Friday, February 28, 2014

FLASH: some use faith to draw others closer, not push them down


     For the decade that I was a member of Shir Hadash Synagogue, the congregation didn’t have a building of its own to call home. So we held services where we could in the northwest suburbs. During High Holy Days, when the faithful would turn out en masse, that meant celebrating Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at Our Lady of the Brook Catholic Church in Northbrook, a lovely, light-filled space, and the Rev. Thomas Moran would sometimes appear at our services and do a reading.
     At the time, the symbiosis between the synagogue and the church struck me as something merely nice. They welcomed us and we went. But now, with bakers and caterers and wedding photographers across the country raising a cry, trying to claim a newly minted right to refuse to do business with customers who belong to groups of which they don’t approve — gays, primarily, but there’s no reason why that right, once recognized, couldn’t be extended to allow shunning just about anyone based on religious scruple — I wondered if the arrangement is perhaps timely and instructive. 
     I had to ask: Is not offering your church, your sacred space, to Jews far more extreme than anything these laws are designed to address? Here you have a people who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Who don’t merely engage in a forbidden sexual practice, but bear direct hereditary guilt — in the minds of some — for the savior’s death. Is this not a far greater imposition on your faith than baking a wedding cake and sticking two plastic grooms on top? I wondered: Did not Our Lady of the Brook parishioners complain about renting their facilities to Christ Denial Inc.?
     “We had one or two of those,” Moran said.
     And what, I wondered, did you tell them?
     “I just said, ‘Well, Jesus was Jewish. So was Mary, so were the Apostles. None of them were Christians.’ I said that even Pope Benedict is working for closer relationships. Even in Rome. It’s a good interfaith move.”
     Religion is complicated, but its relationship with the greater world can be divided into one of two general camps. There is the we’re-right-(whoever “we” happens to be)-you’re-wrong-but-luckily-you-can-be-killed-or-converted-or-pushed-into-the-shadows camp. Call that the Old Way.
     The Old Way was popular for, oh, 3,000 years, and as an engine of human misery, comes right after disease and war. Yet it holds sway in hearts today, though not in Arizona, not officially, since the governor on Wednesday vetoed the law enshrining discrimination against gays based on Old Way religion. Shunning gays is one thing; shunning 5 percent of the tourist trade is another matter. Talk about an epiphany.
     But similar laws are still pending in Georgia, Kansas, Tennessee and South Dakota.
     Then there is the New Way, the can’t-we-all-get-along camp, the result of recognizing the heartbreak that results from the Old Way, after you realize that even a big religion, even the Roman Catholic Church, or Islam, is not so big that it’s ever going to cover the earth. You might as well tolerate the laughable sects and fringe cults that others call faith, even explore their strange and mistaken notions of theology, because no matter how hard you stamp on them, they’re not going away. You might even find you have things in common. Our Lady of the Brook not only supplies space for Shir Hadash services, but Shir Hadash congregants danced at an Easter Week celebration, and Eitan Weiner-Kaplow, Shir Hadash’s rabbi, co-taught a course about Esther with Peery Duderstadt, Our Lady’s deacon, in a class attended by congregants from both.
     “Everyone got along just fine,” Moran said. “There is such a thing as ‘material cooperation.’ I can supply cookies. I can supply flowers.”
     There is no reason to shun each other.
     “I just spent four days in the Vatican,” Weiner-Kaplow said, explaining that he was with a party of rabbis exploring the seat of Catholicism. “It’s a key principle of a holy and religious life, especially in Reconstructionist Judaism. It’s not about meddling, not about commingling, not about compromising your own tradition at all. It’s about honoring and respecting other faiths and traditions, and seeking commonalities so together we can share our humanity and share living on Earth. We recognize that all faiths and traditions are searching for God in their own unique way. They’re all pathways to living a moral and spiritual and holy life.”
     Is it really so puzzling how that outlook can be winning out over “I’ve decided that my religion commands me not to bake wedding cakes for homosexuals”?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

And what does that funny cross we kept saluting mean again?

     Take a look at the young man in this picture. You might recognize him: Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. But ignore his celebrity, if you can, and just examine his face, his features. What do you think? An ordinary-looking fellow, correct? Not handsome, particularly, not ugly either. Slightly receding hairline, perhaps, largish jaw. Now notice his nose. A fairly nondescript nose. Not one that would command attention. A little triangular, perhaps. Maybe a little pointed, if you were asked to comment upon it. But certainly not the first thing you'd notice. And his lips? If anything, a little thin.
     Now look at this caricature of Zuckerberg that appeared Friday in Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest newspaper in Germany. Setting aside, for the moment, the fact the Zuckerberg is portrayed as an octopus. The caption reads, in German, "Krake-Zuckerberg," or "Zuckerberg Octopus."  Notice anything particularly exaggerated in the drawing? His nose, certainly. And his thick, fleshy lips.
     Did I mention that Zuckerberg is Jewish? He is.
     In one of his tentacles, he holds the logo for WhatsApp, the messaging company Facebook just bought for $16 billion. You'd think that WhatsApp was some beloved bit of German culture—BMW, perhaps—and not a five-year-old California tech start-up that most of the world never heard of before Facebook bought it.
     Nor is the octopus image random.
     “The nefarious Jew/octopus was a caricature deployed by Nazis. That was used pretty much as a staple by the Nazis in terms of their hateful campaign against the Jews in the 1930s," Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate the Simon Weisenthal Center, told the news site Algemeiner. "[An] exaggerated Jewish nose removes any question if this was unconscious anti-Semitism.”
    Unconscious? The artist, Burkhard Mohr, told the Jerusalem Post that he was "shocked" anyone could view his cartoon as anti-semitic.
    “Anti-Semitism and racism are ideologies which are totally foreign to me,” he said. ‘It is the last thing I would do, to defame people because of their nationality, religious view or origin.’
     That "totally foreign" is more chilling than the drawing itself. If we take him at his word, and there's no reason not to, it's a sobering reminder why people should learn about the past, in all its frequent ugliness. Then maybe these ideologies wouldn't be quite so foreign, and not quite so easy to fall into, consciously or unconsciously.
    "Those who cannot remember the past," as George Santayana wrote, "are condemned to repeat it." Luckily the world is here to remind the Germans about their — and our — horrific past, because they don't seem to remember it, and we'll be damned if we're going to let them start repeating it.







Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You're not really wearing that wetsuit, are you?


     Kudos to the mayor, not only for doing the Polar Plunge on Sunday, assuming he follows through, but for enticing new “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon to join him. And give Rahm extra credit for gulling Chicago Public Schools children into thinking he was making some kind of sacrifice when he made a bet, vowing if they read 2 million books he’d jump in the chilly lake.
     This is the same Rahm Emanuel who’s the triathlete, right? Who regularly jumps into the lake of his own volition, for fun? Then swims a half mile while he’s there. OK, maybe not in this cold. But it isn’t like he’ll be in the lake for long, and if he wears that wet suit he’s been brandishing, he’ll be neither cold nor wet, really.
     That’s like me making a bet where, if I lose, I have to go to the opera.
     Having done the Polar Plunge, six years ago (in a suit and necktie, by the way, as Fallon says he will do — in comedy, there is nothing new under the sun), I can tell you that the discomfort of the thing, as with most daunting tasks, is all in the contemplation. Ohhh, the lake is chilly. Ohhh, I’ll get wet. Ohhh, what did I get myself into?
    Suck it up, men.
    The Polar Plunge is basically a daylong lakeside party, the clever combining of doing good and boozy blowout that makes for successful charity events. As the former charities, foundations and private social services reporter for this paper, I always view such parties as a philosophical quandary: Are fun elements added to charity events to make them more popular and successful? Or are charity elements grafted onto fetes and beach bashes in order to shave a bit of the End of Rome frivolity off them?
     Rich swells like to gather for balls but eventually felt guilty, so they invented the dodge of tossing a bit of the glitter at the needy. Or am I being Debbie Downer? I'm not really one of those grim scolds who say, "You know, you could skip the five-course dinner at the Peninsula and the 20-minute set by Chaka Khan and just send all the money to charity..." That misses the point. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. People are complex, and passing the hat for Special Olympics wouldn't be one-tenth as successful as goading folks into jumping in the lake.
     Believe me, hounding helps. I did the Polar Plunge not because I'm a nice guy, God knows, but because I got tired of being bugged by Michael Sheehan to do it, and it was easier to jump into Lake Michigan than to keep saying no. Being hectored into doing something, Jimmy, or doing it because you lost a bet, Rahm, doesn't make you a hero.
     The person whom I really admire for doing the plunge is my elder son, who was 12 at the time, a pale, 75-pound chess fanatic with long blond hair, as tough as an orchid, who accompanied me to the Polar Plunge to watch, or so I thought.
     But as I went splashing in and fell face-first into the 33-degree water, he followed me, spontaneously. No fanfare, no premeditation, no press hoopla. And he never spoke about it again. So remember, the plunge is fun and it's cool, literally, but it's no big deal. The point of the thing is to raise money for Special Olympics, which is a big deal. Good for the mayor and the TV host for drawing attention to the plunge and Special Olympics, but a gentle reminder to keep the attention on the plunge and Special Olympics, and not lavish it all on the two big egos dampening themselves for a good cause.
     One more thought: None of this mincing up to your knees, squealing and cringing, and then running back as if you had done something. Total immersion, boys. Think optics, Rahm. If you do it in that wet suit, it'll be Michael Dukakis driving the tank all over again. The Jack Higgins editorial cartoon will haunt you to your grave: He'll add a face mask and snorkel and Bears blanket. No wet suit. If you're going to jump in the lake, especially after all this buildup and hand-wringing and self-glory, then really jump in the lake. A child could do it.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Post Office Redux: Return to Sender

    One thing I've learned in my job is there is almost no connection between columns I'm excited about, columns I've worked hard on, and columns that interest readers. 
     Monday's column, for instance, on waiting at the post office, was purely a matter of timing — I needed to write something, and had just experienced the long wait at the post office. It was what I think of as "a duck in a bucket" -- an easy target, sitting at my feet, softly quacking, waiting to be blasted. You can't miss.
     I was almost embarrassed to write it. Had you asked me to gauge reader reaction ahead of time, I'd have guessed, perhaps a bit of chiding, for plucking such low hanging fruit. 
     Wrong. Dozens of emails. Gratitude. Amazement. Delight. At least 50. Everyone had a story or a thought to share, such as this, from Dennis Quinn:
I walked into the Tinley Park post office a few months ago and there was no queue and a clerk behind the counter. She was the only clerk on duty. She was doing what seemed to be some sort of administrative work. She looked up, saw me and immediately put the next window sign in front of herself. There wasn't any one else there! It was truly a WTF moment. After a few minutes, she removed the sign and said "Next please." Pure hell. 
    Several mentioned poor command of the English language, or rudeness, including clerks who were rude with their mouths full of food.  Much indifference. Several readers relayed stories of post offices running out of stamps.  Jack Costello wrote: 
     It reminded me of my experience 10 days before Christmas. I went to the Elmhurst Post Office and waited about 20 minutes to get international stamps. When my turn came, the gal told me they were out of international stamps. I phoned Villa Park USPS and they also were out of international stamps. It seems no one knew there would be a rush before Christmas. I phoned Melrose Park USPS on Lake Street and YES, they had the stamps.
     I quickly got over to Melrose Park and got the stamps. I couldn't help but notice there were 3 employees working the counter and I was the only customer.
     In Elmhurst, there are rarely more than 2 employees working the windows and the lines are usually back to the entrance. I often see employees chatting in the back while customers wait 20 minutes or more.
     There is obviously no coordination of manpower needs or product inventory between nearby branch offices. As I told the Elmhurst gal, "No wonder you people are going broke" 
     A few readers came to the defense of the post office. Thomas Evans wrote:
     Funny column today, but I tend to bridle at P.O. bashing. For the record, the clerks at my local Office are friendly and curteous, and I seldom have to wait more than five minutes.  I suspect the experience may differ in the city.
     My soft spot for the USPS goes back to college days, when I worked as a part time mailman during Christmas vacations. I've never worked harder, and once got fired for exceeding delivery time standards. Also, I think of one of my literary heroes, Anthony Trollope, who managed to write 56 still readable novels working four hours early every morning before reporting to his day job as a high official at Her Majesty's Post Office. He also set up the postal service in Ireland.
     There is a fiction that the USPS is an independent government entity set up to be run like a business, but meddling by its Congressional overseers really makes that impossible.  I expect service at the Merchandise Mart will improve after your column. The power of the press.
     I was pleased by Tom's Trolllope reference. A nice bit of literariness.  Though it was this witty addition, from Charles Berg, that made me think I should post a few:
    As you may be aware, various nations now issue stamps with no inscribed denomination — but are marked as paying the fee for a certain postal service [e.g., a first-class letter] at any future date, regardless of the cost on that later date. Canada calls such issues "Permanent" stamps, which bear a white letter "P" shown against a red stylized maple leaf. While waiting in a long line at my local post office recently, it struck me that the "Forever" notation used by the USPS may be a reflection of the time it takes to get service at a USPS station these days. 
     I should point out that  I did phone the Chicago branch of the postal service before running this. I like to give my columns a news angle, and not just wax comedic, and had a question I thought might mitigate the problems I saw at the Merchandise Mart: I suspected that the post office, with its chronic funding woes, is understaffed. It wouldn't do to mock an organization struggling to survive, doing its best under constraints -- I know what that's like.  So I phoned Mark Reynolds, the Chicago USPS spokesman, whom I've dealt with in the past and is unusually candid and personable, for a government PR functionary. Reynolds said that no, staffing is fine, which sort of makes it worse. He too wrote me on Tuesday, with clarity and sense, and we'll give him the last word, nearly: 
    We had such a lovely chat Friday afternoon, I’m rather surprised you didn’t include any of my information in today’s piece.

     I do wish you’d asked me about “security theater.” That’s not an idle exercise, we are required to ask that question of every piece presented for mailing, for the protection of the general mail stream and the vehicles - including commercial airplanes - that transport it, as well as our customers, employees and facilities.

     Our clerks ask the other questions because customers don’t always know which mailing option and/or additional service is right for what they’re sending. And it never hurts to ask if there’s anything they might need.

     While I understand the frustration with waiting so long to be served, Post Office lobbies are far from Kafka-esque, as indicated by the mobile retail scanners I mentioned in our interview. Even if the wait is longer than we aim for, they’re anything but hellish. And by using the tools at usps.com, customers can pay for postage and arrange a free package pickup 24 hours a day – no waiting required!

    I’d like to take you up on that offer to do a follow-up piece to this. I might even be able to meet you…back at Merchandise Mart.
     I told him I'd be happy to do any kind of follow-up. I also snapped the above photo Wednesday, walking past the Merchandise Mart station.  So much for Tom Evans' theory about the power of the press.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Make the most of every minute: wait at the post office



  Among the theoretical questions people sometimes pose to themselves — if my house were burning down, what would I grab? If I won millions in the lottery, what would I buy? — is the classic, “If I had one day to live, what would I do?”
     People usually say they’d spend their last moments with family or in the embrace of a loved one. Unimaginative. Me, I know exactly where I would rush: to the nearest post office. There, each minute would be long, if not endless, and deeply felt. Plus, when my end finally came, I would be eager to go.
     I had a couple of packages to send this week, and while in my old age I have learned to weigh them, slap on proper postage and just drop them off, thus escaping the eternal limbo of waiting, I had run out of dollar stamps and figured I would slide by the postal service station in the Merchandise Mart.
    Seven people in line. Normally I’d spin around and leave. But I had to get this in the mail. How long could it take? I chose to wait. The lone clerk was helping a customer with the slowness of a deep-sea diver defusing a bomb at the bottom of an ocean of honey.
     But another clerk setting up.
     Ah, reinforcements, I thought, hope dawning. The clerk got her station ready, and slid back a glass partition, just as the other clerk finished her transaction. Her customer turned to flee, and at that moment the working clerk spun 180 degrees and walked away as the new clerk announced to us, "May I help you?" As if there were some postal rule against two clerks working at the same time.  
     "You know," I said to the woman in front of me, "The post office is the one place where tea party dogma about tearing down the government starts to make sense."
     "This is actually a good one," she said in flat voice. "The others are worse. The people here are nice . . ."
     The new clerk suddenly left, so there was nobody behind the counters.
     " . . . when they're here," the woman continued.
     Nobody was just buying a stamp or weighing a letter. They all had complex transactions - certified, insured letters to foreign addresses. They fell to protracted conversations about different stamps, just out of earshot, the clerk holding up one sheet, then another. One woman asked about having something notarized, and the clerk began to explain at length why she couldn't do that.
     As I neared the front, the line slowed. Time itself seemed to slow. Finally, I got to the front. "I want to mail this book."
     Not so fast. First, security theater: Any of my articles liquid, fragile, potentially hazardous such as lithium batteries?
     "It's a book."
     Do I need insurance, tracking, receipt confirmation? A blur of services offered.
     "No, thank you."
     I'm beginning to see the problem here. It isn't just that the system is slow and the staff indifferent — seemingly indifferent; I'm sure postal workers are very nice people who would care if only it weren't against the rules, if only they weren't trapped in some Kafka-esqe machine, forced to repeated litanies of rare perils and unwanted services. The book was finally stamped. I set my second package, a poster tube, on the scale.
     The woman turned and wordlessly walked away again. I could feel the line shift and groan behind me. It was then I realized, given a choice, I would spend my last moments on earth here. In fact, I think I am; some part of me never left the post office. I'm still standing there. The comforting thought is this: At least when I do die and go to hell, what I find there won't come as a surprise. Hell is a post office with, maybe, flames.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

If you think you've never failed, you just did

    Before we shake off the trial of Steve Mandell—the ex-cop lowlife convicted of plotting to kidnap and torture a local businessman to extort money from him before murdering him—with a shiver of disgust, like a dog after a bath, we should pause and use the case to remind us what a bad state's attorney Cook County has in Anita Alvarez.
    Compare how the feds took down Mandell with how she botched the NATO 3 trial. Both defendents were accused, basically, of the same thing: planning to do something awful. Neither had actually done anything, yet. First they were very different types of defendants: Mandell was a stone cold killer who had already been on Death Row and was thought to have been responsible for some half a dozen murders. While the NATO 3 were a trio of stoners from Florida who had never done much of anything, good, bad or indifferent. 
    One was methodically preparing to commit a hideous crime. Nobody who listened to the FBI tapes of Mandell gloating over his torture chamber could doubt that he intended to follow through his plan—the jury took just four hours to find him guilty. While the ridiculous evidence scraped up the by Chicago police, capped by the farcical image of their undercover Inspector Clouseau and his sidekick in fake mustaches hanging out at the Heartland Cafe, getting the lowdown from whatever aging hippie stopped by for a cup of bancha tea, was surpassed only by their how-stupid-do-they-think-we-are testimony.  The cops obviously stood by, cheering on the NATO goofs, prodding and guiding them through constructing molotov cocktails that no impartial person could imagine they intended to eventually light and hurl at anyone, never mind a cop. The jury certainly couldn't. 
    The most telling thing, after a jury held its nose and handed her case back to her, after rejecting the most serious charges, was that Alvarez, like bad prosecutors everywhere, doubled down. Doubt never creased her brow. She had learned nothing, she proudly announced, and would charge the NATO 3 again in heartbeat, given the chance.
    "I would bring them again tomorrow with no apologies and no second-guessing," she angrily told reporters. I believe her, and when the next paltry case makes headlines, where Alvarez is diverting scarce public law enforcement funds into her newest dubious prosecution, we'll know she's a woman of her word, unfortunately.
     There's nothing wrong with making a mistake. Everyone does it. What is loathsome is to make mistakes and then deny they are mistakes, out of ego. Prosecutors have to believe in their cases, true, and you wouldn't want a state's attorney to fold up and surrender every time a jury ruled against them. But you see how prosecutors, again and again, subvert justice by ignoring clear evidence that the defendants they are harrying are in fact innocent.  And Alvarez has already made a name for herself —committing "political suicide" was how it was described at the time—by defending the indefensible, sometimes on national TV.
     If you are curious as to whether you are a  thinking adult, or an incompetent jerk, the easiest way to find out is to take this little test. Ask yourself what mistakes you've made, what things you've done that you are sorry you did and would not do again. If those come easily, if you have a long list, if they present themselves like a class of eager 2nd graders waving stretching their arms into the air and going "Oh! Oh! Oh!" then you're probably okay. If you can parse your missteps with genuine curiosity, and not with the kneejerk defensiveness that causes people to cling to errors and become the ball of shameful buffoonery that Alvarez is, then you're probably a professional and good at what you do. But if you can't admit that you've done anything wrong—and everyone has—then you probably should do some soul searching, although, the ironic thing is, you probably can't. 
      Everyone is fallible—people err and, ironically, the more we deny it, the more we probably dwell in error. Don't be like that. Own your failures. Be open to the idea that you aren't perfect and sometimes do things you shouldn't. Not as a pre-made excuse or a show of false humility. But because you believe it, and you might as well, because it's true, and the alternative is really ugly. You'll notice nobody ever talks about Anita Alvarez running for mayor, or any other office. Bad enough we have to endure her as state's attorney, prosecuting poor women for stealing loaves of bread. She's been on the downward slope for years. Someone should tell her; not that it would do any good.
      

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday fun: where is this?



     
    When all of our reading matter is finally stored on electronic devices, we won't need all these books jamming our shelves. Which I suppose might be a good thing, or have its good aspects—from a housekeeping point of view, for instance. Less dusting. 
      That is the brave, you-might-as-well-be-glad-about-what's-going-to-happen-whether-you-like-it-or-not view. Though speaking for myself, I will miss books. A person's library speaks volumes about who they are (sorry, the mindset of yesterday's pun column lingering...)  When I walk into someone's home or, in this case, their office, my eye is immediately drawn to their books. First, because I'm glad they have them — not everybody does — and second because I'm interested in what those books are. Sometimes a person's books indict them—junk fiction, dare-to-win self-help swill, stuff that makes the heart sink. And sometimes books compliment their owners and intrigue guests. As someone who has an entire shelf of books selected purely for their off-beat topics—Snow in America by Bernard Mergen next to to a pair of volumes both titled Ice (one, by Marina Gosnell, subtitled The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, the other, by Karal Ann Marling, Great Moments in the History of Hard, Cold Water) I admired this collection of useful volumes that I noticed Friday when I spent a pleasant 90 minutes visiting ... well, maybe I shouldn't say. Maybe I should be coy, and leave you hanging about exactly where these books are shelved, and make it into a puzzle.  In the office of a beloved institution that has been in operation a long, long time, one located within 15 minutes of my house in Northbrook, one whose director could be expected to own books such as these. 
      Who would have such a collection? The first reader to email me the answer at dailysteinberg@gmail.com, will receive one of my limited edition blog posters as a prize, and I'll share the answer here as soon as someone figures it out. 

    That was fast. A half hour after midnight, Lynne Arons guessed Wagner Farm. The books are in the office of director Todd Price, an eighth generation Iowa farmer who left the family farm to run the 18-acre Glenview institution. I was there Friday researching a Sunday piece that will run in the Sun-Times this spring. Thanks to everyone for playing—a lot of people suspected the Chicago Botanic Garden, as well as places like weatherman Tom Skilling's office or that of WGN farm reporter Orion Samuelson.  Next time I'll try to find something a little harder to figure out. 

Photo atop blog -- Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University 



Friday, February 21, 2014

Company with a punny name earns big payday

     

     ‘He that would pun, would pick a pocket,” Alexander Pope wrote nearly 300 years ago, and the taint of the disreputable clings to wordplay as strongly now as it did then.
     Particularly when it comes to business. Double entendres are the realm of hot dog stands (“The Wiener’s Circle”) hair salons (“Curl Up and Dye”) and dog groomers (“Pet-a-Cure”). There is inevitably a sense of tinyness, of someone’s flicker of a dream puffed into momentary life. Bad enough to pour your life savings and hard work into a yarn shop, but to name it “Ewe and Me Fiber Studio,” well, the heart breaks.
     You would never expect a major company to name itself after a pun. “The U.S. government today placed an order for 22 of the new stealth fighters manufactured by Fly By Night Industries...” Even automobile companies — car names are a blizzard of numbers and letters and animal names and geographic terms, so many they seem to risk draining the dictionary of nouns — draw the line at puns. There is no Chevy Rollon, no Ford Runwell. Nobody would buy a Honda Mushroom van. (Get it, “much room.” No? You’re a tough audience ...)
     Thus an extra unsettling dimension was added to the news that not only is everybody’s favorite way to show off lunch and brag about grandkids — Facebook — spending $19 billion on a text messaging application, but the company behind the application is called WhatsApp.
     WhatsApp? Not much, whatsapp with you?
     My immediate reaction - "That's billion? With a B?"— underplays the sense of dislocation the news brought. Like you, I had never even heard of WhatsApp, nevermind used it. While there is no question a sense of playfulness in the whole computer world — Apple Computer got its name because Steve Jobs was on a fruit cleanse and had just visited an orchard — the fact is, people are spending an unfathomable amount of money on a company with a name that sounds like an Abbott & Costello comedy bit.
     WhatsApp was founded in 2009 in Mountain View, Calif., by two former Yahoo executives, Jan Koun and Brian Acton. ("Yahoo" isn't exactly "International Business Machine" either, but at least it isn't a pun). It has 55 employees, which means Facebook is spending a third of a billion dollars per WhatsApp employee, the idea being by absorbing this service, which is like Twitter, it'll better hang onto its 1.2 billion users.
     Facebook would be smarter to send each user 10 bucks, as thanks for spending the time we do pouring our data into Facebook and keeping each other entertained. The Chicago Sun-Times pays me good money to air my thoughts and parse my likes on its website and in print. Facebook gets it for free in the increasingly strained and dubious notion that having a big hive of Facebook pals somehow reflects value back onto the newspaper. Obviously Facebook thinks WhatsApp brings something that makes up for its lack of that necessary apostrophe.
     Yes. During cataclysms, it's easier to focus on something small, manageable — the company name, the apostrophe — and not that Facebook, for its gizmo, just paid 76 times what Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post. The Smithsonian used to have a Hall of Journalism that made my profession seem like a Tom Clancy novel. Last time I visited, the Hall was gone, and what few artifacts didn't go into storage had been folded into a data processing exhibit. It was like going to the National Gallery and finding the John Singer Sargent portraits moved to an exhibit about the history of paint.
     Give them credit. A pun is its own marketing campaign. "It gives people the idea that we're lighthearted," said Krysten Fane, manager at the Barking Lot, which has two locations, in Chicago and Deerfield. "They hear it and they giggle. It helps us sit in their brain a little bit. It's great for advertising and repeat customers. It says, 'We take our job seriously but we love the dogs and know this is about letting dogs have fun.' "
     So the Barking Lot is a kennel? I asked.
     "Day care, grooming, training, all-natural products," she said. "All Your Dog Needs Under one Woof." Didn't see that coming.
     Actually, "Apple Computers" was, if not quite a pun, then a bit of a word puzzle.
     "It doesn't quite make sense," said Mike Markkula, Apple's first chairman. "So it forces your brain to dwell on it. Apples and computers, that doesn't go together! So it helped us grow brand awareness."
     In addition, Steve Jobs once said, it put Apple ahead of Atari in the phone book.
     So maybe WhatsApp has a future. And if smartphones come with a port to facilitate its use, they can call it the WhatsApp Dock.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rahm Emanuel: the nature of the beast


     When Esquire phoned at the end of October and asked me to profile Rahm Emanuel, I was both excited and slightly dubious. The last article they asked me to do never saw the light of day, and I told the mayor that we might go through the whole process and end up with nothing in the magazine. But he was game, and it wasn't like I could say No. It's Esquire. I spent four days with the mayor, and while I didn't feel like I exactly saw a candid slice of his working life—we spent a lot of time doing fuzzy activities such as reading to kindergarten classes and cutting ribbons at tot lots— I got to know him a little, to the degree that he can be known.  It was a ton of work -- a very busy November, December and part of January — but it ended up nine full pages in the magazine. I learned much, got a chance to speak with people — David Axelrod, Garry McCarthy, Karen Lewis — I hadn't spoken with in depth before, and am satisfied with how it turned out. A few things didn't end up in the article that I wish were there — such as a fleeting encounter with the ever charmless Rich Daley — but I suppose those will find their way into print eventually.

     Sister Rosemary Connelly was not pleased with the mayor of Chicago. The head of Misericordia, a beloved home to 600 people with Down syndrome and other disabilities, the eighty-three-year-old nun might not at first glance seem to be in a position to carry much influence over city politics. But this is Chicago, and Misericordia offers gold-plated care in a state notorious for its nightmarish residential institutions. The children and siblings of the powerful—politicians, TV anchors, lawyers, developers—are cared for there, and an A-list of Chicago’s leadership arrives on command, on bended knee and with an open checkbook.
     It was 2011, and the City of Chicago had to bridge a massive budget deficit. Before he was even sworn into office, the mayor had announced that churches and social services would have to pay for the water from Lake Michigan like everybody else. With a stroke of the mayor’s pen, Misericordia’s water bill would go from zero to $350,000 a year. Sister Rosemary invited the mayor to speak to her fundraising breakfast. To his great credit, he showed up.
     In his benediction, Misericordia’s Father Jack Clair felt inspired to bring a visual aid, a glass of water, to hold up and say, “Thank you, God, for the gift of water.” Then he paused. “Oh,” he said, looking at the mayor, “it’s not a gift anymore.”
    At his turn to speak, the mayor returned fire. “I thought Jewish mothers had a corner on the market as it relates to guilt,” he said. The issue lingered, and two years later, when he appeared at a Special Olympics breakfast at the lush University Club, he spoke about the hard decisions that reality forces on leaders and about that time he made everybody pay for water, including Sister Rosemary, who was sitting in the audience. As soon as he finished speaking, he strode directly over to her and gave her a big hug. In a city known for political brawling, the mayor is a bastard’s bastard, profoundly profane and epically vindictive. But this was not a fight he relished. Give him a ward heeler or a senator or a president, no problem. But a nun?
     “You know what the mayor says about me?” she had told the table, minutes before, smiling beatifically, her pleasant, deeply lined face ringed with an angelic halo of white hair. “He says, ‘Sister, you scare the shit out of me.’

To continue reading, click here.



Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Facebook checks your pants


     "Language is power,” the feminist British writer Angela Carter wrote, and it’s true. Words represent concepts that can shake our world. 
     This week a new word certainly shook mine. I was noodling around Facebook, encountered a term I wasn’t familiar with, found the definition, then hurried downstairs, where my wife was in the kitchen baking banana chocolate chip muffins.
     “I have an announcement!” I said, with well-practiced grandiosity. “One that I think will explain a lot that has gone on in our relationship over the years. I am coming out of the closet. I am . . . cisgendered. I am a proud cisgendered male.”
     She paused, mixing bowl in the crook of her arm, wooden spoon in hand, looked at me, her face placid. Then returned to mixing. She was not taking the bait. OK, OK, I told her,      Facebook now gives its billion members not just the choice of familiar “male” and “female” genders to identify themselves as, but 50, count ’em, 50 alternatives, many I had never heard of — “agender” and “pangender” and “non-binary” — but could at least roughly figure out.
     Then there was “cisgender,” which made no sense at all, as it turned out. I checked the dictionary. Nothing. Then Wikipedia, which defines it as “where an individual’s experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth.” In other words, someone who is born a boy, in possession of a penis and then cleaves to the realm of traditional maleness, such as it is.
     “My God,” I thought, “that’s . . . that’s me.”
     And let me tell you, it feels so good to get that out, to reveal my true self. Finally, a burden has been lifted. . . .
     Sorry. I can’t even have momentary fun aping the victim envy that ignorant people indulge in. Can’t wink at the theater of coming out without recognizing the widespread human tragedy that makes it necessary. That is: It’s easy to be the norm. With our frisson over gay marriage, with religious conservatives hot to portray our country as some sinkhole of anything-goes depravity, the fact is, most people who stray off the narrow path of the ordinary — blue trucks for boys, pink ribbons for girls — step off a cliff into a realm of woe. The usual stuff that we straights expect — say, go to school without torture — is up in the air.
     Homosexual men and lesbians have, after long struggle, finally established themselves being bona fide members of the human race, nearly, whose participation in regular human activities, such as getting married and raising families, should no longer be thwarted by the anxious sex-averse puritanical wasp’s nest that we call our society. Not everyone has gotten the message, however. Some still sit in the stands chanting for a fifth quarter, though the game is over and the rest of us are heading for the exits.
     Now the question is whether the transgender world, those who identify themselves along a spectrum of mind-twisting complexity as reflected in Facebook’s 50 terms, will be able to piggyback on the success of gays and slip through the door into acceptability that gays have jammed their foot in.
     The answer, at least based on Facebook’s action, seems to be a tentative yes. “Cisgender,” as far as I can tell, is a half-clever term cooked up so the opposite of “transgender” isn’t “normal.” And why not? The trans world is a far smaller sliver than the gay/lesbian world, and will no doubt feel the wrath of frustrated religious types looking for a group upon which to shower disapproval. We’ve already seen anti-bullying measures opposed on the insane grounds that kids being bullied are often transgender kids.
     As with many subcultures, the trans world places much emphasis on fine distinctions. So I phoned the contact listed by GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, for “Transgender Media Inquiries” to make sure I’m not calling hellfire upon myself through some faux pas (noticing that they seem to violate their own guideline, “Transgender should be used as an adjective, not as a noun.” In that case, wouldn’t “Transgender Media Inquiries” describe inquiries from the transgender media? Which I assume doesn’t need GLAAD to help navigate this ever-shifting labyrinth).
    Back on Facebook, I tried to plug “Married” into gender — not technically a sex, true, but the term speaks to my condition. No go. Just as well. The idea that Facebook, a medium for showing off your dinner, your Caribbean rental and your kids, should suddenly grab at our collective crotch and demand we pick what team we’re batting for from a huge laundry list of proclivities — that seems a bridge too far. I struck the category from my page.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Technology wins



     Technology wins. You can complain about it. You can be unhappy about it, point with open-mouthed protest at whatever pleasant social dynamic seems to be melting away in the gentle glow of electronics. But it still wins. Nobody crosses the country in an ox cart anymore, which in one sense is a shame, because doing so was probably three to six of the most deeply-felt months a person could experience, between the deserts and the Comanche and the pitiless elements. Nothing bound people together like sharing an ox cart. Now we fly across the country in what, six hours? Not much time to get to know each other.
    Still, it's an improvement. A big improvement. We have lots of those, really. From remote door locks on your cars to security cameras. People cling to some vestigial fear about cameras, but where's the harm? They don't lie. They're always on. They catch crooks. We worry they're the overture in some Orwellian control state, but where's the evidence of that? Maybe it's coming, true, but if you look at the past, and the present, we don't need cameras to have a police state.
     Cell phones are an improvement. That sounds obvious, but I know a lot of people of my generation —the tail end of the Baby Boom — are not comfortable with the phones, or at least with the idea of them. We got 'em, in droves, but they worry us. We worry that we're always being distracted, that because of the phones, people are never really where they are, never notice who's around them, but are always off in some electronic world, playing Angry Birds or checking their stocks or tweeting their 32 followers.
     We're still getting used to them. Radio was cutting edge technology, too, once upon a time, and people fretted what it would do to society.
     You don't have to carry a phone. But most people do. That's their choice, right? I'm of the generation—the last generation, probably—who remembers when none of us had little pocket phone/computers. You know what? It wasn't an era of deep Bryonic feeling, high adventure and lives richly lived. You got lost more. You missed appointments. You looked out the window blankly, drew tic-tac-toe boards in the condensation on the glass.  People twiddled their thumbs. They read newspapers more. That was a good thing, in my view.  
     Technology wins because we adapt to it. We become different people than our great-grandparents were, with different attention spans, different expectations. Thirty years ago people using cell phones were jerks. Rich jerks. The phones were new and expensive, so the public consensus was anyone using one was a show-off, to be making a phone call in public like that.  Who does he think he is?  Now we pull them out almost as a reflex, the way a 4-year-old on his first day of nursery school will clutch a tattered strip of beloved blue blankie. They're safety. The communicative aspect is almost secondary. It isn't like we're waiting for the Madrid office to sign off on the big deal. It's a tic. The phone is something to do with your hands, a time-filling fumble. Like a cigarette only it doesn't give you cancer.
      That's good, right? Another improvement. If you were to explain it that way -- go back in time, tap one of the 48 percent of Americans who were smoking in 1965 and say, "In 50 years, half of all you smokers, instead of reaching for a cancer stick, will reach for the entire world of knowledge and communication at their fingertips in a device of startling complexity and power," most anyone would take that deal, would probably sign off on that, accept that development as an advancement, view the prospect with a pang of envy that they wouldn't be around to see it. 
     We are around to see it, and perhaps it's human nature to be underwhelmed by whatever actually happens. I'm glad I wasn't like that, glad that getting my first iPod make me proud to be a human being, to belong to the same race who created that device. And I still am, still delight that I can phone people from the train, listen to Mozart as I clomp around the city. And even given the tradeoffs—people whistle less, but then, they'll have all recorded music at their disposal any time of the day or night—it's a pretty good deal. That goes against the common wisdom, I know. We're supposed to be concerned about all this stuff, what it's doing to us, the idea that we might change, as if we were perfect to begin with and should have stopped developing at some point centuries ago. Stop the presses: we weren't perfect.. 
    Worrying about technology is an empty question., as you can see if you turn around and apply it to any technological development in the past. Was the telephone a good thing? It ended the practice of paying social visits. Were antibiotics a good thing? They ended the special world of sanitariums. You can debate any development—the bicycle, the automobile, television. They're all part of a process. Autos had bad effects, sure, but they also had good effects and, ultimately, they were what happened. Technology is a process, unfolding. There's no going back for a redo. We should give ourselves more credit. It isn't so much that technology wins, as we win, embracing the change that we want, that improves our lives, in the main. Technology wins because we make it win, even though we immediately doubt and second guess and worry about what we've just done. We ought to trust our own judgment a little more.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Young man with a suitcase


     A combination of things drew my attention to the young man hurrying past me one morning recently. That gray fedora, of course, not unknown but certainly not common, particularly in February. A sports jacket instead of a winter coat, despite the deep cold, the jacket being of what looked like velvet, of a rich blue, almost purple. The black gloves. And that large, old-fashioned suitcase with brass clasps. It seemed like it had something special in it: a ventriloquist's dummy, maybe. A magic act. A bear costume. 
     He was headed up Franklin Street. I followed.
     Years of reporting have dulled the sense of reserve found in most people. I'm trained to blunder up to strangers in the street and quiz them about their lives. They usually take it pretty well. I picked up speed and measured my approach. "You seem like an interesting person," was the first thing I thought to say, but that seemed, I don't know, too much like a pick-up line. No point in frightening people. "What's in the suitcase, bud?" Too intrusive. 
    Pondering this, I increased the pace. He was losing me.
    Probably some banal explanation. A Columbia College student, dragging his laundry home to mom.  An apprentice necktie salesman hauling his sample case back to the Merchandise Mart having failed to interest the buyer at Macy's. That last one would be a good story. Actually, they both might. Everyone has a good story, they just usually don't know it. You have to tease it out of them.
     Maybe he was an artist—he looked the type. Maybe his rolled canvases, his small ceramics, his careful etchings, his intricate jewelry, were in the suitcase, and he was lost in thought, wondering, "How can I get get the attention of the media?" Just slow down, pal.
     Alas, he was too fast for me. I snapped off a photo, for documentary purposes, as he was picking up speed, and hurried ahead. But by the time I got to Lake Street, he had crossed and the light had changed. I could bolt after him, but bolting seemed to defeat the purpose. This was something that had to be done casually or not at all. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it was not to be, and just as well. The trouble with instinctively finding out stuff is that doing so wipes away what can be an appealing mystery. Sometimes it's better not to know.  



Sunday, February 16, 2014

Welcome to the Steinberg Bakery

   

     Ting-a-ling.
     "Welcome to the Steinberg Bakery. May I help you?"
     "Yeah...I'll have ... let's see ... six schneeballs ... three of the cream horns....a half dozen ruggelah..."
     "Cinnamon, chocolate or raspberry?"
      "Two of each."
      "Excellent. What else?"
      "Lets' see ... a stollen..."
      "I'm sorry, we're out of stollen."
      "No stollen? Okay, how about a pound of the assorted butter cookies..."
      "Any in particular?"
      "No, just give me ... well, okay how about one of those, and one of these, that one and this one and two of leaf-shaped ones. A few with the candied cherries, and the almond crescents..."
      "Here, with the powdered sugar?"
      "No, behind it, there."
      "Got it. Having a party?"
      "No just a few people over for coffee after church ... and a couple of the poppyseed cookies."
       "After church!?"
       "...and a lemon square...what? Oh yes, church. That lemon square there...."
       "Christian church?"
       "Yes, that's right. The one in the front looks nice."
       "You want to serve my baked goods after your church?"
       "The lemon .... Yeah, you got a problem with that?"
       "Frankly yes. Well at least now I do. I mean, if state legislators in Kansas can try to pass laws allowing bakeries there not to make wedding cakes for gay Kansans, just because they've decided doing so violates some ad hoc notion of religious belief, then why should I be any different? Why should I insist upon my beliefs any less than they do theirs? Why should Steinberg Bakery provide my delectable Special Pecan Raisin Bread Pudding so you and your goyish pals can stuff yourselves silly and talk about Jesus?"
      "Hey..." 
      "Maybe we should all just unleash our deepest prejudices and let them roam free, under the guise of extending our peripheral religious beliefs to our business transactions. I mean, it's one thing if we were all in the same country, right? You know, Americans. Fellow American citizens who respect each other and try to get along with each other despite our differences, within the parameters of our idiosyncratic, often conflicting, almost random biases and belief systems."
      "Maybe I'll come back later..."
      "But if we throw that out, if one group feels entitled, feels empowered, feels free to proudly and consciously step back from the basic capitalist system, and wants to claim that it is a violation of their ineffable pact with the Lord God Almighty to rent their Grange Hall to a couple of ladies who want to have a commitment ceremony, so much that they want to even consider passing laws to codify their right to turn away anybody whose existence they disapprove, then why should I be so loosey-goosey about my own sincere religious beliefs that I'm going to supply the mandel bread for your Sunday-after-church-lord-ourselves-over-our-neighbors session?"
       "I think I'll just head over to Deerfield Bakery..."
       "Sure, sure, St. Bartholomew, shop around, find some cookie cleric who shares your hierotopic outlook, some muffin mullah whose worldview perfectly meshes with your own, cause soon that's the only kind of person you'll be able to buy macaroons from, buster, when our heretofore cherished, fought for and protected democracy crumbles into the same anxious wasp's nest of warring tribes that wrecks half the world. Because we wouldn't want you suffering in your imagined fiery pit of hell along with my children for all eternity because you helped a gay couple pick out green tulle rental napkins for their wedding, would we? Because it's all about you, cupcake, isn't it? You you you and your precious theology, well, do you ever think about anyone else, huh? How they might feel seeing you run to legislature to protect yourself and your Bible buddies from the sin of selling a couple of queers some flower arrangements for their moment of happiness? I'll tell you this, Mark the Apostle: you're not the only religion around anymore. You never were, but the boot has slipped off the neck of we untermenschen, and your not wanting to provide your lousy limo service for Adam and Steve today means that Hajji the taxi cab driver won't take you to communion tomorrow! Or the Steinberg Bakery gets to tell you to hustle your mayonnaise-larded Christophany right out the door and bring your business somewhere else. Ever think of that? Huh? Ever imagine that other people might harbor toward you a fraction of the disdain you glibly heap on others? No? 'Course not. Sorry to be the one tell bleepin' tell you, mon-seen-your. Sorry to be the bearer of the bad news. Go! Go, you cross-caressing Vanilla Wafer! I wouldn't sell my profoundly puffy and ethereal jelly-filled sufganiyot to you if you were the last cash-paying customer on God's green acre! Get the Keebler elves to cater your Sunday tent revival soiree, you English muffin munching moron! Out! OUT!"
      "Well I.... I... Fine! I'm out of here!"
      Ting-a-ling.

     Ting-a-ling.
     "Welcome to the Steinberg Bakery. May I help you?
     "Umm yeah. Do you have honey cake?"
     "Sure, fresh out of the oven."
     "Okay, I'll take two."
     "Two of the honey cake? Of course. Having a party, are you...?"



                                                          ###






Saturday, February 15, 2014

Paddling the divine canoe

   
      An ellipsis, as you no doubt are aware, is the little train of three (or four) periods signaling there's more, either words that are missing, or yet to come. Or just a pregnant pause. 
     And yet...
      My wife has a rare ability to actually pronounce ellipses.
     "I liked your column today..." she'll say, in such a way that I hear those three dots and think, Oh boy...
      "...but?" I'll add, encouraging her to get on with it. Just pull the Band-Aid.
      "...but I think you misunderstood what Sister Rosemary meant," she said Friday morning, regarding my column on Sister Rosemary Connelly of Misericordia, telling an audience, "Who's God but us?" My wife explained that Sister Rosemary didn't mean, as I archly suggested, that we are supposed to step in when God lets important matters drop. But rather that we are the agency God uses to perform His good works. 
    To illustrate this, she referred to one of my favorite jokes, the canoe joke. More about that in a moment. 
Chapel in the Sky in the Chicago Temple
     I said something like "Yeah yeah." I was feeling good about the column and didn't want to entertain its deficiencies, didn't want to take what she said to heart. As people in marketing know, sometimes a message has to be delivered a few times before it is actually received. It wasn't until later Friday morning, when I got the following from reader Scott Whited, that I began to give the question serious thought. He wrote:  
     My wife and I met each other while working at Misericordia, and we were blessed to be a small part of the magnificent organization that Sr. Rosemary built and continues to build. Without assuming to know exactly what is in her mind, I think you misinterpreted the meaning behind her comment, "Who's God but us?"  Rather than rebuking God for failing to help those in need, she recognizes, embraces and acts upon the concept that God uses people to do His work.  It's like the joke about the man surrounded by flood waters who turns away people in boats and helicopters while proclaiming that God will save him, only to drown and find out that it was God who tried to save him by sending those people.  God isn't dropping balls, He's calling all of us to be His hands and feet in this world.  Sr. Rosemary hears that call and, unlike most of us, responds to it and great things happen.  Thanks for using your forum to highlight Sr. Rosemary and Misericordia.  It's an amazing place and Sr. Rosemary is a very special woman.
     Not only the same point my wife was trying to make, but using the same joke to deliver it. One thing I've learned is that when two very different people, from very different realms, say exactly the same thing about a piece of writing, well, you should pay attention, because they're probably correct.
     Of course this is all interpretation. I don't think there is an overarching intelligence that is either neglecting our fates or expecting us to step in and do nice stuff. If there is a yawning need in this world, from a practical point of view, it hardly matters if the need is due to cosmic indifference, or divine non-existence, or because an antic Heavenly Father is testing us to see if we'll jump through these hoops and do good. That's a theological matter. But what I took to heart, and what was important, to me, was that I was layering my own viewpoint upon Sister Rosemary, who no doubt by "Who's God but us?" meant that we are the agency of God, not that we are here to cover up His omissions which, being God, are fairly scarce. It seemed something worth noting.

Friday, February 14, 2014

""Who's God but us?"

Sister Rosemary Connelly and Terry Morrissey, the self-proclaimed
"Mayor of Misericordia."

Fate keeps delivering me into the hands of Sister Rosemary Connelly. I was trying to track down Mary Dempsey, the former Chicago Public Library commissioner, who happened to be volunteering that afternoon at Misericordia. So I phoned there, trying to find her, ended up on the line with Sister Rosemary and accepting her invitation to lunch. That's set off a chain of circumstance—almost against my will— that placed her and Misericordia atop the Esquire profile I wrote about Rahm Emanuel that will be out in a few days. In this case, I went to a Misericordia luncheon Tuesday, again, not because of Sister Rosemary, but to hear Amy Rule, the mayor's wife, speak, under the naive notion she might actually say something. She didn't. But Sister Rosemary sure did. 

     People love Sister Rosemary Connelly for a variety of reasons. For founding Misericordia, the city’s pre-eminent home for those with Down syndrome and other cognitive disabilities. For being its fierce advocate, fundraiser, cheerleader. For the act of singular bravery that helped create the whole thing 45 years ago.
     Her original mission was to care for disabled foundlings who were dumped by their distraught mothers on the doorsteps of Catholic churches. Then, when they turned 6, she was to hand them over to state care.
     When Sister Rosemary saw the kind of state-run hellholes she was expected to deliver her charges into, she refused. She disobeyed. She demanded the archdiocese do something, and it shrugged and gave her the newly shuttered Angel Guardian Orphanage, which became the 31-acre Misericordia home. After nearly 40 years of her stewardship, the place has the feel of a high-end golf resort without golf, or a Wisconsin resort hotel. Imagine The American Club in Kohler if every guest had a disability.
     But that isn’t why I like her.
    I like her because she isn’t afraid to talk. Sister Rosemary will tell you what’s on her mind.
     And no, not the phrase she repeats with such delight, quoting our mayor,"Sister, you scare me ..." then a word with more sting spelled in a newspaper than spelled aloud, so let's just say it's eight letters long, begins, "S-H-I" and ends "L-E-S-S."
     Not that line. But other things she says. If the state isn't paying its bill on time, as it often doesn't, she tells you. If one-size-fits-all activists clamor against Misericordia because it doesn't mesh with their fantasy that every disabled person would be happier living alone in an apartment, she says so.
     She said something Tuesday before 400 people at a fundraising lunch that I've never heard spoken before, never mind by a nun.
     And no, it wasn't individuals have "not just a right to life, but to a life worth living," a tossed-off line of hers with enough power to make the whole Right to Life movement a lot more palatable to a lot more people, though of course that would shift their focus from shaming women to helping children, and they don't seem eager to consider it.
     It wasn't that.
     Sister Rosemary was telling a story about a mother who called her in despair. "She was crying," Connelly recalled. "She said, 'I'm a single mother. I have a 15-year-old boy who can do nothing for himself, and he's too heavy for me to lift. The only place I'll ever bring him to is Misericordia.' And I said, 'I'm so, so sorry, we haven't any room.' "
     Misericordia has a 600-person waiting list. The mother said, "Please, just see him."
     "And I said, 'Oh, I don't want to see him,' " Connelly said. "He becomes real then. It becomes dangerous." A tough cookie, she is, when need be. But of course she saw him.
     "It was heartbreaking," she told the crowd. "She could no longer lift him. She was worrying about his future. She didn't know what she was going to do. And I very piously told her that he was God's child, even before hers, and she had to trust."
      The standard, sorry-not-my-table shrug so many give to those in need. But it didn't sit well with Connelly, even as she said it. "And I saw her wheel this boy down the hall, going back to a very depressing situation, and I said to myself: 'Who's God but us? If we don't do it, it's not going to happen.' "
     "Who's God but us?" Who's God but us! Pardon me, sister, but daaaamn! Do you know how many people invoke God to justify their indifference? Their harshness? Their evil acts? Their dismissal of the very people they should most open their hearts to? And here's Sister Rosemary, trying out the platitudes, finding them hollow and basically looking up at God, giving him the stink-eye and saying, "OK then, Mr. Lord of the Universe, if you're going to fail this boy, I guess we'll have to do your job for you."
     Not that she just waved the boy to the front of the line. That wouldn't be fair either.
     "It took two years to raise the money and build the house," she said, "but that boy has been here 15 years now."
     Who's God but us?! That's edgy stuff, Sister, practically sacrilege. And a recipe for making faith more palatable to those who wonder what it's all for. For inspiring you to do what you should do anyway. Less worshipping the ineffable and more trying to pick up a few of the balls that Mr. Big keeps dropping. It isn't just a Catholic obligation. The Jews have a term for it: tikkun olam. Repair the world. It just helps to have someone like Sister Rosemary remind you.
     Footnote: After Sister Rosemary finished, Amy Rule, the mayor's wife, also spoke, her first public utterance as Chicago's first lady.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Valentine's Day sneaks into town

Couple at the Renaissance Faire in Bristol, Wisconsin
     Tomorrow is Valentine's Day —I hope I'm not the one to tell you. Or maybe it doesn't matter. There seems to be a pronounced lack of commercial Valentine's Day hoopla this year. I was walking across the Loop Wednesday, hoping to take a static and enigmatic photo of some stark red heart-shaped commercial come-on to post here, and found basically nothing. No Valentine's Day specials. No chocolate promotions. Nothing red in the windows of Walgreen's. Nothing from the Potbelly. No "Happy Straight Person's Valentine's Day" in the window of the Chick-fil-A. No red sprinkled heart-shaped donuts at Dunkin's.
    Weird. I'm at a loss to explain it, but can toss out a few theories: A) the economy is still sagging, promotions cost money, the wad was shot at Christmas, so businesses decided it was best to limp on until spring; B) the Winter Olympics sucked all the hoopla out of the room; C) Gay marriage, having ruined the institution of wedlock, is now corrupting romance itself; D) it's Obama's fault. 
      I certainly didn't write anything for the newspaper about Valentine's Day this year. Been there, done that. At this stage of the game, Edie and I don't want to ignore the holiday—that would be sad—but don't beat ourselves up commissioning jewelry and engraving love sonnets on grains of rice either. We know. This is where tradition comes in so handy. Tradition takes the place of surprise—you're doing something, but nothing that's going to roil the placid waters of matrimonial harmony, or break the bank. So we will be lunching, quietly, at Prairie Grass in Northbrook, where we always go, where I hope they will have Door County Sour Cherry Pie, as they have on Valentine's Days past. 
    For those who want a little additional perspective on the heart-shaped holiday, a piece of Valentine's Day candy from The Vault.  Five years ago, I waved the flag in surrender:


     Sure, Valentine's Day is commercial, but then so is getting married. You obtain a license, as if you were opening a bar. Objects of value are exchanged. Oaths are taken. You may even sign a contract. Mine was in Aramaic.
     Those guys who airily announce they won't let themselves be bullied by the Hallmark Corp. into putting on a display of affection on command doth protest too much, methinks.   The implication is that they'll do something special later, on their own terms; the reality is, they never do. I can see them sprawled on the couch all day Sunday, watching basketball, while their honeys glare at them, disappointed.
     Even birds know that love demands you fluff your feathers and show off. At least occasionally. Otherwise, love becomes little more than a shared routine, a practical domestic joining of forces. True, love can't be on display, can't be splendid, all the time. The truth is, love changes year by year, day by day, sometimes second by second. Love is multifaceted, extraordinary, strange and wonderful, fleeting and forever. It stops you in your tracks and makes you run up the stairs. It is the boy tugging on the girl's pigtails and the aged widow who lives for years with the mummified corpse of her husband.
     The mystery of those mummified mate stories falls away when you place them into the continuum of marriage -- enough decades go by, and you don't harp on your partner's peculiarities.
     If you're lucky enough to have a partner. There's a whole lot of lonely in the world. Before decomposition sets in, if you love them, show them. If not on Valentine's Day, when?