SEPARATION ANXIETY

I've got about a month left of being a professor. Right now one of the major conferences in my field is taking place a few miles from my house and I'm not participating in it. And the really weird thing is that I feel fine about it.

That sounds like a person trying to convince himself, I bet. But it isn't. It took a long time to get here, trust me, but I feel as ready to walk away as I think I'm capable of being. Reflexively I've always described my professional problem as one of geography; I like what I do, but not where I have to do it. And that is still true. There are Ideal jobs out there that I would take in a heartbeat, were I remotely capable of getting them (I'm not, which I've always been clear with myself about).

But lately I look through academic job ads and it just…doesn't do anything for me. Because the hard truth is that the modal academic job is a really bad job. The pay sucks. The teaching is likely to be miserable – students who either don't care, lack high school-level skills, or both. The locations are often bad. It's hard to participate in the profession in any meaningful way from such positions, given the overwhelming emphasis in academia on institutional prestige. Simply put, I've gotten half-way through a couple of job applications and said, what the fuck am I doing this for? Why do I want this obviously shitty job?

The truth is that I don't. And for the past fifteen years I've never felt that way. I used to think, it's not perfect but at least it's an academic job, and even a bad academic job is better than most jobs. That kind of thinking gets most of us at some point. We devote a lot of our lives to pursuing and getting an academic job, so it's very difficult to walk away. But honestly, how much is it worth giving up in other areas of your life just to be able to call yourself Professor? That thrill wears off pretty quickly; if you're wasting your entire life in Turkey Bone, Arkansas just to have that title you're going to have a lot of regrets when you're 70.

In a lot of ways I'm remarkably fortunate; I don't have kids, I don't have a spouse depending on me for economic support, and I don't have any complications beyond my own indecision to deal with when making this choice. I'm lucky to even have the opportunity to walk away without anyone getting hurt.

I still find political science incredibly interesting. I'm not going to stop paying attention to it. But it has become abundantly clear to me that I'm not good enough at it to get a career in the field that I would be happy with. There are, fortunately, other things I am good at. Legitimately good. Including some things that even the most successful academics are not good at. So, I'm going to try to make a living doing those things instead. It might not work. If it doesn't, so be it. I'll be happier having tried compared to sticking with a job I don't particularly like just because it's safer and more stable. Things might get rough for a while, or forever. Who knows. Regardless, I can keep myself fed, clothed, and living indoors. I can achieve at least that much; maybe even slightly more.

But anyway. The finish line is finally in sight, and honestly I'm not as maudlin or terrified as I thought I would be. I feel a great deal of relief, and a genuine interest in seeing what comes next.

NPF: FULL CIRCLE

I've been meaning for quite a while to write about a strange experience I had in August of 2018. It will be kind of hard to explain, which is one of the reasons my heels have dragged.

I was raised by a Boomer dad whose father fought extensively in the European theater of WWII. Like most males of that generation, his childhood was a steady stream of WWII-related pop culture output and history. Accordingly, when I was very young in the early 1980s our house had among its bookshelves an ample supply of those kinds of "Jane's Fighting Aircraft of the World" and "Atlas of WWII Battlefields in Germany" type books that one always found lying on the Discount table at Crown Books / Waldenbooks / B. Dalton Bookseller / a bunch of other book retailers I've forgotten that used to be everywhere but since went bankrupt.

As a devoted enthusiast of G.I. Joe action figures (and of course the cartoon) by about age six, I spent many evenings thumbing the pages of those books. One thing that is hard to communicate is the sense of ~*~mystery~*~ that surrounded everything about the Eastern Bloc before 1989. Photos of Russian aircraft were always grainy and highly surreptitious in tone. Information was always qualified as "allegedly" or "reportedly." It was all very cloak-and-dagger and I fucking loved it. What, after all, was G.I. Joe vs COBRA but the Cold War in animated form for kids.

Of all the things that captured my attention, nothing amazed me quite as much as a little-known airfield in Yugoslavia (now in Bosnia) called Zeljava. One of these encyclopedia-style books wrote a short piece on it, in hushed tones of danger, including a single photo:

Zeljava Air Base was – imagine being six in 1985 and learning this fact – cut into the side of a mountain. The planes would wait safely under the bulk of an enormous mountain while the nuclear warheads fell and then emerge (from a PLANE-SHAPED HOLE IN THE MOUNTAIN) to do air battle with Tom Cruise in an F-16. That was the most James Bond, COBRA, Secret Agent Man thing I had ever heard. I asked my dad repeatedly to confirm that it was real, and not just a story. The picture looked real. It was real. Whenever I saw a book from this genre in a bookstore, the first thing I did was flip to the index to see if it contained any information about this mysterious spot. Many did, and included this, its most widely-circulated photo. Look at how grainy it is! Like it was taken IN SECRET by a real SPY.

I just could not get enough of it. It was, at that point in my life, the coolest thing in the world.

Fast forward several decades. Last summer, at age 39, Question Cathy and I were on vacation in the Czech Republic. After a few days of castles and beer and museums, I tentatively brought up the prospect of using our rental car to take a drive down unpaved, remote Bosnian roads to an unmarked and now abandoned Yugoslav Air Force Base. Since she is always indulgent of this type of thing on my part, she agreed. A few hours later, thanks in no small part to the miracle of Google Maps, I took this picture:

That's me, standing in front of the airplane-shaped hole in the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Bosnia.

Also present that day were a cop ("Remember the Dumb American routine I taught you, tell them we thought this was a mall and we got lost!") who was chatting with a friend, obviously looking for an out of the way place to stash himself so as to avoid working, and a pair of young men using the 2500m runway to do quarter-mile tests with their very obviously prized Skoda Fabia. Nobody appeared to care in the least that we were all at what, as of 1980, must have been one of the most secretive and restricted places on the continent.

It was, and is, difficult for me to explain what it felt like to close that loop. Think of the changes that have taken place to the world we live in between the time this was built (at an enormous cost its society probably could ill afford) until today, when the investment has been declared superfluous, abandoned by the MiG-21s of a country called Yugoslavia and left to young men racing their hatchbacks in a place called Bosnia.

It goes without saying that plenty changed for me between the ages of 5-7 and 39. I can't say I thought about the air base in the side of a mountain every day, obviously, but it was a thing I never quite forgot due to how completely it fascinated me when I was very young. There's no way 1985 Ed would have believed, looking at the grainy picture, that he'd be able to visit it someday, nor can Present (now 40) Ed fully appreciate that, for all the things he has failed badly at in life, he has also done some pretty cool shit that a vast majority of people will never get an opportunity to do.

Anyway. It was a good trip.

NPF: ORCHESTRAL MANEUVERS

I have a long-running theory that I need some data on.

Every institution of High Culture in the US – especially things like operas and symphonies that tend to struggle for support – seems from casual observation to have one moneymaker on its calendar every year. That is, there is one performance aimed at the consumer who doesn't actually like orchestral music, or operas, or whatever, because it turns out that it's hard to sell a ton of tickets to things like "An Evening with Haydn's Unfinished Ode to the War of Jenkins's Ear" or whatever.

The most common manifestations of this are things like John Williams or Star Wars or Boston Pops nights at the symphony, or something else transparently poppy and aimed at the casual "Let's take the kids to see this" listener. Similarly, the Lyric Opera in Chicago has taken to interspersing its calendar of obscure operas with things like West Side Story or Nutcracker-like holiday shows.

Here are my questions, in no particular order:

1. Is there a name within the industry for this phenomenon? "Pay the bills night" or something?

2. Do performers within these groups hate doing this, or do they think it's fun? I can easily picture your average symphony musician or opera singer being disappointed (or worse) at the idea of having to sing Harry Potter songs or whatever to get butts to fill seats.

3. Do performers find this stuff easy compared to the other, less public-facing material? I also picture the entire symphony getting drunk before John Williams Night because they can play the theme from Indiana Jones perfectly while half in the bag, and why not have some fun with it.

Any insight that you can offer on these points is appreciated. I have been harboring these suspicions for years and would like clarification.

O, BLACKEST FRIDAY

Today only – get yourself or the ones you love the greatest gift of all: the fancy new Gin and Tacos t-shirt at many percents off.

$20 for all sizes and styles (plus shipping, US only). These were pricey to make so this won't last long. Full details on sizing and other specs can be found here.

Remember you get one of these for free ("free") by becoming a $25 supporter via Patreon, which many of you have very kindly used to offer both moral and financial support to keep all this great ("great") content coming.


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NPF: STEVE ALLEN

I did a Mass for Shut-ins Minicast – the third so far – on Steve Allen, the original host of the Tonight Show.

Some people don't like long podcasts, so the minicasts are short (this one's four minutes) and intended to share something interesting that doesn't benefit from being drawn out. You get the point and you can appreciate something and go about your day. Minimal commitment.

Sorry for the slow posting this week. Being back from the unreality of vacation has been hard on my brain.

On that note, one final "I noticed a thing" thought from Europe. On the one hand, I'm familiar with the common (and accurate) argument in the US that smaller food and beverage portion sizes are one of the reasons Europe doesn't struggle with affluence-based obesity like Americans do. Indeed, soft drinks in particular are almost cartoonishly small in Europe – what we'd call a Child's Size here. But conversely, Europeans drink staggering quantities of beer compared to Americans – more than 37 GALLONS per capita annually in the Czech Republic, for example. And while I hardly did a scientific double-blind study on the matter, big portions of heavy food – the Balkans do not seem to have heard of vegetables yet – were plentiful.

So, while the argument always made perfect sense to me in the abstract, it didn't seem so plausible in person. Whatever they're not drinking in Coke and Pepsi they're more than making up for (on average) with beer and wine, and a steady diet of bread, meat, cheese, and potatoes hardly seems like a ticket to carrying around less body mass.

Not a data point. Merely an observation.

NPF: DEATH BY WOKENESS

OK.

So on the topic broached last week in the first Anthony Bourdain post, a friend who is into The Soccer texted me a screenshot of this tweet:

Ah, I see the "Make sure nobody anywhere gets to enjoy anything ever" laws are still in effect.

The statement is factually accurate, of course. That's not the issue. If we pursue the questionable logic to its conclusion, then everyone should feel bad for enjoying any sort of national competition, ever. Every nation has boatloads of atrocities somewhere in its past – Argentina, as the comment points out, being no exception. Tonight I accidentally saw part of a Peru-France matchup. My god it was like the thunderdome of countries that have done brutal things to their own indigenous people or, in France's case, ones it conquered in the name of Empire. So, is the correct course of action to go from patron to patron in the bar saying "GOOGLE THE SHINING PATH, YOU IGNORANT PISSANT!" or "HOW CAN YOU WATCH FRANCE KNOWING WHAT THEY DID IN THE THIRD CARNATIC WAR OF 1756?"

Had I done so, I strongly suspect most people in the venue would have told me to go fuck myself, and that after working 10 hours for unfairly low levels of compensation they just wanted to watch the goddamn soccer game and could I kindly leave them alone before they deposit a beer bottle in my eye socket. And I think that would have been an entirely fair response.

Note, nobody is watching Argentina *celebrating* the country's historical atrocities. Nobody is trying to assert that they didn't happen, as some Europeans (and Americans) are wont to do with the inconvenient aspects of our history. But I cannot for the life of me imagine what is accomplished by trying to ruin literally everything for everyone – whoever is able to wring some small amount of pleasure out of anything these days – by bringing something totally unrelated into a conversation. This is a grand example of somebody trying way, way too hard to be the Wokest guy in the room. The room, in this instance, is the internet, and therefore the levels necessary to OutWoke everyone else are high enough to be fatal.

Everybody is depressed all the goddamn time now. Is it absolutely necessary to try to ruin everything that might be a source of light entertainment for anyone…especially in the name of proving that You, An Intellectual Serious Person, are more attuned to the historical narrative than the simple Plebes enjoying their little Plebeian sports match?

For fuck's sake, people. Watch your stupid soccer game if that makes you happy for 90 minutes plus that weird-ass random amount of extra time. I simply fail to see the point in this beyond elevating yourself to look down at others for doing something they have no reason to apologize for doing. Maybe if we hand people like this an official YOU'RE THE SMARTEST BEST PERSON trophy they will leave us alone so we can take brief reprieves from wanting to jump off a fucking bridge every time we see the news.

NPF: BRAIN CRAMPS

JR Smith has become this generation's Chris "I Thought We Had Timeouts Left" Webber. That has to be up there with the worst athletic-related brain cramps of all time (up there with "JUST RUN THE GODDAMN BALL, SEATTLE!" in the Super Bowl a few years ago).

The best ones that come to mind in politics are Rick Perry forgetting the names of the Cabinet departments he proposed to eliminate or, more recently, Gary Johnson's "What's Aleppo" moment.

What are some great examples of people just…going mentally blank when everyone's watching? No Trump stuff please. We know that "mentally blank" describes him permanently.

MASS FOR SHUT-INS EPISODE 004 – WILD MOOD SWINGS

Episode 004 is now available. Please give 'er a listen – I'm really proud of this one and if I may say so, I'm getting better at this. The podcast medium suits me and although it is a shit-ton of work (certainly more than I expected) I'm enjoying it immensely.

My guest is SSgt. Katie Schmid, plaintiff in one of the legal challenges against Trump's nonsensical transgender military ban. Her story is really compelling and I contribute to the interview mostly by staying out of the way in a narrative that does not need anything to make it more interesting.

I tell the story of the Harcourt Interpolation, a sensation in Victorian London that saw a rogue typesetter (!!) scandalize proper society throughout 1882. The cocktail of the month is the Gin Gimlet, which is a simple drink but was the first drink I ever ordered in a bar; that story gives some amusing insight into Ed at age 20.

The topic for the episode is Duverger's Law and the persistence of the two-party system in the US. Perhaps the question I hear most often from people interested in politics is, why doesn't the US have more competitive parties? I offer a short but compelling answer here.

Enjoy, and please spread the word.

NPF: WHAT A DAY

I'm confident enough in the appeal of this story about a sports happening that I declined to use the "Skip This If You Hate Sports" tag.

First, a very brief dip into National Hockey League rules. A team forfeits a game if it does not have two goaltenders in uniform. This is intended to ensure that if one is hurt, the game can continue because goalies are not exactly interchangeable parts. You can't simply grab another player and tell him to play in goal, if for no reason more complicated than the dozens of pieces of equipment worn by hockey goaltenders having a custom fit.

A handful of times per year a team will suit up what is known as an Emergency Goalie. This happens when one of the two real goalies suffers an injury and is ruled out at the last minute. Ordinarily a team would call up a goalie from its minor league team to replace him, but sometimes (for example, a sudden onset of the flu the day of the game) it isn't possible. So, an emergency goalie is anyone they can put a uniform on and stash at the end of the bench to fulfill the "two goalies" requirement.

Note that this person is not expected to play. He's simply a guy who can put on a goalie's kit, sit on the bench, and if absolutely unavoidably necessary, stand in the net without falling down. Common ways to get an Emergency Goalie include putting a uniform on the team's goaltending coach (usually a retired goalie of advanced age), calling the local rec league team and signing the goalie to a 24-hour contract, or using one of the team's "practice" goalies (for example, the team equipment manager will sometimes put on goalie gear just to give the players something to shoot at during practice).

On March 29, the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves with one injured goalie replaced by a minor-leaguer, Collin Delia, who was to back up the usual second-stringer. But then the backup injured himself during warm-ups, making Delia the starter and leaving the Blackhawks in need of a second body on very little notice.

Just an hour before the game the team reached out to a local Beer League goalie – I imagine a list of guys to call in an emergency is maintained – a 36 year old Certified Public Accountant and just-for-fun hockey player named Scott Foster. He was playing with the other middle-aged guys at a facility right down the street from the United Center. They told him that if he could hurry over, he could tell his bar friends that he got to wear a Blackhawks uniform for one night. He took a cab and they slapped an ill-fitting extra jersey on him.

Unusually in what has been a horrible season for Chicago, the team jumped out to a 6-2 lead with 14 minutes left in the game. Delia, who played fine up to that point, said he felt leg cramps. In a more important game the coach most likely would have left him in, but in a meaningless game with a big lead and just 14 minutes left, Emergency Goalie Scott Foster was put in the game. A real game. A guy who worked 10 hours behind a desk and then took some shots on the ice (probably with a couple beers in him) found himself playing goal behind guys like Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

And he did fine. Winnipeg (a favorite to win the championship this year) was coasting in a game they didn't need to win, readying themselves for the playoffs. So it's fair to say they weren't playing their asses off. But still, this guy took 7 shots from the best players in the world and stopped them all.

Not much has gone right for the 'Hawks this year, so they seemed to enjoy this even more than Foster did. He was named first star of the game for what will undoubtedly be the only 14 minutes he will ever play in the NHL.

Imagine being an amateur church choir singer and getting a call asking you to rush down to Broadway to appear in a show in an hour. That kind of plucked-from-ordinary-life storyline rarely happens outside of movies. It was fun to watch it happen, and something about the story was obviously compelling to all of us and our boring lives – every media outlet in the US, and a lot around the world in places where nobody cares about hockey, ran with it. Hell, Money magazine reported it.

Something like this could happen to you someday. Will it? Nah. But it sure is fun to see it happen to someone.