The Battle of Brooklyn

March 10th, 2011

As daybreak came to Brooklyn Thursday, a pall of smoke still hung in the air from Wednesday’s skirmishes and government forces went from house to house to round up the remaining bands of wealthy rebels.

The dissension that exploded into violence may have come as a surprise outside New York, but many natives saw it coming. “The protests over the Prospect Park West bike lane, the Wisconsin governor — it’s all part of a pattern,” said one young cyclist waiting at a red light and thereby drawing gawkers. “Then this Cassidy thing, well — that was like shooting into a crowd if you ask me.”

Demographics are part of the problem. A large young population with high unemployment outside the barista and atelier classes exists uncomfortably alongside a small number of extremely wealthy people in this tiny nation-state abutting Manhattan. Friction is, in some ways, unavoidable, but it was the advent of bike lanes that drove the haves to what one resident called “batshit craziness.”

At a hastily arranged press conference, a dapper spokesman for the nobility said, “Their lordships vow to fight to the last servant for their right to park wherever the fuck they want, and walk across any street without looking.” He described the desolation many had felt at seeing innocent Jaguars and Bentleys set alight by angry cyclists. “These expensive cars harmed no one,” he said. “They are the true victims here.”

Seeking comment from the bike lobby, reporters sought their clubhouse. “Next door,” they were told at one building. “This is the bike vestibule.”

Expecting a large contingent of heavily armed, humorless bearded men dressed as Jacobins on brakeless ancient 10-speed bikes converted to fixed-gear, the reporters were surprised when a harmless-looking man who identified himself as Bike Snob NYC appeared.

“How is a bunch of people agreeing your post was ridiculous a ‘lobby?’ he said. “Everybody thinks Charlie Sheen is crazy too, but that doesn’t mean there’s a sanity lobby.”

“I guess it just took someone like Cassidy to strike that perfect note of stupidity,” he went on, “a laterally stiff yet vertically moronic alloy of pretention and cluelessness.”

Efforts to reach Cassidy were considered but ultimately not made, since if he has any more comments they’ll be readily found online at The New Yorker’s website.

In one of many ironies, the battles have been taking place across the East River from United Nations headquarters, where dithering over Libya may now be replaced by dithering over Brooklyn. Is there hope for a negotiated solution, or is this ancient Dutch outpost doomed to sectarian violence fueled by wealthy insouciance, huddled masses yearning to breathe free and calls for reinstitution of the death penalty because some cyclists run red lights? Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria?

Meanwhile, in Chicago, where dogs and cats have been living together for some time now, our bike infrastructure may soon be enhanced by the Navy Pier Flyover. As you can see, the plan has our dogs and cats at one another’s throats as if we were Brooklynites. God forbid we should spend money on anything that makes anybody’s life better, especially if it’s somebody on a bike who might run a red light somehow, someday, somewhere.

It was a dark and stormy night

February 25th, 2011

Sometimes a piece of writing reaches out of its story and pokes you in the eye:

“Murder leaves a crater that must be backfilled, starting at the topsoil of the final hours. She was celebrating a birthday she would never reach.”

Somebody at the New York Times should have backfilled that crater.

Snow days

February 4th, 2011

Monday I rode my bike to work. Cold, but no problems.

Tuesday was when the big blizzard was supposed to roll in, so I took the bus. At work, they decided to send everyone home early. We hit the street at 3, and most other offices downtown seem to have decided the same thing. It had been snowing lightly since about noon, but as I waited for the bus I could tell the snow was coming down more heavily, and the wind was picking up. The bus was packed, traffic was slow, and as it turned south on Michigan Avenue, I could see people struggling in the wind. Once on Lake Shore Drive (it was an express bus heading south) I could see how slowly traffic was moving in both directions. Visibility was very bad, just a few car lengths ahead. We crawled. My bike commute is usually about 40 minutes. This “express” trip took an hour.

While I waited for the bus, I counted the number of people in the cars that went by. Overwhelmingly, one person per car.

Wednesday I stayed home. After the storm petered out, I shoveled our walks and then helped neighbors dig out part of the alley. There were three of us with shovels, two with snow blowers. After 4 1/2 hours, my wife came out and asked me why I was still there, since we don’t have a car. Good question, but I was being neighborly. There were chest-high drifts across the alley, and some nearly that high across the sidewalk. When I shoveled it, I was struck by the quiet: no cars, no jets, just the sound of children up the street laughing and squealing, a few shovel sounds, one snowblower a block away.

Thursday I took the bus. Lake Shore Drive was still closed, so the bus went through the neighborhood (47th to King Drive, Cermak to Michigan, Balbo to State). It was slow. Although the streets had been cleared, they were about half their usual width, with huge piles of snow alongside. Side streets were mostly unplowed. Thursday night while waiting for the bus I counted again: Almost every car I saw had two or more people inside. Extremely rare. Bus got on Lake Shore Drive (now open) and, with traffic relatively light, made good time to 47th Street.

This morning traffic was heavy and slow on the drive, and the car/passenger ratio was back to normal: Most of the cars — including big SUVs — had one person. Rush hour, and my bus wasn’t full.

So as I listen to the complaints about Lake Shore Drive and the people trapped on it Tuesday night, I find it hard to blame the city. It’s a consequence of attitudes, and policies, about cars. For 100 years we’ve devoted land, resources, energy to the private automobile at the expense of almost every other form of transportation. Do we teach bike safety, pedestrian safety, anything about public transportation in our schools? No, we teach driver’s ed. The de facto national ID card is the driver’s license. Highways carve up and divide our cities, walling off parks and neighborhoods.

I feel badly for the people who were trapped, and I’m glad no one was hurt. I know plenty of those people left work early, too, trying to beat the storm. But whatever energy we put into figuring out what went wrong that night should be matched by figuring out how to get more people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. And bicycles. I saw cyclists as I waited Tuesday night in the snow, and I saw them Thursday morning from the bus. I’m sure they suffered as much as any motorist or pedestrian as the snow got worse and the roads impassable, but there they were anyway.

And now the loudest complaints are coming from people whose side streets haven’t been plowed yet. A plow made it down my street yesterday, but the only way you can tell is by the snow thrown up against the trapped cars. It’s still a mess. And those piles of snow block the sidewalks, so even the sections my neighbor and I shoveled are inaccessible. People have to walk in the street. And yet our public policy is that the city clears the street, individuals are responsible for the sidewalks. This is what we pay for.

There are parts of the country, parts of the city even, where it’s hard to get around without a car. That’s the world we’ve built. But we don’t have to keep building it that way and we don’t have to keep looking at it from behind the wheel. Yes, let’s figure out how to get people off Lake Shore Drive. But let’s also figure out how to keep them away from it in the first place. There are other ways to get around.

We all scream

January 20th, 2011

But not because we’re afraid of ice cream. Or gelato. Which was what puzzled me when I ran across the word “gelatophobia” when Googling something yesterday.

Predictably, I read it wrong. It’s “gelotophobia.” And it has nothing to do with ice cream. It’s the fear of being laughed at.

A related term is “gelotophilia,” the joy of being laughed at.

Best of all, and probably most familiar to all of us, “katagelasticism” — the joy of laughing at others.

What got me started on this was reading Bikesnobnyc, a blog that gleefully makes fun of anything bike-related that smacks of faddishness or pretension. Not solely bike-related — he’s quite happy to take potshots at passing minimalists, for instance — but mostly. I started wondering at the derisibility of his targets, then wondered if that’s actually a word, then Googled it and wound up briefly startled that anyone would be afraid of ice cream. The hit was: “Were they really laughed at? That much? Gelotophobes and their history of perceived derisibility.”

It appears to be an actual article in an actual periodical, “Humor: International Journal of Humor Research.” That by itself was good for a laugh. Somebody put one over on Wikipedia, I thought. But if they did, they did a very convincing job of it.

The editors, editorial board members and consulting editors are all academics, but I couldn’t help wondering. There’s someone named Goh Abe. “But I just got here,” I say. There’s someone else from the University of Pecs. Can the University of Abs be far behind? It’s the kind of list that Haywood Jablowme ought to be on. And the motto: “Don’t look here, the joke is in your hand.”

OK, kidding about the motto. Still, my suspicions aside, the thing seems to be on the up and up. It’s been publishing since 1989, and its website has a helpful list of its articles, including:

  • Schizophrenics’ Appreciation of Humorous Therapeutic Interventions.
  • Humor in Marital Adjustment.
  • The Engendered Blow Job: Bakhtin’s Comic Dismemberment and the Pornography of Georges Bataille’s ‘Story of the Eye’ (1928).
  • Hairy Turkish Cartoons.
  • Humor as Defeated Discourse Expectations: Conversational Exchange in a Monty Python Text.
  • Humor and Anality.
  • The Politics of Dirty Jokes: Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Andrew Dice Clay, Groucho Marx, and Clarence Thomas.
  • Sexual Humor on Freud as Expressed in Limericks.
  • Irony Comprehension: The Graded Salience Hypothesis.
  • Humor in Apes.
  • Quisling Humor in Hitler’s Norway: Its Wartime Function and Postwar Legacy.

Maybe The New Yorker’s Robert Mankoff was thinking about “Humor in Apes” when he wrote about “The Monkeys You Ordered,” a site that sends up the magazine’s cartoon contest. It’s a funny piece. The examples he gives of the site’s work are pretty funny, too.

Bikesnob (and maybe Paul Krugman, too) could glean insight from “Irony Comprehension: The Graded Salience Hypothesis” if it answers the question “why don’t people get it when I’m obviously making fun of something?”

I was going to take a look at the Monkeys site, but apparently Mankoff’s readers have crashed it. Servers down. Now who’s laughing?

In the meantime, maybe I’ll check out some of those hairy Turkish cartoons. Or work on my Freud limericks. “There once was a Jungian analyst…”

And maybe I’ll make some money off all this. I think I’ll start an exercise program called kelatogelastics.

It’s like calisthenics, except you do it sitting at a computer. You pay me $100, we read Bikesnob together. Much laughter, good workout for core muscles. Pay me another $25 and we read Mankoff (he writes less often, that’s the only reason for the price break). Ditto the New Yorker cartoons. You get a good workout and a good laugh, I get $100, maybe $150 if you go for the whole Monty, so to speak.

Just as calcium strengthens regular bones, laughing at others strengthens funny bones. And makes me fabulously wealthy if I play it right. Meanwhile, I’m not sure about the Quislings, but I’d like to know more about that engendered blow job.


January 12th, 2011

It snowed all day in Chicago yesterday, which made biking to work more challenging than usual. The lakefront path hadn’t been plowed yet when I left in the morning, but there was only an inch or so of snow at that point and the outlines of the path were easy to see. I could even make out the yellow center line through the snow.

When I rode north around the Aquarium and looked at the city, the snow covered the skyline like a veil: only the bottom few stories of buildings were visible, the colors almost entirely white and brown, the sounds of traffic so muffled I could barely hear them. That made the whole ride worthwhile.

By nightfall it was different. The main downtown streets were messy but mostly wet. Side streets, however, were dicey, with snow and ruts. The lakefront path hadn’t been plowed since morning, so navigating was a matter of following footsteps (and the tracks of at least one other bike) and watching for the faint outlines of the earlier plowing. In one spot near McCormick Place the blowing snow and absence of lights made it almost impossible to see the path. And at 39th Street, where the path curves lakeward in a broad, unlighted sweep far from the car lights of Lake Shore Drive, the wind had blown drifts across the path to such an extent that riding eastward I seemed to be heading straight for the lake with nothing to stop me. Meanwhile, there was no sound except the hissing of my tires through the snow.

The last two blocks to my house were ugly. My street hadn’t been plowed, and there were deep, slippery ruts.

My bike was so covered in snow when I got home you could barely see what color it is. Only the part of the top tube that had been protected by my legs showed green. Everything else was white. It was a lovely ride, a winter gift.

This morning it was still snowing lightly. I put snow tires on the bike but discovered the lakefront path had been plowed and salted — even my street has been plowed. So a more mundane ride to work today, and the snow tires reminded me of something a woman told me last year about riding on them — that it’s like riding on Velcro. True, both in sound and added effort.

Three Bs

January 11th, 2011

Not only are the Bears in the playoffs, but we got to hear some Schmelzer this week, which is just about as rare.

That (the Schmelzer, at least) is thanks to the Bach and Beethoven Ensemble, a small local group that specializes in early music on period instruments. Monday’s concert at the Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall was of Italian music (the Austrian Schmelzer was made an honorary Italian for the occasion), and it was a delight.

The Schmelzer began with a lovely set of variations above a ground bass, then became more solo-with-accompanists in style, showcasing the violin. From there we plunged into a contrapuntal display by Biagio Marini, with violinist Brandi Berry and cellist Anna Steinhoff trading motifs, Steinhoff striding quite independently. Berry described the following piece, by Marco Uccellini, as like “a baroque soap opera” due to its shifting moods and harmonies. The group ably brought out its distinct eccentricity.

The choice to perform Corelli’s Opus 5 No. 3 sonata without the harpsichord was inspired (and no knock on harpsichordist Mark Shuldiner). You might think it would sound bare-bones, but no, it was very full; Steinhoff was both a sensitive accompanist and an equal partner.

Shuldiner got his chance to shine in a Frescobaldi toccata, and Corelli’s variations on “La Follia” concluded the show. Both Berry and Steinhoff handled the virtuoso challenges with style, but it was a variation near the end of the piece that was especially striking: Shuldiner dropped out, the tempo eased and Berry produced a haunting, mysterious sound above Steinhoff’s quiet tread. Magic.

Happy New Year, indeed!


December 14th, 2010

Thanks to my stubborn cold and our frigid Chicago weather, I haven’t been on my bike in a week. We have good public transportation, so getting to work hasn’t been a hassle. Well, except for the wait and the crush. This morning the bus was so crowded the driver yelled “I’m closing the door now” as a bunch of us tried to get on, squashing me and the guy behind me. We weren’t hurt, just squashed.

At the next stop, six of us had to file off to let one woman out. I never got close to the fare box, just jostled along till my stop and squeezed onto the street. Moo.

I saw a woman riding on the lakefront path yesterday when the high was, what, 9? Tomorrow’s supposed to be warmer (24F!), so I think I’ll take my chances.


No, still felt crummy this morning and took the bus again. And it’s definitely a rideable day, temperature not too bad (11F now) and hardly any breeze, sunny sky. Frustrating, but I’ll be riding again soon.

Egging them on

December 3rd, 2010

Baroque Band took on Handel’s “Messiah” Wednesday night at the Cultural Center, and the performance was every bit as fleet and exciting as we’ve come to expect from Garry Clarke and his players.

Chicago choir Bella Voce ably handled the choruses, and the four soloists — soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg, countertenor Mark Crayton, tenor James Kryshak and bass Craig Irvin — did standout work. Stoppelenburg was particularly good, navigating both the pace Clarke set and the demands of the music with apparent ease. Topping it off, she ornamented with taste. Her pronunciation was odd at times, probably because she’s Dutch — something one wouldn’t have learned from the program notes, which gave little information beyond the names of the performers and sponsors. More information next time, please.

Crayton suffered a bit in comparison to the other singers because his voice is smaller (well, everybody’s voice was smaller than Irvin’s), but sang well. My only complaint might be his ornamentation in the repeat of “He was despised,” which made the melody almost chirpy and at odds with the words. I’ve heard others do similar things to the piece, often with jarring results. Maybe the key is to vary the characterization, not so much the notes.

Since I didn’t take any notes during the performance, this isn’t a full review, more an appreciation of an excellent job. A few rocky entries by the choir, one or two ragged moments in the strings, an occasional melody gone astray and a crash that sounded like a card table being thrown downstairs were about the only flaws (and the crash was hardly the band’s fault). Oh, and the notes. This performance was sponsored in part by the city of Birmingham, England, whose first “Messiah” came in 1760. If there was anything special about the circumstances, the forces used, the edition, we weren’t told. If there’s nothing to be said, we weren’t told that either.

Before the concert began, I was looking at the program when a woman sitting next to me burst out laughing. She pointed to a line in it: “His yolk is easy.” Over easy, we said simultaneously, giggling. Well, Clarke certainly egged on the band: his tempi were swift (I saw Irvin stifle a smile in both “Why do the nations” and “The trumpet shall sound” as he zipped through them) but seldom felt rushed.

All in all, an invigorating performance.

Which reminds me, I meant to write about BB’s first concert of the season a while back but never got around to it. A tasting of Italian string music, it gave the lie to the easy stereotype of the baroque schools: German=counterpoint, French=rhetoric, Italian=melody. Sure, there was melody aplenty in the pieces, but Clarke took care to bring out the architecture, and not just in the fugal movements. In addition, he gave us a great oddity in the Marcello, a fascinating piece I’d love to hear again.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the season, especially “La Resurrezione” in June. City Musick and Chicago Opera Theater have given memorable versions of the oratorio (the very louche Jesus at the end of COT’s was a hoot), so it will be exciting to hear it again.


I meant to include this earlier. It popped up during a Google search for Baroque Band. Order yours today!

Nostalgic tales

November 29th, 2010

Among the most fascinating examples recount American officials’ meetings in September 2009 and February 2010 with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of the Afghan president and a power broker in the Taliban’s home turf of Kandahar.

They describe Mr. Karzai, “dressed in a crisp white shalwar kameez,” the traditional dress of loose tunic and trousers, appearing “nervous, though eager to express his views on the international presence in Kandahar,” and trying to win over the Americans with nostalgic tales about his years running a Chicago restaurant near Wrigley Field.

That’s from this morning’s New York Times, in a story based on diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.

That restaurant was The Helmand, at Belmont and Halsted. Although I knew the Karzai family ran the restaurant — and several other Helmands around the country — until today I wasn’t sure which member was in Chicago. I ate at the restaurant more than once, which means I’ve met and shaken hands with a man “widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker,” according to the cable the Times quotes. It was probably 20 years ago, so my vague memory of an elegant man may be suspect. I remember he was described as a former fighter pilot in stories at the time about the restaurant.

At our house, The Helmand lives on in a recipe for kaddo borawni, a delicious sauteed pumpkin in yogurt and meat sauce dish. (The recipe I linked to is from the Baltimore Helmand, but the Chicago recipe is similar; it was published in Specialties of the House, a 1988 cookbook of recipes from Chicago restaurants.) My wife was going to make it last night, but we were distracted by the Bears’ win over Philadelphia and ate Thanksgiving leftovers instead. So we’ll have the kaddo borawni tonight and join Mr. Karzai in his nostalgia for The Helmand.

Overheard . . .

November 23rd, 2010

At Madison and Wells — change-seeking homeless guy vs. bell-ringing Salvation Army woman: “Is anybody going to help the homeless guy or is everybody going to help the million-dollar organization?”