I Believe in Miracles

Today, for your enjoyment, two pictures of a three-year-old eating a donut.

"Little Chocolate Donuts have been on my training table since I was a kid."

Granny always says Caleb looks like Philip Michael Thomas of Miami Vice. Here, I think he proves himself a dead ringer for LeVar Burton of TV's Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation.


And Frolicked In The Autumn Mist In A Land Called Honilee

This is a special post for Cousin Alex from Sam and Caleb.

Dear Cousin Alex:

Sam is going to be a dragon for Halloween this year. Grandma Cathy said that you would want to see some pictures of his costume.

Sam Dragon 1

Sam Dragon 2

The costume has a dragon's head on top, a tail behind, and wings that flutter off the arms. Auntie Kirsten found it in a church basement, and paid three dollars for it. Three dollars is a lot of money. You should ask your daddy if he will give you three dollars.

Uncle Brian thinks that the costume looks a bit like a red rooster, but he doesn't know very much and few people listen to him.

Caleb will be Thomas the Tank Engine for Halloween. He has a conductor's cap and a bucket shaped like Thomas. We'll send pictures of Caleb in the costume just as soon as we can coax him into it.

We hope you and your brother Andrew are happy and well. (Did you get that three dollars yet?)


Cousins Sam and Caleb, Auntie Kirsten, and Uncle Brian

You Brought Me Draft Beer In A Plastic Cup

Matt Taibbi, who shows up semi-regularly on Bill Maher's HBO show and in Rolling Stone magazine, troubles me.

In this book, he excoriates the 2000-2006 Republican-led congress for doing little public work besides naming post offices while its real deeds were hidden in committee and late-night special apropriation meetings. He also decries the 2006-2010 Democratic-led congress for not being much different, and for failing to (and in fact purposely avoiding any attempt to) carry out their constituents' demands to end the Iraq war.

He also argues that a dissatisfaction with the workings of politics and the media that covers them leads some citizens into fringe areas -- here he examines the evangelical right wing and left-wing 9/11 conspiracy "Truthers." In an epilogue and an afterword, he essentially tries to make the case that cronyism and special interest lobbiests beneft from a distracted populace, and particularly from a divided and hateful populace, and that the "Red vs. Blue" meme we are all supposed to embody is essentially a ruse used against us. So, a lot of stuff we already sort of know, but it's always nice for someone to put things into words on our behalf.

I'd be more likely to accept this Aesopian "moral" at the end of the story, though, if Taibbi weren't himself so hateful -- often excellently, hilariously so -- in his own coverage. About half of this book concerns Taibbi's experience "undercover" as a new member of John Haggee's conservative Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, TX. Most of his interactions are with non-leadership members of the church such as discussion group leaders and fellow new inductees, and it's these people -- regular old folks, it seems -- that Taibbi riddicules, fools, and exposes, which strikes me (and, at times, Taibbi) as a bit sour. For example, when Taibbi meets a fellow church-goer who, in comments about the death penalty, seems to stand just on the precipice of doubt, Taibbi uses evangelical arguments to essentially bully the fellow back in line with church doctrine, all so that he can demonstrate to his reader how spineless and malleable the Cornerstone population can be. Meanwhile: a missed opportunity to help this person change his mind, to lead him to a more forgiving and perhaps Christ-like perspective.

The book also creates a sort of false dichotomy, a tactic of the same kind of "Crossfire"-bred mainstream media Taibbi decries. To suggest that Democrats are just as boring and awful and corrupt as Republicans may be true on its face, but it's a bit "pox on both your houses," a bit juvenile in it's proud assertion that while one Emperor may have no clothes, the others are poorly dressed. The flip-side of the Evangelical right is not the conspiracy buff left, is it? Do they hold equal power? Do they carry the same cultural heft?

Anyway, in the end, Taibbi comes off for me as somewhat like Chuck Klosterman -- someone who's bright and talented and a decent writer, but also a bit of an assh*le.


There Is No Other Troy For You To Burn

I've been a fan of Lorrie Moore since 1989 or so, which is when I first read Anagrams, a book that is funny and weird right up until it rips your heart out. This is Moore's great talent -- her characters engage in puns, wordplay, bad jokes, keen but skewed observation, and yet these things prove to be little help against bad decisions, dumb luck, and life's relentlessness progression towards calamity. This is nowhere as evident as in her story, "People Like That Are The Only People Here," which is collected in Birds of America. That story, largely set in a pediatric oncology ward, is so blunt and full of anger that when it first appeared in The New Yorker in January of 1997, many readers took it as a piece of non-fiction.

I was especially eager to read A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's first book in ten years, because I'd read that part of its plot concerned transracial adoption, a topic with which I am heavily and emotionally invested. So much so that its difficult for me to focus a response on anything else in the book. (Other things in the book: the post-9/11 American midwest, several characters who aren't who or what they claim to be, a horticulturist's knack for describing flowers and farmable crops, the multiple forms of grief.)

Moore sometimes strikes me as a bit too polite or genteel to really immerse herself authoritatively into the messes created here. (Tassie notices a bumper sticker in Green Bay Packer country that says, "Bears Stink," and one gets the sense that Moore is shying away from the cruder truth of the matter -- and the more likely bumper sticker: Bears Suck.) Also, the 20-year-old Tassie has the eye, vocabulary, diction, and manner of a woman easily twice her age. I don't think that's a bad thing, necessarily, as 20-year-old girls tend not to be so interesting and insightful, but this is not a character to which the full vitality of youth is ascribed. Both of these storyteller issues factor significantly into how I reacted to Moore's handing of adoption.

The book is set in Wisconsin, in a barely disguised Madison Moore calls "Troy," where the book's narrator, Tassie Keltjin, accepts a job as a nanny for a couple who become parents of a biracial two-year-old girl through adoption. Through the unattributed crosstalk of an overheard parenting group, Moore spends a good deal of page time numerating (but not really addressing) many of the cultural issues attached to parenting, race, and adoption, and generally the book is smart and sympathetic about these issues. Tassie, however, certainly sees the child's birth mother as a victim of socioeconomic circumstance (if not mistreatment) rather than an informed and/or responsible adult making a reasoned decision about the future of her child. The renaming of the child by the adoptive parents is also a not-quite-articulated sticking point for Tassie, who continues to call the child by a combination of her birth- and adoptive names throughout the rest of the novel. In the end, the adoptive couple, Tassie, and Moore all seem to give in to the mounting problems that the child presents and she is, literally and figuratively, carried right out of the book. That the adoptive parents are clueless, oafish, and hiding skeletons in the closet, does not quite overcome the stomach-crunching tragedy of what happens to the little girl, particularly given what a reader may know of attachment disorders and early childhood development. In some ways, Tassie suggests that the adoptive parents deserves what befalls them, but in that figuring the child becomes a sociopolitical prop not only to the adoptive parents but to the novel as well.

I know enough about the ways stories and narrators work to not accuse Moore of her characters' sins, but for as witty and insightful and sophisticated an observer as Tassie has proven to be throughout the book, she has little to say about this particular story's end. (From this point, 4/5ths of the way through the novel, the storyline takes a different tack, and never quite returns.) I can't help but feel that the hardest work this novel had to do was elided over, brushed aside. And, sure, I probably wouldn't feel this way about this book if it didn't send its particular sparks so damn close to my home on the dry and tinder-thick side of that particular forest fire.)

I Can't Believe It's Happening

On Saturday, I gave a speech and officiated over a renewal of wedding vows at Al & Audrey's 15th wedding anniversary brunch. The Bloody Marys were excellent, the rosemary gravy outstanding, the Scotch eggs clot-worthy. And Al gets the Brass Bollocks award for singing a song by Imelda May in front of about 70 people.It was an honor to be involved, and I had a lot of fun making our friends laugh. Since Al has asked me to do so, I'm posting the text of my speech here.

Thank you for being here today in celebration of Al & Audrey’s 15 years of marriage. I’m honored to be officiating today, as I don’t have many opportunities to put to use my Associate’s Degree in Secular Humanism and Small Engine Repair from the University of Lawsonomy. (I’m sure you’re all familiar with the universal principles of Lawsonomy: suction, pressure, swirlation.)

Al and Audrey’s first marriage occurred not long after moving to Milwaukee, before most of us had met either of them. For the rest of us, we’ve never known Al and Audrey as independent agents, and have not had the opportunity to toast and celebrate their marriage. So, Al and Audrey wanted this day to involve all their friends, particularly the latecomers.

Usually, marriage ceremonies contain some bits of wisdom on the subject of creating a long and happy marriage. I’m not going to do that, because I’ve heard Audrey’s story about the divorcee who suggested dancing lessons as the key to marital success. Instead, I want to consider what makes their marriage such a successful one, in the hopes that the rest of us might reflect on our own relationships, or at least pass some time before the bacon is ready.

To my mind, Al & Audrey have a truly complementary marriage – they fit together like puzzle pieces, each in balance with the other. For example, while Audrey is not exactly the shy and retiring sort, everyone is an introvert when compared with Al. As another example, Audrey serves humankind through the nurturing and comfort of the food she cooks, while Al has no redeeming societal function at all. Audrey is an avid reader, developing understanding and compassion through the words of novels, memoirs, and cookbooks. Al discerns the meaning of traffic signs through their shape alone. Audrey is a steward of the earth through her gardening and her hybrid car, while Al is one of the leading causes of the depletion of natural resources like grain, barley, hops and rye. They are like two sides of the same coin, one side decorated with the grace and beauty of a vestal servant of the hearth, the other side with oddly pornographic stick figures.

In truth, I love these people. I think you’ll all agree with me that everything is more pleasant – livelier, funnier – when either of them are around, and particularly when they are both around. Anyone who has heard the two of them laugh together instantly understands why they are together – even their laughter is in harmony. How lucky, how blessed, the two of you must be to have each other, to have such a deep connection to a person with whom no time is ever wasted.

We were talking the other night about the Eau de Vie brandy orchards in Alsace, where arborists tie glass bottles onto tree branches so that a pear grows inside the bottle. I’ve continued to think about those orchards throughout the week, and it strikes me that those bottles make a good metaphor for marriage. Early on, the marriage – the bottle -- provides guidance and shelter to the developing pear, and then, after a period of growth, the pear is too fat to escape and drowning in alcohol. Maybe I should put that another way: after a lot of care and tending – after all, arborists need to scrub inside those bottles, around the fruit, before any spirits can be added – there sits the pear, viewable from any angle, wondrous to gaze upon, and somehow – almost impossibly -- larger, sweeter, and rarer than it could otherwise be.

To those assembled, we all know that Al & Audrey’s life together is not and will not always be easy. They live apart from the rest of their families, both of their fathers have passed away, and all too recently Audrey lost her mother. I’d like those of us here today to make a pledge to continue to support them, to be their family while their family is away, to be the bottle around the pear. Audrey tells me that those bottles, hanging from their trees in Alsace, chime against each other in the wind – if you will stand as the bottle surrounding Al & Audrey, please raise your glass and chime it against another’s.

Al and Audrey, I’m now going to ask you to rededicate yourselves to each other through a few small pledges, and if you agree to these promises, please say, “I will.”

Al, do you promise to continue to love and support Audrey through all the days ahead, equally if not better than you have these last 15 years? And will you put the seat down, and call if you’re running late, and dedicate at least a bit of the weekend to chores around the house, and generally take actions to make Audrey’s life as smooth and as happy as possible? And you’ll do this even during college football season? What about, like, if I call and want to hang out or something?

Audrey, will you continue to love and support Al through all the days ahead, despite all you’ve had to put up with over the last 15 years? Really? You remember that time he came home naked?

Then, by the power vested in me by the great state of Wisconsin and www.godaddy.com, I now pronounce you: still married.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Al and Audrey...


I've Had The Time of My Life



John Updike

When first he walked into Studio Purgatorio, the afterworld's industrial caferteria-like holding pen for those who have shimmered before mortals on the silver screen, few heads turned for Patrick Swayze. The chuffable star, while still mortal, of such feted filmic feats as "Dirtied Dancing" and "Rhodehaus," Mr. Swayze had, in the months prior to his death from pancreatic cancer earlier this week, lost much of his leading-man looks and hoofer's heft, leaving him gaunt and boneful. Even his former co-stars found him hard to suss; the trapozodic and three-years-passed Jerry Orbach had to be prodded several times, and his brandy Old Fashioned removed from his grasp, before he could be made to recall Mr. Swayze, Mr. Orbach's bemulleted nemesis in the aforementioned "Dancing."

The formerly young and handsome do not rate much in this pantheon of bygone Hollywood lights. Old Hollywood -- those power players and playettes who reigned from the kinescope era through the late 50's, or essentially the timeframe of my own essentialness as a living writer of fiction and topical New Yorker articles -- still holds the numbers here, though all are dreading the days when the likes of Jack, Warren, and Fonda fils et fille appear to tumult these eminent emerita of the Hayes era.

At length Mr. Swayze found a friend in Christoph Farley, his onetime Saturday Night Alive compatriot. Mr. Farley, who has taken on a hangdog demeanor after his erstwhile hero, John Belushi, also of Saturday Night Alive, refused to have anything at all to do with him. "Look, there's an upside to all this," Farley told Mr. Swayze, tossing one bearlike paw over his friend's shoulder and gesturing with the other paw to take in the wide sweep of Heaven. "You can do as much cocaine as you want. It's not great coke, but there's a lot of it." Whether it was despair or his sunken cheekbones that brought a pallor to Mr. Swayze's countenance was not immediately clear.


John Updike ("Death of a Dancer," p. 43) was a frequent contributor to the magazine throughout his earthly life. A new book of essays, Ethereal Ephemera: Writings from the Afterlife, March 2009 - August 2009 (918pp., Harcourt-Brace, $35), will be released in December. This entire conceit was stolen outright from Dan Sullivan, Professor of Symbology at UW-Grand Rapids.


The Sea Is So Much Deeper Than The Grave

A preview of the 2011 movie, "Battleship," based upon the Hasbro board game:

A junior officer (young, ethnic) turns from the submarine controls to talk to the Sub Commander.

THAT GUY THAT WAS EITHER HAROLD OR KUMAR IN "HAROLD AND KUMAR": Commander, I have the rogue fleet commander onscreen.

Sub Commander DENZEL WASHINGTON: Okay, he's onscreen? Let's get him onscreen.

Via static-y 1980's projection T.V., the Rougue Fleet Comannder appears.

Rogue Fleet Commander SEAN CONNERY: (appearing mid-rant)...already bombed the g*ddam F-13 quadrant. It's the patrol boat we're looking for, not the g*ddam aircraft carrier! Try J-10, he's probably hiding them in the g*ddam CORNERS!

WASHINGTON: Commander? Commander!

CONNERY: ...Oh, it's you.

WASHINGTON: I think it's time you considered the terms of surrender. You're down to the last third of your cruiser. All I need to do is call out for an attack at G-4 and it's over for you. It's all over.

CONNERY: You snivelling cutpurse. I taught you everything you know, back at the academy. Your criss-cross torpedo strategy is right out of my old playbook. You married my daughter. And how do you repay a LIFETIME'S worth of gratitude? What do you do? YOU...SANK...MY...BATTLESHIP.

WASHINGTON: You should never have sold out for the money. The commander I know died along time ago. Long time dead. Surrender, commander.

CONNERY: NEVER! Gunnery: J-10! Do it now!

WASHINGTON: (Sighs) G-4. Take him down. G-4. (Burries his head in his hands. The TV screen goes to full static.)

Digging in the Dirt

Last Saturday morning, during the North Avenue Tomato Fest, we had breakfast with Lisa and Stephanie, two of my classmates from graduate school at Emerson. Afterwards, the rest of the family went to Dozer Day out in Sussex while I polished off the last 100 pages or so of 2666...


The Gates of Heaven, as imagined by three-year-olds.


Sam wants to ride on THAT one.


In the cab of the day's first dozer.



Sam in the bucket #1.


Toddler turn-taking, as moderated by Grandma Cathy.


Sam in the bucket #2.


The pre-Raphelite map of the universe.


The excavator, or as its known around our house: "Digger! Big one!"


There are highly paid supermodels who don't pout this well.


Caleb at the switch.


Returning triumphant.


As a friend of mine puts it, everything looks like a hammer when you're feeling like a nail.


"You're gonna want to speak with the supervisor. We're on a union-mandated break, and I don't know nothing about no permits."


Sam scales the fire truck.


Caleb in the regalia.


There’s a fireman’s wedding tonight in the Cloverland Dell / There’s a hook and a ladder and we’ll dance 'neath a big paper bell / And everyone will be there / And we’ll all wish them well / As if all news will be good news from now on. (Joe Henry, "Fireman's Wedding")


Dance all night to this deejay.


At the Lakefront Kite Festival on Sunday morning.




Rehearsing their syncronized swim act (Chicago Olympics, 2016) in the pool at Granny & Poppa's house.


Lincoln County Road or Armageddon

It took me quite some time to get through Roberto Bolano's 2666. I wish I'd been able to sustain a prolonged, unity-of-purpose type read of its 898 pages, but other works wormed their way into my attention span, so I read this, as I typically read longer sprawling works, in little bits and starts.

The five parts of the novel (offered across three volumes, in the version I read) cover five different stories, each of which overlap without ever exactly intersecting. The connection between each is largely left up for the reader to deduce, a bit like the elephant assembled by the descriptions of the blind men.

This novel's range is incredibly impressive. Bolano is a master of lore (or fake-lore). "The Part about Fate," about a black New York City newsman who comes to northern Mexico to cover a boxing match, and "The Part about Archimboldi," about a Prussian kid who becomes a WWII-era German soldier and later a "disappeared" novelist, are stand-out sections. Certain tropes and images recur throughout the sections, despite their lack of (total) covergence: a lot of characters order food and then don't eat it.

Despite its length and discursions, the "story" here remains incomplete -- in fact it's hard to pin down in concrete terms what the "story" is, or what whole these "Parts" suggest. What you'd want, at the end of a long work like this, is some closure and resolution. You'd want to know who's been committing the murders in Santa Teresa, for example, and so it's frustrating that Bolano never conclusively resolves this central mystery, but it also allows the work to be much more than a murder mystery. For as much as the crimes and their perpetrator(s) might be a central focus for the reader, they are not at any point the central focus of the author.

So, as I say, 2666 is both hyper-encyclopedic and yet still incomplete. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest has a similar incompleteness, telling a long and discursive tale that can't quite circle around to completion. Both novels -- and I suppose we may as well lump Pynchon's work in here too -- subvert the ideas of what we expect the writers of stories and novels to do: tightly wind their plots, condense their timelines, develop characters, come to a clear and satisfying conclusion. That subversion can be interesting, but it comes with a price. In other words, Sullivan's mad.


Brutality And Unjust Laws Cannot Defeat Us

A few photos from the beginning of September and Labor Day Weekend. A great big thank you to American labor for your tireless efforts to institute a forty-hour week and fair working conditions, and the three-day weekend that officially ends the summer of my boys' third year.

Kirsten holds Caleb and Caleb holds Baby Bell at this summer's final Chill on the Hill.

Caleb and Bell

Sam in the marina, aboard The Summit

Ladies, I'm on a boat.

Sam and Caleb on the deck of The Summit

Papa and Granny escort Sam along the pier

By the waterfall, at the Milwaukee County Zoo

Sam was asked to throw a rubber snake to a roadrunner-like Australian bird at the zoo's Birds of Prey show. The bird then demonstrated how it would pluck at, brain, and then eat a snake in the wild. The show also featured a parrot who could cluck like a chicken. Worth the trip.

Sam feeds a goat. When we attempted this last summer, his reaction was much more like that of the boy in the background.

Caleb at the zoo's farm.

For being such city kids, our guys sure love farms. Buy small, eat local.


Why Don't You Get Things Started?

Every once in a while, you discover a book that strikes you as the perfect book, made especially for you, the book for which you must surely be the ideal reader. Lethem's Fortress of Solitude felt that way for me, as it touched on many things that mattered to me in my own childhood: comic books and rock music and race relations and urban living and the difficulty of connecting, even to close friends. Even the Fortress' messiness is endearing to me. It's a book that never travels very far from my bedside -- I like having it close.

I may not develop the same emotional attachment to Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets, but like Fortress it combines two things that unreasonably important to me: Thinking Too Much About Stuff, and The Muppets.

At the risk of sounding like an Onion op ed, I have always had a pretty involved relationship with the Muppets. My father worked at the same Washington, D.C., NBC affiliate where Jim Henson put on his first televised show, and years later when The Muppet Show was being test-marketed, I had an opportunity to see a pilot episode well before the series showed up in syndication. My brother had seen the first episode of Sesame Street. Somehow, as a five- or six-year-old, I'd assembled these different things to mean that Jim Henson and I were distantly related. I had hopes that he might visit at Christmas.* Henson was probably my first hero, and I doubt I've missed an episode, movie, or TV special since the premiere of the show in 1976.

So a book which pairs the Muppets with scholarship and critical connections creates an opportunity to tether the seven-year-old me to the 38-year-(at least for another 21 days)-old me. The best of the essays within, to both my academic eye and my seven-year-old patch-covered eye, are "How to Become a Muppet; or, The Great Muppet Paper," by Ben Underwood, "The Muppet Show as Educational Critique," by Julie G. Maudlin, and "Muppets and Money" by Andrew Leal. (Other works worth a mention examine Gonzo the Great as a cultural critic, and Miss Piggy's post-structural feminism.)

Underwood's essay explains, or comes the closest I've seen, why a kid like me would have been so fascinated with the Muppets, arguing that as the show blurs the line between performer and audience. A "Muppet Show" employee (and I'm speaking here of the show within the show) is just as likely to work as a gofer or stage manager as they are to perform, and Statler and Waldorf -- the critics -- also appear as performers. When we see the show's audience, they are not humans but chickens and pigs and weirdos. Further, as the meta-show's audience, we too move from watching the acts on the Muppet Theatre's stage to the goings-on in the wings and in dressing rooms. Thus, Underwood points out, we -- the TV audience -- also become Muppets (or are "Muppetized," in the academic parlance) and therefore share in their dreams and goals -- of which, more below.

Maudlin's chapter argues that The Muppet Show can be seen as a 1970's counter-argument to Sesame Street, suggesting that:
In spite of the gratuitous explosions and excessive nonsense, there is a certain nostalgic sweetness about the Muppets, an implicit compassion that seems to undergird the chaos. . . This particular quality of The Muppet Show brings to light the ... work of Nel Noddings, who challenges us to adopt care-centered curricula and suggests that the post-Sputnik organization of school studies around the academic disciplines is unfair to students because they receive schooling for the head but little for the heart and soul. Perhaps if "a sense of caring" and "positive feelings" were the focus of our educational experiences, the learning process might be a more meaningful and valuable life experience, and, just maybe, we could enjoy a little madness along the way. (178)
Prof. Dryer, were he to read this, would be reaching for his air sickness bag, but I'm alright with it. When one loves the Muppets, one learns to accept a fair amount of hoovy-grooviness.

Leal's chapter, "Muppets and Money," traces Henson's history as a businessman, negotiator, and creator, but also refutes some of that hooviness and/or grooviness. (Some of this is also addressed in Underwood's chapter.) Sure, Henson had long hair and beard and would have, if given a little bit more time on Earth, saved us all through puppetry, but he was also a capitalist, just as his Muppets are capitalists. Kermit and Company's goal, in their trek towards Hollywood in The Muppet Movie, was -- after all -- to become "rich and famous." What was important, Kermit claimed, was sharing one's dreams with others, creating togetherness and inclusion, accepting people (or chickens or pigs or weirdos) for who and what they were.

Each Muppet story, in its way, is an origin story: here's how the Muppets came together to get to Hollywood, solve a jewel heist, put on a show, change Scrooge for the better, help Gonzo learn about himself, whatever. The TV shows and the movies all demonstrate, to those of us who feel different or misunderstood or lonely, that it is possible to choose one's own family, to find a place where we belong, to accept our own weirdness, to connect. "Someday," Kermit tells the lovers and the dreamers, "we'll find it."

* If you should ever need to hear an embarrassing story about me, say the words "Christmas" and "Muppets" within hearing range of my parents. Or the word "Scooter" would do just as well.