Thursday, November 27, 2014

Opening a box of bon mots at Thanksgiving

     For all the talking we do, on-line, in person, over the phone, very rarely does someone deliver the exact right word at the exact right moment, a quick, short, sharp—and it must be those three—rejoinder, a word or two, a phrase, that shuts down any further conversation. The French call it a "bon mot"—literally "good word"—or a "mot just," the "right word."  
     The example I always think of as the perfect example of this was in a 1960 "Peanuts" comic strip where Linus is teaching Charlie Brown's little sister to clutch a blanket and Charlie -- well, it's easier if you read the strip.

    "Like her brother?" That's perfect, plucking a string that everybody understands. A great riposte does that, ringing down the curtain of truth on a conversation. My wife coined one just as good if not better. I think I told this story in a column, years ago, but it bears repeating. We were driving downtown—pre-children, back when we lived in the city, we would commute together in the car to work, she going to Jenner & Block in the IBM Building, me to the Sun-Times across the street. A CTA bus pulled up with a Calvin Klein poster on it featuring Kate Moss, the thin and boyish British model. There was some debate about whether she was indeed attractive, and I mused, idly, something along the lines of.
     "Well, I'd have an affair with her," at which my wife shot me a glance and I realized who I was talking to, and added, "But I'd always come running home."
     "To what?" Edie said.
     I'm as proud of that as if she had climbed a mountain. 
     This skill is passed down in the generations, apparently. Looking forward Wednesday to my son flying home from California, where he has been at college for the past three months, I sent him a text wishing him safe travels, reminding him that I would be at the airport waiting at the foot of the escalators leading into baggage claim, and asking that he let me know if the plane he is taking is delayed.
     Now there is an infinity of ways a teenager can reply to that. I suppose if I had to imagine one, I would come up with, "Sure pop, can't wait to see you." Or some such banal thing.
    Not my boy, not his parents' child.
    He replied, "Was that today?"
    Which caught me off guard. "Could he really...?" Falling into the trap Perfect, because for a moment I thought he was serious. He couldn't be serious. Could he? I formulated my own, not half as witty reply, "In theory, yes." But decided that was being too gullible and didn't send it, instead going for the emoticon: ; )
    I wanted to communicate: I get it. Even though I didn't, at first.
    To which he didn't reply at all. Silence is sometime seven more eloquent. 
    Anyway, enough of this. Happy Thanksgiving to all. Hope you conversation around the turkey is sharp, well-informed and tempered with love and kindness. Just because you think of a really witty retort doesn't mean it has to be said.  Shutting up, as I like to say, is an underappreciated art form. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The opera is over if the fat ladies sing

     The good news is: advertising works. Ever since the newspaper started running an ad (Page 27 today) promoting our Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric contest, people who never brought up the subject before are asking me about opera.
     “How do I get those tickets?” asked the Thomas-the-Tank-Engine Metra conductor.
     “You’ve got to enter the contest!” I breezily replied to him and to the security guard who asked the same question, and to the other random folk who brought it up.
     Another surprisingly common reader reaction is succinctly stated by Bill Anders:
     “I think it is wrong not to give some attribution in the ad to the lovely woman you stand next to. She is not identified.”
     “I’m sure it’s unintentional,” adds Sharon McGowan, “but it feels disrespectful to me.”
     Can’t have that. The purpose of journalism is to clarify mysteries, not create them.
     The woman to my left in the orange dress is Adina Aaron, American soprano, singing Bess at the Lyric’s production of “Porgy and Bess.” I sat down with her last week for a surprisingly candid conversation about the future of opera — so candid that I almost blurted out, “You know this is going into the newspaper, right?” But, I figured, opera has no purpose if not to excite the passions.
     I began by asking Aaron, who grew up in Florida and has starred internationally from Finland to Tel Aviv, how people react when they find out she’s an opera singer....
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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Trying to survive the holiday horror

     Well, it's the holidays, again, almost. Lots of preparation, lots of expectation. A time of joy, in theory, that nevertheless manages to be quite joy-free for many. I wrote this Thanksgiving column in 2008, after receiving a phone call from a reader who said he was going to kill himself. I don't know what happened to that reader; I never heard back from the guy. But I tried to reach out to him, and to anyone struggling through the holiday season. Have fun, if you can, and if you can't, well, try to find a way to get through it, somehow. Soldier through, endure, and all this forced jollity will be over in ... five weeks. Courage.   

    "You know, winter will soon be here," sings Michelle Shocked. "And except for the holidays, except for the holidays, it's a fine time of year."
     Isn't that the truth? An under-recognized truth. Because while society plunges into this big, annual five-week-long festival del grubbo that begins tomorrow and doesn't really let up until Jan. 2, my guess is that for every person champing at the bit to embrace this holiday wonderland of family and parties and dinners and gifts -- children, mostly, and grandmothers -- there are three others grimly twitching their jaws and thinking, "Geez, not again. Not already. Didn't we just do this?"
     I wish all those store soundtracks and 24-hour Christmas carol radio stations would take a break, just now and then, and play something like Shocked's lovely dirge, "Cold Comfort," or Loudon Wainright III's ode to family dysfunction, "Thanksgiving." ("Look around and recognize/A sister and a brother/ We rarely see our parents now/We hardly see each other . . .")
     But they don't, and all the painted smiles and chirpy music can start to get to a person, particularly against a backdrop of pending economic collapse.
     Unhappiness is always bad, but the holidays make it worse, with all the expectations of instant closeness, of warmth on demand, the notion that somewhere else people are whooping it up at Fezziwig's Ball while you're microwaving a Swanson turkey dinner alone.
     My only insight is, as Shocked sings, you need to hold on, pass the time, and life will improve "in a year or 10."
     "It is a fact of life," she sings, "that we learn to live again."
     Sometimes all you can do is hold on, hope and wait for spring.

     People just don't telephone the newspaper like they used to -- they e-mail instead. Tuesday morning, I received a grand total of one phone call, but it was a doozy.
     The phone rings, I pick it up, say my name, as is my habit.
     "In about half an hour, I'm simply putting an end to this," a man says in a flat tone, by way of introduction, and my first thought is, Geez, can't anybody just cancel their damn subscription? Must it be such a production?
     He's going to be locked out of where he lives, he says, agencies won't help, and it dawns on me that he's talking about ending something more significant than home delivery.
     "I simply do not want to face freezing to death in my car," he says.
     Who does? I don't say that, but try to get his name from him -- that seems the thing to do. He doesn't want to tell me his name or where he lives.
     "Why not?" I ask. "If you're going to kill yourself in half an hour, why be shy now?"
     He doesn't fall for that, but gives a litany of his woes. No job. No medical attention for his diabetes. No relatives or friends in this area anymore.
     The "in this area" seems odd, and I wonder if he's for real, or somebody pulling a stunt. Frankly, he doesn't sound like one of my readers.
     "No one is writing the truth anymore," he says. "Everyone seems to think it's the person's fault, and that's not true."
     I point out that, if he reads the papers, he'll notice that the economic collapse is being pretty well blamed on large corporations.
     "I don't think anyone's saying it's your fault," I say.
     He goes on a bit, until I ask him what he wants me to do. He says I should be helpful to people in his situation, and I tell him that I'm perfectly happy to help him right now. What does he need?
     "I write for a newspaper -- what is it you want to happen?" I say. "We'll put it in the paper tomorrow and see if it catches anybody's interest. You can't expect anyone to care about what happens to you if you don't care yourself. Nobody is going to care about you unless you do."
     I have a sense that I'm saying the wrong thing, but am making this up as I go along.
     "I don't have any recourse," he says, and then hangs up. The whole conversation is over in a minute or two.
     I wasn't as rattled as I should have been. On one hand, there's a lot of trouble in the world, and I don't become responsible for everyone who manages to dial my number.  I'm not a social service. On the other, it strikes me that a person should know what to do, since the economy cratering must make this situation increasingly common.
     "Yes, definitely," said Stephanie Weber, executive director of Suicide Prevention Services in Batavia. "We have seen an upswing in our calls and our walk-ins."
     I ran our conversation by her, and while I didn't do quite the botch job that I feared -- I did listen, which is important -- my biggest mistake was in not quickly referring him to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800-273- 8255), where trained professionals help people understand the importance of sticking with life, even as difficulties mount, and know where to steer callers to various practical services that can help with woes that seem insurmountable but really aren't. You might want to jot that number down in your wallet, because you never know when you're going to need it.
—Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2014

Do Republicans have grandparents too?

This is my grandfather, Irwin Bramson. I don’t believe his picture has ever appeared in a newspaper before. He would be delighted to see it here.
     My grandfather was not famous, or successful, beyond supporting his family, working in a factory in Cleveland that made machine parts. He eventually owned his own house, on Rossmoor Road in Cleveland Heights. He was very proud of that.
    My grandfather was born on a farm in Bialystock Poland, in 1907 and was sent to this country because things were very bad there and he had a relative, a distant cousin in Cleveland who owned an automobile parts factory and would employ him. He left at 16 and never saw any of his family again; they were all murdered, man, woman and child by the Nazis and their henchmen.
     When he got here, he no doubt faced the scorn of those who felt that America was being corrupted by racially inferior immigrants such as himself that all manner of subhumans and Jews, were poisoning American blood, that they were constitutionally different and would never fit in.
    But he did fit in. He never went to college, but he met my grandmother, got married—they went to the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago on their honeymoon in 1934. They had three daughters, my mother being the eldest. Had they been born in Poland, they all would have been murdered too. 
     All of my memories of him involve him sitting in a green Barcalounger, watching “The Price Is Right.” He smoked cigarettes and drank bourbon. He sucked Luden’s Cherry Cough drops for his throat—he would die of emphysema in 1981.
     He taught me chess. He would give me a dollar if I won and a dollar if I lost. He took me to my first baseball game. There was nothing mean or difficult about him. He did not complain. He asked nothing of anybody. In fact, he rarely spoke. He was a simple man, and I loved him.
     Everyone in the United States, unless they are a Native-American, has a person like my grandfather in their past, someone who came over here to escape hardship or horror and make a life. Whether it was 5 or 50 or 500 years ago, the story is the same. They came over and the country let them in.
     My grandfather became a citizen, not because he was a genius, not because he was harder working or smarter or better than any Mexican fording the Rio Grande. But because he could back then. There was an Ellis Island and a system that worked. Today Ellis Island is a shrine to ideals that half the country doesn’t believe anymore, who adopt the cruel role of the Americans who harassed their own forebears.
     I thought of my grandfather, after I watched Barack Obama’s brief speech Thursday night—lucky I have cable because none of the networks, the supposed mainstream media supposedly in his thrall, bothered to show it. He announced his changes to immigration policy, to allow undocumented immigrants who have been here longer than five years to “get right with the law,” register and not fear deportation. 
     Before Obama even spoke, the Republicans, who oppose everything the president has done, is doing, or will do, made a show of opposing this too, a rare trifecta blending economic myopia, longterm political suicide, and lack of basic human decency. Only time will tell if they respond by trying to impeach him, shut down the government or some new strategem. The only thing that they are certain not to do is pass the comprehensive immigration reform which, announcing his stopgap, Obama called for.
    That this is the right thing, that it is long overdue, that it will help the United States economy, that to do otherwise is cold hypocrisy and a denial of their own family, an insult the memory of my grandfather and theirs and the millions like him, never wrinkles their brow.
     My wife and I watched the speech.
     “He looks tired, frustrated,” my wife said.
     “He’s trying to talk sense to idiots,” I said.
     I’m glad I saw the speech, because I was starting to think very little of Obama, just by osmosis, just by living in a country where he is so despised. I wish he had done this three months, six months, a year ago. Not doing so was the kind of small, mean political calculation that has hobbled his presidency. The Democrats got drubbed anyway.
     But now I realize, the bottom line with Obama is: he did what he could do. He didn’t waste effort trying the impossible. Even his narrowed options were tough to manage.
     The good news is, he’s already won.
     As with gay marriage, the notion of no longer keeping millions who came to this country illegally in rightless limbo forever will seem an impossibility until suddenly it doesn’t and everybody wonders what took us so long to do the moral thing. Then the people who are castigating the president now will be hard to find. Cornered, they will shrug off their fanatical opposition to people just like their own grandparents with some easy rationalization. What really struck me about the president’s speech is he could speak the words at all, that he somehow found the stamina to present a cogent argument to rabid enemies who stopped listening long ago. There is a nobility to that.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Don't bike drunk

     A video made the rounds last year showing a woman riding a Divvy bike on Lake Shore Drive. 
     We stood around the newsroom and shook our heads—how stupid, exactly, can a person be? Taking a bike on the busy highway? Having ridden Divvy bikes all over downtown, from Roosevelt Road to Logan Square, I tried to answer that: 
      I can see how something like that happens, I said. You go off course. Once I was heading to the Aqua Tower, which I'd normally cab or walk but, since I was on a bike, I pedaled east on Kinzie, which made sense, then took a right at Michigan, which made sense, but ended up on Lower Michigan, waiting in the intersection to take a left onto Lower Wacker Drive, which suddenly didn't make sense at all: a busy, dark, dangerous intersection where nobody expects to see a bike.
     This is a bad idea, I thought, riding like mad to get out of there.
     A similar thought might have snapped through the booze-soaked brain of the 24-year-old mope who took a Divvy on Lake Shore Drive about 2:45 a.m. Saturday, weaving across lanes, eventually getting involved in a serious crash that severed his foot and left him in "very critical" condition.
    According to news reports, the cyclist was riding at 3100 N. Lake Shore Drive, when he swerved into a 2008 Mitsubishi, being driven by an Uber cab driver, and got clipped by the side mirror. He fell. When that car stopped to help him, another car hit them.       
     There's nothing really to be said that isn't obvious: don't bike drunk. While not quite as dangerous as driving drunk, at least to other people, your reflexes and judgment are still impaired and you risk doing something stupid, such as biking Lake Shore Drive at night—extra stupid because there's a bike path right there, nearby, along the lakeshore. 
     No one has gotten seriously injured on a Divvy bike before, and as someone who enjoys riding them, it's a shame to see that unblemished record broken in such a tragic way by a reckless individual. I'd like to say this doesn't count. But I suppose it does. I don't see how you can blame Divvy, though he'll probably end up suing the bike share service, if he lives, for allowing him access to a bike when he was impaired. You wish a person who does that would be able to say, "This was my fault" but that takes rare honesty. As it is, he'll probably be missing a foot, as a reminder of his folly. 
     And this tragedy should remind those who drink, particularly with the holiday season upon us, to plan ahead of how they're getting home, so they don't go home in an ambulance. And a reminder to those of us who don't drink that, though we might miss out on a bit of the fun, there's a whole boatload of misery that we also avoid, and that's a pretty good deal. As Upton Sinclair wrote: "Not drinking is no easy passport to happiness, no automatic assurance of a good and happy and creative life. What it does do is to increase the odds enormously."

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Paperback books were vaguely disreputable when they came out, 100 years ago. Cheap editions for the underclasses, almost an insult to the concept of books.
     But that bias was short-lived, and while some people do enjoy the tactile pleasure and sturdiness of a hardback book over its more flimsy covered cousin, the differences are not given much thought, and rightly so. 
     Thus while reading electronically is seen as somehow suspect, a diminishment of the heft and permanence of a book, I think it is a passing qualm, and whether you read Moby-Dick online or in a physical book will not be particularly important, except the former experience will save you considerable arm strain. 
      I noticed this young man, consulting his laptop, surrounded by books. In a library, yes, but which library? I will give you a hint: it is not a public library. 
      The winner will receive a bag of marvelous Bridgeport coffee, which I have been drinking by the steaming cupful and enjoying greatly. Make sure to post your guesses below. Good luck.

Today is Nov. 22. If you missed last year's 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination story, about how Chicago helped break the shocking news to the world, you can read it by clicking here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bank phone poll spills the beans on tellers' doom

     With the election over, thank merciful God, I thought pesky telephone polls would subside. But if anything, they’ve increased. Not the “Who has your vote?” polls, or what I call “Slur Polls” — questions designed not to collect answers but to deliver attacks; polls that start out normal and then slide into insinuation: “On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being most disgusted, and 1 being not as disgusted as you ought to be, how revolted were you to learn of the secret slush fund of Rep. Peckinsniff ...”)      

     I try not to give much time to phone solicitors. I’ve learned to quickly set the receiver back down if the person on the other end doesn’t immediately reply to my tentative “Hello?” because that means it’s some automatic demon dialer in Mumbai that calls 10 numbers at a time and then connects with the first to answer. That takes 1.5 seconds, and by then I’ve hung up.
      But with phone surveys, I play along in a kind of information judo, using callers’ momentum against them. While they try to pry information out of me, I learn from them.
      For instance. Bank of America called this week. I am a preferred customer, which means I leave too much money sitting in accounts, drawing 0.03 percent interest, money that Bank of America then loans out at 3 percent. (That’s not “3 percent interest” they give , by the by. That’s three-hundredths of a percent. You wonder why anyone bothers at that point; the interest they pay hardly seems worth the paperwork to tally it).
     So, the Bank of America phone pollster wants to know: Have I used their Northbrook branch bank in the past 30 days? Why yes, I have!

     To continue reading, click here.