Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Decider's "inexplicable" confidence; the mainstream media's continuing crush on McCain

No damn fair! Too many smart writers out there thinking about the same things I do . . . only they're better at it and quicker to the punch (or the computer!).

Dan Froomkin, who writes a great column on politics for the on-line version of the Washington Post, has a great piece on President Bush's "inexplicable" confidence in . . . of course, himself. Despite having screwed up everything he's touched in the last seven years, and seen his "ideas" for Social Security and immigration "reform" go right down the toilet, he is still convinced, as much as ever, that he is right about everything. Stunning.

In Salon, Joe Conason wonders if the mainstream news media will ever get over its ga-ga crush on their own Dr. McDreamy, John McCain, as it becomes clear that he will be the Republican nominee this November. Probably not, he concludes, because it would require the Washington pundit class to tear down McCain's image as the "straight-talking" maverick that he's not and never has been, an image they built and have nurtured with tender loving care.

Dean Baker, writing in the on-line version of The Guardian (U.K.), notes the Washington Post editorial board sounds more and more like the old Soviet news service, Pravda, in its pronouncements on economic matters and pretty much everything else. The Post views itself as closely allied with mainstream policymakers, regardless of political party, as its perpetual quest for "moderation" and a "sensible center" immunizes it against any real interest in challenging the Washington status quo, of which it is an essential part. Need another example? Read the Post's slack-jawed reaction to Attorney General Michael Mukasey's testimony earlier this week on waterboarding. The same man who was heralded as the "best" chance Americans had to retreat from torture as part of the techniques of U.S. interrogators working for the C.I.A. or other agencies charged with extracting information from suspected terrorists being held abroad now comes under criticism for "mimicking" his predecessor, the hapless Alberto Gonzales.

Tune in at 11, Post editorial board, for a riveting news story on dogs that bite mailmen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Dude, I told you to get me a Diet Coke, not Thai Stick!

Californians will soon be able to buy their medicinal hooch, I mean, cannabis, from vending machines, subject to security verification.

Dude, where's my car? And can we go to the In and Out Burger? Like, have you ever listened to "On the Run" from Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon like late at night in the dark with the balanced adjusted through only the left side of your headphones? Get your 'scrip and check it out!

And so the fun and games continue with America's most senseless and completely stupid form of prohibition. Too bad the government won't let medical authorities prescribe a 30 can suitcase full of Bud Light to help ease pain and alleviate other maladies. Oh, wait a minute . . . 7-11 doesn't take Blue Cross.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Obamania in the air

Here's what I know: Rudy Giuliani will not be the next president of the United States. Neither will Mike Huckabee. Nor will Mitt Romney.

You can forget John Edwards, too. And what's-his-name . . . the guy that no one pays attention to with all the crazy ideas? RuPaul? Or is it Ron Paul?

Whichever . . . he won't be the next president either.

So . . . now we know it will come down to whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will face John McCain in the November general election. I didn't think McCain would pull it off, and with some tough months ahead there is still no guarantee he will defeat Mitt Romney -- although his win tonight in Florida certainly helped his cause immensely. Months ago, I thought I had some special insight into this election. I thought McCain would tank, but he's persevered, largely because the Republican field is so weak. Really, Mike Huckabee as a serious presidential candidate? Jenny Craig spokesman, yes, absolutely. He'd be perfect. But president? C'mon. Yet, just three weeks ago, the deep thinkers in the Washington political-media complex were ready to place their children's college tuition on Huckabee to make a serious presidential run. That comet has crashed.

Then again, what do I know?

All eyes now, of course, are on the Hillary-Obama fight, and a fight it will be for the next several weeks, maybe even months. I still think nominating Hillary is a suicide pact for the Democrats. If she managed to win the general election, she'll start work with 49% of the country already at war with her and her husband. And then there are people like me who will not vote for her in the primaries or in the general election. Does that mean I would vote for McCain? No way. Any of the other Republicans? Not a chance. So what will I do?

I won't vote. Really. You can tell me that not voting is irrational, that by not voting I'm helping McCain, that I'm helping the Republican party . . . that I'm a Communist or a terrorist or a baby or all of the above. And you might be right. But I just cannot vote for Hillary Clinton. The attack politics of the last week aside, the tin ear that refuses to acknowledge how offensive so many people found her and her husband's behavior towards Obama and her absolute unwillingness to stake out a firm position on anything that hasn't been poll-tested or pre-approved, I do not find her a leader that inspires. Perhaps because I am not a woman I cannot get as excited about the Helen Reddy-like, "I am woman hear me roar" element of her candidacy.

Contrast that with the electric environment that surrounded Barack Obama's appearance at American University Monday morning. I have taught at American since 1990, and I have never seen Bender arena full for anything (although I must confess I'm not there very much unless it is to use the gym. I can guarantee you that no one is waiting in line for hours to watch me grunt through a workout), much less that full of life and energy. "Charisma" is a word used a great deal to describe Obama's appeal, but I think that shortchanges where he is coming from. Trim and youthful at 46 -- more so than me at the same age, I might add -- he does not possess the leading man looks that usually go hand in hand with charisma, or the ease in glad-handing audiences that came so easy to Bill Clinton. What sets Obama apart from Hillary and the rest of the candidates regardless of their political affiliation is his ability, through his oratory and sincerity, to connect with people of any background. For someone like me who grew up at the precipice of the civil rights era, walking into a room, even in January 2008, and see it colored by a multi-racial, multi-ethnic hue brimming with energy around a united cause is still a very big deal. Barack Obama generates excitement and inspires people to give a damn -- young people, old people, poor people and not-so-poor people, white folks, African-Americans, Latinos and others who increasingly make up the American ethnic mosaic. If Obama was just some lightweight or dilettante who viewed the presidency as the crowning achievement on his resume of accomplishment and ambition, I could understand the Clintons' effort to portray Obama as such. But that's not who Obama is. He is as "qualified" as Hillary or any of the other Republican candidates to hold the office. What, really, "qualifies" you to serve as president? Six terms as governor of a small Southern state? No foreign policy experience? In other words, Bill Clinton's political experience before he ran for president in 1992?

The Clintons' pointed and awkward criticism of Obama and their "no big deal" response to the Kennedys' embrace of Obama -- an endorsement they unsuccessfully fought to secure -- are admissions of what has been evident since Iowa: that Obama is the real deal, that Hillary is a soulless, empty suit determined to take her turn to rule and that the establishment Democrats that lined up behind Clinton II have the fight of their lives ahead of them. Let the pundits and Washington political-media complex debate all they want about which Democratic candidate will reach 24-28 year-old voters with cars more than 5 years old, plasma televisions less than 3 years old who hold graduate degrees from private universities with selective Ph.D programs in sociology. What the nation saw on Monday was a small slice of the hunger that many Americans disaffected by the Bush years are looking for. And to me, that is the choice for Democrats in this election: a chance for inspiration and a politics that goes beyond the acquisition and exercise of power for the sake of doing so or to return to a style of governing that emphasizes ego and certitude above everything else.

UPDATE: Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards have both dropped out of the presidential race.

Live Zeebop in downtown Bethesda

Zeebop will be playing this Thursday night, January 31st, at The Blu-Lounge, across from Barnes and Noble in downtown Bethesda and next to the Bethesda Row theaters. We begin at 7.30 and play until 9.30 p.m. No cover, no age minimum. Our tunes range from Monk to Coltrane to Miles, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, blues standards, Latin jazz and much more, including some originals. This is our first time here, so some friendly faces -- or even not so friendly faces -- would be nice to see.

Come on out, swing a little and maybe even get your funk on. Justin Parrott on bass; Mark Caruso on guitar; and me on drums.

To learn more about Zeebop, click here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Red State Update on the Confederate Flag and Fred Thompson's departure

Jackie and Dunlap discuss Mike Hukabee's opinion on the Confederate Flag while campaigning in South Carolina, and sing their sad song over Fred Thompson's exit from the presidential campaign.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bill Clinton's bad behavior

By now, everyone in the world but Bill and Hillary Clinton realizes that the former president's red-faced, factually-challenged tirades against Barack Obama have done no one, least of all his wife, any good. I was going to offer my own comment about Bill's embarrassing behavior, but others have already done it, and done it better than me.

Read Washington Post columnist Colbert King's Saturday column here. Frank Rich's Sunday New York Times column is here.

"Billary" better dial it back a bit. Hillary is already an incredibly divisive politician, and, it seems, oblivious to the qualities that make her such a turn off to so many people. And it's not that she's an ambitious woman running for the president. The Clinton campaign needs to fold that card because it's not going to help her. Nor will the "35 years of experience" angle, since with the exception of her 7 years in the United States Senate, most of that time has been spent as a political spouse or as an attorney in private practice. Obama has more time in elected office than Hillary, but you'd never know it. Bill's battle with the public was over his ambition to be president, something that didn't bother me a bit. That's not a job you take if you just feel like it's your turn to mind the family store after Dad's retired. Look where that got the country. Hillary's different. Her sense of entitlement that it's her turn, that she's paid her dues and put in her time, that she's smarter than everybody else and has all the answers . . . none of this appeals to me in the least.

As for Bill . . . bleech! Off to a great start as an ex-president, he has morphed into a low-level attack dog that is unbecoming of a former holder of the nation's most visible and prestigious office. His not-so-subtle hints that he'll have a portfolio of his own in the Hillary White House brings back the "co-presidency" mentality that fell flat 15 years ago.

Bill and Hillary Clinton need to understand that sometimes it's not region, race or sex that puts people off. Sometimes it's just who you are.

Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund

Like most men and women my age, I wept uncontrollably after I watched the 1971 movie, "Brian's Song," the story about former Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo's improbable rise to professional football glory that came crashing down after he developed cancer and died at 26 years old. The movie centers on the relationship between Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, the Hall of Fame running back for the Bears who was Piccolo's best friend and roommate on the road. Both men were married with young families when Piccolo was stricken with cancer. What made their friendship even more compelling was the indifference that race made in their friendship and professional relationship. Piccolo and Sayers were the first white and African-American players to room together in a professional football training camp and when traveling. And while the movie focuses rightly on Piccolo's battle against cancer and his wife's brave face to hold things together, there is equal attention to Sayers' personal growth and his eventual emotional embrace of his friend's plight.

About a year and a half ago, I met Brian Piccolo's daughter, Lori, after our children landed in the same second grade class and quickly became friends. I learned several months later, only after a conversation with her husband, that Lori was Brian's daughter, which explained her son's enthusiasm for the Bears and his "41" jersey, which is not one you see too often. If Brian was anything like Lori, I certainly understand why he was held in such high regard by his teammates and friends, and why his memory still runs through Chicago sports fans. Lori is one of those people who is so naturally kind and generous and so radiantly beautiful that she inspires you to think how you can improve yourself as a person. What's worse is that most of us have to try really hard to do half as well things that come so naturally to her. And forget the gorgeous exterior -- that is nature's gift that can't be replicated. Perhaps, though, I can use her example to figure out a way one day to use my fortunate position in life to help people in need.

If you read the post below on "What money can't buy," you'll know that two friends of mine recently passed away of cancer. Since both families wished for any remembrance to be directed towards a foundation or fund that sponsors good works, I want to use this spot to highlight the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, based in Chicago. You can learn more about what it does and how to contribute by clicking here. Please consider a contribution of any size -- the Fund gladly accepts money from sidewalk lemonade sales as much as it does major donations -- if and when you find yourself in a position to do so.

Friday, January 25, 2008

What money can't buy

A little over two weeks ago, I learned, in the span of three hours, that a 15year-old friend of my son's had died of cancer the previous spring and that the father of a dear childhood friend of mine had passed away the day before. I hadn't seen my son's friend in quite some time. I knew he was being treated for cancer up at Johns Hopkins, learning that only after bumping into his dad at the grocery store. He and my son, Max, became friends when they met at summer camp about four or five years ago. Zing (not his real name) was born with several birth defects, and had been confined to a wheelchair since birth. Max took a liking to him, invited him to his birthday parties and would always find time to swim with him at the pool during the summers. Zing's parents were and are incredibly lovely people, the kind of people I admire for their optimism, generosity and integrity. Moreover, I have always been amazed at their patience and perspective on life, and secretly wonder if I could devote myself so unselfishly to the needs of another person. I honestly don't know how to answer that question.

I bumped into Zing's mom outside the Jewish Community Center and, me being me, called out to her across the front lawn to stop so I could catch up and say hello. Zing's mom is absurdly funny and charming, and has a radiant smile that beckons you from 50 miles away. We talked for a bit, and, after she had asked about my family and I obliged her, I turned the questioning back to her. How are you? Everybody else? . . . afraid to ask the question I wanted, which was "How was Zing?" Finally, after an awkward moment, she told me he died several months ago, at home, under hospice care. And why was Zing's mom at the JCC? To work on getting certified to provide hospice care for families in need.

Her 15 year-old son died after a lifetime of struggles, and her next step was to figure out a way to help other families. After we finished talking, I walked to my car, wondering why shit like this has to happen to the coolest people around. I got in my car, sat there for a minute and then started crying. And crying. And crying. Fortunately, I had to pull myself together so I could get over to my daughter's school in time to share birthday brownies with Mr. Higgins' 3rd grade class. I didn't exceed the speed limit getting there, but I can't remember wanting to get somewhere so fast. I sat in the lunchroom, amid the chaos, just grateful . . . so grateful that my daughter was healthy, vibrant and beautiful . . . and as full of piss and vinegar as she is.

An hour after I got home, my cell phone rang, showing a number from Ohio I didn't recognize. I almost didn't answer it, but I picked up wondering who the hell I might know from Ohio, and why that person would be calling me. As it turned out, it was my friend Robert Goldschmidt, who I have known and remained friends with -- the usual hiatuses due to family, work, life changes, etc., excepted -- since I was 10. Growing up, his house was a second home to me. I would say I ate as much there as I did in my own house, but there was never anything good to eat there, allegedly because the Goldschmidts were always watching their calories. The real reason was that Robert's dad, Freddie, was too cheap to buy anything other than bread, crackers, maybe some spaghetti and the occasional box of Oreos, except they were usually the "Chocolate Sandwich Cookie" that Kroger offered under its generic brand. Apples, though, were always available. Sometimes even bananas.

"The perfect snack," extolled Fred in praise of apples. "Everything you need."

A good snack, not perfect. But cheap. Very cheap. Cheap, to Freddie Goldschmidt, made it good.

Oh, yes. That was Freddie Goldschmidt, the man who walked around his house in sweaters and long pants in July -- in Atlanta -- because the house was so "goddamn cold." Really? Cold? The house was a sauna. Actually, hotter than a sauna. Had he put hot rocks and some water in the living room, every Jew within 20 miles would have been sitting there kvetching about their wives and their investments. Winter was even worse. Freddie was programmed to wake up at 3 a.m. to turn down the heat. "This house is an oven!" he say. "How can you breath in here?"

An oven? No-no. Walk into the house on a February morning and it looked like Mr. Freeze's headquarters. Freddie's wife, Joanie, whose normal decibel level in any conversation was about 115 db (that's Led Zeppelin-in-its-prime loud), would be hunched over the stove, trying to stay warm while the children huddled under a blanket near the heating vent, hoping and praying that some warm air might come out. And where was Freddie? Walking around shirtless, wearing only tennis shorts and socks, eye-balling the thermostat to make sure it wasn't above 50 or 40 or whatever the lowest number was -- assuming it was even on. It was always a sad sight. The other Goldschmidts too often resembled a family waiting to flee the Cossacks.

I hadn't seen Freddie in probably 8 or 9 years when Robert called me. Robert told me his parents had retired to the promised land of the Jews of that generation -- Florida. His dad developed cancer fairly quickly and it took him after a short battle. He died with his family around him. Robert told me that Freddie asked about me towards the end, pleased that his prediction that I would end up doing something that "let him talk all the goddamn time" came true. He always thought I should be a criminal lawyer, but then had misgivings when he realized I couldn't represent myself.

Funny, funny guy, that Freddie Goldschmidt. Ha-ha.

Ha.

I just hope someone remembered to turn off the light after he smiled his last smile and passed on.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thinking about these two marvelous people has helped me answer questions I often get from people who know me only so well. Why do I play music in restaurants, bars, senior homes, receptions, bar mitzvahs . . . wherever . . . when I am an "established" professional in a "respectable" field? Do I ever worry that I will get "embarrassed" that someone I know will see me playing with my band? Do I actually get paid? Why do I play hockey at midnight twice a week? Why do I teach college when I could, as someone trying not to be offensive said to me a couple of weeks ago, be "doing so much more with [my]self." Why do I coach my son's hockey and baseball teams when I could relax more? Why do leave my office early to watch my daughter dance? Why don't I do this or that?

The answers are easy. I do the things I do because I have to. Unless you've experienced the thrill of playing the music you love live with talented musicians and seeing someone nod in approval or groove a little bit to the beat, you can't understand what it means to get lost in art. Until you've skated down the ice and drilled a twenty-foot slap shot over the goalie's stick-side to win your team's game, you can't appreciate how great a sport hockey is to play, even at 46 years old. The reason I teach? It's when I see a student "get" what you're trying to do, or understand that you're not in there giving notes, or getting an out-of-the blue letter from a student 10, 15 or 20 years ago "thanking" you for helping them move forward in their lives when the thanks is due to the student for inspiring me to think harder and teach better. Getting an email from a grandmother's son you didn't know telling you that the last thing she read before she died was a piece she stumbled across on the web about obnoxious people in Starbucks and laughed so hard she cried isn't why I write -- I write because I have to, just like some people have to dance, sing or act -- but the feeling it gives me is nice nonetheless.

Not everything we choose to do is about money, fame or impressing other people. My friends Zing and Freddie weren't rich or famous -- although Freddie wasn't so poor that he couldn't have sprung for some A/C during those rough Atlanta summers. They were, though, people who brought joy and happiness to the people around them. I learned from Freddie early on and by Zing's example later in life that devoting part of ourselves to something bigger than just our immediate gratification is part of a life well-spent. I teach because I have no choice. Ask me thirty years ago if I imagined becoming a college teacher and I would said, "Oh, yes, of course . . . right after I complete my residency in neurosurgery at Harvard." Hell, no, I didn't imagine teaching in college. I didn't listen to much of what my teachers told me until I got to college. By then, I had some serious ground to make up. Now, though, I couldn't imagine doing anything else -- money be damned. Would I do something else if offered twice what I earn now? Nope. Three times? Nope. Four? Nope. Five. Nope. Six? Maybe, but probably not. Why would I? I have everything I could ever need or want, and everyone I love is all around me. What does money have to do with that?

Same with music. A hockey buddy asked me recently if my band was on the state fair circuit yet. No, I replied, but with some luck I hope I have some better news to report to him by the summer. He started laughing. I wasn't kidding. When he realized that, his look turned to horror.

"Why would you do that?" he asked.

"Because I get to play 'Impressions'" I said. "That's why."

"What's that?"

"Impressions" is a great John Coltrane tune that just lets a band rip. Hell, yeah, I'd play that song at a state fair, in a department store . . . anywhere. Of course I'd play it for free. I usually don't have to, but I would.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I thought that we chose our future, our work, our mate . . . all the elements that make up a life. As I get older, and more deeply connected to my work and my other pursuits, I think that sometimes our passion makes our decisions about what we do and why we do it for us. Being lucky enough to meet the right people along the way doesn't hurt either.

Like Zing and Freddie Goldschmidt.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Zeebop update

Thanks to everyone who came to see us at Maggiano's in Friendship Heights last Saturday night, January 19th. We've been invited back to play on Wednesday, February 13th, from 6.30-9.30 p.m. and on March 12th, from 6.30-9.30 p.m. Mark your calendars. We'd like to thank Chandler Goff, the restaurant's beverage manager, for inviting us to play, and local D.C. musician and promoter Pablo Grabiel for making the arrangements to get us in the door. You can check out Pablo's website here.

Zeebop will be playing at the Blu Lounge in downtown Bethesda next Thursday, January 31st, from 6-9 p.m. More information next week.

Learn more about Zeebop by clicking here, including our schedule.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Remembering Paul McKenzie

On February 21st, 2007, Paul McKenzie , one of Washington, D.C.'s all-time great civic activists, died of pneumonia at age 53. His death came as a complete shock to everyone who knew him, especially his family. Paul was an incredibly energetic, vibrant and positive man who knew no boundaries in his commitment to civic improvement. He was involved in everything, from getting more trees planted along North Capitol St. to bringing major league baseball back to Washington to getting libraries re-opened to closing down roads for bike and pedestrian use to getting the city's dilapidated schools up to speed. The guy never, ever let up.

I didn't know Paul as a civic activist. I knew him as the 3rd line right wing on my adult hockey team that plays in Rockville, Maryland. Along with me, Paul was a founding member of the Red Army, so named for the Soviet Union's national team, which dominated world hockey in the 60s, 70s and 80s -- its loss to the United States in the semi-final round of the 1980 Winter Olympics not withstanding. He was, by far, the worst player on our team and maybe the worst in the entire league. He couldn't skate very well, even by adult hockey standards, and this from someone born in Canada. On the ice, he didn't talk trash; he just started conversations with other people. You'd see him in the corner trying to get the puck, and he's talking with his opponent not about the play, but about something else entirely. More often than not, he had no idea what was going on but never hesitated to question the referee's calls, and then turn to one of us to ask what rule it was that he was questioning. On the one or two occasions he scored a goal, he would skate with referees to the scorer's table to make sure they recorded his goal, and then he skate around with his stick in the air, jumping up and down on his skates, and occasionally falling on his ass. But, as I learned in the three seasons I played with him, he had a heart that was inverse to his hockey skills.

In yesterday's Washington Post, there was an absolutely marvelous article on Paul's long and sustained effort to bring high school hockey to D.C., a cause he started in 2003, even though he didn't yet have a child in high school (Paul's hockey-playing son, Alexander, now 15, was 11). He coached teams, helped them raise money and coordinated the logistics of their schedules. Paul wanted kids who didn't go to the elite private schools of Washington to play hockey, and his devotion was to them, not the kids with built-in privilege.

Read Jeff Nelson's entire article by clicking here. I'm not sure whose idea this was, but thank you anyway for this wonderful tribute to a great man.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Red State Update reviews the latest primaries

Jackie and Dunlap offer their commentary on the Nevada and South Carolina primaries. Jackie is particularly emotional about Fred Thompson's impending departure.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Anonymous critics

God bless the First Amendment, right? Freedom of speech, the right to believe what we want . . . to say what we want, . . . to stick it to the Man and to know that the Man, bloodied and bruised, can't stick it right back to us because the Constitution won't let him (or her, or it, or whomever).

How great is that? I mean, given the choice of living in a country where criticism of the government, an outrageous statement about a public official or public figure, songs full of sexually explicit lyrics or hosting a website that allows visitors to fulfill their sexual fantasies of watching uniformed fast-food workers go at it in cheap motel rooms lands you in jail or just having to accept the often uninformed, crude and malicious commentary that passes for intellectual exchange and artistic expression as the price of doing business, what would you choose?

Freedom, right? Or as Richie Havens once sung, over and over again, "FREEEEEEE-DOM! FREEEEEEEDOM! . . . "

Freedom, though, for what?

* * * * * * * * * *

My point in this post isn't to take on the First Amendment or the right of free speech. I'm an ACLU free speech person, right down the line. Like any free speech "absolutist," I support the occasional exception or two, since I don't believe that all "speech" is entitled to the same level of government protection. Laws banning the production, distribution and sale of child pornography don't bother me one bit. Other exceptions, though, aren't always so easy to find and defend. Generally, I limit my thinking about the First Amendment to what the government can or can't do to individuals (or groups or companies, etc.) who buck the sensibilities of the majority, whose sensibilities aren't always so . . . well . . . sensible.

My question, rather, is this: what motivates the "anonymous" critic to launch missiles, often profane, personal, unrelated to a writer or speaker's point and often ignorant, against a boss, teacher, writer, musician, cookbook author or bagel store owner? And I'm not sure what's weirder -- a personal attack against someone you know or just directing anger against someone you've never met.

The blogosphere is an interesting place. On the one hand, the power and capacity to find and exchange information is infinite. Since I started by own blog, I have "met" dozens of interesting people from all over the world -- literally. I hear from one person on a regular basis who lives in Manitoba (that's in Canada) and another who is currently living in Spain. Pieces I've written have gotten "picked up" in some interesting places, ranging from on-line "publications" to sites that serve as cyber-kiosks for the exchange of information. I've received a "thank-you" note from a professional musician about whom I wrote a small tribute, and one from a youth sports organization in Massachusetts now includes a piece I wrote on crazy sports parents in the "beginning of the season" packet it distributes to participating families. I also get emails from time to time from interesting people who like things I've written -- and from equally interesting people who disagree with something I've written, yet have something interesting or constructive to say.

Fine, so far.

Really, though, what motivates the other class of correspondents and fans who personalize their comments to a point that I wonder what they might do their dogs or children on a bad day? And, to compound that mystery, what good does someone writing anonymously think they're doing by going off on me -- or anyone else -- in a manner so degrading and so personal?

I started writing a blog because I wanted to practice my writing. It's the same piece of advice I give to students or young professionals or anyone who wants to improve their ability to communicate with the written word. It's really no different than encouraging a young musician to play as often with other people as he or she can, or encouraging a kid who wants to improve her golf game or throw to first from shortstop to practice as often as she can. You don't get better at something by offering advice that you don't take yourself. Professional academics, by and large, don't write very much, and when they do it's often for an audience of specialists. It's not at all uncommon for an academic political scientist to go an entire year without writing so much as a paragraph for an audience beyond his or her colleagues. Some academics view infrequent and specialized articles or essays as a sign of their intellectual superiority. Trying to engage a broader audience, or just testing how well you can communicate an idea on which you have an opinion is seen as an exercise in dumbing ourselves down. And then there is the worst criticism a professional academic can receive -- that our contributions aren't "scientific" or "scholarly," and shouldn't be taken seriously by anyone, lest of all our peers or our professional superiors who decide our promotions and raises. I don't agree with any of that.

A colleague, a student or some other reader who believes my blog is worthless and/or stupid shouldn't waste their time reading it. In this morning's papers, there are columns by George Will, William Kristol, David Broder, Charles Krauthammer, David Brooks and Robert Novak that I'll skip, just like I always do. I'll also skip Richard Cohen, Maureen Dowd, and, increasingly (and unfortunately) E. J. Dionne for the same reasons. The reason I'll skip them is because they're all predictable exercises in conventional wisdom intended for an audience that accepts convention as its discussion and policy parameters. I read conservative and liberal writers in other places that have more original and interesting takes on ideas and policy, some of whom are well-known -- Harold Meyerson, John Tierney and Gene Robinson, for example -- while others are so far off the charts of the opinion-making class that dominates the mainstream media that you couldn't find them without a AAA Trip Tix -- or Google.

Regardless of what I think about any of the above writers, I'll give them credit for one thing: they sign their name to what they write. Bill Kristol's recent receipt of a New York Times column has engendered some snarly comments in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the Gray Lady's motives in choosing someone so reviled by liberals, who view the Op-Ed page as their personal sanctuary from the conservatism that dominates the mass media. True, Kristol is pretty much wrong about everything, from Iraq to the moral sensibilities of the American middle-class on social and economic issues. But being right or wrong bears no relationship to one's status in the Washington punditry. Pedigree, social class and adherence to the norms of Washington's political-media complex are what result in professional advancement and one's place on the social ladder here. Whatever Kristol has to say -- and once you've read one column you've read them all -- he signs his name to what he writes. Give him credit for that.

In my insignificant corner of the cyber-universe, I now moderate all comments to my blog. I did this because I underestimated the immaturity and vitriol of readers who insist on reading pieces they find stupid, silly, intellectually weightless and so on and then firing anonymous comments for public view. I sign my name to everything I write because that's how I was taught many years ago in journalism school and by professional writers and editors for whom I worked in college. In the blogosphere, a clever name like, "Hempmaster," or "Liberalhater" is just as anonymous as signing your name as . . . anonymous. If you have something to say, sign your name and leave your contact information. Hiding beyond a computer screen under a pseudonym so that you can trash someone might help you feel better, but it adds nothing to a debate or exchange of ideas.

Perplexing as well is the inability it seems of some readers to distinguish between satire, political commentary, observational humor or what might just be my taste in art or music. An anonymous critic wanted to post a comment on the recent piece I wrote on wacky student behavior that accused me of "hating" my students. Only someone who doesn't know me could ever make an accusation that I "hate" my students. I find teaching and mentoring, at this point in my career, much more rewarding than writing hair-splitting "scholarly" articles on obscure topics for journals that no one, even academics, will read. In the last two weeks, I have received three absolutely lovely and touching letters from former students thanking me for contributing to their personal and professional development. I think that a teacher's "influence" is often overstated, but I'm not about to argue with a student for whom such a feeling is real and genuine. Just the other night about twenty current and former students came out to watch my band, Zeebop, play a local gig. Some new each other and some did not. Some I've known for a year or two and others I've known for fifteen. My children were the ring bearer and flower girl at one former student's wedding and our entire family was invited to attend another's recent wedding. Another former student who baby sat my now 13 year-old son when he was a year old just sent me pictures of her second child. Here's my point: if I "hated" my students so much, why would I have such long-lasting relationships with so many of them? Why do I find current and former students so interesting and inspiring to be around? Poking fun at the immature and silly behavior of undergraduates doesn't say anything about my feelings towards students as whole or any one student in particular, just like laughing at myself, my hockey buddies or my neighbors is just that -- laughing at the absurdities in the bigger world or the little one in which we live.

* * * * * * * * * *

As far as I know, anonymous attacks in the blogosphere don't really affect anyone's professional standing or compensation, unless those attacks cross the line from stupidity to defamation. At that point, things can certainly get messy. In my profession, though, anonymous criticism plays a huge role in whether professors get promoted and tenured or, in the second stage of their career, they get promoted to full professor. Anonymous criticism comes from two sources. The first is the anonymity given to scholars who are asked to review the research and professional contributions of a candidate up for promotion. That makes sense, as an evaluator should feel comfortable making a complete assessment of a candidate without fear of reprisal. Professional academics generally behave responsibly when evaluating a colleague. Like with everything, there are exceptions for academics behaving badly. In my experience, I have seen reviews thrown out because something other than professional norms appeared to motivate a reviewer. I know one reviewer who was discarded from a tenure review because her attack on a candidate up for promotion was motivated not by the professor's record, which was outstanding, but by a very clear animus towards her dissertation director. Usually, you can catch things like that. A candidate for promotion can also rebut a review, not always successfully, but at least the opportunity is there.

Teaching is another matter altogether. Despite what universities say, and this includes mine, all that matters in the end when assessing a professor's teaching "effectiveness" is his or her course evaluations as determined by students. Professors are not evaluated by their peers. No committee or academic officer, such as the Dean of Academic Affairs or the Provost, observes and assesses a teacher's style or their efforts to prod their students through unorthodox methods or simply for holding them to task for what their assigned to do. In short, there is no professional evaluation of professional academics. Students, who are told by their professors throughout the semester that their knowledge is subordinate to their own, who are taking a course presumably because they don't very much about the subject matter, who can be held responsible for not turning in their homework or attending classes and who are evaluated by professional scholars, in the end have complete control over a professor's fate simply by filling out a bubble form. This "evaluation" lasts about 5 to 10 minutes, involves no collaboration or discussion among students or between professors and students. There is no "adjustment" for professors who assign more reading or more papers than their colleagues, who require lots of writing or who are demanding graders. A professor who doesn't meet my university's definition of what constitute "good teaching," i.e., student approval in the 80%-plus range concluding you are very good or better at pleasing them, will get fired. There is that temptation to say that poor teachers shouldn't keep their jobs, regardless of their reputation as a scholar. In principle, I'm fine with that. What I'm not fine with are professors getting pressured to please their students instead of teach them because the students are our "customers," and our job is to keep them happy.

I stopped taking students evaluations seriously the moment I got promoted to full professor six years ago. I didn't take them terribly seriously beforehand as a measure of whether I did my job well or not. During any one part of the semester, students will make suggestions to me about what they want from the course. Can we read this book instead of that book? Can we do a group assignment? Can we have more or fewer exams? I listen to what they have to say and sometimes I will make an adjustment. Other times I will offer a change to the course and let the students have some say in whether we include or exclude something or not. In the end, I am going to do what I think is right for me and for them. I am a professional academic, and after almost 21 years of teaching at the college level I am pretty sure I know what I'm doing. I don't always do it as well as I'd like to, and I never get as frustrated as when I can't get across an idea that I believe is really important or that I didn't sufficiently challenge a class. In the end, though, I am more qualified than my students to evaluate my teaching. Students should have the right to offer their opinion on certain aspects of a professor's responsibilities to them. Does the professor miss too many classes? Does he or she appear unprepared for class? Does the teacher offer useful assignments? Was she polite to you when you came to her office to discuss the course? Did he answer questions completely and ask if there was anything else you needed to know?

Assistant professors up for tenure live in fear of their teaching evaluations. Associate professors awaiting promotion to full professor are not above manipulating their evaluations to boost their numerical scores. A well-timed assignment returned a day before the evaluations are given out that allows students to "improve" their grades will do wonders for professor's evaluations. Cutting back assignments and not making daily assignments mandatory will also help. Gasp! Do professors actually do this? Yes. Academics love what they do and want to keep doing it. If manipulating a process that is so unfairly weighted in favor of the student and riddled with bias and incompetence helps them, they'll do it . . . sure. This surprises you?

So is there a way to improve how professors are evaluated? Yes. Allow professors to evaluate other professors. We are within two hours of a dozen universities, including schools of national stature, such as Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, the University of Virginia, the University of Richmond and George Washington. Let them make "site visits" to assess the professionalism of a college instructor. Why not have university officials actually get involved in the substantive evaluation of the professors they are going to promote? Do you know that it's possible for a professor to get tenure and never have the Dean of Academic Affairs or any other ranking academic officer, including the Dean or Associate Dean of the school or college in which they teach observe their work? Crazy, isn't it?

And here's a radical concept: eliminate the anonymity of the student evaluations. Professors do not see the student evaluations until well after they have turned in their grades. Why do they need to be anonymous? Students who don't like us won't take us anymore, and students who do like our courses will take us again. A student who likes my courses enough to take them two or three times is welcome to make suggestions to me anytime. I may or may not incorporate them into my courses. But I will listen.

Put the student's name on every bubble sheet distributed during the end-of-the-semester evaluation. Put the student's name of every narrative comment sheet they fill out, the ones that our academic officers don't read. The narrative evaluations, as I've written before, are intended for professors, a chance for a student to offer suggestions they can't make on the bubble sheets. I could be wrong, but I bet students who had to be accountable for what they said to or about a professor might be a little more temperate in their assessment. Hopefully, they might be a little more mature in their narrative comments. I mean, it's all well and good that I'm "hot for a straight guy," and "good at remembering Supreme Court decisions," but that doesn't help me anymore than someone calling me a "dick," or concluding that I'm "secretly gay because [my] clothes match" does. Commentary like this is useless, as is 99% of the narrative comments we get. Frankly, I haven't read the narrative comments in years, except when my assistant goes through them to pull out quotes for my web page. I evaluate everything my students do, from how often they come to class to the contributions they make to class discussion to how well I believe they carry out the assignments I give them. In fact, I spend more time in one week evaluating a student's progress in my class than that same student will spend evaluating me over a semester's worth of work.

I sign my name to everything I do. If professors cannot hide behind the cloak of anonymity in their evaluation of student work, then students should be held to the same standards when they evaluate ours.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

New Bush coins

Our currency of the future?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

John McCain's amnesia

Read Mark Benjamin's piece in Salon today on John McCain's carefully packaged campaign to convince voters that he was "right all along" in his support for the Iraq war.

What exactly makes John McCain a "maverick" when he is a down-the-line conservative Republican? That he doesn't want to execute then deport every illegal immigrant? That he believes the surge, which led to the deadliest year in the Iraq war, is somehow "working?" Working for what end?

This nonsense drives me crazy . . . just like Hillary's "experience."

UPDATE: See Adrian Wooldridge's Op-Ed, "Mr. Right," in Thursday morning's New York Times. He isn't persuaded by McCain's "maverick" reputation for the simple reason that he isn't much of one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

OMG, the semester has SO fucking started!

Tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . .

so went the clock until it reached 9.55 a.m., January 14th, 2008. And that could mean only one thing . . .

Like, the winter -- or, like, is it spring? -- semester has SO fucking started! Really . . . totally . . . it has! And, like, do you know how I can SO totally tell? Because, like, yesterday, I was so walking across our quad to, like, I don't know, someplace or whatever, and I walked into the Mary Graydon Center and, like, I saw these two girls TOTALLY JUMPING UP AND DOWN, SCREAMING INTO THEIR PHONES . . .

"Oh, my God, you are like so standing in front of me, like five feet away, so turnaround and you'll see me!" shrieked the smitten young Uggess into her phone. "You will so see me. Look, look, oh, look you bitch. I'm right here!"

Uggess #2 spun around . . . and, "AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! How are you? Oh, my God, there you are!!!!" jumping and jumping so high and so hard her A/F sweatpants fell out of her Uggs. Bad fashion moment, poor thing.

"This is so awesome!" said Uggess #1. "I was so going to call you, but now you're here! What are you going to do? I'm going to do nothing, maybe, like, hang out a little or I don't know. You should hang out, oh, my God, I'm so psyched to see you. Did you think about me over break because I was, like, so missing you! Can you believe the semester has so fucking started" . . . and on and on. I'm not sure if the conversation improved. How could it not?

From five feet away, Uggess #1 was talking to Uggess #2 on her cellphone, and Uggess #2 was squealing in delight that Uggess #1 had called her. From five feet away, Uggess #2 was "so psyched" that she jumped and jumped and jumped and jumped . . . . From five feet away, all this activity took place on cell phones. From five feet away, they could have talked to each other without their phones. Why didn't they?

* * * * * * * * * *

After the first five minutes of each class I met on Monday, I knew who would be the talkers that didn't have much to say, the ones who wouldn't say a word all semester but have the highest grades in the class, the ones who will inject words like "ontological," "heterosexist," "democratization," "Islamo-fascist" into their commentary, just to show their classmates they can, yet have no idea what any of those words mean, the ones who insist on raising their hands after every sentence, the ones with the persecution complex, the young politico convinced that I am promoting the political agenda of a certain candidate for whom he does not work, the ones who will gossip and say things about me like, "Did he wear that shirt last class period?" or "Dude, do you think he partied college?" or "I heard he's married to a Australian dwarf with lyme disease," or "I heard he shipped his kid off to military school" or ask me 13 times during the semester why I didn't I go to law school, do I want to run for office, did I date Sheryl Crow, do I have a Volkswagen Eurovan, was I at Cactus Cantina last Thursday do I have a gold Prius, did I hear about the changes to the SC internal memo policy or am I familiar with his position on subsidized trade with Bulgaria and, if not, would I like to read his paper on it?

I don't have a formal scientific explanation for my ability, shared, I think, by most professors, to figure out which students will behave which way. You can just tell.

One thing I still have a hard time figuring out is who the student "land mines" are among the newbies, the student who will not be totally passive during the semester, but not offer much in the way of commentary or opinion either, but nonetheless decide to get their ya-yas out on the course evaluations. Not only was yours the worst class ever, you were the worst person . . . EVER . . . for "fucking up my life, so thanks a lot, asshole!" and more, sometimes even sensual insights into your teaching method, like "you're a dick!" What angers these students so much that they feel compelled to write comments like that? Is it any wonder that so few faculty, once they've gotten tenure, take the course evaluations seriously? Why should they? The students don't.

The idea that a student can evaluate a class in 10 minutes on the last day of the semester is utterly and completely ridiculous. Evaluation means a thorough assessment of the planning, intellectual content, goals, and approach of a particular course and the professor who taught it. In those 10 minutes, a student is not capable of offering that kind of assessment. One question in particular always amuses me: "The professor was knowledgeable."

How does someone 19 or 21 years old with 12 weeks of a course behind him or her know if the professor was knowledgeable? Honestly, put me in Intro Biology or Finite Math for a semester, and there is no way in hell that I could tell you if the professor was knowledgeable. For all I know, she could be a Nobel Prize laureate or some yokel off the turnip truck who never made it much past the one-room schoolhouse he attended with his 7 year-old son -- when he could get a ride, that is.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here's a new one. I stopped in the third floor men's room in the Ward building, where most of our classes are taught, after lunch on Monday. Naturally, the urinals had not been flushed because that would require too much effort. After all, you can't expect an undergraduate just returning for the start of the semester to flush the toilet and go to class and buy books in the same day, or even the same week. And I'm certain that if a student had thought about flushing the urinal he probably decided against it after concluding that a syllabus a professor had just handed him earlier in the day did not require him to do so. Yep, yep, yep! These are some of my favorite students, the ones who are preparing for careers as union negotiators or corporate attorneys ("It doesn't say in the syllabus, Professor Ivers, that we can't snort Vicodin in class. You just said that we can't eat or bring alcoholic beverages to class"), the ones always looking to beat the system rather than just shut up and do the work.

So I did what any trained parent of small children would do: I flushed the urinal before I used it.

Then I heard a voice say, "Hey, man, do you mind? I'm trying to talk."

I turned around and saw two feet under the stall. No Larry Craig action, mind you. Just some guy who was slipping in an important phone conversation while taking his afternoon constitutional.

"Hey, man, I'm sorry. Some asshole was flushing the toilet," said Two Shoe Voice Man from behind his stall door. "Anyway, I don't know, man, like, I guess you could stop by later . . ."

Did this just happen? Did some guy just tell me not to flush the urinal because it interfered with his phone conversation? While sitting on the damn toilet? In a public restroom?

So I did what I had to do. I flushed the second urinal. Then the first one. Then the second one. Then the first one. Again and again and again.

"What the hell are you doing, asshole? I can't hear a damn thing."

Since he wasn't in a position to take me on, I flushed the urinal again. Then I flushed them both at the same time.

"Why are you being such as asshole, dude?"

I gave him the only answer I could.

"Because I have tenure!" I told him.

"Oh, shit," he said.

"Oh, shit is right. Don't forget to wash your hands."

* * * * * * * * * *

Faculty received an email the weekend before the semester started informing us that we could "bluecard" students into our classes if we had extra seats in the classroom, even though our class sizes are set by the registrar. For example, if my class is set at 35 but I'm teaching in a room that holds 50, I can add up to 15 students without pissing off the Fire Marshall.

Not me. I enroll to the class size and that's it. I don't allow blue cards because if I allow one I have to allow them all. I got this idea, by the way, from Justice Scalia, who opposes exemptions for religious believers to laws that apply to the general population. Give one exemption, says Nino, and you have to give one to anyone that wants one, and that leads to bad policy and favoritism. I never thought I'd say this but he's got a good point.

Like many decisions on class size and room choice, this decision has a mysterious origin. No one I've talked to seems to know whose idea it was. Students apparently got wind of this, as I have been inundated with emails informing me that "I know you have 13 seats available in your classroom" or "I'll really try" or "My friend says I should take your class" or "If I don't take your class I can't graduate in May" or "You can pick on me. I can take it!!!!" Doesn't matter. No blue cards. The university tells our incoming students that we pride ourselves on small class size. I feel morally compelled to honor that commitment.

No blue cards. Not now. Not ever.

* * * * * * * * * *

Here and there, someone will ask me if I watch a particular television show or if I've seen a new movie or listened to a new record by a band, usually with a name like, "Belly Button Skank Sisters," or what I thought about some politician's most recent speech on greenhouse emissions by GM trucks. My answer is pretty standard: if there is something I don't like I don't watch or listen to it. I don't understand people who sit through horrible programs or movies, read bad books, spit their coffee on newspaper columnists they find outrageous or idiotic or listen to terrible recordings just so they can say how bad they are. We have more than a few students, and perhaps faculty and staff, that don't share that view.

Why, for example, do students not enrolled in your classes make the time and effort to post nasty comments about you on these "I Hate My Professors" websites? Why do people you've never taught do the same? Why do professional colleagues leave comments, thinking they're anonymous, on websites or blogs that point out how stupid or inferior you are when they could just pop their head in your office and say, "You know, I think you're really stupid and I'm really smart." Why do people do this when you never done anything to them? It really makes you wonder about what is going on in someone's life that they're willing to spend so much time pointing out your deficiencies.

* * * * * * * * * *

After my last class on Monday, I overheard a student taking it -- and me, for the first time -- say that he was "going to get me" just to prove I wasn't "all that."

Why do students view the learning process as adversarial? Why can't an undergraduate, supposedly in college to expand his or her horizons, grasp that a professor who asks them questions they can't answer should think or read a little bit more so that, next time, he or she can better engage a discussion. I've never tried to make a student "look stupid." Is it really my fault if I ask students to explain why they believe the Constitution permits someone to do X or Y and they can't?

By the way, I don't think I'm "all that." Never interpret my enthusiasm for teaching and trying to get students to realize and maximize their intelligence as thinking I'm "all that." Never interpret my interest in trying to offer students something more than taking down notes as thinking I'm "all that." How can a student who never comes to my office hours, has never had a conversation with me about anything, who doesn't know me outside the 2 1/2 hours a week I spend in class him or her, believe he or she knows me well enough to think that I think I'm "all that."

Or that I don't.

By the way, good lucking "getting" me. Just tell me where you'd like to be buried.

* * * * * * * * * *

Two of my three classrooms on Monday did not have chalk. But they were all wireless.

Whup-de-doo!

* * * * * * * * * *

Memo to students who tell me they can't afford books for class: You shouldn't tell me this while you're wearing $600 worth of designer clothes. If you can afford Juicy Couture, a North Face ski jacket, multiple pairs of Uggs, Cole Haan stilettos, tailored leather jackets or Armani loafers, you can pop for a $75 textbook.

* * * * * * * * * *

Have a good semester. And remember, all the stories you've heard about me are true.

Unless they're not.

Monday, January 14, 2008

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Red State Update on Mike Huckabee's potty mouth

Jackie and Dunlap have some suggestions on good manners for Mike Hukabee.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Jazz Icons

Reelin' In The Years, a music/video production company, is releasing an incredible set of DVDs featuring some of jazz's greatest figures, including John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Wes Montgomery and Louis Armstrong called Jazz Icons. These DVDs feature rare and sometimes unreleased concert and studio footage, mostly in black and white, and the results are incredible. I have the above releases and they are great to have in the background even if you're doing something where you can't see a television or computer screen. If you to start with one, get the Wes Montgomery DVD because recorded video of him is extremely rare. You need to see how he played the guitar to believe it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Bugs that go zap . . . in my sandwich?

Yes, yes . . . it's true. Four of the best reasons to teach at the college level are June, July, August and the December/January winter break. And if you finesse your final classes just a little bit as they wind down in May, you can reserve most of that month for "research" and "contemplation," too.

So I guess that makes five reasons, not four.

Wait just a minute! Let's not forget about spring break, that wonderful March sabbatical we share with our students, who, having worked themselves into exhaustion after six whole weeks of classes, head straight for the nearest cruise liner, beach, ski resort or other such hardscrabble venue. Professors, on the other hand, take that week to finish articles or papers that we owe editors, conference organizers or some other angry colleague, clean out our offices, clean up our houses, pick up our dry cleaning, assuming it hasn't been "donated" to charity, get the oil changed in our cars, maybe even catch up on our reading or start assembling fantasy baseball teams. No, we do not -- or at least I don't, anyway -- "head off" for spring break, as so many of my students seem to believe we do. When a student volunteers something like, "Oh, I'm, like, going on a cruise? or something? for spring break, and I am, like, so psyched, that, like, I am going because, like, half my friends are, like, also going," I am always tempted to respond . . .

"Oh, me too! Like, the same one! Maybe I'll get to see you at the gambling tables or throwing up over the side after we've challenged each other to a Jagermeister contest. Like, wouldn't that be so fun!"

or . . .

"Three other professors and I are all going to drive down to Florida together and just see what happens. No reservations, no hotels and only $100 a piece, just to see if we can pull it off. We figure if get desperate we can get on "Professors Gone Wild" and get famous that way."

But I don't because I genuinely, genuinely fear that I'd get a, "WOW! THAT IS LIKE SO AWESOME . . . WE'LL TOTALLY HAVE TO MEET UP AND PARTY . . . LIKE THAT IS SO COOL . . . DO YOU KNOW LAURA, SHE'S GOING TOO AND SHE'LL BE SO PSYCHED THAT YOU'RE GOING AS WELL," response in return, and that would end up morphing into a telephone-type story that had me going to Mexico to buy dirt-bag weed in order to entice illegal immigrants to make pornographic films by saying I was conducting a comparison of North American judicial processes, and how I got arrested because I was a terrorist and . . . and . . . and . . . this might mean that I would be late returning some sort of cockamamie assignment.

Winter break, like spring break, isn't all fun and games. The December/January interlude is a time for universities to engage in their periodic and strangely unnecessary improvements to our physical plant, replace carpet that looks perfectly fine, paint railings that seem to get painted more often that our bathrooms are cleaned or offices vacuumed and numerous other projects. If you are a professor, and if you decide to come to campus over the break, you are faced with the even bleaker prospect that our campus dining facilities are unavailable, and you are left to choose between McDonalds, some sort of hobo-pack from the Eagle's Nest, our campus convenience store that takes no backseat to 7-11 when it comes to extortion or Subway, which is housed inside the Eagle's Nest. Because Subway is a national chain, and because American University is not the airport, it charges customers here what it would charge them anywhere. McDonalds and I reached an agreement to go our separate ways a long time ago. And no, we're not good friends because McDonalds was not ever so close to me that I considered it more like a brother than a delicious place to secure sustenance. Nope . . . the break was good and clean and irrevocable.

Subway, then, was my choice. I had a lunch on Lay-Away over at our other local extortion palace, the American Cafe, a sandwich shop in the lobby of the Ward building, where my non-vacuumed and rarely cleaned office is located, the same building where I teach most of my classes in rooms that don't have chalk or A/V systems that work consistently BUT . . . do have new carpet and wireless portals for our students to plug in their laptops so they can play Solitaire during class or Google chat their friends five seats over or get some shopping in before going home to do some more shopping and Google chatting. The American Cafe doesn't stay open during the winter break, so my lunch will have to wait until next week, assuming I can afford to make the payments (the interest is killing me) . . .

An incredibly cheerful "Sandwich Artist" greeted me in line -- and, to clear something up, you wait "in" a line, not "on" a line -- and asked me what kind of bread I'd like her to build . . . create . . . sculpt . . . draw my sandwich. Well, well . . . isn't this upscale? I thought. Not just white or wheat, but all kinds of interesting choices. I chose my bread and decided to treat myself to a foot-long Subway Club, the better to see my Sandwich Artist's work. Was she a modernist? An expressionist? An impressionist? A disciple of Andy Warhol? Would she just draw the sandwich six times and present it to me, or make six little sandwiches and present them side by side? A cubist? Would she make six "White Castle" type sandwiches and present them to me on stainless steel? So many possibilities . . . I could even pick my own cheese.

And then it happened . . .

Z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-a-a-a-a-a-p!

And again . . .

Z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-a-a-a-a-a-p!

And there it was . . . the electric blue bug zapper (pictured above), right behind the toaster and sandwich station where the Sandwich Artists and, presumably, their apprentices, make life from nothing. Whatever the artistic appeal of the electric blue zapper might be, placing it above where my sandwich is being "created" doesn't . . . hmm . . . I don't know . . . make me want to take a big bite and go, Mmm-mmm, good! Oh, wait, that's the Campbell's Soup slogan. Or it once was.

My enthusiasm for my Sandwich Artist's creation began to wane a bit, although it was no fault of her own. Hearing two bugs get zapped as I was waiting for my lunch didn't have much rustic appeal, or appeal of any kind. And this being a university campus, there was a good chance that someone would be so offended by the unsanctioned taking of a bug's life that I could be taken hostage in the Eagle's Nest, a pawn in a game of chance between a greedy company that lured bugs to their death so it could prepare sandwiches consisting of meats taken from animals. God only knows what other issues might arise in the standoff that might ensue? Did the Subway Sandwich Artists have employer-provided health care? Had their name tags been tested on animals? Were the toys included in the kid's meals made in China and thus merely a pastel covered death stick? How bad was this going to get?

On the bright side, I had my iPod, fully charged, so I could wait this out with 26.9 gigs of music to deter the eventual ending that would come of this . . . smoke bombs, a psychotic SWAT team sharpshooter who opened fire without permission . . . probably on me . . . a tragic miscalculation on the ransom demands . . . no one available to just give the hostage-taker a "C" so he could graduate and move on, the academic accomplishments of the other students be damned.

Whatever. I decided to pay for my sandwich and take a chance. Chomp-chomp-chomp and down it went. So good was my sandwich that it put me in food coma and led to a nice afternoon siesta . . . until I woke up hearing that sound . . .

Z-z-z-z-z-z-z-z-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-p!

School starts Monday. I think I'll make it a bring day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Donald Fagen

Donald Fagen, perhaps better known to the public as one-half of Steely Dan (Walter Becker, his musical collaborator since 1968, represents the other half of the most musically formidable American band of the last 40 years), turned 60 today. Other than Paul McCartney, no one comes close to this remarkable composer, pianist and singer for mastery of the post-1960 popular songwriting craft. McCartney is certainly the gold standard of pop songwriters; but Fagen took everything that made McCartney so distinctive -- harmonic sophistication, melodic imagination, marvelous and memorable hooks and off-center chord progressions that sound perfectly natural -- and incorporated jazz and more overt rhythm and blues elements to create songs that sound like no other composer. Fagen's signature style is augmented by his distinctive voice -- a raspy, soul-inflected and filled-with-irony -- that brings the characters he writes about to life. His voice, like McCartney and Sting's -- is also perfectly pitched to the music he writes. No one can make his songs sound as good as he can. Fagen, whether on his own or with Steely Dan -- has always found the best musicians available to play his compositions. Like Duke Ellington, Fagen writes with specific musicians in mind. A saxophone solo is written for just any tenor sax player; it's written for Wayne Shorter or Chris Potter. A guitar solo is written for Jon Harrington or Larry Carlton. A drum part left open for Bernard Purdie, Steve Gadd or, now, Keith Carlock to complete. And what does it say that any popular or jazz musician will drop what they're doing to play on a Steely Dan or Fagen record.

Fagen's 60th birthday comes right around the same time as the 25th anniversary of his first solo album, "The Nightfly." That album was released in late fall 1982, the first semester of senior year in college, and, all these years later, stands the test of time as one of the most remarkable records ever released in popular music. The record offers Fagen, then 35, at his best: gorgeous compositions that cross an array of musical styles, from brass-inflected pop to calypso to swing jazz to lush harmonies that would make Gershwin stand up and take notice. The playing is, of course, superb and inventive. What makes "The Nightfly" such a stunning recording, though, is the storytelling that links the songs together. In the record liner notes, Fagen admits to the record being autobiographical -- "The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city (South Passaic, New Jersey) during the late fifties and early sixties., i.e., one of my general height, weight and build." On the back, you can a light on in an upstairs bedroom in modest, post-World War II bungalow. Fagen has said in interviews that the person in that bedroom was him, listening to jazz radio stations beaming in from New York, intrigued by boppers and the Blue Note recordings of that period. Thelonious Monk was his E.T., reaching into his window (and ears) and showing him that something more was out there than the conventional "white music" he heard on the pop stations.

Donald Fagen assumed that role for me and a couple of my friends in our early adolescence. My musical tastes were, at that point, largely derivative of what my parents exposed me to and what I might hear from a friend's big brother or sister. Blues-inflected rock like Hendrix, Cream, the Allmans, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and others were dominating the turntables in our neighborhood's basements. At the time, that stuff really wasn't for me, although I would later jump on board the Allmans and Zep trains. In one night, my musical tastes changed forever when I heard "Do It Again" by Steely Dan, "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes and "Living in the Past" by Jethro Tull right in a row on WXQI 94.1 FM. Becker and Fagen became my Thelonious Monk (Yes would soon become an obsession, as I had never heard a rock band play music arranged like that before; but that is a separate post . . .), showing me a whole new world of music that existed in the popular song form. I mean, who other than the Beatles could make the electric sitar sound perfectly natural in a rock context?

Listening to Steely Dan began my long backwards migration into jazz. I remember listening to "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" one day, and my father pointing out how the introduction bore a marked similarity to "Song For My Father" by Horace Silver. There were music homages to Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins and Grant Green and lyrical references to the "new saxophone sensation" signed by "Savoy Record." The "sensation," of course, was Charlie Parker. How many rock musicians knew that Charlie Parker was recorded by Savoy Records? Then there was -- and remains -- the dark underside of Steely Dan's lyrics -- the prostitutes, street low-life, failed hipsters, corporate criminals, pick-up artists, shifty women, drug dealers to the stars that have and continue to star in all their records from "Can't Buy a Thrill" through "Everything Must Go" -- that offered a jarring contrast to their smooth-as-silk tunes. For me, everything great about Steely Dan comes together on "Deacon Blues," a song about a white, suburban wannabe jazz musician and hipster who doesn't quite get there sung and played so beautifully that you would never know it is a song about loss, failure and isolation all too familiar to anyone who has ever dreamed of something more than putting on a suit and going to work.

"The Nightfly" plays on my iHome as I sit in bed, the clock pushing midnight, writing this on my laptop. All the familiar characters from the early 60s come back to life -- the World's Fair optimism of "I.G.Y," complete with a "future that looks bright . . . powered by the sun, perfect weather for a streamlined world, spandex jackets one for everyone." . . . the dark streets uncovered by a suburban boy in New York on "Greenflower Street," the first-love romance of "Maxine," a song I danced on the roof to in college with the girl I then loved, Beth Callaway, on more than one late Saturday night/early Sunday morning, dreaming about her being "my seniorita, in jeans and pearls," . . . the early 60s optimism of the "New Frontier," the coming of talk radio with "The Nightfly" ("you say there's a race of men in the trees/You're for tough legislation/Thanks for calling/I wait all night for calls like these"), the failed clandestine effort to shake up a Latin American country in "The Goodbye Look," and the shimmering, cinematic ending of "Walk Between the Raindrops," with a lyric ("When we kissed we could hear the sound of thunder/As we watched the regulars rush the big hotels/We kissed again as the showers swept the Florida shore/You opened your umbrella/But we walked between the raindrops back to your door") that brought to life my first "vacation kiss" with someone I met on a family trip to Miami Beach in the 7th grade. An album released in 1982 sounds so natural today, even though the music and lyrics are rooted in the late 1950s and 1960s. Fagen's genius will never get the popular recognition of McCartney, Sting, Stevie Wonder or Paul Simon because of the jazz dissonance and lyrical adventurism of his music. But I will continue to leave the reading light on by my bedroom window, a signal to this giant of modern music that he is always welcome to reach in and show me the possibilities of sweetness, sorrow, cynicism, loss, nostalgia and optimism that exist in the popular song form.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Red State Update on the New Hampshire primary

Jackie and Dunlap interpret the New Hampshire primary results.

Oops!

Obamania isn't Beatlemania after all. And crying works.

Okay, okay . . . so the presidential campaign isn't over yet, and Hillary Clinton will live to take another position on the Iraq war, invading Iran, illegal immigration and so many other things. And Barack Obama's victory in Iowa wasn't quite the equivalent of the Beatles arrival at Kennedy Airport in February 1964. Why I was dumb enough to get ahead of myself on this, especially when I think I know better, is a question for scholars to ponder in their future research.

I do think there are real and substantial differences between Obama and Clinton that will favor the former and not the latter down the line these next several months. But I'll let others make bad predictions. I've got too much else to get wrong than to focus on the "am not-are too" portion of the presidential campaign season.

Hillary's "emotional moment" might have finally allowed her to connect with voters. When I heard her thanking her supporters on the radio as I was coming home from my hockey game, where I suffered an injury that might shelve me for a bit, she sounded robotic and flat, even though she was trying to communicate her feelings and remind voters that progress and change are what she's stood for her entire adult life. Obama, on the other hand, sounded vibrant and upbeat, and emotionally engaged. These two might have to go at it for a while, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The big question will be this: After months of exposure to both candidates, and the tighter the race is the more they will have to communicate their ideas to the public, who will the voters find more appealing?

The college consulting racket

This Sunday's New York Times featured a story on the rise of college consultants and "education brokers." I'll have more to say on the professionalization on yet another dimension of American society this in a week or so, but, for now, you can find that story and other related ones here.

There are also some interesting pieces on what it takes to land an internship at those hard-to-get companies, magazines, law firms and other such places; how to save many when you visit colleges (and graduate programs) and much more in the same issue.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Happy Birthday Claire!

Happy Birthday to Ms. Claire Ivers -- and it's Ms., not Miss -- the most adorable, creative and brilliant nine year-old teenage-girl out there. You are the most amazing daughter that a father could have, and not just because you own 783 pair of shoes, are co-president of the "Anti-George Bush" Club at your elementary school, or manage to introduce a dramatic element into everything you do -- playing soccer, changing the television channel or just putting one foot in front of the other. I'm sorry I've ruined your life on a daily basis, but those hugs at the end of the day somehow give me the impression that all is forgiven.

Mathematically modeling affirmative action's benefits?

Came across an interesting article in the Science Times section in today's New York Times. Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics at the University of Michigan, has just published a book called, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies (Princeton University Press). His conclusion: diversity helps organizations be more creative, productive and dynamic by making a conscious effort to include different points of view.

Proponents of affirmative action have, for the most part, made this an important part of their argument on behalf of the selective inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities, women and others who have historically been victims of discrimination by our major institutions. But here's the problem: large organizations, including universities, are dominated by group-think. From my nineteen years of experience as a college professor, I can tell you that just getting university officials to think about changing the color of our parking stickers is like moving a glacier. Dissident opinion is not especially welcome in university life; agreement is largely expected, and a good number of professors and professional staff go along because challenging the status quo is not exactly conducive to career-building.

Anyway, I digress . . . surprise, surprise. Professor Page provides some interesting thoughts in his interview. Check it out.

Red State Update goes inside the last New Hampshire debate

Jackie and Dunlap obtain secret audio of the last debate featuring the Republican and Democratic candidates before the New Hampshire primary.

And here's their send-off to Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Lethal injection argued in the Supreme Court

Baze v. Rees, the Kentucky lethal injection case, was argued before the Supreme Court this morning. The Court agreed to take the case in late September, a decision that effectively placed an-almost three month moratorium on executions in the United States. 2007 passed with one state abolishing the death penalty through legislation (New Jersey) and the nation as a whole executing the fewest number of people in more than 20 years.

You can read the New York Times account of the argument here.

Feeling Obama

For the past couple of days, I have wanted to write something about the outcome of the Iowa caucus, but too many new bits and pieces of interesting news surfaced every time I had a moment to sit in front of my computer. I suppose I was also distracted by collective mea culpea of the mainstream media which professed shock at Barack Obama's decisive victory and at Hillary Clinton's equally decisive loss. One funny note that went unreported last Thursday night and Friday morning -- the only candidate to make as much headway in Iowa and nationally in the last six weeks as Barack Obama has been John Edwards, and most of what passes for "analysis" of his candidacy is devoted either to (a) his looks and/or hair or (b) his "fake" populism. John Edwards, like every other candidate, has his flaws and contradictions. But that doesn't mean his progress among Democrats nationally and his second place showing over Clinton should be discounted, much less ignored.

Clearly, though, Edwards' progress isn't the real story right now. Obama's surge and the temporary spectacular crash and burn of Hillary's presidential candidacy is, of course, the bigger news. Neither development has surprised me. Almost a year ago, I wrote that Hillary Clinton would not get the Democratic nomination, and I have never backed off that position. What surprised me then, surprised me six months later, and surprised me up until last Thursday night is that anyone with a feel for American politics believed she even had a chance to win the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency. Hillary has been an absolutely dreadful candidate -- robotic, uninspiring, self-impressed and strangely unable to connect with Democratic voters who are looking for anyone and anything to take the White House back from Republican control. Combine the warmth, personality and charm of Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry and what do you get? Hillary Clinton. If you're a Democrat, ask yourself this: did you ever really like any of those candidates? Feel like you could relate to them? Get inspired enough to raise hell on behalf of any of them?

Didn't think so. Being the class valedictorian is a wonderful credential as long as your next goal is to get into an elite college, graduate or professional school, or, perhaps, land a prestigious academic appointment. Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry and now Clinton are all very book smart people, no doubt about that. But being smart won't get you very far in politics if you cannot communicate what you know to people who are looking to you for guidance, confidence and inspiration. Campaign politics, in some ways, is analogous to teaching or playing music. Whatever I know as a political scientist or drummer won't mean much to people if I can't get them to listen and think about what I've said, or tap their foot and smile by listening to any music I might help create. I've had half a mind to send Hillary's advisors a bumper sticker I picked up at a local record store in D.C. -- "Drum Machines Have No Soul." You can program them to do some interesting things, but somewhere down the line no one will ever feel inspired to pick up a pair of sticks and make music because of a computer-programmed drum track. Listening to Ringo, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, John Bonham, Roy Haynes and (don't laugh) pre-pop star Phil Collins made me reach for anything and start hitting and tapping something.

Obama's emergence as the person to beat in the 2008 presidential campaign -- and that's what he is right now, not just the Democratic candidate to beat -- is based on what musicians call feel. Obama inspires people -- old people, young people, professionals, tradespeople, men, women, African-Americans, white people . . . really everyone who is looking for something to lift them out the desultory state of current affairs. Hillary can spend as much money as she wants on image consultants, focus groups, tracking polls, makeovers . . . whatever she and her campaign staff believe will endear her to a public that cannot warm up to her. That isn't going to happen. I know many formally trained musicians who know everything there is to know about music theory, composition, harmony, are great sight-readers . . . anything you could want an A-student to be, but can't play a lick of music because they just don't feel "it." And that "it" is the mysterious factor that pulls us to so many things -- a friend, a spouse, an artist, a wine -- that can't always be charted out in academic terms. Give Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Page the same guitar, tell them to play the same notes and chords and you won't get anything remotely similar. Two approaches, two sensibilities, two different lives and two very different sets of ears. The differences aren't based on what they know -- it's what they feel, and how they've chosen to communicate that knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is just a feeling about how things work or how they should, what's important, what's not, and how to make informed decisions.

Strangely enough, the rap on Obama in the mainstream media is that he's a little too clever, a little too precocious, a little too smooth and a little too handsome to take seriously as a possible president. In other words, Obama's the anti-Hillary. He gets by on charm and charisma; she's the perpetual A-student taking an extra course on Toxicity in Bird Feeders just so she'll be able to impress people with her knowledge of such an arcane subject. He tells the teacher he doesn't write well and would like an oral exam, gets one because who could say no to Barack Obama, and promptly makes his examiners' desks fall over. She earned her way onto the Honor Roll by working twice as hard as the boy next to her, who may well have been Obama.

I don't think that's remotely fair. Obama is a very smart guy. Not just book smart, which he is, but life smart. Far more people can relate to him than Hillary Clinton, whose efforts to "humanize" herself -- the crying jag, for example, on television this afternoon after a reporter asked her if the criticism she faces on the campaign trail is hard on her -- inevitably backfire for the same reasons they always have. Any effort to take consciously new positions raises the standard criticism of any Clinton -- parsing and compromising to win votes. And any effort to change is viewed as insincere and not reflective of who she really is. Up until Iowa, Hillary was the candidate of experience. Since last Thursday, and especially over the weekend in New Hampshire, Hillary has undergone the kind of metamorphosis usually restricted to people featured on Fashion 911 and Extreme Makeover. Now she is the candidate of "change," . . . until next week, when she will be the candidate of something else.

Barack Obama will win the New Hampshire primary tomorrow because people there want him to win. Republicans are petrified of Obamania because, whether they realize it or not, their American Idol-inspired search for the heir to Ronald Reagan is the junior senator from Illinois. But there is one major difference that trumps all the others between them: Obama is a lot, lot, lot smarter, as smart as any of his Democratic rivals and definitely smarter than any of the Republicans running for their party's nomination. Hillary's pre-"change" effort on competence and experience sounded eerily like Michael Dukakis's disastrous, "This election is not about ideology; it's about competence" line from his 1988 Democratic nomination acceptance speech. The election ended right there. To some extent, elections are always about ideology, or what passes for ideology in US politics. Not real specific ideas, but more abstract feelings about right and wrong. Take Iraq. No one really wants to be there, and no one has a clue about how to end US involvement there other than to pack up and go, and that smacks too much of defeatism for most Americans to embrace.

The Hillary-tanic began to capsize in Iowa, and will sink further towards the bottom if she loses tomorrow in New Hampshire. By next week, she will have spent almost $75 million getting elected to something since 2006, when she spent $37 million to win re-election to the Senate.
Her presidential campaign war chest is $80 million. That is an awful lot of money spent to learn that knowledge is only as good as your ability to communicate it, and that, unless you can persuade people that the vibe is rolling in your favor, you're just another talking suit without a soul.