Lost The Rink and Take The Ribbon

RibbonSkating rinks are, by definition, rinky. You skate in a circle and then, after the Zamboni, if you are lucky, you skate in the same circle in the other direction. Great rinks have great views; mediocre rinks have little or nothing to see. Good rinks make you feel fast and accomplished. Bad rinks are easily recognized by their bad ice, overpriced snacks, and loud distorted music, usually pop rock hits from two decades hence. I think “Slap Shot.” For those of us who are no great shakes on the ice – and I count myself among them – the pleasure derived from a skating trip often happens in spite of the rink.

Those dynamics have changed. I recently had a chance to enjoy the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Skating Ribbon, the new ice skating feature at Maggie Daley Park. It was a delightful skating experience, probably my favorite ever, save a time on a frozen lake in my teens. Planners have abandoned the rink in favor of a trail. The ribbon twists and turns for a quarter-mile through Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago. And even though the lockers are not all ready, the food vendors have yet to set up, and construction crews are still around, it is lovely. Chicago has moved beyond the rink. It is something special.

Circling the Ribbon was a good time to look around. Chicago may not be perfect, but it truly features a truly world-class downtown. Folks journey from all over the world, in great numbers, as any local can attest. Particularly in Millennium Park. Our downtown enjoys beautiful vistas, inspirational architecture, and public spaces that make you feel good to be alive. I am a sucker for a good downtown and Chicago’s makes me smile. Especially on the Ribbon, which is spectacular. I encourage you to give it a whirl – and most definitely bring your own skates.

David Potash

City of Ambition – When Folks Could Make It There

Academic history is assiduously researched and tightly argued. Popular history, in contrast, pays homage to those methods with different goals. It aims to surprise and engage. Popular history provokes, and most importantly, it is designed to give the reader pleasure and information.City of Ambition

Mason B. Williams, author of City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York, understands this well. The key protagonists in his book are well-known and well-researched figures. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, known for the New Deal and leading the United States through World War II, is perhaps the nation’s most important political leader of the twentieth century. Fiorello LaGuardia, mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945, is perhaps America’s best known mayor. With multiple biographies on each and multitudes of studies, essays, and books about them, Williams does not aim to captivate us through deeper research and finer detail. Instead, he offers a refreshing take on the two men, their complicated relationship, and its impact on America’s largest city. He has written a very good popular history.

FDR was a wealthy patrician, born to serve in government and lead. LaGuardia was an immigrant’s son who had to scramble to get ahead. Both faced difficult personal crises: FDR struggling with polio, LaGuardia losing his wife and child. Both men fought through political challenges, and both had great spirit, able to inspire and connect with the broader public. FDR was a Democrat. LaGuardia was a Republican. Despite partisan differences, they respected each other and found many ways to coöperate and collaborate.

Williams book works well capturing the human element. Partnerships – and in many ways this was an odd sort of partnership – are shaped by personalities. The substance of this history, though, is the federal government’s investment in the development of modern NYC. Federal dollars provided many jobs and funded the creation of much of the city’s infrastructure. In turn,Williams also makes it clear that the federal government needed effective and flexible local agencies and governments to be effective. Compromise and bipartisan work was at the core of the New Deal in Gotham.

Governance was different then, and in many ways, much stronger. One clear take away from City of Ambition is that we have lost much of bipartisan spirit. It very much was a different time.

David Potash

Modern Chicago – The Third Coast

Third CoastSometimes when feeling adventurous – particularly when time is not an issue – I will engage in a free-wheeling conversation with a stranger. The place where I start this matters – a bar, a library, waiting in line – and so does the stranger’s appearance. The likelihood that I will make an observation or ask a question increases if the person looks like they have opinions and something to say. These forays fall flat every now and then. But more often that not, asking the right question at the right moment opens up a vista. I listen and learn. People are interesting. And occasionally that chance encounter leads to an informed discussion that carries with it observation, nuance, and heft.

Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast reminds me of such a chance encounter. A novelist, playwright, and editor, Dyja has a way with words. They flow from his pen, building scenes and capturing moments. He is a long-time Chicagoan with a approach-avoidance relationship with the city. He loves it and it frustrates him terribly. Dyja’s book is a narrative history of the Windy City, covering 1932 – 1960, a period we historians think of “modern” America. He is deeply passionate about Chicago. Dyja now lives in New York City.

Dyja is no historian. He is unconcerned with large-scale continuities and movements. His story is disconnected from national economics, politics, and established historical analysis. What he brings to the table is an intimate familiarity with some key individuals, some critical conflicts and divisions, and a playwright’s understanding of drama, tension, and resolution. The key players in The Third Coast are Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mahalia Jackson,László Moholy-Nagy, Nelson Algren, and Richard Daley. A cast of hundreds, though, vie for Dyja and our attention: Hugh Hefner, Studs Terkel, Ray Krok, Dave Garroway, Katherine Kuh, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muddy Waters, and many more. Dyja is free and funny with observations and opinions. His critical take on Robert Hutchins, for example, is withering and memorable.

The themes Dyja explores are about race, culture, and identity – played out in the development of centers of power in Chicago. North side versus south side, of course plays an important role. But so, too, does competing visions for downtown Chicago. Dyja is after an ever elusive zeitgeist, a sense of what forces were driving this extraordinarily dynamic city to be both the most American of all cities and also the most disappointing in not fulfilling its promise.

I learned much from The Third Coast. But like that lengthy discussion with a stranger, I left wondering just how much to believe – and why.

David Potash

Toms River – A New Environmental Classic

Growing up in northern New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, my family would drive down the shore in the summer months to enjoy the Atlantic beaches. Our favorite spot was Ocean County. We would get up early in the morning and head to Island Beach State Park for a morning and afternoon of sun and surf. Folks would tire of the sand by late afternoon and we would then head to beach communities and boardwalks of Seaside Heights and Point Pleasant. The shore is a sanctuary and a breath of fresh air in a Garden State that is often less than verdant.

Toms River

The beach towns of NJ are located on a spit of land separated from the mainland by miles of sea, inlet and marshland. One the mainland side, most travelers to Ocean County head take a bridge on Route 37 from Toms River to beach communities. Toms River has developed over the years. When I was a child I remember farmland and the occasional diner. Today it dotted strip malls, many subdivisions, and ceaseless traffic. For many of us in New Jersey, Toms River has been a town to drive through, a traffic bottleneck on a journey somewhere else. We should have stopped and paid attention. Many bad things were happening in Ocean County.

As Dan Fagin chronicles in his outstanding book Toms River: a Story of Science and Salvation, the town has a sinister and literally, toxic history. Fagin is a science journalism professor at NYU. A longtime environmental reporter at Newsday (a Long Island newspaper), Fagin has written for many publications and garnered many awards. Toms River received the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction and many other awards. All of them are well deserved. It is superb book.

The story of Toms River that Fagin chronicles consists of multiple distinct, yet interrelated, strands of history, knowledge, and action. Toms River’s historical and political development, from its basic geography and topology to the settling of the area and its demographic growth in the 1970s and later is one thread. Farmlands and woods gave way to industrial development, suburban homes, and then more and more homes. Another strand is the phenomenal growth and influence of the chemical industry. Starting in Germany and Switzerland and extending to the United States, the industry made great profits from the manufacturing of dyes for textiles and other products. The genesis of this whole income stream was a desire to do something with the detritus of a burgeoning petrochemical industry. The science around hydrocarbons, and the hard work that went into understanding them and the many ways that they interact with flora and fauna, is another strand in the book.

Fagin explains more than the bench science. He provides a wonderful explanation of large-scale environmental causality and probability. A dry topic in less skill hands, statistical probability and its role in making hazard and risk clear and actionable is extremely important. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for people to believe connections between illness and action if they are mediated by time and lifestyle. Cigarette smokers do not die of cancer within days. However, rigorous science can prove a causal relationship. If the arguments are persuasive and there is sufficient political and public will, policy can change. Determining the connection between a soup of dumped chemicals that leech into a water supply and a statistical increase in childhood cancer is a much harder lift. Fagin methodically uncovers the links, debates, and actions in government and public health circles in another history.

Finally, and perhaps the most compelling part of Fagin’s book, there are the stories of all the people involved in Toms River. We meet childhood cancer victims and survivors. We hear the voices of their parents. Greenpeace takes the stage for a while, as do environmental activists, small-time crooks, overworked bureaucrats, corporate leaders, union workers, lawyers, and the hundreds of people whose live have been caught up in the legacy of chemical waste in New Jersey. At the heart of the book are Linda and Michael Gillick, a mother and son whose live were completely reshaped by Michael’s devastating cancer and treatments. The truth about what happened in Toms River would never emerged without their passion, skill, and commitment.

Fagin subtitled the book “As Story of Science and Salvation.” Thanks to the untold efforts of Gillicks and many others, governmental agencies were roused after decades of indifference, if not out-and-out collusion. Fines were levied, indictments made, and eventually, noxious dumping practices in New Jersey were halted.  Cancer rates have decreased and the community has been delivered from the sins of chemical companies and toothless regulation.

Difficult questions, though, remain. How could companies that poisoned water, towns, and workers for many years escape the legal consequences of their actions? While the difficult science of linking environmental poisons to specific maladies was not always crystal clear, chemical companies like Ciba (the parent company of Novartis) had experienced many years of complaints and lawsuits. Ciba’s Toms River plant was built with minimal environmental concerns as Ciba fled regulation and attention from their Cincinnati factory. Companies like Ciba willfully avoided looking at long-term consequences as they dumped all manner of noxious waste. What sort of ethical expectations, if any, do we have for companies? Who takes responsibility and why.

The saga of Toms River is a powerful counter argument to libertarianism. Without governmental action, untold numbers in the Toms River area would be sick, dying or dead. Yet governmental officials are no more heroic than the families struggling to save their children. There might be salvation, but there are no happy endings here.

We will be reading and thinking about Dan Fagin’s Toms River for decades to come.

David Potash

Her Sister’s Keeper

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a recent novel from Karen Joy Fowler, is an endearing disruptive read. Narrated in the first person by Rosemarie Cook, an inveterate talked who starts in the middle and loops with little regard for chronology’s strictures, the book engages and challenges. Good novels worm their way into how we think about people and the world – and We Are Completely Beside Ourselves does a wonderful job of it. Fowler is a very talented author.We are all completely besides ourselves

Fowler does not so much have a plot as a concept, and it could be something of a surprise for those not paying close attention. A traditional nuclear family (father, mother, son, daughter) raises an orphaned baby chimpanzee as one of their own as a psychology experiment. The chimp, Fern, is the same age as the younger daughter, Rosemarie.  The experiment ends after five years – the chimpanzee is suddenly sent to a “farm” – and the family suffers trauma and disintegrates over time.

Rosemarie, who has a terrific voice and a real way with words, tells us this story. Irreverent and deeply moral, Rosemarie’s coming of age is more than a journey to adulthood; it is about what it means to be fully human. Those interested in literary analysis will find numerous thoughtful references. Themes of doubling and twinning themes are woven throughout. Fowler’s skill unfolds these questions with a light, yet penetrating touch.

Well worth your time – and I would be surprised if you would want to visit the monkey cage at the zoo after reading it. When it comes to our ethical responsibilities to animals, no easy answers are possible. Some things, though, are simply wrong.

David Potash

Marvels Abound

Panama CanalWhen I was about ten years old, I was given a copy of Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. An aged hardcover in an odd shade of green, it was a well thumbed through thick volume. Initially suspicious – what could be exciting in such a musty old book? – it quickly became one of my favorite reads.

Halliburton wrote of traveling the world before World War II, exploring and taking photographs. He was intensely curious and seemingly without fear. Reading the book, I could hear him saying “Let’s try that!” – whether it was walking through the jungle to find Angkor Wat in Cambodia or imagining knights fighting in Carcassonne in the South of France. He went everywhere. The book was loaded with maps and images. Halliburton was a trusted guide. His enthusiasm for discovery – for seeing it for yourself – captivated me. I wondered if there were new adventures and new discoveries. I very much wanted to see his sites for myself.

Happily, I have been extremely fortunate to have visited more than a few of Halliburton’s marvels. I am not going to make it to all of them. Climbing Mount Everest, after all, seems a bit of an extreme commitment. All of them, though, remain captivating. Earlier this week I visited the the Panama Canal, something I have thought about since reading Halliburton all those years ago.Halliburton in the Panama Canal

Halliburton’s account of the Canal is unusual. In 1928 he swam it. He described the heroic construction, the awesome size of the project, took more than a few photos, and paid 36 cents. That remains the lowest toll in the Canal’s history.

Wandering around the Miraflores locks, photographing the ships, and imagining the work of thousands of laborers was surprisingly moving. It is an extraordinarily accomplishment of human endeavor. I had a sense of wonder, both as an adult and as a remembered boy.

David MacCullough’s The Path Between the Seas is probably the best account of the Canal’s construction. (And yes, these books have cast a long shadow in my life). Seeing the Panama Canal up close gave a sense of witnessing something much larger and grander than an engineering project.

Marvel can do that – inspire and challenge in the same breath. It is the perfect emotion for a child. And not a bad one for an adult, either.

David Potash

Modalities of Perception in a City Block

We lead distracted lives. Possibly because we aOn Lookingre over committed and ambitious. Or perhaps to avoid our demons.

When I look around me and really pay attention – no cell phone, no earbuds, no other task at hand – I usually find myself to be the only one engaged in the pursuit. Unplugging and focusing is a skill headed the way of stone carving: cool but not all that useful.

But we often do need to sharpen our focus. Work demands it. Concentration is a learned skill that can bring with it tremendous benefits.

That sense of engagement and questions of utility dance through a deeply engaging book by Barnard professor Alexandra Horowitz. Best known for her work on canines and the very interesting Inside of a Dog, Horowitz’s latest work was occasioned by walking around her New York City block with her young son. As any new parent will relate, space and time change radically in those first years of walking with a child. Very young children see with new eyes. All is exciting to the under twos. They have yet to develop and internalize the processing taxonomies that sort the important from the irrelevant.

From those early steps with her son, Horowitz began to question her ways of seeing. What didn’t she notice? What could she see differently by engaging with those trained in other ways of observing? The result, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, provokes and inserts itself, uncomfortably, in the habitual. Reading it was an exercise in itself. As I looked up from the text – focusing in a different way – I thought about my immediate environs and my relationship with it differently. It “knocked me awake” – which is one of Horowitz’s goals in writing the book.

Horowitz’s experts have to include herself and her expertise in cognitive psychology. She frames the questions of attention, perception and observing from a psychological and anthropological point of view. We are hard-wired to pay closer attention to threats, changes in the environment, and features that lead to food and safety. Those same skills are often poorly integrated into modern life, video games not withstanding. Understanding our environment, and ourselves, can call for new ways of perceiving.

Horowitz consults with a geologist, who traces millions of years through the many kinds of stone in the built urban environment. A typographer knows too much about the letters that surround us, from their history to how we respond to their size, shape, and order. An artist helps Horowitz recognize the exceptional that is woven into the ordinary. A field naturalist clues us into the many different bugs and insects all around us and a biologist identifies the clues of animals’ presence in the city.

As Horowitz’s environment is re-seen, again and again, from these robustly different schemes, two observations came to mind.

The first, learned from an art historian, is that we see what we know. If someone tells you that a painting is by Rembrandt, you see a painting by Rembrandt. It is exceedingly difficult to look and both to know and pretend that one does do not know.

The second stems from a long-standing question first sparked in a college literature class on James Joyce’s Ulysses. As a chapter opens, Stephen Daedelus, a key character, closes his eyes. The text reads, “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.” Joyce’s text calls into question of what is real and what is known. Does the world disappear when Stephen does not see it? Is what we think that we know true, or even the best way to know? These were rich questions for a college class, the kind of questions that can return and animate all manner of reflection.

Horowitz gets this and the problem of knowing. Though her focus is scientific and empirical – no Joycean or wild conjecture here – she is wrestling with questions of truth and perception. The book is a pleasure to read. Horowitz has a gift of asking these difficult questions in clear prose. She takes complex issues and renders them accessible. It is rare to read a work that both humbles and leaves you feeling just a little smarter.

David Potash

Uncertain Terrain

My home is in an apartment in Chicago. Originally constructed in the late 1800s, our building was renovated in the 1980s and four units were created. When our building went up in the 19th century, a sister building was constructed next door. However, the sister building was never renovated. The two of them sat side by side on a tree-lined street.Our building and its sister.50 Our neighborhood is Lincoln Park, an area of the city becoming wealthier – or at least our small part of it is. Large-scale real estate development is taking place nearby. We also see smaller changes on a regular basis, from more places that sell lattes to expensive cars parked on the streets.

In the fall, we learned that the sister building next to us had been purchased. Renters in the building steadily moved out. In the spring, we learned that the structure was going to be demolished. A new, single-family structure would go up in its place. There was talk about profit, timing, and the changing nature of real estate in a big city.

The demolition was speedy.

One day a back hoe appeared and made quick work of the  garage at the back of the lot. Before it all goes

It sat silent for a few days.

Then the back hoe went to work, tapping here, tapping there. The bricks gave up relatively quickly. The noise during the day made conversation difficult. At night it calm. The air smelled of earth, dampness and dust.

Workers appeared and steadily bundled the bricks. The market for reclaimed bricks is brisk. Older bricks can give new construction “authenticity.”

With a few days of work, it was over. What used to be was no longer. A vacant lot sits by our home.GoneIt was not an important building. It was not architecturally significant. Its residents were transient and did not take great care of the property. There was no mourning and no one protested.

That said, the building’s disappearance troubled me. I found it unsettling.

I am not nostalgic. I completely understand and appreciate the developer’s actions. The vibrancy of a city rests on a foundation of change and growth.

Something is missing, though, when absences are created without reflection. In thinking it through, I realized was that it wasn’t the building’s demolition that bothered me – it was the lack of attention. A piece of Chicago’s history disappeared and no one took notice.

We need not archive and document all the time. And please, let’s not pass laws that make it impossible for cities to change or grow.

We can, though, pay attention and take notice. Doing so makes us more aware and more alive.

Here’s to being engaged and paying attention – and to a forgotten building.

David Potash

Quiet Dignity

StonerJohn WilliamsStoner is a novel well worth time and consideration. Originally published in 1965, the book was well-reviewed but far from a best-seller. After falling out of print it was reissued in 2003 and has been steadily gathering attention, praise, and sales. A gift from an English department colleague, it is a book for writers and academics. It is not a flashy book. Stoner lingers, its quiet simplicity raising very hard questions.

The plot is biographical. A lifelong academic, Stoner, enters the University of Missouri as a student and becomes an English professor there, teaching until his death. The product of poor, taciturn farmers, Stoner’s life is quiet and marked by frustrations, some realized, others just endured. He has an unhappy marriage, a difficult relationship with his daughter, and a brief affair that gives him a window to passion and joy. Williams treats Stoner with dignity.

Passive in many areas, life happens to Stoner. He is not a planner. What marks Stoner’s existence is his teaching and his connection to literature. It is, in many ways, a novel about the life of an academic teacher. In sketching out that existence, Williams expertly highlights the petty cruelties and the culture of constraint that accompanies life as a professor. There are few victories and more defeats. The steady toil of class after class, semester after semester, is reminiscent of the cadence of farm life and its steady, unyielding demands. Unflinchingly honest, Stoner paints a grim picture.

The beauty of the book comes from its prose. It is deliberate without being fussy, crafted like a small intricate box without screws, nails, or glue. It coheres and shines, even as the arc of Stoner’s career and life shrink.

David Potash

Transcendent Crew

The Boys in the BoatAs a young man confused about the sputtering direction of my career, I was granted a meeting with a very successful senior human resources manager. The interview took place in a luxuriously appointed mid-town New York office building. Wise and patient – and probably briefed by a family friend, the HR professional began the meeting by asking a provocative question. Many of us, she said, can think of a time in our lives when we were at one with the world. A time when cares faded away and we had a sense of something special, something magical taking place. She asked if I could describe such a time.

The question caught me off-guard. I was expecting a conversation about skills, jobs, and ambition. I paused, gathered my thoughts, and a relatively recent experience came to mind. I rowed while in graduate school and I thought of a particularly outstanding race. My boat was “in the bubble” and the feeling was powerful. There was no real awareness of crowd or noise or competition. The eight of us, along with our cox, were tremendously synchronized and boat felt as though it was rising out of the water. All of us were very much locked in even with an absolutely intense effort. It was a very special few minutes, made possible by months and months of work.

Rowing is a team sport that demands complete coordination. The slightest variation in stroke or movement costs. Perfect alignment is impossible and an ever more distant as fatigue sets in.  It is exhausting and painful. And very rewarding. Rowing resonated with me. The HR professional smiled as I recounted the story, nodding and looking at me seriously. Once I finished she told me that such experiences are windows into who we are as people. They tell us what really resonates with us and give us clues about our values and where we will be happier and most at ease. Her question was not about career; it was about self.

My special moment, I learned, spoke to my competitive nature, my belief in teamwork, and my enthusiasm for hard work. All of this and much more came flooding back when reading The Boys In The Boat by Daniel James Brown. The story of the US boat that won the 1936 Olympics, Brown’s book is beautifully written and intensely compelling. It tells of a time when amateurism was real and character seemed to matter. With the evils of World War II hanging over the story, Brown deftly moves from person to team to institution to broader social forces – and back again.

The story of the University of Washington’s varsity crew’s rise to Olympic champion is well-known in rowing circles. What Brown brings to the table is a keen eye for detail and a perspective – the story of one of the oarsmen, Joe Rantz – who overcame emotional and financial hardship. Cast out by his family in the depths of the Great Depression, Rantz found a calling in crew. It was his ticket to an education and it turned out to be much, much more. He struggled, as did many of his teammates, and found success and strength in teamwork. Working class and in many ways representative of American character and grit, the University of Washington crew found many transcendent moments on the water and with each other.

Brown weaves a full cast of characters in the tale. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s cinematographer and public relations genius, shares the stage with George Pocock, an English immigrant to the west coast of America. Pocock was an outstanding waterman and a genius in the manufacture of racing shells. It is a well-paced book and the drama is cinematic. The book has been optioned, too, and may be made into a motion picture.

Like Seabiscuit, another Depression era tale of a gritty underdog achieving victory, The Boys in the Boat is highly entertaining history with a happy ending. Sometimes you cannot ask for anything more.

David Potash