The Kids Are Alright

Here’s a snapshot that indicates where we are in the life of this household, in these times, in these here United States.

Two Saturdays ago, the kids were upstairs cleaning their rooms. Slowly and with much distraction, but that goes without saying. Liam, in seventh grade, was cranking up the copy of “Who’s Next” that he got for Christmas. It’s been amusing and incredibly nostalgic to have him playing this around the house. (It was even more evocative in December, when we played it in the car on the way to go skiing. All sorts of pictures of 1972 style–string art, big sideburns, bold wall prints, platform shoes, and ski lodge decor–swam through my head intoxicatingly. The ski lodge decor was still up at the ski hill, but everything else came from memory. And there was my kid in the back, singing a lusty version of “Bargain” and trying out some windmill guitar.) We’ve seen all sorts of attempts at teenage rebellion in recent months, more willed it seems than really intrinsically necessary. But adolescence is barreling along like a student driver, no doubt about it.

In her room, Liesel was cleaning up her dolls and singing along with a CD of “Schoolhouse Rock” in a sweet little girl’s voice. My wife must have encouraged her to play it to get some help on her multiplication tables, which are making 4th grade very trying. It was a nice innocent scene, starkly contrasted with the newfound rock decadence in the other bedroom. I could see the chasm that will inevitably grow between the brother and sister, and between the kids and their parents. While they still get along as well as brother and sister can, things will be changing soon, and there will be lots of laughs and lots of screaming and tears.

Childhood is beginning to fade away in this household, and that’s certainly okay, and in any event can’t be stopped. I enjoyed the little twinge of heartbreak I felt when I considered this scene. It made me wish for the first time that we had more than two kids, so the scene — and countless others, of bigger kids helping the younger, younger ones holding onto their youth, fear, pride, uncertainty, craziness — could be replayed a few more times.

Okay, Even I Didn’t Think of This Angle

Time, tides and Lawrence Tynes wait for no man. It looks like the next generation of political correctness has moved arrived. My take on fairy tales was so 1990s, but here in the 21st Century is a story that reflects a new sensibility. From the BBC:

A story based on the Three Little Pigs fairy tale has been turned down by a government agency’s awards panel as the subject matter could offend Muslims.

Were the pigs building access tunnels in Mecca, decorated with mosaics depicting Mohammed, with financial backing from American Jews? Were they drinking rum and Cokes and drooling over girlie magazines? Were they eating bacon? The article doesn’t say, but apparently the book contained some pretty rough stuff. The judges felt the need even to stick up for beleaguered bricklayers:

The judges criticised the stereotyping in the story of the unfortunate pigs: “Is it true that all builders are cowboys, builders get their work blown down, and builders are like pigs?”

You may now proceed and concoct a stereotype of the kind of person who would serve on a panel that would reach such a conclusion.

The Transformative Power of Winter, Part Deux

Today Chicago’s temperature is in the single digits, the area was issued wind chill warnings overnight and today, and I’m loving it. We haven’t had a good, long, cold winter around here for 10 years or more, and it feels right. Of course, my only appointment outside today is a haircut, but I can bundle up any way I like for that. Take the hat off at the salon, hair looks like a mat of milkweed seeds, stylist tries to do something with it, pay and tip the stylist, put hat back on head, worry about how it looks sometime in April. Late April.

This is what winter should be. Bracing, dangerous, an invasion of air from the Arctic! And since that means there’s still an Arctic to send us this blast of frostbite, that’s good news for the environment, right?

This season can change so many things around us. It turned Montrose Avenue four blocks east of me into an earthquake and flood zone two mornings ago, for instance. I wrote the other day about how it has turned me into a self-righteous sourpuss (although the people who sent me comments said it just accelerated a process that began in my youth).

I don’t about my body all that much in this blog, something everyone should be happy about. I have to mention here, though, one amazing transformation that winter has brought out in me. Specifically, in my feet. Through dehydration and cold and tight bundling, the skin on my feet has dried and cracked so much that my pedal extremities look like the horns of an old buffalo. And again, I’m loving it. I feel I could walk up a wall like Spider-Man, grabbing the surface of the brick with the chitin-like tendrils of my feet. I could run across the top of a herd of sheep and never slip. I could prep a wood floor for finishing, simply by putting “Waltz of the Flowers” on the stereo, taking off my socks and pretending I was Scott Hamilton.

Somehow, I feel indebted to winter for these newfound skills. It took no effort, exercise or attention on my part to turn my feet into giant pink burrs. It happened all by itself. It’s a marvelous thing to wonder whether your socks are wearing out faster from the inside or the outside, and realize it’s Nature’s way. I feel a oneness with everything, and a kinship to our summertime buddy the cricket, as I rub the soles of my feet together and emit high-pitched scrapings that make the dog bark.

The Transformative Power of Winter

Those beautiful, leggy, boring people who search for a Fountain of Youth by moving to warmer climes may have the right idea. The rest of us, realizing that our time on earth has been written down before we were born, have no problem living in the colder parts of the country. We see it as the natural order of things. Winter, along with Children, Disillusion, and The Crap They Call Music These Days, is what turns us old.

I gave a jump-start to the aging process last winter, when I bought a new winter coat from the Woolrich catalog. I didn’t want some slick space-age number; I’ve had enough of those. I went for the classic red-and-black plaid hunter’s jacket. A “Pennsylvania Tuxedo” is what the catalog called it, and that’s how I describe it too. (An important question: Is this possibly the source for the name of Don Adams’ cartoon character, “Tennessee Tuxedo”?) Weighing in at 435 lbs., it’s a classic coat for deer hunters and crusty old coots of all kinds. Although I couldn’t kill anything that hasn’t already chewed through my siding and started eating my Lorna Doones, the coat does lend me that certain air, of kerosene, dried blood, Lucky Strikes, and domestic (as in, local county) whiskey. I was tempted to buy the pants that go with it, but frankly, with global warming, I don’t expect I’ll ever need to get that warm outside again.

The next step is choosing a hat. For warm ears, I haven’t bothered with anything but a watch cap for years now. Simple and unadorned. So simple, in fact, that they get grabbed, used, tossed around and lost like water bottles. Chicago has endured a lot of cold weather so far this year, and apparently we’ve had three times as much snow as last (still a pitiable amount, unfortunately). Thus the ear protection situation needed to be addressed with renewed vigor. Luckily, when my in-laws returned from a trip to Peru this fall, I added a cap woven from Andean alpaca wool. The kind that anthropology majors sport around college campuses, with bright geometric designs, drawstrings for the ear flaps, and some type of tall finger emerging from the very top. (Never been able to figure out what the finger is for. Maybe you can store jerky in it, or rescuers can use it to pull you out of snowdrifts.) I’ll wear it on occasion, but at times I think it appears that I’m trying to recapture lost youth, a time when pulling up stakes and climbing the mountains of South America seemed like a reasonable way to spend the winter months. (It was also a time when looking like an anachronism gave me a feeling of achievement, unlike now, when that feeling only comes when I turn down dessert.)

So leave it to my wife, who has the enduring patience with online catalogs that I have with Monty Python sketches, to get us a couple of the perfect winter hats. Dark wool, sturdy top, long bill, ear flaps that tie down the front with authority. If you want to drop names, it’s a Stormy Kromer, although I’m instantly suspicious of crusty old characters mentioned in mail order stuff. I have a similar model that has earflaps tucked up inside. It may fit too loosely for a mountain railroad engineer like ol’ Stormy Kromer to rely on, but it’s warm, durable and irony-free.

My winter transformation from sardonic satirist to crusty old bastard is almost complete. What’s missing? A healthy dose of self-righteousness. Never fear: the weather itself provides that self-righteousness every time it snows. My neighbors to the north aren’t able to shovel their walks. One is an obese diabetic who has trouble walking around, and the next one is 85 and probably weighs 100 pounds (she’s living in the house her father built in 1916, which is pretty and kept up and will be torn down by condo developers in an eye-blink when she dies). I’ve shoveled their sidewalks for five or more years now, and don’t mind it a bit. I need the exercise, but most importantly, it’s “what you do.”

To the south of me is a three-flat, owned by twin brothers who are always on the hustle. Own a half-dozen rental properties on the North Side, in addition to their work in offices. They leave at six and come in at eleven. I never shovel their sidewalk, because in the 15 years I’ve lived here, they’ve never reached out to do a thing for me. The first couple winters, I shoveled their sidewalk, thinking they’d do mine when they had the chance, reciprocate, do the neighborly thing. But it never happened. On those snowy days when I didn’t get out their first, the extent of their clearing was one shovel’s-width from the front door to the street, with nothing done to the sidewalk. This happened even when the snow totaled half an inch. That’s a grand total of 45-seconds of work, versus the four minutes it would take them to clear their sidewalk. Not even any part of mine, just their own. The intention is clear, the rest of the world can go to hell, so I don’t do them any favors.

Their tenants might think we’re selfish, since we’ll shovel 125 feet of sidewalk to the north and not do an inch to the south. But they’re all 20 years younger than us, and I’ve never seen them do a lick to keep the place up. They’re a bunch of slackers anyway, with the social graces of a beaten dog. They don’t even say hi over the backyard fence, like we’re some FOB family with goats and a crazy violent grandma in the garage. I pass one of them walking the dog at least two mornings a week, and the grandest salutation I can elicit from him is a nod and a grimace.

So thank you, cold weather. And you too, snotty slacker neighbors. With your help, I have achieved my destiny in codgerhood many decades earlier than I would have in a milder climate. Uncertainty has been removed, allowing me to get on with other things, such as buying a yappy little dog, getting a pellet gun for the squirrels, and devising a clever retort for questions about how I’m doing that references illness and death.

Too Much About a Chipmunk Movie

For the sake of family, we all do things during the holidays we’d rather not. One thing I did for the kids’ sake was go and see “Alvin and the Chipmunks”. They enjoyed the hell out of it, because basically there’s nothing funnier than little scurrying things making huge messes. It could have been a lot worse, and I mean that sincerely. That’s usually strong praise from me lately, as I exit the theater.

Drama needs conflict, so for this movie, David Cross plays a smarmy, ruthless record exec who turns the Chipmunks away from no-fun Dave, who insists they go to bed on time, eat right, save their money, etc. “Dave’s a drag,” the fuzzy protagonists are told, “you’re huge, you deserve to have fun all the time.” So they begin to morph into the Backstreet Boys. They get a mansion, start tour the country in silver jumpsuits, ride in limos, go to parties (thankfully there are no groupies, only fans–albeit fans with tattoos and piercings). Chipmunk fever spreads across the globe.

Do they keep it up? Are they happy that way? What do you think?

One problem with the movie is, despite the sweet message, the touring, recording and partying looks AWESOME. It’s a huge part of the storyline, takes up a lot of minutes, and a lot of effort was put into making it look realistic. There’s no indication at all that the Chipmunks aren’t having the time of their lives, until the requisite time when one of them says, “I miss Dave, we should go home.” Following that are some action sequences of Dave trying to rescue them, slam bang, haha, all’s well that ends well. Hollywood hype and showbiz values don’t stand a chance against the simple pleasures of home.

Except, of course, the movie makes those showbiz values looks completely marvelous. The tinny insincerity made a likeable movie completely senseless. It’s no big revelation, but it makes me wonder about the nature of communication. How do values get transmitted? Why should any of us for a second believe a product of Hollywood that rejects Hollywood values? How can any screenwriter or director or producer arrive with a movie that tells us that Hollywood values are destructive, when all their lives these people have striven to attain the fruits of those values? Why doesn’t someone’s head explode at some point? THAT would be entertaining.

Alone among art forms, movies and television are a product of a certain place. Books can be written anywhere, music erupts in unpredictable places and with luck the musicians stay true to their native muses even after they end up in LA. But movies and TV come from Hollywood, a ‘little town” according to everyone who works there. And Hollywood runs on Hollywood values–live fast, trade up, project an image, spend spend spend, don’t be seen with anyone who’ll pull you down, product is king.

It takes certain skills to put out a TV show, among them monomania and the ability to work 18 hour days. The goal is to create a good show and a gazillion dollars, and if push comes to shove, the gazillion dollars wins. It stands to reason that this mindset of the world will shape the stories the creators bring to the public. (I would argue the shows of unique quality–Seinfeld, The Sopranos–somehow transcend this mindset and bring us something else, something other, while the basic crap on TV runs on nothing but the Hollywood mindset. It reminds me of the TV development exec who told me that my first step if I wanted to write for TV was “watch a lotta, lotta TV.” The treatment is worse than the disease.) It’s no wonder that so many millions of young people believe that the key to happiness is to become famous. The Hollywood machine doesn’t just deliver messages–it IS the message. Fabulousness is all.

Having “Alvin and the Chipmunks” tell me that only family can bring me happiness is like having Dylan Thomas tell me that only a well-tempered life will bring satisfaction. It’s enough cognitive dissonance to induce a headache, even more than the speeded-up version of “The Witch Doctor Song.” Yet another reason to set EXTREME limits on how much Hollywood product your kids consume. (As well as yourself. When the “Hannah Montana” express rolled through Chicago last month, it was the adults–NOT the kids, as every newspaper story specifically pointed out–who paid $800 a ticket, called the radio stations, sold their souls for the latest thing. )

Hungerdungers Hideaway

Back home again after a little weekend away with my writing homies, the Hungerdungers. Middle of January, everything kind of slow at home and school—the perfect chance to retreat to my place in Michigan and indulge in the printed word. Five of us went up there on Friday, compared notes on fine scotches Friday night, ate some good Mexican food, woke up Saturday and…..

Worked. Yes, worked. Typed, transcribed, napped, typed some more. Everyone found their own little corner of the house and tinkered and toiled like happy elves. I was so impressed by the industry and efforts by my four other ‘Dungers that I even got in on the act. Being between books right now, and lacking any deadline pressure, I’ve been letting my concentration slip terribly lately. Just because I don’t have a firm idea of what my next book is going to be doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be putting words in sequence and fumbling through the fog. Yet I’ve been guilty of that, guilty, guilty. But through the example of my composing compadres, I began mapping the outlines of a couple of fictions I’ve had in my head. Shocking but true!

The rest of the time was spent sampling booze and duck liver, arguing about pop music, trying to watch anything of the Green Bay-Seattle game (snow in Lambeau + snow on the little Sylvania tv = lots of room for the imagination) , enjoying the famous Butler Hotel’s famous Butler Burger (a huge cheeseburger with a slice of ham on top), Rummikub, and lotsa laughs.

We all agreed that the secret of being productive was not the setting, or the comfort of the chairs (which was nonexistent), or the quality of the coffee (although it was superb), or the lack of interruptions from family and work. The secret of being productive was that we had no Internet connection. Without the chance to read 14 different newspapers, or check our current Amazon listing, or videos of cats defecating into the toilet, we actually got a lot done. Oh, curse this Internet contraption! That’s what’s keeping me from my Pulitzer and Nobel! If only the damn thing had an “Off” switch, how much better off I’d be!

Imagine that. A world without an Internet. Seems like the stuff of science fiction.

RIP Big Ten football

Last night’s Sugar Bowl left me torn between two extremes: Cheering for whoever plays against Ohio State (my usual position) and cheering for the Big Ten (very unpalatable when our representative is the Buckeyes). After watching the game into the third quarter, however, I decided the question was moot. There is no more mighty Big Ten to cheer for anymore, only a group of teams that tolerate cold weather and husky cheerleaders for the sure chance to head to a warm climate for a bowl game, where they invariably get mown down like a Dick Cheney quail.

What an absolutely crappy game Ohio State played. And what an absolutely predictable outcome. Any national ranking given to a Big Ten team now has the authentic ring of the valentines passed around school to every kid b/c no one should have their feelings hurt. Michigan starts out the season at #5, then loses to App State and Oregon? Illinois suffers a week of jet lag before laying down to USC? Ohio State violently chokes on two chances at the national championship? Pathetic.

The conference is the laughingstock of college football now. What was the conference’s bowl record? 3 and 6? Nine of eleven teams make it to bowl season? And finish with this record? We are the Gerry Cooneys of the college football world. How can any SEC or Pac-10 team even get excited about showing up for these things? No wonder the warm-weather conferences are pushing for a playoff system–they get tired of beating up the Big 10 and would prefer a challenge once in a while at the end of the season.

I don’t even know enough about football to make a decent argument or a useful insight here. I only know what I see during Christmas break, when I get the chance to watch a game or two. And I would suggest the conference disband and spend a few years in the wilderness, searching their souls like disgraced samurai, before they even think of showing up in the post-season again. It’s just too humiliating for alumni to watch.