Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Complaint Rock (New Podcast Episode)

The newest episode of my podcast, Old Dad's Records, is up now. I dig into a genre of music referred to as "Complaint Rock" in the 1990s classic film Clueless. We were all primed to feel bad, and the Radiohead song "High and Dry" fir the bill (and is the first thing I discuss.) After that I pull Joy Division's Ideal For Living EP from my pile of old records and discuss how its dark tones embody the industrial decline of northern England. I end with raves for recent songs by Stephen Malkmus and Lisa LeBlanc.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Waiting For Opening Day With My Daughter

In middle age I have learned to appreciate the truth of things I had written off as cliches. Lovers of baseball like to treat Opening Day as a kind of holy day where life returns from winter dormancy. A lot of baseball lovers (including myself) lean towards the florid and flowery in describing the sport, imbuing it with literary flourishes that might seem ridiculous when applied to a boys game played by grown men. The descriptions of Opening Day certainly fit the bill for that kind of thing, but in middle age I have chosen to believe in the mythology.

As I age winter becomes more disagreeable to me. I am likely now to languish in thoughts about my mortality, or get sad from the lack of sunshine. The prospect of baseball gives me something to look forward to, and every year now in this late February moment the anticipation becomes unbearable.

This year that anticipation has become almost sweet and sublime, as one of my daughters has joined me in being a baseball nut. (Her twin sister has not, but she shares my love of history so I'm not too disappointed.) The nights that I put my daughters to bed I lie beside her as we watch highlight videos of the Mets' last season. We talk about what we look forward to in the next year. She laments the loss of Zack Wheeler to the Phillies. The other day we looked at the list of promotions for different Mets games and she must have asked me to buy tickets to ten different games.

Sometimes I think this is just too good to be true. Other times I worry that this is just a passing phase. I figure the girl at seven who wants to memorize the uniform numbers of the Mets roster and crack open packs of baseball cards will eventually want to leave me behind and go through the usual rites of American girlhood. I want to enjoy this as much as I can, because like everything else in life, it must come to an end.

And that's why Opening Day is so treasured by so many aging people, I guess. We who are increasingly aware of the finite, mortal nature of all around us can appreciate a new beginning. Soon the grass will be green again, the trees will bud, the birds will come back and baseball will be on my car radio. Most sweetly, I'll be with my daughter at the ballpark.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

How to Talk to Your "Socially Liberal But Fiscally Conservative" Friends About Bloomberg

Mike Bloomberg's candidacy has a lot of online leftists lighting their hair on fire. While I have long been a Bloomberg opponent, I also would like to see a more productive response aimed at actually winning the struggle.

In order to do that, those of us who want a more progressive Democratic party are going to need to make our case to those currently being swayed by an onslaught of Bloomberg advertizing. Bloomberg's biggest consticuency are those who call themselves "socially liberal but fiscally conservative." I have heard that phrase my entire life from middle class white people who think they're really smart when they say it. Of course, it's a total contradiction, because socially liberal things like affordable housing, livable wages, and the social safety net cost money.

What those people are REALLY saying is "I am financially comfortable and do not want to pay higher taxes, but I also am okay with weed, abortion, immigrants, and gay marriage." People who say it are also letting on that they are fairly apolitical and not that invested in partisan identity. As the Republican Party has become more extreme, many people with this mentality have started voting Democrat by default. Bloomberg, who migrated from the Republican to the Democratic Party, is their man.

They are, of course, plenty of Democratic candidates who are suitable to these voters. I'd rather have them voting for the likes of Biden, Klobuchar, or Buttigieg because they are not plutocrats buying an election. You may not get these voters to go for Warren or Bernie in the primary, but you can get them from Bloomberg. Here's how:

"Do you know he tried to ban large sodas in New York City, right?
Some SLFCs (my new acronym) are fine with policies aimed at punishing poor people, but a lot of them are pretty libertarian when it comes to people's choices. The soda ban goes against that impulse, and might make a different candidate more palatable. I find electability arguments tiresome, but if you want you can say "This is the kind of thing that voters in Michigan and Wisconsin will hate!"

"He has a pretty awful record of saying nasty things about women."
This is pretty well established. This sadly might not sway a lot of male SLFCs, but if more women knew about this stuff I think could potentially sink his candidacy.

"Stop and frisk was a racist policy that the data shows was not necessary to fight crime."
The crime rate in NYC has continued to go down after Bloomberg left office and stop and frisk was discontinued. Your average white SLFC might try to say "he was just trying to fight crime," but you can show them the data. If they have a libertarian orientation the fact that the police acted in an overbearing fashion ought to be something that concerns them.

"He's not even a Democrat!"
While SLFCs fancy themselves as "non-partisan" a lot of them do identify as Democrats. There are other rank and file Democrats out there who may have seen Bloomberg's ads who are awed by the razzle dazzle. Tell those folks he's been a Republican his whole life.

"He's actually not that electable."
Democratic primary voters are obsessed electibility to a morbid degree. This has been a big part of Bloomberg's appeal. This is easy to turn back. Trump's big appeal is anti-elitism, nominating Bloomberg feeds into that. His horrible record on race means a lot of voters of color won't come out to the polls for him.

When making these points just show videos of Bloomberg talking, since his demeanor often comes across as condescending and dickish. That's something the ads are trying to hide.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Thoughts on a Trip to Mount Vernon

This long weekend my family took one of our patented mini-cations. (One of the great benefits of living in New Jersey is that there are several really interesting places within a four hour drive of our house.) This time we revisited Baltimore, site of our first family vacation when our daughters were still infants.

We had a blast in the Charm City, but my wife really wanted to see Mount Vernon while we were in the area, and President's Day (when entry is free) seemed like the perfect time to go. We are both history teachers with a critical understanding of the past, so we were also a little wary of how the site would be interpeted, especially because it is held in a private trust.

I had last been there 33 years ago in 1987 when I was a budding history nerd and pretty much overwhelmed at being where George Washington had stepped. This time around I knew a lot more about Washington, as well as the deeper context around his life and times, especially slavery. My daughters, who have been getting a more critical view of American history than I got as a child, even questioned why people thought he was a great person, since he had enslaved others. (A fair question!)

We saw the mansion, but also the slave quarters and places where enslaved people worked, something that had been totally excluded my last time there. My children experienced the visit less as a celebration of a great American, but more like a visit to a historic plantation, and I am glad for that. It took me years to expunge the mythology that had been implanted in me during childhood, it will be easier for them to get a clearer view of the world without having to clear away all that garbage.  I was glad to see the experience of slaves represented there, when it had been totally absent in my childhood. However, that experience was not nearly foregrounded enough. Enslaved people were the vast majority of those who had ever lived at Mount Vernon.

One thing remained constant from both visits: the gorgeous view of the Potomac River from the back lawn of the mansion. It was something I remembered well from my first visit. The weather today was clear and sunny, and unseasonably warm. It made that view about as sublime as you could possibly imagine.

As we walked down to the farm area and the replica slave quarters, I thought some more about that view. Washington got to enjoy it, but I wondered how his enslaved workers experienced it. Were they allowed to linger and look at its beauty on a gorgeous Sunday when they didn't have to work from sunup to sundown? Was that back lawn off limits? Did the servants who worked in the house steal an extra glance at it in the course of their days?

Another thing I noticed was a small but substantial number of people wearing MAGA gear, including some teens in a school group wearing bright red bucket hats with the MAGA slogan. The "father of his country" was a slave owner, so how could I surprised that his home would be visited by those who wish to maintain a white nationalist order? Mount Vernon's imperfect reckoning with Washington's past well reflects the failure of that reckoning in the coutnry writ large. We will continue to feel the consequences.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

A Guide To Bloomberg Country

One of my favorite historical works of political journalism is James Q Wilson's "A Guide To Reagan Country: The Polical Culture of Southern California," published by Commentary in 1967. It was written to explain the political appeal of Ronald Reagan the year after his election to California governor. Wilson saw that appeal rooted in the lower-middle class suburbs where he grew up.

As Mike Bloomberg has forcefully entered the presidential race, we can trace his rise in a similar fashion by looking at the local culture that birthed him. While I am not from Bloomberg Country, I have worked in it for almost a decade as a teacher at a private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

If you take a look at the 2009 mayoral election, Bloomberg got the votes of registered Democrats in the Upper West Side, despite being a Republican.

Something about Bloomberg made Democrats vote for him there. What was it?

The Upper West Side is very white and very affluent. At the same time it touts its progressivism, rare for a place where wealthy white people live. But we should interrogate the version of "progressive" politics fancied in that region. Upper West Siders are very pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, pro-immigrant, and anti-gun. At the same time they dislike unions, taxes, and welfare. They were unconcerned about stop and frisk. To their minds the aggressive behavior of the NYPD was totally warranted. After all, wasn't it keeping them safe?

They have also been involved in some ugly incidents around school zoning. White Upper West Siders talk a big game about diversity, but are not all that interested in integrating the public schools. In this regard they do not differ from white Americans in less tony parts of the country.

Folks in Bloomberg Country duitifully vote for Democrats in national elections, but they prefer a version of the Democratic party very different from the one represented by AOC and Bernie. They do not want the libertarian hellscape preferred by the Republican Party, but they recoil at free college and Medicare for All. They tout their opposition to racism, but don't really care about the horrors of mass incarceration.

It's not just a matter of policy, but also of style. They work in the corporate world and thus see Bloomberg as one of them. They want efficient, technocratic leaders who lead with competence, and have little patience for mass politics and the rabble behind them. They don't like Trump, but they fear a social democratic wave almost as much.

The denizens of Bloomberg Country are important because they show issues the Democrats are going to have if they try to move more to the left. The national media spends too much energy going to rural Pennsylvania diners talking to the locals. To understand another, equally crucial demographic, they also need to go to the cafe section of Zabar's.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Newest Podcast Episode

The newest episode of Old Dad's Records is up, and episode 47 has a theme of angst. I start with Rush's "Subdivisions" and discuss the genre of suburban angst songs, as well as Neil Peart's humble mastery, may he rest in peace. After that I dig Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True off of my pile of old records and discuss his poetically toxic masculinity. I end things up with Control Top, a current punk rock band that has a great track taking down people with Type A personalities.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Notes On Friendship And Internal Migration

When it comes to my hope for the future, this is the week that broke me. The criminal president was acquitted and has been acting even more shamelessly. Seeing Rush Limbaugh get the Presidential of Freedom was bad, but the news media normalizing it was worse. The Iowa caucus is an unmitigated shitshow that has left all kinds of conspiracy mongering and division in its wake. The president is an incumbent running in a time of economic growth. We all know how this is going to end.

I have decided to retreat a little bit. I am putting my all into my local political causes, like school integration and affordable housing. National politics is a lost cause. The real moment of truth happened in November of 2016. The die was cast a long time ago. The only way forward is to build from the ground up.

As I contemplate my internal migration in these rotten times I have been reminded of the power of friendship. My best friends all live hundreds of miles from me now, but we still call and text and fume and argue about the current rotten state of things. That support has been crucial so far to my mental health. Trying to get through something like this alone is just too much to handle.

Living far from my friends has made resistance difficult. It's no fun to show up to a protest by yourself, and there's only certain kinds of protests where you can take your children. I have certainly been to a few, but without friends there I feel a sense of desperation, and I go away feeling like I bore witness but that it didn't mean much.

This has all made my time with my friends, as little of it as I can get, much more valuable than it's ever been. Last summer I flew out to Texas to visit a friend, then we drove up to Colorado for a reunion with our grad school friends. It felt like putting on an old shoe, as if nothing had changed, even though so many of us had kids and mortgages and less hair and more fat on our bodies. In that off season ski chalet it felt like we were in our own little world. Before we left we were already talking about the next time we were going to get together.

One thing they don't tell you about middle age is that new true friendships, the kinds that thrill you and make you feel like you've known someone their whole life when you've only known them for a week, stop happening. Good friends are like the family you choose, but like family you tend to lose rather than gain over time. That's why you've got to hold onto what you've got.

Social media has given us the dangerous illusion that it can replace in the flesh friendship. It's great that I have it for a substitute with my friends so far flung, but it's not the same. I was thinking of this when I saw some old friends from my Texas days in New York City at a conference. Their hugs, the sound of their voices and laughs, were things I had sorely been missing. It was bittersweet because I was reminded of how poor my life is without them in it, and how "likes" aren't enough to fill void.

In these dark times we can only make it with others, we can't make it by ourselves. Spend time with your friends, give them a call. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

No Future For You

In the last few months my mind has been possessed by the nagging realization that this country has no future. Some of it is a response to immediate events. Last night as the Iowa fiasco was unfolding, a bunch of my fellow NJTransit train commuters were stranded due to a broken Amtrak train stuck in the tunnel. Combine that with an ineffectual impeachment hearing sputtering to a collapse this week. It seems that nothing works and everything is run by people who have no clue what they are doing.

But once I thought about it some more I realized all this was the most recent manifestation of what I have been seeing my entire life. America's institutions have grievously failed for decades, the rot setting in deeper and deeper. Our finance system's recklessness crashed the economy. Our universities exploit adjunct labor while turning themselves into high-priced diploma mills. Our prisons house a fearsome percentage of our population in squalid conditions. Our churches shelter the abusers of children. Our police murder innocent people with impunity.

None of this is getting fixed. These are issues that I can remember being a part of the public discourse since I was first aware of that discourse all the way back in the 1980s. There just isn't any room for any kind of future.

We can see this in our culture and built environment. We have made it impossible to build new housing in our cities and suburbs in the name of "neighborhood preservation." So many of our movies and television shows are sequels and reboots, recycling the past in the name of an overweaning nostalgia. There is nothing to look forward to, so we might as well just escape into the past or throw ourselves into the neverending present.

We can see it in our policy, which drips with contempt for the young. The world is warming but we refuse to do anything about it. We deny our children pre-K childcare and access to healthcare. We see teenagers getting shot to pieces in their own schools and do nothing to limit access to guns, despite their pleas. The message our society consistently sends is that elders are planning to live until they die and to let the youth handle the consequences of the world they've left behind.

I do not see any escape from this in the political world. Conservatives are completely wedded to nostalgia ("Make America Great Again"), and even if a progressive Democrat is elected president, they will be able to do little in the face of obstruction. Progressives have a different nostalgia for a more "civil" time that never existed, and they falsely believe that they can merely turn back the clock and not reckon with the damage being done. The left purports to be the wave of the future, but they still get into fights about the legacy of the Soviet Union, for crying out loud. No one is trying to claim the future because everyone knows there isn't going to be one.

Admit it, you know that's the case. That's why when elders look upon young people protesting gun control and climate change and they smile and say "The children are going to save us" I get so unbelievably mad. It's a way of deflecting their responsibility for having given the youth a huge bag of shit. We all know the gun issue isn't going to change. Those rifle-bearing militia members in Kentucky and Virginia are telling us the blood will flow if guns are regulated. Fossil fuel companies have a stranglehold on our politics and I am beginning to think our country's decision in the 20th century to be a sprawled-out auto culture is irreversible. We are prisoners of the past in more ways than one.

As bad as things are now, they are going to get a whole lot worse. Dying empires are never fun places to be.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Zen and the Art of Opening Wax Packs

A lot of things have surprised me about parenthood, but among the happiest surprises is that my daughters love baseball cards. Nothing tickles my nostalgia quite like baseball cards, in large part because I am in that late Gen X cohort that was the perfect age to experience the baseball card boom of the late 1980s.

A lot of people back then thought the market would just keep growing, and bought all kinds of cards to hoard. That practice, of course, made those cards worthless because of a lack of scarcity. All us Gen Xers heard our Boomer dads talk wistfully about how their moms threw out their Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays cards, and vowed the same would never happen to us. Oops.

So I never made a pile of money off of my cardboard fetishes, but I gained something better. Nowadays you can buy whole boxes of wax packs from the boom era of baseball cards for ten bucks. My daughters and I can now sit down and rip through the packs together, feeling that sense of anticipation and possibility that comes in each wax pack.

The cards also bring a kind of mindless labor that's good for clearing my thoughts. After we open the packs we sort the cards by putting them in piles by 100, 200s, 300s, etc, then break down each of those piles in tens. There is comfort in the repition and routine, and each time we find a double my daughters yell with delight, since they get to add one to their personal collection.

Right now we are working through a box of 1991 Score, which I did not collect in my youth. In 1991 I switched to blowing my summer job money on CDs and tapes instead of baseball cards and comic books. The design of the cards is a reminder that the early 90s had its own, particularly ugly aesthetic. The font is too sharp, like something out of corporate earnings report, and the colors heavy on teal and purple tones. Breaking out these wax packs and seeing those colors and the tragic mullets on some of the players is the kind of time warp I usually only get from watching those videos compiling old commercials on YouTube.

For my kids, the names and hair styles mean nothing. They just sort of looked quizically when I shouted happily over getting a Bo Jackson card and laughed over the likes of Juan Berengeur and Mickey Morandini. That made me wonder if I was in actuality just dragging my children reluctantly through my nostalgia, something I swore I would never do.

My fears left me two weeks ago, however, when I let them buy some packs from 2019. The first card in those packs? A Pete Alonso rookie card. They both screamed with delight when they saw it behind the freshly torn foil, and not just the daughter who is a Mets super fan. It was the ultimate baseball card pack experience, one of the small pleasures capable of sustaining us in these rotten times.