Saturday, November 18, 2017

Holding up the sky

     My friend Rob in New York City first pointed them out to me, so I think of them as a Manhattan phenomenon. Maybe they are, though they're in Chicago now in numbers.
     "Power umbrellas," he called them—those jumbo, sidewalk-spanning circular awnings that a small but significant percentage of pedestrians downtown feel obligated to carry. Golf umbrellas, migrated from the links to the city. 
    Though lately, they seem even bigger—not golf umbrellas, but patio umbrellas, practically, reflecting the bottomless desire of those with much to get more, to manifest themselves and spread out into space, endlessly. Other people are free to get out of the way.
    That might just be my perception. With the election of a bully, liar and fraud to the presidency, whose values are a nauseating mash of vanity, money worship and empty status lust, I suppose it would be natural if I got a little touchy about my fellow man laying claim to more sidewalk than is his right. 
     What if we all carried these ludicrously huge umbrellas? There would be tangles, injuries, fights. Nobody would get anywhere. They're counting on most people being happy with what we have. They always do.
     I am late to this, I know. The alarming trend was pointed out exactly a decade ago in the New York Times, in a slyly-titled "The Collapsible Colossus." 
     Time was that the regular-size umbrella, 40 inches to 48 inches in diameter, ruled the market. Now, “everybody’s moved up to a 60 and 68,” said John W. Aycock, owner of
     The article, by Micah Cohen, quotes umbrella store owners saying men—and it is invariably men—come in asking for the biggest umbrella they've got. Carelessly wielded, they cause eye injuries beside a sense of economic inferiority. 
     Now "umbrella" is an odd word. I tried to imagine where it's from, and drew a blank—Dutch? Navajo?—which is embarrassing, because, as my handy Oxford reminded, it has a familiar root: "umbra," is Latin for shade. Of course, like "penumbra," the shadow between light and dark. I knew that.
    Interestingly, the first definition has to do, not with rain, but sun, reflecting its sunny Roman roots: "A light portable screen or shade, usually circular in form and supported by a central stick or staff, used in hot countries as a protection for the head or person against the sun." That goes back to 1611. The next definition has umbrellas as "a symbol of rank or state" in some Asian and African countries—makes sense, since the person with a servant holding an umbrella over their head, blocking the sun, must be a person of rank. Only the third definition holds umbrellas up as "a portable protection against bad weather," 
    Both Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary and Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary mention sun first, though Webster goes on to point out that they are made of whalebone.
    But are these capacious canopies rude? Earlier this year, Scientific American examined the entire umbrella manners question, with "The Complexities of Using an Umbrella in New York City," by Krystal D'Costa. Most of the article examined how passersby carrying umbrellas negotiate past each other on crowded city streets. Though giant umbrellas are addressed:
The size of one's umbrella matters too: it should be proportionate to the height of the person, unless you want to draw the ire of your fellow pedestrians. A shorter person carrying a golf umbrella occupies a greater radius on the sidewalk—which is a big deal when it’s raining and people are looking to move as quickly as possible to their destinations. They also make it difficult to adhere to the subconscious rules that guide umbrella encounters. Given the berth, a golf umbrella should be lifted above oncoming traffic as a courtesy, but it may be harder to do that for a shorter person in this instance. Honestly, golf umbrellas may just generally be problematic. Even if used by a taller person, they may wind up dripping on an unsuspecting person standing on the fringes of the umbrella’s radius.
    "Ire" seems the wrong word. When I see someone lofting one of these enormous false ceilings skyward, I do not feel anger so much as amazement and a kind of sorrow. Really? 
      Envy doesn't figure into it—I can buy a golf umbrella—but honestly, think about it. Lofting one of those monsters, you are holding up far more umbrella than you need to keep yourself dry. In a sense they are reverting to their original form, as markers of status, at least to the carrier. Though an umbrella is toted around closed far more than it is held open, and when not being used a large umbrella is just dead weight—a reminder that when you try to maximize your advantage beyond what is your due, and flaunt your status, the person often most inconvenienced is yourself. 
    The titan Atlas was punished, remember, not by being condemned to hold up the earth, as he is often depicted doing, but by being forced to hold up the sky. Why someone would voluntarily condemn himself to a similar fate is a mystery. 

Rockefeller Center, New York City


Friday, November 17, 2017

Watching men watching men building buildings

Photo by Tina Sfondeles
    This was fun. Make sure you watch the video, posted on the Sun-Times web site. 

     Alex Griffiths works but doesn't get his hands dirty.
     The 40-year-old Brit has a job related to computers in the clean, abstract digital world at the 1871 high-tech business incubator at the Merchandise Mart.
     That, he said, partly explains why he paused on Orleans Street, just north of the Chicago River, one morning to gaze down into a construction pit and watch equipment digging up great mounds of mud.
     "It's fascinating to watch," said Griffiths. "This is something physical."
     Physical is the word. Six stories of basement parking being dug out of the muck at Wolf Point, the start of what will be a 60-story, $360 million tower. A big John Deere 350 excavator and a trio of smaller pieces of digging equipment look like a family of dinosaurs feeding at the edge of a swamp. Every minute or two another passerby stops to watch.
    "I think it's because we all wish we were driving one of those big backhoes," says a second man, who didn't want to be identified, a reminder that there is an element of idling to the observation of construction.
     "I don't want my kids to know I'm doing this at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday," he said, puffing on a cigar.
     "See how skilled they are," he said, gesturing toward what is, in essence, a bucket brigade with heavy equipment. "You go home at the end of the day, you've accomplished something."

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Women and religion, pt. II

Stevenson Memorial, by Abbott Handerson Thayer (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

    The key to writing a column is to say some things and not others. You can't explore every tangent. There isn't room, or reader interest. Make your point, move on. 
    Often, however, nuance is lost. In Monday's column, for instance, on religion and sexism, when I was listing the ways various religions hold women down, I originally gave the Baha'i a pass—they actually do stress the equality of the sexes. That seemed fair. But there wasn't room, so it had to go. Nor did I have the luxury of mentioning that, along with regularly oppressing women, faith also sometimes enriches them. 
    One reader stepped up to point that out, in a way I felt went beyond the standard "What about the Clintons?" response, and since she did so lucidly and sincerely, I thought I would share her remarks:
Dear Mr. Steinberg,
     As a woman, mother of three daughters, and grandmother of 5 granddaughters, I feel compelled to respond to your article today by adding another view.
     I have found freedom to be all I want to be, respect for the unique qualities inerrant in being a female human being, and courage to stand up to those who would disrespect my womanhood all in my faith as a Christian. 
     Jesus elevated the status of the woman he came in contact with through his time of ministry. He dispersed a crowd ready to stone a woman "caught in adultery" (where was the man she was caught with?) by asking her accusers "he who is without sin, cast the first stone".
     Jesus encouraged women to learn from his teachings alongside the men who also followed him at a time when women were not part of formal spiritual or intellectual training. Mary of Bethany, Martha, and Mary Magdalene were some of those women who followed Jesus.
     Jesus engaged in conversation with a woman who was an outcast (a Samaritan) and offered her the "water of life". He used a poor widow as an example of true sacrificial giving, in contrast with the wealthy Pharisee of the religious establishment. 
     My Christian faith has given me a strong sense of my worth as a person. I am free of the stigma any cultural bias may project on me based on my ethnicity, community, education, economic status, or any other designation. I am a child of God, the Creator of the Universe.
     Have men dominated women under the supposed authority of religion?  Absolutely, much to their shame. Have men hidden behind their "religion" to perpetrate acts of sexual abuse? Yes. Does the current administration contribute to a tone of "consequence-free misbehavior", as you stated? Most likely.
     Yet these sins against women and abuse of authority are not rooted in true Christianity. The word "Christian" means "Christ like". Jesus Christ taught "the greatest love is to sacrifice your life", and "do unto others as you would have them do to you".
     Does this sound like institutionalized repression? I think not.

     Gayle Barker Woody

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Can a 'normal person' become governor?

      J.B. Pritzker gave another $7 million to his own gubernatorial campaign Friday.
     Which, doing the math, is roughly the equivalent of me spending $700 on a plumber.
     Except it isn’t, my finances being a lot more close to the bone than his. I miss $700 more than he misses $7 million.
     We both get value for our money. I get a new boiler pump. And Pritzker airs TV commercials like the one I saw Monday night, a poignant spot with melancholy piano music and J.B. talking about his mother, who died of alcoholism. A medley of emotion, trying to humanize the billionaire.
     It works. He comes off as very lifelike.
     Which is more than what could be done for Gov. Bruce Rauner, who couldn’t be rendered human if Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson rose up from the grave and gave him the head-to-toe buffing makeover that Dorothy Gale gets upon arrival at the Emerald City.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Books on the nightstand

     When an opponent's king is under attack in chess and cannot escape to safety, the victorious player announces "checkmate!" 
      Now that's an odd word, "checkmate." What is being checked? Who is mating?
      Nobody. "Checkmate" is a transliteration—a foreign phrase spelled out in English letters—of the Arabic shah-mat, or "the king is dead," a relic of the game's ancient Persian origins, hidden in plain sight.
      If you find that interesting, I have a book for you: It's All a Game: The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan by British writer Tristan Donovan (St. Martin's: $26.99).  I noticed its attractive cover in the New Books section at the Northbrook Public Library a few weeks ago and took it home, where it came in handy after I was laid low with a bad cold over the past few days. There's nothing quite so comforting as an engaging book to distract yourself from your ailments.
     I've always loved games, from when I was cutting my teeth on Candyland—that lovely block of Neapolitan ice cream!—all the way through the usual suspects: Trouble, Mousetrap, Monopoly, Risk, Clue, chess, checkers—to more esoteric games, like 3M bookshelf games Breakthru and Twixt. One of my best friends gave me a wooden game as a wedding present—Cathedral—and its been on our coffee table for 27 years. I play Scrabble daily on Facebook, and have six or seven games going at a time. When my wife and I were discussing what we wanted to do when the boys were home from college over Thanksgiving, I said, "I wouldn't mind getting in a game of Settlers of Catan."
     Games are little frames to live in; they add significance, companionship, fun and satisfaction to life, an activity that I might not be able to win at, generally, but I sure can win at Scrabble. So I'm a soft target for this book, and Donovan delivers.
     He takes his time, starting with the games discovered in Egyptian tombs before diving into chess, a Siberia that some writers get lost in, but giving us just enough and no more, making all sorts of connections I'd never seen suggested, such as the queen becoming a powerful piece around the time that queens in England and Spain were exerting unprecedented power.  
Original Staunton knight
Elgin Marbles
     He answers questions I never thought to ask, like where the designs for the classic Staunton chess set came from: "The knight continued the neoclassical theme by echoing the straining horse that pulls the chariot of the moon goddess Selene in the Elgin Marbles, which had been removed from the Parthenon in Greece and placed in the British Museum in 1816."
     The book doesn't neglect recent history, as with the almost-too-detailed description of how Prince Alexis Obolensky revived backgammon as a game of the jet set in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember we all trotted off to college with slim backgammon briefcases in the last 1970s; but I never realized we did so because we had been indoctrinated by a Russian nobleman.
     Not that It's All a Game merely digs up entertaining minutia about games. Donovan uses each particular game to shed light on the historical contexts surrounding it.  Before we're allowed to play Risk, we get a history of war games, from the German Kriegsspiel to the unexpected role that Japanese war-gaming played in the success of their attack on Pearl Harbor. 
    The Game of Life becomes a disquisition on middle class ambition. Those who can't attain Millionaire Acres end up in a tiny house, "destitute and disgraced" and "reduced to living on Social Security." Monopoly began as The Landlord's Game,  Illinois-born activist Elizabeth Magie's effort to publicize the dangers of monopoly capitalism and promote a land value tax. Players were supposed to be horrified that only one player got all the money while the rest went broke.
    They weren't. The game morphed as players made homemade sets, many in the economics departments of schools, until the early 1930s when Charles Darrow—who contrary to received wisdom did not invent the game at all—copied a set from a friend, got an artist to improve the graphics, and sold it to Parker Brothers (I was pleased that Donovan's research agrees with mine, for my Chicago book, that Dowst Manufacturing, makers of charm bracelet figures and Cracker Jack prizes, was tapped for the original game tokens. He doesn't mention it, but the tokens were originally freebies given away to children by laundries; the flat iron in Monopoly came form a token designed for the Flat Iron Laundry on Halsted Street). 
    There's quite a bit of Chicago in the book, such as the sad tale of Marvin Glass and Associates, the toy company created by Glass, a brilliant but troubled man. 
    Donovan doesn't quite come out and say it, but The Landlord's Game languished while Monopoly became wildly popular for the same reason regular folk today shrug off programs that would help them while coddling the rich whose ranks they dream of joining.
     "If Monopoly seemed like a celebration of dog-eat-dog capitalism, that's because that is really what people wanted it to be," writes Donovan. 
     The book isn't perfect. He winds up the story of each game with their experiments in brand extension—Star Wars Risk and such—which strike traditionalists as money-grubbing and wrong, but doesn't get into the emotional heft that each game carries, the cool, wood-tiled purity of Scrabble, the time-frittering, someting-to-do-while-you-drink-beer quality to backgammon. Games are tactile, or should be. My Clue set has an actual lead pipe: real lead, soft, you could bend it. 
     Lost in all the history is something of the joy of games, the memory of being with your pals and waking up with a Risk army pressed into your cheek (I became acquainted with the game in the early 1970s and looked long and hard for an old set: I didn't want the new plastic pieces; I wanted the old, wooden pieces. It mattered). 
     The history of Scrabble is outlined, and the compiling of Scrabble dictionaries, but its strange, almost compulsive allure is hardly hinted at.  People love this stuff; Donovan seems to only find it fascinating.
     Not to complain. It's All a Game is fascinating and worthwhile. I'm still racing toward the end, so can't give the book a full summation. To me, games are like breakfast cereals, one of those products interwoven with childhood, melding nostalgia and delight. Donovan gives the world of games the serious historical treatment it deserves, while offering up whimsical tidbits, like how Marvin Glass and Associates gave the world both wind-up chattering teeth and fake vomit. Or how, in 1949, when Parker Brothers brought out Clue, it refused to advertise the product in magazines because they were worried about being publicly associated with a game based on murder. 


Monday, November 13, 2017

Today's sins against women rooted in religion

"Oedipus at Colonos" by Jean-Baptist Hugues (Musee d'Orsay) 

     Religion fancies itself as manifesting the word of God.
     And with frequent evocation of morality, much soaring architecture and oft-inspiring music, it regularly does exactly that.
     However, a skeptical person — me for instance — gathering together all doctrines, could be forgiven for viewing orthodox religion as something else: an elaborate system to dominate women.
     Women get the short end of the stick in every major faith. The Judeo-Christian tradition certainly stumbles out of the blocks. No sooner is Eve crafted from Adam's rib — to give him a lackey, remember — than she gets mankind booted from the Garden of Eden, earning her painful childbirth and divinely ordained second-class citizenship forever ("And he shall rule over thee"). The starting gun to an endless series of indignities commencing with Genesis and rolling right up to Louis C.K.
     I won't take the time to outline the degradations served up by Islam, except to note that when Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive — in 2017 — it was considered a breakthrough. For all its spirituality, in Buddhism enlightenment is seen as something that doesn't happen to women.
     Thus, indignity over good Alabama Christians rushing to support Senate candidate Roy Moore after he was accused of molesting teenage girls seems naive, and makes me wonder: You are paying attention, right? Most Southern Republicans no doubt draw the line at exploiting teenage girls. But it also fits into the overall right-wing policy of scorning what real women actually want: equal pay, reproductive rights, health care, to not be treated as sexual playthings by any man who crosses their path. In their place is put what religion-addled men imagine women want, a second-class citizenship halfway to victimization. Sexual intimidation in this context isn't a lapse; it's baked into the system. Not a flaw, as the techies say, but a feature. Much of religion resembles the old-fashioned "virginity check" — an assault disguised as insistence on purity. It's no accident that one of Moore's defenders cited the story of Mary and Joseph as if it offered exoneration.

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Sunday, November 12, 2017

Coincidence happens

     "Do you realize," my wife said, "that the flowers you bought match the flowers on the pitcher exactly?"
      I stared dumbly in the direction of the bouquet.
     "Pink roses and yellow tulips," she prompted.
     "Of course," I said, improvising. "I thought that matching the pitcher would ... umm ... enhance the overall aesthetic effect."
      We gazed at one another. 
     "No, that's a lie," I confessed. "A complete coincidence. I picked out the pink roses because they looked best, and then added the tulips because the yellow and pink seemed to go together."
     At Mariano's, by the way, which has good prices on flowers—the roses were $10 for a dozen, the tulips a couple bucks more. The pitcher was nowhere in mind—in fact, I initially put them in our Dior vase, then only moved them into the pitcher because the cleaning ladies were coming and I didn't want them shattering our good vase. Sometimes they break stuff.
     The coincidence lingered with me though. I don't think we give random pairings—the flowers perfectly matching the vase—enough attention, which is why there is so much magical thinking in the world. You dream most nights, the days and weeks and months pass by, and odds are that, eventually, one of those dreams will correspond with something that happens later in the day. It doesn't make you a seer. It's just a coincidence.
     If I had to teach a high school class, I think I would call it "Accidents and Fabrications," and focus on the important, undervalued role of chance and deceit in our lives. We see too much imaginary order and supposed truth, and too little actual randomness and mendacity.
     That sort of thing happens a lot. I'm writing this on my new iMac, which I brought home last Sunday afternoon. An hour before I set it up, my old iMac, which had worked faithfully for eight years, bricked. Just died. Couldn't turn it on. All my files and photos, thank goodness, was backed up on a 1 terabyte Seagate hard drive—always, dear reader, have a back-up. But still, of all the times for the old machine to give up the ghost.
     "Maybe it was jealous of the new arrival," a colleague speculated.
     Yeah, that has to be it. Hell hath no fury like a computer scorned.