Adventures in silly signage

The CTA has these handy-dandy “elevator status” signs used by the station attendants to alert riders about broken elevators and whatnot.  In fact, I think they’re just to alert riders when there are elevators out of order.

"All CTA Elevators working" photo by Mark Susina
"All CTA Elevators working" photo by Mark Susina

Oddly enough, at the LaSalle Blue line stop, they have one of those signs on the main landing, which is at the top of one set of stairs and at the bottom of another.  This isn’t to say that people who can walk stairs don’t care about broken elevators, but it struck me as somewhat amusing that the sign was in a spot completely inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.

Gaelic storm, easy listening boom boxes, and other observations from an evening in Chicago

Gaelic Storm
Gaelic Storm

We went into the city for Celtic fest Chicago last night, mostly to hear Gaelic storm. Some stuff we saw:

  • In front of me in line at the food stand, two police officers waited for their food (I had sausage, “chips,” and roasted corn dipped in garlic butter). When the girl behind the counter refused their food tickets, the woman standing behind them joked, “I’m with them! I’m with them!” With a smile on his face, one of the officers joked back, “Oh yeah? Where were you 10 minutes ago when we had to beat somebody up?” They both laughed.
  • The newspaper column I recently read about sitting or not-sitting came into play tonight, as the crowd surged up and down with different songs. At one point, some people came and stood in the aisle in front of us, but the efficient concert lady came by and shooed them away. Disaster averted.
  • A giant conga line led by some drunken frat-type boys weaved through the concert. During two different songs. In the second round, one of the boys did a silly jig and a blonde girl gaped astonishedly, impressed for no reason I could see. Also, I noticed one of my students from Columbia dancing along with the mob, wearing flip-flops.
  • A family of Irish dancers was seated near us, and the kids (ranging from ages 8 to 16 or so) took turns getting up for some river dancing. The 10-year-old had some amazing feet.
  • The concert was solid and entertaining. We were about 2/3 of the way back in the not-jam-packed but respectable crowd, which was perfect for this sort of venue. I particularly enjoyed “Beggar man” and “Courtin’ in the Kitchen.” We don’t have the entire GS catalog, so didn’t recognize many of the songs, but enjoyed them nonetheless.
  • Toward the end, a fifty-something skinny man with a salt and pepper beard and white iPod earbuds hanging out of his jeans pocket down to his knees weaved in front of us and stood for a moment. Rocking back and forth like a ship in a storm, he twiddled with his iPod touch for a moment and then ambled his way toward the back of the venue.
  • The Blue line was running interrupted tonight, with shuttles moving us about. We had to hustle but we just caught a bus by one of the “Blue line here” stops. As the bus rolled down the street, we saw a woman in a long pink dress and her companion that we recognized from our ride in to the concert. We chuckled smugly at the confusion on their faces as we rode calmly along in our shuttle. It wasn’t until a few blocks later that we learned we weren’t on the blue line shuttle. More than one bus stopped at that spot. We walked three blocks back to the last of the Blue Line signs and waited there for the shuttle. When we got on, pink dress and friend were slumped in one of the seats. “Karma bit us in the ass for that one,” Jenny said.
  • While we waited for our second shuttle, the Chicago night life came out to greet us. An older gentleman in his fifties ambled by. He was a dark-skinned black man with short hair, a checkered shirt, and pressed pants; he carried a large boom box blaring soft elevator jazz.
  • A white nerdy cyclist wearing a helmet rode up, alongside some cars, to the red light. “Good for you,” I thought, “Well done, brother.” He slowed for a moment, saw no traffic coming, and pedaled through the red light. “I hate people who do that,” I seethed, contemplating shouting that he deserved to get hit by a car.
  • Then three young men in their late teens or early twenties zipped by on roller blades and dropped their backpacks on a marble bench across the street from us in quick succession: plop plop plop. They circled up at one end, and with the practiced air of guerrilla street skaters, they took turns doing tricks on the benches, planters, and other items in front of the building.
  • Finally, as we boarded the bus, we spotted an acquaintance coming back to the same village we live in. As we rode home, I wondered at the marvel of spotting two different people I know in the midst of all the chaos and delight of the city.

Spring Television Roundup 1: The Everyday Badass

The Everyday Badass
The Everyday Badass

Life ended its season in glorious style (convenient, since the odds seem even that the series will end with this season). The nature of the finale reminded us of the primary dichotomy at the heart of Charlie Crews. On one hand, we have this goofy cop with an amusing way of asking Buddhist questions and noticing things that aren’t there; on the other hand, we have a cop who wrestles suspects to the ground and, in the wink of an eye, has a razor-sharp knife at their throats. Crews’s character is defined by his twelve (unjust) years in prison, but the bulk of the show isn’t about how he acted in prison. What drives the show, though, is the idea that he can, at any moment, bring forth the menace that used to survive jail: the violence beneath the surface.

In the days since I watched the show, I’ve been thinking about the surprisingly large number of movies that revolve around this kind of character, the everyday guy who can, in a moment of crisis, become an action-hero badass. In some narratives, like Man on Fire, Life, or A History of Violence, the character’s secret background gives him the chops to make this believable. In others, like Ransom or Falling Down, the badassery wells up only when it’s needed.

Joss Whedon wields this narrative trope particularly well. Buffy turns on the violence-inside model, even making it a spiritual force in one episode. The calm and quiet characters get their rage moments at some point or another: Giles has a vicious streak, Willow nearly broke the world, Wesley becomes particularly sadistic in Angel, and even Lorne shows the mettle to do what needs doing at the end of that series. Firefly and Dollhouse, too, rely on the small pretty girl who kicks ass as an archetype.

Perhaps this is as much about the seething savage beneath the corporate man. Are Man on Fire and Life on a continuum with the Chunk Palahniuk Fight Club men or the Ellis American Psycho? If so, why does Charlie Crews’ vicious streak seem so satisfying?

You jaded bastard

After class today, I overheard a couple of my students talking about how they always leave the class a bit shaken.  I asked one of them about it, and he said, “You know, because we spend two hours quaking in the dark every day.”

It made me remember two things:

  1. Several of the students in this class are relative horror novices who haven’t seen many zombies movies (some say that haven’t seen any before this class).
  2. I’m so jaded that I hardly notice the gore, violence, or fear these movies are supposed to generate anymore.

Remembering days from truly scary horror movies (The Ring was the last one that did this to me), I now have to wonder if some of my students are finding themselves haunted by our daily screenings.  And if so, are they having nightmares?  Yikes.

The Engels Leren problem.

Warning: VERY NSFW!


In listening to French music over this last week, I had two thoughts.  First, I wondered if listening to music in a foreign language you don’t really understand gives you access to a more “pure” music experience.  My thinking for this is that lyrics serve both a musical and an informational purpose.  If one values the musical above the informational, then listening to music that’s not in English (or is beyond comprehension in other ways), seems like a good way to disconnect the informational from the musical.  In that respect, I feel like I do the same thing when I listen to music while I work.  Because I’m not paying attention to the words, I get a better sense of the rhythm, timbre, and harmony than I do if I’m trying to listen to the lyrics.

A friend of mine suggested that this idea of “purity” only works if you value music over lyrics.   I can see that argument.  I’m also inclined to think of my relationship to music much along the lines espoused by the Drew Barrymore character in Music and Lyrics.  Namely, that music is like physical attraction to a song, lyrics are like getting to know the person.  The former brings you together, the latter keeps you together.  This concept works for me.

The other idea I had about foreign-language music is what I’m calling the “Engels Leren problem,” in honor of the hilarious commercial cited above.  How can I play the French music I mentioned on Monday if I don’t know what they’re saying?  Maybe I’d be advocating sodomy!

I Know My Rights

Riding the El home from work one autumn afternoon, a man walked into the car and sat behind me. I sat in bookish silence, staring down at the page without reading because the man behind me was talking on his cell phone. From his conversation, I gathered he was in his mid- or early-twenties.

“Oh Man! We went to this party last weekend and got so drunk. Shit. There were all these hot bitches there too.”

Having heard enough to suspect that the conversation would continue in that vein for some time, I turned away from vicarious Bacchanalia to my scholarly tome pondering new media. We rode the train together, the partier and I, through the West side of Chicago; he yammered on and on, a steady drone harmonizing with the muted roar of the train as it rumbled toward the sunset. I did my best to tune out his gruff timbre and swarthy syntax.


The familiar robotic voice announced that “This is Austin. Ridgeland is next,” so I closed my book and gathered my bag from between my feet. I tuned into his conversation and discovered that adventures in libido were no longer at issue–now we were discussing the vagaries and injustices of the U.S. legal system.

“I know all about my civil rights and my rights were violated five times.”

Five times? I thought. This guy can’t catch a break. My interest piqued and I sat up straight. My burning desire for justice and a juicy story kept me rapt.

“I served this country in Vietnam. I gave my time and put my life on the line and now my civil rights are being violated.”

Bastards, I thought.

“I know my rights and they were violated. Goddamn pigs.”

My companion wasn’t giving his conversation partner on the other end of the phone much opportunity to talk, but perhaps relieving himself of the burden was the goal today. We were moments from my stop, so I rose and made my way toward the door in front of me.

“I know my rights,” he repeated, “I know the Constitution. ‘We the People, of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union…’ ”

The train eased to a halt and I stepped toward the doors. I glanced at my companion, needing a glimpse of this bearer of woe. He was between forty and fifty, a white man with a shaved head. His well-worn leather jacket and haggard eyes reminded me of someone you’d see in a biker bar on television. His screen credit would be “local tough number 2,” and he’d answer the detective’s question about whether he’d seen anything with a flippant answer like, “I see lots of things.”

It was only as I left the train, the words of the Constitution wafting out after me, that I realized he didn’t have a phone.

I just realized…

The projected due date for the new Riley is August 8th, which would make his birthday 8/8/08. Check this out:

In the Greek mysteries, the number 888 represented the “Higher Mind.” The Greek variation of “Jesus,” “Iesous,” equals 888. (link)

The symbolism of the number eight: starting afresh on a higher level, an octave higher. (link)

On one hand, I love the idea of the higher mind being embedded in my child’s birthday. On the other hand, it makes me think we’d be in danger if a bunch of Religious folks intent on fighting the coming antichrist get wind of this. Perhaps we’ll induce on the 7th.

Enjoying the appalling

  • 1: Carbon Leaf – I like Carbon Leaf a lot, at least this album. They have a song called “The Boxer” about two people who’re always fighting with one another. They’re married, and they “know just when to strike.” It’s sad but a lovely song.
  • 1: Carlos Santana – Meh. Another bit of my dad’s old collection, but one I’m not particularly fond of. Good guitar playin’ though, I guess.
  • 2: Catch 22 – A ska band that I found through Pandora. I like them quite a bit, though their more recent album moves away from the horn-based rock that I enjoy. I’ve noticed Less Than Jake is doing this too. Are horns passe? Also, I wonder how bad this band would have to be before I disliked them, since Catch-22 is one of my favorite novels. Note to self: read Catch-22 again.
  • Chad Kroeger (1 song) – Jenny worked at a radio station for a while when we lived in Florida, and she would regularly bring home prize loot. This CD was the single for “Hero,” a popular single from the first Spider-man. Through this connection I also got, in order of least interest to most: Afroman’s “Until I Got High,” Dave Matthews’ Busted Stuff, U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, David Gray’s White Ladder, Better Than Ezra’s Closer, and Five for Fighting’s Americatown.
  • “Cher” (1 song) – see below
  • 1: Cherry Poppin’ Daddies – I’m always a bit scandalized by this band’s name. It doesn’t fit, for me, with the suave cool usually cultivated by the hep cats in the swing music crowd. It’s almost like these fellas wanted to be badass rappers, but they only knew how to play trombone so they started a swing band instead. The music’s good, though.
  • 4: The Chieftans – I love the chieftans. I know this comes from the same part of my personality that leads me to enjoy Murder, She Wrote and to see far more commercials for adult diapers than most 30 year olds are likely to enocounter in their own television demographics.
  • 1: Chris Cornell – I’ve always enjoyed CC, particularly his voice. That’s what I like about Audioslave and Sound Garde, and this album is just him! I really like his slow, pained cover of “Billie Jean.” Check out a bit of it:

    Clip of “Billie Jean” by Chris Cornell

  • 1: Christopher Hogwood – This is a classical music CD. A concerto or something. I use this kind of music when I’m writing. Word music gets in the way.

The most interesting bit of my music listening this time around emerges because of my crow-like nature (I pick up anything that’s shiny). This time, I picked up a discarded CD. Unlike MOST discarded CDs I find on the street, this one was legible to the computer and contained one track, Cher’s “The Star Spangled Banner.” Game for anything and always fond of free music, I loaded it up and played it this week. What I found was a heavy metal song that didn’t sound much like the androgynous crooner from “I Got You Babe.” A quick lyrics-Google later and I find that I actually have a copy of Nickelback’s “Flat on the Floor,” which I like quite a bit. But I am fascinated by this in a couple ways:

  1. Why would someone burn a CD with just one track on it and use the wrong ID3 labels on the song? My mind churns with possibilities ranging from odd pranks — “Hey, you like Cher, right?” Then, when the Cher fan grimaces at Nickelback’s churning guitars, “Haw! Haw! Nickelbacked!” — to music panspermia, in which one burns songs with the wrong ID3 labels and leaves them laying around to get unsuspecting folks to listen to new music.
  2. Research. What does it mean to mislabel? I’m inclined to think about Flat on the Floor as a Cher song. How might Cher cover it? What does Nickelback have to do with Cher. Like the namesakes series, juxtaposition becomes a rhetorical move. Perhaps the CD author imagined Cher and Nickelback to be polar opposites, but I bet there are folks who have both in their collections — particularly if they’re top 40 buffs, as both Cher and Nickelback have had hits in the last decade. At conferences, could I sucker folks into my talk with a title suggesting the Daily Show and then dispense with that topic in the first minute? Could I write a book nitpicking Deleuze’s Fold but wrapped up in a dust jacket with Homer Simpson on it? Would it sell?


Belushi in Animal House

It occurred to me that my experience with Bruce Springsteen is a ubiquitous one. Not for the Boss, per se, but as a way of ingesting popular culture. A couple more examples:

  • A student wearing a “COLLEGE” shirt admitted to me that he bought it because he thought it was cool, only later learning about its cultural referent.
  • I first learned the melodies for any number of popular songs via Weird Al. I still think “Spam in the place where you live.”

Catch phrases are obviously the most viral bits of popular culture. They haunt us long after their sources have been lost. Where’s the beef? I’ve fallen and I can’t get up? Who let the dogs out? Okay, that last one is still around, but I bet that phrase will outlast the song.  The Canticle for Leibowitz explores this brilliantly, suggesting a post-apocalypse far-future in which a monastic sect pays holy homage to Leibowitz, whose “handwritten notes on crumbling memo pads bearing cryptic texts like ‘pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels–bring home for Emma‘ “(wp) are all that’s left.

The popular habits of intertextuality and reference also play a key role in continuing this trend. The Simpsons itself provides a wealth of jokes in every episode that refer to popular culture, common or not. Anyone teaching a film history class inevitably finds students discovering the source for jokes they’d not understood fully before.

Thus, I propose a neologism for both the process by which this happens and the definition that results.

popfinition – noun

  1. The process by which a bit of popular culture becomes familiar to people unfamiliar with the source for that object.
  2. The meaning or significance of a concept defined as above.
  3. The description of the flavor of a soda.

The responsible man

Burden of the Responsible ManAs I neared the El station this morning, I saw a woman struggling under an awkward burden. She wore a knee-length black raincoat open in the front with a hood up over her head. In front was a forward-facing baby carrier, shrouded by a multicolored day-glo blanket. Her hands were full trying to manage her umbrella, her cigarette, and her handbag; her messenger-bag briefcase, slung over one shoulder, thumped against her left thigh as she walked. I thought perhaps she was grumbling to herself or talking to her baby; then I decided she must have a hands-free cellphone, since her expression looked more like she was a-phonin’. As we passed, I realized that she had jury-rigged her own hands-free cell phone by wedging her handset into the space between her cheek and her hood.

I was reminded of one of my favorite paintings, “The Burden of the Responsible Man” by James Christensen (which you can buy me a print of for $3K). I like the blend of fantasy and poignancy that the image evokes for me, but I decided my hedgehog briefcase could hardly compare to this woman’s morning walk in the rain.

I expect you to die…

bond plays baccarat

On the way home from my birthday comics spree at Chicago Comics, the coolest comic store ever, we sat behind a Chinese man reading a Chinese-language book. Oddly, the title and some of the captions in the book were in English. The book: Gold Island Baccarat Strategies. The only place I imagine anyone playing baccarat is in a James Bond movie. The things you see on the train.

The Most Cluttered Office (OR) How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of Camera Features and Love “Sports” Mode

sports mode icon
A month ago, staring absent-mindedly out the window, I noticed that the Green Line runs right by The Most Cluttered Office. Championship clutter. Olympic-caliber. I’ve been in Greg Ulmer’s office—I know clutter. Yesterday, I got a window seat on the right side of the train, so I thought I’d see if I can get a pic of it. I turned on “Sports Mode” and sat poised by the window, catlike. The kid in front of me looked at me like I was nuts.

The Most Cluttered Office

It occurs to me that perhaps the piles shield this guy from the terrors of working with the el going by every 10 minutes. My eyes keep returning to the leaning tower of booklets in the left window: how many more can he add before it topples?

Saturday Photos

Things you expect to see on the way to work:

A street light

A tire swing

Maybe even some low-hanging clouds rolling off the lake.

But you generally don’t expect to see
A barell on fire

photo20050513.jpg photo20050513-barrel2.jpg

Well, maybe you do. Aside: I didn’t notice until later that I caught the ‘ol CTA rumbling by as I took my burning-barrel photo.