A Glimpse of Human Nature

Number One Son has always been awkward in social situations. Talks too long, doesn’t read body language, only declaims on the topics in which he himself is interested, etc. It’s caused some consternation over the years, and worry and frustration, because, of course, I’d like to live his life for him to save him any hard lessons, and I’ve been a social wizard since I was 10 days old, y’see. As adolescence looms, my worries about his future social agony loom so large that I sometimes don’t even notice them anymore, as they fade into the background like traffic noise.

So today was the first day for Liam to have cello lessons at school (which of course he fought, but that’s another story). He needed to carry my wife’s cello in its heavy old case three blocks to school. As I walked the dog a discrete half-block behind him, I saw he was struggling with getting the grip. Every 20 feet, he stopped, got a different grip, and hobbled on his way. I worried about the continued health of the instrument, and his having to look like a beleaguered music geek on a tough city street.

Then, one of his classmates gained on him on the sidewalk and approached him. A girl. They acknowledged one another and started to walk to school together, sort of, nothing serious please. And what do you know? He carried that cello in one hand by his side like it was a ukulele.

It was cheering to witness this small attempt to impress someone of the opposite sex. Maybe he’ll manage to fit in sometime after all.

Stuart Dybek a Real Genius

Congratulations to Chicago writer Stuart Dybek for being awarded a Macarthur Foundation Genius Grant! He’s one of my favorite writers, and I urge anyone who would like to have a taste of what it’s like to live and grow up in Chicago to check out any of his books, I Sailed With Magellan, The Coast of Chicago and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. They are the types of reads that I get halfway through and then place on my bedstand for months, because I never want the books to end.

The grant awards Dybek $500K, which he told the Sun-Times will allow him to concentrate on three books he has on the burner.

Of course, the process of choosing a Macarthur Genius is a murky affair worthy of the Skull & Bones. Anyone can apply, but few are chosen. For a peek at the official application, click here. Try as I might, I never could get that spoon to hang from my nose.

Pro Team Fight Songs: Curse or Blight?

Don’t you just love pro team fight songs? More specifically, don’t you love the songs for your hometown teams and find those for other teams absolutely horrifying?

Then check out Zulkey.com today, where the irrepressible Miss Claire has put together a mix tape of all the fight songs she could find. Disco, heavy metal, dixieland, mambo–it’s all there. She even found a song for the minor league Lansing Lugnuts. Minor in stature, only, but big in spirit. I’m sure the people of Lansing just dance the night away with “Go Nuts!”

Most of the nation no longer has regional beers, local department stores, or non-chain restaurants, but at least we can still enjoy some pep for the local team!

Versifying is the New iPhone

This morning my wife tossed the Trib Tempo section at me and said, “Julia Keller is stealing your thunder.”

My immediate response: “If she’s stealing it, it wasn’t much thunder to begin with.”

Then I looked at the page, and saw that Keller was doing what the scribes at BARDBALL have been doing for five months: Trying to capture the spirit of the baseball season in rhyme.

I don’t know what to feel about this. Keller is one of my least favorite local journalists. She may have won a Pulitzer (at least that’s what the paper trumpets), but that doesn’t excuse her for the typical mulligatawny of cliche observations, stale trendspotting, strange analogies and Tourette’s-like transitions she ladles out with rash-inducing regularity. Reading one of her columns is like listening to a radio that changes its channels and volume on its own. I personally think she’s a few steps away from bag-womanhood, and expect to see her on the middle of the Michigan Avenue bridge someday screaming about rabid space bats and their overlord, Justin Timberlake.

So should I be happy she’s delving into baseball poetry, and thus giving the field a bit of exposure? Should I be proud that I’m once again a few months ahead of the cultural curve? If the cultural curve is measured by the Keller-o-Meter, though, should I scuttle the whole BARDBALL operation and hope my friends will forgive me? Is it inevitable, if BARDBALL is dedicated to “baseball doggerel”, that it’s style would be copied by hack writers nationwide?

Her limericks about the Cubs aren’t bad, really, no worse than some of the ones BARDBALL has published this summer. You can check them out here at the Trib, along with a neat little music-slide show. (It pays to have a little corporate funding, I guess.) So what will probably happen is, I’ll realize any like-minded effort is good publicity, even if she didn’t mention BARDBALL, which was profiled in the Trib two months ago. Then I’ll go into schmooze mode, make a note to invite her to any BARDBALL readings we have, and if the opportunity arises, stroke her a little for the effort. It’s bad practice to start literary feuds over a limerick.

(And I’d like to point out that BARDBALL, as of today, has now published 110 poems, and has included at least one poem about every team in the major leagues, as well as the Israel Baseball League. Which is no mean feat. It’s easy for writers to praise the present successes and mock the disasters, but how do you get excited enough to write about the middling teams, the .500 teams, the teams with no tradition? Well, one way is to make fun of players’ names. But I’ll write more about poets’ secrets at a later time.)

UPDATE — The Trib site asked readers to contribute their own limericks to the mix, so Stu Shea and I started working on some to oh-so-subtly advertise Bardball. I submitted the limerick below, but as of now, it’s still not up. I think the Trib wasn’t ready to handle reader submissions, b/c the last one they list is from 10:29 in the morning.

A limerick contest’s the bomb
To salute the Cubs’ current aplomb.
For the rhyme and the reason
For the WHOLE baseball season,
Just log on to BARDBALL.COM !

The “Peer Pressure” Defense

Last week saw the end of the first phase of a mob trial that has captivated Chicago throughout the summer. A jury returned guilty verdicts on every count of murder, extortion and racketeering against four aging mafia hoods and a former Chicago cop. Some say this trial—the culmination of “Operation: Family Secrets”—will be the last “old school” mafia trial this city will ever see. (For you out-of-towners who want to know more on the Chicago Outfit and the “Family Secrets” trial, check out Trib columnist John Kass.)

Although the charges are ugly (among them, 18 murder charges), some aspects of the trial have had high entertainment value. For starters, reporters have felt compelled to describe what the elderly defendants were wearing on the witness stand. With the white suits, yellow ties, black shirts, and the rest of it, it’s impossible to keep pictures of Paulie Walnuts out of your head.

One of the most interesting elements was the defense put forward by three of the reputed crooks. Taped conversations recorded them speaking in a convoluted code with their friends in prison. When asked what they meant by the code, the defendants have said they were just playing along to impress their associates and relatives. Along with being mobbed up, they’ve also denied they understood the code, even though the conversations were lengthy.

“I gave him lip service,” former cop Anthony Doyle said from the witness stand. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. I don’t wanna look like a chumbalone, an idiot, stupid.”

(Note to self: start using “chumbalone” frequently in conversation and while cursing out other drivers.)

Could this peer-pressure defense—“I just wanted to look like one of the guys”—be used successfully in any other pariahs currently in the news?

Senator Larry Craig: “I heard sleazy anonymous hook-up in the airport john were all the rage with commuters, like having an Admiral’s Club membership. Just because I’m trendy doesn’t mean I’m gay. And I pleaded guilty because the prosecutors said it was the best solution. But I take it all back. I still want to serve the people of Idaho, who need a strong senator who can stand up to pressure and think for himself. Unless I’m talked out of it again. What do you think?”

Alberto Gonzales: “I only pretended to have terrible memory lapses when I testified before Congress. So many other aides ‘couldn’t recollect’ when they testified, I thought it would be bad manners to actually remember what I’d done. Hell, does anyone really think I’m THAT absent-minded?”

Nuri al-Maliki: “I didn’t want to go on vacation for the entire month of August, but everyone in the Iraqi Parliament seemed to have their plans already set up and I didn’t want any of them to lose their deposits. They told me the break would make the people think we knew what we were doing. More pictures of us on the golf course equals more confidence in the government.”

Michael Vick:
“If a guy asks you whether or not you’ve got a ‘dog rape machine’ at home, what are you gonna do, act like you don’t know what he’s talking about?”

OJ Simpson: “My buddies just said they wanted to ‘raid the mini-bar’. I never bothered to ask why we needed guns for that, or needed to kick down the door. And there on the bed, was all my stuff! You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. Gosh golly.”

Phraseology 102

1. I was very upset this summer, while reading an excellent piece by Alex Kotlowitz in the NYT Magazine, to see a glaring error that had passed through their proofreaders’ fingers. In an article about the gee-not-racist-and-xenophobic-at-all efforts of the people of Carpentersville, IL, to make themselves an English-only city, Kotlowitz interviewed a woman heading up the efforts to pass such a resolution, even though, basically, some of her best friends are (or used to be) Mexican. Describing the difficulties of her quest, at one point she mentions she didn’t want to get her “things caught in the ringer.”

What “ringer”? An alarm clock? A doorbell? Quasimodo? Is it a reference to horseshoes?

Of course not. She meant to say, “tits caught in the wringer,” a phrase made most famous by WashPost publisher Katherine Graham. (For all you Gen Xers, we’re talking about a hand-cranked clothes wringer that would pinch laundry dry on wash day.) But by getting all Midwest prissy and trying to craft a PG version of this vulgarism, she confused the copy editors (and possibly Kotlowitz) and gutted any meaning from it. Hell, woman, if you spend your time rousing up your neighbors because your Mexican neighbors aren’t “American” enough, saying “tits” in a national magazine is the least of your worries.

2. On Monday, I was having lunch in Heaven on Seven on Ontario Street for the first time in a long time. Mmmm-mmmm, so good. On the way out I used the washroom, which was tucked in a very quiet corner of the restaurant. The room was silent when I entered it, but the ambient music soon kicked in and gave me a start. A snare drum started popping away, and a chorus of voices started chanting, “Feets, don’t fail me now, feets don’t fail me now….”

And I began to realize how much I love that phrase. “Feets, don’t fail me now.” Just the concept of taking time during a moment of imminent danger to talk to your feet and counsel them, abjure them, BEG them to do their duty and rescue the body they’re attached to. Apparently in the past, the feets had in fact “failed” this person? The instinctive fight-or-flight reaction is short-circuited just long enough for the speaker to address his appendages and confer on a plan for survival. Do the feet argue the point, or do they do their duty quickly enough? Does the man thank them later and apologize for his lack of faith? Do the feet resent the pressure being put on them?

When was this phrase first used? I have no idea–probably in some old movie full of Stepin-Fetchit stereotypes. How nice for a Cajun band to use it as a refrain in the song and reclaim it from its racist origins. I look forward to the day when I can use such a loaded, inherently-contradictory phrase without worrying about getting a punch in the mouth.

The Day After 9/11

So the 6th anniversary of the WTC bombings has come and gone. I didn’t want to write anything about it yesterday, because perversely, it felt better to honor those victims and the firefighters and police who died there with a silent prayer than with some half-baked exposition. When the whole world is beating its chest, it feels more sincere to honor their lives for what they were, than to use them to measure how deeply we can grieve.

That kind of selflessness, of course, couldn’t survive in the swamp that is Washington, and so we had the spectacle yesterday of Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker testifying before Congress, the latest pep talks designed to make it look like progress can be made in Iraq, however glacial and bank-breaking it may be. It’s of course no coincidence that they testified on 9/11, because the White House, in its New-Coke efforts to get us all to see what they see, never passes up a marketing opportunity, however tasteless. As Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman wrote, as quoted in James Wolcott’s blog:

“The symbolism of getting General David Petraeus to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the anniversary of 9/11 appealed to the White House. It should not have. It is crass.”

Which goes without saying, or should. But the ghouls and marketeers who run the White House wouldn’t know crass from ground glass. What was it Bush told us just after the WTC bombing? That we should get on with our lives, and show our enemies they can’t destroy what’s good about our way of life? Remember what he told us to do?

Go shopping.

No more confirmation was needed for me that W and those pricks in Washington were a step removed from the rest of us. In their eyes, honor equals money, specifically keeping the economy rolling so portfolios remain high and they stay in the graces of campaign contributors. In an enormous application of that “Prosperity Gospel” claptrap, America is good because it is wealthy. And we can be gooder if we just keep getting richer.

Now the memories of the WTC victims are smudgy and threadbare. They’ve been relegated to the status of those people who died at Gettysburg and Bunker Hill, trotted out for rhetorical purposes and chest beating but far removed from the present reality. Only problem is, they’re only 6 years gone. Real lives are still in pain because of their loss, and hundreds of New York police, firefighters and citizens are still sick from what they inhaled in those weeks after the disaster. And all the pledges of federal help in helping NY rebound are so much debris from a distant time. Did even the most cynical among us realize how badly Bush & Co. would screw things up in this country, in the September weeks of 2001? How they’d piss away our goodwill in the world with the invasion of Iraq? Wipe their asses with the Constitution? Exploit our national resolve for justice to keep themselves in power?

I don’t want to go off on a litany of their mistakes here. It’s been said before, and by better writers. I’ll just say it beggars the imagination what they’ve done in the past 6 years, supposedly in memory of the people who died on 9/11. And what will be done in the next 50.

Pavarotti on WFMT

Such sad news that Luciano Pavarotti, blessed with such a divine voice, finally succumbed to the fate of all mortals. Can any of us imagine what it would be like to be born with a voice like that? To be the greatest tenor in the past 70 years? Since I don’t run an opera company, his diva antics and his unreliability don’t have any effect on me (I might feel differently if I’d had opening night tix and he couldn’t haul his carcass out of the bathtub to perform.) I’d say we’re lucky that the diva antics were as predictable as they were, given the temptations of celebrity these days. At least they didn’t ruin his voice.

Oh what a thrill it must have been to see a titan like that in his prime, on stage in “Turandot” or “La Boheme”. That’s one big reason I love opera, and live performing in general: The chance to see finely trained talent at its peak, bring down a spark from the heavens. I saw John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in “True West” many years ago–so long ago that Malkovich still had some of his hair. Stupendous. And I’ve been lucky enough to see Sam Ramey a number of times at the Lyric Opera, along with Bryn Terfel, Renee Fleming and many others. Vita brevis, baby. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see someone as electrifying as Pavarotti cross the stage again. I doubt I will, but it’s fun watching and waiting.

His passing has had one bright spot: continuous programming on WFMT featuring his operas, concerts, and interviews. Check out their home page for highlights.

Cornhole Update

No, I’m not talking about Larry Craig.

I’ve already squawked about the near-ubiquitous beanbag setups, but in that article, I quoted the wrong price for a custom-made Chicago Bears Cornhole game at a Lincoln Square boutique.

It wasn’t $65.

It was $210.

We are ALL in the wrong business.

Bathroom Flip-Flops

I’m so happy that Sen. Larry “Wide Stance” Craig is thinking of taking back his resignation from the Senate. It’s such a shame that scandals get swept under the rug so fast these days. There’s hardly enough time to enjoy the spectacle, especially when things happen on Labor Day weekend and get lost in the news cycle.

Craig wants to take back his resignation (“I didn’t say cross my heart”) AND take back his guilty plea of the misdemeanor charges in Minnesota. Maybe he made the guilty plea under the assumption that “What happens in Minnesota, stays in Minnesota.” But if he takes back his resignation, is he saying that he really did make a pass in the bathroom stalls? If he takes back his guilty plea, is he saying he DIDN’T do it? Can he get back his committee assignments if he admits that he’s only gay in airports and pledges from now on to take the train?

“The Bronx is Burning”

I’ve been catching up with some old episodes of that 1977 Yankees mini-series, The Bronx is Burning. It’s embarrassing to say that I enjoy it, at least for John Turturro’s gremlin-like prosthetic ears, the cop scenes that look so grittay, and the brass-and-wah-wah-pedal theme music that so effortlessly evokes that time of polyester, cologne and cocaine. A friend tells me that the movie leaves out much of the original racial tension in the book, which might certainly be the case, since most of the tension surrounds the players Commitment to Winning and Upholding The Yankee Tradition.

One completely unbelievable element of the series, however, is the ubiquity of music by the Ramones. One mulletted youth even switches off Joey and the gang on the car radio, seconds before he’s shot by Son of Sam, as if “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” was a Top 40 hit. As hilarious as it’s been to watch certain scenes and listen for the appropriate Ramones song–“Beat on the Brat with a Baseball Bat” during Reggie Jackson’s initial struggles was especially inspired–using them so much in the soundtrack gives one the impression of the whole of NY being edgy and hip and ironic, “all revved and ready to go now.” Where’s the disco music, the “Saturday Night Fever” that those kids getting shot by Son of Sam were probably listening to? Where’s the hair metal? KISS and the “Grease” Soundtrack? The Fleetwood Mac and Gerry Rafferty music the players were probably listening to as they bedded their groupies? It’s a sure cure for 70s nostalgia (and maybe any era) to give a thought to the music that was actually popular then, and not the music the producers like to think was cool.

But that’s not even a quibble, just an observation. It’s been fine late-summer slush, although it’s disorienting to be sucked into the troubles of Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson, and actually pull for them to win the World Series. It’s such a relief, a recapture of equilibrium, to return to the evening scores on “Baseball Tonight” and cheer a little cheer when the Yankees lose.

Weird Dream

Last night I dreamed I was playing poker with Stephen Colbert, and we were using pieces of fried chicken skin as our currency. I think this means a major appliance in my house is going to go on the fritz soon.