Friday, October 30, 2015

The Wisdom Of Halloween

More than most people, I am attuned to changes in the seasons.  This might be partly because I grew up in central Nebraska, a place where the weather changes are violently breathtaking.  Summer there brings thunderstorms barreling down the Plains and winter blinding blizzards that come just as suddenly.  Living in a rural area, the changes in the seasons also marked obvious changes in the cycle of work and the cycle of life.  Spring's planting, summer's verdant bounty, fall's harvest and winter's dormancy all surrounded me.

Our oldest and best holidays come from ancient times and a world where the rhythms of agriculture dominated.  The holidays marked the season's changes, even if Christianity had been grafted onto them.  Christmas is the warm light in the midst of the winter solstice, Easter the celebration of nature's resurrection turned into Christ's.  The Church tried to turn Halloween into All Saints Day, but Halloween has come out victorious.  It comes at the end of October when the harvest has come in, the leaves mostly fallen, and grass has started to go brown.  Life is dying or going into hibernation, and thus the feeling that the line between the world of the living and dead is blurry.  Halloween is thus the wisdom of the ancients still available for us to draw from.

I must say, as I hear the leaves rustle on my street and the dark of night gets spookily dense, I can feel the cold hand of the world of the dead on my shoulder.  But its not all scary.  I have sadly lost many very close to me over the last few years.  My wife's grandfather, my grandmother, my cat, and one of my best friends have all lately passed into the realm of the dead.  Over the last week they have felt eerily closer to me, their presence almost palpable.  It's as if I can almost see their faces, and feel their touch again.  Sometimes that feeling is almost unbearable, but I am glad that this unsettling time also brings me closer to their spirits.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Spoiled Children Caucus

Two days ago, as my twin daughters had simultaneous toddler meltdowns, I had a eureka moment: the so-called Freedom Caucus is using the same tactics as my three years olds.  While my daughters' meltdowns can be annoying and even upsetting, I understand that they are part of growing up, and that they are gradually learning how to deal with their frustration in a more mature manner.

Evidently a lot of conservatives never made it through this stage in life, since they have been pitching a constant fit for the last month over the House leadership crisis and debt ceiling.  They got Boehner out, kept his chosen successor (McCarthy) from taking his spot, and demanded that whoever filled the Speakership take the nation hostage once again by demanding massive budget cuts or else risk default.  This is exactly what happens when weak parents give in to toddlers.  The little tykes soon get drunk on their own power once they realize that if they pitch their wails high and loud enough that mom and dad will do anything for them if it just shuts them up.

Suddenly, the adults decided they had enough.  Paul Ryan (admittedly a hard Right conservative) refused to agree to many of the Freedom Caucus' demands and was not barred from being Speaker.  Then, this week, Boehner dropped the bombshell that he had negotiated a compromise with Democrats that would raise the debt limit until 2017, effectively postponing any new hostage crisis until the next presidential administration.  The Spoiled Children Caucus (my name for them) has been apoplectic, kicking the floor and screaming like one of my daughters when I've denied her a second cookie.  They never seemed to have realized that if Boehner was on his way out he could make a deal because he literally had nothing left to lose.  '

The budget deal has passed the House without a majority of Republican support.  (That's right, a majority of House Republicans are willing to risk a national default to force through policies that the country doesn't want.)  In the Senate, Rand Paul has pledged a filibuster, and Jeff Sessions has threatened to hold it up in committee.  Yes, these men would like to stand athwart the majority of both houses of Congress and potentially send the country into default because they don't like the compromise.  What's crazy is that the compromise gives them what they want.  All of the cuts come from health and social welfare spending.  Republicans will not have to sacrifice a damn thing, except for their overweening pride.

At some level, all of this has nothing to do with policy.  The Spoiled Children Caucus is obsessed with destroying the authority of the president.  They want nothing more than to force him to be bent to their will.  (There's a lot of racial and gender dynamics to this that I don't have time to talk about now, but hopefully will be able to address soon.)  Yet again, they have failed to do so, and like toddlers who want their parents to obey their will, are screaming and crying about it.  By postponing the debt ceiling issue until Obama has left office, Boehner has enraged the hard Right because they will never again be able to use their weapon of choice in their empty quest.

While it is fun to mock these adult toddlers, the effects of their tantrums are deadly serious.  Just as my daughters' morning meltdowns make eating breakfast almost impossible, the congressional brats make governing impossible by constantly sabotaging any attempt at compromise.  Unfortunately for the nation, dealing with adult children is harder than managing actual toddlers.  At the end of the day, my daughters love me and I love them, and that mutual affection helps us pull though.  The contempt that the parties feel for each other today means that only two solutions are possible.  Either moderate Republicans have to be willing to risk their political careers for the good of the nation, or Democrats are going to have to win supermajorities in both houses. Neither solution seems likely, so while the Spoiled Children Caucus may very well now be at bay, it's not going anywhere.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Witnessing The Resurrection Of The Mets

Wilmer Flores hitting a walk-off a couple of days after he was almost traded, perhaps this team's defining moment

As I've written before, once I moved to New Jersey I decided to pull for the Mets.  Initially they were just my National League team (since I am a Chicago White Sox fan of long standing), but this year I found myself watching Mets games almost exclusively.  This team has really put its hooks in me, and this season has been one crazy, wild ride.

It's also been totally unexpected.  It is easy to forget just how it was only yesterday that the Mets were a crummy, perennially hapless squad incapable of drawing big crowds in the nation's biggest metropolis.  They hadn't been to the playoffs or even had a winning season since the Bush administration.  The Mets had a brand new stadium at Citi Field in 2009, but still hadn't managed to eke out even a .500 season there.  I'd been to many games before this season, and had liked the fact that tickets were cheap and trading up was easy because so few people were turning out.  Last season my father and I managed to go to a July game for $12 each while sitting in the lower level with the best seats I've ever purchased for a baseball game.

One game for me is a good reminder of how the current Mets dawn breaking over the baseball firmament was preceded by dreary, inky darkness.  On April 26 of last year I went with a work friend and some of his buddies to a game against the Marlins.  Even though it was a Saturday night game, attendance was sparse. It was a chilly, drizzly spring night, and we tailgated underneath the elevated 7 line to stay dry.  There were so few people that we still ended up getting hassled by the cops even though we were being as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.

We sat in the upper deck, looking at a half-empty stadium and a Met team that was just above .500, but had no business being so.  Looking at the box score, even though the game was last year it feels like it happened a million years ago.  The Mets sent out six pitchers, only two of them are still with the team.  Only five of the eight regular position player starters are still with the squad today.  The Mets were up 5-1 before their blew their lead in the 6th and ended up losing by a run in the 10th inning.  That run was given up by Kyle Farnsworth, just one of many players on that team whose best years were long in the past. At least grizzled veteran Bobby Abreu, playing in his last season, smacked an impressive home run.

I was watching a team with some young players who were not yet ready for prime time and a bunch of worn out journeymen trying to fill the gaps.  The once and future ace, Matt Harvey, was recovering from Tommy John surgery and nobody knew whether he could come back to being his old self.  Leaving the game damp and chilled to the bone, trudging over to the Long Island Railway station I wondered why I had chosen to root for such a crummy team.  The season brought some highlights, including the emergence of Jacob DeGrom, but the Mets still couldn't muster a winning record.  In spring training this year the young guys started looking better seasoned, and Harvey seemed like he could maybe go back to being his old self, but my prediction was an 82-80 season, and I thought that rather optimistic.

My attitude changed at my first game this year, on April 18, also against the Marlins.  The Mets were in the middle of an eleven game winning streak, and the stadium was packed to the rafters.  Fans stood up when the Marlins had two outs and a raucous atmosphere prevailed.  It felt like one big party, and that Mets fans had finally come home after living for a decade on a desert island.  After six years of going to Mets games in losing seasons I hadn't seen anything quite like it.  Among the Mets faithful the flame had still been kept, and they were waiting in painful anticipation for another opportunity.  Of course, in the middle of the streak the Mets suffered some freak injuries, including to captain David Wright.

Months followed of 1-0, 2-1 games.  The pitching was amazing, the hitting as pathetic as Lincoln Chafee's presidential campaign.  I remember the likes of John Mayberry hitting clean-up, and serious talk of Kirk Nieuwenhuis being the answer in left field.  At that point, in late July, the Mets made a bunch of smart trades, promoted Michael Conforto, and saw their injured players come back.  The rest is history. (Read Jonah Keri's reporting on the crazy week where the Mets got it back together.)

The next game I went to was on August 28th against the Red Sox.  I could barely believe my eyes.  Getting to the game was difficult because of the massive traffic, and the feeling inside was one of giddy happiness.  The last month had turned things around, and Mets fans were practically delirious with joy.  Even though there was a month to play, and the Mets lost that game, I felt like I the Mets were going to take the division.  They played with such confidence, and Harvey mowed down the opposition, even if he didn't get the decision.  It was also David Wright's first home game back after months of injury, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation when he took the plate for his first at-bat.  "Let's Go Mets!" chants thundered at various points in a stadium that a year before had been about as raucous as a church ice cream social.

I want the Mets to win the World Series, but if they don't I can take heart in the fact that in only a year they have gone from pathetic to powerful.  They are at the pinnacle, the Yankees are sitting at home.  Mark my words, the Mets will be the dominant team in the Big Apple for the years to come.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown "Fire"

I was listening to the Sound Opinions podcast, and they were discussing Halloween-appropriate songs.  There are several I enjoy, but my favorite has got to be one of the wackiest hit songs ever, "Fire" by the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown from 1968.

To begin, it has perhaps the greatest spoken opening to a song ever, "I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE! AND I BRING YOU..." right into him singing "Fire/ I'll take you to burn."  Brown screams it in a way that makes it sound like the needles on the audio equipment were into the red almost to the breaking point.  The music is brutally simple psychedelic garage rock anchored by a demented organ lead, which is something all brutally simple psychedelic garage rock ought to have.

Brown is simultaneously sinister and campy, like Vincent Price leading a rock band.  If you watch a performance of the song it's obvious that Alice Cooper was watching too.  Before Cooper, before Kiss, before Marilyn Manson, there was Arthur Brown, performing in pubs where his flaming headdress would have to be put out with pints of lager after setting his hair alight.  Many shock performers give the audience a bit of a knowing wink to let 'em know that it's all an act for their entertainment.  Brown, despite being a bit campy, seems totally, insanely committed to what he's doing, which is why I never get tired of this song.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Ben Carson, Iowa Nice, and Bob Roberts

Pat freakin' Robertson came in a strong 2nd place in the 1988 Iowa caucus. Ben Carson just might take it in 2016.

The political world gets increasingly more surreal with each passing day.  I guess it makes sense that if an empire like America's is going to die, it is going to die in the flashiest, most over the top and tasteless way possible.

Yesterday saw the spectacle of Hillary Clinton being grilled for 11 (!) hours on Benghazi, and effectively parrying her opponents' thrusts while making them look feeble and silly.  It was the greatest ad her campaign could have advised.  It was also another way for the public to see that garden variety morons are regularly elected to seats in Congress.  While making the Senate might require a certain degree of savvy and slickness, the House is full of machine hacks, back-slapping good old boys, bubble-headed ex-beauty queens, and grandstanding ideologues who wouldn't know their ass from a hole in the ground.  It's a good thing that the Democrats have Elijah Cummings on the committee, since his honesty and gravitas make the clowns surrounding him look that much worse.

But today is another day, as they say, and maybe feeling threatened by Clinton's turn in the spotlight, Ben Carson opened his mouth again.  He said that he feels threatened and needs a Secret Service detail.  Now that in itself is understandable, especially for a presidential candidate, and more especially for a black man running for president, even if Carson is running the right of Attila the Hun.  However, that was not the whole substance of what Carson said.  He framed it this way: "I'm in great danger because I challenge the secular progressive movement to the very core."  Yes, that's right, he's saying that there is a bloodthirsty cabal of "secular progressives" out there who want to kill him.  And that's where the crazy comes in, because he is implying that people like yours truly and many others are actually members of a nefarious "movement" out to destroy the country.  This kind of paranoia is playing with political fire, much like Carson's predilection for comparing people he doesn't like to Nazis.  I actually think he really believes this.

His statement also reminded me powerfully of the satire film Bob Roberts, which was made in the early 1990s but which has a lot to say about the current state of conservative politics.  Roberts (played by Tim Robbins) is a conservative politician/folk singer who wraps his extreme right wing ideology in songs that follow the structure of 60s protest broadsides, but which extoll hatred against progressives.  (Examples are "I'm a Bleeding Heart" and "Retake America.")  Near the end of the film it appears that someone has attempted to kill Roberts, but he manages to survive, although it becomes apparent that the whole thing was faked to gain sympathy.  Now I don't quite expect Carson ever to do something like that (although I wouldn't put it past Trump.)  Both Carson and Trump have, however, singled out people they don't like as dangerous internal enemies to be destroyed, immigrants in the case of Trump, and "secular progressives" in the case of Carson.  The fact that these two men lead the Republican field while engaging in paranoid fever dreams of false accusations ought to frighten us.

Last but not least, Carson has now passed Trump in the Iowa polls.  This is not a surprise to me, nor do I think that Carson's momentum will be temporary.  As a child of Nebraska and longtime adult resident of the Midwest, I can tell you that Iowans put a big premium on being "nice."  Trump is not nice, he has the typical swagger and meanness of a tri-state area asshole amped up to 11.  I was surprised that such an attitude was playing well in Iowa, and I guess it has finally worn thin.  While Carson says completely outrageous things, he delivers them in a kind of sonorous tone with a smile, perfectly in tune with Iowan notions of niceness.  Comparing his opponents to Nazis is still "nice" if he does it in his amiable way.  This, by the way, is why Midwestern Nice cannot be trusted.

Of course, if Carson wins Iowa, it may not really mean a whole helluva lot.  Remember who won the Republican primary in Iowa last time? That's right, it was Rick Santorum.  That win didn't exactly propel him to national victory.  The same goes for Mike Huckabee in 2008.  Iowa is a caucus state, and its Republicans are disproportionately of the Christian conservative variety, going back to Pat Robertson's strong showing in 1988.  The Republican caucus (as opposed to the Democratic one in that state) is pretty much useless as a predictor of anything outside of that particular state, since the candidate who thumps the Bible the hardest wins every time.  If anything, I hope Carson wins Iowa so we can stop paying so much damn attention to it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What The Makers Of The New Star Wars Can Learn From Nicholas Meyer

The last coupla days there's been people getting all excited about the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer.  I have been reminding folks just how over the moon so many of us went in regards to the Phantom Menace trailer, and that so far I don't see any evidence that the new film won't just be another middle of the road, movie by committee Hollywood CGI action/adventure flick.  Hearing the sounds of TIE fighters and the John Williams score might stir something in the core of me, but if I'm being honest when I look at the trailer I don't see any evidence that this film isn't simply another Hollywood cash-in using an old property to make easy money.  But hey, I could be wrong, and I hope that I am.

I've been thinking a lot about what it would take to make a good sequel to such a beloved series, and my mind wandered over to Star Trek.  Nicholas Meyer is not a household name, but when he took the reins of the Star Trek franchise after 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was make or break time.  Trek hit the big screen after a combination of fan effort and desire to cash in on Star Wars, but the first film in the series left a lot to be desired.  It was like an extended episode of the original series, but superlong and paced slower than a three toed sloth.

The next film in the series, The Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, is often considered the best Trek ever.  It was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also went on to write the fourth Trek movie and and direct the sixth one, widely considered to be the other highlights in the series.  There is no way that this is coincidental.  The great film podcast The Projection Booth did an episode on Khan, where I discovered that Meyer and writer Harve Bennett were not all that familiar with Trek before taking on the project.  That ended up being a benefit, since they brought fresh eyes to the material.  The first film was much more the creation of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Trek series.

The parallels to Star Wars are pretty obvious here.  The original films were beloved, but when original creator Lucas helmed the prequels later, the results were not good.  JJ Abrams, like Meyer, is now tasked with taking things in another direction.  In Khan Meyer shook up the staid, placid nature of Roddenberry's approach right from the get-go with the drama of the Kobayashi Maru simulation, which the viewer knows isn't real the first time they see it.  Most of the film is a kind of battle of wills between Kirk and Khan, with older-style Trek plots centered around encountering new planets absent.  It ends, of course, with the emotional punch of Spock dying in an act of supreme self sacrifice.  I remember seeing it for the first time as a wee lad and being shocked and deeply affected by it, and those scenes still pack a punch for me.  It is extremely gutsy to kill off one of your most beloved characters.  The film also exposes Kirk's vulnerability, making him a much more human character.  I doubt any of this would have happened had Meyer just tried to copy what worked best in the original series.

Star Trek IV and VI also benefit from daring choices that deviate from the original Trek template.  Star Trek IV is a time travel movie that mostly takes place in contemporary San Francisco.  VI is more a kind of murder mystery/political thriller taking place in the Trek universe.  Hollywood these days is nothing if not risk averse, and Star Wars is a much bigger property than Trek ever was.  I wonder how much freedom that JJ Abrams has had to send Star Wars on a different trajectory.  Nicholas Meyer ought to be an inspiration in how to take a great cultural institution and improve upon it by not simply doing everything by the numbers or the way it's always been done.

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Autumn Almanac

Over the past two weeks I've gone from having to put a box fan in the window at night so my wife and I could sleep to cold rain and chilly breezes.  Autumn is falling hard this year after an extended summer.  Autumn has always been my favorite of the seasons, and that witchy and magical moment on days like today when summer gives way to autumn's approach my favorite time of all.  In recent years, however, I have begun to feel less sanguine about it because I am finding it harder and harder to deal with winter.  When the cold rain falls on a day like today I think about the many months of cold and darkness that soon lie ahead, and that thought fills me with despair.  However, I still love the fall over winter's cold, summer's relentless heat and attendant ball sweat, and spring's inevitable allergies.  As I get older I have also learned to appreciate the smaller pleasures in life, mostly since those are the only ones you can count on. These are the little things about fall that I love.

Root Vegetables

I tend to very much orient what I eat towards the seasons, and that means lots of root vegetables in the fall.  One of my favorites is a carrot and rutabaga mash, an orange concoction that makes me feel fulfilled, healthy, and full every time I have it.  Of course, I also go in for turnips and parsnips too.  Give me some root vegetables in my beef stew and a pint of stout and I'm a happy man. I made a big pot of stew last week and it warmed my stomach hours after I ate it.


Some holidays are about religious obligations, others about family obligations.  I love Halloween because it is a holiday devoted to fun, costumes, and candy, all things I thoroughly enjoy.  I love the excuse to watch cheesy monster movies and to dress up in costumes and make a fool of myself.  Now that I have children I enjoy the vicarious experience of sharing Halloween with them.  In Halloween I also see the wisdom of the ancients.  After around October 31st, the nights do really feel oppressively long and the sun distant and the icy hand of death closer. We need a day to mock the ghosts lest they get the better of us.

Dark beer

I tend to favor dark beer over lighter varieties like pilsener and IPAs, but in the summer heat it feels weird cracking open a porter.  This time of year, as the skies darken, so do the hues of my brews.  There's nothing like being wrapped in a sweater on a chilly night, sipping on a deep rich brew after a hard day of work.  The rich darkness of porters and stouts just seems so much more nourishing.

Playoff Baseball

I love baseball, and what's better than playoff baseball?  The normally sedate ballparks of high summer are transformed into packed houses full of fans hanging on every pitch.  This post-season, with my Mets in contention, has been even better than usual.

Apple Picking

I grew up in the country and am a sucker for any activity that brings me out a farm.  Now that I have kids I also look like less of a weirdo for going hog wild for apple picking. This year my wife and I had a blast with my daughters picking the apples right off the tree, apples that my wife converted into cans of apple butter so good I have been eating it for breakfast on my toast almost every day.  Apples might be my favorite fruit: subtle and satisfying, the beef stew of fruit, if you will.


OK OK, I know that pumpkin spice has gotten way out of hand. However, let's not blame the poor humble  pumpkin itself for some people's over-infatuation with nutmeg.  For some reason I find the orange of pumpkins comforting, a bright beacon in a season when night falls sooner and harder and the morning sun gets more sluggish.  Painting and carving pumpkins is just too much fun when you've got twin toddlers like I do.


Thanksgiving along with Halloween is a tremendous holiday.  There are no presents or religious rituals, just a gigantic feast.  My wife and I host her family each year, and we enjoy going all out.  I still remember a Thanksgiving four years ago when we prepared the meal for like four days, and the finished product was so absolutely amazing that we dove into the food and wiped it out in about ten minutes in an extreme act of decadence.  It was perhaps the greatest food-related moment in my life, and it was followed by days of eating amazing leftovers.  Holidays should be simple, and they don't get simpler than Thanksgiving.

Raking Leaves

Now that I am a homeowner each season brings its own yard work, be it shoveling snow or mowing the lawn.  I by far prefer raking leaves.  All mindless yard work has a certain appeal to me, since it usually allows me time to think and reflect, which is so rare for me these days.  Raking leaves is also something that my daughters can take part in, which makes the process that much more fun.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Kool G Rap and DJ Polo "The Streets of New York"

One of the great things about the digital age in music has been being able to find songs I thought were long gone.  Back around 1989-1991, watching Yo! MTV Raps was the highlight of coming home from school for me.  The local radio stations in rural Nebraska simply didn't play rap music, and I found it so much more interesting and appealing and vital than the hair metal the preppies preferred and the death metal that the stoner burnouts listened to at my school. (Metal ruled the Great Plains in those days and it still has power there it has lost in other places.)

Occasionally a song would come on and I would immediately glue my eyes to the lower left hand corner of the screen to find out the name of the band and their album.  One such song was 1990's "The Streets of New York" by Kool G Rap and DJ Polo.  As their MC and DJ moniker would suggest, they were old school back when old school was still the current thing.  The song grabbed me right away, with its spooky guitar sample and midnight gut-bucket piano beneath rhymes describing a low-life tableau on Gotham's streets worth of Baudelaire.  I was fascinated by New York City, a place where I now work every day, but would not set foot in until five years later at the time I heard the song.  It confirmed my vision of it as a place completely foreign from my small town existence, but in a thrilling way.

The next week after hearing Kool G Rap I dutifully went to the Musicland in the mall (the only record store in my hometown) to get Wanted: Dead or Alive, the album with "Streets of New York."  I soon realized I had a problem.  This album had the dreaded "explicit lyrics" sticker on it, meaning that I would not be able to purchase it.  The Musicland had a strict policy of carding potential buyers of explicit CDs and not selling them to anyone under 18.  I didn't know anyone who could buy it for me, and since Kool G Rap and DJ Polo were not household names, there was no "clean" version I could buy, as I later would for Cypress Hill.  I also searched in vain for a cassingle, which had been my substitute in other cases where I loved a song that had unfortunately been on an album bearing an explicit lyrics label.

While I never had a chance to hear the song much again, it stuck in the back of my mind.  Once I got my first iPod "Streets of New York" was one of the very first songs that I purchased on iTunes, and now I get to enjoy it whenever I want to. Apart from the synthesized saxophone, it still sounds great.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Classic MTV Videos: Guns N Roses "November Rain"

The Mets game tonight is making me anxious and I need a distraction.  Nothing works better for this purpose than watching old music videos that once ruled MTV.  Typically in this series I've discussed the videos of the 1980s, but I thought it was high time I dipped a finger into the 90s.  And what better video to start with than the Citizen Kane of golden age videos, "November Rain."

Back in the late 80s Guns N Roses burst onto a rock scene overrun with geezers and hair metal.  GNR brought a hard, dangerous edge, one that had been sorely missing.  In the early 90s, however, the band began to branch out from their early approach on the twin Use Your Illusion albums.  There were ballads and glimpses of roots music amidst the bombast and killer Slash riffs.  No song was more out of character from their Sunset Strip scumbag days than "November Rain."  It had strings and flutes and a sound that was more Elton John and less Thin Lizzy.

It was also a long song, clocking in at almost nine minutes, and thus not the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on the radio.  Nevertheless, the Guns, at the height of their popularity, decided to make a video for the single, a video that was completely inescapable for a time for an MTV addict like myself in 1992.  There is a narrative nowadays that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" killed off all of the 80s metal bands.  Sure, the likes of Warrant and Poison were shit out of luck, but Guns N Roses had never been bigger than at that time.  While Nirvana was breaking punk into the mainstream, "November Rain" was trying to rehabilitate the grandiosity of classic rock.  It would take another year or so before the winner of this battle became obvious.

The video itself is rock star excess at its most indulgent.  It starts with a dark room and Axl Rose taking some pills with a whiskey chaser, ever the rock n roll bad boy, but looking a little sad and pathetic.  Cut to him playing a piano with the orchestra in what looks like an opera house.  There's scenes of a wedding, and Stephanie Seymour (Axl's then paramour) walking the aisle in a ridiculous wedding dress that exposes almost all of her legs.  There's clips intercut of Seymour and Axl having fun the with Guns crew, everything appears to be absolutely idyllic.  The strings swell as Slash leaves the country church to go play an absolutely killer guitar solo.  Is he upset that his buddy Axl is leaving him for his new wife?  Does he just want to get his hair tossed around by the helicopter getting a sweeping shot?  We'll never know.

At this point the video has already gotten completely ridiculous.  Nowadays, that's obvious to see, but in 1992 I and most others were fixated on the kickass solo itself, which sounds like Slash's attempt to keep Axl from getting this song buried under its own pretensions.  In any case, we see Axl and Stephanie leave their church, but it's a DIFFERENT CHURCH than the one Slash left, though that's a goof I never noticed at the time.  Oh, but it gets better.  We see the reception, outdoors with people dancing and the various Guns smoking and drinking and having fun.  There's even a gratuitous shot of Rikki Rachtman, host of Headbanger's Ball, perhaps inserted to insure maximum MTV airplay.  Suddenly, the rain comes down (just to make sure this hits exactly on the nose), people run for cover, and someone DIVES into the wedding cake in one of the most blatant examples of a music video shooting something cool in slow motion for no discernible reason.  We see a wine spilling out of an overturned bottle, implying spilled blood.

Suddenly, we are transported to a church where Stephanie Seymour's body is in a coffin, prepared for her funeral.  How does she die?  Why does she die?  Was she killed by an errant raindrop?  There is no explanation whatsoever.  Again, the ridiculousness is covered up by an even better Slash solo, this one burning with the power of a thousand suns, pulling on the heartstrings like Eric Clapton playing "Layla."  The solo's so good I never noticed the neat trick of showing Seymour throwing her bedding bouquet, having it flying through the air, then BAM becoming the flowers on the coffin.  In between we see clips of Axl in the bed at the beginning, distraught, and also crying in the rain at the grave.  The last two minutes of the video are absolutely nuts, but for some reason many of us agreed to overlook the ridiculousness.  I think the credit belongs to Slash, and his searing solo was in many ways the last gasp of classic rawk music, an endangered species in the post-grunge world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Letter To Young Beta Males

Hey there,

In the past few weeks after that horrible shooting in Oregon, I've been seeing a lot about the big reservoirs of resentment against women in online forums by self-professed "beta males."  The killer there, like a few others, appeared motivated in part by hatred against women fed by feelings of rejection.  I know most beta males aren't violent or hateful, but being a hetero beta male can lead to some distorted and messed up perceptions about women and gender.  (I know plenty of gay men who are betas too, but the gender dynamic is obviously different for them. This letter is more for hetero betas, but gay betas I feel your pain, too.)

I was a teenage beta male once upon a time, but people didn't use that phrase back then.  Wimp, nerd, geek, dork, pussy, fag etc. tended to be the nomenclature.  Trust me, at that time the phrase "nerd culture" did not have any positive connotations.  Playing video games and Dungeons and Dragons and reading comic books pretty much marked your status as a social outcast.  It was so intense that by my senior year I intentionally affected a different persona, wearing black and reading Kerouac and Nietzsche by myself in the hall during lunch hour.  I still couldn't get a date.  Then again, I never asked because my opinion of myself was that low.  In any case, I didn't kiss someone romantically until I was 22 years old.

It pains me to think about this, but I used to lament my condition, and wonder why girls didn't like nice boys like me.  Why did they go out with jerks and assholes?  What was I lacking?  Sometimes this lead into some bad territory, wondering what was wrong with girls.  Were they too stupid and shallow to not realize what they were doing?

These thoughts were really damaging, and let's face it, misogynistic.  I'd be willing to bet that you may have had similar thoughts yourself.  But you should not and don't need to think like this.  In the first place, to be a little stern, you aren't owed any woman's affection.  Women aren't pawns or status symbols.  I know that sounds preachy, but it's the truth, and you need to internalize it.  I remember when I had a little epiphany and started thinking about myself from others' points of view.  Would I want to go out with someone who was resentful, lacking in confidence, and always expecting me to make every move?  Of course not, so why should I expect someone else to do that?

Okay.  I know that can prompt some hard self-reflections, but don't worry.  It's a good way to think of girls and women not as strange and inscrutable creatures, but your colleagues in the game of life, potential friends and cherished collaborators.  When I was young I used to lament that I would be romantically attracted to a young woman, who would then become my friend rather than my lover.  These days your generation has a term for it, the "friend zone."  This phrase contains soft violence.  It implies that you're not really interested in women as friends, or that a woman should be bending to your will.  Instead, you should cherish your friendships with women.  That came home to me in my younger days when I was very attracted to a woman who became my friend.  I still silently burned a torch for her, then her boyfriend abruptly broke up with her, making her despondent.  I remember her literally crying on my shoulder, in intense emotional pain, and thinking that my feelings of romantic affection were pretty meaningless.  She needed me to be there for her as her friend, not her friend who secretly wanted to bone her.  I dropped the romantic illusions and developed an intense and deeply rewarding friendship.  From that point on I began to develop a lot of friendships with women, friendships that I still value and cherish.  Sometimes romance blossomed out of those friendships.

I know these years of your life can be tough.  I know that it is hard to be a walking bag of hormones and romanticism and feel like nobody wants to go out with you.  Most of this will pass pretty fast.  In the meantime, don't resent or hate women for your situation.  They are not inscrutable creatures, they are people like you, many going through similar struggles.  A lot of them also like comics, games, and Star Wars, and they might even feel more lonely than you do.  Get to know them better, be their friends and comrades.  Not only will it make your life a whole lot better, it will make society a lot better, too.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

New Order "Dreams Never End"

When the weather starts to turn away from summer as the skies go gray, the grass browns, and the wind carries a bite, I often find myself listening to early New Order.  Their music from this period isn't just great, it has a kind of brooding chill like an October morning when the erie, Bible-black pre-dawn darkness seems like it will never end.  (Since I take the 6:22 train every day, I am more aware than most of when the sun comes up.)

I love their early stuff, from 1981 to 1984, when they were combining post-punk rock with electronic dance music, rather than just doing full-on electronic dance music.  Their music in that earlier era has a sound that is really like nothing else, before or since.  They took Kraftwerk's ability to make electronic music sound organic, and injected it with a heavier dose of humanity.  When I listen to these New Order tracks, emotions tend to well up inside of me in an uncontrollable fashion.  Something about them just cuts me to the core, even if on "Dreams Never End" I can't really make out the words.

Part of my attachment to this song in particular might have to do with the fact that back when I was living by myself in lonely apartments in Michigan and Texas, I would often put on the Movement album as I went to sleep.  I found it incredibly soothing, and "Dreams Never End" came first.  I associate that beautiful descending line that opens it both with rest after a long day, but also with those innumerable nights spent laying down in a cold, empty bed.  That figure gives way to bassist Peter Hook flat voice taking the lead (this was before Sumner had been established as the singer), which contrasts with Bernard Sumner's bright guitar coming back in later.  It is a short, strange song, a little burst of beauty leavened with an unsettling feeling.  That mix of emotions suits the autumn perfectly.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ben Carson's Nazi Obsession

Photo of a parade of rifle-bearing marksmen taking part in a "shooting festival" in rural Germany in 1935, during the period of Nazi rule

As someone with a PhD in German history, I spend a lot of time tearing my hair out when people make completely specious statements and silly analogies relating present day events to Nazi Germany.  There's a reason they do so, namely that the Nazis have become a stand-in for the ultimate evil.  To liken your political opponents to Nazis is to say that they are inhuman, the harshest judgement possible.  This of course is also the reason for Godwin's Law, since comparing one's opponents to Nazis is a sure sign that you are out of ideas and are making outlandish accusations.

Ben Carson is full of bad ideas and is nothing if not outlandish, and he above all other contemporary political figures has an obsession with comparing liberals to Nazis.  This week he repeated the old gun nut canard that Hitler took power because of gun control, and that guns in the hands of Jews would somehow have rescued them from the Holocaust.  Not only is this statement patently false, it is deeply insulting to the memory of the victims of the Shoah.  It basically amounts to saying, "If you'd been more like me, you wouldn't have died."  It's a different version of what Carson said about the recent mass shooting in Oregon, where he attacked the victims for not doing more to stop the shooter.  Both of these statements are vile and disgusting, and I feel like even responding to them or acknowledging them is some kind of crime.

(These statements on Carson's part display a deep sickness of the soul. Like other conservatives, he lives in a world of autonomous individuals where he feels that the misfortunes of others are always, ALWAYS the fault of their own, even if they are shot dead by a raving gunman or rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to the gas chambers.  But I digress.)

This was not the only time Carson has made Nazi comparisons, however.  Back in 2014 he memorably said that America as a whole was like Nazi Germany, and claimed the IRS was being used to stifle dissent. Here's him defending himself to Wolf Blitzer: 

"The people in Nazi Germany largely didn't believe in what Hitler was doing. But they didn't say anything? Of course not, they kept their mouth shut. The fact that our government is using instruments of government like the IRS to punish its opponents, this is not the kind of thing that is a Democrat or a Republican issue. This is an American issue ... A lot of people do not feel free to express themselves."

The first part of this sentence is patently false, and downplays the most disturbing aspect of the Nazi state.  (The second part is just laughable.)  By the late 1930s, most Germans DID support it, that's what's so frightening about it.  Those people considered "Aryans" who were not leftists saw great benefits from that state.  They got free vacations through the Strength Through Joy program.  They got the apartments confiscated from Jews.  They reveled in the sense of national rebirth.  The Gestapo was a much smaller operation than the later Stasi because the Nazi regime had a lot more popular support than the Communist regime in the East did.  Just chew on that for a minute.

Of course, Carson doesn't know that, because he has a limited, ahistorical, view of Nazis as superhuman monsters, the ultimate villains who gained power purely through oppression.  Yes, they did plenty of that, but there was plenty of consent, too.  A large portion of the German population even became party members (including Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, who would shockingly be chancellor during the 1960s.)  In Carson's mind there is but a simple equation: government is bad, Nazis are bad, government is Nazis.  It is impossible for people like Carson to view the Nazis in their proper historical context because viewed as the horrible yet real and often ordinary people that they were, they are no longer potent symbols in his crusade to make liberals and their policies out to be diabolical.

Here is a man, after all, who has said that the Affordable Health Care Act was worse than slavery.  That is a statement that is, if possible, even more insulting and stupid than his recent comments about gun control.  It is especially jarring considering that Carson himself is descended from slaves.  When he makes slavery and Nazi comparisons they are intellectually meaningless and simply do not deserve a long, fact-based response from a historian such as myself.  Carson is your angry uncle who shares crazy right wing internet memes.  He's the creep who barges into your conversation in the bar to tell you about something he read on the internet.  He's the guy at work you never want to get stuck in the break room with.  He is the student you pray doesn't show up to class.

He also happens to be polling in second place in the Republican primary.  That he has been able to say the things he has said about Nazis, slavery, Islam, etc. is really a reflection of just how insane the Republican base really is.  The Nazi comparisons show that both they and Carson view their political opponents as pure evil.  While it might be tempting to laugh off their bad history, calling one's opponents Nazis -and hence evil personified- implies that they must be dealt with in a violent fashion.  Carson and his ilk are playing with fire, pretty soon someone will get burned.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The House Republican Mess Is No Laughing Matter

The Smiths, "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore"

America has a big problem.  One of its major political parties, the same one that controls Congress, is in chaos.  There is a authoritarian nationalist tycoon/TV star who is leading the race for the presidential nomination, and a Christian dominionist retired surgeon who has attacked the victims of a mass shooting for being wusses is in second place.  The Republican speaker of the House is resigning to prevent the radicals in his party from trying to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding.  Today the top candidate to replace him, Kevin McCarthy, removed his candidacy, apparently because while he is more conservative than Boehner, he is not conservative enough for the fringe of the party.

Yes, it is funny that a group of men who want to run the most powerful nation on earth are acting like complete buffoons in a combination shitshow/dumpster fire of their own devising.  A friend and reader of this blog emailed me today to ask if I was basking in the schadenfreude.  I was, but only for about fifteen minutes until I realized the implications of all of this.

A small group of ideological extremists is angling to not only set the tone for their party (as they have done since at least Gingrich), but to actually put their hands on the levers of power.  They are political hostage takers who want to shut down the government whenever they feel such a tactic can be used to advance their agenda.  If they don't get what they want, they don't care, since they will have "weakened government" which is all part of their agenda.  In the bargain they will also ensure that budget issues inordinately dominate our political discourse, pushing issues like housing, incarceration, poverty, and education to the side.  By manufacturing a crisis every few months they can get the social state slashed in return for releasing the hostage.  They can do this despite having views well outside of the American political mainstream.  They do this time and time again, winning despite having only a minority behind them.

In a functioning democracy, such behavior would get a political party tossed out on its ear.  America, however, is highly dysfunctional these days.  Even though the Democrats have occupied the White House for a majority of the time since 1992, they have only held the House for six of those years.  Gerrymandering and voter suppression have something to do with that, but so does a weak Democratic party which has been unable to motivate its base, especially in off-year elections.  It is unable to stop the hostage-taking, so it continues, ad infinitum.

If the Democratic Party was doing the bidding of a faction of avowed Marxists, I would imagine that there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  I would imagine that the Democrats would get tossed out pretty quickly.  However (and this is in no way a reflection of my opinions about Marxism, just an observation) the "freedom caucus" subscribes to an ideology as far to the Right as Bolshevism is to the Left.  They also exhibit a certain vanguardism and the kind of absolute moral certainty that is highly dangerous when in the wrong hands for the wrong causes.  Since a majority of their constituents in whatever rural or suburban district they hail from voted for them (among those who bothered to vote), they think that they MUST shut down Planned Parenthood and hold the government hostage.  To do otherwise would somehow mean not fulfilling their democratic imperative, as if the millions who don't subscribe to their ideology may as well not exist.

In any functioning democracy, these extremists would be marginalized, but in America they are close to controlling the nation's legislative function.  That's why, as much as I want to give the Republicans a hearty Nelson Munce "HA! HA!" I am instead looking on with fear.

Monday, October 5, 2015

An Ode To Mark Buehrle

Yesterday was the last game for Mark Buehrle, and it was not ideal.  He came in for two innings so that he could have his 15th season in a row with 200 innings.  Instead, he got shelled and wasn't able to complete those two innings.  It broke my heart because Mark Buehrle has been one of my favorite players, and I just wanted the best for him.  It is actually very telling that the milestone that Buehrle was shooting for was not strikeouts or wins, but innings pitched.  He was a model of consistency and professionalism, clocking in and doing his job well.  Buehrle won 214 games in his career and pitched a perfect game, but he's not quite Hall of Fame worthy.  He's one of those great players who doesn't get celebrated enough because he won't end up either in the headlines or in Cooperstown.

I was actually there for his first game on the White Sox, all the way back in 2000.  I remember sitting in the stands, Buehrle coming in, and wondering who this kid was.  (Awfully pretentious of me, considering I was only 24 years old at the time.)  He came in as a relief pitcher for James Baldwin, a player mostly forgotten by White Sox fans.  I remember baking in the first row of the upper deck on a hot summer Sunday afternoon with a couple of friends, looking down on the bullpen and seeing this unknown hurler warm up.  It was the late innings of a game the Sox had well in hand, garbage time essentially.  He gave up a couple of hits and run in an inning of work.

How could I know that this man would lead the White Sox to glory?  The next season he already pitched over 200 innings and got 16 wins, proving himself to be the workhorse that he would continue to be for the White Sox.  I noticed at that point the distinctive way Buehrle pitched: all business.  Instead of dawdling on the mound, he just kept the pitches coming like some kind of machine.  I always tuned into the so-called "Buehrle game" in the team's rotation, since it meant that 1. the Sox stood a good chance of winning and 2. it would be quick.  His quick pitching was a throwback, as well as his stuff.  In a time when pitchers have to have a fastball well into the 90s to get a cup of coffee in the majors, Buehrle got guys out with a mix of crafty pitches.  

He never got a lot of strikeouts nor did he ever lead the league in ERA.  However, he was consistently good, year in and year out.  When he pitched a perfect game it was such a great moment from my perspective because Buehrle finally got some recognition for individual brilliance on his part.  (That game also saw a miraculous catch by Dewayne Wise to steal a home run and save the perfecto, one of my all time favorite White Sox moments.)  It was a sad day for me when Buehrle left my White Sox after the 2011 season.  The bloom had already fallen of the rose of the team's 2005 World Series title, but I could still take heart in the fact that one of my favorite players from the championship was still on the team.  Alas, it was no more.  

Fifteen years after I first saw Buehrle take the mound on the hot Chicago day he is a aging veteran about to retire.  Rather than a young swashbuckler enjoying the fruits of being young, single, and gainfully employed in Chicago I am now a middle-aged family man in the New Jersey suburbs with a mortgage to pay.  During most of that time of change in my life one thing I could count on was that Mark Buehrle was going to take the mound for my team and pitch a good game.  Despite how his last game went, I hope he can look back with some great pride at what he's managed to accomplish.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Donna Summer "I Feel Love"

Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder, one of the great singer/producer teams of all time

I still remember hearing "I Feel Love" for the first time and thinking "what is THIS?"  It happened in the late 90s, when I was beginning to develop of love of disco and to drop my former elevated disdain of pop music.  I knew in my mind that this song was from the late 70s, but it sounded like it came from the future.  It announces itself with a flourish of synthesizer that fades in like a UFO dropping below the clouds, then the endless wave of percussive synthesizer notes carries the song along at a rapid pace.  The strings, horns, piano, and other lavish disco disco trappings are completely absent here, and all that is left is a disarming, spare, crystalline beauty.  This song does not conjure up leisure suits or line dances.  No, it makes me think of a rocket ship hurtling through space.

The revolutionary backing tracks are the work of Giorgio Moroder, but they would not have worked without the voice of Donna Summer.  She sang sensually and openly desirous of sex in ways that other women with her level of popularity never did before.  "Love To Love You Baby" put her on the map with its lascivious moaning, and her biggest album was called Bad Girls. Disco was music for the pleasure centers and the soundtrack to nights of wild 70s excess, and Summer channeled that spirit as a disco singer better than anyone else.  Pairing dance music with a boundary-breaking diva has now become formulaic, and Madonna, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry all owe Donna Summer big time.

One thing I truly love about this song is how it is the beginning of the electronic dance music genre, but manages to sound more futuristic than a lot of EDM that's produced nowadays.  Sequencers can make music sound rigid, robotic, and when ill-used, plain boring.  The early, antiquated technology used by Moroder have a trace of organic feeling to them, making the song seem so much more alive.  Synthesizers can sound like musical wallpaper much of the time these days, but the glorious Moog of the 70s is capable of making some truly unique sounds.  It is a device that rewards dial-twisting and experimentation, and in it you hear not just the machine, but the spark of human inspiration.

This all comes together in my favorite moment of the song.  After the musical intro and some low-key cooing by Summer she increases the volume of her voice and sings out "I feel love!" just as the Moog hits a higher, sweeter note like a sunrise breaking over the mountains.  It is glorious, almost holy, and one of my favorite musical moments.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Low-Rent Glory That Was USA Up All Night

This week I got quite a surprise while checking in on Twitter.  It seems that Rhonda Shear is now following me, which was quite a thrill considering that I used to watch her and Gilbert Gottfried practically every week on USA Up All Night.  I hope it's not some computer glitch or something because this is one of the most flattering "follows" I've had.

For those who don't know, Up All Night ran on the USA network back in the late 80s and early 90s in a legendary era when cable was not a fountainhead of daring, original programming.  Characters were not yet welcome, nor was there anything you could call "very funny."  Nope, it was a low-rent district filled with reruns and old movies, and I loved it.

Up All Night was great because it took some of the lowliest garbage and showed it to the viewer in a knowing fashion, with a wink in the case of Rhonda and a derisive laugh in the case of Gilbert Gottfried.  The network was basically admitting "hey, we've got to fill time here and we've got a lot of crap to do it with."  The films were often cheap horror, exploitation flicks, or second tier boob comedies with all the boobs edited out (although I do remember at least one case where the editor didn't quite catch everything), taking away their main redeeming feature, from my point of view.  It was via Up All Night that I learned methods to enjoy trashy entertainment and B-movies, a skill further strengthened when I starting picking up on Mystery Science Theater in my late teens.

I watched Up All Night a LOT because it came on every Friday and Saturday, when I was allowed to stay up late, and because I was not the most socially adept young man.  If I wasn't hanging out in the basement by myself, I would maybe be at a friend's house hanging out in their basement.  Either way, Rhonda and Gilbert were on.  Gilbert tended to be more straight-ahead, mocking the film in his abrasive way, whereas Rhonda played more of a deep game.  I was rewatching some of her promos and host segments, and was struck by how atractive she was, which I am willing to bet was a big reason a lot of viewers tuned in.  I was struck I think because even though I was a hormone addled teenager, I was actually watching her for her humor rather than her looks. (Yes I know this sounds like someone saying "I subscribe to Playboy for the articles," but I'm not fooling.)

Her character in the promos was a kind of a big-haired, big boobed Hollywood bimbo, but it was obvious that Rhonda was having fun and in on the joke.  She taunted men and let the viewer know with a sly smile that she was really much too smart to be taking any of this seriously.  Her famous catchphrase "UP all night" with the first word spoken in a high octave exemplified her campy persona, someone who was playing with the expectations that hetero men had of a woman who looked and talked like her.

Sure it's cool that there are all kinds of networks producing original, high quality television, but in my cultural world I don't just want filet mignon and cabernet, I also need Funyons and Miller High Life sometimes, too.  Today that televisual junk food is mostly reality shows, but give me godawful movies interspersed with funny host bits any day of the week instead.