Saturday, December 30, 2023

Predictions for 2024 and the Best of the Blog of 2023

Over on my Substack I made some predictions for 2024. To sum it up, film audiences will continue to embrace non-blockbuster movies, voter turnout will drop, the Constitutional crisis will intensify, social media discourse will continue to fragment, but there will also be signs of a new consensus. 

As I do every year, I like to boost what I consider to be the best of what I've written this year. To start things off, I am most proud of my chapter in The Power and Politics of Bob Dylan's Live Performances: Play a Song For Me, now out with Routledge. It was years in the making and an enjoyable project to complete. 

As far as my online writing goes, here's some things I wrote worth checking out last year:

The Need For A Values Conversation From The Left

I wrote this over at Substack on how the Left has ceded talk of "values" to the Right. This is bad for many reasons, not least that it prevents discussion of the moral failings of capitalism. 

The Crisis We See But Can't Name

I wrote here about the reports of increased mental illness and depression in young people as well as lowered life expectancy. It pairs well with the last post in terms of naming the ways unfettered capitalism is undermining our social fabric. 

The Lockdown Insights Worth Salvaging

I wrote this one staying at my friend's cabin in March, reflecting on what we could get out a pandemic world that had passed. 

ChatGPT and the Monstrousness of Silicon Valley Ideology

I mostly avoided AI discourse because this is all I have to say about it. 

Track of the Week: Fountains of Wayne "Sick Day"

One of my favorites in this series this year

What America Feels Like After A Weekend in Canada

Spending some time in Montreal highlighted what ails the US.

Notes on a Trip to Small Town America

I wrote this after visiting my rural Nebraska homeland. As with the prior post, travel highlighted the challenges we face. 

'Tis the Season for Narragansett Beer

Every now and then I like to extoll the virtues of a favorite low-rent product. 

We Need Languages

Language learning is being attacked across the board, a huge loss as I argue here. 

That Last Day of School Feeling

One of the great things about being a teacher is getting to have the rush of the last of school still in my life. 

70s Airport Movies as Pre-historic Blockbusters

I got into some weird rabbit holes this year, including the airport movies of the 70s.

What the Way July 4th is Celebrated Says About America's Divides

Wrote this one at the request of a longtime friend and reader. It is an interesting way to see the rural-urban split. 

Summer of Springsteen

I did a series this summer where I listened to all of the Boss's albums in order and wrote about them. I think it's pretty great! I capped it off with a Substack about the concert where I finally got to see him.

What I Saw on the Last Day of the Mets Season

My favorite baseball writing of the year. 

Shane MacGowan and the Sadness of Diaspora

Another music essay I am proud of. 

Tuesday's Election Illustrates Why Republicans Gerrymander and Suppress the Vote

This was me beginning to think through my theory that we actually do have a potential consensus on issues like abortion.

Seeing Bob Dylan on a Rainy New Jersey Night

Another great geezer rock show that prompted thoughts on persistence and mortality. 

2023: The Year Reality Died

I am really proud of my framing here. Write your local pundit to get them to adopt it, too!

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Tom Waits, "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis" (Track of the Week)

This last week has been a real roller coaster. My winter break began, and on Wednesday I got to see a bunch of my former students at an event at my school. On Thursday, I got to bum around New York City for the day. When I got home, I went into the basement and saw that our boiler was leaking and our heat was off. Turns out we need a new one! Merry fucking Christmas.

In a strange twist of events, this whole fiasco has me feeling more optimistic than I have in awhile. Yeah we are confronted with an annoying and expensive problem, but we are going to fix it. I was also able to find a way to travel with my family instead of being stuck here waiting to get the boiler fixed, so Christmas has been saved, too. In a fit of good feeling I wrote a Substack piece on establishing some good habits for engaging in politics in 2024. The fascists want us confused and hopeless, we need to put our shoulders to the wheel and ignore the bullshit. 

I have to get up at 3AM tomorrow for my flight so I am trying to relax myself by drinking a Manhattan and listening to Tom Waits music from the 70s. I don't think he really showed his true genius until the 80s, but in the polyester decade he cut one of the great sad Christmas songs, "Christmas Card From A Hooker in Minneapolis." It's resonating with me because it's about persevering through some shit times. After every crappy day comes sleep and then a new morning. Maybe that new day will be shit too, but perhaps it won't. 

The whole premise of the song is a dark joke. Christmas cards that come with a yearly round-up of life events usually come from middle-class families wanting to brag on Susie's grades and Bobby's position on the varsity squad. They don't come from sex workers living a hand to mouth existence on the margins of society. The narrator's life is hard. She talks about a record from the person she's writing to, but also that her record player had been stolen. She tried going back to live with her parents in Omaha but "everyone I used to know is either dead or in prison." Now's she's back in Minneapolis "and I think I'm going to stay." By the end she admits she's in jail and needs help. In the worst and most desperate straits, she's still thinking that things can turn around. After all, "I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day." 

The holidays are a time of reflection, which can often make us rue the ways our lives didn't turn out the way we thought they would. But even in the worst circumstances, people still find ways to keep on living. My busted boiler is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Tomorrow is another day. 

Sunday, December 17, 2023

The Holdovers and Alexander Payne's Cinema of Life

Yesterday I had the good fortune to see The Holdovers in the theater. It's been out for awhile, so I saw it in a small box inside of a small-town independent movie theater, which was pretty much the perfect combination. 

I had seen the trailer multiple times, and I knew the movie would be catnip for me. Not only was one of the main characters a history teacher at a private school (like me), it was about the melancholy side of the holidays, it was set in the 1970s, and it was directed by Alexander Payne. What a combo! I was glad that it exceeded my expectations.

Payne has long been one of my favorite filmmakers, and not just because he's a fellow Nebraskan. He started out making wicked satires like Citizen Ruth and Election, but since About Schmidt has mostly made films about life itself, in particular how we deal with its inevitable pains and disappointments. As I have entered middle age, that subject has felt much more real. I have probably never cried harder in a movie theater than I did when I watched Nebraska because it so perfectly represented the world where I am from and I had never imagined ever seeing its stilted emotional landscape being put up on a big screen for all the world to see. 

I cried a lot at the movie theater yesterday, too. I knew that mourning a loved one was a theme because of the school's chef losing her son in Vietnam. I did not know it was also about the experience of mourning a loved one while they are still alive because a mental illness has made them into someone else. (I won't give away any spoilers beyond that.) That's a kind of mourning I am very familiar with. 

The pains and disappointments of life are often followed by resentments, something Payne explores deftly in this film and others. Giamatti's teacher character resents his wealthy students for their privilege, even more for their obliviousness to it. He may live in a campus apartment and drive a shit car, but he gets to put them in their place when he fails them on their exams. Of course, this is not a healthy way to go through life. I think too of his character in Sideways, the father in Nebraska, and the title character in About Schmidt. All of them seem beaten down by life's unfairness and the feeling that things should have turned out differently.

The other characters in The Holdovers have ample reasons for resentment. Angus is stuck alone on the holidays because his mother would rather vacation with her new husband. Mary had her son's promising life snuffed out by a stupid and unjust war. In middle age I have learned that resentment is the soul killer. Life is unfair and heartless but dwelling on it will make you insane. If I think too long about how I work hard to teach students who are often blase about an education that costs more than my old yearly salary as an assistant professor I get paralyzed. 

We all have to find ways to overcome the dynamic of disappointment and resentment because there are only a blessed few whose lives turn out the way they want them to. Even then, bad things happen. I heard this week that an old classmate of mine who was a good dude and had gone on to be a highly successful basketball coach is beset with a painful, deadly illness. For some cruel reason the hardest and most untimely losses of life among people I care about have happened in December, so I can't get through the holiday season without thinking about how some people are robbed of the time they should have had on this earth. 

I appreciate Alexander Payne's cinema of life because he gets at the dailiness of these emotions. Certain feelings are always with us, sometimes as a barely perceptible ache, sometimes as an all-consuming fire. I also appreciate how the endings are never neat. The characters in The Holdovers find ways to survive and gain some needed perspective, but there's no guarantee that they won't get pulled back into the undertow of disappointment and resentment. We can only try to handle it as best we can. I hope Payne keeps making movies like this because they've helped me with my own process. 

Saturday, December 16, 2023

2023: The Year Reality Died

 Over on Substack I wrote something I am pretty proud of called "2023: The Year Reality Died." 

As I mention, it's the culmination of almost twenty years of major changes in how we understand and interact with the world. The rise of AI and the destruction of Twitter are two things I see as key in this development. 

I also recently got a book chapter published! It's about Bob Dylan's engagement with the 1976 Bicentennial, available in the new Routledge book The Politics and Power of Bob Dylan's Live Performances: Play a Song For Me

I'll have more things coming on this site for the end of year festivities. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Pogues, “Dirty Old Town” (Track of the Week)

Shane MacGowan’s death has hit me hard, which has been a bit of a surprise. I love his music, but I can’t say the Pogues were one of my top bands. Based on his legendary hard living it’s a miracle he even made it to 65.

After thinking about it, I realized I was reeling because it’s especially hard when people who are truly bursting with life leave us. Even their bright flame must eventually be snuffed because all of us mortals live under death’s dominion. We try to avoid that hard fact but a death like his makes it impossible to forget.

While accomplished songwriters like Bruce Springsteen have been praising MacGowan’s abilities as a songsmith, I’d like to highlight his capacity for interpretation. Making a song your own doesn’t just mean writing it.

Dirty Old Town” was the signature song of folkie Ewan MacColl. He sings of his industrial hometown of Salford, spinning a tale of love and longing. There are kisses, but also old canals, a gasworks, and factory wall. Anyone who is from an obscure place and who has left it behind with fond attachments will understand the feeling of this song.

MacGowan’s bedraggled growl gives it a fitting grit for a song about a grimy industrial town. The Pogues give it some country flavor, keying into that genre’s own long history of songs longing for home. I heard it today and the radio and felt tears welling up in my eyes. It was partly sadness over death, but mostly my complicated feelings about my own hometown.

A lot of the sadness over his passing that I’ve heard online and in person is rooted in the longing baked into diasporas. MacGowan grew up in the London area, but spent summers back in Ireland with relatives (his parents were immigrants.) Being in a diaspora means never being totally rooted where you are because an important part of your soul lies across the sea. It is a sadness a lot of people experience but so few could articulate like Shane MacGowan. Pour one out for a real one.