second impressions

I was honestly not expecting to like the silicone case. It’s what was available for the low before I left on my trip: soft to the touch, sort of like how the back of the Moto X was supposed to be. The “midnight” color really is the most navy blue, and you can always see that edge of blue beneath the black. On that Southern sojourn, it was easy to toss it onto the charge mat of the rental car and top it up at any time, but more importantly, there was never a point on the trip where it dropped below 20% before bedtime. To be fair, it doesn’t get hit as hard when you’re out with your favorite family, but then, it does get hit pretty hard when you’re out with your least favorite family, so it’s a wash.

I don’t make the Moto X comparison lightly. That phone – the only Android phone I ever bought, the last American-assembled phone I ever bought – has for the last nine years been the touchstone for what I wanted most out of a mobile device. And to be honest, it’s not just me – when the founder of Pebble starts a website to agitate for a one-handed Android phone the equivalent of the 13 mini, what’s he’s arguing for is the original Moto X. Size, hand feel, battery life, bells and whistles – and sure enough, this black (sorry, midnight) iPhone 13 mini is as close as will ever be to my Moto X.

Including its eventual fate. Apple is apparently dumping the 5.4″ model in favor of four phones: a regular and a pro, in both 6.1″ and 6.7″ sizes. But on current form, I should be able to carry this iPhone 13 mini with updates through at least Christmas 2026, at which point who knows, maybe we’ll be down to watch and smart glasses. Or the pendulum will have swung and I’ll be back to one device the size of the old iPhone X doing for everything, reluctantly (I never carried the X abroad, as it happens, and for good reason).

It feels good. I expected that within a week I would be indifferent, having replaced one device with a nearly identical version. But I still feel like it’s a new and better phone. That’s not nothing. It genuinely feels like the end of the road: the last phone I’ll ever want, barring some actual game changing technology or the lack of updates becoming fatal. For now, though, it is my lightsaber, my sidearm, my sgian dubh if you will. And it is indispensable.

postscript: the nation state

Once again, a year and a half into a Democratic presidency, I find myself asking “why the hell doesn’t it feel like we won?” The obvious answer is that we won in name only; with two fake Democrats in a “majority” of 50+VP, we don’t actually have the power to pass a damn thing, which in turn leads people to scream at Biden for not doing anything. Well, apart from student loans (which he should definitely be free-rolling in the next four months tops), there’s nothing he can do that a Republican couldn’t immediately do away with in 2024. We could make a temporary benefit, but that only works if it gets people out to vote.

Then, too, there’s the usual problem: the Republicans run the country into the ground, lose power, then throw everything they have into preventing the Democrats remediating those problems and blaming them instead, with the help of the supine catamites of the Washington press. Twas always thus. It’s cooking along in jig time, seems like.

But the biggest reason it feels like things have gotten worse is that we are currently experiencing the delayed-effect bombs of 2016-20. The sacrifice of Ukrainian independence to Putin-worship, the indifference to stopping the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unprecedented and shameless shattering of what we thought were the rules in order to pack the Supreme Court. Now it’s all going off at once, and here are the Democrats having to navigate the wreckage of the last five years all at once.

Basically, the Supreme Court has torched the 14th amendment and its emanations and penumbras. Post-WWII juridprudence is absolutely for the chop, and states will be allowed to opt out of the postwar consensus en masse. It’s soft secession, as described elsewhere: states can do what they want and the conservative machinery at the federal level will protect them. The only way to prevent it is to somehow retain the House, somehow retain the Senate, add enough Senators to make a solid 51 votes for the entire Democratic plan, and then run roughshod – pack the Supreme Court to at least 15, destroy the filibuster, pass federally binding election law to prevent states making their own shenanigans. Right now, the Republican Party is devoted to the destruction of American democracy, and is acting and adjudicating as if they will never again be out of power. It has to be stopped now. Forget loans, or stimulus, or anything else except inasmuch as it will bring more voters to the polls in 2022 and 2024 to defend the entire concept of majority rule.

And this is where California comes in.

California doesn’t have an electoral college. California’s GOP burned itself down on the altar of “we hate Mexicans” twenty years ago, and can only achieve statewide power now through methods that don’t require them to win the most votes (see: 2003 recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger). That’s why there was a recall attempt on Gavin Newsom, that’s why there are a steady stream of Three Californias or Six Californias or whatever bullshit. California is a state where the modern racist redneck GOP simply cannot achieve political agency at the ballot box, because they do not have the votes, and if you don’t have the votes you don’t get agency.

California has food. California has oil. California has high tech and entertainment and the finest public university system in the world. California has a budget surplus of $97 billion dollars this year and can afford to ease its citizens’ extortion by Big Oil. California, depending on how AAPL is doing today, has the world’s sixth largest economy. And while I have never thought California should secede from the United States, it should be prepared for the Confederates to secede from it, and it should not shirk from the challenge.

California will continue the American experiment. The notion that all people are created equal, regardless of race or gender expression or sexual orientation or national origin, and that they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – irrespective of income, irrespective of property, irrespective of adherence to the backward beliefs of the Deep South. The modern GOP is about one thing: freedom of consequences for the right whites and absolutely no one else. That they should be protected and unbound by the law while all others are bound and unprotected. And California will stand between the Rockies and the Pacific and say, not here.

And if by life or death I can stand with them, I will. And when the day is over we will buy a keg of booze, and we’ll drink to California til we wobble in our shoes…

half a life, part 4

“I hated how they hated smart kids, or even half-smart kids like me. I hated how they had a playbook I did not have: things that were good, things that were bad, and anything off by so much as a degree from those things — these things were worse than strange. They were unclean, to be beaten or shunned into a dark nothing…It was so suffocating and loud and dull, emblematic of everything I hated about growing up where I did. I could not escape the suspicion from a young age: that where I was from was both deeply embarrassing and deeply embarrassed of people like me.”

-Spencer Hall, “Volunteer”

It’s so sparse.

The psycho-geographical density of the second half of my life…Washington DC. New York City. Silicon Valley. London. Tokyo. Driving down from Nashville to Birmingham for the first time in a decade or so only rammed home how little there is off the sides of the interstate. Even my old neighborhood development growing up has more houses than it ever did, and yet, they sit far apart by California standards on lots that would be unspeakably huge in Santa Clara County. If you’re on two and a half acres on the Peninsula, it’s Woodside or Atherton or Los Altos Hills, not 1400 square feet of single story fifty year old brick ranch.

There’s not that much. Go ten feet outside a metro area and at best, you have a selection of strip malls and outparcel restaurants. Maybe the Amazon bomb hit here, but it was mostly to clear out whatever Wal-Mart didn’t. The building that was a Piggly Wiggly when I was stacking lettuce in 1988 is being remodeled into…a church, in a town of 3000 people that already has three Southern Baptist churches alone, never mind one Missionary Baptist, two Methodist, a Church of God, a Church of Christ, and even a tiny Catholic chapel. And they said the Irish were priest-ridden?

The thing is…you can have the stuff. Birmingham has the best all-around food and brewing scene in the Deep South, barring maybe New Orleans. Maybe. There’s a food hall in the first floor of an old department building that would not be out of place in Santa Cruz, there’s ice cream in Avondale that’s on a par with the best mint chip in the Bay Area, there’s only the second location in the world of Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ. With no railroad bridges to turn into a High Line, they have turned ten blocks beneath the freeway into the City Walk. It’s an attractive place to be – and honestly, I would rather move back there than Nashville, because it’s not freighted with Baptist Vegas – it’s a majority-black town with majority-black government, a reliably safe blue bubble amidst a horrifying state rather than a purple smear in Tennessee’s red sea.

But at some level, I know now: I just don’t want to need a bubble. I don’t want the camaraderie of the foxhole, the blue island in an ocean of blood red. I don’t want to be a dot, I just want to be. I want friends, not a mutual aid pact. I want a life that’s isn’t at the mercy of the agency of rednecks. I don’t want to live a life that’s only protected by my own affluent whiteness from the worst among us.

Maybe it’s just being 50, but the things I want now are safety, stability, the comfort of knowing I can have a nice quiet pint and be left alone for a couple hours. Maybe the pandemic did for everything that wasn’t the cocoon. I’d love to have a gang of friends to do stuff with, but if that’s not on offer, then I want to be in California, where white people are a minority, where the Okies will never take charge of state government, where it will always be possible to mind your business. And I will find the bits that spark joy, and spark them.

And yet, forty-eight hours after landing, I tested positive for COVID after twenty-six months. I made it to Seattle, Santa Barbara, Disneyland (twice), London for three weeks, and no problem. But one trip to the South blew it all to Hell. The lesson is a bit heavy-handed, but then, some parts of me have always needed an elephant to shit in the tub to realize the circus had come to town.

I’m Californian now. The end.

half a life, part 3

I was stood in the Whole Foods Market off Hillsboro Pike when all of a sudden the bottom fell out.

I know what I said about Baptist Vegas and White Girl Instagram Valhalla, but you can’t know how horrifying it really is without seeing it. I was not averse to a quick dip into the Sucker District twenty-five years ago; I saw “Always…Patsy Cline” at the Roman and we went to Polly Esther’s one night after drinking at the Oak Room for a teammate’s birthday and it was perfectly respectable to drop by Robert’s Western World on a night when BR5-49 was playing. But Broadway between 5th and 2nd…there’s no nice way to put this: Bourbon Street or the Vegas Strip for people who never want to see anyone darker than a paper bag. My hosts made no bones about admitting “we do not get the best sort of tourists.” And that set the hook for a serious bout of existential despair that caught me two days later.

The Whole Foods, as best I can tell, sits almost right on top of where Davis-Kidd used to be. It was Nashville’s biggest and best independent bookstore, back when books were something you picked up and bought physically, and a bookstore was a place to explore and find things. It was a regular haunt, the main draw of Green Hills apart from the mall. Green Hills in general was definitely posh – not like Belle Meade posh, but meaningfully affluent – but what I found myself in was the epicenter of an ecosystem designed to service families of problematic white moderates with three-row SUVs and tucked-in gingham button-ups. The kind of person I was wholly intended to grow up and become, if my mother had her way: a well-to-do professional at something she could brag about, living only a morning’s driving distance away rather than flying distance, with a Godly sort of wife and two or three grandkids who took a good Christmas card picture. The exact sort of life that had been permanently derailed twenty-five years ago to the day, 10 May 1997, when I drove back home from my campus apartment for the very last time.

And it felt like a glimpse into an unpleasant reality: life on a tiny purple island amid a blood-red sea. Nashville is absolutely in Tennessee, and it is the chosen resort of the entire Confederacy, Southern or otherwise. My host lives in a very scenic neighborhood of old historically-protected houses, with retirees and songwriters and the like, and he allows that some of the neighbors have views that can charitably be described as “iffy.” And I just don’t have it in me to put up with that any longer, for reasons I will elucidate later. But the prospect of a world where you are permanently besieged by and at the mercy of the most reprehensible segment of America…that is a world I cannot, will not reside in. And if I’m going to have to live in California until I die, bring it on. Of which.

I did go to the baseball game, as planned. There were parking lot beers with the tailgate crew beforehand, there were people I hadn’t seen in person in years, there was a baseball stadium that was basically two sets of aluminum bleachers and a dirt field the last time I was there, and there was a grueling play-from-behind game that saw Vandy give up 3 runs in the 9th to fall behind 7-3…and then rally in the ninth with the tying run scored with two out, on a steal of home by Enrique Bradfield Jr that was the most electrifying thing I’ve ever seen live on a baseball diamond. The first lead they had all night was on the last play of the game, when Spencer Jones connected for his sixth hit of the night to send Bradfield home from 3rd after he’d singled, stolen second and taken third on the overthrow. It was magical.

And it felt like a bit of a valedictory. As if it were a sendoff. Like graduation day from eleven years of fandom that went to a different level when I was added to the masthead of the blog, a fandom that through no fault of its own now takes more off the table than it brings, thanks to so many factors – the cesspool of social media, the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the SEC, the changing nature of college sports. If NIL “collectives” have legalized the bagman, and Vanderbilt is going to be forced to go payroll-for-payroll with Alabama and Texas and Florida and Georgia and Tennessee and Oklahoma, then I may as well be an early adopter and shift my fandom to a sports league with a little more economic parity until the Commodores do the same.

And honestly, how many more trips down South do I have left? How many more times will I be in Nashville? Two? Maybe three? I feel ashamed of the fact that since leaving DC and making four trips back in a year, I have since returned to the DMV a total of five times in 17 years, sometimes five years apart, with no immediate plans for another trip anytime soon. And far more than Vanderbilt, that’s the place where I was made and remade and became the person I still am today.

The young man who drove off half a life ago, never to return as a student? The one whose personal life and career were headed into the abyss, but who at least lived in a world of reasonable sanity and a promising future, where the 21st century meant hope and not dread? The one who could credibly say that the best days of his life were still ahead of him?

He’s been gone for a long, long time. He’s never coming back.

RiP

My first iPod was a gen-2 model, May of 2002. I had brass in pocket, and was tempted beyond belief, but reluctantly conceded that I should spend the cash on my first new pair of eyeglasses in eleven years. Whereupon my girlfriend reached into her bag when we got back to her apartment and presented me with the iPod I had been coveting. (Reader, I married her.)

My favorite iPod was the gold iPod mini, which was handed to me on my first day as an Apple contractor as an indefinite loan by my then-lead. It was the capper on an amazing day – it went along with my 12″ PowerBook G4 issued as a work system (and newer than the laptop I would be issued on my first day at NASA three years later), so I had an Imperial crap-ton of migration to do from my TiBook and second iPod (my wife resold my first one and put the proceeds on a gen-3 model for Christmas 2003). I took that gold Mini everywhere – including on the honeymoon – and it was a constant companion in constant use until the heating and hard drive issues did for it.

My other notable iPods were a borrowed iPod Nano, which resided in my VW Rabbit’s glovebox as the permanent jukebox, and a PVT iPod video model that was close to the size of an iPhone, in my estimation, which I carried for several months to try to get used to the idea. There was also the second-gen iPod Shuffle, a freebie from work, which I lost within 48 hours. It’s possible to make technology too small, honestly.

My last iPod was a Project RED shuffle, bought at a time when I was trying to ensure my iPhone 3G would last through the day at work. I updated podcasts on the phone and listened to them there, but kept the current music (and classic podcast episodes) on the Shuffle in an attempt to offload some of the listening to a different device. But by and by, the iPhone got better, and I stopped flying (and thus needing to save the battery for 4 or 5 hours at a go), and eventually I quit carrying plug-in headphones altogether by 2017. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure where that iPod is.

It changed the world, honestly. MP3 players were either small flash memory things the size of a cigarette pack that would hold maybe 16 to 20 songs, depending on length and bitrate, or else hard drive things bigger than a Discman that were heavy and complex and unfriendly to anyone but severe nerds. Thus Slashdot’s famous dismissal: “no wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” And then the iPod basically destroyed the rest of the market, and rightly so. After fourteen years of carrying some kind of cassette Walkman most everywhere, and another year of fumbling with the primitive MP3 players of the turn of the millennium, the iPod was huge storage, simple interface, and utter elegance.

And Apple was smart about it, honestly. They always self-cannibalized. As soon as flash memory let you replace the tiny hard drive, they killed the mini for the nano. They replaced monochrome with color, audio with video, physical controls with touch controls with actual touch screens. No one ever came close, and most people gave up and just went straight to imitating the iPhone. Which even Apple did – the last iPod was the iPod Touch, the 4-inch super-thin Wi-Fi only model that was the perfect My Very First Personal iOS Device. Sadly, with its demise, the entry level price for iOS has jumped from $199 to $329.

But the iPod was that thing Steve coveted most: a dent in the universe. It was what shifted Apple’s focus away from desktops and laptops toward truly personal computing. And it’s an icon, the first great technological achievement of the 21st century.

Ave atque vale, iPod. Thanks for the ride.

first impressions

So the iPhone 13 mini represents about a 25% gain in battery life over a year-and-a-half old iPhone 12 mini. The silicone case is far more dust-attracting than leather, maybe stickier in pocket, but the “midnight” color is a very nice blue-black. I haven’t dealt with the new camera features yet at all, but from out of box to fully restored and functional took less than six hours.

That’s not the main thing.

When last we went to Yosemite, my wife wanted to ride bikes. The rental bikes are terrible single speed coaster brake Google bikes, and our electric bikes (even if we could find the chargers) are awfully unwieldy to put on a hitch, drive up 140 (or worse, Priest Grade) and then have to charge and store outside at Curry Village. But our friends at Blix make a very nice looking folding electric bike, two of which should easily fit in back of the ID.4, and because I chose a tasteful cream (which reminds me of a neighbor’s Beetle in the 70s, the first Beetle I ever saw) rather than steel blue, mine arrived on Friday.

Assembly was pretty simple: cut all the zip ties (so many zip ties) and remove all the packing material, attach the handlebars and seat in their adjustable pipes, screw in the pedals (the left one is reverse threaded, so be mindful), and then charge and fit the battery. Oh and you might want to air up the tires. And basically, a couple hours later, you have a multi-speed bike with five levels of power assist and a throttle, which my own e-bike doesn’t have. So I mounted up at power assist level one and pedaled.

Reader, the bike damn near shot out from under my ass and left me on the middle of the avenue.

This bike is a pocket rocket. It’s absurd. I was standing beside the bike and accidentally brushed the throttle with my thumb, and it deadass reared up like a horse so quick it brushed the back fender on the asphalt. I don’t know what the battery life is like with that kind of kick, but I know I won’t have a kick of trouble making it to either of the two nearest downtowns. There are plenty of spots within four miles that I could easily wheel to, collapse the bike, and then call for pickup at the end of the night and stash it in the ID for the ride home. And a folding bike makes Caltrain feasible in ways that simply aren’t otherwise possible from where we live.

I think I’m going to get a world of use out of this bike. Especially if I can’t find the charger for my full size e-bike.

the enemy

“When it is a clear-cut case of either taking the life of the unborn baby or letting the mother die, then abortion is called for. An actual life (the mother) is of more intrinsic value than a potential life (the unborn). The mother is a fully developed human; the baby is an undeveloped human. And an actually developed human is better than one which has the potential for full humanity but has not yet developed. Being fully human is a higher value than the mere possibility of becoming fully human. For what is has more value than what may be. …”

“Birth is not morally necessitated without consent. No woman should be forced to carry a child if she did not consent to intercourse. A violent intrusion into a woman’s womb does not bring with it a moral birthright for the embryo. The mother has a right to refuse that her body be used as an object of sexual intrusion. The violation of her honor and personhood was enough evil without compounding her plight by forcing an unwanted child on her besides. … the right of the potential life (the embryo) is overshadowed by the right of the actual life of the mother. The rights to life, health, and self-determination — i.e., the rights to personhood — of the fully human mother take precedence over that of the potentially human embryo.” (italics mine)

Those two paragraphs come from a 1971 book called Baptist Ethics: Alternatives And Issues. Written by Norman Geisler, famous apologist for biblical literalism and no one’s wild-eyed liberal by any stretch. As Fred Clark is so fond of saying, the Southern Baptist anti-abortion stance is newer than the McDonalds Happy Meal.

The enemy isn’t Trump. Never was. He is merely the tool to keep the necks fired up. The enemy is a cult that worships power, currently doing business as the Republican Party. It is a cult that has gleefully broken every unwritten rule in government and not a few of the written ones. And it is a cult that has spent 2022 making the kind of decisions you make when you are sure you will never again be out of power, that the law will always protect and not bind you, and that you may then use it to bind others it does not protect. Crudely put, it ensures the rednecks will always have somebody they’re allowed to shit on. And if it can’t win a majority of votes, it will strangle and shrink the electorate until it can.

What are you prepared to do?

half a life, part 2

At some level, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.

They always say not to do any more studying the weekend before your prelims. After all, they aren’t the sort of test you can cram for – either you know the material well enough to write on it at length, or you don’t. And I plainly didn’t. So instead of trying to make something up, I spent the last weekend driving to Cincinnati to meet my third college girlfriend in person – which is sort of like talking about Johnny Unitas’s tenure with the San Diego Chargers, or Joe Namath’s stint with the Rams, but technically it’s accurate – and then did the two big tests on Monday and Thursday, broke up with my second college girlfriend over the phone on Thursday night, and left my apartment – and Nashville – for the last time on Saturday.

I would return a total of six times. Once later that summer to let myself into the laundry room to nap for a couple of hours en route to a long overnight drive (and to use up the last bit of money on my Commodore Card). Once in 1998 to graduate, and see my dad for the last time (though I sure didn’t know it at the time). Once in 2003, to show the campus to the woman I’d marry. Once in 2006, to reload with stuff now that I had decided I could legitimately claim the school. Once in 2012, which was my emergence as a very different person than the one who left, and once the following year to show that new world to my wife.

And that was it. I haven’t been to Nashville in nine years. And the Nashville of 2022 is a wildly different place than 1997, one that more than half the residents feel is headed in the wrong direction. The town that used to be “redneck Hollywood” has become a mad hybrid of Baptist Vegas, White Girl Instagram Valhalla, and Designated Caucasian Safe Space, not to mention the magnet for every internet-famous right-winger looking for a place where they think everyone will be like them. Not that the Tennessee Legislature isn’t encouraging that in a big way; it was always safe to say that at least middle Tennessee was a cut above being in Alabama, but right this instant, I think I’d almost feel better in Birmingham than returning to Davidson County.

Here’s the thing, too…I was never really in or of Nashville. None of the pro teams were there; there was minor league hockey, the same AAA baseball, and an arena league football team, but not Predators or Titans. There was the Sucker District down on 2nd Avenue, but nothing remotely like the scene now. There was nightlife on 12th Avenue, but it wasn’t The Gulch yet. East Nashville was “yeah I wouldn’t go down there,” not a hipster paradise. The local microbrews were Gerst and Jack Daniels Amber Lager. And most of my time off campus was spent at one of the malls or in the lobbies of the Opryland Hotel, not at Rotier’s or the Exit/In or the Bluebird or the Ryman or the handful of places that predate the It City. I wasn’t in Nashville, I was at Vanderbilt.

At Vanderbilt…

We have a really weird idea about what makes a “good” school. For most people, it’s become measured by the US News & World Report rankings, which is kind of insane – the college guide of a defunct right-wing news magazine as the arbiter of academic excellence. And yet, it makes sense if you think about it, because most of what we think of as “good” schools didn’t get that way for academic reasons at all. Quick, name a “good” school that’s renowned for academics without being bound up in the snobbery of the moneyed elite. You’ll come up with Berkeley, a couple other UCs, maybe Georgia Tech and MIT, maybe some place like Chicago that’s just a meat grinder. Maybe you’ll come up with one of the “Harvards” – Brandeis? Notre Dame? Howard? Morehouse? Berea? – but more than likely, you’ll think Ivy. Or Stanford. Or Duke, or Northwestern, or Rice, or…Vanderbilt.

Because until maybe fifty years ago, the “good” schools weren’t academically rigorous, they were just socially elite. They were what almost every college is now, what my undergrad certainly was: a place to have your WASP rumspringa before you have to begin your drudgery of a life if you aren’t inheriting the family fortune. And once it was decided that you had to have a degree to do any job that didn’t have your name on your shirt, it largely became irrelevant where you went, unless it was once of a blessed few. The running gag in the Valley is “Harvard, MIT, Stanford, CMU, and wherever the CEO went” but I’m sure every industry has it. The cult of the Stanford dropout is the proof: it doesn’t matter where you graduate from, it only matters where you got into.

With that logic, I shouldn’t have any problem claiming Vanderbilt. I got in, even as an undergrad…hell, they offered me 75% tuition plus $2000 a year in scholarship money. It wasn’t a full ride, but that shouldn’t have made a difference, and the fact that it did is a whole other post (and a decade of therapy). By modern standards, I have everything that is required to hang out my shingle for Vanderbilt, even though these days I only do so as a hopped-up sidewalk alum who happens to have a ring. 

The thing is…Vanderbilt in 2022 is trying, in a way they weren’t in the 90s. They make an active effort to recruit for diversity. They make an active effort to improve the faculty. Pace the giants of my era, there’s no comparing the overall quality of the political science faculty in my time with the faculty now. None. Vanderbilt is actively trying to be a world-class university. Which makes things awkward, because of its location and its prior circumstances. By and large, it’s not hard to be a major prestige university in California, or Massachusetts, or even North Carolina. But in Tennessee? In 2022? In a time when the state legislature is actively advocating book-burning and is one step away from rounding up witches?

It has been stated over and over and fucking over, gah in this space that what Vanderbilt does really doesn’t belong in the SEC. There are no peer institutions there, no matter how highly Florida or Texas think of themselves. There are 13 (soon to be 15) football programs that have an ancillary athletic program and a state college attached. The apotheosis of the SEC is Alabama, which has expanded its student body by 50% since my day on the sole promise that here is a plantation country club where you can experience the magic of championship football every autumn and live the kind of made-for-reality-TV excitement that is sorority rush TikTok or have the kind of frathouse party life that never has to worry about what the “woke” think. And make no mistake, that was Vanderbilt for most of the 20th century – with the added prestige of being private and having a high enough tuition bar to keep out the Riff-raff.

Maybe they’re trying to do better now on West End Avenue. I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But what Vanderbilt does is a bad fit for its state, its conference and quite possibly for the future of America. And to be honest, it isn’t really working for me any more. Hasn’t, for years. I gave up my Vanderbilt twitter for Lent altogether – the one with more than a thousand followers, the one where I’m known by the handle to the whole college sports blogosphere, the one that ironically led me down a path where Lent might be a thing again, of which – and I didn’t miss it. I’ve barely been back. With the coming changes to Twitter, it’s only made me realize that Twitter-in-general might be something I can live without. But Vanderbilt sports means having to interface with the SEC, the absolute rock bottom of professional sports powered by indentured servitude and covered over with rah-rah and shady money (make no mistake, if your “Name Image and Likeness” athlete can’t make the same money in a generic black and white uniform, that’s not NIL, that’s back door payroll, and Vanderbilt can’t meet the SEC standard). And if I didn’t graduate, if I’m not there, if I haven’t got any friends from that era, and if I can’t even bring myself to be engaged with the baseball program any longer…?

I say all this, to say this: I will actually be in Nashville, on campus, at Hawkins Field, on the 25th anniversary of the very day that I left for the last time. As close to literally half a life ago as makes no difference. At a time when it’s becoming very real to say that I don’t know how many more trips down South I will be making in my life. I wouldn’t be surprised to look up in five or six years and say that I never really have a reason to go to Nashville again  They say time heals all wounds, but I think it’s more that given enough time, things get buried deep enough that you can pass over them without a bump and it’s not worth digging them out again. Which, in the end, is probably the same thing. The sands are high enough to pass…as long as you don’t step in the quicksand. Which you never have to worry about if you don’t go that way in the first place.

Ten years ago, I thought I might have fished something out of the black hole that I could pull all the way out, clean off, paint up and sell back to myself for more than it’s worth. Now I wonder whether I’m better off just tossing it back down the hole and forgetting about it.

toot? sweet.

Remember what I said earlier about not being able to be in bed with bad people without being complicit? Sure enough, here comes Phony Stark, the pioneer of the money thinking it’s the brains, to buy Twitter and take it private off the back of sales of/loans against his inflated stock – to purchase a company whose revenue stream is smaller than Kohl’s, a company with mindshare out of all importance to its user base because every reporter lives on it 24/7 and it makes a cheap content stream for cable news, a company that everyone insists for some reason should be like Facebook.

This is going to be an unmitigated disaster, mainly because Phony Stark is determined to do for the first amendment what the NRA did for the second. His notion of “free speech” basically boils down to “freedom to deceive” or “freedom to intimidate” or, as usual, “freedom from consequences for the sufficiently rich and white.” Which is par for the course for an apartheid heir, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, Twitter is about a year from becoming the new 4chan: the result you’d get if you gave the internet an enema.

Twitter isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but in the last couple of years I had just about beaten it into something useable, thanks to Tweetbot: an ad-free chronological stream of posts from people I know personally (or am otherwise willing to), with a separate stream for allowed updates from approved entities like sports teams or foreign media or the like. The question is, once Twitter starts ripping up the guardrails in pursuit of making itself a safe space for alt-right edgelords with anime pillows they won’t fap to, what happens to the accounts for Vanderbilt baseball or Freewheel brewing or just friends I might not otherwise hear from? Will it be like Facebook, where you feel you have to be there for promotional reasons but your contents gets lost in the sewage? Or Flickr or Tumblr, where one day people just drifted away and forgot to post for three, six, eight, eleven years?

Or what if this is finally the push we needed for enough people to take the plunge on something else?

My first Mastodon account was enrolled in the spring of 2017. I made one post and didn’t touch it again until August of 2018. A couple of posts and that was it until October 2018. And then maybe a post a year. Until yesterday, when things started to speed up. All of a sudden, I have a couple of extended family members using Mastodon who weren’t there 72 hours ago. There are people on Twitter talking it up as a viable alternative – a sea of federated interoperable servers, like email, with the ability to move between them and screen out undesirables. And importantly, without the capability to name-search or algorithmically promote or quote-tweet or engage in the kind of sea-lion dogpiling that Felon Musk actually encourages from his drooling minions. (I’m seriously about to put the ONE LESS TESLA sticker on the ID.4, bet.) 

The problem with social media is that it’s no good without the people you want on there. It’s how the wave carried us all from listserv and MUSH to LiveJournal, then on to Friendster and Myspace, Vox and Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook – and then stopped, because Facebook bought or ripped off every new thing that came along thereafter. Vine, Foursquare, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, TikTok – all either shamelessly duplicated or bought outright. And every subsequent attempt at an alternative – Path, Peach, micro.blog, Cocoon, HalloApp – failed to gain traction.

But now there’s a push. Now there’s an urgency. Now there’s word of mouth evangelism. And the thing that people most instinctively recoil from in Big Tech has been taken away: you’re no longer under the thumb of a single shady individual’s absolute control, whether it’s Werner von Zuckerberg who doesn’t care where the rockets come down or that gurning adolescent who’s going to increase the character limit to 420, I’ll bet my whole liquor cabinet. The push is going to be bigger abroad – just like WhatsApp or Android – but it doesn’t take much. If the right couple dozen people will make the shift, I’d be set for good.

Get yourself an account on a Mastodon instance. I can help. Then less tweet and more toot. We can save ourselves, if only we will. Let’s do this.

half a life, part 1

There is another edit.

Somewhere in the multiverse, there is a world where I would walk out of my dormitory at Owenton College, head down to the corner by the main gate, and catch the #7 streetcar downtown, from which I could head to the stadium with the other Elyton Ultras to cheer on Birmingham Legion while wearing my Black Barons cap and drinking Good People’s brown ale on draft.

The last time I lived around Birmingham was 1997. The Barons were still in Hoover, and the guys I watched them with were scattered to the four winds. I hadn’t been in touch with anyone else from my high school in years. There were no professional sports teams in the city at all, save for Bulls hockey which wasn’t really a thing in the heat of Alabama summer. I was commuting in every morning to a Mad Men-era skyscraper, to a temp job with a dress code, and while I had no idea what my future would hold, I was pretty sure that this wasn’t it. Or rather, the notion that I would live out my days in area code 205 loomed like a yawning chasm of abject failure.

Half a lifetime later, there are four professional teams playing in the city limits of Birmingham, as many as three simultaneously. There’s pro soccer at the second highest level in America. There’s craft brewing all over town, in a city that bills itself as “the Dining Room of the South” and can say it with a straight face. Then again, a whole lifetime ago, there was the second largest streetcar system in America, and you could ride out to Rickwood and watch a Negro League team that was on a par with some major league squads even before adding a 15-year-old Willie Mays in the outfield, and a Beaux-Arts train terminal that was a jewel from which you could reach Atlanta or Nashville or New Orleans or points far beyond.

My timing was impeccable. Almost everything worth experiencing in Birmingham was either long before my time or well after it. Or else happened in a way that makes it difficult to embrace, in the case of a certain small college with Division-III athletics and its own football team. When I visited Railroad Park in September of 2012, it was the first time I’d spent any time at all downtown in fourteen years, since my last trip to City Stages – the one cool thing I was actually there for  – and the thing that echoed in my mind over and over was “I can’t believe this is the same !-ing city.” In the ensuing decade, they’ve added new teams, new stadiums, new eateries and experiences, and I’ve visited…twice. Haven’t been back in seven years.

Because the problem, as always, is that Birmingham is trapped in Alabama. Until we can find some way to saw around the back end of Red Mountain and up to the hills behind Carraway and choplift the whole thing to Foster City or Pacifica, the Magic City is stuck in a state that is bound and determined to rule through white supremacy filtered through Southern Baptist prejudice. It means that for as much as I admire what is happening, as much as I wish I could have experienced it when I was young and present, I can’t go back for good. Ever. And it also diminished my ability to identify with it – not least because in doing so, it feels like stealing valor from those people who stayed and fought, who spent their adulthood trying to wrestle the city onto the path to the 21st century kicking and screaming. The ones who put up with and pushed back against not only the bearded-pickup bigotry, but its lightly filtered smug sister in Vestavia and Hoover and every megachurch with a parking lot full of three-row SUVs, the one that mocks high-tax California while fattening its coffers on federal largesse. I hate performative redneckery with a fiery passion, but fiery welfare redneckery really makes me see spots.

And yet, there is the Stallions shirt. And the Black Barons and Squadron hats. And the Legion scarf. And the advocacy for Good People and Trimtab and Avondale, and Highlands and Bottega and Hot & Hot and Chez Lulu and the like, and a 205 number parked in Google Voice that I can’t bring myself to delete. Of such things do we attempt to jury-rig a patch over the black hole of insufficient belonging.

Nashville will be worse, though. Of which.