Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Wednesday, hushed

It is a rainy morning in Chicago. I drink coffee and listen to the cars shushing past my home. I can tell when the light at the corner changes; the sound shifts from a whisper to what sounds like titans pushing around great columns of water. The trucks make a deeper sound, somewhere between elephant and sled dog, translated into water.

Yesterday morning was the first Tuesday of the month, and at ten a.m. an air raid siren cut through the quiet as it always does on the first Tuesday. There are rhythms here, there is music for those who are listening.

I drink my coffee and listen. Soon I will put on music and brush against the day more actively. But for now, I will listen passively, and wonder if the sounds of wet streets can tell me anything about the cars and trucks themselves, the people within them, their destinations.

Monday, August 27, 2012

With or without chevrons, a journey

We set out early. I hadn't slept much for several days, and I know I was still awake about two hours before the phone rang to wake me with the news that Ian was on his way to Chicago. It was about 6:30 am. I blinked, bemused for a long moment, and reminded myself not to be angry with Ian for calling more or less when he was supposed to.

Our destination was a park near a college campus, to embark upon a 22-mile bicycle ride through the city of Chicago on a beautiful morning near the end of summer. Our spirits were high. We were glad to be doing this event, glad to be doing something together. We have been friends since sometime at the latter end of the 1980s: high school students, later bandmates, and now just very close friends who have known one another for a lifetime.

We got our rider numbers, prepared ourselves. Ian told me that he had not been on anything approaching this long a bike ride since perhaps his boyhood days as a scout. I could tell he was a little nervous. I told him that a leisurely ride of this sort of distance was generally far less tiring than even a 3-mile bicycle commute through morning traffic to work, and that he would do fine. I told him that the fact he had not ridden a bike lately would work in his favor, as his muscles would be surprised.

We set out in the third wave of 22-mile riders. Chevrons and an occasional sign would guide us, and we had a paper map of the route as well.

The first half was pretty delightful. We rode at our own pace, allowing the clusters of cyclists to pass us. Sometimes, we could no longer see any other riders from our event. At the halfway mark, we paused at a rest area the organizers had established, to eat bananas, drink water, catch a second wind, and complain to one another that our asses were sore already from the bicycle seats.

Shortly after we reestablished ourselves on the ride, something changed for me. It wasn't that the tease of rain which had felt so refreshing turned into outright rain, chilly and thick. It wasn't that the wind sometimes grew fierce and made our progress require more effort. It was something internal, sparked by something Ian had said. Along the way, we had discussed music, thoughts of the future, the ride itself. And as we skirted alongside yet another park on our journey, Ian said to me that he was really enjoying the feeling of being in the city, rather than driving through it.

I looked around, and I couldn't see what he meant at all. I've long prided myself on my ability to see Chicago as something new each time I move around within her borders. This very blog has at times been stuffed with such observations. But in that moment, it felt as though Chicago had nothing it could do to spark me into finding its hidden beauty. I knew even in that moment that this was temporary, a trick of the light, as it were. Tomorrow, I could go out and find new ways to fall in love all over again.

I also knew, though, that this ride had become the beginning of what feels like a farewell to this city I have lived in for so much of my adult life. I am ready for something new, to be seduced by another city, another town. I will not be leaving anytime soon, so of course my feeling could change, but I feel a new chapter starting, and it is not set here, I don't think.

I said nothing of this to Ian. I don't know why. I think he would certainly have understood it if I tried to vocalize it.

We continued riding, and for some reason, the event organizers had plotted their route so that the second half of the ride took us into the crowded shuffle of the loop. All at once, our leisurely ride took on all the mannerisms of a morning commute. The rain grew somewhat relentless, and we had to become far more vigilant about the increasing number of cars we shared our roads with. They poked at our comfort zones, and edged us toward danger of collision from time to time. At one point, we shared a single lane of traffic with both construction and a city bus, breathing hot exhaust into my face as I moved behind it. I told Ian that he was essentially experiencing the worst form of some sort of Chicago Bicycle Commuter Fantasy Camp, but instead of three to five miles, we had close to ten to go, growing weary from the dozen already under our belts.

Eventually, with some help from the increasingly confusing chevrons, we completed the ride. We both agreed that it was a worthwhile experience, but one we could have easily organized for ourselves for free, choosing our route at whim. We were soaked to the skin, and more than a little exhausted.

And I thought it was fitting that in what I had come to view as the first leg of a farewell tour of my city, Chicago had shown me both its beauty and its frustrations. We had gone through affluent neighborhoods, and ones I might normally grow somewhat uncomfortable with even in my car. We had seen the peaceful side of a Sunday morning on a warm summer day, and the chilly danger of being unprotected in traffic during a heavy rain.

Chicago remains a glittering jewel, with far too many facets to count or experience in a single lifetime. And one day, I might return here with fresh eyes and love it anew. But for now, it feels like it is somehow less mine, and that I am somehow less a part of it.

Before I got home to process some of these thoughts (which are not nearly as negative as I fear I have painted them. I am rusty.), I got one more delight. I stopped at a sandwich shop on the way home to get something to eat. When I asked the kid behind the counter for "lots" of tomatoes, he put what amounted to two whole tomatoes on my submarine sandwich. I love tomatoes, and have never experienced that particular largesse at a chain eatery. That moment served as at least a minor reconnection somehow, and maybe what it indicated was that even though I think I might be ready to leave, Chicago will never stop finding little delights for me to experience. In that, I feel that I can leave on a note of happiness when I finally go: two dear friends shaking hands as they part for what could be a weekend or a lifetime, hoping they have made their mark upon the other in some small way.


I am trying to relaunch this blog. As you may be able to see if you used to read it regularly, I am changed in some ways since the last time I scribbled things here. I hope that my writing will improve again with time, and that I will find my way back to communicating something complicated with a bit more grace than I have now.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The 30-Day Song Challenge - Day 2

Day Two: Your least favorite song.

I'll admit it: I started on this thing without reading what the 30 different categories were. I'm starting to get the sense that they were written by someone in their formative years.

When I was 19, I had occasion to interview the sing for the Judybats, a band I dearly adored. We were scheduled to speak by phone and I departed from my normal interviewing routine of basically having a conversation, and then clarifying the points which needed it either at the end or sometime before publication. Since I wouldn't have a chance to follow up with more questions later, I decided to prepare some in advance, and was immediately confronted with the idea that there are only a handful of standard questions that people ask when a record is coming out.

As I said, I was 19, so my immediate thought was to come up with questions that would oppose the normal interviewing and marketing conventions. I suspect I just wanted one of my heroes to remember me.

Which is how I ended up asking him what his least favorite song on the new album was.

He was understandably nonplussed, and asked me to repeat the question. I did so, and he hemmed and hawed about various things before finally settling in on a track that had been written during the sessions for the previous album, but was making its debut on this one. He made it clear that the age of the song was the only criteria for naming it as his least favorite. He was simply more excited about newer songs.

I bring this up because it's what I thought of when I read today's category. It's a weirdly antagonistic question to ask someone who is giving up a bit of time to share music with people. I felt bad the instant after I asked the question, as I could see that, rather than coming up with something new, I had simply inverted a normal question in the least interesting way.

And there's a lot of that on this list. For most of the times you get to pick a favorite, you come back the next day and ponder its opposite. The challenge is doing so in such a way that it stays interesting to me. It would also be nice if it were interesting for you, but I'd settle for it not feeling like a chore.

Then there's the promotional nature of this thing to consider. I'm meant to add a youtube video of whatever my choice is. I can think of loads of music I do not enjoy, for whatever reason, but I wouldn't want to add a clip of something I dislike to my blog.


My first thought was something to do with the Black Eyed Peas, even though I think it's mostly about context with them. I saw them perform on Saturday Night Live, and my impression was that they were about as good as a mediocre high school talent show entrant. Which is pretty underwhelming, but if I were watching, say, a high school talent show, I doubt it would register so much as being atrocious. It's merely the heights of success they've managed to reach with their minimal gifts that I find galling. It's not so much about them as is it about the disparity.

So then, I thought I should think in terms of something I find loathsome or unlistenable from an artist I generally admire. That seems more appropriate. I thought of "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)" by the Beatles. It's not hard to find people willing to admit this is their worst song, but it was a b-side, and it has a sense of whimsy and was clearly a lot of fun to record, so I'm giving it a pass.

And so, we come to the high-water mark of bad music by great musicians: Metal Machine Music. The basice story is as follows: Lou Reed still owed an album to his record label, but was angry about something, or didn't want to do it. He was contractually obliged, however, and the result was a full album of, well, this:

Note the appropriate imagery. I'm guessing no one who clicks in is likely to last longer than a full minute. I had a rather nice box set of his music in the early 90s, and it contained about a minute from this work, which seems about right.

Still, it was borne of frustration, and it sure sounds like it, so it does sort of work on some level. As a statement of displeasure with a record label—who must have blinked, swallowed hard and looked around a couple of times before shrugging and releasing the album as is—it seems like a particularly elegant way of saying "fuck you." It's the sonic equivalent of that famous photograph of Johnny Cash angrily flipping off a cameraman.

And for me, it's the high-water mark for unlistenable music from someone I admire greatly.

Or it was, until a couple of years ago, when Mr. Reed decided to stage a "Symphony for Dogs." It's gonna be hard for anyone to dethrone that. It cannot be heard by human ears, and that sort of inverts the idea of "unlistenable" in much the same way I tried to invert "what's your favorite from the new record" all those years ago.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The 30 day song challenge - Day 1

Day One: Your Favorite Song

A couple of friends on Facebook have been doing this (the Facebook page is here), and I figured I'd leap in as well, but do it over here where I can take a bit more time to discuss why a particular song made the cut or whatever. This way, I'll have a way to blog daily with a relatively easy meme.

Already, though, I'm in trouble. Day one asks you to post your favorite song. Do adults still have favorite songs? If it asked me to list seventy songs I particularly enjoy, I'd have no problems whatsoever, but a single song that counts as my favorite?

Yes, by the way, I shall likely be overthinking each of the 30 entries.

The other issue is that you're supposed to link a youtube video of the song in question, but a lot of the music I listen to is relatively obscure by youtube standards, and no such video exists. I suppose in those cases, I'll mention at least two songs, and have a video for whichever ones I can find.

For my favorite song, I decided to go for a Beatles track, as they are my favorite band. My favorite record of theirs is Revolver, and the track that most exemplifies what makes that record so exciting for me is "Tomorrow Never Knows." While much of Revolver straddles the line between the jangly pop music that put them on the map in the first place and the expanding consciousness music that would cement their legacy, "Tomorrow Never Knows" has both feet planted firmly in the future.

As a feat of songwriting and recording, it's kind of audacious. It's one chord droning on and on with backward looping guitars crying out like seagulls and some of Ringo's finest drumming creating a sense of dynamics under Lennon's nasal monotone.

I actually used to call a radio station in sixth grade and request this song. Sometimes, they even played it for me.

The youtube version that I am linking is apparently from the Beatles' Saturday morning cartoon, which I've not really seen since I was ten or eleven. I'm more than a bit surprised that they made a clip for this song.

Cartoon shorthand for backward guitar? Giant horns that terrify bats but seem to arouse dinosaurs. Good to know.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sudden showers

The last Tuesday in August finds me somewhat reflective, although not more so than normal in terms of visible light. It's 90° again. This has been a hot summer in Chicago, coming on the heels of no spring at all.

Soon the weather will break, the chill will set in, and we can all get back to complaining about how cold it is. In the meantime, I'm mainly tired of sweating so much.


I recently took a nice mini-vacation with a friend, canoeing 40 miles of the Wisconsin River with nothing but our wits, far too much food, miscellaneous gadgets and as much comfort as could be fitted into our watercraft.

Though we slept in a tent on a sandbar, it would be hard to say we were roughing it. This was fine, as neither of us are noted for our hardy ruggedness.

The second day of our intended three was punctuated in the late afternoon by a rumble of thunder. We had recently talked ourselves out of correctly reading our map, so it was easy to carry our wrongness momentum into a belief that it was not actually going to rain. Though cloudy, nothing we could see had the dark look of rainclouds. Even long after it became clear to us both that rain was imminent, my friend shushed me during the thunder in the hopes that he could trace its origins to the nearby highway, some anomaly in the pavement or a vehicle that would put us in the clear.

Still, we searched for a place to put ashore. Thunder, after all, means lightning, and being in a metal boat on water didn't seem like the most wondrous place to be if giant bolts of electricity were milling about.

It had begun to rain by the time we found a spot to put ashore, on a little clearing which seemed to be the origin of all the mud in Wisconsin. We peered bleakly around at the mud and the giant mosquitos and hoped the rain would subside before we would have to make camp. It grew cold, and we found our jackets, put them on. The rainproof fabric was just another interesting sensation on my skin, in addition to the sunburn, sand, sunscreen and bug repellant. I fastened the hood and pulled its drawstring.

Before long, the rain began to subside, and we glared one last time at the muddy sinkhole before shoving the canoe back into the water in search of a better place to camp. We had seemingly no sooner pushed off than my friend spotted the bridge over the river ahead. This meant we had gone far in excess of our intended distance for the day, and now were less than a mile from our extraction point, with something like 21 hours to spare.

This was when the rain truly began.

It was possibly the hardest rain I have ever been outside for, or it felt that way. The tiny drops pelted the surface of the river so that it resembled stucco. Within moments I was blind, the sunscreen and insect spray rushing into my eyes from my forehead. My glasses were no help, as they beaded and obscured as much or more than the chemicals. We began shouting to one another over the roar of water. We would make it to the landing and figure it out from there, we agreed, the sooner the better.

We paddled hard. Harder, probably, than any previous point on the trip. I was in the rear of the craft, responsible for the steering. I shouted again that I was nearly blind, and that my friend should call out if we needed to alter direction. A pool of water was forming at my feet inside the canoe, and I began to wonder if I would need to stop paddling and start bailing it out. So in my blindness, I kept one eye on the rapidly rising water in the canoe and one on the bridge ahead that signaled safety and potential dryness.

In a strange way, this sudden storm was the most fun part of the trip, truly exhilarating. Though I was worried about our various calamities, I also felt kind of wonderful.

My cell phone was working, and we arranged for a ride back to the place our trip originated. In a flash, our trip was over, and we were left with only the mundanities of slogging back to Illinois. I have to say that even now, nearly two weeks later, I still feel a small amount of the sadness I felt when I realized we were headed home a day early.

My friend and I have made plans to repeat the trip. We have discussed the things we should do differently next time to enhance the experience. We have talked also about camping sans canoe in the fall when the weather turns crisp and a campfire becomes a lifeline. Perhaps most importantly, we seem to have rekindled a friendship that seemed as though it had lain fallow for too long.


Forgive, please, the length and rambliness. I'm rusty.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Monday morning haiku: April 5

Spring barges in like
a petulant pubescent
with a heart of gold

Monday, February 01, 2010

Not a book report

I'm back among the Workers these days, the curious folk who live in the building where I am sometimes called upon to build documents for money. I try not to show up too early, so that they will be up and breakfasted before my arrival.

Many of the people I used to know among them are no longer there. This financial crisis thingie has hit and hit hard. There have been layoffs, and a few times those remaining have been asked to accept a decrease in pay to help ensure the short-term stability of the company. Today was one such day. This makes me fear for my own situation there, which is temporary anyway. It also makes me feel quite sad for the situation in which the Workers find themselves.

I heard on television that unemployment is always a "lagging indicator" in tough economic times, which is meant to indicate that it takes longer to stabilize than the actual crisis. This isn't much comfort.

So I find myself a bit melancholic this Monday evening. Hoping a good night's sleep will take care of some of that. If not, perhaps I will devour a sheet cake.


I've been thinking about the 100 Books/100 Films thing, and am now convinced that I would rather saw off my foot than attempt to write 200 posts like the one I posted Sunday. To say nothing of asking anyone to pop in and slog through such posts. The reasonable thing to do would be to publish a few lumped together every week or so, focusing on highlights and lowlights. I except I'll do a book or film all on its lonesome from time to time, but only in such cases where I genuinely had something to say or a strong response.

Bear with me, I am still figuring things out.

This also means I can blog like a normal person more often, without it getting buried in what would be a new review every two days or so. I find I am looking forward to doing some normal posts.


The lists I am going by, incidentally (the AFI Top 100 Films and the Modern Library Top 100 Books), are not meant to imply that I necessarily endorse their choices for the cream of their respective crops. Any two people would have wildly varying lists, and there are a number on these lists which I might rank higher or lower or omit in favor of another selection.

The main thing is that they are concrete lists, and each have many selections which I have never experienced for one reason or another. The books one, in particular, intrigues me with a nice blend of things I know I enjoyed, things I have always meant to read, and things I had never heard of before. And, yeah, a few I know already are clunkers.