Thursday, February 11, 2016

California Week #3: Western rebellion and flat-out fun

Redwood Forest

     I'm in California, hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and visiting my son at college. So to mark that, I'm re-visiting some columns that take place in the Golden State. Stay warm Chicago, and I'll be back next week. 

     KLAMATH, Calif. — An open letter from the management of the Redwood Hostel is posted in the kitchen of this homey, 100-year-old inn overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It warns that the State of California, in the midst of a massive budget crisis, is debating whether to "close the majority of state parks, including the gorgeous Redwood State Parks," and urging all those who love nature to the ramparts in their defense.
     "This is California, land of protest and public comment!" it reminds us, suggesting we post our concerns online.
     That might not be enough this time. Just as in Illinois -- facing its own crisis, though not on the biblical scale of California's -- where social service agencies flocked into the streets last month, decrying the severity of the cuts they're facing, so here the public is slowly grasping that California is not dealing with the usual, dangle-the-baby-out-the-window threats that always manage to vanish at the last minute, but something new: a vastly constricted economic reality hurtling at them like a canyon floor.
     California is beginning "the biggest downscaling of government in history," according to the Los Angeles Times, and while the plan to indefinitely shut 220 California state parks -- roughly 80 percent of the system -- got scaled back, for the moment, state government spent itself into this mess, and with its ability to raise taxes hamstrung by voter propositions, the only solution is to slash its way out.
     People praise the democracy we live in, but, as with so many popular beliefs, that's just plain wrong. The United States is not a democracy, thank God, it is a republic. Meaning that instead of enacting laws by the direct vote of citizens, the way they did in ancient Greece, we elect representatives who pass laws for us, based on public opinion and, ideally, their own common sense.
     California is an exception because it has direct democratic involvement in the legislative process, via ballot propositions, like the famous Proposition 13, which capped real estate taxes, shifting the burden onto income and sales taxes. So when the economy sours and people lose their jobs and spend less, money stops flowing in to the state. Which is why, in hard times, when people need state services most, the money to pay for them isn't there.
     While in Illinois, simple political cowardice prevents politicians from raising cash the government needs, here, their choices are constrained by law.
     The daft proposition system affects life in other ways -- you can't walk into a public place in California without seeing a large sign warning you that there are cancer-causing chemicals lurking within. Go to a fish place, and the menu will, in essence, advise against the eating of fish.
     Speaking of laws. Lest the whole column be about tax woes, I should update our trip here because the journey took an interesting detour, seemingly outside the realm of legal authority. We left Salt Lake City and headed toward Reno to meet my wife, who was flying to join us.
     Near the Nevada border, I spontaneously exited the highway at Bonneville, having grown up reading about rocket cars setting speed records there.
     You drive about three miles and find yourself in a fantastical white, empty place -- the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats. The horizon is a perfect straight line with only hazy blue mountains in the distance and a cloudless sky.
     The road ends, smoothly blending into the flats. There are no warnings, no directions, not so much as an orange safety cone. You are free to do what moves you. Most people stop, gawk and leave. But I felt obligated to ease the van off the road.

   "You wanna learn to drive?" I asked Ross, as we blasted through the void. He said yes, and we switched seats. If this seems grossly irresponsible -- he is 13 -- I'd point out that there was nothing for him to hit, and while I was slightly concerned he would careen into another joy-riding vehicle, there was only one other car, far off, like a ship in the distance.
     The boy drove quite well, for a novice -- when he got up to 60, it occurred to me that he might cut the wheel abruptly and roll us, so I gingerly explained the fine points of turning.
     He didn't drive long -- this place is indeed very flat, but it's still a natural formation, and I couldn't be certain there wouldn't be a two-foot ditch somewhere ahead. After I imagined the grim prospect of a phone call home, explaining the trip was scrubbed while we wait for a Honda axle to be trucked to Nowhere, Utah, I made Ross slow down, and instructed him on some less exciting fine points, such as the fact that the "R" on the transmission stands for "Reverse" and not "Rest," as he so charmingly assumed.
     The downside is that driving became an unapproachable trip zenith for him. The Redwood Forest could have been heaven on earth -- a fair enough description -- and it couldn't come close to joyriding the salt flats. Laws are a marvelous invention and can, when not screwed up by amateurs, result in good. But they can also lead to an over-regulated society where you can't eat a french fry without being scolded by the government. It is refreshing to know there is still at least one place where the grid ends, where the road peters away into freedom, and you can plunge forward into emptiness and seize a bit of adventure.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 26, 2009

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

California Week #2—Chicago's few, the proud, storm California beaches

     I'm on vacation in sunny California. So as not to leave those back in Chicago not only cold, but without anything diverting to read, I thought I'd feature some of my favorite bits of California reportage over the years, like this story, where I join a Marine exercise near San Diego. 

     ABOARD THE OGDEN — Assault Amphibian Vehicles rarely sink, we are told. Hardly ever. Not a worry. Still, before we can climb into one, we have to learn what to do in case ours does, against all odds, sink. The AAVs — large, 25-ton monsters with treads and sloping sides, studded with square, wartlike nubs to screw on additional armor — wait like sleeping dinosaurs, one after another, in the well deck of the Ogden, an odd-looking ship with two steel doors at its stern, now open, to let the sea in. The waves roll up the sloping "false beach," to just before where the AAVs sit.
     The nine Marines, and me, who are going on a practice raid in the back of AAV No. 3 gather around its driver, a Marine from Florida, and listen closely.
     "If it starts to sink, strip off your helmet and your flak jacket. Puff two puffs of air into your Mae West," he says, referring to our black rubber life vests, named after the chesty star. "Just two, or you'll be pinned to the top as it fills with water and you won't be able to get out. After it fills, you'll be able to pop the hatch and get clear. Once you do, pull the cord to your CO2 canister. That'll shoot you to the surface."
     No problem at all. No sirree, Bob. I am not concerned. We all haul ourselves through the hatch — not the easiest task in metal frame backpacks, canteens, helmets, flak jackets, radios and weapons. We all take places on a pair of long benches, facing each other. I feel calm. But I also notice, when they fire up the 500-horsepower Cummins engine in the AAV, that my hand snakes under my flak jacket, to find the CO2 cord. Just in case.
     About 600 Marine reservists from the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, based in Chicago on Foster Avenue, spent two weeks in August training in California, first at Camp Pendleton, then at sea on the Ogden and two other ships from the U.S. Pacific Fleet off the coast of San Diego.
     They were joining several thousand Marines from around the country in "Exercise Summer Storm 98," practicing attacks from the sea.
     I met the 24th's inspector; instructor, Lt. Col. John A. Morrow last spring, when the Marines conducted urban warfare training in Chicago. Morrow asked me if I was interested in coming to California. It seemed like it would be fun.
     With the back hatch closed, it is very dark in the AAV — a single, yellowish bulb illuminates the coffinlike interior. An AAV can in theory hold 23 men, but given how snugly 10 men and their gear fill it up, that is hard to imagine.
     In the dimness, I can barely see the Marine across from me. Because his face is painted with camouflage makeup, it disappears utterly. His helmet seems to float, faceless, above his uniform. As time for the raid approaches, conversation dwindles. Just after 9 a.m. we hear noises outside. A shout. Then a boom, and a low rumble. Somewhere, the sound of a bell. More shouts. The AAV suddenly jolts forward. Stops. Then begins again, tilting down the false beach and into the Pacific Ocean.
     We can't see outside — there are no windows in the back of an AAV. But we know we are seaborne by the water that starts pouring in around the front of the roof hatch, like a steady rain.

                                                             *  *  *

     "The occurrences of war will not unfold like clockwork," the Marine Warfighting Manual states. "We cannot hope to impose precise, positive control over events."
      Reading over the Marine strategic materials, on the plane to California, I was impressed by the lack of B.S.
     Words such as "chaos," "uncertainty," "disorder" and "horror" are used liberally. "Everybody feels fear," the manual says.
     I sure did. Not fear of the physical peril. I figured I'd be OK. Or, as I told my wife: "It's bad form to get the reporter killed."
     Rather, I was worried about spending time with a bunch of Marines. I'm not exactly a cringing coward, but I couldn't imagine they would take a look at me, a nerdy guy with glasses, the body shape and muscle tone of an overripe pear, and like what they saw. It might sound juvenile, but I was afraid they'd be mean. Being scorned by Marines, I thought on the plane, would not only sting, but it would be the kind of sting that lingers with a guy.

                                                              *  *  *

     After a minute that feels like 20, the water stops raining in. The AAV reaches the beach along with eight others, and cuts left — exactly as planned.
     In the movies, military assaults just unfold; men are pointed toward the target and rush at it. In reality, military operations are rehearsed as meticulously as formal weddings.
     Two days before we hit the beach, Maj. Frank Halliwell, the commander of Fox Company, the group making the raid, stood in the Ogden's ward room before a crowd of officers.
     "Good afternoon, gentlemen," he began. "We are about to conduct a raid to destroy missile radar sites in order to eliminate the threat to U.S. amphibious shipping."
     The raid was simple, on paper. His Fox Company would hit the beach, destroy any defenders, cut north, turn under an expressway, go to the site of an enemy missile radar site, blow it up, interrogate prisoners, then hightail it back to the beach and return to the ship.
    The briefing was a curious mix of concerns both military and mundane — naval bombardments and the importance of not crushing any passing bicyclists. Fact and fantasy blended; there would be an actual F-18 in the sky, for instance, along with two real Cobra gunships. But any fire from the aircraft would be "notional" — the impressive-sounding military word for "make-believe."
     The radar site would be blown up at H-50: 50 minutes after the AAVs hit the beach. The high-speed raid would take exactly two hours and 20 minutes. There was no discussion of what to do if the radar site wasn't there.
     The concept of the Reserve might be alien to some. Keeping a standing military is expensive. Military leaders realized they could maximize their muscle by keeping a reserve of trained men who aren't full-time soldiers.
     The Marine Corps Reserve was created in 1916, just in time to send reservists to World War I. The idea took hold - about 70 percent of all the Marines who served in World War II were reservists. Today, 25 percent of Marines are reservists. They train one weekend a month and two weeks a year to keep their edge.
     The first illusion shattered by watching the reservists train is any idea that it is a lark, a summer-soldier, party-with-the-buddies kind of thing.
     Everyone took the training in deadly earnest. Nobody was dogging it - the guy who came down with conjunctivitis refused to drop out and kept going, his eyes blood-red and weeping.
     The complaints I got — the late-night, bottom-rung, belly-aching gripes — were not about the pay (low), or the food (raves for the new MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. They've got Skittles), or the quality of superiors.
     What really cheezed the men off was that Camp Pendleton was on alert for fires during their training, and thus certain exercises were curtailed. Live-fire drills were restricted. A Humvee squad could not take its Humvees off the road for fear of fires.
     "We do this two weeks a year, and it's pretty important to us to get all the training done," fumed Sgt. Tuan Best, from a Kansas City unit. "They know how essential this is to us. We need to do what we do. . . . I've got new Marines in my squad. I'm not able to do my job the best I can, which is to make sure my Marines get back from the next war."
     Then again, 2,000 acres of Camp Pendleton burned days after the 24th left.
     The AAVs pull up to a group of trucks. This is where the radar site should be, but it isn't here. The trucks are from another Marine unit, doing something completely different. There isn't much time to assess where the site might be.
     "Got an enemy vehicle coming up the road!" Halliwell shouts. We spot the enemy — actually units of the California National Guard — coming over a bridge, and rush in that direction, huffing along in our heavy Kevlar body armor, then flop face-down in the dirt, which gets kicked up everywhere. The M-16s chatter, blanks.
     Halliwell crouches in a stand of scrubby weeds and talks into the radio, strapped to the back of the lance corporal at his side.
     "We are at our objective but the unit is not here," he says. He listens a moment, then shouts to his men. "We need to move north two kilometers." The officials monitoring the raid decree the enemy destroyed, with the help of two Cobra helicopter gunships fwoop-fwooping overhead. We head north.

                                                    *  *  *

     Marines are used to, paradoxically, being both looked down at and up to.
     "You get a bit more respect in the suburbs," said Benjamin Ouwinga, 23, a corporal from Tinley Park. "Downtown, people look at you and think you're probably a cold-hearted person and have no education."
     "It's almost like an aura," said John Balcazar, 22, a corporal from Buffalo Grove.
     "People see the fact you're disciplined, the fact you do things in a certain way. In today's society, having any kind of mental stability is almost an oddity. There are so many flakes out there."
     The Marines are all about suppressing flakiness. Individuality is out. The Marines had me wear a uniform — I never imagined they'd do that; I figured I'd tag along in slacks and a golf shirt. They gave me the uniform of a guy who was bedridden with poison oak. I thought about it a long time, then put it on. They may have done it for appearance's sake, but I found dressing the part educational. I never worried so much about whether my hat (whoops, my "cover") was on or off. I tried to roll my sleeves the way the Marines do, but got it wrong, and two Marines did it for me.
     I felt like Richard III awaiting his armor at Bosworth Field, standing, with my arms straight out, while these two big Marines fixed the sleeves. There was a constant checking of each other, monitoring the angle of the cap, the blousing of the trouser at the boot. It might sound like fixation on petty detail, but in reality it was a form of maintaining the image and looking out for one another. I grew to like it. 

  *  *  *

     Two kilometers north, Halliwell's raid bogs down. H-50 has come and gone. Still no radar site. The reconnaissance squad that led them here is missing. The radio in his helmet has gone dead. A strange squad of Marines — not enemies, not even part of the exercise — has turned up in the high weeds ahead of them. Halliwell doesn't dare move his vehicles forward until the unexpected Marines are accounted for. He doesn't want to crush anybody.
Halliwell ends up with two handsets, one held to each ear. With the phones at each ear and a look of utter exasperation on his face, he could be any harried executive having a bad day — in civilian life, Halliwell, a resident of Bollingbrook, is the quality control manager at a Chicago plastic bottle factory. "There was no indication of a site," he says, grimacing, into one of the radios. "What should I do? Over."
     Fox Company gets back to the beach just as two AAVs break down. They will return to the Ogden two hours behind schedule, their mission unaccomplished.
     Like most Americans, I take pride living in the mightiest country in the world, without necessarily thinking about what it is that makes us so mighty. As powerful as our democratic ideals are, and as strong as our Coke; McDonald's; Microsoft economy is, they are not what permit us to blithely go about our business in Chicago, untouched by the threat of violent foreign intrusion.
     It's the Marines. And what makes our Marines the Marines, and not some dog-and-pony show that cuts and runs at the first sign of trouble, is training.
     The crucial thing about Halliwell's raid is not that it didn't succeed. The crucial thing is that it didn't succeed in California, and not East Africa, or North Korea, or the Middle East. This was a dry run. Practice.
     What happened is this. The National Guard expected to engage Halliwell on the beach, as he landed, then pull back south, setting up the radar site there so it could be blown up. But Fox Company was too quick, and hooked north before it could be engaged. So the Guard had to chase after them, coming over the ridge just in time to be destroyed. Halliwell went sprinting north after the radar site that wasn't there.
     That quick hooking maneuver, however, which caused all the trouble, also helped Fox Company two days later in a full-scale, amphibious assault. Halliwell's Marines punched through the defenders, and Echo Company came roaring ashore and wiped them out. Exactly as planned.
— Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Sept,. 6, 1998

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

California Week #1: The Search for Watts Towers

     I'm in California this week, hiking Joshua Tree, relaxing near Palm Springs, visiting the older boy at school, and trying to unwind, best I can. Rather than leave this space blank, as a non-crazy person would happily do, I thought I'd pass along a few examples of reportage from the Golden State, starting with this adventure, originally published almost 30 years ago.  I winced a bit reading it — wordy — but hope the fascination of the place compensates for my artless description. Plus a reminder of the real challenges of finding a some locations in the pre-GPS, pre-Google Map era. 

     LOS ANGELES — Whenever I'm in Los Angeles, I always do the same old things.
     There is the obligatory slow drive through Beverly Hills, staring in goggle-eyed envy at the pink sugar-cube mansions and extraterrestial vegetation.
     There is the beer break at Barney's Beanery, the browsing trip to Rodeo Drive and the meditative stroll on Santa Monica pier. The usual stuff.
     One thing I had never done, but always wanted to do, was visit the Towers of Simon Rodia in Watts. These glorious, elegant, almost surreal structures, hand-built by Rodia over a period of 33 years without welds, nuts, bolts, drawings or assistance, are internationally famous for their whimsical design and unique history.
     Described as everything from "the paramount achievement of 20th century folk art" to "petrified Christmas trees," they seemed like something that could provide a person with needed inspiration.
     Once I went as far as asking a hotel clerk for directions to the Towers. But the clerk's opinion of Watts, like almost everyone else's, had been set in stone after the rioting of 1967. He convinced me that going to Watts, for any purpose, fell into the category of Stupid and Dangerous Travel Ideas.
     But this time, armed with a map of the city and the Towers' address — 1765 E. 107th St. — I headed for Watts, anyway. I even stopped for lunch and directions — at the first hamburger stand I've seen where you receive your food on a carousel made of bulletproof glass. But that was the only ominous aspect of the trip.
     I found 107th Street easily enough. Not knowing the way the numbers were laid out, though, I kept getting lost — the street always dead-ending or being cut off by construction.

   Several times I set my sights on the Towers in the distance, only to come closer and find they were electrical pylons or smokestacks. What I didn't know, but you now do, is that the Towers are south of Century Boulevard and east of Harbor Freeway.
     Eventually, making a U-turn on 108th, I caught sight of the Towers, unmistakable, looking very much like a pair of huge cypress trees shimmering in the warm air. I sped toward them.
     The Watts Towers are located on a tiny triangular sliver of land alongside railroad tracks. Made from cement and steel rods and chicken wire, they are decorated with a carnival of cast-off tiles, bottles, shells, china, mirrors and bric-a-brac, all set in odd arrays and patterns.
     The Towers were made by Rodia, an Italian immigrant tile-setter, beginning in the early 1920s and ending in the mid-50s. He intended them as a monument to America, his deceased wife and everything "good good."
     "You have to be good good or bad bad to be remembered," said Rodia, who died in 1965 and is definitely remembered.
     What touched me, looking at the Towers, was not America, Rodia's deceased wife, or the "good good." Rather it was the personal courage and determination it must have taken him to build the Towers.
     He didn't form a committee, or ask a lot of people what they thought of his project. He didn't talk much about it — didn't go on the talk shows, didn't write a book. He just built the Towers, on his own. When he was done, he deeded the land to his neighbors and disappeared, leaving the Towers as his own enigmatic statement.
     The Towers suffered decades of neglect and vandalism, not to mention the rumblings of earthquakes and the nearby trains. As late as 1978, the city of Los Angeles was still quibbling about whether they should be preserved. They are being restored now, and are closed to visitors. But that doesn't matter, because the best view of them is from across the street.
The two main structures, just shy of 100 feet tall, are intricate fantasies of woven concrete, managing to be both free-form and roughly symmetrical. To the right of the main pair is a smaller tower, green with soda-bottle bottoms and connected by an arching lattice of supports. Tiny pieces of mirror glint in the sun, and the eye jumps from spot to spot, taking in the common objects, suddenly made monumental by height and repetition.

     After admiring the Towers from afar, a visitor will want to go close to examine the wall that surrounds them. It is not just a barrier, but an integral part of the Towers, completely covered with the same objects. (Some enterprising soul, by counting or estimation, determined that the Towers are imbedded with 70,000 bits of broken stuff.)
     Rodia's initials, as well as random dates, can be found here and there. The objects beg to be touched. One is compelled to put a finger in the tea-cup handles jutting out from the wall, to stroke the chips of cobalt-blue glass.
     Though the Towers will be closed for years, school groups are given tours inside the walls. You can join a tour — if one is going on — by calling ahead. A small cultural center next door displays artworks, mostly from local residents.
     Even more difficult than finding the Towers was leaving them. They seem so fragile and airy and out of place in rough-edged Watts that they beg to be looked at and thought about. Turning for a last glance, I thought about Simon Rodia, finishing after 33 years, regarding them one last time, then walking away across the weed-choked, vacant lots.
                   — Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 27, 1987


Monday, February 8, 2016

Help isn't coming

     Controversies boil up, cool down, and are promptly forgotten.
     But sometimes they offer a little clarity that lingers.
     Our ace police reporter popped his head in my office late last week. The Chi-Raq flag—a red and green banner from Spike Lee's movie—is flying above the American flag in front of St. Sabina Church. Cops are upset; one sent him this photo. He couldn't look into it—people are being scythed down in the city. Maybe I was interested in looking into this flag business?
     Well... that would interrupt my musing about opera. But okay.
     I phoned Father Michael Pfleger, the priest at St. Sabina, in Auburn-Gresham, known for his fiery, not always politic activism. It's a miracle he's still there. For years, he clashed with the archdiocese, and it seemed inevitable that he would be cashiered to some obscure parish. But plans to banish him always seemed to get scuttled. Pfleger's a thorn in the side of authority, sure, but so was Jesus.
     "Here's what happened," he said. "A couple days ago, I asked a maintenance guy to put our flag at half mast, because of the horrific January. All these lives lost and, in my mind, nobody giving a damn about it getting worse and worse."
     True enough, both in the lives lost and the nobody caring parts. But the flag is different. Lots of people care about the flag. He immediately started getting calls, "You know the American flag is flying underneath the Chi-Raq flag?" Pfleger said, quoting his callers.
     Pfleger said it was an accident, not a statement. The janitor lowered the American flag and forgot that would leave the Chi-Raq flag flying high above it.
     "It was an oversight," he said.
     No doubt. But that oversight led to community action, of a sort.
     "The disturbing thing to me is we have more people calling outraged about the position of the flag, an oversight we corrected immediately, and nobody calling outraged that in January we had 51 murders and 300 shootings," Pfleger said. "And I tell them: 'Now we've got the flag correct, how are you going to help with the violence?"
     I can answer that one: they're not. If somebody sets up a factory in Auburn-Gresham, selling Peace Muffins, so as to give 60 people jobs and start to reverse the total societal breakdown that is both a result and a cause of our violence epidemic, well, I'll buy those muffins, provided they were any good. Until then....
     "Nobody cares about us being the poster boy for American violence," Pfleger said. "There is more concern about the position of the flag."
     Again true. Though I would bet the cops care less about flag etiquette than about seeing the Chi-Raq mistake as a chance to whip out their batons, metaphorically, and work over a priest far too prone, in their book, to complain about the police tendency to shoot first and then ascertain what they're shooting at. They can't accept criticism—kind of like the mayor in this regard. Both tend to react to being shown in a bad light by leaping to make themselves look worse.
     "It's terrible, horrific," said Pfleger. "I can't tell you, hundreds of calls from around the country. People saying 'it's a disgrace.' Wow, it's been a real awakening. What are our priorities in this country? Where are these calls saying, 'What can we do about the violence?'
     What indeed. Violence in Chicago cannot be cared away. If solving violence were a matter of marshaling the public's good intentions or sincere concern, it would have been done already. That's what made Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" so insulting; he implied stopping violence is easy.
     What's easy is protest, outrage. Laying the blame somewhere else. Because the hard, frustrating, time-consuming, person-by-person, block-by-block work of fixing communities doesn't provide the kind of visceral satisfaction that marching in the street and off-loading responsibility does.
     "The crazy part is we're concerned more about the flag," said Pfleger. "We don't seem to want to talk about violence. People ask when I'm going to stop talking about this. I'm not going to. I say, 'Let's stop the violence and I won't be talking about it."
     So expect more talk. Though talk can be just another form of inaction. No criticism of Rev. Pfleger. He's doing what he can. But the truth is exactly as he says: people do not care. They aren't going to care. Help is not coming .The communities shattered by violence at some point need to stop waiting for the cavalry to come charging over the hill and fix everything, start looking at each other, and figure out something, themselves.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Facebook: your life's unseen audience

     When I was 25, I got my first cell phone—we called them "car phones" at the time, since they weighed 50 pounds and were bolted in the trunk of your car—which means I've had a cell phone for a greater part of my life than I didn't. 
     Thirty years, off and on. 
     Still, there is an aroma of the new to cell phones, and always will be, the way my grandparents called a refrigerator an "ice box." 
      When some algorithm in the Facebook servers sent me the above notice, of my Facebook birthday, I was shocked but not surprised. If you had asked me when I joined, I'd have said 2009—I remember taking photos on the epic 7,000 mile road trip the boys and I took that summer, and realizing that I wasn't snapping these for albums back home, certainly not to project them as slides to squirming guests. I was taking pictures to post on Facebook. My orientation had changed. My life had an unseen audience.
     Facebook. We share our lives with our "followers"—a slightly creepy word—and they share their lives in return. If you read Dave Eggers' "The Circle" as augury, then we'll have a lot more of that, and not posting something on Facebook will be seen as strange, selfish.  The little birthday card they generated certainly screamed "me me ME!" Though Edie did manage to sneak in too, including a wedding picture that predates Facebook by a decade and a half. 
     I don't quite believe our future will be constant sharing. It already has begun to even out. In the past few years, Facebook has lost some of its mojo, become less a cool place to visit, and more a daily obligation, like flossing.  Certain sharing habits—take a look at my lunch!—have fallen from favor. Twitter is where the action is, a digital freefire zone where people draw their rhetorical broadswords and have at each other, and where news lives. 
     Eight years, Ah, the memories. Bored in Salt Lake City in 2009 before a reader told us to go to Ruth's Diner. Gry Haukland arriving from Norway to marry a guy she met on my Facebook page.  Meeting Jane Turbov at the Northbrook Public Library to play a game of Scrabble.
     For a while, high school friends were always popping up. Now Facebook's central purpose is to post my blog.  People expect to find it there. Facebook allows for a manageable comments section after columns, since I can instantly show jerks the gate, and don't have to count on the newspaper to eject the undesirables for me. That's fairly rare, since I've vetted everybody at the party—I look at the page of each new person I friend, all 4,822 of them, and just reject anybody who as if they won't be happy drinking my flavor of Kool-Aid. Or because they live in the Philippines and have posted a bunch of sad, semi-cheesecakes of themselves and nothing else. I hope that doesn't seem bigoted of me to say, but it happens often. If I get a direct message from a Nordic beauty who supposedly lives in Indiana—"Hi, how are you?" I reply, "Fine, how's life in the Philippines?" and never hear from them ever again.
     Lately, more and more, there's also  Facebook messenger, which shows up on my phone. I don't know how that's better than regular texting, but some people seem to like it. 
     I still remember that first 2008 meeting at a Sun-Times conference room where some tech kid used a powerpoint presentation and instructed us how to sign up for Facebook. I was in equal measure baffled and miffed: so we were supposed to take time away from writing for a mass-market audience so we could hang around this electronic cracker barrel and chat with whoever happens to be hanging around? One-on-one? Toward what end? 
     But I am good at taking instructions, joined up, and got hooked. We all did. And the thing is not without value. That's what the doomsayers miss. People use Facebook because they like it. It adds something valuable to their lives. When I joined in 2008, Facebook had 100 million users. Now it has 1.5 billion. "Community" is the word Facebook uses to describe itself, and there is a sort of truth to that, though I prefer the line of Luna Lovegood's from "Harry Potter," which underscores the not-quite-real, not-quite-personal nature of the thing: "It's like having friends."

Saturday, February 6, 2016

"Bit early"

     I was a bit early.
     Not by a lot: 15 minutes maybe.
     I had given myself time for an errand, take some hiking boots back at REI, but the transaction was over in seconds. 
     Now I was driving east on Golf Road Thursday, heading to Evanston to meet my youngest son, to drive him to an appointment, then meet my wife for dinner. I was supposed to pick him up at 4 p.m..
     He wouldn't like my being early; my sons, sticklers for, well, everything.  I knew that.
     And I understood it, sort of. Hard enough to have parents at all, when you're 18 and at college, never mind them showing up when they're not supposed to be there.
     So I was thinking of what I could do to kill time. Not enough time to pop into Amaranth Books on Davis. Love that place. By the time I got down there I'd need to turn around and leave. Can't be late either.
     I could just sit in front of his dorm, answering e-mails. 
     The sun was setting, nearly the Golden Hour, as it's called.
     I noticed this little restaurant.
     I almost called the Charcoal Oven "iconic", but it's not. It's obscure. Except for passing it a thousand times over the past 30 years — my in-laws, may they rest in peace, lived a block away, on Lowell—I never heard or read about it. Nobody I know has ever gone there. When I pass it at night, it's open but empty, sitting by itself on the block. Something of a mystery really. 
     Impulsively, I made a right on Lowell, glanced at my in-law's old house, cut through the alley behind the synagogue, and parked the car. On foot, I approached the restaurant. 
     My wife and I ate there exactly once. Being a block from her mother's house, it's not the location we'd seek out for dinner—not when a good free dinner served with love was a few yards away. But circumstances were such that we had dinner there, maybe 25 years ago.
     Very nice, what I remember. An apricot sour—it was that long ago, back when there were cocktails. Steak, probably. The owner had tomatoes scattered across the bar—from his garden, and gave us a brown bag of tomatoes when we left. Friendly. A pleasant meal. But we still never went back.
     Someone must go. The place has a web site, and is open for dinner every night. Its history traces back 90 years, when it was a speakeasy called The Oasis.  The sign seems to be a product of the early 1960s.
     You have to love that sign. A masterpiece of mid-century American graphics. It building wasn't always orange, but the orange shows off the sign to best effect, as does the mural painted on the side. 
     The parking lot is always empty. But it still is in business.  And strangers live in her parents' house on Lowell. So my wife and I will have to pop in for dinner some time soon. A building that quirky and, yes, beautiful should be supported.
    Snapping a few photos took three or four minutes. Soon I was parked outside my son's dorm in Evanston. I puttered around with email for a minute or two.
    "I'm out front," I reluctantly messaged him, at 3:47.
    "Bit early," he replied.


Friday, February 5, 2016

"It can hit you like a bus"

Susanna Phillips

     Opera is about love, or should be.
     The love that characters have for each other — or, tragically, don't have for each other — in tales unfolding in splendor on stage, awash in gorgeous music.
     And the love audiences have for the productions.
     Or, less tragically, don't have. I must admit, earlier this season, after 91 deeply felt minutes enduring Alban Berg's cacophony "Wozzeck" — "deeply felt" as in a sleepless night spent on a bed of broken brick — "love" was not the concept that sprang to mind, other than love of it ending.
     But as with following professional sports, sometimes you are left exasperated. Your team doesn't win every game, you don't enjoy every opera. That's an aspect of love too.
     Not that this will be an issue with "Romeo and Juliet," which premieres Feb. 22, when I'll be bringing 100 readers along in the 8th (!) annual Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric Contest. (I couldn't bring 100 readers to "Wozzeck" without worrying about being brought up on charges at the Hague.)
     To get into the proper spirit, I slid by the Civic Opera House earlier this week and sat in on rehearsals, watching famed British fight director B.H. Barry block out a sword fight — the opera closely follows Shakespeare's play, complete with Romeo-where-art-thou? balcony scene and lots of proud Capulets and outraged Montagues baring their blades and having at one another.
     Most important is the music by Charles Gounod, French romantic composer and creator of one of the most tuneful operas in existence. His "Faust" is among my top favorites, and with "Romeo and Juliet" he returned to the same pair of lyricists.
     The voices in the cast are very strong — the Romeo we'll be seeing, Joseph Calleja, is a world-famous Maltese tenor who's powerful delivery will vibrate your fillings.
     I was lucky enough to sit down with Susanna Phillips, who is singing Juliet.
     We started talking about newcomers to opera. When she said her husband had only seen "one and a half operas" when they met. I could imagine that second opera, a feeling much like I had in "Wozzeck" — I would have fled, but I would have had to climb over Lyric director Anthony Freud to do so.
     Now he loves not only her, but opera too. Phillips offered a surprising metaphor.
     "Opera is a lot like beer," she said. "Or wine. There are so many varieties. You don't like exactly the same thing. It runs the gamut."
     She was raised in Alabama, and I couldn't resist observing the lack of a drawl.
     "I come from a very international city in Alabama, Huntsville, where Space Camp is. If you ever ask me to talk in an Alabama accent, I'm very happy to," she said, doing just that for a moment. "But I don't have a strong drawl."
     I told her of the time I interviewed mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner and made the mistake of assuming her home state, Iowa, is not a mecca of opera, sparking much hawkeye complaint. So, it's the Met, the Lyric, La Scala and Alabama?
     "It's not exactly opera mecca, but there are some excellent productions," she said. "The classical music scene in Alabama is remarkable."
     Juliet is supposed to be 14 years old and Phillips, ah, is not. Is it daunting to play a teen?
     "I did invest in some face cream," she laughed. "It definitely informs the energy of the character, helps you understand the decisions she makes, the impetuous nature, the excitement, the immaturity."
     "Romeo and Juliet" is not one of those works where you need to throw in a lot of spoiler alerts.
     "You know what's going to happen," she said. "It's hard not to telegraph it, to get back to when I was 14 and there was a tremendous optimism about everything. That kind of energy is what we're trying to achieve in this character."
     Her optimism might come naturally at this stage in her life — she's four-and-a-half months pregnant — even if energy might require some additional effort.
     Speaking of energy. Time is short when it comes to entering the contest, and you need to leap into action. Starting Sunday — as in, not today, not tomorrow, but the day after — you can go to and enter the word of the day which will be published in the Sun-Times. A new codeword will be published each day of the contest.
     Winners will be notified via email throughout the contest.
     Good luck. If you've never seen an opera, you might love it, you might hate it. There's only one way to find out.
     "It can be an acquired taste," Phillips said. "Or it can hit you like a bus."

Photo atop blog courtesy of Andrew Cioffi