Sunday, January 22, 2023

Getting Through the Winter Doldrums

It's late January, the grimmest part of the year, a stretch that will last about a month. It's cold and dark. The weather tends to make commutes hellish. The holidays are over and the decorations stripped. Lunar new year came early this year and is now over and marred by tragedy. There's little to do and the only real "event" is the consumer orgy of the Super Bowl, which mostly just makes me feel ill. 

It's Sunday night now, which means facing another work week after a weekend spent in the fog of this winter malaise. The end of the last year brought reflect, as the end of the year always does, and that reflection in middle age typically leads one to contemplate how dreams hoped for in youth are just never going to come true. 

If I had been wiser in my youth, I'd have gone to law school instead of grad school and now I'd be making enough money to go on a vacation somewhere warm and sunny to get away from all of this. I foolishly chose to pursue knowledge rather than lucre in a society that worships the latter and despises the former. Sometimes I can be comforted in the knowledge that my work actually has meaning but this time of year the old narratives don't work their magic like they usually do. 

I am willing to bet a lot of you are feeling the same way right now. So how do we get through this? Sometimes the only way out is through.

I lean into despair with my trusty friends music, books, and movies. Here's some recs if you are looking for them. 

Jackson Frank's "Blues Run the Game" just totally embodies that feeling that winter is never going to end and life is pretty hopeless. He also talks about sending out for whiskey and gin, which are my preferred tipples this time of year. 

Robert Altman's anti-Western McCabe & Mrs Miller is suitably bleak and gloomy. The dark rainy Pacific Northwest setting perfectly frames a story where love and passion are ultimately futile. Sometimes the bastards win and the hero doesn't ride into the sunset. 

Sad folk music is my preferred soundtrack this time of year, and no one did it better than Nick Drake. All three of his albums are superlative, but Pink Moon gets busted out on many a winter night in my house. It's eerie and dark but weirdly comforting, too. 

Sometimes a little anger helps, too. January in an odd-numbered year means a brand new Congress and brand new state legislatures. It does not exactly help my mood to read about Republicans trying to hold the country hostage with the debt ceiling or finding new and unique ways to persecute trans people and target my fellow educators. It's even worse when the people who ought to be fighting back are AWOL. That's when I put on Neil Young's "Ambulance Blues." "You're all just pissing in the wind."      

In terms of books, last year at this time I decided to reread le Carre's "Karla Trilogy." I won't do the same thing this year, but I might just give Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy another spin. Gloomy 70s London combined with Cold War intrigue is perfect for this time of year. It's also the kind of story where the "good guys" have to make moral compromises in order to win, compromises that undermine their "good guy status."


These are the winter days of out discontent. I'm too pessimistic to think they can be avoided, but I at least I hope we can get through them with some splendid wallowing. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

The Need For a Values Conversation From The Left

My most recent Substack is about how conservatives have abandoned their "values" talk from the 90s, and why the left needs to pick it up. This nation worships wealth and the wealthy in ways causing us drastic harm. So many of us yearn for deeper meaning beyond getting and spending. We need to talk more about thar.

My friends who are Christian leftists have reacted positively to what I wrote here. At the same time, I fear that values conversations on the left that do exist are getting ghettoized into particular religious contexts. That really needs to be fixed. 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Notes on Gerstle's Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order

 I've been doing a deep dive into the history of neoliberalism, starting with Gary Gerstle's recent overview. As I write in my Substack, it's an excellent book with a couple of blind spots when it comes to interpreting the behavior of conservative voters. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Introducing 8 Track Camaro Rock Classics

I've been neglecting this blog in favor of chasing clout on Substack, and that makes me kind of sad. I want to reserve this space for the hardcore nerds who bother to read the really obscure stuff that bubbles out of my head. With that in mind, I am starting a new series: 70s Camaro Rock Classics.

We all have our guilty pleasures, and a genre of music I call 8 Track Camaro Rock is my biggest. This is the kind of dumb, loud, meathead hard rock music that you can imagine some reprobate would be blasting out of the 8 track deck of his souped up Camaro circa 1975 while taking hits from a bag of airplane glue. 

I've been a good little boy and pretty sensible all my life, but I get my bad side out of my system through music. I may wear collared shirts and dress shoes to work every day, but on the subway ride in I will be blasting some Foghat into my headphones. I try to be a sensitive man, so I get a guilty thrill out of the sexist macho in this music. I am an intellectual who reads at least a book a week, but sometimes I have to listen to lyrics written on the third grade level. 

This is the kind of music that no rock critic takes seriously, and they're actually right. I'll be highlighting these songs over the next few months, and having fun along the way. I'm also aiming to bring in some deep cuts, and not just the best known tracks of the genre. 

I am going to start with a band near and dear to my heart, REO Speedwagon. They started in Champaign, Illinois, where I spent some of the best years of my life. I always thought they were a cheesy 80s power ballad band, then a friend introduced me to their 70s 8 track Camaro classics. Before they hit the big time, they wandered through the polyester decade with album after album of boogie rocking. 

"157 Riverside Avenue" was the highlight of their first album, one they have played in concert since. In fact, it's best heard on their tragically named double live album You Get What You Play For. By that point, the band had honed their arena rock skills through years of touring. In this version you can hear the absolutely searing guitar work of Gary Richrath, someone who ought to be classified among the greats of his era, a kind of Midwestern Peter Green. 

The double live album itself is the greatest cultural relic of 8 Track Camaro Rock. The rock show was truly the place to be back then, and in case you passed out in the parking lot after smoking a J and drinking one too many Old Milwaukees, you could go down to the record store and bring the rock show home with you. At its base, 8 Track Camaro Rock is just about letting loose with some big dumb stupid fun. We could all use a dose of that. (REO Speedwagon in the 80s certainly could have, too.) 

Why More People In Power Should Follow Benedict's Example

My newest Substack is about the recently deceased Pope Benedict. I very much disagreed with his leadership of the church, but he ended his tenure as pope by doing something admirable: he quit. I wish more of our failed leaders had that courage.