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Thursday, September 22, 2005


The wedding of Larry Gallagher and Catherine Shaddix was beautiful beyond belief: up in the Sonoma County forest, on a weekend of two impossibly brilliant days, Larry and Catherine’s friends and family gathered for a Buddhist ceremony (moving and hilarious by turns), fine food, ecologically sound partying, and a six-hour music festival that featured one remarkable performer after another (the Singing Gallaghers, consisting of Larry’s mother, three of Larry’s four sisters, and one of his nieces, nailed a five-part harmony on “Mister Sandman” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” which was much appreciated by the crowd; a jazz-guitar trio did amazing things; beatboxer/ vocalist/ performance artist Kid Beyond, aka Kid B, closed out by rocking the entire hillside).  I drove up on Friday night, rehearsed with the soi-disant all-star band that evening, crashed in the soi-disant “men’s dorm” in a house owned by somebody or other who knew somebody or other, attended the outdoor ceremony the next morning in my very best pinstripe suit, swam in the Russian River that afternoon (not in the suit), and played in the aforementioned soi-disant all-star band that night, as we kept the party hoppin’ with our soulful renditions of “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “Into the Mystic,” and “Harvest Moon,” among five or six others.  My part of the evening was capped off when word got around the crowd that no one in the United States could be properly married until the band played “Celebration,” whereupon we all got back up on stage and played a seven-minute jam that included an extended solo so remarkable that half the musicians spun around and said, WTF? as one of the guitarists took the tune to places it had never been.  As we ended sharply on “everyone around the world, come on”—improbably, since we had never played the song before—Kid B brought the celebration to a close, declaring, “by the power invested in me by Kool and the Gang, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” The next day, I chatted with Larry and his West Coast friends all morning, lay around in the pool for a while, drafted a letter about forming an AAUP chapter on the main Penn State campus, and then went canoeing down the Russian River with Larry’s sister Marybeth and three other people.

It was a good weekend.  And I even got to meet Chris Clarke and do tequila shots with Ward Churchill.

But that’s not the point of this post.  The point of this post is to let you in on the engine room of my life, where swinking demons work tirelessly to create the conditions that might possibly allow me to have a good time.  Let me explain.

Two weeks before the wedding, I got a CD in the mail from Rob Riddell, Larry’s co-conspirator in many things.  Rob included the set list for the all-star band—a formidable array of songs that originally included “Jackie Wilson Said” and “Reeling in the Years,” each of which poses serious challenges for guitarists, horn arrangers, and drummers, especially if they’ve never met each other.  I spent two weeks dutifully learning the changes in “Jackie Wilson Said,” and agonizing over whether to double the dotted eighth notes in “Reeling in the Years” on the bass drum during the solos.  (There’s no question about the verses: if you don’t play dotted eighths on the bass drum during the verses, that is, if you take the easy road of playing quarter notes on the 2 and 4, you’ll drag the song into the rhythmic mud.) Quickly, however, Rob decided that “Jackie Wilson Said” was just too damn difficult to orchestrate on two weeks’ notice and one Friday-night rehearsal, so we dropped it.  But the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” posed similar problems, and it remained in the set.

Along with the CD, Rob sent a letter that read, in part,

There will be music-loving, drunken wedding revelers grooving on everything we do up there.  So this is an excellent opportunity to learn these songs good, people.

I’m bringing a lot of equipment.  Please feel free to use any and all of it, instead of dragging your stuff along.  E.g.,

Larry’s Yamaha steel-string acoustic (with jack), tuned to D
Nylon string (flamenco) acoustic (with jack)
Yamaha SR-400 bass with active electronics
David Eden “Traveler” bass amp with 2x10 cabinet
SWR “Strawberry Blonde” acoustic amp, nice crisp sound
“Pod” guitar effects unit
16-track mixer/amp
JBL 10” powered monitor
Two Shure SM-58 vocal mics
One Sennheiser e-835 vocal mic
one cheap but functional condenser mic
4 mic stands

Notice there is no mention of drum equipment here.  For as daunting (logistically) as it is to put together an all-star band for a wedding gig (so much easier just to book a band!), it is X times more daunting to deal with #$%*@*!!**ing drummers.  Obviously, there was no way for me to cart my five-piece Tama set across the country, so someone was going to have to supply drums for me.  And here’s where things got weird, and the weird turned pro.

I had told Rob via email that I would bring my cymbals—an 18 inch ride, a 14 inch thin crash, and a 15 inch medium crash—along with one cymbal stand.  Why cymbals?  Uh, that’s a story unto itself, but suffice it to say that when I last played with Larry in any official capacity, in the summer of 1983 with the Beaux Arts Society, we recorded a demo tape one of whose signal weaknesses was the fact that we’d had only two hours’ notice before we went in to record, and another of whose signal weaknesses was that the studio cymbals sounded like shit.  Drums, for the most part, are just drums (with the exception of the snare, whose tonal qualities are crucial).  But good cymbals can make a world of difference, and I thought I’d just be more comfortable playing mine.  And I did want to feel comfortable, don’t you know, because (gulp) I hadn’t played in front of people in six years and (gulp) the rest of these musicians were much, much better than I am.  (When people ask if I’m a musician I usually reply, “no, I’m a drummer.” Stay with this thread!  There will be more drummer jokes below.)

Now for another complication.  I wasn’t quite finished with my review of Theory’s Empire, so I needed to complete that assignment before I went to any wedding and music festival.  And since my schedule last week was too busy to allow me to write the review before I got on the plane, I went to priceline.com and booked a room on Fisherman’s Wharf for Thursday night.  My plan was this: I would meet Chris Clarke in downtown SF for dinner, drive a mile or so north to the hotel, write a 2000-word draft that evening, and then look it over in the morning and send it via the Internets. 

Just before I left, Larry wrote to me to say, “hey, you can have Internets access in the apartment that Catherine and I call home.  We won’t be here, but we’ll leave a key—just let the upstairs neighbors know you’re coming.  And if you have an empty car”—I’d rented a “mid-size,” thinking I would ferry people north, but that didn’t work out—“you can pick up some stuff we’ll leave behind.  The Internets access is right there on the table.” But Larry’s email mentioned a cat, and my priceline.com room wasn’t refundable, and their apartment was nowhere near Fisherman’s Wharf, so I politely said thanks but no thanks, I’ll just take the hotel.  Alas, I didn’t notice that the cat did not actually live in Larry and Catherine’s place; I simply saw the word “cat” in the email and began to sneeze.  I told Larry that I couldn’t manage any cat dander, and he told me that he’d made other arrangements, and that I wouldn’t need to pick up any stuff from his place, so all good.

And here’s why that matters.  In comments, Tina—is Tina in the house?  ah, there you are!—had asked last week how I manage to do all the various things I do.  The short answer is that I do them all at the same time.  So, for example, while I was prepping for this here wedding gig, I was also reading all the essays in Theory’s Empire and rereading the ones I considered most important.  On the flight from Dulles to SFO, I finished the book and made notes on the passages I absolutely, positively wanted to quote directly in the course of writing the review.  Long practice in writing such reviews has taught me that I can use about twenty percent of the material I think I absolutely need, and this review was no exception.  So when I bid farewell to the charming Mr. Clarke and checked into my discount-rate Radisson-on-the-Wharf, I knew more or less how I wanted the review to look and how I wanted to begin making it look that way.

But it turned out that the Internets access from my hotel was ridiculous: five seconds of wireless connection followed by two hours of fiddling and frustration.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  I finally managed to put together an acceptable draft and jack into cyberspace around 11 am Friday morning, whereupon I sent the review, packed my bags, and embarked for the Embarcadero Plaza, where I would search for Jamie’s birthday present and a wedding present for Larry and Catherine.  Had I taken care of such matters before arriving in San Francisco, I could have simply hopped on the Golden Gate Bridge from my hotel (and you know, so few people jump onto the bridge, it might’ve been a nice change of pace for the Bay Area authorities), but I was in no hurry—I checked out of the Radisson at 11:59:59 and budgeted two hours for lunch and shopping around the Embarcadero.

Shopping went well.  Lunch went well.  The Embarcadero on a glorious late-summer day.  And in the midst of it all, Rob Riddell called me, saying, in effect, I thought you were staying at Larry and Catherine’s place.  I said, yes, well, I thought it would be less of a hassle all round if I just got a hotel. OK, right, Rob said, but I left three speakers and an amp there, thinking that you could bring them up if you have an empty car. No problem, I replied, mentally moving my ETD from SF from 2 to 4 pm.  Just give me directions from downtown SF to L and C’s place.  Rob did so—with great patience, I must add—and then added that I should also pick up a vial of saffron from the spice rack in the kitchen.  Got it, I said, as I wrote down my directions, asked Rob for wedding-present tips, and called Janet to ask for advice on whether Jamie might take an XL kids’ jersey or a S adult’s.

I never did find the saffron, despite calling Larry and asking precisely where in the apartment I might search for it.  But I did manage five minutes of Internets access while I was loading the speakers and amp into the car (they just fit, of course), and wished Jamie a happy birthday.  Then I got back on the road and enjoyed some of the Left Coast’s lovely bumper-to-bumper traffic for another three hours, and finally arrived at the wedding site around 6:30.

Which was fine, because the drums weren’t there yet and I was in plenty of time for a quick tour of the grounds and a little night-before party at 7:30.  Rehearsal would take place at 9.

The drums showed up at 7, courtesy of a good soul named Kirk.  Bass drum, floor tom, rack tom, snare, hi-hat stand, two cymbal stands, bass pedal . . . I decided to put everything together before rehearsal (so as not to hold things up when all the real musicians arrived), and as I went through all the stuff, I slowly realized there were no hi-hat cymbals.  I asked Kirk if I’d missed a bag here or there, and he replied that he’d been given to understand that I was bringing cymbals.  And why didn’t I?  I had a cymbal bag, and I’d almost packed them at the last second, but didn’t, and what the hell was I thinking?

Well, shit.  Now, those of you who aren’t drummers (all but two of you, to gauge by my referral stats) will have very little idea what this means, but you two drummers out there are slapping your foreheads and saying, “dude, you are so screwed, dude,” in that distinctive way we drummers communicate with each other.  For some songs, like “Isn’t She Lovely,” I could play the entire thing on the ride cymbal and no one would notice, but there are definite moments in “Into the Mystic,” “Reeling in the Years,” and so on where the absence of a hi-hat (a) hurts the song and (b) can be noticed by even the most drunken wedding reveler.  Not to mention the fact that drummers tend to keep the half notes on the hi-hat with their feet, anyway, and I was going to do this shimmering little sixteenth-note triplet thing with the brushes on the crash cymbals and foot on the hi-hat during the last bar of the chorus of “Harvest Moon.” Just so you know.

We got through rehearsal well enough, though.  The real musicians were curious about why I had a hi-hat stand and no hi-hat cymbals, but I told them I would play on the rim of the snare for now (rockabilly style!) and would try to get a hold of something cymbal-like the next day.  Rob assured me that there would be someplace open in Santa Rosa, so I wasn’t too worried.

But I was probably the only person who attended Larry and Catherine’s beautiful, moving, and occasionally hilarious Buddhist ceremony thinking—despite my best efforts to stay in the moment—that I had to get me some Yellow Pages and drive to Santa Rosa at some point that afternoon.  And that’s exactly what I did: after milling about with the guests (yes, I can mill all by myself) for a while and congratulating the lucky couple on a lovely ceremony (with very detailed vows!) on a brilliant day, I got on the phone and began calling music stores to say that I’d traveled 2500 miles to play in this band, and so forth.  The Santa Rosa Music Center—which, I think, is badly named, since they deal almost exclusively in pianos and organs—was willing to rent me a pair of cymbals for the weekend, but (next snag!) of course they would have to be returned on Monday, and by whom?  Whose name could I give, and who could I ask for such a favor?  “Um,” the nice man on the other end of the line said, “we do have some really cheap cymbals too, if you just want to buy them.  Maybe you should bring the hi-hat stand and a couple of sticks and try them out.” Which is exactly what I did, driving the fifteen miles back into Santa Rosa and trying every pair of cymbals in the store.  (It is so strange, the palpable difference between cheap and expensive cymbals.) The nice man eventually sold me two $17.95 cymbals for a special you’ve-travelled-2500-miles price of $30 (note to non-drummers: a good pair of cymbals will run close to $200), and I triumphantly took them back to the wedding, where, many hours later, we married Larry and Catherine by the power invested in us by Kool and the Gang.

I even got to play three songs with virtuoso and former bandmate Oren Bloedow, when we suddenly decided that people should not wait in line for dinner without listening to jazz in the background.  Oren was the bassist in the Beaux Arts Society with me in 1983, and has since gone on to much greater things, including touring with Michelle Ndegeocello.  His nimble version of “Blue Bossa” was a delight to play on, and we think the waiters-in-line liked it too.  Oh, yes, and I provided some modest percussion behind Rob and vocalist Jennifer (whose last name I didn’t catch) for their Brazil-inflected version of “In the Still of the Night” (no, not the Five Satins song), which was the tune for the newly married couple’s first dance.

So how was your weekend?

Oh, yes, the drummer jokes.  I brought two with me: What do you call the guy who follows the band around and goes to all their gigs?  The drummer! and What’s the last thing the drummer says before he’s kicked out of the band?  “Hey, guys, let’s try one of my songs!” To these, Oren graciously added, How can you tell the stage is level?  The drummer is drooling evenly from both sides of his mouth! and How do you know there’s a drummer at your door?  Just wait and listen to see if the knock keeps speeding up! That last one actually made me spew coffee all over the deck on a nice Sunday morning.

I’ll be back later on with more of the usual blogging.  In the meantime, thanks to Larry and Catherine for inviting me, thanks to the entire West Coast crew who made the musicfest possible, and thanks also to John for another terrific post on Tuesday (that is, Monday!).

Posted by Michael on 09/22 at 10:48 AM
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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Reception theory

The moral of The March of the Penguins is that we’d all be much better off if the religious right lived in Antarctica.  Discuss.

Posted by Michael on 09/21 at 08:50 AM
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Monday, September 19, 2005

How to Tell a Liberal from a Conservative

Guest Post by John McGowan

When French voters rejected the EU constitution this summer, many of them did so in the name of defeating “neo-liberalism.” Conservatives on this side of the Atlantic instantly became walking examples of schadenfreude as they pretended to feel deep concern about Europe’s future, gloated over this slap (as they read the vote) at the very notion of international or supranational institutions, and clucked their tongues at how the social democracies of the Continent refuse to get with the program of globalization. 

The French apparently understand “neo-liberalism” to mean international free trade and externally imposed (by the EU or by the World Bank or IMF) fiscal discipline on nation states. Both policies weaken an individual nation’s attempt to control its own economic destiny, have sent many traditional jobs from the rich North to the poor South and East, and pressure governments to cut back or utterly eliminate entitlement and safety net programs for their citizens.  The oddity is that such policies would be considered “neo-liberal,” since in an American context they are associated with “neo-conservatives”—and why American conservatives would feel so gleeful at the French public’s wide-scale rejection of those policies.

To unpack these complexities would take a book.  The history of liberalism, in particular, is one of multiple twists and turns—and some outward reversals of direction.  Plus there are many liberalisms; Adam Smith and John Rawls have just about nothing in common, yet each is recognizably a liberal thinker.  There is simply no way to produce a coherent account of a single ideology called “liberalism.” I believe, in fact, that liberalism is best understood as a range of responses to the conditions of modernity—responses that are often local and specific, that are not coordinated with other liberal expedients, and that belie the holistic “ism” applied to various liberal thinkers and liberal practices.

So I think we’ll do better if we consider the liberal and the conservative as exhibiting markedly contrasting sensibilities.  The very word “liberal,” of course, enters the English language to denote an open-handed and open-minded person.  It carried that meaning for hundreds of years before it took on political connotations.  (I read recently that Leigh Hunt and Byron’s periodical, The Liberal [1822], was the first to use the term in our current political sense.  So Locke, Jefferson, and Smith would not have thought of themselves as liberals—at least not in the way we think of them as such today.)

What are the hallmarks of liberalism as a political sensibility? 

1.  In any political conflict, the liberal assumes that all the advantages lie with those at the top of the prevailing social hierarchy.  For that reason, the liberal believes that every benefit of the doubt—and every concrete material benefit—should flow to those on the bottom.  The liberal, in other words, recognizes that power and advantage accumulates in any society—and is committed to undoing that power and accumulation wherever possible. By way of contrast, the conservative is always a member of the “party of order,” convinced that only by maintaining authority can society be preserved and chaos averted.  The liberal thinks that authority hardly needs any extra help; the centripetal forces of society are so strong that our efforts should be thrown on the side of the centrifugal.  The multiplication and dispersion of power is the best remedy to the tendency of power to coagulate—and dominate.  We’ll worry about anarchy when it rears its ugly head, but not let that boogie man frighten us into placing too much power into too few hands.

Probably the surest litmus test for distinguishing one with a liberal sensibility from someone who has a conservative one is the individual’s response to modern cities.  Liberals find the multi-ethnicity, cacophony, and jostling crowds energizing and thrilling.  Conservatives find those same cities emblems of social chaos (and, in the American context, dens of iniquity).  The conservative response to the city is “there ought to be a law.”

For this reason, conservatives can never be libertarians.  Thoreau’s “the best government is the one that governs least” runs directly counter to the conservative fear of chaos.  Conservatives will never deliver a smaller government.  They may idealize and heighten the power of corporations—and hence want to lessen government regulation of businesses—but they will also invariably want to enhance the authoritative branches of government: the military, the police, and laws pertaining to morals.

2.  The contrast between the liberal’s cavalier attitude toward authority and the conservative’s repeated jeremiads about authority’s decline is out there in full view, with both sides explicitly acknowledging their views—and contesting the views of the other side.  But there is a more subterranean difference.  Classic conservatives like Edmund Burke insisted that hierarchy was essential to social order.  But the equality of citizens in modern democracies has become an unassailable touchstone since (at least) the early part of the 20th century.  (Again, it would take a long time to trace the history of the idea of equality—and of its ascendance to its present untouchable status.)

I have been reading Brian Barry’s Why Social Justice Matters (Polity, 2005), a book with many virtues along with a few vices.  I recommend it highly—even though it is depressing reading since it is mostly a scathing indictment of American and British governmental policies of the past twenty years.  (He is particularly incensed by “New Labour’s” record.)

Barry’s great strength is making it very clear that only substantial equality—both political and economic equality—can count as “social justice” within the terms that everyone—conservative or liberal—professes to accept.  He shows how notions of “equal opportunity” are always used to justify actually existing inequalities—and that such notions are, at best, incoherent if measured against actual differential results and are, at worst, just shams produced to avoid really working to produce equality.  And he shows in all too abundant and painful detail how American and British social policy since the days of Reagan and Thatcher have been directed to insuring that, as Billie Holiday put it, “them’s thats got shall get, and them thats not shall lose.”

So that’s where I suggest we look when we want to tell—beneath all the justifications and sophisticated arguments and frothing at the mouth of public political discourse—who is a liberal and who a conservative.  A liberal is someone who works to further equality in a patently unequal society.  A conservative is someone who talks equality, but who endorses and promotes policies that increase the take for them thats already got more than the average share.  (And that holds as much for America as a nation, with its immense takings from the world’s supply of wealth and oil and other goods, as it does for the various segments of America’s own population who float far above the masses.)

Conservatives are about, when push comes to shove, offering justifying reasons—economic ones like inventiveness and ingenuity or moral ones like virtue and hard work—for some folks having so much more than others.  In their heart of hearts, conservatives really believe that the world is only just when there is inequality since then each person is getting what he or she truly deserves.  The notion that a just world would be an equal one is foreign to them.  Hence the huge divide in sensibility.  The successful deserve their success, the unsuccessful deserve their lot —and the virtuous few should have authority over the untrustworthy many.  Those are the bedrocks of conservatism.

I am well aware that some liberals will fail this litmus test, but I’m with Barry in his assessment of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.  The failure lies not with the test.  I don’t know enough about Blair to say, but I think Clinton did (and still does) possess a liberal sensibility.  He never felt the conservative need to assure the worse off that they were reaping what they had sowed.  But his policies were conservative in their effects because he believed that the only way to retain power was to give the powerful more of everything—and he could only do that by taking away from the less powerful.

Posted by John McGowan on 09/19 at 08:43 PM
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Friday, September 16, 2005

Happy birthday Jamie!

I have Internets access for only about five minutes, so I just wanted to say that.  Well, I also wanted to say that this is mostly true.

San Francisco is gorgeous, as usual.  But I almost missed the whole thing because of the people in front of me on line at the airport in State College, who wanted to bring their rabbit with them (along with their six behemoth suitcases) and who would up in negotiations with the ground crew, the airline’s attorneys, and the captain of the plane.  Next time I fly, I’m going to ask if I can bring my pony.

No, I didn’t get Jamie a pony for his birthday.  I got him something else.

Posted by Michael on 09/16 at 04:42 PM
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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Real life

It’s time for another post from the back stage of the blog! 

Why?  Because I’m flying off to San Francisco and points north for a friend’s wedding, that’s why.  The friend in question would be Larry Gallagher, the guitarist/ sax player/ horn arranger/ wandering minstrel/ ordained Zen monk/ part-time carpenter/ freelance journalist whose website looks like this, and with whom I played in a couple of bands when we were callow college youth.  It was the early 1980s, and Larry was playing in outfits like Normal Men, The Beaux Arts Society, and Onan Flan (the first two with me, the third without), and writing things like

I’m still subject
To subjectivity
There’s too much id in

--which is really not bad for a 20-year-old kid, especially the whimsical sort who’s also writing songs like “Shake What You Haven’t Got” and “The Way You Seem Tonight.” These days he’s still laugh-out-loud funny, as the lyrics of “Wimpy White Guys with Guitars” will tell you–

Christian feels a certain special pain
He compares his inner landscape
To a gently falling rain
Trey is wondering where his lady went
Travis is smitten with a vague discontent
Justin has a message for his show
He came all this way to tell us that
He just doesn’t know
Reid will sing a song about a train
Blake will make you wistful for a fistful of change

Wimpy white guys with guitars
Choking up the coffee houses
Bringing down the bars
Restless as the ocean
Countless as the stars
Wimpy white guys with guitars

Need I add that part of the brilliance of the song is that it sounds exactly like a sensitive white-guy tune?  Or you could take the lyrics of “Show Me Your Flaw,” in which a hapless would-be lover asks the woman of his dreams (who is, of course, gazing deep into the eyes of a ponytailed butthead) to assure him that she’s not really worth longing for:

Show me your flaw,
Show me your flaw,
‘Cause from here you look perfect, and it’s eating me raw. . . .
Indulge a geek, miss
Any major weakness will suffice–
Dianetics, Michael Bolton, homicide, or lice
Show me your flaw!

But Larry writes some extraordinarily moving stuff as well, and if you check out some of the songs (like “Disappointment Slough,” my current fave) on his website or on the Amazon.com page, you’ll see why he gets reviews like these from fans and first-time listeners alike.

Anyway, I’ll be away from blogs for a while, though I do plan to dine with this guy, who, as you all know, is responsible for much of the Left Coast’s finest blogging, de-blogging, and general blog-commenting.

So since the beginning of August, this is what my real life has looked like: off to Connecticut with the family for a friend’s funeral.  Then, a week later, to North Carolina with extended family for vacation.  Two days after that, off to St. Louis with the family to drop Nick at college.  Two days home, then to northern Virginia by myself on a one-day secret mission.  Last weekend, to New York by myself for an MLA meeting and a lovely backyard bloggerfest at Casa Sisyphus.  And now solo to California for Larry’s wedding.  Meanwhile, over the past month alone, I’ve written up two tenure-and-promotion cases (each of these takes about a week, and I did one of ‘em while I was on vacation); I’ve drafted a 15-page thing for the secret mission; I’ve written a couple of sections for the report of the MLA Task Force on the Evaluation of Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion (that was the New York meeting); I’ve submitted my course requests for 2006-07; I’ve met again and again and again with three different campus committees, each of which is doing work that is at once critically important and yet somehow too boring to blog about; I’ve met with people who want to start up an AAUP chapter here at Penn State, now that we have the Horowitzian HR 177 “select subcommittee” of the House of Representatives investigating “liberal bias” on Pennsylvania’s campuses; I’ve done some planning stuff for my session at the end-of-September conference of the Pennsylvania Association of Rehabilitation Facilities; and I’m almost finished with a 2000-word review of a 700-page book whose title rhymes more or less with Queory’s Quempire.  I think I’m also reviewing one book proposal and one article for publication, or something like that.  Oh yeah, and one more promotion review to do by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, Jamie has started seventh grade, and is taking French this year (wish him luck!  tomorrow he has a quiz on les jours de la semaine); he turns 14 on Friday, and believe me, neither of us is happy that I’m missing his birthday.  But I’ve promised him that I won’t miss another one, and I’ve explained that a dear friend’s wedding is a serious thing.  Especially when the wedding band needs a drummer!  Yep, I’ve also spent part of the last two weeks learning the songs the wedding band will play during the reception—Larry’s musician-friends made up a CD for people to practice with.  I even went out today and got three new pairs of sticks for the occasion.  Which I badly needed anyway, since Nick, before he left, chewed up or broke practically every stick in the house.  Good kid, that Nick, and a fiery drummer, but he clearly needs to learn to play some easy listening, quiet storm, and smooth jazz. 

When I get back, things should settle down a bit.  Janet and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary; most people don’t know this, but the twentieth anniversary is the Cobalt Anniversary, and gifts are really hard to find (just wait til the Radium Anniversary!).  Then a few days later, I will turn 44, and my hockey season will start.  I played in an informal over-35 game last night and scored three goals in a 7-3 win, but I am badly out of shape, what with the post-appendectomy summer and all this dang travelling.  I don’t expect to be in game form until mid-October at the earliest.  And I almost forgot:  I’ll also start my final revisions on a pair of books, both of which should be out next year!  That will be fun.

Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that my life is so simple as all this.  I haven’t even mentioned the Severe and Almost Life-Threatening Pancreatitis of Lucy the Dog, or the fateful thousand-dollar visit from the plumbers, or Janet taking Jamie to a hearing test tomorrow to check on the damage from that sinus infection, or our frantic scramble to weatherproof our house for the winter now that we’ve learned that natural gas prices will be roughly 70 percent higher than last year.  (Nick, if you’re reading this, we’ve decided not to heat your room while you’re gone.  Please let us know if there’s anything in there that might freeze, crack, congeal, or explode.) I wouldn’t want the blog to get all clogged up with minutiae like that, now, would I?

And no, I haven’t forgotten about Theory Tuesdays and Arbitrary But Fun Fridays.  If I have a moment (and Internets access) this Friday, I’ll come up with something arbitrary (but fun).  If not, see you all next week.  Don’t forget to call for a vote of no confidence in our federal government and its incompetent leader while I’m gone!

Posted by Michael on 09/14 at 08:12 PM
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The return of Mr. Answer Man

Dear Mr. Answer Man:  While you’ve been spending all your time playing the blame game with natural disasters, the Senate has moved on to the confirmation hearing of John Roberts.  Do you think Roberts will be confirmed as Chief Justice, and if so, to what effect?  And what will become of Rehnquist’s extra special quadruple-striped robes?  Can I have them if Roberts isn’t planning on using them?  I think they look boss. —R. Bork, Gomorrah

Mister Answer Man replies:  Mr. Bork (if that is indeed your real name), surely you are aware that Article II, section 2, clause 2 of the Constitution of the United States provides that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States,” and that under Article III, section 1, clause 1, “the judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, the Chief Justice of which shall wear a robe bearing four stripes.  Four shall be the number of the stripes on the Chief Justice’s robes, and the number of the stripage shall be four.  Three stripes shall there not be, and five is right out.” Please consult your copy of the Constitution before wearying Mister Answer Man with such questions.

As for whether Roberts will be confirmed, and to what effect, Mister Answer Man defers to Greil Marcus, who ably answered this question and many others way back in November 2004:

Adding to Mr. Bush’s statutory and administrative economic policies were a series of decisions by the “Bush Court,” as the Supreme Court was known after 2005, when in that year Mr. Bush replaced three retiring members with very conservative justices (a fourth was replaced in 2006), depriving government regulation of corporations and the environment of any legal basis—decisions which many analysts considered more significant than the repudiation by the Bush Court of previous decisions upholding a woman’s right to privacy in the matter of abortion and certain applications of affirmative action. Even with the Bush Court seated, however, the Republican-controlled Congress that Mr. Bush enjoyed throughout his presidency repeatedly passed legislation removing issue after issue from the purview of the state and federal courts, including questions of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to trial by jury. Despite these prohibitions of judicial review, the government, under Mr. Bush, did not press for any legislation curtailing what had previously been referred to as “First Amendment freedoms,” but simply refrained from challenging such legislation passed by many states, rather filing supportive briefs before the Supreme Court when such measures were contested. Ultimately the reversal of the series of 20th-century Supreme Court decisions subjecting the states to the Bill of Rights, long-sought by certain conservatives, was achieved not de jure but de facto. “The press is legally free,” the former New York Times columnist Frank Rich put it in 2007, writing in his online journal Thatsrichbrother.com. “It merely refrains from practicing freedom.” Some said the same of the nation as a whole; others said the country was freer than it had ever been.

Mister Answer Man thinks that Marcus’s essay is holding up pretty well so far.  Read the whole thing if you want to find out what happens in the One-Day War.

Posted by Michael on 09/13 at 12:09 PM
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