Monday, September 25, 2017

If you're free to stand, you're also free to kneel

     The flag in front of my house was tangled Sunday morning, wrapped around the pole.  I hate when that happens, so paused to set it right.
     After doing so, I said the Pledge of Allegiance. It's a powerful little ditty, both nostalgic and prescriptive, something we recited in grade school, but also something outlining the nation as it should be. I'm sure you know it:
     I pledge allegiance
     To the flag
     Of the United States of America
     And to the republic
     For which it stands.
     One nation.
     That last part is supposed to be "Under God." But "Under God" was inserted by Congress in 1954, trying to show that the Soviet Union isn't the only government that can interfere with its citizens' sense of the divine. Sometimes, feeling charitable, I'll say "Under God." Other times, feeling feisty, I won't. Hey, it's a free country, or used to be.
     I also registered a second protest. Instead of putting my right palm over my patriotic heart, I kept it balled in a fist in my pocket, to show my personal objection to the doofus my beloved country elected president.
     The guy who Friday tried to whip up his aggrieved white guy base by calling on football teams to fire players who register quiet protests similar to the one described above.
     "Wouldn't you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired! He's fired!'" Trump said.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

RIP, Frank Sugano

     The word Maureen O'Donnell used to describe Frank Sugano, in Sunday's typically spot-on obituary of the Sun-Times copy editor, who died last month, is "meticulous," and I have a story that illustrates why she used that word.
     When I was hired by the Sun-Times—along with Patricia Smith, the renown poet—our job was to be the staff of The Adviser, a midweek publication intended to give practical household tips to readers: how to clean your garage, how to grow a better lawn, stuff like that.
     I wrote a story, I'd say in late 1987. about what to do if you get a speeding ticket. It began something like this:
     Everyone has had the experience. You're driving along, not a care in the world, then glance in the rearview mirror, notice the flashing red and blue Mars lights, feel that sinking in your gut while your mind grapples with one thought:    Busted.

     Frank Sugano called me over—this was before email remember. He was concerned, he said, about a word usage.
     Which word? I asked.
    "Busted," he said. Isn't that drug terminology?
    I gazed steadily at him. I was 26 remember.
     "What word would you suggest instead?" I asked. 
    Frank thought a moment. 
    "Caught," Sugano said. 
     "Caught," I repeated, without emotion. I gazed at him some more, assessing my options. I didn't realize it, but he was just a few years senior to myself, having left the Tokyo branch of Stars and Stripes two years earlier. Erring on the side of prudence, I told him, slowly and measuredly, that I thought "busted" works fine in this context. But he was the copy editor, and of course he should do whatever he thinks right.
      When the next Adviser came out, my story was on the front page with a headline, in big letters: "BUSTED!" I'll have to dig in the basement and see if I can find it. But I still remember, 30 years later, how, with palpating heart, I had flipped to the story itself, to see if the second paragraph had been changed to "Caught."
     It hadn't. "Busted" remained, despite Frank Sugano's concerns. A good copy editor knows when to raise a question, and knows when to yield the field, and Frank Sugano was a good copy editor.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

'Babywearing' fuzzy fun until tot gets hurt


     Fast-dwindling September is, among other things, Baby Safety Month, as the makers of eClip reminded me Friday. eClip, besides looking odd at the start of a sentence is, in their words, "an innovative first-of-its-kind device that attaches inside the car and alerts parents via Smartphone app if they accidentally walk away from their car without their baby."
     This is in reaction to babies being left accidentally—and in at least one case, not accidentally—to die in hot cars, a horror documented by my pal Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post and addressed here.
     Safety requires constant vigilance, to quote Mad-Eye Moody, and you can't guard against perils you aren't familiar with. So as a service to those readers still lugging around their children, as opposed to desperately wishing to hear from them, I'm reprinting a column from four years ago about the very real risk of baby carriers.

    A newspaper is a dialogue, a chorus of voices conveying and commenting upon the news of the day.
     So I am not correcting a Thursday story in the Splash pages - "That's a wrap" about "wearable baby carriers" - as much as elaborating on some caveats that were online but, alas, not in print, and adding a dimension to the piece that did not, for instance, contain the phrase "baby airbag," which my wife uses to refer to carriers.
     This is based on hard experience, one January day nearly 18 years ago, when she left our apartment on Pine Grove with 3-month-old Ross in one of those soft, front-facing carriers - a backpack you wear on your chest that you slide your baby into.
     She was only walking a block, to visit a friend. But it was a block of Chicago city sidewalk, with plenty of cracks and crevices, and she caught her toe on one and pitched forward, breaking her fall with her knee, an outstretched palm and our baby's head.
     I was at home, having taken time off work to do my share of diaper changing. I don't remember the phone call - I can't say with any certainty whether she was composed or hysterical, though I would put my chips down on the latter.
     What I remember clearly, vividly, as if it were a scene in a black-and-white Ingmar Bergman movie, was grabbing the empty blue stroller - she must have told me to bring it - and running full bore the several blocks to St. Joseph Hospital, pushing the empty baby carriage, with no idea whether our happy little urban homestead was about to be plunged into some medical nightmare of irreparable cranial damage.
     A slight skull fracture, which took sitting for six hours in windowless rooms for the hospital to ascertain, via X-ray and CAT scans. My wife's main memory is of the CAT scan operator asking, "Can't you make him hold still?" and her answering, "He's a baby."
     The other moment I can recall from that day is, toward the end of our Big Hospital Day, when one of the endless series of doctors who kept hurrying into the room, burst in with a blustery, "So how's our little patient?" to which I replied, with all the gravitas I could manage, "Doctor, he's incontinent and babbling!" which caused a flash of concern over the physician's face until he remembered that all 3-month-old babies are incontinent and babbling.
     Ross was fine, the shadow of fate that passed over us kept moving and darkened some other poor soul's home.
    My wife threw the baby carrier away and became a one-woman truth squad against them. Still, because people are biased by their own experiences, I didn't want to unfairly question baby carriers' utility. There are risks associated with strollers, too. At crossings, there is a tendency to nudge them into the street—"testing the waters," I call it—despite passing traffic, and I know that babies have been grievously injured that way.
     But a little checking shows the risks of baby carriers is not limited to my family. In 2010, the Consumer Product Safety Commission warned of the risk of suffocation to young infants in baby slings—14 deaths in a 20-year period, with three dying in 2009. Most were under 4 months old.
     Consumer Reports found three dozen serious injuries to babies in slings, and urged parents "Don't use slings at all."
     Even the most cuddly, fuzzy mommy website about baby carriers has a list of warnings. TBW, "The" warns of babies falling out of carriers and urges practice with a doll.
     "Most of the reported accidents involving babywearing are due to the wearer tripping and falling," it cautions.
     Among its suggestions:
     Careful going through doorways.
     Don't cook or handle hot liquids, for obvious reasons. Mind that the tail of your baby sling doesn't trail into flames or get stuck in closing doors.
     Don't wear a baby carrier in moving cars; it's no substitute for a baby seat. "For playing sports or cycling, use your discretion: What would happen to your baby if you were knocked over?" it asks. "How much is your baby being bounced or shaken?"
     I would say "use your discretion" is a naive underestimation of just how god-awful stupid people can be, and substitute, "Never bicycle with your baby in a front carrier."
     I hadn't planned on writing about baby carriers. But I felt morally obligated to inject a note of warning. Babies are resilient; they aren't as fragile as new parents fear. But caution is still a good idea, and you can't avoid perils you don't know about.

               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 15, 2013

Friday, September 22, 2017

Brains vs. Brawn: 90 years ago Tunney v, Dempsey shocked Soldier Field


     Nobody could hear.
     The roar of 100,000—or 120,000, or even 140,000, depending on what figure you believe—people was so loud that all that could be heard on the radio was a continuous howl.
     Few could see. A $5 ticket bought a seat on a bench up to 200 yards away. Those in ringside seats—which cost $40 and extended 100 rows back, stretching the concept of "ringside"—jockeyed to see Jack Dempsey, with a right hook followed by a flurry of six punches, send Gene Tunney sprawling in the seventh round of the heavyweight championship of the world of boxing, a sport which had become legal in Illinois only the year before, about the same time construction was completed at the venue, Soldier Field.
     It was Sept. 22, 1927.
     Tunney's back hit the canvas. Dempsey hovered nearby, right arm cocked.
     The "Long Count" as it became known is perhaps the most famous 14 seconds in boxing, if not all professional sport. But why it mattered, why those people were screaming so furiously, deserves remembering too.
     Dempsey was considered a brute, a caveman, "The Manassa Mauler" who boxed with a three-day growth of beard to enhance the effect. He won the heavyweight champion in 1919 from Jess Willard, breaking his cheekbones, and became part of 1920s celebrity culture, alongside Babe Ruth, Red Grange and Bobby Jones. His fights were legend: Dempsey, knocked out of the ring by Luis Firpo in 1923—a moment captured in oils by George Bellows—pushed back by newsmen and going on to win the fight.
     But Dempsey was also reviled as a "slacker"—he had avoided military service in World War I—until he first met Gene Tunney in Philadelphia in 1926. Tunney battered him, and won the fight on a decision, taking all 10 rounds. But Dempsey won the hearts of sports fans with a single quip.
     "What happened?" wailed Dempsey's wife, the actress Estelle Taylor, rushing to him afterward.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Don't kill yourself before hitting the Ritz

     Two people killed themselves on the Metra Milwaukee North Line this week. At least two people; two that I know of. A 53-year-old man stepped off the platform Sunday into the path of an Amtrak express at Northbrook station, a block from my house. And someone Tuesday at Western. Two so far this week. It's only Thursday.
      The suicides prompted me re-visit one of my more controversial columns, this irreverent gripe about people leaping in front of the train, written just before 9/11 gave us a far greater horror to contemplate.
      If you are the grief-stricken relative of a family member who committed suicide, let me warn you up front: skip this column. It is not sympathetic. Or, rather, it is not sympathetic to you, but rather to the other people unwillingly drawn into your tragedy, albeit temporarily. 
    If you insist on continuing on, remember: I'm sorry for your loss. Truly. And I know the little tableau of imagined ritzy suicide at the end shrugs off the agony, desperation and mental illness that drives a person to take his own life. I've written about train suicides with more compassion in the past, trying to encourage Metra to do a better job helping suicidal commuters. 
    But not everything is for everybody. And being hurt doesn't make you right. This is for those who sit on the  train and wait, or who are compelled to clean up the mess afterwards, and for the mothers with their kids out walking Sunday who had to confront this jarring horror. They deserve sympathy too.    
     Speaking of which, if you notice that the talk of martinis at the end reminds you that I am a different person than I was 16 years ago, that is true. But I certainly can still relate to what this guy was trying to say. If I didn't, I wouldn't repost it.

     Why can't people kill themselves at home? That's only polite. Why all this leaping in front of commuter trains, during the morning rush hour no less. At least wait until lunch; what's the big hurry?
     I suppose this sounds callous to you. Well, you were not cooling your heels with me for an hour Thursday morning on the Milwaukee North Line while the earthly remains of some troubled soul were hosed off the track at Forest Glen. I'm sorry, but it doesn't strike me as an occasion for violins and mawkish sentiment. Suicide is cowardly and inconsiderate enough in the standard, Roman, warm-bath-and-a-straight-razor fashion. Add to it the public inconvenience of thousands of people who are in no way responsible for your disappointments in life, and it is not an act deserving of sympathy.
     At least I assume it was suicide, to give the benefit of the doubt. I suppose it could have been one of those people who blunder blithely in front of an express. Though which is worse? To toss your life away willfully, in despair? Or to lose it through stupidity? Frankly, I'd take despair. It sounds better. Ten years from now, my boys would rather say, while pretending to be dark, troubled teens in order to pick up girls, "My dad leapt in front of a train when I was 5," as opposed to, "My dad leaned down to tie his shoe and his head was an inch over the train tracks." Not a James Deanish way to go.
     Perhaps this is a failure of empathy on my part. I just can't imagine, even were I the most wretched, loathed, miserable person—Mike McCaskey, say—wanting to do myself in.
     Suicide is so illogical. It flies in the face of the only undisputed fact we have about life: It's short, relatively. The universe was born, chugged on for billions upon billions of years then, pop, you show up for, what, 100 years, max, if you take care of yourself. Then you're gone, perhaps in front of a rush-hour train, and the universe shrugs and skips merrily along for billions of years more without you.
     This would seem an argument for staying alive. No matter how painful, difficult, unpleasant, woesome your existence, it's just a tiny flash, and then you'll be back to the comforting void from whence you came. Patience. "We give birth astride a grave," as Beckett says.
     But even if you're going to do it—I mean, come on. The train? Granted, it's over quick. Over for you. But think about everyone else. First, you get sprayed over 100 feet of track, and some poor person has to go about collecting you from between the ties. Trust me, it isn't pretty. I glanced up at the wrong moment, as the train slowly rolled through Forest Glen, and saw about 25 train officials and city workers standing around, plus four uncomfortable looking firemen straining to lug a black plastic body bag past about a dozen small squares of white sheet covering the various lumps of offal strewn among the weeds.
     We shudder at the thought of state-sponsored suicide. It seems very Dutch, very contrary to the sanctity of life. But the way people are leaping in front of commuter trains, Metra is fast becoming a sort of de facto government vehicle of death--and being governmental, it doesn't work all that well. The Grim Reaper Postal Service. Would it really be that bad to, say, set up a pile driver behind the medical examiner's office on Harrison Street? The lovelorn and the depressed could show up, pay the $40 fee, climb into a fresh body bag, and two burly aides would toss the bag under the pile driver for the quick clomp. No fuss. No mess. No choice between little Billy making the grisly discovery in the basement, leading to years of psychotherapy and a lot of bad literature, or disrupting the sacred routines of thousands of innocent working mopes like myself.
     Getting through the day is tough enough without witnessing the mortal remains of somebody who wasn't up to the task being tweezered away. It undermines, if slightly, the grip that we keep on life. Who hasn't thought about suicide? God knows I have. I've even plotted out the best way to do it. You check into the Ritz Carlton Hotel—a suite, of course. It isn't as if you have to worry about the bill. You get yourself comfortable, admire the view, then pop downstairs to the Atrium Bar and have Michael whip up one of his martinis (Bombay Sapphire, straight up, with a twist is my choice, but feel free to bow to your own tastes; it's your funeral). Then head to the dining room and begin with the cheese course—I know it's supposed to be dessert, but you're always so full after the meal, and the cheeses are so great there: fresh, fanciful, displayed with little cards holding their names, serene as a Joseph Cornell box. Better to have at it with hunger unabated.
     And that's about as far along as I've planned my suicide. I figure, when dinner's over, you stagger up to your room and—heck, it's a waste not to use it. Those big white pillows at the Ritz—so comfortable. So you go to sleep and the morning comes and everything looks better in the morning. Room service sends up fresh coffee and a $15 omelet—the wince at the cost, a sign of life returning—and soon you'll run back home to cook up a story the wife might believe. She'll find out—wives always find out—and be mad at wasting the money, but you have a handy rejoinder: "Would you rather I were dead?"
     Thus gluttony saves another man's life, and I would recommend it to anybody contemplating the abyss. It may be a bad thing to be living for your next meal, but at least you're living for something.

                 —Originally published in the Sun-Times Aug. 26, 2001

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Stephen Douglas "despicable" but statue should remain

Sherry Williams at the Stephen Douglas Memorial site.
Stephen Douglas Memorial in Bronzeville.
     "I have not a good thing to say about Stephen Douglas," said Sherry Williams, sitting a few steps from his tomb in Bronzeville.
     I've come to this memorial to the Illinois senator who ran for president against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, at the invitation of Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society. For the past four years the society has occupied the former keeper's cottage at the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial, just east of 35th and Cottage Grove. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency tripled their rent, so the group is forced to move their offices, and their collection of rolling pins and quilts, books and photographs and ledgers from defunct African American funeral homes.
       Though with statues of Robert E. Lee being pulled down, our conversation first turned to Douglas, a slave holder, rendered larger than life — a 10-foot statue elevated on a 46-foot column. She is no fan.
     "It's hard to put Stephen A . Douglas on one peg," she said. "But if I had to choose, I would say he was despicable. He did not take very good care of his plantation. Many of his slaves were ill-fed and died by conditions that could have been remedied."
     Could this edifice be swept away in the passions of the moment?
     "It was a real concern," she said. "I had spoken to several community members who thought, what a great opportunity to have an open conversation about just what that means, about Stephen Douglas being a slave owner. A conversation that's been held here the entire time I've been here. Hence, I'm wearing an 1860s dress."
     A relief to hear that; I had noticed her outfit, her headscarf and calico dress. But "are you wearing a costume?"

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

But it's so big!

     It took about eight hours to drive down from Ontonagon, Michigan, what with the stop at Held's, in Slinger, Wisconsin, to stock up on beef jerky, string cheese and bourbon brats. Four days gone, just enough to give home a sense of unfamiliarity. "Hey, I live here? Niiiiiice...."
     Back in the office at last, I fired up the iMac and checked in on what was happening. Eric Zorn, on his Facebook page, noted the removal of one of those art installations that sometimes appear in Pioneer Court, the open space just south of Tribune Tower. Eric posted a photo of a crane removing this massive tableau, writing:

     Good riddance, "Return Visit" -- the view from our conference room as this enormous piece of kitsch comes down for its trip to Peoria. 
    No argument here. I was not a fan of "Return Visit," though I did rather like Johnson's "Forever Marilyn," a Brobdingnagian Marilyn Monroe in her famous "Seven Year Itch" pose that had been there in 2008. Somehow the film icon gave herself over to rough caricature more readily than does the 16th president. 
    Though I suppose artistic intent must factor in somehow. What if this piece, or the humongous fawn that popped up over the summer on the banks of the Chicago River, just across from the Sun-Times, are supposed to be these godawful giant refugees from a thrift store bin? A small touch—Lincoln's unseen right hand snaking into the back pocket of the distracted tourist and removing his wallet, a microwave oven-sized pile of poop behind the fawn–might have utterly redeemed them.  
      I will admit I dislike the fawn less than I disliked the "Return Visit," perhaps because it seemed a more truthful rendition, while Honest Abe and his sweater-wearing interlocutor have the just-off air of humans made from butter at the State Fair. The fawn, appearing suddenly and without fanfare, induced a sense of wonder and affection. I'm glad it's there. And I've seen worse—far, far worse, such as the bronze children, their features too small for their heads, which in turn are too small for their bodies, scattered around the park in downtown Northbrook, like some kind of evil spirits lurking by the shrubs.
    Though "dislike" might be too strong a word. I snapped some pictures, but never would have thought of "Return Visit" again, nor probably noticed that it had disappeared if I passed next week.  Art touches you, leave an impression, and non-art, well, it's just there.
     Eric's use of "kitsch" to describe the thing intrigued me. Kitsch is one of those realms, like pornography, that we know something belongs to when we see it, yet is hard to define in general. My full Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1978, doesn't even try, going from "Kitling" (a small cat, a word worthy of reviving) to "Kitten." But I suspected it might have snuck into the Supplement, and there it was: "Art or objets d'art characterized by worthless pretentiousness." 
     Hmmm. "Worthless pretentiousness." That doesn't sound right. If I had to start naming kitsch objects, I would suggest kewpie dolls, ceramic cat figurines, black velvet paintings of Indian chiefs shedding a tear, shot glasses in the shape of barrels with the names of states, sold at gas stations. "Pretentiousness" doesn't seem right. "Lack of ambition" would be better. Maybe I can find a better definition.
     The online Merrian-Webster seems to hit closer to the mark than the Oxford: "something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality." Under that definition, "Return Visit" is kitsch, first in concept—a 25-foot-tall painted bronze Abe Lincoln giving directions to a tourist—an idea simple to the point of idiocy, without a redeeming sly wink, or subtle subversion. Lincoln looks like a make-up screen test for a character in "Planet of the Apes" and the tourist is the most anodyne white individual imaginable. 
     How could this piece have been salvaged? A clever title would have helped considerably—"Now the Dubuffet isn't the most Godawful Public Art in Chicago" leaps to mind.  "The Wrigley Building is Right in Front of You, Asshole" is even better.
     I think I know what's going on here. Anticipating a potential need to know what this thing is called, I snapped a picture of the plaque. See if you can spot the problem:

    It's "atelier," right? The Seward Johnson Atelier. Which Webster's defines, rather thickly, as "an artist's or designer's studio or workroom," missing the sense of grandiosity to the term. It's as if I referred to my books and columns as an "oeuvre," which I would never do, because, while largely correct ("a substantial body of work constituting the lifework of a writer") it carries the stench of the self-importance and academia.
     Looking at Johnson's Wikipedia page, I learned a few germane facts: first, that the artist is 87 years old. Second, that he is the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, the founder of Johnson & Johnson. Third, that his work has been labeled "kitsch" by critics for at least 30 years.
     Which, taken together, must stay the lash of criticism, at least as wielded by me. Heirs of vast fortunes are not famous for their depth, their artistic heft, and Johnson's biography hints at a life of earnest amateurism. Harsh, perhaps, but I doubt many 87-year-olds are navigating the deepest recesses of the Internet, which my blog must qualify as a denizen of the lower realms. I hope that isn't condescending or ageism — the truth is, you create a public display, even if you are a kindergartener, you invite critique. But it might get back to him, and, kind soul that I am, I wince at the thought of him being hooted out the door.  There's no reason, the point being made to my regular readers, we can't end on a positive note, for the benefit of the artist. Something like:
     Chicago will be a less artistic place this week than it has been since Nov. 1, 2016, when Seward Johnson's spectacularly wonderful "Return Visit," was installed on the Tribune Tower's Pioneer Court. The massive bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and a regular salt-of-the-earth citizen of the Prairie State, which must rank alongside the Art Institute lions,"Cloud Gate," and the Picasso as gems of the city, will be sorely missed, and we can only pray that Rahm Emanuel finds the $100 million the statue is surely worth, to purchase Johnson's masterpiece and return it to its rightful home.
      There, if you must afflict the old gent with a portion of this column, share that with him. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Living and not living

    The forest teems with life, but also with death, side by side, the rotting mossy stump right next to the fresh sapling, last season's falling leaves and needles providing mulch for this year's new growth. Wandering the woods in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on the shores of Lake Superior Sunday, you can't help but marvel at the great wheel, life and death, each feeding into the other, and to feel grateful to be part of it yet, for the moment, still alive, along with the green trees and singing birds and blooming flowers, privileged to observe the decay we will all be a part of, eventually.
     I was pleased to notice fellow animals also very much alive, such as a noisy blue jay and this yellow-striped garter snake, who slithered by, then paused, motionless, as if posing for me. I placed the end of my stick three inches from his head. He didn't flinch.
      Though I also came upon animals who have let go their grip on this sweet life, such as the skeletons below, which I'm guessing are fawns who never made it to adulthood. I felt solemn in their presence, actually removed my hat and covered my heart. Hokey, but there you have it.
     And down the scale, I contributed to the life-into-death process, repeatedly, as the touch of a mosquito—frequent this time of year—immediately led to its miracle of aviation being rendered crumpled and bloodied and flicked away. Sorry pal, you picked the wrong spot for lunch. Wonder only goes so far.
     Of course everything that wasn't alive hadn't necessarily died, such as the artificial flowers above which, years ago, some property owner placed at the entrance to his lake house to give the spot a flourish that he obviously wasn't finding in sufficient abundance in the nature he was supposedly escaping to enjoy. There were a lot of them, an a plastic flowering tree in a wicker pot. The mind reels.
     A reminder of what we think of as aesthetic involves more than just what we see. There is a component of cognition, of understanding. It isn't that the flowers weren't colorful, and some might find them pretty. Until you thought about plastic flowers in the depth of a vibrant green wood. Why anyone would want to mar the living forest with this plastic display of fading unlife was a complete mystery to me, and I considered walking up the road to inquire. But nobody would probably be home and, even if they were, I probably wouldn't like the answer.  I snuffed the little spark of unkind judgment that had flickered within and continued on my way.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Annals of the physical world

     As a connoisseur of ballyhoo, I had to admire this advertising display atop an "L" station entrance on Chicago Avenue. As if it weren't huge and garish enough, the pieces of maki gently spin. 
     And I don't mean "garish" in a bad way. You have to be impressed by the size of the thing, its colorful confidence. Especially,, in our computer age, that it is so very real, so completely non-virtual, and a sign that the tangible world has not yet given up its place. It's almost a nod to history, to all those enormous Times Square billboards puffing smoke and presenting gigantic Coke bottles and such. This massive maki must have cost a fortune. But then again, Grubhub has got the dough. Founded in 2004 in Chicago, the business, which allows customers to order food at home from restaurants, even those that don't deliver, is worth over a billion dollars.
    I think I like the concept as much as the execution. The idea that someone, at some meeting, probably in Chicago, leaned forward and said, "We're going to put an enormous quintet of sushi roll pieces and a pair of vast chopsticks atop a subway station entrance. People will really sit up and notice that!" And everyone in the room murmured assent. "Yes! Yes! That's it! Let's do it!" And they did, create the thing, and people did notice it, or at least I noticed. Good work. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Birch walking stick

     It's hard to take a photograph of a walking stick. They're long and thin, so if you pull in close to show the detail, the top gnawed by a beaver, the smooth, sun-bleached texture of the wood, you miss the tapering length. Pull back to show the length, however, such as my stick nestling where it usually lives, tucked against a bookcase in my office, and you miss the cracks and knots and wormholes.
     The stick isn't in the corner of my office today. It's where I found it, in 2011, along the shores of Lake Superior in Ontonagon, Michigan, tapping into the sand as I wander the shore, or scraping against a gravel road, or probing the forest floor.
     The thing is a joy to carry. It is very light. Birch, I believe, bleached light gray by the sun and buffeted by the waves, though I took my Gerber knife and shaved off a few stumps of long-ago branches. 
     A stick is helpful for hiking, not so much for support—the stick might snap if I really leaned on it—but for balance. It provides a sense of where the ground is, as odd as that sounds. It's more like a metronome, counting out the beat, like a conductor's baton, guiding the symphony of a good hike. Thus lightness is important because otherwise its something you have to haul. 
    And I suppose, like a scepter, a hiking stick adds a bit of ceremony to what otherwise might be a simple walk. You take the stick, you're planning on putting in some serious mileage, in your own mind if not in verifiable reality.  
     I've thought about drilling a hole in the fat end and adding a leather cord, a loop that could go around my wrist. I've thought about burning a mark for each year I've come here to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—five this year. But that would take away from the pristine nature of the stick. The tip is split, and I worry about it splitting more, and have thought about taping it, or using something decorative—winding copper wire maybe. But in the end I leave it. If it's going to split it's going to split. There are other sticks, though I've never seen one as perfectly suited to its purpose as this one. It just feels good in your hand.
    In the mornings, I wake up far earlier than the friends who gather there—my not drinking might be a factor here—and so pull on some rag wool hiking sock and my Keen's, grab the stick and head out of the door of the little cabin—"Squirrel"—that tradition puts me in. Two routes. Either along the lake or down the drive, to the main road, through the trees and then veering into the woods themselves. The shore is sandier, so the footing is less sure, but has the advantage that it is impossible to get lost. Not so the woods. It's odd to be in actual woods, as opposed to the trails I'm used to in parks. Here you can indeed get lost, and I have. The phone is a blank blue grid, the road, a memory, somewhere over there. Or was it over there?
     Just lost enough to focus my attention, orienting myself where the hell I am, and wondering if I'll end up blundering into the depth of the UP and God-forbid miss breakfast. But I always find the road again. 
     Anyway, if Trump did some godawful thing Friday afternoon, and you're wondering why you aren't reading about it here, it's because I spent seven hours driving up here with my friend Rory Fanning, a former Army Ranger turned anti-imperialist, who wrote a good book about walking across America to benefit the foundation of his unit mate, Pat Tillman. I'd tell you the incredible thing he does at the end of the journey, but that would spoil the surprise ending. Buy the book.
    I've written about coming here, now and then, so won't belabor the point. It's good to love your routine, your work, your family and your regular life. And it's good to drop everything and get away, even for a few days, to a good place, with good friends, taking with you a good stick, if you have one. 


Friday, September 15, 2017

Dan Biss: "This is the moment to do it."

     Choosing the Republican belief that has most damaged our country would be a challenge, like picking just one chocolate from a newly opened box of Fannie May, though without the pleasure.
     Would it be the lie that immigrants are bad for the country? The denial of any science that conflicts with corporate interests? Or maybe the notion that law should enforce Christian orthodoxy?
     How to choose? There are so many!
     Myself, I would go for the insistence that government is bad and politicians are bad. The mendacious mantra that gets amateurs like Donald Trump elected: Look, our man is untainted by experience.
     Anti-government cynicism is contagious. After Illinois elected sour multi-millionaire Bruce Rauner as governor, Democrats looked at his dismal record of failure then served up its own pair of I’ve-never-done-this-but-I’d-like-to-try candidates, J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy.
     It’s easy to overlook a candidate hurrying after them, boosted by government experience but handicapped by his lack of a personal fortune: state Sen. Dan Biss. I mentioned him in a column and he phoned.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Flash: column has impact

     I like to say that my writing never changes anything. First because it's true, not just for me, but generally. The entire liberal media speaking in a strong, clarion voice couldn't stop Donald Trump from being elected. One voice is just a twig snapping in a bonfire the size of a barn. Besides, there are enough self-important blowhards in this business; recognizing the lack of impact—the chorus of crickets as I think of it—is a bolster against ego. 
      I'm okay with that. I'm not trying to topple administrations or drag hidden wrongdoing into the light. Other folks are busy doing that. And I'm not inclined to try. What I'm trying to do is write something interesting, to tell you something you don't already know. Corruption has a sameness to it that, frankly, bores me.
    This story started 31 years ago, before I was on the staff of the paper. I wrote freelance for the school guide, the five-times-a-year insert in the paper, and wrote a story about the Chicago public high school in the basement of the Cook County Jail. I don't know where the idea came from; someone probably suggested it. The story became one of my favorites, for the unexpectedness of a high school in Cook County Jail, and for what the teachers had to say, and what the students were being taught. The story stayed with me, lingered, and when I realized that 30 years had almost gone by, I wanted to go back.
    Only I couldn't get permission. Tom Dart was mad at me for a quip I made about his mayoral run—or so I thought—and refused permission. But I eventually broke him down—I am nothing if not dogged—and then went to work on the CPS bureaucracy, which was even more determined to thwart me. I went to an editorial board meeting to corner CPS head Forrest Claypool, and wrote a blog post denouncing his underling for ducking my calls.
    It worked, eventually, and I got into the jail. I had sworn that my visit would be benign--I wanted to write about the school, the teachers and the students, period. "This isn't 60 Minutes," I told them.
    So I almost felt bad when disgruntled teachers began calling me, in the wake of my visit, complaining of poor management, of students being given credit for classes they never attended. I included their accusations in my story—I felt I had to—but also felt like I had deceived the CPS administrators: here I had promised this light, off-beat story, and suddenly charges are being leveled.
    Dumb of me, I know. But there you go.
    Anyway, the accusations made by those brave teachers started the gears turning for an Inspector General investigation, the results of which my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick revealed in the paper Wednesday, detailing hundreds of students being given credit for classes they never took including, most startlingly, one student who was listed as attending classes after he had been killed. 
     I'll be honest—as much as I believe nothing happens due to the stuff I write, I still felt proud to have gotten the ball rolling. I always say, you pull at the smallest, the most obscure and remote thread, and it can take you interesting places.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Art in Chicago: "You're surrounded by it everywhere"

"Balloon Dog (Blue)" Jeff Koons (Broad Museum, Los Angeles) 

     If you put a gun to my head and demanded that I name three living Chicago artists I’d be a dead man. Oh, I’d reel off Tony Fitzpatrick and Hebru Brantley easily enough. Then “boom!” because I couldn’t think of a third to save my life.
     Which I’d be too embarrassed to admit if I didn’t suspect that this is two contemporary artists more than most readers could manage.
     Chicago is not really an art town. Yes, Expo Chicago, the International Exposition of Contemporary & Modern Art, kicks off Wednesday at Navy Pier. And yes, we have wonderful public art, highlighted last month with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Picasso sculpture. A Miro and a Calder, that Oldenburg bat column and Dubuffet’s “Snoopy in a Blender,” which really isn’t its name, but neither is “The Bean” the real name of Anish Kapoor’s mirrored legume.
     Except for the Bean, which I love, I used to think dimly of Chicago’s public art, particularly the Picasso. But I try to actually listen to the people I talk with, and Michael Darling, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, convinced me that this stuff is actually important.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

From Katrina emerged a hero

     I'm afraid to even whisper this. But here goes: do you think the American public was, oh I don't know, let down by Hurricane Irma? Felt, in its secret heart, that they were promised this epic storm, this unparalleled disaster, and the severe weather that gripped Florida, damaging though it was, fell far short? As if the whole thing were an entertainment, a show, an extravaganza, that never quite pulled together.
     Not the people living it, of course. They were relieved, somewhat, although the power outages and flooding and such were no doubt trial enough for them.  
     No one would admit saying this—I'm certainly not. Saying it, I mean. But my gut tells me the feeling is there, just below the surface. 
     Without the promised once-in-a-millennia storm, cable news had to time-fill and tap-dance, sharing what tales it could find, spinning each person being evacuated from their home as a moment of high drama and heroism. 
     We will, perhaps, eventually learn of true tales of heroism, though they will be hard pressed to top "Zeitoun," the excellent book that Dave Eggers wrote after Hurricane Katrina.  
     I wrote this when the book came out, but before the Zeitouns divorced, after the hero was shown to be not so heroic after all.  It detracted from the story, quite a bit, an unhappy ending to an inspiring saga. I don't think it undermines the book, however. Every tale has to end somewhere, and Eggers could not predict the future.  
     Out of the fetid floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, where most public figures associated with the 2005 disaster drowned in their own incompetence and failure -- a negligent president, an overwhelmed FEMA director, a bumbling mayor -- paddles a true American hero, Abdulrahman Zeitoun.

     If "American hero" and "Abdulrahman Zeitoun" do not fit together easily in your mind, then you must read Zeitoun, the new book by Dave Eggers, a Chicago native and University of Illinois graduate. Eggers examines the hurricane that inundated New Orleans four years ago through the eyes of one man and his family. As the storm gathers, we meet Zeitoun, a Syrian-born immigrant who runs a successful remodeling business; his wife, Kathy, a convert to Islam, and their four children.
     Given that too many Americans either know nothing about their fellow citizens who follow Islam, or else clutch at crude stereotypes, this book would be fascinating even without Hurricane Katrina, just for the intimate portrait Eggers paints of the family's life, of the frequent unease of being Muslim in post-9/11 America, the challenges of raising kids and running a business.
     Zeitoun is a man who fits no cliche. The logo of Zeitoun A. Painting Contractor LLC is a paint roller ending in a rainbow. Zeitoun picked the rainbow because his painters offer many colors. After his signs and stationery are printed, however, he learns a rainbow also has another meaning. Some customers turn Zeitoun's vans away, assuming it is some kind of gay painting company. New workers see the vans and quit, afraid people will make assumptions about them. After some soul-searching, Zeitoun decides to keep the rainbow, realizing that those who reject one minority tend to reject them all: "Anyone who had trouble with rainbows, he said, would surely have trouble with Islam."
     Kathy Zeitoun is an equally strong figure, deflecting the constant muttered tweaks of her family. If you've ever wondered why a Christian woman would abandon her faith, adopt Islam and wear a headscarf, after reading about the process that led to her conversion, you'll wonder that more don't.
     As the hurricane looms, Kathy and her children flee the city, to her family in Baton Rouge who can barely tolerate their presence. ("Take that thing off your head," her mother is still telling her, 15 years after she converted.)
     Zeitoun stays in New Orleans, to look after his house, to help, and because he is curious. Katrina hits, but the damage is not bad. Then the levees break, the city floods.
     Zeitoun has a used canoe, bought on a whim, and he takes to gliding through the abandoned, almost serene streets, the antennae from submerged cars scraping his canoe. He evacuates trapped senior citizens and feeds hungry dogs left by their fleeing masters, occasionally attempting to enlist the help of the growing military presence.
     Eggers' writing is pitch perfect, without flourish or excess.
     "He paddled up Claiborne, the wind and rain fighting him, to the Memorial Medical Center, where he knew there were police and National Guard soldiers stationed. As he approached, he saw soldiers in the alleyway, on the roof, on the ramps and balconies. It looked like a heavily fortified military base. When he got close enough to see the faces of the soldiers, two of them raised their guns."
     The official relief efforts are an invading force, blasting around in their helicopters and fan boats, too loud to hear the soft cries that send Zeitoun on another mission of mercy. They remain in the background until -- not to give away the plot, which snaps forward like a novel -- they suddenly aren't in the background anymore, and Zeitoun is sucked into a nightmare of George Bush's vision of an American security state.
     How he responds, the sustaining power of his faith, how his wife and his extended family around the world react, make Zeitoun required reading, a truly significant book, a guidepost to what America has gone through and where it might yet return unless we hold fast to the principles we claim to revere.
     Zeitoun idolizes his older brother, Mohammed, a famous champion long-distance swimmer in Syria who died in a traffic accident at 24. But judging by the effect that Abdulrahman Zeitoun could have on the world, if this book gets the audience it deserves -- it is already a best-seller -- his solitary heroism will prove vastly more important. As pious as a Pilgrim father, paddling his canoe with the silent watchfulness of a Cherokee chief, Zeitoun fills an inexcusable void in our culture -- the Islamic-American hero: strong, resourceful, loving, patriotic, a man who puts himself in a difficult situation by deciding to stay and face indifferent nature, only to be plunged into a far worse ordeal by the government, as represented by a gang of equally indifferent official goons, stupid with authority, many of whom could have been saved from becoming police state cogs had they the benefit of having read this book.
     Zeitoun offers a transformative experience to anyone open to it, for the simple reasons that it is not heavy-handed propaganda, not eat-your-peas social analysis, but an adventure story, a tale of suffering and redemption, almost biblical in its simplicity, the trials of a good man who believes in God and happens to have a canoe. Anyone who cares about America, where it is going and where it almost went, before it caught itself, will want to read this thrilling, heartbreaking, wonderful book.
               —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 2, 2009

Monday, September 11, 2017

Memo to Jeff Bezos: We're not all like Rahm Emanuel

City Hall bas relief

Dear Jeff Bezos:
     Before we begin, I have to thank you for two things. First, for all the books. Volumes I could comb 100 used book shops — back when there were used book shops — and never find.
     And second, thanks for the Washington Post. I subscribe online, visit several times a day. With Donald Trump president, I would go insane if not for the Post letting loose a fact-based broadside in his direction every day.
     Enough dilly-dallying — I know you billionaires hate to dilly-dally. The country is abuzz about Amazon's competition for your new second headquarters — dubbed mellifluously "HQ2," a reminder of just how wrong "Tronc" really is. Some 50,000 jobs and $5 billion in investment go with it. Quite the prize.
     My inclination would be to not interfere. But this paper reported Friday that our mayor has been courting you, directly, and I thought I had better step up quickly and say something before he completely wrecks our chances. Let me assure you; Chicagoans are not all like Rahm Emanuel — in fact, it's just him. I've seen our mayor turn on what he considers charm: a high-pressure, in-your-face rattling off of statistics that prove, prove, by scientific method that the only rational decision you could make is to cave in to whatever he wants. I can just see you pressed back in your chair, eyes widening, brushing Rahm's spittle from your cheek with one hand while the other reaches for the buzzer under your desk, thinking, "We gotta pick whichever city in the continental United States is furthest away from this guy."
     Don't do that. Most Chicagoans are much more, ah, human. Rahm notwithstanding, Chicago certainly meets all your criteria regarding size and public transportation and universities and such.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

Preparing for the storm

John Rogers Cox "Grey and Gold" (Cleveland Museum of Art)

     There seemed little to do Saturday but wait and watch Hurricane Irma as it neared the Florida coast. Hundreds of thousands fled, while the rest stayed glued to reports. I found myself sifting through the many, many stories I've written about hurricanes and tornados over the years, and paused at this one, worth sharing for its look into the mechanics of how wind damage, expected to be widespread, occurs.

     Tornadoes get into a home through the garage.  
     I did not know that. I always assumed that . . . well, frankly, I never really thought about how tornadoes blow houses over. I thought they just knocked them down like a kid kicking over a block castle.
     It doesn't work like that, according to Kim Fuller of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which called again recently to push its Project Impact, an effort to get communities to protect themselves against tornadoes before the twisters strike.
     I got the impression that the federal government is tired of always going in to clean up the mess afterward and finally figured out that if they got everybody to dig into their pockets to shore up their homes ahead of the fact, the damage next time might not be so great or expensive.
     "Prevention' is a new word for us," said Fuller.
     The idea makes a certain rough sense. The flimsier the home, the easier it blows away (that's why trailer parks always get pulverized). FEMA is trying to get owners of today's spit-and-bailing-wire houses to anchor their roofs down and, particularly, bulk up that garage door.
     I always think of garage doors as heavy, particularly those big two-car models. But when you compare it with the construction of a house, a garage door is a relatively fragile construct: a thin, flexible wall of wood that slides, attached to the house itself by a flimsy track or connected by a pair of pivots (assuming your garage is attached to the house; if not, hey, let the tornadoes come!). If high winds blow out the door, what do you have left, particularly with a two-car garage?
     Right. A big, gaping hole in the house, 20 feet wide, a delicious handhold for a tornado to grab the structure and tear it open.
     "That wind's going through there will take the door right off," said Fuller. "Then it just pushes the roof off."
     Ouch. Can't have that. FEMA suggests that homeowners spend a grand or two to shore up their garage doors and other vulnerable areas.
     "We're trying to tell people that preventative measures do work," Fuller said.  
     That strikes me as a hard sell. How many people don't wear their seat belts, which come with the car? Now imagine you had to pay a dollar to buckle up. Nobody would do it.
     Still, FEMA is hopeful.
     "I'm seeing a change in mind-set," said Fuller. "Last year, since Hurricane Floyd, people are saying, 'Enough is enough.' After the tornadoes in Texas, for the first time, we have community officials saying, 'We didn't know there was something we could do.' It's our responsibility to the public to get the information out. There are very simple things people can do to increase their chance of surviving."
     Tornados are not unknown in this area -- the 10th anniversary of the Plainfield twister is coming up this August. But I just can't imagine there are people cautious enough, or with time and money enough on their hands, to shore up their garage doors against the possible advent of tornadoes. But maybe I'm wrong. You can call the FEMA Hotline at (800) 480-2520 and get more information (and it is an interesting call: "If you are calling in response to a disaster, press 1 now. . . .").
     If you end up reinforcing your garage, call me, too. I think the readers would love to meet somebody who's trying to cover all their bases so completely. Stay safe.

     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 2, 2000

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Going (Russian) postal

     Ohhh, I'm a bad person. I am going to hell.  
     Not really. I'm not saying that in a sincere, "my soul is consigned to flames!" sense. I not only never believed in such rococo nonsense, but have trouble believing anyone in the world can believe such a thing, though obviously they do.
    If you read the "ohhh" as more of a groan, you'll get a sense of my sincere, sinking feeling when I realized what I had done, entirely by accident.
     Readers of this blog know that I have a fidelity for truth, for directness, for candor.
     And now I have gone and contributed to the smokescreen of deceit and obfuscation that is the web.
     Quite unintentionally, I hasten to say. Hell, if there were one, is paved with good intentions. 
     And the timing is awkward; just as the truth about Russians posing as Americans and creating anti-Hillary lies during the election is dribbling out ...  well, maybe I had better just tell the story.
     So I'm clicking over the Washington Post, and for some reason I'm told that the cookies on my computer are keeping me from seeing a certain story, and I might want to clean my cookies off my computer. So I figure out how to do that, and wipe out all cookies—bits of information that web sites place on your computer to recognize you and smooth surfing— from the computer. Boxes and boxes of cookies are trashed.
    Of course then I have to sign back in, into Blogger, into Facebook.    
     Into Twitter. Twitter asks me to log onto, not my standard @NeilSteinberg but @RussianPostal, the fake site I set up in March to create an air of reality around the non-launch of my parody Russian postage stamp honoring Donald Trump, created by a New York illustrator and actual postage stamp designer who agreed to help me with the ruse.
    I would never do such a thing in the newspaper, where satire is too often taken seriously accustomed to believing what they're told. But on the freewheeling web, it seemed a good idea. During the last week in March, I started tweeting anodyne announcements about new Russian postal stamps. I figured that would enhance the effect when my Trump stamp was announced.
    Reaction to the Twitter feed was tepid, but it perhaps helped, a little, I think, though the prank was quite successful—my most popular post ever, in fact. April 2 came around. I went about my business, forgetting about Russian Postal.
    Until, prodding by my cookie cleanse, I signed back on. And found that dozens of people had been sending tweets to Russian Postal. Russian people. Sharing their various real-life gripes with the actual Russian post office.
    They complained about lost packages:

    They complained about long lines, and send documentary photos:


   And bad conditions:

   My site became included in the loop from what looked like actual Russian Post Office trying to help people.

Some defied belief, like the driver who used a package to brace his truck:

     To be honest, if it weren't for the existence of that actual Russian postal service assistance feed, I might leave this up, to give these disappointed Slavic postal customers somewhere to complain, to let them vent off steam, and create the illusion of concern. But such a place actually exists, and might even do some good, and so I've merely created a place where feedback is misdirected. So, not wanting to gum up the system more than it already is, I'll leave Russian Postal up on Twitter for the weekend, in case you can take a look, then pull the thing off-line.  There's enough falsity on the web without my adding to it. Because people are credulous and will believe what they read, as our country is discovering, to our continuing misfortune.