Saturday, December 20, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Well, this is an inviting bed, scattered with pillows. 
     Only it's not a bed, technically.
     A bit busy, perhaps, just right to catch a brief nap.
     But don't, because ... well that would give it away. You'd get into trouble. 
     Where is this place? It isn't my bedroom—my taste is better than that. It isn't a bedroom at all. It's ... where?
      The correct guess—and heck, it'll probably be King Dale, he's won it three times already—will get a bag of very tasty Bridgeport Bubbly Creek Coffee (I'm going to have to stop giving it away, to make sure there's plenty left for me).
      Oh wait, I said I'd tell you about its unusual name. Kinda late to open that can of, er, coffee. Next week. Good luck. 

      Clark St. nailed it below. If you want to know the gory details:

Friday, December 19, 2014

Japan bows to North Korea

     Where does one begin?
     On the plus side, it isn’t America groveling at the feet of a tin-pot North Korean dictator, afraid that somebody is going to ... do what? Scramble the Fandango website? Set off a stink bomb at a multiplex? Does anybody really fear that North Korean agents are going to mow us down if we buy tubs of buttered popcorn and go to see Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “The Interview,” the now-shelved bromance comedy depicting the assassination of Kim Jong-Un? Heck, after the slaughter at Aurora, Colorado, we worry about that risk already, when we see any movie, tempting fate that our matinee will be the one where some deranged gunman or al-Qaida wannabe decides to go out in a blaze of glory. How can we then cower in front of hypothetical North Korean henchmen? Heck guys, get in line. Fear is a big tent, there’s plenty of room for you.
     My bet is whatever information Sony hackers dug up is so embarrassing that all they had to do was dangle it and the studio began inviting theater chains to drop the film. Although I can’t imagine what: The terabytes of emails already leaked suggest Hollywood studio executives are vain, insecure backbiters complaining bitterly about stars and each other. Stop the presses.
     No, this isn’t the American people who failed. We’d have formed block-long lines to see the film, whooping and grinning at the cameras, delighted to waggle our middle fingers at this third-generation madman.
     Rather, it was Sony, the Japanese conglomerate, that quailed, pulling the plug on the film’s Christmas Day release. Which in a selfish sense, I was glad about, because given the pressure from North Korea, suddenly seeing a Seth Rogen movie shifted from a lapse in taste to a patriotic duty. I would have been obligated to attend, only wishing the North Koreans would also command all Americans not to drink Jack Daniels.
     I should add that I’ve never seen Seth Rogen movies. They could be sublime. They could be “La Dolce Vita.” But I doubt it...
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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Merry Christmas, whoever you are.

This is the season when Christmas cards flow in, often containing the square of folded paper that is the traditional Christmas form letter, detailing the doings of the card-sending family. It's amazing that such letters have survived into the Facebook era, which is basically one continual year-long Christmas letter.  Our family never sent such letters ourselves—too disorganized, too self-aware, too concerned about foisting the minutia of our lives upon uninterested others—but one Christmas I did decide to take a whack at what our letter might be like, if we wrote one, which we don't.

Dear Close Friend:

     Where has the year gone? Can it already be mid-December and time for my chatty-yet-impersonal, guarded-yet-revealing, folded-up-and-tucked-into-a-pre-printed, computer-addressed, won't-offend-anybody-of-any-faith "holiday" card? Yes, indeed it is.    
     So a great, big Steinberg family "hello" to you and your household, from me and my household and of course our cats here on Pine Grove Avenue.
     And what a "year" it has been! We were all shaken by the incident last March, but have adjusted ourselves very well to our new manner of living and will get by best we can.
     But enough of vaguely worded personal calamity. On to the thinly disguised bragging! Enclosed are photos, scanned through our color printer and cut out (actual photographs are so expensive, particularly when you send them to 160 close friends) from our trips to Tiki, Questamel, Rustania, Ishmaelia and Outer Borgundi. As you can see, we had a lot of fun! And went to many great places!! Places that you could never dream of going!!! Ever!!!!
     Before I forget, some news about people you've never met, don't know and couldn't care less about: Michael is fine; Clara learned to play the flute and hopes someday to do it well; Aunt Prang is recuperating since her accident; Tad and Mindy and Wendell and Steve also send their regards, as do Hap, Molly, The Big W, Po-Po and Mr. Hester.
     On the family front, everyone is fine in the Steinberg
household. My wife has taken up artwork, covering page after page with distinctive, tiny, intricate drawings made up of circles and squares and death's heads. I'm just so proud of her.
     Our "boys" are of course a year older and cuter than ever. Little Krandel turned 2 last June and has mastered the art of climbing to very high places, closing his eyes and pitching blindly forward, counting on good old "Daddy" to drop whatever he's doing and lunge across the room to catch him. What a little dickens! I haven't missed yet, though I once had to drop a tray of heirloom glassware and leap over an ottoman to grab him six inches from the hardwood floor.
     His brother, Rosensweig, is 4 but can already punch his dad hard enough to leave him doubled over, eyes tearing and gasping for breath. I call him "My Little Jack Dempsey," and he has the same fierce vigor and sense of adventure as the young Manassas Mauler.
     The cats, whose photo I am enclosing, dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, are as affectionate as ever. It seems the wife or I can't sit down, particularly when lightly dressed or holding a cup of hot coffee, without having one or both leap into our laps and dig their needle-like claws into us. We just love them, even when they scamper yowling across our faces at 5 a.m.
     Work is, as always, fun and stimulating, and I truly feel, as my boss is constantly reminding me, "lucky to have a job at all."
     And that's about it. I hope you don't mind the impersonality of a form letter, but I'm so very busy, doing so many important things, and have such a vast number of dear, close, personal friends such as yourself, well, I know that you understand. Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or whatever it is you celebrate, whoever you are. I love you and miss you and would be thinking of you, if only I
had the time.
                                                Yours in holiday cheer,
                                                The Steinbergs

   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 14, 1999

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Show the damn movie

    UPDATE: Late Wednesday Sony Pictures cancelled the opening of "The Interview." So file the below under "Bravado, Useless Examples of." Although the point stands. Security is a real concern, but so is the ability of repressive regimes to drag us toward their worlds where security trumps all. It's a surrender on our parts.

     I've never seen "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up." I somehow missed "Superbad," and "Pineapple Express," and all the other other Seth Rogen movies. I didn't see a single one, unless you count "Kung Fu Panda" which I do recall catching on TV, though he only did a voice for that, so I'm not sure that counts.
     Still, I am planning to attend "The Interview" when it opens Christmas Day, provided that it does open, that American movie chains don't really cave in, as they seemed to do on Wednesday, bowing to one anonymous threat, announcing they will refuse to show the movie because Kim Jong Un doesn't like it. 
    The Hollywood Reporter is saying that the top five movie chains are refusing to show the comedy, whose plot revolves around a CIA attempt to assassinate the North Korean dictator. Sony Pictures, which produced the movie, told theater owners to go ahead and drop the movie, if they wish, and Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark, Carmike Cinemas and Cineplex Entertainment did exactly that. 
      All due to a fractured warning that does seem translated from the Korean.  
       “Keep yourself distant from the places at that time," something called Guardians of Peace intoned, referring to screenings of "The Interview." "If your house  is nearby, you’d better leave.”
     It was like the fist-shaking monologue of a bad movie villain: 
     "Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Pictures Entertainment has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.”
      Well, we won't be seeing it if we let ourselves be threatened, will we? And the world is already full of fear, apparently. On one level, I understand that. Nobody wants to be a victim. The news is filled with atrocities lately. Remembering the Aurora, Colorado "Dark Knight" slaughter, why volunteer to be cannon fodder for some international vengeance bloodletting masterminded by a humor-deficient Korean madman?
     I can think of a good reason. What kind of precedent is this setting? Making a threat on-line is the easiest thing in the world. If this works, won't any halfway edgy creative work that offends anyone anywhere then be fair game? Cower now, and we'll spend our lives cowering. I'd say the theater chains should lay in some extra security, show the damn movie, and patrons should show up to demonstrate that we are still America, still a free country, where satire dares to show its face. I know I'll be there.
    Oh, and I did see that James Franco movie, "127 Hours." Quite good. That gives me hope that seeing "The Interview" won't be purely an excercising in preserving free speech. 

"llinois orchards are apple shy"

     Well, THAT was easy!
     The way it usually works is that a questions comes to mind — such as "Hey, what happened to the apples this year?" The apple tree in our backyard didn't offer up a single Golden Delicious. Unless the squirrels (boo, hiss) stripped all the apples before I could even see them. But that's doubtful.
     So the question forms, then I dig, in this case probably call the Chicago Botanic Garden, whatever National Apple Board is out there, find the truth, write it, serve it up here piping hot.
      But the apple question, well, it formed, but never got answered. Other stories crowded it out. I dropped the ball, err, the apple. I forgot.
      Then Edie and I were walking Sunday in the Botanic Garden, taking advantage of the mild weather. The Botanic Garden can be surprisingly beautiful in winter, even without its flowers, offering up a muted palette of soft browns and quiet grays. We were strolling through the apple orchard, and came upon this sign. 

      There we go. I should point out that the apple harvest for the nation as a whole was up this year. Washington State is the center of American apple production,  harvesting more than 100 times the apples that Illinois does, and there the weather in 2014 was just fine.  The apple crop was depressed in the Upper Midwest, and even then, other states fared better than Illinois, which is fourth, apple wise, after Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. 
     Okay, better end it here, before this turns into another grapefruit story. I was certainly interested in that, and if you aren't, my apologies, and we'll try this again tomorrow. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hanukkah songs "a politically correct sop."

Well, it's Hanukkah time, again. As a reminder to try not to make too big a deal of it, so as not to ruin our holiday the way other, umm, holidays unnamed are often made into such a huge-honking production by certain unspecified people that their spirit is lost, I've reached into the vault for this reality check.

     The first night of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tonight at sundown.

     As Jews in Chicago and throughout the world light candles and eat latkes -- traditional potato pancakes -- the question arises of how much fuss to make over Hanukkah,which is itself a minor holiday marking the victory of the Maccabees in 165 B.C. and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
     Are Jews, by singing Hanukkah songs, putting up Hanukkah decorations and giving Hanukkah presents, attempting to turn the holiday into a semitic Christmas?

     "It's referred to as 'The December Dilemma' -- what to do for Hanukkah?" said Susan Schaalman Youdovin, curator of education at the Spertus Museum. "About 20 to 30 years ago, Jews began feeling very pressured by their children to come up with something that would equal the spirit and fun of Christmas."

     Hanukkah songs, commonly added to Christmas programs in public schools, are not a Jewish tradition, said Youdovin, but "a politically correct sop" for the consciences of those who want Christmas celebrations.
     "If we preserved some semblance of the Jeffersonian separation between church and state, we would not sing Christmas songs -- or Hanukkah songs -- in public schools," she said.
     Nor is gift-giving -- beyond giving coins to children -- part of Hanukkah, but rather a custom invented recently to curb envy in Jewish children.
     "Gifts are not a traditional custom," said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, assistant superintendent of Associated Talmud Torahs, the central agency for Jewish education in metropolitan Chicago.
     Children at the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School on the North Side get help navigating the tricky area between the two holidays.
     "We have many children whose families have two faiths, so we deal with both Christmas and Hanukkah," said Tzivia Garfinkel, associate head for Judaic studies at the school. "We emphasize that Hanukkah is not the Jewish version of Christmas. . . . We try to instill a sense of pride in what Hanukkah is and a sense of appreciation for what Christmas is."
     Youdovin said that the key to keeping Hanukkah in perspective is to celebrate other, more important Jewish holidays to their fullest.
     "Giving children a sense of joy in a strong Jewish identity is a year-round occupation," she said. "If you wait until December to deal with this, it's too late."

                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 5, 1996

Dick Cheney waves his bloody hands

     Former vice president Dick Cheney leapt into the news with a snarl this past week, the bloody bone of officially-sanctioned U.S. torture clenched in his dripping jaws. No regret, not from him. "I would do it again in a minute," he said. 
    And who could doubt him? Not me. People in general are like that. They not only do evil, but then try to justify it—they have to, to preserve the exalted self-image that allowed them to stray so far in the first place. Everything they do is right, because they did it, and had results for the same reason. The idea of complexity, shades of gray, trade-offs, ambiguity, unexpected consequences, it's all noise to them. Much easier just to repeat, "I'm right," over and over, which is in essence what Cheney did in the media.
     Some people believe him, and repeat the fiction: these were the 9/11 planners themselves being tortured, they were giving us key information that saved lives. 
     Yet the report is plain. Mistaken identity, bungling and indifference led to the wrong people being snatched and tortured pointlessly, yielding nothing but another atrocity to lay at the feet of our country. It was wrong, and made us less, not more secure.
     A dynamic that reminds me of the one time I set eyes upon Cheney. It was Jackson Hole, Wyoming on the 4th of July, 2009. The boys and I were on our epic 7,000 mile odyssey to the Pacific and back, and had stopped in Jackson Hole to see its Independence Day parade. This is how I describe the scene in The Quest for Pie, my unpublished travelogue of the trip.
     Before the parade had started, rather than claim one spot, we explored the downtown strip of shops. From snatches of conversation, filtering in from the crowd, bits of words like cricket chirps, I got the impression the Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s vice president, was somewhere nearby, and the boys and I worked our way toward the thickest part of the crowd — his position marked, ironically, by the big beefy security guys, milling around him.  We’d have never noticed him otherwise.  Cheney was sitting in a folding chair, wearing a mustard beige leather jacket and a white Stetson hat — he has a house around here — and I figured the boys might enjoy saying hello to such a prominent political figure.     
     "You want to meet the former vice president of the United States?” I asked them.  Kent made a face as if he had eaten something bad.  “No! he said.  “Why would we want to do that?” asked Ross, genuinely puzzled.  We moved on.  I was proud of them for snubbing Cheney — me, I’d have said hello, just for the bragging rights, but I could pass him by with only a faint regret.   
     Once business took me to the White House, and I had a glimpse of George W. Bush and Laura heading to the Marine One helicopter, which had landed on the South Lawn to take them to Camp David.  I waved goodbye like a schoolgirl, happily, sincerely — the president’s the president, at least when he’s standing in front of you.  An 8-year-old’s worldview, but there you go.  It isn’t like turning your back on the president leads to better policy.
     What makes this relevant is Cheney's security men. He must have had four, and, ironically, what benefit they brought in numbers they lost by standing around him, giving away his position. If he been sitting in chair with maybe one security guy sitting next to him, he'd have had ample backup in case some citizen decided to angrily confront him about the shame he brought to our once great country. But three or four towering oafs with curly wires in their ears, twitchy Secrete Service types whose body language practically shouted "Attention! Vice president over here!!!" Now I'm sure if you asked Cheney, he'd insist that no, this squad of giant goons was absolutely necessary, considering his countless enemies. But the truth is, he was less safe because of them. Just as his policy of snatching foreigners off the street and spiriting them away to black site torture centers only undermined what it was trying to protect. Were it possible for him to see it now, he would have realized it then. But of course he can't. That's how he is, and we shouldn't blame Cheney too much. We elected him. Twice.