Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

if I could settle down

July 21st, 2010

When I was in college, I legitimately thought that I would “grow up” surrounded by peers who were from all kinds of different backgrounds from me but who all had similar tastes as me. I thought my musical opinions said more about who I was than pretty much anything else I could think of. Look: I’d spent pretty much my entire life surrounded by Midwestern white kids my age. They were almost all Protestant. They were almost all from wealthier families – especially when I was in grade school, and then again when I got to college. And since I went to a rural high school, and then I went to a small college, I never got any kind of urban studies education or anything like that. I didn’t think in terms of my whiteness, or in terms of my protestantness, or anything like that. By the time I was 20, what was pretty clear was that what distinguished me the most from most of the people I knew was my music, and what created connections between me and other people was mostly music (and computer-geekdom a close second.)

For reasons which will be immediately obvious and understandable to some of you, and completely obscure to most, the band which I most closely identified with at the age of 18 was Pavement. Either you know what I mean or you don’t, and if you don’t, it’s hard to explain it. But there are literally tens of thousands of people who know exactly what I mean. There’s a broader connection there than maybe any other connection I’ve ever really felt, and I say that fully conscious of the inherent outlandishness of the idea.

The 1960s – by which I really men about 1963-1975 – were a reaction against the 1950s, and the 1980s were, sociopolitically, a reaction against the 1960s. The 1990s were not really reactionary in that sense. I went to a college in 1996 where there was no organized College Democrats group, let alone anything to the left of that. But there was real change afoot, and I was part of it, it’s just that it wasn’t really discernible as change then and it’s still hard to discern that change now. Toward the end of the decade irony became hip. The reactions people were making against the dominant paradigm that surrounded them were more subtle. In some ways it was all like a really pleasant nihilism, everybody watching Seinfeld, a show supposedly about nothing, and then in turn Friends, which actually was, in retrospect, the show that was about nothing. And yet profound meaning was gleaned from this nothingness. The nothingness, of course, had this amazing political undertone that was semi-corporate but also profoundly liberal, so in reality, even the most vapid nothingness was still about something. We were groomed to embrace the vapidity and find the delicious irony in it.

Pavement was, I guess, ahead of the curve, though it’s hard to say how conscious this ever was. The touchstones which supposedly explained Pavement’s appeal don’t objectively sound remotely appealing: their lyrics didn’t make a lot of sense; some of the songs didn’t sound like they were completely constructed from start to finish; their original drummer was maybe a burnt-out hippie; their album titles rhymed; the music didn’t sound super-professionally recorded; one of their members didn’t exactly play instruments so much; the list could go on and on. All of these things are of course among the reasons why they were such a great, amazing, important, influential band. But I can’t really expect most people to understand that.

The word most closely associated with Pavement was the word “slack”. I think people were and would still be remiss to simply conflate slack with laziness or with some sort of laid-back California mentality. This is the best way I can explain it: I believe that I grew up with very strong senses of symmetry, of completeness, of geometric order. Taken to a clinical extreme, that might be seen as obsessive-compulsive. Taken to a societal extreme, I think it explains a lot about the world of the 1980s. I was very interested in collecting things. I collected collections at one point, and I was very keen on completing sets whenever possible. I was imbued with a very strong sense of order, which was naturally reinforced by all of my WASP surroundings, and which probably reached its zenith when Van Halen released “Right Now” and we got to hear pieces of the song every morning in school while watching Channel One since it was the theme song for Crystal Pepsi. Van Halen, Channel One, and Crystal Pepsi had a lot of things in common, after all. They were all supposedly about change and freedom and individuality at some level (“Hey! It’s your tomorrow!” “Hey! Anderson Cooper is in Cambodia!” “Hey! This cola is clear!”) and yet of course all were really primarily about conformity (and no, I’m not claiming that David Lee Roth era Van Halen was conformist, at least not yet.)

Slack, see, was all about throwing off that sense of symmetry, that sense of completeness. The idea wasn’t that you accept imperfections, but rather that you embrace imperfections, without passing judgment on the perfect or the imperfect. “Forklift” is no “Hallelujah”, but it doesn’t need to be and shouldn’t be expected to be. But more importantly, “Forklift” is no “Right Now”. And it’s no Crystal Pepsi. And it’s sure as hell no Channel One. What’s most interesting in retrospect is to understand that slack culture was really a reaction against not only the Republicans but also the Democrats, but it was a very antipolitical reaction, and as such, it was powerless in the face of a political entity like Bill Clinton. What I find in retrospect is that slack culture was sort of a cultural gateway to a more profound sort of anti-corporate critique; it’s not a coincidence that my own journey into anti-corporate political ideology went through music.

Everything I’ve written up to this point is an attempt to provide some sort of tremendously profound context for having seen Pavement at Pitchfork on Sunday night, so I suppose I should get on with it.

Pavement broke up at the end of 1999. I saw their then-final show in North America, at Bogart’s in Cincinnati. It was the fifth time I’d seen them, in five different cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati, and, of course, Camden, New Jersey. That Milwaukee show, in June 1995, was the first club show I’d ever gone to, where by “club show” I mean a) a rock show held in a rock club as opposed to an arena or whatever and b) that I hadn’t seen with my father. It remains one of the five best shows I’ve ever seen, from the early Wowee Zowee tour, with the Dirty Three opening. In a lot of ways it set the parameters for what I thought a real rock show ought to be: minor chaos on stage, a crowd of people packed in looking like they were all on heroin, swapping instruments in the encore, driving to Milwaukee… that was rock and roll.

Sunday night I found myself half-assedly waiting until near the beginning of the set and then squeezing in as close to the middle front as I could. Most of the people I squeezed past were notably younger than me; contrast this with the Milwaukee show, where most people there were older than me. I swear that I can not remember seeing a single black person in the crowd. These were, by and large, young white people, probably mostly raised Protestant, probably mostly from the Chicago area… basically the same people I spent the first 21 years of my life surrounded by, except that now I was older, and… well, just older, mostly.

Since that Pavement show in Milwaukee in 1995, I’ve long since lost count of the number of rock shows I’ve seen. I know people who have seen a lot more than I have (especially my father), but I’d say that in the last 15 years, I’ve probably seen 200+ concerts, which is way more than most people. I’ve seen phenomenal performances and I’ve seen some absolute crap. I’ve been to shows where I was the youngest person in the audience, and I’ve been to shows where I figure I must have been one of the oldest people. I’ve been to shows where there were only white people, and I’ve been to shows where I was in the racial minority.

This was the first show I’d ever been to where, when the band took the stage, I thought to myself, these guys don’t look like a band, they look like a bunch of uncles goofing around. Then I thought about it later and thought that what they really looked like was a pickup basketball team. Then I thought about it some more and figured that what they really looked like was a bunch of guys who played basketball together at some rural high school (like my own) and maybe won some games because they had a tall guy but in general weren’t that good overall but all got along real well. They certainly did not look like any kind of rock heroes.

About halfway through the show it dawned on me that it’d been 16 years since I’d been at a concert where I was so well-versed in the songs that were being played. The last show like that, for me, was seeing Pink Floyd in 1994. I still don’t know what to make of that.

The crowd around me seemed to be at least fairly familiar with most of the songs, but clearly nobody else in my immediate vicinity was as pumped up as I was about all of the songs. I was actually a lot more excited than I thought I’d be. Where else could I be in the middle of a park and be screaming “FORTY MILLION DAGGERS!” and have it be considered reasonable?

I didn’t really feel like anything especially profound was happening, and I’m still undecided as to whether that was me just reacting strangely, or whether that meant it was some kind of let down, or whether it just is what it is and means pretty much nothing at all. Unlike 1995, when I had to drive two hours to some place in Milwaukee I’d never been, on Sunday night, I rode my bike to a park four miles from my house, after having spent a chunk of the afternoon using the Social Security Death Index to try and see if people whose names were on some list has passed away in the last two years. I suppose that as much as anything I miss that sense of momentousness that used to come with seeing a concert. Or maybe I’m just saying that.

I don’t know what place Pavement has today, for me, for society a a whole… it seems weird to think that they should, or that they would, or that they wouldn’t. What seems profoundly odd to me, though, is how my life today seems to be so distracted from what I thought it would be when I was 18. The person I hung out with before the set used to be my girlfriend… in 1997. I did see a couple of other people there, but the only other person who texted me back and forth was my assistant music director… in 1997. Most of the people I see on a regular basis outside of work – they weren’t there, and they wouldn’t have been there. I mean: shouldn’t my 50 best friends or so have all been in that crowd somewhere on Sunday night? I’ve given a lot of myself over the last 10 years to trying to build a political alternative for this country, but my real connections, aren’t they with the people who were there on Sunday? Isn’t that how I always thought it would be? And if not, then who were those people there on Sunday, and what were they doing there?

Am I just a character on Friends too?

For a lot of reasons, over the last few years, I’ve increasingly lost touch with what’s happening in new music. I managed to hold on during grad school, and then hold on after grad school when I got a show again at my old college radio station. But as I got more involved in politics, and started seeing less shows, it kind of slipped. And then I didn’t do the show anymore. And I saw even less shows. And I got more consumed by politics. And every so often I would think to myself, gosh, have I lost part of who I am? Is it possible to get that back? Have I screwed up?

Back in 1995, on a Saturday, I think, a couple of guys were with me, and I went to the front desk of our dorm, and checked out one of the games, and went outside with it. And instead of participating with me, those two guys just stood there and watched as I lobbed horseshoes at the street sign pole at the corner of East and University. In retrospect, that’s got to be one of the most slack things I’ve ever done. And I hope that that’s still how I am. And I hope that the people I’ve surrounded myself with are like that too.

I think I need to make even more of an effort to simply be me. And if that’s what I have somehow gotten out of seeing a bunch of guys who look like basketball playing uncles crank out intimately familiar songs in a park in the middle of the City on the Make, then thank god I was there.

ranting, rambling

November 30th, 2009

You asked! Okay, really, you didn’t ask. But you asked!


The Tiger Woods thing is ridiculous. Nobody else seems willing to say why it’s ridiculous, though, so I will: because the man is a @#$%&@! golfer. There, I said it.

Jay Mariotti says “the public deserves to hear exactly what happened” on the grounds that “if Woods is going to market his image so aggressively and relentlessly, part of the deal is addressing a negative issue when it surfaces.”

Yeah, so… that’s not how it works, Jay. The public doesn’t “deserve” anything from a celebrity in a situation like this, except to be spared from having to hear about it everywhere they go, as though it’s something that matters to them. The public deserves to be told the truth: that this is all meaningless. If Tiger “coming clean” is going to make or break Bubba’s decision on whether to buy an Altima or a Regal, that’s between Bubba and the voices in his head. If anybody “deserves” anything in that exchange, it’s probably Buick, and… I don’t give a damn about Buick.

The man is an excellent golfer. Splendid. Some people may actually believe that his seven-iron is a source of white hot excitement. Terrific. Now leave the rest of us alone so we can read more about Charlie Weis, who is the third-most important person in my life right now.


It’s a good thing I’m around, otherwise Canadian pop-punk bands from the ’90s would go largely unremembered.


Here’s my suggestion for how to keep college football from being so stupid. Please note that I am well aware of many of the numerous logistical problems with this. I simply think they can all be overcome.

Institute something similar to the Bracket Busters that they use for men’s basketball. Instead of having two teams sign a home-and-home contract to play each other in back to back years, teams would sign home-and-home with ESPN or whatever, to play an unspecified opponent. The games would occur on one or two weekends at about the three-quarters point of the season, and the matchups would be announced three or so weeks earlier, based roughly on lining teams up with fairly equivalent BCS ratings profiles.

So, for example.o o This past weekend there was a mostly meaningless Cincinnati-Illinois game. What if that game had been scheduled three weeks earlier, and instead of Illinois, it was Iowa? What if Boise State and TCU could have played in the regular season? Just as a couple of examples?

Yes, there are obvious flaws. You’d wind up with something wretched like a Syracuse – Akron game in the middle of the season or something. But those games happen anyway.

Yes, it would give fans not a lot of time to figure out how to travel to a place which might be a long way away. But this would only happen once every two years. And it’s not like this is much different from what happens with half of the bowl games.

You could add some wrinkles to the whole thing if you wanted, to prevent, say, an Alabama-Texas game in the middle of the season when you’d want to save that for the BCS championship. But maybe you could have had an Alabama-Cincinnati game at some point. And maybe by creating more situations where teams in power conferences play each other, then there wouldn’t be as much guessing and confusion over whether the SEC is really down and the Pac-10 is really up and so forth.

I am happy to go pitch this to ESPN, the NCAA, the BCS, whomever. We don’t even need to call it the Huckelberry Challenge.


The way I see it, every home needs a good battery tester around. Preferably it would be in a kitchen drawer with other oddities such as grandfather’s old lighters.


I understand that there is a distinction between a person being talented and a person being an enjoyable performer. I understand that there are some technically wonderful singers out there with beautiful voices, and that they would all bore me to tears, while David Berman would make millions of people amble in a slow panic. Really. I get it.

I also realize that some huge stars are legitimately talented and some are not. The example that keeps getting brought up – not by me – is that Christina Aguilera is a much better singer than Britney Spears. Okay, fine. This doesn’t mean that Christina is more entertaining than Britney, or vice-versa. It doesn’t really mean a whole lot overall, I don’t think.

Having said all this… can anybody vouch for Taylor Swift being talented and/or entertaining? I don’t mean, would I find her entertaining, because I don’t. I’m just fishing for some sort of objective logic that would help me to understand why this scary little woman is some sort of sensation. No matter how hard you pay attention it seems like you only ever hear a maximum of 12 seconds of a song. I assume that she has performed complete songs, but I’m not about to go looking. It takes less effort to post a stupid blog comment about it than it does to hunt down a song and spend the time listening to it when I assume I will find the song morally reprehensible in some way anyway.


When we were young and went back to school after Thanksgiving break, did the teachers actually try to teach us anything? If so, why?

the train, the train

July 14th, 2009

On a good morning, a person doesn’t need to sit or stand at the El platform for very long. If you’re lucky, a minute or two. On average, maybe five minutes. Sometimes, it’s ten minutes. Sometimes longer.

When it’s longer, then the people around you tend to settle in a little more. If the platform is relatively empty when you get up there, it’s more likely you’ll be waiting for a few minutes, which is enough time to, perhaps, curl your hair, or brush your teeth, or pluck your eyebrows. Not that I’ve seen those things happen on the platform. Yet.

Me? I’m the guy with the granola bar. We’ll leave it at that.

A lot of the people who come through this particular El platform can be subdivided into some rough categories. There are a lot of Latinos and Latinas; most of the people tend to be fairly young, but certainly not all; etc. And this is still Chicago, so very little seems especially odd or out of the ordinary.

This morning, when I get to the platform, it’s fairly sparse. I sit on a bench. With a granola bar. A minute or so later a guy comes my way. I’d guess he’s in his early to mid 20s, but that’s just a guess. He had long black hair, and while his skin was darker than mine, he didn’t seem Latino. He seemed more like an extra from the set of Walker, Texas Ranger, one of those episodes where Walker is one with Native American tradition. But he also looked a little like the guy from Dead Meadow, or from some other band, hard to say which. Other people might not have noticed, but I thought this guy had a very different look from most people I see at the platform, or much anywhere else for that matter. And then he sat down next to me. And, it seemed, we both patiently waited for the train, except that I had a granola bar. And orange juice.

At some point I noticed that he had a piece of bread in his hand, but also somehow against his knee or thigh or something. It looked like it was folded over, like, folded in half. And he also had a book. This wasn’t that notable.

Then he brought out the ketchup, and proceeded to squirt the ketchup on the folded piece of bread. He put the ketchup away, and I thought, okay, he’s making a sandwich on the platform? Then I noticed he had a loaf of bread in his bag. But I didn’t see anything else on the sandwich or in the sandwich. In fact, I only saw one piece of bread.

He fumbled a little with the book, which it doesn’t seem like he was reading so much as flipping through. Then he started eating the sandwich, which, best as I could tell, was still just a single folded slice of bread, with a row of ketchup on top.

The book? A People’s History of the United States.

Bear in mind that I’m in the middle of reading Ionesco. Two nights ago I read Rhinoceros. Last night I read Exit The King. And then here on the El platform is an anachronistic figure, eating a ketchup sandwich, leafing through Howard Zinn.

At some point, I just got up and walked down the platform. I would have done this anyway since I make an effort to pick the train car that will empty me out in front of the transfer tunnel staircase. But some part of me seemed to be viscerally unable to handle the scene I’d just witnessed, and then I felt almost guilty, not because of any antipathy to the ketchup sandwich, but for thinking to myself, Dude, you look like you just walked off the set of Walker, Texas Ranger.

[As a note, for all four of you actually reading this at, my apologies for the design shortcomings. Geoff and I are slowly working on it. He’s having to figure out how to take something from Drupal 5 and make it work in Drupal 6, or something.]

Pastor Cliff

March 10th, 2009

One of the big stories today was that a Baptist pastor was shot and killed yesterday during a service. As I’ve remarked to people recently, life lately has somehow involved a perpetual stream of Catholics, the result being that I don’t hear much about pastors anymore; I hear about priests, or even vicars, though I think that might be due mostly to Eddie Izzard.

But the story today, combined with meeting a student from North Park last week, and having discussed North Park a couple of other times lately, coalesced into me performing a couple of Google searches. The upshot: I learned that Clifford H. Johnson died this past November.

Pastor Cliff, among a great many things, was the head pastor at Bethesda Covenant Church in Rockford. More personally, he baptized and confirmed me; he presided over the funeral services of my grandfather and grandmother; he married my father and stepmother. So he was an integral component of a number of major events.

After my grandmother died, we didn’t go to church very often. I’ve been to a handful of services over the last 15 years – a Unitarian service that I found absolutely bizarre, a Presbyterian service that seemed fairly normal, a few Catholic services which I wouldn’t quite classify as bizarre but which I had a hard time parsing, and of course the infamous Christmas Eve service at the Catholic church in Peoria where the incense had me on the verge of passing out. It just wasn’t something I had much occasion to interact with.

I knew some churchgoers in college. Most of my friends weren’t. Some were atheists, some were agnostics. Some were sort of passive about their belief status or lack thereof. Others were not so passive. I actually found that a number of my friends thoroughly detested organized religion, and not in some sort of quasi-intellectual way, but in a very deeply personal way. To them it seemed that organized religion, especially Christianity, embodied intolerance, judgmentalism, and a great many other terrible things.

I had no such angry reaction to my experience in the Covenant Church. Quite the contrary: my grandmother, a devout churchgoer, I remember as a saint, and her faith was a bedrock component of the amazing person that she was. Bethesda, for its part, was this very positive place. I never sensed intolerance. Rather, this was a church that went out of its way to reach out to the Jewish community, even bringing in Holocaust survivors. The church welcomed Laotian immigrants. The overall tone never struck me as particularly… preachy. I think Bethesda was a wonderful place. I just don’t think it was for me.

While in college and in the years thereafter, the upswing of “conservative Christianity” or “evangelicalism” in the country really took off, and/or I became aware of it in a way I wasn’t previously aware of it. And of course, it all frightened me immensely. It still does. Of course, the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-progressive, reactionary nature of the evangelical movement shared some vague trappings with my experience in the Covenant Church. But it all seemed horribly twisted: like Christianity gone bad. The thing was that I think unlike a lot of people I’ve known, I actually had a systemic notion of “good Christianity” which could serve as my basis for evaluating the evangelical movement. Others, I think, saw the evangelical movement as the basis for evaluating Christianity, and by extension all of organized religion. Or they just had such bad church experiences of their own that it was easy for evangelicalism to fit those experiences.

Cliff Johnson always struck me as the epitome of what a representative of the church should be. He treated everyone with respect – including children, as my father pointed out tonight. When questions about the nature of religion come around, I think back to Pastor Cliff. As I say above, everywhere I go it seems like there’s Catholics all around me, and there’s always so many weird discussions that can be had about Catholicism… and I still on some level go back to Pastor Cliff as kind of a stable perspective for thinking about such things.

Even though it’s a few months after the fact, I’m sad to learn of his passing. Cliff Johnson was a good and decent man who was very important to my family and who remains for me the conceptualization of what Christianity should be about.

(Why I (Don’t Go Back To)) Rockford

March 5th, 2009

Many of you have heard this story before. Some of you have heard it more than once. But most of you haven’t heard it. And yet it will be very familiar to you.

Memorial Day Weekend, 1995. I was home for the summer. Dan and I were in my car. It wasn’t really “my car” so much as “one of the family cars”, and as such, I can’t even remember which of the two cars it was. As it so happened, both of these cars were Mercury Tracers, but they weren’t remotely the same car. The older one was white and was a clone of some old Mazda model. The newer one was red and a nicer looking vehicle, but I think it got crappier mileage and actually got scrapped sooner. Two more strikes against the Ford Motor Company, regardless.

Now, as I said, Dan and I were in my car. We were driving to Durand. More precisely, we were driving to Lake Summerset, which is a semi-gated subdivision/community to the west of Durand. There was some sort of graduation party or something for some guy from Durand; I can’t even remember the guy’s name. Honestly, I have no idea what I was doing there.

Whichever car this was, I don’t believe it had a tape deck. Maybe it did. If it did, we weren’t using it, because the radio was on. And the radio was tuned to WXRX.

Flash back a few years. About a month after my 16th birthday I had gotten a car: a 1979 Pontiac Phoenix. Dan at some point dubbed it El Coche de Mierda, and for good reason. El Coche de Mierda, being from 1979, had a radio, an AM/FM radio verily, but it of course wasn’t a digital radio, and on top of that, the black preset buttons didn’t work. And the tuner wasn’t that hot either. So I kind of had to choose a single radio station to listen to and stick with it. And what else could I do but choose WXRX? I was 16 freaking years old. I was not going to set the analog tuner radio in my 1979 Pontiac Phoenix to NPR. Nor was I going to set it to anything on the AM dial. Nor was I going to set it to country, or top 40. And I couldn’t get the stations from Madison in very well. So the only two feasible choices I had were WKMQ, the oldies station, or WXRX, the classic/modern rock station. And so for me, as for so many other people I knew, WXRX became the effective radio soundtrack of about three to four years of our lives.

Back to Memorial Day Weekend 1995. The X – because that’s what WXRX called itself, The X – was doing their Memorial Day Countdown, which involved a countdown of the top 500 songs, whatever that meant. In the past we had no idea. But in 1995, they were telling us up front that the top 500 referred to the 500 most requested songs from the previous year. Fair enough.

Now, The X, when they got to their Top 10 every year, there were always certain staples, songs you pretty much just knew were going to be somewhere in there. Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”. Some Led Zeppelin song, though not necessarily the same one. One year I remember Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” in there. And of course, Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” was always somewhere in the Top 10. This was Rockford, after all.

So Dan and I were in the car, listening to the Top 10 of the Top 500 in The X’s Memorial Day Countdown. I don’t remember what else was in the Top 10 that year, though I’m pretty sure “Sweet Emotion” was in there and “Surrender” was in there.

They get to #2. They play “Free Bird”.

Alright, whatever. Sure, people will request “Free Bird”. Hasn’t it been requested at every lame rock show, and even some of the awesome rock shows, that any of us have ever been to? So why wouldn’t people call in and ask the radio station to play it?

But if “Free Bird” was as high as #2, and if a lot of the other predictable songs had just been run through… then what could be #1?

Dan turned to me. He asked me if there was any other Lynyrd Skynyrd song that could possibly be #1. I told him, no, there is no other Lynynrd Skynryd song that could possibly be more requested than “Free Bird”.

Then they get to #1. What could it possibly be?

Of course: the live version of “Free Bird”.

My mother used to think that I had an unwarranted chip on my shoulder against Rockford. I didn’t. I had a very warranted chip on my shoulder against Rockford. It had nothing to do with elitism and had everything to do with the creeping fear that Rockford really was the crappiest possible place one could be. Crappier than Springfield. Crappier than Peoria. Crappier than Danville. Maybe even crappier than… Decatur. (But probably not.)

There was a reason why Money Magazine ranked Rockford as the least desirable city to live more than once in the 1980s. News flash: nobody gives a crap about how excellent your water theme park is when people’s grandmothers are being jumped in open daylight in grocery store parking lots. I guess things have gotten a little better, though; Gran says there are fewer drug houses on her block than there used to be.

For me, though, it’s not the endless list of closed factories, it’s not the incessant civil incompetence, it’s not the crime, and it’s not even Symbol. It’s WXRX’s 1995 Memorial Day Countdown that irrevocably convinced me that I can never move back to Rockford, and ultimately, I must find a way to surreptitiously free the remainder of my family. I’m still working on it.

Oh, just to be clear on one thing: Cheap Trick still f’n rocks.

Paul Harvey, 1918-2009

March 2nd, 2009

I don’t remember a whole lot of what happened in my life before about age 4. And shortly after I turned 11, my grandfather passed away. So there was this period of time, from when I was about 4 until I was 10, and every summer, seemingly every summer weekday, I was at my grandparents’ house on 4th Street in Rockford.

There are so many crystal details about that house: the pear tree and the mostly unused garage in the back yard, the weird siding that I remember as being red and black but which might have been two shades of brown, an endless string of baseball games with my cousin Charlie (but he was 3 1/2 years younger than me, so this was when I was a little older, when I was younger it was usually just me there.) And inside: the unfinished basement with the exercise bike in it, the seemingly huge master bedroom, the office with my grandmother’s typewriter and one of the two air conditioners and the bed in the corner next to the brown painted wooden stand that had the little color TV and the TI 99/4A on it, the source of so many hours of Parsec or Alpiner or Munch Man or even stranger things, like when I thought it was fun to play with the Personal Record Keeping cartridge. The yellow bathroom with the rope plant holder and the scale in it.

And on the main floor, the window-surrounded front porch, the slightly sloping back porch, both seemingly always cluttered. And the living room, with my grandfather’s long couch, which he built and upholstered himself, and the long coffee table with the flat square pillow for his feet, and recliner, and the two newspapers he would read, the Rockford Register Star and the Chicago Sun-Times, and the massive TV in the corner which must have weighed at least 100 pounds, and so many nights on the floor in front of the TV with so many Legos, and my grandmother’s bell collection on the landing of the stairs, two stairs up from the living room floor, right where the downstairs air conditioner was. The dining room adjoined the living room but we only dined in there on holidays; it had the china cabinet which was used as a bookshelf and which had the huge two-volume unabridged dictionary from which I learned that there were other Roman Numerals like B and O that nobody knows about and which I’ve never been able to prove since; and the piano which I could never play anything on except once I learned how to play “Silent Night”; and the stereo, which was one of those furniture-console-stereo things, with a turntable inside, you had to pull a door across to get to it; and on the wall above the little desk with the stamps were the high school graduation photos of my uncle and my aunt and my dad, who looked like he had reddish hair then, which never made sense to me; and in the corner of that room, right by the door to the kitchen, the broad dehumidifier.

But the real heart of the house was the kitchen.

The walls were painted two colors, in horizontal bands, some faded yellow and some burnt orange, colors which wouldn’t be permitted in the 21st Century. A little shelf on the wall by the door had the phone – 963-0261 was the number, which I can remember for a couple of reasons, one of them being that every part of the number was divisible by 9, and of course so too was the whole number, just like my home phone number, which was 963-3969. The table was one of those you could put a leaf in, but I don’t think we did that too often. That was the table at which my grandfather would count change and one dollar bills from the machines at the laundry. The table was brown, and its long dimension reached from the wall to within about four feet of the refrigerator, which I remember always being full of things, but I especially remember the pop from Jewel, because my grandmother only shopped at the Jewel on East State Street which later become a Magna and which was so close to Insurance Liquidators, and I remember the Lemon Lime and I remember the Root Beer and I even remember the Red Pop and I remember the nasty diet that has the saccharin in it but only my grandmother drank that so it was okay, and I remember that there was always a 2 Liter of RC in the fridge as well but that was for my grandfather, and I remember once when I was little my grandmother poured some RC and it spilled twice and for a week I thought that 2 liters meant 2 spills, and I also remember that refrigerator always having Parkay in it, and the Red Raspberry Preserves from Jewel because that’s what I ate with my peanut butter, but my grandfather didn’t eat the Red Raspberry Preserves, he ate the Apricot Jelly with his toast. And to the left of the refrigerator was the countertop which was in an L which went around and ended at the shiny brown stove. The countertop had a little food processor on it and I remember my grandmother making bread crumbs with that food processor. There were cabinets there, too, and above the countertop was the cabinet where Fruit Roll-Ups could be found, and also the cabinet where marshmallows could be found, though they weren’t the same cabinet, because the Fruit Roll-Ups were in the same cabinet as the cereal, and the marshmallows were with the things used in cooking.

If you went the other way, to the right of the refrigerator, that’s the little hallway with the door to the basement, and the bathroom off the kitchen which was just a toilet and a sink, and on to the back porch. It’s to the right of that little hallway, on the fourth wall of the kitchen, where there was the other countertop, but that wasn’t used for food. The table went up close to that countertop so you didn’t usually get back into the stuff in the far right corner or the cabinets above or below. I don’t even really remember what was in those. But on the left hand side, that bottom cabinet was the one where the peanut butter was kept, and also the Nestle Quik, my favorite being the strawberry, and the drawer right above that cabinet was the magical drawer, because it was the one that had things like old lighters in it and batteries and the battery tester and all sorts of other things that were always so fascinating to me. And I’m sure there were other things on that countertop too, it wasn’t a deep countertop I don’t think, the cupboards weren’t deep either, but all I remember being on that countertop was one thing, and that was the radio.

This was the mid-1980s of course so this was no digital radio. It could get FM, I think, but why would anybody need FM? The only other thing besides WROK that anybody might ever want to listed to was that station out of Wisconsin which broadcast the Brewers games and I didn’t even change to that that often. Most of the time it was just on WROK. I remember some of the personalities on WROK, like Dan & Doug, and Riley O’Neill, and of course WROK was what was played at the laundry too, and I remember how WROK used to play music too not just news and so forth, because I remember hearing “Come Together” at the laundry and wondering what that “ssssSSHHHkmmm” sound was. But of course you didn’t listen to WROK for all that, not that you didn’t listen to that, but that wasn’t really the main point. Lunch was the main point.

Kishwaukee Coin Laundry was on Kishwaukee St. between 15th Ave. and Broadway. Before they tore the original one down, they being the State of Illinois, the laundry went pretty much up to the sidewalk on Kishwaukee, and went back a long way, it was a long and sort of thin building, and the parking lot was there along side, and toward the back of the parking lot was where the back door was, which was the door my grandfather and grandmother went through. They drove to the laundry, even though it was no more than three blocks from the house on 4th Street. I remember going in the mornings with my grandmother and there would be cleaning going on and I would get a little money to wipe down the tops of the Maytags and also the insides but we weren’t there all day, just in the mornings. She had a Mercury Zephyr which was this darker shade of red and then had one of those soft tops which was white. My grandfather had a Mercury Bobcat the color of rust. The Bobcat was the Mercury version of the Pinto, which meant it was the fancy version of the Pinto, which I would later mean meant that it had an extra layer of rust-resistance maybe which would keep the car from rusting out before it would get side-swiped and burst into flames, not that my grandfather’s car ever did that, since he almost never drove it more than the three blocks between work and home. I actually only remember him ever driving anywhere else twice in my whole life. Once I went with him to pick up some soap. And one time he picked me up at home when I lived on 9th Avenue.

So the thing was that he had this Bobcat and he drove to work in the morning and he would work on machines and fill the RC machine and so forth and I remember helping fill the candy machine which was also the chips machine and also the cigarette machine and my grandparents both smoked Old Golds and their packs of Old Golds were in the drawer in the kitchen just to the left of the refrigerator and I remember how Old Golds sold a lot but also Newports and Viceroys and especially Marlboros. And my grandfather, as I recall, smoked something like three packs a day of those Old Golds. And so the kitchen would always be full of cigarette smoke. It’s just the way it was.

And he drove to work in the morning, but he always drove home at lunch, and then drove back to work after lunch, and drove home again at the end of the workday. And lunch was a very prompt affair. And I don’t remember ever having anything for lunch except peanut butter and jelly. I remember him counting the money at the table and he had this wild hand-made coin sorting contraption made of wood and wire and the idea was you could drop the coins in there and shake it and the quarters would stay on the top level but the dimes would fall to the bottom and I’ll be darned if I can remember what happened to the nickels and of course there were no pennies because the only machine which took pennies was the gumball machine and since those were all pennies you didn’t need to sort those. And when he counted the dollar bills I would sit there with him and if he found a star dollar I would get to keep it. The star dollar was the one where the last character in the serial number was a star which told you it was the first in the series or something like that. I remember learning where the federal reserve banks were and how most of the dollars that came in had a G on them for the Chicago federal reserve bank. Now if he found two star dollars, I only got one, because the rule was, “one to a customer!”

So lunch was often me and my grandmother and my grandfather at the kitchen table with the Old Golds and the peanut butter and jelly and maybe the money though I think the money was more of an afternoon thing and of course the radio which was always on WROK and of course since it was lunch it was noon and since it was noon and since WROK was on that meant the other person in the room with us for lunch was Paul Harvey.

Paul Harvey was of course an old and wise man. Everyone knew this because only an old and wise man could talk like that. Paul Harvey of course provided not just news but also commentary, and yet it seemed to me like everything was pretty much just news, the only commentary really being if the tone of his voice would change to demonstrate amusement. And then of course when he would say Page 2 or Page 3 then it would still be Paul Harvey talking but he was telling us about an important product, which I suppose must have been a denture adhesive, I know many years later he talked a lot about steel buildings and about some sort of dietary supplement, but back in the 80s I think it was about denture adhesives mostly. And I knew denture adhesives were important because they had a lot of commercials for denture adhesives during The Price Is Right and my grandparents both had dentures and eventually everyone gets dentures just like they get glasses and tubes in their ears.

Paul Harvey was the midpoint of the day but he was more than that because the day was literally constructed around him. My grandfather couldn’t lunch at 12:30 because that’s not when Paul Harvey was on. And of course Paul Harvey brought some balance in other ways, too, because he kept you informed about what was going on and I remember that although my grandfather watched the nightly news, it just seemed like they were showing pictures of things Paul Harvey had already talked about, and really you could know everything there was to know about was going on from the sports section of the Register Star and the funnies and from Paul Harvey, except that you didn’t really learn anything about Poland that way.

Now of course Paul Harvey was on multiple times a day, but I only remember lunch and late afternoon when The Rest Of The Story was on, and I think that my grandfather listened to The Rest Of The Story, but since that wasn’t lunchtime there was probably a good chance that I was playing baseball instead.

A little over an hour ago I saw Owen’s status on Facebook and knew from it that Paul Harvey had died. I went to and verified it. There was a picture of Paul Harvey there and then I went to Paul Harvey’s web site and there were some more pictures there and I thought that that didn’t look like the Paul Harvey I remembered, and then it occurred to me, that’s because I didn’t know what Paul Harvey looked like when I was young. I’m 32 now, and I don’t remember ever before in my life having seen a picture of Paul Harvey until an hour ago. The pictures of Paul Harvey in my head in the early to mid 1980s was of an old man with a thin head and short hair. I think I realize now that when I thought of what Paul Harvey must look like, what came to my mind is what my grandfather would have to look like if he could talk like that.

My grandfather died in 1987. He had throat cancer. He was only 57. The combination of three packs a day of Old Golds and the chemicals he worked around at the laundromats for so many years are what did him in. Sure, there’s no way to conclusively prove that. I don’t need conclusive proof when I know that cigarettes killed him.

When my grandfather died my uncle took over for him at the laundry. My uncle bought a duplex on 9th Street the next year and my grandmother moved into one side of it. My dad remarried three months after my grandfather died and we were living in Winnebago then and so although I was over there a lot I wasn’t at my grandmother’s every day during the summer and lunch was more irregular and I’m sure we still heard Paul Harvey sometimes but I don’t have any real recollection of that. My grandmother died in 1993, five days after her 60th birthday. Yeah, at the end, she had diabetes and heart problems and who knows what else. I know that the cigarettes killed her too. That’s what they do.

Many years later when I was living in Normal and I started listening to WJBC during the day I would hear Paul Harvey again. It was all a bit odd because there’d be local promos for Paul Harvey which sampled from that “I feel like busting loose” song which didn’t make much sense because why would a talk radio station have a spot sampling from a song like that anyway? I think I got fed up with WJBC when they fired Keith Gottschalk and I guess that was five or so years ago now so it’s probably been about five years since I’ve heard Paul Harvey.

Outside of my own family, and I guess teachers and classmates, there was this six or so year period of my life where I think the three people who were most omnipresent in daily life were Paul Harvey and Bob Barker and maybe Harry Caray. Harry of course was the voice of sports. Bob Barker was, for better or for worse, and almost certainly mostly for worse, my economics teacher through the first third of my life. But Paul Harvey was the news, the straight and narrow, steady, dependable, reliable, clockwork. That means, of course, that he was the outside world’s manifestation of my own grandfather.

Grandpa’s been gone for over 21 years. I think that I’m not being unrealistic in saying that it’s been that long since I’ve felt that sense of stability and continuity of everyday life that he embodied. It’s not that I feel like I could live that kind of life and be satisfied with it, because I know that when I pound myself into real routine like that I get edgy, edgier than usual, and I just start to wear down. But I still miss the feeling of stability, the assurance of personal order, the predictability of certain things. Paul Harvey’s passing makes me think of my grandfather’s passing. It makes me think about what was different after he was gone, and therefore what existed when he was still there, and what that meant to me, and how that became part of me. I’ve told many people over time about my grandfather’s hermit lifestyle, about the short drives to work, but I don’t think I’ve ever really explored how when he died it marked such a thorough break in continuity for me, right at a point in time where so many other things were going to change too.

Sure, many years later I would hear about how Paul Harvey was some sort of right-wing conservative or whatever. And I realize that whatever he was, that manifested itself not only in what he reported but just in his demeanor. I don’t challenge or reject that demeanor, though. I know that it’s part of me on some level. Obviously it’s not that Paul Harvey made me who I am. But Paul Harvey was definitely a strand in the weave of my childhood, and it’s a strand I still struggle with a great deal, because so much of what my grandfather was and meant is so much at odds with other aspects of who I am now. I fight the hermit, I embrace the hermit, and I have internal wars with the hermit. I fight order and routine. I long for order and routine. Grandpa was such a very good man, who was always right and always fair and so respectable and such a role model and I can’t think of a finer man I have never known and I will be damned if I want to be like him and what the hell can it possibly mean for me to think that, all of that?

Just today I was talking to Anna about what it meant to feel at home. Well, I can’t think of anywhere in the world that feels more like home to me than my grandparents’ kitchen at noon on a summer day, peanut butter and jelly, cigarette smoke, and Paul Harvey. And I can’t think of any other place in the whole world I would rather be.

Reflections on a Historic and Disappointing Day

November 5th, 2008

When it finally became clear some months ago that Barack Obama was going to win the Democratic nomination, I felt that it was all but inevitable that he would win a convincing victory in November. If any aspect of the final results surprises me, it’s that the election was seemingly so close.

Landslides, of course, are rare, not because the candidates are perpetually evenly matched, but because the design of the system is such that in the aggregate there is a faux polarization. It’s not sensible to beat up on the millions of people who voted for McCain, or who voted for Bush previously, because they exist within a paradigm that makes those votes exist. It’s not the voters to dump on. It’s the paradigm.

That the paradigm has evolved to the point where a black man could be elected President of the United States is no small thing. But don’t be deluded into thinking that this represents a fundamental shift in the machinations of the paradigm. Racial division is simply no longer as useful a tool as it once was in perpetuating the paradigm; in its place, other tools have come to the forefront. It is a testament to the American people that racial division has been replaced. But the American people have still failed to confront the core realities of the paradigm, and have simply allowed themselves to be duped by the glitziness of what has replaced race.

The centerpiece of that paradigm is of course the two-party system, but even the two-party system is itself a particular expression of something deeper: the idea of a societal polarity, where one is expected to take one side or another. This polarity represents itself not only in politics but in so many other aspects of our culture. It’s divide and conquer, on the most sophisticated of levels, and the conquering is perpetually done by the moneyed interests in a society.

From my perspective, the day was deeply disappointing because the depth of the paradigmatic control so clearly expressed itself. I’m not really talking about mere coattails here, though I think it’s reasonable to say that Obama ran ahead of his party in more ways than one and dragged much of the party along for the ride.

See: a candidate so charismatic, so seemingly visionary, so indisputably timely as Obama should never fail to win 60% in a national election if all things are equal. All things, of course, are not equal. And the relative closeness of the race, far from stripping Obama of whatever mandate he might now have, is instead something for the Democrats to celebrate, something that helps them maintain what they wish to maintain. It allows for the perpetuation of the faux polarization vis-a-vis the Republicans, and a return to the early Clinton mode of allowing conservatives to flip their wigs about supposedly liberal solutions while perpetuating undemocratic bullshit like expanding the American occupation of Afghanistan, or finding new ways to give handouts to insurance companies.

I’m not uplifted by yesterday’s results. When worthless pawns like Debbie Halvorson commandingly win races, that’s not a good thing for America. When sellout scum like Luis Gutierrez can operate with complete impunity, to the point of not even bothering to show up for elections, and still win 80% of the vote from an electorate who they truly do not represent, then it’s not time to celebrate.

Our work is cut out for us. Barack Obama’s victory is important and meaningful in many ways, but it does not profoundly alter the core of the status quo paradigm. For those of you who wish to embrace the deep symbolic importance of Obama’s victory, I understand, and I think that that importance is very real. But what is also very real is that so much of the Hope that has been promised by this Obama victory is undermined by that same victory and the way in which it played out. Celebrate today. Tomorrow we need you back to work, fighting to subvert the dominant paradigm.

the dearth and/or birth of activism

August 22nd, 2008

When I talk about my political background, one of the things I inevitably bring up is how I went to college during the heart of the Clinton years. Not only that, but I went to a place which was fairly conservative, both in terms of who made up the student body, and in terms of the surrounding community. There was little to no activism to speak of, and what activism there was tended not to interest me very much.

Now, it sounds like I’m dismissing something which might be important, and which ultimately, probably is. So first, I should be clear that what was happening then did not interest me then. Therefore, I was likely not all that aware of a lot of it. Second, I should speak to the activism that I did see going on, and why it wasn’t that interesting to me.

I got to college in 1994. When I think back to campus-based activist groups, not a lot comes to mind. I recall that a new chapter of Amnesty International had started up, but not only did I not know much about what AI was, the people who started it up were some of the biggest jerks I knew. There was an environmental organization called ECO, but honestly, I have no idea what they did. The activist groups which were most visible were groups that were only partially activist groups, and all of the ones I can think of were primarily demographically defined: Black Student Union, CLASE (for Latino students), the Gay-Straight Alliance. I could actually probably make an argument that the College Republicans were the most visible activist group. Overall, there was little in any of this that was especially appealing to me.

I had tried to throw my lot in with the Argus, the campus newspaper. That blew up. It’s a good story, but it would be a ridiculous tangent here. So instead I wound up throwing my lot in with WESN, our radio station.

As it so happened, WESN wound up being, in a lot of respects, the most serious activist organization on campus. In other respects, of course, that’s an absurd, irrational thing to say, probably something which would offend some people. But ultimately, when you actually look at the dominant social-cultural-political paradigm, I think we were doing more at WESN to try and push the envelope than any of the other groups on campus were doing. We were, after all, the main anti-corporate entity on campus (and really, throughout the entire community), and toward the end, we’d even started using the airwaves to do more overt “normal” activism, like anti-sweatshop stuff.

As a history and political science major, and someone who did Model United Nations, blah blah blah, I was already interested in world affairs, but I certainly wasn’t an activist as regarded anything like that. The interest in world affairs and the immersion in music eventually bore fruit, largely because of the work the Beastie Boys did in promoting the Free Tibet movement. Via Free Tibet, I wound up dipping into anti-sweatshop stuff, and actually started getting serious about checking labels, trying to avoid stuff made in China, etc. Of course, there’s deep irony in all of this, because the most high-profile activist stuff musicians were doing were so high-profile because they had major labels – i.e. massive corporations – acting as their amplifiers. But rock and roll, of course, has always been about the yin of rebellion and the yang of cooption. Irony is part of its fabric.

My senior political science research paper, which was frankly pretty dumb overall, was called “Politics and a Red Guitar”, and the premise of it was that there was a correlation between musical preference and political awareness. More specifically, I demonstrated that people who liked certain bands were more likely to be aware of certain activist or social causes, and not just the ones most closely associated with those bands. Fans of Rage Against The Machine were more likely not only to know what the Zapatista Movement was, but were more likely to know about social causes generally. Fans of 311, however, were not more likely to know about social causes generally. And, lest you think that all of the causes were things like Free Tibet and the Zapatistas, I did throw a couple of highly mainstream things in there, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I figured everyone would claim to be highly familiar with MADD. They didn’t. Overall, one of the more interesting results was that people with the lowest musical awareness score – as in, the people who knew the least about these bands and didn’t rate any of them as particular favorites – were the people who were least aware of all social causes generally. In my 21 year old mind, that meant something big. Maybe it still does. But I’m not sure what it really means.

So for me, rock and roll was the real gateway to activism, directly and indirectly. My anti-corporate mindset developed not only from Dave Grohl talking about sweatshops, but from seeing band after band screwed over by major labels who put profit before art (what a gripping recognition to galvanize the hamburger-consuming nerves of the 20 year old American!) This isn’t to say I wasn’t predisposed to head down that path – certainly my father’s years of complaints about corporations had something to do with where I was coming from – but the key point may be that much of my activist mentality upon leaving college, and today 10 years later, is colored by rock music. And as I have drifted away from those kinds of roots, I am increasingly finding myself at something of a spiritual crisis as an activist and in my daily life generally; or, perhaps more accurately, the crisis has been lingering for a while, and only this year am I really starting to put the pieces of it together.