Wednesday, November 29, 2017

New Piece At Liberal Currents

The good folks at Liberal Currents were good enough to publish another piece of mine. In fact, the editor requested it after seeing me talk about the Gettysburg Address on my Twitter feed. Please read and share my piece, but also give Liberal Currents some love. It's pushing against some of the lazy stereotypes on the left about liberalism, and showing instead a vibrant exchange of ideas.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Old Dad's Records #22

My newest episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records, is up. I recorded it right before Thanksgiving, and talk a lot about that holiday. I start with "Country Roads" by John Denver, a song with a lot of importance for my childhood. After that I break with the format for an episode by putting a playlist on shuffle and talking about the songs that come up. In this case, keeping with the childhood theme, it's all guilty pleasure pop music from the 1980s. I hope you have as much fun listening to it as I did recording it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

My Letter To Ajit Pai

As I am sure you know, net neutrality is currently under threat. Here's the letter I wrote to Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the FCC's board. I know that he is probably not going to change his mind, but I will also be writing a separate letter to the other board members, including Michael O'Rielly and Brendan Carr, the two other board members likely to vote for it. There will also be protests at Verizon stores soon, please make sure to get your bodies out there and tell your family, friends and neighbors to do something. The stakes are too high for apathy or being too cool for school, folks.


I am writing to you as a concerned citizen regarding your recent moves to undermine the rules for Internet service providers known as “net neutrality.” I am sure that you have heard from plenty of other people on this issue, and I would hope that my voice, added to theirs, could convince you to change your mind.

The internet is not a product, it is a national resource. It is currently where most of this nation’s public sphere plays out. As I would hope you know, the public sphere is the lifeblood of any functioning democracy. This is why in years past that the FCC has regulated radio, television, and the internet in ways that prevent distortions in the public sphere. Without those regulations the public sphere simply becomes an object to be sold to the highest bidder. The current presidential administration has been hostile to the fourth estate and seems quite comfortable with letting those with the most money have the most say. That is an assault on democracy, I would hope that you would not want to be complicit in such behavior.

Net neutrality is crucial to having a functioning public sphere in America. It prevents internet service providers, who have practical monopolies in many places, from imposing their political agendas. It allows those on the margins of society to have their voices heard without having to pay extra for it. Beyond protecting the public sphere, it prevents internet service providers from forcing their customers to pay more money to access certain parts of the internet. After all, the internet is a national resource that originated with the Department of Defense. Why should private corporations be allowed to squeeze the last dollar out of a vital institution that was built with public money? As always, it seems that corporations are the biggest “welfare queens” of them all.

I would also like to add that your former employment by Verizon concerns me. Any notion that you are totally objective on this issue, or that your primary interests lie with the American public, strain credulity. As a Verizon customer I can attest that their main concern is squeezing their customers, who are held captive because of their monopoly power, for as much money as possible. I am sure you earned a healthy salary from people like me being chiseled, but please look at the big picture. Ending net neutrality will not unleash “innovation” but will simply enable Verizon and the other wealthy telecommunications giants to engage in rent-seeking behavior.

Perhaps as a former lawyer for that corporation you are fine with that, but I would hope that you would look deeper into yourself and think long and hard about doing the right thing. We are in a moment of great historical importance, and our democracy is standing on a precipice. If I were you I would not want my name to go down in infamy as one of the enablers of the destruction of the American public sphere, and by extension, American democracy itself.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Sing Me Back Home

Play this one at my funeral

How did it get to be late November, already? Last week winter hit New Jersey after a temperate autumn so fast I've got whiplash. It's getting dark before I get home, and I feel the drafts creeping through the windows at night. Now all of a sudden it's Thanksgiving this week.

Riding the train home from work today while almost passing out from exhaustion, I realized that I have not been home for Thanksgiving since 2008. I haven't seen my parents on Thanksgiving since 2010. While I am glad to have new traditions with my wife and her family, I am feeling homesick this week. Last year I was so disgusted by the election that I did not want to go home, my anger was so great at the place that raised me to despise the kind of man it embraced. After a year of insanity, my anger has been mixed with a healthy dose of despair.

The problem with holidays is that we replicate the rituals year after year, so that we maintain a kind of uniform memory of "Thanksgiving," rather than individual memories of specific Thanksgivings. When we can no longer replicate the old rituals, due to distance from family or many of the participants passing on to death, a feeling of great loss creeps in. My grandmother died four years ago this month, and she was the central figure in my mother's family's Thanksgivings. Now that she is gone that side of my family has broken apart on the rocks of resentment. Today I would not be allowed to visit my grandparents' old farm house due to these conflicts, which is my own personal banishment from the Garden of Eden. In any case, so many of my cousins and aunts and uncles I would love to see have also scattered, just like me, from Oregon to Colorado to Missouri to Alabama.

But even so, I miss Nebraska at Thanksgiving time. The landscape is awash in almost painted colors of golds and browns, and the flat stubble fields, now bereft of corn, allow one to see from horizon to horizon under a heavy, limitless sky. It is a place where you feel in thrall to nature, where Thanksgiving time often brings fearsome ice storms, surprise blizzards, and blasting winds. It is a reminder of our smallness in our universe.

Instead I spend my days working in New York City, its stone and steel having driven nature beneath the pavement, its existence a rumor. The natural world is present in Central Park of course, but that's more of a theme park, neat and tidy. I come home to New Jersey, and the dead television gray of its November sky over endless subdivisions and strip malls. Here the work of humans feels impenetrable, everlasting, and all encompassing. In Nebraska it feels transitory and frail. Beneath the skyscrapers, it is indeed frail, and we all could use a reminder of that, New Yorkers especially.

Last year I directed anger at my home state, finding its support for Trump irredeemable. This year, seeing the pathetically inadequate response in the areas where he is not popular, I've come to the correct conclusion that our entire country is at fault for this mess, either actively or passively. With that in mind, I long to be home this Thanksgiving, but I know in my heart of hearts the things I seek to find, and many of the people I associate with it, are lost and gone forever. So I will enjoy my time with my new family of my own, and make traditions for my own children to cherish.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Cranky Bear Says You Don't Need To Fight With Your Conservative Family This Thanksgiving (Or Find Common Ground, Either)

[Editor's note: my friend Cranky Bear hasn't written here in awhile. His last piece was pretty controversial, and ruffled a few feathers. Anyway, I'm too exhausted to write, so I let him say his piece.]

Cranky Bear here folks, coming at you while having some coffee and chocolate to keep my mind strong.

In the last few years I've kept seeing all these takes on the internet telling liberals and progressives who come from conservative families that they are supposed to fight with their family members at holiday gatherings, or else they are somehow cowards unworthy of the cause. The argument goes like this: if you can't challenge your conservative family members, who can you challenge? And it also goes like this: you're in their family, so you're the kind of person who can change their mind.

These takes are invariably written by people who are not the progressive minority in a conservative family. If they were, they'd know just how ridiculous their arguments are. I know, because I have been pretty openly opposed to the politics of most of my family for the past twenty-five years, and shockingly, I haven't changed anyone's mind by disagreeing with them. A lot of folks don't seem to get that we HAVE BEEN FIGHTING against long odds for a long time. Usually political "conversations" in these contexts involve getting ganged up on by everybody else in the room. Those folks also tend to blend their arguments with a healthy dose of elder condescension. It turns out that a younger family member who perhaps does not live in the same region anymore is the last kind of person able to change their mind. The discussions end with them feeling confirmed in their beliefs, rather than questioning them. In these circumstances avoiding political discussion is a perfectly fine thing to do. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Of course, I do draw the line at openly expressed racism and bigotry, I just won't let that shit slide, and neither should you.

The way I see it, my energy is best spent not getting red-faced and angry while stuffing turkey in my mouth with my beloved family members. I am not interested in "winning" arguments at the dinner table. (Or even having them in the first place. I want to enjoy their presence and be happy!) My efforts are aimed at my neighbors in my own community, and getting them to get out there and vote for the right things and the right people. I save my energy for the streets and for letters and phone calls to politicians. My objection to their malfeasance matters a lot more than getting apoplectic over a relative arguing that tax cuts for the wealthy will bring prosperity for all. In fact, our emphasis on Thanksgiving political fracases and not on the work of everyday political engagement is having a negative effect on us. I don't want to beat my family members in verbal arguments, I want to defeat the politicians and the ideas that they support.

While you should not feel any kind of obligation to fight with your conservative family members, neither should you listen to the takes that say that you need to find "common ground" or "understand where they are coming from." Yet again, the people with those takes don't actually understand the dynamics of how being progressive in a conservative family works. We have been hearing their side of things for our entire lives. In fact, we were raised in their politics, meaning that once upon a time we bought into it to a greater or lesser extent. I "understand where they are coming from" because they used to be me. I know enough to know I can love them and still absolutely despise the people they vote for.

I know that they think their way and I think mine and we aren't going to convince each other otherwise. What I can do is fight hard for the things I believe in, in a variety of contexts. I can teach my students this country's real history. I can organize my neighbors. I can knock on doors for candidates. I can call and put pressure on elected officials. I can get my body in the street and protest. I don't want you to "call out" your reactionary uncle. I want to you to join the general strike when the shit goes down. Because trust me folks, that's the call we are going to be asked to answer pretty soon.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Comeback Elvis Is The Best Elvis

A couple of years ago one of my daughters was sick and I had to stay home from work to take care of her. She was three at the time, and she liked it when I would show her old clips of musical performances. I was exhausted and a little sick myself, so I decided to cue up a video of the complete center stage performances from Elvis’ comeback special. These performances, where he is clad head to toe in black leather, have more than outshined the big productions numbers from his 1968 special. My daughter was enraptured. I also tried to show her Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii concert film, when he was in his 70s sequined jumpsuit period. My daughter would have none of it, exclaiming “I want rock and roll Elvis!”

She was channeling a feeling that I am sure was common in 1968. The rock and roll Elvis was back, snarling and sassy, ripping it up on songs like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The years and years of stupid movies and worse soundtracks were over. This was not the smiling lug in a blow-dried haircut romancing a generic starlet with wholesome woo, but a dangerous, sexy molten hot hunk of burning love. Of course, by 1970 he was in Vegas and the fiery spark of the comeback had faded into the ochre tint of black velvet.

This gives his comeback music an elegiac quality, which is perhaps why I find myself listening to it in November, the month when all around is dying. The fall colors are nature’s most beautiful burst before going dormant, much like the comeback years were Elvis’ greatest music period, but came right before stasis and the end. So with that in mind, here are five songs that are not so much a top five but five reasons why comeback Elvis is the best Elvis.

"Don’t Cry Daddy"

“In The Ghetto” is probably Elvis’ most maudlin song, and it is positively cringe-worthy in 2017. Elvis makes the maudlin work better on “Don’t Cry Daddy,” a song sung from the perspective of a man who has lost his wife. (Both songs are written by Mac Davis, which is not a coincidence.) He wakes up in the morning, his son coming to him and giving him strength, telling him not to cry. Elvis was famously close with his own mother Gladys, who died soon after his rise to fame. I don’t think there’s another song where that lingering pain comes out stronger. The hiccups in his voice would be corny coming from someone else, but Elvis makes me believe this song.

"Suspicious Minds"

OK, this one is kinda obvious, but it’s obvious for a reason. Elvis really sank his teeth into this song about a collapsing relation, perhaps because it mirrored his own disintegrating marriage. It still sounds great. I mean, what kind of love song starts with “We’re caught in a trap”? It is a thoroughly adult song, a million miles away from the “That’s Alright Mama” abandon of the Sun years or the aw shucks romance of the movie years. One of the things I like best about his comeback music is that it is indeed so mature in its themes. As I get older it just gets better for that reason.

"Trouble-Guitar Man"

This is the song that started his comeback special. "If you're looking for trouble/You've come to the right place." BAM! Elvis snarls into the camera, blowing away the insipid image he had built in his movies in a matter of seconds. And sure, the jazzy, splashy arrangement of "Guitar Man" and the accompanying production number are very Hollywood, but Elvis is giving the song a rough layer of grunt and sweat. It has the vitality of his youthful music, but also the toughness of experience, a sense of the quiet confidence of an older man. I love it.

This comes from Back In Memphis, the lesser successor to From Elvis in Memphis, which is by far my favorite Elvis album. Nevertheless, it's really good. There's a real groove here and a toughness in his voice and an obvious connection to his own life. He had left Hollywood behind, but obviously felt ambivalent about his hometown of Memphis. It is one of the few times that Elvis really seemed to let his inner life come out in his music. You can hear it in other comeback era songs. 

"One Night With You"

The best part of the comeback special are the songs Elvis plays with his old bandmates, sitting on chairs. It's loose and fun and raw and he is having a hell of of a time, especially on this number. I will never ever forgive Colonel Tom Parker for hiding the lamp of his talent under the bushel basket of godawful movies and their insipid soundtracks.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Old Dad's Records Podcast Is Back, Baby!

After a month-long hiatus, I recorded another episode of my podcast. This episode was framed by the fact that an old professor and friend passed away on Friday. This prompted thoughts on death, autumn, war, and what it means to leave friends behind. You know, cheerful stuff!  I discuss folk music, specifically Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and a greatest hits record by Ian and Sylvia. November and winter generally have always been perfect for folk music, as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Take Action On Grad Student Tuition Waivers

This post is not one where I am going to analyze politics or riff on pop culture, no sir. I know most of my readers are academics or former academics, and so y'all know that the new tax bill would tax graduate student tuition waivers. This would have prevented most of us, including yours truly, from going to grad school. I know that they are whipping votes for this tax bill in the House next week, and I think we need to flood our representatives with letters and calls about this. I know my rep in New Jersey has my back, so I wrote the representative for the district where I went to grad school, who happens to be a Republican. I will share that letter below. However, I also plan on contacting my alma mater to demand they get off their asses and lobby said rep to do the right thing by his district. I recommend that the rest of you do the same. Kvetching about it on social media alone doesn't solve a damn thing.

Anyway, here's the letter:

I am a proud graduate of the University of Illinois, where I earned my PhD in history. My six years in Champaign-Urbana were some of the best and most fruitful of my life. My graduate degree allowed me to become a university professor and a now teacher at a private high school. The knowledge I learned at Illinois is something that makes in impact on young people every day I go into the classroom, and it is one of the things that I am most grateful for.

It is thus with great trepidation and sadness that I have learned that the current tax overhaul proposal in Congress would start taxing tuition waivers granted by universities to graduate students. Without my tuition waiver there is no way that I would have been able to complete my studies. During my graduate education I worked as a teaching assistant, earning less than $20,000 a year and barely scraping by. Having to pay taxes on a much larger amount of money than I was actually earning would have ended my graduate career.

There are literally thousands of graduate students at the University of Illinois in this situation. The U of I, as I am sure you are aware, is one of the biggest economic assets that the 13th district possesses. It draws in people from around the country and around the world, many who fall in love with central Illinois and become great assets to its economy and communities. The so-called “Silicon Prairie” would not exist without a fresh group of graduate students in the computer sciences.

What does the government actually gain by taxing poor graduate students? The revenue will be slight, but the negative impact will be tremendous. It is also morally outrageous for a tax plan to do this to graduate students while simultaneously making it so wealthy children can inherit more of their parents’ money or for massive corporations to pay the same tax rate that I, the teacher and spouse of a teacher, will be paying under the new plan.

While it might be a lost cause to persuade you to reject such giveaways to the richest Americans, I at least hope that you can see that the tax on graduate student tuition waivers will have a horrible impact on thousands of your constituents and be extremely bad for the district whose interests you have promised to represent. If you cannot reject the current tax bill wholesale, at least work to eliminate the tax on tuition waivers. If you refuse, I must assume you serve masters other than the people of central Illinois.

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Code Red" And Crying At My Dinner Table

Tonight at dinner I witnessed one of the biggest mood reversals in my life. Sometimes I play jaunty music at dinner, and tonight it was uptempo fifties doo-wop. My daughters were loving it, getting up from their plates to dance manically to "Blue Moon." It was one of those too perfect moments, like something out of a movie about a carefree, happy family. A minute later I was crying.

They were telling us about their day, and started to tell us about how they did a "code red" drill at school today. With the same wide-eyed manic energy they were demonstrating how to hide under a table if a shooter was in the room, and I lost it.

It was something I already knew theoretically, but now the harsh, disgusting reality set in: my little five year olds live in a country where mass shootings are so common that they have to prepare for them at school like they are tornadoes or fires.

We have become so accustomed to this, so resigned, that rather than doing anything to actually stop these things, we have just accepted them as a fact of life. Our schools and our communities have gotten used to seeing little children as targets of carnage. We have collectively decided that we would rather sacrifice a few children now and then than do anything that would require taking away anyone's guns.

After Sandy Hook the die was cast. We will keep sacrificing our children to the Moloch of our moral corruption and indifference. It has to stop. If this bothers you, go beyond posting anti-gun memes the day after an attack. Vote and get out the vote for people trying to stop this. Get out into the street and put pressure on the politicians who condone it or who are too cowardly to fight against it. After looking into my children's eyes as they told me how they would hide if a shooter was in their school I know that there is nothing else that I can do and still be capable of living with myself.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Classic Music Videos: "West End Girls"

Growing up in rural Nebraska in the 1980s and early 1990s, MTV was absolutely essential. In those pre-internet days, it was my main conduit to the hip world. (That and the magazine rack at the library and Walgreen's were it.) When I was older I would sit enraptured on Sunday night to 120 Minutes, taking notes on songs that I liked and then hoping the albums were available at the local Musicland.

Before that point, MTV still mattered in the ways it presented the pop music I liked on the radio. A great example is the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls." I knew the song, I thought it was super cool (mostly because my older cousin who had good taste liked it), but the video was like a trip into another world. Even though I've been there, when I think of London, I think of this video. At first it doesn't show the London of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace, but the London of boxy modernist buildings, cluttered streets, and turned up collars. Later, when we see some of the monuments they look washed out, faded.

The song itself is about the feeling of disconnection and quiet alienation that one can feel in the city, perfectly embodied by the gorgeous synths and Neil Tennant's wonderfully arch, emotionally detached delivery like Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. In the video he strides in a determined fashion, his long overcoat flowing with Chris Lowe in a tough black leather jacket, quietly half scowling.

At the time I did not know anything about Tennant and Lowe's sexuality, but I definitely put them in the context of other British New Wave/synth acts of the time, who did not project the over the top masculinity of hair metal, the dominant musical genre in my hometown. These men were less testosteronal, and being a nerdy kid who tended to fail to conform to masculine ideals at school, I found that attractive. (It should come as no surprise that the second CD I bought was Depeche Mode's Violator.) I could watch this video and imagine myself in a big city, striding down the street in an overcoat. That's perhaps why when I finish my morning commute by walking up Broadway from 72nd street, I pop this song in my headphones and feel like my life took me in the right direction.