Friday, October 31, 2014

Chilly Halloween


     We are children for about 15 years, from the time we leave toddlerhood and start forming lifelong memories, to when we step away from our homes and into the adult world.
     Given that decade and a half, a surprisingly limited number of specific memories of being a child stay with you. Or, to be precise, stay with me. Maybe you can reel off your childhood day by day. I couldn't carry on at length, for instance, about being 7. Maybe a flash of an image, a shirt I wore on my birthday. Maybe not even that. 
     But the weather report, of all things, sparked a memory so strong that I could see it. 
    The weather for Oct. 31, that is. As we all know: cold, windy, chance of rain. Lousy for an outdoor holiday.
     I read the forecast—a tweet—and suddenly I was standing in front of my open closet, for some reason, on Carteret Court, in Berea, Ohio. The closet doors were open, I could see the pegboard inside the closet, and the green dresser that—could it be?—my father built inside the closet.
      My mother was kneeling in front of me, zipping up my Mighty Mac coat. Brown corduroy, of course. A metal bar, kind of a T, on the zipper—very sturdy zipper those Mighty Mac coats had.
     And I was aghast, horrified to my little single digit core, because it was Halloween, and the coat would cover my costume, and it all would be ruined. A year's wait wasted, the joy of escape, of running costumed through the streets, mitigated by this corduroy shell of parental concern. Happiness must evaporate in the morning sun, but misery rolls on through the years, unfortunately.
     But I'm not writing this to dredge up my past. I'm writing this as a plea, to put in a plug for coatlessness. No kid ever froze to death trick-or-treating. And parents are supposed to trail kids nowadays—I certainly did, when my boys trick-or-treated.  Though kids in eras past somehow survived without such close supervision. My father would no sooner follow me around as I went house to house than he would have driven me a friend's house, five blocks away, which I also did for my boys, routinely. 
     Anyhow, since you're there anyway, carry the coat. Let the kid ask for it. Or heck, let him go out without it—if he's cold enough, he'll come back for it. Or her, whichever. Then it won't be something you've inflicted upon the poor child, a shiver they'll be feeling whenever the last day of October drops into the 40s, as it sometimes will. 
     To be honest, I never remember, as a child, being cold outside, never, not once. Kids are immune to that kind of thing. They laugh at coats, and to force one over a carefully-chosen costume, it's something of a crime. No kid is going to put it to you that way, but it is true, and so I would rise to their defense.


A true Halloween fright: IRS seizing assets of the innocent


     History will sort out whether the bitter, right-wing hatred of Barack Obama was significantly greater than the bitter, right-wing hatred of John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt or any previous president.
     It sure feels that way, a six-year typhoon of endless shrieking malice, where whatever the president says or does, from saluting his Marine guard with a coffee cup in his hand to invading (or failing to invade) a particular country becomes that day’s reason to get worked into a lather of condemnation.
     That it hurts our country is without question. First, we can’t get anything done. Huge problems — immigration, global warming, infrastructure, health care costs, you name it — just sit there, unaddressed, festering.
     Second, though they don’t realize it, the poisonous passion of the right corrupts the causes they embrace. While I don’t view Obama’s term in office quite as a dud, I would expound on his failings more if doing so didn’t put me on the same bench with a bunch of muttering, tin-foil-hatted crazies.
     Or take worry about government overreach. The balanced view is that government, like any entity, does some good things, does some bad things, and is capable of great success and great failure. On the whole I would say it works; too big, perhaps, but it functions, Congress notwithstanding.
     The far right — and here they join hands, ironically, with the far left — owns fear of government. To them, the U.S. government is a terrifying enemy, an occupying force.

   To continue reading, click here.

A Halloween Tale of Haitian Vodou

Figurines from the new Field Museum exhibit, "Vodou: Secret Powers of Haiti"
     This really happened.
     A long time ago—in the late 1980s—I went down to Haiti to write about Haitian voodoo. 
     Now Haiti is a very poor country. At the time the daily wage, for those lucky enough to have a job, making baseballs or in the bauxite refinery or at the distillery, was $3 a day. A bus ride cost one gourd, or 20 cents.
     So the people were poor, but they were proud, and had dignity, and art, and their own religion, voodoo, or vodou as it is now commonly spelled, which I see as a kind of funky folk Catholicism, complete with its own set of saints, or spirits, which the Haitians call lwa
     I had gone down to visit my college roommate, Didier, who was working with Catholic Relief, helping the poor. But I figured I would keep busy writing a story about vodou while I was there. I had pitched the idea at The Atlantic magazine, and they said, sure, go ahead. I ended up spending about three weeks.
   During the day, my friend would work at his job, helping the poor, which was pretty much everybody, while I wandered around looking for the telltale flags that showed a houngon, a vodou priest, lived there. Sometimes he was elsewhere, working in the fields perhaps, and I would wait while he was summoned.
     It was a culture of rumor, of hearsay, of gossip, of misunderstanding. The big scandal while I was there was over pigs. Haitians raised these scrawny pigs on scraps, and the Americans suggested, no, you need big farm-raised American pigs. You get more pigs that way. Only the pale American pigs got sunburned and died, the story went, and the whole thing was laid down to the vast, 200-year-old U.S. conspiracy against Haiti. 
     Other times, the impressions people had about the U.S. were simply heartbreaking. Once I was sitting at a bus stop, and people were crowded around me—I was in parts where white people were not common, which again, was pretty much everywhere. And one man was pestering me: help me, help me, help to get a green card, help me come to America. 
     And I challenged him: why? What do you expect to find in America? What is so wonderful there?
     I didn't really expect an answer, but he took the question seriously.
     "In America, I understand," he said, "there are roads that go over other roads." Only then I realized I hadn't seen an overpass in the whole damn country, and if you had never seen one, well, the idea of a road rising up into the air, and leaping over another road, that would be incredible, hard to imagine, something you would want to see with your own eyes.
      I quickly learned that some time before I arrived, a BBC film crew—it was said—had given somebody $600 for something. To stage a ceremony for their cameras. Maybe they did. But that became a standard request, in this country where the daily wage was three dollars: "Give me $600 before I talk to you." They didn't know better, maybe one of these rich white men in their Land Rovers would cough it up. Worth a try. I wasn't in a position, however, to give anybody $600 for anything, and after a few houngons had stalked off, angrily, I realized I had better change my approach.
      It's the journalist bit, I decided, that's setting them off.  I need another story. I was in Cite du Soleil, a vast slum outside of Port-au-Prince. To this day, the proper whiff of smoke and garbage will bring me back there. So I made something up—a journalist lying, I know, shocking. But you do what you havfe to. To the next houngon I met, who pulled aside a curtain and we ducked to enter his peristyle. A small room, a hut really, with all sorts of polychromatic pictures of saints tacked to the walls, stained bags hanging from the low ceiling the contents of which I hesitated to consider. There were guttered red candles, dirty bottles containing rum and God knows what else. He sat on a stool and faced me, too close. I sat facing him. 
     "Je suis un Americain," I said. "Mon coeur est brise..." My heart is broken, I told him, because of all the women that I've known. Which I suppose was true enough. 
      Can you do something to mend my broken heart?
      This either meant nothing to him, or my French was so bad it got mangled. 
      "Do you have a picture of her?" he said. I had a picture of my girlfriend in my wallet, and I handed it over. 
      "I will make you a thing, where she will not look left, she will not look right, she will only look at you."
      At which I paused. Because while Edie and I had been dating for a few years now, I wasn't sure I was ready to make that leap, to have her never look at anybody else but me. But I figured, I'm in a hut in Haiti. What am I worried about?
      Also, I was getting sick. Bad crayfish or something. I would end up sitting up that night with a group of ex-patriots, playing poker, drinking glass after milky glass of pastis, which an old Cambodia hand said was perfect for driving off mal du mer. The next morning I would wake up outside, stretched out on a sofa in the yard, with chickens pecking around my head and a rooster crowing. 
    But then I was swaying on a stool, watching this houngon prepare a small parcel. It was made of folded paper, which he sprinkled with spices, wrapped in black thread, with twigs fashioned into crosses. At one point he started lopping the ends off needles with an old sugar cane knife. I looked at the needles and drew back—AIDS was rampant, and I decided if he tried to prick me with them, I would go. But he didn't, though he did prepare some vile concoction of cologne and rum and smeared it on my cheeks with his thumbs, while I drew back, nearly swooning from the illness and the strong smell of spice and cologne and rum.
     Finally the packet was ready. 
      "Here is the thing," he said. "Touch this to your girl and she will be yours forever."
     I reached for it, but he grabbed my hand by the wrist before I could touch it.
     "Six hundred dollars!" he demanded.
     I will spare you the parlay that followed, kept polite by the sugar cane knife, that sat on the corner of his altar. I ended up paying him $15—five days' wage—which he accepted with disgust. I left without the packet, but the joke was on him. The magic was done anyway. The girl was mine, for the past 25 years at least. When people ask me, what possessed such a pretty, smart wonderful woman to the wife of a knucklehead like me, I tell them straight-faced and in all candor: "I put a spell on her."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Not the French minister of culture? Here's a book for you..

     When I conceived "Every goddamn day," I created a page called "Books on the nightstand." The idea was to share what I've been reading. But the task of shoveling words into the gaping maw of the blog's main section became such that I let the feature fall by the wayside. Nobody complained. 
     I'm nearly finished reading a particular book, however, described below, that I wanted to share, simply because I like it so much. And as I wrote my review, in a wonderful piece of serendipity, news from France came that their minister of culture, Fleur Pellerin, admitted "I read very little" beyond news stories and government memos, and that she hadn't read a book in two years.
     Mon Dieu!
Fleur Pellerin
     The uproar could be imagined—there were calls for her resignation, the kerfuffle worse because a French writer, Patrick Modiano, recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. France's minister of culture not only hasn't read any of the Nobel laureate's books; she couldn't name one.
     This doesn't put her outside of the mainstream of humanity, of course. A quarter of Americans haven't read a book in the past year, polls showed. Then again, it isn't their job to promote culture, which supposedly still includes books, which still hold a special place in our view of what being cultured means. Even though culture also embraces, oh, video games, the controversy wouldn't be the same had Pellerin said she doesn't play "Angry Birds."
     There are a few ways we could go with this. Yes, at least France HAS a minister of culture, which is more than the United States could say, though I would argue that culture is the thing that the government should keep its meat hooks away from, and while authority can occasionally produce something of artistic merit, you pretty much have to go back to the 1930s and the WPA to find it. The vast bulk of government influence on creativity is pretty much limited to deadening, chilling and propagandizing. 
     But I'd like to end by pointing out that books should not be something you are shamed into reading, but a joy, something you dive into enthusiastically. You visit a world and stay there for a while. No ministerial memo can do that. Reading the book below, I savored Keith Richards' voice, the way he (or, most likely, his ghost writer) wrote. I liked hanging out with him so much, I wanted to put a bug into the ear of anyone who might enjoy it too. That's how culture works, one person sharing something that feels significant with another. I was going to quietly post this on my "Books on the nightstand" section, but worried I hadn't updated it in so long, people had gotten out of the habit of checking, and nobody would notice it. So I thought to flog it here the first day, and guide people there for updates every ... two weeks. Unlike France's minister of culture, I'm always reading two or three books at a time, and it's a tribute to Keith Richards that I let the others I'm working on sit while I focused on him exclusively. 
     Fleur Pellerin, gotta love her. Tall, slim, soignee, very French. My new favorite person.   I didn't imagine a helping hand from the French, to underscore the importance of reading. Still, your heart goes out to her, though it seems inevitable now. Of course the minister would be so busy promoting culture that she forgot to partake in it. She's not alone there. Many people who work at the newspaper don't seem to actually read it. We should embrace this episode for the teaching moment it is. The minister of culture, in France of all places, who doesn't read books. It would be trite in the fiction she shuns, too obvious in a Christopher Buckley novel. A gift really. Not the Statue of Liberty, true, but something of value nevertheless. We should be grateful for Fleur Pellerin, for teaching us all how not to be.

Life, by Keith Richards, with James Fox (Little, Brown: 2010)

      It might sounds strange to compare Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards to Lyndon B. Johnson, but let me make my case.
     Before the fact, I wouldn't have thought to touch a book like this. I was never a particular Stones fan, with Mick Jagger doing his rooster act, and Keith Richards stoically playing away. I recognize the power and pure rock-and-roll quality of the songs. Still, I don't love the Stones.
     But my wife does. She really likes them—we've gone to concerts on her behalf—and I got her the book as a birthday present when it came out.
     She raved about it, which still wouldn't have been enough.
     But Sara Bader, my co-author put a quote from Richards' in our new book, a literary companion to recovery, a subject Keith Richards knows something about. Writing the endnotes, I of course looked at the book, read around the quote.
     And that was it. I was hooked.
     It reminded me—and I know this sounds like a wild comparison—of nothing so much as Robert Caro's Path to Power. Like most people, I didn't give a rat's ass about Lyndon Johson. But Path to Power is the sort of book that you open the cover with a "Hmm, what's this?" and then next thing you know you're standing in front of the bookstore, waiting for the next volume to be published. When I talk about it, I feel like a drunkard recounting his sad story in front of a Salvation Army band. Someone handed it to me. It looked interesting. I thought I would give it a try...
    Life is like that. Richards just has such a wonderful, compelling voice (I assume his coauthor Fox had a role here) that he could be writing about literally anything and you just want to hear him talk more. About his mom and dad, Burt and Doris. About his pets—a cat named Toaster, wonderfully.
     The odd thing is, the parts you think will be most interesting—tours, fame, wealth, groupies—are the least interesting parts of Life. He makes groupies seem like concerned neighbors who bring you by some soup, check up on your welfare and, sometimes, if you're not too stoned, sleep with you.
     It's his worldview, his mentality, his love of blues (and, I'm proud to say, Chicago). Indeed, I only learned three incredible things about Keith: that he was a proud member of the Boy Scouts. That he once moved into a suburban Australian woman's house for a week and cared for her baby while she was at work and, most of all, that he sometimes goes camping out West in a Winnebago.
     Picturing Keith Richards in that Winnebago in Oklahoma will make whatever low-budget cheeseball vacation I take next far easier to bear.
     He is also very candid about his famed drug addiction. "Most junkies become idiots," he writes.
     The book is worth reading for its keelhauling of Mick Jagger alone. It's masterful. Up to now, I would have thought the most gorgeously skewered character in all of literature was Serr Bruno, Dante's old teacher, whom he hoists out of his pool of bubbling lead, or whatever, in Inferno, just long enough for the poor guy to babble why he's in Hell—a sodomite, apparently—then Dante drops him back in, all the while cooing with such sympathy you forget that Dante is the one who created the Hell and put his old friend in it.
     Keith is so complimentary of Mick, so careful to give him credit, and strains never to tar him as the self-absorbed asshat he so obviously is. In fact, for the first few hundred pages, Richards gives Jagger various slightly amazed little nods and compliments, all the while setting up when his full infamy will be laid out later in all its operatic glory.  It's majestic, and really the plot line of the book. Mick Jagger is the White Whale we've been waiting to crest the surface, spouting vanity like plume. Just the fact that Keith gives big half-page blocks of testimony to everyone from his kids, his wife, even Tom Waits (who tosses off a delightful phrase, the "deficit of wonder." But never Mick, the assumption being either he was too arrogant and self-absorbed to offer commentary on another person, even his old pal, or that he's a constitutional liar and nothing he would say could have any value, or both. 
     Celebrity biographies are typically about finding fame, the moment when the Big Break happens. But that's sort of a given here. Richards has been famous so long—50 years—that its a condition of nature, like breathing.  His glory is, Richards never seems to care. No knighthood for him, but another delightful put-down when Mick goes crawling for his, in front of Prince Charles, mind you, not even the queen. 
     If I had to pinpoint a flaw, he does go on a bit about open chord tuning—perhaps musicians appreciate that, but I sure didn't.  I'm on page 532 now, almost at the end, and I just don't want the thing to be over, though when it is, I'm going to do something heretofore unimagined: download some Keith Richards songs. If listening to them is half enjoyable as reading about how they were recorded, then they'll be enjoyable indeed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Galway Kinnell: Wait, for now

Galway Kinnell


    With posts on the centennials of John Berryman and Dylan Thomas (two, really, if you count the one on his fudged age) a third (or fourth) threatens to veer into Too Much Poetry (not that I believe such a thing exists, but the desires of the readership must be considered).
     Still, when I heard about the death of Galway Kinnell, I had to mention the poem of his that my co-author, Sara Bader and I reprint in our literary companion to recovery, that the University of Chicago Press is publishing in 2016. Not only do we use most of "Wait" to convey the healing power of time in our chapter on the role of time and recovery, but the chapter is called "Wait, for now," the opening line from the poem. 
     Kinnell wrote the poem for a student who was considering suicide after a love affair gone awry. It begins:

Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven't they
carried you everywhere, up to now? 

  Good advice. Kinnell promises that life will become interesting again, from minor accoutrements like gloves, to buds that open early, to the very quality of pain itself. I'd reprint the entire poem, but many websites already do that, and if nothing else, writing this new book has made me keenly aware of copyright law. You can find it online easily enough.

     The concluding stanza begins:
Wait.
Don't go too early.
You're tired. But everyone's tired.   
    True, and a good thought to tuck into your pocket for future use. I've known people who've failed to grasp that essential point: whatever bad is happening right now will pass if you only let it, and life will get better once again. Not understanding that leads to tragedy, for them and everyone they know.  I was grateful that Galway Kinnell wrote this poem, and grateful he allowed us to use it in our book, and wanted to pass his timeless sentiments along.

Rowing in Chicago, "a beautiful sport."

Ann Kinnealey goes for a row.

     Fishermen are known to be wise, sometimes uncannily so — even the urban anglers ringing Lincoln Park Lagoon.
     “It amazed me that the fishermen started calling ‘Annie! Annie!’” said Ann Kinnealey, recalling herself rowing past them. “I wondered: How do they know who I am?”
      We were dockside at the Lincoln Park Boat Club on a recent Sunday, admiring her sculling shell, resting upside down on a pair of slings, its hull a shade of rich nail polish red that glowed in the morning sunlight.
     The answer was apparent: “Annie” was painted on the hull. A tipoff. Other answers about rowing were not so easily obtained.
      “Use your imagination,” said Lev Sklyanskiy, an instructor at the club. “How much does that boat weigh?”
        I scrutinized the long, thin craft. Factored in that it was probably very light, so the polite person would err on the heavy side.
     “Ahh ... 100 pounds?” I guessed.
     “And how long is it?” Kinnealey chimed in.
     “It’s ...” I stalled looking at the thing. Easily two stories tall. “Fifteen feet long?”
     “Now try to lift it,” Sklyanskiy said.
     Together, we raised the boat easily off its rests: “29.9 pounds,” he said. And 26 feet long. Ouch. At its widest, 14 inches — no estimation there; I used a tape measure.

     To continue reading, click here.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Flash: Steinberg endorses Rauner (regarding ketchup on hot dogs)


    All campaigns have their moments of idiocy; hell, you can argue that the entire electoral process has devolved into one continuous bleat of idiocy, punctuated by ever more rare flashes of sense.
     So I don't want to treat seriously something which doesn't deserve serious treatment.
     That said.
     Not being a hypocrite, I could not silently watch political sorts snicker over Rauner ordering a hot dog with ketchup during a campaign stop at Portillo's Tuesday. The Sun-Times of course fully covered the episode. You can see by the video that the loathsome Republican plutocrat orders three hot dogs: one with everything, one plain, and one with ketchup and mustard.
      His campaign later claimed, rather despicably, that the hot dog with ketchup was for a female campaign worker. No "The buck stops here" with Rauner. No chivalry either. 
      Still, he's off the hook.
      But I feel obligated to point out that he shouldn't have been on the hook in the first place. Even Bruce Rauner is allowed to have ketchup on his hot dog. Ketchup and hot dogs go together. I've eaten them that way all my life, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just aping an old joke—the clueless patron puts ketchup on a steak, the incensed chef comes out with a cleaver—that somehow escaped a Bugs Bunny movie and latched itself onto hot dogs. 
    It isn't even funny anymore. It's just dated and dumb.
     I order hot dogs with ketchup and mustard all the time. So Bruce and I have that in common, or would, if he actually put ketchup on his hot dogs, which I doubt, since I'd be surprised if he had the guts to do anything so edgy. Given what a farrago of poll-tested nothing his campaign positions are, he'd never take a bold stand like eating a hot dog the way he likes it.
     There are many reasons not to vote for Bruce Rauner. My colleague Mark Brown deftly summarized a key one in the paper Tuesday. His insisting on the folly of travel bans in the face of the Ebola crisis shows his tin ear and lack of reality-based thinking. I myself emphasize something Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said of Rauner: "The truth is, I don't think he's a good person." That's the bottom line for me: Bruce Rauner is a bad man, trying to buy a job he isn't qualified to perform and will certainly fail at. If Rauner is elected govenor, he will hurt the state he's claiming he will help. 
     So yes, let's all have fun with ketchup, for a moment. But remember. There are many reasons to look askance at Bruce Rauner, and his choice of condiments on hot dogs is not one of them.