High Anxiety: Without My Electronic Tether

Apple store, Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Photo by NSB.

To the glitzy, glassy Apple store

For iPhone repair…

Nothing serious, just a battery upgrade.

But—an hour a half, says Matt,

My Apple red-shirt guy.

(Beat.) An hour a half?

Without my phone? I don’t have my iPad … my laptop is at home.

It’s a strange feeling …

No electronic tether.

No one knows where I am

Sitting in a café on Michigan Avenue.

No one can call me or text me.

I don’t know who has answered my emails

Or sent out a plaintive call for help.

The question: Does anyone need me?

Do my sons think I’m on a cart in the ER?

Or—most likely—no one has noticed.

 

NOTE: If your old iPhone needs a new battery, Apple says it’s replacing them for $29 through 12/31/18. But prepare for the anxiety. Bring a book. Or write a poem.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano: A 1952 Novel That Epitomizes 2018

This was the cover of my old copy of Player Piano, lost in the mists of time and too many moving boxes.

It’s 1952 and a debut novel by a 23-year-old writer is published by Delacorte Press. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano about a near-future society is categorized as science fiction and doesn’t get much attention.

I first read Player Piano many years ago. Probably some time soon after college, when I was devouring his other books, such as Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five. I read Player Piano then too, but my copy disappeared in one of my moves.

Recently my son Andrew mentioned that Player Piano has parallels to today’s society, made up of an elite, educated upper class and an underemployed lower class. I decided it was time to take another look at Vonnegut. I am amazed by how striking the parallels are to today’s society. And how prescient Vonnegut was, as a young writer/publicist working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He recreates that milieu in Player Piano as Ilium, home of the Ilium Works, “where machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles….”

The time is after the third world war, which was followed by riots, and a government clampdown on saboteurs. The machines developed in the wartime miracle now control every aspect of life and no humans are needed to operate them.

The hero of Player Piano is Dr. Paul Proteus, a brilliant engineer and head of Ilium Works. He’s mostly happy with his life as an engineer and manager and hopes for a promotion to run the Pittsburgh Works. So does his wife Anita. They’re part of the executive/engineer class who live a privileged life with high incomes and lavish homes and possessions.

The others? Since people are no longer needed to operate or control the machines, they are given the choice of serving in the Army or working for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps—the so-called Reeks and Wrecks, who fix bridges and fill potholes. The government provides everyone with an adequate income for home, food, clothing, healthcare, education—everything a family needs to survive. Perhaps you think people are happy to have all their needs provided without doing any real work? But no, people are depressed and desperate to do real meaningful work.

As one writer said about Player Piano, “The rotten core buried under a façade of shining machines is that this society has made humanity superfluous, sucked all meaning out of the world, and replaced humanist values with a machine ethic predicated upon a new holy trinity: ‘Efficiency, Economy, and Quality.’” Sound familiar?

Even human relations are mechanized, Vonnegut thinks. Paul talks about his wife being skilled at “the mechanics of marriage.” On their phone calls, Anita ends by telling Paul she loves him and he robotically replies, “I love you, Anita.”

Paul occasionally visits a certain bar in Homestead, the area where the Reeks and Wrecks live. He becomes aware of their unhappiness as he talks to workers who have ideas and skills they’d like to contribute, even though they’re unwanted.

Kurt Vonnegut in 1972. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, he loves the music of his machines. “The lathe groups, the tenors…. the welders, the baritones…. the punch presses, the basses.” He has nagging doubts about his life, which he tries not to acknowledge, until some dramatic events take place at the executive retreat on an island called The Meadows. It’s the kind of event you’d expect it to be: lots of team sports, structured camaraderie, controlled drinking and tight scheduling, announced by the omnipresent loudspeaker. Paul’s future life changes as a result and he ends up joining the revolution concocted by the underground Ghost Shirt Society, a group of radicals who want to destroy key machinery and restore dignity to human work.

There’s a second thread to Player Piano. A representative of the U.S. Department of State is escorting two foreign visitors around to various American cities. The Shah of Bratpuhr and his translator express an outsider’s skepticism of the wonders of American society. It’s Vonnegut’s technique, which he uses in other books, of showing a skewed perspective on our lives.

Player Piano isn’t a diatribe against technology. It’s a critique of corporatized society, of adopting technological change without any thought for social or political change. We can have machines control everything without any human operators, so let’s just do that.

Vonnegut’s writing is a mix of satire and black humor, social and political critique. He’s hard to categorize, which probably didn’t help his reputation among critics who find it more convenient to pigeonhole artists and writers. He’s more likely to be recognized for his literary genius since his death in 2007 gave critics a reason to fully explore his life and oeuvre.

So I highly recommend a reading or rereading of Player Piano for a break from your daily news and political blather. If you’re thinking well, this sounds interesting, but I don’t like sci-fi. Player Piano isn’t sci-fi. There are no aliens with weird-shaped heads, no humans with amorphous sexual abilities, no strange worlds defined by frost and desert. This is the U.S., populated by people like you and me. Furthermore, it’s a readable 340 pages, not a doorstop tome. You can buy it here or here or borrow it from your public library.

And now, it’s time to reread Vonnegut’s acknowledged masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five.


Freedom of the Press Is for Online Journalists Too

Last week, more than 300 newspapers all over the country recommitted to the basic tenets of a free press and community service through journalism. At Third Coast Review, we thought it was important to take this same stand and point out that writers for online media are journalists too. We are thus bound to and supported by the First Amendment. Here’s my essay.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” The famously acerbic journalist, A.J. Liebling, wrote that in the New Yorker in 1960. Although that may well have been true in 1960, today we are journalists without owning a press.

On August 16, more than 300 U.S. newspapers joined in editorial harmony to state vehemently that a free press is essential to America’s democracy and to counter the ridiculous and hateful statements of the current occupant of the White House. (Do I have to say his name?)

Initiated by the Boston Globe, the event was joined in by major metro dailies such as the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times, both Chicago dailies and the suburban Daily Herald and many smaller city newspapers all over the state and the country, such as the Durango (Colo.) Herald, the Kokomo (Ind.) Tribune and the Ripon (Wis.) Commonwealth Press. You can read the New York Times editorial and quotes from many of the 350 newspapers here.

We applaud the comments of all these important newspapers, large and small. We particularly liked this excerpt from the Sun-Times editorial:

“We are the enemy of nothing but ‘thoughts and prayers’ when children are slaughtered. We are the enemy of faked-up outrage.

“We are the friend of the teacher who never gives up, of the small business owner who hires ex-offenders, of the bus driver who makes every last stop, of the architect who designs a beautiful building, and of the bricklayer and ironworker who build it.

“We are the friend of an open lakefront, a clean Chicago River, excellent middle linebackers and deep-dish pizza.

“Above all, we are the enemy of bad journalism, and we commit ourselves each day to practicing the best journalism. We do our best to tell our city’s story, the sum total of every Chicagoan’s story, straight and fair, come what may.”

We want to point out that online news media also support and value the press freedom guarantee of the First Amendment. Our fellow online media—such as our friends at Block Club Chicago, the Beachwood Reporter, Reddit Chicago, and possibly Chance’s reborn Chicagoist—all benefit by the First Amendment. You may not think of this when you read our pop music reviews, our commentary on storefront theater, our videogame reviews and Third Coast Today, our regular news feature. But like our online colleagues, we are beneficiaries of the First Amendment and we damn well will publish whatever we think is important for our readers to know. And no government agency—should they know or care what we write about—will stop us. Not the city, or the police department, the county, the state of Illinois or any government agency. If Third Coast Review is ever silenced, it will be because of lack of funds or lack of support.

So as the Boston Globe and the New York Times requested, read and subscribe to your local newspaper. And read and share your local arts and culture site, Third Coast Review.

And I’ll add here, please read, share and support your local bloggers and other writers who comment on matters political and personal. Share their posts, comment on their sites and donate a few bucks if you can.


Analog Rhapsody: An Essay on the Film California Typewriter

My list of best films of 2017 would certainly include The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this isn’t my best-of list. This is a film I loved even though it’s imperfect and isn’t on most best-of lists.

California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol (best known for music video and commercial production), is an homage to the old-fashioned typewriter through a series of stories told by writers, musicians and artists who use and love their typewriters. The interviews are woven around the story of a Berkeley typewriter repair shop, the eponymous California Typewriter, and the devoted owner and the genius repair guy who work hard to keep the business, as well as the typewriters, going. It’s inspiring to hear writers like David McCullough and Sam Shepard talk about their typewriters and to hear musician John Mayer talk about why he’d rather write lyrics on his typewriter than on a computer. Tom Hanks shows his collection of 250 typewriters and tells us why he’ll ignore any email thank-you notes.

The five-member Boston Typewriter Orchestra plays concerts. One typewriter has “this machine kills fascists” lettered on its back, an homage to Woody Guthrie. (See a track from one of their concerts below.) They adapt Gil Scott-Heron’s This Revolution Will Not Be Televised” into “This Revolution Will Be Typewritten.” They also play a cover of “Rain and Blood” by Slayer, a bit of literally heavy metal music.

Silvi Alcivar writes poetry for hire. She sits in public places, where people tell her their stories. She turns their stories into poems, which she types on her portable typewriter and presents to her customers. Sort of like the letter-writers who used to sit in public places and write letters for illiterate people. (See the 1998 Brazilian film, Central Station.)

My favorite character, whose life we follow throughout the film, is Jeremy Mayer, an artist who creates sculptures from typewriter parts. Originally from the Minnesota Iron Range, he now lives in Oakland. He and the repair shop owner mosey around street markets and fairs, looking for old typewriters that can be salvaged and sold or that are irreparable and can be deconstructed for parts. Mayer makes abstract and figurative sculptures, using only typewriter parts and bolting them together using the original screws and bolts. No soldering. He talks about the visual influence of Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis.

At first he struggles to sell anything and to make much income from his sales. By the end of the film, he’s installing a major piece in the city apartment of a wealthy tech executive, and his work is being written about in Wired, Gizmodo and tech blogs. By the end of the film, he’s in India working on a huge sculpture to commemorate the closing of the last typewriter factory in Mumbai.

California Typewriter is simply a story of people whose lives are connected by their love for typewriters. John Mayer is inspired to write his lyrics on a typewriter after seeing Bob Dylan typing lyrics in Don’t Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker film about Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England.

David McCullough laments the loss of the typewriter’s analog process, which enabled us to see how important documents are created with redrafts, crossouts and handwritten corrections on different versions. That process was preserved as part of history, where a researcher could see the steps in drafting presidential speeches and policies.

The original Sholes and Gliddens typewriter, manufactured by Remington.

We also learn about the history of the typewriter from a collector of antique models. The first working typewriter was developed by Christopher Lathem Sholes in 1869 in Milwaukee. Sholes and Gliddens typewriters, the first commercially successful models, did not work like later models with keys striking a roller, but even the very first one had a QWERTY keyboard, invented by Sholes.

We can equate today’s interest in typewriters to the passion for music on vinyl or the love for vintage cameras, with their darkroom and photo print features. Sometimes it seems as if the digital world gobbles up everything in its path too quickly. (I’m thinking of the worlds of newspapers and books too.)

But the love for the analog meets digital demand at some point, because a business needs it to survive today. By the end of the film, California Typewriter has a new website to promote its repair work and typewriter sales.

I recommend California Typewriter whether or not the manual typewriter was once part of your life. It’s a charming film, a romance with our mechanical past. I did write on typewriters, first manual, then electric, for decades. But when I first began writing executive speeches, with their interminable versions, on a Wang word processor and then on a Macintosh, there was no turning back. I was happy to give up the scissors and tape by which we reconstructed drafts, in favor of producing a clean version on a computer screen. My analog rhapsody crashed and burned when I turned on my first Mac.

A side note on the value of typewriters. Early in the film, we watch an auction house sell Cormac McCarthy’s typewriter—an Olivetti on which he wrote most of his novels—for $254,000.

 


Did you miss me? I’m back with five theater reviews and a recap of my life

If you’ve been following my blog, you might have noticed that I’m not posting as frequently as in the past, when I was pretty reliable about posting an essay once a week. My new job as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review is taking up more of my time than I thought it would. That’s not a complaint–because it’s fun and it’s gratifying to see our site grow with so many terrific writers contributing. I’m writing theater reviews there, of course, as well as spending time on editing and admin duties. In addition, we have great articles under Music, Food, Lit, Art and Screens. To pick just a few:

We review 826Chi’s new children’s book, The Monster Gasped, OMG!

How chicken wings changed Julia’s life and made her decide to be a chef.

Caravan Palace at the House of Blues: It’s a blend of swing, gypsy jazz and electronic music.

Whether I’m reviewing or not, I’m an inveterate theatergoer. I’ve seen several good shows recently and I wanted to let you know about them so you can catch them too.

Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre thru July 3

This is a beautifully written and performed play, a love story about an unlikely pair of lovers. Nick Payne’s Constellations is told in bits and pieces, brief scenes that roll out, double back and repeat themselves, sometimes in the same information and the same language, sometimes not. It shows the power of memory and miscommunication in our relationships. It’s a very nonlinear story that gels into a sweet and poignant story. To make it even more interesting, one of the pair is a theoretical physicist and the other a beekeeper. So some of the dialogue detours into discussions of time, atoms and space, and the lives of bees. The play runs 80 minutes. Check out my review.

Spinning by Irish Theatre thru July 3

Deirdre Kinahan’s play Spinning at Irish Theatre Company is the story of how one man grasped for happiness, had it and lost it but finds it difficult to understand how or why his actions were involved. Dan Waller, a fine Chicago actor, plays this role in a compelling fashion, along with three women in his life (four actually, but his child does not appear on stage). My review comments that the struggles of single parenthood and the dread  of losing a child are what cause the worlds of Conor (Waller) and Susan (Jodi Kingsley) to spin out of control. The play runs 75 minutes at the Den Theatre.

Both of these productions are the currently fashionable under-90-minute variety and are staged with minimal scenic designs and no props.

Hauptmann at City Lit Theater thru July 10

Bruno Richard Hauptmann tells his own story with a supporting cast of six actors playing multiple parts in Hauptmann at City Lit Theater in Edgewater. It’s the other “trial of the century” (the first one being the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago in the 1920s). An excellent production, it’s the 30th anniversary staging of this play by John Logan, which originated in the same location and was directed by the same director. My review says “Although you know the outcome of the play before it starts, director Terry McCabe creates a tense and engrossing version of the story of the man who may have been executed for a crime he did not commit. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was almost certainly denied a fair trial in 1930s America, between two wars against Germany.” Hauptmann runs thru July 10 and I recommend it.

Tapped, a Treasonous Musical Comedy by Forth Story Productions thru July 3

I rarely see a play that’s really bad and that’s mostly because I screen out the ones I suspect will be amateurish. I often see great theater at our huge array of storefront theaters–often as good or better than what you can see at the big Equity houses. With that as a preface, I’ll have to say that Tapped was bad. Amateurish, yes; clichéd and stereotyped, yes; and way too long, yes! To be fair, there are some funny lines, an occasional clever song and at least one great dancer. But all in all, it’s a play that should never have been staged at Theater Wit. I wanted biting political satire on our surveillance society and I got this. My review.

Haymarket, the Anarchist’s Songbook at Underscore Theatre

This was a terrific production (and I hope it’s remounted) drawn from Chicago history with original music performed by talented actor/musicians. It tells the story leading up to the Haymarket riot when Chicago working men and women rallied to call for an eight-hour workday and better working conditions at Haymarket Square at Desplaines and Randolph streets. I’m sorry to say that the play, staged at the new Edge Theatre in Edgewater, closed last weekend. My review.


My theater report from Third Coast Review

3CR-LOGO_Third Coast ReviewOur new website, thirdcoastreview.com, has been launched by a bunch of refugees from Gapers Block, our dear, archived Chicago website. I wrote about that here a few weeks ago, but we weren’t quite ready for prime time until January 8, our official launch date. I’m editor and publisher of Third Coast Review and lead theater critic. I’m also serving as editor of the Screens page until I find someone else to take that over. We have a cadre of almost 30 writers and editors and I think we’re off to a great start. (Our logo was designed by my friend and former colleague, Linda Pompeii.)

I’ve reviewed four plays in the last week and most of them are recommended, if not must-sees. Here are the mini-reviews with links to the full reviews on 3CR.

The Mutilated at A Red Orchid Theatre

You’ve probably never heard of this Tennessee Williams play, but it’s a bizarre delight and I highly recommend it. My review says it’s a “joyous goofy Christmas” and it is, complete with bleak holiday songs written by the playwright. The acting, directing, design and sound elements are all terrific. This is an excerpt from the song that opens the play, performed by a dozen motley carolers.

I think the strange, the crazed, the queer
Will have their holiday this year
And for a while, a little while,
There will be pity for the wild
A miracle, a miracle!
A sanctuary for the wild.

The Mutilated runs through February 28 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells.

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London Wall by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre

John Van Druten’s London Wall is another rarely performed play that warrants more affection. It’s the story of the steno-typists at a London law firm in the 1930s, the era when marriage was the only escape for a working girl in a low-wage job. Robin Witt’s direction and a fine cast result in excellent performances; the script is witty and the set a beautifully done office setting. My review notes that London Wall  creates “a perfect microcosm of the pre-feminist age” and has some messages for the present as well. The Griffin Theatre production continues thru Feb. 14 at the Den Theatre, upstairs at 1333 N. Milwaukee. (And yes, an elevator is in their renovation plans for 2017, as well as a sprinkler system and a new marquee, according to owner Ryan Martin.)

Sunset Baby at Timeline Theatre

Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau is a family story, but a tough one, about a young woman (AnJi White as Nina) who doesn’t want to make peace with her father’s Black revolutionary past and its impact on her mother and her own childhood. She and her boyfriend are trying to save money for a new life by dealing drugs and sex. The 110-minute play (no intermission) is infused with music by Nina Simone throughout. The three-member cast is strong with a soulful performance by Edward Van Lear as Kenyatta, the father. My review. Sunset Baby runs thru April 10 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington.

Bruise Easy at American Theater Company

This is a play with interesting ingredients, including two reunited siblings and a Greek chorus of neighborhood kids. Somehow all the pieces don’t come together in this script by Dan LeFranc. Joanie Schultz’ usually sure direction doesn’t save it, although the play has interesting moments and it’s short–about 80 minutes. Bruise Easy continues thru Feb. 14 at ATC, 1909 W. Byron. Check out my review.


2015: Not Quite a Year in Review

The last year had many exciting and interesting moments for me, but the last month has been challenging. I spent most of it mourning about and planning how to recover from the demise of Gapers Block, the website for which I’ve written for almost three years. The site is now “on hiatus.” Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher of the 12-year-old website, posted a letter to readers explaining the change. And this is how the site looks now.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 3.16.51 PM

Many articles, comments and personal memories have come in to praise Gapers Block but no one has stepped in with the offer of the needed money to update the infrastructure and pay a full-time editor/publisher at least a pittance of a salary. So the site will live on as an archive, with all the existing content live, but nothing new. I couldn’t resist adding my own personal thoughts to the site, which I did late on New Year’s Eve, while waiting for the #ChicagoRising star to rise. (I can’t bring myself to call it “Chi-Town.” No real Chicagoan would use that term.)

GB staff members had known about this for several weeks and after we got over our initial distress, some of us began planning a new website to cover the Gapers Block arts and culture content. The result will be our new website, Third Coast Review, which is online now in an unofficial or “beta” way. We expect it to be official in a week or 10 days once we add more content.

What else was new and important in 2015?

nsbj-cubacityscape

Havana cityscape. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

My week in Cuba was memorable and I wrote about it at length here and here.

On another shorter trip, I spent time in New York and was lucky to get a ticket to see the smash Broadway hiphopera (as one of my fellow theater critics calls it), Hamilton, about our first treasury secretary. I wrote about that here and probably will keep writing about it. I intended to see it again later in the year but by then tickets were really impossible to get without paying a couple of months’ salary. And now Hamilton is coming to Chicago in September and will be here (at the dreadful Shubert Theatre on Monroe Street, renamed after yet another bank), so I will be able to see it a few more times.

In the meantime, I’m finally reading the insightful biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the show about our “ten-dollar founding father.” Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating, meticulously detailed and readable biography. I just wish it wasn’t 800 pages long.

The Phantom Collective, the pub theater group formed by my friend June Skinner Sawyers, staged several interesting literary events in 2015, including Black Dogs and Melancholy, a reading of Samuel Johnson writings. The most recent pub event was Beowulf &  Grendel, which combined Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, with Grendel, one of Beowulf’s antagonists (dramatized in John Gardner’s 1971 novel,Grendel, in which that character tells his side of the story).

Chicago Architecture Biennial. Norman Kelley, survey of Chicago windows.

Chicago Architecture Biennial. Norman Kelley, survey of Chicago windows.

Architecture: We love our buildings. The Chicago Architecture Biennial was a series of exhibits and events from October through today. The most comprehensive was the takeover of the Chicago Cultural Center by about 80 exhibits on four floors by firms and designers that asked questions about and predicted the future of architecture. I particularly liked the architectonic window treatments on the Michigan Avenue facade of the building by Norman Kelley. He clad each window in white vinyl cutouts representing Chicago window styles, mullions and dressings. The biennial as a whole was less than impressive but it was an excellent start and a learning experience for the next biennial in 2017.

Getting ready for Springsteen

Yes, I have the hardly-waits already for the January 19 concert at the United Center featuring my favorite rocker, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And for the concert February 21 in Louisville, an excuse to visit with my friends Jeannie and John. There will be more. Springsteen is touring on the re-release of his 1980 album, The River, in the form of a large boxed set titled The Ties That Bind. No, I haven’t bought it yet.

The year in review? Not yet. 

I usually begin the new year with a list of my favorite events in pop culture for the previous year. I may still do that. For now, WordPress has created my year in review:

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,700 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.