Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Help Central Camera rebuild.


Photo courtesy of Dave Hoekstra's blog.
     I am not a photographer, obviously. But I like to think I have an appreciation for photography, and photographers, and cameras. Nor am I a graphic designer, but I admire a really cool logo. 
    Two buttons pushed by Central Camera, a wonderworld of old cameras, with rows of boxes of film, and odd ephemera to be expected in a shop now in its third century, all under a gloriously retro cool logo. I loved walking in, noting the glowing green neon "Since 1899." I only went in a few times: curiosity, if I recall, one of the boy's photography class projects, with a friend seeking a certain sort of film, showing off the place to visitors.  The clerks, I recall, were knowledgable and nice.
     So as much sorrow as Saturday's riot unpacked, seeing the smoke pouring out of that little shop touched upon how our current crisis, a dumb beast, tramples on the lives of all sorts of Chicagoans. My longtime Sun-Times colleague Dave Hoekstra says it far better than I could, so I am going to defer to him, and let his blog take over, with his kind permission. But not before reminding you to click the GoFundMe link and give money. I did, and in case you overlook it in his story, here is the link again. 
     Dave writes:

     I was at the historic Central Camera Co., store, 230 S. Wabash on Friday afternoon.
     I waited outside the door to pick up some prints at Chicago’s oldest camera store. My friend and long time clerk Timothy Shaver came out. We did an elbow bump and I gave him condolences towards the recent passing of his mother at age 99. Third generation store owner Don Flesch arrived next. He offered me a piece of candy as he does with most of his customers. He pulled his face mask down a bit to reveal a smile that would never be denied.
     We began talking about the pandemic and all the things Central Camera has survived since his grandfather Albert Flesch opened the company in 1899. World Wars. The Holocaust. The Great Depression. Digital photography.
     And a little more than 24 hours later Central Camera was torched in the downtown riots.
     The store was looted and set on fire Saturday night.


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Monday, June 1, 2020

How could he do it? Riots don’t touch key question

Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin Garcia
     They’re breaking into all the stores. We have nothing on State ...
     The updates calmly crackle across the police scanner, urgent and unceasing. CPD in my left ear, CFD in my right.
     The injured officer is on the west side of the bridge, squad ...
     Saturday night creeps by that way, 5 p.m. to midnight. I’m keeping track, while chewing on the question that set all this in motion:
     How could he do it?
     The question that had to cross every mind — maybe too obvious to say out loud — while watching that video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes Monday until he was dead. It sparked horror that rattled the nation.
     We need everybody to report to State and Lake, they’re about to set a building on fire.
     But protests quickly deteriorated into violence — a police precinct headquarters burned in Minneapolis. Then in scattered cities. Then in cities across the country Saturday night including Chicago. Watching TV news is like trying to breathe through a straw. Trying to figure out what was happening here as dusk fell, I sat and listened to the police scanner.
     The injured officer is on the west side of the bridge ...

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Sunday, May 31, 2020

What happened to "we're all in this together?"

     Why do tragedies always occur on lovely days? The weather was so perfect Saturday, my family decided to get out of the house, drive over to Riverwoods, picnic on a blanket, walk in the Ryerson woods. We sat on a bench, watched the Des Plaines River roll by, and I manfully resisted explaining how important the river was to the history of Chicago, which began as a portage between it and the Chicago River and never stopped being the vital link between one place and another.
    I'd seen a police station burn in Minneapolis—Minneapolis? I guess these Garrison Keillor cliches about Minnesotans are behind the times—and unrest in places like Louisville and Denver and Detroit. And honestly, felt a little smug. No problems like that in the City that Works. Lori Lightfoot, you go girl!
     But around 4:30 p.m Twitter kept feeding indications that things weren't going well downtown. It was surprisingly difficult to find information. At 5 p.m., the local CBS, ABC and NBC weren't showing news—or maybe they were and I couldn't find it, among Hulu and Netflix and our hundreds of stations.  CNN was doing what it does: reporting on the coasts, sort of.  

    I went upstairs and listened to the police scanner in my office, cops in my left ear, fire in my right. I'm going to write that for the paper tomorrow as soon as I'm done here, so a few thoughts, then I'd better get cracking. On the scanner every sentence seemed a crisis. Calls for help. "10-1," the cop version of "S.O.S." Though information there could be wrong, too. They kept talking about 3,000 protesters arriving from Indianapolis, and no one ever said "On what, 100 buses?" At 11 p.m. they were still talking about it, and sent a police helicopter to the Skyway to keep a lookout. I wanted to yell at the scanner, "C'mon guys, think!"
    The famous outside agitators. The Minneapolis mayor said that all of those arrested the first night were strangers from somewhere else. Then the number became 80 percent. I have a tough time believing that. It's such a convenient truth. What happens, in these cases, is the grip of society—fraying apart already, thanks to our poisonous president, this virus and economic ruin—seems to loosen, that some people convince themselves that civilization has relaxed, the rules are off, and those people go crazy. It has as much to do with the murdered man, George Floyd, as the riots after Bulls championships had to do with Michael Jordan.
     My wife and younger son watched TV, or tried to. CNN was horrible, the commentator—Don Lemon maybe?—intoning over and over how the country is burning and where is the leadership? Both exaggerated and inadequate. It seemed flat and fake and forced. Just tell us what's happening. They had the hardest time doing that. Friggin' TV news, it's like trying to breathe through a straw. 
     I fled back upstairs, listened to the cops chase the protesters around the city. That was the plan? 
     I had a plan. Before Saturday night happened—I'm loathe to call it "The George Floyd Riot" though that's the misnomer that'll probably be stuck to it, unless it's just part of the general chaos of the second half of 2020—I was going to write about The Self-Isolation Choir, which is just what its marvelous name would suggest: a British group of homebound musicians united by a crisis. A friend on Facebook pointed out that they're doing the "Messiah" online at 1:30 p.m. CST. You can find more information at the link here. Sounds fun.
      I'm not sure whether I will have the patience to sit there and listen, never mind the lightness of heart to sing along. Maybe that would be soothing. Maybe the images—from Twitter, and from Sun-Times photographers such as my friend Ashlee Rezin Garcia, who took the imagine on the front page above—will just jumble in my head and the music seem a mere buzzing.  
     Seeing downtown looted is oddly personal; I know these places. I was in Syd Jerome, the upscale men's clothier at Clark and Madison, the day before, Friday morning, talking to its personable owner, for a column on the opening of the city which now will probably seem woefully out-of-step on Wednesday, and is probably mooted by events anyway. Central Camera, "Since 1899" glowing in green neon as firefighters trying to pull the burglar grate back and smoke pours from within on Twitter. Such a lovely shop, all these old cameras, like a museum. The kind of place you lose and it doesn't come back.
     It made me think of a previous riot, one of the Bulls championships. In the cold light of morning I walked up Michigan, assessing the damage.  The window was boarded up at Stuart Brent's, and I went in to see what the irascible old bookseller had to say. I found him just sitting there, staring at the floor in his shattered shop, sunk into very unexpected dejection. So much that I immediately tried to cheer him up.
    "Well at least they were looting books, right?" I said, with all the brightness I could muster. "Stealing books! A higher level of looter..."
     He turned his face up to me, his eyes moist and old and terribly sad.
     "They didn't steal the books," he said. "They just threw them in the street."


Saturday, May 30, 2020

Texas notes: Oyster

The Aegean Sea by Frederic Edwin Church (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
    Our Austin bureau chief Caren Jeskey is a woman of parts, without question. Still, today's report ventures off in a totally unexpected direction, as you will see.

     During the summer of 2005 the man I was dating got a phone call. The King of Jordan, who was once a boarding school buddy of his, was inviting him to come for a visit to help support the building of a new boarding school in Jordan. The idea was for the King’s previous classmates to help fund and support the up and coming King’s Academy, which was modeled after the school in the States where the King had spent some of his formative years. Since wives and partners of his classmates were also invited, I was beyond excited to learn I’d be joining my boyfriend on this trek to The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. My ex and I were not exactly a solid couple, though we lived together in his gigantic rental loft in the West Loop of Chicago, and we did our best to make things work between us. Even though he did not always like me — once calling my “histrionics boring and pedestrian” when I was passionately expressing my innermost feelings — apparently there were some perks to my presence, despite what he saw as my somewhat plebeian tendencies. We had almost nothing in common and to this day I can’t quite explain how we ended up a couple, though I remember clearly how it started.
     The first time I saw his six foot seven inch stature adorned in high-waisted hand tailored trousers that seemed to come from a distant and more magical era, and the long black braid cascading down his back contrasting against his fashionably wrinkled white linen shirt, I was enamored. I was not used to such unusual eye candy in the city I’d lived in for most of my life when I spotted him on the outdoor dance floor of Summer Dance on South Michigan Avenue. I discovered that a good friend of mine was there with this tall living sculpture, so we had a chance to meet. He was an odd bird, wildly interesting and intelligent, and I loved it. He was self taught on the baby grand piano placed with a view out of a huge plate glass window of the loft, and would whip out a ragtime hit in between other acts of prowess. I joined him at dinner parties in Chicago and New York with artists and brilliant thinkers, doers and creators, and my life became a French movie. Everything was amber and tawny, we had a demanding orchid that simultaneously could not tolerate too much attention, which was casually and somehow perfectly placed in a pot full of mulch that hung precariously from a giant exposed brick wall. We made tofu with vindaloo sauce and used molasses, whole wheat flour and dark chocolate nibs in the banana bread. Our visitors were the curators of jazz festivals on islands in Europe and famous musicians, poets, actors, and inventors. We once spent a summer working on an art project on tobacco farms in the South where we were taken on a four-seater private plane to an island in Georgia with a pilot who did loop-de-loops while I squealed with nervous joy and my boyfriend and the pilot’s wife screamed at him to cut it out and right the plane. Being in this man’s life opened the world up much bigger than I had ever known it to be.
     It was not surprising that now I’d be joining him on a trip as the guest of royalty. One big question loomed large in my mind: what on earth would I wear? My wardrobe of tie dyed bell bottom yoga pants mixed with funky dancing and club attire would not do. A solution quickly surfaced — a warm and generous woman who lived in a penthouse that we frequented for wine-laced never ending dinner parties on Fulton Market jumped right in. She was all too thrilled to help this comparative pauper become a princess. She invited me over and into her closet, which was larger than most apartments I’d lived in, and started pulling out colorful zigzag designs of Ottavio Missoni and flowing silk and linen garments, and buttery leather designer sandals. She didn’t skimp at all, and outfitted me with elegant jewelry and a handbag too. I was ready to face this once in a lifetime adventure properly.
     As was the case with many big dreams in my life, the expectant picture I held in my head proved to be much grander than the real thing. Don’t get me wrong — riding camels through the Wadi Rum Desert and snorkeling off the King’s yacht in the Red Sea were as wonderful as anything I could have possibly imagined, but at my core I knew I was only a temporary fixture in this magnificent life. My boyfriend and I were not connected as some couples are, like best friends. This was temporary. Knowing that, I felt a bit sad, but more than that I was grateful. The King put us up in Disney-like castles of hotels where the housekeeping staff would sculpt swans kissing each other out of towels and surround them with rose petals placed on our bed until I asked them to stop. We spent the trip mostly apart. I bonded with a woman — another partner of a former classmate of the King — who was to become a dear friend, and my boyfriend got lost in creating his art.
     I never did meet the Queen who was too busy for us, but I did get to spend a little bit of time with the warm and welcoming King and his son. The rest of the trip was spent exploring Petra, the city carved into the sandstone you may have seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, floating in the warm thickness of the Dead Sea, exploring the ancient Roman city of Jerash and the port city of Aqaba. We ate lamb and vegetables that baked for hours in huge metal pots that were buried in the hot desert sand, and dug out ceremonially by Bedouin men and women who were hired to take care of us. We sat in tents in the desert, woven rugs beneath us and hookahs and beverages at the ready. We learned that delicious cardamom flavored tea would be continually poured into our little glass tea cups until we shook the cups from side to side, indicating that we were done.
     A week before our trip we learned that three missiles had been launched from the Jordanian city of Aqaba towards a US naval ship in the Red Sea. One missile had landed in the Sea, one in Israel and thankfully harmed no one, and the third mistakenly landed in a warehouse off the coast of Aqaba and killed a Jordanian man. Family and friends begged us not to go on the trip after hearing of the violence aimed at Americans, but we were not backing down and would not be frightened out of taking this trip. The absurdity of war continues to ripple though our nations. Even with the danger that always loomed, I once felt that the world was my oyster and I traveled at every opportunity. For now it seems there is less talk of war among my friends and even in the news. Now a global threat has taken on a new form, an all but invisible organism that is not only keeping us from distant shores but even from travel within our own borders and even from our own families. It’s keeping us away from or warily distanced at civic centers, meeting halls, places of worship and all of the little places we once took for granted — markets, mom and pop shops, libraries, book stores and even our own sidewalks. As distancing relaxes successfully in some parts of the world like New Zealand who has handled this pandemic with clear and sane leadership, we can only hope that even with our hiccups and strange partisan fights we will beat this thing and once again have the freedoms we were accustomed to, or at least some semblance of them, and perhaps with an even deeper sense of gratitude this time.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Trump stomps on his Twitter megaphone



     I believe it is the complaining I shall miss the most.
     The whining.
     I almost added “the grumbling.” But Donald Trump does not “grumble,” not the low, corner-of-the-mouth, suppressed muttering implied by the term. No, his every grievance is an air horn two inches from your nose: “BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!”
     I’ll miss that.
     And by “miss” I don’t mean, “wish back.” God no. But “notice it’s gone.” That delicious moment when the endless beep-beep-beep of a truck backing up nearby just suddenly ... stops.
     The steady drumbeat — no, drumroll, rat-tat-tat-tat — makes pausing at a single cavil a challenge. While you carefully consider one, three more are fired off. It’s nonstop, exhausting, the drip-drip-drip of norm-shattering psychopathology.
     Did I call them drips? Make that a firehose — high pressure, the nozzle flinging itself about, water jetting in all directions. You can’t drink from it.
     But you have to try, occasionally, despite the soaking. Because some Trump gripes are more significant than others.
     His lashing out at Twitter this week is worth getting water-logged to address. Because it shows just what a nihilistic, “Top of the world, Ma!” ending we can expect should he somehow lose the election in November. No gentle going into that good night, not for The Donald.
     It started Tuesday, with a lie he’s been repeating a lot:

There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed. The Governor of California is sending Ballots to millions of people, anyone.....
     Republican invocation of voter fraud is itself a fraud. The GOP takes an insignificant problem and pretends it is widespread in order to suppress Democratic votes and undercut trust in the electoral process that increasingly disfavors their shrinking base of angry, fact-averse white folks.

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

New oaks


    “Life," Mary Shelley writes in Frankenstein, "although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it.”
     That elegant phrase the 21-year-old author puts in the mouth of her monster, who tends to speak in "thees" and "thous" and praises life while explaining that only his miserable treatment has prodded him to violence. "Misery made me a fiend," he says. "Make me happy, and I will again be virtuous."
    He's onto something, though I'd suggest it's the other way around—be virtuous and it'll tend to make you happy.
    Either way, human life does sometimes require vigorous defending. Though any gardener knows that botanic life, while perhaps low on the anguish scale—it's not like we can ask plants—can benefit from a helping hand as well.
     Every autumn though this year is an open question, I join my buddies and head to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to cook thick steaks, drink cold beverages, take long saunas, and jump in the frigid lake. No question that our lives are defended in the process.
     Returning, I bring back memories, sometimes Held's deer jerky, though people complain ("It smells like a burned down house," Ross once said, which makes me a little sorry he's becoming a lawyer and not a writer, because that's a perfect description).
    And saplings. A good half dozen. Pines, firs, and, if I'm feeling ambitious, oaks. The first year, I planted them in the fall and they just vanished. The snows came and I never saw them again. The second, I put them in pots and set the pots on the back deck. I wanted to observe what was happening. What was happening, I decided, was bunnies. Because they were fine up to one point in winter. And then they vanished. So we do not know if plants feel anguish, we do know that bunnies find oaks delicious. Or maybe they were just really hungry.
     This year I took extra precautions, securing a roll of chicken wire and constructing little cages around my saplings.
     For a month I gazed hard at those little bare sticks, six inches tall. Scrutinizing their ends—as if we weren't all scrutinizing our own ends enough during this crisis. A bud? No. Maybe? No. How about today? No.
    Then one day, something. I clomped closer, leaned forward, looked close and hard. A very small but unmistakable sprouting.
     "LIFE!!!!" I cried, in a very Dr. Frankenstein-like fashion, arching back and fluttering my hands to heaven. "It's alive!!!"
     Now all I have to do is wait a few decades, and I'll really have something. But I am nothing if not patient; being a writer, you sorta have to be. 
     Until then, only one question came to mind. How do oaks figure into "Frankenstein"? Easy enough to find out.
    One sentence, early in the book: during a thunderstorm storm that our budding teenage doctor watches  boiling out from the Jura mountains. 
     "As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump."
     If you've paused at the have the lightning "issue from" the oak, remember that lightning comes from the ground up as well as from the sky down. 
     And a good place to end, being reminded that, as T.S. Eliot writes, "In my beginning is my end." Even the grandest trees die, and my happiness at my pair of saplings surviving their first winter might be echoed by some future owner mourning their passing. If there is a future, and if we care about life in it, which right now is an all too open question.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Immigrants with COVID-19 may hesitate to go to hospitals

Francisca Garcia
      What’s worse than fighting for your life against COVID-19 in a hospital?
     Fighting that battle at home.
     With the infection curve finally flattening, for now, and what attention is being paid to the sick concentrated on those in hospitals, it’s easy to forget: people with no insurance, or who are undocumented and fear entering the system, or just don’t know to seek care, are sick at home.
     Not many, relatively. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, only 4 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the state occur in private homes. Still, that’s some 200 deaths since February. Thousands more are being cared for, not by trained professionals, but family members.
     They can’t be counted, but they can be helped.
     For them, Francisca Garcia, a critical care nurse who heads the COVID unit at Holy Cross Hospital, has an important piece of advice: lay on your stomach.
     “For the patients who are awake and alert and able to follow directions, we ask them to lay on their stomach,” she said. “Laying on their stomach helps with lung capacity, increases oxygenation. It’s almost a little mini-miracle when we have patients prone.”
     She said this has become widespread practice.
     “Different countries and different hospitals are starting to do this,” she said. “In the ICU, we’ve been doing this for many, many years. Patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome, an acute phase patients’ lungs go into when they’re very sick. We’ve been doing this for 25 years. With COVID, nurses and doctors and hospitals all over have started trying it.”

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