Blue Chip

I wanna be famous but only for five minutes. Just long enough to confirm how awful it seems from down here among the little people.

This week I published a review in an international art magazine. The paintings were fine. Not the most exciting things in the world but competently constructed and successful in the narrow goals they were engineered to accomplish. The more memorable or lasting impression of the twenty minutes I spent in the blue chip gallery where they hung was everything but the art itself.

The nervous gallerinas and gallerinos flitting about in their fashionably ill-fitting garb, the installers taking their sweet time, the antiseptic white cube atmosphere. But more than anything else, I’ll remember the prices. None of the eight pieces on show were under 400k.

What was it within these handcrafted grids, triangles, and parallel lines was worth half a million dollars?

The artist has paid his dues. He’s not a kid. Been at it for decades and now it’s his moment. These prices are a reflection of his remarked-upon showing in the Whitney Biennial and the glowing profile in New York Times Magazine. I wonder what he feels about it. He has to know it’s a little ridiculous. His work is now like NFTs—priced astronomically in order to allow the ultra-rich to avoid paying taxes.

In my corner of the art world the stakes are different. A local teacher is running for alderman and asked me to decorate her campaign office. I brought two walls-ful over on my bike. These pieces are also for sale. But none will fetch even a noticeable fraction of what I saw in the West Loop.

Does this mean that these are four hundred times worse than those? i don’t think so. It’s just a different game we’re playing.

This weekend I spent two days sitting and smiling at people in an art center in Oak Park. My fellow vendors sold scarves, hand-thrown pots, little scones in star shapes, and chess sets crafted out of what look like twist-ties—I didn’t come up close enough to know for sure. The shoppers and vendors were friendly and at least acted like they were happy to be there. They were celebrating the holiday season and catching up with old friends.

I didn’t go to the opening of the show of half-million dollar art but doubt it could’ve matched the convivial atmosphere. That’s a world of status-seeking and deal-making rather than community.

I was happy to be there just long enough to soak in the vibe for my article. Any longer and it might’ve become contagious.

—Framed a few more collages and put them up in the store and the limited-edition t-shirt I designed for Constellation Chicago is now available.

—Listen to Annie Howard talk to me about paint-by-numbers at Pilsen Community Books and/or to Mallory and I discussing the unnerving new Soft & Quiet.

—If you’re in Milwaukee on Saturday come hear me talk about paint-by-numbers at the Lion’s Tooth.

multiple goods

On the drive back from Boston I listen to Maud Newton’s Ancestor Trouble and feel grateful not to have any relations like hers. My visit with my parents passed peacefully. No one picked a fight, for which I’m thankful. Hearing about grudges, conflicts, and crimes within one family going back generations makes me feel extra lucky to come from such ordinary stock. Perhaps Newton’s relations just loom larger in her heart and imagination. Seems like an awfully heavy weight to carry.

The day after my return I’m a guest in Frank’s freshman seminar class. He asked me to read from Soviet Stamps so I’ve been thinking about that book the preceding week. It’s almost too on-the-nose that I have to have a book about immigration and childhood in my head the week I’m visiting my parents.

The great privilege of making art and writing books is that once the work is done you’re rid of it. I hadn’t thought about this star-crossed book since shortly after its publication nearly three years ago. The six years it took to get it out into the world is not a theme I like meditating on. Its being out is a kind of purging.

That’s why it comes as a pleasant surprise that when I flip through the pages to choose a passage to read to the class it’s not as awful as I remember. There are paragraphs here and there that aren’t bad. I talk to the kids about the tortuous process of its publication, then read the intro. Then I talk some more and read another part. During the q & a a student suggests I should do BookTok. I laugh and tell her about quitting social media eight years ago. I ask whether she’d record a video about my book but she says she’s deleted the app because she was on it too much.

Shortly before my trip east I read an article about Mastodon and got excited. In the fallout from Musk’s evisceration of Twitter, this was one of the alternative platforms being pushed to succeed it. I signed up, felt all the same symptoms from long ago and deleted the thing eight hours later. My friend Gil called it, texting that it would feel just like the old drug, which it did, no matter its purportedly better intentions.

This line of thought comes up in the talk I posted recently with my old friend, John Hodgman. I don’t know whether John has quit Twitter as of this writing as some prominent people have but for many years he was a ubiquitous and successful presence there. In our talk he mentions the hollow feeling and craven striving this and other social media sites cause in their users. No matter how good you get at it it’s never enough. This is not the restless creative feeling of being unsatisfied with a result but rather an empty narcotic withdrawal symptom of a user with an ever-higher tolerance and dependency.

Once you know that you can’t look away when given the chance the only solution is to have nothing available. It’s why I systematically remove every statcounter from this newsletter and every other service I use on the internet. Because I know if it’s there I’ll check it multiple times a day and feel nothing but awful.

I’ve made twenty bookmarks and a bunch of small collages to sell at craft and holiday sales leading up to Christmas. Until I hit it big on BookTok or whatever thing comes next, this is how I have to get my work out there. The first is this weekend at Compound Yellow in Oak Park.

Maybe I’ll see you there. Meanwhile, I made you another playlist.

Slow Learner

The plan is to leave Chicago by 7:30 or 8am but the car’s late. It’s not delivered till almost 9 so I’m behind before starting out. I’m annoyed but figure to get to the motel in New Jersey by 10 or 11pm rather than 8 or 9. No big deal.

I queue up Sarah Weinman’s Scoundrel and start east. I listen to her wild story about William F. Buckley and the deathrow psychopath who hoodwinked Buckley into financing the year’s long court and publicity battle that sprang him from jail. I think back to that one night I slept on Weinman’s couch during a book-tour stop in New York City. It’s not a great surprise she’s devoted her literary career to researching criminality and mental illness considering her home situation back then. It’s good to know she was able to rise above it and make a success, albeit due to very dark material. Her book keeps me company through Indiana and Ohio and into Pennsylvania.

The rain and sleet start somewhere around Youngstown and keep a steady clip as I roll past the 18-wheelers. I stop for dinner around 5pm at some truck stop that loudly advertises the world’s worst apple pie. Soon after getting back on the road traffic is at a standstill. At the highest elevation on I-80—about ten miles ahead—several trucks have smashed up on the ice. We barely move the next three hours.

As I sit there listening about Edgar Smith’s last days—he died in another prison for trying to kill a different woman, long forgotten by the country’s foremost conservative and his lackeys—I think back to the first time I was stuck on this road this way. It was the winter of 1994 and I was driving my white ’72 Skylark with a U-Haul hitch attached back to Boston after quitting grad school in Indiana. I’d planned to do the drive in one go but had to check into a motel after traffic started moving again. I’d cursed that road then, vowing never to travel it again, just as I curse it now 28 years later.

But from Chicago to New York City, I-80 is a straight shot and hard to avoid. I think about stopping at some other motel, then driving the extra few hours in the morning but just keep going.

I pull into the Quality Inn lot in Ledgewood just after 2am.

I park on 44th Street a block east of the theater, then walk south to the Whitney. It’s sunny, in the 50s, and the city looks good. I note like I do every time I come hear how oblivious New Yorkers are to anyone and anything on the sidewalk other than themselves and their own route. It’s like they willfully pretend no one else is there, just obstacles in their path. I laugh while doing my best to get out of their way.

The Edward Hopper show is spectacular. The New York he painted is the iconic city of myth, memory, and American culture. The current iteration feels like an overbuilt theme park in comparison. But the sideways light creeping past rows of city blocks in his canvases is still there as I walk back north. I text John for dinner recommendations in the theater district and he points me toward Jimmy’s Corner. There’s no food there but Beam on the rocks is $4 a go. I’d paid more for coffee earlier in the day. Drinking there makes me feel like I’m in a New York from long ago.

The timewarp feel is enhanced by the bartender’s voice. It’s a dead ringer for Nicky, who died from hard living almost a decade ago. My current apartment is downstairs from the last place Nicky lived.

People filter in from the afternoon show across the street. The guy who sits down in the barstool says I’m in for a treat. it’s his second time seeing the show. He’s retired and flies into the city a couple times a year just to see the shows. We talk about Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses and he tells me tickets are going for 5K on Stubhub. He loves theater but not that much.

I’m excited to see Bunk from The Wire play Willy Loman but it’s Sharon D. Clarke who steals the show as Linda. Everything she says is like a knife in the heart. Then Willy’s eulogy with the capper about his having the wrong dreams. It’s like an epitaph for this whole country.

I put on Jimmy Giuffre’s Western Suite and drive to Boston.

—Listen to my talk with Mallory Smart, then tune back in Wednesday for one with John Hodgman.