Sun-Times is reporting

…on today

“An abacus of sparrows”

On three parallel clotheslines strung across someone’s backyard, there was an abacus of sparrows.

The Bird Artist, page 193.

An abacus of sparrows… lovely! So much better than smattering of sparrows, a cluster of sparrows, a few (ugh) sparrows.

Where else could “an abacus of” work? Do you need physical lines or wires?

Or would it work on benches, say in a courthouse, and relatives of a defendant? Or bystanders in a street and its bordering sidewalks?

Back to school with The Bird Artist

Guess I took the summer off.

But summer officially ends today, so I return to my writing exercises.

Picked up The Bird Artist (by Howard Norman) this week from a pile in the house, and was struck by the opening paragraph:

My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.

Wow. Laying out your themes in the opening paragraph?

I think Howard Norman owes Ms. Shirley Jackson a dollar: (

This paragraph saved my story today

Lately obsessed with the Shirley Jackson book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Like I tore through it, put it down a minute to get a glass of water, then started right over again.

Here’s how it opens:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

Right? All the book’s themes are right there, hiding in that graf, hiding in plain sight.

So when I got stuck this morning writing a story I couldn’t set up right, I thought of Jackson and her magical little graf. Tried to channel her a little bit.

Story’s still going. Will post when it’s done. I * think * the opening lines get at its themes.

The Washington Post is a joy to read anymore

I loved that thing they did where they talked about who shot Osama Bin Laden, even though they didn’t actually know who it was.

Now I love their obsession with SEAL spotting, where folks local to the SEAL base whisper among themselves about who shot Bin Laden, and the writer takes a trip to see what’s what.

I find the writing just delightful. Look at this:

Even apparently well-grounded adults talk about the SEALs as the closest thing we know to comic book characters: They have superhuman powers to withstand cold, heights and fear! They have secret identities! They dive into the sea from submarines and leap from airplanes at 30,000 feet! They have cool zoomorphic job titles, like Spider-Man or Batman! They roll with the best high-tech gizmos and deadly toys! Even their trident insignia is snazzy! And such good manners!

“They could kill you with a straw 13 different ways, but they’re really nice,” said Allen Norfolk, 52, the manager of Chicks, a rumored SEAL hangout off Shore Drive.

The piece – which of course does not spot the SEAL who shot Bin Laden, ends on another prime piece of dialogue that gets at the problem:

On Saturday night, as the Chicks bar begins to overflow into the dining room, an athletic-looking guy heads out with a lovely young woman at his side. His T-shirt is taut as a sail across his V-shaped torso, and there are flamelike tattoos curling from the sleeves.

“Are you a SEAL?” he was asked.

He beamed.

“Yes,” he said.

“Would you be willing to talk to The Washington Post?”

“No,” he said.

“Are you really a SEAL?”


Even when you can’t answer the question, you can answer the question

Who shot Osama?

He’s out there somewhere, an instant icon in the annals of American conflict, the ultimate big-game hunter. But an enigma, too, his identity cloaked for now, and maybe forever.

He is the unknown shooter. The nameless, faceless triggerman who put a bullet in the head of the world’s most notorious terrorist.

Yet there are clues, and the beginnings of a portrait can be pieced together from scraps gleaned from U.S. officials. A trio of former Navy SEALs — Eric Greitens, Richard Marcinko and Stew Smith — helped us fill in the blanks, drawing from their experiences to develop a kind of composite sketch of an elusive historic figure in real time.

Fun. Nice work, Washington Post, nice writing around the problem of: There is no specific factual answer to the question we’re all asking now. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

Write, revise, rewrite, rip up: “Blue Island man charged”

This sad story started as a web blurb I added to throughout the day, then rewrote for what I thought would be the paper version. It was nearly done, and it began in such a way that would be fresh for newspaper readers.

Then I got Kimika Coleman’s mother on the phone. And she said something that made me think to rip up the whole top and try something else, even though I liked what I already had.

My new editor encouraged me to give it a try.

And the graf that talks about the wooing – my second lede of the day – fell down to the nutgraf:

The last time her mother saw her, Kimika Coleman was on her cell phone.

The 18-year-old was home that night in Chicago’s South Deering neighborhood when Kimberly Coleman came in from work. Then she moved to the porch to keep chatting.

And by the time her mother thought to ask her to run to the store for milk, Kimika Coleman was gone.

Kimberly Coleman didn’t know her middle child had been talking for a few weeks to an older man she had met on a singles party line. And she couldn’t know that man had chatted up, raped and killed another 18-year-old a few weeks before, as police and prosecutors charged Wednesday. Or that he would attack and kill again, as prosecutors allege.

Sonny Pierce, 27, of Blue Island, wooed Kimika Coleman, still in high school, as he had Kiara Windom from Harvey, and took each girl to his ramshackle apartment in Blue Island in August 2009. He raped and strangled them, then dumped their bodies in an alley — Windom on the Southeast Side, Coleman in Blue Island, just hours after she had left her house, authorities said.

Pierce, 27, was charged Wednesday with murdering both women, and also Mariah Edwards, 17, of Blue Island, in July 2010.

Pierce told police he invited Edwards to his home to rape her in front of other men, and beat her with the men until she was dead, prosecutors said. He has refused to tell police where he dumped her remains, which were encased in a garbage bag, prosecutors said.

Police recovered a video Pierce made of himself having what Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez described as “violent sexual relations,” with Edwards.

“This 17-year-old girl appears to be lifeless,” Alvarez said. “We believe she was deceased when the video was taken.”

Alvarez would not comment on whether other men were involved or other suspects were being questioned.

“These young teenagers were brutalized and their lives were cut short in yet another example of hinous crimes of violence against women,” Alvarez said Wednesday at a news conference, flanked by investigators from the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force, Blue Island Police, Illinois State Police and her office’s cold case unit.

Judge Darron E. Bowden ordered Pierce held without bail Wednesday in Cook County Court in Markham, saidOrland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy, whoheads the South Suburban Major Crimes Task Force.

Pierce has been in jail since August, when he was arrested in connection with the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl he allegedly lured from outside her house and dragged her into his apartment, Alvarez said.

DNA collected after that attack linked Pierce to Windom and Coleman, McCarthy said. Cell phone records also tied Pierce to his victims, prosecutors said.

Investigators found 20 calls between Windom’s cell phone and Pierce the night before her body was found, prosecutors said.

Police asked the public to come forward with information about Pierce, his alleged crimes or other missing women from the area.

Pierce’s mother, Esther Pierce, defended her son.

“I don’t think my son’s guilty. He’s my womb child and I’m going to stand and pray for my seed,” she said from her apartment, next to his near 121st and Vincennes.

She acknowledged that her son, who has a 1-year-old daughter,had taken pictures of himself having sex with women, which she had told him he shouldn’t do because “it’s nasty.”

Regarding the video authorities say they have of Pierce having sex with a possibly lifeless body, she said it’s not known whether the woman was alive or just sleeping.

“Hear the truth, world, we’re dealing with an injustice,” she said. “Hear the truth.” Windom’s mother, Hallena Johnson, took little solace in hearing that prosecutors think they have the man who killed her daughter.

“Nothing’s going to bring my daughter back, but I wish this state still had the death penalty for that man,” Johnson said. “He took someone’s else’s life. He should have his life taken.”

Edwards lived in an apartment complex across the street from Pierce’s building, said her brother, Tony Edwards, 35, of the Roseland neighborhood.

He said his sister was an aspiring rapper.

“I miss her face, her smile, her laughter . . . the way she got on my nerves,” he said. “She didn’t deserve that no matter what she did in her life.”

Contributing: Phil Kadner, Casey Toner

Mayor cake

Goodbye Mayor Daley and thanks for the years–

mayor cake


The Art Institute of Chicago, saying it with CAKE.

Best. First. Day. Ever.

There was champagne in the Sun Times newsroom today, and applause and cheering for these three guys.

Awesome. What a sunny omen as I start this new assignment.

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?

Sixty-four years ago today, Jackie Robinson made his debut, the first black man to play baseball in the major league, prompting among many other things this catchy little song:

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
It went zoomin’ cross the left field wall.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.

And when he swung his bat,
the crowd went wild,
because he knocked that ball a solid mile.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.

Satchel Paige is mellow,
so is Campanella,
Newcombe and Doby, too.
But it’s a natural fact,
when Jackie comes to bat,
the other team is through.

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
Did he hit it? Yeah, and that ain’t all.
He stole home.
Yes, yes, Jackie’s real gone.

Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
Did he hit it? Yeah, and that ain’t all.
He stole home.

Yes, yes, Jackie’s real gone.

Jackie is a real gone guy.

By Woodrow Buddy Johnson & Count Basie (1949)

“Jackie’s real gone. Jackie is a real gone guy.”

Noone says that anymore, “real gone.”