Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Hey George, don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.

     Chicago! Yo! Over here! I have a question.
     So the 2016 Summer Olympics begin in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5 — three months from Thursday — assuming the city doesn't first dissolve into unrest or the region become overwhelmed by Zika-carrying mosquitoes or Brazil collapse into political anarchy.
     That said, how many of you have had this thought: "Darn, if only we had gotten the 2016 Olympics. I sure wish it were taking place right here instead."
     A show of hands. Anybody?
     Thought so. While I'm sure there must be someone who wishes that, among Chicago's complex raft of woes, the city were also throwing a weird mega block party for shot-putters and pole-vaulters and all those other sports we studiously ignore the 47 consecutive months between Olympics. But I'm not expecting many.
     The general reaction has to be a collective, Whew!
     Dodged that bullet.
     One disaster that Richard M. Daley didn't foist upon Chicago despite trying with all his might....

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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chicago's own circus, City Council, once put on an elephant show

     Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had their last show using elephants in Rhode Island on Sunday. I can't claim to be particularly saddened to see the 120-year tradition end. Society changes. I used to enjoy taking the boys to the circus, and the shows were dramatic, especially the elephants forming a massive living tableau of animal bulk. But I understand that elephants are sensitive beings, and abusing them into public performance is not a particularly laudable human achievement. I'm sure feeding slaves to the lions in the Colosseum was a thrilling spectacle too, but that isn't a convincing argument against doing away with it.
    This view represents—I won't say "progress"—how about "evolution" on my part, to borrow Barack Obama's term. Ten years ago, in the wake of three elephants dying at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago City Council was holding hearings whether to effectively ban elephants in the city. I swallowed hard and attended a meeting. 
    It's a shame the aldermen couldn't have applied this zeal to shortfalls in pension funding; could have saved everybody a lot of grief. Elephants aren't the only ones who suffer. 

     Old people shouldn't live in nursing homes, where they are crammed in small, overlit rooms, often with cantankerous roommates. A few are neglected, suffering terrible bedsores, or abuse at the hands of churlish, undertrained "attendants."
     Instead, they should live out their days with their families, relaxing in wicker rockers, sipping lemonade on the wide front porches of splendid Victorian homes, their grandchildren capering around their knees.
     To help facilitate this, the City of Chicago should ban nursing homes within its borders.
     This, as best I can figure, is the kind of logic underlying arguments against allowing elephants -- either at the Lincoln Park Zoo or in passing circuses -- to reside in Chicago. Since elephants sometimes in some places are treated poorly, they shouldn't be kept in captivity at all.
     This was laid out in the City Council chambers Thursday, during a Rules Committee hearing for Ald. Mary Ann Smith's (48th) proposed ordinance to require so much free space for elephants that it would effectively ban them.
     We saw slides of elephants with abscesses on their feet. A brief, soundless, green-tinged video of a man with a hooked staff, instructing another man how to use it to discipline elephants.
     "Hurt 'em, make 'em scream," read the closed captioning, helpfully provided by PETA.
     Somehow, these incidents were supposed to jell into a general indictment. Testimony in support of the bill began -- for some inexplicable reason -- with a 16-year-old Lincoln Park High School sophomore named Francie Flannigan.
     "The elephants didn't ask to be here,'' she said. (They didn't ask to be in Africa, either, but no matter). "They are our guests. We should treat them like guests and not prisoners."
     The theater major ended by reciting from that elephant classic, Dr. Seuss' Horton Hatches the Egg.
     " 'I said what I meant and I meant what I said, an elephant is faithful, 100 percent.' "
     Ald. William Beavers (7th) responded to this curious display with a pertinent question:
     "Have you ever seen an elephant?"
     "Yes,'' said the girl. "At the Lincoln Park Zoo."
     "Anywhere else?
     "Also at the circus."
     Some three dozen other youngsters, all in identical neon green T-shirts memorializing the last three elephant inmates of the Lincoln Park Zoo, were in the public gallery, which is probably 1 percent of the kids who go through the zoo on a rainy afternoon.
     In general, Beavers provided a steady, thoughtful counterpoint, as we sailed to the realm of the absurd, acting as the Council's voice of reason (as opposed to Ald. Arenda Troutman [20th], whose rambling, incoherent speech left people scratching their heads).
     After the video, Beavers summarized the situation:
     "It's a video of one idiot, and you want to punish the whole city because you saw one person doing something."
     Patti Miles, a former employee of the Detroit Zoo, described how that zoo's elephants were shipped to a sanctuary in California -- she didn't explain why, if the elephants were so terribly abused, they nevertheless lived into their 50s, nor did she point out that the Detroit Zoo managed to make the decision without the intercession of government.
     She seemed to be speaking, not only against zoos, but against human experience of the living world in general.
     "Why is it so important to see something with your own eyes?" she asked.
     The assumption of all the pro-ban people was that there was some idealized state of nature, over in Africa, where all these elephants would be joyfully roaming if they weren't kidnapped and taken here, some Eden with no poachers, no droughts, no hyenas, no illness.
     There are 2 million Americans in prison in this country, some kept in horrendous, overcrowded conditions -- such as at the Cook County Jail. There are 600 elephants in the United States. I just don't think our priorities are straight.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 24, 2006

     Postscript: Stung by ridicule over its banning foie gras in 2005, the City Council ended up not banning elephants. In 2008, the City Council did pass a weak tea anti-elephant abuse ordinance, making it illegal "to use on an elephant any device or instrument with the intent to cause pain and injury" without mustering the courage to specifically mention "bull hooks" etc. and thus missing the heart of the matter.  The Lincoln Park Zoo got rid of its elephants, no law necessary, in 2012. 

Monday, May 2, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court leans toward legalizing corruption

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

     Things are a mess.
     They sure feel like a mess, don’t they?
     Chicago teeters on insolvency. Illinois hurtles toward its first anniversary of utter fiscal gridlock.
     Nationally, the view is even more surreal, like some semi-obscene Dali painting come to life. This crude New York punchline has shanghaied the Republican Party. While the Democrats who aren’t still skipping happily toward Shangri-La behind Pied Piper Bernie Sanders, banging tambourines wrapped in ribbons, grimly assemble around scarred old campaigner Hillary Clinton, like yeomen clutching pointed staffs in a muddy field around Henry V, psyching themselves up to fight off the legions of bowl-haircut Middle American sexist idiocy for the next six solid months.
     So I hate to point out another looming problem, one not on your radar yet. It won’t show up until June, maybe. But it bobbed to the surface of our national discourse last week before being flushed away by the next jaw-dropping set of bad news. Since you may have missed it, I feel compelled to pluck it out and hold it up, gingerly, between thumb and forefinger.
     Bob McDonnell.
     Name mean anything? Of course not. Don’t feel bad, it drew a blank with me too....

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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Chris Christie in rags

    The presidential election is Tuesday, Nov. 8.
    One hundred and ninety days from now.
    A tad more than half a year.
    Quite a lot, really.
    And given that, right now, it looks as if those days—4392 hours — will be taken up listening to, looking at, and thinking about Donald J. Trump, some words of comfort are in order.
    I'd like to direct your attention to Chris Christie in the photo above.
    Now the governor of New Jersey was never going to be president. That dream vanished when his top aides shut down a few lanes of the George Washington Bridge leading to Ft. Lee in 2013, as some kind of crazy political payback by creating huge traffic jams. Meaning either Christie knew about it and lied about that knowledge. Or ran an administration where henchmen ran riot while he sat in the dark.
    And really, which was worse?
    The man was a political corpse and didn't know it.
    Still, Christie showed up at the Republican debates, delivered his prepackaged zingers and hit his cues. And when it was over he was among the first former opponents to embrace Donald Trump.
    As a reward, Trump lets him join the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album cover melange of models and GOP mercenaries who have drifted over to his banner and are allowed to stand behind him at speeches.
     Christie, though, is noteworthy for that expression, that stunned, miserable stare that often comes over his face. I think of that woman trapped in the hive in "Aliens," who croaks "Kill me."
    Or—and this is a vague memory—there was some Babylonian king, who kept his enemy, blinded, in a small cage at court. It was something I glanced on a TV historical drama years ago, so might not even be true. I can't dig up any facts on the matter, so maybe you can help out.* But the sight of once egomaniac Christie, deprived of the spotlight, showing his throat to Trump, who dressed him in rags and chained him to a post in the corner, where he crouches, miserable, waiting hungrily for scraps of attention.
    That's a beautiful thing. It makes me happy every time I see it, because the obloquy is so well-deserved. The quisling, his head shaved, in a tumbrel, dripping in spit. And perhaps there's a bit of foreshadowing there. It is too much, at this point, to hope that Trump will end up the same way, toothless, ignored and flailing, a male Sarah Palin, spouting gibberish as people avert their faces. He's too rich for that. But it could happen. Some version of that could yet occur. Look at Christie. Really look at him. Whenever Trump is on stage, scan the ensemble of bootlickers and coat-holders and toadies. Find him and be reassured. The wheel turns, and sometimes rough justice does occur. Trump is riding high now, at this moment. But a moment does not last forever. Or so one may passionately hope.

* A Bible-savvy reader, John Anton Weber, offers up the unfortunate I was thinking of, Zedekiah, citing chapter and verse:

"At the end of his eleven year reign, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. Zedekiah and his followers attempted to escape, making their way out of the city, but were captured on the plains of Jericho, and were taken to Riblah.There, after seeing his sons put to death, his own eyes were put out, and, being loaded with chains, he was carried captive to Babylon, where he remained a prisoner until he died."  
                                                               — Kings 25:1-7; 2 Chronicles 36:12;              Jeremiah 32:4,-5; 34:2-3; 39:1-7; 52:4-11; Ezekiel 12:13), 

Thank you John!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Welcome to the restroom of Mort's Deli.

     "I'm just wondering, with all this talk about transgendered people using the washroom, I want to know, who is going to be doing the checking? How do they plan on enforcing the law?" 
                                                                           —Phone message, April 29, 2016

     "Good evening. Welcome to the restroom of Mort's Deli. Please feel free to avail yourself to a stick of Wrigley's spearmint chewing gum or Lifesaver mint. But only one, please.
      "Why yes, I remember you, too. You asked for blueberry bagels last year. There is no such thing as a blueberry bagel. Not at the Steinberg Bakery which is closed for a month. Being remodeled. We are installing new, crazy expensive terrazzo counters and tile floor. The contractor said two weeks which means four. In the meantime, I told my brother Morton that I'd help him with the restroom duty at the delicatessen when I wasn't overseeing the work. You have to watch them, like a hawk you do.
      "It is not easy, the rest room duty. Believe me. Now a nice gentleman like yourself, there is no need to ah ... examine the package. But younger men, teenagers, they can be very smooth-skinned and fair. The way they dress nowadays. Hard to tell the boys from the girls....
     "No, I have not had a lady come in here yet a, how do you say, transgendered individual. But I've only been here a week. Morty's sister, Alice, is in the ladies room. She had someone she was certain was a man. I mean, there were shoulders, a mustache....
     "No, no, we cannot touch the patron. That would be assault.  All we can is ask. Insist. Alice asked the lady to ... well, see the goods. This lady, she became very offended, and left before the police could be called. Which is good, you are supposed to call the police, because it is a crime, to go into the men's room with the equipment of a woman, and versus vice.
    "Turns out, Mort said later, it was indeed a woman—Mrs. Berkowitz's sister, visiting from Cleveland. She had never been here before, which is why Alice didn't recognize her. Her own fault, really, for not being a customer. Still, an unfortunate incident. Not only did the sister get mad, but Mrs. Berkowitz too. A good customer for 20 years. She'll come around. Where else can you get such garlic pickles? Nowhere. Mort makes them himself, from Polish cucumbers raised in oaken tubs.
    "But the law is the law. 'The Illinois Restroom Safety and Decency Act.'  It's framed right there on the counter, next to the bottle of Old Spice. Please feel free to avail yourself to the Old Spice. It's bracing.
     "The law requires that the act be framed and prominently displayed, though I think that Moishe would do so anyway. He doesn't want his customers to think that he cares ... about ... you know ... what they have ... down there. He only cares that you order a corn beef sandwich, or something, enjoy your lunch, and not linger. Sometimes people linger, eating the rolls and pickles—the best!—for hours. But what can you do? You can't throw them out. Even a cup of coffee. That was the biggest problem Mort had, people who get a club soda and think they're entitled to a basket of rolls and a jar of pickles.
    "But times change. Mort has had his deli here for, what, 50 years? More. Since 1964. Before it belonged to our uncle Sol. It was called Sol's. But Sol became ill, and had no children. Well, two girls, but no boys to pass the business onto. Girls have no sense for the business. The girls had no interest in the delicatessen, went to school somewhere and got jobs, one became, I don't know, a physicist, the other a pilot.
     "In all that time, there was never trouble with the restroom. Well, sometimes a parent would order their kid the Jumbo Atomic Hot Fudge Sundae, and let the child eat the whole thing—it's supposed to be shared with four people—and he would rush into the bathroom and, well, let me tell you. My brother told me it was like somebody pulled the pin on a grenade in there. There was throw-up on the ceiling. 
    "But as far as men dressed as women lurking about the stalls, pouncing upon the customers doing their business, that was never a problem. Which is what makes the law so strange to me. Now Mort, he says it isn't about restrooms, really. Me, as a baker, I'm used to silly laws. We have to have the kitchen checked for rodent activity, as if that were possible in an establishment of such unsurpassed cleanliness as the Steinberg Bakery. But in other places, yes, so I go along. I try to be a good citizen. Which Mort does too. Though he has a theory. He says, with the Internet and cell phones and freedom, it gets harder to kick the people you hate. Time was, you could, literally, you saw somebody you didn't like, a schwartz, a fairy, whatever, you could walk over, give 'em a kick. And what were they going to do? Nothing. Nobody cared what happened to them.
    "Now, oh boy. Everybody cares. They post the video and everybody cries. Suddenly there are no people ashamed to show their faces in public. They get to ride the bus, use the bathroom, wherever they please. It's a new world. But some people, they don't like it. They have the itchy toe. They're still itching to give their kick and, blocked one way, find another. Not me. I hate no one. I am a businessman. You come in, I sell you butter cookies, no matter how loathsome an individual you happen to be when you are not buying my cookies. It isn't my business. My business is selling you cookies, so give me the money, and get out. Four weeks. Six tops.
    "This law. This stupid law. So now somebody has to sit in the bathroom, checking. In every public restroom with more than two stalls. Sadly, Mort's Deli has three, though he's going to hire my contractor—Sheldon Finkleman and Brothers, the best!— to rip one out. As soon as they're done at the Steinberg Bakery. By June, God willing.
    "Until then, well, here I am. Trying to make the best of it. Not so bad. I got the newspaper. There's the radio, easy listening. Part of it is nice -- like the old days, when there were clubs. The Chez Paree, the Trade Winds. I once saw Tony Bennett at the Double Door. You can't imagine. There was always a colored fellow in the bathroom, handing out towels and brushing off shoulders. Mort should have an actual colored fellow, but it isn't so easy to find one who'll sit in a restroom and guard the mints. Besides, for the enforcement of the law, that requires a certain finesse, a certain authority. Which is why Morty turned to me. I am a figure of respect at the Steinberg Bakery, and run a right ship here. Still, most people are the gender that God intended them to be, and are just answering nature's call, and since I'm here anyway, I try to make it a little elegant for them, for all of us, with the fancy lotions and the music and the aftershave and the combs in blue water. Here's a towel. Please deposit it in the wicker basket. People can be pigs. I know. Here, help yourself to a stick of Wrigley spearmint gum, but only one. Some people scoop up the tray. And thank you -- some gentlemen, they take the gum but leave nothing. Which is their right, but leaves a lingering bitterness. Still, it takes all sorts to make a world. Let me tell you. A little kindness goes a long way. I wish more people knew that.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Let's all play Ted Cruz connect-the-dots

     Remember connect-the-dots? I do, which is scary. Pages covered with numbered dots, plus a few embellishments that pretty much give the game away unless you're a particularly dim child. Grabbing your squat blue pencil, you draw a line from one dot to the next, using your newly acquired counting skills. An image emerges. Oooo.
     Long gone now, I imagine, another victim of computers.
     Still, we can play connect-the-dots by relating disparate news items until a picture forms.
     Dot 1: Woke up Thursday morning to WBBM radio playing a Ted Cruz campaign commercial — right, Indiana, our slice of the Southland next door, is having its primary Tuesday. The Cruz ad does its own little connect-the-dots, taking the common fear of transgender people, marrying it to Donald Trump, who in a rare moment of common sense, said "people go, they use the bathroom that's appropriate." Cruz offers that as his plea for your vote.
     Rex Huppke wrote a bold explanation in the Tribune this week of just how cowardly, offensive and un-American Cruz is for singling out a long-besieged minority for further abuse. Readers know I am not in the practice of touting the competition, but such considerations are a trifle compared to the welfare of the nation, and must be set aside so long as there is the threat, no matter dwindling, that Cruz could prevail. He's worse than Trump, and that's saying a mouthful....

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Behind every successful man is a woman, laughing at him

     When the Tuesday results came in, and Trump had swept the Republican primaries in all five states—Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island—suddenly it seemed very real. The man could really be the Republican presidential candidate in November.
      And while that most likely means Hillary Clinton will dice him like a Veg-o-matic, nothing is certain in this world. People certainly hate Hillary Clinton, for ... well, whatever flimsy surrogate they wave around—Benghazi, emails, the death of Vince Foster, if they're Republicans. The war in Iraq, Goldman Sachs, not being Bernie Sanders if they're left wing Democrats. 
     As to where her gender fits into all this, well, it'll take a sharper mind than mine to sort that out. It's easy to assume the GOP hates her because she's a woman since they do seem to go out of their way to scorn women, like Ted Cruz's already-notorious commercial that's about women's restrooms but is addressed to their lords and masters, men.
     But Bill Clinton isn't a woman, and Republicans hate him just as much as they do Hillary.
     Trump came pretty close to denouncing Clinton for her gender Tuesday night. Flush with victory, he lit into his opponent-to-be for what one can assume is her most glaring fault. 
    “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote,” Trump said, during a rambling speech that he turned into a news conference when he ran out of things to say. "The only thing she's got going is the women's card. And the beautiful thing is, women don't like her."
    How that is germane ... well, it goes without saying, though within hours the Clinton campaign had a strong video response online, taking Trump's words and ramming them up his ass, where they belong.
     What Trump is groping at, I think, reflects the common bully belief that oppressed groups are really entitled. Just as Republicans said Obama became president because he was black— since African-Americans just show up and leapfrog into seats of power— when the truth is he became president in spite of it, so many voters aren't embracing Clinton because she's a woman, but they're overcoming their unspoken disdain they have for women and supporting her anyway, because she's smart and talented and the best person for the job.
    To me, the most telling aspect is that Hillary had a speech prepared, while Trump winged it. That's why his fans love him, I know. But a thinking person does not want a president who wings it when preparation is a possibility
     She certainly is a flawed candidate. But like Democracy as defined by Winston Churchill as "the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried for time to time," so Hillary Clinton is the worst candidate, except for all the others that are trying right now. Compared to them, she's Moses and Jefferson in one except, as Trump keeps pointing out, female.