2016: End of a Rough Year

December 31, 2016

I don’t think I’ve ever seen people so angry at a year, a manmade block of twelve months, like it was some independent actor. “2016 kicked my ass!” Granted, 2016 was the year that took away Carrie Fisher and gave us President-Elect Donald “Pussy Grabber” Trump, but it’s not the damn year’s fault. We’re all glad it’s over, but there’s little hope that 2017 is gonna be any better as America suffers the results of the greatest con in history and deals with even more cultural icon deaths. (Can I get $20 on Hugh Hefner by Valentines Day?)

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On the home front, it was a wonderful year as I watched our daughter Cozy go from a toddling toddler to an articulate 2-year-old who is happy to argue that Mickey and Minnie Mouse are really the same person/mouse and knows the proper usage of no, nope, and “No way, Mommy.” She can also sing “Hey Jude” all the way through. (Well, at least the good bits.) It’s been an insane year watching her transition from “baby” to “person.” A highlight of each day has been picking up Andrea from her job at the law firm and relaying what amazing feat she’s accomplished that day. Yesterday she put on a dress by herself and then put a little Santa figure on a spinning turntable and screamed, “Help, Daddy!” over and over again. Poor Santa.

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This blog has been a great way to chart both her development and the development of the world she is growing up in. I’ve been able to bounce back from macro to micro on a weekly basis. From her potty training to the terrorist attack in Brussels, it’s all been here, warm and fuzzy moments and moments of shear horror. Of the 54 posts in 2016, the most popular  (over 9,200 reads) and discussed (30 comments) was one of my several pieces on rape culture, entitled Why we can’t have good things: Men and rape culture (June 2). My favorite piece was actually written by Andrea, a powerful guest essay on her border crossing, that was latter published in the collection, A Journey of Words.

Donald Trump’s name was in the title of seven blogposts but, in a way, his tiny fingers were in all of them as he is the figurehead of the cultural backlash that our Cozy must live in. If Russian Stooge Trump (or Crooked Trump, either works) makes it to the end of his first term, Cozy will be six-years-old and we’ll be hoping there will still be public schools to send her to. Let’s hope there’s still a United States, as well.

There has been plenty of commentary on Cozy’s gendered (or non-gendered) development, as well as commentary on shows we watched while she was asleep or at her abuela’s (The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, Stranger Things, etc.). A little bit about sports, Sigmund Freud, and maybe not enough about why saying “all lives matter” makes you sound racist.

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The blog has really helped me with my writing. The piece on Bowie’s passing was published in a magazine and two of my pieces on Trump, “Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity” and “Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump?”, were published in Counterpunch. Three of my favorite pieces were written far from Portland. My piece on Patti Smith was written in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village, New York that she hangs out in, the post on the Orlando gay bar shooting was written in Washington, DC, and the piece about sexism in Cuba was written on a flight from Havana to Mexico. Like a rolling stone.

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Who knows were 2017 will take us. It feels like the Trump trolls, Trump billionaires, and Trump generals want to roll America back to a dark time where the freedom of anyone who wasn’t a straight white cis-gendered Christian male was just a far off dream. But I think they underestimate our will to defend what we’ve won and fight on every single front, including on-line. My sincere hope is that Donald will realize this job is a bit harder than he hoped and go back to his tacky gold castle after a few months of trying to understand how the Constitution actually works.

In the meantime, we will be raising our daughter to stand strong against the next generation of pussy grabbers that Trump has been fostering. We will travel, write, make art, and continue to rage against those in power who rage for the machine. And maybe dad will take a great job somewhere on earth to help move the wheels of justice in the right direction.

Here are the Watching the Wheels posts of 2016. Thank you for letting me share these thoughts with you.

The Kid’s First Trip to the ER: Anatomy of a Panic (January 4)

My Little New York Patti Smith Dream (January 9)

How David Bowie Bent My Gender (January 11)

I’m in charge of your butthole: The intimate world of parenting (January 20)

What does the Bundy militia really want? (January 25)

Violence is the answer: I’m over football. (February 2)

Pushing back against trolls (February 10)

A Valentines Poem for My Beloved Wife (February 14)

18 thoughts for Cozy’s 18-month birthday (February 17)

Ben Carson is not retarded: The language of marginalization (February 23)

A Coyote brought her to us – Cozy’s birth week (March 2)

Who the hell is supporting Donald Trump? (March 10)

Me and My Shadow: More baby brain fun (March 17)

Living in an age of terror: Brussels (March 22)

A Zombie Ate My Baby! Social anxiety and The Walking Dead (March 28)

A Year as a Penniless Writer (April 6)

The Feminine Mystique: Stay-at-Home Dad Edition (April 14)

We need a Rosa Parks of genitals: North Carolina and the need to pee (April 21)

Prince Died for Your Sins: Prophecy and Phallacy (April 28)

Farewell to my Good Wife (May 4)

Cinco de Mayo guest essay: A Conversation with the Serpent (May 5)

Saying “No” to Elmo: The Superego vs. the red monster (May 13)

The Millennial Effect: Here comes Generation Z (May 18)

Douchebags, Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The perils of wounded masculinity (May 25)

Why we can’t have nice things: MEN and rape culture (June 1)

Sometimes you really need a moment. (June 12)

Ode to a Gay Bar (June 15)

Gender – Nature vs. Nurture 6: Fierce fashionista for a fiercer world (June 22)

Dad Love 8 – I’m on drugs (June 30)

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The Man Way: The stupidity of fighting terrorism with more terrorism (July 6)

Here’s Why Saying “All Lives Matter” Makes You Sound Racist (July 12)

The Casual Sociologist: Causally watching race and races from Mexico (July 26)

Empathy and PTSD in Rape Culture: Maybe a veteran would understand (better than Trump) (August 3)

Dad Love 9: I Become Winona Ryder in Stranger Things (August 8)

Feministing in Havana (August 14)

I found a 2-year-old! (August 22)

My Unintended Gap Year: The humility of looking for work (September 1)

So I Married an Alien (September 8)

The Princess Problem (September 15)

Owning My White Privilege: Stories I won’t (have to) tell my children (September 21)

How Donald Trump makes me a better feminist (September 28)

The Dream Police Are Inside My Head (October 6)

Donald Trump for President of Rape Culture (October 10)

Can you lead an authentic life in this mortgaged world? (October 20)

What drugs go well with a toddler? (October 26)

My toddler has flown the nest and I don’t know what to do with my hands. (November 3)

11/8 > 9/11: Trump’s body count starts now (November 10)

Bring on the anal phase! (November 15)

Watching the Wheels turns 2 and can use the potty! (November 23)

Butterflies for the Children of Aleppo (December 1)

Delayed gratification and Santa’s Advent calendar (December 7)

Writing to Live: The birth of the “rock novel” (December 14)

Trump Lessons 1: Is this sexist? (December 22)

Father Randy’s Top 20 for 2016, Back to Vinyl (December 27)

Father Randy’s Top 20 LPs for 2016: Back to Vinyl

December 27, 2016

Near the end of my tenure at Portland State University, the provost instituted her “challenge,” called reTHINK PSU, designed to encourage the growth of the use of technology to expand the university . She invited a speaker to get the faculty onboard the move to online education. He repeated the Nathan Harden line, that in fifty years half the brick and mortar colleges and universities in the country would be history, replaced by websites (probably run by some kid in India). The message was get on the train or get left at the station. He tried to make the point by claiming that CD technology had replaced vinyl records, so get ready for college professors to go the way of the Foghat album.

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Ironically I was listening to this talk sitting in my office in Cramer Hall as it streamed on the university server. If I had been in the room, I would have jumped up to say that CDs sales were tanking, but vinyl was making a massive comeback, growing even faster than downloads and streaming music. Fortune magazine reported in April that vinyl album sales were at a 28-year high. Turns our kids want their Taylor Swift on wax (and their teachers in the goddamn classroom). Sometimes the old way is the best.

I say this because I really fell off my hipness high horse this year. The arrival of the baby in 2014 got me out of the cavalcade of live shows and endless hours in record stores. In 2016, between a rampaging toddler, the effort to return to work, busting Trump’s tiny balls, and finishing my new novel, The Dream Police, I just abdicated my staples for side-lined music aficionadodom. My favorite podcasts,  All Songs Considered, Sound Opinions, and Alt Latino, went un-downloaded. Our local weeklies, Willamette Week and The Portland Mercury, remained in their boxes on NE Alberta Street. An occasional breeze or hip kid would blow in to let me know what was up, but I missed so much. Did you know that Radiohead put out an awesome album in 2016? Of course you did.

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Where I kept things real was on the vinyl front. A large chunk of the new releases I bought this year were on vinyl (including a bootleg vinyl release of Frank Ocean’s long-awaited follow up to the brilliant 2012 release, Orange). I couldn’t stop buying vinyl, at Amoeba Music in LA and Peaches in New Orleans, and a dozen record stores in Portland. Old, new, kids’ records, 45’s, and even Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass from the 50 cent bin at Everyday Music. Solange just sounded better on vinyl and Bowie had to be experienced deep in the ruts. The ghost is the grooves, not the machine.

Andrea and I took our love of LPs into the sharing economy. Our basement just became an AirBNB called the Alberta Vinyl Den. Each guest lets me know his or her music tastes when they make a booking and I stock the room with a dozen albums from my massive collection. So guests get to feel like they are staying in the record store of their dreams, complete with a turntable and a refrigerator full of beer.

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2016 was a still a great year for music. With the blessing of babysitters we did manage to see some great shows, including some true classics; Patti Smith, Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bruce Springsteen, and the Electric Light Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl (a double bucket list item). We saw some good world music, like Bomba Estereo and Bombino. We saw a wildly drunken gig by Greasy Alice in New Orleans and caught a show by old friend Chris Robinson that took us down a rabbit hole. I just caught Georgia underground pioneers Pylon at Mississippi Studios. (Last time I saw them was at the Agora Ballroom in 1983.) Earlier in the year we caught a barely attended show there by Sir Paul’s son, James McCartney and got to chat after the gig. Other than the Cuban band we saw every Sunday during our summer on Isla Mujeres, I think my favorite show of 2016 was Father John Misty at Edgefield in the pouring rain surrounded by a thousand other dudes with beards. It was perfectly Portland.

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So here is my Top 20 favorite albums of 2016, recognizing that I’m surely missing a ton I will discover in 2017 or 2027. (Nick Cave’s new one? Someone said it was killer.) I really think we’ll be talking about the Beyoncé and Solange albums 50 years from now.  A serious thanks to the gang at Music Millennium for pointing me in the right direction on some good stuff.

  1. David Bowie – Blackstar
  2. Beyoncé – Lemonade
  3. Y La Bamba – Ojos del Sol
  4. Solange – A Seat at the Table
  5. Drive-By-Truckers – American Band
  6. Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings
  7. Michael Kiwanuka – Love & Hate
  8. Frank Ocean – blond
  9. Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
  10. Bombino – Azel
  11. Patti Smith – Horses: Live at Electric Ladyland Studios
  12. The Beatles – Live at Hollywood Bowl
  13. Bob Dylan – Fallen Angels
  14. Carla Morrison – Amor Supremo
  15. The Bangles – Ladies and Gentlemen…
  16. A Tribe Called Quest  – We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
  17. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth
  18. Chris Robley – The Great Make Believe
  19. Ages and Ages – Something to Ruin
  20. Cheap Trick – Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello

Here’s to more music on vinyl in 2017. And more professors in classrooms.

How David Bowie Bent My Gender

January 11, 2016

This is a strange bifurcation point on our blue planet. From this point on there is no David Bowie to share the world with. Like people born after 1980 who claim John Lennon, or those born after 1959 who claim Billie Holiday (as they have a right to), every child born after today will never anticipate hearing David Bowie’s new song on the radio or changing their fashion to fit Bowie’s new style. It’s all just back catalog now. He can’t be truly their peer. Fortunately there’s enough there for future generations to mine for inspiration.

I awoke this morning to a message from my friend Roy in England that just said, “Sad day for music.” A sense of dread swelled up. I know that I am likely to witness the passing of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Patti Smith. What will the world be like without them? For the moment we share the same sunlight and oxygen supply. When there is a lunar eclipse, I know that Paul McCartney and Toni Morrison are looking at it, too. I know there is a chance that I could bump into Smokey Robinson or Elton John getting coffee in an airport somewhere in the world. We share this tiny globe together.

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But not with Bowie. He is gone so unexpectedly. I was in New York City all weekend and was waiting for today to get Blackstar, his heralded new album. The beginning of the next phase of Bowie in our lives. Would there be a tour? Would I get a new haircut to look like him? Again? I should have found him on his deathbed there in Manhattan to thank him. A kiss on his alien eyelids.

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For those of us that came of age in the 1970s, David Bowie was more than a “rockstar.” He was an avatar of our awkward young selves as gangly beings who had just fallen to earth, genderless and omni-sexual. I was an Apollo kid so it started with “Space Oddity,” and imagining the astronauts circling our troubled planet. But when Ziggy Stardust arrived, I could see clues to a third path, somewhere between male and female that was beautiful and personal. Glam rock was liberation, even if was just the thought of it. “Rebel, rebel. You’ve got your mother in a whirl ’cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”

That was the beginning of me wanting to grow my hair long. Endless battles with my mother (“Boys with long hair are all on drugs!”) and my father (“Why would you want to look like a girl?”). Each half inch it grew, you’d get called “fag,” and “queer,” in rural Georgia. (Of course, once Willie and Waylon grew their hair out all that ended.) If word got around you were a Bowie fan, that was like declaring your homosexuality. “You must be AC-DC like him!” I didn’t really care. The music came from some place magical. His self-declared bisexuality created a safe zone for us as we engaged in our own space exploration. My sexuality was never an issue. The sanity of the world I expressed it in was.

All us misfit kids had Bowie. Before punk roared in, we had Bowie to speak for us and to tell us we were wonderful. “Rock and Roll Suicide,” must be an anthem for so many young people, both then and now, who feel zero validation from the straight world. It’s a reason to reject suicide as an option.

You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair

You got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care

Oh no love! you’re not alone

No matter what or who you’ve been

No matter when or where you’ve seen

All the knives seem to lacerate your brain

I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain

You’re not alone

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In fourth grade, when the other kids were obsessed with the Captain and Tennille, me and my little goon squad were memorizing “Young Americans,” and “Fame,” (listening for John Lennon’s voice). It was like a secret society. You had to say, “Oh yeah, Deep Purple rocks!” and then find out what kid in the neighborhood had a copy of Diamond Dogs you could borrow, being sure to hide it from your parents’ gaydar.

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Bowie always defined gender non-conformity. Wearing make-up, dying his hair, wearing a skirt on Saturday Night Live. In a culture obsessed with a simple gender binary, what could be more rebellious than that? Boys keep swinging! For all us kids that didn’t quite fit in the butch boy/femme girl box, we had permission to mix and match and create something completely new.

My first sociology professor at Oxford College who radicalized me in so many ways had a bit of blind spot around queer issues. I remember him trying to make the case that we are all sexual but socialized to be heterosexual and if that process gets messed up we end up confused, “like David Bowie.” I remember thinking, Wait, that’s not right. Bowie’s not “broken,” he is just free and rebelling against social constructions of gender. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

So, yeah, I have every piece of music that Bowie has released (except Blackstar, which is sold out all over the city). I have b-sides and oddities. Have you heard the soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)? You should. I’ve seen him in concert several times. My favorite moment was at Live Aid in London in 1985. I was right front for the global event. All my favorite stars were there. I should mention that I really hated Bowie’s Let’s Dance album when it came out in 1983. It was such a commercial piece of fluff compared to 1980’s Scary Monsters (although it has aged better than I have). So I was supremely bummed when he opened with “Modern Love,” my least favorite Bowie song. But then he played “Heroes,” and it could not have been more perfect. We were there trying to feed the world, just for one day. There were tears everywhere. Bowie transformed us.

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He transformed us many times. He loosened us from our moorings. He made being smart and aging into your 60s look really, really cool and never stopped playing with our weird obsession with gender roles. All the kids that got beat up for being “Bowie fags” can have the last laugh (the ones that weren’t murdered, at least). Now that he’s dead, everybody will claim him as their own.

He’s never not been with me. His ex-wife, Angie Bowie, was my first guest speaker at Emory, delighting my students with tales of Ziggy and Iggy and the glam explosion. I courted my wife, Andrea, with mix CDs that linked Bowie songs to Nina Simone songs. When Cozy was born, I sang “Little Wonder” to her repeatedly (and “Space Oddity” when I strapped her in her car seat). And she’s napping to Station To Station as I write this. I want her to have the sexual and gender freedom that was so hard for us over forty years ago. But for all the goon squads out there, Bowie made it a lot easier and cooler.

A lot will be written this week about the Thin White Duke as a “chameleon” and all the ch-ch-changes he went through, the movies he made and the fashions he inspired. I just think about us kids who didn’t fit in who got to feel that we had a very special space boy on our side.