Monday, December 20, 2010

Remembering Cliff Doerksen

Posted By on 12.20.10 at 01:34 PM

Cliff Doerksen, as wry, intelligent, and versatile a writer as the Reader has ever been lucky enough to publish, died unexpectedly a few days ago at the age of 47. Among the first of Cliff's friends to offer us his thoughts was Ira Glass:

Hanging out with Cliff for an evening meant that now and then he'd ease his way into a long story. It could be the history of some movie, or some cultural trend. It could be something from the history of radio, about which I knew nothing and Cliff seemed to know everything—he even wrote a book on the subject. Often it was just a story from the office, all the characters rendered with a great eye for detail and a delightfully mean ear for dialogue. He was a far better storyteller than me. Sure, on the radio, with the benefit of editing and background music, I could hold my own. But in person, after dinner, it was no contest. He kicked my ass. He could kick yours too.

There's a prize that food writers all over the country covet, the James Beard Foundation Award. Cliff—who was not a food writer—swooped in this year and won it with a story that exhibits many of the qualities that made him so wonderful as a writer, editor and thinker. It was about mince pie.

Cliff Doerksen with Beard medal
He explained that mince pie was one of the staples of the American diet in the 19th and 20th centuries, year round, as entree, dessert and breakfast, before it mysteriously vanished in the 1940s. He warms us up with these casually-tossed off sentences that are clearly the product of weeks of intense historic research: "It was the food expatriates longed for while sojourning abroad. Acquiring an appreciation for it was proof that an immigrant was becoming assimilated. It was the indispensable comfort dish dispatched to American expeditionary forces in World War I to reinforce their morale with the taste of home." Then he arrives at the magnificent thesis of his article:

Most remarkably, mince pie achieved and maintained its hegemony despite the fact that everyone—including those who loved it—agreed that it reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.

And then the fun begins. Fantastic anecdotes. Stuff you've never heard or imagined. It's encyclopedic knowledge, served up with bemusement and a pleasing and dark sense of amazement about the world. Treat yourself and bookmark it to read over the holidays.

In the article Cliff makes two mince pies according to old recipes and is stunned at how much beef fat and sugary crap went into them. In those pre-refrigeration days, that's what kept the meat in the pie from spoiling. He builds the narrative suspense—what will these monstrosities taste like?—before arriving at the story's climactic surprise: they're delicious!

The pure joie de vivre he brings to this kitchen experiment is characteristic—the main quality I think of when I think of him, a huge, joyous part of his personality—though he would certainly mock me for using the phrase "joie de vivre" in any paragraph whose subject is him. He saw himself as a much darker kind of sensibility. Though how many Homestarrunner cartoons could he recite by heart? Most of my memories of Cliff involve him being incredibly funny, cracking jokes, laughing wickedly.

I talked to Cliff a week ago, trying to get him to do a story for This American Life where he'd make soda from an early recipe for Coca-Cola and write about the history of that. And yes, okay, it was a knock-off of his great mince pie article, but one I thought would amuse him and that he'd do better than any writer in the country. He passed on it.

It's shocking he's gone. This is so wrong.

The past, as Cliff Doerksen unearthed it, was a very strange place full of secrets and revelations. Mince pie was just a small slice of it. Cliff's most recent work for us was the ongoing “Bad News From the Past,” an inimitable website feature that found him retrieving and commenting on old newspaper clippings that rendered 19th century America as a place odd and remote as 14th century Canterbury. His first Reader article, published in 2002, looked back on "one of the weirdest chapters in broadcasting history," a period in the mid-1920s when radio station WCBD in Zion, Illinois—"conceived and born in prayer to counteract the evil that the newspapers and their atheistic writers have done us," in the words of its founder—captured one of the largest audiences in the nation.

Cliff also wrote film criticism, for the Reader and for Time Out Chicago. He contributed to This American Life and to the New York Times. What interested him? Anything at all that served him as an object lesson in the weird way the world actually works. His last long feature for the Reader was a discussion of academic peer review. It was informed by the reception his one book received, American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age, and occasioned by a New York Times article describing an exciting new approach that exploits the Internet for the fast, vast dissemination of new scholarship. Cliff commented, “It's an interesting and attractive idea, and one rife with potential for unintended consequences.” Enthusiasm, in Cliff’s view, is a flimsy scrim behind which serious contradictions, not to mention likely disaster, wait patiently to be revealed.

(UPDATE: J.R. Jones, the Reader's senior film critic, has now posted his own tribute on this website, observing, excellently, that he read Cliff Doerksen because "I never knew exactly where he was going to take me; every paragraph was like a college road trip, bound for adventure and possibly big trouble." Jones links to all of his favorite Doerksen stories, some mentioned here and many that aren't.)

Like many a snarky observer of the American scene, Cliff Doerksen grew up in Canada — the son of a Mountie, no less. After attending Concordia University in Montreal he received a doctorate in cultural history from Princeton and taught at Princeton, Northwestern, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. From January of 2003 to August of 2004 he was an assistant editor of the Reader, suffering, none too silently, the chore of turning straw to flax. One friend and colleague of that time was Anaheed Alani, who is now Ira Glass's wife. She recalls:

Cliff started working at the Reader right after me. We immediately became great friends, bonding over our mutual curmudgeonly pleasure in hating everything and everyone. We both still smoked at the time, and during our long, grueling hours editing stories for the paper, I looked forward to those many times a day that he would peek his head into my office and ask, "Smoke?" I never said no, no matter how busy I was, because smoking, and talking, with Cliff was the biggest pleasure of my life during those years. I've never met anyone smarter than Cliff. No one has ever made me laugh harder than Cliff. I can't repeat any of those jokes here because they would hurt feelings — his strongest poetry was in the service of mocking others.

Which isn't to say he was mean-spirited — he made fun of me constantly, every day, about every single thing I did or said. It made me so happy. I knew that it meant he loved me. I remember that one time he saw me taking a supplement and said, smirking, "Oh, I didn't know you were into VIH-tah-mins." I was like, Are you seriously going to make fun of me for taking a calcium pill? But of course he was. That's so much of what I loved about him.

OK, but he loved so many things, and the fact that he hated almost everything made his loves that much more intense. Cliff loved: A.J. Liebling, Robert Benchley (he introduced me to both of those writers, photocopying chapters of their books that he knew I would like and leaving them on my desk), conversation, hanging out, They Might Be Giants, H.P. Lovecraft, proving assholes wrong, Leonard Cohen, good blues music, the Smiths (he loved how funny they were), Johnny Cash, movies in general and in particular Kung Fu Hustle, really good horror movies, Hitchcock, and Withnail & I, the works of Joss Whedon, Amy Sedaris, Homestarrunner, South Park. He loved his friends. He loved his brothers. He loved Elspeth like crazy. He loved Gladys more than anything in the world.

I think a lot of people thought of Cliff as a grump. He WAS a grump. He was hilarious in his grumpitude, and very detail oriented, and not at all above a vendetta. Which is of course the funnest kind of friend to have. But at some point during the three years we worked together I had to have surgery on my hip and was on crutches for several weeks. Cliff, the office curmudgeon, the hater of epic proportions, was the one who met me at the elevator every morning, took my bag and my coffee from me, and made sure I got to my office with minimal pain. He brought me food and coffee and cigarettes all day through my convalescence. No one else even thought to do that.

I loved him so much. I love him so much. I miss him.

Cliff's family learned of his death on Friday, December 17. He's survived by his wife, Elspeth Carruthers, a medievalist now working in the administration of the University of Chicago; by his six-year-old daughter, Gladys; by his parents, Bill and Pat Doerksen; and by brothers Mark and Mike. His wife is planning a memorial service for February 10, his birthday.

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