Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another Frank Lloyd Wright affair


Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was once the proverbial prophet without honor in Oak Park. Early in his career, Wright showed bad form in skipping town with a client's wife. Last year a writer from Oak Park, Nancy Horan, found the story intriguing enough to imagine it from the woman's perspective. I read her book Loving Frank as my wife and I planned our own intimate association with Wright. We would live in one of his houses, if only for a day or two.

When I first came to Oak Park 30 years ago, Wright was re-emerging from obscurity nearly 20 years after his death. His turn-of-the-century early work were known mostly as the inspiration for the ranch house, and neighbors told me that for a long time his sprawling single-story commissions were viewed as no different from any other home in the comfortable Chicago suburb. Except that local roofers kept patching their leaks.
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But in 1978 the village had seen enough tourism potential in Wright to publish a guidebook to his homes, and a housewalk was organized to show Wright buildings that were on their way to becoming museum pieces. In the local weekly newspaper, the Oak Leaves, I reported with some fascination that "they have color TVs and children and dogs, like other homes." In Oak Park it was easy to buy into the Wright mystique.

In the '70s Wright's architectural office was being restored and opened for tours. That's where volunteer docents told me of the Cheney scandal, which did not involve Haliburton, an energy task force or a quail hunt. Wright built a low-slung rambler of a single-story home on East Avenue for Edwin and Mamah Cheney. Then he left his wife and split with Mamah for Europe, where he would publish a portfolio that influenced the emerging Bauhaus designers. Horan paints the couple as hounded by scandal-mongering press, which struck me as 21st-century embellishment until I read the actual news coverage. In 1909 the Chicago Tribune called the affair "an affinity tangle of character unparalleled even in the checkered history of soul mating."

Oak Park is home to 34 Wright structures, according to the most recent catalog of his homes, plus another 11 in neighboring River Forest. Wright designs had a name, the Prairie School, with carpenter-Gothic examples scattered throughout the Midwest. Wright moved his architectural practice to Wisconsin so I saw a lot of Prairie homes growing up. The Prairie School had a required reading list of Emerson and Thoreau, the better to recognize patterns from nature in his art-glass windows. There was even a typography based on his drawings, which influenced the Oak Park map I drafted for my wedding invitations.

Wright originals were not particularly lucrative for the architect. A running theme of Horan's book was Wright's continuous borrowing to finance a globe-trotting lifestyle and high-profile divorce. The architect made ends meet selling art prints he picked up cheap in Japan. Wright also designed massive wood furniture in the Arts & Crafts style, which in the 1970s was eagerly being bought up by Domino's Pizza baron Thomas Monaghan. Craftsman sofas built like workbenches were an acquired taste, though, and I had found one of its mass-market descendants for my college apartment at the Goodwill shop off campus.

The townhouse Brenda and I bought in Oak Park was across from the Unitarian church Wright designed, and we considered selling postcards to tourists scaling our front porch for a better camera angle. We could imagine living in a Wright house — the oak benches actually were pretty comfortable — but not paying for one. Wright homes now all have million-dollar price tags, even the so-called bootleg houses Wright designed while moonlighting from the Louis Sullivan firm. A Phoenix house he designed for his son is listed for $4 million.

This past March, Brenda spotted a New York Times article about Wright homes available for overnight rental, and was taken with the idea of living in a Wright house, if only for a couple of days.

So we planned a road trip through Pittsburgh to visit Fallingwater, Wright's best known house — a river runs through it. We booked a tour of another Wright curiosity: Kentuck Knob is maintained by the British lord who once owned Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House south of Plano. He lives there only a few weeks a year but keeps Claes Oldenburg sculpture and a piece of the Berlin Wall on the premises.

And we'd stay in a Wright home somewhere off the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Acme, PA. Mapquest could get us to the Dairy Queen in Donegal, where we could call for directions: turn right at Brady's Restaurant, when you see a fork in the road bear right, open the gate yourself and don't kick up too much gravel.

At the end of the rocky road was a ranch house on steroids, very long and low. We parked under the carport and let ourselves in. It was a time trip to the 1950s: a red Formica kitchen with built-in oven; a greatroom with stone fireplace and shag carpeting, and not Wright built-is but House of Teak knockoffs. This wasn't a museum piece, it was Graceland. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Owner Tom Papinchak arrived and filled us in. We had just taken a coals-to-Newcastle trip: Duncan House was built outside Lisle in DuPage County.

Wright's engineer in the 1950s, Marshall Erdman, was one of the early manufacturers of prefabricated homes. Duncan House was a 1957 attempt at a Wright prefab, a ranch house on steroids but modest by Wright standards. The Wright prefabs were a failure: Multiple changes to the stock plans ate up Erdman's profits. Only 11 were built.

Elizabeth Duncan saw the prefabs in a magazine and convinced husband Donald, an electrical engineer, that they could afford a stripped-down version in cinderblock instead of limestone. After Don Duncan died the 2-acre lot was subdivided, and four years ago the house became another DuPage County teardown. It escaped demolition, though. Crews dismantled the house, labeled the parts and packed them on semitrailers for a 500-mile trip East.

There the pieces sat for two years. An attempt to reconstruct the house as a museum ran out of money. (See a pattern emerging?) Papinchak, a contractor in the rebuilding effort, finally bought the warehoused house and spent a year piecing it back together, upgrading to a stone facade in the process.

He rebuilt Duncan House on the grounds of yet another failed Wright project, a subdivision of Wright homes that stalled after the architect's death. This would be the third house, joining two designed by a Wright apprentice. A year after the home was completed, Papinchak's plan to turn the grounds into a conference center appeared to be faltering as well. Catering supplies and gift-shop goodies were packed in the basement.

Secluded it was, but not exactly a resort. We could use the microwave and toaster oven but not the wall oven or range. The mattresses were hard. The wireless connection worked if the computer was docked against the wall. Cabinets were bare but for odd pieces of trimwork, its location labeled in Magic Marker.

Yet, spending time there, it was obvious the architect knew how his homes would be lived in. Thirty years ago, the owner of one of those Oak Park Wrights told me about "a constant play of light through the windows." It kept changing day and night. Learning firsthand what she meant made this an affair to remember.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"Am I Here," He Asks, as City Goes Wild with Frenzy of Joy


Watching Barack and Michelle Obama tonight on "60 Minutes," I'm struck by the pace of events. This spring I could walk past the Obama household on the way to the 57th Street Art Fair. Now in mid-November, the Obamas are laying claim to a much bigger house, with what Michelle slyly calls a really big home office. And after a walk-through with the current occupant, the next tenant is reviewing his closing-day list with Steve Kroft. Obama seems relaxed. Inauguration is two months away, but he's ready to seal the deal now.

Obama's every day seems groundbreaking. As he reviews his agenda for Day 1, Brenda is choking up. "Look," she said, pointing to the screen. "He's the president."

History is usually coming at me from my blind spot. Ten years ago, as database whiz pressed into service as election-night reporter, I had to divide my time among three contenders in a state senate primary race. I spent probably more than I could afford with one of the Bronzeville challengers. I was curious whether he viewed the University of Chicago incumbent as a dilletante. Finally the assignment editor called and said the 13th District was looking like a lock. So I rushed toward Hyde Park, where Jesse Jackson is holding court before a perfunctory acceptance speech from the victor, Barack Obama.

I missed my chance to go one-on-one with the future president. But I'm more in my element as a concerned citizen than a political reporter. And my job makes it easier to take sides in preservation than in politics. When a historic district was proposed for East Village three years ago, I testified in its support. When the city's landmark commission recommended the proposal, I stayed to thank the alderman and a group of commission members. Later I find that table of Daley appointees included the wife of the junior senator from Illinois, Michelle Obama.

So I've covered him, lobbied her. But I keep missing the mano a mano moment. So much for my eye for up-and-comers.

Brenda too had seen Obama only from a crowd. Still, on election night we want to be close to the event. As do a million other people. The scant information available on the Grant Park rally is front-page news. The party seems like an invitation for supporters to spend time camping in line rather than escorting voters to the polls. When Brenda is offered tickets, she put me on notice that I'd be holding her place.

In fact she wraps up canvassing and is queued on Balbo before 3 p.m. on Nov. 4. I stop to bring for sandwiches and Starbucks when Brenda phones. The line is moving! I grab a cab and soon am introducing myself to her new friends, a police lieutenant improvising a series of entry lines, and a pair of student photographers, shooting for publication in Facebook. Brenda makes a break for the bathroom at the Hilton and the line starts moving again. I go through the checkpoint without her, surrendering the sandwiches and Starbucks, and by phone talk her back to my new location, the closed-off intersection of Congress and Columbus.

One of the Facebook photographers asks me, OK, is the press really in the tank for Obama? Well, it's like the pressbox at a ballgame. Of course you have favorites. But, no cheering. This is more like the crowd in the box seats, and everyone is in high spirits showing off their Obama paraphernalia. We wonder how the women with the long jacket covered in campaign buttons is going to get through the metal detectors. And I'm concerned about getting even that far: Beyond the barricades, the police are huddling. Do they know how they'll keep the penned-up crowd from turning into a stampede? One of them peels off and talks us down with a bullhorn. When we move the sawhorses, stay cool and wait for our signal.

Sure enough, there's no mad rush when we're let loose, just a brisk walk to another holding area. Here we get two choices: Turn toward the lake and the concession stands, or toward the stage and get searched. It's dusk and we've only eaten the crackers I managed to get past the first checkpoint, but we're all in. A mass of Secret Service screeners is lined up under a canopy west of Hutchinson Field, and in no time at all we're through their metal detectors.

We're close to the stage, but no closer than I can afford seated at Lyric Opera, and not as close as Oprah will get tonight: a half-dozen rows beyond bunting that marks off the VIP area, behind three press photographers who thought they too should be much closer. A man from the campaign comes through every so often as a courier for their memory cards.

The VIP area extends the width of a football field, marked off by network reviewing stands, rows of press tables under bright lights, and to our left the stage, with a big-screen TV airing scant but encouraging CNN returns. The drama builds despite the network's odd serenade from Hank Williams Jr. and an even more head-scratching in-studio projection of Will.i.am.

CNN teases a big projection at 10. The sound system is cranked up and the network's election theme blares. Then then we see Obama's photo onscreen, and the announcement is drowned in cheers. A couple hugs beside me and my wife covers her mouth and cries. We keep reliving this moment, partly because we're still in the photographers' sights and Brenda's 10:01 p.m. gasp goes out on the Reuters wire.

The crowd's roar seems to continue for hours, quieting only for the victory speech. It's simple, it's commanding, it's everything I missed hearing at close range 10 years ago. Thanks to the TV coverage, you can picture the scene. Bright lights in a dark night, the Chicago skyline framing waves of people, happy to be in Grant Park just then.

The headline is authentic history, borrowed from the Chicago Tribune report of Charles Lindberg's 1927 transcontinental flight. Does election night in Grant Park measure up? I'm no judge of the historic moment. But it was a grand night in Chicago. That's big enough.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Stephen Rynkiewicz, man of letters

I wanted the letter-perfect career. So how did I end up making alphabet soup?

It all started with my first creative writing assignment: drafting my resume. All those years of making up exam answers were preparation for this task. My other college accomplishments were unexceptional, except for building my dorm-room sound system. Yet now was the time to turn my odd assortment of summer jobs and after-class hobbies into signs of upward mobility, at least on paper.

By the end of the page, I was reaching the limits of my BS degree, and the best chance of making my resume look good was finding handsome paper stock. Among the loose ends that filled out that page was a Radiotelephone Operator License, now known in the halls of government as the General Radiotelephone Operator License or GROL. It was proof to the FCC of my minimal competence in Ohm's Law as a college DJ. I set about turning this into proof of my ability to overcome resistance.

Such dizzying spin may have qualified me for only one job: public relations. Luckily, this resume caught the attention of Harold Bergen, Chicago PR executive and recovering engineer, whose daughter is now covering the Olympics for the Trib. Hal wasn't quite sure what a Radiotelephone Operator did, but he liked the sound of it. I am forever grateful that Bergen hired me as a writer in the Midwest office of the Ruder-Finn agency. My job: to represent professional societies for the near-professions.

By this I mean organizations like the International Fabricare Institute, for which I wrote pages of bullet points on laundry and drycleaning, tailor-made for lifestyle magazines. The best tip, of course: Save the tough stuff for a professional drycleaner. Maybe you've never thought of drycleaning as a profession. Think again. The IFI, now the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, runs a laboratory that tests "Dry Clean Only" instructions. This is a true vocation, to make a sweatshop come clean.

Not only do they dress your family in rayon and linen, your fabric-care professional also drapes his or her name with initials. The institute bestows the credentials CPD (for Certified Professional Dryleaner) and CPW (Certified Professional Wetcleaner, a starchy way of saying launderer). In the garment trade, ED is not erectile dysfunction, and certainly no call for a Viagra prescription. It's the designation for a Certified Environmental Dry Cleaner. Nothing dirty about it.

So you see, the lowly GROL really was a roaring start to my new world of employment. Clients also included the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors, which provided engineers with critical knowledge to keep their projects from blowing up. The National Board (I couldn't quite come to use its initials) provided certification in EB (Electric Boilers), CIB (Cast Iron Heating Boilers) and UM (a particularly sought-after designation these days, Unfired Media).

After representing professional drycleaners and professional boiler inspectors, I was nearly ready to become a professional reporter. What sealed the deal was that I could set type too, thanks to jobs as a Compugraphic and MTSC operator. MTSC is Magnetic Tape Selectric Composer, an early desktop publishing system that if memory serves involved stone knives and animal pelts. This high-tech experience served me well at the Chicago Sun-Times' suburban bureau, where "computer storage" was a pegboard where we rolled up and hung tape from the Teletype machines.

By that point, my resume was beginning to look like Mark Twain's. Young Sam Clemens also started out as a typesetter, and in his 20s he joined a militia, piloted a riverboat and searched for gold. None of those jobs panned out. "By trying, we can easily learn to endure adversity," Twain said. "Another man's, I mean." Certainly at this point I had retained the two characteristics that Twain's guarantee of success: ignorance and confidence.

After gathering credits like GROL and MTSC, reporting solidified my true vocation: collecting acronyms. Journalism's professional society started as a Depauw University fraternity, and when I joined its legacy pledges had managed to keep the greek letters alive. The group was known as the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi or SPJ,SDX. If you know anything about editors, you know one of them insisted on the comma.

SPJ-comma-SDX was just the umbrella organization for journalism. I also became involved in specialty groups — IRE, NAREE, SABEW, ONA and since I was briefly a college instructor, AEJMC. Plus a few joint broadcast projects with INBA and RTNDA, and awards from the publishers' groups (IPA, NAA, E&P). Trust me, they all stand for something.

My portfolio had expanded far beyond reporting by the time I was assigned a boss who was a PMP. Not that she was pimping for me, although I did need a good word with the general manager. My boss was a Project Management Professional. This was not just a new acronym to conquer, it was a revelation: I could get certified in getting things done!

Newspapers value this skill highly -- notably the new owners of the Tribune, who try to keep projects from being talked to a slow death. They have an acronym for their philosophy, AFDI, which means to actually do it. The F is just for emphasis. With this incentive, and with coaching from the PMO (the Project Management Office), I joined the PMA (Project Management Association) and started networking with software developers, commercial real-estate developers and a few engineers like my sister at Kodak, the film developer.

Finally, to help navigate all these new relationships and new acronyms I initialized one more project: I rejoined Toastmasters International, a group for professionals sharpening their persuasive skills. TM also has its own series of certications in speaking and leadership. Now I can address you now as Stephen Rynkiewicz ACB/CL, member PMA, SPJ....

Hope there's enough space on the business card.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Free jazz! Free Mandela! Chicago Jazz Philharmonic at Millennium Park

"Is it an orchestra?" Orbert Davis asked from the bandstand. "Or is it jazz?"

The leader of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic posed the question tonight at a Millennium Park concert dedicated to Nelson Mandela. The unasked question: How does mixing European symphony and American swing produce a tribute to South Africa?

With a gospel choir, it turns out. With orations that recall Copland's "Lincoln Portrait, performed with fervor by actress T'Keyah Crystal Keymah. (An windbag introduction by cable documentarian Bill Kurtis underscored what fortunate casting that was.) And in a nod to a Grant Park perennial, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," with extended quotes from a national anthem that brought the pavilion audience to its feet, some listeners with fist raised.

That and an African National Congress marching anthem, performers stomping in time, were the few obvious African references in the premiere of Davis' score, "Hope in Action," performed as a 90th-birthday salute to Mandela. Speaking from the conducting platform, Davis said he was inspired by Mandela's autobiography and from the PBS travelogue "Grannies on Safari." That alone should have told listeners they would not mistake the proceedings for a Mahotella Queens concert.

Davis' program notes suggests his inspiration was not literal. He offered the ensemble as a metaphor for the fight against apartheid: "When musicians are willing to create outside their personal and musical boundaries, they in essence produce a new genre and creative aesthetic."

Political themes in summer concerts tend to be flag-wavers, and the music that accompanied Mandela's quotations was, well, quotidian. But the rhythm section of Ryan Cohan on piano, Stewart Miller on bass and Ernie Adams on drums seemed particularly sharp in supporting the modal flights of Zim Ngqawana on alto and soprano sax and Ari Brown on tenor. They bespoke freedom in a way the recitations could not match.

The rest of the program struggled for its footing in this tug of war between classical and jazz idioms. But jazz arrangements with strings are so rare that it's always a pleasure to hear the Chicago Jazz Ensemble take them on. Dee Alexander reached for common ground in folk with two Miriam Makeba tunes, and got just comfortable enough with her lead sheets for a Dinah Washington flirtation in the Sid Wayne-Quincy Jones confection "Relax Max."

Davis' remaining charts were part Stravinsky, part Gil Evans. They included "100 Questions, One Answer," in which Brown and Ngqawana took freestyle solo turns with Nicole Mitchell on piccolo and Davis on a Leroy Anderson-style trumpet that reminded me of when I played "The Toy Trumpet" behind Clark Terry in a high-school clinic, and ended with a too-short quartet that held the potential for operatic drama.

Personal note: My time as a backup music critic in the provinces is long gone. Back then I enjoyed the luxury of writing the next day and did not have to sprint for the exit with the final note. Arriving just in time at the Pritzker Pavilion, I found a good seat next to Chicago Tribune colleague Howard Reich, with whom I have had occasional newsroom and lunchroom chats. We couldn't talk this time because he had to make himself scarce to write his review. I've never told him how highly I regard such deadline improvisation. It's a salute to his subjects, and this review is a salute to him.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Homes and arts in Beverly: Rodeo Drive it's not


Kathy Halper, Walter Burley Griffin


In my twenties I would drive up and down Sheridan Road looking at untouchable homes, wondering how the other half lives. In the Beverly neighborhood, large homes from the same era take the high ground on Longwood Drive.

But part of the Southwest Side's charm is that the other half is close at hand. A brick two-story on a quarter-acre lists for $285,000, a block from a Colonial on a half-acre at $675,000.

Southwest Side city landmarks include Longwood Drive, a pre-Chicago Fire Italianate, a smattering of Frank Lloyd Wright homes and a street renamed for his Prairie School acolyte Walter Burley Griffin. Houses on this stretch of 104th Place can list for close to $1 million, or half that for the Griffin home pictured here. The carpenter vernacular homes that surround them are charming too, and current listings include foursquare on an oversized lot.

Unlike their haughty North Shore counterparts, it was easy to picture yourself in any of them. The Ridge Historical Society website notes that swanky Beverly Hills was not named for the Chicago neighborhood.

An equally diverse yet grounded grouping rings the atrium activity room at the Beverly Arts Center, where a Chicago Artists' Coalition group exhibition is in its final days. Gabriella Boros and Millie Marnin foreshadow lives of struggle for their young subjects, while Kathy Halper place children in domestic scenes on wallpaper-pattern backgrounds, offering the same latent fury but with more hope.

Unsettling subtext is totally lacking in the upstairs installation by Perry Pollack. Its announcement claims Perry's work "avoids the gravitas and clichés of the art world," but the cool minimalist constructions steer straightaway to those twin destinations.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

It's the end of the boom as we know it, and I feel fine

At the Happy Village tavern, a neighbor confessed he's watching the real estate market from the sidelines, waiting to buy at the market's low point. From that barstool perch, the parade may already be passing him by.

The sales pace in West Town is indeed off 30 percent from last year. Yet property values have risen 3 percent, according to the Chicago Tribune's Market Pulse analysis of property transfers.

West Town's median price of $400,000 is up 20 percent in five years. The sales numbers pace 2003 levels. Prices increased this year in 24 of the city's 77 census areas, including nearly all lakeshore communities.

The Illinois Association of Realtors' Chicago area statistics show values down 3 percent overall — hardly a free fall. Condo prices were up by a greater percentage. The typical sales commission wouldn't cover the difference between the median-priced condo and midpriced home.

The overall picture masks some sad individual cases, as this week's foreclosure report suggests. So-called sub-prime loans have fallen down the rabbit hole, and many families with them. In the first three months of the year, foreclosures started on 6.35 percent of adjustable loans in that higher-risk category, nearly triple the overall rate.

Foreclosures ran apace in only seven states, however, with the Great Lakes trouble spots (Michigan, Ohio and Indiana) starting to shore up. It could get worse. It could get better. Or, as the regional gaps suggest, it's all about location. Many neighborhoods will stubbornly hold their own as bystanders await their collapse.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

My work for hire with the South Side Hitmen

A long courtship need not start with fireworks. That was literally the case on my first visit to Comiskey Park. The exploding scoreboard fired only once before the Chicago White Sox lost to the Cleveland Indians on Aug. 10, 1977. Once was enough. I've been a Sox fan ever since.

There were no home runs to set off the the scoreboard's electronic pinwheels, only an RBI single. But if that night was not an auspicious start, at least I can document it. I was fresh out of college with a PR job, and had written a press release for Coca-Cola's role in Guinness Book of World Records night at Comiskey Park. Sweetheart Cup built a 5-foot-high waxy paper cup at its 75th and Kostner plant, and Coke's local fountain syrup distributor was going to fill it with enough carbonated water to wash down a 22-foot-long submarine sandwich.

This record-setting fast supper was one of the lesser milestones of legendary promoter Bill Veeck, who started his baseball career when his family worked for the Cubs. Forty years earlier Veeck had built the Wrigley Field center-field scoreboard and planted ivy on the walls. Now he was the lead owner of the White Sox and his son Mike was filling the home game schedule with circus acts and other pregame stunts. One went famously wrong two years later, when 24-year-old DJ Steve Dahl blew up a crate of disco records in center field between games of a doubleheader with Detroit. Or what would have been a doubleheader if the field were still playable after riot police cleared out rowdy fans.

My 1977 introduction to Comiskey Park was a much tamer affair. The night before, Steve Stone pitched a 13-3 win over Western Division rival Seattle before 12,294 fans. It was raining the afternoon the the Ruder & Finn publicity team set out for the South Side. Bob Verdi wrote in the Tribune the next day that the infield looked like the paddock at Arlington Park.

After assisting with the pregame festivities from the sidelines, we took box seats on a damp concrete deck. It felt like taking refuge from the summer heat in a cool basement rec room. At this point I had seen the Sox only in day games as a Brewers fan, including one near-disastrous field trip. We took a chartered bus from Madison with a keg of beer, which the bus driver nursed as we watched the game. Our trip home was delayed when the bus ran into a ditch near Delafield.

Some Sox stars were missing from manager Bob Lemon's lineup. Lamar Johnson was at 1st base instead of Jim Spencer and Jack Brohamer replaced Jorge Orta at 2nd. At least Cleveland, aligned then with the Eastern Division, had not played the Sox since May and was on a six-game losing streak.

Wilbur WoodThe pitcher was Wilbur Wood, a 35-year-old knuckleballer. The knuckler is an unpredictable corkscrew pitch that confounds not only batters, but also catchers. Brian Downing took Jim Essian's place in the battery. Wood was in his 16th year in the major leagues and his 11th for the Sox. After years as a reliever, the Sox put him in the starting rotation in 1971. He pitched 20 or more complete nine-inning games in each of the next four years.

In 1977 Wood had a knee ailment and was a year away from retirement, but was the highest-paid Sox starter at $140,000. The two Sox stars of 1977 were just passing through. Veeck traded for right-fielder RIchie Zisk and designated hitter Oscar Gamble even though he could not afford to keep them more than a year, when they would become free agents. At the All-Star Game Zisk played alongside Reggie Jackson, whom the Yankees had hired for five years at $2.9 million.

Cleveland's leadoff man, Duane Kuiper, led off with a bunt single, got to second on a swinging bunt by Buddy Bell, and reached third on an infield out. With bases loaded, ex-Cub Andre Thorton tried a bunt as well. It dropped dead along the third-base line for a single that brought in Kuiper.

Wood never found his knuckleball and Cleveland scored two runs in the third and two in the fifth. Bill Melton, who had spent eight years with the Sox, got his 1,000th career hit in the ninth inning for the Indians, with Jack Kucek in relief.

This was the year of the South Side Hitmen, but not tonight. Pitching for Cleveland was Wayne Garland, a 20-game winner for Baltimore. He signed with the Indians for 10 years at $2.3 million and immediately developed arm problems. They were not in evidence. Garland had a three-hitter going into the ninth.

The Sox made it exciting with a late rally: Lamar Johnson singled, Gamble walked, and Eric Soderholm singled to load the bases with two outs. Orta came in as a pinch hitter and worked Garland to a full count, only to fly out and end the game. Garland pitched a complete game, which means I did not hear Nancy Faust's newest specialty. The organist would grab any song title that came close to fitting the action, and lately she had begun to play a late-1960s pop song when an opposing pitcher was replaced. It was "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)."

Aug. 10 was a 6-1 loss, and likely the beginning of the end for the 1977 Sox. They led Minnesota by 1½ games but would start a slow fade to Kansas City and Texas. Still, this was fun. The Sox had come far with an all-hit, no-field squad of underdog rent-a-players.

Harry Caray was calling play by play on WMAQ — yes, Harry was working on the South Side, and had begun leading the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch. As a Chicago newcomer I was captivated by the city's street life after dusk, and especially a cool night under stadium lights. I became a Sox fan that night, and though I have never lived south of Madison Street I have looked to the South Side ever since. And Guinness Book of World Records night got mentioned in the newspaper game wrapup, which endeared me to the Tribune. But that's another story.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Moved by stationery

Former coworker Frank Gruber was musing before Mother's Day on the superior alternatives to musical greeting cards. But Mom's not tweeting, you know. She still wants the phone call, but really appreciates writing.

There are alternatives to gimmick greetings. Hipster DIY craft shops have rediscovered the art of letterpress printing. Letterpress cards are not typical Hallmark fare but high-touch affairs with embossed images and restrained color on rag paper. Mother's Day was a good excused to take Shadow for a walk to visit Maude at Paper Doll on Damen.

Sonny has been known to abandon his roller-ball for a fountain pen on occasion and repress memories of his Catholic school penmanship lessons. He really has to pause and reflect on Mom while filling in the large blank spaces, and the scribbling itself is a lost tactile pleasure.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A dog and his bones



I took my dog to the neurosurgeon the other day. Yes, dogs have docs who fix slipped discs, treat seizures and tend to wobbly walks, and I was in the market for such a specialist.

Or should I say, Shadow was in need of one. We found this Belgian shepherd mix at The Anti-Cruelty Society five years ago, and he may have been age 3 at the time. Strays don't come with pedigrees. Now at age 8 he was having problems with the winding stairs in our house. He would approach them as I addressed a home improvement project, staring at the woodwork, frozen in place, trying to figure out what to do next. It took my considerable coaching skills to get him to put one leg in front of another.

Dogs usually walk on their paws, which would be like walking on tiptoes. When he walked up steps, Shadow's shinbone almost touched the tread. Walking down was worse. He would circle the head of the staircase, look down the stairs, then circle again, as if he had to keep hitting the reset button to get himself moving. Sometimes I just have to pull his immobile legs out from under him and carry his 50 pounds down the steps. This winter, I put Shadow on a low-fat diet.

Things got progressively worse. My neighborhood has various types of of 3-flat condo buildings, but one common trait is that none of the owners care to shovel snow. So taking the dog for a walk is like taking him through an agility course, jumping hurdles and maneuvering obstacles. Shadow was not the star pupil in agility school. Worse, he started adopting a strange stance, walking with both his hind legs thrust forward. I'd feel a tug on the leash and look behind me to see Shadow splayed on the ice, looking around like his buddy the schnauzer had snuck up and greased his path as a practical joke.

By this time I was suspecting his hind legs were not quite right, and a couple days of long walks in last month's warm stretch confirmed it. A trip to the park usually set Shadow running after every squirrel he saw. This time, he just barked. He was moving slowly, then hardly at all. Aspirin helped, till the vomiting started. I booked an appointment with the chiropractor at the local veterinary clinic. Yes, there are canine chiropractors too.

But the chiropractor checked back with Shadow's usual vet, and in turn Dr. Jane called Shadow in for a closer look. Already I'm probably looking at a couple hundred of bucks on visits to the clinic, X-rays, the whole bit. Our vet is a real sweetheart though. Dr. Jane's exam room has a photo on the wall of a dog who's the spitting image of Shadow. It's her dog, who died a few years ago, and she always greets Shadow like a long-lost relative.

She and a lab technician prodded Shadow, flipped him on one side, then the other, and tested his reflexes with a rubber mallet. One side, he's all twitches. The other, tap tap, nothing happening. Numb. Doggie sciatica. This is when Dr. Jane starts talking about the dog neurologist. There used to be one in the whole state, who would drive up from Champaign once a month like a circuit rider.

Now there's a veterinary neurologist up in Northbrook, board certified in internal medicine, with all the diagnostic equipment, the surgical setup, everything. You can make an appointment in the morning and if Shadow needs an operation, you're in the right place. Just one thing, Jane said. You're not talking about hundreds of dollars, but thousands.

Well, what could I do but make the appointment? Shadow was happy. He was in no obvious pain. There was no reason not to treat him. And he's my best friend! Really, five years ago I was having a rough patch at work, and I took a cue from Harry S Truman. "If you want a friend in Washington," he said, "get a dog." Shadow taught me a lot. He got me out in the sunshine every day, got my mind off my problems, and made me leader of the pack. There's a responsibility that comes with that.

So I told my co-workers I was taking the day off and I gave Shadow a push into the back seat for a trip up the Edens. Shadow loved the excursion, and the clinic's waiting room was a social occasion for him. The neurologist followed us out to the parking lot so Shadow could stretch his sometimes wobbly legs. Then it was back inside for more prodding and more rubber mallets.

That was all the neurosurgeon needed. Nothing really unusual here. Shadow might be a bit older than Anti-Cruelty's best guess, he said, and getting a bit arthritic in the legs, maybe the spine or neck. Time for to trade in Shadow's collar for a harness. And time for a return to see Jane for X-rays, doggie dentistry, and the same kind of treatment many older humans need: anti-inflammatory pills, glucosamine for the joints, some regular but not super-strenuous workouts.

Dogs are stoic about old age. They don't complain or expect too much from old bones. They seem happy with their lot. Whatever lies ahead, Shadow has more to teach me about life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The tippling point

A reporter in a bar would be the definition of an unreliable source. Same with Malcolm Gladwell at a storytelling performance. In Slate, Jack Shafer calls out the author of "The Tipping Point" for a performance at the NYC story event The Moth. Bunk, the subhead claims. Well, yeah....

Gladwell's tall tale of journalist apprenticeship reminded me of the after-hours yarns told at Chicago newspaper hangouts, as well as Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's insider scenes in "The Front Page" and satirical novels from Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" to Charles Dickinson's "Rumor Has It" and Calvin Trillin's "Floater." Like most fiction, all germinate from a seed of truth. Nelson Algren's short stories from "The Neon Wilderness" is my current occupation on the 66 Chicago bus. Algren wrote fiction and nonfiction set on the West Town streets where this bus now trolls, and often it's hard to tell which is which.

One of Gladwell's conceits was a variation on the "Order of the Occult Hand." Old-school reporters were initiated into this virtual society by getting an article published using the phrase "It was as if an occult hand..." Fans of The Onion would appreciate this sendup of journalistic convention, documented by (among others) editorialist Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and reporter James Janega of the Chicago Tribune. Gladwell looks to be an Occult Hand apprentice.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Postum-part depression

PostumAn NPR report started a rush of demands on the Kraft message board to bring back Postum. Too late. Kraft stopped making the hot beverage mix last year.

The archetypal health beverage, a 19th-century wheat-and-molasses concoction of C.W. Post, is no longer found alongside instant coffee at Jewel and Dominick's, although chicory is still hiding on high shelves. Coffee-flavor Postum was an abomination of course, but Postum had the same mellow feel as New Orleans' gift to coffee.

NPR interviewed an fan who made a watery cup of Postum via satellite for Scott Simon. Some people make coffee taste like tea too. One possibly ironic message on the Kraft board suggested ground cardboard as a substitute. Bah. As my wife ruefully recalls, Postum was never strong enough for me till you could smell the blackstrap. Herb tea is just not going to cut it.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Extreme times call for extreme measures

Moby DickAye, aye! and I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth till he sprouts black blood and rolls fin out. What say ye, men, will ye splice hands on it, now? I think ye do look brave.
Herman Melville, "Moby Dick, or the Whale"

Captain Ahab had a boatload of earnest accomplices on his quest for the Leviathan. Thus it ever was with change we can believe in. The presidential campaign has taken on rising stakes and a meaner tone. Any sign of nuance, from Mitt Romney's benchmarks for Iraq to Barack Obama's thoughts on Ronald Reagan, are taken for signs of weakness. Extreme values are the measure of unlikely behavior.

When Barry Goldwater said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," his words to the 1964 Republican Convention were a strange echo of Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter From Birmingham Jail" a year earlier: "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?" Whatever your concept of liberty, it's bound to be something worth fighting for.

Tribune Company's liberty was at stake whenSam Zell took over at yearend, and the company's core values changed nearly overnight. At least the 1991 corporate mission statement got a grand rewrite. It's hard to pledge yourself to "Create premier branded content." I'd rather "Play to win," particularly when the Sun-Times is spelling out the price of failure.

In catching up with the Sun-Times buyouts, I missed the news that the Sun-TImes is abandoning its Booster weekly newspapers. Oak Park's Wednesday Journal will extend its city footprint by taking over over the former Lerner imprint, along with the Booster and News-Star. East Village/Wicker Park is one of the few neighborhoods in which the two chains currently compete. Likely that will not continue. Update: The Booster's new owner confirmed that its coverage area was retreating to Lake View. )

One rogue trader may have lost the Societe Generale bank $7.14 billion, spooked futures exchanges worldwide and escalated the Fed's extreme makeover of the U.S. economy. Playing to win is sometimes literally going for broke. Said Mr. Starbuck: "God keep me!—keep us all!"

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Marsalis' slow turn on Ellington



Wynton MarsalisWynton Marsalis gives "Cabin in the Sky" his thumbs-down. Still, his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in Chicago on Friday, couldn't resist dusting off "Going Up," Duke Ellingon's contribution to the thinly plotted 1943 race movie. "He must have thought, something better come of this mess," Marsalis said.

Rookie director Vincente Minnelli seems to do more than go through the motions (note the nice dance-hall tracking shot). But it's good to have even a cheesy M-G-M document of Ellington's heyday, just as putting slapstick standards to celluloid elevated the Three Stooges to historians of burlesque. (Watching my dog launch himself at parkway squirrels still triggers my recall of "Slowly I Turn").

Maybe Marsalis came to Symphony Center via ... Niagara Falls! The Jazz at Lincoln Center band was dressed in gray suits matching the Ellington clip, ready for fun with standards and obscurities on an assortment of instruments. Elliot Mason took an uptempo turn on bass trumpet; "The Single Petal of a Rose" featured Joe Temperley on bass clarinet alongside a dukish Dan Nimmer. Ali Jackson's brushwork on "Solitude" was a simple display of skill. Marsalis not only channeled Leonard Slatkin in a music appreciation lecture but flirted with audience members seated onstage. A swinging time was had by all.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Doctor Atomic: It's the Bomb

Doctor AtomicIt's a gray sun brooding over the proceedings, a diving bell to hell, a sacred-heart monstrance in a monstrous benediction. The atom bomb hanging over the New Mexico desert cyclorama in Lyric Opera's "Doctor Atomic" looks like it came at once from government-archive photo and stage director Peter Sellars' dark fantasies. Act One of this San Francisco Opera co-production has dancing electrons and an Anvil Chorus of physicists, but "The Gadget" steals the show.

Sellars' libretto for the John Adams opera is a pastiche, but with a striking range. J. Robert Oppenheimer speaks in his own words and in the poetry of Baudelaire and John Donne, whose poem Batter my heart, three person'd God becomes a Faustian killer aria for Gerald Finley. His wife's dialog is elegaic poet Murial Rukeyser, who apparently is not represented in the Chicago Public Library collection. A Greek chorus quotes The Bhagavad-Gita in their fear of what Man hath wrought.

This has been a fine season for Lyric Opera, perhaps because we've cut our subscription back to four operas to avoid yet another "Boheme" or "Traviata." (OK, we don't mind another "Barber of Seville.") Handel's "Julius Caesar" cornered the market on countertenors, trumped by Danielle de Niese's Cleopatra as a Bollywood ingenue. And Christine Brewer dueled diva Deborah Voigt to a draw in "Die Frau ohne Schatten."

But the Lyric's late first attempt at a John Adams opera matched these considerable feats. As a dramatic slice of recent history it resembled "Amistad", which debuted at Lyric a decade ago and only now is being revived for Spoleto. But while Anthony Davis' high-atonal score did the impossible, creating an opera on slavery that could not bring you to tears, "Doctor Atomic" used a similar musical language to speak the unspeakable with both force and intimacy. Bring your hankies.