e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


the best of 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, the third annual top ten list (2004 and 2005 also available!). The music of 2006 that moved me, helped me to grade papers, soundtracked my morning commute to Dearborn, and kept me walking on the treadmill. The best of the year. Here goes:

10. SSM A kind of a Detroit supergroup, featuring members of various motown indie bands including The Sights. Their debut album features psychedelic keyboards, space-age concept lyrics a la George Clinton, and the requisite two-minute garage rock songs. Well worth a listen.

9. Pipettes, "Pull Shapes" & Beyonce, "Irreplacable" Two of the catchiest pop singles of the year. The Pipettes pay homage to '60s girl groups and Beyonce offers the funniest break-up song you've heard in ages ("...everything you own is in a box to the left..."). Girl power in full effect.

8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Gold Lion" Another great single from NYC punk outfit the YYYs. Female-fronted punk band in the tradition of The Slits and X-Ray Spex in the sense that YYYs combine an art rock aesthetic with rock-single simplicity. Like "Maps" a couple years ago, this YYYs track doesn't sound like anything else out there. A stand-out track from a band with a voice.

7. Yo La Tengo -- I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass One of their strongest records yet, thanks to an eclectic mix of pop ("Beanbag Chair") and fuzz ("Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"). Smart, earnest lyrics and the guitar virtuosity of Ira Kaplan. Bonus points for putting on a great show in Ann Arbor a few months back. These guys are a couple decades into their career and keep releasing great rock and roll.

6. Arctic Monkeys, "I Bet You Look Good On the Dancefloor" Little Steven's radio show kept this single on heavy rotation last summer, and for good reason. Catchy dance number. Zero pretention. A perfect summer song.

5. Belle & Sebastian, "The Blues are Still Blue" & The Envelopes, "It Is the Law" Two of the best alt-rock songs of the past twelve months. Belle & Sebastian, a Scottish twee-pop collective, is one of my favorite bands and though their newest album is somewhat uneven, "The Blues are Still Blue," a glammy T.Rex-ish creation, is their best song since "Lazy Line Painter Jane" a decade ago. Like other bands on this list (B&S, Yo La Tengo, Hard Lessons), The Envelopes have a great male-female/shared-vocal dynamic. "It Is the Law" showcases the disparate elements (airy keyboards, dueling rock guitars, pretty vocals) that give the bands its odd oomph.

4. New York Dolls -- One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This A remarkable record. Not just a reunion souvenir but rather a re-invention of one of the greatest rock bands of all times. Could have been disappointing, as the 'Dolls are (in)famously without most of their founding members, including the great Johnny Thunders. But this album revisits the bluesy, raunchy sound the 'Dolls created in the early 70s and adds emotive lyrics that implicitly reflect the losses that the surviving 'Dolls have weathered. But those lyrics maintain the campy sense of humor of the band. Like their classic debut album, full of stand-out tracks. Give a listen to "Dance Like a Monkey" and "Dancing on the Lip of a Volcano." Bonus points for headlining a great show in Detroit with Chesterfield Kings and Supersuckers and The Charms--all bands they inspired.

3. Bob Dylan -- Modern Times Best full-length album of the year, hands down. With "Workingman's Blues #2," Dylan offers a compelling and agonistic "topical song," the genre in which he always denied working. "The buying power of the proletariat's gone down," he sings on that track and his voice makes it mean something. Speaking of politics, Dylan invokes Hurricane Katrina on the epic folksong "The Levee's Gonna Break," and makes the track at once timeless and dated. "Thunder on the Mountain" is great pop. In short, not a weak link of the whole disc.

2. The Coup, "My Favorite Mutiny" & Jay-Z with Ne-Yo, "Minority Report" Socially conscious hip hop is alive and well. The Coup, everybody's favorite Marxist rap outfit, doesn't sacrifice the funk on "Mutiny," which features guest vocals from Talib Kweli and other notables. Meanwhile, "Minority Report" rises above the rest of Jay-Z's "comeback" album, with its polemical samples of Hurricane Katrina news reports (including clips from an interview with a veteran: "I fought for my country and can't get a bottle of water") and Kanye West's "George Bush doesn't care about black people" line. Over an ominous backbeat, Jay Z muses: "The commander-in-chief just flew by...what if he ran out of jet fuel and just dropped? That'd be something to watch...he'd be just another bush." Jay-Z's most important song? Yep.

1. Hard Lessons -- Wise Up My favorite release of the year. A five-song E.P. from Detroit's own rockers The Hard Lessons, twenty-something former schoolteachers who decided to go professional. I saw them play around Detroit a few times this year and their live show is so high-energy, so unapologetically enthusiastic, that you expect them to disappoint on their recorded material. Not at all. The rave-ups are predictably great, but take a listen to the slower numbers like "It Bleeds," the disc's ballad. Twenty minutes of pure rock and roll. The next great band to come out of the motor city.


the levees

Spike Lee's four-act Hurricane Katrina documentary, "When the Levees Broke," is a work of anger and rage. Those raw emotions give the film a voice, a perspective that marks the film a product of one particular moment in time. The anger expressed by the documentary's talking heads - politicians, activists, relief workers, citizens of the gulf coast - dates the film. 2006. One year after Katrina.

Much the same way that Lee's "Do the Right Thing" drips with its historical context. New York. Late 1980s. References to Tawana Brawley, popular hip hop artists of the time, and so forth.

"When the Levees Broke" features exhaustive and heartbreaking footage of Katrina and its aftermath. Lee's camera work overwhelms and compels. At times sweeping shots of flood waters and devastation but mostly Lee emphasizes the human, introducing us to folks with unforgettable stories.

And while those stories stick with us, so too do the systemic failures that resulted in all of those deaths. Just over a year later and how easy it is to forget about the armed white militias keeping the displaced black New Orleans residents from crossing the bridges into their white parishes. A few months after the release of the reports and how easy it is to forget about the gross neglience of the Army Corps of Engineers. Easy to forget about Condoleeza Rice shoe shopping and taking in a showing of Spamalot and George W. Bush rolling out Iraq soundbites in southern California while the levees were giving way. We meet the Mississippi resident who tells Dick Cheney to go fuck himself at a press conference. Turns out the resident was trying to get to his home after the evacuation but was blocked by Cheney's motorcade. We see Barbara Bush touring a crowded, dirty, Houston arena full of displaced New Orleans residents and suggesting that they were poor anyway and were probably better off here.

And the documentary reminds us that forgetting is a luxury. We forget about the systemic failures and the root injustices that caused so many deaths because we have the luxury to move on. Not everyone has that luxury, and the human faces we meet are faces that remember. One Katrina survivor's respond to Barbara Bush: "I was poor. Everything I got I got it honest. You was rich. How did you get there?"


violent but not violent enough

So members of the Nuggets and Knicks decide to beat the hell out of one another on the basketball court. At Madison Square Garden. On national television. In front of millions.

Another act that normalizes and legitimizes violence. Violence as the logical next step when one becomes angry. Where is the opportunity for ethical development and ethical education among basketball stars who are groomed for celebrity from the age of thirteen? The values of competition, agressive masculinity, entitlement, and bling ever in the foreground.

My favorite media response to the incident? In today's Detroit News, columnist Chris McCosky deconstructs the fight and argues the key players weren't tough enough. "It was no brawl...just a bunch of fake tough guys yapping, slapping and running," Mccosky writes. In other words, they're sissies. As far as toughness, McCosky finds Carmelo Anthony et al to be "inept." The real "brawl," he says, was the infamous fight between the Pistons and Pacers in 2004. We do fights right in Detroit, err Auburn Hills.

Few of the young people who idolize NBA players will go professional and become millionaires but many of those young people will use violence as a response to anger or perceived disrespect.


aw shucks

Time Magazine Person of the Year: You. Well, I couldn't be more honored and I just want to thank all the little people who made this possible.

I love the gallery of headshots that Time has on its website, slide-showing us through images of a punk rock kid with a guitar, a dj (oh Time, how hip you are), a guy with rasta hair, a supermodel-type with a digital camera, and a knitting granny. If only one of the Flash experts over at Time had thought to morph the headshots, like that Michael Jackson video.

Cue the Patti Smith anthem (and ignore any irony Smith may have infused into the lyrics) because Time considers 2006 a real "People Have the Power" kind of year. Here's an optimistic snippet of Time's year-end wrap-up:
But look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
Time frames its year-in-review as a rejection of history as a history of great men, as well as a rejection of the negative. Erase the ongoing and ever-worsening war in Iraq, the Israel-Lebanon conflict, the genocide in Darfur. 2006 is community, collaboration, the many wrestling power from the few. People have the power, so go buy an i-pod, a laptop, a digital camera, and some dj equipment and all the bad stuff will go away. We'll tell another story.

Time's consumerist ideology is no surprise, but its failure to contextualize blogs, wikipedia, i-movie, et al within global geopolitics is deeply troubling. In the face of do-it-yourself publishing, humanitarian crises continue. Web 2.0 has not slowed the progress of the war machine. There is power in storytelling (blogging) and self-representation (youtube-ing), but can that power serve a broader praxis? To what ends might "the people" utilize such technologies?


building bridges...to Windsor

Building Bridges: A Labour Studies Conference
University of Windsor,
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
February 2nd and 3rd, 2007

With sessions on the rhetoric of social movements, alternative media, and international coalition-building, this conference "across the river" from Detroit looks like an intriguing event, one I definitely plan to attend. The conference planners have also put various performances on the program, breaking up the standard "three-person panel" formula. Impressive work.



Over the weekend N. and I made 42 dozen cookies. Excessive? Maybe, but nothing can best the smells of baking as they fill a house. Our favorites are the mint-chocolate kisses, a chocolate dough wrapped around a mint hershey kiss and then rolled in powdered sugar. Butterscotch chips are a close second, especially while still warm. Today's the last day of the term so I made both groups of my students sampler plates of the cookies (I always bring food on the last day of class), plus plates for all sides of the family and for various upcoming holiday parties (tomorrow: one for the writing program and one for the service learning faculty group, thursday: the Gesu Peace&Justice group's soiree). See, 42 dozen isn't quite as excessive as it sounds.

My Grandma D. made huge amounts of Christmas cookies each year when I was a kid. Her front porch became a makeshift freezer as tupperware containers and department store boxes full of the treats covered the porch's glider. Fig bars, anisette bars, pizelles, biscotti, and of course what she called "cut-out cookies" (a plain Italian cookie dough cut into stars and Christmas trees and frosted with a simple sugar icing). How many hundreds of those did I eat during the '70s and '80s? How wide was my Grandma's smile watching us eat them? I can hear my Grandpa grumbling about not having a place to sit on his glider but I can also see him brewing his coffee--a thick concoction to which he added salt--on the stovetop percolator and then enjoying a cup with a biscotti and a Chesterfield.

Christmas Eve at her house: pasta in oil and garlic, fried calamari, cold baccala (cod), cold broccoli dressed with lemon juice and garlic, artichokes, squid (always a picture of someone, usually my dad, with tentacles coming out of his mouth) in red sauce, shrimp scampi, and salad. Then, of course, big plates of figs, fresh fruit, and her cookies, set out on a tablecloth dotted with spots of olive oil.

Back to the present. Absent at our place is the smell of the Chesterfields and the sludge-like coffee, but we've tried to capture some of the cookie scent for Christmas. And part of what makes a break from school, time with family and friends, and the pomp of the holiday's rituals at church such a joy is recalling that this is the time of the year that made Grandma D. the happiest.


not much of a reader

At one of today's press conferences, a reporter asked Bush the extent to which he'd consider the Baker-Hamilton report and its recomendations. From NPR:
"Some reports are issued and just gather dust," he said. "And truth of the matter is, a lot of reports in Washington are never read by anybody. To show you how important this one is, I read it, and our guest read it. The prime minister read -- read a report prepared by a commission. And this is important."
What? Does the fact that Bush READ the report instead of having his sycophantic staff give him the digested version prove anything? I suppose so. I suspect Tony Blair's people bristled at the "me and Tony read this one, folks, because it's important, see?" Comforting that our Commander-in-Chief is that guy who reads the first thirty pages of The Godfather each summer at the beach.

In related news, how disheartening is it to watch the media *suddenly* grant tacit persmission to criticize the Iraq situation? I mean, I'm glad that this shift in sentiment might mean that the U.S. starts to pull out of Iraq, thereby saving lives. But frustrating that just a few short months ago, such criticism still meant one was anti-American. This is especially true for the spineless Democrats (John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich are among the few exceptions) in congress, who campaigned last time around on their support of Bush's handling of Iraq and campaigned this time around on how Bush had completely screwed things up. Sigh.



I've taught a section of introductory creative writing just about every semester since I finished grad school in 2002 and I've only made minor changes to the syllabus over the years (kind of odd, given that I'm constantly overhauling my first-year comp syllabi). At both Miami University and UM-Dearborn, the course covers both short fiction and poetry and at both institutions I've used a fairly standard workshop model. The model has worked and I especially like the fact that students, from the very beginning, see everything they write as a piece-in-progress and see the rest of us as reader-coaches. But I'd like to change some things for next semester:

  • Short fiction first and poetry second. I've always started with poetry, thinking that free-verse in particular is a natural extension of early finding-your-voice activities. But I want to try starting with short stories since I've got a more rigorous sequence of exercises (character sketches and the like) for the fiction unit. I'm thinking this sequence, early in the term, will reinforce the value of thinking deliberately about craft.
  • Fletcher's Breathing In Breathing Out: Keeping a Writer's Notebook. We've used this book for several years down at the Ohio Writing Project and next term I'm going to see how undergrads respond. Fletcher uses a "writers at work" structure, talking about his own uses of generative writing, and also drawing on anecdotes from Naomi Shihab Nye and other writers who describe how and why they journal and the relationship between journaling and producing more finished pieces.
  • More published examples. Student work is the priority and I don't want that to change. But I do want to bring in more examples of the genres we're learning. For example, this semester we read Updike's "A&P" and Walker's "Everyday Use" while students worked on the short fiction sequence. My thinking has been that I don't want to over-emphasize consumption of published work at the expense of writing time. Useful but I'm thinking a few more examples might open up possibilities for students.
  • More accountability for feedback. I need to do more spot-checking of the written feedback students are giving to one another. Workshop participation counts and in the past I've always looked at spoken comments (again, we spend the vast majority of the term engaged in whole-class workshopping) as indicative of the quality of written commentary. But I know that some students are thorough and conscientious in their written responses while others slack off a bit. That's not fair and I want to do more policing, much as I hate to play that role.



Last week on the Phoenix->Detroit redeye, returning from Thanksgiving weekend, flight attendants informed those of us sitting in the first few rows of coach that a woman in the back of the plane had become ill. Minutes from landing, the crew decided to bring the sick passenger to the front of the plane so that paramedics could reach her as soon as we were on the ground. We readied an empty seat, stuffing magazines into the seat pocket and, in a few moments, one of the flight attendants led a trembling middle-aged woman to us. She had clearly wet herself and she clutched in her shaking hands a plastic grocery sack into which she had thrown up. Puffy eyes suggested she had been sobbing, but now she looked resigned, as if waiting for an inevitable crash.

The woman in the seat next to her asked her why she was going to Detroit. Awkward conversation made all the more awkward by the smells of terror and sickness. Through shaky lips the sick woman said she was on her way to Washington but that if we were to make it to Detroit, she'd never set foot on a plane again. End of awkward conversation. Through landing, that calmly-waiting-for-death look on her face didn't change and, once the first-classers had left us behind, paramedics did indeed rush onto the plane accompanied by armed guards (standard procedure, I suppose, for any type of flight disturbance).

The paramedics emphasized how safe we now were, held her hand, and explained that they were going to wheel the woman into Detroit Metro airport. Her face remained stoic. But then when the lead paramedic asked her what was wrong, she said something barely coherent--I think I heard the word "bronchitis"--and began sobbing. And when the paramedic had her in a wheelchair en route to the terminal, she began to vomit again. We followed her into the airport. The paramedic and sick woman turned one way and, following signs to baggage claim, we turned the other.


heartlands magazine

Firelands College in Sandusky, Ohio, publishes a regional literary magazine called Heartlands, which seeks submissions from writers and artists with various community and institutional ties. Larry Smith, the poet who edits Heartlands, manages to showcase high school and college students alongside active "academic poets" (MFA types), visual artists and photographers alongside fiction writers, teachers alongside psychologists and Vietnam vets and union organizers.

The publication has a strong sense of class consciousness which translates at times into political consciousness and at times into an implicit (almost "libertarian") sense that writers and artists (ought to) come from various lines of work. Heartlands, as the name suggests, is also regional in just about every sense of the word. Many of the writers come from Ohio and Michigan and/or take up the midwest as topoi. The magazine's website is not updated regularly but provides a sampling of the work.

I've got a poem in the latest issue and attended yesterday the issue's launch party down in Sandusky, Ohio. I read aloud some poetry at the party, which I rarely do and which tends to freak me out, but I cracked wise about being a transplanted Ohioan living in Michigan and *not* being a football fan and that broke the proverbial ice.

Anyway, the event was a joy. Some local folksingers did Ani DiFranco covers, poets read their work, a performance artist did an odd routine that involved members of the Bush administation doing touchdown dances, and, in a surreal twist, the manager of a local bird sanctuary brought some hawks and a bald eagle that lost its sight due to West Nile Virus.

Kudos to Larry at Heartlands (a mainstay at working-class studies conferences and a compelling poet in his own right) for keeping the regional arts alive and prospering.