Toot’s Freed Feb.

5 02 2008

The Art Institute of Chicago dropped a big banner down its front: free admission for the whole month of February. Happy Valentine’s Day thousand years of art inside! It has completely changed the mood of the place. The price of a grown-up ticket had gotten to be a non-negotiable $12 or so unless you bought a membership.

There are crowd’s now in Free Feb but there were always crowds. These free crowds feel different. There are more people who drop in on their own, they passed, saw, decided, they made an independent action, they got a quiet moment to themselves. Or they’re looking deep into a picture with one or two friends.

Before free Feb, impossible to know for sure of course, there was more an air of premeditation about the people inside the Toot. They had planned, organized to be here. They came to see pictures out of some sense of a well-organized, well-planned life, etc. etc.

It is by now transparent that plan “b” never liked museums charging admission, especially whopping big admissions.

In truth, plan “b” misses the museum experience of 30 or 40 years ago: big drafty, deserted places, free, with barely any guards and no invisible lasers-of-death to keep the Godzilla Public from sticking its snout too close to genius.

Anybody who wanted in could come in and not be bothered.

The Toot’s free Feb. feels as close to that as can be in the post-marketing age society in “what may well be the start of a recession” (translation: the depression).

Since Americans are fond of historical lessons that begin with “Once upon a time, the Found(l)ing Fathers…” we could even tell one like that about the Art Institute, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Once upon a time, the Art Institute’s founders dug a lot of cash out of their own pockets, and hung their own cheaply acquired impressionist collections in a new museum that would be open to the public, open to the people, open to the workers, to uplift them and soothe their beleaguered minds and give them good feelings about the “bourgeois benevolence” that gave them free Sunday afternoon uplift before they went back to the factory on Monday.

The Art Institute’s fin-de-siecle beginnings notwithstanding, plan “b” heartily endorses free Feb. and hopes that other museums and then the movie theatres and concert halls feel so inspired to lower their own ticket prices.

If indeed we are “at the beginning of a recession” (see above), it becomes essential to preserve these semi-public spaces, our meeting places for culture and entertainment. If the battered economy leads to free culture zones and cheaper entertainment where more “diverse” (i.e. people with more money as well as less money, “race” is not the only criterion for “diversity”) crowd can see and be seen, have a laugh together, relax a little for crying out loud.


2 guys Sunday

5 02 2008

Here’s what’s good: Sunday afternoon in the deepest part of the winter trench, just non-descript cold, nothing record-breaking, just something to make a person give up hope, yes, just about that cold with equal absence of light to go with it. Take a walk in the empty part of town.

In Chicago you can’t get emptier than the financial district just three blocks west of State Street. Take La Salle Street or Wells on a cold Sunday afternoon and the air has a tang of permanent stock market plunge. Let’s say a thousand points, give or take.

This particular bleak afternoon in question, plan “b” ends up walking just steps behind 2 Guys who think they’re alone in Chicago, alone as in “who’d ever help them anyway?” They’re clean enough and the clothes might be their own, bought by them or they might have gotten them at the plays they give out old clothes.

The past year or so the guys on the street are showing up with pretty good wardrobes, clothes just out of the stores long enough for the guy who bought it to get tired of it and decide to give it to the “less fortunate” a kind of fashion prayer to the daily superstitions of urban people doing well: how long could this last?

But, again, these 2 guys on Sunday might have bought their gear themselves. They both have big team jackets, the big and heavy kind of jackets that can drag a little guy down in a good wind.

The angle they are leaning towards each other as they walk & talk makes it clear they’ve been talking along in an agreeable way so far. Man on the right is still talking. He’s taking off on something he just said. He should’ve stopped talking while Man on the left answered but he didn’t stop and now his breathing is changing and he’s a little louder.

plan “b” recognizes the signs, there’s a lot of this going on these days. Something, a conversation between two people who essentially agree, for example, begins calmly enough, rational, a rhythmic give and take between two friends, then someone’s breathing changes and that one can’t stop talking.

“You’re losing it man.” That was Man on left if you’ve lost track. He’s speaking low, as if this deserted street were full of plain-clothes cops; as if one more angry word and his friend would get the both of them thrown inside. The city jail is just two blocks away (there’s a basketball court on the triangular roof. Harry Weese architects figured most of the people inside the building were innocent anyway and they designed it to make their stay more pleasant).

“You’re losing it man.” That was said gently but with threat and immediate effect. It was the moment of readjustment that must be happening millions of times a day these days. It has to be.

By plan “b’s” calculation the division of labor has become extremely simple: half the world is veering into anger and the other half is bringing them back. Later in the day they’ll be changing places.

These days it’s taking both halves of the world just to keep the whole bunch of us trying to figure out what’s the best thing to do next. Best to avoid useless spewing, n’est-ce pas. Simply “letting off steam” is probably the worst thing we could do.

Beverage service

21 01 2008

Here’s something that Americans appreciate quite a lot: carrying large beverages with them wherever they walk or ride. plan “b” has never understood the appeal of what must be admitted a national pass-time and very deep-rooted cultural preference.

It has always seemed that carrying a large cup of neon syrup ice or boiling hot coffee or tea or some ice/fructose combination (favorite soda name goes here) was inconvenient or outright dangerous. From litigible burns to dry cleaning bills, the practice can also be costly, beyond the initial fanciful cost of water and flavoring. At best, it has seemed to plan “b”, carrying the large beverage through one’s day might be sport but how could it ever be considered a comfort?

And so it happened one afternoon that plan “b”, in the perky phase of her daily jet lag and culture shock (lately returned from Paris) decided to experience the American pass-time, living her life with a large, hot (coffee) beverage in tow. And now she modestly believes she has understood the intrinsic appeal of American beverage juggling.

She purchased a cup of black coffee (Intelligentsia, even their perked coffee is good) after proudly ordering it “To Go!” She had watched enough “To Go!” transactions to know that she would get a thick paper cup sleeve, to protect her from the heat of the coffee on the other side of paper in the cup. She would also benefit from a plastic cup lid with a small slot, the adult version of a toddler’s sippy cup. As plan “b” counted out American coins for the purchase, she explained excitedly to the cashier and the others in line that this was an initiatory walking beverage experience. They wished her luck.

Once plan “b” took possession of the cup, she realized that everything, her slightest gesture, now had to proceed from service to the beverage. Pulling on all the winter gear, hat, scarf, gloves, zips zips and zips, she had to find a secure place to place her beverage first.

Outside the cafe, she realized that now she would want to find a clean place to put her cup while she fished her transit card from its nest of pens and thumbdrives and keys and notebooks. That would be difficult because outside the train station was a storm and inside the station was a hundred years of grime. What happened next is no longer clear but plan “b” found herself on the train platform watching the approaching train and trying to keep her beverage from splashing as she shrugged her backpack off of one shoulder, the train rider’s prelude for getting through a clutch of passengers and swinging smoothly into a vacant seat.

There were hot drops, those sippy cups aren’t foolproof! And they hurt but not enough to pay a lawyer. Once in her seat, nesting against the window on the west side of a southbound Red Line, the whole point, the deeper meaning of the beverage walk began to become clear.

Many readers already know the delight that plan “b” discovered. Once in her seat she literally could not put the beverage down. That meant she could not do any of the things that long-distance riders tend to do, write, read, fiddle and fret over things inside the dark arcania of a backpack.

For the next forty minutes plan “b” lived to protect her beverage. She did have an occasional sip but that was not the deeper spring of her bliss. To protect her To Go cup, plan “b” had to become plan “be”. She sat in the sunshine and looked out the window and watched the people in her train car as they also sipped and watched or phoned and told five different people exactly where they were or worked at top speed, knocking off pages of reading or writing.

plan “b” was excused from doing any of that. Her “To Go” was actually a “To Sit.” Forty minutes later she had sipped enough of the actual coffee to be able to throw the cup away. And now she knew how to relax next time she needed it: something in the area of a Super Schlurpee in a half-gallon waxy cup the size of a paint can would be just the thing to settle her down on a frenzied day.

Take back tabac

17 01 2008

Happy New Year and Bonne Annee!

At the last midnight of 2007 and the first midnight of the following year French law drove smokers out of the cafes and restaurants to smoke in the cold moist air of 2008. Tens of thousands of ashtrays lost their place of privilege, smack in the middle of the tiny round of the French cafe table. Morosity and celebration.

At that same instant the other half the French people knew they could walk into any cafe and linger to their lungs content. They could watch the cafe fauna with eyes that did not weep at the smoke and order another “demi” (of beer) while they burrowed deep into another long story about Kenyan violence, daydreaming in a smokeless way about whether to steer their winter getaway away from Kenya.

Midnight, 2008, French public spaces were returned to the rest of France. The cafes that mixed caffein and journalism and time in the 18th century to invent a new public space of dissent and assent, those cafes, became the place where the nation might once more convene.

Now smokers can recover from a substantial loss of territory acquired in the course of the twentieth century. It is for smokers, a kind of post-colonial attitude adjustment. They have lost their cafe colonies.

By French law now they can still smoke on the cafe terraces and plan “b’s” informal holiday poll indicates that increasing numbers of Paris cafes have added or wish to add heated and sheltered winter garden terraces.

This is a net gain for Parisians, including those Parisians of a week or a day, the tourists. Prior to the new smoking ban few cafes in Paris maintained inviting winter terraces, with the tall heat trees and the sparkling, transparent plastic walls. In the early days of the ban plan “b” saw few smokers at the terrace tables. Where had they gone?

The smoking ban story, without a doubt one of the great cultural and physical upheavals of the twentieth century, was amply covered by the French press of all political stripes. The ban uniquely eluded political designation in a country with a sweet tooth for finding the chewy political center of just about anything on the table.

For this expected yet unthinkable event (the ban) French could not conveniently lapse into a comfortable “French” divide, like the turn of the century dreyfusards vs. anti-dreyfusards. The aftermath of the ban cannot be described as a simple smokers vs. non-smokers.

Reporters spoke with all kinds of smokers who as a group refused to be taken as a group. Some were predictably in revolt, abrasive or poignant. Some were more tragic than revolted. Some hoped this might just help them quit, they’d failed so many times.

Non smokers, at least in press accounts, were the discreet winners in the tale. They tended to mute their joy at being able, at last, to be in cafes again without swallowing more ambiant smoke than beer.

Non-smokers, plan “b” included, glowed with the unexpected return of cafe life. There was perhaps something like a collective pleasure and anguish as those who did not smoke began to release their suppressed understanding of how deeply they had regretted the loss, for such a long time, of reading a news paper, writing notes, talking with friends, lingering over drinks until another one of life’s great secrets has been worked out, and on and on in a cafe. What had been lost, taken from those who were driven from cafe life by other people’s smoke was that access to “cafe time.”

Cafe time is the inverse of nineteenth century “factory time” the “time is money” ethic that eats years and leaves varying amounts of excrement behind. Cafe time has the possibility of conferring a timeless sense, the vivid experience of the moment, the revival of curiosity, those things that are put to sleep by the press of modern efficiency.

Not that everyone lingered in cafes, of course they didn’t. The cafe bar was equally the beloved standing space to throw an inch of espresso to the back of one’s throat, read the headlines, dig in a pocket and drop 50 centimes, one franc twenty, two euros fifty as the decades turned.

But for those who wanted to step into the other universe of simply staying for a while, the cafe always offered it. Now we the ones who never did care for cigarettes or who finally managed to quit can find our place in the time machines of the cafes again.

Naturally, it is not this simple. Numbers of smokeless people, plan “b” among them, felt a pang for dedicated smokers whose ritual moment of the day cig/coffee had been excised from their routine. “If I can’t smoke with my coffee I won’t go to the cafe!” (Si je ne peux pas clopper avec mon cafe, j’y vais pas au cafe,”) said D., a fashion publicist who has always considered the downstairs cafe to be the entry to her office.

plan “b”, like many non-smokers of the post-war era, has swallowed so much of other people’s smoke that by now it physically sickens her. Sad but true. But plan “b” is now experiencing something like smoke nostalgia.

Is she the only one who is fascinated, attracted by the varieties of smoking gestures? Easing the cigarette from its perfect package; striking the match or flipping the lighter; the movement of the hand, the way a face moves in pleasure with a cigarette between the lips; the narrowing of the eyes to gaze into that first exhalation; faces appearing in clouds of smoke. Now we must go to the movies, old and new ones, to admire the full panoply of smokers’ aesthetic.

In the first days of the ban cafe owners threatened mass cafe bankrupties. They were right in one way. Their clientele had probably become primarily smokers. In the Smoke Club the cafe became, owners never worried in headlines that they might go out of business because non-smokers couldn’t come in any more. They may well have simply forgotten about the substantial market share that non-smokers could represent.

plan “b” promises cafe owners that their intelligent and creative cooperation in the restrictions and latitude of the new law will give them a more inclusive business than ever.

This is a time for the famous (and well-loved) French political practice of Solidarity to safeguard the density of cafe life in Paris and the rest of the country.

To simplify, EU+UK=EUK (say yuk)

20 12 2007

Brits hate to be betwixt and between a full set of colonies.  To remedy the discomfort they’ve finally decided to accept the European continent…and own it.  Just now they are doing it through the structures of the European Union.

The latest volley of anti-French EUK PR is a transparently Brit bit of mischief within the EU to dismantle (French) agricultural subsidies, beginning, coincidentally, with another big chop at the plus belle partie of French ag(riculture), its wine industry.  The anti-French ag campaign is determined to eliminate quirkily ornate and geo-centric (la vigne oblige) French wine labels.  

EUK denounces the evil of “…fancy [wine] labels designating tiny plots in faraway places and arcane production methods…” Now, according to EUK “…simplicity is the new order of the day.” Local is “arcane” (trans. despicable, counterproductive, elitist, fill in the blank with something bad). Global is “simplicity” (trans. egalitarian as in South African wine equals French wine).

The EUK arguments against French wine makers are these familiar refrains
1) the French wine industry in particular is “burdened by overproduction” (translation, too many little independent producers doing as they please and getting paid for it)
2) more often than not the subsidized winemakers flooding the market with their sour “plonk” and
3) not even the French want French wine any more, prefering wines from any other place in the world.
These three little tunes are repeated in most of the wine stories these days so the modern reader assumes they must be true.

The latest Brit attempt to relieve itself on the French appeared in the December 20 Chicago Tribune. The reporter showed an unashamed and undeclared pro-English bias in a description of an old Brit campaign against the French that now calls itself “European.” The new twist of ordering zippy new generic wine labels for all European wine is just the latest face of the English attempt to eliminate French resistance to global agriculture and the world financial markets of genetically modified food.

The stated and unstated purposes of forcing a new wine graphic is to obliterate all traces of the specific provenance of French wine. With censorship of place, imposition of a generic wine label, EUK simply removes one of the strongest reasons to prefer a French bottle over say, one from Basingstoke-on-Underwear. Like many truly brilliant tactics, it is loaded with a number of contradictions that most people will be too polite to mention.

For one, European Union spokesmen justify the design diktat as a policy that would help make French wine more competitive in a growing global wine environment of new producers and huge new markets (India, China). The new diktat labels eliminate the significant historical advantage that French wines had over newer producers.

For another, EU spokesmen who are actually paid to promote European economies are eager to promote the chances of South African or Chilean winemakers in any new wine megamarkets that might love the ease of the screw top and the new Wines-R-Us wine label stylings.  

To plan “b’s” heightened sense of smell that’s an overpowering whiff of bad cork and a thinly disguised UK attempt to KO la Belle across the channel.

plan “b” is well aware that life has not been easy for England. After all, she lost her colonies but kept the colonial subjects. For the past half century many have shown up on the doorstep of their former oppressor in numbers sufficiently massive and vigorous to give that old Imperial Dame a right ruddy make-over.

Never mind that immigrant food is better than the enshrined British national dish of peas and potatoes on toast with gravy. Never mind that African and Asian writers living and dead are infiltrating the canon of English lit-ra-chure. Never mind that the Church of England has to move over and let the new gods in town help “save the queen.” Brits are understandably flummoxed by these unintended consequences of empire.

But plan “b” says that’s no reason to take it out on the French who, by the way, are trying to evolve through their own set of colonial secondary side effects.

But to be fair, EUK is right from the perspective of the smooth running of Global Finance. Through all of those sweaty, toiling years of colonial exploitation, the British Empire yearned for the kind of air-conditioned “Simplicity” that is the “new order of the day” (see Tribune article).

Through their proxy of the European Union the British are so near to the payoff for 1776= Adam Smith’s book launch +independence from the American colonies, a financial drain and bunch of whiners as George III told anyone who would listen. In those days the English idea of Sweet “Simplicity” was India.

To return to our now time, EUK globalists have some tidying up to do and the old French wine labels are a messy part of it. “Tiny plots in faraway places” must be stricken from the record, first the label, then the shop shelf, the palate and then very very quickly, memory. Certainly the cost effective plastic cork, or even better, screw top, will help speed “simplification.” “Terroir” the grand French word/idea for something so local you can taste it, will fall off the dictionary.

EUK should take a leaf from the French and do next what the French had the foresight to do in the 17th century. There was a new kind of king in those days and Richelieu commissioned a French language to go with it. It was his official dictionary with the greatly reduced, newly official and “chastized” French language. That dictionary put people on guard. No artist would be subsidized for using anything but the language of the royal court.

Global Money (EUK) needs a new dictionary. “Simplicity” gets funding; “Fancy” (local) and “Arcane” (local) won’t. If the people want “local”, let them eat terroir, let them eat dirt.

Good places for being

2 12 2007

Today is a balmy, lightless day in Chicago and Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco. Yesterday the rain froze our umbrellas wide open and left a slab of ice like lard across the intersections. Today plan “b” was somewhere on a moon of life as it might be.

It was the great opening of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in their new Krueck and Sexton building across from Grant Park and the Lake. This is a building for all things Jewish and it’s made like a glacier of glass. Polar bears could play on its facade of heaved up sheets of glass at angles to each other and the sun. Inside there’s a library, an archive, classrooms and a theatre, children’s art studios and a kosher cafe. It is a place of present and future of glass and light and nature coming inside and the smell of baking a-roming from floor to floor. It is a place of searching, asking, reading, watching, chatting and discoursing where the past is present as if to say why not now and other nows as well.

Red Moon Theatre creature-people were all over the Spertus building today. This is the day humans can see them, they live just behind the air we breathe and their lives are beautiful but not so easy in many ways but they might say the same of ours.

Yesterday plan “b” visited another new Chicago building, the new Pacific Garden Mission. The good people of this town wanted it out of sight, this centennial refuge of the down and out and moved it from State Street to west of the railroad tracks. Their new building is by Stanley Tigerman, an architect not plan “b’s” cup of tea at all but goodness didn’t he do a lovely job for the new mission.

Pacific Garden finally has a real garden, a good sized green house where they plan to grow fruit and vegetables for dinner. The dining hall is like a restaurant for 600 people and leftovers go to the compost piles in the greenhouse. The roofs are green, There’s a theatre, classrooms and dormitories where men, women, children can stay as long as they choose, that’s what our guide said. For every dose of bible they can swallow they have breakfast, lunch or dinner. Solar panels on the roof heat their showers and they can have a safe, clean sleep.

HAPPINESS HOTEL (hat tip to Kermit)
Someone or something (an optical company?) leaves a juicy check at the mission every month to buy eye glasses for everyone who needs them. There’s a dispensary with a nurse on staff and doctors that visit. The Pacific Garden Mission is like its own little kingdom. It’s allowed to continue to exist in Chicago as long as the building is hidden at the end of a snarl of dead ends on the west side. The people inside it are allowed to continue to exist as long as they are good sports and shout their prayers. Bon appetit! Hallelujah! If it came to it plan “b” would sure do it.

Two glorious oases in Chicago this dreary, warm Sunday. One of them is gorgeous and glittering, the first thing you see when you blow into town. The other is secretly wonderful for a few hundred souls who have secretly survived.

Rest in pieces

29 11 2007

They’ve thought of something new to do to with Dead Abraham Lincoln: give him aNOTHER check up, this time for cancer. And the dead 16th president of the United States is once again out of luck: he’s been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that might have killed him in six months if only he’d lived to die of it.

plan “b” naturally has two questions. The more pressing one is why the heck do people enjoy playing with Dead Abe? In recent years he’s been susplected of syphyllis, clinical depression (his fault for having sad eyes) or potentially “gay.” There must be SOMEthing, the inquisitors imply. The latest investigator, a California heart doc says rare cancer and has made his case at Johns Hopkins Hospital (Chicago Tribune, Nov. 29). His deduction comes from peering into Lincoln’s hand and face plaster casts among other things but he’d love to get his hands on some bona fide Lincoln brain and blood bits for a right and proper DNA test.

The second question is the usual so what? So what Abe may have had a cancer that might have etc. etc. What’s the heart doctor’s point? plan “b” wonders if this might be a clever scheme to knock John Wilke’s Boothe assassination down historically to a Category C Pre-emptive Mercy Killing.

If that is the point of the latest historic “autopsy” of Lincoln, is it an off-beat holiday attempt to lower the level of 19th century violence? Just in time for Peace on Earth/HO HO HO time?

But, seriously, plan “b” wonders about this morbid fascination with Lincoln. When “why was he so tall” becomes a real forensico-historical-hilarico question, what is going on?