« February 2005 | Main | April 2005 »

"Panel: Agencies 'Dead Wrong' on Iraq WMDs"

Or 1,500 dead, to be more accurate. Contrary to popular belief, this is by far the most important news story of the day, and not the sad death of one woman in Florida.

Panel: Agencies 'Dead Wrong' on Iraq WMDs
By Katherine Shrader, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - America's spy agencies were "dead wrong" in most prewar assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and know disturbingly little about current nuclear threats, a presidential commission said Thursday.

"Our collection agencies are often unable to gather intelligence on the very things we care the most about," the panel concluded in an unsparing report.

It recommended dozens of organizational changes, and said President Bush can implement most of them without congressional action. It also urged the president to back up John Negroponte, his choice to be the new director of national intelligence, in any bureaucratic turf battles ahead.

"The central conclusion is one which I share. America's intelligence community needs fundamental change," Bush said at the White House after receiving the critique from a commission he was at first reluctant to appoint.

He said he had directed Fran Townsend, his White House-based homeland security adviser, to "review the commission's finding and to assure that concrete actions are taken."

Bush read a prepared statement, flanked by retired Judge Laurence Silberman, a Republican, and former Democratic Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, co-chairmen of the panel.

The president then strode from the room, leaving the two men behind to field questions on the report that criticized past performance — but didn't stop there.

"Across the board, the intelligence community knows disturbingly little about the nuclear programs of many of the world's most dangerous actors," the report said.

The commission also called for sweeping changes at the FBI to combine the bureau's counterterrorism and counterintelligence resources into a new office.

Robb and Silberman agreed they had found no evidence that senior administration officials had sought to change the prewar intelligence in Iraq, possibly for political gain.

Robb said investigators examined every allegation "to see if there was any occasion where a member of the administration or anyone else had asked an analyst or anyone else associated with the intelligence community to change a position they were taking or whether they felt there was any undue influence. And we found absolutely no instance."

In the months preceding the Iraq war, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly invoked Saddam Hussein's presumed possession of weapons of mass destruction as a reason to invade.

The report was the latest tabulation of intelligence shortfalls documented in a series of investigations since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 against the United States. Numerous investigations have concluded that spy agencies had serious intelligence failures before the attacks. Thursday's report concluded that the problem still has not been fixed, three years after al-Qaida struck America.

"The flaws we found in the intelligence community's Iraq performance are still all too common," it said.

The report, however, praised spy agencies for their role in leading Libya to renounce its WMD programs, exposing the long-running nuclear proliferation network of a Pakistani scientist and successes in counterterrorism. "There are signs of a boldness that would have been unimaginable before September 11, 2001," it said.

At the news conference, Robb was particularly blunt when it came to turf wars within the intelligence bureaucracy. Negroponte "needs the full and unequivocal backing" of the president, he said, adding that there are "very distinguished and proud agencies whose culture will work against change."

The report said "The daily intelligence briefings given to you (Bush) before the Iraq war were flawed. Through attention-grabbing headlines and repetition of questionable data, these briefings overstated the case that Iraq was rebuilding its WMD programs."

In an implicit swipe at the Bush administration, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the report did not review how federal policy-makers used the intelligence they were given.

"I believe it is essential that we hold both the intelligence agencies and senior policy-makers accountable for their actions," Reid said.

The unclassified version does not go into significant detail on the intelligence community's assessment of countries such as Iran, North Korea, China and Russia because commissioners did not want to tip the U.S. hand about what is known. Those details are included in the classified version.

Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was pleased by the report and indicated that it concludes all inquiries into intelligence used to make the case for going to war with Iraq.

"I don't think there should be any doubt that we have now heard it all regarding prewar intelligence," the Kansas Republican said. "I think that it would be a monumental waste of time to re-plow this ground any further."

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the failures were widespread.

"I don't think you can blame any one person, although the buck does stop at the top of every one of these agencies," Skelton said. "But quite honestly, the fault is spread out across all the agencies."

Bush appointed the commission a year ago, signing on to the idea of an independent investigation only belatedly. The White House had said it wanted to give the weapons search in Iraq more time.

But pressure grew from Republicans and Democrats alike after the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, David Kay, resigned saying the prewar estimates of weapons in Iraq, which Bush used to justify war there, "were almost all wrong." Even then, the White House insisted the commission's mandate be broadened to other nations, prompting criticism that the panel might be too overloaded to thoroughly examine its original subject, Iraq.

"We conclude that the intelligence community was dead wrong in almost all of its prewar judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the report said. "This was a major intelligence failure."

The main cause was the intelligence community's "inability to collect good information about Iraq's WMD programs, it said, and serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions rather than good evidence.

"On a matter of this importance, we simply cannot afford failures of this magnitude," the report said.

On al-Qaida, the commission found that the intelligence community was surprised by the terrorist network's advances in biological weapons, particularly a virulent strain of a disease that the report keeps secret, identifying it only as "Agent X."

Copyright 2005, The Associated Press
Story Link

March 31, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Romance Novel Mad Libs

I read recently that Danielle Steel has just published her 63rd novel, entitled Impossible.

63. 63!!!! How is it physically possible to churn out that many novels? How does she do it? Does she have a dungeon full of slaves chained to writing desks, churning out chapter after chapter, morning, noon and night, under the cruel watch of a whip-brandishing slavemaster? Perhaps.

But if she actually does all of her own writing, it seems even more impossible (no pun intended). How, how, how? Does she work from a template, some sort of 400-page Mad Libs book?

[Male love interest #1] turned off the engine of his vintage [model of 1960s British sportscar] and sat to think. The convertible's rag top was down, and in the air he could already feel the approaching [season of the year], which he looked forward to with [forboding trepidation/hopeful anticipation]. Perhaps, he considered, things with [female protagonist] would never work out in the way he had hoped.

Perhaps his manhood, which measured just short of [embarrasingly small number] inches, would never be enough to satisfy the fiery [female protagonist]. At best, they might only stay together for the sake of appearances, while she took a lover on the side. Perhaps it would be [male Latin name], the family's virile young [lowly position on household staff], whom [male love interest #1] had caught [female protagonist] gazing at in secret longing on several occasions, particularly when she came upon him bending over his [physical object related to employment] and unknowingly displaying his taut buttocks to her admiring [color] eyes.

At worst, [female protagonist] would divorce him, abandon him and force him to leave Torrid [tree name in plural] and return to his former life as a [respected but extremely low-paying profession], a life from which he thought he had been rescued at the first moment he set eyes upon the voluptuous figure of [maiden name of female protagonist] on the windswept lawn of her family's country estate.

March 31, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bloviate, Mencken and Warren G. Harding

After watching the steroids hearings in Congress the week before last, my friend Fred was inspired to pass along a wonderful passage from the inimitable H.L. Mencken.

I caught a bit of those House Hearings yesterday, and it caused me to use the word bloviate, which caused me to come across this gem of a quote from Mr. Mencken:

Bloviate is most closely associated with U.S. President Warren G. Harding, who used it frequently and who was known for long, windy speeches. H.L. Mencken said of him, "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."
My that is most excellent.

Most excellent, indeed. I wonder what Mencken would have had to say about this whole mess. He would undoubtedly have been rather bemused.

March 30, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

W.P. Kinsella on the Steroids Scandal

In this week's Sports Illustrated, Gary Smith writes an article ("What Do We Do Now?"--registration req'd) which interviews a broad range of baseball fans for their views, positive and negative, on the steroids scandal that has rocked the game. The moral logic of those who remain loyal to the shameful likes of Bonds and McGwire is rather appalling; apart from the general attitude of "You'd do steroids too, if it would get you to the big leagues," I was most struck by the bar owner who vowed to get his customers to turn their backs to the TV screen every time Bonds steps to the plate. Admirable, until it's revealed that the owner is a rabid Yankees fan, and would never consider similarly shunning Jason Giambi, even though he's as hopped up on the stuff as anybody else.

The most thoughtful and lyrical response came, not surprisingly, from W.P. Kinsella, author of the timeless baseball novel Shoeless Joe:

"Baseball, to me, had a magical quality that no other sport did because of its open-endedness, its infinite possibility," says 69-year-old William Kinsella, whose novel Shoeless Joe became the basis for the movie Field of Dreams. "No confined boundaries, like other sports. Two foul lines diverging forever, eventually to take in the entire universe."

Possibility? Gone? Salvation? See ya. Something died inside William during baseball's work stoppage, and the steroids scandal is just one more kick in the crotch of a corpse. "People have grown too cynical to be outraged," he says. "Maybe that's what baseball's counting on...but to baseball that should be the scariest thing of all."

William, who used to attend 50 major league games a season, now enters Scrabble tournaments instead.

In these dark days for the (former) national pastime, jaded former fans (myself included) would be well-advised to turn to Kinsella's wonderful baseball novels, Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. These two books are just about the last things left that baseball fans can still believe in. Give your money to the worthy likes of Kinsella, Roger Kahn etc. (or maybe even badger Elysian Fields Quarterly to publish "Mighty Casey", the story I sent them last month) and not the juice-swollen pretenders who are presently soiling the game.

Or be like Kinsella and start playing Scrabble instead.

March 29, 2005 in Books, Sports | Permalink | Comments (0)

Etgar Keret

This past weekend, the latest installment of This American Life included a reading of a fine new story by Etgar Keret, entitled "Eight Percent of Nothing." Listen to it here (starts at roughly 47:30). The story will be published in 2006 in a new Keret collection, The Nimrod Flip-Out.

March 29, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy Birthday, Mr. Algren

Nelson Algren was born on this day in 1909. Russell Banks, born on this day in 1940, wrote a foreword to one recent edition of Algren's Walk on the Wild Side. In it he speculates as to why Algren's bleak, underclass novels are not much read anymore:

It's the ''kill the messenger'' syndrome, I suppose, for the news that Algren's works brings us is not good news: if the world he describes is at all like our own, then it's not morning in America, and it hasn't been for a long, long time.

Not much read, perhaps, but very much re-read. Which is the mark of truly great literature.

(Via Today in Literature.)

March 28, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Easter Greetings...

...from everyone here at the Joliet Yacht Club. Barbie and Cinderella Barbie had a bit of a mishap with their annual egg delivery, but the rescue squad has already been contacted and is on their way. Everything should be fine as long as the crane operator shows up.

March 26, 2005 in Family | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writing Progress, Of Sorts

Yesterday I finished the first draft of a new story, "Hope Café." The story is set in the vicinity of what remains of the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago's South Side, and involves a young woman who opens up a coffee shop nearby but soon after begins to question the wisdom of following her dream. I started writing the story in mid-2004 but hadn't touched it in six months. Then, having started to read There Are No Children Here last week, I found myself inspired to resume writing the story. It still needs a lot of sculpting, but I'm pleased with its potential.

Lately I've been finding my writing being directly influenced by books I'm reading. Besides Kotlowitz's book jumpstarting my work on "Hope Café", reading the first volume of James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy somehow inspired me to start writing a story revolving around the legendary Chicago alderman "Hinky Dink" Kenna and the illicit efforts of railroad czar Charles Tyson Yerkes to secure an El train monopoly in the Loop. (Though Farrell's book has nothing to do with Kenna or Yerkes, it's set in that same general era, and Farrell's street-smart Irish characters are cut from the same cloth as the likes of Kenna.) The story, "The Way Business is Done", is roughly three-quarters finished, and I'm pretty confident that eventually I'll have a finished story soon.

And before that, seeing this photo in Real Chicago: Photographs from the Files of the Chicago Sun-Times prompted me to start writing a story based on the man on the left. I've got 1,200 words written so far, but I'm not sure if this one will ever come to completion. Depends on more inspiration striking, I guess.

March 25, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Algren's Influence Continues to Present Day

This Jameson story just gets curiouser and curiouser all the time. Check out the latest headline:

"Algren's writings led fugitive to stay" (scroll halfway down)

"He was almost immediately part of the scene,'' recalled Warren Leming, vice chairman of the Nelson Algren Committee, which formed in 1989. "Algren was somebody he could identify with, someone whose background was similar to his, someone who lived an outsider type of existence.''

I'm sure Algren would have been touched, given his sympathy for those on the margins of respectable society...even two-time murderers.

March 24, 2005 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Killer poet caught on West Side"

As much as I love the dissonance of this headline ("Killer poet caught on West Side"), I can't help but think of the dire effect this news story might have on NEA funding.

Overheard in the Oval Office today after the official afternoon nap, upon hearing the news via a short briefing: "See? See? This is the sort of people we're supporting when we fully fund the NEA! Murderers! Felons! Druggies!"

March 23, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Be Still My Heart...

...a true progressive as Democratic presidential nominee? A name to remember for 2008: Russ Feingold.

Edwards? Clinton? Nah, 2008 could be Russ Feingold's year

by Sanford D. Horwitt
Chicago Tribune
March 20, 2005

The race for the 2008 Democratic Party presidential nomination is already being handicapped and, according to one offshore gaming Web site, the front-runners are former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 3-2 and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton at 5-2.

But if I were a betting man, I'd consider putting some dough on a 16-1 shot, Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold.
Largely overlooked by national political pundits in the aftermath of the November election was the impressive re-election victory by the John McCain of the Democratic Party. As usual, Feingold campaigned as a straight-talking, risk-taking reformer, and his convincing victory should make him highly appealing to Democrats longing for somebody who not only has a winning track record, but who unabashedly stands for progressive Democratic Party values. This is no wimpy liberal who trims his message to fit supposedly conservative times.

In Wisconsin, while John Kerry barely eked out a win in one of the most hotly contested battleground states, voters were giving Feingold a near-landslide victory, electing him to a third term with 55 percent of the vote. Unlike Kerry, who tried to play it safe from start to finish, Feingold won big after voting against the Iraq war and Bush's tax cuts, and having cast the lone vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act.

Feingold carried a mix of rural and small-town counties in the northern deer-hunting country, old Mississippi River communities on the western border and the urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison.

Exit polls also showed Feingold scoring heavily among voters who believed that the most important quality of a candidate was the ability to bring about change.

What Feingold is proving in the politically critical heartland is that there is a market for the old-fashioned politics of reform.

Feingold is something of a throwback within the Democratic Party, according to veteran Washington observer and campaign finance reform guru Fred Wertheimer, who worked with Feingold on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation. "There used to be a much more powerful stream in the Democratic Party when members of Congress supported liberal ideas for the common good when they were not constrained by big corporate campaign contributions," Wertheimer said. Feingold, he said, still acts that way.

A few years ago, after Feingold's tough-minded reform politics caught my attention, I followed him periodically around the state during his "listening sessions." He holds one in every county at least once a year, a promise he made in his first run for the Senate in 1992. He has conducted more than 800.

Any political consultant worth his salt would tell you that a U.S. senator is wasting his time driving endlessly around a state the size of Wisconsin to meet with 30 or 40 people in tiny towns such as Spooner, Cashton and Viroqua.

But small-town America is familiar and fond territory for Feingold, 52. He grew up in Janesville, a blue-collar and agriculture enclave in Rock County, a Republican stronghold in southeastern Wisconsin.

"I know how small towns work," Feingold told me one day after a series of listening sessions where he sounded very much like one of the local civic leaders, and not like the Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law School graduate that he is.

Some senators--poor John Kerry comes to mind--after years in the Senate speak in a language that only other senators think of as normal. But Feingold, perhaps because he meets with real people so often, is plain-spoken and concise.

In La Crosse regarding terrorism: "It's the top priority. They're trying to kill us and our children."

In Blanchardville on trade and jobs: "Trade policies are selling people down the river."

In Coon Valley on the deficit: "I'm in the lead to stop them from writing out blank checks."

Indeed, Feingold has a long track record as a hawk on deficit spending, a position that sometimes puts him at odds with conventional liberals. Balancing the budget was a cornerstone of his first Senate campaign in 1992, and he's serious about controlling spending. "You establish a base-line credibility with people when you show them that whatever your ideology, you will take care of their dollars in a businesslike way," he said. "I believe that is part of Wisconsin progressivism."

In 2002, Feingold briefly stuck a small toe in presidential waters, speaking at a handful of college campuses, before deciding to run for re-election. "I'm not ready," he said then about a race for the 2004 Democratic nomination.

But he may be ready for 2008 after his big re-election victory. And so, too, may Democratic primary voters be ready, even eager, to embrace a candidate who reminds them why they chose to be Democrats in the first place.

Sanford D. Horwitt, a Wisconsin native, lives in Arlington, Va. He is the author of "Let Them Call Me Rebel," a biography of community organizer Saul Alinsky.

Story Link

March 22, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Misplaced Critical Attack

The Acadians were French settlers of what are now Canada's Maritime Provinces who were expelled by their British rulers in the mid 18th Century, many of them fleeing to southern Louisiana, where they eventually thrived as Cajuns. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow based one of his most well-known poems, "Evangeline", on the Acadian experience. Thus, in discussing the Acadian expulsion, one would think that the experience was only tenuously related to Longfellow, and completely unrelated to the quality of Longfellow's poetry as well as that of more contemporary American poets.

Well, one scholar thinks otherwise.

In his review of John Mack Faragher's A Great and Noble Scheme: The Expulsion of the French Acadians in yesterday's Chicago Tribune, Peter A. Coclanis (a history scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) presents the following as his two opening paragraphs:

One of the positive developments arising from the reform of the literary canon over the past few decades has been a much-needed weeding out of second-raters--James Whitcomb Riley, James Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the like. Take Longfellow, for example. No matter how bad the hitherto unappreciated, if not unknown author who replaces him in the canon, can his or her work really be worse than the stilted poem "Hiawatha" or, egad, the mawkish "Evangeline"? Many Americans over 50 still cringe at the memory of reciting parts of the latter ("This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green") in their youths, which memory makes mediocrities such as Sylvia Plath seem canonical, and even contemporary hacks like Alice Walker (but not Maya Angelou) marginally preferable.

Such cringing notwithstanding, the historical episode upon which "Evangeline" is more or less based--the British expulsion of the Acadians from the area now comprising Canada's Maritime Provinces from 1755 to 1763--is an important one. Few Americans today know much about this episode, however, which makes Yale University historian John Mack Faragher's new book, "A Great and Nobel Scheme," especially welcome. Although Faragher's study is uneven in quality and prolix in a way someone like Longfellow himself would appreciate--its 480 pages of text read even longer--the expulsion of the Acadians, le grand derangement (the great upheaval), merits our attention for purely historical reasons and because it sheds light on a number of similar enormities in the last century.

What, exactly, does bashing the poetry of Longfellow have to do with evaluating Faragher's book? Not to mention the poetry of Plath, Walker and Angelou? Leaving aside the question of Coclanis' qualifications, as a history professor, for critiquing poetry, what purpose is served here by raking Longfellow over the critical coals? (Further, it's clear that anyone who wrote that awkward, cringe-inducing first paragraph should be one of the last people to be criticize Longfellow's or Faragher's writing ability.)

Okay, so maybe Coclanis hated reading Longfellow back in high school. Which is fine--he's entitled to his opinion. But he should save it for a ranting monologue at the next faculty cocktail hour instead of inflicting it upon book review readers who are presumably more interested in learning about the plight of the Acadians than his thoughts about American poetry.

March 21, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

In re Terri Schiavo

Ah, this must be the "compassionate conservatism" we've been hearing so much about.

"In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life."
--President George W. Bush

"We should investigate every avenue before we take the life of a living human being. That is the very least we can do."
--House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

"Everyone recognizes that time is important here. This is about defending life."
--White House press secretary Scott McClellan

I'm sure these stirring words about respect for human life will warm the hearts and raise the spirits of Death Row inmates everywhere--particularly those Death Row "graduates" whom Bush and Alberto Gonzales so casually rubber-stamped into oblivion--as well as people suffering from terminal neurological disorders whose survival is hindered by Bush's ongoing opposition to federal funding of stem-cell research.

March 21, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

This Modern World

Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World is always a worthy read, but rarely more so than this one, which noisily arrives at the considerable expense of the credit card industry. But they can afford it, obviously.

March 18, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


I just finished reading the debut issue of Barrelhouse ("fiction. poetry. pop flotsam. cultural jetsam."). This new journal is a diverse mixture of fiction, essays, poetry and ephemera. Overall the tone is refreshingly unpretentious, with its editors being unafraid to admit their enjoyment of pop culture which, let's face it, is part of all of our lives. To cite just two examples, one essay (by Steve Kistulentz) is entitled "Home From the War: An Appreciation of Magnum P.I." (entirely unironic, and much more enjoyable than I had anticipated), while the editors couldn't resist concluding a nice interview with Emmylou Harris by asking which was her favorite Patrick Swayze movie.

The fiction was a bit less traditional than I generally prefer, emphasizing internal monologue over plot and setting, although I was rather amused by Stacey Richter's "Reality x Reality," in which the narrator recounts her stint on a rather sadistic and rapidly deteriorating reality TV show. (Or at least she hopes it's a TV show.) The poetry was quite good, particularly that of Kate Delaney ("Summer Drought" and "Turning" were both rather wonderful).

But for me the centerpiece was David Starkey's essay "Hope I Die" in which the writer recounts his teenage years in Sacramento and everything that rock and roll meant to him and his good friend Sal Valenzuela. The piece serves as a living elegy to Sal, who sustained a severe head injury in a car accident, reverting his mental capacity to that of a twelve-year-old, which the writer notes condemns him to spending "the rest of his life as an adolescent, forever on the verge of rock and roll rebellion." The essay concludes with a somber meditation on growing up and growing older, when the things that meant everything to you as a kid no longer mean much of anything.

And though I listen to the alternative radio station as I grade papers, type at the computer, or drive down the wide suburban boulevards to pick up my third child from daycare, I no longer believe what I hear. Like a churchgoer who's lost his faith, I keep attending out of habit, comforted by the familiar. But I know the promises are empty. And I know what waits for me when I get home.

The debut issue, as well as subscriptions (two issues per year) can be obtained directly from the Barrelhouse website. Check it out.

March 18, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Who's That Man...

...beneath that planetarium-esque dome?

Just me, a few days after being sheared for St. Baldrick's. My heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who sponsored me in support of the fight against childhood cancer. I raised $1,281 for the cause without trying too particularly hard, which is a wonderful testament to your generosity and goodwill. St. Baldrick's has raised $2.2 million this year so far, with many more donations yet to be processed.

If you would still like to donate, it's not too late! You can donate online here, or if you'd prefer cash or check please email me (pete_andersonATcomcastDOTnet) for details.

March 17, 2005 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Joel R.L. Phelps, Redux

I've recently become re-enamored with Joel Phelps, with his latest album Customs suddenly moving to the top of my wish list. My current "Listening" selection (right-hand sidebar) is a radio broadcast version of "From Up Here," which is definitely worth a listen. Though I've raved about him in the past, he had sort of slipped my mind until recently, when I discovered his new website. The new site is rather nice, and revisits several of his older songs (particularly "Counsel" from his solo debut, the only album of his that I own), which is particularly welcome given that most of his back catalog is out of print and fairly hard to find.

Customs, fortunately, is readily available--not at your local superstore, of course, but at discerning independent outlets such as Parasol and Aquarius. Here's what the latter had to say about the album:

Let's be honest. Joel Phelps was the best thing about Silkworm. Nothing against the other guys, they're all great musicians. But Phelps was the magic ingredient. His aching anguished wail, and ultra miserable, pensively bittersweet songwriting turned an indie rock band into something so much more. We loved old Silkworm, but when one of Joel's songs would come on, it would seriously bring us to the edge of tears. So f***ing brutal and intense and emotional and just so goddamn good. So while it was a sad day for Silkworm when he left, we didn't have to wait long for Joel to strike out on his own and form his appropriately monickered Downer Trio. Most of Phelps's records have had severely limited lifespans falling out of print almost as soon as people could discover them. Which is a huge shame as Phelps is definitely one of the most important, and possibly least well known songwriters today. But that HAS to change soon, as Phelps has the most heart rending, soul stirring voice this side of the late Elliott Smith. But unlike Smith's whispery rasp, Phelps has a HUGE voice, a wailing almost falsetto, that is rough around the edges and only gets rougher when he belts it out, threatening to crack, but always right on. His band in the past has woven delicate, twangy moody indie rock janglescapes to back him up, and still does some of the time, but quite often on Customs, the Downer Trio have their amps on 10 and the sound is loud and raucous, but no less emotional and intense. Still minor key, still pained and dripping with gorgeous miserablism. Each song is an exercise in tension, building and building, chugging guitars and minor key melodies with Phelps vocals sending shivers down your already goosebump covered spine. If only all 'indie rock' was this intense and perfect!

And that's not mere retailer hyberbole. From what I've heard, the album sounds great. Though Aquarius only has the new album in stock, Parasol has Blackbird and The Downer Trio EP (neither of which I've heard in their entirety) in addition to Customs.

Highly recommended.

March 17, 2005 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)


Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, The New Yorker has published a new story ("Men of Ireland") by William Trevor, one of Auld Erin's finest writers. As an Irish experience, reading Trevor is infinitely more authentic than drinking a pint of green beer, not to mention healthier.

(Via Bookslut.)

March 16, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Giddy With Excitement

I'm lunching with the reclusive "Golden Rule Jones"--not his real name--today. Not to name-drop or anything, but I don't meet celebrities, or even pseudo-celebrities, very often.


Lunch with Sam--still didn't catch his last name!--went rather nicely. He's well-spoken, thoughtful and generous with a lunch tab. He was on his way to record his latest Hello Beautiful review piece for WBEZ, but still found ample time for a get-together. We had a nice long talk about books and writers--Ward Just, Stuart Dybek, Larry Heinemann--and how we got started doing this whole crazy blogging thing. Overall, a very rewarding visit.

And in case you're wondering, he looks a bit like Anthony Edwards of "ER" fame, but with a beard and not as tall as the actor.

March 16, 2005 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck's monumental novel was published on this day in 1939.

One nice thing to think of is the speed of obscurity. Grapes is not first now. In a month it will be off the list and in six months I'll be forgotten.

Fortunately for all of us, he was infinitely better at writing than prognostication.

March 14, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Social Security and MoveOn.org

MoveOn.org is currently soliciting testimonials from individuals who support Social Security as it currently exists. As the organization states:

While the American people are thinking about their lives and their families, the current debate in Congress and in the media is focusing on lots and lots of statistics. The numbers are important but we need to remind everybody what Social Security means for tens of millions of people every day and put a human face on this issue.

You can leave your own thoughts on this important issue here. Below is my response.

Why is Social Security important to you?
I'm sure you'll receive thousands of testimonials from grateful people who directly benefitted from the Social Security system as it currently exists. I'm not one of those people, nor do I expect to be. But that's precisely the point. Though Social Security will probably not have a significant impact on my personal well-being, I know it will do so for millions of Americans in need.

Too much of our political discourse is selfish--rather than say "How does this issue impact America as a whole?", far too many people say "How can this issue benefit me personally? And how can it hurt me?" and reverse-engineer a rationale for justifying the position that's the best for them personally.

I am very comfortable financially--I have a good and stable income, healthy retirement savings and a beautiful house which will be very valuable once the mortgage is paid. Social Security might supplement my retirement savings to a small degree, but I'm not counting on it to be there. If it is there, great, but if not I'm prepared for it.

Given my personal financial condition, I could easily say "I won't be needing Social Security for myself. Let's gut the system right now and give me a break on my taxes." This is exactly what fiscal conservatives believe, no matter how they try to dress it up with various windowdressing rationales.

Social Security is important to me because it directly benefits millions of Americans in the past, present and future who haven't been blessed to the extent that I have. Others need Social Security to help secure their well-being, and for that reason alone I strongly support it.

What would a 20-45% cut in benefits mean to you?
As I said, I'm not directly relying on Social Security, so a benefits cut would not impact me significantly. But I know it will harm millions of others, and for that reason it bothers me greatly.

Why do you oppose the president's effort to privatize Social Security?
If there's indeed a funding problem--and it's far from clear that's actually the case--diverting funds out of the system and into private accounts will only make the problem worse. The massive levels of additional federal borrowing that Bush's plan would require would put at great risk the ultimate repayment of the government bonds which currently constitute the Social Security trust fund. Bush is deviously pushing only the positive aspects of the plan--the possibility of private accounts earning a higher return--while ignoring the negatives: the possibility of private accounts providing lower or even negative returns; the higher administrative costs of private accounts; the massive additional federal debt; and the strong likelihood of future benefit cuts.

The only real beneficiary of Bush's plan is Wall Street, which would suddenly see a massive inflow of new cash pumping through the equity markets. In supporting the investment industry over the lives of millions of everyday Americans, Bush is once again showing where his loyalties lie.

March 12, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Deed is Done.

It doesn't look half bad, actually. The barber said I had a good skull for shaving, but even if that was nothing more than him angling for a tip, he was out of luck--after all, he was there on a volunteer basis and I'm cheap to begin with. So I can safely say that I look quite a bit better than Montgomery Burns.

I'm tied up with a family wedding tonight and tomorrow, but hopefully I'll post an "After" photo on Sunday. Like I said, it looks pretty good, so if you're looking for some sort of freak show voyeurism you may be disappointed. If that's the case, there's always Jim Rose.

March 11, 2005 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Florence Scala

Florence Scala was one of the leading Near West Side activists who fought the city and the University of Illinois in the early 1960s to keep their neighborhood from being obliterated in favor of the University's new Chicago campus. But Chicago being Chicago, with the powerless here being particularly helpless before the powerful, obliteration of the ethnic neighborhood is precisely what happened, and with terrifying speed, leaving Scala and thousands of area residents feeling betrayed and forlorned: by Mayor Daley, the City Council and the University, all of whom were supposed to act on behalf of the greater public good.

Scala concludes her section of Near West Side Stories as follows:

I don't get mad walking through the university grounds anymore. I always feel as though the place is alien, alien territory. Sometimes I've gone to Hull-House because they have had something going on there. The last time I did that was in the evening and as I left the building, there was all of downtown lit up in front of me and for the first time in many years I felt teary-eyed. I thought, you bastards, you took it all, we don't have anything. I'm an alien person here.

Several years ago, while driving south on the Dan Ryan Expressway, I was struck by the highway's odd route. While it hugs Halsted Street in the downtown area, after 18th Street it suddenly jogs to the east, before resuming its southerly route near Chinatown, from which point it hugs Wentworth Avenue for most of its path through the South Side. This strange bend in the road perplexed me for a moment, before I spotted Comiskey Park looming on the horizon.

Comiskey naturally got me thinking about the Daleys, and it hit me. If the Ryan had continued its initial route along Halsted, eventually it would have blasted right through the middle of Bridgeport, the Daleys' ancestral home (before Richie left for swankier digs). I realized there was no way that the senior Mayor Daley would have ever let such a thing happen to his neighborhood. Why not have the road shift to the east and then the south, and displace thousands of Asians and African-Americans instead? Such was Daley's power in those days that he could easily make something of that magnitude happen if he wished, and I have no doubt that's exactly what he did.

"It's not what you know, but who you know" is even more true here than almost anywhere else.

March 11, 2005 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Baldness Scenarios, One More Time


Yul Brynner


Nick Hornby*

I'm scheduled to be sheared tomorrow, Friday March 11th, at 1:00 PM at Fado Irish Pub (100 W. Grand Avenue in Chicago). Feel free to stop by for a good laugh at my expense, as well as possible libations. There will be a silent auction with a nice array of stuff--see the Fado link above for more details. As you can see, I've blown past my fundraising goal, bringing in $1,206 with several more promised checks in the proverbial mail. But if you'd still like to donate, it's not too late!

*Admittedly, Hornby is a bit of a stretch as "Con", but I still can't find a photo of Scottie Pippen after his gruesomely ill-advised decision to shave his head about ten years ago, after MJ's first retirement. The sight of that was enough to make Scottie an inaugural inductee into the Ugly Bald Hall of Fame.

March 10, 2005 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

Letter to the Senator

This a letter that I sent to Senator Barack Obama this morning. I strongly encourage you to thank him as well.

Senator Obama:
I applaud your efforts in helping to defeat the Clear Skies Act. Despite this legislation's title, it clearly has nothing to do with cleaner air or any other form of responsible environmental activity. It is, as you noted, a rollback of existing environmental standards and a huge potential favor to polluting industries. It has nothing to do with creating jobs--if anything, developing new pollution-fighting technologies will create far more jobs than the energy industry might gain from this legislation.

I greatly appreciate your sense of responsibility in ensuring that our environmental standards improve the physical environment that impacts all of us, rather than catering to a privileged few.

Peter Anderson

March 10, 2005 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Believer

The ever-enjoyable Michael Schaub at Bookslut comments on the recent Dave Eggers interview at Salon, taking exception to The Believer's ongoing belief that it's a literary magazine:

What all of this has to do with articles about light bulb stores and interviews with Tina Fey remains, at least for now, unclear.

Though I enjoy the magazine, I'm inclined to agree with him. A magazine created by writers isn't necessarily a literary magazine. The various book-related articles and Nick Hornby's wonderful ongoing column notwithstanding, the current issue includes articles on Abu Ghraib, toy-collecting adults, Mario Van Peebles, and other non-literary matters. And the non-literary ratio was notably higher for previous issues.

Dave, there's no shame in being a Renaissance Man (or Woman). Having diverse interests, and willingly admitting to such, should be thought of as a good thing.

March 9, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Harold Fox on Chicago

One of the contributors of oral narrative to Carolyn Eastwood's Near West Side Stories was Harold Fox, one-time Maxwell Street tailor (he invented the zoot suit), swing band leader and raconteur nonpareil. Fox's stories are marvelous--it must have been wonderful, if a bit time-taxing, to have him bend your ear--and two of them in particular are quite emblematic of Chicago life.

When Father Pat came to the store to thank me he said he was going to give me a card belonging to the St. Jude Society. Pretty near all the policemen in Chicago belonged to the St. Jude Society. I said thanks very much, but how is this card valuable? He said, "All the cops belong to the St. Jude, so if a cop pulls you over for speeding take the card out and show it to him and you'll have a free ride."

So I kept the card in my wallet, and I was doing a little speeding around Grand and Western and a cop pulled me over and said I was going 10 miles over the limit. I said, I'm sorry and all that, and he said, "Let me see your license." I kept the card right alongside my license and he said, "Oh, I see you're a member of the St. Jude. I'm a member too." I said, yeh, they said if sometime I'm in trouble I should just show this card and you'd give me a pass. He said, "Well, I will give you a pass; this and $5 will get you a pass." So he still got his cut.


For Christmastime the kids in the neighborhood always had to have a new suit. They might be wearing workclothes on their regular jobs, but for the holidays they wanted to look really sharp, so Fox Brothers tailors and seamstresses worked 24 hours a day getting out the orders. In about 1944, International Harvester called me and they said, "The black kids have recommended your band to play at the employees' dance at Union Park Temple for Christmas Eve." I had made suits for all these kids, four to five hundred of them, and they also knew the band from gigs in the neighborhood.

The night of the dance they had a buffet table with about 10 chefs; everything you could think of. Nine o'clock came and nobody showed. Our band was on the stand and the International Harvester president was there. "When are these kids going to show up?" they were asking. Well, to make a long story short, nobody showed up.

Four days later when the kids came around we said, "Hey, what happened, they had all these eats. The band had to take all the eats home." One of them answered, "Well, we found out that they ran two dances, one for the whites on a ballroom on Crawford, and ours, and we weren't going to stand for that. We work together, and we can dance together." So they boycotted the dance.

Official corruption, institutional segregation. Perfect.

March 7, 2005 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ward Just on Chicago

From Ward Just's An Unfinished Season:

Chicago itself had a nineteenth-century identity, a noisy, unlovely city of iron and concrete, a city on the grab, fundamentally lawless, its days spent chasing money and its nights spending it; loveliness was always just beside the point. The city had elbow room but God help you if you fell behind because there was always a more muscular elbow. The city was ruled by a half-dozen old white men to suit themselves. You were permitted to go about your business so long as your business didn't interfere with their business. If it did, they invited themselves in. In its cosmic indifference, the city of Chicago resembled a giant turbine, three and a half million souls oiling the gears and tending the works while the supervisors stood around reading the racing form. I was nineteen years old and that was my view of things after my circus summer at the newspaper--an unlovely city, not unloved. I knew that wherever I would go in the world, Chicago was the place I would return to and recognize at once, its fedora pulled down over one eye, a wisecrack already forming in its mouth full of nickels.

March 6, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quick Submissions Update

Just to bring you up to speed on the trials and travails of the still-unpublished writer...

+ My non-fiction piece "Captions Without Photos" was just declined by The Site of Big Shoulders. I had sent it to them on the slightest of whims. It's a series of observations (many of them previously published here) revolving around my commute: physical settings, overhead conversations, various people encountered. In all honesty I simply strung all the various pieces together chronologically and sent it off. I might eventually rearrange the pieces and flesh them out a bit, and then try submitting it to a higher-end journal like Another Chicago Magazine.

If I somehow find the time, that is--I'm so swamped at work these days that I barely have the time to write, and sleep on the ride home when I'd otherwise be writing. I've got three or four promising but half-finished stories in the works right now that I haven't been able to touch for weeks. Things are definitely looking up for me from a career standpoint right now, the only downside to which is how much it might cut into my writing time.

+ I entered "Mahalia"--as you'll recall, my ongoing efforts to get this story published are becoming my Sisyphian boulder--in the Nelson Algren Awards competition sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. No entry fee, so I have nothing to lose except first-class postage and a little more pride.

+Having inexplicably lost the first short story contest at Bighappyfunhouse, my story "A Son Resists" has been redirected and submitted to Hobart. I really like what I've seen of that journal, particularly after reading an interview with its editor, Aaron Burch, at Emerging Writers Network. Out of respect for the journal's likely preference for exclusivity, I've taken the story offline.

March 5, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Baldness, Pro and Con


Michael Jordan


Montgomery Burns


March 3, 2005 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ward Just, An Unfinished Season

Ward Just's marvelous An Unfinished Season is a vivid portrayal of a few months in the life of a young man in Chicago during the early 1950s. The narrator, Wils Ravan, is a priviliged nineteen year old who is spending his last summer of adolesence before starting college in the fall. Wils moves uneasily between three distinct worlds--his family homestead at the fictional, semi-rural Quarterday; the upscale North Shore communities of Lake Forest and Winnetka and their high society functions and debutante balls; and the raucous, vibrant, no-holds-barred city desk of the dying scandal-sheet newspaper where Wils works a summer job as a go-fer. He never feels fully comfortable in any of the three worlds--not at home, where he feels the widening distance between himself and his parents; not on the North Shore, where he's considered somewhat of a country bumpkin, despite his family's wealth; and not at the newspaper, where the editor and reporters think of him as just a spoiled rich kid who's slumming in the job he got through family connections. The closest he ever comes to being fully comfortable is with his first real girlfriend, Aurora, with whom he moves easily through the streets of the Gold Coast, even as he fears for their future in the fall, when he will enroll at the University of Chicago but she will depart for college in New York.

Just's characters are masterfully drawn. Besides Wils, there's his dominating father, owner of a highly successful printing plant whose faith in his business is shattered by a bitter labor strike; his mother, an East Coast elite who has never been wholly comfortable in a Midwestern backwater like Quarterday; the headstrong, uncoventional Aurora, to whom he's first drawn to as neither totally fits in amongst the North Shore socialities; Aurora's father, Jack Brule, a renowned psychiatrist (albeit at a time when "head doctors" were still viewed with suspicion) and WWII hero who's still fighting the emotional damage of surviving the Bataan Death March; and Jack's exotic, Cyprus-born girlfriend Consuela. Even Just's minor characters stand out, particularly several of Wils' older colleagues at the newspaper.

In a novel which is full of beautifully rendered scenes, one stands out to me, in particular. Having missed connections with Aurora at the Art Institute, Wils finds himself in one of the galleries, pondering over the works of the great impressionists.

I had the newspaper office in mind and regretted that Manet or Degas was not familiar with the métier, tobacco smoke in the air, phones ringing, the floor trembling when the presses began to turn, the reporter with his long fingers resting on the keys, the letters of the alphabet motionless as corpses on slabs until the reporter's fingers began their tango. From the look in the writer's eyes, an artist might suggest the life behind the métier and from the frayed shirt cuffs something else and from the shapeliness of his wrists something more still, and at once a world was illuminated...I looked at the faces and tried to find a newspaper reporter, but the only face that fit was the barmaid's. She had seen much of life and that included her own life, and what she had seen was not encouraging. I had noticed the thousand-yard stare on the faces of reporters trying to compose the first sentence of their "piece," the "lede" that would bring a look of sour satisfaction to Ozias Tilleman's face; and then the editor would correct a word and add a comma, brushstrokes from the master of the number one pencil.

Just's close familiarity with his characters--several of them clearly drawn from real life--and his Chicago settings show his obvious love for both, and serve to create a rich, vibrant novel of a bygone era. An Unfinished Season is simply lovely, one of the finest novels it has been my pleasure to read.

March 3, 2005 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)