Quitting time

In the late-90s/early-2000s, when my trade of ticket-selling had not yet moved to the web, my co-workers and I had identified a number of archetypes among our customers.

One of these was the Tragically Hip fan. Working-class, generally with thick Vermont accents, mostly from the then-still-industrial towns along the Canadian border where they heard more Canadian than U.S. radio, they would flood into Burlington and sell out the 2600-capacity Memorial Auditorium. Most of them would refer to the band as “T. Hip,” and, in keeping with the economical approach to everything characteristic of New Englanders, some would say nothing more than “T. Hip tickets” when we answered the phone.

Memorial Auditorium is an old brick auditorium in downtown Burlington, built 90 years ago. It was … not a modern performing-arts venue. Most of the rock shows there were sold on a general-admission basis, with the onsite ticketing (in those days, cash-only) taking place in a basement entryway. We would sit on stools inside these movable wooden kiosks as drunken latecomers threw wads of twenties at us (if there were tickets available) or tried to wheedle their way into the show with stories about having once loaned their truck to one of the roadies or something. The first Memorial show I worked was in mid-February, and we were working in about an inch of standing cold water, from all the snow being tracked into the hallway and then melting.

My most memorable Memorial show shift, however, was a T. Hip show. Sold out, of course, but they still needed us to work “will call,” checking IDs and handing tickets over to people who, for whatever reason, didn’t or couldn’t get their tickets mailed to them.

That morning, our new washing machine had been delivered. Two Sears delivery guys harnessed this massive and heavy piece of machinery to their bodies with thick leather straps and carried it down the steps of our bulkhead into the basement.

One of those guys showed up at the T. Hip show. Something about him definitely exuded that sense of “I’ve been working hard all day and now goddammit I’m gonna get rip-roaring drunk,” for which I didn’t blame him at all. I kept thinking about the leather straps he hooked to his body that morning, about what a full day of being a human draft horse must be like.

Apparently it was, at least for this guy, too much to keep it under control. He was escorted out, probably less than halfway through the show, drunk and screaming obscenities at the security guards. Then he must have found some way to sneak back in, because it happened again, this time accompanied by threats from the security guys to call the cops.

Ever since, that guy comes to mind when I have a shitty day at work and just can’t wait to get to the bar. Of course, I don’t haul stuff around — for me, it’s been just frustrations with customers and, during my stint as a contractor, clients. But he became a symbol for me of that mixture of frustration and anger and needing to physically take your day out on something, even if it’s just your liver.

But I never really listened to the T. Hip much until last week, when Gord Downie died – and I’ve been somewhat obsessively listening to them on Spotify ever since. For a long time the only piece of their music that I knew was the first 20-30 seconds of “Blow at High Dough.” Tellingly, I knew that song because was used as the intro music for a snarky CBC TV show called “Made in Canada,” a vehicle for the comedian Rick Mercer in which he frequently broke the fourth wall and was just generally smarter than everyone else.

What has struck me most about their music — and, admittedly, I’ve been listening to them mostly at work, so this is certainly not based on a close reading of their lyrics — is how it manages to be muscular without being masculinist, the way most hard/classic rock is.

It’s music that, for me, evokes not just St. Albans and Swanton, but also Pittsburgh and Chicago and Kansas City, Waterloo Iowa and Greeley Colorado, places where workers (at least used to) move things around, and take pride in that. Perhaps because they are not singing explicitly about blue-collar work, it avoids the sentimentalism (and obsession with what it means to be “a man”) of a Bruce Springsteen. It may not be in the lyrics, but the guitar riffs and drum beats evoke for me the repetitive muscle motion of running a plastics machine or flipping burgers during a lunch rush, and when Downie’s voice soars into a hook on the chorus, it reminds me of the joy of the last push before quitting time, and of defiantly taking pride in work that is looked down on.


Watching ourselves watch each other

A couple of weeks ago I read David Foster Wallace’s essay on television and American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,”* and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since.

One of the commonplaces of “communication professionals” in the age of social media is that the advent of the internet, and especially social media, represents a qualitative, epoch-defining shift in how humans communicate with each other. The old era of one-to-many mass communication, stretching from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to cable television, has now given way to a new era of many-to-many communication, in which anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account can “go viral.”

I am old enough to remember the pre-internet era, and when Foster Wallace refers to television as “having its pretty hand around my generation’s throat,” I relate, even though I never watched much television. My parents (East Coasters who relocated to the Midwest for an academic job, much like Foster Wallace’s parents) strictly supervised my TV-watching habits as a kid: limited screen time, mostly PBS. They refused to get cable until well after I left for college. They blamed the rightward drift of the country under Reagan in part on television.

Continue reading

Secret Histories of America

I was a true child of the 80s. I have very few memories that go back before 1980. In fact, one of my earlier memories can be definitively dated to the summer of 1980, as it is of vacationing with some family friends — true East-coast liberal elites — and overhearing them talking with my parents about how they couldn’t believe that Americans would possibly elect a know-nothing actor with retrograde right-wing views, but were kind of worried because the Democratic candidate was weak.

The popular music of the 80s was made exclusively by people who used too much product on their hair and too much electronic processing on their instruments. One the one hand, Top 40 hits were all made with synthesizers and drum machines, and on the other hand you had heavy metal guys whose guitars looked like lightning bolts and went through a battery of effects pedals: distortion, delay, compression, EQ.

The first concert I went to was when I was twelve, and I convinced my father to take me to Kemper Arena in Kansas City to see Nightranger, on a double-bill with Starship. I was pretty indifferent to Starship, but one of my father’s co-workers, who was a few years younger than him, heard that he was going to see Starship and insisted on lending him a bunch of old Jefferson Airplane records.

This blew my 12-year-old mind.

Continue reading

Action Network plugin now in WordPress repository

I have finally posted my Action Network plugin on the WordPress.org plugin repository. You can find it here:


or, you can now just go to Plugins > Add New in your WordPress backend and search for “Action Network” (right now it’s a few rows down, but I presume it will move up as folks use it more).

The 1.0 version includes couple of new features:
Continue reading

Keep the red flag flying: notes on the British election

Like most of the U.S. Left, I was extremely heartened by the British elections last Thursday. I have been, well, not terribly optimistic about anything political for years, and this was a decisive and meaningful win for our side. There are numerous reasons (some of which I discuss below) to be cautious about assuming that “Corbynism” can be applied wholesale to the American context, or that it means that “Bernie Would Have Won.” However, I do think it indicates a promising way forward for the U.S. Left, and it has changed some of my own thinking, especially about electoral politics.

Most importantly, it provides good evidence that a Left political program can win broad support in a country of the imperial center, a country in which significant parts of the working class, having won a decent life in the 20th century from the scraps of the overflowing imperialist table, are prone to identifying as “middle class” and are susceptible to racist and xenophobic appeals. We don’t need to wait for a “new majority” to emerge from demographic changes, which has become a kind of disturbing trend in progressive circles in America — one which I suspect contributed to the complacency and demobilization during the Obama administration.

Continue reading

Forced Labor

What kind of labor movement do we need in the era of Trump?

These should be exciting, if terrifying, times to be part of the labor movement. Following the actions at airports last weekend — a crucial part of which was a one-hour strike against pickups at JFK called by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance — novelist Francine Prose called for a general strike in the Guardian. Calls for a “#NationalStrike” on February 17th have been circulating on Twitter and other social media. And labor lawyers Moshe Marvit and Leo Gertner published a piece in the Washington Post, “Where’s the Best Place to Resist Trump? At Work,” whose pullquote is “From solidarity strikes to slowdowns and sit-ins, workplace revolt is a key strategy in opposing the new administration.”

Meanwhile, the institutional labor movement is under existential threat. National Right to Work legislation was introduced into Congress this week, and with Republican majorities in both houses and You-Know-Who as president, it is hard to imagine it not passing. In the state where I got my start in the labor movement, Iowa, new Republican majorities are planning to make it “the next Wisconsin” by gutting or rescinding entirely the state’s collective bargaining law for public-sector employees.

Continue reading

Mourning becomes the Left

Earlier this week I came across a couple of pieces on Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb that I can’t get out of my head.  A long, meditative piece on “The Great Federation of Sorrows. Mourning and militancy in the age of Trump,” and a much shorter piece on the suicide of the blogger’s friend, Mark Fisher. Both pieces dealt with mourning, melancholia, depression and the Left.

For the last few years, I have had a really hard time engaging politically, even in the last two months, with the “all hands on deck” imperative of the looming Trump presidency. Most distressingly, it is precisely the aspects of political engagement that used to fire me up the most – gathering with comrades at local or branch meetings, taking collective action in the streets – that are most likely now to sour my mood.

In fact, I have shorthanded it sometimes as “political depression” — but haven’t really taken that diagnosis seriously. I have developed certain strategies and habits that help me function when my depression is triggered by events in my personal life — thankfully, my depression is mild and infrequent enough that I haven’t required medication. But in our society, where political engagement is not only not mandated but actively discouraged, it is far easier to simply disengage when this “political depression” looms.

Continue reading