Thursday, January 17, 2019

Why focus on what the president does and says?



     I was surprised by the amount of reaction to yesterday's column—quite a bit, considering the opening line is in Latin. Entirely positive, which was not surprising, considering it was about being polite to those who are nasty to you.
     Okay, not ENTIRELY positive. There was this, from a Mary Loconsole, under the subject heading of "Huh??????":


Hello,

     I just got done reading your article today regarding Twitter. And you’re right – I normally do not read your articles because I find them very “Debbie Downer” in their content…ALWAYS going back to Trump and what he did and what he said and blah, blah, blah…FYI: After over 2 years, I think people get the gist of how he is so they pretty much have already made up their own minds about him. All you do is incite hate for the President of the United States on a daily basis, and that is really a shame – believe it or not, it doesn’t make you look good at all. There are MANY other upbeat topics you can write about and share with your readers, but no, you choose to dwell on the same old thing day after day…B-O-R-I-N-G!!!
     And what I find particularly ridiculous is your statement that the “smallness of biting back like Trump does in not a sign of power, but evidence of enormous weakness….uh, excuse me, but THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU DO EVERY DAY!!!
     You came off looking like a total fool….
     Have a nice day!

To which there really was only one conceivable response:


     Thanks for writing.

     NS

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The ancient Romans knew how to handle Twitter better than we do


     “Pusili hominis et miseri cum est repetere mordentem,” Seneca writes, in his essay on anger. “It is a petty and sorry person who will bite back when he is bitten.”
     That’s a little strong. While I hesitate to disagree with the master, I have to. Yes, smallness and sorriness define retribution, as they define much of the anthill we call human existence.
     But there is also a strength to biting back. Someone flips you the bird, you automatically return the gesture. Laudable? No. But it does show pride.
     Standing your ground is a reflex, no doubt traced back to baboons on the savanna fluffing their fur to look bigger. The question is: Is it a reflex we can afford to indulge in our social media age? Because we certainly do, big time. The biters and the bitten, toe-to-toe, blasting away.
     Consider how much human effort, brainwork, emotional frisson, not to mention typing, is spent in online disputes. Billions of times a day, total strangers conducting their snarling, personal-yet-anonymous broomstick sword fights.
     Toward what end? Are we debating? Having a conversation? Or merely flailing at each other?
     Who benefits? Twitter, Facebook and the social media companies certainly do. We, not so much. We are unpaid gladiators performing our tiny verbal combats for their profit, so others can read the advertisements between our spats.
     Writing for a daily metropolitan newspaper, I receive blowback continually on all platforms. Letters and phone calls, Facebook posts and email and Twitter.
     That’s good. I want reaction. I used to read them all, reply to them all. But lately that practice is starting to seem antique, like a 19th century president meeting with whoever turns up at the White House and asks to see him.
     My motto used to be Warren Zevon’s line, “The name of the game is be hit and hit back.” Now my mantra is: Don’t let the poison in. Don’t read negative emails, never mind react. Bail out as soon as the language sours. Block and forget. It isn’t as if the person writing is open to persuasion. That’s so 1980s.
  

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Flashback 1999: "To love and not to count the cost"

Metropolitan Museum of Art
    Ed Burke is going to be in the headlines for a long time, as the wheels of justice slowly grind him into gristle. I can't say I'm shedding any tears. But I've long been an admirer of his wife, Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, and my heart goes out to her. I met her nearly 20 years ago, when I was a half reporter/half columnist, so low on the Sun-Times totem pole that I worked Saturday nights. 
     Back then, the Burkes were controversial because they had become foster parents to a black child, "Baby T," and the child's biological mother, finding out the powerful couple caring for her baby thanks to her own neglect and, sensing opportunity, tried to claw the poor kid back.
     The city desk sent me out to cover a speech by Judge Burke, and this resulted.  Note: the Burkes eventually got the child back, and raised him to maturity. Those looking to condemn the Burkes in all things often lump in their decision to care for a foster child, as if it were somehow disreputable, as if they had kidnapped the boy for their own nefarious ends, rather than saved him from a life of neglect. 
     That's ridiculous. I never doubted her good intentions, and think of it now that the couple are receiving general scorn. I find it mitigating, as the lawyers say, and remember having tea with Anne Burke after this. By the time she was done lauding the importance of foster parentage, I was ready to go out and sponsor a child myself. I soon recovered my true, much smaller nature. But I'll never forget the passion and sincerity with which she spoke about the need to help others.


     A reporter was sent to do a story on a prize French poodle arriving on the zeppelin Hindenburg. Hours later he staggered back to the office, his hair singed and face sooty.
     "No story," he said. "The thing exploded and I couldn't find the poodle."
     I made that up, long ago, to illustrate the way reporters, intent on one story, sometimes miss another.
     It happened again, almost, Saturday night, when State Appelate Court Justice Anne M. Burke spoke to a dinner given by Uhlick's Foster Parents United, a foster parents group.
     Burke was herself a foster mother, raising the child known to the public as Baby T, until the original mother, a former drug addict, reclaimed the child after a court fight.
     Burke never had spoken publicly about the situation. This speech—my editor said—delivered to foster parents, might be the opportunity she was looking for to open up.
     I noted that judges are not known for their unwise personal revelations—unwise because the case has not yet completely played itself out, and any grabs for public sympathy might not be well-received by the judge. But it was a quiet Saturday night, so I went.
     The dinner was in a small room in the basement of the Hyatt on Ashland Avenue. Taped music. Balloons. Nothing fancy.
     Burke and her husband, Ald. Edward Burke, came in. They sat and chatted, then Burke was introduced.
     She spoke, not about herself, but about foster parenting.
     "Through your love and generosity, the lives of the most vulnerable and fragile children are strengthened and protected," she said. "Being a foster parent is both a unique responsibility and an incalculable act of love."
    "Love" was a word she used again and again. She urged the foster parents to not let whatever bureaucratic problems they encounter sidetrack them.
     "It is so critical for us to continually remind each other what the real focus of our attention is—to love and not to count the cost," she said. "Everything else is irrelevant—even the unflattering publicity."
     That's the closest she came to talking about herself_negative publicity surely can't be a very big problem for the average foster parent, though it certainly was for the Burkes, who were rewarded for quietly sheltering a child and loving him by having their home picketed.
     Still, it was not enough. Not personal enough. No story. I capped my pen and listened.
     "When we love like that, we change the world for that fragile infant, for that shy little child, for that bright and gifted toddler who looks to us for safety," she said. "To be able to make the world safe for another is a great gift. A sacred trust. I believe it comes from what is deepest and most substantive in each one of us. It arises out of that pool of goodness that is in the heart of each of us. Such power is transformative. It heals and makes whole."
     Burke said that the good news is that children all over the state are succeeding because generous adults open their hearts to them. The bad news, she said, is there aren't enough adults for the swelling numbers of children in need. It is a tough job and only the rare person is willing to try.
     "Loving is not always easy. It has a price. But that has always been the case. For each of us, the generous people who made a difference in our lives are the ones who didn't stop to total the cost," she said. "It is no accident that households built on love thrive and grow. It is no accident that homes fashioned by a generous spirit are filled with hope. It is no accident that families bound together in love survive the unexpected surprises in life."
     She finished her speech. The foster parents applauded heartily. Burke was given a plaque. I slipped out and found a phone and called the office.
     "No story," I said.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 29, 1999


Monday, January 14, 2019

Phyllis Smith was a good bartender and a great friend


Phyllis Smith, right, shakes hands with Gov. Jim Edgar at the Taste of Chicago. Sam Sianis is at center.

     “How’s the family?”
     Phyllis always asked. About Edie. About the boys. Any why not? She had met them all. My parents too. She’d been to our house.
     Still, she surprised me by asking now; it was I who called, spurred by bad news.
     I gave a brief update then cut to the chase.
     But you, Phyllis, how are you?
     “Ehh,” she said. “I’ve had better days.”
     Yes, she had.
     Phyllis Smith was a bartender, for more than 20 years at the Billy Goat Tavern and then at Harry Caray’s in Lombard. She was “a tough lady,” in the words of Goat owner Sam Sianis, with a blunt manner and a big, braying laugh she unleashed often.
     “A Chicago character: the real old-school bartender,” said Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray’s. “That would be her.”  

    And if that’s all Phyllis was, I wouldn’t be writing about her now. There was a fine Chicago journalistic tradition of chronicling bars and their denizens, what they say and did, as if it mattered, from Mr. Dooley to Mike Royko. But that tradition, like newspapering itself, has gone into steep decline.
     Nor is booze so charming a topic. As a recovering alcoholic, there is something queasy about rhapsodizing your bartender, even one as good at topping off a drink or listening to a woe as Phyllis.
     Were Phyllis simply a bartender, I wouldn’t bother.
     But she was also my friend. We kept up for a dozen years after she served me my last drink. Nor was it just me.
     “She took great pride in her work and in her customers and their lives,” said her daughter, Laurie Manzardo.

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Churchill in Chicago

 

     When we were small, my mother had an expression she used to suspend our frenzied searches for some missing toy:
      "You'll find it when you're not looking for it."
      Cold, comfort, if I recall, when Lucky Pup had gone AWOL. But there is a certain truth, particularly when it comes to those odd bits of information that resist solving instantly on Google.
      For instance: I keep a ragtag assemblage of historical figures in the back of my mind I call "People Who You Don't Think of as Visiting Chicago." They consist of personages who are somehow difficult to picture on Chicago streets: Oscar Wilde, Col. George Armstrong Custer, Dylan Thomas, Golda Meir, who lived here.  Charles Dickens almost got here, but St. Louis was a bigger deal when he made his vaunted visit to American in 1842, so he went there instead, setting foot in Illinois only at Cairo.
     I had always included Winston Churchill on the list, though couldn't put my finger on any evidence. He got around a lot, particularly as a young man. It made sense.
     On Thursday I had lunch with a pal at the Union League Club, in their soaring Lincoln Ballroom. I admired the rich blue walls, and felt that whatever drudgery life consisted of, at the moment I was sailing in style. At one point, during our mutual exchange of dire observations about our troubled mutual profession, I swept the room with my hand and observed: "On the other hand, we're here now!"
     They make you check your coat at the Union League Club, and afterward, I retrieved mine. It was cold and I planned on hiking over to Iwan Ries, to fill the time before the train with the consolation of a cigar. I paused just before the revolving door to put on my gloves and hat and zip up.
    And my gaze fell upon this plaque.
    Well, there we go. Complete with the photographic proof offered above. As I typed the part about Google not being helpful, I thought I had better do that check-it-out reportorial thing, and instantly came to this detailed historical assessment of Churchill's three, count 'em, three visits to Chicago, in 1901, 1929 (when he stayed at The Drake) and 1932.
     Hmmm...the article was posted in 2006: no doubt my curiosity about Churchill dates to long before then. I seem to remember riffling through the index of a few thick Churchill biographies, looking for a Chicago reference.
     Mere trivia? Perhaps. Though I don't think it's a stretch to use it to raise a larger question related to the immediate knowability of things. Could the shaky role that verifiable fact plays in our current political woes somehow be related to the ease with which truth can be ascertained? Economics tells us that abundance is inversely proportional to value. When facts were difficult to dredge up and verify, they were held in regard. They had high worth. Now that the truth is in each of our pockets, on our cell phones, 24 hours a day, they seem less substantial, and more and more people turn to their own private fantasies, which of course have less abundance, and thus perhaps more perceived worth, because they are rare, sometimes unique, having been freshly made up. An interesting possibility.

     

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #22



     Look at the photo above. What do you see? A jazz quartet, right? 
     The quartet performing last Saturday consisted of Nickolas Kaplan, on trumpet, Kevin Fort, on piano, John Sutton on bass at Chad Willetts on drums.
     But sitting in for a few songs—or rather standing, looking through the window was John Mondlak, the man in the white beard at right. More about him later.
     My wife had been talking about going to Le Piano for a long time, the new jazz place that has opened up in East Rogers Park in the old No Exit space, and we crowded into a prime booth—the Frank Sinatra Booth. The place has been open a month.
     A few thoughts.
     First, it's a lovely space: high ceilinged, inviting, with that wall of windows. Music every night. A $5 cover charge (which I notice people on Yelp still somehow manage to complain about. What do they want it to be, a dollar? Can you even imagine that. The doorman stopping you: "It's a dollar to get in." Yelp, I swear, I should create a Yelp page for Heaven, if it hasn't been done yet. "The Pearly Gates gave off a glowing luminescence that I found unpleasant. And the glissando of harps welcoming the saved into their eternal reward kept me up at night....")
     Second, a good vibe. The drummer, Chad Willetts, is also one of the owners, and at one point he made a little speech, and greeted the crowd and led the room into a round of "Happy Birthday" to someone celebrating a birthday. The room was crowded and the service sporadic, but adequate.         
     Third, the food. We contrived to eat dinner there, ordering the various small plates and trying to assemble them into a meal. I'd advise against that. Drinks and snacks is a more suitable use, at least while the kitchen works out its kinks. The wine was very good, I am told. The charcuterie plate could have used a pot of mustard, or something, though the cheeses were good. The fingerling potatoes were very good, the steak, less so. An $8 (or $5, or whatever it costs) loaf of bread should be better than what was served up. But they just opened, and no doubt are getting the kinks out.
      Fourth, returning to Mr. Mondlak—at least that's what I thought his name was. Communication was difficult. I asked him about the music and he mumbled something incoherent. The only word I caught was "Beatles." I asked him if he had anything he wanted to communicate to the public, and he said, "God is love. God is the totality of the universe." Makes as much sense as anything.
     East Rogers Park is a gritty area, and there are those who would lump the opening of Le Piano as the dread "gentrification." First, that is premature, judging by the active and highly varied street life passing by.  Second, a right extended to one should be enjoyed by all, and if any random person can show up and lay claim to a piece of real estate and call it home, then the owners of Le Piano should be able to do the same, despite the role of money and mortgages and vigorous effort.
      If you didn't see Mr. Mondlak in your initial glimpse of the picture, don't be too hard on yourself. There's a lot of that. When he was at the window, I had a hard time seeing anything else, and eventually went outside to talk with him, or try to. He stood there for a long time, listening, and I can't say I blame him. Chicago has only a few small jazz venues: Andy's downtown, The Green Mill in Uptown. Tough competition, now that I think of them, but Le Piano makes an encouraging start. With the Heartland closing a block away, a reminder that the city grows, changes, moves on, and we change with it.

Friday, January 11, 2019

We know Donald Trump lies a lot, but why?



     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     An interesting question, not often asked, despite the Trump era being a Golden Age of Deception, a veritable Liapalooza, with the president telling a dozen fibs a day, or more. Lying so predictably that before his address to the nation Tuesday, dramatizing his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall, the networks struggled to form a plan to address the rain of falsehoods certain to come. Fact checkers were standing by to refute the lies before they were uttered, the way that color commentators are in place to describe the action sure to unfold on a football field.
     But is this the only way lying can be handled? The media, with its dumb ox tendency to strain forward, plowing the rut it always plows, has for years kept careful track of each presidential untruth, counting them, tallying them up, as if points will be awarded at the end.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     While keeping score, the process of lying, itself, its utility, is rarely addressed. We prefer to shake our head at each one-that-got-away whopper, and ponder whether it is a deliberate, cynical fabrication or sincere delusion, as if that really matters.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”
     Yes, it is important to refute Donald Trump’s specific lies. Most immigrants, illegal or legal, are more law-abiding than natural-born citizens, despite the horror stories the president recited. Most drugs come through airports or checkpoints, hidden in cars and trucks, not across the desert. Most terrorists arrive on a plane or, let us never forget, are native born.
     “Why did we bother to lie?”

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