In Praise of Martha Lavey

I did not know Martha Lavey, who died this afternoon. She was a living legend, a towering figure who made Chicago better, made us more relevant to the world, and contributed to the advance of American art in ways that people who are were close to her will tell over the coming days.

But I have a Martha Lavey story.

I was on the steering committee for On The Table, an initiative of the Chicago Community Trust, a program designed to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and inspire action.

I showed up at a meeting at The Trust for the committee— a typical affair, with 30-40 people in a board room talking about stuff.

And there was Martha Lavey. I stopped short. I was flummoxed to see her. There are people like this for all of us— untouchables who represent a level of import that makes us quake or look away or go shy.

So we started the meeting. People ate bagels and poured coffee and talked about stuff.

And Martha Lavey pulls out some nail polish from her purse.

She starts painting her nails. She chimes in on some topics, saying smarter things than everyone else, making us think, all the while casually looking down, painting her nails.

And I’m like, “Martha Lavey you are a fucking boss and I love you so much thank you Martha Lavey”.

I did not tell her that; I said it to myself.

Martha Lavey didn’t need me to tell her I loved her, but right now I raise that up and make it plain to you.

The Use of Simple Digital Tools for Communion

Thoughts in preparation for The Impact of Digital Communication on Civic Engagement at DPLA Fest.

A lot of my career has revolved around data and communications.

The first civic tech tool I ever made, in 1999,  was “KillerOnThe”, a dumb notification tool that let you know, via Wireless Application Protocol, if there was a person nearby who has killed one or more people and who may kill others. It was more performance art than anything, focused on the towering insufficiency of technology.

I helped make EveryBlock, an early experiment in neighborhood data, and at Smart Chicago I helped launch many tools, methods, and programs around data and people, including Youth-Led Tech, Connect Chicago, Smart Health Centers, Documenters, and

What I always want— what’s at the center of my work— is communion. I seek to use data and technology as a bonding agent for people— making a common set of principles, facts, and goals.

It’s not easy, and I have not succeeded.

The election of the current president— and the wide-ranging foreign intelligence operation that helped him win— is a good indication of failure. The tactics centered around  discord, and they were successful.

But if we choose— and I do— we can keep “right on going on /  a sort of human statement“, as Anne Sexton says.

Here’s thoughts:

Libraries are natural places of communion. Let’s do this.

Video of People Lining Up for the 10AM Buses for Chance the Rapper at #MCW2

Today my youngest child and 5 of his friends went to see #MCW2 by Chance the Rapper. By all accounts, it was a magical experience and it may soon be on Netflix. We walked them over to the secret bus location and I took a quick video. The shows seem to be over now, so I think it’s safe to post this video w/o giving anything.

I make a lot of personal documentaries like this. Here’s some more.

Modifying “Hop on Pop” So As To Make the Dad Less of a Cranky Killjoy

I love Dr. Seuss. One time I dragged a number of pieces of furniture out of an alley and custom-finished them with cutout illustrations from Seuss books.

Custom-Decorated Dr. Seuss Kids Furniture

Custom-Decorated Dr. Seuss Kids Furniture

I’ve used one of the pieces to track the growth of my children for the past 15 years.

First Measure

Caleb Measure, Spring 2004

I’ve always especially loved Hop on Pop, because it is centered on a dad and two kids, and because the main storyline is the physical joy of attempting to crush your father’s sternum, but being unable to do so.

The problem with the book is that notwithstanding the fact that hopping on pop is a legit fun thing to do, the book casts the father figures as hangdog workaholics who just want to come home and be left alone because of an ostensibly rough day at the office.


So I fired up Photoshop, cranked up Times New Roman, printed out modified versions of key portions of the story, and affixed them to our nighttime reader.

This book was given to my eldest child on his 2nd birthday by his aunt and uncle. I am glad they made an inscription— these are invaluable keepsake-makers.

The cover itself has some freelance customizations from one of the kids.

The first step was to name the characters. I kept the look of surprise on the dad’s face because it exuded a kind of radical “youth beats the olds” type of narrative.

The first off-putting spread is the one that introduces the concept of the sad dad. Boring boring boring.

So I removed “sad”, added “glad”, and removed extraneous obtuse reference to the nature of the father’s day.

Similarly, I switched up the discussion among the youth about what kind of day the parental figure had,. You can see how easy it was to turn everything around. I made a mistake with the terminal point, but I accounted for that by allowing the underlying exclamation to show through.

The last modification occurs at the denouement, where the same illustration from the cover page is the setup for the big reveal— the misguided belief that children must not hop on pop.

The simple change of stop to lots and turning frowns upside down was all it took.

Moments are over in a minute. Offspring outgrow the edges of our measures fast.

Hop on pop as long as you can.