Navigating Sprawl with Pop Culture

One of the iconic figures from Paris in the 1800s is the flaneur, a man of leisure who wanders through the city, observing and writing. Flaneurs have been linked to modernism, in particular a sense of simultaneous engagement and alienation, and above all, with the city. They are our historical experts in describing the day-to-day as well as the profound, making sense of the complexities of urban life in the nineteenth century.

What does one do today with the American suburbs? Who can explain these strange spaces?

Those questions circled around my reading of Jason Diamond’s The Sprawl: Reconsidering The Weird American Suburbs. Diamond, now a denizen of Brooklyn, is a product of the Chicago suburbs. He is a journalist, critic, writer and modern day flaneur. The Sprawl is a thoroughly researched yet idiosyncratic wander through America’s suburbs, a road trip across the country as well as down memory lane. Neither history nor social science, the book is a very interesting meditation on sprawl through the eyes of a very well-informed critic.

There’s history and some facts in The Sprawl, but Diamond’s primary vehicle of understanding is popular culture. Want to understand the Chicago suburbs? He would give us the movies of John Hughes, as well as reference indie rock and Wayne’s World. While I’m reasonably up on many of his references, Diamond’s knowledge is encyclopedic and deep. He spins a network of popular culture to map the burbs. Woven throughout the book are Diamond’s personal recollections, his personal history, and his predilections. He comes across as a very interesting person, a pleasant and curious guy who writes very well.

Are American suburbs all that strange? Sprawl – America’s suburbs and exurbs – are by definition spaces defined by what they are not. They are neither rural nor urban. They are not small towns. Sprawl is the space around and in between, the plazas, roads, highways and byways between shopping plazas and housing developments. It is easy to get lost, physically and in terms of meaning, when the only available markers are negatives. Diamond’s challenge is that what he is looking at is everywhere and nowhere.

Despite the constraints, Diamond tells a good story. The Sprawl rightly received several awards. It is not a map, but this book is most certainly an entertaining and informative guide.

David Potash

An Outrageous Resolution

To resolve, to make a resolution, a firm decision, a commitment.

I have long been drawn to New Year’s resolutions. I like the idea of starting, of beginning a journey, of heading off to someplace new, to being something new. A resolution can have that sense of directional impulse. Why not go forward with purpose?

When I was young man I shared my resolutions with others. They proved to be poor catalysts for conversation, so I stopped talking about them. Instead I took to writing them down, prioritizing them, and irregularly checking on progress. My lists have been surprisingly consistent over the years. Or maybe there’s little surprise in that. They speak, collectively, to an imagined kind of life and an aspirational version of yours truly. I’ve kept them attainable, too, like SMART goals. No space travel or circuses on my lists.

Yes, I have resolved to weigh less – and some years I do. Right now, thanks to a host of injuries and the pandemic, I weigh more. Weight loss and increased exercise always head the national lists of New Year’s resolutions. In past years I have resolved to own property. Some years ago I did. I do not now and at some future point, I will resolve to own property again. I have resolved to be a better and more faithful communicator with friends and family. You may have received an email or a call from me. If so, a check to the good. You may not have – and if that’s the case, I’m sorry. But it’s a new year. And as I’m writing now, my failures do not prevent you from writing to me. It would be lovely to hear from you.

One year I resolved to play the piano. Hours of practicing led to lame renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and some halting Christmas carols. All best intentions aside, I don’t have much talent for the keyboard. I wish that I did. Nor do I seem to have much aptitude for juggling, handstands, or foreign languages. And to all those who continue to help me with Spanish, I’m eternally grateful and humbled. I do work at it every day, todos los dios. Spanish is always on my new year’s list. It would be nice, though, if I made more progress. Maybe in 2022.

I would resolve to write more. That’s a recurring promise to self. Blog posts, letters and emails do not count in my head, though I certainly seem to spend enough time with them. That is a topic for another day, another post.

This year I’m going to try something different, a resolution inspired and influenced by what we see in the news, in the public sphere, on social media. I am going to resist any and all calls for outrage. In fact, I’m going to try to work against outrage when I see it. Stirring up outrage is a sign of cheap leadership. I believe that it exacerbates difference, driving us apart and inhibiting communication and trust. I’ve found little benefit in feeling outraged, personally or collectively. It doesn’t seem to make things better. When I recall moments of outrage a questioning voice is immediately heard in my head. “Was outrage really the best way to handle it?” The answer is always “no.” That seems to hold true no matter how righteous my indignation, my outrage, felt at the time.

The resolution does not mean that I will be indifferent. The absence of outrage will still allow for strong sentiment, passion and urgency. We can address important issues with urgency without outrage. In fact, I think that thoughtful urgency is more needed than ever.

Here’s to wishing you a healthier new year, a more prosperous new year, and, dare I hope, a more tolerant new year. Let’s see what we can do together without all the outrage.

David Potash

Sports and Sentimentality, Courtesy of Jerry Izenberg

Growing up in northern New Jersey, back in the 1970s, I was always the first one in the family to get up. My routine during the school week was rock solid. I’d head downstairs, take the dog out, pick up a copy of the newspaper – we got the Newark Star-Ledger, bring the dog in and feed her, start to brew a pot of coffee for my parents, and then, at long last, dig into the sports section of the paper. Sports always came first – even as so many New York teams in the 70s were awful. A hurrah for Joe Pisarcik.

The Ledger’s sport section was always comprehensive. They printed late night scores from the west coast, covered all the sports, and several times a week, a column by Jerry Izenberg would grace the pages. Izenberg wrote the way that I imagined old school sports writers did, with rich language, lots of adjectives, and stories of heroism, triumph and catastrophe. I pictured him in a fedora with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth like a character from The Front Page, hammering away at manual typewriter. His columns were interesting and engaging, offering a different take on sports. They were like to the older guys who spent time at the breakfast diner in the center of town.

Recently I was given a copy of his 1989 book, The Jerry Izenberg Collection. Truth in advertising: it is exactly as billed, a collection of Izenberg’s columns. Reading it reminded me of those morning and the consistent tone and perspective of his work. Izenberg is still at it – he’s 90 – and recently published a novel.

The collection is a testimonial to Izenberg’s interest in people and his preternatural sentimentality. He specializes in a particular kind of traditional male ethos that jumps headfirst into emotions. In the hands of a different writer, in the context of other topics, it would ring as false and maudlin. But when writing about boxers, jockeys, gamblers and football players it seems all the more appropriate. Damon Runyon, perhaps?

Izenberg’s gift is to write about intimate issues in a way that male sport fans can relate. And I hope others, too. It’s his secret power – and I cannot think of many other sportswriters able to do it as effectively.

So if you find a copy, curl up with a beer and some Kleenex – it’s a Jerry Izenberg special.

David Potash

An Homage to my Bicycle

A mid-life crisis is a cliche with teeth. A staple of stand-up and the butt of jokes, it is funny until it disrupts a relationship. That begs the question: if you acknowledge a milestone birthday, how do you prevent a mid-life crisis? How do you reassess, reassure, and move forward in a healthy manner? I’ve been mulling this over. Bad behavior, especially in our current situation is most unwelcome. And no worries – it’s not me that faces the problem – I’m well past the age. Rather, I’m concerned about my bicycle, which just turned 40 this month. That’s a pretty important birthday and I want to make sure that we get through the coming years on the best of terms. I would like to keep my bicycle moving forward, on the straight and narrow, with few opportunities for mischief. My planned solution is this post, an homage to my bicycle and last-century British bicycle manufacturing, and a tune-up at the end of the month, which I love to ride all the time, as my city has great cycle lanes thanks to Ensuring the best for my bicycle includes paying attention to details like its playground surfacing to keep it rolling smoothly. And to add a touch of nostalgia and style, I’m considering adding some thermoplastic playground markings to give it a fresh look.

My bicycle is a Raleigh Carlton Super Course 12. It was manufactured in May of 1980, when I was listening to The Police and Blondie, attending high school in New Jersey, with long hair and much less heft. Little did I know that decades hence this Raleigh, with its steel frame, twelve-speeds, and Brooks saddle would find its way to me in Chicago, and I really love to ride there as they have cycle lane markings well installed. Restored in the past few years, the bike, unlike its current owner, shows few signs of age. It is an absolute delight to ride.

Raleigh was one of the largest bicycle companies in the world back in the day. Founded in the late 1800s on Raleigh Street in Nottingham, England, Raleigh grew to a behemoth after World War I. The size of the Raleigh works was breathtaking – and you can get a taste of the factory and how bicycles were made in this 1945 promotional video. It is a trip.

In the 1970s, during a bike-boom, Raleigh was making about 10,000 bikes a year. My bicycle was manufactured at a factory in Worksop, England, on the site of the Carlton Cycles company. Raleigh bought out Carlton in 1960, using their factory and putting Carlton badge for reputation on some of its better bikes – like mine. In late 1980, Raleigh closed the site. In the coming years, all bicycle production was relocated in Asia.

Today, somewhere between 15 and 20 million bicycles, mostly still manufactured in Asia, are sold in America every year. The trend is for growth, too, as more people are finding cycling a healthy, environmentally friendly, and enjoyable way to get exercise and commute. It is great fun. Bear in mind, too, that a well-built and well-maintained bicycle can be a fine companion for a very long time. Basic bicycle functions were worked out ages ago. You can spend more money for something new and fancy. Or you might find a somewhat older, more experienced bicycle, and form a lasting relationship.

My Raleigh Super Course 12 was shipped to the United States in the 1980s and sold in Boston. And while I don’t know about its journeys in America, I’m grateful that it found its way to me. I plan on riding it for many more decades to come. Happy birthday.

And I hope that you, dear reader, have a good bicycle, too.

David Potash

Bright Light on Grief

Brilliant in several senses of the word, Joan Didion is inquisitive, worldly, and extraordinarily intelligent. When Didion seizes upon a topic, she shines her mighty powerful brilliance on it. I picture it as a hot white light, so intense, in fact, that it can sometimes overwhelm, flattening out colors and feelings.

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s 2005 account of her year of grief following the death of her husband. He was her soul-mate, though she does not call him that. He is John Gregory Dunne and John through the book. John suffered a massive sudden heart-attack at the dinner table in their New York City apartment. John had a heart condition, so his death was not wholly unexpected, but it was extraordinarily traumatic. He was with her and then he was not. Didion is unsparing in her account of the impact, nature and effect of her loss. She processed, engaged, disengaged, and imagined all manner of things. It was a year that her brain simply could not accept the sadness of the unacceptable. Yet she persevered.

The year was further worsened by the grave illness of Didion’s daughter. Her book reports on both with clinical precision. At the same time, she knows that there can be no final clarity, no resolution. It is, after all, of thinking and not thinking, of numbing loss and overwhelming tears.

I can’t say that I was comforted by Didion’s book; nor would I say that she wrote it to provide comfort. It is not a broader study and it did not shed much light on grieving and loss writ large. I have experienced enough loss already to have formed some thoughts and to have done a fair bit of research. This book is not a source for any of that.

What The Year of Magical Thinking does extraordinarily well is explain Joan Didion’s experiences, her processes, her feelings. She’s a frightfully clever and interesting writer – and that, in and of itself, makes this an important book. It underscores, in a myriad of ways, the isolation of loss, both direct and existential. She writes with great courage, with precision, and insight into herself and what made her who she is. It is powerful prose.

The Year of Magical Thinking also made me wonder if it might sometimes be healthier healthier to think a little less. Asking and answering hard questions, it seems to me, may not always the best path to understanding.

David Potash

High-Quality Humanized Potboiler?

One of the challenges living close to Myopic Bookstore – perhaps Chicago’s best used bookstore – is that it’s convenient, inexpensive, stays open late, and (did I say this already?), is perhaps Chicago’s best used bookstore. My shelves seem to fill without planning. It’s not a lack of discipline, either on my part. There are just so much good things to read . . . .

Recently I picked up a novel by John D. MacDonald, one of my favorite writers. Known for his mysteries, MacDonald also penned more than a few stand alone novels. He wrote, wrote – and wrote some more. If you like his style – taut, cleverly plotted, every character sketched with care, ample philosophizing but rarely in a didactic manner – you will recognize his prose within a paragraph or two. It’s tight and consistently entertaining.

At a recent Myopic visit I picked up one of his books that was a complete unknown to me. Written in 1984, One More Sunday is a sprawling novel about a large and successful evangelical church in the South. Chock full with a wide range of characters, the book is also about good and bad behavior. In fact, most of it is about wickedness. It covers the loss of faith, lust, adultery, envy, lying, murder, extortion and theft. There’s enough crime and creepiness in the book that it could veer into parody.

However, MacDonald’s skill gives the reader a page-turner with tolerance, ambiguity, and more than a little reflection. He leavens the luridness with compassion. That’s a welcome trait in a book that could only become an R movie.

If you run across it, give One More Sunday a chance – especially for the beach, the vacation, or when you want a high-quality diversion.

David Potash

Lost In The Supermarket

Michael Ruhlman is a prolific author, writing mostly about food. He does cookbooks, recipes, reviews, books, blogs, articles and more. He is always publishing, always getting prose out, and there is a good chance that you may have come across his work in a newspaper or magazine. It’s easy to understand why. Ruhlman writes as a friend, an informed colleague, and as the man next door (who loves to eat well).

Ruhlman’s recently published book, Grocery: The Buying and Selling of American Food, is a non-fiction account of the supermarket, written with a focus on a small family run chain, Heinen’s, in Cleveland. It is not a comprehensive account of the supermarket industry. Nor is it a business history, or what is all to common in the books about food, a polemic on what we should or should not be eating. Instead, Ruhlman is after information – about the store, they buying and selling of food, about his father, and about himself. To the extent that one can write a personal book about a grocery store, Ruhlman has done it. The book features some very interesting genre-crossing observations.

Ruhlman’s late father figures prominently. He loved to shop, to cook, and to feed people. Prominently among Ruhlman’s childhood memories are shopping with his father at Heinen’s, buying food for a week’s worth of meals, and large get togethers with family, friends and neighbors. The shopping trip represented family, prosperity, choice and optimism. Ruhlman senior was not alone in his love of the supermarket. We learn that for many, particularly of a certain generation, the boomers, fondness for grocery store trips and opulence is all too common.

Over the years, Ruhlman’s parents divorced, ending the shopping trips and the large meals. Ruhlman, too, is writing while experiencing a divorce and traumatic change. He grew up in Cleveland, but the book jacket notes that he now divides his time between New York City and Providence, Rhode Island. One does not have to be much of a detective to appreciate that this is a tangled book. Ruhlman’s interest in Heinen’s grocery is deeply tied to a host of memories, values and meaning. The knot of issues enhance, constrain and complicate the book.

The book is wide-ranging, moving from popular culture to what grocery store owners think and do, then back again. Ruhlman walks us around the supermarket, examining the differences in produce, dairy, delis and processed foods. There is a reason that milk is usually located at the back of a supermarket – and it’s more to do with a place for coolers than a marketing trick. The changes in how groceries operate and what they sell has been tremendous. More changes are anticipated, too. It’s a very complicated business with many moving parts and small profit margins.

The book concludes with the location of a Heinen’s in a restored downtown Cleveland building. It’s an expensive project. It also represents a new direction for the city and people’s expectation for shopping and food. Ruhlman is both elated by the new space and also saddened by loss.

Remember The Clash’s Lost in the Supermarket? Great track on one of the best albums of all time, London Calling, written all the way back in 1979. The song ran repeatedly through my head when reading Michael Ruhlman’s Grocery. Sometimes shopping is not really about shopping.

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can never shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality

David Potash

Pat Barker is a Genius

No ifs, ands or buts about it – Pat Barker is one of the best novelists around. A bit more than a decade ago I read her Regeneration trilogy, three novels taking place in World War I. It was gripping, amazing, and memorable. They gave me goosebumps. The books were well-read, well-reviewed, and received multiple awards. The last novel in the three, The Ghost Road, won the Booker Prize.

I don’t really know why, but I went for years without reading anything else by her. Barker kept writing, gathering up awards and putting out novels. When I came across a recent review praising yet another novel by her, I decided that it was high time to reacquaint myself with Barker. After a few more reads, my estimation of her has increased.

Barker wrote Double Vision in 2003. It’s a tightly written and yet wandering story with a hole at its middle: a character who was killed in the Middle East. His grieving wife and friend reconnect. No gimmicks in the plot. Instead, events unwind methodically as characters work to make sense of loss, life and meaning. There’s crime, passion, and a gothic feel to it – but without undue ornamentation.

In 2015 she published Noonday, the third novel in a trilogy that also stands on its own. It’s very good – no surprises there – and it deals in a very mature way with trauma, memory, and how people navigate through “history.” Again, at the center of the novel are few well developed characters who interact with each other, trying to figure out relationships, commitment and and meaning. Set during the WWII Blitz, violence defines the environment.

Both novels are sure of themselves and where they are going. Reading them provoked me into thinking through why Barker is so good, why her writing is so powerful. One answer rests on her intelligence. Her observations, her plotting, her language – it’s impossible to read Barker and not be aware that someone incredibly smart and talented has put it together. Even with her relatively straightforward language, I am aware of great wisdom, coupled with curiosity, moving the story along.

Barker shuns the unnecessary . Sentences and paragraphs, ideas and story, are clear and unencumbered. Her words are precise. She does not dumb things down, either, when parsing. It was good to reach for a dictionary when I came across “lordotic.” It’s the curve above your butt and in the paragraph, it fit perfectly.

Themes in Barker’s books are often unsettling. She writes about violence, trauma, and how people manage through it. She is generous with her characters while unsparing in her insights. I feel as though I have learned when I read her – though I never get the sense that she is didactic. There is little frivolity in her novels.

Bottom line – Barker’s writing is mature. It is literature, not fiction, from a grown up for grown ups. And when I’m ready for that, and not distraction, it makes for a very welcome read.

Thank you, Pat Barker, and please keep the prose coming.

David Potash

A Different World

Cesar Aira is a prolific and gifted Argentinian writer. His stories and novels are dynamic, driven by innovation, and difficult to categorize. Light on structure, improvisational, they are also very engaging. Aira reportedly has a rigid and unique process for writing: one page a day with no revisions. However he does it, he does it well. Aira is an accomplished teller of tales.

Shantytown, a short novel or novella, is a good introduction to Aira. It features a shifting focus, a tangle of characters, and a parable like simplicity that tidies up questions. It takes the reader from beginning to end quickly, but through unexpected routes. What might be “normal” in a normal novel is not normal here.

The eponymous “Shantytown” is an off-grid slum in Buenos Aires with a separate culture, its own power supply, and it’s own rules. Characters from the city proper engage with, and in, Shantytown with mixed results. The feel is film noire with a parable-like mission throughout. The collective outcome, happily, is a short and intriguing book that transports the reader to a different world.

David Potash

Remembering People’s Puerto Rican History

If you are looking for a dispassionate traditional academic history of Puerto Rico, do not read War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony. Do not seek it out if you want a dry textbook on Puerto Rico in the twentieth, a volume loaded with charts, tables, economic or demographic data. There are many traditional books that give that sort of information. However, if you are interested in learning how many people think and feel about the impact of colonization in Puerto Rico, how the exploited tell and understand their history, what a passionate study of violence and repression told from the ground up would be, this an excellent source.

New York City attorney, film-maker, journalist, activist and former state representative Nelson A. Denis authored this non-fiction study. His anger and outrage are clear from the book’s preface, which opens with the childhood history of his father, a Cuban immigrant, who was arrested and deported from their family home in Washington Heights, New York City. In the pages that follow, Denis tells the story of colonialism, revolution and repression in Puerto Rico from the 1890s through the mid-1960s. The heart of the book is the rebellion of 1950 and the clampdown that followed it. Argument and persuasion is the aim as much as recounting history.

Key figures are central to the narrative: Pedro Albizu Campos, who led the Nationalist Movement; Luis Munoz Marin, the long-term governor, and key Nationalist leaders, Juan Emilio Viguie and Vidal Santiago Diaz. Denis explains the 1950 conflict as part of a longer term struggle. He is exceptionally strong recounting the massacre at Ponce in 1937. Police killed 19 people wounded several hundred. Denis does an important service highlighting this tragedy, as well as many other lesser publicized facts of Puerto Rican history.

A good illustration is Denis’s discussion of the 1948 Public Law 53. It was called “La Ley dela Mordaza” (The Law of the Muzzle or the Gag Law) in Puerto Rico. This legislation forbid discussion of Puerto Rican independence and owning a Puerto Rican flag. More than 3,000 were arrested because of this law. Appreciating that history is central to understanding the prevalence of flags at Puerto Rican parades and festivals in the continental US. Appreciating the larger history set out in this book is equally valuable in contextualizing current debates about the island. Among these symbols of cultural resilience and resistance, if you’re interested in learning more about Blackbeard’s Flag, you can explore this article for further insights.

War Against All Puerto Ricans is a people’s history – think Howard Zinn. It does not provide all answers, but what it does address, it does so well and memorably.

David Potash