Saturday, June 24, 2017

"This is becoming really insignificant"

    I pulled down "Waiting for Godot" on Friday and re-read it once again. What a piece of work. "Death of a Salesman" might be the better play, with its seamless mix of past and present, jumbled around in the crumbling psyche of Willy Loman, leading in lockstep to the heartbreaking conclusion. And "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is probably my favorite play, just for the nostalgia factor. But "Godot" somehow surpasses them both: spare and funny and perfect, not to mention deeply funny.
     "You should have been a poet," Vladimir, the more sensible of the tramps says.
     "I was," replies Estragon, gesturing toward his rags, "Isn't that obvious?"
     When you look at Samuel Beckett's other works, the miraculousness of "Godot" becomes clear. Because while they have a surreal, nightmarish quality—particularly "Endgame"—Beckett would be shrouded in obscurity without it. With "Waiting for Godot," he won the Nobel Prize in literature, and who would dare say it wasn't deserved? The play hides depths under its simple surface, its two main characters contain multitudes.
    For those unfamiliar, the play is mostly interplay between Vladimir and Estragon, bowler-hatted hoboes killing time on a blasted landscape enhanced by a single bare tree. They are waiting with a kind of hopeless hopefulness for Mr. Godot, but what he is or why they should wait for him, like the product Willy Loman is selling, is never made clear. Nor is what happened to the world they inhabit. Some lop off the last two letters of "Godot" to understand what this is about, though to me it's fairly plain that Godot is death, and the vaudeville capers the pair plays out, the business with their boots and hats, their philosophizing and self-pity, echo of the way we pass our brief spans between the womb and the grave, the light gleaming "for an instant, then it's dark once more."
    A traveller arrives, Pozzo, leading a slave on a rope, a quite Trumpian figure, lost in self-regard. "I am Pozzo! Pozzo! Does that name mean nothing to you!" 
    The tramps seem constitutionally unable to understand. "Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?" wonders Vladimir.
    There's no point in describing the plot too much. Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the Broadway debut of "Waiting for Godot" for the New York Times in 1956, called it "a mystery wrapped in an enigma." And so it is. 
     Beckett—who was James Joyce's secretary—wrote the play in French, then translated it into English, and he was clearly unsettled by the "disaster" of its growing fame. He exerted methodical control over productions with the frantic unease of a man whose creation had escaped him and was being mauled by others, batting away those who would tinker with the carefully-scripted confusion depicted on stage, trying to add meanings of their own, a practice his estate continued.
Samuel Beckett
      This led to quite a history of controversy over the play. In 1998, for instance, the Studio theater in Washington, D.C. did an all-black version where characters ad-libbed lines such as, "What's wrong with white people?" Beckett's publisher, the Borchardt Literary Agency, sent a cease-and-desist letter. 
     There were points to be made on both sides. The publishers insisted that Studio had signed a contract stating there would be no changes in the text or stage directions.    
    Director Joy Zinoman countered that stage directions include instructions such as "Vladimir and Estragon protest violently" or "general outcry" which seem to require ad-libbing.
    "It's in the text," she told the Washington Post
    Negotiations were attempted but, as one actor put it, "racism got in the way."
    Did it? Who was right? Did Beckett's estate suddenly get upset over ad-libs because they had a hip-hop flavor? Or did the production company toss an all-t00-easy charge at an artist -- or his estate anyway -- known for his meticulous attention to detail? Is improvised outcry fine so long as it isn't black slang? Is artistic control laudable except when exerted over a black cast, when it become racism? 
    Or is the entire matter the kind of empty peering into hats and the trying on of too tight boots that our pair of heroes perform to while away their two-act "tragicomedy"?    
    Beckett himself, a fearless member of the French resistance during World War II, was whatever the opposite of a racist is.   "I know that very, very specifically" said South African playwright Athol Fugard, who approached Beckett personally in the 1970s to do an all-black production . "He had no hesitation." 
    Obviously I'm not reading Beckett in a vacuum, but in the after-echoes of the Chicago theater community kerfuffle that's been raging for weeks regarding Steppenwolf's production of "Pass Over" by Antoinette Nwandu, a reworking of "Waiting for Godot." The Sun-Times Hedy Weiss found fault with the production, and was promptly labelled a racist and, in a highly-unusual move, formally denounced by Steppenwolf. 
    I would regurgitate the entire matter—you can read more about it here—as several theater companies piled on Weiss, waving past criticisms they consider unfair. The Tribune sprang to her defense with the Sun-Times following suit
    But frankly, I haven't the stomach for it, except to say I smiled with recognition when, in the play, after going on about turnips and radishes, Vladimir observes, "This is becoming really insignificant."
    Not of course to the outraged members of the theatrical community, who have identified a villain, to their apparent satisfaction, and are going after her with great—for want of a better word—drama. The temptation to settle old scores is very hard to resist. Weiss, meanwhile, showed admirable restraint, even sangfroid, and did not rise to the bait trolled all around her. 
    Then again, dumping on critics is a time-honored theater ritual and anyone sticking their hand into that cage needs armor-plated skin. Toward the end of "Godot," the two hoboes trade slurs, starting with "Ceremonious ape!"and "Punctilious pig" and working through "Moron! Vermin! Abortion! Morpion!"—a crab louse—then "Sewer Rat! Curate! Cretin!" and ending with Estragon trilling out the ultimate insult, the stage directions notes, "with finality" since beyond it there is no worse imaginable put-down and reply would be meaningless:

Friday, June 23, 2017

Peanut Butter, a perk that sticks and just might spread

David Aronson, founder of Peanut Butter (Photo by 1871/Gregory Rothstein)

     Rise Interactive, a Chicago-based digital marketing firm, was quizzing its employees two years ago, making sure they were happy with their perks.
      "We were doing our end-of-year employment engagement survey — what's working, what's not," said chief operating officer Scott Conine.
      The cafe stocked with snacks? Very popular. Ditto for the four-month paid parental leave. The gold-plated healthcare plan? Much appreciated.
     But there was a a glitch.
     "We were getting all sorts of commentary in the survey about how our retirement plan was ineffective," said Conine, who sought out employees to talk about their concerns.
     "They said, 'We actually love the retirement plan; we just can't use it,'" Conine recalled. "I said, ' What do you mean, you can't use it?'"
     "They basically said, 'We're still encumbered with student debt; we have to get out from under the mountain of that before we can even think about saving for the future.'"

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Life is like olive loaf

      It was a freakish thought, an idea that I've never had in my entire life.
      To make matters stranger, my wife had the same thought at exactly the same moment.
      Tuesday night. The weather, perfect. We had walked a few blocks to the Village Green in our leafy suburban paradise, sat on the park bench listening to a jazzy combo play music on the gazebo. They did a medley of 1920s songs, including "Bye Bye Blackbird."
     "That was one of James Thurber's favorite songs," I said, pointlessly. "He quotes it at the end of ''One is a Wanderer.'" 
      We wandered ourselves over to Sunset Foods, to pick up a few things, and while my wife was getting cold cuts, some turkey, some roast beef, my eyes locked on the olive loaf. I don't like olives. I'm no fan of loaf. But it was ... pretty, and pretty is halfway to appealing. The specks of green olive and red pimento. Festive.
    "Someday I'd like to try olive loaf," I said, in the tone that people say, "Someday I'd like to go to Tahiti."
    "I was thinking exactly the same thing!" my wife exuded. Soul mates.
    Olive loaf always struck me like head cheese, one of those inexplicable foodstuffs that somebody must eat—they sell it— but I can't imagine who or why or how.
     We briefly discussed whether we should indeed plunge into the void and buy some now. I had second thoughts; maybe it should be a Bucket List kind of thing. It was still unappealing. But before we die, certainly.
     "Build up to it," I said. "Give ourselves something to look forward to."
     Immediately the idea of a Low Rent Bucket List came to mind. I have written here about the insulting presumption of bucket lists—clueless would-be social arbitrators announcing what other people must do before they die. I concluded that except for getting a dog, such lists are fatuous.
      But there are experiences that are both part of being alive and more accessible than snorkeling in Bora Bora. You should, before you die, go birdwatching. Or wear a fez. Or learn to ballroom dance (I intentionally picked things I've never done, as too many of these lists are individuals foisting their life experiences onto others).
     Or eat a slice of olive loaf.
     My wife, always the bold one, ordered a quarter pound of the stuff. 
     The next day, at dinner, we each had a slice.
     "Like bologna," my wife said, "only saltier."
    That sounds about right. It wasn't horrible. It wasn't particularly good either. At least now I know. Life on the edge.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A visit with Janis Joplin in the foreign country of the past

     Janis Joplin sang at Ravinia. That seems so strange to me, to imagine the pride of Port Arthur, Texas, wailing "Ball and Chain" at the venue now given over to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, interspersed mostly with various low-key jazz groups and nostalgia acts such as Boz Scaggs and The Moody Blues.
     I don't know which feels odder, that Joplin performed there or that Republican Sen. Charles Percy was in the audience for the show in August 1970.
     Then again, the past is a foreign country, to quote a novelist nobody remembers. They do things differently there. I was transported to the alien land of late 1960s, early 1970s Chicago over the weekend by pulling down a book that had sat neglected on my shelf, "All Together Now," by former Sun-Times columnist Tom Fitzpatrick.
     Parts amazed. Did the paper really send him to Pennsylvania for three weeks — three weeks — to cover the rescue of a pair of coal miners? Did he really sit unnoticed in the back of James Rochford's car as the deputy police super-intendent discussed disarming a deranged Marine who had killed two Chicago Police officers? A sad reminder how little access reporters get to the police or fire departments anymore, and how much heroism is hidden because of it. Fitzpatrick is right there for six hours as firefighters soothingly cut a pair of teenage girls out of the wreckage after an Illinois Central train slammed into a local commuter train, killing 44 people in 1972.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

First day of summer

   The first day of summer. 
   That didn't sound very convincing, did it?
   I wish I could whole-heartedly laud Beach Boys songs, ballgames, picnics, something warm and fun and scented with woodsmoke.
   But I don't have the stomach for it. One season melting into the next.
   Maybe it's Trump; he is becoming normalized, isn't he? I never thought so many people would debase themselves so much for so little. I'll grant Trump this: I knew he was a fraud. But man, he's a good fraud. Effective. He lays out the trap and people jostle like piglets at a sow to be the next to fall in.
    Maybe it's something else. Maybe  I'm just distracted by the uncertain future of the Sun-Times, rattling like dice in a cup. First it seemed we would be snatched up by Tronc, the corporate entity that owns the Tribune and a bunch of other newspapers. I was resigned to that — at least it would be something different; worst come to worst, we'd have to go work in the big box of Freedom Center. 
    Then Monday Edwin Eisendrath, the former alderman—to general astonishment—put in a realistic bid of $15 million, fronted by a bunch of unions. Not bad on its face -- I've been in a union for most of my 30 years at the newspaper. Unions have their flaws, but sure beat the hell out of no unions.
    This development got me wondering if I had ever written about Eisendrath — I am not always kind, and people bear grudges. 
    Luckily, just this once, when he was running for governor against Rod Blagojevich. A good sign right there. I seem to have gummed him but inflicted no lasting wound. I hope. 
     I also read in Robert Feder's column that, if the sale goes through, we'll all be working at 20 N. Racine (assuming I'm not fired, that is). I called up Google Map—about a mile from Union Station, only a couple blocks more than the current building. So that's something to feel good about. 
    I included the second item, as a stroll down coping-with-Islamic-terror lane.  And yes, I considered that now, on my hobby blog, I had my chance to do what I criticized the paper for not doing, to manfully publish the offending cartoon and let hte chips fall where they may. And no, I'm not doing it. I have enough to worry about. Unlike the president, I can cop to it when I'm being hypocritical. It's a kind of freedom.


     Democratic gubernatorial challenger Edwin Eisendrath has failed so far to entice Gov. Blagojevich to debate him on the issues -- the governor no doubt figuring, "Heck, I've got $15 million in the kitty, why bother with 10th-grade civics class formalities?"
    Still, Eisendrath is not without options. I heard that he is being urged to stage a mock debate, perhaps against an Elvis impersonator, as the governor is a notorious Elvis fan.
     A funny idea. But could it possibly take place in the realm of dull reality? I placed a call to Eisendrath, who admitted that the concept is being pressed upon him.
     "I have two things to say about this," he said. "[Blagojevich] ain't nothing but a hound dog, and he's turning our state into Heartbreak Hotel."
     I wanted to leave it at that, but Eisendrath, who is not exactly Mr. Jolly (in a debate, I'd worry about Elvis winning), had to set the record straight.
     "I won't debate an Elvis impersonator -- I might debate an empty chair piled with cash," he said. "This stuff is so serious -- the state's broke -- I don't want to make too much light of it."
     Why not? Crying won't fix anything.


     "But I've never even seen the drawing!" my wife said, standing in the kitchen, reading about the latest paroxysm of Islamic rage over some cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad.
     Don't hold your breath, Honey. With the notable exception of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the American media has gone and hid in the basement when it comes to the biggest story to roil international waters this year. A Danish cartoon has set off the Muslim world, embassies are being burned, people being killed. But we can't show you the image. Out of respect. For the rioters . . . er, for their faith.
     That's a bunch of bull. This isn't about respect -- the media thumbs its nose at religion all the time. This is about fear. We're afraid, afraid to print the cartoons. We don't want our houses burned down.
     Since when did "deeply held" religious beliefs dictate what goes in the paper? Any daily newspaper is a stick in the eye of one or more of the world's religions, from the astrology pages to the bra ads. The very existence of a Sunday paper is an affront to the idea of the Christian Sabbath as a day of rest.
     Consider this: Jewish tradition also bans depicting images of God -- you don't see human forms in most synagogues -- but that doesn't keep every paper in the country from printing cartoons showing a big, bearded God, because Jews aren't going to start turning over automobiles in front of your newspaper office.
     It's easy to claim respect. No newspaper editorial says, "We don't want the threat and the hassle." I thought the New York Times' explanation in an editorial Tuesday morning was particularly disingenuous and prim. They rationalized not printing the cartoon this way:
     "That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words."
     What image isn't? "A woman kneeling, arms spread, over a student shot at Kent State." "A pile of bodies, including children, in a ditch at My Lai." Spike those photos!
     And "gratuitous," in my dictionary, is defined as "uncalled for, lacking good reason." I understand that the initial printing of the cartoons might have been exactly that.
     But what about now? Half the world's irate about a drawing. I'd say that's reason aplenty. But no, we can't show it to you, because then they'd be upset at us, too.
     Guess what? They already are. And were, last week and last year and 10 years ago. So now the Islamic street -- to a small but very real degree -- is editing your daily newspapers and censoring your TV (CNN blurred the images, as if they were child porn).
     Believe me -- no one will be placated by our restraint, no hearts won by our timidity. Surrender today begets more surrender tomorrow. This cartoon is a lost battle -- instead of them becoming more like us, we are becoming more like them. The fear that rules their lives is beginning to rule ours.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 8, 2006

Monday, June 19, 2017

Can't we wait to pontificate until the blood is squeegeed away?

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could all agree that...
     No, scratch that, since we can't all agree on anything. And "nice" is pretty much off the table when it comes to discussing matters of national import. "Vile" is much more apt, and I can't see how the free-fire zone of contempt can be called a "discussion."
     So I'll just toss this concept out there, a single idea hocked from the frontal lobes and spat into the enormous bruise green whirling cyclone that is Media 2017.
     Wouldn't it be, ah, useful, if we could all at least consider that the period — say the first three days — immediately after the mass shootings which increasing mar and define our country is not the ideal time to chew on matters of public policy?
     Because really, what good does it do?
     The drawback of that is once such shootings happen every day — we're almost there now — then it'll never be appropriate to debate each other rationally about our political problems. Which is sort of where we are now anyway, though in the immediate after-echo of a bloodletting we are even less capable of civil discourse than we usually are, which is really saying something. 
     The news hits.  
     There is a moment of stupid shock, gazing dumbly at whatever carnage has just occurred. And then the howl is raised again. Everybody talking, nobody listening.
     Extremists who live to hate a particular group feel extra vindicated that their mean little biases have just been proved once again. On the opposite end of the spectrum, dewy dreamers who hope for impossible standards of warm political brotherhood announce that now is the moment when Americans who...

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

A crumpled photo, and a daughter's search for the father she never met

     This is an odd, out-of-left-field story, my second big Sunday feature in two weeks. It happened this way—in March, Monica Scanlon called me. She had read "Drunkard" and for some reason thought I could help her find her father. Without the photograph above I don't think I would have written anything. But the fading Kodochrome was just the tantalizing detail that caught my interest. I spoke to her, spoke to her adoptive parents and her birth mother, at length, and something unexpected came into play. They were all so candid, unusually candid, that I felt I had a story, not so much because what they had to say was extraordinary, but the opposite.  It was ordinary, human, the sort of thing you don't see in the paper much. I set it aside for almost two months, went to Europe, finished the long falling piece that ran last week, and then luckily took it up again. I half expected the paper to shrug it off, but thankfully Paul Saltzman, our Sunday editor, liked it.

     Monica Scanlon has never seen her father's face. Not in person. Not yet.
     All she has seen is one crumpled color photograph, nearly half a century old.
     The Greenville, South Carolina, woman, who’s the controller for a big construction company, was born in Memphis at a home for unwed mothers. Her mom was a Tennessee teenager who got in trouble with a boy from Chicago.
     It was 1970. Being pregnant without benefit of marriage back then, especially if you were Catholic, was shameful, something to be hidden. Her brother and sister wouldn't even learn about the baby until years later.
     The teenager named her newborn "Joan" — the baby's grandmother's name — in hopes her mother would soften and let her keep the girl. She didn't. Signing away her rights, weeping, she left her dark-haired daughter at an orphanage, saying goodbye to her forever, she thought.
     Five weeks later, on Oct. 12, 1970, the phone rang at the Nashville home of Dave and Pat Spilker. After several miscarriages over their five-year marriage, the couple had registered with Catholic Social Services. The caller said a baby was available. Pat Spilker, surprised, said the first thing that came to mind: They were supposed to go on vacation to Florida the next day.
     "Do you want this baby, or do you want to go on vacation?" the lady on the phone asked.
They wanted a baby. They had only a few hours to prepare for the transition from childlessness to parenthood. Florida would wait.
     "I called my friend Carol and told her, 'We have to pick up our baby tomorrow I don't have one thing,' " Pat Spilker says. "She gave me some shirts and this box to bring the baby home in — a white, rectangular-shaped box with a little soft pad in it. Babies born in Madison, Tennessee, at that time came home in these boxes."

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