Sunday, February 28, 2021

Do it yourself.


     "You're going to have to put it together," my wife said. Which, in married couple code meant, "Can you put it together? Are you capable?" An IKEA console she was considering ordering online.
     Last summer we had hired someone to replace the water damaged drywall in what we still call nostalgically "The Toy Room" even though there are no toys there nor boys to play with them. In the fall, we had a maple wooden floor put down (by Chicago Hardwood Floors; the best) and painted the walls a marvelous blue—first slapping swatches of no fewer than seven sample colors (we had originally thought "Yellow!" and it took us a while to get to ("Not yellow!") I had installed a grand's worth of lovely white baseboard covers to replace the hideous beige rusted metal covers in place since the late 1950s. And after risking our lives in six or 10 furniture stores, bought a pair of leather recliners (Electric, which has a drawback. "They seem like medical devices," I noted). And a concrete-colored sofa. Consoles that you don't put together, but purchase at a real furniture store, cost a thousand bucks, or two. This one, the "Hemnes" from IKEA, costs $229. And looked pretty nice, at least online. Real wood. The web site links you directly to Task Rabbit, the chore site, which informed me that someone would come to a house in our Zip code and put it together for $38. But that would involve letting a person in the house, and be a personal failure of handiness on my part. She didn't say that. She didn't have to. I knew.
     "Sure,"I said. "I can put it together."
     Every bit of cultural static about assembling IKEA products is about how maddeningly complex they are and how confusing the instructions can be. The Internet is alive with web sites like "25 IKEA Assembly Fails" and "Six of the best IKEA furniture assembly fails." That didn't deter me. I figured, by doing it myself, I would be participating in the larger society that I've been cut off from for the past year, not that I ever was much a party of it. Assembling an IKEA console would be time consuming and vexing, but in a culturally-appropriate way, like going to a Bears game. And. wouldn't get cold. Bottom line, I welcomed the distraction.
     "It'll be a break from writing stuff," I said.
     The console arrived Saturday morning in two flat pack boxes. I threw on a mask, went outside and asked the delivery guys to take them around to the back of the house, where the Toy Room is. I figured I'd give each guy $10 if they did, but didn't say that. The driver looked at me as if I had asked him to dance.
     "We're not supposed to take it up the steps," he said, depositing his box at the base of our steps. The second guy put the second box there. They were heavy. With my back in mind, I kinda rolled them up the stairs, using a corner as a fulcrum to pivot each one up. That worked. Inside, I began to tear the boxes apart in our front parlor trying to open them. My wife suggested we keep the boxes intact, the implication being that I'd somehow fail to assemble them and we'd have to return the whole thing in shame. That wasn't happening. I ripped apart the boxes, and my wife and I carried the several dozen oddly shaped wooden pieces down to the Toy Room, plus enough hardware, screws and metal tabs and stuff, to assemble an automobile, in my estimation. In the Toy Room there was a carpet pad waiting for a carpet that was supposed to be delivered yesterday. That made the perfect staging area.
     It looked like the photo above.
     I poured a cup of Peet's, twisted in my Air Pods, and set to work about 11 a.m.

This one, not that one
     First I read the instructions. Well, not read, since there were no words. Looked them over, carefully, studying the pieces, the steps. Which is maturity. In the past, I'd just jump in, then later consult the instructions to see what had gone wrong. Not this time. I could see that they make a point of not only showing the builder what pieces to use, but which similar pieces NOT to use. That's smart. And useful.
     I assembled the drawers, and was thrown for a momentary loop because the bottoms, with their pre-printed lined liners, were only supported by a groove on two sides, front and back. This seemed a design flaw. Shoddy. They'd bow. I quickly realized that the metal pull assemblies also held the other two sides of the bottoms up. Not a flaw, but clever design. If I had to give one piece of assembly advice I learned Saturday morning, it's this: trust IKEA. They've figured this out. If you think they're wrong, they're not. It's just you haven't figured out their logic yet. It's there, waiting.
     I worked steadily away, finished the three drawers. It wasn't unpleasant, but almost athletic, a kind of IKEA yoga, standing over the parts, stretching, reaching, holding, pounding dowels with a rubber mallet, lining parts up. 
     At 12:37 p.m. I broke for lunch, checked the sterile and pointless online work, then returned about 1:20 p.m. I was glad to get back at it. It was like a hobby that requires focus, like building a ship in a bottle. 
     Maybe the chore gods were with me Saturday. Typically, my wife shows up at the precise instant when I've messed something up, as if my brain sends out a silent alarm and she hears it and comes running to witness the disaster aborning. Which usually makes it worse, looking up as the sickening oh-I've-botched-this realization hits to see my wife vectoring into the room smiling brightly with misplaced confidence in me, here to certify my shame. But now the several times she checked in were all at the exact right moment when I could use a second person—the instructions say you need two—to hold something, or 
consult over a puzzling glyph, or look for my screwdriver, which I had a tendency to put down and lose.
     We can cut to the chase. Just because I found it pleasant to go through the many steps to put together an IKEA console doesn't mean it's something interesting to read about. I lack the skill to do that, or at least the inclination to try. So I get it done, and flip the console over, and the thing looks wonderful. The wood stained, not painted. Real wood, not particleboard. The black knobs are less than ideal, but I only had that thought because my wife, in her due diligence before buying it, saw the hint online to class up the piece by buying higher grade festive porcelain knobs and replacing them. We plan to do that.
     After admiring it for five seconds, I did notice something amiss. The right side was projecting a millimeter or two from under the top, showing the slightest strip of beige unstained wood. I looked at its counterpart on the left side, and saw that it is tucked under the top, as you'd expect. I must not have pushed the right side all the way in during the initial stages of construction,. My wife saw it too.
     "Is that going to bother you?" she said, knowing my OCD way of being tormented by that kind of thing, and anticipating I might immediately tear the thing apart and begin again. Which I did consider. But then I looked at the physiognomy of the piece, which remember I had just constructed, and thus had not only a certain investment in, but knowledge of. Acting intuitively, I took the heel of my right hand, drew it back, and drove it as hard as I could against the part that was jutting out from under the top. It shifted perfectly into place.
     "There," I said.
     We moved it into its position against the wall. When I dragged the boxes to the recycling, I made a point to see where the Hemnes came from. Any guesses? Not the United States—my wife's guess. Not Sweden—where IKEA is based. Not Canada, source of a lot of furniture.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Texas notes: chickens

     Just when you think you've got a sense of Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey, a door opens leading to rooms you hadn't imagined, like today's post.

     When I pay too much attention to Blanche and Thelma they get seem to get excited and poop all over my porch. I tolerate it (and wash it away with boiling water from the kettle) since they are adolescent chickens.
     Being an urban girl from Chicago I never thought I’d live in a tiny house with nine backyard chickens. They are smarter and more social than I’d ever imagined. They all know their names, even if I keep mixing up Flo and Flossie. When you coo to them and tell them how pretty they are, they stare at you from one eye, head cocked, and loudly agree.
Blanche and Thelma are the youngest— they came to us as wee chicks several months back. Somehow buttery colored Blanche has sprouted up and resembles a clumsy Big Bird, tripping
around with bony knees. Thelma is always by her side. They travel as a pair, joined at the wing.
     They discovered my porch as soon as they got old enough to roam free. Each day I’d find them nestled under the passion vine flowers, or pecking away at the silver cover that fits over my bikes. I felt special that they had adopted my house as their favorite spot and it’s nice to have buddies waiting for you each day when you leave the house.        When I first moved in I could not pass the brood by without giving them a treat, which turned out to create little monsters. As soon as I opened my front door they'd come galloping towards me and calling out “Treats please! Now!” I’d alway think “Chicken Run,” and laugh to myself.   The bravest ones stand right in front of the metal cans of seeds 
to prevent me from passing without opening the lid. When I relent, at least one of them promptly flies to the lip of the can and I have to use the lid as a shield to keep her from jumping right in.
      Ruby is the boldest. Her partner Edna, orange and red like Ruby, lurks in the grass nearby while Ruby pecks away at my lower legs. It doesn’t hurt, but it does amuse me.
Flossie, Flo (foreground) and Lily 
   The more established girls are Alice and Lily, who both seem to be pretty independent. I often see light gray Lily calmly doing her own thing, and she’s never rude. She runs over too, but more demurely, and has never pecked or yelled at me. I believe she’s a Lavender Brahma, thus the elegance.
     Alice is the queen of the gang. She’s dark chocolate brown with a bright red beak. Finally, there’s Kouna, whose caramel colored feathers make me want to pet her. Which I don’t. Yes, you “can” pick up a chicken but they really don't seem to like it, from what I can tell.
     I write this
 with sadness, since finding out this week that the tiny home will only be mine until the end of April. It was always a temporary arrangement, yet leaving it is bittersweet. I look forward to new journeys, but will miss almost everything about this stint of living.”
     I will spend this weekend packing and cleaning and planning my next move. I have options in Austin and in Chicago, so time will tell.
     I will make time to sit on my porch and talk to the girls before I go.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Artist’s portraits capture our plague year

Phil Gayter, self-portrait
     The mask.
     We spend so much time complaining about wearing it, we might not have noticed how much the mask has come to define the past year, physically, emotionally and, yes, visually.
     But Phil Gayter, artist and ad man, has noticed, and is painting a series of masked portraits.
     “I decided to do a self-portrait, painting myself with bright yellow gloves and an N95 mask. That was the start,” said Gayter, who lives in Highland Park. “It was going to be a one-off. As the pandemic was setting in, I was spending more and more time at home, I had my daughter over, and I did a portrait of her in a mask.”
     Artists tend to work in themes — blue periods, haystacks series and such. Gayter saw potential in the masked subject.
     “All of a sudden I thought something’s going on here that I really, really like,” he said. “A coming together of myself as an artist and a business thinker, coming up with an idea that holds together. That’s what I do for my clients, create branded messages. The mask proved to be that point of distinction, allowing me to think of a collection of paintings that capture the moment, poignant yet whimsical.”
     Gayter, 63, was born in England.
     ”I went to Manchester Metropolitan School of Art and studied as a fine artist,” he said. “But being a working-class kid, being a painter was not going to make me financially secure, so I moved into advertising.”

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

The third side to the video game coin


     The guilty secret of columnists is we don't really want you to call back. We contact a subject because that is the fair and expected thing to do. But if you don't respond, it gives us the field to express ourselves, unencumbered by disagreement.
     Or maybe that's just me. Maybe other, more responsible writers are eager to get all sides, and water down their strong brew of opinion with a seltzer spritz of balance.
     So when I phoned State Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. to talk to him about his proposing a ban on sales of Grand Theft Auto to children, I expected to include a line that I had reached out to him and hadn't heard back, which itself is indicting.
     But he did call back, and made a strong case. Immediately, I saw the specter of white privilege rising before me. Here I am, snug in Northbrook, the son of a nuclear physicist, talking about science, while Evans is on the South Side, with his mom scared of being carjacked. There was only one thing to do in the column, and that was to present his side, fully and respectfully and hope that I wasn't merely folding.
     Not that the issue can be neatly divided between the two of us. There were other aspects to the question I never considered in my rush to present the issue, and am happy to share a pair of emails offering thoughtful perspectives.
     The first: 

     My name is Austin and I am a professional video game developer. I went into this article expecting some crack-pot nonsense about the game and its effects on society, but the points Marcus Evans Jr. were making sounded completely reasonable. The data show there isn't a correlation, but who knows how movies, games, and music create more of a sense of invincibility and life to emulate.
     (It does remind me of The Program cutting a hazing scene from their film in the early 90s when high schoolers were replicating what they were seeing in the movie. Or a classroom shooting scene cut from The Basketball Diaries.)
     I don't want to take much of your time, but want to call to attention the last statement you made in your article

     I’m a liberal, but not so liberal as to argue that children have a constitutional right to pretend to steal cars and pistol-whip prostitutes.

    The emphasis was added by me, and I am in complete agreement that children do not have a constitutional right to play these games. We are a nation of laws where we prevent children from purchasing pornography, but it seems like no one knows or cares about the ESRB rating system in video games. It has been around a very long time and is an incredibly informative rating system.
     Modern consoles have parental controls built into the systems to prevent children from even being able to load these games. I have three children under the age of 10 and our Playstation 4 is set up in a way that the kids can't see the cover art or name of the game when logging into their own accounts (which is more than I can say for zombie show billboards or commercials.)
     The rating system also has a list of objective criteria with each rating, so parents and guardians can know what content is in the game they are purchasing.
     Past laws always seem to want to ban individual games, or ban sales of M rated games, versus just regulating the sale to minors and allowing adults to still purchase M rated games.  
     I wish more parents and politicians were aware of the tools already at their disposal for keeping this content out of their kids hands. If you happen to cover this topic further I hope the information I have shared can be of use.

     Brian from Crestwood sent this:

     Yesterday morning I read in the Chicago Sun-Times the recent bill that seeks to amend the sale of certain video games filed by IL State Congressman Marcus Evans Jr. I'm a lifelong video game player, including the oft-maligned series of Grand Theft Auto, and immediately wrote both Mr. Evans Jr. and my own state representative, Mr. Justin Slaughter, to express my opposition to this bill. I'm writing to you because of your piece this morning where you express a slight change of mind about the worthiness of pursuing this policy. I've long come to the conclusion that you are a reasonable person and wanted to see if I could possibly change your mind back to where it was the first time. Whether I succeed or not, thank you for your work in general, and the thoughtful way you approach it. Anyway, below is my admittedly non-expert thoughts on the subject:
     1) "Normalization" is the new "Desensitization." Just a little under two decades ago various states all over the country were taking on violent video games (again with Grand Theft Auto as the centerpiece) because some believed it would cause desensitization to violence and therefore increase the likelihood for said players to engage in violence themselves. This was properly debunked thanks to research and general statistics, much in the same way that the current argument about carjacking does now. After having played all of the Grand Theft Auto games, plus taking in other violent media I find myself in 2021 feeling upset still about the violence seen on Jan. 6th and also wondering what time of day I should fill my car up with gas to best avoid being a potential carjack victim. If I'm worried about that while playing the same games as the offenders, doesn't reason tell us that the underlying cause is something else?
     2) Speaking of those battles in the early '00s, it's worth mentioning that the result of the various cases throughout this country were exactly what everyone expected them to be: video games are as protected by the U.S. Constitution's 1st amendment as that of movies, television and music. What I believe often gets forgotten is the cost to taxpayers for fighting a battle that couldn't and shouldn't be won. Illinois hasn't been in the best fiscal position for a long time and we should be careful about said waste, and that was before the upheaval of COVID 19. Where will that money come from, and where could it go. Would you rather we spend it on defending unconstitutional laws, or on health, social, educational, and job programs? I think the latter is more difficult, as you said in this morning's piece, but it still seems like money better spent.
     3) I do take issue with a particular part of the logic in today's piece. It's stated by Congressman Evans that he knows what the data is, but this is a new generation and things could be different. I can understand that as well as understand in general that things can and do change, however we just finally ousted a president in this country who abhorred science in every form and half a million people have died as a result of it. Let's not do the same here. If the congressman believes that something might have changed, then he should be able to lead a movement to do new research on the subject. Instead, he is placing the cart before the horse. I am personally tired of politicians (regardless of party stripe) making decisions that don't use the best available science. Best available science as of 2/24/21 states that this is a worthless effort that will restrict one of the few booming industries we have, undermine the prime amendment in the bill of rights, and not resolve any issue.
     I thank you for reading if you made it this far. Stay well!

     While I agree with both, I still see Evans point. Perhaps a metaphor is in order. Your house is burning down. The fire department is nowhere to be seen. Do you take your garden hose and direct it at the fire? I imagine many people would, even though it does nothing, and coming by to point that out, well, it seems almost cruel. Grand Theft Auto has sold more than a quarter billion copies in the past 20 years. Being restricted to minors in Chicago won't hurt it. And as Evans says, it might help someone. Though as I point out, we've been banning stuff for almost 120 years, and it's gotten us to the tough place we find ourselves in today. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Sometimes you have to try something

     In 1903, the city of Chicago barred nickelodeon operators from showing a pair of popular Western silent movies, “James Boys” and “Night Riders,” under the theory that seeing shoot-outs glorifies crime and warps the minds of youth.
     The nickelodeon owners — Jake Block, Nathan Wolf, J.H. Ferris, and others — sued.
     This kicked off more than 80 years of police censorship of movies in Chicago, either to protect children, or defend the reputation of the city — Paul Muni’s 1932 “Scarface” was banned here because it suggested there was organized crime in Chicago.
     I’ll pause while you chuckle softly and shake your head at that one.
     This went on for decades, and even Richard M. Daley was so agitated by the swears in the script of “Hardball” that he wanted to somehow deny filmmakers the right to use the word “Chicago.”
     I’m going into this background to establish my perspective as I read Zac Clingenpeel’s article in Tuesday’s Sun-Times about state Rep. Marcus Evans Jr. trying to combat carjacking by banning sale of Grand Theft Auto and other violent video games to minors.
     His heart is in the right place, certainly. But too often public officials focus on the “do something” side of the equation and ignore the “combat the problem” part.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Donald Trump's gift of silence


Henry Ford, bronze, by Hans Wollner (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

     Henry Ford had his good qualities: he revolutionized manufacturing. He was a populizer. He didn't invent the assembly line, but took the idea from the overhead trolleys carrying carcasses through the Chicago stockyards and applied it to automobiles. He didn't invent the car, but made it affordable, cutting the cost by 2/3. He paid his workers more—$5 a day, double the going rate, he said so they could afford cars themselves, but also because the assembly line work was seen as so mind-numbingly dull that he had trouble keeping workers. He didn't coin the term "mass production," but put it on the nation's lips after using it as a title for his 1926 Encyclopedia Britannica article.
     Ford tried to end World War I, chartering an ocean liner and sending it to Europe stuffed with peace activists.
     The good parts, of course, must be balanced by the bad. He blamed that war—all wars really—on the Jews. Ford was a foaming anti-Semite, his Dearborn Independent a Jew-hating rag. As bad as it is to admire Hitler, Ford was worse: Hitler admired him, and gives Ford a shout-out in Mein Kampf—the only American mentioned in the book—as the "single great man" in the United States for standing up against "the Jews." Ford also received the German Eagle, the highest Nazi honor for non-Germans, in 1938 and it was displayed for decades at his museum, Greenfield Village. I saw it there.
     Do they balance out, the good and the bad? I don't think so. It only takes a little spit to spoil the soup. Nobody cares if John Wayne Gacy was a good clown.
    However ... this is awkward, and I'm still thinking through it, so let's just explore together.
     I was researching comic strips, preparing my new book, and was looking at strips created in the Chicago area, such as "Little Orphan Annie," dreamed up 100 years ago by Harold Gray, who was living in Lombard and cartooning for the Tribune. And whenever the subject of what a huge success the strip became, it's mentioned how, in one adventure, Annie's dog is lost, causing national consternation, which is always demonstrated by the same story: a telegram from Henry Ford in Detroit pleading, "Please find Sandy for us. We are all concerned."
     Awww, right? A single resonating pluck on a heartstring. Although the "interesting if true" reflex kicks in. That does get told in a lot of legitimate histories, though I never saw a photo of the telegram, which Gray supposedly kept. It does have what I call "the tang of veracity." Anti-Semites like to speak in the third-person plural, as a kind of verbal backup, to make them seem like more of a crowd. I can't tell you how many emails from bigots begin, "We were chuckling over your 'column'..." or words to that effect. Like pufferfish trying to blow themselves up to seem more intimidating. Now that I think of it, Charles Lindbergh titled his autobiography, "We." Lindbergh was talking about himself and his Ryan airplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis." But still...
     So an anti-Semite who likes dogs. Put that in the pot. And then, in another part of the book, I reached out to the archivist at the Ford Motor Company. Companies and organizations are notoriously spotty about their own histories. Some are active and involved and interested. And some just don't care, since it's not the news they're pushing at the moment. I reached out to the National Confectioners Association, founded in Chicago in 1884, and asked about their origins. Their flack said, in essence, nobody here has any idea about the history of the organization we all work for nor are we interested in finding out. Which struck me as just so lame.
     The Ford Motor Company's archivist sent me a color photocopy of the information I was looking for, a hand-written ledger from 1903. Extraordinarily helpful of them. And while that, coupled with the possibly real telegram, doesn't of course wipe away Ford being a foul bigot who did real harm to the world, if only by serving as a beacon to Hitler, I did feel ... well ... less condemnatory about the man.
     Is that bad? Does that matter? Perhaps the key is that Ford is dead and history over and fixed, so a passing smile in his direction neither harms nor helps him. But what about more current situations?
     As the days clicked on, and January melted to February, with Trump barred from Twitter, and not constantly vomiting forth his noxious worldview on Fox News, or Newsmax, or whatever state cable channel is currently in his favor. Well, I felt ... okay, I'll say it ... grateful for his silence. Not that I now like the man, any more than I like Henry Ford. But his odiousness was mitigated, just a little, but the gift of his not spewing his self-pitying seditious BS everywhere. I appreciate it. Yes, he's scheduled to start speaking again, and will no doubt fill every corner of the media universe like a fart in a broom closet. And yes, that gratitude has a note of the pathetic, like an abuse victim happy that the beast is having a good day. But for the moment, sweet relief.
    There, I said it, deliberately on my blog, where only a few thousand people will read it, instead of the wider sweep of the newspaper. And I'm glad, in a way, because I don't want to be a hater. First, because I sincerely believe the line about hating is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die. But also because if Trump is in Mar-a-Lago, stalking the halls like Richard III, face screwed up in miserable grievance, soliloquying, spittle flying off his lips, plotting revenge against Republicans who aren't sticking with him as he sails off on future treasons, I like the idea of being the exact opposite, that to decent people he is not only fading, but the stark truth about him becomes suffused with a slight rosy hue.
     Then again, I'm a nice guy—shhhh, it's a secret. I can't rightly say I hate anybody. I'm too sympathetic. I pity Trump, a poor broken kitten, and his ridiculously, eternally-duped followers, standing in the street, advertising their gullibility on banners.
     Anyway, this has gone one too long. No mas. I've got a column to write this morning. Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Mayor needs less hope, more responsibility

Chicago, May 30, 2020 (photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia)

     Reviewing my actions over the weekend of May 29, 2020, the journalistic decisions made and strategic approaches taken to covering the Chicago riots, I have come to the conclusion that I was 1000 percent right in everything I did and would not do anything differently. That said, I’ve learned from the mistakes that weren’t made and won’t let them happen again, not that they ever did.
     That doesn’t quite scan, does it?
     Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s take on the inspector general’s report on the city’s botched handling of the George Floyd riots ... where to begin? Search for the positive, I suppose: We should take comfort the mayor didn’t throw police Supt. David Brown under the bus.
     But then, she couldn’t, could she? The man just took the job April 15, six weeks before the city erupted. Her support comes not so much from her cutting the new guy slack as understanding, if the Chicago Police Department leadership were as inept as the report suggests, it would also reflect badly on Lightfoot, who hired him. The buck stops somewhere else.
     On Friday, Lightfoot said she conferred with her fellow mayors around the country, and they were also caught flatfooted by the unrest.
     “No mayor expected what we all got,” she said, spreading the blame around. I might have to use that spin: Most reporters cowered in their safe suburban homes and didn’t rush downtown. It wasn’t just me.
      The scariest thing Lightfoot said is she hopes the riots are a once-in-a-lifetime event. Wrong! Hope is not a success strategy. Hope caused the problem in the first place. Lightfoot hoped this wasn’t going to happen in her city. The report underlines the kind of magical thinking that worsens disasters like this. Expecting the worst is her job. That’s what the police are for. “Sorry! We were caught off guard by all this crime. We vigorously hoped it wouldn’t occur.”

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