Jesse Winchester, You’re on My Mind


A while ago, I made plans with Randy, an old friend who lives far away, to meet someplace to enjoy one of our shared enthusiasms, a singer-songwriter named Jesse Winchester. It’s not literally true that we grew up on this guy’s music, but that’s how it feels. The idea was we’d go someplace where Jesse was performing–Austin, Texas, say–catch a show and enjoy a weekend catching up. It was a great plan, but we both got busy with other things and it didn’t come to pass.

Still, I check Jesse’s tour dates just to see if he might be coming back to the Bay Area soon. The last time I saw him was in Berkeley, with another high school friend, Gerry. A hIghlight of the show for me was when Jesse asked for requests. The crowd answered with a chorus of titles, but Gerry’s voice–he just said, “Mississippi!”–rang out above the others. “Well, I heard someone say ‘Mississippi,’ ” Jesse said. And that’s what he sang.

Sometime in the last month, in the midst of the ongoing political disaster better known as the 112th Congress, I was thinking about another Jesse Winchester song, “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt.” It’s a tribute to and a twist on a gospel-infused 1940s number that remembered FDR as a friend to African Americans and the poor (and here’s a gem: Bob Dylan introducing an older version of the song).

In looking for the lyrics, I stumbled across Jesse’s website, which I hadn’t looked at in a long time. And for a while, anyway, I forgot all about my song research. The front page carries an announcement that he’s canceled his performance dates because he’s undergoing treatment for advanced esophageal cancer. The good news in the story is that so far–as related by family members on an online journal–the treatment appears to be going well, and the patient sounds like he’s amazingly resilient.

So: Here’s to a full recovery, Jesse Winchester. I hope my friends and I have a chance very soon to hear you in person.

Air Blog: Back West


Last night on Delta Flight 1253, Salt Lake City to Oakland. This is along the south shore of Great Salt Lake, just west of the city. We were over Stansbury Island when the picture was snapped. The Stansbury Mountains are in the center distance. And those colored patches on Stansbury Bay at right are salt evaporation ponds. (Stansbury? Who was this Stansbury?)

Family Photo Odyssey


We spent a couple hours scanning in some family pictures from albums that Kate and my mom put together from the big mountain of family snapshots that had accumulated for decades and decades. A lot of what we’re scanning is stuff from our own lives, scenes and experiences that the images recall vividly and instantly.

And then there’s the photo above. That’s my dad’s father, Sjur Ingebrettsen Brekke. who passed on long before I was born. A note on the reverse in my grandmother’s handwriting says, “Lake Michigan, July 31, 1911.” (Maybe such inscriptions are passe, but if you want your own virtual mountain of digital snaps to be a little more intelligible to your posterity, leave some hint of who, what when, where, etc.)

This man has always been an enigma. Here he is at age 35, ten years before my dad’s arrival in the world. He died a little more than ten years after that event, at age 55. I haven’t seen a picture in which he actually cracks a smile–at least not in any sense I’d recognize. Here he looks a bit put off by whoever it was talked him into coming out to the dunes in his suit. He was a Lutheran pastor in Muskegon at the time, and maybe that was the official beach uniform of his calling. (By all accounts, which means what my dad has told us, he was a kind and gentle soul and a reserved and quiet one, too.)

The photo’s composition is curious, too. Here we are in a picturesque stretch of the Michigan dunes, and the picture is framed in a way that directs attention to the smoke-emitting building (power plant? school? sanatorium?) in the background.

Below: A picture of Sjur at age 26, a little more relaxed looking, about the time he was completing his studies to become a minister.


Chicago: Toilets, Rainwater, Seagulls, Dogs


Last Thursday, we went out to the north end of Lincoln Park–Wilson Avenue up to Ardmore Avenue–and happened across a nice new beach house the park district put up next to the Hollywood curve on Lake Shore Drive. In making use of the facility’s public convenience (restrooms), I was confronted by the sign above. I was simultaneously happy to be informed that I was making use of an environmentally aware facility and alarmed at the need to advise the public that water in the urinal is not safe for drinking. (I’m reliably informed the same sign was posted over the toilets in the women’s restroom. A Chicago Park District “beach ambassador” we met outside the beach house opined that the signs wouldn’t be there unless there had been an issue with patrons using the water for purposes other than flushing.)

The reason we would up talking to the beach ambassador was because I was checking out a diagram of the rainwater capture/retention/pumping apparatus posted outside the restroom. She explained she’s part of a campaign funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and by the park district to educate beachgoers about water quality issues and beach health. In fact, she asked us to sign a pledge to do our part to keep the beaches and adjacent waters clean. We did.

dog080511.jpg One of the campaign’s specific goals is getting gulls off the beaches. That’s because studies over the last decade have found that gull droppings are a major source of E. coli in beachfront waters and perhaps the bigges factor in the contamination that often shuts down Chicago beaches. Part of the evidence for the seagull factor is what happened to E. coli levels in South Side waters when trained border collies were used to chase gulls off the beaches. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report issued earlier this summer, the number of water samples that exceeded state standards for E. coli fell sharply when dogs were on dawn-to-dusk patrol to keep the birds away; the E. coli levels rose again during a summer when the dogs were not on the beaches.

So the dogs were brought back. We heard that one of the places they’re on patrol is at 63rd Street, Jackson Park, one of the beaches with the highest incidence of closures due to near-shore bacterial contamination. We went down there early Friday afternoon. There weren’t a lot of people on the beach, and there were no gulls on the sand at all in the quarter-mile beachfront. After a couple minutes, we spotted a couple dogs with their handlers, watching for birds at opposite ends of the beach. We watched one of the dogs, and when a gull landed about 50 yards away, it locked on to it and advanced. The gull knew what was up and took off before the dog got close.

The dogs are only part of the solution to keeping the gulls away. The park district is trying to keep uncontained garbage off the beach by a thorough daily clean-up and by beachgoer education (below: a sign posted in the restroom at 63rd Street).


Road Blog: Brady Street, Milwaukee, Wales


Early in our travel week, we drove from Chicago up to Milwaukee to meet our friends Robin and JIm, once of Berkeley, now of Ripon, Wisconsin (the town that’s the birthplace of the Republican Party, I can never refrain from saying).

Our plan was to meet at a Oaxacan restaurant called Cempazuchi, on Brady Street north of downtown. The neighborhood turns out to be happening, as doddering tourist types such as your current guide might put it. By which he means: it’s lined with restaurants, coffeehouses, clubs ‘n’ bars, and a couple of tattoo shops.

Above is one of those last, the Saints and Sinners Tattoo Company. The green hipster fixie machine caught my eye. And the legend “Sullen Art Collective” on the front door got my attention, too. Given the overall look, I read that and thought “art that is sullen.”

I pointed out the door to Kate, who said, “In my craft or sullen art. …” It was a familiar line, but I didn’t place it. She did: the title of a Dylan Thomas poem.

Later, she tracked down the text, and read it aloud, twice:

In My Craft or Sullen Art

In my craft or sullen art   
Exercised in the still night   
When only the moon rages   
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light   
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms   
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages   
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart   
From the raging moon I write   
On these spindrift pages   
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms   
But for the lovers, their arms   
Round the griefs of the ages,   
Who pay no praise or wages   
Nor heed my craft or art.

Chicago Cemetery, with Coyote


Part of a ritual we’ve taken up recently on visits with my dad in Chicago. We “go for a ride,” as he used to say when we were kids, across the North Side. We stop at the Dairy Queen on Irving Park Road just west of Central Avenue. Then we might drop by Mount Olive Cemetery, where much of his (very Lutheran, very Norwegian) family is interred.

Yesterday we went for a ride even though it was the beginning of the homeward rush hour, dodged most of the traffic, and swung by the DQ. I managed to dump part of my chocolate shake down my front before we proceeded. “You feel like going to the cemetery?” my dad asked when I’d cleaned myself up and started up the car to leave.

Through the gate off Narragansett Avenue, keeping left until you can’t go left anymore, then turning toward a section I’ve come to recognize. My grandparents are off to the right, just beyond a couple small conical piney shrubs. My dad’s grandparents and most of their children are off to the left. Other relatives are scattered around and about, and yesterday my dad stopped us near a gravesite we’ve passed recently without mention–an aunt, an uncle, a couple of cousins and their wives (the men died young; one of the women lived to be 103).

Up ahead, an animal moved across the road: a coyote, inside the cemetery and well inside the Chicago city limits. I’d heard they were here, but I’d never seen them. This one–a female, I think–settled into the grass just beyond the Brekke grave. We watched for about five minutes. When the mosquitoes started to swarm, we decided to walk over to the grave. The coyote got up and moved off among the headstones and monuments.


Road Blog: Chicago Sidewalk Bikes


I note a change in the local street culture while strolling in my sister’s Chicago neighborhood (West Rogers Park, which for auslanders means “far North Side”): lots more people riding bikes on the sidewalk around here. Impressions are undependable as data points, but I’d say that I might encounter an adult riding down the sidewalk maybe once a day on prior visits here (if that). On this visit, I’ve encountered multiple cyclists, sometimes flurries of them, every time I’ve been out walking. These don’t appear to be really serious, gung ho cyclists–we saw a group of them whipping down Western Avenue, in the street with full lights, etc., at dusk last night. No, these look like folks, like the guy above, who are out on short errands and have figured out that rolling is faster than walking and perhaps less complicated than driving. Sort of a good news (great to see more people on two wheels), bad news (bikes and sidewalks don’t mix well, and it’s illegal for anyone over 12 years old to ride on the sidewalk in Chicago) story. The illegal riding is complicated by the lack of etiquette and riding smarts on the park of most sidewalk cyclists: They rarely make a sound when they’re coming up behind you (Kate nearly got clipped by a teenager just on Sheridan Road just up from Loyola Park.

In any case, the issue is not a new one here. When my folks lived at Sheridan and Ardmore, there was an ongoing issue (and still ongoing) with cyclists emerging from the north end of the lake shore bike path and deciding to continue their journey on the sidewalk rather than on a parallel bike route a short block to the west. (Bike lanes of course pose their own set of challenges, including drivers who whip their doors open into the two-wheeled traffic zone.) The city has installed threatening signs and painted the message on the sidewalks there–by city ordinance, you’ll get fined and have your bike temporarily disabled (what do they do? take one of your wheels?). Last time I walked there, sidewalk cycling was still common.

The city government’s Chicago Bicycle Program has a decent instructional video on the issue: Bike on the Street, Not on the Sidewalk, which actually features some staged but still audacious examples of folks dealing with automobile traffic on the streets.


Road Blog: August in Chicago


Kate and I did what I termed “an epic walk” when we started out–from near Touhy and Western on Chicago’s far North Side to downtown Evanston, then back by way of the lakefront. When we got back and I checked our route on Gmaps Pedometer, we had strolled for 7.9 miles. Flat miles, yes. The degree of difficulty was furnished by a temperature in the low 90s and humidity high enough that my Bay Area-influenced constitution felt like we were in a steambath.

There were people on the beach, but I didn’t happen across a single scene, or wasn’t alert to one, that said “hot day in Chicago” to me. But I did capture the above: a quintet at Peet’s in Evanston, concentrating on their screens in air-conditioned comfort. (I’m thinking “air-conditioned comfort” would substitute for “happiness” were the Declaration of Independence to be redrafted today.) This was the smart place to be, not shuffling along Chicago’s August streets.

And outside right now: A cold front is moving down from the northwest that’s already brought squalls and severe thunderstorms to the lake cities north of here. After that, it’s supposed to cool down for the rest of the week.


Guest Observation: Minorities, Majorities

From Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address:

“If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the Government must cease. There is no other alternative, for continuing the Government is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them, for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. …
“A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”