Friday, August 18, 2017

Traitors to our country should never have been honored in the first place

Stonewall Jackson, Virginia Military Institute

     Say I take up a hobby: drowning puppies in a bucket, then using a tennis racquet to serve their limp, dripping carcasses at neighborhood children who flee, shrieking, while I laugh and laugh.
     You object to this practice, citing cruelty to animals, to children.
     I reply, "What? You don't realize what a huge problem over-population is among pets? You don't care about animals? And obesity is a major problem among the young. How can you oppose exercise?"
     Welcome to what passes for discourse in America, 2017, where no moral lapse is so extreme that it can't be reframed and explained away.
     A mob of Nazis march, on the pretext of defending Civil War monuments. The marchers clash with counter-protesters, then return to the holes they came from. Decent Americans exhibit their displeasure by pulling down the same monuments the Nazis used as pretext, those honoring traitorous Civil War leaders who took up arm against their own country — our country — in open rebellion trying to preserve the grotesque institution of slavery, monuments often set up in the 20th century as a middle finger to Civil Rights protests.
     Our current leader, Donald Trump, can't bring himself to sincerely denounce racism, so instead expounds on the Nazis' excellence, so much that corporate CEOs, not a group famous for morality, draw away in visceral horror.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg


    You open the world to your children and then, if you are lucky, they open their world to you.
    I was not particularly fond of contemporary art—I'm more of a French Impressionism fan—but then again, I didn't know much about it either, and ignorance and dislike are brothers. 
     I've grown to appreciate it more over the past couple years, and only now, having spent a few hours at the impressive Takashi Murakami show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, did I realize why: my older boy.
     It was he who prompted us to go to the Broad, the new privately-financed Los Angeles mecca of recent art. It was he who, in April, dragged us to the Palazzo Grassi in Venice to see Damien Hirst's massive "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable."
    And while it wasn't he who took me to the MCA Tuesday to see a retrospective of Japan's top contemporary artist, the show opened in June, I wasn't racing there either, not until my kid came home Saturday from his internship in LA for a couple weeks. Then my first thought was, "Hey, there's a Murakami show at the MCA—wanna go?"
     He did.  
     Rooms filled with enormous canvases that somehow manage to be both freeform and precise, explosions of color and tracts of black and white. Murakami struck me as the apotheosis of high school artists, his blizzard of arhats, stylized Buddhists recalled faces scrawled on the notebooks of artsy fellow students at Berea High School in the late 1970s, dreamy-eyed girls with names like Ariel and Autumn.
     I particularly liked his Yves Klein tribute flower wallpaper—as I thought of it. Something daft and commercial. 
    If you go, make sure you see the films of Murakami overseeing squads of employees—he has some 250 at five studios around the world— slim youths in colorful jumpsuits and paper masks slathering paint over large wood-framed stencils he computer cuts to make his enormous images. And in the middle, pot-bellied, with a scraggly beard, round glasses and earbuds screwed in his ears, the Artist, transferring his images onto paintings that cover museum walls and sell for millions.
    In one room, with huge resin and steel guardian figures on each end, were a pair of paintings that carried the name of the show—The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, his comment on the resilience of survival. A Japanese saying about regeneration, the extreme step taken to survive, the moral of the story being the octopus grows a new leg to replace what was lost. 
    In tiny letters on these paintings Murakami had a surprisingly anxious, aggrieved personal statement, about the young artists he tried to help and who "betrayed" him and how generally troublesome his life was. 
    I suppose he could be looked down on for that, but as Walt Whitman said, "How beautiful is candor;" somehow that spirit, the self-exposure, endeared Murakami to him—of course it would, since I too am in the self-revelatory line, though with far less remunerative results.
    Still, it's good to know that someone is making a smash success of whimsical self-pity, and curator Michael Darlings cannily convinced Murakami to present his not-all-that-hot early works in the first room of the show, jammed with young people, to whom this should be an inspiration, because he does not come off as a genius, just someone who combined work and luck and a vision and made it. 
    Murakami thinks of his production process as similar to making a movie—"Star Wars" was an inspiration—and coming out of the show indeed had that return-to-reality sense you have after seeing a good movie.
    The show runs until Sept. 24, but go sooner than later, as the MCA might have to go to timed tickets, just to handle the crowds. 




Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Trump mocks the pain of Chicago families

      I wrote this Tuesday morning, before Trump's frightening afternoon press conference throwing in his lot with white nationalist haters. Though it was tempting to react to the latest outrage, I had set aside one column already to react to Trump's tweet, and realized there will always be another shock around the corner—you cannot get ahead of the curve with this man—and it was probably better to let this fly and wait for the next shoe from our centipede of disaster to drop.

     "Meanwhile," Trump enthusiast Jack Posobiec tweeted and the president retweeted Monday, "39 shootings in Chicago this weekend, 9 deaths. No national media outrage. Why is that?"
     Ooo, ooo, me me! I'll take that one.
     But first a little background, for those lucky enough not to be reading this at the grim moment of America in mid-August 2017. A nation roiled by a sudden geyser of racial hate—or, rather, being reminded of the hate always seething just under the surface. A tiki torch-bearing mud flow of Nazis and Klansmen and other assorted mutants in Charlottesville, Virginia, vomited out of the earth and into view Friday night. On Saturday they were met by counter-protesters, patriots and regular citizens who reject the never-true vision of America as a white, Protestant enclave.
     One of those haters, allegedly, sped his car into the peaceful protest, killing a woman. And our president, who will leap onto Twitter to denounce a teenager who asks a pointed question, blamed "both sides" then remained mum for days about the source of this attack on our values, perhaps because he knows how popular he is among haters, perhaps because several of his closest advisers seeped out of the same subterranean cesspool.
     Trump's failure outraged the country. Because we are not used to seeing such bald cowardice, such indulgence of the undercurrent of American life.  Not from the president. It's news.
     Chicago, on the other hand, is a big city where shootings happen every day. We are not the most dangerous city in America. We are not the homicide capital. Chicago has a pervasive gang problem and its murder rate is five times that of New York City's. So it has problems with violence, but those problems, while news, do not have the fresh horror of a president winking at Nazis.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Snowman in August




     Art is the thing you go to see, that you seek out. 
     Last Thursday, that meant catching the Gauguin show at the Art Institute.  My wife hadn't seen it and though I had already, I accompanied her to see it again—Art is the thing you can see twice, another definition—I also had an agenda. 
      I wanted to see the snowman.
      I first heard of it a few days earlier. I was at a camp for kids with cancer at the Palmer House. The kids had just been to the Art Institute and seen the snowman. I've been to the Art Institute many, many times. I didn't remember a snowman. But obviously there was one now, and I wanted to see it.
    Why? Well, it was a snowman. At the Art Institute. In August. That is a certified, seal promise of whimsy, and the 2016 work of Swiss artists—natch!—Peter Fischli and David Weiss did not disappoint. A smiling, friendly snowman, in the classic three balled form, lacking the traditional carrot nose and charcoal eyes but radiating good will nevertheless. 
     He was outside, on the Bluhm Family Terrace—an apt touch—in his own little refrigerated aluminum vitrine. My son Kent pointed to the cord, visibly snaking away and plugged into a socket, and wondered if the point of the installation wasn't for someone to yank the cord out. I was intrigued, but not so much that I was going to be the person to give it a try.
     In his new book, Adam Gopnik refers to     "violating the sanctuary of art" with "the displaced ordinary object."  It began with Duchamp's bike wheel, moved through Campbell's Soup cans and now what should be melting in the sun now preserved for ... well, a while.
     In the elevator on the way down, Kent wondered if it was art at all, and I said I thought it was. "Art, in my view, has to be one of three things," I told him. "It has to be clever in concept, masterful in execution or impactful in result." 
     The snowman certainly hits the first mark, touches on the second—a well-made little glass freezer—and got us both to the deck to see it. It isn't "Nighthawks" but it certainly is an asset. I'm not sure if it's permanent, but I hope so. 
      

Monday, August 14, 2017

Donald Trump promised he'd take America back. He didn't say where.

 

    Promises made, promises kept!
     Donald Trump was always talking about how he would "take back America"—there were bumper stickers—and now look, he's actually done it. We've been taken back to the 1960s, with protesters clashing in the street over the weekend and a civil rights demonstrator killed in the street.  
     Or are we back in the 1940s? It felt that way Friday, with torch-bearing Nazis marching, sieg-heiling and chanting "blood and soil." It could have been an America First rally at the old Chicago Stadium in 1940.
      Although they were tiki torches. The bamboo kind costing $1.99 at Costco. That sort of ruined the effect. Give the original Nazis credit; they were sticklers for detail. Real torches are expensive and hard to find, but you're never going to seize control—assuming they haven't already, and with the Trump White House you never know—by cutting corners. Tiki torches in a fascist demonstration are like Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloons at the Nuremberg rallies.
     Sorry. None of this is funny. After three deaths—the protester and two Virginia State troopers who died in a helicopter crash—the clownishly unaware street theater of men whose fondest fantasy is to be concentration camp guards slides into anguish and tragedy.
     Then again, that's what happens, and there's an important lesson there. Whenever I see these idiots, I'm not filled with terror, or concern--and you think I would be, as half the time they're chanting about Jews. Rather, I get an almost avuncular concern. I want to help them, to say, "Guys, guys, gather around. You do know that the whole Nazi thing did not end well for the Germans?" History focuses on their victims, and rightly so, but by the time the would-be supermen were done manifesting their superiority they had lost four million soldiers and another two million civilians. About six million Germans dead, for you fans of irony.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

An old classic reappears on the UVA curriculum

University of Virginia
     Of course it had to start at the University of Virginia.
     Well, no, it didn't have to be the University of Virginia. It just worked out that way.
     Truth is, the white supremacists could have had their march anywhere. There are enough of 'em.
      But UVA somehow fits. Not just for the Robert E. Lee statue.  Though being supported by Nazis—whoops, white nationalists, whoops, the alt-right—kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the disingenuous, we're-just-decent-Southern-folk-celebrating-our-historical-heritage argument, doesn't it?

     You lost; get over it.
     It isn't as if this is racism's first appearance at the University of Virginia and environs.
     Talk about celebrating heritage. 
     We have to keep that in mind. Trump might be wolf-whistling and permission granting, calling ollie-olllie-oxen-free for haters and goose steppers to come out from under their rocks, blinking into the light.
     But they were always there. He didn't invent them. 

     Just the opposite: they invented him. Or at least helped. Let's not blow them out of proportion, particularly since they like to seem bigger than they are. I never heard from a hater in his mother's basement who didn't speak of "we." An army of one. 
     And to pretend this is some awful new development is the kind of self-flattery that looks so unappealing on the right. Our nation is not so much changing into something new as reverting to something old. Something we thought we had escaped but obviously haven't.
     An awful old development.
     Granted, beyond the usual baker's dozen of pimply teens and bowl cut storm troopers. There were a lot of angry white guys with torches Friday night—tiki torches to be sure, the mom's-basement touch that always detracts from the Albert Speer perfection these guys are always lunging at and missing.  
     It would almost be funny except, of course, it's not.
     Particularly after Saturday, with violence spreading around Charlottesville, and a protester plus two state troopers killed—one of the counter-protesters, of course—and the president apportioning blame on both sides.
     The guy who mows people down in a car, the people mown down, potato, po-tah-to, plenty of blame all around. The police quelling the disturbance counterbalancing the haters who sparked it.
     At least Trump renounced his alt-right suppor... oh wait. No, he didn't do that. It's a big tent, Trumpism.
     Back in the good old days, hatred was more subdued, more genteel. When I heard the marchers were at UVA, I couldn't help but recall that racism was so strong there, the school has its own classic poem immortalizing it.
    "University" by Karl Shapiro begins:

"To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew
Is the curriculum...."
     Shapiro had lived in Chicago for a decade as a child, dabbled in poetry, got accepted into UVA—he had a recommendation letter written by William Carlos Williams. 
    He only lasted a year there before dropping out. But not before the school, founded by Jefferson, had left its scars on him, living in a world where his fellow classmates, he later said, saw "Jews as a cut above Negroes but not much."
     Shapiro returned the favor, plunging a knife deep into his school and twisting, though pausing to limn the lovely campus:

     "Where boxwood and magnolia brood
      And columns with imperious stance."


     Then he touches on the human pettiness belying its physical beauty, a place where "equals shake hands, unequals blankly pass." The poem was published in Poetry in October, 1940. Who could have guessed those would be the good old days? Now those so ignorant they imagine themselves superior run their unequals down and kill them.
     Why aren't I as worked up about this development as others seem to be? Maybe because, as awful as the doings in Virginia without question are, they seem a distraction. The threat to our nation posed by whack-job haters is still dwarfed by the threat posed by our whack-job president. And there is comfort to remember that we defeated a far stronger, far more pervasive, far more organized alt-right, whoops, white supremacists, whoops, Nazis before. And we will do so again. If I could tap one of these idiots on the shoulder and tell them one thing, I would say, "Hey Reichmarshal! You know, the whole 'blood and soil' thing didn't work out so well for the Germans. Just a word to the wise, er, I mean, to the stupid."


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Don't forget hot dog stands



    The Chicago Hot Dog Fest is this weekend, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Chicago History Museum, Stockton and LaSalle.
     So much discussion of franks involves the encased meat itself, as well as—far too often lately—rehashing of the Ketchup, Condiment of Controversy Conundrum, which I promise I will never address again. It's just getting old. The Reader took that circus pony for another trot around the ring this week.  
     There's more to hot dogs than hot dogs, or condiments. There is, for example, hot dog stands and the often colorful individuals who own them. None more colorful or individual than the great Harry Heftman, of Harry's Hot Dogs at Franklin and Randolph, whom I celebrated on his 100th birthday.

     'You make one person happy," said Harry Heftman, 100 years old today, "it comes back to you."
     The result of a lifetime of dispensing happiness—and hot dogs—turned out Friday to honor Heftman at his small snack shop on the corner of Randolph and Franklin.
     Well-wishers ranged from great-grandson Nathan Heftman, 2, who sat solemnly dipping french fries in ketchup, to Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was a sixth-grader at Nativity Grammar School when Heftman opened the Little Snack Shop on the same spot in 1954, changing its name to Harry's Hot Dogs in 1982.
     "My father used to come here," said Daley, after enjoying a hot dog and a slice of cake.
      "The janitors' union used to be next door," said Harry Heftman, adding that Richard J. Daley ate there twice.
     Harry's sons, Ron and Chuck Heftman, his daughter Lila Ardell, as well as their children, great-grandson Nathan, and various friends, media and well-wishers, including a senior vice president from Vienna Beef, gathered at the famous hot dog stand.
     "It's always been part of all of our lives," said Chuck Heftman. "This store put us all through college."
     "All the grandsons worked at Harry's," said Larry Heftman, who began at 12 and credits working there with inspiring him to study law.
     "This was harder than I wanted to work every day," explained Larry, who eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and became a commercial litigator in downtown Chicago. "We learned hard work from my grandfather."
     To illustrate how well Harry instilled that ethos, his workers continued to serve hot dogs to customers who jammed themselves into the restaurant, even as the mayor held forth for the knot of jockeying TV cameras.
     "Anybody want a hot dog?" asked Marcus Mallett, working the food line.

The past lives, and sells hot dogs

      March 15, 1909, was a Monday.
     At the Auditorium Theater on Congress Parkway, the touring Ziegfeld Follies of 1908 was winding up its final week. Tickets started at 25 cents and rose to $1.
      At Marshall Field & Co., men's shoes in black and tan started at $2.45 and cost as much as $3.45. At Mandel Brothers, shirts that normally cost $2 were selling for 85 cents.
     At 3 a.m., a locomotive carrying Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion of the world, "the only colored man who ever held that title," as the Chicago Daily News put it, arrived at Union Station.
     Despite the early hour, Johnson was met by a throng of Chicagoans.
     Johnson had defeated Canadian Tommy Burns the previous December after chasing him all over the world, and was now hot on the heels of the retired heavyweight champion.
     "I'm after Jim Jeffries now and I'm going to New York in a couple of days to see him," Johnson told the crowd. "I can lick him and he knows it. All I want is to get him in the ring with me."
     March 15, 1909, was before World War I, before the Titanic was built. There are few tangible reminders of it in the city—the Auditorium Theater that hosted the Ziegfeld Follies still stands. And Harry Heftman is still standing too, still selling hot dogs.
      "Lookin' good, Harry! Lookin' good!" exuded Marcus Frisby, who was out of work when Harry hired him, on the spot, nearly 20 years ago.
     "I love him; good man," said Frisby, who has a hot dog stand of his own now at 47th and Calumet.
     Harry was born March 15, 1909, not in Chicago, but in Sojmy, a village in Hungary. He came here in 1921 at the age of 12, which means he arrived in this city before the Wrigley Building was completed, and lived with his family on the West Side, by Division and Western.
     Harry likes people to leave his place happy—even the two robbers who once stuck him up.
      "I said, 'Put the guns down, I'll give you all the money and you'll walk out happy,' and that's what they did," recalled Harry, wearing a bright yellow cardigan and basking in the attention at his packed restaurant.
     One drawback of turning 100 is that people ask your secret of longevity, but with Harry, there was no need—his physician, Dr. Jerry Handler, stopped by, patting him affectionately on the arm. They have known each other for 67 years; Dr. Handler, 81, went to work for Harry at the age of 14, delivering fruit.
      "He's always been a very healthy person," said Dr. Handler. "Extremely oriented toward his family."
     Good habits? I asked.
     "Not a runner, not a drinker," Dr. Handler agreed.
     I said I didn't think jogging was as harmful as drinking.
     "I didn't mean that type of running," Dr. Handler explained.
      After Harry moved into the building, he invited the Showmen's League of America to buy it, which they did.
     "The restaurant carried all the costs of the building for the past 50 years—taxes, insurance, maintenance," said Bill Johnson, past president of the Showmen's League, the union for carnival workers.
     The building is coming down by May, to make a plaza for the skyscraper next door. Harry's Hot Dogs enters the past on April 10, when it closes forever. And Harry Heftman will occupy himself with friends and family. I asked him if, at 100, he feels old.
     "No," he said, smiling.

TODAY'S CHUCKLE . . .


     Speaking of bad habits. A friend upbraided me for enjoying an occasional cigar, prompting me to invoke Redd Foxx's famous quip about healthy living:
     Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals, dying of nothing.

    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 15, 2009