Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Bill Fay, "Be Not So Fearful" (Track of the Week)

Times are hard. I don't need to tell you that. When the tough gets going, I lean on some old reliable songs. One of them is "Be Not So Fearful," by 70s Brit singer-songwriter Bill Fay.

It's a secular version of Jesus' admonition "be not afraid." Those words still stir the souls of those of us who grew up in the faith who have become doubting Thomases. In this cruel, broken world we cry out for comfort. God may not be paying attention, but music still does. 

Fay is not a great singer, but that makes the song. His limited voice is a human voice. You believe it. The orchestration gives the song a kind of grandeur befitting the significance of the statement "be not so fearful."

I heard this song once, in all places, of the NICU when my children were born prematurely. I spent the first week of their lives in a constant state of worry, about them and about my wife. I felt helpless, unable to be with them. When it came on the PA in the ward as I was leaving for the day to go back home I burst into tears and had an ugly cry. 

The message touched me, but also the fact that I had used this song to survive the years of temporary academic labor and uncertainty. (A friend introduced it to me as I was leaving grad school.) How on earth had this obscure song found its way onto the hospital muzak playlist? It wasn't a divine intervention, but it felt like it.

We frail creatures stuck on this earth are being put to the test. Every single day is a struggle, and I can feel the strain. To my fellow travelers in this wretched place I am thinking of you tonight, and giving you this song. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Down By The Seaside


Tide pools and sunsets are good for the soul

This weekend my family took our first trip since the pandemic struck. We drove out to Cape Cod, giddy with the chance to finally get a change of scenery after months of being house bound.

It was restorative and enjoyable, and a good opportunity to get some perspective. I had never been there before, and was in awe the whole time over the landscape. Jutting out into the Atlantic, the cape feels like a world apart, a portal to another planet. 

This morning we got one last look at the ocean, walking on the beach in the shadow of the cliff-like dunes, seeing seals poke their heads above the roaring surf. I exulted in the reminder of my smallness as a solitary individual facing the massive, limitless ocean. It's a feeling I got all the time growing up under the impossibly vast Nebraska sky, and one I get these days only at the seashore. It's the kind of feeling that keeps one grounded. 

Last night we went to the calmer bay side for sunset. We watched the sun go down as the tide came in, filling the tide pools around us, almost surrounding us with rising water. It was a little scary, and another good reminder that nature is so much bigger than we are. 

It all makes it easier for me to face what last week seemed insurmountable. Teaching and parenting in this time of pandemic and distance learning is not easy. Weirdly enough, remembering my smallness in the grand scheme of the universe takes some of the pressure off. I hope everyone else out there can have a similar moment of serenity as we confront the difficult road ahead.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Sad Comfort of Richard and Linda Thompson

My birthday present to myself finally came in the mail yesterday: an 8 CD box set of Richard and Linda Thompson's music together. Many of their albums are not available on streaming or easy to find elsewhere, so this is sort of like harpooning the white whale for me.

I first got into them when I was living in Grand Rapids and enduring my first brutal Michigan winter. The long cold nights and dark days came as I was working long hours as a "visiting assistant professor" getting paid little money. I was also in a long distance relationship with my now wife, and being so far apart from her was really tough. The Thompsons' music, especially I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight gave me comfort.

It's a special kind of comfort, one rooted in the knowledge that this is a broken world, rather than cheerily trying to pretend everything is okay. This sentiment is best expressed in "The End of the Rainbow," taking the title from a famously hopeful, yearning song and putting it on a dirge. It's a song sung by a parent to a newborn, letting them know that this world is cruel and hurtful. "There's nothing at the end of the rainbow."

The released version was sung by Richard, but the box set has an unreleased one with Linda on the vocal. She's a much stronger singer, but hearing the words from a mother as opposed to a father makes the song almost too chilling to listen to. Listening to it last night I felt all my emotions of dread about the virus, election, and police killings welling up. At the same time, there was comfort. Sometimes I feel crazy when I look around and other people seem to be far less upset by the current situation than I am. Their false hope in this world is hard to take most days. 

The Thompsons also had a knack for romantic songs that acknowledged the ups and downs of long term relationships instead of the giddy electricity of love's first moments. A song like "Don't Renege On Our Love" takes the "please don't leave me" song and makes it feel much more real. This is adult stuff, not teen angst. "Just give me an ounce of sympathy."

That came from the Shoot Out The Lights album of 1982, their biggest seller and their last. You can hear the signs of a faltering marriage in the songs and their tour after the album's release marked the end of the line. Richard Thompson has gone on to make a lot of great music. In fact, he might be the member of his generation who has made the most good albums, and has done it pretty quietly at that.

As good as he has been, however, I still prefer his work with Linda. He is an amazing guitar player, but a middling singer. Linda's voice has a haunting quality that makes me feel the yearning and disappointment in the songs. Their interplay is where the real magic happens.

There's also just something so *adult* in their music together. Blues and country music is for adults, with songs about adult problems. Pop and rock music are for kids, and for old people still pretending to be young. The Thompsons' music faces the reality of adult life instead of running from it. Sitting here in quarantine, facing what seems to be an insurmountable task of just getting through the day and doing it over and over again makes me want music about the struggle of daily existence. That's what Richard and Linda Thompson provide me, and I thank them for it. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Dead Weight of the Past

A world that never existed is being defended to the death

The thing I keep thinking about in all of the disaster and chaos that I see around me is how we are suffocating under the dead weight of the past (with apologies to Marx.) This goes for conservatives as well as liberals. 

The MAGA-ites are animated by their belief in an idealized past that never existed. (I mean, it's literally in the phrase itself!) They really don't have any conception of the future. There's a reason that they are so prevalent among the elderly. Old conservatives mostly just don't want the world to change before they die. That's pretty much the sum total of their outlook. It has zero sense of any kind of future, even for those who have children and grandchildren. 

Sadly, liberals are also imprisoned in a cult of the past. So many Democratic politicians just want to go back to the way national politics worked pre-Gingrich. They think the other side is still somehow willing to go back to compromise and comity. They are incapable of adjusting to the fact that they are facing down a band of right wing Leninists, and that doing so requires ripping up the filibuster and packing the courts, at the very least. The gerontocrats at the top of the party still pine for the Washington they first entered years ago, a world that will never come back. 

I have little faith in the future because so few Americans seem to have it themselves. Just look at the culture we consume. Cobra Kai is a well-made show, but it's rooted in nostalgia. Johnny and Daniel, like many Americans, are pathetically wedded to the past. So many who watch the show don't seem to get that they are too. So many Hollywood films are remakes, reboots, and sequels of long dormant properties. The criticism has long been that this reflects a lack of originality, but I think it goes far deeper. We crave the familiar and find solace in it, and fear and disdain the new. 

Deep, deep down there is an unspoken belief that our best days are behind us. I despair at living in a country with this mentality. Even worse I weep for my children having to grow up to be adults in such a place. 

There are those who are pushing for something better, but I wonder if their voices are being listened to. The young people marching for Black Lives Matter and in the climate and gun control marches desperately want a better future. My students seem to be far more willing than young people in my day were to question the status quo. Their voices are falling on deaf ears. Older generations, including my own, refuse to give up the comforts of the past or think beyond its limitations. We are choking out our future to death because we are afraid of it. How utterly pathetic. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Why Sorcerer Is a Great Quarantine Film

For years the film Sorcerer was more of a legend than a movie to me. Peter Biskind's book about 70s New Hollywood, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls came out right as I was becoming a film obsessive. I devoured and re-read it. He talks a lot about Sorcerer, William Friedkin's 1977 follow-up to The Exorcist and The French Connection.

In those films Friedkin had combined genre film-making with international art cinema techniques. The results were absolutely thrilling and made a lot of money. A few years ago I got to see The French Connection on the big screen and was blown away by its energy and creativity, hardly a usual crime film. Sorcerer came out in 1977 and flopped. It arrived in theaters right when Star Wars hit its wide release. 

As Biskind pointed out, the whole thing was a kind of metaphor of where Hollywood was heading. Blockbusters were in, arty movies by difficult directors were out. I learned in the book that Friedkin spent massive amounts of the money on the film. twice as much as Star Wars cost. The expense was not in models and special effects, but in getting the perfect shot of a truck driver shifting gears. Reading the book it sounded horribly self-indulgent.

The Tangerine Dream score is just too good

Sorcerer was very hard to find on video and wasn't streaming, but a couple of years ago I got my mitts on the blu-ray release. I bought it sight unseen because I had waited almost twenty years and I was damn well going to see it!

I also knew that the underlying story was a good one. It's an adaptation of the 1953 French film, Wages of Fear, one I had already seen and liked. In both films a group of outcasts and vagabonds in South America must drive trucks full of unstable nitroglycerin over treacherous jungle and mountain roads. Their pay will be their ticket out of a nightmarish existence. With a setup like that, it's hard to go wrong. 

In Friedkin's version we get to see how the four vagabond criminals came to be outcasts. One is a Mexican assassin, another part of a New Jersey gang that met a band end, another a Palestinian terrorist, and the last a corrupt French banker. The films starts as four short films, a format I find innovative and interesting. 

The film has been criticized for having all this setup for characters who still remain distant from the audience. I actually like that. These outcasts -who know they have done wrong- are really standing in for the broader human experience of being playthings in the hands of fate. All four were unlucky, and while they did bad, they seem more honest that the oil company officials sending them on their deadly mission. 

The tension in some of the scenes, especially in driving the trucks over a rope bridge swinging in a raging storm, is almost unbearable to watch. Seeing the film last night, however, it felt more familiar and less fantastical.

School has started again, meaning that I am working like the devil to make distance learning work for my students while juggling my children's education needs and somehow preparing meals in the midst of days that are spent in a constant state of frenetic anxiety. It really does feel like managing my emotional state is akin to driving a truck full of nitroglycerine over a flimsy jungle bridge in a thunderstorm. Like the characters of the film, I have no confidence that I can make it, but not pushing forward is not an option. It must be done.

The universal quality of the characters' dilemma is helped out by the fact that none of the actors (who do a great job) are stars. The closest is Roy Scheider, who is the kind of actor who only could have been famous in the 70s. His charisma is more subtle, but his presence is unmistakeable. At the end, when his mind is fraying under the stress he is enduring, you can put yourself in his shoes the way you couldn't with say Steve McQueen.

This past year has reminded me more than ever that I am at the mercy of forces well beyond my control. I have had to make my peace with the complete uncertainty ruling my existence. Being unexpectedly called into campus? My children's school schedule altered? Loved ones I can't visit getting really sick? Ruth Bader Ginsburg dying? I'll just have to keep driving that truck, whether I make it or not.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Nightmare Century (A 9/11 Reflection)

No Future for You

Every September 11th, I take time to reflect. I remember the feeling of confusion and sheer horror of that day, something our society has tried to paper over with mountains of 9/11 kitsch. I remember the attacks on American Muslims and Sikhs, another horrible thing swept into the memory hole. Living in the time of quarantine, however, the horror of 9/11 and its bloody aftermath almost seems quaint. We are approaching 200,000 deaths. The president still refuses to have a national response. 

I still remember on 9/11 when I realized the enormity of the loss of life. I cried not just for the dead, but for the future. I knew that this horror would lead to many others that would take even more lives, and less than two years later the United States invaded Iraq.

After that came George W Bush's reelection, then Katrina. The nation's capacity for self-harm seemed limitless. 

When Barack Obama was election in 2008, there was a reason that his "hope" message was so resonant. The last eight years looked pretty hopeless to a lot of people my age. His election signaled that perhaps the rest of my life would not be a litany of disasters and self-inflicted crises. That turned out to be false hope. 

During the Iraq War the BBC put out an amazing documentary series called The Power of Nightmares. It told the stories of neo-conservatives and al-Qaeda in parallel. The thesis was that post-Cold War the West had failed to live up to its promises or provide the future people wanted. Instead of offering dreams, leaders maintained their power by calling on the people's worst nightmares. The leaders could not promise you a better life, but they could stop those evil people who were out to get you. 

Obama's hope narrative offered an antidote, but he ended up being replaced by Donald Trump, the avatar of the power of nightmares. He offers no future at all, only an idealized past that never happened. His voters know he is a lying asshole, and that's why they love him. He drives the people they hate crazy, and smites them in the process. 

Masha Gessen's trenchant book on contemporary Russia is called The Future is History, and I think that phrase really sums it up. Putin was a pioneer in getting consent from the people while not offering them anything better to look forward to. Leaders today have followed his lead and mostly abandoned any idea of the future. They revel in an eternal present, Trump's constant Twitter wars and need to dominate the daily news cycle are the most obvious evidence. 

9/11 was the moment when nightmare politics swept away the last shreds of optimism in the post-Cold War world. On this day, 19 years later, I mourn the dead, but I also mourn the death of the future.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Waylon Jennings, "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" (Track of the Week)

I turned 45 on Friday. Despite being in quarantine, it was a good birthday. My wife got me some amazing gifts, and we had a decadent dinner of takeout sushi washed down with quality white wine. 

Since reaching middle age each birthday has become time to take stock of my life. That's been even more the case in the time of covid. Already back in March when it hit I asked myself if I could face death confident I had lived a good life. I did some soul-searching and said yes. 

However, middle age still continues to be a phase in life about the shedding of dreams, layer by layer. There's a reason that deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drugs spike in this part of the life-cycle. Rarely does anyone's life turn out how they wanted it too. As I hit 45 I reminded myself once again that I never got to be a noteworthy historian, and never will. I never wrote my book, and likely never will. My chance to be an internet scribbler of note has passed, too. Instead I take comfort in my friends and family, and the knowledge that my CV won't keep me warm at night or visit my grave.

These are feelings absent from pop music but at the center of classic country. Country, soul, and the blues all have room for the middle-aged experience. One of the best of these songs is "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," performed by Waylon Jennings but written by Billy Joe Shaver.  The first lines are cutting;

"I spent a lifetime making up my mind to be/ More than the measure of what I thought others could see."

Yes, I am a teacher, one of the least respected professions and a job that doesn't pay. And I never wrote anything that ever made any kind of impact. But I still have the vanity to think people should see me as more than the schlub that I actually am. 

It's a very unhealthy attitude. The end of the song is about accepting being a schlub, a "five and dimer." If you can't change that, there's no real point in beating yourself up about it. I think a lot about my dad's father, and how life dealt him a bad hand but he always seemed able to stay contented in spite of it. Middle age is discovering that you are no longer becoming the person you want to be, you are the person you are whether you like it or not: "It's taking me so long and now that I know I believe/ All that I do or say is all I ever will be." 

Or to put it even more bluntly:

"An old five and dimer is all I intended to be."

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Poll Numbers and the Culture War

 Yesterday Grinnell College released their latest poll, one that the experts were anticipating due to its quality and methodology. Most people did not look beyond the headline, which has Biden up by eight points nationally. The misbegotten narrative that civil unrest helps an incumbent president had mystified too many Very Smart People, and so they had to reckon with the poll disproving that. 

I was all too aware that Trump does not benefit from disorder the same way he did in 2016 as a challenger, especially with his opponent being an old establishment moderate. I wanted to get into the weeds and look at who was supporting who. What I found was that Biden is well ahead not just in the cities, but in the suburbs. Trump is dominant in rural areas. A Fox News poll yesterday showed Biden up as well, and had results broken down by age. Biden is ahead both with Gen X voters and Millennials and Gen Zers of voting age. Trump is ahead by less with voters 55 and up.  It should be noted, while he leads with older voters, that lead has been cut from 2016. 

There's been a lot of analysis of poll numbers around race and class, and I think that information is super important. On my end, however, I'd like to highlight how geography and age compound race and class and can show us where the deeper veins of Trump's support lie. 

Trump's base is not just white and without a college degree (which is not necessarily the class distinction marker a lot of people think it is, but I don't have time for that right now.) His base is aged and rural as well. All of the talk of "economic anxiety" has failed to take into account how cultural anxiety is the dominant theme for his base, with the economy sort of slotted into it. 

The fundamental issue beneath this cultural anxiety is that the country is changing in ways that Trump's people don't like. It's becoming less white, less rural, less Christian. Trump voters are concerned that they will no longer be the unquestioned norm in American life. This is why "cancel culture" is such a potent meme for them. This is why my trip to an Italian deli in mid-June included an old white guy yelling a profanity-laced tirade at the owner about statues being toppled. To them the police are their guardians against all who they dislike and seeing them criticized feels like a fundamental threat to their existence. 

Back in 2016 I heard some great analysis from Farai Chideya on NPR, who actually went to Trumpy Rust Belt areas and talked to his voters. She found that they tended to be economically comfortable themselves, but were concerned about their communities changing and their children needing to leave in order to have opportunity. These people often had contempt for the poor in their own communities (and not just poor Black people.) 

Trump has not expanded his base. He is doubling down on people who feel left behind not because of their economic situation, but because they are losing their cultural primacy. While their numbers are dwindling because the country is changing, their feelings of resentment and being threatened make them far more dangerous than four years ago. They think America is "their" country and if anyone who is not a conservative is in power they will not see them as legitimate. They are opposed to wearing masks so vehemently because it is an assault on their identity to do a thing that a liberal (or perceived liberal) asks them to do. If they think that people who disagree with them are anti-American, they will have no qualms about taking away their vote or invalidating an election. 

The real question is whether the rest of us will be willing to put our lives on the line in two months to bring back democracy. Get ready.