Merry Christmas to All, and to All, a Strong Back

From the snowy north side of Chicago, I’d like to wish all readers, visitors, friends, family, expats, nonpats, and spangleprats a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hannnnnukkkkkkkah (sp?), and glorious new year.

Every year around this time, I write my wife a new Christmas story (at least, when I come up with a decent idea), some of which I like to share with people. I have a nice one this time, but she gets to see it first, of course, so no posting of that right now.

Last year I posted the heart-warming story of kindly old Mr. Dickens trying to buy a hairbrush at a mega-box-store during the holidays, which you can read by clicking here.

And if you’d like to read the excerpt of my book Recut Madness that rewrites “Miracle on 34th Street” and places the story at Guantanamo Bay (no, really, it’s very festive, in a grim way), click here.

Looking through my files today, I found something that I don’t even remember writing, but I think it’s pretty funny. It resurrects a couple of old, shallow characters, The Marketeers, that my sometime-writing partner and I have had fun with over the years. In this story, our media creative team has a brainstorming session about how to connect one of their client’s products with the holiday season. I’ve never worked in the ad business, so this little portrait of ego, short attention spans, mammon and creativity is not AT ALL what the ad business is all about, as far as I know. AT ALL. And even if it were, as one character says in the story, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea.”

Please enjoy this story by clicking HERE. And I hope you enjoy whatever end-of-year activities strike your fancy.

Upgrading My Job Status

Every time a recession hits, the media are filled with stories about the “New Thrift.” How everyone’s trying to do with less. Around the holidays, the People On the Street say either that everyone on their list is going to get a homemade gift, or that family members are picking names from a hat, or that the interviewee is going to charge up everything on his plastic because what would Christmas be like without a blizzard of expensive presents to fill the aching void in everyone’s lives?

Why is thrift such a difficult concept for so many people? Money spent is, well, money spent. Gone from your pocket, and into the pocket of someone else, someone who is not you. Avoiding that scenario gives life its flavor. As the Americans in the “Greatest Generation” continue to die off, our nation will soon have no one who’ll say things like, “Well, wear it til it wears out” or “Fix that, don’t throw it away” or “Why would ANYONE ever need $300 shoes?” And that will be a dark day.

I’ve been a tightwad my entire adult life, and I’m happy with that. Proud, even. Overcoats from Goodwill, garage sale finds, store-brand cereal (except for Cheerios–every knock-off of Cheerios is pretty horrible, and look like little brown hockey pucks with holes punched in the middle). That’s all fine with me. Writers make lousy money, and the paydays are very inconsistent, so pinching pennies is just part of the job description. Besides, you need to save for things that shouldn’t be skimped on, like education, theater, and good scotch.

But now that everyone’s back in the thrift mode for the foreseeable future, I think I need to upgrade my status, just to stay a step ahead of the herd. Tightwad? Penny-pincher? Not enough. I’ve got my sights set on “Miser”. Literature has given misers a bad name. If Scrooge hadn’t been a miser for the first part of his life, would he have been able to be lavish with Cratchett and his family? I don’t see how, unless he’d charge everything to his American Express. And then he’d get into bad straits when the economy went south, default on his properties, and end up being a drain on the government. So his miserliness saved a lot of people from trouble. At least, that’s my take on it.

The Last Days Get Interesting

Thank you, President Bush.

I never thought I’d type those words, but this morning he allocated $17B to the domestic auto industry.

“It would worsen a weak job market and exacerbate the financial crisis,” Bush said. “It could send our suffering economy into a deeper and longer recession. And it would leave the next president to confront the demise of a major American industry in his first days of office.”

Sound like good reasons to me. When did he start listening to reason?

GOP to Unions: Drop Dead

I must have been so busy last week with holiday matters that I missed the story of Republican senators explicitly detailing their blockage of the Big 3 automakers’ loan request. Not for any high-minded purpose, of course. Not because they don’t believe in government intervention in industry, or want to teach the capitalists a lesson in free market discipline, or want to protect taxpayer money.

They only want to bust the UAW and embarrass the Democratic party. From the Senate Republicans “Action Alert” internal memo:

This is the democrats first opportunity to payoff organized labor after the election. This is a precursor to card check and other items. Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.

At least after all these years, the Republicans can’t be bothered to hide how little they care for people trying to earn a living in this country. If they want to eliminate their support in the industrial belt and really cement their standing as a backwoods party, they can be my guest. As Crooks & Liars’ John Amato said today, “If Republicans want to immolate themselves into even further irrelevancy, I’m inclined to let them. The trick is to keep them from taking the whole country down along with them.”

I was raised in Dearborn, Mich., hometown of the Ford Motor Company (my dad worked for the Ford Moter Credit Company), so I don’t have to hear any stories about fat union workers earning way too much money. I heard plenty growing up, and most of them were true. The “job bank” that the unions squeezed from the companies a few years was one of the most wasteful ideas ever conceived. But the program is almost gone now, and union membership has been shrinking for decades. It is NOT the impediment to producing cars economically in this country. The impediment is the huge cost of health care and pensions for retirees, and until the government does something about it, the auto companies will not be able to operate.

But to hear these tinpot hillbilly senators, it’s time to teach the union a lesson. It’s also time to give a huge boost to the foreign car companies who have built union-free factories in their states. If the Big 3 go into Chapter 11 (or god help us, Chapter 7), the union contracts will be weakened or voided, and the physical assets like factories (of both the companies and their suppliers) will be put up for sale and grabbed by….my only guess is foreign automakers.

The last thing this country needs is to have our industrial policy held hostage by jerkwater senators from Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama. For decades, their states produced nothing but rickets and moonshine until they threw a lot of public money at foreign car companies to build factories there. Now they’re trying to tell us what’s best for the country? Or is it what’s best for “real Americans”? (Where did they go in the past six weeks, anyway?)

You can bore me with all the whiny anecdotes about bad-quality American cars (which are outdated, of course, if you bother to check things like the JD Power rankings) and the stupidity of the company management (who apparently should’ve foreseen the credit meltdown this year, when everyone in the financial industry missed it). But unions CREATED the middle class in this country, Clem, and without them, the quality of life for the vast majority of us would be appalling. No one would need a pension, because people would have to work until they keeled over dead. How these GOP hyenas can blithely speak of letting the car industry go belly up (crap, think of the implications to national security, if nothing else) just to bust the union and embarrass the Democrats is beyond appalling.

What is the OPPOSITE of patriotism?

Blagojevich Christmas Carol

Just received an email from Margie Lawrence that you’re bound to like, to the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. A little research shows that it was written by John McHugh, and was the winning entry in last year’s “Songs of Good Cheer” parody contest, run by the Trib’s Eric Zorn:

Get packin’, Rod Blagojevich
The state’s in disarray
The Tribune wants you unemployed
At least by Christmas Day.
The TV pundits want your head
Could there be pay to play?
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy
Save Illinois !
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.

Good riddance, Rod Blagojevich
Your Elvis look’s inane,
The Senate’s mad, so’s Lisa’s dad.
You drive us all insane.
Our transit’s broke, the state’s a joke,
The Tollway’s one big pain.
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy
Save Illinois !
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.

Good luck, old Rod Blagojevich
The feds have quite a place.
Fitzgerald’s poked his nose around
And if he has a case,
George Ryan’s moving stuff around
Creating extra space.
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy
Save Illinois !
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.

NY Tries to Heist Obama

It’s not enough that Barack Obama is the nation’s first black president. It’s not enough that he’s the first president since JFK with urban roots. It’s not enough that he is the first to be from a northern state since Gerry Ford. That’s not enough for New York. Typically, the Big Apple demands more. And New York Magazine had the audacity to declare among its “Reasons to Love New York 2008” article that “Obama Is One of Us, Despite All That Business About Chicago.”

Barack Obama, on the other hand, deliberately chose New York as a young man, transferring his junior year from Occidental College to Columbia, and all one has to do is crack the binding of Dreams From My Father to appreciate the authenticity of his experience. It’s all right there in chapter one, paragraph one, sentence four. “The apartment was small,” he writes, “with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.” Before readers have even turned the page, he’s mentioned his stoop, his fire escape, and the Knicks.

Great. Sounds like a wonderful formative “authentic” experience. The article goes on to point out all the NYers who will be in Obama’s cabinet, including Park Forest’s and Little Rock’s own Hillary Clinton.

Sorry, you mugs. Your native son Rudy ran for president, and if not for a few strategic gaffes (like not running in any crummy little states like Iowa and NH) might have brought his “authentic” style of integrity and personal magnetism to the White House.

This is just another instance of NY parochialism, which I’ve found is as strong there as it is in small town Wisconsin. NYers find it hard to believe that any worthy person would choose to live anywhere but The City So Nice They Named It Twice (In Case The First Plaque Gets Lifted). A John Updike quote I use most often comes from one of my favorite satires, Bech is Back: Being a New Yorker, “She assumed everyone who lived west of the Hudson was kind of kidding.”

Tough rugelach, NYers. Obama is ours, for better and for worse. The South Side is the new Kennebunkport, the White Sox are now the Nation’s Team, and we can all put away our Louis L’Amour books and break out the Saul Bellow.

No, wait, Bellow cut out of here at the end of his career to get stroked in Boston. Bleep him. Start reading Nelson Algren and Alexsandr Hemon.

Here’s My Latest Radio Essay

Boy, remember a week ago when the big news was that the city was going to lease out our parking meters? Seems like a long time ago, now that Governor “Crazy Rod” Blagojevich (“I’ll sell anything! My prices are so high, I must be bleeping INSANE!!!!!”) has focused the world’s attention on us.

Well, anyway, back in those carefree days, I wrote a little essay on leasing out all the properties in the city. This morning WBEZ broadcast it on the “848” program, and you can listen to it by clicking below.

[audio: that Leases.mp3]

After which, you can return to the scandal of the day.

Go to McSweeney’s NOW….

…and check out today’s entry. It’s written by my homey (as in the guy who redesigned my home) Gary Rudoren. With his finger firmly on the pulse of today’s economic whoopsies, Gary has given us,


A title which might make Maxwell Perkins a little apoplectic, but is explanatory and to the point.

Gary’s also the author of Comedy By The Numbers, a McSweeney’s book that is essential for anyone looking to impress people with their humorous abilities. Buy one (on sale now!) and be the hit of the office party.

“Cubbie Blues” Book Release Party

A few months ago I participated in a Wrigleyville reading series called the Lovable Losers Literary Review, which attempted to wrest the mantle of literate baseball despair from the shoulders of Red Sox fans and bestow it squarely on Cubbie diehards. Did we succeed? You’ll be able to see for yourself, at the book release party for the anthology compiled from those readings, Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Til Next Year.

(As you can see, cover artist Margie Lawrence included pictures of the contributors in the bleacher crowd scene. That’s me in the middle of the front row, with the newsie’s cap and starched collar. It’s my first time ever caricatured in a fake crowd scene, something that’s been my dream since my first glimpse of the “Sgt. Pepper” album. And Margie chose the right era for me as well. There’s always a bottle of cheap bourbon sitting on my spartan desk, and I recently had my laptop altered to look like an old Remington typewriter.)

Sunday night, Dec. 14 from 7-10, come down to Sheffield’s and meet some of the contributors, including myself, Stu Shea, Jonathan Eig, Don DeGrazia, Sara Paretsky, and many others. We’ll be signing books and reveling in holiday spirits besides. A portion of the proceeds of the book are being donated to Chicago Baseball Cancer Charities and their One Step At A Time Camp. It really is a nice anthology–literate, wonderfully written, heartfelt and fun. It’s worth the price just to read Kogan’s toast at the beginning of the book on how baseball gets into a young fan’s blood. For more on the event, check out the article in yesterday’s Sun-Times.

Aside from live events, copies are only available online, so if you can’t make it out in person, click over to Can’t Miss Press to order yours.

The Curse(s) of Patty Blagojevich?

Could Mrs. Blago be yet another in the long line of supernatural reasons the Cubs will never win the World Series?

During the call, Rod Blagojevich’s wife can be heard in the background telling Rod Blagojevich to tell Deputy Governor A ‘to hold up that fucking Cubs shit … fuck them'”

Is this an Evil Eye? A Harridan Hex? A Wifely Whammy?

On the other hand, maybe she and Lee Elia can get together and record some party records.

Yes, Virginia, There is a Patrick Fitzgerald

Some arresting television this morning, as Governor Blago is nabbed outside his house by the FBI. In one of those moments that will stick in my head forever, like John Lennon’s killing and the first OJ verdict, I found myself in line at the Ravenswood Post Office buying Christmas stamps–the ones with the little nutcrackers on them–when I heard the news on the radio. Since then, I’ve had to pull myself away from the TV a couple of times, just so I don’t veg out enjoying the spectacle of a complete ass being hauled off by the feds for making a complete ass of himself ON TAPE, within the past six weeks, about trying to leverage the vacant Senate seat for his own gain.

It’s a present the whole state can enjoy.

At first I thought, “It’s about time!” This “reform” governor has been about nothing but money and his own future since he unpacked his bags in Springfield. But maybe this is just about the right moment. If it had happened any earlier, his sleaze and stupid hubris would’ve reflected badly on Barack Obama and maybe cost him the election. Any later, and the douchebag would’ve already appointed our new senator (or appointed himself) and we’d be stuck with that stain for who knows how long?

Will this shitstorm in any way effect Obama? Hard to say right now. The TV talking heads were saying this morning that Blago reached out to Rahm Emmanuel for a lifeline, but was cut off. Then US Attorney Fitzgerald decided to haul Blago in before he could do anything stupider than he’s already done. Which, if his past record of bonehead brazen moves is any indication, would have been a doozy.

And all this legal action is related only to his appointment of a new senator, as well as pressuring the Tribune to quit being so mean to him in print. It has nothing to do with all the years of investigations about everyday pay-to-play corruption that Fitzgerald’s been conducting. Astounding! Evil! Audacious!

With the thickness of that head and skin, and the brassiness of his balls, there HAS to be a way to turn his “gifts” for the forces of goodness and not evil. If life were like a Marvel comic, he’d be the stupid weightlifter type who joins the Avengers, then sells out to the Masters of Evil, then back again, and again…..

But this is the real world, and this monkey’s going to Disneyland. He shore has a purty mouth.

The Fitzgerald press conference is just starting! Gotta go pop the popcorn!

Out at the Christmas Tree Lot

Last night in Chicago it was about 15 degrees, with a bitter, brittle cold that usually looks best through a picture window. But I was outside gettin’ my “ho-ho-ho” on, selling wreaths and Christmas trees at the local parish. The parish I don’t even belong to, though Number One Son still goes to school there. And I had so much fun, I’m going to go back a couple more times this season and do it again.

Why do I enjoy it so much, standing around in the cold and slipping on black ice? Don’t know. You can read what I wrote about the occasion for the Chicago Tribune last year. I still like this essay a lot, though it might be a little pat. People I know around the school liked it immensely when it was printed. It provided a nice balm after a clutch of deaths among parents of school-age kids last December. I was flattered when it was copied and posted and distributed around school.

(Two months later, unfortunately, all the camaraderie around the place was blasted away, as a group of parents tried to get a teacher fired, pitting neighbors against neighbors and long-time friends against friends. The demonstration of the dark side of parish life doesn’t invalidate the sentiments I wrote about in the Trib piece, but it goes to show that our human relationships are fragile things, and our motivations to pitch shit at each other can be switched all the way to 11 very quickly.)

Still unanswered is the question of why I like selling the trees. For one thing, your customers are always more happy than those who are shopping for caskets or colostomy bags. For another, it’s fun to joke around with strangers and wish them a sincere Merry Christmas. I’m a big enough grump the rest of the year that my sanity and physical health benefit from it. The school dads (inevitably with much younger kids than mine) are fun to BS with, about football and travel and families. Speakers blare out a weird mix of Christmas music from WLIT-FM, the all-yule channel, and in a kitschy way I enjoy the brandy-soaked voice of the female DJ who dispenses greeting-card advice to listeners about how to stay centered on important things during the holiday and not get in a fight with your parents again for never believing in your dreams as you limp into late middle age.

And ultimately, it’s nice to have an excuse to be out in the winter evening, the expansiveness of which (even stuck along the side of traffic-choked Western Avenue) evokes more mystery than my imagination will ever be able to exhaust.

I hope you all have fun decorating your houses this weekend. And remember the guys hanging around the tree lots. Those of us who don’t do it to make a living are having a good time.

The View From My Window



Ha ha. Had you going, didn’t I? Actually, this is just a stray prop from Halloween that I left hanging in the bushes for conversation’s sake. It was part of a bigger scene of an Alien Happy Hour, which had lots of glow sticks, strobe lights, and a dozen or so mini-spaceships hung in the Rose of Sharon. The spaceships were bowls of green and clear plastic that we hot-glued together and hung with fishing line. Crap, do I need a job or what?

Please note, the sign on the railing says, “Aliens with Ladies Drink Free.” We’ve often used the Alien Head in Hazmat Suit figure, so much that he’s falling apart a little. This was the first year, though, that people actually stopped and had their pictures taken behind the bar with him. He must be some kind of friendly face.