Saturday, November 14, 2009

They Got Lincoln -- Again and Again

So me and the missus are standing across from Parliament Square, trying to figure out how 40 Greenpeace folks ended up on the roof ruining the pictures of Big Ben with banners protesting the abuse of the environment, when she nudges me and points to a statue over on Parliament Street.

“Looks like Abraham Lincoln,” she says.

“Yep, sure does,” I say.

And I take a picture, one of the dozens of pictures I took of the statues and memorials that occupy every bit of free space in London.

We’re proud of our sculpture in Chicago. Heck, we’ve got Calders, a Miro, a Picasso, a few Henry Moores, even an entire auto junkyard that Frank Stella piled up inside the Metcalfe Federal Building on Jackson. But here in the Windy City our sculptures are like super-heated molecules moving quickly away from one another.

Sculpture-wise London is the equivalent of a substance cooled to near absolute-zero. Works aren’t just plopped into parks and plazas . . . in many places they step over the curb and stand in the middle of the street.

Anyway, it turns out that she who is wiser than I was right and that the Parliament Street statue really WAS Abraham Lincoln.

That London Lincoln – the throne-like chair, the standing President, his head bowed, a farm-boy’s oversized hand grasping the iron lapel of his frock coat – is familiar to every Chicagoan. It’s a replica of Augustus Saint-Gaudens sculpture that stands at the north end of Dearborn in Lincoln Park, the work we call The Standing Lincoln.

Saint-Gaudens had at the age of 17 seen Lincoln’s train as it moved toward the President’s inauguration. After schooling, including studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and a time in Rome, he received his first major commission in 1876 for a sculpture of Admiral David Farragut that still stands in New York City’s Madison Square Park.

Five years later Chicago lumber baron Eli Bates died and in his will left the city enough money to cover two projects, a fountain and a statue of Abraham Lincoln, each to be located in Lincoln Park. Saint-Gaudens was chosen for both projects. The fountain, Storks at Play, is located to the south of the Lincoln Park Conservatory.

It took several years for the sculptor to form his vision of the fallen president into its final form. Using his boyhood impression of Lincoln as he viewed him on that inaugural train, standing “tall in the carriage, his dark uncovered head bent in contemplative acknowledgement of the waiting people,” ( along with the life mask of Lincoln and the casts of his hands made by Leonard Volk before the President was elected, Saint-Gaudens began work.

He used a six-foot, four-inch Vermont farmer, Langdon Morse, as his model, beginning at Cornish, New Hampshire, in the summer of 1885. (

The pedestal on which the Lincoln Park sculpture is mounted was the design of Stanford White, who began his career as the principal assistant to the foremost architect of the day, Henry Hobson Richardson, and who was a partner in the most prestigious architectural firm in New York City, McKim, Mead and White.

Sharing the fate of Lincoln, in June of 1906 White was shot three times in the head at point blank range by multi-millionaire Henry Kendall Thaw on the Madison Square Roof Garden. From that roof it is certain that he could have seen the Admiral Farragut statue, another Saint-Gaudens work for which White designed the pedestal.

The Standing Lincoln was unveiled on October 22, 1887. Chicago Mayor E. A. Roche headed the dignitaries on the dais, and Abraham Lincoln II, the 15-year-old grandson of the late president, released the flag covering the statue. ( And in that place at the head of Dearborn Parkway Saint-Gaudens work has stood ever since.

As hundreds of thousands of young men were dying on the western front during World War I, negotiations were being carried out for a statue of Lincoln to be erected near Parliament Square in London. The struggle between lawmakers and artists that ensued makes for a fascinating story. Read about it in the next installment of They Got Lincoln – Again and Again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

October Even in the Spring

I got a new pair of sandals for my birthday in July . . . a slick leather pair with soles that have guitar-shaped treads. It was the perfect gift for a guy a year away from his seventh decade of service to mankind. With the exception of gym shoes and sweat socks, I’ve had trouble wearing real shoes ever since.

A couple days ago I took my sandals out for a walk up to the drugstore on Clark Street. The temperature was in the 50’s, and the wind was building toward the 40-knot gusts we listened to all night long. Just around the corner on Sheridan I was hailed by a security guard in a hospital van. The wind in the deaf aid meant that I had to walk out into the middle of the street to hear what he was yelling, which was --

Are you the patient who was just admitted to the hospital and then walked away?

Right. I got it. Everyone around is bundled up for the winter, and I’m breezing down Sheridan in sandals and shorts. Now I know what it feels like to be profiled. I also know what it’s like to convince a suspicious hospital security guard that I’m just an older guy trying to hang on to the summer for as long as he can . . . while standing in the middle of rush hour traffic on Sheridan Road, my hand cupped around my ear.

These are the days that we would hang on to if we could. The trees are beginning to change, and the sky and the lake make one another look even more achingly lovely. The newly planted mums have just begun to flower, the flowers of yellow and russet foretelling the future more precisely than the chill in the air ever could.

Chicago’s a good old girl at this time of the year, a real gal on a walk back from the beach thinking about a couple of beers at the neighborhood joint as she strolls.

She’s feeling the exuberance of summer and youth and the assurance of infinite possibility fade a little this week as kids kill each other in the streets and a hundred or so prune-skins point their palsied fingers south toward Rio de Janeiro.

But she’s still got youthful energy on her side, and a simple walk around the neighborhood is all it takes to see it.

Before heading up to the top for another cliff dive, the window washers grab a smoke as they speak quietly to one another in Spanish at the base of Mies van der Rohe’s Commonwealth Plaza

The guys from Streets and Sanitation re-paint the lines and turn arrows on Diversey, the bright white paint gleaming new as the orange traffic cones guard the work.

The traffic ticket dude rides down the street on a bicycle, his pocket filled with tickets to be written while a guy in a neon yellow vest walks up the sidewalk in the opposite direction, sweeping trash into his long handled scoop-it.

Two fire inspectors, clipboards in hand, check out the hose connection in front of Sunrise Assisted Living at Clark and Wellington.

All the while the boats bob in the harbor, the sun sparkles on the lake, and always, always that unbelievable prairie dream of a downtown promises to love you to death or break your heart. Or both.

Chicago is a town where the bums weave themselves into the urban fabric like statuary, street art with jingling Starbucks cups. A brawny town of stone and steel, washed clean each day in a glacial gift, a Fountain of Youth in a berg that will never grow old. It’s a place where the business gals go bare legged and the gentlemen loosen their neckties at mid-day.

The other day I was waiting for the old 151 at the bus stop on Washington in front of the Pittsfield Building when Mayor Daley came strolling by, headed east with an aide. He met my eye and I bade him good morning.

I wanted to tell him that the Olympic thing was no big deal, that the place he has largely re-made is one of the great cities in the world. I wanted to tell him everything that I have written here, but he’s a fast walker – on his way to do who knows what, perhaps to begin deliberations on The Next Big Thing.

Chicago writer Nelson Algren said that Chicago is an October sort of city, even in spring. That’s a good thing, Mr. Mayor. So keep the faith . . . you’re taking care of a sensitive little world beater here, singing her own song as she beats it back home.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Let's Change the World . . . and Then Have Lunch

Two days ago the President of the United States of America gave an important address to the United Nations General Assembly. Before the speech he met with the Prime Minister of Japan at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. After the address he joined the leaders of nations contributing peace-keeping troops, followed shortly thereafter by a wreath-laying ceremony for fallen United Nations staff members. By 1:15 he was at lunch with world leaders.

After lunch he headed straightaway to a sit-down with President Medvedev of Russia. And then he and the Head of the Family, Mrs. President Obama, hosted a reception for Heads of State at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I ride a bike ten miles from our apartment to the Loop and back, and I have to rest for a day or two. This guy is fleet of foot. The Secret Service advance team must be running cable 24 hours a day.

Anyway, he started his speech to the princes of peace at the United Nations by announcing that there was a new sheriff in town, and the U. S. of A. would be taking the moral high ground henceforth.

On my first day in office, I prohibited – without exception or equivocation – the use of torture by the United States of America (Applause. Applause. Applause) I ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed, and we are doing the hard work of forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law.

Within the rule of law . . . that phrase must have sent shivers down Mr. Cheney’s stint. Right there at the top of the speech, like it was REALLY important.

And it must have been a tough one to listen to for the hoarders who have been running the Walmarts out of .45 and .38 caliber ammunition for the past nine months in anticipation of the horrors the administration will wreak on their Second Amendment rights.

Thomas Jefferson had something to do with that Amendment, the guy with the ponytail who said, “Conquest is not in our principles. It is inconsistent with our government.”

Jefferson probably would have nodded in agreement when the President said, “Every nation must know: America will live its values, and we will lead by example.”

Then came the “Four Pillars,” the heart of the speech, which the President defined as (1) stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; (2) the pursuit of peace; (3) the preservation of the planet; and (4) a global economy that advances opportunity for all people.

So I’m wondering where the noble opposition goes with this one. To disagree with the country’s elected leader one would have to: (1) be for the spread of nuclear weapons; (2) be against the pursuit of world peace; (3) be for the continued destruction of a livable planet; and (4) be against the concept that all men should be guaranteed the pursuit of happiness.

That last phrase – that pursuit of happiness thing – I’ve read that somewhere before.

In an increasingly hostile world another United States President appeared before Congress almost 60 years ago and listed that same principle as part of what he called the “four essential human freedoms.” Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union Speech defined those freedoms in this way . . .

The first was freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.

Next was the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.

Thirdly, came a freedom that would secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.

Finally, Roosevelt spoke of a freedom from fear, a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation would be in a apposition to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.

On that distant January night Roosevelt ended his speech with these words:

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women, and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

It is interesting to note that for Roosevelt the nation’s greatest strength was a unity of purpose. We may well disagree on the ways in which the President Obama’s four pillars are lifted into place. That’s the beauty of living in a free country. It was what led John F. Kennedy to observe that the unity of freedom has never relied on uniformity of opinion. But we citizens of this great nation should not disagree on the overriding importance of the basic doctrine that is the unity of freedom for all people.

What we need is for the wrong-side-of-the-aislers underneath the Big Dome to cinch their neckties up a little tighter and choke the nay-saying for awhile. We get it. You lost. You’re unhappy. But the greatest test of a man’s nobility is that he puts aside his own personal unhappiness and works to make the lives of those around him better.

That’s what a representative democracy is supposed to be about.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Prohibition is better than no liquor at all (Will Rogers)

I’m thirsty tonight, but I’m just going to have a Diet Coke and save the beer calories for a time when it’s really important. Instead I’ll pour a page or so of words about one of the oldest beer sellers in Chicago.

The Berghoff story begins with Herman Joseph Berghoff, who left Dortmund, Germany, at age 17 and landed penniless in Brooklyn in 1870. During his initial travels in America, he worked on a sugar plantation in the South, as a pastry cook on a freighter and a seaman on a cruise ship. He also spent time with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and a year working on the railroad out West (Chicago Architecture Foundation).

Settling finally in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he represented a Cincinnati brewery until he opened his own brewery in 1887. With eyes on the expansion of his business, Berghoff set up shop in Chicago at the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, an event unlike any the world had ever seen. In the six months that the fair ran, over 27 million thirsty folks came to Chicago.

Taking the popularity of his beer at the fair as a sign, Herman opened the Berghoff Cafe in 1898 to showcase his Dortmunder-style beer. Originally located at the corner of State and Adams Streets, one door down from its present location, the bar sold beer for a nickel and offered sandwiches for free.

The bar prospered even during Prohibition (1918-1933) when it served near beer and Bergo Soda Pop. Clearly, a bar without alcohol could not last long, so the business expanded into a full-service restaurant, which gained wide popularity by the end of Prohibition. In 1933, when Prohibition ended, Herman Berghoff was first in line at City Hall to receive Liquor License Number One. On that one day the establishment served 50 barrels of beer.

Long after most restaurants ended the practice, the Berghoff maintained a separate men's only bar. The segregation ended in 1969, when seven members of the National Organization for Women sat at the bar and demanded service. One particular female lifted her stein and her camera to record the occasion. A "gentleman" took exception, and attempted to end the photo session. The photographer was not about to give the camera up without a fight and bit a chunk from the man's hand. The emergency room doctor told the man that it was dangerous to be bitten by a human. "I don't think the bite was from this world," the man responded (Chicago Architecture Foundation). One is reminded of W. C. Field's line, "A woman drove me to drink, and I hadn't even the courtesy to thank her."

The Huber Brewing Company of Monroe, Wisconsin began supplying beer to Berghoff’s under contract in 1960. It remains one of Huber’s flagship beers (The Best Breweries and Brewpubs of Illinois). The popular restaurant ended operations on February 28, 2006. The building now contains a bar and a cafe that is open during weekday lunch hours, along with a large banquet and catering facility.

Of particular note in the three-building complex that comprises the Berghoff property is the west structure, designed by Charles M. Palmer and completed in 1872. The facade is of cast iron, which was ordered from the foundry and bolted to the exterior of the building. Looking carefully, one can see the bolts that secure the facade to the building.

Cast-iron storefronts began to appear in Chicago as early as 1857. For example, between 1857 and 1858 John Mills Van Osdel built approximately 1,100 feet of cast-iron frontage. During this same period many iron foundries were established in the city, many of which produced cast-iron storefronts. Such facades found favor with builders as an alternative to elaborate masonry construction (Chicago Architecture Foundation), foundry work being cheaper and quicker than the work of an individual sculptor or stone mason.

Although cast iron facades gave designers the chance to beautify the exteriors of their buildings, lending the structures a substantial and sophisticated appearance, the material had one serious flaw. Its melting temperature of 1150 to 1200 °C is about 300 °C lower than the melting point of pure iron and about 200 °C lower than the average melting temperature of steel. When the great fire of October 8th and 9th of 1871 swept through the business district, largely located in and along Lake Street, cast iron facades became molten, pulling down the masonry walls on which they were hung.

The Page Brothers Building at 177 North State Street, directly across the el tracks from the new Wit Hotel, is the only other building in Chicago’s Loop to have such a cast iron fa├žade. One can see it from Lake Street, around the corner from the Chicago Theatre. It was the work of early Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel, who designed the first Palmer House and the Illinois Executive Mansion in Springfield. Purchased from the City of Chicago in March of 2007 for 1.625 million dollars (City of Chicago Department of Community Development), the Page Brothers Building is another early Loop building that has stood the test of time.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray . . .

I was cruising down the bike path along the lake last week, headed toward the Loop with the ear buds inserted, just tooling along with the breeze at my back, pretending to be a kid again. And somewhere around where Potter Palmer used to hang his hat, about halfway between North Avenue and the Oak Street curve, Wouldn’t It Be Nice went into rotation.

If you’re much under fifty, it doesn’t mean a whole lot. But if you grew up with the song, and it’s summer, and you’re trying like heck to feel youthful again, it’s a great tune.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong

Funny . . . in 1966 when the song was released, I couldn’t wait to grow up and get started on the life thing – get a job, get married, have kids, buy a house in the suburbs. Now, almost 45 years later, I’m listening to the song and wondering what all the hurry was about.

But on a sky blue day in a hot town summer city, remembering those days was enough to make me feel thankful for the days I have now.

Labor Day, and a holiday mood is in the air, laughter on the breeze and every third family in Chicago at the zoo. A well-deserved day off.

I’m lucky, I suppose. I don’t need to work anymore. I spent the better part of four decades trying to figure out the teaching gig, and this is the third school year that has begun without my coming down with a back-to-school cold.

I was looking back at some stuff I wrote a number of years ago, words that talked about how I wanted to approach the job of teaching as I neared the end of my career. I was fortunate . . . I loved teaching or whatever it was that I did. I recognize that not everyone is as lucky.

I also know that it’s offensively over-simplistic to say that if you’re in a job you don’t like, you should quit and find another one. These days, more than at any other time in my life, people have to pay the bills in any way they can.

Still, when I wrote these thoughts seven years ago, I wrote them as an employee, someone who griped about the bosses, grumbled about not getting enough respect, and left the building exhausted at the end of the day. Maybe what I said back then has some meaning to someone other than my older self.

I said that I wanted to live happily and well and spend my time demonstrating a concern for other folks. One thing I have found over the years – on the job and outside of it – is that if you work at compassion and understanding, the paycheck is a handsome one. We all struggle with something – even the prettiest gal and the guy with the BMW Z4.

Okay, maybe not the guy with the Z4. He creates problems for the rest of us.

The point is, though, that if we find a way to break away from our own problems and help others deal with theirs, life becomes a tad better.

I said that I didn’t want to talk in a loud voice in order to attract attention. I followed through on that one . . . after living most of my life with a hearing deficit, I finally got a deaf aid and realized how loud I had always been.

What I meant, of course, was that the people we admire the most are the people who crow about what they do the least. When I was working the people who attracted the largest number of snickers were the people who never heard “the curses, not loud, but deep” because they were too busy talking about themselves.

Along with that, I said that I wanted to let my actions speak louder than my words. Maybe I never thought my life was particularly interesting . . . maybe I just like listening to people tell their stories. Whatever – do what you do. If it’s good, the chances are a lot of people won’t recognize its goodness. But you will. And a few people who matter will. And they are the ones you want to take care of.

And I said that I wanted people to hear my name and smile. I always felt that my job had two parts. There were all those kids, hundreds and hundreds of them. I hear from one or two of them at a time, almost every day. I like to think I met them at an important time in their lives and helped them to think about some things that made the coming years a little more meaningful for them.

There was another part to the job, though, and that was the responsibility I felt toward the people with whom I worked. I felt that I owed them something, too. I helped those that I could, I listened to those who needed to talk, and I always tried to lead the group in laughter. It’s tough to sell huge chunks of your life for money if the work and the money is choking you so hard that you can’t laugh.

There’s more to working than just the job that you do. There are all those other folks around you, all of them trying to make it through the day. If it was one thing that disturbed me toward the end, it was the way all of the new folks focused on their classes, on their grades, on their schedules, arriving in the morning and slipping into a chair in front of a computer monitor without saying a word to anyone.

All of it comes down to the three most important subjects that I taught. Not the essay or interpreting literature. Not even All the King’s Men or Macbeth or anyone lived in a pretty how town.

Kindness, patience and faith. The latter gives a person strength to practice the first two. You can’t work without them. Moreover, you can’t live without them. Once again, we don’t earn anything extra by bringing them with us to the workplace, at least not if we’re measuring the importance of things in dollars and cents.

The kindness and patience that comes from a deep faith guarantees a life that there will be of greater worth.

I’m a long, long way from 1966 and Wouldn’t It Be Nice. I worked my job, and then one day, unbelievably, I was done. The other day on the bike path, though, it all came zipping back.

In 1909 Jane Addams wrote these words right here in Chicago, “We may either smother the divine fire of youth or we may feed it. We may either stand stupidly staring as it sinks into a murky fire of crime and flares into the intermittent blaze of folly or we may tend it into a lambent flame with power to make clean and bright our dingy city streets.”

A century later, on this Labor Day of 2009, that’s our job . . . all of you are still working and all of us who are out there volunteering . . . to make clean and bright the dingy streets that we find.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To Do Life's Labor

Up at 5:30 this morning, hoping that the unseasonably cool weather would give way to a good day. It didn’t take long for that hope to become reality for, as I read something that our daughter, Kristen, had written the night before, I was filled with the sense that something fine was waiting for the sunrise.

The largest portion of what she wrote described her experiences as a first-year teacher at Urbana High School, but she ended the piece with a description of Maria Shriver’s interview on Sunday’s Meet the Press show. Shriver talked about her Uncle Teddy and how he always made sure that everyone was “welcomed, loved and thanked.”

That image moved Kristen to write these words . . . So send those thank you notes. Post a message on Facebook. Write a letter. Tell someone something every day. Stay in touch. Even if it is just a single sentence it will mean the world to that person . . . Wake up tomorrow and be the change you want to see in the world. What a great reason to get out of bed!

I had just gotten out of bed moments before and here were the words in my daughter’s voice... Wake up tomorrow and be the change you want to see in the world.

Not a bad way to begin the day.

Just a couple days ago I was listening to some news program’s coverage of the current debate over the proposed health care legislation. One participant in the debate had said something like this, “This is America. We don’t take from me to give to you.”

Really? Whose America was this guy talking about? What other way is there of becoming the change we want to see in the world than by giving to others, especially those others who need the help we might have?

I was thinking of these things as I poured the second cup of coffee and skimmed the story on page one of what is left of The Chicago Tribune, a piece about the former student, now a Pastor, who coaxed his stroke-ridden old teacher back into life by reading him the poems that had been part of their teacher-student experience so many years before.

“This was one of those teachers that changed your life because they opened worlds you hadn’t imagined,” Pastor Blackwell said of his former teacher, George Ariffe.

It got me to thinking . . . if I was cast in that play as the old teacher, what poems would I want my former student to read to me if they were trying to be the change they wanted to see in the world? My guess is that most of former students would know a few.

There’s my favorite poem – e. e. cumming’s anyone lived in a pretty how town with its nearly inscrutable direction to trust the divine whisper and take the risk of loving and being loved.

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.

And Mending Wall, the Robert Frost poem I first read when I was a junior in high school and decided for good that I wanted to be a high school English teacher.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

Wordsworth’s Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood has always reminded me to treasure the natural world as a gift from God, the surest sign that he watches over us, protects us, and claims us as His greatest work.

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

A poem I learned about from the custodian who cleaned my classroom, Rupert Brooke’s The Great Lover, a plea to live and love and appreciate.

I HAVE been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise,
The pain, the calm, and the astonishment,
Desire illimitable, and still content,
And all dear names men use, to cheat despair,
For the perplexed and viewless streams that bear
Our hearts at random down the dark of life.

The last poem I taught each year, the last poem I taught as a teacher, John Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

Anything by Shakespeare. Or Whitman. Or Dickinson. I could listen to most of Dickinson’s stuff two or three times . . . that would be fine with me.

Therefore—we do life's labor—
Though life's Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—

Life’s labor? I think my daughter had it exactly right. Our reward really is to be the change we want in the world by tending to the little matters of that world in ways that will make things better.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Planes and Plans

Except for random nocturnal strollers getting bashed over the head just down the street, it’s pretty quiet in Lincoln Park these days . . . now that the Chicago Air and Water Show has come and gone. Not long ago Jill and I trundled our folding chairs and rolling cooler out to the Diversey Harbor inlet to catch the aero thrills.

You can’t beat Chicago’s lakefront on a hot August Saturday when over two million people are spread out as far as you can see and the boaters are anchored all the way to the horizon. Add to that the bawling of the propeller planes and the howl of those jet jobs and you’ve got yourself a good old time.

It would be enough just to watch the people. They say the place is a city of neighborhoods, and all the neighborhoods are here, drawn to the lake just as they have been for a century and more. It’s summer, and the living is easier at lakeside. It’s cooler here, and the off-shore breeze is a welcome relief to the hot dust of the stone city. That’s the way it has been for over a century.

A hundred years ago Edward H. Bennett and Daniel Burnham published the Plan of Chicago, a city-changing document under the direction of the Commercial Club. These were the words the authors used to press home the importance of the city’s lakefront . . .

Not a foot of its shores should be appropriated by individuals to the exclusion of the people. On the contrary, everything possible should be done to enhance its attractiveness and to develop its natural beauties, thus fitting it for the part it has to play in the life of the whole city. It should be made so alluring that it will become the fixed habit of the people to seek its restful presence at every opportunity.

I don’t know how restful the Air and Water Show is, but to be a part of the shoreline throng stretching from Montrose Harbor all the way to Navy Pier is to see, a century later, the large part that the Lake Michigan shore plays in the life of the city.

“The Lake front by right belongs to the people,” Burnham and Bennett wrote. They would be pleased.

So the show went on.

The Golden Knights jumped. The Lima Lima team traced the sky in precise strokes. Chuck Aaron strapped his 60-year-old body into the Red Bull helicopter and did back flips and 360-degree rolls, the only man in the country licensed to do such stunts. And to finish it off the U. S. Air Force Thunderbirds screeched and screamed and blasted their way past the crowd in a 20-minute display of brute power and absolute control.

All the while hundreds of thousands of folks just like me surveyed the sky as they picnicked. Children clap-hopped. The ice cream venders pushed their bicycle carts through the crowd. And hundreds of boats swung easily at anchor.

Show me another city with such heroic action in such a beautiful place, a walk or bus ride away from the neighborhood. Show me another city that, a hundred years ago, would not only have anticipated such a day and such a place, but worked to make them happen.

Just as we owe those early city planners a debt of gratitude, we also owe those who will be a century from now an honest attempt to improve and enlarge the legacy that was given to us. That’s only fair.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Fair Enough

Made the yearly trip to the Wisconsin State Fair a week ago. Great fair . . . better than ever. We chose a good day – two got in for the price of one. Mobs of people already there at noon, probably in anticipation of the Main Stage show at 7:30 featuring Big & Rich with Cowboy Troy and Candy Coburn. You may not know Big & Rich, but you have certainly heard of its signature song, Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy).

Yeah, I haven’t heard of the group or the song, either. We didn’t stick around for the Big Evening Show, anyway.

The fair has many of the same attractions that I remember from 40 years ago. Some things shouldn’t change. The animal barns are all still there, completely open to the public. The animals look good, even the hogs, most of which were sprawled out on clean straw with their eyes closed. The Percherons were, as always, magnificent, well-muscled and proud, clearly aware of their origins as battle mounts in the Middle Ages. And how can there be so many different kinds of rabbits?

The super-sized cream puff line was churning out cream puffs full tilt, and fair-goers were buying them by the half-dozen. I abstained . . . way too difficult to keep the powdered sugar and spewed filling off the Tommy Bahama.

But some things have changed, though. They serve wine at the fair now . . . some places offer two whites and two reds. They have a special tent for micro-brewed beer. There are fewer stands to get a bratwurst, it seems like. Too bad. It’s a sensible meal – only 29 grams of fat and 900 mgs of sodium.

There is the brand new Machine Shed Restaurant, which boasts Real Food, Real People and Real Memories! The place advertises the “best breakfast in America” and serves up All You Can Eat Pancakes with 4 New Varieties! Plus Chocolate Covered Bacon on a Stick!

And the bathrooms are clean enough to eat a cream puff in. They have washroom attendants up there in West Allis now, with tip baskets by the exits. The powers that be latched onto an idea Europeans have understood for generations – a little stimulus money will keep those attendants hopping.

But the dominant impression you get strolling around the fairgrounds is one of large people eating substantial servings of cheese and washing it down with lots of beer.

Did you know that in 1841, Mrs. Anne Pickett made history when she established Wisconsin's first cottage industry cheese factory using milk from neighbors' cows? That’s according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Today, the milk marketing folks tell us, 15,000 dairy farms, with over 1.2 million cows produce an average of 18,850 pounds of milk each per year, and cheese makers use close to 90 percent of this milk to produce cheese at 115 plants. The result is over 2.4 billion pounds of Wisconsin cheese each year, much of which is consumed at the Wisconsin State Fair.

So Wisconsin really is the cheese capital of America, and the residents are entitled to wear those cheesehead hats that drive Chicago Bears fans crazy. (By the way, visit to find all of the latest in cheesehead gadgetry, from a 15 buck cheesehead fez to a ten dollar pair of cheesehead hanging dice that dangle from your rear view mirror. . .)

Wisconsin, it turns out, is also way up there -- numero uno, in fact – in several areas of alcohol consumption. According to statistics compiled by the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and, Wisconsin is first in the whole great U. S. of A. in the percentage of its citizen who engage in binge drinking (21.8%), casual drinking (67.8%), and heavy drinking (7.4%).

You probably wouldn’t be surprised at how great a cheesehead fez looks after eight or nine cold ones.

I had a dream last night that I got to the exit of the Wisconsin State fairgrounds, and the coppers made me take a breathalyzer test. When I didn’t register, they sent me back inside to drink some more.

“Great,” I gurgled to myself. “I can buy some more cheese curds.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

And Now It's All This

Yesterday Jill and I had a great old time at the Wisconsin State Fair. Cheese, cheese and more cheese, followed up by a plate full of feathery cream puffs. If Sarah Palin were the governor of Wisconsin she could see cheese from her back porch.

The first time I experienced the magic of the fair was about this time in 1966, and that got me to thinking.

See, for me the fair wasn’t the only big event in August of that year. I looked it up when I got home and yesterday was the day, the exact day 43 years ago, that I irked the bejeepers out of my mother. She was in the passenger seat of the family’s brand new Malibu while I, the one with the brand new learner’s permit, held steady at the wheel. Well, not that steady, actually. Instead of listening to her instructions I was focused on the car’s radio and the news conference taking place on the north side of Chicago.

She told me to turn left off Sheridan Road somewhere around Lake Forest College. I went straight. She told me to take the next right onto Deerpath Road. I turned left against traffic. She grabbed the dashboard with her right hand and squelched the radio with her left.

That was that. We went around the block, and I muddled my way back home as she fussed and sputtered.

The cork on my mother’s temper popped because I loved the Beatles, and there they were in Chicago for the first stop on what would turn out to be their last tour. And the lads were singing the blues at the press conference that ended my driving practice for the day.

In March of that year John Lennon had made some comments to a friend and reporter for the London Evening Standard, Maureen Cleve. Asked for his views on organized religion he had replied, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink . . . we’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.” (

It took five months for the casual remark to make it into print in the states, finally showing up in a magazine, called Datebook, an unlikely forum for things theological. It didn’t take long. Public bonfires. Trash cans, labeled Place Beatle Trash Here. Beatles music banned on 35 radio stations across the country. (Norman. Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation)

And all this just as the nationwide tour was beginning.

So the four young men sat down before the press and got on with the damage control. Straight away John Lennon, at 26 the oldest of the four, came out with it. "Well, originally I was pointing out that fact in reference to England -- that we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion, at that time. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down, I was just saying it as a fact . . . I'm not saying that we're better, or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is, you know. I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong. And now it's all this."

Lennon’s conversation with his London friend took place in a country in which only 10% of the population reported regular church attendance. He couldn’t have understood that in the minds of many Americans a resurrected Christ would be living in a double-wide somewhere in Cumberland County, Tennessee.

I can’t say how many times since then I have used Lennon’s line And now it’s all this in my own life when a simple statement or action leads to unimagined consequences. Things are going smoothly and you say something without thinking and suddenly someone is crying in another room. You make a loaves and fishes choice that will hurt the fewest and help the most and end up offending everyone.

Lennon couldn’t have imagined that his innocent conversation in the midst of a back breaking tour that took the group from Liverpool to Hamburg to Tokyo to Manila would end up so badly awry.

For somewhere down in Decatur, Georgia a tortured soul began a slow swim toward what he saw as the light. "I would listen to this music,” Mark David Chapman would say in a prison interview. “And I would get angry at him, for saying that he didn't believe in God and that he didn't believe in the Beatles . . . I just wanted to scream out loud, 'Who does he think he is, saying these things about God and heaven and the Beatles?' Saying that he doesn't believe in Jesus and things like that.” (Schultz. March 4th, 1966: The Beginning of the End for John Lennon?)

And now it’s all this.

As an aside, the August 11, 2006 press conference was held at the Astor Towers Hotel at 1300 North Astor Street in Chicago. Bertrand Goldberg designed this building just prior to planning Marina City, the twin concrete towers that changed the way Chicagoans viewed their city. Now a condominium, Astor Tower is located about three blocks south of the residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Chicago.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Promise Keeper

With rain moving in and the stock market going up, I waited the other day for the well-muscled young men with the new sleeper sofa to show up with their delivery -- the third sleeper sofa lugged into our lives in the past 40 years.

The first was a big black leather affair that we got at one of the furniture warehouses that were once so popular. I miss them. I miss the forklifts beeping urgently as they scurried about the floor. I miss the showrooms where gals looking like Shelley Long held long clipboards and lured you into the galleria of mid-priced furniture. I miss the neatness of it all, the promise that came with the neatness – that we, too, could arrange the rooms in our house so that they were painted and papered perfectly, accesorized with all the right gee-gaws in just the right places.

It was a promise that was never kept.

Anyway, we wrestled that leather beauty into our first apartment by ourselves because the 25 bucks they wanted for delivery seemed a foolish extravagance. Aside from a mattress and box springs, this was the first piece of real furniture we owned. A good friend’s parents had a black leather sofa in their home in Glenview, and we must have thought that having one would like theirs would send us zooming up the scale of 70’s sophistication. We hadn’t realized that theirs was part of an extravagant mise en scene of upper bracket suburban life, including a pool table and wet bar.

Their sofa almost certainly was not a sleeper sofa. And it certainly was not purchased at a furniture warehouse.

We moved the thing once after that. It sat in front of the fireplace in our first little house until late one night or early one morning, while entertaining friends, things turned serious and she who is wiser than I began to cry about the couch. Six years after its purchase we had no pool table, no wet bar. One Christmas season we had to sell the little bar that came with the house to pay for gifts. The couch was as good as gone at that point. Black and brooding, it was the promise that is never kept.

Raising kids kept us away from sleeper sofas for a long time. A house with two kids, a neutered poodle and three bedrooms is no place for a guest to stay the night, especially if that night is to be spent on a sleeper sofa.

But then came the day when the sensible floral print couch the Carsons salesman had soberly sold us – a cushioned definition of middle class status -- had to be replaced, defiled by the piddle of an aging poodle and the rigors of seating a family for a decade and more. Wary of the upcoming college tuitions for two daughters, we happened upon the Sale of the Century. A sleeper sofa and love seat for just the price of the love seat.

Bam! We knew what we were needing and didn’t want to waste more time. We were (once again) in a sleeper sofa state of mind. But it was never really a part of the family. The girls went off to college shortly after, we had the dog put to sleep, and another attempt was made at redecorating the room. If more than two or three welcome and pampered guests felt the unyielding cross rail of that sleeper sofa in the middle of their backs, I would be surprised.

Now it is a half-dozen years later . . . we are a little older, not a whole lot wiser. The latest sleeper sofa sits in the wrong room, crammed between two other sofas that do belong there. At its most narrow point it is 30.5 inches wide. The doorway to the room in which it belongs is 29 inches wide. The couch won’t get smaller. The door won’t get wider. The apartment conspires against the delivery.

So we called Dave, and today Dave came by. Big guy – the kind of guy you see at fire stations and loading docks. He has found a way to make a living in what trendsetters call a niche market. He takes furniture apart, squeezes the parts into the room where they belong and then reassembles the parts. He works seven days a week.

“No problem,” Dave said as he ripped the staples out of the sofa’s rich backing material. “We do this all the time. It’ll be good as new. I promise.”

He and his partner wasted no time, went right to work, and within 15 minutes the special order couch, the most expensive sleeper sofa of our lives, was sawed apart and lay in large sofa chunks in the right room. Another 20 minutes, and the thing was reassembled and sat submissively where it belonged.

Big Dave, smiling as he took the check for 125 bucks, said, “See. I promised. Good as new. We do it all the time. Armoirs, dining room tables, you name it.”

In a lifetime of believing the promise that is never kept, we finally found a guy who could make the promise, cut it in pieces, and put it back together again. Good as new.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It'll Be Easier to Get Past the Adults

So I had a birthday a couple weeks ago, a sobering celebration of walking upright for six decades. Next year I’ll be 60-years-old. Sixty? It looks better spelled out than glaring at you with its round-numbered glibness.

Perhaps you saw the replay of the gentleman at the Cubs game who lent his wife the ice cream cone he had just bought. She took a couple of licks, handed it back to him and before he could take a single taste, the whole mass of soft-serve rolled out of the cone and into his lap. Wow. The look he gave her was the same one that the Duke of Medina Sidonia must have given to Phillip II after losing half the country’s fleet instead of sailing to the greatest triumph in Spanish history.

That’s kind of like what having a birthday at my age is like. You hand your day to friends and family, and absorb all the happy family stuff -- the nice wrapped presents, the dinner out, all the swell Facebook remembrances. But then, when you’re alone and the day gets handed back to you, it plops right into your lap with a cold splat.

Another ballpark story. Jill and I were at the Cubs-Astros game a week ago. Great game. The Cubbies scored 12 runs, and Soriano went three for four. It used to be that despite the parking situation everyone pretty much showed up at game time. These days there’s a continuous dribble of fans finding seats right through the third inning. It’s bothersome – all the getting up and down for the folks who have the seats in the middle of your row and politely wave their iPhones in your face as they march between you and your beer.

Anyway, a 20-something couple comes up the steps of Section 228, stops at our row and the guy points to the row behind us, empty all the way to the middle. Standing right next to me, he says, “Let’s climb over. It’ll be easier to get past the adults.” Adults, meaning us. Adults, meaning the old guys on the aisle who look like they get out of their seats about as easy as Kevin Gregg gets out of the ninth inning.

A couple days earlier, reading what is left of the Chicago Tribune, I came across a letter to Amy from someone who signed “Facebook Friend.” Here’s the gist of it . . .

Dear Amy: Not to sound rude, but at 63 “Faced Out” is too old to use Facebook . . . Younger people know that when technology is involved, not everything is personal. There is a different culture going on around here, and Baby Boomers are going to feel left out.

Not to sound rude? No, Facebook Friend, you little twit, you don’t sound rude. You sound smug and full of yourself and your electronic gizmos. No, you don’t sound rude. You sound like a visionary who sees a world in which the elders on the aisle who don’t get up quickly enough to get out of your way stay seated while you go up a row and climb over them.

You sound like me when I was your age.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The More Things Change . . .

News comes this morning of the the change in signage down on South Wacker Drive as Sears becomes Willis. It doesn't bother me all that much because now I can finally bring my own middle name out of hiding. Almost 59 years ago, I took the name of my father, whose middle name was Willis. For most of my life I have avoided questions about what the "W" in my complete signature stood for. The uptight middle name was a sandbar that partially blocked the harbor of being cool.

There really are only two references in modern culture to this odd little name.

There was Willis Reed, the 6'9" center for the New York Knicks. A physical player, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1964 he began his career with what was arguably the worst team in the league. From 1956 to 1966 the Knicks finished last nine times. In the 1963 season the team only won 22 games. Three years later the Knicks, led by my man Willis, won the Championship. In the championship game Reed, despite a torn muscle in his thigh, suited up and scored the first four points of the game. Then he sat down. The team won by 14 points.

But sharing a name with a man like that isn't enough for a 5'10" white guy who never quite got the hang of dribbling a basketball without peeking to see where it would bounce next.

The second reference comes from Diff'rent Strokes, the t.v. comedy that ran from 1978 to 1986. This sitcom starred Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson and Todd Bridges as his older brother, Willis, two African-American children from a poor Harlem neighborhood. Improbably they were adopted by a rich white widower, Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), after their mother, Drummond's maid, died. One of Coleman's signature lines was Whatcha talkin' bout . . . at the end of which anybody's name could be attached. Because Willis was his older brother, that name ended up at the end of the tag line most often.

But, here again, I am as far from Harlem as Captain Phil and the good men of the Cornelia Marie are from Wilmette.

So I'm not griping about this 110-story Chicago icon taking my middle name. It might be good for both of us. After all, things change. Sears mailed itself out of town over a decade ago, leaving only its name behind, and squatted out in Hoffman Estates on top of what used to be the Poplar Creek Music Theater, the single most difficult venue to drive out of after a concert in the history of rock and roll. Since that time how many millions of folks have looked at the tallest building in North America down there on Wacker and had the name of Sears go through their minds? Not a bad little billboard, especially when you're not paying for it.

While we're at it, let's rename Wrigley Field as well. We're nearly two generations away from Wrigley ownership -- that's nearly a quarter of a century, small potatoes when you think of how long the team has gone without a World Series victory -- but long enough to go back farther than many Cubs fans have been alive. Thay'd have to sell gobs of gum to pay for that amount of advertising.

Not to mention the fact, that even when they owned the team the Wrigley family ran it on the cheap. Remember Billy Williams, whose retired number now flies above left field, leaving for Oakland because he couldn't get a hundred grand a year? Or the 1981 team that went 38 and 65 before the likes of Doug Capilla and Randy Martz and Mike Lum went out on strike? Did you know that 63 different ballplayers put on Cubbie blue over the last fifty seasons without ever appearing in a Cub victory? To name just two, Wayne Schurr, a right-handed relief pitcher who threw in 26 games, all losses, in 1964; and Jack Warner, another right-handed reliever who pitched in parts of four seasons (1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965), appearing in 32 games without ever participating in a victory (
Meanwhile, the founder of the company, old Bill, who made a fortune upon discovering that gum sold better than baking soda, hunkered down in his 20,000 square foot pad on Lakeview, complete with ballroom, bandstand, and cedar-lined coat room.

Die-hard (how about that for a descriptor?) Cubs fans worked and waited for the light and went without the meat and cursed the bread. So while we're re-naming Willis, let's do Wrigley Field, too.

And, maybe we can also go after the big white building down on the river across from the joint the current owners of the Cubs maintain. Instead of Wrigley, call it the Ern. For Mr. Cub who never played on a championship team. Earn . . . For all of the fans over the years who have earned a winner . . . some of whom have already checked out. Urn . . . for the ashes of our unfulfilled dreams, scattered in the ivy five miles north on Clark Street.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

To market, to market

Yesterday morning I took my creaky knees for a walk down to the Green City Market, the Wednesday and Saturday produce bazaar in Lincoln Park. A light mist was falling, but it takes more than that to ruin a walk through Lincoln Park. Strolling past North Pond and the vagrant geese, across from Old Man Wrigley's mansion on Lakeview, you get a feeling that life is, on the whole, pretty darned good.

Yeah, Gio pulled an oblique muscle in batting practice and Number 12 is sulking on the bench, but trying to avoid the goose poop, while ogling the terra cotta splendor of the 20,000 square foot joint across the street is a reminder to keep an eye on the small things. Remember the words of Jeremiah . . . Give glory to the LORD your God, Before He brings darkness And before your feet stumble On the dusky mountains, And while you are hoping for light He makes it into deep darkness, And turns it into gloom.
Listen to the prophet, Alfonso.

The Green City Market on a Wednesday is filled with dogs on leashes and kids in high tech strollers with insulated cabins, cup holders, and gyro-controlled balancing systems. Also, human beings of the retired variety and 30-something moms out for their mid-morning spin through the produce.

I like everything about it. I like the folks who come there, the ones who come to sell and the ones who come to buy. I like trolling past the blueberries, raspberries and strawberries while the John Hancock looms darkly in the background. I like the single guitarist, playing Paul Simon's America while the folks a few feet away order a mid-morning treat of crepes. And I like the brightness of freshly cut flowers and the piquancy of a sample of five-year old cheddar.

I especially like looking at the names of the farms. Places like the Hoosier Mama Pie Company, the Kinnikinnick Farm, the Blue Marble Family Farm and Brunkow Cheese of Wisconsin. Such names are a reminder in the middle of this big city that we live and breathe because hard working folks get up early most every day to provide the nourishment we need.

It isn't easy work. I got to talking with the farmer at the Mick Klug stand about how rainy the summer season has been. While he bagged up my blueberries, I said that all the rain was probably good for farmers. Not so. For him it meant losing half his cherry crop. Early rain, it turns out, causes cherries to absorb moisture and swell to the bursting point. They crack open and are ruined. For me the rain meant that I rode my bike less than I would like.

I came home loaded with stuff. Blueberries, raspberries, some fresh lettuce. Four tomatoes. Some unopened lilies for the dining room table. And a bag marked Mushroom Medley. I had some of the blueberries and raspberries for breakfast this morning. They were good. Really good.

In Nature's Metropolis William Cronon wrote, "To do right by nature and people in the country, one has to do right by them in the city as well, for the two seem always to find in each other their own image . . . We can only take them together and, in making the journey between them, find a way of life that does justice to them both."

The Green City Market . . . that's one small way of trying leading a life that is based on such justice.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

To Dance Beneath the Diamond Sky with One Hand Wavin' Free

It's not because my birthday is in July that makes me like it better than any other month of the year. Up here in the Midwest, summer finally hits its stride on the Fourth and from there straight on to Labor Day it's barbecue smoke and sweat. July is the only month of the year that begins with fireworks and ends with Back to School sales -- at the start a celebration of freedom and in the end a realization for school kids that the freedom thing is like an Independence Day sparkler . . . it burns bright but it doesn't last very long.

If you look at the charts, you'll see that over the year July has danced to an awesome soundtrack. No music is as memorable as summer music, and the music of July begs to be played with the volume up and the windows rolled down. At least it used to . . . before we put the buds in our ears.

It gives me the fan-tods to think of years gone by, especially my youth. I was nearly 15-years-old in early July of 1965, for example, and that was 44 years ago. To look back 44 years at that point in my life would have been to see that Warren G. Harding was the President of the United States and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of first degree murder, history book stuff. Now it's 44 years later, and I'm wondering what happened.

In early July of 1965 Mr. Tambourine Man, recorded by The Byrds spent its first week at the top of Chicago's WLS Silver Dollar Survey. Bob Dylan, who has never had a number one hit, wrote the song, and The Byrds got hold of the demo and took the song to Number One on their first try.

When the song was recorded the band (Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke) was so green that only McGuinn played on the record. The backing track was furnished by a group of session men called The Wrecking Crew -- Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel and Leon Russell. Blaine holds a Grammy Award record, playing drums on six different Grammy Award winning songs. Knechtel played bass on a number of songs for the bass-less Doors and went on to play with Bread. Russell, of course, has played for and with just about everyone in pop music, from Gary Lewis and the Playboys to Eric Clapton. McGuinn, Crosby and Clark sang vocals over that track.

As a Chicagoan I'm proud when I listen to McGuinn's work on the 12-string Rickenbacker for a couple of reasons. McGuinn was born right here in the Windy City and attended the Latin School. In 1957 he enrolled in the Old Town School of Music on North Lincoln Avenue, where he learned the five-string banjo, lessons that paid off on "Mr. Tambourine Man," on which he used a flat pick with metal finger picks on his middle and ring fingers to get the distinctive sound. Engineer Ray Gerhardt compressed the guitar line, in order to obtain a fuller, more sustained sound, a sound that we think of now as the distinctive "jingle, jangle" sound of McGuinn and the Byrds.

Structurally, the song is different than most popular songs because it begins with the chorus. Dylan's original song had four verses, of which only the second verse is sung on The Byrds' version. You look at Dylan's original lyrics, and look at how thin the song is that ended up as a Number One record, and you wonder how the heck the song could have worked in such a condensed form. But, hey, if it's summer and the music is good, it doesn't matter much what the words are. And that's rock and roll.

But if you want words . . . here they are from the master, the final verse of Dylan's song.

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

And that's rock and roll, too.

Monday, July 6, 2009

It May be Corny, but It's Better Than Being a Snot

There are plenty of places in the city to soak up some culture -- even though to the folks "out East" the notion that Chicago has any culture at all has been a big hoo-hah for more than a century. As if only a city with broad vowels and double-parked delivery trucks can claim to be the nation's cultural casbah.

I enjoy living in this big city because of the culture that is just a bus ride away and the lack of pretension about it, which is our way of life. The Pritzker Prize Laureate of 1998, Renzo Piano, designed the new addition to Chicago's Art Institute, a world class space that makes everything around it seem even better. Two blocks to the north the Grant Park Symphony plays for free a couple times a week during the summer in the Pritzker Pavilion, a stunning explosion of stainless steel two blocks to the north of the Art Institute that 1989 Pritzker Laureate Frank Gehry designed.

A mile or so down the hard road there are three great places that green grass and sparkling waters surround -- an aquarium, a planetarium, and a museum of natural history. In a half-day you can watch sea otters dip and dive, see the solar system reveal itself, and run around Sue, the biggest Tyrannosaurus Rex ever discovered.

But on some days culture gets in the way of just plain having fun. My father didn't allow my sister and me to read comic books when we were kids, and, although he was a brilliant man, I think that was wrong. All work and no play and all that. How can you appreciate true beauty unless you have a good roll around in the mud once in awhile? How does Romeo know the difference between a snowy white dove and crows without Rosaline, the baseline?

So, when we're tired of thinking and appreciating and maintaining our roles as life long learners, Jill and I take the 151 down to Illinois and transfer to the 66 and walk the considerable length of Navy Pier until we finally plop down at the Beer Garden on the very east end.

It's too noisy to talk, especially when the salsa band with the two trombones is playing like it was yesterday. We just sit and watch the people go past, the never-ending twizzlers of people, all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities. Each person, each couple, each family -- all of them -- have stories to tell. You wonder what they are.

Yesterday a young man in his mid-teens was pushed past us in a wheel chair, his right leg bandaged tightly above the knee, a recent amputee. He looked healthy and content, his family happy and relaxed. What stories do they have to tell about the recent months? A terrifying bout with cancer, ending in celebration? A nightmarish call in the middle of the night about a son maimed in a car crash? In a few seconds the family wheeled its way into the crowd and was gone. The people kept going by, the band playing, the dancers swaying, each person a story, each story part of our story.

An afternoon at the Pier isn't sophisticated . . . there isn't much culture to be gained from it. But the beer is cold, and the stories slide along with a salsa step. And in those stories we read our lives.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Happy Fourth of July!

Last night I spent about three hours as a docent in Chicago's Millennium Park, yakking with folks who stopped by Ben Van Berkel's Burnham pavilion. It was everything American . . . folks of all ethnicities strolling about, cameras clicking away, delighted children screaming and screaming and screaming. I left before the Big Fireworks Display and took the Red Line home, which I usually don't do but the streets were blocked off and the buses weren't running and, besides, it's fun on occasion to rocket through the dark, underneath the city, thinking how great it is to be almost 60 and still alive and able to navigate a big city's transit system.

Yeah, I thought about being alive. And I thought about not being alive. For Farah Fawcett's dead, even though The Poster will never die. And Karl Malden is gone, who gave one right in the jaw to Marlon Brando down at Johnny Friendly's. Michael Jackson, too, along with the sequined glove and white socks and maybe even the notion that we can save the world if we sing a tune together. Time even took Sky Sunlight Saxson, the long ago bass player for The Seeds. Time has been pushin' just a little too hard.

You feel that on these annual holidays . . . days when you are allowed to think back over the years like old grams remembering all the Independence Days past until the year she couldn't make the potato salad for the big gathering and independence was no longer just a glorious notion, but a real part of life that she realized she was losing. And that's America, too.

So, let's celebrate the heck out of the day because the roses are there to be gathered and rough winds do shake the darling buds of May and Father MacKenzies's socks will always be holy. It's what we have. It's what we do. It's who we are.