, but I am also making a self-conscious decision to dial things back a bit. 

If have kept myself to a very strict pace of posting something every other day. I've been blogging at this pace for most of the past thirteen years. Back when I started, blogs were the cool new thing. Now they have been replaced by tweetstorms and articles on innumerable websites, from the big to the small. I have come to realize that my concentration on this blog has been spurred by a certain amount of cowardice. Here I am my own editor, here no one can reject my work. After years of the hell of the academic job market and publishing worlds, I am still very much afraid of rejection. I need to get over that.

Like the person who cleans their house when they need to be meeting a work deadline, this blog has allowed me to keep intellectually busy in a way that allows me to feel less guilt about my slacking in other areas. I have been working on a book length project for over six years, for example, where I have written over a hundred pages, but none in the past year. I have been able to get things published on much more renowned sites like Jacobin, but my pace of writing things for the outside has really slowed down. 

It's not 2004 anymore, and very few people are reading blogs. Nobody is going to read this and decide to promote me out of the minor leagues. The fact of the matter is that deep down I am a plugger who still believes that excellent work is its own self-promotion. I am aware that in the current climate that is a phenomenally wrong-headed approach. 

So I am going to still keep writing here, but I will be writing less for this blog and more for my other projects, which I will be doing more to integrate into this blog. I'm also going to keep up with the podcast, since that's been providing me with a direly needed creative outlet. And if you are a regular reader, please let me know what kind of stuff you prefer to hear from me, just so I know what to concentrate on.  Thanks as always for listening.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

REM, "You Are The Everything"

1989, When the cover of the Rolling Stone mattered

Back when I was 15-16 years old, no band mattered more to me than REM. In my isolated Nebraska hometown they were pretty much the only band from the postpunk underground that I could hear on my local radio station and see on MTV outside of 120 Minutes until "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped like bomb in the late autumn of 1991.

During the preceding summer a great chunk of my summer job money went to buying the band's entire back catalog. Of all of their albums I purchased that summer, Green is perhaps my least favorite (though I still like it.) At that point in REM's career they had graduated out of the college rock circuit into the arenas due to "The One I Love" off their previous album and "Stand." Green was the last of a trilogy of more straight ahead rock albums (also including Life's Rich Pageant and Document), turning away from the stranger sounds on their early records.

The band would turn from the rock to folky and, ironically, greater fame with 1991's Out of Time and 1992's Automatic for the People. I call those the "mandolin albums" due to Peter Buck's infatuation with that instrument at the time. This missing link is a song on Green, "You Are The Everything."
It is one of my all time favorite REM deep cuts, and brings out an element of the band that always spoke to me: their rural vibe. Much was made of the fact that they hailed from and continued to live in Athens, Georgia, rather than the big city. The Gothic weirdness of rural America is embedded in their best music, and having grown up in a small town, that really grabbed me.

"You Are The Everything" starts with the sound of insects chirping in the dark, and I have always pictured the sound of my parents' back patio on a summer night whenever this song plays. There is an air of mystery in the haunting harmonium and mandolin. For lack of a better word, REM perfected the use of mystery in their music, of creating an uncanny feeling. Michael Stipe's poetic lyrics, never straight-forward and always open to interpretation, were a key element in this. In the early days he mumbled them, making it obvious that feel and impression, and not literal meaning, were what he was going for. By the late 80s the lyrics were easier to make out, but not always to interpret. This song expresses a kind of despair and fear, and has great evocative Stipe lines like "all you hear is time stand still in travel" and "eviscerate your memory." The "you" in the song is amorphous. Is he talking to his sister about a childhood road trip? A friend? A lover? Despite the talk of despair, there is warmth in the music and Stipe's voice. The talk of finding comfort and hope amidst the fear makes this song pretty apt for these times.