Friday, November 30, 2012

Choose Life: An Ode to Trainspotting's Opening Monologue

My love of cinema grew into full bloom in the mid-1990s, at a time when I had moved from my isolated hometown to a city with an art house theater and video rental stores that carried foreign films.  One fateful night, near the beginning of my junior year of college, I went with my best friend to see Trainspotting, a film that both of us became instantly and totally obsessed with.  I saw it at least twice in the theater, and dropped lines from the film into conversation at every opportunity.

Beyond its obvious quality as a film, it appealed to my lifestyle at the time, which I guess you could call  "chickenshit bohemian."  I had developed a pretty intense dislike of mainstream American society, but wasn't brave enough to drop out of it, or cool enough to pass as a real, honest to God bohemian.  You could say that I was a nerd with hipster predilections.  Unable to truly rebel, I got off on the works of Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs, vicariously experiencing the drug-addled benders that I'd never have in real life.  I listened to lots of Velvet Underground to boot, blasting "Sister Ray" with abandon.

Needless to say, when Trainspotting began with Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" blaring out of the speakers and Ewan McGregor intoning the classic monologue about "choosing life" I was hooked like the addicts in the film.  By "life" it means conventional consumerist existence unto meaningless death.  This pretty well summed up my feelings about my probable future at the time, and even if I wasn't choosing heroin, I was desperately hoping not to choose the kind of life that main character Mark Renton described.  Of course, his unconventional lifestyle ends up becoming a nightmare, with a dead baby, violence, disease, and overdoses.

That didn't stop me from buying a poster with the words of the "choose life" speech written on it, something I positioned above my bed so that I could see it every day, a reminder of the need to keep my sights on something higher.  Fifteen years later, my bohemian pretensions are mostly memories.  I'm married with two kids, worried about being able to afford a home, and hold the eminently respectable job of high school teacher.  I'm pretty happy too, much happier than I used to be in my faux Henry Miller years.  That said, I'm not beyond popping Trainspotting into the DVD player from time to time, for a vicarious reminder of the edgy person I tried to fool myself into believing I could be.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Classic Albums: New Order, Movement

Up until now the records I've featured in my classic albums series have been major critical successes.  However, there are a few overlooked gems out there that I feel ought to get more recognition, and Movement is one of them.  For example, Allmusic only gives it three and a half stars, the lowest rating for any of the band's 80s and 90s albums.  It's generally thought to be a transitional album.  In case you didn't know, New Order formed out of Joy Division, whose lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980.  At this point the new band was trying to find its way, and it still sounded a lot like Joy Division.

I'd been turned onto Joy Division by friend in my Chicago days, and out of curiosity went out and got a used version of the Substance compilation of New Order singles.  I loved the first tracks (namely "Ceremony," "Temptation," and "Everything's Gone Green") best, and so jumped at the chance when I saw a used copy of Movement at a record store near the Belmont el stop on the Red Line.

I've probably listened to this album more than any other in my collection, in large part because I spent a good chunk of my life using it as a sleep aid.  Unless I am absolutely wiped out, I can't fall asleep in total silence.  The spooky, otherworldly feel of this album make it perfect as a Virgil accompanying me to the icy depths of the sleep world.  I started using it for this purpose during my Michigan days, and hearing the first, descending chords of "Dreams Never End" instantly conjures up memories of my freezing apartment in winter time, where I had to wear flannel pajamas and wrap myself in multiple blankets to stay warm in bed in a complex nightly ritual.  That song is one of the warmest on the record, and it sort of wrapped me in an aural blanket as I lay there curled up, hoping for sleep to take me away. On those cold, dark lonely nights in the midst of Michigan's unforgiving winters, this album had medicinal qualities.

Movement is so much about feel and mood that I don't think I can analyze it song by song, because I've never listened to it with songs in mind.  The album tracks are more moods than fully fledged songs, but in a good way.  "Chosen Time," for instance, floats in a kind of ether, it's staccato guitar lines like morse code from another dimension.  "Truth" sounds like a restless spirit haunting dark corners, perhaps an elegy for Ian Curtis.  Speaking of, songs don't get much spookier than "The Him," which is more obviously about Curtis' death.  The drum rhythms are an inverted funeral march, the guitar a feedback-laden ghost, both surging forward at uncanny moments.  My favorite song might be "Doubts Even Here," whose erie start, building up from almost total silence, makes me picture total desolation.  It's the sound of survivors emerging from a bomb shelter into an obliterated street.  Not many albums can create that feeling, and get their listeners to keep going back to it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Vintage TV Commercials Nostalgia

There's nothing that makes me able to touch the past more than seeing TV commercials from my youth.  Since I see shows from growing up in syndication, they are not quite so uncanny and tied to the past.  Here are a few that mean something to me.

I had a really rotten day at work today, just wretched all around.  When I left school, the first thing I thought was "Calgon, take me away!"  Little did I know between the work, commute, babies, and dog, I'd be living the life of an early 1980s career woman with a family.

I had cheap parents growing up, which meant I never got what I wanted for Christmas, and usually had to settle for something lower on the list.  I would spend hours staring at the pictures of toys in the Sears catalog that I wanted, and imagined what it would be like to play with them.  The one I wanted the most, of course, was the imperial AT-AT walker from Empire Strikes Back, although the micro Hoth set was a close second.

Beer commercials always fascinated me, since they seemed to offer a peek into an illicit adult world.  I was especially interested in the ads for old Milwaukee, which showed manly men doing manly things outdoors, only to end their days by a roaring bonfire drinking an Old Mil and intoning, "it just doesn't get any better than this."  Once I was of age to drink, I quickly learned that it very easily gets better than Old Swill, even if the commercials still amuse me.

Last but not least, Energizer didn't always have a bunny to sell their wares.  Y'see, back in the 1980s, Americans couldn't get enough of Australia, whether it be the dewey eyes of Olivia Newton-John, the dulcet tones of Air Supply, the big rock sound of INXS, Mad Max going beyond the thunderdome, or multiple Crocodile Dundee flicks.  To cash in on this rage for the antipodes, Energizer hired Jacko, a muscle-bound, bleach blonde Aussie with a kind of maniacal devotion to Energizer batteries.  Because of my 80s childhood, I still long to take a trip down under.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Classic Albums: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, This Year's Model

Sometimes thanks to the fates or the unknowable vicissitudes of the universe, I get turned onto the exact right music at the exact right time in my life.  I was lucky enough to experience such a moment of grace at the end of senior year of high school, when I picked up my first Elvis Costello album, This Year's Model.  At that age I was an awkward romantic obsessed with women but too socially maladjusted to do much about it except blow multiple dating opportunities with cute girls due to my inability to woo them properly.  (Evidently not talking to someone because you're too afraid to say the wrong thing might make her think you're not interested.  Who knew?)

I was a young man in need of a different kind of love song, a love song steeped in frustration and bitterness, and Elvis Costello gave me plenty of those songs.  (I actually lived out an incident of the kind described in "I'm Not Angry" where my love interest "went upstairs with the boyfriend while I'm left here to listen.")  Costello just seemed like he understood me, from the nerdy classes to his nervy voice.

This Year's Model's sound struck me then, and it still does.  Bruce Thomas' bass is full and up front, Pete Thomas' drums hard hitting, and Steve Nieve's organ, not Costello's guitar, usually carries the melody.  The organ and bass dominated sound, split between the high and low end, gives musical embodiment to the emotional tensions of the lyrics and Costello's voice.  The first track, "No Action," makes it apparent from the beginning that for all its lyrical acrobatics, this record is going to rock hard.  (In fact, I was a little disappointed initially when I started listening to Costello's later output, since it is much less hard edged.)  The tempo is jacked into fifth gear right from the start, and the key lyric "Every time I phone you I just want to put you down" makes it pretty clear that the listener can't expect love songs with happy endings.

"This Year's Model" and "The Beat" shift back into mid tempo, but positively drip with menace and romantic frustration.  Perhaps to break the tension, the next track is "Pump It Up," the best known track on the album and probably the catchiest, anchored by a killer Nieve organ riff.  Once you delve beneath the rave up on the surface, however, the lyrics are a desperate cry of sexual frustration.

From there, side one closes out with "Little Triggers" and "You Belong To Me," which are strongly reminiscent of sixties pop.  "Little Triggers" could pass for a doo-wop homage, and "You Belong to Me" sounds like a much more conventional love song, complete with a catchy hook.

Not to worry, since side two opens with "Hand in Hand," which turns the old love-song forms on their heads.  The romantic title has a sinister intent, when Elvis croons "If I go dooooooowwwn/ You're gonna come with me/ Hand in hand" with musical backing worthy of a Brill Building pop number as performed by the Electric Prunes.  It's a great set up for "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea"'s herky-jerky rhythms and snake and ladder organ lines.

With the mood building, This Year's Model shows why our shuffle playlist rather than album oriented listening habits have hurt us.  Just when you think that things can't get any better, the bright acoustic guitar lead of "Lip Service" cuts through the speakers, a ray of sunshine amidst the claustrophobic sound of the other tracks.  Or so you think, until Costello starts singing with a voice that's grainy and snarly even by his standards.  When he gets to the chorus and accuses everyone of "just going through the motions," my 18-year old non-comformist self felt like he had met his artistic life mentor.

I felt the same thing on "Living in Paradise," when I head the line "the thrill is here but it won't last long/ better have your fun before it moves along/ and you're already looking for/ another fool like me" and on the driving "Lipstick Vogue" with "sometimes love is like a tumor/ you have to cut it out."  Those words seemed to sum up my major frustration of the time, in that I felt such passionate emotions for other people but I had no way of converting those almost torturous feelings into anything real.

With things brought up to such a fever pitch at the end of the record, Costello breaks from emotional matters to politics with "Night Rally," a song aimed at the rise of neo-fascist groups like the National Front in the late 1970s.  It's a sort of anti-anthem, slowly building up to one of Costello's best vocal performances.  When he hits the verse that starts "Oh I know I'm ungrateful" with such passionate fervor, it gets me every time.  Perhaps he included that song last to remind his listeners that there are more important things in that world than our own emotional turmoils, a message I would not have accepted at age 18, but will fully acknowledge now.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Bring Back the Big 8: A Conference Re-Alignment Lament

As I have mentioned here before, growing up in Nebraska meant worshipping at the altar of Cornhusker football.  Back in those days (the 1980s and early 1990s) this meant playing in the Big 8 conference, which was mostly a matter of Nebraska, Oklahoma, and everybody else, until the rise of Colorado under Bill McCartney.  The regular season culminated in the day after Thanksgiving, when Nebraska played Oklahoma, the game that usually decided the Big 8 championship, and which left every downtown street and shopping mall in the state empty.  The winner of the Big 8 had the great honor of going to the Orange Bowl in Miami, which meant fans tossing oranges on the field when the game was in hand.

Back in those days college football conferences were based on regional geography, and carried with them regional character.  The Big 8 was the conference of what I call the "Deep Midwest," and reflected that region's (almost overbearing) humility and conservatism (in that the Nebraska-Oklahoma hegemony lasted so long.)  The old Southwest Conference was made up of almost all Texas schools (except Arkansas,) the SEC was a crucial component of Southern identity, and the ur-Midwestern Big Ten did not stretch west of Iowa City or east of Ann Arbor.

That started to change in 1990, when Penn State joined the Big Ten (which still kept the old name, despite having eleven teams) and Arkansas jumped to the SEC.  The latter move undermined the SWC, leading to its dissolution and the formation of the Big XII, which was the Big 8 with four Texas teams tacked on.  That move, which effectively killed the once great Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry by putting the teams into two different divisions, seems quaint today.  Now Rutgers and Maryland, well outside of the Midwest, have joined Nebraska as refugees to the Big Ten.  It might be cool for me to go down the road to New Brunswick and see the Huskers take on Rutgers in person, but that doesn't alter the fact that these changes are driven by nothing more than greed.

College sports have always been corrupt, of course.  We have already seen the bowl system made meaningless by a ridiculous number of games and an accompanying low bar for qualification.  Athletic departments continue to be awash in cash as academic departments and tenure-track positions are being mercilessly cut.  However, one true thing college sports could offer was a sense of belonging, both to a particular team, but also to a region, something that the conferences reinforced.  Having lived now in several different regions of the country, I am more aware than ever of the wondrous diversity of this nation's regions, and fear their increasing homogenization into one vast highway shopping strip anchored by Wal-Mart and McDonald's.

College football, like our nation as a whole, is being reduced to the lowest common denominator: the dollar sign.  Mitt Romney may have lost the election, but his capital management mentality still drives those who really run the country.  On this Black Friday I wear a black armband for the Big 8, another casualty of capitalism run amok.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Memories

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday, mostly because it is so dang simple: get together with family and friends and enjoy a big meal.  I have had a lot of memorable Thanksgivings over the years, including the one last year where my wife and I spent three days preparing a meal so scrumptious that we and her family finished it off in about ten ravenous minutes, the Thanksgivings where I hosted my parents in East Texas where we had a delicious smoked turkey from one of the local down home food places, and the Thanksgiving I spent in London visiting the ringmaster of the WCFC blog, where we brought Thanksgiving to Europeans ignorant of its glories.

Holidays are really about memory, when you get down to it.  (This is one of the arguments I make in my now discarded book manuscript based on my dissertation.)  We like to replicate the same rituals year after year because they give us comfort and remind us of the past.  The turkey and stuffing are less about their worth as foods, and more about our need to recreate the comforting visions of times and people long gone.  Nothing conjures memory like smells and tastes, hence Proust's madeleine and the ecstasy I feel when I take a bite of canned cranberry sauce.  The homemade stuff might be better in theory, but it doesn't have magic properties.

When we repeat the rituals so many times, memories of specific Thanksgivings begin to blur into each other.  For that reason, I have a hard time recalling specific Thanksgivings from my childhood, even if the memories are quite intense.   Through most of my childhood and youth, Thanksgiving meant driving eighty miles west to my uncle D and aunt P's house in a railroad and meatpacking town of about 8,000 people where Nebraska fades from the Midwest into the West.  My family usually left home at about 10:30 in our 1984 Chevy conversion van, driving across Nebraska's beautifully barren post-harvest landscape.  Stubbled fields, shelterbelts of trees, and prairie grasses in subtle hues of brown stretched from horizon to horizon.  Many times snow lay on the ground, since winter often comes early on the plains.

My uncle Du was and is a Lutheran pastor, which meant access to the bumper pool table in the church rec room, and, on those Thanksgivings when the weather was nicer, the outdoor basketball court.  My cousin M, who is now a pastor himself, was close to me both in age and interests, so we usually had a lot of fun together.  I had two sisters, and he had four, so it made our bonding that much more natural.  When it was too cold outside to shoot hoops, we would play games on his parent's Tandy computer, including a simple yet engrossing program called Sopwith which M never could understand why I liked so much.  Being an antisocial child I was happy to have a refuge from the crowd.

The parsonage itself was an old two-floor house without a basement (a rarity in Nebraska).  It strained to hold my mother's family, since she had four brothers and sisters, they all had kids, and we all lived within driving distance of each other.  When it was time to eat, the adults sat at the long dining room table, while we kids sat at card tables in the TV room.  Once I reached my later teens and was allowed to sit at the adult table, I felt like I had finally grown up.

The big meal was usually served around noon, consisting of a turkey, a ham (which I preferred), mashed potatoes, and innumerable dishes called "casseroles" in the local dialectic.  For those who don't know, a Midwestern casserole is typically a dish of unnatural color and mysterious origins whose ingredients cannot always be discerned by sight and smell.  Putting these on one's plate was an act of gastronomical Russian roulette, but over the years I learned which ones were safe, and which weren't.  On the latter count, there was one dish made by my aunt K that her daughter swore contained baby food.  Like most Nebraska foods, the flavors do not come from spices, but from fat, cheese, and sugar.

This big meal was merely a prelude, however, to the real meal: dessert.  Before she lost her eyesight a few years ago, my grandmother was a fantastic baker, specializing in pies.  She often brought three different kids of pie (cherry, pumpkin, and pecan) made with her own homemade crust.  I always tried to save room for at least two pieces.  My mother, who relies on prepared food so much that she doesn't own a cutting board, was also a baking enthusiast, and she always brought a deliciously decadent dessert that my family still doesn't have a name for.  It consists of peanut butter sandwiched by ritz crackers covered in almond bark with sprinkles on top.  These treats alone were probably responsible for my childhood cavities.

Of course, like all family gatherings, Thanksgiving had its share of pitfalls.  My uncle is a very conservative Luther minister, and my father a devout Catholic who spent years in the seminary studying to be a priest before eventually dropping out.  The Reformation was alive and well in my family, and it was fought out in the living room.  Uncle De, my favorite, was the lone Democrat in the family, and was never afraid of pushing other people's buttons.  He's also a gambler, and so would spend a lot of time discussing the betting lines on the day's football games, something my dad and uncle D didn't exactly approve of.  My uncle Da, who I never liked (not least for his atrocious racism), got married to my aunt C, who has been fighting a low-grade war of passive aggression with my mother for almost three decades now.  I have spent hours with Da and C in the last thirty years, but have maybe had about twenty minutes of actual conversation with them in that time.

Luckily, I didn't need to.  Since uncle De had a lot of money riding on his football bets, I could always watch the day's games with him on the television.  If I wasn't shooting hoops, playing bumper pool, or another game of Sopwith, I'd join some of my family members in card games.  My grandfather loved hearts the best, but most everyone else preferred pitch.  Like a lot of card games, it's pretty regional, and probably most similar to euchre or spades.  It's a four-handed game with two teams of two, and we took it pretty damn seriously.  The only time my gentle grandmother ever acted mean to me in my whole life was when I was her pitch partner, and I overbid on a hand, causing us to lose.  It seems like a lot of the buried resentments and jealousies inherent to any family got sublimated into our cut-throat card games.

The day's festivities usually went on until about six, when the leftovers from the big feast would be reheated.  Often I tried to refuse, on account of snacking all afternoon on my mom's treats, but eventually gave in after my aunts lamented that food would be wasted.  Once the leftovers had been consumed and everything cleaned up, we all started trickling out the door.  My family usually left about 9, like clockwork every year.  We drove back in the cold dark night of Nebraska in the early winter, the semi trucks passing us on I-80 with a faded whine like ghosts in the darkness.  So many times I fell asleep before we got back, exhausted from a long day, my body in recovery mode after a sugar and carb bombardment.  There was nothing quite like that moment when my dad would shake me awake, the cold night air hitting me in the face through the open door, seeing our house and knowing a warm bed awaited me.  That short moment was full of contentment and security of the kind that I doubt I will ever feel again, and which I can only hope to conjure up again in the yearly repetition of the familiar Thanksgiving rituals.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cranky Bear Tells Red State Moochers to Shut Up

[Editor's note:  From time to time, when I am tired and need a break, I post one of the many missives I receive on an almost daily basis from my friend Cranky Bear.  I have been putting them aside recently, and after many entreaties from him, I've decided to give Cranky the reins for a day.]

Hello folks, Cranky Bear here with a coffee and a cannoli made in one of the Garden State's many fine bakeries.  It's only appropriate to take pride in my urban New Jersey home, since I write to you today of the obnoxious entitlement and mooching exhibited by rustic Red Staters.  They take much more than they give to the federal government, and then turn around and attack the people and regions who pay their bills.  For a pretty egregious example thereof, check out today's New York Times, where several Wyoming residents complain that president Obama won reelection by bribing the votes of racial minorities and white youth with government dollars.  Evidently, according to these self-styled hardy individuals cut from the free soil of the wild West, the moochers and the takers are leading the country to ruin.

To which I call "bullshit!" with my loudest Jersey snarl, the one I reserve for the dopes who carry on loud cell phone conversations in the designated quiet train cars on New Jersey Transit.  Wyoming gets more grant money per capita THAN ANY OTHER STATE IN THE COUNTRY!  Here in New Jersey, we only get back about sixty cents for every dollar we contribute to the federal government, the lowest percentage in the entire country.  Wyoming gets back $1.11, a net gain, yet they're the ones bitching about "takers."  Notice too that some of the leading net receivers of federal money are such "government tyranny" hating states like Mississippi, Alabama, Alaska, and Kentucky.  And yet we have to hear secessionist fucktards in these states bitch and moan night and day about the supposedly bad deal they get under the current system.

Please please please just shut the fuck up before you embarrass yourselves any further.  Either do that or give New Jersey its money back before opening your grits holes.  You might have heard that we had a pretty bad storm here in these parts, and need some money to help repair things.  Representatives from your states have taken enough time to get their mouths off of the federal government's teat to threaten to hold funding up unless they get some concessions.  Fuck that.  When we ask for the money, it's only giving back what we already gave you fuckers.

Yet we're not the ones bitching.  Why?  Because we believe that we are members of a larger society, which you don't buy into.  You think that it's everyone for themselves, that any government redistribution of wealth is "socialism."  Fine, then.  Put your (meager) money where your big fat mouth is, and enjoy life without all those government subsidies.  Or maybe you can just stop your stupid bitching for a change.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Classic Music Video of the Week: Pet Shop Boys, "West End Girls"

For a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s in an isolated town on the windswept plains of central Nebraska, MTV was a vital conduit to a wider and more interesting world.  Back in those prehistoric days before the internet, it was pretty damn hard to get ahold of stuff outside of the mainstream; I had to rely on whatever was on TV, magazine rack or in the video store.  Those of us who took the time to dig deeper beyond the crimp-haired monstrosity that was American popular culture from roughly 1986 to 1991were part of a secret fraternity.  In '93 I went to a week-long statewide scholars summer camp at the University of Nebraska, and I instantly made quick friends with three other kids based on our mutual interest in punk rock, The Smiths, and Jimi Hendrix.

MTV was crucial, since shows like Yo MTV Raps! and 120 Minutes played music that the local Top 40 station never would have touched with a ten meter cattle prod.  So while other kids in my school were listening to Vanilla Ice and Bon Jovi, I was a huge fan of Teenage Fanclub and Eric B and Rakim.  That process started sometime around my transition to high school in 1990, but before that point slightly edgy stuff that hit the mainstream began to broaden my horizons.

"West End Girls" is a good example of this.  It was a hit and MTV spun the video, but it did not march in step with the era's hairspray and pastel vibe.  The band is not jumping on a stage with fireworks blasting in the background, or conjuring a magic red car.  They simply wander around London in overcoats, and do so in rather mundane locations.  It's a cool, detached song made by its mood rather than its melody.  I had no clue at the time what the "West End" was, or that singer Neil Tennant was gay.  I just thought the song sounded cool as cool could be, and the images of London intrigued me, from the iconic symbols of double decker buses to the Tower Bridge.  It was an alien and intriguing world, and it was right in my living room.  For all the justified criticism MTV received at the time for its rank shallowness and frivolousness, I am sure there were plenty of misfits like me who found a cherished lifeline to a better world.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The New Republican Strategy: Pretend the Election Never Happened

Back in 2009, conservatives made their political goals pretty obvious: do anything in their power to make the Obama administration fail and thus limit it to one term.  This was not some kind of secret conspiracy, everyone from Mitch McConnell on down to Rush Limbaugh said it out loud straight into the microphone.  After four years of unprecedented filibusters, Tea Party histrionics, and wild accusations that the president is a foreign-born imposter hell-bent on destroying America's very essence, the American public rejected this irresponsible gambit at the polls.

If you've been paying attention to the political news since last Tuesday, you might think that Republicans are unaware that we just had an election where the president was re-elected, and Republicans lost seats in both houses of Congresses.  Not only that, their Tea Party Senate candidates in Indiana and Missouri -states Romney won- went down in defeat, and the GOP maintained the House largely because of gerrymandering.  By any rational measure, the Republican party and the ideas it stands for were clearly repudiated.

Despite these facts, John McCain continues to rant about Benghazi in a conspiratorial fashion that voters just don't buy.  Worse still, he is doing so in a blatant attempt to smear Susan Rice, one of the likely replacements for Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State.  (His insulting remarks about her "not being too bright" are rather reminiscent of John Sununu's infamous denunciation of our law professor president's intellect.)  These shenanigans are an obvious shot across the bow to the president, sending the message that even though he just won re-election, Republicans will continue to obstruct and libel just as they did before.

I've also been puzzled and irritated by the fact that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are still in the news.  One of the best things about Obama winning was that I thought I could be sure not to have to hear Mitt Romney's smirky, asshole boss voice over my radio ever again, and that his dead-eyed granny killer sidekick would take a low profile for the time being.  Instead, I am hearing all about Romney's self-serving narrative about why he lost the election, which boils down to "Obama did a dirty deal by giving away freebies to those lazy black and brown people, and by enabling slatternly young women to engage in immorality."  This makers vs. takers bullshit heavily tinged with racial animus and misogyny is the same kind of garbage the right subjected us to for the past election year.  I can't recall a time when a defeated presidential candidate was this far out into the public eye and making such flagrantly divisive statements so soon after an election.  He's almost acting as if the campaign is still going, and the election that he lost wasn't real or legitimate.

I guess the right's willingness to forget the election ever happened is consistent with their behavior before the election and on election night itself, when Republicans refused to believe the poll numbers were true and Karl Rove had his famous meltdown on live television.  Both Mitch McConnell and John Boehner wouldn't get out of bed to talk to the president when he called their homes that night, a childish act of denial.  Conservatives think they are the "real America," and thus it is simply impossible and against the laws of the universe that they would not be commanding it.  If a liberal black Democrat is in charge, no matter if he beat them twice, it is an unacceptable state of affairs.  A poll out today shows that a majority of Republicans do not think that the party ought to cooperate with the president, despite the oncoming "fiscal cliff" and the fact that their party has just lost an election.

I had hope that this election would be a wake-up call, especially after Chris Christie's willingness to put his animus against the president aside and act like an adult for once.  It seems that my hopes were misplaced, and that the GOP will remain the ideologically extreme death cult that it has become in recent years.  I can only shudder to think about the implications of this on our country's need to solve some pressing problems.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What If: Texas Actually Seceded?

[Editor's Note: During my time in Texas, I was preplexed that such an interesting state of made up of a mix of diverse cultures and regions also sustained such a wide streak of parochial, Bible-thumping authoritarian politics. As most of y'all must know, Governor Rick "Goodhair" Perry made a career out of attacking the federal government, and has even made noise about possible secession. Now it seems that there is a petition with tens of thousands of signatures calling for secession.  In the highly unlikely event that Texas would in fact secede, I anticipate that the troops stationed at Fort Hood would very quickly march on Austin, declare marital law, and take the secessionist nimrods into custody. Still, I write these what ifs to examine how the improbable offers a persepective on our reality, so enjoy.]

Texas Secession: Ten Years On

November 14, 2023

AP) Today marks the tenth anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Texas, which took place in 2013 after Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term and did not accept Texas' ultinatum-backed demand that he step aside. This week happens to mark more than an anniversary for the fledgling state; on Sunday Sally Davis of Tyler became the three millionth Texan to flee across the Red River into the United States since independence.

That massive outflux of citizens well reflects the economic problems that have bedeviled Texas in the last decade. Before secession, Texas did a very poor job of educating its populace, possessing the lowest percentage of adults with high school diplomas of any state in America, while supporting a small number of research universities for a state with its large population. During those years, Texas made up for this neglect by drawing in educated people from other states who now do not want to live in a foreign nation. Texas' oil economy has also taken a hit because without many of its strongest boosters in Congress energy reform has passed and renewable sources of energy have allowed the American government to place a ban on the purchase of foreign oil. After eliminating the minimum wage and prohibiting labor unions as impositions on "economic freedom," the poor and working class of Texas went from living in a bad situation to an impossible one.

Other laws have also been blamed for economic problems. After Texas Rangers "secured the border" by shooting several would be immigrants and the state deported all those born outside of the old 50 states, whether they had emigrated to American legally or not, several sectors of the economy have been severely harmed, especially agriculture and construction. On a more private level, many Texans now grumble about having to brave the country's infamous summer heat and mow their own lawns. Austin, once famous both for its vibrant music scene and high tech economy, now looks like a ghost town. Musicians and other artists fled to America and greater artistic freedom, and the high tech economy could not function with many of its workers deported while others, who mostly did not hail from Texas, feared permanent separation from their families.

In fact, a large number of those who had once moved to Texas for greater opportunity are now fleeing. They tend to be better educated and more economically valuable than the average native born Texan, and their loss has led to much discussion of a "brain drain" in the Republic. That crisis has been worsened by the new policies towards the universities formulated by a panel dominated by Christian conservatives. Once history professors were told that they had to teach students that American was a "Christian nation" and the separation of church was a "myth," and biology professors were forced to "teach the controversy" over evolution, many academics decided to pick up and leave. Those who remain live under the constant fear of losing their jobs if a student reports any deviation from the state-mandated standards. One history professor, James McCann, was recently fired by Texas Northern University after he taught the Constitution without any reference to Thomas Aquinas or John Calvin.

Those Texans who have stayed now face several mounting problems. Since the Republic repealed all environmental legislation, drinking water has become dangerously unpalatable in many localities and the numbers of birth defects have risen steeply. After the Republic repealed all property taxes state services, including education, have been horribly underfunded, with some schools operating only five months out of the year. Under the advice of Secretary of the Treasury Ron Paul, Texas pegged its money to the gold standard, which has resulted in a stagnant, cash starved economy. The Republic has also come close to war with the United States over claims related to Texas' 1836 borders.

Many Texans I talked to expressed the desire to emigrate, but others defiantly supported secession and President Perry. As Bobby Cummings of Longview told me, "We managed to run those eggheaded liberals out, and now I can carry my concealed handgun anywhere, including into the state capitol building. I call that a win-win."

Texas' secession has also had a profound effect on the United States. Since America has reduced its dependence on oil, the economic costs of losing Texas have actually been rather meager. With a large number of the most conservative voices in Congress absent, and a large chunk of reliably Republican electoral votes neutralized, the Democratic party has dominated national politics. Since secession meaningful financial and energy reform has been passed that might have been impossible beforehand. Subtler changes have occured as well. Without Texas' disproportiante influence over their content, history and biology textbooks now reflect much better the scholarly consensus in their respective fields.

For these reasons, former president Barack Obama's decision to let Texas go without a fight now appears to have paid off. At the time he faced little opposition from the now weakened Republicans, who adamantly defended "states rights," to their immense detriment. Much to the surprise of most observers, there is almost zero popular support within the United States for an effort to reintegrate Texas into the Union. Now it appears that the secessionists should have heeded the old adage about being careful for what they wished for.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Fun With County-By-County Election Results

Much of my time this week has been sucked up by looking at the election results map, especially at the county-by-county numbers.  Back when I first started blogging out of despair after the 2004 election, I wrote about how the whole "red state-blue state" analysis was wrong, since what mattered were regions, not states, in regards to voting.  I hope that I can do my little bit to get the media to stop talking about a "red-blue" divide on the state level, and see it linked to particular regions and even micro-regions, whose political affiliations have a long history behind them.

Take Mississippi, for instance.  We think of it as the reddest of red states, but look at the results, and you will see a lot of deep blue counties in the Delta.  Some of these counties went over 80% for Obama!  You'd be hard-pressed to find numbers like that anywhere else, including in the "blue states."  Of course, those numbers in the Delta reflect the fact that its population is largely African American.  Conversely, the solidly blue state of Michigan is mostly light red outside of the Detroit-Flint-Ann Arbor triangle.

You can see similar things in that red state powerhouse, Texas.  The urban counties that hold Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin all went for Obama, as did the heavily Latino counties on the Rio Grande.  Rural Texas is redder than Bill O'Reilly's face on election night, but holding onto aging regions losing population is not a winning proposition.  The reddest of red regions are the rural Great Plains and Appalachia, which aren't exactly booming these days.

There are also rural regions that are blue, contrary to popular stereotype.  In the Midwest there is a blue zone that stretches across eastern Iowa, western Illinois, and southwestern Wisconsin.  The old southern cotton belt with its significant black population is blue, too.  On the other side, the Republicans certainly aren't appealing to urban voters at all.  Right here in Essex County the president got over 77% of the vote despite the presence of some more affluent suburbs.

Looking at this map, it looks like the Republicans can take either two paths.  The can concentrate on winning the suburbs (the swing vote, essentially), or perhaps make a play for the cities.  With a decent chunk of urban voters switching their votes, states like Wisconsin could go over to the GOP next time around, even if the cities are still majority blue.  Such a strategy, however, would force Republicans to drastically retool themselves, and I don't see that happening.

As a resident of a city, this map does worry me a little.  With so many votes for Democrats located in cities and so few for Republicans, the times when the GOP holds power are disastrous to urban residents.  That party is playing a take no prisoners game where they reward their benefactors and punish their enemies.  As long as one of the major parties sees urban America as its antagonist, city residents will continue to suffer relative privation.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Video Arcade Memories

Today I saw the film Wreck-It Ralph, and got a flood of memories from the time when my shadow haunted the doorways of video arcades.

All teenagers hide things from their parents, whether it be their sexual proclivities or drug and alcohol use.  Being a straight-arrow in my teens, the one vice I kept from my parents was my love of the video arcade.  At the local mall in my small-town hometown, there was an arcade called The Fun Factory, and it was made plain from a very young age that I was not to go there.  My mother especially decried arcade games as a colossal waste of money, and arcade denizens to be slackers and hoods.  With its dark interior contrasting with the ultrabrightness of the rest of the mall, The Fun Factory did indeed take on a mysterious and slightly sinister aspect when I was a little boy.  I walked past it innumerable times, hearing the bleats and burps of the machines like an illicit siren call, one that eventually drew me in.

Despite being banned from the Fun Factory, I got to play arcade games from time to time, mostly since my father liked to indulge us kids when he was in a good mood.  We rarely ate out, but did so most often at a pizza place with three machines in the corner, consisting of Ms. Pac Man and a rotating cast of less than stellar games.  Usually, as we were finishing our meal, my dad would give a couple of quarters each to my sisters and I.  I rarely got money from my dad that wasn't earned shoveling snow or mowing the lawn, so I treasured this little pleasure.  I also got to play video games at innumerable Holiday Inns on family vacation, where my parents didn't seem to mind if I spent a couple of dollars in quarters on games.  I have very vivid memories of the smell of Holidome pool chlorine wafting into an arcade where I gleefully fired Operation Wolf's fake uzi.

I don't recall exactly when I started going into The Fun Factory against my parents' wishes, other than I started doing it in high school.  By that point I had my own money that I'd earned from my summer job detasseling in the hot Nebraska sun, so I didn't need to worry about finding dough for my own quarters.    I spent a lot of time at the mall as it was, partly because there was nowhere else for a teenager in my town to go, and partly because the mall was right by my house and hence I could just walk there whenever I felt like it.  I finally had the independence I needed to go to the forbidden arcade, and for much of my high school years I spent a good chunk of my time there playing games like Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, and NBA Jam.  (Those were probably my three favorites.)  Today a little bit of my father's parsimony has crept into my soul, so it does pain me a bit that I was dropping $1.25 in 1993 money to play a single game of NBA Jam.  Every now and then I would play some of the slightly older games since they were cheaper, with Arch-Rivals and Bad Dudes being particular favorites.  On that score, best friend loved playing Rampart, which ought to get some credit for being a pre-Golden Tee game that made good use of the track ball.

Video game arcades are going the way of travel agencies and record stores these days, which is a real shame.  The arcade was great as a social experience; half the fun was watching someone else try to best a high score, or two people going at each other in Street Fighter.  Gamers would chat about what new machines were best, which sucked, and offered tips on how to defeat difficult levels or to perform a fatality when playing Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat.  Much the same occurs online today, but the anonymity of the internet world often just brings out the worst in everyone.  Back in the early 1990s video gamers looked forward to "virtual reality" gaming, little did they know that reality itself would become increasingly virtual and disattached from physical human interaction.  The web is all well and good, but I would be ecstatic if I could go back in time for an hour and hang out in The Fun Factory, with the very real sounds of Ryu in Street Fighter keying up as he launches an energy ball, the clacking of joysticks, and cocky boasts of the NBA Jam gamer who knows all the cheat codes.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lessons Learned from the 2012 Election

There are a lot post-mortems our there concerning the 2012 election, some smart, and some rather shallow and chained to the usual conventional wisdom.  I think we need to be careful about reading too much into this election, for a couple of reasons.  First, we ended where we started: Democrats controlling the Senate, Republicans with the House, and Barack Obama in the White House.  Second, a lot of what happened merely validated what we already knew.  Here are the lessons I did think we learned, or at least re-confirmed.

Asymmetrical Warfare Can Beat Carpet Bombing
The unleashing of super PAC money in the wake of the Citizens United decision was supposed to give the Republicans a huge advantage.  However, the megamillions donated by the likes of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers didn't buy the election.  The GOP tried to win by carpet bombing with their political B-57s, while the Obama campaign maintained a stellar ground game and get out the vote effort.  This type of political guerrilla warfare is hard to wipe out with television advertisements.

Weak Candidates Don't Unseat Sitting Presidents
Here's where we had something we already knew confirmed for us pretty obviously.  It's hard to unseat an incumbent president, even one presiding over a struggling economy.  Doing so requires an inspiring candidate, and inspiring is about the last word anyone would use for Mitt Romney.  He'll go down in history as yet another weak challenger unable to defeat the champ, along with Walter Mondale, Thomas Dewey, Wendall Wilkie, Alf Landon, John Kerry, and Bob Dole.

This Election is Not a Broad Mandate
While the president's performance looks rather impressive on the electoral college map, he barely won the popular vote.  Some of the pundits are talking about this election as some kind of sea change, but I don't see it.  There is still a very large percentage of people out there opposed to the president, the Republicans are aware of that fact, and most likely not budge an inch in their obstinacy.

The GOP Played the Tea Party Hand One Too Many Times, But the Tea Party Will Still be Around
It's amazing to me that two years ago, when the Republicans swept back into Congress, everyone was talking about the power of the Tea Party, but suddenly this year we're hearing that the Tea Party is a liability and that the GOP can't survive if it is to be the party of angry white people.  Did some kind of major transformation in the electorate occur in just the last two years?  No, obviously.  Using the Tea Party fury got their base to the polls in 2010, an off-year election when turnout is key.  In a presidential election the number of voters is too much for a mobilized faction like the Tea Party to overcome.  In fact, with more moderates going to the polls, extremists like Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin get smacked down.  In 2014 we won't hear much about the Republicans compromising and reaching out to people of color because whipping up the conservative base will continue to pay dividends in midterm elections.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Has Political Punditry Just Had Its Moneyball Moment?

One of the most frustrating things about watching the election returns last night was the seemingly never-ending parade of pundits and flacks constantly speculating about the meaning of the results and exit polling with a stunning amount of pure, unfounded conjecture.  These gasbags were winding up a full year of ridiculous assertions and asinine predictions with the mother of all bullshit storms.  Meanwhile, statistician Nate Silver managed to predict the outcome of all fifty states, and had completely refrained from the kind of breathless hype of the pundit class, who seemed to think that the race was a lot closer than it was.

If you've read the book or seen the film Moneyball, this scene looks awfully familiar.  A bunch of insiders used to analyzing their game based a set of faulty assumptions get schooled by numbers geeks who bring cold, hard ratiocination to bear on the problem.  I liken it to a bunch of alchemists basing their worldview on an unchallenged set of ridiculous premises being confronted by a modern scientist armed with real methodology.

Silver's consistently rational analysis has made the blustery gushings of the pundit class look as silly as the scout who wouldn't sign a player because he had an ugly girlfriend.  Of course, there is plenty of room for scouting in modern day baseball since there are things the stats can't tell us.  At the same time, there isn't a baseball team out there that hasn't incorporated more sophisticated statistical analysis.  Perhaps during the next election cycle the networks can bring out the nerds instead of the dumb jocks.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why I am Voting for Barack Obama

When I cast my vote for president on Tuesday, my vote will be, once again, for Barack Obama.  Having lived in Illinois back in 2004 during his Senate campaign, this will be the third time I will have the pleasure to do so.  The first set of reasons I am voting for him are positive in nature: bin Laden is dead, General  Motors is alive, gay men and women can serve openly in the military, the economic stimulus brought the nation back from the brink of economic collapse, young immigrants have a clear path to citizenship, America is once again respected not hated by its allies, we have two new strong liberals on the Supreme Court, there are more avenues for women to sue for their rightful wages, America is out of Iraq and on the way out of Afghanistan, and we are finally on our way to having universal health coverage after a century-long battle.  All of these things were accomplished against unprecedented levels of obstruction by the opposition party, unrelentingly mendacious propaganda spewed by Fox News and the mobilization of a corporate backed church and king mob (aka the Tea Party).  While I wish the health care law had been stronger and stimulus focused on New Deal-style jobs programs among other disappointments, I am amazed at what the president has done in the face of levels of hatred, obstruction, and disrespect I have never before seen directed at a sitting American president.

I also have one very big negative reason for voting for Barack Obama, namely that he is all that prevents the radical conservative movement from gaining control of the levers of national power.  As I have been saying time and again, the Republican party is not a traditional center-right institution, but the vehicle for a radical band of ideologues set on putting their Ayn Randian crossed with Christian dominionist vision of America into practice.  A Romney presidency will see oil and coal barons free to pollute, banks set loose to exploit customers and wreck the economy, women's reproductive rights threatened, the conservative ideologues on the Supreme Court with a clear majority, a return to the old disastrous neo-conservative foreign policy, the social safety net shredded, and our horrendous social inequality worsen.  That alone would be reason enough to vote for Obama, but I feel that he has not just prevented the Right from doing their worst, he has managed to do a lot of good against long odds.

In recent days I've heard from friends via social media and read in blogs and other online forums the disappointment of the Left in Barack Obama.  They often point to things that I myself am greatly concerned about: his continuance of immoral and un-constitutional practices from the Bush era used in the war on terror (drone strikes, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, targeted assassinations), a tendency to compromise as a starting point in negotiations (his renewal of the Bush tax cuts is an obvious example), the weakness of the health care reform law, cowardice on the gun control issue, and the fact that his administration has done little to better conditions for the poor and working classes.  I share these concerns, and even though the online quizzes tell me that my political views more closely align with those of Jill Stein, I'm still voting for Obama.

I used to vote for third party candidates; I didn't vote for a Democrat for president until 2004.  Why the change?  Because the Bush II administration showed me that as milquetoast and compromised as the Democratic party can be, the Republicans are extremists hell-bent on putting their dangerous ideology into practice.  As much as I am horrified by targeted assassinations and drone strikes, the reality is that America is an empire, and that fact is much bigger than any one person who will be its president.  In regards to domestic policy, I would love it if the president had stuck harder to his principles, but politics is the art of the possible.  I am no longer enamored of the Left's obsession with the doomed noble cause or the beautiful loser.  It's all well and good to romanticize Ted Kennedy's run for president in 1980 as a last stand for liberalism, but his actions and the liberals who voted for third party candidate John Anderson helped get Ronald Reagan elected.  Power is what matters in politics, and putting that power in the hands of right-wing extremists must not be allowed to happen.  In any case, the American political system is so beholden to corporate interests that Barack Obama is by far the most progressive president in my lifetime, despite his compromises and shortcomings. In fact, I will hazard to guess that it will be a very long time, perhaps never, before we have another president as progressive as him.

But let me not end on such an negative note.  I will not be voting for president Obama out of the fear I have of his opponents or as a "necessary evil," but because he has managed to accomplish a great deal of positive things; I would even say he has done more for this country in his four years than any other president in my lifetime, including Bill Clinton.  If that's not worthy of my vote, I don't know what is.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Fun and Games With Election Predictions

There's a fun little game on the BBC's website where you can predict which swing states will go where in the election, and what the electoral vote totals will be.  My total ended up being 281 for Obama, and 257 for Romney.  Here are how I called the "swing states" according to the BBC, and some commentary.  What are your predictions?

Nevada: Obama
The Obama campaign's ground game is well-developed here.

New Mexico: Obama
Not even sure why this is a "swing state."

Colorado: Romney
I agonized over this one, but I really do think that some potential Obama voters will go over to the Libertarians on the weed issue in a state that has a big Republican base.

Iowa: Obama
He's got a special relationship with this state, and I think the Midwest is becoming a Democratic stronghold.

Wisconsin: Obama
This is embarrassing for Paul Ryan.

Michigan: Obama
After the auto bailout, this will be a cinch.

Pennsylvania: Obama
The polling has been very pro-Obama, although with power outages turnout might go down, helping Romney.

New Hampshire: Obama
I just don't believe the hype on Mitt peeling this one away.

Virginia: Romney
This is a state in the balance, but in my experience traveling through it, the rural regions are scarily reactionary and motivated.  I never saw more anti-Obama bumper stickers than I did in the rural portions of that state.  With whiteness such a key motivator in this election, I don't see any state in the former Confederacy going for Obama.

North Carolina: Romney

Florida: Romney
Obama might have a chance here, but it looks like all those who would like to vote for him stand a good chance of waiting in line for hours or having their votes invalidated.

Ohio: Obama
This will be the deciding state (yet again.)  While I am worried about shenanigans, Obama seems to have enough of a lead that rigged machines and long lines won't be able to swing the election to the other side.  I only hope I'm right.

Friday, November 2, 2012

White Like Me: Romney's Not-So-Secret Weapon

Some news sources have been discussing the narrowing of the "gender gap" in presidential polling this year, which is awfully surprising given that one candidate signed an equal pay for equal work measure into law on his first day in office, and the other represents a party full of Bible bangers obsessed with controlling women's bodies.

One thing we're not hearing much, however, is that the erosion of the "gender gap" might be greatly explained by the growth of the "race gap."  In Florida, for example, Romney leads by 30 percentage points among white without college degrees, despite Romney's support for policies totally antithetical to the economic interests of the working classes.  This matches the numbers across the South, where in 2008 Barack Obama won 98% of the black vote and 11% of the white vote in Mississippi.  The gap is getting bigger, and as Chauncey DeVega at WARN has pointed out, Romney is gaining among white voters even after losing two debates!  There seems to be an implicit, lizard-brain notion among many white people that Romney is inherently more worthy of being president because he is white like them.  Charles Blow's recent blog backs up that interpretation with poll numbers that show a significant chunk of (white) voters who think Obama is more trustworthy than Romney, but will be voting for Romney anyway.  That, my friends, is white privilege at its most fearsome.

Occasionally some public figures just come right out and say what they're really thinking in regards to the fact that Romney is white like them.  Take for instance Thomas Friedman, that oracle for suburban businessmen who are too busy to actually formulate real thoughts about the global economy.  He recently commented that many (white) voters decided for Obama in 2008 out of the novelty of having a black president, and are now willing to try "something new," as if Romney is in any way "new." The subtext was clear: "it was an interesting novelty to have a black president, but now let's give the White House back to the type of person who really belongs there."  Sarah Palin's "shuck and jive" nonsense came out of a more overt dehumanization of the president via his race.

I'd long known that voting for Obama put me in a minority as far as white males were concerned.  Obama won only 41% of white male votes, and this was considered a "strong" performance.  It now looks like Romney is leading among white women as well, and, as I have mentioned, is getting a lot of support from the white working class.  When you think about the numbers, it's a little crazy that only 41% of white men voted for a candidate who won a decisive election, and that in the the last month Obama has polled as little as 32% of white men.

I'm proud to be a part of that 32%, but I am saddened by the implications of the numbers, since they confirm my pessimistic gut instincts.  White men are fiercely guarding their privilege, and despite his outright lies, constant flip-flopping, and lack of any specific policy plan, Romney is still one of their own, and Obama is not.  I can only hope that that enough of what Harvey Milk called "the us people" show up to the polls to counteract the aggressive defense of whiteness.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Playlist: New Jersey Artists and New Jersey Songs

Because I was without television and internet for a few days, I was not yet aware of just how extensive the devastation from Sandy has been.  Today I delved into a torrent of images and reports, and have come away feeling both lucky and guilty.  There were people who were going about their business on Sunday who today are dead or homeless.  My adopted home state of New Jersey has been hit particularly hard, but people here are doing their best to carry on.  In that spirit, here's a playlist of songs about the Garden State or by artists who hail from it.

Bruce Springsteen, "Atlantic City"
This is one of my favorites off of the Boss's dark and disturbing Nebraska album.  It's a fitting song to start with, since it concerns a town that's taken some of the worst hits from Sandy.  The song is about a guy at the end of his rope, who's about to do something horrible for money (the song implies it's a contract killing.)  The key lines, "Everything dies baby, that's a fact/ But maybe everything that dies some day comes back" seem especially relevant today, amidst the loss of life and debris.

Chuck Berry, "Can't Catch Me"
New Jersey is an easy place to knock, especially since the only view a lot of people get from it is on the alienating and ugly New Jersey Turnpike.  The all-time rock n' roll guitar great Chuck Berry gives my state's most famous road a hectic, fun treatment.

Fountains of Wayne, "Leave the Biker"
Little known fact: this band is named after a now sadly defunct store in Wayne, NJ, selling bird baths and the like.  This is one of my favorite songs about liking a woman who's into "bad boys," which pretty much describes my early romantic history in a nutshell.

Yo La Tengo, "Autumn Sweater"
These indie rock greats call Hoboken home, a city that has suffered worse than most in the storm.  I always bust this bittersweet indie rock gem out this time of year, and it's feeling especially appropriate this November in regards to recent events.

The Shirelles, "Mama Said"
"Mama said there'll be days like this" indeed.  Sidenote: New Jersey produced an amazing number of top shelf doo-wop and R&B acts in the 1950s and 1960s.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, "Dawn (Go Away)"
Speaking of doo-wop, Frankie Valli was born and raised here in Newark.  He also happened to sing one of the peppiest songs about classism ever to hit the charts.  His girlfriend Dawn is from a much better background, and he basically tells her to leave him for someone who will give her a better life.

Whitney Houston, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)"
Speaking of Newark, Whitney Houston also came from Brick City.  Granted, this apotheosis of 80s synthesized musical cotton candy does not sound much like the tough streets of Newark.  I can't say I'm a huge fan of this song, other than as an evocative document of a time when hairspray and shoulder pads dominated the nation and mediocrity held sway.

Tom Waits, "Jersey Girl"
Few songs get me as misty-eyed as this love song with a broken nose.  It was the love of a Jersey girl that brought me to this place I've grown to care about so much to begin with, after all.

Thoughts on Sandy, Now that My Internet is Back

I should start by saying that I've been incredibly lucky and fortunate so far.  Here on Ferry Street, we only lost power for a day, and today I got internet and phone back.  Our local grocery stores are not running out of food, our water is still potable, and we spent the weekend before the storm stocking up on food, bottled water, gas, baby formula, and rum, grenadine, and limes (for making hurricanes, natch.)  I have yet to go back to work, but I am dreading what it will mean to get across the Hudson without train service.  I have a feeling that a two hour bus ride awaits me tomorrow or Monday.  That said, it beats what people on the Gulf Coast went through after Katrina, and the devastation that's been wrought on the on the Jersey shore.

Of course, it's easy to feel lucky today.  When shit was going down, I was pretty damn scared.  Our oven started making this strange popping noise from the fearsome gusts of wind shooting air up the vent.  The wind was messing with our building's fire alarm, which started going off for short bursts every ten minutes or so.  The thought of having to evacuate the apartment and go outside in the midst of winds so strong that our nineteenth century brick monolith of a building was actually shaking at the time filled me with more dread than I may have ever felt in my life.  Luckily the power went out at that point, so we figured we would just wait to smell smoke to tell if our building was burning down.  Needless to say, I didn't sleep much that night.  Our dog started bugging us at 3AM with the sound of howling wind outside, apparently in need of some comfort from us.

The next morning I took her out for a walk, and saw some of the more surreal images of my life.  Tree branches lay all over the place, those trees standing were stripped of leaves now clogging the storm sewer drains and covering the sidewalks.  Torn cables and wires twisted in the breeze, and the sky was the sick-gray color of a dead tube television, pregnant with danger.  No one was on the streets in a neighborhood that is usually bursting with activity at that hour.  As I was getting close to home, I noticed some strange-looking things on the sidewalk, and suddenly realized they were tiles torn from a nearby roof.  Coming home to an apartment without power, phone, or cell service, I felt immeasurable worry.

For our day without power we were lucky enough to have a camping lantern with a built-in radio.  It doesn't even need batteries, we hand-cranked it when we ran out of AAs.  We pretty much kept WNYC (New York public radio) on all day and night, and I think that for people without power, radio has been their lifeline.  I will be contributing during the next pledge drive, for sure.  For three days I wasn't able to see any pictures of the devastation, but could listen to residents describe it.  Seeing the images today has been a horrifying experience; a lot of those little towns on the shore aren't going to make it, I'm afraid.

We took a trip out to my in-laws in the 'burbs yesterday, and I was stunned to see the number of downed lines and uprooted trees.  The leafy streets were full of the sound of power generators, which seems to have driven the demand for gas to dangerous levels.  Today I went out with my family to a local grocery store, and we passed by a gas station along the way, which was frightening.  An acrid mood of angry tension and violence hung in the air, I don't know how long it will be until we start hearing of beatings and shootings over gas.  The storm is in many ways in illustration of the perils of the suburban way of life.  Here in my neighborhood stores are easy to walk to, we don't need gas to get around.  When power went out in the building, some neighbors came by to make sure we were okay; it's harder to fall through the cracks.  With fewer trees, it was a lot easier to restore electricity.  I only mention this because a lot of folks in suburban NJ think Newark is some kind of benighted hell-hole.

Last, I'd like to offer some perspective on Chris Christie's performance.  He's been highly competent, I will admit, and at least this time he is using his savy and confidence to help people in need, rather than to vilify teachers and pass budgets that give to the rich and take from the poor.  His competence, as opposed to the disorganized crackpot stupidity of the Tea Party crowd, is what makes him so dangerous when he sets his mind to putting his Reaganite policies into action.  He can actually get these things accomplished in a state that will be voting overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.  However, his actions have also revealed, yet again, his bullying nature and overriding desire for power.  I have the misfortune to have known many bullies in my life, and they tend to attack and humiliate people lower than them, and talk shit about those above them in their absence, but kiss their asses when they actually come around.  Christie fits the bill, with his public humiliation of the mayor of Atlantic City, and craven sycophancy towards the president, a man whom he has spent months publicly lambasting.  Christie also knows this is his biggest opportunity to increase his national profile, which is why he has not thrown a bone to Romney, a man who will block his route to the White House in 2016.  (That also helps explain his convention speech, which barely mentioned Mitt, and this after he was rumored to have rejected the vice-presidential nomination, predicting that Romney was a losing cause.)  Christie also has to run for governor next year, and needs to do a lot to convince people in this state that he is not a wacko conservative, which does not sit well in these parts.  I think he has actually intentionally thrown Romney under the bus.  You heard it here first.