Inhuman Swill : Chicago

Infidel dog

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This morning,
with a high of seventy degrees in the forecast,
amazing for a November in Chicago,
I drove the dog to Warren Park.
That's where we go for a special treat
instead of our usual neighborhood walk,
because the squirrel chasing is most excellent,
and there are never any cops there to harass you,
a scofflaw walking his dog off its leash.

We like to run up the steps of the sledding hill,
which a parks department sign actually proclaims "Sledding Hill,"
and then charge down the slope,
after which we make our way around the skirt of the hill
where the squirrels rummage through the leaves
like so many bargain hunters.
We crunch crunch crunch across the orange carpet,
and if we're lucky we spot a squirrel far enough out
in the open that Ella can chase it full-bore
back to its tree.
She has never once caught one.
Or at any rate never killed one.

Next we like to follow the cinder jogging path
all the way around the little nine-hole golf course embedded
like an off-center yolk
in the albumen of the park,
and that's exactly what we did this morning.
I walked in the leaves at the side of the path,
trying to encourage Ella to do the same,
but unless she has a rodent, lagomorph or marsupial in her sights
she prefers to walk on pavement. Go figure.

We were on the south side of the golf course,
the tall chain-link fence meant to protect us from flying balls
off to our left,
when I saw two men coming our way along the path,
youngish men—younger than I, at any rate—
neatly bearded men dressed in long robes the color of wet sand.
It was already warm enough out that I was regretting
the heavy coat I wore over my hooded sweatshirt.
I snapped my fingers imperiously,
calling for Ella to return to my side,
to leave the path and get out of the way
of the two youngish men engaged in animated talk.

Infidel dog

Ella is a good dog, shaggy-bearded herself,
and she mostly listens. But I know that Muslims
are afraid of dogs, or wary, or I think I know this,
having watched many women in headscarves
whisper urgently to their children to stay out
of our path. At least,
I assumed these men were Muslims. I admit I don't know
the taxonomy of robes and caps and beards.
They could have been Coptic Christians or even Jains for all I knew.
At any rate, they didn't have turbans on
so I knew they weren't Sikhs.
But despite my commands, Ella didn't leave the path
entirely. She shifted toward me, trotting along
the very edge of the pavement, but didn't leave it altogether.
"Ella," I hissed. "Come." She spared me only a sidelong glance,
certain she had already obeyed me to the extent required.
Letter of the law.
I only wanted to be a good neighbor.
The men were yards away.
Dogs are not consistent with Islam.
I braced for whatever.

It's not that I thought anything worse
than embarrassment might transpire,
but my dog does have a history.
She grew up in Queens, and she still has some of that attitude.
We socialized her with people pretty quickly,
my wife and I, but that didn't prevent her from
barking her selectively bred head off at any unfamiliar creatures
we encountered on the street,
ones with strange colors, shapes or motions.
Woman in full burqas, like shambling mounds of midnight.
People in big hats.
People on crutches or in wheelchairs.
Black people--a sad reflection of the diversity
of visitors to our apartment.
The worst was the time she lost it at an old black woman
in a wheelchair
in front of a funeral parlor
on Astoria Boulevard near the elevated tracks.
As we dragged her in a wide, apologetic berth
as far from the frightened woman
as possible.
As the woman's decked-out younger companions yelled at us.
As if we'd trained our dog to hate old black women in wheelchairs.
That was the worst.

But it's not as if Ella has never met a Muslim man before.
We used to walk her up Steinway Street in Queens,
right past all the Middle Eastern restaurants and pastry shops
and bookstores, and the men's social clubs with the curvy hookahs,
and even past the mosque.
Some people avoided us, though we never walked her
up the middle of the sidewalk or in such a way
as to block anyone's path.
We didn't mean it as a provocation
but more as a statement, an exercise of our rights
to free association, an exercise in multiculturalism.
And not everyone avoided us. One time
a group of three thirtyish Egyptians stopped us
as we walked Ella up the far edge of the sidewalk.
One of them with a reedy mustache and a look of childlike wonder
asked if our dog was friendly. "Yes," we said.
He asked if he could pet her. "Of course," we said.
We made her sit.
Ella could care less about most strangers, but she doesn't like
surprises, so we told the man to reach out slowly.
His fingertips barely grazed the hair on the top of her head,
while Ella sat patiently and yawned.
"Good dog," we said, while the man straightened up
with a smile as wide as the world on his face.
You could see him already composing the story in his head
that he would tell his friends,
about how he petted a dog
and didn't even get struck by lightning.
He'll be dining out on that one for years.

We loved that neighborhood for reasons like that meeting
on the street. We loved it for our friend Ali,
who would never touch Ella because he was cooking
in his little restaurant, but who always had a kind word for her,
and still asks about her when we visit.
I love it for the times I stayed out all night drinking
with Ali, who knew everyone, for the times he Virgiled me
into the social club across the street from his restaurant,
where I smoked shisha with the Egyptian men and listened
to monologues on history and hieroglyphics,
on all the important things that Egypt invented, or did first.
Our travels in Cairo and Luxor and Petra and Amman,
talking Islam and politics and Christianity
with virtual strangers in coffee shops and cafés,
sometimes seemed the inevitable endpoint of our years
in that neighborhood, which we loved.

What I'm trying to get at is, I don't hate Muslims,
and I especially don't want any Muslim to think I hate Muslims,
or that my dog hates Muslims.
Which she doesn't.
The two men on the path had nearly drawn even with us,
and Ella still hadn't moved off the pavement.
But there was enough room for her and the nearest man to pass
each other without touching, which they did.
"Good morning, sir," he said to me with a cheerful trill,
his face like a gibbous moon, beaming.
"Good morning, how are you today?" I said with a smile
as wide as Lake Michigan,
a smile trying a little too hard,
wanting to be seen as a friend, not a fraud,
and reflect the genuine shiver of camaraderie I felt.
"Very well, thank you," he said, dipping his head.
He, the respectful, non-threatening immigrant,
me, the welcoming, tolerant native,
both playing the part of open-minded, ideal world citizen.
Maybe he was born here, I don't know, and maybe I was not,
as far as he knew.
No matter.
We both still played our proper roles—
roles still, even if based on a true story,
inspired by real events.
I might wish for a deeper connection,
a meeting of the minds,
but at least we all passed on our leisurely errands
without baring our teeth,
without drawing our guns,
and I can live with that.

Ella, more alien than us all,
paid none of our human posturing the slightest mind.

Just a reminder that tonight I will be reading tonight with the Tuesday Funk gang at Hopleaf Bar in Chicago. Since I was also recently named a co-producer of the reading series, that's two big reasons I hope you'll join us tonight. Adding in great readings from Connor Coyne and Jackie Adamski only sweetens the pot.

Here's what the event invitation on Facebook has to say:

Tuesday, October 5 ยท 7:30pm - 9:00pm

Hopleaf Bar
5148 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL

October is our fall fiction reading, and our lineup of writers—CONNOR COYNE, JACKIE ADAMSKI, and WILLIAM SHUNN—bring you brawny, beer-soaked stories to fit the season.

Tuesday Funk convenes in the upstairs lounge at Hopleaf. Arrive early, grab one of the 600 amazing international beers at the bar, and come on up. We start seating at 7:00 pm. Stay afterward for some great Belgian-style food from Hopleaf!

PLEASE bring your friends and show your support for Tuesday Funk. Help us deliver a RECORD TURNOUT so we can keep staging these readings at HOPLEAF, the finest food-and-drink establishment on the north side.

(And please also become a fan of Tuesday Funk on Facebook, so you never miss an invitation.)

I hope to see you there!

On Sunday night Laura and I, together with our friends Maribeth and Larry, saw an immense theatrical spectacle of narrative, music, puppeteering, and images projected on a huge subdivided vertical surface. And no, it wasn't Roger Waters performing The Wall (though I did see that last night with my brother-in-law at the United Center).

The Astronaut's Birthday

What we did see was experimental theater group Redmoon's latest production, The Astronaut's Birthday, which is being presented in conjunction with Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.

In fact, the production is being presented on the Museum of Contemporary Art. The Astronaut's Birthday is a motion comic performed live, with all the art projected onto the windows of the museum's facade from inside. In fact, each of the eighteen windows has two puppeteers behind it, slapping hand-drawn, hand-colored gels onto an overhead projector and manipulating overlays to make some of the visual elements move. In fact, sometimes the images extend across multiple windows, and when you add in the music, sound effects, live narration and voice acting, not to mention the occasional human silhouettes that dance through the images, and you've got an immensely complicated operation going on behind the scenes.

With all the beautiful visuals and impressive technical craft going on, the story falls a bit on the thin and sappy side. But with a show like this, you're not really there for the story. The Astronaut's Birthday You're there for the spectacle. I took over a hundred grainy pictures of that spectacle during the show, which Redmoon in fact encouraged. In a pre-show announcement, they told us to take all the non-flash pictures we liked, and to disseminate them far and wide. (Which only goes to show that Redmoon gets this internet thing.)

So I'm doing my part with a Flickr slideshow comprising all the pictures I took from the crowded audience risers. The quality is maybe not the best, but if you set the play speed on FAST it will maybe give you an idea of what the visual component of the show was like.

Unfortunately, there are only three performances left (September 23, 24, and 26), so if you want to see The Astronaut's Birthday you'd better grab your tickets quick. And bring a jacket.

'Bye, "Boys"

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It was Laura who discovered the show in late 2006 and convinced me to start watching it with her. A sitcom about a female sportswriter in Chicago and her circle of male poker buddies. We were both hooked, not just because the group of friends were so damn nice and charming and funny, but because the lead character, P.J., seemed so much more like a real woman than most women on television. I guess the show reminded us of our circle of friends.

The second season of "My Boys" (later canonically folded into season one) started the same month we moved to Chicago from New York City. It was like a group of old friends welcoming us to the city, right down to the shot of Wrigley Field in the opening credits (which is where we saw The Police in concert the very week we moved here). If it wasn't already our favorite show, it took that slot then.

That summer season of "My Boys" ran a scant nine episodes, as has every season since. Like a butterfly migration, it arrives unexpectedly in the spring or summer and is gone again too soon. The gang's hangout, Crowley's Tavern, became for us the adult analog of Sesame Street—the mythical happy place we wanted to find and inhabit.

No more. It turns out that the season just ended is the "My Boys" swan song. TBS has canceled the series. We watched the two final episodes back-to-back last night, eating ice cream, happy for the characters' happy endings but mourning their exit from our lives.

After three years in Chicago, can you tell us how to get, how to get to Crowley's?

Sentence sparring

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I knew when I wrote an entry for my formatting blog about sentence spacing that I would probably make some people upset. I just didn't expect to hear about it so soon.

Three or four hours after posting it, I was at Hopleaf to see an excellent reading series called This Much Is True. (This is part of my campaign to visit all the reading series I can, so I can meet new writers, promote Tuesday Funk, and get ideas for promoting it.) In the line at the bar I ran into one of the producers of yet another local reading series, a fine one that will remain nameless, who said to me right off the bat, "I saw your post about two spaces at the end of a sentence today. I HATE TWO SPACES AT THE END OF A SENTENCE. I edit lawyers all day and they all do it, and I have to fix it, and it drives me crazy."

Which only underscores my contention that sentence spacing is the most contentious aspect of the bizarrely contentious issue of manuscript formatting. Or should that be italicizes?

I never enjoy writing a blog post for September 11th, but also don't like letting the day pass with saying anything. Happily, our social calendar last night handed me the perfect topic to share today.

Last night Laura and I attended one of the Art Institute of Chicago's occasional "After Dark" nights. This one turned the Modern Wing into an Indian-themed night club of sorts. We arrived early and slipped away from the festivities just in time to catch a preview of a new art installation, Jitish Kallat's "Public Notice 3," about which we knew nothing. We were fortunate enough to be part, I believe, of the first public group to see it, and had unobstructed access that not many viewers will get when it opens today.

"Public Notice 3" is the first work to be installed directly on the Art Institute's Grand Staircase. You get there from the Modern Wing, as we did, by passing through the Alsdorf Galleries. This space used The view from Buddha to be crowded with armor and armaments but is now devoted to religious art from India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas. Buddhas from different ends of those regions welcome visitors at each end of the gallery. It's hard not to dawdle with all the gods and demiurges on display. But there, through a portal at the opposite end, you can already see the field of varicolored lights framing one last Buddha.

Past that sculpture, you begin to take in "Public Notice 3." Kallat has gained a reputation for recontextualizing historical texts. In this case, the text is the remarks delivered on September 11, 1893, by Swami Vivekananda to open the first World's Parliament of Religions, which took place in this very building in association with the Columbian Expo. Vivekananda offered a stirring plea for tolerance, which Kallat has set flowing up the staircase in 15,000 tiny electric bulbs reminiscent of a Lite-Brite set. The words are rendered in the five colors of the Homeland Security Threat Advisory System.

Buddha and Public Notice 3   Public Notice 3, in part   true not only in   Laura notice

It's a stunning journey to slowly climb the stairs, immersing yourself in the text, while following the flow of the words to their final elevation on the upper floor. The text is duplicated on every route you can take to the top, illuminating the swami's contention that "the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

I wish everyone could experience "Public Notice 3" today, but failing that I wish everyone would take the time read Vivekananda's address in its entirety:

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

"Public Notice 3" has been called "provocative." But I don't see what's so provocative about an impassioned call for worldwide religious tolerance. Prescient, yes. Provocative, it shouldn't be.

Our downstairs neighbor is an extraordinary gardener, and we never know what plants or flowers are going to show up in the back yard next. Yesterday morning as we were heading to the garage, Laura said, "Hey, look! Moonflowers!"

Moonflower with human hand for scale The moonflower (Ipomoea alba) is a pretty cool plant. It grows fairly tall and the blossoms are huge, at least by back yard garden standards. It blooms at night, but only in late summer and autumn this far north because the days are otherwise too long. Instead of folding outward when it opens, like a lot of blossoms, the flower untwists, which is really something to see. If the morning is cool and overcast, the flower will stay open into the day, which is why a couple of the ones in the garden yesterday were out on full display.

Moonflowers   Unopened moonflower blooms   Moonflower plant with Ella for scale

After I dropped Laura off at the train and returned home, I spent a lot of time studying the plants, and also blowing the ants off the petals so I could get some decent pictures of them. I'd never spent any time looking at an actual moonflower before—the petals are surprisingly delicate, and feel almost like satin—which is perhaps strange because moonflowers figure prominently in my story "Observations from the City of Angels." (It was published in Salon under the title "Love in the Age of Spyware," and is still available there. It can also be heard in podcast form as episode 63 of Escape Pod.)

I just wish I had a robot I could have posed next to the plants.

Moonflower blooms

My funky Tuesdays

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One of the most exciting and unpredictable reading series in Chicago is Tuesday Funk, which takes place the first Tuesday of every month upstairs at Hopleaf Bar in Andersonville. Tuesday Funk has hosted wild-eyed poets, doe-eyed troubadours, and more excellent fiction, verse, and essays read live than you could shake a blue pencil at. I've been fortunate enough to have been asked to read there four times in the past couple of years myself, and I'm proud to have been considered an adjunct member of the Tuesday Funk family.

Reinhardt Suarez and Hallie Palladino of the Gothic Funk Nation have run the eclectic series with scary efficiency for nearly three years, but they're both moving on to greener pastures. I'm very pleased and more than a little humbled to announce that I will now be co-producing Tuesday Funk together with Sara Ross. We hope to keep the same great mix of genres and disciplines that has made the series so much fun in the past, while throwing in some curve balls to keep things fresh and interesting. We have some big shoes to fill.

While I never want the series to get away from its roots as a showcase for Chicago writers, I'd love to bring more out-of-towners into the mix too. So if you're a writer (or something similar) and plan to be in Chicago the first week of any given month, please drop me a line and I'll see if we have room for you. We'd love to have you.

Oh, another thing. Chicagoans, please mark your calendars for our next reading on Tuesday, October 5, 7:30 pm, at Hopleaf. I'll be reading again that night, together with a full slate of compadres, but most importantly we need to keep our attendance high so we can continue using Hopleaf's upstairs bar month after month. More reminders will follow, but I hope to see you there.

And finally, thanks to Hallie and Reinhardt for all their hard work, for their continued input and advice, and for entrusting us with their baby. We don't plan to let you down.

Reading on video

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The great folks at Essay Fiesta have posted video of the memoir excerpt I read for them at the Book Cellar on April 19th. This is a segment from The Accidental Terrorist called "Gluttons for Punishment":

(Damn, that was over my time limit. Thank God I didn't exceed the YouTube limit of ten minutes.)

Essay Fiesta is a monthly reading series that benefits the Howard Brown Health Center, hosted by Keith Ecker and Alyson Lyon. Please come out to the Book Cellar in Chicago on the third Monday of every month to support the series.

It's been so long since there's been constant bright sunlight in Chicago that I am startled every time this week that I walk indoors and see that the phosphorescent hands and numbers on my watch face are glowing.

Of course, this is the time of year when I don't need that feature so much...

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