Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April is Puppetry Month

     The beauty of a blog is that you are flexible. We don't have to chase after popular trends, or the news of the day, or what some people consider "interesting." Rather, one can pause from the hustle and the bustle of this hustling, bustling world and focus on what is truly important, unencumbered by extraneous demands of bosses and the fickle marketplace. 
     Perhaps the most well-received feature I've had on was last January when, in conjunction with the Chicago International Puppetry Theater Festival, I presented seven full days of Puppetry Week, and like to think that I participated in the festival's success, and, indeed, consider myself responsible for it. 
     Some readers, true, groused a little, at first, before they got into the spirit of the thing and became enthusiastic, nearly. The overwhelming response was positive. 
    "Very good article! We are linking to this particularly great content on our website. Keep up the good writing. Also visit my webpage," wrote one reader. "Just want to say your article is as surprising. The clarity in your post is just cool and i can assume you're an expert on this subject," wrote a second. "It is in point of fact a nice and useful piece of info. I am glad that you shared this useful information with us. Please keep us informed like this," gushed a third. 
   Well, you get the idea. Given the reader demand, and my own inexhaustible interest in the history, lore, science and philosophy of the puppetic arts, not to mention the National Puppetry Festival, which is coming this August,  I felt morally obligated to designate all of April as's 1st Annual Puppetry Month. 
Icelandic puppet
     As for those who wonder if there are enough puppet-related stories to fill a month, believe me, the challenge was to limit myself to only 30 posts.  As my Facebook friends know, Edie and I visited BrĂșĂ°uheimar, or the Centre for Puppet Arts in West Reykjavik in February,  and so I'll kick off Puppetry Month with a bang with three days on Icelandic puppetry, including an interview with Bernd Ogrodnik, the center's founder and master puppeteer of the National Theater of Iceland. The first week will be rounded out with looks at the exciting puppetry being done in the three Scandinavian nations: Finland, Norway and Sweden. 
    Then from overseas to our home of Chi-town, focusing on the vibrant local puppetry scene. First the recent controversy at the Chicagoland Puppetry Guild related to whether marionettes should be said to have "strings" or "lines"—I'll call it as I see it!—plus profiles on significant Chicago puppeteers, both of today and in years past. 
    I should also point out—and this is a complete coincidence, I assure you—but Every goddamn day is proud to be sponsored through the generosity of The Puppet Store, the Internet's premiere puppet location, with a full line of glove puppets, full/half body puppets, marionettes and realistic animal puppets, plus puppet accessories, including the hard-to-find puppet wheelchair. I hope you will turn to them for all your puppetry needs. You can access their web site by clicking here. 
    Later in April, there will be backstage visits to Opera in Focus, the marionette opera in Rolling Meadows, plus lots of other surprises. Take a look at the entire month's schedule. Thanks everybody, as we set off on our puppeterrific adventure together!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Back away from the horseradish

    Yes, that was me digging my thumbnail into a horseradish root at the supermarket Sunday, covertly bringing the nail to my lips, and tasting the crescent of white root material thereby excavated.  
    Which supermarket? Several. Trying to find the elusive Root of Extreme Hotness.
     Because, frankly, the entire Passover Seder, the Four Questions, the Story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Four Cups, Chad Gad Yad, everything, is shot to hell if the horseradish isn't hot enough. I always make the horseradish, the way I always make the stuffing, but this year my sister-in-law, well, something came over her, and while we were having coffee, she came up from behind and triumphantly shoved an open jar of HER homemade horseradish under my nose. She didn't have to say, "Smell how hot that is!" She didn't have to say, "Are your eyes watering from the incredible firepower of my horseradish or are you just weeping in defeate?" She didn't have to say, "So you can leave the family anytime you want because we really don't NEED you for anything anymore." 
     But the message was clear. 
    Okay, last year it was a mild crop of horseradish. Mine was not the throat-closing, eye-watering,howl-to-heaven that good horseradish should be. I'm sorry. 
    I guess another man would say, "Oh, you made horseradish? That's good. One less responsibility that I don't have to worry about."
     I am not that man. There are very few traditions in my life. Me and my buddies do not go to Las Vegas on my birthday to whoop it up. I don't greet the spring in my special fishing spot or return to Paris every two years to sit at cafes. I'm like Arnold Schwarzenegger pushing that grist mill in "Conan the Barbarian." I write stuff and that's about it. So making horseradish, I'm sorry, is my idea of fun. I'm not letting anyone take that away from me.
     Plus it's a tribute to my late father-in-law, Irv Goldberg, who taught me how to make horseradish. Maybe that's why my sister-in-law is so hot to grab the responsibility from me. It's a jealousy thing. Though if you read the following, you'll see that, well, as Horace said, "Sometimes even noble Homer nods." I'm planning to grind the stuff Thursday night, and if I have to add battery acid to give it the proper oomph, well, so be it. I'll let you know.
    This column from 1999 will explain how I was initiated into the sacred rites.

     Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle sounds lofty, but all it really means is that things are affected just by watching them. It's hard to understand when it comes to distant stars or flitting atoms -- how can they be influenced just by being looked at or measured? It doesn't make sense, at least not to me.
     The principle is easier to grasp if you think of taking a photograph. Your family can be sitting around, laughing, natural, casual as can be. Then you whip out a camera to record the moment and suddenly everybody stiffens up, awkward, smiling tightly, hands hanging limply at their sides.
     I don't know how stars or atomic particles mug for the camera, but apparently they do.
     Which is my roundabout way of saying that I'm afraid the horseradish won't be as hot this year at our Seder table because I watched it being made.
     For a number of years I had been dropping hints that I'd like to be inducted into the secrets of my father-in-law's horseradish, which each Passover is delivered to the Seder table amid gasps of pain and praise. Those hints had been ignored. Perhaps there was a grim implication in the request. Maybe I just wasn't deemed worthy.
     Anyway, last week, the message came: "Sunday morning. 10:30. He's making the horseradish." That was all. Nobody asked whether I could make it or not. The opportunity was presented. I wondered whether the odd hour was chosen for the same reason Professor Leopold used to hold his coveted international relations class at 8 a.m. -- to help weed out slackers.
     I should introduce my father-in-law, Irv Goldberg, at this point. I don't write about him much, out of pure cowardice on my part. He's a solidly built man in his early 70s who doesn't suffer fools gladly, but tolerates me because I'm married to his daughter and raising two-sevenths of his grandchildren. He drove a tank in World War II, painted a big peace sign on his roof in the 1960s to the horror of his neighbors in Bellwood, and owned a metal tube bending business. I assume he had machines to bend the metal tubes, but I'm not certain.
      I arrived five minutes early. The process was just about to begin. Two horseradish roots -- they looked like the top half of a leg bone of a very large man -- were laid out on newspapers on the table outside. Hint One: prepare the horseradish outside, to cut down on weeping.
     The horseradish was peeled and chopped into chunks. The chunks were fed into a food processor. (Food processors redeemed the Jewish people in a way not seen since Moses, considering the number of Jewish foods -- horseradish, potato latkes, chopped liver -- that require laborious grating).
     But not too much. I was struck by how briefly he ran the processor. I would have pulverized the chunks until they were puree. Hint Two: Don't. Just the barest shredding, then flip the blade around to cut up the shreds. You want texture to the horseradish, not gruel.
     Next, wine vinegar, plus salt and water. I can't tell you the proportions. Nothing was measured. Irv said it was 60 percent vinegar to 40 percent water, but I couldn't really tell. The salt was poured directly from the big blue container -- less salt than more, I figure.
     The result was not the explosive, grab your throat and die horseradish of years past. We were both a little shocked at this. I think it has to do mostly with the horseradish root itself, the growing conditions and such. But it might have been me. You see, my father-in-law usually washes the horseradish root with steel wool. But this year, in consideration of the presence of a journalist, he went out and bought a vegetable brush. Who can tell how the lack of microscopic steel wool remnants affects the taste? So from tiny atoms to distant stars to the horseradish you ladle on your gefilte fish, the Uncertainty Principle rules: You watch it, you change it.

                         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 25, 1999

Monday, March 30, 2015

We admire pilots; the mentally ill, less so

      "As I was at 5," Tolstoy wrote, "so I am today." Which I mention only to add a bit of literary heft to the following admission, which otherwise might seem humiliatingly juvenile.
     Airline pilots sometimes stay at the Holiday Inn in the Sun-Times Building (which sounds so much better than saying the Sun-Times is located under a Holiday Inn, though I suppose it's a matter of perspective).
     They're always getting out of town cars and buses, handsome in their sharp uniforms, toting their special pilot luggage. On my way into the office I see them and think, "Ooo, a pilot" with the same eagerness I did as a small boy flying Pan Am to New York City. I'd hurry up to one and ask for a pair of official pilot's wings, but he'd look at me strangely and, at 54, I've finally learned restraint.
     So I think well of pilots. Most people do We trust pilots, literally, with our lives.
      In a 2013 survey of the most trusted professions, pilots were No. 2, after firefighters, with 86 percent of the respondents expressing confidence in them (for comparison purposes, newspaper reporters scored 21 percent in a Gallup poll taken about the same time, but remember, when discussing journalism, experts insist there is a "multiple by 5" rule which means the public actually trusts reporters 105 percent).
     So in the wake of Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings pilot who crashed Flight 9525 into the Alps last week, killing himself and 149 other people, nobody is going to react, "Fuckin' pilots! Always killing folk."
     Yet we need to understand this, or try to, though I sometimes suspect by "understanding" we mean find a convenient label to slap over the tragedy so we can more easily forget it. So we grasp at stuff.
     Islamic fundamentalism is the Type O universal donor to explain such situations. Happens enough that we accept it as a cause. A copy of the Qu'ran, a name with a lot of fricatives and we'd be home free. But that doesn't seem the case here. The "German" aspect is a possibility—"those Germans, they do like their mass murder...." Nope, his being a pilot draws him into the realm of BMW engineers in white coats. It's not like he was some skinhead from Bavaria.
     Lubitz being 27 has potential: these kids nowadays.... no, plenty of responsible 27-year-olds who don't slaughter those in their care.
     Which leaves mental illness, and there are indications, which the press latched onto, politely with the mainstream media, not so much with the tabloids.
      "WHY ON EARTH WAS HE ALLOWED TO FLY?" the Daily Mail howled, under "Suicide pilot had a long history of depression."
     Which I noticed when the depressed started passing it around Twitter.
     "I have a long history of depression," Londoner Juliette Burton wrote. "Should I not be allowed to drive? Work? Contribute?"
     She has a point. Though it took me a while to grasp it. Twitter encourages immediate reply, not careful thought. Others chimed in: "Glad the Germanwings coverage isn't descending into harmful, misleading hysteria," wrote GlobalNews' Anna Mehler Paperny.
     My gut reaction was: is it? The guy flew his plane into a mountain. "Why on earth was he allowed to fly?" seems a question well worth positing. I tweeted back that this is just the media trying to explain why this happened. Maybe I was being a low-esteem journalist defending his kind. Even as I did, I knew instantly where she was coming from: if Depression=Murder then we'd all be dead, in the same way that if Muslim=Terrorist, we'd all be dead.
     "Blaming depression isn't 'explaining.' It's irrelevant," another Canadian chimed in. "Did he also have a dog and like Cheerios at breakfast?"
     The best path is probably somewhere between the media blaming depression and sufferers leaping to dismiss it. By Sunday the press was discussing Lubitz's eye problems, and as someone who has worn glasses since he was 6, it bothered me not at all. If you look to the news for self-validation, you're already in trouble, no matter what the headlines say.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Adam and Steve wont' be throwing MY rice!

     An editor asked me to weigh in on Indiana's new anti-gay bigot empowerment act, which they somehow think is acceptable because it's directed at gays and draped in someone's idea of religion. The lede echoes "Welcome Back to the Steinberg Bakery," written last year when Hobby Lobby decided to thrust its hands down the pants of its employees to check what they were doing down there. But I figured it would be a new concept to most of the newspaper readers. This only lived online Friday, it wasn't intended to be published, but I thought you might like to see it. 

      Before I begin today's column, I have to ask any menstruating women to stop reading.
      No offense. But my faith believes you are unclean — it's written somewhere, I'm sure; I'm not going to bother digging out chapter and verse. So if you would set your device down, and go sit in the Hut of Shame for a few days and wait for it to pass, well, then I would feel better. You are welcome to read this column later, after you perform certain ablutionary rituals I will not describe here.
     There, now my religious scruples are honored, I can cluck over Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signing a law Thursday that allows Indianapolis photographers and Bloomington bakers, Evansville owners of Grange Halls and Fort Wayne barbershop quartets, to refuse to serve gay weddings because, well, God wants it that way, in their estimation.
     As far as why this should be limited to gays — why anybody of any faith should not use any religion as a reason to refuse any kind of service to just about anybody — has not been sufficiently explained. We have to take it on faith, I suppose.
     I could use this as an opportunity to sneer at Indiana. The state where, in the mid-1920s, half the members of the same General Assembly that passed this law, and its governor at the time, belonged to the Klu Klux Klan, along with 30 percent of the white Protestant men. I assume that's no longer the case, but I haven't hard evidence.
     The truth is a dozen other states are in the process of passing similar laws. We have our own in Illinois, the 1998 "Religious Freedom Restoration Act." (I guess religious freedom needed restoring because it went away when all those hellbound sinners and false religions — and you know who you are — started strutting about, pretending they had equal rights to equal treatment).
     "Government should not substantially burden the exercise of religion without compelling justification," it reads.
     Hmmm, "substantially burden." That sounds familiar.
     "A governmental entity may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability," the new Indiana law reads, also echoing a federal law passed in 1993.
     So civil rights must bow to religion. No need to provide flowers for gay weddings, and if there's a reason Jewish weddings aren't next, I can't think of it.
     “Religious liberty is fully protected under Indiana law.” Pence said in a statement. "The Constitution of the United States and the Indiana Constitution both provide strong recognition of the freedom of religion, but today, many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action."
     Of course they do.
     Time was, they felt under attack just because there was a pope in Rome and Jews selling cheap suits across the tracks. There is a certain sort of religious folk who feel under attack by the mere existence of anybody who lives or thinks, loves or believes differently than they do — and they manifest that sense of being attacked however they can get away with it.
     If they can force you to pray their prayer in school, fine. If they can yank your magazine off the stands or close your play down, fine. Right now hounding gays and restricting the rights of women is in vogue, so they do that. Because they can.
     I guarantee you, if Omar's Falafel Pit in Elnora said that the Holy Quran, blessed be it, demands that they refuse to serve babaganoosh to infidels, there would be a stir. If Morty's Deli in Zionsville stopped serving corned beef to Catholics — and if you can refuse a wedding cake to gays based on your religious faith, what's the difference? — there would be an outcry. Because just as prayer in school assumes it'll be your prayer, so Indiana's codification of religious bigotry only works until the untermenschen decide to get in on the fun. No wonder conservatives are terrified of the concept of Sharia law: they're jealous.
     For the moment, Adam and Steve have to be careful where they buy the rice to be tossed after their nuptials, because they might end up getting the bum's rush.
     Add another law we'll look back on someday and cringe. But nothing Chicago should feel smug about. We're a city that once had an "Ugly Law" which read:
"No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense."
     Of course we repealed that law. In 1974.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

    Before I select a picture for the Saturday contest, I see if the answer is readily available from Google, which is what nixed the photo of the flowery David atop the blog today—even though I was fairly certain few readers would wander there, a few keyword searches kicked out the Macy's Flower Show.
      Not so this curious wooden case, with its dozen ... well, what ARE those? Ice cubes? Crystals? I have to give credit to my cousin, Evie, for this one. We were ... umm ... in a place, and she suggested this thing would perhaps stump the Hive Intelligence. I had to agree.
     So, where is this? Bonus points for, what is this? The winner will receive one of my not-really-dwindling-as-fast-as-I'd-like store of 2015 blog posters. Place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Meet my pal Joe

Ann and Joe Scheidler
     I've written about Joe Scheidler before  And while I know he represents something truly despicable, and has enough baggage to fill an airplane, I find it impossible to hold it against him. Perhaps because he's always so friendly—that counts for something in life. He pushes his beliefs, energetically, yet maintains a certain decorum, at least to me.

     “Hey, it’s my pal, Joe Scheidler!” I said, happily, seeing the white-bearded man on the corner of Madison and Wacker holding a 5-foot-tall sign showing a fetus at eight weeks. I pumped his hand. Good old Joe, known him for years.
     “Honey,” I said to my wife, who works downtown now and commutes with me. “This is the famous Joe Scheidler, national director of the Pro-Life Action League.”
     He stuck out his gloved hand. She looked at it.
     After nearly 25 years of marriage, you’d think I’d know the woman. But I forget. My wife’s a hardass. When I found myself in a booth at Gene & Georgetti, having coffee with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, I also forgot. We were getting on, bonding and, wanting to show off, I asked Blagojevich if he’d mind saying hello to my wife. I dialed the cellphone, handed it to him. “Hello!” he said in his fake butch voice. “This is Governor Rod Blagojevich!” The smile died on his face. He mechanically handed me back the phone.
     “What are you doing?” my wife spat. “I didn’t even vote for him. Come home.”
     But that was over the phone. Face to face with Joe, 87, father of seven, grandfather of 23, she melted — a little. After a moment that lasted an eternity, she took his hand with her left and gave it a single squeeze. We continued on our way, pushing east on Madison.
     “The left hand doesn’t count,” she said.

To continue reading, click here. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Republicans seek to lead us ... back in time

"Looking into my Dreams, Awilda" located in Millennium Park, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. 
     Quite a fuss this week over Ted Cruz, the conservative Texas senator who announced he is running for president. Even though his far right wing views—Nate Silver created a chart showing him to be not only the furthest right of all the presidential candidates vying for position now, but the furthest right ever, at least over the past 50 years, even more conservative than Barry Goldwater. 
      Who, if you recall, got shellacked in 1964 by the not-particularly-beloved Lyndon B. Johnson.
      The Onion of course nailed it, with the headline: "Ted Cruz Boldly Declares Nation Not Deserving of Better Candidate."
      The general consensus is there is no need to fret about Cruz—he's on the Sarah Palin track, run for office, pump your Q score, then enjoy a long, flush semi-retirement spoonfeeding Republicans the mendacious fantasies they crave. 
     The chances for his winning are given as nil, or close enough to it.
     But the Cruz candidacy, doomed though it be, prompts me to point out something you should keep in mind during the 2016 election, because whatever temporary success Cruz enjoys will tend to draw Republican candidates toward his extreme opinions. It's a basic truth, but those are the best kind. 
     Time goes forward.  It does not go back. Bells cannot be unrung, pool balls do not re-arrange themselves into their original triangular arrays after being struck by the cue ball, eggs do not uncrack. 
     This might not be news to you—I sure hope not, I hope you realize by now that grandma's not coming back—but the Republican Party just doesn't get it.
    Cruz's views are diverse, but they can all be categorized under a banner popular among his less extreme peers: he is a revanchist, i.e., he wants to lead us back, to a nation of his imaginings. 
    Climate change? Never happened. Cruz mocks the science proves it to be worsening year by year. A demographic shift that has made Hispanics—which Cruz claims to be—the largest minority, with 17 percent of the population, surging to 25 percent in the next 30 years? Ignore it, build a wall, keep their parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers already here in permanent serf-like limbo. 
    Cruz announced his candidacy at Liberty University, the self-styled largest Christian college in the world, and called for the nation to finally be run on Christian values. But the number of people who identify as Christians is steadily shrinking—down to 73 percent from 86 percent 25 years ago, and those who do profess to the faith go to church less, in keeping with a general global shift away from religious observance. The United States never was a Christian country; it will be less and less as the years go by.
     The list goes on. Gay marriage? Undo it. Abortion rights? Allow the states to roll them back even further. Obamacare? Scrub the country clean of it.
      But Obamacare is like that egg that can't be unbroken.  It occurred, and while they might overturn it, the way you can take a tweezers and glue and try to reassemble the shards of shell—you end up with a mess, the damage has been done, if you consider "damage" to be that tens of millions of Americans now have access to affordable health care.
     They can mask who they are. They can nominate Marco Rubio and hope people are too dense to realize that he's Cuban, an elite immigrant group given special status to poke a thumb into the eye of the Commies, and that he stands for all the policies that most Latinos are against. But it won't work. No matter how vigorously you stir the coffee, the tablespoon of cream you added stays mixed; it never reassembles back into the original spoonful. Even if you really, really want it to.
     Every day the country hurtles into the future. We become more diverse, the gap between rich and poor grows greater. And the band of people who are willing to gather under the Republican banner of Religion and Revanchism grows smaller. The past is gone. You can fool some people, you can even fool some people all of the time. But you can't fool enough people that they agree to try to return to the past. Because a) it's impossible and b) even if it weren't, the past of their imaginings was never really there in the first place, not the way they remember it. It's so strange to see people passionately urging the country toward a place that doesn't exist and we wouldn't want to go, most of us at least, even if it did.