Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Two tickets to Chicago

    Ritual is protective. Doing the same thing, the same way, all the time, might be timid. And it might be dull. But you cut a groove of experience, the walls of which prop you up as you hurtle forward. 
     Depart from that groove, well, you're free to roam, sure. But also free to careen into trouble.   
    When riding the Metra, the conductor appears at the front of the car and cries, "Tickets please!" 
     I pull out my iPhone, assuming it isn't already in my hand, tap on the Ventra app, summon a new ticket up, and wait.
     And wait.
     Not long. A minute or so, as the conductor works his way toward me, my eyes upon him 
     That's how I do it. But it's also time wasted. Why not, I thought pop into another app, and fidget with that while waiting? I had something I wanted to explore, the app associated with my new Bose headphones—birthday gift from the wife. Then I would return to the ticket at the proper moment.
    I considered pulling out a paper ticket—kept in the wallet in case of phone freeze and other related emergencies. But no need. I've got this.
    The conductor approached. The Bose app had shunted me to iTunes which would not let me go. I mashed at the phone, impotently, and by the time I got to the ticket the conductor was looming above me. I mashed another button, showed him the ticket. 
    As he left, I realized I had somehow, in my panic, purchased two tickets.
    $6.40 down the drain.
     There is an inverse between the minuteness of a woe and its reverberantion. The county might be run by a crook, but that is not my doing. This was. I explained what happened to my wife, who was nonplussed.
    "Forget it," my wife said. "Price of a cup of coffee."
    Not any coffee that I'd buy.
    My next thought was to head to the conductor. But the aisles and entryway were filled with commuters—the trains have been shorter lately. I'd have to push past them. The conductor would be busy.
    To my credit, I forgot all about it the moment I left the train station. I had planned to phone Metra—I can't be the first goofus to waste an electronic ticket. What was the procedure, the protocol? But I didn't call Metra. There was a column to write, a friend to meet for lunch. We sat at a table by the river on a perfect June day.
     Then to Union Station where, slipping onto the train, it came back to me. My Gaffe. I took a seat at the very back of the car, by where the conductor usually set up shop. He was a man perhaps 20 years my junior, all business, like most Metra conducror.. I explained The Situation to him.
    "No worries, happy to help out," he said, explaining that he would waive the ticket on the way home. "We always try to do what we can."
     A few minutes later he came through the car, collecting tickets. And though we had an agreement, and I had used my two tickets that day, as he came toward me, it felt odd, almost illicit. I didn't like not handing over a ticket to be punched I remembered traveling in with the engineer once, in the cab, for a column. The conductor came up to the engine to collect not only my ticket, but the Metra PR guy. Even conductors have to show tickets.
     But I endured. Later, talking about it with another conductor, he pointed out that conductors tended to know the people who rode their trains. Even if not by name, they knew who was there frequently and who was not. You show your ticket dutifully for almost 20 years, taking pains to make sure you are ready so as not to inconvenience or delay the conductor, well, it buys you some goodwill on the day you screw up.


Monday, June 17, 2019

On traffic lights, beehive and vaccinations


     Think about traffic lights.
     They hang at intersections in every city and town, endlessly cycling through green to yellow to red, then back to green again, telling drivers when to stop and go.
     Silent sentinels, automatically observed and unquestioningly obeyed. Like idols really.
     Like gods.
     Let’s say this situation genuinely offends my understanding of my faith, which commands “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” and warns against the worship of false idols. Let’s further say that I take to setting up a ladder at stoplights in the middle of the night and painting the lenses black.
     God, in His infinite wisdom, will direct traffic safely through the intersections.
     How will society react to this sincere expression of my religious faith? Will it respect me? Or will it throw me in jail?
     Jail, and rightly so. Because my ability to practice a particular personal belief stops when it harms other people and tears down social order.
     The above, metaphorically, is the exact situation regarding vaccines — well, maybe not the painting-over part. So let’s say I drive heedlessly through red lights, aghast at the imposition society would inflict upon my personal freedom. 

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Put the moss in context: A visit to Clever Rabbit

     My younger son turns 22 today. So Friday night we took him out for a birthday dinner. His girlfriend is a vegan so he selected a restaurant with a deep vegetable menu, Clever Rabbit on Division Street in Wicker Park.
     Not purely vegetarian, but "veggie-focused," which should have been a tip-off. I always say that vegetarian restaurants must be excellent, that mediocrity is a luxury they can't afford, because otherwise nobody would go there. With meat on the menu, indifference has a foot in the door. 
     But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The place has a pleasant, severe aesthetic, and I admired a wall of moss by the host's station.
     "Is it alive?" I asked our waitress.
     "It's still alive, but not living," she replied. 
      That isn't a contradiction to someone who just turned 59.
     "I know the feeling," I said. 
      After we ordered, I excused myself and went over to take a photo, first asking permission of the host, a young man in his mid-20s.
      "May I take a photo of the moss?" I said.
      "Everybody does," he sighed. 
       Oh. There is a certain small shame in doing what everybody does, but I took the picture anyway, already feeling conspicuous. Then I compounded the error.  I liked the close-up detail, but felt the moss should really be placed in context.
     "Do you mind if I include you in the photo?" I said. He said he didn't, but something about his manner, which I took as an embarrassment, a frost, made me feel he really did mind, but was indulging a crank.
     I had made another mistake.  
      I retreated to the table, but the encounter percolated, slightly. I decided to lay out the situation for family feedback.
      "It was if he felt I were some creepy old guy taking his picture for some strange purpose," I said. "I'm tempted to go back and try to explain that I'm not. I just wanted to put the moss into context for my blog. But my sense is, that would only make matters worse."
      Everyone heartily agreed that yes, it would make matters worse, and I should let it go. Which I did.  We enjoyed a festive meal, with much laughter and conversation.
      Dinner consisted of a variety of plates—carrot dumplings and wings, for appetizers, then a rhubarb tart, asparagus and burrata, a cheese plate, a burger that we cut in quarters and shared, except of course with our new vegan addition, who had plenty to eat, she claimed. I tried both of the two non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu, and they were fine. Service was desultory, and while we had a good time, that was more our doing, without much assistance from the Clever Rabbit.  The place opened two years ago, and while it is a pleasant space to sit, it wasn't one of those restaurants you love at first nibble and are keen to go back to.  Maybe that explains the unenthusiastic service. It's almost as if they know.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"Gootchie-gootchie goo."

Madam Roulin and her Baby, by Vincent Van Gogh
Metropolitan Museum of Art
     There are more ways to screw up a newspaper story than you can shake a stick at.
     Checking one thing, you overlook something else.  Confident in one scrap of information, you don't check it, but it's nevertheless wrong, your certainty be damned. Stick your finger in one leak and water pours out another. Tread softly where you ought to stamp hard, push hard against something you ought merely caress. Use a word that means one thing, to you and readers seize on a different meaning and, waving it over their heads, assign you a string of imagined malign motives to go with it. You mean to check a fact, but forget to do so, or do check and still somehow manage to get it wrong. 
     I would never be so bold, for instance, to put communications expert Abdon Pallasch's name in the paper without checking the spelling, even though I've known him for 20 years. since he was a colleague at the paper.
      So last week, using his name, I checked it, again, noted how it was spelled, again, and promptly dropped the "c."
      He was very civil about it. I leapt to correct the misspelling, reader sneers about "Medill Fs" fluttering in the back of my mind like luna moths around a porch light, brushing them away by taking comfort in the fact that I didn't neglect to check it. I just failed to stick the landing.
      I checked it again, just now, to be sure. It's right. Abdon M. Pallasch.
      I hope.
      The same week, I wrote something about encountering a pregnant friend, whom I described as "big as a house," which, in my male eyes, was a synonymous for "very pregnant," which she was, given that she gave birth three days later.
     Turns out "big is a house" is, if not quite an insult or the language of hate, is some species of body shaming. Readers complained, and sprang to her defense on Facebook.
     Ouch. I was trying to be nice. If I thought it wasn't nice, I wouldn't have said it. I apologized to her.  She was very civil about it.
Alexys Fleming
     Then there was something that never got in the paper that was almost scary, like a speeding CTA bus brushing past my cheek. 
     In the same column describing the birth, I mentioned the most influential online presence in Chicago, a 26-year-old make-up artist named Alexys Fleming. I described her as "an almond-eyed beauty" because, well, look at her.
      It seemed a dry, neutral, journalistic description of reality as set before me. It seems "almond-eyed," I was told by a concerned editor, is a slur against Asians, Which I didn't think was relevant here, since she isn't, or doesn't seem to be, Asian. But such niceties are meaningless in the free-fire zone of social media. Unfamiliarity with the catalogue of offense and purity of heart are no defense, I thanked the editor and took the offending words out, along with "beauty" while I was at it, since, upon reflection, males commenting upon the attractiveness of females, particularly those half their age, is no doubt an invitation to objection as well. Why hand somebody a mallet and lower my head unnecessarily?
    Then in Friday's column, I quoted myself saying "Gootchie-gootchie goo" while poking a silicon fetus doll. It was an accurate transliteration of what I uttered. Transliteration can't really be wrong. "Hanukkah," "Hanukah," "Chanukah," and the dozen other variants are all stabs at חנוכה.
     But was what I said proper? It never occurred to me to ask. But it occurred to others.
     Reader Jim Lanham writes, in a form almost amounting to a poem:
Isnt it coochie coochie coo?Never (unless im crazy)heard it as gootchie?Source? This could be an interesting story in itself
     Sighing, I contemplated my reference library. There was a Betty Boop, 1920s, makin' whoopee tone to "coochie coo," so I started with my Oxford 20th Century Words. 
    Bingo, first try:
     cooch n (1910) a type of erotic dance. US slang. A shortening of hootchy-kootchy (1898) in the same sense, who origins are obscure. Also used as a verb.
      Which would endorse "coochie coo." Looking for anything close to "gootchie," I found "goo-goo eyes," defined as "amorous glances," which makes matters even worse. And people think of etymology as a victimless crime. Trying to find the derivation of the baby babble uttered spontaneously brought a creepy vibe to innocent teasing of ersatz babies. 
     The "t" seems idiosyncratic to me, a rare variant: online, it's usually "goochie-goo" though there is a flyspeck town of Gootchie in Australia, or was. I couldn't find any current references to such a place.
     It gets worse.  As I thought about "gootchie goo," I began to suspect it might have a shade of mock Indian—whoops, Native-American—speech, along the lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's once-famous  poem "Hiawatha": "On the shores of Gitche Gumee/Of the shining Big-Sea-Water..."
    So shades of inappropriate eroticism AND bigotry. Just lovely. I'm lucky to have survived last week with my job intact. It's amazing one is able to write at all, and while my career doesn't seem to be blowing up over "gootchie goo," it's only a matter of time. Ignorance of the law is no defense.

Friday, June 14, 2019

This cute baby wants me to run your life

      A reader sent a pair of babies to me at the newspaper this week. One white, one brown, delivered in a padded envelope.
     What should I do with these babies? Enroll them in pre-school, I suppose. Never too early.
     Though pre-school is expensive. Maybe we should bond first. I pick one up — the white one, judge me harshly if you must — and wiggle an index finger against its tummy.
     ”Gootchie-gootchie-goo!” I say.
     The tummy feels rubbery. That can’t be good. Maybe I should consult a pediatrician. Though any doctor would probably icily observe that my babies seem to be made of silicon. Those darn vaccines ...
    Does that mean they are not real babies? I don’t know. They look like babies, and by the standard of religious fanatics opposing abortion, something that LOOKS like a baby IS a baby.
     Even if it’s not.
     The babies came with an explanatory letter, from Anthony L. — I’ll shield his full name, since I don’t exhaust my entire store of kindness on the fetuses of women I’ve never met. He claims my column on May 20 about the deceptive practices of those fighting to curtail women’s reproductive rights “is FALSE NEWS and you should correct it.”
     False? My goodness. In what way?
     ”In this article you state that a first trimester fetus (Latin for baby) is the size of a watermelon seed. Since you do not normally fact check your articles, I thought I would make it easy for you to see. I sent you a white and brown baby. The model is 10 to 12 weeks in size.”

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Flashback: 2009: Woodstock ruined my life

     Those hoping to throw a 50th anniversary Woodstock concert hit another snag this week, losing their upstate New York venue. Added to their loss of financial backing and of their production company, you'd almost think fate was trying to give them a hint: move on.
     No such luck. The Baby Boom has been clinging to and venerating their great moments of youth for decades and are carrying that practice into their senescence, a habit I decried at the concert's 40th anniversary. 

     Screw Woodstock
     Really, I mean it. If you're my age—I was 9 when the three-day concert took place—you noted the 40th anniversary of the key event of our culture's endless 1960s nostalgia by thinking, "Gee, have I really been listening to these goofs celebrate themselves for only 40 years? Because it feels like 400."
     Doesn't the self-regard and self-significance make you want to vomit? OK, 400,000 people gathered for a rock concert and didn't kill each other—big flippin' deal. Ten years later, in 1979, 1.2 million people showed up in Grant Park for a mass with Pope John Paul II, and you never hear them claiming it was a rend in the time-space continuum. Even more people are flocking to the lakefront for the Air & Water Show this weekend, and we don't act like it's some giant epochal moment—just another summer weekend in Chicago.
     Woodstock ruined my life, sort of. Imagine growing up, an impressionable child, watching all those supposedly pivotal 1960s event—Woodstock, the riots at the Democratic National Convention, the moon landing—on your parents' black-and-white Zenith TV in the living room of your suburban tract house in Berea, Ohio.
     It quickly gave the impression that we lived in Noplace, that life, the important stuff in life, was always going on Somewhere Else. That, by 1974, every significant thing that might conceivably happen had already occurred. I had missed the feast but was free to pick over the scraps, had missed the party and arrived for the cleanup, the dismal denouement of the 1970s, a miserable void of disco and leisure suits and meaninglessness, at least by the judgment of the people who had so much freaky fun at Woodstock while we were busy learning cursive.
     Doesn't it ever go away? How long must we gaze raptly at the enormous waddling rump of the Early Baby Boom? Forever? Not that we want our turn, no way—hard experience has made us better than that. Should anyone announce that, for instance, the 1977 World Series of Rock at Cleveland Municipal Stadium was an earth-shattering moment of bottomless significance, at least I'd have the honesty to say, "Hey, buddy, I was THERE, and it was just 90,000 teens guzzling wine out of botas and listening to Peter Frampton."
     How come nobody who was at Woodstock has the guts to say that? Nobody says, "You know, standing in a downpour, cold and hungry and listening to Alvin Lee wasn't really all that magnificent an experience. In fact, it was miserable, and it didn't mean a damn thing."

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, August 16, 2009

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Take cabs while you can or soon there won’t be cabs to take

Uber Eats delivery driver in Santiago, Chile this April. 

     Our flight to Chicago was delayed. So my brother and I retired to a wine bar next to the gate at the Denver airport and ordered the cheese plate. Conversation shifted to arrival home.
     ”Are you cabbing it or Ubering it?” he asked.
     ”Neither,” I said, delighted at the spontaneous riddle I had handed him.
     My brother chewed on this koan.
     ”Ohhh,” he said, realization dawning. I don’t believe he actually said, “Lucky man!” and socked me admiringly on the shoulder, but rather made some kind of appreciative sound I interpreted that way.
     My wife was picking me up. In this frenetic era of Snapchat and Lyft, we still cling to the tradition that you personally collect loved ones arriving at an airport. To not do so is a snub. If my wife were flying home and I told her to take a taxi I might as well make up my bed in the garage.
     This is habit, not law. As the flight delay stretched into evening and the weather soured, she messaged me, asking: do you mind getting home yourself? I did not, understanding her reluctance to be an after-effect of when I came home from South America. She had braved a mid-April blizzard to pick me up at Midway, an experience so harrowing we skipped the ritual glomming of a dozen donuts at Huck Finn’s and simply bolted home.

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