Monday, December 29, 2008

A Short Break

I'm in Tennessee with my son, visiting my folks. Between that and the holidays, I haven't been blogging. I'm taking a short break. When I get back to Chicago, I've got some posts in my head about a couple of people who died in recent months, including the Irish diplomat and intellectual Conor Cruise O'Brien, whom I met years ago, mob gambler and casino head Lefty Rosenthal, whose life was the subject of Martin Scorsese's movie Casino and Political Science writer Samuel Huntington, whose book "Political Order In Changing Societies" was key to my master's theses (I wrote three short theses for my master's in Political Science, rather than one large one).

In the meantime, I'll note that I passed a couple of blog milestones in the last few weeks. I had my 50,000th hit on my blog-- it turned out to be from my old friend Dan-- and had my 1000th post sometime in the last couple of weeks.

See you in a few days.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Back To Where It All Began

As Christmas approaches, I feel the spirit of giving and sharing. And that includes sharing the origins of South Park.

In 1992, two University of Colorado students named Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who had met in a film class, did a animated short movie entitled Jesus vs. Frosty. It introduced several of the characters that would later make up South Park. In 1995, an executive at FOX network saw the short and asked Parker and Stone to make to make another film that he would use for an animated Christmas card to his friends. It then quickly spread over the internet. I saw it the first time when an old friend's brother showed it to me during a raucous weekend right after my first marriage exploded in my face. I recounted that adventure, where I learned that it's all fun and games until someone gets an eye put out in another post.

In August of 1997, the short was developed into a series, first on Fox and then Comedy Central. It's currently in its 12th season. Here's the original short from the animated Christmas card.

Christmastime For Bubs

A few weeks ago, one of the people I work with brought in a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. They had amazing, mostly useless things. I personally wanted the wine glass that held an entire bottle. Since it's that giving season, I thought some of you might go in with me for something for our favorite blogging gun nut enthusiast, Bubs: the Marshmallow Shooting Gun. But I do need some help; there are no fewer than three models to choose from. I've included the description with each.

The 40' Marshmallow Bazooka
This battery powered bazooka launches edible, full-size marshmallows up to 40', forever changing the rules of engagement for marshmallow gun confrontations. The integrated microprocessor automatically regulates air pressure, allowing you to launch up to five marshmallows in 60 seconds without manual pumping. Simply load a marshmallow into the chamber, wait for the LED on the reticle to illuminate, and pull the trigger to bombard your mark with confections. Requires two 9-volt batteries. Ages 6 and up. 7" H x 3 1/2" W x 25" L. (2 lbs.)

The 40 Foot Marshmallow Blaster
Only available from Hammacher Schlemmer, this pump-action, pneumatic gun shoots sweet, edible marshmallows (or a handful of miniature marshmallows) up to 40'. The easy-to-refill bolt action design ensures fast, nonstop action. Front grip is detachable for easy cleanup. Includes carrying case. Ages 12 and up. The manufacturer has confirmed that this item meets all U.S. Federal toy safety standards, including safety standards for lead. 6" H x 2 1/2" W x 15" L. (2 lbs.)

The Marshmallow Shooter
This clever pump-action device shoots sweet, edible miniature marshmallows over 30', and, unlike other marshmallow blasters, it comes with an LED sight that projects a safe beam of red light to help locate a target for accuracy. The easy-to-refill magazine holds 20 marshmallows (or foam pellets, not included) for fast, nonstop action. Barrel and magazine are top rack dishwasher safe, and the back of the box includes a target for practice. Ages 6 and up. 4" H x 17 3/4" L. (1 3/4 lbs.)

I can't decide which one we should get him; each device has it's own merits. You can't beat the 40-foot Marshmallow Bazooka for raw confectionary stopping power. Yet, sometimes you need the precision-- and the handy LED "laser sight" of the Marshmallow Shooter. Yet, there may be a situation where you need to throw up a wall of marshmallows, in which case the 40 Foot Marshmallow Blaster would be indispensible. Help me out, bloggers-- Christmas approaches!

Occasional Forgotten Video: Naked Eyes, "Always Something There To Remind Me"

"Always Something There To Remind Me" was originally one of the many Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs that Dionne Warwick covered. It was eventually covered by the British songstress Sandi Shaw, and made it's way to the synth-pop duo "Naked Eyes," which consisted of childhood friends Pete Byrne and Rob Fisher. They had a hit with it in 1983, aka "The Year of the Video." Burt Bacharach has cited Naked Eyes' version as being a favorite.

Naked Eyes just missed being a "one-hit wonder" by having one other smaller hit, "Promises, Promises." They broke up not long after their hits. Byrne did session work-- you can hear him on Stevie Wonder's hit "Part-time Lover." He continues to work in the music business. Fisher formed another duo, Climie Fisher. He died in 1999 following stomach surgery.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gingerbread House, 2008

Making the Christmas gingerbread house has become an annual tradition. This year, Mel's friend Anya joined in the fun.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

When I Win The Lottery

"When I win the lottery gonna buy all girls on my block
A color TV and a bottle of French perfume
When I win the lottery gonna donate half my money to the city
So they have to name a street or a school or a park after me
When I win the lottery

"When I Win The Lottery"- Camper Van Beethoven

In March of 1986, I was living with a couple of guys in a two-flat in Rogers Park. I'd answered an ad in the Chicago Reader looking for a roommate. The place and price were right, and with the help of my old friend Tim, moved from Beverly at the south end of Chicago to the neighborhood at Chicago's northermost point.

Unfortunately, our landlord sold the building and gave us a month's notice move out. I launched an apartment hunt and found a place I liked at Ashland and Berteau, in the North Center neighborhood. My friend Mark, who'd just graduated from our alma mater, Eastern Illinois University, and unlike me had a car, helped me move.

I quickly fell in love with the neighborhood. There were el stops within two blocks either north or south. It was a crazy grab bag of ethnicities. I remember walking over to the Mexican grocery store to buy a broom, mop, bucket and cleaning supplies. There was also a Jewel's grocery store a few blocks away, and the Clark Street bus, a 24 hour line, ran just a couple of blocks away. And of course, Wrigley Field, the Music Box Theater and the Gingerman tavern were all within a fifteen minute walk away.

But one of my favorite things in the neighborhood was the factory down the street, at Berteau and Ravenswood. Ravenwood Avenue runs across much of the north side of Chicago, starting around Diversey, up to the north border. It's filled with warehouses, light industry and, increasingly, loft conversions. The handsome building, pictured at the top of this post, is that factory. It's funny that it's better looking than a lot of the "tear-downs" going up in the neighborhood.

The Sulzer Library, also in the neighborhood, exhibits History Fair projects done by kids in local schools every year. Among this year's crop of projects was one on Chicago water towers, which, to my delight, had a model of "my" building.

I learned a couple of things from this project. One was that Chicago, because of our 1871 fire, has more water towers than any other city in the country. Another thing I learned was that the clock towers that adorn this and many of the other factories, are actually disguises for water towers.

Over the years, I've had a recurring fantasy: that somehow I'll come up with a fortune and buy that building and make it my home. I'll renovate it and move my family and friends in. Once or twice a year, I actually spring for a lottery ticket. It keeps my dream of purchasing my building alive. The place would be perfect. I'd put up a basketball court in the warehouse section, and have a room with a bar up in the tower, where the long-abandoned water tower was.

The best part, though, is that there's a place at the very top of the tower from where I could sip bourbon, survey my empire below, and have a place to park my flying monkeys when they came home to roost.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snowbound Friday Random Ten

Last night we finally got the snow they'd been they'd been threatening all day. Bet you west coast transplants don't miss that.

1. Dr. Feelgood- Aretha Franklin
2. Blue Angel- Roy Orbison
3. Star of Bethlehem- Neil Young
4. Greensboro Woman- Townes Van Zandt
5. Melting In the Sun- INXS
6. Higher Ground- Stevie Wonder
7. Greystone Chapel- Johnny Cash
8. Forever Young- Johnny Cash
9. Memories Can't Wait- The Talking Heads
10. Funk #49- The James Gang

1. I grew up listening to my dad's copy of Aretha Franklin's greatest hits. She still sounds great.
2. Roy Orbison had one of the most amazing voices ever. This song was a great showcase for it.
3. From American Stars and Bars.
4. Van Zandt was a late life discovery for me.
5. From "The Swing," an album I just about wore out the summer of 1984.
6. I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers' cover of this one too.
7. Johnny Cash' great song of redemption from his "Live At San Quentin" album.
8. Cash covering his friend Bob Dylan's song. From the Cash box set.
9. "There's a party in my mind/And I hope it never stops..."
10. The James Gang was Joe Walsh' pre-Eagles band.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Music Box

While picking my stepdaughter up from school today, I walked over and snapped a picture of the beautiful Music Box Theater on Southport Avenue.

The first time I ever went into the Music Box Theater was in 1986, when I saw the 1980 Bob Hoskins classic "The Long Good Friday." I lived just a few blocks from it, at Ashland and Berteau, and was able to walk there in about ten minutes. I made it a habit to see movies there when I could.

According to their website, the Music Box was opened in August, 1929, just a few months before the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression. It was reopened 25 years ago by its current management as an art theater. When I was a younger guy and had lots of spare time, one of the things I looked forward to was once a month when the Chicago Reader would have the monthly schedule in it. I've seen countless marvelous movies there: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, Down By Law and Casablanca. One time, when I was in line to see Akira Kurasowa's "Ran," film critic Roger Ebert was right behind me in line. When my friend Mark was still alive, he was always dragging me to see the animation festivals or some movie he was interested in. Wish he was still around to do that.

When Kim and her first husband got divorced, she and Mel lived right behind the Music Box. A couple of months ago, I took Mel and Adam to a booksigning by Chicago ghost enthusiast Ursula Bielski, and Mel told Ms. Bielski about hearing ghosts in the theater. Bielski confirmed that others had interacted with the friendly ghost of a long-gone employee of the theater.

When I got out of school in the mid eighties, the neighborhood around the Music Box, Wrigleyville (Wrigley Field is just a few blocks away), was rough. These days, that strip of Southport is filled with tony shops and restaurants. Fortunately, the Music Box has survived gentrification, and continues to show it's quirky mix of art movies and classic. Long may it run.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How Did This Pass Inspection? Oh, Yeah, We're In Chicago...

I do a lot of shopping at the Aldi's near my house. When it was just Adam and I, and I was desperately poor, the place was a life-saver; I'd spend less than half of what I'd spend at another grocery store.

I usually cut through an alley to save a few steps. I pass by the back of a building that for years was a neighborhood eyesore, but has been recently renovated, including the electrical works. In the alley, there are the fixtures for future electrical meters. Since they haven't sold any of the units in the building, they haven't installed any of the meters. So they covered the openings with cardboard.

You'll notice that the contractor took care to mark the cardboard-covered meters as "Hot." For those of you whose fathers weren't electricians or haven't done electrical work themselves (guilty as charged in both cases), "Hot" is electrician-speak for something that is electrically active. The boxes, which stand about chest-high, have juice running through them.

But hey, I'm sure it's UL-listed cardboard.

The Price of Failure

A couple of days ago, I got an email from an old friend and teaching colleague. One of our old students made the news, and not in a good way.,CST-NWS-rob14.article

Bobbie, the one on the right, if you click on the Sun-Times article I have linked above, was a student at the alternative high school that I taught at my last year of teaching a couple of years ago. I don't think she was even in any of my classes, but I knew who she was. She caused a huge amount of disruption in the school. This is remarkable because most of the young adults there had been kicked out of other schools for being disruptive (many were there as an alternative to jail time). Even among that tough crowd, she stood out.

Apparently, this last weekend, she and a friend tried to stick up a teacher and his physician wife in Chicago's popular Greektown area. Despite the fact that the teacher was handing his wallet over, Bobbie's accomplice shot him. Fortunately, the wound was minor and the teacher will be okay. Bobbie and her accomplice were caught by the police nearby.

I thought a long good while before I left teaching. I had been denied tenure at a district I'd worked four years in, and decided that I wanted to leave the profession. I'd poured my heart and guts into it, and a petty administrator who had a problem with me and any other person who didn't fear her was in charge of my future in the end. It was really dispiriting. Still, when an old friend who I'd taught with on Chicago's tough west side called me and asked me to teach at the alternative high school she worked at, I decided to do it. It would give me a year to figure out another plan.

In the end, it was just what I needed. I was reeling from the murder of one of my closest friends at the hands of a young gang member. To be helping some young adults get their lives back on track was just what the doctor ordered.

Our school was the school of last chance. The Chicago Public School system funded it, hoping to get young adults to come back and get their high school diplomas. And we did just that. I had to remind myself of that, and go back to read a post I did a year-and-a-half ago right after graduation. I had to remind myself that we did have successes, that we did help a handful of kids get their lives back on the rails.

Still, there's a little part of me that feels like I turned my back on the rest of them. Yes, I needed to change professions-- I need to make more money in a few years when my son starts college. And yes, I was burnt out. But seeing that article reminded me of how much work there is to be done.

This morning, I heard that Arne Duncan, the head of the Chicago Public Schools, is going to be the new Secretary of Education. That gave me hope. He's been aggressive and innovative in trying to fix Chicago's schools. I'm guessing that he's felt, like I did, like he's been swimming upstream, trying to accomplish this with an administration that is clearly doesn't care about the poor. It'll be nice to get someone in there who gives a shit. We need to fix our train wreck of an education system, because the price of failure-- ruined, hopeless, violent and in the end criminal lives-- is too high to bear.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Downright Cold Friday Random Ten

I just ran out to the grocery store and damn it's cold. That hardly ever happens in Chicago in December.

Right before I went to the store, there was a helicopter hovering over my house. I assumed it was related to our felonious governor, who lives just a few blocks away. It's been an exciting week in the neighborhood. A lot of conversations have included the phrase "How could he be that f*cking stupid?"

1. Hungry For You- The Police
2. There But For Fortune- Phil Ochs
3. The Village Green Preservation Society- The Kinks
4. Family, Work, Neighborhood, Peace, Love- Phil 'n the Blanks
5. She Belongs To Me- Bob Dylan
6. Daydream Believer- The Monkees
7. Bus Stop- The Hollies
8. Steppin' Out- Joe Jackson
9. Boogie Shoes- K.C. and the Sunshine Band
10. Another Man Done Gone- Johnny Cash and Anita Carter

1. Sting sings in French on this one to show us, you know, that he's a real smart guy.
2. This is Phil Ochs' best-known song-- Joan Baez had a hit with it.
3. Not a hit for the Kinks, but one of my favorite of their many quirky songs.
4. A Chicago band that were among the first to issue videos. This is was taken from vinyl.
5. Rick Nelson had a hit with his version of this ironic song.
6. I know that they were the "Prefab Four," but I still love them. My stepdaughter and I always sing along with this one when it comes on satellite radio.
7. Graham Nash has slagged his work with the Hollies, but I think they put out some marvelous pop hits.
8. Can this song be over a quarter century old? It came out in 1982. The video will be a future "Occasional Forgotten Video."
9. There's a great scene in the movie "Detroit Rock City" with this song.
10. Nice to round out my Random Ten with the Man In Black.

My Guess

I'm going to make a guess, as I lay my head down to sleep tonight: that Rod Blagojevich will resign today (December 12, 2008).

Or maybe not. A person who's got a lick of sense would do so while negotiating for a lower sentence. He doesn't appear, from the transcripts of the criminal complaint against him, to have a lick of sense.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Maybe The Statute Is Bad Luck

I went to the Chicago Sun-Times tonight to see the latest on our illustrious governor, when I saw a picture of him in front a a statue of Lincoln. I realized that I had seen it earlier today.

When I had looked up another felonious Illinois governor, Otto Kerner, on Wikipedia today for my earlier post, there was a picture of him in front of the exact same statue, which I'm pretty sure is behind the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society).

Maybe Blagojevich' successor should stay away from the statue.

Local News

Sometime this summer, I was working the patio at the restaurant I work at, when the owner quietly came over to tell me that I was waiting on the governor.

I had waited on Governor Blagojevich a few times in the past, but not since he became governor of Illinois; he served as the House Representative for the district I live in (the one that soon-to-be Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel served until recently). His office back then was down the street from the restaurant, and he came in frequently.

Back when he came in as a Congressman, it was more casual. He'd show up with a couple of cronies and have a quiet dinner. As governor, he had a bunch of Illinois State Troopers as bodyguards.

This summer, he and his wife and kids, as well as his brother and brother's wife, had dinner out on the patio. I chatted with him for a minute, reminding him that I hadn't seen him there since he was a congressman.

When he left, I was astounded at what happened; all of my other customers on the patio started trash-talking him. I'd known he had become very, very unpopular (his most recent polls show a 13% favorable rating, even lower than that of the historically-low President George W. Bush). It was widely believed that he was going to be indicted for various things.

News this morning was that he was arrested at his home, just a few blocks from mine. Apparently, he told the Chicago Tribune that if they didn't fire the head of their editorial board, which has been highly critical of him, that he'd withdraw support for the Trib to sell Wrigley Field. He was also trying, apparently, to gain financially from his position as the person who will get to fill the Senate seat that Obama is vacating.

What an idiot. He knew that they were gunning for him, yet he became even more arrogant and outrageous in his graft. It looks like he's going to join the long line of Illinois governors who went to prison:

Otto Kerner, Jr., 1961-1968
Dan Walker, 1973-1977
George Ryan, 1999-2003

He was kicking the Tribune while they were down-- they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday.

That leaves Lt. Governor Pat Quinn as acting governor. Quinn was considered one of the possible picks to fill Obama's seat. Instead, it looks like he might be making that choice.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

He Who Laughs Last...

Last month, I mentioned retired General Eric Shinseki in a post. To jog your memory, he was the four-star General who got before the Senate and told them the truth-- that to invade and hold Iraq was going to take "several hundred thousand troops." This did not sit well with uber-prick Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who threw Shinseki under the bus, and forced him to retire.

As I mentioned in the original post, while the neo-cons are taking the putative success of the "surge" (oh, and buying off various religious militias) as a sign that we have "won" in Iraq, I'd take it another way-- that Shinseki was right. It would take several hundred thousand US troops to take Iraq.

Today it was announced that President-Elect Obama nominated Gen. Shinseki to head up the Veteran's Administration. Have I mentioned lately how much I like Mr. Obama? Well, I like him even more now.

Oh, and I have two more nominations to suggest-- that Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz be Secretary Shinseki's personal boot polisher and valet, respectively.

Occasional Forgotten Video: Donald Fagen, "New Frontier"

A few weeks ago, the Onion had an article Donald Fagen Defends Steely Dan To Friends. The joke on this is that many Steely Dan fans, including myself, are always defending them-- and of course the fact that Fagen himself was a member of Steely Dan.

My Steely Dan fandom continues unabated. I also liked Fagen's solo album "Nightfly." It yielded a big hit, "I.G.Y." and a lesser hit, "New Frontier," which had one of the great videos ever. My best friend Rocket Science has cited it as his favorite-ever video. There are all kinds of cool touches, including the part where the cover of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" album comes alive in animation.

Friday, December 05, 2008

End Of the Semester Friday Random Ten

Finished my English 101 class today with an exit essay. It was a summary and response to a Chicago Tribune article on plagiarism, which was ironic; the test was mainly to make sure we hadn't merely plagiarized the rest of our essays.

1. The Pretender- Gary "U.S." Bonds
2. Canary- Liz Phair
3. Oh My Love- John Lennon
4. My Friend George- Lou Reed
5. Mainstreet- Bob Seger
6. Feed The Tree- Belly
7. Reason to Believe- Rod Stewart
8. Sun King- The Beatles
9. Doctor, Doctor- UFO
10. No Dancing- Elvis Costello

1. Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt produced "Dedication," an early-eighties comeback album for Gary "U.S." Bonds. It had one hit-- "Jole Blon--" and a bunch of other great tunes. This is a nice cover of Jackson Browne's examination of middle-class alienation.
2. From "Exile In Guyville."
3. From "Imagine."
4. Lou Reed's story of his high-strung friend George. It's on the great "New Sensations" album.
5. This little gem was on Segere's breakout album, "Night Moves."
6. One of my favorite songs from the nineties.
7. Remember when Rod Stewart didn't suck? I love Tim Hardin's original of this one.
8. From the fabulous "Abbey Road" album, which was the last album the Beatles recorded.
9. Hey, sometimes a guy's gotta get his Metal on...
10. From "My Aim Is True," one of the greatest debut albums ever.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Are You Smarter Than An Economist?

Welcome to today's edition of "Are You Smarter Than An Economist!"

Economists have recently declared that we have been in a recession for the last year.

Right off the top of my head I can think of a half dozen friends and family members who are unemployed. Headlines in the last year have featured dozens of huge corporations are either going under or laying off tens of thousands of people. Anybody out there besides me who thought there might be a recession going on in the last year?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Johnny Yen's Chicago Stories: The "Our Lady Of Angels" Fire

Today is the 50th anniversary of one of the most tragic events in Chicago history, the "Our Lady of Angels" Fire. On December 1, 1958, a swift-moving fire, that had been quietly burning inside the walls of Our Lady of Angels, a parochial school on Chicago's west side, erupted to kill 92 students and three nuns who were teachers. It was one of the most notorious-- and until a few years ago, most mysterious-- events in Chicago history.

The "Our Lady of Angels" was not the worst fire in Chicago's history-- the Iroquois Theater Fire killed more than five times as many people. It was not the worst school fire in U.S. history; a gas explosion in a school in New London, Texas in 1937 killed nearly three times as many people. Yet, unlike those fires, the Our Lady of Angels fire is still discussed. Survivors of the fire meet regularly and even have a website.

Growing up in Chicago, the fire was discussed in the neighborhoods I grew up in. There were a lot of things that adults would say that I found incredible-- that teachers led students back into the burning school, that rather than leading kids out of the school, the nuns who were teachers had kids sit and pray rather than leave the school and other things. In time, I discovered that these things were either out and out fictions or grossly distorted. But there was a good reason that there was so much mystery surrounding the fire: the Chicago archdiocese had suppressed information about the fire.

In 1996, two Chicago authors, David Cowan and John Kuenster, published a book about the fire, "To Sleep With the Angels: The Story of a Fire." Some excellent research cleared up the mysteries, exonerated some people-- and accused one.

There were a number of mysteries about the fire. How did it start? Why was it so severe?-- the school had passed a fire inspection just weeks before. Why had the death toll been so high?

It turned out that there was a "perfect storm" of events that caused it; if any one of these things hadn't happened, the fire would not have been disasterous.

The fire investigators were able to find the source of the fire quickly. It had started in a garbage can in a small room in the basement. The fire had burned up waste paper in the garbage can until it used up the oxygen in the room. The heat eventually probably cracked the basement window and the rush of new oxygen into the room caused the fire to flare, igniting a wall. The fire then travelled inside the wall, spreading silently, working its way up to the "cockloft." A cockloft is a small space between the ceiling of the top floor of a building and the roof.

The school, which was about 40 years old, had been reroofed several times. This seemingly inconsequential fact had deadly results. Normally, when a building gets a new roof, the old one is stripped off. To save money, the archdiocese had had the roofers just add each layer on. If the old layers had been stripped, the fire would have continued upward and through the roof. With its path upward blocked, the fire now turned downward-- into the classrooms of the second floor of the building.

The fire had also worked its way onto the two stairways of the second floor. A petroleum based coating on the stairs provided fuel-- and created a noxious, deadly smoke. It was this smoke that gave the teachers and students in the second floor of the building the first notice that there was a fire in the building.

In several rooms, smoke began to pour into open doors and transoms. The nuns walked into the hallway, only to be turned back by the thick smoke. They closed the doors and realized that their only escape route was through the windows of the classrooms-- a twenty foot drop onto concrete.

Within minutes, the fire began to burn through the ceiling. To add to the pandemonium, light fixtures began to explode from the heat. It was then that the nuns had to deal with panic. The classrooms were packed; it was the height of the baby boom, and many of the classrooms had 50 to 60 students. As flames and heat began to pouring into the classrooms through the ceilings, students began to panic. The fire department had been called, but the fire had been going too long. There were only minutes left. And there was one more part of the "perfect storm" of the disaster-- the courtyard to the building, which was where the firefighters needed to get to, was blocked by a locked gate.

As a teacher, after reading this book, I wondered, at times, how I would have handled this situation if I'd been faced with it-- fifty-five or sixty terrified kids, a fire pouring into the room, the escape route blocked, the only way out a twenty foot drop onto concrete. The firefighters were on their way. At this point, it was vital that the teachers keep order; when the fire department arrived, it was going to take quick and precise attention to instructions. It was absolutely vital to keep control of the situation. For one nun, the solution was to have the kids at their seats praying. In the context of the events, it made sense.

When the first firefighters arrived, within minutes of the call, another part of the perfect storm unfolded. The person who had called in the fire had given the address of the Our Lady of Angels church, not the school. Even the minute or two it took to get the trucks around the corner were vital. Fires were already getting into classrooms-- and children were jumping from windows.

The younger children on the first floor were able to escape easily; their teachers quickly led them out. With all but a couple of exceptions, the children on the upper floors, who were in fourth through eighth grades, were trapped. As the firefighters first arrived at the scene, they were faced with a horrific sight: children leaping out of second story windows, some in flames, onto concrete. Worse, the firefighters' access to the courtyard they were leaping into, the only escape route, was blocked by a locked iron gate. With the help of neighborhood men, the firefighters used a ladder as a battering ram to break down the locked gate. Still more precious seconds were lost. Even worse, firefighters "laddering" the building were horrified to discover that many of the ladders were too short to reach the windows.

Cowan and Kuenster's book had one scene that haunts me. Chicago firefighter Richard Kamin, a World War II vet, managed to get a ladder up to the windows of Room 211, an eighth grade room. As he got to the window, he saw a sight that horrified him; a burning room with dozens of kids press against the windows, screaming. He saw one girl-- Michelle Barile-- crawling over the children at the window. When she reached the window, the six-foot-two 220 pound Kamin grabbed her by the waist, pulled her through the window and dropped her on the ladder below him. He then began pulling kids through the window-- all boys, because he could grab them by the belt and pull them through the window. Each time he turned, he could see, to his horror, that the kids' shirts were turning brown from the heat. He knew from experience that the room was about to "blow over"-- to be enveloped in flames. The air in the room was literally about to explode. He grabbed another five or six children, dropping them on the ladder, hoping they'd catch hold of it. He figured a broken bone or two was better than death. Then suddenly, the room erupted. As the oven-like heat seared Kamin's face, he saw the rest of the children in the room collapse "like a bunch of burning papers." He was able to grab one last kid, who was literally on fire. There was nothing more he could do. Kamin descended the ladder with the burning kid under his arm, the flames shooting up under his firefighters coat, burning his arm. When he got to the bottom of the ladder, he handed the kid to another firefighter, who slapped the flames out with his gloved hands.

24 children died in Room 211.

Kamin went on to work many years more for the Chicago fire department until he retired.

When the firefighters got the fire under control and got into the building, they were faced with an apocalyptic scene. They entered rooms and discovered dead children stacked in piles like firewood. There were dead children sitting at their desks. In one room, one of the nuns had huddled a group of children together and tried to shield them from the fire with her body. The picture to the right, of firefighter Richard Scheidt taking the body of ten year old John Jajkowski out of the building came to symbolize the horror of the fire.

Once the fire was out, there were many questions. The first was, how had it happened? And secondly, how was the fire so bad, in a building that had just passed a fire inspection.

As mentioned, the fire was a perfect storm of bad luck. The reroofing, which had led to the roof being several inches thick; the construction of the building-- though it had a brick exterior, most of the inside was made of wood and plaster. It was extremely flammable. Through quirk of design, the fire had ample fuel and time to burn undetected. It was grandfathered from a simple requirement that would have prevented the disaster: fire sprinklers. One of the consequences of the fire were laws passed in Chicago and municipalities across the country requiring sprinklers in every school, even old ones.

But the question remained: how did the fire start?

In 1961, there was a series of arson fires in the town of Cicero, which is just west of Chicago. A boy was caught setting a fire and when questioned the Cicero police tied him with the other fires. He'd had a history of setting fires-- he was, they ascertained, a pyromaniac. The student was an eighth-grader at Cicero Public Elementary School. Cicero police officer Ron Richards began investigating and discovered that the boy had been a student at the Our Lady of Angels school in 1958.

In the meantime, there were several more arson fires near the boy's home; one of which had fatalities. The police brought him in for questioning again. He admitted setting several of the Cicero fires. Finally, he admitted-- he had set the fire in the trash can that had been the cause of the Our Lady of Angels tragedy. He drew a map of the room and pinpointed the exact location that the fire had started, something that was not public knowledge.

Since he was a juvenile, his name was not released to the public. There was a hearing in family court under Judge Alfred Cilella. The boy recanted his admission. Cillela found the boy not guilty, but years later admitted to Cowan and Kuenster that he had known the boy was guilty. He knew that one of the families of the dead children would probably have murdered him if he had found him guilty.

According to Cowan and Kuenster, the boy eventually set another fire, for which he was sent to reform school. He ended up in the military, serving in Vietnam, and moved to California. According to various sources, he died a few years ago, still denying he'd set the fire to the end.

Since the publication of Cowan and Kuenster's book, survivors of the fire have begun talking and meeting. The fire not only took lives, it destroyed a community. In Chicago in the old days, neighborhoods were called by the name of the neighborhood Catholic church-- you told people you lived in "St. Ben's" (St. Benedict's), "Rita" or "Our Lady of Angels." With the death toll so high, the loss so profound, families began moving out of the neighborhood; there was too much pain associated with it. Urban blight set into the neighborhood as the old families moved out. Today, it is a gang-ridden high-crime ghetto.

When I got my teaching certification in 1998, I took a job at a Chicago Public School in a rough neighborhood on Chicago's west side. I discovered that I was driving right by the old church, which still stands (a new school was built; the archdiocese closed it in 1999 and today the rebuilt building houses a charter school). I also frequently passed the Illinois National Guard Armory that a mass funeral was held for many of the fire's victims.

In 2001, I was working as a substitute teacher in Evanston, the district my then-wife Cynthia worked in. I was hoping to get a full-time job there, but with the economic down-turn after 9/11, the district, like most districts, was cutting positions, not adding to them. I was getting frustrated. I realized I was suffering from depression. With the encouragement of my wife, I began seeing a counselor, Tom W., who I had worked with some years before.

One day, I got a call from sub center; Mr. W., a teacher I'd subbed for before had requested me as a sub. His mother had passed away, and he was going to be away for several days. He wanted someone he had confidence in to be there.

Since one of the issues I was dealing with was doubt in my professional abilities due to my failure to get a full-time teaching position, this was one of the nicest things I could have heard.

When I got to the school, I discovered that a lot of the staff was out for the funeral of Mr. W's mother; it was a particularly close-knit school. I was also informed that there was going to be a fire drill that day.

As the day went on, and I went through the paces with the kids, I went over fire drill instructions with them. I began discussing the importance of listening carefully for directions, citing the Our Lady of Angels fire, where minutes and then seconds counted. One of the kids mentioned that Mr. W. had a brother who survived a famous school fire in Chicago. Then it hit me-- Mr. W. and my counselor Tom W. had the same last name, a name that wasn't a common one.

As teachers returned from the funeral of Mr W., a couple of them who knew me stopped and told me that when they told Mr. W. that Mr. Yen had been able to sub for him, he expressed relief. Something odd, they told me, had happened; Mr. W's brother asked "Mr. Yen? Johnny Yen?" Yes, they had told them. Did he know him? Mr. W.'s brother had replied yes, he did. When they asked him how he knew me, he told them politely that he was not at liberty to discuss it. But I knew then: Mr. W's brother was my counselor Tom. And Tom, I realized, had survived the Our Lady of Angels fire.

When I got home, I left a message for Tom; I realized that he might have to reschedule our next appointment, which was supposed to be in a couple of days (he did).

When we had our next meeting, it was me who had the questions. It fascinated me; here I was, the one suffering from clinical depression, some of it brought on by things that happened in my past, and the guy helping me deal with it had survived one of the most notorious tragedies in Chicago history.

Tom, it turns out, was a first-grader that day. Since the lower grades were all on the first floor, there were no fatalities or injuries among them. When the alarm sounded, the kids were brought out. The teachers quickly saw that a horrific human tragedy was unfolding. They did not want the kids witnessing it. They were told to walk home-- and not to look back.

Did he look back, I asked?

Yes. It looked like the whole world was on fire.

In the course of discussing it, and discussing my situation, we realized that rehashing old hurts was not necessarily the best way to deal with them. Sometimes, it's best to just leave things behind. Around that same time, I made peace with my father, and peace with myself.

A couple of months later, Cynthia and I separated, and eventually divorced.

A few months after that, I got a call from an old friend; she got me an interview in the school district in Cicero, Illinois where she worked (and still works) and I got a job as a sixth grade teacher.

My first year was in a brand-new building that had been built to replace an older building. However, enrollment began rising as newer younger families, many of them latino, moved into the town, and the district decided to keep the old building, right next door, open. They called the new building Cicero West and the old one Cicero East.

At the end of my first year there, they announced that there was going to be a restructuring of the district. They were opening an enormous new junior high school, and all of the seventh and eighth graders in the district would be going there. Furthermore, they were dividing up the buildings-- Kindergarten through third grade would be in the newer Cicero West building and fourth through sixth would be in the old building, Cicero East. I moved my classroom to the building next door.

In the meantime, I realized that some of the street names around the school were ringing a bell. I dug up my copy of "To Sleep With the Angels." I discovered why the addresses were so familiar; they were all around the school I worked at. And then it hit me. I asked an administrator what "Cicero East" was called before there was a "Cicero West." It was, he told me, called Cicero Public Elementary School. I realized, with a chill, that I was working at the school that the kid who set the Our Lady of Angels fire was attending when the police realized he was the perpetrator.

Years ago, a woman who survived the fire as a kid, wrote a book about her experiences entitled "The Fire That Will Not Die." The fire remains, in Chicago lore, giant. Something about the fire, which occurred two and a half years before I was born, haunts me. I've got the strangest feeling that there is still one more weird connection to the fire that will manifest itself in my life. It remains to me, and many more Chicagoans, the fire that will not die.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Tagged By Samurai Frog

The irascable Samurai Frog tagged me with the "Meaningless Meme."

1. Five names you go by:

a. Brian (my real first name)
b. Dad (with a Chicago accent, by my son)
c. Honey (my wife Kim)
d. Spike (long story)
e. Johnny Yen, of course.

2. Three things you are wearing right now:

a. bifocals
b. my "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" pajama pants-- "I fart in your general direction!"
c. an Illinois Rail Museum t-shirt, with a picture of the Nebraska Zephyr on it.

3. Two things you want very badly at the moment:

a. to be done with school
b. for January 20, 2009 to be here.

4. Three people who will probably fill this out:

a. Skyler's Dad
b. Dr. Monkerstein
c. Rocket Scientist

5. Two things you did last night:

a. Played a few games of Yahtzee with my son.
b. Watched "The Big Lebowski" with my son-- his first time seeing it.

"This isn't Vietnam, this is bowling; we have rules!"

"Shut the fuck up, Donny!"

"We are nihlists! We beleef in nutthink!"

"We'll cut off your JOHNSON, Lebowski!"

Donny: "Are these guys Nazis, Walter?"
Walter: "No, Donny, they're nihilists; there's nothing to worry about."

6. Two things you ate today:

a. Greek potato salad
b. Broccoli and cheese casserole

I eat dinner food for breakfast. And leftovers.

7. Two people you last talked to on the phone:

a. my son
b. my wife

8. Two things you are going to do tomorrow:

a. Hang out with my son
b. Work

9. Two longest car rides:

a. Salt Lake City to Chicago, straight through (me and two other guys driving in shifts)
b. Chicago back to Salt Lake City, straight through (me and two other guys driving in shifts)

I lived in Salt Lake City briefly, 1980/81. I caught a ride to Chicago to see my family with two other guys.

10. Two of your favorite beverages:

a. Iced tea unsweetened with extra lemon,
b. Orange juice mixed with mineral water-- my own version of Orangina

Friday, November 28, 2008

Post-Trytophan Friday Random Ten

I got up this morning still full from Thanksgiving dinner (actually, a late lunch) the day before. I put on my running shoes and sweats, had a good run, and then had some Turkey Day leftovers for breakfast. Hope everybody had a good holiday.

1. Choo Choo Ch Boogie- Asleep At the Wheel
2. Dreams Last So Long- Jewel
3. Love Hurts- Pat Boone
4. Like A Rolling Stone- Bob Dylan
5. By the Time I Get to Phoenix- Glen Campbell
6. Anarchy In the UK- The Sex Pistols
7. It's a Shame About Ray- The Lemonheads
8. My Baby's Lovin' Arms- Robert Mitchum
9. The Internationale- Billy Bragg
10. Time Changes Everything- Johnny Cash

1. From Asleep At the Wheel's fabulous "Served Live" album.
2. Okay, there's at least one woman from Alaska I do like-- Jewel.
3. Yes, that "Loves Hurts." And yes, that Pat Boone. From "In a Metal Mood," a fun album he did in the 1990's of metal covers, including Crazy Train and Enter Sandman. It drew the ire of Christian fundamentalists (he a big-time Christian himself), which made me like it even more.
4. I never, ever get tired of hearing this song.
5. One of many great Jimmy Webb songs that Glen Campbell covered.
6. A couple of weeks ago, when Adam and I were seeing Blue Man Group, this song came on, and it was funny seeing the light go off when he recognized the song.
7. The Lemonheads did a great uptempo cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs. Robinson.
8. From actor Robert Mitchum's calypso album. No, that's not a joke.
9. Billy Bragg's nice rewrite of "The Internationale."
10. The Brains said "Money Changes Everything." Johnny Cash says it's time. I say they're both right.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"The Turkeys Are Hitting the Ground Like Sacks of Wet Cement!"

One of the funniest episodes ever in television history was the "Turkeys Away" episode of WKRP in Cinncinatti. For anyone who might not have ever seen or heard of this episode, the station manager of WKRP dreams up a publicity stunt in which live turkeys will be dropped on a shopping mall. However, there is one key thing the station manager does not know about domesticated turkeys.

"As god as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

Thanksgiving 2008

We're going to spend Thanksgiving with our good friends Wendy and Guido and their kids. My son's mother gets him on Thanksgiving, so we'll see him tomorrow.

I've got plenty to be thankful for this year. First off, for the continued good health and happiness of my family. I never, ever take that for granted, particularly after my father survived major cancer surgery a couple of years ago.

I'm thankful that we just elected a really smart, able guy for President.

I'm thankful that I have a good marriage to a wonderful woman.

I'm thankful that there was such a backlash to Proposition 8; maybe we will eventually have full civil rights in this country.

I'm thankful that Kim and I are both employed. People close to us have not been so lucky. Take a moment today and send out some good wishes to them for a return to employment.

I'm thankful that my plan to change careers has continued without any major bumps.

I'm thankful that the police brought the guy who murdered my friend Mark two and a half years ago was brought to justice last December. He's in jail, awaiting trial. It's expected that he'll be convicted.

I'm thankful, too, for the many excellent bloggers I've found in the last couple of years!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Having What It Takes

A few years ago, at my restaurant job (I was still also working as a teacher then), I got a dollar bill that had a URL stamped on it. the URL "" was stamped on it. I was curious about the bill, so I switched it with one I had in my pocket and took it home.

I checked the website and discovered that it was a bill tracking site. You could register (for free) and enter the bill and when someone else who used the website entered it, it would report back to you when and where it was entered. It was way cool. About half the bills I've encountered and entered have been entered again. A couple have been re-entered three more times; one of those bills has traveled up to Canada and out to California.

Each of the bills I've entered since that first one-- 27, according to the site-- have gone from place to place, people, businesses, vending machines, etc. Only a tiny fraction of the people who encounter the bills actually bother to enter them, but certainly each of the bills are parts of dozens of transactions after whatever transaction brought them to my hands.

Enter John Maynard Keynes.

Do yourself a favor sometime: go to the library or go on and get yourself a copy of economist Robert Lekachman's book "The Age of Keynes." Even if you, unlike me, don't find economics fascinating (I minored in it, along with history, in my undergraduate), it's a readable book. Keynes was a fascinating guy.

His academic career was meteoric; he went to Eton Prep and then Cambridge. In his early life, he was primarily romantically involved with men, notably the artist Duncan Grant, with whom he remained lifelong friends. In 1918, he met the famed Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, whom he married, apparently happily, in 1925. He invested successfully-- he lost a fortune at the onset of the Great Depression, and quickly regained it-- and had an impressive art collection.

His first entry into the history books was when he worked as Britain's financial advisor at the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, the treaty that ended World War I. The Allies wanted to impose harshly punitive reparations against Germany. Keynes argued against this, pointing out that long-term economic and political stability would be gained only by assuring that former enemies were able to be solvent and economically integrated with the rest of Europe. The Allies pursued reparations, and Keynes quit the commission in protest.

Of course, Keynes was right. The Allies forced ludicrously high reparations on Germany. In order to try to pay the reparations, Germany started merely printing money. This resulted in a new phenomenon: hyperinflation. German money quickly lost its value, with inflation rates in the hundreds and thousands of percent. The German government started printing notes with huge values, as the money lost its value. There's a story I've heard, that is probably apocryphal, about someone bringing a laundry basket of money to buy some groceries. The person left the basket for a moment and when they returned, the basket was gone; the thief had left the money.

Whether the story is true or not, what is known is that the reparations were a disaster. There was no money to rebuild a war-battered Germany, and unemployment sky-rocketed. There was economic desperation in Germany. This desperation was a large part of what paved the way for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Back to Keynes. He weathered the Great Depression and in 1936 published what is generally considered to be not only his most important book, but one of the most important books on economics ever published: General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. He examined the concept of "aggregate demand:" the idea that the total income of a society is what is spent and invested. He examined a paradox, one that the Great Depression had made painfully clear: when there was an economic contraction, there was a ripple effect. Like that dollar I registered on, each dollar spent or invested is spent or invested again repeatedly, each time adding another dollar to the Gross Domestic Product, the modern measure of economic health. If there is an economic downturn, each of the dollars not spent sends a ripple as well-- there is a "multiplier" either positive or negative.

The problem, then, with a severe economic downturn, is that in order to turn it around, you have to spend more money, even if you have to borrow it to spend it. This ran contrary to the wisdom of the time that said that you had to reduce government spending during an economic downturn. In fact, to the contrary, reduction of government spending during an economic downturn could have the perverse effect of worsening the recession or depression. One means of this economic "pump priming" was through government projects.

As World War II started, Keynes that in order to avoid inflation, the War should be paid for through higher taxes, rather than deficit spending.

As the Allied victory became more assured, Keynes became part of the team shaping the post-war world. He was part of the Bretton Woods meetings that formed a formal international monetary system.

Unfortunately, Keynes would not see much of the post-War world that he helped create; he died of a heart attack. His ideas are still in use today. The United States, through the Federal Reserve system, has, for the most part, avoided the extremes of depression and hyperinflation by adjusting interest rates and the money supply.

Through a combination of factors-- the massive export of jobs, massive export of money for imports (primarily petroleum), a hugely expensive war and a lack of effective controls on banking and investment, we've got the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression.

So what do I think about the future, near and distant?

Believe it or not, I feel pretty good. I've been impressed with the people that Senator Obama is surrounding himself with. Some people have asked the question "How can we get change, when he's surrounding himself with insiders?" Let me mention one name: Jimmy Carter.

Jimmy Carter was elected in the wave of disaffection with government caused by the Vietnam War and Watergate. During his campaign, he was openly hostile to people in Washington. When he got to Washington, unsurprisingly, even people within his own party, like House Speaker Tip O'Neill, were uncooperative. As the United States faced new challenges, such as the Energy Crisis and the Iran Hostage Crisis, he had trouble getting things done.

While I would argue that Carter was a better president than he is generally given credit for (his stand on Human Rights was particularly impressive), he has gone down in history as a pretty ineffective president. It doesn't matter how good your intentions are if you can't get things done.

One of the things that most rankled me during the campaign was that Barack Obama was inexperienced. They couldn't be more wrong. Obama spent seven years in the Illinois State Senate, from 1997 to 2004. He represented a complex district; it encompassed Hyde Park, an affluent, racially mixed neighborhood that had an elite school, the University of Chicago, and Chicago Lawn, a very poor African-American neighborhood. He had to represent this district, with its complicated electorate in an Illinois State legislature filled with legislators representing people from downstate districts that were hostile to Chicago. And you know what? He got things done. He was widely considered an outstanding legislator.

Mr. Obama is a rarity-- a combination of pragmatism and idealism. He's smart, open to ideas and knows how to get things done. He seems to realize where we've gone off the rails and has some pretty good ideas as to how to get back on track. And he's surrounded himself with people who seem to know how to get things done. And he seems to know how to combine both old ideas and new.

So far I'm liking what I'm hearing and seeing. For instance, he understands that a sustainable energy policy kills several birds with one stone: it increases the number of jobs here in this country, it decreases the hemorrhage of money out of the country due to oil exports and decreases global warming. He seems to grasp that people need jobs with a living wage, reasonable taxes, a government more responsive to their needs and maybe a few other things like a better rail system, schools they can count on to actually educate their kids, and a sane foreign policy. And he appears to understand that in order to get these things done, good intentions are not enough; you need to surround yourself with people who know how to get these things done.

I think that Mr. Obama has his work cut out for him. But my guess is that he's a guy who could discuss Keynes at length. The smart money is on him.

We Were All Wrong About Joe

I put a poll on my blog a couple of weeks ago. I asked the question "How will Joe the Plumber make the news the next time?" Most of the responses were that he'd get a DUI, or show up in a "Where Are They Now?" article in a year. We were all wrong. Joe's got himself a book deal.

According to an article last week in the New York Times, Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, aka "Joe the Plumber," has signed a deal with PearlGate Publishing, a small Austin, Texas publisher, entitled "Joe the Plumber: Fighting for the American Dream." I'm sure it'll be riveting. Joe, who lied about buying the plumbing company and, well, wasn't actually a licensed plumber, seems to be among the "Reality-challenged," which makes him the perfect poster-boy for the Republican Party."

In the article, he says that he could have gotten a deal with a bigger publishing company, but "they don't need the help. They are already rich." Yeah, and when he was chosen last for sports teams, it's because they save the best for last.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Dad Tag

My old friend Tim tagged me and fellow dad Bubs with a new meme-- the "Dad's Night" tag. The premise is that the wife is out that night and it's just you and the kids hanging out. What movies would you watch with them?

I'd let the kids pick the movies out, but I can probably guess which ones they'd pick. My son would choose either The Blues Brothers or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. My stepdaughter likes scary movies. She'd probably opt to rewatch her favorite, The Sixth Sense. She might switch gears, though, and choose Fiddler On the Roof, a movie I bought her a while back, but we haven't had a chance to watch it yet.

One other thing that my cheese-loving kids and I will actually probably watch this Friday is from the History Channel. Their "Modern Marvels" series had a show about how cheese is made. You can buy these episodes for just a couple of bucks on Itunes.

I tag dads Skyler's Dad and Deadspot.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Sequel That Might Be Great

Movie history is filled with examples of sequels that sucked. In fact, there have been so many that the ones that were as good as the original are celebrated-- The Godfather II and Aliens come to mind.

Kim sent me a link to a Vanity Fare article in which Paul Giamatti discusses his plans to film a sequel to the 2002 cult classic Bubba Ho-tep.

A couple of other bloggers have mentioned a love of the movie, specifically Vikki and Bubs. For those of you who aren't familiar with Bubba Ho-tep, I'll clue you in. Bruce Campbell portrays an elderly Elvis, who is living in an assisted care facility. It turns out that he switched identities with an Elvis impersonator, er, I mean, an "Elvis tribute artist" and is still alive. He befriends another resident of the home, President John F. Kennedy-- yes, that President John F. Kennedy-- who is played by the late Ossie Davis and has a perfectly good explanation as to why he's now black. I'll let you see the movie and find out.

It turns out that a cowboy-hat wearing mummy is stalking the elderly residents of the nursing home and stealing their souls. It's up to Elvis and President Kennedy to stop the soul-sucking mummy.

In Giamatti's proposed sequel, actually a prequel, Col. Tom Parker, played by Giamatti, signs Elvis up to do one more movie. Somehow, hot female vampires get involved in it all. And it takes place in New Orleans. And I put it to you-- what more can one ask of a movie? You've got Elvis, Paul Giamatti, New Orleans and hot female vampires. Sounds like a winner to me!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The "Life Is Full of Surprises" Friday Random Ten

Last week, I walked into my English 101 class to discover that the teacher had quit. Fortunately, the they were able to get another teacher to fill in for the rest of the semester. And of course-- Lulu, you'll appreciate this-- we had met before when we were both taking Teaching Certification courses at Northeastern Illinois University in the mid-nineties.

One of the big concerns my classmates and I have had was that there was a huge amount of work that we hadn't gotten back. The original teacher kept telling us that she'd graded the work, but kept forgetting to bring it with her. Finally, the assistant chairperson of the English department drove out to the teacher's house and got the papers-- a four hour round trip-- and gave them to the new teacher, who discovered, surprise, surprise, that NONE of the work was graded. So now there's a mad scramble to figure out how to assess and grade us. I'm all right-- I had an A at midterm, and should do well with the portfolio we turn in at the end of the class. Others are not so lucky; the ungraded work, which will go ungraded (there's not enough time to grade it at this point) might have raised their grades. The college has taken some drastic steps, even offering to let people retake the class at no charge.

I had one more "Johnny Yen" moment, as Lulu calls them, today. I had offered to help Jack, one of the younger guys in my class who was struggling. When we exchanged email addresses, I noticed that his middle name, which was part of his email address, was Merlo-- the same name as an early Chicago mobster, Al Capone's predecessor. Merlo's son took a more legal route and became an alderman (a library in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood is named after him). One of my and Kim's good friends dated the alderman Merlo's daughter years ago. This was, it turned out, Jack's mother.

1. Walk Away- The James Gang
2. I Am, I Said- Neil Diamond
3. Charlotte Street- Lloyd Cole and the Commotions
4. Rock and Roll Music- Chuck Berry
5. Blister In the Sun- The Violent Femmes
6. Hold Back the Tears- Neil Young
7. A Legal Matter- The Who
8. Funky Monks- The Red Hot Chili Peppers
9. Night Fever- The Bee Gees
10. Pipeline- The Chantays

1. Future Eagle Joe Walsh was in this band. The song has one of the great opening riffs ever in a rock song.
2. My favorite Neil Diamond song. The grungecore band Killdozer did a great version of this as well.
3. This was the first Lloyd Cole and the Commotions song I ever heard. It's still one of my favorites.
4. I saw Chuck Berry perform in Grant Park in downtown Chicago back in the mid ninties. I left the show early, and discovered the next day that minutes after I left, Keith Richards joined Chuck onstage.
5. This song was a staple at college in the mid '80's.
6. From "American Stars 'n Bars," an underappreciated Neil Young album from the late seventies.
7. From the Who's first album.
8. From "Bloodsugarsexmagic," one of my favorite albums of the nineties.
9. I hated the "Saturday Night Fever" music back in the seventies, but it's grown on me over the years.
10. A surf music instrumental classic.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Prediction

I just checked the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star Tribune for news about the Franken/Coleman Senate race recount. I'm going to make a prediction: Franken is going to win it.

With 18% of the vote in, Coleman's lead has slipped from a razor-thin 215 to 174. I did the math, and if that trend continues, Franken should win by about a dozen votes. Keep your fingers crossed. And the next time some idiot says "Oh, I don't bother voting-- one vote doesn't matter," remind them of this Senate race and Florida in 2000.

A Change In Tack

Sorry to be away from blogging for a few days. I had a big decision to make. After a lot of discussion with my wife and with friends, I've decided to change my education goal. Instead of working toward a Pharmacy degree, I've shifted to doing the coursework toward an RN in nursing.

There are a lot of good reasons for the change. The primary one is time-- it'll take about a third the time to get a nursing degree than it would have taken me to get a Pharmacy degree. I can actually finish this degree before my son starts college. I've done almost all of the prerequisites already-- the Pharmacy prerequisites mostly overlapped the nursing prereqs. I need to take two Anatomy classes; I signed up for the first one this week. I'll take it next semester.

Kim's been very suportive of the decision, although I think she just wants to see me in scrubs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Proposition Hate

On Friday night, I took my son to see Blue Man Group. He (and I) enjoyed it immensely.

The Briar Street Theater, where Blue Man plays in Chicago, is in the heart of "Boys Town," the neighborhood where many of Chicago's gay men and women live and where there are plenty of gay bars and other gay-friendly institutions. As we walked to the theater, two people stopped us and handed us a pamphlet announcing the demonstration the next day in downtown Chicago against California's Proposition 8, or "Proposition Hate" as it's been aptly dubbed.

We didn't go, but we were glad to see news of a great turnout here and in all of the other cities. We have close friends and relatives who are gay or lesbian. Last night, I was talking about it all to co-worker Phil. He is, like me, straight and a parent. This is, he pointed out, the great civil rights issue of our time. We both puzzled over the opposition that some straight people have to affirming the basic civil right of marriage to same-sex couples. He also mentioned Vikki's recent post about how the owner of "El Coyote," a popular Los Angeles eatery, was begging gay folks not to boycott her restaurant. "Teh gays" are a big part of the clientele of the restaurant he and I work at, and almost any other. I think support for "Proposition Hate" is going to bite a lot of people in the ass.

A lot of the opposition to gay rights is religious-based. This hasn't done much to blunt my general contempt for most organized religion (there are many churches that do teach love and tolerance, to give credit where credit is due). It made me think of this scene in "The West Wing" in which President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, punks a character who is a thinly-veiled Dr. Laura by suggesting that he take every word of the Old Testament literally.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Running Into Studs Terkel

A few bloggers have commented on the passing of Chicago treasure Studs Terkel. A couple, including Bubs, had a nice story of he and Mizbubs meeting him personally.

As my friend Lulu has pointed out, I apparently have managed to make the acquaintance of most of Chicago, and a good portion of the rest of the world. A notable instance of this was when she was like the third person reading my blog after she and I had lost touch for a decade.

In any event, I did, of course, have no fewer than three run-ins-- one almost literally-- with Studs Terkel in my life.

The first was at Minnie's, a restaurant I worked at in the late eighties. It was located down near Depaul University and was a hugely popular place. I'd work Saturday and Sunday breakfast shifts and then a few weekday lunch shifts and was rolling in the clover. College friends asked why I wasn't working a "real job" that had any relation to my two college degrees (Bachelor's and Master's in Political Science), and then I'd point out that I didn't live with my parents like they did.

We had a number of celebrities in there. TV newsguy Bill Kurtis, reporter Pam Zekman (longtime Chicagoans will remember that she was the reporter who got the Sun-Times to open the tavern "The Mirage" and then reported about the long line of Chicago city inspectors who approached her and her assistants with hands out for bribes), Chicago Bear Tom Thayer, and actor John Cusack were among the folks I either waited on or saw in there. When I started watching "The X-Files," I realized that Gillian Anderson, the actress who portrayed Agent Scully, was among a group of acting students that came in for lunch occasionally. I didn't like her; she was snotty and tipped poorly.

One day there was a buzz in the small restaurant. I looked over to see what was going on and saw what it was about. Studs Terkel was in the restaurant. I didn't wait on him, but one thing did really strike me-- he obviously didn't care about how he dressed. He was wearing a combination of strips and plaids. Even I know better than that.

Years later, I was involved in a group dedicated to commemorating members of the Lincoln Brigade, American volunteers who went to Spain to fight fascism during the Spanish Civil War. We sponsored an exhibit of posters from the Spanish Civil War when it came to Chicago. The Chicago Public Library co-sponsored it-- we had the exhibit at their main branch, the Harold Washington Library, in downtown Chicago. Studs Terkel agreed to speak at the opening of the exhibit. I was asked to emcee and to spend the day hanging out with Studs and his wife. It was way-cool. I just had to keep my mouth shut about one secret.

My old friend Dan ran a "Dead Pool." You pick out ten celebrities, and give them point values. I had Studs Terkel on my list that year.

I can't remember if my old friend Deadspot was a particpant that year in the pool (he is now), but he and his son were in the audience, and would probably have managed to notice if I had "accidentally" bumped Studs off of the ten foot stage while I was introducing him. Well, them and the rest of Chicago.

About a year later, I was driving my car, a huge Chevy station wagon that I'd gotten when my grandmother died, down Sheridan Road on the North side of Chicago. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two people running across Sheridan Road. I came to the realization that they'd run right in front of my car, which was moving at the speed limit, about 40 miles per hour. Even worse, I realized that I knew them; it was Studs and Mrs. Terkel, running to catch a cab that was on the other side of the street.

I poured ever ounce of strength I had to both push down on the brake and pull back on the steering wheel. I think I left clawmarks in the steering wheel, but I managed to stop the mammoth car in time. Studs and his wife got into their cab oblivious to the fact that they'd almost been run over by the "nice young man" they'd spent the day with at the Washington Library a year or two before.

Later, I called Dan and asked a theoretical: they were on my Dead Pool list; if I hadn't been able to stop the car in time, would I have gotten the points?

Dan pointed out the "no-bumping-off" clause in the Dead Pool rules-- a contestant can't be involved in the death in any way, shape or form, or the points are invalid. Otherwise, everybody in the pool would just go out and whack their whole list. I protested; it would have been accidental. And on top of that, it was the least he could have done-- if I'd have run over Chicago's most beloved figure, I'd have to leave my hometown. Dan was unrelenting-- he told me that I wouldn't have gotten the ponts. Bastard.

In any event, I fortunately missed Studs and he lived to the ripe old age of 96.

I must have a thing about nearly running over important Chicago folks. About a year and a half ago, Illinois' governor, who lives just a few blocks from me and is an avid runner, ran in front of my old Blazer. I was able to stop in time. But he is one of the most unpopular governors in Illinois history-- his approval rating is well below that of even George W. Bush, 13%. If I'd have accidentally run him over, I may have been a hero around here.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Tag From Bubs: The Alphabet Movie Meme

Bubs tagged me with the "Alphabet Movie Meme." I love movies and I love a meme, so here goes:

Aliens- I liked Alien, but loved Aliens. It was one of the best movie-going experiences I've ever had. The movie worked on every level-- great story, great characters, great special effects, great script, etc., etc.

Bullitt- Combine a great cast-- Steve McQueen, Richard Vaughn, Simon Oakland, Norman Fell, George Stanford Brown, Don Gordon, Jaqueline Bissett-- with a great story, a great script, a great locale (the Bay area), one of the all-time great chase scenes, and you get an unforgettable movie that bears repeated viewing.

Casino- I know, everybody thought this was "Son of Goodfellas," but I liked Casino way better. Part of it is that I find Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the mob gambling ace who the main character Ace Rothstein, portrayed by Robert Deniro, fascinating.

A couple of weeks ago, TBS showed "Casino" after a baseball playoff game ended; we had it on at work. It generated a discussion about the merits of "Casino." I came home and checked the New York Times and discovered that Lefty Rosenthal had died that day.

The Dead Zone- Who's creepier-- Stephen King, David Cronenberg or Christopher Walken? Get them all together and you get a movie that is visually arresting and well done.

Excalibur- John Boorman's movies are visually fascinating. This movie is his take on the Arthur legend. Helen Mirren has rarely looked better. Honorable Mention: El Diablo. Okay, technically it's a "D" movie; "el" is Spanish for "the." Robert Beltran, Lou Gossett, Anthony Edwards and a whole bunch of other great actors deconstruct the Western, and are pretty damned funny to boot.

Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas- A book I was certain would not translate well to the screen. Leave it to former Monty Python guy (the lone American in the bunch, BTW) to pull it off. Great performances all around.

Galaxy Quest- This movie is probably only funny if you are a Star Trek fan (guilty as charged!) or know one. Lots of in jokes for Trekkies and Trekkers.

Happy, Texas- Part "opposite buddy" movie, part romantic comedy, all fun. Two escaped convicts masquerade as a gay couple in order to hide out. Hilarity and love-- both gay and straight-- ensue. William Macy is great as a "big-dick" Texas sheriff.

I’m Not There- Kim got this movie for my birthday. As a lifelong Dylan fan, I have to say that this movie captured him in a way I didn't think anyone could explain him.

Juggernaut- People forget what a damned fine actor Richard Harris could be. This movie is a case in point. In this largely-forgotten 1974 movie, which was directed by Richard Lester (A Hard Day's Night, Superman II), Harris plays a bomb defusing expert, a World War II vet with a ghost in his past, who is sent to defuse a bunch of bombs set on an aging ocean liner. Great script, great performances-- Anthony Hopkins, Omar Sharif, Ian Holm-- and a great story.

King of the Corner- An alternately funny and heartbreaking movie that didn't get a lot of exposure. I love Peter Riegert (Boon from "Animal House.") One of my all-time favorite scenes in a movie is the scene at his father's funeral with a rabbi played by Eric Bogosian.

Local Hero- Another great Peter Riegert movie-- one of my top ten. Visually stunning, charming and a nice little message.

Midnight Run-- Deniro is undeniably a great actor, but he has definitely taken some roles for the money. This one was for love. He plays almost a parody of himself. He's a former Chicago cop who was set up for fall years ago by a mobster played by the incomparable Dennis Farina. He's reduced to working as a bounty hunter. He gets the assignment from the great character actor Joe Pantalioni to get "The Duke." The Duke is a mob accountant, played by Charles Grodin, who stole a bunch of Farina's money-- and then gave it away to charity. The prissy Grodin and gruff Deniro make an improbable pair, but have great chemistry. It's one of my son's favorites too.

I've posted about this one, too-- about accidentally walking onto the set in one of the scenes that were set in Chciago, in a scene with hundreds of guns. I thought I'd accidentally walked into a shootout.

North By Northwest- Hitchcock made a lot of great movies. This one is easily my favorite-- Cary Grant, James Mason, Martin Landau and Eva St. Marie are all great. My favorite scene is the crop-duster scene.

Honorable mention, the movie Novocaine, which my friend Karol Kent is in.

Office Space- This movie has generated as many catch-phrases as Animal House:

"That'd be greaatttt...."
"I believe you have my stapler."
"I'm a free man and it's been six months since I've had a 'conjugnal visit.'"

The scene where they destroy the printer that had made their lives hell to some rap song is one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen in a movie.

The President’s Analyst- James Coburn is splendid in this one. I've written a post on this one.

Quadrephenia- I saw this one when it came out at the now-demolished Grenada Theater in Chicago. This was the one good acting role Sting ever had-- as a self-absorbed phony. It was the perfect role for him.

Raising Arizona- This is another one I've written a post on. Great acting, great script.

"Son-- you got a panty on your head..."

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid- From the guys who did "My Beautiful Launderette." I'm still waiting for this one to come out on DVD. It's about a hip London couple in the middle of the Thatcher years. It takes on race, gender, sexuality and class, and pulls no punches. Great performance by Fine Young Cannibals singer Roland Gift

True Believer- James Wood chews up the scenery in this one. He's a former sixites activist/lawyer who is reduced to taking drug cases for rich coke dealers. He rationalizes what he does until Robert Downey Jr. shows up as his young assistant. He takes on the case of a Korean immigrant who's been imprisoned for seven years for the murder of a gang leader.

The Untouchables- When I first got out of college, I was working as a law clerk in downtown Chicago, and I'd see the trailers for the stars, though I never saw any of the stars. The history is totally wrong, but the story is great.

Village of the Damned- This one creeped me out when I was a kid. "I must think of a brick wall..."

Withnail and I- I've posted about this one before as well. It's a sort of buddy movie about two struggling actors in London in late 1969. Great use of music in this one, including Hendrix' "All Along the Watchtower" and "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)", and the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

X: The Unheard Music- Great documentary about X, one of my favorite groups.

Honorable evil mention, Xanadu, a horrendous piece of shit.

Yankee Doodle Dandy- I loved James Cagney's gangster movies, but I also enjoyed this musical about the life of George M. Cohan. WGN would show this one late at night a lot when I was a kid.

Zodiac- About the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the late sixties and early seventies. Great performances and riveting story.

I tag anyone who wants to do this one.