Tuesday, December 28, 2021

The Best of the Blog 2021

Another shitty year is ending in another COVID winter but that doesn't mean I can't engage in some flagrant navel gazing. Here's the best stuff I managed to write in this awful year. 

I am probably proudest of this examination of mall culture and why we long for it that I published over at Tropics of Meta.

This summer I listened to and reviewed every single Bob Dylan album. The link takes you to all the revalent posts. 

A peak into my current research project. 

This has got to be my favorite of things I've written trying to get at the lived culture of neoliberalism. Also a nostalgia bomb for your Gen Xers out there.

On how the failed revolutions of 2020 mirror the failed revolutions of 1848. Welcome to the violent restoration, folks. 

Both the book and the film are interesting to think about as commentaries on how history moves.

My reflection on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

On why Americans don't even want to solve the pandemic or other problems as long as the supply of cheap shit keeps flowing.

I am pretty proud of this analysis of the US Senate and its role in our dysfunctional political system. 

I am one of the few to have nostalgia for this weird time because it coincided with my personal prime. 

On how political progressives have checked out, and the consequences of that.

I wrote this in the aftermath of 1/6, seeing in plenty of conservatives similar behavior to Germans willing to overlook some things back in 1933.

My Rush Limbaugh obit.

Dig deeper and you will find that the master of 80s schmaltz makes for uneasy listening.

I wrote a few dispatches from the teaching front last year but this one came right as morale was about to break.

Old Grandad when I'm hard up, Old Fitzgerald when my pockets are full.

Commentary on maybe the most stimulating book I read last year. 

I've been trying to sound the alarm about this conflict for some time now.

On how watching old episode of this show kept me sane.

A trip upstate with my parents back in June revealed a lot about where the country was headed.

Some sad thoughts on my spiritual estrangement from the land of my birth. 

On the movie that helped me reconnect with my love of teaching right before the school year started.

Getting back into philosophy in the pandemic has been a great help for me.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Quarantine Christmas

Today was the first Christmas day I have ever spent at home with only members of my own household. Even when I spent a year living abroad in Germany I trekked to my mom's cousin's house a couple of hours away. This wasn't by choice, of course. My daughters testing positive and the general omicron surge meant my parents were not able to fly our here as planned, and quarantine meant we could not be with my wife's parents. (We will get to see them in a couple of days.)

I've been fortunate to not catch COVID from my kids, and that they've pretty much been asymptomatic. This Christmas has been a kind of throwback to the early days of the pandemic, when everything was put on hold and the world outside of the four walls of my home seemed to disappear. Then as now this meant more time with my children, which I cherish. The demands of my job often make it difficult to get any quality time with them in the normal run of things. 

Christmas is a time of reflection, which is the kind of thing that can bring on the holiday blues. That's been particularly intense this year as I have been unable to celebrate it with my parents. That in itself is a reminder of how much has been lost over the last two years, and I've even been one of the the lucky ones. Friends of friends and relatives of friends have died from COVID but so far no one directly connected to me has (touches wood.) Nevertheless, I have missed out on a lot of time with my parents and sisters, and that weighs on me.

The Christmas reflection gets more intense from me as a teacher, since going from ten hour days of intense work to two weeks of break gives me whiplash. I get too much time to think, too much time to contemplate the scary state of the world today, too much time to get depressed. I read a recent medieval history at the start of break, and one of my takeaways is that I now get why people like St. Benedict just went out into the desert to live as isolated monks. Maybe this broken world just cannot be fixed. Christmas is the ultimate promise that somehow, some way the world can be set right, but I am not feeling that spirit this year.

Of course, I can't just quit everything, put on a brown robe, and move to the desert. It's not feasible, and more importantly, I don't really want to. Quarantine Christmas has reminded me that everything I need is right here in front of me. I will draw from it as much as I can in the coming months, since it's the only thing that gives me any kind of faith in the future. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A Teacher's Bitter Christmas Reflection

As a kid I did not get the holiday blues. This was the best time of the year, dammit! Present and mountains of candy and cookies and parties. As I have aged it has come into focus how the holiday season forces reflection, and that's not always a fun thing. I think every year of Christmases past, and the people I celebrated with who are dead now.

I also tend to think about what I've done over the past year. In this second COVID year it has been a bitter reflection. The year started with the dark COVID winter and it is ending with the Omnicron surge. Back in June I was naive enough to think it was ending. Oh how wrong I was.

That also coincided with the end of the end of the 2020-2021 school year, one where I had to completely alter my teaching practice from top to bottom not once but twice. First to go remote, and then to go hybrid. I worked twelve hour days every day and dealt with having to go to work when my kids' school still had them remote. 

My reflection has become bitter because I have realized that all of this labor has added up to nothing.

I am not getting a single extra penny of compensation from my job. I have not been given any more respect, either from my employer or my students and their parents. All that effort and work was appreciated by my students in the moment, but its long-term impact is basically zero.

Meanwhile my kids' education horribly suffered, and I failed to halt it because I was spending all my efforts teaching other people's kids. What reward did I get for this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Looking back on it I can't believe what a complete sucker I was. 

Well, as the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, same on me. The days of heroic sacrifice for no reward are over. I wonder when school leaders are finally going to figure this out. 

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Searching For Hope In The Second COVID Christmas Season

This has been a rough week for me. My daughters' friend tested positive for COVID. My daughters are in quarantine (they just got their second shot) and tested negative on a rapid test after a positive result on a home test. (I guess the PCR will tell the tale in a couple of days.) My parents canceled their trip out to see us due to rising infections. One of my daughters asked us today if we will be in "COVID times" forever.

Back in January, when I got my first shot, I felt pretty confident it wouldn't be like this. Oh how wrong I was.

Last year I probably went a little too over the top with Christmas. We showered our daughters with gifts and drank and ate to our heart's content. It was a needed kernel of hope after months of death and fear. This year my thwarted expectations have left me feeling much less Christmas cheer. Due to quarantine it will be just us at home this year (with some time with my wife's family two days late.) 

It feels especially cruel because hope is the essence of Christmas. People talk about "keeping Christ in Christmas," and for me, lapsed Catholic that I am, this means the belief that this broken world can somehow be redeemed. After all that's why the shepherds rejoiced and the three kings followed the star to Bethlehem. It's the thing I am clinging too in my heart when my mind tells me the recent escalation of cases is a sign that we are in for another punishing winter of discontent. 

So I search for ways to find rays of hope. I'm planning on making Christmas cookies with kids, trying to repeat my mother's alchemy. I will try as hard as I can not to think of how she was supposed to be here this year, passing on her secrets to my daughters. We will watch our favorite Christmas movies together, and are working on a family play adapting A Christmas Carol. (I am told I get to play Scrooge!) I will remind myself that as horrible as COVID has been, it has given me so much more time with my children than I otherwise would have had. I truly cherish that time.

After all, Christmas is a yearly reminder of where we are at in life. You can't celebrate it without thinking about Christmases past, and where you are in relation to them. As trying and difficult as these past two years have been, they have forced me to take stock of what truly matters in life. We only have so much time and only so many Christmases. Despite my sadness and fear this Christmas season I just need to remind myself that it's a time to be cherished for what it brings that I never get to have in other parts of the year. I hope you and yours find some scraps of hope this holiday season. 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Other Great Resignation (Or Why Progressive Politics Are In Bad Shape)

There's been a lot of talk about the large numbers of workers quitting their jobs, the so-called "great resignation." It reflects a tighter labor market, as well as the stresses of COVID and the ways the pandemic has prompted reflection on what matters in life. I tend to view this positively, since it might break the ironclad hold the bosses have had over workers for the past few decades. 

However, there is another great resignation, one going on with political progressives that I feel far less sanguine about. 

The reason why Donald Trump lost the 2020 election despite the advantages of the electoral college, voter suppression, and incumbency was progressive mobilization. This lead directly to two Senate seats being picked up by Democrats in Georgia, something few people foresaw. His presidency in general resulted in massive levels of participation, from the nationwide Women's March events to protestors shutting down airports after the Muslim ban to (less directly, but still connected) the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. 

Since then the scales of mobilization have flipped. Conservatives are flooding school board meetings and censoring high school history and English classes. Red states have basically made any mitigation of COVID inoperative by opposing and nullifying vaccination and mask mandates. They have also passed new voter suppression laws and have used the filibuster to prevent any federal action against them. The Supreme Court, packed by Trump, is poised to destroy abortion rights. The fact that COVID and its related economic disruptions drag on will give Republicans the shine of being the opposition party in the midterm election, especially since most moderate voters do not see them as the vehicle of an extremist Right wing movement (which they are.) As evidence of that, the January 6th coup and the complicity of many Republicans in it has been forgotten. 

The forces of reaction were ripe for a backlash, especially after losing an election and the Black Lives Matter protest. It feels like the Tea Party all over again, but with the latent fascism now being expressed out in the open. However, it is more difficult to explain the ineffectual nature of progressive politics currently.

Some certainly is, in the words of Marx, repeating history first as tragedy and then as farce. Like after the 2008 election, a lot of normie liberals basically assumed they could go home and weren't needed in the streets anymore. Some of this has to do with American liberalism's misbegotten faith in institutions and process, and in the assumption that their conservative neighbors are the loyal opposition rather than extremists who would rather they be dead. 

There's also some measure of fatigue. After four years of desperate fighting and almost two years of pandemic we need a break. I certainly don't write and call my electeds with the fervor I once did. I know plenty of people like me feel the same. That said, I am afraid we might be using this to slide into cowardice. Looking at the right wing mob and their willingness to punish those they hate can be intimidating. I get the feeling sometimes that a lot of us (myself included) aren't just tired of fighting, but fearful of it. 

Another big reason for the resignation has to be feelings of futility. The Biden administration has done a lot, but not what people were expecting. For example, student loan payments are about to continue. Voting rights are still being held up, as well as promised expansions of the social safety net. The political news has been dominated by Manchin and Sinema basically blocking any progress on these issues. In light of this, it's pretty easy to give up. Also take into account that one of Biden's major successes, ending the US war in Afghanistan, was treated as a failure by the press (a narrative accepted by plenty of his voters.) There's also the overriding fact that the pandemic continues. A lot of people expected "back to normal" and didn't get it.

However, there are even deeper reasons for a feeling of futility leading to disengagement. In the part four years I have witnessed massive mobilizations by young people against gun proliferation, climate change and police violence. Students walked out of my school to demonstrate their voice on these issues, something that had never happened before in my time as a teacher. What was the result? In the short term, nothing. Cops were untouched, guns are just as available (and more so in some states), and the Biden administration is allowing new coastal drilling. In terms of the Black Lives Matter protests the only substantive legal outcome has been several states trying to ban the teaching of the history of race. I am not sure how progressive-minded young people can live through this without giving up hope. 

The threat to democracy is so stark right now but those who need to defend it are indecisive and silent. Those of us who spent the Trump years need to get active again, and need to get organizing instead of Tweeting (I include myself in this.) But it's not just on us. Progressive political leaders desperately need to up their game. They need to get results instead of dithering. They need to take the kinds of actions that will give us hope instead of leaving us mired in cynicism. First and foremost would be leadership on voting rights. I am planning to make that the center of my activism for the next year, hopefully my prodding will lead to something. I shudder to think at the results if it does not. 

Friday, December 3, 2021


 My latest at Tropics of Meta is a piece about our nostalgia for shopping malls. Here's a sample: 

"Our idea of what the mall represents has been radically softened. Malls used to be a stand-in for the shallow culture of Reagan-era consumerism, hence alternative rock artists of the day like Mojo Nixon penning the likes of “Burn Down the Malls.” After all, there could be no firmer statement in the 80s of rejection of the era’s dominant ethos than by rejecting the decade’s dominant cultural form, the shopping mall. Little did we know then that much worse was coming down the line."

Saturday, November 27, 2021

A Republic of Consumers

There's been a lot of talk lately about Biden's falling approval numbers corresponding with increases in gas prices and the general freakout over inflation. Some have expressed bewilderment, considering how much the economy is growing, wages are rising and jobless claims are shrinking. 

It might be confusing, unless you understand a simple fact: we live in a republic of consumers (apologies to Lizabeth Cohen.) 

Once upon a time the social contract may have revolved around a social safety net or human rights but those things are pretty immaterial to most Americans. What makes a successful polity in their eyes is maintaining the flow of cheap consumer goods and services. For at least the past forty years this has been at the heart of everything.Workers' wages have been stagnant, postindustrial and farming communities are falling apart, but you can still get almost anything you want for cheap at the local Wal-Mart. You might not have much, but you can still afford to go to a fast food restaurant and afford a hot meal made by others who have to serve you. The rise of globalization and consumer credit that accompanied the onset of neo-liberalism have made it possible for massive wealth and income inequalities to not lead to revolutionary change. 

Those on the left might find this to be a rather paltry reward, but talk to most workers and they've basically given up on any idea of solidarity. (Notice the recent, high profile failures to start unions at Amazon.) Things like universal basic incomes and free college are ephemeral, cheap gas and enough workers at the local Mickey Ds to keep the dining room open are not. 

In a lot of ways we have failed to understand what the last four decades and counting of neoliberalism have done to our mental geographies. Most people still hold fast to its basic tenet that there is no such thing as society. Billionaires like Elon Musk are treated like superhuman heroes. When the New York Times reported on the Build Back Better bill it only listed the price-tag in the headline, never bother to enumerate the bill's many benefits. 

Talk to even affluent moderate liberals in a suburb like mine and they will still bitch about property taxes and unions like they were Republicans. They might have a Black Lives Matter sign on their lawn and a Pride flag hanging in their window, but don't you dare integrate the schools or challenge exclusionary zoning. In a lot of ways, they are basically the same Rockefeller Republicans who lived here fifty years ago, old politics with a new party label on them. 

You may have noticed how the rise in prices (which is there but not as unprecedented as it is made out to be) has registered far more with the collective psyche than the deaths of 800,000 people from COVID. The fact is that a majority of Americans simply DO NOT CARE what happens to people they don't know as long as they are doing fine. If it wasn't someone in your family dying the pandemic might as well not even be happening in the minds of most people. Similarly, if animals are slaughtered inhumanely to make your cheeseburger or children are forced to work for pennies in sweatshops for your Wal-Mart duds it is immaterial. Hell, when the pandemic began prominent Republicans were basically calling on old people to sacrifice themselves to keep this economy the same. The small-r republican consumer is not interested in knowing that fast food workers are making a higher wage, they are mad that the help is not as plentiful as before. 

I am not sure where to go from here, but the assumption on the left that passing popular policies will result in political popularity does not seem to be holding true. I think that's because the most popular policy is the one polling firms never ask about: maintaining cheap consumer goods and services uber alles. To paraphrase Dune: the cheap crap must flow! It is now the job of progressive and leftist politics to figure out how to win in these circumstances, because failure is not an option. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Now Be Thankful

We've reached the second COVID Thanksgiving, something I never would have anticipated back in March of 2020. I had the naive belief that if would just be a short, sharp outbreak and over in a month or so. Eighteen months later there's over 700,000 dead in America. More people have died this year than in 2020 and the infection rates are shooting up again as we head into winter. 

If I am thankful for anything this Thanksgiving it is the vaccine. I know I am not bulletproof, but I don't worry about dying or serious illness anymore. My kids just got their shots too, so the range of things I can do will open up some more. Because of the vaccine I am not looking at this winter with the same absolute dread I had last year. I knew last November that we were headed into the worst winter of my life, and I was right. 

Sometimes it's hard to be thankful because we are constantly reminded of the things that make us bitter and resentful. The vaccine, for example, has been blunted in its effectiveness by anti-vaxxers. I have probably spent up too much mental space in the last year on these choads. They're not going away, so I should at least be happy that so many people I love and care about are being protected by the vaccine.

I am feeling similarly about politics. The fact that the teaching of American history, which I do for a living, has become the primary focus of the right wing's hate has been demoralizing to say the least. But I can still be thankful that I teach at a school that supports teaching the country's actual history. The complacency and failures of liberals and the vigor and lack of restraint on the right scare and frustrate me, but I can at least be thankful that Donald Trump is no longer president. 

Just so you know, I have not had a lobotomy or religious experience or have turned into a kind of Pollyanna. It's more that the pandemic has taught me some new life habits. On the eve of the pandemic I was an emotional mess, overstressed and pulled into five different directions at once. The daily assaults on democracy and humanity by Trump filled me with both outrage and hopelessness. The pandemic forced me to buckle down and get to prioritizing the things that actually mattered, instead of engaging in constant emotional spasms. That wasn't going to help anyone.

So I guess above all I am thankful for the perspective I have gained recently, the kind of perspective I needed to mentally survive this difficult time. Part of that perspective involves appreciating what I do have in my wife and my children, in my students and colleagues, in my friends and family. The reality of death has never been more present, as well as the imperative that comes from the consciousness of death to lead a meaningful life. Here's hoping we make it to the next Thanksgiving with COVID behind us and a successful midterm election, and that we have the strength to make both happen. That's my Thanksgiving prayer. 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Love, Labor, and Exploitation

Like a lot of other people I have been thinking a lot lately about work and its meaning. After four decades of neoliberal propaganda proclaiming workaholism a necessary condition rather than a disorder, the centrality of work to our lives looks increasingly perverse and unbalanced. The fact that teachers like me in particular have worked harder under more stressful conditions than ever without any additional compensation or respect or workplace power has been especially glaring. 

Back when I was a callow undergraduate I had decided that whatever I did with my career, it would be something I enjoyed and that made the world a better place. Goodbye law school, hello grad school. Even after I jumped ship from academia I landed in secondary education. I know I am smart enough to have gone to law school and started making more money than I do now after decades of teaching in my first year at the bar. Despite that I opted to join one of the lowest paid of the educated professions. (I think only social workers have us beat.)

It is certainly true that despite the difficulty and stress of my job, that I enjoy it most of the time and feel like my hard work is having a positive impact on the world. At the same time, my older worries that educators are exploited through the love we give have only intensified. Last year I was an "essential worker" riding empty commuter trains, trying to juggle teaching other people's kids when mine weren't allowed into their school until May of 2021. The question thus arises of whether I would be better off in a meaningless job that I do not "love" with much lower stress and better pay. This is a calculation that a lot of teachers are making.

There is one thing staying my hand, however. While I am very sympathetic to the voices saying that we need to be working less and centering our lives around things outside of work, they sometimes miss a crucial fact. Work is the thing we do more than anything else with our waking hours upon this earth. When you have a shit job (I have had some in my day) you feel like the hours of your life are being stolen from you, spent in boredom and empty toil. It is an absolutely soul-crushing feeling, a kind of emotional torture. 

(Notice, of course, that the journalists and writers saying we should not look to work for fulfillment aren't quitting their writing gigs to become line cooks or HR specialists.) 

If I had to spend eight hours of my day (or more, most likely) doing something I didn't believe in I would probably fall into a state of suicidal depression. Having a soul only when the quitting time whistle blows is not how I want to go through life. 

In the meantime I keep asking myself how to stop my work from taking over my life. Last Saturday, for example, I decided I just wasn't going to do any schoolwork, I needed to rest. I wonder if I can allow myself to take longer to grade my students' work, to be more willing to recycle suboptimal lessons rather than spending several evening hours constructing a new one that may not even work. Teachers are always told to do these extra sacrifices "for the kids' but I never hear doctors being told to do uncompensated labor "for the patients" or lawyers to not bill for all their hours "for the clients." 

My hope for the "Great Resignation" is that all of these individual refusals can somehow add up to a collective reorientation around work expectations. I love what I do, but I will not be suckered. Those days are over. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Iggy Pop, "Success" (Track of the Week)

When you're a hopeless music obsessive some albums become inextricably tied to certain moments of your life and certain people from those days. You listen to the right songs and they become time machines. This is the case even if it's music you've been listening to constantly ever since.

Iggy Pop and David Bowie's 1977 Berlin albums are among my most played, but when I hear them I am still transported to the Chicago apartment I shared with my friend David. Our joke was that he was the rocker and I was the mod, and hence he liked the Iggy albums more and I liked the Bowie albums more. In those days when CDs still ruled the world I had The Idiot, Low and Heroes before we moved in together, bur David completed the collective by buying Lust For Life. I got so used to playing his copy that it took me years to get my own, long after we had gone our separate ways. 

I have been thinking a lot about David recently because I have finally started reading Heidegger's Being and Time, a book he had constantly evangelized to me. I would often gently mock him for this, but now that I am finally reading it, I get it. I am a little sad that I didn't him up on it back then. He died nine years ago and isn't around to talk to anymore.

Lust For Life however was something we were able to share together. Being the rocker it's obvious this would be David's pick from the great Berlin records. (He even wore a t-shirt with the album cover on it.) Much of the experimentation brought by Bowie to The Idiot is stripped away and the amps turned up. There are some all-time Pop tracks like the title song and "The Passenger," but plenty of compelling deep cuts, too.

"Success" is my favorite of these because it's just so delightfully silly. There's just a big riff and a catchy call and response structure that gets sillier and jokier as the song goes on. David and I used to love singing responses. We were a goofy lot back then, watching Army of Darkness all the time on VHS and shouting "I'll swallow your soul!" at each other.

If The Idiot is about the long dark midnight of the soul, Lust for Life is the celebration of getting through it and coming out on the other side. This week with my children getting vaccinated I certainly know what that feels like. And when I think about my departed friend and want the memories to make me smile instead of cry, I throw on "Success." 

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Back at the Record Fair (with playlist)

Sometimes I think back to life a year ago and it's hard for me to even remember how I managed to get through all of this with my sanity intact. In November of last year the wannabe despot president was disputing the election while the deadliest COVID wave was just sinking its teeth in without a vaccine in sight. Some days I would have only one or two students showing up to be in my classes in person, a sign that most people did not consider the commute I was making worth the risk. Months of cold, deadly winter followed.

I was faked out by the big drop in cases at the beginning of this summer, which was followed by Delta. Here in Jersey, however, we managed to avoid the worst, and with cases per 100,000 barely in double digits and kids getting their shots, I am going into this winter feeling far less discontented. 

What helps is the return of the parts of "normal" I never knew I was missing, like the annual record fair in my town. It wasn't just a time to troll for some tasty vinyl, but a way to see others I know in a different context, to strike up conversation and meet like-minded strangers. This time around I got to see a friend selling records but also the low-key pleasure of sharing a space with people of like interests. It's a small thing that the pandemic had taken from me, but an important one. Getting to go back made me more optimistic than just about anything short of getting that literal shot in my arm back in January.

So here's a weirdo playlist inspired by the records I found today:

Joe Jackson, "Steppin' Out"

I grew up in a small town, which meant the local Top 40 station was less concerned with market dominance than a big city one. The DJs could thus spin some of their favorite songs for years after they hit the charts. This is one I heard a lot after 1982, and I was all the better for it. The best Elvis Costello song that wasn't Elvis Costello, and full of the possibility of being out at night in a big city that's still new to you. I got the Night and Day album for three bucks from my friend's table. I saw it for ten at another one, so quite a steal.

Richard Thompson, "Tear Stained Letter"

I have been on a huge Richard Thompson kick recently, and finding Hand of Kindness for five bucks felt like the hand of grace touching my shoulder. This is the first track, combining exuberance with a sad tale, which is classic Thompson. 

Nick Lowe, "I Knew The Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll"

I was so psyched to see a copy of Live Stiffs for five bucks. I've been a huge Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe fan for years, and had been hoping to catch this document of them and their label mates in the sweaty small venues of England in 1977 at the moment when punk and new wave changed rock music forever. This song should replace plenty of schlocky shit that gets played at weddings year after year.

David Bowie, "Warszawa"

Well this was my big money find. David Bowie's music from 1976-1980 is among the most significant to me. Of all the albums of that era, Low is the one I cherish the most, the biggest reason for my tears when I heard about his death. He made the album while recovering from serious addiction and depression, and it has been a balm for me in my own "low" moments. This song, evoking Communist-era Warsaw, is among the most beautiful pieces of music ever made in my opinion. One of the rare times when I insist on getting something on vinyl that I've had in other formats for years.

Tangerine Dream, "Burning Bar"

Here was my prize obscure find. Tangerine Dream has been some of my crucial pandemic chill music. Thief is a film I have recently fell for, and the band and film are an amazing combination. It's really the Platonic form of the 80s action movie soundtrack, using electronic sounds when they were still experimental. This is the kind of stuff Bowie was drinking up in his Berlin years, so it's only appropriate to go for the source last. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Surviving The Mid-November Plunge

Sometime in mid-November, spiritual winter begins. The temperatures might not be freezing yet, the solstice is still a month away, snow may not be falling, but something has changed.

The leaves are mostly off the trees. It gets dark before 5PM, and not just any dark, but a kind of truly thick darkness, so dark you can't even see what's outside your window. It's the moment when the reality of the next awful four months begins to sink in. 

Growing up in rural Nebraska it seemed to come like clockwork. The weekend before Thanksgiving the Catholic churches I attended had a bazaar every year, complete with pickle cards, games of chance, and a chicken and noodle dinner. Invariably, the first snow of the year came that week. 

The bazaar in its own way became a crucial method of coping with the mid-November plunge into spiritual winter. As a child it was one of the highlights of the year for me. Now that I am older I must use other methods.

Sometimes this means putting on the right film. Right now I am watching the 2012 adaptation of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Everyone claims the 1979 British TV version is better, but I don't have that many hours to kill. On a night like this, when I am exhausted from a long day of work, this little two hour window in the gloominess of 70s London and Cold War intrigue hits the spot just fine. 

Music is even more vital as a means to ward off the mid-November plunge. Sometimes the best thing to do is to steer into it. It may be a bit on the nose, but Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" nails this transition well. "The lake it is said never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early" indeed. It is a spooky song with terror lurking beneath the surface, perfect for this spooky time of year when winter's cold dead hand creeps in.

Best of all, surviving this plunge requires the right food drink. Hearty stews and root vegetables can make the belly feel warm. A dark porter beer or musky bourbon provide a different kind of hearty warmth. As much as we moderns pretend otherwise, humans are still biological creatures subject to the changing of the seasons. This particular seasonal change can be depressing, but I am trying as always to revel in its fearsome nature. Here's hoping spring comes sooner than usual this time. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

War on Drugs, "I Don't Live Here Anymore" (Track of the Week)


At my age there are few bands I am passionate enough about that I wait in anticipation for their new releases, but War on Drugs is one of them. Call them Dad Rock all you want, I've accepted that I am a middle aged dad with a dull, buzzing ache in my soul that's been there around the time I turned 35. The War on Drugs is novocaine for that ache. 

"I Don't Live Here Anymore" is the title track of the new album and might now be my favorite song of theirs ever. It's got that driving early Dire Straits beat and the "80s Dylan but good" sound is compounded by direct references to "Shelter From the Storm" and "Desolation Row." More than that, the lyrical themes speak deeply to where I'm at right now. The pandemic and general political breakdown have me going back to philosophy, and in the process have had a personal transvaluation of values, if I can be Nietzschean about it. 

I am becoming more aware than ever of what matters and what doesn't. One thing that matters to me is that I still keep seeking, discovering, and learning new things. That's a theme to this song, a passionate cry against the temptations to torpor offered by flabby middle age. To seek, to strive, to find, and all that jazz. 

It's fittingly ironic then that The War of Drugs sings these songs in a transformed version of the sound flabby middle aged rockers adopted in the 80s. The fact that those gated snares, airy synths, and reverby guitars could be made to sound so sublime is a miracle on par with the miracle of life itself. "I want to find everything I need to know" indeed.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Turning Point That Failed To Turn (How 2020-2021 Reminds Me of 1848-1849)

As an undergrad history major and later as a PhD student in European history I had a huge interest in the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe, an event that seemed both earth shaking and perplexing yet under-studied. There was very little historiography about 1848, even among German historians studying a place where 1848 raged as intensely as anywhere outside of Paris. 

The line I always heard about 1848 was that it was "the turning point that failed to turn." Revolutions toppled governments across Europe, established a republic in France, and promised a unified in Germany. Instead France ended up with a new Napoleon and the Frankfurt Assembly was dissolved by the Prussian king. Russian troops invaded Hungary and crushed Kossuth's government. France would have to wait until 1871 for a republic, Hungary until 1918 for independence, and Germany would be unified under the auspices of the conservative Otto von Bismarck into something very far from a democracy.

It is my firm belief that the United States has just endured another turning point that failed to turn. From the spring of 2020 to January of 2021 an opportunity for change from below opened. The protests after George Floyd's murder rocked cities in every region. Statues fell across the nation, a common symbol of revolution. Institutions from elite private schools to Hollywood scrambled to show they were taking anti-racist measures. The energy of those protests could be felt in the get out the vote campaigns that won Georgia for Democrats. After years of Trump and the economic disparities he exploited with racialized rhetoric, Democrats eschewed neoliberalism for a bold plan of social democracy. 

Then came January 6th. In the aftermath the need for a renewed commitment to democracy seemed obvious not just to progressives, but more generally. When Georgia pushed voting restrictions the MLB moved the All Star Game from Atlanta. 

Eleven months after January 6th and a year and a half after the George Floyd protests it is now illegal to teach the history of racism in public schools in several American states. In many of those same states it's legal to run over protestors. Biden and Democrats are unable to get their social democratic agenda through Congress due to the filibuster and a few feckless members of their own coalition. The news that paid family leave would get axed felt a lot like the Prussian troops attacking barricades of Frankfurt in 1849. This Saturday Donald Trump, who it is now completely obvious tried to destroy democracy in this country on January 6th, showed up at a World Series game in Atlanta. The same city that months ago was censured over voting restrictions. The wannabe dictator is now free to move about the nation as he pleases, as if he is just another celebrity. 

Well folks, as Marx said about 1848, "History repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce." This farce has uniquely American characteristics, namely what Carol Anderson famously called "White Rage." There is an endless cycle in American history of racial progress being met with racist progress, to paraphrase Ibram X Kendi. The chance to make permanent change in that 2020 moment is long gone. Now we must suffer what will be years and years of reaction. The Third Reconstruction is over and we all need to be working every day to bring about the fourth one.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Paul McCartney "Every Night" (Track of the Week)

Around this time of year I invariably dig into the early solo albums from the Beatles. I am not sure where this comes from. Is it because I played All Things Must Pass to death in that dreadful post-9/11 autumn of 2001? Or is the feeling of tough transitions evoked by these albums as summer turns to winter and the sunny past fades to an uncertain future? Probably a bit of both.

Paul McCartney has churned out his fair share of dross and laughably cringey music in his solo career, but he will surprise you out of nowhere with that old magic. His last album, for example, is pretty damn great and the man is almost 80. Like that album his early albums were one man band affairs, proto-versions of indie bedroom rock. 

A recent New Yorker profile revealed that Paul still really isn't over the breakup of the Beatles. It seems he took it the hardest at the time, retreating to a farm in Scotland and turning to drink. He was slowly able to get back on his feet due to his family, especially Linda. "Every Night" is the story of that recovery. He describes being lost, wanting to go out and "get out of my head," to drink and forget. Soon he discovers it's best to stay at home with his wife, who is the only person who can make him happy. 

Like the other songs on his first solo album it is sparse and sounds a little dark. This is a million miles away from the layered sounds and baroque arrangements McCartney had recorded the year before for Abbey Road. The themes are also a million miles away from being at the epicenter of the 20th century's biggest pop cultural phenomenon.

It's easy to mock Paul's songs as treacly, as John Lennon himself often did. However, this song of marital devotion is rooted in the darkness of depression. It's love as a kind of grace, there to save you when everything seems to be going wrong. I don't begrudge the cheeseball Paul that followed because that cheesiness was enabled by his personal happiness. There are things in this life more important than being cool.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Dune and Historical Contingency

37 years after David Lynch's famously beautiful failure to adapt Dune, I am entranced and obsessed with Denis Villeneuve's new and even more beautiful adaptation. It's been a long time (maybe never) since Hollywood has embraced full on gonzo hardcore science fiction, rather than the kiddie space opera stuff. This kind of sci fi provides a way to look at ourselves through an imaginary reality. While Dune might have more obvious connections to the roles of environmentalism, imperialism, and religion in our world, I also think it provides some opportunities to think about history.

Those of us who study history seriously learn early in our education that popular renderings of history as a playground of great noteworthy individuals just don't hold true. We tend to jump to the opposite, to seeing broader economic and social contexts determining so much behavior. At some point, however, you realize that despite all of larger tides of history, events can still turn on individual actions that are completely unpredictable.

Dune is a great way of thinking about this. The desert planet Arrakis does not seem like the kind of place so set off a movement to topple a galactic empire. The messiah was supposed to come a generation later, nor in the form of Paul Atreides. Lady Jessica was supposed to have a girl, not a boy. It is fundamentally a story about what happens when unpredictable forces completely derail history from the train tracks.

There are plenty of examples of this in history. The rise of Islam out of the backwaters of Arabia, leading to a total conquest of the Middle East, could never have been predicted. (It's also an inspiration for Dune.) The Berlin Wall fell in a kind of fever dream, and Vaclav Havel went from being a dissident playwright to president of Czechoslovakia in a month. 

Of course, the coronavirus has been the biggest such contingency in living memory. They put memos saying "Bin Laden determined to strike in the US" on Dubya's desk in the summer of 2001, but the complete world changing implications of all of this have unfolded without the least bit of predictability. Like the characters in Dune, we too are living through a time when much that seemed certain has melted into air. One of the worst things about the pandemic is the feeling that nothing can be depended on, that day to day anything can change. Dune is realistic too in showing the violence of change, the uncomfortable fact that building a new world means the painful destruction of an old one.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Teaching After the War

Longtime readers know I am a huge John Le Carre fan. One of my favorite moments in his novels comes in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy when George Smiley pays a visit to Connie Sachs, a crack MI6 researcher forced into retirement. After trading thoughts on a possible mole in the organization, she remembers World War II. In her words "Englishmen could be proud then." The Cold War seemed sordid and unworthy by comparison. 

As a teacher this school year I too feel a little adrift after the last school year, which felt a lot like fighting a war. Every day brought new challenges and almost impossible tasks. My schedule, my wife's schedule, and my children's schedule could all change at the drop of a hat, triggering a cascade of difficulties. On many days I would be with my kids at home, trying to supervise their learning and make lunch for them while teaching my own classes. 

It was horrible, but I also felt like I had a real mission. I also think I happened to do a good job with it. Against all the odds and with an endless string of twelve hour days, I somehow managed to make the impossible work. I have to say it is among the things I've done I am most proud of.

This year it's all "normal" except for masks and a few other protocols. The day to day teaching is more fulfilling because I actually get to be with my all my students at once, but the feeling of heroism is gone. Last year I got more gratitude from my students and superiors than ever, in recognition of faculty's Herculean efforts to move heaven and earth to keep the learning going. Now I enjoy my classes more but feel a lot less appreciated. 

This was probably inevitable, and it's part of a general disillusionment so many workers are feeling right now. We were "essential," we went into the front lines, we did our bit and made huge sacrifices only to find ourselves right back where we started. Everyone else just kind of wants to pretend that unrequited sacrifice didn't happen. The problem is I can't forget it. Don't think I ever will.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Beatles, "Two Of Us" (Track of the Week)

I had a great day today. My wife and I took our kids into the city. We had a wonderful meal in Koreatown then went to Broadway to see Wicked, the first Broadway show for my kids. We were masked the whole time but it was still a sublime slice of "normal" fun after a year and a half of COVID. These are the kinds of days one cherishes.

This week also brought yet another release of The Beatles' Let It Be, a taste of the coming Peter Jackson doc. I put it on tonight after everyone else went to bed and the first song, "Two Of Us," resonated like never before. When it came out people thought it was about John and Paul, but it really describes a fun day Paul and Linda had together. It's a song about the quiet joy one gets when you've finally found the person you want to share your life with. Today for me was certainly a "four of us" version of that. 

Back in my teens and twenties John was my favorite Beatle. I admired his rebellion and wit, but later learned he could be an abusive drunk. My belief in the Lennon myth had been punctured, and so I gravitated to George. In my tumultuous thirties I admired George's deadpan taking the piss attitude. As I struggled to find a way post grad school and eventually left academia I identified with George's frustrations in the band. His first album, All Things Must Pass, is loaded with amazing songs and proof that his talents were not being fully recognized. Laboring in the halls of academe as tirelessly as I did with so little reward made this something I could understand so well.

Strangely enough, I have elevated Paul to favorite Beatle status in my 40s. This was mostly due to becoming a family man and learning about how much Paul prioritized his wife and children. Linda got horribly mocked for her amateur musicianship but I still find it touching that Paul always had her by his side on the road. This is a man who had his priorities straight. Family was always more important than rock star decadence. (It has also become clear to me that Paul was both the best musician and song writer in the band.)

"Two of Us" also reflected Paul's correct instincts that the Beatles needed to get back to basics in order to stay relevant. Dylan's Basement Tapes and the first Band album were signs that psychedelia had played itself out and there was a need to "get back." The song is stripped down, driven by acoustic guitar and Paul's always supple bass playing. In sound and attitude it's a million miles from the likes of "I am the Walrus." Lyrically it's just a plain ode to having a great fun day with the ones you love. We have so few such days in our short lives of toil that we have to cherish the sublime ones we do get on occasion. 

It has the repeated assertion "we're on our way home." My God it feels so good to have a home in this world. The biggest reason I left academia was the physical distance it put between my wife and I. Being together and starting a family was what I chose and I will never regret that. Days like today are why. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

My Strange Oughts Nostalgia

I have a long-standing theory that there is a 20 year nostalgia echo. In the 70s there were 50s movies like Grease and American Graffiti and 50s TV shows like Happy Days. In the 80s there was The Wonder Years and Vietnam movies. In the 90s there was Dazed and Confused and That 70s Show. So we are due for oughts nostalgia, even if the phrase itself sounds so alien.

It was a decade so indistinct that we weren't even sure what to call it. That's in part because of a major transition in the decade itself. On or about February 2007, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, human character changed. The smartphone hit and the internet went at long last from an ancillary thing alongside day to day life to its ubiquitous center and the biggest conduit for entertainment. 

It had the effect of speeding things up and slowing them down at the same time. While it put communication of ideas and discourse into hyperdrive, people today dress pretty much the same as back then. (You would never think the same of comparing 1967 and 1981, for example.) This is why the 90s is the last true coherent decade in the way we started thinking about decades back in the "Roaring Twenties."

So maybe nostalgia for the oughts is impossible on the basis of it not even being a tangible entity. That being the case, I feel weird pangs for that time. It's mostly personal. I am a late bloomer and the oughts, of all times, ended up being my salad days. It's when I started my PhD program, met a lot of people whose friendships I still cherish, got a tenure track job, met my wife and got married. Related to the last point, I had figured out how to dress myself properly and make small talk. I was old enough to know some things about the world, and young enough to still enjoy it to its fullest. 

Beyond the personal level subjective stuff like this, one might question oughts nostalgia. This was the time of 9/11, government crackdowns, the Afghanistan War, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic crisis. How could anyone want to go back to the Bush Era?

Well the Trump years and pandemic have shown us things could get even worse than America under Dubya. In any case it looks like we are doomed and as the 2010s are worse than the oughts the 2020s will likely be even worse than that. Nowadays what I once thought unbearable seems quaint.

At base I feel like there is something we lost in that fateful circa 2007 transition. We went from blogging to Twitter and Facebook, from long, deep essays to bon mot tweets and all their snark. (This blog itself is a kind of relic, one I am not willing to part with no matter how much it makes me look like a guy in 1983 with a Beatle haircut.) The internet had been this strange, rich haven that soon became corporatized and dominated by social media. 

The late 2000s saw the first Marvel movies, a transition toward a one note Hollywood churning out blockbusters and blocking out more mature art. The high point before this came in 2006 with the release of both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both films are masterpieces, and both seemed to distill the decade's dark realization of America's imperial decline. 

As one of a dwindling number of rock music fans I can also look back to the oughts as that genre's last and moment of cultural relevance. Back in 2001 everyone was playing the Strokes and White Stripes. The whole "the band" thing wasn't so much a genre as the last distinct rock movement to hit the mainstream. Since then it's either been lame nostalgia or great stuff that's buried left of the radio dial. That was the decade that brought file sharing and burned CDs, and with it the culling of record stores. Its true symbol was the iPod, a harbinger of much more to come and maybe the best device ever invented to deliver music. It also happens to be completely obsolete, a true artifact of an era with no name.

So it could be that the oughts represented the last moment of the culture existing outside rather than inside the internet. A time when you had no clue of the reactionary political opinions of someone you once knew in your hometown because there was no Facebook to throw it in front of your eyes on a constant basis. Perhaps this century's oughts will seem like the last century's, a time before a new modernity stripped away part of our humanity. In the meantime, I'll crank some Wilco.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Primal Scream, "Loaded" (Track of the Week)

Let me tell you children about a time when I hit adolescence, a time I call the Reagan Dusk. From about 1988 to 1991 the promises of the dayglo decade were beginning the get stale but conservatism held on. The old emperor himself was revealed to be a senile old man tied to a horoscope. Communism collapsed to be sure, but anyone who was honest about the situation understood that American bluster had little to do with it.  Instead of a peace dividend there was AIDS and crack.

If you were a left of center young person politically and culturally back then it was hard to find a home. MTV still cranked atrocious hair metal. Guns N Roses were the one bright shining hard rock band of note, but their misogyny and homophobia were hard to overcome. Over in Europe you saw the Berlin Wall coming down and the world "waking up to history" as that Jesus Jones song said, but America seemed deader than a doornail, at least in terms of mainstream culture.

While MTV blasted hair metal shite they had a couple of key exceptions: Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes, both a Godsend to someone like me living in a pre-Internet rural area. Here's where I heard new music that actually excited me. It was a golden age for rap music, but in terms of rock the great "Smells Like Teen Spirit" the great breakthrough hadn't happened yet.

If you were into what they called "alternative" before it was mainstream, it meant UK stuff. It meant wistfully staring out the window to The Sundays' "Here's Where The Story Ends," writing Smiths lyrics on your school notebooks, and sniffing around the dance-y rock style known as "Madchester."

Now Primal Scream weren't from Madchester, they hailed from Scotland. But despite their origins in the dark moors north of Hadrian's Wall they nailed the sound down. They sounded as if Brian Jones had risen from the grave and listened to a stack of Happy Mondays records. "Movin' On Up" was their closest thing to a hit in the US, mixing 60s spirit and melodies with 90s beats.

That may've been the big song, but in a week like this, when I'm beat down and exhausted, I listen to "Loaded." It starts with a sample from the biker exploitation flick The Wild Angels where Peter Fonda says he wants to be free, but also wants to get loaded, and to have a party. The thing is, he says it with a kind of subtle aggression in his voice, as if so much needs to be purged from his body in Dionysian ecstasy. 

The song itself ambles along baggily like someone strolling down the street swinging their arms with a head full of chemical sunshine, not a care in the damn world. That's a lovely feeling to evoke when the day at the rat race has you down. During the Reagan Dusk reviving hippie tropes wasn't just nostalgia, it was a form of protest against the dominant culture of consumption and workaholism. We never quite managed to root that garbage out of our most deeply cherished social practices. In the meantime I will just turn this song up and have "a real good time." 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Consolations of Philosophy

In April of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic's shutdown phase, a student at my school asked if I would read some Nietzsche with him, since he heard I had some philosophy background. (It was my co-major as an undergrad.) In those days, with personal interactions so curtailed, I went for it even though I was drowning in work at the time. (This is the conundrum every teacher faces. The only way to do your job well is to work well past your contracted hours. But if you work well past those hours it gets draining and makes it easier for your employer to exploit you.)

It was a great experience, and out of that he started a student philosophy club that I oversaw. The club got very high attendance, despite the fact that it had to survive the ravages of the pandemic and hybrid meetings. I asked the students if I should offer a philosophy class, they said yes and I obliged. (Again, I am a sucker for my students.)

After co-majoring in philosophy as an undergrad I had mostly left it behind in the ensuing years. In a little bit of kismet I started getting back into it right before that student asked to read some philosophy with him. A friend gave me a book about Stoicism for Christmas in 2019, detecting the slide in my mood at the time. When the pandemic hit I decided to read the dang thing and started to realize what I had been missing for so long. 

It was the exact right time for philosophy to come back into my life. When quarantine began and the dangers of the disease were unknown, and as it absolutely ravaged my state of New Jersey, I took an inventory of my life, and asked myself if I was prepared to die. At its most fundamental, this is the question philosophy forces us to answer. I had been spending so many years on the hamster wheel of work as a teacher and parenting that this important question had been forgotten.

Since dipping back into philosophy I have gained a needed sense of perspective about what matters, and what doesn't. As much as I can I have been cutting myself off from the bullshit that stands in the way of a meaningful life. I am not so concerned any more about my status, for example. I have distanced myself from things that drain me, like the drama on local Facebook groups and political disagreements with friends and family. When group texts devolve into endless kvetching I just mute them or turn off my phone. I don't finish watching a TV series on streaming just to finish it. If it's mediocre or just drops in quality I let it go. Listening to music while I read a good book usually gives me far more pleasure. 

I still work beyond my contracted hours, but with more limits. For instance last week my school had its back to school night for parents, meaning I worked from before dawn to past 8PM. On the evening the next day I sat down to get a head start on some grading of papers my students just handed in, and I stopped myself. It could wait another day and still be done in a timely fashion. I sat down and watched Barry Lyndon again instead, a film that reveals more and more with each viewing. When it was over I felt happy and content and energized. 

And when I do my work, I do it with a greater sense of purpose. I know that as a teacher what I do matters, and that I should center that in my practice. That deeper meaning of my work is something I no longer take for granted; most people in modern capitalism can't really say their job does anything of much lasting value. I don't think I have had a single day in the classroom this year when I felt like I was just going through the motions. My re-immersion in philosophy has meant a revival of my sense of intentionality. My main goal in life right now is not to lose it to the ravages of middle-aged despair and cynicism. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

America's Estates General

I have been reading Mike Duncan's excellent new Lafayette biography, which has been especially good at seeing the French Revolution from the angle of a pro-Revolutionary yet anti-Jacobin nobleman. Reading the drama of this even again I also remembered the oddity of the Estates General, called by Louis XVI in 1789 to sort out France's financial difficulties.

It had not met since 1614 because the kings of France had maintained such a tight grip on power via the construction of the absolutist monarchy. This medieval representative body included three groups voting as blocs: the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. It was an obviously undemocratic system meant to prevent the commoners from wielding real power, and soon the third estate and revolutionaries from the other two formed a national assembly to write a constitution.

Going back to when I learned about this in high school I had always laughed at the crown trying to gain legitimacy in a changing, modernizing society through such an institution. I have stopped laughing, because I have come to realize that the US Senate as an institution is hardly less farcical.

Wyoming getting the same representation as California is just as ridiculous as the nobility getting the same number of votes as the commoners, isn't it? Just as the Estates General did not in any way represent the majority, the Senate is split down the middle despite many more votes in Senate races having gone to Democrats. Of course, the majority (once counting the vice president) still doesn't even get to govern due to the filibuster. Like royalists clinging to the traditions of kingly authority when it had long lost its luster with the people, the filibuster is being preserved by Democrats who are more invested in the symbols of a dying, dessicated system than they are in paving the way for a more democratic and beneficial future.

Ironically the American Estates General could in fact lead to the kind of collapse the original was called to avoid. Congress needs to raise the debt limit, but with Republicans blocking it via filibuster and feckless Democrats like Manchin and Sinema refusing to budge, our government could default not due to extravagant spending on palaces or foreign wars, but simply because our system is being taken hostage by a radical minority that the majority simply refuses to stop. 

Reading about events like the French Revolution is a reminder that things do not have to be as they are, and that events and the world can radically change in ways that are impossible to predict. In 1783, after a successful war against Britain, the French monarchy looked to be the strongest in Europe. Its palace at Versailles put all others in awe. Ten years later the king was beheaded, a republic established, and Notre Dame cathedral transformed into the Temple of the Supreme Being. 

Nothing says that the United States is going to be the world's great power in ten years, or that it will even continue to have this form of government, or even exist as a unified country. I get the feeling that we are sitting atop a volcano. Interesting times, indeed.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Gordon Lightfoot, "Early Morning Rain" (Track of the Week)

This week brought the autumn equinox, heralding six months of more darkness than light. The beautiful weather we've had these past few days has helped obscure this depressing reality. As I grow older I abhor winter more and more, less for the cold and more for the darkness. The lack of sunshine certainly has a negative effect on my mental state. It doesn't help that my work schedule means waking up before the dawn and getting home when the sun is setting come wintertime.

However, as I have aged I have also delighted more and more in the changing of the seasons. When I lean into it I am far happier. I don't just change the clothes I wear but the food I eat, and even the music I listen to. Just as I went apple picking last week and baked a cobbler, I am back to listening to folk music after a six month hiatus. I seem to listen to it little between March 21 and September and to imbibe it religiously between September 21 and March 21. 

The association does not come from folk music itself, which can be plenty sunny. I think it comes from when I first took a deep dive into it. I had moved from Illinois to western Michigan, and picked up a Gordon Lightfoot compilation on Rhino. In Michigan winter comes early and already in October the winds suddenly went from cool to chilly. I would take long walks listening to the album on my CD walkman (it took a year to modernize to an iPod), the first song being "Early Morning Rain."

It's the story of a wanderer, stuck outside on a cold rainy morning pining for home warming his body and deadening his emotion with liquor. He's watching the airplanes take off and land at the airport, hoping for deliverance. It's a sad song but underneath there's a youthful liveliness, a sense of spirit that the narrator is going to be able to carry on for another day despite having a bad one this day. (After all Lightfoot wrote this early in his career.) 

I buy the occasional CD these days to have music in my old-ass Honda Civic (which lacks a modern entertainment system) and last year got Lightfoot's complete early recordings. This was a song I played a lot as I took my children to daycare in the morning before returning home to an empty house to teach over my computer. The spirit of carrying on amid depressing circumstances in this song helped me get through the day.

With the coming winter dark and the present reality of my daily commute's return, this song is still a balm for my soul. I also get comfort from embracing the changes in the seasons. Despite everything terrible in the last year and a half the world keeps turning, life goes on, and I am glad to be living it.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Why The Afghanistan Papers is Essential Reading

As the United States finally left Afghanistan, America's news media acted as if President Biden had prematurely ended a successful occupation. I had followed the conflict for all of its twenty years, and this framing seemed as mendacious to me as the "Saddam has weapons of mass destruction" water-carrying the same media did back in 2003. 

This framing emerged from the fact that the military and political leadership of this country has been obsessed with claiming victory despite reality, and the establishment's media stenographers are incapable of admitting that they traded access for the truth. If you want the truth, read Craig Whitlock's The Afghanistan Papers.

It is not a long book and every page is a revelation, but it has taken me time to finish. Each chapter is so full of horrific revelations that I just have to put the book down. Based on what I've read, the war was already lost in 2002. Al Qaeda was neutralized but bin Laden was still on the loose. The US shifted to a nation building mission with little to no understanding of the country, and deprived that mission of resources as it ramped up preparations to invade Iraq.

All the while the CIA had war criminal warlords on its payroll, men who murdered prisoners and raped civilians and had been so horrible in the 1990s that Afghans welcomed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils. The US military kept killing civilians, making permanent enemies of the population by doing things like blowing up wedding parties then initially claiming the dead were all terrorists. To claim to bring "democracy" and peace under these circumstances was a sick joke and the relatives of the dead weren't laughing, or willing to see the United States as their friend.

Under Bush as well as Obama and Trump the Defense Department attempted to build an Afghan army in America's image in little time, a wild social experiment that was doomed to failure. The way that army melted away at the end of the war tells the tale. Insane amounts of money were misspent on development. The infrastructure failed to meet the actual needs of the Afghan people and resulted in rampant corruption that undermined the very government the United States was propping up.

It is impossible to read this book and conclude that the Afghanistan adventure was anything other than a bloody farce. Whitlock is able to draw on primary sources from the government where public officials and military figures are being candid, instead of feeding pablum to the press. It's obvious they thought this was a failure years ago. 

Much like in the aftermath of Vietnam, the people responsible for the failure are trying very hard to deflect the blame. To avoid a repeat of the misbegotten war in Afghanistan, that must be stopped. Read the book, and recommend it to others. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

High School Dirtbag Rock Playlist

Today was my first day back in a non-hybrid, full classroom since March of 2020. By the end of the day I felt like I had run a teaching marathon. When I got home my children, experiencing their first day of the same, were exhilarated. I can't remember the last time I saw them so happy. (This makes me more mad than ever at how badly their school district has fucked things up under COVID, but I digress.) 

It struck me that I was NEVER this happy to be back at school. I was a good and diligent student, I just felt pretty ambivalent about school itself. A lot of the time seemed wasted, and I had to endure bullying and exclusion. For this reason I have weirdly gravitated towards having rebels and stoners and friends even though I am pretty straight-laced nerd. I appreciated these other people because they didn't seem to like school all that much either. 

This rebel attitude towards high school has long been present in rock music, especially in the 1970s, when denim-jacketed wearing dirtbags had plenty of anthems for their lifestyle. Here are some of my favorites.

Brownsville Station, "Smoking in the Boys Room"

Going to the bathroom to smoke during school is a classic dirtbag hobby. A couple of years ago when vaping spiked among the youth it made an unfortunate comeback. I first encountered this song via the pretty flat Motley Crue cover back in the mid-80s. At the time I loved it despite being a nice little Catholic boy, my fascination with rebellion that I myself would never commit already evident. The Brownsville Station original has some fantastic blues rocking riffage behind it, one of the great examples of the genre. 

The Runaways, "School Days"

The Runaways don't get enough credit for being one of the most viciously hard rocking bands of the 70s. They were in fact teenagers themselves, giving songs like this a real verisimilitude. This song isn't about being in school, but the cry of release after finally being done with it. I certainly remember my graduation day as being one of the most satisfying of my life, to finally be free from a place where I never felt at home.The Ramones, "Rock and Roll High School"

1979 gave birth to the two all time classic dirtbag high school movies, Rock and Roll High School and the scarier and more serious Over the Edge. Both had good soundtracks, but only the former had the Ramones. This is one of the best examples of how their love of classic 1950s rock translated into punk. 

Alice Cooper, "School's Out"

This might be the best of the 70s era dirtbag high school songs. However, as a teacher playing it in September rather than June it just seems like a cruel joke. Used to amazing effect in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused.

The Donnas, "I Don't Wanna Go Back to School"

No band carried the spirit of the aforementioned Ramones and Runaways like The Donnas. Great punk energy on this one.

Chuck Berry, "School Days"

Just as Berry basically invented rock guitar, he also invented the high school dirtbag rock genre. I can't imagine how subversive this was in the context of the 1950s. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Day the Future Died

(I was going to wait until 9/11 itself to post this, but the emotions of this 20 year milestone are weighing on me too much and I have to release them.)

Those of us old enough to remember 9/11 all have our stories about when we first heard the news, but we don't talk enough about our emotions that day. When the actual enormity of the event sank in I was hit by the knowledge that as horrible as the death of this day would be, it would lead to much greater death and destruction in its aftermath. After walking around in shock it was that realization that caused me to break down and cry. It pains me to say I was right in ways I could not even imagine.

There were the wars of course, which dragged on for decades. There were also the drone strikes, "extraordinary rendition," wire-tapping, secret prisons, and torture. Twenty years later the US failed to defeat the Taliban. Instead it militarized its own police, emboldened to commit bloodshed in poor neighborhoods, especially if they were black or brown. Now the terrorists mostly come from within our own borders and had their preferred candidate in the White House for four years. Some of them, including a bunch of off-duty cops and military veterans, tried to overthrow the government this year.

Their rallying cry, "Make America Great Again," is rooted in the notion of an idealized past. 

It was an effective slogan because Americans by and large no longer believe in the future. We are witnessing the consequences of climate change but are doing little to stop it. We let our bridges and roads crumble, block new buildings from our cities, and have endless fights over the smallest changes to school curricula. Our children are shot to death in their own classrooms with such regularity that there are ritualized reactions to it and no expectation that it will ever end. Even before COVID life expectancy went down because so many Americans were committing suicide and dying of alcoholism and opioid addiction. The vaccines made to combat COVID, a genuine marvel of modern technology, have been refused by over thirty percent of the population, allowing the disease to keep killing. 

Our system is a gerontocracy. Our last two presidents were in their 70s, and so is the Speaker of the House. The leader of the movement to push back against the current economic system is even older than the president. University departments are full of tenured Boomers who refuse to retire while younger scholars languish in precarity. The aged rock stars of the 60s and 70s still tour and rock until they literally drop. Film and television audiences are fed a steady diet of sequels, reboots, and remakes. There are no young film stars anymore, just old ones who have not gone away despite their advanced age. Even plenty of original stuff, like Stranger Things, is still drenched in nostalgia for a bygone time. 

9/11 feels like the day the future died. It was a shock to the system disproving America's invulnerability in the most flagrant and tragic way possible. The failed wars waged in the aftermath showed that the United States was in fact not some dominant hyper-power, but a crumbling empire inflicting greater wounds on itself than any hijackers could. It didn't even spawn a sense of civic-minded unity that could last more than a month or two. In the aftermath George W Bush told Americans just to keep shopping. 

I feel like the last twenty years have been a never-ending nightmare of failures rooted in the preceding decades of neoliberal rot. Some of those failures, like the useless wars, have been easy to see. Others, like growing inequality and lowered quality and length of life, have been buried away from mainstream discussion. It's a strange thing that so few believe in this country's future but the majority that doesn't will never outwardly say so. In this country, so invested in its image of exceptionalism, one isn't allowed to admit certain things. So twenty years after 9/11, with great pain, I will. This country doesn't have a future, and most of you know that already. Living in a dying empire is no picnic.   

Saturday, September 4, 2021


I turn 46 years old today, far enough into my 40s that I cannot deny that 50 is looming. This birthday I feel oddly at peace with that fact. It's taken me this long into my 40s to get comfortable with the reality that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows and that each day another door of possibility closes. These are difficult thoughts to sit with, and I have seen them cause a great deal of emotional distress. When you're young it feels like doors of possibility are constantly opening up, to lose that and live the opposite feels horribly cruel.

A few years ago I started to notice the unnamed problems of middle age. It's considered cringe and lame for middle-aged people to talk about the discontents of this life transition, so we rarely do. This only makes the problems worse. Imagine if we just ignored the emotional difficulties of adolescence? Middle age is just as trying to the soul, but in a different register. I have witnessed many people become bitter to the point that other people don't want to associate with them. I have seen others wall themselves off and give up on living. Others still descend into addiction. 

The statistics show the toll. Even before COVID life expectancy was going down on America due to the opioid epidemic and increase in suicides and alcoholism. The main danger zone was among the middle aged, especially white working class women. 

You go through your youth dreaming of the future, once you hit a certain age you realize that your present in going to be your future, every damn day until your looming demise. If, like a lot of working people, you spend your days doing shitty menial work for low pay and benefits and no financial security and your body is breaking down due to that work that fails to provide you a decent livelihood it's no wonder people turn to drink, the needle, or kill themselves. Even those who are more well-off must face the dread that they are not going to be able to break out of the rut they have found themselves in, albeit a comfier rut.

I've tried to not focus on the things that won't happen. I will likely never finish the book project I have been working on, for example. I will never be a respected historian. My writing will probably never reach a larger audience than this blog. That's okay. The last year and a half has been trying in the extreme, but my job is more meaningful than ever, even though it has been harder than ever. I own a house and have cleared my debts. I have a wonderful spouse and my children bring me joy even on the days that they annoy the hell out of me. As the last few years have shown, the world is unpredictable in horrific ways. Instead of being bitter about what I don't have, it's just best to enjoy what I've got.

The pandemic was also clarifying in terms of my middle-aged priorities. For instance, I got to spend a lot more time with my family, and I am glad for it. For me and a lot of other folks it seems to have pushed us to de-prioritize our jobs and careers. When death looms those PTS reports can sit for a bit. So on this birthday I'm going to take a little hike with my family and get some takeout. We'll watch a classic film I've been dying for my kids to see. What could be better?

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Summer of Dylan Takeaways

This summer I set out to listen to every Bob Dylan album in order (including the Bootleg Series) and write about them. I finished this ten part series over a week ago, but now I want to take some time to get some perspective on this quiet Sunday when I can feel autumn creeping in. 

The biggest thing that surprised me on this journey was that none of Dylan's music that I had already known dropped in my esteem. There was never a moment where I told myself "what did I ever see in this?" On the contrary, it was much more likely for me to ask myself "why didn't I like this one more before?" That was certainly the case with New Morning and Modern Times. This is probably the most banal observation I could make, but this exercise affirms all of the praise that has been lavished on Dylan over his career. It is not Boomer nostalgia or overwrought fawning. In fact, it's not enough!

The other big insight I have is into aging. During the entire 60s Dylan just churned out amazing song after amazing song. Even when he was resting in Woodstock after a motorcycle accident he wrote and recorded the songs on the Basement tapes in a year. There's enough in that repository for a lifetime for other musical artists. In his youth the muse never left him.

In the 70s, however, things got rockier and spottier. In his personal life Dylan started a family but also got divorced. As I know from my own aging, getting older means being responsible for people other than yourself and prioritizing family over other concerns. It can also mean that creative work doesn't come as easily. (Notice how the frequency of my posts has fallen off for proof of that.) In the mid-70s Dylan managed to find his feet again, but only for a short time. His Christian period that followed might be rock music's most notable mid-life crisis. 

In the 80s he cut some records that were just flat out bad. He was still trying to maintain the pace of his youth, without the same youthful creative energies to sustain it. There was just no way he could put out a whole album's worth of good material every year. The standout songs on those albums also show that the embers still burned. 

The admirable thing is, Dylan adjusted. He stopped trying to be a rock singer, and went back to the folk and blues music that originally sustained him. In a strange way the angry folkies who got mad when Dylan went electric were a little bit right: he could never escape who he truly was. Dylan's folk albums in the 90s helped inspire him and build up his creative reserves for the amazing trilogy of albums that followed. Once he started running out of gas again he returned to old standards, and used that time to invigorate himself and turn out the excellent Rough and Rowdy Ways

As an aging person myself, whose capabilities diminish with each passing day, I take some amount of comfort in Dylan's trajectory. It's better to burn out than to rust, but sometimes burning out just means keeping a candle lit.

Dylan Album Ratings Roundup

I am not going to rank Dylan's albums (which is impossible) but I will just share the ratings I assigned. Feel free to argue with me. 

Five Bobs: Rough and Rowdy Ways, Modern Times, Love and Theft, Time Out of Mind, Blood on the Tracks, Basement Tapes, Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, The Times They Are A-Changin', The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Four and a Half Bobs: Oh Mercy, Desire, Nashville Skyline

Four Bobs: Tempest, Together Through Life, World Gone Wrong, Good as I've Been to You, Slow Train Coming, Street Legal, New Morning, John Wesley Harding, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan

Three and a Half Bobs: Triplicate, Fallen Angels, Unplugged, Infidels, Before the Flood, Planet Waves

Three Bobs: Shadows in the Night, Real Live, Saved, Hard Rain

Two and a Half Bobs: Empire Burlesque, Shot of Love, At Budokan, Self Portrait

Two Bobs: Christmas in the Heart, Down in the Groove, Knocked Out Loaded, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

One and a Half Bobs: Under the Red Sky, Dylan and the Dead

One Bob:  None, because even his worst stuff has some redeeming features