Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Would you give a kidney to a stranger?

Barb Neff (right) with her sister Carolyn Ritten. Though neither feels Neff is a “selfless person,” she still gave one of her kidneys to a stranger.

     Barb Neff thought about doing it for two decades.
     Which is a pair of decades longer than most people would consider following her example.
     Most wouldn’t consider it for two seconds.
     But in mid-July, Neff, 52, who grew up in Elmhurst, donated her left kidney to a stranger.
     “I’d been thinking about it, on and off, for 20 years,” she said.
     But why? It’s tough enough to spur families to donate the organs of loved ones after they’ve died. So-called “altruistic donation” — giving an organ to a stranger while you are alive — is so rare, and such a quantum leap in human generosity, that some health experts agonize whether it is actually selflessness or closer to emotional imbalance.
     When Neff was 30, one of her closest friends lost a kidney.
     “Liposarcoma, or fatty cancer,” said Neff. “They ended up taking out a 20-pound tumor, a kidney, her spleen, some colon.”
     Neff was ready to give her friend a kidney.
     “It was a no-brainer,” she said. “But that never transpired. About 10 years later, I heard a podcast about it. It hadn’t even occurred to me that you could give a stranger your kidney. I thought that was something I should look into.”
     Again, why?
     “Because it just seemed ... more of a ‘Why not?’ than a ‘Why?’” she said. “I think I’m a little more nonchalant about surgery than most people are. It didn’t strike me as that big of a deal.”
     And for her, it wasn’t.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Downy Woodpecker

     An iPhone 8 suits all my photographic needs. 
     Except one.
     It's lousy for photographing birds.
     Birds are too small, too far away and move too fast. 
     Birds do not pose, never mind in silhouette. 
     Which is why I almost gasped, looking up to see this woodpecker, not five feet away, going at a crabapple tree on First Street. 
      I dropped Kitty's leash and stepped on it to keep her from bolting after any passing squirrel, whipped out my cellphone and fired off a few photos.
      Not good photos. I understand that. But good enough that I could at least ID the bird with a degree of certainty—I believe it is a female Downy Woodpecker, female because it has no red on its head. Though it could be a Hairy Woodpecker; the two are very close. But this seems a little smaller, its beak a little shorter.
      The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of North America's 25 species of woodpeckers. It has a slightly risqué  Latin name, picoides pubescent, because Carl Linnaeus thought the downy plumage resembled that of a human in early puberty.  Hmmm...not a crisp enough photo to make any kind of judgment there. 
    Though if the bird seems a little, well, smudged it might not all be the photo's fault: Downy Woodpeckers molt in late August and early September, and that process might be underway.
     Notice how this woodpecker's tail is braced against the tree bark—a characteristic behavior, to take the strain off their legs as they peck. They also have very little cerebral fluid in their skulls, so their brains don't slosh back and forth as they peck, sometimes up to 20 times a second.
      One drawback of all that pecking is it makes it hard for the woodpecker to watch out for predators—so these woodpeckers tend to hang out among other birds, relying on their warning calls to tip them off to danger. This particular woodpecker, I noticed, was tucked under the canopy of the tree, shielding it from any passing Cooper's Hawk, which our neighborhood has in abundance. 
      I've always had a particular fondness for woodpeckers. Maybe because they tend to be solitary birds. They also are sedentary: they don't migrate, typically, but stick around their home range. They also have a certain dignity that others have remarked upon.
     "With their often black-and-white plumage and stiff, jerky movements, woodpeckers have a formal persona many find appealing," wrote Henry T. Armistead, a Philadelphia librarian and "birder extraordinaire."
     I am not an extraordinary birder, and can't flatter myself that any special quality of stealth allowed me to get close to this woodpecker. That's just how Downy Woodpecker's fly, a quality noted nearly two centuries before I and my iPhone happened along.
     "The bird is by no means shy or suspicious, and scarcely pays any attention to man, even when standing close to the tree on which it is at work," John James Audubon notes in his 1831 "The Birds of America." Which, now that I think of it, brings our essay to a full circle. Technology is a marvelous thing, but compare the effort above to what a man with a sable-hair paintbrush and a box of watercolors could do:


Monday, August 19, 2019

Chicago should landmark sign at Trump Tower

Trump Tower, June 2014
     As a rule, I try not to have rules. That’s what makes this column such a draught of delight.
     The closest I come to having a rule is this: Never advocate the impossible.
     Because the impossible doesn’t happen. Then you look like a fool.
     So when impossible ideas strike, I’m smart enough to bat them away.
     Usually. But not always.
     Like so many, I’ve been chafing under the despicable madness that is the administration of Donald Trump. Brooding over the enormous Trump sign that mars an otherwise beautiful building in the heart of the city, it struck me: We should take that thing down. Now.
     Why not? We are a city filled with lawyers and officials. Sure, attempts have been made. Keep trying. I called the mayor’s office and the zoning department, the corporation counsel and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who introduced the bill allowing the sign. I was particularly eager to hear from Reilly — is this not his shot at redemption? Imagine what a great day in Chicago that would be. A genuine riverside celebration, unlike former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Fire Festival squib and failure. Picture the citizens gathered, cheering as one by one the letters fall.
     Might the argument not be made that “TRUMP” does not mean in 2019 what it meant when the monstrosity went up in 2014? That it is now the language of hate, chanted by bigots as they attack their cringing victims, a balm to racists worldwide.
     Reilly remained mum. But the law department not only got back to me, but with an unexpected ray of hope.
     “The City of Chicago evaluated its legal options after this sign was erected in 2014 and determined that steps could be taken in an attempt to force the sign to be removed,” spokesman Bill McCaffrey said in a statement. “Forcing removal of the sign now would likely result only in its replacement with a slightly smaller version as well as litigation that would cost the City in time and resources that are disproportionate to any incremental benefit of a smaller sign.”

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Sunday, August 18, 2019


      Saturday afternoon was rainy, but showers were supposed to hold off for a few hours in mid-afternoon, so my wife and I decided to head over to the Glenwood Avenue Art Fest in Rogers Park because, well, we always go.
      Why? Well, there's food and music and young couples with kids in strollers and kids with their faces painted like cats, plus hipsters leading real dogs, and unfortunate tattoos and green hair. Lots of booths selling local craft beer, and booths selling food, and crafts that range from the well-wrought and desirable to the artless and pitiable. The crowd is old and young, thin and fat, black and white, male and female and the entire spectrum in between.
      Besides, my brother-in-law, Alan Goldberg, a longtime community fixture, cooked up the thing, 18 years ago, and if you can't support your family by attending a summer fair once a year, well then, you've got problems, buddy.
      There are also booths for community groups and politicians, and those can be interesting and even lead to stories. 
      "Maybe we'll bump into Kelly Cassidy," I said as we approached, to my wife, of the state representative from the district, who has a notable cameo in my Chicago book and is in the headlines for her good works in Springfield.
     First we met the new alderwoman for the 49th ward, Maria Hadden, who body-checked Joe Moore out of office after 28 years. A staffer pointed her out, and I introduced myself. She turned and fled like I was radioactive. 
     Then as I predicted, we saw Kelly, outside her booth.
      "Have you met my wife?" she asked.
      "The other Kelly?" I seemed to recall a spouse also named Kelly, but I was behind the times. 
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, left,
with her wife Candace Gingrich
      Two years and three days ago, she married Candace Gingrich.
      "Her brother is Newt Gingrich," Cassidy explained, as we shook hands.
      "The man who ruined the United States," I said, as if stating a simple fact. Which I was. It was Gingrich, Speaker of the House during the Clinton years in the late 1990s, who weaponized the Republicans Party, teaching them to marshal the English language against reality—it doesn't matter what truth is as long as you could attach a bad, or good, name to it and repeat that name often enough—and treat their opponents not as the other side of the political spectrum, but as traitors. It would probably have happened anyway, but Gingrich was the Sampson toppling the pillars of our body politic, then, fawning over Trump now in a way that would make Chris Christie blush.
      My wife tactfully wondered about their family reunions.
      "We're not a family that gathers a lot," said Gingrich, whose brother Newt is 23 years older than herself. I allowed that most families run the gamut.
      "I have relatives who are Trump supporters," I said, not adding, "distant relatives whom I haven't spoken to for years and would never want to speak to again." 
      I wondered how the couple met.
      "The story is ridiculous," said Cassidy, who met her future spouse through her past one.  "When Newt became Speaker she said, 'I know his sister...'"
     Cassidy asked her if she would come to Chicago to speak at events.
     "I'd never been to Chicago," began Gingrich, who lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 
     This was in the mid-1990s. 
     "And you were blown away by its incredibleness?" I wondered.
     "What I was blown away by was her," said Gingrich.
     But they were both in relationships, so they remained friends, going to Cubs games. But that changed.
      We didn't talk too long—I knew Kelly was there to meet constituents, not jawbone with me. So Edie and I wandered the fair, saw family, hung out, contemplated ceramics. I had an excellent gyros, she had an excellent chicken and avocado salad arepa. We both shared a cup of complicated cocoa gelato from Black Dog. I worried I hadn't quizzed Gingrich thoroughly—she was really a classic American type: the gay relative of a conservative political asshat. Dick Cheney's daughter, Alan Keyes' daughter, now Gingrich's sister, and I'm sure there are more. I should have pressed her on her notorious brother, who did so much to set the ball of our current political decline rolling briskly downhill.
Bailey, a half-sharpei, half bulldog. 
     I almost turned and immediately headed back. But no. It's one of the last Saturdays in summer. Try not working for a while, Neil. Just wander.
     But on the way out, I noticed the pair, sharing a meal at Kelly's booth, now deserted of staffers. We swung by, and I observed that usually it was the other way around: the politician leaves, the staffers stick around. 
      They laughed. I decided to ask one last question and then let them be. Sentient America is dealing with a daunting problem, I began: how to cope with a frightening, reactionary man who is not going away anytime soon. Having Gingrich as a brother her entire life  required her to cope with a similar burden. Any tips for people trying to get by?
     "Breathe," said Gingrich. "Breathing is always a good thing." 
     She observed that you''ll go crazy if you throw yourself at forces beyond your control, at problems you can't fix, at least can't fix right now.
    "It's the little things we all have control over," Gingrich said.
     It is no coincidence, she observed, that liberals are trying to fight pollution during the environmental regulation-shredding Trump administration by limiting use of plastic drinking straws, a small step in combatting global pollution. Go ahead; there's no shame in that.
     "There is so much more you could be doing, yes," she said. "But you are doing something."
      Quietly file at the bars of our predicament while saving our strength for better days. 
     "You can't control all the bad stuff, but you can control some," she said.
     That makes sense.
     The festival's last day is Sunday, Aug 18 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.  The gyros are expensive—$10—but worth it.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Flashback 2000: Climbing the status ladder

The Marx Brothers (from left) Chico, Zeppo, Groucho and Harpo

    I stumbled across this column looking for something else, and was surprised both by the facts it contained, and that I wrote it. Yes, 19 years is a long time. But usually, there is some glimmer ... this was all fresh. Plus it was 538 words long, 30 percent shorter than my column now, a reminder that while I rhapsodize the space of the past, that wasn't true when the column ran in the features section. When we had a features section. Anyway, I enjoyed this, and hope you will too.

     The Palmer House is made of sandstone quarried in Berea, Ohio. I know that because I grew up in Berea, the former sandstone capital of the world.
     It is one of the more touching human qualities that, so deep is our desire for status, we try to absorb accomplishment and glamor from the places that we live, or lived.
     In Chicago, there is no need to scrounge for glory. Open the bag and glittering baubles tumble out, from the most famous man in the world (Michael Jordan) to the most beloved doll (Raggedy Ann, who made her debut in the windows of Marshall Field's, stitched together to tout the Johnny Gruel stories).
     Though we do not need new ornaments to hang on Chicago's name, I feel obligated to report what I just learned about the vital role Chicago plays in the recent biography of . . . drumroll please . . . Groucho Marx and the Marx Brothers. Who knew?
     After their bid for success in New York went cold, the brothers Marx decided to move, en masse, to Chicago, to test our Midwest waters.
     "It would take a combination of bravado, faith and lunacy to trade New York for Chicago at this time," writes Stefan Kanfer, in his fine book, Groucho (Knopf, $ 30).
     They end up at 4512 W. Grand, and in the years to come, many crucial developments that led to their magnificent success fall into place somewhere around Chicago.
     They get their famous nicknames in Galesburg, during a poker game between shows. An obscure trouper named Art Fisher dubs them Groucho (for his mood), Harpo (for his instrument), Gummo (for his galoshes, or gumshoes) and Chicko, later Chico, for his eye for the ladies.
     Harpo joined the act in Waukegan, in the middle of a show, creeping unannounced into the orchestra.
     Harpo used to talk onstage, until one night when they appeared in Champaign-Urbana. A critic—and this must be the high-water mark for critics actually having an impact on the thing being criticized—noted that Harpo was a skilled pantomimist. "Unfortunately the effect is spoiled when he speaks."
     He never spoke onstage again.
     Groucho had his appendix out at Michael Reese Hospital. He married a Chicago girl, and hung out with Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht.
     I saved the best for last. With the United States entering World War I, their mother, Minnie, read that anyone involved with farming would be exempt from the draft.
     "That was all Minnie needed to know," Kanfer writes. "She made immediate plans to acquire a farm."
     The Marx brothers moved to a 27-acre farm in La Grange and began raising chickens. It sounds too incredible to be true, but apparently it is. My only regret is that they didn't base a film on their efforts which, inevitably, failed.
     I couldn't help but wonder if the Marx legend lives in La Grange. I called Village Manager Marlies Perthel.
     Anything the town is famous for? "Not really," she said. "The one thing we're known for is we do have a historic district."
     Anybody famous live there?
     Groucho Marx," she said, "many, many years ago."
     That was a relief. At least La Grange-ites know they should hold their heads high. Do they?
     "It's a little humorous," she said. "In staid, conservative La Grange."
     Ah, a little humor. What else can you ask for in life?

                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 30, 2000

Friday, August 16, 2019

Israel rejects a key value of both Jewish and American life

"Freedom of Speech" by Norman Rockwell
     Nothing shows strength like the ability to listen. To not merely tolerate, but consider those who disagree with you. That’s a mark of confidence. 
     To hear contrasting opinions, weigh what merit those arguments might have, and even be open to the possibility that it is you, yourself, who could be wrong.
     Despots never get this. They’re too fraudulent, too terrified of losing their slippery grip on unmerited authority. So of course Donald Trump, that most hollow of puffed-up would-be strongmen, would fail to understand this, completely.
     “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Reps. Omar and Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted on Thursday, of the pending visit to Israel of two American members of Congress. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
     Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, the first Muslim women elected to Congress, are not a disgrace. Nor anti-Semitic. They articulate concerns that many — maybe even most — American Jews feel over the path Israel is taking — its growing nationalism, its catering to ultra-Orthodox fanaticism, its general neglect of the fate of four million Palestinians under its semi-control.
     Yes, the two also encourage the BDS movement — the belief that Israeli businesses should be boycotted, investments in Israel should be divested, and sanctions placed until Israel ... well, does whatever it is the Palestinians want it to do: the Jews vanish, march into the Mediterranean Sea and let Palestinians have their country, I suppose.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Success doesn't mean victory

    The column in the newspaper can't be longer than 719 words. There isn't room. I'm not sure if that's the precise limit—my gut tells me I could sneak in 720— but that's the number I don't let myself go beyond to make sure it doesn't run 790 or 800 words, which wouldn't fit on page 2, where I like to see it smiling back at me in the mornings.
     Sometimes I bite the bullet—on Monday, when I was trying to explain the allure of manhole covers, I went 900 words and got the column sunk deeper in the paper.  But on most days, if it runs 720 words, I take one word out. It might say something, and not something good, that I didn't feel the need to request the same for Wednesday's column. It held up Mothers Against Drunk Driving as a reason for hope, if not a roadmap, in the frustrating battle against gun violence. MADD's success, and the nation turning away from smoking, show that change is possible.
      Even starting out with a Sam Kinison bit, I felt I could make my point in my allotted space. But at that length, some nuance is lost. When I sent the column to Mothers Against Drunk Driving—they had provided a high-resolution copy of the photo I wanted to use—their response had a certain tone of ... disappointment.
     "Sadly, while we have come a long way, drunk driving is STILL the No. 1 killer on our roads," wrote Becky Iannotto, MADD's senior manager of communications. "It’s no longer funny and thousands of lives have been saved, but we still lose 10,000 to 11,000 people every year. Still working to change attitudes, support enforcement and strengthen laws until we can really get to zero!"
      I saw what she was saying. Just as as addicts and alcoholics are said to be in recovery, but never "recovered," so MADD has successes without victory. The fight continues: this Saturday is "Saturation Saturday" in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's $13 million "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over Campaign."
      I shouldn't write off overlooking that to tight space. The truth is, I was trying to make a point—MADD has accomplished great things against an entrenched killer, so can opponents of Armed America. To pause, and observe that despite nearly 40 years of gerbil-on-a-wheel effort, it's still an enormous problem, well, that would kind of take the air out of the message I was trying to inflate. 
     I should have mentioned MADD's ongoing fight.
     Nor did I mention Moms Demand Action, a grass roots organization trying to do exactly what I was suggesting: weaponize the pain felt by the survivors of victims of gun violence and use it against the entrenched and lucrative macho gun fantasy that thwarts any kind of commonsense action on the topic. 
       That's the beauty of the blog: it can add an asterisk where need be. Although, that said, the overwhelming reaction of readers was gratitude to read something at all hopeful about our current political state. So to the degree that my omissions might have reinforced the sense—or should that be "illusion"?—of hope, I suppose it was not an entirely bad thing.