Sunday, May 20, 2018

Wrestling with identity politics

I'm in the middle, second row, dark shirt; Harry Cuthrell is behind me to the left, Bernard Neally two guys to the left of him; Bill Grayson is the third wrestler right of me, his head slightly tilted.

     My column on graduation weekend at Pomona got a lot of feedback last week, particularly after 
a colleague wrote a response: "White privilege is getting to write a column about the time you felt left out."
     The assumption behind that phrase—"the time you felt left out," as if there were only the one—stuck in my craw, but I didn't want to argue. I'd had my say, now she gets hers. That's how it works, and in the range of unfairness, this was something I could accept with grace. So I retweeted it, mentioning my experience of not lettering in 9th grade wrestling, a sly wink to telegraph, "We all have our woes." 
     My former editor, Andrew Herrmann, said he'd like to hear more about my season as a wrestler.
     Hmm... I don't usually take requests—I'm not a short order cook. But it seemed a story worth telling on a Sunday, perhaps one that can move the discussion along, about exclusion, and effort, and "white privilege." I don't want to re-open the debate. But it isn't as if the issue is going away either. 

     I grew to hate being a fat kid. You're no good at sports. People make jokes. It's unattractive. Uncomfortable. My right upper arm had stretch marks. I had to buy my clothes in the Husky Department. 
     So I tried to do something about it, starting at age 15.
     I joined the junior high school wrestling team.
     The idea was to force myself to exercise.
     And forced to exercise I was. We all were; we had to run "wind sprints." Run a certain distance—to the center of the gym, back, then to the far end, touch the wall, and run back. If everybody didn't do it in a certain amount of time, then we all had to do it over again. And again.
     Wind sprints were awful. You haven't suffered until you've made the entire squad do extra wind sprints because you're so out-of-shape you can't do one in the allotted time. Winded—I guess that's where they got their name—sucking air, humiliated and receiving the angry glares of your teammates.
     Still, I endured. I had made a commitment. I wanted to stick it out. Besides: I liked being on the team. I belonged. We had uniforms, these black spandex body suits. We had headgear. We wore special shoes. We struggled. Guys wrapped themselves in the mats, sweating, trying make weight. It was dramatic: I remember Wayne Carroll slamming his locker, crying, after losing a match. This was important.
     One practice, drilling a maneuver designed to roll your opponent over, using your head as a lever, I was trying it out on Mr. Reese, the assistant coach, a mountain of a man, and something snapped in his back. He had to be taken away in an ambulance. I felt sorry for hurting him, sure, but there was also an unspoken coolness involved. I might be a fish, but I had sent Mr. Reese to the hospital. He was a huge guy. 
     What I hadn't thought of was that I'd have to wrestle in meets. Against other schools. But that was the general point.
     At 191 pounds, I was a heavyweight. There were three other heavyweights. Bernard Neally and Harry Cuthrell, football linemen keeping in shape in the off-season. And Bill Grayson, who, I seem to recall, lived in the youth home.
     We wrestled each other, every week, to see who got to go to represent the school that weekend. Each opponent was a unique experience. Bernard would stand there, hands on his hips, and order me to shoot in—"shooting in" was the term we used for the lunging motion to go at someone's leg. Rather than trying to evade me, Bernard would just stand there, tensing his tree trunk of a leg. I would wrap myself around it and try to lift. It was like trying to lift a fire hydrant. He would stand there, tell jokes and laugh while I squirmed and struggled to budge his leg. Then he would pin me.
    Harry Curthrell was even stronger. I remember shooting in, and he did something with his hands, a quick motion, and suddenly the blue mat was where the ceiling had been, and visa versa. Then gravity did its thing. In a comic the sound would be written as: "WHUMPF!!!"
     And Bill Grayson, the worst of all. You get points in wrestling, for reverses, for getting on somebody's back, for holding on—"ride time"—they called it. You can win on points and never pin the other guy. Bill would hardly do anything, and let me rack up the points, do everything but pin him—I'd be winning, I don't recall the score, say 20 to 0. Then they would mark the last 10 seconds of the match—I remember them tossing a rolled up towel, to signal the approaching end. At that point he would come to life and pin me. He knew that I knew that if I could hold on for those last 10 seconds I would win. Finally win. But I never held on. I couldn't do it.
    It seemed cruel.
    So I never got through wrestle-offs. Never competed against another school in a match. But I lasted out the year. Went to every practice, every match. At the end of the year, at our banquet, every guy on the team got a white sweater with a big blue "R"—for Roehm Junior High School—trimmed in gold. Except me, since I had never actually wrestled against another school. Thus I didn't earn a letter, alone among the 57 kids on the team in the 7th, 8th and 9th grades. I remember wondering why they couldn't cut me a break—I was on the team, right? I had done my best all year. I had stuck it out. That sweater would have meant a lot to me. But I understood, rules are rules. 
     It's sort of a woebegone story, which is why I haven't told it before. I don't like painting myself as a victim. And it's a minor exclusion, compared to the larger injustices and tragedies of life. Compared to actual sorrows, it's nothing.
     But like all people, I don't compare my personal sadnesses against the weight of all human sadness, don't measure my life against the full spectrum of all lives. It was significant to me.
    Nor was it the only time I felt cut out. I hate to list them all. But since the subject was raised, and not my me, maybe it's overdue, in a society where slights and sufferings have become a strange sort of currency, chits we flash to show how ... well, disadvantaged we are. Because that makes us somehow worthy, somehow better, almost morally pure, in our own eyes at least. 
     Not that all of them add up to being disadvantaged. But they do show that my colleague's imagination—he's a white guy, he's sitting pretty in the white guy club—is out of kilter with reality, with my reality as I experienced it. Everyone is privileged, compared to someone else, and maybe one reason why the speakers at Pomona College were so insistent about trotting out their bona fides of disadvantage was to obscure, to themselves if no one else, that they might have had humble beginnings, but they're making up for it now, and have ascended into the elite. Most Americans still don't go to college at all. Most people in the world live in poverty, or nearly. Their parents might have struggled, but they went to school in heaven. They're now the advantaged, holders of privilege, whether they like it or not, and no amount of blowing kisses at the kitchen staff will change that. Slagging others based on your own assumed superiority is sort of what the privileged do, and if that assault is based on your ancestors coming over on the Mayflower or on their wading the Rio Grande is only a matter of personal style.
      We all have our privileges, and our exclusions, and they seem very tangible to ourselves. I was not only fat, but the sole Jew in my elementary school—being Jewish isn't considered a minority anymore, I suppose because many Jews do well. Like Asians, we've succeeded so much we've voided our minority status card. Maybe so. But that doesn't mean being Jewish doesn't put you on the outside Christian society, squirming while the rest of the class sings their carols and goes to their church camps. People still fucking hate us, and part of that hate is pretending all Jews are bankers and movie makers and George Soros, basking in privilege. All the obstacles of being a minority and none of the contact cool. Or so it can seem.  One reason my upbringing was so solitary is because half of my extended family was back in Poland, buried in a pit. If that isn't a disadvantage, what is?
    I don't see the utility into making your struggles into a kind of reality show competition. Maybe it's just the human joy of running down the lives of others, sight unseen, in using your story, whatever it is, to bludgeon those you resent for the easy path you assume they enjoyed. I'm not looking for sympathy. Instead, I'm asking: why does your struggle need to trump mine? What is the point of you finding your voice if the first thing you say is that others are somehow no good because they didn't climb the mountain you climbed? How do you know your path is steeping than mine? Why do we have to be in competition at all? That's the part I don't understand. So you can come out ahead? Okay, I tap out and yield; you come out ahead. You win, pinning me in the suffering competition. Now what?
    Once we're done comparing hardships, we need to seek commonalities. We must tire of bickering and find ways we are similar, rather than highlighting differences. That's what bugged me about the Pomona graduation. I did not, as some leaped to assume, resent the hoopla over these various ethnicities and groups. Good for them. I applauded. But what bothered me was the consistent shattering the student body into its component pieces in order to show off each sparkly shard, without ever making the slightest effort to gather the fragments back up and show how they  might fit together into a cohesive whole, into something that everyone can be a part of. Because I believe they all fit together, somehow. They have to. 


Saturday, May 19, 2018

And how's that working?

"The Death of the First Born" by Erastus Salisbury Field (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     If on Friday morning you tapped Texas dad Antonios Pagourtzis on the shoulder and asked him why he owned the guns that his 17-year-old son Dimitrios would soon take to Santa Fe High School and use to kill 10 people, he would have no doubt replied, "To protect my family."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Skip the wedding, reflect on how Chicago once hated British royalty

     Are you kidding? Get up at 6 a.m. Saturday to watch a royal wedding?
     Another royal wedding? Didn't we just have one of these, what, just seven years ago? How many more do we need?
     And no, I'm not drawn in by the bride's Northwestern connection — hail to purple, hail to white and best of luck to all fellow alumni. But it's important, with all the crazily-obsessive media attention building for months, to give permission to ignore the festivities, even sneer at them. To remind ourselves that not only do Americans reject the notion of royalty — it's kinda how our nation came to be — but Chicago has a particular history of despising British aristocracy.
     The oft-cited quote is Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson's threat against King George V: "If George comes to Chicago, I'll crack him in the snoot." The common assumption is that this was a tossed-off remark, perhaps to appeal to Irish voters.

      It was not. Rooting out the British menace was the linchpin of Thompson's 1927 mayoral bid, what one historian called "one of the most absurd campaigns ever waged in an American municipal election."I will not rest until I have purged this entire city of the poison that's being injected into the heart of American youth," Thompson said appointing a gambling buddy as special commissioner to weed British influence from Chicago's libraries and schools.
     Needless to say, Thompson won. A reminder that Donald Trump didn't invent getting elected by damning foreigners, he merely refined it.
     Ridiculing the English is uniquely satisfying and consequence-free; I'm surprised people don't do it far more often. While most nationalities have weaponized their cultural pride, the English can be mocked openly, boldly denounced as swine, provided of course you reach for the proper literary fig leaf, such as D.H. Lawrence's deathless rant: "Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates ... the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England today."

 continue reading, click here.    

The photographs are "Distortographs" of William Hale Thompson by British photographer Herbert George Ponting, mostly known for his Arctic photographs of the Scott Expedition. In 1927, he patented a lens attachment he called  the “variable controllable distortograph ... a revolutionary optical system for photographing in caricature or distortion,” submitting these photos of Thompson along with his application. While I have found no evidence connecting Thompson's anti-English campaign to these creations, due to the timing, a link seems likely.  (Photos used with permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The word police

Stephanie Izard
    A future column I'm working on necessitated a stop by the Chicago Ideas seminar at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tuesday night. I was hoping to talk to an executive in attendance at "The Future of Food in America," a panel discussion between Stephanie Izard, the chef behind Girl & the Goat, and Sam Kass, a nutrition advisor at the Obama White House, moderated by ABC 7's food reporter, Steve Dolinsky. 
     Since I wasn't particularly interested in the topic, I probably shouldn't assess how thoroughly it was covered—in the future we'll be eating less meat, ideally, and toward that end Girl & the Goat is serving hamburgers that are 25 percent mushroom, which seems like a good idea. 
     Seeing Izard reminded me of a column I wrote about her a dozen years ago, when she was starting out. Afterward, we had a chance to chat. "I still haven't read The Odyssey," she said, when I reminded her of the item below, and I put in a plug for Emily Wilson's new translation. 
     I understand ironic restaurant names. So many places are burdened with ordinary names such as Ma's Family Restaurant or the Steak and Potatoes Grill or whatever, that a hip chef wants to stand out in the crowd. Thus we get eateries with odd names like Barbed Wire or Gristle or Slop Sink.
     For me, the gold standard of winking eatery names is the University of Colorado at Boulder's student center cafeteria, which is called the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill— Packer being one of the few Americans ever found guilty of cannibalism, convicted of dining on several of his snowbound traveling companions during a harsh Rocky Mountains winter of 1873.
     College students eat that sort of thing up—sometimes literally, during "Alferd Packer Days" when they have, in years past, constructed life-size Packers out of chopped liver and set at them with crackers.
     So I understand irony.
     But "Scylla"? The "yelping horror" of The Odyssey? A beast known for gobbling up men alive? That seems to be pushing it.
     When I heard that a seafood place named "Scylla" had opened up on North Damen, I found myself running back to consult the epic poem. Circe, finally releasing Odysseus from her clutches, warns him: whatever he does, stay away from "the grisly monster."
     "No one could look on her with any joy," explains the goddess. "She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down, and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset, packet tight -- armed to the hilt with black death!"
     But Circe isn't done yet.
     "Scylla's no mortal,'' she continues. "She's an immortal devastation, terrible, savage, wild. No fighting her, no defense—just flee the creature, that's the only way."
     Can't you just see that in an ad? "Outstanding" -- Pat Bruno. "Terrible, savage, wild" -- Homer.
     Restaurants cost money—often somebody's life investment. I just couldn't imagine, with the menus being hand-lettered and the lighting fixtures agonized over, even the most ironic chef, going through lists of possible names—"'Clytemnestra?' No. 'Medea?' No.—Hey, 'Scylla!' That's snappy. The good old yelping horror. Yeah, that's it. We'll call it 'Scylla.' "
     I phoned Stephanie Izard, Scylla's chef and owner, who laughed when I told her why I was calling.
     "Basically, when I chose it, it was early on in reading about Scylla," she said. "I saw her as a sea monster in the Mediterranean, not really realizing the extent of her evil. Since then I've read more about it. . . ."
     So a failure to do one's homework—sort of like naming your daughter Anna Karenina Smith because you never got to the end of the book.
     Any regrets?
     "I still like the name—it always brings up questions,'' said Izard, 29. Like why you'd go to a restaurant whose name suggests—at least to the tiny fraction of Chicagoans familiar with the tale—a hideous doom to be avoided at all costs?
     "We don't want to send that message out," she said.
      Can't say I blame her.
                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 10, 2006

     Postscript: And as a reminder that you never know what part of a column will touch people, after this ran, I received a letter from a 15-year-old reader, saying her name was Karenina, and could I pass along her interest in meeting other girls of the same name. I did.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

You mean you’re NOT an undocumented immigrant? Take your diploma and get out

    It wasn't that the graduation festivities were without value—a class day speaker was very candid. A political science professor read from the Declaration of Independence. But those too were mitigated—she was being candid about her lack of employability after four years in college. The professor first pointed out that the Declaration of Independence has value, despite author Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, since John Adams, who helped, was anti-slavery. As if the concepts depended on the moral purity of who wrote them, which is pretty much where we are at nowadays. But by the time I cut it down to 700 words, this is what was left. Make no mistake: our family had an enjoyable graduation weekend, but there was a constant cloud of the school's own creating, which I tried to capture here. Based on some of my email, you'd think I'd written a hate polemic. 

    Southern California houses don’t have gutters. Not enough rain. I wish I could say I noticed this, with my keen journalist’s eye. But it was my wife who, strolling around the lovely college town of Claremont, an hour east of Los Angeles, pointed it out. That happens a lot.
     What I noticed was the sign for the “Black Graduation Ceremony” two days before the full commencement at Pomona College, the liberal arts school where my kid got his degree on Sunday.
     The sign was the first thing I saw stepping on campus, and set the tone. What could black commencement be? Like black proms at southern high schools? A sign of fracture and exclusion? Even here, at an epicenter of inclusion? Pomona placed 9th out of 2,475 colleges on a ranking of the most diverse schools.
     I started with my kid: what gives? He said that there are several separate graduations—also a “Lavender Commencement” for LGBTQ community. No big deal. He was entirely non-plussed, as if I had asked about some mundane aspect of student life: and all these backpacks, what are they for?
     We had come 2,000 miles to attend three events. The first, a pair of brunch receptions for the Economics and International Studies departments—his degree is in both. His teachers were outgoing, we got to meet friends and classmates we had only heard of.

To continue reading, click here.

My colleague at the Sun-Times, Alexandra Arriaga, wrote a response to this column. While I don't agree with how she characterized my column—I was wondering why the separate commencements were necessary at one of the most inclusive colleges in the country, not complaining I wasn't invited—it is worth reading. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


     Epicures are odd people.
     My older son likes fancy restaurants, and he is all Michelin stars this, and coq au vin that.  The swank place we dined at Sunday night to celebrate his graduation was picked, in part, for its steak tartar, which I think of as "raw ground meat."
     Then Monday, heading for LAX and, we have a little extra time, and it's pushing noon, and he suggests, "Hey, why don't we stop at the In-N-Out Burger by the airport?"
      I've spent months in Los Angeles, but can't say In-N-Out Burger is on my radar. But it seems to be a cult of some sort, stoked by rarity—the chain only operates in six states: Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Texas,  Utah, and the mothership, California.
     Sure, I say, it's your graduation. 
     What should I get, I ask my son.
     Burger with animal sauce.
     "Animal sauce?"
     "A mayonnaise-based sauce," he says.
     Sounds a bit Big Mac-ish. But OK. When in Rome ... (Actually, "Animal Style" means extra sauce, mustard-grilled patties and extra pickles. "Mustard-grilling" is when they slather the patty with mustard before flipping it. Who knew?)
     We get in line for the drive-thru—no spaces, no time. We order four burgers—$12.81. Enthusiastic workers hand us a squarish bag. When my wife looks inside the bag, she explains, "The burgers are unwrapped; they just put them in the bag!"
     Immediately I think it has to be some strange Californian law to cut down on waste. But rather, upon closer exploration, it turns out the burgers are combat wrapped for a car culture—only half covered, so you can grab the paper-wrapped half and immediately mash the burger into your face, which is what I do as I steer toward the car rental return, only a few blocks away.
     It is a distinctive burger—fresh bun with a thick round bottom half. Lots of lettuce and fresh tomato. The rest ... well, it was okay, but then I ate it with one hand while driving toward the Avis drop off. Whatever excellence mustard-grilling imparts is lost on me.
    Avis, incidentally, wraps its corporate arms around us as we arrive. Alex—I didn't catch his last name—but he is just, well, extra-friendly. He tries harder, as the slogan goes, and it is appreciated. I don't have much car rental loyalty—I think of them as all the same. But Avis now stands out, because it has Alex greeting customers as they bring their cars back at LAX.
     The In-N-Out burger chain is older than McDonald's. Founded in 1948 (their 70th birthday is this Oct. 22) while the McDonald's Corporation started in 1955, and originated the drive-thru, being the first burger joint to use speakers to take orders from motorists in cars.
     Oddly, given the vaguely sexual overtone of the name, "In-N-Out," the owners are fundamentalist Christians who cite Biblical verses on the burger packaging. For some reason, this doesn't bother me—it's their company—since they don't seem to harass their workers or try to undermine the rights of their customers.
     No great epiphany here—we got into Chicago late to find monsoon season upon the city— except that value has to do with scarcity. In-N-Out are certainly beloved, but if they were on every street corner, like McDonald's, that ardor would no doubt fade: familiarity breeds contempt.  I don't think my experience Monday will knock White Castle out of its preeminence in my heart among quirky hamburger chains. But it did help redeem the state's reputation, fast-food wise, which had been so tarnished by a few bad experiences at Bob's Big Boy and Denny's. Anyway, it's good to be home, college graduate in tow. He hasn't slept under our roof for five months. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Waitlisted for dumplings

     We drove half an hour to Monterey Park, a sprawling city east of Los Angeles that is 2/3 Asian, in order to sample the authentic soup dumpling at Mama Lu's Dumpling House, one of my older son's favorite places to eat. 
    The restaurant was exactly what you'd expect: crowded, clatter, not many caucasians. Although I got one surprise: instead of a harried host jotting down names on a pad, this computer maitre d', where we tapped in our name ourselves and registered to be notified when a table became ready.
     Another job down the tubes. I've grudgingly accepted ringing up my own razors at CVS and bagging my own nails at Home Depot. Resistance is futile. But somehow this seems straying into a new area.
     It was extra odd finding it at a small Chinese dumpling place and not, oh, McDonald's, or some other big corporate chain, which have been experimenting with having customers key in their own orders, to make up for the lack of minimum wage drones. Why here?
     We plugged in our phone information, were told the wait would be a half hour, then strolled down Garvey Avenue to see what the wait was like at the second Mama Lu's Dumpling House, five blocks east, speaking of quirky. I must have been tired from our trip, because I didn't even probe why there were two restaurants with the same name half a mile apart. I gazed at the streetscape—lots of travel agents and nail salons, with signs heavy on Chinese characters. It was like being in Taipei. Mama Lu's II was even more jammed, and no sooner had we turned to go, than we got a text telling us we had a minute to claim our table.
     The boys hustled ahead, and didn't get there in a minute. Our spot in the queue vanished. But due to some old-fashioned, low-tech humble entreaty to an actual human being on my son's part, we got the next table and didn't have to re-enter our names and begin the process all over again.
     I'd like to think the electronic sign-up practice won't spread to restaurants generally—you can eat at home, and if you are going to be greeted with a computer screen, next the dumplings will be cooked up by robots in the back and served by drones. Something of the experience is lost. I always consider service—someone greeting you, someone being friendly to you—an intrinsic part of the dining out experience. 
      They were very good dumplings—a blurp of hot soup in the middle—which I suppose is the important thing. The friend fish was also excellent. The fried cubes of coconut bread, well, I assume that's an acquired taste. The only unsettling aspect, that computer sign up....
     Then again, I squirmed when the New York Times put a color photograph on the front page. It might have seemed wrong, at the time and for a moment, but we got used to it, and after all these years I'm ready to admit that, yes, it was an improvement.
      Several other California-style developments caught my eye this trip. Our room had a "Clean Remote"—obviously reacting to the news that television remotes are the filthiest spot in the room, because they're difficult to clean, this one bragged "The Clean Remote has been designed specifically to make it easy to clean and disinfect."
    Not that they necessarily do it. But the potential is there.
 .    I also spied more EXIT signs at floor level, which puzzled me the first time, but are obviously designed to but of more use to patrons crawling through smoke-filled halls. Smart but not the most pleasant image to have when you're checking into your motel.
     It's always a challenge to decide whether a social shift is a loss, a deterioration, or just new. When people began saving a nickel a gallon on gas by pumping it themselves, the loss of the guy who pumped your gas and checked your oil seemed a step toward the abyss. Now, you don't want some odd guy to start pawing around your car. It's intrusive. A reminder that while it's easy to see our systems changing around us, it's harder to see ourselves change within those systems. Which is true for more than technology. Assuming we ever get rid of Donald Trump and his cohort of quislings and traitors, we'll then have to address how we ourselves have changed, perhaps against our will, perhaps without even realizing it. But changed nevertheless, and certainly not for the better.