Monday, June 29, 2009

the CSU's furlough proposal

The CSU has proposed a "furlough" plan to their employee unions, as part of a program for dealing with the net half-billion dollar cut to the CSU budget for this coming academic year. The Chancellor's office plan is similar to plans proposed by other state agencies - cutting two days a month from employees' work schedules, without compensation obviously. The Chancellor's office informed the union leaders that the furlough would save about $275 million for the whole CSU. The proposal is to cut two Fridays from each month.

On its face, a furlough plan for the CSU is absurd. Anybody who knows anything about higher education knows that classes are almost always grouped by days of the week. Some classes are taught on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, some are taught on Tuesday and Thursday. On a few campuses, classes are taught only Monday-Wednesday and Tuesday-Thursday, with special all day classes, labs, or other activities scheduled on Friday. In short, cutting two Fridays a month for the academic year would make gobbledygook out of every academic calendar.

My first reaction to this, about a week ago when I first heard about it, was that this was typical of the Chancellor's office: they have no idea how higher education works, and no idea what academic calendars are, or really, what faculty labor is like. For instance, let's compare three faculty members. Faculty member A teaches four classes each day Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That faculty member would have Friday classes cut two times each month, for around 6 void Fridays a semester. Faculty member B teaches three classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and one on Wednesday night. For that faculty member, the cut to the Friday work schedule means - well, what? Faculty member C teaches only night classes, including one that meets every Friday night. The two-Fridays-a-month furlough means that that faculty members Friday class will miss six sessions over a semester. On our campus, that's nearly half the course.

But this week, I've been getting email updates about meetings between union leaders and campus presidents, and now the CSU administration's strategy for the furlough is more clear: it's a way to cut pay without calling it a pay cut.

The furlough would mean that faculty would have their pay cut relative to the amount of work they do while they are working - during the 10-month academic year. Two days a month from that 10-month year results in around 10.75% cut in salary for faculty. But there can't be any effective way to cut the actual work, and what we're hearing is that the CSU has absolutely no intention of identifying or giving account of the cuts to the faculty work.

Let me put this in context: like most faculty I know, I actually work, during the academic year, at least 6 days a week. That's because I teach Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and need to prepare to teach those classes on days when I'm not teaching them. (Contrary to what some people, notably the Chancellor of the CSU, seem to think, faculty work outside the classroom in order to be able to teach while in the classroom.) They might cut Friday classes twice each month, but there's no way they can meaningfully cut faculty workload during an academic year.

They're simply taking the opportunity of the budget catastrophe to extract more work for less pay. If I was a little more paranoid, I'd suggest that this is also helpful in attempting to undermine the power CFA generated by successfully organizing a contract fight in 2005-2006, or furthering a union-busting effort.

Oh, and what is the carrot in this proposal? The Chancellor's office threatened the employee unions that if we didn't accept furloughs, there would be mass layoffs. And if we do? No guarantee that there won't be layoffs. Meanwhile, of course, the CSU is still not subject to meaningful public scrutiny of its books.

I would have written about this earlier, but I've had this hideous chest cold all week. I haven't had real sleep in two days. But I figured, if I don't write about this, then the chest cold will have won.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

summertime blues

They say there ain't no cure.

So far this has been the summer of miscellaneous busy-ness. The result: I have a chest cold.

It's also been the summer of updating, sprucing, and in general making happy little improvements in the material conditions of life. We bought grass-fed meat. I made a new batch of demi-glace. I have my new contact lenses, which I'm adjusting to fairly well. Lauren has new glasses. I have a new guitar, I'm futzing with several new tunes.

This has all involved a lot of driving hither and yon, culminating in the week of Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer's visit, during which I drove approximately 23,400 miles.

So, as I sit here resting and recuperating, with little energy to do much else, it occurred to me that I do have all that to recuperate from. That makes a little more sense, which somehow makes it a little bit better.

Monday, June 15, 2009


One of the oddest things about me (if I'm any judge) is that I make my own demi-glace. I don't actually do it right, in part because I don't have a kitchen that makes it possible to do the whole thing right, and in part because my procedures are a bastardization of Escoffier's directions, but the results are not only suitable, they're diabolical.

I finished a batch last night. 6 quarts of home-brewed beef stock, reduced to two trays of demi-glace ice cubes. The ice cubes are a convenient way to store and use the demi-glace, which is an idea I got reading chef whore Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen Confidential. To make various sauces, I just toss an ice cube of demi-glace into the pan, and simmer away. It's fabulous, and a basic necessity for the various compounds sauces, and simply a terrific way to turn a standard pan sauce into a meat orgy.

Any excuse for a good meat orgy.

Monday, June 08, 2009

everything must go!

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.
- Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto

We ended up at the mall today, for no really good reason, other than already finding ourselves in Modesto, and thinking of a trip to Trader Joe's. We went to a closing sale at a local department store, a chain with stores mainly in the Central Valley, called Gottschalks. They tried to sell out to somebody last fall, and no one took them up on it. So they're clearing out everything.

And I mean everything: all the stuff on the floor, in warehouses, all the store furnishings and equipment, all the manikins, racks, display tables, fixtures - even the dollies the stock staff (in jeans and t-shirts) were using had price tags on them.

All the desperation of trying to sell the place past, all attempts at dignity, polish and shine ended, the store was reduced to dishevelment, or, to coin an appropriate term, disshelvement.

What was revealed by this series of events are the basic tricks of retail: controlling perception. Because, you see, they'd given up on it. The normal look of a retail department store, which prevents you from seeing in depth, which fills as much of every direction with images, words of inducement, merchandise displays, was gone. All the racks were at the same level, and there were items stacked on floors or behind counters where they didn't belong.

The staff were disgruntled, and joined by this invading army of overly-casual employees (in dress and in work status, no doubt), hired by a group a cashier identified as "the liquidators" to move stock around. The muzak was on a weirdly upbeat channel doing lots of late 70s, heavy on the disco.

Aside from the sudden elimination of the usual fetishization of commodities - the pornography that takes place routinely in retail - what struck me was that, with the pretense gone, the impoverishment, callousness, and shabbiness of it was impossible to deny. For instance, in the pile of cast-off and for-sale display tables and racks, without being covered with brightly colored stuff as was their function, you could see how poorly made, how scuffed, how tatty all of it is. The conceits of fashion and elegance, which is the basic come-on of retail seduction, no longer hide this.

Especially thrilling to me was that you could buy literally anything in the store, including giant cardboard hearts covered in red and pink tissue paper roses used as Valentine's Day decorations, metal sign frames with signs still in them, hat dummies, segments of manikins, and those weird partial manikins - just a torso, or just legs, or - the one I wanted most - just a butt (I thought it would make a nice gift). My loveliest (known today by one of my random endearments for her - Pinky) was looking for and buying ladies' unmentionables, and the racks they were on were on sale too. For some reason, the whole thing struck us as hilarious.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

fear and loathing: academic year 2008-09

I'll get to the fear and loathing momentarily. For the sake of continuity, I'd like to remark on the occasion for this bit of reportage.

I think I can, at this point, declare a provisional end to the academic year. The provisions are as follows: (1) I have yet to file final grades, (2) I have a handful of papers and other assignments still pending, but mainly from students I don't expect to hear from.

I started the academic year in my usual fashion. I went to the general faculty meeting, where the campus president announced that Clearwire had given us big bucks, and the university was flush, though looking ahead to uncertain times because of the state budget deadlock (one of these assertions was true, another was more true than anyone imagined at the time, and the third was in most respects divorced from reality).

That week, I sent the academic senate my legislative agenda for the year. I don't think most of the academic senate reps do this, but I do. This year my agenda was to revise the lecturer range elevation policy, to establish a faculty award for contributions to university governance, and to broaden lecturer eligibility to serve on university committees. The range elevation issue took all year to resolve, and that fairly unfortunately because of the compromises I had to make (and even so, it hasn't been signed by the president yet). The faculty and administration approved the faculty governance award, and the committee stuff is all pending. Mixed results, after a year of struggle on all that.

By November, the budget deficit that the president announced was gone in September had somehow re-emerged. Suddenly, the jobs of dozens of faculty were at risk because of an urgent need to eliminate a $5 million deficit (or something like that - reports varied). Over a couple weeks, we activated a fierce resistance to budget cuts that would slash lecturer jobs for Spring of 2009. It looked like we won.

Meanwhile, I was handling a grievance that I ultimately lost for no good reason I can discern, and which I've since been more or less told I handled improperly - even though I followed what I thought the advice I was getting said to do.

The following month I heard from a lecturer who was having a conflict with a student, that escalated into a spurious complaint against the lecturer and an administrative investigation. The investigation turned out to be inappropriately handled, so I tried to pull in the reigns as much as I could on it, with a lot of help from my friends. The interview came and went with no real consequence, perhaps in a small way as a result of our effort. It looked like we won.

Then the budget issue came back, with a vengeance. All Spring I was embroiled in the effort to organize and strategize resistance. The end result was that the full force of the cuts is going to be realized anyway. The lecturer we helped is likely to be out of work next year.

As that was coming to its hideous fruition, my students were starting to submit final papers and projects. Normally this is a somewhat painful process - students misconstrue assignments, or don't do as well as they expect, or their lives blow up on them... But in the context of the end of this particular academic year, it's all hitting me like more tumult, angst, distress and trouble, and in the end, I feel like I've run out of resources to deal with it productively. I'm no use to anyone at this point.

It feels like I've been in conflict with someone, in some way, every moment I've spent on campus, all year. From the moment I wandered into the general faculty meeting, taking notes in my usual suspicious/paranoid fashion on the official administration line on the state of the university, to the last instant I spent today, in an otherwise perfectly ordinary and amiable meeting - constant, incessant conflict.

I'd be tempted to compare it to a play by Mamet or Pinter, but my pal Bobo the Wandering Pallbearer is coming to visit in a couple weeks, and he hates those guys, so instead, I've chosen to misappropriate Hunter Thompson's line instead.

Thompson gets the last word tonight. In a 1990 interview with William Keen, Thompson replied to the inevitable question about the drug use depicted in his work with inevitable cagey avoidance and cruel insight. His finely tuned sense of rage has helped me through a lot of hard times, as has, I'm fairly ashamed to admit, his heroic fatalism. I quoted this in a paper on the decadence of the professions of journalism and academia, presented at a conference a couple years ago.

Drugs enhance or strengthen my perceptions and reactions, for good or ill. They’ve given me the resilience to withstand repeated shocks to my innocence gland. The brutal reality of politics alone would probably be intolerable without drugs. They’ve given me the strength to deal with those shocking realities guaranteed to shatter anyone’s beliefs in the higher idealistic shibboleths of our time and the “American Century.” Anyone who covers his beat for twenty years – and my beat is “The Death of the American Dream” – needs every goddamned crutch he can find.
As a journalist, I somehow managed to break most of the rules and still succeed. It’s a hard thing for most of today’s journeymen journalists to understand, but only because they can’t do it. The smart ones understood immediately. (Kingdom of Fear, 187)

Conan O'Brien: Is he Satan?

I've been an on-again, off-again fan of late-night TV since I was 10 or so. I remember fondly when David Letterman was funny.

Anyway, when Johnny Carson announced his retirement, apparently a fairly ugly competition arose between Letterman and Jay Leno. Leno won, Dave split for CBS, and into Letterman's slot NBC hired a weird-looking comedy writer with no interview experience. At first, the funniest things about Conan were his name and his hair.

Anyway, that's been a long time, and somehow O'Brien has managed to cobble together a reasonable facsimile of late-night humor (I wanted to say "jerry-rig," but that isn't ethnically-appropriate). His best bits, from the beginning, have been just like Letterman's best bits from his time at NBC: bizarre, or stupid, or juvenile - and preferably all three.

So we watched the beginning of O'Brien's first "Tonight Show." And we soon started to believe that there was something sinister going on.

Exhibit A: Rumors circulate that O'Brien forced Leno out, by threatening to leave for another gig. I don't really care whether that's true, but if it is true, it's fairly sinister. It has shades of the old Letterman/Leno fiasco. Only this time it somehow looked more like The Larry Sanders Show. Viz.: Andy Richter.

Exhibit B: The lengthy, absurd, forced, and ultimately not funny opening shtick, with Conan running across the country to get to LA for the first show because he forgot to move and couldn't catch a cab. This was the first indication what the show's bass note would be: cruelty. Pain and cruelty. As elements of humor, these aren't at all bad. Some of the best humor is painful and cruel. Viz.: Andy Richter.

Exhibit C: His hair, which was made weirder than normal - presumably to frighten young children and the elderly. Plus, it's red - the color of the hair of evil since time immemorial.

Exhibit D: The show is being filmed on the Universal Studios lot. For a first-night stunt (first of many, no doubt), O'Brien took over the play-by-play duties from a tour guide. He proceeded to have the tram buses run in a circle, while the tourists chanted "Circle! Circle! Circle!" in an offer of praise and an indication of their submission to Conan's authority. He then had the buses drive off the lot, through city streets, to a 99¢ store, where he bought every tourist their own personal piece of crap. Viz.: Andy Richter.

Exhibit E: Will Ferrell.

Monday, June 01, 2009


I don't know why it took this long, but today, for the first time, I created my own hot sauce.

I've been a fanatic for Melinda's habanero sauce (especially the reserve and the XXXX) for years now. To me, the ideal hot sauce is just like the Figueroa brothers' (makers of "Melinda's"): the heat is esophageal, rather than lingual, dental, nasal, or guttural (okay, frankly, there's some guttural heat as well), and the sauce itself is not just about welt-raising, pain-inducing scorching. It has a delicate balance of flavor, for having the amount of Scoville units it punches.

Theirs is a habanero sauce, and I find I definitely prefer them. But since we're growing serrano chiles, I made a hot sauce from our first batch of those.

(There's a story behind my affection for serranos. I first grew them by accident, as an unlabeled pepper, in Pittsburgh. The plant doesn't look like most pepper plants, and I was surprised to find it fruited at all. The fruits were short, slightly thicker than crayons, about 2 inches long, and when I casually bit into one from a day's harvest one languid Pittsburgh summer night, I instantly dubbed the unknown beasties "Little Green Hot Fuckers." And so they remain.)

So, today's sauce:

11 serrano chiles (stemmed, but with seeds remaining)
1 large tomato
1/2 a medium onion
3 cloves of garlic
All of the above wrapped in foil and roasted for about 20 minutes at 375˚.

Tossed in a blender with:
kosher salt to taste
black pepper to taste
about 1/2 tsp honey
about 1 tsp double-strength tomato paste
juice of a lime
a tsp or so of white wine vinegar

Liquefied. Shazam.

It's decent. It's hot, but not as hot as I'd like, and doesn't quite have the balance of taste I want. It's still a good first attempt, and promising enough to lead me to think I'll be pursuing this venture.