Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Booby trap killing echoes textbook case

     As a homeowner, you can put a 12-foot-tall fence around your property and top it with coils of razor-sharp concertina wire. The law will make no trouble for you, provided there aren’t zoning regulations regarding fence height.
     But if inside the fence you dig a moat, and line it with spikes, so that anybody brash enough to go over the top of your fence might be impaled, you could set yourself up for serious jail time.
     Why? Anybody? C’mon folks, you’ve got to do these readings.
     Katko v. Briney, a classic legal case on the tip of the tongue of anybody who ever went to law school or who, like me, typed his wife’s law school papers.
     On a July day in 1967, Marvin E. Katko broke into an unoccupied Iowa farmhouse, where the owners, tired of such break-ins, had set a shot-gun on an iron bed frame with the trigger wired to the door and the muzzle pointed toward it.
     The booby trap worked, the shotgun firing into Katko’s legs. The injured intruder sued the farmhouse owners, Edward and Bertha Briney.
     “Did Defendants employ a reasonable means of preventing the unlawful entry of trespassers on their property?” asks the CaseBriefs web site.
     The Iowa Supreme Court said no, concluding, “the law has always placed a higher value upon human safety than upon mere rights in property.”
     It awarded Katko $30,000 in damages. The Brineys had to sell 2/3 of the land on their farm to pay it.
     Alas, William Wasmund did not go to law school, nor type his wife’s papers, apparently. Nor did the Downstate man pause to ask himself whether rigging a 12-gauge shotgun to the door of a shed on his property was a good idea.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Nature is not cruel


     I didn't even try to take a picture of the eagle that swooped in front of our pickup truck.
     It was early morning Saturday. I had planned to hike the road before breakfast. But Ben, who took it upon himself to whip up breakfast, announced there were no eggs. Which made preparing his menu of pancakes and eggs problematic. The solution was to go into town, but he was a newcomer—from New Jersey—and wasn't quite sure where it was. Hoping to go on my walk, I at first tried explaining. I tried calling up a map on the phone—in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the Internet can be a work in progress. I got a white space with a line on it. 
    "I'll go with you," I gamely said. He said it wasn't necessary, which only steeled my resolve. 
    "If you go alone, you'll never get back," I said.  We got into the truck and rumbled down the long, long drive, firs and oaks and ferns flashing green past us on both sides. 
     As we turned onto the road, the eagle zoomed up from the shoulder and flapped its wings in slow, powerful beats just ahead of the car.
     "Keep up with it," I urged Ben, and we did, for 10 glorious seconds before the eagle peeled off. I considered the bird's appearance as a kind of cosmic reward, for my going along as navigator. 
     I've seen eagles up here before, in the same place, leading us up the road. Icing on the cake to what had already been a memorable trip, bird-wise: I spotted a pair of wild turkeys on our way in. I've never seen a wild turkey that wasn't capitalized and in a glass with ice.
      The trip to the store in Ontonagon was uneventful, except for the guy behind us in line who excitedly announced there was drag-racing going on, right now, at some fairgrounds nearby. I think he expected us to thump our kneecaps and exclaim, "Well, tarnation, let's GO!" And to be honest, the thought did cross my mind. But there were eggs to ferry back, pancakes to eat and friends awaiting.
    Afterward—almond-flavored pancakes, who knew?—I had my walk. There, by the side of the road, just where we had encountered the eagle, was a smear of feathers about 10 yards long. Obviously, we had interrupted its breakfast, though it must have made off with it—there were no remains, and I never saw the beak of the eagle, only its hind end. 
      I almost drew a connection between the nobility of the eagle—a hunter, a predator—and the cruelty of nature. But that isn't true, only an interpretation that humanity assigns to it, in our constant effort to get everything to reflect our own precious selves. Nature is not cruel. Nature just is. 


Monday, September 16, 2019

Well, this, for starters...

     My readers occasionally send gifts—often really nice stuff, like handmade easels and homemade English muffins.  Books they're written and drawings they've done. Sometimes portraits, quite good ones, given the subject matter. I always mean to write back and thank them. Sometimes I even do. But the race to get something half decent in the newspaper has a way of pushing everything aside, and then there is this blog. Every. Goddamn. Day.
      Last week I received this sign, sent by a reader. To be honest, I was more impressed with the quality of the sign itself—enamel over metal—than  by the sentiment expressed.  It wasn't cynical at all, but rather ... well, quite positive. It was suggesting that we need to focus on doing good for other people, and that can't be right. Then there was that bothersome "shall"—"What shall I do this day?" Quite fey in 2019. A question that you really have to be pressing your hands against both cheeks and sighing in order to express properly. Plus "this day." Not "today," but "this day," an echo of "Give us this day our daily bread." Practically a prayer. Ewwww....
     What to do—not "What shall I do"—with it? I flipped the sign over. On the back it read:
     Curious, I jumped online. Best Made Company is a hip concern with stores in Manhattan an Los Angeles. It's "About us" section offers nothing specific, only that their "customers are makers, adventurers, tinkerers, and curiosity seekers who only want one thing: quality." I bet they are.
     A little digging shows they started in spring, 2009 as a boutique axe company, founded by two Canadians, Peter Buchanan-Smith and Graeme Cameron. I'm not immune to quality axes. I've got one. But there are axes and there are axes. But let's put it this way: a Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe, stamped by the craftsman who made it, a fantastic tool I have rhapsodized here previously, costs $172 from Highland Woodworking. Five times the price of an axe you can grab at Home Depot, but a beautiful tool that's worth it.
     The Best Made Hudson Bay Axe goes to the next level. It costs $348, a little more than twice as much as the Gransfors Bruks. That seems excessive, almost grotesque.

     The sign, I couldn't help noting, cost $32. A lot for a little sign, and quite a compliment from the reader, who explained in a lovely note that she was moved by the column I wrote about a woman who altruistically donated her kidney to a stranger, to do her part to offset the carnival of vileness that is the Trump era.
     Tossing the sign in the trash seemed wasteful. And an insult to the reader who was not only so thoughtful, but shelled out 40 bucks to buy and send the thing to me.  I felt obligated, almost trapped.
     But "WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO THIS DAY?" Was I now committed to looking at the thing for the rest of my life? I decided to bring it home and consult with my wife. She'll know what to do. I showed her the sign and mused that I might put it up somewhere. 
   "Oh it's beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Put it up in the kitchen." 
    Okay then I swallowed hard and did.  After screwing it into the wall—a central location, just as you walk in—I thought to research the phrase.  
     Turns out the sentiment goes back to at least Benjamin Franklin, who before he was a Founding Father was a busy Boston printer, creator of "Poor Richard's Almanac," coiner of admonitory sayings. He claimed to begin each morning at 5 a.m. with thanks to God, followed by asking himself what good he should do that day,  and ended each day asking what good he had done. 
     So what's so bad with that? For a selfless person, nothing. But as somebody with a rather inflated sense of self, with a full time job wandering through his private Hall of Mirrors with a chamois and a bottle of Windex, the vow of helping others well, it seems insincere.  And unrealistic. Maybe I could insert a strategic "for me" with a Sharpie—"WHAT GOOD SHALL I DO for me THIS DAY?"
   No, no. That would throw off the purity of the design. And is probably a bad life strategy as well. I mean, look where it has gotten me. 
   Not that I'm against doing good for others and some days it does happen, mirabile dictu. But to be so intentional about it, so public, to ballyhoo the thing like that, raising the question on the kitchen wall. To set it as some kind of goal, to intend to do it, premeditated. That's a big step. 
     What good shall I do today? Well, I put up this sign. And wrote this post. That's a start.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Illinois Tech (aka IIT)

      Illinois Tech—or it is IIT?—is very proud of their Mies van der Rohe buildings. And rightly so. But they're also very proud of their new Kaplan Institute, particularly because it is light and not dark, mostly white, with splashes of color, such as these cushions in its amphitheater-like space, designed to look like giant Post-It note pads.
    Designed by IIT—or is it Illinois Tech?—alumnus John Ronan, it opened in October and is the first new building on campus in 40 years.  It's called the "Kaplan Institute" because 1965 alumnus Ed Kaplan kicked in $11 million for it.
     I was on campus Tuesday researching an unrelated story. But the Illinois Tech—or is it IIT?—folks were so proud of the new place they had to show me around, including the second floor, where they have fancy glass that ... I'm not sure what it does ... has dots that expand on sunny days to keep the sun from heating up the place too much, and contract on cool, cloudy days to let the heat and light in. Or some such thing.  Compressed air is involved.
     There's a lot more to it; study rooms and 3-d printer labs, a big area to construct prototypes. IIT—or it is Illinois Tech?—is pushing the snazzier latter name over the former. That's a good thing—Illinois Institute of Technology is a mouthful, and IIT can too easily be confused with UIC. But they seem to still have a foot on the dock and a foot on the pier, with lots of signs and banners reading IIT, and others reading Illinois Tech. I suppose it can be both, the way Northwestern and NU are the same place.

     Embarrassingly, Eric Zorn covered this topic, far more thoroughly, four years ago. 


Saturday, September 14, 2019

Flashback 2012: A late-night romp with exotic models

     An Ohio teen, Hannah Jones, came home early from college late last month and thought she would surprise her mother. She did. Her mother was indeed very surprised, and shot her. Only winged the young woman, thankfully. But a reminder that people who really cared about the safety of themselves of their families would ditch their guns, since owning a gun ramps up the odds that you'll shoot yourself or a loved one. It made me think of this column, which, to my surprise, I have never posted here before.

     Between the time the back door opened with a metallic "kathunk" and when it closed with a dull "knuhtak," I was on my feet, in the early morning bedroom dimness.
     I gazed across the sleeping form of my wife, at the clock on her night table: "5:03." My first waking thought was, "cats," the usual source of nocturnal disturbance: cats knocking cups into sinks, cats chasing each other howling through the house. Cats. 

     The next sound was a very human treading of feet downstairs. My second thought was a grim, "That's not a cat."
     I reached into the night table for a weapon.
     Many prudent men keep a handgun at their bedside. Houses are broken into. Horrors occur. A man must protect his family.
     And though I am certainly a prudent man, I am also a mathematical fellow, and can do numbers: the odds of bad stuff taking place in my leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook, of dangerous situations that can be resolved by my being armed, are minuscule—say a 10-second window every 20 years, if that—compared to the low-level threat posed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by the weapon itself. "The blade itself is an incitement to violence," as Homer put it. Plus accident: the possibility that, reaching into the drawer for a pen, I would manage to fire the handgun and blow my kneecap off. Owning a gun in Northbrook makes as much as sense as owning a grenade.
     Yet many people, indulging in their Clint Eastwood fantasies, don't see it that way.
     Anyway. For reasons mathematical, I reached, not for a pistol, but for a black Mag-Light flashlight. Not the most potent weapon, true, but a 10-inch-long steel cylindrical club that at least instilled a tiny bit of confidence—and isn't that what weapon ownership is all about? To calm our insecurities? Why otherwise would people assemble, not one gun or five, but whole arsenals, plus bottled water and dried food and God knows what else. A desperate, futile attempt to feel protected.
     The flashlight was satisfyingly heavy in my hand, thanks to its trio of D batteries, ready to bash whoever was making those footsteps.
     At the bedroom door I saw the downstairs lights were blazing. A second possibility, after cats, stirred at the back of my mind.
     "Ross, is that you?" I squeaked, my voice suddenly thin and anemic.
     "Go to bed," my 17-year-old commanded, tossing a pile of calculators, pens and notebooks onto the kitchen table, then looking around at the downstairs, lit up like a cruise ship.
     "Why are all the lights on?" he asked
     "Your mother probably left them on for you," I said, meekly complying with his command, climbing the stairs, limply holding my flashlight. "Turn them off before you go to sleep."
     Not that I would have shot him if I had a gun, mind you—I like to think that I would be the sort of gun owner who takes a gander at what he's shooting. But doesn't every gun owner tell himself that? Yet teenage boys creeping in at dawn are still blown away by sleepy dads, far more, I'd bet, than the number of potato-nosed villains in black and white striped shirts and soft caps, caught dead-to-rights, with the family silverware in a sack over their shoulders.
The reason

     OK. OK. I know my audience. I can't just have my kid waltzing home at 5:03 a.m. without SOME explanation.
     But it's delicate . . . and as much as readers say they enjoy reading about the boys, they just don't appear here all that much anymore. They're studying a lot, or slumped on sofas, flipping through magazines or watching TV. There isn't much to say. I try to respect their privacy.
     He was coming home so late because . . .
     Oh, this will be hard to believe. I have a hard time believing it. When I was 17, and crept home with the dawn, it was not for this reason or anything like it. But kids nowadays . . . I'm no dupe; I've considered other scenarios, just to see if there is any chance an alternate might be possible. I wish there were. But there isn't.
     OK. Here goes: The 15th Annual High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling, run by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications. Each team—he and three pals—picks a problem and has exactly 36 hours to answer it. They were at a buddy's house crunching numbers all night. After he had slept, my wife's attempt to pry more information resulted in exactly one sentence, an exasperated, "We were modeling gasoline prices, mother." And that was it.
     Don't get me wrong. I'm proud. Though I worry he's frittering away his youth, and have encouraged him to pursue other, umm, non-mathematical activities ("Think of it as a new skill set you could master," I said, wanly). But with kids, you have to accept what you get, and as strange as it is, at times, I'm not complaining. I'm just glad I didn't shoot him.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 26, 2012

Friday, September 13, 2019

Flashback 2000: Miracles of not-so-modern medicine


     You've probably never been to the International Museum of Surgical Science on Lake Shore Drive. Few people have. I've been twice; last year, so I could compare it with Philadelphia's notorious Mutter Museum. And the first time, for a party in 2000.

     The bone crusher caught my attention.
     A massive, chrome device with a pair of hooks that go over a limb, holding it in place, and a threaded rod tightened by a steel bar, that pushes down, breaking the arm or leg so it can be reset. The thing was dated to 1918, though it seemed as if it belonged to the Middle Ages.
     The intriguing contraption was just one of the eye-popping—sometimes literally—displays at the International Museum of Surgical Science, located, along with the International College of Surgeons, in a grand pair of side-by-side mansions on the 1500 block of North Lake Shore Drive. The museum is a perennial favorite in the pantheon of offbeat Chicago sites.

    I had always intended on visiting, someday. But the years passed, then decades, and the desire never coalesced into action until free food and beverages were thrown into the mix.
     Then I was there in a heartbeat, joining the throng celebrating the publication of Secret Chicago (ECW Press, $ 17.95), Sam Weller's guide to odd, little-known places in the Chicago area.
     As is inevitable with such guides, the book is a curious mix of genuine hidden treasures, such as the museum, visited by as many as 20 people a day, and better-known locales, such as the Art Institute, or that obscure gem known only to the 4 million people who somehow discover it, Taste of Chicago.

     While I enjoyed the museum, I don't know if I would recommend it to everybody, particularly the faint of heart.
     True, it has a certain naive charm. In an era when most museum exhibits are ultra-slick endeavors, assembled by teams of academics and funded by multinational corporations, the surgical museum is endearingly rustic, almost crude, in a cobbled-together way, between the rough stone statues in its Hall of Immortals, and the haphazard jumble of displays, identified haltingly with handmade labels, all skewed and fading.
     But the folksiness of the place also contributes to its chamber-of-horrors feel, the way the serenity of a town in a Stephen King novel underlines the nightmares building below the surface. I had heard about the uteral and kidney stones on proud display, but was caught off-guard by the vivid oil paintings of unspeakable pre-modern surgeries, not to mention the saws, knives and, of course, that bone crusher.
     I left the place intrigued by a pair of questions.
     First, why is the museum there? As flush as the International College of Surgeons, which runs the museum, must certainly be, it also must be tempted to cash out on such a prime piece of real estate and put its museum, oh, in Navy Pier or Woodfield Mall or some place where people could actually get at it.
     Short answer: They can't.
     "Of course the buildings are landmarks," said Dolores Leber, a museum associate. "That's why we're in the place we're at. It's the perfect site for high- rises, but being a landmark . . . .       And second: Sure, that bone crusher seems barbaric. But how do they reset bones now? For all I know, every hospital in America has a bone crusher.
     They don't.
     "Things are much more sophisticated," said Dr. David Beigler, an orthopedist at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He said the problem with a device such as the bone crusher is you never know where the bone will break. Nowadays, they'd operate, going in and cutting.
     Still, the process is not without its throwbacks to the past.
     "We do have a wire saw that you operate with two hands called a 'giggly saw,' " said Dr. Brian Cole of Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. "It's sort of a prehistoric device."
     Dr. Cole had no idea, however, what the ominous "giggly" in "giggly saw" refers to. That's the problem with this profession. You solve one question, and another pops up to take its place.
         —Originally published May 18, 2000 in the Sun-Times

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Flashback 1994: Cultural Differences Hamper Health Care

Station Hospital, by Robert Smullyan Sloan (Metropolitan Museum)
     "Medical stories are always interesting," I told my wife, justifying the hours I've been spending downtown this week, researching an upcoming column at a Chicago hospital. Between that, and a big piece due for Mosaic early next week, I'm going to have to phone in the blog for a few days. Since I'm in a medical mode, a few medical stories from the hazy past, including this, which I found out about through contacts in the Russian emigre community.

     They complain of serdtsa boleet -- literally "heartache" -- or pitchen boleet, a pain in the liver. They wave mysterious bottles with Cyrillic labels and demand valerian, an herbal tranquilizer rarely used here since the 1800s.
     They are immigrants, mostly Jewish, from the troubled, fractured land that once was the Soviet Union. Their steady influx into Chicago—3,000 last year, 14,000 in the last seven—has created a massive health care challenge for local social service agencies and affiliated hospitals.
     "They're sick folks," said Joan M. Schulhoff, director of Jewish Federation programs at Mt. Sinai Hospital, summing up the general health of the immigrants.
     "We are seeing many more problems than had before, because of the deterioration of the economy of the former Soviet Union. We are seeing more untreated cancer, untreated heart disease, untreated diabetes."
     Mt. Sinai and Michael Reese Hospital treat without charge any Soviet immigrant with a serious medical condition for the first four months they are in the country. Sometimes it's longer.
     "Any urgent or emergency care," said Carol S. Goldbaum, director of Michael Reese's department of social work. "We're not piercing ears, we're not doing breast reconstruction. We do cardiac bypass, radiation therapy, anything that has to do with cancer. Cataracts or glaucoma if they're looking at permanent damage unless something is done."
     The program is set up under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, under contract with the state to provide health care for all refugees.
     Mt. Sinai provides $1.5 million a year in unreimbursed services, and Michael Reese as much as $1 million. The federation spends $2.5 million a year on immigrant health care, including the money it gets from the state.
     "We've been refugees for thousands of years—we know how to do this stuff," said Joel Carp, associate executive director of the federation.
     Many of the new immigrants are elderly relatives of people who came to this country years ago.
     Naum Zhits and his wife, Tslya, both 68, spent only one night under the roof of a relative in Highland Park before Tslya, who has a history of heart trouble, needed to be rushed to the hospital. Less than a week after leaving Minsk, she is in Michael Reese awaiting a triple bypass.
     For those with less urgent needs, the first step is a screening at the Touhy Health Center, run by Mt. Sinai. Doctors have two goals—ascertain individual health care needs and spot public health dangers—syphilis, AIDS, even leprosy.
     It is no vain exercise: One-third of all the immigrants are carrying tuberculosis.
     Ed Gilmore, a physician assistant, helps examine the 30 patients a day coming into Touhy.
     A major challenge is dealing with the myriad differences in medical culture. The Russians, for example, often are averse to taking aspirin. But many are addicted to tranquilizers. "It is an over-tranquilized population," Schulhoff said.
     Then there are the aftereffects of Soviet medicine with which U.S. doctors must deal.
     "Oftentimes their doctors lacked the facilities to perform necessary tests, so they made diagnoses 'from the ceiling,' " said Gilmore, using the Soviet slang term for a doctor sitting back in his chair, gazing skyward, and making up a significant-sounding diagnosis.
     An important part of this care is teaching new patients fundamentals of nutrition and preventive care, and how to use the U.S. medical system.
     Caregivers have been sent to Berlitz courses so that they have at least a rough understanding of Russian.
     It helped Gilmore one recent day, as he examined 8-year-old Ilya Samovskiy.
     Gilmore set the boy at ease with a magic trick, and proceeded to examine him, speaking a mixture of English and poorly pronounced Russian. "My bad accent amuses the old folks," he says. "They like it a lot."
     The boy's condition, he tells Ilya's mother, Galina, is "ne seriosna," -- he just has a slight fever -- and Gilmore perscribes "Tylenol, two tabletski."
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times April 4, 1994