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"When he struck out, the low moan was genuine."

The Chicago Reader links to a wonderful 1972 column by Mike Royko, in which he vividly remembers seeing Jackie Robinson's first visit to Wrigley Field.
Robinson came up in the first inning. I remember the sound. It wasn't the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long, rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.

When Robinson stepped into the batter's box, it was as if someone had flicked a switch. The place went silent.

He swung at the first pitch and they erupted as if he had knocked it over the wall. But it was only a high foul that dropped into the box seats. I remember thinking it was strange that a foul could make that many people happy. When he struck out, the low moan was genuine.
I still miss Royko.

April 30, 2010 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dan Savage, Neologist

In this week's Savage Love, Dan Savage reconsiders and dismisses a common anatomy-derived derogatory term and, like any good solutions person, suggests a more appropriate alternative. This being a (nominally) family-friendly blog, however, I'm redacting the actual terms involved. Follow the link to see them for yourself.
You are a huge -----, CTOAC—wait, scratch that. ------- are powerful; they can take pummeling and spit out a brand-new human being. What you are, CTOAC, is weak, vulnerable, easily manipulated, and far too sensitive for your own good.

What you are is a ---- ----.

April 30, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)


I have another six-word story up, appropriately enough, at Six Word Stories.

April 28, 2010 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bill Jackson, a/k/a B.J.

I'm quite pleased to see this interview at Beachwood Reporter with one of my childhood heroes, Bill Jackson, creator of The B.J. and Dirty Dragon Show and Gigglesnort Hotel. Here Jackson memorably describes the frenzied taping of one segment:
The segment was a doozie. Multiple sets. Roll tape! The director hit the shots right on the money. The audio engineer feverishly controlled microphone volume, brought in mood music, and nailed a multitude of sound effects precisely on cue. Camera operators swiveled, dollied, trucked, framed, focused, and always, always kept the puppeteers heads out of the shots. And the puppeteers. The puppeteers, myself included, became a frenzy of bodies rushing from set to set, hitting marks, grabbing up a puppet, lip-synching the dialogue, tossing down that character and rushing for the next. When the scene ended, the studio resembled the remains of a battle field; a haze of smoke lingering over the sets; puppets strewn like dead bodies, their operators sitting in a panting daze; camera operators drooped against their machines; the audio operator face down over his console, and the director silent and staring wide-eyed at the screen.
Contrast that with his later description of what locally-produced TV has become:
Stations have been bought up by big companies and the bottom line has become a station manager's bottom line if he or she is to retain the position. Today's studio production almost totally is automated. Dehumanized. No camera operators, minimal lighting and sound, fewer stagehands, fewer engineers, and practically no one but a lone "director" operating a remote control board that switches the cameras to about three basic shots. Profits dictate and the ledger's bottom line has taken the heart out of locally produced programs.
I'm all for progress and moving ahead, but I can't help think that, in watching reruns on Cartoon Network again and again, my daughter is missing something magical that I enjoyed in my own childhood. Nothing that passes for kids' TV these days can compare with what Bill Jackson, Ray Rayner and Bob Bell created during the 1960s and 1970s. And that seems quite sad.

April 28, 2010 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writers and tobacco


At the always-interesting A Journey Around My Skull, Gilbert Alter-Gilbert considers the tradition of writers and tobacco, and also presents his translation of "History of a Cigarette" by Felisberto Hernández, an odd but compelling work of obsession. I find this an interesting and somewhat romantic subject, though I must admit I've rejected tobacco as a writing accessory of my own just as completely as I've rejected hard liquor and endless night hours of solitude in a drafty garret.

That image above is of Dylan Thomas, my favorite from the gallery that accompanies Alter-Gilbert's article. Though of course it pales in comparison to my overall favorite, by Art Shay:


April 27, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Decider Deigns to Divulge

I'm sure the Nobel and Pulitzer committees are now bubbling with excitement over the news of this forthcoming tome of rational thought, probing intellect and relentless curiousity.


Geez, what's with that photo? Was he constipated at that moment? With that squint of his I assume he was going for some sort of John Wayne look, but mostly this projects the image of a guy at the dog park who just stepped in something soft.

Gawker has a few nice alternate takes on the cover, from the comic:


To the bitter:


Somehow I sense that this small handful of Gawker covers contains more insight than anything Bush is writing. Or, more accurately, "writing."

April 26, 2010 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

MoMA in 125 Seconds

Wondering what's on exhibit right now at the Museum of Modern Art, but can't swing a trip to Manhattan? No problem. Click on the above, sit back, and for the next 125 seconds MoMA is yours.

(Via Paste.)

April 25, 2010 in Art | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reward without burden

I wish I could say this surprised me, but it really doesn't. A study compares the operating behavior of 940 banks who obtained TARP bailout funds with 7,400 banks who didn't:
• Lending fell. The amount of loans outstanding to businesses and individuals fell 9.1% for the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2009, at banks that participated in TARP compared with a 6.2% drop at banks that didn't.

• Employee pay rose. Average pay at banks getting aid rose 9.4% in the program's first year. By contrast, non-TARP banks increased salaries 1.8%.

• Cost-cutting limited. Banks in TARP cut costs less than those outside the program. Government-aided banks increased branches by 2.7% while non-TARP banks cut branches by 1.2%.
This is exactly what to expect when you give banks a handout with no conditions attached - no mandate to funnel the money to borrowers, no restrictions on compensation, etc. Instead of acting like responsible and grateful corporate citizens, they cut credit even further, boost compensation and make expensive investments in new branches. Thanks so much, Mr. Paulson.

April 22, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ben Folds

Julie and I used to regularly go to concerts back in our city-resident, pre-parenthood days: Bad Religion, Matthew Sweet, Archers of Loaf and Built to Spill (the best double bill I've ever seen), Seam and Versus, Yo La Tengo. But moving to the suburbs and becoming parents has made us more domesticated, and we hadn't seen a show for over ten years. But last night, in a belated celebration of her birthday (which was in February), we rectified that by seeing Ben Folds at the Vic Theatre. Ben is a longtime favorite of ours (in fact, we once saw him during his Ben Folds Five era, at Park West) who is one of the few artists that either of us has kept up with over the years.

Last night he delivered a great show, totally solo, which I enjoyed more than the Ben Folds Five show with full band. The latter was more bombastic and theatrical (albeit tongue-in-cheek, as he mocked numerous arena rock cliches) whereas solo he seemed more intimate (with charmingly funny banter between songs) and more focused on the music. He played songs from throughout his career, including many I hadn't heard before. (He admirably refrained from doing "Brick" which is still his best-known song and one that I love, but is probably one he's grown tired of performing.) Two highlights for me were "Philosophy" (still beloved after all these years) and "Still Fighting It" (as a dad, the line "you're so much like me...I'm sorry" has particular relevance for me) but pretty much every song was great. He's also really into the whole acapella thing too, concluding the show by stepping away from the piano and directing the audience in a three- or four-part harmony. Terrific music, terrific showmanship. Check out Ben Folds when you get the chance.

Two other highlights from our evening: an unexpected detour to our favorite restaurant, Rose Angelis, for dinner, where I throughly enjoyed my old standby rotini alla puttanseca and Julie had a marvelous special of pear-stuffed ravioli; and the discovery of another used bookstore, Gallery Bookstore, which I'm sure we'll be returning to soon.

All in all, a great evening.

April 22, 2010 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

“...the steeds of life swirl their smoke to the skies..."

Over at Quid Plura?, Jeff Sypeck ponders the surprising dearth of volcanic references in medieval Icelandic literature (surprising, in that Iceland is essentially a big hunk of volcanic rock), as well as the provenance of everyone's favorite unpronounceable geographic feature of the moment, Eyjafjallajökull: eyja (island), fjalla (mountains), jökull (glacier). Though that name sounds prosaically dull in English translation, I quite like the original.

April 21, 2010 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Book giveaway: Newspaper Blackout by Austin Kleon

This week marks the publication of Newspaper Blackout, the new book from my online friend Austin Kleon, a highly talented Texas-based artist and writer. Basically, Austin takes newspaper articles and with a magic marker blacks out most of the words, with the selected words that remain forming something akin to poetry or microfiction. Here's what the venerable New Yorker has to say about the book:
"He borrows, but doesn’t steal. He’ll never have to face the terror of a blank page again. And his poems, created by blacking out pages of the newspaper with permanent marker, leaving only running puddles of text still visible, resurrect the newspaper when everyone else is declaring it dead. The poems themselves are like a cross between magnetic refrigerator poetry and enigmatic ransom notes, funny and zen-like, collages of found art."
Austin also gets the hallowed Book Notes treatment today at Largehearted Boy, in which he describes some of his favorite music which either involves sampling/remixing or invokes the Midwest, where he grew up.

Austin's blackout poems are inventive, thought-provoking and never less than fascinating, and I encourage everyone to check out his work. And to help do my part, I'll send my extra copy of Newspaper Blackout to the first person to leave a comment below which includes (in the spirit of blackout poems) a grammatically correct sentence which incorporates exactly ten words, in any order, from this blog post. I'll follow up with the winner for the mailing address, and shipping is on me.

April 16, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (5)


The Mother of All Beer Blasts has, alas, been thwarted.
Cases of beer left at landfill too hard to resist
By Associated Press, April 15, 2010

Two Columbia, Mo., sanitation workers who apparently couldn't stand by and let beer go down the drain allegedly took dozens of cases of expired brew from the city landfill.

Police and city supervisors are trying to determine if the salvage was a crime - theft of city property - or just a policy violation.

"If we determine it's a police matter, we will take some action," said Officer Jessie Haden, a Columbia police spokeswoman.

A Columbia distributor, Scheppers Distributing Co., sent 1,500 cases of expired beer to the landfill on April 1 in two shipments. The first shipment was destroyed immediately, but the second, containing about 700 cases of Budweiser and Michelob Ultra, was not.

Margrace Buckler, the city's human resource director, said two Solid Waste Division workers, who haven't been identified, brought a city pickup truck to the landfill and hauled off about 50 cases of the beer.
Given the circumstances, how utterly delightful it is that the human resource director shares a last name with a brand of non-alcoholic beer.
Scheppers President Joe Priesmeyer said the expired beer would not be a health concern, although it might have lost some of its taste.
No problem there. It was Bud and Michelob, which means it had no taste to begin with.

April 15, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunnyside Beverage


Now, here's a real rarity on eBay - a TOG soda bottle label, circa 1950s, from Sunnyside Beverage in Joliet. A Google search for "Sunnyside Beverage" and "Joliet" returns just one result, from some bottle collector's wish list. I'll have to check the old Joliet city directories next time I'm at the library and see if there's any information there on this company. How pleasantly simple that ingredients list is: just water, sugar, lemon and lime flavors, and vitamins B and D. No sodium benzoate, no high fructose corn syrup, just natural ingredients. And vitamin-fortified too!

April 15, 2010 in Ephemera, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...and writing an exact man..."

Interesting thoughts here on the benefits and costs of collaborative writing via Google Docs, Microsoft Office Online, and the like.
Changes this dramatic, however, often involve a degree of loss as well as big gain. What may be lost in collaboration is the strong voice of an individual, that all-important point of view that gives writing flavor, strength and punch.

That could be bad for document producers as well as consumers. Writing is often painful, but there is no better way to get a sense of what one is really thinking about than to express it to others. As Francis Bacon, the 16th Century father of the English essay put it, "reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man." In other words, writing well is how you find out what you are thinking.
Or as Flannery O'Connor once said, "I write to discover what I know."

April 15, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Tunes: The Minutemen vs. Tom Waits

The Minutemen, "Corona"
Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"

I love what "Corona" says about the Minutemen. Despite generally being known as a hardcore punk band, they were much more than that, moving effortlessly into other realms, including funk, free jazz and straightforward rock, and with "Corona" they showed how far they were willing to push the envelope. As I mentioned earlier, the song is cowboy hoedown music (or, as Allmusic.com suggests, "neo-Norteña polka"), and I enjoy imagining the reaction (likely, offended) of the L.A. hardcore crowd to the song back in the band's heyday. Sure, the band's more open-minded fans would have loved it, but the zealots probably resented the departure from the party line. (I'd also love to know what the zealots thought of the Van Halen and Steely Dan covers alongside "Corona" on Double Nickels on the Dime.) This song is a statement of artistic freedom, and quite a fun one at that.

"Never Let Go" shows the softer side of Tom Waits. For most of his career he's adopted the persona of a ragged boho troubador, sometimes slightly deranged, other times wistful and melancholy. The instrumentation here is quite lovely, starting with a simple piano figure that is joined by subdued strings and a mournful accordian, all underpinned by a moderate martial drumbeat and of course Waits' marvelously evocative growl of a voice. The tune is nothing short of majestic, and one of my very favorites of my admittedly limited knowledge of Waits' oeuvre.

"Corona" is great, but "Never Let Go" is greater. In what is very much a battle of the titans, Waits ekes out a decision and moves ahead to the semi-finals.

Winner: Tom Waits, "Never Let Go"

April 13, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Further Adventures in Republican Hypocrisy

Senator Mitch McConnell, fresh off a powwow with Wall Street hedge fund managers, denounces the current Democratic proposal to strengthen government regulation of financial institutions.
“This bill not only allows for taxpayer-funded bailouts of Wall Street banks; it institutionalizes them...The way to solve this problem is to let the people who make the mistakes pay for them...We won’t solve this problem until the biggest banks are allowed to fail.”

Strong words indeed (I'm no fan of bank bailouts either) but McConnell's position would be a lot more convincing had he not voted for the first bank bailout in October 2008.

Maybe McConnell thinks billion dollar handouts to feckless Wall Street financiers are just fine as long as they come with no conditions attached, as was initially the case with TARP - a blank check with no restrictions that might prevent future irresponsible behavior by bankers. But bailouts are bad when there's regulation involved.

Or maybe bailouts are economy-saving godsends under a Republican adminstration in the White House, but socialism-inducing evils under a Democratic administration.

April 13, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Chapbooks and Singles

Tim Frederick at Baby Got Books gives a shout-out to my compadre Ben Tanzer's chapbook, I Am Richard Simmons, and in doing so offers the best analogy for chapbooks that I've come across:
Chapbooks are the punk-rock-7″-singles-that-are-pressed-in-that-one-dude’s-basement-and-passed-around-from-friend-to-friend of the literary world.
Alas, another similarity to the basement-pressed single is that chapbooks are fleeting in existence, here today and gone tomorrow. Ben's chapbook is out of print.

April 13, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Blago, you're fired...and soon probably convicted, too.

At Chicago News Cooperative, James Warren has an interesting take on what Rod Blagojevich's recent Celebrity Apprentice flameout means for his upcoming corruption trial.
In the presence of B-list celebrities — including over-the-hill athletes, pro wrestlers, comics and a lingerie model — the man we twice elected to the state’s highest post improbably exuded insubstantiality. By comparison, the motormouth Cyndi Lauper and baseball’s melancholy Darryl Strawberry came off as Marie Curie and Thurgood Marshall.
I'm starting to think that all of our candidates for major public office should be required to appear on a reality TV show prior to the election. Forget the canned stump speeches and soundbite-heavy candidate debates of the standard political campaign - seeing how candidates tackle a project assignment and interact with their teammates would be infinitely more helpful in determining their leadership skills, intelligence and ability to get the job done. In short, if Blago had appeared on Celebrity Apprentice before he was first elected, and showed everyone what a narcissist idiot he is, there's no way Illinois voters would have elected him once - let alone twice.

April 9, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Modern Family

Modern Family, which just premiered last fall, is already one of my favorite shows. The acting is great (Ed O'Neill is a revelation, completely overcoming his lowbrow Al Bundy persona) but what I really love is the fast-paced, witty dialogue, as in this exchange from last night's re-run between the Dunphy sisters Haley (beautiful, anti-intellectual cool kid) and Alex (brilliant, bookish introvert). Alex has just discovered that a cherished poster of hers has been defaced by Haley, who suspected Alex of reading her diary.
Alex: Did you draw on my poster?

Haley: Yeah, I did. Maybe you'll think about that the next time you read my journal.

Alex: I didn't read your stupid journal, and I waited in line to get this signed, Haley.

Haley: Oh, don't be such a baby. It's just some dude with weird hair.

Alex: That's Maya Angelou, you idiot.

Haley: Oh, sorry. I don't follow the WNBA.
Simply wonderful.

April 8, 2010 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...words that hung before him, shining and alluring..."

"This gave him another opportunity to use one of those words that hung before him, shining and alluring. Far away in the distance there were more of them, dangerously sharp. Words that were not for him, but which he used all the same on the sly, and which had an exciting flavour and gave him a tingling feeling in the head. They were a little dangerous, all of them."
- Tarjei Vesaas, The Birds

April 7, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas

Just this morning I finished my fourth or fifth reading of Pär Lagerkvist's Barabbas, which remains one of the finest novels it has ever been my pleasure to read. Barabbas is the condemned thief whose life was spared by the angry mob of Jews who were given the choice of pardoning either him or Jesus Christ, with the latter thus being sent to his crucifixion. In Lagerkvist's vivid imagining, Barabbas is a faithless man who still finds himself drawn to Christ - whose crucifixion he witnesses, as well as the rolling-away of the stone from his tomb on Easter morning - and his followers.

Yet despite his attraction toward these devout people, from a disgraced peasant girl to his fellow slave Sahak, Barabbas can never bring himself to believe. And just as these early Christians suffer persecution and death for their faith, Barabbas suffers his own inner persecution as he drifts through life as a complete outcast, cut off from both proper society (for being a slave) and from the Christian community (much of which unfairly blames him for Christ's death). In Rome, this isolation brings about an impulsive, delirious act which unwittingly bonds him to a local Christian sect that seals their collective destruction.

As the book ends, Barabbas might - or might not - finally have an epiphany, at last perhaps finding the faith he has wanted for so long. Fortunately, with his lean, understated prose Lagerkvist leaves unanswered whether or not Barabbas has truly found faith, leaving the reader pondering the question long after the last page is turned and the book has been closed. Barabbas is a riveting meditation on religious faith which speaks simply yet conveys the deepest of meaning.

April 6, 2010 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tournament of Tunes: Sebadoh vs. R.E.M.

Sebadoh, "Got It"
"West of the Fields"

I think Bakesale is the album on which Jason Loewenstein first hit his artistic stride. On the previous Sebadoh album, Bubble and Scrape (a wonder in its own right), he seemed like the new kid on the block, cautiously occupying the middle ground between Lou Barlow's sensitive lyricism and Eric Gaffney's sonic anarchy. On that album, Loewenstein sometimes sounds like Barlow, sometimes like Gaffney. But by the time of Bakesale, Gaffney had left and Loewenstein stepped to the forefront (admittedly a secondary forefront, as Sebadoh was always Barlow's band), and "Got It" is a prime example of what he's musically capable of.

Musically - that is, instruments and vocals - I love "West of the Fields." There's Stipe's lonely wail of a voice, of course, but also the brisk, driving rythym, Peter Buck's guitar work and the backing vocals of Mike Mills in the chorus. But though the title has a nice evocative quality - what, exactly, is to be found west of the fields? - the rest of the lyrics are either too undiscernable or vague to convincingly back up the title. And it's not just a case of early-period R.E.M. and its penchant for lyrical obscurity. Many other songs on the great Murmur, especially "Shaking Through" and "Sitting Still", are equally as inscrutable and yet have some sort of emotive quality that never fails to imbed the songs deep into my soul. In short, I don't really connect with "West of the Fields" as much as I do to most of the rest of the album.

Hard to believe that tunes from neither Slanted & Enchanted nor Murmur will go no further than this round, but that's precisely what's happening here. "Got It" advances.

Winner: Sebadoh, "Got It"

April 5, 2010 in Music, Music: ToT 10 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Gulliver and Ireland

As I mentioned earlier, before my latest reading of Gulliver's Travels I was under the presumption that at least some of the book's satire must have specifically pertained to the age-old conflict between England and Ireland. However, at first I was reading an older, unannotated edition of the book and thus couldn't readily identify most of Swift's satirical targets. However, that edition (a family heirloom which hasn't been read for decades) began to deteriorate as I read it, which compelled me to safely reshelve it and prompt me to switch over to an annotated paperback edition of Swift's writings that was left over from my freshman English literature class from college. The paperback, edited by Miriam Kosh Starkman, did provide some very informative insight to the English-Irish question I had wondered about.

As I had suspected, the conflict - very petty in its origins - between the Big Endians and the Little Endians in the Lilliput section, which revolved around whether it was proper to break open an egg at the big end of it or the little end, represented the endless tension between Catholics and Protestants. This, while not exclusively Irish in nature, was partially a commentary on the situation in Ireland. What surprised me, though, was that it was the Laputa section which commented the most on Ireland. The Laputans are abstract, distacted philosophers and scientists who are so divorced from reality that they require servants to tap them on the eyes, ears and mouth when they need to see, hear or speak. This corrective is necessary for actions as basic as everyday conversation, but also to prevent them from stepping off a cliff or otherwise coming to physical harm while lost deep in thought. I immediately recognized that with the Laputans, Swift primarily satirized the theoretical side of scientific inquiry, which he must have seen as being pursued at the expense of practical research which could actually have a tangible impact on society.

But a smaller portion of the Laputa narrative also described the "Flying or Floating Island", which the rulers of the country traveled around in and which clearly represented the whimsy of abstract thought. Besides being a means of distancing the ruling class from the common rabble that lived on the mainland of the kingdom, the island was also a source of military power for quelling domestic disturbances. The rulers, as rulers tend to do, regularly exacted onerous taxes and levies on the commoners, which caused great dissension and unease amongst the latter. If the commoners became unruly and threatened to rebel, the island could be positioned over the recalcitrant city, blocking sun and rain and bringing on drought, famine and disease which would thus quell any rebellion. In extreme cases of domestic unease, there was even the threat of the island being forcefully brought down on the city, thus destroying it. But Swift also mentions that the rulers were hesitant to do so, since various spires, towers and rock outcroppings in the city might do permanent damage to the foundation ("adamantine bottom") of the island. Here are editor Starkman's pertinent annotated comments:
The satire turns to political channels as Swift satirizes English domination of Ireland; he implies economic exploitation like Wood's half-pence, punitive legislative action, and military violence.
The spires, rocks and stones which deter the flying island from landing have been interpreted as the Church, the nobility, and the citizenry which support Ireland; the fear of breaking the adamantine bottom is the fear of revolution.
The tower (constructed at the center of a major city, presumed to represent Dublin) has been interpreted as the Church in Ireland (St. Patrick's Cathedral), the four towers as the chief agencies of the Irish government, and the combustible fuel as the incendiary pamphlets against the English, among them Swift's Drapier's Letters.
Interesting to see Swift imply that the English recognized a potential Irish revolution as a bad thing, but that quelling an uprising might destroy England itself, which was seen as being even worse.

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