Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Flashback 2008: Noise! Noise! Noise!; The closer the presidential election draws, the louder the claims and counterclaims grow,

      I see The Mekons have a new album coming out, Exquisite. I'm not a fan of the English band—Rolling Stone describes them as "cowpunk," a heretofore unimagined (at least by me) blend of punk and country, which is just wrong).  I had lunch with them once, strangely enough, quite by accident. We were both invited to New Trier High School's literary festival, and it gave me the perfect excuse to follow up on a previous column, asking readers to send in suggestions of new love songs, something I wrote as my silent protest to Bob Greene suggesting that no new love songs of any value were written after his emotional life peaked and died in 1964.
     I'll never forget how the phone call inviting me to New Trier went.
     "Hi! We'd like you to talk about writing at our literary festival."
     "We give you lunch..."
     "And there's a gift bag..."
     "And we pay you a thousand dollars."
     "You know, you had me at 'we'd like you to talk about writing'..."

. .

     People do not change as they grow older—I firmly believe that. They do not change, they only become more so, distilling, bubbling down to their essences, whether lumps of sweetness or thimbles of bile.
     Similarly, as the election day nears, the ceaseless clamor of issues and accusations, spin and counter spin, charges and counter-charges, reaches a crescendo, an elemental roar.
     John McCain compresses his party's hopes into the form of Joe the Plumber, a Regular Guy Everyman who represents the fearful white middle class. While Barack Obama tries to put his arms around a country where almost half—maybe more, maybe less, we'll soon see— are wriggling to escape his embrace.
     As the day approaches, the cacophony becomes so loud it falls silent. Perhaps all the noise has deafened us. I don't know about you, but I can hardly hear it anymore.

'Push your finger and make a sound...'

     Synchronicity happens—related events occurring together that have no apparent link. Not an hour after I finished Sunday's column about whether there were any great love songs written in the past decade, I found myself at New Trier High School, unexpectedly having lunch with Chicago songwriter Steve Dawson, plus Jon Langford and Sally Timms—part of the British punk band The Mekons—all of us there to talk to the kiddies about writing.
     Sensing an opportunity, I posed my question, first to Dawson.
     "There's a wave of acoustic love songs, more romantic songs than there have been in years," he said. "There's a whole wave of heart-on-your-sleeve songs."
     Such as?
     He mentioned "Falling Slowly," a song that was in the Irish film "Once" and won the Academy Award last year
     "I think that's a beautiful song," he said, and I agreed, then went to seek out The Mekons.
     "I think the Handsome family has some good, realistic love songs, serious love songs," said Langford, conferring with Timms. "The Magnetic Fields have written loads of great love songs."
     "Realistic" is one way to describe the Handsome Family. "Grim" might be more accurate: "You kept falling down and rolling on the ground/ like a drunken little bird flapping its broken wings . . ." This duo makes Tom Waits seem like The Archies.
     The Magnetic Fields are more my taste. The group, fronted by Stephen Merritt, even put out a boxed set called "69 Love Songs," which, to my surprise, actually has 69 tracks, paying homage to a wide range of musical styles, from Billie Holiday to Irving Berlin ("I'm so in love with you girl, it's like I'm on the moon; I can hardly breathe and I feel lighter.")
     I spent a sunny Sunday morning drinking Cafe du Monde coffee and listening to the suggestions that readers sent in and, boy, what a great way to make a living.
     The first reader-submitted song came Saturday morning from Terry Gavlin, of Brookfield, who sent an MP3 of "My Doorbell" by The White Stripes, a bouncy tune I listened to—golly—at least six times, just because of how Jack White's muted trumpet of a voice tumbles over the phrase "I've been thinkin' about . . ."
     Heather Swanson suggested "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz, a joyfully post-coital, reggae-syncopated song. Roy Gilbert said his teenage daughter likes "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White Ts ("cute and well-written," he said, accurately). Fred Ungaretta mentioned Coldplay's "Green Eyes" (A good song that begins, "Honey, you are a rock, upon which I stand. . .") He was one of several readers who plumped for Coldplay (a former student of mine just gave me a CD by Coldplay—an aptly named group: cold music, like ice floes sloshing on a frozen sea that seeps into your veins and, surprisingly, warms).
     All weekend I found myself quizzing everybody I met under 30 as to their idea of a great love song.
     "'Blue,' by Joni Mitchell," answered my 24-year-old niece—young people are already up-to-date, so they can take pride in antique tastes.
    "No," I said, "something recent."
     "Ben Harper—'Walk Away,' " she said, before whipping out her cell phone and playing a hip-hop song, "The Lite" by Common.
     "I think this is a love song," she said, listening carefully. "Oh yeah, this is totally a love song."
     But is it great? We can't be sure, not yet anyway, a truth that becomes clear when we remember that the classics, from jazz to Sinatra, from Elvis to rap, were ignored or loathed by the majority when they first arrived.
     "As a guy who is definitely old enough to be your father, when I first heard the Beatles I too thought, 'This is music?' " writes Allan Klein. "And then I started to listen very carefully and lo and behold, realized that their writing was truly wonderful, specifically, 'Yesterday.' "
     Klein recommended Renee Olstead, and I have to admit that, listening to her gin-clear voice slowly peal out George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" makes a person doubt the chances of the Magnetic Fields catalogue to withstand the grind of time.
     Then again, it doesn't have to. There is no greatest love song, only the love song that means the most to you at the moment, and I if had to pick one from all the songs suggested—thanks everybody; much fun—I'd have to go with Ben Harper's "Walk Away." There's even a bit of Cole Porter wordplay ("You put the happi- in my ness"). It begins with careful acoustic guitar and then, "Oh no, here comes that sun again/That means another day without you, my friend"—how's that for an opening line?—"And it hurts me to look into the mirror at myself/and it hurts even more to have to be with somebody else/And it's so hard to do, and so easy to say, but sometimes, sometimes, you just have to walk away."


There are a lot of good Beatles jokes online, such as this one:

Q: When did Paul McCartney write "Silly Love Songs?"

A: From 1962 to 2008.

        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 27, 2008

Monday, July 6, 2020

History is not a fairy tale to make us happy

Parson Weems' Fable, by Grant Wood (Courtesy of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art)

     Friday we saw our president stand before Mount Rushmore and make an impassioned plea against what he called “a merciless campaign to erase our history” and in favor of what we can call the Parson Weems’ Fable view of the past.
     You remember Parson Weems’ Fable. Or maybe you don’t. That’s one problem with history: There’s so much. The Rev. Mason Weems wrote about a young George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. The lad is confronted by his father and confesses, “I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” Such is the honesty of our leaders!
     In the view of our current president, who cannot tell the truth, the founders who created this country were perfect, while participants in the national drama who were not white men are flawed, fringe figures, Betsy Ross sewing a flag.
     The problems with the Parson Weems’ Fable view of history are many, but two stand out.
     First, it didn’t happen. Despite Weems calling the story “too true to be doubted,” the cherry tree episode was invented, historians agree, to sell books. Hence Parson Weems’ Fable; kind of a giveaway really.
     Second, history as a series of saints to venerate instead of study implies that these men are responsible for everything that transpired. Also untrue — if history were about ordinary people bending to the will of leaders, we’d all be happily nodding along with Donald Trump. When only 38% of us are. The rest are bouncing in our chairs, eager to toss him onto the ash heap come November.

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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Walk in the garden

     You cannot say, "Let there be light," and there will be light. 
     Oh, you can flip on the lights. But that's not quite the same.
     Maybe a better example: You cannot create the heavens and the earth. Nor can you turn Lot's wife into a pillar of salt.
    In fact, I can only think of one activity enjoyed by God in the Bible that you can also do yourself: stroll in a garden.
    "And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day," is how Genesis 3:8 puts it.
     Though I bet God didn't have to reserve a time, the way we do now that the Chicago Botanic Garden has re-opened into the COVID-19 era. You have to snag an hour slot—I've never been turned away, but it takes a bit of fussing on the computer and drains a little of the spontaneity away. You don't just go, but instead watch the clock and arrive during your appointed hour. They check the ticket on your phone going in.
     Still, it hasn't kept my wife from visiting the Botanic Garden four times in the past week. Quite a lot, really. We must need it, must need to admire the glorious flowers at our feet and the gorgeous vistas stretching in all directins. The rolling 385-acre garden is a welcome relief after being cooped up at home, a chance to soak in beauty, stretch our legs, converse with each other. You're outside, so while people do tend to wear masks, at least while passing  on the paths, for most of the visit you can let yours dangle from an ear.
     The Botanic Garden is a place you can go again and again and it never gets dull.  It is divided into a variety of realms: The rose garden. The English walled garden. The Japanese garden. The prairie. And so on.

    "We've never been to this part before," I'll say, something as a running joke, something as an acknowledgement that it changes so much it seems like a new place. Different times of day, of year, qualities of light, blooms. If you look to your right it's a completely different experience than if you look left. 
     Yes, it's high standards have suffered from the pandemic. A little sign apologized for the weeds that haven't been picked by the volunteers who can't come. Though in truth, I hadn't noticed them before, and it made me think that perhaps my practice of confessing my flaws before they can be pointed out is unwise, alerting readers to deficiencies they'd overlook otherwise. Still, for an hour afterward, my wife and I would point out various prickly intruders and say, "Look, a weed!"
     Which in my case is hypocrisy itself, since I have a ton of weeds at home, in my own garden. Now that I think of it, God also plants a garden in the Bible—"And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden" (Genesis 2:8). But that achievement is closer to the other divine tasks of molding universes, destroying cities, and other superhuman efforts that are off-limits to we mortals, who suffer should we even attempt them.
     At least I do. I have a garden at home, but cannot walk in it, not for long. I can kneel in it, and do, pulling the weeds and grasses that grow with enormous profusion. But that is more obligation than pleasure, though if we don't get decent tomatoes this year, I swear I'm going to turn it into a rectangle of green-dyed concrete, my own version of an angry God smiting those who deceive him, and call it good.


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Texas Notes: Bitter and Sweet

     EGD's Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey moved this week, but still found time to check in. 

     “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect, ” said Anais Nin. I am not so sure I want to taste many moments of this pandemic life twice, yet I often feel guilty about the lack of gratitude for my life as it is. I wonder who else feels that way? I am caught between two worlds lately— the bearable one consists of mantras used to clear my mind (aka cognitive restructuring), delightful breezes on hot days, arms raised to catch the stroke of wind under sweaty armpits, peaceful and endless walks into the dusk and then into the soft blanket of darkness, and doses of magical thinking that seem to make everything OK.
     Then there’s the world of harsh realities, which for me includes job loss (and job gain) and housing loss in the past 12 weeks. This necessitated a move during a mind boggling COVID spike in Austin, thankfully to a very sweet, (albeit temporary) soft landing spot— a tiny house, in fact, how cool is that? See? Feeling guilty for the ingratitude already. I had to tell you of the silver lining right away because I feel I am not allowed to say “this whole thing has been so scary that I’ve lost countless nights of sleep and wake up many mornings in full panic mode not knowing quite why, until I remember,” since that will just be met with “count your blessings,” “we love you,” “you can do this” and other phrases that in effect snuff out the very feelings I am trying to honestly share. This only serves to make me feel more alone.
     “But Caren, you’re _______ [insert here a yoga teacher, a therapist, a meditator, so strong] and you’ve got this!” I hear myself saying “sure, I do, I know,” and apologize for taking up so much time. I turn back to myself, returning to my true feelings of gut-punch grief for all of the lives lost and knowing that this virus has changed the world forever. I do not let myself dwell upon fears of who else might be lost. On one level this feel responsible. I have been taught not to “future trip” or worry about what might happen. On the other hand, why is it not OK to be who we are, with our fears and hopes alike?
     The good news (there I go again) is that I have found myself in a deeper way than ever before. I reside in my own skin and am comfortable there. I do not resent those with pat advice designed to cheer me up (though depression cannot be cheered up) and I just hope that I become more and more self sufficient and know what to do when the unpleasant kind of darkness comes.
     Over the years the words of Thomas Banyacya, Sr. (1910-1999) known as Speaker of the Wolf, Fox and Coyote Clan and and Elder of the Hopi Nation have been shared with me many times by wise teachers and friends. The words have taken on a new meaning— an excerpt: “To My Fellow Swimmers: Here is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid, who will try to hold on to the shore. They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river and keep our heads above water. And I say see who is there with you and celebrate. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. For we are the ones we have been waiting for. I am the one I’ve been looking for.”
     Even with the low points, forced solitude and material insecurity have given me a lush playground. I’ve been able to become self-reliant. I do not feel let down by others. I feel a love for myself, friends, family and even strangers in increasing frequency. To cultivate this — when I am up to it and not stuck in a morass of fear in between my ears — I repeat “may you be well, happy and peaceful,” in my mind towards each person whose path crosses mine. Why not? If I can learn to live with my own pain, receive love and gifts from others without demanding it, and learn to be the best cog in the wheel of life that I can be, this is a life worth living. I admit that I have stuck my tongue out at two separate drivers while on COVID walkabouts when they did not yield, but hey? Progress not perfection is alright with me.
     Carl Jung suggested that to feel a deeper sense of well-being we can find our inner partner rather than looking outwards to material possessions or attachments to other people. Turns out I quite like my inner partner. Hi Caren! (That’s not weird). In finding this unconditional love of myself with all of its aspects, I find myself chuckling more (walking down the street laughing isn’t weird either). Sometimes I have a big smile on my face that seems odd (no comment) but when I check in I feel truly happy so why not smile? Sure, the pull of a lifelong depression still, and may always, grab for my ankles or sit on my chest. It might put my insides on the outside, leaving me raw and exposed. I usually know that this will pass, and I will feel better tomorrow, or the next day, or at least the day after that.
     For years I've known that yoga and other healing modalities can bring us more into our bodies and inner being, out of our self-critical and judgmental minds, and assuage loneliness. It seems years of practice are paying off now. I still feel grief, sadness, despair and the whole range of human emotions but I also feel a stillness at my core. I no longer try to run away from uncomfortable feelings and instead welcome myself completely.
     For now, for me, it will be “clear mind” on the inhale, “don’t know, don’t know, don’t know” on the exhale, which Ana Forrest suggested during a mediation class at Moksha Yoga Chicago back in the early 2000s. The premise is that if we can stay in the moment life will feel more worth living. Or, as Timothy Leary’s friend Ram Dass reminds us, “be here now.” This is easy enough when one has few earthly problems or is able to put them aside for periods of time to meditate. I will continue to do whatever it takes — avoid, deflect, deny, accept — to be present in moments of connection with the good things in life. There was the spry little black and white speckled red-beaked woodpecker in the tree in my new yard today, my new landlord’s orange kitty Dolley using my (hairy COVID) legs as a scratching post, feeding popcorn to the backyard chickens and saying hello to the kind souls who offered me a furnished tiny home of 288 square feet (with a washer/dryer and bidet!) until the next step emerges.

Friday, July 3, 2020

It won’t kill you to get out of the house

     Summer rain pelted my face as I stood on my pedals, flying down the gravel trail alongside the I&M Canal. For one moment, boom, the whole knotted mess just fell away — the virus, the masks, the mango Lord of the Lies, everything — and I was just a kid on a bike going through the woods in far southwest Channahon. Gliding through green leaves, past great blue herons and angular waterways that were part of history yet also right there.
     Or more precisely, I realized it was gone. That somehow the door to my electronic cage had swung open and I had slipped back into the living world. It took a bit of groping to reconstruct regular life: each day a carbon copy of the day before, walking the dog, meals, work, sleep, rinse, repeat.   
     How’d I get from that treadmill to a village in Will County? Looking back, they didn’t actually invite me. What the folks hyping Illinois & Michigan Canal — ”This outdoor museum, perfect for social distancing, is the nation’s first official National Heritage Area” — did was offer photos and a phone call.
     ”Please let us know if you would be interested in images or if you would like to speak with Robin Malpass regarding the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Area,” is how they put it.
     How about, I countered, we explore the area together? Like most men, I had a hidden agenda — to clap eyes on the I&M Canal, the pathway that led baby Chicago on its first tottering steps from being a few hovels clustered around the pointy log stockage of Fort Dearborn to the sprawling, skyscrapered, dynamic, carnival of a metropolis — on summers other than this one that is — we know and love.

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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Damn you, J.B., for trying to save our lives!

      When pausing to photograph this distinctive sign in generally pleasant, rustic Channahon Monday. I did not consider the juxtaposition with the nostalgic tableau next to it: the classic Schwinn bicycle, its basket full of flowers, the sweet little girl statue.
    And then "J.B. PRITZKER SUCKS." In case you can't read the fine print, it continues, "THE LIFE OUT OF ILLINOIS SMALL BUSINESS."
     It was only later, looking at the picture, that the disconnect between folksy and hateful jumped out. Which is rather like what often happens when you meet people downstate—lovely folks, on the surface, but with a few odious beliefs jingling around their pockets like loose ammunition. 
     The sign doesn't go on to explain exactly how the governor is hoovering vitality from mom and pop establishments. No room and, besides, it's a given. It's assumed you know the problem is his closing down the state, more or less, trying to keep residents from dying of COVID-19.
     Can't the guy who posted the sign see what happens when you don't? 52,000 new cases. Tuesday. Isn't trying to tamp down that curve—surging up again—the kind of effort that even residents of this small community, 60 miles southwest of Chicago, can wrap their heads around. It's not like you need a Ph.D. to figure it out.
      Then again, I have a job, and my wife has a job. Maybe if we were sitting on our hands, day after day, watching our livelihoods shrivel and die and our life savings dwindle away, we might have a very different take on the matter. I don't want to be one of those guys sitting warm and dry in the boat, raising my hot tea and lemon to my lips, tut-tutting at how unseemly are all those thrashing about in the water, splashing in such an unseemly fashion. And those awful cries! Really. Can't they sink wordlessly? That's what I'd do in their position. Blow a few kisses at the governor as I expire.
     Or am I succumbing to that Democratic folk disease, empathy? Wear your fuckin' mask, Jethro.
     If I had presence of mind, I'd have pulled over and knock on the door (and no doubt been shot through it by someone in fear for his life; it isn't only the Right who can traffic in stereotypes). But I was already 20 minutes late—construction traffic on the Stevenson—heading down, and after I had been biking for three hours and just wanted to get home and eat dinner.
    Then again, I don't need to quiz the sign owner. This week the Sun-Times ran a story on the dozen or so death threats against the governor. The Illinoisans making the threats seem to be mostly the mentally ill, or the incarcerated, and not beleaguered small businessmen whose cupcake shops are languishing due to social distancing. The true nature of people come out in a crisis, for good and ill, and it is to be expected that along with the selfless acts of nurses and social service types there are bitter red staters just itchin' to shoot sumptin'.  Not to tell the governor his business, or make my colleague's work any more difficult, but myself, I'd squelch reports of death threats, just so as not to give anybody any ideas. 
     Think about how much you have to hate somebody to condemn him on a sign in your front yard. I like to think, no matter how extreme a situation I'd find myself in, I wouldn't do that. In fact, I don't have to assume. I know. For three years I've watched a liar, bully, fraud and traitor ripping at the foundations of my beloved country, which is worse than driving your bar into receivership. And yet not once found myself condemning him to passing cars. 
    Although, now that I think of it, I have put up a sign.  A neighbor had them printed up, and I eagerly bought one and placed it at the strip of forest along the edge of our yard. Here it is.


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Virus mystery: The case of the missing Fresca


     It is not the most pressing question.
     Let’s get that said right away.
     Among the clamor of impassioned debates and thorny controversies, solving this particular puzzle is not high on anybody’s list. Not even mine, which is why through April, May and the first half of June, I stifled my curiosity, certain that even asking is the definition of privilege.
     The world in chaos — sirens screaming through the streets, a raging pandemic, flames of unrest licking the foundations of our deeply racist society, jobs shattered, the helm spinning. Envision a tumultuous landscape, smoke billowing, thick with cops in riot gear battling protesters waving signs, all noise and conflict and commotion.
     I raise a finger and clear my throat, “A-hem!,” and it somehow magically falls still and silent. All heads — sweaty, masked, soot-stained — swivel in my direction, and I inquire:
     “What happened to Fresca?”

     Because I really like Fresca and typically enjoy a can at lunch. Then Fresca just vanished from stores in March. But unlike toilet paper, it never came back, at least not to the Sunset or the Jewel or other stores near me. There must be a reason, right? If only there were an organization, a company perhaps, that I could ask . . . but who . . . who . . . ?
     Here is where 35 years of journalist experience comes in.
     “I’m a news columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times,” I began in my plea to the Coca-Cola Co. “I’m wondering where Fresca is and when it might come back.”

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