Shrinking pains.

My little narcissistic suburb is going through some agonies at the moment — falling enrollment in the schools, which leads to less state aid for education, which means schools operating well under capacity, which means schools closing. This is a community that Values Education, which means these decisions are Fraught With Drama, with lots of Impassioned Speeches at the Podium, etc.

Last night they voted to close two elementary schools and reconfigure middle school into a 5-8 arrangement. OMG THE DRAMA TODAY. But it made me think about my own schoolin’, way back when, and how it compares to the educational trends of today.

My high school class was around…750. Whew. Peak of the baby boom, 1957 was. We only had three grades in the building, so we’re talking over 2,000 kids under one roof. Nowadays that would be considered a warehouse, an abuse factory, a place where kids can’t get Personalized Attention and a Supportive Environment, but man, I loved it.

Two thousand kids in one building means you can find 20 or 30 who want to take Russian, and hire a teacher to take them through four years of it. Two thousand kids means one-English-class-fits-all ends in ninth grade and for the rest of your time there, you take one-semester classes that can pick up everyone from the dummies (Reading for Pleasure and Profit) to the smarties (20th Century Novel/Poetry/Drama, plus about a dozen more high-level electives). There was World History, European History, U.S. History, Ancient History. Math and science were similarly diversified.

The other great thing about a big school is, you can get lost in it. With every classroom in use every period, there was no study hall — we had “free periods” in which you could go to the library, the open cafeteria in a non-lunch period or to the smoking area. If you were Nancy, you might also slip away to the trouper deck in the auditorium, various janitorial supply rooms or my favorite — the room under the pool, where the pumps and barrels of chlorine powder were kept. There was a window there that let you observe the swimmers underwater, digging their suits out of their crotches after a feet-first landing off the high board. The janitor was very cool and let us sit with him. My friend Jeff, a gay misfit, was a genius at finding these secret spaces. We spent a lot of time in them.

When I went to college, I found it no harder than senior year, and a lot more interesting.

I guess my point is, if your parents are on the job and your teachers aren’t total idiots, things tend to work out, no matter what your brick-and-mortar setup is. Also, schools in that period had not yet been defunded and charter-ized and otherwise manipulated by yokel legislators. Although they certainly were during Kate’s public-school years, and somehow she got through OK.

Might have been one of the lucky ones, I fully acknowledge. Probably was.

So, Wednesday dead ahead. I’d post links, but I’m tired and as we all know by now, anything I post today will be outdated in four hours. So enjoy your Wednesday, and let’s see each other going on Friday.

Posted at 9:41 pm in Uncategorized | 47 Comments

Amazing grace.

I wish I could say I were surprised by stuff like Betsy Devos’ budget proposal for the Department of Education, the one that zeroes out funding to the Special Olympics, but who could be surprised at this point? And yes, it’s just a budget proposal; it won’t pass any more than zeroing out support for the Great Lakes ecosystem will.

But it says something. Doesn’t it?

I wish I could shut out what’s happening to the country, but that can only happen for brief snatches of time. So I was fortunate to get a couple of tickets to “Amazing Grace,” the long-delayed — like, 40-some years delayed — film of the sessions that produced Aretha Franklin’s album of the same name. It was her gospel album, made after years of pop hits. A return to her roots, two nights of performance at a Los Angeles church with James Cleveland guiding the session and Sydney Pollack filming it all.

Needless to say, the songs are great. The film is imperfect — lots of ’70s technique, which is to say, cut to out-of-focus shot and several-second delay while camera finds focus; grainy film stock; lots of cuts because cinema verité, dude — but imperfect in a great way. Aretha sweats through her makeup, along with everyone else, because gospel music is hard work. There’s a spectacular choir backing her up, and an even more spectacular choir director with the amusing name of Alexander Hamilton.

The film was shelved because Aretha didn’t like it, probably because of all the sweating. She doesn’t look glamorous, but she looks about as taken by the spirit as it’s possible to be. And now she’s dead, and her estate is not so picky, so here we are.

My favorite number was this one, “How I Got Over.” Mainly because of the choir.

It was screened at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the second night of a two-night run. The first night, the Franklin family threw things off by putting a few close friends on the guest list — a few hundred, which meant there weren’t enough seats, which meant a second night was added. We were lucky to get the seats, but it was worth it.

This was actually a Plan B. We were originally going to Extreme Midget Wrestling at some bar. Next time, maybe. You have to leave your Tuesday nights open from time to time, for stuff like this.

So, bloggage:

Actually, I don’t have any. You can look up Betsy Devos if you like. It’s not going to be a good week for her.

Posted at 10:12 pm in Movies, Uncategorized | 55 Comments

It’s all burning.

California is burning, and the president is doing everything wrong. Was there a bigger story to emerge from this weekend? No? Didn’t think so.

Honestly, I can’t say “it can’t get any worse,” because obviously it can, but seriously, a president who can screw up one of the easiest parts of the job? Nothing is out of reach of that. I mean: You show up, you look solemn, you put your hand over your heart, you walk to this mark and that mark, you pose for photos. What you don’t do: Cancel for some transparently bullshit reason, then sit in your hotel room tweeting about California. AND NOT EVEN THE RIGHT THING ABOUT CALIFORNIA. Again, this is the easy stuff: Our thoughts and prayers are with all in harm’s way in California, for instant, or Stay safe, and federal resources will be available for you to rebuild. What the hell EVER.

I spent more time than I probably should checking the lines on the crazier Twitter and Facebook accounts I monitor, and no one was taking his side in this. It’s just…crickets.

Sigh. I ask you.

Not much to report from the weekend. We spent almost all day trying to get a bifold door back on its track, and no, I’m not kidding. In and around that — grocery, gym, laundry, dry cleaner and a Robert Mitchum movie on FilmStruck, which we just discovered and is now, we were dismayed to learn, is going dark at the end of the month. This is a streaming service that has all of the Criterion Collection stuff on it, as well as every classic Hollywood movie you can think of, but away it goes.

This just in: Robert Mitchum in his prime was supremely hittable, if you know what I mean.

And now I am tired and would like to read a book and forget about you-know-who for a while. An old Martin Cruz Smith title might be just the ticket. Happy Monday, all.

Posted at 8:00 pm in Uncategorized | 43 Comments


Yes, of course I’m heartsick. What happened yesterday in Annapolis is simply appalling. I sometimes wonder how much the public knows about how exposed journalists are, and how common the sort of abuse Jarrod Ramos visited upon the Capital Gazette before his shooting spree really is.

It’s been years and years since I’ve worked for a newspaper, but in my experience, we saw guys like Ramos all the time. Most weren’t violent; in fact, none were. But that simmering layer of insanity? All the time.

When I worked the night shift in Columbus, a regular newsroom caller would rail about Queen Elizabeth to whoever would answer the phone. I don’t know who he was, or the names of the voices in his head, but he could go on and on. We were not encouraged to be cruel to callers, so most people just let him run on. One night, an editor picked up just as we were heading to dinner. He said, “OK, what do I need to know?” and put the receiver down on his desk. When we came back 45 minutes later, the guy was still talking.

A man who looked strangely like a brontosaurus (sorry, I know brontosauruses have a new name now, but I can’t think of it) — long, long neck and tiny head — started writing to me when I was a columnist, and dropped by the newsroom one day to chat, clearly with love on his mind. (He asked me to dinner.)

Another man apparently developed a crush on me after three phone calls and also dropped by the newsroom, clearly with love on his mind. (He brought flowers.)

Then there was the elderly man who came by to tell me about the good work done by his Kiwanis club, then started talking, with far more enthusiasm, about his fondness for at-home nudity, and his daily effort to make sure the early-arriving newspaper carrier got a good look at him through the bay window, on dark winter mornings. (“Did he have a boner?” Alan asked later.)

Yeah, all these people were harmless. A couple were pathetic. But none were 100 percent stable. One guy sent me his self-published book about police persecution, which he described as a nightly phenomenon. Another guy sent mash notes for a while, and when I failed to respond, switched to fuck-you-whore with an alacrity familiar to any woman who’s ever had a crazy boyfriend.

And here’s the thing: No one was really bugged by any of this. It’s part of what makes newsrooms more fun places to work than insurance agencies. Shitty pay, bad coffee and the nut of the morning. After a while, I would tell some callers, “Are you on medication? Have you taken your medication today? Why not? I think you need to take your medication and call me back in an hour.”

But as we all know now, the internet has taken harassment and one’s imaginary worlds into new, self-reinforcing places. It used to be hard to stalk someone; you used to have to do some legwork. Now it’s as easy as sending a friend request. The rhetoric around the business — you’ll hear more about enemies of the people and Milo in the next few days than you ever wanted to know — is reckless and criminal, and shouldn’t be tolerated.

We pause for a word from our sponsor:

Most of the newsrooms I’ve been in had some sort of security. None of it was very good security. I expect that will change now. And one more place a member of the public could saunter through without causing alarm will become locked-down, with visitor badges and sign-in sheets. We’ll all be lesser for it.

Two bits of bloggage today:

Here’s my first big piece for Deadline Detroit. It’s about a local radio station with an unusual promotion strategy. Speaking of harassment, read to the end.

I know a lot of you are friends of Bill and fans of country music. I liked this deep dive into country’s boozy subculture from the WashPost. The most interesting part was how much individual artists can make off liquor tie-ins, an important consideration for artists whose revenue streams are being stolen by the internet.

A very hot, very steamy weekend awaits. I hope to be sailing for the worst of it. Enjoy yours.

Posted at 9:12 am in Uncategorized | 37 Comments

A few words about vomit.

Don’t run away, reader! I’m not here to gross you out. I’m simply struck by how often barfing, the act itself, has crossed my radar lately, without actually having done so myself in…well, it’s been a while.

I started limiting my drinking when hangovers progressed from a nuisance headache to a half day in bed, to a whole day in bed to a whole day in bed with one or two next-day technicolor yawns thrown in for fun. I didn’t want to find out what might come after, because I really hate to throw up. It’s one thing to be legitimately sick, but when you’re barfing because of your own bad life choices, well, that’s another thing entirely.

There’s a seasonal concert venue here in southeast Michigan, corporately branded DTE Energy Amphitheater, but before that it was known as Pine Knob, and everybody still mostly calls it that. I’ve been three times, always with my friend Dustin, who is young enough to be my son but loves — fiercely — the music of my youth. The summer-touring nostalgia acts all stop there, if they can still put that many butts in the seats, and together we’ve seen Steely Dan, Jimmy Buffet and Alice Cooper, along with multiple opening acts. None of these musicians are still putting out records, but people my age are happy to save their money for tickets, spread blankets on the grass and feel like they’re 17 again. They also drink like they’re 17, and two out of the three times I’ve been there, someone has barfed in my vicinity. (Not at the Jimmy Buffet show, in case you’re wondering — those people practice all year, and know their limits.) The first time, it was the row in front of me, and the lady didn’t even make it past the Elvis Costello opener. It smelled abominable, but a staffer came in with a cleaning kit of absorbent something-or-other and made short work of it. I got the feeling it happens a lot.

The second time was during the encore for Alice Cooper, and I stepped in it. Needless to say, this ruined the remainder of the evening for me; I considered an emergency amputation of my left foot, because of course I was wearing sandals. The cleaner didn’t arrive until the show was over. I considered throwing my sandal into the bin on my way out, but saved them with a deep clean the next day.

I recently ran across this in a local newsletter, about a downtown development — the AV is “Asian Village” — that didn’t endure:

Of course I’ve had some embarrassing barfs in my life, times when I didn’t make it to the bathroom in time. (You know it’s love when your boyfriend is willing to get a mop and bucket and swab the dorm hallway of your half-digested pepperoni pizza and one million Little Kings, even though he’s pretty hammered himself.) But it hasn’t happened in a very long time, maybe not since that incident, freshman year. Of all the places I might choose in a pinch, a fountain would be my very last choice, after the floor or a potted ficus. But I’m bougie that way; I don’t like to see furnishings or atmospheric amenities like waterfalls ruined.

I sometimes wonder if people are throwing up more these days, and what might be to blame for it. (Yes, I should find better things to think about.) Four Loko, sure. Red Bull as a universal mixer? Yep. The general juice-boxification of the American intoxicants market? Oh my yes. But there’s also the general amping up of drinking in general, the puke-and-rally culture of the frat house that endures well into adulthood. A man in his 40s confessed his hangover to me a while back, blaming the shots he’d been doing the night before. Shots! No one older than 25 should ever do shots. I have been known to pour them into potted plants while everyone else’s head was thrown back. A woman I know described offloading a bellyful of vodka-and-cranberry juice in a snowdrift outside her back door, and having to explain to her daughter the next day that no, it wasn’t blood. Vodka and cranberry is a brunch drink, people. Limit two.

Of course, not all vomiting is due to overindulgence. Alan had a spell of food poisoning a few weeks back, and had to rid himself of whatever it was that caused it. It was agony, the worst, he said, since the unfortunate Reuben Sandwich Incident that put him off Reubens for nearly 20 years.

If nothing else, I have vomiting to credit for my love affair with Atul Gawande, the author and New Yorker medical writer. If you have a subscription, I highly recommend “A Queasy Feeling,” which was the first thing of his I read, and fell in love with. The throughline in that piece is hyperemesis of pregnancy, i.e., the all-day sickness that Kate Middleton has endured through three of them. This explains everything about why I do not drink gin and likely never will again:

Break a leg on a ski slope and – as bad as traumatic pain can be – once you can, you’ll ski again. After one unfortunate experience with a bottle of gin or an oyster, by contrast, people won’t go near the culprit for years.

I doubt Alan will ever eat again at the hamburger restaurant he blames for his 48 hours of misery.

And now, like a good barf, I believe I’ve said everything I ever wanted to say about throwing up, and I invite you to share your stories. Please, not too gross.

Posted at 10:52 am in Same ol' same ol', Uncategorized | 90 Comments

Testing, 1 2 3.

I had to stick close to home today. I was taking a test. A medical test. Not the infamously gross one everybody should do starting at 50 – did that one a few weeks ago – but a less well-known one. You’re regulars, and we share a lot of our lives here, so here you go:

It’s the Tankard of Pee test.

AKA, 24-hour urine, and it’s pretty much what it sounds like: You have to collect every drop of pee you make in 24 hours. It has something to do with my early-stage osteoporosis, seeing how much calcium I’m losing with every trip to the loo. It’s not nearly as gross as it sounds; they give you a bowl and a big ol’ bottle, the aforementioned tankard. You pee into the bowl, then pour it into the bottle, and then stick the bottle in the fridge. The fridge part is important. You could put it outside if the day is cold enough, but it was too cold today, and the nurse told me not to let it freeze. So I spent the day with my bowl and my tankard and the fridge, where I had a special place for it, next to the orange juice. I’m very careful, and have yet to spill a drop on either my hands or any other surface.

There’s something about this ritual — this is my third Tankard of Pee test — that makes you philosophical. You think: Now I have something in common with Howard Hughes. You think: I’m going to run out of space in this tankard; shouldn’t have had that third cup of coffee. You think: At least I can pee, right? I mean, the alternative is much worse. You think: I want to go to the gym, but what if I have to pee? I’ll have to run home. To my bowl and tankard. You think: I never knew 24 hours could last this long.

I also thought: No way am I watching the State of the Union tonight. I’ve had enough excretory functions for one day.

Read this New Yorker story on Jahi McMath, the 16-year-old girl who’s been in a persistent vegetative state for five years. It’s fascinating.

I see some of you have posted the Chicago Reader story that takes a look back at Bobwatch, which is full of linky goodness of Neil Steinberg’s career interlude writing the column of the same name. I spent an hour reading those 20-year-old clips. It made me happy and sad; such good writing, but such a bygone era in alt-weeklies. Hardly any are that good anymore.

OK. So. The speech has started. I’m going to the refrigerator one…more…time. Maybe two.

Posted at 9:31 pm in Uncategorized | 92 Comments

It’s heeeere. 

Briefly have wifi, zero cell service. (Thank God.) But guess what’s coming?

Posted at 7:31 pm in Uncategorized | 141 Comments

Saturday morning market.

And you know what? It really does. 

Posted at 7:44 am in Uncategorized | 31 Comments

Saturday morning market. 

…and a pic from Friday night. Not too many more nights like this until fall. (She’s only here for the body heat.)

Fresh comment thread for Jared Kushner’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad Memorial Day weekend. 

Posted at 8:48 am in Uncategorized | 59 Comments

A little bit of nature.

Tomorrow I have a full day of reporting, complete with five hours in the car, and I have a couple decks of PowerPoint slides to get through beforehand, and… oh yeah — I have to leave at 6 a.m.

To reward myself in advance, I went on a kayaking jaunt Monday afternoon, to watch the sun set and the moon rise. The supermoon, in fact. It did not disappoint, but didn’t last long — we got maybe five or 10 minutes of a huge orange grapefruit before it slipped behind cloud cover and we paddled home. It’s difficult to photograph the moon with an iPhone, so here’s the sunset:


And that’s it for me, today. The week will unclench after Wednesday, I hope. I could use a break. We all could.

Posted at 8:40 pm in Uncategorized | 42 Comments