Art of the School Institute

If you’re ever bored at the Chicago Art Institute, you’re probably walking around with your eyes closed. I visit the museum at least twice a month (it’s down the street from work). Predictably, I usually visit Joseph Cornell’s boxes on the third floor of the new(ish) wing. Frankly, I don’t really like what they’ve done with the pieces. The room is kept dim to protect the boxes from harsh light and they sit behind the glass of, ironically, a large display case, arranged a little too carefully and distantly. I miss the old “Aviary” set-up. This time I just wanted to wander through the museum. I was feeling cooped up at the office, so a brisk walk through the new wing seemed like a fine idea.

Happy occurrence, the museum was showing a Chicago printmakers exhibit, and they happened to be displaying H.C. Westermann’s set of lithographs “See America First.” What a madman. Westermann was  a sailor (as I recollect) but also an acrobat (hence the Iggy Pop physique). Later on he got into wood sculpture and printmaking, letting his mind run wild. He presaged punk cartoonists like Gary Panter by decades. The man had no fear. and had a sense of humor to boot.

This particularly impressed me. Westermann and his uncle designed boxes to hold the portfolio of “See America First” lithographs. Read the exlanation of the design below.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, a few selections from the Hairy Who Collective. Nifty galifty.



Recently, at work, I was considered competent enough to win several gift cards in recognition of my diligence and industry—not once but THREE times. The pebble in my shoe, however, is that the gift card site offers few alternatives that accommodate my tastes—I am not an aficionado of auto supplies, and I find the cuisine at Red Lobster…uninspiring. Thus, I always go with a Borders gift card. How I wish the gift card company provided Amazon certificates. I can stretch those out to their snapping point by searching the used and new categories, finding perfectly acceptable books sold for less than their shipping costs. New Borders’ books, on the other hand, usually cost twice what they do at Amazon, and, if I read the qualifiers correctly, they won’t let you buy used books with gift cards. Foo.

I’ve been using my gift cards to collect sci-fi and fantasy classics published under the Modern Library imprint.  The list so far:

By H.G. Welles

The Time machine
The Invisible Man
The Island of Dr. Moreau

By Jules Verne

Journey to the Center of the Earth

By A. Conan Doyle

The Lost World

By Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars

I already own several of these books in mass-market, paperback form, or read them long ago in my hometown’s library. I just thought it might be nice to have them around and waiting for Nate when he gets older. While it would be lovely to collect first-edition hardcovers, I don’t feel like spending the cash, and, to me, a book isn’t simply made to look lovely, but to be read—read the hell out of.

The Modern Library has done a nice job, despite falling into the Getty Images/Photoshop rut.  I don’t want to be one of those book fetishists for whom it’s more important to fondle than read a tome, but whether I’m reading Welles’ The Time Machine or Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I love the feel of the Modern Library’s covers and pages. The typefaces are quite restful too.

But as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so to does Mr. Dan Kelly react to a new collection with the thought, “What can I build in my workshop to accommodate my new collection?” Because I flit from interest to interest like a spastic hummingbird, I’ve recently been intrigued by the steampunk aesthetic. While I find the bronze valved goggles and prosthetics taken to ridiculous extremes, and the steamwhore look favored by a few of the ladies peculiar, I dig the movement’s appreciation of wood, antique metal, and earth tones. I shall employ them in my design. Stay tuned.

Now in a perfect world I’d be able to make things like this little number. Good God, I want to make sweet love on that desk. Hell, I want to make sweet love TO that desk.

Mediocre Striver


Sometimes you encounter a person who’s so diligent, productive, and active, you know they’re destined for greatness. Barack Obama’s friends probably knew he would rise higher and faster than most, for instance. The rest of us deal with the everyday stuff, occasionally rise to meet a challenge, and enjoy our little moments of triumph—but we’re not “on” all the time like these people. They succeed as much through persistence as they do through talent.

Then there are those who persist and endure and apply their talent and skill, and only rise to the middle. Often these individuals are harsh, blinkered, or unpleasant. No, no clichés please. They’re not embittered because they’ve fallen into a crevasse on their way up the mountain. They’re angry because they know they could rise higher if it weren’t for the mediocre folks directly beneath them. If only those idiots would muck in and stack themselves into a throne 200 turtles tall, why, they’d be running this planet before long.

Eventually, the mediocre striver becomes fixated on success through repeated discipline. As they see it, the folks below them just need to be prodded to work harder, faster, longer, and better. Which they do, bringing good results. But the mediocre striver doesn’t want good results, he or she wants great results. So the underlings work even harder, producing great results. But is the mediocre striver happy with this? Of course not. The mediocre striver needs consistently great results, dammit, or else he/she has failed.

So, once more, the underlings work harder, etc., and for a long time produce great results at the expense of their lives and sanity. It is then that the mediocre striver beams proudly at them, says, “Well done, thou good and faithful servants!”, and buys them all ice cream.

If you believe that, search your childhood for an instance of severe head trauma.

No, the mediocre striver doesn’t reward the underlings with much more than a, “Good results. Now, get back to work.” Why? Because the results, not the means by which they’re achieved, matter

The killing sensation comes when you realize that the mediocre striver is not an unintelligent individual, nor even an uneducated one. They operate on a fixed program, free from creative thought. Their vocabulary is stripped down to grim functionality, and they seem unable to communicate beyond expressing a desired outcome. They repeat words they believe have totemic power. They are free from speculative thought, and their mythology springs from hoary cliches. To them, creative types are like vending machines. You insert the coins and the goodies come out. If they don’t that can be remedied by a little screaming, punching, kicking, and tipping over. Reason with the vending machine? Address its emotional needs for praise, communication, and satisfaction? Don’t be ridiculous. Machines don’t talk or have ideas and feelings. They’re only there to serve, and, in the back of the mediocre striver’s mind, they’re always ready to break down and fail when needed most.

I have an individual in mind. One I knew a long time ago at an old job. Sometimes I wonder what happened to him. Sometimes I wonder who he’s tormenting now.

Ross Douthat

I don’t know enough about Ross Douthat to decide if he’s just another slippery young neocon or a potential Garry Wills, unafraid to question his ideology and himself in the face of reason. Still, he crafted an interesting turn of phrase this morning. He critiqued Rand Paul for being a paleoconservative rather than a more acceptable brand of libertarian. I think Douthat has a different idea about what constitutes a paleoconservative than I do, and I think the below definition might be better spread over the whole of the recent conservative movement, particularly those flabby-moraled and intellectually challenged libertarians who think a country can be run by selfishness masquerading as self-sufficiency. Either/or, here’s Douthat’s description. He’s pretty sharp for such a young guy.

Like many outside-the-box thinkers, they’re good at applying their principles more consistently than your average partisan, but lousy at knowing when to stop. (Hence the tendency to see civil rights legislation as just another unjustified expansion of federal power.)

And like many self-conscious iconoclasts, they tend to drift in ever-more extreme directions, reveling in political incorrectness even as they leave common sense and common decency behind.

If he’s sincere, I wish there were more conservatives like Douthat. On occasion, the other side has good ideas…when they’re not babbling. I’m sure they could say the same about the loyal opposition. Call me a nut, call me a crazy dreamer, but I do believe there’s a middle ground.

Perish the Thought

I know it’s wrong, but whenever I read about a starlet collaborating with some shaggy song-writing dude, I always wonder how often the guy thinks: “What an excellent opportunity to explore new musical ideas and pathways. This young woman will act as my muse, even as I, in turn, inspire her. What a delightful tapestry of sound we will weave together!” versus, “Oh. My. God. I might get a chance to bang the chick from ___________.”

I’m thinking it’s 40/60.

Shit’s gotta end. That’s all I’ll say.

Sorry. It was a ponderous night. Ponderous few weeks, in fact. And it’s all happening when I’m feeling creative.

My First National Exposure: An Auspicious Start

Sent to me by my friend Kathy, who is plundering her personal archives. From The Nose… July 1994. Edited down from a longer piece (I was told that it was “too literary” and needed to be tacked back a bit, which is fine, because The Nose wasn’t Harper’s). Oh, so much has changed since then. And so little.

The article generated hate mail—amusingly I was vilified by both racists (“Asian bastard” was how the writer described the man below) and worried parents who never read “A Modest Proposal” and thought I was encouraging dog-munching. I’ve never TRIED to generate hate mail, by the way, yet I’ve gotten my share. Debate over the propriety or morality of an article has always struck me as peculiar. Some folks have trouble separating the signifier from the signified, I suppose. Writers who struggle to be controversial are idiots. Personally, I like my parents, and I stopped rebelling against them when… well, I never really did rebel against them. They generally left me alone to do my thing, man. Of course, I didn’t tell them EVERYTHING I did. Détente.