Monday, August 31, 2015

This flower stinks at everything



     The Spike t-shirts are printed and ready, waiting in the Chicago Botanic Garden gift shop.
     Only $19.99.
     But Spike mania hit a serious road bump this weekend.
     The star of the show froze in the wings and refused to go on.
     All August, the Botanic Garden in Glencoe had been ballyhooing its amorphophallus titanum, popularly known as a "corpse flower," an enormous, rare Indonesian plant that was expected to open spectacularly and cast off a nauseating stench that, counterintuitively, always draws crowds of the public, who like nothing better than to see something that isn't often seen, or smell something that isn't often smelled.

     The crowds showed up—57,000 to see it in person since it was unveiled Aug. 6, hundreds of thousands more following online—in anticipation, to ogle a plant that was growing inches a day. Hundreds were there Sunday, waiting in line to see the flower bloom have its outer spath cut off by conservation scientists, in a kind of botanic circumcision, attempting to harvest the pollen.
     Among them was Ava Gaddini, 9, with her parents, Leah Starkman and James Gaddini. She had been checking Spike's live feed every day after school, drawn by the rarity of the occasion.
     "It blooms every 12 years," she said.
     "Or doesn't boom," I couldn't resist adding, then pointed out that the botanic garden has eight other titan arums on-deck in its greenhouse, and one could be blooming by Halloween, though it's hard to imagine they'll be able to recreate the commotion a second time.
     Visitors who managed to pack around the flower gasped and applauded as the huge leaves were cut away, revealing deep maroon interior designed to attract pollinating insects.
     There was no smell.
     The plant had been cultivated for 12 years, and staffers wept Saturday when they realized that Spike lacked the energy to bloom. One compared it to a "stillbirth.".
     While officials at the garden said hopes dimmed only recently, as the days rolled on, I begun to have my suspicions. Could this be a dud? But I was reluctant to start tapping my watch face in public. Friday I could no longer resist, and finally tweeted:
     "Am I the first person to wonder whether the damn corpse flower is ever going to open? @chicagobotanic #openalready"
     I should make it clear that I'm a member of the Botanic Garden, and take no pleasure in Spike's epic fail.
 

   Well, maybe a little pleasure, the kind of small smile of satisfaction I imagine a church lady who faithfully attends mass every single morning might feel when it rains on the annual parish carnival. Because the Tilt-o-Whirl is not what this is all about. Big media splashes are addictive, and I'd hate to see the Botanic Garden stagger from one blockbuster to the next, hyping a titan arum today, showcasing the Whistling Wisteria of Borneo tomorrow.
     And not because I'm selfish, and prefer a depopulated garden to wander through in blissful solitude.. Even on the most crowded Sunday morning, even at the height of Spike Fever, as people dutifully trudged past, gazing goonily at his green erectile majesty, once you stroll beyond the immediate vicinity of the entrance, the crowd thins out--people don't like to walk--and by the time you get to the rolling patch of prairie toward the back, you're mostly alone.
     No, I believe this development, disappointing though it is to those involved, teaches an important lesson:
     While you can't fool Mother Nature, Mother Nature certainly can fool you.
     Yes, there is much clockwork dependability. The swallows return every year. The moon waxes and wanes on schedule.
     And I suppose you can splice genes, and seed clouds, and similarly skew the natural order, now and then.
     But only so much. We have to resist falling into a false sense of certainty, of which the Botanic Garden was guilty, its PR klaxon slipping into a tone of giddy inevitability.
     "The night Spike blooms will thrill us all in the semi-tropical greenhouse, with its breathtaking flower…accompanied by a titanically rotten smell," Tim Pollack, the outdoor floriculturist, wrote on Aug. 16.
      The Botanic Garden folks should take comfort. People did turn out, and I can see those Spike t-shirts getting snapped up anyway. While plants are not always predictable, people are, and they like souvenirs they think will be rare or ironic, such as memorabilia from that big fizzle of a flower, which ended up stinking up the place, though not in the sense that its handlers expected.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Cute and retro doughnut trucks


     Originality is important in writing. If you seize somebody else's creative work, put a slight spin on it and feed it back to the public, well, you really haven't done much, and what you have done is bad.
      In business however, what works for one entrepreneur might work for you, too, and the consumer won't really care. To fans of Pepsi, it doesn't matter that Coca-Cola came first.
      Thus taking the long route from the paper to the train station Friday—I felt like wandering—I swung by Daley Plaza, where there was an odd circle-the-wagons ring of food trucks, including this cute little retro doughnut truck from Firecakes. 
      The moment I saw the 1968 Citroen, I thought how little and cute and retro and graphically  interesting it is. The moment after that I reflected that it is a rip-off of the Doughnut Vault little and cute and retro doughnut truck, which looks like this: 



    Well, it's a big city, and a couple more cute and retro doughnut trucks and it can be become a Chicago Thing, like hot pretzels in Philadelphia or sugared nut stands in Times Square.
    I wrote about the Doughnut Vault's 1957 International Metro (a retro Metro!) at the end of 2013.  
      Firecakes, located at 68 W. Hubbard, rolled its truck out early this year, without of course mentioning anything about swiping the idea from the Doughnut Vault. 
     “This is an exciting next step for Firecakes as we expand our brand," Firecakes founder Jonathan Fox told the Show Me Chicago blog.
Red cat
Blue dog
      The pair of twee vehicles made me think of the George Rodrigue Gallery in New Orleans. Rodrigue made a name for himself painting bright paintings of a blue dog. They were sold out of a gallery in the French Quarter. Then up pops a gallery not too far away selling paintings of a red cat, complete with pompous artist's statement, explaining how he came up with the idea for the red cat. The gall of it lodged under my skin. It's one thing to rip somebody off; it's another to try to pass it off as a genius divination of your own. 
      Not to make too much of the little and cute and retro doughnut trucks.  To be honest, the whole doughnut trend has peaked, in my mind, and is beginning to lose its allure—it's not like they're pies and can be enjoyed forever without any diminishment of pleasure. I first fell in love with Doughnut Vault because of its small gingerbread stack cake doughnuts. But those are harder to find, and the few times I was forced to sample their  yeast doughnuts, I found them the standard oversweet, puffy and kinda gross fried dough you can get at Dunkin's. 
     Still, I went up to the truck and inquired about their doughnut line. My wife has been hankering for a particular kind of doughnut. Something perhaps impossible to find. A plain cake donut, soft in the center, kind of hard, almost crunchy on the outside. She says that Dunkin' Donuts used to make them, they had a little handle on them to hold onto while the doughnut was dipped into coffee. But they phased them out in the general ruination of the chain. So, full service husband that I am, I have been looking around for a basic plain doughnut for my wife. You'd think I'd find one at the profusion of doughnut joints around town. But no. Not yet anyway. Though it is, as I said, a big city, and I haven't given up. 



Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?


      Can you guess a location by its pie? I bet you can, especially when the hint is this trio of triangular beauties. The doughnut fad is a few years old, and the cupcake bubble has popped. But pie continues on, timeless as America, holding up the tail end of the classic evocation of all we hold dear, "baseball, mom and apple pie." (Though, ironically, apple pie has fallen out of favor with me. As a young man, I adored it, particularly Dutch apple, with that mound of crumbly stuff on it. Now it just seems sweet, cloying. My favorites are sour cherry, blueberry, lemon meringue and chocolate. Not that it matters).
    But enough throat-clearing. Where, oh where, can you find these pies? My guess is the puzzle doesn't last five minutes, but I'm posting it anywhere because a) I like the picture, with its assemblage of forks, just ready for a mass pie appreciation. And b) I'm hoping to alert people to its presence, because one must encourage good pie. The winner gets one of my actually-dwindling-now-that-I'm-slapping-them-up-on-walls stock of 2015 blog posters, a story that I will relate to you another day. Place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Postscript: Since it's been solved, another view, though I won't reveal where — it's in the comments — for those who want to challenge themselves to guess. Quite a beautiful place.


Friday, August 28, 2015

"Get out of here!!" -- The Plainfield Tornado



     The sky to the west was green.
     After 25 years, what I remember most about Aug. 28, 1990, was crossing the Wabash Avenue bridge, looking right, and seeing what looked like an ugly bruise made of clouds.
     A tornado had just smashed into Plainfield, in Will County, and a city editor told me to get there now.
     It had been a normal Tueseday. The weather service had predicted sunny skies. Nobody in Plainfield saw the funnel cloud coming—an F5, the most powerful ever to hit the Chicago area. A Joliet radio station was just broadcasting the first warning early that morning when the wind took down its broadcasting tower. There was no Internet.
     But there was common sense. Coach Wayne DeSutter had 107 football players on the field at Plainfield High School, doing their workout. He saw lightening and decided practice was over. Had he waited five minutes, many of those players would have died. But he hurried them off the field and got them inside the smaller of the school's two gyms—in the larger, the girl's volleyball team was about to have their home opener.
     There, the girl's coach, Cathy Cartright, started to go into the hallway, but had a strange feeling. A premonition, if you will. She turned back.
     "I sensed the room didn't feel right," she later said, "it was like something was tapping me on the shoulder, telling me to get the kids out."
     She wheeled around, shouting, "Get out of here! Now! Move it!"
     The girls rushed into an interior hallways, joined by the football players. They all knelt down and huddled against the wall. They could feel the building tremble as the tornado bore down on them. Some students began crying, but some football players had the presence of mind to put their helmets back on. The last sounds they heard were the school's automatic tornado siren going off. Then their ears popped as the tornado came skipping and screaming across the field that the team had just been practicing on and blew the school apart.
     The hallways with the students sheltered in it was one of the few parts left intact.
     When the tornado passed, and the students gingerly stood up and ventured outside, at first they couldn't grasp what they were seeing. Through the doorway to the large gym, light.
     ''We didn't know where we were,'' said player Ben Speicker. ''There were no trees, no houses, no landmarks.''
     Twenty-nine people died; three at the high school, including Stephen Hunt, a science teacher, killed when the wind threw a semi-trailer truck into his classroom. The tornado cut a 16 mile path of destruction. About 350 people were injured, and more than a thousand homes destroyed.
     Some wondered if Plainfield would recover, but it obviously has. When the tornado hit, it had a population of 4,500. Now it's almost 10 times as big, with some 42,000 residents.
     You always hear of the power of tornados, but when I got to the school, there were things I still can't quite believe, and I saw them with my own eyes. A starter jacket, somehow sucked through a crack in a wooden beam. Cars crumpled into balls, a Dumpster in a tree, a telephone pole that had not snapped, but been pushed, through the ground, standing up, leaving a trough.
     I had one of those big, clunky Star Tac portable phones, and calling back updates its weak battery died—just as I looked down and said, "I better move, I'm standing on a power line." That gave the City Desk a scare, but the electricity had already been cut, fortunately. AT&T set up mobile phone booths, and I used one of those to call back. The paper told me to not leave Plainfield. It had been hard enough to get in—heading into Plainfield, a state trooper had tried to stop me at the roadblock, threatening to arrest me if I didn't turn around. I flopped my hands out of the car window, crossed at the wrist, and said, "Arrest me then." That seemed a better option than going back to the Sun-Times and telling the city editor I couldn't get into the town. He waved me through.
     So I spent the night on a green army cot the Red Cross had set up in the kindergarten room of the elementary school. The next morning the press gathered at the Crest Hill Lakes Apartments, one of those cheap concrete four plus ones where many of the storms victims died when the structure pancaked. Waiting for a briefing, at precisely 7:30 a.m., I heard a heartbreaking noise. A beeping from the adjacent cornfield, where debris had been swept by the wind. A battery alarm clock doing its dim appliance duty, cheerily announcing the start of a regular work day that was not to be, for a owner who was now perhaps dead, buried somewhere in the rubble.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Gun apathy is un-American


     I've noticed people on Facebook complaining about newspapers printing images of yesterday's murder of a Virginia TV reporter and camera man, as if that was the offensive part that demanded action. While I agree that the expression of horror on her face is disturbing, like Edvard Munch's "Scream," we do ourselves, or her family, or her memory, no favors by turning away. Frankly, I think it should be engraved on our currency, because Americans contemplate the reality of gun violence too rarely, not too frequently. It is an example of cowardice in a nation that once prided itself on courage.

     It is distasteful to dip your fingers into the fresh blood of the latest victims of gun violence and try to sketch out a political point.
     These are real people, or were. Alison Parker, 24, a reporter for TV station WDBJ7 in Virginia, and Adam Ward, 27, a cameraman, were gunned down Wednesday morning by a former station employee with "anger issues," apparently, who later shot himself as police closed in.
     But this tragedy was not a random act of nature. They weren't struck by lightning. They were victims of gun violence, which has become an American folk illness, an epidemic we suffer from out of proportion with the rest of the world. The rate of gun violence in the United States is 40 times what it is in Great Britain.
     Distasteful though it might be, this is the only time when Americans even pretend to pay attention. Typically this case would hardly bear notice — only two people killed, not the big death toll needed to spark public interest. But it happened on live TV, and a good video will snag our wandering gaze.
      Why are we so hesitant to contemplate this problem? Maybe because we venerate guns as part of our national identity. Selling guns is big business, and the central narrative offered by the gun industry's champion, the National Rifle Association, is that any sane regulation of guns, even the smallest change to the status quo, say, requiring firearms to come with trigger locks, is a step toward the totalitarian state where guns are seized by our jackbooted overlords.
     It's an extreme argument with no basis in reality. But people embrace it with passion. Because they are terrified of their government, terrified of our society, and arming themselves is a futile effort to allay their fears. Remember, the percentage of Americans who own guns is falling: in 1973, it was 50 percent. Now it's closer to 35 percent. Most households in America don't have a gun. The reason we have so many guns — 310 million — is the average gun owner owns eight guns.
     Why own so many? Because it's hard to get enough of something that doesn't work.
     Calls for action seem naive. Worse slaughters than Wednesday's occurred and nothing happened. If we didn't do anything after 20 children were murdered at Sandy Hook in 2012, the logic goes, we'll never do anything.
     Perhaps. But let's review. We're still the United States of America. We have this terrible problem, one costing the lives of innocent American citizens. We could try to fix it, but we're not. Because we're frozen, stuck. We can't try or even talk about trying.
    How does that stand with you?
    I think what we need is a counter-narrative, a better story, another way to talk about this other than the NRA fairy tale. Something both truth-based and honoring a nation that tackles its problems or used to. Surrendering to gun violence is unpatriotic. The solution that the NRA offers — more guns, everyone should arm up so we could shoot it out — is insane and would make the situation worse. Buying a gun increases the chances that you'll be shot, that your children will be shot. The most common form of gun violence is suicide: when you buy a gun, the person you most imperil, statistically, is yourself. And then your family and friends. And then, way down the chart, criminals.
     So what to do?
     We are a country that defeated Hitler, that sent a man to the moon, that invented the Internet. To say that we can't do anything to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people is the worst kind of defeatism. It's un-American.
     How to start? We are so far from any kind of significant action, we must begin by wondering: Can we do anything about this problem? Can we even talk about it? Or is all hope lost, and our nation doomed to sit passively in the face of this worsening scourge? Because if one thing is clear, even though most Americans don't have guns and most Americans would like specific improvements in gun policy, most Americans also do not change their beliefs on the subject just because there is another shooting. We look up at the crack of gunfire, note the identities of today's victims, sigh, then go about our business unmoved. It is a peasant fatalism, a resignation beneath the spirit of a great country.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Trump critic in "pig heaven"



     

     Pity the poor satirist.
     You select a subject worthy of your scorn, of everyone's scorn. You train your well-honed powers of ridicule upon your victim.
     You open up with both barrels, hot cartridges of contempt flip hissing over your shoulder as you rake your victim.
     Everyone has a good laugh.
     The smoke clears.
     He's still there. Untouched.
     A pang of confusion and disappointment. What? You mean you guys elected Bruce Rauner anyway?  Haven't you been listening to a word I said?
     Or lately, Donald Trump.
     A hundred Talmud's worth of criticism has been flung at Trump, continuously, for the past 30 years, meticulously explaining his crassness, his P.T. Barnum-like hucksterism, his falsity. All for naught. The man strides toward the presidency, unhindered, and while we media elite assume he just has to blow up at some point, it ain't happened yet. It may never happen.
     This summer, as Trump swelled from balloon to blimp to zeppelin, I kept thinking about Spy Magazine, the sharp New York satirical monthly of the late 1980s, which I was honored to write for. Trump was first among Spy's A-list of New York socialites and business people whose venality made writing satire more an act of stenography than journalism.
What would Spy's editors have thought, I wondered, had they known what was coming for Trump?
     Heck, what do they think now? I put in a call to Kurt Andersen, one of Spy's founders.
     "It's the best," Andersen said. "I am in pig heaven."
     Come again?
     "In the late '80s and early '90s, I was a student of Trump," he continued. "We brought his egregiousness to the world's attention. Then, frankly, I lost interest in him. Once the world became more Trumplike and gave him his own reality show, he ceased to be interesting to me. I never watched 'The Apprentice.' I didn't care."
     So in a sense, by running for president, Trump was born anew.
     "Now that he has upped the ante, and brought this craaaazy, postmodern character that he's always been into this new realm of presidential politics, well, I'm excited," said Andersen. "Amazingly, he was flirting with running for president back in the '80s. He was talking about it. Back then, our attitude was, 'Please, please, please.' Nothing would be better than Donald Trump running for president."
     And here I thought I was cynical. But this is a new level. My Midwestern yokel's stab at sophistication wilted after a single draft of the 151 proof East Coast version. Next to Andersen, I felt like Dorothy Gale.
     "But what if he wins?" I whispered.
     "I don't want him to be president," Andersen said. "He is awful and interesting. When he became a birther, it was the first time, really, that I felt, 'Nah, this is no longer amusing. This is hideous. I can't laugh.' The fact that he's running for president, and a quarter of the Republicans are supporting him. It's too astounding for me to resist, as an observer."
Andersen said it wasn't so much that Trump spouts the "ugly, xenophobic, racist, sexist" beliefs that are the secret shame of Republicanism, but he represents the opposite of the polished politician, who "people have come to hate."
     Not Trump, said Andersen. "He speaks like the guy who has three drinks at the end of the bar. He just talks."
     Andersen believes the risk of Trump becoming president has gone "from absolutely zero to just above zero." I repeated my own mantra: If America elects Donald Trump, then we deserve him.
     "Ross Douthat had a very interesting line," Andersen said of the conservative pundit. "Essentially, he said Trump may be the guy that a decadent American imperium deserves."
     Indeed. Donald Trump is America's punishment for being America. Andersen, who became a best-selling novelist after selling Spy, views the Donald in narrative terms.
     "You can't make this up," he said. "It's beyond fiction. At the moment we're all supposed to be worried about inequality — about a rigged system and the the middle class not getting a fair shake — this rich guy is your avatar. It's incredible. If you wrote this in a novel, people would say, 'It's funny, but come on!'"
     At a time when reality beggars satire, Andersen, has shifted to writing nonfiction. His next book is titled "Fantasyland."
     What is it about?
     "America," he said.
     Of course.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dow falls: "an air of holiday menace"


    I don't usually have a Tuesday column. But after I posted a vignette about my wife's timely advice Monday, the paper asked me to write something about the stock market, so I wrote this, taking that story and expanding upon it.

    Looking for context as the market was in free fall Monday, I pulled down my journal from 1987 and checked what I wrote on Oct. 19, another Black Monday, when the Dow shed nearly a quarter of its value.
     It was the biggest one-day loss ever, far beyond anything in the Great Depression, or this Monday's stomach twisting dive and return and dive again.
     Young me was surprisingly disengaged on Oct. 19, 1987.
     "Much interest and speculation over plunging stock market, which lost 550 points by late afternoon," I wrote, noting that the event cast "an air of holiday menace over the day, like a storm when you are a child."
     I was nearly a child, 27, and didn't have any investments to speak of, and could afford to be blase. But even now, twice as old with an all-important nest egg the only thing between me a an impoverished old age, "holiday menace" still sounds right. You saw that 1,000 point drop and thought "Wow!" almost whistling in admiration, without necessarily associating it with the money you've just lost.
     Like most investors, my strategy is a blend of fear, ignorance, superstition, snatches of conversation overheard in locker rooms, , various articles skimmed in doctor's offices, and did I mention fear?
     Fear is my primary motivator; 2013 was a very good year for stocks. More than 29 percent up. Even I knew that was a lot. So knowing that such a rise had to be followed by a considerable fall, I began pulling out.
     Slowly. That's a second mantra. Do everything slowly, gradually. Be a snail investor. Fear and dawdling.
     So in 2014 I begin slowly pulling out. Slowly. While the market goes up another 10 percent, I'm shifting my money into dull-but-safe 1.6 percent a year bond funds.
     It's very hard to make money at 1.6 percent a year.
    This year, I figure time to nudge back in. Which brings up my third motivator: greed. Fear, dawdling and greed. The market is pretty flat. It's gotta start coming back.
     Or not. Last week. Pow pow pow pow. Four down days. And we all know what you do when the market goes down. You buy.
     So on Sunday, I move a big hunk of change into the market. Trying to be the smart investor that I'm really not.
     Now it's Monday morning, in bed with the wife. The clock radio stirs us with the doom from the East. The Chinese market is down 8.5 percent.
     Summoning courage, I tell my wife I just pushed a big chunk back into the market.
     "A couple thousand?" she said hopefully.
     "No," I said. "A lot more."
     "The markets haven't opened yet," she suggested. "Maybe you could cancel your order."
     "I don't think it works like that," I said.
     I had no idea how it works. To me, investing is just pushing stuff around. I don't have a broker, just a computer screen. I feel like a child deploying his toy soldiers across a carpeted playroom.
     I went upstairs, logged in, went to transaction history, which I had never done. There was the automatic deposits, my previous nudging of funds back into the market. And one pending transaction. Plus two words. "Cancel Transaction." Yes! I clicked on them. The transaction was cancelled.
     I flew downstairs to congratulate my wife for being a genius. And so greeted the 1,000 point swoon with more relief than the average investor--choosing to focus on my dollars who were safe on deck instead of joining those flailing around in the sucking vortex of loss and volatility. Yes, some money was going down the drain. But not as much as could have been.
     Better for amateurs to ignore this stuff, lest it drive us crazy. Take a set amount, have it automatically sacrificed into a 401(K). Adjust as your night terrors dictate, but don't fret about it. It's all lost money anyway. Either the market will eat it, or I'll die suddenly and my wife will spend it on Aegean island cruises with her new boyfriend. Or she'll go and I'll blow it on babes and bourbon. Or we'll both linger and the money will be hoovered up by whatever grim hellhole of a nursing home we'll end up in. Or we'll both go, and the boys will stare with shock and disappointment that this, this was all their parents managed to sock away from a life of toil.
     However the chips fall, it's a losing game, eventually, whether the market goes up or down.





Monday, August 24, 2015

Financial advice: listen to your wife


     My column is not bristling with investment tips, because I'm a buy-and-hold type of guy. There are better things to worry about, and I'm not financially savvy and don't have many insights to pass along, other than, "Save for retirement." 
     But after posting something like 25 percent gains in 2013, I figured the prudent card sharp knows when to take his winnings and go home, and so began slowly pulling out of the market, some, because it can't go up 25 percent every year. Still, 2014 was a solid year, and I missed out on some of that. You can't get very far on the 1.4 percent paid in bond funds, so began slowly trying to creep back. Every time the market fell a substantial amount,  I'd toss a few handful of cash back in.
     With the Dow tanking last week, I figured time to deploy even more of the sidelined resources, such as they are. 
     Even as I made the transaction Sunday, I felt a little squeamish. What if stocks weren't done plummeting yet?
     Bingo. Monday morning the clock radio clicked on with news of continuing free fall in China, certain to infect here. 
     "I just put a bunch of money back in the market," I said, feeling slightly queasy.
     "How much?" my wife ventured, hopefully. "A couple thousand?" 
     "No," I said. "More."  I told her how much.
     "Maybe you can cancel it. The markets haven't opened yet."
     "I don't think it works that way," I said.
     But I got out of bed. Because the truth was, I really didn't know. I padded upstairs, logged onto our 401K, leaned forward. Squinted. 
     One click. "Transaction cancelled."
     I skipped downstairs, gave her a kiss.
     "Honey," I said. "You just saved us thousands of dollars."
    I don't know if this counts as financial advice. But with the Dow Jones cratering, you need some kind of guiding investment philosophy, and mine is, at least for today: it pays to listen to your wife.
   
 


Tommy Wong: "Everyone is like your family"



     "Number three!" the maitre d' growled.
     We were standing outside Lao Sze Chuan, in Chinatown. With college looming, my boys have been ticking off must-visit restaurants before being consigned to university food service fare: High Five Ramen. Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder, Cross-Rhodes in Evanston and now Tony Hu's flagship restaurant.
     We had "14" on a square of cardboard. A 40 minute wait.
     "Why don't you go explore the mall," I said to the family, "I'll wait here."
Tommy Wong

     A ploy, to get them out of the way--my boys cringe when their dad takes a picture--because I wanted to photograph the maitre d', who had a very distinctive look. Large Harry Caray eyeglasses. An orange polo with the collar turned up. Dripping with bling. A sparkly earring the size of a pea. A wide jade bracelet on one wrist, an enormous gold watch on the other. Eight rings, two to a finger. A pendant His name, "Tommy," on a white tag.
     "Do you mind if I take your picture?" I asked, tentatively because of his fierce growl. He posed for a pair of demure shots, hand on hip, and then raced back to the maitre d' station and returned with a black fan, which he held in a variety of tai chi poses, one knee in the air, arms back.
 

  "I am the teacher!" Tommy Wong exclaimed. "I am the master!" He vanished into the restaurant, and came back with a sword.
    The Chicago restaurant scene goes through various trends: sushi wanes, steakhouses blossom like mushrooms after a rain. But one aspect of the eating out experience has fallen from popularity and shows no risk of returning: the colorful host. He—and it was always a man—added to the dining drama, picking up where the food left off.
     It could be a maitre d'--the old world charm of Arturo Petterino at the Pump Room. It could be a chef. The beef wellington at the Bakery on Lincoln Avenue was justifiably lauded, but the moment you really waited for was when Louis Szathmary, looking exactly like a chef in a Maurice Sendak children's book with his snowy mustache, tall toque and ample stomach--would make the rounds.
     The apex of the form was Petros Kogiones at Dianna's Opaa on Halsted Street. I never went anywhere else in Greektown. How could I? Because more than flaming saganaki, which he claimed to invent, we wanted Petros, the lanky host welcoming us with shouts of "Cousin!" kissing our girlfriends, quieting down the restaurant to perform what was in essence a one-man floor show. On the very rare nights you went to Dianna's and Petros wasn't there, you felt robbed.
     All gone. I suppose a few remain: Cesar Izquierdo, doing his spinning top tricks at Taste of Peru on North Clark Street. The fact he also feeds you is an added bonus.
     And now Tommy Wong. A couple days later I sat to get to know him better, or try. No sooner did we settle at a table in the back then he hopped up again.
     "Excuse me," he said, hurrying to the door.

     "Hi, welcome, how are you? Four ladies?"
     Then he was back.
     "I've done this job 35 years," he said. "I was born in Hong Kong,"
     How does he see his role at the restaurant?
     "You do the job," he said. "Like a family. Everyone is like your family. your grandmother or brother or sister, who likes your food and he likes your service. I'm very happy to see everybody, I say, 'Hi! How are you?' Like a brother or sister or father or mother. I like to make people happy, come here for lunch and think, 'I like Tommy' I want people to remember me and keep coming back and do business."
     As a hobby, he is part of the society that puts on the Chinese New Year's Parade—he operates the lion's head, he said. Wong is 48, married, one child, 15.
     Before I could ask the teen's gender, he was gone again. I sat for a long time.
     Wong eventually returned, redolent of Baisha cigarettes. He seemed a little surprised I was still there.
     "This is for the newspaper?" he asked. I admitted it was. He left again, returning with a take-out menu, which he pressed into my hands, pointing to the address. ""2172 S. Archer Avenue." There seemed nothing left to do but leave, so I did.


Sunday, August 23, 2015

"If you want drama, go to the opera"— Top Opera Movies


     Scarcity creates value.
     So when computer graphics were new and expensive, and therefore unusual, films crammed with eye-popping special effects and feats of physical-impossibility were just the thing to draw an audience. 
     Now every mangled tale of a forgotten B-list Marvel superhero of the '70s conjures up a convincing army of physics-defying orcs and droids and CGI ho-hum magic whatever. Common as dirt. Far harder to find are actual human stunts, performed by actual human stars. So they stand out, despite being a practice that traces back to silent picture days.
     Or at least one stunt was enough to draw me to the cinema to see the latest "Mission Impossible" installment. Just as Tom Cruise bouncing around the top the Burg Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai forced my ass into a seat to see "Ghost Protocol" in 2011, so his heavily-publicized take-off clinging to the outside of an airplane as it takes off was lure enough to compel me to see "Rogue Nation" a couple weeks back.
    Boy-howdy. The short review is, it's everything it's supposed to be. A superb thriller, packed with the sort of stuff that a movie like that is supposed to be packed with. And the airplane stunt, at the beginning of the movie, was truly memorable.  I don't know if  Cruise does his own stunts because he's crazy, or to show off the physical prowess of the Scientology lifestyle, or with the exact cynical intention of drumming his movies.
    But it works.  
    I even, at one point during the film, said to myself: "Okay Tom, so be a Scientologist then." Not that it isn't still a scary, vindictive cult. But really, what faith isn't?
     The movie is not without flaw: a few BMW product placements too many, intrusions that stop the plot as surely as if John Cameron Swazye stepped from behind a pillar and attached a Timex watch to the frame of Cruise's motorcycle to illustrate its durability. And the hero-is-about-to-be-tortured-but-gets-away trope has to be proclaimed officially dead and buried after "Rogue Nation." No mas. 
Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson at the Vienna Opera.
     But that's not why I'm writing about it. This quasi-review is just prelude, and could be left in the capable hands of my colleague, Richard Roeper. No, the reason I'm focusing on the new "Mission Impossible" movie is because one product placement is far more satisfying and subtle than constantly flashing the BMW logo: a good 10 minute chunk of the film, at least, takes place at  the Vienna State Opera House. 
    Sure, the segment is another cliche, an attempt on the life of the Austrian prime minister by a team of bad guy assassins,  interspersed with satisfying snatches of "Turandot." Though the set piece is forgivable because it contains the immortal line, "You want drama, go to the opera." 
    Exactly. And its very derisiveness made me think of the many, many great opera movies that are not only fun to watch, but help introduce newcomers to the art form. This being a humble blog, I will limit myself to my favorite six opera movies, though feel free to add your own (though not "Pretty Woman," which I didn't forget, but am excluding, because it's a romantic comedy about a streetwalker who looks like Julia Roberts, and whose prostitution leads to wealth and happiness, which is like writing a musical about a heroin addict who looks like Taylor Swift and who, thanks to her addiction, finds love and fulfillment).
     I'm also leaving out the Bugs Bunny shorts that introduced most of us to opera, since they aren't technically "movies," and probably deserve a post of their own someday. 
    So, with no further throat-clearing, my list of Great Opera Movies, in order of their greatness..


Tom Hulce
1. Amadeus. Thirty years later, I still remember shock of seeing Pinto from "Animal House" cast in the role of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. But it worked.  Milos Forman's movie version of the Broadway hit not only  offers up a gloss of Mozart's greatest compositions, but explains how they were created, including a wonderful "Queen of the Night" aria from "The Magic Flute" and the chilling climactic moment from "Don Giovani" that set me up for disappointment when I finally saw it live at the Lyric. Winner of eight-Academy Awards, including best actor to F. Murray Abraham, in his one-hit-wonder star turn as Antonio Salieri, the court composer, enemy of Mozart, and narrator of the film. Elizabeth Berridge  steals the show as Mozart's bright-faced, scheming wife, Constanze Weber.

2. Moonstruck. I would have put this first—it's one of my favorite movies—but didn't want people to smirk. Norman Jewison's wonderful 1987 family comedy stars Cher, of all people, who is surprisingly capable, despite what you think of her. She is the aging accountant, 
Cher and Nicholas Cage at the Met
Loretta Castorini, who, seven years after her husband was hit by a bus, is poised to marry a schlub—or whatever the Italian version of a "schlub" is—Danny Aielo, when she meets maimed baker Nicholas Cage, back when he could still act. The movie begins with the Met preparing to stage "La Boheme," and pivots on their date to the production. "I didn't really think she was going to die," Cher says through tears afterward. "I knew she was sick...."  Then the movie is filled with memorable lines, Cage seems to get most of them, including the useful "I ain't no freakin' monument to justice!" and a poignant meditation on love. "Love don't make things nice—it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die." Sounds like the plot of every opera.



Klaus Kinski
3. Fitzcarraldo. No movie captures the obsessive passion of the opera fan like Werner Herzog' 1982 tale of an Irishman, improbably played by Klaus Kinski, who wants to build an opera house in the middle of the South American rain forest. To do so, he needs to make money—how else?—in the rubber industry, and to do that he does the only sensible thing: try to drag a 320-ton steamship across a jungle portage with  an army of Peruvian peons, while blasting Caruso on his gramophone, it's the perfect metaphor for art and human passion giving the finger to the indifferent forces of nature.

4.  The Untouchables. Kevin Costner in a historically-iffy but satisfying portrayal of Elliot Ness and his battle against Al Capone in Jazz Age Chicago. Sean Connery is the street smart
Robert De Niro at the opera
Chicago cop who utters his classic definition of the "the Chicago Way." Not only is there a thrilling homage to the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" filmed in Union Station's Great Hall, but Connery is gunned down in a a classic back and forth between Capone, played by Robert DeNiro, enjoying that most cliched of movie opera moments, Pagliacci's "Vesti la giubba" aria while director  Brian De Palma cuts from the opera to the unfolding murder (used again in "Godfather III, "which doesn't make our list, well, because it's "Godfather III"). 



5. A Night at the Opera. The only way Margaret Dumont could be any stuffier was to make her a wealthy dowager interested in investing in the New York Opera Company. What opera goer hasn't, at one point or another, wished the Marx Brothers would burst in an bring some interest to a production? Here they switch the sheet music to "Il Trovatore" for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and in general make a hash of the production (including a chase in the rafters that isn't anything like the one in "Rogue Nation."  This 1935 classic—No. 12 on the American Film Institute's list of all-time funniest movies— did much to kidnap "Pagliacci" and hold it for ransom in popular culture, with Groucho adding his own lyrics. "Ridi, pagliacci, I love you very much-ee." 

6. To Rome With Love. While the funniest part of Woody's Allen's 2012 movie is Roberto
Fabio Armilato can only sing when wet.
Benigni's Leopoldo, an ordinary man who wakes up one morning to discover he's become a wildly-popular celebrity, one of the movie's sub-stories involves a mortician named Giancario, an amateur opera singer who can sing beautifully, but only in the shower. So Allen's character, Jerry, a vacationing American opera director, arranges for him to sing—"Pagliacci," of course—in the shower on-stage. It might not be the Marx Brothers, but if you can't laugh at a man standing in a shower stall on stage in a concert hall, singing opera in front of an audience, well, you can't laugh at anything. 


Anyway, those are mine. Did I miss any?

(Yes, I have. Readers on Facebook have been suggesting their own favorites, and one mentioned the heartbreaking scene in  7. "Philadelphia" Jonathan Demme's ground-breaking 1993 movie about a lawyer with AIDS, where a dying Tom Hanks, who won the Academy Award for his role, tries to explain "La mamma morta" from "Andrea Chenier"—sung by Maria Callas, no less—to Denzel Washington. "The place that cradled me is burning..." Notice the moment when Washington glances at his watch. That's what we're up against. Just love that scene. I can't believe I forgot it).

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Scott Walker's handful

Scott Walker

     So how many Muslims aren't radical terrorists?
     Take your time.
     You don't have to come up with an exact figure.
     I would say, "the vast, overwhelming majority."
     Or, for the mathematically inclined, 99.99 percent.
    First, because that's demonstrably true. While quite a bit of the bloodshed in the world can be traced to those acting in some crazed notion of Islam, the fact remains that almost all of the 1.6 billion Muslims are, like most people everywhere, trying to go about their business.
    If that weren't true, we'd all be dead. 
    Or a lot more of us would be dead. 
    Not everyone thinks this way of course. I've had otherwise sensible readers tip-toe toward it, saying, "Yeah, maybe, but what about ISIS and the mullahs in Iran." It's important for them to establish, at the very least, that Islam is more bloodthirsty than Christianity is, at the moment. 
     I think, in their view, it means they win. 
     But some aren't satisfied playing that sorta sad exercise in playing nyah-nyan-we're-more-peaceful-than-you.
    Scott Walker, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire this week, squinched his eyes shut and came up with an estimate of how many Muslims aren't murderous terrorists.
     His guess:
     "A handful."
     You can listen to the quote in context here.
     I imagine he'll eventually apologize—groups like CAIR are already demanding he do so. 
     Or maybe he won't. As Donald Trump amply demonstrates, being the big dog means never having to say you're sorry.
     Besides, this was no gaffe. It is a received truth of the Republican party that, just as Mexican immigrants tend to be rapists, murderers and criminals, so followers of Islam are hot to wage deadly Jihad, if not one and all, then the vast majority. Those who haven't struck yet are perhaps biding their time.
     This is important more than an illustration of gotcha politics. Scott Walker and his like-minded soul mates are in league with the terrorists they so strenuously condemn. The reason terrorists commit those acts is because they want to drive a wedge between Islam and the West. 
     So when hacks like Walker take the bait, they are doing the work of terrorists. Walker is what the Communists would call "a useful idiot."  A phrase that, applied to Walker, is only half true.
     The second half.

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?


     There are hundreds of gas stations in the Chicago area. 
     So how are you expected to nail the exact location of this sign, colorful though it may be?
     Well, you just are.  Because this is not your run-of-the-mill gas station sign, and I'll leave it at that.  And to be honest, my gut says it'll be pretty easy—it's either this, or one that I worry is too hard, and somehow I hate to inflict the too hard one. It feels like cheating. 
     So where is this green and pink neon beauty? Place your answers below. The winner gets one of my red and black wonders, the 2015 blog poster sign. Good luck. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trump isn't winning; the rest are losing


     For weeks, the nation has been watching Jeb Bush, waiting for him to finally push back against the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of Donald Trump. 
     Bush was comatose at the debates. Since then, while Trump prances and preens like Mussolini in the spotlight, outlining a platform that is, in turns, racist, misogynist, unworkable, cruel and insane, Bush has been crawling around the campaign shadows, looking for his manhood with flashlight. 
     Then Thursday, on the stump in New Hampshire, it happened. Bush lit into Trump ... wait for it ... not for his economy-killing and immoral plan to deport all illegal Mexican immigrants. Not for his complete lack of political experience.
     No, Bush damned Trump for not being conservative enough. 
     "There's a big difference between Donald Trump and me," Bush said in Kenne, New Hampshire. "I'm a proven conservative with a record. He isn't."
      Ohhh, so that's the problem, is it? That's like saying the difference between myself and Hitler is that he's a vegetarian and I'm not. 
     Bush went on to palaver about taxes, about abortion, about insurance, claiming that Trump, who has rode to the top of the polls and stayed there by directly channelling the poisonous id of the far right, is insufficiently right wing. The man used to be a Democrat! 
     Maybe so, Jeb. But he sure ain't a Democrat now.   
     When he wasn't weakly trying to repudiate Trump for lacking GOP blue blood, Bush was aping him. Only two years after Bush wrote a book outlining a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he suddenly started tossing around the phrase "anchor babies" Thursday and was defending it at his press conference after his speech, asking what else he should call children of undocumented workers.
    Umm, suggested a reporter, how about "children of undocumented workers?"
    Too long, Bush replied. 
     Lots of things are too long. Election campaigns. Trump's comb-over. Bush's dithering. The time the public has been forced to endure Donald Trump's personality. Though I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The man could win. Although watching Jeb Bush in action, I would finesse that notion. It isn't that Donald Trump is winning, so much as the rest of them are losing, badly. 

Ashley Madison is like the lottery: many play, few win

     In 1965 Mike Royko took a look at Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and came to a surprising conclusion.
     "I'm not sure that Hefner is a playboy," the great columnist wrote in the Chicago Daily News. "He seems to be as middle class as the people he criticizes in his giggle-giggle philosophy."
     Real playboys, Royko said, "have sensational affairs with famous actresses, singers and countesses." They gamble at casinos, sail yachts, drive race cars. "Rome on Monday. Paris on Wednesday, Saturday night in New York, and breakfast in Rio."
 
    Then there's Hefner who, if you puff away the PR smoke, is a sedentary Midwestern guy married to his job who wants nothing more than to hang around his own living room night after night, guzzling Pepsi and listening to the stereo.
     "Except for the fact that it is bigger and all paid for, he's put together an overgrown split-level, right out of a "better homes" magazine," Royko wrote. "Hefner's kingdom is the same kingdom the 5:15 suburban commuter is rushing home to. Item by item, it's middle-class, sub-development living."
     In other words, don't let the sexy image deceive you.
     Good advice when considering Ashley Madison—to bring those who are just joining us up to speed—the online dating service for married people that was hacked last month, with names, emails, credit card numbers and sexual fantasies of its 37 million members snagged by a group outraged by Ashley Madison's business model. Earlier this week, the hacked details were posted on the notorious Dark Web, the hard-to-access land of bulk narcotics and illegal drug deals. Technically minded souls have already re-posted the data where suspicious spouses can check if their honey had been trolling for a special pal.
     The media of course eats this up. The would-be-Lothario humiliated is the oldest trope in literature, the stuff of countless Elizabethan dramas. The Washington Post speculated that "millions of users held their breaths" after the data theft was revealed.
     Maybe. My guess is those members don't have much bad behavior to worry about coming to light. As we learn about Ashley Madison, the more we'll find that, rather than some online game of musical beds, its clientele consists of a tiny portion of swinging adulterers who actually hook up with each other, and then a vast population of duped sad sacks and desperate house fraus ponying up their credit cards in pursuit of some unattainable dream. An image as romantic as a city laundromat at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night.
   Give Ashley Madison credit for monetizing married ennui. The most incredible thing about that membership list is its size: 37 million. Quite a lot. That's about ... 16 percent of the adult population of the United States. Though it turns out Ashley Madison also has a big international membership (some of whom, located in repressive countries that frown on this kind of thing, now have their lives put in peril by this breach. It's all good fun until somebody gets hurt).
      The details of how Ashley Madison works are fairly jaw dropping. It's basically a text service. Women can send messages for free to men—who make up 70 percent of members— while the men must must pay to read them and pay to reply. The web site—and this is astounding—generates fictional women who send bogus messages to men to gull them into participating.
     The closest thing to Ashley Madison, in my view, is the lottery, where most pay for a dream that comes true only for a very few. Though I might be showing my age. Ashley Madison could be seen as a slightly raunchier subbasement of online dating which, if you haven't been paying attention, has morphed into a billion dollar industry. Match.com is 20 years old; 20 percent of young adults have dated somebody they met online, and some significant number of people who get married —studies range from 5 to 30 percent—are wedding people they met online. The taint of desperation that used to hang over online dating is pretty much gone.
      Not so for Ashley Madison. The secrecy and attraction implicit in its logo—a pretty woman holding her finger to her red, red lips in a "shhhh" gesture—is belied by this hack. Though 80 percent of Americans think that infidelity is "always wrong," we shouldn't take too much pleasure in Ashley Madison's secrets spilling out, because next it could be us, our bank, our hospital, our email, our secrets. Let he who is without something to hide cast the first stone.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

FM radio poet

Lin Brehmer


     The dog needed her teeth cleaned. Her appointment was at 7:30 a.m. Monday, so I left the house at 7:15, which put me in perfect position to listen to Lin Brehmer's "Lin's Bin" on WXRT, 93.1 FM, which airs Mondays and Fridays, at 7:15 a.m., repeating at 6:15 p.m.
    I'm not sure how to describe Lin's Bin for someone who hasn't heard it. A little poetic digression, answering a listener's question, which can range from the prosaic ("Why are teenagers so grumpy?") to pop culture ("What are the best album covers?") to the profound, ("Can you explain string theory?"). 
     His answers start on the surface of his subject of the moment, then dive into the depths of existence, holding a profound mirror on modern life. Brehmer's droll, steady commentary is interspersed with clips from movies and songs, a sort of aural montage of words and music. He's been doing the twice weekly segment since 2002. 
    Monday's was a question from Chris DeRosa of Westmont. "Lin, after living with my parents, my college friends, and now my fiance, I noticed one similar oddity: Why does every household have a junk drawer?" 
     That's a simple, almost obvious question, one you'd never hear addressed on WBEZ. They'd use the time to tell you about building a road in Guatemala, and would shrug off the junk drawer as lacking in gravitas. 
    Which is why Lin Brehmer can be in turns funny and profound. He has no gravitas, no political agenda, other than to puzzle over the same world we're all puzzling over. His catch phrase, "It's great to be alive," is a 50-50 mix of sincerity and sarcasm. Brehmer understands the small ball most of us play, the tiny interests and flickering, selfish concerns that occupy our lives, somehow redeemed by occasional flashes of wonder. Friday's Linn's Bin was a riff on the phrase, "Take care of you" which he spun into an ode to love and sacrifice that brought a tear to the eye.  
     To my eye, anyway. 
     Monday was more typical, half rumination, half romp.
     "Why does everyone have a junk drawer?" Brehmer asks. "...the junk drawer is just a manifestation of our postponement,  of all the junk we accumulate, the curios that wind up in a drawer are just a mental map of our random lives. The best part of this question is how it forces us to go through our junk drawer and  revisit tokens of our own common existence. Matchboxes from shuttered restaurants. A cheap James Brown wrist watch that doesn't work. . . Our junk drawer is not to be judged or abridged, because we need a place to hold onto what is least important."
    As a person with several junk drawers at home—because one just isn't enough—his existential reflection on our worthless-yet-precious stuff struck home, particular since it evoked —I swear to God—a description of the surface of a desk, my favorite passage from Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow:
         Tantivy's desk is neat, Slothrop's is a godawful mess. It hasn't been cleaned down to the original wood surface since 1942. Things have fallen roughly into layers, over a base of bureaucratic smegma that sifts steadily to the bottom, made up of millions of tiny red and brown curls of rubber eraser, pencil shavings, dried tea or coffee stains, traces of sugar and Household Milk, much cigarette ash, very fine black debris picked and flung from typewriter ribbons, decomposing library paste, broken aspirins ground to powder. Then comes a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colors including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer's Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop's mother, Nalline, all the way from Massachusetts, bit of tape, string, chalk ... above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including "Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland" ("He does have some rather snappy arrangements," Tantivy reports, "He's sort of American George Formby, if you can imagine such a thing," but Bloat's decided he'd rather not), an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skins of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl ... a few old Weekly Intelligence Summaries from G-2, a busted corkscrewing ukulele string, boxes of gummed paper stars in many colors, pieces of a flashlight, top to a Nugget shoe polish can in which Slothrop now and then studies his blurry brass reflection, any number of reference books out of the ACHTUNG library back down the hall—a dictionary of technical German, an F.O. Special Handbook or Town Plan—and usually, unless it's been pinched or thrown away, a News of the World somewhere too—Slothrop's a faithful reader.
    There, now you can say you've read most of a paragraph of Gravity's Rainbow. If you think that was tough sledding, imagine getting through 776 pages of similar. Exhausting, but satisfying too. When you're done, you know you've accomplished something, and it sticks with you, obviously, or at least that part stuck with me.
    Brehmer's words also stick with you, a blend of personal and universal, an oasis of intelligence in a media landscape that too often seems as if it has hit the bedrock of stupid and is struggling to drill deeper. I sat in the van outside the veterinarian's office, listening, scritching my dog, waiting for Lin to finish his segment. You only get two chances to hear each "Lin's Bin" on air, then it vanishes. While he will post scripts on line, occasionally, the finished product, with its fun acoustic embellishments, does no exist on the web. Because of the medley of music and movie clips, and the insane hash of our copyright laws, he can broadcast it, but not post it. So you have two chances to hear it and then it disappears. 
     Which is both regrettable and apt. Because one of the points underlying Lin Brehmer's writing is, I believe, that life is not only great, but fleeting, and we have to appreciate what's in front of us while it's there and while we can.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Amazon's white collar sweatshop



    Treating your employees like crap is not a new concept.
     In fact it's very old. Peer into the past and you see it everywhere. The 12-hour day. The six-day work week. Children in thread factories. Lose your hand in the spinning exposed gears? You're fired and the next guy takes your place.
     Nor do we have to go back in time to find Dickensian conditions. The reason our stuff is made in China is because decent workplaces, which cost money, are scarce there. Workers packed into dormitories, nets under the windows to catch the suicides, factories belching pollution. No pesky EPA there, and the fact that 4,000 Chinese citizens die of air pollution-related illnesses every day, well, there's plenty more.
     How do we compete with that?
     We used to fancy we'd be smarter, more productive, more innovative. That was a decade ago; we seem to have given up that dream.
     Now the plan is to compete by emulating them. We'll work all the time too, embracing an insane Horatio Alger pluck and luck and email ethic. There is always an element of America who wants to imitate our foes. In the 1950s, that meant instilling the same thought-police, loyalty-oath fear tactics that we decried in the Soviet Union. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Now we're going to out-hustle China.
     I'm writing this in the aftermath of reading a lengthy, jaw-dropping exploration of the corporate culture of Amazon that ran in the New York Times  They spoke with more than 100 employees, past and present, of the Seattle-based online retailing giant, and portray a white collar sweatshop where a set percentage of employees are fired each year on general principles. Where failing to answer a midnight email is unacceptable, and employees unfortunate enough to contract cancer or have children can find themselves shunted toward the exits for being insufficiently committed.
     And like Communist China, it works great, on one level. Amazon is worth a quarter trillion dollars. Founder Jeff Bezos is the fifth wealthiest man on earth, with 188,000 employees working like plow horses to make him fourth richest.
     But on another level, the notion that employees should have full, rounded lives, with hobbies and families and relaxation, it's a failure.
     Their entire philosophy seems to be that the customer is king. the assumption being that all customers want is to get their "Minions" DVDs delivered in 20 minutes, by drone if possible. But customers also care, maybe, a little, about where the stuff they buy comes from, and as much a disincentive it is to buy books on Amazon, knowing how it has been chewing up publishing, it's even more off-putting to realize you're supporting a dehumanizing hive.
     But not that off-putting. Amazon will not suffer much from a story in the Times. Horrid conditions in China might make us shake our heads, but we still buy their khakis.
     Why? Maybe somewhere we lost our humanity. Maybe decent work environments were a phase, a mid-20th century American fad, and now we are reverting to form. The philosophical groundwork is certainly being laid. Politicians used to paint themselves as the workers' friend. Now a truly loathsome billionaire like Donald Trump can be the darling of the party of Lincoln, just because he promises to bring his secret rich guy knowledge to the table. Scott Walker is running on his success at crippling public unions in Wisconsin, and Bruce Rauner is aping him. We went from a society that asked itself why teachers don't get paid like athletes do, to a society that wonders why teachers get paid so much, and tries to see that it stops, in the name of economy.
     Reading the Amazon story, I uttered a silent thanks for the career I've had. A good union salary to do work I love for tolerable management. Now people line up to do that work for free under the dubious proposition that making Arianna Huffington rich will rebound well to them in some nebulous fashion.
     Our only hope is that working for free, like abusing workers, is an untenable business model, long run. You can dupe people for a while. But they don't like being unpaid drones. No dogma of well-polished MBA phrases hides that forever, and so coercive ideologies, whether communism or our current technology stoked wealth worship, won't prevail. People are not that stupid. At least I hope they're not that stupid. Donald Trump is still topping the polls