Archive for the ‘From the armchair’ category

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

12 March 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Groundhog Day, 2011. The day the media deemed “The Blizzard of 2011” in the hubristic assumption that we won’t get another one to match it for the rest of the year. I prefer to call it Thundersnow! 2011—with obligatory exclamation point and boldface and italics—because it’s not often that we get the bonus drama of thunder and lightning in the midst of a snowstorm.

Thanks to the snow’s accumulation and blowing drifts my office was closed, and I worked from home that day, and the next.

(Could have been worse—I could have been one of the hundreds of idiots innocent people oblivious enough to think, if they thought about it at all, “I take Lake Shore Drive home every night, why should tonight be any different?” even as the weather forecast shouted in seventy-two-point headlines about the impending sixty-mile-an-hour gusts off the lake and the quarter-mile-at-best visibility and the twenty-five-foot waves crashing over the breakwater to send freezing spray across the roadway. Why should anyone have wondered whether driving on an exposed, limited-access boulevard in the face of those conditions was a good idea?)

That sarcastic aside… aside, we spent the next couple of days hunkered down at home, living comfortably on our stockpile of franks and beans and telecommuting via laptop. Sitting at the dining room table, I got down to some much-needed coding, something that I had been unable to focus on at the office with its usual distractions. With noise-cancelling headphones on and iTunes in shuffle mode, I tuned (iTuned?) out the world and maximized my productivity.

In mid-afternoon, iTunes played a song I’ve listened to dozens of times in the twenty-plus years since I first heard it: “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” by Animal Logic.

Before I continue, maybe I should explain that I imagine my music collection forming a dense, elaborate web of connectivity—something like a vastly expanded version of the “Jethro Tull Family Tree” that appears in the liner notes of the band’s 20 Years compilation and depicts ties to Fairport Convention and Yes and numerous other bands. Some of the connections in my web are strictly personnel-related (so-and-so played on this record, and later formed that band), but other connections are more personal (that friend introduced me to both this album and that one). In one way or another, then, pretty much all the music in my personal collection is connected in some way to all the rest.

But amidst it all I’ve always felt like Animal Logic (and, of course, its follow-up) formed a sort of promontory: Stewart Copeland connects it to the Police, and Stanley Clarke to Return to Forever, but this was Deborah Holland’s debut; nothing else sounds anything like this band; Animal Logic II sold poorly and the band broke up to pursue other projects. To my mind, Animal Logic stands alone.

Anyway, sitting there listening to “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” I realized for the umpteenth time that I had no idea what that phrase meant. But for the first time while having that thought, I 1) was sitting at a computer and 2) could easily abide the 30-second distraction it might take to Google it and finally put that nagging-yet-trivial question to rest.

So it turns out Copeland borrowed the phrase (with the word “up” added for improved rhythm, perhaps at the expense of meaning) from the novel Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy:

Barry is a widower, his wife having died of alcoholism before he left Seattle. “Firing the sunset gun” he called her drinking. “Every day she’d be at it as early as one o’clock.” “At what?” “Firing the sunset gun.”

Now, I have to admit I’m not exceptionally familiar with 20th-Century American literature. Henry Miller bored me, or at least underwhelmed my expectations. Ayn Rand told a story that was fun enough, but which only worked if I went along with her world-view. Most of the books I read that might be considered classics of the “20th-Century American literature” aegis—Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird—were required reading in high school English classes, or fulfilled liberal-arts credits in college. Beyond that I pursued other avenues of reading interests. So amidst that desultory and unfocused regimen, I think it’s unlikely that I ever would have become aware of Walker Percy.

Except. One of my all-time favourite books is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A book that might never have seen the light of day, if not for Toole’s mother and her persistence in bringing the novel to the attention of an instructor at Loyola University in New Orleans: one Walker Percy.

What a strange thing, at least to me. One of my favourite books, one that stands alone and unconnected in any obvious way (The Neon Bible notwithstanding) to anything else in my book collection, or indeed to anything I’ve ever read—is tangentially yet distinctly connected to a song on an album that likewise stands relatively alone within my music collection (and listening history). This connection so surprised me that, without any further knowledge of the book or its author, I immediately went out and bought a copy.

In reading Love in the Ruins, having no expectations or preconceptions about what I was getting into, I felt a bit like Percy did upon reading Confederacy: as he wrote in its introduction,

[O]ne hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. … Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.

It took only the first half-page of Love in the Ruins for me to realize that I had been grabbed, not merely intrigued and interested, but grabbed by the shoulders and thrust headlong into an exciting tale from which there was no escape until I reached its conclusion.

In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf

5 P.M. / July 4

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Wow. An astonishing hook, and off we go. It’s a rollicking ride, and I enjoyed this novel immensely. I count it as one of the most engaging and enthralling pieces of fiction that I have read in years.

One final connection to note: just like A Confederacy of Dunces, Love in the Ruins has never been made into a motion picture. I wonder why.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

7 February 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Howard Zinn, Professor of history and political science, passed away a year ago at the age of 87. At the time, I’d never heard of Zinn or this, his perhaps most famous and popular work. But a mention of his passing by an artist I respect led me into reading it.

It took me a while to read this entire book, partly because I found it becoming repetitive and redundant. About midway through it reaches the point where the same things keep happening over and over again. And perhaps that is part of Zinn’s point: the history of the United States is one of ignoring the past, for American history continually repeats itself.

A People’s History of the United States could be summed up in two statements:

  1. Revolutions are appeased, co-opted, and absorbed by those in power, so that despite any surface appearances to the contrary, the power structure remains with the status quo.
  2. Wars are not fought for freedom or ideology. Wars are fought only for resources.

Zinn is awfully heavy-handed and single-minded in his thesis, but he provides convincing support for this shocking assertion: the United States of America, the land of freedom, has never fought a war for freedom. Never. Take some examples.

  • The American Revolution. The general public, the working classes, the poor, wanted revolution to throw off the chains of their oppressors, the wealthy landowners. Those same landowners co-opted that revolutionary spirit, promising freedom by equating it with kicking the British out of the colonies. (See point #1 above.) At the end of the war, the landowners kept their land—and no longer needed to pay taxes to the King—while the poor remained poor, lacking property and voting rights, and indentured to the same powers as before. Meanwhile, the wealthiest landowner in the States was elected our first President.
  • World War II. It’s easy to argue that this was really a war for freedom, a war against Nazism, Fascism and oppression; certainly that was a necessary and positive result. But if that were really the primary reason for U.S. involvement after years of isolationism, we would have entered the war upon Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, or its invasion of France et al in 1940, or its ruthless bombing of our closest ally, Great Britain, that same year. No, instead the U.S. entered the war when Japan attacked an important link in the American Pacific empire—the last straw in Japan’s ongoing threats to U.S. market potential in China; access to the tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia; and the long-standing American occupation of the Philippines.
  • Vietnam. Promulgated as a fight to keep the people of Vietnam free from the “threat” of Communism, this war was really about access to Southeast Asian resources once again: tin, rubber, oil, and even rice.
  • Today’s wars. Gulf Wars I and II have been about oil, no more, no less; and Afghanistan is not about fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda ideologues—it’s about petroleum, natural gas, and at least $1 trillion in untapped mineral resources, including the potential to make Afghanistan “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

The list goes on; it’s all-inclusive of every war ever fought by the United States. We’re not unique—the “resources, not ideology” principle could more than likely be applied to every war throughout the history of the world.

Taking Zinn’s pacifist and populist stance with a grain of salt, this book is a surprising pin-prick to the pompous balloon of the standard, ultra-patriotic line of American history taught in schools. It should be a must-read for American college students.

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith

20 December 2010

Apollo 11 happened in my lifetime, but I’m much too young to remember it.

Andrew Smith remembers it: he was a lad of eight, and begins his brilliant book Moondust with his recollection of a warm summer day, riding his bike with a friend through their Northern California subdivision, arriving home in time to hear the last minutes of the descent, and sitting in his living room a few hours later to hear Neil Armstrong utter those famous words.

I was not quite six months old when the Eagle landed, so I remember nothing of it. My family was on a camping trip, and during the Moonwalk, the One Small Step, I was fast asleep in a big canvas tent. My parents, only vaguely aware that the world’s attentions were so acutely focused on this event, stood half-interested along with a handful of other people around a small, black-and-white portable television owned by the folks in the next campsite over. The reception was awful—and of course the images from the Moon were grey and ghostly at best—so I think their experience of the event was rather underwhelming.

One of my earliest memories of any kind is of Apollo, although in researching its specifics now I find that my recollection may be entirely flawed. In my mind, as a not-yet-four-year-old I was awakened in what seemed like the middle of the night by my grandfather and hauled blearily down to the basement to watch as Cernan and Schmitt climbed aboard the Apollo 17 Lunar Module Challenger and the last men launched from the Moon. The tricolor debris of liftoff—the red-green-blue scans of the lunar rover camera being sequential rather than simultaneous—still sticks in my mind as one of the archetypal images of the entire program.

Except that in the time zone where I was, the lunar liftoff took place around dinnertime. Perhaps the late-night rousting I recall was of the mission-commencing Saturn V launch from Florida instead, which took place well after my bedtime. If that’s the case, I have to admit to remembering it not at all.

At any rate I was young enough not to notice the hiatus, the huge gear-grinding downshift, when Apollo ended and the only things happening in American manned spaceflight for more than eight years were a trio of long(ish)-duration Earth-orbital missions aboard a converted Saturn V third stage, and the brief effort in détente known as Apollo–Soyuz. My media input was mainly from books, and in those books—among them NASA’s Apollo Expeditions to the Moon, Ruth Sonneborn’s Question and Answer Book of Space, and of course Carl Sagan’s masterpiece Cosmos—human spaceflight continued its merry ascent toward the stars, unfettered by political machinations and budget considerations.

Since then, along with biographies on Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Gene Cernan, Gene Kranz, Deke Slayton and others, I have read dozens of books on the Space Race, Apollo, the Moon landings. Some are sublime, like Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon; some are fairly routine, cut-and-dried, and uninspired; some, like Tom Kelly’s Moon Lander and Roger Bilstein’s Stages to Saturn, are rife with technical detail. Some are just going through the motions, praying to get all their facts correct (and, often as not, failing).

But few, if any, pose a question both simple to ask and complicated to ponder: What did Apollo mean? And for that matter, what does it mean today, decades later?

Andrew Smith chooses to ask those questions. By chance he found himself in proximity to Charlie Duke and his wife as they learned of the death of Duke’s fellow Moonwalker, Pete Conrad. Duke’s shattered comment to Smith: “Now there’s only nine of us.”

This sets Smith on a journey to meet all the surviving Moonwalkers and get their impressions of their time on that celestial body. But not to answer the prosaic and frequently asked “What was it like to walk on the Moon?” He delves more into the question of “What was it like to return to Earth after having walked on the Moon?” He focuses on the aftermath of each mission, the paths (some clear-cut and successful, some desultory and haphazard) each astronaut took upon splashdown.

Smith’s story of the Space Race and its aftermath is delightfully candid and uniquely personal, and is not only a fun read but also an important contribution to the history. I would even go so far as to say that, if after reading the best book on the Space Race bar none—Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon—readers find themselves wanting more, they could do far worse than to turn to this book for further perspective.

Andrew Smith comes to some interesting conclusions about what it all “meant,” but it does him no justice to attempt to condense them down to a few paragraphs. Suffice it to say that Moondust takes us on a personal voyage of discovery, clears away the veils of mythology surrounding Apollo, and brings the Moon home to all of us on Earth.

That said, one glaring point Smith makes in conclusion hit home to me.

He discusses the real reason that Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, an outsider (if not radical) idea, was chosen over the Earth Orbit Rendezvous favoured by NASA’s top engineers: time. LOR stood a better chance of getting the job done before Kennedy’s arbitrary deadline.  But EOR’s incremental approach was the better way:

Earth Orbit Rendezvous would have taken longer, but would have bequeathed a waypoint in space, prepaid for and pointed out toward the stars. It could have been scaled up or down and adapted to a range of purposes with relatively little bother. It would have involved developing technologies and skills that would endure, so that when the political imperatives that drove Kennedy had gone and the lunar landings ceased, an orbital base camp would have been left behind. The Sixties-end deadline had necessitated a built-in obsolescence that was the quintessence of its time.

For all the Space Race history I’ve read, I cannot recall having seen this idea expressed so flatly, so concisely, if at all:

Jack’s Apollo program killed “manned” Deep-Space exploration, stone dead, for at least the next four decades and probably many more.

It’s not a popular notion, that the man we think of as having sent us to the Moon ruined spaceflight for us. Unfortunately, it’s true. For the past thirty years we’ve been launching the Shuttle back and forth to low Earth orbit—and as Smith suggests, the difference between that and a voyage to Deep Space is akin to the difference between climbing a hill and actually flying. The International Space Station, for all its size and arguable science potential, goes nowhere. While the Russians are still flying a 1960s spacecraft aboard a 1950s rocket (both substantially upgraded and modernized, of course), not one bit of our moonshot hardware carried over into the Shuttle era. Apollo really was disposable.

Most people don’t realize the cold hard fact that today, in 2010, the human race lacks the technology to return to the moon. What we did forty years ago, we can no longer do. When I tell people that, they’re almost always shocked. We’ve lived so long with that old saw—“We can put a man on the moon, so why can’t we do x?”—that it doesn’t occur to us that its premise is false. We can’t put a man on the moon.

Why? Because JFK wanted to beat the Russians at something, and somebody said we could beat them to the Moon, and so we did. But we did so at the expense of a sustainable space program.

In 2010, the year A. C. Clarke used for our second manned voyage to Jupiter, forty years after Alan Shepard played golf on the Moon, how sad it is to be twiddling our thumbs in low Earth orbit and heading into yet another gap in U.S. manned spaceflight capability. Thanks for nothing, Jack.

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

17 December 2010

Two miles south of Chicago’s Loop, just east of Chinatown, in a neighbourhood known today as the Near South Side, stand the Raymond Hilliard Homes. Built in the mid-1960s as one of the city’s last major public housing projects, the complex was designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg, whose most famous Chicago work is the iconic corncob towers of Marina City. Goldberg’s intent was to create something other than the warehouses-for-the-poor that typified other public housing projects, and so he came up with a futuristic-looking quartet of high-rises that even today are striking to behold.

The Bertrand Goldberg Archive boasts that “for many years this was the only public housing complex which needed no constant police supervision.” The Archive wants to attribute this to Goldberg’s revolutionary design, and the National Register for Historic Places seems to agree: the complex was added to the Register in 1999, claiming in its nomination: “even as public housing policy turned away from high-rise developments, the Hilliard Center has seemed largely immune from the problems of other high-rise projects.” Yet even the Goldberg Archive admits, “residents were chosen from records of model citizenry in other housing projects.” This hand-picking surely contributed as much to the success of Hilliard as did Goldberg’s “neo-expressionist” stab at the new urbanism; still, by the late-1990s, the project had succumbed to the same issues that plagued most other public housing and doomed this idealistic attempt. If not for the architectural significance of the buildings, by now they might well have gone the way of most other public housing high-rises.

The Hilliard site, spanning a two-by-two-block area between Clark and State Streets, Cullerton Street and Cermak Road, utterly transformed this landscape, and its curving towers are, to my eye, a little stark, a lot retro, and reeking of a misguided optimism. Don’t take this the wrong way—I like these buildings, in all their mid-20th-Century weirdness, and while I’ll never miss the rectilinear high-rise barracks of Cabrini–Green as they’re gradually razed, I’m glad that this project has seen a major renovation and will stand for decades to come.

Yet for all the talk of architectural significance and progressive ideals, there is little mention of what this site was one hundred years ago, during what we now refer to as the Progressive Era of American history.

In fact, the site itself gives no hint that Dearborn Street and Federal Street (formerly named Armour Avenue after the famed meatpacker) once passed straight through the site, cruising uninterrupted south from 18th Street and well beyond 22nd Street, now Cermak Road. A hundred years ago, this entire area, from 18th to 22nd, Clark to Wabash, and some of the surrounding environs, was known as the South Side Levee. It was Chicago’s most notorious red light district—and its most famous.

In the Progressive Era, prostitution was seen as a necessary evil, and it was widely believed that segregation—a separate, self-contained vice district—was an adequate means of regulation. As a result, the Levee contained dozens, if not hundreds, of “disorderly houses”: saloons, brothels, opium dens, and the like. Many of these were extremely disreputable, kidnapping young women fresh off the train and forcing them into a life of harlotry, employing “enforcers” to beat the girls, often quite severely, if they got out of line or attempted to escape. Knockout drops in drinks were common, and “panel rooms”—chambers with hidden, sliding panels—were used to rob unaware clients. Corrupt police and aldermen received massive payouts for “protection” and kept the whole thriving under the blind—or complicit—watch of various Chicago mayors.

Into this morass of sin came two sisters from Omaha, Ada and Minna Everleigh. Originally from Virginia and born with the surname Simms, the pair had run a brothel in Omaha that was financed, or so they claimed, by a $35,000 inheritance. It seems likely, however, that they had made this money the old-fashioned way. The sisters, above all else, were masters of self-transformation.

At a time when it was possible for a madman to abduct and murder dozens (possibly hundreds) of people and cause them to vanish with nary a trace, when young women were leaving their homes in droves for the first time in history to travel to urban centers and seek employment, when a woman could be drugged and raped and made to believe that she was “ruined” and thus resign herself to a life of prostitution—becoming, quite literally, an “inmate” of a brothel—

—And as moralizing preachers and prosecutors used these realities to foment a widespread fear of the “traffic in white slavery” and abolish the trade entirely, creating the Mann Act and turning the FBI from a tiny arm of the Justice Department into the enforcement juggernaut it is today—

—Ada and Minna Everleigh sought to turn a profit in the world’s oldest profession in an ethical and high-toned manner. Their “butterflies,” as they called their working girls, were all volunteers, working of their own free will, and free to leave at any time. Their clientèle were judiciously selected and held to rules of proper conduct. A doctor was kept on staff to give the girls periodic check-ups, and drugs were strictly forbidden. The rougher element, pimps, and panders were never welcome; and lower-class holiday-makers were asked to find recourse elsewhere in the Levee, something they could do with ease (but rarely as safely, given those knockout drops and panel rooms and pickpockets at other resorts).

For a dozen years, the Everleigh Club was the premier resort, and Ada and Minna the de facto Queens of the Levee. Its rooms were elaborately appointed even by the over-the-top standards of their late-High-Victorian era. The club was, quite literally, world-famous: captains of industry; important authors, poets, and athletes; and even a European prince could be counted among its patrons. And then it all ended, as the moralizers and temperancers gained traction and politicians courted the law-and-order vote. The club shut its doors in 1911 and the sisters retired into obscurity. The double building at 2131–2133 South Dearborn Street that housed the club was razed a couple of decades later.

The fascinating and titillating story of the Everleigh sisters and their lavish business—but not that of the housing project that stands in its place—is told in the delightful book Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott.

Book recommendations: All-time favourites (the Desert Island Ten)

10 December 2009
Categories: From the armchair

coverZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
Quite possibly my all-time favourite book, I re-read it every few years and each time I get something more out of it. An investigation into the concepts of truth and quality, sprinkled with commentary on Western academia, it uses the metaphor of a motorcycle to explain logic and rational thought. Though the book uses the narrative framework of a cross-country trip, the motorcyle one is taught to maintain is not the piece of hardware on which the author rides: it is one’s own self. Here’s an odd book report.


cover“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard P. Feynman
Here’s a book report.


coverA Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
If you only ever read one book on the Space Race, this must be it, the book that was the basis for the award-winning HBO series From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin explains the events and difficulties of the Apollo project with such detailed understanding that one might think he was himself one of the astronauts, except that no astronaut ever had such a gift for storytelling. Both the exhilirating highs and the disastrous lows will bring tears to your eyes.


coverA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Winner of a Pulitzer prize, published posthumously by the author’s mother. I won’t even try to summarise it. A masterpiece of pure genius. Here’s a book report, if it can be called that.


coverPrometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson
A guidebook for self-programming what John Lilly called the “human biocomputer.” Wilson uses his incomparable humour to explain the eight-circuit model of the brain and how each circuit is imprinted and conditioned. Mental games and exercises help the reader to understand the “programs” unintentionally imprinted on one’s brain during various stages of development, and enable one to rewrite detrimental programs and augment beneficial ones. You’ll find lots of quarters, too. Avoids the whacked-out zealotry of Timothy Leary, who pioneered the eight-circuit model.

coverThe Straight Dope by Cecil Adams
When I was in high school my grandfather gave me an early printing of this book, and it has remained one of my most prized possessions ever since. It’s not so much because he died not long after, but because I’m still curious to know what prompted him to give me a book that tells the true story (and, of course, the bawdy rumour) about Catherine the Great and the horse, as well as the caloric content of human sperm. These are just two of the hundreds of questions unabashedly and caustically answered by Uncle Cecil in this book and its sequels. What are the original lyrics to “Louie, Louie?” Why is there no Channel One? How many Eskimo words for snow are there really? Hilarious and informative, truly a “Compendium of Human Knowledge.”

coverThe I Ching, or Book of Changes translated by Wilhelm/Baynes
Both an oracle and a philosophy. I have read several different translations of this classic. Some are overly New Age. Some are so cryptically and tersely written that you’re probably better off learning Chinese and reading the original. This version is a bit academic and has a definite European cant, but it conveys some nice poetry and contains extensive commentaries on each of the 64 hexagrams.


coverVALIS by Philip K. Dick
This is (partly) a semi-autobiographical attempt to come to terms with an inexplicable mind-altering experience that PKD had in the early ’70s, which among other things allowed him to diagnose a life-threatening congenital defect in his young son that had gone undetected by physicians. Could it be that the “living word” of early Christianity was really an intelligent, symbiotic information packet which, when learned under the proper conditions, gave a person immortality? Could orbiting satellites be capable of firing pink laser beams of information directly into a person’s mind? These are but two of PKD’s many theories on the origin of his strange visions.

coverThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
Even before the moment in 1933 when Leo Szilard stepped off a curb and had his epiphany of nuclear fission, the Atomic Age was inevitable. Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winner makes the difficult concepts of physics and chemistry understandable without oversimplification, and explains the background of each discovery as well. This could have made for a dull, tedious read, but Rhodes uses honest drama and solid characterizations to create a ripping good tale. No other book covers both the history and the morality of this subject better.

coverSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.