Imps of the Past

My memory has been giving me trouble lately. I’d tell you how long it’s been coming up short, but I can’t even remember that. I’m talking about memories of events from my teens, twenties, thirties–basically everything up til maybe five years ago. I try to remember the details of a trip, or an old friend, or a club I used to visit a lot, and come up empty. At other times, people ask me, “Hey, remember the time…” and it sounds like they’re talking about someone else’s life. This incomplete history is especially troubling for me professionally–what’s a writer supposed to do, after all, except stitch together the fabric of old ideas and new experiences to elicit reactions in readers? At this rate, I’ll have to invent EVERYTHING I write, and not just the material that doesn’t jibe with the wild generalizations I’m making.

The last five weeks of the year, of course, are when memories become the part and parcel of all our activities. Whether embracing or running from one’s past, one can’t escape from the fact: the holiday season runs on memories. I took the family to Detroit for Thanksgiving to spend it with my mom and brother’s family. Memories good and bad sprung up constantly, all set against a background of a city I don’t recognize anymore.

This year my mom finally finished putting together a photo album for me, of childhood pictures when I was cute as a puppy’s navel to my teenage years when…words fail me. Let’s just say I wasn’t cute anymore. She included all my class group pictures from ol’ Sacred Heart Grade School on Michigan Avenue, even one from first grade. At first I could name off just about every other babyface in the collection…

Kathy O’Brien.
Charlotte Cook.
Art and Craig Champagne.
John Berchulc.

Then, an hour later, the names of the faces I’d missed started coming back to me…

Jeannie Youvon.
Sean Archer.
Bridget Ugorowski.
Bob Coy.
Gary Lesinski.

And for the next four days, names would come back to me. During the day. Middle of the night. In the middle of a conversation. Every single name, it seemed, was somewhere to be found in my neurons….

John Steslicki.
Mary Ann Mosey.
Carolyn Logue.
Lori Waldecker.
Paul Mercurio.

I haven’t tested myself against the eighth grade master photo I have packed away someplace. For more than a couple reasons, I’m scared to. With a couple of exceptions, I haven’t seen any of these people since Nixon was president, I only went on to high school with one of the 60, and I can’t really say I was friends with more than a handful. (That’s not to deny the bond that kids have in a parish school through the years.) It staggers me that the names keep bubbling up from the amber, when the rest of my memory is so balky, stubborn and incomplete. What an odd mechanism in the grey matter. How the hell does it get me through the day?

A Very Charitable “Recut” Review

Just in time for Christmas gift-buying comes a review of Recut Madness, from the Christian Century. Full disclosure: the reviewer, Lou Carlozo, is a good friend of mine, but that won’t stop me from relaying his review here. I mean, if you can’t trust your friends, whom can you trust? Money quote:

Throughout the book, Garner maintains a lively bounce spiced by sharp one-liners and a focus that stays fixed on the overarching theme. At a time when political peace talks look about as likely as getting a duck elected president, Recut Madness at least allows donkeys and elephants to laugh loud and hard together—or, if they so choose, separately.

And I mean money quote in the most literal of ways, of course. Get out there and buy the book, people!

Hot Big Ten Action

Sid Yiddish, Bardball scribe and slam poet extraordinaire, had been following my rants about the latest craze, Cornhole aka Baggo aka Tailgate Toss aka “I have $90 burning a hole in my pocket and need to buy something with my team’s logo on it immediately”. On a trip to perform in Bloomington, Indiana, Sid saw the sign below on campus and snapped a pic for me.

Too bad “cornhole” doesn’t mean what it once did. What a gay old time it could have been on campus.

Trib Shows Admirable Restraint

It’s always fun to read the short, police blotter articles in the Trib, esp on Saturday and Monday. They give you a perspective on how bad your weekend could have gone, but for the grace of God.

And it also delivers little gems like this one.

A drunken driver crashed into the back of a Chicago police squad car early Thursday in the 100 block of North Kilbourn Avenue in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, police said….

About 12:30 a.m., the Harrison District officers were traveling north on Kilbourn when [the driver] rear-ended their squad car with his Oldsmobile…[The driver] then drove around the squad car and continued north, until slamming his Oldsmobile into a parked vehicle…

The name of the driver?

Cornelius Comic.

What do you think the Sun-Times or the NY Post would have done with that? “Comic Crashes in West Side Debut.” “Comic Arrested After Slamming Cops.” I’ll bet the booking cop had some fun with it too. Probably the kind of thing poor Cornelius has gotten all his life. No wonder he turned to drinking. If comedy is a way to purge your inner demons, what must it be like to have to purge your own last name?

‘Roid Against the Machine

Congratulations to Barry Bonds, for making liars of all the naysayers who thought his head would explode like an overripe grapefruit before he was snagged in the steroid investigation. To salute him, I present a hastily written, vulgar limerick:

If Barry needed any incitement
To confess, now here’s his indictment.
Else, to prison he’ll go
To be someone’s ho,
Where anal rape’s the daily excitement.

Look for more limericks as they become available, at BARDBALL.COM.

My First Political Caricature

Two weeks ago, a friend asked me to tag along to an event at the Harris Theater downtown. An evening of political satire, he said, “made me the natural choice to come along.” It was a joint appearance by the Second City and “Kal”, the editorial cartoonist for The Economist. An intriguing combination like this could not be passed over.

The evening turned out to be a bit of a mish-mash, though its heart was in the right place. The actors from Second City did their best to add some theatricality to what otherwise would be a panel discussion. On the massive stage at the Harris, though, many of their attempts at political humor (Hillary hiring an assassin for Obama, then getting lectured on why no one likes her, eg.) were unconvincing and hollow. Maybe they needed the intimacy of the old cabaret space. Then again, the actors were undoubtedly touring company players and not as skilled at characterization and impersonation as they thought they were.

The panel discussion was interesting, if brief. I don’t remember much of what was said between WBEZ’s Gabriel Spitzer, Kirk Hanley and Matt Hovde of Second City, and Kal, aka Kevin Kallaugher. Kal was the most engaging person on stage, the most passionate–as it should be, since this was an evening to salute him. After explaining how he thought his cartoon is another type of magazine column (and thus is driven by the idea and the outrage, and not the gag), Kal showed us the evolution of a complete cartoon. Quite fascinating to go from idea to doodle to scribble to ink. (To see a gallery of his work for the magazine, go here.)

Later he led the entire audience in a group exercise in creating our own cartoon of the Venal Dubya, on space provided inside our programs. We started with the nose, then the lines around the mouth, the seagull shape of the upper lip, the ears, the beady eyes, the overgrown eyebrows, and the furrowed brow (“as many lines as possible,” Kal encouraged).

Here’s what I came up with. Looks like I won’t be putting Edward Sorel out of work anytime soon.

Whatever the artistic outcome, everyone was quite pleased to be led along the path of creation by Kal. He also showed himself to be at least as skillful in improv comedy as the Second City-ers later, as a screen came down above the stage and an electronic image of Dubya appeared, taking questions from the audience like it was a press conference. The electronic image was controlled offstage by a head rig worn by Kal, who answered all the questions with his best impersonation of a defensive, shit-headed, arrogant Texan wannabe. ( I just discovered it online, if you want to see it.) It was very entertaining, though the huge caricature head gave me dizzy spells as I waited for its heft to snap the neck of the cartoon president. If only, oh, if only….


Attorneys for convicted mobster Frank Calabrese, Sr., have been calling for a new trial, saying that the jury was prejudiced when it went into deliberations at the end of summer. (I blogged about the “Family Secrets” trial briefly in September. If you follow this link, you’ll find better news coverage within.)

So what was it that may have tilted a few jurors into the “hang ’em” camp?

When they heard Calabrese tell a federal prosecutor in court, “You are a (expletive) dead man.”

Yeah, that might have gotten their attention. How’s a guy supposed to recover after that?

According to the Trib last Friday, one of the other defendants in the case is trying to use it to overturn the conviction:

Lawyers for defendant James Marcello have made the alleged threat part of a motion for a new trial. “Proof of a racketeering act — threat of murder and obstruction of justice in its most venal form — occurred before the jury’s very eyes!” Marcello’s lawyers said in their filing.

I’m not a legal eagle, but this seems a little desperate. Since the jury watched a racketeering act in the courtroom, the verdict should be overturned? Must be some kind of minutiae that escapes me. The lesson to all you killers on trial out there: Threats and outbursts can keep you from going to jail, so knock yourselves out! (It makes for entertaining copy in the papers, too.)

Anniversary Puzzle

So today’s our 16th wedding anniversary, and all is fair in Garnerlandia. We’ll be going out to dinner with friends tonight and keeping things a little more lo-key than last year’s trip to San Fran (which seems so long ago as to never have happened). It’s been a very busy and hard-working fall, mostly b/c of my wife’s grad school toil, but all in all, as nice as a sunny morning before the sugar maples have lost their leaves.

After the kids headed off to school, I walked over to Jewel’s and bought my wife a nice pot of mums, yellow with a trace of red all the way around the petals. For some reason, the variety is called “Rage.” “Rage Chrysanthemums.” Somewhat harsh, but who knows what lurks in the hearts of plant breeders?

My wife comes back from chauffeur duty to school and hands me a purchase she’s made.

Mouse poison and traps.

My gift: Rage chrysanthemums.

Her gift: Mouse poison.

Is there something I’ve been missing lately?

Halloween Post-Mortem

Halloween is over now. Time to clean up the fake spiderwebs, put away the costumes and wigs, and prepare for the long slow slide to the end of the year.

The kids and I only managed to watch one movie in preparation, “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.” I don’t think it really counts, but we haven’t had many nights at home, and there haven’t been enough good movies on Turner Classics to put on the Tivo. “Bride of the Monster” is sitting on the machine now, but I don’t think I’ll subject anybody to that.

The Halloween entertainment I’m going to miss most, surprisingly, is a song anthology that I snatched off the internet last year. “Spook Party” mixed a lot of old rockabilly and novelty songs with radio ads for “It Conquered the World” and “The 4-D Man”. Every afternoon after school, the kids put it on the CD player and drove their mom crazy. But so many of them have stuck in my head that I’ll be hearing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “Feast of the Mau-Maus” when we cut into the Thanksgiving turkey. You should all get the zip files for “Spook Party” and “Ghoul-Arama” for next year to fill your heart with creepy goodness. Go here for the files. And poke around the rest of the pages on the “Scar Stuff” blog, as you’ll find lots of strange gems.

Here’s my jack o’lantern for the year. I was pretty proud of the design, but I think next year I’ll have to let the head rot out a little more so the strings sewing the mouth shut really stand out. The problem in this neighborhood is that, no matter how much tasty garbage is overflowing in the dumpsters, the rabid squirrels feel obliged to rip apart pumpkins like wolverines going after mice. Put your pumpkin out three days before Halloween, and it will look like the Tasmanian Devil has gotten hold of it by the time the trick-or-treaters come out.

And to all the folks who decorate their houses with store-bought skeletons and blow-up ghosts, I gotta tell ya, a little ingenuity can go a long way. (Some chumbalone on my street bought little white baggies, preprinted with ghost faces, and stuffed them with a napkin or two and hung them in his tree. Store-bought, pre-printed ghost baggies? Now that’s lame.) This year I wrapped three bushes in my front yard with black nylon mesh and stuck some blinking glowing eyes inside. I wanted to make them look like large menacing blobs, kind of like that old Looney Tunes red-headed monster. The effect was okay, not great. But as a last minute inspiration, I grabbed our dog’s travel cage and some rubber monster claws from the costume bin, and made the decoration below.

People stopped and laughed at it, little kids looked at it very askance as they walked by (I can watch their expressions all day from my office on the **ahem** mezzanine level of the house). One man even took a picture of it, saying he was looking for ideas for next year. Just goes to show, a little creativity can go a long way. And it keeps the kids busy to boot.

If you want to see what our costumes were this year, visit my MySpace page.

Now, on with November. Sigh.