Thursday, May 25, 2017

Trumpet the good news, mutter the bad

     Listen to Pat Gengler, spokesman for the Kane County Sheriff's Office, telling CNN on May 13 how a SWAT team took down Tywon Salters after he grabbed a correctional officer's gun and took a pair of nurses hostage at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, and you'd think the operation was a textbook example of police efficiency.
     "The officer was able to get away," Gengler said of what happened after Salters took a 9 mm handgun away from Officer Shawn Loomis. "The SWAT team made a decision to make entry into the room. One of the SWAT team operators did discharge his firearm, striking the inmate and killing him."
     Nothing about Loomis possibly hiding in a hospital room after losing his weapon.
     Nothing about Loomis perhaps failing to alert anybody that there was an armed felon on the loose.
     And absolutely nothing about a nurse hostage being shot by the SWAT team — or possibly being raped during the three hours law enforcement was trying to figure out what to do.
     To learn that, you have to read a lawsuit filed against the Kane County Sheriff's Office, Loomis, in particular, and Apex3 Security, the company that's supposed to provide security in the hospital.
     That lawsuit, filed Thursday, makes alarming reading.

     To continue reading, click here.

Del Close: In the midst of tragedy, the possibility of laughter

"Slaughter of the Innocents," The Vatican Museum

     Last week I went to the opening of the American Writers Museum, which I appreciated more than expected. They have a Hall of Fame, of sorts, of Chicago writers, cleverly presented on moveable banners so they can add and subtract as circumstances dictate. I noticed—with a mix of satisfaction and unease—that I had met a full half dozen of the iconic writers showcased: Mike Royko, Anne Landers, Studs Terkel, Saul Bellow, Roger Ebert and Del Close. Quite a lot really. I hadn't thought of Close in a while—I spoke with him at the wake Bill Murray threw at his hospital the night before Close killed himself, and saw him on the stage as Polonius in Robert Falls' "Hamlet." I glanced at the obituary I wrote for Close in 1999, and thought it might be suitable for this grim, terror-tainted week. We should not of course laugh at the individual victims of specific tragedies. But certainly must laugh at the general tragedy of the human condition, one where insane religious fanatics commit atrocities against children, trying to lure good people into accepting the hatreds which so define and limit their lives. We are supposed to be terrified—I would say being bitterly amused at the ultimate futility of their efforts might be a far more valid reaction.
Del Close

     In the famous Second City comedy sketch taking place at the funeral of a man who died by jamming his head into a gallon can of baked beans, that detail—to make the cause of death a big can of Van Camp's pork and beans—was provided by Del Close, whose morbid, risky brand of dark comedy formed generations of American comedians.
     Mr. Close—teacher, actor, director, pagan, junkie, occasional lunatic and fierce iconoclastic spirit behind Chicago's beloved comedy troupe, as well as friend and mentor to its biggest stars—died of complications from emphysema Thursday at Illinois Masonic Medical Center. He was 64.
     "There is something irresistibly funny about a funeral," he once said. "More basically, I think the point is that beyond the deepest tragedy, there is laughter. Even in the midst of tragedy, there is always the possibility for it."
     Mr. Close acted not only in troupe comedy but in serious dramas. He was acclaimed as Polonius in the Robert Falls' landmark "Hamlet" at Wisdom Bridge and appeared in several motion pictures, including "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
     His death came the day after about 50 of his friends feted Mr. Close as he sat in a wheelchair in a basement room of the hospital.
     He was "an amazingly intricate human being," said Second City producer Kelly Leonard. "Notoriously prickly, tremendously warm and very funny," he specialized in humor that's "dark and subversive," Leonard said.
     Mr. Close grew up in Manhattan, Kan. He was a second cousin of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ike once showed up at a Close family Thanksgiving in the years before he became president. Mr. Close ran away from home as a teenager, getting his first taste of show business as an assistant in a cheesy bit of vaudeville called Dr. Dracula's Tomb of Terror.
     He attended Kansas State College on a bass drum scholarship and was a classmate of James Dean's. He auditioned in 1957 for the St. Louis branch of the Compass Players, the precursor of Second City.
     Mr. Close was part of the original St. Louis cast, performing in the Crystal Palace. The cast moved to Chicago to become Second City, but Mr. Close went to New York, becoming a stand-up comic in the company of people such as Lenny Bruce. After taking in a Bruce show with Second City founding director Paul Sills, Sills reportedly said to Mr. Close, "If you can ever find out what Lenny is taking, by all means do it."
     What Bruce was taking was heroin, and Mr. Close followed Sills' advice to a fault. He not only became a heroin addict; he was proud of it.
     "He relished his narcotic past," Bob Woodward wrote of Mr. Close. "He wore his track marks from the needles like a badge of honor."
     Mr. Close appeared off-Broadway in a musical, "The Nervous Set," in 1959. But an arrest for marijuana possession cost Mr. Close his cabaret card, and, unable to perform in New York nightclubs, he returned to Chicago, where he joined Second City, sharing directing duties with Bernie Sahlins.
     Mr. Close began performing in the cast of Second City in 1962. It was not a placid relationship, and Mr. Close was plagued by his drinking, drug addiction and emotional problems, which sometimes required institutionalization.
     "Sheldon Patinkin, who wasn't yet the Second City director, used to pick me up at the loony bin and drive me to the theater, where I'd do my thing. Then he'd drive me back to the loony bin where I'd spend another day," he said in 1972. Sahlins said that he, too, used to pick Mr. Close up at a mental hospital so he could perform.
     Mr. Close was fired in 1965. "I deserved it," he later said. "I was always getting loaded, quite frankly."
     He moved to San Francisco, where he took small acting roles. He appeared in "Beware the Blob," being eaten along with Burgess Meredith, and in episodes of "Get Smart" and "My Mother the Car."
     Mr. Close hung out with the Grateful Dead. He ran the light shows at 1967 concerts as the group's "optical percussionist."
     He returned to Chicago in 1972 and directed Second City reviews consistently for the next decade, becoming close with stars such as John Belushi, whose talent he nurtured and formed.
     "He was particularly good with the new generation of Vietnam rebels—John Belushi, Harold Ramis, those people," Sahlins said. "He was a rebel, definitely a product of what we used to call the hippie generation. . . . He had an unusual capacity for leading young people, not always down the straight path. He was an inspiring director and teacher, even if sometimes the content was not acceptable."
     Belushi was particularly affected by Mr. Close, both professionally and personally.
     "I like the man's style," Belushi said of his mentor in 1978. "He can create with you, unlike so many other directors. He can motivate people. He's been my biggest influence in comedy."
     Mr. Close's first-floor Wells Street apartment, across from Second City, was also a convenient spot for Belushi, himself an addict, to shoot up. It was only after Belushi's death by drug overdose in 1982 that Mr. Close was able to shake his drug habit.
     He was let go, again, from Second City in 1983, and took his comedy workshops to CrossCurrents, then to the fledging ImprovOlympic, where he helped develop its signature piece, "The Harold," a framework combining audience suggestions into skits that end up working together.
     Mr. Close returned to Second City in 1988 to direct "The Gods Must Be Lazy," bringing in his ImprovOlympic standouts Chris Farley, Tim Meadows and Joel Murray. Critics credit Second City's current renaissance to the mid-'90s import of Mr. Close's acolytes from ImprovOlympic.
     He won three Jeff awards, a Chalmers award for directing Toronto's Second City, and a Charlie award for lifetime achievement from the American Association of Comedy Artists.
     "It's a grim business, this being funny," he said in 1975. "Every time you come up with a strong satiric idea, the world tops it. None of our reactionary military characters in the past decade could top the real-life line that came out of Vietnam: 'We had to destroy the village in order to save it.' "

                         —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 5, 1999

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Barrel of Monkeys makes writing more fun

     Children want to talk. The third-graders in Mrs. Javor’s class at the Chalmers School of Excellence strain their twig arms toward the sky, fingers fluttering, desperate for permission to say what’s on their minds.
     They have the desire but, at 8 years old, can lack the communication skill to make themselves heard. When called upon, some speak in tiny voices, inaudible a yard away, their disjointed whispers trailing off.
     Enter a Barrel of Monkeys.
     “My friends, hello!” booms Mary Tilden, striding into Room 202 with four confederates: Alejandra Zavala, Marianna Green, Jo Jo Figarella and Barry Irving. “I’m so excited to see you.”
     The next 90 minutes are a whir of free-form storytelling boot camp, where students are led through fast-paced exercises that are part kiddie Stanislavski Method actor training, part junior Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The circus has left town

     Readers wondered why I had two columns in Monday's paper. One about federal judges helping ex-cons, which I posted yesterday. And this, about the final performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus performing for the final time Sunday night.
     The answer is simple enough. I wrote the federal judges column Friday (and a bit on Saturday, and again Sunday morning). Then Sunday night an editor asked if I might wax rhapsodic about the passing of the Greatest Show on Earth. Sure, why not?

     The elephants were important after all.
     A year after Feld Entertainment, owners of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, bowed to pressure from animal rights activists and retired their 40 performing pachyderms, a “dramatic” slump in ticket sales prompted the 146-year-old “Greatest Show on Earth” to announce in January that it was going out of business.
Which it did Sunday night, after one final show at Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York.
     The wonder is it lasted this long.
     The death of the circus — the biggest, most famous American circus anyway — couldn’t have been just the elephants. High operating costs also did in the last circus to travel by train as smaller, nimbler, more innovative shows, such as Cirque du Soleil, gobbled up audience dollars without having to worry about feeding lions, tigers and bears.
     And an audience that could fight alien monsters or dogfight in spaceships or have almost any adventure imaginable while sitting on their living room sofa and jiggling a joystick didn’t need to go to the circus. The circus came to them.

To continue reading, click here.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Federal judges lend helping hand to ex-cons

Federal Judge Sara L. Ellis, from left, Judge Susan E. Cox and Jennifer Colanese, a U.S. probation officer, review cases at a meeting of the intensive supervised re-entry program run by the U.S. District Court in Chicago. The program is designed to help ex-cons stay out of prison. 

     “How do you deal with life when it’s going well?” asked Judge Sara L. Ellis, airing the dilemma of one ex-con adapting to life on the outside. “There was a reduction in the chaos of his life that made him very uncomfortable.”
     She was addressing three fellow federal judges — Susan E. Cox, Sidney Schenkier and Chief Judge Ruben Castillo — plus three probation officers, two assistant U.S. attorneys, two federal defenders, and one drug treatment specialist.
     It was 9 a.m. Thursday. The group sat around a long table in Castillo’s spacious chambers on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building. The beginning of an extraordinary morning where, every two weeks, the vast, overcrowded, harried, understaffed, often-indifferent, reflexively punitive American legal system pauses for a few hours to turn careful attention to, on this day, 11 long-incarcerated ex-cons — armed robbers, drug dealers — who put their post-prison lives under the supervision of four federal judges.
     The group trades mundane minutia of fractured lives coming together.
     “But he has been writing his poetry . . . .”
     “Have him attend 30 meetings in 30 days . . . .”
     “He did attend counseling this month, group and individual . . . .”
     “He was supposed to meet with me, but didn’t show . . . .”

To continue reading, click here. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Clothes make the man"

     As I mentioned a few years back, I spent a summer learning Latin with my older boy. One of the phrases ground into my mind, vestis virum reddit, was memorable because it was particularly difficult -- you trill "R"s Latin, as in Russian, and I've always struggled to get my mouth around that. 
     It was also a useful phrase, meaning, "clothes make the man." Though it seems no longer true nowadays, as workers troop downtown in flip flops and cargo shorts and the president wears the same tie, held in place with Scotch tape. Maybe it should be pecunia virum reddit, or "money makes the man." 
     But then there is no need to create a new aphorism, as there is already a very suitable line in Petronius' Satyricon, "sola pecunia regnat"—"money alone rules." That's all too true today.
     Getting back to clothes. vestis virum reddit — the "v" is pronounced like a "w," by the way: "westus wirum" — is s a medieval proverb. Erasamus put into Quintilian's mouth,* and many sources cite him. Even though what Quintilian actually writes, "To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority" referring, scholars believe, to a vague line in the Odyssey that doesn't mention clothes at all.
     A reminder that history tends to improve upon aphorisms. Leo Durocher didn't say, "Nice guys finish last." He ranted about nice guys ending up in seventh place and helpful sports writers did the rest.  
    I recount this because the New York Times web site on Saturday offered content "Paid for and Posted by" Will, a new TNT series, or rather whatever PR sorts TNT hired to cobble together "Turns of Phrase," a colorful, flashy, but flawed collection of seven "phrases that first appeared in Shakespeare's works and continue to resonate in modern times." 
     The third phrase is "Clothes make the man," which is odd, because the phrase neither appears in Shakespeare nor resonates in modern times. The line the PR puffery cites is "the apparel oft proclaims the man," in Hamlet, noting it was considered ironic even then.  
     An advertisement, I know. No point in complaining to the Times, which didn't write it, and TNT obviously doesn't care—their point is to publicize their TV show, which they've done, and in that sense, since their error sparked that, all's the better. Even wrong, it's high-intellect for a TV show ad.
     So why think about it at all? The piece is ultimately inoffensive, I suppose, and credit should be given for the various barbs it takes at a certain president. But that president is known for his casual relationship with truth. And there is something unsettling about sniping at a man while committing the very sin he so manifests. Untruths must be pointed out, or else truth suffers—I just wrote that, but would never claim that it isn't also tucked into some Loeb Classic somewhere without looking good and hard for it. I just figure someone who cares for facts should note the Grey Lady taking money and promoting poor scholarship. The media isn't valuable because it is never wrong; the media is valuable because it acknowledges when it is wrong, and if the Times won't, I will do it for them. 

* According to the very useful "The Adages of Erasmus" edited by William Barker (University of Toronto Press: 2001)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     At first I thought this might be unfair. An older man against a dark background. How could anyone figure out a location from that? Even King Dale. 
    But someone might be familiar. He isn't a famous man, but he has been in the press. And it's more of a thinking puzzle. In order to get the gears turning, though, I need to give a clue. Here it is: the man isn't real. 
    Well, he is real somewhere. But he wasn't really in front of me when I took his picture. Does that help? No? Good.
    Let the fun begin. You don't have to name the guy, just where I saw him, or an image of him. The winner gets one of my way-cool "Don't Give Up the Ship" flags, expressing a sentiment more necessary than ever as Donald Trump's America unfolds in day after I-can't-fucking-believe-this-is-happening day. Place your guesses below. Good luck.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Insisting you are the best is part of being the worst

"Reception du Grand Conde par Louis XIV" by Jean-Louis Gerome (1674)

     Buckle up. You’re about to read the best column ever written, penned by the greatest columnist Chicago has ever known.
     Kidding. Let’s talk about grandiosity.
     Even if I thought the opening sentence were true — which, for the record, I most profoundly do not — I’d have enough self-awareness not to say it. Everyone hates a braggart and wants to bring him down, even when he is correct.
     Especially when he’s correct.
     When he isn’t, when his claims are just oblivious flummery, it just seems sad and deranged. Think of the stereotypical insane asylum. Who does the cliched inmate believe himself to be? Napoleon, right? Delusions of grandeur.
     I do not want to join the platoon of armchair psychiatrists speculating about the mental health of the president of the United States. I am not qualified to diagnose what may be wrong with him. And I recognize that a significant, if dwindling, chunk of the country thinks that the only thing wrong with the president is the vast deep state conspiracy allied against him. A mindset we can examine another day.

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Expensive ink

    You can spend $30 on a printer. You can spend $300. You can spend $3,000.
    Hard to figure out what to do. When my home printer died a few months ago, I knew I didn't want the very lowest end. I knew I couldn't afford the highest end. So I split the difference. A Canon MB2320 was an impressive looking cube. Consumer Reports rated it well. Only $100 at Best Buy. It has two paper feeds, a flatbed scanner. It seemed like it would Do The Job.
    And it does, more or less. Flash forward to a few weeks back. The black ink supply ran out. I thought: need new ink. I phoned Atlas Stationers--my office supplier of choice--and ordered the full set. Figured, might as well, have the cyan, the magenta, the yellow, when they went out too.
     I didn't ask what they cost.
     Atlas phoned. My ink was in. I stopped by the quaint little store on Lake Street. A thick plastic bag with my order was produced. The price was rung up: $103.
    "That's more than the printer itself," I gasped.
    "Yeah," said the clerk. "Sometime, when I run out of ink, I just buy a new printer. It's cheaper."
    That made sense. But there was also something senseless, something terribly wrong about that. I hate to think I've become one of those "This is the problem with society..." writers whenever I come upon something I don't like. But the ink supply shouldn't cost as much as the printer and the ink supply.
     Yes, the drug dealer/Barbie doll paradigm. The first hit is free. Sell the dolls for cheap and make money on the clothes and accessories. Hook your customer first.
     But there is a flaw. Because each new printer comes with ink — it's as if there was a new Barbie included in each stewardess outfit, which you could buy at the same price as the stewardess outfit without Barbie. The Canon is not the best printer. It's slow to actually start printing. Real slow. And the software is balky. As it is, I can print documents on my iMac through the printer, but I can't scan anything onto the iMac. I have to physically insert a thumb drive, copy the image onto that, then stick the thumb drive into the back of the iMac and access the image. It's a pain in the ass.
     And it occurred to me. When the ink runs out, rather than spend $103 on another quartet of Canon printer inks*, I could just take that C-note and buy a different printer made by a different company complete with new ink. That's a plan.
    I did notice one positive thing about really expensive ink. I tend to print less. In the past, I'd go for the printed ticket, somehow worried my phone wouldn't be up to the task, say, displaying a boarding pass. At a hundred bucks for a palmful of ink, I'll take my chances electronically.

      * And yes, I noticed the inks are cheaper online. About $90 on Amazon as little as $23.95 at dubious web sites that may or may not send what was ordered or anything at all.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First draft of American Writers Museum is highly promising

Canadian architect Dennis Rovere and his daughter Adrienne, 19, came from Calgary to visit the American Writers Museum.


    No man was ever as ready to dislike a place as I was primed to loathe the new American Writers Museum. As I strolled toward Michigan Avenue Tuesday morning for the museum’s grand opening, I was practically stropping the blade of scorn, eager to put it to use.
     I had studiously avoided all previous AWM publicity, my opinion of such places set years ago after visiting Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a mausoleum that reduces the vibrant disruptive force of my generation into dead glass cases of fringed jackets and sequined shoes. Just last month I had plunked down four euros to enter Casa di Dante in Florence, the slapped together tourist trap the city established to prove Florentines are the same frauds that Dante sunk into hell 700 years ago.
     How could so vast a subject as American writing be condensed into an 11,000 foot space? It would be reductive, like the Illinois Holocaust Museum, turning the greatest atrocity of the 20th century into a school lesson about bullying.
     I was the third person in line, behind a father and daughter from Calgary who came here, specifically, they said, to see the only historical artifact on display: the 120-foot-long scroll of taped-together typewriter paper upon which Jack Kerouac batted out “On the Road.” (“They’re not writers,” Truman Capote quipped of Kerouac and the Beats. “They’re typists.”)

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the block


     Hmmm...this is a toughie.
    The prudent thing would be to stay silent. Say nothing about tronc, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, et al., entering into a deal to buy the Chicago Sun-Times, which was made public Monday afternoon.

    Best be mum. Safer. Hard to get in trouble that way. 
    Because saying anything is a lose-lose proposition.  And I have a cute little piece about the high cost of printer ink all ready to go...
    Nah, that stinks of cowardice.
    Lose-lose. No question about it. And I have no secret insider information. I'm a bystander too. 
     Being positive looks like sucking up to the new boss. Even when the new boss is really my old boss, Michael Ferro, who shed the Sun-Times—giving it away to a charity—so he could buy the Trib, seeing value in it that others missed, apparently. Remember how Gannett kept offering him more money, crying about his irresponsible stewardship all the while, even as they upped their offers, bidding against themselves while he waved them away?
    Kinda cool really. Maybe he'll buy Gannett next.
    But being negative also has risks. It's almost impossible to mention "tronc" and not observe it sounds like the name of a robot Muppet in a 1970s Sesame Street episode. I'm not sure that matters much in the upper echelons of finance. Most Sun-Times employees can spool out a variety of gripes about Ferro, though that does not make him unique in the pantheon of owners.  
     Not much of a risk to candor though. I can't honestly imagine he'd care. You need a pretty thick skin to own a newspaper. If the sale goes through—if the Justice Department allows it, and they blocked a past Trib deal— those cobbling together the transaction won't add a line to the complex contract purchasing, "All dunnage, office equipment, warrants and deeds belong to the Sun-Times ... except for Neil Steinberg. He gets the boot because he smirked at the corporate name on his hobby blog." 
     These big money guys, they're not china dolls.
     So fuck prudence, as I can say here, but not in the newspaper. Not yet anyway. I sometimes politely suggest we break that barrier because, well, it's coming, and we might as well be the first through the door. Imagine the attention. I've already crafted the lede to the column introducing obscenity. "Fuck this." Maybe I'll mention that to Michael next time I see him, assuming I ever do. 

    Would I prefer the paper not be bought? Sure. Change frightens me. Because I know how good I have it, how blessed I am. It's easy for me to me smug, now, because I'm not paddling around the frozen slurry with all the other folk—good, bad or indifferent—who got pitched over the side. I know it can make you bitter, like those former newsmen who gather every day at the end of Rob Feder's column, sticking up their thoughts about journalism, like dried boogers over a men's room urinal. One of my primary ambitions is to never be one of those guys.
     But change comes whether we want it or not. It's like Hemingway's line about how bankruptcy happens: "Two ways: Gradually and then suddenly."
    The Trib buying the Sun-Times is gradual and sudden. So. Enough throat clearing. To the heart of the matter. The Tribune and the Sun-Times joining together, the lion and the lamb, the suburban burgermeister and the scrappy city kid getting hitched.
    It isn't as if they're going to mash them both together and sell the thing as the Tribune-Sun-Times.  The two papers appeal to different demographics, and I imagine they'll be maintained as separate entities for the same reason Nabisco sells both Oreos and Fig Newtons. A blend would be gross. Killing one paper doesn't drive its readers to the other. There's no point in buying the thing if it won't remain a separate title. As it is, the Tribune already prints and delivers the Sun-Times. It won't rock your world if the Sun-Times marketing department cooks up Tribune promotions.
    That said, there will certainly be individual peril. Less job security, which is really sayin' something, and then there's the question of the union, on life support since 2009 but still there. Journalism has been on a race to the bottom, trying to find something hard to bounce up from in an attempt to regain the surface. The Tribune and the Sun-Times wrap their arms around each other, figuring they'll both float better that way.
    I'm ... what? Guardedly optimistic, a reaction that has to be a little colored by how I perceived the news. When I saw the publisher's email Monday I was momentarily confused. It began:
I wanted to update everyone on some developments in regard to the Sun-Times and other assets owned by Wrapports, LLC. We just issued a press release (attached) announcing that in tomorrow’s edition of the Sun-Times the newspaper will run an ad (also attached) that it is seeking a buyer that will continue to publish the newspaper.   
     I stopped there, confused. An ad seeking a buyer? That had a whiff of doomed desperation, like old Aunt Sadie putting her profile on That'll never work. And the "that will continue to publish the newspaper" seemed to suggest there are buyers who won't. Why buy the thing if not to run it? It isn't as if we own land anymore.
     But I kept reading—always smart when you're in the understanding-stuff business.  It turns out there was more. The ad is just a bit of pro-forma legalistic throat clearing so tronc—which also sounds like the place in his little automobile where Inspector Clouseau stashes his luggage—can buy the Sun-Times. We are told there are no other suitors.
     So a specific purchaser, even the Tribune, came as a relief, compared to just angling around for anybody flipping through the paper to buy the place. There are worse people than the Tribune to buy you. Last I checked, Rupert Murdoch still owned newspapers. WGN was just purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a low rent right wing broadcast group, kind of Hunts ketchup to Fox's Heinz. There are hells below this one. 
     Those still using old dance cards will decry the sale. What of the storied Trib v. Sun-Times rivalry? The Front Page. Rival reporters racing to be the first to a pay phone? They were like Field's and Carsons.
     Field's is gone, I should point out. I hate to be the one to tell you. The Daily News is gone. City News too. And Napoleon escaped from Elba.
     Nostalgia only gets you so far. The first obligation of a newspaper, the trick question in J-school went, is to stay in business. The past decade of newspapering have been a struggle to do that, a constant game of staffer musical chairs. The music stops and they yank a chair away. Fewer folks putting out a leaner product. Am I happy about it? No. I'd prefer we hire the photo staff back ... and a jazz critic and a medical reporter and a few kids to run get coffee. And Italian cookies. I love those. 
     I do not dread going back to work for Ferro. That will seem like toadyism, but screw it. He was always fair to me, and I can't resist the impulse to try to be fair to him in return. He seems to have a plan. Ferro obviously has something going on. In 2015 IBM paid a billion dollars for Merge Healthcare, that he rescued in 2008, netting him a cool $200 million. I can't even tell you what Merge Healthcare is—something about merging health and care. He seems to have mastered the hoover-up-money part of the online world, and never pushed me to write anything I found odious. If he wants to spend more of those millions being fire hosed at him on the Sun-Times, well, that's just fine. Somebody should. 
    The great Irish playwright Brendan Behan once said, "A change is as good as a rest." There really is no rest in daily journalism. But there certainly is change, whether we like it or not. What will it be like? We don't have to guess. All we have to do is wait and find out.


Monday, May 15, 2017

How can Americans support Trump? How can they smoke?

Femme a l'orchidee, by Edgard Maxence
     Smoking is wonderful. That’s why people do it. It’s one of life’s joys. You pause from grinding routine, slip away to some quiet spot, tuck your favorite brand between your lips, spark fire, and inhale a big soothing lungful of your friend, nicotine. Ahhhh. Relaxation. The tightened bolt in your head loosens, anxiety ratchets down, and your brain squeezes out a single drop of pleasure.
     Smoking is vile. An addiction that will kill you. Cancer, emphysema, heart disease. Awful deaths. Half a million Americans a year die from smoking. Smoking is expensive. It makes you stink.
     Smokers, it is safe to say, endorse the first paragraph; non-smokers, the second.
     A phenomenon I call “framing” — you portion off the reality you prefer, the one that resonates with your life, and gaze fixedly at that.
     I mention framing a lot to my aghast friends, who can’t understand how anyone can support Donald Trump. They considered him a liar, bully and charlatan the day he was elected, and it’s only gotten worse. Trump fired FBI director James Comey last week, at first claiming it was because he bungled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails then admitting he didn’t like Comey investigating how the Russians influenced the campaign.
To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day

     Whistler's mother was aware of her son's love of art. But she still wanted the young man to go to military school, so as to have a career, and not shame the family name. 
    He forgave her, as sons invariably do.
    James McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray & Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother)" is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago for another month—the 1871 painting goes back to the Musee d'Orsay on June 11.
"Napoleon's Mother" by Antonio Canova
      Anna McNeill Whistler had moved to London in 1863, joining her son's household and forcing his mistress to find new lodging. He did not hold that against her either, however, painting this portrait: at first she was to be depicted standing, according to the placard. But the old woman grew tired and was allowed to sit and Whistler, sensing an opportunity, and influenced by Antonio Cadova's sculpture "Napoleon's Mother," went with it.
      Having just written about why the Mona Lisa is famous, it would be worthwhile to consider why Whistler's Mother, as it is commonly called, is also iconic.  It was immediately popular, which helps: Swinburne praised it. Thomas Carlyle commissioned Whistler to paint his own portrait after seeing it. 
Always a francophile, Whistler quipped, after the nation bought painting in 1891, that now he truly was a son of France now that the nation "owned his mother."
     In popular culture, she became motherhood personified. Or perhaps, rather, idealized. Maybe because the woman seems so placid, so pleasant, calm, silent, in repose, not glaring angrily at the viewer, but looking placidly away. Who we would all like our mothers to be, at least at times. The artist, who considered this one of his best paintings, agreed that his mother looks swell here. "Yes," he once said. "One does like to make one's mummy just as nice as possible." 

Colleges should supervise hazing instead of trying to ban it

     Last year, when my younger son told me he was joining a fraternity, I was pleased, but had one concern.
     "Good, I said. "I'm proud of you. Just don't let them kill you during the hazing," I said.
     "Dad," he replied. "Frats don't haze anymore. It's banned."
    "Of course it is," I said. "So when they're not hazing you, don't let them kill you. Just say, 'I'm sorry, but my father forbids me doing this.' You can blame me."
     That conversation came back last week, as charges were filed over a horrific incident at Penn State. Eighteen members of Beta Theta Pi were charged with manslaughter and other crimes for letting pledge Timothy J. Piazza, 19, die after drinking excessively, falling down stairs, and then being neglected for 12 hours.
     When I was his age, fraternities were a mystery. "You spend 18 years under the thumb of your parents," I'd say. "You finally get a taste of freedom and what's the first thing you do? Run to join an organization that demands you crawl across the quad at midnight, blindfolded, rolling an egg with your nose."
     Belonging to a frat wasn't a point of pride, it was an indictment. I felt this so strongly, I put a frat paddle in my freshman dorm window, bearing a decal showing a coat of arms— a knight holding his thumb to his nose and waggling his fingers, blowing a raspberry—and the letters GDI, meaning "God Damn Independent."

To continue reading, click here.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Saturday fun activity: Where IS this?

     Last week's return of the Saturday Fun Activity was supposed to be a one-time event. But so many readers were glad it was back, and since I have utterly nothing to say otherwise, I figure, well, why the hell not? 
     This is an architect's model that I noticed Friday. It struck me as the sort of thing that King Dale would immediately dredge out of the internet. But since he is sidelined this week, because he won last week, the challenge falls to you. Can you do it? It might be unfair to ask you to locate something that hasn't been built yet, but my gut tells me you're up for the task. 
      Still, I imagine some brainwork is in order, so a suitable gift is necessary. How about ... a signed, hardback copy of "You Were Never in Chicago," my memoir of the city. Place your guesses below. Good luck. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Deploy the big chicken

     The restaurant business is tough. You need good food. A good space. Good service. Good publicity. And a big heaping serving of good luck. Over and over and over. It's a wonder any of them ever work, and most don't. The pudding never sets, the miracle never arrives.  It's unfair to go to a place too soon, before they've worked out the kinks. But wait too long and it may be gone. 
     Who doesn't want a good restaurant a few steps from home? So I've been following with more than passing interest developments at the corner of Shermer and Walters in Northbrook, ground floor of a rounded brick office building just around the corner from where we live. Hope mingled with disappointment, rooting for something to work, invariably let down. 
     My Pie, a branch of venerable Chicago pizzeria, opened in 2009. The place had fans, though we were not one of them. We went twice. It wasn't bad, but Lou Malnatti's is practically across the street. I just wasn't willing to forgo a single Lou Malnatti's pizza in order to support this new place. Do that, and I'd always be short one Lou's pizza. I would never catch up. It lasted a little more than two years.
     In 2015, Agave, a generic Mexican restaurant opened. I knew it was doomed right away before stepping foot inside, because the sign was mounted crooked. They didn't even bother taking down the Mi Pie sign brackets. Really. If you can't get your damn sign straight, what can you do? 
    Charitable soul that I am, I went anyway. Ate some expensive, utterly unremarkable Mexican chow, set down by an indifferent waitress, in a room that was nearly unadorned.  
    Kind soul that I am, I held my tongue, until after it failed. Which took about a year.
     The spot is not even a block from my house. You have to have pity on your neighbors. Pity on restaurants. They're hanging off a cliff; don't jump on their fingers.
     Then, six months ago, Drumstix. I immediately went with my younger son and we happily fed. Moist chicken. Homemade baked beans. Mmm. We were satisfied but then, we are boys and boys tend to like food that can be chewed and swallowed. I hurried back with my wife, a far more discerning eater than I. She pointed out that the friend chicken breast that I celebrated for being juicy was in fact soggy. 
    "Fried chicken is supposed to be crispy," she said.  That wasn't a factor for me, because I scraped off the skin off before eating it.  But I saw her point.
     I was tempted to give the place another try -- sometimes restaurants take time to find their groove, and you need to give them a chance. Support the home team. But my wife was underwhelmed, end of story. There are many other places to eat. I almost pressed. But their signs are paper, tucked inside the windows. Really? Is that the best you can do? The My Pie lighting bracket is still up, illuminating nothing. I know I shouldn't, but I put an almost talismanic importance onto restaurant signs. They reveal the soul within. Months passed.
     And that might have been it. But a couple days ago, this 7-foot-tall chicken arrived out front, set off by his own little wrought iron fence.  "Did you see the chicken?" my wife said. Of course I did. Nothing more really needed to be said between us. We knew what we had to do immediately. You must respect effort like that. Particularly in Northbrook. I wish I had been at the zoning meeting where they finessed the chicken past the board. (Actually, it is on private land, the owner tells me, so zoning approval was not necessary. That explains its presence). 
      We saw the chicken Tuesday. On Thursday night we were at Drumstix for dinner. My wife liked her fish and chips far more than she had liked the chicken. I tried a half slab of ribs. And while it is no Green Street Smoked Meats, no Smoque, Not sweet, as I like ribs, but peppery, I also had no trouble polishing them off, sucking the bones. The place was sunlit and populated with diners, with families. The guy bussing our table was a kid we've known since kindergarten, and we caught up happily. The music was lively, trains passed by outside. We both felt pushed over the hump. We weren't smitten with the food, not yet anyway, but we'd give it another try. You sort of have to -- I mean, look at that chicken. It's a very big chicken.
     Or is it a rooster? The saying "If it crows, it's a rooster, if it lays an egg, it's a hen" is not enormously helpful in this situation. I'm sticking with a chicken because, frankly, a chicken is funnier. 
     Either way, exactly the sort of thing Northbrook so desperately needs.
    "Maybe I'll really like the chicken pot pie..." I said, hopefully. They also have red velvet cake on the menu. It is very hard to wreck red velvet cake. 
     Most people push at their dreams but feebly. A first draft, shopped around a few publishers and then consigned to a drawer forever. A half-assed effort, success tallies and then straight to collapse, surrender and bitterness. But some people roll up their sleeves, cock their heads, squint one eye, and deploy the big chicken. You have to respect that.


Thursday, May 11, 2017


The Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

     So much of life is mere luck. We work hard, and do our best, and are careful as we go about our business. We urge our children to be cautious too, then send them out into the world with nothing more protective than a flimsy veil of good wishes and sincere prayers. When the truth is, it's all out of our hands. Sometimes life comes down to how the dice tumble, to where you are sitting when the shadow falls. 
     A classmate of our older son's was killed last week in Denmark, someone he knew, in his circle of close friends freshman year, someone my wife and I had met at school, a dynamic 21-year-old young woman. Through no fault of her own -- the small boat she was riding in on in Copenhagen harbor was hit by a jet ski, killing her and another student from Massachusetts. A senseless, tragic accident. 
     I was talking to a friend at work about it, about the complex feelings of muted sorrow, general unease, and inexpressible sympathy for her parents, of not being able to imagine what it must be like for them, of not even being sure whether it is something others should presume to think about. She shared this poem with me, and I am sharing it with you.

Any Case

–  by Wislawa Szymborska
It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Closer. Farther away.
It happened, but not to you.

You survived because you were first.
You survived because you were last.
Because alone. Because the others.
Because on the left. Because on the right.
Because it was raining. Because it was sunny.
Because a shadow fell.

Luckily there was a forest.
Luckily there were no trees.
Luckily a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A frame, a turn, an inch, a second.
Luckily a straw was floating on the water.

Thanks to, thus, in spite of, and yet.
What would have happened if a hand, a leg,
One step, a hair away?

So you are here? Straight from that moment still suspended?
The net’s mesh was tight, but you? through the mesh?
I can’t stop wondering at it, can’t be silent enough.
How quickly your heart is beating in me.
    —translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and Sharon Olds

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Time to revise ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’

     Chicago was founded by Frenchmen.
     A fact so little recognized, it looks strange in print. But true. The city began with Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette, born in France, arriving in 1673 to preach le bon Dieu to Native Americans. His canoemate was fur trader Louis Jolliet, born in French Quebec. And don't forget Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the city's first permanent resident. He is usually thought of as black and Haitian, period, ignoring that Haiti was, at the time, like a third of the United States including Illinois, under the control of France.
     Even the word “Chicago” is a French mash of the Algonquin name for the place, having to do either with onions or bad smells (the word “skunk” is related).
     Why this history? Facebook erupted in cries of “Vive la France” at Sunday’s victory of centrist Emmanuel Macron over nationalist Marine Le Pen. Half of America rejoiced, congratulating French friends.
     “I think everybody in America was quite relieved, even more than in France,” said Marie Weber, brand specialist at the Alliance Fran├žaise, a Chicago cultural center.

To continue reading, click here. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Better than money

     I don't expect that many people visiting Los Angeles go with the specific intention of visiting the Wells Fargo History Museum on South Grand Avenue. I certainly didn't. It's small, and modest, and off the beaten track. I had never heard of it.
     But my accommodating brother-in-law, Don, took us by during a tour of his neighborhood, and I was entranced. 
     Not so much with the stage coach or the gold ingots or the other romantic Old West trappings -- the saddle bags, the telegraph, the copper scales and such. Those were nice.
     But I was captivated by the advertising promoting what is now commonplace: credit cards and 24-hour automated tellers, which were given women's names to make them less mechanized and forbidding. 
      People had to be taught how these systems worked, and reassured that their money would be safe in them. It was a long process — only recently did I stop counting the cash that an ATM spits out —what's the point? It's always correct.
     Credit cards are older than I am — they showed up in the late 1950s as a benefit for business travelers. But I remember the advent of ATMs. Edie and I still smile thinking of how, more than 30 years ago, we approached the first cash machine we had to use, cautiously and not without a trace of fear, as if it might bite us.  To see those twenties spitting out of a slot in a wall -- amazing!
    You really don't need cash much—every fast food joint, convenience store and taxicab accepts a credit or cash card. I'd hate to try to put a date on cash falling away almost entirely: five years? Ten? Fifteen, tops? The new ads, if they are even required, might say, "Better than money." 
    How will our grandchildren view the shift? Like an unimaginable bother? Similar to washing clothes against a rock? Or will hard currency and coinage seem tokens from a lost, romantic past, the way we view candle-lit homes and travel on horseback? Most likely they'll never think about it at all. 


Monday, May 8, 2017

All of Illinois is losing "custody."

Tuilleries garden, Paris.

     The statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is a dusty pre-sexual revolution relic. Demanding people to get married before they canoodle led to unwise, short-lived marriages. With couples getting married at older, more discerning ages, now only about a third of marriages fall apart.
     Still a lot.
     Despite the significance of divorce, I avoid the topic. Probably because it usually arrives at my doorstep in the form of an unhappy, divorcing spouse laying out his — it’s invariably a guy — tale of woe. I explain the need to present the other side, which surprises him, and he lets the matter drop. Just as well, because each divorce is unique if not strange, sad and petty, and so complicated it’s not worth the space to explain.
     Drew Vaughn is not a divorcing spouse, however, but a divorce attorney. He contacted me with actual news — news to me, anyway — that Illinois divorce law is going through a multiyear overhauling, and July 1 two key elements are changing —
custody and child support — and not for the better, according to him.
     “Good in concept, awful in practice,” he wrote in an email. “This new law intends to make people believe it is more fair by considering the income of both spouses. Unfortunately, I expect that this will incentivize parenting schedules built around financial concerns and not what’s best for the children.”
To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Do what the French do, but not how the French do it.

     Today is the deciding run-off vote in the French presidential election, pitting nationalist bigot Marine Le Pen against centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron.   
     All indications point to Macron winning against the opponent he dubbed "the high priestess of fear." And while shocks such as the one delivered in this country Nov. 8 are in the realm of possibility, smart money says the French, though also dissatisfied with politicians, are not willing to leap suicidally out of the European Union, like the Brits, nor hand their country over to foaming demagogues, as the United States has done. 
     They can learn from us. The hope of Americans learning from the French is a dicier proposition. We don't look abroad for answers much, and when we do, we tend to limit our thinking and cherry pick our points, as this column from nearly a decade ago reminds us. Notice the foreshadowing of this week's health care debacle. 


     Holding two thoughts in your head can be a challenge. I know -- I can't tell you how many times I've put out the flag because it's a federal holiday, then later wondered when the mail would show up, before making the connection -- oh yeah, federal holiday, no mail.
      At least the two thoughts collide, eventually. Some people, there just isn't room for a pair. They can hold tight to one idea, if they concentrate, but should a second concept arrive, well, the first one slips from grasp and is lost.
     Sunday, I wrote about nuclear power, about how John McCain, when he could force himself to pause from damning Barack Obama as a socialist, said he would build 45 nuclear reactors and put the waste, well, somewhere.
     That seemed to me to be highly unrealistic, and struck a friend in the nuclear industry as "crazy." We couldn't build that many reactors.
     Readers, needless to say, rallied behind the infinite capacity of the United States to do anything, in theory.
     "So Neil, France could do it but the United States can't?" a reader wrote. "We can't do something the French can?"
     In a word? No, we can't. Yes, France has 59 nuclear reactors generating 87 percent of its electricity. But France is -- prepare yourself for a bad word! -- a socialist state. The French electric utility, Electricite de France, was nationalized in 1946, and while shares were offered for public sale a few years back, the government still owns 85 percent of the nation's nuclear power plants.
     So nuclear power works -- in socialist France. But we hate socialism, remember? It might as well be terrorism, to hear how the Republicans throw the word around, no further elaboration necessary. Although we didn't seem to hate it when we were nationalizing banks and mortgage lenders a few weeks back.
     "This 'can't do' attitude of yours stinks," the reader continued. "The United States has done anything it has set its mind to. We walked on the moon in less than 10 years after JFK proposed it."

   Again, that was the government. The moon landing was another socialist boondoggle, right up there with Canadian health care. And the 'can't do' attitude isn't mine; it belongs to those who -- rather unpatriotically, in my mind -- believe our government is inherently bad and must be starved to death until it improves.
     It's people like John McCain who damn, for instance, any government effort to fix our tragically deficient health care system as "socialist" out of one corner of their mouths while simultaneously proposing grand, expensive new government energy endeavors out of the other. (It's a very selective habit -- farm subsidies? God's given right. Safety standards? The intrusive hand of Big Brother).
     The French -- as the reader accused me of believing -- are not "better than us." But like all Europeans, and most industrialized countries for that matter, they understand that certain areas, such as roads, nuclear power and health care, are the duty of government.
     France not only tops the world when it comes to generating nuclear power. It also has the sixth-lowest infant mortality rate -- 3.3 deaths per 1,000 live births. The United States is 29th in infant mortality, tied with Poland and Slovakia, with 6.7 deaths, twice France's average.
     And in case you think that means the United States is twice as good as France, please go back and re-read the preceding paragraph, slowly. Or ask a friend to talk you through it before writing to me.


     Did you notice my restraint when dealing with the French? I was bearing in mind, as Napoleon said, "the French complain of everything and always." But let's end with Robert Morley, who sums it up perfectly:
     The French are a logical people, which is one reason the English dislike them so intensely. The other is that they own France, a country which we have always judged to be much too good for them.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 20, 2008