Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Book Review Fortnight #1: "The Writer's Desk"

Hamburger stand in New Haven, Connecticut 
     The middle of August. Ugh. I don't know about you, but this whole working thing is starting to get on my nerves. What better than to put put out a big "Gone Fishin'" sign and leaving this space blank for a couple weeks. 
    Not my style, alas. Besides, not working isn't really on the plate. I've got a big project I've got to crank out for the paper by week's end that won't write itself.  
    So to make life easier all around, I've dubbed the next two weeks Book Review Fortnight, and disinterred book reviews I wrote for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the late 1990s. I imagine you haven't read any of them, don't remember them if you did, and never heard of the books they discussed. As an added bonus, about half are pans, and criticism is far more fun to read than praise. I'm impressed that even with writers I admire—John McPhee—I manage to find fault; I guess I was sort of a hard-ass at the time.

     The coy approach to "The Writer's Desk" would be to begin by rhapsodizing about the top of my own sturdy cherry computer table. There is a fierce Indonesian carving and a baseball signed by Hank Aaron and a photograph of my son and a little blue "Don't Give Up the Ship" flag purchased at Put-in-Bay for $2 one fine summer day.
     But you don't know who I am, so you probably don't care what my desk looks like. Such indifference is part of the problem with Jill Krementz's book of photographs of authors at work.
     Not that Krementz's authors are unknown. Quite the contrary. Most are among the biggest names in literature: John Cheever and Toni Morrison and Tennessee Williams and John Updike, who wrote the introduction. Thrown in is a seasoning of newcomers, such as Veronica Chambers, and obscure poets (are there any other kind?) such as Nikki Giovanni.
   But while you might recognize many of Krementz's 55 subjects, at least by name, odds are you won't care about more than a handful. And little in the photographs themselves, or the accompanying text, is well-wrought enough to spark interest.
     The fault is not with the authors, of course, but with the photographs. You don't need to like Bette Midler to appreciate Annie Leibovitz's photo of her covered in rosebuds. But you have to be fan of Jean Piaget to enjoy the sight of him lighting his pipe.

      That said, three of the pictures are outstanding: E.B. White, in a dim cabin whose window reveals a bright Maine bay. John Cheever, his right hand completely displaced by a glass of booze. The glass looks attached to the wrist, and supposedly was.
     And Pablo Neruda, busying himself at a Napoleonic desk with a floor-standing flag beside. He seems every inch the South American bureaucrat—undersecretary for metaphor in the Ministry of Poetry, perhaps.
     Closer examination reveals—God, could it be?—his Nobel prize, its display box open, set facing the visitor's chair, screaming to be admired.
Majority not rewarding
     Krementz is an experienced photojournalist with a number of books to her credit. Yet the majority of the photos here do not reward careful examination. Bernard Malamud dials a phone at a desk in a room. Terrence McNally types. Archibald MacLeish uses a pencil.
     Several of the photos struck me as jokes, to be charitable, or lies, to be not.
     George Plimpton rolls a piece of paper under the platen of his typewriter, oblivious to two babies on the floor behind him. Terry Southern wears sunglasses in a darkened room, drinking a big whiskey, with three different editions of "Candy" scattered about, perhaps for inspiration.
     Does this reflect reality? Does Susan Sontag actually sit upon a narrow backless bench and write? Does William F. Buckley weave his magic while talking on a telephone in the back of a limousine? Did Eugene Ionesco really write with a huge, comical, ostrich feather pen, ignoring the typewriter at his elbow?
     The brief accompanying paragraphs, cribbed from the Paris Review and other literary interviews, provide scant insight.
     "I have no work routine," says John Irving. "I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come," says Toni Morrison, whose photo is typical. She is seen on a couch, writing in a spiral notebook. In the background, dark forms: a chair and, perhaps, a table. Morrison is right-handed.
     I do give Krementz credit for eventually clearing up the mystery of how this book came to be. In the acknowledgements, she personally thanks Random House boss Harold Evans, and drops the fact that Kurt Vonnegut is her husband and John Updike her dear friend, whom she loves and has photographed on 39 occasions.
     A vanity publication. Now it makes sense.
     Had Krementz told the circumstances surrounding the taking of these photos, that might have provided worthwhile insight, or at least some interesting stories. As it stands, the book is more of an in-joke. Hubby Vonnegut is shown in his bathrobe, doing the crossword puzzle, which I'm sure got a big laugh among the gang at Martha's Vineyard.

     —Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 2, 1997

Monday, August 13, 2018

Uber CEO vows to steer company past recent troubles: ‘We will win this war’

CEO Dara Khosrowshahi


 
     “The Pickwick Papers,” set in 1827, begins with Charles Dickens’ kindly hero, Mr. Samuel Pickwick, “his portmanteau in hand, his telescope in his greatcoat pocket, his notebook in his waistcoat, ready for the reception of any discoveries worthy of being noted down,” setting off on his adventures from the coach stand at St. Martin’s-le-Grand.
     “Cab!” he cries.
     From then until a decade ago, that was one of three common ways to find a taxi — present yourself where cabs usually congregate, stand on the curb, arm flung in the air and hope a cab happens by, or, if you have time, phone a cab company.
     A new method was added in 2008, when two software programmers, looking to ease the challenge of finding a taxi in San Francisco, came up with a program they called UberCab.
     The company quickly grew by ignoring numerous strict regulations regarding cab companies in cities Uber entered. Taxis need expensive licenses, called medallions. Drivers also require lengthy training — the newspaper once sent me to get my cabbie license; the course prepping for the exam took three days.
     Uber sidestepped all this by insisting it owns no cars, employs no drivers, so it isn’t a cab company — it dropped the “Cab” from its name to boost this argument. It’s just a piece of software, the way eBay isn’t a department store...

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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Come up with your own damn name




     Nobody roots for Goliath. Few watch Star Wars and pull for the Empire. Size and power are assumed to have a great advantage, and thus we are inclined to toss our sympathy to the Little Guy, as if it affected the outcome.
     Even though the Little Guy isn't always right.
     The disparity in size blinds us to this. Though some things are so brazen as to make us reconsider. Consider this coffee shop, noticed earlier this year by the beach in Ambergris Cay, Belize. I meant to ask the owner about the name, but he was so busy preparing drinks and breakfast and since it might be a touchy subject I let it go. 
     But really? The same circle, the same green, the same sans serif lettering. And why? In the middle of nowhere, practically on an alley. Isn't naming your place half the fun? Think of all the things you could call a Caribbean coffee shop. Call it Ishmael's, for the love of God—a sly wink instead of a rip-off. Starbucks wasn't a random name, remember: he's the chief mate on the Pequod in "Moby Dick.' Make the logo a blue square.
 
A Bangkok coffee house
     But no. People copy instead, all the time. Charbucks and Sambucks (in the U.S.). Illinois dog groomer Starbarks. Looking abroad it's even more frequent: Starbung (Thailand) and Star Box (London) and Xingbake, which is pronounced "Shingbucks" in China. 

      It's no mystery why I feel this way. As a creative person, I have a particular disdain for lazy imitation, for mere aping. I remember, a few years after I got out of college, an editor at Rubber Teeth, the humor magazine I had helped Robert Leighton start sent me a copy of their latest effort. Not much shocks me, but I was shocked at what they printed: pieces we had written. Our work. I was entirely baffled. I didn't care that they had used it, was even vaguely flattered. But the whole point of having a humor magazine is to run the stuff you've written, to till at the windmills that vex you. What ... could possibly be the mindset ... of running stuff that somebody else wrote years ago? I phoned the editor and raised this question, gingerly. I don't recall his reply: not memorable, which might explain why he was recycling our stuff.
The logo is ready.
     Yes, you can rip off a logo creatively. In 2014, a Comedy Central comedian opened up "Dumb Starbucks," a kind of meta parody of Starbucks, which was not amused. It wasn't genius, but there was a least a glimmer of cleverness lurking somewhere in the stunt.
     You don't need to be a genius to avoid ripping off established names and concepts. A healthy sense of shame helps, and a desire to manifest yourself instead of copying somebody else.
     I've never run a Caribbean coffee bar and never will. And maybe this is funny, and I just don't get it—Mark's witty mash-up of his name and that big Seattle coffee chain, oh so far away. But to me, anyone with any sense of spirit would create their own identity for their coffee stand. I bet we can find a better name than Marbucks right now, in 30 seconds. First, a little thinking — that must be what trips people up. So let's think: Mayan ruins are all around in Belize. The Mayan god of vegetation, which could include coffee, is ... checking, I don't know this stuff off the top of my head ... Yum Kaax. 
     Yum Kaax! How great a name is that? 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Saturday Snapshot #1

Children playing in Myanmar, 2018 (Photo by Ross Steinberg)

     This blog is very me, me, me, and in one sense that's fitting: it's my blog.
      In another, there is a risk of over-familiarity, of tiresomeness. I know I sometimes get bored with this blog's central figure, despite generally being rather fond of him myself, as regular readers know all too well.
      So I'm always looking for ways to shift its focus, keep it fresh, shake it up, particularly on the weekends, when it's good for everyone to kick back and relax a little. The Saturday Fun Activity use to do that, when I would post an enigmatic photo and ask readers to guess where it was location. The problem was, they always guessed, and I'd have to ship prizes to the winners, and it got time-consuming and repetitive, not to mention expensive.
      My son came home from spending five weeks in Southeast Asia last week, and looking over his photos, I was impressed. There were breathtaking pictures of sweeping vistas, mountains and rice fields and rivers, beautiful architecture: pagodas and stupas and palaces, exotic animals: water buffalo and spiders and birds.
      But what I really loved were his pictures of the people he encountered, particularly when hiking through Vietnam and Myanmar. Farmer and monks, weavers and cooks and many, many children, such as this quartet, playing a game that involved throwing their sandals—it seemed to my son they were competing to see who could throw one the farthest. Whatever the particular rules, they had a lot of fun doing it.  What makes this picture is the little boy's expression of delight, and, vitally, the thrown sandal at the far left. My kid caught the action at the perfect moment. That's a skill.
     Anyway, that is the picture for today. Readers are invited to send in photos they feel worth sharing. You don't get anything—no prizes, no pay. But I will post your photo and give you credit and say something about it and pass along whatever you have to say about it. If nobody does, then I'll post some of my own, and if that loses interest I'll stop. But it seems worth a try.
   


Friday, August 10, 2018

The urge to share didn't begin with Facebook

Cody Stampede Rodeo, 2009
 
     The summer I turned 17, my father dragged us all to Europe. 
     Which, as anyone who remembers being 17 might suspect, was not the fiesta it seems. Particularly since the country he settled us in was Switzerland. He worked all day at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, not exactly a fun city, while I pottered around town and read a lot. God bless the American Library and Frank Herbert's "Dune."
     I did have a Eurailpass, so would occasionally absent myself to explore even less fun places like Zurich. Occasionally I would encounter something spectacular—a trio of Roman columns, ruins along Lake Geneva, which I climbed upon and had my lunch. I remember the lunch—the French bread, the soft cheese, the white chocolate, the robin's egg blue ADIDAS bag I took them out of, the shimmering lake. The Castle at Chillon, Byron's castle, where I was headed.
     I also remember what I said, under my breath, seeing it and about any other wonder I encountered all that summer.
     "Sue would love this," I'd whisper. "She'd freak." 
     Sue was my little girlfriend, back in Berea. I invoked her because I missed her, tremendously, and because encountering something wonderful, when alone, can be magical, but it can also draw a yellow underliner to your solitude. 
      A question of personality, I suppose. Some can go through life blithely independent. And others are always looking around for someone else. My guess is that most people fall into the latter camp. They want witnesses. At least I do, and I know I'm not unique in this, because there's Facebook, a machine for conveying your experiences to others.
    Is that good? The answer must be "Yes," since we use the thing so much. But people also say—on Facebook, ironically— that no, it isn't good. Facebook gets a lot of crap, for people sharing their meals and the too-glamorous or too-tawdry aspects of their lives. It can seem as if you're living for Facebook, experiencing life for the express purpose of hurrying back from these life events and show them off to your invisible Facebook audience.
    Taking a bow to an empty theater. 
    I remember worrying about this long ago, in 2009. I was at the rodeo in Cody, Wyoming, with the boys, and I realized I was trying to get just the right shot of a cowboy on a bucking broncho, not to show my wife, not to show the folks back home, but to post as my Facebook profile. That's why I was doing it.
     I both felt the impulse and the unease that the impulse was somehow shameful, and that tug-of-war has been going on ever since. I want to do this thing that I shouldn't want to do.
    Being on Facebook has a direct business value to me—I share my column there, readers find it and read it, they click on the paper's web site and maybe I don't get fired in the next purge. The rest is just recreation—playing Scrabble, scrolling around for interesting tidbits, keeping up with actual friends in the living world, chatting and gabbing and wishing them happy birthdays and learning of their sorrows.
     I was just choking back the small and paltry taste left in my mouth when a friend, Salli Berg Seeley, let loose with this:
     "FB, When is your joy enough? Seriously, at what point can you relish in your good fortune and brilliant life choices and abundance without the public approval of your dear friends and a minimum of 87 fond acquaintances? And before you say so, I know, I probably should not be on FB...
     It is a useful tool for hearing about events and sharing ideas, opinions, news, and even distracting nonsense just when you need it, but, yeah, it kind of freaks me out when you can’t celebrate your anniversary with your spouse without 105 'likes,' and your attempt to portray your last vacation as picture perfect when you spent 82% of your time bickering with your spouse, lover, children, etc.. is just silly, isn’t it?
     Isn’t it enough that your marriage, family, children, lover, dinner, and on and on are THAT amazing???!!!"     
     I wanted to summarily reject her argument—my first thought was that Thoreau line about those who “mistake their private ail for an infected atmosphere.” Maybe the lady doth protest too much. She keeps saying "you" —you can't celebrate your anniversary. Maybe she means "me." Nothing bugs us more about people than when they reflect our own faults.
     Then I decided she's right, that sharing experiences with Facebook cheapens them. Then I thought that, as a guy who's paid to, in part, share his internal life with people, that kind of thinking can be dangerous, or at least contrary to my professional interests. 
     Are Facebook friends real friends? Some yes, the others, no. But they're all people, who have connected with me in some real if intangible fashion. A kind of quasi-friendship, or to quote Harry Potter's Luna Lovegood: "It's like having friends."
      Facebook friends.
      Maybe the problem is being human. We're pack animals. Ten thousand years ago we slept in caves, in piles for warmth. You spent all day with everybody you knew. Now society pushes us apart, into houses and cities and a dozen ways to be isolated and remote. Technology both connected us and drove us apart. Yes, you could talk to your kids in Phoenix, but you also stopped making those social visits that people used to make, chatting over tea. You could talk to people any time you like you end up never talking to them at all.
      Is Facebook a way to connect to people? Or a fancier way of being alone?
      Yes.
      After I thought about whispering that name in Geneva in 1977, I thought about my parents showing slides. Older readers might remember slides: little clear images secured in a cardboard frame, light went through them and they were projected on a screen.
     They would sit us kids down, dim the lights, and make us look at the slides. The faces of relatives in New York we never saw because they thought they were better than us, and vacations taken before we were born. I remember liking them nevertheless. It was like going places, like having family. I seem to remember slides being shown to dinner guests. The darkness, the hot breath of the slide projector—the ca-thunk ca-thunk of the carousel. I'm old enough to associate that carousel with the slight glimmer of technological advancement, along with push button phones and printer tractor feeds and other long defunct technologies. Modern.
     So here's my question: how is it that my parents showing our vacation slides to whomever they could corral—the kids, the dinner guests, no doubt squirming in their seats and dreaming of bolting for the door—falls into the bin of nostalgia and warmth and family and memory and community. Something good. But if I post a photo of my kid and his new beard I'm needy and pathetic, preening before an empty theater of nobodies? 
That doesn't seem quite right. We want to share stuff with people. Years before the Internet, I was invoking my girlfriend's name before the Alps and there was no technology to carry it to her. 
     Then again, she was someone I knew, not a mass of 5,000 strangers. But she's long gone, and they're here, kind of. I may not know them, directly. But sometimes I feel as if I do. Is that not something of value?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A pie in the sky idea? The city would eat it up

Burt's Pizza, with mushrooms and spinach
     As a rule, I try not have any rules regarding the column.  
    Nothing beyond "make it interesting" and "don't get the facts wrong," that is.
     But I do urge myself, in the strongest terms possible, not to advocate the impossible. Because it never happens, being impossible, and you just look stupid, cheering on a runner who isn't even in the race.
     Like all rules, it gets broken sometimes. Because there is an overpowering appeal to certain fanciful notions, no matter how far-fetched. Reading this Sun-Times story about a summertime "Pizza Museum" in the South Loop reminded me of the time I broke my own rule and suggested a monument to pizza. Our editor at the time got excited about the column, for some unfathomable reason: he commissioned a drawing of the monument, if I recall, to go with it. Needless to say, the idea lead nowhere. But admit it: it would be great, would it not? Maybe it's not too late...

     This summer is the 30th birthday of the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. Though people have gotten used to it, I suppose, I don't know anyone who really likes the thing.
     The problem has always been that nobody knows what the sculpture is supposed to be. A bird? A baboon? A "rusting heap of iron" to use the phrase of Ald. John Hoellen? Hoellen proposed, 30 years ago, that the Picasso be shipped to Paris "where it would be more appreciated" and replaced with a statue to "the eternal greatness of Chicago's own Achilles, Ernie Banks."
     Most statues in Chicago evoke barely more than the glimmer of uncertainty sparked by the now-familiar Picasso. I'm thinking about statues such as that of Schiller in Lincoln Park. Who was Schiller? A German philosopher of some sort. But that's all anybody knows about him. If that. At least they'd know Ernie Banks' philosophy: "Let's play two." But even Banks will fade, just as Schiller was a big deal, once.
     Which is why we need a monument to something that is eternal, yet people can relate to. A monument that will not become irrelevant. A monument to something inspiring and changeless. A monument that will be beloved for as long as a city stands astride the Chicago River.
     We need a monument to pizza.
     Think about it. Didn't your heart race, if only a little, at the mention of pizza?
     Say it out loud, softly, like a prayer. "Pizza." Did the person at the next desk—no matter what race, what gender or sexual inclination—look up and sniff the air, maybe even responding, "Pizza? Where?"
     Chicago is the perfect place for a monument to pizza. Pizza is one of the arts we're famous for. Visitors who eat just one meal in Chicago want pizza. And frankly, so do those who have lived here all their lives.
     The first question is where to put the monument. There are certainly many empty yawning spaces right in the heart of downtown. You could erect an enormous pizza monument in Block 37 and still have plenty of room for a skating rink and art fairs and whatever else. An immense pizza sculpture could make a nice permanent roof there.
     A more pressing concern is what form the pizza monument should take. I would hate to see the purity of the concept tainted by a lot of divisive controversy, though that's probably unavoidable. Even while I was hatching the idea last night over—what else?—a steaming pizza pie, my wife and I fell into disagreement. I insisted the monument should be deep dish. Definitely. It should honor our local specialty.
     She argued that flat pizza would be more aesthetic. "Deep dish would just look like a big thick disc," she said. "All the ingredients are hidden inside, under the cheese."
     We went back and forth until hitting upon a clever compromise: The monument would not show any specific pizza genotype, flat or deep dish, but instead should show a person, a pizzamaker, tossing up a round of raw dough.
     This is appealing on several levels beyond merely solving the flat; deep dish dilemma. It is also a tribute to the unheralded role of the pizzamaker who, although typically displayed in pizzeria windows, nevertheless is underpaid and uncelebrated.
     Imagine: a larger-than-life pizzamaker, his right arm raised skyward, head tilted back, expectantly, as an undulating bronze disc of pizza dough forever hovers (perhaps through use of a plastic rod) above him, glimmering in the sun.
     On either side, an honor guard of two real pizza workers, in crisp white aprons and paper hats, standing at parade rest. There are at least 1,000 pizzerias in the Chicago area, and it would be nothing to set up a rotation so that, every few years, each pizzeria takes a turn sending a pair of guys over for the day. It would be a privilege. They could even hand out free slices to promote their places.
     Consider the tourist business. The people who otherwise might have gone to ogle the arch in St. Louis, or just stayed home, instead would be inspired to visit Chicago's Monument to the Everlasting Splendor of Pizza. To have their photos taken next to the somber pizza worker honor guards—straight-faced, like at Buckingham Palace. What a charming local oddity, unmatched anywhere on earth.
     Get on board early, Mr. Mayor. The monument could be a way for you to finally support something that actually comes to fruition. It could be your legacy.
     At least consider it. Michael Jordan has a statue, and he will be just a fond memory someday, a distinguished presence glimpsed on a golf course somewhere halfway around the world.
     But pizza will always be here, eternal and wonderful. We owe it obeisance.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 30, 1997

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Chicago's bloody weekend demands attention, but what good does it do?

Slaughter of the Innocents, 1532, Bruges workshop of Pieter van Aelst, (detail) (Vatican Museum)

     The worst part is how everyone with an opinion runs up after a weekend like Chicago’s recent bloodbath, dips their fingers in the fresh gore and then dashes off whatever political message they already believe and repeat all the time anyway, rain or shine, violence or calm.
     The Rahm opponents damn Rahm; the cop bashers bash the cops; the police decry the difficulty of their jobs; the lightly-camouflaged racists on the national stage turn their unwelcome momentary attention to Chicago and express mock concern edged with contempt and then promptly forget about it until next time. (Remember when Donald Trump said he was going to solve Chicago violence? How’s that coming, Mr. President?) I even have a claque of retirees in Florida who weigh in, like clockwork, braying in Nelson Muntz glee, regurgitating some inanity picked up from Fox News that the shootings are somehow a refutation of gun control, as if gangs can’t find their way from the city to Melrose Park.
     Do you buy the above? Then hang your head, because I tricked you. The worst part is the dead and maimed, their snuffed lives, grief-stricken families and bereaved friends, a horrible reality that we seem not to be able to ignore quickly enough. If it helps, I join you in shame, because I wrote that first paragraph and then thought … hey, wait a minute.
     In a society where everybody talks and nobody listens, what is the point of even going through the motions of analysis? Respect, I suppose, a certain sanctification in addressing the deaths, like painting the names of the slain on a wall. If I just blithely wrote what I had hoped to consider today — a particular Isaac Asimov short story and its message for handling online trolls — then I would be accused of callously ignoring a horror in my own backyard, of living in bland, bovine contentment in the Chicago of tall buildings, fancy restaurants and clean Metra trains while a few miles away children are slaughtered.
     But the alternative is as bad: to glibly opine on a subject that defies solution, where everyone involved acts in what they perceive as their own best interests, yet form a circle of tragic failure, each participant pointing to the other. The cops blame the community. The community appeals to the city. The city defers to the cops. And round and round it goes.

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