Sunday, April 11, 2010

Family Flotsam Hour

I went, this last weekend, up to my grandfather's old house, off the expressway up in Northlake, to go through some old stuff and sort of say goodbye to the place--he died this past fall, and the family is getting ready to rent it out. My grandfather, Don "Bepop" Warfield, lived there only the last decade of his life. He moved in when Roys, his wife of 50+ years, died. My dad lived with him for several years, and was his general caretaker as he slid gradually into dimensia. Towards the end he could remember nothing of a timely or practical nature, such as whether he'd eaten lunch, though he retained his good-sized reservoir of old family stories, polished to gleaming gems through decades of re-telling: the time he played hooky to go to a Sox game and ended up winning a raffle for season tickets, or the barn where he and his unit hid during WWII, getting hammered on French wine while the enemy swarmed all around--Bepop, thoroughly drunk, slept through a hail of bullets which pierced the barn's walls all around him, and woke up miraculously unharmed.

The parceling out of Bepop's old things seemed remarkably casual--furniture, books, paintings and things he'd spent a lifetime accumulating. All I was particularly interested in was the boxes of old photographs. My cousin Ellen had already claimed the photographic cache, but there were several boxes, and with my dad's blessing I felt justified in taking just one--I do hope my cousin, who reportedly reads this blog, is not offended, and trusts that I will vouchsafe them solemnly, and share them with her in whatever way possible. Anyway, I couldn't help myself. I love old photographs to begin with, their haziness and saturation; and these were not some flea-market discards but my actual flesh and blood--actual pieces of my grandfather, rearranged on a photonic level and applied to light-sensitive paper. This fleshly detritus, I figured, would help fill out the skeletal anecdotes which my grandfather had whittled down, out of possible thousands, to a mere handful. I might gain some familial insight.

I've pored over the contents of the box for several days now, and I have not yet unlocked any nagging mysteries, or grasped my grandfather as a complete man. Grandparents generally exert a powerful influence on their grandchildren, but the bond is forged during childhood, and tends to be more emotionally instinctual than it is rational. My grandfather will never be, to me, the steak-eating, golf-playing, staunch Republican pragmatist who drank his cocktails old-fashioned at 5:00 each evening; he will forever remain the gentle old man whose face lit up whenever a grandkid entered the room; who'd traveled the world and who loved life, I mean clearly savored it, even in his last years when he was prescribed antidepressants and mostly slept; and the great dry wit who rose out of a coma, while in hospice care dying of pneumonia, to tell my father, conspiratorially, Lets get the hell out of here. He didn't like the bogus, mass-produced art which hung in his hospital room--we had to cover it with sheets for his well-being.

A man is an enigmatic beast, is what I'm getting at, and a box of family photographs isn't going to change that. But what hours of pleasure it can bring! I don't expect anyone else to derive the particular pleasure that I do seeing my grandfather in short-pants driving a donkey--

but some of these pictures are pleasant enough on their own merits, genuinely charming bits of Americana. I'll let you enjoy a simple picture-show, while I'm busy wrestling with the questions of family, self and mortality that the pictures will inevitably provoke. Here is a young Donald driving, inexplicably, a little goat-drawn cart--where, and why? A paragon of all-American boyhood, he has his hair meticulously--but not too meticulously--parted to one side, his shirt tucked in and a ridiculously wholesome smile plastered on his face; he and his goat might, had things turned out differently, have rode clear to Washington and run for President, so great is the prewar optimism which he beams toward the camera. Here is a youthful Don striking a variety of poses; an androgynous toddler on tricycle, in a delightfully abstract portrait:
As a pensive tyke, contemplating eternity on some South Side beach, probably Promontory Point--dig the proto-goth chick scowling in the background:
And, around the same age, play-fishing with a stick, his impossibly Rockwellian innocence foreshadowing, perhaps, the Reaganite naivete of his later years:
Here he is, young entrepreneur, a wee Horatio Alger, selling peanuts at a football game:
And as a young schoolkid on the south side of Chicago--this is at 48th and Kenwood, quite close to the one-time Obama abode:
Now he's an adolescent, lanky and bespectacled--the back of the photo says "Punk Europe Bound," punk being my grandfather's nickname from childhood, when the word had none of its modern connotations. It would have been a prewar Europe that he was visiting, as yet unravaged:
And a few short years later, as an enlisted man, dodging bullets and deciphering code in enemy territory--
--where his unit received a surprise visit from ex-German film star Marlene Dietrich, who was touring with the USO mere miles from the German lines. That's my grandfather, two men to Dietrich's left, with a slightly lascivious grin on his face--who knows how long it had been since he'd see a woman in a slinky dress:
After the war, Don attended the University of Chicago, where he met his future wife, Roys, with whom he'd have three boys, my dad and his brothers. Don settled into a life of hard work, peddling grocery store promotions to chains around the Midwest, building a decent, all-American nest egg, joining a country club, taking up golf and poker, while his boys drifted from suburban boredom to the fringes of hippie life--hitchhiking, growing their hair, dodging cops at the '68 convention. Here's Don around that time, with his wife, hair pomaded and with a salesman's optimism plastered across his face, seemingly immune to all the Vietnam napalm death and acid-drenched confusion of the era--
still, at heart, the happy kid from Kenwood who lived for his beloved White Sox. And here, in later years, the two of them world-traveling and looking almost imperial in haute-casual boat attire:
And later, Roys' death, lonely lunches at the country club, a gradual descent into senility as the horizons narrowed to near the point of infinity--his own infirmity brief illness, still watching the Sox even from his hospital bed, as he slipped in and out of coma, not caring whether they won or lost, just glad to hear the crack of bat on ball and roar of crowd.

I'm not sure what led me down this admittedly sentimental path--I certainly don't expect my readers, whose online lives are busy enough already, to join me in meditating on the transient life of some old fart who they never knew. Just wanted, really to share some pictorial treasures from a box full of heirlooms and family flotsam--better, I think, let just letting them oxidize in some dank desk-drawer.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April Idling

It's been, thus far, a rather stoned and drunken early-spring of 2010 for your dedicated and accredited blogger; given the choice between embracing or eschewing reality I've often opted for the latter. And yet I've managed to find a little time, amid bouts of escapist revelry, to enjoy some fruits from our great cultural tree, and I thought I'd short-list them for the edification of my loyal readers. In no particular order:

Plan-It-X Invades Cairo
Somehow this little news story escaped my attention, though it was written up last month for Time Magazine by my esteemed penpal Aaron Lake Smith, and featured on Chicago Public Radio's 848. A fascinating little parable for our postmodern times, the story concerns the virtual ghost-town of Cairo, IL. Situated at the southern tip of Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Cairo was once a bustling city of 20,000, before decades of racial tension and industrial decline decimated its population, which now hovers around 3,500. Largely abandoned, the town lacks any real culture or commerce beyond a couple of fast-food restaurants and a Dollar General. Though on a smaller scale than, say, Detroit, Cairo's decline has been no less dramatic, and the town has earned some small renown as a modern-day ruin.

In steps Chris Johnston, the 36 year-old proprietor of Plan-It-X Records, a folk-punk record label which foisted upon the late-90s/early 00s underground the likes of Operation: Cliff Claven and This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. Long headquartered in the folk-punk mecca of Bloomington, Indiana, Johnston and his label espouse a DIY punk ethic which has always struck me as humorless, self-congratulatory and politically infantile, a belief-system which seems to regard dumpstering bagels as the ultimate revolutionary act. Not to deride Johnston or his pals unnecessarily, but I've long felt that Plan-It-X and likeminded endeavors were sort of the final nail in punk's coffin--punk had arguably survived several waves of commodification and relative obscurity, but for it to be emasculated like this, stripped of all its danger, excitement and feral rage and reduced to PC sloganeering and out-of-tune acoustic guitars, was too much. The whole "punk scene" began to feel like an Oberlin College dormitory, all potlucks, skillshares and ass-licking.

Anyway, this Chris Johnston character, this folk-punk maven, releases an album by one-time Moldy Peach Kimya Dawson, which is later licensed for use in the hit "indie" comedy Juno; Johnston walks away with a tidy little sum of cash, and decides to find a new home for his operation, further out on the wild prairie than safe, liberal Bloomington. Fishing around on a map--he knows he wants to settle down on a major river, rivers being the lifeblood of modern-day Punk Finns like Johnston--he lights on Cairo. It has the mythical name, it has the folksy history--the town was Huck and Jim's original destination--and it has the down-on-its-luck, hardscrabble realness that the kids all crave. It also has a sort of missionary appeal. Johnston decides he's going to save Cairo, by buying a building and opening up a coffee-shop. Putting on punk shows. And, y'know, distributing leftist literature.

It's not my intention to mock the man, or even fault him for his ultra-white naivete. But the residents of Cairo seem to share my skepticism. Gaudily painted, the Ace of Cups coffee-shop sits incongruously in central Cairo--

adorned with screen printed posters but lacking customers. Even the mayor, one Judson Childs, doesn't get it. "What are they doing?," he ponders. "I drive by, and it doesn't seem to be a thriving business." Aaron describes the coffee-shop's appearance as akin to a spaceship landing in the middle of town. Many residents have apparently mistaken the young punks for some new brand of Christian charity.

I'll not delve into a lengthy sermon on liberal cluelessness, white guilt, punk pretension and middle-class voyeurism--I'd rather you read Aaron's article, listen to his radio bit and draw your own conclusions. Johnston, for one, seems optimistic about the Ace of Cups; he envisions a sort of folk-punk outpost, lonely but proud, which, if it doesn't succeed in converting the natives, will at least attract the occasional punk tourist. Misguided or not, it's at least an interesting experiment, and I can't wait to hear how it all pans out...

Carole King's Really Rosie
Yes, that Carole King--but bear with me. A nearly-forgotten pearl from my own childhood, this album was a collaboration between King and hallowed children's author/lyricist Maurice Sendak that was released in 1975, concurrently with an animated TV special. It tells the story of Rosie, a sassy, fun-loving imp of a 10 year-old girl growing up in 1950s Brooklyn, who dreams of movie stardom and drags the neighborhood kids along on her wildly imaginative flights of fancy, promising all the while that talent scouts and producers will be showing up any minute. Like any children's entertainment worth its' salt, the songs don't shy away from darkness, danger and complex emotion; branded into my memory is the scene in which Rosie sings to the assembled brats, who are crowded into a cellar, waiting out a thunderstorm, about the make-believe demise of her little brother Chicken Soup--he died, she riffs, while choking on a chicken bone, and it happened on an ordinary day like today.

Even the more preschool-oriented tunes can be pretty grisly; the cautionary tale of Pierre, with its inevitable moral lesson (Care!) features an apathetic boy who lets himself be eaten by a lion. But then the album takes a decidedly adult turn, about midway through. The haunting Avenue P imagines the heroine's street as it ought to be--not some block of run-down tenements but rather a primordial wilderness where "the tom-tom beats/The tiger carouses/the jungle creeps over the red-brick houses," and where giant gorillas chase away all the naysaying neighborhood adults. The theme continues on My Simple Humble Neighborhood, where the young girl's dreams are "crowded on a stoop/Pecked and pushed and hustles just like chickens in a coop." In Rosie's fantasy-world, famous producers and directors ("the hoy-polloy") flock to her little Brooklyn enclave; they're floored by the raw talent and cast Rosie as Dracula's wife, a part she brags she was born to play--"Me in a cape, and fangs in my head/Loving a guy who's mostly dead." But the life of a make-believe celeb is not all it's cracked up to be, the girl comes to find in the wrenching Such Sufferin'. "What a life it is," she sighs, imagining her future self as a fading starlet whose days are "full of sufferin'--and Bufferin." The song is a wonderfully blunt ode to chronic depression, especially on an album meant for the K-5 set. "I've really learned the hard way," Rosie kvetches, "That castles in Spain/Are just a big pain/That life is inane/If you're sufferin'".

I don't mean to suggest that the album is anything more than a great kid's album, and the make-believe, rags-to-riches genre has already been well-mined. But the story has a wonderful Brechtian swagger to it; it feels closer akin to the Threepenny Opera than Annie. And King, a Brill Building songwriter before her solo career took off, comes as close to psychedelic as she probably ever would; she sounds, at times, almost like Bowie, letting the songs meander at length and laying down come choice guitar licks when the occasion arises. The album seems to have fallen into an unfortunate state of neglect, though it's infinitely weirder and groovier than anything Hannah Montana or Dora the Explorer are laying down these days.

Chat Roulette
My experience with this recent internet craze is minimal, but enough to seriously pique my curiosity. For those that haven't yet had the pleasure, Chat Roulette is basically what it purports to be; the user "chats" via streaming cam with a succession of randomly-chosen partners. You log on, hit 'start' and find yourself face-to-face with a Chinese college student, or a trio of French teenagers, or a couple of 12 year-old girls; you're free to skip those partners that don't interest you, and others are likewise free to skip you. What follows is a rapid-fire census of cyberspace, in all its diverse perversity--a global meet 'n greet where the population is phantasmal, nothing is "real" and actions have no consequences. The partners you encounter on Chat Roulette are most frequently either masturbating, flipping you the bird or staring dumbly into space. There are a surprising number of beautiful, bored-looking women haunting Chat Roulette; one gets the sense that they've tuned in for some idle entertainment whilst painting their nails. Very little chatting seems to occur--this has much more to do with voyeurism than any actual communication; Facebook with no speed limits, parameters or familiar signifiers--a new frontier for the bored, lonely and wi-fi enabled. There are chortling youths, and tattooed thugs, and sad-looking old men smoking cigarettes, or doing nothing at all; some participants seem to forget entirely that they're on camera, accustomed as they are to the boundless exhibitionism which the internet offers. You're hard-pressed to find anyone looking their best--Chat Roulette, almost by definition, seems to catch people at their most debased and demoralized. Anthropologists take note! Man is once again revealing his true visage!