Watching the presidential debates with Jane Goodall

Journalist James Fallows has a piece in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly suggesting that Americans watch tomorrow’s presidential debate with the sound off.

Ah, that I could!

Mike tells me there's something vaguely familiar in that expression.

Mike tells me there’s something vaguely familiar in that expression.

In his article, Fallows argues that the things that really matter in political debates these days are all visual. He predicts that the upcoming presidential debates will simply be displays of dominance, and he quotes primate expert Jane Goodall saying Trump’s primary debates with the likes of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio reminded her of primates establishing dominance in the wild. From the article:

“IN MANY WAYS the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals,” Jane Goodall, the anthropologist, told me shortly before Trump won the GOP nomination. “In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays: stamping, slapping the ground, dragging branches, throwing rocks. The more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.”

Fallows reported that in her book My Life With the Chimpanzees, Goodall told the story of a chimp named “Mike” who maintained his dominance by kicking a series of kerosene cans ahead of him as he moved down a road. The noise and confusion made his rivals flee and cower, she said, adding that she would be “thinking of Mike as she watched the upcoming debates.”

What a coincidence. So will I.

Mark your calendars: Beth Finke is going Speechless for an entire half-hour tonight

A new TV Comedy about a family with a son who has special needs hired a young actor with a disability to play the part. Speechless premieres on ABC tonight at 7:30 central time, and I’ll be watching.

Click on the image for the YouTube trailer. Sounds/looks promising.

Click on the image for the YouTube trailer. Sounds/looks promising.

Okay, listening.

You might remember my negative review of a TV comedy that debuted in 2014 about a family whose father can’t see. The actor who played the dad was not blind himself, and most of the humor in Growing up Fisher centered on the family’s response to that father’s wacky Mr. Magoo-like antics. That show didn’t last long, but if this new comedy avoids the temptation to focus on the person with a disability and just have him be one of the characters, I think Speechless could have staying power.

The 16-year-old who has cerebral palsy is just one of three children in the family comedy. J.J. can’t speak. He uses a device to communicate and a wheelchair to get around.

Minnie Driver plays his mother, Maya, who is determined not to let anything get in the way of her son, especially when it comes to him getting all the advantages of a proper education. From a review in this week’s Los Angeles Daily News:

Something of a wild woman, Maya has developed a reputation in all of her son’s school systems. Everyone knows not to get on her bad side. Her sarcastic barbs toward anyone who gets in her way take on added zing because Driver delivers them in such a politely British way.

J.J.’s siblings are played by Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy, and they are clearly not getting the attention they need from Maya and her understanding husband, played by John Ross Bowie. The frazzled parents know it, and tensions are unavoidable.

J.J. is played by Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy himself. From what I’ve read, his character has a sarcastic side much like his mother. He doesn’t appreciate being called “inspirational” at school, and he gets frustrated when others treat him like an alien. Yet he’s canny enough to use his disability to his advantage when he has the chance.

Sound like anyone whose blog you read from time to time?!

The review says Speechless works most of the time because it is “aggressive like Maya, but it knows when to pull back to create some nuance.” Minnie Driver has great fun with her character, the review said. And John Ross Bowie uses deadpan humor to bring “a needed amiability” to his role as the father.

Sound like anyone who you look forward to hearing from on this blog every Monday?

The Los Angeles Daily News review claimed that the “sheer exuberance of Speechless — and the unsentimental way it approaches its premise — ultimately makes the ABC family comedy likable, funny and even touching.” It said the producers were smart to let Minnie Driver keep her accent. I’ll let you know how it sounds.

Mondays with Mike: The Diaspora

Last week I wrote about the end of a local institution—or the end as we knew it, anyway. Hackney’s, our local tavern, has closed and will reopen in a new incarnation, sans bar. And I hope it succeeds, because, well, it’s in my neighborhood and I like the owners.

Meantime the regulars, having lost our lodestar, are wandering around the neighborhood on a kind of reconnaissance mission. We’re visiting other places that we haven’t been to in ages, checking into Facebook, reporting on whether we find familiar faces, texting each other about whether a place is quiet enough for conversation (a must), how the food is, and when bottles of wine can be had for half price.

We've crossed this place off our list.

We’ve crossed this place off our list.

For Beth and me, all things considered, we’d rather not have to deal with change that wasn’t our idea. We’ve done plenty of that. But it’s also been a healthy nudge to do some things we’d sort of kind of talked about doing but never managed to. Like drinking less, going out less, and when we do go out, getting out of our little Printers Row cocoon.

This past Saturday night, we got in a cab—with our Hackney’s buddy Brad—and visited places we’d wanted to visit for a long while, in the faraway neighborhoods of Pilsen and Bridgeport. (Faraway as in, you know, a couple miles.)

We had a lovely time, saw new places and faces, and had the kind of conversation we always have. Before hitting the hay, we stopped to sit outside at Kasey’s, another local watering hole across the street from our place that we’re fond of. Anthony, another Hackney’s refugee, walked by and we invited him to join us. We learned about the status of his project—a beautiful book of artwork by his late mother. And we talked. Like we always have.

The whole thing has been kind of funny—it conjures images of all of us wandering around aimlessly like zombies. It’s also sad—not just because there was an ending, but because a lot of people who used to work at Hackney’s are suddenly out of work.

But it’s also heartening. Because it’s reminded us, I think, that we don’t miss the place so much as we do each other. And with just a little effort, we don’t need to miss anything.

 

How the musical brain works

Tune in….I happened to catch Dr. Daniel Levitin (the author of This Is Your Brain on Music) on NPR earlier this month — he’s the cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal. Levitin says music is involved in every region of the brain scientists have mapped so far, and since music is processed in the emotional part of the brain, it stays deep in our long-term memory.

Research shows that listening to music also releases certain chemicals in the brain. Dopamine, a “feel-good hormone,” is released every time you listen to music you like. Listening to music with someone else can also release prolactin, a hormone that bonds people together. And if you sing together? You release oxytocin, which causes feelings of trust.

Maybe the trust I have in my sisters stems from singing “Shine on Harvest Moon” during long car rides with Flo when we were growing up. And gee, I am still bonded to friends I made in my high school band. And yes, I do get a happy feeling whenever I hear a good tune. Everything Levitin said about hormones made perfect sense to me, but his claim later on that humans develop a taste for music by the time we are five years old seemed a bit outlandish.

Then again, my brother Doug, a professional jazz trombonist, was a teenager when I was born. He practiced day and night when I was a toddler. He purchased a piano for our family when I was four years old.

Flipping through our CD collection, what do I find? A heavy dose of piano players. Randy Newman. Stevie Wonder. Joni Mitchell. Marcus Roberts. Ben Folds Five. And when it comes to hearing live music, what am I particularly drawn to? A band with a horn section. Maybe that Levitin guy ws on to something after all.

Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music book came out years ago. The reason NPR’s Ari Shapiro was interviewing Dr. Levitin now was because of a study the professor did on pop musician Sting’s brain. Results of that study were published this month in the journal Neurocase.

Sting read Levitin’s book and liked it so much he contacted the neuroscientist to tour his lab. While he was there, Levitin asked Sting if he’d be willing to have his brain scanned. Sting agreed.

The NPR story featured excerpts from some of the songs Levitin had Sting listen to back-to-back during the scan — Livitin purposely chose songs he himself regarded as having little in common.

One paring was “Girl” by the Beatles and a tango by Astor Piazzolla. Scientists expected very different neurons to fire in the musician’s brain, but Sting surprised them. His brain heard a three-note pattern and other markers in both songs that a non-musician might not pick up on, and the activity in his brain was very similar during both songs.

Another pairing Levitin ran by Sting was “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s and a recording of Sting singing one of his own songs, “Moon over Bourbon Street.” Levitin didn’t think of those two songs as being particularly similar, but Sting’s brain did. “Both are in a swing rhythm, they’re both in the key of F-minor,” Levitin said. . “They both have the same tempo of 132 beats per minute.”

Levitin said his study will help scientists understand how expertise works in the brain. He believes people like Sting are born with certain talents but have to nurture those talents to become experts.

Enough said. Time to turn the stereo on and nurture my talents. Bring on the dopamine!

What do you call a blind woman with a photographic memory?

Every September our city honors five Chicago artists and cultural institutions at a free “night of stars under the stars with live performances and videos” at Millennium Park. I feel a far-fetched fondness for one of this years honorees. You might be surprised to find out which. Is it:

  • Blues legend Buddy Guy
  • Photographer Victor Skrebneski
  • Improv and sketch comedy theater The Second City
  • Actress, educator and theater founder Jackie Taylor, or
  • Museum founder and educator Carlos Tortolero?

Well, my winner is…Victor!

That's Matt on the lower right.

That’s Matt on the lower right.

How could a blind woman have a fondness for a photographer? I’ll try to keep my answer short.

One of my best friends from high school was Matt Klir. We met when I was 16. I could still see then, and I was the librarian for our high school band. Matt was a year younger, played the drums, and he’d signed up for “summer band” that year. When we discovered we both were bicycling from miles away to attend summer band practices, we started riding together. A friendship was born.

Matt’s house became my second home. He and his two sisters were beautiful. His parents were divorced, and the three of them lived with their young vivacious mother in a fancy 1970s sprawling home. Every single time I visited (and that was lots of times!) I’d venture into their dining room, edge around their tres modern glass dining room table and gawk at the huge black and white photos displayed on their walls.

Matt and I were together constantly in high school,but we didn’t “date.” We never even kissed. I graduated in 1976, and on prom night that year we pooled our money and bought Elton John tickets instead. Front row. I wore the polyester red, white and blue halter-topped bridesmaid dress from my sister Marilee’s Bicentennial wedding that year. Matt wore a powder blue leisure suit. He brought a dozen roses along, and when I handed them to Elton John’s lyricist at the end of the concert, Bernie Taupin said, “Thanks, love.”

Matt and his two sisters had been childhood models. News of Victor Skrebneski’s honor tonight motivated me to contact Janine and Crystal to reminisce. When I asked if either of them still had a copy of the huge b&w photo Victor took of Matt, they knew immediately which one I was talking about.

“I remember when Matt was at that shoot,” his older sister Janine wrote in an email. “Victor’s studio was so home-like. Lots of ladies and other people hanging around, comfy couches, along with his impressive photo studio in the main room.” Janine found the photo of Matt in her basement workshop. “It was rolled up in a box with other old pictures.” she had the photo straightened and scanned, and here it is.

I can no longer take in the photo Victor Skrebneski took of Matt back in the early 1960s for a Marshall Field & Company Christmas ad. Victor’s work is very memorable, though. I can still easily see my friend Matt as a youngster. He’s in his safari hat, surrounded by stuffed animals.

Matt died of AIDS 24 years ago, on September 17, 1992. I still miss him. I’ll be at Chicago’s Millennium Park for the 7:00 event tonight honoring my friend Matt — and the photographer whose work is still so clear to me. Thanks to Victor Skrebneski’s gift and his keen eye, I can still picture young Matt.

Vividly.

Mondays with Mike: Last call

Beth and I and our Printers Row neighbors are in a kind of mourning. We learned a couple days ago that Hackney’s, our corner tavern, is closing after tonight.

The owners plan to reopen it—and their signature burger will be the centerpiece of the food operation. There will be tables and you can even order beer, wine and cocktails—but you’ll order at a counter, and there will be no bar, and no bartender. For us, the bar was where the action was. Blame industry trends.

billybeth

We started coming to see Billy Balducci, and we just never left.

All the regulars gathered at Hackney’s on Friday night as word got out. We’d all hoped that it was a false rumor, but no, it was for real. The evening took on the feel of an Irish wake, a cocktail of celebration and sadness.

It may seem silly to mourn the end of a tavern—it definitely counts as a first world problem. But if you’re a regular reader, you know that for Beth and me and our friends and neighbors, Hackney’s has been a part of the fabric of the neighborhood and, really, a part of the rhythm of our lives.

Whenever Beth and I get home after a few days away, we drop our bags, read the mail, tend to whatever needs tended to then we head to Hackney’s—the ritual makes it official that we’re back home, where we belong.

Similarly, our friends Jim and Janet—who do a fair bit of international traveling—make it a habit to stop in on the evening of their return from overseas, no matter how jet-lagged. They have a drink or two and make themselves stay up until 10 to get back on central time.

We’ve all shared toasts on New Year’s Eve—no over-the top-celebrations—just a countdown, a sip of champagne and some kisses and handshakes.

Hackney’s brought together a whole slew of wonderful characters who you might otherwise think of as strange bedfellows. A Russian-born mathematician and computer scientist. A Manhattan native with a Ph.D. in linguistics who leans communist but works in IT for a stock trading company. Dealers in exotic camera equipment. Bee keepers. Wealth managers. Corporate lawyers. Artists. Architects. A man with cystic fibrosis who is alive because he received a double-lung and a kidney transplant and who spends every single day paying tribute to his organ donors—and to his wife, who got him through it. Gadget loving software programmers. Carlos, the retired iron worker who never misses a top jazz performance. A WGN radio news announcer. A retired art curator who used to rub elbows with the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. A group of afternoon regulars that included a woman who is a native Chicagoan and a Sox fan and managed to get along with an Alabama native who grew up loving the Cubs—and he worked as an usher at Wrigley Field. There was two-beer Tom, aptly nicknamed because he never had one more or one fewer than two beers. Ever.

Black. White. Straight. Gay. Young. Old. You name it. Of course, lots of these folks I mention have been women, some with partners, others who are completely comfortable coming to the bar solo because it’s been that kind of place.

There have been the tourists and business travelers who wander in from local hotels with whom we have long, strangers-on-a-train conversations. These things don’t happen at restaurant tables—they happen at the bar.

And I can’t forget the staff, which has always included a bunch of millennials who, as I mentioned in an earlier post, give lie to negative stereotypes about their generation. They’re hardworking, polite and personable young people putting themselves through school, supporting themselves after graduation until they land (as the famous bartender Billy Balducci put it) big-boy jobs. Others are actors and performers working to support their artistic work.

They’ve helped keep Beth and me young in spirit—and they’ve patiently helped us keep in touch with modern trends. We’re going to miss them. A lot.

Many of the staff and patrons of Hackney’s Printers Row have become dear friends, and I know we’ll stay in touch. But it’ll take more effort, and at this point in my life, I also know that no matter all of our intentions, not all of us will stay in touch the way we could when we could just stop by Hacks to see who’s there.

We’ll all do fine—we, after all, have been part of what made the place special.

But it won’t be the same.

 

340 firefighters

When Prince died in April, I asked the older adults in the memoir classes I lead to write about someone they didn’t know personally whose death made them really, really sad. Mel Washburn spent years as a dedicated firefighter before receiving his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin. I was very moved by his essay, and he generously agreed to let me share it here with Safe & Sound blog readers on the 15th anniversary of 911.

Memoir: Mourning someone I didn’t know

by Mel Washburn

Twenty years ago, the deaths of my parents left me with a hollow feeling that lasted for years. And nowadays the death of a friend makes me sad for weeks, whether we just met recently or we were friends from long ago.

But the death of a celebrity, such as Princess Diana or the pop singer Prince, hardly affects me at all. I didn’t know that celebrity. We had no personal connection of any sort. I can open the newspaper any day of the week and read the obituary of some ordinary person whose life story has more meaning for me than that of the Princess or the Prince.

NY Times, September 23, 2001

NY Times, September 23, 2001, with photos of first responders who lost their lives.

Only once has the intersection of celebrity and personal tragedy really affected me — this was the death of 340 New York firefighters in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Before they died, they were just ordinary men with ordinary jobs. When they died, however, they became celebrities. For months after their deaths, the media published their photographs, reported on their funerals, interviewed their friends and families, and talked about the circumstances of their deaths.

All through October and November and December, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Their photographs, in particular, fascinated me. The New York Times published page after page of them in columns and rows, little one-by-three pictures of their heads and shoulders, each of them in uniform, usually wearing their uniform caps. They were young or middle-aged. Most of them were trim, but some were heavy-set. A lot of them wore the mustache that, for many firemen, is like a part of the uniform. They looked like the guys I used to work with when I was a fireman.

On September 11, the first airplane struck the towers at the time when the firemen were changing shift. Many of the men who had been going off duty put on their turnout gear and climbed onto the rigs to ride to the scene with the on-duty shift. They had no idea what they were getting into.

Fires in high-rise buildings are usually contained to one floor. If people die, it’s usually from smoke inhalation. It’s usually not firemen, who are trained and equipped to deal with heavy smoke. And high-rise buildings don’t fall down. When firemen die in a collapsing building, that building is usually two or three stories tall.

These guys didn’t expect to die on 9/11. They expected to climb a lot of stairs and rescue some civilians and maybe, at worst, fight a really nasty fire in really greasy black smoke. They didn’t think it would be easy, but they thought it wouldn’t be much different from fires they’d fought before.

Fate played a really dirty trick on those guys. To this day, I feel sad and hollow when I think of them. I’ve never felt this way about any other public event. I probably never will.


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