September 2008

098 Prohibited books

E proibido proibir
– Caetano Veloso

If books are outlawed, only outlaws will have books.
– John Leonard

Wifey and I went to the Banned Books Readout downtown yesterday. We caught Lauren Myracle, who was pretty good. She said it affected her pretty deeply when she heard that someone, somewhere decided that her books (for teens and tweens) weren’t fit for public consumption. A couple other folks got up to say similar things, including Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmick.

But, to me, the real surprise of the afternoon was Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, one of those authors without whom there almost would be no children’s or young adult departments in any public libraries, anywhere. And there she was, this nice, older woman laying out in words I wish I had written down the dangers of banning books. First off, it’s a terrible thing to do to a kid to him or her not to read a book. She said she once got what was clearly a form letter from some elementary school students, each of whom had copied the letter in their own handwriting, and each of whom had misspelled the word “vulgar” as “vulger,” in reference to her works. But a couple of the students had snuck in their own words before the envelopes were sealed: “We really like your books,” or something to that effect.

Sarah Palin’s been getting a lot of attention about whether she had any books banned as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. As far as I can tell, she didn’t. But the thing that’s moving from factoid to fact status is that she did ask the town librarian how she would respond if Palin asked her to remove some books from the stacks. This is only speculation, but that sounds to me like the kind of “shot across the bow” question that was meant to send a chill down the spine of anyone who even thought about getting in Palin’s way.

I intend to get in her way. If I don’t, I have a pretty good idea what the future will look like for those of us who believe in open access to information: There was a guy at the readout who had tricked out his bike to have a little library on the front, a “book bike,” if you will. Maybe that’s what he called it. I don’t know; I was feeling too shy to talk to him. It was a totally cool idea, and a great way to get books out into the community.

Another way I have seen to get books into peoples’ hands is to use one of those newspaper boxes. Someone has done just that with a newspaper box outside Reckless Records on Chicago Avenue. It’s called the Community Book Exchange or something like that.

Again, a great idea and a great adjunct to a genuine public library. But not a replacement for same, and neither is the book bike. If book readers have to go underground and start doing the whole samizdat routine, stealing around in the night, passing hastily made copies of contraband books to anonymous associates in alleys, it’d be kinda cool at first. Then we’d realize how much it would suck. We’d be embarrassed to have to admit that we lived in a society that didn’t support the free exchange of information, a society that thinks books are more dangerous than guns. Imagine that, a country without libraries, or one with libraries that are so heavily censored that no one takes them seriously.

It could happen. We already have towns without libraries. Fortunately, Chicago isn’t one of them. I found out last Monday that the city government has approved construction of a new branch for the Chicago Public Library in the Goldblatt Building, also on Chicago Ave. I found that out when I went to talk to my alderman, Manny Flores. Heard it from his administrative assistant. Back to you, Jim.

781.66 Rock music

A couple months ago, a nice young man named Nathan, who reviews music at a site called Weirdo Music, got in touch with me about writing about my experiences with Government Issue. That was 25 years ago. Maybe in another 25, I’ll have enough critical distance to give that subject the fair treatment it deserves. Or I’ll be able to sort out all the thoughts I have about those years in some sort of coherent fashion. Something like that.

Nathan and I did decide, however, that it would be cool to take a look at the whole punk thing from the point of view of those of us who aren’t household names. At least I think that’s what we decided. I haven’t talked to Nathan in a while, so it could be that I’ve bolluxed the whole thing up. But anyway, I asked a friend named Chris to kick the whole thing off with 500 words on “What Punk Means to Me.” And I think she did a damn fine job. Herewith are those 500 words:

What Punk Means to Me

1979 was when I discovered punk, so I was really “post-punk” in my tastes. That didn’t matter. It still had plenty of meaning for me. My first punk album was the first Pretenders album. It was extremely raw and important. I was so sick of mainstream rock; I knew all the words, the drum breaks, the boredom. Punk was like a big surprise party that went on and on. But it was more than that: it was an eye opener and gave me a reason to think there was hope for the future, through personal growth without the need to always be nice to people; “nice” meaning being a perfect girl that didn’t talk about the shit going on in the world and pretending everything would be okay if we just kept smiling.

Through punk, confrontation was encouraged: confrontation of injustice, mediocrity, apathy, phoniness and prudishness, to name a few. Punk also encouraged (and still does) individuality, self-exploration, and self-identification by urging you not to look to others to give your life meaning or to give you the ways to define yourself. Screw keeping up with the Joneses!

There was no need to be afraid of “standing out.” Being different was a goal. Clothing was very do-it-yourself (DIY): buy a pocket T, dip liberally in bleach, or add a safety pin here and there. All those trendy people now might not realize that piercing eyebrows and other areas started as a DIY thing in the 70s (I pierced my second earring holes myself).

I was very shy and insecure before I got into punk, new wave, goth, what have you. It came into my life just as I graduated from high school. I definitely could have used the mindset during high school. The songs themselves ran the gamut, with many different instruments, more synthesizer, amazing vocal styles from operatic to guttural crooning. Mostly they were much shorter than the arena-rock tributes. What a relief that was to me. You could be enraged, amazed, saddened and amused then happy after 10 minutes of listening to the radio. So often, you’d hear several new songs a day. I feel there was no other time in music history like it.

Every day, there were new bands coming on the scene. WBCN in Boston was actually really good and played new stuff from inside the US and tons from Europe. I wrote all the names of the bands that I knew of on my bedroom wall (the wallpaper sucked anyway)!

It’s funny, but every generation thinks their rebellion was the best (since the 50s, I suppose, with the beginning of recorded rock), and I am no exception. I truly feel that if it weren’t for the punk/new wave rebellion, I probably would not be here today. Life was just too stifling and dead-ended (and would have been literally) if I hadn’t had that outlet, and especially the opportunity to be me without apology.

098 Prohibited works

If I were a publisher or an author, I would think having someone (say,
Sarah Palin, for instance) ban my book would bring me the kind of P.R. even the most seasoned media flak only wishes he could drum up. Seems to me it would have the same effect as slapping a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label (thank you, Tipper Gore) on a CD, or giving a movie an NC-17 rating: gotta have that forbidden fruit, know what I mean?

As we gear up for Banned Books Week next week, I would like to suggest that the nation’s presses consider doing exactly that: proudly trumpeting the fact that someone has deemed their products dangerous, unacceptable, potentially corrupting or whatever the complaint may be. A sticker on the front cover that says, “This book is banned in 17 states,” or “Most vandalized book of 2008,” “Most Burned Book of the Century.” Something like that. We could call these stickers “Badges of Honor.” Shape them like little medals, give them a faux-metallic finish, the whole bit.

A friend of mine ran a public library in South Carolina where he was constantly having to reorder one or another of the Harry Potter books because someone was always defacing them, tearing out offending passages or just stealing the books outright. I don’t even think the books are that good, but actions like these elevate an otherwise mediocre series to hero status, and, more important, probably don’t hurt book sales much, either.

I had another friend who ran a public library in a town in central Massachusetts. A group of parents who educated their children themselves would come in regularly and demand that this or that book be taken off the shelves. These home-schooling parents made life pretty hard for my friend, one of the most easygoing, non-confrontational guys I’ve ever met. He still grimaces when he talks about it.

So, whether we’re talking about Harry Potter, Robert Cormier, Lois Lowry or Daddy’s Roommate, let’s turn my friends’ nightmares into something good. Let’s remind the enemies of free thought just how badly their efforts at suppressing speech can backfire.

364 Crime

Just found out this morning that a co-worker was beaten and stabbed near his home on the South Side a few days ago. I know people get shot and stabbed all the time in Chicago, but this hit home. The attackers’ M.O. sounded a lot like that of the motherfuckers who beat my friend John Stabb to within a millimeter of his life, just violence for its own sake. Yesterday, I read a reward notice in the window of a restaurant near my house about a young guy who was murdered late last month after hailing a cab at Grand and Wolcott, plugged three times for no apparent reason (not that there can be a good one).

I had a lot more to say, but, really, I would rather just end this right now by saying that my thoughts are with my fellow dogwalker, and all the other victims of violence out there.

553.3 Conservation, recycling, waste management

CHICAGO–Glass bottles, plastic bottles. Beer bottles, soda bottles, energy drink bottles, milk bottles. Bottles, but not so many cans. Why? Because Illinois has no bottle bill. At least that’s my assessment of the situation, judging by the fact that aluminum cans, for which you can receive a pittance, are somewhat harder to come by, even in places where it seems the garbage has completely obscured the pavement. With a bottle bill, you’d be able to take all your empties, be they green, brown, clear or even blue, to the redemption center and get enough change for, say, another bottle of beer.

I took a bike ride this afternoon, starting at Augusta and Paulina and heading south, cutting over to Ashland at Lake, then taking Ashland down to 33rd St. Then I looked ahead of me and realized just how big Chicago is. I realized, too, that I didn’t have the time or the energy to cross 100 more streets. Ultimately, I gave up and turned around. You would have thought I would have hit the mother lode somewhere along my route, especially after I headed west on 33rd until I hit Western and pointed my front tire northward.

A bridge just before 31st St. yielded a few items to stash in my backpack, and a bus stop across from the White Castle (at Western and Jackson, I think) helped increase my take, but no great shakes. Had I been able to retrieve the beer bottles glinting in the late afternoon sun, I might have just been able to cover the cost of the flat tire I incurred a few moments later. But as much of a do-gooder as I am, there’s just no money in it. I could collect them all and eventually redeem them in Iowa or Michigan, but my wife would kill me. She can barely stand me collecting all these cans of . . .

1. Tecate
2. Modelo
3. Busch
4. Icehouse
5. Coke
6. RC
7. Arizona Iced Tea
8. Heineken
9. Miller
10. Budweiser

. . . and much, much more. And who can blame her? I collect them all week, drop them off at the redemption center at Chicago and Grand on Monday morning, and get at most a couple of bucks. The Chicago and Grand facility (which has an impressive collection of beer cans lining one window) and others like it pay 50 cents for a pound of aluminum. That’s about 33 cans. I went out of my way to find some of the filthiest streets I could think of, and still I think I just barely cracked that magic number in my 2.5-hour journey.

I did some armchair research this weekend on the campaign to give Illinois a bottle bill. There are quite a few groups pushing for it, and at least one pushing against it. Four years ago, the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County published a white paper called “Why a Bottle Bill is Bad for Illinois.” Among the reasons they cite, one caught my attention before my little jaunt, and much more so afterward: “Removing the valuable commodities from our curbside programs will increase costs of the curbside program dramatically.” My simple eyeball examination of Chicago neighborhoods from West Town to Pilsen indicates there are some places where there is no recycling going on at all, curbside or otherwise. If a bottle lying on the ground was like free money, it might entice someone to pick it up.

301 Sociology and anthropology

Today’s reason: Howie Carr

I will confess that I listened to WRKO’s afternoon drive-time personality and Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr many a time. He seems to have more of a sense of humor about himself than many right-wing talk-radio hosts. He has made a name for himself chronicling Boston’s leading organized crime figures, especially Whitey Bulger. I share his contempt toward Mike Barnicle for Barnicle’s use of passages from George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings without attribution. But I had to part company with Carr when he targeted minorities, particularly Hispanics, for what I could only interpret as gratuitous, pointless harassment. Minorities in general in Boston seemed always to be working from a position of weakness, fighting against discrimination, racism and bigotry that seemed perfectly acceptable in many communities. I know such attitudes exist here in Chicago, but so far, the kinds of attitudes that seemed almost overt in Boston seem less prevalent here.

636.7 Dogs

Shortly after moving to Chicago last month, I took a job with one of the many dogwalking services here in the city. I hate it. I admire the people who can make a living at it, but I’m not one of them. My boss has told me so several times, probably without meaning to. He has said several times he wants me to be more outgoing. I have spent most of my life feeling miserable about not being the kind of person who lights up a room. Only in the past few years have I found books and Web sites that have made me feel that how I am — quiet, shy, introspective, whatever you want to call it — is perfectly normal and acceptable. And now this yutz wants to make me feel bad about it all over again. Tomorrow, when I give my two-weeks’ notice, I’m going to tell him exactly that, in addition to the fact that this job makes absolutely no economic sense.

And I am also doing research on smiling — something I’ve been criticized for not doing often enough. If anyone has told you you need to smile more, I’d like to hear about it. I’ll be posting some excerpts from some of the previous research I’ve seen on this topic. I had to cut it off at 800 hits.

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