Tuesday, August 4, 2020

But it's my right!

When in Chicago, Col. Ellsworth led a
famed group of Zouave soldiers.
       Americans are justly proud of our liberties.  Alas, over time, that pride has swelled to such an enormous size, it blocks our vision, and causes confusion between what can be done and what should be done.
     For instance. 
     My column Monday juxtaposed an Evanston woman confronting a group displaying a Confederate flag—on a towel, adding that low comedy touch—at the beach there, with Col. Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer to die in the Civil War after taking a stand against what he had called the "Secession Flag."
    Reaction, as you can imagine, was heavy and all over the place. Mostly positive thoughts from readers, I should point out. But also some who seemed more keen to highlight the right to display banners of treason and hate—as if I were unfamiliar with the Constitution—while ignoring the aggressiveness of the act.
     A prime example—and surprising, since it came from a regular reader—was this:
     Today’s column misses an important point, i.e. the Confederate flag displayers' First Amendment right to free speech. Like you and so many others, especially as an Evanston resident, I found the flag display was disgustingly racist. Still to be devil’s advocate, how is this any different than when Nazis marched years ago in Skokie and We’re defended by the ACLU?  Imagine the frustration if everyone at the beach just ignored the yahoos and their racist banner.  Just sayin’...
    I replied this way:
     Your email puzzles me. Of course I didn't "miss" that the oafs displaying their Confederate towel are within their Constitutional rights. What of it? That point seems a red herring. You are waving [the] 1st amendment when it comes to traitorous bigots advertising their creed. Yet urging silence upon decent patriotic Americans whom, last time I checked, enjoy the same 1st amendment rights. Are you certain you've thought this opinion through?  Thanks for writing.
    A number of people stressed this aspect.
    I agree with you about what the flag represents but it’s also there [sic] right to hang it and that’s the bottom line ?
     I replied:
     No one argues that. The losers displaying the flag have the right. Just as the patriotic Americans have the right—I believe the obligation—to pause and pour contempt upon them. Thanks for writing.
     Maybe the unspoken part is this: bigots are broken, frightened people. Airing their prejudices, as if they were a reason to be proud, is the closest they come to strength. Prejudice is a kind of philosophy for morons, and pushing back can seem like setting New York theater critics loose about a kindergarten play. 
     Thus silence is not only easier, it can seem kind. The problem is that they aren't satisfied. Today's beach towel becomes tomorrow's flag. Having lost the Civil War in 1865, the losers inched back, until it almost seemed like they won. They're inching still. We see the result ,in the White House and all around. Hate is on the rise. Time to stamp it back down where it belongs, back into the sewer of shame from whence it comes.

Monday, August 3, 2020

‘Be brave for 30 seconds’ — and 159 years

Col. Elmer Ellsworth

     Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth and LaShandra Smith-Rayfield do not know each other. Yet. But I would like to introduce them. Well, at least I would like to introduce Col. Ellsworth to Ms. Smith-Rayfield.
     Sadly, I cannot likewise introduce Ms. Smith-Rayfield to Col. Ellsworth, time’s arrow being what it is. But I fancy he would have approved.
     Smith-Rayfield confronted a group displaying a large Confederate battle flag towel on the beach in Evanston last week. She didn’t just happen by. Those who just happened by did what most people do when just happening by something wrong: nothing.
     Smith-Rayfield hurried there and made a stand.
     ”It makes me uncomfortable in a place that I pay taxes and rent,” she told those sprawled before the rebel flag. “That right there is a racist symbol of hate.”
     Someone else at the beach — a “man of color” in Smith-Rayfield’s words — who later said he had hoped to have a private word with those displaying the flag, on the video says he’s a vet, he fought for free expression, the flag’s fine.
     “It’s not fine,” Smith-Rayfield replied. “It’s not fine. You teach your children to speak up about this kind of thing ... You fought for a flag that had 50 stars. They lost the battle.”

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Cancellers can't cancel you without your help

Translation: "A joy it will be someday, perhaps,
to remember even this."
    Honestly? By 8 p.m. Saturday I was feeling pretty brain dead.
    The result of getting up early, working on the book ("Every day," Elvis Costello sings, "Every day, every day I write the book...") Then cutting down Rose of Sharon (no, not cutting down Rose of Sharon Joad, though that's funny to think about. "Geez, girl, do you know how annoying you and your stupid husband are, giggling away like that...?") The bush, in our backyard, which had grown huge these past 20 years and then suddenly was 3/4 dead, but with a lush new Rose of Sharon sprouting up underneath.  Sawed it up, bagged the branches. Took two hours.
      I was going to hop on here and tell you all to pound salt. "Show's over, nothing to see here folks, go about your business..." But I decided to read Eric Zorn's column and see what was on his mind which, I'm glad to report, unlike mine, is fully functioning, one benefit of not having a big ass dead Rose of Sharon in his yard there in Old Irving Park. He took on a subject I haven't gotten past musing about, cancel culture, pointing out that the Right, in characteristic hypocritical fashion, have a lot tougher time with it in college professors than with in their own shut-up-folks-we-don't-like selves.
     Reading Eric's piece squirted some WD-40 into the seized up gears of the old brain. Suddenly it started to whir, albeit while making a high-pitched screeching sound.
     You might want to pause and read Eric's piece here then return, if you are so inclined, and I'll add a coda.
    Hmm-mmm hmm,. hmmma hmm-hmm hmmmmmm...
    Back? Good. The thought I managed to squeeze out after reading Eric's piece was this: those who get cancelled often have a hand in their own downfall, in two ways:
     First, they serve up something that inflames the mob du jour. I could easily write a column that is heartfelt, honest, of-the-moment, and strays into the particular realm of stuff-that-gets-you-fired today. But I don't. Why? Cowardice, maybe, or savvy, but basically  because part of what my boss pays me for is to avoid horseshit dustups over nothing, to not provide anything that might tend to interfere with my ability to draw readers to the paper and add value to it. I can't do that if I've been hounded into retirement.
    Second, when the sans culottes do start baying for your blood—and the above notwithstanding, sometimes you just step into it, sometimes, despite your best efforts, you stomp on that rake unaware—the howl only lasts so long. Then they fold their tents and depart. A lot of folks who wither really didn't have to, and might have survived had they shown a little patience, and just started whistling and gazing at their thumb in mock admiration for a few days and not decide to do an Al Franken and run out of a house that really isn't on fire. Or if their bosses hadn't panicked and thrown them over the side prophylactically. 
     The example Eric mentions is the board of The Poetry Foundation, which bolted like a frightened rabbit, and is probably still zigging and zagging across lawns in Indiana, heading east, even as we speak. Unnecessary. I don't believe that today the board would still be plagued by their not-quite-enthusiastic-enough statement of support for Black Lives Matter had they just stayed off Twitter for a few days. Cancellers are a variety of hater (they hate folks who have ever done something they consider wrong, at the moment, forgetting that the realm of people who have made mistakes includes them, their puffed up sense of righteous infallibility being Mistake Number One). And being haters, they live off fear. So if you don't provide the fear reaction they're looking for, they tear away like a pack of wolves, looking for someone who will.
     Is that insight? God I hope so, because it'll have to do.  

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Texas Notes: Biscuit

     Until I read Caren Jeskey's report from Austin I didn't realize how much I was  hankering for something positive at this perilous moment in our nation's history. I hope you feel the same.

     Barry’s eulogy of John Lewis was as satisfying as taking a bite of cold, crisp, firm apple. A presidential figure speaking in full, coherent sentences gave us a glimpse back to better days gone by. “So we are also going to have to remember what John said: ‘If you don’t do everything you can to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once. You have to give it all you have.’”
     We deemed President Obama Barry because he was a part of the family. We wanted him to be. He made us feel seen and heard, and we trusted him. We had a man of integrity at the helm who steered us into safer waters. His imperfections were forgiven as he started to right the ship of our country into one with a deck that was built strongly and promised liberty for all.
     I don’t like to focus on our current POTUS— aka the Screaming Carrot Demon (thank you Samantha Bee of the Daily Show for that one). I will continue to count the days (152) until this dangerous charlatan is out of office. Meanwhile I am making plans to move to Berlin if they will have me, if by some chance the election is rigged and he ends up with the privilege of staying near his comfy bunker for four more terrible years.
     Nicknames can be powerful. They can usurp one’s sense of well-being when they are unwelcome and demeaning. They can also make a person feel more a part of a partnership— Sweetie, Honey, Poopsie-Do— or a group— Sister, Wildcat, Kappa— when they are coined with love.
     A sales manager at my car dealer shared a story with me today. He has nicknames for all of his children including his youngest daughter Biscuit. She once asked him “daddy, why do you call me that?” He sat her down and told her of childhood memories of eating plates piled high with comfort food cooked with love by his mother and other elders in his small Texas town. At the end of those meals it was tradition to sop up the last of the gravy and bits of corn muffins and grits with the last half of the biscuit you’d been saving for that purpose. This indicated that the meal was over. “Honey, since you are going to be my very last child, you are my Biscuit.”

   Let’s make a plan to sop up the remnants of the last four years and start with a clean plate. We will have a lot of work to do to repair the damage that’s been done. While we engage in partisan bickering, Godzilla with Less Foreign Policy Experience (thank you Colbert) is undermining lives of tiny asylum seekers, the United States Postal Service, the CDC, the WHO, the US Census Bureau and doing all he can to kick the legs out from under every single person and institution that protects us from becoming even more of an oligarchy.
  As Barry reminded us in John Lewis’s words, we must change what we can to make 2020 into a year of silver linings, or many of us might just collapse. One such lining for me has been a lot more time for introspection as I was abruptly pushed out of the rat race due to a period of job loss (now remedied). This has led to a greater appreciation for all of the connections and support I have, despite the heavy times. I don't want to lie and pretty it up— I’ve had some very bleak days, yet I am still here and still have hope. 

     When I was a kid my family called me Carrie, Cakey (since I was not able to pronounce Carrie), and Sparkle Plenty. This memory reminds me of how much I am loved. As an adult it’s been Jetski, L’il CJ (my older sister is Christina), L’il J, L’il Dod (due to a typo once), Francine (made up by a very cute surfer on an island so I went with it), Care Bear, Karuna (which means compassion in Sanskrit), Caruna (a variation), Peaches (my favorite), and a few more.
     On top of receiving affection, I have had the privileges of excellent education, music lessons that allow me to escape through playing flutes, literacy, books on my shelf, comfortable shoes, bicycles, a car for day trips, and the ability to walk, run, dance, jump and sing. I have not been forced to take a risky germ-laden two-hour bus ride to get to Goodwill

where I work long shifts with short breaks and have to walk and stand on concrete floors that destroy my legs, like one man I know. I have voted twice this year and will vote at least once more. I may not be a part of the upper percent who owns most of this world, but I enjoy a good amount of freedom. Not everyone does, and they are just as important as I am.
   Let’s help single mothers who work long hours with short breaks get registered and get to the polls. Let’s allow a true representation of eligible voters to take part in an equitable election by being sure everyone is registered and has access. Let’s not let Rome Burning in Man Form (nod to John Oliver for that one) continue wielding his little swords, furiously jabbing in order to destroy all he can from now until the end of the year. Let’s be sure to keep on fighting and work hard to get every last drop of gravy off that plate.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Toilet troubles worsened by COVID crisis

     Tim Pyle, executive director of the American Restroom Association, recently got an urgent email from Wichita alerting him that the bathroom at the bus station downtown was closed to the public; could the ARA help?
     While the Baltimore-based group is not intended to address individual shuttered toilets across this great land, Pyle responded sympathetically.
     “Municipalities and governments have dropped the ball in the past 20 years, and have abdicated their responsibilities to store owners, gas stations, and eateries,” he wrote. “Now that COVID has hit, it is more important than ever for ‘public’ facilities to do their part and keep them open.”
     Which is separate from the issue of whether people should even go into public restrooms that are open. Public bathrooms are perfect virus spreaders. Strangers gather in the smallest space possible. They perform functions that are then rendered into whirling vortexes of airborne contamination, thanks to flushing toilets, and blasted through the room by hand dyers.
     Two related problems then: keeping bathrooms open, and improving their safety.
     “When you think about delivery drivers, folks on the road, if there aren’t bathrooms available because everything is closed, where are they supposed to go?” Pyle said. “What COVID has done is highlighted weaknesses in the restroom infrastructure.”
     Well, that, along with highlighting the fault lines spider-webbing through every aspect of American society: health care, government, the economy, as well as the cracks latticing the heads of many of our fellow citizens, who can’t seem to grasp the whole wash-your-hands-and-wear-a-mask thing until they themselves are, you know, dying. The psychology of bathrooms adds another layer of difficulty.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Bebb Oak

     Business required me to observe a variety of outdoor tasks Wednesday morning: water being pumped, asphalt poured, sewers sluiced, leaks detected, drain pipe laid. Which probably doesn't sound fun to you, but which was very fun for me, both because of the unexpected and thus interesting details of the processes, and the friendly, open nature of all the workers I spoke with. I'd share some of those details, but I don't want to deflate the story I have coming later. You'll just have to trust me.
     Though I can share this, since it isn't part of my story. Just to show that these few hours of fun could be topped, my host was kind enough to swing me by something I had heard about but never seen—the oldest tree in Northbrook, a Bebb Oak on Sunset that is easily as old as our country and probably older—perhaps as much as 400 years old.
    It was a magnificent tree, filling the sky and I struggled to find a vantage to see the thing in anything near its entirety. The Bebb Oak is the official Village Tree of Northbrook, a hybrid between a burr oak (quercus macrocarpa) and a white oak (quercus alba), and I spent a long time contemplating it from various angles.
    I should just leave it there, but there is one hanging obvious question—it is an obvious question, is it not? C'mon, work with me here. Well hanging for me, and I had to check it out, and might as well tell you. Apologies in advance.
    "Bebb." What kind of word is that? The Oxford gave me nothing, so I poked online, which is cheating, yes, but works.
    One hint is the Bebb oak's scientific name, quercus×bebbiana. Quercus is Latin for "oak," obviously but bebbiana is pseudo-Latin for the name Bebb—Michael Shuck Bebb to be exact, a 19th century systemic botanist. 
     Turns out he was a hometown lad, blown here from Ohio, tramping around Chicago in the 1840s and various locales around the state. Most of the biographical information on him was about his work with willows, salix bebbiana, but I pressed on, being rather systematic myself, and soon stumbled upon a letter of Bebb's to George Clinton—the botanist, not the singer from Parliament-Funkadelic—dated Sept. 23, 1873:      
     I have just found two or three splendid hybrid Oaks between Quercus alba & macrocarpa and I am not altogether sure that I have hit upon the explanation of the “miniature fruit” of olivaeformis Michx.
     How I wish I lived within reach of a large library and a large Herbarium.
      Well, there you have it. Not the most urgent issue—that required phone interviews all afternoon, for Friday's column, so you'll have to wait on that too. Which leaves us after dinner—falafel, fries and spiced carrots from Misrahi Grill enjoyed al fresco at the Botanic Garden, so it really was a full day—with nothing more profound than one glorious tree. Which should be profundity aplenty, but in case it falls short, as I suspect it might, I would direct your attention to the last line of my excerpt of Bebb's letter, where he is in the field, pining for books and a collection of dried plants to check his samples against. Since all of us have within reach the largest library and an endless herbarium at our fingertips 24 hours a day, we should pause, shake off the long familiarity that has dulled us to its wonder, and be amazed and grateful anew. 


Wednesday, July 29, 2020

If we’re in hell, we might as well read Dante

Dante in the Piazza Santa Croce, Florence.
     John Took’s new book “Dante” is very heavy lifting. From the first sentence — “Exemplary in respect of just about everything coming next on the banks of the Arno over the next few decades was the case of Buondelmonte de’Buondelmonti on the threshold of the thirteenth century.” — it is a waist-deep slog through the muddiest of academic creeks.
     Pressing forward, I grew to hate him. Just for taking something so valuable and rendering it into turgid academic blather. Grew to hate Princeton University Press for foisting this upon a trusting public. Hate the scholars who blurbed it. “A beautiful book that reflects decades of thinking and teaching,” begins literary critic Piero Boitani.
     Maybe he meant the cover. It is indeed a beautiful cover.
     And I grew to hate myself for buying the book, impulsively, because, heck, it has such a nice cover and it is about Dante. For insisting on grimly, joylessly grinding through it, page after page, trying to glean some shred of knowledge from this field of chaff. I blame my own cheapness. I bought the thing, paid, geez, $35 for it. I have to read it. It grew to feel like penance, a hair shirt. Enduring a homebound summer in a brainless era during the realm of an imbecile? Here’s some grist for the mill, perfesser. Chew on this!
     Then on page 333 (ironically, since three is very big in Dante’s Commedia), he makes it all worthwhile. A redemptive Hail Mary pass, fittingly. He’s categorizing the ways the human vessel is deformed in “Inferno”: stuffed into fissures in rocks, soothsayers’ heads twisted backward “in a grim parody of their profession,” barrators sunk in molten pitch, “the most atrocious kind of metamorphosis.”
     Then Took reaches back and unleashes this perfect spiral:

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