Monday, November 30, 2009

Gladwell, Pinker and Pissing in Alleys

I’ve had football on the brain lately, and thanks to The New York Times Book Review I know I’m not the only one. Steven Pinker and Malcolm Gladwell duke it out on the letters page this week, over—of all topics—evaluating NFL quarterbacks.

What next? Bernard-Henri Levy reporting live from the pre-draft scouting combine?

I’m still rebounding from last week’s trip to the Bears-Eagles game with my son A.J., a night that featured my favorite pre-game tailgate to date, in the lower level of a parking garage about a half-mile from the stadium. My pal K., who had invited us, had told me that he usually tailgated in this garage, but I guess I hadn’t really considered what such a scene might look like. Maybe because it was a night game, it looked a little like a location shoot for “The Road.” A real post-apocalyptic vibe. Men in circles around fires, drinking and cursing, etc. Shadows and chain-link fence. Smoke hanging thick beneath concrete ceilings. And every so often, the riverine sound of someone pissing down into the alley from the garage roof.

My boy, who has been raised not to relieve himself in the dark corners of public parking facilities, looked a little scared, but mostly thrilled. He seemed to figure out quickly that the normal rules weren’t going to apply. He liked getting home after midnight, too. All of this probably makes me a lousy parent, at least for one night. Which, I guess, was the whole point. I wonder what Gladwell would say about all of it.

Monday, November 16, 2009


It’s the Season of the Lists. Every year around this time, some middle-class survival instinct kicks in (or is it just a siege mentality?) and I go around making lists of the things that have to be done before the long winter comes: Gutters to be cleaned, leaves to be burned, trees to be cut back. This goes back to my childhood, I suppose, when I used to help my dad change out the screens for storms on lead-sky autumn Sundays with the Bears on the radio. To this day, I associate most domestic chores with the image of Bobby Douglass running for his life.

At the top of my list this weekend was installing a new chimney cap, a job that involves me climbing up on the roof. I hate climbing up on the roof. I’ll do it when I have to, but first I have to psych myself up a little, talk myself into it, a little like a parachutist getting ready to jump out of a plane. The payoff, though, is the view. You can see a stream cutting through some woods behind our house and a chain of ponds off in the distance and an old barn and, on days like yesterday, smoke rising from a few burning leaf piles around the neighborhood. I was checking all this out, when I started to hear a strange racket coming from the woods, just 30 yards or so from the house. It sounded like grunting pigs. A few seconds later, a doe came tearing out from behind a tangle of honeysuckle, full speed. She was sprinting like a thoroughbred, ears back and eyes wide. Charging after her were two grunting bucks. They looked—-well, let’s just say they looked determined. It’s mating season. The doe led them in a loop around our yard, jumped over the stream, and doubled back into the woods. Then I lost sight of the chase, though every once in a while I could hear some thrashing in the woods and more grunting. I guess that doe was on the bucks’ to-do list.

I’m a little compulsive about making my lists, but not always so successful at actually completing them. I find my lists all over the house. Lists of calls to return, lists of books to look for at the library, lists of things to buy at the grocery store. The really old lists that turn up inevitably seem a little pathetic, with their outdated priorities. They’re like a record of the futility of my days. But I suppose lists are hopeful things, too. As long as you’re making lists, you can’t be totally sunk in despair. (Umberto Eco in a recent interview: “We like lists because we don’t want to die.”)

I knocked a few things off my list yesterday (Watch horny wild animals get busy? Check.) and let a few more slip. I’ll make a few more lists today. It’s on my list of things to do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Gales of November

When I was a kid, I thought Gordon Lightfoot’s "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was the most epic and heartbreaking piece of music I would ever hear. I suppose this is what happens when you grow up listening to your big brothers’ Fairport Convention records.

Today is the anniversary of the Fitz going down off Whitefish Bay in 1975 with 29 men on board. WDCB marked the occasion by playing about a half-dozen cover versions of "The Wreck," nearly back-to-back. That's an awful lot of mournful maritime folk, even for me. I still think it’s a really good song, but I'm not sure I really need to hear it again until next November.

Friday, November 6, 2009

On Not Sleeping with Audrey Hepburn

Stuck in another episode of middle-of-the-night sleeplessness last night, I turned to TCM to find that “Roman Holiday” was on. Forget space travel and wireless communications; I say the greatest achievement of our age is the availability, at 3 a.m., of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn to keep even the most miserable insomniac company.

Even better, I happened to turn the movie on right at the point where Peck, finding himself unable to sleep, leaves his apartment and goes out for a walk. I felt strangely reassured. That’s an example of what my hero Walker Percy would call a certification--the process whereby a movie confers a kind of psychic legitimacy on your otherwise ordinary existence. Granted, Peck couldn’t sleep because he had a heavily sedated Hepburn in his room, whereas my case was more your standard-issue middle-class-anxiety insomnia. Still, I felt Peck and I understood each other.

Today, though, I’m fighting an inexplicable urge to run out and buy a Vespa scooter.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Goalie Mask: Fifty Years of Pucks to the Face

Turns out I missed an important anniversary yesterday. The goalie mask made its debut in the National Hockey League fifty years ago, when Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens wore one in a game on November 1, 1959.

Hockey fans--and slasher film devotees--rejoice.

This story from the Chicago Sun-Times has all the details, including a quote from current Blackhawks goaltender Cristobal Huet on what would happen if he tried to face down a slapshot without his mask (“I’d be dead right now") and a mention of the wonderfully named anti-mask Montreal coach, Toe Blake.

But how does one celebrate an anniversary like this?