e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


grading playlist

Due in part to the fact that I spent over half of 2011 out of the country, I didn't listen to enough new music to compile any type of "best of" list. But I do have an enjoyable collection of (mostly) 2011 tunes to keep me company while I grade portfolios during the next few days. If you haven't heard any of these, download them from your favorite legal music source.

1. "East Harlem" by Beirut. Catchy, lilting melodies from a band I decided to sample because of the band name, although they aren't Lebanese. Their 2011 record is pretty good but this is the highlight.

2. "Lonely Boy" by The Black Keys. In 2002 or so, when The White Stripes and Strokes peaked in popularity, this would have been a HUGE hit. Bigger sound than their earlier stuff yet still loyal to that simple, garage aesthetic.

3. "Black Rabbit" by Pujol. Great rock and roll song that deserved to be bigger. Why didn't this get any buzz on avclub, pithfork, et al?

4. "Rolling in the Deep" by Adele. It says something about the lousy state of pop music that when "Rolling in the Deep" comes on the radio, you instantly notice what a beautifully written song it is. But Adele's not just great from a craft and composition perspective. Her voice is lovely and unique and she doesn't feel the need to turn every song into some octave exercise. She gives "Rolling in the Deep" subtlety and nuance.

5. "Otis" by Kanye West and Jay Z. I'll just pick one song from the awesome "Watch the Throne" collaboration. Why not make it the big single? The lyrics couldn't be shallower (gist: we are really, really rich), but the Otis Redding sample is brilliant.

6. "What Can I Do?" by Black Belles. This band killed at the inaugural MI-Fest in September. Band members all dress in black and wear witch hats yet their show somehow worked in the middle of the day (I'm reminded of seeing Ministry play an afternoon slot at Lollapalooza twenty years ago). 60's girl group sound meets riot girl punk.

7. "F*** You" by Cee Lo. I think this is technically from 2010, but I didn't pay attention until Motley Crue tossed in a cover (mashed up with their own, similarly themed "Don't Go Away Mad") at their Detroit show this past summer. Lyrics are completely over the top and the tune is totally addictive.

8. "Forget You" by the Muppets. An all-chicken version of the Cee Lo song from the new Muppet movie. Smartest part of the movie. Repeated listens do NOT get old. Love it.

9. "Future Starts Slow" and "DNA" by the Kills. One of my favorite bands. They get points for sheer consistency--all of their records have been good including the 2011 release "Blood Pressures" (which is getting no end-of-year love). These two tracks show off the drum machine / rock guitar / brooding vocals that form the trinity of the Kills' aesthetic. PS: the band put on an outstanding show in Columbus in July.

10. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by the Muppets. Second greatest moment in the movie. A barbershop quarter version of the Nirvana classic, complete with Beeker deliving the "libido" line, among others. Also stays fresh upon repeated listens.


what have I been reading?

Join the Club, by NYTimes' Tina Rosenberg, which I'm reading with my first-year comp students. Rosenberg posits the "social cure" as an effective strategy for social change, telling loads of stories of successful organizing where the success stemmed directly from the social capital gained by a sense of community. Rosenberg argues that peer pressure represents positive potential. Pretty good stuff.

Also reading various texts about Shi'a in Lebanon and Hezbollah specifically. The best has been Max Weiss' In the Shadow of Sectarianism, though I also made my way through Zahera Harb's Channels of Resistance in Lebanon and Eitan Azani's Hezbollah: The Story of the Party of God, the latter providing really useful context but succumbing to significant bias in its discussion of the contemporary situation in "the south." Been doing some extra reading to add to what I'm learning in the Lebanese history class I've been auditing and, ultimately, trying to contextualize my understanding of Mleeta (the "Hezbollah museum"), which I've been trying to write about (may turn into an article).

Doc on Afghanistan

This film screened on campus yesterday. "Where Soldiers Come From" follows the lives of several young men from the U.P. who join the National Guard, deploy to Afghanistan, and then return to their civilian lives changed. Might be the best documentary I've ever seen. All I can say is please, please, please watch it. PBS is streaming the movie for free. Follow the link.



Tonight is "Working-Class Rhetoric" night in my MALS (master's in liberal studies) seminar and we're reading luminaries like Eugene Debs, John Steinbeck, and Jane Addams. Here's a nice taste of Steinbeck, from his essay "Starvation Under the Orange Trees"
If you buy a farm horse and only feed him when you work him, the horse will die. No one complains of the necessity of feeding the horse when he is not working. But we complain about feeding the men and women who work our lands. Is it possible that this state is so stupid, so vicious and so greedy that it cannot feed and clothe the men and women who help to make it the richest area in the world? Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done?


In addition to spending a few days in beautiful Youngstown, OH., I had the pleasure of visiting Pittsburgh's "strip district" for the first time this past weekend. The district houses Pittsburgh's version of Little Italy, a non-residential area packed with Italian delis, bakeries, and import stores. Among other things, Nicole, my parents, and I got some most excellent prosciutto and bread. I always forget that Pittsburgh's less than ninety minutes away from Youngstown. Must make the strip district a regular destination, next time with a side trip to the Andy Warhol gallery.


What's Wrong with All-American Muslim?

TLC's new reality tv show revolves around a group of Muslims who live in Dearborn, Michigan, where I happen to teach. Aside from making money without having to pay writers and actors, TLC seems to want to offer honest, interesting portrayals of Muslims to counter the predictable, ugly stereotypes the media often reproduces. The producers managed to find representatives of the community who practice the religion differently, but have so far missed lots of opportunities.

Let's start with "the community." The group the show seeks to represent is somewhat ambiguous. American Muslims in general? Not exactly, because the show is in many way *about* Dearborn and its unique dynamics. And the show seems to focus, implicitly at least, on Arab Muslims in order to engage with the cultural-religious-ethnic enclave here. That's fine; certainly the program has no obligations to represent the totality of American Islam. Indeed, looking at the intersections of religion, culture, and ethnicity could be really interesting. So, then, why do the show's personalities all seem so homogenous? Most of the stars are Shi'a from South Lebanon, which in some ways makes sense because that particular group is so prevalent, visible, and active in Dearborn. Seems like a missed opportunity, though, given the Yemeni, Palestinian, and Iraqi Muslims who live here too. All the characters seem very upwardly mobile, too. If you want to engage with religious, cultural, and ethnic intersections, broaden the scope.

The program also doesn't provide much context. Maybe this will happen in later episodes. So far, the show hasn't told us anything about Dearborn's history. No mention of the city's history of racism and segregation ("Keep Dearborn Clean"), for instance. Maybe the reality tv genre simply can't make room for this kind of context, but why not show the city's evolution from segregated white community to ethnic enclave? Likewise, aside from high school football players mentioning briefly the racist taunts of opposing teams, there was no mention of post-9/11 Islamaphobia. The show doesn't have to "go negative" per se, but barely mentioning this seems to me like missing context. Perhaps the show wants to tread lightly in order to connect to as wide an audience as possible, but, sheesh, if the show is about honest representations, than tell the truth.

Somewhat related to the context or lack thereof, how come there was no mention whatsoever of the old country? I don't think I heard the words "immigrant," "Lebanon," or certainly "South Lebanon" during the whole episode, aside from one woman saying that her husband "comes from the same village." If the show is exploring cultural identity and how religion and ethnicity intersect, than surely this will eventually come up. Given South Lebanon's especially contentious relationship with Israel, will mentioning context more explicitly be acceptable? Will anyone say something like, "My family comes from Bint Jbeil"? And is that desirable? I'm speaking as an outsider--neither Arab nor Muslim--so my perspective is necessarily limited.

Also, speaking of shout-outs, how about a mention of U of M Dearborn?



CSA: The Confederate States of America is not as shocking a film as it thinks it is. CSA imagines how the contemporary world might look if the South had won the American Civil War. Interesting premise, though the premise doesn't really go anywhere.

[spoiler alert...] What does the film imagine as the consequences of a Confederate victory? Slavery is legalized throughout the land. Abe Lincoln dons blackface, is taken into hiding by Harriet Tubman, and eventually is captured and exiled to Canada. The Confederate States colonize much of Latin America. South Africa becomes their chief ally. The late nineteenth century? Pretty much manifest destiny on steroids.

Clever and intriguing but once you know the premise, you pretty much have experienced the film. I will say that the narrative structure is smart and effective. CSA takes the form of a British documentary airing on a Confederate tv station for the first time, complete with commercial breaks. The commercials are brilliant.



The great historian Howard Zinn writes about his recollections of dropping napalm on a German-occupied French village at the end of WWII. He says the allies were essentially waiting for Germany to surrender at that point and that dropping the napalm was fundamentally unnecessary. He recalls getting the orders from commanding officers and then, along with his fellow pilots, carrying out the orders.

After his honorable discharge, his GI Bill-funded education, and the beginning of his distinguished career as a teacher and activist, Zinn concluded that war was unjust and looked back with honesty at his involvement in that injustice. He says when he thinks of getting those orders, he can understand why many fail to act when challenged or faced with an opportunity to take a stand. It's hard, for one thing. It causes us pain, discomfort, and loss.

I think of this as I read accounts of the molestation and rape scandal at Penn State. A coach who runs an outreach program for at-risk children commits rape. He's a powerful and influential man. Janitors and graduate assistants catch him in the act, hem and haw, and eventually tell others at the University. Nobody calls the police. The abuse continues. The inaction of the growing network of individuals who knew but did nothing is stunning. Taking that stand might have been hard, might have hurt one's career, might have resulted in losing a friend or losing one's standing.

But it would have been the right thing to do.



In the process of getting the partnership between the writing programs at UMD (where I teach) and AUB (where I worked while on a Fulbright in the Middle East last year) solidified. We are linking eight classes next semester. Students in these classes will partner with students abroad and interview one another and get acquainted via various online media (Skype, Facebook, etc) and ultimately write "literacy profiles" of one another. It's great fun and a chance for the teachers and students alike to meet up and learn some things about reading and writing in different social, cultural, and national contexts. Currently writing several grants to get the partnership some needed funding. Also working on IRB approval, an online space where all the student writing will be housed, and a million other things connected to making the project meaningful and maybe sustainable and scalable. Meantime, Margaret, my UMD colleague, and I are writing up a report of the pilot version of this partnership we tried out while I was at AUB. We've given several presentations about what we did (linking our two classes in Fall 2010) and we're working on an article version. I've not collaborated much in the past and, while working with others is in some ways slower and involves much more communication, this is a social way to operate.



Taqwacore = Islamic punk rock

But here's the interesting part. The genre didn't really exist until Michael Muhammad Knight wrote a novel called The Taqwacores, which one scholar calls "The Catcher in the Rye for young Muslims." Nearly ten years old, that novel inspired the birth of a small but meaningful youth movement, primarily in North America, of Muslim teenagers interested in adopting the rebellious pose of punk rock while maintaining staunchly Islamic identities. The word "taqwa" means something like piety or faith. Taqwacore bands popped up, writing and performing songs about Islam and using a hardcore punk musical aesthetic.

On Thursday night, UM-Dearborn screened the film version of The Taqwacores, directed by Eyad Zahra, who graciously answered questions after the screening. I encouraged my students to attend and about six or seven of them did. The film follows young Yousef, a Pakistani-American college student who moves into a house inhabited by devotees of taqwacore. Yousef is pious and conservative whereas his new housemates engage in all manner of "haram" (immoral) behavior and challenge Yousef's assumptions about what a good Muslim is. His new mates represent a range of Islamic ideologies. One woman, for instance, wears a full burka covered with punk rock patches and espouses a sexually liberated version of feminism. One is an openly gay man. One loves punk music but believes in a very traditional version of Islam, with men and women socializing separately.

Zahra shot the film with hand-held cameras in a rickety looking house in Cleveland. The movie's as lively and chaotic as the music at its center. At times, the story tries too hard to shock the audience (several scenes are sexually explicit, for instance) but overall it's a challenging and nuanced story that definitely got my students talking. We chatted in the hallway afterward and one student told me our conversation was better than the movie (which he found offensive--but, again, it inspired him to think and talk). I appreciated the range of characters in the film. And in a way, The Taqwacores reminded me of Kevin Smith's Dogma, which is deeply irreverent but takes Catholicism seriously and rolls up its sleeves and engages with church teaching. The Taqwacores did that for Islam, showing, for example, how this group of young people question their beliefs while maintaining their faiths, identities, and even traditions (turning Friday prayer, for instance, into a rotating sharing session in which each member of the community talks about what Islam means to them). They pray, although the call to prayer is played on an electric guitar, sounding a bit like Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the National Anthem. And the film has a sense of humor too. Band names include Hezbollah and the opening credits roll as a song called "Sharia Law in the U.S.A." (can you guess which Sex Pistols song this tune references?) plays on the soundtrack.

I'm awaiting response papers from my students who chose to attend (it was optional) but I'm curious to see how they connect the film to the short story collection we read, Halal Pork by Cihaan Kaan, which also uses an avant garde aesthetic to try to capture the complexities of young, American muslims in the post-9/11 decade.


Hating on Studio 60

One of my favorite distractions, I mean websites, avclub.com, has turned bashing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip into a zen art form. Their latest critique makes some valid points but I still do not get the level of vitriol toward this well-meaning program. Directed and largely written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the program followed the exploits of the producers, writers, and stars of a fictionalized version of Saturday Night Live.

Sorkin turned liberal presidential staffers into minor deities in West Wing and he attempts to do the same thing to comedians in Studio 60. Writing an amusing sketch doesn't quite have the same gravitas as running a country, though, so I can see why many didn't find the latter program compelling. The Studio 60 characters were unapologetically leftists and at times sanctimonious. Think Alan Alda on MASH. I saw the show as a kind of an extension of West Wing and--on both shows--found the larger-than-life intelligence and work ethic that the characters projected to be inspired. I love being a writer and teacher but I don't have the hyperbolic dedication of the fictional characters in Sorkin's universes. His shows are pastiches of dedication, every character a walking hyperbole, many of them voicing Sorkin's political views as they walk!

So I can see the somehwat limited appeal. AV Club's latest critique raises the question of why the show's critics are so vocal even four years after its cancellation (it's one of those one-season wonders, premiering the same season as the similarly premised/titled 30 Rock, which has a totally different tone), but the piece doesn't do much to answer that question. Instead, it reviews all that is problematic about the show:
In premise and execution, Studio 60 was a work of unbearable, overweening arrogance. It began with making the lead character of Matt Albie both a clear Sorkin surrogate and a writer so ridiculously romanticized even M. Night Shyamalan might say, “Get over yourself, dude. You’re a fucking writer, not Jesus’ younger brother, the one God really likes.” Albie isn’t just a principled, gifted writer; he’s a man who gets out of bed every morning aching to making a stand. He’s admired by men and irresistible to women who run the gamut from a Maureen Dowd surrogate played by Christine Lahti to the high-end skanks of the Rockettes. Even with a head full of bad chemicals and a belly full of pills, he’s able to single-handedly write a peerless work of transcendent social and political satire everyone in the known universe will be talking about around the water cooler Monday morning. Writing 90 minutes of new comedy every week is a Herculean endeavor for even the most gifted writing staff; now imagine 90 minutes of brilliant comedy emerging anew weekly from the mind of but a single man! On pills, even! And with the kind of problems you would not believe! As I write this, I realize that that this is not a man I’m writing about. This is a God. Oh sure, this man-God has an ego. Wouldn’t you?
The piece goes on to call out the show's self-congratulatory tone, its failure to live up to the promise of its brilliant pilot (in which a producer of the show goes rogue during a live broadcast and rants about the dumbing down of pop culture), its caricatures of conservative Christians, preachy dialogue, its failure to live up the "show don't tell" dictum, and its mishandling of race and war and 9/11. Quite a list of critiques. And, frankly, I can't refute most of these. Because even moreso than West Wing (often called "porn for liberals"), Studio 60 offered a fantastical, affective viewing experience for members of the left. The stakes were comically (so to speak) high for these characters because they just believe so strongly in their worldview (secular, progressive, civil libertarian, humanistic, etc.) and, yes, the dialogue verged on propaganda because these characters did not exist divorced from their own ideologies. I also love the way both Sorkin shows dealt with the writing process. Here are a great set of representations who recognize what good writing can do.

So anyway, I still don't get the level of vitriol, which doesn't come from conservative blogs, etc., which I imagine could care less about a failed tv program from 2006-2007. It comes from pop culture obsessives like AV Club writers. I suppose in part they want pop culture to be better: I love, therefore I criticize. But why the historical memory regarding Studio 60? Even with all the problematic aspects of the show, I'd expect indifference from non-fans, not hatred.



"It makes no difference to me/how they cried all over overseas/If it's dark in the poor places tonight/I'm not going outside."
-Wilco, Poor Places

Monday Misc.

Strange and unfocused day today. It's mid-morning and I've read the news, gotten some reading done, answered a few emails, and written two letters of recommendation. I have a mid-day meeting on campus, after which I plan to work out, write, and study some Arabic.

Hung out with our pals Jim and Janice this weekend. They came over and we watched Verlander miss his chance to win 25 regular-season games (bummer!). Various family members were in town to help Anna and company harvest honey from the bees. Mass Sunday morning. Sleeping past 6:00 am. Nice times, though I continue to have some residual, post-Lebanon blueness.

Shout out to Tony taking the GRE today. And to Gia the pug who's staying with us for the week. Time for an early lunch.


Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Too many words have been written about R.E.M. in their thirty-one years as a band and their one day of retirement. Even before mainstream success, they made for great copy in the alt press. Media coverage of the band actually created some of the important narratives of (indie) rock: artistic integrity, credibility, resisting the imperative to "sell out," reluctance and liberal guilt in the face of success, the transition from indie label to major label. R.E.M. pioneered these now-ubiquitous narratives. Ditto the fan narratives: I knew them before you did. I discovered the band early on. Their early stuff is great. Ditto the idea of a gateway band. Just as kids today discover Dylan and the blues through Jack White, kids in the 80s and 90s found Television, Velvet Underground, and Mission of Burma through R.E.M. Without R.E.M., there's no Kurt Cobain telling his fans they can't like both him and Axl Rose. There's no Eddie Vedder retreating from the media gaze and retooling Pearl Jam as journeymen instead of buzz-band. There's also no "modern rock" format on your FM dial. If it weren't for R.E.M.'s string of I.R.S. records, there would be no fan-boy worship of Sub Pop and Third Man.

Like thousands of other nerds (not indie rock nerds...nerds) in 1986 or so, R.E.M. made sense to me and around the time that "Document" came out, they became my favorite band. In junior high, Jack Kerouac's book "On the Road," the notion of going off to seminary, and the music of R.E.M. (and to a lesser extent The Smiths, Dead Kennedys, and 10,000 Maniacs) created this odd and incongruous universe that seemed so anti-establishment. A fourteen-year-old needs a favorite band. My college roommate Jim and I saw R.E.M. three times on the "Monster" tour--in Auburn Hills, East Lansing, and Ann Arbor. By that time (post "Man on the Moon," "Losing My Religion," and "Everybody Hurts"...the big three), they were big enough to play three Michigan shows on the same tour...and with opening acts like Wilco, Radiohead, and Patti Smith! The last R.E.M. show I saw was on the Vote For Change tour in support of John Kerry in 2004--a show in Cleveland with Bruce Springsteen, Bright Eyes, and John Fogerty. They all came out to jam on a finale of "Born to Run," "People Have the Power," and "(What's So Funny Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" Michael Stipe and Springsteen trading verses on "Born to Run" was a good moment.

All of that is well and good, but says little about the music itself. Much of R.E.M.'s catalogue is unfuckwithable rock and roll. It's jangly, artsy, punky, melodic, evocative, and illusive. Just for the hell of it, a dozen great R.E.M tracks:

1. Life and How to Live It (1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction)**
2. Begin the Begin (1986's "Life's Rich Pageant")
3. Rockville (1984's "Reckoning")
4. What's the Frequency Kenneth? (1995's "Monster")
5. Finest Worksong (1987's "Document")
6. I Believe (1986's "Life's Rich Pageant")
7. Harborcoat (1984's "Reckoning")
8. Radio Free Europe (1981 single)
9. Feeling Gravity's Pull (1985's "Fables of the Reconstruction")
10. Lotus (1998's "Up")
11. So Fast So Numb (1996's "New Adventures in Hi-Fi")
12. Man-Sized Wreath (2008's "Accelerate")

And a few live covers to find on youtube: See No Evil (orig. by Television), Crazy (orig. by Pylon), Superman (orig. by The Clique), Strange (orig. by Wire)

UPDATE: **Upon further reflection, I feel the need to add the following assertion about my list's number one: the lines "if I write a book it will be called Life and How to Live It" represent the best closing lines of a rock and roll song, ever.

Two nice links from salon.com
A series of remembrances of the band.
An essay about the band's influence.


MI Fest

Nothing beats great live music, especially when it's close to home on a sunny, cool Autumn day. Tony and Alice--my second eldest nephew and his girlfriend--drove up from Ohio to enjoy the inaugural festival and after late-morning sustenance from Dearborn's Sajouna (jibnee!) we headed west past Ann Arbor (no time to stop and cheer for the Wolverines) and got to the Michigan Speedway just in time for the Black Belles, a garage punk quartet whose members seem to aim for a witch aesthetic. Known mainly for backing up Stephen Colbert on the single "Charlene," the Belles kicked it without any Comedy Central cameos and somehow managed to make white make-up and tall black hats make sense in the context of an outdoor festival. I got the sense their aesthetic was a bit more geared toward a smoky bar after midnight. But they rocked, so, you know, kudos to them. They also circulated with fans afterward, made possible by a pretty low turnout. That early in the day I'm sure there weren't more than a few thousand people, max, and only a couple dozen at the second stage, where we camped out until nearly sundown.

Other acts who, like the Belles, are on Jack White's Third Man Records dominated the second stage. Black Milk, an excellent Detroit hip hop artist, was undeterred by his status as the only rapper in the house and had a very nice set, making me sorry I never discovered his stuff until he put out a single on Third Man. Must seek out his earlier stuff. Pujol and Jeff the Brotherhood both do a scruffy, stripped down rock act--more the kind of band you'd expect Jack White to produce--and seemed to be having as much fun as the crowd. White seems to have fostered a real family vibe at Third Man and the camraderie came across from the tiny stage. The Speedway facilities are not huge, which was a plus, as you could wander freely to your car for snacks and water and be back to the stage area in a few minutes. Did I mention how great the weather was? Sunny enough that my ears were red when I woke up this morning, but chilly by the time the sun went down.

Speaking of sundown, we ventured over to the main stage in time for the Romantics ("What I Like About You"), straight outta Hamtramck, Michigan, who broke out a Kinks cover in addition to the British Invasion-esque songs of their own, including, of course "Talking In Your Sleep," which benefited from the lack of the 1980s sheen of the recorded version. Did they close with "What I Like About You"? Of course. Did 40-somethings dance nostalgically on the lawn? Of course. As Sheryl Crow was taking the stage, a young woman smelling of the venue's expensive inexpensive beer, came over, told us we seemed cool (which I thought she was going to follow up with an invitation to "party") and handed over three VIP bracelets. Thank you, kind intoxicated girl, if you are out there.

The VIP area had free drinks but the line was too long so we headed toward the stage and got really close to Sheryl Crow. I'm not a fan or anything, but hearing her upbeat tunes up close was pretty cool. She kept saying we were in Detroit and referring to her friendship with Kid Rock, who I thought might join her for a duet or two. He didn't. She broke into a nice version of "Stuck in the Middle With You" at one point and had a really strong backing band. And the age-diverse crowd had a good time. Thanks for coming to Michigan Sra. Crow. We were about two hours from Detroit, but close enough. Really, her music isn't really my speed, but she's got really top notch pipes. Actually, much like hearing the Romantics, I appreciated her voice live, divorced from the production of her records.

Okay, after her set we worked our way close to the stage. A lot of the 40-plus crowd headed for the parking lot, leaving behind some huge Jack White fans. Really. Around us, I heard people comment on roadies who they knew from the White Stripes days. Wow. The Raconteurs, the second of White's three beloved bands, headlined the show and really killed it. I mean, they know how to please a crowd. The band has five amazing musicians when you include the keyboardist with whom they tour. They played much of their two records and the crowd sung along. Guitarists White and Brendan Benson both do a Zeppelin-esque thing--lots of solos, lots of shredding. Like a lot of the Third Man acts of the second stage, you got the sense they were having a fabulously good time on the stage. They played "Old Enough," my favorite Raconteurs track, so I was a happy audience member. Jack White's relatives sat in rows on stage left, rocking out, apparently (the local press reported) after traveling in his tour bus from Detroit. That Jack White. Whatta guy. When the family came out, I commented to Tony and Alice that maybe the older woman in the yellow jacket might not want to sit right next to the amps. A guy in front of me turned around and said "That's mom," so I figured, well, Jack White's mom probably knows better than anybody here that it's about to get loud. It did. Fitting for a guy who's become one of the definitive icons of Detroit rock and roll to close the day. Despite some hiccups last week, the MI Fest acquitted itself as a worthy event that I hope becomes an annual Fall tradition.


Ahlan wa Sahlan

Winding down after the second week of Fall classes, I realize that keeping up is going to be a challenge. Keeping up with the paper load, keeping up with the writing I plan to get done, keeping up with my Arabic. What's the routine look like? Something like this:

Mondays are writing days. I'm in the middle of several writing projects connected to the work I did in Lebanon and don't want to lose any momentum.

Tuesdays/Thursdays are campus days. Teach two sections of Comp 105 in the morning, followed the Arabic 101 class I'm taking, followed by office hours, followed by the Lebanese History class I'm taking. **By "taking," I mean sitting in.

Wednesdays are semi-campus days. Work out on campus, spend much of the day grading papers and doing class prep, teach my grad class in the evening.

Fridays are wild cards. Spend at least part of the day writing, though often I have various meetings and commitments on campus.

Every day: find an hour or so to work on the Arabic. I'd like to make time to blog, too, and post some updates here about the writing projects in particular, but also some rants about trying to learn Arabic. Stay tuned...


A Post-Lebanon Post

I'm definitely crashing. Summer teaching began a few days after we got back from the Middle East, leaving no time for sadness or anything else. Now that the summer term has ended, the funk has begun. Beirut, I miss you. AUB campus, I miss you. Snack Faisal, I miss you and your zatar pies. Two-dollar bus to Saida, I miss you. Justicia friends, AUB friends, and Nissrine, I miss you. The rush and the difficulty of living abroad, I miss you. Hiking in the mountains, I miss you. Walking on the Corniche, I miss you. Tiny cups of coffee, I miss you. Little old mustachioed men who sell coffee, I miss you.



Patti Smith's new memoir Just Kids reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan's pseudo-autobiography Chronicles because Smith, like Dylan, transcends the "celebrity autobiography" genre so beautifully. Just Kids is a prose-poem to her lean early years in New York City, a love-letter to her lifelong friend Robert Mapplethorpe, and an argument that art saves lives and makes lives. In case you don't know, Patti Smith is a writer, photographer, and musician best known for the punk rock records she made in the late 1970s. But anyone with even a passing interest in art, music, New York City, and/or la vie boheme ought to read Just Kids which is such a deeply humane piece of work, an artist's memoir that somehow NEVER slips into pretentiousness. So glad I've finally gotten around to reading this.


Who Are The People In Your Neighborhood?

Almost every morning, I've been taking a walk through Berkley, Michigan, where I live. In addition to a handful of "No Soliciting" signs and one that proclaims "Support Israel" (how much more support can we possibly give?), my favorite frontyard message has got to be "Fair Warning: We Have Dogs." I like the simple, declarative syntax, but also the tone, which suggests We don't give a shit if our dogs hurt you and we sincerely hope this sign shields us from any resulting litigation.

People love their property in my 'hood. Not just their houses, but the land too. They spray chemicals on their lawns, use who knows how many gallons of water not on edible plants but rather on grass, and use these edger things to make shallow pits along "their" parts of the sidewalk. Many prefer their grass to be the color of a football field, or the Brady Brunch backyard. A couple across the street once put down some type of sod only to call the company right back to take up the rolls of grass and lay down another type.

Not having grown up in suburbia, a lot of the aesthetic and lifestyle preferences are lost on me. In fact, things like the edgers completely mystify me. I want to make some kind of link between the obsession with the lawns and the disinterest in socializing with others in the neighborhood, but I suppose I am just as much at fault for the fact that I only know the people who live in the two houses on either side of me and the guy whose backyard butts up against my backyard. All perfectly nice people. But I don't know anybody else on the block. I knew more people who lived on my block in Beirut, and I didn't even speak the same language as many of them. Of course I could make more of an effort too but I just wonder at what point the conversation will turn to the subject of grass.


We're Gonna Need a Bigger Saj

At lost last, we fired up the saj last night. Thank goodness our nephew Tony--who happened to be visiting Lebanon when we bought the saj--talked me into the larger size. Can one's saj ever be too large? No.

This dome-shaped cooking surface, shown above in my sister's garage, connects to a gas tank like a bbq and is used for cooking bread. In Lebanon, the saj is essential to the street food scene. There it's used to make manoushe (a pizza of sorts usually topped with either zaatar and olive oil or cheese) or a thinner flat bread that's topped with most anything: meats, veggies, you name it. We had much fun last night, and enjoyed some tasty khobz, made in my sister's kitchen aid (I want one), and then done on the saj with swiss chard, zaatar, olives, and much, much more.

Strong Verbs

As I read student work this morning, I find myself urging students to use stronger verbs. "Construct sentences around present-tense action verbs," I write in the margins. Action verbs represent the aspect of "good writing" I spend the most time teaching all the while seeing only a fair amount of change in drafts of papers. I wonder if the action verb plays a lesser role than I imagine in contemporary discourse and the genres, electronic and otherwise, that students encounter on a daily basis. Do lessons on the "action verb" represent an old-school (outmoded), Strunk & White mentality? I ask not because I feel any less affinity for crisp verbs but rather because I get the sense that the written language that fills the days of my students (presumably with lots of "is" and "was") effectively trumps the language I advocate. And perhaps that means these particular lessons may not connect to the realities of the contemporary world. On the other hand, maybe the real world, not me, needs to change.


Kills Show

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of rocking out to a live show by The Kills, one of my favorite bands. If you don't know the band, well then you should. A male-female duo with an arsenal of drum machines and a whole lot of swagger, The Kills are hard to classify. Dance-punk? Close enough. You should also know that their singer Alison Mosshart (who also fronts the Jack White band Dead Weather) likes to prowl around the stage staring down audience members. So seeing them live is quite the experience. Judging by Saturday's concert, Mosshart seems to have mellowed a bit. Maybe being in a more popular band with Jack White does that to a person. I've seen The Kills a few times before and at past shows she really had the intimidation in full effect. Less so on Saturday.

Having said that, the music itself was just as intense as before, despite some minor sound glitches. They played much of their newest album "Blood Pressures" (their best, says I) and a few old favorites like Fried My Little Brains. One thing that comes through in their live shows is their ability to be noisy and aggressive without sacrificing melody. The comparisons with the White Stripes (two band members! no bass! Captain Beefheart covers!) never made much sense, but as they embrace the drum machine and sound effects more and more, they continue to push at the boundaries of what "garage rock" can mean. Fun. Thanks to my nephew Tony for hosting me in Columbus and letting me crash on his sofa. 37 years young and I can still sleep on a piece of furniture trash-picked from a sorority lawn.


Eleanor Josaitis

Detroit lost a legend this morning. Eleanor Josaitis, the great civil rights activist and co-founder of Focus:HOPE, died at age 79. Most Detroiters know Focus:HOPE as a high-tech training center where disadvantaged men and women receive not only vo-tech certification but also (in partnership with various local universities) engineering degrees. But the place remains a multi-purpose service center that works toward justice--and never shies away from using words like "justice."

Fr. Art McGovern, my ethics professor back during my undergrad years, brought Josaitis to class to speak about her work and Fr. McGovern also took students to various Focus:HOPE events. Those were galvanizing experiences. When I edited the campus features magazine, I put Josaitis on the cover of my first issue. The Detroit riots inspired Josaitis to move from the suburbs to the city (her mother tried to sue her for custody of her children after Josaitis moved to Detroit) and dedicate her life to racial and economic justice. Racists sent her hate mail. She called those notes "love letters." A couple years ago I heard her speak and she read excerpts from those love letters like they were badges of honor.


Free Friday

I'm pretty sure this is the first "at home" Friday since I got back to the U.S. Cedar Point with the nephews. Youngstown for last weekend's family get-together. Lunch meeting on campus. Always something happening on Fridays...until today. So I got up bright and early and cleaned the kitchen, then went outside and worked on the front lawn. Having not grown up in the suburbs, the whole 'manicure your lawn' pretty much eludes me and consequently our grass is less green, less uniform, and less edged than most houses on our block. Oh well. But I succumbed a bit and did some weeding (the sidewalk cracks in front of our house must be the most fertile soil ever), watering, and general, well, manicuring. I have some school-related e-mailing and c-tooling to do and then I think I'll tackle the garage.


Malcolm McLaren - Fans (1984)

I've had this on heavy i-tunes rotation. I came across Malcolm McLaren's solo album "Fans" on vinyl at a little shop in Hamtramck a few years back. Best known as the manager of the Sex Pistols, McLaren (RIP) combines opera and hip hop on the record. It's campy, odd, and you can dance to it. I had never heard of the record before and was happy to make the discovery.


The Limits of 'Access'

I'm becoming re-accustomed to teaching at a U.S. commuter university after teaching "traditional" students in Lebanon for a year. I have two summer classes and I like getting to know the students and learning about their interests through their writing. Students with families and full-time jobs, as well as transfer students, are heavily represented in these two classes. In Lebanon, success at university was the number one priority of my students, who largely focused on doing their families proud by making good grades and preparing for a profession like medicine.

At UM-Dearborn, earning a living and caring for one's family often take priority over school--for obvious, good reasons. Campuses like mine that market themselves as accessible and flexible have made accommodations: more summer classes, more online classes, more evening and weekend classes, easier transfer process. While I fully support these moves toward accessibility, I also think that students learn more and learn better when university work takes a more central role in their lives. Taking eighteen credit hours while working two jobs is admirable, and necessary for some students. For some students, though, this type of lifestyle leads to the need to miss a few classes, come late to a few more, and miss out on the time to reflect and make new knowledge part of their consciousness.

I hesitate to say this because I in no way want to imply that I don't like working with our student body or that I regret my post-Fulbright re-entry into the UM-Dearborn community. Nor do I mean to put the students in Lebanon (nor "traditional" American students) on a pedestal. And I hope I'm not (only) speaking from a place of ego and insult (you mean taking care of your sick daughter is more important than this article I've given you?). I just wonder if we do enough to balance the moves toward access with a fostering of certain core academic habits, some of which demand that we slow down, take time, and make time to think.


Kanye West Monster Muppet Remix

Watch the Throne

How about this show? Jay-Z and Kanye West are performing as a duo at the Palace of Auburn Hill in September. I've never seen Kanye live but Jay-Z's free show at Cobo Hall in 2008--a get-out-the-Obama-vote event--stands out as one of the best concert experiences of my life. J and K plan to release a collaborative, long-talked-about record called "Watch the Throne" next month. I've avoided the snippets and leaks, preferring to wait until the whole thing is available (August 8). Expectations couldn't be higher, due not only to the quality of the individual output of the two artists, but also due to their past collaborations: Kanye got his start producing Jay-Z's classic record "The Blueprint." Have they rapped together? Um, yeah. Does Roc Boys ring a bell? How about Monster?


Live from New York

This weekend I devoured the book Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live. For the pop culture enthusiast, this is the ultimate stay up past bedtime (and, in my case, don't get those student papers graded) tome. Shales and Miller include plenty of gossip and talk to virtually every living writer and cast member (Eddie Murphy refused to participate) about the drugs, the politics, the music, the rivalries, and the attempt to maintain a countercultural ethos in the face of success. But aside from the juicy stories about cocaine, the text also has so much to say about the relationship that SNL has established with its audience. I liked learning that Chevy Chase--the closest the book has to a villain--turned down Animal House because of his rivalry with Belushi and his disinterest in doing what he saw as an ensemble comedy when he could be a leading man in Foul Play instead. But I liked even more the opportunity to recall my own history with the show. That's the genius of the book: the ability to entertain the part of you interested in the salacious details, the part of you interested in a cultural history of the 70s-through the present, and the part of you that wants to connect your own story with the story of a pop culture behemoth.

My brother Steve had an SNL record with skits from the first cast and as a little kid, say eight or nine years old, I loved a lot of movies with people I knew were SNL people: "Meatballs" with Bill Murray, "Foul Play" with Chevy Chase, that kind of thing. So by the time I could convince my body to stay up late enough to watch the show, I did. I remember watching Eddie Murphy in the Gumby assassination skits, and the bit where Tim Kazurinky is married to the chimp. I must have been ten years old. I can remember my older brother and sister coming home (they were college age then) and I was just kind of chilling out with SNL. An essential ritual. Years later, I went off to seminary at age 14 and most of the priests were sort of vaguely left-leaning, and they were that generation that saw SNL as something radical, so ordering pizza and staying up to watch SNL was encouraged. The "Wayne's World" years, although my favorite skit back then was Sprockets. A bunch of Catholic teen-aged boys living away from home, contemplating the priesthood, and the show was, once again, a ritual (in a lifestyle and a belief system full or rituals).

First year of college, my friend Jason and I were seeing some bands play at Grounds Coffeehouse one Saturday night and I remember walking through Detroit to get home, me and Jason, trying to make the opening of SNL. That was the night Sinead O'Connor tore up the picture of the Pope. There we were, in the front room of a home where Catholic missionaries lived, watching this shocking thing. After college, first year of grad school, I was earning some extra money cleaning the Youngstown YMCA, working nights, and I remember watching the Christmas episode of SNL in one of the workout rooms while mopping the floors: Molly Shannon sniffing her underarms as the Catholic schoolgirl. Depressing job, but there was that ritual, that constant. I can't believe people don't watch SNL, that people didn't grow up with this crazy, occasionally smart program. The cliche is how the quality varies year to year, cast to cast, a theme this book tackles of course, but even during down years, nothing captures the moment quite like SNL. Yeah, I wish the show still did the avant garde stuff they did during the 70s (look, Sun Ra is on this week!), but I still set the DVR.

Shales and Miller have somehow created a book that does about eight things at once, not the least of which is appealing personally and affectively to the obsessive fan. Check it out folks.


Small Conferences

Every spring my field puts on a big conference that attracts thousands of scholars of rhetoric and writing. Most years I attend and many years (i.e., when my proposal gets the thumbs-up), I give a paper. Typically, I also go listen to lots of other papers, go out to dinner at least once or twice with my friends from graduate school, attend parties sponsored by textbook publishers ("enjoy free drinks and finger food and, by the way, please make your students by our stuff"), meet with the rest of the editorial staff of a journal whose board I sit on, attend a breakfast for writing program administrators, attend my graduate program's annual party, and collect free stuff from the publisher's display area.

Right now I'm sitting in the airport in State College, Pennsylvania, having just attended a much more intimate gathering of colleagues. I gave a paper based on the research I was conducting in Beirut. I listened to other papers. But know what else? I met a boatload of people I never met before. I connected with senior scholars. I had a lot of conversations and took a lot of notes and got a lot of ideas. There's a perennial conversation about whether my field's big conference has gotten too big and outgrown its usefulness. I'm not sure how I feel about this, but the thing is, I don't go so far as to say the big gig isn't useful mainly because I like seeing old friends. As far as a professional experience, the small conference is where it's at. And Penn State does a great job putting on a small conference.


"I just don't get the appeal"

I've been thinking a lot about pop culture since I got back to the U.S., a place no doubt consumed with consuming. Surrounded by the music I listen to on my laptop (Nas and The Kills yesterday) while I work and the "Big Love Season 4" discs Nicole and I have been watching in the evening, I experience both connection and disconnection when I walk into my classes and lead discussions with my students about mass culture. We are all critics and consumers. We critique and we consume.

And while I am interested in how the stuff I like shapes me, I'm also curious about why particular pop culture artifacts do absolutely nothing for me. I just don't get the appeal. A few examples:
  • video games
  • tv shows about judges (Judge Judy, People's Court, etc)
  • hockey
  • Kid Rock
  • Lord of the Rings
  • celebrity reality shows (e.g., Kardashians)
By acknowledging two of these non-affinities, I run the risk of having my Michigan residency revoked. Fun fact: you can get kicked out of Oakland County for disliking Kid Rock and hockey. But there it is. I've got to be honest. If the pop culture we love paints our backgrounds, than how about the artifacts we just don't "get"? In what distant but so-close (too close) galleries do they reside?


The Top Five I.R.S.-Era R.E.M. Music Videos

The Top Five I.R.S.-Era R.E.M. Music Videos

Over at PopMatters, A.J. Ramirez shares five great aural and visual moments from REM's classic I.R.S. years. One could quibble with the exclusion of Radio Free Europe, but why bother? Those early REM albums influenced the junior high me as much as novels like On the Road and The Stand did. REM made music for those of us shaped not only by family and religion and school but also by books and films and records. See also Patton Oswalt's essay (from this book) about working as a movie projectionist, which he "soundtracks" with REM's Fables album.

The New Pornographers - Moves

When the dream became reality, reality got rocked.


Summer Teaching Etc.

My summer mini-semester began today. A whole semester crammed into six weeks. I have a section of first-year writing and a section of advanced exposition, so I have four relatively full days in the classrooms per week. I have my students following an ongoing news story of their choosing and writing about how the press covers the issue. Luckily, only a few seem to have chosen the Casey Anthony verdict.

In addition to teaching, playing with my new computer (a MacBook Pro) has occupied my hours. Took me a long time to get around to switching to the Mac. Bit of a learning curve, but mostly the machine has been a pleasure to use. First things on my new i-Tunes account? The new Kills album, Blood Pressures, which is outstanding. Also, "Monster" by Kanye West and a Motley Crue compilation. Looking forward to figuring out iPhoto and iDVD.

This weekend, I'm off to the Penn State Rhetoric Conference to give a paper. Hope to see a lot of colleagues and friends. But I can't believe I'm getting on a plane so soon after the neverending Beirut-to-Detroit trip last week.


Non-Academic Reading Part Three

While overseas this past year, I logged here and here some of the things I read. Given the mystical nature of the number of three, why not post a third list?

--Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui, I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced
Margeurite van Gueldermalsen, Married to a Bedouin
Mahmoud Darwish, The Music of Human Flesh


Aging Rock Stars

On one hand, it's odd to see--as I did last night with my friends Jim and Janice--the members of Motley Crue take the stage amid massive pyrotechnics and proceed to bang their heads. On the other hand, what are they going to do, become accountants? I don't know if I realized that bands still go so far over the top. The Crue (now that I've seen them live, I can use the shorthand) brings out go-go dancers, shoots off fireworks, and keeps the dry ice industry in business. They play every single they've ever released ("We're going to play your favorite songs," singer Vince Neil announced), along with anachronistic-seeming drum and guitar solos. Drummer, reality tv star, and celebrity sex tape impresario Tommy Lee's drum kit is strapped to a roller coaster track that spins in a loop so he can play upside down. You can't look away.

Until you see Motley Crue live, you forget about the depth of their catalogue. They played hits for two hours. You also forget about the quality of their early tracks. "Shout at the Devil" is unimpeachable. Unlike an indie rock show, a Motley Crue concert focuses on entertainment and pleasure. Period. You can't help but have fun. The only moment of irony occurs during the montage of crowd photos that plays like a slide show on the big screen behind the band late in the show. Dudes flashing devil horns. Women showing cleavage. (Mostly) 40-something fans drinking in the parking lot. All during a song called "Too Young To Fall In Love." Priceless.

Two bands opened the show. Poison, slightly more "hair metal" and slightly less edgy than the headliners, did a short set, predictably heavy on familiar singles like "Talk Dirty to Me." When singer Bret Michaels--Tommy Lee's colleague in the world of reality tv--announced a song from their new album, fans were kind enough to eschew verbal disappointment. The song ended up being a cover of "We're An American Band." The evening opened with a thirty-minute set from 70s legends the New York Dolls, who no doubt influenced both of the more famous bands that played. I've seen the Dolls several times but enjoyed hearing classics like "Pills" and "Personality Crisis." The Dolls brought a little rock critic credibility to the evening and in some ways were an odd fit ("Strange to have a punk band open the show," Janice observed) but fit right in with the glam ethos of the Crue in particular.


More Non-Academic Reading

I posted a list like this back in December. Here are some things I've read since then...

--Patton Oswalt, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
--Ann Patchet, Bel Canto
--Ann Patchet, The Magician's Assistant
--Melissa Rossi, What Every American Should Know about the Middle East
--William Golding, An Egyptian Journal
--Colette Rossant, Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir with Recipes
--Michael Avi-Yonah et al, A History of Israel and the Holy Land
--Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately It Was Paradise


White Stripes, RIP

My roomate in college liked a Detroit band called Goober & The Peas, so we used to go see them play their odd country/punk around town. They had a rotating roster, but for a while their drummer was a kid younger than us. A couple years later he switched to guitar and changed his name to Jack White. After I grew up, his band, The White Stripes, got me re-invested in new music. By the late 90s, I was married and spending my time getting a PhD, not listening to bands. Plus, rock and roll seemed pretty boring anyway. Linkin Park, that kind of thing.

I lived in Tucson then, but read the Detroit papers online, and they were starting to talk about this band that played Captain Beefheart covers and had hokey elements like dressing in red and white. Their sense of fun knocked me over, hokey or not. I listened to "De Stijl," their best in my opinion, on repeat while helping my friend Hung tow a 1940 Cadillac from New Orleans to Los Angeles around Christmas, 2001. We drove a huge red dumptruck and when it was my turn to drive and Hung's turn to sleep, Hung had to get us to an entrance ramp and point us in the right direction because I was pretty shaky when it came to making turns in that monster. That's what I think of when I hear "Hello Operator" and "You're Pretty Good Lookin for a Girl." Towing a 1940 Caddy across Texas--a pretty good video for the old-fashioned music.

Nicole and I saw them live in Tucson, at the Hotel Congress, in early 2002, while I was finishing up my dissertation. There were lots of kids at the show. Not college kids, little kids. I felt kind of creepy, a 20-something among all these middle-schoolers getting dropped off by their parents. They opened with "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and the guitar was impossibly loud and sweaty. No setlist. Jack would just nod at Meg and she'd know what he meant. When they quieted down for "We're Gonna Be Friends," with all those young kids there, miles from Washington where our country was getting ready to go to war with half the Middle East, that was a totally unironic, tender moment. Seems like a week or two later, they were being played on the radio, alongside crap, and they were on the MTV awards show doing "Fell In Love With A Girl."

We moved to Southwest Ohio a few months later for my first professor job--speaking of growing up--and, 2002, 2003, those were the final years of the independent Oxford, Ohio, radio station WOXY. And WOXY had good final years: The White Stripes were in heavy rotation, plus Gossip (before they became a dance band), Sleater Kinney, the local band The Greenhornes, Bloc Party, The Kills when they first started up, Flaming Lips and Wilco had popular records then, the British punk band the Libertines. I taught a lot of English majors during those years and we were listening to the same music. Lots of good English major music during 02-03. And the Stripes were the gateway to a lot of their friends' bands in Detroit: the Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras, the Electric 6, and a long list of others. Those bands had their fifteen minutes, and now they continue to make fun and energetic, non-hipster music on a smaller stage. Nicole and I saw the Stripes one more time, probably in early 2003 in Cincinnati. More popular now, still playing the same songs, and no less committed to that vision of a guitar, drums, and voice.

I didn't like "Elephant," "Get Behind Me Satan," and "Icky Thump" quite as much as their first records. Sure, songs like "Seven Nation Army" and "Blue Orchid" became anthems, but they no longer sounded like the only songs of their kind. Mainly, I guess, because everybody else was imitating Jack White. And the band was name-dropped in the movie School of Rock. And Metallica covered "Seven Nation Army." And they band shared a stage with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Like Nirvana ten years earlier, the band represented a weird moment when something from the underground takes a peak at the sunlight. And that's not a bad thing, because more people get to partake in something real.

The band broke up a few weeks back and that's a shame. Listening to their music reminded me that just because I'm married and have a real job doesn't mean I have to grow up.