Words That Move America

Chicago, a city that has spawned at least its fair share of writers and attracted many more, has spawned a national museum dedicated to people who propagate the written word. The American Writers Museum (AWM) opened May 16 at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, situated amid a dense ecosystem of museums, parks, and other cultural attractions that make living in Chicago such a stimulating experience. Let me just state the basic premise up front: If you live in Chicago, or you are visiting, and you care about or have any curiosity about literature, this is worth a visit. It is not a huge museum, at least not now, and you need not worry that it will take all day. You can spend all day, but you can get a great deal out of it in two or three hours if you wish.

Literature, in the context of AWM, does not only mean fiction or poetry. One point that was immediately obvious to me during a visit last week was that the museum takes a broad view of both “writers” and what constitutes “writing.” Communication comes in many forms, and the museum seeks to explore how those forms change in response to numerous changing conditions in American society. AWM President Carey Cranston reinforced that point with me during a brief walk-through when I arrived, before turning me loose to make my own assessments of the exhibits. Thus, in the various displays one can encounter Charles M. Schulz, the author of the “Peanuts” comic strip, which made points about life, love, and laughter just as surely as Jane Jacobs, discussing the status of urban planning in the 1960s in The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Jean Toomer in Cane, an intriguing mix of fiction techniques that shed life on African-American life in the early 20th century. Creativity is not bounded by genre. It helps define genre.

Hold that thought for a minute while I explore with you the big question that drove me to visit in the first place. It is obvious enough how some other museums dedicated to natural history (Field Museum, e.g.) or technology and science (Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) make their subject visual and sometimes even tactile with displays of dinosaur skeletons or space capsules, accompanied by videos that help patrons relive the experience of exploring the moon. How does one take the words of poems, novels, memoirs, and other types of written expression and make them come alive in an institutional setting? After all, any library can create a display of the ten best novelists by simply stacking the books along a display counter to draw attention. As readers, we engage with these works by buying or borrowing the books and, well, reading them. So, what makes an American Writers Museum a vivid encounter with its subject matter?

One answer lies in the timeline that greets you just to the right of the front desk after you enter. Running from 1490 to the present, it is not, as Cranston noted to me, a display of the best writers America has ever seen, but instead provides an emblematic display that allows you to see the relationship of major themes in American history to the writing American authors have produced. The United States of America, an independent nation for only half of that time and a maze of Spanish, French, Dutch, Russian, and British colonies as well as native societies at various times before and since, is rich in historical themes that have inspired literary responses. The vastness of a continent new to Europeans . . . . the interaction of cultures . . . . Civil War and its aftermath . . . . the struggle for civil rights . . . . the fight for dignity and identity for American Indians . . . . immigration and the assimilation of new peoples and cultures . . . . industrialization and its impact on a formerly agrarian nation . . . . America’s emergence on the world stage. One could go on, and one could navigate the endless subthemes and nuances of each topic, which is precisely what American writers, whatever their origins and perspectives, have done for more than five centuries.

Opposite the timeline, and complementing it, is a wall with the names of prominent writers on small boards built in that one can turn for additional information. Many, though not all, feature short videos one can launch with a finger touch that illustrate important points. I played with one for Ray Bradbury, one of my own favorites dating back to high school. The video quotes part of Fahrenheit 451 while showing a pile of books being consumed by fire. Alongside Bradbury’s name is a theme, in his case, Dystopian Literature; this occurs with each writer to help show the range of genre that American literature has produced, how it has responded to both contemporary and larger issues, seeking to excite the visitor’s imagination. Whether intentional or not, it excited mine simply by introducing me to writers previously unfamiliar to me, which is saying a lot. There are American writers of whose work any of us may know little or nothing but who have the potential to stir our thoughts and prod our consciences. That has always been the mission of good writing.

Near all that is a current, periodically changing exhibit, the Meijer Exhibit Gallery, which demonstrates some of the most potent creativity the museum has on display. Its first exhibit displays the work of poet W.S. Merwin, about whom I confess I knew nothing, but who is now a source of fascination for me. The small room one enters for “Palm: All Awake in the Darkness,” features a haunting 12-minute video with no human presence except for the soft voice-over of narrators reading from Merwin’s work dealing with the complex and problematic relationship of humanity and nature. The video features the view from inside a cabin in the Maui rainforest, redolent with the sounds of birds and insects and the abundance of life beneath the forest canopy. You may stand or sit on a simple bench and contemplate this immersive adventure into the mind of a poet. Merwin, now 89, has produced more than 50 volumes of poetry, according to the brochure that complements the exhibit, which discusses writer Gregory Bateson’s concept of an “ecology of ideas,” the network of impressions and perspectives that form our conscious and subconscious minds. Since the late 1970s, Merwin has lived in Hawaii on an old pineapple plantation he has restored to its natural state.

As a Lutheran, I found one other thing haunting. Merwin is a practicing Buddhist, and the brochure contains a typewritten, hand-edited draft of a poem called “Place.” It begins:

On the last day of the world

I would want to plant a tree

Curiously, for years, I have known that Martin Luther is reputed to have said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is upon us, and I know these two men came from very different places to express the same thought. But if a 16th-century religious reformer and a 20tt-century Buddhist poet can reach the same conclusion about the resilience of our commitment to the earth and the stubbornness of faith, perhaps there is hope for us all, after all.

AWM will be sponsoring events in a modest meeting room that features another challenging exhibit, “The Mind of a Writer,” which explores the connections between writer and audience. Professional writers clearly cannot earn a living without an audience, and the practical questions are both how to define and shape that audience and how to reach that audience. The “reach” forces us to explore the role of technology and institutions in facilitating those connections, which clearly have evolved over time. Displays make us think about the evolution of the book shop, starting with the Moravian Book Shop, launched in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1745, largely to import religious publications, but continuing into such modern innovations as Oprah’s Book Club, using the medium of television to connect viewers with writers; bookstore chains such as the now defunct Borders; and Amazon, allowing people to order books through the Internet. Of course, writers have also used periodicals, which in their heyday relied very much on the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service, as well as other media. Playwrights do not expect people to read their writing, but to hear it on stage. Screenwriters reach people through televised performances of their scripts, and so on. All of that got me wondering whether AWM missed a beat by not discussing the Internet not only as a mechanism for selling printed works but as a medium in itself for digital publishing. After all, the very premise of my visit was to review the museum not in print but online, by blogging. Maybe I missed it, but where was the discussion of blogging as one of the most modern innovations in audience creation? Anyone out there? Judging from the list of subscribers on my admin site, it would seem there are thousands. In the aggregate, probably hundreds of millions. It’s a brave new world. But I suspect it may not be long before AWM addresses this phenomenon.

Just beyond this area is a section where you can sit at an old-fashioned typewriter and play. The staff each day places sheets of paper in a tray with the opening lines or fragments of famous quotes. Your job: start pecking away to fill in the blanks with your own thoughts about how the quote should end. For writers like me who are almost preternaturally oriented to the computer screen, it is slightly disconcerting to hit keys that sometimes skip, but the experience is indisputably tactile, though arguably less so than perhaps using a quill pen. In any event, there is a wall with clips. You are invited to hang up your work when you are done. I did not get around to asking what the staff does with these at the end of each day. Maybe you should ask when you visit.

I hope you are more dexterously agile than I appear to be with one other exhibit that allows you to move any of a number of drifting images across a screen for a surprise exploration of an individual writer’s work. One of several lines of inquiry allows you to hear a short oral reading, but I had trouble triggering that feature because my index finger seemed not to hit the precise part of that line that activated the recording, at least not on the first try. I found myself a little frustrated, but a generation that has become adept at using its thumbs to tap out smartphone messages may be more adept in this respect. I was never very skilled with video games, either. We all have our limitations.

There are other features, including one on Jack Kerouac that includes the “scroll manuscript” he pasted together for On the Road, and a room on Chicago writers, since the museum lives here. I am sure there will be more in the future. The museum leaders appear to have built out their infrastructure of sponsors and board members, and if you’d like to know more, you can visit the website. That is not my mission here. As an active American writer, I hope I’m offering you reasons to visit the museum itself.

 

Jim Schwab

The Fine Art of Stepping Down

“The cemeteries are full of indispensable people,” or variations thereof, is a quotation that has been attributed to many, including the late French President Charles de Gaulle, but according to Quote Investigator, actually belongs to an American writer Elbert Hubbard in 1907, using the phrase, “people the world cannot do without” and the word “graveyards.” But QI notes numerous sources over the years, many of which may well have borrowed from or built upon the other. The point is clear: None of us lives forever, and the world finds a way to move on without us. We can make an impact, but so can others. And we can come to terms with those facts long before we arrive at the cemetery.

Although it was not made public until January 9, I decided a few months ago that it was time to leave my post at the American Planning Association as manager of the Hazards Planning Center. There are two other such centers at APA—Green Communities, and Planning and Community Health—each of which has had at least three different managers since the National Centers for Planning were established in 2008 as a means of making clear APA’s commitment to certain leading-edge topics in planning. I have so far been the only manager for Hazards.  More importantly, I built that center’s portfolio atop an existing legacy of work in the field of planning for hazards dating back to 1993, when I agreed to manage a project funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that led to publication of the landmark report, Planning for Post-Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. I did not at first foresee the ways in which that effort would forever alter the arc of my career in urban planning. Looking back, there was nothing inevitable about it. While I was http://www.statenislandusa.com/heavily involved until then in environmental planning, almost none of it involved disasters. Once I sank my teeth deeply into the subject matter, however, there was no letting go. The Blues Brothers would have said that I was on a mission from God. Increasingly, I became aware of the high stakes for our society in properly planning our communities to cope with natural hazards.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

One of the special pleasures of my position was the opportunity every summer to attend the Natural Hazards Conference in Colorado. Here, along with my wife, Jean, and daughter, Anna, in 2007, are some visitors from Taiwan whom I had met during a conference there the year before.

That quarter-century tenure in the driver’s seat of APA’s initiatives regarding disaster policy and practice made me, in some people’s minds at least, almost inseparable from the position I now hold. Perhaps in part because I was comfortable in working with the news media, I became the public face of APA in the realm of hazards planning. That may have been amplified to some extent by the fact that, until last year, the only APA employees working directly under me on a regular basis were interns, most of whom were graduate planning students. It’s not that I was a one-man show. I enlisted staff within the research department for specific projects with assigned hours. Given the expertise needed in this area, and my own willingness to listen to and learn from the best, most experienced people available, it was generally productive to contract with those people on a consulting basis or through partnerships with other organizations. Because APA is a professional organization with a membership of almost 40,000, those resources were readily available. I could marshal expertise far greater than any we could have hired for most of those years. Last year, however, we came to terms with growth and added research associate Joseph DeAngelis, who joined us after leaving the New York City Planning Department, where he had worked on Hurricane Sandy recovery on Staten Island. He has become a great asset to the organization.

His ability to span the transition to a new manager was one of several preconditions I had in mind over the last two or three years in contemplating my retirement from APA. More important, but a factor in adding him to our staff, was that I wanted to leave my successor with a center that was in good shape. This meant having projects underway, and funded by agreements with sponsors beyond the immediate few months after my departure. By late last year, we had won project grants from FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that will all end between July and December in 2018. That gives my successor, whoever he or she may be, more than adequate opportunity to complete those ongoing projects, maintain APA’s credibility in the realm of hazards, and explore new options and opportunities that will sustain the legacy that is already in place. I understand that people like me sometimes move quickly to another organization, firm, or government agency because a huge opportunity opens on short notice. With retirement, however, there is no need for such haste. We can take time to plan well.

That leads to another precondition in which I can say that I am greatly aided by the management philosophy of APA’s current executive director, James Drinan. He believes that, when possible, we should seek a managerial replacement who can join APA in the last two or three weeks of the tenure of their predecessor. This allows the opportunity for the outgoing person to share how things are done or even answer questions about how they might be done better or differently. I recognize, for one thing, that my own package of skills is unique and unlikely to be replicated. That is fine because someone new may well be much stronger in some other areas than I ever was. And if so, I am happy for them. It is a fool’s errand to seek replacement by a clone. Ultimately, the hiring choice will belong to APA’s research director, David Rouse, but my input on what credentials and experience are most useful is likely to have an impact. We hope to see resumes from some high-quality candidates in coming weeks.

So what is next for me as of June 1? I look forward to an opportunity to explore some new options that simply have not been feasible until now. Elsewhere on this website, I describe my intended work on some future book projects, most immediately focusing on the 1993 and 2008 Midwest floods, but there are other ideas waiting in the wings. APA would like to use my consulting services as needed to aid the transition beyond my retirement, and I have agreed, but there are and may be some other offers. I will certainly continue teaching at the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning, at least as long as they wish to continue that relationship, which has been very fruitful. And it should surprise no one if people find me on the speaking circuit from time to time. In fact, I may be much freer to accept such invitations if I am not managing a research program for APA. Finally, I shall have considerably greater free time to devote to this blog. In less than four years, its following has grown from virtually nothing to more than 14,000 subscribers as of this week. It has been a great pleasure to share what I learn through that forum.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

The opportunity to spend part of an afternoon just reading a book on a 606 Trail bench beckons.

But those are all activities that somehow involve work. I may well involve myself in some volunteer activities with APA divisions and its Illinois chapter, the Society of Midland Authors, and other outlets that I may discover. That too sometimes sounds like work, so let me try harder. I have written about the wonderful 606 Trail near my home; I expect to walk and bicycle there and in nearby Humboldt Park. I may well take a great novel to one of the trail’s benches (or to my front patio) and read in the middle of the day. My wife and I may travel, both as we choose and as we are invited. Anyone reading this blog must already know that I love to get around. Despite all its flaws, the world remains a fascinating place, and I want to explore it while I can. I may never get a gig (or want one) like that of Anthony Bourdain, but I will see enough. And, yes, like him, I love to explore different cuisines—in part so that, as an amateur gourmet chef with new time on his hands, I can try them out for guests at home or elsewhere. Like I said, the world is a fascinating place. Explore it while you can.

Jim Schwab

The Voice of Humility

dscf3255There are times when we lose control of our plans, when we simply surrender to the power of microbes and let things ride. We may have made promises to get things done, and they will not happen. We must ride out the storm instead.

I have posted nothing new in two weeks not for lack of the desire to do so—indeed, I had several books and documents I planned to discuss on this blog—but because I had to surrender to the reality of pneumonia. I am on the rebound now, and I generally have a long history of quick and effective rebounds, but fever, chills, and the hacking cough that are typically prime symptoms of pneumonia had me in their firm grip for a week and a half, starting just a little less than two weeks ago and petering out just three days ago under the impact of antibiotics. As you can imagine, it was no fun.

It was not just a matter of sustaining this blog. I missed six straight days of work at the American Planning Association, and when you count the weekend between those days, you see the overall stretch of futility that ate up my time. I lay on the couch, on the bed, under blankets, alternately sweating and freezing, arranging for a visit with my doctor, then getting a chest x-ray to confirm the diagnosis. It is, of course, impossible to get comfortable, let alone maintain any significant energy level. I also needed to grade papers for a graduate seminar on disaster planning that I teach every fall for the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. The grades are due shortly, yet I had none of the energy or attention span needed that first week to review 15- or 20-page papers that were basically case studies in disaster recovery. I finally got them done in the last few days. Meanwhile, here in Chicago, it was cold outside, not a great outdoor environment for anyone who had elevated temperatures. The fear of experiencing a setback until I was well on the road to recovery kept me from being very adventurous. But by yesterday I was willing and able to shovel snow.

Sometimes it seems that life is piling on. Just as I was descending into illness, without initially knowing it was pneumonia, my 5 ½-year-old laptop suffered the loss of its graphics drive, and the cost of repairs drove me to replace it, but it took me two days after learning this news from the Geek Squad before I could muster the energy to go to Best Buy, which owns Geek Squad, to choose a new computer. Even then, as I stood in the aisle waiting for a sales clerk to complete his business with another customer, I was looking around for a chair for fear I would not be able to stand long enough. But I did, and I chose a new Dell laptop, and then came the business of installing software and transferring my data. I left that to the Geek Squad. But altogether, presuming I would have had much ambition for such things, it meant that I had no functioning computer for almost four days. And then I still had to find the patience to learn how to make certain new features work. But I at least had the ball rolling again.

I will raise my voice again, in this blog and elsewhere, soon enough. But I was reminded that we all have these vulnerabilities. Unlike the Hazards Planning Center at APA, this blog is a one-man show. When that one man is under the weather, it all comes to a halt. But I am back. Happy holidays to all.

 

Jim Schwab

Daydreaming on a Sunday Afternoon

 

Take me out to the ballpark. This is Wrigley Field, but I'll go to the Cell too.

Take me out to the ballpark. This is Wrigley Field, but I’ll go to the Cell too.

Have you ever tried to visualize yourself in a prominent, visible role other than whatever you do for a living? Can you see yourself accepting a Grammy, say, or racing across the goal line with a touchdown pass? Most of us at some point have some fantasy about our lives. Such fantasies are largely harmless things. They inspire us to aspire without making us delusional.

Sometime last night before the stroke of midnight in Chicago, some one of you became the 12,000th subscriber to this blog. I mention the point only because, as this audience grows, so grow the odds that someone out there can relate to what I am saying in a blog post like this, when I grow tired of discussing politics or public policy and just itch to let my imagination roam. I know I’m not the only one, as John Lennon once sang.

Several circumstances have converged to inspire this rumination. One is that I have needed to spend time this weekend on some serious technical writing in order to catch up on work I promised to do, some of which was forestalled Friday by family business. I want to break out of the rut. A second fact is that I have joined nearly the whole city of Chicago in pensively following the almost inconceivable set of daily triumphs this spring that have given our generally luckless baseball city the two best teams in Major League Baseball—at least so far, knock on wood, and may I not jinx either one by speaking too soon. When I’ve had the chance, I have watched both Jake Arrieta of the Cubs and Chris Sale of the White Sox as they have mowed down opposing hitters and built enviable records on the mound. I mean, between them, they have a 15-0 record this season and a combined ERA of about 1.0.

Why do I care? Back to the rumination—they are living a fantasy that I am only beginning to understand, now that I am far too old to hope to achieve anything like it. In fact, I am old enough to be their father. When I was their age, I was only beginning to overcome the intimidation in facing pitchers wrought by the fact that I needed thick glasses by the time I was ten, a story I rendered in my very first blog post on this site about four years ago. I did not understand how people threw curve balls at 90 miles per hour, and I certainly did not understand how anyone swung the bat fast enough to hit such pitches. Having never learned the rapid reactions that allow people even to face such pitchers, let alone hit home runs against them, I could only stand there dumbfounded as the ball whizzed past. It did not matter whether I swung. I was nearly 40 before I started to play competent intramural softball. By that age, most professional athletes have seen their best days and are on the way to retirement.

But that is not really my point. It was about then that my cognitive assets began to kick into gear, at least with regard to some sports, to notice from observation just how these athletes managed to do what they do. I started to follow the path of the ball closely, and the arc of the bat, and other central elements of professional baseball. I have come to realize what kind of arm or reflexes it takes to perform at that level. Even if I was never capable of realizing a daydream of launching a ball out of the park—and believe me, I never was—I at least began to realize how they did it, and the strategies behind the confrontation of hitter and pitcher. Because I have a better grasp of what is happening, I enjoy the game now more than I ever have in the past. I appreciate what Arrieta and Sale do in a way I never could before. I have become a student of the game.

That gets me to my real point. Well, sort of. We can be students of many things in our lives and benefit from it all, somehow. At the end of 2013, an exceedingly hectic year in which I racked up 23 business trips connected with my position at the American Planning Association, two more connected with teaching at the University of Iowa, plus some personal travel, I knew that something had to change. I had not gotten to my fitness club for weeks at a time, and I was wearing down. So I switched clubs to XSport Fitness and signed up to work with a personal trainer, having decided the additional expense would be more than compensated with renewed stamina and physical discipline. Then I had to wait about two months before I could start because, on New Year’s Day 2014 at a Barnes & Noble store, I pinched a shoulder nerve by carelessly tossing an overly heavy laptop bag on my left shoulder as I prepared to leave. That reinforced the logic of why I needed such training in the first place.

Mike Caldwell, trainer at XSport Fitness

Mike Caldwell, trainer at XSport Fitness

I have worked since then and made great strides in personal fitness, including, recently, a string of 150-second planks. More important, however, is what I have been learning through the trainer, Michael Caldwell, with whom I regularly discuss why I am doing what he asks me to do. I am thus gaining both intellectually, with a better understanding of physical fitness technique, and physically, by pursuing higher goals over time—and steadily achieving them. It is an important lesson in perseverance. I realize just how much work professional athletes must perform to condition themselves, no matter what natural talents they begin with. Fitness does not just happen.

It is not, however, as if I had never learned perseverance before. I have merely changed the setting or, to put it another way, added a new setting to those that were already familiar. And what I have learned in life is that loving what we do is what makes perseverance seem worthwhile and endurable. For athletes, it is literally the love of the game—that is not merely a phrase—and when that goes away, it is surely time to retire and find something else to do.

Two nights ago, Friday the 13th, my wife and I attended The King and I at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. We both loved the show. Jean, whose father was at one point in his life a music instructor, loves such musicals and enjoyed every minute of it. I mention it because I have never, in my entire life, tried to envision myself as one of the performers for such a show. I have never imagined that I have the kind of voice that it would take to impress a large audience, and my gift for music is marginal at best. For this, I was and will remain merely a spectator, a member of the consuming public. I cannot imagine myself enjoying the process of developing the necessary talent. It is not part of my rumination. I might add that, having purchased the tickets as a Mother’s Day gift, I should have anticipated that Friday the 13th would be a night in which, after the show, we would have to race five blocks through a downpour to the Blue Line to go home, getting soaked even with a raincoat and umbrella between us. (Forget the taxi line at the Lyric; it was hopeless.) I have never daydreamed about becoming a meteorologist either, not even a handsomely paid one on television. Not my thing. But I digress.

Any savvy reader will grasp by now that I am writing this article because I did find my calling, and I did persevere in developing my skills, however convoluted the path I may have taken in life. As early as the third grade, I was attempting to write science fiction stories. I dreamed of publishing them, although today I am glad that those early manuscripts have mercifully disappeared, their pages rotting in some landfill in northern Ohio. The love of writing took many forms over the years, but it has never left me. In high school, I used my electives to include one-semester courses in both journalism and creative writing. I was a co-founder of the Brecksville High School Writers Club. I began college as an English major, switching to political science only as I became drawn to the turmoil of the 1960s and the elusive prospect of somehow changing the world. I wrote for the student newspaper, sometimes well, sometimes poorly. Later I wrote a handful of op-eds for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and then I moved to Iowa, and continued to write and publish there. I found my way into graduate school at the University of Iowa, and not satisfied simply to get a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, I prolonged my academic efforts by adding a second master’s in journalism. Then came a fateful day when I had to decide on a master’s project in journalism, and I decided that if I had to do such a project, it ought to become a book. Three years after graduation, it emerged between two covers from the University of Illinois Press as Raising Less Corn and More Hell, an oral history of the 1980s Midwest farm credit crisis. At 38 years old, I finally found myself being reviewed in the New York Times. I had envisioned myself as a published author and cared so much about learning the craft that I never noticed just how much perseverance, how much sweat, how many wrong turns turned around I had poured into this and other projects to reach this plateau. Only in looking back do I realize the level of effort I sustained.

Like Arrieta and Sale, though certainly not with their level of fame, I loved my game and was passionate about succeeding.

The great thing about writing is that, at 66, although my energy may flag more than it did 30 years ago, I can keep going. I will not wear out my arm on the keyboard. Studs Terkel published his last book at the ripe age of 94. I can keep getting smarter about my craft without worrying about its physical toll, at least for the foreseeable future. As for that other degree? It built on my background in political science, in a way, and more importantly, it gave me something truly substantive to write about. I didn’t just want to write. I had something to say. I had another passion.

If you are one of my young readers, find your dream. Persevere with it. Trust me, it is worth it. And if you are older, well, hang in there. Life can still be beautiful if you have a purpose.

IMG_0104By the way, as for that mention of Mother’s Day: By the time I finished graduate school, I had met my wife, and we got married. I learned about passion and purpose from her too. She is retired now, but her passion was teaching. And she was happy last week. At a luncheon for its retirees, the Chicago Teachers Union gave her a lifetime achievement award for her activism. I have seldom seen her more pleased.

 

Jim Schwab

 

Salute to Studs

 

Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a "woman friend no one has identified. Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren's "first bibliographer."

Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, and a “woman friend no one has identified.” Photo provided by Richard Bales, given to him by Algren’s first bibliographer, Ken McCollum.

I’ve been holding on to this piece for a week. It’s not that I wrote it and then sat on it, but that I am writing it now based on an A&E feature I encountered in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday. I didn’t actually finish reading the article until today. My real reason for delay is that I spent the week going to work, participating in seven job interviews for a new position at APA, trying to finish work on a manuscript, all while slipping not so quietly into a diagnosis by Friday of acute bronchitis. In short, at the end of each day I had no energy to write anything. So thank the antibiotics and the inhaler. I’m on the mend, but still less than robust and vigorous. But I can get this done.

The article, “Studs forever,” by Rick Kogan, a long-time WGN radio host and journalistic observer of the cultural scene, tells the story of a remarkable and worthy effort by a team of relatively young archivists led by Tony Macaluso at WFMT-FM, which long hosted the Studs Terkel Show, to digitize some 5,600 recorded radio shows that Studs Terkel left the Chicago History Museum after his death in 2008, at age 96, after decades on the air on WFMT-FM in Chicago. Terkel led an amazing life, leading an early television show in the 1950s, hosting his hour-long interviews on a daily basis, and producing 18 books, mostly of oral history, but also some remarkably literate commentary on music, the arts, and other topics. In 1985, he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Good War, his oral history of World War II. He was both an activist and a Renaissance man. When he wasn’t busy with all that, he appeared in the occasional movie, such as Eight Men Out, the dramatization of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal. Studs’s intellect covered the waterfront.

The article notes that only 400 of those hours of tapes are digitized so far. You can find them at www.studsterkel.org, and more will be coming, but additional resources are needed for such a gargantuan task. What is being saved for public consumption is a treasure trove of insights solicited by Terkel, in his unique interviewing style, from some of the leading lights of his time: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Dylan, Jacques Cousteau, Cesar Chavez, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mike Royko (one of his closest friends), Bill McKibben, and who knows how many others prominent in their day. The interviews are more than just routine; they are the probings of a very curious, passionate mind, drawing the best from his subjects. They are lively elucidations of topics that remain vital: the role of art in the modern world, civil rights, free speech, racial justice, and the environment.

I say all this because I feel I owe Studs Terkel a great deal myself. He shaped how I saw my job as a writer and interviewer—not that I ever matched his skill and prolific nature—just that I learned.

Sometime in early 1984, maybe late 1983, I’m not sure, I showed up in the office of my adviser for the Journalism master’s program at the University of Iowa, John Erickson, to discuss my master’s project. At the time, I was the only person in the entire university with the oddball aim of getting two master’s degrees simultaneously in Journalism and Urban and Regional Planning, both of which were completed in 1985. The Midwest farm credit crisis was beginning to manifest itself substantially by then, and I told Professor Erickson that I wanted to produce and publish an oral history of the farm crisis. Erickson, aware unlike me that no one in the program’s history had yet turned a master’s project into a published book, never batted an eye. He suggested some resources on oral history and interviewing techniques and encouraged me to get to work. Lacking Amazon in those days, I visited Prairie Lights Books and placed a special order for the recommended reading, which showed up about two weeks later. And I got busy.

Along the way, I discovered this trailblazer in oral history named Studs Terkel and began reading his books: Working; Hard Times; and Division Street: America. I could not put them down. They remain classics, in my opinion, part of the American literary canon. And I learned both the value of asking the right questions in an interview and the art of shaping that interview into an engaging piece of literature. Aided by that inspiration, I turned that master’s degree into a book: Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern Farmers Speak Out (University of Illinois Press). But that was not until 1988, three years after I left Iowa, after Erickson and others on the comps committee told me my first 140 pages were enough, you’re graduated, do the rest later, and after my planning background helped me turn much of the same material plus other research into a consulting study for the Iowa General Assembly. But that is another story, involving another professor, John Fuller, in the School of Urban and Regional Planning, who was then employing me as a graduate research assistant. It was also in the course of my travels in conducting dozens of interviews that I met my future wife, Jean, in Omaha.

Image from Wikimedia (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Studs_Terkel_-_1979-1.jpg) By New photo (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That would be enough to give Studs an honored place in my memories, but after my second book (Deeper Shades of Green: The Rise of Blue Collar and Minority Environmentalism, Sierra Club Books, 1994) was released, he invited me onto his show. In view of the unquestionable prominence of so many other Studs Terkel guests, this was for me a huge honor. When someone with his track record and guest list, such as it was by 1995, brings you to his radio show, someone like me, a minor author at the time, is likely to feel this is a golden opportunity. And it was.

Studs, I learned, would not take me or my book any less seriously than any of his other guests. I was part of numerous radio and television interviews about both books, so I know how most interviewers work, and Studs was nothing like them. My book sat there alongside him, well thumbed, with post-it notes hanging from numerous pages, making clear he had read it thoroughly and knew what he wanted to ask. No one needed to give him cues; he had marked it up, backwards and forwards. I was impressed. I felt I had joined his pantheon, worthy or not. I responded in kind. I don’t know; I may have been good or I may have been mediocre. It’s twenty years ago now. But I was there.

About two years later, I began a two-year stint as the president of the Society of Midland Authors, of which Studs Terkel was long a member (as is Rick Kogan). SMA was another group that had honored him for his contributions. The radio show was ultimately not the only time I met him, but certainly the most important occasion.

So now I realize the scope of the legacy of which I became for one day an infinitesimal part, but one treated that day by Studs as just as important as every other guest, because that was his way. On the way out of the studio, he insisted on giving me an autographed copy of Race. He was as genial as they come, a great human being—with that probing mind that seemed to know no limits. This is one archive that deserves to live on.

It will take a while to complete the museum’s project, which benefited initially from a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, but will probably need more before it is done. Kogan notes that you can also find videos at www.mediaburn.org.

 

Jim Schwab

The Milestone of 10,000

I don’t do this often. In fact, I’ve done it only once before, when this blog reached 1,000 subscribers back in the summer of 2014. But at about 5 p.m. Central Standard Time, the 10,000th reader registered as a subscriber to “Home of the Brave.” I want to take a moment to acknowledge that because I never started this blog nearly three years ago envisioning such growth in readership. I admit to being surprised by it all.

Early on, around April 2013, as I was trying to decide why I was launching this blog at all, a moment of liberation arrived. I realized I did not need to establish a clear genre, such as book reviews or political commentary, because any such choice would betray my own hard-earned identity by tapping only a portion of what I had to offer. Instead, I decided, the blog would contain “whatever I damn well pleased to write,” not to be cantankerous, but as the only clear way to maintain the integrity of my own moral and intellectual contributions to the world. We are all many things, but we don’t always express them well. I would make it a point to focus my literary and journalistic talents on expressing the complexity of subject matters that interested me, as I saw them. If they defy easy categorization, so be it. At least I would have fun and perhaps even learn in the process.

What I honestly did not expect was how many of you would join this journey. After a whole year, there were about 270 subscribers. After that, for whatever reasons, the blog entered an upward trajectory that is still underway. There is only one way to respond–with more of the heartfelt, deeply thought essays that I hope are becoming my trademark. Writing this blog is still an adventure, still a challenge. I want to cause people to think, to care more about their fellow human beings, and to deepen their curiosity. If I succeed at that, the numbers presumably will take care of themselves. I intend to pay attention to what matters.

And thanks to all of you for taking the time to read what I have to say. I am very deeply appreciative.

Jim Schwab

Business of Changing the World

Last night I watched the CNN documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. It told me much that I already knew, namely, that Jobs was a problematic figure with both a dark side and a light side, a man of genius with deep human flaws, but someone who clearly changed the world, at least on a technological level. We relate to computers and telephones today in ways that were almost unimaginable 30 or 40 years ago. At the same time, the movie filled in some gaps in my knowledge and made me aware of some aspects of his tragically shortened career that were less clear to me before.

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But that is not the most important part of my reaction to the story. In fact, I had this blog post in mind well before seeing the movie in part because it simply reinforced a thought that has been with me for some time: that the shape of our choices is dictated to some extent by the timing of our lives and the circumstances in which we grow into adulthood. Many of us can still change a great deal as our life moves on, but those initial choices in high school and college, in our teens and early twenties, predetermine a great deal of what follows.

I have not yet read the Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs, though it sits on my shelf waiting for me, so I was intrigued to learn that Jobs graduated from high school in 1972, just four years behind me. But he died in 2011, and I am still here, his life ending early at 56 years of age as a result of complications from pancreatic cancer. Four years does not seem like a long time in a full life, but at that formative age, for baby boomers following the Sixties, it made all the difference in the world. It may have been one of the most dramatic periods in modern American history.

I entered college in the fall of 1968. In April of that year, as I was completing my senior year of high school, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. We barely recovered from that shock when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, was also assassinated in a hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California primary. Before the summer was over, the Democratic convention in Chicago was disrupted by major protests that were suppressed with major police violence. It was a rather traumatic introduction to four years of higher education and was followed by numerous protests. I attended college in downtown Cleveland, and watched or participated in civil rights, antiwar, and environmental demonstrations.

I mention this because, in the many years since then, especially more recently, I have wondered if I might have benefited from taking some business courses in order better to understand some of the more progressive business phenomena that have evolved on the American landscape. There are now green businesses focused on renewable energy, food businesses catering to new tastes for healthier foods, and environmental businesses focused on cleaning up rather than despoiling the environment. When I was a student in Cleveland, however, the businesses I knew best seemed like an extensive monolith of status quo enterprises, defending the despoliation of the environment, resistant to equal opportunity, with the corner offices almost an unrelenting parade of conservative, aging white men. I may have been a young white man myself, but I most definitely wanted to live a more interesting, purposeful life than those white men.

And so I studied literature at first, then switched to political science, in a quest to change the world, and eventually, by the early 1980s, returned to school to obtain graduate degrees in journalism and urban and regional planning. I did survive three undergraduate electives in economics, which were reinforced by planning-related economics classes at the master’s level, but that is not the same as classes in marketing and accounting and business management. As I said, as I have watched a new generation of business enterprises take new approaches to engaging with the world, I have wondered whether I might have benefited from learning more about entrepreneurship and business principles. But it was not to be because the influences that bore down on me made that less appealing when it might have been more feasible. I wanted to change the world in what I deemed a positive way, and the businesses that might have employed me in Cleveland at the time did not seem like the way to achieve that. Nonetheless, I did work in the business world for several years before moving to Iowa to take the helm of a small public interest nonprofit organization, only after which I pursued graduate school.

It was only as I was completing that graduate education that many of these new enterprises—and Apple Computer, which was a provocative and sometimes perplexing blend of both old and new ideas about how to run a business—burst onto the scene. Meanwhile, I was acquiring a whole new set of skills that implanted me firmly in the public sector, although I have spent most of my subsequent career in a nonprofit professional association. Along the way, I learned that a strong entrepreneurial spirit is a powerful ally even in the nonprofit world. They too must find ways to attract money. In my case, we most often do that in a highly competitive environment, developing proposals for grants and contracts that require significant innovative thinking—the very sort of thing that would probably serve me equally well as a consultant because, in effect, that is to some extent what I have become. I am in a service business, but I have had and enjoyed opportunities to change the world in ways that matter. Small ways, perhaps, compared to the impact of someone like Jobs, but appreciable. I have helped alter the prevailing thinking about the ways in which planners can contribute to the reduction of losses of lives and property from natural disasters. That does not seem like a small thing when I think about it very hard.

My sense of entrepreneurship was enhanced by the fact that I also was writing for a living, sometimes enhancing my income from working as a planner with book royalties and article fees and honoraria for speaking. I learned some marketing because I had to learn how to hone my message and sell books. It’s not nearly as easy as it may seem. In fact, the publishing business can be downright brutal, but I learned to survive.

In the end, my takeaway is that it matters less whether one ends up working in the private sector, nonprofit sector, or public sector, or anywhere else, for that matter, and much more what we ultimately do with the skills we acquire. Entrepreneurship is as much an attitude as a skill, and what we sell matters as much as how well we sell it, but what matters more is why we want to do what we do and the satisfaction we derive from doing it well. Looking back, I have no regrets about the skills and knowledge I developed or about my accomplishments in life. They have not made me a billionaire like Jobs, but the psychic rewards have been high. I took the hand that life dealt me during a volatile stretch of history and used it to make a difference. I will not ask for more.

 

Jim Schwab

It’s Okay to Fail (Sometimes)

Ascension Parish Strike SceneJust in case anyone out there is unduly impressed with my intelligence, I have a revelation: I flunked calculus in my first quarter of my freshman year in college. I was attending Cleveland State University on Kiwanis scholarship money, no less. Not that I really understood what hit me or saw it coming, and that’s the point. I entered with high SAT scores, and the guidance counselor duly noted that I had high placement scores for both Spanish and Mathematics. She recommended a fifth-quarter placement for Spanish though my three years in high school ordinarily equated to fourth-quarter placement. We ended up choosing more conservatively, and I aced both the fourth and fifth quarters of Spanish to complete my language requirement. I probably should have skipped that fourth quarter and taken the advanced placement. On the other hand, we stuck with the advanced placement in calculus, and it backfired. Not so good.

A little background is helpful, as it almost always is in understanding how and why any student performs at the college level. I entered the fall quarter on crutches because of an industrial accident late in the summer. I was earning money working in a chemical plant in a nearby Cleveland suburb, but the dome of an antimony kiln tipped over and trapped my ankle, which was fractured. I collected worker compensation for the next six weeks until the doctor removed the cast, at which time I hobbled for a while until I rebuilt strength in my left leg. That was certainly a distraction, but not a dire impediment. More importantly, but exacerbated by the injury, I had a tendency developed earlier in life not to reach out for help when I needed it, in part because of a stubborn tendency to assume I could figure things out, which I very often had done. I was in deep water in that calculus class, and by the time I realized I could not swim, I was drowning—even though the ankle had healed just fine.

In a subsequent quarter, I asserted some hard-working grit by getting permission to take 20 credits (the limit was 18), five courses instead of four, in order to regain the lost ground from that failed class. And I pushed my through that grinding schedule with respectable grades.

Failing that class, which may have cost me a renewal of the scholarship (I never found out), may have been vital, however, for my growth as a student. I worked two more summers in that chemical plant, which would only qualify as easy work if you enjoy such activities as unloading 50-pound bags of sulfur on a dolly from a railcar in 95-degree heat while wearing a face mask. I should note that my father worked there, too. He ran the garage and was the lead mechanic, repairing and maintaining all the trucks and forklifts and such. When I started college, he too was temporarily disabled. He was in the hospital with a disk injury that required lower back surgery that kept him out of work for six months. Suffice it to say that all the undergraduate tuition for my education came from my own savings from those summer and other seasonal jobs. Thank God for union wages. But it did mean that my education was for me a valuable commodity, hard earned and well paid for. Although I attended college from 1968 to 1973, in the midst of the civil rights, Vietnam war, and environmental protest era, and I did participate in all those causes, I was decidedly not inclined to get silly about drugs, sex, and parties because it was my money that was paying for that education. It makes a difference.

There is a certain right-wing mythology in American politics that says such self-reliance induces a conservative outlook in life. What it does, which has little to do with modern American conservatism in my opinion, is instill a strong dose of resilience and common sense. That may or may not lead to a conservative political outlook. In my case, it led to a strong identification with those struggling to get ahead and a willingness to balance the social scales better than we typically do. My intellectual curiosity drove me to learn more about other cultures and lifestyles and perspectives.

I should also add that I had a powerful hankering to write, one that has asserted itself repeatedly throughout my life and career. It seemed at first that majoring in English made sense; the university did not offer a major in journalism. I enjoyed reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald and 17th-century English novelists for a while, and the honors English classes in which I was placed were stimulating. But I soon realized that another part of me was itching to be born. In high school, perhaps in part because of nerdy tendencies, such as they came in the 1960s, I was somewhat withdrawn. Our high school was a high performer, and I was on an academic quiz show team, but no matter. I never felt that I fit in very easily, but I was president of the Writers Club and active in one or two other groups—but nothing major.

At Cleveland State, however, I quickly found that my inner extrovert was eagerly waiting to burst its shell, and the higher intellectual climate was just what I needed to find my comfort zone. I started doing less well in those honors English classes as I became heavily involved in campus politics, at one point running credibly but unsuccessfully for president of the student government. I founded Cleveland State’s first student environmental group and led it for three years. It was time to blend my academic studies with my real life aspirations, and I shifted my major to political science, which undoubtedly aided my GPA. Suddenly my activities and my studies bore some relation to each other. I could excel again.

None of this led to instant change. It led to perpetual evolution. It took years for many of the seeds planted in those college years to grow and mature, and failure contributed to that growth and maturation every bit as much as any success along the way. Someday I may need a whole book to relate the entire story, and right now I lack the free time to write it thoughtfully and thoroughly. But in all the discussion of resilient communities of which I am a part, I am at least willing to offer that, beneath all the intellectual definitions of resilience, some of us also harbor perspectives on resilience that are built on a solid foundation of personal experience. And in real life, those perspectives matter every bit as much in collectively defining resilience as any words in a dictionary or scientific report.

 

Jim Schwab

 

 

A Century of Midwest Literature

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day's events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Robert Loerzel, immediate past president of SMA, helps introduce the day’s events. He was preceded by current SMA president Meg Tebo.

Yesterday (May 2), a modest crowd celebrated 100 years of the Society of Midland Authors with speakers, panel discussions, and readings of authors past at the end of Society of Midland Authors Week, as declared by the Chicago City Council. Unfortunately, the event had to compete with the National Football League (NFL) draft ceremonies just a couple of blocks away in Grant Park, a contingency not foreseen when it was originally planned. While the NFL undoubtedly generates a stupendous sum of revenue even in the process of tagging star college players for professional opportunities, I would humbly argue that the literature of those celebrated at the University Center conference facility on State St. has done more to help define Chicago’s image than football ever will. Professional football shouts its presence from the skyboxes of Soldier Field. The novels, poems, and nonfiction narratives of Chicago and Midwestern writers insinuate their way into our consciousness slowly but pervasively and persuasively, like rainwater percolating into soil. Mind you, I do not dislike sports and spent Friday afternoon at a Wrigley Field rooftop party. But my understanding of real life was never altered nearly so much by a football game as by a really good book. And a few of those books were even about major sports figures.

With that in mind, I am going to divide this article into two parts. In the first, I will describe the centennial itself, which was preceded the night before by SMA’s annual book awards banquet at the Cliff Dwellers Club, which has long offered a home for many literary events, especially including those of SMA. In the second, I will describe my own small role in helping kick off the centennial as the first reader of a past author, poet Vachel Lindsay. I deliberately, several months earlier, asked the rest of SMA’s board of directors to “send me to Heaven” by letting me perform Lindsay’s art. They accommodated me, and I was grateful. The effort was part of a segment of the program in which past presidents of the society chose past SMA members and Midwestern authors whose works they would read, at short intervals between the invited speakers.

The Program

Many people save the best for last, but the best may have come first in some ways. That is saying a good deal because the program lasted from 10 a.m. until nearly 5 p.m.

The Gettysburg panel in action.

The Gettysburg panel in action: From left, Peck, Burke, and Knorowski.

Carla Knorowski, CEO of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, in Springfield, Illinois, led the first panel discussion by describing her work as the editor of Gettysburg Replies: The World Responds to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The foundation asked potential contributors to write essays of 272 words, the precise length of the manuscript of the famous speech that is on display in the Lincoln Library. Their essays could discuss Lincoln, the Civil War, or any other aspect of the speech’s meaning that touched their souls, as long as they matched Lincoln’s brevity. The library further challenged them to submit their work in longhand, though surely many used the word count features of their computers to guarantee the length before committing their prose to cursive writing. But many found the cursive exercise humbling in an era in which such skills have been lost to many in the younger generation. Lincoln had no such advantage except that he chose the length, which established his unique ability to say so much in so few words. Lincoln was, the panelists said, a Midwestern literary genius in his own right. In the end, Knorowski and her team at the foundation had to choose the best 100 of more than 1,000 submitted essays, some of which arrived as poems, most as essays, and which included as authors every living ex-president, one Holocaust survivor, and numerous others whose observations are well worth the price of the book, which was on sale in the back of the hall.

After her opening presentation, Knorowski was followed by two of those essayists, Chicago Alderman Edward Burke, an author in his own right, who spoke later of Chicago’s storied literary history, and Graham A. Peck, associate professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago. Burke noted the political machinations of the Republican convention in the Wigwam in Chicago in May 1860 that made it possible to nominate a lesser known regional leader, Lincoln, in the face of strong national support for William Seward of New York. Without those machinations, of course, the nation would never have elected Lincoln nor grown to respect and love this unique political figure. Peck, on the other hand, noted from his essay that “wisdom, restraint, and self-sacrifice were in characteristically short supply” in Lincoln’s time, but that the true reason for celebrating Lincoln’s words are “with us still: the tentative, incomplete, and unrealized human commitment to freedom, which binds us equally profoundly today, and calls out insistently, everywhere, for a new birth in service of human dignity.”

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Haki Madhubuti, who was also founder of Third World Press.

Such comments raise the question of exactly how we perceive that commitment in 2015. If a later presentation by 73-year-old poet Haki Madhubuti seemed at times halting, at times even stumbling, there was no doubt he was speaking with conviction and concern about the fate of young African-Americans amid the turmoil of recent events, notably the very recent controversy over the death of Freddie Gray in the custody of the Baltimore police. Asked if he had any hope after his seemingly grim presentation of the state of the black community, Madhubuti stated forthrightly that he saw it in young people of all races who had not been corrupted by the racism of America’s past.

Rounding out the morning was Rick Kogan, journalist and SMA member, who recounted much of the colorful history of Chicago literature and journalism, and said of the future of the written word, “I am hopeful but scared at the same time.”

In addition to the oration of Ald. Burke, the afternoon consisted of three panels involving reporters (Steve Bogira and Jonathan Eig), children’s authors (Blue Balliett and Ilene Cooper), and novelists Christine Sneed, Carol Anshaw, and Rosellen Brown. But surely, due to a conflict that took me to Chuck E. Cheese for a granddaughter’s fifth birthday, I missed the treat of the day. On my way out, I personally excused myself to Dr. Martin Marty, a long-time professor of the history of religion at the University of Chicago, and the prolific author of at least 40 books (but who’s counting?), some of which have won literary awards. I quietly explained my circumstance as he sat in the back of the room, awaiting his turn, and with typical gracious humility as a fellow grandfather, he assured me the birthday was more important. So I asked him later what he had spoken about, and I got this third-person response, which made me laugh hard enough that I have decided to reproduce it in its entirety, with his permission:

Martin Marty, long-time member of the Society and happy possessor of a “lifetime” achievement award, used his twenty-one minutes to introduce readers to a non-existent figure, Franz Bibfeldt. He is available, amply, by the Google route; there are thousands of references to him, and he has many devotees around the world, despite his handicap: he doesn’t exist. Marty explained his light-hearted approach to demonstrate how the world of academic theology does not always take itself too seriously.

Bibfeldt was an invention of Marty in 1951, on the eve of his graduation from theological school and preparation to enter Christian ministry. It was a satire on eccentrics and eccentricities in “the system,” but when the hoax was exposed, not all of the exposed took kindly to it, and they wanted Marty punished. He had been scheduled to his first call to London, and that was canceled. The seminary dean had to follow disciplines, but Marty appealed to the seminary President, a kindly soul who said that instead of London MEM would be assigned to assist a senior minister of note, to be his mentor. It turned out to be Grace Lutheran in River Forest, whose call stipulated that the pastor assistant had to work on a doctorate. That is how, after a couple of years, Marty wound up at the University of Chicago to which, after ten years in pastoral ministry, he returned for a 35-year teaching career. Marty claimed to have made good on his observation that this non-existent person had greater influence on his career than anyone else.

Franz Bibfeldt? Many articles online detail his theology and fame. In a world where too many theologians and other scholars take themselves too seriously, and define things too sharply, Bibfeldt wanted to please everyone. Some would call him “wishy-washy,” but Marty & Co. treat him as someone who agreed with everyone. He knew the famous book by philosopher Soren Kiekegaard; it was called Either/Or. Bibfeldt wrote Both/And, and when criticism came, he wrote Either/Or and/or Both/And.

The book The Unrelieved Paradox has just come out in a second edition from Eerdmans. The final essay in the new edition was by Jean-Luc Marion, a fan of Bibfeldt, who flew from the Sorbonne to Chicago and back again, to deliver the annual Bibfeldt Lecture, held, of course, on April Fool’s Day.

All of which serves appropriately to prove Lincoln’s alleged observation that God must have had a sense of humor.

Kindly submitted in earnest honesty,

Jim Schwab

The Readings

Several of us throughout the day provided readings of former Midland Authors. As I noted above, I would have begged for the honor of presenting SMA founding father Vachel Lindsay, but I did not have to. The rest of the board and officers agreed almost as fast as I offered. I would also note, before going further, that SMA had founding mothers as well, among them Harriet Monroe and Edna Ferber. The list of those who saw fit to found this organization in 1915 is virtually a Who’s Who of Midwestern literary lights of the time.

But Vachel is a particular challenge for a modern presenter. A forerunner of today’s performance poets, his work was rhythmic, often accompanied by musical instruments, and so highly susceptible to public presentation that Lindsay became known for his “Poems for Bread,” which involved his bartering a reading of his work to some farm family in Illinois in exchange for a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. His work was so close to the working-class fiber of the Midwest that long-time Socialist leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs was a big fan. How do I know? Bernard Brommel, former SMA president and author, and long-time professor of speech and communications at Northeastern Illinois University, who wrote a book about Debs, told me so.

So how to get this right? I chose two poems by Lindsay, short enough to stay within my allotted five minutes while providing sharply contrasting views of the influence of religion in his life and career. First was “The Unpardonable Sin,” which I used as prelude to a blog post last fall. It is an angry anti-war poem written in the midst of World War One. Second was a celebratory poem, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” meant to honor the founder of the Salvation Army after his death. The first could simply be recited, but required entering into the mood of its creation. The second took a little more: a search of the Internet to find renditions of “The Blood of the Lamb,” the tune to which it was set, to get the rhythm and tone right. Soon enough, I discovered a podcast of a recording of the song by none other than Woody Guthrie, in many ways a contemporary of Lindsay. That gave me the best possible sense of the underlying performance style that I could acquire.

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That said, the second poem is designed for musical accompaniment by banjos, flute, and tambourines. I had none of these available for this modest performance, so I asked the audience to clap in rhythm when I raised my arms, and to stop when I lowered them for the softer stanzas. I am pleased to say that they accommodated me warmly, including Ald. Burke.

With that in mind, I provide links below to the two poems in their entirety for the edification and enjoyment of this blog’s readers. I enjoyed myself thoroughly; I hope you will too.

The Unpardonable Sin

General William Booth Enters into Heaven

Lindsay’s work is available in various reprinted editions, some of which I have read in their entirety. I acquired my Vachel Lindsay addiction in a high school creative writing class in the late 1960s. I have never submitted to rehab for this happy addiction, so rehab has done nothing for me.

P.S.: If this article inspires you to support the Society of Midland Authors, their website allows you to buy some great swag in the form of shirts, keychains, mugs, and tote bags. And you thought I was above this sort of appeal? 🙂

Jim Schwab

Holiday Promises

The holiday season is upon us, and despite having a modicum of free time that I have not enjoyed for a while, I confess—I am still struggling to compose as much material for this blog as I would prefer. But I am working on it, on some serious material on a variety of issues, and you will see it all in coming weeks. But before I get to that, I want to express some gratitude.

Although any blogger clearly blogs with the hope of finding an audience, I have been stunned in recent weeks as the number of visitors and registered users has soared, the latter number topping 2,200 as of yesterday. At the current rate of growth, I would not be surprised if there are 10,000 of you a year from now. Finding an audience of that size and on that trajectory is extremely heartwarming, and I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year, as you see fit to celebrate.

Now I shall ask a favor. It has been my assumption that a reason for this growth is that there is a hunger out there for content that goes beyond the obvious, essays that explore beneath the surface, that help make sense out of complicated topics. I cannot write about everything, nor should I try, but there are topics on which I feel I can offer some real depth of analysis and understanding that will be beneficial to others. I think many people are tired of more superficial commentaries that ignore the complexity, the subtleties, and the illuminating details of many issues. But you, as readers, have to be willing to bear with the writer for more than 500 words to get to that depth.

Some time ago, a web editor told me the ideal length for blog articles is 500 to 750 words. I don’t know who has noticed, but I routinely violate that assumption because, if I feel a subject requires greater length for proper explication, I will indulge in that greater length in order to do it justice. I don’t believe in simplistic, jingoistic responses to serious issues, and I deplore the trivialization of public dialogue that I see dominating political discussion these days. Issues like climate change and improving our communities are just not susceptible to such treatment without gross distortion of the truth.

So invite your comments on why you choose to read this blog and what you might like to see, knowing that I choose not to write on a topic unless I have the time and the knowledge to offer something that I can be proud of as an author. This is your holiday gift to me—letting me learn what I am doing or should be doing here that is valuable. I look forward to the comments.

Jim Schwab