Tagged: chicago

While we’re on the subject of death


Michael Washburn has written a fine story for the March-April issue of The University of Chicago Magazine: “Decomposure” (The deck: “Mortician, medievalist, and video sage Caitlin Doughty tries to change the way Americans think about death”). Washburn starts strong:

Located on Santa Monica Boulevard and abutting Paramount Studios, Hollywood Forever is one of Los Angeles’s oldest, most idiosyncratic cemeteries. Marble obelisks tower over squat tombstones of Armenian immigrants, the latter boasting detailed photographic etchings, as if someone managed to render ’70s-era wedding Polaroids into stone. Peacocks amble around the graves of Fay Wray and Rudolph Valentino. Punk titan Johnny Ramone is memorialized with an eight-foot bronze statue of the musician playing guitar. Recently a dilapidated graveyard on the brink of closure, Hollywood Forever has become a vibrant public venue after changing hands in 1998. The cemetery hosts movie nights and a popular Día de los Muertos festival. The rock band the Flaming Lips has played there.

This “is how cemeteries used to be,” says Caitlin Doughty, AB’12 (Class of 2006). “In the Middle Ages, in the Victorian Period, … cemeteries were places where commerce took place, and lovers walked through the graves to meet at night. You had this engagement with the cemetery as a community place, which we don’t really have anymore.” This collision point between somber burial ground and riotous rock venue, a space that survived modern economic realities by resurrecting a medieval communal impulse, was a fitting setting when, on a quickly cooling Friday afternoon last November, Doughty taught me how to die.

That “taught me how to die” line is killer. Doughty is a profile writer’s dream. She produces and stars in a YouTube series titled Ask a Mortician. She has a forthcoming book with the great title—great in a twisted way—Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (And Other Lessons from the Crematory). She founded the Order of the Good Death, an artists’ collective devoted to embracing mortality. Doughty, in typically fine phrasing by Washburn, “wants to disenthrall us from our pervasive death denial.”

Washburn’s dexterity with the language is much of what makes the story so good.

She’s droll, laid-back, and eager to talk about how long it takes an unburied body to skeletonize (even with all variables taken into account, we go from fleshy corpse to flinty skeleton with alacrity).

“Fleshy corpse to flinty skeleton with alacrity”—wish I’d written that. And:

Doughty works along the fault lines of natural repulsion and cultural taboo, which demands deft navigation. Dissecting cats and frogs is enough to repulse many kids, so the prospect of having them endure exposure therapy with human corpses—her vision taken to its most extreme—lodges in the throat.

“Fault lines of natural repulsion and cultural taboo” is really nice, especially using “fault lines” in a story set in Los Angeles. One more:

And with that Doughty decided that she needed to become a mortician. She moved to San Francisco, where she stopped reading about charnel houses and started working in one.

Vivid, distinctive, apt, smooth. That’s good prose.

Washburn’s work hits every mark. The story is informative. (Did you know viewing an open casket is pretty much just an American thing? Me either.) It takes care to establish cultural and historical context. The author knows when to quote his subject. (“An embalmed body . . . it is not an actual dead body in a way. It’s a strange wax effigy that the dead body has become. You’re not really seeing a dead person—you’re seeing an idea of a dead person, a metaphor for a dead person. There’s a distance that is almost the same as closing the casket.”) There’s some judicious use of narrative to keep things moving. And it sure does fulfill Molly Ivins’ injunction for nonfiction: “Y’all can’t make this shit up.”

There are bits that stick with you for a while after you close the magazine:

As for Doughty, she desires the most natural exit: putrefaction.

“Yeah,” she says, “I think the idea of being laid out on a beautiful plot of land and my body becoming a glorious burst of decomposition. There are so many animals designed to eat that. . . . Nature is so beautifully designed to dispose of us.”

“Decomposure” is the best alumni magazine story I’ve read in weeks. First rate from first word to last.


Kid philosophers

Twice a year, the University of Chicago publishes a supplement to The University of Chicago Magazine. The supplement is titled The Core, subtitled The College Magazine. For those not conversant with the University of Chicago, “the College” is the undergraduate core of the university. The current issue of the magazine (Carrie Golus, editor) includes an excellent story by David L. Hoyt, “School of Thought.” The story is a portrait of Winning Words, a program that conducts after-school philosophy programs in Chicago elementary schools. Hoyt’s piece concentrates on one group of fifth graders at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary as they ponder the sort of deep questions that tie grownups in knots, too.

Two things about this story. One, it’s very well done. I have a personal low interest in stories about public schools, for some reason. Maybe it’s because I was never a parent. Maybe it’s because those stories are so often dull and plodding and larded with that education bafflegab. But I found Hoyt’s piece engrossing from the start, I particularly liked two sections that convey class discussion in dialogue, such as this (Gershon is Sage Gershon, a Chicago undergrad who teaches Winning Words; Jahari and Sydney are fifth-graders):

Gerson: Do you guys think that if you’re not loyal to your country you should be punished?

Jahari: Yes.

Gerson: Why?

Jahari: I don’t know that answer yet.

Sydney: I don’t think you should be punished for it because that was what Martin Luther King fixed for us, and being punished is being all messed up again.

Gerson: Sydney has a great point. People who disagree with their country—do you think they’re being loyal by disagreeing, or are they being disloyal?

Stormi: I think it’s kind of in between.

Sydney: Yesterday I went to my grandma’s house, and it was this group of kids just fighting. It didn’t really make sense to me because they were the same race, and they were all from the same neighborhood. Do you think that people turning on people that you know is being disloyal?

The second thing about this story is that it exemplifies a point I will be making at my CASE Editors Forum presentation about 10 days from now: even skinny magazines need to present feature-length content. The Core is 36 pages. Yet the current issue has two six-page feature stories and a six-page photo spread. I don’t know the word-count for “Winning Words,” it’s not John McPhee-esque, but it has substance and makes The Core a contender in that countertop competition that takes place in every household—the big sort into the magazine pile and the recycling pile. Our magazines will go into the magazine pile only if we present something to read. I see far too many slender, under-resourced alumni magazines that lack a single substantial story, the kind of story that prompts readers to take up not only the current issue but the next one. And The Core proves that having only 40 pages or less is no excuse for not providing toothsome content. Well done.

PS: As a certified word nerd, I cannot help but pass along the magazine’s inside back cover, a comic titled “Pig Latin.” Enjoy.

UMag inbox

It’s Inbox Monday, and there are several tasty items in the Blogateria. And yes, I am surprised and disappointed by my resorting to such a cheesy opening. We go to press in a couple of weeks and I’m feeling a bit cooked.

Denison Magazine continues its clever innovation of cover stories that play out in the first six pages of the magazine plus the back cover. The June ’12 issue presents “Power Struggles: Why Energy Policy is More Complicated Than You Think” as four true/false questions, starting on the inside front cover with “True/False: Fracking is Bad for Us.” The illustrations by Ward Sutton are tremendous. The above is my favorite, but it was hard to pick one. (Do yourself the favor of clicking on the image to open it big in a separate window.) Part of what I love about what Denison is doing here is it breaks free of the constrained thinking (that has been my thinking until recently) that the cover story has to be the longest or the heaviest or the  most important story in your feature well, or has to be a story in your feature well at all. Every time out, I look forward to what Maureen Harmon and crew have done with the latest issue. They have figured out something unique to our magazines, and I can’t stress enough how rare and difficult an accomplishment that represents.

Zebra fish are hot hot hot. The newest issues of Notre Dame Magazine and Pitt Med both have stories on zebra fish research. My mother kept zebra fish, in and among the guppies and angel fish and Siamese fighting fish. Little did I know she was conducting research on macular degeneration and Parkinson’s. Ma, I underestimated you.

I shy from giving praise to publications produced by Johns Hopkins University, lest anyone begin to think that was the secret purpose of UMagazinology. But I’m making an exception for the new issue of Johns Hopkins Engineering, which has this terrific lead by Jim Schnabel, from his cover story on the meeting of biology and robotics:

Listen to the night music of cockroaches. Clickety clickety clackety clackety . . . Listen to their tiny, spiny feet as they careen across the tiles in your kitchen. What do you hear? What can you learn? These hardy primordial creatures zip through cluttered spaces in utter darkness at human-equivalent speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. Yet you never hear them crashing headlong into things, even though the cockroach brain has only an infinitesimal fraction of the computing power of the average mammal’s. How do they manage this supendous feat with such meager neural resoures?


I’ve never been a fan of commencement stories, but North Carolina’s did bring forth a swell cover for Carolina Alumni Review:

I’ve been waiting for years to see someone publish a feature done by a comics artist, half hoping it would be my magazine, though I never pushed the right idea. Well, The University of Chicago Magazine, in its July-August issue, has done it, covering a conference titled “The Comics: Philosophy and Practice” in the only sensible way: As a four-page comic by alum Jessica Abel.

Finally, around here we’ve joked for years about the Johns Hopkins Magazine swimsuit issue. Now, damn them, the folks at Occidental have done it. Sort of.

That’s Occidental College’s president, Jonathan Veitch, who seems to have a robust sense of humor.

UMag inbox

Told you we were back.

First, congratulations to editor Amy Braverman Puma, executive editor Mary Ruth Yoe, and The University of Chicago Magazine for being the newest recipients of the Robert Sibley Award as alumni magazine of the year. I find this hard to believe, but according to my list from CASE this is Chicago‘s first Sibley since 1957. (Third overall.) Congratulations also to Cathy Shufro, who scribbled the article of the year, “The Bird-filled World of Richard Prum” for Yale Alumni Magazine.

Betsy Robertson’s crew at Auburn Magazine had some fun with their 100th anniversary issue. Love the retro cover, and a class note from the first issue a century before that recorded the hiring of alum J.M. Moore to organize “pig clubs” around the state. I’ve been to a few pig clubs, but I’ve a feeling it meant something different in this context.

Wake Forest Magazine (Cherin C. Poovey, managing editor) made its summer issue all about writing. The school counts among its literary alumni Maya Angelou and A.R. Ammons. Laura Elliott, author of young-adult historical novels,  is quoted as saying, “The fun part about being a writer is you get to pretend all the time.” Yes, you do. You get to pretend that someone, somewhere is paying attention to you, and pretend that you’re making money.

Swell cover illustration from Concordia University Magazine. Howard Bokser edits.

And while we’re on covers, a couple of killer designs from Sarah Lawrence Magazine and Middlebury Magazine. Yum.

Eight questions for Jason Kelly

Jason Kelly scribbles as an associate editor at The University of Chicago Magazine, and scribbled answers to the UMagazinology writer’s questionnaire.

How long have you been a writer?

I still don’t have my license, but I’ve been writing on probationary status since high school, when a few encouraging teachers wound me up and set me off in this direction.

Of all the things you have to do to produce a story in the magazine, what do you enjoy most?

Discovering that I have the information to reconcile Mary Ruth Yoe’s sharp (in every sense of the term) edits. Also, I’ve heard the legend of something called a “snick,” which is the moment when the shape of a story you’ve been stewing over suddenly comes into focus. I think it’s a myth because I’ve never actually experienced it, but if it exists, I bet it’s pretty great.

What has proven to be your biggest challenge?

Inertia, self-discipline, finishing what I . . .

For interviews, notepad or recorder? For writing, legal pad, typewriter, or computer?

For interviews: recorder for quotes, notepad for details of the subject and the setting (or pretending to scribble while trying to think of what else to ask). For writing: computer, but I like to imagine that it dings at the end of each line like a typewriter.

What do you wish you were better at?

Everything. But if I have to pick one, I wish I was a more perceptive and diligent reporter. Notes and interview recordings inevitably reveal a detail or a comment I let pass that could have led to something deeper if I had been more present or persistent in the moment. Of course, there’s usually still time for that famous “extra phone call,” but now we’re back to the biggest-challenge question.

What story are you proudest to have written?

Looking back at them always gives me a “what was I thinking?” cringe like a bad yearbook photo. So, I guess I’d say, every one that hasn’t prompted a correction, and I’m proud to say that’s all of them. (Correction: almost all of them.)

Who among writers have been your exemplars?

Kerry Temple, as a writer and a teacher. I covered sports for a long time, so the Smiths, both Red and Gary, and Frank DeFord. Dan Barry writing about New Orleans after Katrina or the closing of the Fulton Fish Market—or anything, really. Gene Weingarten, for his operatic range and his conviction that every story is about the meaning of life. Lydia Gibson, fellow sufferer in the next cubicle over who sets the bar for our magazine. And there’s an E.B. White quote that I like: “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”

If you weren’t a writer, what would your dream job be?

Guinness taste-tester. Is that a thing? I’m probably overqualified for that, though.