My week in Cuba, part 2: The art and music scene

Last week I wrote about my week in Cuba, with details on our itinerary, lodging, transportation and information briefings. If you missed My week in Cuba: Land of Hope and Dreams, you can catch it here. Cuba has a lively art and music scene although it’s not clear whether the artists and musicians can earn a living with their talents. (But then that’s a problem here too, isn’t it?)

We had a chance to visit artists’ studios, galleries, shops and street stalls to chat, view and shop for art and inexpensive artisan wares. We heard a lot of music, most of it played during our meals at paladars. Almost every paladar had a small group—trio or quartet—playing for diners. We enjoyed the music of a trio at lunch at Paladar Le Moneda Cubana in Old Havana one day and then found them playing for our breakfast the next morning at the hotel. Most of the music tends to be global pop, rather than the authentic Cuban music I would have liked to hear.

Raul Castro has loosened the restrictions on private enterprise to some extent. There are hundreds of paladars now and many private homes operating as bed and breakfasts. The main governmental control, according to locals, is inspection to be sure the full operation is being taxed. Artists are able to show and sell their work, but their income is heavily taxed, like other entrepreneurs. (In many of these places, we were not able to take photos.)

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The art of Arian and Andrey

One evening a few of us visited two artists’ studios to meet the artists and see their work. Our guide was Jose Camilo Lopez, a cultural guide and friend of our tour manager. Along with his driver, Daniel, we zipped around Havana neighborhoods.

Irsula Studios is both gallery and workshop for artists. Arian Irsula, the owner, was able to use family money to lease and redo two floors of an old house. The space, still being renovated, features 15-foot ceilings and pillars with Corinthian capitals. It has now become a slick modern gallery and workspace. We saw collages and paintings by Arian and Andrey Quintana as well as other artists. An example from each of them is in the slide show. Arian has created some collages that I really liked. They’re black and white abstracts with bits of glass and mirror. I really would have loved to buy one (they were not cheap) but was unsure about (1) any bureaucratic restrictions about taking art out of Cuba, and (2) that the collage would be broken in travel. So I settled for buying a small print at a museum shop. (See below.)

Visiting Reynerio

We also visited the home, gallery and studio of Reynerio Tamayo, an established artist who works with, the government arts agency. His work makes use of many media and much of it is humorous or satirical or based on pop culture references. Reynerio is a delightful and charming guy and we spent quite a bit of time viewing his gallery of work and visiting with him and his family.

I should note that these artists usually don’t have websites; they may have Facebook pages, but they have very limited internet access. (See Cuba Part 1.) Typically, they’ll show you additional examples of their work on their smartphone galleries.

Dinner and a jazz concert

Later the same evening we went to the luxurious home of a Havana art dealer in the neighborhood called Nuevo Vedado. Odette Pandoja, a friend of the Smithsonian group, had invited us for dinner and a jazz concert. The home was large and beautiful, as I described in Cuba Part 1. I was particularly taken by a series of large black-and-white abstract photographs, which would be very happy in my apartment.

After dinner, a jazz trio made up of musicians on keyboards, percussion and clarinet played a fine concert for us. I bought the band’s CD/DVD combination as a gift for my musician son (after I play both of them myself, as he knows I will).

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Art on the street and in museums

While we were in Cienfuegos, we had free time to walk around the square visiting artists’ studios and the street stalls where other artisans sold their work. I bought some bracelets and other jewelry, but my favorite find was these wooden cars (ostensibly for my grandsons) that look like the 1950s cars that are driven all over Havana. (I think I’m going to give them as gifts, but I’m growing fonder of them every day.) In Trinidad, a quartet of elders played in the park as we walked by on the cobblestone streets. We also visited an artist’s home and gallery there after a too-long and unmemorable lunch at Paladar El Dorado.

On our last morning before flying from Havana to Miami, we visited the Museum of Fine Arts in old Havana, where we saw work organized by decade. There was not much inspiring work there and we saw much work from the 1960s and ‘70s that was derivative of modernists such as Warhol and Picasso. In fact, we saw a 1965 painting that was almost a replica of Picasso’s Guernica. Cuban artists of that period created a lot of political art and pop art multiples. At this museum, like most others, we toured with a docent whose Spanish was translated into English by our guide.

One other museum stop I should mention was in Miami, the day before our departure for Havana. My friend Christa and I made a quick trip to PAMM, the Perez Museum of Art Miami, where we saw two exhibits and shopped in the excellent museum store. The museum is new and modern but there was a lot of construction going on around it so I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the exterior.

The most interesting exhibit was Bloodlines by the Dominican artist Firelei Báez, who now lives in New York. Her paintings of African-American and Cuban women are rich in detail and color; they often depict hair designs, textiles and body ornaments.

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Music and dance

While in Cienfuegos, we had some interesting musical entertainment. After walking around the square, we climbed several flights of stairs to hear a special concert by the Choir of Cienfuegos, a chorus of about 24 local men and women, who performed a concert of Cuban and international songs and show tunes. One of them, incongruously, was the American folk song, “Shenandoah.”

The day we were traveling from Cienfuegos back to Havana, we stopped at the Museum of Guanabacoa (in the colonial township of Guanabacoa) for a folkloric performance of music and dance by Grupo Olurún. This ended up with many of us joining in the dancing, but for some reason, there are no photos to record this.

More Cuban music

The music we probably think of as real Cuban music is that of the Buena Vista Social Club, a Havana members club that closed in the 1940s and was reconstituted in the 1990s by guitarist Ry Cooder and then filmed by director Wim Wenders. Here’s some footage from the Wenders 1999 documentary, Buena Vista Social Club.

Another song playing in my mind last week has a famous Havana reference. It’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by the late great rocker Warren Zevon. It’s from his 1979 album, Excitable Boy, which is better known for the title track and the iconic song Werewolves of London (one of the ringtones on my phone). Zevon sings:

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this.

My week in Cuba: Land of hope and dreams?

Cuba has always seemed a land of mystery, glamour, music and passion. The desire to visit lurked on the edges of my memory as I read books like The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (by Oscar Hijuelos), Dreaming in Cuban (Cristina Garcia), To Have and Have Not (Ernest Hemingway) and Los Guisanos (John Sayles). Films like Our Man in Havana, The Mambo Kings, Before Night Falls and even Chico and Rita, the 2010 animated film, enhanced my yearning for this exotic city. So I had my vision of Havana and Cuba and somehow, it took many decades before I finally achieved my Cuba dream.

I spent last week in Cuba with a group of about 30 charming and interesting travelers as part of a Smithsonian Journeys tour. The week was fascinating and intellectually invigorating while also being tiring and enervating. Cuba is beautiful, its people are warm and welcoming, and its economy and infrastructure are in desperate need of investment and some good old capitalism. Here are my thoughts after being home for a few days.

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First, the basics

We may have renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba but the trade and travel embargo are still in place. You can’t go to Cuba by buying a ticket from Miami to Havana. US citizens risk prosecution if they travel directly to Cuba until Congress lifts the trade embargo, which requires action. (Congressional action; that would be an oxymoron.) You can travel to Cuba now with an educational or “people to people” mission, organized by a licensed tour organization.

Besides your passport, you need a tourist visa to travel to Cuba. There’s a rumor that a bootleg trip to Cuba wouldn’t be tracked because the Cuban immigration officials don’t stamp your passport. That may have been true in the past, but our passports were all stamped on arrival and departure at Jose Marti International Airport.

Smithsonian Journeys arranged our trip and all arrangements were managed extremely well. The Smithsonian tour manager (the saintly Claire) was extremely competent and attentive to our needs and schedule. Our local tour guide was Yoandry, a Cuban charmer who is very well informed but never strays from the party line. In addition, Enrique, an emeritus professor of Spanish from the University of New Mexico, was our study expert. Bernardo was our bus driver and maneuvered floods, 500-year-old cobblestone streets, and Havana traffic with skill. The coach in which we traveled around Cuba (far too much coach time) was comfortable, air-conditioned and equipped with vast quantities of bottled water.

About half of the cars on Havana streets are beautiful old cars from the 1950s, most of them shiny and cared for. There are many new cars now too, however, especially Kias and Toyotas.

Cuba’s infrastructure is sorely lacking and they are definitely not ready for a flood of tourists, should the US travel embargo be lifted. Water and sanitation are serious problems. You can’t drink the water anywhere, many toilets don’t flush and you can’t put paper in the toilets. (At toilets outside the big cities, you typically are greeted by an attendant who hands you a wee scrap of toilet paper and then flushes the toilet with a bucket of water. You clean your hands with hand sanitizer.)

The climate is tropical, of course, and hotter than I expected. Beastly humid and hot, in fact. Hats and sunscreen are required as is bug spray in many places. Very few buildings have elevators or air-conditioning. (Our hotels had both.)

Cuba has little or no internet access so my smartphone was used as a camera only. It is possible to buy internet cards and get spotty reception at hotels, but I had decided I was just going to put my phone on airplane mode for the week.

The itinerary

We arrived in Havana early on a Saturday morning. The Havana airport is a zoo and I was happy to have Claire guiding us through the maze and people swarms. We spent three days and nights at the Melia Cohiba, a luxury hotel in Havana, then drove three hours to Cienfuegos, where we spent two days, including a side trip to Trinidad, the 500-year-old city. Finally, we drove back to Havana for a final night in a state-run hotel and departure the next day for Miami. Along the way, we made stops at sugar cane facilities, museums and the Bay of Pigs invasion site. (Yes, really.)

Tour highlights

 I’ll just say that the only time we spent on the beach was at the Bay of Pigs invasion site. Trust me, this was not a resort vacation. See travel embargo above.

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Ernest Hemingway’s estate in Finca Vigia, just outside Havana. We were able to walk around the house but mainly peer in to the rooms through windows and doors. I also walked up the stairs of his “writing tower” to see the room where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. The docent was kind enough to take photos for me, including the priceless shot of his typewriter.

A walking tour of Old Havana with a local architect, including a glimpse of the 1930 Bacardi building, a gorgeous art deco structure. We also visited Hemingway’s room in the Pink Hotel, where he lived with his then-wife, Martha Gellhorn, for seven or eight years. It’s on the fifth floor but the building has one of those cage-like old elevators. Hem got his exercise every day, going in and out to have lunch and drink daiquiris at the bar in Café Ambos Mundes.

I have now visited five of Hemingway’s homes. I’ve visited his childhood home in Oak Park, his Key West home and I regularly walk by the building at 1239 North Dearborn Street where he lived in Chicago with his wife Hadley in 1921 (on the fourth floor of a 19th century row house, now a single family home).

A tour of the University of Havana (founded in 1728 by the Dominicans) with Yoandry and university administrator Nestor as our guides. We met in the Aula Magna, the great hall, in the oldest building for a briefing and then walked around the campus. The university has about 12,000 students who receive their five-year undergrad educations and all services at no cost.

A briefing at the US Embassy with the impressive political chief, Justin Davis. He gave us a good overview of the current Cuban political and economic situation and US legislation that restricts trade and travel. The embargo not only restricts investment by US companies; it prohibits any company that invests in Cuba from investing in the US.

Cuba imports 80 percent of its foodstuffs, much of it from the US (agricultural products are excluded from the embargo) and most of its oil from Venezuela. Cuba exports only rum and cigars. About $2 billion of Cuba’s GDP is made up of remittances from Cuban-Americans. The average wage for a government worker is $25/month. He also discussed the political situation given the advanced ages of the Castro brothers. Raul Castro has said he will step down in 2018. The Cuban constitution allows only the Communist Party to stand for election. The likely successor to the Castros is the first vice minister, Miguel Diaz Canel.

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An economic briefing from a professor of economics at the University of Havana. I wasn’t expecting to hear economic data that contradicted government positions, but he needed speaker training. He read all the bulletpoints on his slides, with his back turned to the audience. Among the humorous things he said were claiming a 3.8% unemployment rate and a 4.1% projected growth in GDP. (The embassy official cited 2.4% as the projected 2015 growth.)

A meeting at Cuba Emprende, a church-supported nonprofit that trains and advises entrepreneurs. Raul Castro has loosened restrictions on private business and there is evidence of small business activity—especially in the paladars or privately owned restaurants and hostels—and this group offers workshops and advice for startups. We had a chance to visit a classroom where about 30 students were just beginning their four-week workshop on how to start and run a business. Most of them were starting small service businesses and many were hoping for capitalization, which is very difficult. Most entrepreneurs need their own savings or family money to get started.

Visits to artists’ studios and shops in Havana and Cienfuegos and the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. (I’ll write about the art and music scene in my next post, Cuba: Part 2.

A dinner and jazz concert at a magnificent private home filled with art and beautiful Cuban and Spanish antiques. (Clearly Cuba has its 1% elite population.)

A briefing on the beach at the Bay of Pigs invasion site and a tour of the nearby Playa Giron Museum. I have absolutely no doubt that the CIA planned and botched the Bay of Pigs invasion and it was interesting to hear about it from a Cuban point of view. The museum was filled with captured American weapons, photos, maps and humorous propaganda on the bilingual exhibit legends.

Farewell dinner. On our final night, we left the Hotel Nacional for our farewell dinner, expecting to be transported by our HavanaTur coach number 3779. Instead, a fleet of gorgeous 1950s convertibles was waiting for us and we cruised around the city like locals to the paladar where we dined. I rode with Miguel in a 1959 blue Ford convertible. On another occasion, I had a taxi ride in a 1973 Lada, with no window glass or seatbelts. The driver called it his Russian jalopy.

The Cuban people

May I say the Cuban people are beautiful? The men are handsome at every age and the women are equally beautiful. They are warm and welcoming without exception and those who speak a little English like to talk to Americans.

Yoandry, our local guide, has a bachelor’s degree in Russian studies from the University of Havana (because Russian was what was on offer when he went to school) and speaks quite good English. He’s very well-informed on Cuban history and fairly well informed on economic matters. He brought his girlfriend to our farewell dinner and they share the career goal of being tourist guides, for which they earn about 30 CUCs (about US$30) a month. (The CUC is the Cuban convertible currency, which is tied to the US dollar in a one-to-one relationship. There’s also the national peso, a local currency, which tourists cannot use.)

The food

Do not go to Cuba for the cuisine. Hotel breakfasts were okay and we ate all our other meals in paladars, many of which are in remodeled private homes. A few of the meals included tasty entrees or soups, but for the most part, the food is bland and boring. The typical menu is black beans, rice, and a choice of sliced pork, beef or chicken. Occasionally fish or lobster was served and one night I had a flavorful lamb stew. With black beans and rice.

The Cubans don’t seem to have any herbs or vegetables for seasoning and don’t use much salt. About the middle of the week, I decided to ask for hot sauce (“Tiene usted salsa picante?”) and that improved the black beans considerably.

Some people thought the food would be spicy but I had been to Cuban restaurants in Chicago so I knew what kind of a menu we would have.

I was obsessive about not eating or drinking anything that would make me sick (having had a dreadful experience once in Mexico), so I drank only bottled water (as recommended), drinks sin hielo (and I love my ice), and no uncooked vegetables or unpeeled fruit. Liquor flowed freely and mojitos or other cocktails were routinely served at lunch and dinner; beer and wine were usually available too. Expresso was usually good but regular coffee was mediocre. I usually drank warm bottled water and was glad to get home to iced coffee and iced tea.

Government, politics and the economy: Cuba’s future

The end of the Castro reign over Cuba probably will not mean much change, given the governmental structure. Images of Che are everywhere and he’s clearly a national hero, 48 years after his death. There’s Fidelismo too, but images of Che predominate. There’s no reason to be optimistic about political liberalization.

However, the US trade embargo will probably be lifted in the next few years. The question is what kind of investment will result. I just hope that hundreds of golf courses don’t pop up on all that vacant farm land. But more foreign investment and more foreign visitors may well change the mindset and improve the financial wellbeing of the Cuban people.

Cuba, of course, does not have freedom of speech or press. Right now, access to the open internet in Cuba is limited to about 5% of the population, nearly the lowest in the world. Investment is sure to bring better telecommunications and internet functionality. But will the government allow Cubans to access world news and use social media to communicate? The likelihood of a “Cuban spring” is low, it seems to me.

Land of hope and dreams?

Some Bruce Springsteen song is always playing in my head. Last week it was “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a classic train song, with lyrics like this:

This train, carries saints and sinners
This train, carries losers and winners
This train, carries whores and gamblers
This train, carries lost souls

This train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded

And this refrain:

Big wheels roll through fields
Where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams.

I feel that my week in Cuba was visiting a land of hope and dreams, but I’m not optimistic about when the Cuban peoples’ dreams will come true.

Coming up: It’s all about the art and music scene 

Please watch for my next post on the lively art and music scene in Cuba.

All photos by Nancy Bishop, taken with an otherwise useless iPhone 6-Plus. 

David Carr: His caper ended way too soon

This has been a tough week for journalism. Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show. Brian Williams’ whole career is under investigation. CBS correspondent Bob Simon is killed in a Manhattan car crash, after surviving dozens of combat assignments. And now, David Carr has died, for no discernible medical reason, other than his checkered health past. It makes you ask, WTF anyway?

Photo courtesy

Photo courtesy

As I was coming home from the theater last night, I realized I hadn’t turned my phone on. A shocking headline popped up on the screen: David Carr, New York Times media columnist, is dead at 58.

What? How could this be? I just read his article on Jon Stewart and Brian Williams today. I started looking for information and there wasn’t much available yet. The Times had a brief obituary, which was expanded over the next couple of hours to become a meaningful overview of Carr’s career.

However, Twitter was on fire with news about Carr’s death and comments about his life and work. I tweeted and retweeted about a dozen times last night alone.


  • Someone tweeted a link to the Carr archive on a total of 1,776 articles.
  • I tweeted a link to his last column about Stewart and Williams, both of whom grew up in New Jersey (and are both Springsteen fans):

@nsbishop: Last column by @carr2n. He was a Jersey boy too (but first a Minnesota boy). …

  • Several people reminded us of his advice for writers:

“Keep typing until it turns into writing.”

Last night Carr had just moderated a panel discussion about the film Citizenfour with its principal subject, Edward J. Snowden; the film’s director, Laura Poitras; and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Just before 9pmET, he collapsed in his office and was taken to the hospital, where he died. That headline about him flashed on my phone at 9:30pmCT.

When I decided to write my own appreciation of Carr today, I started making notes and realized how much I had bonded with his writing over the years. First, I want to summarize David Carr’s odyssey. (He would hate seeing that word applied to his life.)

Midwesterner to Jersey boy

Carr grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked as editor of the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative paper. During this time, he became an alcoholic, began using cocaine and became a crack addict. He and his girlfriend had twin girls and Carr raised them alone on welfare. A single dad crack addict. He kicked the crack habit and later suffered from cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), which required a lot of radiation to his mouth and throat. He said in a radio interview: “I’ve had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas.” He said his notably raspy voice was the result of many factors, including smoking tobacco and crack, radiation, and working on the pile covering firemen at the 9/11 site. It was during that time, he said, that he noticed his voice changing.

He left Minnesota for DC to become editor of the Washington City Paper, later moving to New York, where he wrote as a freelancer for publications including The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine. He joined the Times in 2002 as a business reporter covering magazine publishing. He expanded that beat to include new media, and generally, the web and all media. He remarried and he and his wife have three children and a home in New Jersey.

Carr wrote a memoir of his life as a crack addict, Night of the Gun, published in 2008. He didn’t just write it as others write memoirs—from memory. He decided he had forgotten too much and attacked the project like a reporter, gathering documents and interviewing about 60 people.

“Me and My Girls,” a long excerpt from that memoir, was published in July 2008 in the NY Times Magazine. You can read it here.

My favorite quote of Carr’s, from the conclusion of his memoir, has been cited often today.

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth

feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope

the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

Carr was  my favorite journalist. He was voracious in his interests, which ranged all over the media and pop culture spectrum from ownership and management to the way new media affect the artists and their livelihoods. He was interested in music, pop and otherwise, movies, books, magazines and web culture. He wrote long features on artists such as Neil Young and Woody Harrelson, on South Park, and on Murdoch vs. Bloomberg.

Carr Live

The one time I saw Carr live was during the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival, when he and Clara Jeffrey, coeditor of Mother Jones magazine, discussed “New Frontiers in Journalism.” It was Wednesday, November 9, 2011, on the stage at Francis Parker School. I was excited to be able to see him and listen to him talk in an informal format. I didn’t take notes that evening, for some reason. However, there’s this video ….

Page One documentary

Carr also is the star of an excellent documentary about modern journalism: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. In the 2011 film, Carr is shown working on one of his best stories, his takedown of Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune and its frat house culture.

The Sweet Spot

Carr and A.O. Scott, the Times’ film critic, had a web series for a while titled “The Sweet Spot.” The two writers would sit in what looks like the Times employee cafeteria in their shirtsleeves talking about some cultural phenomenon that interests them. These 5-6 minutes videos are always fun. You can see a bunch of them here on the Times video channel. The series ended in 2013.

Monday mornings

Every Monday, Carr had a Media Equation column in the Times business section. Every Monday morning, I would first read Paul Krugman on the economy and then Carr, filling myself full of juicy news concepts.

Mondays are not going to be the same.

But in the meantime, I’ll keep typing until it turns into writing.


Postscript on 02/15/15: The medical examiner’s autopsy showed Carr died of metastatic lung cancer, with heart disease a contributing factor.



September, musical birthdays…and nostalgia

September. It was a lovely month. Usually it means no more hot weather…for which I shout hurray. On a Sunday morning walk, I celebrated the charms of North Avenue beach by hanging out for a while at the Chess Pavilion. It’s a beautiful refuge from the sun and my favorite place to take a break on the lakefront. The Chess Pavilion was built in 1957, designed by architect Maurice Webster. Sculptor Boris Gilbertson carved the stone chess pieces and the incised chess figures.


The Man–at 64

Happy birthday, Bruce

September is also the month of Bruce Springsteen’s birthday (the 23rd), which gives me an excuse to post a photo of him looking great at whatever his age is. This year it’s 64. Here’s a photo of him on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, where he played his first South American concerts in many years.

Happy birthday, Leonard

And it’s the month of other important birthdays. Like Leonard Cohen (the 21st), who at 79 is still touring, looking fabulous and sounding like his usual charming, gravel-voiced self. He’s sort of a lounge lizard version of Tom Waits. Leonard is still touring on his latest album, Old Ideas. He’ll be in Australia and New Zealand in November. I reviewed his March concert at the Chicago Theater.

Remembering Trane

And it’s also the month to remember the late great John Coltrane, who shares Bruce’s birthday, September 23. If Trane were alive today, he would be 87. His death at the age of 40 was a tragedy and an immense loss to the music world. He was and is today enormously influential to young musicians. He was beginning to experiment with avant-garde jazz (as in his spiritual album A Love Supreme) as well as with eastern religions.

Trane’s biography and legacy are complex. He’s been treated as a religious figure by some African-American churches; there is at least one film about the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco; and a church in New Jersey includes him on a list of African-American saints. You’ll find some beautiful images and a great Coltrane quote on that church page. And they hold services every Sunday with the Coltrane liturgy.

Bungalow nostalgia


My house, a very fine house

Before going on a Berwyn bungalow tour last week, I was exploring far northwest side real estate to see how bungalows are currently valued. (They are real values, solidly built small houses in pleasant older neighborhoods.) I decided to search for the house where I grew up and was pleased to find a great photo of it from the time of its last sale in 2009. The house is on Rutherford Avenue in the Montclare neighborhood, near the intersection of Grand and Oak Park avenues. My parents bought the house in 1938 and lived there for about 30 years.

The standard bungalows in Berwyn all have similar layouts. Small front hall, living room, dining room, kitchen, half bath and sometimes a small bedroom on the first floor. The second floor typically has sloped ceilings in the two bedrooms plus one full bath. These are small houses, typically 1200-1500 square feet. My parents’ house, even though it didn’t have a bungalow façade, had exactly that inside layout. The developer on that block decided to spiff up the exteriors by applying  “Tudor” façades. I could draw the floor plan from memory this minute.

“Super-bungalows,” are larger and have different space layouts, more bedrooms and baths. We saw a few of those in Berwyn Sunday. The tour is a self-guided walking tour to seven or eight houses, with docents stationed at each house to guide visitors through the interiors. It’s an annual event, so put it on your calendar for September 2014. I recommend it highly.

Chicago as Brigadoon & other stories

I’m a student of Chicago history and have been ever since I started reading Mike Royko’s columns in the Chicago Daily News (RIP) and discovered Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play Front Page. I learned more in a Chicago history course at Steinmetz High School and a lot more in docent training from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I’ve been collecting books and anecdotes about my favorite city ever since. When John Hodgman said that Chicago is a fictional city like Brigadoon, I knew this had to be added to my library.  Bill Savage and Paul Durica obliged with another Chicago yarn.

John Hodgman discovers Chicago

hodgmanJohn Hodgman, the Daily Show resident expert and occasional “deranged millionaire,” was in Chicago recently for the Just for Laughs Festival.  The Chicagoist interviewed him and he made an astounding statement, which we Chicago lovers must not forget.

“As you know, I, John Hodgman, have always maintained Chicago is a fable, a fictional city like Brigadoon.”

Hodgman had predicted the end of civilization and possibly the end of the world on December 21, 2012, in accord with the Mayan prediction. So he swallowed and walked that back a bit. Here are some snippets from the Chicagoist interview by Samantha Abernethy.

C: Are you concerned that the world could end before you appear in Chicago next week?

JOHN HODGMAN: No, but what I’m saying is that another one of my prophecies that came true is that Chicago became, Chicago emerged from the swamp next to the lake and became real. Because as you know I, John Hodgman, have always maintained Chicago is a fable, a fictional city like Brigadoon.

C: And why is that?

JOHN HODGMAN: Well you know, for those of us in New York, we would meet these travelers who had come to New York, and they would tell these stories about this amazing utopia called Chicago where rents were still reasonable and newspapers still thrived, and old-time bars still served boilermakers and the rivers were green with beer. I was like, “I’m sorry but you’re insane. There is no such place. If there were, why did you leave it?” And that’s how I came to believe that there was a mythical city called Chicago, a legend of folklore. There was this great city of wide shoulders in the middle of the country, but of course it’s patently false. Or it was, anyway.

I would come and visit quote-unquote Chicago for meetings and public appearances and lectures and comedy and so forth, and it was really amazing the lengths to which the so-called Chicagoans would go to maintain this fantasy. They’d build a great papier-mache city, a great white city* just to fool me and themselves that it was Chicago. I’m pretty sure as soon as I left the rain would wash it all away back into the lake. And now there is a real city called Chicago. It happened. It materialized, like magically. I’m looking forward to coming back to it.

C: And when did that happen?

JOHN HODGMAN: I would have to go back through my notes. Sometime in the fall of 2012…. In all seriousness, I love Chicago whether or not it was ever real. I’m glad now that for sure that it exists, because I love it so much.

You can read the whole interview here.

Chicago by Day and Night – or a Pocket Guide to Hell**

Paul Durica and Bill Savage, two Chicago writers, have published a new edition of Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of America. They recently did a joint reading of excerpts from the book at the Newberry Library.

ChgoDayNightSavage teaches Chicago literature, history and culture at Northwestern University and the Newberry.  Durica is a writer and the founder of Pocket Guide to Hell Tours and Reenactments.

The book was originally published in 1892 for visitors attending the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  It advises such “wayfarers” where to find dining, amenities and proper entertainment while avoiding “the free and easy shows, gambling hells, barrel-house saloons, massage parlors and other dens of iniquity that beset our great city.” In so doing, of course, it makes the dens of iniquity seem very alluring.

The two writers wrote a new introduction and extensive notes for this edition. They tried to “strike a balance between recreating the book as it originally appeared and making it modern.” The entire book was reset in type, but the authors retained elements of the design, including the cover and most of the illustrations.  The original book was meant to be vest pocket size.  It’s 7×4.5 inches. Without the introduction and 65 pages of notes, it might still fit in a vest pocket.

The book was just published by Northwestern University Press; cover price is $16.95. While perhaps not a good reference for today’s tourist, it’s funny and engaging with many delectable quotes for a lover of Chicago history and trivia.


* “… a great papier-mache city, a great white city”: This might be a reference to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, built on Chicago’s south lakefront and known as the White City. All but two of the buildings were meant to be temporary and were demolished after the fair. The Beaux Arts structures were built of “a mixture of plaster, cement and jute fiber called staff.” Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City, gives many details of the fair’s construction.

** “Chicago is a pocket edition of hell.” “Hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.” According to legend (located in a footnote in Jack London’s 1907 novel The Iron Heel), a famous English labor leader named John Burns visited Chicago. When asked his opinion of the city, he said, “Chicago is a pocket edition of hell.” Later, as he departed for England, he was asked if he had changed his opinion of Chicago. “Yes, I have. My present opinion is that hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.”  Thanks to Chicago Weekly; see more here.

Fifty years ago: A book that changed lives

Books can influence us in many ways. Both fiction and nonfiction can have powerful effects on our psyche. (This is not about print vs e-books; that’s another essay.) Books by authors like Margaret Atwood, Alberto Moravia, Richard Powers and Virginia Woolf had an impact on me. And the history of the Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas opened a new window for me about political history. But none of them totally changed the way I viewed the world and my place in it as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique did.

friedan coverI can’t believe that this book was published 50 years ago. Because I can still remember my thoughts and feelings as I read it. I can remember the chair where I sat in the house on Maple Street in River Falls, Wisconsin. My memories of reading The Feminine Mystique are almost visceral in their power. (The book cover shown is my 1964 paperback. Yes, a book cost 75 cents then.)

Over the last few days, the book and its impact are getting some attention in the news media. Shockingly, the topic of women’s rights and woman’s place in the world is still subject to debate.

The most important thing about The Feminine Mystique is that it made me realize that my dissatisfaction with my stay-at-home-mom life was not without validity. I had a degree from the best journalism school in the country (yes, that would be Mizzou) and several years of newspaper and PR experience. And I spent my days taking care of home and two little boys (who now have their own boys). Until they went to school, part of the day’s routine was an hour for naptime in their room. Yes, I knew they weren’t sleeping, but it gave me an hour of peace. Soon after that, I found an excuse to go to work full-time when my husband needed to take a year off for graduate school. I worked in a series of great and challenging jobs for 47 years — without a break. I loved all my jobs until I retired last year.

In one of my essays in November, I mentioned some things I wasn’t allowed to do because I was a girl. But there were plenty of other issues later. Such as credit cards and bank accounts.  Everything was in my husband’s name. That’s the way it was. When I wanted my own Marshall Field’s charge card after I was separated from my husband, I had to argue with the credit department and prove to them that I had a job and was not being taken care of by a man. And did you know that help-wanted ads were divided between male and female jobs? Yes, there was a section headed Help Wanted—Women.  So even though there are still plenty of women’s issues to work on, some things have improved.

I’m glad to see that the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique is being recognized – and that it’s generating debate and discussion. There have been several articles recently that explore the book and these issues today. Here are three I like. Please add your own by commenting on this post.

“The Feminine Mystique Reassessed after 50 Years” by Jennifer Schuessler

“The Feminine Mystique at 50” by Gail Collins

“Why Gender Equality Stalled” by Stephanie Koontz

I see I have written a whole post without any reference to Bruce Springsteen or rock and roll. Hmmm. Well, I wasn’t a Springsteen fan 50 years ago and his first album (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.) wasn’t released until 1973.  Sounds like another anniversary coming up.

Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem

Richard Blanco read a beautiful poem today for the President’s second inaugural.  It encapsulates the grandeur and the unity of our people and our country — real or aspirational. Blanco is a poet and teacher and the first Hispanic and the first gay poet to write a poem for an inauguration. You can see a video of Blanco reading his poem.

One Today

By Richard Blanco

Spoken at the 2013 second inauguration of President Barack Obama
January 21, 2013
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Nancy’s Favorites of 2012

We love making lists. This is a restrained list of my favorite things about 2012, not necessarily the bests in any category. Politics, music, movies, theater, TV, books. Wanna argue? Write a comment here.


  • Constant political coverage, which annoyed everyone but political junkies like me
  • The reelection of President Obama
  • Bruce Springsteen campaigning for the President and riding on Air Force One.
  • Crowning of Nate Silver as King of Stats (others who did much the same, like Sam Wang of Princeton, unfortunately were not recognized)

Music – the Bruce Springsteen factor

  • Release of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album (yes, I still buy them). Excellent, substantive story songs even though the music is better played live
  • The Wrecking Ball tour and the six fabulous concerts I attended in Greensboro, New York (first time at the Garden!), Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago (yay, Wrigley Field)
  • Taking my grandson James to his first Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field (see my September post)
  • Taking a road trip to Detroit with my nephew Brad and friend Craig to see Bruce at the Palace in Auburn Hills, with several dynamite food stops
  • Bruce’s keynote speech at South by Southwest. Regretted not going to Austin but I watched him streaming live. He gave us a history of rock and roll through his own career in music   Read the rest of this entry »

The Rock and Roll Escape Route

Rock and roll is a vibrant, dynamic art form in all its permutations from classic, punk, metal and alt to roots and country (and hundreds more*). Rock and roll emerged in the 1950s from popular music forms such as blues, R&B, country and rockabilly; it has grown to dominate popular music sales (now downloads), and live music performances to become a ~$67 billion industry globally. While the death of rock is often predicted, it continues to thrive as young musicians join the industry veterans, now in their 60s and 70s and still recording and touring.

What keeps rock vibrant and dynamic, I believe, is that it is an escape route for young musicians, usually male, from the humdrum lives their parents and peers settle for. This is a socioeconomic story as much as a rock and roll story.  Read the rest of this entry »

David Byrne, reinvented

Some performers keep doing the same thing for decades. They relive their past successes over and over again, to the delight of their longtime fans, who only want to hear the old favorites.  Some performers (and fans) are more adventurous. They constantly develop new music, perform in new formats with new bands, and even reformulate their past catalog to the point of unrecognizability.

Bruce Springsteen is in that latter category. He plays with new bands, in new musical genres, and constantly writes new material and revamps old. And so is David Byrne. The frontman for the late great Talking Heads is a curious, creative, ingenious performer who seems to enjoy playing with new material. He has proselytized for bicycling in cities all over the world (including via his book Bicycle Diaries) and even turned a building into a musical instrument.

Read the rest of this entry »