Thursday, June 20, 2019

Era of Contempt V

Five Butterflies, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1646) Metropolitan Museum of Art 
     A lepidopterist is, as any Nabokov fan knows, a butterfly collector. It is fitting that the colorful stationery bearing Alan P. Leonard's latest missive to this column has butterflies on it. Because I always think of myself as a lepidopterist when it comes to processing unhinged mail. I try to bring a connoisseur's discernment to their ravings, a protective measure to keep the poison contained within from raising a welt on my delicate mental skin. I net the odious thing, put it in its killing bottle, then pin the little corpse to a board and admire its patterns, its variegation. 
      We met Mr. Leonard last year, with this three emails I dubbed "The Era of Contempt." 
Like the one below, they were informed by fear of those whose sexuality was at variance with his.  You can find them herehere and here. They proved decidedly popular, as freak shows often do.
     Then two months ago, he was back, with a racist screed about the looks of Michelle Obama.  
      This one, as he makes clear, is in reaction to my June 10 column about Boston's idiotic "Straight Pride" parade. The twist is that he doesn't sign his name, perhaps forgetting that he has written four times before, with the same stationery and his distinctive block printing. 
      As before, I paused, wondering if it were somehow cruel to share Mr. Leonard's thoughts, to stretch the term. And a note of anxiety might have entered into his correspondence as, for the first time, he signs his letter with a nom de guerre, "A normal person." As if it were normal to write anonymous notes to newspaper columnists, venting your bile and your sexual insecurity.
      "When battling monsters," as Nietzsche reminds us, "make sure not to become a monster."
     But it is not monstrous to print a letter sent to a newspaper, nor to note that hatred is an acid that, increasingly, eats up the possessor more than the object. I believe airing it is therapeutic, if not for him, obviously, at least for us. 
    And lest we chuckle too much, remember this: these are the people running our country now. His sentiments are hateful, but also deeply sad and tragic. 


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Trump calls the tune, and his fans dance

      You gotta dance with them what brung ya.
     I’m not given to rustic turns of phrase, especially those including colloquialisms like “gotta,” “brung” or “ya.”
     Yet there is truth here.
     After — golly — four years of continually condemning Donald Trump as a liar, bully and fraud, I believe now, with his circus-like announcement Tuesday in Florida of his quest for a second term, is a good time to pause and give credit where due:
     Donald Trump is a master.
     A master what? Well, liar, bully and fraud, for starters. Those who don’t see that by now never will. But that is a huge, unwavering group of Americans — tens of millions. Time to tip the hat and acknowledge something I have not previously recognized: what a good liar, bully and fraud Donald Trump really is.
     A master of his craft, really. A genius. Begin with his skill as a liar. Democrats tote up his lies like some disturbed individual counting the passing cars, oblivious to the fact that the total doesn’t matter. Nearly half the country doesn’t care. Trump has rendered the truth un-important for his followers, and that is a feat I did not previously think possible. But obviously, tragically, it is.
     How does he do it?
     By force of personality. He can say one thing today, another in an hour, then contradict both the next day. Anyone rude enough to draw attention to this is attacked by himself and his crew of lackeys and bootlickers, who have sold their souls for access to his presence, not to forget our version of State TV, Fox News. The mushroom cloud of controversy forms with a “whump,” rises into the air, floats away and is forgotten. The past is a vapor, reality a dreamworld inhabited by losers. You can choose truth or you can choose Trump.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Two tickets to Chicago

    Ritual is protective. Doing the same thing, the same way, all the time, might be timid. And it might be dull. But you cut a groove of experience, the walls of which prop you up as you hurtle forward. 
     Depart from that groove, well, you're free to roam, sure. But also free to careen into trouble.   
    When riding the Metra, the conductor appears at the front of the car and cries, "Tickets please!" 
     I pull out my iPhone, assuming it isn't already in my hand, tap on the Ventra app, summon a new ticket up, and wait.
     And wait.
     Not long. A minute or so, as the conductor works his way toward me, my eyes upon him 
     That's how I do it. But it's also time wasted. Why not, I thought pop into another app, and fidget with that while waiting? I had something I wanted to explore, the app associated with my new Bose headphones—birthday gift from the wife. Then I would return to the ticket at the proper moment.
    I considered pulling out a paper ticket—kept in the wallet in case of phone freeze and other related emergencies. But no need. I've got this.
    The conductor approached. The Bose app had shunted me to iTunes which would not let me go. I mashed at the phone, impotently, and by the time I got to the ticket the conductor was looming above me. I mashed another button, showed him the ticket. 
    As he left, I realized I had somehow, in my panic, purchased two tickets.
    $6.40 down the drain.
     There is an inverse between the minuteness of a woe and its reverberation. The county might be run by a crook, but that is not my doing. This was. I explained what happened to my wife, who was nonplussed.
    "Forget it," she said. "Price of a cup of coffee."
    Not any coffee that I'd buy.
    My next thought was to appeal to the conductor. Show him my error and ask for a physical ticket I could use on the train coming home this afternoon. But the aisles and entryway were filled with commuters—the trains have been shorter lately. I'd have to push past them. The conductor would be busy.
    To my credit, I forgot all about it the moment I left the train station. I had planned to phone Metra—I can't be the first goofus to waste an electronic ticket. What is the procedure, the protocol? But I didn't call Metra. There was a column to write, a friend to meet for lunch. We sat at a table by the river on a perfect June day.
     Then to Union Station where, slipping onto the train, it came back to me. My Gaffe. I took a seat at the very back of the car, by where the conductor usually set up shop. He was a man perhaps 20 years my junior, all business, like most Metra conductors. I explained The Situation to him.
    "No worries, happy to help out," he said, explaining that he would waive the need for a ticket on the way home. "We always try to do what we can."
     A few minutes later he came through the car, collecting tickets. And though we had an agreement, and I had used my two tickets that day, as he came toward me, it felt odd, almost illicit. I didn't like not handing over a ticket to be punched. It felt wrong; I had to remind myself not to summon a ticket up again, the third for the day. I remembered traveling in with the engineer once, in the cab, for a column. The conductor came up to the engine to collect not only my ticket, but the Metra PR guy. Even conductors have to show tickets.
     But I endured. Later, talking about it with another conductor, he pointed out that conductors tend to know the people who ride their trains. Even if not by name, they know who is there habitually and who is not. You show your ticket dutifully for almost 20 years, taking pains to make sure you are ready at the proper time so as not to inconvenience or delay the conductor, well, it buys you goodwill on the day you screw up.


Monday, June 17, 2019

On traffic lights, beehive and vaccinations


     Think about traffic lights.
     They hang at intersections in every city and town, endlessly cycling through green to yellow to red, then back to green again, telling drivers when to stop and go.
     Silent sentinels, automatically observed and unquestioningly obeyed. Like idols really.
     Like gods.
     Let’s say this situation genuinely offends my understanding of my faith, which commands “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” and warns against the worship of false idols. Let’s further say that I take to setting up a ladder at stoplights in the middle of the night and painting the lenses black.
     God, in His infinite wisdom, will direct traffic safely through the intersections.
     How will society react to this sincere expression of my religious faith? Will it respect me? Or will it throw me in jail?
     Jail, and rightly so. Because my ability to practice a particular personal belief stops when it harms other people and tears down social order.
     The above, metaphorically, is the exact situation regarding vaccines — well, maybe not the painting-over part. So let’s say I drive heedlessly through red lights, aghast at the imposition society would inflict upon my personal freedom. 

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

Put the moss in context: A visit to Clever Rabbit

     My younger son turns 22 today. So Friday night we took him out for a birthday dinner. His girlfriend is a vegan so he selected a restaurant with a deep vegetable menu, Clever Rabbit on Division Street in Wicker Park.
     Not purely vegetarian, but "veggie-focused," which should have been a tip-off. I always say that vegetarian restaurants must be excellent, that mediocrity is a luxury they can't afford, because otherwise nobody would go there. With meat on the menu, indifference has a foot in the door. 
     But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The place has a pleasant, severe aesthetic, and I admired a wall of moss by the host's station.
     "Is it alive?" I asked our waitress.
     "It's still alive, but not living," she replied. 
      That isn't a contradiction to someone who just turned 59.
     "I know the feeling," I said. 
      After we ordered, I excused myself and went over to take a photo, first asking permission of the host, a young man in his mid-20s.
      "May I take a photo of the moss?" I said.
      "Everybody does," he sighed. 
       Oh. There is a certain small shame in doing what everybody does, but I took the picture anyway, already feeling conspicuous. Then I compounded the error.  I liked the close-up detail, but felt the moss should really be placed in context.
     "Do you mind if I include you in the photo?" I said. He said he didn't, but something about his manner, which I took as an embarrassment, a frost, made me feel he really did mind, but was indulging a crank.
     I had made another mistake.  
      I retreated to the table, but the encounter percolated, slightly. I decided to lay out the situation for family feedback.
      "It was if he felt I were some creepy old guy taking his picture for some strange purpose," I said. "I'm tempted to go back and try to explain that I'm not. I just wanted to put the moss into context for my blog. But my sense is, that would only make matters worse."
      Everyone heartily agreed that yes, it would make matters worse, and I should let it go. Which I did.  We enjoyed a festive meal, with much laughter and conversation.
      Dinner consisted of a variety of plates—carrot dumplings and wings, for appetizers, then a rhubarb tart, asparagus and burrata, a cheese plate, a burger that we cut in quarters and shared, except of course with our new vegan addition, who had plenty to eat, she claimed. I tried both of the two non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu, and they were fine. Service was desultory, and while we had a good time, that was more our doing, without much assistance from the Clever Rabbit.  The place opened two years ago, and while it is a pleasant space to sit, it wasn't one of those restaurants you love at first nibble and are keen to go back to.  Maybe that explains the unenthusiastic service. It's almost as if they know.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"Gootchie-gootchie goo."

Madam Roulin and her Baby, by Vincent Van Gogh
Metropolitan Museum of Art
     There are more ways to screw up a newspaper story than you can shake a stick at.
     Checking one thing, you overlook something else.  Confident in one scrap of information, you don't check it, but it's nevertheless wrong, your certainty be damned. Stick your finger in one leak and water pours out another. Tread softly where you ought to stamp hard, push hard against something you ought merely caress. Use a word that means one thing, to you and readers seize on a different meaning and, waving it over their heads, assign you a string of imagined malign motives to go with it. You mean to check a fact, but forget to do so, or do check and still somehow manage to get it wrong. 
     I would never be so bold, for instance, to put communications expert Abdon Pallasch's name in the paper without checking the spelling, even though I've known him for 20 years. since he was a colleague at the paper.
      So last week, using his name, I checked it, again, noted how it was spelled, again, and promptly dropped the "c."
      He was very civil about it. I leapt to correct the misspelling, reader sneers about "Medill Fs" fluttering in the back of my mind like luna moths around a porch light, brushing them away by taking comfort in the fact that I didn't neglect to check it. I just failed to stick the landing.
      I checked it again, just now, to be sure. It's right. Abdon M. Pallasch.
      I hope.
      The same week, I wrote something about encountering a pregnant friend, whom I described as "big as a house," which, in my male eyes, was a synonymous for "very pregnant," which she was, given that she gave birth three days later.
     Turns out "big is a house" is, if not quite an insult or the language of hate, is some species of body shaming. Readers complained, and sprang to her defense on Facebook.
     Ouch. I was trying to be nice. If I thought it wasn't nice, I wouldn't have said it. I apologized to her.  She was very civil about it.
Alexys Fleming
     Then there was something that never got in the paper that was almost scary, like a speeding CTA bus brushing past my cheek. 
     In the same column describing the birth, I mentioned the most influential online presence in Chicago, a 26-year-old make-up artist named Alexys Fleming. I described her as "an almond-eyed beauty" because, well, look at her.
      It seemed a dry, neutral, journalistic description of reality as set before me. It seems "almond-eyed," I was told by a concerned editor, is a slur against Asians, Which I didn't think was relevant here, since she isn't, or doesn't seem to be, Asian. But such niceties are meaningless in the free-fire zone of social media. Unfamiliarity with the catalogue of offense and purity of heart are no defense, I thanked the editor and took the offending words out, along with "beauty" while I was at it, since, upon reflection, males commenting upon the attractiveness of females, particularly those half their age, is no doubt an invitation to objection as well. Why hand somebody a mallet and lower my head unnecessarily?
    Then in Friday's column, I quoted myself saying "Gootchie-gootchie goo" while poking a silicon fetus doll. It was an accurate transliteration of what I uttered. Transliteration can't really be wrong. "Hanukkah," "Hanukah," "Chanukah," and the dozen other variants are all stabs at חנוכה.
     But was what I said proper? It never occurred to me to ask. But it occurred to others.
     Reader Jim Lanham writes, in a form almost amounting to a poem:
Isnt it coochie coochie coo?Never (unless im crazy)heard it as gootchie?Source? This could be an interesting story in itself
     Sighing, I contemplated my reference library. There was a Betty Boop, 1920s, makin' whoopee tone to "coochie coo," so I started with my Oxford 20th Century Words. 
    Bingo, first try:
     cooch n (1910) a type of erotic dance. US slang. A shortening of hootchy-kootchy (1898) in the same sense, who origins are obscure. Also used as a verb.
      Which would endorse "coochie coo." Looking for anything close to "gootchie," I found "goo-goo eyes," defined as "amorous glances," which makes matters even worse. And people think of etymology as a victimless crime. Trying to find the derivation of the baby babble uttered spontaneously brought a creepy vibe to innocent teasing of ersatz babies. 
     The "t" seems idiosyncratic to me, a rare variant: online, it's usually "goochie-goo" though there is a flyspeck town of Gootchie in Australia, or was. I couldn't find any current references to such a place.
     It gets worse.  As I thought about "gootchie goo," I began to suspect it might have a shade of mock Indian—whoops, Native-American—speech, along the lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's once-famous  poem "Hiawatha": "On the shores of Gitche Gumee/Of the shining Big-Sea-Water..."
    So shades of inappropriate eroticism AND bigotry. Just lovely. I'm lucky to have survived last week with my job intact. It's amazing one is able to write at all, and while my career doesn't seem to be blowing up over "gootchie goo," it's only a matter of time. Ignorance of the law is no defense.

Friday, June 14, 2019

This cute baby wants me to run your life

      A reader sent a pair of babies to me at the newspaper this week. One white, one brown, delivered in a padded envelope.
     What should I do with these babies? Enroll them in pre-school, I suppose. Never too early.
     Though pre-school is expensive. Maybe we should bond first. I pick one up — the white one, judge me harshly if you must — and wiggle an index finger against its tummy.
     ”Gootchie-gootchie-goo!” I say.
     The tummy feels rubbery. That can’t be good. Maybe I should consult a pediatrician. Though any doctor would probably icily observe that my babies seem to be made of silicon. Those darn vaccines ...
    Does that mean they are not real babies? I don’t know. They look like babies, and by the standard of religious fanatics opposing abortion, something that LOOKS like a baby IS a baby.
     Even if it’s not.
     The babies came with an explanatory letter, from Anthony L. — I’ll shield his full name, since I don’t exhaust my entire store of kindness on the fetuses of women I’ve never met. He claims my column on May 20 about the deceptive practices of those fighting to curtail women’s reproductive rights “is FALSE NEWS and you should correct it.”
     False? My goodness. In what way?
     ”In this article you state that a first trimester fetus (Latin for baby) is the size of a watermelon seed. Since you do not normally fact check your articles, I thought I would make it easy for you to see. I sent you a white and brown baby. The model is 10 to 12 weeks in size.”

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