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This just in: the federal government will use its immense power to benefit society.
The Obama administration is planning to use the government’s enormous buying power to prod private companies to improve wages and benefits for millions of workers, according to White House officials and several interest groups briefed on the plan.

By altering how it awards $500 billion in contracts each year, the government would disqualify more companies with labor, environmental or other violations and give an edge to companies that offer better levels of pay, health coverage, pensions and other benefits, the officials said.

Because nearly one in four workers is employed by companies that have contracts with the federal government, administration officials see the plan as a way to shape social policy and lift more families into the middle class.
Naturally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hates the idea, which is always a strong indication that it's a great thing for the rest of us.

February 26, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Photo of the Week


Canadian Olympic hockey team celebrates its gold medal victory by drinking beer and smoking cigars out on the ice, for over an hour after the final game. The women's team, that is. Think this would be at all a controversy if a men's hockey team did it? Probably not.

(Photo credit: Associated Press)

February 26, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Three more for the pile

The Joliet Public Library had one of its periodic book sales this past Saturday. Recognizing the folloy of such declarations, I've given up on making any sort of vows against acquiring any more books until my to-read pile is down to a manageable level. I've made these vows repeatedly in the past, only to break them at the next good opportunity. I've come to grips with the fact that I have a book addiction - which is pretty benign as addictions go, especially since most of the books I acquire are from library sales, book recycling events and used book stores. I rarely buy a new copy of a book, and even then never at full price. So being a book addict (and a frugal one at that) isn't going to kill me, so there's little reason to resist the urge.

That said, going forward I'm going to at least temper my acquisitive mania at such events by trying (just trying, mind you) to limit myself to unique volumes which can't easily be found elsewhere. (Including, of course, the Joliet Public Library, which is completely purging many of these titles from its holdings.) The three books I picked up Saturday are case in point:

Finley Peter Dunne, Mr. Dooley Remembers: The Informal Memoirs of Finley Peter Dunne
Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer
Kurt Vonnegut, Happy Birthday Wanda June

The first is a combination of the memoirs of Dunne (the great Chicago journalist), Philip Dunne's remembrances of his father, and several of Dunne's trademark "Mr. Dooley" pieces. The second is edited interviews with the great Singer. The third is the only Vonnegut stage play I'm aware of. I'm very interested in reading each one, but probably couldn't otherwise find a copy to read without a great deal of hunting. So I think this shows some restraint. And we definitely showed restraint by not bringing home an unabridged Webster's dictionary - the thing was enormous, and had to weigh at least 25 pounds - which we could have had for just a few bucks. But we had no good place to display it and already have several other dictionaries, so we declined.

Oh, and as it turns out my library sale mania apparently isn't that manic at all. Check out this phenomenon. Camping out and tailgating - for a library sale. Awesome.

February 22, 2010 in Books, Personal | Permalink | Comments (3)

Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon is a powerful, thoughtful and ultimately tragic discourse on revolutionary politics and the ultimate illegitimacy of totalitarian regimes which profess to act in the people's interest while simultaneously crushing any individual who dissents from the party line. The tension of the narrative - sustained relentlessly over its 200-plus pages - is truly remarkable, as the protagonist Rubashov fights for the Communist ideal only to see the Soviet state turn on him, imprisoning him and putting him on trial on trumped-up charges of counterrevolutionary activity. At first Rubashov is convinced of his innocence, but slowly realizes that under such a government one's innocence or guilt is completely irrelevant - if the regime wants one convicted, the accused is ultimately powerless to defend himself. Even a hero of the revolution like Rubashov isn't safe. He finally has to face the decision of either meekly accepting the state's punishment (to "die in silence") or to renounce the charges against him in an effort to expose the illegitimacy of the regime. The latter obviously means automatic doom, while the former offers the very slightest chance of bestowed mercy, although even that mercy would come at an enormous moral cost.

On reservation about the book: although some degree of ideological discourse is obviously needed in a political novel such as this, I still could have stood a little less lecturing, and even more representation of Rubashov's beliefs through his actions and remembrances. For me, all of the book's lecturing meant little compared to the symobolic act of Rubashov code-tapping the phrase "I am" when returned to his cell after his condemnation. That will probably remain the image I'll always remember from this book - the doomed prisoner finally asserting the primacy of the individual versus the collective "we" that the system imposed on him.

Koestler was clearly a major influence on George Orwell, whose classic 1984 echoes many of the themes presented in Darkness At Noon. The two novels could even be considered companion pieces, and if you've read and loved 1984 as much as I did, you should definitely check out Koestler's novel as well. Great reading that really makes you think.

February 22, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Georgelle Hirliman

Rest in peace to a lady whose career I truly envy.
She never wrote her novel, but it no longer mattered: Ms. Hirliman was soon appearing in windows across the United States and Canada, her work widely reported in the news media.

In Manhattan she wrote in the windows of The Village Voice, Shakespeare & Co. on the Upper West Side and B. Dalton on Fifth Avenue, among other places, sitting daily for eight hours at a stretch. Store owners paid her $50 to $100 a day, New York magazine reported in 1985.
Though in my case I'm not sure anyone would want to see me netsurf, stare out the window, nap...er, write.

February 21, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Stimulating Hypocrisy

Simply put, President Obama's economic stimulus plan - enacted one year ago yesterday - is working. Though the unemployment rate remains high, the consensus amongst top economists is that several million more people would be unemployed (thus exacerbating the recession through diminished consumer purchasing power) without the stimulus. Economic activity is up, with GDP growth at a very strong 5.7% for the fourth quarter of 2009 and expected to be even higher for the current quarter, which should boost employment once companies are confident that the economy has indeed rebounded. There are even signs that the housing markets - whose collapse fueled the recession - have stabilized.

Thing is, you wouldn't know it from listening to Republicans. They continue to rail against corporate bailouts (those most of the bailouts were done on Bush's watch) and say stimulus spending hasn't created a single job and has been a complete waste of money. Which is understandable, given their adherence to the timeworn government-is-bad philosophy that underpins most conservative thought. But what isn't understandable is that the same Republican lawmakers who decry stimulus spending as wasteful are so eager to belly up to the trough to claim every penny they can for their home districts, and brag about all the federal dollars they're showering on their constituents.

Think Progress has compiled a list of 111 Republican U.S. Congress members who have publicly opposed economic stimulus efforts (including voting against the Recovery Act) only to later solicit federal stimulus funds for their districts. The hypocrisy on display is nothing short of astounding.

If you're a political conservative who truly believes that government should have little or no presence in the lives of individual citizens, that's fine. I don't happen to agree with you on that point, but we're both entitled to our divergent opinions. But if the small-government concept really matters to you, please take a look at this list and ask yourself if any of the 111, who are so eager to drain the federal coffers for the sake of political expedience, truly represents your beliefs.

February 18, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Peter Akinti

Flavorpill directs us to Forest Gate, the debut novel from Peter Akinti, saying the book "shines an unflinching light on the disparity of race and class, focusing on East London’s projects with an activist spirit akin to Richard Wright." It's rare to see Wright invoked like that these days (if mentioned at all), so that comparison definitely grabbed my interest. And reading these memorable opening lines has me even more intrigued:
"Yes," I said, my eyes fixed on the dead body. "Yes, that's him."

I stared at the policewoman, at her almond-shaped eyes and her slow-moving mouth. I swallowed and tried to clear a stubborn glob of phlegm from my throat. My heart stalled at a solid memory of my brother, Ashvin, laughing at the ceremony of my third marriage to a forty-year-old with rotting teeth and a bunch of rowdy kids.

You can read portions of the first three chapters here. Love that cover too - other than the ugly reading guide badge, of course. I'll certainly be on the lookout for this book.

February 16, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy Paczki Day!


I really wish I had realized before I was already on my morning train that today is Paczki Day, or otherwise I would have taken a few extra minutes to stop by Joliet Bakery and pick up a couple paczkis (pronounced, best as I can tell, as "poonch-kees") for the ride to work. Them's good eatin'.

Strangely enough, though I grew up in the Chicago area (which is heavily Polish - Chicago has the second most Poles of any city, after Warsaw) I didn't first hear of paczkis until my early twenties, while on a business trip to Detroit that happened to include Shrove Tuesday. And even then I didn't eat my first one until just a year or two ago, when Joliet Bakery (a combination Polish bakery/grocery/restaurant/bar, affectionately known locally as Drunken Donuts for its unusual nightcap potential) first opened.

February 16, 2010 in Current Affairs, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (3)

More fun with Google Maps

Below are aerial photographs which show the remnants of three demolished/abandoned structures. See if you can guess what each was.

First, from Joliet:


Second, also from Joliet:


Lastly, from Blue Island, Illinois:


For answers and links, please scroll down. No cheating!

1. Bowling alley: Washington Lanes (demolished).
2. Drive-in movie theater: Hilltop Drive-In (still standing, but closed long ago).
3. Railroad roundhouse: Blue Island roundhouse of the Rock Island Railroad (apparently the turntable is still used to rotate trains, though the structure is gone).

February 15, 2010 in Joliet, Photography | Permalink | Comments (3)

B.J. & Dirty Dragon


That image above is an autographed photograph from Chicago's "The BJ and Dirty Dragon Show", circa 1972. The human in the photo is BJ (Bill Jackson) and to his right is the smoke-spewing Dirty Dragon, while the big-grinned google-eyed character just below BJ's right hand is Weird. I've long since forgotten the names of all the other characters shown. The show was on every weekday right after school back then and was a beloved part of my childhood.

Readers of a certain age may recall the "BJ's Gigglesnort Hotel" show which ran nationally (on CBS, I think) during the mid-70s, but the Dirty Dragon show actually predated Gigglesnort Hotel and ran only locally, on WFLD Channel 32. Both shows had many of the same characters (some puppets, some human actors in costume) and the same weird brand of humor. My favorite part of the Dirty Dragon show (don't remember if it was also part of Gigglesnort Hotel - I didn't watch that show very much) was with Blob, a formless hunk of modeling clay which BJ crafted into a different object each show. Though that might not sound unusual or particularly interesting, I should point out that Blob was an actual character of the show who would talk to BJ in a lively but completely unintelligible voice as BJ worked - and also emitted moans of discomfort and/or pain when BJ carved up large pieces of him. A very odd routine, but my seven-year-old self loved it.

The photo was my reward for running a backyard carnival on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, which was Bill Jackson's favorite cause. My carnival consisted almost entirely of very lame games (Bozo Buckets, sack races, etc.) that neighbors and friends played for prizes (mostly candy bars, as I recall), with all of the proceeds from game tickets, refreshments, etc. being sent to the MDA via the Dirty Dragon show. It was my first exposure to fundraising, and though I probably didn't raise more than ten or twenty dollars I was pretty pleased with myself for accomplishing even that little. I would have been more than satisfied with just that, which made the completely unexpected arrival of this wonderful photograph to be doubly sweet.

February 15, 2010 in Ephemera, Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

My Parents Were (Indeed) Awesome

Despite my earlier impatience, it's now official: My Parents Were Awesome.

February 15, 2010 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (2)

Booking Bands: Koestler

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness at Noon

(Book, band, inspiration.)

February 14, 2010 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Happy Birthday, Abe


That birthday sentiment is partly for Abe Lincoln, of course, but mostly for my dad, John Anderson, who would have been 84 today. His family nickname of Abe came about from my grandfather wanting him to be named Abraham Lincoln Anderson, an idea which I think would have been pretty cool but which my grandmother promptly nixed. That picture of above is him with Maddie (then 21 months old). He thoroughly loved his kids and his grandkids, and to him family was the most important thing in the world. His childhood family life was very difficult, and I think he was thoroughly grateful for the family he helped create and raise as an adult.

My dad was a boisterous and generous man who was the most positive person I've ever known, even despite the various health ailments that plagued his final years. Every workday when he'd come home you could hear him whistling (hopelessly off-key) before he even came in the door, whatever tensions he might have had from work having been left far behind at the office. He lived every day to the fullest, making the best of what he had and not worrying about what he lacked. Strange as it might sound, he was also, simultaneously, both an extrovert and a private person. He could talk to anyone all day long, but unless you really knew him well you really didn't know him at all. He and I didn't always understand each other, and I really wish I had been closer to him at the end to share what he was going through - not that he would necessarily have opened up anyway - and to tell him how much he meant to me. I hope he knew all of that anyway, even if it was mostly left unsaid.

Though I think about him every day and wish he was still around, I'm truly blessed to have known him for as long as I did - almost forty years. He's the greatest man I've ever known, and my own life is both a reflection of and a response to his. I'm always striving to adopt his stronger points - especially that positive attitude - and while he also had plenty of shortcomings, I try to learn from those as well. I miss you, Dad.

February 12, 2010 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

Kent Haruf, Eventide

Eventide represents author Kent Haruf's welcomed return to his fictional small town of Holt, Colorado and the disparate and seemingly unconnected lives of its inhabitants. Most significantly, Haruf continues the delightful story of Raymond and Harold McPheron, the aged bachelor rancher brothers from Plainsong, Haruf's previous Holt novel. The McPherons were the centerpiece of that novel as they took the pregnant teenager Victoria into their ascetic cloiser of a home, and in doing so discovered their surprising capacity for warmth and human compassion and an ability to change their lives for the better after decades of stasis.

As in the previous novel, in Eventide Haruf presents not only the McPherons but also several other Holt families, each of whom live well apart from the others and know each other little if at all. But gradually Haruf draws them together, their lives slowly intersecting in surprising but realistic ways. A parentless 11-year-old, mature beyond his years and all but deprived of his childhood, cares for his elderly grandfather. A poor disabled couple struggles to keep their family (an intact, nuclear family, a type all but unheard of in these two novels) together. A mother of two young daughter struggles with her abandonment by her husband.

But as compelling as those lives are, here Raymond McPheron is the hero as he first stoically deals with Victoria's departure for college and then unspeakable tragedy. Later, as if buoyed by the success of his fatherly relationship with Victoria and her young daughter and the lesson learned of the value of reaching out to others, he embarks on the first romantic relationship of his long life, with all of the touching awkwardness one might expect. He reaches out even further, both to that 11-year-old as well as Victoria's boyfriend, taking the first tentative steps toward showing them the love and acceptance they need and which Raymond somehow finds himself able to provide.

Admittedly, Eventide didn't have quite the impact on me as did Plainsong, which caught me so off-guard with the richness of its story and the utter memorability of its characters. Eventide had those things, too, of course, but yet lost some of the freshness of the new, in the same way that a second visit to a memorable vacation spot is usually never quite as special as the first visit. The story also developed a bit too slowly, as Haruf took perhaps a bit too much time in drawing the scattered characters together, with a few storylines left dangling until shortly before the end. But all of the characters do finally come to resolution in their lives, some for the better, some worse, some uncertain - just as real-world lives turn out.

But falling slightly short of the mighty Plainsong is nothing to be ashamed of, and Eventide is in itself an excellent book, a quiet and expertly drawn portrait of humanity. Highly recommended.

February 12, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wabash Avenue, 1900


I love almost all of the old photos at Shorpy, but what I love most of all are the full-sized original versions of each displayed photo. Case in point: this 1900 image of the west side of Wabash Avenue in Chicago, looking north from Adams Street (presumably from the Adams El station). The main image is interesting enough, but if you click on "View full size" you'll see an immensely larger version, in which fine details can be easily discerned. That image I've posted above is cropped from just a fraction of the larger photo, from which you can clearly see the faces of pedestrians and read shop signs. The literatus in me couldn't help being drawn to the "Pilgrim Press Booksellers" and "Summer Reading", though the former was presumably a purveyor of inspirational works which would probably not have been of much interest to me. If you look several floors up on the facade of this building, the name "Potter Palmer" can be seen, which leads me to believe that this is actually the backside of the Palmer House hotel which would have fronted onto State Street, just one block to the west.

February 8, 2010 in Chicago Observations, History, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Author Photographs: Sinclair Lewis, 1922


Source: Chicago Daily News Archives, Library of Congress (photographer unknown).

(This is the first in an occasional - and, I hope, regular - series.)

February 5, 2010 in Books, Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

Matt Bell, The Collectors

Matt Bell's The Collectors (Caketrain Press, 2009) is a lovely and elegant fictionalization of the final days of the tragic Collyer brothers. The Collyers were reclusive hoarders who filled their Harlem brownstone with junk for decades before finally being found dead - Langley Collyer crushed under a mound of debris, the blind and helpless Homer starved - in 1947. Their story has been heavily explored by writers of both fiction (including E.L. Doctorow, who recently published a widely-exposed novel on the brothers a few months ago) and non-fiction, but Bell brings a fresh perspective to their sad tale. His novella consists of several dozen ultra-short chapters, many of them only one or two pages, which are divided into five interspersed groups: one for Homer, one for Langley, one for descriptions of the possessions which clog their home, one for the narrator, and one for a couple of outsiders (the policeman who first enters their home, and a city sanitation worker who later labors to clear out the house).

Homer's chapters poignantly show him as a helpless dependent of his older brother, one whose days are spent confined to an armchair drinking brandy and consuming a diet of oranges and pipe tobacco as Langley putters around him. Langley's chapters, in contrast, present a man of action who accumulates all of the junk on nightly excursions through the city and, once the junk begins to overwhelm the house, tries to organize it all to some extent in a hopeless effort to make the squalorous house remain liveable. The author admirably resists any outright explanation or rationalization for Langley's actions, though he does subtly suggest that the hoarding represents Langley's obsessive urge to fill a major void that has existed in their lives since childhood.

Most interesting of all, however, is the role of the narrator, who is the writer of the story itself, looking back from the modern day over the intervening decades. The narrator - every bit as obsessive as Langley Collyer - imagines himself in the Collyer house just before the brothers' deaths, trying futilely to help them. His inability to change the Collyers' fate is an insightful metaphor for a writer's inability (in the narrator's estimation) to effect genuine change and have a meaningful impact on society - especially one who writes about the distant past.

The Collectors is a very thoughtful and well-crafted meditation on loneliness, belonging and the writer's role in society, one which I know I'll be returning to again and again in the coming years.

February 5, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Six word stories

I submitted a couple of my efforts to Six Word Stories several weeks ago but neither has been published, which I'm now taking as an unspoken "no." So, in the interest of enshrining them somewhere other than just the comments section at that site (along with over 3,000 others), here they are:

Employee Appreciation Party. Cash bar only.

We’re childhood friends, the six-year-old said.
The latter was directly inspired by Maddie, who recently uttered those exact first three words. (She's nine, however - I just thought making the child younger made the statement even funnier.)

February 3, 2010 in Fiction: Arrival | Permalink | Comments (0)

A vote for David Hoffman

This morning I casted my vote in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate (Obama's old seat) for David Hoffman, the former Chicago inspector general (and constant thorn in the side of the imperious Mayor Daley) and assistant state's attorney. All policy positions aside, I voted for Hoffman because, by all reports, his personal integrity is beyond reproach, which is a major consideration given the political shenanigans that have plagued Illinois government for far too long.

Meanwhile, frontrunner Alexi Giannoulias has been tight-lipped about his personal role in all the bad loans which threaten to swamp Broadway Bank, which his family owns and which he formerly was a top loan officer. It's pretty appalling for Giannoulias to tout his management experience at Broadway while refraining from explaining his role in the bank's current troubles. My choice of Hoffman over Giannoulias, while based primarily on character issues, is also due to electability concerns. Given the unfolding Broadway situation, Giannoulias will hardly be able to take a populist stance and rail against the greed of Wall Street bankers (he's personally made millions from his ownership in the bank) or their dubious lending practices when his own judgment as a lender is so open to question. I also don't relish the prospect of the GOP attack dogs sinking their teeth into Giannoulias and Broadway during the general election campaign.

David Hoffman represents the best candidate to retain the U.S. Senate seat within the Democratic Party, and also to serve the citizens of Illinois with honor and decency. And that's why he deserves your vote.

February 2, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Conned and Bruised"

I'm very pleased to announce that my comic noir story "Conned and Bruised" has been published at A Twist of Noir. My warmest thanks to Christopher Grant, who is the fastest editor I've come across - I submitted the story yesterday, and it was published today. Can't get a much more prompt response than that. And extra thanks to William Denton, whose Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang provided most of the jargon used in my story. Almost every term in that glossary was completely new to me before I wrote the story.

February 1, 2010 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Unhappy Hipsters

Sheer genius: Unhappy Hipsters presents interior design photos from Dwell magazine, captioned to imagine the lonely, desperate, empty lives of their pensive, brooding and oh-so-chic human subjects. The most laugh-out-loud site I've come across in ages. Personal favorite so far: "Eames, Aalto - her most significant relationships were with dead designers."

February 1, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Back to Holt

This morning I started reading Kent Haruf's Eventide which my wonderful wife gave me for Christmas. I loved Haruf's Plainsong - a charming, perfectly rendered chronicle of small town life - when I read it the year before last, and once I learned that Eventide is also set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, with several of the same characters as the earlier book, I knew I absolutely had to read it. I'm particularly heartened by the reappearance of the McPheron brothers, the reticent bachelor farmers who were the heart of Plainsong. Haruf could tell me about those two all day long, and I'd never tire of it.

I'm generally wary of serials, wondering why authors bother to return to the same characters again and again, in book after book, but Eventide doesn't seem to quite be a sequel, as it introduces many new characters and (I assume) abandons others from the earlier book. True, it does again take place in Holt, but when an author creates a fictional setting that is as vividly realistic as this one, he'd be crazy not to revisit it. After all, nobody hammers on Sherwood Anderson for having all of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio set in the fictional town of the same name, or Faulkner for setting most of his novels in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. Haruf surely deserves the same latitude.

February 1, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)