Friday, February 24, 2017

Who do bullies bully? Whoever bullies can.

     Like a toddler casting aside a toy he has tired of playing with, the Trump administration has tossed xenophobia out of its crib, for the moment. That’s good. But it then picked up sexual panic as its guide while casting government policy. That’s bad.
     The issue of students using bathrooms they are comfortable with exists only in the minds of hysterical parents worried about crimes that never actually occur. And, of course, religious fanatics looking for someone to oppress. But that’s enough for our new alt-right federal government, meticulously working its way down the list of cheap symbolic victories, to turn its attention to a new enemy: transgender students.
     After the Justice Department on Wednesday revoked federal guidelines that schools must allow transgender kids to use bathrooms according to their sexual identity, it’s a good idea to pause, step back and play connect the dots. President Donald Trump’s first month was roiled by his bigoted, unnecessary and illegal order restricting travel from seven Muslim countries. His second month now starts out by addressing another non-problem: the tiny percentage of children using bathrooms assigned to a gender they consider their own instead of ones belonging to the gender they were born into. In between, he announced that undocumented immigrants will be rounded up and deported by the millions.
What do these actions have in common?
     Well, the administration would say that Trump is addressing the nation’s most pressing problems, which apparently involve the risk of Syrian families finding refuge here, migrant workers picking strawberries unmolested, and fifth-graders struggling with gender issues using the bathrooms they would like to use.

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Democracy Dies in Darkness

      One of the first things I do every morning is check the Washington Post to see what new assault against American values the Trump administration has cooked up overnight. It's a great newspaper—I subscribe and you should too. 
    When I looked this morning, even before the news registered, I noted the change in the masthead above, featuring the paper's new slogan.
     Journalistic sorts are debating its aptness. Some find it "awesome," others, melodramatic. A Huffington Post political editor jokingly tweeted the new HuffPo slogan, "The night is dark and full of terrors." 
     Hmm. It is dramatic.  But if the online world teaches us anything, it's that understatement and nuance end up working at Panera Bread. It's arresting, but perhaps rightly so. "Don't tread on me" worked wonders for the Tea Party. I would argue that despite reporting on the gathering tragedy in this country and world, journalists still don't emotionally grasp what it means. The president is out to kill the media and impale its corpse on the White House fence—how's that for a slogan?—because he's driven bonkers by even the slightest rumble of digression as he vomits forth his lies. We are, as Hunter S. Thompson would say, like a wild beast thrown into a sawdust pit to fight for its life (another contender).
     The media reports the iceberg, the gash, the listing ship, but doesn't quite understand the implications of the freezing water all around. They are, for instance, still going ahead with this year's Correspondents Dinner, a creaky Washington insider tradition that was ethically squishy before the president, who might not even show, labeled them "the enemy of the American people." That's like insisting on holding afternoon tea in the lifeboats, because it's on the ship's schedule. I can't imagine going. Then again, I can't imagine accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor from Donald Trump, not if I threw myself on a grenade to save my buddies.
     Maybe it's "darkness," which does have a whiff of the poetic. Not to play editor, but you could cut it in half, "Democracy dies,"  and sum up our moment just as succinctly and perhaps with more power. Because that's what we're seeing. It isn't dead but, at Monty Python would say, "it isn't at all well."
     Then again, the whole concept of slogans is fusty. "All the news that's fit to print," sounds as old-fashioned as a butter churn, in an era when a guy can brag about grabbin' 'em by the pussy and get elected anyway. 
    The "Democracy dies..." line has been bandied about by Bob Woodward, the Post's legendary Watergate reporter and editor, and that alone should cast suspicion on it, as his reputation is kinda checkered. Post spokesperson Kris Coratti told CNN it will be used online, and perhaps in print too. "We thought it would be a good, concise value statement that conveys who we are to the many millions of readers who have come to us for the first time over the last year. We started with our newest readers on Snapchat, and plan to roll it out on our other platforms in the coming weeks."
     How corporate. I too have a concise values statement about the business—"You've got to put the slop where the pigs can get at it"—but I'm not sure I'd want to see it under the Sun-Times masthead.  (The Sun-Times does have a slogan, "An Independent Newspaper," which is soft-spoken and I suppose could use freshening, though, in this day of media behemoths, that's actually quite an important distinction and something to crow about). 
   If we do change it, I'd put my bid in for "Death to Tyrants," but the Secret Service might pay me a visit, and I'd have to explain I mean only political death. I hope Trump lives to be 90 and sees his name a codeword for betrayal, like "Quisling."
    I do like the spirit behind "Democracy Dies in Darkness." Though, if forced to choose, I'd have to agree with those who find it a misstep.  When the dry facts are that the president of the United States is a cruel fraud and pathological liar who, along with his neo-Nazi buddies, are tearing at the heart of America, pithy slogans just sound trivial.  Arby's can say, "We've got the Meat," but the Mayo Clinic shouldn't dub itself, "The Illness Blasters."
     Plus, there's that alliteration—almost always annoying. "Trump Teaches Totalitarianism" is true too, but kinda kindergarten. Second, it's sort of a downer, isn't it? Why not "Freedom Grows in the Sunlight"? Darkness is certainly falling and Democracy shudders every time it gets an injection of poison from nice old Dr. Trump. I'm just not sure I want to be reminded of that every single time I look at the Washington Post. The news stories do that already.

What's a dog owner to do?

     You know what's really hard to locate on February grass? Dog shit. It blends right in, among the muddy splotches and wet clumps of leaves, and once you take your eye off it, well, it's gone
    I was walking Kitty Wednesday morning down Walters Street when, having done her business a few blocks earlier, she stopped a second time. She sometimes stops a second time, which is why I always bring two bags, just in case.
    Well, not always. As Kitty assumed the position, I dug my hand into my blazer pocket. But no bag. Maybe it fell out when I grabbed the first bag, which I had already disposed in a convenient trash receptacle. Maybe I only grabbed one leaving the house.
    As you might have guessed from reading my column, I am a pathologically responsible person. I pay my taxes, vote, recycle, hold doors for ladies and men, do everything I think is required of a member of society. I would no sooner leave my dog's waste on somebody's lawn than I would burn a cross on it. 
     So what to do? I was miffed but not panicked. I looked up, noted the address and the approximate location of the deposit, and hurried west on Walters, scanning the gutter for some kind of useful debris. There's usually a scrap of plastic blowing somewhere.
    What I found was a copy of the Wall Street Journal, snugly doubled-bagged, in front of a house. I stripped off one of the bags, and walked the paper up to the front door, where I propped it up on the porch.
     I did ponder the ethics of this. I was taking a bag, but newspaper bags are usually trash for non-dog owners. I had second thoughts about moving the paper -- yes, making access to it more convenient as penance for skimming the bag. But what if the owner gazed out the door, saw no paper out front, thought it wasn't delivered and ever went to retrieve it, not noticing it right next to the door? I almost turned around and put the paper back on the curb. But fortune favors the bold, and too much responsibility can be suffocating. I decided to live with my minor misdeed, particularly since it was committed in the name of neighborhood cleanliness. 
    I marched briskly back to the address, a pleasant yellow house, to set matters right. Only the poop wasn't there. I scanned the ground closely. It all looked like dog shit, more or less. I made a few passes back and forth, leaning over, gazing hard. Kitty giving me a few impatient looks. Or maybe they were judgmental. Or quizzical. Hard to say. She's a dog.
    A minute passed. I was loathe to leave. I hate people who don't pick up after their dogs. They're like people who don't signal when driving. Making the world a worse place through indifference. And we already have a world that's a worse place, thank you very much all you folks who don't realize how we have to all care about other people and consider the effects of our actions on them and think and participate in order to live in a decent society.
    I must have been walking like Groucho Marx at this point, bent over, examining the ground when ... well, you know what happened, right? No, I didn't step in it, though that's a good guess. I did consider, on the spot, that the best way to find it would be by closing my eyes and blindly walking over the area, confident that would certainly locate the waste underfoot. But I was not willing to go that far. Besides, how would I pick it up after stepping in it?
    No, the obvious next event was the home owner came out—a friendly-looking lady, hefting a 20-pound bag of dog food to her car, so at least she was on the team. She said something like, "Cute puppy, see you too having a stroll there," or words to that effect, conveying curiosity about what I was doing, and I explained that the dog had left a mess, I didn't have a bag, I had run home -- a shorthand I like to think, more than a lie; somehow "so I stole a plastic bag off a neighbor's newspaper" seemed like it would make matters worse — and she waved it off. "Don't worry about it," she said. I could have said, "I worry about everything," but what I actually said was, "Just so you know it was inattention, not indifference."
     Even after she got into the car I lingered, really wanting to leave this campsite the way I found it —I was in Scouting as a lad, that could be part of the problem. Then I had a thought, the doggie-doo version of Peter Singer's controversial view of infanticide *—I would rationalize not picking up Kitty's poop, here, due to carelessness on my part, by cleaning up after someone else at first opportunity.  Thus the universe's quantity of neglected dog messes—a bane on pedestrian life —would not be increased because of me.  The problem was rationalized. And so, with a clear conscience, I headed home.
* In 1993, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer sparked a firestorm of controversy by suggesting that babies not be considered alive until they were 30 days old, since they lacked self-awareness, and suggested that it would be morally-defensible for their parents to kill them, if deformed, provided they had another baby to replace it, thus the world would not be short one baby.

Postscript: On Thursday morning, as promised, I scooped up the first carelessly neglected dog waste I came across. And here's the interesting part. It was not without a shudder of revulsion. Because this was not Kitty's dainty doggie doo, but a mountainous mound from some big dog. Which really made me smile after I bagged it up and headed toward a nearby Dumpster. We are comfortable with crap that's familiar, while revolted at the unfamiliar. When really, it's all the same shit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

It's freakishly warm in Chicago, it's all my fault, now eat your noodles.

"Uncle Vanya," is at the Goodman Theater until March 19.
Marton Csokas as Astrov and Kristen Bush as Yelena. (Photo by Liz Lauren).

     And if you're wondering if it occurred to me that I was writing a column combining a Wisconsin snowblower and a Russian play, well yeah, it did. How did that happen? Well, it was warm, and I saw the play, and at first I thought of writing about just the play, and what it said about life. But the weather is such a big deal, or should be, and somehow the two fused in my mind. I think it's stronger than if I just stayed with the weather, or the play, particularly in these distracted times. Or maybe the weather is a lure. Everybody reads the weather stories; not everybody would start reading a column about "Uncle Vanya."

     You know what's not causing this freakishly warm February?
     Global warming.
     Whoops, I mean "climate change." The term "global warming" fell from favor because every time it snowed some congressman would gleefully sneer, "Twelve degrees outside! Some warming, huh?"
     So while it's possible that this heat wave is a symptom of our steadily warming planet, it isn't part of the mountain of science proving mankind's complicity. One piece of evidence isn't proof. Which doesn't keep those hoping to justify themselves from pretending otherwise.
     The explanation for this mid-winter week of springtime — 71 degrees predicted for Wednesday — that I've been offering to friends is: It's my fault.    
The might Ariens Sno-Thro 24

     This is how I did it. On Dec. 10, after years of resisting, I finally buckled to my wife's pleas and bought a snowblower. A massive, orange, steel, assembled-in-Wisconsin Ariens snowblower, with a halogen light and its own little shovel for clearing the chute. I think the little shovel sealed the deal for me.
     If I were Fox News I'd finesse the story so that as I muscled the thing into the garage, the sun came out and it never snowed again. In truth, which always puts bumps in your tale, I used it four times the first week, for minor snowfalls. But never again.
     In the years I didn't have a snowblower, I assumed that once I had one, it would make me an advocate for blizzards. That the machine sitting idle in the garage before a dry driveway would be a rebuke. But that isn't how it turned out. The machine is, as my wife points out, "insurance" and it's working fabulously.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Flashback 2004: Our vanishing toy stores

     The American International Toy Fair winds up in New York City today, reminding me that in the go-go '90s I actually convinced my bosses to send me there to report on the action. How, I can't imagine—probably offering to stay on a friend's couch to cut expenses. 
     I remember the fair so clearly. Particularly entering into the Marx Toys area, which made a Ft. Apache cowboys and Indians set that had been the coveted joy of my 7th birthday. They had one set up, exactly at it was on that sun-drenched June day.
   "It's the SAME!" I marveled.
    "We use the same molds," the president of Marx told me.
    But here's the odd part. When I went back to look at the column I wrote from my expensive trip to New York, it's not worth re-reading, Dry, ordinary and not-up-to-standards. Maybe the travel had thrown me, or I was off my feed. 
     So I found this toy-related column from 2004, which I'm running in honor of the Toy Fair—and, to be honest, since I'm coming off the novo-virus, and can't imagine writing anything.  If the story about the bear sounds familiar, it's because I told it in this September 2014 post about old stuff I love.
    Though look at that first sentence, with its awkward exclamation mark, maybe the subject to toys sparks such enthusiasm that it overcomes my professional discernment.
    Can't let that be true. I'll have to ask my boss to send me next year, to see if I can't write something worthwhile about toys.

     Chicago is losing her toy stores! I keep waiting for the story to break out of the business section ghetto and be seized by television and the chattering classes, but it never does. So I'll have to put my shoulder to the stone and roll. First that enormous Toys R Us flagship on State Street shut down, then FAO Schwarz on Michigan went bye-bye, and now Zany Brainy and Noodle Kidoodle -- toy stores, though they tried to present themselves as some kind of High-Toned Science and Learning Centers -- all have gone belly up. What's going on here?
     First, a sop to the few that remain, so they don't send out pained hoots of existence. Yes, there's Galt Toys at 900 N. Michigan and a few KB Toys and others I'm not thinking about.
     But downtown is becoming slim pickings. The loss of FAO, Toys R Us and the others should not occur without somebody, if not mourning, at least pontificating.
     Not that I'll particularly miss FAO Schwarz. First, they constantly blared that dreadful parody of Disney's dirge "It's a Small World" at anybody who walked in the door. If you haven't heard the song ("It's a world ...") then count yourself blessed ("... of ...") because it carves itself into your mind and haunts you to the grave ("!").

     GI Joe doesn't count as a soldier
     Second, I once asked a clerk for lead soldiers. I had bought some for the boys at Hamleys, the immense toy store in London. It seemed more a gift for myself than for them, but they surprised me by liking them. I thought -- silly me -- FAO might sell them.
     "Oh no," a clerk fretted, fluttering his hands. "We wouldn't carry those." War toys! You'd think I'd asked for napalm. As if the world will become a more violent place if my boys get a few more troops of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
     Third: I had purchased a Steiff teddy bear from FAO for my younger son's birthday. Steiff makes these gorgeous, durable and hugely expensive mohair toys. I had some as a kid, and so underwriting their vast cost for my own boys struck me as a stab at tradition. I remember what I paid for the teddy bear -- $160 -- due to my wife's shocked, rage-suppressing "why-do-you-always-do-this-to-me?" reaction, and the way I, with rare matador smoothness, deflected her ire into sentimental tears with one apt sentence.
     "When you see the bear in your grandchild's crib," I said, "it'll seem like a bargain."
     My older son surprised me by saying he wanted a teddy bear like his little brother's. Sensing trouble, I asked him if he meant a bear similar to his little brother's -- a Steiff bear, perhaps looking a little different, since they make about a hundred styles. No, he said, with the certainty of youth, he wanted That Exact Same Bear.
     Filled with hope, I ran to FAO Schwarz. They were cleaned out, and a clerk gave the not-my-table shrug that passed for service.
     With time dwindling, I had a desperation-stoked flash of brilliance. I plugged into Google "Steiff teddy bear" and the serial number off the button in the bear's ear (Steiff toys have a little brass button in their ears; don't ask, it's another tradition), and up popped a toy store in -- I kid you not -- Coon Rapids, Minn. Selling the exact bear I wanted, for $30 less than I had paid for my FAO bear a year earlier. Two days later, it arrived in the mail.
     That's why toy stores are dying. Why buy a $200 Xbox (if that's what they cost; I've struggled to keep my boys away from it with the same fervor that parents of teens use to keep them off drugs) when, with a little planning, you can skip the trip, skip the store, save money and have the toy in hand a few days later?
     Not to be simplistic. They have the Internet in London, too, and Hamleys is still there. I'm sure our addiction to soup-to-nuts emporiums such as Target is part of it.
     And the aforementioned Xbox has to be a factor. It's the last toy you ever have to buy. My impression is that once a kid has one of those, they take it into a room, close the door, and don't come out until puberty hits.

Plug in the kids and forget 'em
     That can be a good thing; parents can talk, read, fly to Paris while the kids remain mesmerized. Still, my wife and I have been resisting. Once, when the foyer was a clutter of shattered block castles and scattered lead soldiers (sure, I let the boys play with them, and sure, the occasional arm gets twisted off. But how many kids in the world are doing that? I take a certain anachronistic pride).
     We looked over the mess, and she said, "Once they get an Xbox, they won't play with toy soldiers."
     Ouch. "Never," I vowed. Let every other kid go on Ritalin and Xboxes. I managed to straight-arm the every-kid-in-school-has-one argument, and deflected the unvarnished, constant begging.
     But one night last week, I discovered the boys on their knees carefully arranging piles of change and crumpled dollars — literally counting their pennies, pooling their resources to attain their beloved computer game god.
    Even stone hearts break. "They'll be freaks enough just based on parentage," I told my wife. "Let them have their Xbox. I spent years playing Risk -- that wasn't exactly learning French, was it?" And anything that gets two brothers, 6 and 8, to cooperate with each other can't be all bad.
                —Originally published in the Sun-Times Jan. 9, 2004

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hard to honor a man who never stops honoring himself


     Monday is Presidents Day: Happy Presidents Day! If the holiday has a certain redundant, dubious air about it, that might be because it comes one week after Lincoln's Birthday, and is a fairly recent development: far newer than, say, Sweetest Day, which goes back to 1921.
     Only in 1968 did Congress pass the "Uniform Monday Holiday Act" to "benefit the nation's spiritual and economic life" by creating three-day weekends out of Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays. The House Judiciary Committee noted that observance could be detached from actual birthdays "without doing violence to either history or tradition." Officially, it's still "Washington's Birthday," but it somehow morphed into common use as "Presidents Day," so ad hoc a holiday that nobody can seem to agree whether "Presidents" deserves a possessive or not.

     A day of honor, though, starting with our current chief executive, Donald J. Trump, whose inspiring rags-to-riches story hardly needs repeating. At 70 the oldest man to ever be elected president, and also the first immigrant. He was born in Soviet-occupied East Germany in 1947. His father, a Russian solder, Ivan Trumpovich; was not married to his mother, a 17-year-old Bavarian bar maid, Helga Schneider, who brought him to this country as a teenager in 1962. Trump worked in a series of used car lots, perfecting his English, saving his money to purchase an abandoned gas station, beginning his career in real estate....
     Oh, none of that is true—except Trump being the oldest man ever elected president. That's a fact. Though reading the above, I bet you did not think, "This is untrue. More fake news that we have become accustomed to constantly seeing in the lying press." Because despite what our new president says about the media, the sneering contempt he ladles on the institution whose job and duty is to catalogue his missteps, deceits and blunders, people still expect not only truth but perfection from the press. If I make a grammatical mistake, if I say "we journalists" when I should say "us journalists" readers will gleefully wave it over their heads, sneering and hooting in sincere outrage, speaking of fish wrap and carelessness. It's the most curious duality: to insist that something is routinely dishonest and unreliable, then fall shrieking to the floor at its most trivial slip from the highest standards of excellence.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Their glory days

"The Country Election" by John Sartain, 1854 (The National Gallery of Art)
The blue banner reads, "The Will of the People the Supreme Law."

     This is the interesting thing about Donald Trump's view of the media...
     I take that back. There are enough interesting things about Donald Trump's view of the media to keep an army of historians and psychiatrists busy, and no doubt they are already hard at work, the poor devils...
     This is one of the interesting things about Donald Trump's view of the media, the interesting thing that I want to talk about today: he doesn't believe what he's saying. Obviously, and I'll tell you why. If he sincerely thought that "the media is the enemy of the American people" who told "lies" and "FAKE NEWS," then why is he spending 77 minutes talking to them in a press conference Friday? Why let them in the White House at all? If he really wants to talk directly to the American people, banish the lot and let your Twitter finger do the talking. 
     The truth of course, is that Trump's condemnation of the media is really a condemnation of the facts that the media is reporting, on the chaos and incompetence of the Trump administration, how badly it has stumbled out of the blocks and is just lying there in the dust. 
     In a world where consistency mattered, Trump would be painting himself in a corner with the whole "FAKE NEWS" bit. Because what happens should he ever do anything right, and the media swoons over his skilled handling of a situation? What would he do then?
    What he would do is break out in that smirky grin of his, shrug his shoulders, turn his palms to the sky and say, "Hey, they got one right for once!" 
    And his fans will guffaw and nod along with him and eat it up, as they always do.  Which is why Trump says what he does about the media. It gives his supporters, always hot to pour scorn on somebody, a big pinata they can hit to their hearts' content. The media represents everything they dislike, they are told, and now they are given permission to dutifully kick it, not noticing that they are being trained to cover their ears and hum so as not to even hear, never mind perceive, the truth about their president.
    We are entering a cruel, frightened era. Trump is a mean man who delights in making others seem small so he can tell himself he's big. The currency he offers is contempt, and his followers welcome the chance to accept it, ape his ways and spend freely. Seldom do I hear anything from a Trump supporter this isn't dripping with spite, with anger, with eyes-narrowed disdain. In that—and I've said this before—we shouldn't focus on Trump. We should focus on the people who have placed their bets on him and who will follow him, no matter what he says or does, who will ignore his misses as hits and his idiocy as sense. Those people were here when Trump showed up, and they''ll be here when he's gone. They viewed the eight years of Barack Obama as an unmitigated disaster, and they will view the eight years of Trump as the pinnacle of success. These are their glory days, whatever happens. They will not be denied the enjoyment of them, and if reality does not conform to their desires, they'll imagine a new reality that does, Trump will tell them it is so, and they will believe him. Nothing can change that.