Monday, October 18, 2021

Why are cops afraid of vaccines?

     Boy, is it beautiful up in Door County. The wife and I had a great time there last week, hiking the parks, going to fish boils. I tried not to think about being right back here Monday morning, poking Chicago’s ball-of-snakes politics with a stick.
     Oh look. The city and the police department are suing each other. That’s normal.
     So let’s talk about the police. Puff aside the fog of BS swirling around them and get down to basics. What is the most important activity performed by the police? The reason for the roll calls and the paperwork. What does everyone, including the police themselves, agree that police are supposed to do?
     Fight crime, right? Any objections? Is the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7 on board with the whole police-are-supposed-to-arrest-criminals idea? Assuming so — a leap of trust nowadays with anything requiring an ounce of sense — let’s continue.
     This crime-fighting business involves danger, does it not? Puts police in perilous situations. Running into a dark alley where there might be a bad guy with a gun. Charging up the dark stairs of a six-flat. Going into the foul, overheated apartment of some crazy person who might come at you with a razor.
     A dangerous job. If I say, “Chicago cops put their lives on the line every day,” I don’t expect John Catanzara to jump onto YouTube to insist, “No we don’t!”
     So what’s with the vaccine hesitancy? You’ll run into a burning building but won’t get the shots that soon every 5-year-old will need in order to go to school? You let the city tell you what kind of hat to wear, but helping fight the plague that has killed 700,000 Americans is a bridge too far. Why?

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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Dogs of Wisconsin


     Our dog Kitty travels well, and has ranged across the country from the Rockies to the Atlantic.
     Alas, the one inn we could find in Door County with a vacancy at short notice does not accept dogs. So we had to leave her with neighbors—who are, to Kitty's credit and theirs, somewhere between happy and overjoyed to savor her company for a few days. She really is a most easygoing dog.
     Because of her absence, I was perhaps more attentive to those travelers on our trip who managed to take their dogs with them, particularly this dog, spied on the Eagle Trail at Peninsula State Park. His name is Lazlo, his owner told me, and he is a Puli, or Hungarian sheepdog. At first I thought his long, dreadlock-like coat had to be some kind of singular neglect, but that is how the breed grows it, in these tight coils, which actually take quite a bit of attention to keep clean and in the pristine condition that Lazlo presented.
     I choked back the obvious question, "Can he see?" because there seemed to be a whiff of criticism about it, and there are enough people ignorantly challenging others over baseless concerns for me to add to the scrum. If you Google "How can a Puli see?" you find this question has been well-masticated. The answer is "yes of course," and there is even a supposed "old Hungarian saying," which goes " “The Puli, through his hair, sees better than you.”
     The other dog sat next to me at the Old Post Office fish boil; or, rather his owner did. We struck up a conversation (the owner and I, that is, not the dog). He had recently gotten the dog, named Wilson, a Silver Labrador that he trained for duck and pheasant hunting. I had heard of golden labs and black labs and chocolate labs, but a silver lab is something new, and he said it is indeed new. 
     The breed dates to the 1950s, which is yesterday when it comes to dog breeds. Though some think it actually is just a chocolate lab in a new light, sort of the canine version of the blue dress. Turns out, there is all t
his controversy over the silver lab, at least in circles who care about such things. Part has to do with their breeding: are they pure labs, or mixed with Weimaraner?  (which is what I suspected he was, at least partly, before I asked, though it seemed thick for a Weimaraner).
     "Dogs are an inexhaustible subject," as George Orwell writes in Burmese Days, and I probably
 should wrap this up. In closing, I have to mention that I've noticed people don't sneer at Kitty, being half-Bichon, half-Shitsu, the way they used to, nor insinuatingly demand to know what rescue shelter she was gotten at. I used to tell them she was rescued from a breeder, and point out that she was already born when we found her, and someone had to give her a home. I've either managed to better avoid such people, perhaps through good luck, or otherwise our national problems are such that grilling people over the provenance of their dogs just isn't as important as it used to be.





Saturday, October 16, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Chills


   Credit to Caren Jeskey, she gets around. If I pulled on a random door, I don't believe I would find ... well, better let her tell it:

     Pre-pandemic you would have walked right past The Violet Hour, perhaps admiring the facade— an oft-changing mural the length of several storefronts. You would not have noticed the door hidden away within the strokes of the art. This posh cocktail and small-plates bar boasts “pre-prohibition style libations” and rules including “No Jager-Bombs. No bombs of any kind.”
      The Violet Hour sits on Damen, just south of North Avenue. My Grandpa Carl is rolling around in his grave at Rosehill knowing he missed out on all of this swanky fun, and remembering his days at the Busy Bee diner a few doors down where he sat at the counter sipping five cent coffee, black.
     COVID robbed The Violet Hour of their secretive allure when they realized they needed to set up outdoor seating on their limited parcel of concrete real estate. I called to fact-check and spoke with bartender-turned-manager Abe, who shared that the patio (along with a cocktail delivery program) helped them stay afloat. He stressed that the patio “is on a busy street in Chicago” to reduce expectations. He told me that he uses the mantra “make it work,”— words that have rung in his ears ever since he heard them spoken by Tim Gunn of Project Runway— to keep moving forward in solution mode at all times. This, he found, was particularly important during this past long year and a half for those in the now precarious business of service.
     I’ve not been to The Violet Hour for years, and was reminded of it recently when I found myself accidentally entering another mysterious joint. While on an Andersonville walkabout, I happened upon a black metal door, framed by an exposed brick wall that was peppered with Houdini, Thurston, and Alexander posters. I pictured a young boy with shorts and saddle shoes slapping them up there with a bucket of glue and a long-handled brush.
     I’m not 100% sure why, but I pulled the handle of the door marked with the address 5050, and was very surprised that it flew open. I was greeted by a suit-wearing chap with salt and pepper hair warmly saying “Welcome! Do you have your vaccination card?” (This snapped me out living in the land of timeless make-believe, but I still went with it). “Yes, I do.” I popped on my ubiquitous bracelet, aka mask, and followed him.
     The foyer was filled with laundry machines with big round glass doors, packed with clothes in various stages of wash cycles. He pulled at one of the machines, which opened up into yet another door. This time we were standing in an elegant, dimly lit, high ceilinged bar with black walls and vinyl booths. Salt and pepper turned out to be The Amazing Bibik. He showed me around the place and I was tickled to be led into a full sized theatre and stage hidden behind yet another door. I stuck around for some witty banter and card tricks, made a mental note to get back there for a show soon, and headed back out to meander some more.
     The other night a friend and I were on a walk and I thought to show him the magic place. He loved it. The show was already sold out, and we were looking for something to do. I checked the Music Box schedule and saw that The Rescue was starting. (As a member there I know that they require vaccination cards and masks, and if not too crowded the theatre is big enough that one can usually find a seat tucked far enough away from others).
      We high-tailed it to the theatre (on foot) as I bought the tickets online, and made it just in time for the film to start. It was a documentary about the 12 boys and their soccer coach who were rescued from the cave in northern Thailand in 2018, and it was made by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin of Free Solo fame. Steve James, the creator of Hoop Dreams, introduced the film, and invited us to stay for a talk back afterwards. The movie was as enthralling as you’d think it would be, with unlikely heroes of shy, brilliant, socially awkward cave divers who feel more comfortable squeezing through muddy little passages than they might feel while sitting at a dinner party.
     After the movie Mr. James introduced the guests. First was John Volanthen, the British cave diver who first found the boys alive and was a crucial part of their rescue. We all stood, clapping. I am getting the chills again just thinking of that feel-good moment that we all need so badly. The other guest was Captain Mitch Torrel of the US Air Force, who had a big hand in helping plan and facilitate the successful mission. After the talk back we went up to the small circle that had gathered around these men, and though I wanted to hug Mr. Volanthen with all of my heart, it didn’t seem appropriate so we shared a hearty handshake instead.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Wisconsin mystery

     We hit four state parks and two county parks during our five days in Wisconsin, the last being Whitefish Dunes State Park. It seemed fitting to end our trip walking along the sand, watching the waves roll in.
     Just before we left that park and headed home, we tucked into a small lakeside area, the dimness under the trees contrasting with the bright beach just beyond. We sat for a while, watching the water through the trees, then turned to walk back to the car.  
     "Look, a doghouse," my wife said. It seemed incongruous, this small canine dwelling, just set there.. We walked around it. No door. No window. No entrance of any kind.  It had obviously been there for a while. A theory immediately came to me, ludicrous in its wrongness.  
     "Maybe they are testing roofing materials," I said. "For park structures and such. They built this little model here to see how it stands up to the elements."
     I hesitate to share this here, lest I establish myself as a stupid man. But that is what, confronted with the object, I thought and said aloud, sharing my wildly improbable theory. It shows imagination, if nothing else.
     My wife, far brighter, pointed to the concrete base.
     "It's probably covering up some unsightly thing," she said. Of course. An electrical meter or gas valve or some such device. That has to be it.
     "Some unsightly thing." I want to pause, and savor that phrase. Heck, I could use that as the title of my autobiography. One of the really enjoyable aspects of the trip was our conversations, and my wife, as always, would say things I just had to admire, with the surprise and appreciation of a philatelist discovering a rare issue. There was one during our first hike.
     "It's so friggin' quiet," she said, with feeling. I did marry a city girl—well, Bellwood, close enough. A simultaneous praise and dismissal of the Wisconsin natural idyll. I wish she had used the actual obscene present participle, and not a euphemism. But nothing is perfect. Close enough though.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

A whole new spin on being at death's door.

     "What have we been doing all these years?" my wife asked, incredulously, as we worked our way under the towering limestone bluffs along the Eagle Trail in Peninsula State Park.
     I knew what she meant. She wasn't asking for a point-by-point recapitulation of our 38-year relationship, but wondering how we, who like the outdoors, like nature, like to hike, had nevertheless managed to miss Door County until this week.
     My fault, surely. First, because most things are. And second, I do recall her mentioning a desire to go to Do
or County, one that I shrugged off because a) I had worked my first internship in Green Bay Wisconsin, from January to March, 1981, which did not leave me with happy memories of the place b) a few years after that we had gone to the Horicon Marsh in Fon du Lac, which I assumed was the same place, or near enough, but is actually 150 miles away and c) I tend to shrug off most things that aren't staying right where I always am, doing what I'm always doing.  

Eagle Trail, Peninsula State Park
     Well, we're here now, at last, making up for lost time. We got a $38 annual Wisconsin State Parks pass, which might seem imprudent given it is mid-October, but hit the state parks four days in a row, so came out the better for it. Rain was predicted all week, but it politely retreated into the wings during our hikes, though once starting to sprinkle as we approached the van after a two-hour hike, just to show us what we were missing. I'm not going to write a travelogue—not while we're in the midst. But we're staying in Ephraim, a pleasant if touristy spot—like a wee Wisconsin imitation of Bar Harbor—but with plenty of authentic fun, like the fish boil at the Old Post Office. We drove up to Sister Bay yesterday for lunch at the goats-on-the-roof place, Al Johnson's (the goats, alas, had the day off because of the aforementioned rain. Union rules). Excellent coffee, excellent herring, and Swedish pancakes with lingonberries that I assume were excellent. As I don't believe I've ever eaten them before, I don't really have a point of comparison. I finished them all.
      Being me, I started wondering where the "Door" in "Door County" comes from. I assumed it had to be from some person—Frederick Door, an early pioneer perhaps—or because the place is the entryway somewhere. It actually comes, quite spectacularly, from Porte des Morts, "the Door of Death," a name given to a region offshore where Lake Michigan meets the waters of Green Bay that many Native-Americans supposedly lost their lives traversing. I don't want to say it was worth coming just to find that out—it was the hiking, the hanging-out-with-my-wife, and the not-being-at-home-working parts that made it worth coming. But I was glad to learn it nonetheless.

Door County Headlands 

Peninsula State Park

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Flashback 2009: "And what's with all this singing?"

"Odd Fellow Complaining" By Thomas Rowlandson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

      I'm kicking around Door County, enjoying some long overdue R & R. But don't worry, I'm not going to leave you in the lurch. Not when I have chestnuts like this one in the computer banks, perched alertly on the edge of its chair, hands folded in its lap, waiting to be asked to dance. I invited the Lyric Opera to share with me some of their complaint letters from patrons and, mirabile dictu, they did. This column came to mind last week when I was chatting with the folks at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra about possible future stories. 


     This is the dilemma. You go to the opera, your senses fully open, your ears straining to savor every sublime note, your eyes, eager to take in every aspect of the colorful pageant unfolding in glory before you.
     And yet. There are other things going on, in addition to the sound and action on stage. You're also in a room with 3,300 other people. People who are coughing. People who are shifting in their seats. People who are unwrapping mints, though it sounds like they're unwrapping Christmas presents just as the orchestra hushes and the fawn enters the glade.
     What to do? Here human nature cleaves into two groups. There is the ignore-it crowd—the majority—and there are those who complain.
     Every year, some 140 letters from opera patrons complaining about boorish behavior—or about completely innocent behavior—reach the desk of Jack Zimmerman, the Lyric's manager of subscriber services.
     They complain about perfume. They complain about fellow patrons clearing their throats. They complain about hairdos, and the size of people's heads. They complain of too few intermissions, or too many. They complain about other patrons complaining—one patron, dubbed "The Shush Nazi," had to be told to stop telling others to be quiet, as his outbursts were annoying more patrons than the outbursts he was trying to quell.
     Cell phones are a problem. The Lyric tries to keep distractions to a minimum by instructing people to turn off their phones before a performance. People complain about that, too.
     "Sad to think that grown-up, mature adults would have to be so instructed," wrote an Oak Park patron, complaining about applause before the end of the act. "I find the clapping to be annoying and disruptive."
     No aspect is too small for consideration. A loose screw in a doorknob. A word in the supertitles.
     "I am writing regarding one line of the projected titles for 'La Traviata,' '' a subscriber from Wisconsin wrote last year. "If I remember correctly, when in the last act Germont seeks to console Violetta this year's production translated a line, 'weep, weep and let tears soften your grief.' Am I correct that in the 2003 production, this same passage was supertitled, 'Weep, weep and let tears comfort your grief'? To me, the latter has an almost visceral punch which is lacking in the former. How much more poignant that tears could comfort the very grief which produced them to begin with. . . . Won't you rethink this for the future?"
     That letter was passed on to Frank Rizzo, the person responsible for the Traviata supertitles. In this era of form letters, not only does the Lyric respond specifically to each complaint, usually with a letter from Zimmerman, a novelist and former newspaper columnist, but he then tries to solve the problem.
     Sometimes this requires considerable tact. Phoning a subscriber and bluntly accusing her of wearing too much perfume seemed out of the question, so Zimmerman instead contacted patrons in the general vicinity, informing them of the problem and asking if they had been bothered by it. The offending patron got the hint.
     Opera fans must have some awareness of the tradition of complaint letters, because one cast his praise for the "Ring" cycle in the form of a gripe. "The Wagner works are simply not long enough," he wrote, an opinion perhaps never before expressed in the history of opera. "I really wanted to see the time stop."
     One of my favorite complaint letters to the Lyric was not so much a complaint as a request. A woman in Westfield, Wis., had tickets to an opera she planned to attend with her daughter, but first she needed to raise "an important concern."
     "When my daughter was growing up, we enjoyed some opera on public TV," she wrote. "Often the female singers wore distracting low-cut dresses. These indecent dresses portrayed the women as sex objects and took attention from their voices. I taught my daughter that Catholic-Christian women do not dress immodestly to provoke sexual impulses in men who are not their husbands."
     The woman requested, "if low-cut dresses are part of your usual wardrobe," that the brazen female vocalists be covered up during the performance she and her daughter would attend.
     "I don't want to pay to fill my mind with immodest images. These degrade family life, already severely damaged in our nation."
     There are two salient points that leap out from her letter. First, the daughter in question was 23 years old.
     And second, the opera they were traveling four hours to see was "Don Giovanni," Mozart's bawdy sex comedy that includes murder, beatings, attempted rapes, seductions and a recitation of the hero's 2,000 amorous conquests, all ending with the defiantly unrepentant rake being dragged down to the flames of hell by the vengeful spirit of one of his victims.
     The Lyric's files do not contain further communication from the Wisconsin lady, but her reaction can be imagined.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 30, 2009

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Tag, this is it.

     You find out about new products ... where?
     Well the newspaper, for us fuddy-duddies. Those big tech review round-ups in the Times. A constant stream of ballyhoo on Twitter and Facebook. What else? Billboards, I suppose. Television commercials, for those who watch television.
     Rarely...rare enough that I would remark upon you learn about the latest technology by seeing it hanging on a hook in a store. Then again—and I don't think I'm alone here—COVID pretty much killed off the practice of aimlessly wandering around in stores, looking at stuff. You run in, grab what you need, run out. If that. Holding your breath, if possible. More and more, a brown box shows up on your doorstep.
     But my wife wanted to look at laptops. She wanted to lay her hands on the actual physical objects. And I go where she goes. So while she was poking around the dozens of possibilities at Best Buy, I sorta cruised around.
     Which is where I noticed the AirTag, Apple's gift for the forgetful. It's a small disc you slip into your wallet, or attach to your keys, or some other necessity you expect to lose at some point. The AirTag will then leave an invisible trail of electronic breadcrumbs so you can find it should mere memory fail. My first thought was that it could be used to track people too—just slip it in your pal's backpack—but the things are designed to thwart that, in theory. The discs will also let out a yelp on command. It's really worth glancing at the Apple page explaining it all.
     Not that I bought one. I wanted to. It seems a cool thing. But I couldn't think of what to do with it. Couldn't imagine having much hope of justifying the thirty bucks it costs by ever losing anything. I have a system of anxiety-fueled attentiveness far more advanced than mere Bluetooth technology. I've never lost my wallet in my life—I have a rule, for instance, when paying for something, never to set the wallet down. It's much harder to leave behind if it stays in your hand. That kind of thing.
     Yes, sometimes I'll tear my office apart looking for a certain book I know I have, or had, but can't lay my hands on at this particular moment, when I finally need it. But short of planning ahead and knowing I'll need that specific book and be unable to find it, and planting an AirTag inside the cover, I don't see how Apple can help me. Here persistence and patience—a shame Apple can't sell those for $29.99—usually win the day, eventually. There is a technique my wife taught me that I call, "The Thinking Trick," where you pause from frantically searching and try to recall the thing you are missing and when you last had it. 
If all else fails, there's strategic retreat—just waiting—the strategy my mother used to neatly summarize as, "You'll find it when you're not looking for it."