Monday, December 29, 2008

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Why John Lennon's (Just Like) Starting Over is a Delicious Proustian Donut

(Just Like) Starting Over reminds me so palpably of being a child that it's become one of a handful of my most powerful sonic Madeleines. I love it not just for its slick melodic sheen (hello 80's reverb!) and pop craftsmanship but for how it stirs the Proustian particulars of being young and awakening to the world.

It reminds me most powerfully of the summer of 1981. It stirs up a set of powerful memories associated with the summer my family spent a month vacationing at the Chautauqua Institute in Bemus Point, New York. Bats would occasionally get trapped indoors and have to be chased out with broomsticks. One lazy afternoon I watched Bjorn Borg playing at Wimbledon on a little black and white TV my brothers had wisely seen fit to have accompany us on our travels.

The Institute was and still is, a gated arts-community, a privileged summer resort created over 100 years ago with the purpose of spiritually nurturing and equipping Sunday school teachers before it rapidly expanded to encompass the secular arts and the importance of life-long learning amongst the well-heeled. In the summer of 1981, I had just turned 10 years old. I had a small clock radio I had picked up at a neighborhood garage sale. It looked similar to this.
There was a small single speaker that always crackled on with a second or two of feedback before settling in. And there was this song, an ode to Lennon's fealty to mid-life domesticity (it was released October 9, 1980, Lennon's 40th birthday) and its accompanying commitment to monogamy and child rearing. It went to #1 in both in the US and UK just a couple weeks after Lennon's murder.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Megan Marjorie Breitenbach

Born 11:16 am, November 19th. 8 pounds, 21 inches. Welcome to the world little baby girl!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What We Do When We're Waiting For Our Little Sister

Wine For Later

Took a walk yesterday afternoon to help coax the baby along. Didn't work, though Abby fell asleep. We stopped at In Fine Spirits and Cathy, whose been dry for the better part of the last year for obvious reasons, chose 5 bottles of wine. We're looking forward to sampling them over the holidays. Cathy won't be able to drink much given her breastfeeding responsibilities but I've promised to pick up the slack.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Lou Lou's House of Christmas

My Mom took part in the Bay Village "Homes For the Holidays" tour yesterday. The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's last daily, ran a nice story on the tour earlier this week, focusing on my parents house. That's my Mom sitting in our living room. You can read the article here.

This is our dining room. My Mom and Christmas have a long and fascinatingly complex history. Entire rooms in the basement of this house are filled with holiday decorations. I used to warn my Mom that come the following Christmas I would be discreetly placing price-tags on each of these decorations, taking out an ad in the paper and working a cash register in our kitchen as I opened the house for retail sales.

That's our house. Well, my parents house. They moved there a few months shy of my second birthday in 1973 which means they've lived there for close to 35 years now. I haven't lived there since the summer of '93 or '94.. But I love the house deeply. My interest in family folklore, in the idea of place and in first wave suburbs (built after WWI and before WWII) all stems from this house. In fact, my very idea of home, or the one I'm trying to create with Cathy and Abby, finds its roots in this home.

I'm the second caroler from the left.

Here's my favorite quote from the Plain Dealer article:

Mary Lou is not the only one with a hobby that will be evident to tour-goers. There's the little matter in the living room of the 7-foot-high, 7-foot-wide 1916 Wurlitzer band organ, acquired about 12 months ago by Art Breitenbach, a collector of such musical instruments.

Band organs most often were found in the center of carousels, providing the musical accompaniment to carnivals and amusement parks.

"There's no volume control," said Mary Lou, a tad dryly. Art, sitting near the meticulously restored organ, just smiled.

Disciple of Sun Ra

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Election Day

I'm hoping to roll out a lot more of these more personal mini-documentaries over the course of the next year. This one, this awesome slice of history, was too good to pass up. And while its dedicated to Abby and Sean, its impetus was the passing of Studs Terkel, whose spirit was right there in the streets of Chicago with us.

Saturday, November 08, 2008


The Breitenbach family draws names each Christmas. It works like this: around autumn somebody will be inspired to rip up several small scraps of paper, write the various names of the Breitenbach Family Singers on them, hastily fold them and finally ask a volunteer to step forward and choose names for the rest of us. You're then responsible for providing a Christmas gift for that relative. A lot of families do this. There inevitably comes a point when things like leaving home, graduating from college, moving and starting a family all conspire to make the purchasing of gifts for each member of your birth family and their progeny (to say nothing of your own offspring) completely infeasible. Us Breitenbach's have gone from 6 to 15 (soon 16!) in less then 15 years.

So one buyer, one receiver. We keep the price to what seems an appropriately modest cap of $75. My Dad drew my name this year. When he and my Mom came to visit a couple weeks ago I told him exactly what I want. About 20 years ago my Dad borrowed a film splicer, combed through his grocery bag of 30 or so reels of Super-8 family films he shot from the late 60's through the early 80's, and combined some of what he thought was the best footage into a couple larger reels. I want him to digitize those suckers! Film stock is notorious for giving itself over to the ravages of time-- it decomposes, its picture begins to fade, it threatens to crumble. Given my love of the grainy poetic texture and glimpses of family folklore Super-8 films reveal, I'm worried about the state of these reels.

Besides that, I have no idea what's on these films. We had a projector and screen. I remember my brothers, fleeting amateur Super-8 auteur's themselves, playing these films down in our basement in the late 70's. But it's been over 25 years.

Freedom From Fear

I began David M. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize winning book Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 the other night. In a queasy parallel with our own economic woes, it begins on the cusp of the stock market crash of 1929, an event that ushered in the Great Depression and all its consequent hardships. This massive economic disruption, Kennedy points out, also came to symbolize the end of an era of massive and prolonged industrial expansion.

The old adage, "may you live in interesting times," seems particularly apt in describing the tectonic social and economic shifts that occurred during the first one third of the twentieth century. Kennedy describes a study commissioned by the Hoover Administration, Recent Social Trends, that sought to detail the many aspects of American life at this time. This included, according to Kennedy:

the Great War, mass immigration, race riots, rapid urbanization, the rise of giant industrial combines like U.S. Steel, Ford, and General Motors, new technologies like electrical power, automobiles, radios, and motion pictures, novel social experiments like Prohibition, daring campaigns for birth control, a new frankness about sex, woman's suffrage, the advent of mass-market advertising and consumer financing. "These," the researchers declared, "are but a few of the many happenings which have marked one of the most eventful periods of our history."

Astounding, to say the least.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes We Can Can Can!

That's what I'm talkin' about. So, so sweet.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


We voted this morning. We're feeling very good about it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Halloween 2008

After the trick or treating, Abby was allowed to pick two pieces of candy. She prolonged her sugar buzz by choosing a couple suckers.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Adult Indie Contemporary Balkanization

The mix of music at Uncommon Ground last weekend: Andrew Bird, Tom Yorke, Sufjan Stevens, The Shins. It's cozy and closer to 40 then 30. It's hip, too, or definitely still wants to me. The flow of this mix is predicable though and I wouldn't mind a surprise or two. But as a culinary soundtrack and general ambiance generator, it does a perfectly agreeable job.

Who are we missing here? Wilco. Nick Drake. Cat Power. Iron & Wine. The New Pornographers. M. Ward. The Roots or Common or Erykah Badu. Or The Roots feat. Erykah Badu. Al Green with the Roots as his backing band. Yo La Tengo. TV On The Radio. The Flaming Lips. Feist. Who else can I balkanize into the mix?

I'm making a sweeping generalization here, but I'd guess that most of the folks buying the above albums or heading out to see these artists live are over 30. And probably not much older then 40. What other demographics? Predominately white. Over half married and with children. More then 2/3 with college educations, a quarter with a grad school degree. Eat out frequently. Left leaning. Still buy CD's but increasingly comfortable with downloading.

For the most part, that's me. But I haven't bought a CD in over a year.

October's Gonna Go Out Like That

If October goes out like Skilling and his meteorological gang at the Tribune are currently predicting,
then I may very well have to help Abby eat some of her Halloween candy.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Name For Late October

"Daddy, Mommy usually puts a little olive oil in that," Abby says to me as she hands over a bottle of straight up cooking oil she's pulled from the lazy Susan while I'm busying about making us some oatmeal this afternoon. I adore how she's teaching me how to cook, just like her Mom.

That above photo of Abby and me plays tricks with time. It's cliche to say children cause time to fly, but until I had actually lived this cliche myself I always met the sentiment with a shrug. What's most surprising is witnessing just how fast a child really does grow, both physically and cognitively. It's ridiculously fast. It was only a couple years ago that Abby was just beginning to talk. She had no real desire to walk, but man could she crawl. Now, of course, she's helping me cook oatmeal at lunch, offering helpful cooking hints and all the while pretending to be a mermaid.

We're a month out now from the baby's due date. Additionally, Cathy and I reached name consensus this morning just before she left for work. Today we named her. A name free of any bad associations and with its own family folklore.

This is my favorite picture from the first few hours after Abby was born almost 3 years ago:

Both my girls looking beautiful.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Death And All His Literary Friends

I've had a pretty good run of fiction reading of late, reading new authors whose books have sat neglected and forlorn on my shelves. It's not their fault that I haven't read them until recently. Reading takes time. And while I'm reading, I'm also impulsively checking Library shelves, Amazon's catalog or a bookstores latest display. I'm using my library or credit card and surrounding myself with more words then I can keep up with. That's just fine. I happily admit to my book fetish, to my conspicuous consumption of pulp, a love bordering on awe for finely chiseled sentences laid out one after another. No doubt part of that fetish is delayed gratification. What will I read next? What should I save for later?

There's something intensely gratifying about stockpiling a small library of unread books. Or maybe it's just the end result of something impulsive, this insatiable need to have an abundance of books around me. Or maybe it's just odd. Sometimes I'll pick one of those unread books off the shelf and leaf through it, pausing to read a passage at random. I adore the luxury of those books, their covers still uncreased. Choosing what to read next is made simple. All these unread books have already gone through the filters of my own bias, my own literary predispositions. They all look like they could be very, very good. The reviews I read certainly sold me. Or the other books I've read by that particular author were amazing. Or, why not? if it won the National Critics Award, the Pulitzer, the Booker Prize, I'll give it a try. Sometimes, rarely, I'm so shallow as to allow a books cover or publishing company or its prominent New York Times Book Review blurb to persuade me of its possible merit.

And lately, almost everything I've been choosing has been wonderful. And gummed up with death. At least, what's governed the narrative of the fiction I've read of late and given it a special urgency or a palpable air of melancholy can be directly attributed to deaths all encompassing thematic shrug. In Cormac McCarthy's The Road, for example, death is everywhere. In grisly basements scenes, burned out forests and most devastatingly of all, the novels heartbreaking end. In Jose Saramago's Blindness death is again in a grisly basement, lingering in the hallways of an overcrowded asylum and promising to snuff out all of humanity two opaque eyes at a time. In Colm Toibin's The Master, death intrudes on solitude and after much introspection becomes material for the novels of Henry James. (Sounds dull, but it's anything but.) And lastly, in the book I just finished reading, The Line of Beauty, because the protagonist is so young, so coked up and alive and surrounded by the pampered privelege of Thatcher's ruling Tories, death is nowhere. At least not until the very end. Then it intrudes and causes the rather spectacular downfall of our protagonist in the form of AIDS.

And now I've gone and picked up Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs because I need something autumnal, the fall equivalent of a good beach read. I've never read any of his other books, but I know Russo sets most of them in small towns. Bridge of Sighs, not surprisingly then, is set in upstate New York. I'm about 100 pages in and the jury is still out. Russo has something, enough of a command of his storytelling to keep me hooked if not consistently engaged. But death, nonetheless has already been introduced. 'Tis the season, I suppose.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Moving Beyond Local Weather, Traffic and Crime

One of more interesting side effects of traditional media's current struggles (declining subscriptions/viewership, fragmenting audiences, decreased ad revenue and, hence, operating budgets) is a resurgence of interest and discussion about local news coverage. While many local newspapers are, among other cost-cutting steps, having to scale back on overseas news-gathering bureaus, relying more and more on the outsourced reporting of Reuters and the Associated Press, there's an optimism, forced or genuine I'm not entirely sure, in their dedication and ability to report on local matters in a way that other news outfits (the nationals like New York Times or USA Today) simply can't. Granted, this local news isn't sexy, it's not creating the news cycle narratives like the nationals are able to, but I do feel like I've read and heard numerous local newsroom representatives and analysts (columnists, editors, bearded professors) waxing about how "nobody can provide the kind of local coverage like we can."

A whole page dedicated to the weather? Tom Skilling's got us covered at the Tribune. Reviews on the bands playing next week? the Reader's got a new pullout section! Want to know about the latest accessory, gadget or hip new restaurant? Time's Out Chicago's proven system of operation is ready with a blurb. The latest budget crisis, South Side shooting or North Side sexual assault? The Sun-Times Metro section.

Especially in urban areas, people are turning to a variety of sources--print, radio, TV, online, to get their fill of local news coverage. Personally, I depend on the local coverage provided by the likes of the Reader, the Tribunes Metro section (or did that morph or merge into something else entirely in their new design upgrade?), Time Out Chicago, online sources like Gapers Block and aggregators like EveryBlock and Chicago. Taken together, these sources help me with understanding and more fully engaging in what's happening around me. I also watch a smattering of local TV news in the morning and at lunch. It's focus can be distilled down to local weather, traffic, sports, crime and entertainment offerings. There's not much of merit, though PBS Chicago does have some admirable Chicago based programming, key among them being Check Please with sommelier Alpana Singh.

And joining these more established media sources in their local reporting are millions of amateurs. I find that tremendously heartening. A nascent citizen-based journalism/grassroots media movement is afoot. These are people, many without any journalistic training, who are leveraging social media tools to offer expanded or more intimate local news and human-interest coverage. More often then not, this grassroots media is print based. Increasingly, however, my own interest lies with those who are using video to create and tell interesting/informative local stories. What I want to know more about are the various platforms they're distributing these stories on. Yes, YouTube is one way to distribute, and studies show that, especially amongst younger audiences (though trending to older demographics as well), there's been a re-allocation of how we spend our media time. Younger audiences, for example, don't just consume media through the more traditional outlets of print, TV and radio, but via platforms like YouTube. Amateur content is being created and others are actively consuming it. But YouTube is more free-form, its mission is more anything goes, and so I'm increasingly interested in those distribution platforms or organizations that seek to cover more hyper-local human interest stories or provide more civic-minded content as well as have missions that include training people with how to use the cheap tools at their disposal to create meaningful content and ensuring it finds a broader audience.

I'm most interested in how public libraries can do just this.

I suppose what I'm talking about can be (and has been) called hyper-local content, stories about developments, events or people in communities that all demographics have a hunger for but are rarely, if ever, covered by traditional news outlets. Online, as discussed, it one distribution platform that folks have been using, but increasingly telecommunication companies like Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner are competing to provide hyper-local news via their cable outlets. In a paper published earlier this year, Adam Thieren and Grant Eskelsen wrote:

Many cable television providers have jumped into the local TV news business and provide a wide variety of local public affairs programming. A 2004 report by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) found that “millions of Americans can now tune in to regional and local news on more than 30 cable channels across the country.” The RTNDF found that these local and regional cable TV news and public affairs channels provide “non-stop local news” that is “as local as local news can get.”

Are they creating their own content, or are they open to the kind of content a library might produce? And just what would a library produce? Well, this:

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The film that's given me the biggest kick of late was Ronald Neame's 1980 Walter Matthau comedy/thriller, Hopscotch. Reminded me a little, in the best possible ways, of Hal Ashby's amazing run of 70's films (of which I'm an unabashed fan), a similar tender, free-wheeling way of telling the story coupled with gorgeous attention to detail. The location shooting throughout Hopscotch is almost worth watching the film alone, and Criterion, those relentlessly genius bastards of rendering prints ravaged by time and neglect back to their original glory, give these location scenes a bewitching warmth.

But what really delighted me most was the chemistry between Matthau and his co-star Glenda Jackson. They play old spies and even older lovers, each smitten with the other and always a step ahead of their bumbling Russian and American pursuers. Matthau's character, Miles Kendig, a fed up CIA operative, shacks up with Jackson's Isobel, a former spy and lover (married, but now widowed, thus igniting the flame anew--and the scene where they first meet again manages effortlessly to be both urbane and folksy, it's sly and filled with warmth, establishing a delightfully giddy, goofy rapport Matthau and Jackson sustain until the end of the film) and begins writing a tell-all memoir that promises to embarrass the covert and morally dubious operations of several countries.

While Matthau's Kendig writes he listens to Mozart. Numerous scenes show albums of Mozart being placed onto a turntable, of tapes being placed into a cassette player and the play button being pushed, of a stylus gracefully meeting vinyl. Almost all the music in the film is diegetic, that is, the music helping to sustain and propel the narrative is represented in the scenes as they're being played out. Unlike the hardcore diegetics (of which much is still to be written), the represented music is allowed to dominate the mix, in fact, it becomes the only sound. That's pretty normal for most Hollywood films but rarely do you get to see the soundtrack being chosen and played by a character in the film. I really liked that.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Video Approaches

Beginning editing of my first Library video tonight. Filmed material at Morton Grove Family Fest this past Saturday and came away with a few lessons:

-Approaching people and asking them to be on video is difficult. This is probably made more complicated by how amateur our setup is. We're not polished TV news reporters with a professional camera crew in tow. We're wielding a little video camera on a flimsy tripod. How do we make our amateur status work for us?

-Getting teenagers on video at an event like Family Fest is impossible. If you're under 18, we need a guardians consent. Teenagers don't hang out with their parents at public events.

-Mentioning you work for the Public Library goes a long way toward putting people at ease. I noticed that protective veneer folks put on when solicited in public fall away once we mentioned who we were. We're your friendly neighborhood library, that's who.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Abby Napping, Dad Enjoying Rain and Sounds of Dorothy Ashby

Abby's napping. Perfect early October afternoon visiting Chicago a month early. Cool, damp winds making their way through the living room windows, gentle rain falling and promising to continue through the evening. Listening to iTunes Shuffle Play and everything is sounding remarkably good. But it's Dorothy Ashby's Wax and Wane from her excellent 1970 release, Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, that's completing the soundtrack.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Post Apocalyptic Road-Trip

The structural ingenuity of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Road, draws its power from the classical elements of earth, wind, air and fire. A father and son travelling through bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape in search of warmth, of something better, are repeatedly beset by nature at its cruelest and most unforgiving. They huddle under a plastic tarp to hide from the rain and snow, build fires to ward off the cold, cover their faces with sheets to strain the ash from the air and long for an earth rendered whole again.

The Road is fiercely bleak and relentlessly unforgiving. There's not an ounce of sentimentality. The grief enshrouding it is nearly unbearable. But what ultimately sustains the reader, I think, what keeps us going and makes it worth our while, is the relationship between the father and son that lies at the center of the book. It's in this relationship that McCarthy weaves a powerful accumulation of riffs, motifs and themes that he controls with breathtaking precision. At the root of this father-son relationship is the universal love of a parent for his child and of a child's love for his parent. It's one of the oldest stories we know, and McCarthy's prose and themes have been justly called biblical in both their severity and tenderness. And there's no doubt of the severity found in The Road. Humanity, what's left of it, has seemingly resorted to anarchy and cannibalism, the sky is impenetrably gray, the landscape fire scorched and hope, whenever it threatens to flicker, is promptly extinguished. McCarthy's genius, however, is to subject this elemental severity to the love between the father and son and our own hope, as readers, that such love would continue to exist undiminished in such a bleak place. There's a fierce undercurrent of tenderness in The Road, a light in all its darkness that the darkness can't quite comprehend. A heartrending tenderness that, despite itself, rises up out of the darkness. It's not triumphant, this love, it's not a balm or eventually victorious in banishing the novel's unrelenting darkness. It just is because it knows no other way.

One telling exchange towards the novels end, as the father and son stumble through the darkness in search of their shelter, offers a telling glimpse of this unbending compassion:

I can't see.
I know. We'll just have to take it one step at a time.
Don't let go.
No matter what.
No matter what.

At the risk of hyperbole, The Road is a masterpiece, a work of fiction both devastating in its effect, powerful in its momentum and deeply satisfying in its conclusion. That, my friends, is why we read!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Third Trimester

Cathy entered the third trimester last week. All is well.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Killer Bob Is Full Of Secrets

My sister, who will be spending her Labor Day weekend with us, is as yet unaware that she'll be asked to talk about the terribly creepy guy you see here on the right crouching behind Laura Palmer's bed.

Creepiest television moment ever?

Mine at least. Like a lot of folks, I found the whole aura and mystique of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, the melancholy ambiance of its 50's style decor and rustic setting, the gorgeous ache of Angelo Badalamanti's perfectly empathizing score, its gorgeous actresses pertly costumed in soft cashmere sweaters, pleated skirts and bobby socks, Kyle MacLachlan's career defining turn as Special Agent Dale Cooper--I found all of this intoxicating. Never more so then during its initial 7 episode run in the Spring of 1990, when Lynch and his co-conspirator Mark Frost left the question of Who Killed Laura Palmer shrouded in its own web of nutty dream logic. It was never better, perhaps, then at the conclusion of its third episode and the now iconic dance of the dream man.

Friday, August 15, 2008

That There Is My Pa

My Dad and I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institute last month. That's Dad in the picture above, enjoying the amazing breakfast we grabbed most mornings on the porch of the Tally Ho. Now the Tally Ho not only throws down some outrageously delicious Swedish pancakes, it's also host to one of the Institutes best (and, so far as I could tell, only) nightly dinner buffet's.

The way to go with the Tally Ho buffet is to do it take out style. You can fill your styrofoam containers to your stomachs content for, as the above sign informs us, just "$6.95 per pound." But what's a pound if the food isn't any good. And that's what really made the Tally Ho so endearing, the food was amazing. It should be known that there is a positive dearth of eating options at the Institute. I wondered while I was there if the Institute shouldn't broaden its pedagogic mission to include a culinary school, a summer residence for budding chefs to come and study with with some of the arts best teachers. And of course they'd test their new culinary tools on the no doubt adventurous tummy's of the Institutes seasonal guests. But the Tally Ho's dinner buffet was a really nice surprise. Always a beautifully cooked fish with a light, tasty seasoning, a few bowls of cool pasta salads and vegetables, the cool black and crunchy green beans being what I seemed to be craving and enjoying the most. There have been dozens of times over the years when, fork full of delightfully crispy green beans hoisted before me, I've exclaimed, "Man, I was really craving these tonight!" I've seen Cathy do it, too.

I got about 20 minutes of footage and 100 or so photographs from my vacation with my Dad to Chautauqua Institute that I plan on making into a video. After not having been to the Institue for over 20 years and having spent a few very idyllic summer there in my "I am immortal but the concept of infinity freaks me out" pre-teen years (now commonly known as tween), I was genuinely excited to go there and see how it, as a place, had changed and how it had stayed the same.

I also got to have some great talks with my Dad in his environment. Though I never felt it right to try and capture these on video. I'm still hesitant to carry on a conversation while wielding a video camera, too conscious of the obvious mechanical, impersonal aspects of it. That'll change, I hope, with a bit more practice. In any case, there's something about Chautauqua that creates a fierce loyalty amongst a healthy number of folks who go there. My Dad is smitten by it though I regret never having a chance to really find out just what about Chautauqua interests and excites my Dad the most.

No doubt, one of the things I'll remember most fondly about my week there is watching as my Dad helped launch the standing ovation given to the young and charmingly histrionic Russian piano prodigy, Alexander Gavrylyuk after his piano recital. My Dad would ecstatically lurch up out of his seat and shout, "Bravo! Bravo!" I think maybe only my sister Robin can relate or fully appreciate how this very action, of my Dad jumping up in the Institutes Amphitheater and expressing his appreciation of whatever performance had just wowed him with, what we thought 20 years ago of as something of an embarrassment, a bit of overly enthusiastic Vaudeville, was magically transformed by this new context. I'm simply 20 years older. Not necessarily more mature, but more willing to give myself over to the moment if it deserves it. More willing to forgive my Dad's quirks. I joined him and gave Gavrylyuk an ovation, too.

I did not, however, shout Bravo.

Kid, You Turn Summers In My Mind

Copyright and Fair Use

With millions of people creating their own content and uploading it to the Web in the form of blogs, photographs, videos, music--essentially any form of media that can be digitized--issues of copyright and what constitutes fair use, have been getting a work out.

Some may be aware of the high profile case where a family posted a 29 second video of their toddler to YouTube with a Prince song playing in the background on their CD player. The family was contacted by YouTube at the request of Prince's publisher, the Universal Music Publishing Group, to take the video down as they felt it infringed on the copyright of the Prince song.

And while the family chose to fight back against Universal and what they felt was an overzealous example of copyright protection, the case revealed, if anything, just how uninformed many of us are when it comes to what constitutes copyright infringement and what merits fair use.

That being said, a wonderfully readable new comic, Bound By Law, free and available online, walks those posting video online through the basics of copyright law and that terribly fine line between copyright infringement (bad!) and fair use (good!).

Additionally, American University's Center For Social Media has brought together a panel of experts working in the field of online video to create a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use For Online Video. As its introduction plainly states: "This document is a code of best practices that helps creators, online providers, copyright holders, and others interested in the making of online video interpret the copyright doctrine of fair use."

Friday, August 08, 2008

Video Storytelling Notes

Looking forward, if all goes well, to creating a series of videos for Morton Grove Public Library over the next year. Short vignettes or mini-features about environmental or green issues serving the information needs of the Morton Grove community. My hope is that these videos will include interviews with local experts about a diverse array of environmental issues of interest, though I admit to a pedagogical bent: the carbon life-cycles of certain household goods, mini-features on insulating your house for the winter and other simple tips for how folks can save on your monthly heating bills, a tour of a recycling center, environmentally themed video essays made by and with our patrons, working with teens to create their own mini-features on the environment, etc... A lot of exciting possibilities.

But how to make these videos interesting? We're competing, after all, with content creators who are better equipped and savvier, for our patrons limited time. How do we make something they'll actually care to watch and learn from? How do we make a worth-while, entertaining, piece of information? More importantly, does the information (noble sentiment approaching) help fulfill our mission to assist our patron's/community's pursuit of personal growth and lifelong learning? Is it a good tool for helping them fulfill that need?

And you can't simply post this video content into a bubble and expect them to come. You have to sell it to them, bring it to their attention and hook them. Right? The most important piece, I think, of vying for and gaining our patron's attention is to involve them, to make them collaborators. I'll need some help in this area.

Part of what I'm most looking forward to is honing my documentary craft. Constructing meaningful, coherent narratives in particular. Additionally, I'm look forward to:

1. exploring how to make the results of these narratives visually interesting (storyboarding, filming with more then one camera, post-production massaging)
2. as well as acoustically stimulating (and getting good sound is my priority right now)
3. graced with charismatic, compelling people
4. finding numerous, quality distribution platforms for the content
4. all that and more.

I've barely even begun, though I can't think of any other endeavor other then fatherhood that I'm having a better time exploring right now. I've got the itch to tell and help others tell their stories using video and seeing what comes of it.

I love the fact that my job is, by and large, about storytelling. I know it's cliche, but we are the stories we tell each other, the narratives we construct. And I can't help but think we've reached this very exciting, very interesting moment where people have been empowered by the ease (both technically and financially) with which they can construct, edit and share these stories. Folks are no longer passively consuming media, but creating and distributing it in record numbers. They're sharing, collaborating, sampling, remixing, extending, critiquing, infringing, fair-using and tip-toeing around the stories we tell like never before.

But are they doing it well? No doubt a healthy heaping of it is frivolous beyond even the seasoned hallway cat warding off the helplessly adorable encroaching puppies.

But some of it, quite a bit of it actually, if you're willing to really make a go and really search for it, makes nearly instantly accessible an impressive chunk of the past 200 years of our visual history, both still and moving images. And recently, that includes you and me and not just the so-called professional media. Some of us are starting to do it really well.

I've been astounded by the level of professionalism and visual narrative acuity of the hundreds of so-called amateur videos I've run across on various video-hosting sites like YouTube, the Internet Archive, oodles of Public Library's or Berkley's Center For Digital Storytelling. People are telling some phenomenal stories there and I'm convinced that Public Library's need to be jumping in to help their patrons-- not only bringing attention to the impressive body of work already out there, but informing, teaching and ideally making available the tools with which to create their own stories. The fact that millions of us already are telling stories, with video especially, is as good a proof as you'll find for how radically the way our communities consume and share information (or tell stories) has changed over the last decade.

My particular obsession, if it isn't already pretty obvious, is how we can take advantage of the easy-to-use digital video cameras, editing software and distribution platforms that are out there and help our patrons tell their own stories via this medium. We are, after all, in the business of storytelling. Our missions are filled with noble sentiments like helping assist our respective users/patrons/communities with their thorny pursuits of personal growth and lifelong learning. We can remain idle and pretend that the passive consumption of books is the best or only avenue through which our patrons can learn and grow, or we can acknowledge that a new and exciting information/media movement is afoot and become a vital part of it.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Words We Say, Or Words We Don't Say

It's been my experience in reading the novels of Ian McEwan, the popular English writer, that he starts strong and ends weak. It may very well be that the beginnings of his novels, Atonement, Enduring Love and the Man Booker Prize winning Amsterdam among them, are invested with such finely chiseled prose and a seemingly effortless command of narrative that sustaining them through to a satisfying conclusion is nearly impossible. Or maybe he just loses the thread, runs out of steam.

But at the risk of giving my inner-critic enough rope to hang itself, I've found McEwan's endings to be too tidy. There's a nagging tendency by the author to abruptly tie up loose ends and provide odd, jarring summaries of the action that's proceeded. Such contrivances deflate and call attention to the narrative at a time when the reader's immersion and suspension of belief should be cresting.

But I keep coming back to McEwan's books because, endings aside, they're compulsively readable and often breathtakingly beautiful. Terrible things erupt out of the most quotidian of events- a child kidnapped from a grocery store, a fender bender that goes terribly awry--and McEwan's wrings the anxiety, tension and grief from these situations with a masters sense of ambiance and control.

His latest, On Chesil Beach, may be his best and most successful yet. And, yes, something terrible does arise out of a quotidian event. A young couple, on the night of their wedding, sexually repressed despite themselves, awkwardly makes their way to the conjugal bed with disastrous results. In fact, this short book, more a novella, has no other subject then the disaster their sexual coupling, its impending failure and its heartrending consequences. And it's here that McEwan's penchant for tidy conclusive summaries is handled brilliantly. For it's in the consequences that arise from the couples failure to sexually consummate their marriage that McEwan shows us how words, those we say and, more devastatingly, those we don't, can heal or tear asunder.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Library Paternalism

My Dad recently made me aware of this:

Lakewood -- Lakewood Public Library Director Kenneth Warren wants you to know there's nothing private about the 60 public access computers at the main branch.

Every 15 minutes, a staff member takes a stroll around the center to make sure library patrons are not looking at pornography, engaging in illegal gambling or visiting other questionable Web sites.

As somebody who used to frequent the Lakewood Public Library's old digs in the pre-Internet days of the early 90's, as well as being a librarian currently working at a library that neither monitors nor filters the information its patrons are perusing, I can't help but think this is paternalistic at best and chillingly invasive at worst.

According to the Library's Acceptable Use Policy,
"Employees are authorized to bring to an individual’s attention any act which will detract from the decorum of the library or will create a hostile workplace in violation of state and federal civil rights laws."

"Excuse me, sir, but that website you're looking at is clashing with our color scheme."

The Library is also considering using software
that will allow its prying librarians to monitor what patrons are looking at remotely.

There's a surprisingly, refreshingly civil conversation about this going on here that's worth a peak.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

She's Gonna Be A Big Sister

Everything is good, the baby is perfect and on track for a November 20th due date. Why do I have the sneaking suspicion we'll be eating Thanksgiving in the delivery room? And it's definitely a girl, no question about it. My estrogen levels are no doubt on the rise once again.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


I've been a music making hobbyist for close to 20 years now. I began by recording on a friends 4-track recorder in the early 90's and slowly, as the technology became more available and affordable, created a decent home recording studio built around Pro Tools and Reason software.

I began making Drift, my latest album for friends and family, in January of 2002 when we were living in Berkeley. Those were very difficult times for me and making music was, as it often is, a source of solace and respite. I never intended it to take this long, though I never had any real goals in mind to begin with. I recorded whenever I was moved to do so, accumulating roughly 60 songs in various states of disarray. Over the years a handful of songs continued to hold some allure, and those are the ones that eventually made it to this album.

It's not perfect (he said with a resigned sigh), certainly not what I had hoped for, and there were times over the last year, as I was happily discarding, that I contemplated simply deleting everything and starting over. Perhaps I should have. There were those moments when I'd find myself asking, "Is this really all there is to it? Is this the best you can do?" It all began to feel stale, more a burden then a source of fun. I was visited by that odious brand of nagging self-doubt that can turn such benign enterprises sour with apathy. I was and am lucky to have had Cathy there, not only giving me more time and space then I deserved to sort such silly things out, but by offering terrifically boosting words of encouragement when I needed them most.

And there are a handful of songs I'm genuinely happy about, songs I'm excited for others to have a chance to hear. They seem to offer good incentives to keep trying. I'm looking forward to recording with my friend Dennis over the next few months, too, hopefully making an E.P.'s worth of pop songs available digitally by the end of September.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Kusturica Doesn't Do Storytelling

I am against the notion that cinema is storytelling and a film director is a storyteller. Storytelling is for a talk show, not for the cinema. It's one of the aspects of cinema, but cinema is a much more complex picture of the world than storytelling. It's like saying James Joyce is a storyteller, which would be completely stupid. Of course, there are storytellers. But if you read Shakespeare or Chekhov, you cannot say they are just storytellers. They had a story that they turned into a drama. But drama is not the same as story.

-Emir Kusturica, from the book My First Movie: Take Two

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chautauqua In The Summertime

I'll be heading to the Chautauqua Institution in Bemus Point, New York with my Dad right after the Fourth of July. It's a place rich with family history dating back to when my Mom vacationed around those parts with her family as a child. In fact, somewhere there's an amazing Super 8 from the early 50's of her Dad reeling a fish out of Lake Chautauqua. After my Dad married my Mom he was equally smitten with the place and they took us kids there, often staying a month or more over the summer months in a rented cottage or for a long weekend at the Hotel Lenhart.

The Chautauqua Institution, where my Dad and I will be hanging out for a week, is a fascinating place. It's the holdout (and now a designated National Historic Landmark) of a late 19th Century religious and educational movement that found its inspiration in that throughly American quest for self-improvement. Culture, with a capital C, along with heaping servings of Protestant religious instruction were the guiding lights of its founders, Lewis Miller and John Vincent, when they founded the Institution in 1874. In fact, its original name was Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly.

Now that sounds like pure drudgery to me. But it's not the Sunday School strain that I found compelling (and the sacred was never any real match for the secular in my family anyway) so much as the residue of those enchanted summers I spent there as a child in the early 80's and how they've shaped my own fond feelings for the place in the present. Not having been there in over 20 years, I'm excited to see how it's both changed and been preserved.

My parents gave me a couple nice coffee table books about Chautauqua for my birthday this year. In the preface of one of them, Chautauqua: An American Utopia, Jeffrey Simpson is kind enough to give voice to some of my own sentiments about the place. Simpson feels conflicted with the two Chautauquas that crowd his mind-- the modern, "vital Chautauqua of today," and the "kindly, sleepy, rather shabby Chautauqua" of his childhood. Of that old Chautauqua, Simpson writes:

This was the Chautauqua where it was said that "old ladies brought their mothers." It was a kind, serene idyll, a sort of Chekhov play where private dramas were played out in atmospheres of wicker and ennui.

I mean, the place has over 1200 Victorian cottages, most of them with porches smothered in wicker. I remember those old ladies hobbling up and down the hills. And those little Chekhov plays were being played out by my own family, accompanied by the sound of music students practicing clarinets from nearby porches mixing with the rattle of silverware from a hotel's kitchen somewhere below. I wasn't there for the cultural life, though I suppose I found it anyway at the local Boys and Girls Club, where I became friends with half a dozen or so other kids, most from New York City, for a couple fleetingly enchanted summers.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Abby and I headed over to the Lincoln Restaurant to enjoy some silver dollar pancakes and a somewhat embarrassingly humongous Civil-War themed omelet for lunch. I was surprised that I hadn't done this already with her, though eating out with a 2 1/2 year-old isn't exactly what I'd call leisurely. But she was gentle dictator, demanding a few extra dollops of maple syrup and happily chatting away with our waitress. We came home and both took naps.
Taking advantage of the much appreciated balminess, we ate dinner in our backyard tonight, something Cathy seems committed to taking better advantage of this summer. We have a nice little fortress back there, ringed by fences and teeming with green and a raised patio space.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

California Split

Robert Altman had one of the most amazing runs of feature films of any mainstream American director working in the 70's. From 1970's utterly wacky and lovable Brewster McCloud through to 1980's Popeye, are all very good, with a few, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us and Nashville being stone cold masterpieces, as much a product of their times as they are somehow ravishingly timeless. It's not surprising that many consider this his "golden period."

1974's California Split, starring Elliot Gould and George Segal as a couple compulsive gamblers in search of their next big score is one of the very good ones. Altman's love of overlapping dialogue (most of it written just prior to the shooting by screenwriter Bill Walsh) and documentary like ambiance are in full effect throughout the film, allowing the viewer to eavesdrop on conversations in the peripheral of the main dialogue track. And Elliot Gould continues to be a revelation. Was he ever better then in the films he made during the 70's with Altman? For somebody like me whose impressions of Gould were formed by his avuncular character acting work of the 90's and 00's (on Friends and the Oceans films), seeing him in Altman's The Long Goodbye was a completely unexpected surprise. There was a time there when Gould blew everybody out of the water, creating characters that were scruffy, moody, cynical and suave. They took hits and they hurt but they always prevailed. In California Split, Gould's Charlie chews up every scene he's in, often leaving George Segal's Bill to churn somewhat helplessly in his wake.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Broadcasting Live From Our Block Party

Ran across the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP), a collective of spirited WLUW castaways looking to nudge Congress into acting on some bottle necked legislation that would hopefully open the FM band to support a more localized, not-for profit form of community radio.

The Bill, the Local Community Radio Act of 2007 or H.R. 2802 for those keeping score, recognizes that the FM spectrum should be opened up to include low-power, community based radio services and programming. And by low power we're talking roughly 10-100 watts. The hope is that with the passage of this legislation schools, churches and other community-based organizations could, if they so desired, launch their own radio programming. Sure, the signal wouldn't reach very far, but I like the idea of having a radio station that only broadcasts out for a few blocks, and besides, what's the harm?

Big Radio is harmed, that's who! All those big, steaming slices of the FM spectrum under their carefully manicured control are going to get messed with by these ruthless upstarts. In fact, all these volunteer based, low-power FM signals coming out of churches, retirement homes and elementary schools are going to cause some serious "interference" on the FM band. Or so the broadcasters and their lobbyist have claimed. A two-year Congressional study concluded in 2000 (see Finding 14), however, that
"the broadcasters' concerns were demonstrated to be unsubstantiated."

The Local Community Radio Act of 2007 is currently languishing in subcommittee limbo amongst 73 other Bills. The
Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, itself encompassed by the Committee On Energy and Commerce (where they, no doubt, feel your pain at the pump), was referred this bill in June of 2007. Jan Schakowky, my own representative in the House, was one of this bills original sponsors, so it seems like a no brainer to contact her office and see what she can tell me about its current state. Even better to contact members of the Subcommittee itself. Two Representatives from Illinois, Bobby Rush and John Shimkus, are on it. Couldn't hurt to write them and see what the hold up is.