Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Paperback books were vaguely disreputable when they came out, 100 years ago. Cheap editions for the underclasses, almost an insult to the concept of books.
     But that bias was short-lived, and while some people do enjoy the tactile pleasure and sturdiness of a hardback book over its more flimsy covered cousin, the differences are not given much thought, and rightly so. 
     Thus while reading electronically is seen as somehow suspect, a diminishment of the heft and permanence of a book, I think it is a passing qualm, and whether you read Moby-Dick online or in a physical book will not be particularly important, except the former experience will save you considerable arm strain. 
      I noticed this young man, consulting his laptop, surrounded by books. In a library, yes, but which library? I will give you a hint: it is not a public library. 
      The winner will receive a bag of marvelous Bridgeport coffee, which I have been drinking by the steaming cupful and enjoying greatly. Make sure to post your guesses below. Good luck.

Today is Nov. 22. If you missed last year's 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination story, about how Chicago helped break the shocking news to the world, you can read it by clicking here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bank phone poll spills the beans on tellers' doom

     With the election over, thank merciful God, I thought pesky telephone polls would subside. But if anything, they’ve increased. Not the “Who has your vote?” polls, or what I call “Slur Polls” — questions designed not to collect answers but to deliver attacks; polls that start out normal and then slide into insinuation: “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being most disgusted, and 1 being not as disgusted as you ought to be, how revolted were you to learn of the secret slush fund of Rep. Peckinsniff ...”)      

     I try not to give much time to phone solicitors. I’ve learned to quickly set the receiver back down if the person on the other end doesn’t immediately reply to my tentative “Hello?” because that means it’s some automatic demon dialer in Mumbai that calls 10 numbers at a time and then connects with the first to answer. That takes 1.5 seconds, and by then I’ve hung up.
      But with phone surveys, I play along in a kind of information judo, using callers’ momentum against them. While they try to pry information out of me, I learn from them.
      For instance. Bank of America called this week. I am a preferred customer, which means I leave too much money sitting in accounts, drawing 0.03 percent interest, money that Bank of America then loans out at 3 percent. (That’s not “3 percent interest” they give , by the by. That’s three-hundredths of a percent. You wonder why anyone bothers at that point; the interest they pay hardly seems worth the paperwork to tally it).
     So, the Bank of America phone pollster wants to know: Have I used their Northbrook branch bank in the past 30 days? Why yes, I have!

     To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Replogle sold the globe to the world


     Memory fades. It's ironic that such a grim truth should be revealed, not just in one but in two ways, in Monday's frothy post about the carnival surrounding Kim Kardashian's Brobdingnagian butt. 
     But I suppose it's also apt. New wonders push into the space where old stuff used to be. 
     First, I used the word "steatopygic," (and I'm going to dial back on the big words. Enough already, with the big words, as my mother would say*) and cited Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" for teaching it to me. Though the word isn't there. An alert reader cited a passage containing "callpygian" which means about the same thing (actually "well-shaped" as opposed to "fat"). Several readers mentioned "callipygian," which is a little scary. That must have been the source of my error, though how one morphed into the other I cannot imagine. I would have sworn...
     The second reminder of the corrosive effect of time on memory was my use of "Replogle desk globe." I was not trying to be obscure (I'm never trying to be obscure; it just happens).  To me, it was a just a bit of local color, like saying "Radio Flyer sled" or "Jays potato chips." But several readers wrote in to say, "huh?"
    Replogle was a Chicago institution for 80 years, from 1930, when its factory opened in Broadview, to when the company laid off 84 workers at the end of 2010 and sold the brand name to an Indianapolis maker of school globes. Though the world's largest globe maker in a town once known for maps—Rand-McNally (a map publisher, I don't want to mystify people again) got its start here in 1856—somehow, Replogle never quite entered Chicago's consciousness.   
     Though not for lack of me trying to put it there. I've had an old Replogle globe on my desk for more than 30 years, and was keen to see where those lion's paws feet were carved. Here's my visit to their factory, ulp, almost 17 years ago.

     Take the geopolitical complexity of maps. Add woodworking. Season with metalcraft. Blend in the little-called-upon art of making spheres from flat surfaces, and you have a recipe for the odd mix of skills used making globes.
     In the case of Replogle Globes, a million globes a year, from 4.7 inch desktop models to the office-eating 32-inch diameter Diplomat globes, cradled in their hand-rubbed mahogany frames.
     Few nations on Earth are without a Replogle globe -- they sit in schoolrooms from Chile to China (the place names in Spanish in the former, of course, and Chinese in the latter -- the company also makes globes in French and German). There has been a Replogle globe in the Oval Office of the White House ever since Hoover was there. Replogle make globes not only of the Earth, but of Mars, Venus and the moon -- a big seller in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not so popular now.     
     The company was started in 1930 by Luther Replogle (pronounced Rep-logel), a Chicago school supplies salesmen who began making globes in his basement.
     The latest incarnation of that operation occupies 250,000 square feet on 25th Avenue in Broadview. Perhaps the best way to envision the factory is to think of it as three factories: globe production, metalworking and a woodshop.
     The smaller globes are stamped from cardboard. Sheets of cardboard are cut into a 12-pedaled daisy shape, as are the paper maps that go over them.
     The two flat pieces are molded together on enormous industrial flywheel presses, turning them into hemispheres. The eight-foot-tall presses with their tons of force seems enormous for the little 9-inch half spheres produced.
     Globes that light up are made from plastic -- vacuformed in molds. The larger light-up globes are pasted over hollow polypropylene spheres.
    For the largest globe, orange-peel-shaped map segments -- called "gores" -- are laid by hand on the spheres, carefully smoothed and stretched into place using special paste so there are no flaws or gaps. Customers paying up to $ 6,500 -- the cost of the top model -- can't be expected to put up with a lot of bubbles.
     Laying the map over the large globe can take eight hours; and if the last gore somehow doesn't line up -- "I sit down and cry then pull them all up and start over," an employee says.
     The hemispheres are trimmed, one at a time, and then "polar washers" are inserted -- metal rings intended to let the globes spin for years without their cardboard giving away. Then a cardboard ring is glued into one hemisphere around the equator and the other hemisphere tamped onto it with a machine that gives the upper half a firm tap.
      Finally, a tape is applied to mark the equator and -- conveniently -- hide the seam dividing the halves. The globes are sprayed with a UV protectant, so they don't fade.
     Tumbling the globes on a conveyer belt would damage them, so they move around the plant suspended from hooks on an overhead chain system. At times the factory seems like a giant clockwork cosmos, with worlds of green and blue and black and sepia all moving at various speeds and directions and levels.
     In the metalworking area, coils of steel are turned into circular bases, stamped, then decorated. The rings some globes sit in are "butt welded," the ends of the loop welded together then buffed so there is no seam.
     Finally there's the woodshop, a large room filled with lathes and saws and stacks of lumber, waiting to be turned into legs and wood bases.     Despite the care put into buffing metal and finishing wood, the trickiest part of any globe is definitely the map. Replogle is one of the few companies around whose products can be made obsolete by events thousands of miles away.
     The world is always changing. Arctic regions shift. Islands are cut in half by storms. Then there are the political upheavals, which have been kicked into overdrive this past decade.
     Keeping track of the shift and flux of world borders is the job of LeRoy Tolman, chief cartographer, in his office one flight above the factory floor.
     Sometimes he hits changes on the nose. The day West and East Germany re-united, a globe showing the unified German state was rolling off the lines.
     Replogle sells 40 different types of globes; the largest, the Diplomat, has over 20,000 names on it. Updating takes time.
     "We were kept busy for a year after the Soviet Union broke up," Tolman says.
     Part of Tolman's job is determining the accepted outline of a nation. He spreads a big map of Egypt out over his desk, responding to an irate Egyptian government complaint that its southern boundary with Sudan is shown as it actually is, and not how it exists in the fervent hopes of the Egyptians.
     Not much of a market in Egypt, so Tolman, after checking with the U.S. State Department, keeps the border where it is in actuality. That isn't always the outcome. The company wants to sell globes and doesn't flinch at following a customer's interpretation of what the world looks like.
     Globes going to Arab countries retained "Palestine" years after Israel was founded. Japanese globes show the country as still possessing the Kirin Islands, which the Soviets stripped away in 1945.
     So if Saddam Hussein placed a big enough order, he could get globes showing the United States as a possession of Iraq?
     "All but Illinois," said Tolman. "Economics is the prime factor."
          —originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 2, 1998

* Did you notice the irony of my swearing off big words almost immediately after deploying the Swiftian term, "Brobdingnagian"? I didn't, not until the third time I read this. Brobdingnag was, you might recall, the land of the giants in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," and "Brobdingnagian" is a fancy term for "very big." I left it in because, well, perhaps you're as amused by my inconsistencies and oversights as I have learned to be. God knows I can't correct them at this point.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Birds, squirrels and the trouble in Israel

      Today's column has an unusual backstory. My former colleague at the Sun-Times, Rich Cahan, once a photo editor, now a busy publisher of books of historic photography, emailed me Monday to say that Wednesday his show of portraits taken in the West Bank opens in River North. 
     Suppressing my immediate reaction—"kinda short notice, huh?"—I told him sure, I'd be happy to meet him as he set up the exhibit at The Art Works Projects studio, an attractive little gallery tucked in the shadow of the expressway at 625 N. Kingsbury.
      Rich spent a week in the occupied territories last year, and took the portraits in the show on his final night, basically by knocking on doors and asking whoever answered if he could take their picture. 
Rich Cahan 
     In one sense, they are unexceptional photos of ordinary people. Though in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, ordinary people, who are neither soldiers nor protestors, leaders nor spokespeople, perpetrators nor victims, are exactly the individuals who are least noticed or heard. 
     Rich was obviously moved by what he had found during his stay, and focused on one aspect: raids by the Israeli military at night, because, he said, "it was as much as I could physically comprehend, night raids."
     We talked about the dilemma of being an American Jew, wanting to support Israel, but being uncertain where, if anywhere, the current Israeli policy is going. I told him that I try to begin slowly when attempting to converse with my unwaveringly what-Israel-does-is-by-definition-right friends, starting with something like, "The Palestinians, they're people too, right?" but even that tack usually doesn't get me far.
     Passions are high on this here as well as there. Rich went on the trip with 10 others, including Brant Rosen, the controversial Evanston rabbi who had to leave his congregation this year due to conflict over his impassioned support of the Palestinian cause. Myself, I find blindly boosting the Palestinians is as unsupportable as reflexively backing the Israelis. There's plenty of blame to go around.
       "We travelled all over," Rich said, "but spent most of our time in Bil'in"—a small town of about 1,800 people that gained notoriety because of its residents' resistance to Israel's security wall.
      "Because I took it in this town, there are people who say that gives it a particular political statement," he said. "But it could have been any town in the West Bank."
      I asked him if he was worried people will view him as a tool.
     "I don't know who I'm a tool of," he said. I also wondered whether, being Jewish, he had been scared spending a week in the West Bank. He said he certainly felt threatened, but not by Palestinians.
     "We did fear the IDF," he said, using the initials of the Israeli Army. "Our group was tear-gassed three times."
      Cahan's show "Night Raid in Bil'in" opens Wednesday, Nov. 19—there is a reception from 6:25 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the gallery at 625 N. Kingbury. It runs for a month, though the gallery keeps irregular hours, so you need an appointment to get in, though there are several scheduled events you can learn about on their web site. It is part of a program called "Occupied Territories/Contested Lands; Part 1," which strives for an encouraging, and rare, balance: another installation focuses on the difficulties Israelis face—there are photos of families gathered outside their rocket shelters, for instance. 
     I've never had anyone adequately explain to me why supporting Israel demands that I deny the humanity of the Palestinians, or how recognizing their tragic situation somehow is a betrayal of my own heritage. In my view, being Jewish, if it is to mean anything beyond blind team loyalty, demands it. 
     The column below was written Tuesday morning, while waiting to go to the gallery. I wrote it as a placer column—in case I got hit by a bus on the walk over, and assuming I'd scrap it after I talked to Rich and plug what I learned there into it. 
     But I decided to keep it as is.

     Let’s see if we can solve the Israeli/Palestinian problem right now, shall we?
     The Palestinians want Israel, their former home, to be their home again. While waiting, they dwell in misery in the occupied territories, passing the time by lobbing rockets and committing various atrocities, like Tuesday’s slaughter of four Jews in a Jerusalem synagogue. They call it self-defense.
     The Israelis, meanwhile, aren’t about to give up their land to the Palestinians and are content to keep them under guard — not without reason, given the facts outlined above—responding to their attacks with devastating force. Meanwhile, the years click by and the Israelis, not realizing it, grow nearly as divided, angry and extreme as their enemies, as David Remnick grimly describes in a recent New Yorker.
     Have I plainly stated the situation? Good. Now, on to the solution.
     The Palestinians could have their state, but not the state they want. And the Israelis could allow the Palestinians back into their country, but then it wouldn’t be a Jewish country. Plus there’s no reason to think Palestinians would give up the killing that has been their central mode of self-expression.
     The solution, therefore, clearly is ... umm.
     This direct approach isn’t working.
     Let’s try a metaphor. Maybe that’ll help.
     I love birds, and for the usual reasons. They fly. They sing. They’re beautiful.
     I hit upon the strategy of attracting birds by feeding them, and I stuck a wrought-iron pole in the backyard, hung a feeder off it, kept it stocked with seed. It worked. Blue jays and red-winged blackbirds, yellow swallows and brown robins flock to it, to my joy.
     And squirrels.

      To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Welcome to Chicago, Archbishop. Keep an eye on the soup...

     Welcome, Archbishop Cupich, to Chicago, a city whose Catholicism is entwined with its entire history. As you may know, we were discovered in 1673 by a priest, Jacques Marquette S.J., and the first non-native religious services here were the daily masses he held for the Kaskaskia Indians. When Chicago incorporated in 1833, there were 130 Catholic inhabitants, and a log cabin Roman Catholic church, St. Mary’s, at Wacker and Lake.
     No sooner was the first Catholic church built, however, than the minister of the first Protestant church, Jeremiah Porter, knelt outside and prayed for its downfall. A reminder that, as Catholic a town as this is, there has always been hostility. An anarchist put arsenic in Cardinal George Mundelein’s soup at the banquet welcoming him in 1915. A hundred of the faithful were poisoned, one died, though Mundelein survived, an important quality in a cardinal. “It takes more than soup to get me,” he quipped; 250 churches were built in the archdiocese during his quarter century as cardinal.
     These are different days. Churches are closing instead of being built. Though it’s still a good idea to keep a close eye on the soup (metaphorically; our anarchists are much better behaved nowadays).
     Chicago has had eight archbishops and 55 mayors, which should give you an idea of their relative importance. Archbishop Cupich (pronounced "Soo-pich") won't officially become cardinal for a few years yet).
     Mundelein’s successor, Cardinal Samuel Stritch was a “Southern gentleman” who nevertheless helped integrate the church. He was replaced in 1958 by scripture scholar Albert Meyer,—that always struck me as a rather Jewish name for a cardinal. He also tried to improve race relations. “Christian faith knows not the distinction of race, color or nationhood,’ he said.
     So expanding the boundaries of who is welcome on Sunday is nothing new....
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Monday, November 17, 2014

Some thoughts on Kim Kardashian's ass

    I have a bunch—say 1,500—of books in my office at home, and in an attempt to ease their retrieval, I try to organize them by category. Thus three shelves of books on presidents, a shelf of Chicago history, a shelf of Dante, a shelf and a half—41 books—by and about humorist James Thurber.
     And one shelf of what I think of as queer books, in the former, “odd” sense of the word, since it holds “Queer Books” by Edmund Pearson, as well as “Bizarre Books” by Russell Ash and Brian Lake, and then books that showed up at the paper and I had to snag because I knew I would never see them again, such as “Handwriting in America: A Cultural History” by Tamara Plakins Thornton and “Dust: A History of the Small & the Invisible” by Joseph A. Amato.
     Here too, the books group together, forming a kind of spectrum, “Dust” shelved next to “Rubble,’ which is about demolition, next to “Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of our Most Primal Fear.” Bernard Mergen’s “Snow in America,” is next to “Ice: The Nature, the History and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance” by Mariana Gosnell.   

    Then a range of body parts.”The Nose,” several cultural histories of breasts, one of the vagina (next to “Flow,” about menstruation), the penis (next to “Castration,” which I haven’t yet found courage to open) and the book I pulled down Friday—easily, without searching, I happily noted—“The Rear View: A Brief and Elegant History of Bottoms Through the Ages,” by Jean-Luc Hennig, a new chapter of which was written last week when a photo of the huge, oiled naked rump of Kim Kardashian roiled the Internet.
     I noticed the enormous tush in my Twitter feed Thursday, and it is indicative of how newspapers lope after popular culture, like a little brother crying, “Wait for me!” that the Sun-Times no doubt cannot print the cheerily frank photo of Kardashian’s collossal keister that was unleashed upon the world.     My immediate reaction was gratitude. I had of course heard of Kardashian, and knew she is the supposed embodiment of all that is crass about popular culture. But, in a shocking lapse of curiosity, I hadn’t actually delved into what qualities, if any, she might possess that would make her such a fixture.
    And now I knew. In a flash, an epiphany. “Oh!” She possesses this enormous ....

     To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The politcs of Porgy

     You can’t write about Chicago and not be interested in race, and I tend to write about African-American issues more than most white columnists do because I find them so interesting and I’m too reckless to avoid it. Thus when “Porgy and Bess” opened in Chicago in 2008, I saw my chance to explore something that fascinates me: is the depiction of any group exclusively controlled by that particular group, or can others jump in with their perspectives? Obviously, I have a dog in that race. This column appeared six years ago, but Friday I attended the dress rehearsal of "Porgy and Bess" at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and feel it is still as current. I print the full word that Ira Gershwin cut in 1952; I remember being aghast when my editor at the Sun-Times dashed it, and consider the use of the eusystolism “n-word” a strange and temporary bit of infantilizing, itself offensive, a white-washing of history (and, sadly, current events) for the exquisite sensibilities of a few. If I can be shown photographs of naked Jewish corpses piled high a Dachau, then black readers can stumble across “nigger” in “Huckleberry Finn.” The world needn’t be wallpapered for the sake of children, particular of the things that are being obscured help guide them to understand how it actually was, and is. That word certainly jolts, but I believe it is a necessary jolt.
    Which is why “Porgy and Bess” is still valuable and always timely, since six years make this column not at all out-of-date; I also added a line I learned researching my contest questions about tickets being given a way free to the 1952 production to try to overcome public reluctance to see what was, at the time, seen as practically a minstrel show. And the music, I hasten to add, is sublime. I was whistling “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” all day Saturday.

     A love story between a "lonely cripple" and a "liquor-guzzling  slut," set against a backdrop of drug addiction, gambling, murder, mangled syntax and inescapable poverty whose sweetest moment, the  opening number "Summertime," is a lullaby sung to a baby who will pass through the hands of three mothers before the play is over.    
    No, "Porgy and Bess" is not exactly a brochure published by the NAACP, and as if its subject matter weren't awkward enough, it was  written by three white guys: two Jews, George and Ira Gershwin, and  a Southerner, DuBose Heyward.      
     Yet, a funny thing happened to this great American opera between  its controversial debut on Broadway in 1935 and the magnificent  production that opens Tuesday at the Lyric Opera in Chicago.      
     "Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long  as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself," sniffed  critic Virgil Thomson, "which is certainly not true of the American  Negro in 1935." 
     Thomson touches the heart of the issue, not only with "Porgy and  Bess," but with a range of cultural flare-ups. Do we judge work by its content or by its creator? Does culture belong to the group  that formed it, or can others borrow it for a while?  
     Some say they can't. It isn't that Chief Illiniwek's dance is any worse than what's performed every weekend at Native American  gatherings; it's that their heritage is being seized and exploited  by someone else. Elvis didn't popularize black music; he stole it.    
     "Porgy" received the same criticisms.
     "A white man's version of  black folkways and characterizations from which their race has  fought so painfully to escape," Douglas Watt wrote in the New  Yorker. When the opera was performed in the early 1950s in Chicago, civil rights resistance against “Porgy and Bess” was so high that producers had to give away the first week’s worth of tickets—28,000 seats—to get an audience into the opera house.     
     My problem with that view is that it's a kind of segregation, suggesting that blacks can only appreciate, understand and write  about blacks, and whites can only appreciate, understand and write  about whites, because of some barrier that forbids them from  peering across and recognizing each other.
    Thus "I Got Plenty of  Nothin' " is racially suspect, since the Gershwins imply happy-go-luckiness in Porgy, while—for example—"Baby's Got  Back" can't be a racial slur because Sir Mixalot is black.      
     That is a political, not an artistic, analysis. I kept thinking about how a disabled advocate would view Porgy, who says things  like, "When God make cripple, He mean him to be lonely," and the  answer depends on how much you demand that your art flatter your  sensibilities. I can enjoy "The Merchant of Venice" even though  Shylock isn't the image of the ideal Jew (but then again, those  battles are mostly won, while mocking the disabled still carries  less stigma than slurring Jews or blacks. The word "cripple" is  used again and again in "Porgy;" the word "nigger" was cut out by Ira Gershwin in 1952).          
      The bottom line is that African-American artists embraced the work.  Both Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier — neither a cream-puff — sang Porgy. The entire cast is black, as required by the Gershwin estate — in reaction, the story goes, to the horror of Al Jolson  pushing to cast himself as a blackface Porgy. (Except for several  minor white roles. The whites are the only characters that speak instead of sing—both a stroke of genius and the only racial jab  in the production.)      
     While a Lyric audience usually has the racial diversity of a  Blackhawks game, "Porgy" is a chance to change that, and it was  gratifying to see busloads of CPS high school students brought in  for Friday's dress rehearsal. At intermission, I talked to a group from Whitney Young, and asked what they thought of the show. 
     "Being young, we know some of the stuff they're talking about," said Gillian Asque, 17, a junior, adding that it's "not your usual  boring opera."      
     Seeing the opera moots all debate. The music transcends, the songs  haunt and thrill. The production is lavish — the lighting throws a  warm summer South Carolina glow, the shimmery burnt orange slip of  a dress that Bess first appears in deserves credit in the program.  Ultimately, while the negative elements focused on by those ready  to dismiss it are certainly there, so are their opposites. Yes, we  have Porgy and Bess, but there are also Clara and Jake -- Clara  singing to her baby, Jake fishing every day to pay for the baby's  college.      
     Yes, we have two of the creepiest villains you'll ever see on stage—the sweaty, big-bellied, murderous Crown, and the wiry,  lavender-suited, yellow-vested, Sportin' Life, brandishing packets  of cocaine like a magician producing a dove.      
     But they face their opposites. "Friends with you, low life?" sneers  the shopkeeper, driving off Sportin' Life with a meat cleaver.  "Hell no."      
     There is gambling, but also baptism, at a joyous church picnic  where a single verse sums up the appeal of the moral path more  succinctly than I've ever heard it summed up before: "I ain't got  no shame doing what I like to do."      
     When the hurricane hits in the third act, and the grand stage at  the Lyric is filled with humanity, on its knees before the wrath of  nature, lightning casting stark shadows of their outstretched arms,  appealing to the mercy of heaven, they are not black people, not  poor people, but just people, and "Porgy and Bess," like all art,  transcends its characters and its setting, its era and ours, and is  above all else a story, about men and women, ennobled by love,  undone by death, bowed yet brave. To say Porgy reflects poorly on  blacks is like saying Medea reflects poorly on Greeks because, you  know, she kills her kids.     
      I left there overwhelmed by a love story between a simple,  sweet-hearted man and a vivacious, tortured woman, set against a  backdrop of strong community, suffering, hard work, joyous faith  and unbreakable hope. And contrary to every critic who has written  about "Porgy and Bess" over the last 70 years, I think he gets to  New York and he finds her.

Originally published in the Sun-Times Nov. 17, 2008

Photos courtesy of Todd Rosenberg Photography.