Saturday, November 1, 2008

Take It Easy But Take It

Studs Terkel passed yesterday. Ninety Six years of age. Timeless still.

Others can tribute the man nicknamed after Lonigan better than I. Were just a few of our own time as thoughtful, articulate. We've lost someone who taught us so much, who brought out our best. But less than loss is this. For because of one Chicagoan great, we've gained. Imagination. Hope. Conversation. A listening ear.

Here's what I learned from Studs. How to elevate my fellow man, the world around me. How to humbly observe. Creatively articulate. Represent that which life offers us all.

As I write this reflection, I listen on WFMT to the accomplishment so excellent, "This Train." His travelogue and interviews from the traveling trip, the journey, nay pilgrimage of the 1963 Civil Rights march in Washington, D.C. Radio which brings it all to life. Or is it that it brings life to all?

Last year I rode the rails, also. We all should sometime. My trip was not as important as his. But instructive it was. I wrote following then and share my experience with you here. Thus shall witness as my own story told. This, then, in my thanks to Studs.

There's something thrilling about a train. It has that certain charm.

So I decided to take a trip. And I thought about...chocolate. Well, we WERE headed off to Hershey for the annual CFA (circus fans) convention.

Train travel isn't all too hip anymore. Drive, have "personal space"; or "get there fast" (in our immediate environment) on the airlines.

But what about slowing down a bit, relaxing, enjoying the flowers - and trees? No, Amtrak doesn't always run "on time" (and our experience was no exception). But perhaps that is the point. Now, given, were rail to ever become a popular mode of mass transit again in the United States, priority would have to be given to this service. And it's tough waiting, stopped in the middle of who knows where. Yet leisure is the ultimate end of life well lived.

A train provides that sense of "journey"; movement through time and place. "Getting there is half the fun," goes the saying, as that's where the excitement is.

Now, that's not always to say excitement is enjoyable, as was the frustrating case in leaving Chicago late. Still, you discover opportunities in the setbacks. I found an old private rail car awaiting, also, it's own departure on another track. I witnessed the City of New Orleans board passengers homeward bound. The carman and I spoke about his travels and work. Back aboard the car I was assigned, someone spotted a sight not expected. "Is that a BOAT?" she wondered, "...or have I been awake on trains too long?" "The river runs next to this track", I assured her, and all with the world was well.

Into the night, we wandered. Through the industrial center along the lake. Bridges abound on railroads, rivers everywhere. Heavy steel; rail; girders, smog. Smells which permeate through. Then darkness fell.

Waaaaaaaah, waaaaaaah, wa, waaaaaaaaah! You hear the horn: blowing, coaxing you into a tranquil state. That last car rocks, sways you to sleep. Or so it should. But this fan was overtired and couldn't much nod off.

The nice thing about a trip on rails is the ability to spread out some. Walking through the cars one will encounter travelers from everywhere along the route. Pennsylvania, east and west; Ohio; Indiana here. Not to mention those returning from locations out west. Each person a story of his own.

I made it to the lounge car where we sat spread out. Another man from Chicago was visiting with his British friend. Headed to a wedding were they. Why not fly, we pondered? Well, everyone has their reasons, but often a preference for rail prevails. You see the country one mile at a time, you get to know your fellow man. The earth draws a little closer. Experienced travelers some, others riding once, perhaps their last time, though. You love it or you leave it. The travel catches your imagination or gets cultivated. The best of many options, perhaps.

Ohio is relatively flat in places, but pretty. Lots of countryside. Our late arriving train to Pittsburgh allowed my tired eyes to witness this. The river vast lead us to the city's significant sites. Sports arenas abound on this route, I found. Sox Park in Chicago, the Cleveland Browns Stadium, now PNC in Pittsburgh parallels the tracks.

Time for a change of trains.

"I'm Pennsylvania bound!" Headlong into the mountains we go. For a city kid from Chicago it's quite the sight. A hill to me merely means something at the park for children sledding. But now I saw heights everywhere. Appalachia embraces with her mountainous arms, enveloping you inside the earth. We're part of something larger, I see - a small part, but secure within it's love.

The rustic river of Johnstown is gorgeous to behold. Now I wouldn't want to drink from it, but looking is divine. Never have my eyes seen such a sight. There's faith in this town, I witness. Everywhere slender towers topped with little domes' gilded glimmer, guiding ever East. Old buildings, factories, take me back in time to an era I thought no more existed. But there it was, still standing.

Through the tunnels, up the incline, then to that magical place. Horseshoe Curve lets you take a turn; a poignant accomplishment, indeed. For now, I feel, we have made it to the other side.

Altoona's stop is next. It is nice to see the tribute to rail's involvement and history throughout the state. Here there lines the track rail cars from days of yore. A fitting thing, and lovely to look at. To Altoona I must return.

Anxious to get to my alightment, I count the minutes, the miles. At last! The Susquehana - now it won't be long. Freight trains are passing. Aha, there is the yard! Soon Ringling Red will reside in it.

Quaint town, traditional station: "Harrisburg!" We're here. I find it lovely and would like to linger longer.

But the journey must continue. A foot stepped onto the platform here, only a whistle stop may I pause. Hershey lies ahead. Destinations' call.

Friday, October 10, 2008

It's October

Today is the anniversary of Oscar Brown, Jr.'s birth. This Chicago legend (who we lost in 2005) offered such important contributions which will only, perhaps, be fully appreciated in the decades to come. (Not unlike many an important artist, historically.)

I've been commemorating the occasion by listening to his recordings more closely while delving deeply into some lesser known parts of his body of work. Among these gems is a poignant piece, entitled, "It's October." I offer my transcription of lyric alone here:

Season changes scene
And leafy shades of green
Go golden red and brown
Then wither, flutter down
To clutter up the lawn
Another Summer's gone
Old Winter's comin' on
It's October
It's October

A bracing Autumn breeze
Makes dancers of the trees
And nipping at my nose
It pokes about my clothes
For openings and rips
Inside of which it slips
It's frosty fingertips
It's October
It's October

October's I have known
The colors they have shown
In beautiful displays
On Indian Summer days
The booting of a ball
The harvest moons and all
Fragrance of the Fall
It's October
It's October

The seasons of our lives
That later on arrives
They seem so sad to some
But, nonetheless, must come
If only we'll arrange
When life turns cool and strange
To gloriously change
It's October
It's October

And, along a similar line, this spot on reflection of his latter years:

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Go Cubs Go (Sox)

Before they both fall out of postseason play....

... let me share this:

Two legendary Chicago pianist/vocalists go at it politely as Judy Roberts (Northside Cubs fan) plays and sings "Go Cubs Go" and Audrey Morris (Southside Sox fan) responds in time - cheering for her own team and heckling the Cubs.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lights On In October

The year was 1906. Cubs versus Sox. And, well, things haven't always been too hot many years which followed. Yes, the Cubs had a couple more World Series appearances thereafter. And the Sox were solid until the scandal of 1919. Those Damn Yankees always held them back, even in better seasons once the New Yorkers' new (now old) stadium got built and a guy named Ruth came around.

But a renaissance is occurring. 2005 was a banner year on the South Side of Chicago. The Cubs are in postseason two years in a row - a first in our fine town since anytime you might remember.

1906 featured day games only. But this year, the lights will likely shine both Northside and South. It's a sight I never thought my eyes would witness.

This season is something special. Who knows how far the rivals will advance. Still, it's a sight to behold and treasure every step along the way. One would hope this could become an annual occurence. But with our sports teams' history, neither will I trust it shall. Instead, I'm enjoying the experience.

Special experiences. Isn't that, in some sense, what life is about?

And what more special than baseball?

Perhaps a once in a lifetime chance comes with the tiebreaker game. It doesn't have to happen all that often. Much less involving your city's team. To boot, the home team is determined by a coin flip which gets thrown late season "just in case." An odd evolving of events over the last week of this season ended with the Sox and Twins both in first. Yet only one could make the playoffs. So the ritual for determining a Central Division Champ was set into place.

The date, first, was postponed by another rarity: a rainout played end of season only "if necessary." A weekend of rain which threatened to keep the Tigers and PaleHose from playing ANY of their three game set in mid-September left one game outstanding. And the Sox had to win. They did, on yet another rainy day. Which brought the team from Minneapolis to the Cell. Better on our home turf that theirs - where White Sox never fare too well.

I got a ticket to the game! A lousy seat it was. Behind a pole in upper deck where home plate is obstructed. Some kindly fan did not show up. So I moved down the row. Ah, that's much better!

Now, sometimes fans just mess around. They do the wave. They eat. It's fun, I suppose, but not about the game. This night was different. Absolutely intense. No one dared miss a pitch. Even in running to do your duty or buy a beer, every pitch; every out was sought to be seen. And a sight of itself was the "blackout", with fans asked to wear their team's color of note. Good guys (and girls) all the stadium round was fancied with darkness. And on the concourse, the outfield deck, even fundamentals porch stood nothing but fans, fans, fans.

"Let us duel!" For our honor, for the right to move on, till death may the best team win. Two pitchers in tight battle gave up hardly a hit. And excitement it came when they did. Could Ken Griffey, the son, in this twilight of career toss out that Twin from third to home running hard? On one hop, rightly placed, pegged by A.J. he did, as the catcher carried Cuddayer out to tag.

There was Nancy playing poignant Na Na Na Na Hey Hey, Take Me Out To The Ballgame, Goodbye. Then came Thome to bat and a point with his stick - center field - just like Ruth once foretold. Here's the pitch, and it's hit, flying far, flying fast - this Southsider hero now on an otherwise cold evening heated up fans to a flame so intense - but one run all it held.

'Twas enough for John Danks who threw brilliantly, till the 8th. One man on, one man out, this threat tying run stilled for a moment the crowd with concern. Then came the cry of a clown. "Goooooooooooooooooooo!" pierced the stands - just like Andy once did - built the cheers, the excitement, then that classic call, "YOU! WHITESOX!" clarion. "Whack!" on next pitch: doubleplay.

Bobby Jenks took the ball. Here's one out, now it's two. Then the hit out onto center field. Diving in Anderson nabbed it and "Hey Hey!" Jack, "Holy Cow!" Harry, Hawk tell me, "YES!" "That's a White Sox Winner" Rooney would say. One run us - shutout. Let's celebrate! Dance! Champagne! Sing!

An environment like no other. Of it I was a grateful part. Postgame party onfield and in stands lasted so long. Something special to tell generations to be. Winning tradition, long may it live!

Yes, Tuesday, September 30, 2008 may have been a "blackout." But the lights will certainly shine on North side and South in Chicago October this, is true. May they meet at the end of the month!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Passing Sadness

Summer, 2006:

I was attending the Logan Square based variety show, Vaudeville Underground one evening. A performer got up on a freestanding ladder and told stories from on high. "An interesting interlude," I thought. Next time I saw him at the same show, a month or two later, the ladder was employed once more. But this time in an entirely different manner. Here, a fast paced, well developed comedy act erupted on the floor of the Glade Memorial Hall Gym (er, I mean "Shangri-La Room.")

"Who is this guy?" one was left to wonder. Well, I got to chatting with him after the entree. A circus performer, 8th generation, who was continuing the tradition in varied environs, had moved to Chicago I found out. His name: Ottavio.

Ottavio became noted on the local scene as someone with unique talents not often witnessed. But, more than this, he was respected for his willingness to share and help others along. I can certainly attest to this. For, while I didn't get to know him particularly well, we would inevitably cross paths. He was always so personable, ready to reach out, listen to some concern, offer insight. And he asked for observations, also. Here, I discovered, was an artist on a dedicated path to growth who wanted to know what his audience thought and might provide in making his own presentations continually better. It isn't everyday you come across someone like him.

Last Friday night, February First, a tribute was held at Evanston's Actor's Gymnasium. There gathered were many of the people who had come to know him here and beyond throughout his life. A special occasion, much needed at the moment, in tribute of performance and reminiscence of story - the two things which Ottavio always loved to share of himself.

In this same auditorium, he premiered last year "A Clown Without A Circus" - his one man show. Now, twelve months later, he is no longer with us. At the age of 37 Ottavio, sadly, took his life. He is missed by so many. Yet the joy which he brought to our hearts, our lives, will long carry on to be shared just as it was this significant night.

I got up to talk at one point, as we were all invited to do. My offering was the reading of a review which I wrote at the time of the aforementioned show. I thought it aptly summed up something about how he spoke to me as an artist and even what his very life was about. Here, then, I would like to share it for your own appreciation, also, in honor of Ottavio.

"I wanna run away and join the circus!"

It's the eternal cry of every child.

But what's it like for someone who DID grow up living the circus life? In his show, A Clown Without A Circus, Ottavio Canestrelli offers us a reality check.

All one can ask of an artist (all the more so a clown) is that he honestly bare himself. In the end, this is what provides most interesting to an audience, the sharing of one's story. And, indeed, here is where the work has it's greatest value.

Ottavio is an 8th generation circus performer who toured with his family's act for two decades while growing up. As his parents grew on in years and his siblings left the circus life for other careers, he had a decision to make as to his own direction.

The show starts with him falling out of the sky. A voice asks if he remembers where he was? "Selling insurance!" he replies. But, no, the voice implores him to dig deeper. He then turns to the audience and breaks the 4th wall (thus establishing an important connection and relationship with us that proves essential in order to appreciate and care about what he has to tell). "Do you really want to know?" 'Deed we do!

Over the next hour, we are treated to stories of his experiences: from that of his first ring act (with twin brother Oreste), to how his mom and dad met, an animal act which escaped (along with a capturing effort that turned out to be a better act than the escaped monkey's typical show job), even a satire on the Nazi soldiers who forced his family into it's army employ as entertainment. Using impressionistic characterization, Ottavio brings each one of the tales to life with a believability that puts you there again as if you were watching it unfold for the first time.

Intertwined throughout it all is an expansive display of circus arts. Canestrelli shows his skills in acrobatics, falls, balancing, handstand, single trapeze, a specialized stilt which enables jumping and flips; he employs hat tricks, basic contortion with a chair, and demonstrates how the Germans might have employed their secret weapon with his "big ball". Above all comedy thrives. The final act is developed around an outstanding unsupported ladder bit.

Musical selections (many traditional or folksy in style) complement each act appropriately, helping to keep the audience entranced and well involved in each passing moment, while bringing out something more about the story being told. Such is fitting, considering the opening monologue that paints a picture of the music made from sounds of circus animals in the night.

Still, the nagging voice we first heard lingers on. Asking all of the questions which someone might of a young man who's facing life's difficult choices, it forces our protagonist to reply. Moving the plotline forward and connecting his stories, then, Ottavio attempts to justify his experience. What was good, and right, about the circus life? What is "normal"? Was he correct to move on to "selling insurance"? Is he content? These are the things with which anyone who dares to be different must frequently face and struggle through (sometimes even against) in life. One wonders whether this nag is the outside voice of a well intentioned, yet uninitiated, busybody who doesn't truly understand his perspective or the challenging voice of an inner conscience. Whichever, the answer is clear: follow your heart's desires in order to find yourself.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Oh Happy Day

Birthdays are a special thing
They reveal to us our life
Streaming forward
Dripping down
Announcing victory amidst tears

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Doctor Atomic

I'm not the biggest fan of John Adams' music. So I approached Lyric Opera's production of Doctor Atomic with a bit of apprehension. Yet it pleasantly surprised me.

At last I have found a work of Adams which I genuinely appreciate. His texture of orchestration and vocal lines are so rich in working together that they just can't be fully appreciated in one night's attendance. Indeed, while there are few operatic productions which I feel a sense of urgency to attend a second time, this is certainly one which has elicited such an effect.

As to the stage and plot production, itself, I found it worthy. In dealing with a topic where we essentially know the outcome, there is a challenge of making things especially interesting. In this work it was approached through delving into the human struggles and tensions of the time and individual personalities. Initially, I feared that this might be done tritely, in an oversimplified, almost idealistic or all too easily agendicized manner. Instead, it left me with an impression of genuineness as to the sincere challenges which we human beings experience when faced with such serious odds.

The final scene, itself, is breathtaking. A flurry of activity occurs as an extended countdown to the experimental test approaches. Then an eerie period of stillness -waiting, watching in uncertainty of the moment, yet knowing of history what is to come. Once the bomb is detonated, we will understand clearly that our world is now a different place. Who will live, who will die, what will the future hold for us as a society of mankind? Yet, the truly telling thing of remarkable power here was an extended silence which followed the final note. Even as darkness fell upon the stage, instead of the typical outburst of applause which might have immediately come at the end of most productions, an almost reverential, thoughtful period remained for several seconds... no one seeming to want to break it with what would now seem inappropriate claps. Perhaps this had something to do with it being a new work... was it truly over yet? Still, in many a case the excitement of an outstanding scene brings about eruption. Not here... only stillness which was spoke significant. Indeed, even after the first hands were put together and final bows, it was hard to move on to other things that evening. I would have liked to linger longer in quiet contemplation of the disturbing reality which was upon us.

Someone else who has seen the production commented to me that it is, "... difficult, but necessary." I might say, "challenging" rather than "difficult", but before Doctor Atomic closes it's January run at the Civic Opera House, you should not miss experiencing this necessary piece of important art. One which is so poignant in our contemporary time, when remembrance of the era is still living with us. But also a work which, surely, will last due to the topic's matter in history and the opera's timeless theme of human struggle.