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.