Monday, February 29, 2016

And you think YOUR school feels like a jail...


     At the end of September, I let out this cry of frustration over not being allowed back into the Chicago public high school inside Cook County Jail, which I visited in 1987. That led to me finally being allowed in, in early January. The tour seemed fairly ordinary, but then I started hearing from former teachers, criticizing the school, and I realized why they hadn't wanted me in; not mere bureaucratic inertia, but concern over how they'd come off. I tried to thread the needle and both do the feature I had in mind, and include the concerns of the former teachers. This story isn't fish nor fowl, but at least it got into the paper. 
    
     "Welcome to Mr. Maloney's Science Class" reads a slide projected on the wall of Room 1306. Posters describe the circulatory system, the skeleton.
     "Today we're going to cool out a little bit and not worry about all our assignments," says John Maloney, projecting a laid-back teacher vibe, welcoming his new class at Consuella B. York Alternative High School. He outlines the grading system he'll use, stresses the importance of tidy folders, and says something that indicates we are not in just any of the 176 public high schools in Chicago.
     "I want to get your court dates," he says to his class of 10 students, who are all wearing identical school uniforms: beige scrubs with "DOC" — Department of Corrections — stenciled on them.
     York High School is the CPS high school within the Cook County Jail at 2700 S. California. The school has roughly 235 students — enrollment fluctuates day by day as students are incarcerated and released — ranging in age from 17 to 22. Only two 17-year-olds are left in the jail after most were transferred to juvenile custody last year. It has 56 teachers and administrative staff.


To continue reading, click here. 


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Truth in advertising


    Browsing happily over my recovered photographs Saturday, I came across this photo snapped last October in Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market, one of those hopping urban gustatory wonderlands, like Los Angeles' Grand Central Market, which are fun to visit and eat in, provided you try not to reflect  too ruefully on why Chicago's own French Market by Union Station is so dead in comparison.  Some academic should do a study and figure it out, so that we can fix the French Market. A great idea. But it just doesn't seem to be working, though it works in other places.
      I took this picture because I had just spit one of these Osso di Morta cookies into the garbage, and wanted to document what I eaten, or, rather, tried to eat. They looked so lovely, white and various shaped. But they tasted like clove-flavored brick, and only after looking at the photo and reading the sign did I notice the description—or I should say "warning"—"A hard, clove-flavored Cookie."
     It certainly was that. You can't accuse them of misrepresenting their product, though "A very hard, rock-like, cookie reeking of clove" would be more to the point. 
     Maybe the cookies are good dunked in coffee, or, better, grappa. Maybe those who grew up teething on them love them, and to those people, my mie scusi. Maybe they're an acquired taste, which isn't going to help me, because I plan to never eat another one as long as I live. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Memento mori


     Death caressed my cheek, lightly, and in the oddest way.
     It was not precisely a caress, his cool fingers trailing across my skin, chilling me, and then gone.
     Not that. More like a sudden sting. Thursday night iPhoto ate my photos. All of them. Going back to 2009. Thousands of them. Gone.
     I don't know what happened. One moment I was working on my computer, getting my post for Friday ready, and I slid over to iPhoto to look at the pictures, and there were none.
     Just a grid of gray squares, empty as the eye sockets of skulls, jeering skulls, leering at me.
     Where are your precious memories now?!?
     I leapt online. There are forums for this—none sponsored by Apple itself, oddly. But a variety of ad hoc advice blogs run by would-be experts. It's as if Honda didn't print an Odyssey owner's manual, just left problems for drivers to form ragtag groups and puzzle over like Platonic dialogues, wordy and digressive.
     Nothing they suggested, once I figured out what they were suggesting that is, actually worked. I held down the "Option" and "Command" buttons while summoning up iPhoto, checked the "Reconstitute Thumbnails" button, and waiting in hope.
     But nothing. Shut down the computer and re-started it.
     Nothing.
     I wasn't upset so much as focused, determined. I figured the photos were somewhere. I would most miss the ones from the 2009 trip with the boys out West. But those would still be on the chip from the camera, which I saved.
    I explored.  I found a file with all of 2009 in it—1200 photos—and imported those back. The trip, ironically, the one thing I had backed up. But at least something, a scrap of the original bounty. Maybe a reason to hope.
    Then I saw something called "BROWSE BACKUP." And it brought me to what seemed like photos, on the teraflop G-Drive external hard drive I bought over the summer when my iMac's guts were dying. I hit "RESTORE" and got a little spinning candy cane and the hopeful message, "REBUILDING LIBRARY." It seemed to grow very slowly — a good sign. Something was happening. I went to bed.
     I snapped up at 3:30 a.m., rushed to check. The photos were all back. No, not all. It stopped in June, in the middle of Kent's prom. For some reason, the past seven months weren't there. Maybe I hadn't backed it up since then —I have a tendency to unplug the drive. There aren't enough ports for a drive and a printer and to charge the phone.  But I thought I had.
     I went to work musing on this, the loss of the past six months. What, exactly, was gone? I was almost afraid to think about it, to reaching into the void and feel the phantom prick of something important. What picture would I miss?
     It was then that I felt The Grim Reaper, the chill touch, the low chuckle as I walked through all those strangers in the Loop. The pictures for the past six months were gone, as all the pictures would be gone, as I too would be gone, the way your most cherished objects end up sold for a dollar at a garage sale, your favorite shirt a tuft of color on a bale of rags being shipped by the container to Africa. We assemble these careful worlds, our mementos under glass domes, our photos tagged and properly backed up, in albums trimmed with lace, then Fate draws in a big breath and blows and it all scatters away. Your memories molder in a landfill, or are gazed at by distant descendants who didn't know you and don't care.
    Embrace your losses, Seneca says. View them as practice. A few drops in advance of the storm that is going to wash you away. A reminder: someday you will lose everything.  Find a lesson. Keep that external hard drive plugged in.
      Patek Philippe is right. We never really own things, we just take care of them for the next generation, and while there's a chance they'd value your $100,000 wristwatch, most of us don't have one of those, and the threadbare assemblage we spend a lifetime gathering makes for a few melancholy days in front of a dumpster for our progeny. We only possess one thing that is truly ours: time, the minutes and days and hours of our lives.  And that we have in both scarcity and abundance. An endless, or so it seems while it is unspooling, string of moments that are really just one moment, now, blundering alongside us like an eager puppy into the next moment, some good, some bad, too many spoiled and wasted and tinctured with anxiety over something like the loss of some bundles of well-organized electrons.
     Back at my desk, I couldn't help it. I thought about the photos since June. There really was only one that came to mind as a Loss. Kent, on the day we dropped him off at Northwestern, running through the Weber Arch. My wife and I positioned ourselves further along the path, and I caught him as he flew past, young and happy and in motion, literally running toward his future. I'd miss that photo if I never saw it again.
    Although.... Did I not like it so much that I posted it as a cover on Facebook? Yes, I did. We sneer at these technologies, and blush at our use of them, but they do have their value. A click delivered it safe in a grey strongbox at the bottom of my Facebook page. So not everything lost. A little, sometimes the best, remains — maybe the best is what lingers. Or perhaps I'm just returning to the illusion. Lucky me was lucky again. The best photo is here, the rest will be found or, if not, forgotten, which is their eventual fate anyway. The Pale Rider brushes past me but keeps going, galloping toward a rendezvous with someone less fortunate. Leaving me with a souvenir, the briefest touch on the cheek, a cold kiss of fingertips that caught my attention, left me gazing at where he vanished, wondering whether I really saw him at all. That's a gift better than photos, to realize, there is stuff, and there is time. Don't waste the important one worrying over the unimportant one.  Thanks for the warning, Mr. Death, I'll try to take it more to heart between now and when we meet again.



    Postscript: After work Friday I took a longer look at that "Browse Backup" function, and recovered all the photos until Thanksgiving. We'll accept December and January's photos as the slightest of scars, nothing to even feel bad about. The headline, "memento mori," is Latin for "remember to die" meaning, "remember that you will die," and sometimes refers to actual objects, tangible reminders, like the small skull carved from a cow bone pictured above. 


   
   
   

Friday, February 26, 2016

'Plump Trump, chump!'



     Let's play newspaper editor. Here is your green celluloid eye shade, your shirt garters and the stump of a cheap cigar to jam between your lips.
     Close your eyes. Imagine: It's mid-June 2015. A variety of news stories are vying for your attention. A crisis in Yemen. The resignation of Rachel Dolezal, president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who, despite her vigorous posing, is not really black. The House delays a vote on aid to workers displaced by global trade agreements. Pope Francis calls for action on climate change.
     And Donald J. Trump descends the escalator at Trump Tower in New York City to announce that he is running for president and will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created and, oh yes, Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."
     Squeak back in your chair, Mr. or Ms. Editor, gaze at the yellowed newsroom ceiling and decide.
     Lead with the NAACP, right?
     That's what many news organizations did.


     To continue reading, click here. 

   

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Silvio Trump

Naples


     I only spent one day in Naples. We arrived to Italy by ship, my father and I, in summer, 1999, sought dinner in town, explored a bit, and the next morning left for Rome.
     But it was beautiful, in a quiet, laid-back, decayed sort of way. Men stood at coffee bars with their suit coats draped over their shoulders, like capes. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. The buildings were all 100 years old, largely empty and gone to seed.
     Whenever I contemplate the looming decline of the United States—insisting that our country is "great" or will again be "great" does not and will not be enough to magically make it so—I take comfort in thinking of Italy. 

Trump
Berlusconi
     Not so bad, really. The highway of history, which used to run right through our land, was rerouted, long ago and now we sit in the sun in cafes and read the paper about stuff happening somewhere else. Little coffees in little cups with hard biscotti.  Idle conversations about nothing. Wild local politics fighting over the scraps of empire.
     Americans could live like that; and maybe we're going to get the chance to find out.
     After Nevada, with Trump's massive 46 percent win, nearly twice the vote gotten by his nearest opponent, the pipsqueak Marco Rubio, I said to my wife, "He'll be our Silvio Berlusconi."
     Yes, I know. Don't feel bad. We're Americans, world politics eludes us. Silvio Berlusconi was an Italian billionaire who served as prime minister for nine years, despite being, to quote The Economist, "unfit to be in politics—let alone run Italy."
     I'm not the first to make the connection. Rooting around online, comparing the two, I noticed that last September—a century ago, it seems, in this primary season, the Washington Post published an article equating the two.  And why not? The comparisons are clear.
     "Berlusconi started out as a wealthy demagogue on the brink of bankruptcy, whose celebrity was — like Trump’s — rooted in both real estate and popular entertainment culture," wrote foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal. "Berlusconi presented himself as Italy’s strongman, speaking like a barman, selling demonstrably false promises of wealth and grandeur for all. He made the electorate laugh while stoking fears of communists and liberals stripping privileges and increasing taxes. Presaging Trump, the Italian media mogul cast himself as the only viable savior of a struggling nation: the political outsider promising to sweep in and clean up from the vanquished left and restore the country to its lost international stature. “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I sacrifice myself for everyone,” Berlusconi said. Now we find Trump promising “to make America great again,” pledging to become the “greatest jobs president […] ever created.”
     Spoiler alert. Berlusconi didn't do any of that. He mired himself in a number of corruption and sex scandals and got himself sentenced to prison while the country went to hell.  The economy didn't soar; it cratered. In Naples, they had trouble collecting the garbage.

     "Trump managed to tap into real anger and disillusionment with an American political class owned by billionaires like him. He's taken populism to  new depths, tacitly embracing a call to 'get rid of' all American Muslims," Jebreal writes. "Berlusconi appealed to their most base instincts and sanctified their prejudices, rendering them unwilling to overlook the obvious hypocrisy and fallacy of his promises."
    That does sound familiar.
     "As prime minister, he repeatedly put his own interests before the country’s," The Economist opined in 2013. "He exacerbated popular cynicism about public life." 
     Familiar indeed. I would have thought it was impossible for Americans to be more bitter, divided and hopeless. But I'd bet Donald Trump is up for the task.  It is uncertain whether he'll actually grab the Republican nomination and then beat Hillary Clinton. But if he does win, it is an utter certainty that, like Berlusconi, he'll leave our nation in far worse shape than he found it, sadder if no wiser.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Madison honors prankster

Leon Varjian



     I've only been to a couple of Chicago City Council meetings in my journalistic career. I distinctly remember just one, a debate over whether elephants should be barred within city limits.
     Which gives you an idea of why I seldom go.
     There were also endless motions to honor various individuals, police officers and Boy Scout leaders and such. Official resolutions are not generally news. Which is why it's so extraordinary that the moment I heard the Madison Common Council is honoring Leon Varjian, I had to tell you.
    Not for the honor, per se — Wednesday, Feb. 23, is Leon Varjian Day in Madison — but because I suspect you don't know who Varjian is, and I do. I'd like to dust off a chair in the back of your mind and invite him in.
     With a warning: Once he's there, comfortable, Leon Varjian has a tendency to never leave.
   

     To continue reading, click here. 


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Guns and baby shoes





   People are incredibly plastic vessels, in that we stretch to cover an enormous range of thought, capacity and action. From mute to loquacious, sharp-eyed to blind, artistic to actuarial. 
     Incredible, really. 
     I was walking the dog by Village Hall in the old leafy suburban paradise a while back, and in a single glance saw the entire 180 degree spectrum of human behavior.
      You've got the sign, warning passersby against going into Village Hall with handguns, those hard metal mechanisms of instance death. And no doubt there are people carrying guns who need the warning, even in Northbrook. A reminder that, for every individual who carries a gun for legitimate purpose, cops and bank guards and such, there are 100 who use them as totems, as lethal blankies, to calm their fears within and protect themselves from enemies, real and imagined, without. 
    Mostly imagined.  Especially in Northbrook.
   And the baby's shoe. Take a good close look at it. Gorgeous, really. A beautiful shoe. Two-tone real leather—or what looks like real leather.  Artistic stitching. Comfortable, user friendly Velcro straps. The toddler wearing that shoe has chosen his parents well. 
     A shoe that somebody designed, and somebody made, and somebody bought, and a fourth person found in the street—babies, as anyone who has ever raised one knows, have a genius for kicking away their footwear undetected, and the more expensive a shoe is, the more prone a little fat foot is to fling it away, unseen. 
     So some big-hearted good Samaritan found the shoe, and placed in this obvious spot, where mom or dad would be likely to find it. A pleasing marriage of concern and cleverness. Oh look at that, poor kid, poor mom! I'll just jam the shoe above this sign, where it'll be seen. The sign warding away those who might be carrying handguns around the mean streets of Northbrook because, gosh darn it, they just don't feel secure without one, and if somebody, perhaps driven insane by how badly Northbrook has botched its commercial development, goes bursting into the Village Hall and starts shooting up a zoning board meeting, they'll be ready, maybe. 
     In the meantime, their gun is posing a hazard, of some degree, to themselves and their loved ones, 24 hours a day. 
    Quite the range of possibilities. People. Including myself, walking the dog, seeing the shoe and sign and trying to synthesize it all. I try to focus on the shoe makers, wearers and returners. But those gun makers and buyers and users, they have a way of spoiling the fun, don't they? 
     

Monday, February 22, 2016

Trump joke isn't funny any more

General John "Black Jack" Pershing

     Conventional wisdom says that Donald Trump is going away.
     Any minute now.
     Cooler heads, supposedly still in charge of the Republican Party, are convinced that once a few of the crowded GOP field drop out, his popularity will plunge and he'll be relegated to the dustbin of extremist zealots who excited the fringes early in primary season then faded away.
     Those 7.8 percent of South Carolina voters who cast a ballot for Jeb Bush in South Carolina Saturday will, now that he's given up, embrace Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or any of the remaining non-Trump candidates.
     I sure hope so.
     Because while I, like many Americans, at first smiled in a kind of rapt, fascinated horror at Trump walking, unscathed, through a succession of lion's dens that would have shredded other candidates, his victory in South Carolina, and the vile hate-mongering he committed leading up to it, have to make any patriotic American reason recoil in disgust, and finally realize: this isn't funny anymore.


To continue reading, click here. 

   

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Pope bested by a higher power


     I wrote this Friday morning, but it already feels like some antique commentary on Free Silver. Since then Donald Trump has won the South Carolina Republican primary, after a truly despicable play on anti-Muslim hysteria, recycling some century-old canard about Islamic soldiers being shot by bullets dipped in pig's blood. By comparison jousting with the pope seems quaint, the relic of an era when the most monstrous demagogues did not prance on the public stage, never mind gain mainstream support from the Party of Lincoln.  

     Score: Trump 1, Pope Francis 0.
     In the latest jaw-dropping moment of Donald Trump's jaw-dropping march to the White House . . . whoops, make that his protracted flash across the American political heavens, the New York real estate billionaire tussled with the wildly popular leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on Thursday and came out the clear winner.
     Back before presidential politics became a stumble through a hall of funhouse mirrors, the idea of a candidate talking trash at the pope would be impossible. But, if nothing else, the 2016 elections will go down in history as an epic expansion of the realm of the possible.
     What made this episode unique was that it did not stem from a preemptive Trump attack. From his tarring Mexican immigrants as rapists to whack-a-moling war hero John McCain, then POWs in general, then Fox host Megyn Kelly, then mocking a handicapped reporter and suggesting that all Muslims should be barred at the border because, well, they're Muslims, Trump likes to fire first.
     Instead, this time it was the pope who, during his trip to Mexico and asked about Trump, unleashed this:
     “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”


To continue reading, click here.


Saturday, February 20, 2016

The path to hell


     Email hasn't quite fallen into the realm of nostalgia along with semaphore flags, smoke signals and handwritten notes sealed with red wax. 

      But the truth is, with text messages and tweets and Facebook posts and comments, you just don't see a lot of emails anymore. They're not yet down there with telephone calls. But let's put it this way. I had a column Friday in the Sun-Times on a timely topic—the FBI demanding that Apple create a "back door" to hack its own iPhones so that they can peer into the locked phone belonging to the couple who murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California Dec. 2. The column ran on page seven, took 2/3 of a page, with photograph, and was promoted on the front page, with a picture of me and everything.
     Four emails. 
     But that wasn't the sad part. The Internet has created a typhoon of communication and any given peep is apt to be lost in the general howl. I get that. The sad part was what the four emails said. They ... well, no need to summarize. 
    The first one read:
You disappoint me. I thought you were better than this. You actually think that your life is so interesting that the feds would bother to take notice of what's in your precious little I phone? I actually think they (the feds) have a lot more to do trying to identify terrorist cells within our country than concern themselves with your playlist. If opening that iPhone means acquiring credible information to protect us with, what do I care about Apples proprietary software. If they are that concerned, just have their techs do it in the Apple lab and hand it back to the feds open. What's the big deal?
     The second one read:
During its existence, every civilization, or every nation, is forced by circumstances to make choices--how to manage their land, which alliances to make and what form of government to embrace. I would seem that in order to protect its citizens from external (or for that matter, internal) danger, the government is most efficient when it has the most information regarding those who would do its citizens harm. Further, turning over the I-phone in question to Apple for the express and not repeatable purpose of unlocking its contents is certainly reasonable given that the phone's user (and not its owner) gunned down 14 innocent people. It would be good not to have a repeat of that episode; remember that privacy is a privilege; freedom from harm is a right.
     The third one read:
    Neil I read as much of ur article as I cld until I had to run outside and hug a tree and look for a whale. Why did Apple open up 7 other phones when requested by the FBI previously? Did they do it because their stock price was on all time highs but now because it's about to make a new 52 week low, it provides a hypocritical opportunity to pander to the uninformed in an attempt to polish up their reputation? Haha! U really believe there is privacy? That is 7 separate back doors developed. Ur co just sold my email address for 7 cents. If u had my home phone it's a quarter. That's what Apple considers ur privacy worth
     And the fourth one... oh heck, you get the idea. 
     A uniform chorus, saying, in essence, let's swoon in the arms of the government, let them paw through our sock drawer, and maybe no one will hurt us.
     "Government is most efficient when it has the most information regarding those who would do its citizens harm." And that is...everybody and anybody? And notice the second writer, who conjures up "not repeatable purpose" when the whole issue as laid out by Apple is once they create this way into their phones, it will exist and get out and anyone can use it, not only the government, but criminals and terrorists themselves. He missed the entire point, the nut of the issue, blinded by...
     Fear. The Republican Party is the Fear Party. They're afraid of immigrants. They're afraid of minorities. 

    And they're afraid of terror. They're terrified, literally. Which is both natural and exactly what the terrorists intend. They lunge at anything they think will take the edge off their fear, no matter how counter-productive. They stock up on guns, ignoring that each gun endangers the owner far, far more than it provides any kind of guarantee against all that they're afraid of. They'd bar the immigrants who make our country strong, whose arrival is what stands between the United States and the demographic death spiral ruining places like Italy and Japan. They hate every embodiment of the government and then turn to it with a cry to run their lives and protect them from shadows.
     "Freedom is not free." That's the buzz line false patriots use when paying lip service to the military. But what does it mean? It means that there is a cost to freedom, a risk. Part of that risk is not letting the FBI rip open our lives and root around whenever they please, all in the name of security. "The path to hell," the great Samuel Johnson once said, "is paved with good intentions." How can they not see it?
     Four emails. I don't want to leave you with the impression that's an average day. Usually it's more like 40. Maybe everybody was outside, enjoy the warm, windy weather. Maybe their courage was blown away in the breeze. I hope they find it again when the winds stop, maybe flapping in the tree like an errant plastic bag. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Apple bites back at the FBI


     My hiking boots are falling apart. So I went to REI. But their selection of Keens is spotty, so I jumped on the company website.
     Far more sizes and styles. But there is a downside. Now whenever I log on to Facebook, I'm nagged.
     "Shop KEEN footwear Now," Facebook demands, with a photo of the very boots I'd like to buy, though in my own good time, thank you very much, and not because I'm being browbeaten by an algorithm.
     My way of saying that privacy was not exactly enjoying a golden age before a judge ordered Apple to create software to thwart the anti-snooping program in its iPhones that wipes clean their memory after 10 abortive tries, so the FBI can crack a phone belonging to the terrorists who murdered 14 people in California last December.
     Apple's reply, in essence, is "in your dreams," though more eloquently, in an open letter from CEO Tim Cook.
     "The U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create," Cook writes. "They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone."
     Apple's point is that if the genie is conjured up and handed over to the FBI, it will exist, and the online world being what it is, once it's out of the bottle, no one knows where it'll go. Edward Snowden proved if you want something secret distributed broadly, put it in the care of the federal government.
     "The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals," Cook writes. "The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe."
     Cook called for discussion; what he got is society lining up along the standard fault lines. Republicans, who make a show of scorning government when the sky's clear, did their usual rainy day reversal, suddenly rolling at the feds' feet like frightened puppies.
     “Who do they think they are? They have to open it up,” Donald Trump said Wednesday, as if the iPhone were a tin of tuna. "We have to use common sense.”
     Ben Carson, using his common sense, and perhaps confusing this situation with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, said the country might have to wait until Obama leaves office to resolve the FBI/Apple stand-off.
     Ted Cruz, meanwhile, took a break from being the most frightening Republican candidate to observe “Apple has a serious argument” before he reverted to form and added that refusing the FBI's request is like defying a search warrant.
     And Marco Rubio, also true to form, punted.
     "There has to be a way to deal with this issue," Rubio said. "I don't have a magic solution for it today . . . but I do know this: It will take a partnership between the technology industry and the government to solve this."
     The Democrats did no better. If Rubio kicked the can down the road, Hillary Clinton booted a towering, end-over-end punt, calling for a "Manhattan-like project" to find a way for law enforcement to snoop on the phones of the terrorists in our future without undermining security for everybody else. Bernie Sanders was, perhaps wisely, mum on the issue, as far as I can tell.
     When I got my first iPod, having all my music somehow crammed into this sleek, small, aluminum lozenge made me proud to be a human being, to be part of the same species that created such a thing. I have an Apple laptop, plus four iMacs — even though they cost more, because I decided in this one aspect, if nowhere else, I'd have the best. And an iPhone, one I do not want the government sticking its big bazoo into, if it can be avoided.
     And as proud as I am of these devices, I'm prouder that Apple is making a stand for privacy, what little privacy remains. Because as public as our lives are now, with our friends ballyhooing their lunch daily on Facebook, there are hells below this one. At least our public confessions are voluntary. As bad as it is to be hounded by a boot company, it would be worse for the FBI to pop up on Facebook pointing out that they've noticed I have "Isis" by Bob Dylan on my iTunes playlist, and would I mind stopping by their office for a little ch
at?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chicago loses Oscar business

Sun-Times file photo
     I'm not sure how much civic pride Chicago residents ever actually took in the Oscar statuettes being produced locally, but that fact sure was embraced by the media.  Here was a bona fide local angle to one of the biggest stories of the year, the Academy Awards. We might not produce many of the actors and actresses joyfully leaping onto the stage to get their moment in the spotlight, but we sure as hell could make the hunk of metal they were handed when they did win. 
    That changed, the Sun-Times reported Wednesday, because the Academy wants them made of bronze, which our R.S. Owens doesn't do. So now New York media will be traipsing to a factory there, the way I did years ago when I drew Oscar duty, and filed this report:

     Wrap your hands around the most famous product that Chicago's R.S. Owens & Co. manufactures and odds are that, after you register its heft and weight for a moment, you will gaze out at an imaginary audience and begin a speech.
     "They thank their mothers, they thank the academy," said Scott Siegel, president of the company that makes the Oscar statuettes to be given out, amid maximum pageantry, tonight in Los Angeles.
     While the Owens company typically gets a burst of publicity at Academy Award time, the Oscars are only a tiny part of their business.
     As expensive as the 50 24-karat gold over silver over nickel over copper trophies might be (the company doesn't reveal what they cost, or how much precious metal is in them) it wouldn't be enough to keep the 60-year-old manufacturer's 180 employees busy all year in Owens' 82,000-square-foot plant at 5535 N. Lynch.
     That is done by all the other prestigious awards that Owens makes -- the Clios, the Emmys, the MTV Video Music Awards and hundreds of other cast-metal trophies.
     Each trophy has its own particular challenges. The Oscars are multiple-plated, requiring dips in baths of chemicals and washes in sulfuric acid. The Emmys are even more complex, with a sphere of copper rings that must be individually cut and welded together. The MTV Video Music Award -- a lunar astronaut saluting an American flag -- has to be cast in four pieces and assembled.
     Owens makes two types of trophies. The first, such as the Oscars or Emmys, are licensed -- what the company calls "captive molds." That means Owens can only make as many as the licensing group desires, and no more. It can't start selling Oscars on the side, though there is one in the company showroom, along with a bronze hot dog in a tux and crown, a metal Super Mario and several hundred other statuettes, orbs, pyramids, animals and figurines, some of them famous -- the copies of the Super Bowl Trophy given to team players, for instance -- most of them obscure.
     The rest of the trophies are "stock" -- two-handled loving cups and stars of excellence and such. Anyone can call up and order one or 100 or 1,000.
     "Thirty years ago, our business was 95 percent stock, and five percent licensed," Siegel said. "Now it's the other way around. Most stock trophies are plastic and very low end."
     Owens & Company doesn't make the plastic kind. Siegel explained that while business people know the value of receiving a quality trophy, the bulk of stock awards -- school awards, Little League trophies -- are given to kids, by adults who tend to want to cheap out on the prizes.
     "Corporate people still want quality," he said. "Kids want quality, too, but the adults are in charge of expenditure."
     Making a metal trophy from scratch is a lengthy, expensive process. Say a widget company wants to give its salesman of the year a bronze widget on a wooden pedestal. Owens will hand the prototype widget to its master craftsman, Manny Steffan, who will look over the widget and see how difficult it will be to cast in metal.
     "Certain jobs cannot be done," he said. "Sometimes you have to simplify." He might suggest that a stylized widget be used, to cut down on production costs.
     While a simple piece -- say a globe -- can be cast in a two-piece mold, complex figures need multiple-piece molds that fit together like a puzzle. Steffan once did a bronze ice castle whose mold came apart in 34 sections. (The 13-inch-high, 8-pound Oscar is made from a single mold).
     The company is careful about its estimates, because if it underestimates the amount of work needed, it will lose money on the job. Siegel points to a lovely turn-of-the-century trophy topped by an ear of corn, given by a cereal company to its most productive farmer. The company brought it to Owens to be reproduced, and it didn't realize just how tough the job would be."It took us a year and a half," Siegel said. "We lost our shirts on it."
     Once a price is set, Steffan goes to work. It can take two to four weeks to sculpt a model, and up to three months before the molds are done and the first trophy is made. Molds must fit together with small tolerance for error to keep down the amount of flashing -- spilled metal around the seams that must be laboriously ground off and polished. The Owens plant is filled with workers at grinding wheels or wielding hand files, doing away with flashing.
     Siegel's grandfather was in the pigeon supply business, selling food and accessories to people who kept pigeons as pets. His father worked for him as a teenager.
     "In 1938, my father went downtown to get two trophies for a customer's store," Siegel said. "The trophy company thought he was a dealer, and gave it to him wholesale. He made $ 8 on the transaction, as much as he made in two weeks. So he decided to go into the trophy business."
     Like many children of successful businessmen, Siegel resisted following his father's footsteps. He taught high school for seven years.
     "I didn't want to have the rest of my life scripted for me," Siegel said. But the lure of business proved too great, and upon getting his master's degree at Northwestern he joined Owens.
     Few companies can point to a product that will be as happily received and carefully cherished as a trophy. Siegel walks by rack after rack of John Phillip Sousa medallions -- to be given to high school band members -- Boy Scout emblems and spiked globes to be given out by a cable TV network in India. But Siegel said he doesn't really think about his products being dispersed worldwide.
     "To tell you the truth, I think more about how to produce a good product and how to be efficient," he said.
                                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 23, 1998















Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Taste test


     Harry Caray stopped drinking in July 1994 after a fall in Miami landed him in the hospital.
     "Hey doc, when can I have another drink?" his widow, Dutchie Caray, remembers him asking. The doctor replied: "When the Cubs win the World Series."
     So from then on, until his death in February 1998, the great Cubs broadcaster had a bottle of Budweiser placed in front of him but would really be sipping Anheuser-Busch's nonalcoholic beer, O'Doul's.
     Harry didn't have a lot of choice. Many bars don't stock NA beer at all, and those that do tend to have a choice of one, so people who drink nonalcoholic beer, for whatever reason, are left hanging.
   

To continue reading, click here. 


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Double America

Glenn Ligon, "Double America" 2012

       The hostess at Eureka Burger in Claremont, California told us it would be a 90 minute wait, so we trooped back to Ross' dorm, a few blocks away, to watch the Republican presidential debate.
     "Do you think there are people who watch this for the discussion of issues?" said Ross. "As opposed to watching it for entertainment, like we do?"
     I don't know if "entertainment" is the word I'd use. One of these men could be president, and the choices to from bad (Jeb Bush) to worse (Donald Trump) to please-God-kill-us-now-and-spare-us-the-torture (Ted Cruz).
    I suppose seeing them scratch at each other could be entertaining in the sense that horror movies are entertaining. 
     But those aren't real. And this is real. Or realish, anyway. The only comfort I take is that the world these people are describing bears so little resemblance to the world as it actually is. It's as if there are two Americas, and the Republicans see the one that is all dark disaster—"Crippled America," to use the title of Donald Trump's latest book. 
     And another America where, over the past seven years, the economy was guided back from ruin, millions of uninsured people have gotten access to health care, terrorists have been largely kept at bay. That's the America I see, one whose greatest peril are those who would save it by ramping up its greatest embarrassments, torture and religious fundamentalism, intolerance and fear. A topsy-turvy world where Guantanamo Bay represents America at her greatest.
     Speaking of fear. Saturday afternoon, news of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reverberated across the world. Just as terror attacks undermined Ben Carson's campaign, reminding voters that we live in a dangerous world, and sleepwalking neurosurgeons murmuring inanities just won't cut it, so the vacancy in the Supreme Court could mobilize Democratic voters swooning over the let's-change-the-world impossibilities of Bernie Sanders to remember that we dwell in the real world where elections have consequences. 
    Or maybe that's a partisan notion now. Republicans seem eager to negate the idea that elections matter, at least elections where Democrats win. Naif that I am, I actually expected a few days, a few hours, of head-bowed false piety toward the fallen Scalia before the political cat fight began.
    A few minutes was more the case. The corpse was barely cold—it took an hour after the news was confirmed— when Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement:
   “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."
     This is in perfect harmony with the GOP view of Obama all along. He is not a person, not an American, not a Christian, but some species of impostor, a fraud steeped in illegitimacy, who should have never been allowed to run, never mind win, whose every act as president is treachery and treason and folly.  Obamacare is a failure, not because millions of Americans now found themselves insured. It's a failure because Obama did it, and it must go. Everything he championed is wrong.
      The GOP position is not as alarming to me as it might be for those of us grounded in the world of fact. Climate change is real whether Republicans recognize it or not. Eleven million undocumented immigrants are here whether the GOP views them as persons or not. Gays don't make worse spouses or parents than anybody else whether Republicans accept it or not.
     And Antonin Scalia died, and must be replaced. Whether Mitch McConnell likes it or not.
     These facts will all manifest themselves with or without Republican permission. The extreme weather we've been seeing will worsen, the coasts will erode. The children of those 11 million are citizens, and they will increasingly resent how their parents have been treated, and flex their political muscles. The genie of accepting gay marriage will never go back in the bottle. And Scalia will be replaced.
    Maybe not by Obama. The Republicans control Congress, and they can stall and thwart the nomination process, no matter how qualified, preferring a deadlocked Supreme Court to one with another Obama nominee. That would be nothing new. They have shown a taste for paralyzing government when they don't get their way, like petulant children knocking all the snacks to the floor when they are refused another.
    But the American people get to watch them in operation. And the American people are not stupid -- well, some of them are not stupid. Somebody elected Ted Cruz to the senate from Texas. Somebody turns out to Donald Trump rallies. But 51 percent of the American people are not stupid.
     Such is my fondest hope, anyway. That is not a fact, but a hunch, a prediction. We will find out whether it is a fact or not come Nov. 8.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Heading home



     Travel is a bit like dying, or rehearsal for it anyway. You bid farewell to life as you know it, your comfortable routines and familiar places, and find yourself conveyed to a world where you do not exist, or didn't up to now, a city of strangers, going about their business blithely ignorant of your existence. 
     Though unlike death, you get to come back, to return to your world, waiting for you. Which is the flip side of travel. Yes, you find new places—Edie and I enjoyed exploring Joshua Tree, investigating Los Angeles, dropping in on our son at Pomona College. But then you get your old life back, buffed to a shine by absence, the old routines given a bit more pizzazz, because you've had a little absence, and the heart has indeed grown fonder. That's also part of travel, a benefit that isn't as romantic or exciting as new discovery, but just as important. Maybe even more important. Because while discovering new places is valuable, re-discovering your real place in the world is vital. Because one day you'll leave and never return, and someone else will take your place. But not yet, and it's a blessing to be reminded of just how good it is to be home.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

California Week #6: Warning! Life carries risks!



     The notion that people in California are crazy, or at least crazier than the rest of the nation, anyway, is probably an outdated one, similar to thinking that New York is dangerous, when the fact is that Chicago has triple the homicide rate. 
     But old notions linger. I was excited, driving out to Joshua Tree National Park, to pass Mount Shasta, the focus of Chicago's I AM Temple (what, you've never seen the UFO cult's building downtown? 176 West Washington Street; pop on by) which, not to impoverish their beliefs by summary, are convinced there is some kind of secret alien base located within. 
      And you can't go to a place of public accommodation without being hectored by California's safety nazis, in the forms of signs desperately trying to wave you off whatever activity you might be so reckless to consider, whether it is the consumption of seafood in a restaurant, or of alcoholic beverages in the bar, or sit in an area where people might light up a cigarette. 
     Those, I'm used to. But the sign above, at the Azure Hotel in Ontario, California, seemed a new twist.
    Without dwelling on its content, the sign illustrates the innumeracy of warning. Could a person with "active diarrhea" perhaps be prevented from leaping into the pool, to the misfortune of whoever cleans it? Sure, it's possible. Would, for every one of those persons, there be a thousand other healthy individuals who would have their pool-visiting experience diminished, if not ruined entirely? Bet on it.
      Not to mention the diminishment of the entire idea of warnings. A warning should by definition be something rare, pointing out a real, immediate danger — steep cliffs, electrified rails — not conjure up notional harm, such as bursts of incontinence afflicting swimmers mid-pool.
     I believe government has a role in addressing the woes of society; that said, it is not responsible for eliminating them all, and shouldn't try. A warning on a cigarette pack is a good thing, to remind die-hard addicts of the price they may pay. And the First Lady trying to encourage kids to get moving and be less fat was a worthwhile use of her time. But we don't want a government compelling the posting of nauseating placards to warn off those with the runs. It opens the door for all sorts of esoteric concerns, "Leprous children should not enter the ball pit." Life is full of risks, and living will kill us all, someday, every one of us. Is it asking too much that we are allowed to enjoy ourselves, a little, before that sad day arrives?


Saturday, February 13, 2016

California Week #5: Even noble Homer dozed.



     Family Weekend at Pomona College. Loooong day. A very interesting hour conversation—I was in the audience, not conversing—with Michael J. Fox, whose daughter Skyler goes to school here. He was honest, funny, and had a positive message about coping with difficulties. The audience stood and applauded at the end.
     But I'm too beat to relay it any better than that. Or to do a post at all, really. 
     Except for this, of course, which I suppose counts as a post, of sorts, albeit not a very long or a very good one.  
    In my defense, as Horace writes, in his Ars Poetica: "Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus"— "Every once in a while even the good Homer nods off."  A line often used to forgive scribblers their lapses, though it has a wonderful anachronism built in. Back then, poets were singers, literally, sitting with a lyre in the corner of some banquet room, waiting for the nod to begin their tales of brave Ulysses and beautiful Helen. As the evening wore on and the wine flowed, even the best of them, Homer, might be caught snoring against a pillar (especially Homer. There's a quote from antiquity, along the lines of, "You can tell, from the Iliad, what a lover of wine Homer was," though I can't recall its author).
    Twill do for today. If you ever get to Santa Barbara, and can manage it, I'd recommend the Santa Barbara Biltmore, pictured above.  It's nice.

Friday, February 12, 2016

California Week #4: Blundering into The Broad

Balloon Dog (Blue)  by Jeff Koons

                                      Los Angeles Public Library
Untitled, by Jasper Johns

     There was no hope. The No. 1 sight on our Los Angeles to-do list, The Broad, the hot contemporary art museum that opened last September to raves, is much too hot for the likes of Midwestern mice like us. My wife tried to get tickets a month in advance: all sold out. My son advised us to do what his college pals do: get in line when it opened—maybe we'd only wait for an hour or two. Which we might have done, but by the time we got to LA it was mid-afternoon.

     Instead we wandered downtown, visited the Deco lobby of the Fine Arts Building and the sphinxes at the Los Angeles Public Library, another 1920s spectacle. There's a cool museum of express delivery and banking in the Wells Fargo Building, and we looked at that.
     "In Chicago, all they have is a stage coach in the lobby," I said. The most interesting tidbit I learned is that the famous Pony Express, racing mail from St. Joseph, Missouri to California, debuted in 1860 and was made obsolete by the intercontinental telegraph by 1861. A reminder that technology hurtling past our business models is nothing new.
     Fun. As for The Broad, well, we'd have to save that for another time, when the popularity cooled enough so that the uncool people could stamp our cowflop-covered boots at the door, shake the hay from our hair, and squeeze inside for a gander.

     Around 5 p.m. we found ourselves down the street from The Broad, an astounding concrete honeycomb designed by architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfrowhich. Out front was an ad hoc network of rails and time placards, like some kind of line control system from Disney World.
     Ever the optimists, we figured,, heck, couldn't hurt to ask. So we get chuckled at by some hip security guard? The place was open until 8 p.m., and yes, we could go in, right now. Here's a ticket. Have fun. They were niceness itself.
     "I didn't expect it to be that easy," I murmured to the guard, who smiled.
     It's free to get in
     Oh. My. God. Ed Ruscha. Jeff Koons. Jasper Johns. Robert Rauschenberg. Cy Twonbly. A jaw-dropping collection of names and images. My brother-in-law regaled us with the story about how this couple, Eli and Edythe Broad, teased the various museums around LA with their fabulous art collection—some 2,000 works and growing by an artwork a week—then told them all to go fuck themselves and opened their own museum, right next door to Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall.
     I'm not an enormous fan of modern art—I'm happier in the French Impressionist wing of the Art Institute. But The Broad's collection is really first rate, including the best of Jeff Koons' whimsical stainless steel sculptures, such as the enormous Balloon Dog (Blue). It certainly puts Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art to shame. And having given up hope and decided we wouldn't even bother trying to get in, it was a wonder to find ourselves somehow miraculously inside. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.




Thursday, February 11, 2016

California Week #3: Western rebellion and flat-out fun

Redwood Forest


     I'm in California, hiking in Joshua Tree National Park and visiting my son at college. So to mark that, I'm re-visiting some columns that take place in the Golden State, such as this, from our epic trip out West in 2009. Stay warm Chicago, and I'll be back next week. 

     KLAMATH, Calif. — An open letter from the management of the Redwood Hostel is posted in the kitchen of this homey, 100-year-old inn overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It warns that the State of California, in the midst of a massive budget crisis, is debating whether to "close the majority of state parks, including the gorgeous Redwood State Parks," and urging all those who love nature to the ramparts in their defense.
     "This is California, land of protest and public comment!" it reminds us, suggesting we post our concerns online.
     That might not be enough this time. Just as in Illinois -- facing its own crisis, though not on the biblical scale of California's -- where social service agencies flocked into the streets last month, decrying the severity of the cuts they're facing, so here the public is slowly grasping that California is not dealing with the usual, dangle-the-baby-out-the-window threats that always manage to vanish at the last minute, but something new: a vastly constricted economic reality hurtling at them like a canyon floor.
     California is beginning "the biggest downscaling of government in history," according to the Los Angeles Times, and while the plan to indefinitely shut 220 California state parks -- roughly 80 percent of the system -- got scaled back, for the moment, state government spent itself into this mess, and with its ability to raise taxes hamstrung by voter propositions, the only solution is to slash its way out.
     People praise the democracy we live in, but, as with so many popular beliefs, that's just plain wrong. The United States is not a democracy, thank God, it is a republic. Meaning that instead of enacting laws by the direct vote of citizens, the way they did in ancient Greece, we elect representatives who pass laws for us, based on public opinion and, ideally, their own common sense.
     California is an exception because it has direct democratic involvement in the legislative process, via ballot propositions, like the famous Proposition 13, which capped real estate taxes, shifting the burden onto income and sales taxes. So when the economy sours and people lose their jobs and spend less, money stops flowing in to the state. Which is why, in hard times, when people need state services most, the money to pay for them isn't there.
     While in Illinois, simple political cowardice prevents politicians from raising cash the government needs, here, their choices are constrained by law.
     The daft proposition system affects life in other ways -- you can't walk into a public place in California without seeing a large sign warning you that there are cancer-causing chemicals lurking within. Go to a fish place, and the menu will, in essence, advise against the eating of fish.
     Speaking of laws. Lest the whole column be about tax woes, I should update our trip here because the journey took an interesting detour, seemingly outside the realm of legal authority. We left Salt Lake City and headed toward Reno to meet my wife, who was flying to join us.
     Near the Nevada border, I spontaneously exited the highway at Bonneville, having grown up reading about rocket cars setting speed records there.
     You drive about three miles and find yourself in a fantastical white, empty place -- the legendary Bonneville Salt Flats. The horizon is a perfect straight line with only hazy blue mountains in the distance and a cloudless sky.
     The road ends, smoothly blending into the flats. There are no warnings, no directions, not so much as an orange safety cone. You are free to do what moves you. Most people stop, gawk and leave. But I felt obligated to ease the van off the road.

   "You wanna learn to drive?" I asked Ross, as we blasted through the void. He said yes, and we switched seats. If this seems grossly irresponsible -- he is 13 -- I'd point out that there was nothing for him to hit, and while I was slightly concerned he would careen into another joy-riding vehicle, there was only one other car, far off, like a ship in the distance.
     The boy drove quite well, for a novice -- when he got up to 60, it occurred to me that he might cut the wheel abruptly and roll us, so I gingerly explained the fine points of turning.
     He didn't drive long -- this place is indeed very flat, but it's still a natural formation, and I couldn't be certain there wouldn't be a two-foot ditch somewhere ahead. After I imagined the grim prospect of a phone call home, explaining the trip was scrubbed while we wait for a Honda axle to be trucked to Nowhere, Utah, I made Ross slow down, and instructed him on some less exciting fine points, such as the fact that the "R" on the transmission stands for "Reverse" and not "Rest," as he so charmingly assumed.
     The downside is that driving became an unapproachable trip zenith for him. The Redwood Forest could have been heaven on earth -- a fair enough description -- and it couldn't come close to joyriding the salt flats. Laws are a marvelous invention and can, when not screwed up by amateurs, result in good. But they can also lead to an over-regulated society where you can't eat a french fry without being scolded by the government. It is refreshing to know there is still at least one place where the grid ends, where the road peters away into freedom, and you can plunge forward into emptiness and seize a bit of adventure.

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 26, 2009

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

California Week #2—Chicago's few, the proud, storm California beaches


     I'm on vacation in sunny California. So as not to leave those back in Chicago not only cold, but without anything diverting to read, I thought I'd feature some of my favorite bits of California reportage over the years, like this story, where I join a Marine exercise near San Diego. 

     ABOARD THE OGDEN — Assault Amphibian Vehicles rarely sink, we are told. Hardly ever. Not a worry. Still, before we can climb into one, we have to learn what to do in case ours does, against all odds, sink. The AAVs — large, 25-ton monsters with treads and sloping sides, studded with square, wartlike nubs to screw on additional armor — wait like sleeping dinosaurs, one after another, in the well deck of the Ogden, an odd-looking ship with two steel doors at its stern, now open, to let the sea in. The waves roll up the sloping "false beach," to just before where the AAVs sit.
     The nine Marines, and me, who are going on a practice raid in the back of AAV No. 3 gather around its driver, a Marine from Florida, and listen closely.
     "If it starts to sink, strip off your helmet and your flak jacket. Puff two puffs of air into your Mae West," he says, referring to our black rubber life vests, named after the chesty star. "Just two, or you'll be pinned to the top as it fills with water and you won't be able to get out. After it fills, you'll be able to pop the hatch and get clear. Once you do, pull the cord to your CO2 canister. That'll shoot you to the surface."
     No problem at all. No sirree, Bob. I am not concerned. We all haul ourselves through the hatch — not the easiest task in metal frame backpacks, canteens, helmets, flak jackets, radios and weapons. We all take places on a pair of long benches, facing each other. I feel calm. But I also notice, when they fire up the 500-horsepower Cummins engine in the AAV, that my hand snakes under my flak jacket, to find the CO2 cord. Just in case.
     About 600 Marine reservists from the 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, based in Chicago on Foster Avenue, spent two weeks in August training in California, first at Camp Pendleton, then at sea on the Ogden and two other ships from the U.S. Pacific Fleet off the coast of San Diego.
     They were joining several thousand Marines from around the country in "Exercise Summer Storm 98," practicing attacks from the sea.
     I met the 24th's inspector; instructor, Lt. Col. John A. Morrow last spring, when the Marines conducted urban warfare training in Chicago. Morrow asked me if I was interested in coming to California. It seemed like it would be fun.
     With the back hatch closed, it is very dark in the AAV — a single, yellowish bulb illuminates the coffinlike interior. An AAV can in theory hold 23 men, but given how snugly 10 men and their gear fill it up, that is hard to imagine.
     In the dimness, I can barely see the Marine across from me. Because his face is painted with camouflage makeup, it disappears utterly. His helmet seems to float, faceless, above his uniform. As time for the raid approaches, conversation dwindles. Just after 9 a.m. we hear noises outside. A shout. Then a boom, and a low rumble. Somewhere, the sound of a bell. More shouts. The AAV suddenly jolts forward. Stops. Then begins again, tilting down the false beach and into the Pacific Ocean.
     We can't see outside — there are no windows in the back of an AAV. But we know we are seaborne by the water that starts pouring in around the front of the roof hatch, like a steady rain.


                                                             *  *  *

     "The occurrences of war will not unfold like clockwork," the Marine Warfighting Manual states. "We cannot hope to impose precise, positive control over events."
      Reading over the Marine strategic materials, on the plane to California, I was impressed by the lack of B.S.
     Words such as "chaos," "uncertainty," "disorder" and "horror" are used liberally. "Everybody feels fear," the manual says.
     I sure did. Not fear of the physical peril. I figured I'd be OK. Or, as I told my wife: "It's bad form to get the reporter killed."
     Rather, I was worried about spending time with a bunch of Marines. I'm not exactly a cringing coward, but I couldn't imagine they would take a look at me, a nerdy guy with glasses, the body shape and muscle tone of an overripe pear, and like what they saw. It might sound juvenile, but I was afraid they'd be mean. Being scorned by Marines, I thought on the plane, would not only sting, but it would be the kind of sting that lingers with a guy.

                                                              *  *  *


     After a minute that feels like 20, the water stops raining in. The AAV reaches the beach along with eight others, and cuts left — exactly as planned.
     In the movies, military assaults just unfold; men are pointed toward the target and rush at it. In reality, military operations are rehearsed as meticulously as formal weddings.
     Two days before we hit the beach, Maj. Frank Halliwell, the commander of Fox Company, the group making the raid, stood in the Ogden's ward room before a crowd of officers.
     "Good afternoon, gentlemen," he began. "We are about to conduct a raid to destroy missile radar sites in order to eliminate the threat to U.S. amphibious shipping."
     The raid was simple, on paper. His Fox Company would hit the beach, destroy any defenders, cut north, turn under an expressway, go to the site of an enemy missile radar site, blow it up, interrogate prisoners, then hightail it back to the beach and return to the ship.
    The briefing was a curious mix of concerns both military and mundane — naval bombardments and the importance of not crushing any passing bicyclists. Fact and fantasy blended; there would be an actual F-18 in the sky, for instance, along with two real Cobra gunships. But any fire from the aircraft would be "notional" — the impressive-sounding military word for "make-believe."
     The radar site would be blown up at H-50: 50 minutes after the AAVs hit the beach. The high-speed raid would take exactly two hours and 20 minutes. There was no discussion of what to do if the radar site wasn't there.
     The concept of the Reserve might be alien to some. Keeping a standing military is expensive. Military leaders realized they could maximize their muscle by keeping a reserve of trained men who aren't full-time soldiers.
     The Marine Corps Reserve was created in 1916, just in time to send reservists to World War I. The idea took hold — about 70 percent of all the Marines who served in World War II were reservists. Today, 25 percent of Marines are reservists. They train one weekend a month and two weeks a year to keep their edge.
     The first illusion shattered by watching the reservists train is any idea that it is a lark, a summer-soldier, party-with-the-buddies kind of thing.
     Everyone took the training in deadly earnest. Nobody was dogging it — the guy who came down with conjunctivitis refused to drop out and kept going, his eyes blood-red and weeping.
     The complaints I got — the late-night, bottom-rung, belly-aching gripes — were not about the pay (low), or the food (raves for the new MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. They've got Skittles), or the quality of superiors.
     What really cheezed the men off was that Camp Pendleton was on alert for fires during their training, and thus certain exercises were curtailed. Live-fire drills were restricted. A Humvee squad could not take its Humvees off the road for fear of fires.
     "We do this two weeks a year, and it's pretty important to us to get all the training done," fumed Sgt. Tuan Best, from a Kansas City unit. "They know how essential this is to us. We need to do what we do. . . . I've got new Marines in my squad. I'm not able to do my job the best I can, which is to make sure my Marines get back from the next war."
     Then again, 2,000 acres of Camp Pendleton burned days after the 24th left.
     The AAVs pull up to a group of trucks. This is where the radar site should be, but it isn't here. The trucks are from another Marine unit, doing something completely different. There isn't much time to assess where the site might be.
     "Got an enemy vehicle coming up the road!" Halliwell shouts. We spot the enemy — actually units of the California National Guard — coming over a bridge, and rush in that direction, huffing along in our heavy Kevlar body armor, then flop face-down in the dirt, which gets kicked up everywhere. The M-16s chatter, blanks.
     Halliwell crouches in a stand of scrubby weeds and talks into the radio, strapped to the back of the lance corporal at his side.
     "We are at our objective but the unit is not here," he says. He listens a moment, then shouts to his men. "We need to move north two kilometers." The officials monitoring the raid decree the enemy destroyed, with the help of two Cobra helicopter gunships fwoop-fwooping overhead. We head north.
     

                                                    *  *  *

     Marines are used to, paradoxically, being both looked down at and up to.
     "You get a bit more respect in the suburbs," said Benjamin Ouwinga, 23, a corporal from Tinley Park. "Downtown, people look at you and think you're probably a cold-hearted person and have no education."
     "It's almost like an aura," said John Balcazar, 22, a corporal from Buffalo Grove.
     "People see the fact you're disciplined, the fact you do things in a certain way. In today's society, having any kind of mental stability is almost an oddity. There are so many flakes out there."
     The Marines are all about suppressing flakiness. Individuality is out. The Marines had me wear a uniform — I never imagined they'd do that; I figured I'd tag along in slacks and a golf shirt. They gave me the uniform of a guy who was bedridden with poison oak. I thought about it a long time, then put it on. They may have done it for appearance's sake, but I found dressing the part educational. I never worried so much about whether my hat (whoops, my "cover") was on or off. I tried to roll my sleeves the way the Marines do, but got it wrong, and two Marines did it for me.
     I felt like Richard III awaiting his armor at Bosworth Field, standing, with my arms straight out, while these two big Marines fixed the sleeves. There was a constant checking of each other, monitoring the angle of the cap, the blousing of the trouser at the boot. It might sound like fixation on petty detail, but in reality it was a form of maintaining the image and looking out for one another. I grew to like it. 



                                                   
  *  *  *


     Two kilometers north, Halliwell's raid bogs down. H-50 has come and gone. Still no radar site. The reconnaissance squad that led them here is missing. The radio in his helmet has gone dead. A strange squad of Marines — not enemies, not even part of the exercise — has turned up in the high weeds ahead of them. Halliwell doesn't dare move his vehicles forward until the unexpected Marines are accounted for. He doesn't want to crush anybody.
     Halliwell ends up with two handsets, one held to each ear. With the phones at each ear and a look of utter exasperation on his face, he could be any harried executive having a bad day — in civilian life, Halliwell, a resident of Bollingbrook, is the quality control manager at a Chicago plastic bottle factory. "There was no indication of a site," he says, grimacing, into one of the radios. "What should I do? Over."
     Fox Company gets back to the beach just as two AAVs break down. They will return to the Ogden two hours behind schedule, their mission unaccomplished.
     Like most Americans, I take pride living in the mightiest country in the world, without necessarily thinking about what it is that makes us so mighty. As powerful as our democratic ideals are, and as strong as our Coke; McDonald's; Microsoft economy is, they are not what permit us to blithely go about our business in Chicago, untouched by the threat of violent foreign intrusion.
     It's the Marines. And what makes our Marines the Marines, and not some dog-and-pony show that cuts and runs at the first sign of trouble, is training.
     The crucial thing about Halliwell's raid is not that it didn't succeed. The crucial thing is that it didn't succeed in California, and not East Africa, or North Korea, or the Middle East. This was a dry run. Practice.
     What happened is this. The National Guard expected to engage Halliwell on the beach, as he landed, then pull back south, setting up the radar site there so it could be blown up. But Fox Company was too quick, and hooked north before it could be engaged. So the Guard had to chase after them, coming over the ridge just in time to be destroyed. Halliwell went sprinting north after the radar site that wasn't there.
     That quick hooking maneuver, however, which caused all the trouble, also helped Fox Company two days later in a full-scale, amphibious assault. Halliwell's Marines punched through the defenders, and Echo Company came roaring ashore and wiped them out. Exactly as planned.
— Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Sept,. 6, 1998








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