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Stanley Cup

Jim Warren Revisited

Posted on 2009.11.23 at 13:02
Current Mood: okayokay
Current Music: You Don't Mess Around With Jim - Jim Croce
Back in August, one of my best friends, Jim Warren, died. If you scroll back to my entry of August 23rd, you’ll see a brief, cursory mention of it along with the basics of his last weeks, so I won’t revisit that material here. I’ve known all along that at some point I would have to express something more personal, to offer a more specific context for our friendship. That day has arrived.

Jim had three wives. No, not all at the same time; one after the other. His second wife was my sister, which is how he and I came to meet. Our first actual meeting was at a Detroit Tigers game to which my sister had invited me to tag along. For years afterward, Jim delighted in telling people how I had “shut him down” that night. What he meant was that I apparently had a comeback for his every zinger; that I had topped him at every turn. He was someone who was used to being the Alpha Zinger in most any room, and he said he’d never experienced this feeling before. Much later, I asked him if this had pissed him off at all. “No,” he declared, “I enjoyed the heck out of it.”

This was, by the way, an interesting moment for me as well. I hadn’t actually been conscious of trying to “shut him down” that night. I was just trying to have a good time. Perhaps Jim sensed my lack of hostile intent and that’s what made it okay.

Jim was a wildly avid traveler. His preferred mode of transportation was the automobile, and it must be said that he was an aggressive driver with an amazing stamina for driving long hours.

Quick anecdote on that topic: On one of my trips out west with Jim, we found ourselves in a motel west of Denver, and vacation time was growing short. “Tomorrow, we are going to drive,” Jim stated solemnly. He wasn’t kidding. We got in the car just after dawn and went to sleep that night in southern Illinois. Look at a map and decide for yourself whether you’d care to drive that far in one day!

One of the keys to our friendship was that, while we enjoyed a lot of the same things, we also respected our differences. Example: On that same trip through Colorado, Jim was inclined one evening to take in the entertainment at… well, an adult-themed drinking establishment. I told him I wasn’t interested and he was fine with that. He went off to amuse himself while I stayed in the hotel room, ordered a pizza, and curled up in front of the TV for the night. Jim didn’t get in until well after I’d turned off the light. The following morning, Jim had no interest in getting out of bed until well into the day, so he flipped the car keys to me and rolled over. I drove into Denver, toured the state capital building, and visited the Denver Mint. While Jim would probably have enjoyed these things to some extent, these attractions definitely held more appeal for me than they did for him.

This is a tough time of year for me because I am constantly bombarded with reminders of things Jim and I shared, particularly our devotion to hockey and football. Jim was the most knowledgeable hockey fan I’ve ever known, so attending a game with him was always terrific. Jim was able to point out subtleties of player movement and psychology that I would not have picked up on, which made the game a much more complete and involving experience for me. Regardless of the sport, it was not uncommon for my phone to ring after an exciting play was made in a game I was watching. It would be Jim on the other end, watching the same game and calling to discuss what we’d just seen. As a result, I find myself thinking of Jim frequently these days. Something remarkable will happen in a game and I’ll automatically think, “Oh, I have to call Jim–” but then I remember that I can’t.

My sports connection to Jim is particularly strong this week. Jim was a long-time season ticket holder for the Detroit Lions. For most of the past 17 years, he and I have attended the Lions Thanksgiving Day game together.

Aside for you NFL fans: The most memorable of these games was undoubtedly the infamous Lions-Steelers “coin toss” overtime game in 1998. It isn’t often that you can say you witnessed a moment that actually caused an NFL rule to be changed!

As it turns out, Jim had already purchased his Lions season tickets for the 2009 season, and I was recently invited to join another friend of Jim’s at the game to be played this Thursday. Unfortunately, logistics will prevent me from attending, but I will certainly be watching the game on TV and casting the occasional glance over toward Jim’s seats, which were about 10 rows from the field in the corner of an end zone. If you’re curious, his seats were on the far side of the field from the normal TV camera position, and in the back corner of the end zone to the right as you view the field on TV.

Another defining trait of Jim’s was his generosity. When I was making plans in 1992 to move from Detroit to Chicago, it was Jim who called me and said, “I’ve got a truck. When do you want to move?” He not only brought my stuff to Chicago, he made a follow-up trip several weeks later with lower-priority stuff. I could go on; Jim did favors like that for an awful lot of people over the years, but I think that story is a representative sample of his generosity.

Jim had chronic problems with his knees and shoulders, exacerbated by substantial weight issues that he was never able to entirely address. In spite of this, he was a shockingly strong individual. I well remember one Thanksgiving when our family dinner was held at the house he and my sister lived in. Sometime after dinner, a few of us were teasing Jim good-naturedly about his physical condition. Jim replied by saying something like, “Oh yeah? You don’t think I’m in very good shape?” He then proceeded to pick me up and lift me over his head, fully extending his arms so that I was rather high up. I am not a small guy. I’m 6’2” and haven’t seen the sunny side of 250 in many years, yet Jim picked me up as if I were a sack of potatoes and seemed quite capable of tossing me across the room. I don’t mind telling you that I was mildly terrified. After I assured Jim that I was duly impressed with his condition, he gently set me down. By the way, it is also fair to note that this was absolutely the only moment even close to a physical confrontation I ever had with Jim. Our normal mode was quite civilized and respectful.

The last anecdote I’ll offer here took place on the day of Jim’s marriage to his third wife. For the first time in my life, I was Best Man at a wedding. At Jim’s request, I sang a solo of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” accompanied by another family member on acoustic guitar. At the reception, I delivered a toast that consisted of two parts: First, the hard part, where I did my best to speak from the heart and wish the newlyweds well. Then, I went from the sublime to the ridiculous and sang a parody of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim,” the lyrics of which I will not trouble you with.

There was another interesting aspect to my being best man. I knew only a few members of either family, so I was meeting a lot of people for the first time. More than once, people came up to me, shook my hand, and asked how I knew Jim. “Oh, he used to be married to my sister,” was my reply. Talk about a conversation stopper! People either couldn’t process or couldn’t respond to that concept. Jim and I shared quite a laugh over that one. No disrespect to my dear sister at all; it’s just something you don’t expect to hear.

Someone asked me recently how I was doing in terms of “getting over” my friend’s death. Jim’s passing, like the passing of anyone close to us, isn’t something one “gets over” exactly. Rather, it’s a loss one accommodates, and their absence becomes ultimately a positive thing, reminding us of how lucky we were to know them during their brief turn on this stage.


Did Everybody Get Fired? – A CharlesOfCamden exclusive report!

Posted on 2009.11.19 at 13:12
Current Mood: pensivepensive
Current Music: Sweet Surrender - John Denver
I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve stumbled across a huge story that no media outlet of any political inclination has picked up on – that in fact, everyone in the U.S. has been fired in the past year and is now working at a new job, if at all.

What, you thought it was just you and your friends who’ve been fired lately? No, it’s all of us. Here’s how I found out: When I go on driving trips, I generally don’t take my laptop with me. So if I’m on the road and need to find directions to an establishment, I generally have to call Information and get their phone number so I can call and ask for directions. That’s all well and good, but something intriguing has come to light along the way…

The last half-dozen times I’ve done this, I’ve been told virtually the same thing by the voice on the other end. It goes something like this: “Well, honestly, I just started working here and I’m new to the area, so I don’t really know my way around town.” In most of these cases, there’s been no one else nearby that they could ask for directions, so I’ve had to hang up without my question being answered.

You needn’t point out the obvious – that there are other explanations for this phenomenon. The leading one, of course, is that all phone answering jobs have been secretly outsourced to other countries. To conceal the scandal, these foreigners have (mostly) been taught to speak with convincing American accents. Any location-specific questions, such as asking for directions, are to be dealt with using the sort of evasion I’ve been experiencing.

So what is to be done with this blockbuster of a scandal I’m sitting on? Sure, I could blow the whistle on them – only I have no idea how high up this scandal goes. If I’m fingered as a rat – well, I might never get proper directions again. Or wait a minute… this could be part of a devious plot to induce all of us to buy PDAs and GPS systems for our cars…


Wherefore Art

Posted on 2009.11.16 at 16:44
Current Mood: curiouscurious
Current Music: Vincent - Don McLean
I have of late become a huge fan of the TV series Simon Schama’s Power of Art. If you like art, or if think you like art, or if… hell, if you don’t know a flippin’ thing about art but you have a brain, this series is one of the most compelling TV shows I’ve seen in a long time.

The series consists of eight 1-hour episodes. Each episode focuses on a particular work of art by a particular artist. Viewed in order, the episodes proceed chronologically, beginning with Caravaggio and Bernini in the early 17th century through Mark Rothco in the mid-20th century. Included in between are some artists very familiar to me (e.g., Rembrandt, Van Gogh) and some essentially unknown to me (e.g., Jacques-Louis David, Joseph Turner). This of course speaks to the spottiness and informality of my artistic education, as all of the artists covered are completely well known in formal art circles.

So what’s the great attraction of this series to me? It’s all about the author and host of the series, Simon Schama. He’s a dizzyingly knowledgeable academic, as one might expect (and even hope for). But it’s his style as a communicator – as an artist in his own right – that makes the series so compelling. For starters, he’s a man with every right, and every potential, to be an utter art snob, except that he isn’t one. He understands, first and foremost, that art does not occur in a vacuum; that it is a product of and a part of the world in which it is created. Schama’s expertise extends far beyond the musty garrets in which the art may have been created or the serene galleries in which these works may now be viewed. He is a student of political, social, and economic history just as much as he is a student of art history. His ability to weave these factors together gives us an appreciation for the art unmatched in my experience.

But I still haven’t really illustrated Schama’s style for you. He is most assuredly unafraid of big words, but he doesn’t brandish them for purposes of linguistic ornamentation, but rather because he wishes to communicate something specific and assumes that he doesn’t have to slow down for us. He also has a sneaky, snarky sense of humor that may show up at any moment, but also in the service of his goal to communicate. It’s a tricky thing to nail down, because he doesn’t tell jokes per se. Here’s an example, from his episode on Bernini:

…What Bernini’s managed to make tangible is something that we all, if we’re honest, know we hunger for, but before which we’re properly tongue-tied. Something that has produced more bad writing, more excruciating moments of bad cinema, more appalling poems than anything else…

The first episode that particularly struck me was the episode on Jacques-Louis David. David was a Frenchman whose career cut across the time of the French Revolution, and he was active in the politics of the era. The work Schama focused on was David’s Death of Marat. By the time Schama had finished connecting this portrait to the upheaval and horrors of the world in which it was created, I found myself traversing a range of thoughts and emotions I have rarely experienced in contemplation of the non-performing arts. Suffice it to say that David was hardly a passive chronicler of current events. He was, rather, a propagandist of the first order and even, one might argue, a direct accessory to the murderous campaigns of a dictator. Whew! I don’t know that the life and times of, say, Peter Max would include anything quite that weighty!

Schama is on the record as saying that he considers the episode on David to be the heart of the entire series. Schama has even written a book specifically on the French Revolution, so it is perhaps no accident that this episode so grabbed me.

The TV series was produced a couple years ago, but it still shows up here and there on TV, so check your local listings. It is also rentable, and I presently have a rented copy of the entire series in my home so that we might make our way through the episodes in order and pick up the ones we’ve missed. If you want a triple shot of art, ideas and entertainment, I cannot recommend this series highly enough.


(N)ice Work if You Can Get It

Posted on 2009.11.14 at 10:30
Current Mood: chipperchipper
Current Music: Ice Ice Baby - Vanilla Ice
It was an ice storm. One of those ice storms; the kind that comes along once a decade or so. It hit Detroit in the wee hours of the morning, the exact worst time for affecting the morning commute. Did I say “affecting”? No, change that to “destroying” the morning commute. Rush hour simply did not happen that day.

At the time, I was living in the near suburb of Roseville and commuting to my office job in downtown Detroit. It was an open-ended temp assignment. In fact, my entire department, including my supervisor, were all employed by the temp company. None of us made it into work that day. A few tried before turning their cars around and heading back home, but most of us never set foot outside our homes until well into the day.

My boss’ boss, who was a full-time employee at the company, was a benevolent and generous woman. Knowing that we were all lowly temps being paid a lowly wage, she had an announcement for us when we came into the office the following day: We were all instructed to go ahead and fill in our hours for the previous day as if we had worked them. If anyone asked, we were to say that we had braved the elements and made it in. We were all grateful for her generosity and did as instructed. This sort of treatment helped to make us a tight-knit, loyal band of workers.

A week or so later, in the middle of an ordinary workday, we had a surprise visitor in our department. It was someone we all knew – our representative from the temp agency had dropped in for a little visit, a smile beaming on her face. It seems that, out of all the agency’s downtown temps, we were among the very few who had made it into our jobs on the day of the ice storm. Our rep presented each one of us with a nicely engraved certificate, suitable for framing, that honored us for service above and beyond the call of duty. She told us that she considered us to be the best group in her entire company. All we could do was stand there, smiles plastered on our faces, and graciously accept the honor while avoiding eye contact with one another.

After the rep had left, we discussed the matter among ourselves. We all felt a little bit odd about it. After all, we hadn’t set out to deceive anyone, exactly – we were simply the recipients of a kindness from our boss’ boss on the day of the ice storm. As for this follow-up honor… well, it just wouldn’t have been proper for us to fess up at that moment and make our rep feel like a doofus. So in the end, we were paid for work we hadn’t done, and then honored for a service we hadn’t performed. Was that fair? Listen, if life were fair, none of us would have been stuck in a temp job in the first place, so I think we all slept well at night over this matter!


Mr. Douglas Campbell, Man of the Theatre

Posted on 2009.11.11 at 16:06
Current Mood: thankfulthankful
Current Music: Brush Up Your Shakespeare - from Kiss Me Kate
Just this afternoon, the name Douglas Campbell popped into my head for reasons I cannot now recapture. My immediate thought was that I ought to write about him in this journal, especially seeing as how I’d worked with him for 2 memorable days long ago. I began by looking up his listing on Wikipedia, and I was dismayed to learn that he passed away only last month, from complications of diabetes and heart disease, at the age of 87.

Mr. Campbell was one of the founders of the rightly renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada. Long-time readers of this journal may recall that CC and I attended the festival two years ago, and I’ve attended it a couple other times as well. In general, you would be hard-pressed to find higher quality theater anywhere else on this continent, but I will dispense with any further analysis or description of the festival today.

Campbell directed many shows and performed many roles at Stratford over the years, from the festival’s inception in 1953 right up until very recently. Although I never saw him perform, this story still has a very personal angle for me, because I had the pleasure of participating in a 2-day workshop run by him in the late 1980s, and it was one of the most important and memorable moments in my theatrical education.

I’d signed up for the workshop on little more than a whim and the encouragement of my acting teacher at Lansing Community College. I’d never heard of Douglas Campbell but I’d been told that he was a respected Shakespearean actor, so I figured “what the heck.”

We were told to prepare a 2 to 3 minute classical monologue, which we would perform for Mr. Campbell and the group, and which would be the basis of our individual work. I chose the opening speech from Richard III: “Now’s the winter of our discontent…” etc. It was only at the end of the first day that one of my fellow actors gently informed me that this role had been one of Campbell’s most celebrated successes at Stratford. I must admit that if I’d known that going in, I don’t think I’d have had the nerve to use that particular speech. In fairness, though, Campbell’s notes and advice to me were restrained and genuinely helpful; he displayed no trace of ego or proprietorship over that particular role.

The speeches used by the class covered a wide variety of classical roles, from Shakespeare to Greek tragedy to late classical comedy. We were not asked beforehand to write down what speech we were going to do, so Campbell didn’t know what our selections would be until we were standing before the class. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that any time anyone would go up on their lines or get a line wrong, Campbell would immediately correct them off the top of his head! That was my first clue that we were dealing with someone very special.

As invaluable as Campbell’s acting notes were, the greater value of the workshop for me was in his running commentary on his own artistic philosophies. This side of the man came out in a lot of different ways.

At one point, Campbell was discussing a particular Shakespearean speech, and he was going over it line by line, word by word, parsing it for every last clue and innuendo that might be utilized by the actor. I’d heard people analyze Shakespeare by this sort of method before, and I had a question.

“Why is it,” I asked, “that I only hear classical roles being dissected to this level of detail? Why don’t people do this with contemporary plays?”

“Well they ought to!” Campbell’s voice boomed with contempt, and a trace of brogue from his native Scotland began to show itself. The contempt was not directed toward me specifically, but rather to a certain type of actor with which he was obviously quite familiar. “These tools are applicable to any script you’re trying to understand, and if more people would use them, they would craft far better performances!”

I had a few other such exchanges with Mr. Campbell in the course of the workshop, and I was aware that a few of my fellow actors were beginning to frown in my direction. The clear implication was that they felt I should be more respectful of this living legend, and that I shouldn’t be asking for clarifications and justifications. To which I would have said this: Stuff it. I’m not here to genuflect; I’m here to work and I’m here to learn. I mean no disrespect whatsoever in my questions. Quite the contrary; I regard this as a rare opportunity. But if this experience is going to be of value to me, then I must pursue issues as they arise.

It was gratifying to me, I must admit, that Mr. Campbell not only understood my approach but seemed to approve of it as well. At the end of the last day’s workshop, after Campbell had said his goodbyes and dismissed us, his very first action was to make a beeline to me, where we continued to discuss acting and artistic philosophies for several more edifying minutes.

The most lasting message imparted by Campbell during the workshop came during his comments about the state of the Stratford Festival. Campbell was a classical purist when it came to the Festival, and he bemoaned the introduction of contemporary plays and (shudder!) musicals into Stratford’s season. For the record, I don’t share his distaste for these elements at Stratford; their production of Death of a Salesman, for example, was far and away the best and most moving production I’ve seen of it, even outstripping the celebrated Goodman Theatre production of a few years back that cleaned up at the Tony Awards.

But back to Campbell’s comments. He was pushing 70 at the time of this workshop, and he was talking about going off with his actor son and starting up a theater somewhere. He felt that Stratford had followed a certain creative arc and was now increasingly irrelevant artistically. He put it this way, in words that I have quoted and paraphrased many times since: “Sometimes, institutions need to die so that they may be reborn by the hand of a new generation. The people who inherit an institution tend to have a very different attitude towards it than the people who built that institution. The people who create such a thing know that the world can get along well enough without it, so they treasure it in a way that their children cannot appreciate.” He further suggested that we should not bemoan the death of artistic institutions, but rather, view their demise as an opportunity to create something more vibrant.

One might have expected to hear something very different from a person in his position. One might expect him to be very protective of his beloved Stratford, to turn a blind eye towards its flaws, considering that it was his artistic home during the most theatrically productive years of his life. But no; this was a man to whom age was little more than an inconvenience as he kept his gaze turned ever forward, to the next production, the next project, the next theater company. For insights and inspirations such as these, I will always be grateful to Douglas Campbell.


Needy Indeedy!

Posted on 2009.11.10 at 15:20
Current Mood: fullfull
Current Music: Friends - Elton John
Much of the time, our two cats seem to need us quite a bit. At times, they’ll even follow us around (Puck following CC and Cy following me), though it’s hard to tell whether they’re doing so simply to be with us or because they think they can stop us from leaving. Still, the wheel can suddenly turn as our cats may suddenly be seized with the apparent urge to demonstrate their independence from us. Such a moment occurred the other night. Puck, who normally spends a good deal of his nights at the foot of CC’s bed, was a no-show in her room. At the same time, Cy, who likewise is typically found by my feet or off to my left, was nowhere to be seen/heard/felt. As I was preparing to leave for work the following morning, I spied the two of them out on the sun porch, behaving in a chummy manner that we don’t often see. Here is the photographic evidence (Cy in the front, Puck in the back):


Learn By Doing and Learn By Watching

Posted on 2009.11.06 at 11:44
Current Mood: hungryhungry
Current Music: Glamor Boy - The Guess Who
A few nights ago, CC and I attended the 17th Annual Actors’ Scene Showcase, produced by the Women’s Theatre Alliance. I’ve attended it several other years and I commend it to your attention if you’re ever in Chicago at the right time.

The evening consists of 10 scenes from plays. Generally, they are from 10 different plays, although this year, two of the pieces were different scenes from the same play. They must be 2-person scenes, 5 to 8 minutes in length, consisting of either 2 women or a man and a woman (this is, after all, a production of the Women’s Theatre Alliance). The showcase is a one-night-only event, and auditions are held some weeks earlier. Any couple that wants to try out can prepare a scene and make an appointment. A panel of auditors decides who the 10 best couples are and those couples advance to the showcase.

While the showcase is open to the public ($12 a pop this year), the primary attraction of it for actors is the opportunity to be seen by casting directors and other assorted reps from theaters around town. There were many such types in evidence in the audience Wednesday night, as they were mostly seated in a reserved section in the middle of the house and each was given a folder full of head shots and resumés of the actors on display.

I’ve considered getting together with an actor friend and preparing a scene for the showcase, but I haven’t done so as yet. It is, however, very much an active object of consideration for the future. I have so say that I’m glad I’ve seen several of these before undertaking it myself, because I’ve picked up a lot of pointers by doing so – quite a few “dos” and “don’ts.”

First, a couple of “don’ts” regarding the setting of the scene. DON’T do a scene that consists of two people talking while driving in a car. This is an audition of yourself as an actor, and a whole lot of acting consists of movement. DO pick a scene that lets you move around. I’ve seen at least two different couples who chose scenes set in cars, and they were not interesting to look at.

Unless you’ve got something really cool up your sleeve, DON’T pick a scene that consists of two people sitting at a table in a bar or restaurant. This one is similar to the car example above in that it is not interesting to watch two people sitting at a table, though this isn’t a hard and fast rule – depending on the scene and how it is staged, you may be able to incorporate a great deal of movement and visual interest. The other problem with this type of scene is that SO MANY people pick scenes set in bars for these showcases that it’s become something of a cliché. I suppose they’re easy to rehearse because you can just sit at a table and run your lines, but here’s the thing – You’re not here to do something easy! You’re here to do something difficult while making it LOOK easy!

DO get a third party to direct your scene. The showcase rules recommend this but don’t require it. While I’ve seen a few scenes that were self-directed and worked well, they are in a serious minority. Much more often, the self-directed scenes suffer from focus, movement, and character problems that could be readily addressed if a third party were there to see them from an audience-eye view. Better to get a director – and not merely someone to watch the two of you rehearse and pat you on the head, but someone who will actively craft the scene with you.

Next, as an actor, play the reality of the scene. I think that actors in these showcases often feel the pressure of trying to establish the context of a scene when they know that we haven’t seen the whole play. To compensate, they may try to craft their character so as to implicitly fill in the exposition we the audience have missed. I know this temptation all too well – I’ve made this mistake myself in scene study class. Just play the specific reality of the scene you’re doing, and nothing more. Remember, we in the audience aren’t here to see a full-length play; we’re here to see you displaying your ability to perform this one scene.

Play your scene for the theater you’re in tonight. You’re not at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, projecting out over the orchestra pit to 3,000 patrons and a full balcony; you’re at the Theatre Building on Belmont Avenue, looking up at about 200 people on risers. Show us that you have an awareness of your surroundings and can calibrate your performance accordingly.

Connect with your fellow actor. Too often, a scene at one of these showcases shows all the signs of being either under-rehearsed or improperly rehearsed (see earlier note about having a director). Some actors seem to think that their primary task is getting their lines and blocking down. Having achieved that, they forget that they’re also here to act. The first casualty of this lack of preparation is connection with one’s fellow actor. The fact that this showcase consists of 2-person scenes is awfully, awfully important. It represents a challenge – and an opportunity – to show that you’re not merely someone who can stand on stage alone and deliver a pretty speech. It’s your chance to show us that you can connect as a character with another character and build a scene together. That’s a mighty rare opportunity in the audition world, so treasure it and exploit it!

Now, back to Wednesday night’s showcase. The range of best to worst performance was pretty wide. We saw some people who lost us from the moment they opened their mouths. We also saw some people who we’d pay good money to see in a finished production. Intriguingly, some of the scenes had a curiously mismatched quality to them, where one actor was operating on a level far beyond their counterpart. In a few cases, CC and I couldn’t help commiserating afterward about how badly we’d felt for one actor bursting at the seams to do a terrific scene but having nothing to play against – a.k.a. the one-hand clapping scenario.

I don’t think it would be right or fair of me to review any of the performers by name, either for good or ill. Even though this was a public performance that I paid to attend, it was, after all, an audition. If I see a finished production, I’ll review it and I’ll name names, but I would feel disrespectful to do so with this showcase in this public journal. Suffice it to say that I saw some terrific performances and some very un-terrific performances. I also learned a lot and had a very good time, and I hope the folks who were onstage that night can say the same!


Moving Pictures

Posted on 2009.11.04 at 16:07
Current Mood: calmcalm
Current Music: Mama Look Sharp - from the musical 1776
Hi. Chuck here, asking a favor of you, my wonderful readers. If you happen to be looking at some of my older entries and a photo isn’t appearing where it seems like one ought to be, please drop me a line and let me know the date of the entry. I’ve recently moved all of my photos to a different server, and the transition hasn’t been completely seamless. I’ve gone through most of my recent entries and I think I’ve caught most of the problem cases, but hey, I’m not infallible (yet)! Thank you!

cats 3

Candid Cats

Posted on 2009.11.02 at 11:37
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Venus - Shocking Blue
I’m working on a longer writing project lately, but here’s a photo I took the other day of our two cats. That’s Cy at the bottom and Puck up top. Both Puck and the pot of kitty grass are on precarious perches that were quickly taken down after this photo was taken, as we realized the inevitable outcome of leaving things in this arrangement.


The Rottenest Thing I Ever Did*

Posted on 2009.10.28 at 17:25
Current Mood: artistic
Current Music: Nights on Broadway - The Bee Gees
Before I get into it, I want to offer a few disclaimers. The main one is this: I was 18 years old. Now that I think of it, that’s pretty much my only excuse. Through the Miracle of Facebook, I have recently reconnected with the young lady at the center of this tale, so this seems like a good time to document the whole sequence of events.

During the second half of my high school career, I was very much taken up with playing Dungeons & Dragons. The core group consisted of Jim, Patrick, and myself. Others were frequently included, but we were the three mainstays. Most often, we played at Patrick’s house at the dining room table, so we were pretty well integrated into Patrick’s family. In particular, we were often joined by Patrick’s younger sister Cindy. I don’t recall that she actually played D&D much, but we always enjoyed her winsome presence.

However fond we may have been of her, though, she was still our buddy’s kid sister, and this placed her at constant risk of being teased. If our only contact with her had been while playing D&D, this sort of teasing might have stayed within certain comfortable parameters. But as you may well infer, another curtain of opportunity was about to be raised…

Cindy, much to everyone’s excitement, was cast in her first play, a high school production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. At one time, this play was commonly produced by a great many amateur theater groups (it won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), but I haven’t heard of anyone producing it in some time. Cindy was cast in the small but important role of a brainy girl who presents her science fair project.

As with any first-time actor, Cindy was nervous as opening night approached. Her anxiety was clearly heightened when she learned that Jim and I were both planning to be there on opening night. And this is where our story turns…

Jim and I arrived at the Dominican High School Auditorium early so that we might stake out a prime location. We ended up being seated in the front row, dead center. The orchestra pit was rather small, so this put us pretty close to the action, where we might easily be seen by anyone standing on the stage or, say, peeking through a curtain.

Cindy’s big scene was a solo turn for her character. She was to stand alone on stage for several minutes, proudly explaining her science fair project to the audience. The director had staged the scene to take place in front of the main curtain, all the way downstage, so Cindy was to be no more than 20 feet from the front row while performing a lengthy monologue.

The moment the lights came up on her scene, Jim and I burst into hysterical laughter, which caused Cindy to pause while recoiling in shock. Then, before she could even begin to utter her first line, Jim stood up, leaned over the orchestra pit railing, and took a flash picture of her.

In retrospect, I could hardly have blamed Cindy if she had simply left the stage at that moment, but she chose to push on, shaken though she was. Her entire scene was performed between gasps of hysteria and hyperventilation, but she got through it, even as Jim and I continued to cackle at her every utterance.

No, I can’t say I’m proud of that. If there truly were a God of the Theatre, I suppose Jim and I would have brought a plague upon both our houses for that stunt. It is to Cindy’s credit that she was able to continue being friendly to us thereafter; that she was able to look beyond our boorish behavior and see the nice boys we might be otherwise. It is worth noting, though, that Cindy has apparently, to date, never been tempted to pursue a career on the stage.

Postscript #1 Several years later, I was cast in a production of Fiddler on the Roof. Our director was the same woman who had directed that fateful production of Marigolds. One night after rehearsal, she and I were chatting and the subject of that earlier production came up. I told her about what Jim and I had done in the front row on opening night. Her eyes widened. “That was YOU???!!!” It seems that, unbeknownst to us, this was also HER debut as a director. She explained that she’d been stuck in the back of the house that night running the show, but she’d seen the commotion down front and would have liked nothing better than to go down there and bounce whoever was responsible. Happily, enough time had passed that she and I were able to share a laugh over it (whew!).

Postscript #2 It was not too long afterward that I began to visibly wince at the memory of my actions that night. As I became more and more immersed in theatrical pursuits, the memory of this incident became a touchstone, reminding me of who I didn’t want to be, as well as reminding me to invest in my craft the respect I wished to elicit from my audience. I figured if I could do that, I would always be assured of having at least one satisfied person in the theater!

* Or at least, the rottenest thing I ever did that I’m going to talk about in this journal!


Ghost Story Follow-up Report

Posted on 2009.10.27 at 16:18
Current Mood: spooky
Current Music: The Winner Takes It All - Abba
The Chicago Tribune has announced the four finalists for its Ghost Story Writing Contest. Feel free to click on the link and vote for your favorite.

No, my story did not make it to the finals, and that’s OK. It’s OK because all four of these finalists wrote better stories than mine, in my opinion. For that reason, I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t share my story with a wider audience. It was a highly instructive exercise nonetheless, and I’d do it again in a second!

cats 3

Cluster Pucks

Posted on 2009.10.26 at 23:26
Current Mood: draineddrained
Current Music: Man in the Mirror - Michael Jackson

A few days ago, I took a very nice photo of our cat Puck. It was so nice that CC decided to put it on the desktop of her PC. Yesterday, Puck himself decided that his image on her computer constituted a welcome mat, so he made himself at home. If CC expects to get any work done on her computer, she may have to replace the current desktop image with something else… say, a rabid Doberman.

Bratwurst, Rose

A Short Story That Got Even Shorter

Posted on 2009.10.23 at 10:15
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: How Can I Tell You - Cat Stevens
I entered a writing contest the other day. As you probably know, I’ve entered quite a few such contests over the years and I’ve fared pretty well in them. I usually gravitate towards contests that involve writing songs or poems, but this time it was a short story contest – with the accent on short.

A coworker gave me a copy of a recent Chicago Tribune column announcing a ghost story contest. Her timing couldn’t have been better. I’ve been in the creative doldrums in recent weeks, as evinced by the dearth of postings in this journal, and I’ve been looking for something to jump-start my creativity.

So in I dove. First order of business: a reading of the official rules. They were pretty straightforward. A) Suitable for a family audience; B) Must have a Chicago setting; C) Maximum of 700 words.

Uh-oh. [sound of needle skipping across phonograph record] 700 words! If you’re not much into writing, that might sound like a big number, but it isn’t, particularly for someone as in love with the sound of his own voice as I am. Let me put it this way – the last word in this sentence is already the 208th word in this essay, and I’m just getting started!

This word limit is particularly critical in the telling of something like a ghost story; that is, something requiring the creation of a particular, other-worldly atmosphere. But there’s nothing like a challenge to get the juices flowing, I figured, and after all, all of us who post entries have to operate under the same constraint, so be of good cheer – it’s a fair contest! So with the deadline for entries looming, I got busy.

In about two hours, I’d come up with a first draft. I’d decided in advance not to count words as I went. I figured I’d just try to come up with a halfway decent, economically told story and then set about cutting it down. So I probably shouldn’t have been so dismayed when the first draft clocked in at a little over 1,100 words.

“Okay,” I thought, “I’ve tried to write an nice little story, and now I have to cut out over a third of it while retaining a semblance of mood and narrative.” I had arrived at the moment of challenge in this process. We may have ultimately finished this editing process with a nail clipper, but the first tool to wield here was a scythe. It was not a painless process. Lovingly composed stretches of mood-setting prose were hacked off and thrown into the bonfire. Clever sub-plots and side references that had filled out my virtual canvas were extracted and shredded. At the end of this painful process, I checked the word total again. 831 words.

Gakk! You’re effing kidding me! I still have to cut out another 131 words? OK, OK. Calm down. We can do this. It was time for some strategic rephrasing. Don’t tell your readers things they already know or can figure out for themselves… use contractions where feasible… get the same information across in fewer words… but while you’re burning these sacrificial offerings at the altar of The Great God Writing Contest, don’t toss actual pieces of mood or essential story unless they are wrested from your bleeding fingers, because that’s the stuff that gives the story a reason for being.

OK. Whew! Got through that. Let’s check that word total again… 720 words.

After several minutes of beating my head against an iron grating, I returned to the task at hand. So close… we’re so close… but the rules were clear on this point: “…when we say 700 words, we mean it. Longer entries are automatically disqualified…” To make matters worse, I was now familiar enough with my own story that I could now see some logical gaps and irresistible opportunities that would, of course, have the effect of adding words to the story!

You get the idea. At the end of the process, we weighed in at a svelte 698 words. To give you some perspective on how little time that gives one to tell a story, the journal entry you’re reading now totals 769 words, and frankly, it’s probably scarier than my actual contest entry. But the deadline for entries is this Sunday and the winner will be printed in the Trib on November 1st. It may not sound like it, but I really enjoyed the process. It was a good little lesson in editing one’s work. I’ll keep you posted on the outcome and if I’m feeling really brave, I may even post the story here.


Autumn Road Trip

Posted on 2009.10.15 at 11:58
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: Tequila Sunrise - The Eagles

CC and I took a final trip (for the year) out to Carmelot. To review, Carmelot is the name CC gave to her property at Woodhaven Lakes Private Recreational Camping Resort in distant Sublette, Illinois. Fall Festival was taking place at Woodhaven while we were there, and the special events included a petting zoo. What’s special about the above photo is that CC is wearing a cap she knit for herself that depicts a line of alpacas – and she’s feeding an alpaca at the same time! It’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.
Click here for a few additional photos from the tripCollapse )


Is It Me, Or Is It a Symbol?

Posted on 2009.10.07 at 14:20
Current Mood: chipperchipper
Current Music: I Will Play a Rhapsody - Burton Cummings
An acquaintance recently asked me what I stand for.

I can’t even put a second sentence into that paragraph; it’s already too densely packed with implications. Let’s start with a few basics:

I have perceived over the years that this question, and others like it, usually have a subtext along these lines: “I have strong political and/or philosophical and/or religious convictions that are central guideposts in my life. These convictions help me to make decisions of all kinds and represent certain ‘lines in the sand’ that I will not cross. Furthermore, I do not sense that you possess the same value system and I am asking you this in order to challenge you and attempt to confirm my suspicions about your character and/or morality. In fact, I might even be able to offer you some sound guidance if you’re ready to hear it.”

It is of course possible that someone may ask what a person stands for out of pure curiosity, as an attempt to get to know them better. Yeah, it’s possible, but it’s rarely the case.

So how do I answer such a question? There’s no single answer; it depends on who’s doing the asking and what I think they’re looking for. I might respond with a smile and a flippant response – “What do I stand for? Well, I stand for old people on the bus and I stand for judges entering a courtroom.”

For the most part, though, I can’t help but resent the implications of such a question. It’s really on a par with questions like, “Have you stopped beating your children?” in that it makes a set of assumptions without inviting debate or even verification.

I “stand for” something? No. It is more accurate to state that I “am” something. I “do” things. To paraphrase the Elephant Man, I am not merely a symbol; I am a human being. Suppose I were to say – or my questioner were to say – “I stand for patriotism” or “I stand for America” or “I stand for Christian values” – or any of countless other ideals. Well my friend, I don’t care if you’re Abe Frickin’ Lincoln – you don’t stand for any of those things. You DO things. Don’t tell me what you stand for; tell me what you DO. Better yet, tell YOURSELF what you do and maybe you’ll realize that you need to come up with a different answer as to what you stand for.

Maybe you’re a loving parent. A devoted spouse. A tireless volunteer for charitable causes. A hard worker and a good provider. Maybe you’re an artisan or skilled tradesperson who takes great pride in their work. A lot of people would consider these to be laudable achievements. But these identities are not required to “stand for” anything. They comprise tangible attributes that stand on their own and do not require the artificial overlay of claiming that they stand for some higher ideal.

I am sometimes left wondering whether the unconscious goal of these questioners is to validate their own choices by trying to elevate the status of their own achievements. If that’s the case, then their questions have nothing at all to do with me.

It is revealing that I have never been asked such a question by someone who knew me reasonably well. People who are close to me develop a sense of who I am and what is important to me. Such questions are invariably asked of me by people who know me slightly, but upon whom I’ve made some sort of impression.

The closest I can come to summing it all up is this: Don’t ask me what I stand for and don’t tell me what you stand for. If you’re all hung up on this whole “standing for” business, SHOW me what you stand for by the example of your own life. And as we come to know one another better, maybe you can decide for yourself what I stand for. But don’t expect me to get on board with all of it, since I reject the very premise upon which the question is asked.


Not too early for holiday shopping

Posted on 2009.10.05 at 16:38
Current Mood: cheerfulcheerful
Current Music: Season of the Witch - Donovan
These two little embroidered items are just a sample of the wares being sold by a little company called Demeritwear. I learned of the site from a friend’s recent posting, and I’m already a customer. I ordered several of these as a gift for a friend and found them in my mailbox 3 days later. Turns out the company is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, if that affects your feelings about them!

It’s like this – we’ve all heard of merit badges, typically earned by Scouts for different skills, deeds, or other achievements. These are the flip side – demerit badges. They have dozens of different designs in various categories, all nicely designed and finely embroidered. With the arrival of autumn, it isn’t too soon to begin looking for unusual Christmas gift ideas, and these really tickled me! Even if you don’t want to order them, it’s an amusing web surf just to look at their offerings.


Snapshot of Departed Family

Posted on 2009.09.30 at 14:05
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
Current Music: Sitting - Cat Stevens
The title is figurative; I don’t actually have any snapshots of my Aunt Rosie, but I was reminded today of a long-ago interaction that concerned her, my mother, and me.

An important bit of context for this story is that I come from a large working class family. There were eight of us born in a little over 10 years’ time. Big family vacations were simply not a part of our upbringing. I don’t think we felt particularly deprived; that was just something ‘other’ families did. For us, vacation activities consisted of day trips to attractions in and around Detroit, e.g., Greenfield Village or the Michigan State Fair.

It was therefore quite an exciting prospect when it was determined that I would spend a night sleeping over at Aunt Rosie and Uncle Andy’s house – just me, not any other siblings. I must have been about 11 or 12 years old. My aunt and uncle lived only a few miles away as the crow flies, but when you’re in a big city, that’s quite a distance. They lived in an entirely different neighborhood from ours. Our neighborhood consisted mostly of solid old houses built in the 1920s, while theirs consisted of smaller, not-so-solid homes that probably dated from the late 1940s.

It was not just our respective neighborhoods that were different, though; the lifestyles of our two families were also quite different. Whereas our packed household of ten was generally winding down and getting pretty quiet by 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., Rose and Andy were definitely night owls. Also, they had stopped after merely two children, so even though their house was substantially smaller than ours, it somehow felt roomier.

For me, the remarkable part of the evening came after Andy and the kids had gone to bed. It was a pleasant summer evening, so Aunt Rosie and I sat on their tiny front porch, sipping our respective beverages and talking far into the night. It was the first adult conversation I’d ever had with her. By ‘adult’ I don’t mean that there was anything of questionable taste or propriety being discussed. I simply mean that we were talking as peers. That was a happy feeling.

Across the street and a couple houses to our left, another group was having a late-night poker party in their living room. We sat there and marveled at how clearly the sounds of their gathering were reaching our ears. Every clink of a glass, clack of a poker chip, and shuffle of playing cards was crisply audible as if we were sitting at the table with them. I suppose some of it could have been accounted for by the thinness of the walls on most of the houses around there, but it seemed odd to the point of being almost surreal and we both remarked on it. We then realized that if we could hear them so clearly, we probably ought to assume that they could hear us just as well, so our conversation went forward in a quieter tone of voice. At some point, we allowed that we were both talked out, so we retired to our respective rooms for a well earned sleep.

* * *

There was one small follow-up that came to light some weeks later. Aunt Rosie had been talking to her sister (my mom) and had told her some things that mom felt compelled to pass on to me. Apparently, I had received generally high marks from Rose and she had very much enjoyed my visit, but there was one particular remark that caught my ear. Mom quoted Rosie as saying something like this: “I used to think that Charles was such a brat, but then I finally realized that he was just trying to be funny, and I really enjoy his company!” As I have continued my journey through life, I have noted that this has been a recurring sentiment among various individuals of my acquaintance, including some folks who didn’t even know me in my childhood.


Time After Time

Posted on 2009.09.28 at 16:07
Current Mood: fullfull
Current Music: Time - Alan Parsons Project
I wrote about this a few years ago, but I’ve had two recent requests for these lyrics, so this seems like a good time to go over it again and add a few details to the story.

Several years ago, FP asked me to write a song for a show she was putting together. She’s the Managing Director of the Stockyards Theatre Project. The show was a pastiche of scenes and songs titled Busting Out: Toying with the Tyranny of Time. The parameters she gave me for the song were as follows: It needed to be about the history of time, and it needed to be written as a patter song to go with a particular rhythm and a particular bluesy chord progression.

The prospect of writing such a song hooked me in big-time. As a life-long writer of smart-ass lyrics, as well as a life-long devotee of science, this was a commission made in heaven for me! I will offer this one caveat for the reader – it’s really meant to be performed rather than read, so it may seem a little odd rhythmically without the syncopated beat and riff behind it as intended. Here we go:

Time in Four-Four Time

Oh let me tell you people ’bout this thing called time.
No I’m not going to play it out in pantomime.
Set you back and listen for a while ’cause I’m
Gonna lay it out for you in simple rhyme.

Early people saw the sun up in the air
Rising over here and setting over there.
That risin’ and a-settin’ made a tidy pair.
As a way of keeping time it was pretty fair.

Then they threw some gears in a box,
Shook it all around and started making clocks,
Infected everybody just like chicken pox
With a universal rhythm: tick-tock, tick-tock.

Then came Mr. Einstein. He had deemed
That time was not at all as it seemed.
He gave us his grand mathematical scheme
Written down on ream upon ream upon ream.

It boiled down to this – that energy, E
Is equal to mass times the square of C.
Now if C’s the speed of light, I think you’ll agree
That E becomes enormous exponentially.

Now C denotes a constant, the speed of light,
That never ever varies, not at any height
From the head of Ursa Major to the Isle of Wight.
Whew! That Mr. Einstein was pretty bright!

Now how does time relate to E, M, or C?
It slows as you increase velocity
But speeds up for the observer to a large degree,
And that is why we call it relativity.

Now that’s good news, it means that time
Is free for the taking, and that’s no crime.
On the journey of humanity, its noble climb
To the heighten of enlighten from primordial slime.

Quantum physics showed up and oh, it was dense.
A bit hard to understand unless you’re in Mensa.
Still a theory lacking crucial evidence,
And time no longer making any sense.

Don’t ask about the next one – the theory of strings.
They fly around the universe on tiny wings.
They vibrate and they quiver just like tiny springs
In the tiny little watches that run everything.

So tell me in the end, what have we learned?
And all the physicists, what have they earned?
I’ll tell you what this ordinary brain has discerned –
I’d like them to invent some time to burn.

So I could keep on singing this funky song
And you could learn the words and sing along.
Now I’m gonna tell you why Einstein was wrong —
But I see I’m out of time so, so long!

(© Charles Greenia)


Closing the Cell

Posted on 2009.09.27 at 23:54
Current Mood: relaxedrelaxed
Current Music: Misty - Johnny Mathis

We took in Friday’s baseball game between the White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. The Sox will spend the last week of the season on the road, so this series was their last home stand of the year. They’ve been eliminated from the pennant race, but the Tigers are still clinging to first place, barely ahead of the charging Minnesota Twins, so this was a big game for this expatriate Detroiter to attend.

We took the L down to the game. The photo above was taken right after we stepped off the train onto the 35th Street platform, which runs right down the median of the Dan Ryan Freeway (I-94). Note the threatening skies over the stadium. Rain was in the forecast and much of the game was played in misting conditions, though it never broke into a hard rain.

The rain also failed to put a damper on the fireworks show that followed the game. In fact, it was really quite first-rate, and while I didn’t time it, it seemed to go on somewhat longer than other Sox fireworks nights I’ve attended.

Friday night was also Hispanic Heritage Night at US Cellular Field (nee Comiskey Park), which only added to the spectacle of the evening. The front of our section (section 105 for the record) contained a large, enthusiastic group that spent the evening cheering loudly and waving multiple Puerto Rican flags. The closest we came to actively participating in the evening’s festivities was consuming an order of nachos and a churro, but we were with them in spirit.

The only negative all night was that the White Sox somehow motivated themselves to shut out the Tigers 2-0. Gordon Beckham strengthened his case for Rookie of the Year consideration by hitting a 2-run homer to account for all of the game’s scoring.

It is Sunday night as I write this and the White Sox have managed to take 2 out of 3 from the Tigers. A week from now, the season will be over – unless the Tigers and Twins finish in a tie, in which case we will have to endure the tension and potential heartbreak of a one-game playoff. Check back with me then.


Don’t know if this will mean anything…

Posted on 2009.09.24 at 12:58
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: Long Tall Glasses - Leo Sayer
…to anyone besides me, but here goes:

As I was returning to the office from lunch, a group of four people, two men and two women, got off the elevator. They were apparently just leaving for lunch, and the conversation centered around their potential choices of cuisine. One of the men had apparently just asked the other man a question, and he was responding.

“They have this thing called a ‘chimichanga.’ It’s good!”

It was the way he said the word, ‘chimichanga’ that got me. He said it as if it was a word he’d read, but had never before said aloud, yet he was trying to sound like an educated, though casual, gourmand. That, and the distinctly condescending air with which he was explaining it to the other fellow. It was a good character to note and store for future use as an actor. I thought for a moment that it would have been amusing to follow them and see how this conversation progressed… but I quickly thought the better of it and went back to the office.


Voice from the Past

Posted on 2009.09.21 at 10:49
Current Mood: creative
Current Music: American Pie - Don McLean
While looking for an address, I stumbled across an old, pre-blogging essay that I wrote in 1999. It concerned the proposed impeachment of President Clinton in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal. I crafted it in the form of a letter to the future. Since we’re now in the future, I thought this might be a good time to share the essay with a wider audience. At the time, I envisioned someone in the far distant future reading it, but that’s something over which I have no control. Anyway, here it is:

Letter to the Future
Hello. I’m writing to you from the cusp of the millennium in the United States of America (I hope you don’t have to look that up). A group of elected officials in our capital city is trying to decide what to do to our commander in chief for his indiscretions of first engaging in an extramarital affair, and then lying about it. I’m writing this letter because I fear for what you will think of America (and, by inference, what you will think of me) when you read about this time in your history books (I wish you people of the future could write back. I’d like to know whether you are battling the same demons that stalk us today; whether you have discovered new demons; or whether you have come upon some wisdom unknown to the time in which I am living).

The trouble with history is that it tends to remember little more than events. It tends to be a poor reporter of national moods, diversity of opinions, special interest squabbling, and the fears of politicians. It thereby tends to convince the reader of history that things were much simpler in the old days; not complicated like they are now.

Well, I have news for you – things are rather complicated here in the late 20th century. Your history probably tells you that this time and place is ruled by a democracy, but I must tell you that the wishes of the mass of our citizenry are not typically reflected in the words and deeds of our elected officials. Why this should be the case is really quite puzzling – after all, we elected them; yet they say and do foolish things every day; they are widely recognized as foolish and deceitful people; yet we continue to elect them. I cannot explain this. I hope you people of the future have made wonderful breakthroughs in understanding this.

But back to the matter at hand. I want desperately for you people of the future to know that many of us living in this olden time are mortified in consideration of the legacy we appear to be creating. On the one hand, we are leaving the legacy of electing (twice) a man who brought shame upon himself and his countrymen, and then trying to run him out of office for turning out to have far too much in common with the electorate. On the other hand, especially, we are leaving the legacy of having this matter become little more than a tool for exploitation and political gain. I hope that in your future time, you have found the wisdom to place the judgment of such matters into 2 places: the hearts of the perpetrators, and the minds of the people whom they serve, while keeping the power of judgment out of the hands of calculating, frightened politicians.

Those of you who are reading this letter in 1999 may need a little perspective on my concerns. Consider, by way of example, Alexander the Great. Most of what we “know” about him are stories culled from anecdote and legend. The tale of the Gordian Knot is thrilling in its simple, symbolic power. The truth, one suspects, was perhaps both more complicated and more mundane. The knot, if it ever existed at all, may never have been seen, much less severed, by Alexander. Yet the facts of history that occurred after this supposed moment make one long for this portentous moment to have occurred in fact. The result is that we tend to view Alexander as a rather one-dimensional conqueror. A huge figure in history, certainly. But the myriad personal considerations, agonizing debates, and logistical realities remain largely buried in the ashes of time. What survives are broad strokes of the historian’s pen, supported and embellished by legend and conjecture. A little more to the point, consider Rasputin, legendary villain of late imperial Russia. Even in his own lifetime, in his own country, the fantastic tales told among the peasantry regarding Rasputin’s personal habits and practices strain credulity past any reasonable consideration. That he was a filthy, bedraggled mystic seems a safe enough assumption. That he wielded substantial influence in the Romanov household seems equally certain. Beyond that, one’s level of certainty quickly crumbles, until we settle comfortably into a type of “knowledge” that might best be termed “historical fact.”

All of which brings us to the matter of President Bill Clinton. When you read your histories of this era, you may well conclude that the common citizens of this era were simple folk who lived in a very small world. Perhaps your “historical fact” will be that the late 20th century in the United States was a time of stifling Puritanism; conversely, you may think that this was a time of unbridled voyeurism. You may, in fact, be right on both counts. In any case, let me offer you this insight, from one who actually lived in this time: Yes, there is a strain of Puritanism in this land today. Yes, there is rampant voyeurism. There are also millions of people whose defining characteristics are boredom, cynicism, and self-indulgence. And there are also quite a few of us who are smart enough to know that when a den of thieves turns on one of its own, we would do well to scrutinize its motivations, particularly when their rhetoric adopts a tone of self-righteous indignation. But even if you do view us as simple folk, you may take some consolation in the knowledge that many of our elected officials would agree with you.

That’s all I have to report for now. Perhaps I will have sent another letter to the future at a later date (although you would obviously know more than I about whether that actually happened). My remaining hope is that you will somehow find a way to answer my letter. If so, I would hope to learn that your rulers have adopted both higher standards of personal conduct, and a more honest sense of their own fitness to sit in judgment.



Posted on 2009.09.18 at 14:09
Current Mood: fullfull
Current Music: The Winner Takes It All - Abba
We will soon know whether the 2016 Olympics are to take place here in Chicago. Inevitably and predictably, this issue has been tossed back and forth between various factions, mindsets, and ideologies.

The first division is between those who don’t believe in the Olympics at all, regardless of location, versus those who see the Olympics as a powerful symbol and example of international cooperation.

Next, we have those who believe that the IOC and the USOC are corrupt, elitist organizations that ought to go away; that they are always on the lookout for large bribes and are very comfortable with having their asses kissed, versus those who either don’t see them that way or who believe that this is a small, perhaps necessary, price to pay for the existence of this wonderful institution.

More locally, we have Chicagoans who support the games either because they believe there’s money in it for them or because they are genuinely thrilled at the idea of Chicago being placed on the world stage as never before. Across the fence from them are the Chicagoans who view the local power structure as utterly corrupt and figure that someone is going to make a killing – probably at the considerable expense of the masses.

So it comes down to me now. I’m a Chicagoan – do I want our Olympic bid to be accepted? My feelings are a little mixed up on that score. On the one hand, I find it utterly plausible that someone has got my pocketbook squarely in their sights, and that the IOC, the USOC, the mayor, and select contractors/connected parties may very well be in this to make a big money grab. Still, none of that surprises me. I’m cynical enough that I think the vast majority of really BIG projects involve corruption, political maneuvering, favoritism, and cost overruns into the pockets of connected individuals. So it was in the ancient world; so it remains today. I’m not crazy about it, but I’m not going to just wish it away.

On the other hand, I have a romantic side that cries out: “We do not do this because it is a GOOD idea. No! Not at all! We do it because it is a GLORIOUS idea! If you are fortunate, you may see such a spectacle come to your city once in your life, so do not turn blithely away when such an international spectacle presents itself upon your doorstep.” Oh, I know how that sounds – it isn’t logical; it isn’t scientific; it isn’t all sorts of things. But it IS human. We are not logic machines – not very good ones anyway – and we never can become logic machines without becoming something other than human. So the part of me that embraces the Olympics is something human; something essential; something I must be true to in some manner.

So is that it then? Sign off on the Olympics and let the Corrupt Ones have their way with me and my foolish dreams? Sell myself out to the Fantasy Merchants? Not a very appetizing scenario when I put it that way, is it? It is also well worth noting that the Olympics happen because thousands upon thousands of people all over the world – who aren’t getting rich – are working their butts off to be a part of something they fervently believe in. And that is why I describe my feelings as ‘a little mixed up.’ This I know – whatever choice the IOC makes, there is a part of me that will rejoice, and a part of me that will feel a little sad.


Pedestrian Perils

Posted on 2009.09.16 at 09:55
Current Mood: working
Current Music: Going Mobile - The Who
Last night seemed like a fine night for a long walk after work. And indeed it was – for some of us. For others, not so much.

I was walking south on Clark Street on the far north side when I heard a chorus of sirens. About a half a block straight ahead, I could see a couple of police cars with their lights flashing, blocking traffic. There was a crowd of people clogging the sidewalk before me. Some of them were speaking in agitated tones of voice. When I was almost up to them, an ambulance screeched to a halt right next to us. Two men hopped out. It was then that I noticed the man lying on the sidewalk before me. He had been mostly obscured by the crowd from the angle of my approach, but they parted at the approach of the two EMTs.

“What happened?” asked the Ambulance Man.

“Dude got run over,” answered a man in the crowd.

I was now scarcely five feet from the man on the sidewalk. Someone had brought out an old rug and had somehow maneuvered the man onto it. His legs and feet were twisted at odd angles and it seemed likely that there were broken bones down there. He appeared to be semi-conscious and it was easy to imagine that he might have hit his head pretty hard on the pavement. I chose to keep walking at that point – A) The professionals were on the scene; B) The crowd was big enough as it was; and C) I’d seen all I needed to see. But there was more ahead.

About 20 or 30 feet past the man was a street corner. It appeared that the man may have been struck by a car that had run up onto the sidewalk. I won’t describe everything I saw on the concrete, but it seemed highly suggestive of the collision having taken place there. At the very least, this was where the man had rested for a time after the collision. Traffic in the intersection was at a standstill, and considering that we were still in late rush hour, this made for quite an extended parking lot in all directions.

But this was apparently not a hit-and-run incident. A car was stopped in the intersection. The man I presume to have been the driver was standing next to it, scowling, surrounded by police officers. His hands were behind his back, unmoving, though I could not tell whether or not he was handcuffed. This had all apparently happened so quickly that the scene was still quite unsecured, and I walked right past the man and his posse of new friends in police uniforms. Once again, I felt that the right move for me was to keep moving and let the professionals do their jobs.

I’ve seen nothing in the press about this, nor do I expect to. It was, after all, just another day in the big city. But it was a good ways removed from my usual routine, and I couldn’t help but approach each intersection cautiously for the remainder of my stroll.


We Killed ’em in Addison!

Posted on 2009.09.14 at 12:57
Current Mood: satisfiedsatisfied
Current Music: You Don't Love Me Anymore - "Weird Al" Yankovic
We performed our comedy/improv murder mystery last Saturday at the Dave & Buster’s in Addison, Illinois. I considered it to be our proper opening. Our first preview was essentially an audition for D&B management and our second preview was two nights later on short notice for a relatively small group, so this was the first performance that had actually been advertised and completely set up. In a nutshell, I would describe Saturday’s audience as large and appreciative, and we had a lot of fun doing it for such a large, happy group.

The D&B in Addison seems a bit larger than the one in Chicago on Clark Street. Certainly, the room in which we performed was larger than its counterpart on Clark, and with better acoustics as well.

So I know what you’re wondering – “How can I attend this show myself?” Well, since you asked, here’s the scoop: We have one other show coming up this month. It will take place this coming Saturday, September 19th, at the D&B on Clark at 8:00 p.m. Tickets, including tax and gratuity, are $42.75. Yes, I know that’s a bit much for some pocketbooks so I will understand if you have to pass on this one. Dinner & dessert is included, and I can attest that it is a very tasty buffet (the crusted tilapia was particularly noteworthy). But if it fits with your plans, I’d love to see you there! You can call D&B at 312-821-8607 for reservations. We have more performances coming up, including one on Halloween that should be a lot of fun. I’ll publish additional dates as our schedule becomes clearer.


Happy Couple

Posted on 2009.09.11 at 09:26
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: Chapel of Love - The Dixie Cups
A few short years ago, our friend Amy went off to California to seek fame and fortune. After a time, reports reached us here in Chicago that she’d found something far more precious. Last weekend, Amy came back for a visit and brought along her brand new husband Casey! Connie and Jake hosted a party for them, along with a dozen or so lucky guests including yours truly, giving us a chance not only to see Amy again, but to decide whether we approve of her choice of a husband. Well – we do. We’re going to let Amy keep him.

Here they are cutting the cake; specifically, an ice cream cake inscribed “Amy and Casey.”

Happy as I am for the lovely couple, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the incredible board of fare orchestrated by Connie and Jake. Note especially the platter of barbecued shrimp and asparagus in the center of the picture – yow! And this shot doesn’t even include the guacamole, the salsa, or the deviled eggs. Thank you Connie and Jake!


Yes, Enya

Posted on 2009.09.09 at 15:20
Current Mood: cheerfulcheerful
Current Music: On My Way Home - Enya
I want to be up-front about this. You and I, dear reader, have always been pretty close, so I think I can tell you this with the knowledge that you’ll accept me and love me anyway: I’m a big fan of Enya.

There are several major camps of reaction to that statement. One camp reacts by saying this: “Yay! I’m a big fan too!” Another camp reacts by saying this: “The Irish New Age chick? Are you serious Chuck?” Still another camp has this reaction: “Who? Enya? Is that a man, a woman, a group, or a hair gel?”

A few points need to be made. First of all, Enya does not identify herself as a New Age artist. Frankly, the term ‘New Age’ has devolved to the point of being nearly meaningless (not that it meant a great deal in the first place). It means about as much as identifying a product as ‘natural’ or ‘green.’ In truth, Enya’s sound is so distinctive that she’s very nearly a genre unto herself.

Enya’s musical career began as a member of the Irish group Clannad, which was comprised of members of her actual family. After a couple of albums with them, Enya went solo. Her first major set of compositions came when she was hired in 1986 to compose and perform the music to accompany a historical BBC documentary series titled The Celts. That music may be found on a CD titled either The Celts or simply Enya, depending on when it was manufactured. The music didn’t garner a great deal of attention at the time, but it led to Enya’s first proper solo album, Watermark, released in 1988. That album includes a song you’ve heard many, many times, even if you don’t know it. The song is titled “Orinoco Flow,” though a lot of people probably think its title is “Sail Away” since that phrase is repeated quite a few times. It was a huge international hit and it put her on the map.

My own introduction to Enya came several years later, shortly after I moved to Chicago. A visiting friend brought along the CD of Enya’s second release, Shepherd Moons. She left it playing (with the stereo set on random track selection) for many hours through a memorable evening, and by morning, I was hooked. To this day, Shepherd Moons remains my favorite Enya CD.

It doesn’t take much of a fortune to assemble a reasonably complete collection of Enya’s work. By her own admission, she composes very slowly, and she typically goes five years or so between releases.

Now as for the songs themselves, they contain a wide variety of influences and languages, though Enya’s Irish roots are frequently in evidence stylistically. Roma Ryan writes most of the lyrics, while Enya writes most of the music. Roma’s husband Nicky is the producer, while Enya plays most of the instruments and layers most of the vocals herself. It’s a tight little three-person operation that has resulted in an impressive and unique body of work. While Enya has recorded many songs in English, she often records songs in Gaelic as well. Other languages may also be found in her work, including Latin, Japanese, Spanish, and even Loxian, a language invented by Roma Ryan and patterned after the Elvish language of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels.

Though Enya mostly records her own compositions, she has also done some wonderful renditions of older works, including “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, “Marble Halls”, and a strikingly beautiful Gaelic translation of “Silent Night.”

I have heard Enya used as a punchline; as if it’s a complete mystery how anyone could like her often dreamy, lush, arrangements and meandering melodies. Well, there’s no accounting for taste I suppose, but if someone starts from that prejudice, I don’t suppose Enya has much of a chance of impressing them. In fairness, though, Enya has been known to get the pulse pounding on occasion. Listen to her song “Book of Days” and your toes are very liable to start a-tapping. “Wild Child” on the other hand, is very nearly contemporary pop in its rhythm and feel. So even if there are many musical styles into which Enya may never tread, one can’t quite put her in a box either.

One of the oddest chapters in Enya’s musical career involves the song “Only Time.” It was used for a while in ads on NBC in conjunction with Ross & Rachel’s on-again/off-again romance in the series Friends. But things got really strange after the 9/11 attacks. Somebody did a remix of the song, incorporating sounds of the attacks between phrases in an attempt to achieve some sort of poignancy. Enya and her people disapproved of this, though she did later release an expanded single of the song and donated the proceeds to families of the victims.

Enya’s career album sales have topped the 70 million mark, an incredible number considering that she has never toured, never even put together a fully produced concert, and has performed live only rarely and sporadically.

In closing, I want to assure you that you needn’t care for Enya at all if you’re my friend, and I hope you won’t consider my affection for her music as an impediment to our friendship. But I feel better now that I’ve come clean on the matter.


Flying o’er My Home

Posted on 2009.09.02 at 11:15
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: Early Morning Rain - Gordon Lightfoot

This aerial view comes to us courtesy of Google Maps. The letter “A” marks the home in Detroit in which I grew up. We left there for the suburbs in 1984 and it’s been some years since I’ve actually driven through the old neighborhood, but I assure you that I can still walk down these streets in my mind’s eye and see a million details, recalling specific houses, streets, people, trees, smells, breezes, and cracks in the sidewalks.

Obviously, nothing so artificial and man-made as a city neighborhood can stay the same for long, but this was still a stunning sight. You may wonder what I could see from a vantage point as high as the one shown above. The answer is this: green grass. I see lots and lots of green grass. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; hey, who doesn’t like a nice lawn or a lush meadow?

My problem is that I’m seeing lot after lot of green grass where there used to be houses. In my childhood, there were hardly any empty lots. Now, I can see entire blocks that are almost half empty lots.

I can’t say that I was surprised to see this. By the time we left in 1984, house fires were becoming noticeably more common, and some of us even discussed at the time what the neighborhood might come to look like if this trend continued. Well, we’ve arrived in the future, and the future is green.

Ever the optimist, I find myself hoping that the current residents of my old ‘hood find enjoyment in these wide-open spaces; that they appreciate not being hemmed in on all sides by other houses. But the realist in me can’t help but think that if I were on the ground in that neighborhood today, I might not find a lot of joy in the air.


Wow! A Talking Climate!

Posted on 2009.09.01 at 13:02
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Rain - The Beatles
Note the second article under the “Science” heading. They should sell tickets to that! Though on second thought, you’d better cover the kids’ ears when it actually starts talking, 'cause I think it’s going to be pretty pissed off.

Bratwurst, Rose

Return to Bristol!

Posted on 2009.08.31 at 00:26
Current Mood: tiredtired
Current Music: Take Me to the Mardi Gras - Paul Simon
I’m happy to report that I took in the Bristol Renaissance Faire on Saturday. I didn’t make it up there last year, but a friend who was going up there to work kindly allowed me to tag along. I spent most of my day wandering about on my own, which was perfectly fine – while there are many activities that I prefer to do in the company of friends, something like this is something I can enjoy either way.
For more stories and lots of photos, click here!Collapse )


It’s a Good Story!

Posted on 2009.08.28 at 13:30
Current Mood: fullfull
Current Music: Good Thing - Fine Young Cannibals
My title is a paraphrase of Jerome Bixby’s classic 1953 short story “It’s a Good Life.” If you’ve never heard of either the story or its author, allow me to enlighten you.

First of all, it isn’t every day, or even every year, that I write about old short stories. But this one is special. It was one of the most influential stories I read as a child. It made me think about the power of art and the power of words to create a mood, and to create ideas that weren’t explicitly on the printed page. It also served to broaden my view of what was possible in terms of plot and tone. Yes, it’s just a humble little sci-fi/fantasy story – but it’s nothing like the tidy little tales found in the storybooks and readers of my childhood.

It’s possible that you’ve seen a few adaptations of “It’s a Good Life.” It was first adapted as an episode of the original “Twilight Zone.” Bill Mumy, later to achieve fame as Will Robinson on “Lost in Space” appeared in the role of Anthony, a child gifted with god-like powers. It was adapted again many years after that in the “Twilight Zone” movie. Both of those adaptations have their charms, but neither comes close to the original story. The old “Twilight Zone” adaptation softens or eliminates some of the major horrors of the original story, while the movie adaptation is largely about its entertaining visuals and is almost unrecognizable as having come from the original story.

The short story concerns the inhabitants of the town of Peaksville, Ohio. They live in mortal terror of a monster in their midst – 3-year-old Anthony Fremont. At the moment of his birth, the doctor took one look at him, dropped him, and tried to kill him. Anthony responded by making the doctor go away and turning Peaksville into an isolated town. The universe melts away into gray nothingness at the edge of town, though whether Anthony has destroyed the rest of the world or simply taken Peaksville far away is a question no one in Peaksville can answer.

Anthony is never described in specifics. Author Bixby cryptically refers to Anthony’s “bright, wet purple gaze” and his “odd shadow,” but the reader is otherwise dared to imagine his appearance. Anthony can read minds; he can create, destroy, and alter life. When we first meet him, he is compelling a rat to eat itself from the tail on up until it dies. Various people in the town have been killed or had their brains addled by Anthony in the past 3 years. Due to the town’s isolation, there is no phone service or electricity. Farming is difficult on account of Anthony’s capricious decisions regarding what the weather will be on a given day, and canned goods are beginning to run low. The town is slowly dying and no one can do anything about it.

It is Anthony’s mind reading ability that particularly defines the tone of the story. People force themselves to think cheerful thoughts when Anthony is near. Even when something dreadful happens, they tell each other that “It’s a good thing that happened; yes a very fine thing.”

The story ends with no sign of hope. The closing sentence reads, “Next day it snowed, and killed off half the crops – but it was a good day.”

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to think about some of the buried themes percolating just below the surface of “It’s a Good Life.” The biggest clue is to be found in the story’s original publication date: 1953. Eisenhower was president. The post-war baby boom was in full swing. Middle America was intent on viewing this as a great Golden Age, having lots of babies, enjoying the fruits of booming business and technological innovations, and putting a lot of distance between themselves and the horrible war only a few years behind them. The pressure to conform – and to give the appearance of conforming – was tremendous. On top of this, “Better Dead than Red” was a catchphrase of the time; lives and careers were very much at risk if one were even accused of being a Communist, so whatever public face one had to adopt to prevent such whispers was considered well worth the compromise. All of this is clearly reflected – or shall I say refracted – in the citizens of Peaksville forcing a cheery outward countenance, regardless of the thoughts they were struggling to deny.

Even in the midst of all this growth and prosperity, the Cold War also weighed heavily on America’s mind. Thoughts of creeping Communism and the threat of nuclear annihilation had to coexist with peace and prosperity in the minds of many. Note that 1953 was also the year in which Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for treason after being found guilty of passing along nuclear weapon information to the Soviet Union. The stakes were very high and the perceived threat of a nuclear catastrophe was strong in the minds of many. So if “It’s a Good Life” seems like an oddly dreary story from a cheery time, it actually reflects the common dread that our world might be wiped out in a single stroke of madness.

So is all of that what the story’s about? No, not at all; it’s about an inexplicable creature with unearthly powers and a town trying desperately to cope with the horror. But it is a fever-dream of its time. I don’t think it has a political or social agenda; but it vibrates with a chord that was ringing in America at that time.

If you’d like to read the story for yourself, it’s been published in various anthologies over the years, and I’ve tracked down the text to this website as well. I would only suggest that you not rush through the reading of it. It’s mostly a quiet tale set in a quiet town. And by the way, if you read up on Jerome Bixby’s career, you’ll find that he wrote quite a bit for movies and television during his career, including some notable work for the original Star Trek series. One more bit of trivia – I’ve only recently learned that in 1970, “It’s a Good Life” was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the 20 finest science fiction stories ever written, so I guess I’m not the only one it made an impression on!

Plane Stamp

How Do They Do It?

Posted on 2009.08.27 at 09:35
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: I'm a Believer - The Monkees
Regular readers of this journal know of my deep-seated antipathy towards online questionnaires along the lines of “Which Constellation Are You?”, “Which Smurf Are You?”, “Which Character From Encino Man Are You?” etc. Well, never say never, I suppose. In a moment of weakness, I filled one out the other day. It was simple enough – 20 or so questions, mostly on my general interests and tastes. But the results – amazing! I have no idea how they were able to divine all of this incredibly specific, accurate information – and even come up with a photo to go with it!


Let Them Eat Cake

Posted on 2009.08.24 at 14:09
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative
Current Music: Spirit in the Night - Bruce Springsteen
The following story is true. No names have been changed since I don’t know the names of any of the other people involved.

I exited the Purple Line L train at the Davis stop, as usual for a weekday morning. The Davis stop is the single busiest station on the entire Purple Line aside from its connection at Howard Street, particularly during rush hour. In accordance with that fact, the entire station was rebuilt a few years ago so that it might more readily accommodate such high traffic volumes. The stairway down to street level is wide and in good repair, and there are elevators between the track and street levels.

On this particular morning, after exiting the train and beginning the long trek along the platform towards the stairway, hemmed in on every side by my fellow commuters, I noticed a woman about 20 feet in front of me. She was similarly hemmed in, except that she was gingerly carrying a large decorated cake. It didn’t look like a wedding cake necessarily, but it was a multi-tiered affair with a considerable amount of hand-lettered frosting (though I was never at the proper angle or proximity to make out any of the words).

She was not a large woman. She stood no more than perhaps 5'4", rather thin, well groomed, wearing a simple off-white blouse buttoned all the way up to the neck, and a neatly pressed knee-length skirt. Going only by her appearance, it would have seemed equally likely that she was headed either to her job or to a religious service.

Having been substantially jostled on this very platform on more than a few occasions, I couldn’t help but be concerned for her chances of making it out to the street with the cake intact. Why hadn’t she taken the elevator down? She’d actually walked right past it! Why hadn’t she tarried on the platform for half a minute and allowed the throng to get ahead of her? Adding to her peril was the fact that she was compelled to walk a little more slowly than most of her fellow pedestrians in order to keep herself balanced, placing her at an even higher risk of being trampled.

As we proceeded, I tried to work my way through the crowd to get closer to her. I had the desperate thought that perhaps if I could get near her, I could help to fend off any sleepy/clumsy commuters who might not notice her precarious situation. Yes, I know this wasn’t my problem. It would have been completely defensible for me to simply shake my head, wish her the best, and put her out of my mind. Still, I thought that if I could do something simple to help her out, it would be a nice gesture on behalf of good citizens and cake lovers everywhere.

The density of the crowd, particularly as we made our way down the stairs, prevented me from getting any closer to her until we were down in the station. At that point, the crowd was able to spread out a little, taking some of the pressure off. As it happened, both the Cake-Bearer and I exited out the back way, so I kept my eye on her to see where she might be headed next.

I didn’t have long to wait. No sooner had she exited the station when another woman began to wave at her. This woman was standing next to a large sedan and immediately opened the rear passenger door. The Cake-Bearer carefully set the cake on the passenger seat, went around to the other side of the car, and got in.

I suppose that’s not much of an ending to the story. If this were the movies, certain rules would have applied. In the movies, you see, if a stranger suddenly appears carrying a large cake, it is a foregone conclusion that someone will end up wearing the cake. I can take some comfort, then, from this bit of evidence that my life is actually happening and I’m not merely a character in someone else’s movie.


Jim Warren

Posted on 2009.08.23 at 19:36
Current Mood: sadsad
My telephone rang Friday night at about 2:00 a.m. This is not often an hour when the phone rings with good news. The news was indeed quite bad – that my friend Jim had passed away about 2 hours earlier. I want to pass along the news in this space because a lot of you reading this have heard me refer to Jim over the years, even if you never met him. Let me begin by telling you what I know of Jim’s last few weeks.

A couple weeks ago, my phone rang at work. It was Jim, sounding like his usual jovial, conversational self. He began something like this: “Guess what happened to me today – I had a stroke! I’m in the emergency room right now!” He went on to tell me that the doctors had informed him that he’d suffered “the good kind of stroke.” I opined that this was rather self-evident, given that he was phoning me himself with the news.

I spoke to Jim again soon thereafter and he had more information. He had been receiving a steroid treatment for a bad shoulder, and one of the side effects of the drug was that it caused his blood sugar to zoom up to an alarming level. It was this heightened blood sugar that appeared to have brought on the stroke. Jim was mostly paralyzed at first, but the doctors had optimistically projected a near-full recovery. Indeed, Jim was walking, albeit clumsily, within a day or two, and he reported increased motor skills with every passing day. Still, the prognosis was for months of rehab.

Jim had suffered the stroke while in Indiana on company business. In fact, he’d been sitting in a meeting room with coworkers when he’d suddenly slumped over. So he’d spent nearly a week in a hospital in Indiana before he was transferred back home to Michigan. At the time of his death, he was in the Michigan hospital preparing for a transfer to a long-term rehab facility.

The 2:00 a.m. phone call informing me of his passing came from a friend of Jim’s, who was calling me from the hospital. She’d been on the phone with Jim only a few hours earlier and he’d sounded fine. Whatever happened to him came on very quickly. It wasn’t immediately apparent whether he’d suffered a heart attack, another stroke, or, as some doctor there speculated, an embolism. I believe an autopsy is being conducted though frankly, those details are of little interest to me, because the bottom line is unwavering on this point: my friend Jim is no longer with us, and that’s a very sad fact.

I have a lot of friends/family/acquaintances named Jim, so maybe a few details will help you to know which Jim I’m talking about. This is the Jim with whom I took a bunch of memorable road trips. The Jim with whom I attended a great many Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day football games. The Jim who used to be married to my sister.

Jim was a very smart, funny, and generous man. He loved a good joke. Even better (for my purposes), he loved a bad joke. I have a lot of memories of Jim that are wonderfully amusing, even laugh-out-loud funny. But please forgive me if I don’t share any of them today. Perhaps another time.

Jim stipulated that there was to be no funeral, so I won’t be going to Michigan for any sort of service. In fact, I’m told that a party in Jim’s honor will be happening soon here in Chicago. He knew a lot of people here, so I’m looking forward to attending that when plans are firmed up. I have no doubt that there will be a lot of laughter on that occasion, and a lot of stories told at Jim’s expense. Neither Jim nor I would have it any other way.


A Member of Facebook Nation

Posted on 2009.08.21 at 10:51
Current Mood: musical
Current Music: Eyes Without a Face - Billy Idol
Why yes, I am on Facebook! Aren’t you? Of course you are, my dear! Isn’t everyone?

I’m not being facetious here; I really am on Facebook. I log in frequently and have been known to post links, anecdotes, observations, advice, and snarky comments there. And it is no heresy to post these words on LiveJournal, since the two are certainly not competitors – at least, not for my purposes.

There are two big differences between the two in my mind. First, we have Facebook’s identity as a “Social Networking Site” – and by the way, I’m getting really tired of that phrase but I don’t have a better one. FB definitely lives up to that identity – heck, I’m up to 136 FB friends and counting. They cover the length and breadth of my life, from immediate family to recent friends to people I’ve never met that I only know online, all the way back to people I haven’t actually seen since high school or earlier. The notion that I can simultaneously communicate with all of those people is a powerful concept. 20 years ago, the only way you could have done that would have been to buy time on network television or assassinate a head of state. Both of those options are fraught with ramifications ranging from the financial to the legal to the moral, so sites such as Facebook really are enabling people to do something they just couldn’t do before.

The main way I use Facebook is the same way most people seem to use it – to post little mini-updates on what’s on my mind and, perhaps more importantly, to comment on the mini-updates posted by my friends. One may also navigate to an individual’s profile page and get a quick overview of their life situation – birthday, city of residence, marital/relationship status, etc., though this is dependent on how much they’ve chosen to share. Yes, there are all sorts of other features and games one may play within the community of one’s friends, but to date, I’ve felt no particular pull towards taking part in them. I figure, I’ve already got plenty of ways to waste my time; I don’t need any new ways.

Those mini-updates to which I referred may seem innocuous enough, but they are a powerful way of finding out what people are up to. For example, one of my friends often posts on what restaurants she’s going to, and with whom. It serves as a wonderful reminder to me that this person has evolved into a very different place in her life. When I knew her better, she was committed to a single life and usually very cash-poor. Now she’s married with children and, if not exactly rolling in dough, doing well enough to go out with the family on a regular basis. Just being able to know that about an absent friend is a wonderful thing to have.

I should, in fairness, mention the flip side of reconnecting with people from my past. In many cases, I have been sincerely delighted to find people from my past or to have them find me. In some other cases though, I have had people from my past attempt to friend me who I had no desire to hear from, ever. I want to say to them, “Why do you THINK we haven’t spoken in twenty years? Hmmm? It’s because we have nothing in common, that’s why! It’s because we don’t like each other, remember? Why don’t we just pretend you never tried to friend me?” Oh, I know – people can change. They can change; I can change; we’re not the same people we were 20 years ago, blah blah blah. Look, sometimes we close doors, we lock them, and we throw away the key. If you’ve transformed yourself, good luck to you. And like I said, sometimes I’m purely delighted to have people track me down, so there’s no simple formula to all of this.

But I digress. Enough about Facebook for now. We now shift our attention over here, to LiveJournal. I suppose one could use it as a Social Networking Site, but to me, its real strength is as a Writing Site. That is, I rarely write off the top of my head in LJ. I actually think about what I’m saying here. I take the trouble to use the right word (or to at least make a game attempt). I usually ponder what I’ve written and revise it a few times before posting it. Basically, it’s quieter here compared to FB. There aren’t ads and notifications flashing at the corners of the screen while I’m trying to concentrate. It’s a civilized environment where I (and hopefully my reader) can share more complex ideas and maybe even string a few together. If Facebook is about the pleasure of human contact (albeit a distant, online kind of contact), then LJ is about the pleasure of ideas that have taken the form of words. I take both of those pleasures seriously, but they reside in two distinct areas of my mind. Yes, there is some overlap, but the two sites represent different needs and different inclinations.

It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that FB has caused a lot of blogging sites to take a hit in popularity. I’d hate to see LJ driven out of business or driven into obscurity because of it, but it will be interesting to see how FB evolves over the next few years. Will something new come along and shove FB aside, the way FB is shoving MySpace aside for so many people? Or will FB stay in it for the long haul, continuing to add features and users, becoming a veritable institution, the essential stop on the internet for countless millions of users? Well, I’m no great fan of monopolies, but I also don’t know how to stop a tsunami, so I’ll stay tuned. In the meantime, both FB and LJ are presently enhancements to my life, so I don’t suppose I can complain too much.

cats 3

Cat and Mouse

Posted on 2009.08.20 at 16:12
Current Mood: fullfull
Current Music: Going Mobile - The Who
I saw this on moonlitrose9’s User Info page and had to have it. Just move your cursor around the kitty (and close those intrusive ads when they pop up). Note also that kitty specifically reacts to hovering the cursor over its paws, tail, and ears.


One From the Vaults

Posted on 2009.08.19 at 15:40
Current Mood: relaxedrelaxed
Current Music: Your Mother Should Know - The Beatles
The image below comes to us from my sister E, who recently scanned a great many old photos borrowed from my Dad. I will resist (for now) the temptation to post a ton of them, but I thought this one was eminently worth sharing. It’s my mother at age 7 and a half on the occasion of her First Holy Communion. Even though some types of color film were on the market at the time this photo was taken (1940), it was not yet widely used in the consumer market, and it was still common practice to take studio shots such as this in black and white and hand-tint the print.

And thank you E for making this post possible!


Artistic Evolution

Posted on 2009.08.18 at 15:38
Current Mood: busy
Current Music: Star Baby - The Guess Who

Time to revisit our ever-changing piece of neighborhood sculpture. Long-time readers will recognize it from earlier posts. It began life a couple years ago as a pyramid topped with a couple of flying pigs. I have never claimed any particular insight into the artist’s meaning or intent. Earlier this year, the pigs disappeared. They appeared to have been violently wrested from their base, though whether this was simple vandalism or artistic criticism is anybody’s guess.

A few weeks ago, another alteration showed up in the form of the punctured metal star that now tops the pyramid. If you can’t make out the inscription, it reads “…and freedom for all…” Whether this was done by the piece’s original artist is a mystery. I can only offer it here as an object for discussion, distraction, argument, contemplation, or veneration.


But Enough About You…

Posted on 2009.08.16 at 21:15
Current Mood: dorky
Current Music: Let's Talk About Me - Alan Parsons Project
I was Googling myself the other day. TMI? Oh come on… you’ve done it with your own name, haven’t you? And if you haven’t, you really ought to consider it.

I really went all out this time, Googling myself under different versions of my real name as well as several different online names. There was a single intriguing fact that emerged as I took in the length and breadth of these myriad online references. It seems that there is a particular quotation of yours truly that has been incorporated into a surprising number of blogs and news sources.

It was in an article I wrote some months ago for my currently-dormant job as Chicago Skepticism Examiner for examiner.com. The article concerned the controversy surrounding the Shroud of Turin. The specific quote that many folks have borrowed (and quite properly credited me for, thank you!) is the following:

“…It seems to me that any intelligent person of faith would have to agree that if someone has based their faith in Jesus on the presumed legitimacy of the shroud, then there is something profoundly flawed about their understanding of their faith…”

It makes me happy to think that this concept, out of all the countless bits of silliness that bear my name, would be so widely quoted, because it is very much in harmony with some of my basic feelings about religion. That is, I am not bitter about religion or religious people; I will respect their beliefs as they respect mine. I believe that would be a form of something I read about long ago – something called the Golden Rule. The quote also represents another strong theme for me – the notion that we should focus on, and build upon, the things we can agree on. To put it into more poetic language: Bridges make the world a larger place. Walls make it a smaller place.

So do try Googling yourself sometime. You may not find that anyone is quoting you, but you may find out something about yourself or your family that you didn’t know!


High Fidelity – The Musical

Posted on 2009.08.15 at 10:34
Current Mood: contentcontent
Current Music: You Won't See Me - The Beatles

I’m not kidding. High Fidelity, which started out as a novel by Nick Hornby, which was then turned into a movie starring John Cusack, has been turned into a stage musical. Actually, it was turned into a musical a few years ago, but you are forgiven if it flew beneath the range of your theatrical radar, since the Broadway production closed after a mere 14 performances. Notwithstanding that unfortunate bit of history, the show has come to Chicago. A relatively new group, Chicago’s Route 66 Theatre Company, is opening it next week. Last night, I attended a preview performance.

Let’s start with the above photo. If that doorway looks familiar (particularly those Roman columns on either side), it’s because High Fidelity has rented out a space on the third floor of the Piper’s Alley complex next door to Second City. Yes, this is the space once known as Vinnie Black’s Coliseum, which housed the reception for Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding for 16 years until it closed last month. And that’s precisely why I was in attendance last night. As a former TnT cast member, I was offered free tickets to the preview, which I attended along with friends Nancy and Wilma.

I must state up-front that I had substantial misgivings about this show going in. Its abbreviated Broadway run was only a small part of those feelings. After all, many fine shows have done poorly on Broadway – or never played there at all. Still, closing after 14 performances isn’t exactly a merit badge. The larger portion of my misgivings stemmed from my suspicion that this story might not translate well into a musical theater format. While I haven’t read the novel, I saw the film and liked it a lot. The film contained a great many witty, observant details and I seriously questioned how well they would translate into the decidedly less subtle environment of a stage musical.

So what do I have to say about the production? Well, hmm… I’m going to split this into two sections – the Good Stuff and the Bad Stuff. Let’s start with the Good Stuff. By the way, I’m not going to bother describing the plot. I figure that if you’ve read the book or seen the film, you know the plot. If you haven’t done either of those things, you’ll enjoy seeing it unfold far more if you go to see it than if I try to lay it out for you. But if you want to know more about the show, you can go here, to the show’s website.

First, and maybe most importantly, High Fidelity works as a stage musical far better than I thought it might. Yes, a lot of those little observant details have been lost, but what we’re given instead is something more, well, theatrical. We’re given a collection of vividly drawn characters with diverse emotions and entertaining ways of displaying them. And, I’m happy to report, we’re given a show that is reasonably faithful to the plot and characters from the film.

The cast is generally very strong. Stef Tovar, in the lead role of Rob, hits just the right note and gives me a Rob I like and recognize. It speaks well of his performance that he never makes me miss, or even think about, John Cusack, who was so perfect as Rob in the film.

Dana Tretta deserves to be singled out as well. She plays Liz, friend and self-appointed conscience to Rob. Tretta is a tiny actress with a big stage presence. There is a memorable sequence in the show during which she carries around a blue medicine ball that seems larger than she is, and it comes off to great comic effect. I won’t even try to offer a context for that, but I promise you’ll be exceedingly amused by it.

Jonathan Wagner plays Barry, a role that introduced a lot of moviegoers to Jack Black. It must be said that a great deal of Wagner’s work here, particularly his timing, is strongly reminiscent of Black’s performance, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. No, I think that’s exactly the way to go here – if you can pull it off, and Wagner can. There’s no getting around Black’s indelible persona, and it’s absolutely right for the way the role of Barry is written. So high marks to Mr. Wagner for making me smile. A lot.

We move on now to the Bad Stuff. There’s only one specific Bad Thing I want to mention about the performances. There is one member of the cast whose performance was clearly below the bar set by the rest of the production. For the sake of discretion, I won’t single out the individual by name, role, or even gender, but all three of us in my party agreed that they were clearly the weak link. Their look was fine – right for the character. Their acting was fine. But their singing – not so fine. In a word, weak. I’m hoping that this person was perhaps not feeling well last night, or saving their voice for opening night. But all I have to go on is what I saw last night, and it was a shame to see such a weak link in an otherwise strong chain.

I’ve saved my biggest complaints for last. We were seated at a table on the far side of the room, and the sightlines were dreadful. Some of this was inevitable given the set design, but a lot of it was obviously correctable. I would speculate that the director never watched a rehearsal from our vantage point. Like many directors, he probably sat near stage center every day, from where I’m sure the show looks fabulous. A lot of key moments and sequences of visual/physical humor went completely unseen by us. We could only sit cluelessly while folks in the center section laughed uproariously. Seats like ours should either by eliminated entirely or at least marked as obstructed view seats.

The other BIG problem was the sound. I realize that the show is still in previews and that part of the purpose of previews is to work out the technical bugs, but once again, I can only go by what I heard (or didn’t hear) last night. Microphone levels were wildly inconsistent, and often seemed to not be turned on at all. We missed a lot of dialogue and a great many song lyrics. Once again, I think the sound was optimized for the center section, since they frequently reacted to lyrics none of us found intelligible. As a theatergoer, I don’t want to hear excuses. Yes, I’m aware that this show poses technical challenges that TnT never had to deal with, and that it’s a tall order for a new group to come into a strange, empty space and turn it into a theater. All I can say is this: They need to keep working on those problems, because as it stands, the audience at the sides is being neglected and short-changed. This show needs to build up some word-of-mouth publicity, and these technical issues need to be resolved if that word-of-mouth is going to consist of kind words.

So on the balance, there’s a lot of good stuff going on in this production. A whole bunch of multi-talented people have been gathered together for our enjoyment. You’ll laugh a lot and you’ll smile a lot. You might even tap your feet or clap your hands in rhythm with the music. Act I is a little uninspiring, but Act II gathers a lot of steam. If you go to see it, understand what it is and what it isn’t. By that I mean that it isn’t some harrowing epic like Miss Saigon or Les Miserables. You won’t walk out the door weeping for Doomed Lovers or pondering Cruel Fate, but you should walk out with a smile on your face. It’s an affable, amusing little musical that belongs in a more intimate space like this one at Piper’s Alley. Maybe they should never have put it into a big Broadway theater in the first place, but as a little show with a tight rocking combo onstage, it could run for a long time. Though if you decide to see it, I recommend that you absolutely insist upon being seated at a table in the center section, unless I hear that these staging and sound issues have been addressed.

Edit — Check out the comments section of this post for some important additional info from a Hi Fi cast member!


One of the Oddest Books I’ve Ever Read

Posted on 2009.08.13 at 16:41
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: Michelle - The Beatles
It looks for all the world like a stuffy little volume of arcane French verse. It’s a slender paperback barely 70 pages long. Its cover, seen here, is printed on uncoated buff paper, albeit by a major publisher (Penguin). In the Foreword, author Luis d’Antin van Rooten describes, in dry, academic prose, how he came to inherit a packet of cryptic French manuscripts from a distant relative, and how he has labored to make sense of them. Sample excerpt: “…they may be the creations of some Gothic cultural link midway between François Rabelais on the one hand and James Joyce on the other…”

Each page of the book offers a French verse at the top, followed by the author’s annotations, translations, and theories as to what the verse means to convey. It all seems quite mystifying until one realizes what’s going on. You see, it’s all a put-on.

There was no distant relative. All of this has been composed by Mr. van Rooten for our amusement and his. When one reads the French verse aloud, it sounds like English nursery rhymes spoken with a French accent, except that the actual meaning in French has nothing whatsoever to do with its English sounds. A few examples:

Reseuse arête, valet de Tsar bat loups
Joue gare et suite, un sot voyou.

The annotation theorizes that this is a description of an incident at the Russian Imperial court and draws deep socio-political inferences from the story. One more example:

Reine, reine, gueux éveille.
Gomme à gaine, en horreur, taie.

The annotation translates this one verbatim: “Queen, Queen, arouse the rabble, who use their girdles, horrors, as pillow slips.”

If you know any French at all, even if it was only years ago when you studied it in high school, this book offers some of the most uniquely giddy, geeky fun you’re likely to come across. I can’t say that it’s like this book or that book; it simply isn’t “like” anything else I’ve ever read.

A bit of background: This book was originally published in 1967. I don’t know whether it’s actually still in print, but it is widely available quite cheaply in used form. The author, Luis van Rooten (I believe the “d’Antin” part was an affectation assumed specifically for this book), was an actor of some accomplishment. He appeared in many dozens of Broadway plays, movies, and TV shows in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. From the evidence of this book, he was an exceedingly articulate and clever fellow.

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