Friday, November 29, 2013

The Power of Bad Movies

I always seem prone to picking up new popular cultural obsessions and giving my life over to them.  Right now I am doing this with podcasts about bad movies.  This summer I discovered The Flop House, and during the week I took care of the girls while my wife was out of town, I probably listened to the bulk of the episodes.  Recently I have also picked up on the different but equally stellar We Hate Movies.  Both have the same essential premise: three guys get together and make jokes and wisecracks about a crummy movie they saw.  The Flop House looks only at newly released critical and commericial failures, whereas We Hate Movies only takes up films made more than ten years ago (except for special request month.)

I tend to have seen more of the movies that the guys at We Hate Movies rip, because I grew up in a small town where the video store provided the locus of entertainment.  For that reason, I saw a whole lot of movies of varying quality released between 1983 and 1994.  My whole family did martial arts for a few years in the 80s, so I saw a lot of films along the lines of Best of the Best and No Retreat, No Surrender.  These days my tastes are discerning, so The Flop House reminds me that I'm not missing much by limiting myself to art house and foreign films.

That said, these podcasts have given me more appreciation for bad movies.  Watching and hearing others talk about these films is a great way to think about what makes good movies good.  For instance, I re-watched LA Confidential recently, and noticed more than before the narrative and cinematic choices  made by the film-makers.  It avoided easy melodrama, allowed for moral ambiguity, and steered clear of cliches.  These podcasts also help me think about how many great films have bad elements that they are able to overcome.  For example, the dialogue in Star Wars is pretty laughable at points, but it's something I chuckle about, not fixate on, unlike the awful dialogue in Attack of the Clones. The other elements of that film were pretty rotten, too.

I also get a kind of strange kick out of seeing a truly awful film, since the worst of the worst are unique in their wretchedness.  There is simply no other film that duplicates Manos, Hands of Fate.  Nothing in this world will ever be as good as that film is bad, which is a true statement about the fallen-ness of humanity if there ever was one.

Five Bad Movies I'd Recommend Seeing
Some of these films are so bad that they have to be seen to be believed, while others are awful movies with flecks of truly transcendent goodness in them.

1.  Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
I wrote one of my favorite blog posts about this one once.  It both desecrated the Beatles album of the same name and helped wreck the careers of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, which I guess was only karmic payback.  Ever wanted to see George Burns sing "Fixing a Hole" or Billy Preston perform a resurrection or Carol Channing dance in a big musical number with a bunch of C-list 70s celebrities?  Well this is the movie for you.

2.  Roadhouse
I am still amazed that this was made by a major studio in the 1980s.  It's wall to wall booze, boobs, and brawls with a monster truck crushing cars and Patrick Swayze tearing out somebody's throat.  Roadhouse is basically the magnum opus of dumbass, cornpone backwoods hick culture.  (As someone who comes from the boondocks, I feel I am specially qualified to make that assertion.)

3.  Manos, Hands of Fate
This was most definitely not put out by a major studio, and I was first introduced to it through Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Watching it is actually painful, it hurts.  Someway, somehow this awful still manages to be scarier that The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby put together, in that you wonder about how the people who participated in it survived with their sanity intact.  (Evidently the guy who played Torgo suffered injuries from his fake goat legs and later killed himself, a fact that I can't avoid when I watch this.)

4.  Convoy
Sometimes a great film-maker falls on hard times and has to do a little hackwork.  By the late 1970s Sam Peckinpaugh probably had more tequila than blood running in his veins, and had pretty much pissed off and alienated everyone he worked with.  With the runaway success of Smokey and the Bandit in 1977, Convoy appeared a year later as the inevitable rip-off/cashgrab, and Peckinpaugh was pulled off of a barstool somewhere to helm it.  Instead of Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, and Sally Field, it features Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, and Ali McGraw in a bad perm.  The movie looks awful, it's way too long, and the pacing is way off for an action film.  It's as if Peckinpaugh took the anti-authority message of the film way too seriously.  In objective terms this movie is hack, rip-off rubbish, but when viewed as the dying statement of a great artist working with crummy material, it moves me.

5.  Heaven's Gate
This 1981 Michael Cimino western epic became famous as the biggest flop in Hollywood history, and contributed to the decline of the power of directors in Hollywood.  It has become fashionable among cineastes to defend it as unfairly vilified.  However, make no mistake, Heaven's Gate is still a really bad movie.  The pacing is awful, the characters thinly drawn (especially the immigrant farmers), and the whole thing is just as ponderous as an elephant with gout.  However, it is shot beautifully, with some of the best cinematography I have seen in any movie, ever.  This is one where I like to watch individual scenes and just luxuriate in their beauty, and lament that such sublimity was not paired with story or acting.  It's one of those few bad movies where I watch it and think of how good it could have been.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Two Tactics For Dealing With Your Reactionary Relatives Tomorrow

I come from a very large extended family where the vast majority of folks are very conservative, which means political conversations end up with me being ganged up on.  The election of 2000 pretty much ruined Thanksgiving that year because the topic kept coming up in conversation, and I kept getting into fights about it.  After that I learned two tactics that have led to more peace and enjoyable holidays.  Perhaps they can help you, too.

Tactic #1: Pacifism
This is the stance I tend to use the most.  There is actually an informal truce between my parents and I when it comes to talking about politics, but my other relatives are not as mindful.  When they start bringing this stuff up I usually first tell them "I don't want to talk about it."  If that doesn't work, I say "I disagree with you, but I'd rather not get into it."  In the very rare cases where that does not bring an end to it, I just get up and leave the room.  It can be very difficult to take this course, since it means holding one's tongue in the face of outrageous or even offensive statements,  Over the years I've learned I can't change their minds, that they take any political arguments personally, and that deep down we love each other and just want to have a pleasant time together.  Why destroy that trying to reason with someone who spews Fox News talking points?

Tactic #2: Massive Retaliation
Sometimes I resort to this tactic, usually when someone brings up something political apropos of nothing, and in a way that is offensive or a personal affront.  For example, one of my cousins responded to the use of racial slurs by one of our uncles by yelling at him to knock it off and never use those words in front of her children again.  (It actually worked!)  This summer another uncle was goading me about how great Chris Christie is, and after refusing to relent when I tried to change the subject, I just unloaded about how insensitive he was to the fact that my wife is a New Jersey teacher and that he has been scapegoating people like her with his blustering rhetoric and that his policies had actually taken money out of my family's pockets.  He was pretty taken aback at my passion, and just dropped it.  This tactic doesn't work well with things like the Affordable Care Act, but sometimes is necessary when confronted by birthers, Christian dominionists, or Trayvon haters.  You shouldn't even have to listen to that kind of bullshit.

Packing My Winter Survival Kit

It looks like winter has come early this year, if the recent cold temperatures here in New Jersey are any indication.  The older I get, the more I dislike winter.  I actually really loved it growing up, since it meant building snow forts, sledding, and staying indoors to play Connect Four and Battleship during recess.  Nowadays I have a little PTSD from my two winters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where over 100 inches of snow fell both times and the sun came out maybe twice between Halloween and Easter.  After living in Michigan I spent three years in Texas, and really got used to not really having winter.  That experience has drastically reduced my tolerance for cold and lack of sunshine.

To survive winter with my mental state intact, I've started assembling a winter survival kit of things that will make the next few months bearable.  It follows, organized by category.

Certain foods seem to be meant for winter, where they warm both the body and the soul.  Oatmeal and grits thus become especially important at breakfast, when my stomach requires something hot.  This time of year I make a lot of chili, which always seems to lift my spirits.  In recent years I have also delved into the world of root vegetables, whose hearty warmth spreads throughout my limbs whenever I eat them.  My favorite is carrot-rutabega mash, but I also like to make parsnips, turnips, and sweet potatoes.  Soups and stews beyond chili are necessary for survival, and this time of year my shadow haunts Vietnamese restaurants, where I can savor a big old steaming bowl of pho.  There's practically nothing better on a cold dark afternoon, except maybe lamb stew.

Speaking of lamb stew, dark beers are a winter favorite for me as well.  Something about stout and porter especially fit the cold short days and freezing long nights, but I'll grab a bottle of Bell's Brown Ale in a heartbeat.  Other favorites for this time of year are the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter by Great Lakes Brewing Company, Yeti Imperial Stout by Great Divide, Samuel Smith's oatmeal stout, and The Kaiser by Avery, which we used to call "the ole ass-kicker" when I lived in Michigan.

I don't really drink a lot of whiskey during most of the year, but I go through quite a bit in winter time.  Many a night in a frigid apartment has been soothed by the golden glow of Irish whiskey.  While Jameson and Tullamore Dew were my first whiskies, recently I have been delving into bourbon, and the right kind of bourbon can unlock the same glowing fire inside.  These days I have become a fan of Old Grand-Dad, which has a wintry flavor (can't quite explain it) that survives mixing and costs only twenty bucks a bottle.  It's what I call a switch-hitting bourbon, in that it's good for mixing but rough enough not to make mixing a travesty, and yet smooth and tasty enough to stand on its own.

The right music is absolutely essential for making it through winter.  It has to speak to the season's difficulties, and the sad feelings that are more likely to wrap themselves around my mind.  I tend to listen to a lot of folk-inflected music, especially Leonard Cohen's first album, Tim Buckley, Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, and Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan's first album, which is just about as perfect as winter music gets.  In addition to this stuff, I also go with The Smiths, Joy Division (super wintry), The Velvet Underground (whose drones are like a space heater for my soul), and early Miles Davis.  I have spent many evenings shivering under a blanket listening to 'Round Midnight, which is less an album than a kind of medicated musical balm.

Keeping warm is the operating principle behind my winter survival kit, and clothing its most crucial component.  I tend to wear a lot of sweaters, the thicker the better.  A cable knit sweater my wife got my for my birthday has reminded me why I like that genre of sweater so much for the winter time.  Over the years I have also built up a large supply of cardigans, which are an easy thing to grab when you need a little warmth.  I also go with lots and lots of flannel, shirts in the day and pajamas at night.  At those times when it is necessary to venture outdoors, I always have on a hat (tweed usually) and scarf.  Until the last few years I was not a scarf-wearer, but my two winters in Michigan cured me of that shortcoming right quick.  Slippers always get lost, so I like to slip on a pair of wool socks, they certainly make walking on the cold tile in the kitchen and bathroom less trying.

Anything in your own winter survival kits that I'm missing here?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Track of the Week: William DeVaughn, "Be Thankful For What You Got"

In the past six or seven years I've spent a lot of time listening to obscure soul music of the 70s.  It all started one day at a record store in Grand Rapids where the clerk was spinning a Brunswick Records comp that I immediately picked up after hearing the amazing "I Had It All The Time" by Tyrone Davis.  That era created so much great soul music that the oldies and R&B stations I've listened to over the years could barely scratch the surface.  For that reason, I keep falling in love with new songs from the genre.

I heard "Be Thankful For What You Got" on WFMU this weekend, and was instantly transfixed by its tight groove and cooler than cool feel.  I also thought it had an appropriate message for this Thanksgiving week.  Sometimes I wonder if the message of Thanksgiving serves the powers that be, in that we all focus on what we have, and not on what's being taken away from us.  I then remind myself that I am pretty damn lucky.  I have a true life partner, two healthy daughters, a job I love, and a lot fewer money worries than I used to.  It's when I say these things that I worry that Thanksgiving can quickly turn into a smug exercise in self-satisfaction. I guess I'll just tone down the "I'm so thankful for" stuff and groove to this song while wishing y'all a happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Pleasures of a Good Diner

This morning I went with my wife and daughters to a local diner for breakfast, one of my favorite Saturday morning traditions.  When I was single I would walk or drive down to the diner with a newspaper and read and eat at a leisurely pace, enjoying the onset of the weekend.  Nowadays I appreciate diners because they are very kid friendly.  The food comes out fast, it pleases my daughters, and the loud noise of the diner makes any crying or fussing much less embarrassing to me and bothersome to others.

A good diner is truly something to be cherished.  Our diner of choice this morning was Tops, in East Newark near the mighty Passaic River.  Unlike many other diners, their coffee is really good, and the interior is sophisticated and kept spic and span.  Just down the road in North Arlington sits the North Arlington Diner, where my wife and I had shared some important conversations in our early courtship.  I'd much rather have moments like that in a place with advertisements for local businesses on the placemats, rather than a swank joint with fancy napkins and low light.  You can take the boy out of the rural lower-middle class, but you can't take the rural lower-middle class out of the boy.

It is a truly lucky twist of fate that I have landed in New Jersey, where diner culture is still going strong.  In other places where I've lived my diners went into extinction, here they thrive.  Outsiders i.e. snooty New Yorkers, might take the proliferation of diners in the Garden State to be a sign of Jersey's lack of sophistication, but I see it as quite the opposite.  Instead of going to Applebee's or McDonald's, people here would rather have a homier, higher-quality breakfast experience.

Over the years I've put some thought into what makes a good diner, and here are the criteria I've come up with:

Friendly Atmosphere
When I lived by myself diners were the kinds of places where I could eat out alone, but not be alone.  I would strike up conversations with the other customers at the counter with the wait staff.  Nowadays this friendliness comes out at places like the Parkwood Diner in Maplewood, where folks will smile at our daughters or ask how old they are. This is the type of thing that doesn't happen at other kinds of restaurants.  The classic Barry Levinson flick Diner is centered around diner conversations, I could never imagine a film called Bistro or Gastropub.

Skilled Staff
Since diner food is pretty predictable, the service at diners is what really distinguishes them.  In my experience, I've had the best service in diners, even though diner staff get lower tips because the food is cheaper.  (Which is an argument against tipping and for paying wait staff a higher base salary, but I digress.)  At my old place in Chicago, The Salonica, they pretty much knew what I was going to order when I walked in the door.  At the Grand Coney in Grand Rapids I don't think I was ever allowed to get to the bottom of a cup of coffee before it was refilled.

Decent Coffee
One regrettable fact about diners is that many of them have been slow to reflect the Great American Coffee Revolution of the past twenty years, where even gas station coffee has improved.  Some places, like the aforementioned Tops, actually have good coffee, but at most others it's bland, watered down Folger's crystals.  Sometimes I would just have my coffee at home, and then go to the diner and just have water or orange juice.  If you happen to find a diner with legitimately good coffee, hold on to it.

Unique Menu
Diner fare is pretty standard, but the better diners will have some menu items unique to their establishment.  At Mary Ann's in Champaign-Urbana they have a heart-clogging mechanism called the haystack which consists of a hamburger over biscuits topped with a haystack of hash browns slathered in white gravy.  It sounds gross, but hits the spot at 2AM.

The Corned Beef Hash Test
I have been to good diners, but I've also been to the kind bad diner described by Tom Waits where everything comes out of tin cans.  At the good places the food tastes fresh and made with care.  To determine whether a diner does take the proper attitude towards its food, I give it the corned beef hash test.  It's a dish I love for breakfast, but is so often just dumped out of a can at lesser diners.  At a fine establishment like Tops, however, you can actually see and taste real pieces of corned beef.  Many diners have passed this test, and they live on in my heart like old friends.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The "Nuclear Option" Should Just Be The Beginning

Today Harry Reid finally utilized the so-called "nuclear option" to end the unprecedented number of filibusters of executive appointees by Senate Republicans, which have hampered the president's basic power to govern the country.  I laugh at the term "nuclear option," since most people would term it "common sense."  How does it make any sense in a democracy for a minority to prohibit the basic functions of government because it wants to throw a temper tantrum?  Republicans warn Democrats that they could well soon be in the minority, but so what?  Isn't it about time we recognized that we shouldn't govern purely based on partisan concerns?

Our system of government in obviously broken, something easily proven by the federal shutdown this fall and the ability of individual Senators to put "holds" on nominations without even providing a reason.  The Senate likes to think of itself as "the world's greatest deliberative" body, which is a complete joke.  Can anyone tell me the last time we had a profound debate of any sort in the Senate?  Has there ever been a use of the filibuster which was not negative?  I ask the latter question having recently read Joe Crespino's fantastic Strom Thurmond's America, where the titular Senator used the filibuster to slow down civil rights legislation and defeat card check union elections.  The Senate consists of a bunch of venal blow-hards who love nothing more than the sound of their own vacuous voices.  Despite acting like a bull in a china shop, Ted Cruz fits right in there.

I would be happy to find a way to scrap the current set of Senate rules completely.  They are a relic from a time when the Senators were not even elected by the people, and these rules have traditionally been manipulated by reactionaries to stop popular legislation that they don't like.  Make the Senate like any other legislative upper house, and force it to actually do its job.  It needs to generate laws, not hot air.  In any case, these rules were never voted on by the people, nor are they part of the Constitution, and thus seem to have little to no democratic validity in my eyes.

The House could use some changes, too.  Above all, it actually needs to be representative of the people.  The current partisan mess has left Congress just about as popular as athlete's foot and root canals, yet the same shysters get re-elected.  The iron-clad nature of legislative districting has a lot to do with this.  When the founders gave state legislatures the power to create districts, I don't think they had any notion of gerrymandering, yet 200 laters we still haven't fixed that awful mistake. California has put districting in non-partisan hands, and this has both made districts more representative, and politicians more responsive.

When it comes to political and social reform, our nation seems to be sleepwalking.  Instead of holding onto moldy, failed political traditions like the Senate rules or state legislatures setting up legislative districts, we need to break free of them.  Rather than bitching about the awfulness of Congress before pulling the lever for the same old jerks, we need to find ways to make Congress more accountable.  Hopefully today will be a solid first step.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Top Five Favorite British Character Actors

On a whim this not so long ago I decided to watch the original Star Wars (I absolutely refuse to call it Episode IV: A New Hope), and realized how the film's often silly dialogue is saved by the talents of British actors like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. Just think about how hokey phrases like "The Force can have a strong influence on the weak minded" would sound without Guinness' masterful delivery. As Grand Moff Tarkin (what the hell is a Grand Moff, anyway?) Cushing's rolled "r"s and clipped diction manage to skirt the border with camp without quite crossing it. British actors who scored lead roles like Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Richard Harris, and Michael Caine are well known, but we should remember the lesser known thespians who in some ways are just as memorable. In that spirit, here are my top five favorite British character actors.

1. Donald Pleasance. Was there ever a creepier voice in the history of cinema than that of Donald Pleasance? Only Peter Lorre comes close. (Don't believe me? Listen to him in this scary British PSA.) Pleasance was in a bajillion movies, but I'll never forget him as the president in Escape From New York (in my opinion the best of all the post-apocalyptic films of the early 1980s.) Not only is he believable as the president, he is actually believable as the president spraying machine gun fire at the Duke of New York, not an easy thing to pull off. He was perhaps the only think about the Sgt. Pepper motion picture that did not completely suck. And oh yeah, he was the first actor to fully portray the ultimate Bond villain, Blofeld.

2. Rachel Roberts. Roberts appears in two of the greatest British realist films, one of my favorite genres. As I mentioned awhile back, Roberts' performance in This Sporting Life is one for the ages. Nobody has ever done a better job of portraying someone whose self-hatred destroys her ability to love. She does a great job in a less gut-wrenching role in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Her best performance, however, came in Picnic at Hanging Rock, where she managed to center one of the most mysterious films ever made as a bitter school headmistress.

3. Christopher Lee. Of all the great Brit character actors of the World War II generation, none has had as much recent fame as Christopher Lee. He managed to get sizable roles in the two biggest film trilogies of the last decade, the Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings, as Count Dukoo and Sauruman, respectively. In the latter roles he wrings every inch of menace out of lines like "you have chosen the way of pain" (which pretty much sums up a decision to go to grad school.) As Dukoo he was one of the few things that made Attack of the Clones bearable. This prominent work has introduced him to generations wholly ignorant of his many classic roles in the old Hammer horror films, which alone get him on this list. His Dracula is a pitiless killing machine who would eat Edward for lunch and have Bella for dessert.  I also highly enjoy his turn as the titular Bond villain in The Man with the Golden Gun, which he saves from utter crapitude.

4. Tom Wilkinson. After watching, of all things, Duplicity a few years ago I remembered just how great an actor Tom Wilkinson is. (I know of no other Brit so good at portraying Americans.) I first saw him as the uptight former supervisor in The Full Monty, where he managed to play a sympathetic ass, which is quite a tightrope act.  His puffy, pompous interpretation of General Cornwallis is also the only redeemable thing about The Patriot.

5. Denis Lawson. Okay, so he may not be the most distinguished guy on this list, but Denis Lawson did indeed play Wedge Antilles in all of the original Star Wars flicks. Wedge was the only minor character to appear in all three films, so Lawson can definitely hold onto that. (I'm sure sci-fi convention appearances will pay for his retirement.) During my Charles Dickens craze in the late oughts I looked up the most recent British TV adaptation of Bleak House (my fave Dickens novel), and he absolutely nailed the part of John Jarndyce. How many other people can look natural both in an X-Wing cockpit and wearing a Victorian cravat?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Track of the Week: Tim Buckley, "Song To The Siren"

I made it back from my grandmother's funeral in Nebraska today after many flight delays and the fun that is bringing twin toddlers on an airplane for a few hours.  I was lucky enough to see many family members I hadn't seen in years this weekend, and I hope that we can get together outside of funerals soon.

Perhaps it was because my children were such a distraction that the true torrent of grief didn't start coming out of me until tonight.  It is not easy to face the passing of a person who I loved so dearly and who played such an important role in my life.  At times like these, I turn to the balm of bourbon and sad music, as I am right now, up too late on a Sunday night, unable to sleep.

Tim Buckley crafted some beautiful songs in his day, but perhaps none more so than "Song To The Siren."  It is a song that always stops me dead in my tracks, and demands to be listened to with full attention.  The Larry Beckett lyrics are, as usual, poetic and resistant to easy interpretation.  One could read it as a lamentation about giving oneself over to love, and it all ending in pain and devastation.  I hear it differently, as an acceptance of death's embrace.  We all eventually have to go to sail to that undiscovered country on the far shore, a fact that is on my mind a lot this week.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dedicated to Grandma

My grandmother passed away last week, and I am soon flying out to Nebraska for the funeral.  My mother is putting together a book of remembrances, and I thought I'd share mine with you:


She is there in my earliest memories.  I still remember being on vacation in Colorado Springs at the age of three or four, and seeing her and grandpa in a parking lot where they were meeting up with us.  Seeing them was a surprise, and I could not have been any more overjoyed.  I was so excited I started running furiously, only to stumble and fall down hard out of my enthusiasm.  Grandma hurried right up to calm me.  It’s apt that that’s my first memory of her; she was always there when I needed her.

I always loved going to see her and Grandpa at the farm because it not only meant building precarious forts out of the tetanus infested refuse of Grandpa’s junk pile, it also meant an amazing variety of home made pies, fluffy mashed potatoes, games of Aggravation, and unwavering, unconditional love.  Those days on the farm, especially the week I spent there every summer, were some of the very happiest I have ever had in my thirty eight years of life, and she’s the reason why.  Whenever I feel downtrodden or worried, memories of those days with her on the farm always cheer me up like nothing else.

As I have grown into an adult I have gained the unfortunate knowledge that so many people in this world are selfish, petty, venal, and mean-spirited.  Grandma was the opposite of that, and I only realized later that her kindness, generosity of spirit, and patience were so unique and special.  I have never known any other person so selfless, so willing to do for others, and yet doing so without drawing attention to herself.  In her quiet way she lifted those around her seemingly with every moment of her life to her dying day. 

We tend to judge success with such awful, materialistic criteria these days.  You can’t judge success by the type of car you own or the amount of money you make.  True success is measured by how much better you leave the world and the positive impact you have on the lives of others.  By that standard Grandma is probably the most successful person I’ve ever known, and it will be hard to face life without her.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

More Thoughts On Changes Since 2005-2006

I wrote the other day how the world before around 2005 suddenly seems distant to me now.  My friend Brian mentioned changes in the legal status of gay men and women since then, and that got me thinking some more.  Back in 2004, Bush pushed for a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, and his campaign very effectively flogged that issue to get religious conservatives to the polls.  These days marriage equality is proceeding at a brisk pace, and Republicans have begun soft-pedaling their opposition, lest they lose the broader electorate.  Other once fringe causes, such as marijuana legalization, have scored major victories.

In general, the so-called "values voters" that so many credited for putting Bush over the top in '04 and who have played a crucial role in national elections going back to the Moral Majority's support of Reagan in 1980, now look pretty toothless.  Much of this I feel has to do with the rapidly growing number of Americans who no longer express any religious affiliation.  Pandering blatantly to the Christianists alienates the growing non-religious so much that doing so is no longer politically advantageous.  The pandering has been done recently on abortion and contraception, and is being deployed in the Bible Belt, not in terms of national policy.

Not only is America becoming a more secular country, it is also (not coincidentally) becoming a more urban nation as well.  Urban living has recaptured much of its allure for the youth, and the in the wake of the housing crisis, the new exurban subdivisions are choked with weeds.  When the Atlanta Braves announced this week that they were moving their team to a new stadium in whiteflightville, er I mean "Cobb County," much of the surprise had to do with a baseball team relocating to a suburban location when city centers have been the preferred home of new stadiums in recent years.

The increasingly secularization, urbanization and changing racial demographics in America are fueling the Tea Party and other revanchist movements.  The country is changing, and these participants in white identity politics want to "take our country back."  That brand of populist nationalism is the new, volatile force in American politics, and one that threatens division, conflict, and just generally crazy behavior.  I have the feeling that our politics is going to be defined for quite some time by the fact that a large percentage of Americans who have the financial backing of corporate interests will stop at nothing to have their reactionary vision put in place.  Hold on, it's already been a bumpy ride.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Track of the Week: The Kinks, "Some Mother's Son"

World War I was the event that first sparked my interest in history.  It was the combination of checking out an illustrated history of it from the library in the third grade with Snoopy battling the Red Baron in It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown that gave me the bug.  When I started my graduate studies, I was certain that I would be doing a dissertation topic related to the war's political and cultural fall-out.  Somehow along the way I realized that the nineteenth century had more interesting facets that had not yet been picked over by better and more renowned scholars than I.

Despite that, my abiding interest in World War I has never left me.  Something about its murderous absurdity and inherently elegaic quality won't let go of me.  Even though plenty of my friends and family are veterans, I cannot think of November 11th as anything other than Armistice Day.  As a teenager I wrote stories from the perspective of trench soldiers (yeah, I didn't get a date until I was 18), and relished constructing one scene where a German soldier arose from the muddy trench on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, looked at his English counterparts on the other side of No Man's Land, and wondered why they had been trying so hard to kill each other.

All wars are tragic because young people must die to advance the political aims of old men.  "Some Mother's Son" by The Kinks gets to the heart of this tragedy perhaps better than any other.  Coming on their historical concept album Arthur, it tells the simple tale of a nameless soldier of the Great War losing his life, and his mother losing a son.  It's all summed up in a heart-breakingly simple line, "some mother's son ain't coming home today."  At the end of the day, that's the raw reality of war, and no number of parades, jet plane flyovers, or American flag pins on the lapels of television personalities can change that.  I certainly appreciate the sacrifices made by our veterans; my own grandfather lost a kidney during World War II which likely shortened his life.  That said, I can't stand war being bathed in pieties and showered with glory on this Veteran's Day when too many mothers' sons from our recent conflicts won't be coming home today.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Only Yesterday, or why the pre-2005-2006 world seems so distant

In 1931 Frederick Lewis Allen published a minor masterpiece called Only Yesterday, where he sketched a history of the 1920s.  Although he wrote about very recent events, the trauma of the Great Depression had ripped open a giant chasm between the grim present and the "roaring" recent past.  This morning, while doing the laundry, I thought about how we were into year five our own depression, and wondered whether it was having a similar effect on our connection to the past.  The more I got to thinking, though, the more I came to realize that 2005-2006 may well have been the starting point of a truly monumental shift in our way of life.  To be honest, the thought came to me while seeing a rerun of Friends on TV this morning (don't judge) from 2004, and everything seemed so long ago and distant.

Just think back to January of 2005.  George W. Bush had just been re-elected president, and his neo-conservative crusade in Iraq seemed to have been validated.  American power probably never looked more unassailable, the United States now a "hyperpower" in the words of Bernard Henry-Levi.  Conservatives followed Bush with unstinting loyalty, championing his every move and looking forward to him announcing privatization plans for Social Security.  At this point, social media was in its infancy.  Facebook was used by a small number of college students, Twitter did not exist for another year.  When the last of the Star Wars prequels came out in May of 2005, there were no outcries or praises on social media, because people were communicating those feelings in other ways.  Cell phones had become ubiquitous, but there would be no iPhones until 2007, and Blackberry devices were owned by a small few.  If you wanted to watch television, you watched it on your television.  Amazon and other online services had put a dent in traditional booksellers, but only a few cranks thought that books themselves might be made obsolete, or that technology may be used to eliminate the traditional college classroom.

These days things have certainly changed.  Smartphones and social media dominate our free time, television has been detached from the idiot box, and educated professionals from professors to lawyers to journalists to photographers are having their livelihoods completely upended by the ruthless ways that the capitalist class has wielded the new technology.  Unpaid internships have mushroomed, and interns are now doing the kind of once-valuable work that merited compensation in the past.  Across the board the tech revolution is being used to destroy the independence of the creative class, who have been demoted to mere "content providers."  The current system has actually found a way to make the horribly exploitative music biz of the past look rosy by comparison.

Politically the changes have been ever more drastic.  The United States has been chastened and the attempt to intervene in Syria foundered on the rocks of domestic protest.  The failures in Iraq, mismanagement of Katrina, and economic collapse of 2008 (among other things) destroyed Bush's luster, and that of establishment conservatives generally.  They lost Congress in 2006, and then the presidency in 2008.  Instead of trying to win the country over, conservatives have appealed to their base, which has meant having enough power in the capital to obstruct their opponents, and to put their most extreme desires into practice in the "red" states.  While Bill O'Reilly annoyed me back in '05, I had no clue that he would be eclipsed by the full-on Father Coughlin-ism of Glenn Beck and his ilk.

Seven years ago Congress was not full of people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.  Republican governors did not try to eliminate collective bargaining, and teachers were not scapegoats in such efforts.  We can only compare George W. Bush to Rick Perry, and how they've governed Texas.  Bush was most certainly a right-winger, but he governed with the knowledge that plenty of people in the state did not vote for him, whereas Perry has let his id run wild and free, and knowing that Democrats are marginalized, governs as if anyone who didn't vote for him is an enemy to be crushed.

The Tea Party brand of conservatism does not try to put on a friendly face.  In fact, I think it is spurred in large part by the knowledge, once faint but now more real, that America will cease to be a white majority country in the near future.  The election of Barack Obama has only made that fact the more real.  The corporate conservatives and neo-con schemers of the Bush years were nefarious, but the Tea Party crop is pushing American politics in a dangerously rancorous direction.  We now have one of our major parties run by a gang who will shut down the country and traffic in dangerous rhetoric to get what they want.  It's almost enough to make me hate Shrub less.

The desperation and pain wrought by the current economic crisis isn't making anything any better.  While the economy worked in a highly unequal fashion in the first years of this century, we now have a situation where corporations can make record profits in the midst of such horrible woe.  Any notion that the health of major corporations advances the living standards of their employees and of ordinary Americans in general has been discredited. Such facts have led to a resurgence of Marxist and Marxist inspired thought.  My philosopher friend James noted to me today that naturalistic modes of thought and art, exemplified by the field of cognitive science, have captured the day, and the airy postmodernism so beloved by the intellectual class before 2005 has been discredited by the harsh reality of our contemporary world.

It seems to me that we have been, and will continue to be living through a great transformation.  I do not know where it is heading, but can only hope that the forces of democracy and justice can marshal their forces and fight what appears to be a world where the corporate elites and monied interests are getting even more power, where working and middle class people keep having to accept less, the worst aspects of America's Jacksonian id have been set loose, and where art and thought are being reduced to "content" controlled by said elites.  Perhaps they think their strategy of iPads and circuses will keep the plebs in their places.  Sadly, based on what I've seen in the past few years, they might be right.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Death's Dominion and The Consolation of Country Gospel

After two weeks of fierce struggle against death's cold hand, my grandmother passed away late last night.  She was by far the kindest soul I have ever known in this world, someone who just radiated love and goodwill.  Despite that, she was also pretty damn stubborn, and I knew that Death would have to work extra hard to claim her.

So many people are trying to tell me that she is in a better place, but I am having a hard time believing it.  Even the most religiously devout fight death to the last; I am not sure anyone has absolute confidence in the afterlife.  There is a burning animal instinct in us to stay alive that overpowers the stories we try to tell ourselves about salvation and eternal life.

But I will try to respect my grandma by thinking of her in that "better place," no matter how deeply I doubt it.  I've been listening to some country gospel music for comfort, and even if I don't actually feel the old time religion in my soul, this music is a powerful salve.  During the times when I hope there is something else, these are the songs that stoke my faint faith when confronted with the death of someone I love:

"Wayfaring Stranger," Neko Case
Her voice is so powerful, one of the greatest that we have, and she really wraps it around this gospel chestnut.

"Lord, I'm Ready to Go Home," The Louvin Brothers
The Louvin Brothers' harmonies were never so erie and spine-tingling as on this song, where an old man readies himself for death.

"Dust on Mother's Bible," Buck Owens
Buck's warm voice wrings about as much pathos as he can from this song about the dusty Bible that remains once his mother is gone.

"I Saw the Light," Hank Williams
It's hard to buy a song about leaving sin for the straight and narrow when it comes out of the mouth of a horse tranquilizer popper who died in the back of a car on a way to a show.  Then again, it makes the conversion narrative that much more believable.

"Can The Circle Be Unbroken," The Carter Family
Might as well go all the way back to the original country music group.  This song about a funeral has one of the most hopeful, uplifting choruses of any song.  Even if I can't muster confidence that there's a "better world a waiting in the sky," it still moves me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

No, Most Academics Don't Have It "Pretty Darn Good"

I know I promised to stop writing about academia for awhile, but things keep happening to pull me back in.  However, I think I will try to write from a matter-of-fact perspective, rather than the one of burning anger and bitterness that once defined my missives about the ivory tower.

Since I have left academia, my life has drastically improved.  My time away also has put in high relief just how cruel and ridiculous the profession is in light of how things are done in the world outside.  For example, in the independent high school where I teach, the idea that there would be "real teachers" with permanent jobs on a hierarchy above a group of disposable, low-wage teachers paid a pittance by class and not given health benefits would be considered absurd and immoral, because it is.  In academia, such a hierarchy, where many gifted scholars and teachers must toil without security, decent pay, support, or a voice, is accepted as a given.

The ongoing economic depression has brought what was already a crisis to a breaking point.  Many folks who have left the profession, and many others who remain, have begun to raise their voices against the hypocrisies and failures of the current arrangement.  Rebecca Schuman (aka Pan Kisses Kafka) is one of the more (justifiably) well-known of these writers, and today I was alerted to (yet another) piece taking her to task by one Merinda Simmons.

Simmons' essay is yet another addition to the fine and august tradition of lifeboater apologetics.  As I mentioned in a previous post, lifeboaters are those who have secured a tenure-track position, and then refuse to do anything to help those in the contingent world drowning around them.  Their apologetic writings are usually complaints about the loud thrashing and screaming noises made by the drowning, rather than the fact that people are drowning in the first place.  Simmons actually managed to distill the lifeboater perspective into one pithy statement:
In our worry and (in Schuman’s case, outright anger) over the current state of academe, though, it’s easy to lose sight of a very important fact: professional academicians have it pretty darn good.  
What kind of "fact" is that?  Well, according to Simmons, the fact that she is able to contemplate and write about this issue while drinking tea on a weekday afternoon is proof.  Never mind that a majority of professors, adjuncts or otherwise, do not have comfortable appointments at research institutions.  Never mind that most faculty are now contingent.  Never mind that those lucky enough to be on the tenure-track are often stuck spending their lives in places they would never choose to live in or that in many cases must face separation from their spouses.  At most institutions even the tenured are being asked to do more with less.  I left academia to be an independent school teacher. I get paid more, am living with my spouse, living in a place that I love, and I work for an employer that treats me like a valuable asset, not a piece of garbage.  I am working what is technically a lower-prestige job than the one I left on the tenure track, but just about everything is better.

Simmons basically feels that despite the problems in the profession, all academics should be happy because they aren't shoveling shit:
I’m not at all suggesting that the increase in and reliance on adjunct positions and lectureships isn’t a lamentable fact of the institutional matter.  And I’m not saying that the market isn’t a difficult territory to traverse.  But difficult according to whom and compared to what?  Is it as difficult as collecting garbage during hot Alabama summers?  Is it as difficult as working the graveyard shift as a 911 operator? 
First off, "lamentable fact" does not adequately describe a grossly unfair and hierarchical system whereby dreams are crushed, spirits broken, and longterm adjuncts are so poor that they are buried in cardboard boxes.  "Difficult territory" is a rather poor phrase to describe an arbitrary job market that makes ridiculous demands on its participants and leaves people with stellar teaching and publication records begging for contingent work.  These statements betray a staggering detachment from the reality that a great many academics live with each and every day.

Second, I have family members who have hauled trash and worked the graveyard shift as 911 operators.  I have worked factory jobs, telemarketing, farm labor, and behind the counter at a convenience store.  These jobs are not abstractions for me.  (They also pay more per hour than what most adjuncts make.)  As a child of the rising lower-middle class, there is nothing that tells people like me to shut up and do as you're told than saying the equivalent of "You're unhappy? Well, you could be digging a ditch or shoveling shit."  I cannot put into words just how insulting such statements are when they come from a position of privilege.  It could always be worse for everyone, according to that logic.  Minimum wage too low?  Going bankrupt due to a health emergency?  Collecting garbage in the sweltering Alabama summer?  Well, at least you're not a Moldovan sex worker or a blind beggar on the streets of Lahore.  Stop bitching and go back to work, peasant!  This is not "checking privilege" on anybody, it's an attempt to muzzle those being screwed by a cruel system.

This piece also dispenses a healthy dose of the "you chose this path and no one guaranteed you anything" line as a strategy to counteract critiques of the system.  There's also plenty of the "life is hard all around" cant, essentially telling critics of academia that their problems are nothing special.  As I said before, we don't have adjunct labor at the other levels of our education system, this is something unique to academia.  Expecting non-poverty pay, a voice in the workplace, and health insurance is not "entitlement," it's a demand to be treated with basic human dignity.

Simmons also cites those (like Schuman) who have gone to success outside of academia without considering for a moment that these stories are the exception, not the rule.  The prominent success stories are prominent because of their success, nobody takes notes of those who can't transition to well-compensated work.  For the vast majority of forced refugees from academia, a humanities PhD is a huge liability in starting a new career, not an asset.  For many others (including myself) it means taking a job that did not need a PhD in the first place, and having lost out on years of the earnings necessary for home ownership and retirement.  Yes, my situation beats hauling trash like my grandfather did, but what the hell kind of standard is that?

I have multiple friends who have published books and excelled in the classroom stuck without permanent gigs.  They have met every requirement and qualification, but are still stuck doing the professorial equivalent of ditch digging, often with less-qualified colleagues in tenured positions at the same institutions.  To say "they knew what they were in for" or "it's like this in all walks of life" or "you are forgetting just how privileged you are" is merely an apology for injustice.

Some academics do indeed have it "pretty darn good."  I don't hold that against them, hell, some are close friends and I am very happy for them.  But if those few who have it pretty darn good refuse to stick their necks out for or even acknowledge the problems of those who don't, they are collaborators with the current corrupt system.  Enjoy your lifeboats, because the current storm, which has left so many drowning in despair, will eventually claim you, too.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Track of the Week: The Band, "Rocking Chair"

Two nights ago while my wife was at a friend's birthday party, and after putting the kids to bed, I had the house to myself.  My wild and crazy idea of fun was to watch a documentary about  the sadly departed Levon Helm (I Ain't In It For My Health) and have a couple of glasses of wine.

It had been far too long since I had listened to any of Helm's music, either solo or with the incomparable Band.  There was a time in my life, from roughly about 2002 to 2005, where I was completely obsessed with The Band, and watched The Last Waltz on a weekly basis.  I had been too long apart, because seeing the old clips, as well as recent footage of Helm's "midnight rambles" at his upstate New York home warmed my soul.

The Band's first three records stand up better than just about anything from their era, and we are talking here about 1968-1970, one of the most fertile periods in rock music history.  The key was in their name: this was a group where there was no front man, three different members sang lead, and all provided essential elements to the sound while never overshadowing the other members.  With The Band, the music always came first, and this group, which had cut their teeth on the live circuit for ten years before releasing an LP, knew how to play.  This was not a teenage garage band fucking around and covering up their mistakes with noise and bravado.

The second, self-titled album is my favorite, and high in the running for my favorite album ever by any artist.  There are some more famous songs on it, like "Up On Cripple Creek" and "King Harvest Has Surely Come," but I have a special place in my heart for "Rocking Chair."  It's a song sung in the voices of two old sailors, one of whom longs to be "home again/ down in old Virginny."  Levon Helm sings with Richard Manuel, their voices spookily weaving together and lamenting the inability to go home again.  The sailors at sea have traveled to far and have become too old to ever go back.  Now that I've lived over half my life away from my rural Nebraska homeland, I often fear the same thing, that my home will become forever lost to me.  Trying to talk to my grandmother over the phone as she faces death and her weak voice is hard to hear over the wires is only making that fear more real.

This was hardly the theme that most rock bands, full of the confidence of youth, were singing about back in 1969, and that's why The Band endures.  Seeing footage of Levon Helm old and frail, his voice a fragile instrument ravaged by age and cancer, reminded me a lot of this song.  Despite all the miles he traveled and the travails he endured, he still made great music into his 70s.  I can only wish that when I reach that age, I am still able to do the things that give me most pleasure in life.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Overlooked Albums By Famous Artists

Over the years I've developed a listening habit whereby I really get obsessed with a particular artists, and in a short period of time acquire much of their back catalog.  If I really like them, over the years I will happen to complete my stock with albums that aren't as highly regarded.  I've discovered that many albums which have been written off by critics or not as popular among fans can be really damn good.  After all, less than perfect products of genius are better than the best that hacks can offer.  Here's a list of albums by famous artists that have been criminally overlooked.

David Bowie, Diamond Dogs
Allmusic only gives this one two stars, by far the lowest rating of any record from Bowie's 70s heyday.    I picked it up in the midst of my Bowie period, which lasted from about 1998 to 2000, and liked it just fine.  Its reputation may have suffered from the fact that it was originally intended as an adaptation of Orwell's 1984, and the resulting post-apocalyptic scenario is half-baked.  So be it, but even if the lyrics get daft, the songs are great.  It's also a bit of a cast-off record, since it's Bowie's last glam rock album, but it doesn't feature his backing band The Spiders From Mars.  Sure, some of these songs could use some Mick Ronson guitar, but with monster riffs on "Diamond Dogs" and "Rebel Rebel," Bowie more than holds his own.

Billy Joel, Turnstiles
Joel was on a major roll in the 1970s, but most folks remember Piano Man, 52nd Street, or The Stranger as his notable albums.  Turnstiles tends to fall through the cracks, but it's got great tunes like "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" and "New York State of Mind," which are among Joel's best.  It's also a short all killer no filler album where Joel's touring band finally backs him up, giving the songs a warmer touch than studio musicians.

U2, October
I wrote a post in my classic albums series on October, which features some of Edge's best guitar playing and "Gloria," one of U2's all time best songs.

REM, Monster
This album might be a little harder to defend, but I love it.  Released in 1994 in the midst of the grunge explosion, REM stepped away from their mandolin-heavy folk vibe of the early 1990s to some feedback-laden rawk music.  For years I used to reliably see it in the bargain bins at used records stores, proof that it hadn't had much staying power.  While the sound may be off-putting for REM fans, songs like "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", "Crush With Eyeliner," and "Bang and Blame" are just great.  Michael Stipe also has some of his best singing on "Tongue" and "Strange Currencies."

The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour
I know it's hard to think of any Beatles album as overlooked, but I think Magical Mystery Tour qualifies.  It's not quite an album per se, but a collection of songs from the eponymous TV movie with some of their non-album singles thrown in for good measure.  It never gets discussed much, but song for song I would actually rate it better than Sgt. Pepper.  (Blasphemy, I know.)  How can you beat "I Am The Walrus," "Strawberry Fields," "Penny Lane," "Fool On The Hill," "All You Need Is Love" and "Hello, Goodbye" all on the same record?  Lesser known songs like "Your Mother Should Know" and "Baby You're A Rich Man" still sound great, and the moody "Blue Jay Way" is an unorthodox distillation of anomie.

Bruce Springsteen, Ghost of Tom Joad
In 1995 after years in the musical wilderness, Bruce Springsteen came out with a kind of sequel to his stark and acclaimed Nebraska for the 1990s.  With its spare tales of Rust Belt decay, drug smugglers on the border, and ex-cons sick of the straight and narrow, it is a subversive and challenging album that did not make the impact it should have.  "Youngstown" is one of the most powerful songs about the human devastation of de-industrialization yet written.  The title track is the modern equivalent of a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie song, a distillation of this nation's abandonment of its most vulnerable people.  The last song, "My Best Was Never Good Enough" mocks Forrest Gump and the stupid platitudes that people tell themselves to cheer themselves up about being crushed by an unfair society.  The cynical bitterness in his voice probably wasn't the uplifting tone that fans of the Boss wanted to hear.

Friday, November 1, 2013

My Own Photographic Evidence of Chris Christie's Corruption

New Jersey is having its election for governor on Tuesday, and right now it looks like incumbent Chris Christie is going to win in a landslide.  This despite the fact that the state's economy has remained in the doldrums, that Christie has slashed money to schools, has let political cronies run halfway houses that abuse inmates and let them escape, canceled needed public works projects while giving state funding for a giant shopping mall, cut money for police in cities that need cops on the streets, and generally behaved like a bullying jackass.

Of all of Christie's many corrupt dealings and lies, none may be more egregious than his exploitation of Hurricane Sandy.  This summer, when the state needed to run ads to promote tourism to the Jersey Shore after Sandy's devastation, it chose a company whose ads prominently featured Christie and his family (not ordinary New Jerseyans) with the slogan "stronger than the storm."  Coming in an election year, it seemed awful fishy to me, and I was right.  According to the Asbury Park Press, the "Stronger Than the Storm" ad agency charged $2 million more than a competing firm whose ads were not going to feature Christie.  That's right, the state used taxpayer dollars to give the Christie campaign some free propaganda. The head of the selection committee and a Christie appointee had also once received a $49,000 loan from the governor.  I tell you, it stinks worse than a two-day old fish wrapped in a three day old newspaper.

And yet the man seems to be made of teflon.  Like the popular bully at school, people feel like they have to support him for their own standing, or are afraid of what could happen to them if they oppose him.  Considering that, I am not sure if the little revelation I have to offer here will matter much.

The weather was beautiful when I got home from work today, and so I decided to take the dog on an extra-long walk down to Independence Park.  On my way home, I noticed some Christie stickers on the light poles.  I looked closer, and saw that the slogan "Stronger Than The Storm" appeared below his name.  The governor had always said that the ads this summer were there to promote New Jersey, and not him, but evidently his campaign is now explicitly tying the governor to the summer ad campaign.  Not only is this ridiculous in light of Christie's failures to enact proper storm recovery, it pretty much exposes those ads for what they were the whole time: state-sponsored and tax-payer funded propaganda for the governor.  I am not sure if it's illegal, but it stinks.

Footnote: I have also just been told that the sticker reads "Stronger Than The Strom," which is a helluva typo.  I guess Christie would be stronger than the corpse of Strom Thurmond.