Monday, June 18, 2018

Run Stormy run! A porn star for president? Why not? We've had worse.

"The Scream" (detail) by Edvard Munch (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "Should I run for president?" Stormy Daniels asked the Tribune over the weekend, during her sweep into Chicago to perform at the Admiral Theatre strip club.
     Daniels, in case you are fortunate enough not to already be vastly familiar with every detail of her lubricious life, is the adult film star who ... "had an affair" is the euphemism du jour, but that overstates the case. This isn't exactly "Anna Karenina" we're talking about, is it? The pneumatic porn princess who scre... whoops, family newspaper ... who had sex a dozen years ago with Donald Trump.
     "God no!" was my immediate reaction—something of a mantra at this point. Nearly 18 months into the Trump presidency, Democrats have descended into the curl-up-in-a-fetal-position-and-screech-"No!" phase of our torment under the daily, if not hourly lash of lies, accusations and lurching departures from tradition and humanity, all in a monsoon downpour of Republican malice.
     Last week's summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un seems a hundred years ago, as outcry builds against the children of asylum seekers—and this is a country built, remember, by asylum seekers—being stripped from their parents and herded into makeshift detention camps, part of a policy of cruelty designed to keep refugees from seeking shelter at our borders. The horror and shame of this situation is ...
     Maybe I'm being hasty, dismissing the prospect of a Stormy Daniels presidency. It could happen. She is a Republican. And if nothing else, Republicans have established that they will not only tolerate, but celebrate, well, just about anything, provided it is done by a fellow Republican, particularly one named Trump. Explode the national debt? Check. Scuttle health care? Double check. Embrace a shunned global pariah and declare his vague general assurances as hard-won, binding commitments? Please sir may I have another! The aforementioned human rights atrocity at the border? Well, if it discourages immigration.... (So would burning the children alive in front of their parents. Maybe that's coming. And if you huffily insist that's impossible, remember "impossible" now happens daily at 4 o'clock. So you'd better come up with a better retort.)

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The play's the thing....

     Every now and then, a reader writes in and uses a certain inappropriate word, such as this compliment, received Saturday:
     "Once again a spot on editorial ..."
     Never do I archly observe that editorials are the unsigned expressions of the newspaper's collective opinion, producing by the editorial board and running on the editorial pages. What I write are "columns." The photo and the name are dead giveaways.
     Ditto for when people refer to my non-fiction books as "novels." 
     I don't write that because someone who doesn't grasp that not-so-fine point of writing is either new to the realm, or not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and either way probably would not benefit from a lecture.  
     Instead I try to just use the word properly in my response, "Thanks for your kind words about my column." 
     But sometimes, in different situations, correction does seem in order. Particularly when you know the person—or organization, he said, in a bit of foreshadowing—involved. If you respect someone, you are obligated to set them straight.
     I obviously respect the Goodman Theatre. I've been going to their plays since they were in the basement of The Art Institute. I respect the actors and directors involved. I know the publicity staff. They not only offer a steady stream of the classics that I crave, but new stuff, such as "Father Comes Home from the Wars," written by Suzan-Lori Parks, which I'm tempted to say could hold up against anything Eugene O'Neill ever wrote except its funnier, it isn't five hours long, and nobody makes a speech about Schopenhauer.
     Heading into "Father Comes Home" earlier this month, I noticed, at the entrance to the Goodman's smaller Owen Theatre, the above line of five busts, with my main man Dante to the far left, by the door I was entering, along with a plaque. They've been there for years, but I never really registered them before, never paused to consider. I recognized the guy at the far end—Voltaire—but was unsure of the three in the middle. So I read the plaque. Here it is.
    Now, do you notice what I noticed, right away? Think about it a moment. 
     I'll give you a hint.
    "These busts of great playwrights..."
     Dante was not a playwright. He wrote an epic poem, The Divine Comedy. He wrote his early love poems with a sort of narrative glue holding them together, Vita Nova. And various letters sucking up to patrons and denouncing the speech of Florentines and such. 
    No plays. Not a one. Never. Mai, mai, mai, as the great man might say. 
     Tasso, Moliere, Sophocles and Voltaire, obviously wrote plays (well, in Toquato Tasso's case, not so obviously. He must have been a bigger deal in 1925, when theses busts were installed in the original Goodman. Unlike Dante, he did write a play, "Aminta,"    
    Though such is the authority of a plaque—you just don't expect them to valorize a blunder—that I kept nosing around the Internet, making sure that Dante didn't write a play that I just happened to never heard of, despite reading dozens of books about him. Frankly, it's worth it to be so spectacularly wrong to find out about Dante's play. But I don't think so.
     So what do I do with this observation? I suppose I could mention it, sotto voce, to my pals at the Goodman. But they'd just roll their eyes. (I did ask them if they'd ever heard a complaint about it before. Not to their knowledge...) 
     Nobody wants to replace a plaque.  Sometimes a bit of mild public scolding is just the thing. And to take the edge off it, I'll pay for the new plaque. Assuming it's comparable to this one, I'm not popping for bronze and lots of scrollwork. Just change "playwrights" to "writers" and, boom, we're good to go. 
     Although, heck, while we're at it, let's lose "Tasso." Nobody knows who Tasso is. He's a man with a beard. We'll call him "Aeschylus "and nobody will be the wiser. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

"A free soul in jail"

Eugene V. Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio, June 16, 1918

     The media notes the anniversary of every popular cookie and famous sporting event, and I'm as guilty as anyone. A trivial person, enamored with popular culture, a humorist at heart.
     But that doesn't mean I don't sympathize with those who stand up against the system, which did not suddenly become corrupt and self-dealing with the election of Donald Trump. Who is without question an outlier when it comes to falsity, spite and self-dealing, but who also shines a klieg light on how things have always been in the shadows.
     Today, June 16, 2018, could be spun a lot of way. It's Bloomsday, the day in 1904 when the entire plot of James Joyce's Ulysses transpires. It's also my younger son's 21st birthday.
     With that in mind, thanks to a heads up from my friends at Haymarket Books, I'd like to point out that today is the centennial of a speech by Eugene V. Debs in Canton, Ohio.
     If you remember Debs at all—and I'd imagine most don't—you think of him as a labor leader and socialist candidate who ran for president from jail in 1920. The reason he was in jail was the speech he made, 100 years ago today.
     It's a very long speech—you can read it here, or hear a dramatic four minutes read by actor Mark Ruffalo here

     Debs begins by explaining how he has to be very careful in expressing his beliefs, lest he end up in prison. But that he would try to do so in a way both honest to himself and within the law, but if he failed, Debs said, "I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward on the streets."
     A 'sycophant," in case the word is unfamiliar, describes the people crowding around Donald Trump, rolling at his feet like puppies.
     The key passage:
     Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war.      The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.
     They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people. And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both.
     They alone declare war and they alone make peace.
     Yours not to reason why;
     Yours but to do and die.
     I was familiar with those last two lines—I would guess many people are—without realizing where they came from.
     Debs didn't calibrate his words finely enough; he was arrested two weeks later, charged with 10 counts of sedition for this speech, and sentenced to prison for 10 years, a judgment unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. That's why he was in jail during the presidential election of 1920, running as Convict No. 9653, nevertheless receiving 3.4 percent of the vote, slightly better than un-jailed libertarian Gary Johnson did in the 2016 election.
     Woodrow Wilson refused to pardon Debs, writing, "While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them....This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration."

     Now we elected a traitor to our country president, eyes wide open.
     Warren G. Harding didn't pardon Debs, but commuted his sentence, to time served, on Christmas Day, 1921.
     A reminder to all those resisting our current president. Things are not as bad as they once were. Or as bad as they could be, and will be, if good people do not stand up, speak out, and do whatever they can for as long as necessary, the consequences be damned. This is not a new fight; it's the old fight in new clothes. Do not think that victory will be easily won, or won without cost, or without suffering.  That never has happened, nor can, nor will. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Zeppelins, monorails and, now, Rahm’s rich folks underground railroad

Elon Musk, left, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel discuss their big train plans beneath Block 37 on Thursday.

     The problem with Chicago is ...
     Nope, that's not right. "The problem" suggests there's just one, when of course there are many.
     Many, many problems.
     Start again.
     Among the problems facing Chicago...
     How you finish that sentence depends on who you are.
     I'm tempted to say that, among all our pressing problems, from schools to cops to pensions to crime to infrastructure, "You just can't get to O'Hare fast enough" qualifies for the list only if followed by "said no one ever."
     I go to O'Hare often, for work or pleasure. Usually, I admit, leaving early from the leafy suburban paradise, which means American Taxi does the deed for $31 plus tip.
     But if I'm downtown, catching an afternoon flight, I jump on the Blue line, pay $2.50. It lets me off inside O'Hare. Can't do better than that.
     Yes, it takes 40 minutes of my super-valuable time. Yet never did I — or, I would wager, anybody — ever think: "If only some South African billionaire would show up and offer to dig an underground tunnel to speed me to the airport at 100 miles per hour. That would shave half an hour off the trip."  

     No matter. Elon Musk has a new company — The Boring Company, a delightful name. And, out of the goodness of his heart, Musk is offering to spend $1 billion of his own money — well, of somebody's money — to put in the system, which will charge between $20 and $25 for the silent trip in a jumbo subterranean Tesla.
     Split the difference and say $22.50, or $20 more than the "L." Doing the math — which Tesla's investors have been doing more vigorously lately, now that the blush is going off the plans of the visionary businessman — those heading to the airport on the "L" instead of Musk's system would effectively be paid $40 an hour to check their iPhone on a train as opposed to doing so while sitting at Terminal 3. A pretty good deal for most people.
     In my 30 years at the Sun-Times I've seen my share of lofty schemes: circulator trams and monorails and floating island airports. They never happen for the simple reason that announcing grand plans is easy while achieving them is hard.
     And nothing makes my hand shoot to my wallet faster than the phrase "at no cost to taxpayers."
     Which is not what Rahm said regarding his new Busy Rich Folks Underground Express to O'Hare. His phrase was "zero dollars from the public." "At no cost to taxpayers" was Rich Daley talking about Millennium Park, which ended up setting back taxpayers about $100 million.
     Not that I'm complaining. Gotta love that Bean. But still. How stupid does Rahm think we are?
     Don't answer that.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A liberal burns Old Glory for Flag Day

     I love to fly the flag — it's so beautiful. On all the patriotic holidays: Memorial Day, July 4, Veteran's Day. I even throw in a few extra, that aren't technically patriotic holidays: Labor Day, Martin Luther King's birthday, D-Day.
     But all this flapping in sun-kissed Northbrook takes its toll on a flag. The deep blue of the canton — the proper name for the square displaying 50 stars — faded to sky blue. A few white stripes had rust streaks from cheap flagpoles.
     Standing on the porch June 6, hand over heart, reciting the pledge, I saw light through a gapping seam. Still, with our nation in the hands of quislings, a faded and tattered flag seems appropriate.
Chicago flags and specialty orders are sewn by hand at W.G.N.
   But readers have been upbraiding me for my flag's poor condition. I like to actually consider what people say, to weigh the possibility that those who disagree with me might be right — it's my superpower. And with Flag Day approaching, last Friday seemed a perfect time to make the change. So I folded my worn-out flag into a triangle and headed to W.G.N. Flag & Banner at 79th Street and South Chicago Avenue.
     "Let me get three options for you to choose from here," said Carl "Gus" Porter III, setting out three boxes in his company's cluttered front room, patrolled by Nala the cat.
      "You've got the standard nylon for $31.60," Porter said. "The heavy-duty polyester for $38.90. And then this is our deluxe nylon. These are $40. They have the larger stars with the silver woven into them, and you also get a one-year fade guarantee."
     "I do believe that's the no-brainer of all-time," I said, popping for top-of-the-line. "I'll take it."
     W.G.N. Flag has nothing to do with the radio and TV stations of the same acronym. The flag company began in 1916, founded by Porter's great-grandfather, William George Newbould (readers wondering what the W.G.N. initials stand for will be referred to this sentence for further study).

To continue reading, click here

The cluttered store has been in the same location since 1947; the company itself began down the block in 1916.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

How many types of smile are there?

Metropolitan Museum of Art
     Yesterday's post on Kevin Portillo's journey to find his smile was plenty long. So I thought I would post the sidebar that goes with it today, which works well, since my usual Wednesday Sun-Times column was delayed until Thursday, to make it in synch with its subject, Flag Day.
     Mosaic publishes under a creative commons license, meaning you are free to take this story and use it in any form you like, provided you credit Mosaic and link back to the original story here.

     In the mid 19th century, French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne wanted to distinguish real smiles from fake. Interested in the response of nerves and muscles to stimulation, he applied electricity to particular parts of faces to see the results.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
      He divided smiles into two groups: those that involved the crinkling of the eyes – sincere smiles – and those that used only the muscles around the mouth – insincere smiles.            
Metropolitan Museum of Art
     Today, the full smile that uses the muscles around the mouth and eyes is known as a “Duchenne smile” – and the fake one is the “Pan Am smile”, after the kind of smile you might greet someone with if it’s part of your job to be friendly.
      In 1974, Leonard Rubin described three basic types of smile, based on his study of 100 people:
     The “Mona Lisa”, where the corners of the mouth go up and outwards and the upper teeth are exposed. The dominant muscle action is from the zygomaticus major. About two-thirds of people studied smile this way.
     The “canine” smile, where the canine teeth are exposed. The dominant muscle action is from the levator labii superioris. 31 per cent of people smiled like this.

     The “full dentured”, where the lips are pulled back strongly, showing both upper and lower rows of teeth. All muscles are equally dominant. Just 2 per cent of people were found to smile this way.  Cosmetic surgeons, who have to be meticulous in identifying the smiles that their patients are paying good money to try to achieve, call these three types commissure, cuspid and complex, respectively.
     Dr. Phuong Nguyen, a Philadelphia plastic and reconstructive surgeon, attempts to clarify the matter using celebrities. The Mona Lisa, he says, is the Angelina Jolie. The Tom Cruise smile is a canine smile, and a Julia Roberts is the full dentured smile. This is a subjective matter. Other doctors place Jolie in the second or third categories.
 Smiling is not a realm given over to easy description. Contemplate the ideal smile as recounted by one clinician in the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics:
An optimal smile is characterized by an upper lip that reaches the gingival margins, with an upward or straight curvature between the philtrum and commissures; an upper incisal line coincident with the border of the lower lip; minimal or no lateral negative space; a commissural line and occlusal frontal plane parallel to the pupillary line; and harmoniously integrated dental and gingival components. 
Metropolitan Museum of Art
      The total number of different types of smile is frequently debated. A 
recent BBC article gave the total as 19.
     Arguably the most important researcher into smiles over the past 30 years has been Paul Ekman at the University of California. His 1978 Facial Action Coding System, written with Wallace V Friesen, seeks to create an atlas of nearly all possible human expressions. Ekman says, in his book Telling Lies, that their technique for measuring the face can distinguish over 50 different smiles.
     Confused? You’re not the only one. Perhaps the best approach is to just grin and bear it…

Wellcome Collection’s exhibition Teeth runs in London until Sept. 16, 2018.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Shame we can't ask these 36,574 Americans what THEY think of Donald Trump's photo op

     Thirty-six thousand, five hundred and seventy four Americans died fighting the Korean War, trying to turn back the advancing Communist forces from North Korea, led by Kim Il Sung, whose grandson met with Donald Trump this week.
      I wonder what they would make of our president's photo op? I wonder if they would view it with the light, laughing, give-the-guy-chance air that the president's unflappable supporters manage to maintain, in spite of everything. I wonder how they would view the supposed deal that was made? I wonder how much they would trust the North Koreans? I wonder how they would view insulting our long-time allies, such as Canada, which fought beside us in Korea, and then running to lick the boots of a madman and murderer? I wonder what they would feel about a president so gullible as to celebrate these empty lines as something significant? 
     It's a shame we can't ask them. I sure know what I think.