Saturday, August 29, 2020

Colter Wall, "Plain To See Plainsman" (Track of the Week)

Quarantine has had plenty of negative effects on my life, but not being able to go home and visit my parents is at the top of the list. We were set to make the road trip to Nebraska right before virus numbers started spiking again in the Midwest. Once New Jersey added Nebraska to the two-week quarantine list, our decision was made. (There was no way we would be able to maintain sanity if our kids were confined to the house with us for that period of time. And since we aren't assholes, we were actually going to follow the quarantine rules. You're welcome.)

Today I am feeling especially homesick. I miss my family the most, but I also miss the landscape. Something about impossible expanse of the Western sky lifts my soul. I also need a break from the culture of the NYC area, where everyone is constantly displaying their status and spraying their anxieties everywhere. Give me a taste of Plains humility and reserve, please.

Lucky for me, I got a tip via Twitter to listen to Colter Wall, a young country and western (with an emphasis on western) singer from Canada. I was immediately drawn in from the first song I listened to, "Plain to See Plainsman."

He sounds like a cross between Gordon Lightfoot and Waylon Jennings, combining the plain-spoken deep folk voice with a slight outlaw edge of surly grit. "Plain to See Plainsman" is about being homesick for the plains. In his case it's Saskatchewan, not Nebraska. Nevertheless, replace "wheat fields" with "corn fields" and it perfectly expresses the way I feel right now. There is something about that place that is lodged in my heart, and I am never complete without it. Part of that comes from never feeling truly at home in any of the places I have lived since I left Nebraska.

I am as surprised about this as anyone. For a long time I felt zero nostalgia for central Nebraska. There were people there that I loved, but I never fit in there and years of childhood exclusion and bullying hardly made me embrace the place. I even thought that if my parents moved elsewhere in retirement that I would not even go back to visit my hometown. Well, I guess there's a reason that "distance makes the heart grow fonder" has become a cliche.

"Plain to See Plainsman" is about wandering and wandering and finding out that your true home is the place you left. Maybe not where you want to live the rest of your days, but definitely where you want your bones to rest. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Pictures at a Cataclysm

After growing up in the staid American 80s and 90s, I have witnessed a litany of cataclysms in my adult life. First came 9/11, after that the never-ending Global War on Terror, then the Great Recession, and now a deadly pandemic compounded by the ongoing disaster that is the Trump administration. Time after time I look for comfort in art that can make sense of it all. There are plenty of well-known examples, but I keep coming back most often to Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons). 

I first encountered this painting in the late 1990s, a quieter historical epoch when the president getting oral sex was the kind of thing that turned the country upside down. I had spent the first 22 years of my life in Nebraska, and had moved in 1998 to Chicago, that great metropolitan magnet of the Midwest. Thirsty for the kind of culture I craved but had been denied in my provincial, pre-internet upbringing, I made it a habit to go to the Art Institute on their free Tuesdays just about every week. 

Over time certain paintings became my favorites, I would linger before them, feeling their power wash over me. Being in the presence of art that I had only seen in textbooks gave me a special kind of high, I could practically feel the vibrations coming off of the paint.

At the same time, I was taking an art history class on the year 1913, a fascinating and crucial moment in the development of modernism. For the first time I had the tools to actually interpret and historicize what I was looking at. In class I had read from the Blue Rider Almanac, a sort of German modernist manifesto from 1912. It invigorated me, and I developed a particular interest in Kandinsky, who was one of the principal members of the Blue Rider group. Whenever I went to the Art Institute, I would spend a lot of time with his Improvisation No. 30. It’s a small, square-sized painting that does not draw the same kind of crowds as the Van Goghs and Monets nearby, but it was my favorite.

From an art history perspective, the painting was a kind of missing link between Expressionism and Abstract art. There were wild splashes of color but also some representational elements, like the cannons in the bottom right corner that appeared to be blasting down outlines of buildings. There also appeared to be a crowd of people on the opposite side, perhaps implying some kind of mass uprising. Soon after this Kandinsky’s work would be completely abstract, but I found this more obscure hybrid intriguing.

Being obsessed with the cultural history of World War I at the time, I saw Kandinsky’s painting as a prophecy of the cataclysm that struck a year after he made it. That conflict took millions of lives, smashed empires, sparked revolutions, forever altered culture and society, and is the true beginning point of the 20th century. In the Blue Rider Almanac he and Franz Marc had both longed for a cultural rupture from the dehumanizing industrial world that would bring about new, more spiritual ways of being. When the war began some modern artists, including Marc, embraced it as a shake-up of a boring and predictable world. The reality ended up being much harsher, and Marc himself died in the war. Nevertheless, a true remaking of the world did in fact result, even if it was not the one Kandinsky had hoped for.

Living in relatively stable times and longing for an upheaval is a luxury we do not have anymore, but it is one I certainly indulged in back in late 1990s Chicago. The first upheaval came soon enough in 2001, complete with collapsing buildings. By that time I was living elsewhere, but the image of Kandinsky’s painting had been burned into my mind’s eye. I thought about it constantly, and what it was like to be living in a time when history was happening all around me, rather than something to be read about in books. 

That sensation has had me in its grip since March, and has squeezed tighter since the Black Lives Matter protests started in May. It is far too easy in times like this to long for an idealized past as an escape. I have already reached an age where my peers will talk about how much better things were “back then.” That kind of nostalgia is a sickness in the middle-aged, and one I am laboring hard to avoid. 

Improvisation No. 30 provides an inoculation. Kandinsky painted it looking forward to a shake-up and dreaming of the potential possibilities. Even if it did not take the shape he preferred, it’s still healthy to imagine what can be built after destruction. The cannons are firing and the walls are falling regardless, now is the time to imagine something better to take the place of the dead past. The world is never going back to what it was on March 1, 2020, and that’s a good thing. 

[Editor's Note: I wrote this for a very specific call for essays that makes it hard to submit elsewhere after getting rejected.]

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Some Historical Metaphors For This School Year

The virus has me feeling like Clive Candy right now

I'd like to indulge in some historical metaphorical thoughts today, as dangerous as that often is. 

As a teacher, spring of 2020 felt a lot like World War I. Everything changed in an instant once the looming problem went from a far-away threat to a deadly reality. With the fear of the future there was also a lot of fighting spirit in the trenches. Teaching distance style with just a little training felt like being one of those green neighborhood boys from Manchester or the East End joining up in a "Pals" battalion and getting straight to the Somme out of training camp. I still remember leaving the school building on March 12, 2020, after a day of helpful training. I was scared but ready for the challenge.  

I did my turn at the front lines and felt satisfied when it was over despite the stressful 10-12 hour days. Contrary to our assumptions (molded by hindsight), when the Great War ended the majority of people in the UK felt good about it. They were proud to have won, and while they mourned the dead they also thought that victory would bring a peaceful postwar order where such a conflict would never be necessary again. 

The last day of school this year felt like Armistice Day. I had put my blood, sweat, and tears into the fight and somehow managed to be an effective online teacher despite the odds. I assumed, like people in the Allied nations on November 11, 1918, that the future would be better. At that point in June infection levels were down and perhaps the virus would be pushed back before the school year.

Just as the post-Great War order failed miserably (in large part to its poor conception and factors beyond the control of its architects), so too did the initial fight against covid. Now August of 2020 feels a lot like September of 1939. There were no cheering crowds in the squares when World War II started, only fear and that muttered resignation of "not this shit again!" Even in Germany, where the war was supposed to be a liberating act of revenge for the humiliations of the last war, no one was enthusiastic. They all knew what was in front of them.

The feeling of accomplishment I had in June is gone. The dizzy feeling of a new challenge to rise to I had in March is gone, too. All that's left as I face a new school year during covid is quiet determination mixed with a huge dose of fatalism. (I feel like now is a good time to reread Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat.) I also know that my students need me, and that this battle has to be fought even if my heart doesn't burn like it did in March. My resolve is still there, as I am sure it is for the rest of my friends and colleagues coming back to work right now. Once more into the breach, comrades. Stay safe out there.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Until the End of the World

In case you didn't catch it, I dropped a new piece over at Tropics of Meta this week on the film Until the End of the World and its meaning today. As the photo above shows, it even predicted Zoom. Check it out!

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Reality Gap

 In the midst of a deadly pandemic he has completely failed to control and an economic collapse connected to that failure, it seems insane that Donald Trump even has a chance in this election. By all rights he should be where Jimmy Carter was in 1980 or Herbert Hoover in 1932.

A lot of this can be chalked up to partisanship. Most Republicans would rather cut off their left arms than vote for a Democrat. Trump is the ultimate test of their partisan loyalty and they have been overzealous in trying to pass it.

However, it's not just simple partisanship. Beneath that divide lies a fundamental difference in how Americans apprehend reality. Conservatism is less of a set of ideas than it is a mental universe. Conservative media defines the parameters of that world, and if something does not cross that media world's threshold, it never registers. This gives Trump a huge advantage, since his followers never even hear about his failures and malicious behavior.

For example, a relative sent us a letter in the mail from the middle of the country. It did not get here until more than two weeks after it was sent. My relative was perplexed by this, completely unaware that the Trump administration has been sabotaging the postal service. When I brought this up, they refused to believe me. I sent them some news articles to explain what I was talking about. When the topic came up again after we finally got the letter, my relative again acted dumbfounded, as if the reason was not plain as day. 

It's not merely the fact that so many live in an alternate reality, it is that they CHOOSE to live in that reality. That is an absolutely crucial point that a lot of people don't seem to get. I know people with advanced degrees who are climate change deniers. It's not that they are "dumb" or "ignorant" it's that they have CHOSEN to live in this alternate reality. If their alternate reality is questioned their entire identity collapses and so they simply refuse to connect the president's policies against the post office to the reason why their mail arrives so late. 

Anyone who has been around fervent religious believers understands this dynamic well, and it's no coincidence that there's a lot of crossover between Trump voters and die hard white evangelicals. (Nor is it that the same group is well represented in QAnon circles, but that's a story for another time.) Thirty years ago the media landscape was such that news of the president sabotaging the post office would have registered with ordinary conservatives, but now they view any news coming from outside their media to be suspect.

The reality gap is keeping Trump viable in this election, but it might not be enough to put him over the top. Even so, the huge percentage of the country that has elected to live in an alternate reality are not going away. They will remain the majority in broad swathes of the country. The media landscape will be even more fractured and divided as years go on. A Democratic Congress and president who does not realize this, and who thinks they broke the spell by defeating Trump, will be setting themselves up for failure. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Further Into The Fire


Arthur Brown knows what's up

In January of 2017, on the eve of Trump's inauguration, I wrote about how we were all headed into the fire. I knew some would be burned, and others would be consumed. I also knew that nothing be the same after it was over.

The thought of those who the fire would consume made me cry on the train to work the day after the election. It's what kept me up at night in the following years. It's why I protested at immigrant detention centers and started donating money to political campaigns for the first time. 

This last week I have felt the flames getting higher. The sabotaging of the post office to assist in stealing an election, which the president openly stated, makes me think that the temperature will only be getting hotter in these crucial momths. With so many Republicans falling into line it's obvious that this election will be rigged and the theft will hold unless there is mass action in the streets that could possibly lead to bloodshed. 

Amidst all of this, day after day, over a thousand people die of covid in America when other wealthy nations have death totals barely in double digits. This fundamental fact of life and death has become so normalized that we don't even really bother to comprehend its horror. The past three and a half years of being in the fire have burned away our sensitivities.

Authoritarian regimes rely on a sense of inevitability. Vaclav Havel's brilliant essay "The Power of the Powerless" recognized this. He described Czechoslovakia under Communist rule as a place where people did not believe in the slogans they mouthed, but followed them nevertheless. What else was there to do? The most powerful thing that could be done in these circumstances, as Havel noted, was for people to "live in the truth." 

If enough people refuse to cooperate with a regime, that regime either falls or sustains itself with mass bloodshed (which can of course lead to armed revolt, too). Fortunately, the Eastern bloc governments mostly opted for the former. I actually don't know what would happen in this country under those circumstances. Certainly Prague in 1968 turned out a lot worse than it did in 1989.

The question that each and every person who cares about the survival of American democracy needs to ask themselves is whether they are willing to put their lives on the line in November. If not, the fire will keep burning until there's nothing left.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Watching The Brady Bunch With My Kids


The world's most wholesome Zoom meeting

This week marks five months of quarantine and the most time I have ever spent with my children. It was been good to be with them so much, but at this point in the quarantine and summer my patience is completely shredded. I have so much work to do to prepare for school, and I can't work for more than ten minutes at a time without being interrupted. In past summers when this happened I would take a couple of hours and go to a coffee shop and bang out what I needed to do. Under covid, that's not an option. 

It's not just that I can't work on school stuff, reading for pleasure or doing my own writing is a constant exercise in stress and frustration. (Just now one of my daughters came to bother me about how long her pizza would take in the oven. And to ask what anchovies are. There are no anchovies on her pizza.) The only surefire way to get my children to leave me alone is to let them take their iPads to their rooms. (Between the last sentence and this one my kids got into a screaming fight with each other.) This strategy has a lot of problems, not least of which that my children will just watch YouTube videos that are essentially toy commercials, or play games that make them even more agitated. My wife and I eventually hid their iPads for a week and removed YouTube from our Roku.

The effect has been mostly positive. They no longer act like crazed junkies without their screens and have stopped constantly asking to look at toys online to buy with their allowance money. Desperate for distraction, we have also discovered that there's pretty much only one activity that soothes them and makes them less difficult: watching The Brady Bunch. One morning my wife put on the first episode for them, and they were completely hooked. It's a comforting nostalgia trip for me, since I used to watch The Brady Bunch every day in reruns after school when I was young. 

This is also why I was surprised that my kids like it so much. The 70s wood panelling and houndstooth pants in the Brady household looked old-fashioned to my eyes in the 80s, and the traditional family sit-com themes could not be more dated. My daughters love the overheated, self-consciously hip live action Disney TV shows full of obnoxious tweens and teens, which could not be further away from the earnest, unironic world of the Bradys. I expected my children to be even more put off by the show than I was as kid. I soon realized that while the show comforts me as nostalgia, it comforts my children in a different way. 

My daughters are more than aware of how the coronavirus has upended their lives. They know it's why they haven't been inside their school for five months. They know it's why we didn't have a vacation this year or see their grandparents in Nebraska. They know it's why we barely ever leave the house and haven't been able to do all kinds of things they love to do. They don't express a lot of outward emotional anguish about this, but I know it isn't easy on them, either.

One consistent theme on The Brady Bunch is that the children are always loved and cared for. There are problems, but they are always so small that they can be fixed. In a world that is so uncertain, that must be really comforting. As my wife told me, it's also a sign that my daughters have felt loved and protected in their own home during all of this. With everything going to hell around me and nothing being certain, that's pretty much the best I can hope for right now. I'll take it.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Talking Heads, "The Big Country" (Track of the Week)

 For twenty years now since the 2000 election the "red versus blue America" framing has dominated our political discourse. The pandemic has made the country's political geography even starker, as "red states" have often refused to put mitigation strategies in place and "blue states" have embraced restrictions. 

During my life, I have migrated back and forth across that line. I grew up in rural Nebraska (deep red), went to college in Omaha (purple), lived in Chicago (deep blue), went to grad school in central Illinois (reddish purple), worked in Grand Rapids (ditto), worked in East Texas (deep red), and lived in North Jersey while working in New York City (blue.) The politics of the nation have colored my feelings about these places. While I still hate it when people put down my home state, I don't defend it with the same elan that I used to.

My ambivalence comes from the knowledge that the red state world that made me is involved in making this country an unlivable, ungovernable mess. Living here in my progressive pre-war New Jersey suburb I can go close by and catch glimpses, which usually repulse me. (It should be said that thinking in terms of red and blue "states" doesn't work.) Back in June I went into a liquor store in my in-laws' conservative automotive suburb and behind the counter was a big sign saying "Vote Trump in 2020 and make liberals cry again." (I put my beers down and left.) This week as I drove back from a hike in a state park I saw massive Trump banners and blue line flags in a rural New Jersey town. 

The revulsion I felt in these supposedly "all-American" places comes across so well in the Talking Heads' "The Big Country," the last song on their second album. The narrator is flying from the city over the suburbs and farms, noting the day to day life below. He finds himself repulsed by the tract housing and supermarkets, concluding "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to!"

The music is different for the Heads, acoustic guitar strumming and a Western, soaring slide guitar that sounds almost like a parody of country music. It's not just the band who's left the city, the music has too. Unlike country music, which is full of songs praising rural life in opposition to the big city, this song is the embodiment of that infamous New Yorker cover showing the limited view of the country held by Manhattanites. It's an answer song to Buck Owens' "I Wouldn't Live In New York City (If They Gave Me The Whole Damn Town)."

As a child of "flyover country" I used to resent "The Big Country" even though I loved the Talking Heads. I thought it was the usual elitist bullshit and ignorance masquerading as cosmopolitanism embodied by that magazine cover. These days, however, I hear it with new ears. It's not the supermarkets and baseball diamonds of the song that bug me, but the blue line flags and religious billboards. It's a world I am glad I escaped, even if I cannot escape its chokehold on national politcs.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A Reason For Hope

As we get closer to the election, Donald Trump only gets more and more brazen. This weekend he effectively purged the post office, trying to hobble the institution necessary to carry out a free and fair election during a pandemic. Today he issued executive orders from his golf course that don't seem to be legal or constitutional. He is trying to rule by decree and to manipulate voting. If this was happening in another country our media would not be shy about calling this open authoritarianism. 

The United States has been drifting this direction for four years under Trump. Once the reality of him losing power has surfaced, his few remaining scruples have been dropped. The chaos of the pandemic, which he has made worse by failing to address it, has given him cover. Like other authoritarians he creates so much disruption that it is hard for anyone to know where to begin or to know what to do. It makes people just feel helpless.

So we sit confused, doom-scrolling through social media, and not doing anything. In the days of late May and early June I could feel the seismic shifts of history beneath my feet, but they passed. The crowds at the White House and in the streets across the country faded. The fundamental power relationship in the country managed to weather the storm. 

The hardcore 40-45% of the country loyal to Trump have not been changed, either. They are flying bigger banners this time around, doubling down on their choice. They are fighting mask decrees and spreading wild conspiracy theories on social media.

There is a true "silent majority" in this country that wants conservatives out of power, but its silence is the problem. Most people in this group still believe in American democracy. They still think an election can fix this. I doubt that it will. I go into this November with about a 50-50 feeling that American democracy will not survive it. 

As upsetting as this is, one hopeful thought sustains me. I take heart in the notion that this disaster could bring about what Lincoln called "a new birth of freedom." The demolition of a failed system allows us to build something better. I am not optimistic about that outcome, mostly because it is beyond the imagination of most people in the aforementioned "silent majority." But I can hope. I plan on doing what needs to be done to turn that hope into reality.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Crisis Without Consensus

                      The Cold War Consensus didn't care for Henry Wallace

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how the end of the Cold War has been underrated in understanding American politics. Some of this comes from reading Julian Zelizer's excellent book about the rise of Newt Gingrich. His brand of scorched earth politics, which dumped governance for power by any means necessary, would not have worked in a Cold War America. That conflict forced a certain level of consensus, no matter how strained.

The Global War On Terror also had its own consensus, evidenced by Democrats voting along with George W Bush to bring the nation to war with Iraq. At this point I should say that I do not consider the Cold War or GWOT consensus to be good things! Both led to horrible things like the Red Scare, Vietnam, the Iraq invasion, and the PATRIOT ACT. I'm more interested here in getting at the domestic effects of consensus politics and as a comparison to our current situation.

The coronavirus is a crisis that lacks consensus. It's the most destructive event this country has faced in my lifetime and instead of uniting the country, has further divided it. The Cold War and GWOT formed their own consensus, as did Pearl Harbor, the Great Depression, and World War I. You can't really respond to a crisis as a country when there's no basic agreement over whether the crisis is even serious or not. 

To go back to the beginning, a big part of the reason is that we are thirty years removed from Cold War consensus and have spent that time embedded in Gingrichian politics. I also think this is in some ways reverting to the mean of American history. This is the same country whose fundamental divisions led to a bloody Civil War just over 150 years ago, and those divisions haven't even been settled! The Black Lives Matter movement is still having to push back against "the badges and incidents of slavery." There are still unreconstructed whites who want to keep up statues to Confederate generals. 

As the American Century ends, the global events that helped maintain consensus over a fractured and fundamentally divided United States have faded. It might be tempting to be only alarmed or sad about this, but this is an opportunity to finally have it out. The tides are shifting against the reactionaries, and they are holding on like the devil to maintain their power. There is no outside conflict they can use to blunt the forces of change anymore. Now is the time to act. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Quarantine Music

I just recorded a new podcast episode for my show Old Dad's Records. It's about music that I have been digging in quarantine. I start by talking about Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe," a song that takes on a new meaning in these times. After that I pull out a Tangerine Dream album and watch the lava lamp flow. I end by talking about Pavement's "Grounded," which I just rediscovered, and People Years, an Alabama band that should be getting more attention.