Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Kid, as always, you turn summers in my mind! Happy birthday, little darling!

Friday, November 19, 2010


Megan turned 2 today. My sweet little joy machine, how we love love love you madly!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Walking In the Woods With Megan

A rare day. 10-10-10, duly noted. Add to this the idyllic weather. The last week here in Chicago has been poured from a rare vintage of early October. Crayola blue skies, a sun far less steeped in its summer humidity and a sudden storm of dry, crunchy leaves flaming out in burnt oranges, pear-like yellows and occasional rockets of red. Stunning.

There's a lot of green still up in the canopy
, though the last week has seen a riot of new colors making appearances-- and there's no real mistaking Earth's particular tilt right about now and the bummer of a meteorological predicament this inevitably puts the Midwest in. The trees are losing their hair, those bushy green heads are being shed in preparation for winter's hard bargain. It's a tough yoke to hitch up to each autumn, knowing what's coming.

But sometimes when we're lucky, like we have been this year, we get a visit from Indian Summer. A fond farewell to the temperate, to open windows and bare feet. It's bittersweet, sure, but
lovely, too, with summer coming back to visit us in early October. It's almost too much!

Cathy and I took the girls over to the 19th Annual Harvest Festival at the North Park Village Nature Center where we met up with friends and enjoyed lunch in a shady spot packed
with a convenient cluster of picnic benches. It was here I ate too many Lays potato chips with very little regret.

After lunch, I took a walk with Meg. While Cathy, Abby and our friends were busy making scarecrows ("some assembly required"), I trailed my fierce little girl as she burned a path along one of the Nature Center's many kick-ass trails.

(Right): This is Megan launching our adventure. As you can see, she began in this inflated little walk she's been doing of late. She lifts her legs up high and stomps them out wide, taking big lumbering steps. It's a determined little walk and very sure of itself.

(Left): The path's at the Nature Center are well groomed with woodchips and gravel though they've done an amazing job of creating within its 46 acres something that feels completely of itself. Some think of nature preserves like this as havens, respites from the stresses of modern urbanity though I'm less interested in perpetuating the "historic opposition between things urban and things natural" then I am in recognizing that "cities are fundamentally embedded in natural environments." Part of what makes a preserve like this so special, I think, is the urbanity of its context, that such an expanse of protected/managed preserve exists in such close proximity to the urban areas built up around it. In any case, Megan's face here is all business.

(Below): Meg climbed a hill. It was warm (mid 80's), dry and quiet and she was thrilled to be leading the charge. Was this the swell of fatherly pride stirring in my breast? Well, when isn't that being stirred up? My fierce little Meg charging up the hill while I followed, a stupid grin on my face as I cheered her on and compulsively snapped pictures.

(Right): I like the horizon tree tops and blue sky in this picture, how it captures the impressive expanses the North Park preserve contains in its confines. It's definitely a showcase, a well groomed outdoor museum highlighting the ecological diversity that once dominated the landscape of Illinois as recently as a couple hundred years ago, just as it had for thousands of years prior. Then, of course, lots of folks arrived and got the bug to settle throughout the state and either farm the hell out of it or industrialize! The landscape changed. As Joel Greenberg wrote in his fantastic A Natural History of the Chicago Region, the formally "seamless mosaic of waters, wetlands, prairies, shrublands, and woods" were overcome by a new force, "one with the power to impose upon the landscape a uniformity that is now virtually complete." And so we lost our natural heritage.

(Left): The trail Megan took eventually led us to marshlands with lily pads clustering lazily on the pond's surface. According to Greenberg, Illinois has lost roughly 95 percent of its original wetlands to the forces of modernity. Flooding, of which the Chicago region enjoys its unfortunate share, is one unfortunate manifestations of this loss. Greenberg tellingly writes, "it matters not not to water whether the lowest point on the landsccape is a marsh or a basement."

I held Meg's hand and had a Rainbow Connection moment. I imagined a scenario where I contacted the Park District with a proposal for an outdoor soundscape exhibit examining bucolic landscapes like this by offering sonic examples of their place in popular culture. Well, cinema in particular. I liked the challenge of remixing various elements from the sound designs of dozens of films set in similar settings and letting them mingle with the areas actual acoustics for a couple hours over the course of a few nights. A sonic happening with all-weather speakers tactfully hidden throughout the area. Maybe somewhere in mix you'd hear the opening plucks of Kermit's mellow banjo among other cultural signifiers. I'd get a grant to do it, right?

(Right): This was about where Meg ran out of gas. It was hot, she'd been fighting a big wallop of a cold like a champ all week and I think she suddenly concluded being trail leader was no longer all that cool.

(Right): So I took my little Meg up in my left arm. I said the right words to put an end to errant tears and lead her back to Mom because that's what my girl needed. On the way back to Mom we talked about what we were seeing and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the easy serendipity of it all--of Cathy giving her full attention to Abby and the making of a scarecrow while Meg and I drifted off for an amazing half-hour walk through the preserve before joining up with them again. It felt like a well-oiled little family. It felt lucky and on days like this I'm filled with simple familial joys again and again until I'm brimming. Domesticity never felt so right or so close to perfect, both charmed and fragile.

Friday, September 17, 2010

September17, 2010: Late Summer Sun

Mid-September already? Girls are all downtown, and I have the house to myself for the next hour. A Great Lakes Brewing Co. Oktoberfest and iTunes shuffle to keep my company.

Snapped the above shot with Hipstamatic (Bettie XL Lens + Ina's 1935 film= a winning combination) right after I got home around 6:30 tonight. Golden Hour light streaming through the house and a deep silence about the abode made for a wonderfully becalmed moment.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Late Summer Sonic Harvest

Music cleaning out my ears, satisfying my soul and putting a shake in my hips this year.

Nuggets of the Golden Age of Gospel, a 4-CD set of rare gospel covering the years 1945 through 1958. I keep reaching for this one like a cool glass of water. Or, as in my own case, a nicely chilled Diet Coke. Sometimes 4 a day. That's 48 ounces too many. In any case the songs on this compilation have been our Sunday morning sermons for the better part of this past summer. Here's what I love: Hammond organs, gritty reverb washing over chugging guitars, swinging snares, pre doo-wop harmony beds and most of all, one soulful, sanctified lead vocal after another reaching up for glory hallelujah.

-Another favorite from this year is Pastor T.L. Barrott and the Youth For Christ Choir SINGS! and their awesome self-released 1971 gospel-soul album, Like A Ship...(Without A Sail). The great Chicago based reissue label, Numero Group put the title song from this album on their stellar '09 compilation Good God! Born Again Funk, and it just about knocked my socks off. Holy smokes! It's got, without a doubt, one of the most exalted choirs you'll ever hear. The whole album was just recently re-released by another reissue label, Light In The Attic, and the whole thing has been easing our souls of late.

The most welcome return of the year has been The Books new album, The Way Out. Along with Matthew Herbert, nobody else has done more for advancing the art of sampling.

But I'm equally smitten by the videos Nick Zammuto and Paul de Jong of the Books have made to accompany their live performances. Flea market video finds, old super-8 home movies, oddball news footage and edited to perfectly syncopate with their music. The films and the songs follow the same groove. There's a lovely lo-fi aesthetic to it all while its carefully executed edits and syncopation owe more than a little to Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi and the flood of hyper-edit remixing folks have been posting to YouTube over the last few years.

On the video below for their song, Take Time, the editing is breathtaking in its execution. If anything, for the patience and time it must have taken to edit it all, an inspired collection of found-videos micro-looped to ride the songs rhythm. It's odd but equally rousing, slapstick silly at times watching the jerky movements of people repeated in rapid-fire little stutters, though surprisingly sweet. And ambiguous enough to allow the viewer to make their own story. When I saw The Books in concert a few years back at the Old Town they performed their whole show with video accompaniment and, not surprisingly, I loved the whole thing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Double Rainbow Guy

Despite myself, I've come to adore Hungrybear9562's emotional roller coaster of an encounter with a double rainbow. It's one of those remarkable home movies that drifts a while through YouTube (this one was at sea for roughly 6 months) before unexpectedly going viral. It just takes the right confluence of events, the right catalyst to see it, and suddenly 6 million people have tuned in to witness your ravings. You decide to sell t-shirts. Hell, why not?

In Hungrybear's encounter with double rainbows we experience epiphany, wonder and, surely, a very potent hallucinogenic, while one man unexpectedly confronts transcendental rainbow action from his backyard somewhere in Yosemite. It's almost impossible not to laugh while watching the video. His reaction to a double rainbow (and here it's important to note that if ever there were a better cultural signifier for all things fantasy and moon beamed then a rainbow, I'm not aware of it) is so terrifically sincere. I find myself conjuring his background while I watch what I've come to call "an overflowing": you know, like he played a lot of D&D back in the day, and when you walk into his house the air is probably thick with comic book pulp and there's maybe even a framed life size portrait of Gandalf the White hanging charmingly above his fireplace, and admittedly, this last one would be audacious and worthy of applause. But according to a recent profile in Fast Company (thanks, Internet!) he's living in "Yosemite raising Queensland Heelers and wild turkeys." Though he certainly does nothing to dissuade us of our bias in the profile, the fact that he looks vaguely of Hurley--heck, the fact that the whole video could best be described as "hurley-esque," has its own little pop-cultural shimmy to it.

Of the original clip below, it's definitely another to add to the rapidly growing cannon of amateur video documenting the hallucinogenic experience. What I think I like most about this one is how it follows an almost textbook-like narrative--how succinctly it captures the experience of being terrifically high and stumbling into a moment of unexpected beauty. From shouts of joy and laughter to a sobbing, quivering heap in no less then 3 minutes. It's as cleansing as it is spiritually uplifting.

Plus folks are tossing it up into auto-tuned Euro-cheese, so it's hard for me not to love this more then I probably should.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Deer In The Wood

We finished reading Little House In the Big Woods to Abby last night. Cathy and I have been taking turns over the last month reading a chapter or two each night to her before bedtime. We were riveted by tales of spooky panthers chasing grandpa through the darkest woods; of the explosive moment where Laura slaps her sister Mary because Mary insists her hair is prettier; and the delicious scene where Pa returns home from an outing to collect honey, pretending he hasn't had much success, only to surprise Ma with buckets and buckets of the stuff!

I had forgotten, in the 25 or so years since I first read it, the wide-eyed cinematic splendor of the books final chapter, The Deer in the Wood. You might remember? Pa lays a deer-lick trap in the forest and spends a crisp autumn night camped out in a tree with his gun. He's going to bring his family fresh venison and whatnot, whatever unfortunate critter comes sniffing and licking about long enough so as Pa can put in a good shot.

But Pa goes and completely forgets the reason he's there: to bring his family fresh meat! We know from previous chapters that Pa doesn't waste any time when it comes to providing his family with their fill of meat. He's a fierce customer, a frontiersman providing for his family, and a damn good shot.

But Pa is instead overcome by waves of fellow-feeling for nature and its noble creatures. He can't bring himself to shoot a single one of the animals that falls prey to his mighty deer-lick. He ends up having this wonderfully becalmed transcendentalist moment as cozy as the accompanying Garth Williams illustration. It's a lovely piece of writing.

Though what really makes the final chapter sing isn't Pa and his inner-Emerson at all. It's Wilder herself, describing the moment she first awoke to the present, announcing "now is now. It can never be a long time ago." Its a firework of a line, the surprise of Laura awakening to the sweet, irreplaceable now of things. Like Pa, she's overcome by the moment, of the pause before the past is past and the future beckons. I need to check this book out!

Friday, May 21, 2010

A Modest Attraction

The lawn on our new house in Edgebrook is a little mangy.

I've been mowing it about once a week for the past month and it's thick with dandelion, rogue clover and struggling Kentucky Bluegrass. It looks tidy for a day or two after I mow it.

Most of the lawns in the neighborhood are lush and tidy. They're shampooed and conditioned then tended to by weekly lawn and yard maintenance crews. I see them when I'm home with the girls on weekday afternoons. A couple trucks pull up, mulch is spread, twigs are plucked from shrubs and large industrial mowers give the lawn a nice manicure.

These kinds of lawns are a convention that few stray from and a relatively new one at that. They date back to at least the 1870s, if not earlier. In his amazing book, Crabgrass Frontier, Kenneth T. Jackson writes of the origins of the modern day yard:

By 1870 separateness had become essential to the identity of the suburban house. The yard was expected to be large and private and designed for both active and passive recreation, in direct antithesis to the dense lifestyle from which many families had recently moved. The new ideal was no longer to be part of a close community, but to have a self-contained unit, a private wonderland walled off from the rest of the world. Although visually open to the street, the lawn was a barrier--a kind of verdant moat separating the household from the threats and temptations of the city. It served as a means of transition from the public street to the very private house, as a kind of space that, by the very fact of its having no clearly defined function, mediated between the activities of the outside and the activities of the inside.

By the time of the post-WWII housing boom, this lawn care vision reigned supreme and millions of new home buyers invested in all the tools and accessories that came with its upkeep. Our own garage is testimony to this.

These lawns look great, don't get me wrong. Folks have managed to do all sorts of amazing things with their lawns, and those I find I like the most always seem to convey a peaceful stillness. They stir memories of my own suburban upbringing, my parents lawn and my grandparents lawn in North Olmsted. I respect and empathize with the kind of love they can inspire in their owners.

That being said, I'm looking forward to removing our front lawn next spring. The usual concern that comes with suggesting such a thing is the neighbors might somehow take offense, see it as blemish on the otherwise unspoken agreement to keep and maintain well-groomed lawns. But that's not it at all. In the year or so since I worked on the documentary about the Morton Grove Prairie Nature Preserve I've wanted to turn whatever ended up being my lawn into a showcase for the plants that used to cover roughly 2/3 of Illinois just a couple hundred years ago.

I'll admit, I've become a little obsessed. I'm thrilled by the prospects of landscaping with native plants instead of keeping up with our current mowing regimen. What we're envisioning will be nicely groomed and well tended. It won't be freaky, unruly, pagan or fountain-endowed. It won't frighten children or make dogs growl. I have no doubt that we'll make good and attentive stewards! My genuine hope is that it'll make a nice contribution to our neighborhood, mabye even become a modest attraction. We'll sell t-shirts.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Skilling Heralds Warmth

Dear Tom Skilling and Tribune Weather Center Team,

This forecast is outrageous, my brothers! There's so much short sleeve and open window potential here. Folks will grill and it's going to smell awesome. And I especially like that you're currently predicting a late-day thunder storm on Saturday. Too much! I imagine listening to the thunder rumble overhead from the comfort of my living room. The lights might even flash off and on in our house after one of those thundery hullabaloos and we'll reach for some flash lights and candles, just in case.

Who can I blame if this forecast turns out to be wildly inaccurate?


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Roger Ebert in Esquire

Chris Jones' profile on Roger Ebert in this month's issue of Esquire is one of the best things I've read so far this year. For real!

A few years back Ebert lost his lower jaw to cancer and along with it his ability to speak, eat or drink using his mouth. Though luckily, for him and us, he didn't lose his ability to write. And Ebert writes a lot these days. And not just about movies, though he still writes as passionately and eloquently as ever about them for the Sun Times, but sharing more of his own stories now, taking intimate stock of his life while engaging in this remarkable hands-on way with his readers, interacting and responding to their comments and becoming, in fact, their readers as well. It's hard not to be inspired by just how far he's expanded his presence as a public writer.

Though what ultimately makes Jones' profile so engrossing, is how well the piece conveys the happiness, this genuine sense of contentment, Ebert has found through the way his writing has evolved in the three years since he lost his lower jaw. Ebert's enjoying, at age 67, this amazing writing renaissance. There's a real spark to his writing, a more personal and intimate side to it that often has nothing to do with movies. He's politically feisty, frequently hurling witty ripostes via Twitter (and Ebert is, I think, one of the masters of Twitters 140 word limitation) at whatever conservative pundit, politician or religious leader happened to raise his Liberal ire just then. He posts often and while I'm watching the girls and checking in on Twitter throughout the day, Ebert's posts read like a tonic. He's very good at it.

Also Cool: back in August of last year Ebert wrote about discovering the Scottish company CereProc, developers of "the world's most advanced text to speech technology," while browsing the subject online. It turns out , working with Ebert, the company is currently beta-testing software that will allow Ebert to draw from a decent sized database chock full of quality samples of his voice. CereProc simply raided the archives, drawing from the thousands of television hours and DVD commentaries Ebert had logged over the years, carefully cutting, pasting and post-editng so he can now draw from these recordings, reassembling them in whatever way he chooses. With speakers and a computer he'll be able to more actively partake in conversations. His voice will be heard. Eventually CereProc promises Ebert will be able to add simple commands to give greater or lesser intonation or emphasis to his voice, a closer approximation of how we actually speak. Ebert sampling Ebert. According to the Guardian, it'll be debuting on his upcoming Oprah appearance. I'm excited for the guy and can't wait to hear it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

E.B. White and Mortality

I began to sustain the illusion that he was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father. This sensation persisted, kept cropping up all the time we were there. It was not an entirely new feeling, but in this setting it grew much stronger. I seemed to be living a duel existence. I would be in the middle of some simple act, I would be picking up a bait box or laying down a table fork, or I would be saying something, and suddenly it would be not I but my father who was saying the words or making the gesture. It gave me a creepy sensation.

from Once More To The Lake, E.B. White

One of my favorite essays from high school English class. Read it again a few nights ago while packing up books for our upcoming move. It left an impression when I first read it, though I was primed for it having been an ardent fan of White's Charlotte's Web from 4th Grade on.

I don't know what I admire most about the essay. It's a gentle but never saccharine meditation on an old childhood vacation spot in Maine White's family would visit each August. And it's a deceptively gentle essay, plump with White's descriptive aplomb and storytelling gracefulness. But it's also a darkly ruminative meditation on the passage of time and mortality. It deals frankly with how one's memory for a cherished place or time and the nostalgia such things are inevitably seasoned with, are made sometimes to confront a raw and disparate present.

The essay is also one of the finest, most aspirational examples of how to employ foreshadowing effectively. There's a beautiful thunderstorm White describes at the end of Once More To The Lake that masterfully frames its final paragraph. It's the essay's ending, "the chill of death", that I remember the most.