Friday, December 28, 2007

This Sporting Life: End It Already

And now, a review of this year in Chicago sports, whether you want to look back on it or not:

The Bears. They started the year by going to the Super Bowl and losing to the Indianapolis Colts, but all signs pointed to continued success, even after head coach Lovie Smith fired defensive coordinator Ron Rivera so Smith's longtime friend Bob Babich could have the position, and general manager Jerry Angelo traded the team's number-one running back, Thomas Jones, so Angelo's first-round draft pick, Cedric Benson, could be the lead back. Both decisions turned out to be disastrous, but the team had many other problems, including inconsistent play by quarterbacks Rex Grossman and Brian Griese, too many turnovers, an offensive line that became ancient seemingly overnight and was unable to either open up holes for Benson or effectively protect the quarterback, and a defense that couldn't compensate for injuries to key players. Consequently, the team went from first to worst and was painful to watch most of the time. (Side note: Rivera was hired by the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers are going to the playoffs. Coincidence, I'm sure.)

The Fire. I...don't care about soccer. Next.

The Cubs. They made the playoffs for the first time in four years. They also got bounced out of the playoffs immediately. Still, they went from worst to first (see, Bears, that's how you're supposed to do it) and have tried to make improvements in the off-season, like signing Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome. Unlike, say…

The White Sox. It's not fair to say that the Sox haven't tried to make improvements in the off-season. They have tried. Really. And they needed to after coming off a lousy season. But general manager Kenny Williams has missed more than he's hit, with free agents like Torii Hunter and ex-Sox outfielder Aaron Rowand spurning Chicago for longer, more lucrative deals elsewhere. The only major trade Williams has managed to pull off is a befuddling one: In-his-prime starting pitcher Jon Garland for aging shortstop Orlando Cabrera. There's a lot of time before spring training for Williams to make some more deals, but it's a bad sign when the biggest news of your off-season is not an addition to your lineup, but to your broadcast team (former Cubs color commentator Steve Stone). On the bright side: Manager Ozzie Guillen has never been quieter.

The Bulls. They made the playoffs for the third season in a row and even won their first-round series, sweeping the reigning champion, the Miami Heat. They lost in the second round of the playoffs, but things were looking bright going into this season, even with contract talks broken off with Luol Deng and Ben Gordon and trade talks regarding superstar/malcontent Kobe Bryant going nowhere. Then, unfortunately, the season started, the Bulls played listlessly and, after a 9-16 start, general manager (and former Bulls forward) John Paxson axed head coach Scott Skiles--on Christmas Eve. (Nice holiday spirit, fella. Downright classy.)

The Blackhawks. It's sad when some fans believe that the best thing that could happen to a sports franchise is the death of the owner, but that's how some--perhaps many--felt about William Wirtz, who had done about as much as one person could do to drive away fans without threatening them with physical harm. He raised ticket prices, refused to spend money to keep talented players (or to bring other talented players here), and wouldn't allow home games to be televised. When Wirtz died in September, some fans actually cheered. Everybody else sat back and waited to see what new team president Rocky Wirtz (William's son) would do. One of his first moves was to get as many home games on TV as possible--only seven this season, but that's seven more that we've had in decades. He also promises more for next season and going forward--maybe even games on broadcast TV like when I was a kid (and, back then, a big hockey fan). This bodes well for a team with a nucleus of good young players that is already better than in recent years. Not only will it be easier to see the Blackhawks, but they might actually be worth seeing.

What will 2008 bring for our mighty sports metropolis? More trauma for the Bulls? Improvement for the Bears and White Sox? The first World Series win in a century for the Cubs? Playoffs for the Blackhawks? More fans for the Fire--or, at least, a coach to last the whole season? To quote Doctor Who (specifically Sylvester McCoy's Doctor): "Time will tell. It always does."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Review: How You Look to Me (2006)

We see so many movies set on one coast or the other--in sunny, smoggy L.A. or crowded, noisy N.Y.C.--that it's genuinely refreshing to see a new film set somewhere in-between.

How You Look to Me is set in Louisville. (The last movie I can remember being set there is Return of the Living Dead.) Yes, this means we get plenty of shots of Churchill Downs, but we also get lots of great views of the rest of the city, courtesy of director J. Miller Tobin and cinematographer Michael Caporale, who make it look like a lovely place indeed.

It's the story of three grad students, all wrestling with romance. William (Bruce Romans, who also wrote the screenplay) is quite the playboy, getting it on with a cute redhead before meeting up with his regular "friend with benefits," Katherine (Kiersten Van Horne), but he doesn't know quite what to do when he meets Jane (Laura Allen), a fellow grad student he is instantly attracted to. William's best friend, Maurice (Kevin Butler) is in love with waitress Kris (Pacey Walker), and it scares him to pieces, while moody loner Park (David S. Jung) attracts the attention of goth chick Sara (Laura Elton).

Observing all this at a distance is their writing instructor, Professor Driskoll (Frank Langella), who likes horses and hangs out at the racetrack with the boys (since William's dad is a wealthy horse breeder). Driskoll seems to be suffering from some disease--we see him taking medication and he often seems frail--but that doesn't stop him from prodding his students to try harder; at one point he very theatrically tosses all their papers into the nearest waste basket. He also pushes William in particular to either invest more of himself in his writing or take a job with his brother at Churchill Downs. William and Jane, meanwhile, start a tentative romance between poetry readings.

The readings themselves play authentically, with some pretty good verse--and some pretty bad verse as well, though that's strictly intentional. The interior scenes are as well filmed as the exterior footage, giving the whole movie a believable, comfortable look.

Unfortunately, Romans's lead performance is anything but comfortable. He's flat and expressionless, even in very emotional scenes. You never get the sense that he's passionate about anything--writing, horses or any of the girls he's sleeping with (or wants to sleep with). The dialog he's written has a realistic feel to it, but he can't deliver it naturally. Butler fares much better as Maurice, looking genuinely tormented over what to do with his feelings for Kris, and Allen is effective and sweet as she conveys resistance to William's increasingly well-meaning advances. Jung's character is already reserved, but he uses that trait to his advantage, making Parks lengthy speech to William on a basketball court all the more surprising and profound.

Langella has, in many ways, the most difficult role in the movie, since he's the best-known member of the cast, but with little screen time. Still, he brings a quiet, gentle authority to a part that could have been an overplayed clichŽ; Driskoll is clearly a man with regrets who doesn't want William wind up in the same place, wondering what could have been if he'd just tried harder.

How You Look to Me concludes without definite resolutions to all of its storylines--kind of like real life--and passes as a pleasant, lovely-looking slice of life in a town we don't get to see enough of at the movies. Like William and Driskoll, though, Tobin and Romans could have tried a little harder--maybe cast someone as William who could better express the emotional range needed to make an audience really care--and reached something truly special.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Joyful Noise

As I wrote yesterday, not all Christmas songs make me want to drink myself into a coma. There are plenty that plant a grin just above my chin. Most of them aren't the most obvious choices, though.

There are some holiday tunes I like because they haven't been covered to death. (Do we really ever need another version of "White Christmas"? Or "The First Noel" ? Or a hundred others? No, no and nooooooo.) I could choose just about anything from Spector's album and do well, but I have particular affection for "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by the Crystals and "The Bells of St. Mary's" by Bob. B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans.

Why? For one thing, you can't go wrong with just about any selection from that album, but these two songs in particular also have the advantage of not having been reinterpreted over and over again. When you get down to it, neither one is really a Christmas song at all; the holiday isn't mentioned in either, though the former is at least about toys (a very Christmas kind of thing) and the latter is most closely associated with Bing Crosby (a very Christmas kind of actor/singer). Both are performed with substantial energy and production polish, and "Bells" in particular reaches heights that are surprisingly emotional.

There are other Christmas songs I love not because I love the songs in question, but the performers' treatment of them. For example, I've never really liked "Jingle Bell Rock." Something about it just bugs, and the Hall and Oats version from the '80s didn't improve it one bit (it was, in fact, a note-for-note remake and therefore entirely pointless). The version by British string quartet Bond, though, takes something annoying and makes it shine. Their approach is similar to Spector's "Wall of Sound," filling all the audio spaces with joyful noises and infectious energy. It also helps that they dispense with the lameass lyrics and go entirely instrumental, giving the song a tightness and urgency it never had before.

"The Little Drummer Boy" is another song I don't really get along with--not so much because of the song itself, but because of the irritating animated special Rankin & Bass (creators of the infinitely more entertaining Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special that has aired at least once a year on CBS since my very first Christmas) built around the song. The aforementioned Bing Crosby, though, brought new life and sweetness to his version of the "The Little Drummer Boy," which combines it with another song ("Peace on Earth") and pairs Crosby with an unlikely, yet effective, duet partner--David Bowie. Unfortunately, this was Crosby's last Contribution to the Christmas music canon: a month after recording "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" with Bowie for a 1977 TV special, he died of a heart attack on a golf course in Madrid, Spain.

Some of my favorite holiday songs aren't holiday songs at all, but remind me of this time of year. Eurythmics' "There Must Be an Angel (Playing with My Heart)" has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas, but Angels do, and Annie Lennox's gorgeous vocals (accompanied by a nice harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder) help this tune fit in with the season just fine. Brian Wilson's "Trombone Dixie" isn't a Christmas song either, but his liberal use of sleigh bells in the course of recording this obscure instrumental (during the same sessions that produced Pet Sounds, the greatest pop album ever--no, really, ever), unreleased until about 20 years after it was made, put in a box and forgotten, always makes me think of snow and smiles.

Wilson's younger brother, Dennis, recorded a song for the Beach Boys' second Christmas album (which was shelved by their then-record company and available only on bootlegs until the late 1990s, years after Dennis's drowning death in 1983) that walks the fine line between sad and happy holiday songs. "Morning Christmas" isn't so much sad as it is somber, a melancholy juxtaposition of the joy of children opening presents on Christmas morning with the more serious intent of the holiday, often lost amid the bows and wrapping paper--the celebration of the birthday of God's only son.

"Morning Christmas" is warm and subtle and lovingly constructed. It's a shame more people haven't heard of it. Maybe a couple more people know about it now.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Mourning

I recently wrote about listening to Christmas songs way earlier than I should, including the new holiday CD by KT Tunstall. There are only six songs on it, most of which are covers--and most of which deal, on one level or another, with loneliness at this most festive time of year. (Are you trying to tell us something, KT? If me.)

Two of the songs Tunstall covers have become standards of holiday less-than-cheer: "2,000 Miles," originally by The Pretenders and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," made famous by Darlene Love on the Christmas album to beat all Christmas albums, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, and from numerous appearances on "The Late Show with David Letterman."

Chrissy Hynes's vocals on "2,000 Miles" perfectly and simply express the longing of a woman separated from her someone by great distance; just the simple phrase "I miss you" carries great emotional weight. Love, on the other hand, gets substantial aid from Spector's "Wall of Sound" production. Not that she needs it, though: Her voice is strong enough to pluck every emotional heartstring, so that by the time she dials it back to say, "You should be here with me," you're already in tears. (Or at least I am--the rest of you are heartless bastards.)

There are plenty of other Christmas songs Tunstall could have mined for seasonal sadness, though others have already covered that turf more than adequately.

Dido's "Christmas Day" is also about a woman lonely and forlorn on what's usually such a celebratory occasion. In her case, though, the guy she's pining for is a dude she met one time--he rose up on horseback, fed her some pretty lines ("Your eyes are green, like summer grass") and then rode off again, promising to return for her on the title occasion. You'd think somebody would yell at him, "Hey, dumbass. Dido is pretty freakin' hot. Ride back to her. RIDE. BACK. NOW!" But no, he continues on his merry way...and she never sees him again. We never know why--maybe he was killed in a war or had a wife or is feeding pretty lines to other freakin' hot singers. But poor Dido is left verklempt for the rest of her days, singing her sad, sad song.

I've always thought "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" had more than a little bit of melancholy laced through its lyrics, even though most singers try to pass it off as a sincere and glowing wish for holiday cheer. Not Diana Krall. Her version crystallizes the melancholy, making it clear that the person extending the wish has no real belief that either she or the someone she's singing to will have anything remotely approximating "a merry little Christmas."

Of course, that singer and her someone probably have homes in which to wrestle with their seasonal demons, while the subject of "Pretty Paper" is out in the street, begging amongst the throng of holiday shoppers. It's best known as a Roy Orbison tune, but I prefer the version by the song's author, Willie Nelson; his more ragged, less operatic voice makes the story told that much more heartbreaking.

Heartbreak, in its various, less-than-wonderous forms, is probably preferable to contusions or busted bones, but you can find them in holiday melodies as well, like the Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)," where the singer pleads with his love to put aside their combat for the sake of the occasion. Their bruises are more emotional that physical, but that's not the case in the Kinks' "Father Christmas," where some punks beat the crap out of a street-corner Santa and take all the money he's collected. Merry frickin' Christmas, indeed.

At least Kris Kringle didn't die, unlike Prince's ladylove in "Another Lonely Christmas," who not only dies, but drowns on Christmas Eve. Geez, Prince. There's enough drinking around the holidays already--don't make me drag out the vodka and tonic.

So, is that what Christmas music is all about? Longing and loss? Mourning and misery?

Of course not. There are plenty of uplifting, cheerful holiday classics. Those aren't necessarily the ones that make me happiest, though. More on those tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Thanksgiving Cat

The feline in my brother's arms was small--probably only weeks past the point where she would still be considered "a kitten"--with shiny black fur flecked with beige and gold (what some people call "a tortie") and large yellow-green (green-yellow?) eyes that were, at this particular moment, darting in all directions, trying to soak up unfamiliar surroundings without panic and/or fear being absorbed as well.

He'd found her in Mom's backyard, running for her little life from very loud, very animated, very pissed-off squirrels. (Think that's funny? Consider: When you've seen or heard a squirrel perched on a fence or a telephone pole yelling its fuzzy head off, did you run up to it and offer a hug? No, you more than likely steered clear of the little rodent until it calmed down a bit. Now imagine that the angry/upset squirrel is actually charging you. You'd probably back away from it, at least. Now imagine that you're roughly the same size as the charging, pissed-off squirrel. Not so funny now, is it?)

Once he's rescued her from the fury of the nut gatherers, my brother carried her inside, where her reaction to the presence of Mom's cats was almost as extreme as her reaction to the squirrels had been--it appeared that she hated other cats, or at least hated seeing so many other cats in one place at one time. So he brought her upstairs to his apartment (which had been mine for about a decade before I moved into the original La Casa del Terror) and kept her there. He also gave her a name: Peanut. (Because she was attacked by squirrels. Get it?) Now, he was showing her to me--with a purpose in mind.

It had been over a year since I'd had Lottie put to sleep. In that time, Ms. Christopher and I had more or less adjusted to harsh reality: her sister was gone, and we were on our own. I knew, though, even as we were becoming accustomed to being alone with each other, that I wanted to add another cat at some point, if only to have company for Christopher on those days when I got stuck at work until whenever. And my brother wasn't enthused about the prospect of Mom bringing in another stray, no matter how pretty that stray might be.

So, for all intents and purposes, I was conducting an interview with this cat.

My brother explained her idiosyncrasies to me--not only her apparent aversion to other cats (a possible complicating factor for bringing her into a home with a kitty already in it), but her hatred of toes (she attacked them constantly, whether they were covered or not, which may have lead to her being thrown out by Mom's next-door neighbors for being "too mean") and her love of chasing pieces of paper (crumple up a receipt from Walgreens, toss it across the room and watch her bat it around for hours, sometimes even bringing it back for a game of "fetch"), though she also enjoyed catnip-filled mice, little puffy balls and shoestrings as much as the next feline.

After he'd told me everything he felt he needed to, he handed the little calico to me and I lifted her to my shoulder, where she propped her tiny black paws, her claws digging through the fabric of my shirt and into my skin ever so slightly--not for defensive purposes, though she probably was at least a little scared to be held in the arms of a stranger, but to keep from falling, though I had no intention of dropping her. I stroked her smooth, soft fur and scratched her chin. She began purring hard enough to rattle my fillings out.

I wanted to take her home right then and there--if this had indeed been an interview, she'd have been hired on the spot.

Of course, it wasn't that simple; nothing ever is. She needed to be spayed, and Mom volunteered to pay for this (a point which I didn't argue). Mom also had her front claws removed--I'm not the biggest fan of declawing (Ms. Christopher still has all of hers), but given her toe-attacking tendencies and love of "sharpening" against the furniture, it's just as well that Mom went there.

The cat would need at least a couple of weeks (maybe more) to properly recuperate from the operations in the relative privacy and comfort of my brother's apartment, then I could take her home--most likely on Thanksgiving Day, when I would have the whole four-day weekend to watch how she interacted with Christopher and to keep her from wrecking the joint.

I wound up picking her up the day after Thanksgiving, though I did make a point to spend time with her the night before. I brought the large orange crate that we used for toting cats in (with a clean blue towel tucked into it for comfort), and my brother brought the little calico down. Once again, her eyes were wide and darting, but this time when I took her she was not purring, but shaking--panic and fear had set in and taken a firm hold.

As I put the kitty in the crate, Mom came out. "Bye, Peanut," she said, obviously sad and seemingly fighting back tears, "Sorry you can't stay." Maybe Mom had set her heart on keeping the cat, or thought I would back out of the deal for whatever reason. She didn't try to talk me out of it, though, as I walked out the door, headed for the nearest major street and flagged a cab.

Once in the cab, I did my best to keep her calm, reaching through the holes in the crate to stroke her forehead or rub her chin. For the most part, that worked--she only cried out a few times on the long ride home, and each time I was able to quiet her down again. I also started calling her by her new name: Olivia.

It wasn't that I had anything against the name Peanut...okay, I had plenty against it. I thought it was a stupid name, and I've always liked the name Olivia; if I'd ever had a daughter, that would have been her name. Instead, it went to a small, thin and, at this particular moment, frightened little cat.

I hauled her up the three flights of stairs to La Casa del Terror, set the crate down on the kitchen floor and popped the door open. Olivia slowly came out, low to the linoleum floor, carefully inspecting her new surroundings with what appeared to be interest rather than dread.

Then Olivia came face to face with Ms. Christopher, who had come out from her resting place in the living room to see what was going on in the kitchen--and found a trespasser on her turf. It was not, as you'd imagine, love at first sight. There was a great deal of hissing from both cats, and Olivia retreated to the safety of the crate, where she settled on the blue towel and did not move again until Christopher left the room.

The same scenario played itself out from time to time over the next few days: Cats meet; cats hiss (sometimes even exchanging blows); cats separate. Lather, rinse, repeat. You might expect that Christopher, being more than twice the size of Olivia and still having front claws, would win the majority of these bouts. And you would be wrong--Olivia, being younger, faster and more aggressive, soundly thumped the older, more passive fluffball each and every time, then retreated to her crate in the kitchen until I finally closed the door and put it away.

Some of Olivia's personal quirks faded with time. Her obsession with attacking feet went away, although there were mornings when she would reach under the bathroom door like some '50s sci-fi monster to try and take a toe or two. She still doesn't get along with Ms. Christopher, though--they rarely are found in the same room and only sit on the same piece of furniture if they've called a truce because I'm sick or sad. Even then, they don't sit together; they'll bookend me on the couch or sit at opposite ends of the bed. When feeding time comes, though, they each attend their own bowl and don't even notice the other's existence.

Olivia is no longer a small, scared kitten, though. She's filled out a bit--not fat necessarily, but not skinny anymore, either--and walks around La Casa del Terror like she owns the joint. At the Halloween Movie Bash, she's the cat who comes out and works the room, rubbing up against the legs of guests and perching on the arms or back of the couch while Ms. Christopher hides under the couch until she gets hungry or needs to use the litter pan.

Olivia likes to cry loudly for my attention, whether it's first thing in the morning when it's time for me to get up and put a tin of Friskies down, or in the evening when I get home and she gets vocal before I even put my key in the front door. When friends drop me off after an evening out, they can usually hear her calling me from the living room window.

She's also become quite the cuddle kitty, often curling up next to me while I watch TV in the evening--much to Christopher's chagrin. The old fuzzball still gets attention all her own, though; since Olivia isn't really a lap cat, Christopher can claim that territory, even if she's still a good deal more than a lapful. Christopher would get that attention anyway. She's 14, and even though her appetite is hearty and she gets around just fine, jumping on and off my tall bed with relative ease, I know that she'll be joining Lottie at the Rainbow Bridge sooner rather than later, so I pet her and hold her close whenever I get a chance--much to Olivia's chagrin.

The younger cat gets more than her share of attention, though, and rarely has reason to complain (though she often does so anyway). Whenever I crumble up a piece of paper or cellophane wrapping, her eyes widen--with eager anticipation, rather than fear or panic--and when I toss the paper down the hall, ricocheting it off the walls, Olivia races after it, muscles flexing, coat shining, clawless front paws batting the freshly minted plaything back and forth until either she loses it under some piece of furniture that she can't reach under or, more likely, she pins it down, picks it up in her mouth and trots back to me with her prize, smiling with pride all the way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Three Short Poems

These days, poetry comes out of me in bursts--I can go months without writing a line, then churn out three complete poems in a week, which is what happened with the following. The first, written on a Sunday morning, describes a particularly unhygenic practice that I wouldn't recommend to anyone. The second, written the same day, was inspired after an October afternoon some 20 degrees above normal. (Don't worry--there's no such thing as global warming. Nope.) The third was inspired by one of my MySpace friends, who sent out a bulletin entitled "I'm Bored." To entertain her, I wrote the following in about an hour. She said that no one had ever written a poem for her before; I was honored to be the first. they are. Enjoy.

Some nights I
crawl off to
bed without
brushing my
teeth or
tongue because
some mornings I
like the taste
of decay in
my mouth when
day breaks and
stays broken.

It's odd to
walk out into
autumn air
seasoned with
heat, the scents
of drying grass
and cracked
asphalt spark
together with
the tapping of
maple and sumac
leaves wheeling
north to the hum
of air conditioners
for a cocktail
great to swirl
in your glass
but best left

Some may well
prefer the surprise
of sunrise, with its

shades and hues
and promises whispered
close and moist to

reddened ears
in the blush of
fresh daylight,

but I'd gladly
pass on such
common delights

for the uncommon
warmth of one of
Nikki's smiles or

her sly eyebrows
arching mischief
only at me.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Do You Hear What I Hear?

When it comes to holidays, I am, in many ways, a traditionalist. I love celebrating Halloween and Christmas, but only in their actual seasons. It disturbs me to see skulls and Jack O'Lanterns in stores on Labor Day; it disturbs me even more to see clerks at Walgreens yanking down the witches and skeletons in favor of elves and reindeer before Halloween has even had a chance to pass.

Yes. I know. I've bitched about this before. And it gets worse every years, to be sure. But now, we have a more recent--and even more disturbing--manifestation of the holiday-ahead-of-its-time: The radio stations that switch to an all-Christmas music format before the trick-or-treat candies have been fully consumed and even most sensible people have not yet bought their Thanksgiving turkeys.

Richard Roeper--whom many people have said I resemble (no, really) and whom more than a few friends have suggested isn't as good a writer as I am (even though he gets the bigs bucks and has millions of readers while I have, like, five)Ñrecently wrote a column on this very subject, openly wondering who the hell listens to Christmas music on the radio in the first week of November. Somebody must be, since the ratings for the stations involved invariably go up after the switch and come down again after they resume "regular" programming.

He has a point. I don't know anyone, sane or otherwise, who listens to Christmas music on the radio this early, yet you can hear the accursed stations playing in stores and cafes all over the city and probably all over the country, assuming there are similarly addled program directors in other major cities as well.

Yet I must confess--and I take no pride in the confession--that I've already started to listen to my holiday CDs at home.

It wasn't a conscious decision. I didn't wake up on the first day of November, run my fingers through my shaggy hair and say to my reflection, "You know, I really can't wait until December for my seasonal depression to kick in, so let's start spinning those Christmas tunes now!" Nor was it any one thing that brought this on so early. Maybe it was, instead, a collection of small things.

Maybe it was because I sometimes buy Christmas-related items throughout the course of any given year, whether it's an ornament that catches my eye in July or a special present for a special friend purchased in October. Or maybe because, back in August, I ran into a coworker at Northalsted Market Days who happens to be a member of the Windy City Gay Chorus and who happened to be selling Christmas CDs from the booth he was manning. Or maybe because I saw CDs while shopping at Target and a couple just happened to fly into my basket like ninja throwing stars.

Or maybe I just bloody well felt like it.

Whatever the reason (or accumulation of reasons), empty CD cases now litter my desk while KT Tunstall does the Pretenders' "2,000 Miles" proud--though she blasphemously fumbles a cover of Darlene Love's "Merry Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"--and Clarise, the little doe from Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer croons "There's Always Tomorrow," a song that never fails to make me cry, no matter what time of year I hear it.

So what does this mean, listening to the sounds of the holiday season well before the first proper snow has fallen, before the pumpkin lights and faux spider webs have been pulled down, before any of the Salvation Army Santas have taken up their stations on street corners and in front of drug stores? I have no idea. I don't think it means that I'm going to do this every year. I think it's an abberation--some need in me to have the Christmas spirit wafting through the air weeks before it naturally should.

Whatever the case, I'm not going to question it this year. Next year? Maybe. The year after? Definitely.

But right now? Right now, you'll have to excuse me. I have more than a few seasonal decorations and movies to dig out and get ready--but nothing goes up until the day after Thanksgiving. I haven't completely lost my mind.

Not yet, anyway. Give me a few minutes.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


The following poem isn't really about the month of its title, though that's when the dream (or, more accurately, nightmare) it's based on took place. It's one of those poems that's never quite "finished"--it's been rewritten numerous times over the years, including (looks at wristwatch) about five minutes ago. This wasn't the first time I'd dreamed about the walking dead; it wasn't the last. This wasn't the first time I'd died in my dreams, either; it wasn't the last. (I've read that the capacity to die in one's dreams is a sign of genius. If that's the case, I'd much rather be a moron, thanks.) Enjoy.

Long to be a
manchild with a
head on his

shoulders, with a
serious mind for
serious things

deepened to frenzy
by nights ridden
along creeping

stream water and
gnarled boughs
backlit by

briefly. The air
is frequent

and moved. Leaves
hooved into the
moist without

noting the scent
of gore in the
mud, of dead

fingers dancing,
holding near on
such formal flesh.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


No, not that kind of quickie. Get your minds out of the gutter for just a moment. As most of you know, my job is keeping me insanely busy and likely will through Thanksgiving, if not Christmas. That being said, I'd still like to sneak in updates where I can. So here are a few short ones, most of which go back to essays past:

My Artistic Friends
Superbadfriend used to be a co-worker and is still one of my best friends. She's also one of the most creative people I know, working with encaustics (paint made from pigments, beeswax and resin) and found objects. And now? She has a website. Go there and check out her amazing work. If you see something you might want to hang in your own home (like the miniature pieces I'm honored to have hanging in mine), shoot her an email and ask about prices. And even if you don't want to buy anything right now, just shoot her an email anyway--she's one of the sweetest, most friendly, most supportive people you'll ever talk to.

This Sporting Life
Cubs fans: You don't need Alex Rodriguez--you already have enough overpriced players who can't hit in the playoffs. White Sox fans: Aaron Rowand is a free agent--hope the team signs him and regains some of that spark back that they had when they won the World Series. Blackhawks fans: Getting home games on TV is a great place to start--hope they put something on the ice worth watching. Bulls fans: You don't need Kobe Bryant--he won't win you any more championships by himself than he won in LA by himself. Bears fans: With no running game, defenders who can't tackle and a former Pro Bowler with an arthritic back and a pissy attitude (hey, it's the media's fault your back hurts, Mr. Urlacher), the quality of your starting quarterback is suddenly the least of your concerns--happy now?

The Daley Grind
So nice of you, Mr. Mayor, to set aside your obsession with the 2016 Olympics (which a lot of Chicagoans don't want anyway since it'll make us more of a terrorist threat and create bigger traffic headaches than we already have) and your record tax increase proposal (so enormous that quite a few of us, myself included, might have to move out of the city in the near future because we won't be able to afford to live here anymore) in order to focus, if only for a minute or two, on the budget crisis at the CTA. Good to know you can pay attention to the near future--as in literally days from now--instead of going glassy-eyed like an addled 5-year-old who starts dreaming about Christmas Day in April.

Speaking of the CTA...
All those lovely, laminated signs you have taped up at bus stops and those equally eye-catching ones on the trains where paid advertisements usually are found must have cost some serious coinÑcoin you keep telling everybody and anybody with ears on their heads you don't have. I know the CTA needs a permanent funding solutions, I don't want any of my bus or train routes getting axed, and I do want our Governor and Speaker of the House to stop their dick-wagging contest because they're both coming off like short, short men. But printing and distributing all those signs and flyers makes it look like you've got money to spare or that the agency isn't particularly well managed or both--not the best impression when you've got your hand out.

The Rainbow Bridge
Sometimes, pet names qualify as truth in advertising.

Example: Stubby, a gray calico who was small, short and missing at least three joints off her tail. Her nickname, Squally, fit as well: for something so small, she sure was loud. She lived a long and mostly placid life with Mom, but even long and placid lives have an end. She'd been sick for some time--can't remember whether it was her kidneys or her thyroid--and when scheduling dinner recently, Mom told me Stubby' s time was nearly at hand; she was barely eating and had lost a lot of weight (and she never weighed much to begin with).

So the next time I came over, I sought Stubby out. She was in a cardboard box in the dining room, small and frail in the darkness. I reached in and stroked her head; she rubbed against my hand and purred loudly. As I walked away, she rose unsteadily, vaulted from the box to the dining room table (as much as a cat on her deathbed can actually "vault") and staggered unsteadily after me. I picked her up (she weighed next to nothing), carried her to the living room and set her in my lap, where she stayed for the remainder of the evening, alternately purring at being petted and staring off into the distance at something the rest of us couldn't see.

One Last Thing
Halloween is my favorite holiday. Has been since I was a kid. Always loved decorating my apartment for the occasion, watching movies with my friends, the whole deal. (Okay, not so much the dressing up part--once you spend an evening in a Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp costume, you're pretty much scarred for life.) So tonight, I'll be in front of the TV in La Casa del Terror, tasty treats at hand, remote in hand, and monsters traversing my, screen. Have a happy and safe Halloween, one and all.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Three and Out

This year, baseball season in Chicago didn't end at the beginning of October, like it does most every year. It actually went on for another week. But it probably should have gone on for at least one week more.

The Cubs won their division, going to the playoffs for the first time since 2003, when they just barely missed going to their first World Series since 1945.

Unfortunately, they didn't stay in the playoffs for very long this year, swept in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The starting pitching wasn't particularly good, save for Carlos Zambrano's solid performance in Game 1.

Manager Lou Piniella, who had helped take this team from worst to first in one year, has been roundly criticized for taking Zambrano out of the game in favor of reliever Carlos Marmol, who prompty gave up the home run that proved to be the game winner. However, this is what Piniella had done all yearÑget the starter to pitch six innings and use Marmol in the seventh, Bob Howry in the eighth and Ryan Dempster to close--and Marmol had a terrific year, so it wasn't so much a bad move as a good move that backfired.

Then again, if Piniella really pulled Zambrano in an attempt to keep him fresh for Game 4--a game that now will never come--then he deserved to have the move backfire.

Ted Lilly was smacked around in the second game, and Lilly in turn smacked his mitt (or, rather, slammed it to the ground) after giving up a home run. Rich Hill couldn't hold Arizona in check in the third game, and that was that.

Far worse than the pitching, though, was the hitting. The Cubs three leading home run hitters--Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez--not only didn't have a single home run among them in the series, but didn't have a run batted in among them, either. Worst of all was Ramirez, who didn't even manage a single hit in twelve at-bats.

The Cubs' situational hitting was atrocious as well, leaving runner after runner stranded on base. When, after Diamondbacks pitcher Livan Hernandez walked the bases loaded, the usually reliable Mark DeRosa, on a 3-1 count, swung at a pitch just above his ankles and weakly hit into an inning-ending double play, you could see the crowd at Wrigley Field visibly deflate, embrace their fate and start looking ahead to next yearÑthe 100th anniversary of the team's last World Series championship.

The White Sox, on the other hand, have won a World Series within living memory--two years ago, in fact--but finished this season with a lowly 70-92 record due to poor middle relief pitching, lousy run production and erratic managing by Ozzie Guillen, who seemed to spend as much time spewing forth profanity-laces tirades to the media as he did calling out his poorly performing players.

Many times, after such a lost season, the manager is the first to get tossed out the door. That's not how they roll on the South Side, though. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Ken Williams renewed Guillen's contract for another five years. Why they did so when Guillen had one year remaining on his existing contract is a bit of a mystery. Maybe they have confidence in Gullien's ability to turn things around, presumably with some fresh faces brought in via free agency and trades. Maybe they blame the players more than they blame Guillen and his coaching staff. Or maybe they just wanted to piss of Sun-Times sports columnist (and notorious Reinsdorf/Guillen-hater) Jay Mariotti.

If the latter is the case, maybe they didn't realize that they were guaranteeing Mariotti, who likes to write about the same topics over and over again without having anything fresh to say about them, another five years' worth of material, and guaranteeing those unfortunate enough to read his column five years' worth of stale, uninspired vitriol.

Thanks, guys. Thanks a bunch.

Whatever the case, it's an odd move to make for a team in need of fresh air. Perhaps that will come along with those new players, especially if they're middle relievers capable of coming in, shutting down the opposition's offense and getting the game to All-Star closer Bobby Jenks, or hitters capable of getting hits when runners are in scoring position.

Guess we'll just have to wait until spring training to fine out.

In the 'bout them Bears?

Monday, October 8, 2007

17 Years Gone

I wrote the following essay about Lorri Jackson several years ago for a webpage dedicated to her memory and managed by her sister, Leann. The page hasn't been updated in ages, so before it vanishes outright, I'm migrating over to my own site, with minor edits. I've also posted the poem that I wrote at the time in a separate entry.

Tuesday is the 17th anniversary of her death. And it still doesn't seem real--or right.

"Pierced nose, combat boots, heart tattoo over left breast, white fishnets, plaid skirt, paint-stained ripped t-shirt, black hair." That was the laundry list I scribbled in my journal the first time I met Lorri Jackson.

It was 1985. We were both busting ass as students in the Creative Writing department at Columbia College. I also worked part-time as a tutor, helping Columbia students with their grammar, punctuation and spelling problems. Lorri had signed up to be tutored for a semester not because she needed help with her writing--Lord knows she didn't--but because she wanted to be a tutor herself and this would be a way for her to see what it was like. And I was to be her example of fine tutorial skill. Yikes.

We didn't get along at first. She didn't need my help and thought our sessions were a waste of time. I thought her personality came across "like ammonia" (another note from my journal), and her fiction was as dark and uncompromising as anything I'd ever read before. But as the weeks passed, we spent more and more of out time just bullshitting about anything that came to mind: music (she liked Black Flag); our childhoods (I was a life-long Chicagoan, she a self-described "army brat"); and, more than anything else, our writing. We were both poets. We both like Baudelaire. And the more we talked about what we were most passionate about, the more we got along. Still, it was usually Lorri who, 90 minutes or so into the session, who'd tap her watch and saying "C'mon, Ed. We gotta get some work done." So we'd go over her prose, I'd ask questions about why certain characters were doing what they were doing the way they were doing it, and she'd do a quick rewrite that maintained the same ti ghtness of language, but expanded the level of detail. Damn, she was good.

By the end of that semester, we were friends--not tight buds who always hung out together, but more a "happy to see you when I see you" kind of thing. We'd squat in the halls, shoot the shit, compare notes, have a laugh. Lorri became a tutor the next semester, and we wound up in our first Advanced Poetry Workshop together.

During that first Workshop together, Lorri and I both had poems published in a local arts magazine called Black & White. We had to go to the editor's apartment in Palmer Square to pick up our complimentary copies, and I was the native who knew the turf, so we hopped on the El together and made our way there. We got 15 copies apiece--presumably to be distributed to friends, family, strangers on the street, etc. Lorri swiped a few extra copies and shared her take with me once we were safely away.

In class, Lorri could be vicious with her criticism or, more often than not, would kick an impatient leather-clad foot while her eyes seared holes in the carpet yarn. If she respected a poet, though, she could be generous and constructive with her criticism. One time, I had written a poem with extremely dense language and excessively long lines. Lorri suggested making the lines shorter, giving readers a chance to rest their eyes while setting them up for the next surprise. With much shorter lines grouped in small stanzas, the poem was much stronger--Lorri was dead-on.

On another occasion, we got into a spirited discussion about the use of the word "feel" in poetry. I'd written a poem that started with the line "Some nights, I feel the need." Lorri argued that since the poem itself was an expression of feeling, actually using the word "feel" was redundant. I got the point and changed the line to "Some nights, I have the need." That alteration changed the whole tone of the poem--it was no longer just about "feeling" an emotion, but about being possessed by it.

After a few more workshops together, JB (my best friend, then and now), Lorri and I were selected by Paul Hoover to help edit the first issue of Columbia Poetry Review. We'd plunder student folders (including our own), pull work that struck our fancies and get together sporadically to narrow down our selections. We had our last "meeting" in the lobby of the Wabash campus in July of 1987, just after we three had graduated from Columbia. Lorri showed up at that last session with a blood-red eye, which she said didn't hurt--just a burst blood vessel--but it looked like hell. She'd been at a party where her then-boyfriend had punched somebody out just to get some attention. They got attention, all right--they got the piss beat out of them, and Lorri got popped in the eye by a "new-wave Frankenstein." Somehow, we go a laugh out of it.

And that's what I remember more than anything else--the laughs and smiles, even when things weren't particularly funny. I didn't know the Lorri Jackson who lived on the dark side. I knew that Lorri existed--how could you read her work and NOT know?--but I never did meet that woman. The Lorri I knew was sweet and funny and generous. I believed, in the typical arrogance of youth, that Lorri, JB and I had the talent to change the face of American poetry. Lorri, though, had the drive to make herself a presence in the poetry scene, like her or not. She did numerous readings all over the city--and, later, around the country as well--often taking the mike off the stand and prowling the stage, pausing to emphasize words or phrases, not letting the audience have the comforting option of tuning her out. I didn't stay in close contact with her after graduation, but I did see her occasionally at readings, and I followed her rising career with--guess what?--a smile.

I won't go into all that was said after she died or the anger and sadness that took hold of me. As I said, my memories of Lorri J. had a lot more to do with having respect for her as a poet and appreciation for her as a friend than they do with the reasons why she isn't here anymore.

One more memory, then, and I'll be on my way:

The last time I saw Lorri was at the reading for the second issue of Columbia Poetry Review, which neither of us edited, but we both had poems in it, so there we were. We didn't really talk, just said "Hi" and exchanged pleasant greetings. After the reading, though, there was a small reception with a nice buffet, and as I made my way up the hall toward it Lorri motored past me, humming like a cropduster with a belly full of pesticide. "C'mon, Ed," she called back over her shoulder, "I'm gonna beat ya!" And she did beat me there. In fact, she kicked my ass.

She always did. And all these years later, she still does.

Sunday, October 7, 2007


The following poem was written shortly after Lorri Jackson's death in October 1990. It was read months later at a public memorial and was also published in Tommorrow Magazine.

This ain't intended as no fucking
ode to The Dead Junkie Society,
cool versers gone cold, clogged
with mucus, nodded on someone
else's couch with baby powder,
cellophane, tattoos permanent
shirt sleeves down arms not telling
any more war stories penned by
way too many 5 AMs, street brawls
with Nazi skinheads, days and
nights of leather and pervasive
darkness, persuasive horses, cans
of Black Label nursed in back
of Link's Hall, Tony Fitzpatrick
on stage, huge, reading lines
about Roberto Clemente gunning
balls in Wrigley Field out to
a grove of folding chairs on
hardwood, smoking; afternoons
laid out in long beige halls,
classroom doors gouged open for
semi-circle jerks; combat boots,
white fishnet kicking, intolerant
eyes combusting carpet weave,
words attitude ammonia under
noses,under nails conservative,
tapping, impatient with pierced-
nosed punkers swiping mikes from
varnished-to-dead podiums, chrome-
plated stands on barroom poet
combat zones, walking coals, toetip
prowl matching sweet streetcar
howl now flatlined, confined to
fog memory; paste-up scraps of
tripping to Palmer Square to pick up
our contributors' copies of first
published poems in Black & White
--scissored slices back
between the plasterboard walls
thin enough to pound thoughts in,
fluorescent stretching plates of
higher education escaped from.
No defecation, no deification:
Just surprising simple flicks
where you say you wanna have
kids someday, say you think
white people are scary but that
I'm not and I feel complemented,
say you don't believe I have a
Lorri Jackson "Collection" until
I drop the blue binder dripping
with mimeobooks cranked out on
the office copier, pass-around
pages, a piece for sweater torn
off in class and named "Henry,"
into your hands and you smile,
flip, sign inside: "OK Edwardian
I believe you. Lorri J." And in
October, when I hadn't seen you
since you told the audience at
Columbia about the poem about
the woman you said you terrorized
just because you walked in
on her giving your boyfriend--
"Excuse me, ex-boyfriend"--head,
I clipped your obituary from
The Louisville Courier-Journal
into the blue binder at the end
and it was the very last thing I
ever wanted to add God damn you.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Vanishing Chicago: The Nortown

A couple of Saturday mornings ago, I was in my usual neighborhood breakfast place, munching on an omelet and flipping through the Sun-Times when I ran across an article about the demolition of the Nortown Theater. It had been closed for some time, sitting on Western Avenue just south of Devon like a decaying specter of glories past. It opened in 1931. It closed 59 years later. Sometime between, I went there a few times. Not all of the times were pleasant, though.

I've told you before about my best-ever day of moviegoing. Now let me tell you about two of the worst, both involving the Nortown.

Todd was one of my best friends my freshman and sophomore years of high school, but he and his family moved out to Naperville before he started his junior year. Still, he came into town from time to time, and one of those times he suggested catching a midnight double feature at the Nortown: The World Series of Rock & Roll and Yessongs. Sounded like a good idea at the time.

It was winter. Snow had fallen (as it tends to do in winter in Chicago). The streets were a cold, damp mess. One of should have known that parking alongside the poultry processing plant at Leavitt and Grand (long since torn down and not the site of--surprise! --a condo development), with its sloping sidewalks wreathed by potholes, wasn't such a good idea. But neither of us thought a thing about any of that until we got into dark green station wagon and...went exactly nowhere. Because the station wagon was now stuck in the snow.

I got out, got behind the station wagon and pushed as hard as I could. The back wheels shot gray slush all over my jeans, but then they caught and the station wagon rolled free. Had I been even slightly sensible, I'd have gone back inside at least to change my pants, if not cancel the whole excursion. Instead, I got in the car and the trip to the Nortown got under way.

The World Series of Rock & Roll turned out to be little more than a haphazardly assembled series of music film clips, while Yessongs was a deadly dull concert film in which the members of the group barely moved onstage; I wasn't totally convinced that they were actually alive.

To sum up: I was wet, I was cold, I was aggravated, and the movies sucked. Other than that, everything went fine.

At least it wasn't the Nortown's fault (nor Todd's) that the evening turned out to be a bust. Not that time, anyway.

A few years later, another high school friend, Juan, came to town and wanted to catch a movie. After graduation, Juan had joined the navy and came back on leave. He even offered to pay. How could I refuse?

Hindsight being 20/20, we should have done something else--anything else--except go to the Nortown for a screening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

It wasn't just that I hated Temple of Doom--labored "comedy," a screeching "performance" by Kate Capshaw (which must have made quite an impression on Steven Spielberg, since he later married her), disturbing violence (a still-beating heart is ripped out someone's chest) and abundant borderline racism. (And yet, Temple of Doom has a 7.3 rating on figure.) This time, it really was the theater itself.

Since that previous trip to the Nortown, its auditorium had been split into smaller theaters, as so many older, larger theaters in Chicago were in the 1980s. The Nortown now had three screens, all with brand-new seats. And that was my problem--the seats, though new and comfortable, had been placed in rows too narrow for anyone over six feet tall. I'm six-foot-three. My knees pressed hard against the back of the seat in front of me. This was a problem.

I wound up spending the length of this movie that I wasn't enjoying in the first place with my legs stuck out into the aisle at an extreme angle that made them start cramping almost immediately. Two-plus hours later, they were stiff and sore, but that didn't stop me from getting away from the wretched movie as quickly as those stiff and sore legs could carry me. I vowed to never go back to the Nortown again.

I needn't have wasted the vow. The Nortown closed in 1990. It served briefly as a church (as so many other former Chicago movie theaters have) and a community center. For the last few years, it had been empty.

The developer who now owns the property was quoted in the Sun-Times article as having been interested in rehabbing the building, but it had deteriorated too much to be saved. For once, I don't doubt the developer's word. The last time I was up there, the Nortown looked pretty rough, though I did stop to take some pictures (including the stylized comedy/tragedy faces adorning this page). I expected it to come down sooner or later. It turned out to be later.

Even though the Nortown and I didn't have the friendliest personal history, I'm still sorry to see it come down. Our city has lost so many architecturally and historically interesting and important buildings to condo developments, so it's sad to see another structure with a unique personality and rich history reduced to dust and rubble.

At least this condo development may also include a movie theater to serve the area's large Indian and Pakistani populations. Even if the Nortown itself is gone, its cinematic tradition at that location may live on.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Review: Killer of Sheep (1977)

On the long commutes to and from work, I carry a book with me to pass the time. It's not usually a novel or an in-depth nonfiction work, mostly because I read all day for a living and can't take staring at page after page for extended periods of time. (And with all the work on tracks and stations that CTA is doing these days, the periods of time are extended indeed.) Short story collections are good for such long rides, as are books that don't necessarily have to be read in sequence to be enjoyed, like Max Brooks's Zombie Survival Guide.

Lately, one of my travel companions has been The A List, a collection of essays on 100 essential films by members of the National Society of Film Critics. This is not to say that these are the 100 greatest movies ever made. In his introduction, editor Jay Carr admits "no single member agrees with this list in its entirety." How could they? Everyone has his or her own individual tastes in movies; what excites one viewer will bore another. The A List includes several of my favorite movies-- Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, Night of the Living Dead and Pandora's Box--as well as a few movies I like, but don't agree with including--Enter the Dragon (a lot of fun, but not at the top of my list), Modern Times (I'd have chosen City Lights or The Gold Rush over this) and Chinatown (probably the only film in this book that I can honestly say I outright hate).

I'm familiar with nearly every film included in The A List, either because I've seen them or at least heard of them--hell, I own copies of about half of them. But there was one title that I didn't know either by sight or reputation: Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep. I had heard of Burnett and some of his other work, like the excellent To Sleep with Anger or the documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, but Killer of Sheep was foreign to me.

There are reasons for this. Even though Killer of Sheep, originally released in 1977, was selected for the National Film Registry in 1992 (one of the first films chosen, in fact), the movie has been out of circulation for years and has never been available on video, at least partly because of music rights (an issue that has held up the release of many movies and TV shows over the years, like SCTV, WKRP in Cincinnati and Witchfinder General). Burnett didn't employ a generic instrumental score, but specific songs for specific scenes by artists like Paul Robeson, Dinah Washington and Louis Armstrong, no doubt making it expensive to reissue.

The nature of the film itself probably didn't help. Killer of Sheep was shot in black & white and doesn't have nything you could even charitably call a plot, but instead strings together vignettes displaying life (or what passes for life) in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, centering around African-American slaughterhouse worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his family, friends and acquaintances; it doesn't end so much as it stops observing. In a decade that gave birth to Blaxpoitation, Killer of Sheep must have been an impossible sell.

Consequently, this movie was well on its way to becoming a lost film, a fate that usually befalls much older works (including many silent films) whose film stock degenerates to dust or gel. Fortunately, though, the UCLA Film Archive, with funding from multiple sources (including my favorite cable channel, Turner Classic Movies), restored the print and untangled the music rights so that Killer of Sheep could gets its first proper nationwide release 30 years after the fact.

In Chicago, Killer of Sheep opened in the classic Music Box Theatre, and when I went to see it there it wasn't playing in the generous main auditorium (one of the few old-school movie houses to escape being carved into smaller screens), but in the smaller, more intimate side screening room. I hadn't seen a movie in that room since an ill-fated viewing of the beautifully restored print of Metropolis several years ago. I'd just come from having drinks with my best friend and the woman I was head-over-heels (or was that head-up-ass?) for. She talked about the man she'd fallen in love with (not me); I asked my best friend for his take on the situation; he told me hard truths; I cried most of the rest of that evening, and nearly all the way through Fritz Lang's silent classic.

There were no tears in the mostly full screening room this day, though--only nods of appreciation at what Burnett was going for. He wasn't trying to tell a story, at least not in the conventional sense, but to show an oppressive way of life that sucks the will and hope out of all who have to live it. Stan comes home exhausted, can't sleep and barely has the energy to talk to, much less dance with, his wife. The neighborhood children (including Stan's son and daughter) play in the alleys and empty lots, having rock fights from behind plywood shields and leaping from one rooftop to another, risking certain death if they fall.

Burnett observes the casual cruelty children visit upon one another, like throwing stones and dirt at a little girl whose only crime is that she was hanging wash on the line at exactly the wrong time, as well as the more carefully considered (but no less wounding) cruelty of adults. He also inserts scenes from the slaughterhouse where Stan works, with the Judas goat leading the sheep to their fate and the employees (including the only whites seen in the film) operating the equipment and cleaning the meat hooks

There are also moments of humor for both the young and the old-before-their-time; some of those moments are downright surreal, like when Stan's daughter walks around the house and yard in a rubber dog mask. There would have to be such moments where you can laugh for a minute. Otherwise, Killer of Sheep would be too stinging to watch.

As it is, with its lack of conventional plot or character arcs, not everyone will watch this movie and enjoy it. To some, it may just look like somebody's home movie, with its sometimes-grainy black & white photography and unsteady frame. But therein lies Killer of Sheep's strength--it looks and feels like real life, even if we know it's "just a movie."

Therein lies its continued relevancy as well. Neighborhoods like the one seen in Killer of Sheep existed in most major American cities long before this movie was ever made in the mid-1970s, and they have persisted in the decades since. (Stretches of Chicago's west and south sides still look like this now.) The photography gives the movie a timeless appearance; only the cars in the movie betray its date of birth, and even that can't be used as an exact measure.

Killer of Sheep could have been shot 20 years earlier than it was--or it could have been shot yesterday.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review: Once (2007)

This is a sweet movie.

I say that without the slightest hint of condescension, even though "sweet" is often critic-speak for "cute" or "inoffensive" or "blandly pleasing." Once is none of those. It's knowing and warm and embracing; you don't really want it to end, even though you know it must.

Once is also a new brand of musical, where the people bursting into song are actual musicians. Glen Hansard plays a busker on the streets of Dublin who also works part-time in his dad's vacuum cleaner repair shop. One evening, a pretty Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) listens to his music, likes it and tosses a dime in his guitar case. By coincidence, she has a vacuum cleaner that needs to be repaired; when she meets him on the street the next day, she drags the vacuum behind her like a dog on a leash. It turns out that she plays music as well, and they go to the back of a music shop where the owner lets her play the pianos for sale. They play one of his songs--tentatively at first, then with increasing confidence and, finally, perfect harmony.

The chemistry between them, both personal and artistic, is obvious, but both have been wounded by life in general and by love in particular. He still plays songs about the girl who broke his heart and moved to London; she still plays songs about the man who fathered her young daughter. Even so, they haven't given up the ability to smile at individual moments of sweetness, like when he meets her mom and daughter (and the three guys who come in to watch their TV because it's the only TV in the apartment building), or when his dad listens to a tape of his music for the first time.

Once reminded me, in the best ways possible, of David Lean's Summertime, where Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi have a bittersweet romance amid the canals of Venice. As with the city in that film, Dublin becomes a character in Once, observing the developing relationship from the background. And also like Lean in Summertime, writer/director John Carney lets us watch the two leads without making any judgments on their actions or lack thereof. Sometimes his camera shakes distractingly (Once was entirely shot on digital video, sometimes giving it a documentary look it doesn't need), but more often it presents everyone in such a straightforward, honest way that we can't help falling for them, flaws and all.

There's also the music, delicate yet durable creations full of longing and hope and, yeah, sweetness. The songs are good enough to stand alone, without a movie to justify their existence. (Which makes sense: Some of the songs had already appeared on albums before, both by Hansard's group, The Frames, and on an album on which he collabotaed with Irglova; the versions in Once lean toward the immediacy of live performance rather than the polish of studio efforts.)

I saw Once in Theater One at the Davis with about half a dozen other people. On one of the adjacent screens, Rush Hour 3 was likely playing to at least ten times that many people. (Granted, Once has been out for a while and Rush Hour 3 had just opened that weekend, but it still didn't seem right.) After the end credits had finished rolling (I stayed to make sure there was a soundtrack CD out there somewhere, and there is), I wanted to sneak over to that other screen and whisper in each and every viewers' ear, "Get back in line for Once. You won't regret it." But then I thought better, as someone going to see Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker punch and kick their way through Paris would be unlikely to want to get in line for any film that can be described as "sweet."

Maybe "sweet" isn't even the right word to describe Once. Maybe "beautiful" would be more appropriate.

Or, perhaps, both words are equally apt. "Beautiful and sweet." "Sweet and beautiful."

Yeah. That sounds about right.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Middle of the Road

The middle of the season has come and gone. The All-Star Game, for those who still care about such things, is history. And the Dog Days of Summer are just about here.

By this point in the year, most Chicago sports fans are already looking ahead to Bears training camp and the preseason, and such is the case this year. Cub fans, however, have sufficient reason to delay their interest in last year's Super Bowl runners-up, if only for a few weeks.

Because the Cubs are playing good baseball. No, really.

It took a while for new manager Lou Piniella to find the right on-field combination; it seemed for some time that he tried a different lineup every day. It also took a while for his staff ace, Carlos Zambrano, to find his groove and pitch the way everyone knows he can, and for Alfonso Soriano, the team's high-priced free agent acquisition, to re-establish his home run stroke.

Once both players found their respective grooves, they complemented the efforts of younger players like Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, and of seasoned veterans like Ted Lilly (another free agent pickup) and Aramis Ramirez (finally delivering clutch hits in games that actually matter, instead of tearing the cover off the ball only after the team was well out of contention). Even injuries to players like closer Ryan Dempster haven't slowed them much.

The turning point in the Cubs' season, strangely enough, was also their most embarrassing: An in-dugout slugout between catcher Michael Barrett and Zambrano, who took exception to Barrett's poor performance in the previous inning (when he'd allowed a passed ball and made a throwing error) and pointed to his own head as if to say, "What are you thinking?" or "Get your head in the game, man!" Barrett responded, Zambrano punched him, they were seaparated by teammates, and the fight continued in the clubhouse, where Zambrano beat Barrett badly enough to send the catcher to the hospital for stitches. Barrett's play had been erratic all season, and this incident was the final straw--he was traded to San Diego shortly afterward. That's another significant change in this Cub team from previous managerial regimes: No running interference. No coddling. No "player's manager" nonsense. Just perform up to expectations, or don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. The Cubs are lucky enough to play in the weakest division in the Major Leagues, and with the Brewers suffering the loss of their ace, Ben Sheets, and the other teams in the division well out of it, the Cubs could make a run. The race will, at least, be interesting.

The same cannot be said for the White Sox, whose World Championship in 2005 is rapidly fading into the fog of yesteryear, replaced by the bitter reality of the present: This team sucks. Hard.

Just as the current success of the Cubs cannot be attributed to one player or aspect of their game, so the current failure of the Sox cannot be attributed to one player or aspect of their game. It's been a combination of things: injuries to key players (Scott Podsednik, Darren Erstad, Joe Crede), subpar years from others (Jermaine Dye, Jose Conteras), a general lack of run production and, worst of all, a bullpen that appear to believe that the most effective way to fight a fire is to pour kerosene on it, blowing lead after lead after lead.

Manager Ozzie Guillen hasn't helped matters any with his abrasive, outspoken, If There's-A-Bus-Passing-By-You'll-Find-One-Of-My-Players-Under-It style, which was tolerated and even embraced when this team was winning, but now it just grates. Meanwhile, over at the Sun-Times, Jay Mariotti, whom Guillen called " a fag" last year (thereby achieving the near impossible feat of making Mariotti seem, by comparison, at least, to be less of an asshole), is doing a happy dance and calling for Guillen's ouster at least once a week.

It's exceedingly unlikely that general manager Kenny Williams or owner Jerry Reinsdorf will fire Guillen, at least not in the immediate future. This team's nucleus still has potential, with All-Stars like Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland and Bobby Jenks to build around. Williams may deal other players, though, like Dye, whose bat could still be of value to a team in the pennant race, or Contreras, who has been ineffective the last couple of months and may need a change of scenery to revive his career (or, at least, someplace else to end it--it won't be in Chicago).

In a town where baseball season has usually fallen before the first autumn leaves have hit the ground, it's nice to see a couple of races still going on: the Cubs competing to win their division or, at least, the wildcard playoff spot; and the White Sox competing to stay out of last place--a race we're all too familiar with in Chicago.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Rainbow Bridge

One advantage I've found in having cats is that there's really no reason to set an alarm clock. They know when they're supposed to be fed, and they won't let you forget it either. Olivia parks beside my bed and, spying the slightest movement, begins to yowl like she hasn't been fed in weeks, months even. And Ms. Christopher? She usually hangs out on one side of my head or the other and begins to bark the moment my eyelids flicker open.

There's no use trying to ignore them or argue the point; I have to get up and go to work anyway, right? (Except for Saturday or Sunday, of course, but it's easier to pop open a tin of Friskies, throw it in the matching bowls and head back to bed.)

One morning, not long ago, I was getting ready for work, stumbling through my hallway to get some clothing, when I spotted something on the hardwood floor. I didn't have my glasses on, so I assumed it was just a lump of Ms. Christopher's fur (she leaves them everywhere, being a n enormous puffball of a cat).

Until I touched it. It was wet. And and close up, I could see that it had a tail.

It was a mouse. And it was dead.

After washing my right hand half a dozen times, I covered the mouse with tissue, got a plastic bag and picked it up. Only Olivia showed any interest in this operation, so I assume she was the one who caught and killed the little rodent.

This is new for me. I've never had a mouse in the house before--at least while living on my own. (We used to get them occasionally at Mom's house, which was pretty suicidal, given how many cats she has.)

Could have been worse. Cats love to show off their trophies. And love to bring them to you. I could have found it in a shoe. Or on my bed. So...the hallway's not so bad, really.

It turned out that this wasn't Olivia's first kill. Before I brought her to La Casa del Terror, she lived with my mother and brother for about three months. She stayed upstairs with my brother, since it seemed that she didn't get along at all with other cats and most of Mom's cats were (and are) elderly. She was allowed downstairs for short periods, though, and in one of these, she chased down and killed what must have been a mouse with an especially powerful death wish while the other cats either sat and watched or paid the rodent (and Olivia) no attention at all.

"You worthless sacks of fur!" my brother yelled at the other cats. Maybe that was unfair. Maybe they'd lost their hunting instincts after so many years of life as housecats. Whatever the case, Olivia did what they either wouldn't or couldn't then, and even without front claws (Mom had her declawed before handing her off to me), she was still able and willing to do it now.

One of those "worthless sacks of fur" was Monkey, a black-and-white tomcat whom Mom had brought in ages ago. He was the kind of cat only an owner could love. He had clumps of fur all over his body. He was snaggle-toothed. His head was enormous and his body thin, so he looked like a walking, fur-bound bobblehead. And he smelled awful. He looked like he'd been hit by a truck, and maybe he had.

The other cats couldn't stand Monkey and regularly took turns beating his ass. Mom loved him, though, and he was utterly devoted to her. Rare was the night when he wasn't curled up next to her--for protection, sure, but also for the attention she lavished on him and the affection he returned to her.

Nobody, including the vet, knew exactly how old he was. He was an older cat when Mom took him in, and she had him for about 15 years until one recent Friday night when, after having spent much of the night with Mom, he cried at her bedroom door to be let out, probably so he could get some water or use the litter pan, and didn't come back the rest of the night.

Saturday morning, a couple of the cats went up to my brother's bedroom window and began meowing. That's something they just didn't do--something was wrong downstairs. He got up and followed them downstairs. Monkey was lying perfectly motionless. My brother woke Mom up to tell her he was dead. When he returned to Monkey, though, his body had shifted position; he wasn't dead, but had the look an animal does right before its time has come, with an unsteady head and sightless stare. He passed on later that morning.

While Monkey was being laid to rest, another cat belonging to someone close to me was seriously ill as well.

Jessie had two cats named Ernie--unusual, you might think, weird even, until you know that she owned one Ernie, a large tabby, before acquiring the second, a gray-and-white tomcat, from her sister, who had to give her Ernie up because she was moving into a studio apartment and didn't have the room to keep him. So she brought him north to Chicago from Ft. Lauderdale, and here he happily lived with Jessie, her husband and Ernie the First (also known as Ernest) for several years.

Ernie always hissed at me at least once whenever I visited Jessie, probably because he could smell the Girlish Girls on my clothing, my shoes, my backpack. But he never bit me or took a swing, and he always let me pet him at least once per visit and even take his picture.

A few weeks ago, Ernie became seriously ill--his eyes looked funny (and not in a "ha ha" kind of way), he stopped eating and going to the litter pan, and he constantly cried, as if in pain. Jessie didn't know what was up; she thought he was having a relapse from the illness he suffered during the tainted pet food scare a few months back.

Then Ernie, without explanation, went blind.

Jessie took Ernie to a specialist in the suburbs to determine the source of the blindness and pain and, when she visited the day before he was scheduled to have an MRI, she brought out his favorite toys, CDs with soothing sounds and even, Ernest, who was not happy to be stuffed in the cat carrier, but was perfectly happy to spend time with his old partner in crime.

The attention seemed to soothe Ernie who, for the first time in weeks, closed his eyes and took a nap. According the vets, this should have been impossible--his eyes were paralyzed open. But sometimes, if only for a few blessed minutes, the impossible is possible again.

Unfortunately, the MRI yielded the worst possible results: Ernie had cancer of the nose (who knew there was such a thing?). It had spread to his brain. It was inoperable. There was nothing Jessie could do but ensure that her friend would not be in pain any longer. She gave the specialist the needed authorization; Ernie never woke up.

When I called Jessie that night, I didn't know what to say. The situation reminded me so much of when I had to have Lottie put to sleep--both the same age (10), both with inoperable cancer (Lottie's was in her abdomen), both owners receiving that horrible call. Even after four years, I can't talk about Lottie without breaking down. By the time I got off the phone with Jessie, I was crying, both for her loss and my own. I continued for a good while after.

When Lottie died, both my regular vet and the 24-hour facility I took her to sent me sympathy cards. In the one from my vet was a photocopy, several generations old but still legible, of the story of the Rainbow Bridge. It pretty well matches what Jessie posted on her MySpace page:

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart. Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together.

I hope that Lottie was there to greet Ernie and Monkey at the Rainbow Bridge and that she keeps them company until their "very special" persons--or hers--are there, ready to escort them to the other side.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

(Dis)comfort Food

Over the years, when people asked me, "What's your favorite hamburger?"--and, believe it or not, this question came up more often than you'd think--I'd always direct them to a small, old-fashioned little-bit-of-everything joint on the corner of Damen and Melrose called Man-Jo-Vin's.

I was introduced to Man-Jo-Vin's--so named, I gather, because the three original owners were named Manny, Joe and Vinny--by my best friend from high school. We'd hang out at her place with her husband and kids, then head over to Man-Jo-Vin's and pick up a huge order, which we'd eat there in the summer (they had picnic tables along the Melrose side) or take back to her place. They did everything well, as far as I could tell (I never tried their fish sandwich or shrimp, because seafood and I don't get along like oil and water, Republicans and Democrats, cats get the idea), but invariably I'd get a couple of double cheeseburgers.

I went there for something like 20 years, and always the double cheeseburgers were the same. It wasn't that the burger patties themselves were so great--nothing more than standard foodservice-issue beef. The buns could have come from the corner grocery store (if you even have a corner grocery store near you--those are vanishing, too).

The onions were shredded, though, and grilled (along with the bun) before being laid atop the single slice of American cheese and thus melting into it. Once you took a bite, strings of onions and cheese connected your mouth to the burger. You had become one, whether you wanted to or not. And with the flavors and textures and scents involved, you definitely wanted to.

One Sunday, I was in a bit of a mood (not that that ever happens) and while out and about, I thought I'd swing by Man-Jo-Vin's and grab a couple double cheeseburgers--comfort food does wonders for dispelling moods, no?

In this case, "no" is right: Man-Jo-Vin's was closed. Not "closed" in the "Gone Fishin'" sense or the "Damn, I missed their closing time by five minutes" sense, but in the "There's a paper, hand-written sign in the window and dust gathering on the counters" sense. Man-Jo-Vin's was closed. For good.

Yesterday, I passed the old corner where Man-Jo-Vin's had been. A condo development is currently being constructed there. Don't we have enough of those in this city? Do we don't need anymore?

The same thing happened not too long after to Toot's, a small stand on the corner of Central and Montrose. Who knows how long it had been there, dishing out good burgers, great fries and awesome cheesy beefs? Seemed like forever. But even forever, it seems, has an ending: One day, I saw a banner on the side of the stand announcing its imminent closure and thanking customers for their years of patronage.

The next time I saw Toot's, it had been pretty much dismantled: The big yellow sign on the corner was gone; the smaller signs over the doors that said "Lick me!" and "Bite me!" had vanished; even the siding was peeled back. The next time I pass that corner, I'll bet you all the money in my wallet that there'll be a condo complex popping up there.

And now comes word this past week that that Harry's, the hot dog hole in the wall at Randolph and Franklin, is in danger because of a construction project to its immediate west. I used to go there when I worked at Ameritech. Harry, the owner, was always there, and he was elderly then. Now, I hear he's 98. His wife died recently. And now the city is considering using its eminent domain powers to acquire the building housing Harry's (and two more buildings on that block), all to make a plaza and appease a prominent developer.

Very nice, City of Chicago. How sweet, Mayor Daley. You sure there aren't some puppies you'd like to drown or children you'd like to take candy from instead? Or is kicking a 98-year-old when he's down the most pressing issue you have to worry about these days?

In all of these cases, I was saddened, but hardly surprised. This is an old story in Chicago: It's there for decades, and then, suddenly, it's not. Why go to a neighborhood burger joint when McDonald's, Subway and KFC are everywhere? Who cares about getting coffee at the local diner when Starbucks is on the way? That movie theater down the street is small and old--isn't the stadium seating at the megaplex so much nicer?

There's this little fast-food place on Irving Park Road not too terribly far from La Casa del Terror. A nice old couple runs it. They make good gyros. I hardly ever see anyone else in there.

Think I'll stop by there on the way home tonight. While I still can.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Vanishing Chicago: The Neighborhood Movie House

I was supposed to see Grindhouse with friends at a downtown theater--one of those comfortable joints with clean floors, stadium seating and vastly overpriced popcorn and candy. You know, the kind of place where the movies Grindhouse attempts to imitate would never, ever have played.

Unfortunately, I had to work that day. (Yes, on a Saturday. No, I was not happy about it.) So I wound up seeing Grindhouse at the Davis instead.

The Davis is a good deal smaller and not quite as tidy as its downtown competition, though the current owners have made a concerted effort to spruce the place up (the seats no longer make my ass fall asleep) and it's far less expensive than the larger theaters (only $5.50 anytime before 6 p.m. and just $8 after that). Plus, it's within walking distance of La Casa del Terror, and I know with absolute certainty that the popcorn is freshly made. (Some of that stuff in the larger theaters sits under heat lamps for hours--and tastes like buttered cardboard.)

I don't believe the Davis was itself a grindhouse back in the day. I remember it as a second-run theater (at least it was when I saw Mel Brooks's Silent Movie there somewhere around 1980). I do know with certainty, though, that the Davis is one of the few remaining examples of an increasingly endangered species in Chicago: The neighborhood movie house.

There aren't many of them left, and every year there seems to be one less than the year before. The Three Penny in Lincoln Park, in existence since 1911 according to Jazz Age Chicago and one of the few Chicago movie houses to sell beer, shut down last year. The Esquire closed not long after. Across the street from the Three Penny, the Biograph--infamous site of the death of John Dillinger (gunned down while leaving a viewing of Manhattan Melodrama)--where Red Secretary caught "classics" like The Rules of Attraction and Swimfan still stands, but has recently been converted, as a number of the downtown houses were, into a live-theater venue. And the Village, down at North Avenue and Clark Street? It went dark so quietly that it was weeks before I even heard about it.

Years ago, damn near every Chicago neighborhood had at least one little theater. Most of them are gone in the most literal sense, demolished to make way for apartment buildings, grocery stores or parking lots. Some have been repurposed, like the Lakeshore, which now hosts live theater and burlesque shows; or the Lincoln, now converted to condos (a fate the Davis narrowly avoided); or the Congress, where I saw my first movie (The Wizard of Oz) nearly four decades ago, now a live-music stage; or the Admiral, now one of only three strip clubs within the city limits.

There are still a few around, though. The Logan, in the heart of Logan Square, still shows second-run feature films just like it did back in 1972, when Mom took me there on the Milwaukee Avenue bus to see Pinocchio. We got there late--even then, the CTA was screwing up our lives--and wound up sitting through the second feature, John Wayne's The Cowboys, in which the Duke herds cattle with a bunch of young boys. At one point, one of the boys falls between the cattle and is trampled to death. To my eight-year-old mind, this was pretty funny, so I laughed. Mom batted me upside the head. I stopped laughing.

Farther up Milwaukee Avenue, the revival of the Portage continues. It now hosts small film festivals and shows silent movies (appropriate, since that's what it did when it first opened over 80 years ago). Good thing, too. I mean, if you were a movie theater, would you want your last film to be Dude, Where's My Car? Me either.

that the neighborhood movie house will make any sort of large-scale, organized comeback though--not with megaplexes ringing the city and strangling all but the most muscular theaters within. Soon, we may only be able to catch the latest sequel or remake or remake of a sequel by hopping a train and heading either for downtown suburbia, with nothing but wasteland in-between.

Until then, though, I'll treasure what I have. I've seen only six movies on the big screen this year, but half of them have been at the Davis, where the screens are oddly angled (a result of having been sliced up from one big theater into four small ones back in the '80s), the bathrooms are tiny and there are odd stains on the ceiling tiles. I couldn't mistake it for another, more modern movie house if I tried.

And I don't want to try.