Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The beauty of bicycles


     Who doesn't love old bicycles? The people who built the Schwinn above, who designed the frame behind the handlebars to flare out, resembling ... what? The thorax of some emerald insect? The wing of a bird? What were they thinking? Doesn't matter. The end result is wonderful.
     The other day I wandering into University Bicycles, the sprawling cycle shop just off the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, and was first amazed by the jammed mass of bikes of all colors, sizes and descriptions. The vast repair department, the arrays of helmets, gloves and bicycling jerseys.
    I just had to explore. Even though I'm not in the market for a new bike—my black Schwinn Cruiser with its fat whitewall tires does just fine—and as much as I admired their custom "University Cycle" Italian-style racing shirts, I'd look like a fool in one. You need to earn clothing like that.
     My attention shifted to University Bicycles museum's worth of antique bicycles hanging from the ceiling.  Most were Schwinns, the dominant American bike company for most of the 20th century (and a company, I should point out, founded in Chicago in 1895). There were lesser brands as well, such as a 1888 Hickory with wooden spokes and rims.
    I'm sharing the pictures just to say, "Hey, look at this." But they do raise a question: why was design so important on these bikes? Nowadays bikes are all about performance, about simplicity, the lightness of the alloys, their toughness and ruggedness and speed. The streamlined chain guards and fenders are all a thing of the past. Why don't we value them anymore? My guess: because we live in a world where we jettison the superfluous, to save money. We can't afford style.
    Maybe because bicycles were newer, and companies felt they had to sell the product. If you don't know it, the bicycle was one of those technological innovations that changed society, like computers, television and the automobile. There was a Bicycle Craze in the 1890s. Women started shedding those layers of skirts because they were riding bicycles, which not incidentally put them beyond the reach of family and chaperones. Editorial writers wrung their hands, as editorial writers do, and Wondered What It All Meant.
     If you want to see more, there's a rambling video on YouTube that gives a jumpy tour of many more of the older bikes in the store. Or, better, stop by University Bicycles next time you are in Boulder. I asked if they minded if I photographed their bikes, and they said go right ahead. Nice people. I bet they're even nicer if you buy something.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day, 2016

      We do lots of activities over Memorial Day weekend—picnics and barbecues, tent sales and, not to forget the big event itself, the Indianapolis 500.
     Don't blame the shrug of modern life. When Memorial Day began, right after the Civil War, as Decoration Day, it was a time for families to visit the graves of their knighted Union dead, outings immediately re-purposed by amorous young folk.
"Decoration Day was also a day of courtship for the young people," notes holiday scholar Jack Santino, pointing out how 19th century couples would wander off to the more remote spots of woodsy cemeteries.
      Given these practical uses of the holiday, we can't be blamed for wondering, as we dip our heads and reflect on the sacrifice of soldiers who gave their lives for the country, for whose benefit do we do this?
      The noble dead? To please those gazing down at us from heaven?
     Pretty to think so. I would suggest, however, that we remember those who yielded their lives, not as a favor to them, but for ourselves. Dignity demands it. Our nation did not form spontaneously, like a mountain range, but was wrested by intention and force from Mother Britain. Nor did it survive for 240 years without the exercise of military power--often in folly, for certain but sometimes crucially, to make sure the Wehrmacht didn't come rolling down Michigan Avenue....
 


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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Boulder, SUVs and goats



      I've spent a lot of time in Colorado: a full year, in bits and pieces, since I was a teenager. I don't love it the way many do. I mean, it's nice. Mountains. Forests. More mountains. Fine if you like that kind of thing.  I'm there now, visiting my parents. So I thought I'd share an observation from a dozen years ago, when SUVs were newer and more something to be remarked upon, as opposed to something accepted with a shrug.

     BOULDER, Colo.--There are fewer sport-utility vehicles on the roads here than in Chicago. That was a surprise. I assumed, with all the mountains, it would be the other way around, and worried I was somehow misperceiving things, perhaps due to the less congested traffic zipping along new, clean highways, plus the wide open spaces. But I quizzed my wife, cleverly not tipping my hand, and she viewed it the same. And we definitely did not spot a single Hummer in a week of driving the kids hither and yon, through the Rockies and back and forth across town.
     I have a theory as to why this is: People in Chicago drive all those Behemoths and Whales and Mountainsides--complete with headlight grills to brush away nonexistent branches and fog lights to cut through the mist of fjords 5,000 miles away--as part of some elaborate interior fantasy, a parody of the life they'd lead if only they weren't working like dray horses in windowless brokerage houses on LaSalle Street.
    But in Colorado, where people actually routinely shun their work and responsibilities and race off to the mountains and climb them, sometimes with their bare hands, they don't need to fantasize. They're busy hiking, riding, paddling, skydiving. They don't need a 3-ton, 11 mpg, $60,000 hunk of junk to prop up their outdoor delusions. They've got the real thing. We pulled over to the side of the road in Rocky Mountain National Park and watched a herd of elk basking in the sun, if not eyeball to eyeball, then as close to a group of elk as I want to be without bars between us.
     And I was driving a sedan.
     Not that Boulderites are without their own fantasies. Living next to smoggy Denver, which is a kind of Cleveland with mountains, and with every acre of farmland rapidly turning into tracts of pre-fab homes, there is a certain frenzy to environmentalism here.
     For instance. We were zipping along Foothills Parkway when we passed a couple hundred goats at the side of the road. We were in residential Boulder, and a glance beyond the goats confirmed that this wasn't some sliver of farm. There were houses around the goats. My wife was puzzled, but my long acquaintance with the People's Republic of Boulder--I've been coming here since the mid-1970s--gave me a hunch what was happening. The goats were mowing the grass, a diligent step on the road to ecological Nirvana. I had to know more.



     Recession, not eco-friendliness       
      "I came up with the idea," said Patrick Tarver, median maintenance flood supervisor for the City of Boulder. "We've only had it going about three weeks; it started out as a pilot program."
     To my disappointment, the goat mowers were not inspired directly by some chai-swigging, patchouli-scented macro-organic aversion to internal combustion engine lawn mowing, but because of lawn care services folding in the recession.
     "We couldn't get a mowing contractor," Tarver said. "The budget hit them really hard. They had let people go, sold equipment, and couldn't handle the job."
     Enter the goats.
     "We had a noxious weed problem, and used the goats in the past, and it just kind of came to me to try goats out," he said. "We have real steep berms, and it would take a lot of time to weed wack the whole area."
     A company in a nearby town, "Nip It in the Bud," provides hungry goats at $1 a day each--there are 232 in Boulder's herd, and Tarver said the goats' work compares favorably to human mowers at $10 to $15 an hour. Temporary fencing keeps the goats from wandering away.
     Tarver said that while the primary motive was "an economic thing," there is no question that goat mowing scratches a particular Boulder eco-green itch.
     "It is a Boulder mentality item as well," he said. "We're always looking for alternatives, and the goats don't put out ozone, don't put out noise pollution, don't use any fossil fuels."
     One man's ceiling is another man's floor, however. While I was appreciating Boulder for its wide-open spaces, grass-gobbling goats and zoning that doesn't permit any building that doesn't look like it was made out of mud by Pueblos, I ran into a resident who was thinking of packing it up.


     A few people can be too many
     "I've lived here since 1966," said a deeply-tanned, squinty kind of guy I met on the trail, while his dog and my boys played in what I hoped was a creek but could have also been an open sewer. He didn't have to finish the thought.
     "I suppose it's gotten pretty built up for you," I said.
     "It has," he agreed.
    "There's always North Dakota," I said, nodding sagely and forcing down a smile.
     We flew back into Midway, and saw our first Hummer of the week on the treacherous terrain of Cicero Avenue. I was calm though. I'm trying to get beyond the fist-shaking scorn for SUVs that I've felt over the past five years. I'm trying to replace it with more of a bland, avuncular tolerance just shy of contempt. If kids can play cowboys and Indians (well, just cowboys nowadays) then why shouldn't adults buy big rolling playpens and pretend they're being chased by rhinos in the veldt?
     I just wish they wouldn't feel the need to drive while doing it.


                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 8, 2003

Saturday, May 28, 2016

"Not in jest, but in earnest"



      There is a quote from antiquity that explains half the suffering in the world. It's one of my favorites, all the better because odds are you've never heard it before.
     Ready? 
     Here goes.
     "Little boys throw stones at frogs in jest," the poet Bion wrote in 100 BC, "though the frogs die, not in jest, but in earnest."
     In other words, the powerful do things lightly that have heavy consequences. 
     Great, huh? 
     So why is this quote illustrated by a grainy photo of a mother duck and her seven ducklings in my backyard?
     Our backyard is so wet it attracted ducks. I thought I would get their photo, and since I don't have a camera with a long lens—I don't have a camera at all—I stealthily crept out the back door to get a closer shot with my iPhone. I didn't want to scare the ducks by slamming the door, so I left it open.
     What I forgot, padding across the wooden deck on tiptoe, was the dog, who saw the ducks, and bolted out the open kitchen door, shot across the deck and after the ducks, scattering them in a quacking cloud of confusion and duckling and feathers.
    "Kitty!" I shouted giving pursuit.
     I don't think she hurt any of the ducklings —I once saw her trying to get the better of an overturned cicada and, well, let's put it this way: the cicada won.
      The inter-species scrum disappeared into the pine trees. I eventually tracked the dog down. The momma duck quacked mightily and assembled her charges, and stalked off, highly offended, to find a more hospitable yard. I felt very bad about driving them away. It wasn't my intent. But that's how it goes.
      Little boys throw stones at frogs in jest, though the frogs die, not in jest, but in earnest.  It also works for ducks, and lots of other things too. 



Friday, May 27, 2016

Police plant seeds of trust



 

   
     A piece of turf in Englewood. Young black men and women hanging out. And cops with dirty hands, planting something, then covering it up.
     Familiar words. You think you know where this story is going. But you don't.
     "My name is Officer Davis. I work at the 7th District police station," says David Davis, standing beside his partner, Ja'Lance Hunt. "Our mission is to protect and preserve life. We would be glad to answer any questions you have. We're here today to help you plant, to put the flowers in the garden today. We go to all the schools in Englewood and we plant flowers, but we also act as the police too. OK? So who's going to show me how to plant?"
     It was a sunny morning in West Englewood last week at the Southside Occupational Academy High School, 7342 S. Hoyne, a school for students with disabilities. Southside Occupational is a rare Chicago public high school that has its own dog, Louie, a mini-Goldendoodle.   
    "Everybody knows Louie," says Joshua Long, the principal.
     It was the school's Earth Day celebration, with outside activities: food grills, art projects and planting their school garden. Officers Hunt and Davis greeted one group after another with enthusiasm, placing tiny seeds into their hands....



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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Out of balance

Wells Fargo History Museum, Los Angeles


     So Hillary Clinton might have violated State Department rules regarding email servers.
     And Donald Trump might have paid no taxes—he won't tell us, even though he promised he would.
    And Hillary, well, she was married to Bill Clinton, who wasn't faithful.
    While Donald Trump would bar Muslims from the country, insulting Islam abroad and at home, violating a core tenet of America.
    Clinton can be robotic.
    Trump can be cruel.
    Clinton lied about coming under fire in Bosnia.
    And Trump lied about giving a million dollars to veterans.
    Do you see a lack of balance here? The media tends to ying-yang politics. We think that's fairness. But some things don't balance. Hillary Clinton's cozy relationship with investment companies increases the chances that big money will get the deference in her administration that it gets under every administration, left right or center. Donald Trump's nationalism and protectionism increases the chances of war with China. 
    I don't see how those balance each other at all. Whenever I catch the attention of someone foaming about Benghazi, for instance, I say that first, there's nothing there, but second, even if there were, I would rather elect a Hillary Clinton who lied about secretly traveling to Libya and killed those Americans, herself, personally, than a Donald Trump who would honestly implement half the policies that he promised he would do. They aren't comparable. They're not two sides of a coin; they're one side of a penny and another side of a silver dollar. Trump's fans waving about Hillary's supposed lapses is like John Wayne Gacy telling a neighbor complaining about all those bodies being dug out of his basement, "Well, yeah, but you didn't mow your lawn...." 
     There are countless non-scandals that Republicans have tried to pin on the Clintons—Trump has already brought up Whitewater, Vince Foster. Meanwhile, Trump has no qualifications to be president, in experience, intellect, temperament, outlook, values, goals or morals. 
     It's a no-brainer. Which usually settles the case. Unless you're dealing with people who have no brains. Then it gets complicated. And scary. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ron Magers: The Last Man Standing

Ron Magers
     They were the generation after the black-and-white TV pioneers, the Floyd Kalbers and Len O'Connors, and before broadcast news shattered into tiny pieces against the Internet.
     Big personalities with big hair and fat 1970s neckties, easy to caricature: Walter Jacobson, feathers flying, squawking indignation. Carol Marin, our avenging angel, wielding her fiery sword of justice. And the king of the roost, Bill Kurtis, orotund and oracular, saved from Ted Baxter pomposity by the glint of self-knowledge.
      All have cut their anchor chains, slowly slipping out of the camera's gaze: Carol bursting into academia. Bill riding off into ranching. Walter, well, slithering someplace even more obscure than CBS.
     And now Ron Magers, the last man standing, takes his bow Wednesday night on WLS Channel 7 after 50 years in broadcasting, 35 of them in Chicago.
     "It's hard for me to take this all in," he said. "People are so nice."
     Since when? What Magers is seeing is his own niceness reflected back at him. If I had to pinpoint what kept Chicago watching Magers, night after night, rather than giving him the bum's rush to Pittsburgh, I would say it was not his niceness — that would get cloying — but his wit, that suppressed grin. Ron Magers was a funny man doing a serious job....

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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

How much snot can a snot-sucker suck?


     This might be the best idea.
     Or not.
     I really can't tell.
     We don't have a newborn, anymore. Haven't had one for, geez, almost two decades.
    And when we did, I seem to remember a blue bulb, with a nozzle at one end, used—by my wife God bless her—to extract snot from their noses.
    So maybe the "NoseFrida—The SnotSucker" is a huge improvement over the blue bulb system.
   I'll let you judge.
   It certainly caught my eye, as I was trucking through Bed, Bath & Beyond last week. Or its clear, bright Swedish graphics did. No question what's going on here. Though I did, skidding to a stop, think, "What the hell?!?"
     I would recommend a visit to the fridababy web site for all those who find themselves tasked with what they call "sticky situations." The yuck factor is balanced by friendly graphics and unflinching copy help gild over what they're talking about with a shiny veneer of art. The text points out that a filter is involved which keeps the sucked snot from being drawn into the mouth of the parent, which is almost reassuring.
    A NoseFrida, including four all-important filters, is $15.99. They sell them everywhere. Nordstom carries it.
    Notice their other products. NoseFrida is only the flagship device. There is also Windi, "The GasPasser," a valve designed to be inserted in your baby's posterior, to ease its farts out and reduce gas pain. Another product that might be vastly helpful. 
     Or Fridet, "the ButtWasher" designed to replace moist towelettes.
     There's more, but you get the picture.  
     They seem to be trying to corner the gross bodily substances market.
     As a fan of products, and marketing, generally, if not these in specific, I had to pass them along, and seek your thoughts. They're sold all over the world, so someone must buy them.
     My errand at Bed, Bath & Beyond, by the way, was to buy special pants hangers for my 20-year-old, who is spending his summer in Washington, D.C. His mom is under the illusion that only the proper hanger stands between him and hanging up the dress pants he needs to wear every day at his internship.  I assured my wife that, considering how his pants end up with the rest of his clothes, in bunched knots piled on the floor of his bedroom, the type of hanger they aren't being hung upon is really not all that significant. Wire hangers will do the job nicely. But she was adamant, insisting that hangers have powers to draw a man to order, to paraphrase Homer.
    The quote, from Book XIX of the The Odyssey, as translated by Robert Fagles, is: "Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin." I've seen it quoted more poetically as "The blade itself incites to deeds of violence," but I'll be damned if I can find which edition that's from. 
     What they mean, in essence, is: the tool encourages the action. So a SnotSucker draws — quite literally — a baby to better breathing. Or so is the theory. Anybody ever use these things? 


Monday, May 23, 2016

"Do you want to die? ... Or do you want to be OK?"



     When this study came out last winter, I began looking for an actual Chicago lawyer who would talk about alcoholism. The fact it's nearly June shows how difficult that was to find. Then again, when I was writing about neckties, it was hard to find a lawyer who'd go on record saying, "I need to wear a necktie in court." I wanted to drive that home in this column but, space being what it is, decided to just let her talk, and not hang in the background, commenting.

     Princeton undergrad. Harvard Law. Partner at a big law firm in Chicago.
     "Theoretically, I'm smart and should know better," Harris said. "It just wasn't the case. It's a disease, unfortunately. My father's side of the family. I just happened to get it."
     The disease is alcoholism, which not only runs in families but in certain professions. Journalism is one, let me assure you. And law is another. A study published earlier this year of 12,825 attorneys by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found that 20 percent of attorneys engage in "hazardous, harmful and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking." That's one in five, twice the average for people in general.
     "Lawyers are more likely to be problem drinkers," said Patrick Krill, director of the Legal Professionals Program at Hazelden and one of the study authors. "It's a very stressful environment with an abundance of alcohol."
     For Harris, the problem began slowly.
     "I drank moderately at college," she said. "I started as the only African-American woman attorney at the firm, and felt a lot of pressure to succeed. I wanted to fit in. Every Wednesday and Thursday we'd go out for cocktails. It was the culture...."

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Republican Fear Junkies



    Honestly? I'm not afraid of Donald Trump becoming president.
    First, because I do believe Hillary Clinton will win.
    Yes, that might be the dark star of hope, its unseen gravity distorting my judgment and pulling me toward an optimistic conclusion. But so far, as much as the electorate disdains Hillary, they hate Trump more, and with good reason.
    And second, should the United States suffer the ultimate infamy of Donald Trump being elected president, we'll survive it. We survived eight year of George W. Bush, we'd survive Trump too, for a number of reasons.
    A), He's erratic. The Republicans are embracing what he says, now, gingerly, the way you'd hug someone with dirty clothes. By an act of  intellectual gymnastics they forget his saying the opposite, whether years ago or yesterday, and ignore the inescapable reality that Trump could change again and will, as circumstances dictate. So no Wall, no barring Muslims, none of the truly crazy stuff, or not much of it.
    Though that could, again, be hope talking.
     B), what I've dubbed The Curse of the Outsider (op cit, Jane Byrne, Jimmy Carter). You sweep in from nowhere, knowing nothing—and knowing nothing is Trump's modus operandi—and you can't get anything done. Yes, the GOP hierarchy are lining up behind Trump, to their eternal shame.
    John McCain! I still can't get my head around that. McCain endorsed Trump. After Trump insulted him personally, and sneered at all American POWs. I never would have imaged it possible. McCain, and his quisling cast of defeated cowards amble, cringing, onto the Trump stage to join Chris Christie, in his dunce cap and chains. 
      But will they really work hard for his vague platform of ad hoc idiocy? 
      And the Democrats, freed of any lingering requirements of concern for governance by eight years of bitter Republican obscurantism, plus the genuinely vile and impossible programs Trump advocates, not to mention his bullying, my-way-or-the-highway demeanor, and they can sit on their hands and watch, grinning, as Trump tries to enforce his folly.
    C). Have you looked at his face? The strain. The white circles around the eyes. He just doesn't look like a well man. Yes, his keeling over dead sometime in the next six months would be a deus ex machina solution. But God looks kindly upon America. Or did.
     Not to get overly personal and mean, which smacks of Trumpism. I don't wish the man dead, just not living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The toughest challenge, facing him, is not to become like him. Because we lose that game, since he's better at being him than we are. 
     "When fighting monsters," as my favorite Nietszche quote goes, "take care not to become a monster."
     The whole thing does make me very sad, and not just for the Republicans. You have the Bernie Sanders crowd, buying lies as outrageous as Trump's, mirror image promises. Like two halves of a coin, like Raskalnikov and Razumikhin in Crime and Punishment. Sanders and Trump would look trite in fiction (not that Crime and Punishment is trite, but the symbolism would wilt in lesser hands, and whoever is authoring our current farce, it ain't Dostoevsky. Bulgakov maybe.)
     The Sanders supporters are already going all Ralph Nader on us, and daring suggest there is no different between Trump and Clinton.
    They must not have been listening Friday, when Trump said he would end no-gun zones (while standing at the NRA convention, a no-gun zone, which would be staggering hypocrisy if he, you know, cared).
     Clinton, Trump said, slipping into pure hallucination, is hot "to release the violent criminals from jail" while snatching away the guns of law abiding citizens, particularly our blushing, vulnerable daughters and mothers.
     "In trying to overturn the Second Amendment, Hillary Clinton is telling everyone— and every woman living in a dangerous community — that she doesn't have the right to defend herself."
     His appeal to female voters, I guess.  
     Meanwhile Clinton sticking to her guns, so to speak, called for the sensible gun safety measures that 92 percent of the country endorse.
    Seems like a difference to me.  
     And it's so astounding -- I'm not scared, I'm amazed -- that even the most rabid gun fan could slurp that up, this wild, obvious pandering. But they do. They're fear junkies. Terror makes their hearts pump, makes them feel alive. They gotta have it to get through their days. It's like they're living in a horror film. They need to rationalize building an armory in their basement, stockpiling food. And with America safe and secure, the economy humming along, well, that's not in the script. So they manufacture this bogeyman. For seven years the quiet, reflective, almost timid Barack Obama, who did utterly nothing regarding guns, was the guy who woke them up at night in a cold sweat. His election and re-election caused a surge in gun sales. And now Hillary Clinton is forced onto that procrustean bed.
    On Saturday, I created the first hashtag I ever made on Twitter—hashtags are ways to organize tweets. It's #GOPFearAddicts. Please feel free, when you find examples of the Republican Party waving lies to terrorize their flock of bleating cowards, to contribute your own. Then I squinted at it, and made it #RepublicanFearJunkies, which is longer, but sounds better. We'll use them both and see which proves more popular. I imagine we'll have quite a collection by November, when Hillary wins. But not without every sane, patriotic American lashing himself or herself to the wheel and fighting to save our country from, if not ruin, then humiliation and insanity.
   

Saturday, May 21, 2016

A hot dog and coffee on Touhy....

For those outside the Chicago area: yes, there's a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Niles.


   
     File this one under, "No wonder should go unremarked upon."
     Spent the morning in West Englewood, reporting on a story—we'll get to that next week—finishing up about 12:30 p.m. Time for lunch. I considered a couple Harold's Chicken Shacks—when in Rome... But there wasn't anywhere nearby to park, and I just kept driving.
     Somehow, parking a few blocks away and ambling over to get in line and grab lunch in Englewood seemed a Bad Idea. Maybe I was being timid. 
     Hurtling down 95 Street—man it gets suburban fast—I passed countless Burger Kings and McDonalds and Wendys and Popeyes. Never considered those for a second. Not hungry enough for fast food, except of course for White Castle, which are special.  White Castle has a soul.
    But the pair I passed were on the other side of the street, and U turns for Sliders....I kept going. 
     Onto 294 North. Love that road. Fast. I had an errand in Niles, so got off at Touhy going east. By now I was getting hungry. Papa Chris Place presented itself. It was well after 1 p.m. A hot dog would do the trick. I went in, ordered a char-dog, mustard, grilled onions, and ketchup. They didn't give me grief over the ketchup, not so much as a haughty glance. But that wasn't the wonder.
     Cup of black coffee.
     It was a decent dog, good pile of hot crinkly fries. Ate, checked the morning's email. When I finished, I took my tray to the garbage, fished out the green plastic basket I had thoughtlessly tossed in, after my eyes strayed over the "Don't throw your basket out" sign. Returned the ketchup bottle to the condiments, not far from where a Sun-Times sat ready for the next patron hungry for more than food. Went back to the table, retrieved my white styrofoam cup of coffee, and was leaving. The restaurant is set up so that, to exit the seating area, you have to pass by the counter, and as I did a woman behind the counter called to me, "Can I freshen up your coffee for you?" 
    I hadn't drunk much, maybe an inch worth. Good coffee, but hot, and I was eating. But I set down the cup, lifted off the cover, and she topped it off. 
    I can't remember that ever happening at a hot dog or burger joint, never, not once in my life. It certainly would never happen at a McDonalds. No minimum wage automaton would ever stop a patron going out the door to give him more coffee. That's probably a fireable offense at McDonald's. 
     "Thanks," I said. "This is my first time here. And thanks for subscribing to the Sun-Times." That last part probably sounded crazy and she ignored it, but I was glad they had the paper sitting out on the counter.
     "Come back again," she said.
    A nickel's worth of coffee. But it made me very happy, stepping into the parking lot, to see this sight, the Leaning Tower of Niles.  Not the bonus coffee, of course, but the gesture. A small kindness, a generosity of spirit, manifesting itself in subtle ways. I figured, whatever blurt of good publicity this blog could offer would be an apt way to return the kindness. It's the small things that make life rich. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Fourth City" just doesn't sound right


     "Third City." Chicago hasn't quite wrapped its head around that one yet, have we?
     "The Third Coast," yes. Particularly the fine Thomas Dyja history of Chicago of that name. Read it; you'll be glad you did.
     Otherwise, "Third Coast" is a bit shared, a bit greasy, like one of those loaner jackets at a fancy restaurant: too many other folks slip it on for anyone to be comfortable in it. Lots of cities on the Great Lakes use the "Third Coast" moniker. Cleveland has a number of "Third Coast" businesses. Milwaukee too.
     To be honest, Chicago is still leaving claw marks on "Second City." We were second in the United States in population for so long, starting in 1890 and for most of the 20th century, following New York, which was humiliation aplenty. We got used to it, with a little brother swagger. New York was so far ahead, almost triple the population, there was no hope of catching up. So we might as well turn the silver consolation prize into a point of pride.
    Then Los Angeles scooted past us in — wait for it — 1982, which shows you just how hard we cling to former glory. We ignored the shift out of ego and because Los Angeles really isn't a city at all, not a proper one but a vast agglomeration of contiguous places....

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Never ever gonna golf.


     No, as a matter of fact, I've never golfed, not once in my life.
     Not from any animus. I'm not anti-golf. I have no opinions or emotions about it.
     If you asked me why I have never golfed, I guess the honest answer is that I've never had the opportunity. Nobody ever asked me. My father, a nuclear physicist from the Bronx, never golfed, not once. Nor did I know anybody who golfed. 
     My in-laws did. It seemed a fun, quasi-athletic thing, and did tempt me. Since I've been in suburbia, for the past 15 years, when it got warm I'd promise myself to slide over to whatever that golf course is on Willow Road and take a few lessons. 
    But May would turn into June, and June into July, and I never did it, and this year the intention isn't there. 
     Not that I haven't been on a golf course: I have. A magazine once sent me down to Montego Bay, Jamaica, where I walked 18 holes at Round Hill with Arnold Palmer, interviewing him for a story, or trying to. He wasn't having a very good game; in fact, that might have helped me to never take up the sport, because Arnold Palmer wasn't having fun, and he's really good at it, generally.
     It was a beautiful place, though. Like being in heaven, but with golf.
     Rich people seem to always golf—it's the reward for their lives of success, fame and money. Michael Jordan and whoever's president, tycoons and stars and such. They all love golfing. Which made me a little tempted. Here's something people do hundreds, maybe thousands of times, and I've never done once.
   Well, I did go to miniature golf, which is fun, but also doesn't count. And I seem to remember going to a driving range, some time in the hazy historical past, but my guess is I was no good at all. Should I find myself on a course, I know I'd be horrible, and I can embarrass myself plenty here, in print, without seeking out further embarrassments in the physical world.
    I was prepared to go golfing with my younger son. But he didn't take to it either. Golf camp might have something to do with it. He was maybe six years old, and we sent him to a five day "Gold Camp" at the Northbrook Park District. I imagine it was two hours of basic golf tips in the morning. 
    At the end of the first day, my wife called me at work. 
    "He's quitting golf camp," she said. "You'll have to call them and get our money back."
    I asked her to wait, let me talk to the lad first. I sat him down and gave him a speech that went something like this: "You can't quit golf camp. First, because it's golf camp. Everything else you do for the rest of your life will be harder than golf If you can't get through golf camp, what will you be able to get through? Second, it's golf camp. It cost $200" (or whatever the figure was). "When you get older, you're going to want us to buy you guitars and automobiles and pay for college tuition, and we're going to say, why should we spend this money when we threw away money on golf camp and you didn't even go? Third, it's golf camp, it's five days long, and I'm making you go through with it."
     That speech worked. Actually, talking out what the problem was worked. It turned out, the instructor, in trying to impress upon the kids how dangerous a driver could be, slammed on forcefully on a fence post, splintering it, and that scared my boy, who was six, remember. Once we got to that point, he was able to make it through the week.
    But golf never stuck with him, and I can't say I blame him. It's genetic. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Filipino president-elect a glimpse of Trump administration

Rodrigo Duterte


     If you're curious what it'll be like to live in a nation led by an erratic demagogue prone to uttering horrible things about women, there is no need to wait until Donald J. Trump is sworn in as president of the United States in January. All we have to do is turn our gaze to the Philippines right now.

     For those not paying attention — and really, we're Americans, we can't keep track of every tinpot territory — 10 days ago the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City, over a field of far more qualified but tainted by association politicians. Think Hillary Clinton's lightweight cousins.

     I hasten to point out that "tinpot" was sarcastic: the Philippines has 103 million people and is the 12th largest nation on earth, its population equal to the United Kingdom and Canada combined.

     Out of sight, out of mind. But believe me, we'll be hearing more of them. Duterte started his campaign by saying how he'd abolish the Filipino Congress and kept voters buzzing with his jaw-dropping remarks, the capstone being how he, as mayor, should have had dibs when Jacqueline Hamill, a 36-year-old Australian missionary, was gang-raped and murdered during a prison riot in 1989.

     "She was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first," he joked, to the laughter of supporters.... "


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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"The Ewww Factor"




        The email from yesterday's piece on transgender individuals and bathrooms can be imagined: frightened, ignorant people, prattling on about "God's law," as if any self-respecting deity from any defendable theology would not strike them dead on general principles. just for the offense of uttering His name as a hallelujah chorus for whatever uninformed nonsense they seem determined to uphold. They don't merit reading.
     But I did get one email from a transgender lawyer that included the email she sent me in November, when last I addressed this issue. I re-read it, and thought, offering as it does something too little heard in all this— direct testimony from the people most affected—it would be of interest to you.


Hi Neil,

    I read your column on the transgender controversy at District 211. I found it thought-provoking, as most of your columns are. I did want to share a few thoughts of my own with you.
     One of the difficult things about growing up transgender is what I call the "ewww" factor. Growing up as a boy who acted like a girl caused people in my life, including classmates, to act towards me as though I were "ewwwy". Trans kids are often shunned as "different". Because human beings are social animals, this shunning is very painful and difficult. When the government, itself, however, takes the position that certain kids have to be treated differently from everybody else, the results for those kids are devastating. While I understand that discrimination against black people is different from discrimination against transgender people, I am sure that I do not need to remind you that one of the bases of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education was a cultural/social study about how black children felt about race, a study that involved children picking out dolls of different races in response to certain questions. It is simply not good or right for the government to tell certain children that they are different from other children and cannot be allowed to join with them as equals.
     Your column quotes Cates ["Inside the Girls' Locker Room," Nov. 5, 2015], the Superintendent of the district as saying, "Measures of privacy allow developing teenagers to choose for themselves whether or not to use privacy areas . . . safeguarding matters for transgender teens we believe will be helpful to students in our locker room." But, of course, Cates is not allowing transgender teens to choose for themselves whether or not to use privacy areas--he is requiring them to use privacy areas and allowing cis-gender kids to "choose for themselves".
     Some girls are born with penises. Some boys are born with vaginas. It is high time we as a society learn to accept that fact. Allowing trans girls into the girls locker room on the same basis as other girls, and allowing trans boys into the boys locker room on the same basis as other boys, does not pose a threat to anybody. And if, as Cates says, the district will allow students to choose for themselves whether to use privacy areas, cis-gender kids who have some (I think irrational) issues with trans kids can themselves use the privacy areas.
     You say that the "fervent desire [of trans girls] to stride easily into the girls' locker room and be welcomed as one of the gang is still, at this cultural moment, constrained if they also possess a penis." I understand that locker room use is different from bathroom use. But for over a year I used women's bathrooms in courthouses all over the Chicago metropolitan area while I still had a penis. No one was embarrassed, inconvenienced, bothered, or hurt. Transgender people are required to live 24/7 as the gender to which they are transitioning for certain periods of time before they can access certain types of transition health care
     I think you could have taken a bolder stand with your column.
     Yours very truly,
     Joanie Rae Wimmer
     Attorney at Law
     Downers Grove, Illinois 


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gut feeling steers you wrong on potty wars





    One evening last summer. Dinner over, darkness settling upon suburbia, the citronella candles flickering. We're sitting around the iron table on our deck with old friends from the city, a couple and their 19-year-old son.

     The lad hunches over his phone, arranging to meet up with a buddy later, and refers to this friend as "them." His mother explains that the friend exists in some zone between the genders and so rejects the prosaic "he" or "she," instead going by the plural, "they."

     Just as I was smirking, thinking how strange this is, no doubt some practice bred in the superrich petri dish of The Latin School — the city kid's alma mater — my older son pipes up that he, too, knows someone from Glenbrook North who goes by "they." Now there's two. Nearly a trend.

      "What's wrong with 'it'?" I ask. "A perfectly good word."

     Harsh, yes, but I was viewing it from a grammarian's point of view. I didn't realize that the American Dialect Society picked "they" as a singular pronoun for the 2015 "Word of the Year"....

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A cold spring





     A Facebook friend posts a video about how the Rothschilds control every central bank in the world. I watch as much as I can stand, a few seconds.
    Not only anti-Semitic crap, but old anti-Semitic crap. That's like floating conspiracy theories about fluoridated water.
    I start to type a reply, get a few letters, then stop.
   Sigh. Erase what I've begun, unfriend the person and move on.

   A few posts down, my attention is caught by a video of an Asian woman dancing vigorously. Harmless stuff, until I eye the comments.
   "This is why The American Empire works so hard to control us, which includes going so far as to install an *african-American*into the white house," Eric Hudson opines. "Because they know that without such controls, Black people will take over the world, just by being ourselves."
     Sigh.
     I almost type, "Take over the world ... by dancing vigorously?"
     But why bother? Why even be part of it? You reach into the cage, more often than not, you draw back a bloody stump. And who's fault is that? Theirs? They obviously have no control over thoughts that border on random hallucination. You do. You have discernment. So discern, goddamn it.
     I'm not the Idiot Police. Can't be the Idiot Police.
    Because there are so many of them
    And only one of me.
    So don't try.

    Not that I'm alone. Lots of sensible people, crossing swords with the army of madmen, like some monster horde in one of those "Lord of the Rings" movies I can't watch because they're just so exquisitely boring. I've fought this fight enough, in the past and, I suppose, again in the future. Retire from the field, for now anyway.
     To tell you the truth, I'm getting tired of Facebook too, tired of the shit that people believe or, worse, don't even believe but are too thick to wonder about, and just pass along because, either way, it's interesting.
     And then there's email.
    "Why should Trump bother releasing his tax returns if media is complicit in the cover up of crimes evident in Obama’s tax returns," something called Orly Taitz—some kind of pun, no doubt—writes. Into the filter with Orly. In doing so, I'm told I have 12 previous emails from him—a patient man, I am. Filter them all. Talk to the hand, Orly.
    It must be Donald Trump. Just watching the Republican Party collapse in front of him last week, a little voice has been whispering, "He's going to win you know."
     The Voice of Doom perhaps.
     Though honestly, even if he doesn't win, the damage is done. Republicans will elbow each other to take the Trump Highway in 2020. And the shame of a major American political party embracing this fraud, this unqualified clown, after hectoring and catcalling Barack Obama for seven years, to roll at the feet of Donald Trump like puppies. You want to vomit. Having watch them be venal hypocrites for decades, I thought I had their measure. But they still have the capacity to astound.
     "6 Corporations Own the Media."
     Jets chasing a UFO.
     Every patriotic fiber in my body says Hillary Clinton is going to win. And then the haters and howlers who have been writhing under Barack Obama can go back to hating and howling. They may even be secretly relieved, to be spared the burden of actually having to try to get something done. I'll sure be relieved when she wins, and not secretly either.
     Until then, well, it's in the 30s today. A cold spring, in more ways than one. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A bit of doggy heaven within O'Hare


     If I still ran my "Saturday Fun Activity" feature, I'd toss up this animal-friendly spot, with its verdant grass, bushes and trees in the background, perhaps first snipping out that tell-tale Yellow Cab to the far right. Not that it would fool anybody: savvy travelers would instantly ID it as O'Hare International Airport, perhaps even pin-pointing it as Terminal One.
     I had never noticed this oasis before, because I never brought our dog to the airport before. And while my older boy often asked if the dog might show up to greet him at the airport when he returned home, it seemed one of those bothers that could be waved off — enough that I was going to the airport to collect him, wrangling his filled-with-bricks-of-unwashed-clothing luggage back to the car. Asking me to bring the dog as well was a bridge too far.
      But he was arriving at 6:24 a.m. Thursday. My wife realized she could join our party and still make it to her office on-time. And suddenly the dog got scooped up into our welcome party.
     Of course I walked the dog before we left. So it wasn't a matter of necessity. But the flight was delayed a little, as flights will be. And while we camped by baggage claim, waiting, my wife noticed a sign pointing toward an "Animal Relief Area." Curious, I figured a walk was in order.
     The little white metal container for bags was empty. Otherwise a rather well-tended little rectangle of wood chips, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, dotted with round stones for dogs to sniff. Kitty, who seemed put off by the lack of smells in the airport, joyously nosed around, blotting out the evidence of previous dogs with her own splash of tribute.
    There are similar areas at Terminals 2 and 5, plus an indoor zone, with artificial grass and miniature red fire hydrants—basically a bathroom for dogs—within the security zone in the Rotunda at Terminal 3.
     The boy was elated to see Kitty waiting for him, and while he effusively hugged and praised her, it did cross my mind that, after a few months apart, I wouldn't mind some of that. But it wasn't as if, without her, the joyous welcome would be transferred to me. Don't be jealous of a dog, I told myself. Eventually, while the dog was being greeted and re-greeted, I cleared my throat and dipped my head into his line of vision and generally made my presence known, and was rewarded with a nod and a light, momentary hug, as if my clothes were dirty and he didn't want to get any on himself.  Burdened with the two heaviest pieces of luggage, I staggered after the boy, his dog and mother and they happily made their way toward the car.



Friday, May 13, 2016

"For a piece of bread you can hear God sing"

Tony Fitzpatrick at the DePaul Art Museum


     Birds do not loiter. They dart and dive, swoop and soar. Occasionally, they'll pause at a spot, and if you're lucky, you can steal a glance, close-up.

     I was lucky Wednesday, crossing a bridge in Northbrook; a flash of red caught my eye. I looked up and got a good three second's study of a scarlet tanager lingering on a branch, right in front of my nose.

     Wow.  


     Is it me, or are there more birds around Chicago this spring?

     "We've had a solid month of rainy weather, and that's not ideal for birds," said James Steffen, ecologist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

     "Some springs are better than others, but it's been pretty typical," said Josh Engel, a research assistant at the Field Museum. "I wouldn't say it's different."

     Okay, it's me....


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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Design just has to work




     Certain things are so iconic, so ubiquitous that it's odd to think that someone designed them, and they have an official name, like this classic of industrial seating, the GF 40/4 Chair, designed by David Rowland, who spent eight years, from 1956 to 1964, perfecting it.
    I noticed the chair last week at the Art Institute of Chicago in, appropriately enough, an exhibit on the influence of architects on chairs (and some people think the Van Gogh bedrooms are the most exciting thing going on there now!)  The "GF" in its name is for "General Fireproofing," the Youngstown, Ohio company that made a variety of iconic office furniture: swivel desk chairs, metal bookshelves, generic office desks. The "40/4" part of its name is because 40 chairs can be stacked four feet high. It was shunned by "skeptical manufacturers," according to the exhibit, who didn't believe the wiry chair could support human weight and stand up to hard use. Until Skidmore, Owings and Merrill ordered 17,000 for the new University of Illinois at Chicago campus in 1964, and General Fireproofing happily took the job. Millions more of the chairs have been made since then, though I would bet many of those original  U of I chairs are still in service. A reminder that design doesn't have to be beautiful; it just has to work, in order to endure.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

When did Saudi Arabia become more progressive than the U.S.?

 
Giant Coal Lump, Jim Thorpe, PA.

   Saudi Arabia, despite great wealth, is one of the most socially backward countries in the world. Women can't drive, or open a bank account without permission of a male relative. They only got the right to vote, in municipal elections, in 2015, a year that saw Saudi Arabia conduct 151 beheadings.
     Despite being mired in the 12th century, Saudi Arabia still manages to be forward looking when it comes to important business matters.
     Such as oil. Oil is what brought Saudi Arabia from being a sandy nowhere of nomadic tribes to a wealthy global power. So it might be surprising, to those paying attention, to see a dramatic shift this week. I will spare you which ministers are ousted and which are in, and give you the first three paragraphs a May 10 story on Gulf News Saudi Arabia headlined, "Shake Up Moves Saudi Arabia Down New Path":

     RIYADH: In a series of sweeping royal decrees on Saturday, King Salman of Saudi Arabia replaced a number of top ministers and restructured government bodies in the first moves of an ambitious plan to chart a new direction for the kingdom.      The decrees were among the first concrete steps in the plan, which was announced late last month to great domestic fanfare by the king’s son and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is about 30, oversees economic policy and runs the Defence Ministry....
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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Just another gravel barge....



    Expectations mold perception.
    What you think you're going to see colors what you think you saw.
    This can't be emphasized enough, since most people never get beyond using their current beliefs, not only as a screen to mask out information that doesn't agree with those beliefs, but as a filter to distort what they're seeing. You can't convince them otherwise because they don't allow themselves to process contradictory information. They can't even perceive it's there.
     I'm no different, as illustrated by this momentary exchange on the Madison Street Bridge a couple weeks ago.
    A long gravel barge was moving up the river. I've often seen these barges, loaded with gravel, heading to points elsewhere. Something about it — the lookout on the bow maybe — made me whip out my phone to take a picture of the gravel barge going by.  My wife observed that it was probably destined for Oak Street Beach.
    "The gravel?"I said, as we started to walk.
    "No, the sand," my wife said. "It's a barge full of sand."
    "No, it's...." I began, then stopped, and actually looked at the barge disappearing under the bridge. Wouldn't you know it? She was right. It was sand.  I would have sworn it was gravel. In my defense, I never really focused on what the barge was carrying, just that it was a barge full of something. Usually, it's gravel. This time it wasn't. 
     I'd be an idiot to insist that, appearances notwithstanding, it's still a barge of gravel because that's what I thought it was, initially. So sad that those surveying our political or cultural landscape can't adjust their perceptions with similar ease. They're expecting gravel because it all looks like gravel to them, and by God, it must be.

Monday, May 9, 2016

How are we going to make it through six months of this?



     Trump v. Hillary.

     Coming soon to a theater near you.

     Well, not really coming to a theater.

     That might be the one place it's not coming.

     And certainly not coming soon.


     A full six months.

     Quite a lot, really.

     So tell me. How much would you pay to cut to the chase? To have the election over, the results known?

     A dollar? A hundred dollars? A thousand? I suppose it depends on the state of your pocketbook.....


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Sunday, May 8, 2016

"The world has changed, you perfidious bigot you."




      Happy Mother's Day, first of all. 
      If you are a mother, I hope you take this moment to bask in the outpourings of affection being showered upon you, from those for whom you sacrificed the best years of your life, trying to raise them into some semblance of maturity. 
     And if you are a child—and who among us is not?—I hope you remember to thank your mother or, if that is not possible, to remember her, as fondly as you can.
      And since it's springtime, and May, and Mother's Day to boot, a cheery thought, as my own little Mother's Day gift to you. 
    I was at the Hallmark Store in Northbrook this week, looking over the Mother's Day cards, of which there are a profusion, and I noticed that they represent, even more than I can recall them doing in previous years, the full spectrum of the maternal experience. Not just in English and Spanish and Polish and Italian, not just for the religious and the secular, the casual and the formal, the funny and the emphatic. 
     But also cards for people you might not think would get cards today. Cards for "Ex-Mother-in-Law" and "Ex-Daughter-in-Law" (reassuring her, "Some things never change," such as the feelings of their former in-laws) . Cards from one mother to her co-mother, and for mothers whose child has died, and for individuals who were "like a mother" without, apparently, enjoying official motherhood status.
      Which is all wonderful and in keeping with complicated, messy reality as it is lived by real, flesh-and-blood people, and so different from the icy, theoretical, my-way-or-the-highway, white, Protestant, a mommy-and-a-daddy-and-tw0-and-a-half-kids wilted former ideal that so many of our legislators, particularly in the Southland, seem to still be paddling toward, even as it recedes over the horizon.
      Hallmark Cards, based in Kansas City, Missouri, was founded in 1910, and is not known for being on the forefront of social change. They can't afford to be. Printing greeting cards costs money, and if they create a style of card that nobody wants, then they lose money on that card. Lose enough money on enough cards, you don't say in business for 106 years. They also lose money if their brand strays into the odd or the unacceptable. To be included among the realm of individuals to whom Hallmark sells cards is to be normal, by definition, to be acceptable, and on Mother's Day, 2016, acceptability is a very wide net.  
    See? I told you, good news.  Yes, not everyone has gotten the memo yet. It might go down better in a card. "The world has changed, you perfidious bigot you" and you open it up, "Get with the program, bub." Not something Hallmark would sell. Yet. Maybe by the fall

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Is your sign straight?



     The sign didn't skew a lot, but it skewed enough—maybe half a brick dip to the left or, if you prefer, half a brick rise to the right. 
      It was crooked. 
      Plus, of course, the old brackets that held the "My Pi" sign from the restaurant before, the pizzeria that came and went, and quickly too. That's what happens. You get one chance.
      Nobody took those brackets down. A man on a ladder could have removed them with a screwdriver in 10 minutes. 
      But no one did.
      Last year, months before the restaurant opened, I was walking down Shermer in the old leafy suburban paradise and saw that sign announcing the new place, "Agave Anejo Mexican Grill," and immediately had this thought:
      They'll never make it.
      Because to survive, a business needs to pay attention to detail. Especially a restaurant. Because you can eat at home. You need to master the details, to not scrimp  and cut corners and do a slapdash job. To thrive, a restaurant has to sweat the small stuff. That's what customers expect, and are paying for.
      This vaguely Star Trek "A" was obviously designed on the cheap, the name itself hard to read, and skewed to boot. Amateur hour. The restaurant was doomed.
      I thought of writing that, a year ago, when I saw the sign. But why torment a small business owner, right out of the gate, some poor guy pursuing his dream? A Mexican restaurant of his own.
     Maybe the food would be great. A culinary genius, oblivious to such non-food matters as signs and skewing.
     Better to err on the side of kindness, if staying quiet was kindness.
     Maybe I should have written my thoughts. Maybe it would have helped him. Maybe not doing so wasn't doing him any favors.
     Nah, he wouldn't have taken the criticism and learned. People so seldom do.
     So the restaurant opened, last August. The grand opening banner stayed up for a month after the grand opening. That, too, was a bad sign, literally. It advertised the grand opening that had come and gone, and didn't come down until one corner fell down, and even then it flapped around in front of the door. For a day or two.
      Of course we ate there, my wife and younger son, we tried the food. And it wasn't bad. A little expensive. Basic Mexican food. I remember a serviceable ceviche. We almost went back for a second try—support the local business, a block from our house.
     But inside, there was no art on the wall. Who starts a Mexican restaurant and has no art on the walls? Not a colorful paper-mache lizard. Not a sombrero. Not a metal cactus. Nothing.
      So we didn't go back. The lack of art gave me almost a contempt. Really? And we were supposed to eat there why? The place never seemed that crowded. A few people in the bar. And then not even that. A week or so ago the restaurant went dark and the "FOR LEASE" sign went up. Too little capital, I would guess, and too little effort. A small dream poorly executed.
      Still, someone's dream, not deferred, but vanished, so nothing to laugh about. Instead, a grim nod, a recognition of the risk that all who strive face, and should be aware of. That tilted sign was the tip-off, before the the first basket of tortilla chips hit the table. Don't be half-assed. If you're going to do something, do it well. Make sure your sign is straight.