Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The circus leaves town

    Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced it is going out of business this week. The last shows will be in May. It was sad news, even though I haven't gone to the circus in years, and when I did it was always with free tickets through the paper. Still, the circus struck me as a glorious anachronism, a wonder, and I valued it, and marveled that it was still here. And this was 18 years ago.
    My parents never took me to the circus. I imagine it seemed to them something that gentiles do. Which makes it odd that I had such a nostalgic affection for it—or perhaps that explains it. Either way, I went a number of times—with my brother in the 1980s, researching a story, then with my kids. They were three and four when I took them and wrote this column. The photos are from activities before the start of the circus, which was trying to be more interactive. Families got to pet animals, and performers were handing out peacock feathers and showing kids how to balance them on their faces. 

     Every so often, on a busy street corner, I will squint and try to summon back the pedestrians of the past, try to see the street scene as it might have been 40, 60, 100 years ago.
     It's the same street, the same corner. They were here, once, men in snappy fedoras, women in those wide, sloping hats, pulling on their white gloves as they stepped off the bus.
     Who's to say that it isn't the faintest flash, the flicker of some spirit of their humanity, lingering over the decades. Or maybe I'm just imagining things.
     That same yearning toward people past strikes me whenever I take in an entertainment that has been around for a long while, savoring the thought that I am doing something that people have always done.
     When I do something -- what's the opposite of cutting edge? Trailing edge. Something outmoded yet still -- incredibly, wonderfully -- here.
     For instance: this past Fourth of July, we joined a contingent of my wife's family to watch the Skokie Park District set off fireworks. Thousands of people were there, neglecting their computers, their Gameboys, ignoring all that virtual reality, IMAX and other more modern entertainment. Instead, they traveled to this spot, to spread out blankets, lay back and stare up into the night sky to watch explosions, tinted with powdered chemicals into brilliant hues, a treat that a Renaissance weaver or a Victorian wheelwright would instantly recognize and appreciate.
At the circus, 1999
   Ditto for the circus, the most famous of which, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, opened last night at the Allstate Arena.
     The circus is one of those things that shouldn't be here. Think about it. Ringling Bros. began its circus five years after the Civil War ended. It is a big extravaganza of animals and entertainers, something that traveled from town to town in the years before television, before radio, before movies, heck, before the automobile.
     It should have petered out 10 years ago, if not 20 years ago, bid farewell in a blaze of nostalgia, the pundits rumbling about TV and video games and pervasive pre-adolescent cynicism killing off our beloved icon, thecircus. Woolworth's is gone. Drive-in movies are virtually gone. Yet the circus endures. Complaints from animal rights activists and the rise of our pervasive entertainment culture have had no effect. The circus was big when it was the only show in town. And it's still big, muscling aside its younger progeny once or twice a year.
     Why? Who would bother heading to the Allstate Arena to watch a troupe of performing dogs when they can flip on the Nature Channel and go on safari? Who would want to see frolicking clowns when they could, far more easily and far more cheaply rent a video of Jim Carrey in "Liar Liar."  
Balancing peacock feathers.

     A lot of people, apparently.
     The circus is no marginal operation: It is camping in Chicago for nearly a month.
     I think it is because the circus satisfies something of the aforementioned kinship to the past. It is both real and unbelievable, alive and a link to our national heritage.
     The circus is a cliche, a cultural cliche -- the lions, the tigers, the clowns, the swaying elephants.
     Like most cliches -- think of Elvis -- it is encountered usually, not in its pure form, but through some reference to it. You see a picture of Elvis or hear his name evoked 100 times for every time you hear him sing a song on the radio. You see a kitschy clown painting or a hectic meeting described as "a three-ring circus" or a movie like Tod Browning's "Freaks" 500 times for every time you actually find yourself at a circus.
    It touches something youthful and enduring in us, a sense of wonder that modern life has yet to erase.
     Just to announce its arrival is to feel a certain thrill. Say the sentence: "The circus is in town." See what I mean?

                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 4, 1999

Monday, January 16, 2017

For some, Christmas just ended, with the Blessing of the Waters

Bless the waters (photo by Erasmia Smith)
     This could easily have been twice as long. The subject called for some background on the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Lt. Hostetler said some interesting things about being a military "chap" and having to keep up with service members 20 years his junior. But the column is limited to 700 words in the paper, and it's no good if it doesn't fit. I will point out that the two photos below were taken by his 16-year-old son. I'd say the boy had a bright future in journalism if only, you know, people had bright futures in journalism.

Lt. David Hostetler blessing the waters (photo by Isaac Hostetler)
     The sky was overcast and rainy. But before sundown, when David Hostetler, a Navy lieutenant and Greek Orthodox priest, began his service at a beach on an island in the East China Sea, the sun broke through the clouds.
     “Just as we started our prayers,” Hostetler said over the telephone last Monday from Okinawa, Japan, where he is stationed.
     Christmas is a fading memory for most by mid-January, its farewell marked by secular ceremonies: the Dragging of the Tree to the Curb, the Boxing of the Lights.
     Eastern Orthodox Christianity extends Christmas through Epiphany, which ended over the weekend, including a ceremony called the Outdoor Blessing of the Waters, commemorating Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River. One was held Sunday on the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with others earlier this month on the banks of the Illinois River in Peoria, the Rock River in Rockford and the Mississippi at St. Paul, Minnesota.
     Though the ceremony that caught my eye was performed by a former Chicagoan living with his family on a military base abroad. As befitting a former resident of the Windy City, Hostetler had to deal with a strong wind that battered his vestments....

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Racing for the cross (photo by Isaac Hostetler)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Let's live up to King's faith in us

"Moving In" by Norman Rockwell

    Martin Luther King Jr. Day is tomorrow—a holiday which Illinois was the first state in the nation to officially celebrate, thanks to the efforts of a state legislator named Harold Washington.
    But King's actual birthday is today, Jan. 15.  His message is even more important now that our president will be someone who openly appeals to racial bigotry. Who considers black people to be a uniform mass of hell dwellers, except of course for the few celebrities as vain, shallow and publicity-hungry as himself, who will agree to meet with him and pretend they are capable of addressing the deep-rooted problems that will certainly be neglected over the next four years. Not that they invented the practice.
     Exactly 10 years ago I wrote this column item. 

     Today is not only Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but one of the rare instances when the holiday -- officially set as the third Monday in January -- also falls on his actual birth date, Jan. 15.
     An apt coincidence, since King was 39 when he was murdered on a Memphis motel balcony, and would have been 78 today, which means that around June 1, by my calculations, will begin the period, stretching into eternity, when the man has been dead longer than he was alive.
     Making this an appropriate moment to remind ourselves of the importance of King's legacy.
     The marches and the speeches are what get mentioned -- they make good sound bites for the 10-second glance on television. But protest and eloquence were only the means, not the substance of what is -- in my opinion -- the reason King gets his own federal holiday alongside George Washington and Jesus.
     Martin Luther King Jr. showed America the way. If you look at what kind of society we were 50 years ago, the oppression and the misery, the racism and the hate, and what kind of society we are today, or at least what kind of society we aspire to be, and ask how we got here, without revolution, without more than minimal blood-letting, the answer is: because a black preacher from Georgia decided to embrace non-violence and face his enemies with courage, dignity and faith -- faith both in his religion and faith that America would, when pressed, embrace the ideals it was founded on but ignored for so long for so many. And the nation did, eventually.
    Which makes King a patriot, in my eyes, and I hope in yours, too. I know I'm putting out my flag this morning, marching my boys onto the cold porch to cover their hearts and say the pledge, and I'll explain to them why this is a holiday and why it is important. And if you do so, too, then we'll have a better country tomorrow than we have today, and the legacy of Dr. King will be well-served.

    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 15, 2007

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"Shelves and shelves and shelves"

      "This is the flesh-eating beetle room," said John O'Connell, pushing open a brown door labeled "Dermestid Beetle Colony." 
     We were on a quick behind-the-scenes tour at the Field Museum last Saturday, the start of a whirlwind week that would include talking with a Marine priest in Japan, watching President Obama exit Air Force One at O'Hare, and driving nearly 600 miles to visit with the good folk of Wayne County. 
     Those last three experiences were for the newspaper. But I didn't want to let our extra-curricular jog through the upper reaches of the Field vanish into oblivion without setting a little down here because really, how many people get to do that? 
     The average culture hound likes to hit hot museum exhibits early, so as to be among the avant-garde. I'm the opposite; I tend to put off visiting until at the last possible moment, pressed by time, prodded into action only because they're about to  vanish forever. That was the case with the terra cotta warriors. My older son had seen the excavation site in China, my wife was eager to go, and I mentioned this to O'Connell, a major gifts officer at the Field, whom I had met at a party at the Tattoo show the day the Cubs won the World Series. We were slipping in just before the show closed,  and he asked if I'd like to see the extensive and fascinating off-limits area of the museum. I did.
     The dermestid beetles are used to turn animal carcasses into skeletons to be kept for research and display. No photos are permitted within, and just as well, because it's grisly business. We entered through a pair of doors, which I thought at first was to control the smell of decay—not bad really, compared to the morgue—but actually done to keep the beetles from escaping into the museum.     "If these get loose, it's Goodbye dioramas!" he said.
     O'Connell estimated there are 30 million objects in the Field collection. "Shelves and shelves and shelves," he said. "More shelves. It just goes on and on. It's a pretty incredible place." I enjoyed noting the titles on the door. The Field has a resident artist, painting watercolors of birds for exhibits. We'll have to meet over the long winter.
     He didn't have access to the drawers of preserved birds—I'll return to see those too—but I got to ogle some specimens of the Field's wet collection: jars of squid and and fish and crabs. The lengths of corridors went on and on, and we raced through (time was short because we had to get up to Evanston to rendezvous with our younger son) I felt convinced that I could be designated the Field Museum reporter and spend the rest of my career happily going from door to door, writing columns. How readers might react to that is another matter. I doubt they wake up thinking, "I wish I knew more about brachiopods."
    Great age has a way of adding an aura of preciousness to the most mundane object. A kernel of corn is garbage to be swept away on your kitchen floor. But a kernel of corn on the floor of an Egyptian tomb is science and history. I am not a particular fan of ladies' straw hats. But when O'Connell opened a draw of hats left from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, I marveled at their preservation and thought of the kind of dutiful stewardship that tended them, like relics, for the past 124 years. It made me think of ISIS blowing up monuments from antiquity, a cultural barbarity in keeping with their human barbarity, and prompted a thought I've never had before: Chicago has never been bombed. The Civil War never drew near. The cataclysms of the 20th century were oceans away. One disastrous fire in 1871, and then unbroken peace and safety, at least safety from outside harm. God knows we generate our own harm from within. Still, compared to a city like London or Berlin or Tokyo, much to be thankful for. Which is quite the weighty message to be carried by a fragile, century-old straw hat, but certainly one worth going out of your way on a Saturday to receive.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Ready to square off over a little knowledge.


     My cousin Harrison and I were doing what thinking people do nowadays—comparing our sense of deep foreboding over the advent of such a reality-averse president—and discussion slid into the eclipse of intelligence. He pointed out a scene in Broadcast News where a network executive tells Holly Hunter he imagines it "must be nice to always think you're the smartest person in the room."   
     "No, it's awful,' she whispers.
     Sure is. One comfort is that Donald Trump didn't make being smart go out of fashion: I believe that was Nero, when he forced his tutor, Seneca, to commit suicide. The ability to think about stuff has always been a mixed blessing. True, you don't buy as many time share condo memberships or accidentally set yourself on fire quite as much as other folk. But you aren't part of the cheering crowd of like-thinking buddies either. 
     Not that I'm complaining. Being smart makes you tough—two qualities not often paired. In a few days we'll have a bullying dope in the White House. But I've been dealing with bullies ever since Trent Carruthers—bigger, stronger, older, meaner—lay in wait for me after Fairwood School in the 5th grade. I don't remember what particular offense singled me out for abuse from Trent, but I'd put my chips on my being smarter than he was, though I imagine THAT didn't take much doing.
     Anyway, my exchange with Harry brought to mind this column:

     This was years ago. But it is branded upon my mind. My wife-to-be and I were at another couple's house. The pizza was gone, and we were playing Trivial Pursuit, the type of thing people do before children pour kerosene all over your free time and drop a lit match.
     It was my turn. The other guy's wife read my question: "This American author lived at Walden Pond and wrote a book about it."
     Easy as pie, I thought. "Henry David Thoreau," I said.
     The wife—an emaciated woman with feathered hair—flipped the card over to read the answer. Her eyes widened. "How did you...?" she stammered, amazed. And then she seemed to get angry. She extended her middle finger and held out her arm full stretch until the insulting digit was an inch from my nose. She uttered the accompanying oath.
     That, in a nutshell, is the story of my life. Though I was not showing off—we were playing a game, she asked me the question—I am forever bursting forth with information that damns me as a brainiac, an intellectual. I would have sworn that every human being older than the age of 15 could have answered that question. Walden. Thoreau. But of course I would be mistaken.
     People have the wrong idea about smart people. We are not arrogant. We are not showoffs. We live in fear that our secret will be discovered and we will be humiliated and hated.
      Just the other day, I was at a meeting with several associates. I was relaxed, comfortable, just one of the group. We were talking about the 12 square miles of presidential palaces that Saddam Hussein wants to keep off-limits from the prying eye of international inspectors.
     "Twelve square miles!" the man across the table said. "A square, 12 miles on a side."
      Sweat sprang to my forehead. I squirmed. I glanced around, praying for someone to pick up the ball.
     "That sure is a big square—12 miles each way," another agreed. I felt like a secret homosexual listening to his construction worker buddies slam fags.
     I tried to keep my mouth shut. The conversation seemed to be moving on. There were five other people in the room. Nobody caught my eye and shared my pained "What should I do?" gaze of entreaty.
     Finally, reluctantly, I said it, in a hushed, flat voice:
     "Twelve square miles wouldn't be a square 12 miles on a side. It would be a square three miles by four—a rectangle."
     In truth, I expected a lot of forehead slapping and sheepish grins. I expected giant shrugs of embarrassment, arms flung out, Zorba-the-Greek style. I expected nervous laughter.
     What I didn't expect was argument. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then we began a heated discussion. If the matter could have been settled by a vote, then 12 square miles would now equal a square 12 miles on the side. I stuck to my guns, thinking of Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men."
     "Trust me," I said, "I am completely confident about this. A square 12 by 12 would be 144 square miles."
     I was given incredulous looks. Could this be a joke? That's ridiculous, one colleague said. "Twelve square miles is twelve square miles--12 miles square."
     We went back and forth. I thought of just giving up, of slumping back in my chair and letting it go. What am I, schoolmarm to the world? But we are a newspaper, and you ignore something like that, next thing you know it's in print.
     So I drew a graphic.
     "Let's say you have a room, 12 feet by 12 feet," I said, busying myself at a yellow legal pad. I drew a big square. "And let's say you want to carpet it. This is a square foot of carpet," and here I drew a little square. "And here is your room." And then I drew 11 vertical and 11 horizontal lines over my big square (11 because, to divide a line into 12 pieces, you cut it 11 times).
     "Now, you're going to the store to buy carpet. How many square feet, how many of these" and I tapped my little square box "do you need to go into this?"
     I'm not sure whether people eventually grasped it, or just pretended to so we could move on. I know I felt as if I had committed some brazen act of self-puffery, some unforgivable braggadocio routine.
     So have pity on people who know stuff. They live a lonely life.
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 11, 2002.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Obama place holder

     Let me tell you about the time I blew my deadline.
     The paper never reached for a column and came up empty. I like to think that's one of the reasons I still have a job.
     Trying to make sure it doesn't happen, I plan ahead. Tuesday I was going to deliver myself into the hands of the United States government, on a bus, hoping I had access to the Internet. But what if I didn't? What if Obama's plane was delayed, diverted, what if he never showed up and deadline loomed while I was shivering on a windblown tarmac? What if the press bus pulled into an unmarked warehouse and sat there for 12 hours? What if I couldn't file?
     Can't have that. So on Monday I cracked my fingers and came up with this, intended to be the Type O, Universal Donor, slap-into-the-paper-whether-Obama-shows-or-not column. 

     As it happened, Obama did show, did give his speech and I did write about it—I thought it lacked a necessary sense of outrage. This is the sort of thing that without a blog would never see the light of day. But since I'm driving down to beautiful Wayne County, Illinois, to research a story next week, and given that I think it makes a valid point, does have merit—at least I hope it does—I decided to share it with you here. As for tomorrow, well, I've never missed one of these posts yet either, in three and a half years, which I hope is an attribute and not a flaw. Something in Wayne County will present itself, and they must have Internet by now. If not, well, there's always a first time. I kept my working title because doing so seemed apt.

     So the story's ending, what's the moral?
     Okay, not ending. Barack Obama is leaving the White House phase of his career and entering a long golden twilight of speeches, fundraisers and golf. Something less frantic than the gerbil-on-a-wheel efforts of Jimmy Carter, hammering together low income housing and fighting tapeworm in Africa, but more visible than the vanishing act of George W. Bush. His own personal saga.
     What did it all mean?
     He was the first black president—did anyone mention that yet? They did, enough times that it became like a ball peen hammer on a sheet metal. Because Obama didn't have to do anything to be that first black president, once elected. Just show up. Isn't it the racism of low expectations to emphasize that now, after eight years? He was the first black president on Day One.
     Not to diminish the pride that black people feel, at his being president. You walk taller when the home team wins. I remember when Joe Lieberman ran as Al Gore's vice president in 2000, and a Christian columnist at another paper pronounced it no big deal. Yeah, I thought at the time, if you're not Jewish. If you are, nervously scanning the day to see if you should make coffee or flee for your life, then that kind of acceptance is welcome reassurance you can go ahead and grind those beans.
     So yes, the United States is not so stuck in the tar pit of racial bigotry that has dogged it for 400 years that it can't elect a black guy. Peal the bells, toss the confetti.
     But reassurance and complacency are cousins. Obama's presidency could just as easily be seen as a sign of how far race relations haven't come as how far they have. Sure, American's don't reflexively hate black people so much that 52.9 percent of voters, his most decisive victory, against Sen. John McCain in 2008--wouldn't cast a ballot for him. Not exactly a triumph.
     In office, Obama was opposed at every turn by an energized, maniacally-opposed Republican Party. The GOP gave him credit for nothing. They grudgingly acceded to his rescuing the auto industry, and the banks, and hauling the United States out of the cataclysmic financial crisis of 2008--an accomplishment that dwarfs the color of his skin, in my book--and then, when he did well, invented a fantasy administration of failure more to their liking. The unemployment rate was 7.8 percent when Obama took office; it's 4.7 percent now. Yet 64 percent of Republicans told pollsters unemployment rose under Obama. The Dow doubled during Obama's administration. Nearly 40 percent of Republicans think it fell.
     Has a single right winger said, "You know, the Obamas, they were a good first family. Daughters never showed up at discos drunk. First Lady of grace and dignity and beauty." Not one. Instead, as if the effort of holding their tongues was too great, the chorus of abuse swelled ,as if they were going to lose the chance. They hoped he would die.
That has to be, if not the moral of the story, then a hard lesson worth stating, because beneath the pride, I'm sure there is grim awareness that what I say is true. That a black guy can maybe snag a good job, despite overwhelming odds, excel against fierce resistance, and still have people calling his wife an "ape in heels."
     Then we elected Donald Trump, smashing the presidency as if it were a communal coffee mug that the new black employee had used.
     The senator I ran into quite frequently at the East Bank Club a decade ago was brittle and aloof. Being president made him warmer and more thick-skinned. Does anybody expect Trump to react that way? His bullying and touchiness will only intensify, if that is possible. And it will be hard for Americans not to claw the air where Obama had been, to wonder why the thoughtful, deliberate, intelligent man who was also black isn't here, to unchain the lightning of the English language and bind up our wounds. To, if not solve our problems, God knows, then make us at least hope our problems could be solved. Now we've got a president who doesn't heal wounds, he inflicts them.
     We're going to miss Barack Obama more than we realize now. I sure will. I'm missing him already.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Obama holds a pep rally for a game his team lost

     I spent about six hours in the White House Press Pool Tuesday, tailing Barack Obama as he pin-balled around Chicago on his last visit as sitting president. And while the experience was not what I expected, we'll save that for another day. Here's my column on Obama's farewell speech, which ran in the paper Wednesday. 

     Barack Obama has talked his way out of jams before.
     When the dilemma was the bottomless obscurity of state legislature, facing years of downstate lapel-grabbing before, maybe, finding a toehold up the ladder, Obama conjured the audacity of hope at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, rocketing himself from Springfield, Illinois to the U.S. Senate and halfway to the White House.

When the difficulty was fallout from intemperate remarks made by Jeremiah Wright,, threatening to derail Obama's presidential campaign, the Illinois senator urged us to unite and strive toward our Constitution's goal of a "more perfect union."
     "We cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together," he told Constitution Hall in Philadelphia in 2008. "Unless we perfect our union by 
   understanding we have different stories."
     But the president was not in a jam, himself, Tuesday night, when he made arrived at the very windy city of Chicago for his farewell address before a rapturous crowd at McCormick Place. Obama is home free. Ten days left in his term, then he can devote himself to building a library glorifying himself, watching his younger daughter finish high school, lowering his golf handicap, and musing over the 7-figure deals corporations will dangle before former president....

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