Friday, December 15, 2017

Next WLS will be stocking Lake Michigan with zebra mussels

 

I explained the story behind this enigmatic tombstone a couple years back.
     

     I had never heard the name "Chris Plante" before Robert Feder tweeted news Thursday that the D.C.-based personality is replacing Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano on WLS radio.
     The latest example of  huge and distant media companies—in this case, Georgia-based Cumulus Media, owners of WLS and 445 other radio stations—deciding that what is easiest and cheapest to offer is also best for listeners everywhere. One size fits all.
     That said, I like to keep an open mind. Off to The Chris Plante web site. There, the first thing I read was his most-recent tweet: "What do you think was the REAL lie of the year? Perhaps 'Russia, Russia, Russia'?"
     Ah, the Trumpian Fallacy in rampant splendor. Take a truth you don't like—like Bob Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign's alleged-for-now collusion with Russia—insist based on nothing that it's a lie. Then hold your breath and see how many buy it.
     Quite a few. Particularly in places like Georgia.
     In Chicago, not so much.
     Feeding lies to the deluded has been a growth industry, with Fox News and Breitbart growing in size, power and profitability as a whole segment of America seals itself off into an echo chamber of self-deception and hysterical faux victimhood.
     Chicago is not immune—you should see my email. But at the risk of provincial pride, we do still value independence.  The Sun-Times is run by a former alderman and a group of union heads. The Trib, for all its historical aspersions toward internationality, is run by a local tech whiz.
     Our radio gems stand out for their uniqueness—WBEZ, WFMT, WBBM—not because they're funnels for whatever sour pap they're fire hosing from the coasts.

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Not forgotten


     Writers cheat death. Briefly. Sometimes. 
     That doesn't mean they don't die. They do. The writers themselves that is. But that their work echoes for a while. If they're good. And lucky. Not most writers. Most writing barely lives on the page the day it's published, never mind has any hope of lingering.
     But writers who are good enough and lucky enough ... like Studs Terkel, who died almost a decade ago—the 10 year anniversary will be this Halloween — but whose name came up twice Tuesday.
     The first was a reader, asking me to recommend Terkel books. That was easy: "Working." "Division Street America." "The Good War." That'll get you started.
     The second was at lunch, with my pal Tony Fitzpatrick, stopping back in Chicago between stints in Paris, shooting his excellent TV series, "Patriot." We talked about art and the French and acting and politics and food and Chicago. 
     Then conversation drifted to Studs. Tony was a particular friend and admirer—"Hope dies last," the title of Terkel's book on political action, is tattooed on his forearm. We talked about him, about his clash with the late Steve Neal.
     Our conversation made me want to hear Studs' voice. I knew him, casually, and was a guest on his radio program on WFMT. But I only interviewed him once for a column, after he was robbed in his home, and I suspected there was more to the crime than the witty tale making the rounds of the media.
 
     A pithy line will go halfway around the world while the complex truth is still pulling on its boots.
     The first couple of times I read Studs Terkel's brazen demand to a burglar who had broken into his home and stripped him of $250—"Hey, now I'm flat broke; give me 20 bucks!"—I smiled at the 87-year-old literary lion's quick-witted bravado. The crook gave Studs a $ 20 bill. Tough old bird. Nice little story.
     But by the third reading —and the line has, since Mike Sneed broke the story in her July 22 column, appeared in nearly two dozen newspapers and magazines all over North America —I began to wonder: Was it all really that simple, or could there be a less attractive crime story hidden behind the neat tale? A home invader rouses an elderly couple from their bed in the middle of the night. The husband is confronted by the crook, who robs him. Sure, he got $ 20 back. But did the event really have the fun, flip quality the quote suggests?
     "It had an amusing touch in retrospect, not during it," said Terkel, in his Uptown home. "It happened so quickly, I couldn't believe it. I had turned the lights out about 9 o'clock. I kept a little TV on, watching the Sox game -- the Sox lost to the Brewers. Near midnight it was.
     "The hallway light goes on. I think it's my wife going to the bathroom. I reach out to say something, and I touch her. She's there. So it's not she. A figure is coming toward me, a figure in the shadows, coming toward me. A tall figure."
     Even at that point, Terkel—as most people would—clung to the hope of a benign explanation.
     "I think: It could be my son. He has the key. It turns out to be somebody else. A guy. I reach for the light. He rushes to me and turns out the light, his hand over his face. He was as surprised as I was."
     The burglar kept shouting, "Where's the money? Where's the money?" But Studs couldn't hear him.
     "I'm practically deaf," he said. "I have hearing aids, but I take them off at night. He's saying something, but I don't understand it. I keep saying, 'What is it you want? Keep cool. Take it easy.' "
     Was Terkel frightened?
     "I guess I was," he said. "It was too sudden, too dreamlike. I went to get my hearing aids in the bathroom. He follows me and turns the light off, his hand still over his face."
     Terkel worried about the safety of his wife, Ida, who has not been in the best of health lately.
     "I didn't know what was going to happen," Terkel said. "If he's desperate. . . . I told him, 'Wait, take it easy. This woman is not well.' "
     Criminals are sometimes placated by money. Terkel, who went to the currency exchange earlier that day, produced a roll of cash. He handed it over, realized he was busted and made his request for something back. He got a 20.
     Terkel nearly said something that, for him, is even more telling than the witticism that has been so widely quoted.
     "I almost said, 'Thank you,' " said Terkel. "He hands me money, and I feel grateful. I think I might have said, 'Thanks.' "
      Terkel, an old-school leftist, finds a certain irony in that.
     "That's the free market for you," he said. "It was my roll of bills a moment ago; now it's his roll of bills, and I'm asking him for a handout."
     (I should mention, in the slim chance that a reader or two might not be familiar with Terkel, that he is the nation's great chronicler of the common people. Even those who question his politics must admit that his classic and best-selling books, such as Division Street America and Working, placed ordinary people into the context of history long before it became fashionable. I think The Good War is among the best books ever written about World War II.)
     None of that mattered to the burglar. Unlike when Terkel was mugged in the 1980s -- which also made the papers—the burglar didn't seem to recognize him before fleeing.
     Terkel, his anger up, followed the burglar, until he saw an accomplice downstairs in the kitchen.
     "I'm hollering, 'How did you get in? How did you get in?' " Terkel said.
    And then the moment came that I had suspected was there, obscured by the cool and satisfying brio of his oft-quoted request.
     "Then I got scared. Right after that," he said. "The fright comes later, when you think of what might have happened."
     Fear, and anger.
     "Of course you feel angry. I was mad I lost 250 bucks. It's an invasion of your privacy. For some reason I was cool, but maybe that was my protection, my masquerade."
      The burglars had pushed in a broken-down kitchen air-conditioning unit. There's a new one there now, securely bolted. And the Terkels keep a light on downstairs while they sleep.
     "Keep cool and keep the lights on," advised Terkel. "What's the old song: 'Let a little light shine'? The detective said (burglars) don't like any sign of life in a building. Keeping a radio on is great, too."
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 1, 1999

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Whew.



     Whew!
     That's the short version.
     At least the country hasn't gone completely crazy. Any loss for Donald Trump is a win for America.
     Close, but enough. Thank you, God, Jesus and Alabama. Roll Tide!
     The long version is more complicated.
     Put it this way:
     Shame and pride had a wrestling match in Alabama on Tuesday.
     Shame won.
     Even in a solid Southern red state that hadn't elected a Democratic Senator in a quarter century, the idea of electing Roy S. Moore—a Republican, yes, but also credibly accused of groping several young women and girls—to the United States Senate was simply too much for voters to bear.
     Even Republican voters. Even Alabama voters. Even in the debased, tawdry Era of Trump.
     Or as NBA legend and Alabama native Charles Barkley succinctly put it, campaigning for the victor, Doug Jones: "At some point we got to stop looking like idiots to the nation.”
     That point is now.
     Okay, not now. It's not as if the state had a communal change of heart since November, 2016, when Alabamans voted for Trump almost 2-to-1 over Hillary Clinton.
     They just didn't want to be embarrassed by electing an alleged child molester. It's a start.
     That Moore was a bad judge, is a bad man, and would certainly be a bad senator, assuming the Senate didn't expel him immediately upon being sworn in, was not so much a factor as that electing him would look bad. Few Alabama voters seemed to care that he was dismissed from the bench, twice, for refusing to obey the law. They liked that. They're proud of that defiant attachment to faith, a Duke of Hazard flipping off of the man.
     Doug Jones won....


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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Mike & me

   
     I would never say that I had a favorite reader. There are so many thoughtful voices and faithful followers, I'd hate to have to choose one.
     But Chris Wood is right up there, if only for his regular Facebook posts showing photos of himself, watching the Bears game, enjoying a cigar and an Old Style in his garage—living the life, I tell myself whenever I see him lofting a brew, denied to me by a cruel and vengeful Creator.
     So when he asked if I would tell a story I alluded to, about famed columnist Mike Royko threatening to break my legs, well, I gave it a shot. Then sat on it for a week. It was ... I don't know, nostalgic and slight and not up to my professional standards, such as they are.
    But it's 9 p.m. on a Monday, and nothing better has presented itself. So here it is, at his request. The blame, of course, is entirely mine.

     Tim Weigel invited me to dinner once. 
     I can't remember why. He drank at the Billy Goat, I drank at the Billy Goat, back in the days when you could still smoke in a bar, and we both did. Cigars. I hazily recall the cigars having something to do with our meeting. We asked each other about the cigars we were smoking, struck up a conversation, talked and drank and smoked cigars. 
Tim Weigel
     Now Weigel was a bright and affable man. He had gone to Yale, surprising for a journalist, never mind a TV sports personality. He had also been movie critic Gene Siskel's roommate. 
    Anyway, we chatted, and became friends. I remember him coming over to my apartment in East Lake View to attend a cocktail party, in between the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts. I admired the brio of that. 
     He returned the favor, inviting me and my wife to dinner over at his home. The appointed day and hour came, and we drove to Evanston, where Weigel lived. I had his address written on a piece of paper, but was confused when I arrived at the spot where his house should have been. 
    Across the street was an enormous baronial mansion. That couldn't be it. Tim read the sports on TV. He wore loud jackets. On the other side of the street, more modest homes. But none the right address. I gazed at the address in my hand, puzzled. 
      This was in the early 1990s. Before children. Before GPS on cell phones. It had to be summer, because there was a man across the street, mowing his lawn. I approached him. Did Tim Weigel live around here? I asked.
    Sure. He pointed at the baronial mansion. 
Mike Royko
    Oh. Right. Television. Sports. I can be so naive sometimes. 
     We were greeted at the massive door, and the evening melted away from there. I seem to remember a wife, a radio personality of some sort. Tim had a EuroCave in his dining room—a special refrigerator for wine—that impressed me. We made use of it. 
     At one point Tim asked me about a certain former colleague of mine who had gone to work for Mike Royko, the top columnist in the city, then and forevermore. The colleague, well, I had better draw the veil here. I gave my opinion, which was not kind. 
     The conversation would have dissolved into memory but, unbeknownst to me, Tim had hired one of the Billy Goat's part-time bartenders as a bottle washer and general lackey back in his kitchen—an expansive, near-industrial kitchen, I seem to recall—and the bottle washer/lackey overheard that part of the conversation, which I discovered Monday, when the phone in my office rang.
     It was Royko's employee. Not happy about my unkind assessment. I'd relate the direct language but, after 25 years, the specifics are lost. What is not is the sense that I had stuck my arm into a cage and it was now being chewed on. 
     The line went dead. The employee had hung up. I can still recall the oh-I-am-so-screwed feeling in my gut as I held the dead receiver. 
     I'll be frank; I don't tolerate bad blood well, but like to be at peace with everyone. Tranquility is the old man's milk, as Jefferson said, but certain young men like it too. Pour oil on the waters, I thought, and called back. I would apologize and placate the employee, so as not to hear my name called at the Goat one day, look up and get an ice pick in the eye.
     I dialed the number for Royko's office.
    Only the employee didn't answer the phone; Mike Royko did. Now he was yelling at me. I only recall two parts of the conversation. One was me pleading, "Aw, c'mon Mike, what has the world come to when a guy can't get tight with friends and bad-mouth the competition." Or words to that effect. And Royko saying that he would break my legs, probably break my fuckin' legs, if ... and I'm not sure what circumstances would trigger that. Maybe if I badmouthed his legman again. Maybe if he saw me again. I'm not sure.
     In years to come, I would retell the story anyway, to grab at a certain whiff of authenticity, a kind of contact high. Royko was the real Chicago deal and I crossed paths with him enough for him to threaten me, which had to count for something. It wasn't as good as getting socked, wasn't Bernie Judge throwing a typewriter in the newsroom, but it would have to do.
     To be honest, I never had the Royko-envy that so distorted other columnists' work. I would have liked to have had a decent exchange of words with him while he was alive, but quickly realized that it would never happen. After he died, when readers would write to me and tell me that I was no Mike Royko, I would write back and thank them, pointing out that Royko was a mean drunk—often, though he seemed to have his moments of warmth and decency with people who weren't me—and one of his sons ended up robbing a bank. It was an end that I worked quite hard to avoid, still do, and I'm glad someone noticed my success at it up to this point.
     That's it. As I said, not much of a story. 
     
     

Monday, December 11, 2017

The lady or the law?

      The photo to the right, of course, is the scrum of people crowded around the Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci's masterwork on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. 
     I commented upon it after  visiting last spring. The crowd was so dense you could feel the humidity coming off their bodies—the gallery where the painting is displayed reminded me of a high school gym. 
     Now direct your attention to the photograph below, also at the Louvre. 
     Do you recognize the black basalt column? Don't feel bad if you don't. I imagine most people will draw a blank . 
    Take a second look.
   
     Any idea?
    It's the Code of Hammurabi. 
    Not the oldest set of laws—though the basalt stele is over 3,000 years old. But the "most complete and perfect extant collection of Babylonian laws" to come down to us, discovered in what is now Iran in 1901. 
    The code contains 282 laws, related to a range of areas: contracts, marriage, divorce, assault, theft, liability and punishments. 
     Parts are familiar to this day, such as No. 196, spelling out a classic concept of justice:
     "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man's bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price."
      This "eye for an eye" might at first blush seem ancient and brutal to us now, though not as much as we'd like. Known as "lex talionis"—the law of retaliation—to this day it's the justification we use to execute murderers. You took something away from someone, now we're taking the same thing. It's odd. If we merely plucked out an offender's eye, it would be considered barbaric. Yet snuffing out an entire life is somehow less so.
     Notice also that the punishment meted out depends not only on the crime, but the person upon whom the crime is committed. The status of the criminal was also significant. 
     In that way, the code is different than our current laws. In theory. We like to think that we've progressed from days of ancient tyrants, though in this way the code has us beat: status, both of victims and perpetrators, is in practice an important factor, still—maybe the important factor—even though our law pretends it isn't. A death in one part of town is not the same as a death in another. A rich man lawyers up while a poor man sits in jail because of some piddling bond he can't pay.
     Maybe we would be better off if we were honest about it and wrote this injustice into our laws. At least then it would be clear.
     Though my goal isn't to criticize law; it is the only thing, a thin wall of words, that stands between us an despotism. Even in ancient Babylon they knew that. Nowadays, we tend to forget. 
     I want you to notice one other thing about the Code of Hammurabi. Look at the photograph again. What's missing? Take a second. Anything not there? Glance back at the Mona Lisa for a hint.
     People. The room is completely empty. I sought it out because I knew it was there and wanted to show my wife, a lawyer. I knew she would enjoy seeing it, and she did. But the masses don't bother. They pack into a gallery to see a painting they are already vastly familiar with. And probably don't even know that one of the earliest examples of the framework of law that supports all of our lives is in another gallery, largely ignored. 
    It's a worrisome neglect, because our fidelity for the law is of the utmost importance, as we in the United States will find out, sooner than later. Do we really value what we have? Do we understand its magnificence? 
    Between the Mona Lisa and the code, which is the true wonder? Which is the greater example of genius? 
     

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Captain Crunch, Defender of Christmas



     Captain Crunch loves Christmas. 
     The criminal conspiracy of Snap, Crackle and Pop, not so much. 
     Judging from this special Xmas-themed box of the Captain's tooth-murdering sugary cereal, noticed on the shelves of Target the other day, conveniently juxtaposed with the season-denying Kellogg's Krispy product ... well, let's just say the outraged Fox News diatribe writes itself: "'Who is Kellogg's trying to fool? 'Holiday colors?' Those are green and red, the traditional colors of Christmas as outlined in the Holy Bible..."
     The president of the United States lit a match under the traditional War on Christmas bonfire last week. "You don't see 'Merry Christmas' anymore," he whined. "You see 'Happy New Year.' You see red. And you see snow."
     Crunch good! Krispies bad! Need I point out that Crunch is based on corn, an American product, while Krispies contains rice, harvested in Southeast Asia? 
     My first instinct was to ignore this seasonal disorder as trivial compared to the true outrages and quasi-treasons Trump commits daily. Just another example of the why-are-you-hitting-yourself bully tactic so often used by the Right, of conjuring up some idiotic stance and then pretending someone you don't like embraces it. Nobody is offended by "Merry Christmas." There is no effort to dampen the holiday that pervades every corner of American society from the moment the Halloween candy is put away until the New Year's decorations are taken down. Barack Obama said "Merry Christmas" all the time—MSNBC put together a pointed highlights reel of him saying exactly that, again and again and again. What Obama didn't do is make a big deal of it, weaponizing Christmas, tainting it, as Trump does everything he touches. By the time he's done, "Merry Christmas" will carry an emotional wallop somewhere between "sieg heil" and "fuck you."
    Why pay attention at all? That's easy. Because there is a larger point here.
    The entire GOP worldview is based on false victimization. Their own victimization, conjured up to mask an ugly truth. In a world of true victims, Republicans sympathize with only themselves. Why? Because they can no longer traffic in the open language of hate, of supremacy—they can't simply despise specific groups as inferiors. It isn't done anymore, at least not openly. The next best thing is to imagine offenses that they are the victims of at the hands of these people they hunger to condemn. Thus gay people are not simply people, trying to get married, raise families. No, they have an agenda, to destroy straight marriage, to corrupt children (I wonder if Republicans will be able to repeat that one with a straight face after Roy Moore wins on Tuesday. Sadly, they will. We live in the Golden Age of Hypocrisy). 
    That's why Mexicans have to be murderers and rapists, Muslims have to be terrorists. Otherwise Republicans would just be hating people for no reason, and even Donald Trump has enough dim self-awareness to realize that won't fly, thanks to a century of glacial progress.
     Remember where "Happy Holidays" came from. Fifty years ago it was merely assumed everyone was a white Christian. Trust me, it's true. I was there. Inclusion meant tucking in a grating Hanukkah carol into the Christmas Concert, sung condescendingly for the class Jew, who was expected to be grateful. 
    At some point, educators—and TV stations, and cereal makers, and anyone involved in interacting with the public—began to realize that their classroom, their audience, their customers, were actually quite diverse. They weren't all white. They weren't all straight. They weren't all Christian. It was odd to have a Christmas concert in a school where half the students didn't celebrate Christmas. So they began to nudge the net open a bit wider. A "holiday" concert. "Happy Holidays" includes Christmas.
     Fox News grabbed it like a hungry dog and began shaking. This, like gay marriage, like a functioning immigration system, like anything that acknowledges of existence of people who make our nation's terrified third uncomfortable, is simply unacceptable. They lack the honesty to say, "I don't want those people here. Their existence detracts from my fragile self-imagine. I wish they would go away." 
    Accommodating them is an insult. It is oppression, and implies these non-Merry-Christmas-saying creatures also belong. That it is their country too. Trump's Christmas posturing might seem trivial, and at one level it is. But at another it reflects an elemental part of his basic appeal: the illusion that American can be undone, the projector of time run backward, and the shrinking white Christian majority return to its lost Eden where their inferiors bowed their heads and stepped off the sidewalk, mumbling apologies, as the country's true owners strode by, masters of all they surveyed.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Being Jewish in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1950s

   



     The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opens in Jackson today. The president of the United States will not be attending the ceremony.
     For a while it looked he would. The man elected on a platform of naked bigotry, encouraging hatred against people based on their skin color, nationality, and religion, would actually show up and pretend to care about prejudice. As if he belonged at such a museum in any other capacity than a cautionary exhibit.
     But Donald Trump either doesn't know how he is rightly perceived, or doesn't care, and on Monday said he would be going. Only after civil rights icons like Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) and others refused to participate in the opening if Trump were present, did someone on Trump's staff with a capacity for shame decide that the president would not attend the public festivities, but would tour the museum privately, like the scorned pariah he is. 
     Jackson, Mississippi, if you don't know, has an astounding history of racial and religious oppression, as I mention in the column below, reviewing a book about growing up there Jewish in the 1950s. The book is filled with telling, touching details—one that I didn't put into the column, yet stays lodged in mind, is when the Ku Klux Klan marched through Jackson in the 1950s, Edward Cohen's father knew which neighbors were under those sheets because he had sold them their shoes.

     Jews don't believe in heaven. That isn't bandied about much. It seems almost rude. Sincere people are trying to embrace this incredible construct of harps and clouds and halos, and we're not playing along.
     I suppose some Jews believe. But heaven isn't part of the official program. I sure don't buy it, instead keeping the party line: Departed loved ones live in the memory of those who love them.
    For instance: To conjure up my grandfather, Irv, whom I adored, I don't have to speculate about angels. I can see him, in my mind, reclining in his green Barcalounger, sipping a Pabst, smelling of cigarettes and Luden's Cough Drops, watching "The Price Is Right." He loved "The Price Is Right."
     The problem with not having a heaven to safely dispatch departed relatives, like children shipped off to eternal summer camp, is that it places a deep responsibility on you. If they exist only in memory, then you have to remember them. It is your responsibility to rescue them from oblivion.
     Which is one reason I so admire Edward Cohen's new memoir, The Peddler's Grandson (University Press of Mississippi, $25). In fewer than 200 pages, he constructs an ark rescuing not only every relative he ever knew—with their quirks and foibles and eccentricities—but charting their improbable journey from Eastern Europe to Jackson, Miss., of all places, where they dwelled, outsiders, running a clothing shop.
     Jackson in the 1950s and 1960s is sketched through stunning details. When the P.A. system at Chastain Junior High school announces President Kennedy has been slain, the students cheer, wildly. Later, "Sesame Street" debuts nationwide, but not in Jackson, because it shows black and white children playing together.
     Still, Cohen never paints Mississippi in the grim hues we Northerners expect. Despite frequent bigotry, it's a great place for Cohen to grow up. That's perhaps the biggest surprise of the book. Jackson is nice; it's home. He loves it, then and now.
     Cohen's story is the story of anyone set apart for one reason or another. How much do you give up in order to fit in?
     The process began in the late 19th century, with grandfather Moise, fresh off the boat. After his new companions persuade him to take part in a snipe hunt, he reverses the humiliating joke by viewing the whole thing as bonding, certain "that he had undergone some redneck rite of passage."
     Poignance and humor jostle each other, as when the abrasive Rabbi Perry Nussbaum— outspoken enough on civil rights to get his house bombed by the Klu Klux Klan—sends young Cohen out on Halloween to collect, not the usual candy, but pennies for UNICEF.
     "The United Nations was regarded in Mississippi as, at best, a communist lesion on the country's independence, at worst as the nesting place of Satan," he writes. "I set out, wearing my mouse costume, into the heart of John Birch-era Mississippi." The results can be imagined.
     Cohen is at first desperate to fit in with his entirely gentile school. He lobbies his mother for a Christmas tree; she resists, then strikes a compromise—he can have a tree in his bedroom. The image of the little boy shutting his door after supper, plugging in the single strand of lights around this tiny, pathetic branch of a tree, was the most moving image for me in the whole book—a sad, funny encapsulation of yearning and denial.
     Southerness and Jewishness are not often juxtaposed. But, like chocolate and peanut butter, they go well together, especially in the hands of an author who has both love and a clear eye:
     "One can hardly hail from two more historically losing causes than the South and Judaism," he writes. "Both my cultures have long, tragic pasts, and not one jot of it has been forgotten."
     Strong words, and he argues them well in a beautiful book.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 28, 1999

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nine trucks



    Nine trucks. Mack trucks, mostly, with a couple Peterbilts thrown in for variety. Five parked on Center Avenue, four more around the corner. I counted. 
    Kitty and I were on the dawn patrol last week, making our eight block circuit of the neighborhood, when we turned a corner and were confronted with them. A sight that, in 17 years of stomping our quiet suburban streets, I had never seen. 
   A knot of drivers stood chatting with one another. 
    "Scheduling mishap?" I ventured—nine trucks seemed like a lot of trucks to park at 7 a.m. on a single block. I instantly imagined some computer snafu where nine trucks had been sent to do the job of one. It seemed the premise for a children's story: Nine Trucks. Kids love trucks. I know I do. 
     I couldn't imagine why so many were there. The drivers, holding their coffees, looked at me but didn't respond. A civilian. Or perhaps a language issue. Kitty and I moved on, admiring the brawny trucks, designed for hauling dirt.
     It didn't take long to realize they were there for the house that had been razed a few days earlier. It had seemed a not-particularly-decrepit house, new enough that I snapped a photo of it. But obviously not to contemporary standards of luxurious living. They've been building these lot-line crowding mansions lately. 
     Twenty years ago faux Norman chateaux were all the rage, with round towers and limestone details. I particularly scorned those. Now Burgundian behemoths are out and we are seeing what I think of as Little Sag Harbours, Atlantic coast edifices with wood shingles on the walls and lots of little windows scattered about, homes that should be on some sprawling estate in the Hamptons, not jammed into a suburban lot on the former prairie of Illinois. Their windows, instead of looking out on Oyster Bay, gaze through the windows of their neighbors. Some are six feet apart.
    The trucks obviously weren't bringing anything—the truck beds were empty. They were taking something away. The dirt from the foundation of the new house.
    Kitty and I came around again that afternoon—the afternoon walk. We are creatures of habit, the both of us. If I try to deflect from our routine she will stop in her tracks and stare at me, indignant. 
     The trucks were gone. But something new was there. A hole. And not just any hole. A foundation, the deepest basement I've seen on a new house--it looked 10 feet deep. For a moment I wondered if they could be building an apartment building in the middle of that residential block. It was that deep. And wide, it was as if they had dug up the entire lot; there would be no yard at all. I stopped to gawp at hole, and a guy in a hard hat wandered by, and I struck up a conversation—I'm good at that. 
     There had actually been 11 trucks, he said. Two more arrived after I left.  "That's all I could get," said the foreman. "I asked for 20."  He said deep, wide foundations are the new thing, all the rage.
    "It's even dug under the garage," he said. "We use re-enforced concrete for the garage floor."
    Maybe class envy is involved—the mere upper 10 percent gazing at the upper 5 percent. Whoever dug the basement of my house, 100 years ago, made it just tall enough for a man of medium height to stand, and then he has to dip his head to avoid heating ducts in a spot or two. I wish that farmer had gone for an extra six inches, but he was probably digging by hand, and having done that myself, I know how tempting it is to stop at Just Deep Enough and not an inch more.
    Now they dig to China, and span the lot. I can't imagine what kind of Hyde Park horror is going up, but I don't have to; we'll find out soon enough. A lot of money in the world, concentrated in an ever narrowing band atop our society, and they want every cubic inch of basement they have coming to them. It won't be pretty to look at, but that isn't much of a concern anymore. Maybe it never was.



Thursday, December 7, 2017

Jews don't worship stones

     I'm actually on vacation this week, working on a long-delayed project around the house. 
     But I don't want to abandon you entirely, particularly as the news keeps coming, alas.
     Tired of tossing lit matches at the powder keg of the Korean peninsula, Donald Trump decided to shift Amateur Hour to the Middle East on Wednesday. He announced that the United States would be moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a reckless and destabilizing move, done against the counsel of his top advisers, one that pleases Trump's evangelical, let's-end-the-world-now-so-Jesus-comes-back Christians, and hard right Jews who support whatever folly Israel happens to be cooking up at the moment, and nobody else.
     Otherwise, it lights a fire under parties that need little provocation to unleash their basest instincts. Peace is now even more distant, hair-trigger tempers will flair, innocent people will die and nothing has been accomplished, except the kind of tough guy posturing that the right finds so appealing. 
     To be honest, there isn't much point to picking apart the folly of what Trump has done. All we have to do is step back and wait for the latest chapter of the half-century disaster to unfold.
    In the meantime, here's a visit I took to Jerusalem 13 years ago, as a guest of Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service. If you can, try to get to the end, because what the tour guide says reflects back on the whole situation. We're in love with land, but we used to stand for something, for justice. God has unleashed a number of his little jokes upon the Jewish people over their 5,000 year history. But if they've gone through all that only to end up as permanent jailers to an ever-increasing Palestinian captivity....well, the Big Guy wouldn't do that to us, or to them. Would he?

     JERUSALEM -- They don't call it the "Wailing Wall" anymore. For thousands of years Jews went there to lament the destruction of Solomon's Temple. But wailing is so, I don't know, negative, and Jews are trying to put a cheerier spin on life, where possible. So instead we call it the "Western Wall." Either way, it's an expanse of limestone blocks, the only remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago.
     I took a cab to the Old City. We pulled up by crenelated ramparts. I strolled in the direction of the Wall, illuminated by floodlights. The sight stopped me in my tracks. Enormous limestone blocks, with tufts of greenery spilling out. Above it the golden Dome of the Rock. As I hurried forward, my dead relatives shuffled into mind. As if all those slaughtered Bramsons, sleeping in their slit trenches in Poland, stirred.
     What would it have meant to them, I wondered, to have gotten here? To do what I could do right now? My grandfather, Irwin Bramson, had been the only one of his large family to slip out of Poland before the charnel house doors clanged shut. I have a hundred letters from his relatives left behind, his brother Zalman, his mother -- my great-grandmother -- Devora. Letters describing the tough life in Poland in the 1930s, expressing joy over the birth of a baby—my mother—and asking if my grandfather might not send another bundle of warm clothing and, maybe, a little money.
     The tradition is that you write down prayers and tuck them into cracks in the Wall, so God has an easier time finding them. Several people gave me notes to put in, and I created my own note, a small triangle cut from paper from an envelope from one of the letters to my grandfather. I liked the idea of paper used by a doomed Jew in Bialystock ending its days stuck in the Western Wall, melting in the soft Jerusalem rain.
     What to write was a puzzle. You can't comfort the dead, can you? What could I ask God now to do for them? It's a little late.
     For being the holy focus of Judaism, the atmosphere at the Wall is surprisingly casual. People came and went, with no one in apparent charge. A Hasidic beggar cadged coins. A box of cardboard skullcaps stood unattended. Most of those praying at the Wall were from the ultra-Orthodox sects that populate Jerusalem, rocking back and forth. Some sat on the chairs scattered around or stood still at little lecterns. Others merely folded their arms against the Wall and laid their head down, almost as if resting.
     I slapped on a cardboard skullcap and walked slowly up to the Wall. I found an open spot, placing both palms flat against the stone. Then, leaning forward, I touched the Wall with my forehead and prayed.
     It seemed the thing to do.
     In 30 seconds I exhausted the store of Hebrew prayers I know by heart. So I prayed the standard pleas, for the health of my family, for the future of my boys, and—this is scary—to be a better person. Jet lag.
     Then, without forethought, I kissed the Wall—a big, full-lipped smack—lingered for a long moment, and then left. That kiss really surprised me. I hadn't planned to kiss the thing.
     Caught up in religious frenzy, I suppose.
     If I didn't quite find faith at the wall, I did experience a temporary suspension of cynicism, which might be about as close as I come. I didn't carefully observe the scene, as I should have. I didn't take notes. I forgot to estimate how high the wall is or how wide (nearly a city block, with the men comfortably praying at three-quarters of it and the women jammed in the rest. Islam isn't the only religion where women can get the short end of the stick).
     Reason quickly returned to me. Kissing the Wall, I later realized, was as hygienic as drinking a teaspoon of Ganges River water. The next day a wonderfully acerbic tour guide took us through the water tunnel running parallel to the Wall. He reminded us that the Wall is not actually part of the Second Temple. Rather, he explained happily, it is part of the retaining wall used to create the mount where the Temple stood. There was no religious reason for Jews to pray there.
     "The stones there are as holy as the stones in my backyard," he said. "A stone is a stone is a stone. Jews don't worship stones."
     He's right, I thought, feeling a little embarrassed about the kiss.
     But not about the note. The Jews weren't praying to the limestone Wall. They were praying at it. Which is a different matter. We don't worship stones, but we do venerate life, and remember those who came before us. This was the place that Jews all over the world hungered toward. They didn't want to come here because of the weather, or because of the Wall, necessarily, but because this was their place -- is their place -- the place where they can stand and pray and not be afraid (OK, the "not be afraid" part is still a work in progress).
     You can't comfort the dead. But you can do what you imagine, had they known, might have brought them comfort. Perhaps Zalman Bramson, trapped in Poland, tried to rationalize his fate by telling himself that at least his brother escaped and that maybe, just maybe, one of his descendants will someday find himself in Jerusalem. He will overcome his skepticism. He will take a 70-year-old scrap of paper, write on it a prayer asking God to bless the memory of a family he has never met, and place it reverently into the Western Wall.
      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 30, 2004

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Bob Greene redux, this time as Trib triumph


    

Emil Jannings in "The Blue Angel"



     Puh-leeze.
     I suppose it's inevitable, with sexual harassment pinballing around what's left of the media, that the mouldering corpse of disgraced Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene would eventually be dug up. 
     And I suppose it's equally inevitable that former Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, now curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, would feel herself the person to do it.  Lipinski takes yet another victory lap for the Trib finally firing the guy in 2002, as if his predatory behavior were not an ... well..."open secret" was the phrase I was going to use, but that doesn't quite capture it. "Well-known, endlessly-discussed fact" is more apt, since you couldn't spit in a newsroom without finding revolted female professionals with tales of staving off Greene's crude advances.
     It was no secret at all. I wrote a column mocking Greene's column in the Chicago Reader and, in 1995, seven, count 'em, seven years before the scales fell from Lipinski's eyes, mentioned in print Bob's proclivity for luring young interns to hotel rooms, or pathetically trying to. 
     Not that it did any good. And to be honest, I had never been accosted by Greene. In fact, I never met him. I was far more offended by Bob's writing and worldview; his deplorable personal conduct was an afterthought, a dig, though at least it was that. For his bosses it wasn't something they'd consider at all, not publicly, not when they could maintain a willful, profitable blindness. 
     It's bad enough to ignore a problem for years and years, but to then present it as some kind of triumph of personal integrity prompted me to grab a shovel myself and do a bit of  disinterring.
     Ecce homo. I found this, a timely year-end review of Bob's work, using primitive America Online archive technology. Which, alas, did not extend to movies, because, I should note, that, upon looking for images now, I mis-remembered the ending of "The Blue Angel"—Emil Jannings is in the classroom all right, but in street clothes, not a chicken suit. 
     A forgivable lapse, I hope. Not my only one, which does make me uncomfortable, occasionally, with this whole grab-a-sin-from-40-years-ago-and-smear-it-on-someone cultural moment. Because people do change. Not Bob Greene, of course, his tragedy, and ours. Nor Ann Marie Lipinski, who dislocated her shoulder patting herself on the back in 2002 and is still at it. 
     But it does happen, and I am concerned that nuance will be lost, that the Al Frankens will be lumped in with the Roy Moores, and we'll end up with a new way to defame people but little actual progress.
     Still, if cracking open the past and hunting down sexual harassers means our society is actually improving, that the often degraded position of women is advancing, it will have been worth it. Though Donald Trump was still president last time I checked, so let's not take our own victory lap quite yet. Bad enough to hear the ululations of self-praise echoing from the ivory towers of Harvard. 

     With New Year's approaching I can't help but think of the classic movie "The Blue Angel," in which hot young Marlene Dietrich lures doddering Emil Jannings away from academe and into burlesque. The last scene shows the old guy back at his deserted schoolroom, still in the chicken suit from their nightclub act. He clutches at his old desk, weeping, emitting pathetic little chicken noises, as the enormity of his squandered life comes crushing down on him.
     Now, I realize it's pointless to hope that Bob Greene will be suffering similar pangs of remorse this December 31. It's too late for that.
     But can't you just see him? Wandering gravely from room to room, lit only by candles, trailing his fingers over the flat surfaces?
     Perhaps Bob too would be wearing a ridiculous costume—the tattered rags from some forgotten Bexley High School play. And he too would weep, as memories from the wasted year just past assailed him. The bells on his costume would jingle derisively as he moved through the dim hallways.
     We need not rely upon such conjecture to delineate the enormity of Bob's failure this year, pleasurable as it may be. There's an engine now available that can outline Bob's offenses against thought and journalism with greater precision than mere subjective adjectives like "repetitive" or "infantile" or "dull" ever could.
     I'm referring to the Chicago Tribune computer archives, which recently became available—at the usurious fee of $1.25 per minute prime time--on America Online.
     A few keystrokes and we see that Bob had written 167 columns in 1995 as we went to press. And that 59 of those columns were about Baby Richard. A solid 35 percent of his entire output--with zero practical effect other than making certain people think that by focusing on one white boy who has two sets of parents fighting to love him, they were exercising supreme compassion.
     Another 20 columns—about 12 percent—were spent denouncing major league baseball and embracing the scab players.
     Scanning over his year's output, I find it difficult to pinpoint a nadir, though I would cast my vote for the pair of columns he devoted last month to reprinting old movie lines and old newspaper leads. It was a classic Bob straw-man tactic, in which the untrue premise (that the written word is no longer valued) is followed up by the canard reaction (let's have an "experiment" to see which medium, newspapers of 60 years ago or classic films, is better). Jesus, couldn't he have just used a sick day?
     But why limit ourselves to the past year? The Trib archives also have a 1985-1995 search mode. You can view the full scope and horror of Bob Greene's world, the sad spectacle of his near-autistic fixation, suffocating narrowness, and tedious, head-crushing repetition.
     I've just spent some time there, and boy, I'll tell you, it's like going down to hell and staring up Satan's ass.
     In those 11 years, Bob has written 1,923 columns. More than a third—723—involve children, a reminder that before Richard there were Joseph and Sara and all the other wee ones Bob has used to cynically fill his columns with pages of court transcripts and letters of reader outrage.
     A quarter of the columns—484—mention television. Bob's home state of Ohio pops up in 170 columns. Another 74 feature Elvis Presley in some capacity--often a starring role. Thirty-six columns dredge up Bob's pointless fictional character, Mike Holiday, the supermarket bagger last heard from, mercifully, in 1993.
     Woody Hayes shows up ten times. One hundred and twenty-four columns pass through an airport; 72 mention a hotel room (though, oddly, none of these include a young intern). In a decade's worth of ostensibly soul-baring columns, none contain the words "hairpiece," "smarmy," or "too many vodka gimlets." Yet there are four references to Barbie, and two columns--nearly identical in content and five years apart—devoted to his old high school principal, C.W. Jones.
     Michael Jordan appears in 67 columns, just three more times than the word "mall" appears. Spend enough hours working the archives, and weird parallels will start to pop out. In his column of June 6, 1994, the word "Elvis" is repeated 23 times; exactly two months later, a column repeats the word "mall" 23 times. Of the 32 columns containing the word "brave," each uses "brave" exactly three times, except for the November 13, 1991, column, "The U.S. Shrinks to the Size of a Mall," which uses it five times.
     The clock moves toward midnight. The year 1996 stretches ahead of us, filled with promise and mystery. Only two things are certain: Bob will continue to boldly explore the bedpan ocean of his soul. And the Tribune is going to make a fortune on-line.
     —Originally published in the Reader, Dec. 21, 1995

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Steinberg family Christmas dance

The Hatch Family, by Eastman Johnson (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     A good pun should be savored. You do not want to rush it. So after I opened my menu at Szechuan Kingdom the day before Thanksgiving, sitting in a booth with my wife and sons, I saw my opportunity, but took my time. I let them order first. Then the waitress looked at me. 
     "I'll have the 'Happy Family,'" I said, order a special of scallops, shrimp, chicken and vegetables, only then glancing over at my wife, who was genuinely surprised, almost shocked.
    "You always get the beef and broccoli," she said.
     It's true. I really like beef and broccoli. 
    "I thought I'd try something new," I explained. "Although I've sampled the 'Happy Family' at every Chinese restaurant I've been to. To compare them. And do you know what I've found?"
     I paused, savoring their puzzled faces.
     "All happy families are alike..."
     I don't think there was actually the sitcom groan that lives in my memory, but the triumph was mine. Nice one dad.
    Of course I missed my beef and broccoli during dinner—I always order it because I really, really, really like beef and broccoli—but it was worth it.
    The opening sentence of Anna Karinina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 
     A famous line, though, like many aphorisms, not necessarily true. The happiness in my family seems more idiosyncratic than general. We don't watch football, except sometimes the Super Bowl. But Tolstoy is not only bantered, but played a significant role in there being a family at all: years before I got married, I remember seeing Edie on the sofa, reading Anna Karinina, her face wet with tears, and thinking, for the first time, 'Can't let her go.'"
     We toted his-and-hers copies of War and Peace on our honeymoon, and while we didn't find time to read them, beyond a few symbolic minutes at the end, just because we had lugged the damn things, we did eventually. I later read the whole book, aloud, to my older son, finishing the night before he left for college, a high point of parenthood. Not only do I not believe the happiness of all dads involves reading War and Peace twice, I'm fairly certain it's just me.
     Not that reading, and punning about reading, is all we do. We attend or throw the same big family gatherings that most families have, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, the Jewish holidays and sometimes we assemble just for the heck of it, and bathe in the glow of relatives close and distant. 
     Though other families find happiness in other ways. The Orgill family of Utah, as I discovered on Facebook Monday, choreographs ecstatic Christmas dances, which they perform in their home, record on video then share online. I assume doing so makes them happy, though following in their footsteps would be the definition of misery for the Steinbergs (though I do smile imagining the result, no doubt something between "The Dance of the Hours" in "Fantasia" and "Long Day's Journey into Night.")
     Although we did have one quasi-Orgill family moment. We were on our way to Ohio, to visit old friends who have a place at Put-in-Bay. We stopped at a Wal-Mart for some reason—pick up supplies I imagine—and they had this deep sale on these grey and aqua striped t-shirts. They were practically free, $2 or some such thing. So we each bought one, and put them on. Dressed identically, we rolled up to our friends' house. There is a photograph, but I'll be damned if I'm going to put it online, not matter how many clicks it would get. Give those wholesome dancing families credit. It takes guts. I like to think my family has courage too, in our, very different way. So with apologies to Tolstoy, I'd suggest that all happy families are not alike. While unhappy families, well, all families are unhappy, at one point or another. The key is getting past the unhappiness and becoming happy again.  
   
     
    

Monday, December 4, 2017

Where to go? Book bird-dogs intriguing Chicago places

Phil Sipka, at the Kusanya Cafe.
    Englewood is a long way to go for a cup of coffee. But I like coffee. So when I heard about Kusanya Cafe, a coffeehouse at 69th and Green, I decided to slide over for a cup.Most Chicagoans never go to Englewood for any reason. They associate it with murder, not coffee. But even the worst neighborhoods are also just that — neighborhoods — and I figured, if people can live there, I can visit.
     Inspiration came from a book called "111 Places in Chicago That You Must Not Miss," published by German publisher Emons Verlag. That aspect is what initially caught my attention; I hoped to smirk at some foreigner's wildly mistaken impressions of Chicago. The book arrived from Germany; alas, it was written by Amy Bizzarri, a Chicago Public Schools teacher who lives by Logan Square.
     "I have a severe case of wanderlust," she told me. "But I can't go to India, so I go to Devon Avenue. It's my way of traveling. I feel I know a lot of hidden corners of city.
     The Chicago volume is one of dozens of "111 Places" books Emons sells, featuring the hidden charms of cities from New Dehli to Berlin to Istanbul. 
     "I saw the New York edition and thought, 'I'm the perfect person to write this for Chicago,'" Bizzarri said.
     She's right; she is. It's hard to pull off a book like this. You don't want to be too familiar. No point alerting folks to Wrigley Field. But you don't want to be too esoteric either. 

      Bizzarri succeeds. She finds the sweet spot, visiting many worthwhile Chicago treasures, ranging across the city and the spectrum of culture: music, museums, shops, restaurants. She hits many of my favorite obscure places, including the Sky Chapel atop the First United Methodist Church, with its bas-relief of Jesus pondering the skyline of Chicago circa 1952, and Red Square Spa, the former Division Street Russian Baths. The book is illustrated by creative, colorful pictures snapped by Chicago photographer Susie Inverso.
     A few places struck me as too well-known: the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle in the Museum of Science and Industry, for instance. And a couple are too obscure: The School of Shoemaking and Leather Arts is whimsical, but it isn't somewhere you visit but somewhere you enroll. If anybody reads this book and decides to become a cobbler, I'd love to hear about it. 
     Quibbles aside, the book's main value, for me, will be as a tip sheet, bird-dogging intriguing places I've somehow never heard of and now can visit. Chicago Honey Co-op? Big Monster Toys on South Racine? I'm on my way.


To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bumped into Phil Corboy the other day...


 
    Attended the Chicago Bar Association Christmas show Thursday night. I almost passed on it; I'm a homebody. But I couldn't very well mock the mayor for not going and then skip out on it myself. There's enough hypocrisy going around without me adding a cupful to the ocean.
    I'm glad I went. The show was boisterous fun. My favorite song was an ode to personal injury litigation, "Duty and the Breach" sung to "Beauty and the Beast." 
     It seemed apt, since the reception beforehand was held on the second floor of the CBA headquarters , in Philip H. Corboy Hall, under the watchful gaze of a big oil painting of the great Chicago litigator. He passed away five years ago, and it was good to see him again. I went over to say hello.
     It's always a little odd to see guys I knew lionized in semi-permanent form: the bust of Jack Brickhouse in Pioneer Court, or Kup gesturing—with what I hope is contempt—at Trump Tower, squatting on his former home. 
     I got to know Corboy a little—he was a good man, proud of his family and his profession, helpful when I had a question about the law, even more helpful when I got in trouble with the law myself. Not every friend of mine stood up; he did. We first met when, researching something else, I noticed his first case, and wrote the column below:


     Two men, friends since childhood, got in a drunken fight, picked up pistols and killed each other. Their life insurance policies had clauses denying payment if death was caused while committing a felony.
     The widows turned to a young lawyer, Philip H. Corboy, for help. Corboy convinced a jury that the men were too drunk to have the intent needed to commit a felony.
     That was Nov. 11, 1950—50 years ago next Saturday—the first rung in what has been a climb to the legal summit: Corboy is the most visible lawyer in Chicago and among the most successful personal injury trial attorneys in the country.
     I sat down with Corboy last week in his 21st floor Dearborn Street office. I wanted a glimpse of what a man learns after 50 years of representing the most grievously injured people involved in the most heartbreaking cases, and extracting compensation out of corporate America.
     Sitting at his antique, four-sided English partner's desk, with a splendid panoramic skyline behind him, Corboy radiated success, confidence and energy. I couldn't help but be struck by how tremendously handsome he is; surprisingly so for a man in his mid-70s, with pale blue eyes and pure white hair. He looks like Kirk Douglas and has an actor's eloquence, honed by a half century of arguing before judges.
     "I have never calculated the number of cases I've tried to a jury," he said. "I've 'tried' thousands of cases where the case gets ready for trial, you have a jury in the box, you spend four days trying the case, it gets settled. Ninety percent of these cases get settled."
     In part, no doubt, out of respect for Corboy's track record. Many people are under the impression that Corboy has never lost a case. That is not true. He ended up losing that first case—the judge threw out the jury's verdict. And he lost a case in 1985, though it was reinstated on appeal and his client ended up with $ 1.35 million.
     But that's about it. This near-perfect track record has lent Corboy's 24-lawyer firm a certain air of invulnerability. The firm of Corboy & Demetrio turns away 19 out of 20 cases, so when he represents a client—such as the family of the woman who was killed when a pane of glass fell from the CNA Building—it is a sign of the unfairness of the tragedy and reliable foreshadowing that some deep pocket is going to be turned inside out.
     "There is no segment of the citizenry population I have not represented," Corboy said. "I've represented prostitutes. I've represented monsignors in the Catholic Church. I've represented ministers. I've represented rabbis. I've represented housewives. I've represented convicted felons."
     While certain professions scream at the cost of litigation—doctors, pundits, politicians— Corboy pointed out that when a tragedy happens to them, sudden changes of heart frequently occur.
     "We represent many, many doctors who sue other doctors," said Corboy. "When a newspaperman is hurt, he comes to us. We get politicians who have voted for tort reform who send us their children who have been hurt."
     Despite the speed at which people rush to law to address their problems—or perhaps because of it—lawyers are generally held in low regard, and personal injury lawyers receive particular scorn. It doesn't bother Corboy at all.
     "Lawyers in my type of work are quite secure they are doing the right thing," he said. "When you watch movies, with tension between the local police and the FBI, how does the FBI come off? Interferers? Dolts? Do you think the secure FBI man cares?"
     In his time he has seen law change, he says, for the worse, a "crankiness" born out of the practice of winning cases not in courtrooms, but by drowning your opponent in a roomful of documents.
     "Corporate America," Corboy said, "insurance America, medical America, are in the . . ."—here he chooses his words carefully— ". . . business of properly protecting their clients with devices that are meant to precipitate the generation of paper."
     He has been involved in many important cases; his firm represented the families of six of the seven victims of the Tylenol poisonings. Perhaps Corboy's most influential case came in 1965, when he represented the owner of a race horse killed in a freak accident at Arlington Park.
     Corboy won a $ 93,708.33 judgment for the worth of the horse, which was ironic because at the time in Illinois there was a cap on the wrongful death of human beings of $ 30,000.
     "If it was the jockey who was killed instead of the horse, his widow could have only collected $ 30,000," said Corboy, whose testimony in Springfield did much to remove such artificial caps.
     We spoke for two hours. The problem with a subject like Corboy is that one barely scratches the surface, and then it is time to stop.

            —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 5, 2000

     

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Motherhood hasn't mellowed Amanda Palmer


     I don't watch TV much. But occasionally, when I want to unwind, I'll dip into YouTube and look around for something new.
     Last week, on a Sunday, I noticed a new Pink video. I like Pink, and admire her taut, well-produced videos, for first-rate songs such as the dark, decadent "Sober," with its establishing shots of an overcast Stockholm, or the heartbreaking journey through divorce's lasting impact in  "Family Portrait," maybe my favorite song of hers.
      This new one, however, "Beautiful Trauma," was just dreck, in my eyes. The same tired cotton candy 1950s imagery that was trite decades ago. A jarring literalness. At "the pill I keep taking" she gobbles some pills. The cross-dressing that Annie Lennox was doing in 1984. And the song itself? True, not many songs work the first time you hear them. But unpromising. I've listened to it twice and have no idea what she's singing about.
    No big deal. Performers peak and enter their downward limbo, a shadow of themselves. No matter how sharp and hungry—Ani DiFranco—they go flat and out-of-focus and whatever spark they have gutters. To be honest, I didn't think about it.
    The next day, however, the very next day, in one of those intriguing real-life juxtapositions, Twitter served up Amanda Palmer's cover of Pink Floyd's "Mother."
     I gave it a watch.
     First, what a great choice, for Palmer to reach into the nightmarish "Wall" double album and serve up this lament, so necessary in the hideous era we find ourselves in, as Donald Trump and his followers distort everything good and decent about America. A funhouse mirror reflecting our very worst selves.
     Savor the fierce scowl on Palmer's face when the video begins. I can't remember ever seeing a singer so pissed off in a music video, and rightly so. We all are, or should be. The elegant, unsettling imagery, the string ensemble, the piggish politicians, the Trump figure, the allegorical escape/rebellion, the children building their little wall—literal too, in its own way. But somehow it works here. It all works.
    I won't give away the surprise ending, beyond to say that it's there, and I think Palmer is about the only singer who would do that. People sometimes accuse her of being an exhibitionist. Maybe so. Or maybe just fearless. Either way, it jarred me. Now there's something you don't see in every music video...
     Very few music videos are artistic, or engaging, or worthy of thought or a second glance—Sia's "Chandelier" and the other way-creepy vignettes with pre-pubescent dancer Maddie Ziegler come to mind. I have no idea what Sia's trying to convey in these, but boring they are not.
     Maybe it's that I feel a bit of residual kinship of Palmer after meeting her a few years back, and reading her book. I assumed she had disappeared into motherhood, having had a baby a couple years ago (Duh, "Mother." I just thought of that connection. Making the song doubly apt).
       Not that creativity is always rewarded—the Pink video, released Nov. 21, had 16 million hits when I looked at it. The Palmer video, released five days earlier, had 20,000.  No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. (Although, to be fair, "Chandelier" has 1.7 billion views, so I suppose the message is, if you're a big enough star to begin with, you can take risks, which circles back to Pink and the surrender of "Beautiful Trauma.")
     Singly, I'd never murmur a word on either video. And I am no Lester Bangs, so I hope you'll forgive this foray into contemporary music criticism. But somehow, the interplay of the two videos made them worth mentioning, fodder for a Saturday, and since you'd probably otherwise never encounter the Palmer video, I thought I'd point it out. What do you think?