Thursday, June 17, 2021

Soundtrack for a Suburban Drive

I came of age in the 80s and 90s in a small rural town in the middle of Nebraska. Taking a drive was a small pleasure to ward off boredom, one I did a lot in the backseat as a child, and later as a teenager behind the wheel. My parents now ride bicycles instead, something I should have done for my health, but which was associated with the loserdom of not having a car in those times. While today I go for long walk and bike rides, I still derive pleasure from the drive.

Although I live in suburban New Jersey, I take the train to work, meaning driving tends to be more of an event than a daily grind. (This has especially been the case since March of 2020, as my family has tended to order a lot more things to be delivered that I used to make trips to buy.) Along with the drive, I have also not shaken my youthful love of physical media. When behind the wheel I prefer to pop a CD on or listen to the radio and usually save streaming playlists for long road trips.

Today I ran a bunch of errands and leaned heavily on the weird set of CDs in my car. I say "my" because this is the old beater of a Honda Civic that I use mostly to drive the two miles to the train station and back. (My wife gets to use the newer Subaru for her more significant commute.) Some of my CDs have found an almost permanent place in my car because they are so well suited for a suburban drive. Here are some of the songs in case you are one of those modern people making playlists.

Sonic Youth, "Schizophrenia"

I bought the Sister album on CD soon before my daughters' birth. They were born premature and my wife had to stay in the hospital another day so the day after they were born I had to drive back to our Newark apartment alone. It was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever had. The next day, when I drove out from my urban neighborhood to the suburban hospital to see my wife and newborn children, I popped this song on and played it on repeat. It seemed to express that feeling of disconnection so well. I still have the CD in my car all these years later, and sometimes play it just to remember that moment in my life when everything changed. Beyond that it fits the sometimes alienating strip mall ugliness of my surroundings when I am further west in the sprawl.

Thin Lizzy, "Rosalie"

If Sister has been in my car the longest, Fighting from Thin Lizzy is the newest addition. I still pop into record stores to find the perfect CD to have in my car. As a Gen Xer I feel an almost perverse desire to keep the CD part of my world, a connection to my teen years when I thought it was an unmatched technological step forward. I also sometimes think I have the reincarnated soul of a greasy 70s Camaro-driving dirtbag since that style of music is my favorite guilty pleasure. Then again, I don't feel much guilt about the great Thin Lizzy compared to say Foghat or Ram Jam. This song is a Bob Seger cover of all things, from the days when he was a gut-bucket rock and roll growler busting his ass to expand beyond his power base in the Motor City. Phil Lynott also knew how to rock, and this song makes me pump my fist out the window as I drive past the tidy lawns of my town.

Bob Seger, "If I Were a Carpenter"

Speaking of Bob Seger, I am obsessed with his early work, the sweaty, fervid stuff he won't allow to see the light of day. Lucky for me I have a rare CD of Smokin' OPs, a covers album from the early 70s. If I want maximum rock and roll action I will thrown it on right after the Thin Lizzy. In this case Seger takes a pretty schmaltzy standard from the 60s and gives it a gorgeous rising organ part and a soulful conviction in his voice. I usually hit the repeat button whenever this one comes on. 

Steve Gunn, "New Familiar"

Believe it or not, a drive in the New Jersey suburbs can be sublime. Trees overhang my town and many of the surrounding ones, too. I can cut through the South Mountain Reservation and admire the mountains and forests not so far from my doorstep. Today I had Steve Gunn's Unseen In Between album on and just let the sound and the sweet sunshine wash over me. He's sort of like the country cousin to Philly's Kurt Vile, playing hypnotizing guitar lines that mirror that half-conscious state of mind we find ourselves in behind the wheel. 

Belle and Sebastian, "I Know Where the Summer Goes"

This time of year Belle and Sebastian's Push Barman to Open Old Wounds is stuck in my CD player. Their twee, languid songs (especially twee and languid on this comp) are the perfect accompaniment of driving under the pretty cypress trees of Summit while I drive to Natale's bakery to get their world class donuts. It's perfect for a lazy suburban drive on a summer weekday, one of the great pleasures of being a teacher. I look forward to doing it several times this year. 

Prince, "I Would Die 4 U"

The day Prince died I had to go run an errand so I nabbed my CD of Purple Rain and it ended up staying in the car for over a year. It's a loaded album with so many great songs, but "I Would Die For You" is just a great driving song, especially on a sunny day. There's a propulsion here but it's a restrained propulsion, made for driving suburban streets and not the open road. 

Sly and the Family Stone, "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa"

Sly and the Family Stone's 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On is one of the ultimate documents of the onset of the 70s malaise after the dashing of the bright hopes of the 60s. This song, a robotic deconstruction of the upbeat hit "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)" makes it even funkier, but with all of the hope drained out. Be that as it may, its rhythm and laid back feel work for a slow suburban drive, and the song's weirdness makes a wonderful contrast with the bland normality outside of the window. 

Bob Dylan, "Idiot Wind" (New York version)

Sometimes my best reflections come when I am driving, and the right music helps me along. I bought the single CD version of the Dylan Bootleg Series on Blood on the Tracks and immediately put it in my car, where it has stayed. This winter I listened to it almost every day on my short morning drive to the train station. The New York versions of the songs were darker and more introspective than the ones Dylan later cut in Minnesota. Waking before the dawn with the morning's news of COVID and Trump ringing in my head while I faced a train commute in those scary pre-vaccination days practically required stuff this strong. 

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Coming Home From the COVID Teaching Trenches

This song was one of my angsty quarantine survival mainstays

Vera Brittain's memoir Testament of Youth is most famous for the sections about her time as a nurse in the Great War. Not only did she witness several people die in that role, the war also took her brother, fiance, and one of her closest friends. Her book is harrowing proof of how war can traumatize those who don't hold a rifle or have their homes bombed. 

I have always been particularly struck by the way she recalled the announcement of the Armistice. She said people didn't say "the war is over" but "war is over." War had become their mode of being. Brittain herself was more stunned than jubilant, unable to forget that three people so important to her were never coming back and would never live in the peace she had to face by herself. 

As my school year is winding down I am having a very difficult time adjusting to life outside of the teaching trenches. I have basically been in crisis mode since the middle of March last year. Most of my summer "break" last year was spent preparing for this school year. The year itself brought untold stress and multiple moments where the rug was pulled out from under me. My children's school didn't open until early May, but on the way there were false starts and schedule changes that threw our lives into chaos. My own work gave me less than a week's notice to adjust to five days a week in person rather than two, at a time when my daughters' school was still closed. 

I got used to living a truly day to day existence where I could not count on anything being stable or secure. Out of the blue my wife or I might get a new directive from our jobs or our children's school, or news of COVID cases in our school or our daughters' child care facility. We might suddenly find out that we would need to eat thousands of dollars of new child care costs or that our child care would not be available that day. 

All through it I was working twice as hard as normal, frantically trying to keep everything together. Hybrid teaching was like swimming with twenty pound weights on my ankles. To not sink I just had to keep flailing myself forward until I made it to the shore. I did it all with the knowledge that despite my desperate toil it was not as good as what I would normally be able to provide my students.

Friday was graduation day at my school. I didn't stick around too long after because I was afraid of having an emotional breakdown in the parking lot in front of everybody. I have three days of meetings and a ceremony for last year's graduates left and I am almost happy for mundane meetings to give me something to do. Adjusting to life without the day to day bombs falling this summer is going to be hard. 

There doesn't seem to be much discussion of how educators have endured some bad shit this year and might be experiencing some emotional fallout this summer. I spent last summer in a constant state of worry and anticipation, never able to relax with the sword of Damocles that was the 2020-2021 school year hanging over my head. I had multiple anxiety attacks and by mid-August just wanted my break to be over so I could face the reality of the year instead of spiraling into fear.

I managed to survive the year, but I can honestly say it was worse than anticipated. Now that I am on the other end I don't know how to relax, my whole body just feels tense all of the time. Hell, that's why I am spending my Saturday night writing a blog post. I am so used to forward motion that rest is impossible. It's the law of emotional physics.

I have started to plan things with the understanding that I will need to be active or else likely fall into a crushing depression. In true dad fashion I am imaging home improvement, gardening and lawn projects. I have two different pieces of scholarly writing on the front burner and three or four essays I will be shopping to online outlets waiting to be written. We are planning on hitting the open road, but I am also looking to have as many local experiences as possible, too, from hiking to going to Mets games to outdoor Shakespeare to going down the Shore to the beach. I am planning on finally home brewing some beer. I will make even more pies and maybe learn to do cream pies next. I have a whole stack of summer reading on deck, too.

In past years I would worry I am making a ridiculous summer to do list, but this year it's a matter of spiritual survival. I hope the rest of my fellow educators can find ways to restore themselves after what we've been through. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Consolation of M*A*S*H

I have recently returned to an old ritual to help me weather the hard days at the end of the long road that's been teaching and parenting under COVID: watching M*A*S*H reruns. Instead of catching them in the late afternoon or late at night on the local CBS affiliate as I used to, I can binge to my heart's content on Hulu.

Some of the attraction is just pure comfort, like an old sweater or a family recipe. The sound of the theme song and the cast's distinctive voices is a kind of salve to my soul. Back in my Chicago days my friend and roomie Dave and I would watch the daily nighttime rerun for that reason. It was a great way to disengage and take a break from life for awhile.

Under COVID, however, the show's deeper meaning has become clearer and clearer. It is a show about people doing absolutely necessary work in disheartening conditions beyond their control. It is about doing that job when your bosses, coworkers, and general circumstances are conspiring against you in completely unpredictable ways. It is about maintaining your humanity and good humor when everything around you is broken.

I must admit, this is the feeling I had as a teacher-parent in the last fifteen months. I know my job is important, I know if must get done, but some days can just be completely agonizing. We have had so many instances this year of having our work or child care arrangements changed at the drop of a hat. At the height of the pandemic I pretty much stopped planning anything more than a day in advance because any plan was bound to get shattered. 

The characters on the show can never relax either, because a crisis is always ready to happen or a helicopter full of wounded is about to arrive. The downtime isn't really relaxation because they can never fully let their guard down. The still in Hawkeye's tent stays humming because booze is the only surefire escape. Let's just say I know a thing or two about this dynamic. 

Even though the members of the 4077th are supposed to be united in a common cause, they are riven by divisions and resentments. Despite the horror of the circumstances Frank Burns still does his power plays and members of the unit clash and snipe with each other. The experience of surviving this situation simultaneously draws some people together and pushes others apart. When the worst crises hit, however, they mostly find a way to get the job done. I will be diplomatic and say I understand this dynamic too. 

The same can be said of the ways that leadership behaves in M*A*S*H. Colonels Blake and later Potter are kind and understanding, but when any general or other outside bigwig appears they just end up causing problems and wasting people's time. The running character of intelligence officer Colonel Flagg does not not do anything other than antagonize the doctors and push them around. There are constant reminders that the doctors of the M*A*S*H unit are grunts whose life-saving labor is barely acknowledged by the powers that be. It is akin to how educators are often seen as an obstacle rather than a resource by their administrators. 

COVID for teacher-parents like myself has a been a kind of purgatory, much like the Korean War in M*A*S*H. You know someday it's going to end, but you have no clue when. You hope to get back to "normal," but you know deep down that normal is never coming back and that your experience has permanently altered who you are. The show's last episode was the most watched thing in television history when it aired in 1983, and not just because it was a popular show. Plenty of other shows have been more popular. There was something deeper going on there. The characters on the show meant something to the audience, who needed to see them finally escape and go home.

After all, that was not a foregone conclusion. The killing off of Colonel Blake has to be one of the most shocking moments in TV history. It was done because the show's creators wanted to remind everyone that this was indeed a war they were witnessing, and wars have casualties. I have been lucky this year not to lose anyone to COVID but at the height of the pandemic riding the train into school while all my white collar professional friends were at home I was keenly aware that my health and perhaps my life were on the line. 

So at the end of my work day, which usually involves passing out on the train at some point, and my post-work day of grading and answering emails, I put on M*A*S*H reruns. The theme song and opening credits, perhaps the most melancholy in television history, hit me like like a shot of spiritual novocaine. The credits are a reminder that the doctors are only stitching up wounded soldiers so they can get sent back into the line and shot again. There's no better metaphor for the necessity and futility of my daily life since March of 2020. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

One Too Many Mornings

This is my last full week of classes for the 2020-2021 school year and I look and feel like twenty miles of bad road. I didn't really have a summer last year, since most of my waking hours were consumed with anxiety, dread, and preparation for the coming school year. This has felt like the longest school year ever partially because it effectively began on the first day after the 2019-2020 school year ended.

I made myself an expert in all kinds of classroom technologies. I completely altered my practice. I learned how to teach students in person and distanced simultaneously. During my work days I was often also my children's teacher's aide, school cook, and janitor all rolled into one. There were plenty of left turns, like my wife and I needing to be in school when my daughters' school wasn't open, or getting less than a week's notice that I would need to be at school five days a week rather than two. It was fun to know at the drop of a hat that I was about to eat two thousand dollars worth of child care costs.

And through it all, all of the 14 hour days and stress freakouts and questioning why I didn't go to law school instead, I could not escape the thought that all this effort added up to a learning product that was inferior to what I could give my students in the Before Times. That thought, always in the back of my mind, has been soul crushing. Was all of this even worth it? Does anyone even care? Will anyone remember it when we go back to "normal"?


One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs comes at the end of his Ghost of Tom Joad album, a kind of spiritual sequel to Nebraska. Like the earlier album, it contains searing indictments of America in the throes of neoliberalism and wracked by inequality, mostly set to spare accompaniment. The song is "My Best Was Never Good Enough," one of the great songs of defeat. He sarcastically spews a bunch of feel good cliches like "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" with the kind of contempt you never hear from the Boss. He taunts (with profanity!) these idiotic bromides that are used to get people to blame themselves for their misfortune. In the end, with the game rigged and the deck stacked, "my best was never good enough."

That's pretty much how I feel about this school year. All the toxic positivity told us that all of our efforts would pay off, that we would get through this together etc etc. It's all the usual bullshit. We worked our asses off, we sacrificed more than ever, and ended up just muddling through. It's been one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind, as the old Dylan song says. 

Please please dear God just get me through these last days of school so I can finally make it stop. 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

The Crux of Our Low-Grade Civil War

As I have said time and time again, America is engaged in a low-grade civil war, but most outside of the right wing are in denial about it. Some are so used to the way things used to be that they just can't see it, others are more actively sticking their heads in the sand because they are too chickenshit to fight.

This low-grade conflict has been going on for some time now. I would say it definitively popped above the surface when McConnell blocked the ability for Obama to name a Supreme Court justice back in 2016. Since then it has only continued with Trump actively attacking "blue states" as president and denying them COVID relief. We have seen in on the state level with rollbacks of voting rights intended to block Democrats from power, and from gerrymandered state legislatures that have stripped powers from Democratic governors. 

After the 1/6 insurrection and the Republican obstruction of any investigation into it you would think that the reality of the situation was obvious to everyone in this country, but most of the non-insurrectionists just haven't taken it in. People like Joe Manchin are still defending the very filibuster that allows this naked attack on democracy to happen in the first place. Just as bad, national media fails to report the naked power grads on the state level as a coordinated assault on majority rule.

Some of this is the media's idiotic both-sides narrative, some of it is their fear of being called liberal, but I think most of it is something deeper. National reporters simply do not understanding the beliefs and mentalities of the people they are covering. 

In the first place, they think Republican leaders are being pushed by a rabid base, when in fact there is hardly any separation in mentality between Republican politicians and the people they represent. (In fact, I would argue that those representatives are actually MORE extreme.) Second, they do not know the basic, fundamental belief that animates the Right's assault on democracy.

Put simply, most conservatives believe that any liberal political authority over them is illegitimate. It does not matter if a clear majority elected that authority, or if that liberal authority governs in a milquetoast, centrist way or even if that liberal authority does things that directly benefit them. The notion that they must submit and do something a liberal wants, ANYTHING a liberal wants is intolerable no matter how necessary. For example, conservatives were much more supportive of masks until Trump politicized them and made it seem like the "liberal" thing to do. The same goes for the very vaccines that the man they voted for funded. Political orientation is the biggest indicator of vaccine hesitancy.

Things get really crazy, however, when liberals try to enact their agenda. That is something that violates conservatives' fundamental understanding of the universe. The notion that their children might have to learn about the history of racism, or that transgender children be able to compete in high school sports makes them absolutely insane with rage and resentment. 

The fervent belief that any liberal authority is illegitimate means that rigging elections, gerrymandering districts, packing courts, removing governors' powers, attacking the Capitol etc. is not only permissible, it is REQUIRED. They see themselves as the "real Americans" and anything against them as an attack by un-American forces. They don't have a problem limiting the votes of people they don't even think belong in the country in the first place. 

This right here is the crux of the issue. The behavior of Republicans is not comprehensible unless observers actually understand the fundamentals of the conservative mind. Otherwise they are just groping around in the dark. It also means that there is not going to be an easy way out.

If the rest of us don't roll up our sleeves and fight we will be returning back to America's tradition of minority, Herrenvolk rule. If we do actually want to prevent that, there's a lot of uncertainty about what that could lead to. A definitive electoral win could remedy the situation, but the Senate, gerrymandering, electoral college, and voter suppression have made that impossible. In any case conservative authorities have basically signaled that they will be trying to invalidate elections going forward. The only thing any self-respecting progressive can do is to be prepared to fight back with all that is in us, consequences be damned.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Bob Dylan's 80th Birthday Dream (New Podcast Episode)

Due to stress I had to wait on putting out a new podcast ep but Bob Dylan's 80th birthday gave me inspiration. This episode of Old Dad's Records is about the first three volumes of the Bootleg Series. This was oddly enough my first Dylan album. I chose 12 songs as a best of and talk about them. When I am done I still do my ritual of raving about new music, in this case Danz CM. 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Notes On Larry McMurtry's Moving On

The cover of my edition, found in a second hand store

There are few things I enjoy more than tackling a long, far-ranging novel with all kinds of characters, meandering subplots, and a scope that suggests an overview of society itself. Usually one has to go back to the 19th century for books like this. I still remember when I finished Bleak House, I suddenly felt empty and bereft, deprived now of a whole world.

Some 20th century novelists were capable of this feat, and one of them was Larry McMurtry. Because he was from Texas and wrote about Texas and set some of his books in the 19th century West he was a "regional" and "genre" writer. I will consider myself guilty of that perception, despite having read the fantastic The Last Picture Show years ago. A few years back a beloved student and prodigious reader gave me a copy of Lonesome Dove, which I kept on the shelf until the pandemic made me long for the open western skies and a book long enough to keep me occupied. 

Well pard, that book absolutely blew me away. It had the broad scope and array of characters of my beloved doorstop 19th century novels, yet also managed to deconstruct myths of the west without becoming didactic and dour. I immediately went out and bought and absorbed the sequel, The Streets of Laredo.

I was bummed when I heard about his recent death and happened to be in a local second hand store and saw a pristine copy of Moving On. This seemed to be some kind of sign from above. I had first noticed the book over ten years ago when I lived in Texas, where I saw it on the shelf of the local bookstore. It was a massive book and seemed to be about the reality of modern Sun Belt Texas as opposed to the cowboy past. It intrigued me, and I picked it up to read the back jacket on more than one occasion, but had never pulled the trigger. After all, it was a massive brick and at that time I was in a lull when it came to reading fiction. (One of the consequences of academia.)

The edition I bought came from the late 1980s, although it was first published in 1971. The author's introduction surprised me a bit. He basically admitted that he meandered in his writing of the book and that many readers were critical of how he depicted the emotional world of the protagonist, Patsy Carpenter. (She cries. A lot. More about that later.) He also talked about how going to grad school was a thing that smart but aimless young people did back in those days and, let me tell you, I knew at that point there would be at least one thing about this book that would really connect with me.

I had no clue, since the cover always emphasized the other closed world investigated by the book: the rodeo. I am sure the publisher felt this necessary, in order to draw in the fans of his other work. After all, who wants to read about grad students? 

The book revolves around Patsy Carpenter and her husband Jim. They are both in their mid-20s, both from well to do Texas families, and both unsure of their path in life. I had always thought that the "quarter life crisis" was a recent invention, and this book proved me wrong. When it begins Jim has decided to become a photographer, and takes Patsy with him as he follows the rodeo in order to construct a photo essay. Patsy is not enamored of the lifestyle, especially after being exposed to some rough characters and Jim himself gets beaten up by two angry cowboys who didn't want their picture taken. 

Jim decides instead to go to grad school in English at Rice. Jim and Patsy become increasingly estranged, have a baby, engage in affairs, and eventually split. At the end of the book Patsy has to help rescue her pregnant sister from the counterculture dream gone wrong in San Francisco. She is able to construct a life for herself, raising her son, helping her sister, and perhaps feeling optimistic about the future at last. 

It certainly seems slight for a plot to carry 800 pages. It is, since it's a book meant to convey the struggles of daily life and how they operate in sub-cultures like the rodeo and grad school. That's why I didn't mind. It's ultimately a story about life, and the hard choices it presents. The mid-20s is indeed a fraught stage in life, one that in my own case came with its fair share of romantic adventures and emotional pitfalls. 

The book also captures the changes of the late 1960s, but from outside of the center of the counterculture. Houston, obviously, is not Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village. McMurtry may be known for writing about cowboys, but he is secretly a chronicler of sex. (When I first read The Last Picture Show I was a bit taken aback by its frankness.) There's plenty of bed hopping among the characters and a sense that the sexual freedoms opened up at the time weren't just being enjoyed by hippies. There is also a surprising amount of writing detailing bad sex, the most difficult thing in the book to read. McMurtry takes great pains to show how Jim and Patsy's incompatibility is reflected and confirmed by their bedroom difficulties, which he returns to time and again, picking at the wound. 

Ultimately the novel throws cold water both on the traditional "establishment" way of life via the empty lives of Jim and Patsy's parents, as well as the decadence of the counterculture. This is most stark at the end, where Patsy must go to San Francisco without Jim to track down her 19 year old sister estranged sister. The one real false note in the book comes from the fact that her sister is living with a controlling, mean-spirited African American man and the plot unfortunately echoes old captivity narratives. There is a whole panoply of intriguing characters, but the Black and Chicano characters are not really fully fleshed out in this book, sadly. 

I found Patsy herself to be a very compelling character. As McMurtry notes, she does cry a lot. However, I did not read this as a statement on the emotional fragility of women, and more as a tic specific to her character's personality. (The other women don't cry like she does.) Through most of the book Patsy is deeply unhappy. She is obviously just as intelligent (or more so) than her feckless husband, but must constantly follow him and support his dreams, which he never bothers to actually follow through on. I interpret her tears as the explosion of her deep frustrations about her life and how it has trapped her. In many respects this book is a subtle argument for women's liberation.

Patsy is also a real person. She is not lovable, and she herself even acknowledges this, to the point of calling herself a "bitch." When I have looked at online reviews of the book by readers (as opposed to critics) they often note how they did not love the book because they just didn't like Patsy. I guess I didn't mind because I have known a few Patsy types in my life. Their privileged upbringings and tightly wound emotions make them prone to outbursts and judgement. At the same time, they realize this about themselves and are desperate to be better able to connect with people instead of drive them away. The novel is about ultimately Patsy growing up and finding a way to become happy despite the flaws in her personality. 

In telling this story McMurtry also weaves a social portrait of Houston at the time of its Sun Belt ascendancy, along with beautiful writing on following the open road and the disorienting but seductive nature of Los Angeles. (I skipped over some subplots in my description.) He was a master of rendering small moments, like the feeling of the wind when a norther sweeps into Houston.

I think I enjoyed this book even more for its flaws because so many of these moments were spread throughout it. It is such a sprawling narrative to properly render in cohesive fashion, and it doesn't really manage to do so. But hey, life is messy. If you like to spend time reflecting on this fact, go and pick up Moving On.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Track of the Week: Bob Dylan "Jokerman"

The 40s are a treacherous decade that nobody warned me about. They've been the biggest moment of emotional volatility I have experienced since my teens. At this point the reality of middle age is inescapable, as is the knowledge that I have failed to achieve the goals I once set out for myself. I have not published my book or made a splash with my writing. Here I am blogging like it's 2005, terminally unhip.

You've got to be strong to get through, and to have an understanding of what's actually important in life. In my case my family and my work as a teacher give my life meaning, even if they don't give me fame and fortune. 

Back in the 80s I remember a lot of ink being spilled over the fact that there were now rock stars in their 40s. That's hardly news these days, but those who grew up with rock and roll had never seen such a thing. Many of those rock stars had their difficult 40s play out in public, only to rebound in the 90s after surviving the painful plunge into middle age. Neil Young is probably the best example. He went from a perplexing run of genre exercises in the 80s to some great records in the 90s like Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon.

Growing up in the 80s only a select few of the geezer rockers crossed my MTV and local hits station radar. I certainly knew the Stones, for instance. Bob Dylan was a mystery to me, however. When he had his spotlight in "We Are the World" he was the one singer whose identity escaped me.

When I first dipped a toe into Dylan fandom in the early 90s I already knew the (correct) conventional wisdom that his 80s output was suboptimal. Even as I have become a more and more devoted Dylanologist, I have pretty much avoided this music. I also knew that for some reason he left some of his best work of the era ("Blind Willie McTell," "Series of Dreams," "Foot of Pride" etc) on the cutting room floor. Did I really need to listen to any of this stuff apart from the bootleg series? I made only one exception, for Oh Mercy.

The other day I finally decided to listen to Infidels, considered to be among the salvageable works of the 80s from Dylan and the first song, "Jokerman," really struck me. It probably marks the point that Dylan's unmistakeable voice became more of a croak, as it's been for 40 years now. It came after his trilogy of Christian albums, one of the more unexpected midlife crises in rock history. 

At first I thought "Jokerman" was slight, but I have been singing its deceptively catchy chorus all day long today. It has a languid beat that's like a cross between reggae and yacht rock, with Mark Knopfler's irresistibly sweet guitar tone floating on the top. Something about it suggests middle class repose, sort of giving up and sitting back and letting life just happen to you. I know the song has all kinds of allegories and metaphors, but I am mostly just lost in the slipstream of its sound, which is perfect for a broken down 45 year old like me. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

COVID Forgetting

New cases and infections have dropped drastically here in New Jersey as vaccinations have gone up. My kids are back in school and more and more of my students are opting to come in. It feels like we have finally turned a corner.

As is natural in a traumatized people after months of fear and death, just about everyone is ready to forget all of this and move on with their lives. I understand the impulse, but I think it will continue to allow people who did some truly terrible things to get let off of the hook. 

We've been here before, of course. The traitors responsible for the Confederate rebellion and this country's deadliest war never faced punishment for their nefarious deeds. The slave labor camp masters still got to keep their land. After the civil rights movement only a smattering of the acts of horrific violence committed by the Klan and its allies in law enforcement were punished. Richard Nixon never spent a day jail for Watergate, George W Bush got to launder his image in retirement instead of facing war crimes charges. America is incapable of punishing its high malefactors of power because to do so would mean admitting that this nation is indeed not the land of the free and home of the brave.

We have already forgotten the how the last president's behavior cost hundreds of thousands of lives. He tried to pretend the virus wasn't happening, then promised a reopening in April of last year. He told people to inject bleach. He failed to create any kind of national policy, lazily giving responsibility to the states. He openly discussed denying aid to states with Democratic governors, forcing them to grovel while their people were dying. 

The whole time his rank and file conservative supporters have been repeating the same mantra: "it's not a big deal!" They have expressed far more consternation and anger over having to wear masks than the deaths of over 600,000 of their fellow Americans. Last March it was "this is no worse than the flu" and then it became "it only hurts those who are sick and old" to now basically ignoring the deaths. 

Well I do not aim to forget. I will never forget that when hundreds of people were dying every day here in New Jersey last spring there were conservatives complaining about "blue state bailouts" and the president making my governor humiliate himself to keep my fellow New Jerseyans alive. I may be capable of forgiving people I love when they stayed silent while my family and I were being endangered by the man they voted for. But I will not forget it. Never never never. 

I won't forget how the local school board and teacher's union heads completely failed to find a workable solution this year, delaying my children's return to the classroom to May 3. I won't forget the people who behaved irresponsibly during the winter surge, helping the virus infect more people because going to brunch was oh so important. I won't forget how many of my friends and acquaintances felt free to slag teachers to my face with the patronizing assumption that I was "one of the good ones." I won't forget how employers did absolutely nothing to consider the burdens of working parents with "essential" jobs, sticking us with unbelievable stress and painful financial costs. I won't forget the people who cared more about having to wear a mask than the piles of dead bodies all around them. I won't forget the colleagues who stayed at home even after they were vaccinated while I was commuting for three hours a day every damn day and eating thousands of dollars in child care costs and doing the extra labor of watching over their virtual classroom for them. 

I can forgive, and in many of these cases, I already have. But I will not forget. Not now, not ever.

But there are other things I won't forget. I won't forget how responsible and patient my children have been this last year under terrible circumstances. I won't forget the help we received from my in-laws, friends, and neighbors. I won't forget how hard most of my colleagues have worked to make hybrid and distance learning as close to what students are missing as possible. I won't forget the 98% of subway riders who have been willing to mask up. I won't forget the breaks and random acts of kindness I have received from my superiors at my job. Most of all, I won't forget the engagement and effort from my students, without which teaching in this way never would have been possible. 

We must remember the good and the bad, and resist the urge to look away. If not, we will never fix what's wrong or derive needed inspiration from what we did right. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

On the Pleasures of "Old" Bourbons

I am the kind of guy who will drink any bourbon with "old" in its name. Old Crow, Old Grandad, Old Fitzgerald, Old Forester, you name it. (I only draw the line at Old Hickory, because fuck Andrew Jackson.) When I told a friend about my love of Old Grandad he was taken aback, telling me that was the preferred tipple of the old men back in his hometown. 

There's all kinds of primo bourbon out there, why do I love the "olds" so much? 

Some of this has to do the fact that I was born old. When I was ten years old my mother complained to me that I dressed like an old man. At that age I fantasized about being a grumpy old man, having the freedom to be salty and disagreeable and no one able to really judge me for it. My favorite Muppets were Statler and Waldorf. Now thirty years later it doesn't feel so remote. Hair grows out of my ears, I have random unexplained aches and pains, and I have lost more than a step. 

Beyond my age and my lifelong quest to be an old man, "old bourbon" has its own inherent value. There's a lot of bourbons out on the market, especially these days. It's hard to know what's good when I want to pick up something new, but an "old" in the name is a good sign. None of those bottles have ever steered me wrong. They might not be the absolute best, but they are dependable, an increasingly scarce quality in this world. 

Take Old Crow, for instance. Yes it may come in a plastic bottle located on the bottom shelf, but it will never do you wrong. It's not some fancy single barrel shit, but that fancy single barrel shit doesn't cost just ten bucks, either. And hey, if it was good enough for General Grant and Mark Twain it should be good enough for a schmuck like you. Just one shelf higher is Old Grandad, delicious both alone or drowned in Coke. There's not many bourbons you can say that about. The black label version of my old buddy Evan Williams is best not consumed straight, for example. 

When you see that "old" on the label it's basically telling you "Hey, I am not some hip young bourbon, but I'll still be plenty tasty." It's also especially fitting when it comes to bourbon's history. Bourbon is this country's singular, unique contribution to world booze culture. The "old" is thus a reassurance that you, the modern drinker, are really in good, experienced hands. The venerable ways of bourbon have not faded.

Sure there's better out there, but sometimes instead of the best you can only afford a bottle of rotgut to keep you happy. And there's nothing wrong with that, especially if it's "old."

Thursday, May 6, 2021

1/6 Four Months On

Only four months ago Donald Trump helped incite a right-wing insurrection that invaded the Capitol with the aim of overturning the results of the 2020 election. Most Americans seems to have a vested interest in flushing it down the memory hole. 

Conservatives of course say it's all Not A Big Deal, for obvious, self-serving reasons. A lot of other people just don't want to reckon with its implications, and the fact that one of the two major parties has effectively become a vehicle for the destruction of democracy. That demolishes the "both sides" bullshit that folks in the center believe. For liberals and progressives who aren't willing to fight, it lays a challenge at their feet that they would rather ignore. 

In the meantime the Republican Party is purging those who criticize Trump and the coup, and is busy limiting voting rights and rigging elections. 1/6 was a watershed moment, a sign that our politics is no longer a matter of two parties vying for power, but of a radical right wing movement seeking to gain power through any means necessary against a standard center-left party.

My great fear is that too many people will deny this reality. I think Trump's ban from social media has made it so conservatives can do their dirty work under the cover of night and fog. Florida making it hard to vote doesn't get the same headlines without Trump making some obnoxious comments online about it. State level Republicans are much more free to manipulate the system with the spotlight elsewhere.

Our whole media apparatus certainly has decided to move on. Elite media is full of stories about anti-racist education at prep schools and swanky restaurants going vegetarian. We argue about this stupid shit online all day long while the very democratic process itself is being undermined. With Trump gone and muzzled too many have been lulled into a false sense of security. They think it's 1945 when it's really 1923. 

The only way we avoid 1933 is by maintaining our memory of 1/6 and the knowledge that it can't be allowed to happen again. Right now we still have a long way to go before we get to that understanding.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Notes on Teachers Appreciation Week

America is full of "hero" jobs. These are occupations that come with a lot of public praise, but also the expectation that if you work these jobs you are supposed to keep your mouth shut. The scope of this designation has expanded under COVID with the new term "essential workers." 

While the desk jockeys and bean counters have been able to stay at home, the essential workers have been delivering their groceries, slaughtering their meat, preparing their food, tending to them in the hospital, and yes, taking care of and teaching their children. This work has involved great personal risk (just look at the COVD death rate among line cooks.) It has not been met with additional compensation or power in the workplace. Instead we hear a litany of bosses bitching that they can't get enough workers to beg them for their shit jobs. 

The only added compensation has been in the form of lip service. I am thinking about that a lot this week, which is Teacher Appreciation Week. In normal years I groan a little at the noblesse oblige of it but appreciate the tokens of gratitude that come with it. This year it just makes me angry. 

Few other professions have been forced to so fundamentally change their practice. Each and every lesson I do had to be completely re-thought and done in ways I had never done before, all on the fly. After getting used to the virtual classroom, I then had to transition to the hybrid classroom where my brain must be in real and virtual space simultaneously. I have had to switch modes on a dime with little warning. The bean counters and desk jockeys haven't had to do all that much, except for learning how to use Zoom.

Our reward for our Herculean labors? Nothing.

Or I should say, nothing if we are lucky. If we are unlucky our reward is layoffs, furloughs, and legions of parents attacking us on social media. All the talk of "essential workers" just rings so hollow. I know plenty of parents are legitimately grateful for my work, but being reminded of that is more a salve for their souls than it is a benefit to me. 

It's obvious that if this society "appreciates" teachers it needs to put its money where its mouth is. 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Track of the Week: Flamin' Groovies "Headin' For the Texas Border"

In the last two months I think I have written fewer posts than I ever have in my long and distinguished blogging career. This is a reflection of just how overburdened and stressed I am right now. I went from work 10-11 hour days while commuting to the city two days a week to working 10-11 hour days every day of the week. My commute is chewing up my work and sleep time and I am feeling the effects.

Today in fact I was working furiously to complete my narrative reports for the last term. I managed to do it by playing some songs on repeat. One of them was "Headin' For the Texas Border" by the Flamin' Groovies. We just got some old glorious tower stereo speakers from my wife's parents and this song sounded absolutely glorious when I cranked it on the new system.

The Groovies are one of those bands that should have made it big, in the same category as Big Star. I first heard their power pop tunes like "Shake Some Action" and loved it, but I might actually prefer their early, bluesy stuff. The best of that early 70s era sounds like the Stones refracted through the spirit of the Stooges with a dollop of pop sugar added in. 

"Texas Border" is just an absolutely ripping riff, one of the few variations on "Louie, Louie" that actually manages to equal the original. It was the kind of thing countless bands (like the Kingsmen themselves) were doing back in the mid-60s. There were armadas of groups coming out of the garage wanting to imitate the Stones and Beatles and making up for their ineptitude with attitude and noise. The Groovies had better chops, though. The band is tighter than a cheapskate's fist and it just flat out races like a souped up Camaro street racing on a Saturday night. 

I promise to write more. Soon will come summer and the ability to think again. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Saying Goodbye To My Virtual Classroom

This past week I got new marching orders. From now until the end of the school year I am going to be teaching face to face in the classroom five days a week, as opposed to two. This weekend it suddenly hit me: I have perhaps taught my last class from home.

I have used four different spaces in my home as a classroom in the past year, all depending on availability and who was at home at the time. When it's been warm I have preferred our screened-in back porch. When I am here and my kids are too I've used either my office nook at the top of the stairs, or the guest bedroom if it was especially loud in the house. On those rare days when I was home alone I would use the dining room table, with our beautiful glassed-in cherry wood bookcase as a background. 

Gone are the days of frantically preparing lunch for my children and desperately trying to keep them on task while I had my own work to do. Gone are the days as well of taking my laptop to the breakfast table at 7AM, the only hope I had of processing all of the mountains of work that needed to be done that day.

I will miss having a commute of one minute, and that is all I will miss. Parenting and teaching simultaneously is a nearly impossible task. It's also just really hard for me to concentrate on my work when I'm at home. Everything took more time to do, and while at home 11-12 hour work days were pretty regular. 

The blurring of work and personal life has also been giving me a headache. A little compartmentalization is a good thing. I remember back to this fall when I watched the webcast of my aunt's funeral in Texas between teaching classes on my back porch. I was bawling my eyes out with my kids nagging me for attention while checking the clock to see when I had to be back in the classroom. I should have taken a personal day, but that just seemed weird considering I was already at home.

Leaving the virtual classroom behind is a reminder to me of the sacrifices and adjustments I have been forced to make over the past year. I despair thinking of how many of them will be made permanent. Every day I powered through a ridiculous amount of work while being my children's cook, nurse, and teacher's aide was a victory for the bosses. They could be oh so pleased that their employees didn't abandon them. We do it for the kids and not for the money, and I worry that makes us suckers. 

So goodbye, virtual classroom. As exhausting as teaching hybrid is, I hope I can avoid you forever.


Saturday, April 17, 2021

On Gambling Movies

One thing I love about the Criterion Channel is how they gather films into special collections and series by theme, style, and genre. Right now I am really enjoying The Gamblers, a set of films about gambling and gamblers made from the 1940s to the 1990s. As is usual with these collections, some films are old favorites, some are ones I have wanted to explore, and some I've never heard of and am glad to have on my radar. 

This by the way is an argument for streaming services to do more curation. So many just shotgun blast content out there without offering viewers a chance for deeper engagement and new discoveries. But I digress...

I've always felt a little weird about gambling because I have personally seen how people can get addicted, and I tend to have a risk averse personality. I enjoy it, but only if the stakes are low. There is a real kind of thrill when one wins, it feels like you've managed to get one over on the universe. The losses, of course, just reinforce the cruel, capricious hand of fate's rule over our lives. And as in life, the game is rigged and you lose on more days than you win. Gambling is something that makes the reality of human existence a little too real. 

Of course, that makes it a great subject for movies. Here are some of my favorites:


I just rewatched this one, which I've seen a few times. I saw it first in an art theater back in my Chicago days and fell in love, then acquired a VHS tape when a local video store went out of business. It's the movie that put Clive Owen on the map, playing a struggling author who returns to being a casino dealer out of boredom and desperation. I don't want to give too much away, but the title character is someone who enjoys gambling without ever wanting to place a bet. He knows it's a loser's game, and sees gamblers' quest to get one over on the universe as a sign of delusion and selfishness. (It doesn't help that his dad was a gambler.) I love a good neo-noir and this is a great little hard gem of a film. 

The Hustler

I am a sucker for a certain kind of gritty 1960s movie shot in black and white with a jazzy score saturated in cigarette smoke. Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and George C Scott is a helluva combo. 

California Split

Gambling seems to be a perfect subject for Robert Altman, whose films captured the small disappointments of life so well. What I love about this film is how well it captures the places where truly degenerate gamblers get their fix. It's not Rat Pack Vegas, it's smoke-filled poker rooms and racetracks with fifty layers of spilled beer and soda absorbed into their floors. There's a lesson here too, about how even when you come out ahead you never win because the true gambler can never be satisfied. This film also uses Altman's signature overlapping dialogue more effectively than any other since poker table talk lends itself to this method.

Lost in America

This one is cheating a little because the entire film isn't about gambling, but it's most famous scenes certainly are. This is the tale of an 80s yuppie couple played by Albert Brooks (also the filmmaker) and Julie Hagerty to decide to leave their corporate LA life and go cross country in an RV. Their first stop is Vegas, where they lose all of their travel money in one night due to the Hagerty character falling into a gambling frenzy. The scene where Brooks tries to convince the casino boss to give him his money back is hilarious as well as a great satire on affluent types who think the consequences don't apply to them. For the first time he can't get out of it because in a casino the house always wins. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

New Podcast on Reinventions

I have kept my promise to keep the podcast episodes coming, and I have to say it's been quite enjoyable to put them together. This fortnight's episode of Old Dad's Records is all about reinventions. I realized the other day that it's ten years to the month that I made my first steps at leaving academia and entering the private school world, so that's where the theme came from. I talk Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," Bob Seger's Night Moves, and Lana Del Rey's latest. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Back to the Trenches

Today was my first day back at my job after spring break and I don't think I've ever had a more difficult return to work after break. I reached a state of blissful normality during my two weeks off, feeling more relaxed than I have at any time since the start of the pandemic. I spent the summer in a constant state of anxiety over what awaited me this year, the holiday break had plenty of stress as well as the former president trying to subvert democracy. 

Spring break reminded me of the scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul goes home from the trenches on leave. It seems as if he has entered a completely different world. Well today I was back in the trenches, and it was a rude awakening. I liked seeing my students again, but I was so tired and worn out, not just in my body, but in my soul.

Today was one of the days when I had to be my daughters' teaching assistant, janitor, and cook all while trying to do my own full-time teacher job. (My wife's school requires her to be at school every day.) In terms of my own job teaching via Zoom is like swimming with twenty pound weights on your ankles. (Doing hybrid is like forty pound weights.) 

This just isn't sustainable. I had been in the trenches so long that I guess I had adapted to the insanity of my daily routine. Now that I have had a break I wonder if I am capable of seeing this through to the finish line. The end is within sight, but I am just out of gas.

I feel the fatigue in my soul because others just haven't bothered to help, which is just flat out demoralizing. As my wife said the other day, we have been working so hard that we've done as much work already this year as we normally did in a whole school year. My body and soul know this, and think that means it's time to shut down. The thing that's hard to take is that all of this work and all of this difficulty will not result in any reward. No raise, no promotion, no thanks beyond lip service. 

And so I shoulder my pack and go back to the trenches and grimly go about my duty. I am resigned to that for the time being, but hoping like hell the Armistice comes before I lose my grip completely. 

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Are We Still in Nixonland?

A prime example of Nixon's wedge-driving

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland might be my favorite entry in his mammoth four volume history of the conservative movement's rise from the days of Goldwater to the Reagan Dawn. His key insight is that Nixon intentionally made pre-existing divisions in America even starker, then won elections by making sure that the bigger chunk of the divided nation was on his side. Until Watergate, this strategy worked remarkably well, propelling him to a massive landslide in 1972.

The point of the book was that our politics have been stuck in Nixonland ever since. It came out in 2008, at the end of the Bush years. Karl Rove had used the Nixon strategy very well, incorporating homophobia to make gay marriage a wedge issue in 2004 and portraying anyone opposed to the invasion of Iraq as a hater of America. Those same tactics served Republicans well when they unleashed the Tea Party in 2010, effectively hobbling the Obama administration for its last six years. 

Nowadays, however, it seems that Republicans can only win by gaming the system and suppressing the vote. Bush's win in 2004 was the only time a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote since his pappy won back in 1988. That certainly explains efforts to manipulate elections in Georgia. 

However, it also emerged this week that the Republicans are planning a political strategy based on the culture war, as opposed to policy. Some have mocked this, but I see it merely as the continuation of the one reliable strategy Republicans have had for the past fifty years. Some are puzzled that they are calling themselves a "working class party" while failing to do anything to materially improve people's lives. They forget that the Nixon strategy depends on resentment, on saying Republicans are protecting good people against the elites. They don't mean the economic elite, whom they wish to shower with tax breaks, but the "cultural elite." Anti-university, anti-trans, anti-environmentalism, and anti-anti-racism all fit into this. 

I do not scoff at this gambit because it has worked in the past and also because it represents to much potential harm to vulnerable people in this country. The question I keep asking is whether it can still work after all these years. Will this be the time that Republicans intentionally drive the wedge, only to find themselves stuck with the lesser part? 

Demographic and political shifts seem to indicate that ground has shifted enough that Republicans just might play themselves. This is not the late 20th century anymore. Church attendance is dropping, making appeals to "traditional values" less effective. Younger people are far more progressive now than when I was young. The attacks on 1/6 have made it impossible for conservative reactionaries to pretend that opposition to democracy itself is not at their core. 

And that's what scares me, since the wedge-driving isn't happening in a vacuum. Republicans might be grabbing the smaller half of the population, but gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the electoral college mean that they don't actually need to win over the majority. In that sense we are no longer living in Nixonland, but in a place somehow far worse. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

The Last Year Killed My Trust

I trust most other people as much as I trust the Joker right now

The last four years, and the last year in particular, have reduced my circle of trust considerably. I get the feeling this is not an uncommon thing.

Trump's ascendancy was bad enough. Conservatives I've long disagreed with but respected showed me that deep down they were indifferent (at best) to fascism as long as it delivered what they wanted. It's made me question my trust in them, and even my trust in my own ability to see people for who they are. I at least thought (naively) back in 2016 that Trump's behavior once he took power might alienate them, but they gleefully doubled down. All of the lawbreaking, racism, family separations, and hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths from COVID only strengthened their ardor. The naked attempt to overthrow democracy on January 6th and the weeks leading up to the insurrection was met with silence (at best) or obfuscations and what-aboutism. 

Despite all of that, COVID has eroded my trust in others far more. Every day I have commuted by train I have had to ride with people nose-hanging, chin-strapping, or outright refusing to wear masks. Every scroll through social media shows all the trips and visits and parties made with complete disinterest for the well-being of others. So many conversations reveal a lack of concern with the virus or even denial of its potency. Multiple people have told me of friends dying after contracting COVID, then sharply telling me "but that's NOT what killed them!" Others refuse to get vaccinated. 

More personally, I have to hear teachers being attacked and dragged by frustrated parents who don't even consider the effect these statements have on me. (This goes for social media and more direct convos.) 

All of this makes me feel like a sucker for trusting other people, and I was a distrustful person to begin with. I honestly don't know how I am going to be able to go through my day to day life in these circumstances. So much of quotidian existence relies on the trust that must be invested in others. I wonder sometimes if my standards are too high, if I am an insufferable killjoy, or more hypocritical than I realize. I don't think I am, but maybe you can correct me. Or maybe as a cishetero white guy I am having to confront something other people have been forced to reckon with far before this.

So far I have been leaning hard on the people I know can be trusted. They've been a rock for me in this. It just pains me to know that when this is all finally over I will be incapable of going through life the same way again. I am trying my best to forgive, but it seems impossible to forget. 

New Podcast Episode on Crate Digging

 I have made good on my promises and kept recording podcasts on my old bi-weekly schedule. This time Old Dad's Records breaks format and I talk about all the things I bought when I was finally fully vaxxed and able to browse the record store again. Man that was a good feeling. I talk Thin Lizzy, Flamin' Groovies, Roxy Music and Tangerine Dream, plus give a recommend to Angel Olsen's latest. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Phi Collins, Master of Ennui

Yesterday I made a quick trip to the supermarket and lo and behold, Phil Collins' "One More Night" was playing over the PA. I laughed to myself because I think this song has been Muzak ever since it was released in 1985. 

As I browsed the produce and shelves I realized there's good reason for its staying power as musical grocery store wallpaper. Grocery stores are melancholy places, at least in my estimation. (The Clash and Allen Ginsburg agree with me.) The bright lighting and array of consumer products feel like a false promise of contentment. All the aisles of food weirdly remind me of my mortality and the impermanence of existence. So many uprooted plants and so much dead flesh. The low emotional ache of that Phil Collins song was just perfect.

Phil Collins was an unlikely pop star, a short stocky balding guy who had been a drummer for a prog rock band. His voice is warm and distinctive, but hardly overpowering. But that warmth of his voice and of his persona are key. He was not an otherworldly figure like Prince, Madonna. or Michael Jackson. He was a divorced dad who liked Hawaiian shirts and corny jokes.

He was also able to channel the daily ache of modern life, that low level ennui in the background of our souls. I think smart phones and social media are so addictive because they drown out that tinnitus of the soul so effectively. Back in the 80s and 90s we were stuck without this aid in all of those idle moments -like grocery store shopping- when our minds might decide to replay our regrets on repeat. Phil Collins' music was made for those moments in ways that other pop songs weren't.

Here's his top five most aching songs, perfect for contemplating existence at the grocery store, being stuck in traffic, or easing the dread of a dental appointment.

One More Night

I already mentioned this one, which is just straight up melancholy. "I can't wait forever" feels like an existential cry of despair.

Against All Odds

"Against All Odds" was described by the dear departed Yacht Rock podcast as prime "Divorce-core." He's putting it all out on the line here. "Take a look at me now/ It's just an empty space" is middle-aged depression at its most real. 

Take Me Home

This might be Collins' most affecting of all of his songs. If you've ever been exiled or had to travel far from home you will immediately understand this song. There's a poignancy to "Please take me home" as opposed to "I want to go home." It's that feeling that you have no control over your situation. Evidently it was sung from the point of view of someone in a mental institution. Heavy stuff for a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and fedora.


I know this is cheating, because it's a Genesis song. However, I think Collins was using it to set the template for his sad sack solo hits. It's about someone who gets stood up for a date and then ghosted. (Yes, that happened before cell phones, too.) But perhaps the misunderstanding is rooted in the fact that we are all windowless monads, inherently unknowable to each other.

In the Air Tonight

This song has had the most staying power of all of Collins' work, mostly due to the drum break, which is one of the great all time surprises in pop song history. Let's not forget the lyrical content, so full of heartache, betrayal, and angst. It's like something out of a Joy Division song, but the edges sanded off that it can play while being put on hold with the insurance company.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Spring Cleaning

My spring break has just begun and I have not felt this unburdened since August. Christmas break had its own unique stresses and it took place in the midst of the worst of the pandemic. Now I am fully vaccinated and the weather is improving. Just this weekend I converted my screened-in back porch from a winter storage space to a warm weather hangout spot. 

While doing so yesterday I couldn't help but to think of the last time I cleaned the porch. It was at the start of quarantine, and back then I told myself I would have to keep busy around the house as a way to keep from losing my mind. I didn't just tidy up the porch, I gave it a ridiculously deep cleaning well beyond my usual standards. At that stage of quarantine the enormity of the situation gave me a kind of manic energy that found its expression in some pretty unlikely ways.

A year later that spirit is pretty much gone. I'm tired, both in body and soul. My job and my life have become one constant triage with constant fires to put out. There was a sort of excitement of rising to the challenge last year when I would have to get up from my computer after teaching a Zoom class to get lunch on for my kids while frantically responding to students taking an asynchronous class. Now when I have to do this I wish so hard that it would just finally end. 

It's all become a blur, day after day of working 11 hours at my job while tutoring my children and cooking and cleaning through it all. Except for the two days a week that I have to ride the train into the city and come home after it's done dead on my feet and sometimes still needing to cajole my children into doing their homework.

My spring break couldn't come soon enough because I think I was getting close to the point of exhaustion. That's usually the case even during a normal school year. And like in those years the time from then to summer is the final stretch, a thought that sustains many a teacher through April. I am trying to use spring break not just to clean my house, but to clean out my mind too. Maybe some time sitting on my back porch will help with that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

New Podcast Episode (Finally)

After months of overwork I finally got on top of my life enough again to revive my podcast, Old Dad's Records. In case you are new to my blog, it's where I discuss an old song that's become musical wallpaper, an album from my stack of old records, and then new music I'm digging. The latter is to prove that I am not merely a sad old dad.

This episode, appropriately enough deals with the Rolling Stones, the ultimate dad rock band. I start with "Jumpin' Jack Flash," their statement of repurpose after time in the psychedelic wilderness. After that I consider Their Satanic Majesties Request and defend that time in the wilderness a little. After all that I give a recommendation for LA Witch's "Fire Starter," which has a hard riff groove worthy of Keef.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Neoliberalism With a Stick of Gum (The 80s Baseball Card Boom)

 Tropics of Meta was kind enough to publish a recent piece I wrote about baseball cards and neoliberalism. Check it out here.

Here's an excerpt:

"That decades-old unopened boxes of baseball cards can be acquired so easily and cheaply tells the story of speculation run amok. My first investment portfolio was an early lesson in capitalism’s shady promises, collapsing bubble and all. Ironically, so many people bought and saved so many baseball cards thinking they would be valuable that they made them worthless. This is not just another story of boom and bust, however. Baseball cards in the 80s are a fine metaphor for neoliberalism’s triumph in that decade, from deregulation to speculation to intensified stratification and inequality."

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Can a Wedge Be Driven Into the Republican Base?

Randy Newman figured what really makes conservatives tick fifty years ago

Today I saw some interesting polling numbers that showed that lower-income Republicans were in favor of Biden's 1.9 trillion economic recovery bill, while middle and upper-income Republicans were opposed. (Democrats are highly in favor across income levels.) These numbers piqued my interest because I have long thought of the Republican base as being far more solid than that of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have tended to be a fractious coalition whereas the Republicans have coalesced around a common ideology.

One very important ideological element has been trickle-down economics. By sponsoring massive relief and spending last year, Trump and the Republicans were flouting their party's "fiscal responsibility" narrative even more so than usual. Many of their voters who got tangible help from that relief seem willing to break from the party line on trickle down. As we have seen, Republicans will let the money taps run when they are in office, so it's hard to drive a wedge on this issue in those times. However, with Republican politicians shifting gears back to austerity an opportunity may present itself.

At the same time, I wonder if the Republican Party's defense against this attack is still impregnable. What lashes their party together is not the ideas of Hayek and Friedman but resentment. Everyone in their group from the Bible thumpers to libertine libertarians is united in their hatred of liberals. This is why the Dr Seuss bullshit is so effective. Conservatives go around every day thinking that liberals are out to corrupt society and dominate them. They'd literally rather die than do something a liberal wants, just look at the anti-mask stuff. 

It's hard to draw people from a political faction that seems more like a cult. Even harder when challenging a white nationalist framing that so many on the Right embrace, and which can override other concerns among working class white people.

Seen from this perspective, a difference of opinion about the role of government in helping its people is actually pretty ancillary to the conservative cause. The more respectable members of the movement have been allowed for decades to put on their bow ties and go on television and act like they are some association of principled thinkers. In reality the Birchers completed the Long March and contrary William F Buckley's narrative, ended up victorious in the end. 

This is another way for me to say while I am surprised to see a potential wedge in the Republican Party, I doubt much can be done with it.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Scott Walker, "It's Raining Today" (Track of the Week)

With the Covidversary upon us I am remembering where my head was a year ago at this time in that moment when it went from a nascent fear to reality. Quarantine was strangely fortuitous, since it came right as I was hitting a stress-induced breaking point. The crisis helped wipe the old crises off of my plate pretty fast. 

Last February and early March I was listening to a lot of orchestral pop music from the 1960s. I even made a playlist called "Sophisticated Dad Chill Commute" to listen to on my way home from work. I also happened to get really into Scott Walker (not the Wisconsin politician) at the time. His early records brought an avant-garde, poetic sensibility to the sweeping symphonic arrangements.

Last weekend, right before my second vaccination shot, I suddenly got back in the Scott Walker mood. Some of it was probably due to thinking about the anniversary and what it meant on the eve of my deliverance, but a lot was also just the eternal mood of late February and early March.

This is by far my least favorite time of the year. Winter keeps holding on, and what little exists of spring sometimes only comes in the form of heavy rains and howling winds. For me it also coincides with Lenten fasting. It is a time of painful anticipation before sunshine and, importantly for a teacher, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel of the school year. 

There is a dull ache forever in the background of my soul every March, and it sounds exactly like the buzzing strings of Scott Walker's "It's Raining Today." Last week I got to the city too early to line up for my shot, so I wandered around Central Park in the drizzle, listening to this song over and over again. 

It's fitting that quarantine began in March, the purgatory month. We have been in this purgatory for a year now. Every now and I then I can't imagine getting through this without losing my grip, and have to remind myself that spring is coming. In March you know it so close, but as for today, it's raining. 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Teachers Need Consideration, Too

From the beginning of the pandemic educators have been hearing a constant message that we need to be extra patient with our students, to be careful of workload, and to generally go out of our way to be even more understanding than usual when they are unable to complete their work.

And you know what? I 100% agree with this. I tried to have all this in mind in the Before Times, but I have taken it even more to heart in the last year. I have reduced the work I assign, willing to lose coverage to benefit my students' mental health. I have been less stingy in handing out good grades and a softer touch with suboptimal student work. Right now there are much bigger fish to fry than holding the line between a B+ and A-.

However, educators do not seem to be getting the same consideration. Teaching in a pandemic is inherently much harder, at least if you want your teaching to be good. It requires converting every single lesson into a new format, arranging all of the electronic platforms, and teaching over Zoom, which is like swimming with a twenty pound weight attached to your ankle. Teaching hybrid might give needed actual contact with students, but it is physically and mentally exhausting to be in real space and cyberspace simultaneously. 

I regularly pass out on the couch at the end of the day. I typically work 10-11 hour days during the week, with a few hours of work on the weekend, too. I am starting to see my own children wear out and struggle in virtual school, but by the time I am able to help them with their studies I have spent all of my energy. 

My family is doing all of this with an almost impossible hill to climb. While my children's school remains virtual and I go in twice a week to mine, my wife has to come in five days a week. You try to figure that out. Teacher-parents have basically been told to go jump in a lake by just about everyone. No government subsidies for child care, no coordination between school districts, no child care assistance from our employers. 

On top of all of this teachers are still going through the same evaluation process from their schools. They still have the same load of meetings. (How else will administrators be able to justify their existence, after all?) Sometimes they even get browbeaten for not talking more in meetings at the end of a ten hour day spent teaching over Zoom and juggling child care responsibilities. 

Our reward for all this work is going to be layoffs, pay cuts, and resentment from the public. The attacks on teachers unions are already back and you can't wade into a conversation about school reopenings without somebody shitting all over teachers. I personally think the science on the safety of re-opening is pretty clear but I won't join with local people trying to reopen the schools here because I am not going to make common cause with those who wish to destroy my family's livelihood. It's bad enough to be doing all this extra work in trying circumstances, being treated with contempt as a result is unbearable. 

So please, give us a break before we break. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021


Last Tuesday we had a proper Mardi Gras in my house. My wife made a king cake and we danced around to Professor Longhair and Dr John. My kids donned beads and joined in on the fun. It was just the kind of break that we needed from a crushing daily routine that involves my wife and I having to leave our homes for our jobs while our children's school has yet to re-open. We've spent a year having to work several more hours a week at our reinvented jobs while acting as de facto teacher's aides for our kids. All the usual outlets on the weekend have been closed off to us this whole time.

That's why I even surprised myself by leaning into Lent this year. Loyal readers know I have a complicated relationship to the Roman Catholic faith of my upbringing. Regardless of how I feel about doctrines and institutions, however, a part of my soul still REQUIRES me to take Lent seriously. This year I decided to give up alcohol (my idea) and yelling at my kids (their idea.) I tried helplessly to explain to them that giving up the former will make giving up the latter much harder.

It feels strange to lean into Lent because we have been living in Lent since last March. So much has been given up and sacrificed. The clarity that comes with Lenten sacrifice has been bestowed on me in abundance this past year. I have received many a lesson in what matters and what does not matter in this life. I have spent months preparing for a new Easter where I can slough off the hairshirt and live the more fulfilled, purposeful life I know I am ready to have once the burdens of COVID have ceased. That end is in sight. This Saturday I am getting my second shot of vaccine. The transmission rates are trending down. Spring is coming.

So why all the Lenten sacrifice? Because all of what I have learned about what matters has ultimately taught me that the more distractions I eliminate, the better off I will be. I can't control the pandemic, the political situation, my children's school's policies, my employer's demands, or much else. Alcohol is an easy way to put a wall between myself and reality. It has been a very helpful wall in my adult life, especially in the last four years. Now it's time to stop building walls, to face the world straight, and yes, sober. 

I am preparing my soul for the life beyond pandemic, and pushing myself to fulfill the promises I have made to myself. As the past year has painfully illustrated, there's only so much life to go around.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Death of a Clown

Rush Limbaugh was one of the most influential media figures of my lifetime, if not the most influential of all. This failed sports broadcaster became the central figure of both the Republican Party and conservative movement, the one person that the libertarians, Bible thumpers, militia nuts, and rank and file right wingers could agree on. He united this broad coalition through their common hatred of "the liberals."

Limbaugh always pronounced that phrase with such dripping contempt. I remember when he had a late night TV show in my youth, and the ad consisted of stereotypical liberals acting offended at what Rush said. Well before social media was a glint in Mark Zuckerberg's dead eyes"triggering the libs" was the conservative staff of life. 

Sometimes out of morbid curiosity I would watch that TV show, and was struck by just how scared and resentful his audience seemed to be when it came to the most milquetoast liberals. Early in the Clinton presidency he would come in and out of commercials with a "America held hostage" graphic. Well before January 6th, 2021, he had propagated the notion that any Democratic presidency was de facto illegitimate. 

What unnerved me was how people in my life who were devout Catholics and extremely kind in their personal lives and careful not to say negative things of others embraced Limbaugh so much. One aunt of mine who I never heard say a disparaging word to others would listen to him and parrot his arguments. She was a clerk and her husband a small farmer and yet followed the corporatist Limbaugh line. Family friends who sponsored my church youth group had his books displayed prominently. I would flip through them sometimes, taken aback by the rank misogyny and cruelty masquerading as humor.

Nowadays, I understand the connection. The same kind of people also voted for Trump, another showman with a big mouth full of hateful words completely unburdened by shame. I have come to realize that conservatives who are kind upstanding people in their personal lives long for a champion who can express all the contents of their id. Limbaugh and Trump both gave them that. 

Limbaugh was Trump's John the Baptist. (The awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom was a real game recognize game moment.) Limbaugh made it clear that Republicans were far more animated by the culture war than they were about actual tangible political goals. As long as the people they didn't like got hurt worse than them they didn't really care all that much about a whole lot else. For decades the respectable conservative movement thought of itself as being animated by higher principles and ideas, but in reality that was only for the occasional Frum and Kristol type. Trump knew that in 2016 and came in like wrecking ball, forcing the likes of Ted Cruz to drop their high-minded schtick and get down into the muck. 

Limbaugh also knew that Republicans would get far more support from obstructing Democrats than doing anything themselves. His infamous speech at CPAC in 2009 rallied conservatives chastened by their huge defeat in the 200 election. His call for them to derail the Obama administration was heard, and by 2010 the Tea Party would sweep Republicans back into power. 

At the end of the day, however, Limbaugh was primarily in it for himself. There was no animating ideology behind him apart from making a buck. His CPAC speech reasserted his relevance at a time when he faced more competition from other conservative talkers trying to win his crown. He made his bucks appealing to the cultural resentments of his ditto heads, and that only occasionally steered him wrong. (I remember his disastrous stint as a NFL studio commentator when he said Donovan McNabb was getting praised as a quarterback because he was Black. That basically killed ESPN's dumbass experiment.) 

What's striking is that this carnival barker dishing out racial resentment, misogyny, and homophobia to his eager audience ended up being so important. It's another sign of our failed media, failed politics, and failed society. Limbaugh was a smart enough showman to give the people exactly what they wanted. In the process he turned the right wing's dark id into the Republican Party's mainstream. I guess the clown gets the last laugh. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

A New Birth of Freedom or Bust

George Michael reinvented freedom, so we can too!

As expected, the Senate did not convict Donald Trump despite the votes to convict from members of his own party. The Republican Party has become an anti-democratic, extremist movement with Trump as its demagogic head and there was no way that his peons would turn on him. In any case, they mostly agree with him anyway. 

What might get lost in all of this is that a majority of Americans wanted conviction, and the Senators who voted to acquit represent over 70 million people less than those who voted to convict. Our Byzantine Senate and the Constitution's inadequate limits on executive power tell the tale. As in so many things, the will of the people is thwarted by an arrangement that gives an entrenched minority outsized power.

We see this in states that nullified Medicaid extension and in the Supreme Court's decisions on voting rights. We see it most acutely in the Senate, where Wyoming and California get the same representation and the filibuster prevents any legislation that Mitch McConnell doesn't like. 

Furthermore, the Republican Party in its current iteration is explicitly anti-democratic. That includes refusing to honor long standing norms. In the most egregious case, Mitch McConnell refused Merrick Garland's nomination to proceed, but rammed Amy Coney Barrett's through a week before the election. 

Meanwhile inequality worsens, the climate crises worsens, and discontent rises with a system where police can murder with impunity and a president can try to overthrow the government without consequence. Solutions to any of these problems are impossible with all of the democratic choke points being held so savagely by McConnell and other Republicans.

What this country needs, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, is a "new birth of freedom." Just as the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments radically broadened the bounds of American democracy after the Civil War, we need to redefine freedom. This should include not only negative freedom from things, but positive freedom to achieve things. Education, health care, housing, and other essentials ought to be guaranteed to all Americans in order to allow them a true pursuit of happiness. 

None of that is possible in the current system, and as long as the Republican Party maintains its choke points, never will be, no matter how many people want change.

The most basic, most elementary thing that could be done to enable the necessary change that the majority thirsts for is the death of the filibuster. That only takes a single vote. After that can come a new Voting Rights Act, statehood for DC and territories that want it, and court packing. The only solution is more democracy, and if Democrats like Sinema and Manchin don't see that, then we can expect absolutely nothing to change. It is flabbergasting to me that devotion to bad, arcane Senate rules will likely end up trumping the drastic need to repair this rapidly dying society.