Saturday, October 21, 2017

Baha'i celebrates a bicentennial: "People can just walk in."


  

   
Chicago is a center of so many things—the blues, candy, pinball—it's easy to lose track of some of the quieter manifestations, such as the Baha'i faith, which isn't as fond of violence and repression as most religions are, and so tends to be overlooked, with the exception of its one magnificent exception, the splendid Baha'i Temple in Wilmette.
     Today, Chicago Baha'is are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Mirza Husain-ali Nuri, or Bahá’u’lláh as he came to be known, "Glory of God." in Iran in 1817. He was the messenger of the other totem of Baha'i, the "Bab," whose bicentennial is in 1819.
     If you feel like partying, you can go to the South Shore Cultural Center tonight—here are the details—for the rest, I thought it an apt moment to unearth my look at the Baha'i faith and Temple at the building's centennial five years ago.


     Ask most Chicagoans what they know about the Baha'i faith, and they might mention the House of Worship, a magnificent domed edifice of delicately latticed concrete on the lakefront in Wilmette.
     The temple is hard to miss—at 191 feet high, you could easily tuck the Jefferson Memorial inside.
     "It's on people's radar that this landmark, this unusual building is there," said Glen Fullmer, a spokesman for the faith. "But they're largely unaware of what it stands for or where it came from."
     The Baha'is have just completed a 10-year, $20 million restoration of the building, the oldest and, in their view, holiest of seven Baha'i temples scattered around the globe. The work is completed just in time for a celebration at the end of April to mark the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the building's cornerstone.
     "It does not act as a church with a congregation," said Fullmer. "All the Baha'is don't go there for their weekly worship. That building is considered a continental house of worship, a symbolic building. Most worship is happening in people's homes and little community centers."
     That might come as a surprise. Press Chicagoans for details of Baha'iism, and you'll most likely draw a blank, which is too bad, because in many ways the faith is unique among global religions.
     In a world of controversial priests and fiery imams, there is no Baha'i clergy whatsoever. Anybody can conduct a service. Administration of the religion is handled by elected boards without spiritual authority. They have no rituals. Services tend to be readings from the holy books of other faiths—the Bible, the Torah, the Quran—as well as singing.
     They don't proselytize vigorously—Baha'i missionaries will never come to your house and try to convert you. "It's very much a do-it-yourself religion," said Fullmer.
     Nor will they ask for money—they only accept funds from other Baha'is.
     The religion's central belief is that the earth is one country and humanity its citizens, that all religions reflect the will of a single God and all are equally valid. They stress education, equality and an elimination of prejudice.
     The faith started in Persia—in what is now Iran—in 1844.
     Its central figure was a man named Mirza Husain-ali Nuri, who took the name Baha'u'llah, whose teaching and writings form the foundation of the faith.
     The Baha'i consider him on par with Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Buddha, who all share equal status as divine prophets.
     About 5 million people follow the faith worldwide, with about 170,000 in the United States, with 2,000 of those around Chicago, where in 1894 an insurance salesman named Thornton Chase became the first Westerner to adopt the religion.
     Within five years, there were several hundred Baha'is in and around Chicago. They quickly decided to build a temple to house the growing religion. Representatives from Chicago went to what was then Palestine to meet with Abdu'l-Baha, the son of Baha'u'llah, who had taken over as leader following his father's death in 1892. He encouraged them to build a temple, and the dedication was something of a carrot to get him to come to Chicago, which he did.
      Several years were spent scouting a location. Jackson Park was considered, but Wilmette was settled on for its rural setting and inexpensive lakefront land.
     Despite his presence, the May 1, 1912, dedication was something of a bust, as far as cornerstone ceremonies go. First, the guest of honor was two hours late. Second, the ceremonial trowel would not pierce the thick springtime grass and somebody had to run and borrow a shovel from a nearby road crew.
      And third, there wasn't actually a cornerstone, but only a chunk of limestone scrap that a woman had begged from construction workers and taken to the site on a horse-drawn streetcar.
     Money still had to be raised. Construction did not begin until 1920, and the temple was not completed until 1953.
   Still, the crude cornerstone remains as a symbol of the do-it-yourself quality of the faith, to this day surrounded by a triangle of velvet ropes in the ground floor visitor's center at the temple.
     Above, the temple seats 1,200, and is accessed by nine doors—the number nine is highly significant in Baha'i, representing unity.
     Work on the nine gardens around the temple is just now being completed, the final stage of the rehabilitation project.
     "We repaired the entire temple itself, cleaned it and got it ready for its next 100 years," said Scott Conrad, a California architect who has been project manager on the refurbishing.
     About 25 percent of the surface area of the building was rebuilt, including the steps, which were completely replaced.
     To clean the intricate concrete work, skilled mountaineers were hired from Alaska and Colorado to rappel down the building, cleaning the facade with brushes.
     "It is considered the world's most exquisite concrete building," said Conrad, standing among a mass of purple flowers being planted in advance of the centennial. He said the gardens were never before quite up to what the founder's son had hoped for when the temple was first planned.
     "These gardens are completely new," he said. "In the Baha'i community, the gardens are part of the temple, and these gardens are a fulfillment of Abdu'l-Baha's wish."
     Now, what they would like is for Chicagoans to visit.
     "There is a misconception, 'Oh, this must be secret,' " said Fullmer. "The temple is open every day. People can just walk in, sit and enjoy the spirit and serenity of it, regardless of their faith. It's a sacred place they can go. That's really the hope of the Baha'is, the main purpose of it."
           —Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times, April 22, 2012

Friday, October 20, 2017

'Don Quixote,' ripped from the headlines

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, by Honore Damier



     "Self-praise is self-debasement."
     "Craziness has more companions than wisdom."
     "If a man cannot govern himself how can he govern others?"


     Now seemed a perfect time to flee into "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes, to get lost in the vast 400-year-old Spanish novel of a deranged knight and his trusty mule-borne sidekick, Sancho Panza.
     You can run but, alas, you cannot hide, and a vexing present will sneak up where least expected. I don't want to suggest that "Don Quixote" is suddenly a political novel, ripped from the headlines of 2017.
     Let's just say the tale of a delusional old man who blunders about, claiming to help people while actually attacking innocent passersby and then interpreting the resulting fiascoes as embellishing his legend of unmatched glory, well, there was a certain unexpected relevance.
     Or as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face says: "The woman they call Fortune is fickle, and blind and drunken and doesn't know who she raises up or sets down."
     Tell it, brother.
     I do have to give technology a nod. Our brave new digital world gets a bad rap for mooting books, and rightly so. But the sword cuts both ways, to offer a proverb in the spirit of Sancho Panza, that endless font of aphorisms. Technology can also be literature's friend.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

If I don't see it, it's not there



     I wanted to share this reaction to last week's Mike Ditka column with you. No further comment is necessary. 

Hello Mr. Steinberg

     I disagree with your assessment of so-called racism and this social injustice that the Left/Progressive seemed so fond of throwing around around so much.
     Individuals you mentioned like Mohamed Ali and another one from that time frame did not suffer from Racism or social injustice.They rose to the top of their respective professions and made millions from their efforts. Jesse Owens was a classic figure in his own right and showed what a Black man could do during the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis held power.
     Yes in a small degree racism does exist yet you need to include some from ALL race's not just some Caucasians. This social injustice doe's not exist since people from all race's made millions and are successful in their respective fields and professions.
     There was no need to put down Mr. Ditka of his statement by saying he is not a man for saying what he did. Is not the left for dialog or his it for dialog under their own terms Mr. Steinberg ???
     Mr. Ditka right in his assessment of what was and is happening now and then.
     Hope to read your next article soon.

Respectfully yours

Joe P.*


* He signed his full name, but I'm abbreviating it, as a kindness.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Making English muffins won't add a second to the Trump administration


   

     Maybe we're doing this whole Trump thing wrong.
     Maybe liberals—horrified, rapt, gazing fixedly at each new jaw-dropper through latticed fingers, only tearing our chalky faces away from the endless slow motion train wreck to grab each other hard by the shoulders and screech, "Can you believe this?"—have fallen into a rut.
     Shock gets old. On Monday Trump lied that Barack Obama never called families of fallen soldiers. On Tuesday, trying to wriggle out of that lie—or sincere delusion, what does it matter?—Trump asked whether Obama called Gen. John Kelly after Kelly's son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, using his chief of staff's personal heartbreak as a tissue to blot the mendacious froth from his own lips. By the time you read this Wednesday, Trump will have sailed off into new territory with some unimaginable false tweet, callous remark or cruel policy.
     Must we flinch at each one?
     Maybe we need to step back, breathe, take a break, consider the big picture. Yes, this is an ordeal. We've also sailed off someplace strange and have to live there for the foreseeable future. Exiles in Crazyland. Everything this president says is still important, but not in the traditional, reflect-reality sense of importance. It's important in the yet-more-evidence-of-unfitness sense. But who really needs more evidence? At this point, either you get it or you don't. I certainly get it, and bet you do too. If you don't, well, instead of writing to me in all caps shouting how much you don't get it, consider this: just because you don't perceive something doesn't mean it's not there. Can you get that?
     For those who grasp what's happening, a ball peen hammer on our skulls, a thought: this nightmare is also an opportunity, a chance to be better people, ourselves.
     What should we do? Nurture your own non-Trump reality. Because otherwise, he can poison your whole life and you go mad, and there's too much of that already.
     Work at making your non-Trump existence richer. I did something recently that I've never done in my entire life and, I would bet, none of you have never done either, or even contemplated doing.
I made English muffins....

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Have a nice day!




     The smiley face, a graphic low-point of the 1970s, if not of all time, has had its iconography thoroughly documented already, by Smithsonian magazine among others. So I won't bother rolling it out here, except to note that for some reason the smiley face is less objectionable when  shrunken to an emoji at the end of a sentence. 

     Why? Perhaps because it is so very small. Or, more likely, because the internet is a cold medium, nuance is often lost, and if there weren't a way to telegraph that we are speaking in jest, well, we would all be forced to slit our wrists in a warm bath. 😊
     Or maybe we just got used to it, our standards of communication worn down like a rock under a waterfall. OMG.
     Then again, "Have a nice day!" the one-size-fits-all blow-off vale we tossed at each other for decades, wasn't exactly the Sermon on the Mount either. Let's not blame technology for reflecting our flaws.
     On Sunday, in Evanston, before we slipped by the offices of Legacy.com for the Society of Professional Obituary Writers breakfast, my wife and I killed time by stopping in that mecca of all things baked, Bennison's, where we picked up a laudable baguette for dinner. I noticed that their creative bakers had augmented smiley faces with, for want of a better word, frowny faces.
     "Which sell better?" I asked the clerk, who indulgently pulled their tray out of a case at my request so I could photograph them properly. She said that the smile faces are more popular—I guess all is not darkness quite yet, or else people are trying to cheer themselves up however they can, allaying this Trumpian gloom with simpering sweets. 

     Although some people, she continued, will specify the frowns. "They'll order four at a time," said the clerk, who reluctantly agreed to be included in the shot, and I didn't want to push my luck by asking her name. You can't be too careful in this world. No wonder we're so glum. I didn't have the presence of mind to buy a cookie, so I can't say whether I went smiley or frowny—the latter, definitely. Besides, they are a better value: you get extra chocolate icing, in the form of of those vexed eyebrows. Next time.






Monday, October 16, 2017

Christine Goerke: "You can't do this if you're not healthy and strong"

Christine Goerke, right, rehearsing with Swedish soprano Elisabet Strid.


     If you are daunted at the prospect of sitting through five hours of Wagner, imagine performing it on stage.
     Picture leaping from rock to rock, dressed in armor, crying "Ho-yo-to-ho," then singing, in German, in tune, and loud enough to be heard over a 93-piece orchestra all the way in the back row of the Civic Opera house 212 feet away.
     Contemplate doing what soprano Christine Goerke does night after night in "Die Walküre," which opens Nov. 1 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
     "It's very much like running a marathon," said Goerke, relaxing after a recent rehearsal for the second part of Richard Wagner's epic "Ring Cycle" that Lyric began last year. "I will be on stage about three hours. It's very physical."
     Described by one top critic as "now arguably the finest Wagnerian soprano in the world," Goerke in person is whatever the opposite of a diva is: warm, easy-going, quick to laugh, a reminder that when she isn't traveling the world singing opera, she is a New Jersey mother of two girls, married to a construction superintendent.
     "They are the love of my life," she said.
     Goerke sings Brünnhilde, the most recognized character in opera. When Bugs Bunny dons a winged helmet with braids, he is parodying Brünnhilde.
     "The huge lady with the braids," as Goerke describes her. "A stereotype we are fighting right and left."
     It's a stereotype that, like Bugs, is 75 years old, harkening back to the "park and bark" days when enormous sopranos stood on one spot and belted out arias. While Wagnerian singers can still be large — Goerke is 6 foot and generously proportioned — they also must be fit. Goerke bristled only once in our conversation, when I suggested that her character evokes the adage, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings."
     "No. Absolutely not," she said. "I am busting my ass to try to be healthy."


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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Encounter with an owl




     If human eyes were as big as owl eyes, relative to our heads, they would be the size of oranges. Then maybe we, too, would be able to swivel our necks 270 degrees, the way owls can—out of necessity, since their eyes are not mobile eyeballs, like ours, but tube-shaped, like a pair of binoculars, ideal for hunting small animals from the air at night. 
     This is an Eastern Screech-Owl—the hyphen looks odd, but if it's good enough for Sibley's, it's good enough for me— encountered Friday on the south bank of the Chicago River, just west of Orleans. 
     I was hurrying to catch the 5:12, noticed a group of city dwellers along the riverbank, fishing—the Friends of the Chicago River, having an event—and then saw this fellow perched on the leather gauntlet of Natalie F., who works for the Brookfield Zoo. I detoured down the stairs to the river bank to take a closer look.
     Eastern Screech-Owls range across the entire United States east of the Rockies. Screech-Owls west of the Rockies are Western Screech-Owls, aptly enough, and almost identical, except they have no red varieties. Their loss, as the red is quite pretty.
      This owl, I was told, is named "Weasley," obviously a nod to the red-haired Weasley clan in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, whose use of owls as messengers has to count as one of the more creative uses of owls in fiction.
     Though not the only one. The best magic-based kids book series before Harry Potter also prominently features owls. In fact, chapter four of C.S. Lewis' "The Silver Chair," the fourth book of his Chronicles of Narnia, is called "A Parliament of Owls," his description of a gathering of owls to discuss their business of the day (and itself a pun on Chaucer's allegorical poem, "The Parliament of Fowls"). The term stuck as a collective noun to denote groupings of the bird.
     When our boys were growing up, my wife and I read them "Owl Babies," an excellent picture book by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson. It has a very simple plot. Three owlet—the term for young owls— siblings, delightfully named Sarah, Percy and Bill, wake to find their mother gone, and the entire plot is their fearful wait for her. (Though I'm not an expert, mom looks like a Spotted Owl to me).
"Malle Babbe" by Frans Hall
     Publisher's Weekly called the book "hauntingly lovely," and years ago, when I went over for tea and chocolate cake at Ann Lander's East Lake Shore Drive condo, I brought her a copy of "Owl Babies" as a present, knowing she collects owl figurines and images. She was pleased with it.
      I'm tempted to sail off into owls in art, where they represent everything from the devil and madness, such as in Frans Hals "Malle Babbe," a 1630s painting of a drunken madwomen, to wisdom and calm. In ancient times Athena, the goddess of wisdom was often depicted with an owl mascot. 
    Well, maybe just a little side trip. The most famous ancient Greek coin, the tretradrachm, featured Athena on one side, and an owl on the other, starting the tradition of putting animals on the backs of coins, and in ancient times the coins were referred to as Owls. 
     Coveting the thing and wondering how available they are, I went on eBay, and was surprised to see specimens of the 2500-year-old silver coin for as little as $400. Then again, the owl tetradrachma is perhaps the most forged coin of all time, so buyer beware.
    I think I'll do without. Besides, there is no need to spend big bucks and reach back into antiquity to find what may or may not be an authentic  Greek owl coin. Greece struck a number of modern versions, including 1 and 2 drachma coins, issued by the military junta in 1973, a nice example of which can be had on eBay for $4.
     



Saturday, October 14, 2017

Obit Week #3: "The conscience of the council—Leon Despres

      With the Society of Professional Obituary Writers in town for their annual convention this weekend, I thought I would reprint a few of my own obits from over the years. This is perhaps my favorite.
  
     Few things are sadder or more haunting than to imagine what Chicago might have been like had anyone listened to Leon Despres.
     For two decades, he stood virtually alone in the Chicago City Council and called upon humanity's better nature, only to be ignored or ridiculed.
     Mr. Despres, 101, who died at his Hyde Park home Wednesday morning, was the alderman representing the South Side neighborhood's 5th Ward from 1955 to 1975 and "the absolute conscience of the city," as former congressman and judge Abner Mikva once dubbed him.
     In retirement, he remained active and was involved in fighting a high-rise condo in his neighborhood.
     His son, Robert, said Mr. Despres' mind was very sharp until recently, and that one of the secrets to his longevity was having an "army of friends."
     Mr. Despres battled, unceasingly and eloquently, against Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Democratic Machine. He tried to make Chicago a more decent and fair city than it became, and though he seldom won, he never gave up.
     He fought racial repression at a time when bold action might have prevented incalculable suffering and loss.
     "The Board of Education is shortchanging the children of Chicago," he told the City Council on Jan. 17, 1963, asking that it "electrify the world" and "vote for the greatness of our city" by withholding tax funds until the board ended segregation. "It is educating nearly all children in damaging racial isolation. Separate education is never equal education, and, in addition, the board is providing inferior facilities and teaching staffs for most Negro children."
     The measure was resoundingly defeated.
     Often, the only vote cast for his resolutions was his own. Alone, he voted against the council's ban on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s open-occupancy marches in August 1966, while Daley's black aldermanic puppets denounced him for dictating to blacks where their best interests lay.
      When Mr. Despres opposed the construction of new Chicago Housing Authority high-rise buildings, just one alderman sided with him. The buildings would become a monumental failure, sinkholes of crime and despair that plagued the city for decades.
     The City Council of Mr. Despres' day was a tempestuous body of colorful figures, most of them slavishly loyal to Daley, whom Mr. Despres called a dictator and wasn't shy about castigating to his face.
     "One of the prime attractions at any Council meeting is watching Despres lecture the mayor, his finger wagging practically under Daley's nose, pouring out a dazzling array of statistics and studies and sociology and sheer guts," longtime Chicago reporter Lois Wille wrote in 1970.
     Such antics bewildered and angered aldermen who unwaveringly toed the Daley line. The late Ald. Vito Marzullo once called Mr. Despres "wholly irresponsible, a nitwit, a vicious person and a menace to the City Council and the public at large."
     "Sit down before I knock you down," said Ald. Thomas Keane, one of several aldermen to physically threaten Mr. Despres.
     "Despres has been told to shut up—in one form or another—more than any grown man in Chicago," Mike Royko wrote in the Chicago Daily News in 1972.
     Even his attempts to foster the barest civic decency were quashed.
     When he introduced a resolution decrying the bombing of a black family's house and reaffirming "the fundamental right of all law-abiding citizens to purchase and occupy homes anywhere in Chicago, regardless of ancestry or race," the Council voted 38-4 against the measure.
    Mr. Despres fought against discrimination in hospital staff appointments, cemeteries and housing. Sometimes, he even won. The day in August 1967 that Mr. Despres and two others called a special session on fair housing, Daley suspended the licenses of three real estate brokers for refusing to show homes to blacks. It was the first time the federal Fair Housing Law of 1963 was enforced in Chicago.
      He was the first to raise an alarm about the dangers of lead paint.
     He drafted the city's first ordinance establishing a landmarks preservation commission and led the fight to save Frank Lloyd Wright's extraordinary Robie House after the Chicago Theological Seminary announced plans to demolish the peerless architectural treasure to build a new dorm.
     Along with Ald. Charles Chew (17th), Mr. Despres chartered two airplanes to take 184 people to Alabama to participate in King's voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.
     He fought official artistic censorship, once a notorious Chicago hallmark. When the City Council voted its "unqualified condemnation" of Wright Junior College for putting James Baldwin's Another Country on the required reading list of a contemporary literature class, Mr. Despres called the resolution the "most degrading kind of censorship. This body will make Chicago the laughingstock of the country by lynching a book," he said. Only two other aldermen voted with him.
     He also fought to abolish the police department's secret spying unit.
     On a variety of issues, Mr. Despres expressed a vision approaching prescience. In 1965, he urged the CHA to consider low-rise, scattered-site housing. When fire destroyed McCormick Place in January 1967 -- a building Mr. Despres once called "a damaging monstrosity" -- he declared, "This is a marvelous opportunity to rebuild it somewhere else." It was rebuilt on the same lakefront-hogging site.
     Mr. Despres' vision was not clear on every issue, though. His sensitivity to the problems affecting the urban poor, for instance, initially blinded him to the threat posed by street gangs, which he called "very important manifestations of urban life" in 1970.
     "It's very important to realize that along with the pathology and the criminality of extortion, killing, beating and violence, there are also positive elements of association that ought to be developed," he said.

     He was born Leon Mathis Despres on Feb. 2, 1908, the son of Samuel and Henrietta Rubovitz Despres. Most friends called him "Len." The family moved to Hyde Park when he was 3. He started at Hyde Park High School, but his mother decided he wasn't working hard enough, so she sent him to boarding school in Rome and then Paris, where he saw—he would later say—James Joyce's Ulysses, newly published in the window of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on rue de l'Odeon.
     Mr. Despres returned to Hyde Park to attend the University of Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree in 1927 and his law degree in 1929. On Sept. 10, 1931, he married Marian Alschuler. She died in 2007 at 97.
     Tall, slender and scholarly, Mr. Despres set out on a career of improving society through law. From 1935 to 1937, he was a trial examiner for the National Labor Relations Board. He also became a socialist, and visited exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in Mexico, a trip that saw him escorting legendary artist Frida Kahlo to the movies while her husband, Diego Rivera, painted a portrait of Despres' wife.
     "She was very attractive, very pretty," he said years later of Kahlo. "We had a good time. I had no idea she was an icon."
     He was general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois division, from 1948 until 1955, when he was elected to the City Council. He fought bitter election battles in 1955 and 1959. Then the Machine swung around and gave him a kind of tacit approval -- in 1966, he was the only aldermanic candidate endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans.
     Mr. Despres served as Council parliamentarian from 1979 to 1987. He also served on the Chicago Plan Commission during that period. Over the last decade, he returned to private practice.
     His memoir, Challenging the Daley Machine: A Chicago Alderman's Memoir, written with Kenan Heise, was published in 2005 by Northwestern University Press. "I expect defeat," he once said, referring to a certain city budget battle, but also, in a way, to his entire career. "Nevertheless, I have to make an effort."
     Paddy Bauler, the famously corrupt Chicago pol, put it to Mr. Despres this way: "Len, the trouble is you think the whole thing's on the square."
     In addition to his son, survivors include a daughter, Linda Despres Baskin, and a grandson, Frederick Despres. Services are pending.

        —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 7, 2009


Friday, October 13, 2017

Trump's NFL protest stand immoral, un-American



   
The Barnett sisters
 Donald Trump might think that he is the law, that his will dictates what Americans can say or do. He might consider his tweets edicts from on high, and that his values are our values because he says it's so.

     But he's wrong.
     We are a nation of laws, and those laws have evolved over many years, sparked by people more courageous than Donald Trump, finessed by legislators more diligent than Donald Trump, and weighed by judges far smarter than Donald Trump.
     Take the NFL protest. The key to that situation is found, not in the president's latest tweet but in the actions of a pair of schoolgirls during World War II.
     Marie and Gathie Barnett were 8 and 9 years old. They attended a four-room schoolhouse in Charleston, West Virginia. The sisters were Jehovah's Witnesses. So when it came time to salute the flag, they refused, since their faith considered that akin to worship of a graven image. This had become an issue in the 1930s as American states, catching the nationalism bug contorting Europe, began mandating that schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
    The school expelled the girls. According to a 1941 West Virginia law, their parents faced 30 days in jail and a $50 fine for raising children who refused to salute the flag.
     Their father, Walter, sued, citing Exodus 20:4: "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image."
     The Barnetts won in state court, a judge observing, "tyrannies of majorities over the rights of individuals or helpless minorities has always been recognized as one of the great dangers of popular government."
     The school board appealed. The case found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court ....

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Obit Week #2: Harry Caray—Baseball's joyful elder cheerleader

  
  The Society of Professional Obituary Writers is having their annual convention in Evanston this weekend, and to mark the occasion, I'm reposting some of my favorite obituaries. This one cemented Harry Caray in my heart—while fans tend to love him for his exuberant Cubs broadcasts, I developed a deep respect for him over how he refused to praise the mediocre White Sox. His line "You can't ballyhoo a funeral" is a sentiment which, alas, I've had more than one occasion to quote.  


     Harry Caray, the joyful elder cheerleader of baseball whose career lasted so long it seemed it might never end, is dead.
     For more than half a century, Mr. Caray added his unique personal color to the broadcast of thousands of baseball games, first in St. Louis, then for a season with Oakland, followed by 11 tempestuous years with the White Sox and a long, golden twilight with the Chicago Cubs.
     With his huge, squarish eyeglasses and his slurred but somehow endearing mangling of players' names—which he would often then pronounce backward with a chuckle—Mr. Caray was a beloved figure whose reputation was only enhanced by the many dust-ups he had with management and athletes—but significantly, never fans—over his long career.
     Unlike many of his broadcast contemporaries, Mr. Caray, whose popularity made him a multimillionaire, always called them as he saw them.
     "Hey, you can't ballyhoo a funeral," Mr. Caray said in 1975, after being told that his broadcasts of the floundering White Sox were less than enthusiastic.
     That he wouldn't sugarcoat bad teams—and between the White Sox and the Cubs he described many—was one of the keys to Mr. Caray's success, as was the fact that, as lousy as the games often were, Mr. Caray found a way to have fun.
     Mr. Caray's age was always something of a mystery. He called himself 78, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that his birth certificate showed him to have been born on March 1, 1914, making him 83. He was born Harry Christopher Carabina and orphaned at age 4. He was raised by family friends under tough circumstances in a gritty area of St. Louis. He changed his name in high school.
     Later in life he would become a major supporter of the Maryville Academy for boys, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars and often speaking to the youngsters about his difficult childhood.
     After high school he drifted into sales, selling gym equipment. He was 19 years old and earning $25 a week when he decided to take a pay cut and try radio broadcasting, for WCLS in Joliet at $20 a week.
     He started his professional baseball broadcasting career for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1944. The Anheuser-Busch brewery owned the Cardinals, and Mr. Caray was never shy about quaffing his boss' product with gusto during broadcasts.
     Mr. Caray was a life force; he would conduct fan interviews in the bleachers, stripped to the waist to enjoy the sunshine. Once, during a particularly scorching summer day, he broadcast a game in his underwear, a sight captured by a wire service photographer.
     In 1961, a game was halted after Mr. Caray, reaching for a foul ball, knocked his record book out of the booth, sending the pages fluttering down over the field. Umpires called time and helped pick up the pages.
     When the Cardinals won the pennant in 1964, Mr. Caray was so excited he bolted from the broadcast booth and worked his way to the screen behind home plate, where players heard him shouting, "The Cardinals win the pennant! The Cardinals win the pennant!"
     In 1968, he was hit by a car and critically injured while crossing Kingshighway Boulevard in St. Louis. More than a quarter-million letters poured in from well-wishers.
     Ironically, in light of his future employment in Chicago, Mr. Caray particularly enjoyed taunting the Cubs. While the Cubs were suffering their famous late-season collapse in 1969, the Cardinals were, along with the Mets, surging forward, and Mr. Caray would end his broadcasts by singing, "The Cardinals are coming, tra-la, tra-la."
     That was Mr. Caray's last season in St. Louis. After 25 years with the Cardinals and at the height of his popularity, Mr. Caray was fired by Augie Busch. The rumor—never publicly confirmed but never denied—was of an unwise dalliance between Mr. Caray, who was married three times, and one of the Busch wives.
     Mr. Caray endured an unhappy year with the Oakland Athletics. It was a bad match. He didn't get along with owner Charlie Finley, who tried to get Mr. Caray to change his trademark shout of "Holy Cow" to "Holy Mule" to reflect the team's mascot at the time.
     Mr. Caray did not comply.
      Instead, as always, his candor got him in trouble. He publicly compared windy Oakland to "being in Siberia."
     Unhappy on the West Coast, Mr. Caray took a risk in the 1971 season and tied his fortunes to the sagging White Sox, who were so unpopular at the time that no AM station in Chicago would carry their games. Attendance in 1970 had been less than a half-million fans.
     A makeshift statewide network was cobbled together—an Evanston FM station carried the games in the Chicago area—and Mr. Caray's pay was pegged to attendance, which kept his razor tongue at least a little in check.
     "It's a bee-yutiful day in Chicago," he would say, surveying a deserted Comiskey Park. "Lots of nice seats out here still available."
     In the early 1970s, Mr. Caray was more of an attraction than the lackluster team.
     "The paunchy, florid-faced Harry, who is 54, puts on a show that often rivals the action on the field," the Wall Street Journal noted in a front-page story on Mr. Caray in 1972.
     Years after it became unpopular to do so, he would leer at female spectators—"Hey, there's quite a gal sitting up there in a low-cut dress," was a standard line. Sometimes no description was necessary as a camera cut away between pitches to focus on an attractive, most likely bikini-clad, bleacherette. Mr. Caray would simply chuckle once or twice and offer a nugget of wisdom like: "You can't beat fun at the old ballpark."
     Few seemed to mind the asides because, well, Harry was just being Harry.
     His presence in the broadcast booth was good for the box office. After Mr. Caray joined the Sox, attendance more than doubled, to about 1.25 million a year, though the team also improved in this time.
     Despite his popularity, Mr. Caray's candor got him in hot water in the mid-1970s, first with his radio station, WMAQ. When WMAQ announced it was dropping baseball the following year, Mr. Caray used his pre-game show to interview a young producer, asking him loaded questions intended to ridicule the idea.
     The station responded by firing the producer and putting Mr. Caray on a seven-second time delay, so future comments about the station could be bleeped out.
     Mr. Caray then vowed to pay the producer's salary until he found a new job and sat mutely in the booth, letting his partner call the game, until WMAQ removed the delay.
     No sooner had he patched things up with WMAQ than he was sparring with White Sox management, which once called him on the carpet and threatened to keep players off his pre-game show unless Mr. Caray softened his approach.
     "The night after we talked to him, he was back ripping the same players," a Sox executive said.
     The real rupture started on a June day in 1974 when Sox manager Chuck Tanner, facing the bases loaded and no one out in the sixth inning, called in left-hander Jim Kaat.
    Mr. Caray noted that the next six Red Sox due up were right-handers and observed, rather mildly, that the percentages were against such a change.
     The Red Sox hammered Kaat and the White Sox and touched off several years of increasing bitterness between Mr. Caray and the Chicago players, who actually began blaming the broadcaster for their poor performance.
     "Some of the guys are so worried about what Harry Caray is going to say on the air, we can't relax and play our game," said third baseman Bill Melton, one of Mr. Caray's principal victims, in 1975.
     That was the season Melton got into a shouting match with Mr. Caray in a Milwaukee hotel lobby. "Either Harry's got to go or the team's got to go," said White Sox owner John Allyn, who proceeded to fire Mr. Caray at the end of the 1975 season.
     Salvation came from an unexpected source. WMAQ threatened to dump the team's broadcasts if Mr. Caray wasn't rehired.
     "Without Harry Caray, (the Sox) aren't very valuable," WMAQ's general manager said. "If the owners don't approve of Harry, I'll say find another station."
     Mr. Caray, who of course was rehired, responded with characteristic timidity.
     "I can't believe any man can own a ball club and be as dumb as John Allyn," he said. "Did he make enough to own it, or did he inherit it? He's a stupid man. This game is much too complicated for a man like John Allyn."
     Not surprisingly, one columnist's readers named Mr. Caray "The King of Controversy" in 1975. "He could make a Ping-Pong match interesting," a fan wrote.
     One staple of a Harry Caray game was the seventh-inning stretch, when fans would sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" under his enthusiastic direction. The tradition started in 1978, when Sox owner Bill Veeck asked Mr. Caray to sing during the traditional break. Veeck reasoned that because Mr. Caray did not have a good singing voice, fans would join in, said Jimmy Piersall, a former sidekick of Mr. Caray's.
     It worked. The tradition continued through Mr. Caray's tenure at Wrigley Field. When it was time to stretch, fans turned around and looked up at the broadcast booth, where Mr. Caray would shout, "Lemme hear ya!" before launching into the baseball standard.
     More often than not, in the Cubs broadcast booth at least, Mr. Caray would end the song with a futile exhortation: "Let's get some runs!"
     Mr. Caray also was known as the Mayor of Rush Street for many years, especially during the 1970s. Plainly put, he liked to drink. "A man who usually glows after dark" is the way columnist Tom Fitzpatrick described him, and Mr. Caray made no attempt to hide it.
     "I'm a convivial sort of guy. I like to drink and dance," he said, before Wrigley Field had lights for night games. "When I got up here, I said I was sure glad I wasn't doing Cubs' games 'cause with a 4 a.m. closing law, I don't think I'd make it to many of those afternoon contests."
     But he had to adapt, because he moved from the Sox to the Cubs in 1982. The switch to the North Side would eventually make Mr. Caray a national celebrity, thanks to the many cable outlets across the country that carry Cubs broadcasts on WGN-Channel 9.
     In 1987, Mr. Caray missed the first several months of the season after suffering a stroke. The opening day that year was the first he had missed in 41 years. That same year, he opened a namesake downtown Italian restaurant that became a popular eatery and sports-theme bar.
     "My style is a very simple one," he said in 1975. "Be entertaining, be informative and, of course, tell the truth. If you don't have the reputation for honesty, you just can't keep the respect of the listener."
     Mr. Caray had plenty of opportunities to assess his career, and, as always, he told it as it was:
      "Listen, I'm the best baseball announcer in the country. The fans relate to me because I react to games, just like they do. I live and die with my team. I'm ecstatic when they do well and disgusted when they play badly.
     "Most announcers are shills and Pollyannas. They never knock the club that employs them, and they always look on the bright side. But fans know enough about baseball to tell when an announcer is sugarcoating, and they resent it. If a player makes a lousy play, I say so. Otherwise I'd be insulting their intelligence."
     Mr. Caray was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1988. In 1989, he was honored with the Ford Frick Award at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He was inducted into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1994.
     Mr. Caray is survived by his wife of 22 years, Dutchie; sons Skip and Chris; daughters Patricia Eddy, Michelle McFadden and Elizabeth Caray; stepsons Mark Griffith, Roger Johnson and Donald Johnson; stepdaughters Gloria "Tuni" Weller and Elizabeth "Muffie" Newell; 14 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
     Mr. Caray's broadcasting legacy will continue. His son Skip is the longtime voice of the Atlanta Braves and the National Basketball Association. And Skip Caray's son Chip is a play-by-play man, hired by the Orlando Magic in 1989. Chip Caray was to join his grandfather in the booth for Cubs home games this year.

      —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 19, 1998

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mike Ditka is not a Chicagoan


     When someone denies the real pain of another, there’s always a selfish reason. Maybe, like right-wing radio hosts claiming the Sandy Hook schoolroom slaughter was a hoax, they can’t bear to consider the cost of their gun infatuation. Maybe, like Holocaust deniers, they are utterly unwilling to see the subjects of their hate in a sympathetic light.
     Then there’s former Bears coach Mike Ditka, in the news again, rejecting the idea that black players who take a knee during the national anthem have anything to protest.
     “I don’t see all the social injustice that some of these people see,” Ditka said Monday. “There has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of.”
     Where to begin?
     First, we can recognize his honesty. I’m certain he doesn’t see social injustice. Though a glimmer of the blindness of what he just said may have flashed through even his eyes, because, Ditka added, “Now maybe I’m not watching it as carefully as other people.”
     Ya think? Too busy running from camera to camera, flapping your gums, coasting off your victory (well, really Buddy Ryan’s) 32 years ago. A third of a century. How come you couldn’t find time to curl up with a book of American history?
     For Iron Mike, and those freshly arrived from Mars, a quick synopsis: Our country was built on slavery, which coined much of its wealth. That was followed by 100 years of Jim Crow serfdom and horror that ended . . . what time is it now? I’d feel uncomfortable suggesting it ended at all, but slid into a new, more opaque phase where the economic system itself takes the place of hooded night riders and snapping German shepherds.
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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Obit week #1: Ronald Reagan: "From movie star to political star"

     The Society of Professional Obituary Writers is holding its fifth annual conference—"ObitCon 2017—in Evanston this weekend. I have been invited to attend and though I typically avoid all professional groups—I find them more dispiriting than inspirational—I think I'll stop by. I've enjoyed writing obituaries for 20 years, generally of famous people with connections to Chicago. It's interesting to learn about people's lives, and to send them off with the proper fanfare. I thought I would feature a few of my favorites today, Thursday and over the weekend.
    I'm particularly proud of is this one, for President Ronald Reagan, because I despised Reagan when he was in office, not realizing there was far worse to come. Despite this, I kept my own feelings in check—one definition of "professional"—and wrote a piece I believe was thorough and fair.
    
     Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, whose career glided with apparent ease from Hollywood stardom to the White House, died Saturday.
     He was 93.
     The only native Illinoisan elected president, Mr. Reagan exuded a folksy charm and warm humor that delighted supporters and infuriated opponents. A former corporate spokesman, he embraced big business and was a staunch opponent of communism and the Soviet Union, which he famously dubbed the "evil empire."
     "The Great Communicator" never lost an election. When he left the White House in 1989, public opinion polls showed him to be the most popular president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, Mr. Reagan also had his impassioned detractors, who dubbed him "the Teflon president," for his ability to deflect criticism, and found his immense charm hollow in the face of his policies regarding Central America, AIDS, the environment and defense expenditures.
     Mr. Reagan was the nation's oldest president—just two weeks shy of his 78th birthday when he left office—and he suffered from Alzheimer's disease in recent years that kept him mostly out of the public eye, though his name and legacy were invoked at the 1996 and 2000 Republican National Conventions.
     Ronald Wilson Reagan was born Feb. 6, 1911, above a bakery in tiny Downstate Tampico, the second son of Nelle and John Reagan. His father, a shoe salesman, was also an alcoholic, and more than one historian has suggested that Mr. Reagan developed his relentless cheeriness as a defense against his father's frequent drunken lapses.
     His family moved around frequently. Briefly, as an infant, he lived on the South Side of Chicago, and then in Galesburg, Monmouth and back in Tampico. When he was 9, his family moved to Dixon, where he went to high school.
     Mr. Reagan graduated in the class of 1928. "Life is just one grand sweet song," his yearbook caption read, "so start the music."
     He went to Eureka College on a partial football scholarship. There, he became active in student politics and was elected student body president.
     He graduated in 1932, with a degree in sociology and economics. The same year, he was hired as a sports announcer for WOC in Davenport, Iowa. He worked his way to WHO in Des Moines and became a local celebrity for his broadcasts reconstructing games from telegraph reports.
     In 1937, Mr. Reagan took a screen test, and Warner Bros. offered him a seven-year, $200-a-week contract.
     His first film, "Love Is on the Air," was a disposable B-movie trifle that set the pattern for most of his 50 or so films. Mr. Reagan was seen as a dependable, workmanlike actor, often playing clean-cut, all-American roles.
     He did act in several critically acclaimed movies, notably "Kings Row" (1942) and "Knute Rockne—All American" (1940). In the latter, his portrayal of dying football star George Gipp led to one of his presidential nicknames, "the Gipper." He made his last Hollywood movie in 1964.
     In 1940, Mr. Reagan wed actress Jane Wyman, whom he met while they were filming "Brother Rat" (1938). They had two children, Maureen and Michael (a third, born premature, died the day after birth in 1947). They were divorced in 1949. He was the first and only president to have been divorced, but it was not an issue in his campaigns.
     In the divorce proceedings, Wyman blamed Mr. Reagan's involvement with the Screen Actors Guild–and his wanting her to share his interest–as putting a strain on their marriage.
     Mr. Reagan honed his political skills in the guild, serving as its president from 1947 to 1952 and from 1959 to 1960.
     He entered the Army in 1942 as a second lieutenant, rising to the rank of captain by the time he was discharged in July 1945. While his opponents made much of the fact that he spent the war making training films, Mr. Reagan's poor eyesight—he wore contact lenses his entire professional life—kept him out of combat.
     In 1952, he married another actress, former Chicagoan Nancy Davis. Mr. Reagan had met Davis when, alarmed that her name had gotten on mailing lists for left-wing organizations, she appealed to him for help.
     They had two children, Patti and Ronald, and appeared in several productions together. Nancy Reagan was to have a tremendous influence on her husband's life and was a powerful figure, both in public and behind the scenes, after he became president.
     Mr. Reagan's movie career slumped in the mid-1950s, and he signed on to host television's "General Electric Theater." His experience as a corporate spokesman, more than anything else, is thought to have influenced his switch from liberal Democrat to right-wing Republican—a move he did not formally make until the early 1960s.
     When "GE Theater" ended in 1962, he switched over to the TV series "Death Valley Days," which he hosted until 1965.
     By then he had become a political powerhouse. He co-chaired California Republicans for (Barry) Goldwater in 1964 and delivered a televised speech in support of the GOP presidential nominee that established Mr. Reagan as a major fund-raiser and rising Republican star.
     Despite his Hollywood success, Mr. Reagan tended to downplay his experience as an actor. When he first ran for the California governorship in 1966, he listed his occupation as "rancher."
     The first public office Mr. Reagan held was governor of California. He won handily, defeating incumbent Pat Brown by nearly a million votes.
     Mr. Reagan was a conservative governor, reining in spending and cutting the size of government, raising taxes and reducing welfare rolls. Talk of his running for president was almost immediate. He was put forward by the party's right wing in 1968 and won 182 delegate votes at the convention, third behind Nelson Rockefeller and Richard M. Nixon.
     Mr. Reagan was re-elected as governor in 1970 and support built for him to run for president if Nixon didn't run for a second term. In 1971, Mr. Reagan was the top pick among voters asked who should run if Nixon stepped aside.
     But Nixon ran for re-election.
     Mr. Reagan did not try for re-election as governor of California, leaving office in 1975. He spent several months on the lecture circuit, then announced his candidacy for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination.
     He narrowly missed pulling off a coup, receiving 1,070 convention votes, 60 short of what he needed to deny President Gerald R. Ford the party's nomination. Still, he delivered a stunning speech, ostensibly in support of Ford but of such power and vision that many in the hall saw it as confirmation that they had just nominated the wrong man.
     Mr. Reagan had a lock on the 1980 nomination, sweeping the primaries and driving out all rivals.
    He showed his rhetorical power in debating incumbent President Jimmy Carter, already handicapped by the dual woes of a miserable economy and the hostage crisis in Iran. Brushing aside charges that he would undermine world peace with a genial, "There you go again," Mr. Reagan delivered his famous question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
     The country answered a resounding "No." Mr. Reagan carried 44 states -- 90 percent of the electoral vote -- and received 8.5 million more votes than Carter, his margin of victory a full 10 percent of the popular vote.
     Mr. Reagan's inauguration was a day of high drama. As he finished his brief inaugural address, the Islamic revolutionaries who had been holding 52 American hostages in Iran finally freed them.
     His first formal act as president was to declare a national day of thanksgiving for the return of the hostages.
     Mr. Reagan's eight-year presidency nearly was cut short at the start. Seventy days after he took office, he was shot in the chest by a deranged man outside the Washington Hilton Hotel.
     He was rushed to George Washington Hospital, where he walked into the emergency room. He had lost three pints of blood, and doctors later said that had treatment been delayed for five minutes, he probably would have died.
     Even at such a moment of duress, Mr. Reagan displayed his quick wit. "Honey, I forgot to duck," he told Nancy when she rushed to his side.
     A vibrant man who enjoyed horseback riding and cutting wood at his California ranch, Mr. Reagan surprised everyone with his quick recovery.
     Significant occurrences of the Reagan years include the nomination of the first woman to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor, and a brand of supply-side economics that was dubbed "Reaganomics."
     Mr. Reagan addressed the faltering economy that had helped elect him with a combined three-stage tax cut and slashed federal spending.
     The nation responded by going into severe recession—by late 1982, unemployment was at 10.6 percent, its highest since before World War II.
     But the economy gradually responded—whether on its own or in reaction to Mr. Reagan's medicine—and by 1984, matters were healthy enough for Mr. Reagan to win a landslide victory over Carter's former vice president, Walter F. Mondale.
     During the first debate between the two, Mr. Reagan seemed faltering and uncertain, and his age became an issue in the campaign. But once again, he used humor and a deft delivery to defuse the issue, quipping in the second debate: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
     People bought it. Mr. Reagan's electoral victory—525-13—was the most lopsided in history. He also carried 59 percent of the popular vote.
     The recovery that helped re-elect Mr. Reagan was built on borrowed money, however. Mr. Reagan's budgets added more than $1 trillion to the national deficit.
     Foreign relations under Mr. Reagan were marked by his firm anti-communist stand. His "Star Wars" defense program, which called for constructing a laser-guided anti-missile shield around the nation, was much discussed. Billions of dollars was spent toward its development, though many doubted that the system was technically feasible, and in the end it came to nothing.
     While Mr. Reagan had declined to meet with a Soviet leader during his first term, upon re-election, the Soviets softened their stance toward the United States, and Mr. Reagan embraced Mikhail Gorbachev when he rose to power, meeting with him four times at summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow.
     Mr. Reagan considered his resilience against the Communists as responsible for the fall of communism across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.
     The culmination of Mr. Reagan's Soviet policy was the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty in 1987, slashing the stockpile of nuclear weapons and providing for on-site inspections.
     Mr. Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada in 1983 and provided money, arms and training to the contra rebels in Nicaragua in an attempt to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista government.  
     The president clashed repeatedly with Congress over his support for the contras, and Congress' withholding of funding led to the great scandal of the Reagan administration, the Iran-contra affair.
     In late 1986, it was revealed that the Reagan administration had sold arms to Iran in exchange for Iranian assistance in freeing hostages in Lebanon.
     This embarrassment turned into full-blown crisis when it became known that the Iranians were overcharged for the arms, with the profits illegally funneled to aid the contras.
     Though Mr. Reagan claimed not to know of the activities, he was harshly criticized by the Senate commission formed to look into the affair, and several members of his administration went to prison.
     After he left office, Mr. Reagan busied himself at his California ranch. In late 1994, he announced to the nation, via a handwritten note, that he had Alzheimer's disease, a progressive neurological disorder that erodes the mind and memory.
     Even after being found to have Alzheimer's, Mr. Reagan continued to go to his office at Los Angeles' Century City, exercise, chop wood at his ranch, golf and attend church on Sundays.
     In 1995, the Reagans allowed their names to be used by the Chicago Alzheimer's Association, which renamed its grantmaking division the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute
While his family reported that Mr. Reagan remained physically strong and kept the good-humored "twinkle" so characteristic of him, his memory deteriorated severely in recent years as his disease progressed, and he often failed to recognize family members and close acquaintances, and was kept almost entirely out of the public eye.
     Reagan's oldest daughter, Maureen, died in August 2001 at age 60 from cancer. Along with Nancy Reagan, his three other children survive.

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 6, 2004

Monday, October 9, 2017

After Cook County scraps soda tax, try a tax on deceit

 
     When ordinary politicians lie, and the lie blows up in their faces, do they shake their fists to the sky and exclaim, "But it looks so easy when Donald Trump does it!"?
     I should call Toni Preckwinkle and ask.
     The Cook County soda tax was never about battling obesity or diabetes. Rolled out Aug. 2, the penny-an-ounce tax was met with public outcry stoked by ferocious advertising by the soft drink industry.
     The Cook County Board president kept insisting that, rather than a bald cash grab, the tax was instead a basic health measure, like flossing. Your kids are too fat, Preckwinkle told voters, and since you can't keep the little brats from guzzling Mountain Dew, I'm going to help you by picking your pockets.
    And to think people objected.
     But all those TV commercials, some $5 million worth paid for by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored one simple fact, and I wish I had thought to check this a month ago: These taxes don't cut obesity.
     Cook County isn't the only fiefdom to attempt this stunt. About five years ago, over in Europe, nanny-state governments made a push to cut obesity. Turns out —who knew? — Europeans are also too fat, just like Americans. So Britain, France and other nations dabbled with jacking up taxes on fats and sugars, closely observed by an army of clipboard-wielding academics.
What did they find?
     "The overall impact of a soft drink tax on calorie consumption is likely to be small," concluded "The Effects of A Soft Drink Tax in the UK" published in the May 2015 issue of Health Economics.

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sixty-four thousand


Drug users, Lower Wacker Drive, December, 2016


      64,000.
      You aren't supposed to start a sentence with a number, never mind a stand-alone sentence or paragraph. 
      Maybe it should have been:
      Sixty-four thousand.
      Either way it looks wrong, which is fitting, since 64,000 is the number of Americans who died from drug overdoses last year. That just seems wrong, and is, though the figure is accurate.
      News to me. I'd have guessed the number half as much. But deaths from drug overdose have shot up—compare that figure to some 40,000 Americans who died in highway accidents in 2016, and that was a particularly bad year on the road, due to more texting and more driving in general, because of lower gas prices.
    The figure popped out of this fine New York Times story about Dr. Thomas A. Andrew, the former medical examiner in New Hampshire, the state hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, who quit his post after 20 years and entered the seminary in the hopes of steering young people away from using and dying from drugs instead of cutting them up after they already have.
      Overdoses, the article pointed out, are the leading cause of death among people under 50, and the problem is so severe that OD deaths have actually cut two months off life the average life expectancy for Americans.      
     As terrible as was the killing of 58 people a week ago in Las Vegas, that is the death toll from drug overdoses about every eight hours in America, 365 days a year. If only we could focus our attention on the daily, pervasive problem as intently as we focus on this relatively rare one. But that is our way—scared of sharks while shrugging off heart attacks. 
     And as with gun deaths, drug overdoses have powerful financial interests, in this case pharmaceutical companies, that encourage pervasive use while ignoring, more or less, inevitable misuse of their products
     The problem can only be expected to get worse, as our government tries to fight drug use through increased punishment, and because of our general inability to admit to social problems, never mind do anything about them. 



Saturday, October 7, 2017

Metra raises a stink


     Two stories:
     1) Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were in Paris, getting ready to take the TGV down to Cannes for a mid-winter sojourn at the Carlton (I've been waiting a quarter century to write that sentence). 
     The evening before, we thought we would buy some provisions for the trip, some bread and cheese, and went to Fauchon, the great supermarket. I bought a can of lime tea, my tribute to Proust, which I still have, and we tried several cheeses and settled on one.
     Then we returned to our hotel.
     Within an hour or two, the cheese we had bought began to reek. The odor filled the room. We had to put the cheese in a garbage can and set it in the hallway.
     The next day, settling into our seat for the high speed journey to the Cote d'Azure (TGV stands for "Train à Grande Vitesse" or "very fast train") when we took a breath and recognized the smell of the same cheese from the night before, the meal of the people directly behind us. 
     We looked at each other and laughed.
     2) Then last week, I was getting onto the Metra train, pressed the black oblong on the door, stepped into a train and caught the distinctive miasma of McDonald's—McStench. I looked down, saw a woman digging into a big red cardboard pouch of French fries. Feeling nothing toward the woman but pity, I span 180 degrees on my heel and found another car. 
    These two episodes would never had emerged from the bog of memory and fused in my mind were it not for this sign, glanced stepping off of the 5:12 at Northbrook on Friday. If you can't read the words, the message from  P. Ewe says "Ticket. Check. Stinky food. Check. Annoyed fellow passengers. Check!" 
     Granted, Metra is famous for confusing, pointless and counter-productive communications—from announcements of trains arriving that have already arrived to the garbled station announcements to various glyphic signs and symbols. 
    But this one takes the cake, so to speak. Four flaws come to mind:
    First, this sign, to the degree it is directed at anybody, is intended to shame would-be carriers of stinky food, encouraging them to consider their fellow riders. Question: who thinks of their food as "stinky"? Answer: nobody in the world. "Stinky" is an assessment that others, who are not consuming the food in question, make. The people eating the food like that kind of thing. They don't notice anything objectionable, or they wouldn't be eating it.
    Second, the most common offender, the smelliest food found on Metra trains is ... what? The aforementioned McDonald's of course, whose oil is as rank and distinctive as a corpse. And where do Metra passengers typically buy their putrid-smelling food? At the McDonald's at Union Station. Metra is urging you not to buy the food they're selling at the train station (which, I know, is not owned by Metra, as the railroad always points out when some part of it falls on the heads of commuters. But still. Why put up signs? Go yell at Amtrak.)
     Third, punctuate much? How about "Ticket? Check. Stinky food? Check. Annoyed fellow passengers? Check!" Question marks are free.
     And finally, have you ever been annoyed at somebody on a train because of how their food smelled? Oh, as in 25 years ago in France, you might notice it. You might even be bothered by it, like last week. But trains are big, long places. There's always somewhere else to go. No need to expend energy getting angry at somebody. So the posters are appealing to people who don't know they're being addressed, for the benefit of easily-annoyed parties who might not even exist. Nice work Metra. Your dollars at work. 


Friday, October 6, 2017

Rich Cohen's "Story of a Curse" captures Cubs glory

Rich Cohen, right, at Harry Caray's on Kinzie.



     Rich Cohen is having a better life than I am. He's younger, handsomer and his books sell better. Keith Richards thinks Rich Cohen is cool. The only whisper of coolness I can claim is that I know Rich Cohen.
     Most galling, he's a better writer than I am. His recent book — he's written 11 — was about the Rolling Stones. I ate it up, even though I have no interest in the band. That's the definition of a good writer: someone who can hold your attention on a topic you otherwise care little about. I had zero curiosity about Lyndon Johnson until Robert Caro hooked his fingers into my nostrils and led me through three thick books about LBJ like a drover pulling an ox with a ring through its nose.   

     Before the Stones, Cohen wrote "Monsters" about the 1985 Bears. I enjoyed that, and know little about football and care less. I spent more time reading Cohen's book about the team than I've spent watching Bears games over the past decade.
     How does he do it? Sharp writing spiked with fascinating facts, like the unexpected connection between the name "Bears" and the Cubs, the topic of his latest book, published Wednesday, "The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse.
     In it, he offers three things: first, a history of the team filled with amazing trivia — Zachary Taylor Davis was the architect of both Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park — and unexpected juxtapositions. I knew Hack Wilson lost a ball in the sun, and I knew he had a great season, hitting 56 home runs. But I didn't realize one followed the other, that the standout season was poor, sodden Wilson's desperate attempt to erase the shame of missing that ball.
     Second, Cohen, who grew up in Glencoe, chronicles his own lifelong love of the Cubs, despite their curse, "a futility that lasted so long we turned it into a religion."


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