Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Steinbergs in the Southland: The college tour

The University of Virginia

     Who knows what motivates people? They don't know themselves, often, and even if they do, or think they do, their opinion changes.
     My oldest son Ross, for instance, at the outset of his search for colleges, announced that he was not interested in considering schools in California, just take it off the table. "Too far away," he said. I pouted—no Stanford!—but also viewed it a compliment. The boy doesn't want to be too far from the nest. So we did not evaluate West Coast schools. Our tour last summer was of eight colleges exclusively on the East Coast. 
    He is at college now, almost needless to say, in California. I've never seen it.
    Our second son, hot on his heels, now a high school senior, wants to go into business. Thus we have visited nearby strong business-oriented colleges like Marquette and Notre Dame and, in the first half of August, took a swing through the South to look at six Southern colleges: Vanderbilt, Davidson, Wake Forest, College of William and Mary, University of Richmond, Washington and Lee University, and, in passing, Duke and University of Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute, which I slipped away to explore, briefly.
     Why the South? I have put that question to him in several different ways, and piecing the answers together and squinting, I get: most bang for your buck. Which makes sense. Not everybody can go to Harvard or should.
     While last year I had been eager to finally set my eyes on such stories schools as Princeton and Yale, I had almost no mental image of any of these Southern schools. Vanderbilt I had glimpsed, a few years back, when the family spent two weeks traveling around Tennessee. A gate of some kind. The rest, I knew almost nothing, a few crumbs. Wake Forest is big in sports. University of Virginia was founded by Jefferson and is the subject of a cutting Karl Shapiro poem that my father liked to quote.
     And that's about it. But as a father I am nothing if not equitable when it comes to my boys, and if the first one got a two-week, 2,510 mile trek through the colleges of his choosing, by God so would the second. I tried not to think about the fact that he did not end up attending any of those colleges. It was not a waste, because we had fun, and if my younger boy didn't go to any of these, well, so be it.
Orientation at Vanderbilt
    "How many of you all are first time visitors to Vanderbilt?" asked admissions counselor, Ben Gutierrez, in a grey suit and salmon tie. Hands shot up. "A lot of you all."
     I marveled over those "you all's" — there's a joy in finding the epitome cliche right where you expect it, in hearing someone in Boston say they'll go "pahk the cah."   
     He asked an ice breaking question that no college session had yet asked: who thinks they have the weirdest high school mascot? A few prospects were tossed out, but the prize was retired, obviously, by Atoka High School Wampus Cats, from Atoka, Oklahoma (a folkore version of the cougar, a glance at Wikipedia reveals that four other high schools also have a wampus cat).
       Gutierrez lauded what he called "southern comfort experiences"—people smiling, holding the door for you, and of course, the food.  We had eaten the night before at the Loveless Cafe, whose claim to making the best biscuit in the world might be disputed, but not by me. Of course, not everyone might be looking for that. When he asked who in the audience liked country music, hands stayed folded in laps. "Wow, very few," he marveled.
      No matter, Gutierrez soldiered on, Vanderbilt is right in the heart of Nashville, "a growing city of 1.7 million." That figure gave me pause, since Chicago has 2.7 million. Turns out, Nashville has 600,000 people, which means our host exaggerated the size by a million plus. (He probably meant the Nashville metropolitan region, which does have 1.6 million people, but covers 13 counties, including other cities such as Murfreesboro.  On that scale, Chicago has 10 million people. Though perhaps he merely misspoke).
      The stat that leaped out of his presentation, put two fingers in its mouth, and whistled was on an otherwise dull chart of where Vanderbilt students come from: most from Tennessee, naturally enough, but the second most prevalent source of students was Illinois—526, more than even New York or California.
    Suddenly I saw the sense of the Southern Gambit.
    Our guides were  pair of students, Jevaugn from Washington, D.C. and Rani from Beirut, Lebanon, who regaled us with tales of his mother, who worried about her son leaving the security of Beirut ("Are you safe?" she asked him) and who bristled when he referred to his dorm as "home" -- "Are you so quick to forget about us?" Based on his mother and his looks, I assumed he was Jewish, a misconception I only gradually let go of after I asked him if there were much of a Jewish community in Beruit and he said, "No, none."
    They showed us the commons. "We kind of based it on Harry Potter," a phrase used at so many schools to often to describe anything ornately clubby that it should be retired at this point.
Tour of Davidson
  Next stop, Davidson College, in Davidson, North Carolina, which Forbes had just named the No. 1 Best College in the South. Hopefully they use a more rigorous formula to evaluate the school than I did, because based on the answers to "Why did you come today," the handful of prospective freshmen at the orientation session managed strangle my opinion of the place in the bassinet, as it was aborning.
    "It's close to home," said one.
    "My mom made me come," said another, and a third said something very similar about her mom forcing her. A big percentage of the college experience is the people you go with, and the image of prospective freshman being so clueless as to announce that staggered me, as did news that 26 percent of the incoming students are varsity athletes, which made the school seem like an athletic program with classes attached. 
     My son, needless to say, liked it very much, and the more "Really, you like this?" vibe I put off, the more he seemed to like it. I struggled manfully to shut up.
    "You absolutely do not have to be a Presbyterian to go to Davidson," our guide, Jennie, told us, which somehow was not comforting. She was one of those guides who took great pride in walking backward, and was the first to stride in reverse full bore into a post, though no damage seemed done. She also pointed out "boxy wooden desk things" in the commons.
Wake Forest
     When I first stepped onto Wake Forest's campus, suddenly the second word in their name flashed as if in green neon. "Ah, Wake Forest." The place is practically in the deep woods—it relocated from the town in the 1950s, and all the buildings seemed as if they were built at the same time. I missed the orientation, taking the Honda in to the dealer in Winston-Salem. But I showed up for the tour, held in the rain. Rain is supposed to dampen (sorry) your ardor for a school, but Wake Forest is just the sort of place you could happily wander around for four years. The fact they offer classes is icing on the cake.
    Our guide, Dan, a pre-med presented his coming to Wake Forest as a kind of personal epiphany. He knew, just knew, the moment he stepped on campus that this was the place for him. I snuck glances over at my own boy. I didn't expect that kind of certainty. Maybe that's a good thing, a sign of flexibility. 
College of William and Mary
      The College of William and Mary is one of the oldest in country, set next to colonial Williamsburg. The buildings were charming and old, and we paused in front of a statue of Jefferson.
     "This is old TJ, as I like to call him," our guide said. Greek life was treated the way fraternities and sororities are always treated in these tours—handled with tongs. "I really like it, and it adds to my experience," our guide said, "but I wouldn't like it if it detracted from others," he said. 
University of Richmond

      The University of Richmond is the school that stood out, for me. The administrators greeted us with a heartiness that was a full twist stronger any of the nearly two dozen schools I've visited.  They just wanted it more—handing out coupons that waved our admission fee, as a reward for coming out. 
     "We want to put you in the shoes of a spider," said Austin Kelso, the administrator who greeted us—Richmond had the best mascot, the spiders, and a shirt so cool I thought of buying one, "Fear the Spiders."
     More significantly, its Robin School of Business will take $300,000 from the school's endowment and allow juniors and seniors to invest it for them. They also have their own electronic trading floor. I tried to catch my kids eye and do a little Isn't-that-cool? eyebrow dance, but he wasn't willing to look at me.
     The campus, set around a lake, is lush and lovely, the buildings new yet refined. It helped that we had the best guide, well, that I've had in nearly 20 college tours, a budding journalist, Andrew Jones of Houston, Texas, who wasn't affected, wasn't preening, just talking about school life. He wrote his class schedule, which had no classes Monday, Wednesday or Friday, on a white board in a classroom.
    "Who thinks this is a good idea?" he asked. "Who thinks this is a bad idea?"
     During the tour of a dining hall, we saw these fabulous desserts laid out, rainbow cakes and special pies. I was ogling rows of homemade cookies, thinking "A savvy school would give us a cookie."
     "If you want a cookie, take one," he said, reading my mind. You don't attend a college because someone gives you a cookie. But it doesn't hurt.
     Washington and Lee University, to my surprise, is directly associated with both men, perhaps the two most heroic figures in American history. George Washington gave stock to get the college going, and Robert E. Lee assumed its presidency after the Civil War to help the battered school get up off its knees. He's buried there, and so is his horse, Traveller.  Of all the schools we visited, Washington and Lee really radiated Southernness, with its row of red brick buildings and square columns.
     We toured first. On one hand, 75 to 80 percent of the students are in the Greek system—the sorority houses are lined in a row, and we viewed them from a far distance, as if that is as close as men could get. 
    On  the other, if Richmond was impressive for giving 300 grand to finance students, Washington and Lee dumped $5 million of its endowment into the laps of its investment club.
     Our guide talked about the honor system—many of these Southern schools have them. You can take your final home to do, and leave your computer on a tree stump, since all students sign a pledge to be scrupulously honest. By this time, I had heard it enough to ask, carefully, how many students were brought up on honor charges? It seemed almost an elaborate system for inflating grades by allowing everyone to cheat under the cover of honor. But I was reassured this was not the case.
     The Washington and Lee information session, however, was held in a long, thin room where, out the windows to the left, men worked with leaf blowers while, out the windows to the right, they worked cutting bricks with a masonry saw, and it was distracting enough that I wondered if, were the woman in front of us as dynamic as the school supposedly made her, she couldn't either get them to stop, or march us all to a different room, rather than compete against these distractions.
Virginia Military Institute dorm rooms
     Kent and I had to duck out, to get him to his interview. While he talked with an administrator, I strolled over to the Virginia Military Institute, which is directly next door. I was impressed with its crenelated silhouette, though when you walk through the gates you are confronted with a sight that resembles nothing more than prison. I ducked into the chapel, and was surprised to find the area where normally you would find, oh, pictures of Jesus and such, was a painting of the rebel charge at the Battle of New Market during the Civil War. Yes, it was VMI cadets doing the charging, but still, in a church?
     The University of Virginia we didn't tour properly—Kent doesn't think he'd get in. But I wanted to see it, and we clomped around looking at the Thomas-Jefferson-designed building, the central dome, alas, being under heavy reconstruction. We happened upon room 13, where Edgar Allen Poe lived, a room restored to how it might have been during his residency. An English grad student was moving next door -- the rest of the rooms are in current use -- and we chatted with her pleasantly. We walked the breath of the place, I can't say I regretted Kent's idea not to apply, and then on tiptoe left.
     That night at dinner, I called up the Karl Shapiro poem about the University of Virginia on my smart phone:
University of Virginia

               
To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew
Is the curriculum. In mid-September
The entering boys, identified by hats,
Wander in a maze of mannered brick
      Where boxwood and magnolia brood
      And columns with imperious stance
      Like rows of ante-bellum girls
         Eye them, outlanders.

In whited cells, on lawns equipped for peace,
Under the arch, and lofty banister,
Equals shake hands, unequals blankly pass;
The exemplary weather whispers, “Quiet, quiet”
      And visitors on tiptoe leave
      For the raw North, the unfinished West,
      As the young, detecting an advantage,
         Practice a face.
  
Duke Gardens
   The college glimpsed least was Duke. To be honest, we only toured the botanic garden in the center of campus. It was quite beautiful. As for the rest of the school, well, I hear they have a good basketball team. 

     As we headed northward and westward home, I was glad I had come—these were fine places all, and he'd do well in any he got in. He seemed leaning more to Vanderbilt or Washington and Lee, though he at least agreed to apply to Richmond, which seemed a victory. These schools judge kids, in part, on their enthusiasm to go to a place, and that might be a mistake. A person can really, really want to do something that isn't right for him, or for mistaken reasons. A little reluctance can be the sign of a questioning mind.  And that's supposedly what these schools want, right? Anyway, when he makes his decision, I'll let you know.
Virginia Military Institute


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Steinbergs in the Southland: Working people


     The sign said, "Peaches—1/2 mile" or words to that effect. Fair warning, which struck me as a smart business practice. So much is sprung on you nowadays, and you don't have time to consider it until the opportunity has passed. "Do you want peaches?" I asked my wife, and she admitted that she did.
      We were driving across Virginia, heading to Virginia Beach to put our toes in the ocean. But it was lunchtime, and since no particular restaurant had presented itself, we were nibbling our way across the state. 
       I pulled off the road for Whitby's Orchard & Produce, 34 Piney Pond Road, in Brodnax, Virginia. 
     My wife went over to admire the big oblong baskets of peaches. 
     "Do you divide these up?" she asked Emily Blair, granddaughter of the store's founder.
 
Emily Blair and her sister Randy at Whitby's
   "I can't sell you half a peach," said Emily, adding that otherwise we were free to buy as many individual peaches as we liked. Just in case we were on the fence, she went into the back room and emerged with a plate covered in a paper towel, and chunks of freshly cut peach. That sealed the deal. We sampled them, and my wife started to fill a bag with half a dozen.

      Were we interested, Emily wanted to know, in homemade jelly? They make it right here. Or smoked bacon? They smoke it themselves. No need to refrigerate. Four dollars a pound. She went into the back and returned with strips of smoked bacon. We added a pack. Along with a bag of fried peanuts, $1.79 for what felt like a pound. And some Squirrel Nut Zipper candies.
       We left but we didn't get far. The fried peanuts were good, but my wife wanted to try boiled peanuts—did you know they grow peanuts in Virginia? They do. We stopped at place. A man in green rubber boots that identified him as a peanut farmer stood chatting with the clerk, but they allowed us to buy some boiled peanuts, and burlap sacks of regular roasted peanuts to give to friends. Boiled peanuts are cold and mushy and intensely salty, and though they did not grow on us, now we know what they're like.
     When you're growing the peaches or the peanuts, smoking the bacon or making the jelly, you sell it differently. You aren't an indifferent clerk slumped at a 7/Eleven, but trying to move the product. I was intrigued at the kind of service we bumped into. Heading into Winston-Salem I drove the van over a piece of truck tread in the middle of the road and the plastic guard beneath the bumper sagged down. So I detoured the next morning to the dealer there — Flow Honda of Winston-Salem. They tossed the van on the lifts while I went for a walk, chatting with folk sitting on their porches. When I got back, the mechanic told me they had pushed the frontwork back into place. Cost: zero. 
Dimitiri
       I seemed to meet a lot of people on this trip. Even in Virginia Beach, which is basically a tourist trap, on the last night, Edie wanted pancakes for dinner—tired of oysters and fish and such. We explored and found the Honey Bee, the one place that offered them, and fell into the hands of Dimitiri, a 22-year-old Bulgarian who served us while, in essence, putting on a one-man show. He showered us with indulgences--if we wanted, he confided in us, we could sneak over to the salad bar and have some fruit before the pancakes came. He had bought this job, in essence, from a broker in Bulgaria, and shared the whole complicated story. I might have thought he was angling for tips, but he wasn't—he was just being personable and answering our questions. The covert salad bar invitation impressed me—make your customers feel like they're getting something special, even if its the fruit that has sat out all day and will go into the dumpster in a couple hours. Anyway, if he becomes a titan of industry someday, I predicted it first.
     At Monticello, I paused to watch a workman putting a brick floor into a log cabin on the grounds. I took a photo of him talking about the construction and told him I was with the Sun-Times in Chicago and asked his name.
      "I'm not supposed to talk to the media," he said, "and I'm not supposed to tell them that I'm not supposed to talk to them." 
     That's the old Jeffersonian spirit! Though I didn't blame him, or Jefferson, so much as the foundation that runs Monticello. How many organizations trust their employees so little they muzzle them, even though it undermines the good relations they're supposedly trying to foster? Though his last part gave away the game, revealing what he thought of being silenced by the organization. It put in relief for me why I was enjoying the Southland, because I was meeting individuals generally freed from the idiocies of institutions. They were independent characters, growing, canning, selling, pouring concrete as best they could. I don't want to pull out a banjo and go all weepy. Part of this is they're poor and struggling to make ends meet. But living in a well-off Northern city, you can become detached from the make-do independence of those scraping by. Poor people in Chicago have pride that is often unfounded. Here they both have pride and something to be proud about.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Steinbergs in the Southland:

 
View from the porch, River Dance bed & breakfast, Marshall, North Carolina.

   Today is Labor Day, and while I considered looking at the bad news about labor, the truth is I did that last year and, alas, the bad news has not changed.
      Besides, there's our two week trip to the South in early August to recount. 

     "Do we have the truffle mousse?" asked Ross, from the backseat, as we departed Northbrook and headed on our two-week summer vacation, a tour of the Southland. 
     My wife said we did. And the onion jam. We've gone on enough road trips that we've learned: pack lunch. I haven't eaten at one of those godawful highway burger stops in years.
     We had packed up the car the night before, brewed coffee that morning, filled the CD player with tunes and set off. The ritual swing up to Deerfield Bakery had been executed. My cinnamon cake donut and almond horn awaited in a crisp white bag. Vacation had officially begun. 
     His remark was made during a discussion of aspic, the jelled substance used in elegant cooking. My boy considers himself refined. I wondered if the South was ready for us and we for them. If we do not seem the sort who would cross the Mason-Dixon line, well, thank my wife. Six years ago she suggested we go hiking in Tennessee. I thought it was a terrible idea. Like many Northerners, I viewed the South with an ignorance-soaked condescension bordering on contempt, my image fixed in 1954, formed by history books and Neil Young songs. It helped that, excluding New Orleans and Florida, which don't quite count, I had never been anywhere South.    
     But I am trained to do as she says, so went on the trip. 
     Tennessee was great. Beautiful and friendly, with good food and lovely mountains to hike. We visited Andrew Jackson's home, the Hermitage, and slept at the Leconte Lodge, inaccessible except for a six-mile hike. They bring the food in on pack llamas.
     Thus when our incoming high school senior, Kent, decided he wanted to visit Southern colleges, starting with Vanderbilt in Nashville, I did not resist or complain. We had gone to the colleges his older brother wanted to visit last summer; we would now kick the tires on his choices. His life, his call.
     "Still, shame he isn't interested in the University of Hawaii," I muttered.
      So we would be hitting Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. Not the Deep South. Not Mississippi. But close. My requests were two: since we'd be in Virginia, I wanted to visit Monticello, Jefferson's home. I'm a history geek. And I wanted to spend a day lolling on the beach. I work too much and loll too little, the ocean is a kind of enforced idlement, since not planting yourself on the sand and gazing at its majesty seems a rude gesture to nature. Compulsory lolling.
      We visited seven schools, which I will describe in detail Wednesday.
      Not much time in Nashville—just enough for me to do a morning jog through Centennial Park with Kitty, and remind myself that yes, they really did build an exact replica of the Parthenon out of beige concrete. At the beginning of our run, I posted a picture of the place to Facebook, and a friend scoffed -- she insisted I was lying, the photo a fraud -- so vehemently that I took a few selfies with Kitty before the structure, to prove the thing is really there. It wasn't open so early, so I couldn't see the state of Pallas Athena, but I savored the irony anew that the heart of the Bible belt had erected a pagan temple with a 42-foot-tall, gilded goddess inside. 
Marshall, North Carolina
      After that it was three days in Marshall, North Carolina, at River Dance, a bed and breakfast up a remote mountain road that my wife had found. It was everything a bed and breakfast should be -- capacious, friendly hosts, a comfortable chair with a staggering view (see above). We hiked the first day, Kent and I spent a morning white-water rafting on the French Broad River the second. The third we ventured into the town of Marshall itself, population 872, which no doubt is a few derviations above the truly desolate small towns, but shocked my boys nevertheless, particularly after we popped into a hardware store to ask about charcoal, and the clerk answered in an unintelligable back-in-the-hollows slurry. We didn't quite back out slowly, but we didn't press the issue.
      "The educational opportunities here must be very limited," Ross said gravely. I thought about going back and shooting a video of the clerk speaking, for anthropological purposes, but decided that would be a Bad Idea. Back at the bed and breakfast, our hosts  explained he was a beloved local personality, known for his chicken dancing at local musical events, and probably would have welcomed the attention. 
     Driving away from Marshall, the boys in the back had this exchange.
    "There is a certain existential sadness to this town," Ross said. 
     "There is an existential sadness to any town," retorted Kent who, newly 17, has been challenging his brother more frequently.
     "I miss my well-off suburban enclave," Ross said, sincerely, regarding Marshall's deserted but not too ramshackle streets. "It reeks of entropy."
      I would be more embarrassed to recount this little exchange of privilege, but  youth is the time of certainty and they'll need a full tank of self-regard to dig through the mountainous half decade or so of education between them and where they want to go.
It is true that we didn't feel we were on the cutting edge of American society, but that's why we were there. If we wanted dynamic bustle we could have stayed a home. And the South was not without its excellences. People were more polite, particularly in Virginia, and we enjoyed the process of buying things in stores and ordering meals in restaurants more than in the eat-and-get-out north. People really did say hello  more, pedestrians in the street whom you didn't expect would.  If you made eye contact they greeted you, and sometimes even if you didn't. My wife and I found ourselves lingering before the windows of realtors, seeing just how much bang for your buck you get down here. And they have grape soda everywhere.
      With lunch in Marshall, I ordered a Nehi Grape. My wife was surprised. I never drank soda that wasn't Fresca, or at least diet soda. Wither Nehi Grape? "We're in the South," I explained. "You're supposed to drink grape soda here."

Tuesday: Would you like some smoked bacon with that peach?



     

Sunday, August 31, 2014

You're smart and cute for reading this, and I love you.

     You can park at O’Hare airport for $2, and not just for 20 minutes, but a full hour; $5 for the first three hours.
     So much about air travel is idiotic, dysfunctional, costly or all three, you’d think this fact would be better known. It makes sense—rather than loop around the gates, trying to spot your incoming passenger with one eye while noticing the triple-parked Kia you’re about to rear end with the other, you can park, pay a couple bucks, greet your loved one with civility—the rarest thing in air travel nowadays—and be on your way.
     The third time my wife mentioned this bargain to me, I realized that she was slyly suggesting I park when picking her up Thursday on her return from six days in Los Angeles, where she went to drop off our older boy at college and then visit family.
     So I did. A good husband takes a hint.
Not wanting to be late, I pulled into the airport 15 minutes before her flight, parked, and ambled over to Terminal 3, where the ARRIVALS information board told me that—parking notwithstanding—the airport had not changed that much. Most flights were late, between two minutes and three hours. My wife’s was an acceptable 12 minutes late.
     I strolled over to the exit. There were 100 teenage girls crowded againt a wall, facing a dozen Chicago and airport police. At first I thought, “school group” maybe assembling after a trip before leaving the airport. But from their body language—looking hard to the right—and the cops, I quickly realized they were waiting for somebody.
     “Some band,” a cop said. I yanked open my mental file drawer of hot new bands and found a dusty scrap of memory with “New Kids on the Block” scribbled on it. But they formed in 1984 and are all pushing 50.
     Using my investigative skills, I walked over to the line of girls, picked one, and asked.
     “Five Seconds to Summer,” she replied...

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?



     Last week I thought, for sure I'd stump you with that plain "CASH ONLY" sign hanging in a piney interior. No way. It was quickly ID'ed as the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder on Clark (one of the great, idiosyncratic Chicago institutions. I go just for the salad and the Mediterranean bread). 
      This one, being a large public building, will probably be guessed in a moment, though I had never seen it before stumbling across it. I liked this building because it has a certain cool, architect's rendition quality to it, and I'm offering it up more to show it off than to even hope that someone among the hive won't nail it at 12:05, per usual. 
      Although ... in typical Br'er Rabbit fashion, I can't help but hope a little, in my secret heart (and, here, not so secret, I guess, since I'm saying it) that through some inverted logic, picking the obvious big public building will finally stump the Hive.
      What is this boxy greyscale thing? And where is it located? Given the certainty that it'll be picked, the winner will receive ... hmm, something easy ... a signed paperback copy of "Complete & Utter Failure," a book that I feel stands up well to the passage of time.
      Good luck. Remember you must post your guess below (as opposed to Facebook) to win. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

If you have an argument, you can pretend it isn't just hate

     You know what I admire about bigots? And I’m not referring to the merely-prejudiced, mutter-out-of-the-corner- of-their-mouth bigots, but the real wackos, the warped, scary, neo-Nazi, open Klansman, proudly-sign-their-name haters.
     You know what’s kinda great about them?
     At least they’re candid. No pussyfooting around for them. They state their hate boldly, cast their slurs loudly and only then try to back it up with whatever false theories they believe support their irrational hatreds.
     For everyone else, it’s the other way around. They timidly roll out their specious argument first, as if that were the important part, the crucial logic that made up their impartial minds, and led to their subsequent negative opinion, an unfortunate by-product.
     “Gosh, I’d love to end the permanent legal limbo and semi-serfdom that millions of Hispanics living in the United States endure, but gosh-darn it, their entry was ILLEGAL, so I find myself forced to insist they all be loaded onto cattle cars and sent back to what will always be their true home.”
     And when you try to call them out, and ask, for instance, what other misdemeanors this laudable passion for the law forces them to view as eternally unforgiveable — Speeding? Tax evasion? —they just stare at you blankly. Because they are unable to look up at the puppeteer pulling their strings. It’s easy to view hatred as evil, but it’s really a kind of willed ignorance. Since a measure of cowardice is also involved, being bigoted requires you to advocate dumb arguments, in an attempt to hide your loathsome beliefs.
     We saw this on full display this week in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago....

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Peter Max, or minimum?



   When I heard that Peter Max was having a show of his distinctive colorful artwork, opening at Northbrook Court on Friday, I couldn't help but flash back to a previous time his work was spotlighted there and I wrote about him.
      The typical story would be the kind of respectful though toothless treatment that the Chicago Jewish News gave to Max this week, stressing his Jewishness, of course. When I wrote my piece, I asked an impolite question: is this art? And if so, what kind of art?
     So I interviewed him, and the column below was published. The publicist who pitched the story at me was aghast, enough to call me up and yell. But Max, to his credit, was intrigued. He appreciated being treated as a serious artist, even if battered a bit in the process. I think he liked my even raising the question, since most people don’t.  
     We sat down for lunch, and something happened that has never happened to me before or since: we sat talking until dinner. Red wine was involved, but it was also the tenor of the conversation, the ideas. I didn't take notes, and the only thing I remember is us discussing was his autobiography, which I volunteered to write, suggesting that instead of producing the typical coffee table book, he write something candid talking about his art as a business, and what it was like, as a man, to be rich and famous for the previous 30 years. I told him the problems a pal was having trying to write Hugh Hefner's autobiography, because Hefner thought he was an important figure in the history of free speech, like Thomas Paine, when the average reader was more interested in him screwing Barbi Benton on his round bed.
     The idea of my writing his bio lingered a bit —I remember him phoning late one night from his studio shortly thereafter. And he did send the boys a pair of posters signed to them, which are still framed in our rec room. But that was it. A few years later, the standard coffee table book came out, written with the usual self-satisfied rosy glow. Looking back, of course he would never take a hard, honest look at life: why start now and spoil a good thing? But it works for him, and he does have his ardent fans. This was originally publishing the Sun-Times in February, 2000:

    Yoga is back, big time. Tie dye, too. The Beatles—though they never left—are hot again; they just sold 600,000 copies of a new CD. 
    So why not Peter Max?
    When I heard Max is coming to town—he'll be at the North Shore Gallery the  weekend of the 16th—my first thought was, to be blunt, "He's still alive?"
    Sure, I remember him from the late 1960s. A thin guy in a Doug Henning mustache churning out wild, Day-Glo-colored images of running men and psychedelic heads. They covered the walls, floors, notebooks, lunch boxes and just about every other flat surface of my youth.
    But surely he had—oh, I don't know—gone into real estate or stepped in front of a bus or done a Cat Stevens and disappeared into religion.
    In fact, Max is where he has always been, in New York City, doing what he has done for more than 30 years—churning forth a jaw-dropping output of images, covering everything from a Continental Airlines 777 to Dale Earnhardt's NASCAR racer. He has been turned to for a burst of colorful whimsy by big events from Woodstock to the Super Bowl and big corporations from Target to Playboy.
    Therein lies the rub.
    If art has a myth, it is the outlaw, the renegade, the Impressionist masterworks banned from the Official Exposition. Artists thrive on scorn—the right kind of scorn, public scorn—while Max thrives on approval. His press packet is filled with the presidents he has painted, the awards won, the corporations he has bedded down with.
    Needless to say, this drives the art world crazy. Trying to express my own inarticulate Max angst—which I must have leached from the atmosphere—I called my pal, renegade artist Tony Fitzpatrick. The mere mention of Max's name was like taking an ax to a beer keg; out came a geyser of scorn.
    "Peter Max basically took all the ideals of the '60s generation, all the flower power stuff, pretended to be this voice of a generation and really was a corporate hack," said Fitzpatrick, taking a breath. "Peter Max was never in the real art world. He pretended to be some kind of countercultural element, and the guy was whoring himself to corporate America. Also his work sucks."
    Fitzpatrick went on in this vein for 20 minutes, but you get the idea.
    I don't want to leave Tony out on a limb. I was nodding and smiling with him the whole time. How dare Max present himself as an artist, and make his millions, when people like Tony and me know what real art is?
    And then I slipped on my sheep's clothing and slunk off to interview Max.
    Shock  No. 1. His voice. He didn't sound like I expected. He was no flipped out patchouli-oil-scented hippie marinated in a money cocoon for the past 30 years. He sounded like my Uncle Max, his voice rich with the Brooklyn of his youth. (He was born in Berlin in the late 1930s, his parents fled to China, and he ended up as a teenager in Flatbush.)
    Second shock. He was interested not in touchy-feely mysticism, not in promoting his newest swami, but in science, in math, in concepts.
    Third shock. His first love was old-school realism.
    "In 1967, before I got into that commercial wave, I was a full-time painter, a la John Singer Sargent, Rubens, Velasquez," he said. "Real academic stuff. I was so good at realism. Then the Beatles came to America."
    Max saw a revolution going on. Everything was media, pop, pizzazz. He gave up painting nudes and opened an ad agency. His clients were J.C. Penney and beer companies. Awards racked up; people loved his colorful style. Then somebody asked him to design a restaurant. He did, but something was missing.
    "I said to the owner of the restaurant that a restaurant is not a restaurant unless it has a poster," he said. "Think of `(Le) Moulin Rouge.' If (Toulouse-Lautrec) hadn't done a poster, nobody would know what it was. He said, `OK.' "
    A year later, Max had sold 9 million of his "crazy, wacky" posters. In 1969, some 700 commercial products carried his designs. Max had 55 people working for him in the early 1970s. Now he has 110.
    "I've got people who stretch canvases, people who do just backgrounds for me," he said, citing a constant need to draw and to change.
    "Many artists stay in the same style—Chagall or Miro. Miro spent half his life in the same style," he said. "I wanted to be more like  Picasso. To allow my style to change constantly."
    I began to see where Max ran into trouble. Any artist who compares himself with Rubens while pooh-poohing the limitations of Miro is just begging to be kicked. As we talked, I could see him torn between two mutually exclusive 
goals: to continue his fabulous marketing bonanza and to gain the kind of respect the art world has always denied him and probably always will. (Though, hey, they finally gave Norman Rockwell his due, so you never know.)
    An hour into our conversation, the charming, personable Max had won me over so completely that it occurred to me that I had been co-opted and had better 
run to the mountain to get some sort of final wisdom on the matter.
    I called my old teacher, the renowned artist Ed Paschke, fresh from Paris where he went for the unveiling of his work in a show at the Louvre.
    "It's a heady experience," he said. "Usually you have to be dead."
    I outlined the dilemma. On one hand, all this art world outrage damning Max to critical hell for being popular. On the other hand, lots of people like him, and he's a really, really nice guy who's sending posters to my kids.
    "You're caught between a rock and a hard place," Paschke said. "He's captured this kind of whimsical spirit of optimism that characterized the flower child generation. He's not somebody the serious art world takes seriously. Yet he has somehow managed to stay in the public eye many years."
    Isn't that art? How can someone like Jeff Koons pull all sorts of commercial stunts, and the critics roll over like puppies. But Max is damned because his work is on scarves?
    "Jeff Koons was a student of mine," Paschke said. "Jeff was trying to outrage the status quo, as Peter Max was trying to play the mainstream as an audience. It's about pushing the edge of what's acceptable. Koons is trying to push the buttons for shock purposes. Peter Max is trying to satisfy a safe, conservative, mainstream point of view."
    It's a shame, really. If only Max had written a manifesto declaring that he intended to shock art critics by playing to the unwashed public—God, the critics would love his daring, his rude gesture of contempt for the higher art circles. But he was too candid in his aspirations; that'll get you every time.
    Max, who's still into yoga, has no regrets.
    "When the posters happened to me, I realized I was in the right groove," he said. "That's when I made my decision: to walk one foot in fine art and the other in media. Media became my canvas. People who don't understand it, or who are jealous, or whatever—or even if they're right—I don't care. I have re-examined making that move, and I'll tell you one thing: I have made the right move. People love me around the world."