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Past lives on, sort of...

Leaguepark_before

Leaguepark_after

I'm loving this. After forwarding this 1910 photo of the old League Park in Cleveland to my buddy Fred, he sent back links that lead me to the vintage postcard above, which features the park's ticket office. The park is long gone, but the ticket office remains - the photo shown above is from Google Street View. I'm so used to old relics being completely obliterated that to find such a small but lovely piece of one still in existence is a wonderfully pleasant surprise. The entire League Park land parcel is currently vacant with most of it (at least as of 2009) owned by the city - which inspires, to an idealist like me, thoughts of the ballpark being rebuilt from scratch. But then reality sets in and I realized that a city park is infinitely more practical and affordable. But I can still dream.

Then again: you may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. Okay, not an exact replica, but pretty close.

January 31, 2011 in Current Affairs, Sports | Permalink | Comments (1)

What I'm writing

My weekdays give me two hour-long blocks of down time: the train ride to and from work, morning and evening. Mornings I've set aside for reading, as then I seem to be at my sharpest and most refreshed, which I need to fully engage with serious fiction. But when I'm tired I can't really focus well enough to read, which is why I've devoted my evening train ride to writing, which is a less passive and more mentally engaging pastime. The evening train is also essentially the only time I write, since when I'm home in the evenings and on weekends I focus on family time instead of the relative isolation that writing requires. (Yes, I'm surrounded by others on the train, but I keep totally to myself and have no "train buddies.")

Since my last update on my progress on Wheatyard (a post which seems, when I read it now, overly self-congratulatory and/or self-pitying), I've done almost no work on it. This despite originally wanting to have this draft finished (and readied for submission to publishers) by the end of December, and then (when that didn't happen) the end of March. What little writing I've managed during the past month was a flash fiction piece which, due to its brevity and derivative structure, didn't really require that much effort. The rest of the time I've squandered playing euchre on my phone, browsing The Reader, or napping, which puts me no closer to getting Wheatyard published than I was before. I might even be further away now, as what little momentum I had achieved a month ago was soon left behind.

None of this latest update is at all intended as self-pity, and I hope it doesn't come across that way. I'm just trying to impart what an ongoing struggle this book has been. Inevitably I have my sights on newer, fresher story concepts that I want to pursue, but I know that if I don't show any ability to finish a book - and Wheatyard, despite its stagnation, is the closest I've ever come to finishing - then thinking of other books is totally pointless.

This week I'm trying another tack. Over the weekend I burned three heavy albums onto my iPod - Hüsker Dü's The Living End (live shows from their final tour, in 1987), Minor Threat's Complete Discography and Sonic Youth's Dirty. Those albums are pretty out of character with the lighter, poppier stuff I usually listen to, and I thought it might jar me out of my evening-train rut - not only keeping me awake, but also away from euchre and focused on writing. Those three bands brought such power and passion to their art, and if I can inject even a tenth of that into my writing, it might be enough to get this book finished. We'll see.

January 31, 2011 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (2)

Exporting democracy (and, more importantly, capitalism) abroad

Wave that flag and hold back the tears, because this whole American nation-building effort is finally paying off. For well-connected insiders and dubious real estate projects in Dubai.

Losses at Afghan Bank Could Be $900 Million
By ALISSA J. RUBIN and JAMES RISEN, New York Times


KABUL, Afghanistan — Fraud and mismanagement at Afghanistan’s largest bank have resulted in potential losses of as much as $900 million — three times previous estimates — heightening concerns that the bank could collapse and trigger a broad financial panic in Afghanistan, according to American, European and Afghan officials.

The extent of these losses make it clear that keeping the bank afloat — something the government has said it is determined to do — would require large infusions of cash from an already strained budget.

Only a few years into reconstruction, and the Afghans have already replicated our financial system. Now the next step is a massive bailout, retention of the executives who created the mess and, once the dust settles, a return to corruption as usual. Just like Wall Street does it.

January 31, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lewis and Mencken

Compare and contrast:

"Elmer had, even in Zenith, to meet plenty of solemn and whiskery persons whose only pleasure aside from not doing agreeable things was keeping others from doing them."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry

"Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
- H.L. Mencken, A Book of Prefaces

Lewis dedicated Elmer Gantry to Mencken, "with profound admiration." Clearly the two were kindred spirits. 

January 29, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Abandoned breweries

Stella

Julie passes along a link (technically, via Boing Boing) that melds two areas of fascination for me: old breweries and urban exploration. That photo above is from the former Stella Artois brewery in Belgium. Of the other featured breweries, I'm surprised to see that the former homes of such regional icons as Dixie and Iron City have fallen into such decrepitude. I would have thought some entrepreneur could make something of either of these classics.

On a similar note, I had to drive to work a couple of days this week, and in taking a detour to avoid expressway traffic I drove past the old Peter Schoenhofen Brewery, at 18th & Canal. During the late 1990s, when we still lived in the city, Julie and I made a visit to the site to check it out and take some photos. The Powerhouse Building was simply gorgeous, but the much older Administration Building was abandoned and fairly run down. Since then I see the buildings every day from my train, which passes within two blocks of the buildings, and I've always glanced at them and wondered at their fate.

So when I drove past this week, I was very pleased to see that the Administration Building has been fully renovated and is now occupied (whether commercial or residential, I couldn't tell) and the Powerhouse Building is occupied with commercial tenants as well. The site is on the fringe of the Pilsen neighborhood - Pilsen itself has become gentrified, but the Schoenhofen area seemed to mostly resist rehabilitation, being more industrial in character and on the opposite side of the expressway from the main neighborhood. But apparently the site is just close enough - not to mention having these two great buildings to work with - to finally benefit from Pilsen's revival.

January 28, 2011 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sinclair Lewis gets his final payday

It's rare to see the name of Sinclair Lewis in the news, so this story is not only unexpected but simply wonderful: his former assistant, 89-year-old Barnaby Conrad, has finally gotten around to writing a novel, The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth, which Lewis conceived of, granted to Conrad and even took a 30% ownership stake in.

"You are never going to be a writer unless you write that book," declared Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Elmer Gantry and Babbitt, as Mr. Conrad recounted the moment recently. Talk about pressure. "It was always on my mind," he said.

Conrad proved him wrong - the Booth novel is his 36th book, so he already became a writer long ago. Conrad has certainly had an interesting life - writer, artist, bullfighter, celebrity nightclub owner - and I'm amused that he still thinks enough of his tempestuous former boss that he has a "stern and intimidating portrait" of Lewis in his living room. And though Conrad only worked for Lewis for five months, he's writing a memoir of their time together, one which I will definitely be interested in reading.

January 27, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hallelujah!

New Feelies album coming April 12! MP3 of "Should Be Gone" already available! Aging non-hipster swoons over band he didn't fully appreciate the first time around!

January 26, 2011 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Finance in Fiction, Fiction in Finance

Interesting post here by Elizabeth Minkel at the book blog of The New Yorker, which touches briefly on the dearth of fiction about the world of finance, but more prominently about the lack of serious reading within financial firms. The first point is hardly surprising, given how rarely fiction meaningfully involves the workplace in general, which is probably one reason that rare novels like Joshua Ferris' Then We Came To The End, which was set in a dying ad agency, continues to generate such an outpouring of attention. (The book is on my shelf, awaiting my reading. I'll probably get to it this year, though Julie didn't think much of it.)

The second point - that finance people aren't readers - comes as no surprise either. Finance (at least the government-regulated variety) mostly rewards conventional thought and conformity, as well as a lavish devotion to the business press - fiction is seen as a superfluous trifle that almost nobody can make any money off of. I've worked at a commercial bank (decidedly not Wall Street, especially not in terms of compensation) for the past four years, and I can count on one hand the number of people I've seen here with novels. And not even a full hand-worth of fingers: one older, bearded guy (since terminated, not for his reading habits but a shoddy work ethic) who always seemed to be carrying cheap paperbacks back and forth between his desk and the breakroom or (ewww) the men's room; and a younger guy who was occasionally seen waiting for an elevator at the end of the day, with a fat crime novel in hand for the train ride home. And though one woman used to spend her lunch break in an empty office with her Kindle, I haven't seen her do so lately, the workload having seemingly overwhelmed her. Other than those isolated sightings, the only books I've seen are motivational pulp and sales-technique manuals. Somewhere there are probably still a few copies of Jack Welch's autobiography around, buried in the dusty back corners of credenzas since the last century.

And if readers are rare, writers are almost completely non-existent. When I first started working here, the entire office had an offsite meeting which included each new employee introducing themselves and, among other things, telling something unique about themselves. I gave my name, position, department and previous employer, then disclosed that I wrote fiction. The gathered looked at me with bemused curiousity, as if I said I raised peacocks in my spare time. Safe to say there's no paper-pushing Kafkas present, nor anyone who even reads Kafka. Except for me, that is. Not that I'm literally Kafka, of course, or ever will be - though I guess I am, comparatively speaking, relative to my colleagues.

January 25, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sad

WhiteStore

Joliet demolishes even more of its legacy.

Crews begin demolition of White Store
JOLIET — A crane armed with a clam bucket sank its teeth into the White Store at 8:11 a.m. Monday and began chipping away at the century-old building’s bricks.

The building was a charming old relic, though admittedly run-down after decades of neglect. Somebody with some vision easily could have renovated and revived the building, but nobody in the city seems to have that much imagination. Instead it's being demolished to expand Joliet Junior College's downtown campus - trouble is, JJC has only half the money needed for the gleaming new building they want to build on the site. And where do they expect the rest of the money to come from? The teetering-on-bankruptcy State of Illinois. Good luck with that. I guarantee the site will be a vacant lot for at least five years, and probably much longer.

January 25, 2011 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Lyon & Healy, Chicago

Lyonhealy

This ad for Lyon & Healy ("Everything Known in Music") is on the side of the firm's old showroom building on Wabash Avenue, which is now the home of DePaul University's technology school. Recently I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only does Lyon & Healy still craft their trademark harps, but do so from here in Chicago, on Ogden Avenue on the Near West Side. Nice to see an American icon successfully resist the twins lure of foreign outsourcing and employee layoffs in response to challenging economic times.

January 24, 2011 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Caboose

Delano_caboose

Love this photograph by Jack Delano, from 1943. Before seeing this, I didn't realize that I hadn't really seen the interior of a caboose before. Looks quite cozy, though I suspect it was much more uncomfortable than it appears.

January 23, 2011 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The red shirts spoke of racing."

At first I was drawn to this article because I thought it was about an aging horseracing track - which allures me, on many levels - then was disappointed to realize it was a car track, but finally stayed for the writing, which often borders on literary:

Easy to spot in their red “Save Our Fairgrounds” shirts, they were spread out over the sixth floor, the basement, the lobby and the Council chambers — at least a thousand and possibly hundreds more, possibly more than had come to some past racing events.

The other side was represented, too; a mix of neighborhood residents, environmentalists, small-business owners and real estate agents, they wore yellow shirts reading “Neighbors for Progress.” They spoke of the noise, the deafening drone that stifles conversation on front porches and back yards, even in the living room with the TV on and the windows closed.

They also spoke of sustainable growth, property values, infill, green space, economic development, vibrant corridors — the articles of faith of modern urban planning.

The red shirts spoke of racing.

Excellent work, Campbell Robertson.

January 21, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tournament of Books

The field for the 2011 Tournament of Books has been announced over at The Morning News, and as I mentioned earlier in reference to the longlist, I haven't read a damned one of them. And only three of the sixteen - Donoghue, Gordon and Finkler - had I even considered reading. So I'll be enjoying the tournament without a favorite pulling at my heartstrings (you know, the same way I unemotionally enjoy Bears-less Super Bowls), but this year I'll add a twist: I vow to read whatever book ends up as the winner.

That said, I reserve the right to renege if Franzen wins. The more I hear about that book, the less appetizing it gets.

January 20, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

New to the gallery

Grass_medium


I recently finished off a roll of Kodak Tri-X black and white film (my first in over five years) and just posted some of the better images at my online gallery, starting here. (Plus a cute image of Maddie here.) Since hardly anybody shoots b&w film any longer, the camera shop had to send it to an outside lab for processing, and a single set of prints set me back twenty bucks. Whew. I'll probably be doing very little b&w any longer.

January 17, 2011 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Structured reading: American satire

I just realized that I never recapped my latest "structured reading" effort, which this time focused on three top American satirists of the early 20th Century - Finley Peter Dunne, Ring Lardner and George Ade. Here are my belated thoughts...

Dunne's Mr. Dooley Remembers is an unusual memoir - he was suspicious of autobiography, so instead of writing about himself directly, he wrote about leading figures of his day whom he knew, primarily Teddy Roosevelt, Warren Harding and Mark Twain. But in writing about others, he reveals more about himself than he may have intended. His son Philip Dunne, who prodded his father into writing the memoir during his final years and ultimately edited the collection, intersperses his own recollections of his father's life in alternating chapters. Then at the end of the book, Philip Dunne presents his favorite "Mr. Dooley" columns (which made Finley Dunne world-renowned in his day), which the son "translated" from their original Irish-brogue vernacular into more modern English. This definitely makes the Dooley pieces (whose century-old subject matter already challenges the modern reader) much easier to comprehend. Certainly an innovative treatment.

Lardner's The Portable Ring Lardner is simply wonderful, highlighted by the novellas You Know Me Al (Lardner's most famous work) and The Big Town (similar in tone to Al, and nearly as good), a dozen-something great short stories and the hilarious fake travelogue "The Young Immigrunts." Lardner's journalistic pieces, by contrast, have not aged well and are likely of interest only to political or history junkies. But these shortcomings are totally overcome by the greatness of the fiction, and makes this an indispensible collection.

In Babel: Stories of Chicago is a collection of Ade's newspaper columns. Terrifically written and much more serious than I expected (though his irrepressible humor came out more toward the end), the book still frustrated me. Time and again I found myself really getting into a piece, only to have it end abruptly after four pages or so - since these were originally published in newspapers, Ade was working against length constraints. I wish he had been able to expand many of these sketches into full-blown stories or even longer works. Still, a pretty terrific collection, one which I'm sure I'll be revisiting in the future.

This latest structured reading was again a very rewarding experience. My next round, sometime later this year, will involve three old-school Jewish writers - Isaac Bashevis Singer, Shalom Aleichem and Chaim Potok.

January 16, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Overheard

Last night I actually heard Julie laugh, twice, while reading Ian McEwan's Solar. Odd, considering that I don't remember a single amusing moment in either Atonement (which I loved) or Saturday (which I admired, despite some major reservations), although Amsterdam was definitely a comic novel (and which, perhaps not coincidentally, was a big disappointment).

January 14, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

"If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works."
- John Dos Passos, born on this day in 1896

He may have something there. It certainly explains why editing my manuscripts seems like such a chore.

January 14, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Jack London

"I was a sick child, and despite the terrible strain on my heart and tissues, I continually relapsed into the madness of delirium. All the contents of the terrible and horrible in my child's mind spilled out...All the inconceivable filth a child running at large in a primitive countryside may hear men utter was mine...My brain was seared for ever by that experience. Writing now, 30 years afterwards, every vision is as distinct, as sharp-cut, every pain as vital and terrible."
- Jack London, born on this day in 1876

London was one of my earliest literary heroes. I remember, as a kid, starting and abandoning White Fang half a dozen times before finally finishing it, after which I re-read it several times and then adding Call of the Wild, The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden along the way. And "To Build A Fire" is still one of my favorite short stories. My interest in the writer continues on - I recently downloaded The People of the Abyss (his account of living with the destitute of London's East End) to my iPhone and hope to read it soon.

January 12, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Jeff Vande Zande

Based on this strong review, I'm definitely adding Jeff Vande Zande's Landscape with Fragmented Figures to my list. Jeff co-edited On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work (from Bottom Dog Press, which also published Landscape) which included my short story "The Last Final Copy", so picking up his book is the very least I can do to return the favor.

Hey, the publishing industry is built on quid pro quo/incestuous relationships, like pretty much every other industry. Just deal with it.

January 11, 2011 in Books, Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

27% makes me better-read than I would have guessed...

In his typical audacious manner, Ed Champion has vowed to read the entire Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th Century. Given that I'm a fairly slow reader (only about thirty books a year) and am generally suspicious of any sort of literary canon decreed from on high, I'm somewhat surprised that I've read 27 of the 100:

98. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice; 91. Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road; 88. Jack London, The Call of the Wild; 86. E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime; 85. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim; 73. Nathaniel West, The Day of the Locust; 68. Sinclair Lewis, Main Street; 67. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; 66. W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage; 56. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon; 55. Jack Kerouac, On the Road; 41. William Golding, Lord of the Flies; 39. James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain; 38. E.M. Forster, Howards End; 33. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie; 29. James T. Farrell, Studs Lonigan; 24. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio; 20. Richard Wright, Native Son; 19. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man; 18. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five; 13. George Orwell, 1984; 10. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath; 8. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon; 7. Joseph Heller, Catch-22; 5. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World; 3. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; 2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Naturally, I have my objections to many of the books on this list (no more than 15 of which I'd put on my own Top 100 list) as well as the many exclusions. But that's a barroom argument for another day.

January 11, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

The doorstop has arrived.

Twain


The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 arrived this week, courtesy of my mother-in-law Carroll. Really looking forward to reading it, though I already know it will take quite a while. There's no way I'm lugging this beast on the train, nor reading it cover to cover. I'll probably read it in 50-page chunks over the next few years, hopefully finishing (and enjoying) it just in time for Volume 2.

January 9, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Richard Thompson, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"

To me, the very best song lyrics are both poetic and tell a story. And one of the finest examples of this is Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning". While Thompson's guitar work here is typically wonderful, what really makes the song great are the lyrics:

Says Red Molly to James, That's a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such a like
Says James to Red Molly, My hat's off to you
That's a Vincent Black Lightning 1952
And I've seen you at the corners and cafes, it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme
And he pulled around behind
And down to Box Hill they'd ride

Says James to Red Molly, Here's a ring for your right hand
But I tell you in earnest, I'm a dangerous man
For I've fought with the law since I was seventeen
I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine
Now I'm twenty-one years, I might make twenty-two
And I don't mind dying but for the love of you
And if fate should break my stride
Then I'll give you my Vincent to ride

Come down, come down Red Molly, called Sargeant McRae
For we've taken young James Agee for armed robbery
Shotgun blast in his chest left nothing inside
Come down, Red Molly, to his dying bedside
When she came to the hospital there wasn't much left
He was running out of road, he was running out of breath
But he smiled to see her cry
He says, I'll give you my Vincent to ride

Says James, In my opinion there's nothing in this world
Beats a '52 Vincent and a red-headed girl
Now, Nortons and Indians and Grieveses won't do
They don't have a soul like Vincent '52
He reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys
Said, I've no further use for these
I see angels and ariels in leather and chrome
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home
And he gave her one last kiss and died
And he gave her his Vincent to ride

January 9, 2011 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Quote

"Sweden`s reputation abroad is intact. We have funny drinking habits, we copulate diligently and then commit suicide after paying a dreadful amount of tax."
- Swedish actor Erland Josephson, in a 1987 government report on foreigners impressions of Sweden.

Being three-fourths Swedish myself, this is one of my favorite quotes ever. I especially like the phrase "copulate diligently" - as if sex is some patriotic duty that Swedes engage in, even if they don't want to, just to maintain Sweden's reputation.

January 9, 2011 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

A man after my own (retro) heart

Jim Hanas announces his NBA Minus 50 project. Immersing oneself in what the critics loved fifty years ago - intriguing. Considering how slowly I get around to reading contemporary fiction (last year, I think I read four books published during 2010, which sounds laughably low but is probably my all-time same-year high) an annual project like this might be perfect for me.

(Via The Second Pass.)

January 6, 2011 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Bismarck Hotel, Chicago

Bismarck3

Bismarck1

Bismarck2


I was delighted to discover these two vintage ads on the back of Hotel Allegro, as I cut through the rear alley one morning on my way to pick up coffee. The ads date from the building's original incarnation as the Bismarck Hotel, built in 1925. The ads are specifically for the Old Vienna sweets shop ("Pastries Sodas Sundaes") and the Garden Lounge bar ("Pleasantly relaxing...Your favorite potion properly prepared"). There's also a Bismarck banner ad across the top of the building that was too high for my to photograph - the alley, while wide by downtown standards, is still too narrow for a broad perspective. (It also makes this photo much more prosaic than the nicely framed Boston Store ad from my earlier post.) Since I found these ads, I've strolled through a few more alleys looking for other unexpected ads, with no luck so far. But I'll keep looking - I'm wondering in particular if the Palmer House or Chicago Hilton have anything similar. Stay tuned.

That linked-to Allego promotional copy has some interesting background on the hotel's history, most notably that its German-American owners, retreating from anti-German bigotry, temporarily changed the name to the Randolph Hotel during WWI. Sometimes it's easy to forget that what is now such a mainstream ethnic group was once so reviled.

January 6, 2011 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (1)

What I'm writing

I'm currently in the fourth draft of my novel, Wheatyard. Until recently, the latest revisions have gone well - the existing narrative has been significantly tightened up, while several new sections have been added that provide a clearer view of the narrator. (Thus correcting one of the biggest flaws of the earlier drafts - the focus was too much on the protagonist, Wheatyard, while the narrator was too thinly drawn.)

I've now fully revised five of the six chapters, but have been intentionally writing around (that is, avoiding) the fifth chapter. That one is the longest and thorniest chapter in the book, when Wheatyard finally reveals details about his personal life and his past, which the narrator has been tentatively seeking out for the entire book to that point. Before the holidays I sketched out that chapter, focusing on its key points and identifying parts that could be trimmed or eliminated entirely. Right now the chapter is much too long, wordy and redundant, and needs a lot of intense work. Then during the holidays I set the manuscript aside, partly to take a breather but mostly because I wasn't totally sure I was ready to plunge into heavy revision.

Last night, on the train home, I finally dove in. And I hit bottom. Though I had a sense of what needed to be done, I had little idea of how to go about it. I read through my sketch notes again and again, trying to decide what needed to be cut. I went back and forth between the manuscript and my handwritten notes, which literally required juggling while sitting in a tight train seat crowded by the stranger in the next seat, a woman whose handbag, for further discomfort, was pressed against my hip. As I struggled to organize my thoughts, I accidentally dropped my pen into the narrow gap between the seat and wall, and then later, as frustration mounted further, a stack of looseleaf sheets fell out of the manuscript cover and scattered on the floor. I picked them up, swearing. I was utterly, completely overwhelmed. I shoved all my papers together, stacked them on my lap, folded my arms across my chest, leaned back and closed my eyes, at that moment not caring if I worked on this novel - now five years in the making - ever again.

I stayed that way for several minutes, trying to calm myself - not calm enough to resume writing, but just to feel like a normal person again. Then, to my surprise, when the train's first stop was announced the woman stood and headed toward the exit. I opened my eyes as she departed, and wondered if she was truly leaving, or just tossing something in the garbage or needing to use the restroom. But when she stopped to wait in the line of departing passengers, I realized I had the seat to myself. I shoved my messenger bag to the other seat, leaned my elbow on it and stretched out, cracking open the manuscript again. I was still on edge, but that brief pause and the extra room changed things just enough. I also thought it was best to ignore the big picture for the time being, and instead of thinking about theme and major cuts, I focused completely on line editing - deleting phrases, changing verbs, all the detail work that the manuscript would eventually need anyway. And I made progress, slow but steady.

When the train reached my stop, I packed up and departed, and even the bracing cold outside was unable to dampen my mood. As I walked to my car I felt much better about things - about both the novel's potential and my general self - and decided that I could keep the writing going for a while longer yet.

January 5, 2011 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (4)

Three tiny details...

...that I noticed this morning during the short walk between the Monroe Street bridge and my office...

+ A cast-iron bell above the door of the bridgetender's house. The bell is dated 2008, which I remember being the year when the house was meticulously restored by the city. But a bell like that is such an anachronism - there are no bridgetenders any longer, and the houses are all unoccupied - that it surely must have replaced the original version. It even seems to be functional, as it has a bellrope that goes into the house through a small hole in the granite. Nice to see the city pay attention to something this minor during its restoration work.

+ A headphone jack on the Harris Bank ATM machine, apparently for hearing-impaired customers.

+ A roughly stencil-painted sign on the side of an old brick office building, just below the fire escape, that reads "Fire Stairs Don't Block." The sign is surrounded by dumpsters which would, indeed, block the stairs if were they deployed.

January 5, 2011 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fading Ad: Boston Store, Chicago

Bostonstore

This is the first of what I hope will be a continuing series. My friend Frank Jump is a tireless photographer and chronicler of what he calls "fading ads" - old commercial advertisements painted directly onto brick walls. His website and blog are endlessly fascinating collections of fading ad photos which I strongly encourage you to wallow in. Frank has inspired me for many years, during which time I've dabbled in accumulating my own collection of fading ad images.

Despite Chicago's relentless effort to obliterate most of its unglamorous past - "unglamorous" including many nondescript yet functional brick buildings - there are still a handful of sharp old fading ads to be found in the Loop if you look carefully enough. That ad in the photo above, peeking out from a cluster of other buildings, is for the old Boston Store at the corner of State and Madison (now a Sears). The sign is painted on what appears to be the top of an elevator shaft, and can just be seen from State Street, right in front of the old Marshall Field's flagship store (now Macy's). The surrounding buildings are certainly an odd lot - the classic Reliance Building at the left, the hideous Block 37 mall in the foreground and, just behind the ad, First National Plaza/Chase Tower. I like how those buildings frame this fading yet still visible ad.

More to come, soon.

January 1, 2011 in Chicago Observations, Photography | Permalink | Comments (3)

Mike Royko, "How To Ease That Hangover"

Mike Royko, "How To Ease That Hangover" (2.7mb download)

Happy New Year! In case you overdid it last night and now have (in my dad's immortal words) "skull cramps", I'm passing along this helpful advice from Mike Royko. The man definitely knew a thing or two about drinking.

January 1, 2011 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)