January 30, 2006
52 Miles to Rockford

The radio comes on at 5:20 a.m. this morning and announces "snow and sleet in Rockford." Any other day I wouldn't have cared. But this is no ordinary day, as I am scheduled to appear for jury duty at 9 a.m. in a courthouse in the Western Suburbs or as I like to say, "far, far away."

Every other day I am a public transit commuter. I know the ins and outs of all the routes downtown and take the ease of commuting for granted, even if it means grumping about the foibles of the CTA now and then. After 10 years of this, I realize the extent to which urban living has made me un-American: I dread driving anywhere, especially to the suburbs. And yet that is exactly where I am going.

In preparation I listen to the traffic reports and try to decipher all the baffling jargon therein. It's always hard to tell, but to the best of my knowledge the Kennedy isn't shut down completely, or on fire, or anything that would lead me to regret taking it. So armed with CDs, maps, and a wing and a prayer, off I go.

The outbound drive looks scary at first--look at all those cars on the expressway! But a friendly person in a green Honda lets me in and I want to send him/her a Valentine. We are at a virtual crawl up to the tollbooth, at which point I suddenly remember I have an IPass. I dig it frantically out of the glove compartment and I'm sailing through! I love the IPass! I love the toll road! I love--oh crumbs, it's snowing. At the junction I pass a sign: 52 miles to Rockford.

Arriving after about an hour on the road, I feel deep relief and a slight adrenalin buzz. How do people survive this every day without going insane? I wonder, bowing my head and shuffling into the courthouse against the wind along with a line of other unwilling people.

Jury duty itself is uneventful. We are granted a two-hour lunch, a generous allowance by most standards, except I am stumped for where to go. It is still snowing, and there is not much around, except a giant racetrack, where there is nothing going on at all. There is very little to look at or do, so I walk part-way around the track to the next big intersection. It is not quite the edge of civilization, because there is a Burger King and a McDonald's, but these are not enough to keep me riveted for two hours. I walk back to the jury room and watch a local weatherman announce that the temperature will be "hoovering around 35 degrees." Indeed.

Later that afternoon we are dismissed without event, and I steel myself for the drive home. A nice lady in the courthouse has given me directions back to the highway. There's less traffic, so we can all actually drive the speed limit now, which is exciting.

I am careful to drive only a little faster than that, because I am suddenly an old lady in a 38-year-old body, and because I don't want to get stopped for speeding and have to go back to that courthouse. Apparently no one else worries about this, because all other drivers zip around me. Oh look, there's Ikea! I also notice that no one ever follows the posted speed limit in the IPass toll lanes, because when I slow down, the people behind me hit their horns in apoplectic fits. Oh look, there's O'Hare, and a giant airplane about to land on my car! By the time I reach Lawrence Avenue, normally a festival of slow buses, narrow lanes, and bad driving, I am ridiculously glad to be back in the city.

Making one final wrong-way turn into a one-way street in my neighborhood (where did that come from?), I note that it is still snowing. Back at home I check the weather: it has stopped snowing in Rockford.

More on this endlessly fascinating topic: Chicagoist takes on jury duty.

Posted at 05:19 PM
January 23, 2006
Ombud Meets Blog

Last week, we saw a WaPo blog under fire from its readers, who launched a spate of angry comments that used "profanity and hate speech" responding to a comment from its ombudsman. As close as I can figure, the blog administrators removed the worst of the comments either before they were posted or a short time after they appeared. Then, overwhelmed, they decided to close comments altogether. The result is a resounding clash between the blog world and the newspaper world.

The reader fury that resulted when the comments were turned off must have singed some eyebrows. Oddly, many purveyors and readers of personal blogs are philosophical about doing this. People turn off comments all the time, for various reasons. Sometimes people just turn them off because they can't or don't want to interact with readers, or they're tired of dealing with spam or, worst case, harrassment by creepy stalker types. Whatever the case, the reader just has to live with it. (Personally, I would not only delete comments from people who called me "f****** b****", I would sic my mom on them, no kidding!) But things are different for national newspapers. But in this case people not only expected to be able to comment, they demanded it. They thought it was their due, even--perhaps especially--those who were blindly spewing foamy, blood-flecked invective.

Ironically, most newspapers are sensitive to community standards of decency, as they are often pelted with angry letters after they print, for example, a gory photograph. It was probably a similar awareness of standards that prompted the blog to close comments. But here's the rub: In this case, however, the blog probably should have toughed it out. A better alternative might have done better to publish all the comments they received before deciding to turn them off, showing their correspondents for what they are in all their foamy, blood-flecked horror. As it is now, the blog purveyors have just given more red meat to people who want to brand them as MSM tools.

WaPo nerd note: Interesting how the executive editor of the Web site wants to make clear delineations between the site and the paper. "I can't speak for a part of the company I don't work for," he says here . (He seems to be saying the site is not responsible for the views of the ombudsman. This seems beside the point, as an ombudsman's role is to have his or her own ideas that might not jibe with those of the newspaper.) Why the rush to distance? It's not like post.com is a subsidiary of a non-publishing entity. Shouldn't both wings of the organization be operating under similar editorial policies?

Finally, some of the comments on the post have since been restored. On a bad day, reading what remains reinforces, to me, that that as much as the Internet is a source of community (and, naively, I still believe it is) it is also a vast echo chamber verging on dystopia. Feh.

Posted at 06:36 PM
January 21, 2006
Of Bats and Belfries

Back in my university days, our tranquil hours of studying, gossiping, and arguing over the merits of various bands were periodically interrupted by the appearance of a random bat.

Who knows how these critters got in, but they usually swooped around the hallways, terrified, until they found a hiding place or someone pushed them out the window with a broom.

Oddly, in Chicago you never see bats. That's because Indiana is lucky enough to have its own indigenous bat, the Indiana bat. According to the National Wildlife Federation, they're classified as endangered animals, are about three inches tall, and can live up to 30 years. They can be surprisingly photogenic, but I still wouldn't invite one over for dinner.

Much the same can be said for university administrators, it turns out. They, too, can look good in pictures--and while they are usually bigger than three inches tall, they, too, can hang around for 30 years.

Our visit to KJ South was filled with gossip and speculation about bats and administrators in the wake of a series of announcements last week. For instance, the university president won't be renewing his contract, and the university trustees announced a major reorganization--the first in 30 years or so.

For our part, the biggest achievement of the weekend was saying goodbye to one of the more traditional bats--found dead in the top of the barn a few years ago. We'd left it there initially in hopes that it was just hibernating and would be gone the next time. Turns out, though, that bats hibernate in caves--not barns--and that our little guest wasn't going anywhere. At last, swept into a plastic bag, it ended at the bottom of Dr. Surly's garbage can.

In memoriam.

Assorted links:
History of the president's woes, and an alternate take.
Another perspective on the university's dilemmas.
Random Hoosier lore: Even Evan Bayh fans have their own Internet presence.
Apparently "Bat Chain Puller" is the actual title of a song by Captain Beefheart.
It's also--how did it come to this?--the title of a book by Kurt Loder.

Posted at 06:04 PM
January 11, 2006
Small Accomplishments, Years Late

In honor of the new year, we at B&W are sprucing things up a bit. Not that I know enough about HTML and CSS to do an actual redesign, mind you. But I am doing what I can. Behold: Flickr photos on the main page (very 2004!) and a new and (somewhat) pared-down blogroll (very 2002!).

Out with the old, in with the new, more about me and less about...uh...you. But who are we kidding? 'Twas ever thus.

Posted at 05:31 PM
January 10, 2006
Hey! You've Got Poetry in My Spam!

CPR examines "post-language poets," a bad description (must everything be 'post'? How '90s) for an interesting phenomenon--specifically, the nature of some modern poetry that you could literally re-arrange for yourself and make a different, perhaps better poem.

It brings to mind interesting questions of our changing notions of authorship and what it means to create. As an English major I was always taught to respect the work of "The Poet," whoever that might be, because as an author they had some kind of authority. The article notes that "the author-defined connection may already belong to another time...Now the text is up for grabs....If you want it to be about the time you had a vertigo attack, go for it. ...Meanwhile, we linear folk come limping along behind, using the handrail, feeling gingerly ahead."

If we accept this premise (and I'm not sure we always do), what does it do to the status of "The Poet" once everyone is the poet? If authors lose their authority, do eventually they stop writing poetry? If we can all cut and paste our own, do we stop reading poetry? Or are we "empowered" to create a new genre, a poetic version of the musical mash-up? I wonder.

Perhaps the most extreme end of the spectrum is the robot-generated spam we are all so used to seeing these days. For academic purposes, I will endeavor to make a poem-like object out of some of the random lines sent to me today (punctuation, line breaks mine):

I timely of entertain, a clattered! the confined is woodshed!
She gesture was obviously of fearing it neither parasites
Me jumbled cannery is scheme of establish a people
A border, the groaning, agitating!
it chuck she misfortune

You casting of either the scrap and reproachful or shewed
Not spark, you mortally and accents me
butter daylight?

If angered we frost of gods? a satisfaction is tremor
An patriarch me jazz, you gushed. she nail goldenhaired.
Have intimate bathrobe of stuff it warn, was littleknown

And folly savagely is neck?
of pious, and feverishly.

Hmm. Actually, it reminds me of those times the cat has sat on E.'s keyboard and sent random chat texts. But poetry in my spam isn't the worst thing I've seen today. Still, I hope the day when we say "you've got spam in my poetry" is still far off.

More links:
Bookslut takes on two of the poets mentioned in the article.
Lots of poetry in the online lit magazine Unpleasant Event Schedule.

Posted at 06:52 PM
January 08, 2006
Another Misbegotten Idea

Hey, remember the '80s? The UK band The Fall were big then, at least by hipster standards. They also did well in the '90s, although I haven't kept up much with them lately. Nonetheless, their fans everywhere have been entertained recently by this reporter's attempt to track down the 40-some people who have been in the band over the last few decades. The article offers some good stories about the band's tempestuous history and yes, they even find Brix. I can see the movie treatment already for this, perhaps an underground music version of "Broken Flowers," with lead singer Mark E. Smith playing the Bill Murray role (just as funny, but with a more difficult accent). We see Smith tracking down his old bandmates, holding a bouquet of flowers. He drives around the country listening to loud African music. He gets assaulted by redneck husbands (or wives) while careening toward a bittersweet, ambigous ending. Title "Broken Noses"? Only drawback is the difficulty of including all those people, which would no doubt create a film of "Shoah"-like length. Get me rewrite!

Posted at 12:03 PM
January 05, 2006
In Which I Learn I Am Not Felix Unger

Bought some new socks tonight and was shocked to read (alas, when I got home) the care instructions. "Hand wash. Do not bleach. Line dry." Hand wash my socks? Are they serious, I wondered? In the first place, it doesn't seem like hand-washed socks would ever really get clean. And they'd have that crunchy line-dried-in-the-bathroom aspect. More to the point: who has time for this? Seriously, is there anybody who does this? Or do they all have personal valets and ladies' maids?

I admit, I considered it for a second. I envisioned myself armed with liquid soap and towels and the bathroom festooned with socks. But only for a second. Of all the realities I have had to accept today, possibly the one that went down easiest was that I will never have the kind of lifestyle that includes hand-washed socks. See you in the laundromat.

Posted at 09:30 PM
January 01, 2006
New Year's Pig

This pig appeared in our household during the holidays. It is slightly bigger than the cats, and seemed to alarm them at first. But they soon realized that it was harmless. Happy new year!

Posted at 12:15 PM