Monday, September 22, 2014

Admirable Performances Amidst Trying Times Can't Quite Lift 'Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
A Recent Musical
Book by Jeffrey Lane
Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek
Based on the film by Pedro Almodóvar
Directed by William Pullinsi
Thru October 12

If ever there was a local theatrical production I really wanted to love, or at least substantively like, it is Theatre at the Center's current staging of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the musical.

This isn't due to a deep affinity for the 1988 movie by Pedro Almodóvar, as I've never seen it (although I have seen and liked a number of other films by the famed Spanish director).

And although I have long enjoyed several productions at the venue in Munster, IN--including their recent world premiere of The Beverly Hillbillies musical--neither was I overly intrigued by the first Chicago area rendition of a show that flopped on Broadway despite a sensational cast that included Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sherie Rene Scott, Laura Benanti and other decorated performers.

I've liked both of composer/lyricist David Yazbek's previous high-profile screen-to-stage musical adaptations--The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels--but not enough for the expectation of an exceptional score to be a major lure.

And while I was delighted to be invited to Press Night--albeit on Sunday afternoon--and was glad to note the inclusion of several actors I've seen and enjoyed numerous times, this also does not quite explain why I hoped to convey that I found the show itself to be exemplary.

Because unarguably, the dedication, effort and perseverance of all involved is remarkable, in light of the car accident that took the life of cast member Bernie Yvon--long one of my favorite local performers--on his way to a rehearsal.

As attested to by beautiful stories shared at a post-show remembrance reception, Yvon was much loved and admired by the cast and throughout the Chicago theater community.

Based on the 10+ works I've seen him in, including the recent Beverly Hillbillies, I am fairly certain I would have acutely enjoyed seeing him in this show.

But on Saturday, September 6--the same day that news broke about the death of a local actress named Molly Glynn in a freak weather-related accident--Yvon died tragically just minutes from Theatre at the Center in Munster.

Bernie Yvon
With as much local theater as I go to, a feeling of fond familiarity exists for a number of oft-seen performers--despite never having met almost any of them--and Yvon's death hit me hard.

So I can't even imagine the profound sense of grief, sorrow, loss and longing among all who knew him, and especially his Women on the Verge castmates for whom the routine of rehearsing and presenting a new show was forever rendered relatively inconsequential.

And yet, as has conceivably been uttered for as long as the theater arts have existed, the show must go on.

George Andrew Wolff--who spoke eloquently at the reception afterward about his long friendship and frequent collaborations with Yvon--stepped the role of a Taxi Driver (who serves as a narrator) quite admirably, especially as this is far from a classic show that everyone knows.

A longtime favorite local actress of mine, Cory Goodrich, is excellent in the lead role of Pepa--the suddenly ex-mistress of Ivan, played by the perennially good Larry Adams.

The always resplendent Summer Naomi Smart certainly is here as Candela, a model who is Pepa's best friend, and another terrific Chicagoland star, Hollis Resnik, is fun as Ivan's ex-wife Lucia, who delivers one of the show's best musical numbers--"Invisible"--with plenty of panache.

Dina DiCostanzo, Collette Todd and Nathan Gardner are also worthy of mention among a talented, attractive and appealing cast.

I extend my highest regard and deepest sympathies to all of them, as well as director William Pullinsi and everyone involved in staging the show in such trying times.

Unfortunately, despite several excellently-sung renditions of tunes that suggest Yazbeck's deft professionalism but didn't quite dazzle on a first hearing, I didn't particularly like the show in full.

Songs like "Lie to Me" sung by Goodrich & Adams, "Time Stood Still" and "Invisible" delivered by Resnik and "Tangled" by Wolff and the ensemble were enjoyable enough in their own right, but the full score, characters and storyline just didn't engage or delight me as I would have hoped, and I found myself rather befuddled by the whole thing.

Especially as I haven't seen the source movie, I won't bother with a dissertation about how the Spanish black comedy translates to the musical stage (though this show does feel a bit akin to Nine, the musical adaptation of Fellini's 8-1/2). But whereas the film is highly regarded, my take on the musical seems it may be similar to the Broadway critiques that led to closure just 69 performances after the show's late-2010 New York opening.

Given the circumstances, it seems particularly unnecessary to further detail what I didn't love about Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. And not only wouldn't I dissuade anyone so inclined from seeing it, it might be well-worth the trek to Munster simply to admire and applaud the spirit of the performers.

For in looking back through my database for shows that I had seen Yvon in, I'm reminded that some were really good and others were rather mediocre.

But I can't recall Bernie ever being less than a joy to watch.

So in a weird way, perhaps this disappointing show is a more apt testament to him than a really superlative one would be.

For actors who truly love what they do--and the post-show recollections reiterated what I already knew--a so-so show, or even a devastating real-life tragedy, doesn't dictate that one takes the stage with any less pride and passion.

When the spotlight comes on, you give your best.

Despite anything beyond your control.

I genuinely thank the late Bernie Yvon for always doing just that--and the cast and crew of Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown for carrying on in that tradition.

On the best of nights for a theatergoer, exhilaration and admiration go hand-in-hand, but on others simply the latter is unequivocally deserving of heartfelt applause.

And appreciation that goes far beyond the performance at hand. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sorry Haters, but I Still Love U2

See this story here
Never mind that ISIS continues to chop people's heads off, half the NFL is seemingly battering women and children while the powers that be engage in massive cover-ups, the Middle East remains mired in deadly unrest, kids are killed on the streets of Chicago nearly every single day, the oligarchy is screwing over 99.9% of the people in countless ways—from higher food & gas prices to still-decimated job markets, home values and personal wealth—and whether one wants to believe it or not, environmental catastrophe is not an implausibility due to such trifling things as the dissipation of polar ice caps.

Yet what really has people pissed off is being given the gift of free music. 

To quote a line I can't help thinking of whenever news is horrific or just inane:

I can't believe the news today /
I can't close my eyes and make it go away
-- U2, "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

Ever since 9/9/14, when Apple's announcement of the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch were accompanied by the surprising and sudden sharing of U2's long-awaited--at least by us fans--new album, for free across iTunes, the legendary Irish band has apparently engendered the kind of feral vitriol once reserved for murderous dictators and terrorists, but which now, in the social media age, seemingly gets dumped daily on the likes of Taylor Swift. 

Mind you, as someone who rather rampantly shares my opinions--though rarely hate-fueled ones--here, on Facebook and occasionally Twitter, I can't deny that I actually enjoy a bit of the witty snark that can make reading internet commentary fun in small or curated doses. 

Hence, even as a longtime and still ardent U2 fan, I took no umbrage at slings & arrows thrown the band's--and Apple's--way soon after the Press Event, as with some funny Tweets compiled in this NME article

And even as the backlash became more voluminous and vociferous--though I largely experienced it second hand through articles such as the one depicted at top, and this one, rather than seeing friends or anyone I follow directly slam the free unrequested download, the album itself or U2--I understand several of the arguments if reflecting wry annoyance and not grievous hostility. 

Sure, quite honestly, Apple giving away the Songs of Innocence album saved me $11.99, though I'll probably still buy the physical copy once released. While I haven't truly loved any of their albums since 1991's Achtung Baby--with 1993's Zooropa and 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind being the best of an otherwise middling bunch--U2 is a band I will always pay attention to, and whose albums I will happily acquire if simply out of habit and sentiment. 

Certainly I realize that younger generations who haven't grown up on U2--who didn't see their mesmerizing LiveAid performance in 1985, who didn't first see them in person on the historic Amnesty International: Conspiracy of Hope tour (video below), who didn't experience "Pride (In the Name of Love)" ringing out continuously across campus quads, who don't remember gathering around a motel room in Daytona Beach to see MTV's first airing of the "With or Without You" video, who didn't attend a Joshua Tree tour show the same week TIME declared them "Rock's Hottest Ticket," who didn't attend their groundbreaking Zoo TV performance at Dodger Stadium (after being shut out trying to buy a ticket outside the LA Sports Arena the year before), who haven't begun every road trip with "Where the Streets Have No Name," who don't consider Larry Mullen Jr.'s opening drumbeat on "Sunday Bloody Sunday" one of the most cherished sounds of one's existence, who haven't seen the band in concert 15 times, from Rosemont to LA to New York to Denver, who haven't followed the band through every album and tour--have no point of reference not to be pissed off that they were essentially given an ugly Christmas sweater by their aunt that they'll have to take back to the store for a refund. 

From 1987
And with the caveat that I was taught never to tell my aunt how ugly and unwanted the sweater was, nor that I hated her for having the audacity to give me something with the best of intentions that she clearly liked more than I did, I certainly wouldn't want a Justin Bieber album dumped onto my phone and/or hard drive. 

A) At least in terms of how it worked for me, Songs of Innocence didn't download unless you indicated that you wanted it to; i.e. one could easily opt-out

B) If not instantly, at least soon thereafter, Apple released instructions on how to remove the album from one's iTunes music library

C) All iPhones come pre-loaded with things you don't choose--such as the Stock, Weather and Notes apps--that, like the U2 album, take up valuable storage space. But I don't recall anyone bitching up a storm about getting a free Calculator they didn't ask for. 

Although I can't say it bothered me in the least--I actually admired and embraced it--I do understand why many were seemingly put off by the audacity of the Apple/U2 publicity stunt (just not with seemingly more agitated aversion than to, say, an Ebola outbreak).

Though I unabashedly love U2, there have been a great number of times when the band--and especially lead singer Bono--have made me cringe...and worse. 

I didn't see the iPhone announcement, but it's not inconceivable that would have been one of those times. 

Bono can definitely seem pompous, pretentious, egomaniacal and downright insufferable, though to his credit, he seems to know this and often pokes fun at himself. 

Though I don't doubt that the origins of Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. forming a band in Dublin in the late 1970s had an awful lot to do with discovering The Ramones, Bono currently seems disingenuous--or at least buffoonish--in repeatedly referencing himself as "punk rock."

Bono did talk to Joey Ramone shortly before the latter's death in 2001, and a U2 song--"In a Little While"--supposedly played in the hospital room just before the punk icon passed, so I accept as real the reverence that fuels U2's new single (and album opener) "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)."

But while "punk cred" may have always been a mythical concept--Joey was always open about wanting the Ramones to become huge, while both the Sex Pistols and Clash were formed in their wake with an eye on marketable trends--the Ramones never much graduated from small clubs (let alone ever employed giant spacecraft-type stages in football stadiums) and certainly didn't shill for one of the world's largest companies. 

I imagine U2 intentionally avoided having "The Miracle" sound anything like a Ramones song, but I'll take "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," " I Wanna Be Sedated," "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg (My Brain is Hanging Upside Down)" or myriad others over its overproduced sheen any day--though I still can't say I hate it. 

And such is the case with Songs of Innocence in full. 

At this point, after several listenings but short of it becoming worn-in, I'm waffling between bestowing @@@1/2 or @@@@ (out of 5) on the album.

This funny ad has gone viral, but alas it's fake
Though nothing rivals the bristling brilliance that marked the best tracks on nor the entirety of War, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, and the first half of SOI is considerably better than the second, if comparing it to the rest of today's rock landscape rather than the band's glorious past, it isn't nearly the abysmal embarrassment many haters seem to be decrying. 

I don't know that I'll be screaming for "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)," "Every Breaking Wave," "California (There is No End of Love)" or "Iris (Hold Me Close)" as I will for "Pride," "New Year's Day," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Bad," "Where the Streets Have No Name" and other classics next time I see U2 live, but all of the above should make for good additions to their concert setlists. 

And I respect that Bono was pointedly biographical, with "The Miracle" about U2's formative days, "Song for Someone" supposedly about his wife Ali and "Iris" about his late mother. 

But while in being the true-life account of a Dublin car bombing, "Raised by Wolves" harkens back to "Sunday Bloody Sunday," somewhat reminiscent of "Love and Peace or Else" from 2005's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb it shows toilsome strains of over-thought and overproduced effort contrary to the punch-you-in-the-gut stridency of "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

But as I'm listening to the album again as I'm finishing this up, I think @@@@ are in order. 

Sorry, but I like Songs of Innocence much more than I don't. And believe me, I wasn't shy about saying that I was really disappointed by How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and, to a lesser extent, 2009's No Line on the Horizon. This album is better.

And if having U2 forced upon you really prompted memory shortage issues or embarrassment among friends who might glance at your music library--though I imagine they have the same issues--a few more things to keep in mind, especially if you are among those spewing unnecessary invective. 

From the Independent; read the article here
- According to the latest stats I saw, 38 million people had listened to Songs of Innocence, at least in part, since the über-share. And the stunt has also driven a massive bump in U2's back catalog sales. So however unseemly and maybe even ill-considered Apple's gesture may seem, compare the "hype" U2's latest album is getting compared to, say, recent releases by other rock legends--Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, etc.--that "young people" would do well to acquaint themselves with.

Plus, given how much it has pissed off hordes of people, well Bono, that is kind of punk.

- Anyone who thinks that U2 are just a bunch of irrelevant old turds dumping this album on everyone for free because they can't sell it, the truth is that the next time they tour, the band will still sell every ticket put on sale in every venue of any size, much on they did from 2009-2011 tour grossed $772 million, by far the most ever.

- While I find Bono hard to take sometimes, the truth also is that he has saved more lives of people in Africa than everyone reading this--exponentially--ever will. He can be a smug twat, but he does make a difference that would put 99.99% of web-based whiners to shame. 

So enjoy Songs of Innocence, let it grow on you, and have it prompt you to look up War, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby, Zooropa and All That You Can't Leave Behind on Spotify.

Or not. 

But save your outraged indignation--I can already imagine the myriad "Fuck U2!" (pun intended) retorts--and the social media diatribes for things that really matter.

And check this out; it's a clip of U2's entire Amnesty International: Conspiracy of Hope performance at the Rosemont Horizon in 1986, the first time I saw them live.

It should serve to explain much of the above.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: A Tale of Two Riot Fests in One Muddy Day

Concert / Festival Review

Riot Fest
Humboldt Park, Chicago
September 13, 2014
(Fest ran 9/12-14)
Fest rating: @@@1/2

Artists seen:
Paul Weller @@@@1/2
Afghan Whigs @@@@@
Buzzcocks @@@@
Television @@@1/2
Tokyo Police Club @@@@
Face to Face @@@@
The Flaming Lips @@@ (Partial)
The Get Up Kids (Very Partial)
The Orwells (Very Partial)
Wu-Tang Clan (Very Partial)

Even with me attending just one of its three days, on Saturday Riot Fest served to reinforce why I still--and theoretically always will--love live music, and why I still largely hate festivals.

Funny thing is, the reasons I haven't loved Lollapalooza when I've attended the Chicago festival in years past largely didn't apply to Riot Fest.

I am not physically comfortable standing up for extended periods, and particularly among large crowds with no seating options, I prefer not to do so. But at Riot Fest, I found enough fences to lean against that physical discomfort in this regard wasn't a major issue.

At Lollapalooza, reinforced by friends that went this year, my perception is that at 45, I am at least twice if not three times the age of a large portion of other attendees. I never care much about feeling out of place, but I have typically sensed that many "fans" are there primarily for reasons well-beyond the music, often seemingly just to be seen and/or get wasted.

With apologies for a gross generalization, but one that others have corroborated, huge festivals often unavoidably include a substantial contingent of jackasses, if not outright assholes.

But I can honestly say that I didn't encounter--or even perceive--anyone at Riot Fest who was demonstrably uncool; in fact, just the opposite as with a crowd far closer to my demographic, I had a number of nice conversations with others waiting for bands to take the various stages. Most people seemed to be there mainly for the music.

Which makes me wonder why the organizers of Riot Fest waste space--and presumably, ticket cost contributors--on multiple Ferris Wheels and other carnival rides that seemingly almost no one even thinks of boarding.

But much more meriting condemnation were a slew of other piss-poor logistics of the Fest, one that is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but only its third held in Humboldt Park.

When I arrived after 1:00pm--the fest grounds were open by Noon--with my friend Brad, we had to initially get into the longest line I've ever seen (except for one at Lollapalooza in Buenos Aires, in which I waited for 3 hours).

Luckily, this wasn't nearly as bad as that; just dumb, for as soon as we walked perhaps a quarter-mile to get in the back of the line, the line started moving until reaching a chaotic mass of people at the entrance gates. So it's like someone decided to have everyone get in an orderly line, then just as soon decided against it. 

Appreciating that the organizers have no control over the weather, and that friends who went on Friday night faced rain and far colder temperatures than I experienced on Saturday, the physical conditions of the park were beyond atrocious, give huge amounts of mud everywhere.

There were 7 stages and you could barely walk to any of them, let alone find a place to stand, without being several inches deep in mud, on a day that was sunny and in the 60s.

A few places were roped off due to egregious amounts of mud, but almost everywhere else was absolutely uncomfortable.

This turned from a nuisance to a hazard at one point when, in trying to exit a field to get to food booths that lined a pavement path, there was no option but to wade through thousands of people essentially shoving their way through each other in both directions. All it would have taken is for someone to slip in the mud to have a catastrophe on our hands.

As it was, in the melee--more a massive scrum than a riot--I was separated from two of the friends I was with, never to see them again for the rest of the fest.

Which brings me to another gripe: completely crappy cell phone reception, which made even texting iffy at best.

I know I'm not the first to raise this issue, and I don't know what factors come into play, but it sure would have been nice to be able to contact my friends via text, phone, Facebook messenger, carrier pigeon, etc.

Ironically, in trying to find Brad after receiving a text from him that I couldn't return, I saw my friend Paolo--who I had been texting for hours to no avail--happen to walk by.

Though I still have to recap the music I heard previously, Paolo and I went over to see/hear the Flaming Lips, only to have their soundsystem blow after the first song--it was later revived--as we stood in deep mud. We soon gave up on that.

Though many of the acts sounded good, with strong audio volume heard from across large fields, punk icons the Buzzcocks' 30-minute set was largely ruined by subpar amplification.

And in trying to access a Porta-Potty around 6pm, I found lines of 15 people deep, clearly indicating the rest room facilities were far too paltry.

I decided I could wait until later.

To some readers, I imagine this may sound like an old guy whining, and to others it may sound like absolute hell.

But despite all that sucked about Riot Fest, much of the music I heard was really good, including some by acts I really didn't know except by name.

The first act Brad and I tried to see was Tokyo Police Club, which is a band of white guys from Canada. I didn't know of them until Brad had noted them before the fest, and their 2014 album Forcefield (Spotify link) sounds pretty strong.

Before they started playing, we saw and heard The Orwells perform on a nearby stage. I just now realized I had them confused with The Redwells, another band hailing from the Chicago suburbs. But what I heard sounded good enough, if not particularly memorable.

For Tokyo Police Club, we found a good spot next to the soundboard, with some matting to stand on rather than mud. In the mid-day sun, the music sounded really good and at that point, I had no complaints.

I was able to find my friend Dave before two iconic bands playing consecutively on adjoining stages: the Buzzcocks and Television.

Neither was quite as great as we hoped. For whatever reason, the Buzzcocks just weren't loud enough, though classic songs like "Autonomy," "What Do I Get," "Ever Fallen in Love" and "Orgasm Addict" were nonetheless great fun to hear.

Television--one of the great CBGBs bands alongside the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie--sounded good on songs from their 1977 classic Marquee Moon, but others that I didn't know seemed to waft in the air as I was stuck in the mud. 

After that, Dave and I found an almost dry patch of grass to sit on that didn't allow us to see a band called Face to Face--unknown to me but touted by a friend--and their punkish set sounded good.

In truth, the primary reason for my attending Riot Fest on this day was a relatively rare Chicago appearance by Paul Weller, who was the lead singer of a band called The Jam--superstars in England from 1977-82, but never big in the U.S.--who was also in the Style Council and has had a pretty stellar solo career.

More on him in a moment, but in waiting by the stage at which Weller was to play on from 5:15 to 6:00pm--far too short--we heard the Afghan Whigs playing at a stage across the field.

I've long heard of the Whigs but have never been captured by any of the music I've heard. But Brad--who at that point was not with Dave & I, but would find us for Weller--said they were great live.

Boy were they.

I can't say I loved any of their songs as much as Weller's, but just in terms of the way they sounded, the Afghan Whigs were the best act I saw all day.

Even from at least 100 yards away, they sounded absolutely phenomenal.

If it wasn't for the harrowing crush I found myself in after the Weller set, the Whigs and Weller would have in themselves offset any other inconveniences of Riot Fest.

And while finding fault with much, I have to give kudos to the Riot Fest organizers for attracting so many terrific bands.

Including the Modfather, as Paul Weller has long been known. (The Jam being the biggest and best of the London "Mod" bands of the late '70s).

This was my fourth time seeing Weller, and even with his limited time--which he himself referenced repeatedly--he was as good as I've ever seen him.

Jam-ish solo songs like "From the Floorboards Up" and "Come On/Let's Go" were terrific, the Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" was fun and the Jam's "Start" and "A Town Called Malice" had me feeling like a pig in, well, mud.

The extended jam of "Porcelain Gods" seemed a bit prolonged given the time constraints, but everything Weller played was as good as could be.

Another 15 minutes would have been wonderful.

Then came the crowd clusterfuck as Dave, Brad and I tried to make our way to food booth row, having no option but to force our way through the overflow crowd for the Wu-Tang Clan.

I'm not a big rap fan, but I have no complaints about what I heard, other than nearly dying while hearing it.

Finally making my way to a less congested area near the other field--after getting a corn dog--I liked what I heard from the Get Up Kids, another band with whom I'm not all that familiar.

As noted above, after losing Brad and Dave, I coincidentally connected with Paolo. But even beyond the mud and the power outage, we were both disappointed with what we heard from the Flaming Lips, a band we've both long loved.

Their set seemed self-indulgent and boring, and even in finding dry pavement where we could hear but not see them, we decided to call it quits before their set ended with a cover of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

I was originally intending to stay through the end to hear The National and catch a ride back with Brad to my car parked on his street.

But by that time I had had enough, and in departing with Paolo, I was able to take a bus and train and get back to my car.

After a few texting attempts, I was able to confirm that Brad got word that I had left. He was planning to stay for the National, but within 15 minutes of their taking the stage, I got a text from him saying that they were boring and that he had left.

In sum, I'm delighted to have seen Paul Weller, was blown away by the Afghan Whigs, enjoyed much else I heard but am quite unlikely to return to Riot Fest next year. 

Unless there's, say, a Talking Heads reunion. Or a Jam one.

Here's video I shot of Paul Weller performing "A Town Called Malice." Unfortunately the audio is subpar.

And a bit of the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love":

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Immutable Footprints: Photos of the 9/11 Memorial in New York

St. Paul's Chapel

All photos by Seth Arkin. Taken in March 2014, before the accompanying museum opened.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

A Story of Friendship that Begins on the First Day of Kindergarten, 1973

Anyone who reads my blog posts with any degree of regularity should be able to learn a good deal about me, for most of my reviews of music and theater or discussions of other subjects not only convey my tastes and tendencies, but typically include a long-winded introduction that provides a good amount of  background, biography and opinion beyond the topic at hand.

So I have certainly mentioned several friends and relatives, and shared numerous recollections involving many, but very rarely have I written directly about personal matters, such as relationships with those I know and love (or once did).

But today seems like a good day to do so.

Especially as last night was a relatively rare Saturday not spent at a performance of some sort (such as Billy Corgan, Tom Petty/Steve Winwood and Rod Stewart/Santana over the past three).

Rather, I had dinner with a friend and his family.

While always agreeable, this might not sound particularly noteworthy or newsworthy, especially as the restaurant--the original Chinatown branch of Lao Sze Chuan--was one I featured last year in my Chicago Dining World Tour series. (The service last night was still a bit spotty but not nearly as bad as I wrote about then, and the food remains first-rate.)

Even to say I was celebrating a friend's birthday would not ordinarily seem like anything worth documenting for history, or even the cyberspace black hole that this blog represents (hence the Seth Saith nameplate design at top).

But in celebrating the 46th birthday of my friend Jordan, I was also celebrating a friendship that has now lasted 41 years--since we met in Kindergarten at Highland School in Skokie, Illinois in the fall of 1973. 

And while the active friendship and Jordan himself in the present tense merit greater celebration than the accumulation of years, the continuity our friendship represents is undoubtedly one of the most intrinsic parts of my being. 

Though I can't specifically recall our initial encounter, as pictured at top Jordan and I were in the same Kindergarten class--along with a handful of other kids I'm connected to on Facebook plus another with whom I've stayed in fairly regular touch--and so I assume we met on the first day. 

After all, what do you do on the first day of Kindergarten if not meet all the other kids? (And the teacher, Mrs. Boaz.)

In the early years, our friendship revolved around going to each other's house after many a school day...and a lot of baseball. 

Jordan sets the record--over 400,000 points--on my family's
pinball machine, circa 1978. Like our friendship, the record
and the machine still stand.
We played in Little League together, traded baseball cards, spent numerous hours competing in Intellivision Baseball--I still recall one time when things were going more my way than his in the video game, Jordan chucked the console across his family room--and went to Cubs games together, taking the Skokie Swift and the Howard L likely as young as 10 or 11 years old. 

After a junior high graduation party that had us each drinking more hard liquor than either of us ever have since--and Jordan tripled my intake of Jim Beam--high school escapades include hijinks in freshman Algebra, Geometry (or was it trigonometry?) and Mr. Jackson's AP U.S. History Class, in which I recall us clandestinely listening to Game One of the 1984 NLCS in which the Cubs beat the Padres 13-0.

...on their way to a ball rolling under Leon Durham's Gatorade soaked glove and a Game 5 loss that gave the Padres the pennant.

I don't think that's when Jordan switched allegiances and became a White Sox fan, but who could blame him?

It was at some point during junior year at Niles North High School that in a library study room Jordan and I used primarily for flicking folded-paper "football" field goals, he told me he was moving to New Mexico to live with his dad and would not be spending senior year in Skokie. (Jordan's dad had taken us to my first Bulls game ever--circa 1978--and had been our Little League coach during our best season, but had moved to Taos at some point.)

Though Jordan would spend summers back in the Chicago area before and during college--which we didn't attend together--once he wound up in Champaign-Urbana in 1988, we haven't ever lived in the same vicinity. 

So in being proud of maintaining a close friendship over 41 years, I can't help but be self-impressed that roughly the last 2/3 of those years have not been abetted by geographical proximity.

I typically only see Jordan 2-3 times per year; usually when he and his wife Erin come up for a birthday dinner with family--his mom, step-dad, sister and brother-in-law have long been like a second family to me--and again on Christmas Eve, which I have spent every year for decades at a party hosted by his mom & step-dad.

And in most years, I have ventured down to Urbana at least once; lately to attend Ebertfest in late-April.

We have gone to a handful or two of ballgames over the years, and a few random concerts, but our friendship has primarily been maintained through a monthly phone call of good length.

Although the multitude of small moments are more important than the amplitude of overt experiences, well-worth mentioning is how Jordan and Erin (early into their enduring relationship) drove a car I bought from another Skokie friend out to me after I moved to California in early 1990.

And how I went to Ireland along with a small group of family members and other close friends when Jordan and Erin decided to get married there in 2000.

Or that just days after I got fired from a job in October 2005, I went down to Urbana and watched the White Sox win the World Series in Jordan & Erin's company, furthering my conviction that personal connection & continuity trump periodic ups & downs in shaping one's being. (And yes, I was delighted the Sox won, having long been a fan of both Chicago baseball teams, however heretical it may be.)

Nowadays, the retention of real, long-distance and/or tenuous relationships is a lot easier given one's Facebook community, but Jordan has opted to abstain--not incomprehensibly--from social media, and it is not lost on me that I literally know more about the daily activities and thoughts of fleeting co-workers from years ago than I do of my best friend since Kindergarten.

But I know that he reads nearly everything I write on Seth Saith--which means more to me than traffic stats that suggest over 20,000 people stumble across something here each month--and he has closely followed all of my travel adventures, which I have incessantly shared in recent years on a dedicated travel blog.  

As Jordan has developed into the most avid soccer aficionado I know, he has helped further my fandom of the sport--though still not nearly to his level--and I was delighted to share his insights in some recent World Cup and English League Soccer posts here. (Best seen in sum here.)

This love of soccer is what suggested this year's edition of my annual self-made birthday card for Jordan, shown nearby, which he and his family got a big kick out of (at the expense of Luis Suarez).

I still genuinely and acutely enjoy every occasion on which I see or speak to Jordan, and interactions with the wider circle that includes his family and Erin provide a warmth that I elsewhere only derive from my own family and a few other close friends.

But just as important to my existence has been 41 years of knowing simply that he is there.
"You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead"
-- The Beatles, "Two of Us"
The above lyric comes readily to mind as rather apt, and I can't help thinking of it without a sense of happiness and pride, but also--as he has turned 46 and I will in about 5 weeks--a suspicion that its sentiment could well be literally true. (I'm also reminded of the days Jordan and I would spin Beatles records backwards, searching for the "Paul is Dead" clues.)

One never knows what the future, let alone each day, will bring, and we've all been given numerous reasons not to take anything, or anyone, for granted.

But all you can do is the best you can, for as long as you can, and along with much else my friendship with Jordan has meant, I see it as proof that I have at least done one thing right.

So, thanks and love.

And, of course, a song by the Boss, my favorite of any about friendship.

Despite the fact that you aren't much of a Springsteen fan, the lyrics don't largely fit our relationship and that this clip of "Bobby Jean" was from a different London concert than the one I attended in 2013, well, Jordan, this one's for you:

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

NFL Preview 2014: What Seth Saith Will Happen...I Guess

I have always been a football fan--much more of the NFL than college--though the extent of my fandom has largely consisted of watching and following the Chicago Bears. And the Super Bowl. Which have mostly been mutually exclusive.

Sometimes I throw away money in weekly football pools, but I have never played Fantasy Football, rarely watch regular season games in which I have no rooting interest and would be hard-pressed to name many players beyond the big stars and members of the Bears.

So I can hardly think of anyone less-equipped to make NFL predictions with any degree of expertise and acuity.

But last season, rather than bother with a Football Picks Post on Seth Saith, I simply threw up a couple guesses on Facebook.

And glory be, I was exactly right. The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl and the Bears finished 8-8.

So now I feel obliged to offer up a slightly more comprehensive football forecast prior to the 2014 NFL Season kicking off Thursday night in Seattle with the Seahawks taking on the Packers.

Mind you, my predictions will not be accompanied by any expert analysis, as I don't pretend to possess any, and unlike my other "football" (i.e. soccer) forecasts, I couldn't loop in any friends that do.

So if you need intelligence with your NFL predictions, refer to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports,
your local newspaper or myriad other outlets.

But, as surprise teams seem to spring up every year, chances are many "expert" picks will wind up being just as wrong as mine.

So without further ado, here are my, um, guesses for the divisional standings, conference champions, Super Bowl Winner and league MVP:

NFC North

NFC East

NFC West

NFC South

NFC Wild Cards
Bears -> record: 9-7

NFC Champion

AFC North

AFC East

AFC West

AFC South

AFC Wild Cards

AFC Champion

Super Bowl Champion
Saints over Colts

Andrew Luck