Friday, October 31, 2014

Chilly Halloween

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

A true Halloween fright: IRS seizing assets of the innocent

     History will sort out whether the bitter, right-wing hatred of Barack Obama was significantly greater than the bitter, right-wing hatred of John F. Kennedy or Franklin D. Roosevelt or any previous president.
     It sure feels that way, a six-year typhoon of endless shrieking malice, where whatever the president says or does, from saluting his Marine guard with a coffee cup in his hand to invading (or failing to invade) a particular country becomes that day’s reason to get worked into a lather of condemnation.
     That it hurts our country is without question. First, we can’t get anything done. Huge problems — immigration, global warming, infrastructure, health care costs, you name it — just sit there, unaddressed, festering.
     Second, though they don’t realize it, the poisonous passion of the right corrupts the causes they embrace. While I don’t view Obama’s term in office quite as a dud, I would expound on his failings more if doing so didn’t put me on the same bench with a bunch of muttering, tin-foil-hatted crazies.
     Or take worry about government overreach. The balanced view is that government, like any entity, does some good things, does some bad things, and is capable of great success and great failure. On the whole I would say it works; too big, perhaps, but it functions, Congress notwithstanding.
     The far right — and here they join hands, ironically, with the far left — owns fear of government. To them, the U.S. government is a terrifying enemy, an occupying force.
     So when I felt the fear myself this week—and about that classic far-right bogeyman, the Internal Revenue Service no less—it was doubly unsettling: first feeling the fear, then recognizing whose fear I was sharing.
     Over what? The New York Times ran a piece on its front page that was terrifying. The IRS, looking for tax cheats, has a rule where banks must flag cash deposits over $10,000. So in an attempt to avoid this scrutiny, drug dealers and other criminal types engaging in illegal cash activities keep their deposits under $10,000, a practice the IRS calls "structuring" deposits.
     But legal small-business owners who aren't trying to hide anything, just get the money from their hot dog cart into the bank, also make regular small cash deposits.
     You'd think the IRS would differentiate between running a drug ring and running a bakery. But they didn't. The IRS was seizing assets from hundreds of small businesses that had not broken any law. Then it was up to those businesses to prove they had not committed a crime. Then maybe, though not always, they could get their money back.
     This is totalitarianism. It violates a wide swath of the Constitution, the Fourth (barring unreasonable seizure) the Fifth (barring punishment without due process of law) the Sixth (right to speedy trial) and, arguably, Seventh through Tenth amendments too.
     The story created the briefest ripple. It has to be the Boy who Cried Wolf Syndrome: After years of maligning government as an awful police state, evidence that an agency was abusing its authority didn't register. The IRS seizing your money when you have done nothing wrong, without having to prove its case or make an allegation, should be more alarming than Benghazi and Ebola combined. It sure is to me.
     I asked the IRS about this; they blamed Congress: "Whether the funds come from a legal or illegal source, structuring bank deposits or withdrawals to evade Bank Secrecy Act reporting requirements is a felony," the agency said in a statement to the Sun-Times. "The law, written by Congress, authorizes law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit money and property involved in structuring violations."
     Still, they're going to dial back.
     "We recognize that small businesses and other taxpayers often make deposits under $10,000 without any intent to avoid the reporting requirements—that is not structuring," the statement continues. "After conducting a review of structuring cases (which predated the recent press reports), the IRS concluded that it will focus its limited resources on cases where evidence indicates that the structured funds are derived from illegal sources."
     Well that's encouraging. I can't decide whether I should be relieved that they're stopping, or continue being aghast that they ever did it in the first place. A little of both, I suppose. Mistakes do happen, and actions that make sense in an administrator's office have a way of seeming unforgivably stupid in the light of day. The country is a vast clockwork of systems and balances, and it's a big job to keep it all running in tune.

A Halloween Tale of Haitian Vodou

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Galway Kinnell: Wait, for now

Galway Kinnell

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

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

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

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

Rowing in Chicago, "a beautiful sport."

Ann Kinnealey goes for a row.

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

     To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

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

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

Press agentry bobs to the surface

     This Internet machine is popular and there's a lot of interesting stuff on it.
     But not everything is online.
     For instance, last Friday, when I realized that the centennial of Dylan Thomas' birth was coming up Monday, and that he had done readings in Chicago, I thought it might be fun to find out what one of those readings had been like.
     Easier said than done.
     "Dylan Thomas in Chicago" on Google turned up pretty much nothing. Checking books like Thomas in America on Google Books merely confirmed that he had been here, and coughed up a quote of him referring to it "bitterly snowing" in Chicago in a letter to his parents. Not much to hang your hat on.
     Phone calls to the Arts Club and the Newberry Library came up empty. The Poetry Foundation president offered some thoughtful, big picture stuff, but nothing about the events themselves, which took place before his birth. The Northwestern University archive shared a Daily Northwestern story in advance of Thomas' reading in Evanston. But no reporting on what happened there.
     For a moment, I flashed on Terry and Judith and Virginia and Connie and all the Sun-Times librarians of the past. Once upon a time I'd enlist them to help me. All long gone.
     So I tracked down the key to the  basement stacks—for an awful moment I thought it had been lost in our big move. But it was finally located, in a box of junk. Down into the basement of our building, past the offices of Comcast SportsNet, where I always crane my neck and look through the windows and have the same 12-year-old's thought: "I wonder if Stacey King is in there?" The Bulls broadcaster, nearly a poet himself, brimming with all sorts of rhymes and colorful Red Barber locutions. "Heart hustle and muscle!" 
     Down the long fluorescent hall. Past the sad little office holding the last of the Andy Frain empire. To the unmarked door containing the newspaper's dusty, decaying, neglected and haphazard morgue, as they called it, our collection of clip files—drawer after drawer of thick beige envelopes, jammed with yellowed newspaper stories, assembled for decades by our team of patient, slightly crazy librarians. They are called "clip files" because they were clipped from newspapers; the librarians would spend their days ripping apart newspapers, circling key words in china marker.Now we have no librarians. The assumption—assuming that anyone cares or gives this issue thought, which is a stretch—is that online contains multitudes, and good enough is a feast.
      Wandering among the jumble of randomly placed metal cabinets. Locate the "Ts." Where two envelopes with Dylan Thomas were right where they were supposed to be, and in them exactly one story about Dylan Thomas reading at the Arts Club.
     Take that, Internet.
     Van Allen Bradley's brief story had a lot of verve in it, particularly his phrase about expecting Thomas to look like an "unmade bed." I loved that. 
      There was one mistake in it, though I believe it is a telling mistake.
      "Something's wrong with the math you posted," Al Yellon wrote on Facebook after my column on Thomas ran Monday. "The Daily News article you cite seems to say that he was 35 years old in 1952 -- which would mean he was born in 1917, but obviously that isn't right."
      Well, not so obviously. I hadn't noticed anything wrong or thought to check it. Busy being my own librarian. In my rush, I missed that someone sliced three years off the age of Thomas, who obviously was born in 1914—that was the whole point of bringing him up, 100 years, not 97, since his birth.  The story had him as 35 years old, not 38.
      Which made me smile, because I realized what had happened.
      Yes, Van Allen Bradley might have made a mistake. Hit the wrong key on his manual typewriter.
     But dimes get you dollars, this error, this artifact, is the 62-year-old echo of a sleight of hand or a bit of press agentry. Just as the bad boy of modern poetry's reputation made the Chicago Daily News critic expect someone more disheveled, so I bet Thomas fibbed, or his handlers decided to shave a few years off his age, the better to draw in the customers at $2 a pop.  I can't be certain. But things don't change all that much. Youth sells, then and now, even in poetry. Maybe especially in poetry. Everybody wants to be Lord Byron, who died at 36. And it's comforting to remember that even the greats—maybe especially the greats—had all the worries and challenges that we regular schlebs have, if not more so. 
     The lie exposed—an apt, brief definition of poetry. That's why I never fudge my age—I was born June 10, 1960. Because the truth will out. I know guys who do, and it adds to the unspeakable sorrow of being a B-list quasi-celebrity in a Midwest town. And as Dylan Thomas himself said: "Youth calls to age across the tired years." I have no idea what that means but, like so much in Dylan Thomas, it sure sounds swell. 


Monday, October 27, 2014

Fear trumps science, as usual

     So ... half the government is telling us that Ebola is very hard to catch, which seems to be true, in that you have to actually handle the bodily fluids of the infected. You can't breath it in on the subway.
     Meanwhile, the other half of the government is calling for travel bans and quarantines and military involvement, and medical care workers who come back from Africa, even if they seem to be a little sick, or not sick at all, are being forcibly quarantined, despite the fact that the only people who are really at risk of catching the disease are the people caring for them.
     Which is it? 
     To me, the really bad thing about the Great American Ebola Scare of 2014, beside the fact that it happened and is still happening, is that next time some genuinely contagious disease occurs, our country will be less ready to cope with it, because people will look back at this enormous to-do over nearly nothing that we put ourselves through over Ebola, the little virus that cried wolf. (Not that it isn't a serious problem in Africa. But we aren't in Africa). 
     The top of the news just now was a nurse who apparently never had the disease is now coming out of the quarantine she never should have been put under in the first place. And of course she might sue. I have a hard time believing that that is really the most important thing going on in the world right now. We should be so lucky. Deep breath time.

Dylan Thomas at 100: "just one of the boys"

     The odd thing about this column is that I don't particularly like Dylan Thomas. I have many favorite poets and he isn't one of them. But with the centennial upon us, I realized he had gone through Chicago on his readings, and wondered, provincially, what that was like. Thomas fits into a list I think of as "People You Never Think Of As Being in Chicago."
Lincoln's nomination, Chicago
Winston Churchill, for instance. Or Col. George Armstrong Custer. Golda Meir lived here. For some reason I include Abraham Lincoln, because even though we know that he was HERE—heck, he got his first nomination at the Wigwam, which was located at Lake and Wacker Drive—we associate him with Springfield or Washington, and you just don't think about Lincoln trodding these streets. At least I don't. We do know Oscar Wilde was here, because of his famous crack about the Water Tower looking like a "a castellated monstrosity with pepperboxes stuck all over it," which sounds about right. Rudyard Kipling was here, too, and said, less famously:
I have struck a city--a real city--and they call it Chicago. The other places do not count. San Francisco was a pleasure-resort as well as a city, and Salt Lake was a phenomenon. This place is the first American city I have encountered. It holds rather more than a million of people with bodies, and stands on the same sort of soil as Calcutta. Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again.
Anyway, raise a glass to Dylan Thomas, born 100 years ago today.

     Dylan Thomas surprised Van Allen Bradley.
     Based on the Welsh writer’s reputation, the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News had expected the 35-year-old poet to resemble “an unmade bed.”
Dylan Thomas
     Instead Thomas, who appeared at Chicago’s Arts Club, then at 109 E. Ontario, for a reading April 23, 1952, was dapper, “handsome in his dark suit and blue polka-dot tie,” though he insulted “the bunch of eccentrics” who ponied up $2 apiece to hear him.
     Thomas, whose 100th birthday is Monday, made some memorable appearances in Chicago on his way to becoming among the best-known poets of the 20th century.
     “Dylan Thomas loved Chicago,” Jo Furber, literature officer of the Swansea Council in his birthplace, told WalesOnline.
      And Chicago, like America and the world, loved him back. To many readers, Dylan Thomas is the embodiment of poetry.
     “For a lot of people, he was synonymous with poetry,” said Robert Polito, president of Chicago’s Poetry Foundation. “If you’re an American of a certain age, it’s very likely either   Robert Frost or Dylan Thomas was the first great poet you encountered as a kid."
     Frost had his woods, both snowy and yellow. Why Thomas?
    "I think Thomas' vatic qualities," Polito said, referring to his peering into the future. "The intensity of the writing, and the flamboyance of the personality, plus the whole myth of him."
     Thomas' ethnicity also is very important.
     "Growing up in Wales, everyone, every school-age kid, has taken a field trip," said David Parry, founder of the Chicago Tafia Welsh Society. "Wales is only a country of 3 million people; every time someone from Wales is on the international stage, it just stands out a little more."
      Parry, who organized a celebration of Thomas' works Sunday at Woodlawn Tap (including hauling out the cherished bar books that Thomas signed during his visits there), said it is his life as much if not more than his writing that makes him so beloved.
     "The poems and the man himself, I think," Parry said. "He was the embodiment of a Welshman: a carousing, boozing womanizing sort of reprobate. There's something about those characters in Wales. He was famous but still one of the boys."
     Thomas famously drank himself to death at age 39 - 18 whiskeys at the White Horse Tavern in New York City. No commemorations are planned at that bar, it seems.
     "There's nobody here who knows anything," said the bartender taking my call.
     For his 1952 Arts Club reading, Thomas was introduced by Karl Shapiro, a poet of no small renown himself, then editor of Poetry Magazine, who called Thomas "the greatest lyric poet now alive." Bradley, the Daily News critic, sniffed at that introduction as "too generous, perhaps, in view of the selections from his own work Thomas read." Though in Bradley's defense, Thomas was a controversial "ultramodern" poet whose poems were being praised as "the most absolute poetry that has been written in our time," which fairly screams for disagreement, which others provided, damning his work as "an unconducted tour of bedlam."
     Bradley enjoyed it when Thomas read Yeats, and British poet Edward Thomas, but found Thomas' own poems obscure.
     "His verbal pyrotechnics are pleasant to hear, but their meanings sometimes are quite unclear to his listeners."
     Which, Polito observes, was a good thing.
     "Thomas' poems epitomize the sounds of poetry while also resisting the intelligence," he said. "It's part of what makes them still seem modern to us. You really have to puzzle them out, line by line, word by word. At the same time, as you're trying to figure them out, it just sounds like this tremendous clanging music and sonic clamor."
     Although Bradley did appreciate one of Thomas' poems, with its unambiguous refrain, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," enough to mention it by name.
     "The best of his own poems heard Wednesday night were 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' from his new book."
      The next night Thomas recited, for free, at Northwestern, though coverage of his appearance at Tech Auditorium was dwarfed in the Daily Northwestern by news that red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy would be packing them in the next night at Patten Gym.
      Chicago made the expected impression on Thomas. "In Chicago it was bitterly snowing," Thomas wrote his parents, complaining that he never knew what to wear on any given day. "In Florida, the temperature was 90." But Thomas did not love Florida, a reminder that sometimes it's the hardest roads that make for the most memorable journeys.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Beautiful hat

     "That's a beautiful hat," I thought, but did not say, to the young lady pausing next to me, both of us waiting at the light at the corner of Wacker and Franklin last Thursday morning. "You don't often see a hat such as that. My grandmother used to knit similar hats for us when we children, though it had a big spherical puff of yarn bobbing on a strand of yarn on top and, being a self-respecting boy, in later years I would cut the puff off to maintain my air of masculinity, all the while feeling guilty for defacing my grandmother's handiwork."
     The light changed and we crossed north together, me stealing glances to the right, eyeing the hat: hand-knitted, quite intricate, gray yarn, with that depth that you get with hand-knitting. A very pleasant shade of gray.
    I veered left toward the entrance of River Point North. She followed, in step with me.
    "It's called a 'cholla,'" I further resisted saying aloud. "A style unchanged for a thousand years. They find mummies in the Peruvian Andes wearing an identical style of hat, though they are leather and not knit. The pre-Columbian Indians had weaving, but did not know of knitting."
     I glanced under her hat to her face. Quite pretty, but set in that traveling mask that pretty women assume when going from place to place, I suppose to ward off unwelcome comments from guys like me.
     "The word 'knit' is related to 'knot,' interestingly enough," I knew better than to even consider saying. "Both tracing back to a Dutch root, though the earliest known knitted artifact is a Greco-Roman sock from the 5th century."
     It's frustrating, to me, because I wasn't trying to pick her up. It was a pretty hat and I figured, as its owner, she'd want to know. It was a kindness, on my part, being stifled by petty social convention. And something worth noting. Most hats are not pretty. And I suppose I was interested in sharing my knowledge of that particularly hat, gleaned while research my hat book years ago. But that's what bores do: harangue their audiences with their knowledge, regardless of how it would be received. I try not to be a bore, knowing so many who either don't try or perhaps try and fail. Shutting up, as I've said here, is an unappreciated art form.
     Traversing the front of the building I paused, as I always do, and set my hand upon the leftward bollard, and looked at the top of the Willis Tower.
     "God, I'm in Chicago," I did say aloud, under my breath, quoting a line a 15-year-old Jesse Jackson said upon arriving in Chicago. That gave her a chance to scoot ahead of me and make some distance across the lobby.
     I followed her across the lobby, she pressed 11 and was assigned to elevator F by the strange elevator system that I fancy exists at our building and nowhere else on earth; I've certainly never seen it anywhere else.  I pressed 10—my new floor—and drew B. Now, a few feet away, any chance for conversation was gone. I looked at the hat again, then her face again, trying to memorize her features. Maybe another day I'd be on the elevator and have a chance to surprise her.
    "You know, that' was a beautiful grey knit hat you were wearing the other day," I'd say. "You don't often see a hat such as that...."
     She stepped on the elevator and vanished. The modern safety elevator, you know, was developed in New York City in the 1850s by Elisha Otis, who arranged a dramatic demonstration by cutting the...
      Sorry, I'll stop now.    

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

      Today is John Berryman's 100th birthday, which has nothing to do with where this lovely painting of a bee pollinating flowers might be located.  But I thought it worth mentioning, particularly since most readers won't be familiar with John Berryman (don't feel bad; until recently I kept confusing him with John Ashbery, another American poet, because both have the first name "John" and "berry" or "-bery" in their last names. Harold Bloom I'm not).
      Today's birthday is especially noteworthy, since the centennial of another great poet, Dylan Thomas, is this Monday (John Ashbery was born in July, so we can leave him out of this, or try to). I'll be writing about his legacy in Chicago then. 
     A coincidence, to have such major poets born a day apart: I can't think of another instance like it, unless it's Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin being born on the same day, but neither were very good poets.
John Berryman
     Of the two poets born between Oct. 25 and Oct. 27, 1914, Berryman is the less familiar. Born in McAlester, Oklahoma, he, like Thomas, lived a tortured life, pouring his struggles out into blunt, beautiful writing. Berryman was less oblique, more humorous than Thomas. You can read a thoughtful appreciation of Berryman on the excellent Poetry Foundation blog by clicking here.
     Both came to early ends: Thomas drinking himself to death at age 39, downing his famous 18 whiskies at the White Horse Tavern in New York, Berryman a suicide at 57, jumping to his death in Minneapolis, from the Washington Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi. Sad to think that men so capable of carefully crafting deathless words could be so careless in preserving their own lives, but that is the familiar pattern, established in part by these two (John Ashbery is, miribile dictu, still alive, at 87, and a reminder that as bad as it is for the person involved and everyone they know, early death can be a savvy career move).
     I only became familiar with Berryman working on my new book—my co-author Sara Bader and I quote from his novel Recovery and his exquisite "Eleven Addresses to the Lord," which begin: 

      Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
      inimitable contriver,
      endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,
      thank you for such as it is my gift.
     "Boring moon"—that's such a great phrase, and where you see Berryman's whimsy peeking through. You can hear the first address read by Mark Jarman by clicking here.  Though my favorite lines from the lengthy work—a prayer really, though if more prayers were like this then more people would pray—are these:

         Fearful I peer upon the mountain path
         where once Your shadow passed. Limner of the clouds
         up their phantastic guesses. I am afraid,
         I never until now confessed.
         I fell back in love with you, Father, for two reasons:
         You were good to me, & a delicious author.

         I think it's the simple selfish honesty of the first words of that last line and the plain truth of the concluding phrase. Though if you know what "up their phantastic guesses" means, please tell me, as I have no idea.
        I'm tempted to make answering that question the contest, but it would be hard to pick a winner, which would be unfortunate, as today's  activity has a special prize for the person who solves it. 
     Every goddam day welcomes two sponsors in  November. Our old friend, Eli's Cheesecake will be back, to enliven November and December with their holiday advertisements, as they did last year. And Bridgeport Coffee, which will have an ad go up in the middle of November. They've showered me with bags of their locally-roasted beans. I've tried "Mayors Blend," which is not as strong as I expected, aptly enough given the name, but makes for very drinkable, flavorful brew. 
     The first person to guess where this gorgeous bee is painted wins a 12 ounce bag of whole bean Mayors Blend (the lack of a possessive gave me pause, but to be charitable to an advertiser—a long journalistic tradition; God, I hope this doesn't wind up on Romenesko—can be explained, sort of, by the fact that, as the bag notes, Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood  was "home to 5 of Chicago's 45 mayors." A plurality of mayors, so it can be "Mayors Blend" the way Nov. 11 is "Veterans Day" (yet in May comes "Mother's Day," despite the multitude of mothers. An idiosyncratic language, this).
      And though the coffee bag is a little vague whether it is the coffee or the Bridgeport mayors that are "smooth and loved by everyone," that point could be the subject of reasonable debate, which is always enhanced by good coffee.  Anyway, best of luck, and please post your guesses below. Twitter and Facebook guesses don't count. 


Friday, October 24, 2014

Divvy diary: You'd break a lot too if Chicago sat on you

Frank Jackson works repairs a Divvy bike at their service center Thursday.

     There are two basic kind of columns: riff columns and research columns. Riff columns are when you grab something off the news and play with it. Those are usually done the quickest, the easiest, and end up being the most talked about and popular.
      And then there are columns that involve going somewhere and talking to people, like today's on the repair center for the Divvy ride share program. Those are harder, more satisfying, and tend to sink like a stone. Yet I prefer them, and try to do as many as I can think of. This one began a week or so back, when a reader emailed me a photograph of a Divvy bike at the bottom of a lagoon. "I bet," I thought, "those bikes get abused in all sorts of elaborate ways." (I also went rowing at the Lincoln Park Boat Club Sunday because of that same email; I truly do try to get out of the office).
      Normally I'd research a column like this on a Monday or Wednesday, when I didn't have a column the next day, to give myself a chance to visit, take notes, process and consider them, do additional research and such. This I turned around in a couple hours Thursday afternoon, so doesn't quite have the snap I would have liked. The Divvy folk, while nice people, were slow to start sharing stories of the bikes being abused—I think they were reluctant to give anybody ideas. For example, that stripped bike body mounted on the wall, pictured below. It obviously was a trophy of some sort, and I had to ask three different people before I got a bit of the story behind it.  Time was not the friend of this column. I turned this in at 5 p.m. feeling like it should have been more, but this would have to do.

    OK, I confess. I did consider taking a taxi to the Divvy repair center. It’s way the heck over at Hubbard and Hoyne, and the forecast mentioned rain.
     But the sun was shining when I left the office Thursday morning, so I rolled a Divvy out of the Mart station, but not before counting 11 of the 23 bikes there — 47 percent — had cracked seats, from inch-long slashes to saddles cut up and coming apart.
     It’s the plastic, in the 120-degree Chicago temperature swings — from 105 above to 15 below — that take a toll on Divvys, as do graffiti artists, malicious persons, potholes, and regular wear and tear of having Chicago’s collective hot dog-larded backside repeatedly plopped down upon the bikes, riding them in all kinds of weather with all levels of care and skill, averaging 2,000 miles per bicycle.
     I Divvyed to Damen and Grand and left the bike at the dock (of 10 bikes, five with cracked seats, for an even 50 percent).
     Divvy’s service center has no sign—if you don’t know it’s here, you don’t belong. I was met by Eric Erkel, station manager, and Elliot Greenberger, whom regular readers may remember as the patient Divvy spokesman. He said that during the summer, about 350 of Divvy’s 3,000 light blue DaVinci Bixi bikes were out for repair at any given time. Before us, hundreds of bikes waited for service — the wait can take two months — or were fixed and ready to go out.
     The most common problems are with tires. “Lot of normal wear and tear,” Erkel said. “Flats. Bent wheels that stem from riders not paying attention or potholes."
     Divvy has 70 employees, with nine devoted to repair. In the field they check bikes, the brakes, shifters, bells, fix what they can without bringing them in. Flats are fixed using "ribbon tubes" that allow the flat tubes to be cut out and the new tubes snaked in without removing the wheel, "which saves massive amounts of time," Erkel said.
     "Some repairs are harder than others," repairman Mack Franciskovitch said. "Rebuilding the rear hubs is a challenge. The annual tune-ups are a challenge."
     Once a year all Divvy bikes are pulled in and overhauled, a 90-minute process.
     When hurt bikes arrive, in blue Divvy vans, they are triaged, like patients at a battlefront hospital. Simple problems are rated 1, tougher cases that might take an hour to fix are 2, and complete overhauls, needed for the Divvys that occasionally show up in one of the many bodies of water that make Chicago the gem it is, are 3.
     "Those require completely tearing the bike apart and replacing almost everything," Erkel said.
     Some bikes are beyond repair, such as the four Divvys demolished by a hit-and-run driver at Milwaukee and Rockwell about two weeks ago. So if you woke up earlier this month and found your Infiniti with mysterious blue paint on the bumper, Chicago Police have your hood ornament, and you can go collect it from them.
     Perhaps the most spectacularly damaged Divvy of all is mounted on the wall of the repair shop - what's left of a frame that was cut up by an angle grinder. Some 20 bikes have completely disappeared, though they might be tarrying on their way home; it is not unknown for a bike to vanish for six months, then return, courtesy of the police.
     "They often come back," Erkel said. And sometimes there are tantalizing glimpses of missing bikes, such as the black phantom, a Divvy spray-painted black that shows up on Instagram from time to time.
     "This is a mess," said Robert Grossman, looking at a Divvy that arrived Aug. 26, was rated a 3 and has wobbly wheels, though he doesn't yet know why.
     He said Divvy bikes have design advantages and flaws, sometimes both at the same time. Being made of aluminum helps lighten their bulky frames. But aluminum also is more fragile than steel. Private bikes have brake and shifter cables on the outside, and Divvy's cables are inside the frame, which protects them but makes them harder to get at to fix.      
     Rebuildling the hubs, which also include a generator for lights, is a challenge.
     Still, all told, the repair news is good.
     "We're impressed with how well people take care of them," Greenberger said.
     Riding back, I took Hubbard instead of Grand — a much better route, far less traffic. Eleven of 20 bikes back at the Mart station had cracked seats, or 55 percent. But after touching base briefly at the office, I went back out and biked to Michigan Avenue, to lunch at the Cliff Dwellers Club. Of the 28 bikes parked at Millennium Park, 11 had cracked seats, or 39 percent. That's improvement, of a sort.