Monday, November 28, 2011

The Fine Art of Making Due

In the Age of Austerity, many of us are being forced to contemplate some hard decisions.  These include whether to pay for food or medicine, the rent or utility bills.  They also include accepting second best career paths and putting off plans to buy a home or start a family.  American Dreams are being downsized almost as fast as our wallets these days and there is no apparent end in sight.  But "making do" is not simply about survival.  About the hard choices of day to day living in a bad economy.  It is also a symbol of how ordinary people can take back their authority over themselves and their environment. 

This was one of the subjects addressed in a teach-in that I facilitated for Occupy Chicago on reclaiming public space.  Examining four well-known public spaces in Chicago (Grant Park, Federal Plaza, Daley Plaza, and the sidewalks near LaSalle and Jackson street), I argued to the audience that there are no truly public spaces in the city of Chicago.  Under Mayor Daley, most of these spaces were turned into tourist attractions or otherwise shaped to allow for the easy flow of commerce.  Ordinary people are treated like cargo in the city's scheme of design and it is only when they "misuse" a space that they can liberate themselves from the tyranny of the grid. 

That misuse can take any number of forms.  Simply stopping on a busy sidewalk to take a photograph and enjoy the view could easily be viewed as a misuse of space.  So could ballroom dancing in the Daley Plaza or singning showtoons off key.  As trivial as these acts of disobedience may seem, they add up over time.  Not only do they encourage an overall change in attitude among those around you but they also (sometimes) pressure those in power to change certain aspects of our city's design. 

A good case in point is the crosswalk from Buckingham Fountain to Queen's Landing.  When I first moved to Chicago in 2000, a pedestrian could walk down the stairs on the Lake Michigan side of the Buckingham Fountain and cross Lakeshore Drive to the the waterfront using a crosswalk.  In 2005, that crosswalk and the red lights associated with it were removed to supposedly improve the flow of traffic.  Cement bollards and metal chains were used to keep pedestrians from jaywalking but it was not uncommon to see people running across this busy highway (crosswalk or not) to reach the lake.  Two young men were seriously injured just this summer while running across Lakeshore Drive at this location with a dozen other fans from Lollapalooza, which has been located in Grant Park for seven years.  Just a few days ago, thanks in large measure to these jaywalkers, the crosswalk was restored. 

Not all examples of making do are as dangerous as those listed above.  Another short cut that led to change occurred on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus.  When new walkways were created on campus, no path was created between the main campus offices in University Hall and the Daley Library.  Instead of taking a roundabout path to the library, pedestrians frequently cut across the grass.  Eventually this led to a permanent bare spot and later on a deep mud rut that led in a straight line from University Hall to the library.  Soon after this rut developed, a sidewalk was laid. 

These small design changes matter as space shapes us by influencing our attitudes towards ourselves and also towards each other.  When we misuse space, we change our attitude and we create a potential for change.  It is the small opening needed for larger changes to occur in our society.  Bearing this in mind, I have a suggestion for my readers.  Go down to the Christmas Market in Daley Plaza and play nerf football with some friends while singing "Don't Eat the Daisies."  If nothing else, tourists will snap a photo of you.  You'll become an urban legend. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

For This I am Truly Grateful

It's a venerable tradition amongst writers to write on Thanksgiving about what it means to be thankful or the things we often overlook but should cherish.  Usually this takes the form of a lengthy story about someone less fortunate than us or a family member that we have lost.  Not having the energy to write such a narrative today, I've decided to offer my readers a series of loosely connected verbal images that illustrate the many ways that I feel grateful today.

As a Professor, my chief source of gratitude lies in my students.  Yes, they can be a chore some days but at times they blow me away with their passion and creativity.  This week was one of those times where I could barely hold back tears of joy. 

In one writing class my students presented their memorial design proposals.  I asked them to design and propose for construction a memorial to veterans that would be placed somewhere on the UIC campus.  Not only was this an excellent opportunity for them to practice their argumentative skills, the intended audience was the University Chancellor, but also an opportunity to unleash their creative potential.  One design had a six-sided base that was hollow in the middle.  On the outside of this hexagon were carved the names of UIC students who had served in the armed forces since the schools founding.  There were two doors that allowed entry into the base.  Once inside you could either go to an auditorium on the left or a bookstore to the right.  You could also walk straight ahead to the open center of the base which was circular in design.  From that open center emerged several pairs of hands holding up an American flag.  These rose up out of the base of the hexagon into the sky.  The other design that really caught my eye used two statues.  One was a soldier in uniform saluting an unseen officer.  The other was that same figure wearing a cap and gown.  In the middle was a flat plaque with the names of the first graduating class of veterans from what was then the Navy Pier campus of UIC. 

My other writing class is focusing on issues of space and how environment shapes our sense of who and what we are.  Their research proposals and updates also blew me away.  They were so insightful ranging from how public transit reflects the design of a city and its attitudes towards people to the ways in which a store influences how we feel about ourselves.  One student even looked at the psychological connection between humans and machines, in this case slot machines at a casino.  I hope at least one of them chooses to publish their work. 

Another source of gratitude for me today are the wonderfully supportive and creative friends and colleagues who surround me.  Chicago is a city (believe it or not) of budding philosophers.  Walking through the loop last evening, I met a woman who attended a lecture I gave on public space.  We stood talking for over an hour about how our environment shapes us and what we can do to reclaim our humanness in a dehumanizing environment.  Heady stuff for a cold walk to the train station and long ride home but life sustaining to me.  It is happiness to be recognized in the street for the right reason and to engage even for a moment in a meaningful human connection on a busy city street. 

So there you have it.  A few reasons for why I am grateful today.  If you'd like to share, post a comment.  Let me and my readers know who/what you are grateful for today.  Then think about how you might keep that feeling alive 365 days a year.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

We Apologize for the Inconvenience

You knew it was bound to happen.  What self-respecting English Prof. could resist a bitchy blog post on lapses in language.  Here are three (in no particular order) that particularly annoy me: 

1. The False Apology: 

I'm a regular rider of mass transit here in Chicago.  With it's crumbling infrastructure and aging equipment, this is an announcement I hear on an almost daily basis--"We apologize for the inconvience and thank you for your patience."  Two things bother about this statement.  First, you're assuming that I am patient and forgiving, which I'm sorry CTA but after all your BS I most certainly am not.  Second, your apology is delivered through a tinny sound system in the flattest most monotone voice available.  So much for sincereity.  A canned apology straight out of the tin. 

2. The Misapplied Science Metaphor:

This one has really been pissing me off lately as I read the technology news in the newspapers and online.  When Steve Jobs died, numerous commentators on the future of Apple argued for the need to "inject Job's DNA into the company" or claimed that he had already done so and thus had assured its survival.  Never mind that it is impossible to inject anything into a concept but doesn't anybody else find that image creepy? 

Another area where the missapplied science metaphor has reigned supreme is in the field of online education and curriculum reform movements that call for a "new ecology of learning."  Since when did a classroom become a wetland?  I don't see any frogs or lilly pads here.  It's a group of human beings trying to learn and not a pack of wolves looking for a new habitat. 

3.  The Inflation of Language

This one is a low level annoyance but still worthy of note and that is the tendency to make things sound better than they are through careful wording.  One example is Dominos Pizza's attempt to market its new "artisanal pizza" and Kraft's campaign to promote its new "organic" macaroni and cheese.  I'm sorry but if it will arrive at my door in 30 minutes or less, it's not artisanal.  The same applies if I'm pouring stuff out of a bright blue box into a boiling pot of water.  It seems that both of these mega-corporations have learned from the clothing world where you can make a fortune off of old clothes by simply calling them "vintage."

If you care about this abuse of language as much as I do, you can start by avoiding these words and phrases.  Think of it as a boycott.  You can also create dumb phrases of your own to show people how badly they are mauling their mother tongue.  Here's one that I just thought up today:  "Jimmy I'm upset by the metric of your sharing in this class.  We need to meet after class to discuss a new algorithm for productivity in your data port."  Figure that one out and you win a prize.  More than likely whatever change I have left in my pants. 

Seniors Cause a Stir at Federal Plaza

This Monday more than 1,000 seniors rallied at Chicago's Federal Plaza to protest threatened cuts to government aid in Medicare, Medicaid, HUD subsidies, and Social Security.  43 were arrested after a group sat down in a circle at the intersection of Jackson and Clark street chanting slogans such as "Chop from the top" and "They say cut backs, we say fight back."  Those arrested were cited for blocking traffic by the Chicago police department and then quickly released on their own recognizance.  Among the proud seniors to be ticketed was Gene Horcher, an active member of the Jane Addams Senior Caucaus.

As with most news associated with the "Occupy" movement, this one was mostly ignored by the mainstream media.  They were too busy worrying over the fate of Michael Jackson's doctor and whether or not him and Kim Kardashian might consider a jailhouse wedding.  One of the few sites to cover the story in any detail was the Huffinton Post.  Shame on you Chicago media.  You dropped the ball and on Bill Kurtis day to boot.  Somewhere right now Bill is shaming you in his perfectly poised A&E voice. 

While reading about the event and watching footage of the arrests on Youtube, I couldn't help but wonder how this might have ended differently if those protestors had been just a few years younger.  After all, police were not quite so nice to Occupy Chicago members when they tried to camp in Grant Park.  Instead of simply receiving a fine they were hauled off in paddy wagons to a holding cell for processing.  Perhaps the thought of taking elderly and disabled Chicagoans to jail while being filmed was too much for our new police superintendent or maybe Mayor Emmanuel (a.k.a. "IL Duce") got the message--less arresting and more fining.  Better for the city coffers.  Less costly. 

In any event, it was a largely peaceful event that drew attention to yet one more aspect of life in the Age of Austerity.  Under the guise of public/private partnerships, government services are increasingly being eliminated or turned over to corporations.  Public housing in Chicago and the infamous parking meter deal are just two of the more visible examples of this process at work.  Once a favorite tactic of King Richard II (a.k.a. former Mayor Richard M. Daley) to placate his minions with easy gained gelt, it is now argued as being a necessity for the city's survival. 

Chicagoans would do well to not only join these seniors in protesting the cuts proposed to public services for our neediest residents but also to read the work of David Harvey.  One of the foremost theorists of Marxist theory today, whether you agree with Harvey's politics or not, his assessment of privatization is as chilling as it is accurate.  He shows how big business has come to a point where it no longer needs the nation state and is therefore in the process of dismantling it.

Soon, it seems, we will all be citizens of multi-national corporations.  Beholden to Walmart or Cisco Systems for our electricity, air, and water.  Those not part of the new Corporate States will languish in a Third World similar to the setting of Escape From New York or Mad Max

Is this future inevitable?  Only if we sit on our asses and worry about Kardashian.  It's time to hit the streets people while there is still time.  Occupy movements are scattered throughout the United States and all over the world.  For more information on what's going on in Chicago visit this website:

Go for a few hours on a weekday, during your lunch break, or over the weekend but DO SOMETHING NOW before the Corporate State becomes a reality rather than a metaphor.  Neo-Liberalism is a virus.  Once in the blood in must be fought with vigor or it WILL KILL THE HOST. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lego Man Goes to Florida

After the heaviness of my last few posts, I thought that readers might appreciate a bit of levity.  So here goes. 

Last week an 8ft tall 100 pound fiberglass statue floated ashore on Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota, FL.  Made to look like one of the Lego figurines that come with their popular building kits, the statue had the following message printed in the middle of its body--"No Real Than You Are."  The name Ego Leonard and the number 8 appeared on the back. 

Image courtesy of
Authorities are still mystified about who placed this giant Lego figurine in the water and why.  Residents of Sarasota initially thought it was a P.R. stunt on the part of the new Lego land theme park that had opened near by.  When contacted, Lego land officials denied any connection to the statute that washed ashore but expressed a bit of envy that they hadn't thought up such a great advertising gimmick.  Currently the statue is in the custody of local police.  If it is not claimed within 90 days, it will be given to Jeff Hindman, the early morning beach walker who found the statue. 

The quirkiness of this story more than anything caught my attention.  We are so busy trying to seal our borders from "illegal aliens" these days that the thought of a giant Lego Man washing ashore in Florida is well--freaking hilarious.

Lego Man's emergence also exposes two interesting aspects of American character.  One is the almost complete lack of humor possessed by most government authorities.  The Sheriff's department seems more concerned about who owns this large piece of fiberglass than why it showed up on the beach in the first place.  They also seem oblivious to the fact that (gasp!) it might simply be a piece of performance art.  Ego Leonard, a Dutch artist, has done similar stunts all around the world.  The other is the greedy nature of some of my fellow citizens.  Jeff Hindman has stated that if the police do turn the Lego Man over to his custody, he plans to sell it on EBAY.  Needless to say, he's hoping that the police attitude of this statute as being primarily part of a lost and found case remains constant.

So much for whimsy.  Here's a thought.  Why not buy Lego Man a nice tropical print shirt, a straw hat, and a drink.  He was just hanging out at the beach after all until some jerk arrested him and locked him in jail. Way to go Mr. Policeman.  Ruining a dude's bodacious vacation plans.