e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Thoughts on Tony Soprano

I'm finally getting around to watching "The Sopranos," a decade after the show's peak in popularity and seven years since the series went to sleep with the fishes. I grew up loving "Goodfellas" and "The Godfather" (not to mention films like "Moonstruck" with funny and spot-on Italian-American characters who aren't in the mob), so it's about time I catch up with Tony Soprano and company.  In no particular order, some reactions:
  • Tony Soprano strikes me as somehow more monstrous and hard to like than the so-called anti-heroes his character inspired (Walter White, Don Draper, pretty much anybody on "The Wire") on other marquee programs. Tony's a coarse bully. Walter White and Don Draper do some despicable shit but Tony is an even worse husband. He's got Catholic guilt but no remorse. His guilt is all sub-conscious; he has freaky dreams but never hesitates to kill, hurt, or embarrass people with less power than him.
  • He's not really respected as much as feared. His "friends" are sycophants; even the goons who are related to him maneuver against him when they sense vulnerability or when the anger and resentment against him boils over.  (Possible exception: Silvio)
  • Compared to other tv/movie mobsters, this group is pretty pathetic. Nobody is as glamorous as Vito or Michael Corleone. They hang out at a dumpy stripclub, struggle to "pass" anytime they're around civilians. They have monetary mobility but rarely cultural mobility. They don't know how to code switch when they go to a college campus or a charity function. I'm not saying their working-class ethos makes them pathetic--it's their lack of self-awareness. Lots of working-class people, both real and fictional, are much savvier and more flexible than Tony Soprano et al.
  • Tony's life is ugly. He and his crew engage in domestic violence (in some cases with both their wives and their mistresses), abuse drugs, and suffer profound, visible, pyschic damage as a result of being criminals. This isn't just like Michael Corleone looking sad after killing his brother or even Henry Hill acting all paranoid and red-eyed as he keeps a look-out for helicopters and makes sauce. It goes beyond that. In "The Sopranos," we get prolonged images of, say, Christopher shooting up and Tony sitting in therapy. Like I said, they don't express any remorse, but we see the damage and destruction constantly. Even if he wears expensive clothes, Tony Soprano does NOT make this life look desirable.
  • Last thing: James Gandolfini was brilliant in the role. The strained breathing, the compulsive eating, the non-verbal reactions to others...has anybody ever embodied a character this well? All the stylized camera work and heavy-handed symbolism (eggs! birds! prosciutto!...every object signifies something, as if David Chase had Joseph Campbell on his desk every time he wrote a script) help the cause but Gandolfini's acting was perfect. I think "The Wire" boasted better, more consistent writing. "Breaking Bad" is more addictive. But Tony Soprano was a vivid, compelling, despicable person thanks to brilliant, brilliant acting.


Groggily Returning to Motown

Here's a surreal experience. I dozed during part of my flight back home yesterday. I had also popped a couple Aleves to combat some neck pain from sleeping wrong in Savannah (get off my lawn!). So I was groggy and let most everybody get off the plane before me. Upon stepping off the plane onto the jetbridge, I saw my nephew Ali standing there behind an empty wheelchair.  He looks at me and says, want a ride Uncle Bill?

Now, Ali works at the airport assisting seniors and others who need help going from gate-to-gate, but I wasn't thinking about that. For a split second, I thought the plane had gone down and this was my journey to the afterlife. Ali was like some kind of Anubis figure, accompanying me as I passed. I came back to reality and realized he was just working.


Savannah Part 2

It's a rainy and humid Sunday in Savannah. Perfect day for soul food at the United House of Prayer for all People, a church that has its own cafeteria, the Masada Cafe. Soul food places better have all the sides: greens, mac-n-cheese, candied yams, corn bread. Masada has all of the above and more, including "red rice," already spiced but begging for gravy. I had the meatloaf, fork soft, not too salty, and perfectly paired with the sweetness of the yams.



At the WPA workshop and conference, the annual gathering of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, we drink wine courtesy of textbook publishers, share research and ideas, and chat with people we went to grad school with. It's Savannah, so there's shrimp and grits to be had too. Last night after sundown, the heat but not the humidity having lessened, two friends and I walked around old Savannah, through gothic-looking cemeteries and squares, by gigantic homes with even more gigantic front porches, and down to the river, where an electric guitar called us into a place called the Bayou Cafe. A trio, never caught their name, was playing the blues, guitar, bass, and drums. Three young guys, locked in, amps turned way up, wailing, at a place with no cover charge. Behind the band, through a window, you could see a riverboat on the Savannah. They did a version of the Stones' "Monkey Man," with no piano or rhythm guitar, their ax guy recreating the slide guitar parts on his regular electric. Wild.


Change of Venue

I've been going down to my office at the University most every weekday. Days when my program faculty are grading placement exams are really the only days I need to be there, but I've been meeting with various folks about the curriculum of our honors writing classes, working on some scheduling issues, brainstorming programming for the Writing Center this year, and doing a bunch of other administrative things.  It's just easier to be present than to figure out how to do these things at home, plus there's something about just being present.

Today, though, a nice change of pace.  I'm at home waiting for a contractor to come give an estimate on laying a new front porch (really, more of a stoop).  So I'm doing some writing at the dining room table, plus making black bean burgers from scratch, and contemplating a bike ride later this afternoon, if it's not too hot.  I'll likely spend a little time getting organized for my trip to Savannah, Georgia, later this week for the Writing Program Administrators conference.  Good to smell the veggie burgers baking, good to have a ceiling fan and a snoring dog nearby, good to get back to the writing.

6 Burgers: 2 cans of black beans, 2 eggs, big onion, big carrot, garlic, handful of panko bread crumbs, salt, coarse pepper, parsley, generous squirt of mustard. Blend well, form patties, bake at 375 for thirty minutes or so.


A Lot Of People Won't Get No Justice Tonight

Logging onto Facebook makes it impossible to ignore last night's Trayvon Martin verdict. And while the vast majority of my Facebook friends see the verdict as a gross miscarriage of justice, the sad truth is that we live in a country that values vigilantes and guns and denies racism. By all accounts, George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin around the neighborhood because Trayvon looked suspicious. We live in a country that wants Zimmerman to be armed, a country that's going to provide Zimmerman with niches in which he'll get rich and famous. Trayvon Martin is dead and now we can watch Zimmerman earn six-figures at speaking engagements at gun conventions. How many days until Zimmerman has a book deal?



Coming back home hasn't been easy. I miss the surprises of the Middle East, the sensations, newness, and pleasant hardships that come from distance. The rush and push of airports and metro stations. The bread and zaatar and coffee. For the past month I've walked slowly through life at home and on campus and in Detroit. I've watched too much television, had too many migraines, and eaten too much shitty American food. If I say some things out loud, maybe I'll do them. I'm going to finish my book about Lebanon that I've started and stopped writing too many times to count now, and then I'm going to try to publish it. I'm going to lose a lot of weight. I'm fifty pounds heavier than I was when I moved back to Michigan in 2005 and even then I was fat. Blogging's going to be part of my day-to-day life once again. Re-entry has taken a month. That's too long. I'm back.


These Are Days

Natalie Merchant performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra last night. Her setlist emphasized her more recent recordings of sleepy folks songs as opposed to songs she made famous (to me anyway) while fronting the 10,000 Maniacs in the 1980s and early 1990s. She forgot lyrics a few times (she performs sporadically) but the DSO sounded great and her music with and without the Maniacs has always been compelling and pleasant. That word, pleasant, sounds like faint praise but it's not. She has a warm, comforting voice that as much as her lyrics make her songs seem much more like poems. Orchestral arrangements of her songs make all kinds of sense.

A final thirty-minute set without the orchestra found Natalie with her pianist and guitarist doing an unplugged set of songs that people came to hear: These are Days (easily the most recognizable 10,000 Maniacs song) and solo tracks like Carnival. Plus, fun, on-the-fly snippets of motown oldies. It was an unabashedly laid-back, joyful way to end her performance. She reminisced about opening for R.E.M. decades ago at a Michigan show on the evening of her birthday and being given a cake on stage by Michael Stipe. She introduced "These are Days" by telling the audience it was a song they loved in their dorm rooms back in Ann Arbor.

Natalie and the audience owned the nostalgia in equal parts.

Present company included. 10,000 Maniacs was my first concert. Summer, 1989, with Tim Finn of Split Enz as opening act. At Nautica Flats in Cleveland, Natalie sang most of In My Tribe and Blind Man's Zoo, the two classic Maniacs records. I saw them again later that year and once more, a couple years later in college. Their songs were topical (learning disabilities, child abuse) but also imagistic ("he kicked a tumbleweed and his mother called him home, when the Arizona moon met the Arizona sun"), wrought and smart and affecting without seeming too pretentious, when I was 15 and found appealing the idea of a rock band with a worldview and when I was 19 and that worldview seemed less likely to mean life would forever feel alienating. 1992 was a moment, maybe because there was a democrat in the white house for the first time since I was in first grade. Natalie sang a duet with Michael Stipe at Bill Clinton's inauguration and rock stars were writing songs about Anita Hill and Buddhism and touting feminism and authenticity in Rolling Stone.

Nicole and I were talking about concerts before the Natalie Merchant show this week and I commented that circa 1993, if certain bands came to Detroit, it was only a question of who I'd go with. Kids from dorm (in Detroit, not Ann Arbor), maybe my pal from high school, Jason, who lived across town. It was rare that a show would be more than $15 or $20 and a couple hundred saved from slinging Taco Bell all summer or a work-study check from the school paper could cover that no problem.

Somehow Natalie's flawed show with the symphony captured both a collective, personal present and collective, personal past. The sleepy present in her main set, the freewheeling past in her encore.
Hey Jack, now for the tricky part: / When you were the brightest star, who were the shadows? Of the San Francisco beat boys, you were the favorite. / Now they sit and rattle their bones and think of their blood stoned days.