Monday, March 30, 2020

Virus Journal 3-30-2020 (Epicenter)

It's been five days since my last journal entry. I have held off because my mind has been in a state of constant anger and confusion. The president has at multiple occasions admitted he is not giving governors what they request, has downplayed the urgency to provide medical equipment, and has basically admitted that he expects fealty and public groveling from governors if they want to get supplies.

In these last few days the New York City area has become the epicenter of the virus. There are over forty cases in my town, and today someone died. The hospitals are filling up and they've had to turn refrigerated semi truck trailers into impromptu morgues. The Javits Center is now a field hospital.

Due to social distancing I feel strangely cut off from all of this. It only becomes real when I hear from real people. One of my neighbors has lost two people she knows. One of my friends in town has also lost two people in his life. One of the dead is 36.

I have noticed a shocking level of ignorance of this in other parts of the country. Many I talk to back home seem to not understand just how bad things are here. Unfortunately, they will find out soon enough. Some folks are in blossoming hot spots. A friend in Louisiana lost someone she knew. Others live in central Georgia and and eastern Pennsylvania, hot spots that have been missed in the national media. Lynchburg, where some other friends have, has entered the spotlight due to Liberty University's infamous behavior.

At home last week was my last week of break. Just as I finally seemed to be keeping my daughters' home schooling on task, I had to go back to work this week. Working online left me feeling frantic today. I feel like my students appreciate what I am doing, at least. However, I am not sure how long I can sustain the status quo. My wife is a technology coach for her district, and her frantic pace of work just does not seem to be slowing down.

Working hard today at least kept me busy. I spent a lot less time reading the news, which usually leaves me wanting to cry or break something. Today, with Orban becoming a dictator in Hungary and more deaths, the distraction was helpful.Those who just want to end the school year are offering a false promise of more serenity. Without something to do the quarantine can be literally maddening.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Opening Day

Opening Day

Nothing signals the end
Of winter’s dominion like Opening Day.
Bleachers decked with bunting,
Summer’s heroes back in their
Elysian Fields.
Sweet quiet symphony
Of ballpark noise:
Murmured excitement of gathering crowds
Balls slapping the mit
Bats cracking.
The air all salty popcorn
Savory hot dogs
On the grill
Tickling my nose
As I stroll the concourse
Pleasantly buzzing with beer.
The March air still carries a sharp little nip
But spring’s promise washes it away
Even if the sun is still more bright than hot.
On this one day
A fan can feel hope
Uncut by doubt
That this will be the year.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Virus Journal 3-25-2020 (A Lousy Week)

"A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"'s prophecy is now fulfilled

This week has really been something. There's nothing like getting a non-covid shock in the middle of all of this. One of my daughters had been itching her head a lot, and we thought it was dry scalp, which is an issue she's had in the past. As you have probably guessed, it was lice.

We had an all-hands on deck emergency that disrupted the home schooling schedule and pushed me to the brink. I spent the entire day furiously cleaning and doing laundry along with going through my wife's hair and searching for lice. She did most of the tough work of doing the lice combing with our daughters, who spent a lot of time crying in pain. That was fun. In the end only one of my daughters had lice and as of today both are totally louse and nit free.

My wife and I have joked about learning the origins of certain cliches: "fine tooth comb," "nit-picking," "lousy" etc. Monday was tough but we came out of it with a feeling of accomplishment. This whole experience is awful but it least has brought home how much I love my family.

I am starting to notice things I didn't before. While my commute is grueling, I have transformed it into quiet reading time for myself. I rarely get a minute of solitude now, and it's really beginning to wear on me.

Today I learned someone I love has cancer and my wife was kind enough to let me get out of the house to be alone. I walked three miles in cold drizzle. I listened to Dylan's "It's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" multiple times. His prophecy is being fulfilled. I prefer the amped up version from the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour, which sounds appropriately furious at a society bringing doom upon itself.

I have been feeling alternately depressed and full of rage. This week the president seems to have decided on letting the virus burn through society and kill all so his bottom line can be increased. Republicans and Fox News are lining up behind this, treating the nation's elderly like kamikaze pilots ready to sacrifice for the God Emperor. In trying to craft an economic response, Congress is stymied by Republicans who think the current bill is too good to workers.

It is obvious to me now more than ever that this country cannot survive. Unless the scourge of this virus kills me I am completely confident that I will outlive this republic. All of the stuff eating away at our society has been exposed: our horrible inequality, our lack of respect for human life, our inability to sacrifice, the undemocratic nature of our political process, and most of all, the attitude of right wing Bolsheviks who would rather destroy the country than give up control.  That chaotic, destructive faction runs riot by manipulating the democratic process and by having such a pathetic opposition. Even after all this the liberals are still weak and leftists are engaging in a circular firing squad.

There's no point in comtemplating this stuff because I start to spiral. I should be focused right now on my family, and in a few days, teaching my kids. However, I can't help myself. I called Ben Sasse's office to tell him to knock off his bullshit. I've been writing stuff like this and a couple of other essays. To shrink from a fight right now, no matter how impossible it is, is something I just don't have in me. I know I will likely kick myself for that later.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Life Is Cheap In America

When Michael Brown and Eric Garland were murdered by the police and their killers walked free I realized that beyond what these killings said about race and policing, they pointed to a fundamental truth: life is cheap in America. 

This is a country with an infant mortality rate much higher than peer nations. Women also die in childbirth at higher rates here than elsewhere. Our lack of universal health care means thousands die prematurely every year. We fight our wars with drones and high altitude bombings that kill with ruthless efficiency and lots of collateral damage. We sent our own citizens to die for a lie in Iraq. Our worship of the automobile has led to a pedestrian carnage on our streets that no one even bothers to notice. The proliferation of guns leads to high rates of murder and suicide. Every now and again a student goes and commits a mass murder at their school, and it's become such a commonplace thing that we have come to expect it. Nevertheless, the easy flow of guns remains. 

Life in cheap in America.

So we should not be surprised when the president and other conservative politicians advocate for ending quarantine measures and risking the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people so that the stock market can go back up again. Not only are they doing this, hordes of their voters are enthusiastically given their assent. This is what America has become, a nation so psychotic that it devalues human life in favor of money and power. I am not sure how long a nation so oriented can survive.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Virus Journal 3-22-2020

Since my last entry my routine has been well established. During the week I mixed the required assignments from my daughters' teachers with activities of my own. This wasn't just so I could play teacher, my wife is doing necessary work as a tech specialist at her school and the kids need to stay out of her hair. By Friday my lessons got less regimented, and we could relax some more. That afternoon we took a long walk to drop a birthday gift off at a friend's house and had long conversations about what my daughters observed on the way. This allowed for tangents discussing the different levels of government (prompted by them noticing that electrical wires are above the ground here but not in New York City.) When we got home we put together a little robot model with a solar-powered electric motor.

Thursday I ventured out to get some groceries. The main supermarket had everything I needed, except for chicken. The only thing on the shelf was hearts and gizzards! I then went to the local Polish butcher, where I bought their last chicken thighs, which my wife made into an amazing chicken adobo yesterday. I also stopped at the liquor store to get a supplement to my current supplies. My strategy has been to go cheap on beer (which I buy in bulk) and pricey on whiskey. I got some Elijah Craig single barrel (a great value for the quality) and a four pack of a local microbrew just to give my beer supply some variety. The line was the biggest I've ever seen at the liquor store. A rumor raged that the stores would be shut down, but the order yesterday shutting down non-essential businesses did not cover liquor stores. There goes my new career in bootlegging.

I have mostly been making myself as busy as possible. In fact, I am not able to do all the things I want to do each day, which I take as a good sign. In normal times as well boredom is a luxury that I don't have. Yesterday I finished cleaning our screened-in porch, scrubbing away with a sponge and pail of water and Murphy's Oil Soap. I got special motivation from an anxiety attack, the first I've had since the virus hit, and work was my only way out.

This attack came after checking the news and realizing that the only way for the economy to start up again is for there to be massive testing, which is not forthcoming. I began to fear that the president, in all his infantile mania. thought that some "miracle drug" would save us all from the need to take public health measures. I was also freaking out over the lack of support for states suffering the worst, thinking that he didn't care if people in places that didn't vote for him lived or died. I also started freaking out about how the national media has not broken their tendency to bend over backwards to treat Trump as a "normal" president. That combined with his daily propaganda briefings I think has legitimated his authoritarian behavior. Even as Trump shits his pants in public each day and tells lies I can see that this actually makes him MORE powerful.

So I went out back and started scrubbing, then took a three mile walk.

On a happier note, I developed a Dungeons and Dragons adventure to play with my family this week. I am really looking forward to it.


I am still reading Middlemarch, about 200 pages in. I realized that I needed to keep that book at a slow pace due to the richness of the writing. Eliot is one of those authors who packs a lot of meaning on the page. I really love how she is giving such a thick description of a provincial Midlands town circa 1830. When I wrote my dissertatation I was obsessed with how the 19th century novel was grounded in historical thinking, and this one is now exception. Eliot is writing about the world 40 years in the past to get a sense of what in her time represents change. If I had the time and talent I'd love to write something like this about my rural Nebraska stomping grounds and how that out of the way place has gone through its own transformations in recent history.

While I have been moving through Eliot slow, I read another, breezier book more quickly: William B. Irvine's A Guide To The Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy. It was a Christmas gift from an old dear friend (and reader of the blog) who sensed my growing despair towards the end of last year. I figured the middle of a pandemic was the perfrect time to read a book about Stoic philosophy. I was a philosophy co-major in college, but haven't read any philosophy in quite a long time. The book reminded me of a kind of deep thinking I have missed. The main point of the book is about incorporating Stoic practice in everyday life, rather than the logic chopping of contemporary academic philosophy.

I took a lot of this book to heart. It is important for us to contemplate our eventual death, and the impermanence is everything in our lives. It is important to evaluate our attachments, and to not keep our negative emotions from overwhelming us. I have recently had to deal with some passive aggressiveness from people in my life and the book made me think about how I can deal with that while not bringing me down. Of course, the book has many of the flaws of philosophy as a discipline, namely the excision of social context from its thought process. Saying, for example, that disadvantaged people should merely banish the negative emotions caused by discrimination and oppression is some real bullshit.  But I do not want to be too negative, this book has helped center me this week and remind me that my wife and kids are what matter to me most and that I am lucky to get all this time with them.

Friday, March 20, 2020

My Heart Is Far Away

My Heart Is Far Away

Sitting on the front stoop
Of my suburban New Jersey home.
Middlemarch propped on my knee,
The provincial world of old England
Calling my heart back
To a place far less elegant.

My heart traverses over a thousand miles
To see that impossibly big sky
Expansive over the wide flat plains
Where I can see horizon to horizon,
Its rough beauty unknown to most but precious to me.

There’s a pungent whiff of cow manure
Carried on the south wind,
Unpleasant but not to my nose.
The south wind whipping hard
Knifing between the buttons of my coat
Transformed into a balm
In my memory.

Most precious is
The little ranch house
Opposite the open field
Humble and sturdy as its inhabitants
Who my heart longs for most.

[All this horror has this me back writing poetry again. Maybe shielding the nation from my awful verse will get the government to act.]

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Virus Journal 3-18-2020 (Tectonic Plates)

The last two days have meant settling into a groove. Today was probably the smoothest day of home schooling. My daughters now have assignments from their teachers, so I no longer have to figure out everything for themselves. My daughters have also been attentive, especially when an old friend taught them some Japanese over the internet.

I have been talking to people as much as possible. I called a friend last night, talked to my aforementioned friend/teacher today, called a family member, and spent a lot of time writing back and forth with another family member. It felt good to have those conversations, even if they went into dark territory.

Yesterday my wife and daughters went to the dentist. This was the first trip we had made out of the house in days. It's a place we have been going to for years and I have a lot of affection for the people who work there. I found out they were going to have to shut down about as soon as we left for awhile. One of the hygienists, who is always so sweet and tender with my daughters, broke down in tears talking to my wife about having to file for unemployment. The economic effects are showing up well beyond the stock market, which crashed again today.

Leaving the home and getting in my car felt surreal. There was fear in most people's eyes and an overwhelming sense of insecurity. Today I went for a long walk, my first in days. I noticed other kids, like mine, were playing in their driveways. I was a little surprised at the number of cars on the road, which seemed more than yesterday when I drove to the dentist. I wonder how much distancing is really going on.

There was an odd moment today when I sat on the front stoop watching my daughters play. My mail carrier came by, and we had an awkward moment. I assumed she did not want to hand me my mail, and she assumed I didn't want to take it directly from her. I asked her if it was okay if I took it, and she smiled and said she wasn't as concerned as other people.

Today I felt the tectonic plates of history moving. The last time I felt like this was in 2016, with the double hit of Brexit and Trump. I felt the old post-Cold War order falling away. I get the feeling that this crisis will only further catalyze this change. For years we have been in a world of nationalism, of narrowed minds and closed borders. The virus only gives those forces more firepower.

Right now the future looks more uncertain than it has in almost any time of my life. 9/11 certainly doused me with uncertainty, but the military response set the tone of the new order pretty quickly It's so hard to tell where we are headed, or what's going to happen. How in the heck can we have a national election in this environment? Seeing the president embrace the "China virus" narrative while Asians and Asian-Americans in this country face violence has me fearing a pogrom. If cannot deflect blame for his failure through some razzle dazzle, he will lean on racism and xenophobia. Meanwhile, his opposition is fractured between timid liberals too weak to rise to the occasion and sclerotic leftists who only seem interested in tearing down the aforementioned liberals. I am not confident in the future.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Virus Journal, 3-16-2020

Today was quite a day. In terms of my personal life, it was my first day teaching the kids at home. My wife is one of the tech coaches for her district, so she spent all day triaging the online transition. I luckily have two weeks off, and so can be there for the kids. With their help I drew up a schedule for the day, and we actually did a lot. I started teaching them piano, we read, did math, talked about writing poetry over Skype with their auntie, made art, and wrote. After the "school day" ended we've had their friends who live next door over. I don't know if that's kosher under the current rules, but I want their parents to be able to mentally survive this, and we spend so much time together we might as well live in the same house anyway.

Having the "school day" so organized was a good idea. It's kept me busy and given order to my day. I actually look forward to tomorrow, which will have a St. Patrick's Day theme. The only issue is that my kids have a lot of energy and so do their friends and I am feeling drained while they run wild. I will probably have to get less ambitious.

In terms of the broader world, the last two days have given me whiplash. Yesterday I took the kids to the playground when no other kids were there, today the town has shut down all the playgrounds. New Jersey, along with New York and Connecticut, has said restaurants (apart from takeout), bars and theaters are all to be shuttered. A week ago today I was teaching and we were preparing to go remote, but after spring break. Events are moving fast.

This has given me insight into past events. I think particularly about the summer of 1914. The death of Franz Ferdinand happened in late June, and so many Europeans spent their July frolicking, the rumors of war just background noise. (Even Kaiser Wilhelm was at his spa!) All of a sudden, the war hit. The memoir The Burning of the World by Hungarian writer Bela Zombory-Moldovan describes it so evocatively. He learned he had to mobilize while on a seaside vacation.

I also have whiplash because the president seems to be changing his tune. Yesterday he spent his press briefing reading tweets off of paper meant to defend himself from the evil news media. Today he said nice things about that same media while, for the first time, offering concrete recommendations to restrict the transmission of the virus. Of course, he tweeted tonight about the "China Virus." This after I have heard about people I know being harassed or micro-aggressed for being Asian.

The distancing and online teaching had for days given me a feeling of purpose that sustained me. Today I started feeling dread again. I really and truly wonder just how long these measures can be sustained. Right now I do not think it will be sustainable to have all of our education to be moved online and huge swaths of our economy go dormant. The only way disaster could have been avoided would have been with swift action months ago. Now we are going to have to live with the consequences, which will be terrible no matter how much distancing we do.


I am also planning on logging all the books I am reading in this time. I plan on using books as an anchor, and now that I am getting old I forget books pretty quickly after I read them any more.

John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden
I started this book years ago and didn't finish it. I am craving baseball and sad without it, so I turned to the only unread baseball book on my shelf. It's the story of the early days of baseball, from its origins to around 1900. Thorn likes to include the entire text of documents within his text, which is really distracting. While it was interesting to know that modern baseball evolved out of a number of games (and thus has no fixed origin) some of the details needed streamlining. At the same time, his look into the mythology of baseball's origins was fascinating. Albert Goodwill Spalding, who founded the National League in addition to a sports equipment empire, was a Theosophist. So was Abner Doubleday, and a big part of the reason for the myth pushed by Spalding and others that Doubleday invented the rules of baseball in Cooperstown, New York. (No such thing ever happened.) Truth is stranger than fiction.

George Eliot, Middlemarch
These days I tend to have one fiction and one non-fiction book on my reading stove with one pot simmering and the other really cooking. During my train commutes I had been reading the Library of America edition of John Cheever's collected stories. I am really loving them, but they are such fine-tuned and realistic vignettes of everyday suburban commuting life that is hard to read them under quarantine. I am saving that book for when I get to ride the train again. I love a good doorstop 19th century novel, but I tend to save those for summer when I have more time to read. A good long novel also helps time slow down. In that spirit I purchased both Middlemarch and War and Peace. I went with the former first because I am in a strangely English mood these days and I've never read Eliot before. I hate to say this, but so far it's been tough going. Her prose style thus far is as dry as church dinner chicken. Maybe my problem was that I started reading it around a bunch of insane, screaming children. In any case I love 19th century social novels. I wish we had their equivalent today. You could certainly write a good one about our current situation.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Virus Journal, 3-14-2020

[Editor's Note: I have a lot of time at home right now for obvious reasons, and I thought I'd journal my experience with the pandemic, both to process and as a record. In college I read Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and it really stuck with me, so that's an inspiration here.]

It's hard to tell which day it was that the reality of the virus hit me. Weeks ago my wife started stocking up on medicine and food items, and I gently mocked her for it. She is always quicker than me to get anxious about public events, so my default is usually to be the brake, in order to keep her from spiraling. The day I heard about Lombardy being shut down I told her she was right all along and I was stupid for doubting her. (Married people are aware of what a big deal it is to make such a statement conceding your wrong judgement to your spouse.) 

Early this week we were calm because we had been prepared. The leaders of the school where I teach had also started making plans, so I felt prepared in my job as well. When we had a meeting after school on Monday we were still talking about school closure as a strong possibility after spring break, which was to begin the next week. By the next day the calculus had already shifted, and by the end of the day we learned that the students would be away on Thursday while the faculty planned, and Friday we would be going remote, right before spring break. Meanwhile, each day I commuted by train from New Jersey the number of people riding in got fewer and fewer.

I thought Friday went well, and I was filled with a greater feeling of optimism than I had known in a long time. Whenever one confronts a problem instead of avoiding it, one feels a deep sense of security and control. I was glad other schools were cancelling, I had the feeling that we as a nation had finally gotten serious about this.

This was important because the leadership from the top of the nation has been nothing but a complete shitshow. The president had to finally admit something was wrong, after weeks of talking about a "hoax." His address to the country on Wednesday night was not only a disaster, he seemed completely incapable of matching his emotional affect to the seriousness of the topic. His breathing and speaking were extremely labored, a product of illness, obesity, or both. He seemed to imply that trade with Europe was being cut off, and the market responded by plunging the next day. 

I did not watch his press conference from the Rose Garden yesterday. I was too busy running my online classes and watching my kids, and I wasn't sure my psyche could take another look at this man's complete incompetence in the face of deadly catastrophe. Surreally, his words actually soothed the markets. The corporate overlords just want to make sure that they were protected, and he assured them of that. Meanwhile, the Senate went on recess over the weekend.

That reflected a widespread lack of seriousness about this crisis. I have heard and seen it everywhere. Some of it is politically motivated, like the conservative family member claiming "H1N1 under Obama was worse." Some of it is refusal to alter life patterns, like the friends who went to a crowded restaurant last night. As for my part, I decided to make this morning the last major day out. I went to the barber because I was way overdue for a haircut and beard trim. I also reasoned that they would be a business badly hit by this crisis, and if I was going to get a haircut I should do it ASAP before things got worse. I also made sure to give an extra large tip. Of course I had to hear an insufferable man in the next chair complain that we were all just overreacting to the situation.

From there I went to the local Polish butcher and Asian supermarket. We had stocked up on things, but we needed variety and some fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables. Both places were fully stocked and both were not busy. The only issue I had was that the Asian market was sold out of Daikon radishes, but my wife (who had gone with the kids to visit her parents) managed to get some at the Korean produce market hear where they live. We will be having banh mi for dinner tomorrow. The fact that Whole Foods and Trader Joe's locally were sold out on Friday made me laugh. The basic bougie folk of suburbia have horizons that are far too narrow.

I should add that before I went to the butcher I stopped into a Catholic church around the corner, which had a sign on the door announcing it was not hosting masses this weekend. My religious situation is pretty ambivalent. I guess I am an agnostic lapsed Catholic who attends Episcopal services from time to time. I don't know if someone is on the other side of the line, but I still pray. I went into the church and prayed for a bit while someone was practicing some pretty sublime music on piano. I prayed that the people facing this crisis would have strength and wisdom.

What I saw later today made me realize how relevant my prayer was. It seems that the nation's bars are jammed, that a great many people are releasing the tension of the current moment by going out and trying to be with other people. At this point I wonder why I am reconfiguring my entire job as a teacher when these other people can't be bothered to stay away from the bar. Of course, the bigger problem comes from the lack of government action to regulate all this stuff and give all of us a sense of what we should actually be DOING.

For now I guess I will have to use my spring break putting my courses online and keeping my children entertained. We have already drawn up a calendar for the "school" day. I am the opposite of a homebody, so I am get a feeling that social distancing is going to take a toll on my psyche.

While the fact that I feel like I am doing something to improve the situation is helping, the nagging anxieties won't go away. I keep thinking there's a good chance that someone I love will die, and I will not even be able to go to their funeral. That thought haunts my waking hours. In the meantime, I try to stay busy and have fun with my family. What else can be done?

Friday, March 13, 2020

Our Shared Fate

John Donne knows what's up

A lot of the tragic inequalities of American life are caused by the refusal of many people to acknowledge that they share a common fate with others. The suburbanites who keep poorer people from accessing their schools through restrictive zoning, those with insurance who push against the expansion of health care, and the people who inherit their wealth and do not allow it to be shared all think this way. In the past forty years the neoliberal onslaught has made community even weaker than it's historically been in this individualistic nation.

However, we all share a common fate, whether we like it or not. That is the lesson of the coronavirus. Germs and microbes don't care what neighborhood you live in or how much money is in your bank account. The powerful and the lowly have both been sickened by this disease. This is a terrible time, but maybe we can use it to reflect on our common fate, and learn to live for each other instead of just living for ourselves. The selfish mentality has led to a society where public health funding has been gutted and the president's response to the virus is to close borders instead of giving more resources.

These words from John Donne has been reduced to cliche because we have failed to hear his radical message. Read him now, with new eyes in our current crisis, and reflect:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

It is easy for the selfish to say "it's just the sick and old who are dying from this, I'll be fine." That is a monstrous mentality, for as Donne says, we are all of the same community. We all have a "pre-existing condition": we are mortal beings fated to die. With the little time we have on this earth let us recognize our shared fate, and act on it. It's not too late.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Some Suggestions for the Sanders Campaign

Want a lesson in how to be a populist while not alienating potential supporters? Look no further than FDR.

Liz Warren was my favorite of the Democratic presidential candidates by far. Bernie was number two (and the only other one I feel genuine excitement for), so I have decided to back him against Biden. I live in New Jersey, so my vote might not even matter come June, but in the meantime I would like to do my bit to support him.

If I can't vote yet, I would like to offer some advice. The first would be to learn from the results on Super Tuesday. I was honestly shocked at how well Biden did, considering how tepid his campaign had been to this point, and how little he campaigned in places where he won. As the saying goes, "the party decides," and folks from Klobuchar to Clyburne decided to back the only established moderate candidate capable of uniting most of the party. (Warren was too progressive for them, but at least it wasn't Bloomberg.) With the nationalization of politics, retail politics (where Sanders has an advantage) are less important these days as well.

Something I learned from doing competitive debate in high school and college was that the worst thing you could do after a loss was to blame it on the judges or your opponents not playing fair. That might make you feel better, but it would not help you win the next time out. Unfortunately, the Bernie movement has a tendency to only find fault in others, and lacks the self-reflection needed to win this fight. That's why I think it's crucial that those of us coming to Bernie now offer our perspective, since we have a better understanding of how to preach to the unconverted.

In the first place, Super Tuesday was proof that trying to get new voters to the polls simply won't work. It could be that Sanders fails to inspire new voters, or that primary voting is such a specialized and rare thing that it's hard to get ANYONE to do it. In any case, to win he needs to get the votes of regular Democrats. This is going to be a problem, because a lot of Sanders supporters spend their time attacking Democratic politicians. Most voters, however, are not ideologically rigid. They tend to vote for who they like or who appeals to them for a variety of reasons. I know people who vote enthusiastically for candidates of wildly varying political ideologies because of this. If you tell someone that voting for Bernie means disdaining Obama, for example, you will lose. Obama is by far the most popular politician of my lifetime, especially in the Democratic Party. If Bernie wants the votes of African Americans in particular, he needs to claim the Obama legacy, not run against it as he often has done.

Another issue is in terms of branding. Sanders called himself a "democratic socialist," but his policies are really in line with the New Deal social democracy that the Democrats embraced before Jimmy Carter and the "Watergate babies." He could get a lot of mileage by showing himself to be in the party lineage, and not by using a label that's not only alienating to people in the middle, but also not even accurate to who he actually is.

Sanders also needs to use his anti-establishment rhetoric more selectively. It often takes on an "it's us against the world" mentality that understandably alienates the people on the outside looking in. It makes them feel as if they are not wanted in the "us." Compare this to how Barack Obama was able to bring people in. What seems to be getting lost these days is that Obama managed to win an insurgent campaign and go on to be the most popular president of my lifetime. Despite this, no one seems to be learning any lessons from him. (I am not saying he was flawless, only that he was good at getting elected president!) When the "establishment" stuff is aimed at other Democrats that a lot of progressive Democrats like, they are not going to warm to you.

There's also a problem that when every setback in the campaign is blamed on the media or party establishment, it makes Bernie sound like a loser. If you spend all your time complaining about process, guess what, you just lost. (Just look at Democrats in Congress failing to make Trump accountable for his crimes!)  In public it's better to project confidence about the next battle ahead, not complaining about how you were robbed in the last one. That plays well to the base, but as we've seen, that base is simply not enough to get him over the top.

Related to that, Sanders has to stop denying that the culture around his campaign is a liability, especially in attracting women. A minority of his online supporters seem more interested in proclaiming their moral superiority than in actually winning, and are huge assholes about it. The same people will then deny there's a problem. While every candidate has dickish supporters, the Sanders campaign seems to have a culture that cultivates behavior alienating to others. Part of the reason I am even writing this is to add an alternative voice to the mix. I am going for Bernie, but I personally know multiple Warren supporters (all women) who have basically said that the behavior of Sanders supporters has made it so that they simply don't want to be on the same team as them. Even if some folks feel this is merely a matter of perception, that perception has to be fixed.

Above all, I would urge the Sanders campaign to lean on positivity and on the promise of his program. The attraction of social democracy is that it promises a better world where all people can have dignity and protection. Isn't that a great thing? Don't we want a world where we are getting quality health care and able to go to college or have children without going bankrupt? (On a related note, he needs to stress child care as much or more than he is stressing college tuition.) Calling out "the banks" might help a little, but most people are less eaten up by anger than we have been led to believe.

Biden's biggest weakness is that he is trying to maintain a failed status quo. Bernie's greatest attraction is that he is offering something better. That message alone won't bring in voters unless they feel like they are welcome in the tent in tangible, not rhetorical ways. There's still time for Sanders to turn his campaign around, but when I see the dead-end nature of his supporters' resentment, I doubt it can happen. I hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Carpenters, "Sing"

Every year at my daughters' school they put on a big show of different musical skits directed by parent volunteers, and end the show with a big number where all the kids take the stage. This year the finale song is "Sing." Tonight I played both the Sesame Street and Carpenters versions of the song for my daughters and was hit with almost overwhelming waves of emotion.

Sesame Street and The Carpenters were a big part of my early childhood, which was probably the happiest I've been in my life until recently. Back then my parents had about a half dozen cassette tapes, and one of them was The Carpenters' greatest hits. Since I was born in 1975, the music was a little back dated, but I didn't know that disco had crowded early 70s easy listening off of the charts. I knew all the songs front to back, and some were especially meaningful to me. "Sing" was one of those songs, which I also knew from Sesame Street, where it had originated.

It is every bit a product of its time, like the Free To Be Your And Me TV special. The simple, sing-along ways of folk music had blended into soft rock like Bread and The Carpenters, and a little song about how we all should just, well, sing a little song was the kind of meta-level culture people in 1973 craved. It was the ultimate terminus of 60s culture, the good vibes stripped of revolution and fit for housewives popping valium and their little kiddies playing with Lincoln Logs on the shag carpet. The war in Vietnam was lost, the president was a crook, and the price of oil was going through the roof, so just sing a song and forget about it.

The Carpenters and songs like this are easy to mock, but very little in this world can give balm to my soul like the voice of Karen Carpenter. I spent so many countless days at home with my mother and sisters, happy and safe with that voice in the background. That ended when I went to school and confronted a verbally and physically abusive Kindergarten teacher, and then constant bullying from my peers. I would think back to those early days as a kind of Garden of Eden I had been expelled from. Ever since Karen Carpenter's voice will wrap me up in warm memories and sometimes it's too much for me to take.

Even in my youngest days I could pick up the sorrow in her voice in songs like "Rainy Days and Mondays" and "Superstar." The passage of time has only made that sorrow more profound to me. The music also started hitting me harder after seeing the TV movie about Karen Carpenter's life that came out in the late 80s. That's where I learned about her losing battle with anorexia, and that film crushed me harder than just about any I've seen since, no matter how "serious." That night my mom told me that she went to a Carpenters concert years before, and that they barely started performing before Karen had to be taken offstage.

But enough of this sorrow. There's enough that in the world right now. Listen to "Sing" and feel just a little better for three minutes.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

On Watching Quadrophenia in Middle Age

This year I have made a point of listening to as much new music as possible. Now that I've hit middle age I am shocked by how backwards-looking people my age can be. I hear their fear and derision towards a changing world and pray that does not become me. It has become increasingly clear to me that indulging in the comforts of nostalgia in middle age too often is a soul killer.

Despite my resolution to stick to new stuff, I ended up rewatching the 1979 film Quadrophenia this weekend. It's based on the 1973 concept album by The Who of the same name, but without being a rock opera. The Who's music is always in the background, the main characters don't break into song, other than to hum or sing their favorite pop songs to themselves. (One of the best scenes involves two characters singing rival kinds of music in adjoining public bathtubs.)

The story is set around Jimmy, a young working class man engaging in the "mod" subculture of mid-1960s London. Jimmy and his mod friends often tangle with "rockers" from the same working class neighborhoods. The mods wear smart suits, ride scooters with lots of mirrors, and listen to British rock bands like Kinks, Who, and Small Faces. The rockers prefer motorcycles, black leather, and American rockabilly like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.

Jimmy finds himself in a personal crisis. He works a crummy office job (that he eventually loses) while living at home and clashing with his parents, who disapprove of his lifestyle. He strikes out hard in love and alienates his friends. It's implied that he's suffering from mental illness, but isn't getting treatment for it. (In the album he is, but the film is far bleaker.) Perhaps worst for him, a mail truck destroys his scooter.

The mods and rockers tangled on the beaches of Brighton, and the film ends with Jimmy going there, trying to relive one glorious weekend where he led his friends into battle and won the affection of his crush. He discovers that the "ace face," the coolest of the mods (played memorably by Sting) is actually just a bell boy. Jimmy steals the bell boy's scooter and drives it to the white cliffs over the beach. Watching it you fear that Jimmy is going to kill himself, but since the film opens with him walking away from the cliff at sunset, you know that he doesn't. (Although some people seem to miss this.)

Instead, he sends the scooter, the symbol of his allegiance to the mod life, over the side of the cliff. The shot of it crashing on the rocks freezing into a still photo as Roger Daltry sings the line "You stop dancing" is one of my favorite final shots ever. It hits like a punch to the head, especially after the beautiful, sweeping footage of the cliffs. The whole mod thing, which promised liberation, was just a dead end trap, and Jimmy has rejected it.

It's a scene that hit me hard in my 20s, when I like Jimmy was still trying to define myself. In middle age it hit harder, but for different reasons. By the time one reaches 40 plenty of compromises have been made and beloved things left behind. At some point you have to recognize that you are no longer young, and that the aging people around you who insist on being young look absolutely pathetic.

Seeing that scooter go off of the cliff was a reminder of what I've had to quit. First and foremost I quit academia, which ended up being as imprisoning as mod life, even if I was decked out in boxy tweed instead of the slim threads of Swinging London. So much of what we put our hopes and dreams into ends up going wrong, it seems.

But beyond that dramatic life change, getting old means losing people. They got lost to death, to distance, to drifting and sometimes in explosions of anger and recrimination. I think back to my two years in Chicago and how one of my closest friends from then is dead and the other is estranged from me. Places get lost, too. When I go back to my hometown I don't usually recognize too many people. Most of my old haunts in the town where I went to grad school are shuttered now.

As I said, however, nostalgia is a bad disease in middle age. Instead of looking back, it's best to see forward. I don't go to rock shows much anymore, but I do have fun doing impromptu dance parties with my daughters, for instance. The possible onset of a pandemic had me soul searching a lot recently, and I realized that even though I never managed to be a respected professor or writer, I'm happier than I thought I'd ever be back in my young confused days, and that's all I really need.