Friday, August 26, 2016

Criticize me and you criticize everyone like me

     Being black and being stupid are two entirely separate, independent conditions. Blackness does not make you stupid any more than stupidity makes you black. If it did, a lot of Donald Trump supporters would wake up aghast to find themselves suddenly African-American (though not as horrified as African-Americans would be to suddenly have all these Trump supporters in their midst).
     The two conditions can, of course, reside in the same individual, such as former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun who was both black and dumber than a rock. She manifested this in a variety of alarming ways, including, as I pointed out during her quixotic bid for mayor in 2011, by ballyhooing a deeply flawed poll that suggested she would defeat Rahm Emanuel which, let the record show, she did not.
     When I wrote a column elaborating upon that theme, Moseley-Braun howled that I was a racist — you can go on YouTube and see videos of her minions picketing the paper, demanding I be fired — arguing that to criticize her was to criticize all African-Americans.
     This came to mind when the senator currently holding her seat, Mark Kirk, said Barack Obama was “acting like a drug dealer in chief” and Kirk’s opponent, Tammy Duckworth, called the remark “unhinged,” which Kirk denounced as an attack on all stroke survivors everywhere.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

A brief visit to Seattle

     Eric Zorn asked if I've ever told this story on the blog, and I said no, I don't think I have. While it is probably much improved by being told in person, with me goggling my eyes and wildly gesticulating to emphasize the quivering horror of the thing, I will do my best to convey it here with all the brio at my disposal.
    The subject is book signings, an odd ritual of authorhood occasionally remarked upon, usually to underscore the humiliation of sitting at a table in the back of a bookstore, puffing out your cheeks, watching strangers cast you indifferent glances as they hurry past to the cookbook section. Every writer goes through one of those. 
     I try not to worry about book signing disasters, since I've already had the worst signing humanly imaginable, at the old Barnes & Noble on Diversey. They put me in the coffee shop at the section of the store. My wife and a pair of our oldest friends had tagged along; the idea was to share in my glory, but they turned out to be unfortunate witnesses. Some harried clerk introduced me at a podium. The dozen or so folks sitting at tables, drinking coffees, busily cribbing from Foder's guidebooks they were too cheap to buy, swiveled their heads up in unison. I began to read. Their heads swiveled back down, again in unison. I soldiered gamely on, my voice both amplified and muted at the same time. Chairs scraped. People came and went. Old friends greeted each other, loudly. Sweat cascaded down my face. It was so awful I really don't have much of a memory beyond that. If my wife told me she sponged me up with a mop, a puddle of shame, and carried me home in a bucket, I couldn't contradict her with confidence. 
      That wasn't the incident Eric had in mind. Too bleak to make a good story. 
      I should point out, that I have had my share of successful signings. I don't want to paint myself as a sad sack. I once spoke at the Arizona Kidney Foundation's literary luncheon and, afterward, 247 people stood in line and bought a book. I remember the number distinctly and, if I ever get a tattoo, I think it would be "247." 
    But signings are a random thing, and success one day doesn't guarantee success the next. The Arizona triumph was for my "Failure" book, which was published by Doubleday, a big publishing house that, in the pre-Internet mid-1990s, would send authors around promoting their work. They arranged to send me to Seattle in October, 1995.
     I wasn't sure if I should go at all. My wife was more than eight months pregnant. What if she had the baby early? We decided I was really only a few hours away—I would phone from the airport in Salt Lake City, where there was a layover, and if labor had started, I would turn around and immediately fly home.
    As the event approached, another reality began to dawn on me. The signing was on Oct. 17, at an hour which also happened to be the middle of the sixth game of the American League Championship series at the Kingdome, between the Seattle Mariners and the Cleveland Indians. Nobody but nobody was going to skip the ballgame and go to my signing. I was tempted to duck out myself, and go see my beloved Indians play. I grew up, remember, in Cleveland.
    "You have to cancel this!" I begged the publicist.
    That was impossible, she informed me, I was doing television—some forgettable midday news show on KOMO. I was doing radio. We had to fulfill our obligations. No canceling. 
     I flew out like a man condemned. Met at the airport by Chic, my handler, a man in his 50s. That is an actual job: squiring authors to publicity events, or was, I imagine it has melted away along with so much involving words. But at the time the publishing house not only sent you to cities to drum up publicity, but when you arrived there was a perky local fellow or gal to take you where you needed to go, chatting all the way about actual authors, authors other than yourself, that he has been privileged  to meet. A sort of primitive Uber.
      He took me to the Hotel Alexis, a small boutique hotel downtown. I repaired to the bar for a few quick Jack Daniels. The wonder isn't that some authors drink, but that they all don't. Then we were off to my signing.
      I can still see the Borders in Tacoma, Washington as we approached, lit up like a cruise ship on a flat sea, the parking lot. A couple cars—staffers—and nothing. Lines on asphalt. We were met by a bookstore clerk who, at least in my green-tinged memory, was wringing his hands in embarrassment. He conveyed us to a back section of the store, where there were 30 chairs set up and a lectern and a metal pitcher of water.
     I can see the chairs, empty but for the clerk, gamely holding down the first row. I can see the pitcher, the beads of condensation on it. The empty glass.
    So what do you do in a situation like this? What is the graceful, charming way to redeem the situation? Pour a slug of water, crack open my book, glance around at the empty chairs and, with a brisk, welcoming nod, begin to read.
      Eventually, a couple drifted by. In my memory they are a "hippie couple," a pair of moldy 1960s sorts with stringy hair, the sort of people who would be at Borders in the middle of the Mariners/Indians playoff game at the Kingdome. They perched tentatively in a chair. So now I had an audience. But something about their body language said they were poised to flee. Very quickly I stopped reading, closed the book, and addressed them directly. 
    "You're not going to buy this book, are you?" I said, breaking the fourth wall. Perhaps the lingering effects of those Jack Daniels.
     They looked at me, befuddled.
     I reached into my jacket pocket, withdrew my wallet and removed a business card.
    "Tell you what," I said, leaning on the podium, waving the business card in the air. "Take my card. Buy the book. If you don't like it, send the book back to me and I'll refund your money."
    Still silence. They sat there, looking at me, perhaps wondering if they could make a break for the door with me in howling pursuit. 
     We looked at one another.
     "Okay," I said, improvising. "How about this. Take my card. I'll go to the register with you and buy you the book, for you. Read it, and if you like it, send me a check."
     That worked, not in that they let me buy them the book, but that it shamed them into buying it. I observed from a respectable distance as they performed the transaction. They never asked for a refund.
      Later that night, in the hotel bar, I discovered the Indians had won the pennant for the first time since 1954. I flew home the next day. Exactly one week later, my son was born.
     The moral? As I tell young authors, if you don't care about your writing, then nobody will. Sometimes you fly to Seattle to sell one book. I've actually performed greater feats of desperate salesmanship than pressing a book on that couple. Once, in Washington, D.C., at another solitary signing, I convinced a bookstore clerk to buy the book. The idea of these trips is to move copies. They're hard enough when a publishing company underwrites your trip, but an even more queasy odyssey when you pay for them yourself—which is what I'm doing when I go to Cleveland, which sparked this whole book signing conversation in the first place.
     What's another couple hundred bucks after nearly five years of work? People make the mistake of valuing their money but not their time, when it should be the other way around. The ash heap of those five years sits cooling behind me, the only tangible product, this new book in my hands. The trip, striking another match that might or -- much more likely -- might not set anything ablaze. Maybe there's some guy who's going to be browsing in that Barnes & Noble, someone who'll hear my voice, wander over, and his life will be changed. Could happen. But you never know, and if you don't try, well, you know how that works out. You know the butterfly effect: who knows what ripples of success will echo forth from that 1 p.m. signing at the Barnes & Noble in Crocker Park on Sept. 17? "It is," as I tell my boys, "called 'trying.'" Or put a better way.
    "I will be conquered," Samuel Johnson once said. "I will not capitulate." 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Cell by any other name will smell as sour

    Whenever the corporate naming of ballparks comes up, I try to remind people that "Wrigley Field" is also product placement, named for a brand of chewing gum. It doesn't seem that way because we've had it for so long Wrigley feels like it was named by Abner Doubleday, and many no doubt suspect the gum took its name from the field. It didn't. 
     So I am not broken up by the change, announced Wednesday, of U.S. Cellular field to "Guaranteed Rate Field." Yes, such names evoke David Foster Wallace's classic "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment." Yes, I imagine "Guaranteed Rate" is a new, utterly meaningless company to most people—that might be why they're putting money into naming baseball fields. (Founded in 2000, it is a mortgage company, at least based in Chicago, so there's comfort there). 
     But the honest truth is I don't have a dog in this race. As a North Sider, I've always said that I'd rather pay to go to Wrigley Field than go to U.S. Cellular for free, and that holds true whatever they call it. The Cell is an ugly, unpleasant place to see a ballgame, and changing the name won't change that. South Siders will disagree, but then, they always do. 

A lavish lifestyle and business success are not the same thing

Alberto Giacometti, "The Nose," Hirshhorn Gallery, Washington, D.C.

     I’ve been on Fox News more than I’ve watched it.
     That might be a slight exaggeration. They did go on about a column of mine earlier in the summer. And I was a local Fox pundit for about a year, adding my little segments to the end of the 9 p.m. broadcasts. I said anything on my mind — once I compared opera and hockey (better music at operas, better looking fans at hockey games). The checks cleared, and I’d be doing it still but a new regime took the program in a different direction. Or not — as I said, I never watched the show, I was just on it.
     I did tune in for Fox’s GOP debate, the one where Megyn Kelly so upset Donald Trump by asking him pointed questions as if he were running for president. I was impressed with the journalistic job Fox did.
     That rigor seems to have been an exception based on the latest tempest swirling around another Fox host, Sean Hannity, who is rolling at Trump’s feet like a puppy. Having never watched Hannity, I’ll have to trust the judgment of others.
     “Fox News host Sean Hannity isn’t just shilling for Donald Trump,” Erik Wemple wrote in the Washington Post. “He’s not just orchestrating applause for the candidate’s most abhorrent policy positions. He’s not just facilitating and reciting every Trump talking point in marathon interviews. . . . He’s also advising the candidate.”

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fortune (sometimes) favors the bold

     The biggest catastrophe's are covered by the sands of time. If that isn't clear, tomorrow is Aug. 24, and if Aug. 24 does not resonate—and I imagine it doesn't—just remember that Sept. 11 will also be just another day in a string of same, if we wait long enough. 
     Aug. 24, 79 A.D. was the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, burying the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Not the sort of anniversary the media typically notices, and to be honest, I might have overlooked it, had not we visited the H & M downtown last week. 
     Notice the shirt above, as I did, waiting for the boys to pick out their purchases. The "good" is some fashion designer's notion; it's implied in the general saying, common for nearly 2,000 years, that "Fortune favors the brave."
     Unless it isn't implied. Because while the line did become an aphorism, it originated, or at least be most famously used, in Virgil's reworking of Homer, "The Aeneid." There, in book X, the Latin is "audaces fortuna iuvat"—"fortune speeds the bold" — uttered by Turnus, rallying his men to fight anew on the beach. 
     Though there might be some irony at work here. "Speeds" is not the same as "favors." Your bravery could be hurrying you toward doom, which is kinda what happens to Turnus. Yes, he wins  his duel, planting a spear into Pallas' chest. But this enrages Aeneis, and the gods, who basically boot Turnus away from the field of battle.  He does not end well.
    Seeing the shirt did not make me think of Virgil, however, that would be pretentious. The truth is worse. It made me think of Pliny the Younger, who was 17 years old when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Twenty-five years later, he wrote a letter to the historian Tacitus describing the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who commanded the fleet.  
    "On 24 August in the early afternoon, my mother pointed out to him the appearance of a cloud of unusual size and form," Pliny the Younger writes.
     In his account, Pliny the Elder orders a fast ship, and invites his nephew to come with him. "I replied that I should prefer to continue with my studies," another example of the under-appreciated life-saving qualities of studiousness.
     So Pliny the Elder sets out to save a relative who was close to the eruption: "He hurried to the place others were fleeing from, setting his course straight for the dangerous area."
     Ash rains down on the ship, then pumice and burnt stones. "My uncle hesitated a bit, wondering whether to turn back, but then said to the helmsman who warned him to do just that, 'fortune favors the brave.'"
   Not in this case. Though Pliny the Elder boldly made landfall unscathed, he decided to push his luck and linger there. The gases and fumes overcame him and he died. So yes, sometimes fortune favors the bold, and others boldness speeds you to destruction.  Worth bearing in mind.  Fortune may—or may not—favor the bold, but safety hangs around the meek. 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Donald Trump and the Bottomless Pit

     If you plug "bottomless pit" into Google, as I just have, the results are surprisingly slim. There are many references to a musical album of that name, and some Bible citations—a bottomless pit is opened in the Book of Revelations. 
    But no comprehensive cultural examination. So I'm going to have to wing it. There is something juvenile about bottomless pits—they seem, along with hot lava, to be the type of perils conjured up by  very young boys on playgrounds.  Guessing they might also show up in dusty adventure stories, in 1001 Tales of Arabian Nights and such, I began looking in the Tarzan books, which had a single reference.  When I shifted to the downscale Roy Rockwood boys adventure novels, there was the 1930 Bomba the Jungle Boy on the Underground River, or, The Cave of Bottomless Pits. 
     Not much.
     I was thinking about bottomless pits because, while there were developments in the Donald Trump campaign—old campaign team out, new one in, again, gross sweeping insult to African-Americans Friday, cloying 180-degree pivot pandering to Hispanics Saturday—the whole thing seemed exhausting, ungraspable, bottomless. Not that it couldn't be understood, but that doing so was complicated and not worth the effort in the end of August because the thing you're trying to capture keeps plunging out of reach, twirling as it goes, spouting new, apparently relevant details as it goes.
    Then I thought of a Joe Martin cartoon—Martin, as local cartoon fans know, is a brilliant cartoonist who at one point had three funny strips in the Chicago papers: Mr. Boffo, Willy & Ethel and Porterfield. 
    The strip I was thinking of stars Mr. Boffo—a shape-shifting character, like Trump, also balding but with a bulbous nose, who like Trump is usually found in a variety of surreal tableaus, though for Boffo they are classic cartoon settings: in hell, heaven, on a desert island, chained to a dungeon wall. 
    In this particular cartoon—I couldn't find the strip, so am working from memory here—the first panel shows three men plunging into an abyss, their faces masks of terror, arms and legs flailing. The caption is "Three men falling into a bottomless pit."
    The second panel shows the men, still plunging, but expressions of boredom on their faces, heads propped on palms. The caption is, "The same three men, six months later." 
Or some such thing. 
    And you realize—and Martin was a genius in making this kind of connection—that without a bottom to eventually crash against, the bottomless pit isn't so much a doom as a consignment to eternal tedium. 
     That's where I am regarding Trump. Bottomless boredom. It isn't as if we're not plunging toward disaster. Truly, we are. It's just that you can't sound the alarm every day. Forty percent of Americans, knowing what they must already know by now, somehow still support the man. So what's the point of drawing a red circle around the latest jaw dropping development? If you haven't figured it out by now you never will. 
    And the rest of us, we get it, big time. We get to star in our own real-life nightmare where we run up to oblivious bystanders at some unfolding disaster and grab at their shirtfronts and scream in their faces—"The place is on fire you have to get out!!!"—and they just shrug grin idiotically and stand there. 
    Of course, the pit only feels bottomless. We arrive at the ground with a crash Nov. 8. Then either Trump wins—and after the Brexit vote, no amount of confident polls can give anyone complete assurance. Trump wins and then the graves open and Biblical doom is upon us. Or Trump loses and this all seems a hideous dream, and the zombies he conjured up hiss and thrash and maybe Texas withdraws from the Union.  That's coming. But right now, we've been falling in this pit for so long, it's hard to even imagine that the bottom is there at all, somewhere, rushing up at us.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review #3

    This is the first newspaper review of "Out of the Wreck I Rise," written by Jim Coyle for the Toronto Star's online Star Touch tablet app. I'll admit being a little surprised at his take, seeing the book as a "sampler of thoughts" about alcohol, and missing, entirely, the idea that the book is supposed to help those in recovery. "This book's title alone will please imbibers of a literary bent" made me wince, as did calling the book a "pub crawl." Perhaps I'm being overly-sensitive, but pleasing imbibers is not what we were going for. But I don't want to be unappreciative—it is certainly positive, in its own way, and looks great on their mobile app, and at least presents the book as noteworthy. It'll be interesting to see if future reviews, should there be any, follow in this vein.  God I hope not.

     The celebrated American writer John Cheever, who knew a thing or six about the topic, described a moment when he discovered alcohol’s merciful capacity for curing the many torments that plagued him.
     Preparing for an intimidating social gathering, “I bought a bottle of gin and drank four fingers neat,” he wrote. “The company was brilliant, chatty and urbane and so was I.”
     Words. Stories. Wit. Repartee. Le mot juste. All to the clinking of cocktail glasses. Who wouldn’t say, “Why, yes, barkeep, I think I will have another!”
     Cheever was neither the first nor last to draw a link between drink and yarn-spinning. Nor was he breaking new ground in the monumental self-delusion that chronic intoxication can produce.
     No matter. His words accurately capture a sensation the habitually besotted will recognize. The idea persists that charm and creativity are the salubrious byproducts of alcoholic intake....

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