Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Getting out the vote

With that other election behind us, it's time for America to stand together on a matter of real importance: helping my friend Neal Svalstad win the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest.

In the several years since its introduction, the NYer C.C.C. has delighted the New Yorker magazine readership and bedeviled the subset that thinks it's funny. With over five thousand submissions a week and room for only three finalists, talking the talk has proven easier than walking the walk. Good for you, Neal: even making the final three is quite a coup.

Now it's time to get out the vote. The New Yorker has been known to overlook worthy submissions (ahem) but to its credit, much like America, occasionally nominates a truly outstanding candidate. The rest of us can live with being Adlai Stevensons as long as we can see the occasional Obama get the nod.

Of course, Team Obama had 22 months to prime the electorate, and we have but a few days; voting ends this Sunday at 11:59 p.m. E.S.T.

So vote! Get your friends to vote! Tell your mailman to vote! Train your dog to click a mouse, then tell it to vote! Form an exploratory committee to determine whether your superintelligent dog is a viable candidate to take back that House seat in your district from the GOP! Then take a nap, you've earned it! Then get someone else to vote! (By the way, I hope all of those votes you just wrangled were for Neal.)

Once again, the polling place is here:

Pass the link around! Share it with your loved ones! Make a T-shirt out of it! Tell everyone to vote Svalstad!

If the United States can produce a historic election result once in November 2008, we can do it twice. Neal's a funny man and a great guy, so he's deserving of this laurel. He and his beautiful bride Erin are about to become first-time parents, so let's usher in that era in style.

America, join me in helping the "Striking Viking" win the New Yorker caption contest. Let's do this.

Yes we can!

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Chicago's been an interesting place from which to take in the election and its consequences.

I sat out the election night Grant Park mob scene, although my brothers and seemingly half of my friends were there. As much as I love people, I hate crowds (being stranded in them, at least), and I'm content being merely near, not at, history as it unfolds. I'd rather watch the returns on TV, bouncing among the various networks, pundits and politicos. If the Cubs made the World Series I'd probably feel the same way.

Chicago's still getting used to all the attention. From time to time, of course, the national spotlight shines on us: Siskel and Ebert proved this wasn't showbiz flyover country; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is often called the nation's best; Mike Royko, Ann Landers and Bob Greene wrote for our dailies but were widely read in the provinces; Paul Harvey broadcast to millions from here each day; our options and futures markets lead the world; Michael Jordan made this the basketball capital of the 1990s; the University of Chicago boasts something like 81 Nobel laureates and counting; and our queen bee presumably wouldn't mind if we renamed this place Oprahville.

But when it comes to national affairs, Chicago usually takes a back seat to other cities: D.C. for politics, N.Y. for culture, L.A. for weirdness. Although we've hosted a lot of political conventions over the years, mostly back when they actually used to nominate presidents, the presidents themselves have come from somewhere else: Midland, Little Rock, Hyannisport, Yorba Linda, Plains. Downstate Illinois produced presidents Lincoln, Reagan and Grant, but Hyde Park as the home address of the commander in chief? That will take a little getting used to.

I'm loving the Chicago flavor of it all, the congratulatory banners hanging from lightposts, the off-duty Windy City cops helping to protect the man of the moment, the excitement of quasi-presidential motorcades shuttling around town. Few were surprised when Obama named a longtime ally, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-5th), as his chief of staff. A loyal foot soldier in the Beltway wars, Emanuel started his political life as a fundraiser for Rich Daley before serving as an adviser to President Clinton and succeeding Rod Blagojevich in Dan Rostenkowski's old House seat. Unlike Obama he's a lifelong Chicagoan; his dad was a well-known North Side pediatrician.

On the pop culture side his brother Ari Emanuel, a top Hollywood agent, was one of the inspirations for the Ari Gold character on Entourage, and Rahm himself is said to be the model for vote retriever Josh Lyman on The West Wing. "Rahmbo" also volunteered in the Israeli civil defense force and until I hear otherwise I'll continue to assume he can kill a man with his bare hands. I live a block away from the guy and I'm glad we only rarely run into each other. I find Rahm Emanuel a profoundly scary individual but I'm glad he's on our side.

Me, I wouldn't have minded seeing Emanuel, until last week the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the fourth most powerful House member, stay right where he was. He's been pretty impactful in that job, twisting arms to get congresspeople in line, allocating money among House races and recruiting candidates to run for seats in vulnerable GOP districts. He had as much to do with the Dems' sweeping 2006 congressional victory as anyone.

Emanuel would have been a major asset on the Hill helping shepherd Obama's agenda through Congress. Then again, it's hard to imagine a more effective chief of staff—he's tough as nails, well-connected, and one of few Democrats with significant congressional and White House experience—and he's earned the executive branch glamor gig. So have other party stalwarts like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson, and they're all getting theirs.

Some Republicans have already been heard to gripe that by choosing a tough-minded chief of staff, Obama betrayed his own promise of a new style of politics. Waah. If that's the worst you can say about the president-elect, as opposed to the things I could say about the current guy (the "president-unelected"), that's good news for all of us. Anyway, you should be happy Obama picked a ballbuster to coach the team. Maybe it will help undo some of your damage.

More generally, after years of cringing in anticipation of, and then being depressed by, pretty much every major presidential decision, what a pleasure to have complete confidence that whoever Obama appoints to his cabinet will be fit for the job. Or that his economic stimulus proposal will be well thought out (not to mention blessed by the likes of Paul Volcker, Robert Reich and Warren Buffett). Or insert your issue of choice here: stem cell research, CIA torture at Guantanamo, energy independence, early childhood education, global warming, health care, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran. Of course, all of these are issues of choice.

The president-elect is deeply impressive in many ways, chief among them his judgment. He is known for listening to all sides, particularly to those who disagree with him, before rendering a decision (compare that to the current president, who cares to hear only from yes men and Fox News, and who lets his staff summarize the newspapers for him). As for the quality of the decisions he so renders, Obama hasn't come close to disappointing me yet and he seems like the kind of guy who never will.

This is not some left-leaning Pollyanna merely hoping it were so, although of course I do. I've been following Obama's career with increasing interest since he was in Springfield and he's given me plenty of reason to believe he's the real deal. People who knew him a lot better and a lot earlier feel the same way (his fellow Harvard law students called him the future president, and admiringly). When I heard Eric Holder was Obama's choice for U.S. Attorney General, the name only vaguely rang a bell, but my knee-jerk reaction was pretty much, if Obama likes him then so do I.

For the record, Holder was the number two guy in President Clinton's Justice Department and prosecuted Rostenkowski for breaking federal laws; the blemish on his record was his signing off on Clinton's controversial pardon of shady financier Marc Rich on the way out of the Oval Office. Holder has since apologized for that miscue and has enjoyed a successful and well-regarded prosecutorial career. Compare him to President Bush's first two Attorneys General, the venal fundamentalist John Ashcroft and the longtime G.W. Bush factotum Alberto Gonzales. There's no comparison.

Different as they will be, there is of course an inevitable overlap between the 43rd and 44th presidencies, and to Bush's credit, he's apparently been a model of accommodation and generosity in assisting the transition along. When the Obamas visited the Bushes at the White House, I found the body language striking. It was Obama who athletically patted Bush on the back, not vice versa as one might have expected from the incumbent, Obama as the older brother, Obama who seemed presidential. It was easy to see his backpat as a gesture of forgiveness, an absolution. I was reminded of a moment at the end of the sixth Harry Potter book when a scared young student, in over his depth, ostensibly holds the reins of power, but his professor, although technically in a position of vulnerability, is actually in charge. And they both know it.

What's also nice is that Obama and company will mostly remain in Chicago during the transition period. After 22 months working the road, they're entitled to a little stability, at least geographically, during this time of upheaval. There's something to be said for sleeping in your own bed and getting to wake up to your family, as Obama told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes during his first post-election interview.

It was a pleasure to watch an hourlong substantive conversation with the Obamas. They came across as the unflappable, self-assured people they are, deserving of and ready for the challenges before them. What a luxury to have a president who radiates charm and intelligence, who seems to feel humbled by and aware of his place in history, who continually evidences a firm command of the issues we face, who is regarded with delight rather than apprehension by people throughout the world, who can speak in complete sentences. Not surprisingly, the interview delivered 60 Minutes' highest ratings in nine years.

Extending its triumphant return to hard news coverage, 60 Minutes followed up the big Obama get with a nifty roundtable featuring the Obama campaign's four top officials, taped late election night with victory still hanging in the air. Their discussion of how they turned red states blue, dealt with the Rev. Wright explosion and took their cues from their candidate was compelling television. Both of these fine pieces are available for viewing at the CBS News website.

The Os are taking their kids to school one day, grabbing a dinner date the next, trying to maintain a semblance of a normal life amid the security briefings and fact-finding visits to D.C. schools. Obama and adviser Valerie Jarrett walked into the landmark downtown deli Manny's on Friday and bought corned beef sandwiches and potato pancakes to go, an act that would have been somewhat more routine had they neither been accompanied by several dozen reporters and photographers (which is how you and I heard about it) nor greeted by a restaurant-wide round of applause. But such is life when you're the next president.

Soon enough the transition period will be over and the Obamas will be off to Washington. For now, though, the golden glow remains.

Friday, November 21, 2008

That's a wrap

Events Week (for what other name could we give to a week in which all I do is babble about events?) wraps up today with one more cultural pearl for your consideration.

The buzzed-about new independent movie Humboldt County makes its Chicago area premiere this evening, kicking off its exclusive booking at the historic Wilmette Theatre.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Banner day

Attention Loop office workers:  
Get your municipal pride on at the City of Chicago's annual Banner Auction.  They're selling off those streetlight signs that promote festivals, sporting moments and musicals gone by.  Proceeds go to charity.  

The action kicks off today at noon in the lobby of the Daley Center; my Flavorpill preview is here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


As John McCain has become immensely wealthy and politically powerful, his posturing as a regular working-class guy, while never particularly plausible, has grown more insistent.

In a like fashion, even as Billy Corgan played ever-larger arenas and commanded more attention on the world's cultural stage, his whining and self-pity commensurately increased.

The McCain psychodrama, while far from over, is at least yesterday's news as the would-be common man, having sold out his beliefs on the campaign trail, skulks back to what for many people would be a dream job in the U.S. Senate.

Corgan's, however, is back in the spotlight today as he kicks off a week of shows marking the Smashing Pumpkins' twentieth anniversary.  My Flavorpill preview is here.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Attention dorks

New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and crossword constructor extraordinaire Merl Reagle will appear as themselves on tonight's episode of The Simpsons. Geek manna!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Jacking the ball

Beloved and seldom seen jazz-pop combo The Sea and Cake will appear tomorrow evening at the Empty Bottle. One Chicago institution, two shows.

How can you not love a band that once named an LP The Fawn?

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The OC

August: Osage County is headed for the silver screen, the logical next step for a play that's lit up the American theater.

It all started right here in Chicago last year, when Tracy Letts' family melodrama premiered with a red-hot run at the Steppenwolf Theatre. Tickets sold out weeks in advance as national critics sprained their writing hands trying to out-rave each other.

It soon became apparent that the show was Broadway material, and to their credit, producers transferred the entire production to New York intact. It's become routine to replace serious stage actors with movie stars when straight plays move from the hinterlands to the Great White Way, but August's original cast and crew moved wholesale. The producers' faith in them was rewarded when the Broadway production earned more positive notices and an armful of Tony Awards. Letts also took the Pulitzer Prize for best drama.

Next up, the Hollywood version. Former Miramax chief and now Weinstein Co. head Harvey Weinstein bought the film rights and will produce the big-screen adaptation. You may remember Harvey from his recent turn playing himself on Entourage (or wait, I think that was his brother Bob).

Congratulations to producer and FOBB&B Steve Traxler, who was as responsible as anyone for bringing the show to Broadway, and who will serve as a producer on the movie version.

Here's more from an industry publication:

TWC heads to 'Osage County'; Weinstein, Doumanian, Traxler to produce

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Still running your lives

I've never been shy about urging you, my literally tens of readers, to do this or go to that.

It's not that I know best how you should spend your time (although I do). It's mostly that for someone who wants to keep their blog current, there's a lot of white space to fill, and sometimes you're at a loss for subject matter. When you also write for a going-out guide like Flavorpill, you've got a steady stream of cool events and performances to talk about, which helps fill the gaps between the deep thoughts and the dick jokes. Plus it's stuff that I think is worth recommending, and doing so helps promote Flavorpill in a town where it's still emerging.

The latest example is a nice standup comedy show tonight and tomorrow, the first Zanies headlining gig for a homegrown talent. Cure your midweek blahs by spending Veterans Day with a veteran of the Chicago comedy scene. You'll be supporting a good guy, and happily for you, he's hilarious. Everybody wins.

So tonight and tomorrow, live on stage, it's Hannibal Buress. My Flavorpill preview is here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The world is watching

Image courtesy FOBB&B Kristy Mangel

Friday, November 7, 2008

Last-minute laughs

If you're looking for some fun this weekend, I highly recommend The Interview Show, 6:30 this evening at the Hideout, hosted by FOBB&B Mark Bazer. A mere 5 bucks gets you not only Mark's patented wisecracks but lively interviews of the following creative types:
  1. Playwright Keith Huff, whose critically acclaimed show A Steady Rain had a nice run this year at the Royal George Theatre;
  2. Filmmaker Steve Conrad, whose movie The Promotion I almost saw this summer (you can put that on your résumé, Steve); and
  3. Some comedy group called Schadenfreude that I have never heard of, but apparently the kids are into.
There's also a nice comedy showcase tonight and tomorrow at 10 at the Lakeshore Theater featuring two standups I like a lot, Eugene Mirman and Kumail Nanjiani, and a third one, Larry Murphy, whojudging by the company he keepspresumably doesn't suck.

My Flavorpill preview is here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Memo to Katie Couric

It's Grant Park, not "the Grant Field."

Election Day

I voted. Did you?

Although we all know Illinois is in the bag, it was still exciting to cast a vote for Sen. Obama. In a world where there's every reason for our best and brightest to shun public life, it's an honor to have a presidential candidate so profoundly impressive.

Finally, in honor of Election Day, here's something I once wrote about it for the online version of Dave Eggers' magazine, McSweeney's.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Attention voters

It's a ritual nearly as old as democracy itself. Voters walk into the voting booth so focused on the top of the ticket that they either don't bother to vote in state and local races or cast an uninformed vote based on the thinnest available evidence.

Why else would a handful of obscure candidates in every Chicago election legally anoint themselves with middle names like O'Leary, Flanagan and Fitzpatrick? They're counting on our ignorance and apathy.

Likewise with the safe-sounding Fairchilds and Harts of the world, who hope we'll find out they're deranged LaRouche acolytes only after they defeat the "weird-sounding" Olyskiewiczes and Husseins (their Yale law degrees, successful legal careers and moderate views notwithstanding).

But as Tip O'Neill said, all politics is local. In fact, you could make a pretty good case that the more local the election, the more direct its effect upon you. An alderman or condo board president affects the quality of your life in ways much more tangible than a statewide or national officeholder can. Under any other administration I'd compare their impact to that of the president, but doing so this year would distract from and weaken my argument.

Take the retention races for Cook County Circuit Court and Illinois Appellate Court judges (or insert here whichever county and state you live in). Most of us rarely appear in court, and whether we do or not, have little means of evaluating the performance of the judges on the slate. So we either don't vote or, worse, vote out of thin air, possibly doing more damage than those who don't vote. It's the rare voter who makes informed decisions about a bunch of judges she'll never meet.

This year, let's make that rare voter you and me. Happily, various local bar associations have done the homework for us, their volunteers spending long hours to determine which judges are, by wide consensus, qualified or unqualified. All you and I have to do is bring their findings with us into the voting booth and thereby cast meaningful votes.

Here, for example, is an email the Chicago Bar Association recently sent me:

The Association's Judicial Evaluation Committee has completed its evaluations for the November 4, 2008, General Election.

Of the 70 sitting judges running for retention in November, the JEC found two Illinois Appellate Court justices "Qualified" and 64 Circuit Court judges "Qualified" for retention. Four Circuit Court judges were given ratings of "Not Recommended" for retention. We urge you to vote NO for the retention judges found "Not Recommended."

Of the 34 candidates seeking election for Circuit Court positions, 31 were evaluated by the JEC. The Committee found four of those candidates "Highly Qualified," 25 "Qualified," and two "Not recommended.” Three candidates declined to participate in the evaluation process and pursuant to the JEC's Governing Resolution were automatically found "Not Recommended."

Our complete findings are available on the CBA's website and may be conveniently downloaded.

Please feel free to take this information with you on November 4, 2008 and remember to vote the Judicial Ballot. We urge you to vote for candidates found Qualified or Highly Qualified.

The CBA also thanks the many JEC committee members who volunteered so much of their time in order to complete the evaluation process.

There are many other fine bar associations whose electoral opinions you can also consult, and compare and contrast if you wish. I'm passing along the CBA's opinions not as the last word on the subject but as the first, a reminder that there are informed opinions out there available to anyone willing to take a moment to seek them out.

See you at the polls.

Incidentally, if you still haven't decided whom to support in the presidential election, I'm not even going to try to sway your vote, but congratulations on figuring out how to use a computer.