Saturday, June 23, 2018

Yield not to Evil.

    Friday was a busy day. It dawned rainy, which for a moment I hoped would free me from the obligation of attending Northwestern University's 160th commencement—a relief, since commencements are long and windy enough as it is, without adding actual wind, and rain, and cold.
   But no sooner had that emotion registered than I realized, to my surprise, that I didn't want commencement to be washed out. This was a celebration for thousands of people, including myself, my wife and son, and they we had all earned this ceremony. I wanted to go and, the deciding factor, my kid wanted to go. So we dressed in layers, brought garbage bags to sit on, and headed to Ryan Field.
     It was not that bad—not too cold, with a flannel shirt and a fleece and a rain jacket. And not too wet, tucked high under the lip of the stadium. NU president Mort Schapiro was funny as ever, and kept the thing moving, shortening where he could. The music stirred. Opera star Renee Fleming delivered a light, funny, truly inspirational address, urging students to "Find Your Voice," a talk that I thought of summarizing, but instead decided to just encourage you to watch here. 
    After the degrees were conferred and "Alma Mater" sung, lines of graduates tossing their arms around each other and swaying, touchingly, we headed outside of Ryan Field, found our very wet, cold and happy boy, hurried to his apartment for dry clothes, then off to his favorite place to eat—Todoroki on Davis. We lingered and laughed and sushi-loaded, then he peeled off to watch the World Cup, we went home to nap.
    Waking up, I took the dog on her late afternoon stroll, I thought about this post. I could write about a commencement speech, a subject I already touched upon Thursday ... or ... it is end of June; June 22, to be exact. As it happens, the paperback publication date of "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," by Sara Bader and me, the book that the University of Chicago Press published in hardback in September, 2016.
    That was a big deal, with a launch party at the Poetry Foundation and notice in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and lots of publicity. The book ripped through six printings and rose to No. 36 on the Amazon national bestseller list.
The new paperback edition was published Friday.
    A paperback publication ... well, not so big. In fact, it only manifested itself with an oblong cardboard box the U of C Press sent me a month or two ago containing a huge stack of business cards, carrying part of one quote from the book, "YIELD NOT TO EVIL" — Virgil, from "The Aeneid" — on one side, against a pleasing sky blue background. On the other side, the cover of the book—which, if you are unfamiliar, walks readers through recovery from alcoholism or addiction, using literary quotes. The cover is quite tiny, almost illegible. There is a blurb from the New York Journal of Books, "A vivid and accessible panoply of literary and philosophical wisdom" and a promo code to get 20 percent off the paperback.
     Not exactly a full-page ad in the Times. I've wondered whether a passerby, finding this card, would have an idea what it is hawking, particularly without resorting to a magnifying glass. 
    But something. A charmingly low tech bit of ballyhoo. They didn't tell me what to do with the cards. I've been leaving them in public spaces, at airports, in doctor's offices, on the seat of buses and above, at a bus stop on Madison Street, just west of Racine, where it has sat for weeks, waiting for somebody to notice.
    I know the feeling.
    I'm not sure if that's good (it's still there, available to be found) or bad (nobody has yet taken it).  But that kind of ambivalence comes with the bush leagues of publishing. I'd never say I'm glad to be obscure—that would be a lie. But I can say obscurity has a value. I have a number of friends who have had huge, best-selling books. And it distorts them, and forevermore they want huge, best-selling books ,and just regular selling books are a disappointment. Fame is an addiction like any other. You taste it, you crave more.
    Not me. I'm well along the process of getting a deal for my ninth book, another small affair at a small publisher that will cast out a ripple and no more. I'd be an idiot to expect anything beyond that at this point. Yet lack of expectation has not rendered me hopeless. Just the opposite. The mid-list melancholy has fallen away, replaced with a sort of gritty determination, almost a zeal. I'm writing the book because I like the topic. It's interesting and I enjoy doing it, just as I like setting these little cards carefully in public places, my little protest against the cosmos, my tiny manifestation of self. I don't have to worry about being brought down to size; I already am down to size. This is the place where I live, writing my odd little books, giving away essays every goddamn day here, carefully setting these little cards, and I do with almost a cleric's devotion, lighting the candle, saying the prayer. Maybe God hears. Maybe He doesn't. No matter, the prayer get said anyway.
    Work can be like a prayer, if you love it. The doing of it, your success. All the success I'm going to get, anyway. And if a little money comes, that's a small bonus, a consolation prize for participating. Hardly relevant, as the satisfaction wasn't because of a line of zeroes. I loved writing that book. Now out in paperback. I had to plug it here, well, because, as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your work, then nobody will. Which sounds grim, and sometimes is. But sometimes if you care, that's enough.

Friday, June 22, 2018

No media sideshow is complete until Ann Coulter bites the head off a chicken

Shield with Head of Medusa (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
     The word "Geek" has developed cachet. It's practically a compliment. No longer paired with "computer"—the tech aspect is assumed—it refers to someone proficient in all things digital. Fashion-challenged and socially awkward, yes, but that'll change once the stock options get cashed. Geek is good. There's a Canadian web design company called "Geek Power"
Yet "geek" originally had a very different meaning. My trusty Dictionary of American Slang explains:
geek n. 1 . A carnival or circus performer, considered a freak, who performs sensationally disgusting acts that a normal person would not, e.g., eating or swallowing live animals ... A 'half man, half animal' sideshow performer of gory, cannibalistic feats such as eating live snakes, biting off the heads of chickens...
     Sideshows are gone. Or rather, they've gone electronic. As the nation recoiled in revulsion this week at children of refugees being torn from their parents, up popped Ann Coutler to the distressing images into context. She told Fox News:
These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks, 24/7, right now...These kids are being coached, they're given scripts to read by liberals.
     Sensationally disgusting indeed. You see why I immediately thought of bored townsfolk lining up outside a greasy, tattered tent, the barker funneling them in as they hand over their nickels. The stooped geek shuffles onto a tiny stage, clutching a struggling bird tightly by the neck. Some kind of introduction, to build suspense. Then the fowl's head goes into the snaggle-toothed mouth. The jaws come down. The crowd gasps and recoils.
     At least in a circus, you know it's an act. I wish I could say the same regarding Coulter.. When challenged, she insists she believes what she says, no matter how patently false. Maybe she likes to stay in character. Maybe she's that far gone. If so, she has good company. Malicious hallucination is so popular nowadays, I'm expecting to see it on postage stamps, the "American Conspiracy Theory" series.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Live life whole-assedly

      A very wet Thursday afternoon, which makes us about halfway through Northwestern University's four-day graduation  weekend. That is, assuming a downpour Friday doesn't cancel commencement—that's the school's back-up plan: in case of "severe weather," whatever that may be, scrap the event. The kind of consideration I've come to expect from my alma mater.
     At least we aren't flying in from out-of-town. And I've been to an NU commencement before, 36 years ago, though I kinda would like to get in another, if the monsoons cooperate.
     So how's it going? That is, beyond the nagging suspicion that, with their money, they ought to have rented the Allstate Arena as a backup.
     Wednesday was my younger son's induction into Phi Beta Kappa, the honor society founded in 1776. The ceremony was small, in Harris Hall, where I was happy to see a portrait of Richard W. Leopold, my old history of American foreign policy professor, still gracing what they now call Harris 108, though back in the day it was Harris 107, as if that matters to anybody other than a nostalgic alumni. It does to me only because it's the only room number I remember, since nothing will imprint the room number of a class into your mind like a tough 8 a.m. class held in the Socratic method by a no-BS teacher who wrote the textbook. Unless I'm wrong. Prof. Leopold made sure we were always open to that eventuality.

     Perhaps memories of Leopold's incisive mind set me up for disappointment. The ceremonial remarks were by a well-credentialed teacher known for her excellence in situations other than this one. She need not be named—see, I can be kind—and her talk could be summarized thus: Stateville Prison is a scary place where I nevertheless taught Shakespeare to actual prisoners and here's a story about a prisoner learning Shakespeare and here's another story about a prisoner learning Shakespeare and here's another that occurred after I myself walked sweatingly into Stateville to meet this prisoner learning Shakespeare under my tutelage and here's something piquant a prisoner learning Shakespeare from me wrote on a paper that I read. 
     None of it had anything to do with the newly-minted Phi Beta Kappas in the hall, who listened with admirable patience. Nor did she ever get around to pointing out that Stateville is a really bad place filled with really bad people who, to a man, have all done really bad things. She kinda glorified them, to be honest, as well as the prison, which made my wife, an officer of the court, charmingly indignant. I might have given this feedback to the teacher, but she bolted from the room as soon as she finished speaking, no doubt leaving a number of those remaining wishing she had contrived to flee about 15 minutes earlier.
     Happily, the professionals took over Thursday. The Honors Ceremony, celebrating utterly fantastic students such as my son, was MC'ed by the President of Northwestern himself, the effervescent Mort Schapiro. It would be unfair to compare him to the president of Pomona College, whom I reported on last month, since it was her first year in office and she was practically hyperventilating with stress. 
      Schapiro, who has been president of NU since 2009 and at Williams for a decade before that, was smooth without being crass, humorous but not silly, riffing on the experience the students entrusted to NU's care.
     "I hope we didn’t mess ‘em up," he said. "I hope we made them even better.” 
Abigail Kutlas
     Speaking for myself, yes, Mr. President, you did. Better, smarter, deeper. Sharpened and honed and stropped to a razor-fine edge.
     Schapiro's other outstanding moment was when one of the student hosts flubbed the pronunciation of "Alma Mater" —pronouncing the latter word "May-ter" instead of "Mah-ter" not once, but several times, until people in the audience were calling out the correct pronunciation.
     "May-ter, Mah-ter, To-may-to, to-mah-to," Schapiro quipped, to relieved laughter.
     I'd have left the Phi Beta Kappa speaker's botch job unremarked upon, were she not put to shame so utterly by a student, the Honors Ceremony speaker, Abigail Kutlas, a learning sciences major, who stuck her landing in a brief yet thoughtful speech on the importance of not over-scheduling, a topic she made relevant to every single person in the hall, students and parents alike.
     "One of the hardest lessons we learn is when to say 'No' to something we love," she said, a line which would have been whipped into my literary recovery book in a heartbeat, had I heard it a few years ago. She talked about the danger of taking on so many challenges that you don't do any of them well.
     "Remember not to half-ass two things when you can whole-ass one of them,"* she quoted a mentor as saying, words that should be inscribed on plaques and handed out freshman year, and really the line that prompted to me write this entire post, to lead up to it.
     We headed outside. The reception was in a tent east of Norris Center, but I had to collect the car, due to an expiring meter, and would meet my son and wife there.
     "You know the way to Norris Center?" my son asked, with a twinkle. "Was it here when you went to school in, what, the 1930s?"

     I let him have his fun. If he isn't feeling on the top of the world this week, he never will. Eye contact, a firm handshake and "thanks dad" only happens in the movies, and I interpret him busting my chops as about as close to thanks as he can get, at the moment. And if he never does, well, any parent who is in it for the thanks is both an idiot and disappointed. 
     To be honest, I'm feeling pretty good myself, too good to be irked over trifles. I ran into Mort Schapiro at the president's luncheon afterward—quite the spread, by the way, well done, Northwestern Dining—shook his hand, praised the excellence of a certain literature professor whose work we both admire, and remarked upon the vast improvement of the college over the past 40 years.
     "I liked the place better seen through his eyes than I did through my own," I told him. "You've done great things to the place." Which is very true, a most welcome redemption. Or as the song goes: "Hail to Purple! Hail to White! Hail to thee, Northwestern!"

* A Facebook reader points out that this line is lifted from the "Parks and Recreation" TV show. In Kutlas's defense, the quip could have been expropriated by her mentor. She seems too busy to watch much TV. 

Flashback 1998: "Preschool: life or debt issue"

The Children of Nathan Star, by Ambrose Andrews (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    Twenty years. Twenty years of wrangling public education for our boys. Which might sound like an exaggeration, since the oldest boy is still only 22. 
    "What," you might forgiven for scoffing, "were you picking schools for him when he was 2?" 
   Yes, yes we were. And I offer up the following column, from 1998, as documentary proof.
    Twenty years. Quite a lot, really. I am not complaining. I am not am not am not. There are many parents to whom sending their kids to school would be an unattainable dream. And I'm not quite bragging either.
      So what is it then? Marking the occasion. Just saying that staggering across the finish line Friday, when the youngest graduates Northwestern, I am relieved. We are relieved. It is time. Yes, they both are going to law school, so another three years ahead of them. And to a degree us. But not the same degree. Now it's their turn. Twenty years is enough. 

     There was an article in Harper's awhile back by a man who had driven his family deep into debt. Despite an income, with his wife, of $ 100,000, they had been plunged into bankruptcy and ruin. Their home was beset by bill collectors and credit card companies, all demanding, in shrill and rising tones, the tens of thousands of dollars the family owed.
     What had brought them to such ruin? Gambling? Drugs? Psychic hotline addiction?
     No; private schools.
     The family has three children and, unwilling to subject them to public schools, wrecked themselves trying to pay for private education.
     I have been thinking about that family all week, brooding, like Saul in his tent, over their fate, the first whiff of which, I believe, I have just deeply inhaled. Wearing roller skates and poised at the top of that short slope to utter financial disaster, I felt the first sharp poke in my back.
     Our 2 1/2-year-old was accepted into a pre-nursery school for the fall.
     People who are reading this on farms, with the wind rustling the willows and their children playing out back with Spot the dog and Fluffy the cat, might not quite understand the concept of a pre-nursery school. "What kind of people would send their li'l ones away so young?" says grandma, coming through the screen door with a freshly baked huckleberry pie.
     "I don't know, Nana," says Bea, drying the dishes with a patch of homespun and gazing at her children, running through the rye. "It must be a city thing."
     You're right, Bea, it is a city thing. Though for the life of me, I can't understand it either. My mother didn't pack me off to preschool until I was 4, and then I made her pull me out because there were other children there and, frankly, I didn't like them.
     Two-and-a-half hours a day, three days a week. It isn't as if we're sending him away to a boarding school in Switzerland. (Hmmm . . .) Just enough to get him to learn to share his toys and finger paint and socialize with others and be spared the life of maladjusted elitism that, well, afflicts so many people nowadays.
     Then there is the break it provides his mother. A few gasps of air; the difference between swimming and drowning.
     My wife searched for a preschool with the tenacity of a young actress trying to land her first role, and with about the same initial success. The prestigious day care a block from our house (it's in a brownstone, like an embassy) rejected us with a form letter (a form letter addressed to a different child but sent to our home, to add insult to injury). Other places turned up their noses as well.
     Finally, the call came, just when she had given up hope. I was there when my wife took the call. It was like one of those Publishers Clearinghouse commercials.
     "It's pretty expensive," she said, a little later, after composing herself. "What do you think?"
     "Well," I said, "given the fact that you wept like a baby for joy when they called, I guess we sort of have to."
     Now, with so many columnists making up things nowadays, I want to point out that the above conversation really, truly happened. We also discussed whether we should pay for the school by not paying our real estate taxes. I called out after her, as she hurried to the school to give them our check, "Honey, remember to rob a liquor store on your way home."
     The preschool tuition, I noted with horror, was as much as the tuition I paid Northwestern University the fall semester of my freshman year.
      I'm certainly not looking for pity. I just want readers to understand that, when I start writing column after column about our cute little farm 50 miles away in Harvard, Ill., I didn't move out of the city on a lark.
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 25, 1998

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Space Force to the rescue!

     We live in the Golden Age of Irony.
     Either that, or irony is dead.
     I'm not sure which.
     Unless irony is both alive and dead,.
     Which wouldn't make sense. Then again, there's a lot of not-making-sense going around lately.
     We've almost gotten used to it.
     Time was, the president of the United States said some blatant, self-serving lie, it was a big deal. Now the media just sighs and shuffles over to an enormous slate wall covered floor-to-ceiling with hash marks, picks up a stub of chalk, climbs a ladder and draws another vertical line. Scrrreeee.
     At least we're keeping track. Maybe that's how we'll think of this historical era, someday, if we can bear to think of it at all. "Back when we kept track...."
      The Era of Keeping Track, reality on this side, the near-hallucinogenic state of Donald Trump's inflamed ego on the other. The verifiable, fact-based world, to the left, and to the right, a steamy chaotic whirlwind chaos of fabrication and paranoia, starting with the president and funneling into his entire support infrastructure of sycophants and enablers and apologists and quislings.
     And voters. Yeah, you. Have you picked up on the fact that I'm criticizing the president? Just now? Really? About time. Where have you been? No, don't answer that. Don't answer at all. Because a) yes, I'm paid to write this b) yes, I really believe it; c) no, I don't consider either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton to be the true cause of our nation's woes; d)...
     Where was I?
     Irony, both alive and dead.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The joy of being wrong

       Do you ever wonder why uninformed people cling to ignorance?
       You can be holding proof that they're wrong under their nose, neatly laid out in charts and graphs and documentary photographs, and they wave it off. They don't want to know. They don't want to be educated. They don't care they're wrong. They're fine as they are.
       The relevant phrase is "cognitive dissonance," and the quick definition is, when you align your personality, your essence, your being, with a certain worldview, then you need to maintain that worldview. So you accept the facts that endorse it. And reject those that don't.  The fact that you're "wrong," in some specific or cosmic sense, does not matter.
      A lot of people are like that, but it isn't the only approach to life. When you don't define your personality by a particular belief, you are free to revise your outlook as facts warrant, and I had a dramatic example of that last month. 
    Governor Bruce Rauner celebrated Motorcycle Awareness Month by tweeting a photograph of himself astride one of his bikes, along with a link to the Illinois Department of Transportation's safety tips for motorcyclists page which, cravenly, did not whisper the suggestion that riders wear a helmet. I couldn't resist the chance to blow a few well-earned raspberries in the direction of Gov. Moribund, and did so
    But a number of readers wrote in with this observation: You've never even ridden a motorcycle, so shut up.
    At one level, that is an easy criticism to dismiss. It's the same logic used to silence critics of Chicago who do not themselves live in the boundaries of the city, and I was able to ignore that long enough to write a book about the place, albeit one focusing on outsiders such as myself. 
    Demanding that only members of a certain group are allowed to critique it is easily refuted: if that were the case, only fish could write about marine biology.
     However. At another level, they did have a point. I haven't ridden on a motorcycle, and it isn't as if they're unaccessible, or if riding one is on the same level of complexity as moving to Chicago.  I could learn;  the enormous Chicago Harley Davidson is 10 minutes down the street from where I live. 
    So I went there, to see about classes, and was given a tour by a very proud general manager, Steve Trujillo, who stressed that if you think of bikers like the guys in "The Wild Ones," as bearded and heavily tattooed outlaws, well, that isn't everybody. They also have doughy middle aged guys like me. 
    The place is very clean. With lots of beautiful motorcycles dripping in chrome. I didn't sign up, yet. Let's get these boys rested and out into the world again. And to be honest, 20 hours of motorcycle instruction over four days—well, that is a lot. 
     Still, while I was there, I couldn't help confront this wall of helmets and grab an extra-large and try it on. Just to see if it fit my big head.
     And here I laughed, out loud. OOO, this is uncomfortable, thought I. Get this thing off me.
    The cold drop of ignorance hitting the hot pan of experience. 
     Yes, it was a full-face helmet—which you need if you don't want your chin to be scraped off on a stretch of asphalt somewhere. I imagine I'd go for a less-enclosing model and hope for the best.
     I wouldn't yank that think off quicker had it been on fire. Laughing all the while, deep and  long and sincere. See, this is what all those people too afraid of challenging their beliefs to take in new information miss: the joy of saying, "Hey, I was wrong! I didn't know what I was talking about." That doesn't diminish you. It expands you. Being wrong, when warranted, takes confidence. Takes the knowledge that shifting an opinion doesn't undercut your personality; it enhances it.
    Of course any one input is not the final word. If I go ass-over-tea kettle someday I might come to appreciate the more complete protection of a full-face helmet. But for the moment, standing in front of those helmets at Chicago Harley-Davidson, I laughed and laughed, and had to share it with you. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Run Stormy run! A porn star for president? Why not? We've had worse.

"The Scream" (detail) by Edvard Munch (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "Should I run for president?" Stormy Daniels asked the Tribune over the weekend, during her sweep into Chicago to perform at the Admiral Theatre strip club.
     Daniels, in case you are fortunate enough not to already be vastly familiar with every detail of her lubricious life, is the adult film star who ... "had an affair" is the euphemism du jour, but that overstates the case. This isn't exactly "Anna Karenina" we're talking about, is it? The pneumatic porn princess who scre... whoops, family newspaper ... who had sex a dozen years ago with Donald Trump.
     "God no!" was my immediate reaction—something of a mantra at this point. Nearly 18 months into the Trump presidency, Democrats have descended into the curl-up-in-a-fetal-position-and-screech-"No!" phase of our torment under the daily, if not hourly lash of lies, accusations and lurching departures from tradition and humanity, all in a monsoon downpour of Republican malice.
     Last week's summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un seems a hundred years ago, as outcry builds against the children of asylum seekers—and this is a country built, remember, by asylum seekers—being stripped from their parents and herded into makeshift detention camps, part of a policy of cruelty designed to keep refugees from seeking shelter at our borders. The horror and shame of this situation is ...
     Maybe I'm being hasty, dismissing the prospect of a Stormy Daniels presidency. It could happen. She is a Republican. And if nothing else, Republicans have established that they will not only tolerate, but celebrate, well, just about anything, provided it is done by a fellow Republican, particularly one named Trump. Explode the national debt? Check. Scuttle health care? Double check. Embrace a shunned global pariah and declare his vague general assurances as hard-won, binding commitments? Please sir may I have another! The aforementioned human rights atrocity at the border? Well, if it discourages immigration.... (So would burning the children alive in front of their parents. Maybe that's coming. And if you huffily insist that's impossible, remember "impossible" now happens daily at 4 o'clock. So you'd better come up with a better retort.)

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