Saturday, March 30, 2013

Post-Newtown, We Still Need to Have That Conversation About White Masculinity

After the horrors of Newtown, I hoped that it would not become yet another blip in our national consciousness and get sucked down the memory hole.  Sadly, what's happened has actually been worse.  Responding to the public outcry and the revival of the gun control movement, the NRA and gun proliferators have hit back so hard that the new gun legislation actually makes it EASIER to get them.  This week I was glad to see the president and brave loved ones of the victims of our gun violence epidemic call on the nation to do something, and that Michael Bloomberg has been using his money to push the issue in campaigns across the country.  Maybe we can actually get something done.

That said, there are issues even deeper than gun control which desperately need attention, but are pretty much being ignored.  I was reminded of this today through a chilling and thoughtful article in the New York Times Magazine by Jay Caspian Kang.  He discusses one of the many forgotten massacres in this country, the one that took place last April in Oakland at a nursing school.  Instead of being the usual post mortem, however, Kang discusses the feelings in the Korean-American community about the fact that the shooter in Oakland One. L Goh, and the murderer at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho, were both Korean immigrants.  Kang wonders whether the tendency to repress emotions and feel intense, barely-suppressed rage in Korean culture might have played a part.

Reading this piece, I was struck at how little white people in this country have done to ask themselves why it is white men who are overwhelmingly and vastly disproportionately the ones to massacre large numbers of people with firearms.  One of the great powers of whiteness is that it bequeaths individuality to its holders.  If you are white, you are an individual person, judged only on your own standards.  Your actions do not reflect on other white people, or are interpreted as part of a larger pattern of white behavior.  Korean-Americans, on the other hand, do not have this status, and hence are more capable of asking difficult and soul-searching questions in the aftermath of shooting tragedies.

After Sandy Hook, I wrote about the dysfunctions of white American masculinity, and how they contribute to violent shootings.  A few other folks -namely David Sirota and Chauncey DeVega- did too, but that conversation quickly petered out, or was treated with outright hostility.  It is good that gun control is back in the public eye, but if we really want to prevent future Newtowns, we need to have a serious and meaningful conversation about the problems of white masculinity in this country.

Notes from the Ironbound: Now on Twitter!

I think any medium that limits words to such an extent is a harbinger of our stupid, decadent times, but I have finally acknowledged that I must keep up with the times.  Plus, I'd like to get more people to read this blog.  If you want to follow me on twitter, my name is my handle here: Werner Herzog's Bear, or wernherzbear in twitter argo.

Or you can just click on the link:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Track of the Week: Love, "You Set the Scene"

At this time two years ago, I was in perhaps the most desperate trough of my entire life.  I was living 1500 miles away from my wife in a benighted East Texas town being bullied by my chair and some of my colleagues at a third-rate university.  My sixth go round on the job market did not net me a single interview with another university in my futile attempt to jump to a place closer to my wife.  This despite putting out another article and securing a book contract.  If that wasn't bad enough, my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, and there was a chance that it may have spread before it was detected.  To top it all off, when I visited home over Easter, our beloved family cat of 20 years was horribly ill, and when I held him one last time before I left, I knew it would be the last.

At that wretched low point I did not know that I was soon about to get a fantastic job in New York City, that that my wife and I would be blessed with twin baby girls, and that my father would fully recover from cancer.  In March and April of 2011, I just lived day to day, scared, depressed, and wondering whether my life had been a complete waste of time.  As it has always been for me, music was an important coping mechanism.  At the end of the day I spent many an evening with Fleetwood Mac's Tusk on the turntable, a glass of wine in my hand and my cat Stella by my side to calm my raging thoughts.

On my way to work, to steel myself for the possible indignities that might away, I often listened to "You Set the Scene" off of Love's magnum opus, Forever Changes.  That album came out of Arthur Lee's own life crisis, and themes of death, mortality, and meaning thread their way across the songs.  "You Set the Scene" is the wow finish, a cry to live a life that's worth living in the face of the inevitability of death.  When I blasted the song in my car I would sing along, and practically yelled out the words that Lee sings so matter of factly, "This the only thing thar I am sure of/ And that's all that lives is gonna die."  That's the tragic painful truth that we spend our lives trying to avoid, but it's impossible to live a life full of meaning without being aware of death.

People in passing cars might have thought I was nuts, but I didn't care.  When we are conscious of our mortality, we are less willing to waste the little precious time we have on this earth with the usual bullshit.  This song was my daily reminder that I was not going to die in Texas, and that I was not going to throw another year of my life into the gutter.  I listened to it again today, and it immediately reminded me of the pain, but also the will to overcome that burned inside me two years ago.  If you don't know this song (or the rest of the album, which is amazing), I hope it serves you well on your own path in life.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Have the Culture Wars Backfired on Conservatives?

Back in the late 1960s, conservatives like Reagan and Nixon learned that they could make political hay with the massive cultural changes altering American life.  Both positioned themselves as defenders of "traditional values" against the countercultural wave, whether it was Reagan's put downs of Berkley students or Nixon's appeals to the "silent majority."  During the 1970s, in the wake of Roe v. Wade, women's liberation, and the gay rights movement, religious conservatives mobilized like never before, and managed to bring together conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants, two groups that used to hate each other.  The Christian Right provided conservative with a powerful new grassroots support, and used social issues to grab the votes of the kind of blue collar folk who once made up the backbone of the New Deal coalition.

As recently as 2004, less than a decade ago, George Bush's campaign used the specter of gay marriage to mobilize his base and win a closely contested election.  That same year, ballot initiatives banning same sex marriage passed in states across the nation.  In the aftermath, everyone was talking about "values voters" as the key to his success.  At the time, observers like Thomas Frank explained the incongruity of middle and working class whites voting for the party of rapacious capitalism by saying that moral issues trumped economic ones for many of these voters.  It seemed as if the culture wars, with us for over forty years now, were still being waged because they always seemed to benefit conservative politicians.

That was the old conventional wisdom, at least.  The contours of the culture wars have changed, and the public response to oral arguments in the Supreme Court today on the subject of gay marriage register a remarkable difference from the past.  A majority of Americans now support it, and the nation is abuzz with the hope that the Supreme Court might at least strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.  On my wife and I's Facebook feeds we have been happily surprised at how many of friends and family who rarely have anything political to say have voiced their support for equal rights today.

Even the Republican establishment has started to read the writing on the wall that the public is swinging definitively towards equal marriage rights.  In recent weeks, many prominent conservatives have publicly declared their support for same sex marriage, in a perhaps vain attempt to keep their party from committing suicide.  I hope the memory of their deliberate villainization of gay people, not least in the 2004 election, is not allowed to perish.

The problem for Republicans is two-fold.  In the first place, they have achieved power by relying on Christian conservatives, and that very powerful constituency has effective veto power over the presidential nominee.  I don't think that a Republican who supports gay marriage will be able to get the nomination in 2016, which means the party faces either a civil war or looking extremely retrograde in the eyes of the electorate.  In the second place, they failed to realize that when they placed their bets on the culture wars backlash in the 1970s that their winning hand was time-sensitive.  You can't stop progress, and over time many of the more shocking social changes wrought by the 1960s have become commonplace.  New generations have been growing up living in new realities.  Supporters of the backlash are literally dying off.  The party that resisted positive social change might finally have to pay for their short-sighted and cynical strategy.  In future years, I hope progressives fight a different kind of culture war, and fight it hard.

Baseball Moments to Beat the Winter Blues

As the years go by, the more excited I get with the approach of each new baseball season.  I have determined that my feelings have as much to do with my love of the sport as with how baseball symbolizes the onset of spring.  As I slide into middle age, winter's cold and gray affects me more than ever.  I long for sunny days, green fields, and sweet smells in the air.  Most of all, I long for baseball, my daily companion from the first buds on the trees until the harvest comes in.  Our current winter has been especially long and cruddy; it has stayed around like a bad houseguest and its damp seems to seep into every corner of my apartment.  With that in mind, here are an assortment of baseball videos, artifacts, and recollections to help escape from the current unending winter into the green-jewled eden of the baseball diamond.

I can remember the first game of the 1988 series like it was yesterday.  Little details still stick with me, like Mickey Hatcher running the bases too fast after his home run out of excitement, or one of the TV cameras being dented by a Jose Canseco home run.  I was in the 7th grade, and that evening we had one of our twice yearly all-school vocal concerts.  (Everyone had to participate even if, like me, they couldn't sing a lick.)  Even though I wasn't rooting for the As or Dodgers, I was happy to get home and see the game, even if I missed the early innings.  In the 9th, when a hobbling Gibson stepped off of the bench in a last-ditch attempt to win the game, I had a kind of crazy premonition that he was going to hit a home run.  I can't explain it, I just KNEW it.  When he finally managed to will his broken body to swing the bat and make contact, I could tell in that split second the ball was going over the wall.  Still to this day I have not witnessed a more amazingly uplifting feat of perseverance on the diamond.

Perhaps the greatest athlete of his generation, Bo Jackson is probably better known as a football than a baseball player.  He didn't put up the kind of gaudy stats he did on the gridiron, but what made him great as a baseball player was his Paul Bunyan-like feats of strength.  As a young Royals fan, I forgave his tendency to strike out because of his practice of snapping his bats when dissatisfied, climbing up walls in the outfield, and running like the wind to make insanely difficult diving catches.  I recently viewed the ESPN 30 for 30 doc about Jackson, and was reminded of just how amazing he was to watch.  At the same time, it filled me with incredible sadness over the freak football injury that ended his career, and robbed fans of two different sports of a truly unique performer.  In the documentary he comes off as such a genuine and sincere person, the type of star that professional sports could use more of.

Rick and Paul Reuschel's "Big League Brothers" Baseball Card
Of course, not all ballplayers are amazing athletes like Bo Jackson.  It is a skill-based sport, and so many men who are short, dumpy, or fat can make a living if that can swing a bat or throw a sinker.  Over the years I've seen my share of portly pitchers, but I love this particular baseball card because it shows two decidedly unglamorous widebodies from the same family could break into the bigs.

Dewayne Wise's Catch to Preserve Mark Buehrle's Perfect Game
As a White Sox fan, my greatest baseball moment would have to be their 2005 World Series victory.  Since then the team has not scaled such heights, but they gave me a moment almost as dramatic in 2009.  Longtime Sox ace Mark Buehrle had taken a perfect game into the ninth, until the first batter he faced that inning hit a long drive to center that looked to be a sure home run.  Dewayne Wise, a light-hitting outfielder brought in as a defensive replacement who rode the bench and was little known to the White Sox faithful, climbed the wall, reached up over the fence, and came down with the ball.  It's one of the best catches I've ever seen, period, and it happened to come at a rather crucial moment, which made it all the better.  The Sox let the journeyman Wise go at the end of the season, but he came back in 2012, and is on the team again this year.  Wise is the type of journeyman player who never gets to play every day and bounces from team to team, but his ability with the glove has kept him in the majors for over a decade.  Baseball is full of unsung players like this, who work hard just to stay in the show.  I'm glad that unlike most other journeyman, Wise had a moment that he will be remembered by.

The Steve Bartman Incident
Unlike other White Sox fans, I do not bear the Cubs and their rooters any ill will.  I root for them to win, and for their real fans (not the drunken party boys enjoying the world's largest open air singles bar in the Wrigley bleachers) to finally be released from their misery.  As Cubs fans know, baseball can be exceptionally cruel.  Small instances of failure or the slightest miscue can, at the wrong moment, brand a player for life.  Baseball history is full of such sad figures, like Bill Buckner, Ralph Branca, or Fred Merkle.  However, only one fan has ever joined such ignominious company: Steve Bartman.  Like the others, he was a convenient scapegoat for defeats that were more collective in nature.  For example, Bill Buckner's error came only after bad managing decisions from John McNamara, who should have pulled the hobbling Buckner for a defensive replacement.  Bob Stanley, the reliever McNamara sent into the game, uncorked a wild pitch that gave the Mets their opportunity to win in the first place.  (The Baseball Project song "Buckner's Bolero" wonderfully summarizes the larger phenomena behind Buckner's muff.)   Likewise, Bartman going after the foul ball did not cause the Cubs pitchers to blow the lead, Alex Gonzalez to make a terrible error at short, or make the Cubs stink up the joint in the following seventh game.  He was going after the ball like several other fans in his section, but he was the one to be crucified.  In baseball, as in life, fate is a cruel master.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Classic Music Video of the Week: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, "Rosalita"

My parents are visiting New Jersey from Nebraska, and I have been on a mission to win them over to the Garden State.  This has mostly involved pizza and trips of the many fine Portuguese restaurants here in the Ironbound.  However, I am bursting with excitement over our trip tomorrow to Asbury Park and the shore.  Yes, it still may be cold and windy out there, and Sandy has done her worst, but I can't wait to walk the boardwalk and gaze upon the ocean again.

Asbury Park has really won a place in my heart, since it combines natural beauty with the ghostly ruins and refurbished palaces of its beachfront.  Of course, the real reason I went there for the first time was because it was the adopted hometown and creative inspiration for Bruce Springsteen.  Having spent time there, I finally understood the goofy, having a party vibe of songs like "I'm a Rocker" and "Cadillac Ranch," which seem to co-exist rather uneasily with his sad reports on the decline of working class America in tunes like "The River."  Asbury Park bears the wounds of deindustrialization, but Shore life has a certain devil may care, you only live once attitude.

His first few records are inextricably marked by life on the Shore.  The first is entitled Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, and the second The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, has a back photo featuring the band posing in some of Asbury Park's grungier environs.  "Rosalita" appeared on the album, but it only reached full blossom in live performance, as is evident in this video.

The video didn't come out until the 1980s, but was filmed in 1978, before The Boss had been catapulted from stardom into super-duper-stardom.  In the 1980s live performance videos were a common genre, especially with hard rock bands like Def Leppard and Bon Jovi.  They always seemed so self-indulgent to me, and almost always featured live footage set to the studio track, not an actual live performance.  This video, however, is one of the purest expressions of joy I have ever seen.  The people in the audience are having the time of their lives; nubile young women are running up onstage and kissing Springsteen, and Bruce himself has a huge shining smile of pure bliss on his face.  He and the band are clearly having a blast, and don't need tired poses to express themselves.

Musically, "Rosalita" is not one of the best Springsteen songs, but in its live incarnation, it allows a template for the E Street Band to really cut loose and go crazy.  Watching this made me mourn the recent passing of Clarence Clemons once again.  Not only does he blast out his usual array of killer sax riffs, his playful flourishes of the castanets behind Springsteen are absolutely hilarious.  This band, and this song, would not exist if not for that special feeling you can only get on the Shore, which is why I am so excited to go back there tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why Iraq Will Be a Turning Point in America's History

A decade has passed since our nation embarked on its imperial debacle in Iraq, and there has been a lot of commentary and remembrance in the media, and little from our political elites, most of whom supported it.  I'd like to think of it in more historical terms, since the invasion of Iraq is a moment that I believe a century hence will be seen as a major turning point in this country's history.

All empires fall, and the rot typically sets in well before the columns of the imperial edifice crumble.  The harbingers of decline often come in the midst of what might appear to be an empire's apogee, and the invasion of Iraq is a great example of this phenomenon.  After the Cold War, America bestrode the earth like a colossus, the biggest kid on the block and the only remaining superpower.  During the 1990s, this power was usually wedded to upholding the order prescribed by the "international community."  The US intervened in the Gulf and the Balkans, in both cases with significant international support.

During those heady years, we heard folks like Francis Fukuyama theorize an "end to history," meaning that capitalist democracy, in the wake of communism's defeat, would soon engulf the world and perpetual peace would be the result.  Alas, the events of September 11, 2001, proved such hopes to be ill founded.  With neo-conservatives seated in the halls of power, they used this unprecedented crisis as an opportunity to put America's singular power to work on a misbegotten crusade to remake the Middle East.

As we all know now, the war in Iraq, as well as the prolonged quagmire in Afghanistan, have exposed the American colossus' clay feet.  I see a lot of parallels with the Boer War, when the British Empire provoked a conflict in South Africa that it eventually won, but which exposed its weaknesses, and whose atrocities called its supposed moral superiority into question.  This war came at a time when Britain controlled a quarter of the globe and seemed to be unstoppable.  Similarly, the US invasion, which promised that soldiers would be "greeted as liberators" brought grisly images from Abu Ghraib.  American armies failed to secure the nation they invaded, standing idly by while looters trashed Iraq's cultural heritage.  The American president declared "Mission Accomplished" with extreme bravado only to oversee a brutal and bloody guerrilla war that lasted for years afterward.  That war bankrupted the American treasury, and is a much more significant cause of our fiscal woes -combined with the economic downturn- than our nation's social spending.

Nowadays the Obama administration is looking to cut back the military, and isolationist conservatives like Rand Paul are back on the scene, after being all but absent since the 1930s.  China is flexing its muscles, and the Middle East is democratizing itself with regimes that are not always friendly with the United States.  The Cheney-Rice-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz fever dream of a dominant American empire able to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, the will of others be damned turned out to be a dangerous illusion.  The United States will never have the global power it did ten years ago.

On a personal note, I find some delicious irony in the fact when I was protesting the push to war and taking verbal abuse from the nationalist horde, I was actually supporting, in a roundabout way, the preservation of American power abroad.  Those who called me a traitor blindly followed the neo-con pied pipers to their beloved empire's destruction.  Of course, they still won't admit they were wrong.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Track of the Week: Jimi Hendrix, "Drivin' South"

There was a period of time in my life, at the ages of 17 and 18, when I listened to Jimi Hendrix on a daily basis.  There didn't seem to be anything that had ever passed through my ears that was this absolutely mind-blowing and creative.  I psyched up for debate rounds by listening to "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" on my Walkman and blasted his live cover version of "Sunshine of Your Love" from the hand-cranked windows of my humble Mazda while driving the streets of my Nebraska hometown.

Hendrix put out only a meager three studio albums during his career, which left me searching for other material by the guitar god.  I tried to stay away from the numerous and unending records of previously unreleased material of dubious quality that have been put out after his death.  Instead, I delved into live albums, such as the exquisite Live at Winterland and Live at Monterey.  I was most awed by his improvisational cover versions and instrumentals, which totally jettisoned the traditional rock song format for a kind of transcendant musicality I would later find between the grooves of Miles Davis and John Coltrane records.

Years after my high school infatuation and living in Berlin, I stopped into a record store and found a copy of Hendrix's sessions for BBC's Radio One cheap.  Back in those pre-iPod days there was only so much music I could take with me on an overseas trip, and I keep seeking out things to buy that would give me a change of pace.  I enjoyed the cd, which certainly has plenty of blistering live versions of familiar Hendrix tracks.  But then "Drivin' South" came on and I felt the spirit move in me like it had when I first imbibed songs like "Are You Experienced?" as a teenager.

It starts fast with a killer rhythm reminiscent of the blues, but somehow completely foreign from it.  Unlike so many of his imitators, Hendrix understood the guitar as a rhythmic instrument, and typically used the guitar to establish the foundation of a song, rather than to engage in indulgent soloing and pyrotechnics.  On "Drivin' South" there are no words, just an absolutely radiant guitar.  Once the rhythm gets set, that guitar comes blasting down out of the sky like the wrath of God, and proceeds to explode with a marvelously unpredictable energy.  Every time I listen to this song I feel better just thinking that I am a member of a species that could produce someone capable of conjuring such divine sounds from a musical instrument.  That's about the highest praise I could give a song.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Republican Strategy of Pretending the 2012 Election Never Happened Continues

Less than two weeks after the election, I wrote about how it seemed that Republicans had decided not to acknowledge that contest had actually happened.  The election was not only a referendum on the president they hate so much, but also on GOP policies of austerity and supply side economics.  Obama won, and they lost.

Despite that fact, the original dead-eyed granny killer himself, Paul Ryan, has essentially re-submitted his old budget.  Never mind that the electorate roundly rejected his ideas in the last election, or that he and others are pushing to end health care reform, which was more than validated by the president's victory in November.  During the sequester fiasco, Republicans were willing to shoot the hostage, since it meant slashing the budget without doing anything to raise revenues.  Despite the fact that their policy of keeping taxes on the wealthy low was roundly rejected by the voters, they keep trotting out the same tired old trickle-down war horse.

There are two ways of explaining this phenomenon, where we have a democracy yet the popular will is being completely ignored.  The first is that the GOP is simply gaming a faulty system where they can use gerrymandering to hold onto the House (where their candidates collectively failed to win a majority of the electorate's vote) and use the filibuster in the Senate to stop anything that displeases them.  A second explanation, and one I find to be more compelling, is that conservatives think that the people who voted for Obama don't count as real Americans.  In their eyes, these voters are the 47% excoriated by Romney, the "takers" who are looking for a handout.  They also happen to be mostly people of color, as compared with the majority of white voters who went for Romney in the last election.

The behavior at CPAC this week, along with the perennial and rabid Tea Party cries of "we want to take our country back" speaks to a movement that has a fairly narrow definition of who an American is.  Furthermore, movement conservatives feel free to ignore the last election because they view most Obama voters as unfit for citizenship, and needing to be put back in their places.  In the meantime the Republicans will obstruct and spew hatred at every opportunity, biding their time until the political pendulum swings right, and many unassuming moderates cast ballots for what they think is a center-right alternative to the Democrats, which in truth is a vehicle for Rightist fanaticism.  That fanatics are now considered respectable people in our political system at the same time that the electorate's express preferences are totally ignored is a sign of a truly dysfunctional system.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Will Newark Benefit from all the Philip Roth Birthday Hoopla?

I love Newark, and I love one of its most famous sons, Philip Roth.  With his 80th birthday next week, there will be some events here in Brick City drawing in Roth fans from all over the world, giving my town one of its few positive moments to shine.  These include a bus tour of local spots mentioned in his books, a photo display on Roth's life at the public library, an academic conference, and an event at the Newark Museum where Roth himself will speak.  The latter event is invite-only, and the conference will be closed to the public.

While I am sure that Mr. Roth wants to guard his privacy, and that the assembled scholars are only following the usual academic conference protocol, something doesn't feel right.  I can't help but to wonder whether the participants are keeping modern day Newark, not the thriving industrial city of the 1940s described in Roth's novels, at arm's length.  Will those who take the bus tour simply gawk at the urban decay they are bound to see, and not consider how deindustrialization and institutionalized racism have harmed this place?  Will they get out of their buses and interact with the people who live here today?  Will they stop into one of the city's many fine local eateries for a bite to eat, and perhaps some conversation?  Somehow I think not.

Those coming to downtown Newark for the big events probably won't be venturing much into the surrounding neighborhoods at all.  Despite the new construction and growing affluence of Newark's downtown, there are clues aplenty that the city still struggles.  For instance, those who go to the beautiful public library to see the photo exhibit will see signs notifying patrons that the library does not have sufficient funds to acquire new books.  Worse yet, the main library now must close on Sunday, and the branch libraries are not open at all on the weekends.  Newark has nurtured more than its share of prominent writers; Amiri Baraka was also raised here.  How many more great authors can this city produce if its children don't have access to books?

I only hope that the Roth fans who come here learn something about the city as it is, not as it was. I also hope that if they truly do love books and want to honor the city of Roth's birth, that they make some donations to the local libraries.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Bank of America Can Take Their 75 Cents and Shove It

Ah, tax time.  So many people gripe this time of year about what they have to pay the feds, like when the Tea Party chose April 15 as their first day of rage.  At the same time that there is so much sturm und drang over taxes, people in this country are robbed blind by their banks and financial institutions, yet don't seem to care.  This year my eyes popped out of my not when I saw what I owed the IRS, but when I got my bank statement showing me how much interest I had earned last year on my savings.

Let me provide some background.  Y'see, my wife and I are finally on solid financial footing, and after years of grad student and low-level academic penury, I can actually put money away to be saved.  It's something I've been very proud of, especially since this has meant cutting back on buying the things I desire.  My thrifty parents instilled in me the value of saving money and spending wisely.  I don't know how many times I heard Ben Franklin's maxim "a penny saved is a penny earned" as a child.

So imagine my surprise when we looked at our account statement, and found that the Bank of America paid us a grand total of 75 cents in interest last year.  They had dropped our interest rate to a quark-sized .01%, a number so ludicrously tiny that to call it "interest" is positively Orwellian.

These fuckers robbed from me.  They got access to my money, and in return they gave me jack shit, even though they could still have made money off of my money by paying out a a token 1% rate.  Considering the bite taken out by inflation, I might as well have stuck my savings in a mattress for all the good keeping it in a bank has done me.  I ended up with all kinds of restrictions on withdrawing from my savings, and in return was rewarded with enough money to pay for 45 minutes of parking, a handful of gumballs, or a couple of games of Street Fighter at the arcade.

Taking the interest "payment" from the bank feels like legitimizing their theft of the wages I need to send my daughters to college or put down a down payment on a house.  I am thinking of putting three quarters in an envelope, sending them to Bank of America headquarters, and including a note informing the banksters in charge that they can take the shiny coins and shove them up their guilty asses.

The more I think about it, the more this is another example of how our current, insatiable brand of capitalism has destroyed the traditional pathways to the middle class.  Low taxes have starved higher education, which now requires insane loan obligations for students.  Speculation in real estate has driven home prices to ridiculous levels.  More and more employers casualize their labor forces, making them "flexible" with 35 hour a week "part time" jobs without health insurance.  And now those lucky enough, like me, to put some money aside, are being robbed blind by usurers who refuse to pay interest on the deposits that keep their banks afloat.  The leeches at the top squeeze every last cent out of us proles, so they can keep on living the high life.  I guess they can have my 75 cents while they're at it, too.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Benedict, Doubt, and the State of the Church

I was looking through the archives of my old blog, and found something I wrote about the state of the Catholic Church back in 2009.  With the papal conclave happening right now, I think it's especially relevant, considering that the Church's current problems were plain as day early on in Benedict's reign.  The distance I have traveled in terms of religion since then is telling.  I was not an observant Catholic, but did get married by its rites, and considered myself at the very least a cultural Catholic.  Nowadays I'm an agnostic Episcopalian, and like many lapsed Catholics over the last few years, I've cut what few ties to the Church I had left.  It's hard to tell if the choice of the next pope will reflect any progressive change, or whether the Church leadership is fully aware of its current situation.  Whoever the next pope happens to be, he will have his hands full.

 Below are my reflections from four years ago, which don't really seem out of place these days.  I am struck by my positive memories of my dealings with certain clergy and Catholic lay leaders at that time.  It's a needed reminder that the Church can do things right, and that many great people do its work.  I only hope the spirit of this positive side of the church carries the day in Rome this week.


While I visited New Jersey over the winter holiday had many intimate encounters with the Catholic Church, an institution that I both love and revile in almost equal measure. L and I attended Mass at the old Italian church where we will be getting married, and on both occasions were treated to the homily stylings of an ultra-orthodox, aged priest. The Christmas morning sermon was a thing of true of awfulness wherein he expounded aimlessly on the Church's doctrine of Mary's virginity, sternly pointing out that she remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus to her ascension. This meant in fact that the baby Jesus had not gone down the Ever Virgin's birth canal, but had evidently appeared in her arms "like light through a pane of glass." Of course, like all unimaginative priests, he quickly politicized the Immaculate Conception by lecturing the congregation about abortion.

I was willing to cut the guy a little slack, since he was obviously too old to be doing what he was doing. Unfortunately for him and for the Church in general, the number of vocations has been dropping off severely. Worse yet, those young men who sign up for the priesthood today tend to be ideological firebrands who actually fervently believe in things like papal infallibility instead of merely paying lip-service to them, and seem content with the Church's larger turn to the Right in the last thirty years.

A couple of weeks later, however, I was reminded of the great potential latent in the Catholic Church. L and I attended pre-Cana, a seminar required of couples who wish to marry in the Catholic Church. Truth be told, I was quite worried about the event, afraid that I would be bludgeoned with doctrine on birth control by a man who had sworn himself to celibacy. The location itself raised my fears, as we sat in the gymnasium of an old Catholic school that reaked of the crushing guilt and intimidating austerity I knew well from my religious upbringing. That being said, the priest, a Benedictine monk, gave a talk brimming with humor that almost had me falling out of my chair. (Sample: he showed up in his hooded habit and announced, "I thought I would slip on something more medieval today." He cracked jokes about the Jesuits and Protestant perceptions of Catholics as drunks while acknowledging some of the truth behind the stereotype.) We also heard from two Catholic couples who had been long married and who offered practical advice that transcended religious doctrine. The woman who ran the session pointedly told us we could read the official stuff about abortion and birth control if we wanted to, but that the session would concern itself more with resolving the day-to-day issues married people face. Lo and behold, pre-Cana actually benefitted L and I. Too bad the spirit of practical morality and openness we experienced there seems to be in such short supply in the Church these days.

The two opposing forces in American Catholicism, inclusion and exclusion, are a major part of the movie Doubt, and lie at the heart of the contemporary Church. I happened to see Doubt while in Jersey, and it thoroughly touched me. At some points I almost broke down, because it portrays something that has all but died: American Catholicism as an organic, communal culture, rather than a zealous, inflexible, anti-modern ideology. It shows a world where people in the neighborhood walked to the church, and Catholicism was not merely a set of beliefs, but a cultural identity.

In the film, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), represents the inclusive impulse that moved the church towards reform in the 1960s. He wants to enlighten and welcome his congregation, not discipline and control them. Sister Aloysius (played brilliantly by Meryl Streep) does not agree with Flynn's approach, and subscribes whole-heartedly to the "do as you're told or else" school of Catholicism that traumatized my childhood. Sister James (Amy Adams) is a young nun stuck in the middle with a kind heart but unsure of herself. (She reminded me powerfully of the nun who taught me in the first grade and greatly encouraged my reading habit. I don't find it surprising that she left the cloister.)

Matters are complicated by the fact that Flynn has been credibly accused of abusing one of the more vulnerable boys in the school. While the viewer might sympathize with Father Flynn's attitude and despise Sister Aloysius' rigidity, we become suspicious of him and start to admire her tenacity. In the end, we don't know what really happened, but there's no mistaking the references to the Church's recent abuse scandals and its consequent loss of moral authority. Of course, this hasn't stopped the clergy from wagging their fingers on abortion during and after the election. In ways that I don't have time to detail here, Doubt displays HOW the mechanisms of the church and the arrogance of some of its leaders could be used to cover-up sexual abuse.

Pope Benedict exuded that arrogance in all its ugliness this week when he reinstated four schismatic, reactionary bishops, one of whom is an unapologetic Holocaust denier. Considering the long, ugly history of anti-Semitism that the Church has been trying to correct and atone for since Vatican II, this move could not be more retrograde. How an instituion that claims to be the moral arbiter for over a billion people could reward someone for downplaying one of the greatest crimes in human history (and with the participation of many Catholics) is as astonishing as it is appalling.

Even if one of these bishops had not been a Holocaust denier, Benedict's move would still signal a willingness to welcome the most reactionary interpretations of Catholicism. All of these bishops belong to the Society of Pius X, a splinter group opposed to the Vatican II reforms of the church. The pope and the other high clergy are open and inclusive, but only to those who want to bring the Church back into the Middle Ages. Catholicism does not have to go down this path, but men like Benedict are doing their best to drive out anyone who could steer it in a more modern, tolerant, and yes, viable direction. With their clergy aging, churches closing, and moral authority all but shot, they might not have a whole lot more time to work with.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Track of the Week: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Into My Arms"

Back in December my friend David died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Every now and again I am reminded of his absence, and the fact that I will have to live the rest of my life without him.  Usually these reminders come via music that we used to listen to together.  The other day I saw an ad on the subway for a piece of public art created by singer Nick Cave for Grand Central Station.  That reminded me that I hadn't listened to old Nick in quite awhile, and as I sat up late at night savoring some of my favorite, almost forgotten songs by an artist I have listened to too little in the last few years.

As much as I loved hearing the music again, my heart was stung with the memory that David had introduced me to Nick Cave in the first place.  (When we roomed together, "Red Right Hand" was a particular favorite of ours.)  Cave fit with his hard-edged tastes in music, which favored the Stooges and Black Sabbath.  However, I know he had a particular love of "Into My Arms," a piano love ballad that's about as far from Gothic horror tales like "The Mercy Seat" as you can get.

It's a song that grabbed me the first time I heard it, with its striking, plain-spoken introduction of "I don't believe in an interventionist God/ But I know darling, that you do."  Most love songs don't begin with a theological proposition, especially a negative one.  In fact, most love songs are sugary frivolities stuffed like an eclair full of creamy cliches.  I so rarely believe them, but I believe every word of this song.

It is a kind of agnostic's prayer from a man who is so grateful to the universe for bringing his beloved to him, and who is so moved that he implores a God he does not believe in to protect his beloved and keep her in his arms.  When David got married, he and his wife wanted this to be the first song they danced to, but the hick DJs responsible for the music at the very rural Iowa location didn't know Nick Cave from Walter Brennan, and picked something much more conventional instead.

At the time, I could only wonder whether I would ever find someone to play this song to.  I have been so lucky to find her, and even if I doubt that there is an interventionist God, I still give prayers of thanksgiving for my tremendous luck, even as I shed a tear for a great man, who at least had ten years with his beloved.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why Late Winter is The Worst

The older I get, the more seasonal patterns become obvious to me.  With each year that goes by, the same familiar emotions repeat themselves during the same times of the year.  In my thirty-seven trips around the sun, I have now surmised that late winter is the absolute nadir of the calendar.  This year, as in all other late winters, I have fallen ill, and not just for a couple of days.  I have spent the last three weeks feeling like crap, but just well enough to have to go to work and endure the daily grind at diminished strength.  After months of cold without sunlight, I feel drained and depressed.  My patience is worn and my temper is short, even with the ones I love.

I define late winter as the time between Valentine's Day and the beginning of the NCAA basketball tournament.  (I find the latter to just as much a sign of the onset of spring as the equinox.)  Late winter never fails to be interminably wretched.  In late winter, sickness stalks the land, coughs are its soundtrack. It is also a time of year full of great psychological stress and emotional strain.  At this point, the body's ability to handle the cold and dark of winter begins to break.  Just when the sun starts getting up early again, daylight savings time comes back, and I lose an hour of sleep at a time when I need it most.

Even things that normally bring joy are absent or awful.  In terms of sports, football is over, baseball has yet to begin, and hockey and basketball are still far from the playoffs.  The holidays (Valentine's and St. Patrick's Day) are the absolute worst.  The former is a manufactured event meant to sell greeting cards via guilt and treacly sentiment, and the latter is a drunken, insulting parody of Irish culture.  Growing up a devout Catholic, this time of year always coincided with Lent, which meant that in addition to all the usual late winter crap, I was forced to deprive myself of something I liked in order to atone for my sins.

I propose that we make a new holiday out of an old one: the spring equinox.  Even if winter has not finally been banished, we should have great feasts and jubilations, to welcome the sun's presence.  We should get together with family and friends, and celebrate making it through such a treacherous, difficult time of the year.  We shall toast, enjoy each other's company, and look forward to the warm months ahead.  Who's with me?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Tribute to Our Embattled Magazines

The e-revolution has threatened the printed word like nothing else.  Book publishing is in a tailspin, newspapers are slashing their operations, and now many venerable magazines are either hemorrhaging money or going bust.  I've been quite alarmed at how people who see themselves as electronic sophisticates are taking such a dismissive stance at this change, gloating as if they have somehow "won" by being a part of the cyberworld.  (The way that the Dailykos site has long crowed about the decline of newspapers, which do actual hard reporting, rather than mere news aggregation and opinion flogging, has long irritated me.  Are any "Kossacks" going to report on world events from Greece or Syria?)

Thinking about the decline of traditional magazines, as inevitable as that might be, fills me with sadness, for magazines played an important role in my education.  Growing up in an isolated small town on the Great Plains, magazines were one of the few quality conduits I had to the outside world.  The local newspapers were painfully parochial, local radio middle of the road, TV as vapid as ever, and the internet but a dream.

So much of my cultural development came with the help of the glossy pages of magazine.  Quite often I walked down to the local Walgreens to pick up a copy of Spin and Rolling Stone, and read about music that I had no chance of hearing where I lived.  During school band or debate trips to bigger cities like Lincoln or Omaha, I would break away from the main group during our meal times so I could go to the record store and buy up albums that got good reviews.  (Either the music journalist seal of approval or hearing underground songs via 120 Minutes on MTV determined much of my music purchasing.)  I bought Pavement's epochal Slanted and Enchanted purely because Spin had named it album of the year for 1992.  Until I popped the cassette into the tape deck of my Mazda, I hadn't heard a note of Pavement's music.

Despite the help they gave me in developing music taste in a cultural wasteland during my high school days, magazines actually did the most good for me when I was a pimple-faced middle schooler.  Back in those days I would take a short walk to the public library after school, and wait for my parents to get off of work and pick me up.  I spent that time in the library sitting on the couches in the magazine section, reading practically anything I could get my hands on.  The issues were all ensconced in little plastic binders, like semi-sacred objects.  Each week I read the big three news mags (Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report), Sport magazine (I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, so I read that at home), Rolling Stone, and whatever political magazine caught my eye, usually either The National Review or The New Republic.  (My politics weren't fully formed yet.)  All of this magazine reading gave me a tremendous amount of background knowledge about the world, and certainly sparked my interest in all kinds of topics in the years to come.  I kept up my habit of reading the news magazines in high school, and added The Economist to the rotation when I hit college, along with forays into The Nation, The Utne Reader, and The New Yorker.  As a college student, I rewarded myself after studying in the library with some magazine time.  When I spent my year abroad in Germany, my girlfriend at the time sent me her back issues of The Nation, which I cherished.

Those adolescent afternoon hours spent reading magazines in the public library after school may have done more to hone my mind and engender my intellectual curiosity than anything else in my life.  These days I have a New Yorker subscription, and whenever I get the chance, I like to go to the bookstore and buy a couple of magazines.  What many of these publications do, like the Oxford American or Weird N.J., can't really be replicated on the computer screen, their combinations of text and visuals only work when you hold them in your hand.  And, truth be told, because magazines are edited, the writing is of better quality than most of the stuff put out on the web, including this blog, which would not exist had I not spent those two years immersed in magazines.

Footnote: I idolized Nirvana as a teenager, and when they finally landed on the cover of the Rolling Stone, I cut the cover out and taped it to the closet door in my room.  That image (pasted above) gave me the strength to be a weird, passionate person in a school full of conformists.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Toiling in the Minors

On certain afternoons over the last week, I have detected a hint of spring in the breeze.  That breeze, coupled with the fact that spring training has begun in earnest down in Florida and Arizona, has put baseball on my brain.

Around this time last year, I wrote about how how baseball terms are used as metaphors in life ("bush league," "hit a home run," "two strikes against you," etc.) but I forgot one crucial baseball catchphrase: "toiling in the minors."  When I player who breaks into the big leagues later in his career gets his call-up, the announcers and scribes will invariable say that this player "toiled in the minors."  Notice, they do not say "played in" the minors, and that's with good reason.

I know from reading first hand accounts by players like Dirk Hayhurst that the minor leagues are brutal.  Players don't make enough money to live on year 'round, are forced to travel by bus, and to stay in cheap hotels and eat substandard food.  They are constantly trying to prove themselves, and are competing for major league jobs against their fellow teammates, which obviously makes it hard to form lasting friendships.  One too many mistakes and you blow your chance for the bigs, or are cut outright, which means every game is a life or death struggle.

Minor leaguers who get the call-up invariable talk of being awestruck by the high-life treatment that even the lowliest players at that level get.  The minimum salary in the majors pays many players more in a month than they make in a season in the minors.  Big leaguers don't have to carry their own bags, they get all the five star amenities, and are generally treated like royalty.

Of course, the vast majority of players who sign contracts with major league teams never make it to the promised land.  A large number of those who make it don't stay too long.  Is that state of affairs really all that different than the one most of us most live through ourselves on a day-to-day basis?  We all hope for a spot in the majors, but we spend most, if not all of our lives toiling in the minors, worrying about paying the bills and holding down a job while the prospect of getting the call-up to the major leagues gets dimmer with each passing season.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Track of the Week: Lykke Li, "Silver Springs"

There are rare cover versions that match or surpass the originals, and I'll put Lykke Li's cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Silver Springs" in that category.  It's one of my favorite tracks of the past year, and one I can't stop playing, despite its painful associations.

The original is one of the great outtakes of all time, dropped from the Mac's classic Rumours at the last minute due to the limited running time allowed on vinyl.  That album was famously marked by personal turmoil in the band, including the breakup of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.  Buckingham got his version of events committed to wax and turned into a hit song via "Go Your Own Way."  I hear "Silver Springs" as Nicks' response, one based more in pain rather than bitterness, a pain too raw to be fodder for the charts.  That might be the real reason, beyond album length, that this song wasn't included on the record.

I think "Silver Springs" is one of the best songs ever written from the point of view of a jilted lover, and the line "I could have loved you but you would not let me" tears into my heart.  Lykke Li's cover builds wonderfully to the emotional climax, and when she sings about how her old lover will be haunted by her memory forever, you believe it.

However, the song doesn't resonate with my experience being jilted, but rather how I cruelly treated my first love back in college.  I didn't cheat or anything like that, but I did withdraw my emotional commitment in a snap, in what must have felt to her like an emotional mugging.  I've gone on to find my one true love, but the ghosts of loves past and the sins of the heart I committed still haunt me from time to time, especially when I hear this song.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thoughts on Being a Plugger

During my years in the working world, I've found that there are five basic types of people one encounters in the workplace: Climbers, Pluggers, Time Servers, Goldbrickers, and Bitter Enders.

Climbers are Type A personalities whose every move is calculated to be noticed and rewarded by superiors.  They are ambitious and highly focused, though not necessarily always hard-working.  Many make the calculus that schmoozing the boss has a greater effect in terms of climbing the ladder than producing results.

Pluggers are very hard-working individuals who pour a great deal of dedication and personal commitment into their work.  They often take greater pride in their profession than in their position, and while ambitious, do not do much to push themselves forward to their superiors.  Most pluggers figure that their hard work and good results alone will get them noticed by higher-ups.

Most folks in the workplace are time servers.  They do the job they are supposed to do, but with little sense that they are giving a part of themselves over to their jobs.  They do their work, go home, and try to forget about it.  Many climbers and pluggers who get burnt out become time servers.

As their name implies, goldbrickers are out to game the system.  They want to do their job with as little time and effort possible, and will go to great lengths to dodge work and responsibility.  During my time in academia I was appalled at the number of these types I encountered, from a visitor who merely read from the textbook to his class as his "lecture" to a tenure-track prof in the humanities who did all Scantron tests, all the time. Every office or department has someone like this.

The bitter enders are a special type.  These are usually former pluggers who have become completely disillusioned after years of working hard without any reward.  At work they are relentlessly negative, critical of any and all initiatives, and they react to the most innocent inquiries of their bosses as if they were an interrogation before HUAC.  They are usually far along enough in their careers to have both made themselves indispensable and to have a well-established fiefdom.  Any attempts to get them to retire backfire because there is nothing that satisfies their lust for spite more than sticking around when their superiors want them gone.

As much as the bitter enders scare me with their intense anger and resentment, I empathize with their outlook.  As a plugger myself, I know that hard work and good results do not lead to promotion.  There is a game that has to be played beyond doing one's work if one wants to get ahead.  I am bad at schmoozing and playing that type of game, so I elect not to.  Of course, this means that I don't get ahead, that I am stuck lower on the hierarchy than where I want to be.  Everywhere I've worked people have praised my performance, yet I'm always left in positions without power or influence.  Perhaps my expertise threatens others, but it's more likely that plugging away can only get you so far.  My parents were both pluggers in their jobs, and faced the same conundrum: they didn't want to schmooze and kiss ass, but over the years they both developed a great deal of resentment towards their employers for not recognizing their decades of hard work.  I need to either start learning to play the game, or find inner peace that I have decided to trade integrity for status.

The Sequester Just About Sums Up Our Political System's Dysfunction

I've said it before, and I will keep saying it: the Republican party is no longer a political party in the traditional American sense, but has become a vehicle for a movement of radical conservative ideologues.  Like all fanatics, they are bent on following their ideological dictates no matter the cost, since any price should be paid for purity.  Their fanaticism is the dominant force in American politics, and all positive change is paralyzed because they will throw their bodies on the gears of our democratic system if it means they can get their way.

The sequester is a perfect example of this.  The whole thing was set up by president Obama to force the GOP congress to negotiate with him, since everybody knows that the kind of broad, untargeted cuts it calls for will damage the economy and make it difficult for the government to operate.  Despite those obvious facts, John Boehner gleefully refused budge, and declined negotiation because he rejected any increase in revenues out of hand (even the old standby beloved of conservatives to "close loopholes.")

Never mind the fact that we just had a presidential election where the candidate who supported a combination of cuts and tax increases won handily, or the his party won a majority of the voters' ballots in both the Senate and House races.  Gerrymandering and the luck of the draw gave Boehner his power, not the will of the people, who in opinion polls favor the president's approach over that of the conservative fanatics.

The gang of ideologues does not care that the sequester will have harmful effects, or that they are going against the stated will of the people.  They want two things too badly to care about real world consequences: to embarrass the president who they hate so zealously, and to limit government spending, no matter how inappropriate it may be at the current time.

Each and every month we seem to be stuck in yet another political hostage crisis.  Perhaps it's all well and good that Boehner refused to talk with the president.  After all, we know it's best not to negotiate with terrorists.