music, politics


(Via the New Yorker – always funny when print leads you to screen.) Pianist Jeremy Denk doing a mock interview with Sarah Palin.

JD: I just simply can’t believe in the midst of this intense campaign season, you could find the time to talk with me about the “Hammerklavier” Sonata.

SP: Well, ya know, Beethoven was the dude who said thanks but no thanks to Napoleon. Plus from all the mavericky songs he wrote, maybe this one could be known as the most maverickyest.

It’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor we would have needed so badly, to uplift our spirits, if Obama lost. Since he won, it’s just the icing on the cake.

I also really like the interview-in-dialogue / discussion format of the piece – even when done with a fictional counterpart, I would rather read almost anything at all if written like a play.

chicago, politics

November Fifth in Humboldt Park, Chicago.

This morning, I woke up, with great effort, and walked down Thomas Street to a doctor’s appointment.
The leaves were talking to the sidewalks, the wind was sweeping the streets, and I wondered if I had dreamed it all.

As I crossed Rockwell, I saw three people getting out of a van. Two of them were helping the third into a wheelchair to navigate the sidewalk.

As they lifted their friend onto the curb, they said to each other, seemingly out of nowhere, these simple words: as if the thoughts in all our heads had come to their lips. As if they, too, couldn’t believe it quite yet.

“Four years!”

“Four years, baby!”

“That’s right!”

If this is a dream, it’s the dream MLK had, and it’s a reality. And if it is a dream, we get to live in it for – as my cosidewalkers said – four years, baby. Dream on.

I have been receiving congratulatory text messages and calls from my friends up and down the West coast – SF, CA, even Vancouver – my college roommate Kristel and Mike called me from Canada to officially inform me that the rest of the world is hugely relieved – and all of them sending love and support to Chicago. Today, Chicago sends that same love back to all of you. Today, we in the USA are the smile on the world’s face.


Yes, we did

November 4, 2008 in Chicago has been one of the most magical days of my life. From the moment I stepped onto the train this morning, I would say three out of every five people in the city of Chicago were wearing some kind of Obama paraphenalia. Everyone in this city was walking with a sense of purpose, with eye contact and with determination. We all knew what needed to happen today. It was like we were all part of a conspiracy to make the world a better place.

I worked an early morning shift at the Symphony and walked out onto Michigan Avenue at 1 pm. I wandered for two hours, buying an Obama button to wear, watching everyone encouraging each other. Everyone was just hanging around downtown, waiting to hear, whispering and texting and talking, calling friends in battleground states. The names of Indiana and Ohio were on everyone’s lips. I saw students sitting on street corners and planters, older women sitting at corner benches, businessmen on curbs and professors on the lawns. Strangers spoke to strangers. Friends held friends’ hands in nervousness.

It was a city full of superstitions, but also full of celebration, even prematurely. The T-shirts for sale on my walk to the rally included “Remember, Remember The Fifth Of November,” “Yes, We Did,” “President Obama,” “Obamapalooza,” and others already announcing the victory.

I met my friend Janna at the Intelligentsia cafe on Wabash to walk to the rally, where I have been until now. It’s 1 AM. I just got home from Grant Park. I’ve been there since 5 pm this afternoon, sitting in the overflow area in Butler Field next door (I and my friends didn’t have tickets) watching the CNN coverage on an enormous television screen, with thousands of people cheering each electoral victory and booing each loss. It felt like a music festival. We sat and waited and debated each state, one at a time. We crossed our fingers for Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio. New Mexico! Florida! And every time we won a state, or every time the pundits said something even slightly positive for Obama, we jumped to our feet and screamed. Thousands of us.


When they called Virginia for Obama and then called the victory his, the world blurred and dissolved into a mass of hugging, screaming people, delirious with disbelief. We had not allowed ourselves to hope. We couldn’t believe it was true.

We kept saying it to each other, repeating the words on the screen:
“Barack Obama elected President.”
“Barack Obama elected President.”
Again and again and again.

Robert bought me, Janna, and our friends American flags, and we waved them in the air. I looked at the flag, really looked at it, for the first time in my life, and realized how beautiful it was – is – has always been. I have that flag with me now. It no longer seems like a symbol of fundamentalism and military aggression. It seems like a symbol of a nation of opportunity, diversity, tolerance and democracy. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

When Obama began to speak, our entire overflow crowd walked calmly south to huddle around the closed-off ticketed area and watch him on another, larger screen.

And his words, as always, were the right ones, bringing tears and laughter to the Chicagoans around me, and to the world.

To be known, as he said, as a nation, not for our military might or wealth but for our national ideals.
When he said that, Robert and I looked at each other, and knew that something significant in our nation’s mind had just opened. Our national ideals. Ideals!

To work together. I will need your help, he said.
It’s not going to be easy, he said, referring to the war and the economy.
He promised to be honest and to listen, especially when he disagreed.
And he seemed, as always, calm and intelligent and grateful for the opportunity to be speaking to Americans.

The McCain supporters booed Obama’s name during McCain’s concession speech. I will admit that the Grant Parkians, including myself, did boo each red state going to McCain. But when Obama acknowledged McCain and Palin, we did not boo their names as individuals. Maybe it’s easier to be gracious in victory – or maybe, as I believe, Obama’s spirit of postpartisanship and collegiality has truly pervaded and captured the hearts of his supporters.

I was there. I heard him. I was there tonight, with Chicago, with President-elect Barack Obama. I still can’t believe it’s true.

When his speech was over, and the rally broke up, a hundred thousand people, all together, walked up Michigan Avenue in a spontaneous parade, laughing and crying and with rippling cheers rolling through the crowd. Every few minutes, another cheer would start and be gradually taken up by the whole group. We took over the streets – there were no cars downtown – and careened through Michigan Avenue in a slow-moving happy human river. We climbed walls to watch each other. People were clicking cell phones all around them, photographing as they walked.

Robert and I got off the river of celebration at Lake, to catch the Blue and Brown lines, but Janna kept going on up Michigan. I believe that she and they were so elated that they may still be walking now. It was such a peaceful crowd, moving slowly. We reflected that no one was rushing, like New York, or pretending to have fun, like LA, or worried about safety, like either one. It was just a hundred thousand people, dazed and happy, slowly and respectfully walking up a street together in awe at what had just occurred. It was not a riot, not a rush – only a gentle flow of very happy, very hopeful people of Chicago.

I love this city so much.

The El was so crowded on the way home I had to get on a train going the wrong direction and ride it six stops south, past the entire Loop, to get on a northbound train back to Division.

At my bus stop, I heard the noises of the night continue – a gentler fugue of car honks and cheers. Traveling packs of bikers, wandering pedestrians, people sticking their heads out of cars, simply yelling with happiness, a drawn out “wooo-hoooo!” sound, and cars talking to each other. The streets of this city are alive with a very dignified and honorable spirit of celebration. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s so happy but so restrained, somehow! There’s no violence to it, just total happiness. I scream at you, you scream back at me, we all scream for Barack Obama. And we keep on walking. Cause we have places to be, people to go home and hug and kiss and tell that we love them, children to tell how lucky they are to remember this day. I will never forget it.

I still have my fifty-cent plastic flag, from Election Day, November 4, 2008, sitting here on the coffee table as I write my dispatch from history. It is still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

God bless Barack Obama, and God bless the United States of America. And, what the hell, God bless the great city of Chicago, too. May all three of them live very long and prosper, and may all of us live to tell the tale.

poetry, politics

Hope is a four-letter word


Hope is a four-letter word
is the first line of a poem I want to write
about Barack Obama and the hope
he brings to all of us. I do not
have the poem yet but I have
the refrain. The refrain is:
Hope is a four-letter word.

The poem will be about the way in which
we have all felt we cannot express hope
for a long time and now we can. It will imply
through the use of the phrase “is a four letter word”
that hope has been as forbidden as an expletive,
that it has been unholy to say the word:
hope. And the refrain of this poem will be:
Hope is a four-letter word.

At one particularly heightened point in
the verse I will refer to the candidate as “Barack Pandora”
for opening the box and letting the four-letter bird of hope into our lives.
I will explain that Obama’s candidacy has opened the box
and brought out of hiding the demons of racism and apathy
and inequality and injustice. The hope his candidacy brought
was like a four-letter bird flapping her winds, shaking the dust
of those demons off her wings, throwing those dusty old demons out of the box
and into the light of CNN and YouTube. His candidacy
has unmasked these demons for discussion. It has unpacked
the box for debate. His candidacy made it possible
–made it necessary – to openly discuss these demons.
We are facing the true nature of our nation
as we face whether or not
we are going to elect Barack Obama President.

His candidacy opened the box and at the bottom of this box is hope,
which remains to us,
and I will hope. I do hope. I am hoping now. The poem
will be extremely hopeful. Hope is a four letter-word
and I will use it like one. I will say “What the hope” and “Hope yeah!”
and “Why the hope not?” and “I swear to hope it’s about hoping time
this country got hoping ready to elect Barack Obama President!”

Not only will I use this refrain,
Hope is a four-letter word,
but I will also use other poetic devices,
such as rhyme and repetition, to make the point of the poem.
Through sound and image I will unite the idea of Hope
with the idea of Barack Obama’s candidacy.
I will call, through comparison, this country
a piece of paper – and I will fold that paper
to make an origami animal
of the four-letter bird of hope,
to make a new beginning for a nation
that has forgotten how to spell justice.

To fold the bird of the new beginning,
take the tattered map of this compromised country,
red on one side, blue on the other,
and fold it along the Mason-Dixon line.
Fold it again along the triangle of the Mississippi Delta.
Fold it west at Tornado Alley, west again
at the Rocky Mountains, west at the San Andreas Fault.
Fold east it at the Appalachians and at the Atlantic.

To open the origami, place one thumb on the state of Illinois
and one on the state of Hawaii.
Open the fold at November Fourth
and you will see a nation that is neither red nor blue
but purple, the color of victory, a victory for all of us
in the election of Barack Obama as the President of this nation.
You will see a nation that spells its name,
The United States of America,
with just four letters –

I am not as good a poet
as Obama is a politician.
I cannot write the poem I am dreaming of.
But he can build the nation we are all hoping for.
On the fourth of November, two thousand and eight,
all things are possible,
all men are created equal,
and all the world’s a page in the book of history
about to be turned, and the first word
at the top of the next page –
– I can’t see it, but I know what it says –
has just four letters.


Good night, and good luck

At the end of a phone call with my mother:

Me: God bless Barack Obama.
Mom: God bless the United States of America.

That may have been the least irony that either of us has ever used. In fact, I went outside and said it again, to the Chicago night.

God bless Barack Obama,
and God bless the United States of America.


poetry, politics

Poets for a Better Country

I just signed up to read at an open mic this evening in support of Obama:

Sun Oct 12: Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, presents Poets For A Better Country, part of a
national event also taking place in Pittsburgh, NYC, and Massachusetts. Tonight’s event features
Kim Berez, Ellen Wadey, Stephanie Gentry-Fernandez, Mary Hawley, Janine Harrison, CJ
Laity, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard, Mike Puican, Gordon Stamper and
Erin Teegarden, plus a “mini cram” open mic. FREE / pass the hat for Obama. 7 PM.

It’s fun to be able to tag a post “poetry” and “politics.”

chicago, music, politics

The idea Palin comparison with…(I tried…)

I just discovered Jason Robert Brown’s weblog, and the news that he’s writing the music for a Kennedy Center symphonic adaptation of E.B. White’s TRUMPET OF THE SWAN, with playwright Marsha Norman. These are all such good things, and remind me that there’s a world beyond Sarah Palin.

As I discovered when I was elected one of the 3 writers for the Stanford Band’s halftime shows, in 2001, I’m not really a comedy writer. I’m a punnist, whether or not they’re funny. It’s all about how words sound. To this end, here’s the Palin Pun that I think of every time I hear her name:

Sarah Palin:

(a moment of silence for the pun)

T minus ninety minutes to the debate. Biden my time. I’ll be watching it with Robert and Caitlin in their Ravenswood apartment, the same place where I saw Obama’s acceptance speech. I think we’ll all remember where we saw these events for a long time.

Yours in trepidation.

art, politics

“There will be no discussion – none at all – of US cultural policy.”

“…if I were moderating tonight’s TV debate, I’d start with one question and a follow-up, and I’d wait for the flop-sweat: Senator, name one great civilization in world history whose government was not a major arts patron.

Now, what can we learn from this?”

– header & quote from Christopher Knight on the debates and (lack of) coverage of cultural policy, in the LA Times.


and so, it continues

Eileen and I will be hosting a small debate-watching party tonight in the Thomas St. apartment. Everyone I’ve spoken to this morning is waiting with bitten fingernails. We want so badly for Obama to do really, really well. The air is still with the anticipation, especially here in Chicago, where Obama buttons are on everyone’s backpacks and lapels.

I feel lucky to have lived to see a time of profound political engagement around a Democratic candidate. I was younger with Clinton, and I remember we were excited then, too – but this feels much more serious.