Sunday, April 20, 2014

Chicagopedia returns! Ballon frame, goo-goo, Chicagoland and more.

The Sun-Times decided to revive Chicagopedia, an occasional definition of words and phrases of particular interest to Chicagoans. I kicked in four for the debut (click on the link to read my take on "Chicagoland"), including the one below, and plan to write a new one every week. I hope they're half as fun to read as they are to write. 

balloon frame: (BAH-loon frehm) adj.
A technique of constructing buildings using a light lattice of sawed timbers, typically two-by-fours, as opposed to heavier posts and beams found in European mortise and tenon construction. Pioneered in Chicago in the early 1830s by carpenter Augustine Deodat Taylor. Detractors coined the “balloon” name in derision, suggesting light construction would make them blow away in the first strong wind. And they were so easy to take apart, they were nearly portable: an early balloon frame building, the city’s first Catholic church (St. Mary’s Church), at State and Lake, was taken down and relocated three times in 10 years to follow its shifting congregation. The technique allowed homes to be built far faster and cheaper than before, permitting the rapid growth of the city, and they spread quickly, not only across the city, but also the world. Today, three-quarters of the homes built in the United States are made of balloon frame construction, and the method is one of Chicago’s greatest contributions to modern life, though few realize it. – Neil Steinberg

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Saturday fun: Where IS this?

     As soon as I stepped into this singular space I thought, "Maybe this will stump them." 
     Not too many clues. We are in Chicago. The structure I'm in is 30 feet tall and 2,000 feet long. It's part of something even larger, or was. You're certainly heard of it, but probably never been there. Few people have, lately. Otherwise, I'll tell you more about it after someone guesses the right answer.
     Or doesn't.
     Where is this? As always, the winner receives one of the ever-dwindling stock of this blog's way-cool, ultra-collectible-someday-perhaps poster. Post your guesses in the comments section below. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting support the old-fashioned way: buying it.

     "The machine,” political guru Don Rose said, years ago, “could get 30 percent of the black votes for George Wallace over Martin Luther King.”
     Though we don’t have to raise hypotheticals. When the actual Dr. King actually did bring his open occupancy marches to Chicago, there was no shortage of black aldermen willing to rise in City Council and denounce King as an unwelcome outsider, their strings pulled by Richard J. Daley.
     Let me be clear: As a general rule, individuals will sell out the interests of their groups in return for personal benefit. It isn’t just a black thing. Jews collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, helping them to round up their own people in the hopes they’d be the last to go. The Republican Party will deny global warming until the ocean laps at Pittsburgh simply because doing something about it crosses the immediate profit of the coal burners and oil companies and carbon spouters who write the checks. No tobacco company has any trouble finding people who, at a hefty salary, stare into the camera and say no, all that lung cancer stuff is just fiction.
     Still, knowing this, I had to smile, broadly at Mike Sneed’s item Thursday on Hermene Hartman, publisher of an obscure Chicago African-American periodical, N’DIGO, who pocketed $51,000 of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s bottomless pail of money and then decided, my God, he’s the man to back, the billionaire with a heart of gold that beats in time to the hopes of the black community. She wrote a lengthy tribute to Rauner’s “fresh approaches,” never mentioning the money she pocketed.
     That’s not a “fresh approach.” That’s the oldest, stalest, machine, buy ’em-a-beer-and-get-’em-to-the-polls approach....

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

A surprise arrival at this year's Seder: not Elijah, but the Palestinians

     Religion is supposed to impose hardships and obligations. That’s the whole point.  Fulfilling them, you earn your spot on the team. It’s a kind of hazing.
     Thus I look at puzzlement at those who rip through their Seders in an hour. Why not dye Easter eggs while you’re at it? What’s the rush? My kin do the full, six-hour, sail-past-midnight, 14-point, Kiddush-to-conclusion Passover meal, with frequent pauses for questions and comments and readings.
     At the Seder, we tell of Exodus, the flight from Egypt. Thus much about freedom from biblical bondage and from smaller, modern slaveries. Monday we ceremoniously shut off our cellphones. I read Shelley’s ode to the futility of ego, “Ozymandias,” whose shattered pharaoh’s “sneer of cold command” surveys the empty sands. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
     So not just our Egyptian slavery, but slavery in its many forms. My wife read the Emancipation Proclamation, and we spoke about the lingering pernicious influence of black slavery. Native Americans got their due. Other ostracized groups too; women were mentioned. An orange on the Seder plate, used to symbolize the inclusion of women, now is applied to gays and lesbians. We don’t confine our left leaning to pillows.
     One by one, suffering groups were named. Slowly, something began to dawn on me.
     It jelled during the answer to the Four Questions: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt and the Eternal our God brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Now if God had not brought out our forefathers from Egypt, then even we, our children, and our children’s children, might still have been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
     Hmm. “Our children and our children’s children.” That made me think of a particular group not being drawn under the blanket of liberal Jewish goodwill toward everyone oppressed...

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Flight 370 and Samuel Johnson: The Untold Connection

     Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 ... is ... umm ... still missing. 
     That said, I ... ah ... wanted to add that it's disappearance is an ... umm ... hugely significant cultural moment. 
    Oh wait, my pal, Gene Weingarten, over at the Washington Post, put it best, in an email chiding me for under-appreciating the news value of the plane's disappearance: "I hunger for the story...this is a world-class, possibly never seen before, amp set to 11, bona fide mystery."
    I think that too! Err, now  I mean. I think that now.
    No I don't. 
    I believe we project our desire for order, for wonder, for elaborate, clever artifice, on unknown events, so we can entertain ourselves with the amazing possibilities while the banal truth remains hidden. If I had to bet the ranch on what happened to Flight 370, I would guess the wing fell off. Or something overheated and blew up. Or a pilot spilled his Coke on the controls. We'll probably never know.
     Which I would never even bother to say, here, now.
     So why am I writing about this a second day?
     Well, you see....
     It's like this....
     I happily posted my column here Tuesday on CNN leaping from news coverage into performance art regarding the missing plane, all for a little bump in ratings.
     "They're creating a little Theater of Exaggeration, trying to fool us," I wrote, of CNN's constant panting updates about what turns out to be nothing.
     Then Tuesday morning, I glanced at my stats, as I always do. Yowza! Through the roof. Twice what I get on a typical morning.  Fifty people retweeted. My very first, unfiltered thought was: "Geez, I should hit this again."
      Grin of embarrassment. 
      I wonder how many journalists, myself included, if we were suddenly in CNN's position, would do what CNN has done? (I like to think that, even if I did decide to pander, I'd pander more artfully than that. Bad enough to be a whore, but to be a desperate, delusional whore...)
     But this is a business. And you have to put the slop where the pigs can get at it. If people really want tripe...
     No, no, no. I didn't write that! We can't conclude there. Hypocrisy is a bad thing. Being a hypocrite because it pays is worse. 
    Or is it? There can be a fine line between hypocrisy and ... ah ... flexibility. 
    My hero, Samuel Johnson, the Great Cham of Literature, produced his namesake dictionary in 1755.  It made him famous but not rich -- that next year, he was arrested for a £5 debt. 
     In 1762, King George III granted him a lifetime pension of £300 a year, which would allow Johnson to pay off his debts and live comfortably, even well. But first he had to get around one uncomfortable point. In his dictionary, he famously defined "pension" thus: "pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country." 
     He was naturally torn, not only by the stench of hypocrisy, but by the idea that he was being bought off by a government he had criticized. He quizzed his friends. "Certainly the definitions in his Dictionary were not applicable to him," Joshua Reynolds replied. "It is not given you for anything you are to do, but for what you have done," said Lord Bute, who had lobbied the king on Johnson's behalf.
    Johnson took the pension. 
    His enemies of course gleefully mocked him, but they were doing that anyway. Johnson later said he wished the pension had been twice as much, so his critics could make "twice as much noise."
     So tomorrow, whatever the ratings, I shift away from Flight 370. It's the right thing to do. And there's no money at stake. That helps.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The search for CNN's missing reputation

   On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, a Boeing 777 carrying 239 passengers and crew en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, disappeared.

     That’s it.
     There’s really no more to say, no more facts at hand. Oh, a few details, if you are new to the story: Many nations have been looking for the plane. The few leads — some floating debris — have turned out to be red herrings. The black box data recorders are running out of juice. But most people know that already.
    If you need someone to tell you what likely happened to Flight 370, I can do that: It crashed into the ocean and vanished. I know this because of a logical principle known as Occam’s razor: When confronted with a mysterious situation, don’t conjure up wild speculation, just take the facts you do know and construct the most likely outcome: if the window is broken and the TV is gone, assume that someone broke the window and stole the TV, not that the TV hurled itself through the window and ran away.
    To be honest, after five weeks, the tragedy would have receded from memory — there’s so much happening in the world, no need to stare slack-mouthed at a mystery waiting for it to resolve itself — had not CNN veered into round-the-clock coverage. I never watch CNN, but my younger boy records Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” and I caught his delicious mockery of CNN’s swan dive into the story a few weeks ago. It’s been endless, wall-to-wall reiteration and speculation where no theory is too strange — black holes, Bermuda Triangle, UFOs — to be aired, no fact too minor or familiar not to be worn to a nubbin, like a lunatic rubbing an adored blankie, a news judgment process Stewart summarized in three words: “Let’s go nuts..."

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Passover is a backward kind of holiday

I might be the only newspaper columnist in America who writes regularly about being Jewish. I do it because it's part of my life, and I don't see a reason not to. Those who don't, well, they'd have to answer as to why—indifferent, I would guess, or ashamed.  Thus I've written a bit over the years about Passover which begins Monday evening.

 I like this snippet, from six years ago:

     Passover is a backward kind of holiday. It begins with the highlight, the Seder meal, then lingers on for a weeklong appendix of mundane observance. It's as if Easter were followed by Lent.
     Not eating bread -- in solidarity with our forefathers who fled Egypt -- isn't the most austere religious regimen in the world. But it can be a challenge for the kiddies. Lunch is a big deal in public school -- it breaks the torpor of the day and is a source of status among your peers.
     I  still remember unfolding my ominously flat square of tinfoil, to reveal a crushed matzo and bologna sandwich, and gazing tentatively around to see how this bit of ethnic strangeness was being received. And we wonder why Jews become agnostics.
     My older boy was going out to dinner Tuesday with a buddy's family, and that morning at breakfast my wife cheerily inquired whether he wanted some matzo to take with him to the restaurant. His eyes widened slightly as he said no thanks.
     Smelling fear like a dog, I zeroed in.
     "Good idea hon," I said. "Because they might not serve it."
     I turned to him, beaming obliviousness.
     "I have just the bag you can put it in. It says 'MY PASSOVER MATZO' on it, with a picture of a pony. It hangs on a string around your neck."
     Cruel, I know. But ours is a complex tradition, and eating crumbly crackers for a week in spring is just the start of it.

And this, from 16 years ago, sums it up:

     Like a lot of people, I had just enough religious training to make me feel guilty. I learned about all the rituals I don't practice, the prayers I don't say, the beliefs I don't hold.
     I might wish it were otherwise -- people who carry strong faiths and follow them seem so secure, so confident when pointing out the shortcomings of their inferiors. It would be nice to be like that.
     But you have to dance with who brung ya. You can't choose your upbringing. My folks gave me religious training because they felt they were supposed to. The central religious memory I have of my father is him sitting out in the synagogue lobby, with the newspaper on his lap, because he couldn't bring himself to go inside and endure the service.
     Now I'm the same way. I inherited not the proceedings inside, but the lukewarm obligation with which they were delivered. That's what happens.
     As if to cap it off, as soon as their children grew up, my parents stopped practicing entirely. I picture them spreading their arms and grinning broadly. "Ha, ha -- fooled you!" Sure did.
     Every once in a while I'll meet some deeply religious person who'll try to persuade me to plunge into the clockwork details of my faith. But I just smile and shake my head, as if someone from Dublin were trying to talk me into being Irish. It isn't that the route is unappealing, but I can't do it without fakery. Faith is not something you learn, it's something you acquire. I missed that train long ago.
     Except this Friday, which you may know is the start of Passover. In my view, Passover is the highlight of Judaism. Much attention is given to the High Holidays -- the Day of Atonement and the New Year in the fall. But for me, those are like April 15, Tax Day. Something you do because you have to. You're in trouble if you don't.
     Passover, more than anything else in the religion, I do because I really want to. No pretending necessary.
      I'm tempted, in my cynical way, to ascribe its allure to the food piled on at the Passover meal, the Seder. And the typical lineup for a Passover Seder does read like the greatest hits of Jewish cooking: chopped liver, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, kosher chicken, macaroons, those sugar-fruit-slices-that-you-never-otherwise-could-indulge-yourself-enough-to-put-into-your-mouth. There's also the wine, and the warm companionship of my family (well, technically my wife's family, which is my family now.    My original family is off sulking in various cities around the country; I couldn't drag them to the Seder with a winch and a chain).
     But there's more to it than that. You can eat well any time. The Seder -- the word means "order" -- is like a play, unspooling the story of the flight from Egypt.
     Now, there are a lot of silly, inconsequential things in the Bible -- lists of insects and rules relating how to take a bath -- but the Exodus from Egypt is not one of them. It's a grand, magnificent story that reverberates in every single person's life, particularly when told at a Seder, which stresses that this is not some dusty, irrelevant happenstance that we're all forced to recount before we can eat, but something that happened to each person sitting there. "You were a slave; now you're free."
     That makes sense to me. I can understand it and, each year, appreciate it anew. A nice double-pump meaning: first, historical. These people really fled across the desert so that we could be here, so that the world wouldn't be formed entirely out of Egyptian theocracy and Babylonian excess, but would have . . . dare I say it? . . . the spirit of God in it.
     And second, personal. Everybody is a slave to something, everybody strains against their chains and fights to free themselves. It's a great thing. Religion that means something. And good food, too.