Thursday, November 28, 2013

This Time With Four-Part Harmony and Feeling

Every Thanksgiving I try to listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”  It’s one of those traditions that seem to evolve over the years for no particular purpose, though it would make the holiday just that much poorer without it.

It’s easier now, in the YouTube age.  You just go there, do a quick search on the title and – BOOM! – there it is.  I still have the LP, just in case, though I have nothing to play it on anymore.  Better stick to YouTube.

Or I just sing it.

Yes, I know all the words to all eighteen minutes of “Alice’s Restaurant,” and I have been known to perform them in public.  I am a dangerous man.

I first ran into the song in high school, when my friend Julia introduced me to it one heady summer.  I had a highly developed sense of the absurd even then, and I just loved it.  Arlo Guthrie is a lot of fun that way.  At one point I also knew all the words to “The Motorcycle Song,” with its five minute digression.  I never did memorize the ten-minute introduction to “The Ballad of Reuben Clamzo in the Key of A,” which is worth the price of an album any day, but it sticks with me still.

When I got to college, I found that I was not alone in my devotion to “Alice’s Restaurant.”  My roommate Jack knew the guitar part, for example, and when we formed a band we would occasionally throw it onto the playlist.  One of my fonder memories of that band is performing “Alice’s Restaurant” during a hurricane.  The audience was puzzled but appreciative.

Jack and I actually went to see Arlo Guthrie one night while we were in college.  He didn’t do the song, but then he was only on stage for an hour or so.  It wasn’t much of a show as I recall.  His opening act – John Prine – was a lot more fun.  It didn’t diminish my affection for the song, though.

My senior year I took a class called The History of the 1960s, which absolutely floored my mother.  “Those were my glory years!” she said.  I understand that reaction a lot better now than I did then.

The professor was something of an aging hippie himself, and he actually had a transcript of the song on the reading list.  And you know?  You just can’t read “Alice’s Restaurant.”  You have to hear “Alice’s Restaurant.”

So one day Jack and I walked into this class of about 150 students and let them hear.

We did it again the following year, too.

I’ve never figured out how to work it into my US2 class.  There’s just so much to cover and never enough time.  Someday perhaps I’ll teach my own History of the 1960s class, one that won't have to cover everything that happened between 1877 and yesterday, and won’t that be a time?

It is a silly thing, this song, but it reminds me of friends and times, of goofy summers and hurricanes and classrooms.  It is a small thing to be thankful for, on a day meant to remind us of how much we have to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lining Up the Day

Some days it all more or less lines up, even though it can take a bit of scrambling to make that happen.

We already knew last Thursday was going to be busy.  On top of everything that usually happens on Thursdays around here – classes, meetings, my semi-weekly jaunt up to Not Quite So Far Away Campus, and so on – that was the day of the first concert for the Local Youth Orchestra.

Tabitha signed up for that this year.  She got tired of the violin lessons but not of actually playing the violin, and she decided that joining the LYO was an acceptable compromise.  We thought this was fine.  So for the last few weeks – in between the various colds and flus that have plagued her this semester – Tabitha has been going to rehearsals and trying out the new music, which she says was much more entertaining than the old music.


And then, as I was heading into a meeting up at NQSFAC my phone buzzed.

Normally when that happens it can mean only one of two things.  Most often it means that my cell phone provider has finally decided to forward along a voicemail message – a process which can take up to three weeks from the actual leaving of the message, which means that most of the time I don’t get too worried about checking them in any hurry.  Sometimes it means that someone has tried to text me, and since most people know that I don’t text at all this is also something I don’t worry about checking in any hurry.  It’s almost always the cell phone provider trying to get me to buy more services anyway. 

So I went to my meeting, and then retreated to my office to meet with the inevitable flood of students that wash up after you hand back an exam.  “Yes, I know you know that, but I can only grade you on what you wrote.”  “Did you read the study guide?”  “Yes, THAT study guide.”  “The one with the exam stuff on it, yes.”  And so on.  Honestly, sometimes I think I could just write up a checklist of responses and hand it out.

Eventually they all left, so I checked my phone and discovered that it was in fact a text meant for me, and from a dear old friend I have not seen in a while.  Fortunately, she also sent me a Facebook message, which meant that I knew how to respond.  Nadja was coming though Our Little Town that afternoon on her way between states and wondered if we could get together.


So I drove home, frantically Potemkin-ized the house (“it looks good from one angle for 24 hours – don’t stray from the path”) and got ready. 

But traffic and weather conspired to make her late and eventually we worked out that she could a) stay overnight, since she still had quite a journey the next day, and b) meet us over at Home Campus for the LYO concert.

Fortunately Nadja is a professional musician, so she was happy to attend.

The concert went very well.  Tabitha and her compatriots marched smartly onto the stage and spent a solid hour entertaining us with good music.  I was quite proud of her, as is only fitting.

And then we all went home and hung out.

Some days it all works out.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Good Day

It’s been eighteen years now since that crisp fall day, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  Eighteen years since our friends and family gathered together in the grey stone church.  Eighteen years since Kim and I were married.

We’re legal now.  Imagine the trouble we can get up to!

We’ve crossed a number of rivers since then.  We have a house now, with all of the attendant projects, stress and coziness that such a thing entails.  We had a daughter and then, with the full weight of experience and foreknowledge behind us, we had another.  Voluntarily!  Smart move, really, as they have brought us joy.  They also balanced out some of the losses – the grandparents and friends who were there that day but live on only in our memory now.  We tell stories about them, because that’s what you do to keep them alive.  I earned my PhD.  Kim has tried out any number of jobs.  We’ve traveled.

But at the core of all that there is us.  Two people sharing a life, filling it with love.

Eighteen years in, a lifetime to go. 

Happy anniversary.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Day of the Day of the Doctor

We already had the door.

When Kim and I moved into our house here in Our Little Town, way back when in the 90s, the door was still painted primer grey.  This was fine by me, as I tend not to notice such things – I figured that as long as it kept the heat in and the burglars out it was doing its job and after that I didn’t need to think about it anymore.  This didn’t sit well with Kim, who has a strongly expressed optimizer gene.  So perhaps a year or two after we moved in, after a fair amount of planning and a trip the local hardware store, she painted it blue.

TARDIS blue, it turned out.

So when yesterday’s 50th Anniversary show for Doctor Who rolled around, decorating it was easy.

Who needs to give directions, when you’ve already got the landmark right there?

Like most Doctor Who fans new and old (somehow I still stumble over the word “Whovian” – I suppose that too will pass) we have been looking forward to the big 50th Anniversary show.  For those of you who aren’t fans, well, it’s kind of hard to describe the dedicated pocket universe that the show has created for itself and its devotees – it’s like I stumbled into this entire subculture that existed alongside of the normal reality I had lived in all my life.  Actually, no.  It’s not like that.  It is that. 

And now I find myself part of it.  Huh.

So we sent out the word to those whom we knew were also part of the fandom, cleaned up the house, set the DVR onto record, and had us a party. 

Kim made a cake like the one she made for Lauren’s birthday.

And another one that was already quite moist.

There were time vortex cookies and Lauren and her friend Autumn made little Adipose figures out of marshmallows.

There was also custard and, well not fish fingers because those are not cool no matter what Matt Smith says, but graham crackers instead.  Yes, I understand the irony of that coming so quickly on the heels of my post on Rev. Graham, but hey – they taste good and we don’t need to be scaring the horses.  And chili, because somewhere in there you have to have something real to eat.  Friends came and brought all sorts of good food on top of that.  We were set.

It was a good show.  I’m not sure what the various critics have said about it but neither do I really care.  We got to see David Tennant clearly having an awful lot of fun with Matt Smith.  John Hurt did a wonderful job with his character.  There were all sorts of references (including at least one Monty Python reference) that were fun to figure out.  And they devoted a pleasing amount of screen time to Billie Piper.

Really, what more could you ask?

So it was a good day.

We may leave the decorations up on the door for a while, just because they’re kind of fun to have there.  They may even become a Christmas tradition, which would make a certain amount of sense given the history of the show.

You have your traditions, we are creating ours.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Strange Saga of Sylvester Graham, in the Key of A

This one is for Lucy, because he asked for it.


One of the stories that students always seem to enjoy in my US1 class is the tale of Reverend Sylvester Graham.  But if you want to understand him, you need to know the context.

The second quarter of the nineteenth century was an anxious time for many Americans.  Most times are, really, but what made this period special was the fact that the anxiety was focused on the rapid and permanent changes in everyday life that were going on at the time.  It’s one thing when governments are rising and falling, but it’s a whole ‘nother thing when your daily routine gets transformed.

This was the era when the Long Revolutions of the nineteenth century – the Industrial Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the Transportation Revolution, the Demographic Revolution – were beginning to make themselves felt.  Oh, they’d started decades earlier, even as far back as the eighteenth century.  But it’s not until you get into the 1820s that people really start to have to change to accommodate them.

This is when the mills at Lowell become a national issue, raising questions about what was the nature of work, how rigidly should we measure time, what were the proper roles for men and women, how separate or intermixed were work and leisure or work and home.  This is when the new techniques of the Agricultural Revolution began to make the farm population surplus, driving them off their rural lands and into the industrializing cities.  This is when the Demographic Revolution took off in America, as cities grew and multiplied and the population soared far faster than Americans were used to.  And faster?  Let’s talk about the Transportation Revolution – canals, to start, and then after 1830 the railroads.  The railroads were the first major advance in the speed of overland travel since the domestication of the horse, and they put an end to the 3mph world that humanity had inhabited since it first started to migrate.

It was a profoundly unsettling time.

And the fact that it was happening at a time of relative political stability just made it easier to notice all those other changes.

As is our habit in times of great societal stress, Americans responded to this with a blizzard of moral reform efforts.  This is just one of the things that we do as a culture to pass the time – much like baseball and creating new and ever more deadly deep-fried foods.  But the Moral Reform Movements of the 1820s, 30s and 40s were in a league by themselves – the only such period in our history that historians tend to capitalize when describing.

These movements drew from the leveling egalitarianism and perfectionism of the Second Great Awakening, which preached that all could be saved and all could be sinless if they so chose.  They drew from the larger political egalitarianism of the emerging Lockean Liberalism of Jacksonian democracy and laissez-faire capitalism, which said that even the most lowly should have an equal chance at success.  And most importantly, they drew from an Enlightenment view of environmentalism, in the sense that the conditions of life – the environment one found oneself – mattered more than biology.  This marked a change from the biological determinism of pre-Enlightenment thinking, a determinism that would return with a vengeance after the Civil War.  The thinking of the Moral Reform Movements held that if you could remove people from toxic environments – or better yet, eliminate those toxic environments completely – you could then create sinless people who could all be saved, in this world and in the next.

Those movements came in three basic varieties.

There were people who sought to transcend the system – to leave all of American culture behind and create something new and fresh.  They were the fewest and least influential of the reformers, though not everything in this category faded away.  The secular utopianists tended not to last.  The Fourierists fell apart.  The Noyes communities collapsed.  The Oneida community eventually became a silverplate company.  But the religious utopianists persevered.  Thus the Mormons and, after some theological rethinking when the world abjectly failed to end on schedule, the Seventh Day Adventists.

There were people who sought to challenge the system – to change it in some deep and fundamental way.  These were the most influential and controversial of the reformers.  Here you find temperance advocates calling for first a reduction in Americans’ consumption of alcohol and then its total elimination.  They succeeded – the average American consumed 7 gallons of pure alcohol a year in 1830 (roughly 1400 12-oz beers per person per year by today’s brewing standards), but by 1850 that was down to 2 gallons.  In 2010 it was still 2.2 gallons.  Here you also find the abolitionists, whose crusades will ultimately lead to Civil War.  And here also you find First Wave Feminism – the strivings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, the Grimke sisters, and the Seneca Falls Declaration.  These women were disillusioned with the limited role they were given by male abolitionists and struck out on their own, a pattern that would be repeated in the Civil Rights Movements and subsequent Feminist Movements of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

And finally there were the people who sought to correct the system – to leave the basic structure unchanged but fix one particular aspect of it that bothered them.  These were by far the most common, as their goals were the most limited and thus required the least effort and sacrifice, but they did have a number of lasting impacts.  This is where you get the public schools that we know today, as Horace Mann and others figured out that an educated workforce was an investment rather than an expense (something we have forgotten today).  You got reforms in the criminal justice system.  And you got a whole lot of other things as well.

Thus bringing us to Rev. Graham.

In 1834, with all of the problems facing the United States at that particular point in its history, Sylvester Graham decided that the most serious crisis, the problem most deserving of his time and energy to resolve, was what he considered to be a worrisome epidemic of masturbation across this great republic of ours.

How he came to this conclusion is not well understood, and that is probably for the best.

Nevertheless, it was in his view a problem, and in proper Moral Reform Movement fashion he decided that the root cause of all this masturbation was not any inherent biological sexual instinct but was instead due to environmental factors – specifically poor diet. 

His reasoning went like this:

People, he said, were eating impure foods.  Remember – this is at a time when people are moving off the farms and into the new cities for really the first time in American history, and they are now further from their food sources than ever before.  They were working in factories, bringing lunches and dinners with them instead of eating at home.  This sort of thing caused a lot of anxiety, and not just in the good reverend.

This caused them to think impure thoughts.  You are what you eat, after all.

And this naturally led them to take impure actions, shall we say.


Now, whatever you think of the scientific merits of this theory, it does have the signal advantage that once you frame the problem in this manner the solution becomes fairly obvious.

So he invented a special kind of flour, which he would bake into crackers.  The deal was that you would eat these crackers – which were a pure food, after all – and then you would think pure thoughts and not need to be masturbating all the time.  Your hands would thus be freed for more productive labor in the industrializing economy, as it were.

We still eat Graham crackers today.

Whether they have the therapeutic effect that Sylvester Graham believed they would have is something of an open question, however.  To my knowledge there have been no studies done on the issue – and good luck getting funding for that, really.

I will note that the invention of corn flakes sixty years later to solve the exact same problem using the exact same mechanism does suggest that perhaps the crackers were not as effective as Rev. Graham hoped they would be.

Stories like this are why I love history.  Human beings are just the most ridiculous things on the planet, and as a historian I get to study whatever I want about them, so long as it happened in the past.  You can’t beat that.

Have a s’more!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

News and Updates

It’s midterm season all around the various campuses (campii?) that have engaged my services this semester, which means that my time has been eaten up and my spirit has been beaten down and I’ve spent the better part of two weeks raging at the futility of it all – “IS THIS ALL THAT GOT THROUGH TO YOU STUDENTS?” I chant in rhythmic horror, frantically searching the house for something stronger than Yorkshire tea with which to drown my sorrows.

Until I get to a student who actually understood the material and could express that understanding clearly and concisely, which happens more often than my blackened academic heart ever suspects that it will.  Then I get a grip and go back to my tea.

So I’m lots of fun to be around these days, yes indeed I am.

Here are a few things that have come up lately that should have been real blog posts, but instead have been relegated to a list whose subtext, more or less, reads “I’m not dead yet!”

1. It is way, way too early for Christmas music.  The radio station to which most of the radios in this house have mysteriously been tuned does not agree, however.  This may not end well.

2. Students would be surprised how much their grades improve when they simply turn in the work that has been assigned to them.  Many would have to go lie down.

3. Lauren has taken to wearing my old firehouse softball league windbreaker these days, which makes me absurdly happy.  It’s a black satin jacket with “League Champions 1985” emblazoned around a drawing of an old-fashioned helmet, and my guess is that she is the only person in Wisconsin with such a jacket.  Hell, there may not be any of those jackets left even in Philadelphia.  Memories.

4. At some point this week I will either clean out the paperstorm in my office or die in an avalanche.  Vegas line says “too close to call.”

5. I stopped listening to the news on the radio almost a decade ago, when I realized I didn’t trust the Bush Administration to tell me the truth even when it would have been to their advantage to do so.  Since then I have listened mostly to sportstalk radio in the mornings as I drive up to Not Quite So Far Away Campus.  This is getting increasingly harder to take, however, as fewer topics involve actual sports and more involve lawsuits (actual or inevitable).

6. I had no idea that literary criticism of science fiction was a thing.  A colleague of mine lent me an actual journal with academic articles about the subject, and I find myself intrigued by the concept but simultaneously a bit worried by it, in the sense that analyzing the innards of a frog worries me.  You can do it and learn a lot from it, but - as the old saying goes - the frog tends to die in the process.

7. Having a tornado watch in November is a new thing for me.  It’s a good thing the climate’s not changing, because otherwise?  I’d be worried.

8. Students always love the story of Sylvester Graham.

9. Kim spent most of yesterday cleaning out her office closet, and somewhere in there she located my Emergency Clown Nose.  I find myself very tempted to wear it to the next meeting I am forced to attend.

10. Curling season has started up again for Tabitha and Lauren.  Someday I’ll join in.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Heads or Tails

In the last twenty-four hours I have found four pennies on the streets.  Three I kept, because I just cannot see disdaining free money even in that denomination.  One I left where it was.

Because that’s how I learned to do it, that’s why.

Every neighborhood has its own rituals and beliefs, and growing up on my tiny suburban street full of children we all knew that pennies were only lucky if you found them heads-up.  Those you picked up, and not only were you then one cent richer but you were also quite possibly in for some good luck.  Since you could never have too much good luck, this was a win all around.  But if you found one that was tails up that was another story.  You could tempt fate and pick those up too if you wanted, but only the bravest and most devil-may-care of us would try that.  We weren’t really a devil-may-care bunch.  The ones that were tails-up we just left where they were.

But we didn’t leave them as they were.

The thing was, if you just left them alone then the next unsuspecting person either had to leave the penny there too (which was just silly – eventually somebody has to pick the thing up or it’s just a waste) or they would pick it up and get all the bad luck that came with such foolhardiness.  So if you found a penny that was tails-up it was your responsibility to turn it over so that the next person would find it heads-up and gain some luck out of it.  It was a way of paying things forward, really, and no, you couldn’t just go back and pick it up once you’d turned it over.  Once you turned it over it wasn’t yours anymore.

I’m not sure I believe in luck anymore, at least not as it pertains to pennies on the ground.  But forty years later I still flip over the tails-up pennies that I find and leave them there for the next person.

It just seems like the right thing to do.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

25 Things I Have Done That You Probably Haven't

Every once in a while I see this meme pop up, and it just startles me that I haven’t made good use of it here, at least not that I could find in the archives.  So to correct that all at once, here are twenty-five things I have done that most people reading this probably have not.

Over the course of my life, I have:

1. Run a spotlight at a concert for a Top-40 band, and gotten paid for it.

2. Sung at the funeral of a US Senator.

3. Cut my thumb with the dull end of a hammer.  Twice.

4. Had picnics at the ruins of two different medieval abbeys.

5. Asked Pete Seeger for his autograph (and gotten it).

6. Eaten pizza at a restaurant called “Sweeney Todd’s.”

7. Actually managed to finish reading Infinite Jest.

8. Walked through the streets of Philadelphia dressed as Death, complete with a six-foot-tall gnarled wooden staff.

9. Sent out a letter to all the evangelical churches in the county urging them to come to a show I was promoting on the subject of Satan in literature.

10. Became “Case Study A” in a national-level conference on how not to go through the historic preservation regulatory process.

11. Gone ice-skating with Paul Ryan (not that he knew I was there, but still).

12. Conga’d down my driveway with a dozen drunk Russians.

13. Driven through town in the back of a pickup truck, holding on to a life-sized replica of the first atomic bomb.

14. Seen Les Miserables on Broadway before it won any awards.

15. Ridden an elevator with former PA governor Dick Thornburgh, who was running for the Senate at the time.  We were the only two people there, and he didn’t say hello.  No wonder he lost.

16. Been pressed into service as an emergency umpire at a Girl Scouts softball tournament two years in a row.

17. Ridden on the tailboard of a fire truck in full turnout gear.

18. Gone Christmas caroling in a mental hospital.

19. Hung out with two actors from the most popular show on US television at the time – a show I still have never seen.  They were great guys.

20.  Broken into my high school using only a Swiss Army knife.

21. Read a 500p history of US naval operations in World War II when I was 12.

22. Delivered singing balloon-o-grams.

23.  Worked on the city’s Fourth of July fireworks crew.

24. Read every issue of every newspaper published in Philadelphia between 1787 and 1801, about 10% of them in the original paper editions.

25. Taken four Australians to a Mexican restaurant in Wisconsin.

What have you done?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Record? What Record?

In about a year Wisconsin residents will once again go to the polls to determine who will lead this once-proud state.  The current incumbent, Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries), will win that election by exactly the same margin that he won the recall election in 2012, within half a percent.

You heard it here first.

This has nothing to do with the persistent questions of electoral fraud that continue to dog his administration.  The blood red counties surrounding Milwaukee have serious ethical problems when it comes to counting votes – enough to make the current right-wing majority on the state supreme court deeply suspect and probably illegitimate (hello “Justice” Prosser!) – but for the sake of argument here I am going to assume that the vote counts of both the last gubernatorial election and the recall election were, somehow, accurate reflections of the popular will.

Nor does this have anything to do with the on-the-job record of the incumbent, a record from which any thinking candidate would run screaming. 

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) came into office boasting that he would create a quarter-million jobs thanks to his 68-page jobs plan (he made such a big deal over the fact that it was 68 pages long!), which he helpfully posted on his website.  When I downloaded my own personal copy, I discovered that it was written in a font so large that it averaged about 16 words per page, plus pictures, which is the digital equivalent of writing with crayon on a napkin.  It’s about as sophisticated as you would expect it would be, and perhaps because of this his actual economic record has been, shall we say, dismal. 

As of this spring, which was the last time I had the heart to look at the numbers, all of which had declined sharply from the previous administration, under Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) Wisconsin ranked 42nd in the nation for business and 49th in job growth through 2016 (both figures from Forbes Magazine, that noted leftwing rag), 45th in wage growth (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), 49th in economic outlook (from the Federal Reserve), and 50th in short term job growth (from the US Chamber of Commerce).  If you look at the graphs, perhaps the most striking feature is that the state economy started tanking at precisely the moment his ALEC-written “budget” went into effect, in June 2011.  Balancing out the net job gains and losses, three years into his administration he’s about 160,000 jobs short (figure from PolitiFact), with a year to go.  This even as neighboring states have long been pulling out of the economic recession. 

He’s also the guy whose administration approved the illegal use of state troopers against sitting legislators and the use of violence against peaceful protestors.  He’s the guy whose administration’s demonstrated contempt for any law that gets in the way of his power is brazen enough that you’d think he was proud of it.  He’s pushing the radical right-wing fantasy of “Voter ID” laws – a failed solution to a problem that does not exist, from a statistical perspective, and one clearly designed to disenfranchise voters likely to disagree with him.  His relationship with the Koch brothers is sufficiently groveling that you wonder how he can walk with that puppeteer’s hand stuck so far up into his colon.

And on and on.  Honestly, it gets tiresome reciting the litany of failure this public figure has managed to achieve in so short a time.

Normally such a figure would have no chance in any election, but Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) isn’t a normal figure and this isn’t a normal election.  He isn’t a thinking candidate – he is a scheming candidate, a cunning candidate, a Manchurian candidate of the extreme right wing, but those are not the same things.  Besides, for a good chunk of the electorate, this isn’t about thinking anyway.

Not really.

I didn’t start out as a history major in college.  This often surprises people, most of whom know me as the professional historian I am these days.  When I started out in college I was a math major, and that lasted a surprisingly long time before it became untenable.  What surprises people even more is that history wasn’t my next choice either.  I moved from math to a psychology major and I graduated with a BA in psychology as well as history.

I can tell you not only why you are crazy, but why you were, too.

Double majoring also had the interesting side effect of canceling out all my distribution requirements, which in the long run meant that I had taken Calculus IV for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment of it.  It’s a funny old world sometimes.

I enjoyed my time as a psych major.  My main focus was on social psych – the behavior of individuals in groups – and for someone who is as much of a people-watcher as I am that was the ideal major.  But there were other aspects of the discipline that I enjoyed also, and one of them was the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is one of those complicated things that can nevertheless be boiled down fairly simply.  It’s essentially rationalization.  It’s used to explain why people get so attached to and so defensive of experiences which, by any objective standard, are miserable.  The short version goes like this:  “That experience was miserable.  Only fools would expose themselves to something like that unless it was really, really worth it.  I am not a fool.  Therefore that misery must have been really, really worth it.”  In fact, if you follow the logic of how cognitive dissonance works, the more miserable of an experience it was, the more positive the person who went through it feels it really must have been in the long run.

This is why people can look back fondly on such things as boot camp, hazing, Calculus IV, triathlons, medical residencies, comprehensive exams, and any cinematic experience involving Adam Sandler.  There is a gap between what you have, objectively, experienced and what you are absolutely sure that you, as a non-fool, would allow yourself to be subjected to.  This gap is filled with an unalterable belief that the experience must have significant redeeming value, so much so that you end up approving of that experience far more than any rational analysis would lead you to do.  You will defend it from all assault.  You will praise it as worthwhile for those coming up behind you.  You will seek to inflict it on others.  None of this feeling of positive memory has anything whatsoever to do with any objective merit from the experience itself – it’s all about you and how you rationalize having subjected yourself to that misery in the first place.

Thus we come back to Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries).

From pretty much any perspective other than extreme right-wing ideological fantasy, the current administration has been a colossal failure – a national disgrace and an international embarrassment from which it will take Wisconsin a generation or more to recover.  The quick glance at the statistics from his reign that I ran through above is all you need to make that case, and there is just so much more where that came from.  His administration has been a target-rich environment that way.

And yet he remains inexplicably popular.  He is the only governor in American history ever to survive a recall election.  His approval ratings – low though they are – have not budged in years, regardless of the track record of his administration.  In point of fact, his approval rating among Republicans hovers well north of 80%, even as his approval rating among everyone else is in the single digits – a remarkably polarized set of statistics which, when combined with the fact that the number of people who have “no opinion” about him is essentially zero, is further indication of just how little will change come the next election.  On top of that, his assaults on democracy, constitutions, and the rule of law are strangely celebrated by his supporters – people who otherwise claim to revere exactly those things and have no scruples against using them as cudgels to beat those who dare disagree with them on, well, anything. 

This is simple cognitive dissonance at work. 

They voted for this man.  They supported this man.  He has been an unmitigated disaster for the state of Wisconsin.  Only a fool would support such a man.  They do not consider themselves to be fools.  Therefore there must be some redeeming value in Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) that his opponents are too evil to see.  Therefore he must be defended.  Therefore they will vote for him again next year, in exactly the same percentages as they voted for him in 2012. 


That’s a bad sign for Wisconsin.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How Could I Leave This Behind?

Last night, as part of our continuing effort to educate our children into the classics, we watched This Is Spinal Tap.

We ordered pizza and ate it off of paper plates while watching, too, because it seemed fitting.  You really can’t watch that film with anything remotely healthy in your bloodstream.  The conceptual whiplash would kill you faster than the salt and cholesterol ever will.

It would be more dangerous than getting a job as their drummer.

I first saw this film when I was in college, not too long after it came out.  The TLA, down on South Street in Philadelphia, was a repertory cinema at the time and every month they came out with a schedule of the various films that would appear, usually for a day, and then be gone.  It wedged itself into my brain almost instantly, and among my circle of friends it was required viewing.  If you didn’t love that movie, we really didn’t have any idea how to treat you.

It’s surprising how well that film has held up, really.  Other than some technological advances – nobody worries about cover art on albums anymore as it is difficult to put a cover on a download, for example, and some of the humor does rest on miscommunications that would be fairly easy to get past if everyone had a cell phone (though what new miscommunications that would create is a whole other issue) – the jokes are pretty much just as funny as they were.

It helps if you understand the musical references from the 60s and 70s, of course, and being able to identify the cameos of actors who were famous thirty years ago is a plus.  But neither of those are really necessary to the story or the humor.

It’s a story about some decently talented guys who aren’t nearly bright enough to see just how far in over their heads they actually are but who know, somewhere in the back of their minds, that there is something more to their situation than they can see at that moment, and that never gets old. 

The contrast between the seriousness with which they take their craft (the scene were Nigel Tufnel stops scraping a violin across his guitar strings in order to tune the violin springs to mind) and the sheer cluelessness with which they approach the rest of their world (“Hello, Cleveland!”) is the backbone of all sorts of modern comedy.  You find yourself repelled by their inability to understand how much they lack and simultaneously cheering for them for pretty much the same reason.

Plus, the movie is a quote machine.

The girls made it all the way through and they seemed to enjoy it.  They certainly have a better handle on some of the standard family lines around here than they did beforehand (“it goes up to eleven”).

Parenting: for the win.