Saturday, September 29, 2012

Shocks versus non-Shocks: The Great Divide of My Generation of Academics

Surveying my generation of academics (those who got their PhDs in the last decade or so) I’ve noticed a very clear experiential divide between those who are working or who have worked “temporary” jobs (as in adjunct, “visitor” etc.) and those who landed on the tenure track straight out of grad school. These two groups tend to see the academic world very differently.

I’ve decided that we need some terminology to describe this difference, so I would volunteer the term “Shock” to describe the survivors of the untenured labor market. It is partly a bowdlerized acronym of “school of hard knocks,” a reference to the “shock workers” of the Soviet Union whose back-breaking work was supposed to set an example, and lastly, symbolic of shocks of wheat. Like the grain, the labor of Shocks is harvested and milled so that others may eat, i.e. the permanent faculty.

While I myself am a Shock, having spent two years in a thankless “visiting” job, I should start by saying that I do not hold a grudge against non-Shocks generally, and do not think the Shock experience necessarily makes us better. I am very happy for the friends of mine who have managed to make the transition from graduate school to the tenure track seamlessly, they have been spared a great deal of pain and aggravation. I also think that Shocks are more likely to become the excessively bitter person who is incapable of enjoying their job and provokes much eye rolling in response to their indignation at faculty meetings.

Shocks are almost always marked (perhaps scarred is a better word) by their experiences. When you teach more classes than tenured faculty at your university and still publish more in two years than many of them have in their entire careers, that tends to erode any notion that the profession is fair (not that these should have ever been believed in the first place.) When some of these same people refuse to acknowledge your presence when they pass by in the hallway, the rage begins. When you spend seventy hours a week in your first semester working so that you can prep new classes, write job applications, and work on the publications you need for the said job search and you see a tenure track colleague who calls in “sick” for a quarter of the semester, the indignation rises. And when you get your meager pay packet for all your troubles, and then lose most of it paying for emergency dental care not covered by your substandard insurance, it goes through the roof.

A lot (though not all) non-Shocks that I know take a rather rosy view of the profession. And why not? They’ve gone from the poverty-stricken yet exciting life of the mind offered by graduate school to a job where they get their own office, can expect respect (this is what I liked most about my time on the tenure track), teach the classes they’ve always wanted to teach, get money for conference travel and research, and have graduate assistants and office staff to do a lot of the day to day busywork for them. Some non-Shocks (not all or even most) look at this state of affairs and do not consider themselves blessed or lucky, but in fact more WORTHY than their grad school counterparts languishing in visiting and adjunct jobs. These non-Shocks see the academic class divide in a Victorian fashion: the academic working classes simply lack the merit required to rise into the bourgeoisie. Though this may be true in some cases, it is mostly a conceit, given the ratio of applicants to jobs available on the tenure track.

The one and only great advantage possessed by Shocks is that their desperate struggle for survival usually engenders a strong work ethic. In order to get a job, a Shock needs articles or even a book contract, and they need to happen fast while the Shock is teaching over one hundred students. This means a great deal of intellectual elbow grease and the forfeiture of the notion of the “weekend” and “break.” What often hurts non-Shocks by comparison is that they come into their jobs with their tenure clocks ticking while they are trying to adjust to full-time teaching (by tenure track standards.) At least when I took my t-t job I had two articles under my belt and had made a great deal of progress on my book manuscript.  Now that I am no longer in academia and teaching at a private high school, I think my experience as a Shock and working in a very Shock-like tenure track job prepared me well for my new career.  I got used to teaching outside of my area of expertise and busting my ass.

I think there needs to be a greater dialogue in the academic world about what it means to be a Shock or a non-Shock (until we find a better word, of course.) Is the Shock experience the enlightening school of hard knocks, or just a breeding ground for permanent embitterment? Are Shocks too haughty or judgemental of non-Shocks? Does the divide flatten out over time? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Low Budget Culinary Pleasures

With the arrival of twins to the Bear household, I am coming to grips with the fact that there's going to have to be some belt-tightening around here.  Since I spent over a decade in the genteel poverty of grad school and the peon grade of the professoriate, I am well versed in the art of having a good time on just a dime.  Here are my favorite low-budget pleasures in regards to food and drink, please use the comments section to enlighten me on those I've missed.

Snack Cakes

If Karl Marx were alive and amongst us today, he would say that cheap junk food, not religion, is the opiate of the masses.  People are willing to passively accept warrantless spying by their government, drug tests from their employers, and surveillance cameras on any corner, but will get up in arms if you dare restrict their right to giant containers of sugary soda.  Our whole agricultural policy seems designed specifically to create a mountain of cheap cheese puffs and potato chips to keep the proletariat distracted and happy.  Of all of the low-priced gut bombs out there, I have a special spot in my heart for snack cakes, Little Debbie brand in particular.  My parents are skin-flints of the highest order, which meant our pantry was always full of Zebra Cakes, Star Crunches and Oatmeal Pies, all of which used to come for less than a dollar a box.  I used to love visiting a friend's house back in the day, since his mom always seemed to have vanilla Zingers on hand, which are a Twinky-like cake with frosting on the top, which is as decadent as it gets for a ten year old child.  These days, thanks to my wife's influence, Ring Dings have become my favorite.

Pork Rinds

Sometimes you need a little savory with your sweet, and pork rinds have never done me wrong.  I still remember the first time I had them; my grandparents brought a bag over to our house as an afterthought along with my grandma's usual trunk full of homemade pies and casseroles.  I thought they'd taste like potato chips, and was pleasantly surprised by the flavor.  The fact that I was eating the fried skin of a dead animal only made them that much cooler in my little boy mind.

Hot Dogs

The invention of the hot dog is proof, more so than the light bulb, personal computer and assembly line, that this country once harbored genius.  I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the frankfurter, and have sampled my share of exceptional examples of the form.  My favorite genre is still the Chicago-style Vienna dog, for all of its ostentation and frummery.  Running a close second is the Michigan appropriation of the Coney dog (the secret is organ meat in the chili sauce.)  When I lived in Michigan I would sample something from time to time called a Flint dog, which was covered in spiced ground meat of unknown provenance.  In these parts when I want to bite into a truly epic dog, I go to Rutt's Hutt in Clifton and have one of their deep-fried "rippers."  If anything will kill me, it's this.

Bargain Basement Beer

I love a good beer more than just about anything in the world, but even though my palette might be microbrew, my wallet is often Pabst Blue Ribbon.  When I lived with my buddy Dave in Chicago, we used to buy thirty-can cubes of Miller High Life for eleven bucks, a purchase I dubbed "instant party."  High Life might not be full of great taste, but it does go down nice and easy, which is more than I can say for Keystone, Busch, or Milwaukee's Best.  At our neighborhood bar I would be reduced at times to ordering Stroh's, which is a brew best to be avoided.  Finding a cheap beer that does not taste like iron filings is a difficult art, which is why I was lucky enough recently to make the acquaintance of Genesee Beer.  I purchased a tall-boy can for the princely sum of ninety-nine cents on a whim, since it seemed to have the most plain can I'd ever seen.  The good folks at Genesee appear to have put their money in the beer rather than the packaging, which is more than can be said for Budweiser.

Rot-gut Bourbon

I do love a taste of Kentucky gold, but if necessary, I'll settle for some Kentucky sludge.  That's why they invented Coca-Cola, right?  My favorite bourbon in this regard is Evan Williams, which should not be drunk straight unless you want to see vapor trails.  However, mixed with coke, it takes on positively sublime properties.


Of the many things I like about New Jersey, its diners are close to the top of the list.  Diners seem to be in decline across America; my favorite greasy spoon in Illinois closed while I was there, as did a similar place in my old Michigan 'hood.  Here in the Garden State, thankfully they're still going strong, with the added benefit of having items like pork roll and mazto ball soup on the menu.  Whenever I'm feeling low or in need of some culinary comfort, my friends at the diner always have the pancakes or meat loaf that will kill my unhappy thoughts with a food coma.  When I was a pathetic lonely bachelor in Michigan, nothing made me feel more at home than my weekly trip to my local diner for breakfast on Saturday, chatting with the waiters and the other regulars at the counter. Strangely enough, a trip to a diner played an important role in the early stages of my relationship with me wife.  Now that I've got babies, they enjoy the constant background diner noise of errant conversation, waitresses taking orders, and clattering silverware, so I guess things have come full circle.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Theraputic Powers of Side Four of Tusk

The changing of the seasons and certain music put together can conjure forth powerful memories.  I had such a moment today as I walked home from the train station in the cool autumn breeze with Fleetwood Mac's Tusk playing on my iPod.  That combination of weather and sound brought me back to the fall of 2010 when I was still living in Texas and increasingly desperate to get out of a rapidly deteriorating situation.  I spent a weekend escape with some musically-inclined friends in the Austin area, and finally had my defenses broken down regarding Fleetwood Mac.  I drove back to East Texas with a burned CD of Tusk, which led me to track down an immaculate vinyl copy at a local Goodwill for the princely sum of two bucks,

In the period between November of 2010 and May of 2011 I lived in a state of constant fear and anxiety, due to both my dysfunctional workplace and lack of prospects on the job market.  I've always used music as medicine, but it meant a lot more to me during those harrowing months than it's ever had.  When I woke up in the morning, I would often throw on record and play a single side while eating my breakfast.  With the radio full of news of the Tea Party ascendancy, my jangled nerves could no longer handle NPR.

Side four of Tusk was an old standby on these mornings; it never failed to soothe me.  Other sides of this famous double album might indeed be better, but this one still washes over me like warm water.  It starts with the disposable "Honey Hi," a typically jaunty Christine McVeigh number that sets a relaxing mood.  Perhaps it's there to put the listener in a good mood before the extreme downer of Stevie Nicks' "Beautiful Child," a lament for lost love that sounds like the thoughts that go through your mind at 3AM when you can't sleep. 

Tusk is full of avant-garde Lindsay Buckingham songs that provide sharp counterpoints to the more pop-oriented Nicks and McVeigh songs.  "Walk a Thin Line" might be the most subdued of Buckingham's tracks on this album, fitting well with side four's quiet, spooky vibe.  That spookiness gets downright surreal on the next track, "Tusk," one of the strangest songs ever to hit the upper range of the Top 40.  The USC marching band, penis references, and a lack of any discernable verse-chorus-verse structure set it apart from just about anything else on the record.  Listening to it over my morning coffee and oatmeal, it helped rouse me from my morning torpor and the inevitable dread about facing my workplace.  Side four (and the album) end on an optimistic note with "Never Forget," just the right attitude I needed to confront the day ahead.  

These days I'm a lot happier, thankfully.  I get to hug my babies before leaving on a journey to Manhattan's invigorating bustle to do a job I love.  As much as I still love Tusk, it won't ever mean as much to me as it once did, but that's probably a good thing.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why Conservatives Aren't Too Despondent About A Possible Romney Defeat

In case you haven't noticed, the Romney campaign's recent travails have led many prominent conservatives to sharply criticize him, and to generally give the impression that he is a hopeless cause.  This is especially surprising, considering the conservative bloc's typical party discipline.

One conclusion I've drawn is that many conservatives have a lot to gain if Obama gets re-elected.  That might sound counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if we look at the broader picture.  If Romney loses, the hard right will then crow that the party needed to nominate a "true conservative," making their hold on the party that much stronger.  If Romney wins, they would also lose their biggest lightning rod: president Obama.  The unmitigated hatred spewed at him by the right has galvanized and united conservatives of different stripes; without a common enemy, it will be hard for the right wing coalition to not devolve into sniping and back-biting.

If Romney wins it would also put conservatives in the unenviable position of having to stop throwing rhetorical bricks and actually govern a system that has become increasingly ungovernable.  It's much easier for them to wield power the way they do now, by obstructing every piece of legislation that they don't like.  Why would conservatives give that up for having to actually be judged on their leadership?  I have a feeling that they would much rather wail and howl and engage in their false victimization narrative.  After this November, expect four more years of exactly that.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Other 47% Moments and Public Meltdowns

The recently revealed and formerly secret comments by Mitt Romney about the supposed 47% of "moochers" out there so dependent on government hand-outs that they would not dare vote for him is one of those great and rare moments when a liar and professional bullshitter gets caught revealing his true self.  The revelation of Romney's plutocratic leanings, unadulterated and uncut, has accelerated his campaign's meltdown.  This isn't the first time a public figure has embarrassed themselves by showing their true colors or just plain imploded, so here's a compilation of my favorite real and fictional meltdowns and 47% moments.

A Face in the Crowd
This is one of my favorite films, and stars an atypically malevolent Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, an itinerant, boozing guitar picker who gets catapulted to fame via television, where he morphs into a Glenn Beck-like reactionary messiah.  He uses downhome charm and aw shucks earthiness to conceal the fact that he's carrying water for wealthy reactionaries.  Rhodes is undone, however, when another character, so disgusted with his transformation, turns the mic on during the closing credits of his show as he denigrates his audience for being a bunch of easily lead, naive rubes.  Although Romney is about as folksy as a silver salad fork, he has tried to affect a concern for the little people that has been entirely debunked by his Mr. Burns-esque pronouncements.

Bill O'Reilly Wants to "Do It Live"

It's before his career at Fox News, but it's fun to watch this out-take of a preening prat who effects a tough-guy personae acting like a crying baby.

Lee Elia Rant
This doesn't quite count as a 47% moment, since Cubs manager Elia went on this tirade at a press conference in the early 1980s.  However, it's a true artistic masterpiece in the annals of public meltdowns as well as a masterful display of profanity.  The audio of this clip will live on longer than any knowledge of the Cubs' performance during Elia's tenure.

Denny Green Loses His Shit
Since I'm a Bears fan I remember well the game when Green's Cardinals improbably lost to a Chicago team that had no right winning that game.  Obviously frustrated with his team and the usual barrage of stupid questions at the press conference, Green lost his shit.  "If you want to crown them, then crown their ass" was a personal catchphrase for me for a couple of months afterward.

Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy Goes Gonzo On the Media
Three years from now I will walk around screaming "I'm a man, I'm 40!" on my birthday because of this clip.  When overly testosteroned masculine authority figures like football coaches shout in front of people with twice their IQ, I always have to chuckle.

LBJ Talks About Pants
Listening to the most powerful man in the world needle a pants manufacturer about needing more inseam room while burping into the phone and saying words like "bunghole" is about as surreal as it is hilarious.

Richard Nixon Drunk Dials His Chief of Staff
Might as well close this out with one of the few modern politicians who has Romney beat when it comes to mendacity and lack of scruples in pursuing power.  Nixon set himself up as the representative of the "silent majority" and a figure of moral forthrightness, but in this phone call, when he's drunk dialing Bob Haldeman, he sounds like the pathetic, slimy liar that he truly was.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Foreigner, "Hot Blooded"

My God,this song is horrible, isn't it?  The lead singer just screams about how he wants to take a girl home and sex her with about as much romance as a jackhammer.  Lou Gramm's strained singing and forcefulness make the song's character (Lord I hope it's a character) sound like the kind of guy who thinks that that yelling "brace yourself" is foreplay and that three minutes of intercourse constitutes a marathon session.  This is the worst of hairy-chested 1970s masculinity in all of its sweaty, misogynistic glory.

Yet I still find myself singing along to this song, which is hooky as all get out with a monster riff designed to break down my defenses.  I try to tell myself that I enjoy its grunting desperation ironically, but I give myself over to the song with all my being when it happens to come on classic rock radio when I'm behind the wheel.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Can My Intellectual Marriage to My Academic Specialization Last?

After my first year as a PhD student, I decided to make nineteenth century Germany my area of specialization.  I knew for a long time that I wanted to be a modern Germanist, but choosing which period of time to concentrate on took me awhile.  A summer spent reading histories on the period while feeling out dissertation topics helped make up my mind and draw me in.  That and the fact that I felt that too much had already been written on 20th century Germany (especially in regards to the Nazis), and I felt like I wouldn't be able to come up with an original scholarly contribution.

I guess it was my contrary nature to not want to study the one topic that people who aren't historians of Germany actually care about (just look at the German history section at any book store), and it certainly didn't help me find a job or land a book contract.  I loved it nonetheless, and wrote a dissertation and published three journal articles on the subject.  Despite those heavy investments in the field, I feel as if I have become estranged from my old identity as a historian, and wonder whether I might be headed for a divorce.

Some of this has to do with the fact that in the five years I spent as a professor, I was never really allowed to practice my chosen specialty.  The first two years, when I taught as a "visitor" at Frontier University (names have been altered, of course), I was tasked with teaching a Western Civ survey, World History survey, and a course on Europe after 1945.  While I particularly enjoyed the latter course, it meant never being able to share my expertise on the nineteenth century.  When I finally landed a tenure-track job, I was forced to teach more American history surveys than any other class.  I did get to teach the occasional survey on nineteenth century Europe, but much of my brain energy was being spent trying to make my American history lectures credible.

I also started getting disheartened with the lack of opportunities afforded by my speciality, especially when it came to getting a book contract.  (Of course, a lot of this was down to the bad job market and the fact that I was not the best candidate out there.)  I started developing research interests tangential to and even totally unrelated to my old speciality, figuring they offered more enjoyment and opportunity.

The real blow to my intellectual marriage, of course, came when I jettisoned academia for my current position as a private school teacher.  I do love my job, but at the end of an exhausting day, I lack the necessary energy to do my scholarly work.  The amount of stamina and effort required for a day of high school teaching makes even my old 4/4 load look pitifully easy.  (Since summer, when I wrote almost a whole chapter of my current book project, I have written maybe two pages.)  After my hour-long commute home, I mostly want to talk with my wife, cuddle my babies, and enjoy a cocktail while watching a baseball game.  In any case, I no longer have the chance to get the necessary grants to travel overseas to do research, so the point is moot, anyway.  The fact that my publisher dumped me right before this job started made it easier to write off my old project and my old field.  When I attended the German Studies Association conference last fall, it felt like a good-bye tour.

This meant that last year, for the first time in a decade, I did not stay up on new publications in nineteenth century German history, except for those by friends.  I spent my free time this summer writing a book related to America in the 1970s, and didn't really bother with German history at all.  My old specialization and I were not yet divorced, but definitely separated.

Old flames are hard to forget, though.  Last week I finally picked up a recent critical biography of Bismarck that I had been meaning to read.  Seeing familiar names and historiographical debates on the page took me back to the year I spent in cave-like archives in Germany and to the endless hours in coffee shops spent with stacks of books with words like Buergertum in their titles.  As much as I would like to shake it and start over again, my interest in the topic won't go away.  Now I am even thinking about conjuring old fascinations from the grave in the form of conference papers and journal articles.  Perhaps it won't last, and perhaps this is just the intellectual equivalent of break-up sex, but it feels good to care about something that I have been falsely trying to force myself not to care about.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Why Romney's Inevitable Defeat Won't Change Much on the Right

Perhaps some crazy thing can happen between now and November, but after the conventions and then Romney's nakedly irresponsible reaction to the attacks on US embassies, the USS Mitt appears to have hit the iceberg.  Some conservatives, following the lead of Chris Christie (who refused the VP nomination and used his convention keynote speech to promote himself, not the candidate) have started grabbing life-boats and jumping ship.  Considering that the GOP has made defeating president Obama its sole priority for the past four years and obstructing anything he does its primary tactic, such a massive failure ought to provoke some soul searching.  Perhaps Republicans will come back to Washington after the election to work with and find common ground with the president.  I wouldn't put any money on it, however.

This won't happen because the Republican Party is no longer a party, properly so called.  It is merely the vehicle for an extremist political movement, one that brooks no compromise and will not cease until its vision of America is imposed.  If you don't believe me, look at a recent article in the Times about conservative groups looking to hunt out "voter fraud."  They claim there are secret buses of illegal voters crawling on the highways of the nation, ready to steal the election from the hands of "real Americans."  These wackos are not content to merely spin tales of phantom buses; they are showing up to polling places as election judges so overbearing and obstructive that many voters simply go home before casting their votes.  What drives these folks on the Tea Party right is the fervent conviction that the president is himself not an American, and that he is some kind of nefarious super villain out to destroy this country.  Nothing he does, from targeted assassinations of terrorists to middle class tax relief, will ever satisfy these people, so complete is their hatred.

The Republicans looked finished after the 2008 election, and they managed to survive, and even thrive, with the growth of the Astro-turfed Tea Party.  It gave the moribund party energy and initiative, but it has also made it necessary for Republican politicians to cater to the needs of the biggest extremists in their coalition.  Any compromise with president Obama will be met with howls of "treason" from the Tea Party, and for that reason, the Republican establishment will do little or nothing in the next administration to increase bipartisanship.  As I have said before, they have struck a devil's bargain which is bad for their own future, but also for civility and rationality in the public discourse that the rest of us must endure.  The Tea Party will still be motivated by their all-consuming hatred of the president, and the part big-wigs in DC will have to go along.  Be prepared for four more years of insanity.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Comments Section: America's Nasty, Disgusting Id

Tonight I was looking at a news story on about a tragic shooting of an 18 year old bodega worker during a robbery here in Newark, and I made the mistake of scrolling down to the comments.  Many people expressed their shock and sympathy for the victim's family, but others used their anonymity to spew bigotry.  Yes, there is some sick, terrible person out there who responded to the comment of "what's the latest murder count in Newark" with "not enough."

That kind of callous hatred is all too typical on comment boards.  It seems like half of the time that I watch a video on YouTube there is some kind of racist bullshit in the comments section.  I've come to the conclusion that comments sections are where our nation's id, in all of its disgusting awfulness, gets aired.  Often, when I talk to white suburbanites here in New Jersey and mention that I live in Newark, people get a look on their face like they just but into a lemon wedge.  Shielded by pseudonyms, these same people are free to go online and say what they really think about the city and its residents, but wouldn't say to my face.

Before the world wide web, this id had to be expressed more carefully, in monochromatic places.  Aside from churches, barbershops might be the most segregated institutions in America, which for me has meant a lifetime of being trapped in a "safe space" for bigots to expound racist garbage.  (At least when I was in Michigan one brave barber told someone to STFU.  When in Texas I went to a ladies hair salon to get my hair cut just to avoid the inevitable.)  At least the internet puts it all out in the open. With so much evidence so readily available, I at least hope we can dispel the fatuous assertion that America is a "post-racial" society, and start to talk more seriously about much raw hate permeates our society.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Quick Hits: The Attacks on American Embassies

There are too many thoughts in my head in regards to the recent attacks and the political fallout in this country.  Hence, here's a few quick thoughts for your consideration.

  • If you ever wondered how Republicans would have reacted to 9/11 if Al Gore had been president, Romney's hair-trigger willingness to attack the president for something he never did gives us a clue.
  • I dunno, but I think killing people and engaging in destructive violence might be a teensy bit worse than some godawful video made by a bunch of nobodies that mocks your religion.  Just sayin'.
  • The president ordered the hit on Bin Laden (who apparently wasn't armed), has been engaging in what amounts to targeted assassinations of terrorists with drones, and has continued America's illegal prison in Guantanamo Bay.  Despite these obvious facts, Mitt wants to paint Obama as "soft" on terror.  Perhaps he should stop debating the guy in the empty chair for a change.
  • The protests and embassy attacks can't merely be explained by the offending video.  As is often the case, frustrations with an unjust society are being channeled towards hatred and paranoia of the other.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Still Punk Rockin'

As I've gotten older my musical tastes have changed, and certain things I once loved I barely tolerate, while others that I once disparaged have become near and dear to my heart. My teenage self would tear his hair out if he knew that his 37 year old incarnation liked ABBA, Steely Dan, and secretly rocked out to Journey.

When I was a teenager I treated music like a religion, and around the time I turned 17 I threw myself into punk rock, the most fundamentalist of all musical denominations. Mainstream acts of the time like Garth Brooks and Ace of Base weren't just lame, they were musical blasphemers and apostates whose false idols needed to be broken into pieces by the righteous. Like most religious fundamentalists I had no problem denigrating the faiths of others, and in fact remember provoking a yelling match with someone on my debate team after I mocked her love of Trisha Yearwood. (And this was a girl that I LIKED! No wonder I couldn't get laid.)

Shunning Top 40 radio, I immersed myself in the work of the Holy Trinity: the Sex Pistols, Ramones, and The Clash. I still remember playing "London's Burning" in my car while driving my sister and one of her teammates to golf practice, with the latter telling me that I listened to "weird music." Of course, that only got me to listen to punk rock all that much more, knowing that it set me apart from the lobotomized clones that walked the halls of my high school. During my junior year I drove out for lunch in my car with the strains of "Holidays in the Sun" blaring out the window of my Mazda Protege and felt like I was a real badass. Perhaps it was also my imitation Doc Martens, bought at Payless Shoes for the princely sum of twenty bucks. (Yes folks, these were the Grunge Years.)

This rebellious music certainly made me self-righteous, but that wasn't all bad. My feelings of superiority to my peers helped me weather the last years of high school: instead of feeling like I was dirt because I didn't have many friends or any dates, I felt like I was just too damn cool and complex for any of them to understand. (This eventually lead to me wearing all black and reading Nietsche in the hallway in my senior year, cultivating a studied aloofness. Again, I shouldn't be surprised by my lack of girlfriends at the time.)  When I went to a scholar's camp one summer at the University of Nebraska, my love of punk immediately won me friends from other podunk towns who were the only ones in their county with a copy of Rocket to Russia.

When I finally got out of my hometown and went to college, I was elated that my roommate Joe was an even bigger punk rock fan than I was. (Considering the heavy frat element on my dorm floor, we both agreed that this was one of those rare lucky breaks.) He was into hardcore and straight-edge, which meant screaming along to Minor Threat in the morning in order to work up the energy to make it to Introduction to World Literature.  We would also jam out to The Minutemen, Descendants, and early Husker Du, constantly trying to introduce each other to something new.

Later in college, once the storms of adolescent emotion had subsided, my musical tastes became more ecumenical. In the past few years I've listened less and less to the old punk rock stuff. This is partially because the genre formerly known as punk rock has become so heavily adulterated by crappy acts like Blink 182 and Avril Lavigne, but mostly because it is hormonal music for tortured adolescents. These days I tend to listen to pensive music for aging bohemians.

Recently, however, while cycling through my iPod I came across some classic punk, and it put its hooks in me again. Living a life that gets more compromised with each passing day, it was refreshing to hear the Boomtown Rats yell out, "I wanna be like ME!", indulge in the darker side of life via the heroin tales of Johnny Thunders' "Chinese Rocks," and bang my head to "One Chord Wonders", the Adverts' defiant anthem of musical ineptitude. In this ever more homogenized culture we live in the songs retain their irresistable bite, as relevant as ever.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Classic Albums: George Harrison, All Things Must Pass

My memories and music consumption are equally sensitive to the change in seasons.  This Sunday, walking with my girls in the park on a beautiful, mild September day, I recalled high school marching band competitions, 9/11, and seeing my first Nebraska football game at Memorial Stadium.  There are certain albums that also have seasonal associations for me, and among the most cherished is George Harrison's magnum opus, All Things Must Pass.  Fall is my favorite season by far, and a time that never fails to lift my spirits even as the leaves fall and the ground hardens.  All Things Must Pass's intense spirituality compliments my feelings during this time of year pretty well.

It is by far the best of all the Beatles solo records, a statement of artistic purpose and unloading of suppressed creativity that is absolutely stunning in its breadth.  While Lennon and McCartney were the principal songwriters in the Beatles, George really developed his chops over time, but was not allowed to get many of his songs on the Fab Four's records.  Considering that All Things Must Pass has at least twice as many great songs as the first solo records by Lennon and McCartney combined, I think George was in the right.  The fact that it's a triple album seems to send a message to his peers about how much he had been forced to hold back.

Harrison throws down the gauntlet on disc one, side one, which if released by itself would have been a major accomplishment.  He starts with the gorgeous "I'd Have You Anytime," which dives into "My Sweet Lord," a fervent prayer masquerading as a pop song.  Like many of the songs on this record, Harrison is not singing to a lover or his audience, but to God in devotional terms as beautiful as any piece composed by Bach.  On the next driving number, "Wah-Wah," the spiritual takes a back-seat as Harrison sings directly about the frustrations he had with the Beatles over a mighty wall of sound courtesy of famed producer Phil Spector.  (Here's an infamous clip of George snipping at Paul during the making of Let It Be to illustrate his irritation.)  He ends the side with "Isn't It a Pity," the call for peace and understanding that Lennon wishes he had written.  ("Imagine" is good but overrated, and glosses over the difficult questions George asks in this song.)

After all that, side two of disc one opens with "What Is Life," a song I love so much that my wife and I had it play as our arrival music at our wedding reception, and one that we still think of as "our song."  Perhaps he's singing to God, perhaps he's singing to Patti Harrison, either way it's a sublime expression of love.  After this string of show stoppers, the rest of the album is more varied but still as strong.  There's lighter stuff like "Apple Scruffs," lovingly dedicated to the Beatles fans who would wait for glimpses of them outside of the Apple offices, as well as "Beware of Darkness," a deeply spiritual, heavy song that I have long used as musical therapy in my own darker moments.  On lesser known songs like this, the too pretty for words "Behind That Locked Door," the moody "Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)" and the positively joyous "Awaiting on You All," Harrison subtly obliterates the notion that the Beatles' greatness was down to McCartney and Lennon alone.

George never matched this album, but he never had to.  His former bandmates may have had many more hit records as solo artists, but none of them painted a masterpiece, and George did.  Isn't that the real goal of a true artist anyway?

Saturday, September 8, 2012


In the division of labor that my wife and I have worked out in re our twin babies, I feed them late at night on the weekends, when I don't have to get up at 5:30 AM, as I do on work days.  I've found that I can feed and burp a baby in about as much time as it takes for one side of a record to play.  For that reason, I will often play an LP during feeding time, usually something that soothes the babies.

For some reason early 1970s folk and folk-inflected music really pleases them.  My girls seem smitten by the likes of Gordon Lightfoot and Jim Croce.  In that spirit, this evening I put Crobsy, Stills, Nash and Young's 1970 disc Deja Vu on the turn-table.  While holding one of my girls against my chest hoping she would burp, the Neil Young-penned "Helpless" came on, and I found myself helpless to hold back a tide of emotion.

Much of this had to do with the fact that this summer (right before the girls came on the scene) I had a chance to see Journeys, the most recent Jonathan Demme-directed documentary about Neil Young.  Much of it involves Young going back to Omemee, his hometown in rural Ontario.  This is the place the songs sings of, a place that Young finds to have changed a lot since his youth.  Having grown up in a country town and then left it for distant lands, I hear this song as a desperate attempt to call back childhood memories rooted in a place you can never truly go back to anymore.  Whenever I visit my family in central Nebraska, I increasingly feel like a stranger in my own home town.

That wasn't the biggest reason the song got to me tonight with my child in my arms.  Holding this piece of new, vibrant life in my hands, I wondered what she would think of her childhood home when she got older, and whether she too would chase the horizon, becoming alien to the world and parents that nurtured her.  If she does, I only hope I can give her the kind of memories strong enough to inspire longing for home.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

My Uneasy Embrace of the Democratic Party

I have been spending a surprising amount of time watching the Democratic National Convention over the last couple of days, and during Bill Clinton's speech last night, I thought about how my identification with the Democratic Party has been a rather recent development.

As a child, I considered myself a Republican because my parents were Republicans, and so I assumed I was one too.  At the age of sixteen I had a political awakening, where I realized that most of the things I believed in were in fact not what the Republican party believed in.  In fact, I learned that my views were actually to the left of the Democrats!  Nevertheless, I put a lot of hope into Bill Clinton back in 1992, and felt betrayed by a president responsible for signing the Defense of Marriage Act, voting to deregulate banks, "reform" welfare, and generally supporting a less rapacious version of Reagan's neo-liberal economic policy.  By the 1996 election, I considered both major parties to be corrupt institutions only looking out for their own interests, and much less different from each other than their partisans claimed.

Consequently, I voted for third party presidential candidates in 1996 and 2000, feeling a moral obligation to cast a vote for the candidate who best represented my views.  (In the first case I lived in Nebraska, in the second Illinois, neither one a swing state.)  While I typically voted for Democrats, I would never have considered myself one, and registered as an independent.

Things changed after the 2000 election.  During that campaign, I scoffed at Al Gore's timidity and unwillingness to take strong liberal stances on the issues, although I developed a strong dislike of George W. Bush, who appeared to me to be, in technical terms, a goddamned moron born with a silver spoon in his mouth.  Once it became obvious how extreme the Republicans had become during the Bush administration, I realized that maintaining my moral purity by sitting on the sidelines and refusing to throw in my lot with the Democrats emboldened conservative radicals to run riot.

Essentially, I chose to be a Democrat out of fear of the alternative, not the strongest reason in the world, but one that has stuck.  The GOP has gone from being a center-right, broad-based party to the front organization for an extremist, ideologically-driven political movement seeking to impose Christianism, Dickensian laissez-faire capitalism, and an essentially racist, homophobic, and misogynistic definition of "America."  As much as I think the Democrats are hapless, weak-willed, compromised by their own corporate corruption, and lacking in vision, the alternative is unthinkable.

I've chortled a few times watching speakers at the DNC making promises they can't keep an wrapping themselves in the flag.  However, I have also nodded, smiled, and shouted a few "hell yeah!"s when folks like Lilly Ledbetter, Deval Patrick, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker have taken the podium.  By contrast, what little I could stomach of the RNC struck me as ridiculous, narrow-minded, and delusional.  Clint Eastwood's performance art piece pretty much summed it up: the Republicans live in an imaginary world of their own making, ruled by a bogeyman president who bears little resemblance to the real person.  I can only hope that more people like myself in the "reality based community" who are still undecided realize that the Republican Party is not a moderate alternative to an incumbent that are disappointed in.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Edge of 37: Things Have Changed

Tomorrow I turn 37 years old.  This age is not traditionally considered a turning point, but I now really feel as if I am no longer an aging young man, but a young middle-aged man.  I am also becoming more aware of just how much I have changed since entering my thirties.

That realization came home last weekend, when I had the joy and good fortune to visit some friends from my grad school days who live in eastern PA.  I'd had a wonderful day, but on the drive home I had a nagging feeling of sadness that could not be explained by the mere fact that I miss my old friends dearly.  No, it was apparent to me that in the six years since I graduated with my PhD from Big Ten University I have become a different person.

Certainly my home life is a lot happier than it used to be, but I am coming to realize that my travails in the world of low-level academia have made me a much more cynical, paranoid, and self-conscious person.  I used to be a very trusting guy, quick to make friends and to open up to them.  Since moving the New Jersey, I haven't made any real friends at all, mostly because I am keeping the people I know at work (who I genuinely like a great deal) at arm's length on purpose.  Down in Texas I was lucky to meet some truly wonderful people that I miss intensely, but also some unscrupulous back-stabbers who abused my confidence and tore me down behind my back.  That experience has made it very difficult for me to confide in anyone except my wife and long-time friends.  (And anonymously with you, my dear readers.)

As much as I love my current workplace, I have entered this school year with a great deal of fear.  This is because whenever something is going well, I automatically expect it to turn to shit.  I thought I was doing well in grad school, but then had to take three tries to find a tenure-track job, which turned out to be a living hell.  I had a book contract, and then my publisher dropped me with a written punch to the scrotum.  My "visiting" gig out of grad school was really a form of peonage.

There's been a kind of hardening of certain callouses on my soul.  When I was a grad student, I had modest ambitions, and thought that I would have a shot at attaining them.  I did not seek to be an academic superstar or to work at a research institution.  I saw myself living in a quiet but interesting college town, working as a historian at a teaching-oriented university where I would have enough time to work on my second book, which would be a many years-long magnum opus in the making good enough to be assigned reading for graduate students in seminars on German history.  Back then I believed in scholarship for the sake of scholarship, but the pressures of the job market soon changed that attitude.  I pushed to publish as much as I could as fast as I could, including an article that I think is pretty meaningless as a scholarly contribution, I am embarrassed to say.  I also taught a couple of courses mostly for how they would look on my CV, not based on my level of interest or expertise.  (A lot of good it did me.)  Thirty-year old me would be disgusted at such naked careerism, and I think thirty-year old me would be justified in that assessment.  Thirty-seven year old me thinks that thirty-year old me was a sucker blind to the dirty realities of how the world really works.  He's right, too.

Despite being a less pleasant and idealistic person, I have a lot to be happy about.  I could never have imagined seven years ago that I would be working in the Big Apple, married to the love of my life and father to two adorable baby girls.  I can only hope that I shed some of my middle-aged bitterness before it calcifies in old age, and that I can shake the disease of perpetual dissatisfaction that seems to infect the academic profession.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Will the NFL Finally Lose Its Teflon Coating?

As a longtime observer of the sporting scene, I've always been a little amazed at how the NFL keeps avoiding permanent damage from major scandals and mistakes, while other sports -especially baseball- get torn apart by the media.  Take steroids, for instance.  In baseball, the PED scandal led to Congressional hearings and many high-profile court cases, and has hurt the chances for the Hall of Fame by untainted players like Jeff Bagwell, due to paranoia about cheating and the feeling that the whole "Steroids Era" ought to be written off.  Said era lasted maybe fifteen years from 1992 onwards.  By contrast, steroids were given out like candy in the NFL all the way back in the 1960shelped the Pittsburgh Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1970s, and most certainly have something to do with the inhuman physiques of many contemporary players, but steroid abuse in pro football is rarely ever discussed.

More recent scandals have hit the press, but not with the same impact as the steroids drama in baseball or the Sandusky case in regards to college football.  For the past few years now there have been repeated stories about ex-NFL stars committing suicide after enduring years of concussions, and in some cases those players requested that their brains be studied after their deaths!  If you ask me, tales of a few outfielders juicing up are a lot less significant than the human casualties of an often sport.  Many retired players saved the horrors of brain damage and dementia find their bodies ravaged by the game, and often without enough money to support themselves.  The team owners in America's most lucrative sport are criminally, cruelly stingy when it comes to compensating the broken men who built up the game back in the day while being paid peanuts.

Along with the growing evidence of the human consequences of the NFL's technocratic violence, this off-season brought us news of the New Orleans Saints' bounty program, which rewarded players for injuring their opponents.  Unlike in hockey, where a specific violent incident or violent team can be used to criticize the sport at large or lead to criminal prosecution, the media has mostly put the spotlight on the Saints, and not on the NFL as a whole.  Perhaps pro football is such a cash cow that the newspapers and networks are afraid to say anything to hurt the sport and jeopardize their own revenue stream.

Beyond these recent scandals, there are plenty of long-term scandals unique to the NFL that never seem to dim its luster as America's most popular and beloved spectator sport.  For starters, it's a well-known fact that pro football owes much of its rise in popularity and massive revenues to illegal gambling.  The evidence is out in the open: the betting lines for pro football are openly discussed in its media coverage, and the sport's arcane injury reports ["probable," "doubtful," "questionable" etc.] were devised to make betting decisions easier for gamblers.  Baseball has worked hard in recent decades to keep teams from moving from city to city, with the exception being an Expos franchise that had lost fan support.  In the the past thirty years in the NFL, owners of storied franchises have either moved their teams despite having famously loyal fans (Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns) or have extorted local governments to build unnecessary stadiums on their behalf by threatening to move (Minnesota Vikings.)  The man who for years sang the theme song for their showcase Monday Night Football game (Hank Williams, Jr), is a vile, hateful bigot.  They have a franchise called The Redskins, for crying out loud, whose original owner was a white supremacist who refused to field black players.

It's not that the NFL is that much worse than other sports when it comes to scandalous, immoral behavior.  Hell, what goes on there is nothing compared to what an average team in the SEC does over the course of a gameday weekend.  However, it's time to question the NFL's nauseating tendency to wrap itself in the American flag and hold itself above other sports, and to start asking some hard questions about a game that chews up too many players' lives and exploits the loyalties of too many fans.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Playlist: The Many Faces of Fleetwood Mac

Over the past few years I've developed a real interest in the music of Fleetwood Mac, which is awfully surprising to me, given that I always saw them as the antithesis of the hard-edged punk rock that I worshiped in my young adulthood.  Yeah, they do have a bit of that annoying odor of rich hippie narcissism about them, but the songs, musicianship, and production on their trio of late seventies records (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, and Tusk) are unimpeachable.  They are also only part of the band's long history, stretching back to its origins in the late-sixties British blues boom.  It's prophetic, then, that the band at that time took it's name from the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, since they are the only members to last through all the various permutations.  Here's a playlist to highlight their evolution, which I hope you enjoy.

"My Heart Beat Like a Hammer"
Fleetwood Mac started out playing Chicago-style blues, and this track shows off the amazing talents of original guitarist and singer Peter Green.  As far as British guitarists of the era go, I will take his exuberance over Eric Clapton's virtuosic mannerly style any time.

"Black Magic Woman"
Santana's version is better known, but this is the bluesier original, and perhaps a prophecy of Stevie Nick's later membership in the band.

"Oh Well"
In the later stages of the Peter Green era, the band shifted out of straight blues into a more hard rock direction.  This song still blows me away with its contrast between the first half's start-stop roller coaster ride and the second-half's melancholy Ennio Morricone vibe.  It displays the vitality of hard rock circa 1969 before it got turned into dunderheaded headbanging mush in the course of the next decade.

"Station Man"
Green left the band before 1970's Kiln House, after which guitarist Jeremy Spencer departed to join a cult (no joke.)  This album was the first with Christine Perfect, later to be Christine McVie.  I know the least about the music from this transitional period, but I do dig this song.

"Sentimental Lady"
Soon Bob Welch joined the band, becoming the dominant songwriting influence in Fleetwood Mac's 1971-1974 period.  (In case you didn't know, he sadly took his life this June.)  He would later have a hit with this track in his solo career, but I must say I like the original best.  It's like a hipper, vibe-ier version of a Seals and Crofts song.

Perhaps the best Welch tune, "Hypnotized" sounds like it got a lot of play at seventies singles bars full of ferns and exposed chest hair.

Fleetwood Mac had gone through a lot of iterations but didn't find permanent success until Californians Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined up in the mid-seventies after Welch's departure.  Thus began the classic lineup we know today, and a huge string of hits.  This is among my favorites on their self-titled record, mostly because John McVie's melodic bass, Stevie Nicks' smokey voice and Christine McVie's electric piano help evoke an epically spooky vibe.

"Monday Morning"
While Nicks brought her witchy ways, Buckingham liked to rave it up a bit.  It's the first track on their 1975 self-titled album, and a kind of declaration of newfound vitality.

"Gold Dust Woman"
The story of how the members of Fleetwood Mac endured painful break-ups with each other while recording Rumours is pretty well known, and the emotional fall-out is easy to hear in the vinyl grooves.  This song is less about the pains of failed romance than the perils of chemical coping mechanisms.  It doesn't get any more late-70s than cocaine references and snaky grooves.

This is the sound of 3AM after a bottle of wine and not being able to escape painful thoughts about your ex lover.

"The Chain"
The emotional devastation is laid out pretty well here, but it's also a showcase for the band's chops.  I never get tired of John McVie's bass introduction to the break at the end.

Fleetwood Mac responded to their runaway success by putting out a meticulously-constructed double LP (Tusk) much beloved today by rock snobs, but less appreciated in its time.  It was much less accessible and much more experimental than their prior two efforts, and pristine copies can be found today in just about every used record store I patronize.  Perhaps since I'm a bit of a rock snob myself, I like Tusk the best.  The title track is evidence of Lindsey Buckingham's white powder-fueled mad genius at the time, containing an implicit dick joke and the USC marching band.

"That's All For Everyone"
There are plenty of poppier tunes like "Sara" on Tusk, but they are interspersed with some punk and New Wave-inflected songs by Buckingham.  This is one I like to play as a kind of lullaby for myself after a long night.

California music studio magic just doesn't get any better than this, or grooves any tighter.

"Little Lies"
Coming of age as I did in the 1980s, I didn't know much about Fleetwood Mac apart from this song, which is the aural equivalent of hair-sprayed bangs, and proof positive that it was all downhill after Tusk.