Saturday, September 14, 2019

Tom Waits, Heartattack and Vine (classic albums)

[I finally got this one on vinyl today, so let's take a trip down memory lane to 2013, when I wrote this.]


I came to Tom Waits late in life, but like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from my eyes and I preach Waits' gospel every chance I get.  A friend in college was a Waits disciple too, and always used to play his stuff for me without winning me over.  His music seemed willfully obtuse, his voice abrasive, and none of it really fit with other artists I liked.  My girlfriend in grad school tried to win my soul for the bard of the gutter, and I didn't crack until she loaned me a copy of Heartattack and Vine.

For some reason, it just clicked with me, which is funny considering that is not one of his more highly rated records.  Allmusic only gives it three stars out of five, the second lowest score for any of his albums, and much lower than those that come right after.  Robert Christgau's B grade review is chock full of faint praise.  Released in 1980, it is a transitional album marking Waits' shift from his jazzbo lounge singer persona of the 1970s to his avant garde wildman stage that began in earnest with 1983's revolutionary Swordfishtrombones.  Up until this  point Waits' jazz piano laid the foundation, afterward it would be unorthodox percussion.  On Heartattack and Vine, it's the blues.  I think people don't like this record for the same reason I didn't like Waits for so long: it doesn't fit pre-existing categories.  Maybe that's why it was the one to hook me, it had a quality I lacking in the other stuff I'd heard.

The bluesy nature of the proceedings is apparent when the title track kicks of the record in raucous fashion.  A cutting, drunkenly lumbering guitar staggers into the room, soon accompanied by one of Waits' signature growls.  He uses this to best effect on one of his all time best lines "There ain't no devil, just God when he's drunk."  When I heard this song, his sandpaper and Marlboros voice suddenly made sense to me the way that Howlin' Wolf's similarly unorthodox vocal stylings always had.  Waits' singing is really better suited to blues-based material, and here his voice finally gets the right platform.

Other songs on the record mine the depths of the blues, especially the caustic "Downtown" and perverted "Mr. Siegal."  However, it's a couple of weepy ballads that make this album so great.  The first is "Jersey Girl," a song that has a lot of meaning for me.  I was listening to Waits a lot around the time I met the Jersey girl who would later be my wife.  When Waits says "Nothing else matters in this whole wide world, when you're in love with a Jersey girl" my heart swells.  Beyond my own subjective biases, it really is a fetching ballad, and expresses, without being maudlin, the insane magic of falling in love.  When my wife and I slow-danced to this at our wedding it was probably the happiest I felt that day.

The other ballad is the monumental "On the Nickel," whose title refers to 5th Street in LA (hence "nickel.")  This is skid row, and Waits is singing a lullaby to the men who live there.  The accompanying strings are lush, like something off of a Disney soundtrack, his voice whisperingly tender at the start.  Halfway through it gets low and fearsomely gutteral, as if he is channeling the pain and broken hopes of the men for whom he sings.  By the end if you are not moved, you have no heart.

None of the other songs can match "Heartattack and Vine," "Jersey Girl," or "On the Nickel," but a record with three awe-inspiring songs counts as a classic in my book.  It might not fit the image Waits fans or critics have of him, which is all the more reason to admire it as one of the most confounding works of a charmingly confounding artist.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

9/12 and Failed Tests

In the days after 9/11 I would put this song on and have a good cry

This year the 9/11 anniversary hit me harder than usual. It might be because at my school in NYC there are maybe a handful of students who were alive when in it happened. As fewer people have a living memory, the official memory of the event has now been hijacked by militarism and nationalism. It's become a time for empty patriotic gestures and stupid platitudes. The shock, horror, and human loss are gone.

That event was a test of this nation, and this nation failed. Muslim and Sikh men were targeted by random acts of violence, but they were not even discussed in the public discourse. Muslim students I TAed spoke of the terrible things strangers said to them in the weeks following 9/11, but few seemed to be sticking up for them. The United States immediately moved to a war footing, starting an invasion of Afghanistan that still hasn't ended. Bin Laden wasn't liquidated until ten years later.

The public was distracted by the Bush administration's adventure in Iraq, which a majority erroneously thought was somehow connected to 9/11. The propaganda offensive worked. That war too is an ongoing disaster. The public support for war also ended up giving the Bush administration the validation it needed to engage in systemic torture.

At the end of the Bush administration the last tatters of America's moral authority were gone, and its power in the world fast ebbing out. It was one of the biggest self-owns in the history of the great powers. 9/11 was a test of this country, and it failed that test horrendously.

Donald Trump is another test this country has failed. He came to office without a majority or even a plurality, has behaved like a wannabe despot and the political opposition has done little to reign him in. Children are being put in prison camps but there's hardly a word about it. Sure Democrats won the House back, but Trump's using the Senate to remake the judiciary. That's likely going to prevent any positive political reform for another generation.

The country has managed to survive its failed test eighteen years ago, but this new failure may very well represent a point of no return. Dying empires are not pretty things. I just never thought I'd be living in one. Such is life.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Southern Culture on the Skids, "Camel Walk"


I've been going back to the music of the 90s recently. Some of it's been what I call "feel bad" music that owned the "adult alternative" format late in the decade. Whenever I hear "Adia" by Sarah McLachlan I am instantly transported to driving around the Omaha suburbs in the summer of 1998 feeling glum, an emotion the Omaha suburbs are good at prompting.

To get out of my funk I've also been spinning novelty songs of the time. My favorite of that now dead genre is "Camel Walk" by Southern Culture on the Skids. It is amazing to me that something this weird ever got played on the radio, such is the magic of that brief moment in the early to mid 90s when strange sounds were allowed on the airwaves. "Camel Walk" came out in 1995, and by 1996 the winds were already changing and soon Limp Bizkit would come like a plague upon the land.

It has a retro sound, garage punk combined with surf reverb and a beat straight out of a 1960s B-movie set in the Sahara, all deep country fried. It's deeply strange. The singer starts by asking his lady love if she'll eat a "snack cracker" in her "special outfit," including her "pointy boots." Kinky! The whole song is the sensibility of Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision on TNT put into musical form, and considering that I loved old trash entertainment like that, I was well-primed for "Camel Walk."

While the band has this sort of psychedelic hick persona, I've always thought it to be genuine, rather than a mere put-on. Growing up in the country myself, one of the few cheap pleasures to be had was junk food, especially Little Debbie cakes. If there was anyone who could turn that into a fetish, it'd be a fellow hayseed.

So what happened to novelty songs? They've been a big part of popular music, from "Disco Duck" to "They're Coming To Take Me Away." When I first heard "Old Town Road" I thought it was a novelty song, but the audience seems to be taking it straight. The range of what constitutes pop music is narrower than it's ever been in my life. And hey, some of it is pretty good, but I really want it to be inscrutably silly every now and then.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

New School Year's Resolutions

A new school year is upon me, and I still can't get over how school here in the NYC area starts after Labor Day. For that reason I have spent the last two weeks in a constant stage of anticipation almost painful in its intensity. After spending two days on a school camping trip, today was my first full day of classes. As usual it felt like like something unlike most American workers experience. Being a teacher on the first day of school feels like being a sailor leaving port on a long voyage or the first day of baseball season for a manager. Our job may not be year round, but the months we do our job will require the fullest measure of our efforts. While the office drones are writing TPS reports or killing time with their fantasy football team, we are dropped into the lion's den of the classroom. 

For that reason a teacher does not mark January first as the year's beginning, but today instead. Every year brings its unique challenges and joys. Every year ends with sad good-byes and hopefully a sense of accomplishment. To steel myself for the new school year, I have composed some resolutions.

Read books on the train 
I started this last year and stuck with it. On my way to school and home I read books and try to avoid the news or social media. It means I get to school with my mind activated yet relaxed, and I get home without being agitated. I also need to do this because in the evenings on school nights I am so exhausted that I pass out if I try to read a book.

Make use of the post-dinner pause
This is a new one. There is a strange lull in my day that comes after dinner and before the kids are put to bed. A lot of days I end up wasting this time by sprawling out on the couch and going on Twitter. Last year I tried to lean into parenting in these hours, but often my children too need a break. So if I am not being active with them, I resolve to be active on other ways. For example, right now I am writing this blog during the pause!

Keep it moving
I am resolved to avoid drama at all costs. This includes workplace gossip and disputes, but also social media bullshit. Dumb arguments online and resentments in the workplace only lead to wasted emotional energy in bad directions. I already broke this resolution today, I feel like it will be a tough one.

Walk in the door happy
I have been reliably informed that when I get home I can be difficult to deal with. I am going to try extra hard to have a smile on my face at the end of my long days. I'm pretty damn lucky to have my family and I shouldn't take that for granted. I also broke this resolution today.

Music over podcasts
I love podcasts, but I find I listen to them too much during my commute and while prepping at work. They jam too many thoughts in my head, making it harder for me to think and reflect and clear space. Music has always helped me go deeper in my thoughts and provides me with far more joy. I'll reserve podcasts for drives and housework. I've already started doing this, and it's really been healthy. I have also resolved to seek out more new music.

Get more sleep
I resolve this every year, but it's hard for this former night owl to adjust to getting up at 5-5:30 every day. Maybe I'll finally figure it out.


Sunday, September 1, 2019

Quitting (A Labor Day Reflection)


Andrew Luck was in the news last week when he abruptly decided to quit being an NFL quarterback. Predictably, a lot of armchair macho men judged him for daring to value his health above their fantasy football teams.

I was happy for him. He's financially secure, why should he destroy his body and mind for the profit of billionaires and the entertainment of others? Although Luck is a millionaire by virtue of his profession, he got to experience one of the greatest thrills the typical American worker ever gets: quitting their job. 

In the modern American workplace the toilers have little leverage and less power. Organized labor gets weaker with each passing year, while the bosses find ways to drive their workers harder with the rallying cry of "efficiency." The film Office Space came out twenty years ago, and the trends it documented have only worsened. That film highlighted what I call "underling fatigue": the accumulated drag of being treated like a peon by people who are no better than you. The one surefire thing a worker can do is to quit, especially when it's inconvenient for their employer. That's certainly what Andrew Luck did.

I quit that way twice. Once was my worst job ever, as a telemarketer one summer in college. I took on part time evening shift hours at the rubber parts factory for a month so that I could quit the telemarketing job and work part time the rest of the summer and still make enough money. My telemarketing bosses were a little shocked to see me go well before summer was out, and it felt good.

The next was leaving my job as an assistant professor. This was the thing I spent seven years in grad school and two years in a "visiting" position fighting to have. It turned out to be a nightmare, but it was the job I was supposed to cherish. Plenty of other people out there still cling to their tenure track jobs, even if they never bring the fulfillment they promise. I decided that my life was meant to be better than that. I have never felt more free than the day I told my chair that I was gone.

Despite the thrill that quitting brings, and the positive changes to life that can come with it, it is a weak power. We all fancy ourselves irreplaceable in our jobs, but we are pretty easy to switch out. I love my current job and have no desire to quit. I also know that they'd be able to get a good teacher to take my place without much fuss.

And that prompts me to remember another time I felt powerful as a worker. It was in grad school when I went on a walkout with my fellow teaching assistants and we picketed the quad. That eventually led to getting a union contract. American workers are stuck having to get their shot at power by telling their boss to take their job and shove it. It'd be far better if they could get it in solidarity with their coworkers creating a workplace that doesn't make them want to quit. In today's climate that seems downright fanciful.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Republicans, Boris Johnson, and "Soft" Authoritarianism

The historical memory of the 20th century has in many ways left us ill-prepared for 21st century threats to democracy. Most people hear "authoritarianism" and think of Hitler and Stalin, one party states, and concentration camps. For this reason anything short of those totalitarian scenarios isn't taken seriously enough. Modern day "soft" authoritarians know this and act accordingly.

Take the Republican Party. From 1992 to the present it has won the plurality of the popular vote in the presidential election only once, in 2004 with the benefit of incumbency. Despite that, a Republican has held the office for three terms in that period. This has been enabled by the electoral college. When Republicans have held the White House they have used their positions to flood the federal bench with young ideologues, altering the interpretation of the law for decades in a direction that is not popular. When Republicans do not hold the White House they do everything they can to deny Democratic presidents their nominees.

Republicans also use gerrymandering and voter suppression to maintain their position despite being unpopular. In Wisconsin a majority voted for Democrats for the state legislature, but gerrymandering produced a majority of Republicans in both houses. That legislature then stripped powers from the newly elected Democratic governor. In multiple states, including my home state of Nebraska, Republican legislators have refused to honor ballot initiatives where clear majorities of voters opted to expand Medicaid.

In this regard Trump is not an outlier, but a regular Republican. As president he has used executive orders to target Muslim immigrants, throw children in prison camps, and fund a border wall without Congressional approval. According to recent reports, Trump is demanding that land be confiscated for his wall, and is dangling pardons for any underlings who fear legal prosecution. By outsourcing work to Fox News, Trump does not appear to have a state-run propaganda machine, but Fox basically fulfills that function.

Fellow nationalist Boris Johnson has also figured out the tricks of soft authoritarianism. He maneuvered to have Theresa May stabbed in the back, able to become prime minister without having to win an election. Johnson, who does not have majority support, has also moved to prorogue parliament in order to force the UK into a very unpopular no-deal Brexit. He is essentially preventing the people from having any kind of voice in the matter.

Because neither Trump nor Johnson are putting tanks in the streets or arresting their opponents, most regular people do not see this as authoritarianism, but it is. It is a smarter authoritarianism attuned to the fact that overt moves to grab power by force won't fly in this day and age. The memory of the last century is a big reason why. However, that memory serves us poorly because we are stuck fighting the last war. Unless we oppose this soft authoritarianism with the vigor it deserves, it won't stay soft much longer.

Monday, August 26, 2019

How "Meetings Day" Sums Up The Worst Of Working In Low-Level Higher Ed

Getting bawled out by jerks in suits is something salespeople and academics have in common

Tomorrow the school year begins for me, like it does for most educators, with a day of meetings. In fact, I will have four days of meetings, although a lot of that time will be with the students I advise and their parents. Those meetings are usually a great way to jump back into the school year. I am not as hot about the school and division-wide meetings we do, but I am generally just not a meetings guy. The administrators at my school do a good job of running them and making them relevant, so it's hard to complain too much. I come out of them feeling like we at least are doing something important with our time.

This is a far cry from my time in higher education. At many universities there is a big "Meetings Day" with sessions at the university, college, and department level. I have been spending the day feeling anxious just remembering those days. The message they tended to impart was that the faculty were peons. When I was a visiting assistant professor I was basically not told to go the meetings, the subtext being that I was "the help" and not welcome in through the front door.

Then I became a tenure track professor and realized that as belittling as it was to not be welcome at university events, having to attend the meetings was actually worse. I started at my job in August of 2008, which meant meetings the following years were full of talk of cutbacks, austerity, and the general message that we should shut up about it because we were all lucky to have a job.

What was surreal was how the austerity talk mingled with the usual administrator bragging over stuff that they built and "initiatives" they were planning. One year we heard about hiring and salary freezes and library cutbacks, but also how the new residence hall would have a big purple beacon on top. Why? Because the old residence hall being torn down had one and it needed to be replaced with a better one. Why? Because the school color was purple, and the beacon would signal that our sports teams had won their match that day to all the yokels in the small East Texas town where we were located.

The president of the school was so pleased to announce this. That year, like every other year, his annual presidential speech was met with a standing ovation after some of the older die hards would admonish the rest of us to join them. It was like something out of a Politburo meeting. At the college level meeting that followed we heard less about building and more about "initiatives." My favorite one is almost too ridiculous to describe. A land developer building a residential complex on a lake in the hill country over a two hundred miles from us wanted to partner with the college to have events there. We were a local university in East Texas and in the midst of having our travel budgets cut professors were being given some kind of time share pitch. I assumed this was some sort of tax dodge, and I could not believe that the dean was actually trying to sell this pile of crap to us. I have a friend from those days and we still get a laugh at the mere mention of it.

The day ended with department-level meetings, which were up and down but usually displayed our disfunction pretty openly. I still remember the time after a meeting I went to lunch with some of my colleagues and two of them joked about committing a violent act against one of their coworkers. (This should have been a clue that they would later backstab me.) Or the time I had to hear someone go off on how the United States needed to start a war with Russia over the crisis in Georgia back in 2008.

The Meetings Day was always the worst way to start the school year. It killed my morale because it made it obvious that me and my work were of little value to the institution that I worked for. Sometimes it also felt like a dark look into the future. Working for a long period of time at a regional state institution in an isolated small town that was never on the list of places you wanted a live takes a toll on your well-being. Every Meetings Day I noticed the two alternatives: to embrace cynicism to the point of calcification (I was already on that road) or to join the cult and to invest in the institution. After all, if you think the place you work for is shit, doesn't that kind of also make you shit too? That was the calculation that the people who stood for the university's president's propaganda speech had made.

I'm glad I chose the forbidden option, to simply leave the whole thing behind. However, on days like this I think about what could have been. My old university was full of a lot of good people. If they had been given the power to run things instead being forced to obey the whims of others, that institution could've been something special. Today I am thinking of all my friends and colleagues still working in the world of low-level higher ed, and hoping against hope that the tide can be turned and that universities will someday be worthy of their faculty and students.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Kinks Music For The Late Summer Malaise

We are entering one of my least favorite periods of the calendar year: late summer. It brings days when you think the summer heat is finally going to end, but it only comes back, somehow worse. Being an educator it means going back to school. This used to be much more exciting for me, but with my current life it means a true return to the trenches. I love my job, but it requires getting up at 5:30 or sometimes 5AM, followed by a daily military operation to get my recalcitrant children awake, dressed and fed in time to catch the train. That train stands a good chance of being late or not having anywhere to sit down. Then I have the fun of the subway on a hot morning, the stagnant air smelling like urine and my clothes covered with sweat before I arrive at work. By the time I get home I am exhausted, with the new drill of getting my children fed, all of their obligations taken care of, and then put to bed. After all that I get about two hours of free time where if I try to read or watch a movie I just pass out.

Before classes even start there are the usual days of meetings and other obligations in late summer that mostly just make me anxious. My birthday also happens to fall during this time of year. It is no longer a happy occasion, just a clear reminder of my aging.

To make it through this, like just about every time in my life, I need a good soundtrack. I have found over the years that The Kinks are perfect for this crummy time of year. Part of the reason might just be personal association. I bought The Kink Kronikles right after I moved from Chicago to Urbana in the late summer of 2000, living by myself and lost in a new place. I played it to nearly to death.

"Too Much On My Mind"


Anybody else out there get paralyzed by anxious thoughts? I do all the time, and this song describes the sensation better than any other I've heard. I recently saw it used perfectly in the Wim Wenders film The American Friend. The main character is sweeping up his frame shop as it comes on the radio. He sings along, trying to smile away his worries.

"Sunny Afternoon"


This song was a big hit in the UK, mostly because it examines the British obsession with social class in an inverted way. Working class Ray Davies imagines himself as a dissolute member of the gentry, living a life of pleasurable decadence. His life seems to be falling apart and the bills are coming due, which is a good metaphor for the end of summer.

"Lazy Old Sun"


The draggy sound of "Lazy Old Sun" is malaise personified.

"Tired of Waiting For You"


This is an earlier song from the band's more riff-rocking, British Invasion days. The last week of summer break I mostly spend thinking about the school year and just wanting to get it started so all the anxious anticipation will stop.

"Strangers"


I figured I should throw a Dave Davies song in here too. This one is more tender than his usual offerings, considering that he was the "rocker" in the band. It's got a languid organ underneath it, and for some reason the sound of an organ comforts me like no other instrument. There's a reason that Wes Anderson used this one in a movie.

"Don't Forget To Dance"



The Kinks broke out with killer riff rockers like "You Really Got Me," then settled into their stellar 1966-1972 run of albums that commented on postwar British society. After that they spent some years in the wilderness of bad concept albums, only to emerge as an arena rock band in the late 70s. They had one last big hit in America with the retro "Come Dancing" in 1983. (That was the song that introduced me to the band, and I loved it.) Apart from that the group limped along into the 90s, where it basically dissolved. Their late period does have some gems, and "Don't Forget To Dance" is my favorite. It's a song about resilience in facing up to life's inevitable letdowns and that's something I need right now.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Mark Lanegan, "Carnival" (Track of the Week)



I find it very hard to listen to indie rock from the 90s these days. This isn't because I think the music is bad, rather because of its associations. That music was "my music" in my youth, the music of my generation and music obscure enough that it made me feel like part of something. I saw Pavement at a club show in 1997 and the vibe in the room was like everyone there should be my best friend.

Back then I thought the world could be heading in a better direction, and that my generation would be a part of it. The following decades quickly abused me of those naive thoughts. I recently read a political history of the USA since 1974, and once the book got to 2000 the knots started forming in my stomach. Each event felt like a punch to the gut. The stolen election of 2000, the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, George Bush using homophobia to get reelected, Hurricane Katrina, economic collapse in 2008, the rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump. In the 90s the bad things were minor, like the president getting a beej followed by an inept and opportunistic push for impeachment.

Listening to 90s indie rock brings me back to my naivete and a time that wasn't great by any means but that beats what we've got now. I now totally understand the nostalgia some in Europe had after 1914 for the "belle epoque," despite its many problems.

Luckily for me, there's some great 90s indie rock I discovered after 2000, and thus can listen to without the poison of nostalgia. One artist is Mark Lanegan, who I knew at the time mostly as the lead singer of The Screaming Trees, a minor Seattle grunge band who had a well-deserved hit with "I Nearly Lost You."

Sometime circa 2007 in the midst of a raging Michigan winter I turned to folk music for solace, and picked up Ballad of the Broken Seas, the first duet album Lanegan did with Isobel Campbell, former member of Belle and Sebastian. I loved it, and through it discovered Lanegan's solo work from the 1990s.

On these songs Lanegan's voice is in a lower register than with the Trees, which suits him better. They are mostly acoustic, and reminiscent of the great spooky sound Nirvana got on their Unplugged show, a sound that still haunts me a quarter century later. If you want a fine example that will have you asking for more, listen to "Carnival" from the stellar 1994 album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. The violin is scratchy and eerie, and Lanegan's voice a mix of bourbon and bluster. It sounds like something that gets played at open mic night at the bar in Hades.

I've never bothered to analyze the lyrics, since the mood is so evocative. This is not the ironic detachment of a lot of 1990s indie rock, but something dredged up from the depths of the soul. In the past eighteen years I can't remember the number of nights I've sat up wondering if things will ever stop getting worse. Some music helps distract me from these emotions, but Mark Lanegan's stuff is perfect when I really want to lean into the skid.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Greenland Conversation We Should Be Having


One of my favorite reads this summer was Daniel Immerwahr's How To Hide An Empire, an episodic history of America's overseas empire. The book continually emphasizes an uncomfortable fact that was recently exposed by Hurricane Maria: there are millions of American citizens living in island territories who lack proper representation, and suffer for it. Beyond those places, like American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam etc there are American military bases around the world that are de facto American colonial possessions.

One of these is Thule Air Base in Greenland. Established during World War II, during the early days Cold War it became essential as a potential launching point for nuclear-armed bombers to strike the Soviet Union. Evidently in the late 1940s the United States had offered to buy the entire island from Denmark. The Danish government refused, and this also came at a time when such blatant imperialism was no longer the norm in world affairs.

Flash forward seventy years, and Donald Trump has evidently been floating the idea of purchasing the island, which is not for sale. It's the kind of ridiculous proposal that fits so well with his infantile mindset. Born into privilege he loves nothing more than buying things, and assumes anything can be bought. His love of size must make him salivate over purchasing the biggest island in the world. His childish nationalism, a throwback to a much older time, still thinks in terms of territorial expansion. (Not a surprise considering that his trade policy is reheated mercantilism.)

There's been a lot of discussion of this in the media, but I have been disappointed at the unwillingness to grapple with the deeper issues of American empire it raises. The response has either been laughter at the surreal nature of the proposal or taking it seriously and seeing if it can be done. So little discussion concerns whether it OUGHT to be done from a human rights, as opposed to strategic, standpoint.

In fact, plenty of Trump supporters have already warmed up to the idea. A friend who hails from Tennessee and has lots of ultra-conservative friends and family posted something on Facebook about how a local radio DJ was touting the colonization of Greenland. My friend was shocked, but a bunch of people chimed in below about how great they thought this idea was. The same people who would take him to task for being pro-gun control and talked about the need for guns to ward off government tyranny were totally in favor of subjecting a group of people to American rule against their will.

If you understand guns as totems of settler colonialism, the contradiction makes perfect sense, of course.

Instead of chasing the shiny ball of Trump's childish fancies, we should be talking about American empire. Particularly, we need to recognize that the mainland's relationship to its territories is entirely inconsistent with democracy. We need to discuss the history behind this, how the Supreme Court's "Insular Cases" used racist reasoning to deny full citizenship. Hurricane Maria showed the price of inaction. We should resolve that something like that never happens again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Consolation of Baseball

Whenever I have a bad day, I just watch this

I have mostly kept to my summer resolution to be politically engaged. Last night I showed up to a local planning meeting to support the building of a new apartment building, which is currently being fought by NIMBY contingent. This means that I have been willing to engage in the most mundane forms of political action. Hopefully this weekend I will have a chance to go to Bedminster and protest there again.

It's become more and more obvious that I need small consolations in life to recharge and keep me from despair. It's especially good if those consolations aren't beer and bourbon. Music has been my first, and a close second has been baseball.

My team, the Mets, has been surging after a typically dismal start. Last Friday I went to a game with a friend, and witnessed the most amazing contest I will likely ever see in a lifetime of going to the ballpark. The Mets came back from three runs down in the fourth, then fell three runs down again, only to win it in an insanely dramatic ninth inning. There was playoff-level intensity in the park, with fans standing for the third strike in the first inning. When Todd Frazier's three run homer brought the Mets even in the ninth I thought that stadium was going to collapse. If felt like the last three seasons of frustration and dashed hopes were being expelled from the souls of the fans.


As we walked out of the stadium on a high, my friend turned to me and said "Kind of makes you forget what a messed up country we live in right now, huh?" I was so happy that the reminder of the reality outside of the ballpark did not harsh my baseball buzz.

Even if the Mets were still as bad as they were at the start of the season baseball would be a consolation in these times. One of my seven year old daughters has thrown herself into the game. She likes to collect baseball cards, look over the standings, and sit and watch games with me. I switched the channel when I saw that there was a rain delay today, and she objected. "But Daddy, I WANT to watch the rain delay!" So instead we looked at YouTube videos of Mets moments past. This summer so many days have ended sitting on the couch with my daughter, watching baseball. In those moments I feel a sense of calm and happiness that seems so elusive these days.

Sitting there on the couch the familiar rhythms of game take over. The announcer's musical boilerplate at the end of an inning "No runs one hit no errors." The quiet poetry of a shortstop fielding a slow grounder and throwing to first. The sounds of the ballpark and the low murmur of voices punctuated by the cries of hot dog vendors. It's my version of ASMR.

The long shadow of baseball's past provides its own comfort. I went to a Yankees game with my father when my parents visited, since he had never been to Yankee Stadium. My dad does not follow baseball as a sport, but truly understands it as a game. We could sit together, discussing pitching motions and infield defensive shifts. That might sound boring to a lot of people, but for me it was absolute bliss.

Most comforting of all is baseball's dailiness. From April through October, it's there for me very day. Except for the two days after the All-Star Game, which always leave me in a down mood without my daily friend. Those days fall during the height of summer, and having a baseball fast when conditions are ideal for baseball feels like being a monk wearing a hairshirt. I guess it helps remind me of how much I cherish the game.

I'm planning on going to a game next Thursday, and I am looking forward to it. I heard a sportswriter once say that his mother liked going to church because it was the only way she could be in church, and that he felt the same way about the ballpark. The only way to be at the ballpark, where I feel transported the second I gaze on the green field after walking through the gates, is to be at the ballpark. For that reason I get the feeling that November is going to be especially hard this year.

Monday, August 12, 2019

New Episode of Old Dad's Records (1983 and Duality)


The newest episode of the Old Dad's Records podcast is up!  This time around I was inspired by old music from 1983 I that's popped up in my life.  I start with "Photograph" by Def Leppard, which I heard at a Mets game this week. It is perhaps the starting point of hair metal, a genre I despise. At the same time, it is one of that genre's few real gems. 1983 wasn't just about hair metal, it was also the year that launched REM onto the college radio stations of America with Murmur, an album then gave me a lot of comfort in my youth, and still plays that role in these dark days. I end with a recommendation for Weyes Blood, who has crafted a lovely art folk sound.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Nixon's Resignation, 45 Years On

Take a good look at this because something like it will never happen again

I have been obsessed with Richard Nixon and his times since I was young. I blame the box of my uncle's old Mad magazines from the early 70s that sat in my grandparents' basement. Through them I saw Nixon and Agnew skewered, but also glimpses of a not long ago world that seemed so much more volatile and interesting than the height of the Reagan years I was living through.

I was fascinated at how a man could be President of the United States and yet be so despised. In the 80s Mad was critical of Reagan, too, but the intensity of contempt towards Nixon was something deeper. Then, in doldrums of the summer of 1992 one TV network (I forget which) ran a special on the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Seeing the story laid out there before me only interested me more, and my interest continued even as I went on to grad school studying nineteenth century Germany instead of America in the 70s (which is now my field of choice.) Books like Nixon at the Movies became my refuge from my dissertation research.

Back in 1992 Watergate was not the distant past, it was a thing that happened the day before yesterday, so to speak. Now, as my middle aged self hates to admit, the 1990s are now the day before yesterday and the 1970s are fading into the distant past. Because of the scandals around Donald Trump, that history has been resurrected. Watch MSNBC on any given night and you might see John Dean or one of the Watergate lawyers on to talk about the current president. All the President's Men has been on TV quite a lot in the last year.

I fear that these comparisons are creating a false sense of security. People who believe in the justice of the current political system MUST trust that the system will work, that good will triumph and evil will be rebuked. That helps explain the ridiculous cult in some circles around Robert Mueller, who was supposed to be the avatar of our institutions' worthiness. History is something that does work in the present, and the work of Watergate comparisons today has only fed complacency. If a corrupt president got taken down before, it will happen again.

It's not going to work out like that this time. I guarantee you that Trump will never resign. There is an outside chance that he could removed through impeachment, but only if the makeup of the Senate dramatically changes, which is highly unlikely. The comparisons fail to take into account the ways America has changed over the last four decades. Richard Nixon's party was in the minority in both houses. More than that, members of his party were more likely to put principle and the law above their devotion to their president. The current Republican Party is a gang of right-wing Bolsheviks who take a strict "end justifies the means" praxis to the extent where they suppress votes and gerrymander districts down to the city block.

Beyond having a majority in the Senate that will follow him to the gates of hell, Trump benefits from a vastly altered media landscape. Fox News (started by Nixon operative Roger Ailes) and other forms of conservative media have created an alternate reality where the president's crimes simply do not exist. His administration and Fox work hand in glove, forming the biggest and most effective state propaganda apparatus this country has seen since World War II. That media has also fed into the "all or nothing" mentality that now dominates the electorate. In our low grade civil war the other side can never be allowed to win, no matter the reason. In 1974 Republicans could admit that the president was a crook. To do so nowadays would be to impugn their very identity and so cannot be done. (Just think about how guns have become an extension of identity for conservatives, and you'll get my drift.)

Ironically, Watergate's "lesson" for those in power has mainly been that they will never be brought to account. Ford infamously pardoned Nixon for "any crimes he may have committed," robbing the country of justice and even a full accounting of what he had done. Future leaders understood the usefulness of "plausible deniability" so that they would not get caught. This is what saved Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal and Chris Christie during the Bridgegate scandal and Dick Cheney in the Valerie Plane affair (remember that?). Dubya started an illegal war on false pretenses that has killed thousands and he gets to paint in his mansion.

It's high time that we stop using Watergate's history as a way to praise our institutions. Instead we need to reckon with our failure to hold our leaders accountable since that fateful day in 1974.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

REM, Murmur, and Solace in Hard Times


I took my parents to the airport this morning, which means after two weeks of enjoyable distraction I have lost my last remaining shield against the horror of the recent news cycle. In the summer, when I am not immersed in the constant crisis mode of teaching, I find myself on Twitter way too much, more deeply engaged in the happenings of the world. 

In times like this, to quote Alex Chilton and Big Star, it's hard to hold on, but the guns wait to be stuck by. I have resolved to spend the rest of my summer engaged in the struggle, but that also requires having a refuge to escape to. My favorite has always been music.

This hit home on Sunday, when I took my parents on a short day trip to Princeton. While there we made sure to visit the Princeton Record Exchange, my favorite record store in the entire Tri-State area. My parents, who are not part of the current wave of streaming, got some used CDs at bargain prices. I found a copy of REM's Murmur on vinyl and quickly snatched it up and have been listening to it endlessly.

It's an album I first bought on cassette in August of 1991, since at that time back catalog albums were especially cheap in that format and cars still only had tape decks in them. (I later bought it on CD, so this is one of a handful of albums I own in all three formats.) That summer I had become an REM superfan after buying Out of Time with some lawnmowing money in the spring. By winter I owned the band's entire back catalog (except Dead Letter Office) and played it incessantly. 

Murmur was special to me because it sounded, and still sounds, like nothing else ever made. I usually listened to it late at night in the dark on my Walkman, lying on my bed and giving it my full attention. With my other senses dimmed I felt transported into some kind of dream world, one that was as mysterious as it was comforting. Michael Stipe's infamously mumbled lyrics (which are not as illegible as sometimes claimed) allowed me to derive the meaning of the songs by intuition, much like looking at an abstract painting. In those moments listening in the dark I felt more calm and at ease than my volatile teenage emotions ever let me feel in the agitating light of day.

The following school year, my sophomore year of high school, would be a crucial one in my life. I started to gain back the confidence that was beaten out of me in the 8th grade when my "friends" decided I wasn't cool enough to hang out with them. I was too dorky even for the nerds, but embraced competitive debate and started winning. I have a very clear memory of riding a school bus back from a tournament in Omaha to my hometown. I had managed to get to the semifinals, and I listened to Murmur in the antediluvian December darkness of a rural Nebraska night all the way. It was the best way to savor my first feeling of accomplishment in years.

And so I listen to it again, 28 years later and feel that same warm embrace. Just as it gave me comfort in the worst slough of my teenage emotions, it is giving me solace in the midst of the worst slough this nation has fallen into in my lifetime. We need to fight, but we need to draw strength and protection, too. I hope you find it where you can, because we are all going to need it.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Reflections on Summer Travels Around America


I have been on the road a lot in the past month and a half. Back in June I took a group of students on a trip through the South, visiting several historical sites, most of them connected to civil rights and African American history. A couple of weeks later I flew out to Amarillo, Texas, to visit a friend, then we drove up to Colorado for a grad school reunion. Today I have just returned from a trip with my family (including my parents) to Boston and Maine. I've been all around the lower 48, except for the West Coast and Midwest, which I visited last summer.

My travels have taken me to very "blue" places like Boston and "red" places like the Texas Panhandle. What struck me most consistently was a country seemingly oblivious to crisis. When I was with my friends and family I was less connected with TV and internet news sources than I usually am, and without them it seemed as if everything was just humming along. From Alabama to New Hampshire, ferment was not in the air. Even among my grad school friends, who are very politically committed, we seemed to talk less about politics this year than when we last met two years ago.

I sense an increasing air of fatalism. Those who oppose the president seem defeated. They fought hard to turn the House to the Democrats, and what has it accomplished? Even after Robert Mueller essentially said in front of Congress that the president had obstructed justice, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have refused to make significant moves on impeachment. The president's recent bigoted outbursts are not just random ravings, but they are actually calculated to win the votes of racist white people. We all know that he is a racist who is breaking the law, and that nothing will be done about it.

There's a fatalism on the other side as well, especially among the Republicans who were never hardcore Trump supporters. Like Thomas Jefferson and slavery, they know deep down in their heart of hearts that they support something evil, but have found every rationalization possible to justify their complicity. They put their consciences in the hands of the devil, willing to let their souls be stolen for lower taxes and watching the people they don't like suffer more than they will.

While the country seems united in fatalism, the divisions were easy to see out of the car window. In the "red" areas I visited I saw lots of giant crosses and giant Confederate flags on the roadside, along with the random anti-abortion billboard. In "blue" America I saw countless pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs, stickers, and graffiti. This to me highlighted the ultimate stupidity of the media's "both sides" narrative. One side uses symbolism to assert its superiority and dominance over other people. The other side uses symbols intended to support marginalized people and fight for their equality. In this fight there can be no equivocation.

But despite this firm division of values, there seemed to be little action. Contrast this with Puerto Rico, where protestors drove a bad leader out of office. Mainlanders ought to learn a lesson, but they are too paralyzed by their own fatalism to see it. We have sadly treated the current crisis like something to be watched on television and to be affected by, rather than a play where we all take part. That attitude has had and will continue to have disastrous consequences. As for me, I have resolved to lean my shoulder harder on the wheel, and I hope you join me.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Failure to Reckon

Today brought yet another report about the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. I find it fascinating that this news has been met with relative silence.

I got to thinking about it, and realized the quiet is very on brand for America in 2019. We are in the midst of a situation that requires a true reckoning, something nobody really want to do. Conservatives have basically decided that anything is permissible if it keeps them in power. If that requires foreign interference, voter suppression, and losing the popular vote, so be it. The left is so heavily invested in their anti-liberalism and contrarianism that they act as if the hacking is no big deal. The center-left (there is no center-right in America) tends to care the most, but are totally unwilling to admit how rotten our entire political system has become. In their West Wing world we can somehow go back to how it used to be without making any fundamental changes.

One of the fundamental political realities today is that the Constitution, which was intended to limit the power of the masses, is being used to ensure permanent minority rule. The electoral college, state-level voter qualifications, the Senate, and the judiciary are working in concert to thwart the will of the majority. Unfortunately, in America our Constitution is treated like a sacred totem, a fundamental expression of the nation. It cannot be replaced. The country will collapse entirely before that is allowed to happen.

Of course, this is not the first time that the Constitution has been utilized in this fashion. From roughly 1877 to 1964 Jim Crow ruled the South and several national institutions like the military. This happened right after the advances of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Similarly, Trumpism is a reaction against a more diverse and less white country, an attempt to establish permanent white rule in America. When well meaning liberals call Trump's actions "un-American" they are displaying their own failure to reckon with the realities of this country's history.

In a sense I do not even know why I am talking about the current crisis on this level, since I know in my heart nothing fundamental is going to change. We might get through this and somehow manage to vote Trump out of office despite the existence of the electoral college, voter suppression, and outside interference. The underlying failure of our system of government won't be going away anytime soon, even under the best of possible outcomes. Why? Because few are willing to reckon with what is staring them straight in the face.

If only mainlanders had the spirit of Puerto Ricans. When the people of Puerto Rico took to the streets and deposed their corrupt governor, they understood that they needed to take things into their own hands, and that the system itself would not somehow right things on its own. A lot of Trump's opponents on the mainland need to get that basic understanding through their thick skulls.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

"21st Century Digital Boy" (Track of the Week)


I have been thinking a lot about 90s popular culture this week, and the few artifacts that showed an understanding of the way our society was headed. Back in 1994 the whole "pop punk" broke huge at the hands of Green Day and The Offspring. The latter band's album became the biggest selling album put out by an indie label in America. That label was Epitaph, founded by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz.

Bad Religion, birthed in the early 80s hardcore scene, even managed to get their videos on MTV and songs played on the new "alternative" radio format. While Green Day was expertly mining teen angst, Bad Religion was older and far more literate and political. Their Stranger Than Fiction album had hooks galore and came out in the only three year window in pop music history where an indie punk band could hit the mainstream.

On the surface, "21st Century Digital Boy" describes a typical suburban scene of a middle class boy "with lots of toys" seduced by consumerism and incapable of dealing with the outside world. Hearing it now, I see the first inklings of a new trend. If the character in this song were young today he'd be in GamerGate and trolling people for the lulz and egging on mass shooters on 4chan. The lost affluent suburban nerdy white boys of the 90s have become politicized these days, often drawn to the alt-right and "incel" misogyny. (I know most aren't but this nexus is pretty clear.)

Some days I think about how things would have been different for me if I grew up now rather than then. I shook off the "woe is me" bullshit, but it was easier then without social media. Now the lost 21st century digital boys are empowered in their hatred.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

An Elegiac Moon Landing Anniversary

If you watch one moon landing documentary, watch For All Mankind

Growing up in the 1980s I was obsessed with space travel. I read every book I could find on the subject, and memorized the names of astronauts from Gordon Cooper to Deke Slayton. The first space shuttle launch in 1981 happened when I was five years old, a perfect time to capture my imagination. The Challenger tragedy came at the height of my fascination, and broke my heart twice. Once for those who died, and a second time for the realization that space travel might not be the future.

Back in 1986 at the time of that disaster the last moon landing had taken place only fourteen years before. My childhood mind, which saw each week as an eternity, did not grasp that men had been sent to the moon in the very recent past. Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which feels like it took place a million years ago.

This is not merely because the vast majority of Americans do not have a living memory of the event. The very effort to go to the moon feels like something impossible accomplished by an ancient civilization, like the statues on Easter Island or the Egyptian pyramids. Men were sent to the moon and back -several times!- with computers weaker than the average pocket calculator of today. The device in my pants pocket is like a fighter jet compared to the ox carts of the massive mainframes you see in the moon landing documentaries.

It's about more than technology, however. It's about a society capable of even doing such a thing. The United States today seems incapable of even functioning. Our president is an addled television huckster yelling racist taunts at his opponents and throwing refugees in internment camps. Our bridges and roads are crumbling, people go bankrupt because they get sick, children live in fear of being shot in school, and the police are allowed to commit murder with impunity.

This is not to elevate America in 1969. The Vietnam War was raging, Richard Nixon was president, and black artists like Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron pointed out how money was being spent on rockets while America's ghettoes worsened. This country has never lived up to its promise at any time in its history, but at least in 1969, amidst the war mongering and rank inequality, it was capable of a giant leap for humanity. The plaque planted on the moon did not gloat about America or claim the land for any one country, but said the mission was done "for all mankind."

The United States of today is not capable of such flourishes. It is raising the walls and hardening the borders. It isn't building rockets, it's stringing barbed wire. Donald Trump has given up the veneer of any deeper universal moral mission for the country. His main goal with space is to militarize it with a Space Force, the polar opposite of the attempts in the 1960s to internationalize outer space.

But it's not just American history on the downslope. The moon landing in 1969 may well be seen in the future as the apex of industrialization. It happened on the eve of the understanding in the 1970s that our resources are finite, and that our addiction to fossil fuels could eventually kill us. I was watching a moon landing documentary this week, and seeing the massive fires coming from the rocket I could only think about the greenhouse effect. As a child I used to think the stars were our destiny, now I am realizing that what looked like a thrilling first step was probably the end of the line.

So I sit here on this absolutely scorching July 20th, 2019, and I wonder what the future holds. My only hope is that the stunning ability of the space program to invent new technologies and marshal resources to put someone on the moon can somehow, someway be replicated by us in the here and now to save what we have here on earth.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Cracked Windshields and Free Beer on a Bush League Nebraska Night


While baseball may not hold the preeminent place in American culture that it once did, its metaphors still permeate the American vernacular. To fail is to “strike out.” A major success is a “home run.” When making an estimate, we provide a “ballpark figure.” The president is fond of saying “big league” as a positive adjective. The opposite term, one used to connote low quality or shoddy performance, is “bush league.” While I now work in the president’s big league hometown, the biggest league city in all of America, I grew up in a literal bush league town. I have spent so much time in the big leagues of New York that while I still hold it in my heart, my hometown feels more and more distant to me.

Last July I was back in Hastings, Nebraska, a small city of 24,000 in the stereotypically flat south central part of the state, 150 long miles west of Omaha. It is the smallest of the triangle of the “tri-cities area,” completed by Grand Island and Kearney. While Hastings’ population has remained static, those other towns have been growing for the past forty years. Interstate 80, the Cornhusker State’s grand trunk road, bypassed Hastings for those other cities. The local state college in Kearney was elevated to a state university, and Grand Island has grown by 50% since I was born. With Hastings’ mall now officially dead and the local department store closing, residents of my hometown have to drive twenty four miles north to “GI” to do any shopping that can’t be done at the hulking Wal-Mart that sits like a cancerous growth on the edge of town.

There is little in the way of opportunities for those with a college education or ambition. Those like me who left town to get an education rarely come back. This is mostly down to the economic situation, but also to an insular attitude that has only worsened as the town has lost its relevance. There is a vicious feedback loop whereby young people leave for better chances, making the people left behind even more rooted in the town, which then drives more young people out, thus making the locals that much more obstinate in their dislike of the outside world. When I tell strangers I meet in Hastings that I live in New Jersey the mask of “Midwestern nice” suddenly drops. They don’t even try to hide their judgment and contempt. One total stranger I talked to after Superstorm Sandy actually told me that we were parasites on the government for asking for rebuilding money. Incidents like this have made coming home to visit feel like going to a hostile foreign country, not the place I grew up.

On my last summer visit, however, I found something that made me feel more at home in my hometown than I had felt in years: a minor league baseball game.

The wonderfully named Sodbusters are not a minor league affiliate, but a member of the Expedition League, a new wood bat summer league made up of college players trying to get noticed by scouts. Even such a lowly rung on the baseball ladder is exciting to have in a town where people are used to having to drive several miles to Grand Island or Lincoln for entertainment. My heart swelled to think that for once WE had something THEY didn’t. I also felt part of that WE for a change.

It was as if the clock had been turned back to the town’s heyday when I heard about the new team. When you drive around Hastings you notice that it must have been a real jewel in the early 1900s. The ornate fa├žade of one downtown building is a sign that it was once a department store where the well-to-do traveling by rail from Chicago to Denver got off and bought luxury items. The Dutton-Lainson Company, a manufacturer and the town’s biggest employer also owns the tallest structure in town, a warehouse called the “Victory Building” for its commemoration of the just finished World War I. The war brought prosperity to Nebraska’s farming country even as it sent doughboys back home in coffins. Hastings was a railroad junction too when the railroad was king. The railroad brought in speakers to stand on the rostrum at the town’s Chatauqua pavilion, built in 1907 for the cultural edification of the growing town’s residents. That included the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan, whose political power coincided with the Plains’ rise. Hastings had always prided itself on its more refined nature, whereas sister city Grand Island was a rough-hewn, Western cow town full of saloons and brothels.

Hastings had even played a part in one the early milestones of world baseball history. In 1888 AG Spalding took his team of all-stars on a world tour to promote the game. On the rail route to the west coast they stopped off in Hastings and played an exhibition game. Hastings fielded minor league teams in its 1910s and 1920s zenith, including one nicknamed the “Third Citys” [sic]. Despite the boosterish claim in their nickname, Grand Island was already ahead of Hastings as the third biggest city in Nebraska.

Hastings’ combination of early 20th century prosperity, boosterism, love of baseball, and civic-mindedness created the thing that made it possible for Hastings to even host a baseball team in the 21st century: Duncan Field. Completed in 1941 as a municipal project, it has a subtle grandeur from another time. The outfield wall is brick, a reminder that Hastings was once known for its multiple brickyards. Unlike Wrigley Field in Chicago, the wall is not covered with ivy and is too tall for a player to scale. Also unlike Wrigley, it is impossibly far from home plate.  The wall is 380 feet down the lines, and 405 to the “power” alleys. There’s a flagpole by the wall in dead center, but it hardly constitutes a hazard since no ball will ever get that far. A home run there is a truly notable experience, a kind of throwback to the dead ball era when John “Home Run” Baker could get that nickname after smacking only a dozen round trippers in a season.

Duncan Field once hosted regional American Legion youth baseball championships and a Hastings side in the D-level Nebraska State League. Legend has it that when a young Yogi Berra played there in an amateur playoff game that he managed to clear one over the wall. As the minors started contracting, Hastings lost its team in the late 1950s, but for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s Duncan Field hosted the American Legion baseball World Series. (Take that, Williamsport!) After that, it was home only to local Legion games. (In rural Nebraska baseball is still a club sport and high schools don’t field teams.) When I played in little league, the ultimate goal was to play for the league championship at Duncan Field. For nine year-old me Duncan Field may well have been Yankee Stadium.

So on a surprisingly temperate Nebraska July evening I went there to see a Sodbusters game with my family. I’d last been there as a young child to watch the Legion high schoolers play. Now the old metal benches had been replaced with actual seats, and the facilities updated. The wall was still there, of course. There is something about really large diamonds that I find aesthetically pleasing, that huge green jewel stretched out before my eyes. The game really seems to be being played on a field in the literal sense as opposed to a sports complex.

That 405 is not to straightaway center, but to the supposed "power alley"

While Duncan Field has an illustrious history and beauty to it combined with infinitely better bathrooms than Wrigley, it is still most definitely bush league, in both senses of the word. The Burlington Northern’s tracks run right next to the stadium, trains blowing their mournful horns all through the game. The lone parking lot sits behind the home plate grandstand, and my dad insisted on parking the car as far away as possible. The reason soon became obvious, as many foul balls left the park and made ominous thudding and cracking noises. In the kind of bush league humor I always appreciate, the announcer read off a paid advertisement for a local windshield repair shop right after the first foul ball went into the parking lot.

That was a sign that the Sodbusters, like most minor league teams, have a fan experience policy of laying it on thick. They are apostles of the great Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who when accused of sullying the game with gimmicks, wrote that “All I was saying was that a losing team, plus bread and circuses, was better than a losing team and a long, still silence.” The Sodbusters, like a lot of minor league teams, might be rightfully criticized for their hatred of silence and overabundance of bread and circuses. Every pitch and play seemed to be accompanied by some kind of sound effect or short canned movie quotation aimed at Generation X nostalgia.

I’m not going to complain, because this kind of hucksterism ended up netting me a free beer. I was pulled out of the crowd for a trivia challenge and got all three questions right, and a gratis brewski was my reward, so much more fulfilling than getting corporate swag or a gift certificate to a mediocre restaurant. The fact that I was able to get an IPA with my free beer certificate was a sign that perhaps my hometown is getting a lot hipper these days.

This made me a fan for life

In another malted barley based gimmick, a Sodbuster player was given special status for the game. If he scored a run, all Busch and Budweiser beers would be two for the price of one. When that player in fact scored, there was a roar of joy and a mass exodus from the stands to the beer concession.

Despite all the noises and gimmicks, baseball is experienced more palpably in a bush league game. For one, you are right on top of the action, and the noise of the crowd does not drown out the noise on the field. I also found myself watching it much differently than a major league game. When a player for either team muffed a routine play I felt sad, knowing that their chances of hitting the big time were on the line. I felt especially bad that the starting Sodbusters pitcher, a local boy from Grand Island, got shelled worse than the trenches at the Somme. This was not the bad feeling I get when say Zach Wheeler gets crushed against the Nationals, but a personal feeling of empathy for another human being.

This is why it was great to go to the game with my father, who probably could not name five current major league players but still knows more about baseball than I ever will. He noticed the small things that most fans at major league games miss, like the positioning of the fielders, the pitch selection, and the swings of the various batters. At a Mets game I might talk with other fans about who hits where in the lineup, the latest trade, or which relief pitchers are most effective in the eighth inning. My father is much more likely to be concerned with a pitcher’s throwing motion or the way an outfielder closes on a fly ball. That eye is especially important at a bush league game, where you are looking to spot the future big leaguers

In those moments with my father I was reminded that baseball is so much more a “game” than other popular sports. Baseball people regularly refer to it much more often as “our game” or “the game.” Notice as well that baseball was once dubbed “the national pastime” rather than “the national sport.” In fact, central Nebraska is a place where baseball as a game played locally by local teams, rather than as a major league sport, managed to hold on longer than elsewhere. In old times every town big and small had its own organized teams. That culture still existed in rural Nebraska in the 1950s, and my grandfather played on the local team for his little town of about 350 people well into his fifties.

Much of this probably has to do with the fact that Nebraska is so isolated that it does not fit naturally into any one team’s fandom. Both of my grandfathers had an affection for the Cardinals because they were the closest team and could hear their games broadcast over the radio, but neither was a Cardinals fan, per se. My mom’s father used to love to tell the story of “Pepper” Martin’s exploits in the 1931 World Series, but knew nothing of Ozzie Smith and Whitey Herzog. South Dakota is just as isolated, but it is firmly Twins country. The same goes for Kansas and the Royals. You’ll find Cardinals, Royals, Rockies, and Cubs fans in Nebraska, but no one team has any kind of hegemony.

This was kind of a gift I was given as a baseball fan in Hastings. I developed a love less for any team, but for the game of baseball itself. Some of that came from my dad’s father. Tiny Lawrence doesn’t have a hospital, and he stayed with us for awhile in Hastings while getting some treatments. During that time in 1986, almost every day I came home from school he was watching the Cubs game on WGN. It wasn’t because he was a Cubs fan, he just loved watching baseball. While I was initially miffed I couldn’t watch my GI Joe cartoons, that was the moment where baseball really put its hooks in me. My grandfather died less than two weeks after the next opening day, but by that time I was buying packs of baseball cards and poring over the box scores in the paper every day after school. My memories of him are faded, but his impact on me lives on.

So thirty-two years later I found myself at a game in my hometown, now 1500 miles away from where I live in a place so alien from rural Nebraska that it might as well be another country. In front of the massive green expanse of Duncan field beneath the impossibly large Nebraska evening sky talking baseball with my dad and trying to get my six year old daughters to share my enthusiasm. As always, my dad talked wistfully about how much his father loved baseball, and I could tell that my enthusiasm for the game was something that made him happy. That night I felt like I was still a link in a chain I feared was getting broken in my exile.

The Sodbusters got destroyed 15-4, but it didn’t matter. I felt happier leaving that game than any other I’ve been to, including seeing the Mets win in extra innings in their wild card run in 2016. The night was proof that being in the bush league doesn’t have to be bush league.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Modern Day McClellans

The vacillating spirit of McClellan is alive today in the Democratic Party's leadership

Like a lot of American boys who get into history at a young age, I immersed myself heavily in the Civil War as a child. Once I was older and became a professional historian I distanced myself from the topic, which I thought of as being overrun by hobbyists and "buffs" who were overly invested in arcane minutiae. In the past few years, however, I have found myself obsessed again, but this time with the political and social histories of the war (as well as with Reconstruction.) 

I keep finding echoes of those histories in the present day. The biggest I see is with how both leaders and common people in the North radically reframed their understanding of the war as it went along. Lincoln's first inaugural speech, coming hot on the heels of secession, promised the South that he would not interfere with slavery where it currently existed. His second inaugural, coming as victory in the war was in sight, deemed slavery a moral evil and the Civil War as God's punishment on a guilty nation. 

I see a parallel in the ways that those Americans opposed to Trump, who is a political descendant of the Confederacy, are fighting him. Some understand that this is a fight where the enemy is simply not going to give up or play fair. They also know that the only forward is not getting back to the way it used to be, but to have, in the words of Lincoln at Gettysburg, a "new birth of freedom." Politicians like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and others seem to get this.

On the other hand, there are plenty of modern day McClellans. George McClellan was able to organize the Army of the Potomac into a disciplined fighting force, but was unwilling to actually USE that force. He was also contemptuous of the notion that the war was about anything other than restoring the Union, and when he ran for president in 1864 that included the willingness to allow the South back into the Union without the elimination of slavery. 

The parallels are not absolute, but I see a lot of McClellan in Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and other Democratic Party leaders. Their current strategy is simply to wait Trump out. Like McClellan refusing to advance in the Peninsula Campaign when he had the advantage, they think by not fighting they will somehow win, and that fighting is too much of a risk. So they sit on their hands, and refuse to impeach a president who only responds with more violations of the Constitution. They attack the left wing of their own party, fearing that they will alienate a few retired white auto workers in Ohio while ignoring the masses of people of color, and youth of all races who support their policies but often feel alienated from the party. 

The Union army finally emerged victorious under the leadership of Grant, who understood that winning was going to require more sacrifice and more fighting. It meant fighting a different kind of war, one whose intensity matched what the situation demanded. When his methods came under criticism, Lincoln defended him, declaring that "he fights." Grant himself understood that the Union's fearful, defensive posture needed to stop. He famously told his generals soon after taking command that they needed to stop worrying about what Robert E Lee was going to do to them, but what THEY were going to do to Robert E Lee. 

That's something that the Democratic leadership could learn from. The Republican caucus is full of members like Gohmert and Gaetz who are FAR more outside of the political mainstream than folks like Ocasio-Cortez. Expanded health care, legal abortion, gun control, subsidized child care, and debt relief are all popular positions. Democrats need to run proudly on these positions and take the fight to the other side. If the current leadership does not understand that reality, they need to get out of the way.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Now Is The Time To Act

I am writing this at a nice coffee house in the small college town of Canyon, located in the Texas Panhandle. I am here to visit a dear friend, and later we will be driving up to Colorado for a reunion of our grad school circle. I am very excited about this, but also feeling overwhelmingly fear and sadness.

The president is expected to announce that he will add a citizenship question to the census, in direct defiance of the Supreme Court. Not only is the president declaring himself above the law, he is doing so in order to intimidate a large portions of the country to avoid the census, thus undercounting areas that oppose him so their representation in Congress can be reduced. There are also raids imminent on thousands of immigrant families. The president has also invited right wing internet trolls who spread hate to the White House.

All of this is happening on top of children being put in cages and separated from their families.

And what has the opposition party done? Jack shit, that's what they've done. I do not chalk it up to incompetence or fear, but rather that Pelosi and her ilk simply have no clue what to do. We are in uncharted territory here.

It would be easy to blame people like her, but what are the rest of us doing? Complaining about it on Twitter? Living our day to day lives like nothing has happened?

Two weeks ago I went to a protest at a detention center, and was lucky enough to see some of the activists who were willing to be arrested there days before. That is the example we must follow. Only by preventing the machine from operating, as Mario Savio famously said, will anything change.

That actually happened, not so long ago. The Trump administration's so-called "Muslim Ban" was met with massive protests at airports that directly challenged this administration, and forced it to back down. Nothing did more to undercut the new Trump administration than the first Women's March, which immediately blew apart media narratives of Trump's popularity.

A lot of that energy got put into the 2018 election. While that was successful in ending the Republican stranglehold on power, it has accomplished nothing else. In fact, it has created a deadly complacency, of people handing over the reins to those in power. This was the same mistake of the Obama years, and its being repeated again.

Remember, this is an unpopular president. He and his GOP allies are manipulating the system to maintain minority rule, but they are the minority. Stop being afraid. Stop expecting someone else to do the job. Now is the time to act, and time is running out.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

If I Were Commissioner of Baseball


The All Star Game in 1975, year of my birth, looks unrecognizable to what we have today. That is not me pining for the past, that's me admitting I am really old.

The All-Star game is this evening, which has me in the mood to revive a once annual tradition on my blog: saying what I would do if I were commissioner of baseball.

Discourses about "baseball is in trouble" are as old as the game itself, or at least as old as the 1919 Black Sox scandal. This season home runs have jumped to higher than Steroid Era levels and attendance is going down. Those are two of many things baseball ought to be addressing. Here's a list of what I would do.

Stop Juicing The Ball

We all know the ball is juiced, it's the worst kept secret since ... This juicing of the ball, meant to counteract the dominance of pitching in prior years, has combined with the Moneyball approach to lead to far too many walks, strikeouts, and homers. Home runs have lost their special nature, and the long at-bats are not interesting to watch and make the games longer. Making home runs harder to hit will help with that.

Limit Defensive Shifts

Shifting, which has skyrocketed in recent seasons, also encourages swinging for the fences. It also tends to make defensive plays in the field less interesting. Baseball is exciting to watch when there's players on base, contact being made, and fielders flashing the leather. Baseball should have a rule mandating that there are two infielders on either side of second base. The NBA came up with the shot clock, three second violation, and cracked down on zone defenses to open the game up and make it more exciting. MLB could learn from that.

Limit Teams To Eleven Pitchers

Just as defense should be friendlier to hitters, there should also be some restrictions on pitchers. Teams are overloading their rosters with pitchers and using them in increasingly specialized roles. This makes games longer, and also cuts down on offense. Lowering the number of pitchers a manager can use will help cut down on pitching changes.

Award Home Field Advantage In The World Series To The League With The Better Interleague Record

Bud Selig awarding the home field advantage based on a midsummer exhibition game was stupid. He also brought us interleague play, which has gone from a cool novelty to being completely blase. Even the intracity rivalry games have lost their luster. This is a shame, since having distinctive leagues sets baseball apart from other sports, and that sense of league competition can be fun. In that vein, let's make the interleague record determine World Series home field advantage. It will at least add some excitement and stakes to a late September Rays-Pirates series.

Allow More Teams To Move
Since the Expos left Montreal for Washington in 2005 no team in baseball has switched cities. This used to be much more commonplace. With attendance down, expansion is probably not a good idea, since dilutes talent. Instead, teams should be allowed to move to new cities, which will boost attendance and bring the game to new locations. The As (a franchise that had been in two cities before Oakland) and the Rays (who have barely been around for 20 years) I think would be helped especially by moving. They both play in crummy stadiums and could establish baseball in hip, expanding cities like Portland, Austin, or Charlotte, or bring it back to Montreal.

Force The Wilpons Out

I am not just saying this as a Mets fan. The fact that one of the teams in the biggest media market is run in an uncompetitive way by a gang of incompetents implicated in a Ponzi scheme is bad for baseball.

Maintain the DH in the AL and Pitchers Batting in the NL

As I said before, the distinctiveness of the leagues is something special about baseball. It helps make the All Star Game and the World Series much more intriguing than they would be otherwise. The leagues are less distinct these days, from the umpire's gear to style of play. Getting rid of the DH distinction would just end the last vestiges of something baseball has on other sports.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

On Seeing To Kill A Mockingbird On Broadway

Yesterday an old college friend who I hadn't seen in a decade was in NYC, and he managed to score us tickets for To Kill A Mockingbird, which has been an award-winning sensation. Seeing the play, it was easy to see why. The actors were uniformly amazing. Celia Keenan-Bolger won a well-earned Tony this year for her portrayal of Scout. Jeff Daniels truly inhabited the role of Atticus Finch, LaTanya Richardson Jackson stole the show as Calpurnia, and Gideon Glick's portrayal of Dill was a delight. Gbenga Akinngabe made Tom Robinson into a fully-fleshed out person and not just a victim or symbol. Dakin Matthews wrung belly laughs as the judge.

I was not aware of how the play had altered the source novel, because one of my most embarrassing literary sins is that I have never read it. It was not assigned in my schools growing up, and afterward I never read it because I thought of it as the kind of book that gets assigned in schools. That had the benefit of making the play's plot far more dramatic to me.

My main skepticism about the play was that it was adapted by Aaron Sorkin, a writer I consider the equivalent of a hotshot prog rock guitarist. He is technically gifted and capable of flourishes as impressive as the solos on a Yes album, but rarely does his work actually move me. I can appreciate an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer record, but a one chord John Lee Hooker song does much more to hit my heart. I will say that the play moved me more than say The West Wing (which I don't care for) or The Social Network (which I think is excellent.) That's probably down to the source material and the tragedy of the story.

I came away profoundly sad, and not just because an innocent man was murdered by the judicial system. I felt like the play highlighted why the opponents of the current regime keep failing. Atticus insists that his children try to understand others and be able to walk in their skin, even noxious racists like Bob Ewell. Later in the play Calpurnia takes him to task for this, telling him that by trying to respect certain people he is deeply disrespecting those harmed by the Ewells of the world.

I wondered whether Sorkin was telling an allegory, if Atticus was supposed to represent educated liberals who want to fight with reason and logic and who think that the MAGA hordes are just good people deep down who can somehow be reached. After all, he believes in the righteousness of the justice system, but that system still convicts Tom Robinson despite overwhelming exculpatory evidence. It helps advance the allegory that Ewell and the jurors are low class white people, to be contrasted with Atticus and the judge, who are more educated and enlightened. According to certain narratives, it is working class white people who are the main drive behind Trumpism, since he speaks to their fears and frustrations. Never mind that it's wealthy white people who are more likely to vote Republican, and who give their money in abundance to that party and its leader. The educated people sitting in the audience want to flatter themselves that they are in the shoes of Atticus.

Parts of the play reinforce the "understand, don't judge" narrative, while others take Atticus to task for it. Calpurnia calls the jurors murderers in what I thought was the most powerful moment of the play. Perhaps Sorkin is not endorsing either civility or a more radical stance, but simply commenting on the clash between those approaches in the present day.

At the end of the play, however, Tom Robinson is dead and Atticus has been voted out of office. The death of Ewell in the climax is cold comfort, because the oppressive system underlying the 1930s Deep South society we are dropped into hasn't changed a whit. There's a monologue by Scout that says that it was doing the right thing that mattered, even if the goal wasn't reached. That of course ignores the murder of Tom Robinson and is an expression of the whiteness of the Finch family, who can make the whole thing an abstraction.

So while the performance of the play and its stagecraft were superlative, I was left a little cold at the end. I feel like this play reinforces some of the bad habits of mind of its audience, who are mostly educated liberals. They think of the current crisis as a moral one, not as a matter of life or death for millions of their fellow Americans. They are willing to do some things to resist, to be sure, but are incapable of taking the more radical action the current times demand. After all, the Atticuses of the world will be able to go on living comfortably, while the Tom Robinsons are sent to the grave. Until the Atticuses wed their moral duty to a greater sense of urgency, nothing is going to change.