Friday, February 22, 2008

Life ∩ The Thin Line

Several nights ago my dog, Django, and I took a walk to a park on the shores of Lake Michigan, just five blocks from where we live. Six inches of fresh snow blanketed every tree, fence and home on our route. We passed stucco four-squares, clapboard-sided Victorians and solid brick bungalows whose mullioned windows cast golden squares of light on the night-blue snow. There is no cozier time for a walk in winter than on such an evening.

But As Django and I reached Sheridan Road, six fire trucks and an ambulance barreled past. A block down, they took the corner and cut their sirens as they pulled up to a row of gracious old apartment buildings. The park is just north of these buildings. While Django happily looked for sticks in the snow, I gazed out over the lake. Where I had seen inky pools of open water a few nights before, the lake was now snow-covered ice. Here and there ghostly piles stood out, perhaps a product of the wind or movement of the icy crust.

When I finally gave in to curiosity to glance toward the flashing lights, I expected to see firemen racing between their trucks and one of the apartment buildings. Instead, I saw them dispersed along the shore, where a line of boulders, several feet high, acts as a barrier that protects the land from Lake Michigan’s surf while it discourages people from entering the water in summer where there are no lifeguards. Many firemen trained flashlights out over the lake, while one man atop a hook-and-ladder swept a spotlight up and down the shore.

This was no fire alarm. Someone from one of the apartment windows had spotted what she thought was a person, partially submerged in open water, his (or her) arms gripping an ice pile to keep from slipping in completely. Reattaching Django’s leash I led him to a few onlookers who had gathered near the rescue operation. Two firemen pulled on bright yellow immersion suits, while others threw coils of rope down to colleagues who had scaled the boulders and made their way out on the ice.

Shuddering, I strained to see a human figure on the frozen lake. Not 100 yards from shore, within shouting distance of where my dog played and dozens of people relaxed or dined in apartments and fine houses, someone could be fighting for his life in a vast and frigid place. Perhaps walking straight out to see the Chicago skyline just south of us – or the allure of ice fishing – had seemed like novelty that afternoon.

I offered the firemen use of a kayak stored in my garage. While inherently unstable, it could provide them with something buoyant to grab onto should the ice give way beneath their feet. “Thanks, but we have the immersion suits,” one fireman told me. I stood there watching until it felt way too self-indulgent.

I worked from home the next day. After lunch, I walked out to the lake and took the picture featured above. You can see the firemen’s footprints like a dappled river over the snow, converging at a spot of thin, gray ice at the base of a snowy pile. The Evanston Review, my city’s newspaper, arrived in my mailbox a day after that. To my relief, the brief article on page seven said the firemen’s search turned up nothing. No one had been found.

Above photo by Ardis Berghoff.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Art ∩ Powerful Poetry

In light of the latest school massacre – the murder by a mentally ill man of five students at Northern Illinois University on February 14 – a poet in Wisconsin may hold at least one small answer to help us prevent more such tragedies in the future. At the heart of her philosophy is getting people to share stories about themselves so they can feel empathy for others.

“The bottom line to everything is story,” says Ellen Kort, Wisconsin’s first poet laureate in 2000 and the award-winning author of 11 books, including eight books of poetry. “If you don’t know your own story – who you are, where you come from – how can you honor someone else’s?” For many years, Ellen has held writing workshops for people who may not think of themselves as poets including doctors, female prison inmates and school children. During her workshops at medical conventions, she explores the healing aspects of poetry by prompting doctors to write poems or stories about themselves. The simple-sounding process helps some realize that if they’d asked patients to tell the story of their lives, they could have found the source for symptoms, instead of (or in addition to) running lots of tests and prescribing drugs.

“‘I won’t practice medicine in the same way again,’” Ellen says one doctor told her after realizing that if he had asked one patient for her story during her first visit, he would have learned her physical pain and anxiety were the result of her husband’s sexual and physical abuse.

The first time Ellen visited a prison – the Taycheedah Correctional Institution for women in Fond du Lac, Wis. – to teach inmates to write, she says she was not afraid. She told them about some of her own hard times to break down barriers. “I knew the poetry would carry everyone,” she says. After one exercise, she asked volunteers to read their work. “A woman waved one hand like crazy while she wrote with her other hand,” Ellen says. “She made eye contact with everyone in the room and said, ‘Ladies, I must stand to read what I just wrote.’ This woman was moved to stand for poetry.”

Ellen has been the poet-in-residence at many grade, middle and high schools across Wisconsin. She asks students to imagine their “inner poet.” One sixth-grade boy said his was a wolf, not the leader of the pack but its spiritual advisor. His poem was about his grandfather’s death and his parents’ divorce. His teacher was amazed because he normally could not write. When Ellen finds disturbing things in children’s poems she shows them to the teacher. “Some say the poems do not surprise them; that the child is going through a lot at home,” she says. “Sometimes the poem is a tip-off, and the teachers say they’ll look into it.”

The women inmates Ellen teaches were children once, too, of course. After one workshop she held at a prison in Great Barrington, Mass., a reporter from a local radio station asked the inmates, as his tape recorder ran, if there was anything they wanted the public to know. One woman wanted the world to know that she and her fellow inmates were not covered in tattoos or gang members as many people feared. Another said she was due to be released soon and that the idea of being in the real world scared her to death.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Love ∩ Dog Love

I live with a handsome brute named Django. He shares his first name and reputation for persistence with the famous Gypsy jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt. My Django is a 95-pound German shepherd with the noble head, traditional black and tan coloring, and broad, leonine neck and shoulders of his breed. He is the only male I have lived with in my adult life, so you can gather correctly that I am a single female, one who does not easily settle down. While this admission may seem pitiful to some and strange to others, to me it is amusing. I have learned a lot from this dog. I’m sure I have adopted some of his habits, and he has adopted some of mine.

Django is an accommodating male – sometimes. He gets up to go out when I feel like a walk. He kisses me when I lower my face to his. He gives me a quick bark when I ask, “Whaddya say?” And he accompanies me to every room in our home. Wherever I go, there he is. It's as if there are five Djangos living with me.

But there are things he insists upon doing despite my most persistent training. He steals my gloves every time we head for the door. He crosses over my heels to descend the stairs, which has nearly sent me diving down an entire flight to the concrete below. He naps on my exercise mat while I work out, and he eats his own business, a habit that used to disgust me. Now I simply I make sure he does not kiss me for several hours afterward.

At 11, Django is more like 80 in people years. He is a charming old man with his boyish mischief and, I swear, a sense of humor. The glove-stealing is one of his jokes, which I let him play on me over and over again. But at his age, his joints are stiff. He takes each step (we live on the third floor) slowly as we head downstairs. Not a block from home he often stops to look up at me and then back toward our apartment building as if to say, “That’s enough. Can we go home now?”

When his joints were still supple, Django took a flying leap each night and landed on my bed in a blast of fur. He’d circle once, paw at the sheets and release his weight like a dropped sack of books. There was hardly a greater pleasure to me than having this big, docile beast up against me, sleeping, dreams causing little hiccup barks and his paws to twitch as he ran through imagined meadows.

No matter that I had to sweep fur out of my bed in the morning. Or that I still wipe down every rug in my home with my bare hands. I will continue to gather up great handfuls of wool and take him out in the harshest weather. I will erect a hoist if I have to, to haul him up and down like a piano with four legs instead of three.

Dog love is dogged love. The kind required, this single gal realizes, for human companions, too. Question is, should I find myself a musician?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Music ∩ Get Happy

When I was a kid in the late 1970s, money was tight, so my dad would play homemade recordings of Dick Buckley’s jazz radio show in lieu of buying albums. It was always on weekends when Dad worked on his model airplanes, Mom was in the kitchen, and my brother and I played in the living room. Mr. Buckley’s deep voice would tell a story before he let the songs fly, their notes jumping around like butterflies. Jazz was making its first foray into my little girl’s heart.

So even now, some 30 years later, when the Chicago Jazz Institute hosted its annual Chicago Jazz Fair the last weekend of January, I made sure to go. By a stroke of luck, my friend Keith and I snagged front row seats at the Chicago Cultural Center as the Chuck Hedges Swingtet launched into their set. We sat practically at their feet as up on stage these five gentlemen in dark suits and ties – all of them in their 60s and 70s – played one jazz standard after another. Their sound was tight – the product of many years performing – and smooth as honey. Chuck Hedges’ clarinet rippled over notes. His guitarist, Dave Sullivan, didn’t miss a beat, even though he had to replace a broken string mid-song. Bassist George Welland kept a low profile, as I think bassists usually do. Drummer Andy LoDuca looked like a bearded banker but produced a rollicking combination of rhythms. Steve Behr, a life-long friend of Chuck's, took charge of the piano. And Bob Maynard anchored the group front and center with his vibes, letting the red-tipped mallets fly.

What struck me most was the sheer happiness that radiated from that stage. Sullivan threw his head back, smiling with his eyes squeezed shut. Behr’s raucous piano playing rose up despite a lack of amplification. And Maynard, looking a little like Mafioso dressed head-to-toe in black, always smiled, whether it was Mona-Lisa slight or bright like sunshine.

In the audience, heads bobbed and dipped. Toes tapped, knees jiggled. Everyone vibrated with subtle movement as they kept the beat. Chuck sensed the energy up on stage.

“It’s nice to play in front of people who love music,” he said just before they launched into “Get Happy.” Later, as Maynard chimed his way through a “Stardust” solo, Chuck perched on a stool alone in the wings, grinning madly. You don’t see such happiness on rock or classical musicians’ faces, no matter how good their music may be.

Toward the end of the set the Swingtet played “Bésame Mucho.” Not my favorite song, partly due to a memory it elicits. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, my dad was dying of cancer. One day, clad in his bathrobe, he made his way up the stairs at home, giddy from morphine. He took each step slowly, my mother gently pushing from behind, her hands on his backside. “Bésame mucho!” he sang hoarsely.

Dad’s jazz tapes were at the bottom of a box by that time. I do not remember how Dick Buckley used to end his shows in those recordings. A jazz legend in his own right who still has a weekly radio show on Chicago's WBEZ, in recent years he has signed off with a single word. It sums up what jazz says to us for a song, a set, a night and a lifetime: Happiness.

Hilltop ∩ Welcome

A new blog debuts today. Hilltop will feature my essays, articles, interviews and more on music. . .art. . .food. . .adventure. . .love and life. Let’s get started.