Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Jussie Smollett situation reminds us: An example is not proof

                                                                   Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence, Italy

     In an era when everyone’s talking, all the time, silence is a privilege.
     A radical thought from a person paid good money to blow off his big bazoo.
     But never on command. I’m fortunate in that I rarely must comment on any given situation. My boss never shifts the stump of a wet cigar in his mouth and barks, “Steinberg! Your take on the Kershpungen Kerfuffle! Online in 30 minutes!”
     Not yet anyway.
     I do believe in comment, but after reflection. Time is our friend. We are allowed to think about stuff, to see what develops. We don’t have to argue every murky, fluid situation. We can just wait and find out.
      I’d never heard of either Jussie Smollett or his TV show “Empire” before Jan. 29, when the young actor reported being attacked in Chicago. Such things happen — Wrigleyville is next to Boystown, and in the summer, carloads of suburban bully boys are known to assault pedestrians whose step isn’t as heavy as theirs.
     But that wasn’t the situation here. It was 20 below. There was preparation beyond drinking a case of Old Style: a rope, and bleach. And, most incredibly, claims that this is MAGA country, which it certainly is not. Donald Trump won’t show his face here.
     Nor was this any random young man on his way home from Sidetrack. This was a celebrity.
     I try not to engage in Facebook tug-o-wars. Better to read and not react. But I came upon a string of comments from people horrified at this attack. Doubts were being raised and the doubters reviled. They needed support. I thought carefully, then wrote:
     “This is a very strange set of facts. Not a typical Chicago crime.”

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

"Will you be enjoying Nantucket Sea, Himalayan Pink, or, ahem, common table salt tonight?"

     Sunday night we met old friends at a restaurant in Glenview. Gusto, an Italian place with a nice atmosphere and hearty, homemade food. Their choice; I hadn't heard of Gusto, never mind been there. But they said it was a favorite, and our experience there proved their judgment sound, starting with the arrival of the bread: fresh, warm, braided, friendly little rolls. 

    Bread serves a time-honored function in the restaurant experience. It takes the edge off the hunger that sent you there in the first place. It is a small gift of welcome from the owners to their guests for the evening. It is the first indication diners have of the excellence going on back in the kitchen.
    I limited myself to one roll, by an act of will, saving myself for the dinner to come. Though not without casting a covetous look or two at the basket, fortunately out-of-reach across the table. I was glad for that when dinner arrived, a plate brimming with rigatoni, pomodoro sauce, meatballs. Pure and lovely. When I got down to the last tube, I looked around and said, "I think I'll take the rest home."
     Everyone laughed.
     Gusto wasn't the only restaurant I went to for the first time last week. The previous Tuesday, I met a friend for our monthly strategy lunch. We usually go to The Dearborn: convenient, new, excellent food and service. But we had had to reschedule several times—busy men!—and we couldn't get a reservation on short notice.
     So he suggested Steadfast, on West Monroe. I had never heard of it, and went with the excitement of trying someplace new. In many ways similar to The Dearborn. Hip, new, or at least opened in 2016, which is new to me, since I probably have cans in the back of my fridge opened in 2016. 
     Both featured Cuban sandwiches, and I was about to order one, for comparison purposes, when I was seduced by an Asian salad with thick soba noodles, as well as shaved vegetables, salted peanuts and miso vinaigrette. I'm a sucker for soba noodles. Throw some herbed chicken on top and you're only out $18—well, my pal is out $18. He always pays, and when I tried to pay, he looked hurt—he's a few clicks up the food chain than I am— and wouldn't let me do it.
     Bread was on the menu, which is a thing nowadays, as restaurants try to find new ways to monetize the dining experience. For a while they weren't giving you bread. Some places asked, other places expected you to ask. It seemed fallout from so many people doing low carb diets, from restaurants tired of wasting bread. Now they've taken a new tack, and are trying to sell it back. Girl and the Goat does the same thing.
     "House baked artisan breads." I asked my pal if we should give it a go, and he was enthusiastic.
     The staff of life pictured above arrived. I selected the reddish bread—a roll, really. It was pleasant and slightly sweet. Beets were involved, I believe the server said. But not so good that I worried myself excessively about trying the others. One was plenty.
     Don't get me wrong. I liked Steadfast. The salad was excellent, and enough to drive me back. I wrinkled my nose a bit when I asked the waitress why the place was called "Steadfast" and she just shrugged, as if the explanation for the name of where she worked is unknowable. A mystery. If you're going to give your restaurant a quirky name, at least acquaint the waitstaff with why. If they can't do that, what else can't they bother to do? The full name is Steadfast at The Gray, by the way, named for the boutique hotel that you will explore, as I did, trying to find the bathroom. Fairly elegant, and you can get a bed for $180 a night (Not that I required one on the hike to the john; but the place is swank, and I wondered).
     I hope I'm not alone in flinching at pricy bread. Maybe that makes me Old School. I never got used to charging for water either. To me it seems another step toward the day when the napkin sommelier will glide over, snap open a case, and start brandishing swatches of cloth and raving about Egyptian cotton and thread counts and the Thai Black Silk Option and such while I hold up my palms and say, "Oh no no no, plain white napkins will do." His expression freezes, the smile dying, and he snaps the teak case shut with a dismissive clap. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

White whale and wide wall: American obsessives Ahab and Donald Trump

Ahab, illustrated by Rockwell Kent. "In the mid-20th century, he's an argument against totalitarianism," said Will Hansen, curator of the Herman Melville exhibit at The Newberry. "And now he's this demagogue leading us over the cliff."

     Even Ahab, the great figure of self-destructive obsession in American literature, gets pushback, immediately, while he’s still selling his quest to the doomed crew of the Pequod. He displays the ounce of Spanish gold belonging to whoever first sights the white whale and nails it to the mast. The crew cheers. But Starbuck, the young chief mate — and future eponym for a famous chain of coffee shops — isn’t huzzahing with the rest. He’s scowling.
     “What’s this long face about, Mr. Starbuck,” Ahab demands. “Wilt thou not chase the white whale? Art not game for Moby Dick?”
     “I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow,” replies Starbuck. “But I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.”
     It might be a stretch to compare Ahab and Donald Trump. One man is sun-bronzed and lean, the other orange-dyed and stout. But the two men do share a leadership style — both issuing “orders so sudden and peremptory.”
     And Ahab’s white whale does resonate with Trump’s wide wall. When Starbuck elaborates his objection, “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous,” he is referring to the unreasoning whale.
     Echoed by the dumb thing of Trump’s wall, which is stupid because it is racist, unnecessary and expensive. Most Americans, like Starbuck, are clear-eyed enough to oppose such vengeful folly.
     Moby Dick is on my mind, having walked through the excellent “Melville: Finding America at Sea” with organizer Will Hansen, The Newberry Library’s director of reader services and curator of Americana.
     “The great American secular Bible,” he said, pausing before, “the first editions of Moby Dick, first published in London.”
     “It was fairly common in the 19th century for American writers to first publish in England, probably because America had no copyright protections,” Hansen said. "England was starting to get more copyright protections, thanks to Dickens, if you first published in England it was thought you had a better case to sue if somebody pirated your work."

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Sunday, February 17, 2019

"It is a grape."

    I love, love, love going to the supermarket. Always have, back to the day when my mother and I would visit the two groceries that existed in our world, Pick & Pay or A & P. I was almost an adult before I discovered that you could buy food from a place that didn't have an ampersand in its name.
     Back then, the joy was just to hang with my mom and maybe score a black and white cookie at the Hough Bakery at the back of the supermarket. Now I like to study the products. Because you never know what you might find, like the orange box of Zante Currants on the right above. 
     If you grew up on the things, forgive me. But I had never heard of them, the unfamiliar product made even stranger by the oh-so-familiar Sun-Maid logo. It's like you saw an orange bottle of Heinz Mooshpa. A sauce of some kind,  apparently. 
     Of course I bought a box. "Tiny, tart and dark to taste," according to the Sun-Maid web page, which says they are made from the Corinth grape. I had heard the term "currant" before, usually describing something found in bakery items, a perception Sun-Maid validates, noting, "For many, they’ve become the preferred delicacy in healthy baked good recipes, like scones, cookies, breads, muffins and rolls."  
     But "Zante"? That is the true thrill: "A name of one of the Ionian islands, anciently Zacynthus," according to my Oxford English Dictionary. Used in the names of certain products. "Zante wine, wood, etc."
     The OED's first citation is from some business publication from 1615, but I knew I could do better, quickly stumbling upon a 1913 publication, compiled by Michael F. Tarpey, called "Levantine Grapes Commercially Known As Currents."      
    It quotes one Dr. Gustav Eisen, curator of the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and an expert on horticulture, who testified that he had "made the Zante current one of the objects of his researches and studies" and that the fruit can be found mentioned in English documents dating back to 1333, as there was "considerable trade carried on between the Venetians and the English in Northern Europe generally in a fruit that was known as the 'raisin of Corinth.'" 

     A modest publication of only 40 pages, "Levantine Grapes" nevertheless begins more boldly than many novels: 
     Every discussion of tariff brings up the "Zante currant" question.     The "Zante current," miscalled, is not a currant.     It is a grape. Currants grow on a bush. Grapes grow on vines. The misnamed "Zante currant" is in no sense analogous to the American currant. The misunderstanding arises from a corruption of its French name "Raisin de Corinthe," or Corinthian grape.
      The book was directed at Congress, its purpose, it stated ,was "convincing legislators and the people that this question should be understood and finally settled." Of course money was involved. "Levantine Grapes" worries that reduction in tariffs on Zante currents would pose "a severe, if not mortal, blow to an industry which, as yet wobbly upon its feet, promises to become a prime industry."
      They must have won their case: the flood of cheap Greek dried fruit must have been effectively deflected, as the Sun-Maid Zante currants were grown, not in Greece, but California. Honestly, I could plunge deeper into pre-World War I grape tariffs, but I have . sense it's time to wrap it up.
      Before we leave our topic, I have to point out that the island has a cameo in The Iliad, no less, in Book 2, translated by Robert Fagles: 
Next Odysseus led his Cephallenian companies, gallant-hearted fighters, the island men of Ithaca, of Mount Neriton's leafy ridges shimmering in the wind, and men who lived in Corcylia and rugged Aegilips, men who held Zacynthus and men who dwelled near Samos...
     See why I love shopping? One second you are weighing grapefruit in your hand to see if it's juicy enough to merit buying. The next you catch the faintest echo of an early 20th century trade tussle then, better, a clank of bronze, a whiff of sea salt, carried across the globe and the ages by tiny grapes that might not have dried in the Ionian sun, but are the descendent of fruit that once did.    

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Saturday Snapshot #27

      I could go all Benjamin Franklin on you and ask whether you think the sun above is rising or setting, and then use that as a measure of optimism. (Franklin famously mused whether the sun on the back of George Washington's chair at the Constitutional convention was rising or setting; he thought it ascendant).  
     But Tom Peters sent this, calling it "Frigid Sunset." The sun can be mocking, when its so cold, though this photo doesn't really convey "cold" to me. I asked Tom to elaborate on it, and this is what he said:
It's a wetland just south of Deer Creek Golf Course in University Park on Old Monee Road just east of Western Ave. I have driven by it over the decades on my way to and from work at the post office and now the flower shop down in Beecher. It is a favorite stopping spot for migrating water fowl in the Spring & Fall and home to many geese, egrets and blue herons. I was fortunate enough to see an immature bald eagle fly over on one of my trips home from work, that made my day.
     Tom's right about eagles making your day. I haven't seen many—usually in the UP. 
     Franklin's bit about rising or falling, by the way, is a little trite. A person who sees a sunset is not, by definition, less optimistic than a person who sees a sun rise. He, or she, might be just looking farther ahead, to the challenges and rewards of the next day. Might be wishing an end to a particularly taxing day that has gone by. I know many an American is eager for our current historic period to wind up as soon as possible and bring something better to come. That is surely optimism. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Jason Van Dyke’s sentence was fair — Kwame Raoul is wrong to challenge it

     Just when the Laquan McDonald case finally seemed to approach what they call “closure” in the tragedy biz, with former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke sentenced to 81 months in prison, meaning he’d serve three years and change for pumping 16 shots into the teenager on Oct. 20, 2014, along comes our new Illinois attorney general, Kwame Raoul, to kick over the can brimming with human heartache and ask the Illinois Supreme Court for a longer sentence.
     And worse, from my perspective — self-referential perspective, sure, but what else is new? — is that now I have to write about it, having managed to studiously avoid the whole thing, mostly, mucking around with Roman philosophers and British dukes and whatever shiny trinket I can find to distract myself and maybe you.
     The whole story is just so grim. From 17-year-old McDonald staggering around Pulaski Avenue on a school night, clutching his 3-inch knife, to the first wave of cops somehow managing to keep their distance until Van Dyke races up, ponders the situation for a full six seconds, then empties his automatic into McDonald, to the gauzy veil of lies ritualistically tossed over the crime, reflexively, out of habit, not just by officers on the scene, but by the superintendent, the mayor and a shrugging City Council, which licked its thumb and peeled off $5 million of your tax money, handing it to McDonald’s family, who might not have been taking as careful care of the teen as you or I might, while he was alive, but who were scrupulous about keeping their yaps zipped until a journalist — no wonder everybody hates us — dragged the video into public view just in time for Christmas 2015.
     Sure, during the trial, as people agonized over the possibility of a police code of silence — could it possibly exist? — I thought of piping up, “Are you people insane?” The code of silence is the CPD, body and soul. But anyone who knows anything about Chicago already knows that, and I try not to traffic in the obvious.

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Mancow bites minister: radio host brings down Harvest Bible founder

Mancow Muller, left, being baptized
in the Jordan River by James
MacDonald (Photo courtesy of
Mancow Muller) 
      When disc jockeys and pastors clash, usually it is the radio personality who gets the worst of it, facing outraged listeners, fleeing advertisers and summary firings from nervous station management.
     But after the self-described "wild man of Chicago radio" Mancow Muller— since last month on WLS 890 AM — took issue with his former spiritual guide James MacDonald, founder of the Harvest Bible Chapel , it was the senior pastor of the mega-church who lost his job, officials of the 12,000 member church with seven locations in the Chicago area announced "with great sadness" Wednesday.
     MacDonald had said he was taking an "indefinite sabbatical from all preaching and leadership” in mid-January.
     “I am grieved that people I love have been hurt by me in ways they felt they could not express to me directly and have not been able to resolve,” he said in a statement.
     "I'm upset that I was duped by a con man," said Muller, who wrote a 2,200 word condemnation in the Daily Herald at the end of January against the man who baptized him in the River Jordan. He said how once MacDonald "taught me forgiveness, trust, being authentic and taking a stand for what's right," but that Muller later came to see "an environment of thievery, and a smarmy actor out front, a guy who ... was brutal to everyone he thought was subservient."
     On Tuesday, Muller referred to the largely conservative, largely Republican church as "the cult that's called Harvest" on his radio show, demanding it refund money to the faithful, and encouraged listeners to join a class action lawsuit that he said he was starting.
What has MacDonald actually done to cause him to be let go?

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