Saturday, January 20, 2018

1990sFest: Day One—"Nose for news nets a piercing interview"

     I'm on vacation. As much as part of me wants to leave this space blank for the next week, to show that I can, enough people start their days here that I don't want to disappoint anybody.
    I don't know when I'll be able to vet comments and, alas, can't leave them unmonitored. Please be patient and I'll get them up as soon as possible. 
    This week marks my 22nd year as a columnist at the Sun-Times, and I thought I would reach back to the first couple years, to the foreign shore of the second half of the 1990s, and revisit some chestnuts from the day. I've tried to pick posts that hold their interest, such as this foray into kink.  Notice the rather prescient observation about Dennis Rodman. At the time he was considered a freak; now half the players in the NBA have body art very much like his.

     Some readers may doubt my motives in attending a lecture entitled "Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power." Honestly, I wasn't out for a thrill.
     I had a question in mind. I wanted to know something. I figured that Valerie Steele, a New York cultural historian speaking on that topic last week at the School of the Art Institute, just might be able to answer it.
     I hoped to have nose jewelry explained to me. I live in a neighborhood where, more and more, young people parade about with metallic ornaments dangling from their nostrils.
     Nasal decorations mystify and disturb me—not simply because I find them ugly. But because of my reaction. No matter how many times I've seen them, my brain still goes through the same three-step cognition process: 1) Hey, that girl has a booger hanging out of her nose; 2) No, wait, it's metallic; c) Oh, it's a nose bauble.
     I worry this is a sign of old age—that, at 35, my mind has seized up, and is no longer nimble enough to accept such an innocuous change. Why should a gold sphere worn at the nostril be viewed as any less attractive than one worn in the ear lobe? They're big in India. Why can't I accustom myself to what has to be, at least for some, a fetching fashion?
     Steele didn't say much about nose baubles. She focused instead on the spike heels, leather outfits and rubber unmentionables standard to the fetish underworld, showing how, via high fashion and icons such as Madonna, the marginal has quickly filtered into the mainstream.
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel
   "For the past 30 years, playful incorporation of fetishism into popular culture has been a growing trend," said Steele.
     She traced the bondage-at-Bloomingdales phenomenon to Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in the 1960s TV show "The Avengers." Mrs. Peel was "crucial" to the emergence of fetishism into pop culture, Dr. Steele said, showing how Peel's skintight cat suit was taken from an English bondage uniform. "The television producers thought the full-face mask was too kinky, so they lopped that off," Steele added.
     I imagine Steele's lecture 20 years from now will include a slide of Dennis Rodman, in full tattoo and regalia, along with an explanation of how Rodman was a pioneer of the body decoration that no self-respecting member of the class of '16 will be without. Rodman is an amazing figure, when you consider how unimaginable he would be in professional sport even 10 years ago. What today strikes us as weirdness might someday be seen as vision and guts.
     Steele showed a slide of a turn-of-the-century Viennese fetish shoe whose 11-inch heel was not meant for walking, but for . . . well, for something else. She explained how the important thing was not so much the shoe, itself, but the meaning given to the shoe.
     "A fetish is a story masquerading as an object," she said. "This shoe symbolizes a story, a fantasy."
     Steele didn't intend it, but I think her comment also explains the fantastic prices being paid for the flotsam and jetsam of Camelot at the Jackie Onassis auction in New York. Both are using an object to reach toward an unattainable fantasy.
     Afterward, I asked Steele if she saw a connection.
     "It's not a sexual fetish but it is a fetish," she said. "Clearly, the overvaluation and ritualization of objects that evoke the Kennedys. They touched these things. He sat on that chair. He used that golf club. It's like a relic of the saints."
     About 75 people attended the lecture, mostly students from Gillion Skellenger-Carrara's class, "The Art of 20th Century Dress." Among them was Rachel Parker, who sported six piercings in each ear, two nostril posts, two nostril rings, a chin ball, a tongue barbell, pierced nipples, two tattoos and a few ritual scarifications, plus long hair dyed a vibrant orange and green.
     Here, I thought, is the person to explain nose decoration to me, and indeed she was astoundingly candid, pulling down the front of her black sweater to show off the scarification on her left breast, which she administered herself with a razor.
     "I know I won't regret anything I've done," said Parker, 21. She said that while she started scarring herself at 14 as "a way to hurt myself, an escape," now she has been decorating her body for so long that it has become part of her identity. "It's not like I have a choice. This is the way I am."
     Ironically, Parker does not approve of nose festoonery, nor pierced belly buttons, nor any popular embrace of the adornments that set her apart. She sees it as an assault on her dignity by upstarts.
     "I find it annoying," she said. "It's a trend. Trends fade and go away, and I'll have a really big party when that happens. It can't go on much longer."
     I hope not. I walked away thinking how odd it is, that both of us -- this young girl with the pale blue eyes, pretty under all that metalwork, and myself, 35, unpierced, untattooed but plenty bewildered -- can't wait for society to proceed in exactly the same direction.
       —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 28, 1996

Friday, January 19, 2018

Pritzker joins scary bogeymen Capone, Blago and Madigan

     The Bulls played Golden State Wednesday night. A good game, where what is supposed to be a building-year, hope-for-a-top-draft-pick-and-better-days team gave the world champions a run for their money, particularly that flurry at the end of the first quarter, putting the good guys ahead, 40-38.
     For a moment, victory seemed possible.
     But doing well for a spell is not the same as winning. Not only did my wife and I have to sit through the painful third quarter Bulls meltdown, but the first two of what will be endless reiterations of a black and white Bruce Rauner commercial casting J.B. Pritzker as some kind of nefarious underworld figure, part Al Capone, part Tony Accardo, caught in an FBI wiretap conspiring online with incarcerated felon Rod Blagojevich.The ad is a masterpiece of the dark arts. Soon downstaters will be muttering "Pritzker" as the embodiment of all that is sleazy, the way they invoke the name "Madigan" with a shudder of disgust, as if he sat at the right hand of Satan, controlling all (which, alas, is not far from the truth).
     I'm a naif when it comes to politics. The whole process confuses me. I can't offer the foggiest guess why Bruce Rauner would run for office again. His plan was to become the Illinois Scott Walker — a beloved and successful champion of the triumphant right, sticking it to those union bosses, opening the state to 21st century thread factories. But instead, after three years spinning his wheels in a ditch, he's our C. Montgomery Burns, enemy of children and the handicapped, the least popular man to call himself "governor" since Herod.
     The Democratic candidates, well, what can I say that isn't obvious? J.B. Pritzker, having cannily birthed himself to a family of vast fortune, has spent $42 million toward attaining what would be, in essence, the most expensive internship ever.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

This year I'm on the next Treadmill out of Fatville

From "Janine" by Clarity Haynes (National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.)

     You never know which column is going to resonate in someone's life. Last week I got an email from a reader, Brian Sirois:
I’m writing my bio for a new website and I’d like to include a link to the article you wrote on Jan 5, 2003 entitled “This year I’m on the Next Treadmill out of Fatville”…That article, which still hangs on my fridge, served as inspiration to turn my own health around. So much so, that 10 years later I switched careers and became a fitness instructor. I stopped chasing big paychecks and started chasing my new-found passion for fitness and helping others...Is it possible to include a link?
     As it turned out, it wasn't. The paper's archive isn't online, for reasons mysterious. Not only is it not online, but whatever librarians we had at the time never migrated it to Nexis. So it is utterly gone. I might have it in a paper file somewhere in the basement...
      Before I went down to look, I asked Brian if he'd scan the column on his fridge and send it to me. He did, and I typed it in—I try to be a full-service columnist.
     I was struck by the candor of the thing. Not a lot of pulling punches. The diet didn't work in 2003. Or 2004. In 2005 I would stop drinking, which helps a lot when it comes to dieting. But even then I needed to be diagnosed with sleep apnea before I shed 30 pounds in 2009 and kept it off in the eight years since. Nothing like being unable to breath at night to serve as an inspiration.
     Anyway, here is the column that Brian wanted to link to on his site. I hope it continues to be inspiring to people. It contains some blunt assessments on fat that might be considered fat-shaming, today, but wasn't then. Nor do I consider it so now—a person is entitled to his own perspective on the desirability of being obese—and if you believe differently, well, that's what the comments section is fo

     No sooner had I taken off my coat, pulled up the Venetian blinds, settled in front of my desk and began wondering what to do first to start off this brave new year of 2003 then the phone rang.
     It was a magazine reporter and he had a question: Aren't New Year's resolutions a joke? This whole idea of arbitrary beginnings and fresh starts: Isn't it somehow ridiculous. There was a smile in his voice.
     This is what's called in the profession "trolling the bait." It was an invitation to me to lean back in my chair, turn one palm toward the ceiling and craft a witty agreement, mocking all those painfully sincere vows, all those dopes who believe—tee hee!—who really believe that, with a click of the calendar and a gust of will, they can suddenly become the sort of person they aren't now and probably never have been, but would like to be. To his surprise, and mine, I didn't bite.
     "Actually," I said, "I take this entire New Year, new leaf thing pretty seriously. I diet. I go on the wagon and try to pull myself together. Sorry."
     We shifted to another subject—he wasn't interested in my disagreement; you don't tend to include counter-arguments in that sort of story.
     After I hung up, I was struck by my seriousness this year. I have to be. Never slim to begin with, 2002 was, as Queen Elizabeth would say, my annus horribilis,which is not Latin for my gigantic ass, but the only thing to call a year when you—OK, me—suddenly gain 20 pounds.
     Well, not suddenly. It only seemed that way. One moment I was cruising along near 200, as I had been for years, and suddenly I was 224.
     At least I'm not alone. As I bought a scale last week and learned the awful truth, a men's athletic magazine listed the fattest cities in America. There was Chicago, No. 2, right after Houston, of all places.
     The general media impulse was to milk the Chicago, City of Broad Backsides news for yucks. Red Streak, the training wheels version of this paper, wrote a mocking—albeit creative—front-page article taking a scrappy "wait-till-next-year" view, with weight-gaining tips and taunts for Houston. The headline was, "Hey, Chicago, feed your face."
     Not me. I took the arrival of the New Year as an unexpected rescue rope, tossed to me by the same indifferent society that sells Krispy Kremes and Sam Adams beer. I'm getting off this bus even if I have to eat less and exercise to do it (there is a third vital element, often forgotten, that I'm keeping in mind: Eat less and exercise over a protracted period).
     "Hey, Chicago, feed your face." That was written by a thin person. A fat person knows that fatness is a personal tragedy. It is ugly, unhealthful and a personal shame that you only need pass a reflective surface to have pop up, unexpectedly, to wave and chirp, "Hey, remember me?"
     This may sound harsh, particularly in a nation (and city) growing fatter by the minute. I am aware that there are some people, many people, who have been so fat for so long and tried so hard to do something about it that, like longtime residents of Milwaukee, they finally sighed and gave up and told themselves that, heck, this isn't so bad. Maybe the problem isn't them. Maybe they're beautiful. Maybe the problem is a crass and craven society that adores thinness above all.
     That might make you feel better, just as a pack of Sno-Balls might make you feel better, but that doesn't make it so. It wasn't a crass and craven society that left me gasping for breath after racing my boys around the house a few times. That's fat, and I wouldn't even have the gumption to admit it in the newspaper if it wasn't coming off, this year, and staying off forever. I may sound foolishly certain, but foolish certainty is where I'm putting my chips down and keep them.
     That's the beauty of resolutions and a new year. It forces you to pause and look at yourself—rather like buying slacks, really. It hands you an opportunity to shuck off your old life and try to be different.
     It worked for me last year. I was discipline itself, for the month of January, lost 13 pounds, and was so pleased with myself that, mistaking progress for success, I dropped my guard and shot back up and more.
     That's what fatness is. It's dropping your guard, a guard that, sadly, because of 100,000 years of genetics trained to jump through the hoops of austerity, has to be kept up by a big portion of the population.
     Yes, at one level, the magazine reporter is absolutely right—the idea of a new start is somewhat delusional. I am the same weak vessel today that I was Tuesday night, guzzling Moet & Chandon and gobbling little hot dogs wrapped in dough. I did not, as I told myself, setting down the champagne at the stroke of midnight, morph into an iron-willed creature of self-discipline and clean living.
     But I wanted to. I don't know about you, but I get so tired of myself. (Maybe you get tired of me , too—I get letters—but at least you can turn the page. Me, I'm stuck). I'm tired of being lardboy. Of wondering as I pause to drive my hand up to the wrist in one of the bowls of candy that my colleagues try to keep filled on their desks, despite my presence, whether they notice me stopping by to load up. Of course they do. Bear that in mind, if the New Year isn't inspiration enough, to those of us who need to lose 40 or 60 pounds, remember this: They notice. Everybody notices. The muu-muu is not slimming. Your wife does indeed mind. You're fat. Deal with it. If I can do it, anyone can.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

'Enthusiasm for Trump hasn't diminished one bit' downstate

Chuck Griswold, as mayor of Fairfield in 2017, chairing a Rotary meeting.

     Saturday is the first anniversary of the inauguration of Donald Trump.
     Since my views on his administration should be familiar to the careful reader, I thought I'd mark the occasion by looking beyond myself.
     If you list Illinois' 102 counties by how they voted in the 2016 presidential election, at one end is Cook County, which voted 74.4 percent for Hillary Clinton. On the other, Wayne County, 275 miles due south, voted 84.3 percent for Trump.
     You might recall that one year ago I visited Fairfield, population 5,000, the Wayne County seat. It was pleasant and informative. In getting to know a small, tight-knit community, I met the mayor, the newspaper publisher, the bank president, the police chief. They were pretty much of one mind.
     "It's kinda nice having a nonpolitician running the country," said one retiree having his early-morning coffee at the Barb Wire Grill on Main Street.
     One year on, has anything changed? How do they assess the Trump presidency so far? Still kinda nice?
     "Most people I know haven't really changed their opinion of Trump yet," said L. Bryan Williams, who owns an insurance company. "He says a lot of cringe-worthy things that some of us wish he wouldn't. But, by and large, we're judging things by what we're seeing regarding unemployment dropping, the price of oil is higher, more job opportunities throughout America — sadly none to Wayne County yet."
     The price of oil being higher is a good thing around Fairfield.
     "That's important to us," Williams said. "A lot of people here work in the oil and gas business."

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A window in Paris

Hotel des Grandes Ecoles

     The bottomless idiocy of the top three forehead slapping aspects of the latest twirl-the-nation's-guts-on-a-stick moment of the eternal Trump hall-of-mirrors nightmare can best illustrated by ...
     Aw, fuck it.
     I was reading Trump's tweet blaming "Dicky Durbin" for scuttling the chances of a bill to save his own DACA program, when I stopped, and thought: enough. No mas. At least for today.
     Last spring I had the enviable task for finding a good hotel in Paris. I was hampered by the fact that I didn't have a lot of money to spend—two boys at private schools, one of them spending his spring semester at the Pantheon Sorbonne, which explained the trip to Paris. I justified it by pointing out that we were so far into hock at this point that a little more wouldn't matter.
     Luckily, I knew just where to look to find a deal. I visited Messy Nessy Chic, the wonderfully off-beat and stylish Parisian blog run by British ex-pat Vanessa Grail.
     Sure enough,  there was the Messy Nessy Chic Paris Hotel Guide, where one hotel stood out: the Hotel des Grand Ecoles—literally, "Hotel of the Great Schools." In an old convent school at 75 rue Cardinal Lemoine. An easy stroll to the Sorbonne. Right by Rue Mouffetard with its bakeries and butchers.
    "Romantic, beautiful and homey," MNC summarized. 
     You tell me if they exaggerated. Here is the view from our bedroom window.
    I will be honest. Printing this picture is the entire purpose of the post. The rest are just words, filler to explain and justify. The iron rail. In the foreground, the gorgeous purple flowering redbud. In the background, white-barked birches. 
     I didn't spend an awful lot of time gazing out of the window, true. Not with Paris waiting to be explored. Just enough to breath in the day in the morning. But on our way out I did have the presence of mind to snap this photograph. It really looks more like a stage set than something real. But it was real.
    So I guess that's your task for today. It's snowy in Chicago, but not as cold as of late, and I'm sure there is snow-covered beauty aplenty out there to be seen, to be appreciated. Pause and look at it. This too is life.  
     I bought no souvenirs on my trip—well, a shoehorn in a leather shop in Florence because my wife insisted I buy something. A postcard of the painting of Dante in the Duomo. But otherwise the trip was too memorable to require tchotchkes. I carry the trip with me in its own pocket of memory, and pull it out when our American ordeal just seems too much. I'm not there now, but I was there, not so long ago.
     The yammering yam in Washington won't go away a second sooner because we spent his entire administration continually howling in justified shock at his endless string of corrosive wrongness. But that can't be good for the health of people who are sensitive to the rights and wrongs, the beauties and ugliness of the world. Evil can be like a spotlight—it'll blind you if you stare into it too long. I was really, really glad I took those two weeks, met our son in Rome, went to Florence and Venice and, finally Paris. Really, really glad my wife and I got the best baguette ever pulled from an oven and pulled chunks of it from a white paper bag as we walked to the Metro station. Really, really glad I have the memories and photographs to remind myself of it. I'll think about that baguette on my deathbed.
    Donald Trump is a racist. He is a bad man, surrounded by weaklings and cowards and supported by those who have stuck their heads so far up their asses that no light can reach their eyes. I heard from a bunch of them Monday, their bleats of anger and confusion echoing across my spam file. That's the situation yesterday, and today, and tomorrow. But don't let it bring you down. The good is still there too. It may be removed from us in time and space, but it exists somewhere now, and we can recall it whenever we like. 



Monday, January 15, 2018

King's lofty words ring hollow on his day in 2018

      "I have a dream," Martin Luther King Jr. told that enormous crowd at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, "that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character ...."
     No. King's soaring words ring hollow this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018. In an America squirming under a president elected on a platform of barely concealed bigotry. With a president who, last Thursday, stood in the Oval Office and obscenely demanded our country accept fewer immigrants from black- and brown-majority countries and more from white ones, King's dream of tolerance seems as far away as ever.
     What did King do? What victory did he achieve? Won the right of black people to dine at luncheonettes that aren't in business anymore? To ride at the front of rickety buses bouncing along broken up roads in America's dying cities?
     Prejudice is like water. It finds a way. Blocked from one path, it pushes to another. If your faith doesn't permit you to keep blacks from sitting in your restaurant — a legal argument used in King's time — then maybe it allows you to refuse to bake a cake for gay weddings.
     That doesn't seem much improvement in half a century. The 50-year anniversary of King's assassination, America's reward for his struggle to lead our nation away from hatred, is April 4. Expect more lofty words echoing against deaf ears, sliding unfelt through hardened hearts.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

How many Poles does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Cell, by Judith Glickman Lauder, Metropolitan Museum of Art
    "How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" 
     I only remember the set-up, not the punchline. I was a child in the western suburbs of Cleveland, and the first version of the old joke I heard was directed toward the residents of Parma, whom we in tonier Berea considered ourselves better than because their dads wore white socks and blue work shirts with their names—invariably ending in "-ski"—embroidered over the chest and worked at the Ford plant or as janitors, while ours wore white shirts and black ties and worked in offices. 
     Except of course for my best friend Ricky, whose dad was a fireman, and Danny, whose father was a janitor at the hospital, yet wasn't in the same category as those Parma janitors.
      The joke wasn't phrased exactly like that. I believe we said, "How many Polacks  does it take to screw in a lightbulb" at a time when such bigotry went unchallenged. We had no trouble saying it because we believed, based on no personal experience, that Poles were dumb, would trouble with that lightbulb, along with other woes. Every joke with a dumb guy in it was about a Pole. 
     And here's the kicker: we were Polish.
     Partially Polish, anyway. My grandfather was born on a farm in Bialystok in 1907, my grandmothers in that great muddied zone of Austro-Hungary. My father's father claimed to be born in the Bronx, but who could tell? In essence the same place. 
     Of course many if not most Poles wouldn't consider us Polish at all, our being Jews. But that's a separate column. The point is, we were sneering at people very close to ourselves, for qualities of unsophistication that we ourselves possessed. My grandfather wore white socks. He slicked what hair he had and worked in a factory, Accurate Parts Manufacturing, in Cleveland. I'd never dare call him a Polack.
     Why were we this way? Immaturity? We were children, remember. It isn't something my parents would join in. Insecurity? The joy of being mean to people. To look down the ladder of society and feel the comforting hope that there was someone lower than ourselves.
     So it isn't that Donald Trump invented baseless bigotry, invented tribalism. We all suffer from it. But we also grow out of it. Most of us do. The only time I would use the world "Polack" now is with pride, describing myself, and even then I feel like I'm putting on airs. 
     We don't expect this kind of bigotry in our leaders. No publicly anyway. Not unashamed. Thus the shriek of outrage that greeted Thursday's "shithole countries" comment was more one of the horror of The Thing Out of Place. The orange in your hand opening a single cyclopian eye and staring at you. The walls bleeding. The president of the United States, too ignorant and arrogant to be ashamed, letting his schoolyard bigotry out to dry in the Oval Office, the yellowed undies of his hateful psyche flapping in the wind for all to see.  
     His die hard supporters let out a cheer—goll-damn, maybe they can let their cramped little hatreds out of the box to stretch their legs too! They hate living in an American ruined by black people, Hispanic people, Muslim people, fill in the blank.  
      It isn't that this hatred is so foreign. Just the opposite: it's so familiar, like a trail of toilet paper stuck to the shoe of some glamorous actress on the red carpet. We know what that is. We just don't expect to see it there.
     Familiar, yet still a shock, the way knowing Donny is a bully is one thing, and seeing him pound the shit out of some smaller kid on the playground quite something else. Because real people are being hurt. Donald Trump and his supporters are setting immigration policy for years to come. His judges will decide important cases. People are going to die in war zones around the world who might have found refuge in the United States. People like my grandfather and maybe yours, certainly millions more. 
     The thing with Trump is, we can get worked up as we like. We can vent on Facebook, shake our fists at heaven, demand impeachment now. Next morning, the man's still president. The smoke clears and the Terminator is unharmed. All we can do then is work on ourselves, and admit, the prejudice that so disgusts us is not as alien as we like to pretend. It certainly isn't unique to the president who, always remember, is not a cause but a symptom.