Sunday, December 10, 2017

Captain Crunch, Defender of Christmas



     Captain Crunch loves Christmas. 
     The criminal conspiracy of Snap, Crackle and Pop, not so much. 
     Judging from this special Xmas-themed box of the Captain's tooth-murdering sugary cereal, noticed on the shelves of Target the other day, conveniently juxtaposed with the season-denying Kellogg's Krispy product ... well, let's just say the outraged Fox News diatribe writes itself: "'Who is Kellogg's trying to fool? 'Holiday colors?' Those are green and red, the traditional colors of Christmas as outlined in the Holy Bible..."
     The president of the United States lit a match under the traditional War on Christmas bonfire last week. "You don't see 'Merry Christmas' anymore," he whined. "You see 'Happy New Year.' You see red. And you see snow."
     Crunch good! Krispies bad! Need I point out that Crunch is based on corn, an American product, while Krispies contains rice, harvested in Southeast Asia? 
     My first instinct was to ignore this seasonal disorder as trivial compared to the true outrages and quasi-treasons Trump commits daily. Just another example of the why-are-you-hitting-yourself bully tactic so often used by the Right, of conjuring up some idiotic stance and then pretending someone you don't like embraces it. Nobody is offended by "Merry Christmas." There is no effort to dampen the holiday that pervades every corner of American society from the moment the Halloween candy is put away until the New Year's decorations are taken down. Barack Obama said "Merry Christmas" all the time—MSNBC put together a pointed highlights reel of him saying exactly that, again and again and again. What Obama didn't do is make a big deal of it, weaponizing Christmas, tainting it, as Trump does everything he touches. By the time he's done, "Merry Christmas" will carry an emotional wallop somewhere between "sieg heil" and "fuck you."
    Why pay attention at all? That's easy. Because there is a larger point here.
    The entire GOP worldview is based on false victimization. Their own victimization, conjured up to mask an ugly truth. In a world of true victims, Republicans sympathize with only themselves. Why? Because they can no longer traffic in the open language of hate, of supremacy—they can't simply despise specific groups as inferiors. It isn't done anymore, at least not openly. The next best thing is to imagine offenses that they are the victims of at the hands of these people they hunger to condemn. Thus gay people are not simply people, trying to get married, raise families. No, they have an agenda, to destroy straight marriage, to corrupt children (I wonder if Republicans will be able to repeat that one with a straight face after Roy Moore wins on Tuesday. Sadly, they will. We live in the Golden Age of Hypocrisy). 
    That's why Mexicans have to be murderers and rapists, Muslims have to be terrorists. Otherwise Republicans would just be hating people for no reason, and even Donald Trump has enough dim self-awareness to realize that won't fly, thanks to a century of glacial progress.
     Remember where "Happy Holidays" came from. Fifty years ago it was merely assumed everyone was a white Christian. Trust me, it's true. I was there. Inclusion meant tucking in a grating Hanukkah carol into the Christmas Concert, sung condescendingly for the class Jew, who was expected to be grateful. 
    At some point, educators—and TV stations, and cereal makers, and anyone involved in interacting with the public—began to realize that their classroom, their audience, their customers, were actually quite diverse. They weren't all white. They weren't all straight. They weren't all Christian. It was odd to have a Christmas concert in a school where half the students didn't celebrate Christmas. So they began to nudge the net open a bit wider. A "holiday" concert. "Happy Holidays" includes Christmas.
     Fox News grabbed it like a hungry dog and began shaking. This, like gay marriage, like a functioning immigration system, like anything that acknowledges of existence of people who make our nation's terrified third uncomfortable, is simply unacceptable. They lack the honesty to say, "I don't want those people here. Their existence detracts from my fragile self-imagine. I wish they would go away." 
    Accommodating them is an insult. It is oppression, and implies these non-Merry-Christmas-saying creatures also belong. That it is their country too. Trump's Christmas posturing might seem trivial, and at one level it is. But at another it reflects an elemental part of his basic appeal: the illusion that American can be undone, the projector of time run backward, and the shrinking white Christian majority return to its lost Eden where their inferiors bowed their heads and stepped off the sidewalk, mumbling apologies, as the country's true owners strode by, masters of all they surveyed.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Being Jewish in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s

   



     The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opens in Jackson today. The president of the United States will not be attending the ceremony.
     For a while it looked he would. The man elected on a platform of naked bigotry, encouraging hatred against people based on their skin color, nationality, and religion, would actually show up and pretend to care about prejudice. As if he belonged at such a museum in any other capacity than a cautionary exhibit.
     But Donald Trump either doesn't know how he is rightly perceived, or doesn't care, and on Monday said he would be going. Only after civil rights icons like Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) and others refused to participate in the opening if Trump were present, did someone on Trump's staff with a capacity for shame decide that the president would not attend the public festivities, but would tour the museum privately, like the scorned pariah he is. 
     Jackson, Mississippi, if you don't know, has an astounding history of racial and religious oppression, as I mention in the column below, reviewing a book about growing up there Jewish in the 1950s. The book is filled with telling, touching details—one that I didn't put into the column, yet stays lodged in mind, is when the Ku Klux Klan marched through Jackson in the 1950s, Edward Cohen's father knew which neighbors were under those sheets because he had sold them their shoes.

     Jews don't believe in heaven. That isn't bandied about much. It seems almost rude. Sincere people are trying to embrace this incredible construct of harps and clouds and halos, and we're not playing along.
     I suppose some Jews believe. But heaven isn't part of the official program. I sure don't buy it, instead keeping the party line: Departed loved ones live in the memory of those who love them.
    For instance: To conjure up my grandfather, Irv, whom I adored, I don't have to speculate about angels. I can see him, in my mind, reclining in his green Barcalounger, sipping a Pabst, smelling of cigarettes and Luden's Cough Drops, watching "The Price Is Right." He loved "The Price Is Right."
     The problem with not having a heaven to safely dispatch departed relatives, like children shipped off to eternal summer camp, is that it places a deep responsibility on you. If they exist only in memory, then you have to remember them. It is your responsibility to rescue them from oblivion.
     Which is one reason I so admire Edward Cohen's new memoir, The Peddler's Grandson (University Press of Mississippi, $25). In fewer than 200 pages, he constructs an ark rescuing not only every relative he ever knew—with their quirks and foibles and eccentricities—but charting their improbable journey from Eastern Europe to Jackson, Miss., of all places, where they dwelled, outsiders, running a clothing shop.
     Jackson in the 1950s and 1960s is sketched through stunning details. When the P.A. system at Chastain Junior High school announces President Kennedy has been slain, the students cheer, wildly. Later, "Sesame Street" debuts nationwide, but not in Jackson, because it shows black and white children playing together.
     Still, Cohen never paints Mississippi in the grim hues we Northerners expect. Despite frequent bigotry, it's a great place for Cohen to grow up. That's perhaps the biggest surprise of the book. Jackson is nice; it's home. He loves it, then and now.
     Cohen's story is the story of anyone set apart for one reason or another. How much do you give up in order to fit in?
     The process began in the late 19th century, with grandfather Moise, fresh off the boat. After his new companions persuade him to take part in a snipe hunt, he reverses the humiliating joke by viewing the whole thing as bonding, certain "that he had undergone some redneck rite of passage."
     Poignance and humor jostle each other, as when the abrasive Rabbi Perry Nussbaum— outspoken enough on civil rights to get his house bombed by the Klu Klux Klan—sends young Cohen out on Halloween to collect, not the usual candy, but pennies for UNICEF.
     "The United Nations was regarded in Mississippi as, at best, a communist lesion on the country's independence, at worst as the nesting place of Satan," he writes. "I set out, wearing my mouse costume, into the heart of John Birch-era Mississippi." The results can be imagined.
     Cohen is at first desperate to fit in with his entirely gentile school. He lobbies his mother for a Christmas tree; she resists, then strikes a compromise—he can have a tree in his bedroom. The image of the little boy shutting his door after supper, plugging in the single strand of lights around this tiny, pathetic branch of a tree, was the most moving image for me in the whole book—a sad, funny encapsulation of yearning and denial.
     Southerness and Jewishness are not often juxtaposed. But, like chocolate and peanut butter, they go well together, especially in the hands of an author who has both love and a clear eye:
     "One can hardly hail from two more historically losing causes than the South and Judaism," he writes. "Both my cultures have long, tragic pasts, and not one jot of it has been forgotten."
     Strong words, and he argues them well in a beautiful book.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 28, 1999

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nine trucks



    Nine trucks. Mack trucks, mostly, with a couple Peterbilts thrown in for variety. Five parked on Center Avenue, four more around the corner. I counted. 
    Kitty and I were on the dawn patrol last week, making our eight block circuit of the neighborhood, when we turned a corner and were confronted with them. A sight that, in 17 years of stomping our quiet suburban streets, I had never seen. 
   A knot of drivers stood chatting with one another. 
    "Scheduling mishap?" I ventured—nine trucks seemed like a lot of trucks to park at 7 a.m. on a single block. I instantly imagined some computer snafu where nine trucks had been sent to do the job of one. It seemed the premise for a children's story: Nine Trucks. Kids love trucks. I know I do. 
     I couldn't imagine why so many were there. The drivers, holding their coffees, looked at me but didn't respond. A civilian. Or perhaps a language issue. Kitty and I moved on, admiring the brawny trucks, designed for hauling dirt.
     It didn't take long to realize they were there for the house that had been razed a few days earlier. It had seemed a not-particularly-decrepit house, new enough that I snapped a photo of it. But obviously not to contemporary standards of luxurious living. They've been building these lot-line crowding mansions lately. 
     Twenty years ago faux Norman chateaux were all the rage, with round towers and limestone details. I particularly scorned those. Now Burgundian behemoths are out and we are seeing what I think of as Little Sag Harbours, Atlantic coast edifices with wood shingles on the walls and lots of little windows scattered about, homes that should be on some sprawling estate in the Hamptons, not jammed into a suburban lot on the former prairie of Illinois. Their windows, instead of looking out on Oyster Bay, gaze through the windows of their neighbors. Some are six feet apart.
    The trucks obviously weren't bringing anything—the truck beds were empty. They were taking something away. The dirt from the foundation of the new house.
    Kitty and I came around again that afternoon—the afternoon walk. We are creatures of habit, the both of us. If I try to deflect from our routine she will stop in her tracks and stare at me, indignant. 
     The trucks were gone. But something new was there. A hole. And not just any hole. A foundation, the deepest basement I've seen on a new house--it looked 10 feet deep. For a moment I wondered if they could be building an apartment building in the middle of that residential block. It was that deep. And wide, it was as if they had dug up the entire lot; there would be no yard at all. I stopped to gawp at hole, and a guy in a hard hat wandered by, and I struck up a conversation—I'm good at that. 
     There had actually been 11 trucks, he said. Two more arrived after I left.  "That's all I could get," said the foreman. "I asked for 20."  He said deep, wide foundations are the new thing, all the rage.
    "It's even dug under the garage," he said. "We use re-enforced concrete for the garage floor."
    Maybe class envy is involved—the mere upper 10 percent gazing at the upper 5 percent. Whoever dug the basement of my house, 100 years ago, made it just tall enough for a man of medium height to stand, and then he has to dip his head to avoid heating ducts in a spot or two. I wish that farmer had gone for an extra six inches, but he was probably digging by hand, and having done that myself, I know how tempting it is to stop at Just Deep Enough and not an inch more.
    Now they dig to China, and span the lot. I can't imagine what kind of Hyde Park horror is going up, but I don't have to; we'll find out soon enough. A lot of money in the world, concentrated in an ever narrowing band atop our society, and they want every cubic inch of basement they have coming to them. It won't be pretty to look at, but that isn't much of a concern anymore. Maybe it never was.



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Jews don't worship stones

     I'm actually on vacation this week, working on a long-delayed project around the house. 
     But I don't want to abandon you entirely, particularly as the news keeps coming, alas.
     Tired of tossing lit matches at the powder keg of the Korean peninsula, Donald Trump decided to shift Amateur Hour to the Middle East on Wednesday. He announced that the United States would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a reckless and destabilizing move, done against the counsel of his top advisers, one that pleases Trump's evangelical, let's-end-the-world-now-so-Jesus-comes-back Christians, and hard right Jews who support whatever folly Israel happens to be cooking up at the moment, and nobody else.
     Otherwise, it lights a fire under parties that need little provocation to unleash their basest instincts. Peace is now even more distant, hair-trigger tempers will flair, innocent people will die and nothing has been accomplished, except the kind of tough guy posturing that the right finds so appealing. 
     To be honest, there isn't much point to picking apart the folly of what Trump has done. All we have to do is step back and wait for the latest chapter of the half-century disaster to unfold.
    In the meantime, here's a visit I took to Jerusalem 13 years ago, as a guest of Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service. If you can, try to get to the end, because what the tour guide says reflects back on the whole situation. We're in love with land, but we used to stand for something, for justice. God has unleashed a number of his little jokes upon the Jewish people over their 5,000 year history. But if they've gone through all that only to end up as permanent jailers to an ever-increasing Palestinian captivity....well, the Big Guy wouldn't do that to us, or to them. Would he?

     JERUSALEM -- They don't call it the "Wailing Wall" anymore. For thousands of years Jews went there to lament the destruction of Solomon's Temple. But wailing is so, I don't know, negative, and Jews are trying to put a cheerier spin on life, where possible. So instead we call it the "Western Wall." Either way, it's an expanse of limestone blocks, the only remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago.
     I took a cab to the Old City. We pulled up by crenelated ramparts. I strolled in the direction of the Wall, illuminated by floodlights. The sight stopped me in my tracks. Enormous limestone blocks, with tufts of greenery spilling out. Above it the golden Dome of the Rock. As I hurried forward, my dead relatives shuffled into mind. As if all those slaughtered Bramsons, sleeping in their slit trenches in Poland, stirred.
     What would it have meant to them, I wondered, to have gotten here? To do what I could do right now? My grandfather, Irwin Bramson, had been the only one of his large family to slip out of Poland before the charnel house doors clanged shut. I have a hundred letters from his relatives left behind, his brother Zalman, his mother -- my great-grandmother -- Devora. Letters describing the tough life in Poland in the 1930s, expressing joy over the birth of a baby—my mother—and asking if my grandfather might not send another bundle of warm clothing and, maybe, a little money.
     The tradition is that you write down prayers and tuck them into cracks in the Wall, so God has an easier time finding them. Several people gave me notes to put in, and I created my own note, a small triangle cut from paper from an envelope from one of the letters to my grandfather. I liked the idea of paper used by a doomed Jew in Bialystock ending its days stuck in the Western Wall, melting in the soft Jerusalem rain.
     What to write was a puzzle. You can't comfort the dead, can you? What could I ask God now to do for them? It's a little late.
     For being the holy focus of Judaism, the atmosphere at the Wall is surprisingly casual. People came and went, with no one in apparent charge. A Hasidic beggar cadged coins. A box of cardboard skullcaps stood unattended. Most of those praying at the Wall were from the ultra-Orthodox sects that populate Jerusalem, rocking back and forth. Some sat on the chairs scattered around or stood still at little lecterns. Others merely folded their arms against the Wall and laid their head down, almost as if resting.
     I slapped on a cardboard skullcap and walked slowly up to the Wall. I found an open spot, placing both palms flat against the stone. Then, leaning forward, I touched the Wall with my forehead and prayed.
     It seemed the thing to do.
     In 30 seconds I exhausted the store of Hebrew prayers I know by heart. So I prayed the standard pleas, for the health of my family, for the future of my boys, and—this is scary—to be a better person. Jet lag.
     Then, without forethought, I kissed the Wall—a big, full-lipped smack—lingered for a long moment, and then left. That kiss really surprised me. I hadn't planned to kiss the thing.
     Caught up in religious frenzy, I suppose.
     If I didn't quite find faith at the wall, I did experience a temporary suspension of cynicism, which might be about as close as I come. I didn't carefully observe the scene, as I should have. I didn't take notes. I forgot to estimate how high the wall is or how wide (nearly a city block, with the men comfortably praying at three-quarters of it and the women jammed in the rest. Islam isn't the only religion where women can get the short end of the stick).
     Reason quickly returned to me. Kissing the Wall, I later realized, was as hygienic as drinking a teaspoon of Ganges River water. The next day a wonderfully acerbic tour guide took us through the water tunnel running parallel to the Wall. He reminded us that the Wall is not actually part of the Second Temple. Rather, he explained happily, it is part of the retaining wall used to create the mount where the Temple stood. There was no religious reason for Jews to pray there.
     "The stones there are as holy as the stones in my backyard," he said. "A stone is a stone is a stone. Jews don't worship stones."
     He's right, I thought, feeling a little embarrassed about the kiss.
     But not about the note. The Jews weren't praying to the limestone Wall. They were praying at it. Which is a different matter. We don't worship stones, but we do venerate life, and remember those who came before us. This was the place that Jews all over the world hungered toward. They didn't want to come here because of the weather, or because of the Wall, necessarily, but because this was their place -- is their place -- the place where they can stand and pray and not be afraid (OK, the "not be afraid" part is still a work in progress).
     You can't comfort the dead. But you can do what you imagine, had they known, might have brought them comfort. Perhaps Zalman Bramson, trapped in Poland, tried to rationalize his fate by telling himself that at least his brother escaped and that maybe, just maybe, one of his descendants will someday find himself in Jerusalem. He will overcome his skepticism. He will take a 70-year-old scrap of paper, write on it a prayer asking God to bless the memory of a family he has never met, and place it reverently into the Western Wall.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 30, 2004

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Bob Greene redux, this time as Trib triumph


    

Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel"



     Puh-leeze.
     I suppose it's inevitable, with sexual harassment pinballing around what's left of the media, that the mouldering corpse of disgraced Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene would eventually be dug up. 
     And I suppose it's equally inevitable that former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, now curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, would feel herself the person to do it.  Lipinski takes yet another victory lap for the Trib finally firing the guy in 2002, as if his predatory behavior were not an ... well..."open secret" was the phrase I was going to use, but that doesn't quite capture it. "Well-known, endlessly-discussed fact" is more apt, since you couldn't spit in a newsroom without finding revolted female professionals with tales of staving off Greene's crude advances.
     It was no secret at all. I wrote a column mocking Greene's column in the Chicago Reader and, in 1995, seven, count 'em, seven years before the scales fell from Lipinski's eyes, mentioned in print Bob's proclivity for luring young interns to hotel rooms, or pathetically trying to. 
     Not that it did any good. And to be honest, I had never been accosted by Greene. In fact, I never met him. I was far more offended by Bob's writing and worldview; his deplorable personal conduct was an afterthought, a dig, though at least it was that. For his bosses it wasn't something they'd consider at all, not publicly, not when they could maintain a willful, profitable blindness. 
     It's bad enough to ignore a problem for years and years, but to then present it as some kind of triumph of personal integrity prompted me to grab a shovel myself and do a bit of  disinterring.
     Ecce homo. I found this, a timely year-end review of Bob's work, using primitive America Online archive technology. Which, alas, did not extend to movies, because, I should note, that, upon looking for images now, I mis-remembered the ending of "The Blue Angel"—Emil Jannings is in the classroom all right, but in street clothes, not a chicken suit. 
     A forgivable lapse, I hope. Not my only one, which does make me uncomfortable, occasionally, with this whole grab-a-sin-from-40-years-ago-and-smear-it-on-someone cultural moment. Because people do change. Not Bob Greene, of course, his tragedy, and ours. Nor Ann Marie Lipinski, who dislocated her shoulder patting herself on the back in 2002 and is still at it. 
     But it does happen, and I am concerned that nuance will be lost, that the Al Frankens will be lumped in with the Roy Moores, and we'll end up with a new way to defame people but little actual progress.
     Still, if cracking open the past and hunting down sexual harassers means our society is actually improving, that the often degraded position of women is advancing, it will have been worth it. Though Donald Trump was still president last time I checked, so let's not take our own victory lap quite yet. Bad enough to hear the ululations of self-praise echoing from the ivory towers of Harvard. 

     With New Year's approaching I can't help but think of the classic movie "The Blue Angel," in which hot young Marlene Dietrich lures doddering Emil Jannings away from academe and into burlesque. The last scene shows the old guy back at his deserted schoolroom, still in the chicken suit from their nightclub act. He clutches at his old desk, weeping, emitting pathetic little chicken noises, as the enormity of his squandered life comes crushing down on him.
     Now, I realize it's pointless to hope that Bob Greene will be suffering similar pangs of remorse this December 31. It's too late for that.
     But can't you just see him? Wandering gravely from room to room, lit only by candles, trailing his fingers over the flat surfaces?
     Perhaps Bob too would be wearing a ridiculous costume—the tattered rags from some forgotten Bexley High School play. And he too would weep, as memories from the wasted year just past assailed him. The bells on his costume would jingle derisively as he moved through the dim hallways.
     We need not rely upon such conjecture to delineate the enormity of Bob's failure this year, pleasurable as it may be. There's an engine now available that can outline Bob's offenses against thought and journalism with greater precision than mere subjective adjectives like "repetitive" or "infantile" or "dull" ever could.
     I'm referring to the Chicago Tribune computer archives, which recently became available—at the usurious fee of $1.25 per minute prime time--on America Online.
     A few keystrokes and we see that Bob had written 167 columns in 1995 as we went to press. And that 59 of those columns were about Baby Richard. A solid 35 percent of his entire output--with zero practical effect other than making certain people think that by focusing on one white boy who has two sets of parents fighting to love him, they were exercising supreme compassion.
     Another 20 columns—about 12 percent—were spent denouncing major league baseball and embracing the scab players.
     Scanning over his year's output, I find it difficult to pinpoint a nadir, though I would cast my vote for the pair of columns he devoted last month to reprinting old movie lines and old newspaper leads. It was a classic Bob straw-man tactic, in which the untrue premise (that the written word is no longer valued) is followed up by the canard reaction (let's have an "experiment" to see which medium, newspapers of 60 years ago or classic films, is better). Jesus, couldn't he have just used a sick day?
     But why limit ourselves to the past year? The Trib archives also have a 1985-1995 search mode. You can view the full scope and horror of Bob Greene's world, the sad spectacle of his near-autistic fixation, suffocating narrowness, and tedious, head-crushing repetition.
     I've just spent some time there, and boy, I'll tell you, it's like going down to hell and staring up Satan's ass.
     In those 11 years, Bob has written 1,923 columns. More than a third—723—involve children, a reminder that before Richard there were Joseph and Sara and all the other wee ones Bob has used to cynically fill his columns with pages of court transcripts and letters of reader outrage.
     A quarter of the columns—484—mention television. Bob's home state of Ohio pops up in 170 columns. Another 74 feature Elvis Presley in some capacity--often a starring role. Thirty-six columns dredge up Bob's pointless fictional character, Mike Holiday, the supermarket bagger last heard from, mercifully, in 1993.
     Woody Hayes shows up ten times. One hundred and twenty-four columns pass through an airport; 72 mention a hotel room (though, oddly, none of these include a young intern). In a decade's worth of ostensibly soul-baring columns, none contain the words "hairpiece," "smarmy," or "too many vodka gimlets." Yet there are four references to Barbie, and two columns--nearly identical in content and five years apart—devoted to his old high school principal, C.W. Jones.
     Michael Jordan appears in 67 columns, just three more times than the word "mall" appears. Spend enough hours working the archives, and weird parallels will start to pop out. In his column of June 6, 1994, the word "Elvis" is repeated 23 times; exactly two months later, a column repeats the word "mall" 23 times. Of the 32 columns containing the word "brave," each uses "brave" exactly three times, except for the November 13, 1991, column, "The U.S. Shrinks to the Size of a Mall," which uses it five times.
     The clock moves toward midnight. The year 1996 stretches ahead of us, filled with promise and mystery. Only two things are certain: Bob will continue to boldly explore the bedpan ocean of his soul. And the Tribune is going to make a fortune on-line.
     —Originally published in the Reader, Dec. 21, 1995

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Steinberg family Christmas dance

The Hatch Family, by Eastman Johnson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     A good pun should be savored. You do not want to rush it. So after I opened my menu at Szechuan Kingdom the day before Thanksgiving, sitting in a booth with my wife and sons, I saw my opportunity, but took my time. I let them order first. Then the waitress looked at me. 
     "I'll have the 'Happy Family,'" I said, order a special of scallops, shrimp, chicken and vegetables, only then glancing over at my wife, who was genuinely surprised, almost shocked.
    "You always get the beef and broccoli," she said.
     It's true. I really like beef and broccoli. 
    "I thought I'd try something new," I explained. "Although I've sampled the 'Happy Family' at every Chinese restaurant I've been to. To compare them. And do you know what I've found?"
     I paused, savoring their puzzled faces.
     "All happy families are alike..."
     I don't think there was actually the sitcom groan that lives in my memory, but the triumph was mine. Nice one dad.
    Of course I missed my beef and broccoli during dinner—I always order it because I really, really, really like beef and broccoli—but it was worth it.
    The opening sentence of Anna Karinina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 
     A famous line, though, like many aphorisms, not necessarily true. The happiness in my family seems more idiosyncratic than general. We don't watch football, except sometimes the Super Bowl. But Tolstoy is not only bantered, but played a significant role in there being a family at all: years before I got married, I remember seeing Edie on the sofa, reading Anna Karinina, her face wet with tears, and thinking, for the first time, 'Can't let her go.'"
     We toted his-and-hers copies of War and Peace on our honeymoon, and while we didn't find time to read them, beyond a few symbolic minutes at the end, just because we had lugged the damn things, we did eventually. I later read the whole book, aloud, to my older son, finishing the night before he left for college, a high point of parenthood. Not only do I not believe the happiness of all dads involves reading War and Peace twice, I'm fairly certain it's just me.
     Not that reading, and punning about reading, is all we do. We attend or throw the same big family gatherings that most families have, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the Jewish holidays and sometimes we assemble just for the heck of it, and bathe in the glow of relatives close and distant. 
     Though other families find happiness in other ways. The Orgill family of Utah, as I discovered on Facebook Monday, choreographs ecstatic Christmas dances, which they perform in their home, record on video then share online. I assume doing so makes them happy, though following in their footsteps would be the definition of misery for the Steinbergs (though I do smile imagining the result, no doubt something between "The Dance of the Hours" in "Fantasia" and "Long Day's Journey into Night.")
     Although we did have one quasi-Orgill family moment. We were on our way to Ohio, to visit old friends who have a place at Put-in-Bay. We stopped at a Wal-Mart for some reason—pick up supplies I imagine—and they had this deep sale on these grey and aqua striped t-shirts. They were practically free, $2 or some such thing. So we each bought one, and put them on. Dressed identically, we rolled up to our friends' house. There is a photograph, but I'll be damned if I'm going to put it online, not matter how many clicks it would get. Give those wholesome dancing families credit. It takes guts. I like to think my family has courage too, in our, very different way. So with apologies to Tolstoy, I'd suggest that all happy families are not alike. While unhappy families, well, all families are unhappy, at one point or another. The key is getting past the unhappiness and becoming happy again.  
   
     
    

Monday, December 4, 2017

Where to go? Book bird-dogs intriguing Chicago places

Phil Sipka, at the Kusanya Cafe.
    Englewood is a long way to go for a cup of coffee. But I like coffee. So when I heard about Kusanya Cafe, a coffeehouse at 69th and Green, I decided to slide over for a cup.Most Chicagoans never go to Englewood for any reason. They associate it with murder, not coffee. But even the worst neighborhoods are also just that — neighborhoods — and I figured, if people can live there, I can visit.
     Inspiration came from a book called "111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss," published by German publisher Emons Verlag. That aspect is what initially caught my attention; I hoped to smirk at some foreigner's wildly mistaken impressions of Chicago. The book arrived from Germany; alas, it was written by Amy Bizzarri, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who lives by Logan Square.
     "I have a severe case of wanderlust," she told me. "But I can't go to India, so I go to Devon Avenue. It's my way of traveling. I feel I know a lot of hidden corners of city.
     The Chicago volume is one of dozens of "111 Places" books Emons sells, featuring the hidden charms of cities from New Dehli to Berlin to Istanbul. 
     "I saw the New York edition and thought, 'I'm the perfect person to write this for Chicago,'" Bizzarri said.
     She's right; she is. It's hard to pull off a book like this. You don't want to be too familiar. No point alerting folks to Wrigley Field. But you don't want to be too esoteric either. 

      Bizzarri succeeds. She finds the sweet spot, visiting many worthwhile Chicago treasures, ranging across the city and the spectrum of culture: music, museums, shops, restaurants. She hits many of my favorite obscure places, including the Sky Chapel atop the First United Methodist Church, with its bas-relief of Jesus pondering the skyline of Chicago circa 1952, and Red Square Spa, the former Division Street Russian Baths. The book is illustrated by creative, colorful pictures snapped by Chicago photographer Susie Inverso.
     A few places struck me as too well-known: the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle in the Museum of Science and Industry, for instance. And a couple are too obscure: The School of Shoemaking and Leather Arts is whimsical, but it isn't somewhere you visit but somewhere you enroll. If anybody reads this book and decides to become a cobbler, I'd love to hear about it. 
     Quibbles aside, the book's main value, for me, will be as a tip sheet, bird-dogging intriguing places I've somehow never heard of and now can visit. Chicago Honey Co-op? Big Monster Toys on South Racine? I'm on my way.


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