Saturday, March 15, 2008


I just had my yearly performance review, got my raise, quit my job, and agreed to precipitously move to the deep south to make toys. My performance evaluation, with its arbitrary drop-downs suggesting that I'm a good at branding or spanking or branking or whatever nonsensical corporate jingo is du jour, these half full boxes crowding the wood floor, filling again with inane toys and one horse skull, they dissect this year neatly for me.

In seventh grade at Blessed Sacrament we dissected frogs, and I remember wincing as I sliced open the membrane of the eye. Some enterprising classmate quickly discovered that the tough eyeballs bounced, and the lab was soon full of the little yellow orbs, ricocheting in quantity from floor to ceiling, wall to window.

In my senior year of high school at the Academy of the Holy Cross we dissected fetal pigs for a few weeks. The AC went out for the last of these, and I remember vividly the stink of the old formaldehyde and curdled flesh, the sticky pink pieces of organs spattering on the metal table tops. We all named our pigs, and took them home with us to continue in our macabre explorations. Mine was named Fyodor after Dostoevsky, a few classmates ghoulishly named theirs for ex boyfriends. I remember Fyodor's perfect little heart, and how it made me feel sad to clumsily hack it out of his chest.

It's been a long, hard Chicago winter. There's been loss, illness, sadness and snow - snow for five months straight, days and nights filled with so much snow that on the first day above freezing the parks and sidewalks turned into slimy brown waterfalls, feculent with urban detritus.
This will be our 6th move in 4 years. This time, I really am going to throw some of this crap away.

Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.

And then …
Loosen your hands, let go and say good-by.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say good-by.
- Carl Sandburg, “Stars, Songs, Faces.”

Goodbye, Chicago.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Fight This Generation

Its summer in Chicago – one festival and two shows in three days....

Pig flashes Dog
The group of porcine frat boys sits circled in the grass. Yellow dust tendrils from between their toes, collecting into streams that pour skyward over the porta-potties. The boys, eerily uniform in blue Cubs caps, white t-shirts and khakis, heckle laughter into the dust. I give them a wide berth, but wait – is that – closer – oh my god, yes it is. It is a Chicago red hot tattoo on the arm of one particularly pig-faced youth and it looks like this:

Could this be the best tattoo ever? Yeah, probably not. But it is welcoming nonetheless to see a baseball-loving piggy boy who has paid real money to have a hot dog permanently inscribed upon his person, halfway between hand and heart.

New Hawk, Red Scalp - Battles
After falling in love with Grizzly Bear all over again we are standing next to Jamie Lidell watching Battles and laughing at all the kids with brand-new mohawks / badly burning scalps. I do not miss my opportunity to say “kids today” and grok in my wizenedness.

Waiting for Murder with Fujiya and Miyagi
Fujiya and Miyagi are running late, doing sound checks that seem both endless and recklessly pointless. Someone collapses in the heat; the shouts for a medic overlay the directions to raise the levels, lower the levels, tango with the levels, level the levels, check check check the levels. No one comes. The trixies next to me are scraping their manicures through ash blond hair, the tendrils clump and stick to their napes. They are trashing their friend whom they refer to simply as “Diva” and they laugh about how yesterday they made her cry. They smell of overripe fruit, they smell sticky. I do not like being so close to them and shift my weight to my far foot. Fujiya and Miyagi are now already 20 minutes late for a 40 minute set, I flip through the program again in boredom and I sweat. And I start to smile. Professor Murder is on next, and Professor Murder is not fond of waiting.

Grandpa is a Punk Rocker - Malkmus
The sun is setting behind Stephen Malkmus, who slips in and out of silhouette. He is in a pink polo shirt and white slacks, like he’s just returned from golfing for fish. It’s just him and his acoustic guitar, and he surprises me by veering away from his solo work and reprising Pavement instead. Other bands come on stage and start dancing, slowly. It’s weird, surreal to hear these anthems strummed softly through the gold of sunset like a sixties home movie on slo-mo. But there is also a pleasant acceptance implicit between us all, something about growing older together, something symbolic, something a little lovely.

Mexican Wrestling with Gogol Bordello
Three hours later I’m hot, wet with sweat, my legs are shaking with fatigue, my ears are numb, and I feel outstanding. Gogol Bordello has come to town. The old theater lurches and swells as two tiers of people explode.

Built to Spill Melts your Face Off
Two days later I walk to the same old theater. This would be a very different trip. I’m late. Weirdly, it’s not crowded and I walk right up to the stage front through the frozen tableau. Just then Doug Martsch starts the riff for Time Trap. It hangs in the air delicately, just there. The four guitars softly pick it up, coax it along, then set it soaring. The only sane thing to do at this point is melt into the floor, so first I pretty much freak on out and then I go ahead and just do exactly that.

It’s summer in Chicago. It is 80 degrees tinged with humidity, there’s a chance of epic thunderstorms, and a certainty that at some point you will explode.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Welcome Home

In my bathroom there is an octagonal wooden box from Turkey given to me by my friend John. Inside this box is a scorpion encased within a glob of glass along with a scrap of paper reading “Death Valley.”

In my bathroom there is a yellow tube of Vegemite from Australia given to me by my friend Zack. A new label has been pasted on top that reads “Sewage-flavored toothpaste.”

In my bathroom there is a purple plastic octopus named Genghis given to me by my mother that dangles from the showerhead. Genghis squeaks when you squeeze his butt.

The thing about it is that of all the cavalcade of humanity that has been in and out of that bathroom in the last six months, not a single person has asked me about any of these things.
This leads me to conclude that the average Chicagoan stores far stranger things in their bathrooms than scorpions, Vegemite, or squeaky octopi.

Friday, June 8, 2007

June Bugs

My mom keeps getting attacked by owls and my dog keeps getting trapped in the attic.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Goodbye Carl Sandburg

Gather the stars if you wish it so.
Gather the songs and keep them.
Gather the faces of women.
Gather for keeping years and years.

And then …
Loosen your hands, let go and say good-by.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say good-by.
- Carl Sandburg, “Stars, Songs, Faces.”

Chicago claims Carl Sandburg. In the future of America, in which every other city’s schools, airports and roads will be made of 100% pure Ronald Reagan, Chicago will stand tall on the legs of Carl Sandburg.

(In point of fact, Sandburg lived in the Chicago metropolitan area for a period fourteen years between going pinko in Milwaukee and raising goats in North Carolina).

Function: noun
1 a : a definite quantity of work assigned b : a period of time spent at a particular activity

Example: Between a brief stint as a socialist and a long stint as a goat herder, Carl Sandburg served a moderate stint as a poet in Chicago.

I have lived in Chicago for five months as an Executive Dandy Fop.
My folks visited from North Carolina two weeks ago, and my in-laws were in town this week.
I present Chicago to them as if it is mine. I delineate its flaws, expound on its successes, sift it like gold dust from silt.
This is the fifth city I have panned through during my lifelong stint as a transient and I find it is increasingly difficult to maintain the level of easy confidence that ratifies my rash perceptions.

Pronunciation: 'st&nt
Function: transitive verb
Etymology: English dialect stunt stubborn, stunted, abrupt, probably of Scandinavian origin; akin to Old Norse stuttr scant -- more at STINT
: to hinder the normal growth, development, or progress of

Example: Carl Sandburg’s stint as a poet in Chicago irrevocably stunted his ability to disassociate himself with that city in perpetuity.

I am stunted by the growing awareness that although we claim cities as we wander them, explorers, conquistadors, colonials that we are, it is the difference that is elusive and often illusory.
I can stand on my hind legs and scream, with gestures, “This is the city in which I live! It is just like the city in which you live! In the areas that it is not just like your city it is not entirely dissimilar to your city except that this one cannabalizes the corpse of Carl Sandburg instead of the carapace of Ronald Reagan!” but this would not make me much of a tour guide.

Pronunciation: 'stent
Function: noun
Etymology: Charles Thomas Stent died 1885 English dentist
: a short narrow metal or plastic tube often in the form of a mesh that is inserted into the lumen of an anatomical vessel (as an artery or a bile duct) especially to keep a previously blocked passageway open
Example: In an emergency global procedure a number of shiny plastic stents were inserted into the collective unconscious to keep our imaginations from collapsing under the weight of chain stores and strip malls.

Chicago, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, I’m going to need you all to pitch in together now. I’m going to need you all to wash your hands, take your stent (expandable wire form or perforated tube, your choice), insert it into the closest natural conduit, and together we can counteract the disease-induced localized flow constriction that is keeping us from returning each other’s calls.
And Chicago, it would help me out a lot if you could try to raise a high chin to the wind without a zombie poet whipping you with a pennant. If this fails perhaps another more customized mascot could be created, such as Flippy the Wonder Mullet or possibly Salmonella the Beer Soaked Bratwurst? Baby, let’s talk.

In the days that my in-laws were in town the most unique thing I saw was a pair of white plastic go-go boots thrown over the fence of the old folk’s home, white in the green grass and gemmed with dew. They remain to this very day. Each time I pass them my explication for their presence changes, it is a great mystery. I eye the other commuters with suspicion, watching for a slip of polyester or a dab of false eyelash adhesive to reveal the shoeless perpetrator. This mystery fascinates me, compels me to look past Carl Sandburg in my search for Chicago. Because the soul of a city is the people - the living people - that claim it as their own, festooning the uniform facades with boots and bottles, with love notes and ticket stubs, toothbrushes and transformers.

When I finally find Chicago I will place it with care into a sack of diadems, baubles and shiny rocks which I will open when my days have jumbled into a pile and I no longer remember what they were supposed to mean anyway. I will run my fingers over its contours and my tongue over my gums and hum a single note for hours in the thrall of my discovery.

(Look to your left to see a dead poet shackled to a Denny’s. Look to your right to see the specter of footless go-go boots. Before concluding your tour of this ghost town today, remember to loosen your hands and say good-by).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

4pm May 1st, 2007

Prop plane, Texas tarmac

This is America.
We love big. We love big cars. And for some reason we love to give these big cars names and pretend that they share interests with us.
One of the most American of all visions is traffic crawling across a highway, a glinting mass of SUVs as far as the eye can see. And half of these SUVs will inevitably screech “W!” while the other half bleats “Impeach Bush!” from little blue or red thought bubbles plastered across their asses.
From sea to shining sea, big cars are getting fed up with your stupid politics.
In northern California the cars are very concerned about meat and murder and murdering meat.
In Kansas the cars are increasingly worried about abortion and murder and murdering abortion.
In Texas the airplanes, excluded for too long from serious political discourse, have finally joined the fray.
Walking into a prop plane on a dusty Austin runway you can’t help but absorb the consternating splendor of a large, aggressively flaggy sticker by the door declaring that Americans support Iraq. This is the way the plane has chosen to communicate to you its feelings regarding the war. This is one airplane that is entirely fed up with your liberal spineless defeatism and isn’t afraid to say so. Got a problem with that, pal? Eh, buddy? Well too bad hippie, the plane can’t hear you scream.

Inside the passenger is a middle aged blonde with a fur collared coat. Crystal the flight attendant is young with bright skin, long hair in cornrows and a smile slung cheek to cheek.
Crystal: Red or white?
Passenger: What kind of wine is it?
Crystal: Red, or white.
Passenger: What kind of wine is the white?
Crystal: I dunno, I don't drink that stuff. I think it's like… sha… sha…
Passenger: Chablis, chardonnay…?
Crystal: Sha... sha... champagne, I think.
Passenger: Champagne.
Crystal: Yeah, maybe champagne. I dunno. I don't drink it.
Passenger: Does it have bubbles? Is it bubbly wine or just regular wine?
Crystal: Yeah, um...
Passenger: Does it have bubbles like soda?
Crystal: Look, I dunno.
Passenger: … because I'll drink anything but merlot.