Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ancient Romans remind us: gay marriage nothing new



     I listened to as much of Tuesday's Supreme Court oral arguments about gay marriage as I could stand.
     Because if you don't recognize the humanity of gay people, then allowing them to marry seems arbitrary. Thus Justice Samuel Alito wondered why couldn't, oh, four people marry? The implication being, once you open the door to these non-people, anything is possible. I'm surprised he didn't add, "or a person and a chair? Or a person and a tree?" 
     Most maddening was the invocation of tradition, of justices who normally scorn precedent from other countries suddenly groping to Ancient Greece, to tribal societies, as if the collective hatreds of the past add up to fairness now. As if ancient Babylon were now our moral compass.
     "This definition has been with us for millennia," said Justice Kennedy.  "As far as I'm aware, there's never been a nation or a culture that recognizes marriage of the same sex." 
     Umm, if it please the court, au contraire, you ahistorical asshats. I would like to enter into evidence a  column that ran in the paper 10 years ago and is, sadly, as if ripped from the headlines. Plus a link to Juvenal's second satire, which is no big flippin' state secret. The truth is that gay people got married to the degree that whatever repressive society they found themselves in would permit. 

     'I have a ceremony to attend," lisps one of Juvenal's loathed fellow Romans, more than 1,900 years ago. "At dawn tomorrow in the Quirinal valley."
     "What is the occasion?" chirps his dainty pal.
     "No need to ask," says the first. "A friend is taking to himself a husband; quite a small affair." And off they trot to the ceremony.
     Like a good many Americans, apparently, Juvenal hated gays—he hated lots of things but had a special hate for homosexuals.
     That is the beauty of the classics. They remind us that the issues we tie ourselves into a knot about, and consider evidence of our own fallen state, are really the evergreen issues of history, only we don't know it because we're too busy trying to shove our religious dogma down strangers' throats.

     A handy people to hate
     Homosexuality was open and tolerated in Rome, and, perhaps for that reason, Juvenal can barely wait to launch into them in his Satires—a quick introduction damning the clatter and corruption of the empire and then, boom, the entire second satire, a rant against gays for their effeminacy, their brazenness, and the very existence of guys such as Gracchus, the former priest of Mars, who has the audacity to actually marry somebody, who "decks himself out in a bridal veil" and weds in a little ceremony.
     Anything familiar here? The similarities are quite stunning. Grumpy old Juvenal -- the patron saint of crusty pundits—ridicules the short crew cuts of these queers, "their hair shorter than their eyebrows," and presciently predicts our exact situation regarding gay marriage.
     "Yes," he writes. "And if we only live long enough, we shall see these things done openly: People will wish to see them reported among the news of the day.''
     I guess we're there now, what with the marriage announcements in the New York Times, and after the Massachusetts court all but ordered the flowers for gay marriages in the Bay State this spring by pointing out that—sorry—there's nothing in our sacred Constitution that specifically permits denying people their civil rights based on sexual orientation.
     That may change. We seem to be gearing up for the vast, expensive and time-gobbling exercise of ripping up our nation's bedrock—our operating code, to use computer language— all so we can protect ... what is it exactly? So we can preserve ... umm ... I guess so that conservatives will feel better.
     Odd. We oppose gays based on our morality, based on our Bible. So did Juvenal. He waved morality and he worshipped Zeus. We point to nature—they can't have kids! So did Juvenal. He was horrified by gays because of what he saw as womanishness, and a violation of nature. Juvenal offers up the monstrous image of women giving birth to calves and lambs and then shudders, "horreres maioraque monstra putares" -- "you may be aghast and consider such men even greater freaks."
     That's saying a lot. The thinking man, rather than plunge into the political maelstrom emerging from Massachusetts, might instead wonder why we as a nation would want to beat ourselves up, in exactly the same way, over exactly the same people, as Juvenal did in 85 A.D. Haven't we made any progress?

     Bigger fish to fry
     And don't say the Roman empire collapsed of decadence. We're about 500 years short of matching their record. The Romans collapsed because they ignored the gathering peril. Which is what we are doing. I don't care half as much about gays tying the knot as I do with our country—and all its problems—somehow avoiding wasting the next five years on picking over this timeless hatred.
     Juvenal was a failure, reduced to living off scraps. I think that's why I like him. He was totally obscure; had no impact whatsoever in his day, a career path I relate to.
     But he was better than gays, in his mind. That's what this is about. Ever since black people joined white society in America, the Bible-thumping haters have looked for another class to feel superior to, and gays, as they have for thousands of years, serve nicely. Though I can't help wondering how a Christian and a pagan—and, for that matter, the Nazis—could find themselves all on the same page about the same people.
   —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Feb. 6, 2004

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"The passage of time has not dulled the ache"


   
     Armed Services Radio played "White Christmas," the signal for the last Americans to leave Saigon.
     Or maybe not. Like so much about the Vietnam War, which ended 40 years ago Thursday, there is controversy. Some claim they never heard the song, ergo it never played.
     But others insist they heard it, though not the Bing Crosby version, but Tennessee Ernie Ford's.
     In the end it doesn't matter.
     It was the morning of April 29, 1975. The North Vietnamese Army encircled the city. Explosions sounded in the distance. Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, friends and family had been leaving for weeks. One plane from Operation Babylift, the evacuation of 2,000 war orphans, crashed, killing 151 aboard. "We have plenty more," a South Vietnamese lieutenant quipped bitterly.
     The streets were chaos. Once the communists arrived, anyone with connection to the Americans could expect to be killed. Crowds massed around the gates of the American embassy. Some brought their luggage, heartbreaking, hope to make flights they were promised. A mother hurled her baby over the high fence, guarded by 52 U.S Marines.
     The Vietnam War probably has to be explained for some readers. After World War II, Communists fought to control the country, but were kept at bay by their former colonial overlords, the French, who bugged out in the mid-1950s. America stupidly replaced them, beginning with advisors during the Kennedy administration. We thought, mistakenly, that a communist victory would spread to neighboring nations.
     The war exploded under Lyndon Johnson, who could neither quit nor win. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the United States was torn by protests, led by young people who were being drafted to serve and die in a cause where even its supporters, Martin Luther King said in a 1967 sermon, were "half-hearted, confused, and doubt-ridden."
     Faith in government was shaken when the lies that the Johnson administration told trying to cover up military failures came to light. Johnson became so unpopular that he didn't bother running for re-election in 1968, making him one of the rare presidents in American history not to seek a second term.
     He was followed by Richard Nixon, whose Republican Party, in echoes of today with Iran, tried to undermine LBJ's frantic efforts toward peace. Nixon would spread the war into Cambodia and Laos, secretly. He had been hounded from office in the Watergate scandal, resigning in August, 1974, and while Watergate and our defeat in Vietnam aren't generally connected in the public mind, they should be. Watergate crippled the presidency so it could no longer prosecute the deeply-unpopular war, and emboldened Congress refused to do so.
     The morning of April 29, advancing Vietcong sent rockets into the Saigon airport, killing two Marines, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, the last of the 56,559 American servicemen to die in Vietnam. They were 21 and 19 years old. Their bodies were left behind. A defecting South Vietnamese pilot dropped his bombs on the last operating runway. After that only helicopters could come and go, ferrying to American warships in the harbor, in what is still the largest helicopter evacuation in history—1,300 Americans and 5,600 Vietnamese in 19 hours.
     At 3 a.m., April 30, local time, as the crowds around the U.S. Embassy began to climb the fences, the last 11 American Marines pulled back to the rooftop of the six-story building, locking the doors, floor by floor, as they went up.
     "Then everything came to a standstill and we just sat," Master Sergeant John Valdez later wrote. "All the Marines were up there. No birds in sight."
     The choppers had been coming every 10 minutes. Now the Marines crouched, listening to gunshots, to the mob in the embassy courtyard. "I never thought for one minute that the choppers would leave us behind," Valdez wrote in Leatherneck magazine in 1975.
     A whirr was heard overhead. The Marines fired a smoke grenade to mark their position. One last CH-46 Sea Knight hovered, and landed on the embassy roof. The 10 Marines clambered aboard, followed by Valdez, holding the folded embassy flag, the last U.S. soldier to depart what historian Paul Johnson calls "the most shameful defeat in the whole of American history."
     Gerald Ford, not known for eloquence, echoed T.S. Eliot.
     "April 1975 was indeed the cruelest month," he wrote, in 2000. "The passage of time has not dulled the ache of those days."

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

No one cries like a bully


   
     Should the cows rise up against their human overlords, and turn carnivorous in their rebellion, sating their hunger for vengeance on human flesh, I hope that, even if cornered by a bovine killing squads, as they close in around me, their long-lashed eyes brown and angry, their cud-flecked muzzles dripping foam, I still wouldn't, in the moment before their hooves come crashing down upon my head, blurt out something like, "How can you kill and eat an innocent living being!"
     Sigh.
     Because—I hate when I have to explain—people eat cows all the time. So if the cows turned the table and ate us, well, we wouldn't be happy about it, but we sure couldn't say it it wasn't fair, or condemn the act of eating other living entities. 

     Well, okay, we not only could say that, we would, because people are oblivious, and hypocrites. They're against all government handouts but their own. They discover the beauty of tolerance—for themselves—only after they're asked to accept someone they'd rather be kicking to death out behind the bar.
     Yesterday I wrote a fairly straightforward reaction to Bobby Jindal's execrable op-ed piece on why the religious notions of small businessmen should trump the basic civil rights of certain American citizens. I was more interested in why the battle should center on the statistically meaningless act of buying wedding cakes.

    Because really, wedding cakes? Wedding cakes! I had a big, hotel wedding. We ordered a big ass, multi-tiered cake. It was about the 20th most expensive thing related to the wedding. I'd hate to try to figure out the percentage of the American economy taken up by wedding cakes, but it would have a whole lot of zeros after the decimal point, somewhere between money spent on motorcycle sidecars and the market for fine bowler hats.
     The reaction was to be expected. But even with my lowered expectation, I noticed an extra strong dose of grievance. Religion, like meat-eaters, is so used to running our lives unquestioned, that even a tiny correction makes it feel that it is being pushed around. They  don't like it.
    "Bobby Jindal is correct that the gay militants are bullies," writes Albert Felker. He doesn't quite say why—I assume they're pushing people around by wanting to get married and have cake (the whole issue is a canard, like prayer in school. You are free to pray whenever you like, quietly, to yourself. But that isn't the big fucking me-me-me display that religion demands.. So hence the battle. Ditto for bakers. Being pressed to bake wedding cakes for gays is not actually a real life issue; this might be the first time that has actually been pointed out. A handful of occurrences, maybe. But really just a notional wedge dreamed up by the geniuses who brought us abstinence education).
     My favorite email from Monday, perhaps my favorite email of all time, came from Mike Zintak. It's sort of a greatest hits collection of the current thinking of the Far American Right, to stretch the term "thinking," and really needs no commentary. It is self-explanatory.
     Though, I can't resist pointing out his line about how gays "push their agenda down everyone's throat." That's what conjured up the cow revolt. Because really, look at religion. As with carnivores, faith had a lock on society. For centuries, millennia, the church had the whip hand. Wrong faith, they'd pack you in your synagogue and set it on fire. Women, well, God intended them to be scrubwomen and moms. Talk about pushing their agenda. 

     You can't expect them to see it. But that doesn't mean we can't look at it, blinking in wonder. A Mount Everest of hypocrisy.
     And then gays, after only a few decades of trying, get the chance to marry like normal human being do. And rather than give up that rather small shift--can't do that, can't give an inch—we get this insane stink over wedding cakes. (Mine came from House of Fine Chocolates, by the way, praised be its memory, a Broadway institution. They didn't give us any crap for being Jewish, which I didn't think to appreciate at the time).
     But enough commentary. You need to read this email. Because it is a Whitman Sampler of revanchist nuttery. Notice how he drags in Muslims at the end—the classic, wiggle your-fingers-over-your-sputtering-lips intellectual parry by the Tea Party, part of the ooo-we're-victims pathology, the daft notion that the Muslims "get" to do all these vile things, cutting people's heads off and such, without having as many liberal columnists point out that it's wrong, as if that's necessary. I call it "Terrorism Envy."
     He mentions "marching orders" twice—first capitalized, then not. He doesn't say where my orders are supposed to be from. Moscow—that's the traditional source. Or San Francisco. Anyway, for your reading enjoyment:

I find it interesting with those on the Left when they try to make a point against the Conservative line of view. You seem to follow the Marching Orders to the line with your article today. Comparing Gettysburg with the Gay movement. I would guess that you don't practice a "Religion", based on your dialog? Personally, I have no problem with a Gay or Lesbian life style...that is if their own choosing. I do how every have an issue when they (the gay movement), push their agenda down everyone's throat. There are a lot of Conservative Gays..that would agree with this...but you never mention those gay people...why? The fact that a gay couple can have a child defies logic. Yes they do adopt, but what does that do for the psychic of those children later into their life? Sure you agree that is not Normal? Many gay men and women would agree with that. Secondly, the whole aspect of "Gay Marriage", Marriage was set aside for a Man and a Women, for reproduction purposes....with Christian and Religious beliefs as stated in the Bible. And that includes the Muslim Faith. Funny though, how you don't detract the Muslim Faith about Gays....oh I forgot, within the Muslim Religion...they execute the gay people. Why have you not talked about that aspect? Must not be in your marching orders...huh?

Monday, April 27, 2015

What are you holding firm, Bobby?

     "Pick your battles," the saying goes. Which is odd, because more often than not, battles pick you. Actual hostilities break out for odd, non-strategic reasons that mock the deliberation implied by "pick." "Mere chance" is more like it.
     Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was in Pennsylvania in late June of 1863. He wanted to fight, hoping to inspire peace parties he imagined flourishing in the North. And the Union armies were looking for him.
     So there was going to be a battle, somewhere. Maybe at Chambersburg, or Harrisburg, or Cashtown.
     But an army needs shoes. So a unit of Southern troops was sent to forage for footwear at a nearby town, known for its tanneries and cobblers. And they found them, after a fashion. "Boots and saddles were there," Samuel Eliot Morison wryly notes. "on one brigade of General John Buford's cavalry division." So the great three-day battle erupted at Gettysburg and not down the road.
     In the same manner, someday historians will look back at America's epic social and legal struggle over gays joining society and wonder, "Why here?" Why did the forces of ossified religion, put to flight by much of modern life, turn and make a stand over whether a bakery must bake a frosted tower of sugar and flour—to channel Natalie Merchant—for any gay couple who walks through the door?
     Why here?
     That question bubbled up last week, while reading Louisian Gov. Bobby Jindal's op-ed in the Times, "I'm Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage" (Jindal must have written that headline himself. No Times copy editor would have dared.)
     Prejudice is about dehumanization. People of faith, to Jindal, are individuals: "a priest, minster or rabbi." They are "musicians, caterers, photographers and others should be immune from government coercion" Specific trades, like characters in a Richard Scarry story.
     And who is doing the coercing? They are "left-wing activists" "the radical left" "radical liberals" "left-wing ideologues who oppose religious freedom" "Hollywood and the media elite" Shady, faceless forces. Once, he does mention "gay men or lesbians." A typo perhaps.
     And what do these anonymous hordes do? They "bully," and "shriek" The idea that they might be regular folks too, individuals who, though gay, want to get married and have cake, and should be able to buy cake in a free society, well, that's not an issue to Jindal.
     "They will not deter me," he vows, standing like a stone wall, surveying the battlefield.
     Jindal uses the words "liberty" "freedom" or "free" 17 times, part of the right wing delusion that if the right buzzword is found, they'll fool people. Heck, it worked with abortion.
     As with many battles, the clash over balky bakers and phobic photographers was half luck, half opportunity. A weakness in the line of advancing rights. Hoteliers couldn't refuse to rent rooms to gay couples, since adultery is banned in the Bible too. They couldn't draw the line at baking birthday cakes for children of gay unions. That would recognize forming families is what marriage, gay or straight, is all about, and be too cruel, even for religious conservatives.
     This is a skirmish, a small battle in a losing war. They have to lose, since winning would unravel society. If a baker doesn't have to make a cake for a gay weddings, then the county clerk doesn't have to record the paperwork and the fire department doesn't have to keep the hall where one's scheduled from burning down. People whose faith keeps them from participating in the modern world should retire into enclaves, like the Amish.
     That won't happen. This is just the hidebound wheeling about and charging, again, before falling back to the next defensive line. A momentarily successful rally, like Pickett's Charge -- the last gasp of Confederate hopes at Gettsyburg. The Rebs breached the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. And then overpowering numbers of the boys in blue crushed them.      
     Whatever victories Republican revanchists win or lose, whatever the Supreme Court decides, they've already lost. History will continue to roll over them, past them, around them, and they'll be left only with bitter memories of their glorious lost cause.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The innocent beauty of the scam artist





     I have never been to Nigeria. But I imagine, beneath the poverty and the desperate scramble to scrape a living out of scarce resources, there is a certain sweetness there, which I can gleam even through its scam attempts to rob me via email.
     Now, I have no idea whether email scams are all from Nigeria, or even if most are. That's supposedly a center, but who knows? That's where I imagine them as originating, in windowless cinderblock warehouses with corrugated metal roofs, tapped out on cast-off computers by lanky, glassy-eyed teenagers, in tattered cast-off t-shirts that arrive in massive bundles in the holds of container ships. Particularly this one.
     I don't spend my days reading scam emails. Just hit "empty trash" and be done with it. , But I will scan my spam filter, though this one somehow slid around the filter and actually showed up in my "Inbox" a few Sundays ago. It reads, in its entirety: 

Dearest Friend,
How are you today, am sure you are doing well? I was wondering if I can know you better?
I am Colonel Marcus Luthan, of the U.S.Army presently working in Afghanistan. I saw your profile and sincerely wished to know you better and would like to have a good relationship with you..I have great plans for both of us, if you are interested please reply for more future communication and details. Also tell me more about yourself and your nationality
I will tell you more about my intentions when I receive your reply. Have a nice time and remain blessed. I will be happy to read from you, you can write me with my following email address: marcusslut@gmail.com , for more secured communication.
Thanks
      If I were teaching writing, I might save it for a lesson on "voice." Because the writing is not  so much incorrect, grammatically, as it is totally wrong in tone. No U.S. Army colonel could write three paragraphs like that if he tried for a day. 
      Even before you get to the give-away emails: marcusslut@gmail.com -- which is either "Marcus" misspelled, or with a middle initial, to make it look even more real, not knowing that it would scan, to an American eye, as "Marcus Slut" -- unless of course that reveals a side business, for days when nobody's biting on your email lures.
    Someone must fall for these scams -- you send out enough, and nibbles come in, and eventually money is being sent to you through Western Union or Paypal or Bitcoin or whatever the savvy scammer uses nowadays. The very aged, perhaps, or those whose greed far outstrips their intelligence. And I don't want to romanticize or apologize for them—real people are hurt, stripped of their savings, and the attempt reflects a desperate need that is neither sweet nor funny. 
    But the naïveté, the innocence of it, if you can be an innocent scam artist. It's almost beautiful.  I had to share it. I actually had to write him back, and see where it went, but the subsequent form letter attempts to extract more data from me didn't share the perfection of the original message. 





Saturday, April 25, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?


     You know what I think has been tripping me up?
     The concept of fairness.
     A number of times I've look at the above photo and thought, "this'll stump 'em."
    And then, a qualm pops up its tiny little head and squeaks.
    That wouldn't be fair.
    Too hard. Too much of a challenge. 
    Which has stayed my hand.
    Until now.  
    Since nothing has proven too much of a challenge for you guys.
    So far.
    Today I'm saying, "Screw fairness." 
    I've been too nice.
    Which is why I always lose.
    Actually, I'm saying "fuck fairness."
    Which is what I said initially.
    A pleasing alliteration. 
    But then I yanked back.
    See? Nice. 
    No more.
    You know what Leo Durocher said about nice guys. 
    They finish last.
    Actually, he didn't say that.
    He said that nice guys finish in seventh place.
    Or nice guys don't win pennants.
    Or something negative about nice guys.  
    And it was transformed into the more famous line.
    Anyway, where is this orange-vested gentleman? Bonus points if you know what he's doing. 
     The winner—not that there will be a winner—will receive, should he win, which he won't, one of my super-exclusive 2015 blog posters.
     Good luck. Place your guesses below. 
     For all the good it'll do. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

How are the cameras changing us?


     After more than a century, the photograph still shocks.
     There is New York Mayor William Jay Gaynor, natty in his bowler hat and shiny shoes, the right lapel of his wool suit sprayed with blood. Urban planner Benjamin C. Marsh clutches his left arm and stares, in something like reproach, at the photographer, William Warnecke of the New York World, who snapped the shutter for what he thought would be an ordinary photo of a politician about to set sail for Europe and ended up with a picture of a man who had just been shot in the throat.
     The date was Aug. 9, 1910.
     Photography was past its infancy, but cameras were still bulky affairs often made of brass and wood and usually perched on tripods. News events such as this assassination — technically, though Gaynor lived three years until the bullet lodged in his throat killed him — were caught only by the merest happenstance. When the Hindenburg blew up before the newsreel cameras and radio microphones at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, the tragedy took on an epic scale and was seared into memory. Not because it was particularly deadly (36 people died in the zeppelin explosion — 13 passengers, 22 crew and a worker on the ground) but because it was so dramatic.
      Now we live in an era of cheap, high-quality, omnipresent video technology in the form of the camera built into every blessed cellphone. This permits us to see somebody shot every day, nearly, and another big fiery disaster or epic crash every, what, week or two? We are immediately moved by these images’ drama, only later puzzling over the true meaning of what we just saw.
     We’re also so busy processing each new crime and drama as it occurs, we never step back and wonder how having so much more life recorded is affecting us.
     Where are we going with this?
     Maybe it isn’t affecting us much. People still rob banks, still inadequately disguise themselves and get a bag of cash ready to explode into red dye despite seeing photos of the guy who tried it last week. Cops commit the most heinous over-reactions, not only caught by passersby, but in front of their own dashboard cameras that they know are there.
     Maybe they just don’t think. There’s a lot of that going around. You get the sense when a police officer puts 16 bullets into a suspect, he’s reacting to the situation in a way that, at that moment, feels right. It’s only later that they realize — and the world realizes, thanks to the damning video — what they’ve done.
      Or they don’t realize, lacking a video. One of the most worrisome risks from this spate of captured crimes is that, without damning images, the perpetrator easily walks as we saw this week with cop Dante Servin, a jaw-dropping case of justice shrugged away.
      Change comes fast and slow. For a long time, anyone who whipped out a phone and made a call in a public place was by definition a pretentious jerk. Now any given group of 7-year-olds furiously consult their phones and it’s strange to see one who isn’t. In some realms, the cellphone videos should affect our thinking but don’t. People still believe in UFOs, for instance, based on those blurry black-and-white photographs of pie pans, never for a moment wondering where are the phone videos we should have if these things were really here.
      Video cameras were an Orwellian intrusion that would be used by totalitarian regimes to restrict our rights. I’m sure some people still worry about that, failing to notice that, in practice, it is the evidence shot by cellphones that provides a bulwark against abused authority, security that we’ve lacked and obviously need. Maybe asking the police to wear body cameras is, again, giving them too much faith, putting too much responsibility into their hands. Maybe it’s us citizens who should wear the body cameras. For our own safety.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who knew? Kosher pot holders



     Religion is weird. 
     I suppose there is a more polite way to put that.
     Religion is fascinating or religion is complex—both also true. 
     But "weird" sounds right, at the moment. Every religion has its strange stuff—we know that, because when we encounter unfamiliar religions, we easily smirk at their oddities, never pausing to consider that these off-kilter practices are only a slightly different flavor of what we find homey and ordinary. When Mitt Romney was running for president, for instance, and people were plucking out various aspects of his religion to mock, it was almost sad to see how easily they marveled over something they believed too. To see the people who cooked up the whole idea of heaven snickering at Mormons for putting it in Jackson County, Missouri, as if giving their fantasy celestial paradise an earthly address was the outrageous part.  
     Or Judaism, my own creed. I'm always discovering heretofore unimagined practices embraced by believers. When my son was born, my in-laws, who were Orthodox, informed my wife and me that we had to have a pidyon haben--a ceremony to buy him from God for five piece of silver. I shrugged—when in Rome, er, Jerusalem—and trotted off to a Korean coin store to buy five greasy, worn silver dollars. I figured, God wouldn't mind, and He didn't.
     Having Orthodox in-laws put me in closer proximity to the more arcane Jewish practices.  I was at their synagogue, laying into the buffet lunch afterward, when the rabbi came over and informed me that I couldn't have meat and fish together on my plate. I almost blurted out, "You're kidding, right?" That was a new one -- "Isn't fish meat?" I asked, slightly suspecting he was pulling my leg. No, this was one of the sub-cellers of Kosher. No cheeseburgers, no shrimp, no herring and brisket sitting on the same paper plate, just as a person eating dairy and a person eating meat can't sit at the same table.
     Oh. 
     I always like to ask "Why?" in these situations. I didn't then, but a little digging reveals that... and this is why I don't write fiction, because I could never conjure up something as deliciously daft as this... the Talmud suggests that mixing meat and fish causes leprosy.
     Double oh.
     It never stops. Early in the month I was at Hungarian Kosher Foods, on Oakton in Skokie, picking up Kosher chicken for Passover (why, I don't know, since none of us keep Kosher; tastes better, I suppose, though I could argue that it just costs so much more we make ourselves believe it tastes better).  I noticed this rack of products which I didn't think could be Kosher: pot holders, rubber gloves, sink strainers. You don't eat them, what does it matter? As with the fish and meat taboo, I at first thought they were joking. Maybe there was a brand loyalty scam aspect going on — "Kosher" rubber gloves meant gloves to be bought by Jews, probably more expensive too, like Kosher chicken.
    No. The color coding gave it away. Blue for dairy, red for meat. Just as you have different set of pans and dishes for dairy and meat, so you need separate potholders to handle the pans and rubber gloves to wash the dishes. 
     And for Passover—when bread and all its manifestations are forbidden—special Passover rubber gloves, since some rubber gloves have a certain starchy powder in them, a residue of the manufacturing process (you're not supposed to blow up balloons for the same reason). 
      By the way, Orthodox Jews give their pets --- their dogs, cats, fish, whatever -- Kosher pet food, but not for the sake of the animals, who aren't Jewish—that's an unexpected whiff of rationality—and thus can eat whatever they please. It's the owners, who cannot "derive benefit" from unKosher foods. (An issue, I'm sure, deftly surmounted by a bit of rabbinic jujitsu for, oh, Jews who own chains of supermarkets). 
    Enough. Religion is not only weird, it's a bottomless pit of weird. That's sort of the point. You're supposed to fill up your life with this stuff. If you so choose. Myself, I prefer to focus on other stuff—just as meaningless, but not so rigorous. To each his own. 



   


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Big data: 'We see you.'


     Jing Shyr is not afraid of big data.
     In fact, the IBM statistician spends her days trying to find better ways to hoover up the personal information that you spread around the Internet like a drunken sailor, and use that information, well, to better know what you're going to do and want next.
     "Every time you try to explain predictive analysis, people think it's 'The Matrix,'' said Shyr, who works for IBM's Analytics division in Chicago.  She said it's closer to weather forecasting. Is there a chance of rain? What does the data suggest? Should I bring an umbrella? That's predictive analysis.
     I wanted to talk to Shyr—pronounced "sheer"—because the description of her field was so obscure, to me. In the announcement last week naming her an IBM Fellow—the company's top technical innovation honor—she is identified as "a widely recognized leader in the field of predictive analytics. Her methodology for end-to-end automation of statistical analysis became the core of IBM SPSS Analytic Catalyst, a tool that enables non-specialist users to derive forward-looking insights from data."
     My hunch was, that means you can fire your middle managers and run your sales stats through an IBM program that tells you whether you'll need to stock more mittens in February. But I wanted to find out.
     "We watch web behavior of all kinds," she said, "listening what you are doing. What do you say on the blog? What do you tweet? Who do you follow? We take the behavior data, we understand you, we see you."
     And to think some find that ominous. She doesn't.
     "Technology is helping humans to articulate their thoughts, to make humans much smarter," she said.
     Two keys I keep in mind when approaching technology. First, every single device we use, bar none, was seen by some as the opening gong of doom when it first appeared. Gas lights were an offense to the night. Cars were fiendish. Computers would "take us over."
     Oh wait, that sort of happened, didn't it? Yet we don't mind. Which leads to the second key: people change along with technology. If the thought of billboards reflecting what TV show you watched last night seems intrusive, so did installing a telephone in your home, once.
     "If you really know how to connect the data, to give you a more clear view," Shyr said. "You get a much more focused and effective type of advertising. Now its still a little bit like junk mail."
     She worries herself about the online world.
     "As an individual, I am very very afraid to let other people know who I am," she said. " I'm very afraid someone will steal my identity. I'm anxious about that.  .... I am very troubled by all types of advertising. It becomes very annoying. "
     I told her a story about Amazon, which, like many writers, I tend to despise. But I ordered three books last Friday, they came--miribile dictu--on Sunday, two days later, via the US Postal Service. But only two books. I hurried online, thinking I would have to wage a private war against Amazon to get credit for the missing third book. The information was all there. The shipment split, the tardy book on its way. I felt more positive about Amazon.
     "The future is about  relationship between vendors and customers," she said. "You give your data, and that is trust. The company knows more about you, they can do the right thing about you. The company holds data and really knows you. How do they know you? They know the data: how often you shop, what is your behavior. Your likes and dislikes, Everything you do and don't do, that 's giving them information."
     So be afraid if you like. But this is happening, and some people are thrilled.
     "I am very very excited by this data," Shyr said. "Once you feel someone is taking the data, and it is for your own sake, predicting what it means, doing the things you want, it's magic. That's what I see. Predictive analysis can help society. I always explain to people: machines don't get tired. You just need to get them data. Then the machine helps humans become more focused and more efficient."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Chiraq, Chiraq, that toddlin' town!"

This ran in the paper Monday—I had been a little worried that the moment had passed, and was reassured when I noticed my colleague Laura Washington also wrote about the movie, and the Tribune had not one, but two stories in its Monday paper, including a pious editorial hoping that Spike Lee will balance whatever gripping story about violence he ends up telling with ... well, the Trib doesn't quite say. The implication is, with good stuff. Maybe a travelogue of popular tourist spots. Or something about our vibrant convention business. You wonder if they've ever seen a movie.

     Procrastination gets a bad name.
     Such as "foot-dragging." Or "He who hesitates . . ."
     But sometimes waiting can be helpful.
     For instance, last week, a colleague stepped into my office. Would I, he wondered, be taking Rahm Emanuel to the woodshed for his clumsy attempt to pressure Spike Lee into calling his movie about violence in Englewood something other than "Chiraq"?
     I reacted like a child whose ball was snatched away. "But I'm almost done with this!" I pouted, gesturing to my screen, where I was hobby-horsing over risible feminist efforts to put a woman on the $20 bill — sure to be a hot topic on the streets of Chicago. "Maybe Monday."
     The delay provided clarity. On Saturday, Chicago's epidemic of violence flared up again: two dead, 18 wounded in just over 24 hours. With a whole summer to come. (UPDATE: Four killed and 30 wounded in weekend shootings).
     Which drove home the unfairness of "Chiraq," of equating Chicago with the Iraq War.
Unfair to the Iraqi war, that is. An average day there wasn't nearly as bloody as Chicago was Saturday.
     Ignoring the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead — an American tradition — U.S. forces suffered 32,223 wounded over eight years of war which, for the math averse, comes out to about 11 a day. That's considered light in Chicago. When it comes to deaths, the city does a little better — 432 murders last year versus 560 soldiers killed every year in Iraq.
Still, nothing to crow about, and it's strange to see the mayor and his aldermanic stooges try.
     Isn't Rahm the guy who was just on his knees, explaining how he's changed and is now listening to people? And I know there are South Siders who resent "Chiraq." But if you polled people in Englewood and asked where on their list of concerns is whatever Spike Lee might call his new movie, I can't believe it would rank very high. Were I the mayor, I would say, "If this movie can dramatize the toll that gun violence takes in Chicago and spur people to change, Spike Lee can call it, 'Take Your Convention Business to Vegas' for all I care."
     Instead we get the same bullying that Emanuel is known for.
     Believe me, I'm no fan of "Chiraq." It's one of those terms like "Chicagoland" or "Chi-Town" that advertise the speaker's lack of connection. ("Chicagoland" is where car dealerships say they're located; "Chi-Town" is something DJs say). Emanuel telling Spike Lee all the good that happens in Englewood is like the mayor of Verona dragging Shakespeare on the carpet to lecture him over "Romeo & Juliet" being bad for business. "Sure Will, the Capulets and Montagues were at each other's throats. But why focus on them? Why be so negative? Why not write your play about the Bonamini and Redoro families? Their olive business turns a nice profit."
     Not that Spike Lee is Shakespeare. But his movies are serious enough art that even a Midwestern Machievelli like the mayor should have enough sense to let him do his thing.
My colleague pointed out something else worth sharing. When people refer to Chicago as "The Windy City," some know-it-all invariably mentions that the term was coined, not due to the lake breezes, but as a comment on the talkativeness of Chicago politicians ballyhooing the 1893 fair. Maybe so. Maybe that's how it began. But people don't still call Chicago the Windy City because of something a 19th century New York newspaper pundit said. People call it the Windy City because — wait for it — it's windy here.
     Facts matter. It isn't all spin. The mayor should not fight Chicago's reputation as a place where people get shot all the time by trying to silence anyone who draws attention to it. The mayor should fight Chicago's reputation as a place where people get shot all the time by — again, wait for it — doing whatever it takes to stop the shootings. Change the facts and the reputation will follow.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The president's shoes


     Yesterday's post on my uncharacteristic purchase of a pair of ostentatious shoes, and a visit to the Wisconsin factory that made them, left it up to the readers whether to post the second part, or to hurry on to other topics. To my gratification, everyone was unanimous in wanting to see it. So here it is.

     When George Washington pressed his lips against the Bible after being sworn in as this nation's first president on April 30, 1789, he was wearing a suit of brown broadcloth, donated by proud Hartford weavers. John Adams was wearing the same suit, cut from the same cloth donated by the same weavers. "They might have been dressed as twins," wrote David McCullough, "except that Washington's metal buttons had eagles on them."
     The history of commerce coveting the limelight of the presidency is lengthy. Hatters sent stovepipes to President-elect Abraham Lincoln.
     With this in mind, during a visit to the Allen Edmonds shoe factory in Wisconsin, my attention was drawn to letters and photos of recent Republican presidents.
     "Reagan's father was a shoe salesman," said spokesman Colin Hall. "And sold our shoes, loved our shoes."
     "In Chicago," I interjected.
     "President Reagan was a huge fan and wore our shoes all the time," Hall continued. "He convinced Bush Senior to wear our shoes, and they started a neat little thing where every inauguration they wore Allen Edmonds. It carried on with Clinton and Bush Junior. The only man not to wear our shoes at his inauguration was Obama. He wore shoes made in China—Cole-Haans."
     "No!" I gasped.
     "They asked us for shoes, so we sent them shoes," said Hall. "But we looked at all the pictures, and he's not wearing our shoes. The reasons we decided not to say anything about it is the world was falling apart at the time, the last thing he needed was this company in Wisconsin throwing shoes at him."
     Everything about Obama spawns a conspiracy theory, and this is no different.
     "Made in China," mused Hall. "Why would he do that?" The obvious answer, Hall said, is that a favor was owed to Nike founder Phil Knight, whose company owns Cole-Haan.
     "Look at Obama as another athlete being paid by Nike," he said.
     In fairness, I couldn't find any evidence that Obama is indebted to Knight or would feel compelled to wear his shoes. But what chance has truth compared with a good story?

DO THEY SMELL?
     Had Obama worn out his Allen Edmonds shoes working the corridors of power, he could have shipped them back to the factory for refurbishing—buying a quality shoe is like buying a car, in that they service it.
     Every day, up to 100 pairs of old, shabby, scuffed, soaked, moldy, broken-down Allen Edmonds shoes arrive in the mail ("Do they smell?" I asked a worker, who emitted a rueful laugh. "Especially in summer," she said).
     The company does something very high-tech— it first takes a digital photo of the battered footwear, posed fetchingly against a white background—then, after the sole is stripped off and the shoe rebuilt, it takes another of the finished product and e-mails it to customers, to say their reborn shoes are on the way. "Remember these?" the e-mail asks.
     One customer, sending in his departed father's Allen Edmonds to be refurbished, asked that his ashes be blended into the hot cork mixture applied between the sole and the shoe. The company complied.
     One last thing, before we bid adieu to the world of shoe manufacture. The company owns a specialty lumber mill, in one of those odd business connections one sometimes finds (My favorite: Coors brewery once owned a large toilet bowl factory, not due to the usual beer/toilet dynamic, but because they made their own beer kegs, and the kegs were lined in porcelain).
     So Allen Edmonds owns Woodlore, a nearby lumber mill because . . . ready? . . . they were having trouble getting a reliable source of cedar shoe trees, so they went into the business in order to guarantee supply.
     And here I thought nature was the only source of wonder.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 28, 2010

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Baby's got new shoes


     Shopping at Nordstrom's Rack on a Saturday is not my idea of fun. But it was mid-afternoon. I'd been working away since 5 a.m. My wife invited me to come along. It seemed a festive outing. 
      Now, it just so happened that these patent leather Oxfords with red stitching were just sitting there, in my hard-to-find size, 8 1/2EEE. Which normally I wouldn't touch, but as it is, I'm master of ceremonies again this year for the Night Ministry's fancy black tie charity ball at the Standard Club—June 4, if you're interested—and it struck me that I should get formal shoes to go along with my tux.  Street shoes made me feel, well, not quite dressed to the 9s as a master of ceremonies should be.
    The red stitching threw me off. I'd have to wear them with a red bow tie and cummerbund.  Some consultation was in order.
     "Honey," I asked my wife, holding up the shoes. "Do you think I can get away wearing these with my tux?"
     "You don't have to be boring all the time," she replied, and I must have looked like a puppy that had been stepped on, so she elaborated: "When I met you, you would wear these bright-colored shoes."
     Boring AND a shadow of my former flamboyant self. Thanks honey.
     That sealed the deal. Well, that and the fact they were 2/3 off, and made by Allen Edmonds, whose Wisconsin factory I visited five years ago, and developed brand loyalty toward, if you can have brand loyalty for a product you don't actually own.  This is the report I filed:

     Precisely 120 miles due north of the Wrigley Building is the largest men's shoe factory in the United States, the Allen Edmonds Shoe Corp. in Port Washington, Wis.
     There—not in China, nor in India—sheets of calfskin, miles of thread and gallons of glue are turned into about 1,000 pairs of men's shoes every day. Shoes whose given names — Bradley and Kendall, Grayson and Maxfield, Ashton and Powell—evoke both boardroom elegance and, at least to me, the class roster of a North Shore preschool.
     I spent hours prowling Allen Edmonds on Monday, and the good news is there's absolutely nothing moribund, doomstruck or woebegone about the place—it is perhaps the cleanest factory I've ever visited, with the possible exception of a flatbed scanner plant in Taiwan, and there we had to wear white paper suits and go through an airlock to blow the dust off our clothes, so it's an unfair comparison.
     A quality shoe is constructed around a foot-shaped form called a "last." But I must pause, before getting bogged down in the 200 steps it takes to make a shoe, from the person who circles imperfections in the hides so the pieces that become a shoe can be puzzle-cut around them, to the man who grinds away a small corner of each inner heel, so it doesn't catch on the cuff of your suit (as someone who has wrecked his share of pants cuffs on the knife point heel of my Church's wing tips, I particularly admired that detail).
     The true wonder of Allen Edmonds, beyond the fact that they will custom make a pair of size 21 AA brogues in purple leather for you, if you so desire, is that it's still in Wisconsin, since 1922, despite the triple whammy that gutted most of the American shoe industry.

WHAT WE DO MAKE: DEBT, FANATICS


      First, cheap foreign labor. Since 1968, some 98 percent of America's shoe production has tap-danced overseas. The Brown Shoe Co.— which made St. Louis into a shoe-making center, introducing Buster Brown Shoes at the 1904 World's Fair there—closed its last American factory 25 years ago. Cole-Haan stopped making shoes in Maine in 1999. Florsheim began in Chicago in 1892 and closed its last Illinois plant 100 years later
     You get the picture.
     Allen Edmonds employs about 300 people at the factory—with another 300 at stores and warehouses—and was purchased in 2006 by a Minneapolis private equity firm for $123 million. Its most dramatic change since then has been to open a small hand-stitching operation in the Dominican Republic—not, spokesman Colin Hall vows, as the vanguard for any overseas move, but to boost its casual line.
     American manufacturers survive by working the niches, and Allen Edmonds capitalizes on the fact that human feet range greatly in size.
     "Most guys are between an 8? and 11, most are D widths, which is the medium width in America," said Hall. "So people manufacture in that core size, and if you're a brand, and don't do your own manufacturing, you're basically buying from a company in China or India. You're going to buy heavy on the center of that bell curve, because you know you'll sell the most there. We'll have the bell curve, but we'll also have the extremes, we have 6AA, we can make you a size 23 EEE."

BUT THESE KLEENEX BOXES WORK FINE!

     The second blow has been style -- a young man who a decade ago went to work in khakis, a dress shirt and penny-loafers is now showing up in cargo shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops that cost a penny to be shot-injected into a mold in Szechwan.
     Allen Edmonds has been trying to surf this trend by creating a range of casual shoes, such as white slip-ons stitched in red, meant to resemble baseballs.
     The third factor scuffing the shoe industry, whether domestic or foreign, is the recession, which hit quality men's shoes especially hard, since one of the attractions of a well-made shoe is that it lasts, and when times are tight you can give yours a quick buff and get by for another few months. Allen Edmonds shoes are not cheap—they start at $125 a pair and sail off to $500 and beyond.
     How tough has the recession been on the shoe business? In 2008, 2,300 shoe factories closed . . . in a single province in China.
     Allen Edmonds fights to stay alive through an intriguing blend of high and low tech. It might be applying the name of each shoe in gold letters, one sole at a time, by a worker at a machine, or burnish the finish of each toe over an open flame, but a running tally of the current daily production quality is displayed on a big electronic board on the factory floor.
     
     Who'd have thought that a shoe factory would exceed my one topic/one column policy? But I haven't even told you about the guy who requested that his father's ashes be molded into the soles of his shoes. Nor about Barack Obama's regrettable bow to Chinese totalitarianism at his inauguration, and how Allen Edmonds struggled to stop him—a true treat for all those readers who spend their days searching for things to blame on Obama, with the added bonus of actually being true.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 26, 2010

This, obviously was the first of two parts. Since I don't want to overwhelm you with any given topic—I learned my lesson with the puppets—I'll leave it up to you whether we go with the second half of my Allen Edmonds visit tomorrow or feature whatever I write for the newspaper instead. Thoughts?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?


     Would it be unfair to leave you only with this rather shabby and dimly lit bedroom, with its particle board interior? Frankly, my gut tells me you could crack it from that alone. But I don't want to be too maddening—the goal of this contest is to challenge, not infuriate. So I'm going to include another picture from today's mystery location, as a clue. Where is this place? And why is it on fire?
    The winner will receive one of my way cool—to me, anyway, the winner last week didn't claim it—2015 blog posters. Please place your guesses below.  Good luck.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Cardinal Francis George, dead at 78



     Personally, I was not a fan of Cardinal George. I found him harsher than he needed to be, and resistant to the new style embodied by Pope Francis. But I admired the cardinal's fidelity to the tenets of his faith, and his scholarship, and tried to write an obituary that was fair and accentuated his good qualities.   
     The day after Cardinal Francis George stepped down as leader of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholics was a Sunday and Eleanor Franczak, a parishioner at St. Michael’s Church in Orland Park, summed the cardinal’s tenure this way: “He was one of us. He wasn’t any better or worse, just a normal person.”
     It was an assessment that Cardinal George, who died Friday morning after a nine-year struggle with cancer, would have wholeheartedly endorsed. When he learned that Pope John Paul II had named him as the successor to Chicago’s popular Cardinal Bernardin, the unassuming priest asked in surprise, “Are you sure the Holy Father has considered all the options?”
     But that modesty concealed a man who was an accomplished scholar, a skilled writer, and an unyielding defender of the faith. Raised on the Northwest Side, Cardinal George, 78, was the city's eighth archbishop and the first priest born in the Chicago archdiocese who rose to lead it.
     Archbishop Blase Cupich, who was the bishop of Spokane, came to Chicago in September to assume the role as George's successor, while George's title became archbishop emeritus.
     At the time of his appointment, in April, 1997, George initially set an inclusive tone.
     "The bishop is to be the source of unity in any archdiocese," he said the day he was introduced to the city. "The faith isn't liberal or conservative."


To continue reading, click here. 

  

So Marilyn Monroe is out of the question?


     I try not to burden myself with guidelines when writing this column.
     But I do have one rule: Try not to advocate the impossible. Thus no modest proposals, no utopian dreams. Live in the world of the practical.
     Wasn't always so. In the past, I've pushed quixotic quests, such as getting rid of the paper dollar, lulled into a false sense of possibility because less hidebound nations are capable of it. Great Britain has no paper pound, Canada no paper dollar, for instance. Saves them billions.
     But we can't. Americans think of themselves as dynamic and fearless — and maybe we were, once. But now we're skittish and change averse.
     That said, I see the appeal of impossible quests, such as the effort to boot Indian-slayer Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replace him with a woman.
     It's an odd piece of tokenism. Just as being on a U.S. postage stamp has lost its cachet — I could create legal U.S. postal stamps honoring my dog — so currency is about to be mooted by cash cards.
     But it's still significant enough for advocates to create a website and get a bill introduced into the Senate this week by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) forming an advisory committee, as only the Treasury Department could actually make such a change.
     Before we visit the website, let's ask: What woman should have the honor of debuting on U.S. currency? (A real woman, I mean, discounting all those allegorical figures of liberty and electricity and such.)
     A tough question. She'd be going head to head with Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Grant (the latter two don't really belong; maybe Jackson should stay and one of them go).
     Four candidates? Off the top of my head, I'd go with Emily Dickinson, Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart and Jane Addams. It isn't a diverse list — no women of color — but it's my list, and I didn't want to pander.
     Not a concern for those advocating the change. Go to their website, womenon20s.org, and you're introduced to their four finalists: Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Wilma Mankiller.
     Heartbreaking. While energetic and independent in her own right, Eleanor Roosevelt's claim to fame is she married a man who became president. Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks — if you're looking for a black woman, they're two. But compare either, historically, to, say, Martin Luther King and I don't think I'd be alone in preferring they choose King and shelve the whole honor-a-woman idea.
     Wilma Mankiller? And she is? "First elected chief of a Native Nation." Died in 2010. An utterly unknown woman whose name expresses the fears of half of America when contemplating feminism. That's a good idea.
     Those four were voted in, supposedly, from an list of 15. Looking at that list, Rachel Carson popped out. She'd be the best call, part of a top-to-bottom currency redo focusing on the environment. (See how these impossible quests draw you in?) Or Susan B. Anthony, though she's already been on the dollar coin, and what a failure that was. Margaret Sanger? Really? The birth-control advocate? A person responsible for far more deaths, at least in the conservative view, than Andrew Jackson ever caused. Yeah, that'll go over well. We'll end up with a third of the country refusing to touch a $20 bill. I'm surprised they didn't include Emma Goldman and Madalyn Murray O'Hair (notorious red radical and fierce atheist, respectively, if those names don't ring a bell).
     Looking over their list of candidates, I caught myself thinking, "Women really haven't had much impact on U.S. history, have they?" Which can't be the intention. Women have had an impact, of course, but if we're honoring the gender, we should go back to allegory: suffragettes, pioneers, textile workers, mothers. It's so strange to push Wilma Mankiller and ignore their contributions. Then again, the whole effort is going to amount to nothing, so no need to get too worked up over which specific woman won't be honored on the twenty.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

You need a friend on the inside


     You don't get a job without someone on the inside.
     In most cases, that is. You need someone both rooting for you, encouraging you, and also boosting you among the harried, hostile mucky-mucks you are trying to impress.
     At the Sun-Times, for me, that someone was Wilma Wall. A tall, calm, editorial assistant in the features department, she took my phone calls, helped me strategize, soothed my disappointments. Not that, in my early 20s, I was anything special. But Wilma was nice to everyone, and I fell into that broad category.  The features editors at the time—Carol Stoner, Susan Axelrod, and Scott Powers—were a fortress of shrugging indifference, and I can't say I remember them with a half teaspoon of affection, collectively. Wilma Wall, however, was my ladder over the rampart.
     She made me think I could actually get a job at the paper, and after two years of freelancing and constant, gerbil-on-a-wheel effort, along with a helpful union complaint filed against me claiming that I wrote so much I constituted a non-union scab, they did grudgingly hire me, 28 years ago. 
     When my mother first visited my new place of employment, to be proudly shown around the bustling newsroom on the fourth floor of 401 North Wabash, I of course introduced her to my champion, Wilma Wall.
     "We did it!" she cried, leaping up and hugging my mother, who never forgot the moment. Nor did I, which made me sad Thursday to see Maureen O'Donnell's fine obit of Wilma, and sadder still to see that she was living right in Northbrook all this time. I wish I had known. I'd have visited her, and thanked her, yet again, for all her kindness to me. 

Luck and maybe something buried led doctor through Buchenwald

The Bramsons, my grandfather's family, killed in Poland.
     Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Usually I'd let that grim holiday go unremarked upon—the Holocaust gets plenty of attention without me piling on—but the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald last week made me think of this article.
    Since it touches upon the idea of luck, I should mention the sheer coincidence that brought it about.  In 1978, the fall of my freshman year at Northwestern, I took Introduction to European Fiction with Erich Heller, perhaps the preeminent scholar of German literature in the United States. Students knew that Heller's brother Paul had been Edward R. Murrow's guide for his famous broadcast when Buchenwald was liberated. That's how Prof. Heller found out his brother had survived the war. He never spoke of these things, of course. But we all somehow knew.
     Cut to 1995. I'm at UIC Hospital, as a reporter, covering a press conference about a breakthrough in treating sickle cell anemia. The doctors are introduced, and one of them is named Paul Heller. I remember thinking that "Paul Heller" might be a common European name, like "Bill Smith" here. It might not be THAT Paul Heller. But he said a few words, in a heavy Czech accent. I went up afterward and surprised him by saying, "You're Erich Heller's brother, aren't you? You were in Buchenwald. You spoke with Edward R. Murrow." That meeting led to this story, which was frustrating in a way. Sitting in his living room, I kept trying to get at how a man survives six years in a concentration camp. He kept saying, "I was lucky." I finally realized that, whatever the full truth is, he wasn't going to tell me. So I went with lucky.

     Dr. Paul Heller is a lucky man. Sitting in the living room of his pleasant Evanston home, he recognizes that only good fortune could have gotten him through nearly six years in Nazi concentration camps, placing him—sick but alive—in Buchenwald the day it was liberated 50 years ago, on April 11, 1945.
     "Of course, I am lucky," says Heller, 80. "I was very lucky. Each day could have ended differently than it did."
     Not all the luck was good. Heller was a young doctor in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia - he received his degree just before the Germans closed down the school - with an exit visa from the Gestapo and a plane reservation to London when the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began on Sept. 1, 1939.
     He was arrested the same day, he believes, because of a political group he belonged to as a student.
     "I wasn't arrested as a Jew," he recalls. "I was arrested as an anti-Nazi."
     He was taken to Buchenwald, where he spent the next four years working in a quarry, carrying large stones in work that "seemed without purpose except to torture us."
     Again, fate came to Heller's aid.
     "I tolerated all this torturous life because I was young and relatively strong," Heller writes in an account of his life he prepared for his grandchildren.
     "But I also was lucky that I had some help. I became a friend of a German political prisoner, Max Girnd . . . he supplied me with half a loaf of bread almost every week."
     In the spring of 1943, he was transferred to the death camp at Auschwitz. Again, fate intervened.
     "I was transferred to Auschwitz to be executed and they made me a doctor," says Heller, who was put to work as a physician at the mining camp at Jaworzno.
     His written account of life in a concentration camp has a measured, almost sedate tone to it. A bout of torture becomes a "cruel interlude." A group of dying prisoners are "the most horrible sight." He retains that calm view—there is no anger or bitterness in him— which he feels was a defense mechanism.
     "This was a way of survival," he says. "I didn't look at it as a reality. There was something terribly unreal about the whole thing. I would come home from working in the stone quarry and think, `It really isn't true, what I went through today.' "
     As the war neared its end, the Germans, desperate to cover their crimes, kept trying to transfer prisoners away from the advancing enemy. Heller survived a murderous forced march from Auschwitz to another camp, Gross-Rosen. Then, severely ill from the march, Heller had the ironic good fortune to find himself shipped back to Buchenwald again.
     "I was saved in the camp hospital because I knew the people there," he says.
     Heller was still in the hospital on April 11, 1945, when Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army liberated the camp. One more stroke of luck was about to help reunite him with his surviving brother and, eventually, bring him to the United States. A day or two after liberation, the former inmates had taken over the S.S. Hospital. Heller was using its fluoroscope to screen for tuberculosis when a tall, handsome man in an American uniform - whom Heller assumed was some sort of official—stopped in and asked to be shown around Buchenwald.
     "It was a sheer accident," Heller remembers. "He was approaching the camp and stopped at the first big building."
     Heller showed the man—who turned out to be broadcaster Edward R. Murrow—around the camp, to the crematorium, the piles of shoes, of glasses, the mounds of human hair. Murrow, dazed, tried to count the bodies, "stacked up like cordwood," but gave up.
     Murrow was not only struck by the scenes of horror, but by the former station of the emaciated men who came up to greet him. He used their names—Peter Zenkl, the former mayor of Prague, Professor Charles Richet of the Sorbonne, even a man from Joliet, Walter Roeder—in his famous broadcast of April 15, one of the first reports to bring the true nightmare of the concentration camps home to a wide audience.
     "I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words," Murrow said, toward the end of the broadcast. "If I've offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald - I'm not in the least sorry."
     Murrow also mentioned the name of his guide, Dr. Paul Heller. The broadcast was heard by Heller's brother, Erich, the noted literary scholar, and a reunion was arranged through CBS. Heller spent a year in London, then with Murrow's help, came to the United States. The two remained in contact through the years, until Murrow's death.
     Heller went on to a distinguished career in medicine. He still teaches and does research at the University of Illinois-Chicago Hospital. Now remarried after his first wife passed away, he has two grown children and three grandchildren. He declined the chance to go back to Buchenwald. "I've seen it enough," he says.
     Heller says his ordeal in Buchenwald changed him as a person and colored the rest of his life.
     "This experience was so strong it overshadowed everything," he says. "Continuous and always. Even now, 50 years after liberation, it is still there and every day I remember."

     --Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 10, 1995

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Happy Tax Day. Or not.



     Wednesday is Tax Day, the dread April 15, when income taxes are due to the United States government, at least for now. American colonists cried "No taxation without representation," which, as befits the streamlining of modern life, has become simply "No taxation.'
     Twenty years ago, the idea that American citizens should not pay taxes was limited to the lunatic fringe, who would pick over the Revenue Act of 1913 and write elaborate, self published manifestos explaining why federal income taxes were a Wilsonian conspiracy against the Constitution and natural law. Now mainstream Republican candidates chant it as a mantra.
     Look at the first three Republicans to charge out of the gate in the 2016 presidential race.
     "We need to abolish the IRS" Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told a conservative conference last month—though not, to my surprise, because taxes won't be collected, but rather because a flat rate will be charged so taxpayers will merely write their salary on a postcard, multiply it by a universal figure and be done.
     Internal Revenue Service commissioner John Koskinen, living in the reality-based world, immediately pointed out that even if Americans had a flat tax, and filed their returns on  Ted Cruz's postcard, there would still need to be an IRS collecting the money and confirming the cards.
     "Someone has to follow through on all of that," said the killjoy.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also talks wistfully about eliminating the IRS, and has a number for his flat tax—17 percent—which, like all flat tax plans, is a half-clever way of saying, "Tax breaks for everybody!" (If the figure sounds familiar, Steve Forbes ran on a 17 percent flat tax in 2o00. Historical note: he lost).
     Marco Rubio doesn't want to cut taxes for everyone, just the middle class and the rich, which is code for everyone since poor people don't pay much income tax.
     The Tax Policy Center estimates Rubio's plan would cost the government $2.4 trillion over 10 years.
     Which is the entire point. The bedrock of the Republican party is the notion that government is bad, by definition. Since cutting specific functions—health care for vets, say, or milk for poor children—draws howls of protest and can raise a tingle even in anthracite Republican hearts, the focus is shifted to impersonal dollars.  Cut taxes, ignore what those taxes go to. Starve the body and the head dies.
    If you try to get at why government is bad, they'll say it's corrupt, or incompetent, or domineering, or illegal, or all four. My theory is that they despise the people government serves most—especially the poor, minorities—and since publicly despising them has gone out of fashion, they attack the government as a surrogate. I can't prove this, but then they can't prove that trickle down economics works, and that never stops them form insisting that giving money to the rich somehow profits the poor.
     Speaking of facts-- for those eccentrics who, like me, still find facts meaningful -- is that our taxes are low however you compare them.They're low internationally: our federal taxes top out at 39 percent. In Great Britain it's 45 percent, in Australia, 50 percent. (Comparisons are difficult, with each country having a complicated web and local and national taxes, but that suggests issues are nuanced and complex, and why should I be the only one pushing that crazy idea).
     U.S. taxes are also low historically—our top federal income tax rate is 39 percent. In the 1950s, was a jaw-dropping 91 percent. Rich folk still worked (nobody actually paid that much—again with the nuance— with deductions, the top effective tax rate was 70 percent. The economy boomed).
     Taxation is one of the most common features of human organization, along with baking bread. And there is astounding consistency. Today the top 10 percent of U.S. wage earners pay an average of 19.2 percent in federal taxes. That's almost exactly the rate paid in ancient Egypt. "Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day that Pharaoh should have the fifth part" it says in Genesis.
     To be fair, I should mention the tax position of Democratic president candidate Hillary Clinton, who entered the race earlier this week. She feels the wealthy aren't taxed enough, aren't paying their fair share in society. Talk about crazy...