Monday, January 30, 2012

A Modest Proposal to Deal With the Jobs Shortage in Academia

Editor's Note: It's academic jobs season again, a time of anguish, shattered dreams, and crushed hopes. It is also a time when even the president, a former academic himself, has been demanding universities to do more with less.  I wrote this in a different form back in early 2008, and find it to be even more relevant today in light of the worsening market, the treatment I've seen of adjuncts, and the political attacks on university faculty.  Of course, this post's proposal is entirely Swiftian in nature.

Dear august presidents of American universities,

Although some still try to deny it, you know as well as I that dire economic conditions and the corporatization of the university have led to a large number of PhDs going without employment.  You also know that universities are under pressure from the highest levels to cut costs and increase efficiency. Yet we should not fret, we can turn this situation to our advantage, and even use it to solve other problems bedeviling our profession at this time.

In order to give these poor overeducated souls some security and a job, I propose that we establish a system of indentured servitude for those PhDs unworthy of the lofty tenured heights that we occupy. Many might protest that this is a barbaric and unequal institution. Fair enough, but the current system has only lead to job insecurity and a dangerous potential for revolutionary agitation, wouldn't it be better to accept reality and deploy an unequal system that will result in bountiful new opportunities?  In any case, if we are to reduce costs as political leaders demand, we dare not take funds from the many hard-working administrators whose salaries reflect their worth on the open market, or the building projects we need to advance our enrollments.  How shall we ever do so without big time athletics, luxury dorms, and rock climbing walls ensconced in new student recreation centers?  Temporary faculty come a dime a dozen, yet we still offer them as much as three thousand dollars a class, which is hardly a bargain when they could work for nothing.

Make no mistake, the indentured PhD solution would certainly be mutually beneficial. As you well know, each year in departments around the country we scramble for warm bodies to fill out the course schedule, which often means press ganging graduate students or the burdensome and expensive process of hiring adjunct and "visiting" professors. Often we don't even know who will be teaching certain courses semester to semester. With my new proposal our indentured associates (I think "associates" sounds more attractive than "servants," don't you?) would always be at the ready to teach whatever course we ask them to. For example the biggest survey courses are in the field of history are American History and Western Civilization, and since most of the jobless are in the fields of US and European History, it should be easy to plug them in. Furthermore, we on the tenured side would no longer have to deal with the maddening business of educating freshman students and can thus focus our energies on pursuits more important than the shaping of young minds, such as writing monographs for a specialist audience.

Moreover, a system of indentured associates would help allay the fears of our pesky critics in the political arena. Politicians complain about the rising cost of tuition, but this system will save plenty of money in the long run and save us from having to spend any of our precious endowment money on such piddling trifles like undergraduate education.

This system will also ensure a great level of flexibility, something our friends in the corporate world usually benefit from but we, with our arcane rules dating from the Middle Ages, do not. For instance, many of our colleagues without graduate students lack people they can browbeat or pressure into housesitting or providing child care for them at below market rates. Others actually have to stoop to the indignity of taking their own books back to the library and proctoring and writing their own exams! Contracts of indenture could include clauses that would make this kind of labor part of the overall servitude agreement (although the rather ugly word "servitude" is to be avoided.) We all know how hard it is to get good help these days.

Lastly, this system would reduce a lot of the social awkwardness in many departments stemming from a desire by non-tenured labor to be treated as social equals. The ambiguity of their current positions often confuses them into thinking that most of their tenured colleagues actually care about them as human beings, rather than seeing them as space fillers on the course schedule. Believe it or not, some of them even have the cheek to presume they could get hired on permanently! To make things easier on them, the position of "indentured associate" will clarify their position in the hierarchy and certainly reduce hurt feelings and misunderstandings.

Your humble and obedient servant,
Dr. Arrogantus Ivy

Sunday, January 29, 2012

You May Ask Yourself, "How Did I Get Here?"

Yesterday while I was walking my willful mutt of a dog down the gritty streets of the Ironbound with an alluring aroma of marinated meat wafting into my nostrils from the many Brazilian bbq joints, I suddenly realized quite clearly that my life had become something that I never would have anticipated even five years ago.  In grad school my ambitions had never been all that grandiose.  I hoped to find a job at a university in a homey college town in the Midwest much like the one where I was living at the time.  It didn't have to be a research school or a prestigious liberal arts college, just a comfortable place where I could teach my classes and write a couple of well-received books advancing the field of nineteenth-century German history.  At that point in my life I was single, and had developed the kind of habits one needs to be alone.  In fact, in January of 2007 while in my first year as a "visiting assistant professor" in west Michigan, I adopted a cat to be my domestic companion.  Back then I still hadn't totally overcome my childhood fear of dogs, and I would have been incredulous then to know that five years later I would have a dog of my own whose feces I would gladly pick up off of the streets of New Jersey, a place I'd been to over a decade before and hadn't liked one bit.

Today I am no longer in the Midwest, no longer in academia, and no longer single.  It all started in late January of 2007, just two weeks after my cat moved in.  I flew out to Newark to see someone I had met the summer before, and once the weekend was over, I left Newark exhilarated and intoxicated by love.  A year and a half later I did get the vaunted tenure track job, but it and the town it was located in turned out to be a nightmare.  I gave up the academic dream to take the same job my mother has had for three decades: a high school teacher.  In former times I would have felt embarassed and humiliated by failing to raise myself above the station I was born into, even after a decade of higher education.  Now I don't mind so much, since I live in a neighborhood I love, work for a great employer, and go to bed each night with the love of my life.

On the winding road of life, I must say that experience has taught me a thing or two.  Lots of things that we think are important really aren't worth all that much.  I've learned that it's much better to teach at a great high school than at a shitty university.  I've learned that I can't be happy living just anywhere, and that where one lives really makes a difference in the daily quality of life.  I've seen plenty of "successful" people who might be respected for their career accomplishments, but who are terrible parents or just downright unpleasant.  I have been reminded that we all have but one life to live, and that life can be snuffed out unexpectedly.  There's no point spending those precious days making oneself miserable chasing after things that glitter brightly but that aren't all that important.

Above all, I've learned that, as a friend of mine likes to say, "life is about choices and compromises."  Yes, I wanted to be able to have my current domestic bliss, live in a great place, and further my academic career.  I soon realized that in life, you can't have it all.  But if you can have a trusty dog, live in a colorful neighborhood with plenty of bakeries, go to work each day doing something that matters, and share your life with the one you love, you ought to consider yourself pretty damn lucky.  Eight months after leaving solitary life of the scholar behind for good, I can't say I have any regrets.    

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Odd Nostalgia for Mid-Century Modernism

My sense of the past is perhaps a bit overdeveloped, even by the standards of other historians. Already as a child I loved visiting my grandparents' farm largely for the opportunity to read my uncle's old Mad magazines from the late 1960s and early 1970s, which were kept in a basement closet behind a purple tie-dyed curtain. (This is no lie, the counterculture went mainstream on the rural Plains in odd ways.) Over the years I have developed a special fondness for the modernist aesthetic of the 1950s-1970s, even though I didn't live in its heyday.

Perhaps it's because that era was all around me. Growing up the in the 1980s, a lot of the cartoons on after school were from the 1960s. This was the case on cable especially, which was pretty low-rent in those days and consisted mostly of cheap reruns of shows that had long been canceled and old B movies. (I remember when Star Wars was shown on network TV for the first time many years after its initial release. It was a HUGE deal; now Star Wars shows up on cable constantly.) I watched my share of GI Joe and Transformers, but also consumed a healthy diet of Underdog and Trixie and Dixie, too. The animation in those sixties cartoons betrayed signs of artistic modernism, especially in the abstract nature of some of the backgrounds. As much as I loved Dangermouse, it lacked that surreal, arty quality of the reruns.

I also grew up immersed in postwar architecture for the simple reason that the farm economy of my corner of Nebraska boomed after World War II with the advent of deep well irrigation, and then started going into steep decline in the 1970s. This meant that there were a lot of things built in the fifties and sixties, and very little afterward. Going to my hometown's downtown, or any other in the region, was like stepping into a time machine and going back to 1960. This was exacerbated by the popularity of the mall at the edge of town, which reoriented all the shopping from downtown, where nothing new was built until the time I went to college.

From my trips to the University of Nebraska and my parents' alma mater of Kearney State College, I associated modernist and brutalist architecture with higher learning, rather than the fake Gothic and red brick I always saw in the movies about universities. That same mid-century institutional style was used to build the public library, where I spent a lot of time as a lad, as well as the county courthouse across the street.

My associations between modernism and learning were also related to the covers of my parents' old college books, which often used abstract or modernist art. I still love these covers today, and wish that their style would make a comeback.

Finally, the homes of older people, and the restaurants that catered to them, were drenched in the modernist aesthetic when I was a child. I loved visiting our neighbors' homes (I lived on a block where most people were retired) because of the space-age lamps, Danish modern tables, and wood-paneled basements. (One thing I particularly loved about the recent Coen brothers film A Serious Man is that it did such an amazing job of recreating the look of 1960s interiors.)

These days the poured-concrete structures of mid-century are being torn down. The building boom on college campuses these days makes the former modernist beauties look a little grungy, but certainly more interesting than the bland McMansionized ruling aesthetic of today, which I do not think will evoke pangs of nostalgia fifty years hence.  At least the school where I teach, built in the last gasp of modernism in the mid-1970s, is a wonderfully gonzo example of late period International Style architecture.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Musical Interlude: Trans-Am Rock

During my college years I spent my summers working in factories to make money for the school year. We could play a radio during my shift, and the classic rock station was usually on the dial, since I preferred it to country, and the country fans preferred it to modern rock. Despite my love of a great deal of the classic rock canon, there were certain groups that I just could not abide. Bad Company, Foreigner, BTO, and Foghat were the worst offenders in my book. Overblown, unsubtle, cock rocking bullshit like "Feel Like Making Love" really bugged me both for its silliness and its barely disguised misogyny. Nowadays, having been removed from the blue collar world of the factory floor, I've developed a certain soft spot for ridiculous music that can't be taken seriously. Perhaps since I listen to so much indie rock today, I need the occasional hard-riffed ode to sweaty coitus. Anyway, I like to refer to this particular mode of seventies blues-based hard rock as "Trans-Am Rock." In a lot of ways the Trans-Am is the automotive equivalent of Foreigner's "Hot Blooded": loud, over the top, and full of spunk. Here are some of my favorites of the genre.

"Slow Ride," Foghat. I just dissed this band in the intro, but I have been finding myself oddly drawn to this song, probably because of its hilariously spastic bass. It's hard rock's answer to the out of control disco bass on Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way," and a good way to stretch your jukebox dollar.

"Fire and Water," Free. On a total whim I picked up a Free album for five bucks at J&R's record store in downtown Manhattan, and I have not been disappointed. This deep cut has some bluesy Paul Rodgers singing before he became a self-parody, and a nice slow groove to boot.

"I Don't Need No Doctor," Humble Pie. Humble Pie are one of the great forgotten rock bands, featuring both Peter Frampton and Steve Marriot. Back in the seventies they were a huge live draw, which you can understand if you ever drop their killer double-live Rockin' the Fillmore on your turntable. It really is one of those albums that must be listened to on vinyl, preferably with a fifth of whiskey handy.

"Barracuda," Heart. It gallops forth like charging herd of mighty steeds. Need I say more?

"Stranglehold," Ted Nugent.  I can't stand Ted Nugent, especially his gun-toting, liberal hating, violent political rhetoric, and I feel icky just looking at the title of "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang."  That being said, the Nuge laid down some of the most classic Trans-Am Rock tracks of the seventies, this one included, which sounds like Foghat with an extra-dose of ass-kicking powder sprinkled on it.  God forgive me for being tempted by its foul charms.

"Neon Knights," Black Sabbath.  Early Ozzie-era Sabbath lumbered with the crushing gait of the Iron Man they so famously sang of.  When Ronnie James Dio entered the band, they turned up the throttle and ran on eight hard rocking cylinders powered by tales of wildebeasts and angels.  

"Mississippi Queen," Mountain. For this song Leslie West concocted the great bulldozer riff to beat them all, and added in a liberal dose of cowbell for good measure. I consider this track to be the only non-Foreigner song to approach the Platonic form of Trans-Am Rock.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

I Heart British Cinematic Realism

In the last five years or so I have become a big fan of British cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the gritty "kitchen sink" realist films. Although I love the French New Wave films of the same era, something about seeing hearing north of England accents being spoken in a brick semi-detached gets my toes-a-tappin. Perhaps it's that American cinema, like American society in general, does not have a well-tuned ear for class difference. (And nobody does class like the Brits.)

Having spent a few summers working in a factory, I feel a certain kinship with Arthur Seaton, played by the great Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He works all week at a repetitive job that he hates, just so he can get the dough to blow on drunken weekends that consign the workweek to oblivion. (During my first six months in Michigan I pretty much did the same thing.) Arthur's watchwords? "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

In these films rebellion takes on a kind of nihilistic fatalism. Arthur might get drunk, but in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Colin Smith (played wonderfully by Tom Courtenay), deliberately loses a race that could propel him out of his repressive, dreary reform school. He'd rather lose on his own terms than win on those of his captors, a very self-destructive way to make a stance, and one familiar to those who have to make up in spite what they lack in power. These acts of resistance are hardly productive, and are certainly irrational, but they ring true to me. Human beings are petty, irrational, and defiant all at the same time, and when pushed we lash out in anger, and with little forethought.

In these films viewers get a strong whiff of what I call "working class fatalism." Although I grew up lower-middle class, my parents both came from working class backgrounds, and definately didn't lose their old fatalistic outlook on life. They knew in their bones that people in authority could never be trusted, and given the chance they'd squash you for a penny. The system couldn't be changed, it was unfair, the deck was stacked, and the outcomes preordained. The best thing to do is to keep your head down and your mouth shut and hope that the capricious powers that be don't single you out for a thrashing. (Although I only retained a glint of it, sometimes I wish I could muster this fatalism in a stronger form, its Stoicism can face down the worst that life can throw at you.) Sometimes the pressure gets to be too much, and that's when the Stoic mask falls and the fists fly. Those who carry this Weltanschauung know their rebellion will be ineffectual, but take heart in the very act of doing it as a validation that their spirit has not been completely crushed.

But sometimes life does not allow us even this consolation. This is the lesson taught by This Sporting Life, a film that touches on many of the same themes as The Wrestler. The main character, played by Richard Harris in a career making performance, goes from being a coal miner to a rugby player in a grubby Northern town. He gets a thousand pound bonus, a nice car, and a fur coat for his lady love. Rachel Roberts (one of the most underrated actresses in film history in my opinion) plays the latter, a widow too wrapped up in her self-loathing to be able to love a man too insecure to face life on his own. I don't think I've ever seen a more realistic portrayal on film of how self-hatred destroys human relationships. (Sadly, you can't love another person if you don't love yourself.)

She can't break free of her past, and he can't forget that despite all his money and notoriety, the well-born men who cheer him on think of him as a "great ape on a football pitch." When his face gets smashed in during a game, his employers won't spring to fix the damage to his mouth, he has to get six teeth pulled instead. By the end he is so trapped by the proverbial golden handcuffs that he can't even make a token rebellion, and his desperation for love only torments her with a burden that she can't possibly fulfill. It ain't a happy movie, but that's life.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mitt Romney: Republican Throwback

So far this election season, there's been something about Mitt Romney that I've found rather strange, but I haven't quite been able to place it.  Finally, this week, I figured it out: Romney is a retro-Republican.  He is like the Republicans of my childhood, before the loony, ante-diluvian, populist wing-nutters consolidated their rule over the GOP.  (Contrary to popular belief and mythology, this did not happen under Reagan, but after the Republican sweep in 1994.)  He reminds me very strongly of George Bush the Elder, a scion of the wealthy elite (both were sons of senators) who is so out of touch with the general public that he is not even capable of realizing that he is out of touch.  When Romney recently laughed about how his income from public speaking, which amounted to over $300,000 in 2010-2011, was "not very much," it reminded me of nothing less than Poppy Bush's infamous bewilderment over a supermarket checkout scanner in 1992.

Romney has been trying desperately, and I would say comically, to appeal to the Tea Party wing of his party.  His attempts to curry favor end up being laughable because they are so transparently craven and disingenuous.  On foreign policy, he makes the ludicrous promise to "double Guantanamo."  To appeal to Tea Party nationalism and its attendant hatreds, he plays up his "American" credentials by reciting patriotic songs and calling the president un-American.  He lies without shame, claiming that the president has somehow gone around the world "apologizing" for America, and that he personally created 100,000 jobs in his time at Bain, a number concocted without taking into account the jobs slashed at the companies that he took over.  Like Bush the Elder and other Republicans of his ilk, Romney has to mouth pro-life hosannas to get the nomination, whether he believes them or not.

When you get down to it, despite the Tea Party shenanigans of 2010 and the fame attained by the likes of Sarah Palin, the GOP has been and will remain principally the party of the monied business interests.  Hence the supposed insurgent Newt Gingrich calls for the complete elimination of the capital gains tax, a measure that principally benefits a small number of wealthy capitalists.  Those interests, in the form of the Koch brothers, gave all kinds of money to the Tea Party movement in 2010, but only because it protected their interests.  The new governors have made union-busting their signature issue, and that's hardly a surprise, since that's exactly what their wealthy donors pay for.  As long as Romney stays loyal to the moneymen, Newt and Frothy McSweatervest (my name for Rick Santorum), won't come close to unseating him.  

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Malice Towards All and Charity Towards None: The Texas Way

In honor of Rick Perry dropping out of the presidential race, here's something I wrote when I still lived in Texas about its political culture.  It seems like I wasn't the only person north of the Red River who didn't want to endure the "Texas Way" of government.

This post has spent a long time a-brewin', but the local reaction to the election has gotten me angry enough to write it. I want to preface this post by saying that there are a lot of things about my new state of residence that I appreciate: barbeque, good Mexican food, roadside flea markets, and a general attitude of politeness. That being said, I find the social conservatism and political culture here to be absolutely repugnant. In a twist on some famous words from Lincoln's second inaugural address, the "Texas way" in politics can best be summarized as "malice towards all and charity towards none."

In the first place, a large number of Texans are double nationalists. They jingoistically say "America right or wrong" while aggressively holding to the belief that Texas is the greatest place in America. When I've mentioned my trips out of state to my students, they often say "why the Hell would you go there for?" During my new faculty orientation, one of the coordinators actually said "we welcome people from Texas and from lesser states," and it was not meant jokingly. Many Texas homes sport wrought-iron lone stars above their garages, and some of my students have even said that they think of themselves as "Texans first, and Americans second." I consider nationalism to be a mental disease and probably the biggest murderer of humanity in the last century, and an affliction that is more pronounced here than anywhere else that I've lived.

And I say this as someone born and raised in Nebraska, a state that is about as conservative as they come.  However, Nebraska's conservatism is a more literal, "small c" version that sprouts from a desire to keep things as they are and for change to be as minute as possible. For example, while people in my home state tend to be pious, they tend to think of religion as a private matter not to be aired publically out of politeness.

Texas conservativism, on the other hand, has a much more in-your-face and even authoritarian bent to it. Although Texans claim to dislike government intervention in their lives, their state incarcerates its citizens at a rate over 40% higher than the national average. Its prison system is famously corrupt and violent to boot. The state of Texas also has a penchant for capital punishment, even if it means putting the mentally retarded to death. (Former governor Dubya also famously mocked the pleas for clemency from one of the women he executed.)

As far as I can tell, the social contract is practially non-existent here. The state government might spend resources on prisons, but doesn't seem to care all that much about the health of its citizens. Case in point, the state has almost six million uninsured, and the highest rate of uninsured in the nation. When I started my job, I soon realized that the state of Texas is actively responsible for some of that number. At my orientation I was informed that I would not get my health insurance until I had been working for three months, which is a rule for all Texas state employees. This rule even applied to one of my colleagues, who is only on a year contract and will thus not get benefits for a quarter of the time he is working (he also happened to get injured in a basketball game and had to pay the expenses out of pocket.)

As is evident from the quality of my students, the schools are pretty rotten, too. They at least try harder than my students in Michigan did, but I am at a comparable university, and a good chunk of my students don't even have basic writing or note taking skills. Since there is no income tax and a high sales tax here, the shitty services are funded in a much more regressive manner than most other states. Speaking of services, the city of Houston is the nation's fourth largest, yet still has no real recycling program.

In some sense, contemporary Texas owes a lot to its history. The Republic of Texas so sentimentally praised by (white) Texans was founded by a gang of marauders who wanted the "freedom" to own slaves and carve out their own piece of land after they'd killed or displaced its inhabitants. The selfish, asocial, rapacious character of the state's founders lives on in the form of modern politicians who wear cowboy drag, like current Senator "Big John" Cornyn, and our "brush clearing" disgrace of a president.

This last week has made the political climate here almost unbearable for me. The same people who built up W's political career are now braying on about Obama being a socialist, never stopping to think about where the "Texas way" has taken our country. God help us if another one of its proponents ever occupies the White House again.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Why "Freedom Isn't Free" Is Better Suited to MLK Day

Each Memorial and Veteran's Day, one is apt to hear the slogan "freedom isn't free" spoken of American soldiers who lost their lives on the battlefield.  Although I am more than happy to recognize the service of America's uniformed troops, I search in vain for how many of our nation's recent conflicts have anything to do with enlarging freedom.  The war in Iraq was the result of neo-con imperial ambition.  Vietnam hardly qualifies as a battle for freedom, most 'Nam vets that I've known do not even think about as such.  There also tends to be in the popular mind a notion that threats to freedom in this country have come from without, rather than from within.  During the 1960s the real American freedom fighters weren't in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, in Greyhound busses, and occupying lunch counters across the South.  I think it best for us to use Martin Luther King's holiday as a day to eulogize others who gave their efforts, and their lives, to the struggle for freedom and equality in this country.

I have watched with bemusement and frustration over the years as King's day has become a time for high-flown platitudes, and his complex legacy reduced to sound-bites whose meaning have been eroded with each passing usage.  The treacle dripping from the Facebook posts of well-meaning people who perpetuate this paper version of King became unbearable for me to endure today.  Along with the mainstreaming of a man who loudly opposed war and economic inequality as much as he did segregation, there seems to be a growing perception that non-violent marches occurred, and then, voila! equal rights magically appeared.  The struggles that led to the passage of the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s came about after great effort and horrific violence intended to halt freedom's progress.

Many lives were taken, and until we have a South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Committee in the South, we will never know how many were killed, or how many of these murders were committed with the cooperation of local authorities.  Based on what I've heard and read, the infamous killings of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney in Mississippi in 1964 are only the tip of the iceberg.  The wheels of justice have at least caught some of the perpetrators of the most prominent killings, such as Byron De La Beckwith, assassin of Medgar Evers, and some of the terrorists who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  The police responsible for killing Fred Hampton, however, will never face such a reckoning.

I don't write these words to diminish the day or bring you down, but only to combat the tidal wave of smug, empty platitudes that fill the air each year in the third week of January, and to call on our nation to do more to recognize the martyrs for freedom who didn't wear uniforms.  

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"The Taste Was Not So Sweet": My David Bowie Years, Part Two

(For Part One, go here.)

Station to Station and Low
I bought these two albums on the same day, a rather memorable one, in fact.  It was my senior year of college in Omaha, and it was spring break, but I was not able to go home due to a combination of blizzard and needing to prepare for competition at nationals with my debate team.  (Again, very un-Bowie.)  It was one of those wretched late winter March days that the Midwest seems to specialize in, a cold dead sky and streets covered with ice when spring should have already sprung.  I was coming down with a fever, probably induced by getting my feet wet digging the Mazda out of a snow drift.  For some perverse reason I decided I needed to get out of the house for a drive (maybe to justify the hard labor of snow shoveling), and drove with my girlfriend to the Best Buy near 72nd and Dodge.  (Remember when that was the place to get cheap CDs?  One of the lost experiences of the 90s, I tell you.)  It was unnecessarily exciting, since Omaha is so hilly, and sheets of ice had yet to melt.  I distinctly recall skidding my way down the hill that slopes down on Dodge to 72nd.  On the way home I bought a twelve pack of Schiltz because it was a helluva of a deal at four bucks and spent the evening sipping a medicinal brew while watching the NCAA basketball tournament.

I must've purchased these two albums that day because two of my favorite books about music, Jon Savage's England's Dreaming and Lester Bangs' posthumous compilation Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung had encouraged my to check out stuff from Bowie's post-glam pre-Let's Dance period (roughly 1975-1980.)  Bangs was not a fan of Bowie at all, but had plenty of good things to say about Station to Station, which is one of the more forgotten entries in the Thin White Duke's run of shape-shifting 1970s greatness.  Low came out of the same Berlin period as "Heroes", and Savage praised both records in his now classic history of British punk rock.  Yes kiddies, in that pre-internet age we oldsters had to take a leap of faith on obscure music that we had read about, plunking our cash on the barrelhead before hearing a solitary note.  ("Golden Years" was the only song on either record I'd ever heard before.)

I was not disappointed.  Station to Station has got some great grooves on it ("Golden Years," "Stay"), as well as two fantastic ballads, sung in Bowie's newly discovered, lower voice ("Wild is the Wind," "Word on a Wing."  At the time, I gave it many more spins that Low, which at that time, and for a long time after, became a record I played when I got sick.  It makes sense, since Bowie recorded it while recovering from illness and a monumental cocaine addiction.  The songs on the first side sound ill at ease in the world and explore depressing territory -"Always Crashing in the Same Car" especially- while instrumentals dominate the second side.  These songs (or rather moods) make a good soundtrack to staying inside and wallowing under the blankets.  My favorite, "Warszawa"sounds like a deathly quiet Sunday afternoon in a city of lost souls, and was the perfect accompaniment to me walking to work this morning in the cold January rain.

Diamond Dogs
After graduating from college, I went for a master's degree at Midwestern Ivy University in Chicago (you can probably guess what school I'm talking about.)  My Bowie fixation peaked around this time due to the release of the film Velvet Goldmine.  My old college buddy D had also moved to Chicago to study at Chicago Jesuit University on the north side, and we often got together on the weekend to enjoy the city that both of us soon learned to love.  During our first fall in Chi-town, we went to an art theater in Old Town to see Velvet Goldmine, and we both left absolutely gob smacked.  It's the true definition of a flawed masterpiece, something that doesn't completely hold together, but contains elements of absolute stunning brilliance that still remain implanted in my mind over a decade later.  (In case you don't know, the movie is a fictionalized rendering of glam rock's history and the relationship between David Bowie and Iggy Pop.)  We both gravitated to to different sides of the film: I was and remain a mod, D's a rocker to the core, so he sided more with Iggy (who I also admire), and I to the more theatrical, refined Bowie.

At some point that fall when Velvet Goldmine reignited my Bowie fixation, I found a used copy of Diamond Dogs at 2nd Hand Tunes on 53rd Street in Hyde Park, right around the corner from my apartment at the time.  This one does not have the staying power of Bowie's other work of his golden decade, but does contain one of the great all-time riff rockers, "Rebel Rebel."  That song is completely unrepresentative of that album's dystopic future concept, just as my time at Midwestern Ivy is rather unrepresentative of the rest of my life.  Truth be told, I was a little out of my league, and should have realized right then and there that I was never equipped to compete with the big boys of the academic world.

Aladdin Sane and Hunky Dory
These were the last two albums of my Bowie years, and I don't remember the exact circumstances of their purchase.  I do know that I bought both of them used at a small and indistinct record store near the apartment D and I shared in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood from the summers of 1999 to 2000.  It was a great apartment and a good year, mostly since I earned respectable dough at a decent low-level library job and got to enjoy a city I loved while applying for doctoral programs.  In hindsight it appears that I may have made a poor decision by going back to grad school, but there's no use in regretting the past, especially since my years at Big Ten University are among the happiest of my life, even if I did eventually crap out of academia a decade later.

Oddly enough, the two albums I bought during that year ended up being my favorites by Bowie, even though my fixation started to wane.  That year on the north side my listening habits were dominated by a strange mix of Belle and Sebastian, Sly and the Family Stone, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and Nuggets-style 60s garage rock.  In any case, Hunky Dory is chock full of killer tunes, and Aladdin Sane perfects the glam rock style first attempted on Ziggy.  Perhaps it was some kind of symbolism for emerging from two years of emotional volatility, uncertainty, and bad decisions relatively unscathed that I took on two of Bowie's brighter, less fraught records at the end of my time immersed in his oeuvre.

Those were some strange, painful years indeed.  I did not treat my first love well when I broke up with her once I knew I would be leaving for Chicago, and deserve a lifetime of bad karma for how I behaved.  The woman whose bed I shared on the celebrated New Year's Eve of 1999 I soon brushed off like an asshole jerk.  She has been dead for a couple of years now.  I'll never get a chance to apologize.  I met someone in this period who became my best friend, but after a bitter falling out we haven't talked to each other for two years now.  I idiotically started a smoking habit during this time that I have only recently managed to permanently kick.  Something about this period in my life haunts me, it has been rather cathartic to write about it, actually.  The transition from late adolescence to adulthood is a tricky one, and mine was no exception.  For some reason or another, David Bowie was the soundtrack.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"Oh No Love, You're Not Alone": My David Bowie Years, part one

When it comes to music, I tend to go on binges once I discover a great artist or sub-genre for the first time.  Two years ago I spent several months listening to nothing besides Fela Kuti and Kraftwerk.  More recently I have been spinning sixties folk like it's going out of style.  However, no musical jag lasted as long as my immersion into David Bowie.  From January of 1997 to an indeterminate time in early 2000, there wasn't a week that went by when I did not spin an album by the Thin White Duke.  During the most intense periods I listened to at least one Bowie album a day, usually more.  This weekend I heard that he turned the impossible age of 65, which inspired me to dig back into his catalog, which I have rather neglected over the last decade.  The experience has been strange, since listening to Bowie takes me back to a rather tumultuous period in my life.  In the spirit of appreciation and of my usual navel gazing, I thought I'd order by Bowie albums by when I bought them, to the best that my aging brain can recall, and relate the life circumstances that surrounded them.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
I have no doubts of my memory on this one.  I bought it on an absolutely freezing cold January night in Omaha at The Antiquarium.  This now defunct institution in the Old Market was the ultimate pop-culture junk shop, an old musty building with a huge array of used books and a record store in the basement.  (At least the record store has relocated, it's where I got my copy of Autobahn on vinyl.  If you're in the Big O, check it out.)  It was the kind of cold where the molecules in the air seemed completely immobile, and several minutes after getting inside of my apartment while I took the CD out of its case and put it on the boom box (I never had a stereo until very recently) my face still hadn't quite thawed.  (Amazing that I can't remember what I ate for breakfast this morning, but that I recall so many details of this night.)  It was in college, and my roommate was out of town, so I enjoyed this album by myself in a kind of private communion.  I'd known Bowie's music for years, of course, and had been meaning to delve in.  I was pretty happy to find Ziggy in the used CD bin, which I had intended to buy based on my enjoyment of hearing "Suffragette City" and "Rebel Rebel" blaring on the classic rock radio when I worked factory jobs during my summers.

To be honest, it took awhile for this one to sink in.  On Bowie's early albums, he sings too much from his throat, and it can come across rather strained and shrill.  The rockers like "Suffragette City" and "Ziggy Stardust" sunk their hooks in first, followed by "Starman" and "Moonage Daydream."  (To this day I really don't like "Five Years" all that much.)  Once Ziggy broke through my consciousness it became the soundtrack to my spring semester of my junior year of college, which also happened to coincide with one of my worst depressive episodes.  Looking back from my current standpoint of happiness and contentment, it becomes more obvious to me that I probably should have gotten some treatment for my dark turns in my youth.  I also happened to get a horrible case of bronchitis that winter, and I have vivid memories of spending Valentine's Day watching TV with a bottle of rum and a wicked, phlegmy cough that one of my friends said would harken my arrival in those days.

Back in those late 90s days my little Mazda had a tape deck but no CD player.  Occasionally I'd troll bargain bins and box stores for cheap tapes to play in my car.  This greatest hits comp fit the bill perfectly, and I remember it most clearly as the soundtrack to a summer road trip to visit a friend of mine down in Kansas City.  The summer of 1997 had to be the worst of my life; I got my heart broke, and worked a soul-sucking telemarketing job during the day and dirty factory job in the evening mostly to forget about how miserable I was.  (I cringe when I see pictures of myself from back then, thick around the middle and sporting an unkempt beard. Very un-Bowie.)  "Heroes" quickly became my favorite track, with its shimmering beauty and heart-rending story.  I decided to pick up that album next.

I bought this album at a used record store in Evanston, Illinois, in October of 1997 on an otherwise shitty day.  My friend L. and I trekked to Chicago during our fall break to spend time with her sister in Humboldt Park.  L's sis matriculated as a grad student at Northwestern, and I was interested in applying there for grad school myself, in history.

Folks, I am about to relate to you one of the most humiliating moments of my life, one that I have told few people about since it's so embarrassing.

At the time I had little clue what grad school meant, and I made the fateful and idiotic decision to drop into the history department at Northwestern while we were on campus and ask if I could talk to a prof there about their grad program.  At that time I didn't even know if I wanted to be a modernist or early-modernist, I had a very unsophisticated understanding of the field, and the prof who they sent me to see (who must have been pissed to be interrupted in his office hours by the likes of me) was not impressed.  He flat told me not to pursue a career in history, and even went so far to say that my being a white male was too much of a handicap, in any case, to get a decent job in the field.  With hindsight I know that he belonged to a certain class of reactionary silverback prof, but at the time I was crushed by his words and angered by his old white man racial and gender resentments.  I won't lie, I cried.  Soon after I drowned my sorrows, as I often do, with a trip to the record store, where I got both this album and Elvis Costello's Trust used.  (Not a bad combo!)  "Heroes" had always intrigued me for its cover alone, so evocative of Bowie's charismatic, mysterious cool.

The very night that I returned from my trip to Chicago, I made out in my room with a female friend who very quickly became my first girlfriend.  (Yep, being a painfully introspective guy with crazy facial hair who cried in public didn't exactly make me a chick magnet up to that point.)  We shared the same musical tastes, and would listen to this album together, its stark tones and claustrophobic feel wasted on a 22 year old me lost in the giddiness of first love.

My Bowie interest only grew from that point, but I'll leave that story for the next installment.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Classic Albums: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On

Some artists excel in story telling, others in evoking mood.  The latter take you to a beautiful, fascinating place that you never want to leave.  The best albums of the vinyl era -intended to be a holistic experience rather than a collection of songs- build these other worlds inside of their grooves.  Of all the great records, there is perhaps none that can succeeds so well in making its feel felt than Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, so much so that when I put it on the turntable, it seems like a sacramental experience.  When I listen to it, I hear the last sounds of what was best about the 1960s, straining to be heard as it was released in 1971, with the dawn of the Age of Aquarius fading into sunset.

The title track opens the album not with notes, but with voices; a bunch of guys greeting each other, making it seem as if the residents of this album's world are calling out to invite the listener in.  The voices are key to the concept of the album: a Vietnam veteran returns home to comment on what he sees in America.  The voices give way to a high, mournful saxophone that encapsulates the whole feel of the record in just a few notes.  (I first heard those notes on the soundtrack to The Big Chill, which a friend had dubbed onto tape off of record for me when I was in junior high.  Strangely enough, that soundtrack sparked my love of soul music, especially via "My Girl," "Tracks of My Tears," and "What's Going On.")

There are many reasons to love this album, but among the biggest is that the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, are finally given a chance to show what they can really do.  If you love music, you need to see Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary about these musicians, who got little credit or dough, despite the fact that they were the symphony behind a huge number of the best 45s ever made.  Although their names weren't on those Motown singles, they were the most successful musical group of all time.  Most of these musicians had backgrounds in jazz, which helps explain their otherworldly feel and the subtle swing behind those classic jams.  In the documentary, pianist Joe Hunter reveals the breadth of his music ability when he talks about his early influences, saying that his goal was to make his left hand "as strong as Rachmaninov's."  These guys were the real deal, and on Gaye's revolutionary record they are set loose to go beyond the simpler pop structures that Motown had called for to that point.

The first side of What's Going On is less a pop album side than a symphony, the songs sliding into each other, tied together by the theme of the social issues of the Vietnam era and the ethereal musical mood.  Political songs often fail due to their heavy-handedness, but the intimacy of the album's sound makes them  less bombastic anthems (Bono, I'm looking at you) than heartfelt pleas.  On the title track when Gaye sings, "Father, father/ we don't need to escalate/ because war is not the answer/ and only love can conquer hate" and the music suddenly rises, I never fail to get a chill down my spine.  The sentiments of "Save the Children" could easily come off ham-handed or just sillily sentimental, but this is a song that really means it.  You can hear the weariness in Gaye's voice as he inhabits the Vietnam vet character, a man who has seen so much death and destruction already in his short life and is saddened by seeing the violence on the city streets.  The same feeling of genuine concern comes out on "Mercy Mercy Me"'s lament for ecological destruction.  Instead of raising his voice in frustration and anger, as many political anthems tend to do, Gaye drops it in disappointment over humanity's blindness.  That song closes out what is perhaps the greatest single album side in history, twenty minutes of unmatched, brilliant beauty.

The second side is pretty damn good too, and it goes even further away from pop song structures into sound landscapes.  "Right On" has a bouncy Latin jazz feel to it, and the musicians stretch the track out past seven minutes, segueing into the coda of "Wholy Holy."  As good as those songs are, they are mere prelude to the record's last number "Inner City Blues," a dark, pulsating groove that bitterly recounts the stifling inequality of life in the ghetto and what it's like to live a life with the deck constantly stacked against you.  Gaye delivers his lines with a startling directness, the lyrics spare and skeletal.  In many ways, both literal and figurative, it's the flip side of "What's Going On."  The title track holds out the hope for peace, love, and understanding amidst war, violence, and suffering; "Inner City Blues" holds out no hope at all.  The album begins with a blast of sixties idealism, and ends on a note of seventies depression and malaise.

I see the latter in the back cover of the album, which has always strangely affected me.  Gaye stands in the rain wearing a massive unbuttoned black leather coat, in what looks to be a broken down playground, with an almost despondent look on his face.  It's a visual representation of the mood of "Inner City Blues," a sign that the man who once sang such songs of life-affirming power ("How Sweet it Is" etc.) wants to take the listener down some darker byways.  In these days of "bad breaks" and "setbacks," we need an artist like him to shed some light on what's going on.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Party of Palin

Today most consider Sarah Palin the great fallen star of American politics.  She burst brilliantly onto the political stage, seemingly out of nowhere, and for a solid two years or so was the most beloved public figure on the right wing.  Even if she is no longer the commanding figure she once was, reduced to speaking at CPAC (they don't pay up) rather than making demands for private planes and bendable straws, she has effectively redefined the Republican party in her image, a mold that no candidate who wants that party's nomination for president dare breaks.

Once she was on the ticket, Palin began playing the identity politics game to the hilt.  She talked about visiting pro-America (read: white and rural) parts of the country, and at her rallies her supporters let their true, bigoted colors shine through.  To his credit, John McCain did not stoop to depicting Barack Obama as un-American or alien, but Sarah Palin did not hesitate.  In doing so, she provided an outlet for a right-wing id chomping at the bit to be unleashed.  Beneath the claims that Barack Obama is un-American lies a deep-seated and unspoken assumption on the part of many on the Right that people of color can truly never be American.  

The Tea Party, the political embodiment of that id, may be less powerful these days, but that's partly because it has stamped mainstream Republicans.  Look at Mitt Romney, for instance, who panders to this facile nationalism by reciting words from "America the Beautiful" while claiming that president Obama does not truly love America, and wants to make this country "like Europe."  Take Newt Gingrich, who before running for president made ridiculous claims about president Obama being an anti-imperialist radical by osmosis from his father, and being totally oblivious to the fact that he seems to hate imperialism when white people are placed under it (hence his support of the American Revolution), but finds it hunky-dory when Africans are subjugated by whites.  Let's also not forget his singling out of black children for mandatory menial labor in their schools in order to "teach them a lesson" (a phrase Newt doesn't use, but a sentiment he more than implies), or his most recent, insulting claim that black people are only pushing the government for food stamps, not jobs.  Rick Santorum is in on the game too, obnoxiously saying that he "doesn't want to make black people's lives better by giving them other people's money."  (Of course he has tried to deny it, claiming he really said "blah people.")  Ron Paul won third place in Iowa even after it was revealed his namesake newsletter used to publish Klan-worthy racist screeds.

It seems that the all of the Republican front runners are playing with the fire of white identity politics, the very thing that put Palin on the map.  In fact, we should probably read her current low status not as a negative judgement against her politics, but as evidence that her innovations have been copied by politicians who are more legitimate.  In any case, the Republican nominee this time around will not have McCain's scruples when it comes to the "anti-American" argument.  I've said it before, I'll say it again: this election will produce propaganda that will make the Willie Horton ad look tame.  One could expect nothing else from the party of Palin.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Classic Albums: Talking Heads, Fear of Music

I just finished a very captivating book by Will Hermes called Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, which recounts the music scene in New York City from 1973 to 1977.  I especially liked how he weaved very disparate genres of music together, showing how salsa, disco, hip-hop, punk and new wave all grew out of a very tumultuous period in the Big Apple's history.  I also went back and listening with new ears to some of the artists mentioned in the book, including the Talking Heads.  (The title of the book comes from a Heads song of the era.)

Over the years I have come to conclusion that their 1979 record Fear of Music is my favorite.  I am in the minority with this preference; Remain in Light is most consistently considered their best, and those who don't think so gravitate more towards the early, CBGBs-influenced sound of their first two albums.  I like Fear of Music best, however, because it retains the song-oriented nature of the earliest stuff while mixing in the Brian Eno-influenced experimental sound and Afrobeat polyrhythms that dominate Remain in Light.  I must admit that that album, for all of its wonderful moments, has a tendency towards heavy-handed political statements and a kind of Third World fetishization that's more than a little problematic.

When I first bought Fear of Music on cassette for a cut rate price at a small record store that soon went out of business in the summer after I graduated high school, I was deeply intrigued by the song titles I saw on back: "I Zimbra," "Mind," "Paper," "Cities," "Life During Wartime," "Memories Can't Wait," Air," "Heaven," "Electric Guitar," and "Drugs."  The fact that most of the song titles consisted of one word nouns, along with the corrugated iron cover, lent it an air of mystery.  The first song, "I Zimbra," only piqued my curiosity, with its unorthodox rhythms and nonsense-language lyrics.  It sounded to me like the kind of thing that Max Rebo's band would have played aboard Jabba the Hutt's pleasure barge.

The next three songs on the first side are much more conventional in structure, but still striking.  Tina Weymouth lays downs some really seriously funky bass on "Mind," "Paper" is a quick shot of adrenaline, and "Cities" contains two of my favorite lyrical passages.  I love the way lead singer David Byrne sings "I think of London/ Small city/ Dark/ Dark in the daytime!"in a slightly exasperated tone, since he captures that burg's rather dank, claustrophobic atmosphere quite well.  Later on, he deadpans, "Memphis/ Home of Elvis/ And the ancient Greeks," which has always cracked me up.  The first four songs, and this one in particular, illustrate how the Heads could lay down some grooves and rock out at the same time.  Rock and roll bands these days only rarely write stuff that can be danced to.

On the last two songs on the first side, the one word title songs give way to "Life During Wartime" and "Memories Can't Wait."  The former is catchy as hell, and one of the more well known tunes in the Heads' catalog.  The other signals the more experimental and less accessible direction that side two will take, with its air of foreboding and punishing synthesizer and guitar backing.  The trebly tones and echoing vocals sound almost hysterical, evoking the feeling of a nervous breakdown.  I've never tried to understand the intended meaning of this song, since I prefer to get swept up in its abstract feel of the uncanny it provides.  I think I hear the word "overdose" in the murky echoes, so perhaps it's a drug song.

Side two starts with some catchier material, but soon gets back into the harrowing territory of "Memories Can't Wait."  The first song, "Air," gets back into the funky grove but retains a paranoid edge in lines like "what is happening to my skin?" and "air can hurt you too."  It could be a song about the environment, or it could just be a schizophrenic rant by an unstable narrator a la so many Randy Newman songs, this time with kickass melodic bass and searing guitar.  The next song, "Heaven," certainly stands out as the most conventionally beautiful on record, an anguished ballad about the afterlife that depicts heaven as a kind of boring drag or an impossible dream.  The key line, "Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens" seems a kind of plea for oblivion, for a true death.  I bought this album while stuck in my hometown, working a mind-numbing factory job before leaving for college.  Living a life on constant boredom and repetition at the time, this song really grabbed me.  Not that I had a death wish, but that my life seemed to be one where nothing ever happened.

Perversely, after giving the listener such a beautiful song, one that but for its disturbing lyrical content should have been a hit tune, the Talking Heads end the album with "Animals,""Electric Guitar," and "Drugs," where David Byrne seems to be playing an uneasy paranoiac.  How else to interpret a line, sung with a kind of spacey conviction, that "someone controls electric guitars."  On this song and the others, the sound becomes abrasive, the structures meander, and the meanings get murky.  It's as if they've gotten tired of translating their ideas into accessible songs like "Mind" and want to push their listeners to meet them on their own terms.  "Drugs" ends the affair with something that sounds like a bad trip, all nervy, edgy and disorienting.

For a long time when I listened to the album, I stopped after "Heaven."  Truth be told, the last songs, especially "Drugs," weirded me out too much.  I've now learned to appreciate them, and the rare album where an experimental band is able to mix relatively straightforward traditional songs with moody, unsettling soundscapes.  That's the beauty of the post punk music that the Heads made, and why that genre, from Joy Division to Wire, will always endure in the hearts of its scattered devotees.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fearless Predictions for 2012

With each new year, I like to make predictions about what will happen.  I am often wrong, but it's fun to speculate nonetheless.  Here's what I predicted on my old blog last year:

"1. Republicans will lose their election momentum.
It looks like they peaked too soon. While I am sure we can expect all kinds of brazen craziness and frivolous investigations into "scandals," by House Republicans, now that they have a little power, they actually have to govern again. Continuing the bomb throwing won't work, as they should have learned from the 90s, when Newt Gingrich's radicalism so turned off the electorate that it saved Bill Clinton's ass. When GOPers tried to deny health benefits to 9/11 first responders, that was already a bridge too far. The public liked the legislative push made in the lame duck session; the GOP might actually be aware that it has to actually do its job in Congress if it wants to stay there.
2. More austerity for the humanities.
The lack of federal for the states, the continuing economic nightmare, and the corporate leadership of universities, which value football teams over philosophy and foreign languages, will mean even more hardship for academia, especially in the humanities. If we haven't yet reached the breaking point, 2011 might be it. As a new study released today shows, there was a decline of 29.4% in the number of jobs for historians this year, on top of 23.8% last year. Or to put it in starker terms: 569 jobs this year compared to 989 new PhDs in 2009. (More on this subject to come.)
3. Facebook decline.
The fact that so many parents now use it (a total turn off for the youth) combined with growing privacy concerns and the fact that nothing Net related lasts, means that Facebook may still grow, but will start losing ground to other social networking sites. The news today of Facebook's hints that it might soon go public reminded me of nothing less of the AOL-Time Warner merger of the 1990s. Pride goeth before the fall."
I would say that these predictions are accurate for the most part, especially #1.  That said, I didn't go out on a limb with these statements.  This year I will try to be a little riskier.  Without further ado, here are my predictions, which are political in nature this time due to it being an election year.

1.  Mitt Romney will win the Republican nomination.  Despite the protestations of the Republican party's base, Mittens seems to have survived assaults from his rivals and put himself on a much stronger footing than before.  Case in point: he wasn't supposed to win in Iowa, and it looks pretty likely that he will carry it.  All of the members of the Anyone But Romney brigade have proven themselves to be morons (Perry and Bachmann), crackpots (Paul and Bachmann), morally suspect (Cain and Gingrich), too moderate for contemporary GOP wingnut tastes (Huntsman), or not experienced or substantial enough to be taken seriously (Santorum, despite his recent "surge.")

2.  Chris Christie will be Romney's VP choice.  The GOP will win the South, apart from maybe Virginia or North Carolina, and the plains and mountain west besides Colorado and New Mexico, no matter who they run as their veep.  They need to peel off states in the Midwest and Northeast to be able to win.  Christie gives that opportunity, and his brash, bullying, biggest asshole in the room personality will allow him to add some flair and charisma to Roboromney, and give him a valuable attack dog who can spew  venom while Mitt stays "presidential" above the fray.  (Even when calling on Iowans to vote for Romney, Christie could not help threatening them with "Jersey style" vengeance if they did not obey.  He might have been joking, but it was a joke that reveals a lot about his character.)

3.  President Obama's supposedly "un-American" nature will be a major point of Republican attack.  This is the first presidential election in the wake of the disastrous Citizens United decision, and I predict that we will see a massive tide of smears whose mendacity and numerousness will make the Swift Boat and Willie Horton travesties look quaint.  Romney has already been sounding the "real American" drum, implying and at times outright stating that the president is not truly American.  These attacks effectively roll together his race, his father's immigrant status, and his intellectual, urban background into a threatening, totemic "Other" to be cast out.  Romney understands first that nationalism is one of America's most influential and least discussed political forces, and second, that he needs to deflect attention of his own "Other" status as a Mormon by maintaining a constant assault on the president's supposedly "un-American" nature.  He and his campaign are smart in their perfidy, because as anyone who knows American history understands, whiteness trumps religion every time.

4.  Sarah Palin will come back.  America's greatest attention-monger this side of Kim Kardashian has appeared to have gone dormant.  However, methinks this Grizzly Mama is merely hibernating, waiting for an opportunity to come out of her lair and bask again in the worship of the GOP masses.  She may have been tarnished, but now so have all of the others on the extremes of the populist Right.  As each major non-Romney candidate has suffered implosion or embarrassment, Palin no longer seems to ridiculous.  I do not think she will throw her hat in the ring or try to get the nomination via a brokered convention, just that she will try to assert herself in as public a way as possible.  This might include a highly public denunciation of a Romney nomination and with it a call for Republicans to boycott the election.  It might mean her getting hired on as a talking head to do campaign coverage for one of the major networks.  Hell, it might even be as a third party candidate.  In any case, I am confident that 2012 will mean Sarah Palin's sudden return to the political stage.

5.  Barack Obama will be re-elected president.  The economy is showing signs of improving.  Romney is the most electable Republican candidate, but he is uncharismatic, unappealing, and so obviously a creature of Wall Street and the 1% at a time when the sleeping giant of class consciousness has awakened.  The Republicans have become so extreme that they have little to offer anyone who isn't white, male, native born, heterosexual, Christian, and affluent.  President Obama has to contend with a cruddy economy, the inevitable low-blow attacks, and a Congress and Supreme Court that will be actively working to undermine him.  All that being true, a majority of Americans seem to like the man, and the extremity and insanity of his opposition will rub off on Romney.  With the president having brought the war in Iraq to a close and successfully ordered bin Laden's death, the Republicans would be foolish to run on foreign policy.  It won't be a blow-out, and might be a nail biter, but I predict four more years.