No question, the guy on the cover of Umberto Eco’s 2007 book On Ugliness is truly ugly. And, in this sixteenth-century painting by Quentin Matsys, Ill-Matched Lovers, his ugliness is heightened by his pretty wife or girlfriend. She looks lovingly at him through lidded eyes and caresses his stubbled chin. He fondles her right breast under her bodice and gazes at her with what might be called a leer. Yet, I think the temptation to call it a leer is due to his ugliness. His look, his smile, could just as well be read as deep affection and delight. We would read it that way if he were a studly courtier, wouldn’t we? And here’s the thing: Ill-Matched Lovers is a much more interesting painting, more striking, more arresting, because of his ugliness. Even if repulsed by the guy’s ugliness, the viewer is still drawn irresistibly into the picture. You can’t not find it interesting.
This review initially appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune. on March 8, 2014. Storms at sea play a key role in the tale of John Jacob Astor’s attempt to establish a pivotal trading center on the unsettled, little-known northern Pacific Coast in the early 19th century. Yet, few modern readers have ever been in a fragile wooden sailing ship during a storm on the ocean, especially with its sails unfurled. So, in Astoria, Peter Stark describes the experience:
A particularly powerful gust typically appears like a dark shape ruffling across the sea’s surface. When it slams into a square-rigger, the whole ship stains, the deck tilting as she heels over, the hull surging forward through the swells, the rigging running taut like the strings of a giant musical instrument, the scream of wind through the lines suddenly jumping to a shriek. If a ship has too much sail, with a sudden BOOM the sails will start to “blow out,” the fabric splitting apart under the enormous pressure of the gust like an over-filled balloon…Passages like that are what make Stark’s fine book truly distinctive. They raise Astoria above the level of a well-done historical adventure and help the reader get into a scene or understand the context or see relationships between participants and between then and now. Fascinating....and odd As it is, the Astoria tale is a fascinating, if odd, adventure. It’s odd, in part, because its central character, Astor, never leaves New York. It’s his employees and partners, his surrogates, who make the effort at great personal price to bring his vision of a global trading system into being. He’s the one with the money and the plan. Another oddity of the story is that it’s really two stories. Astor’s plan in 1810, as Stark explains in Astoria, was to send two parties of voyageurs, traders and clerks to the mouth of the Columbia River at the border of the present-day states of Oregon and Washington.
Until now, I had never read Ray Bradbury’s 1953 science-fiction novel Fahrenheit 451. But, of course, I had read dozens of other books and seen scores of movies that were the book’s offspring. To name just one, 2010’s The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington. So it’s an odd experience to get to know Guy Montag and his world — a world I’ve never visited before but have gotten to know very well in, as it were, alternative universes. It’s also odd because, in many ways, I’m living in the world Bradbury envisioned. I get my cash from a robot teller. I rarely see anyone, especially anyone under the age of 30, reading a newspaper. The entertainment industry is selling consumers pre-packaged friends and family. Friends I suspect it’s not a coincidence that one of the seminal shows of this entertainment style was called Friends. And one of its stars, Jennifer Aniston, is a staple of what’s being peddled in magazines, tabloids and television gossip shows, years after Friends finished its run. (To be sure, it’s re-run seemingly nonstop on cable television.)
On March 20 — just as I was finishing Still Dreaming, the surprisingly readable memoir that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez wrote with the help of Doug Scofield — the Chicago Tribune reported that the two men were under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. The story said that, over a ten-year period, Gutierrez paid more than $500,000 to The Scofield Company for staff training and publicity. The contract had been approved each year by the Ethics Committee until Gutierrez canceled it last year. Doug Scofield was a senior partner of that firm. In 1992, he ran Gutierrez’s first campaign for Congress and then served as the Congressman’s chief of staff for a decade. In Still Dreaming, published last year, Gutierrez describes Scofield as his partner in authorship. In his other work, the Tribune reported, Scofield was a campaign aide to Rod Blagojevich’s two successful runs for Illinois Governor, and worked for a time as deputy governor. The disgraced Blagojevich is now serving a prison term for corruption. Kinda murky It all seems kinda murky, even though — or maybe because — the Ethics Committee has promised to tell more by May 5.
This essay initially appeared in the March, 2014 edition of Reality magazine in Ireland. One of the great boons of our era is the ongoing effort at creating better, clearer and more accurate translations of the Bible. But, sometimes, you just can’t top the King James version. Consider the 23rd Psalm. In the New International Version, the fourth verse is translated this way: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” That’s almost — but not quite — identical to the King James translation: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” To my mind, “darkest valley” is pretty bland. Especially when compared to “the valley of the shadow of death.” I’m no Bible expert, so maybe “darkest valley” is closer to the phrasing in the earliest versions we have of the Psalms. Still, “the valley of the shadow of death” is a much more poetic way of saying it — more poignant. That’s because it goes to the heart of what it means to be alive. All walking through the valley After all, we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Life is a journey to death. We may distract ourselves, we may avert our eyes, but, always, at every moment, looming over us is the reality of our coming death. Recently, I re-read Muriel Spark’s 1958 masterpiece Memento Mori. It’s a novel about a bunch of elderly English people, mostly upper-class Londoners, who begin receiving identical telephone calls. When they answer, the caller says, “Remember, you must die.”
The map of North America today — with much of the United States-Canadian border lying along the 49th parallel — might easily have been very different. American “manifest destiny” didn’t have to stop where it did but could have turned northward in the mid-19th century with a couple likely results: • That the entire Pacific Coast from southern California to the far tip of Alaska would now be U.S. territory. • That at least four western Canadian provinces — Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia — would instead be American states today. (Indeed, in 1868, the U.S. Senate went so far as to pass a resolution to pay $6 million for the area they now occupy.) There was a simple reason why none of this happened. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). “The Canadian subcontinent” For just under two hundred years, the Company had a monopoly on fur trade in and rule over an area of North American that eventually grew to be ten larger times the size of the Holy Roman Empire and covered one-twelfth of the Earth’s surface. And, in doing this, held the line against American incursions. Not out of patriotism to Great Britain or to the still-nascent nation of Canada, not out of altruism, but simply for profit. As, of course, befits a business entity. As Peter C. Newman details in his compulsively readable Empire of the Bay, the Company, in gathering its tens of thousands of furs year in and year out, essentially held in trust all of what is now northern and western Canada, a huge region of “the Canadian subcontinent.” While jealously guarding its fur monopoly and, most years, issuing high dividends to shareholders, HBC kept its region free of settlers from 1670 when its charter began until 1812, and did all it could throughout much of the rest of the nineteenth century to block colonization efforts. And that meant that American pioneers never got a toe-hold.
A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on March 6, 2014 Snow has no respect for the calendar, so the snowfall season for the National Weather Service starts on July 1 and ends on June 30. So far this season, Chicagoans and suburbanites have already had to dig themselves out of more than 70 inches of snow, and the total keeps rising toward the record of 89.7 inches, set in 1978-1979. What’s made this season seem particularly ferocious is that we’ve had really mild winters in most years over the past decade and a half — averaging 31.9 inches between 1999 and 2007, and recording just 19.8 inches in 2011-2012. But those years look like blizzard conditions compared with the 1920-1921 winter when just 9.8 inches of snow settled on the city and its region. It was, wrote one reporter, the “summer winter.” Consider this: On January 1, 1921, the city was hit by two thunderstorms, the first ever on New Year’s Day in Chicago. That didn’t keep a couple of North Side men, A. E. Neuffer and John Reid, from taking a dip in the lake off of Winona Street in Uptown — not exactly a polar plunge since temperatures were in the upper 40s. And, nearby, at Nick the Greek’s newsstand outside the Argyle “L” station, Patrolman Paddy Nolan saw a butterfly. All of that, and much more, was reported by Chicago newspapers during a winter when the word “balmy” was used with some frequency. "Spooning couples" Over the next month and a half, Lincoln Square resident Henry E. Cordell had netted his own butterfly, and three schoolmates at the Kinzie Elementary School at Ohio and LaSalle Street — Clara Cain, Jeanette Bafeth and Nara Anfossi — skipped rope during recess while young boys played marbles nearby.
Why does Newland Archer leave? Why, on the final page of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, does Archer walk away from a chance to visit Ellen Olenska, the love of his life, for the first time in 25 years? She’s just up a few flights of stairs in her Paris apartment. His son has gone up, but Archer doesn’t follow him. He sits for a long time on a bench gazing at her fifth floor balcony. He says to himself, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.” Then, as dusk falls, he rises and walks away. “Our kind” A friend of mine rejected the idea of reading The Age of Innocence because “it’s just chick-lit, and I have nothing in common with those New York high-society people.” I think he figured that it’s a love story, written by a woman, so it must be chick-lit. But The Age of Innocence has as much in common with that popular Oprah-ish romance-rooted literary fashion as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet does. Like Shakespeare’s play, Wharton’s 1923 novel is about two lovers, but that’s only on the surface. Both works are focused on something broader, something social rather than personal.
There is a moment, fairly early in Edith Wharton’s 1923 novel The Mother’s Recompense, when the central character Kate Clephane exclaims to herself, “I am rewarded!” I cringed when I read that — because of the peculiar nature of the word “reward” and “recompense” and because I had come to like Kate although her life view and life decisions were very different from mine. Let me explain. When I say that I had come to like Kate, a product of New York society, it wasn’t that I felt we would ever be friends in any sort of existence in which we would cross paths. As the novel opens just after the end of World War I, she is a woman in her mid-40s who is wandering around Europe, skimping by on a small allowance. It’s an aimless, meaningless life of leisure, spent with other aimless, purposeless souls awaiting…well, not really anything. This is a kind of anteroom to hell, and Kate and her circle of acquaintances are biding their time, biding their lives away. Her allowance comes from the family in New York that she abandoned nearly twenty years earlier to go off with Hylton Davies, a man with a yacht whom she didn’t love and didn’t stay with. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to be with him, but to get away from the household of her husband John Clephane and his mother. A hard man to stay home with John Clephane would have been a hard man to stay home with.
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 3, 2014. I sing the joy of snow-shoveling. I rejoice in the movement of arms and back, legs and shoulders. I exult in the wonder of the cold white beauty. Okay, okay, I know there’s another way to look at snow-shoveling. And it’s not with delight. I know that, for many people, shoveling snow is simply a chore. No, that’s too mild. For many people, shoveling snow is a big fat pain-in-the-neck. You have to put on your boots. You have to swaddle yourself with your scarf and your hat and your gloves, and you have to zip up your jacket to the neck. You have to go out into the cold, and you’re not just going through the frigid air to some other warm place. You’re staying out in the freezing wind for a good long while, and you’re working. You’re doing heavy manual labor (especially when it’s a wet snow that’s just fallen) out in the cold. And you could give yourself a heart attack. What’s to like? All of that’s true, of course. But consider this: People pay thousands of dollars and travel hundreds of miles to encounter the artistry of nature. To go to the Grand Canyon or a beach on a Pacific island. To stand close to the awesome power of Niagara Falls or stare up at the Alps or walk through a redwood forest. Yet, on many a winter day or evening, we get a huge load of natural beauty dumped on our stairs, porches, driveways and sidewalks — for free!