Friday, November 13, 2009

Springfield Spared from Hate; “Laramie” A Devastating Reflection

[This image, posted by Twitter blogger @inkedgiff, shows the counter-protest at the Hoogland Center for the Arts]

About 300 people from Springfield and surrounding areas came to the doorstep of the Hoogland Center for the Arts Friday for what they anticipated would be an intense evening protest. The Springfield Police Department thought the same, and brought at least five officers for crowd control and a paddywagon in case things got dicey.

All were awaiting the arrival of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), an anti-gay hate group based in Topeka Kansas, founded by Fred Phelps, a disbarred lawyer who once campaigned to be governor of that state. The church operates the web site, and protested t numerous funerals of American soldiers, because, according to the Web site, the soldiers “voluntarily joined a fag-infested army to fight for a fag-run country now utterly and finally forsaken by God who Himself is fighting against that country.”

Inside the Hoogland, the Springfield Theater Centre production of “The Laramie Project,” was beginning its final weekend. The play retraces the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, who was savagely beaten and left for dead at the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay. After the 21-year old college student succumbed to his injuries and the trial of his killers began, the WBC gained national notoriety for picketed the highly-publicized trial. And now, more than a decade later, they protest the production that revisits Shepard’s death.

Among the WBC’s many targets included an Albany, New York high school that held “Laramie,” and a college at Basingstoke, Hampshire, in the United Kingdom who also held a “Laramie” production.

[Springfield blogger and tweeter @bishoponair took this photo from across the Hoogland center]

On both sides of sixth street, the would-be counter protesters held signs that read “FREE,” and “God Loves Fags.” One young man held a cardboard sign that had the word “Fag” inside a pink heart. There were two American flags and at least one rainbow flag. Bypassing cars honked in solidarity, and the crowd responded with cheers and hollers. A woman took signatures on a petition for equal marriage rights.

Anticipation for WBC’s arrival was building since at least “Laramie’s” premier the week before. Tuesday, Nov. 10, local radio personality Jim Leach, an STC board member, sparred with Shirley Phelps-Roper, a WBC leader.

I would absolutely gag if anyone in this nation turns from their rebellion because the time for your destruction is IMMINENT! It’s not going to happen. Christ said it’s going to look like Sodom when I come back, Phelps-Roper said.

Can you narrow that down a little bit when you say 'Imminent'? Because it's been imminent for a lot of years with you people and I was just wondering if you can narrow it down?

Leach's guest then repeatedly shouted
No, insisting her church has only been insisting imminence for a couple of months.

You've been telling us it's been imminent for a long time, Leach said, to which Phelps-Roper shouts "WRONG, and calling Leach a liar before explaining that she had to learn to speak and spell the word just recently.

The church never did show up in Springfield. At about 8 p.m., the paddywagon left Hoogland, and the counter-protesters went their separate ways.

Some of the Twitter chatter that evening:

“The Laramie Project,” which opened Nov. 6, gives an impression of the town that wasn’t broadcast in 1998. Instead, it is an account of Tectonic Theater Project members who visited Laramie six times over a year and a half and collected interviews and insights from the townspeople.

The resulting production is a stark juxtaposition between the serenity of the landscape and the depth of human brutality. It is carried out by 21 cast members who take turns playing 40 different Wyomingites, each having a unique identity, but each indivisible from the landscape of Laramie. The sheer number of characters would be confounding, if it weren’t that each of them exemplify

There are the playful busybodies Alison Mears and Marge Murray, who speak their minds and have plenty to say about the social structure of Laramie. There’s the town’s sergeant, who insists it’s a good place to live. In a town like Laramie, as one townie says to the theater project, everyone is pretty much once-removed. Everyone is a part of the great, blue sky, endless earth, and all stand in funeral-like silence as the accused are lead to the courtroom.

That’s not to say “The Laramie Project” shirks its journalistic pretense and flinches when hate is uncovered. There are cold truths when one of the murderers, Aaron McKinney, explains how he beat Shepard with a pistol, or when townspeople say murder is wrong, and in the next breath admit reservations about gay people. Hate just doesn’t bloom under Laramie’s insular clique, it is trucked into town in cable news vans, threatening emails and agenda-driven preachers.

But there also are moments where light floods in, where Laramie grieves and rallies and protests around the part of them that they lost. The only rule here, it seems, is what the town’s catholic Father warns the theater company: “Just say it right. I think you have a responsibility to do that.”

For those who are unprepared, it is a devastating experience. There are moments when testimony drops jaws and sucks the air from the room, if to be re-inflated and crushed when the humanity of Laramie is revealed.

Read on...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Making a Stand for MAP: Triumph & Uncertainty in the Fight for Higher-Ed in Illinois

[A student from Southern Illinois University readies a lapel microphone before being recorded for a newscast. He was joined by nearly 1,000 other students Oct. 15 for a rally to restore financial aid grants in the state.]

It was quickly apparent what they meant. Throngs were crossing the street, chanting, whistling, air-horning, taking long, purposeful strides to the white tent at 100 East Edwards, next to the Capitol, where the others were. People were at the threshold of the sidewalk, some were beyond it, waving at cars and beckoning attention to homemade signs.

The audience under the tent was dense, impenetrable, so the reporters and cameras milled about the perimeter and picked students off where they could. Not all of the picking was spontaneous. As these events go, media are given the names of particular people who are the most affected. My contact at the University of Illinois Springfield, Derek Schnapp, director of public relations, did the same for me, but ultimately I thought it would be a better to poll the audience randomly.

“I don’t know… if there’s any way to know, to estimate the number of students who will be coming state-wide,” Schnapp phoned in the day before the rally. “I’ve heard rumblings of a thousand or more.”

I’m not a bean counter, but the turnout seemed close. I was suspicious of his assessment at first, having made a wrong turn that took me on a journey to the wrong side of the capitol building, where there was only the empty chartered busses, clinging to the side of the road like abandoned cocoons. I wrapped my coat tighter and sped up my pace. It was a couple more blocks before my climate-bred surliness morphed into a blushing contrition that perhaps I didn’t adequately know the geography of my hometown.

Outside the tent, a young man with a square jaw and short, styled hair clipped a lapel microphone to his black peacoat, while a camera man issued directions. The name tag announced the subject was from Southern Illinois University, and he squinted into the camera and announced his name, its proper spelling, and his student government position at the university. His brow lightened and shoulders eased as he explained how, due to a series of medical circumstances and other financial obligations, his pursuit of higher education wouldn’t be possible without financial aid.

“I don’t know if I could get student loans. My credit isn’t so good,” he said. The camera caught a wisp of his nervous laughter as he ended his sentence.

His education, along with the education of many students at the rally, hinged on something called the Monetary Award Program, or MAP grant. It’s a need-based program that aids nearly 137,000 college students, including those who enroll directly from high school and independent adults continuing their education in order to sustain some kind of a middle-class lifestyle.

The maximum each student can obtain from the program is $2,500 per semester. That covers a quarter of the tuition and fees at a public university, or 35 percent of the education at a community college. Due to a combination of forces, both economic and societal, demand for the program ballooned 25 percent this year, according to (established by the Illinois Student Assistant Commission).

At the July armistice that ended 2009 state budget crisis (or merely postponed it, depending on your politics), Governor Patrick Quinn signed a budget that gave the MAP program $220 million, about half of the money it needed to meet its demand for the 2009-2010 school year. He didn’t tap into the $1.6 billion in discretionary funds the budget set aside - opting instead to maintain social services. Something else Quinn didn’t do was spread that money over both college semesters, thus sparing the fall 2009 semester and leaving the spring 2010 semester twisting in the wind.

In late September, just ahead of the veto sessions that could provide a correction of the budget snafu, Quinn launched a campaign to reinstate MAP funding, speaking to students at the University of Illinois Chicago, where 6,000 receive a total of $20,000 in assistance. His tour would roll through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Bradley University, Black Hawk College, John Wood Community College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville before it was over, all the while proposing to tax cigarettes more heavily and raising the income tax. “When it comes to this important education funding issue, we will not accept a grade of incomplete from the Legislature,” an AP reporter quoted Quinn as saying.

Skeptical minds never let rest the fact that Quinn was the executive whose signature made the state’s inadequate budget a law, a budget which he reportedly had “no reservation” in signing off. “To me, at least, it’s beyond obvious what the governor is doing here,” concluded Rich Miller, blogger for The Capital Fax Blog, in his Illinois Times column. “Quinn got himself in big trouble and now he’s lashing out at somebody else to draw attention away from him.”

Those weren’t the concerns of the college students at the Oct. 15 rally. From inside the rally’s tent came a voice that, although encumbered by the lack of a public address system, resonated with the listeners who could barely hear it. “People united cannot be defeated!” the man said. Shouting and applause answered the proclamation.

Without amplification, it was difficult to identify the speaker, but the deliberate cadence that marched like an army of words in some victory parade, the rising grumble that coalesced into a brusque dénouement, gave the voice away as that of Governor Quinn. His phrase, which he often wielded as a battle cry in similar populist demonstrations, also identified him. From behind, two people mused how it could have been Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard talking (a former democratic gubernatorial candidate), but I knew this couldn’t be. The speaker’s forceful turn-of-phrase didn’t fit Poshard’s mellifluous M.O.

“I can’t hear anything. Can you hear anything?” a woman said.
“No, I can’t hear anything,” a man answered. “It’s for the press, anyway. These things are always for the press.”

[People at the rally jammed a tent across the street from the Capitol, listening to speeches by students, college officials and the Governor before taking the protest to the rotunda.]

The easiest way to get through a mass of tightly-packed followers of a political rally, besides plowing your way through with a liberal application of impolite force, is to follow closely behind someone else who is already weaving through the crowd. I stopped at a point that was closer to the tent, but even raising my cell phone above the crowd to snap a picture didn’t result in a better understanding of the of the rally’s locus. Instead, I asked a Blackburn coed to show off her sign for a quick snap. A mother of three began to speak from the tent’s podium, but I ducked out early, overhearing the fact that this was the last speaker, and the rally would be marching to the rotunda of the Capitol.

Shuffling up the Capitol steps and finding the end of the entrance line, five people from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights quickly followed and arranged themselves in the queue. I spoke with Ryan Zantingh, a tall, slender man with a slightly dimpled chin and short, scruffy hair. His business card told me he was a financial aid coordinator, so I asked him what the cut to student funding would be, and what that might do to the population at TCC.

“We would lose about $1.5 million in funding,” he said. “There are a lot of students who would have to withdraw.”

One of the TCC contingency gripped a rolled-up poster, and I asked him to unfurl it for my camera phone. Zantingh and the other students helped unroll the poster, nearly ten feet long, revealing dozens of signatures recorded in black Sharpie. “FROM THE STUDENTS AT TRINITY CHRISTIAN COLLEGE / WITHOUT A MAP STUDENTS STRUGGLE TO FIND A WAY.” The poster caught the attention of others waiting in line, inspiring them to shout “Save Map Now, Save Map Now” and hold up signs of their own.

I took the shot as the line began carrying me off to the doors. “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now” was played on repeat, at volume which no other conversation could be deciphered, to which air horns trumpeted in compliment, successfully blocking out any immediate thought save “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now.” The assembly, despite not having entered the rotunda yet, had all the sincerity and fervor of a homecoming pep rally, although it was for a game where the consequences were much direr.

[A contingency from Trinity Christian College show a poster which students signed in support of the effort to restore MAP grants.]

When the uproar subsided and conversation again was possible, I was next to Dr. Malinda Carlson, the dean of students for Illinois College in Jacksonville.

“Where is it that you are from?” she asked
“I’m from Springfield, but I’m not a student here.” I said, picking out a crisp business card to hand her. “I’m a writer, you see. I thought I’d come to blog about all this.”
“I see.”
“So, how many students use the MAP grant at Illinois College?” I asked.
“About one-third.”
“And how much funding does that equate to?”
“About one million,” she said above the din of students joining in the latest round of chanting.
“And if MAP funding isn’t restored for the next semester, what do you think will happen to the student population?”
“Many of them would have to drop out. We’re really concerned about that.”

I could hear the conversation between two college students in the background. “How would they feel if we took $40,000 from their budget?” one said. Another said, “They look kind of angry.” Carlson turned to an IC student behind her.

“Is there a story you might be able to tell?” She asked the student.
“I don’t know if I’d be able to come back next semester without the MAP grant,” the student answered. “My grandmother has lung cancer, and I have to spend a lot of time with her. The treatment is really expensive, I don’t know if I could afford college if I didn’t have the grant.”
“And what are you now? Sophomore, junior, senior?” I asked.
“I’m a senior,” she said. “I have one semester to go.”
“You’re so close.”
“Yes, very close.”

Carlson turned again to the student. “I’m really sorry to hear that.”

“What is your name?” I asked.
“Andrea.” She said.
“Andrea, I’m sorry to hear about that.”

[A view of the line to the metal detectors inside the Illinois Capitol building. Air horns and other noisemakers were confiscated here.]

Nearing the metal detectors, another burst of chanting and air horns sounded. Knowing the system, I worked on unbuckling my belt and coiling it into a tight package. Two guards were shuttling trays of belongings through the X-ray’s conveyor. Another man was waving a wand over someone who caused the metal detector to burp a noise. A young man produced a silver multi-function pocketknife with a pronounced corkscrew. The device, which the tending guard indicated was not too big a size to allow, was about the width of a good-sized adult palm. I worked on putting my belongings into a basket and moved forward, crossed the threshold of the detector, and was relieved to find the alarm had not sounded.

There was a podium inside the rotunda that the young protesters used to re-launch the chant, “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now.” The Trinity Christian College contingency stepped on the podium and stretched out their signature-adorned sign. Beside the podium was a guest book, where students lined up to record their name, address and purpose. A Capitol guide tried to politely make her way through the pack, repeating “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,” clutching to her breast what appeared to be a bundle of maps. Eyes, pairs belonging young students and weathered lawmakers alike, watched from the railings on the second and third stories. The protesters below silenced their chants and coagulated on the rotunda floor around a single figure.

Centered in the orbit of multicolored neon placards doused in black Sharpie ink, young black and white and male and female and blue jeans and thick eyeliner and puffy coats and sweaters with college names in block font, and earpiece-wearing sentinels draped in weighty trench coats and fat neckties, was Governor Quinn, each arm corralling a student, his face locked in a grinning pose reserved for the fleeting, exceptional occasions that cameras were made for, but due to his avocation seemed to be perpetual and immutable, leaving one to ponder if it were actually ingenuous and not a pose at all. The students he was being captured with were from Bradley in Peoria.

[Light from a news camera washed out the face of Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn as he meets with students and answered questions from the press.]

What ensued was loosely-choreographed waltz. The students would approach, deliver a compliment, a response was given, they would shake, assume the stance for the camera, strain their eyes at the flash, and Quinn would pivot 90 or 180 degrees to address the next person. I watched this with a student reporter from a small, private college.

“Do you know if anyone is going to give a speech here?” he asked.

“Uh, no, probably not. I don’t think so,” I said. “You see, during the summer when there was all the budget turmoil, they actually had a rally here in the rotunda, and Quinn spoke at that podium over there. But it had microphones, and there was a speaker system and everything. They don’t have it set up like that, so I don’t think that’s going to happen today. Were you planning on asking Quinn a question?”

The reporter, who wore a black pea coat like mine and squared glasses like mine, shuffled a camera phone, a black voice recorder and several reporter’s notebooks in his hands.

“I was just going to ask him if he had any words for the students back at the college,” he said.

I kept silent my thoughts that it were a bit of a softball question, perhaps thinking that I didn’t have so many hardball questions myself, and said only “Sometimes, you just have to strong-arm your way in there.”

After observing Quinn’s waltz for nearly ten minutes, scouting for an opening, I found a route to the sanctum of the Governor/Student waltz and readied my silver Olympus WS-311M Digital Voice Recorder.

“How are you going to do it, Quinn? How are you going to pull it off?”

His brown eyes registered a response, but his face was locked for the camera, and he waited until the photo was taken. When that was accomplished, he gave an answer.

“Interfund borrowing is going to be one of our strategies,” Governor Quinn said, before pivoting to address the next person.

But nothing about cigarette or income tax. The last time interfund borrowing was practiced in Illinois was when the state transferred half a billion dollars from the retirement system into the hospital provider fund (Medicaid). Quinn signed that bill, The Interfund Borrowing Act of 2009 (which began life as HB1027), into law February 27. A week earlier, The Illinois AFL-CIO flagged it as a “shell bill,” or something that has no real legal content until it is replaced by a later version, sometimes just before committee. It’s a tactic used to shuttle legislation under the radar, or pulled as a trump card when things go badly late in session.

[Quinn poses for a photo with a troupe of Bradley students.]

Unbeknownst to the students chanting in the rotunda, senators boosted MAP funding to $425 million while the rally was going on. Nobody in the House said “nay,” and the only senator to vote against the bill was Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from Moline.

Beneath the widespread consent about the need for the funding boost, a bitter divide amongst lawmakers remained. A Murphysboro Republican told the State Journal-Register “Is this like writing a check when there is no money in the account? This doesn’t put any more money into our budget, and we are broke. It does give the governor cover to say ‘I have done something.’”

Democracy happened. Citizens were heard, and the lawmakers were pressured. Quinn’s signature would complete the legislative circle of life three days later. site changed to encourage thank-you notes to legislators, notifying visitors that “even with the passage of Senate Bill 1180 and subsequent signing into law, approximately 130,000 eligible applicants were still denied aid, as the state’s means was far less than the demand for the program.”

“Additionally, a funding source for the appropriation has yet to be identified.”

[Eyes closely watched the rally from the second and third stories.]

Before he left the rally, Quinn joined the TCC contingency on the podium for a last few frames of public interaction. Zantingh and his cadre beamed for the camera. Those associated with the rally began to make way for the exits, a process preempted by news crews who had deadlines to meet. I followed, but became transfixed by an enigmatic young man who began to chant “No MAP?” To that, the sign-wielding students around him answered “No Future.”

“No MAP?”
“No Future!”
“No MAP?”
“No Future!”

Time seemed to melt around this happening, at least until interest waned and the young man, for all his energy and character, struggled to keep the chant going. In a matter of hours on that brisk October day, the sanguine chant of “Save MAP Now” changed into a diffident mumbling of “Now What?”

Read on...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On the Verge of a Musical Breakthrough - a Moment with Band of Skulls

It began like a finale - an eruption of fuzz from guitar, bass and drum, occupying the ears of the crowd long after the cut off, like the sun burnt into a bloodshot retina. Singer/guitarist Russell Marsden wringed the strings on his Fender Stratocaster, torturing the guitar to cry out to his vocals. “I want to see you in the morning.”

Bassist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward tag-teamed the final two beats, meshing the Strat with a blast of snare drum and a humming bass. Then, a pause for effect. The guitar groaned, and cried out again. “I want to see you when the breaking day is dawning,” Marsden sang through the straight, bleached hair masking his face. The strands whipped out with his exhale.

“You gotta go, you gotta go, it’s alright… I want to see you in the- see you in the- light of the morning! Hey!”

It was on - the crowd was seduced into a mob of nodding heads and swaying hips. Band of Skulls ripped through at 10 songs off their first and only album “Baby Darling Doll Face Honey” at St. Louis’ Fubar. Richardson’s boots stomped to a rhythm rife with a bluesy, down-and-dirty ethic. Marsden wrestled the tremolo arm of the Strat, juicing his instrument for every last drop of 70s-psychadelia with a consummate deftness. Hayward drove the band forward with a solid, unflinching beat, evoking the 90s garage movement.

It’s easy deciphering the influences of this power trio. Perhaps the band’s strongest asset is that while its sound was done before (as recently as Kings of Leon and any number of Jack White bands), the catchy lyrics and undeniable energy forces one to accept it on its own terms. As one reviewer explained: “The history of popular music might very well lie within this promising band from England. But its’ the future they ought to be concerned about...because it’s going to be a bright one.”

By some standards, the band’s rise could be considered meteoric. Having formed in January, by March they cut and released a full-length album of 11 songs. The next month, ‘I Know What I am’ was the iTunes single of the week. In August, they were featured on Lollapalooza’s BMI stage, although it was a lightly-attended show before noon on the Saturday of the festival. Also that month, Band of Skulls provided HBO’s popular series “True Blood” with background music in a scene. That wonderfully appropriate song, ‘Blood,’ may have reached up to 5.2 million viewers.

Perhaps the band’s biggest boost will come in October 13, when the highly anticipated teen-centric vampire flick “New Moon” releases its soundtrack, where Band of Skulls will take a spot on a track listing alongside monstrously famous acts such as Radiohead and Muse. November 20, the same track will be played for tens of millions of theatergoers.

(This writer’s best guess is that the track will be the same as featured on HBO’s “True Blood,” although a recent Tweet indicated the band recently spent time in its LA studio, and so may just have created the track. Or, perhaps some completely unrelated new music.)

None of this was apparent at the St. Louis gig. Only 23 showed up on that Monday night. It was an uneventful evening for the band, who enjoyed a bite at a nearby outdoor café in near anonymity. Shortly before the show at the venue, when a fan did approach at the bar, the band looked stunned.

“I was wondering if you could sign this,” the fan said sheepishly, holding a copy of the band’s vinyl record.

“Of course!” Richardson said in a proper British accent, taking the album and dispatching its plastic wrapping with haste. “The cover is a bit slippery to sign.” She opened the album and took out the complementary poster.

“I don’t like what they did with the artwork,” she said, explaining that the record company took her original painting, cropped and mirrored it for the album cover. She passed the poster and a sharpie to the nearest band mate.

“We wanted to catch you before you get so big that we’ll have to pay $80 for a ticket to a stadium show,” the fan said as the guitarist, Marsden, made an autograph.

“That would be great,” Marsden said. “Not that you have to pay $80, but that we would have lots of people come to see us.”

Band of Skulls went on to make their performance, and ended in a massive crescendo. With Richardson and Hayward playing loud and hard, Marsden struck a chord on his Strat and laid the guitar on the stage. Bass and drums continuing to blast, Marsden cranked his effects pedals for maximum reverb, with the chord ringing and ringing and ringing. To the sound of a Strat blasting a hypnotic cacophony of fuzz and whatever happy noises a crowd of 23 could muster, the musicians left their instruments and headed to the adjacent bar.

I sat with my colleague, Joe, the one who approached the band before the concert, and watched as fans struck up conversations with the trio. This was a rare, strange moment, we considered.

“My son really likes your music,” one man, who appeared to be in his early 40s, said. “Would you mind signing this for him?”

Joe and I were at a neighboring booth while Richardson hovered nearby, cigarette burning between her fingers like a post-coital habit.

“Could you sign this poster for my co-worker?” Joe asked.

“Sure, what’s her name?” She said.

“Beth,” he said. “I got her turned on to you guys. She likes the band ‘Heart,’ and you really sound like the band, ‘Heart.’”

“Who’s that?”

“You don’t know who ‘Heart’ is?”

“No, how do you spell it? Just H-E-A-R-T?”

Joe nodded as she scribbled her name, the name of the classic Seattle rock band from the 70s featuring Ann and Nancy Wilson, and how she didn’t know who they were, but was confident that they rocked.

“How can you not know who ‘Heart’ is?” Joe said. “Your vocals sound just like theirs.”

Richardson, the member of the band with a collection of 20,000 records, looked at Joe, puzzled. I felt nervous and turned to Joe, murmuring, “Come on, man…”

“You better keep that Sharpie,” I said to Richardson, changing subjects suddenly. Joe and I scoured a six-block radius in my car, looking for a single felt-tipped marker, in preparation to score pre-concert autographs.

“You’d think a fan should have manners enough to bring their own pen to a concert,” I added.

“Yeah, really!” she said, pointing the end of the marker in the air, and resting her free hand on her hip. “Who do they think we are? Michael Jackson?”

Richardson turned to acknowledge a group of three girls. Emma’s black tank top, and hip-hugging jeans clashed with the suburban-mall-party-girl-esque outfits of the girls.

“We really like your music and think you’re going to get real big someday,” one of the fangirls said, holding out a poster to be signed. Emma nodded approvingly and left her mark on the memorabilia.

The audience, satisfied with autographs and posters and CDs, filed out of the bar, leaving the joint near empty. While the band spoke to punk-rock looking girls who stayed after, Joe and I nursed our beers and debated what next to do. Before long, I decided to embark on a buzzed journey to relieve the burden of my newfound, Mexican friend, Sol Beer. Joe left to the adjacent table.

“You know, Emma says she doesn’t know who ‘Heart’ is,” he said to Hayward.

Hayward turned to Richardson, astonished. “What?! You’ve never heard of ‘Heart’!?”

I returned shortly after to find the band table sans-Richardson. I was informed that everyone at the table gave Richardson grief about not knowing who ‘Heart’ was, to the point where she left the table in mild frustration.

Hayward wrote on Beth’s poster “Beth!! You like Heart!? I like Heart! Let’s get together!”

We shook hands with Hayward on the way out the door. The band would finish its American tour August 30, before knocking out 11 shows in Canada and returning to the UK for another 19 appearances, all before September. Next stop, the unknown.

“I’m busy booking our next tour,” Hayward said as we made our exit. “Just keep checking our MySpace, it will be on there.”

Set List, 8/24/09:

“Light of the Morning”
“I Know What I Am”
“Diamonds and Pearls”
“Cold Fame”
“Holywood Bowl”

Read on...

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tweetups, Good Times, and the End of the World

There is something you should know up-front. Full disclosure; this former reporter is shy to the point of absurdity at times. Anyone with this affliction can tell you it gets worse when confronted with a large group of people you have never met. Given that fact, it would seem the odds were against me when I met such a group July 23 at the Brewhaus in Springfield. However, I did have something working for me: all of us were Tweeple.

Of course, such details seemed irrelevant when I entered and knocked a table, spilling a fellow blogger’s beer. Foam of Morland Old Spekled Hen oozed over the tablecloth and spattered the blogger’s khakis. If only had such panache at all social functions.

Thankfully, he was a good and generous Twitterer, and brushed it off as we conversed about the hoppyness of the libation I spilled everywhere. I found all the Tweeple to be just as accommodating. Conversation flowed, and followers became friends. Between the occasional burst of laughter and the warmth of smiles, something became unhinged. It was as if a problem was solved; a resolution reached.

Any instance where you have a group of bloggers in a social setting, you have a bit of a conundrum. When looking at the individual blogger, you’re referring to an individual who spends a great deal of time stewing in front of a screen, expounding personal philosophy in a dearth of social interaction. After all, bloggers are a species of writer, who partake in one of the most solitary and introverted activities a human can commit to. Somehow, in spite of this, face time resulted.

Twitter is a case study of this conundrum. That’s the “microblogging” service whereby participants commit 140-character messages (“tweets”) to a place on the Web, and where other participants can elect to receive those transmissions (“following”). It’s been described as both “worthy of being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize” (Former US security adviser Mark Pfeifle), and “a big waste of time” (Late Show host David Letterman). The act of following is extroverted in the sense of expanding social connections, yet posting remains an introverted enterprise.

The “tweetup” provides resolution. It’s an event where people who use Twitter (“Tweeple,” or “Twitteratti,” depending on the number of followers) meet in person. To facilitate the process of breaking the Web barrier, this Tweetup sometimes occurs in the proximity of alcohol. Thus, it’s common for Tweetups to take place in a local pub.

Chris “Shoo” Scheufele, IT pro, local blogger and founder of the blog aggregator tweeted July 9. Word spread amongst Springfield tweeple, and support for a Springfield tweetup gained critical mass to break the Web barrier. All came together July 23, when about 15 tweeple and associated bloggers met at the Brewhaus.

“We each had something to add to the conversation,” local blogger and photographer Matt Penning later wrote. “The discussions varied wide as well as local. Putting a face to what online is a sometimes anonymous, and at other times more revealing than ‘real’ life.”

Penning, like many of the bloggers there, came with some hesitancy. This writer must admit the same feelings, especially after he so elegantly bumped a table and spilled beer. The collective interest in blogging, however, provided a convenient talking point, which helped.
To be sure, the July 23 event wasn’t the first ever Tweetup in Springfield. That honor most likely goes to the Elgin Day lobby, who organized a get-together February 25. The Elgin Day Lobby, organized to promote issues surrounding “manufacturing, healthcare, education and community sustainability” in Elgin, IL, promoted the tweetup ahead of a meeting with members of the Illinois General Assembly.

Despite some Springfield Tweeple in attendance (@gotshoo and @mochamomma, to name a few), the PR-centric motives of the event and the lobby that organized it forces the question of authenticity. There was a Tweetup in Springfield, but was it truly a Springfield Tweetup? The answer depends on perspective.

Rewinding to the idea of Tweetup as a resolution, I think of a freelance writer in Seattle, Washington, who lives near the center of the information revolution. Lisa Albers, a transplant from the Midwest, is a former reporter for the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She writes in her blog how the social culture of Seattle, coupled with advances in communication technology, grows a scary, new kind of alienation.

“… the tech culture has made it so that everyone here is wired, but few are really connecting. We all have at least 50 Facebook friends, a hundred Twitter followers, and a few hundred LinkedIn connections; we’re texting and e-mailing and posting status updates and commenting on and sharing articles online with our peeps all day and night long. We go to art gallery openings and house parties and concerts to see a zillion of our closest friends, but even when we’re there, in the flesh having a face-to-face with a human being, we have an iPhone in hand; we’re texting and checking our messages and going online to find out where the next event is.” Albers says. “This is happening to social culture the world over, true, but like grunge, it seems to have originated here. When it comes to human relationships, we’re all multi-tasking.”

Most revolutions in technology and society can be traced back to ideas that writers penned eons ago, especially science fiction writers. In many cases, these writers use their imaginations to explore the potential dangers hidden in scientific advancement. Take, for example, E.M. Forster’s vision of a world where life is as easy as pressing a button. There’s a button for music, a button for clothing. There’s a button for a hot bath, and a button for literature. There’s a button to open the door and summon transportation, too, but it’s rarely used. Travel in this era is considered superfluous, because all places on earth now look alike.

Also, people of this future speak mainly through tubes:

“The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well.”

Face-to-face communication withers. The narrative continues, and people devolve further into an informationless, inhuman abyss. They become scared of firsthand experiences:

“And even the lecturers acquiesced when they found that a lecture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first-hand ideas!” exclaimed one of the most advanced of them. “First-hand ideas do not really exist. They are but the physical impressions produced by live and fear, and on this gross foundation who could erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element--direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine--the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought LafcadioHearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution.”

As the regression continues, people become more distant, and less information is exchanged. Gradually, it is forgotten how to fix the machine which the society revolves around. The people are helpless when their world crashes down on them.

Are Tweetups a solution to a societal death-spiral of social awkwardness? I posed the question to a trusted friend, who doesn’t Tweet, and wasn’t that impressed. Even though I met up with a group of people from the same geographic location, he insisted, it couldn’t have happened without Twitter. Without the tool, and without the initiative to meet total strangers, I wouldn’t have known of these people. In other words, the social experience was dependant on the tool, not the other way around.

Do we come out ahead? Break even? A social experience happened. A circle of friends was expanded. But perhaps, behind the scenes, had dollars been traded for pennies?

Read on...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Harassed, Accused by Centrum Café

[Updated 7:05 PM, July 28: Added results of a virus scan of the laptop.]

Centrum Café in Springfield was winding down. It was 8:35 P.M. on Sunday, July 26. A young woman dressed in black swept up crumbs in the café, while two other women made final preparations in the kitchen.

It was about 15 minutes since she said “thank you for coming” to the last customer, and it didn’t appear any others would come before closing time at 9. Before that, the place was dense with screech of children and the exchanges of the middle-aged and elderly. I briefly considered sending a Tweet about the children running wild, but resisted, deciding not to be a curmudgeon. “Frozen custard on Sunday,” I thought, and shook the idea off.

My laptop glowed in the dim cafe with the text of E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops.” Next to it was the remains of an Italian soda and a picked-at brownie. The brownie was a mixture of chocolate, nuts and coconut. It wasn’t very healthy, and wasn’t very tasty, but I chipped it away as not to be wasteful. I wasn’t going to finish it - I was near ready to leave and let the employees finish cleaning in peace.

A man with salt-and-peppered hair and moustache approached me. I recognized him from before; he sometimes wore what appeared to be a chef’s uniform when he was in the kitchen.

“Are you Matthew?”

I was surprised, but it felt like the good kind of surprise. Maybe he knew my writing. Maybe I had a fan. I didn’t know how he knew me, but became cheery in an instant.

“Yeah, that’s me! Matthew [last name].”

“I’ve seen your computer on our system. You’ve been downloading music and stealing financial records.”


“I have sensors all over this café, and they’ve been showing that you’ve been hacking into our computers and stealing financial records.”

“I… I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’ve just been reading here.”

He wasn’t an instrument of the law, and he didn’t have a search warrant, but I felt compelled to show this man who accused me of very serious things that what I was doing in his restaurant. I turned my laptop in his direction to show him the E.M. Forster story. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Perhaps it made him feel he had the right to look. Whatever the case, it only made him more curious.

“Were you on 90?”

“Was I on what?”

“Were you on 90?”

“I don’t know what that is. I’m using ‘Centrum Café.’ I just opened my laptop and it works.”

“Show me your network connections.”

My nerves were beginning to cave. I dabbed the pad on the black IBM Lenovo laptop, and my finger began to shake. My face was turning red. Was this guy about to call the police over something I didn’t do? Would they seize my laptop and scour through my personal data to conjure up some imaginary motive for a crime I didn’t commit? What did this guy want from me?

Fumbling through a few Windows Vista screens, I found the networks he was talking about. He asked me to connect to one of them, and I tried. The computer thought for a moment before giving up. I clicked on another one, and it prompted a security code, which for obvious reasons, I didn’t have. I shrugged as the screen asked for the code, and cancelled out. He didn’t back off.

“What are your hours?”

“Hours? Just… whenever?”

“What do you do?”

“What do I do? I’m… I’m unemployed. I’m a writer… I just come in here to read and write. That’s all.”

I grabbed the copy of Raymond Carver’s “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please,” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Rum Diaries,” in an effort to convince him that I was the reading and writing type, not the hacking and stealing type. I half expected him to want to look at my books, too, but he turned and began walking to the kitchen.

“Do it again, and I’ll bar you from the café,” he said over his shoulder.

“I’m just here to read,” I said, stuffing Carver, Thompson and my laptop into my bag.

I headed for the door, concerned that my haste might give the wrong impression. But I didn’t feel safe there any longer, so I didn’t hang around.

“Thank you for coming!” the girl said as the door shut behind me.

Update on 7:05 PM, July 28

Some readers, rightly so, have wondered about the security of the laptop that was used in the cafe. It is not out of possibility that a virus could, without the operator's knowledge, infiltrate a network and cause all sorts of issues. I consider myself a fairly safe user, reasonably aware of the symptoms of these viruses and the ways in which a computer can become infected. For one, I always use a firewall, and this Lenovo did come with a copy of Norton, which I used periodically. But to resolve this question with more certainty, I purchased from Best Buy a new, 2009 copy of Norton Internet Security, updated it after installing, restarted, and ran a full system scan. This is the result:

The Norton scan concluded that no viruses were found, with the only possible issues being some 48 tracking cookies.

Given this result, it being the first virus scan since the incident, I'm fairly confident that there were no viruses on this computer, and it presented no security threats to Centrum Cafe, or anyone else on that network.

Read on...

Monday, July 13, 2009

What Higher Ed in IL Stands to Gain From Capital Plan

With hope dwindling for an armistice on the Illinois budget, let alone a weapon to pay down debt and finance essential services, one whopping piece of spending did make it out of Springfield alive.

Monday, July 13, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed into law SB1221, the first Capital construction plan since 1999.

The “Illinois Jobs Now!” Web site says that $31 billion will be spent in the next six years building or restoring roads and bridges, bolstering public transit, developing high-speed rail, funding economic and community development, and investing in the state’s K-12 and higher education system.

For some perspective, the budget Quinn proposed for FY2010 totaled $53 billion. If the $31 billion Capital construction plan was doled out in six equal, annual payments, the payment in 2010 would be less than 10 percent of that year’s budget.

The “Illinois Jobs Now!” Web site says that projects will be funded via motor vehicle title fees, license plate fees, drivers' license fees, video gaming terminals ($300 million), and new taxes on sweets, sweetened tea, coffee, grooming and hygiene products and alcohol. Those taxes actually will go to pay down the $13 billion in 20-year bonds the state will issue.

The site says federal and local-matching funds will bridge the gap to $31 billion.

Included in the construction plan is $1.5 billion for higher education, going to 32 institutions.

Illinois State University President Al Bowman in a statement Monday said the passage of the bill was "encouraging" for ISU, but cautioned "it may be quite some time before any capital funds are actually released for use," due to the economy.

Bowman added "We must also remember that a fiscal year 2010 operating budget is still not in place, and that the Governor’s current proposal calls for more than $1 billion in cuts, thousands of state employee layoffs and furlough days for employees of some state agencies."

$54 million will be going to rehabilitate ISU's Fine Arts Complex, which would be used to demolish antiquated buildings and replace them with facilities having modern mechanical and electrical systems, thus consolidating nine buildings into one.

Below are those institutions and the projects that will be funded, in alphabetical order. Click “Read on…” to go to the page, and hit Ctrl+F to access your browser’s search function, if you wish to find a particular institution.

Chicago State University
$40 million to Chicago State University for a west side campus

City College of Chicago
$31 million to City College of Chicago - Olive Harvey College to construct academic building

College of Du Page
$25 million to College of DuPage - Glen Ellyn to replace temporary facilities

College of Lake County
$36 million to College of Lake County to construct the student services building

Eastern Illinois University
$4.8 million to EIU to upgrade HVAC/plumbing systems in Coleman Hall and the Life Sciences Building

Harper College
$41 million to Harper College to construct one stop admissions and campus/student center

Illinois Central College
$2.6 million to Illinois Central College to renovate/expand Dirksen Hall

Illinois Eastern Community Colleges Wabash Valley
$4 million to IECC - Wabash Valley to construct a student center

Illinois Math and Science Academy
$6.3 million to the Illinois Math and Science Academy to renovate residence halls

Illinois State University
$54.3 million to Illinois State University to renovate the Visual Arts Center Complex

Illinois Valley Community College
$22.8 million to Illinois Valley Community College to construct a community technology center

Kaskaskia College
$5.6 million to Kaskaskia College for infrastructure improvements at the Vandalia Campus

Lake Land College
$9.9 million to Lake Land College to construct a workforce relocation center
$7.5 million to Lake Land College to construct a rural development technology center

Lewis and Clark Community College
$16.3 million to Lewis and Clark Community College for construction/infrastructure improvements - National Great Rivers Research and Educational Center

Lincoln Land Community College
$3 million to Lincoln Land Community College to renovate Logan and Mason Halls

McHenry County College
$672,000 to McHenry County College to construct a greenhouse

Northeastern Illinois University
$73 million to Northeastern Illinois University to construct an education building

Northern Illinois University
$22.5 million to Northern Illinois University to expand/renovate the Stevens Building
$8 million to Northern Illinois University to renovate Cole Hall

Parkland College
$15.4 million to Parkland College to construct a student services addition

Rend Lake College
$451,000 to Rend Lake College to construct art program addition

Richland Community College
$3.5 million to Richland Community College to Renovate/Expand Student Success Center

Rock Valley College
$26.7 million to Rock Valley College to construct an Arts Instructional Center

Southern Illinois University Carbondale

$56.7 million to SIU – Carbondale to construct a transportation education center
$4.3 million to Southern Illinois University – Carbondale for a communication center

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
$78.9 million to SIU Edwardsville to construct/renovate the Science Laboratory

Southwestern Illinois Community College

$19 million to Southwestern Illinois Community College for campus improvements

Spoon River College

$4 million to Spoon River College to construct a multi-purpose building

University of Illinois Chicago

$21 million to UIC for upgrades to campus infrastructure and renovate campus buildings

University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford
$14.8 million to University of Illinois – Rockford to construct the National Rural Health Center

University of Illinois Springfield
$4 million to the University of Illinois – Springfield to Renovate/Construct a Public Safety Building

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign

$57.3 million to U of I - Urbana/Champaign to renovate Lincoln Hall
$44.5 million to U of I - Urbana/Champaign for an electrical and computer engineering building

Western Illinois University Macomb

$67.8 million to WIU – Macomb to Construct a Performing Arts Center
$3.2 million for capital renewal at WIU-Macomb

Western Illinois University Moline
$15.8 million to WIU – Moline to renovate and construct Riverfront Campus - Phase I
$42 million to WIU – Moline to renovate and construct Riverfront Campus - Phase II

Read on...

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Photos and Footage - July 4 in Springfield

Springfield, Illinois' July 4 fireworks display went on as planned, despite low cloud cover and high probability of precipitation.

This year's display cost about $20,000, according to the State Journal-Register.

Crowd reaction was much stronger and more positive than last year's event - a "low-level" display which was encumbered by foliage and buildings, leaving many spectators disappointed.

In other news, The Horseshoe now has a YouTube channel, which features video taken of the display. You can take a look at the clip here, in this post, or by visiting the YouTube channel.

Read on...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Transcript of Governor Quinn's Speech to Social Workers

Transcript of Governor Quinn's speech to social workers in the capitol rotunda, June 23, 2009:

"The people's house in the land of Lincoln in the city of Abraham Lincoln, who believed in a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we are the people. Always remember that people united cannot be defeated and we will not be defeated. This is a moment in history and we the people must seize and go forward on behalf of the common good to make sure our state has a balanced budget, a budget where the revenue equals the expenditures, a budget that makes sure that human services are provided to the good, hardworking, loyal people of the state of Illinois...

The people of Illinois are good and decent, they understand the value of a good samaritan, that when your neighbor looses his job, or has a problem, all of us band together to help our neighbors. That's what the tradition is in Illinois, that's what the tradition is in America. We understand when it's very tough, in economic hard times, we aren't going to throw anyone overboard, the Land of Lincoln, we make sure that we all go together and make sure where we get to where we've got to go, a better place for the people of Illinois, are taking good care of each other. that's what I believe in, and I know that's what you believe in.

On March 18 in this very Building, the state capitol, I proposed an income tax increase... a temporary income tax increase that would make sure that we have enough revenue for human services, public safety, health and educaion, helping our veterans, the men and women who are the front lines for our democracy. When they come home, we want to make that sure we take good care of their health needs, their job needs, their education needs and everyone else's education needs, and everyone else's education needs. We believe in everybody in and nobody left out in the land of Lincoln.

There's something wrong if there are political people in our state who think you can leave people behind and cut the budget in a mean-spirited way, where we don't have enough revenue for child care, for senior care, for healthy people to have a chance. For all of those who are involved in serving others, I want to thank everyone here because I know... all the people who work in human services, you don't do it for the money, there's not a lot of money in this, you do it because you have the service heart.

There's a saying that I think all of us take to heart that service to others is the rent we pay for our place on God's earth. The people in this hall, in this building, have more than paid their rent in their service to others. Dr. Martain Luther King Jr. once said everyone can be great because everyone can serve. And we want to serve the people of Illinois in the best way possible. We've got to to make sure we have top notch human services during this tough recession. We have to make sure we have good mental health services in every community. There's something wrong in a recession when the politicians want to cut back on community mental health, that won't happen as long as I'm governor.

The great thing about America, the great thing about Illinois is that you adults are willing to sacrifice part of our present in order to help our children's future. We believe in our early childhood education we believe in health care... [cut off by audience's chanting of "no more cuts."]

We have a message. On March 18, I proposed a budget for our state, a decent budget, that didn't have severe cuts to social services... we have to get the revenue for that... As governor of Illinois, it's a great honor and priviledge to be a governor... But I call for temporarily raising the income tax from three and to four and a half percent, so we can have a decent budget, we can help people who have been laid off... we can help everyone in Illinois who is needing a helping hand. We can do that. What we have to do from now until next tuesday, the 30th of June, the end of this fiscal year, is use the power of democracy. What we have here is simple, the power of everyday, ordinary people, banding together, not for profit, for a cause we believe in. We believe in the people of Illinois, all 30 million people. Everybody's in, nobody is left out. We want to make sure our legislature can have a revenue bill so I can sign it, and we can make the will of the people the law of the land."

Read on...

In Search of Budget, Governor Quinn takes to Populism in Capitol Rally

With words of solidarity and praise, Gov. Pat Quinn let nearly 5,000 social workers gathered at the Illinois capitol know where he stood Tuesday afternoon.

“There’s something wrong if there are political people in our state who think you can leave people behind, and cut the budget in a mean-spirited way, where we don’t have enough revenue for child care, for senior care, for healthy people to have a chance,” the governor said before a mass of protesters that filled the rotunda.

In the midst of a $9.2 rift in the state budget, a crisis made direr by the faltering economy, the Governor is counting on the unity of populism to save services and balance the budget. His proposal of temporarily increasing the personal income tax from 3 to 4.5 percent for two years to bridge the gap has met intense opposition.

“We understand when it’s very tough, in economic hard times, we aren’t going to throw anyone overboard, the Land of Lincoln, we make sure that we all go together and make sure where we get to where we’ve got to go, a better place for the people of Illinois, are taking good care of each other,” he said.

Quinn told protesters at the rally, meant to coincide with the beginning of the special budget session, that citizens would have to organize and use the “power of democracy” to before the end of the fiscal year, Tuesday, June 30, to avoid cuts to services.

Quinn’s excited tone at the rally was a stark difference from the somber “doomsday budget” rhetoric observed in interviews. Members of the punditocracy have commented that this was a tactic employed by Quinn’s predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, and as such may harm Quinn’s ambitions and image as governor.

As with much of the politics in Illinois, the success of any given campaign (or budget) can change by the minute, often drastically. With a call to populism, especially in times of a great socioeconomic schism, the fate of the budget may even be out of the hands of the governor, placed squarely in the possession of the people’s voices.

Demonstrators packed the rotunda, displaying a variety of signs, many of which declared "JUST FIX IT." This was also a slogan chanted throughout the rally.

Social service workers, representing all branches of service, lined up to enter the rotunda where Quinn and others spoke. The heat was oppressive, but did not seem to have an effect on those lobbying. Many were left out by security personnel at some point before Gov. Quinn's speech.

Demonstrators line up to enter the rotunda to lobby. The message at the rally was completely unified around the message of salvaging essential services.

Members of New Mexico-based SWOP, the SouthWest Organizing Project, were among organizers at the rally. Chartered buses surrounded the capitol building, as organizers filed out in multicolor shirts representing their respective causes.

Another picture of Gov. Quinn's speech to social workers in the rotunda. Read on...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Putting Lincoln On The Couch, with Dr. Burlingame

Dr. Burlingame, Renowned Historian and New UIS Lincoln Studies Chair, Tries to Crack Abe’s Noggin.

In 1997, Michael Burlingame boldly declared that experts “have yet to analyze fully the psychological origins of Lincoln’s hatred of slavery, his aversion to women, his anger and cruelty, his role as a father figure,” among other quirks.

He proposed in that first book, “The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln,” that the solution was a healthy dose of psychohistory.

“It’s an attempt to address some questions about the past that otherwise would be very difficult to answer, unless you pay attention to unconscious forces,” Burlingame, 67, says.

A psychohistorian, Burlingame intends to bring a unique look at history when he takes the post of the Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield this fall.

He’ll be tapping into Carl Jung and Freud to pick apart history, while teaching a handful of UIS students a course in psychohistory and the American presidency at the historic Iles House in Springfield.

“We will be looking at people like Jefferson and Lyndon Johnson, really studying how their personal experiences affected their ideology and their behaviors,” Burlingame says.

Burlingame was hooked on Lincoln as an undergraduate at Princeton, under the auspice of noted historian David Herbert Donald. He would go on to earn his doctorate from the same historian from John Hopkins University in 1971.

Since then, he’s written three books on Lincoln, the most recent being 2008’s “Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” a two-volume series which garnered critical praise. He’s also racked up an extensive list of accolades, and retired from Connecticut College after a 30-year career there.

The 16th president earns a special place on the Burlingame psychologist couch.

For example, one enigma Burlingame finds is abhorrence to slavery, at a time when the average Illinoisan may not be inclined to abolition. Lincoln would not likely harbor those views from his native, slave state of Kentucky, either.

Given that history, what provoked Lincoln to protest a state proclamation against abolitionist groups in 1837 and write that slavery was “founded on both injustice and bad policy” (while only one other lawmaker signed his protest)? Or inspired him to argue in 1854 in Peoria against the Kansas-Nebraska Act with a lengthy speech about the moral ills of slavery, and re-enter the public arena? Burlingame recounts how Lincoln’s relationship with his father may have fostered abolitionist feelings.

“His father treated him like a slave. He rented him out to neighbors, so Lincoln as an adolescent would go out and spend days on end performing really back breaking farm chores like chopping down trees, picking up stumps, building fences and all that kind of hard work,” he says.

It wasn’t uncommon for Lincoln to be pulled from his lessons to work on a chore for a neighbor. Those earnings became the property of the parent, and Lincoln’s father didn’t hesitate to use his son’s labor. For a boy who loved to learn, Burlingame says, this was a trigger.

“Unconsciously he identified himself with the slaves and identified his father with slave holders, otherwise it’s hard to understand why Lincoln despised slavery from early on,” he says.

Lincoln hated working a hard day’s work without honest pay, and that became the stinging point for his antislavery rhetoric. He didn’t use an angle of civil liberties, freedom of speech, press or assembly when trying to argue abolition. “Instead, he talks about how it’s an outrage that somebody goes out and works in the hot sun all day, and somebody else derives the profits,” Burlingame says.

That Lincoln suffered from clinical depression and lost a great love in his earlier years (Ann Rutledge), was considered bunk until recently. James G. Randall, the distinguished Lincoln historian and professor at the University of Illinois two generations ago, discredited a large portion of William Herndon’s personal notes, silencing a wealth of the evidence in the process.

“That set Lincoln Scholarship back about 50 years and the Herndon treasure trove seem like a nuclear waste dump,” Burlingame says.

It was later revealed that much of this was influenced by Randall’s wife, who had a very high opinion of Mary Todd Lincoln and sought to purge Ann Rutledge from history books. In the process of making “The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln,” Burlingame, whose mentor at Princeton was a protégé of Randall, approached the archives of the president’s law partner with caution.

“I thought I should look at it, to say I just took a glance at it, and I found it quite persuasive,” he says. “There were so many people who testified and they all sounded reasonable to me.”

Now that his schedule of bicentennial speeches and book touring is winding down, he anticipates settling into his UIS post and getting down to a new book. Tentatively titled “Words of Lincoln reported by Contemporary Newspapers,” he hopes to collect reporter’s stories on the president.

“Sometimes it’s a direct quotation and sometimes it’s an indirect quotation, but those are valuable contributions to the stock of information about Lincoln,” Burlingame says.

He also intends to hunt down nearly 200 anonymous letters written to the Sangamon Journal, which he believes Lincoln wrote, along with primary source material from White House secretaries. Some of the data won’t be to be tremendously difficult to find, considering his living arrangements across the street from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, in an 1856 building where Lincoln may have been at some point.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Springfield doing research, and people have been extremely kind and hospitable,” he says. “I have a pretty big circle of friends, and I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with them.”

Read on...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Challenge from Hell: Profile of a Hell's Kitchen Winner

She doesn’t live by the rules of any one mantra.

“My mantra changes every day, like my favorite food,” says Christina Machamer, better known as Chef Christina, the winning culinary combatant from season four of Hell’s Kitchen.

Due to her grueling schedule at the London West Hollywood restaurant, where Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay reigns, lately her mantra has been “eat well and be well.” Foods that give energy are a must, given her 14-hour work days. “Working the hours I do, it’s very difficult to balance my health and strength.”

Earning her one-year tenure at Ramsay’s restaurant required more than just good eats. To face up to the Hell’s Kitchen challenge and compete against 14 other chefs, many who had more experience than the 25-year-old, Machamer had to draw from hard-won lessons in the trenches of the restaurant business.

Machamer started in the industry at the age of 16 at a Red Lobster restaurant. “It wasn’t really because I wanted to be a chef. It paid above the minimum wage, and they had free biscuits.”

Right from the start, the gauntlet was thrown down. “I started on a Saturday night during Lent, when we had 400 people a night.” The experience left her exhausted. “I went into the bathroom and started vomiting.”

Despite the challenges of a working in a corporate restaurant, she kept at it, even as a full-time pre-law student in Massachusetts, far from her native St. Louis. And while she can’t remember the name of every restaurant she’s worked at, she recalls working for at least 30 restaurants, often two at a time. When she learned everything about one role, she’d change positions. When she learned everything about a restaurant, she’d move to another one. “If I liked a restaurant, I’d stay there about a year and a half. They teach you everything you need to know.”

She returned to Missouri, and eventually had a falling-out with her aspirations of becoming a lawyer, and found a home in culinary arts. “The more I pursued [law], the less interested I was. The chances that I would ever be able to pursue constitutional law were limited. I couldn’t just graduate law school and change the world.” Still, she does not regret the change, finding herself much happier working with food and treating the world to her creations. “Maybe it’s not as important as politics, but I can see it does make an impact.”

Reaching out for new experiences was a habit instilled in Machamer early on. “That’s one thing I’ve been encouraged to do since I was young.” It’s a habit that dates back to games she used to play with her brother, when the two would try to settle who was most adventurous. “We tried to gross each other out and see who would eat fish eyes, bones, tails. You have to experience all those different things.”

While watching the third season of Hell’s Kitchen with her peers at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, the Harvard of culinary schools, she decided to give the show a shot and showed up for casting calls.

Despite having left the college life far behind, the background she had as a “dorm mother” proved to be a useful asset. When she was accepted and the contest began, she found herself living in close quarters with other chefs and grappled with the constant politicking that came with it. “It made it a lot easier to deal with. I was used to dealing with a lot of stress and things changing, and those stresses can really get in the way.”

In the kitchen, her and other hopefuls had to invent and perfect a menu in a matter of hours, where in the field, it would normally take days. And that’s not mentioning operating under the insult-frothing, entrée-lobbing auspice of Gordon Ramsay. But the ordeal was a proper introduction into the executive sous chef position that Machamer won. “I was surprised how similar the experience was [to being executive sous chef]. It’s not quite to the same degree, but the hours are long and the demand is the same.”

That’s not to say that Gordon Ramsay is always on his worst behavior. On the contrary, Machamer says her professional relationship is nothing like the reality show would suggest. He’s “just Gordon” to her at the restaurant.

“I got over that intimidation working in Hell’s Kitchen. One of the things he told me after the show as was ‘I’m so proud of you.’ Once you get over the fact that he’s this Michelin stared chef, he’s a real person. In the restaurant, he’ll ask about my boyfriend and mother. It’s a different relationship, it’s much better now.”

With her tenure at the restaurant nearly half complete, she’s plotting future adventures. She recently launched, also known as “Brown Chicken Brown Cow.” The business, which she runs with her chef boyfriend Cory Lemieux, offers up micro-batched specialty spices and recipes that put them to use. There’s also a cookbook in the works, and Machamer is considering starting her own restaurant. She sees no limits that adventurism can’t conquer. “The opportunities are endless.”

Note: Season six of Hell's Kitchen will premier at 8 p.m. ET, Tuesday, July 21 on the Fox network. Read on...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

MASK: Swine Flu Expressed Through Face Masks

MASK: Swine Flu Expressed Through Face Masks

FROM THE FIRST fevered days of breathless newscasts warning of a fast-moving contagion - images of masked soldiers brandishing automatic rifles at airports and questions of isolationism whizzing by - to the silence that now pervades, the mass media obsession with Swine flu has run its course.

This might be an indicator that the public also has stopped noticing, especially if one analyzes Twitter trends, which shows the flu-related chatter at a lull. Perhaps that’s the trade off from the intensity - and absurdity - of the coverage in late April.

Mask I : "If I'm Still Alive" : My intentions with the masks are to communicate the issues surrounding the swine flu outbreak of 2009, and express it in a way representative of the outbreak. It struck me at the time that face masks were a powerful symbol of this and many other outbreaks, embodying a silent, but potent, fear of the unknown. It also occurred to me that the face mask can double as a fairly interesting canvas for whatever the artist wishes to communicate. My artistic skills were limited, but I felt the act of expression was more important than the competency of the artwork. So this was one of my first masks, it features lyrics by one of my favorite artists, the Canadian band Metric. The song is titled "Help, I'm Alive," and it reflects the feelings of isolation that the writer, Emily Haines, felt when she uprooted her life to find an artistic sanctuary in Buenos Aires. In the same way, the mask separates us so that it can save us. But that always complicates matters.

The flu may be a fad, unless you happen to live in Illinois, which the Center for Disease Control now says is the most infected state. As of 12 p.m. CST April 14, the CDC said that Illinois had 620 reported cases of swine flu. That’s more than New York’s 224, or Texas’ 439 or even California’s 473. The closest competitor to the Land of Lincoln is one of its neighbors, Wisconsin, with its 510 reported cases.

Most of Illinois’ cases were reported in Chicago and surrounding areas (274 in Chicago, 179 in suburban Cook county). Meanwhile, here in Sangamon county, one person tested positive so far. That woman, according to the county’s department of public health, and reported by the Springfield State-Journal Register, “never needed to be hospitalized and has returned to work.”

In Springfield, before the confirmed case, there had been a run on face masks at local stores. When I asked a Wal-Mart employee where a person could find a facemask, I was told “anywhere where they are the most expensive.”

There’s a stark contrast, a sort of disconnect, between the potency of the flu and the media bonanza that hyped it up. Nancy Cox, flu chief for the CDC, told Associated Press reporters on May 1 that the virus lacked the traits of more dangerous strains, such as the recent avian flu. A researcher from Mount Sinai Medical School also told reporters that “there is no real reason to believe this is a more serious strain” than a garden-variety seasonal flu.

Almost entirely absent from the public discussion is the link between the virus and factory farming, yet the scientific community has known this for some time. The alarm was first sounded by scientists in March 2003, in a report from science writer Bernice Wuethrich in the magazine Science.

Biologists had been trying to make sense of a wave of new swine flu viruses that had been gaining momentum since 1998 in North American factory farms. “It seems that after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track, churning out variants every year,” Wuethrich reported.

Mask II : "Dead Piggies Never Squeal" : The inspiration for this mask came from the frustration I felt from mainstream media, notably 24-hour cable news networks, health officials and representatives of the pork industry. Firstly, my critique of the 24-hour news networks has several points: that they hyped the novelty of the virus rather than explain its potency, and also that they were complicit in renaming the virus to H1N1 despite the link to swine. For health officials, it was that they also did not brief the public on the possibility that the virus was no more potent than the seasonal flu, and also capitulating to the pork producers' will, at the expense of public awareness. And lastly, it's a statement to the pork producers for misleading the public about the potential for viruses to come out of breeding plants. Dead piggies never squeal, but they're not so good at stopping viruses.

What was the source of these changes, according to experts? Pigs, as nature would have it, are ideal vessels for strains of swine, avian and human influenza viruses to swap genetic information and breed more virulent strains. There are environmental factors that can contribute to a killer flu as well.

“In the past decade, big swine producers have gotten bigger, and many small producers have gone out of business,” Wuethrich noted, saying that from 1993 to 2003 the number of large North American farms grew from less than 1/5 of all farms to more than 1/2. Accompanied by that increase in the number of hogs is the ability for those hogs to serve as Petri dishes for the mixing and proliferation of ever more dangerous strains of flu.

Other factory farming habits only increase the likelihood of a potent flu being bred, most notably the widespread use of vaccines. Experts say while this practice decreases the odds of an interspecies transmission, it also may favor new viral types coming into being.

The looming threat of the swine flu, however, was eclipsed by the avian flu “global health emergency somewhat eclipsed the ability of the article to have a significant impact,” Bernice Wuethrich said in an interview with The Real News Network.

Indeed, sandwiched between the pages of the swine flu story was another one of her stories, titled “An Avian Flu Jumps to People.” There, she reported that cases of avian flu infecting humans in Hong Kong “sounded an even more urgent alarm.”

Swine flu always is an issue for the factory farm and for biologists. But what really gets the attention of the science and health communities is when a swine flu makes a critical jump in evolution and infects a person. The record so far suggests that for this swine flu, that critical moment came in early April, in La Gloria, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico.

Residents there urged that the government investigate a nearby pig farm operated by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of Smithfield (NYSE:SFD). At the time of the citizen’s press conference, a mysterious new respiratory infection had infected a large percentage of the town’s population, according to local news reports . Some of the children also developed bronchial pneumonia.

Mask III : "Enjoy Smithflu" : Smithfield's press releases about the state of affairs at Granjas Carroll have done little to satisfy critics, especially since they have asserted their innocence on information that may not exist. Until CDC or FDA officials investigate GC, and a thorough, independent investigation follows, the record will still show a strong link between Smithfield and the swine flu. This strong link begs the question of culpability. Will a company, proven to be the origin of an illness which kills, maims and cost millions to quell, not take responsibility? Will restitution not be due to families affected? And will governments not regulate the industry to prevent such happenings in the future? The "Enjoy Smithflu" mask begs these questions.

Veratect, a Seattle biosurveillance startup, reported April 6 on the strange illness. Health officials in La Gloria found nearly 60 percent of the population affected by the outbreak. Citizens pointed to
fetid lagoons of swine feces
as the source of the illness, and flies as a possible vector. Health officials concurred.

James Wilson, an operational biosurveillance professional for Veratect and the writer behind the Biosurveillance blog, added the disclaimer that “And to be crystal clear, the way we used this information was to simply flag an event as worthy of closer scrutiny and higher awareness, as there was absolutely no proof of true involvement of this company in the outbreak- a proper epidemiological investigation is required to prove such links.” Veratect’s Twitter feed, @veratect, continues to document the progress of the swine flu.

Pending some kind of conclusive evidence of where this flu came from, bloggers and commentators called the virus “Smithflu.” Meanwhile, on April 30, the World Health Organization stopped calling the flu a swine flu, and now officially refers to it as influenza A(H1N1), to try to alter the negative perception of the pork industry.

Mask IV : "American Pig" : Americans consume five times as much as Mexicans. Ten times as much as a Chinese person. Thirty times as much as a person from India. I find it a pointed critique of American culture to make a mask such as "American Pig." The irony of the name and nature of the swine flu only adds to the power of the critique.

Smithfield’s official stance is that it had nothing to do with the swine flu. “Based on available recent information, Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico,” it said in an April 26 press release. At the same time, it stated that it is part of investigations and is submitting “samples from its swine herds to The University of Mexico for testing.” That same release also says that Smith Field does vaccinate its animals for swine flu.

In the latest developments on the Smithfield front, the company made a press release May 14 saying that “testing process conducted by the Mexican government have confirmed that no virus, including the human strain of A(H1N1) influenza, is present in the pig herd at Granjas Carroll.”

Mask V : "Hello Kitty Mask" : The face mask seems like such an alien item in the United States. If you were to wear the item in the streets, you would doubtless get many confused looks. Even so, when I learn about other parts of the globe, I am taken aback that for so many people living in industrialized nations (especially China), it is a part of the daily routine. I pondered what kind of massive event would require us in the U.S. to alter our daily habits to include the face mask.

Obviously, like in China, the flu or environmental hazards would be enough to cause these shifts. And yet, despite such shifts, much of what we consider American habits would continue almost unfazed. Children would have to be brought up with the knowledge of these modified habits. This was something that came to mind when I learned about other masks, such as Bill Barminski's 2001 "IBM Blue Mickey" gas mask, or the Walt-Disney approved 1942 Mickey masks. It was with this in mind that I painted "Hello Kitty" on the mask. Note that the "Hello Kitty" also is wearing a mask, as if to be a proper role model for children in an era where the concepts of sterility and quarantine are essential.

The underlying question, which I find most fascinating, is the selection process of habits. Which parts of our daily lives are we willing to change, so that other habits may continue to be practiced?

At the time, there have been no independent or government reports that confirm the assertions, or an acknowledgement or explanation of the illness that struck the population of La Gloria. Read on...