Sunday, September 24, 2017

RIP, Frank Sugano

     The word Maureen O'Donnell used to describe Frank Sugano, in Sunday's typically spot-on obituary of the Sun-Times copy editor, who died last month, is "meticulous," and I have a story that illustrates why she used that word.
     When I was hired by the Sun-Times—along with Patricia Smith, the renown poet—our job was to be the staff of The Adviser, a midweek publication intended to give practical household tips to readers: how to clean your garage, how to grow a better lawn, stuff like that.
     I wrote a story, I'd say in late 1987. about what to do if you get a speeding ticket. It began something like this:
     Everyone has had the experience. You're driving along, not a care in the world, then glance in the rearview mirror, notice the flashing red and blue Mars lights, feel that sinking in your gut while your mind grapples with one thought:    Busted.

     Frank Sugano called me over—this was before email remember. He was concerned, he said, about a word usage.
     Which word? I asked.
    "Busted," he said. Isn't that drug terminology?
    I gazed steadily at him. I was 26 remember.
     "What word would you suggest instead?" I asked. 
    Frank thought a moment. 
    "Caught," Sugano said. 
     "Caught," I repeated, without emotion. I gazed at him some more, assessing my options. I didn't realize it, but he was just a few years senior to myself, having left the Tokyo branch of Stars and Stripes two years earlier. Erring on the side of prudence, I told him, slowly and measuredly, that I thought "busted" works fine in this context. But he was the copy editor, and of course he should do whatever he thinks right.
      When the next Adviser came out, my story was on the front page with a headline, in big letters: "BUSTED!" I'll have to dig in the basement and see if I can find it. But I still remember, 30 years later, how, with palpating heart, I had flipped to the story itself, to see if the second paragraph had been changed to "Caught."
     It hadn't. "Busted" remained, despite Frank Sugano's concerns. A good copy editor knows when to raise a question, and knows when to yield the field, and Frank Sugano was a good copy editor.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

'Babywearing' fuzzy fun until tot gets hurt


     Fast-dwindling September is, among other things, Baby Safety Month, as the makers of eClip reminded me Friday. eClip, besides looking odd at the start of a sentence is, in their words, "an innovative first-of-its-kind device that attaches inside the car and alerts parents via Smartphone app if they accidentally walk away from their car without their baby."
     This is in reaction to babies being left accidentally—and in at least one case, not accidentally—to die in hot cars, a horror documented by my pal Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post and addressed here.
     Safety requires constant vigilance, to quote Mad-Eye Moody, and you can't guard against perils you aren't familiar with. So as a service to those readers still lugging around their children, as opposed to desperately wishing to hear from them, I'm reprinting a column from four years ago about the very real risk of baby carriers.

    A newspaper is a dialogue, a chorus of voices conveying and commenting upon the news of the day.
     So I am not correcting a Thursday story in the Splash pages - "That's a wrap" about "wearable baby carriers" - as much as elaborating on some caveats that were online but, alas, not in print, and adding a dimension to the piece that did not, for instance, contain the phrase "baby airbag," which my wife uses to refer to carriers.
     This is based on hard experience, one January day nearly 18 years ago, when she left our apartment on Pine Grove with 3-month-old Ross in one of those soft, front-facing carriers - a backpack you wear on your chest that you slide your baby into.
     She was only walking a block, to visit a friend. But it was a block of Chicago city sidewalk, with plenty of cracks and crevices, and she caught her toe on one and pitched forward, breaking her fall with her knee, an outstretched palm and our baby's head.
     I was at home, having taken time off work to do my share of diaper changing. I don't remember the phone call - I can't say with any certainty whether she was composed or hysterical, though I would put my chips down on the latter.
     What I remember clearly, vividly, as if it were a scene in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman movie, was grabbing the empty blue stroller - she must have told me to bring it - and running full bore the several blocks to St. Joseph Hospital, pushing the empty baby carriage, with no idea whether our happy little urban homestead was about to be plunged into some medical nightmare of irreparable cranial damage.
     A slight skull fracture, which took sitting for six hours in windowless rooms for the hospital to ascertain, via X-ray and CAT scans. My wife's main memory is of the CAT scan operator asking, "Can't you make him hold still?" and her answering, "He's a baby."
     The other moment I can recall from that day is, toward the end of our Big Hospital Day, when one of the endless series of doctors who kept hurrying into the room, burst in with a blustery, "So how's our little patient?" to which I replied, with all the gravitas I could manage, "Doctor, he's incontinent and babbling!" which caused a flash of concern over the physician's face until he remembered that all 3-month-old babies are incontinent and babbling.
     Ross was fine, the shadow of fate that passed over us kept moving and darkened some other poor soul's home.
    My wife threw the baby carrier away and became a one-woman truth squad against them. Still, because people are biased by their own experiences, I didn't want to unfairly question baby carriers' utility. There are risks associated with strollers, too. At crossings, there is a tendency to nudge them into the street—"testing the waters," I call it—despite passing traffic, and I know that babies have been grievously injured that way.
     But a little checking shows the risks of baby carriers is not limited to my family. In 2010, the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned of the risk of suffocation to young infants in baby slings—14 deaths in a 20-year period, with three dying in 2009. Most were under 4 months old.
     Consumer Reports found three dozen serious injuries to babies in slings, and urged parents "Don't use slings at all."
     Even the most cuddly, fuzzy mommy website about baby carriers has a list of warnings. TBW, "The" warns of babies falling out of carriers and urges practice with a doll.
     "Most of the reported accidents involving babywearing are due to the wearer tripping and falling," it cautions.
     Among its suggestions:
     Careful going through doorways.
     Don't cook or handle hot liquids, for obvious reasons. Mind that the tail of your baby sling doesn't trail into flames or get stuck in closing doors.
     Don't wear a baby carrier in moving cars; it's no substitute for a baby seat. "For playing sports or cycling, use your discretion: What would happen to your baby if you were knocked over?" it asks. "How much is your baby being bounced or shaken?"
     I would say "use your discretion" is a naive underestimation of just how god-awful stupid people can be, and substitute, "Never bicycle with your baby in a front carrier."
     I hadn't planned on writing about baby carriers. But I felt morally obligated to inject a note of warning. Babies are resilient; they aren't as fragile as new parents fear. But caution is still a good idea, and you can't avoid perils you don't know about.

               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 15, 2013

Friday, September 22, 2017

Brains vs. Brawn: 90 years ago Tunney v, Dempsey shocked Soldier Field


     Nobody could hear.
     The roar of 100,000—or 120,000, or even 140,000, depending on what figure you believe—people was so loud that all that could be heard on the radio was a continuous howl.
     Few could see. A $5 ticket bought a seat on a bench up to 200 yards away. Those in ringside seats—which cost $40 and extended 100 rows back, stretching the concept of "ringside"—jockeyed to see Jack Dempsey, with a right hook followed by a flurry of six punches, send Gene Tunney sprawling in the seventh round of the heavyweight championship of the world of boxing, a sport which had become legal in Illinois only the year before, about the same time construction was completed at the venue, Soldier Field.
     It was Sept. 22, 1927.
     Tunney's back hit the canvas. Dempsey hovered nearby, right arm cocked.
     The "Long Count" as it became known is perhaps the most famous 14 seconds in boxing, if not all professional sport. But why it mattered, why those people were screaming so furiously, deserves remembering too.
     Dempsey was considered a brute, a caveman, "The Manassa Mauler" who boxed with a three-day growth of beard to enhance the effect. He won the heavyweight champion in 1919 from Jess Willard, breaking his cheekbones, and became part of 1920s celebrity culture, alongside Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Bobby Jones. His fights were legend: Dempsey, knocked out of the ring by Luis Firpo in 1923—a moment captured in oils by George Bellows—pushed back by newsmen and going on to win the fight.
     But Dempsey was also reviled as a "slacker"—he had avoided military service in World War I—until he first met Gene Tunney in Philadelphia in 1926. Tunney battered him, and won the fight on a decision, taking all 10 rounds. But Dempsey won the hearts of sports fans with a single quip.
     "What happened?" wailed Dempsey's wife, the actress Estelle Taylor, rushing to him afterward.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Don't kill yourself before hitting the Ritz

     Two people killed themselves on the Metra Milwaukee North Line this week. At least two people; two that I know of. A 53-year-old man stepped off the platform Sunday into the path of an Amtrak express at Northbrook station, a block from my house. And someone Tuesday at Western. Two so far this week. It's only Thursday.
      The suicides prompted me re-visit one of my more controversial columns, this irreverent gripe about people leaping in front of the train, written just before 9/11 gave us a far greater horror to contemplate.
      If you are the grief-stricken relative of a family member who committed suicide, let me warn you up front: skip this column. It is not sympathetic. Or, rather, it is not sympathetic to you, but rather to the other people unwillingly drawn into your tragedy, albeit temporarily. 
    If you insist on continuing on, remember: I'm sorry for your loss. Truly. And I know the little tableau of imagined ritzy suicide at the end shrugs off the agony, desperation and mental illness that drives a person to take his own life. I've written about train suicides with more compassion in the past, trying to encourage Metra to do a better job helping suicidal commuters. 
    But not everything is for everybody. And being hurt doesn't make you right. This is for those who sit on the  train and wait, or who are compelled to clean up the mess afterwards, and for the mothers with their kids out walking Sunday who had to confront this jarring horror. They deserve sympathy too.    
     Speaking of which, if you notice that the talk of martinis at the end reminds you that I am a different person than I was 16 years ago, that is true. But I certainly can still relate to what this guy was trying to say. If I didn't, I wouldn't repost it.

     Why can't people kill themselves at home? That's only polite. Why all this leaping in front of commuter trains, during the morning rush hour no less. At least wait until lunch; what's the big hurry?
     I suppose this sounds callous to you. Well, you were not cooling your heels with me for an hour Thursday morning on the Milwaukee North Line while the earthly remains of some troubled soul were hosed off the track at Forest Glen. I'm sorry, but it doesn't strike me as an occasion for violins and mawkish sentiment. Suicide is cowardly and inconsiderate enough in the standard, Roman, warm-bath-and-a-straight-razor fashion. Add to it the public inconvenience of thousands of people who are in no way responsible for your disappointments in life, and it is not an act deserving of sympathy.
     At least I assume it was suicide, to give the benefit of the doubt. I suppose it could have been one of those people who blunder blithely in front of an express. Though which is worse? To toss your life away willfully, in despair? Or to lose it through stupidity? Frankly, I'd take despair. It sounds better. Ten years from now, my boys would rather say, while pretending to be dark, troubled teens in order to pick up girls, "My dad leapt in front of a train when I was 5," as opposed to, "My dad leaned down to tie his shoe and his head was an inch over the train tracks." Not a James Deanish way to go.
     Perhaps this is a failure of empathy on my part. I just can't imagine, even were I the most wretched, loathed, miserable person—Mike McCaskey, say—wanting to do myself in.
     Suicide is so illogical. It flies in the face of the only undisputed fact we have about life: It's short, relatively. The universe was born, chugged on for billions upon billions of years then, pop, you show up for, what, 100 years, max, if you take care of yourself. Then you're gone, perhaps in front of a rush-hour train, and the universe shrugs and skips merrily along for billions of years more without you.
     This would seem an argument for staying alive. No matter how painful, difficult, unpleasant, woesome your existence, it's just a tiny flash, and then you'll be back to the comforting void from whence you came. Patience. "We give birth astride a grave," as Beckett says.
     But even if you're going to do it—I mean, come on. The train? Granted, it's over quick. Over for you. But think about everyone else. First, you get sprayed over 100 feet of track, and some poor person has to go about collecting you from between the ties. Trust me, it isn't pretty. I glanced up at the wrong moment, as the train slowly rolled through Forest Glen, and saw about 25 train officials and city workers standing around, plus four uncomfortable looking firemen straining to lug a black plastic body bag past about a dozen small squares of white sheet covering the various lumps of offal strewn among the weeds.
     We shudder at the thought of state-sponsored suicide. It seems very Dutch, very contrary to the sanctity of life. But the way people are leaping in front of commuter trains, Metra is fast becoming a sort of de facto government vehicle of death--and being governmental, it doesn't work all that well. The Grim Reaper Postal Service. Would it really be that bad to, say, set up a pile driver behind the medical examiner's office on Harrison Street? The lovelorn and the depressed could show up, pay the $40 fee, climb into a fresh body bag, and two burly aides would toss the bag under the pile driver for the quick clomp. No fuss. No mess. No choice between little Billy making the grisly discovery in the basement, leading to years of psychotherapy and a lot of bad literature, or disrupting the sacred routines of thousands of innocent working mopes like myself.
     Getting through the day is tough enough without witnessing the mortal remains of somebody who wasn't up to the task being tweezered away. It undermines, if slightly, the grip that we keep on life. Who hasn't thought about suicide? God knows I have. I've even plotted out the best way to do it. You check into the Ritz Carlton Hotel—a suite, of course. It isn't as if you have to worry about the bill. You get yourself comfortable, admire the view, then pop downstairs to the Atrium Bar and have Michael whip up one of his martinis (Bombay Sapphire, straight up, with a twist is my choice, but feel free to bow to your own tastes; it's your funeral). Then head to the dining room and begin with the cheese course—I know it's supposed to be dessert, but you're always so full after the meal, and the cheeses are so great there: fresh, fanciful, displayed with little cards holding their names, serene as a Joseph Cornell box. Better to have at it with hunger unabated.
     And that's about as far along as I've planned my suicide. I figure, when dinner's over, you stagger up to your room and—heck, it's a waste not to use it. Those big white pillows at the Ritz—so comfortable. So you go to sleep and the morning comes and everything looks better in the morning. Room service sends up fresh coffee and a $15 omelet—the wince at the cost, a sign of life returning—and soon you'll run back home to cook up a story the wife might believe. She'll find out—wives always find out—and be mad at wasting the money, but you have a handy rejoinder: "Would you rather I were dead?"
     Thus gluttony saves another man's life, and I would recommend it to anybody contemplating the abyss. It may be a bad thing to be living for your next meal, but at least you're living for something.

                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times Aug. 26, 2001

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Stephen Douglas "despicable" but statue should remain

Sherry Williams at the Stephen Douglas Memorial site.
Stephen Douglas Memorial in Bronzeville.
     "I have not a good thing to say about Stephen Douglas," said Sherry Williams, sitting a few steps from his tomb in Bronzeville.
     I've come to this memorial to the Illinois senator who ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, at the invitation of Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society. For the past four years the society has occupied the former keeper's cottage at the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial, just east of 35th and Cottage Grove. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency tripled their rent, so the group is forced to move their offices, and their collection of rolling pins and quilts, books and photographs and ledgers from defunct African American funeral homes.
       Though with statues of Robert E. Lee being pulled down, our conversation first turned to Douglas, a slave holder, rendered larger than life — a 10-foot statue elevated on a 46-foot column. She is no fan.
     "It's hard to put Stephen A . Douglas on one peg," she said. "But if I had to choose, I would say he was despicable. He did not take very good care of his plantation. Many of his slaves were ill-fed and died by conditions that could have been remedied."
     Could this edifice be swept away in the passions of the moment?
     "It was a real concern," she said. "I had spoken to several community members who thought, what a great opportunity to have an open conversation about just what that means, about Stephen Douglas being a slave owner. A conversation that's been held here the entire time I've been here. Hence, I'm wearing an 1860s dress."
     A relief to hear that; I had noticed her outfit, her headscarf and calico dress. But "are you wearing a costume?"

     To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

But it's so big!

     It took about eight hours to drive down from Ontonagon, Michigan, what with the stop at Held's, in Slinger, Wisconsin, to stock up on beef jerky, string cheese and bourbon brats. Four days gone, just enough to give home a sense of unfamiliarity. "Hey, I live here? Niiiiiice...."
     Back in the office at last, I fired up the iMac and checked in on what was happening. Eric Zorn, on his Facebook page, noted the removal of one of those art installations that sometimes appear in Pioneer Court, the open space just south of Tribune Tower. Eric posted a photo of a crane removing this massive tableau, writing:

     Good riddance, "Return Visit" -- the view from our conference room as this enormous piece of kitsch comes down for its trip to Peoria. 
    No argument here. I was not a fan of "Return Visit," though I did rather like Johnson's "Forever Marilyn," a Brobdingnagian Marilyn Monroe in her famous "Seven Year Itch" pose that had been there in 2008. Somehow the film icon gave herself over to rough caricature more readily than does the 16th president. 
    Though I suppose artistic intent must factor in somehow. What if this piece, or the humongous fawn that popped up over the summer on the banks of the Chicago River, just across from the Sun-Times, are supposed to be these godawful giant refugees from a thrift store bin? A small touch—Lincoln's unseen right hand snaking into the back pocket of the distracted tourist and removing his wallet, a microwave oven-sized pile of poop behind the fawn–might have utterly redeemed them.  
      I will admit I dislike the fawn less than I disliked the "Return Visit," perhaps because it seemed a more truthful rendition, while Honest Abe and his sweater-wearing interlocutor have the just-off air of humans made from butter at the State Fair. The fawn, appearing suddenly and without fanfare, induced a sense of wonder and affection. I'm glad it's there. And I've seen worse—far, far worse, such as the bronze children, their features too small for their heads, which in turn are too small for their bodies, scattered around the park in downtown Northbrook, like some kind of evil spirits lurking by the shrubs.
    Though "dislike" might be too strong a word. I snapped some pictures, but never would have thought of "Return Visit" again, nor probably noticed that it had disappeared if I passed next week.  Art touches you, leave an impression, and non-art, well, it's just there.
     Eric's use of "kitsch" to describe the thing intrigued me. Kitsch is one of those realms, like pornography, that we know something belongs to when we see it, yet is hard to define in general. My full Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1978, doesn't even try, going from "Kitling" (a small cat, a word worthy of reviving) to "Kitten." But I suspected it might have snuck into the Supplement, and there it was: "Art or objets d'art characterized by worthless pretentiousness." 
     Hmmm. "Worthless pretentiousness." That doesn't sound right. If I had to start naming kitsch objects, I would suggest kewpie dolls, ceramic cat figurines, black velvet paintings of Indian chiefs shedding a tear, shot glasses in the shape of barrels with the names of states, sold at gas stations. "Pretentiousness" doesn't seem right. "Lack of ambition" would be better. Maybe I can find a better definition.
     The online Merrian-Webster seems to hit closer to the mark than the Oxford: "something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality." Under that definition, "Return Visit" is kitsch, first in concept—a 25-foot-tall painted bronze Abe Lincoln giving directions to a tourist—an idea simple to the point of idiocy, without a redeeming sly wink, or subtle subversion. Lincoln looks like a make-up screen test for a character in "Planet of the Apes" and the tourist is the most anodyne white individual imaginable. 
     How could this piece have been salvaged? A clever title would have helped considerably—"Now the Dubuffet isn't the most Godawful Public Art in Chicago" leaps to mind.  "The Wrigley Building is Right in Front of You, Asshole" is even better.
     I think I know what's going on here. Anticipating a potential need to know what this thing is called, I snapped a picture of the plaque. See if you can spot the problem:

    It's "atelier," right? The Seward Johnson Atelier. Which Webster's defines, rather thickly, as "an artist's or designer's studio or workroom," missing the sense of grandiosity to the term. It's as if I referred to my books and columns as an "oeuvre," which I would never do, because, while largely correct ("a substantial body of work constituting the lifework of a writer") it carries the stench of the self-importance and academia.
     Looking at Johnson's Wikipedia page, I learned a few germane facts: first, that the artist is 87 years old. Second, that he is the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, the founder of Johnson & Johnson. Third, that his work has been labeled "kitsch" by critics for at least 30 years.
     Which, taken together, must stay the lash of criticism, at least as wielded by me. Heirs of vast fortunes are not famous for their depth, their artistic heft, and Johnson's biography hints at a life of earnest amateurism. Harsh, perhaps, but I doubt many 87-year-olds are navigating the deepest recesses of the Internet, which my blog must qualify as a denizen of the lower realms. I hope that isn't condescending or ageism — the truth is, you create a public display, even if you are a kindergartener, you invite critique. But it might get back to him, and, kind soul that I am, I wince at the thought of him being hooted out the door.  There's no reason, the point being made to my regular readers, we can't end on a positive note, for the benefit of the artist. Something like:
     Chicago will be a less artistic place this week than it has been since Nov. 1, 2016, when Seward Johnson's spectacularly wonderful "Return Visit," was installed on the Tribune Tower's Pioneer Court. The massive bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and a regular salt-of-the-earth citizen of the Prairie State, which must rank alongside the Art Institute lions,"Cloud Gate," and the Picasso as gems of the city, will be sorely missed, and we can only pray that Rahm Emanuel finds the $100 million the statue is surely worth, to purchase Johnson's masterpiece and return it to its rightful home.
      There, if you must afflict the old gent with a portion of this column, share that with him. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Living and not living

    The forest teems with life, but also with death, side by side, the rotting mossy stump right next to the fresh sapling, last season's falling leaves and needles providing mulch for this year's new growth. Wandering the woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior Sunday, you can't help but marvel at the great wheel, life and death, each feeding into the other, and to feel grateful to be part of it yet, for the moment, still alive, along with the green trees and singing birds and blooming flowers, privileged to observe the decay we will all be a part of, eventually.
     I was pleased to notice fellow animals also very much alive, such as a noisy blue jay and this yellow-striped garter snake, who slithered by, then paused, motionless, as if posing for me. I placed the end of my stick three inches from his head. He didn't flinch.
      Though I also came upon animals who have let go their grip on this sweet life, such as the skeletons below, which I'm guessing are fawns who never made it to adulthood. I felt solemn in their presence, actually removed my hat and covered my heart. Hokey, but there you have it.
     And down the scale, I contributed to the life-into-death process, repeatedly, as the touch of a mosquito—frequent this time of year—immediately led to its miracle of aviation being rendered crumpled and bloodied and flicked away. Sorry pal, you picked the wrong spot for lunch. Wonder only goes so far.
     Of course everything that wasn't alive hadn't necessarily died, such as the artificial flowers above which, years ago, some property owner placed at the entrance to his lake house to give the spot a flourish that he obviously wasn't finding in sufficient abundance in the nature he was supposedly escaping to enjoy. There were a lot of them, an a plastic flowering tree in a wicker pot. The mind reels.
     A reminder of what we think of as aesthetic involves more than just what we see. There is a component of cognition, of understanding. It isn't that the flowers weren't colorful, and some might find them pretty. Until you thought about plastic flowers in the depth of a vibrant green wood. Why anyone would want to mar the living forest with this plastic display of fading unlife was a complete mystery to me, and I considered walking up the road to inquire. But nobody would probably be home and, even if they were, I probably wouldn't like the answer.  I snuffed the little spark of unkind judgment that had flickered within and continued on my way.