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.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Maybe we deserve it, maybe we deserve better

     As a journalist, I have access to all sorts of cool Secret Squirrel stuff unavailable to the average person. A healthy skepticism, for one...
     Sorry, cheap shot. I was actually thinking of Nexis. Nexis is a database of world media. The kid brother of Lexis, the case file database for lawyers. When you search Nexis, all the crappy aggregator web sites and fake news spoodle and insane partisan deformations never even get their foot in the door. You're looking at real articles that paid journalists produced using professional standards for publication. It makes a difference.
     As the wheels and gears started spinning wildly on the "well-oiled machine" of the Trump administration this week, like a cheap tin toy about to fly apart, I noticed I was looking away, distracting myself. No, no need to watch his farce press conferences—supposedly, I didn't see them—with Benjamin Netanyahu and then his 77 minute meltdown Thursday. When you know someone is a brittle, bullying liar, you really don't need to keep logging more instances of fragility, bullying and deceit. I get it. 
    Although the reaction to the second press conference was such jaw-dropped shock that I found myself circling back to watch snippets, just to confirm. 
    The word that kept coming back to me was "unfit." I logged into Nexis, set the time parameters for one year before the election—Nov. 8, 2015 to Nov. 8, 2016—then plugged in the words "Donald Trump" and "unfit."
     Because if one word of the mountains of apt criticism Trump has justly received, "unfit" seems to say it all. It kept echoing in my mind. The man shouldn't be president. He should never been allowed to be president. He should never have been allowed to run.   
    A big red notice that my request turned in more than 3,000 documents--the computer in essence saying, "That's a tall's going to take me time."
   Of course. No worries. I'm just fishing. I added "president." Still more than 3,000 hits. So I added "bully" and culled the herd down to 326--about one story every day.
     The top hit, since it ran Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016, was a column by a man I'd never heard of. Philip Martin, at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Titled "Fat, Drunk and Stupid" it began, "I have a bad feeling about this," and was a last minute plea against voting for Donald Trump.
     He summarizes the deficiencies of Hillary Clinton—not fabulous, just never connected with people—explains why Trump will probably win Arkansas and come "perilously close" to the presidency. 
     Then this:
   For the last time, I want to say it plain: Trump is unfit to be president. He lies. He cheats. He's a bad businessman and a bad American. He's a bully who keeps score and you shouldn't trust him around your teenage daughter, much less the nuclear football.
     Either you see that, or you don't.  Late Friday he called the press "the enemy of the American People." And you know what happens to the Enemy of the People, don't you? He heads Saturday to a campaign rally—he needs public adulation to survive, apparently, the way a vampire needs human blood. It'll be in an airplane hangar, and I imagine the hangar will be filled with people. I imagine they'll have no trouble filling it with people. 
     The Martin observation was repeated in every paper in America all through 2016. But people had tuned the media out. The lying mainstream media. When the history of this sordid and humiliating period of American history is written, I hope historians note that journalists were standing on a chair, banging garbage cans over our head, shouting to the rooftops, trying to avoid this. America, to its shame, voted for Donald Trump anyway, with its eyes wide open, staring at his hideous personhood, believing what he told us and not what we saw so clearly. Some of us, anyway.
    Why? They wanted a change. They were tired of the old ways, the business-as-usual politics. It wasn't that they didn't have a valid complaint, they did. It's just that their solution will make the problem, make all of our problems, so much worse. America is like a man who burns his house down to get rid of the mice. Like a person who has a genuine ailment—say cancer—and then hires a shaman to spray fragrant oils on the soles of his feet. You're sorry they're sick. You understand the fear in that. But they're embracing a quack and don't know it. I'd add "yet," but that would be wistful. If we know one thing about error is that it tends to compound. The majority of people would much rather dwell in wrongness than admit being mistaken.

    Martin ends this way:
     Anyway, tomorrow is coming. And no matter what happens, no one is coming to take our guns. No one is going to make us any greater than our spirits will allow. Make no mistake, we are getting what we deserve. We need to start taking this stuff seriously, we need to stop listening to those who tell us we're the best and the brightest and that nothing is our fault.
     To paraphrase Dean Wormer, fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through history, America.
     From "Animal House." Perhaps an unfair reference, as Trump is a teetotaler -- kind of gives us teetotalers a bad name, huh? People often talk about drinking as an escape from the Trump monstrosity, and I'd join them if I thought it would shorten his administration by an hour, but I don't see how it would. So as bad as the Trump years will be for you, remember, I have to endure this sober.
     "Unfit." It echoes. I noticed E.J. Dionne's column in the Washington Post a few days back: "Admit it: Trump is unfit to serve."  Well duh. Though odd that people are just noticing. He's no different than when he ran. Only now he's president. 
     Though I might take exception with the idea that we deserve it. Even though I recall writing the exact same thing. Maybe we allowed it to happen. Not just last November. For years, decades, allowed money to overtake government, allowed the powerful too free a hand. Mocked the idea of experts, of competence. 
     Do we deserve this corrosive clown show of a government? A flailing, incompetent president, his Dick Tracy hall of villains staff?  This groveling Congress? Maybe we got what we deserved in November. But maybe it changed us. Galvanized us. Maybe seeing what we ended up with, we are now, trying to be a people who deserve better. A little late. But better late than never.

Friday, February 17, 2017

"An Enemy of the People"

     Donald Trump called the media the "enemy of the American people" on Friday. The temptation would be to shrug that off with all the toxic, self-serving, mendacious things that pour out of the president's mouth in a septic stream. 
     Is he going to spend four years doing this? And will it work? 
     Me, I took instant comfort, thinking of Henrik Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People," his response to the public scandal raised by his play "Ghosts." In "An Enemy of the People," a small town doctor, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, learns that the town's mineral bath is contaminated. He's pressured by the mayor, Peter Stockmann, his older brother, and assorted town folk not to reveal what he knows, but he does anyway, and is condemned for doing so. 
    "Sheer imagination, or even worse!" Peter Stockmann tells his brother, in language that sounds positively Trumpian. "The man who can make such vile suggestions about his own town is nothing but an enemy of the people."
    The point of the play is that sometimes the majority—or in our case, about 46 percent of the population—embrace a poisonous lie, and it is the moral duty of the minority, be it those working for the press, or even a single individual, to stand up for what is true and right. 
    Once again, Trump, in lashing out at those who would hold him to the standards of truth and American democracy, pins a badge of honor on those he wishes to undermine. 

Day of Facts — Scientists and researchers speak truth to power

Robert Martin, emeritus curator of the Integrative Research Center at the Field Museum, from a video created for Day of Facts.

     Facts can delight: A car dashboard is so named because buggies and wagons had a tilted board in that position to block mud kicked up by horses’ hooves.
     Facts can warn: Smoking cigarettes will, on average, shorten your life by 10 years.
     Facts can inspire: If you quit smoking by age 35, you can claw those lost years back.
     A relevant fact is a powerful thing. In that spirit, Friday, Feb. 17, has been dubbed the “Day of Facts” and 270 cultural institutions in the United States and 13 other countries have signed up to use Twitter, Facebook and other social media to share important facts.  
Turkish manuscript from 1600, showing a map of the Americas
with the south at the top, illustrating the long history of cultural
exchange between Islam and the West (Newberry Library)

    “The idea is for libraries and museums and archives across the country and around the world to post mission-related content as a way of reassuring the public that, as institutions, we remain trusted sources of knowledge,” said Alex Teller, director of communications at the Newberry Library. “It reflects recognition among a number of different institutions that while our missions haven’t changed, they’ve taken on a new significance in an era of alternative facts.”
     Those words sound carefully weighed. And for good reason. In this atmosphere of official vindictiveness, there is a real risk of payback. So I asked directly: Is this a reaction to Donald Trump?
     Teller sighed....

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