Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     As with last week, I was going about my business, not thinking of the blog at all—it does happen—when I noticed a tableau that fairly shouted: "Saturday fun activity!"
     On the plus side. Very few people could have been in the room with this avian menagerie. It isn't some public spot that readers are constantly traipsing past. So that ramps up the difficulty factor.
     On the negative, someone knowledgable about the circles I travel in might hazard a guess.
     Which makes it doable and, who am I fooling, if history is any judge, it'll be cracked at 7:03 a.m., as always.
     Still, a guy can dream. Right? Right?! I mean Trump hasn't banned it yet, has he?
     So where is this flock of birds? The winner gets my already-five-years-old-Christ-I-can't-believe-it book about the city, "You Were Never in Chicago." Place you guesses below. Good luck. 

What are you doing up?

     It's Saturday, and once again I've blundered onto grist for the Saturday fun activity. Which posts at 7 a.m. G'night. 

     Oh, and it's not the place above. I just picked that photo. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Two women share their thoughts on the Holocaust, abortion

Paris Pantheon

     The names Simone Veil and Brittany Carl probably shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence. It's an insult to one; I'll let you figure out which.
     Veil was an icon of French politics, its most significant stateswoman in the past half century, twice the nation's minister of health, the first woman president of the European Union. She died June 30 and was interred in the Paris Pantheon, a rare woman honored among French heroes such as Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.
Simone Veil, left, and Brittany Carl
     Carl is the communications specialist just hired by Gov. Bruce Rauner, part of a group of hard right ideologues our billionaire governor brought in after sacking much of his loyal staff. The new crew proved instantly embarrassing — or would have, if Rauner could be embarrassed, an open question — because of their various racist, sexist and homophobic baggage. Rauner's valet, or "bodyman" as they're called, was fired Monday, the day he started work.
     Carl's lapse is no less odious but probably survivable, in that it doesn't directly attack a particular group but merely perverts history. Besides, it's so well-worn. In April, Carl wrote a piece for the Huffington Post airing the standard anti-abortion trope comparing a medical procedure voluntarily practiced every day by women around the world to the Holocaust of the Jews during World War II.
     A subject Veil knew something about, having been sent to Auschwitz when she was 16.

     To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Smell the roses

     "This is not life!" I said, with all the severity I could muster.
    An odd remark, given the setting. Our bright kitchen on a lovely summer Sunday morning. My wife at the stove, preparing an iron skillet filled with salami, onions, eggs, red and green peppers. Me helping out, slicing Italian bread for toast, setting out plates and silverware, brewing coffee.
     She had just said, "Could you put those cherries in a bowl? They're already washed,' and I leapt to do so, going to the buffet in the living room, selecting a whimsical handmade bowl from the Boulder Artists' Cooperative, pouring the bag of cherries in, and setting them on the kitchen table with my bold declaration.
     "This is not life!"
     Maybe it was too obvious. But she reacted not at all, not even a flutter of perplexity, which is sort of my goal. The remark, she knew instantly, even if the reader does not, was playing off the bowl of cherries. This bowl of cherries is not life, or, more commonly, "Life is not a bowl of cherries." She got it immediately, which I noted with silent satisfaction. 
     Another woman would have murdered her husband long ago and no one would blame her. But bless her, she tolerates it. Writers and their idiosyncrasies. In my case, I have a certain affinity for cliches in real life. You don't often get the chance, and opportunities must be seized. It's a kind of duty. I once cut across Grand Central Station in New York City, just so I could pause, look around, raise my hands and declare, "What is this, Grand Central Station?"
     No it's not funny. But somehow, immensely satisfying. At least to me, and I'm the guy I have to hang out with all the time. 
     Over time—and my wife and I have been keeping company for ... 34 years now—some lines become, well, if not enshrined, then at least expected.
     We were at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This was years ago. And my wife said, "Do you want to walk through the rose garden?"
     I replied, "Well, I never made any kind of formal commitment that I would."
     A curious remark.
     "Excuse me?" she said.
     "I mean, I made no kind of vow, or oath regarding the rose garden..."
     A kind of a hint.
     She chewed on that for a while as we walked among the beautiful roses, then realization dawned.
    "I never promised you a rose garden," she said, and I smiled inwardly, pleased she had unraveled the little puzzle. 
     Now, whenever we walk into the rose garden, if I don't say it, she seems almost disappointed. Almost. 
    Then Sunday, it finally happened. She paused before a huge pink bloom, and gave it a deep sniff."
     "It's important..." she began. "That we, you know, stop, and..."

     Mere coincidence? Or is this proof ancient astronauts once walked the Earth, thousands of years ago? Exactly two years ago, I posted something also about punning marital wordplay, using entirely different examples. 

Roses, Chicago Botanic Garden

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Trump is doing exactly what supporters want him to do. Over and over.

     Ah. Now I see. Finally, finally I get Donald Trump. It all makes sense to me now.
     Took long enough.
     He has been president for nearly six months — the grim half-year anniversary is Thursday — all the while I, along with the rest of the mainstream media, have been baffled, thickly pointing our trembling index fingers at all the promises he repeatedly made and then glibly broke. There would be no border wall, never mind one paid for by Mexico. No overturning Obamacare. No infrastructure renewal. Coal's still dead, manufacturing still sputtering.
     But when we document this to his supporters, they don't care. They just shake their head and smile, or rather, sneer, pityingly at us, the lamestream media. "Sad!" they mocked, echoing their hero. They still love him.
     How can this be? It's easy to dismiss them as dupes, as ripped off, gulled, credulous marks who, pockets turned inside out, would rather hold tight to a fantasy than confront a difficult truth. And I did that for a while. But as the months clock on, castigation seems too simple. Too easy. Dismissing the other guys as mere idiots is what Republicans do. It makes a person feel good, perhaps, but leads nowhere. An empty high.
So I looked again. And realized that in one realm, Trump constantly and consistently delivers: invective, a steady stream of insult, against the media, against politicians like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, against elites and whatever unlucky individual falls under his basilisk gaze. Machine-gun chatter of "Disaster!" Funny nicknames and repeated fabrications. This isn't the sideshow. It's the main act. Not a flaw but a feature.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Drying out

     Last week's heavy rainfall caused flooding across the Northwest suburbs. The Chicago Botanic Garden was closed for a while—the entire place is one vast, flower-strewn retention pond. We stopped by Sunday afternoon and found it mostly dry and in fairly good shape—some limp and muddy hostas, a few trails and bridges closed off due to lingering floodwaters. It could have been much worse, such as at Highland Park Ford Lincoln, where more than 100 new and used cars, worth $5 million, were destroyed. Which called to mind this story, visiting ruined businesses downstate after the Great Mississippi Flood, nearly a quarter century ago. 

     ALTON, IL—Moving slowly, like astronauts in outer space, executives from the Bearing Headquarters Co. wade cautiously into knee-deep, yellow-green water and approach the front door of their office and warehouse.
     Gingerly, the door is pulled open and a wave of rancid humidity rolls out. John Decker, the branch manager, surveys the surreal, dimly lit scene Thursday of rows of shelving. The upper portions are stacked with piles of damp catalogs, soggy brochures and ruined records. Paper work floats in the water like seaweed.
     "Man, what a mess," he whispers.
     All over the Midwest as the floodwaters recede, people are beginning to tally the enormous cost of this unsurpassed natural disaster. Estimates are being offered, but the reality is that it will be months, if not years, before any reliable figure is attained. And the cost is rising - as floodwaters recede in some areas, they inundate others. The disaster is not over.
     Despite dramatic pictures of homes being crushed by the water, most damage is not caused by the water's impact, but by its ability to corrode and spoil.
     A pair of contractors accompany the Bearing Headquarters executives, to assess what it will take to undo the damage.
     "The office is a total loss; there is nothing there that can be saved, as far as I'm concerned," says Larry Colvin, an electrical contractor. He points his flashlight beam toward the ceiling of the 13,000-square-foot warehouse. "The moisture content in these fixtures - they're going to corrode. Look on the beams. It's rusting already."
     A general contractor pulls away a part of wall, showing how the insulation is soaked. It, too, must be replaced, as well as the floors, the shelving and many other parts of the building.
     Alton, a town of 33,000 north of St. Louis, is one of dozens of towns where the floodwaters caused serious infrastructure damage. Here, the tremendous pressure of the Mississippi River formed sinkholes and fissures in streets. Sewer lines burst and parking lots buckled. The levee did not break, as the people in Alton note with pride, but the river pushed its way in underground, sending geysers shooting out of Main Street.
     The mayor of Alton, Robert Towse, estimates that infrastructure damage to his town alone will be $ 5 million, and he calls the government's initial grant of $ 4.7 billion in Midwestern flood relief "a tenth" of what will eventually be needed.
     Water treatment facilities, electric plants, bridges and highways in several states were damaged by the flooding. Edwin Harper, president of the Association of American Railroads, estimates that it will take $ 250 million just to replace or repair submerged train tracks, but he admits that it is just a guess.
      Then there is lost business. Next door and up the hill from Bearing Headquarters is Tri-City Nissan Mazda. The bearing company, which moved its costly bearings out before it was deluged last week, is operating from scattered temporary locations, but Tri-City will not be back in business for weeks.
     Conn-Agra, the big silage concern, juts out of flooded downtown Alton like a mountainous island. Its 200 employees are lucky, however: Their salaries are being paid, and they are being sent out to help in the cleanup effort around the city.
     The six employees of Hudson's Jewelry Store have not been paid since July 13, when the store was last open. But clerk Matt Contarino shows up as a volunteer to oversee pumps in the basement.
     Tourist spots have been hit hard. While traffic to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is so heavy the Park Service had to bring in extra rangers to help, communities such as St. Genevieve, Mo., a historic town about 50 miles downriver from St. Louis that was founded by the French in 1735, have no tourists during prime season.
      In Illinois, officials monitoring the state's $ 15 billion a year tourist industry estimate it is down at least 70 percent in the western portion of the state.
     Thousands of private homes were also destroyed or seriously damaged. In Grafton, 15 miles upriver from Alton, 900 of the 1,000 residents have been displaced from their homes - some of which were totally submerged.
     Tooling through downtown Grafton in a boat used to ferry residents, observing the city's houses submerged to the roofline, resident Vern Rominski ponders the question of how much it will cost to clean up the city, and how long it will take. He squints into the rain which is still somehow, incredibly, coming down hard.
     "I don't think they'll know until the waters go down, son," he says.

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 9, 1993

Chicago Botanic Garden, July 16, 2017

Monday, July 17, 2017

Bacon is hot: Meet the guys who helped save bacon's bacon

     Sometimes pulling the thread on a single question can lead to an unexpected story. Here, I was trying to find out when precooked bacon came into being, and happened upon its largely unknown genesis. If after reading this, you just have to visit a pig slaughterhouse, one of Chicago's last, you can do so here.

     My mother never cooked a pork chop. Never once did a holiday ham grace the table of our modest suburban home. For a simple reason: we're Jewish, and such things are forbidden.
     But bacon was another matter. We had bacon all the time. With eggs of course, but also piled high on BLTs, the wheat toast smeared with mayonnaise. She served hot dogs wrapped in bacon.
     Faith is fine, but bacon is "the most beautiful thing on earth," as comedian Jim Gaffigan put it during a routine on the beloved cured meat. "Bacon's the best!"
     Isn't it though? The public agrees. Bacon sales have surged over the past decade. Bacon prices are up 20 percent this year, with supplies at their lowest in 60 years, stripped by voracious consumer demand for everything from bacon donuts to bacon-infused vodka.
     Amazingly, not long ago bacon was in decline. I was examining historical data and found myself reading the bacon entry in The Encyclopedia of Meat Sciences. It noted that in the late 1970s bacon was wilting; a study found that female heads of households were consuming far less bacon, due to cost, the bother of preparation and the trend toward quick, simple breakfasts.
     "As late as 1989," the encyclopedia noted, it was believed "bacon consumption is evidently in a long-term eroding trend."
     What happened? One problem with bacon was that you had to cook it, a messy process. It spattered and popped in the pan. You had to scrub your stovetop or microwave every time you cooked bacon.

To continue reading, click here.