Monday, April 23, 2018

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition to Beto O'Rourke


     "We have to hope and pray that things turn around in November," a friend said over dinner on Friday.
     I felt a muscle in my jaw tense.
     "If only Ted Cruz could be defeated in the Senate," a Facebook friend mused. "But I'm not holding my breath. Texas is a red state ... So I wouldn't bet on Cruz losing this year. But I can dream, can't I?"
     Hope. Pray. Dream. A certain peasant fatalism has crept into Democratic thinking.
     Not without reason. Our nightmare president builds his cult of personality every day while the party supporting him sheds its values and beliefs, rolling at his feet like puppies.
     Yet surrender is premature. Our nation was not forged and preserved by a bunch of quitters.
     So while I try to religiously avoid all Facebook debates as pointless time sinks, I couldn't resist commenting after his "dream" remark: "Well, that and send Beto O'Rourke money. I am."
     Everyone knows who Ted Cruz is. The most hated man in the Senate. "Lucifer in the flesh," in John Boehner's memorable description. But who is Beto O'Rourke? He is the Democrat running against Cruz this November and doing surprisingly well. Last week, a new poll showed a close race, Cruz leading 47 to 44 percent. O'Rourke has raised more money than Cruz, thanks to small donors such as myself.
     No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas in 24 years, so it's a long shot. But Satan's senator is obviously scared.
     Even before O'Rourke's victory in the March 6 primary was confirmed, his campaign aired a radio commercial mocking O'Rourke's first name, accusing him of changing it to appeal to voters. In response, O'Rourke released a photo of himself as a toddler, wearing a sweater with "Beto" — his nickname since birth — stitched across the front.
     Cruz's actual first name is "Rafael," a reminder that Trump does not hold monopoly on either deceit or hypocrisy.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Cookie dough wins

     "Pick up some romaine lettuce," my wife said on Monday. 
      I was going to the supermarket and asked what we needed.
     "Okay honey," I said. Romaine hearts were on sale, two packages for $4. Seemed like a deal, because usually they cost three or four bucks apiece. Though we already had a package at home, I eat a salad almost every day. No harm in stocking up. The stuff lasts a while.
     "Throw away the romaine lettuce," my wife said on Wednesday, pointing to a Centers for Disease Control directive that romaine might be tainted with deadly E-coli.
     "Okay honey," I said, thinking, guess that's why it was on sale. 
     I'll be honest. Left to my devices, I would take my chances and just eat the stuff, washing it first, as I always do—a vigorous dousing in the salad spinner—Get behind me, Satan! All you germs, down the drain!
     It's not that I'm against caution. I wear my seatbelt and my bicycle helmet, usually. I look both ways crossing the street and own a variety of insurance.
     But certain kinds of caution are a bridge too far. The worry about salmonella from cookie dough, for instance. I once crunched the numbers for getting salmonella from raw eggs, and they're infinitesimal. Which means, in a country of ... check ... 325 million people (crikey, I thought it was 310 million; they'r reproducing like rabbits!) that somebody is going to get salmonella from raw eggs. But it probably won't be you. So grab a spoon and scrape away, clutching the big stainless steel mixing bowl to your chest, going after that delicious dough, beaming like a child, as primal a joy as there can be (well, ahem, ignoring a primal joy or two).
    Why pitch the lettuce but eat the cookie dough? A good question, and one that deserves a logical answer.
     We can eliminate the listen-to-your-wife factor, because she certainly shook her finger in my face vigorously about the cookie dough, to which I responded with a shrug and a lick of the wooden spoon.
     If that isn't it, then what?
     In the case of the lettuce, the tiny risk of sickness is weighed against the loss of a $4 investment in produce (it's not worth four bucks to spend 45 minutes returning it to Jewel, assuming they would take it back, which they might not). It's not worth $4 to risk getting sick. Caution wins. 
     In the case of the cookie dough, the tiny risk of sickness is balanced against a lifetime of eating raw cookie dough when the opportunity arises. As barren a prospect that can be imagined, especially in a life where a few pleasures have already been pitched over the side in the name of survival. So in the tug-of-war between tiny risk of sickness and decades worth of cookie dough, cookie dough wins.
     Make sense?

Flashback 2011: "Got $5 million? Give it to the Goodman now!"


    Be careful what you wish for.
     Because my fervent mumblings, asking God why, WHY won't somebody significant run against Rahm Emanuel were answered by a flash mob of potential opponents, led by former police superintendent Garry McCarthy, crawling out of the tar pit where he and the other Ditka-grade knuckle-draggers reside and tossing his tiger skin in the ring.
    Now I've been forced to re-evaluate my visceral loathing and years-long write-off of Rahm. Yes, he's a jerk. Yes, he mishandled the Laquan McDonald shooting—to be kind, either mishandled or is complicit in covering up a murder.
    But Garry McCarthy ... sweet Jesus no.
    The Sun-Times ran a story Saturday that after businessman Willie Wilson, one of the vanity candidates challenging Rahm, helped him out by blowing off the contribution cap. Rahm promptly raised $1.6 million by snapping his fingers. Which made me think of this column, from the early days of the Emanuel administration,  back when I still manfully struggled to like the man. 
    I don't know if I ever could again. But I suppose I might have to try. Despite his flaws, Rahm Emanuel does ... ah ... does have ... bi-lateral symmetry. That isn't saying he's human. But it's a step in that direction.

     Before he was mayor of the city of Chicago, before he was congressman from the 5th District, before he was an adviser to two presidents, Rahm Emanuel was a fund-raiser, and while I knew, in a dry intellectual fashion, that he was a good one, I really didn't realize just what that meant, on a gut emotional level, until I slid by the Goodman Theatre Thursday morning for breakfast.
     It was the sort of look-to-the-future event I normally wouldn't be caught dead at, but a variety of small nudges put me there: a) they asked (you'd be amazed at how many organizations screw up that part); b) there was food; c) the mayor would be there—that usually means something is worth glancing at.
     Coffee was being zupped, scones nibbled. I ran into my pal, the director Robert Falls, and teased him about his play "Red," starting Saturday. ("Gee Bob," I said, or words to that effect, in my best faux naive wide-eyed fashion. "That play was such a big hit on Broadway - whatever made you bold enough to decide to put on your own production here?")
      Then we moved to the auditorium, to listen to the five, count 'em, five speakers who went before Emanuel: Roche Schulfer, the Goodman executive director; Falls, its artistic director; Patricia Cox, chairman; Joan Clifford, the Women's Board President, and Shawn Donnelley, the immediate past chair.
      "This is a milestone in the long history of the Goodman Theatre," Schulfer began, with the rest of the remarks—plus a short film—recounting how the Goodman is an important institution, one that is culturally diverse, one which moved from its original home at the Art Institute 10 years ago, an edifice that helped revitalize the theater district, and now is well on its way to assembling a $15 million endowment to guarantee its continuance, having already snagged $10 million in pledges.
     As thrilling as all that is, I didn't see how it belonged in a newspaper column. I clicked my pen shut and tucked my notebook away.
     Then it was the mayor's turn to speak.
     "This is a no-brainer," he said. "You're here. You know what it's about. It's the last $5 million ... Here's the deal, folks: 10 years ago this was a dead zone. You've anchored something. People from around the world come here because of this theater. Finish it."
      The contrast between Emanuel and the sincere yet sedate directors and chairs who went before him was enormous. If the general emotional tone behind their remarks was this-is-an-important-cultural-institution-worthy-of-support then Emanuel's was the-house-is-on-fire-get-the-baby-out, where giving $5 million to the Goodman right now is the baby.
     As Emanuel continued, it turned out this isn't just about the Goodman. It was bigger; the fate of Chicago itself hangs in the balance.
     "When you think of downtown today, you think of the theater district," he said, jabbing a finger in the air. "You raised $10 million already. Finish it! You are not just a cultural institution, you are an economic engine. You know why you're here. Let's finish the job."
     But driving the economy of Chicago turned out not to be the full extent of it either; the future of creativity itself is at stake. No other city in the world allows artists their freedom.
     "In Chicago, you can create," he said. "You can't do that in New York, you fail [there], you might as well get a passport out of town because you're never going to succeed again. In Chicago . . . you can do something, maybe not make it, improve it, come back and do something. That's in the visual arts, architecture, theater, music, dance, in every other space. No other city has what we have."
     Bits of this I had heard before, but never had I experienced the full rendition, and it struck me, hearing him, that fund-raising is also a performance, when done well. Emanuel was doing the hard job of taking material people already knew and selling it to an audience.
     It worked; the donations are expected.
     "I would be surprised if we didn't get some today, he was so persuasive," Cox said after.
     Ever since the days of Daley I, the media saying anything positive about a mayor automatically is seen as an act of toadyism. Believe me, I'm loathe to do it; I have my own audience to think about. I'm eager to sink my pointy teeth into his leg as soon as possible.
     But Thursday wasn't the day to do it.
     It gets bad press, but fund-raising is an art, like acting on stage in a tragedy or playing the blues in a club or running the football at Soldier Field, and to the pantheon of uniquely Chicago peak artistic experiences—Brian Dennehy performing Eugene O'Neill at the Goodman, Muddy Waters perched on a stool, bending a note, or Walter Payton breaking a tackle on a Sunday afternoon—you have to include Rahm Emanuel shaking a cup for a good cause. It's a bravura performance.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 16, 2011

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Cool tools #3: Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise.

     The vise is the heart of any workshop. A vise holds what's being cut, steady and unwavering. You'll notice I've added an extra layer of support before bolting the Wilton—which has four bolts instead of the standard three—to my work table, to encourage it not to pull through the particleboard.
     The really extraordinary thing about this Wilton Tradesman Bench Vise is not that it weighs 70 pounds or its sleek green finish or that it rotates 360 degrees: it's where the glorious object is made: not China, not Mexico, but Carpentersville, Illinois. The company began in Chicago in 1941 by Czech immigrant Hugh W. Vogl, and while some production has moved down to the right-to-be-ripped-off-while-working state of Tennessee, these "bullet vices"—so-called because the screw is encased by a rounded casing that keeps out grit—are still made locally.

     Don't overlook the little square anvil area. Very useful.
   The obvious question is what connection does "vise," the badass tool, have with "vice," the bad personal habit? The romantic in me would conjure up a t00-easy answer: some medieval moralist opining how we are squeezed by the shame of our moral failings.
     The actual, the world-sucks-but-we-have-to-live-in-it answer is "there's no connection." In fact, "vice" is used for both the tool and the sin in most of the English speaking world, the depravity-related meaning being older, and tracing to the Latin "vitium," meaning, simply enough, "fault, or defect." The thing with jaws pressing together is from "vitis," or vine, which grow in corkscrews ("Vite" is screw in Italian). Without the casing that Wilton so handily features, the large screw mechanism was most distinctive. 
     In his great 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines vice as "1. The course of action opposite to virtue; depravity of manners, inordinate life" then "2. A fault; an offence." The third definition is, obscurely, "The fool, or punchinello of old shows," citing Shakespeare, and only in his fourth definition gets to "A kind of small iron press with screws, used by workmen" citing a Dutch word, "vijs," which must, like all of Johnson's etymologies, be taken with a big blue Morton canister of salt. 
     Only in the United States is the "vise" spelling generally used, trying to get a little distance I suppose between our tools and the urgings of Satan.
     It was this column, almost a decade ago, that first put the Wilton company on my radar. And in my basement.

     "This isn't Chinese. I can tell from the box, they're American," says Gordon Stade, holding a microphone and sitting high in a booth mounted on the back of a red Ford F-250 pickup truck parked in the middle of the Northbrook Garage. "What are they, Jerry? They're tire wrenches, boys."
     The "boys" are 50 or 60 men, substantial, hardworking men, many in baseball caps, some in bib overalls or leather jackets atop plaid shirts atop hooded sweat shirts. Others wear sleeveless T-shirts, one showing off a red-white-and-blue Chevy logo tattoo. They crowd in a circle around the truck, fully bearded or scraggly faced, pony-tailed or balding, rail thin or hauling around cantilevered beer keg guts. They are truckers and towers and garage mechanics, the kind of guys who would show up early Saturday morning to bid on one and a half centuries of clutter from what, until last weekend, was one of the oldest businesses in the United States, the Lorenz auto garage on Shermer Road, which began as a horse carriage repair shop in the 1840s.
     Think of how cluttered your garage is—now imagine that on an immense scale after five generations. Hydraulic jacks and chain hoists, tow cables and breaker bars and tires stacked chest-high. Huge hooks attached to pulleys the size of dinner plates. Shocks and wrenches and little boxes of little bulbs.
     And air hoses—red air hoses.
     "I'm going to sell 'em to you, you can send air all over the farm," says Stade, a livestock auctioneer, himself in business 55 years out of Huntley. "Fifty? Who'll give me 10? Now 20. Now 30."
     Not being in the market for a 25-ton press or an acetylene outfit or the hood from a Firebird, I didn't plan on attending the auction. But the warm weather drew me outside, and I wandered over—the brick garage, built in the early 1920s, looks like something out of a train diorama and is only two blocks from my house.
     I take my place among the men gathered around Stade's pickup truck, which moves along the center of the garage, selling first one pile of stuff, then another. A pair of axes goes cheap —I could use a good axe—so I think to register at the trailer in the back, resolving not to buy anything I don't actually need.
     So no 5-Speed Heavy Duty Drill Press produced by Central Machinery of Hollywood, Calif. No hubcaps from a Nash Rambler. No "Your LaSalle—An Owner's Manual" from 1938.
     "We're selling the trailer, boys," says Stade, who wears a cowboy hat and speaks in an easy, burbling patter. If the family farm has to go, this is the guy you want selling it.
     "He's really good at what he does; he'll get more per item than anybody," observes a big bearded man standing next to me, Chris Horcher of Horcher's Towing of Wheeling. Horcher is here for trucks and chains—"I would have bought more, but he was getting more than the chains cost new."
     I don't want to fall into that trap. But when the longest industrial extension cord I have even seen in my life is held up for sale, I remember scrambling to piece together every cord I own. One hundred feet of heavy-duty orange extension cord goes to bidder No. 106—me—for $6, and lugging the coil makes me feel like less of a well-scrubbed scribbling toff amongst men who actually work for a living.
     I pause to admire a vise—two feet long, made by the Wilton Tool Corp. of Schiller Park. Dappled with 50 years of hammer blows and saw nicks, worn, with a dust brown patina, it looks more like a natural formation, something carved by the wind perhaps, than an object manufactured by human hands.
     "You need a vise?" asks a guy, who sees me examining it. "These are not made in China, you know."
     "Every man needs a vice," I answer. "And frankly, I've been lacking in the vice department lately."
     But this is not the crowd for wordplay. I hang around for more than an hour, hoping to snag the vise, or at least one of the tire irons—those big metal X's, not the little jack sticks that comes with cars nowadays. Lunchtime approaches, however, and I decide to leave the tools to those who really need them. I am also afraid that I'll shrug and make the easy observation: that, as if our big car companies failing were not bad enough, now even the corner car repair shop is going down, breaking apart and spilling its contents to the winds.
     Despite the fever dreams of the village fathers, I can't imagine a hip restaurant opening in this yawning cavern. I can't see the high-ceiling space, with its skylights and metal struts, becoming a mall—a candle shop and an olive oil boutique and a stand selling artisanal cheeses—not one that ever progresses beyond an artist's drawing published in the Northbrook Star. My bet: It'll sit empty for the next five years.
      That goes without saying. More worthwhile noting is that my wistfulness for the Wilton vise was misplaced—Wilton, now of Elgin, made its first vise in 1941 and is still going strong. The Wilton Web site touts 132 vises—though whether they are made in China or here, I could not immediately determine. Either way, I might have to pick one up because sometimes a man needs a vise.
    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 9, 2009


Friday, April 20, 2018

And then there's all that trouble ordering the cake...

     Adolf Hitler's birthday is Friday, and here I am without a present.
     Or a person to give it to—well, there's Arthur J. Jones, the sorta-Nazi running for Congress on the Republican ticket. We'll get to him later.
     April 20. Hope it passes peacefully. Ever since April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School, kicking off the current era of mass school shootings, there's been a certain clenched expectation to the date, even though the pair actually planned their attack for the 19th, but delayed a day to collect more ammunition.
     The media unhelpfully increases the dread by lumping in April 19—it's so close!—with Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. But McVeigh was thinking, not of a pre-birthday blow-out for Hitler, but to avenge the deathes of 80 Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, on April 19, 1993.
     Which is why it's good to pay attention to anniversaries. Terrorists sure do.
     The bright spin: at least they're remembering history. A poll released last week shows that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of Millennials, can't identify what Auschwitz was (oh, sorry kids: concentration camp—1.3 million people killed there. Notorious in its day. Now, obviously, not so much).

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Cool Tools #2: Eggbeater hand crank drill

     And sometimes all a tool has to do is hang there, looking beautiful. 
      Like this eggbeater drill.
      I wish I could tell you more about it. It looks very much like a Miller Falls hand drill, of the sort manufactured by the well-known Massachusetts company during the first few decades of the 20th century. 
      But I spent more time than I should have Wednesday looking through on-line sources about hand drills—I am not alone in my appreciation—and going over this drill with a magnifying glass. 
     Drills from Miller Falls and other noteworthy manufacturers all seem to have identifying hallmarks on them. This piece has nothing, which makes me think it is a lesser knock-off. 
     Though a well-made knock-off. Turn the crank and it purrs with a light zipping sound, the well-tools gears meshing perfectly after what has to be the better part of a century's use.
    Not so much use in recent decades, I imagine, as cordless electric drills have mooted this kind of thing, though I still use it occasionally for delicate tasks—countersinking a screw, for instance, where you want to make the smallest indentation and no more. Guides I've consulted recommend the drills for teaching young children carpentry, as they require two hands to operate, and a reckless child would really have to show determination to contrive to injury himself with it.
     Whatever the provenance, the drill  looks very much like the drawing that Herbert D. Lanfair submitted with his patent application On Aug. 13, 1895 he was granted Patent No. 544,411. This was an improvement over the C-shaped crank brace drill, that had been patented 40 years earlier.     If you notice in the first drawing, bits are held in the handle, and until I began my research, I didn't realize that the handle of my drill was hollow. Unscrewing it, I found eight blue steel bits, not spirally, like drill bits today, but simply cutting tips, like the ones shown here. 
     A reminder of how ancient drilling is, back some 10,000 years, when prehistoric man drilled holes by rubbing a stick with an obsidian point between his palms. 
       The bow drill was an improvement on that—the same dowel, with an iron bit instead of stone, twirled by a stringed bow, with the string looped around the stick so that it turned when the bow was drawn back and forth. 
       A variant of this was to wrap leather straps around the drill bit, which one man would hold upright in place, while another man pulled the thong, a process that I just read described in Emily Wilson's fine translation of "The Odyssey," where a sharpened, red hot olive spear is rammed into the eye of the sleeping Cyclops:
                                       ...I leaned on top
and twisted it, as when a man drills wood
for shipbuilding. Below, the workers spin
the drill with straps, stretched out from either end.
So round and round it goes, and whirled
the fire-sharp weapon in his eye.
     At which point we've probably said enough. Old tools are beautiful, not just for their aesthetic form—this this case the red wheel with its gently arching spokes—but because they remind us we are the latest stage of a very old tradition, that use of tools is truly what sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom.
     Yes, a few animals use rudimentary tools—digging for ants with sticks and such. But they do not recraft their world, for good and ill, the way we do. We've earned our nickname homo faber, "man the (tool) maker," 
    The phrase was first used by Roman politican Appius Claudius Caecus. He gave his name to a road, the Appian Way, and wrote in his book of proverbs, Homo faber suae quisque fortunae—"Every man is the maker of his own destiny." Which is largely true, again for good and ill. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How popular is 'The Big Bang Theory'? Even I watch it.

     Shame is funny.
     "Funny" as in odd.
     I have no trouble writing about personal stuff. My kids, my life. I once wrote a column about getting naked for a dominatrix. I've written about being an agnostic, about going to rehab, all the time my large head—which    I've also written about—held high.
     But a certain subject has been straining forward in its seat, going "oh oh, pick me!" For months and, coward that I am, I've been ignoring it.
     Because ... I'm ... well ... embarrassed.
     Okay, here goes.
     The Big Bang Theory.
     When I say to my wife after dinner, "Let's watch TV," what I mean is, "Let's watch 'The Big Bang Theory.'" The only show on television, now in its 11th season Thursday nights on CBS. Plus shown continually in syndication. Some nights TBS runs it seven times in a row, from 6 p.m. to 9:30. Reading the newspaper listings is like giving a hammer to a toddler: "BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG." 

    And there, on the couch, night after night, is Mister I-Don't-Watch-TV, aka me.
     At least I'm not alone. "The Big Bang Theory" is the top rated show on television. The most popular show in syndication for the past ... 338 consecutive weeks.
So what is the allure? 
     The premise—for the handful not familiar—would not seem something guaranteed to captivate a nation where half the citizens cower in self-constructed hallucinatory states. Viewers are invited into the lives of a pair of Caltech physicists, Dr. Sheldon Cooper and Dr. Leonard Hofstadter. We meet their colleagues: engineer Howard Wolowitz and astrophysicst Rajesh Koothrappali. Plus their loves—"Big Bang Theory" is probably the most risqué double-entendre title of a hit TV show)—Amy, Penny, Bernadette, and whomever Rajesh is seeing at the moment.

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