Thursday, May 25, 2017

Trumpet the good news, mutter the bad

     Listen to Pat Gengler, spokesman for the Kane County Sheriff's Office, telling CNN on May 13 how a SWAT team took down Tywon Salters after he grabbed a correctional officer's gun and took a pair of nurses hostage at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, and you'd think the operation was a textbook example of police efficiency.
     "The officer was able to get away," Gengler said of what happened after Salters took a 9 mm handgun away from Officer Shawn Loomis. "The SWAT team made a decision to make entry into the room. One of the SWAT team operators did discharge his firearm, striking the inmate and killing him."
     Nothing about Loomis possibly hiding in a hospital room after losing his weapon.
     Nothing about Loomis perhaps failing to alert anybody that there was an armed felon on the loose.
     And absolutely nothing about a nurse hostage being shot by the SWAT team — or possibly being raped during the three hours law enforcement was trying to figure out what to do.
     To learn that, you have to read a lawsuit filed against the Kane County Sheriff's Office, Loomis, in particular, and Apex3 Security, the company that's supposed to provide security in the hospital.
     That lawsuit, filed Thursday, makes alarming reading.

     To continue reading, click here.

Del Close: In the midst of tragedy, the possibility of laughter

"Slaughter of the Innocents," The Vatican Museum

     Last week I went to the opening of the American Writers Museum, which I appreciated more than expected. They have a Hall of Fame, of sorts, of Chicago writers, cleverly presented on moveable banners so they can add and subtract as circumstances dictate. I noticed—with a mix of satisfaction and unease—that I had met a full half dozen of the iconic writers showcased: Mike Royko, Anne Landers, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Roger Ebert and Del Close. Quite a lot really. I hadn't thought of Close in a while—I spoke with him at the wake Bill Murray threw at his hospital the night before Close killed himself, and saw him on the stage as Polonius in Robert Falls' "Hamlet." I glanced at the obituary I wrote for Close in 1999, and thought it might be suitable for this grim, terror-tainted week. We should not of course laugh at the individual victims of specific tragedies. But certainly must laugh at the general tragedy of the human condition, one where insane religious fanatics commit atrocities against children, trying to lure good people into accepting the hatreds which so define and limit their lives. We are supposed to be terrified—I would say being bitterly amused at the ultimate futility of their efforts might be a far more valid reaction.
Del Close

     In the famous Second City comedy sketch taking place at the funeral of a man who died by jamming his head into a gallon can of baked beans, that detail—to make the cause of death a big can of Van Camp's pork and beans—was provided by Del Close, whose morbid, risky brand of dark comedy formed generations of American comedians.
     Mr. Close—teacher, actor, director, pagan, junkie, occasional lunatic and fierce iconoclastic spirit behind Chicago's beloved comedy troupe, as well as friend and mentor to its biggest stars—died of complications from emphysema Thursday at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He was 64.
     "There is something irresistibly funny about a funeral," he once said. "More basically, I think the point is that beyond the deepest tragedy, there is laughter. Even in the midst of tragedy, there is always the possibility for it."
     Mr. Close acted not only in troupe comedy but in serious dramas. He was acclaimed as Polonius in the Robert Falls' landmark "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge and appeared in several motion pictures, including "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
     His death came the day after about 50 of his friends feted Mr. Close as he sat in a wheelchair in a basement room of the hospital.
     He was "an amazingly intricate human being," said Second City producer Kelly Leonard. "Notoriously prickly, tremendously warm and very funny," he specialized in humor that's "dark and subversive," Leonard said.
     Mr. Close grew up in Manhattan, Kan. He was a second cousin of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ike once showed up at a Close family Thanksgiving in the years before he became president. Mr. Close ran away from home as a teenager, getting his first taste of show business as an assistant in a cheesy bit of vaudeville called Dr. Dracula's Tomb of Terror.
     He attended Kansas State College on a bass drum scholarship and was a classmate of James Dean's. He auditioned in 1957 for the St. Louis branch of the Compass Players, the precursor of Second City.
     Mr. Close was part of the original St. Louis cast, performing in the Crystal Palace. The cast moved to Chicago to become Second City, but Mr. Close went to New York, becoming a stand-up comic in the company of people such as Lenny Bruce. After taking in a Bruce show with Second City founding director Paul Sills, Sills reportedly said to Mr. Close, "If you can ever find out what Lenny is taking, by all means do it."
     What Bruce was taking was heroin, and Mr. Close followed Sills' advice to a fault. He not only became a heroin addict; he was proud of it.
     "He relished his narcotic past," Bob Woodward wrote of Mr. Close. "He wore his track marks from the needles like a badge of honor."
     Mr. Close appeared off-Broadway in a musical, "The Nervous Set," in 1959. But an arrest for marijuana possession cost Mr. Close his cabaret card, and, unable to perform in New York nightclubs, he returned to Chicago, where he joined Second City, sharing directing duties with Bernie Sahlins.
     Mr. Close began performing in the cast of Second City in 1962. It was not a placid relationship, and Mr. Close was plagued by his drinking, drug addiction and emotional problems, which sometimes required institutionalization.
     "Sheldon Patinkin, who wasn't yet the Second City director, used to pick me up at the loony bin and drive me to the theater, where I'd do my thing. Then he'd drive me back to the loony bin where I'd spend another day," he said in 1972. Sahlins said that he, too, used to pick Mr. Close up at a mental hospital so he could perform.
     Mr. Close was fired in 1965. "I deserved it," he later said. "I was always getting loaded, quite frankly."
     He moved to San Francisco, where he took small acting roles. He appeared in "Beware the Blob," being eaten along with Burgess Meredith, and in episodes of "Get Smart" and "My Mother the Car."
     Mr. Close hung out with the Grateful Dead. He ran the light shows at 1967 concerts as the group's "optical percussionist."
     He returned to Chicago in 1972 and directed Second City reviews consistently for the next decade, becoming close with stars such as John Belushi, whose talent he nurtured and formed.
     "He was particularly good with the new generation of Vietnam rebels—John Belushi, Harold Ramis, those people," Sahlins said. "He was a rebel, definitely a product of what we used to call the hippie generation. . . . He had an unusual capacity for leading young people, not always down the straight path. He was an inspiring director and teacher, even if sometimes the content was not acceptable."
     Belushi was particularly affected by Mr. Close, both professionally and personally.
     "I like the man's style," Belushi said of his mentor in 1978. "He can create with you, unlike so many other directors. He can motivate people. He's been my biggest influence in comedy."
     Mr. Close's first-floor Wells Street apartment, across from Second City, was also a convenient spot for Belushi, himself an addict, to shoot up. It was only after Belushi's death by drug overdose in 1982 that Mr. Close was able to shake his drug habit.
     He was let go, again, from Second City in 1983, and took his comedy workshops to CrossCurrents, then to the fledging ImprovOlympic, where he helped develop its signature piece, "The Harold," a framework combining audience suggestions into skits that end up working together.
     Mr. Close returned to Second City in 1988 to direct "The Gods Must Be Lazy," bringing in his ImprovOlympic standouts Chris Farley, Tim Meadows and Joel Murray. Critics credit Second City's current renaissance to the mid-'90s import of Mr. Close's acolytes from ImprovOlympic.
     He won three Jeff awards, a Chalmers award for directing Toronto's Second City, and a Charlie award for lifetime achievement from the American Association of Comedy Artists.
     "It's a grim business, this being funny," he said in 1975. "Every time you come up with a strong satiric idea, the world tops it. None of our reactionary military characters in the past decade could top the real-life line that came out of Vietnam: 'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.' "

                         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 5, 1999

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Barrel of Monkeys makes writing more fun

     Children want to talk. The third-graders in Mrs. Javor’s class at the Chalmers School of Excellence strain their twig arms toward the sky, fingers fluttering, desperate for permission to say what’s on their minds.
     They have the desire but, at 8 years old, can lack the communication skill to make themselves heard. When called upon, some speak in tiny voices, inaudible a yard away, their disjointed whispers trailing off.
     Enter a Barrel of Monkeys.
     “My friends, hello!” booms Mary Tilden, striding into Room 202 with four confederates: Alejandra Zavala, Marianna Green, Jo Jo Figarella and Barry Irving. “I’m so excited to see you.”
     The next 90 minutes are a whir of free-form storytelling boot camp, where students are led through fast-paced exercises that are part kiddie Stanislavski Method actor training, part junior Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The circus has left town

     Readers wondered why I had two columns in Monday's paper. One about federal judges helping ex-cons, which I posted yesterday. And this, about the final performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus performing for the final time Sunday night.
     The answer is simple enough. I wrote the federal judges column Friday (and a bit on Saturday, and again Sunday morning). Then Sunday night an editor asked if I might wax rhapsodic about the passing of the Greatest Show on Earth. Sure, why not?

     The elephants were important after all.
     A year after Feld Entertainment, owners of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, bowed to pressure from animal rights activists and retired their 40 performing pachyderms, a “dramatic” slump in ticket sales prompted the 146-year-old “Greatest Show on Earth” to announce in January that it was going out of business.
Which it did Sunday night, after one final show at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York.
     The wonder is it lasted this long.
     The death of the circus — the biggest, most famous American circus anyway — couldn’t have been just the elephants. High operating costs also did in the last circus to travel by train as smaller, nimbler, more innovative shows, such as Cirque du Soleil, gobbled up audience dollars without having to worry about feeding lions, tigers and bears.
     And an audience that could fight alien monsters or dogfight in spaceships or have almost any adventure imaginable while sitting on their living room sofa and jiggling a joystick didn’t need to go to the circus. The circus came to them.

To continue reading, click here.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Federal judges lend helping hand to ex-cons

Federal Judge Sara L. Ellis, from left, Judge Susan E. Cox and Jennifer Colanese, a U.S. probation officer, review cases at a meeting of the intensive supervised re-entry program run by the U.S. District Court in Chicago. The program is designed to help ex-cons stay out of prison. 

     “How do you deal with life when it’s going well?” asked Judge Sara L. Ellis, airing the dilemma of one ex-con adapting to life on the outside. “There was a reduction in the chaos of his life that made him very uncomfortable.”
     She was addressing three fellow federal judges — Susan E. Cox, Sidney Schenkier and Chief Judge Ruben Castillo — plus three probation officers, two assistant U.S. attorneys, two federal defenders, and one drug treatment specialist.
     It was 9 a.m. Thursday. The group sat around a long table in Castillo’s spacious chambers on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building. The beginning of an extraordinary morning where, every two weeks, the vast, overcrowded, harried, understaffed, often-indifferent, reflexively punitive American legal system pauses for a few hours to turn careful attention to, on this day, 11 long-incarcerated ex-cons — armed robbers, drug dealers — who put their post-prison lives under the supervision of four federal judges.
     The group trades mundane minutia of fractured lives coming together.
     “But he has been writing his poetry . . . .”
     “Have him attend 30 meetings in 30 days . . . .”
     “He did attend counseling this month, group and individual . . . .”
     “He was supposed to meet with me, but didn’t show . . . .”

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Clothes make the man"

     As I mentioned a few years back, I spent a summer learning Latin with my older boy. One of the phrases ground into my mind, vestis virum reddit, was memorable because it was particularly difficult -- you trill "R"s Latin, as in Russian, and I've always struggled to get my mouth around that. 
     It was also a useful phrase, meaning, "clothes make the man." Though it seems no longer true nowadays, as workers troop downtown in flip flops and cargo shorts and the president wears the same tie, held in place with Scotch tape. Maybe it should be pecunia virum reddit, or "money makes the man." 
     But then there is no need to create a new aphorism, as there is already a very suitable line in Petronius' Satyricon, "sola pecunia regnat"—"money alone rules." That's all too true today.
     Getting back to clothes. vestis virum reddit — the "v" is pronounced like a "w," by the way: "westus wirum" — is s a medieval proverb. Erasamus put into Quintilian's mouth,* and many sources cite him. Even though what Quintilian actually writes, "To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority" referring, scholars believe, to a vague line in the Odyssey that doesn't mention clothes at all.
     A reminder that history tends to improve upon aphorisms. Leo Durocher didn't say, "Nice guys finish last." He ranted about nice guys ending up in seventh place and helpful sports writers did the rest.  
    I recount this because the New York Times web site on Saturday offered content "Paid for and Posted by" Will, a new TNT series, or rather whatever PR sorts TNT hired to cobble together "Turns of Phrase," a colorful, flashy, but flawed collection of seven "phrases that first appeared in Shakespeare's works and continue to resonate in modern times." 
     The third phrase is "Clothes make the man," which is odd, because the phrase neither appears in Shakespeare nor resonates in modern times. The line the PR puffery cites is "the apparel oft proclaims the man," in Hamlet, noting it was considered ironic even then.  
     An advertisement, I know. No point in complaining to the Times, which didn't write it, and TNT obviously doesn't care—their point is to publicize their TV show, which they've done, and in that sense, since their error sparked that, all's the better. Even wrong, it's high-intellect for a TV show ad.
     So why think about it at all? The piece is ultimately inoffensive, I suppose, and credit should be given for the various barbs it takes at a certain president. But that president is known for his casual relationship with truth. And there is something unsettling about sniping at a man while committing the very sin he so manifests. Untruths must be pointed out, or else truth suffers—I just wrote that, but would never claim that it isn't also tucked into some Loeb Classic somewhere without looking good and hard for it. I just figure someone who cares for facts should note the Grey Lady taking money and promoting poor scholarship. The media isn't valuable because it is never wrong; the media is valuable because it acknowledges when it is wrong, and if the Times won't, I will do it for them. 

* According to the very useful "The Adages of Erasmus" edited by William Barker (University of Toronto Press: 2001)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     At first I thought this might be unfair. An older man against a dark background. How could anyone figure out a location from that? Even King Dale. 
    But someone might be familiar. He isn't a famous man, but he has been in the press. And it's more of a thinking puzzle. In order to get the gears turning, though, I need to give a clue. Here it is: the man isn't real. 
    Well, he is real somewhere. But he wasn't really in front of me when I took his picture. Does that help? No? Good.
    Let the fun begin. You don't have to name the guy, just where I saw him, or an image of him. The winner gets one of my way-cool "Don't Give Up the Ship" flags, expressing a sentiment more necessary than ever as Donald Trump's America unfolds in day after I-can't-fucking-believe-this-is-happening day. Place your guesses below. Good luck.