Midwestern Robot

Read about a family, learn about an era

The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family by Gail Lumet Buckley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This detailed and long-ranging history of an extraordinary family is, at least for me, the best way to read history — through the perceptive eye of a uniquely-placed narrator. Buckley weaves social and family history into a journey as suspenseful as a novel, but grounded in hard truths. Seeing how individual members of the Calhoun family navigated the Jim Crow laws in the South and more subtle forms of racism in the North, and how their descendants initiated change and activism during the 1950s and 60s, was sobering and awe-inspiring.

I found this book because I was curious about Lena Horne, but this was a much richer read than a biography. Or, maybe, it’s the way I wish more biographies were written, with close attention to multiple relationships, in the context of which certain portraits of individuals stand out.



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Check out the life of UP copper miners in 1913

book cover

The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fascinating glimpse into a little-known — at least to me — part of labor history, and Michigan history, and American history. If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell, this fictional riff on a 1913 miners’ strike in the UP will be right up your alley. They even mention Mary Barton at one point. In a similar way, this brings the struggles and triumphs of working people, and the incredibly unjust machinations of the moneyed and connected into sharp and personal focus.

It’s written in present tense, which at first distanced me. I felt a sense of cynicism and fatalism or something that almost turned me off…but I kept coming back to it, to read a few pages more, and a few pages more… and then the style paid off hugely. I felt inside of a complex and somehow even-handed narrative that was exactly right for the story and the characters. It left me wanting to learn more about the actual history and also read more of this writer.



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3 destinations for road trippers

Jasper and Nola in Jasper's car.
This is Jasper. He’s 99. We’ll meet him on Day 14.

This past fall, Dave and I took a road trip that has resulted in all sorts of feelings about where we’re living and how we’re living. To track my take, check out Trip Report on Literate Ape.com. Or gather tips for your own RV adventure by reading Dave’s posts on OdometerDave. And if you check out our YouTube channel, you can watch the action and tell us about your own experiences in the world of what-if.

10 things I’ve learned about working in storefront theatre in Chicago, in no particular order

It’s all about who’s in the room.
  1. Sometimes the storefront is a church gymnasium. Or a church basement. Or the upstairs of an old funeral home. So check the climate control situation before agreeing to the production. Is there heat in winter? AC in summer? If not, have a good long think about immersive theatre and how it should or should not relate to your play.
  2. Pay attention to every actor’s every question, even if they’re not directed at you. Even if they’re only mumbled. It’s not your job, but track them with the director and stage manager and whoever else, to make sure everything gets answered.
  3. It is your job.
  4. It is your job, but it might not be your place. You are the first emissary from the magic place where your play came from, but only the first. The play only arrives fully in this world after many people give it their talents, time, good will, and hard work.
  5. The most important thing is the people. When you’re lucky with cast and crew, you’re beyond blessed.
  6. Whenever possible, think long term.
  7. Don’t let long-term thinking blind you to what’s happening in the room right now.  
  8. Assume everyone is at least as sensitive as you are. Choose your words and your timing carefully.
  9. Bring treats.
  10. Write any program notes a few weeks in advance, so you have time to change them if something bizarre happens right at the end.