Friday, September 30, 2011

Why Moneyball the Movie Taps Baseball's True Nature

Baseball is America's most literary game, one that has inspired great authors from Bernard Malamud to John Updike to Philip Roth to delve into its mysteries. As if to confirm this verity of American cultural life, one of the hottest novels these days, The Art of Fielding, is a baseball book. In the world of cinema, only boxing competes with baseball for profound moments on the silver screen. Roy Hobbs smashing out the lights in The Natural's finale and Kevin Costner playing catch with his dead father in Field of Dreams have transcended the sport to become instantly recognizable cinematic moments.

Until the recent release of Moneyball, however, literature had explored an attribute of baseball missing at the movies: the sport's inherent cruelty. For example, in Malamud's novel The Natural, Roy Hobbs is a tormented soul whose suffering does not bring redemption. He ends the book having struck out, let his team down, and disgraced himself. In the film, he overcomes his past, wins the game, saves the team, and lives happily ever after. It seems that Hollywood just can't resist the narrative of baseball's romance.

Moneyball on the other hand, perhaps because it's adapted from a true to life account rather than a novel, understands that fear of failure is the specter that haunts each moment on the baseball diamond. Hitting .300 is the gold standard of an exceptional player, which means he still fails 70% of the time. Players who make mistakes in the field are formally charged with errors, and many players with long careers have their lives defined by a single miscue. Bill Buckner was a good player for many years who managed to bravely play through incredibly painful injuries, but he will always be remembered for letting the ball go through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Even the best teams must accustom themselves to losing. The Philadelphia Phillies won a major league best 102 games this year, which meant that they still had to lose sixty times.

Moneyball's main character, Oakland As manager Billy Beane, can never forget his own failure to make it as a big league player after having such a highly touted high school career. He doesn't watch the games at the stadium because it makes him sick with anger and worry. He smashes stuff when things go wrong, and nervously chews tobacco and inhales junk food in order to balance the tension of his job. One part of his job is having to tell players that they've been traded, demoted to the minors, or cut from the team. As a scout tells him as a young man, "at some point we are all told we can no longer play the boy's game."

That sounds like a typically romantic sentiment, deeming baseball a "boy's game," but there is a profound of sadness underneath it, the knowledge that playing baseball as an adult is abnormal, that players are eventually torn from the game against their will, as we are all torn from our childhoods. Moneyball may very well be the least romantic baseball movie ever made. Not because it is cynical, but because it reveals the difficult realities behind the game, and refuses to give us a Hollywood ending. Beane and the Oakland As must resort to an unorthodox way of valuing players because the economics of the game make them incapable of signing the players considered to be the best.

Despite the wonders of sabermetrics, Bill James' ideas, and computerized scouting, Beane and the As do not win a World Series, in fact they don't even get past the first round of the playoffs. In a strange way, however, they accomplish something even greater than winning of title, they win twenty games in a row, the all time record for the American League. Over 100 teams have won a World Series, but no other has been able to do what the 2002 As managed to do. But immersed as he is in baseball's ethos of cruel failure, Beane cannot take pleasure in these victories, and can only rue the fact that until he wins a title, he will have lost.

If you need any reminder of the pain that baseball can inflict, just look at the fate of the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox this week. Both teams looked poised to go into the playoffs with ease, both collapsed and lost in dramatic fashion on the last day of the season, ending a month of slow torture for their fans. Football teams have imploded in dramatic fashion before, but in football the agony does not take place each and every day of the week, like in baseball. Norwood's wide right is a shot to the gut, an end of the season collapse, like the Sox this year and Cubs in 1969, is a crucifixion. True fans follow their teams day after day each passing year from the melting of winter's frost until the chilled winds of October blow in.

The moment in the season where the dream is dashed, which happens to rooters for 29 of 30 teams, is a cruel reckoning. I moved to Michigan in 2006, and was thrilled to vicariously experience the enthusiasm of the state's Detroit Tigers die hards, a true blue group of fans hoping for a break from the lashings of Michigan's economic crisis. I will always remember their moment of truth. I was with friends at a bar in Ann Arbor the night of the fifth game, and when the Cardinals took the title and the Tigers lost, I heard a collective cry of agony, not just in the bar, but seemingly across the long-suffering state, from Benton Harbor to Traverse City to Saginaw. It might be a child's game, but it encapsulates that most soul wrenching of adult emotions: failure.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reflections on the New New South

Until I moved to East Texas three years ago, I'd had very little personal experience with the South, just four short trips, in fact. As a five-year old I went on a family vacation to Disneyworld, which included stops in Chattanooga on the way in, and Mobile on the way out. For years I vaguely remembered one strange stop where we went to eat at a roadside cafe in the rural South somewhere, and we left without ordering any food. I never knew the reason why until recently; my Dad informed me that this truck stop had refused service to a black customer while we were at the table, and thus took us out of there in disgust. The subject actually came up when we discussed the possibility that I might take a temporary job in Mississippi back when I was just out of grad school.

Except for a trip to DC, where we stayed in suburban northern Virginia (which is quasi-Southern), I didn't go back below the Mason-Dixon line until grad school, where I attended the weddings of friends in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Augusta, Georgia. These were great trips, and when taking them I treated my destination like an exotic foreign land, full of positive and negative stereotypes. On the positive side, I had my formative pop culture memories of Smokey and the Bandit and the Dukes of Hazzard (regrettably, it was my favorite show in my early childhood) as well as a great love for the South's musical traditions, from New Orleans jazz to Kentucky bluegrass to Nashville country to Memphis soul. On the trip to Augusta I distinctly remember riding along the highways of northern Georgia, marveling at the Gothic beauty of overgrown kudzu while "Midnight Rider" played on the car stereo. On the negative side, I had my knowledge of the South's history of slavery and Jim Crow often on my mind. Many of my preconceptions about the South's inferior standards also found vivid confirmation. For instance, I came away from these trips appalled at the fact that just about every gas station toilet I had the misfortune to enter was a disgusting mess. (The worst instance came on a trip this summer to Atlanta where I stopped at a gas station in Alabama where the men's toilet was overflowing with shit. When I mentioned this to the cashier, he gave me a look that said he knew about it, and that I was an asshole for expecting any better.) As I made the move to East Texas, I wondered which imagined version of the South I would inhabit, the birthplace of great American food, literature, music and culture, or a racist, backwards hellhole.

From my perch in New Jersey after three years of southern living, I'm now convinced that the incessant exoticization of the South by those in the region and outside of it prevents real understanding and needs to stop. Although many Southerners claim they are sick and tired of being depicted in an exotic manner, the voices today calling most loudly for the existence of a distinctive Southern way of being reside in Dixie. And yet, as my friend J. who grew up in Alabama likes to note, the South has never been more similar to the rest of the country, and the rest of the country more similar to the South. On the one hand, every Southern town of size has the same ugly growth of the same box stores and fast food chains at its edges, except for a couple of Chic-fil-as thrown into the mix. On the other, country music has saturated the rest of America's airwaves, Southern rappers dominate hip-hop, Southern-style evangelical Christianity has gone national, Paula Deen is making Southern food accessible to the Yankee masses, NASCAR is regularly televised, Arkansas-born Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer and the traditional Southern abhorrence of the public sphere has become the dominant theme of American politics this year.

Yes, there are real differences, but they are increasingly less important, especially in the urban South. (Pockets of the rural South still remain forbiddingly set in their ways, part of the reason I had to get out.) A modern day Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor wanting a truly "Southern" setting for their literary work would have to choose Wal-Mart or a suburban subdivision rather than a general store or Greek revival mansion. In my opinion, there are two recent depictions of this New New South that actually ring true, HBO's series Eastbound and Down and the Will Ferrell vehicle Talladega Nights. While the main character of Eastbound and Down, Kenny Powers, does teach in a place called Jefferson Davis High School (it's hard to believe there are still public institutions named for this nation's greatest traitor, but there are many), he has his comeback at a suburban BMW dealership. These days folks eat their grits at a Cracker Barrel off the interstate rather than a dusty roadside diner, a fact reflected in Talladega Nights, where much of the film takes place in an Applebee's. The "baby Jesus" prayer scene from this film is about as scathing an indictment of the shallow, anti-intellectual version of Christianity common these days in both the North and South as you'll find.

It's in the best interests of those living in both the north and the south to stop fetishizing the latter's eccentricities. Folks up north have a maddening tendency to ascribe racism to the South so as to shift attention from endemic racial inequality in their own backyards. (By the way, my old university in East Texas had more interracial couples on its campus than any other that I've ever been affiliated with up north.) People in the South need to stop bristling at every criticism of their startingly hierarchical society as some kind of Yankee intrusion, or indictment of a unique and cherished "way of life." It's time for Americans all around this country to ask some hard questions about how we got here, and not to retreat into a regionalism that makes the current situation and its attendant problems the result of someone else's behavior, and not their own.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Global Political Spring?

An article in the New York Times really caught my eye this morning. Entitled "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around the Globe," it linked the Wall Street occupation, Arab Spring, anti-austerity movements in southern Europe, calls for greater equality in Israel and massive protests against corruption in India to a general lack of faith in political parties as agents for change.

It's heartening to see that with the end of the years of fat and plenty, the masses have perhaps roused themselves to denounce our global shamocracy. At least in India, the US, and Europe, post-1989 capitalist democracy promised its citizens rising prosperity and a voice in decisions, as long as the fundamentals of the global economy went unquestioned. The economy failed, and the major political parties have done little to nothing to punish the perpetrators or shield their people from the effects of this calamity.

This being said, I am afraid that much of this will end in failure, much like the political movements of 1968, and for similar reasons. Power is the lifeblood of politics, if a movement does not wield real power, the instrument needed to push leaders in the right direction, the clique at the top will simply ride out the storm. Where some people see "dynamic movements of young people using new social networking technology" I see "easily scattered association of dilettantes lacking any leverage with the global plutocracy, unable to make a lasting impact." Don't believe me? Just read the Times' description of these new, would-be revolutionaries:

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

I'm sure the leaders of Israel are quaking in their shoes when confronted by a disorganized random mob of people who won't show up to a protest if it doesn't have free food. The major Spanish political parties must be shivering in fear at the prospect of "discussion circles" in their midst. Sorry, I don't see much substance here. Much like the briefly lived revolutionary atmosphere of Paris in May of 1968, there's plenty of heat but little light.

Then again, the Times' depiction of the new protests may also might be reflective of the the typical trend-chasing stupidity of the global media elite overestimating the efficacy of social media as a tool for protest, much as they did with the revolution in Egypt earlier this year. As hot and trendy as it is to think of an iPhone as the new Molotov cocktail, the only way to win an economic battle from the bottom up is solidarity. As long as the labor movement remains weak, global capitalism will triumph. Scott Walker's dark genius is that he realized that labor unions are the only institutions capable of mobilizing the people and resources necessary to do battle with the corporations and have a chance of winning. The real battlefield for a more truly democratic future isn't on Facebook, it's in the workplace. It will take strong labor unions and workers willing to walk the picket line to bring real change; I admire the protestors in Wall Street, but their lack of media coverage is proof positive that when it comes to the currency of power, they and many of the new movements have already turned their pockets inside out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Cranky Bear Pines for the Commonwealth

[Editor's Note: It's been a long time since we've heard from my pal Cranky Bear, evidently he has been hard at work at his "novel of ideas," which he says will set the literary world alight with its insights. However, he has taken time to send me this essay, written with a quill pen and sent by carrier pigeon, and which only just reached me. As you can see, it was written first back in January, at the time of the Gabby Giffords shooting.]

Cranky Bear here, hyperactive with espresso in his veins (this machine is the best Christmas gift I could have hoped for.) I've been thinking long and hard about the horrific events in Tuscon, and in the spirit of the moment, I will tone down my normally acidic vitriol. I find that when caffeine rather than booze is my drug of choice I cuss a lot fucking less (but never give it up completely.)

I've spent two years watching the Tea Party buffoons claim the legacy of the Founders, to the point where some of them want to restrict the vote again, and crow that this country is a republic, not a democracy. (Of course, these things are not mutually exclusive, but complexity of thought has never been a teabagger attribute.) As I said in my debut post, this country has a long history of violent, racist populism. Its current practitioners like to say they are "the people," but they really mean something more to the German word "Volk" with its connotations of racial community.

Anyone with half a brain is aware of the schizoid nature of the American Revolution and its legacy. Thomas Jefferson wrote the words "all men are created equal," but he was also a slaveholder who very often proclaimed the inequality of races. Although the revolutionaries claimed to fight for freedom, they did not intend freedom for all. It was the British, not the colonists, who encouraged slaves to leave their masters and protected their freedom. (Dr. Johnson put it best at the time, "Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?") It was the British, not the colonists, who wanted to limit the slaughter of Native Americans, one reason the colonists were fighting for independence! Although modern conservatives like to claim Tocqueville as an apostle of exceptionalism, they forget his scathing critiques of America's hypocrisy in regards to the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans. These contradictions, which great people like Dr. King and others have tried to unravel, remain with us today.

If you compare the political culture and strength of mythologized nationalism of America to its wealthy peer nations, the differences are striking and alarming. For example, could you even imagine anything like the Tea Party in contemporary Canada? If a political movement in modern-day Germany used the talk radio rhetoric of insurrection, "second amendement remedies," etc., it would be anathema. Any politician spurring that movement with talk of "real Germans" or "don't retreat, reload" would become a pariah and would be kicked out of any of the four major parties (Left and Right) for saying such things. Because of their history, Germans are aware that violent rhetoric has consequences. Our history ought to teach us that lesson too, but because most of the public views our history as one long string of victories for freedom, we never will. After Vietnam there was a window of opportunity where the triumphalist narrative could have been laid low, but it passed.

This is why I now think what to most Americans is unthinkable: America would be better off if it did not achieve independence from Britain. It would have been ideal if right after Lexington and Concord the British leadership offered self-governance for America in exchange for continued loyalty to the crown. We like to think that our nation's war for independence was some kind of great blow for human liberty, making America a beacon of freedom to the world.


The American Revolution did not extend freedom, it merely formalized freedoms that already existed, and did little to challenge the racial, class, and gender inequality of colonial society. Yes, Americans got to rule themselves, but the Canadians basically managed to do the same thing after a rebellion in 1837.

I am well aware of the horrors perpetrated by the British Empire during the 19th century, but they were no worse than those committed on the American frontier. The British also happened to abolish slavery thirty years before the United States, and did it without massive bloodshed. Two court cases provide an apt comparison: those of James Somerset and Dred Scott, both enslaved men who sued for their freedom in court.

We all know what happened in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision: even though Scott had lived on free territory for much of his life, he was denied his freedom. Furthermore, the court ruled that black people simply did not have any rights vis a vis whites. Somerset's case dates all the way back to the 1770s, and his circumstances were remarkably similar. He had lived as a slave in England, and when his master tried to take him back to the Caribbean, he resisted. In Somerset's case, the court ruled that there was no precedent in English common law to uphold slavery, and all slaves in England were thus emancipated. This was in 1772, a full eighty-five years BEFORE Dred Scott. Yes, the English participated the horrific slave trade, but they did finally ban it in 1806.

We like to tell ourselves that America is a uniquely free place, but our history simply does not bear that assertion out. We have not had equal voting rights for even fifty years! (The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, for crying out loud.) We love to pride ourselves as an egalitarian society whose top echeolons represent a kind of meritocracy. Any trip to this nation's many ghettoes, barrios, Indian reservations, dying rural towns, and trailer parks ought to confirm George Carlin's immortal quip, "It's the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

And in the midst of an economic hurricane austerity is the order of the day. The investment bankers who got us into this mess are back to giving themselves record profits, but here in Texas, where 25% of the population lacks health insurance, the sate is slashing Medicaid instead of spending a single cent of its $9.4 billion "rainy day fund." I'd say the current situation qualifies as a fucking downpour.

The reasons, of course, are blindly ideological, a belief that government is somehow inherently evil. Which brings us back to the American Revolution. The Tea Party, which is merely an echo of a long-established tradition of violent, nationalistic, Herrenvolk populism, has reinterpreted the American Revolution in its favor. The radical Right sees America as a nation where "the people" must always be ready to raise arms against "tyranny," which they interpret as any government expenditure that might somehow help out somebody else.

Like the masses who supported Andrew Jackson, who ethnically cleansed the Cherokee, they support government action when it benefits themselves or is used to slaughter brown people. These supposed libertarians support the maintenance of the biggest war machine in history and its war of choice in Iraq, they supported the warrantless wiretapping of the last administration, they voiciferously oppose closing down an illegal prison at Guantanamo Bay, but if the government tells insurance companies to abide by new regulations, that's tyranny! They claim to be against entitlements, but see no hypocrisy in drawing Social Security, Medicare, and in having gotten their boost into the American middle class via public eduation.

So I ultimately agree with James Madison, who promoted the Constitution's ability to tamper down faction and keep the ignorance of the masses in check. I just think that the Commonwealth would have been a much more effective restraining influence on the violent populism that dares to claim the mantle of freedom. Instead of our unwieldy system, with its Senatorial "holds," the ridiculous electoral college, and a legislative body where Wyoming gets the same number of representatives as California, we might have a proper Parliament, like most of the rest of the democratic world.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Consolation of Mott the Hoople

Over the years I've developed a special love for British bands with a sizable following in the home isles that didn't make a splash over here in the states: Suede, The Small Faces, The Move, and now Mott the Hoople. I first got into Mott a few years ago after a record store clerk back in Illinois pushed their All the Young Dudes album on me. In the ensuing years I've picked up more albums on vinyl, and enjoyed rockers like "Roll Away the Stone" and "All the Way from Memphis."

It's one of their ballads, however, that has recently sunk its hooks into me. The other night I dusted off their Mott album, and for the first time really listened to the wistful track "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zurich)" a heart-wrenching account of what it's like when you've realized that the dream you chased for so long and for so hard isn't going to come true. The whole premise is rather meta: before taking the stage at yet another show, lead singer Ian Hunter opines in his distinctive rasp about never having quite made it. (The Allmusic site describes the band as "one of the great also-rans in the history of rock & roll.") One of the most cutting lines of the whole song is "rock and roll's a loser's game," and it's really stuck with me. When I hear the song, I tend to substitute "academia" for "rock and roll."

Like rock and roll, academia attracts true believers willing to endure poverty and all manner of indignities for the opportunity to be on the stage, whether it be at Madison Square Garden or an Ivy League lecture hall. The sheer numbers mean the odds are slim, and the number of failures is rather steep. For every tenured professor there are ten adjuncts and grad school dropouts; for every Bad Company there is a Mott the Hoople and several other bands too obscure to even get a record deal. And yet Bad Company covered one of Mott's songs ("Ready for Love") without even approaching the quality of the original. There's the rub, of course: many also-rans are a whole helluva a lot better than a good number of their more successful peers. I know plenty of academic Mott the Hooples who have a lot more to offer the world than the Bad Companys of the academic world that I've had the misfortune to meet and even work with. (Like the band's music they tend to be overblown and devoid of taste, but inexplicably popular.)

The problem with big dreams is that they come with big disappointments. The most cutting line in "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople" for me is "Oh I wish I never wanted then/ What I want now twice as much." I too have felt the regret that I was ever so stupid and silly to chase such a preposterous, impossible dream. Or to let that dream dominate my life and steal my youth. Our society tends to romanticize such pursuits and the following of one's bliss, but it's taken me a great deal of time and meditation to overcome my bitterness with the loser's gamethat I used to play. I've recovered, and I'm happy, but my years of having dreams are over and done. Perhaps that's for the best.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Academic Misery Index Quiz

I promised not to talk about my new job on this blog, party because nobody wants to hear about it, but mostly because my new employer heavily frowns on it (and besides, my students are minors.) But I will say this: I love it. Love love love love love it. During my morning commute on the first day, I lamented the chain of events that had gotten me cast out of academia. I lament no more, and instead exult in my good fortune to be doing a job I enjoy in a city I adore while living with my soul mate. Alright, I'll stop my gushing, and get to the point.

When I think about my current state of happiness, I contemplate the awfulness that I endured as a low-wage "visitor" and an assistant prof at a totally dysfunctional institution located in a cultural backwater. Many of my academic friends have less bitter attitudes about the profession, and I've been thinking about how their jobs differed than mine, and those of some of my other friends, who are not as happy. So, for shits and giggles, I decided to concoct an academic misery quiz, one that should tell you whether you should find a new job.

Each "A"answer is worth zero points, each "B" answer one point, each "C" answer two points, and each "D" answer five points.

1. Which best describes the kind of academic job that you currently have?
A. You possess the great golden ring of tenure.
B. A tenure track position with the tenure clock ticking away.
C. A "visitor" or lecturer position with limited appointment and substandard pay.
D. A temporary adjunct position with no security paid by the course.

2. How would you describe the students at your university?
A. They are self-motivated, mature adults with a love of learning.
B. They are smart yet entitled children of privilege who need some prodding.
C. They are middle of the road intellectually and see their classes with a mostly vocational understanding, i.e., "why do I have to take this class?"
D. They are barely literate and seem to have no clue whatsoever as to why they are in college in the first place. The few brain cells they have left after nightly games of beer pong are devoted to texting.

3. How would you describe the town where your university is located?
A. A world-class city brimming over with fine dining, cultural events, and like-minded individuals.
B. An idyllic college town with a relaxed atmosphere and lots of cultural amenities.
C. A non-college town, mid-sized city that's a little boring, but at least has all the stuff you need, and the occasional cultural event.
D. A backwoods 'burg lacking a decent sit-down restaurant where the locals actively resent the university community for making them look like the countrified rubes that they are.

4. What are the politics of your department like?
A. What politics? We all love each other and most of us are good friends.
B. There are minor disputes, and we aren't all that close, but mostly because we're too busy to fight.
C. The silverbacks and the young'uns clash from time to time, but mostly inside departmental and committee meetings. We all know the two people who hate each other's guts, but the rest of us stay out of that mess.
D. They make Renaissance Florence look like an eight year old girl's tea party. Long-held grudges, character assassination, and intentional sabotage are the norm.

5. How would you describe your chair?
A. A far-sighted leader who tirelessly strives to protect the best interests of the department.
B. A competent technocrat who gets the job done but lacks vision.
C. A well-meaning buffoon who mostly tries to avoid doing work.
D. A malicious control-freak who plays favorites and considers any alternative viewpoint to be treason.

6. What is your institution doing with assessment?
A. What's assessment?
B. Writing standard boilerplate to keep the accreditation people happy but little that faculty have to deal with.
C. There's lots of pointless meetings and discussion and it's a big annoyance, but profs are not really told what to do in the classroom.
D. Faculty have lost control over what material is taught in their courses and spend a great deal of their time filling out asinine forms and getting reprimanded for failing to follow hopelessly labrynthine policies to the letter.

7. What happens when you report a plagiarism case?
A. I have to hold back the chair and dean from nailing the student to a cross.
B. There's lots of paperwork and I am asked to give the student the benefit of the doubt, but if I want to punish a student, I am able to do it.
C. I am reluctant to push cases because I am usually asked to lessen my penalties.
D. The chair and other higher-ups immediately take the student's side, and get irritated with me for taking up their time.

8. How would you describe your university's priorities?
A. To achieve educational excellence and foster world-class scholarship.
B. To provide a quality education for its students and give some support to research.
C. Mostly football and manipulating the categories in the US News rankings.
D. To keep distracting outsiders from the fact that the place is a complete joke and ought to be shut down.

9. What's the financial outlook of your institution like?
A. We are a wealthy private school with a huge endowment that our regents swim in like Scrooge McDuck.
B. We have had to make some cutbacks in course offerings and travel budgets, but faculty have mostly been spared.
C. Our state government is run by anti-intellectual GOP blockheads who force us to make do with less with each passing year. There's less money for research and few raises, but our jobs are relatively safe.
D. We have a psychotic governor hell-bent on destroying whole programs and firing tenured professors with budget cuts/we are a poor private school running on a showstring budget always begging alumni for money which is only keeping us afloat for just one more year.

10. When you talk to your faculty friends outside of class, what sentence are you most likely to utter or hear?
A. "Wasn't the pinot grigio at the faculty reception last night delightful?"
B. "With the cutbacks it looks like I won't be able to get the library to order all of the books on my list."
C. "I don't know how they expect me to teach more students with these increased tenure and service requirements."
D. "If I can't get a job somewhere else this year I will end up dying of alcohol poisoning."

After tallying up your scores, look the misery index below:

0-10 points: Shangri-La
Congratulations, you are living the academic dream! The next time you think about complaining about your job, please do the rest of us a favor and shut the fuck up.

11-20 points: The Good Life
You have the right to the occasional gripe, but things are looking good. If you can avoid the tendency in this profession never to be satisfied, you'll have a happy and fulfilling time at your institution.

21-30 points: The Danger Zone
If don't absolutely love academic work with all of your heart and soul, it might be time to explore your options.

31-50 points: Soul-sucking Misery
Get the hell out while you are still young and relatively sane. If not you will end up like the senior colleagues you respect who always have looks of bemused sadness on their faces.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Party of Lincoln Becomes the Party of Jackson

I recently read Gore Vidal's Burr, something I'd been meaning to do for years, and now I've got early American history on the brain.

The Tea Party and others on the political right are big on swearing their allegiance to the Constitution and the Founders, but are typically pretty vague when it comes to the details. The main reason, of course, it that when they say "Constitution" and "Founders" they mean faith in a political Bible and its patriarchs. They possess beliefs founded in belief itself, rather than reason or any knowledge of history. That tendency to reduce politics to religion is why Enlightenment thinkers on the order of Franklin, Madison, and Jefferson would cringe in horror at the Tea Party's illiteracy and wild-eyed evangelicalism. Franklin was famously comsopolitan, and in his later life was more at home in Paris than Philadelphia, unlike today's uber-patriots who seem proud of their provincialism. Madison warned of the dangers of political factions taking over the levers of power, and evinced a strong desire to keep populism at bay. Although modern day Tea Partiers might appreciate his small government inclinations, Jefferson advocated a wall of separation between church and state. To top it all off, George Washington was a committed Federalist who tried to increase the power of the federal government, especially in his decision, at Alexander Hamilton's prompting, to assume the debts the states incurred during the Revolution. Ron Paul he was not.

Yet the GOPers still claim fealty to the Founders. Perhaps they do, but to the wrong figures. Our contemporary right-wing populism owes little to the founders, who mostly disdained popular participation in politics, and much more to the Jacksonian era. (This is of course highly ironic, since Jackson is one of the founders of the Democratic party!) Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers of the founding generation, Jackson and his ilk cared little for deep thought. In fact, they disdained it, and saw intellectual pursuits as inherently suspicious. After all, how dare those pointy-headed know it alls tell us what's right and what's wrong? Whenever I hear mainstream candidates for president deny global warming and evolution, I think of Old Hickory in all of his bigoted ignorance, especially his destruction of the Bank of the United States against all evidence of its necessity.
Jackson's decision helped bring on the Panic of 1837, just as the misbegotten economic religion of supply side has left us with an impoverished middle and working class unable to spend the money needed to restart the economy. Like their dark ancestor, modern Republicans replicate Jackson's provincialized nationalism, in which the only people who count are "real Americans."

And last but not least, they recall his bloody-mindedness. Jackson was famous in his day for his willingness to take lives, from those of his own soldiers to a man he shot to death in a duel to the Cherokee who perished in the ethnic cleansing known as The Trail of Tears. Recently modern day Republicans have made headlines by baying for blood at presidential debates, from the cheers for Rick Perry's bloody record of executions (including a man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was most likely innocent) and urging that those without health insurance be thrown on the dung heap to die. I'd like to think that the dark spirit of America's historical id could be exorcised, but in a culture where consumer is king and criticizing popular tastes, no matter how idiotic and debased, meets with the strictest condemnation, Jackson's ghost will remain with us. Whenever there are fearful white people who want to maintain their privileged position and beat down on others to do it, he will be there. As long as the Tea Party continues to stoke the flames of racial resentment, he will be there. Truth be told, Old Hickory's bigoted, violent, provincial, illiterate nature will always resonate with more Americans than the reasoned Enlightenment worldview of the Founders.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Decade of Nightmares Without End

Commuting to work each day in New York City, sometimes right into the World Trade Center, I have been thinking especially hard about the ten year anniversary of 9/11. Friday, right before I left home, I heard the talk of a possible attack in the city. Once I sat down on the train, I cued up Radiohead's "Pyramid Song" on my iPod, the song that I listened to the most in 9/11's aftermath, and started trying to sort out what it all means ten years later. I am only one of a great many people writing about this question, and by far not the most qualified. Instead of contemplating the horror and trauma of that day, which dominates my memories, I'd like to get deeper into how we are still living in a world shaped by that day, whether we like it or not.

One of the most powerful memories I have of the attack is that once its full enormity was revealed to me (it was a couple of hours before I saw it on TV), I told myself "Things are going to get a lot worse for a long time." I despaired for the dead, but also for the future, and the knowledge the future was going to be horrible is still one of the most painful realizations of my entire life. I knew with George W. Bush's cronies in power, the attacks would be used to unleash the worst kind of authoritarianism wrapped in the flag and abetted by a fearful populace. I knew too that this attack would lead to the deaths of many more people in the wars to follow. When I got home that day, the feeling of sickness worsened, since my roommate was watching Fox News, which kept juxtaposing the collapse of the towers with Palestinians celebrating the attacks, over and over again. Nationalism's dark side was being whipped into a frenzy without a moment to mourn, a fact that has been lost in all of the remembrances.

That blind jingoistic rage and the softer yet just as powerful fear of the time got us into two wars that are still dragging on, despite bin Laden's death. We want to remember the immediate aftermath of the attacks as a time of national cohesion and collective action, but the reality was more complex. Amongst the lines of people donating blood and the many workers who risked their health in the clean-up, one could see an ugly, unfocused desire for bloody retribution, and not just against enemies abroad. There were well-documented hate-crime murders of Sikhs and Muslims. In just the next year our virulently partisan political culture barfed up Saxby Chambliss' ads using images of bin Laden to impugn the patriotism of then Georgia senator Max Clelland, who had lost multiple limbs in Vietnam. More tellingly, the strategy worked. Remember, very quickly after the attacks president Bush told the world "you're either with us or against us." Any criticism of said president, especially in the run-up to war in Iraq, was deemed treasonous.

It was all too fitting that the dark sneering vision of his puppet master, Lord Cheney, was back again on our television sets last week, like an old wound reinjured. He and his ilk fell out of power and crept back into the shadows over two years ago, but we still suffer from their decisions. The war in Iraq, built on his deceptions and lies, was waged while simultaneously retaining low taxes for the wealthy. That bill has come due, and in the midst of an economic catastrophe, the social safety net is being gutted, teachers are being laid off, and our infrastructure left to rot to pay it off. Young Americans are still fighting and dying in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, and war without end is still ravaging the lives of people in those nations. American Muslims are being villainized now more than ever, evidenced by attacks on mosque building sites and the mainstreaming of bigoted paranoia over a supposed Sharia conspiracy.

Ten years later, America is in its worst economic crisis since the Depression, but is being paralyzed from taking action by a completely dysfunctional political system made unworkable by ideological zealots on the Right. I thought it telling that some of their more prominent fire-eaters publicly crowed that the president's speech on jobs in the midst of nine percent unemployment was "stupid" and refused to attend. I simply cannot recall a single instance in my lifetime of a sitting president being treated with such open contempt and disrespect, and this at a time when political compromise is necessary to prevent further economic damage. Not to mention the fact that this president had so recently successfully ordered the takedown of bin Laden. Of course, we all know that the virulence of the unprecedented contempt shown to president Obama has to do with the unstated premise that he is not a "real American." America has always had a problem with violent nationalism inflamed by racial and religious resentments, but its resurgence in the last ten years is especially disturbing since it threatens the basic ability of our political system to function.

We like to think sentimentally these days about the sense of cohesion and purpose in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, of how politicians of both parties dropped their daggers and showed unity. These days I look back at that time more cynically. The fire-eaters had one of their own in power, they gained by having their political opponents do the right thing and put partisan rancor aside. When the fire-eaters got voted into the opposition, they had no intention of returning the favor, but rather intentionally filibustered and obstructed to their heart's content. Had Al Gore been president, I sincerely doubt that the fire-eaters would have resisted the temptation to blame him for the attacks. In the meantime, the "with us or against" mentality and its attendant search for internal enemies goes on unabated, and has migrated away from "homeland security" to other political regions. Teachers are made the scapegoats of our educational system, the poor rather than the banks are blamed for the housing bubble, and Glenn Beck and others refer to political progressives as a cancer in need of excision from the American body politic.

I don't really know where this leaves us. Tomorrow I will mourn the dead and hope that somehow the long nightmare finally ends. That horrific day's shadow still engulfs us, it is present in the veteran with a prosthetic leg that I saw today at the store and the run-down trains that take me into New York City on a daily basis. I only hope that soon that fear no longer continues to be the lifeblood of our political life in this country.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Musical Interlude: Instrumentals

After digging around in the world of sixties British Invasion bands, I also got side-tracked into another sixties genre long dead: popular music instrumentals. Like the novelty song ("Coming to Take Me Away" or "Disco Duck," anyone?) the instrumental has fallen off the charts, the victim of our apparent modern sophistication, or something like that.

Booker T. and the MGs are the uncontested kings of instrumental music, and managed to fit their quirky masterpieces into a recording schedule that included laying down the grooves on an endless number of Stax Records tracks. I especially like their covers, where Booker T's organ provides a kind of surreal edge, most notably on "Hang 'em High."

For some reason or another, instrumentals dominated surf music, from the Ventures to "Wipeout." That stuff is just child's play next to the cinematic sweep and stately grandeur of Jack Nitzsche's "The Lonely Surfer."

Dick Dale also managed to make surf music that defied the genre's conventions, but did so via an absolutely violent guitar style. Very few songs can top "Misirlou"'s frenetic intensity, in an genre.

Speaking of Pulp Fiction, I was really irritated back in the day when the soundtrack did not include "Rumble," even though it as featured to sexy effect as Uma Thurman slinked off to the bathroom inside of Jackrabbit Slim's.

Of course, not all great instrumentals hail from the sixties. Johnny Thunders' cover of the surf-song (of course) "Pipeline" is one of the best showcases out there for his brutal punk guitar style.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Re-post: Open Letter to the AHA

My first week at my new job is kicking my ass, so I figured that I should reach back into the vaults for a new post. This one is apropos my angst over attending a conference in two weeks, my first after leaving academia. The conference in question is the most important in my field, and I have attended several times. This year the program is bigger than ever, despite the apparent dearth of tenure-track jobs for the young scholars in all the many multifarious panels to take.

To be honest, I don't really want to go, and I wish that I had backed out. Although I will continue to write scholarship, I do not want to endure the "independent scholar" stigma at conferences, or to be subjected to their usual environment of glad-handing with the right hand while the left conceals a dagger. In sum, I am sick at heart with the academic historical profession and need a break from it. I wrote the following two years ago while I was still in the thick of it, and this letter reflects the AHA's mentality before Anthony Grafton and others started to actually care about getting junior scholars jobs.

A while back, I got a message from the president of the American Historical Association, and it read in part:

"We are writing to ask you to contribute to the AHA 125th Anniversary Fund. This new endowment fund has been established to support an expansion of the public programs and outreach efforts of the Association. Any amount is welcome, but $125 or more will significantly help us to increase our efforts. Strengthening the work of the organization will help us to serve you, your interests, and your profession better. By contributing to the Anniversary Fund, you will help to assure that these activities can continue and develop for the next generation of historians, thus supporting the work and mission of the AHA for another 125 years."

I greatly admire the historical work of AHA president Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and so I will generously assume that she has just attached her name to the usual fund raising letter and so will address my reaction to the leadership of the AHA as a whole.

During these hard times I do not have $125 to spare on an institution to which I already pay an exhorbitant membership fee. Furthermore, I just paid you a king's ransom to attend your conference a couple of months ago so I could walk away with bubkus. I currently have a tenure track job after three years of trying with a school that did not interview me at your annual conference. Most schools had me interview at the AHA, and in my three year quest this meant three road and plane trips and several nights in overpriced hotel rooms for the privilege of engaging in rushed half-hour interviews with fatigued committee members in the pit of Hell known as the job annex. I've spent three thousand dollars over the years to attend your conference in return for nothing, which is just what you will get in return.

There's a lot of boilerplate in your letter about the "next generation of historians." As a junior scholar myself, I've been long aware that the AHA is an exquisite purveyor of platitudes, but a poor advocate for my interests. The reports you publish in the Perspectives about the job market are as laughably optimistic and mendacious as an issue of Pravda. The already wretched market became a bloodbath this year in the wake of the economic downturn, yet in the midst of the shitstorm that is causing untold stress and suffering, you buried this truth in statistics purporting to show improvement.

What members of the "next generation" like me need are steady jobs, not community outreach. That's for the lucky chosen ones at the top, the rest of us subsist in adjunct and "visitor" positions with low pay, no security, and no respect. That you are not treating the current job crisis, which has been festering for years, as a dire emergency in need of attention is bad enough. To not use your resources to protest the degrading work conditions that so many of your paying members languish in is abomnidable. I'm all for protesting the reactionary political beliefs of hotel owners in San Diego, but before pointing out the faults of others you might address the unjust, hierarchical, and downright exploitative nature of your own profession. Until that day comes, you won't get a single thin dime from me.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Labor Day Call to Progressives (A Guest Post By Cranky Bear)

[Editor's Note: Devotees of my old blog may remember Cranky Bear, a rather impolitic friend of mine who is not shy about speaking his mind. I thought that my blog change would keep ruffians like him out, but since I am taking this Labor Day off to relax before a hectic week, I'll late Cranky have the spotlight.]

Cranky Bear here, with a rocks glass of straight sweet brown bourbon at my side, the tangy flavors of aged Kentucky gold on my tongue and ready to shake you namby-pamby liberals up for a change. Labor Day is a special holiday in the Cranky Compound when I can celebrate a past when the Left improved the lives of the American working and middle classes rather than engaging in tedious narcissism. I do enjoy me some "slow food," especially kielbasa from the traditional Polish butcher down the road, but shopping at farmers markets and driving a Prius is not doing diddly squat to avert our slide into a fearsome Gilded Age of high unemployment and the enrichment of the robber baron class. It's just one more goddamned consumer choice that reinforces our consumerist mindset, the thing that's rotting civic duty and social justice.

Take a long hard look at the following clip, wouldja? Lord knows Ted Kennedy wasn't perfect, but unlike most supposed liberals these days, the man actually FOUGHT, and fought for the right things.

Nowadays the consensus is that his primary run in 1980 was divisive and harmed the Democratic Party. I heartily disagree. He was trying to revive the real Democratic Party, which Carter had betrayed by selling out labor, pushing deregulation, and prioritizing inflation over unemployment. The horrific spike in interest rates by the Fed under his presidency slayed inflation (but too late for Carter's 1980 campaign), but did untold economic damage to people on the margins of poverty. (It also helped get Ronald Reagan elected president and solved the inflation problem for him with the economy recovering in time for the 1984 elections, one of the lesser known of the most significant economic policy decisions in this country's history.) Ever since 1980, the voices of those who shared Kennedy's passionate dream have faded, with perhaps only Bernie Sanders left in Congress to continue it.

Thirty years later we have another Democrat in the Carter mode in the White House who is similarly straying from the urgent need to provide employment and ease the economic pain of those not lucky enough to sit at the top. Like Carter and Clinton before him, president Obama likes to present himself as above politics, and to appeal to the middle by running down his own base. Any time the president raises the issue of social inequality, the Right's propaganda organs scream "class warfare" like the braying asses that they are. Usually this leads the president to retreat rather than to double down. After all, there IS a class war going on these days, but only one side is bothering to fight it.

Let me be especially frank here. The labor movement is the backbone of the Democratic Party, and has been so since at least the New Deal. On election day nobody gets the voters to the polls like the unions, and nobody is more willing to take to the streets when necessary. Remember what happened in Wisconsin last year? Walker went after unions because he knows that they are the one group on the Left with real money, and money in our current political system is power, the only power that matters. Remember the response? These are people who fucking FIGHT. Labor's demise at the hands of globalization, job migration to the South (a phenomenon made possible by federal funding of highways), and what amounts to the legalization of union busting has gone hand in hand with the erosion of the Democratic Party's grassroots support. The nouveau Democrats at the party's levers of power since the 1970s have seen it fit to be centrist by doing the bidding of what passes for capitalism's conventional wisdom. To wit: NAFTA under Clinton, deregulation under Carter, and a health plan that is a boon to private insurance companies under Obama (a plan that is Romney's write large). Guess what assholes, you helped kill off your most vital constituency. And let me not let labor's leaders off of the hook, either. You fuckers got fat, corrupt, complacent, and removed from the concerns of the rank and file.

A goddamned economic and political hurricane is currently ravaging the working and middle classes, we are truly in the fight of our lives. Right now, the same people who scream "class warfare" then turn around and cry their eyes out about the 50% of Americans who are too poor to be able to pay federal income taxes, as if they, not the billionaires who pay a lower percentage than their secretaries, are the real cheats. And these fuckers control the public discourse. Liberals, progressives, whatever the hell you want to call yourselves, what is your fucking problem? Get off your asses! Are you irritated at the president's tendency to fold under Republican pressure? Well fight their narrative, and put some of your own pressure on him, for fuck's sake! Are you scared or something to tell people that corporate America is rogering them with the red hot poker of laissez-faire capitalism? Or are you so wrapped up in your low-impact lifestyle and lip service to the right causes that you've forgotten that politics is a street fight, not a parlor game?

People are suffering, they are frustrated and looking for answers. Democrats, now's the time to ask yourself an important question: what do you believe in, anyway? As far as I can tell, the Democratic Party has completely failed to answer that question. They won't figure a solitary thing out until those of us at the grassroots level give a swift hard kick to the party's big old DLC butt.

Let me provide one answer, just so you know what I mean. I believe that it's a disgusting travesty that people in Newark and Camden are being murdered because the authoritarian fat fuck who's the governor of New Jersey would rather grandstand for the national GOP than provide funds for local governments to provide enough police officers to keep their streets safe. People are fucking dying so that millionaires in New Jersey don't have to pay a slightly higher income tax rate. Maybe it's time to be frank about the costs of "austerity" and to end the fiction that it is any way a "shared sacrifice." Since the victims are poor and black, nobody outside of these communities seems to give a fuck. If the supposed progressives out there aren't moved by these travesties to get pissed off and push for some real change, I fear that Ted Kennedy's dream may finally be dead.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Rhythms of My Commute

I was back on the job this week, and with my new work comes a brand new commute, the longest I've ever had. Not that I'm complaining. My last job had the shortest commute I've ever had, about a five minute drive from door to door, but it was a job that nearly killed me. The shortness of the commute only gave me more time in which to contemplate my state of utter unhappiness. In fact, the commute may have been too short; I only had time to listen to one and a half songs on my car stereo, and was plunged too quickly from the quiet of my apartment to the cacophony of work. That usually meant trying to wake myself up with something loud and driving, with "Teenage Riot" by Sonic Youth and "Keep on Knocking" by Death being my two favorites. On overcast days, I would mix it up with The Fall, whose songs exude the grim grey skies of Manchester. "Hey! Luciani" also made for great steering-wheel drum playing.

Nowadays it takes me twice as long just to walk from my apartment to Newark Penn Station, where I have to catch a train over to the city, and then take the subway to the upper west side before getting out and walking another ten minutes to work. I have to say that I do really enjoy the walking, it gets my heart beating without exhausting me in the morning, and starts the blood flowing again after sitting at my desk all day long. (No teaching yet this week, though. When classes start I might be lumbering my way home, half-fallen over.)

I've had walking commutes before, back when I was a student and when I was researching my dissertation in Germany. As in those days, I am beginning to know every single crack in the sidewalk on my morning walk, and have even started seeing some of the same faces. Since I leave about 6:30 in the Ironbound, the sidewalks are full of construction workers waiting for the van ride to the job site and domestic workers boarding the bus. There's quiet conversation, joking, and an air of taking in a little freedom before a day spent in dull, enervating labor. It's a very different street scene in the upper west side, which is crowded with women walking small, yippy dogs and men wearing tailored suits and impossibly luxurious Italian shoes, toes tipped to the sky. They walk with an air of purpose, striding down Broadway as if no one is on the sidewalk in front of them. Deep down I envy the odor of power that I get a whiff of as I pass them without even a sideways glance in my direction. I often wonder how their decisions at work in Wall Street that day will alter the lives of the builders and maids back home in the much less exalted neighborhoods of Newark.

This week I also faced the fateful decision of which train to take from Newark to New York, since I would be a sucker not to buy a monthly pass. I had a choice between the PATH (the Port Authority train, to the uninitiated) or New Jersey Transit. It was a tough decision, because the PATH is about half as expensive as NJT, but NJT is about twice as fast and five times more comfortable. The PATH train is basically a subway train between Newark and New York with a stop in Harrison and several in Jersey City. (There's another line that goes to Hoboken, which is, believe it or not, gentrified hipster haven, and not hipsters as in Frank Sinatra, the town's most famous son.) During the crowded rush hour, I usually have about as much of a chance of getting a seat on the PATH as Rick Perry does of getting the Sierra Club's endorsement in the presidential race. And let me tell you, there's nothing like being wedged jeek to jowl with complete strangers, some who have their headphones turned up so loud you are inflicted with a kind of buzzingly muted ear torture, while a creaking old train on a crowded track moves with jolts and jumps that slam you into aforementioned complete strangers. On top of all of this, the air inside, especially in the older cars, is a sooty diesel ether that reminds me a cross between Victorian London and a poorly ventilated bus terminal.

For the first few days this week, I tried to tell myself that it was worth it because it was so inexpensive, but after impulsively spending the extra money to take NJT home on Thursday and sitting in relative luxury leisurely reading a novel while being whisked along on gently rocking, smooth ride, I decided that my long-term sanity depended on having this nice little time to myself to decompress at the end of my working day. So this morning I bought my monthly pass on the NJT, and was rewarded with a comfortable seat in which to read the Times while watching the rising sun bathe Manhattan's glorious spires in a breathtaking red-orange light. In any case, I grew up in a cheapskate family where I always had to endure the shoddy, cheap version of everything, from store-brand ice cream to Go Bots instead of Transformers. It's nice to spend the extra money to get the higher-quality option for a change.

The arrival points in the city on the different trains are also pretty distinct, but I'm not sure which I prefer. The PATH drops me off at the World Trade Center, and the last part of the journey snakes right into Ground Zero. The station, still under construction in the wake of the attacks, lies very far underground, and thus means a long escalator ride to get out. The commuter is then dropped smack dab next to the site of a horrible atrocity swarming with cranes and infuriating tourists trying to look between the cracks in the canvas-covered fence. I can't count the number of times I've been there, and my heart still fills with sadness and sorrow, the dust of the dead lingering in my nostrils.

That said, lower Manhattan is my favorite part of the city, and I tend to like breathing in the vital spirit of its streets when I walk two blocks from the PATH station to the subway. The NJT train, by constrast, drops me off in Penn Station, the product of one of the heinous crimes against architecture in America's history. Penn Station had once been a marble monument to the ascendancy of the Iron Horse, the kind of building to make a beautiful ruin to be admired many centuries hence. Instead, it was the victim of the wrecking ball in the 1960s, and it effectively became the basement of Madison Square Garden, a building with all of the dead-eyed monolithic functionality of modernism and none of its daring invention. Its ceilings are quite low, making a tall person like me feel antsy and claustrophobic. It really does feel like a low-rent basement, and its full of low rent chain eateries and stores. Today I saw the K-Mart in its depths for the first time, the store that embodies my childhood spent subsisting on shitty, cheap clothes. For a functional space, it is remarkably dysfunctional. The track numbers for trains leaving the station usually aren't announced until a few minutes before they leave, which at the end of the workday means frantic, pushy crowds dashing madly once the number is called in an atmosphere of rushed nervousness.

Despite these complaints, though, there is nothing quite like train travel, the most relaxing way to get where you're going. And as much as I might moan about the pushy, rushed nature of my commute, there is nothing to compare to sitting back in a gently rocking train car, waiting to be transported on a clear morning into the beating heart and throbbing crotch of American ambition.